Dog-lovers beware: Synchronic (2019)

Synchronic_UK_Digital_BannerSynchronic has an enticing pedigree, coming from the team behind The Endless and Spring, two of the most interesting genre films of the last few years. For the first half-hour its really pretty great, rather like a weird, winning combination of Videodrome and Angel Heart (two of my favourite movies), but unfortunately it gradually self-destructs in bewildering fashion: the ending is supposed to be some kind of climactic, emotional resolution but its more of a whimper, the narrative running out of steam and floundering, never reaching the catharsis it deserves. Is this a case where giving film-makers a bigger budget actually works against them?

Two New Orleans paramedics, Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) on a series of night shifts are called out to unusual deaths that are related to a new designer drug, named Synchronic, which alters the users perception of time, and appears to enable travel into the past. In some ways it feels a lot like a Philip K Dick-kind of story, a strange tale about altered perception of reality and reality changing around the central protagonist- in Videodrome, it was the signal creating tumours in the viewers brains that altered their reality, while in Synchronic, its the drug altering the users brains breaking them from the usual forward flow of Time. Its a fascinating premise that initially isn’t as silly as it might sound, and there is an ingenious twist that a person’s position in three-dimensional space dictates where in time the drug will send them, Spacetime like a hologram: as the scientist who developed the drug states, Time is the tracks/grooves etched into a vinyl album, any moment existing in perpetuity and instantly ready to be played, and the drug Synchronic is the needle that drops on any position (the analogy was described better in the movie, mind). 

The film has a certain visual flourish in its first sequences that display what people taking the drug actually experience, with an unsettling music score that reminded me of those of Altered States and Annihilation; its all quite arresting and exciting and seems full of all sorts of possibilities. Unfortunately the script struggles to take it anywhere meaningful and for some reason, in editing, some scenes seem to have been placed out of order, a stylistic choice that is perhaps intended to unsettle the viewer or perhaps prefigure the films suggestion that Time is not linear. Adding to this confusion is the sound mix losing some of the dialogue, letting it get buried in the mix, a sin I find particularly annoying. 

It isn’t helped by Anthony Mackie, who I really struggle to take to in most any film he appears in- he just sees to be the same guy in every film and here he seems terribly miscast : he just can’t convince as a loner with an addictive personality who womanises and drinks too much and cannot find peace, and is then diagnosed as terminally ill with a brain  tumour. He looks like he’s walked straight offset from a Marvel movie (which he probably did). Part of the conviction of movies of old was from their casting: you can buy James Woods as Max Renn in Videodrome, as he’s patently dangerous and on the edge, and there is always something ‘wrong’ about Mickey Rourke’s Harry Angel in Angel Heart, but films these days just like its actors/characters to be some kind of ideal or ‘perfect’. Movies just don’t do flawed characters well anymore, certainly nobody overweight or with a bad complexion or not fresh out of the gym.

So that’s the root issue with Synchronic, well before the film starts to unravel into a plotline involving going back in time to rescue Dennis’ daughter who has become lost in the past (no, really, that where this damn thing goes). I just never ‘buy’ into Mackie. To be fair, parts of the script do him no favours; how any guy can risk taking his dog into the past and then not fall to pieces when said dog gets left behind, well I call bullshit on that right there (non-dog-owners mileage may vary). Any dog owner would never risk that and would be in pieces afterwards when the pet was lost; Steve hardly bats an eyelid. This ill-thought writing can be seen elsewhere: it turns out Dennis’ marriage is on the rocks, presumably this is intended to add tension/drama but it comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, there is a sub-plot involving the scientist who created the drug, but that again comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere (and the scientist dies, apparently, offscreen). Most crushingly of all, Dennis’ daughter Brianna is ill-served by the plot, we don’t really ‘know’ her, she takes the drug offscreen and disappears offscreen and frankly, who cares about her at all (and her connection to Mackie’s character seems perfunctory at best)?

So watching this, I had the feeling I was watching a solid 8/10 movie for awhile but could sense the score slipping as it went on. If I did score films I review, it possibly fell back to a 5/10 that becomes a 6/10 because of just how good the beginning and its mood and execution early on was. Such a shame, really; its so rare that I watch something that compares favourably to films like Videodrome and Angel Heart, and this film could have, perhaps should have, been a classic. 

Some connections:

Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead also made the much better Resolution, The Endless and Spring.

Anthony Mackie similarly failed to impress in Outside the Wire and The Woman in the Window.

As far as better movies with a similarly atmospheric New Orleans vibe go, obviously there’s Angel Heart.

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.

Last Week: Tears in Rain

Last week I picked up my old hardback of Frank Herbert’s Dune for a reread. Continued reading the frankly miraculous and perfect Vol.4 Amazing Spider Man Omnibus (it’s like I’m ten all over again), watched quite a bit of new stuff on tv and was saddened to read the news of Rutger Hauer’s death at the age of 75. We’re all getting older and 1982 seems such a long time ago, even more so with Rutger’s passing.

rutgerAs anyone familiar with this blog over the years will know, Blade Runner is my favourite movie- it remains the most intense cinematic experience of my life. Its a dark irony that we are now living in 2019, the year in which the film is set, which back in 1982 was still a lifetime away. To paraphrase Rutger, all those years lost in time like tears in rain. I have watched that film so many times, over 200 most likely (I used to keep count but gave up at around 100) and I have always been fascinated by Rutger’s performance as Roy Batty. Mercurial, bewitching, childlike, feral… one of the biggest achievements of the film was transforming a one-note and frankly incidental character from the book into possibly the true star of the film. Watching Blade Runner, there is always the sense that Rutger knew he was playing the part of a lifetime and seized every opportunity to maximise the performance and every magical cinematic moment. So many things came right for the film- the perfect director, the perfect composer, the perfect cinematographer, visual effects artists, editor, production designers and futurist… and Rutger was the perfect actor to play Roy Batty. He seems to know that in every single scene he is in.

