The Color Out of Space is so bright, you’ve got to wear shades

colorWell ain’t that weird, this one’s a tricky one- I actually quite liked Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space a wee teeny bit, but I’m hard pressed to explain why. Maybe its the fairly poor track record for films based on H P Lovecraft’s horror fiction; its highly likely that the best Lovecraft films are not actually based on any of his stories at all- thinking of Alien and Annihilation here- and its pretty clear that when film-makers try to bring actual HPL stories to the screen it never really ends well. Ironically, while HPL’s own prose is very serious and thoughtful archaically elegant, most films seem to swap tension for laughs, as if the tales are just so ridiculous you have to wink at the audience rather than yell “boo!” which is something that has endlessly irritated me, a trend set way back by 1985’s Re-Animator. If I had to name my favourite ‘proper’ Lovecraft film, it would probably be the late Stuart Gordon’s Dagon from 2001, and that was far from perfect. Or maybe the 2005 Call of Cthulhu produced by H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, although I’d contend that was more a ‘fan film’ than a genuine full-fledged motion picture. What I’m saying is, as far as Lovecraft films are concerned, the bar’s set pretty low. 

Maybe if Guillermo del Toro had managed to shoot his At the Mountains of Madness film ten years ago, things would be much different. That film possibly ranks among the great films never made, one of those lingering ‘what-ifs’ that film buffs can wax lyrical over whilst sharing drinks on a cold and stormy night. By all accounts, that film might finally have been Lovecraft done right, with a huge budget, visionary director and a great cast. 

Lets get the elephant out of the room straight away- I’m no fan at all of Nicolas Cage and he is perfectly hideous in this. Although one can argue the slippery slope his career has been on has been a long and steep one (if Hollywood had a Mariana Trench, you’d find Nic halfway down it), in recent years particularly he has essentially become a parody of himself. Here in The Color Out of Space he is absolutely, horrifyingly, mind-bogglingly terrible- I’ve seen him phone in some nonsense before, but he seems to think he can justify his casting in this film by having a wild tantrum in the kitchen. Maybe there is some level of meta-horror here in his casting that escapes me, some level of terror that his performance graces this film with that elevates it to some other subconscious territory of horror – God knows when I think back upon his performance it evokes something of a shudder.  

Its clear that  The Color Out of Space suffers by being made after the fantastic Annihilation, a film that, sharing so many of the themes and ideas of Lovecraft’s original story,  visually pre-empted many of the visual flourishes that Richard Stanley uses here- the twisted, richly-coloured vegetation and strange alien creatures used to express the sense of unknowable, alien nature. Indeed some viewers could be forgiven, in fact, for mistakenly thinking its based on the same source material or is indeed a sequel, both films after all concerned with an alien rock falling to Earth and transforming the land around its crash site, and ultimately warping reality. The world within the Shimmer of Annihilation has a profound strangeness, of normality slipping into alien nightmare, and Stanley uses similar art direction to same effect with this film. But Alex Garland’s film is far, far superior, with a better cast and script, and Stanley of course sadly has to contend with dear Nic. In any case, with the nagging feel of the familiar hanging so obviously over Stanley’s film, it loses any sense of originality that might have otherwise excited attention. 

But all that being said, how bad Cage is and how much the film suffers in comparison to Alex Garland’s film, I have to admit I still found it worthwhile. Maybe it was just refreshing to see someone trying to make something decent while at the same time making a HPL film: its heart was in the right place, you know? You gotta love a trier, especially if you’re a fan of this Lovecraft stuff, as I am.

