In the Shadow of the Moon

shadowThis latest Netflix acquisition is a sadly flawed sci-fi flick posing as a police procedural thriller. Its got a neat idea but suffers from an ill-judged execution and strangely utterly wastes Michael C. Hall in a supporting role that really goes nowhere.

An intriguing prologue takes place in 2024, teasing a dark future in which Philadelphia is on fire, streets littered with debris, buildings smashed and an odd-looking alternate stars and stripes flag falling in the wind. We then cut to 1988, and a night of strange deaths with victims dying of bleeding-out of their noses, eyes and ears as their brains literally turn to mush- a result, it is soon deduced, of strange puncture-wounds on their necks. Police officer Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) pushes his way onto the case, infuriating his brother-in-law Detective Holt (Michael C. Hall), but the case is soon closed when the suspected murderer – a black woman in a blue coat- is killed evading capture, but when copycat murders occur nine years later, the mystery deepens, especially when it is discovered it seems to be the same, ‘dead’ woman committing the murders.

The film is episodic in nature, each chapter jumping nine years into the future and nights of repeated murders all matching the same method and suspect. Lockhart is a Detective by the time the second set of murders occur, and each chapter finds him increasingly unhinged and at odds with those around him as his wild theory -that the murderer is a woman from the future- forms.

shadow2I suppose one way to look at this is as an extended Black Mirror episode, or maybe something from the X-Files, but it also feels like something of the great old Kolchak: The Night Stalker, in which our unhinged hero is increasingly at odds with his common-sense peers. It has a great premise but its episodic construction, while understandable, hinders the flow of the story.

Holbrook is fine but the writing does him few favours. Strangely, I kept thinking of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and how Richard Dreyfuss’ character became increasingly obsessed and lost his job, home and family in his pursuit of answers. Its a very similar arc to that of Holbrook’s character here but handled much more convincingly and smoothly. The problem with even a great premise such as In the Shadow of the Moon has, is that it has to be grounded in some kind of reality, and it just gets more ridiculous and far-fetched in order to maintain what is essentially a very small tale, when Holbrook learns who the murderer is. I’m sure the central conceit thrilled the writers when they came up with it, but they have a really hard time making it work.

So anyway, spoilers ahead for this last bit:

shadow3One thing did bug me- if the time travel idea of being limited to single nights on nine-year periods going backwards was a ‘thing’ then surely the antagonist going further backwards each time (first 2015, then 2006, 1997, finally 1988) surely each time she was having to also wait nine years in the future for the stars to align in order for her to go back again? So if she was 30 in 2024 and travelled back to 2015, she would be 39 when she turned up in 2006, and 48 in 1997, and 57 in 1988?  So she should have been an old woman in 1988, and getting progressively younger every nine years as Holbrook naturally got older? But of course if the killings were intended to change time and avert the disaster of 2024, as they did so how would she be able to use her Time Machine in 2033, and 2041 etc if the ‘future’ (i.e. her ‘present’ kept being revised for good or ill?).

Agh, that’s the trouble with these Time Travel movies. They are often fun but can be very silly when you think too much about them. I guess you should just go along with it, in just the same way as I had to, say, with Avengers: Endgame. In the Shadow of the Moon is well-intentioned and always rather fun, so well worth a watch, but its execution really was flawed.

Mind, it offers an intriguing prospect for a sequel- the killings were all ‘justified’ because the victims could all be linked to the terrorist movement that caused a civil war in 2024. So its all based on a point-of-view, and the film conveniently ignores the fact that the victims were innocent when murdered, only guilty of future crimes. So what if someone from the future used that same methodology of changing the future by killing ‘good guys’ in the past to ensure the bad guys got their civil war instead? Or was that the Terminator movies?

 

Await Further Instructions (2018)

afiA low-budget British horror film, Await Further Instructions betrays such an amateur feel it’s almost like a student film. The script is all over the place, its ambition far beyond the budget – so much so it just looks silly and does more harm than good; the script, such as it is, should have been reined in to match what the budget could handle. When it starts it looks like it might  something like a good Black Mirror episode, but instead turns out to be more like a pretty bad modern Dr Who episode. Both are tv shows, which perhaps indicates how much of a ‘movie’ this movie, er, isn’t.

It’s Christmas, and the Milgram family unites to spend the holiday together in their pleasant unassuming suburban home. Tensions are strained however as they don’t really seem to get along- prodigal son Nick (Sam Gittins) has been away for a few years due to falling out with his dad, Tony (Grant Masters) who himself has issues of his own with Grandad (David Bradley) who bullied him as a child and continues to belittle him. Indeed Grandad is a completely horrible old git, and evidently a racist who does not approve of Nick’s Asian girlfriend, Annji (Nerja Naik) who Nick has brought along. Completing the ensemble are Nick’s incredibly stupid (and very pregnant) sister Kate and her almost as stupid partner Scott. Mom is of course just happy to have the family all together at last just as long as she can keep the peace. Cue arguments playing Boggle and comments about ‘bloody foreigners’.