Over the years I would be a bit of a Rutger fanboy, fascinated to see him in other roles (although somehow I never saw him in The Hitcher, must rectify that), from Flesh & Blood to Dark Knight and of course those Guinness ads. Nothing really approached the greatness of Roy Batty, and in particular the Tears in Rain speech that became one of the most famous and quoted scenes in film history. Nothing could ever equal it, I guess, and I marvel that Rutger evidently handled this fact well over the years. I imagine it might have haunted some actors to be in the shadow of something like that forever: thank goodness his biography wasn’t titled ‘I Am Not Roy!’

another1Katee Sackhoff  of course has a famous genre character of her own, as Battlestar Galactica‘s reimagined Starbuck. She’s continued a very successful career since and seems at peace with Starbuck being her defining role, but goodness me she’s backed a turkey with Another Life, the new sci-fi show on Netflix. Since my post the other day I’ve watched a few more episodes and Good Lord it’s just gotten worse. Its abominable, frankly, and I’ve not been cheered up by discovering that what I mistakenly thought was an eight-part show is in fact ten episodes. Its really becoming hard work to get through. The last episode was what I like to call the ‘Space:1999 episode’ which means it was so bad it’s like the last forty years of sci-fi television never happened. Shows are rarely that bad, although Nightflyers pulled it off too. Two episodes after the crew was nearly all killed by an alien infection from a rogue moon, they now land on an Earth-like planet and sample the native fruit etc by, er, just going ahead and eating it, breath the local air and don’t even wear gloves. One character gets a scratch off a thorn and nearly loses his leg in mere seconds from a deadly infection, and another two walk into a colourful forest glade from the Annihilation set and get intoxicated  by hallucinogenic drugs given off by the flora. In another episode, an alien hunts and kills the crew on the spaceship one by one until it turns out it’s all a hypersleep dream. In the last episode I watched, an alien bug brought onboard from that Earth-like planet fraks up some wiring which nearly wipes out the ship, everyone only saved by the obnoxious always-bitching communications woman who has continuously failed to get communications up and running, who sacrifices herself and ends the show as a bloody puddle. So I guess they’ll never get communications up. Maybe the show will amaze me with an amazing finale twist, but I doubt it.

The next season of The Expanse, not arriving until December, seems so long away.

While I dedicate far too much time here writing about Another Life, and also Star Trek: Discovery prior to that, I just feel I need to point out really bad scripts and creative choices. Another Life is truly abominable and should never have gotten filmed in the state its in. Sackhoff is actually a producer on the show so probably sees it as a career progression, but that only reinforces her guilt for the whole thing being so bad, it’s not as if she’s just an actor trying to make the best of the scripts she’s given. It is very true that some parts of the creative business in Hollywood and beyond are taking the streaming giants of Netflix and Amazon for a ride. There is no quality control, it seems, when the main objective is just to get access to that streaming pot of gold. I’ve ranted about this before and I’m certain I will do so again. Of course the streaming giants are party to the guilt themselves because they just seem to be throwing money at everything in the hope something sticks, but genre shows really are taking steps backwards of late and it’s a worrying development. I’m certainly no professional and have no story in print anywhere, but I could write a better show than Another Life – there should, surely, be a quality distinction between what passes for professional script writing and what is often dismissively termed ‘fan fiction’ but of late I have to wonder. Maybe us amateurs deserve a shot, doubt we could do any worse.

Except maybe that’s the point. Maybe, as I have noted before, the geeks finally have inherited the Earth (or Hollywood, certainly) and all this mess is simply because too many geeks/amateurs think they can write scripts or be showrunners. It does seem curious that Another Life seems to be ripping off a different tv show/movie every episode, and that Star Trek: Discovery was riddled with nods to Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Inception etc.  so much so that it seldom seemed like Star Trek at all.

 

 

 

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.

The Netflix Conundrum

net

The Cloverfield Paradox: clearly pretty bad but it’s got a great Bear McCreary score that I would love to hear in context.

Altered Carbon: if ever a tv show was made for me, this one sounds like it- a great premise, good lead actor and solid production values.

Stranger Things: I still haven’t seen anything of it, which makes me feel like a social outcast in geekdom as everyone tells me its great (and then look at me rather strangely as if I’m one of those ‘Strange Things’ for having not seen it).

The Crown season two: wouldn’t say it was exciting me before, but having seen season one on disc, I’m more than curious to see what happens next. She ditches the corgis and raises some dragons instead, yeah? What, it’s not like GOT afterall?

Mute: Hey, bit of a mess from what I’m told but like the best of misfires, an intriguing one.

Annihilation: Alex Garland’s latest opus won’t be hitting cinemas afterall? What?

I think we’ve just hit Critical Mass folks. It goes against the grain, frankly, paying anything more to watch an increasingly fractured landscape of television programming (I swear, Sky Atlantic will never sully my tv ever…) but I finally may have met my match. I give up, I’m raising the white flag, I’m beat. They’ve even got The Expanse, that great sci-fi show I’ve had to import discs over from America in order to watch. Netflix may finally be coming to Ghost Hall in March…