Yet again though, here’s a horror film that makes the unforgivable sin of not really being scary, but that’s something I can say of most horror films of late so its perhaps not fair to slap the film with that one. Perhaps its the limitations of the budget, or the cast (the lack of chemistry between Cage and his onscreen wife Theresa, played by Joely Richardson, is deplorable, albeit quite funny in their awkward romantic moments, which had me wondering if it was a clever reference to Lovecraft’s real-life antipathy towards women, as if Stanley was weaving some complex meta-story). One of my chief issues turned out to be that perennial favourite of HPL movies:  with it showing flower-child daughter Lavinia (Madeline Arthur) messing around with amateur black magic at the start, the film establishes a silly fairy-tale-like milieu from the start that undermines any attempt to make anything afterwards feel as real or involving as the events, of, say, Annihilation.  And that’s before the pattern of nuttiness that rolls in when Nic appears, leaving Stanley nowhere to go but a kookier colour Purple than even Prince could have ever imagined. This, in a film which I’ve praised for being a serious take on Lovecraft. If nothing else, that surely indicates how low the bar has fallen with all these Lovecraft adaptations.  

Devs: The emptiness of Causality?

devAlex Garland continues to be one of the more interesting writers/directors working today- frustratingly, of course, his recent films have all suffered difficulties; Annihilation being sold straight to streaming via Netflix in territories outside the United States, while Ex Machina had a switch in theatrical distributor that did it few favours.

Leaving movies behind him, Garland seems to have found new and exciting freedom and opportunity in television:  Devs, currently airing here in the UK on BBC2 and available in its entirety on iPlayer, is a deeply thoughtful and intellectually challenging tech-thriller, entirely written and directed by Garland – presumably ensuring he was afforded complete creative control. Deeply thoughtful, it is also graced with some gorgeous photography and art direction, with some arresting and quite chilling imagery (there are few moments that literally set the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end): its ironically, perhaps, very cinematic. Like both Ex Machina and Annihilation, its cinematic with ideas, and compliments those two films (particularly the first) very well indeed, with questions about identity, freewill and the nature of Reality.

What anyone really takes away from the series, though, likely depends on what they think of the series finale. Devs is a one-off, with Garland clear he does not envisage a second season being likely. On the one hand, its refreshing to watch a series and not be left with a tease for another season next year- instead, across its eight episodes the show has a definite beginning, middle and end. The issue is of course, after eight hours of deepening mysteries and tantalising possibilities, that some viewers might be left frustrated by how Devs concludes, especially when one considers that it demands some work from the viewer to interpret what they are seeing and what everything means.

Devs is definitely, deliberately high-concept.  Its a dark tech-thriller about Quantum computing, the dichotomy of freewill in a deterministic universe, the alternatives inherent in multiverse theory, virtual time travel…  its certainly rich with ideas and has lots of twists. Its like the absolute antithesis of stuff like the recent Star Trek: Picard. It also looks great, too, sumptuously designed and directed with a great cast and interesting characters, so again, yeah, the absolute antithesis of stuff like the recent Star Trek: Picard.

I really enjoyed it (binged it over three nights) and would love to expound upon what I think it was all about, what the ending really meant, etc. but as the series is still being aired over here I think I’ll refrain from this for awhile, at least until the comments section (if anyone has seen the whole thing and want to chip in with their thoughts please do). Suffice to say it really is very, very good and deserves to be seen by as many people as possible- certainly it would be nice for Garland’s work to get a wider audience this time around. So yes, I’d heartily recommend it, and hopefully it will lead to more such projects in future.

 

Returning to Annihilation

anni2Last night I re-watched Alex Garland’s Annihilation, this time on 4K UHD disc rather than streamed on Netflix. The film holds up very well indeed, and remains one of the very best science fiction films in recent memory. Its dark and sombre and horrifying and disturbing. The ending of course is challenging/refreshing/infuriating and I would imagine what people think of the film largely depends on how well they accept such vague and obtuse storytelling. Some of the best science fiction films (looking at you, 2001: A Space Odyssey) leave things open to interpretation and conjecture, leaving some work required from the audience.