So Christmas morning these charming characters awake to find that their house has been sealed off by a strange black metallic surface blocking all doors and windows. Phones, the radio and the internet are no longer working, and the tv only displays a text message: ‘Stay Indoors and Await Further Instructions‘. Something obviously Apocalyptic is happening outside and Dad takes charge to ensure every instruction that follows is dutifully obeyed.

Well, cue all sorts of bickering and fights and family politics and general carnage as the instructions become ever more provocative and testing. Dad does not seem to think it’s particularly odd that the house has been sealed off during the night without anybody being awoken by any loud construction work or trucks or workmen outside, or that nobody in authority thought to warn or advise of them. A bag of hypodermic needles is dropped down the chimney with precisely enough needles to inoculate the number of people in the house (remember, some of them are visitors not on any register)… wait, I’m thinking about it too much. It really does not reward thinking about it too much, because it increasingly collapses into nonsense and almost parody.

By the time the deaths start and the bodies pile up in the spare room, its beyond silly, and the climactic descent into body horror is hampered by just being too much with too little money. Its rather a shame. The actors have little to work with, the characters all very stereotypical and almost caricatures (did Grandad really have to be an old racist bully, or Dad a childhood bedwetter, or sister so remarkably stupid?). The script really needed much more work and more of a focus on the psychological pressures/tension in what is essentially a preposterous scenario. Maybe the family should have heard  noises outside, of explosions etc or sirens or maybe a car alarm or horn occasionally going off to suggest what may or may not have been happening outside in the street. Maybe somebody (a neighbour?) outside banging the barrier trying to get in, to reinforce Dad’s assurances that everything is fine and the family safer inside the house?

Anyway, here I go again writing too many words and divesting too much of my time reviewing what is essentially a pretty poor and supremely forgettable bit of nonsense. One for you lucky buggers who have not yet seen it to avoid, I think, and one for me to forget as soon as possible.

 

Upgrade (2018)

upgradeSet in an undefined near-future city, Upgrade is a low-budget sci-fi action thriller that reminded me of the good old days of the (original) Robocop. Its a reminder that sci-fi films don’t have to be mega-budget/high-concept blockbusters to succeed, and indeed in many ways Upgrade is more successful than Alita, which I happened to have seen not long before.

The film seems to have been spun off the possibilities, for good or ill, of AI (Artificial Intelligence) – there are trashy settlements of disenfranchised and unemployed on the wrong side of the AI divide, while the rich live in high-tech homes that are controlled by AI and who are driven around by AI cars. Inevitably, while it reminded me (through its violence and corporate dystopia) of Robocop, it also reminded me of Black Mirror, in how it spun its story around the technology and how it impacted the characters and world.

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an analogue guy in a digital world, is a mechanic who prefers old-fashioned cars that are driven, over high-tech cars that drive people around. His wife, Asha, has no such issues, fully at ease with the AI world that serves her every whim and ensures her a promising career with a tech company. However one night their AI car is hacked and malfunctions whilst driving them home and crashes. Four assailants pull them from the car wreckage in what is apparently a high-tech robbery, but it escalates into something more and Asha is killed, and Grey left crippled by a shot though his spine.

One of Grey’s clients who he rebuilt a car for, approaches Grey in hospital where Grey, mourning his dead wife is also bitterly looking ahead at a life as a quadriplegic. This client, Eron Keen, is the head of a tech company that has a radical (albeit illegal) new tech that involves implanting a revolutionary computer chip named ‘Stem’ into his spine to fix his new disability and offer Grey a normal life again. Grey agrees to the experimental procedure and signs an NDA to ensure the technology remains secret.

The operation is a success, although Grey has to continue to pretend to be paralysed until the procedure can be analysed and proven safe.  It also has unexpected benefits- Stem is a self-aware AI that Grey can ‘hear’ in his head and while it ‘fixes’ his disability is also able to take control of Grey’s body giving him super-human reflexes and combat skills, and all sorts of high-tech connections through databases. Stem offers to help Grey investigate the robbery/murder that ripped his world apart and Grey accepts, frustrated by the police inability to solve the crime.

Logan Marshall-Green is pretty damn good as Grey, it’s a tricky role in that he’s often reacting to, and having conversations with, a voice in his head and it’s a pretty physical  part as well, with some considerable action scenes and stunts. He manages to elicit some sympathy for his condition and fight for justice and carries the film pretty much by himself.