What excites me most regards Annihilation‘s ending is that it maintains the sense of the alien, the unknowable, that permeates the entirety of the film. Throughout the film the nature of the Shimmer, its what and why escapes the characters caught up in it. In science fiction films of decades ago (or indeed not even all that long ago), a somebody, whether it be scientist or alien, would be obliged to explain everything in a long monologue to reassure viewers that they are not stupid for not understanding or fathoming it all out, but thank goodness films can be more mature now. Characters in Annihilation offer up suggestions but none of it is ever really taken for truth or final solution. There is a sense that Reality cannot be relied upon, something in the light and the air is wrong and changed and the creatures that exist in this swampish, wooded dreamscape are strange  and twisted. Time seems to pass differently, days can be lost from memory, A monster howls the last screams of one of its victims. Shapes shift under skin, plants sprout from arms, fingerprints shift into new patterns: our bodies betray us (simplest solution: its a film about cancer?). I love that this film leaves it open for me to think about, to ruminate over. There seems all sorts of possibilities and readings to consider on future viewings; I find that exciting. Lena keeps telling her interrogator “I don’t know” when questioned about what happened to her. I don’t know what happens either, but I can have fun thinking about it.

Something fell out of the sky and infected reality with something like cancer, multiplying, creating and destroying without reason, likely without concious intent.

We cannot grasp the real size of the universe or our place in it, and can never really ‘know’ what an alien would be like, or think, if it thought at all. All too often aliens are depicted in film as dudes with Californian accents and a desire for the nearest hot chick (I didn’t intend to reference the opening of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 but I think I just did) and I much rather films go the Giger’s Alien route when they can (the biggest crime of Prometheus is trying to dispel the 1979 films bloody mystery).

So anyway, Annihilation is bloody brilliant. Absolutely loved it. This time I had the added bonus (as I have the film on disc) of being able to watch the extra features and was surprised to discover that they are pretty substantial, totalling close to 90 minutes all told and being really quite informative and not the EPK filler we usually get these days. Behind the scenes footage of some key sequences with insights from cast and crew, some of the pre-production work and as usual Garland is quite open regards how he adapted the original novel (a journey “from suburbia to psychedelia” is one of his observations) and his thoughts on the cast (shame there wasn’t a commentary track though, I suspect Garland would be a great company for a run through the film, but the lack of commentary just perpetuates the mystery I guess).

Great film, though.

Annihilation (2018)

AnnihilationIts a pity that Paramount decided to sell Alex Garland’s quite brilliant Annihilation to Netflix for international markets rather than risk financial woes with a cinema release, but considering what films are successful out there these days and what cinema audiences seem to prefer it’s a perfectly understandable decision, sadly- not one I agree with, but I can understand their thinking.  The film is certainly a tough sell and demands a lot from the audience, including patience and a willingness to do some work, and the ending is indeed, while I won’t go into spoiler territory, something that must have made the execs nervous.

That all said, this film finally got me subscribing to Netflix and I’m so glad I did- this one film worth a months subscription alone (and hey, I get a free month first anyway). While I’m sad that I won’t be able to watch it on a big screen, I’m glad I won’t have to suffer the irritating mobile phone habits and other moronic behaviour that is infecting modern cinema audiences, instead thrilling to this brand new film in the comfort of my home. Maybe this is the future for serious science fiction films anyway- while its wrong to think of BR2049 as a failure (sure it didn’t break even, but it did pretty well considering its length/certificate/intelligence) and no Netflix deal might have saved it, there is certainly an argument to be made to leave the cinemas to the mindless blockbuster spectacles.  You just have to manage the budgets a bit more effectively, I suppose, and question if BR2049 and Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune simply have to be huge to tell their story or if instead its possible to go with a smaller scope.

ann2At any rate, Annihilation is a wonderfully intelligent, thought-provoking and emotionally demanding science fiction film. In places its as horrific as Carpenter’s The Thing, in others as fascinating as Villeneuve’s Arrival, in others as disturbing as Kubrick’s The Shining and as mystifying as his  2001: A Space Odyssey. If that description doesn’t make this film essential to you then I pity you. Its pretty wonderful and the fact that a studio doesn’t think that it can release a film such as this in cinemas is pretty damning, really. But here we are, its 2018 and cinema and television and how we watch films is changing all the time (I sincerely hope we get a disc release with a commentary and other extras eventually).

Like in Arrival, there is a real sense of something truly alien and strange in this film, something transformative about the experience of watching it. There all sorts of subtexts and mysteries playing within it. Is the visitation that creates the Shimmer, a region of expanding space that threatens to eventually consume all the Earth, an event of Extra-Terrestrial contact or of a religious one, or both? Is the film actually about our bodies betraying us, the horror of cancer, of having no control of what is within us, makes us?  We see tantalising glimpses of something utterly alien and beyond human understanding, and yet at the same time the horrors are familiar, internal ones. Transformation from self-destruction, everything that lives, dies, and we lose everything, even our minds, eventually, given Time. And even Time betrays us.

Beyond that, I won’t say anymore about this movie. I think it’s wrong to spoil any of this movie and I hope everyone gets to see it unaware of the secrets/pleasures ahead of them. In awhile I’ll return to this film in more detail but for now, yeah, it’s as good as everyone says and I hope everyone who wants to gets to see it (not everyone has Netflix or wants it). While just sitting down to watch a new movie still playing in cinemas Stateside was something of a pleasure it is also something of a poisoned chalice for fans of serious science fiction or adult film making in general. Is this, afterall, the future? And it can’t be denied, no matter how much I enjoyed this film, it would have been an immeasurably more powerful experience in the cinema.

Another Sunshine Reprise

sun1Sunshine (2007)

I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something endlessly rewatchable about Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. I must watch it once, sometimes two or more, times a year. Infact, of all the films made in the last twenty years, its one of the few that I have rewatched several times since its release, and possibly the one I have rewatched the most. It’s not a huge blockbuster, it wasn’t even particularly a success, either financially or critically, on its release, but something about the film just ‘clicks’.

Part of it might be that it’s like a Sci-Fi Greatest Hits. It takes elements of Alien, The Black Hole, Event Horizon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, amongst others. There’s all sorts of stuff in the film that can be recognised from other films, but for once it doesn’t really irritate. For one thing, it might be imitating other films but it’s doing so with a small budget and pulling it off well too. It looks fantastic on a budget of something like $30 million- compared to bigger films it looks remarkable and shows what is possible with careful planning and craftsmanship.  Really it’s astonishing how good the film looks for what it cost and it stands as some kind of testament to what can be done. Most importantly, the film has a genuine sincerity to how it borrows from the other films, a genuine care and appreciation and respect to those films. It doesn’t feel like a rip-off, or anything remotely negative.

sun2When the crew sits down around a table to eat together, of course it brings to mind the similar scenes from Alien; the set design, the banter, all of that, but you sense that Boyle is being respectful of Alien, not simply ripping it off. Its something that resonates so well from Alien that Boyle and writer Alex Garland obviously felt it was the right way to introduce the characters and the setting. Some shots even seem choreographed to echo shots from Alien– look at the scene when Cillian Murphy’s Capa fills the foreground and extreme right of the frame when he is informed its his decision regards diverting to the Icarus One: it perfectly copies an early scene in Alien with Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert filling the same part of the frame when she is told she is on the excursion team and she mutters “shit” in response, just as Capa voices his own bitterness at having to make his decision.