Naturally there are plenty of twists involved and in the great tradition of both Robocop and Black Mirror nothing in the corporate world is as genuine as it seems and the AI tech has a few issues of its own. The low budget ensures the film has a few limitations but on the whole its very successful, with offerings of body-horror/manipulation that reminded me of Cronenberg’s Videodrome.  Ultimately what seems to be a pulpish sci-fi action flick transpires to be a rather cautionary tale and on the whole it’s a great little movie.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

Bandersnatch-NetflixThere’s a moment in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a film Netflix is touting as ‘an interactive film’ where young computer programmer Stefan (Finn Whitehead) in a moment of PKD insight becomes convinced he isn’t in control of his own actions and shouts out to The Big Unknown. That’s when a choice is offered to the film viewer and I opted for Netflix as my answer, and lo, a text message appeared on Stefan’s computer that he was being controlled by a viewer watching Netflix, an online streaming service. Of course from Stefan’s vantage point of 1984, this didn’t mean a hell of a lot, but for me it was a strange meta-reality commentary on all things PKD and The Matrix and the nature of reality and what films are now and possibly might be in the future.

How well Bandersnatch functions as a dramatic work is open to debate, but as an interactive experience and nod to PKD and 1980s culture its something of a marvel. The old-style WHSmith stores (crikey, those old carrier bags even more of a nostalgic nod than possibly intended with recent news of Government intent over here), 2000AD, Tomita’s The Bermuda Triangle on vinyl, the Thompson Twins and the grand finale (at least the one I experienced, as there are supposed to be five endings to Bandersnatch) of Laurie Anderson’s sublime O Superman, a song that sums up that whole era for me- so many moments had me cooing ‘awww….’ at the screen. Possibly the best was the Ubik poster coming alive. That would have blown poor Philip K Dick’s mind had he seen it, I think.

I’m curious to rewatch Bandersnatch and choose a different path/s to really put the test to its ‘interactive/multiple branches’ credentials but on first viewing it was damned impressive. Quite how Netflix managed the branching streams without incurring pauses for buffering etc is something of a mystery and, yeah, to be honest, one I’d actually like to avoid learning about, as if part of some unquantifiable magic.

It was quite apt, I suppose, as Black Mirror itself tends to comment upon and extrapolate on modern technology in dark and devious ways that the series used this interactive experience to tell its story of choice/freewill and the nature of its technology. Making the viewer a cog in the machine was quite ingenious. Whether in 2028 we’ll see a MI:9 that puts the viewer in charge of a (possibly CGI/virtual by then) Tom Cruise as he weaves through multiple paths of espionage and various twists of fate, and whether that would be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing is open for some other debate, but it’s possibly a insight into eventual possibilities.

Well, on the bleak side, there’s another nail in the coffin of good honest storytelling, maybe. We may have seen a glimpse of the future, and it’s something to do with keeping our hands on the remote, but not regards switching channels etc…

 

Black Mirror: Nosedive & San Junipero

I love instances of synchronicity, where image and sound become something special, reaching some other cinematic level through the sublime combination of craft and music.  Here’s two examples; two episodes of Black Mirror that each attain some extra level of greatness because the great scripts and performances are accompanied by utterly perfect soundtracks that enable a special emotional ‘kick’-

nose5Black Mirror: Nosedive

Finally subscribing to Netflix enabled me to at last catch up with Black Mirror and I started with the episode that intrigued me the most- and it was the Max Richter soundtrack that got me there. I’ve been listening to Richter’s music for years and his many original albums and scores have been one of the soundtracks to my life and work commutes, and I’ve been very curious about this particular work. Fortunately the episode itself blew me away.

Nosedive is about a society of social media-obsessed people whose lives revolve about their status, their score that they carry everywhere and which is governed by what everyone else thinks about them, their lives, their achievements, their posts on social media. Peer pressure is everything- you are your score, your rating, and its mostly governed by everyone else. So smile, look happy, be content, and if you mark someone else highly they might do the same for you too. The more people you know, the more likes and ratings and ‘hit’s’ you get, the higher your score, the higher your worth, and the greater your happiness.

nose3It really doesn’t feel that far into the future. Somewhere around the next corner, maybe, and future-fiction in the grandest tradition of The Twilight Zone. Being a Black Mirror story, this is naturally a cautionary tale, a pastel nightmare. Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard, utterly wonderful here) lives what is on the surface a fairly idyllic life, but her social standing and life- opportunities are squarely defined by her score of 4.2, a measure openly noted by everyone she comes in contact with. Everybody wears contact lenses that work a little like Google Glass, augmenting what they see with a virtual avatar, like a numeric hologram that floats like a Facebook Halo by their heads. A simple number that somehow summarises everyone’s life and worth.