The characters are a big part of Sunshine. The cast is diverse and top-class, but wisely lacking huge ‘star’ names that might distract (although inevitably some of the cast are certainly ‘star’ names now from more successful ventures since). All of the cast bring their A-game and something to their characters, and the film is carefully threaded with character beats and moments that are important. Not all of them are likeable- some of them irritate but only because they seem so genuine and convincing with their flaws and mistakes. There is a sense that they have been stuck together for sixteen months and frictions are brewing as well as friendships. It always seems convincing to me, how they relate to one another and interact. It’s all very well-written, well performed and well-observed/directed.
sun3Some moments in Sunshine are extraordinary, like when the crew all gather at the viewing port to witness the transit of Mercury across the Sun. It is a beautiful and awe-inspiring spectacle, with a real sense of the wonder and majesty of space that most films would make us think mundane. But more than just the magnificent visuals and music, Boyle takes time to examine the faces of the crew so we can compare and contrast their seperate reactions to what they are watching. It informs us subtly what they are thinking, and where they are ‘at’ regards the mission, in a much more profound way than simply through dialogue and exposition. Its one of my favourite moments from any science fiction film.

Its when Sunshine slips into Event Horizon territory that most viewers seem to think it jumps the shark. I like Event Horizon, I think it’s the best Alien film that isn’t part of the official franchise (and to my mind is likely a better Alien film than Resurrection or Prometheus or even -controversial!-  Aliens). And I certainly don’t mind when things go all apeshit as the Space Madness-inflicted Pinbacker runs amok. What’s so nuts about a Captain whose mind has collapsed under the stress of his mission, in the face of sights no human has likely witnessed before? Its something that the transit of Mercury scene surely portends, in how the Icarus 2 crew react to what they see. Some are awed, some are bored.  Pinbacker saw stuff like that and saw God. His brain pulls a Hal 9000 and he kills his crew and aborts the mission thinking he’s doing The Right Thing.  Boyle and Garland are reaching to 2001 here even when they slip towards exploitation-horror territory. What does ‘Space’ really mean, or our place in this vast unthinking/unfeeling universe when you are millions of miles from home trapped in a steel can on a likely one-way mission probably destined to fail? What does that mean when that failure dooms all of humanity? You can’t wrap your head around stuff like that. It could drive you nuts and with Pinbacker it does (even the name Pinbacker nods to a character in the John Carpenter comedy Dark Star, itself an anti-2001, another example of the thought and respect running throughout Sunshine with its nods to past films).

Yes, Sunshine suddenly shifts in tone from semi-serious 2001/Alien hybrid towards a slasher flick, but you have to appreciate what Garland and Boyle are doing. They are making a science fiction film to entertain, and are no doubt enjoying taking the risk in pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet.  Its also adding dramatic conflict to the piece and ramping up the tensions regards will they/won’t they succeed in nuking the sun. It’s putting greater and greater obstacles in front of Capa and forcing sacrifices from the remainder of the Icarus 2 crew. And even though they succeed, no-one on Earth will ever know what happened or what sacrifices they had to make or tasks they endured.

You either buy it or you don’t, I guess. But I think Sunshine is a hugely satisfying and rewarding little film far superior to so many bigger-budgeted blockbusters. I wish it might have been successful enough to enable more similarly-themed, similarly-budgeted films. You don’t have to spend $200 million to make a convincing and entertaining space movie, and for all that critics moan about its last third, it still isn’t likely as daft and nonsensical as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, for instance. Sunshine is the little guy that done good.  I only wish Garland and Boyle might one day return to the genre again, and make another great little sci-fi movie together.

Ex Machina (2015)

machina1To be clear, there’s no shocking twist or surprise in Alex Garland’s wonderful Ex Machina, but I’m hesitant to review it in any great detail as its one of those intelligent sci-fi films that is best experienced for the first time with as little prior knowledge as possible. Whether you are going to see it at the cinema like I did or wait for the Blu-ray, its best to avoid any details so I won’t divulge any, except to say its very smart, well-acted, beautifully shot, a very gripping story about both technology and gender. Yeah its a must-see movie really. But I’ll leave the reasons why its a must-see movie for awhile yet; maybe wait for the Blu-ray release in a few months time.

(…and it only cost $15 million to make, apparently. If only all sci-fi films could be made that way.)