The insidious part of this is that this number limits your life choices- quality, life-changing loans/discounts are only offered to people rated 4.5,  the quality of your job or the car you drive or the place where you live can all be impacted by your score. In Nosedive, Lacie needs a rating of 4.5 to enable her to receive a discount that will enable her to live in a plush apartment and all the opportunities it will give her. She needs to be more popular, to be ‘better’, and her efforts spiral into a descent into horror as circumstances get the better of her and her rating actually plunges, forcing her to reassess her life and the ways she lives and measures success and those around her.

nose2Nosedive looks utterly brilliant, all pastel colours and clean art direction, a world designed by Apple for IPad people, it pictures a utopian world that looks perfect but is, naturally, rotten to the core and in just the same way as the best Twilight Zone episodes did, the story forces viewers to consider how it colours our own world and our own values and perceptions. The cast is terrific, particularly Bryce Dallas Howard, who blew me away her with a charming and powerful performance that is career-defining in my book. The heart and soul of the episode though is Richters music, full of emotion and pathos, fragile and tender as the veneer of idyllic perfection is stripped away to reveal the real horror beneath. The soundtrack is barely 24 minutes long so it’s woefully slim for an album, but here is a case where quality wins out over quantity. The music is quite haunting and adds substantially to the impact of the episode.

San1Black Mirror: San Junipero

Clint Mansell’s score manages the same with the next episode of Black Mirror that I watched; San Junipero. Its a 1980s-flavoured score, its electronics sounding like something John Carpenter might have written for one of his films of that period. Its a rather warm and tender soundtrack in spite of it being synthesisers, suffused with a sadness that permeates the episode itself.

On a neon-drenched Saturday night in a 1980’s Californian seaside town, two young women meet in a nightclub- shy, inhibited Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and confident, mysterious Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  rather a case of opposites attracting, the two begin a relationship, but as usual for Black Mirror, something feels ‘off’, something about the place and the people and obscure offhand references to limited time and it always being a Saturday night with a deadline of midnight.

The twist is that the seaside town of San Junipero isn’t real- its fake, a virtual world in which the two women are escaping from their harsh realities.  In the real world, both girls are actually old women near the end of their lives, living far apart and never destined to meet. Yorkie has been in a coma for 40 years, and Kelly is a widow and bereaved mother who is dying from cancer. San Junipero offers a few hours of escape, but they have the option -as their real bodies fail and they die- to stay in San Junipero forever. Yorkie is keen to do so, but Kelly wants to die and try her chances for a real heaven and a real reunion with her dead husband and daughter. The love affair seems ultimately doomed, and Yorkie destined to spend eternity in her virtual seaside heaven alone.

san2Beautifully acted and sensitively told, for me, the story was as much a study of what is ‘real’, as much as it was a love story. There were some pretty deep ideas being shuffled around. The guarantee of a virtual heaven in San Junipero against the act of faith in a real heaven was an interesting concept, and the possibility of humanity through technology being offered the comfort blanket of a virtual heaven, versus the unproven promises of religion, seemed fascinating. At the end of the episode, we see a vast hall full of servers in which no doubt thousands or even millions of dead people live forever- literally, per the Belinda Carlisle song that opens the episode, Heaven is a place on Earth. 

Or is it? In a similar way to the technological promises of Star Trek‘s transporters or Altered Carbons‘ stacks and ‘sleeves’ offering immortality, the seductive promises of San Junipero surely lack substance. The way I see it, the transporters of Star Trek are actually rather scary- people are scanned, disintegrated, and then re-integrated, or copied, at their destination. The Kirk that appears on a planet is surely a copy of the one that was vanished from the Enterprise – looking and feeling identical, with identical memories etc, but surely not the same Kirk. In Altered Carbon, the stacks are hard-drive backups of the real people, simulacra that when re-loaded into new sleeves are just that, copies, perfect in every detail and convinced that they are real, but just duplicates nonetheless. In San Junipero, Yorkie really dies and her brain dies too- it’s a download or copy of her brain waves that lives forever in the virtual heaven of San Junipero. The ideas and promises of the technologies are seductive but they are not real. Or maybe it’s real enough for the virtual Yorkie in her virtual world, as is the false immortality that stacks and ‘sleeves’ offer in Altered Carbon. Maybe technology really will save us. Maybe copying/downloading our intellects is future salvation, or maybe our souls are salvation and those digital intellects redundant.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking stuff. God, I love sci-fi. Its some crazy shit at times.

This music is real though- Richter’s Nosedive and Mansell’s San Junipero are wonderfully evocative, powerfully affecting scores. And these two episodes of Black Mirror are two of the best pieces of television I have seen in years.

san3