Life’s A Beach

dunkirk2017.36: Dunkirk (2017)

My long-standing opinion of Christopher Nolan is that he is very similar to Stanley Kubrick, in that he is very technically adept with the logistics and craft of film-making, but doesn’t really have the skills to facilitate the dramatic aspects. His films are cold and clinical, more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. Further to this, I must make the point that on this intellectual level, Nolan’s films are inferior to Kubrick’s if only because Nolan doesn’t make such interesting films as Kubrick did.  Nolan’s space epic Interstellar is vastly inferior to Kubrick’s 2001, for instance.

This opinion is in no way revised following watching Dunkirk, a film clearly impressive as a work of logistics and craft but as lacking in emotional content (despite the endless hysterics of Hans Zimmer’s noisy score) as anything Nolan has done. It is a very good film and one easy to admire- the sound design is quite extraordinary and many of the visuals highly impressive, but as with most (if not all) of Nolan’s films, I have to question any emotional involvement with any of the characters, any sense of really knowing anybody. The characters seem to be pieces on a chess board moved with clinical precision without really knowing how or why they are there- their mindset or purpose or what makes them tick utterly unknown, almost as if they were the monoliths of Kubrick’s 2001.

Which is not to suggest that Dunkirk is a bad film. It is just that there is a hollowness in Nolan’s films that I find personally frustrating that precludes his films ever really achieving the greatness that so many critics seem so keen to label them with. Of course comparing Nolan’s films with blockbuster fodder such as the  Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, they are practically high art and deserve all the accolades they get, but films can be more. I do worry that such inevitable comparisons elevate Nolan’s work to a stature they don’t truly deserve, for we are where we are in film entertainment and we truly do lack the serious film-making talent of people like Kubrick.

dunkirk2When I watched Dunkirk at my local Cineworld, there was an advert for films in Imax and 4D and 3D, as if all audiences are after is sensory overload and the thrill of the new, whether it be cgi spectacle or the actual methodology of viewing, etc, as opposed to quality drama or acting. It matters if your seat shakes, it seems, or the sound is all around you or if the image is huge or reaches ‘out’ to you in 3D, more than if the film is well-written and directed with skill and dramatic flair or acted well. In some ways Dunkirk is symptomatic of this trend. It is very loud and visually impressive with plenty of ‘wow’ moments and the soundtrack relentlessly hammers at you as Zimmer tends to at his worst (more sound effects design than scoring, here) but does it really involve on a deep level? Do we ever really get to ‘know’ these characters or what makes them tick, really care whether they live or die? Dunkirk portrays an event but what does it say to us about that event?

So Dunkirk is ultimately a frustrating experience, at least for me. Yes I could well praise its editorial conceit of telling three seperate stories over three time-periods that interact with each other at particular moments of the film, or note Nolan’s evident fascination with such plays with time in several of his films. But beyond its success on an intellectual level, does it ever really facilitate any more emotional involvement than a simple chronological telling might have managed? Early on I was distracted by continuity errors in lighting and time of day until I realised what Nolan was doing with his three timelines/stories. No doubt it’s a tricky feat what he was pulling off and many critics adore Nolan for that kind of stuff but I have to wonder what his films gain with it.

So anyway, Dunkirk is a good film but I hesitate to heap the praise upon it that others seem to be rushing to. Maybe I’m missing something. I am sure this film will be very successful at the box office and many will simply adore it. But I fear that there is a trend in film these days to elevate the technologies of film-making over the decades-old basics of good storytelling. Maybe Kubrick would have loved these new tools and made films inferior to Nolans, I don’t know. I just have to wonder what are we losing with everything we gain?

And yes, I hope that Nolan finally really achieves greatness with his films when he realises the skill of empathy and emotional content as much as his skill with logistics. To be fair, that’s a film I really want to see., and I dearly hope to see it. Someday. Dunkirk just isn’t it.

Inferno (2016)

inf12016.82: Inferno (Cinema)

Inferno benefits, at the very least, by having a fairly reliable race-against-time plot to ensure the pace never really lets up enough that anyone really has time to consider how daft everything is. The problem only arises afterwards when you think back and consider how implausible it all is and how it starts to collapse into all of its the plot-holes when given any thought.

In that sense of course its no different than the previous two films, but I guess on the plus side, Inferno lacks the pomposity and self-seriousness that weighed them down- I don’t really think Inferno takes itself at all seriously at any time during its breezy two hours. Indeed, compared to The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, Inferno feels decidedly lightweight. For the first time, I think the film-makers have cottoned on to how daft and badly written the Dan Brown books really are and have delivered a film the books deserve. Its a b-movie that knows its a b-movie.

The stakes are certainly higher this time around- the fate of the whole world hangs in the balance here. Billionaire nut-job Betrand Zobrist (Ben Foster, probably too good for this film, like pretty much everyone else in it, to be honest) is convinced that he can save the world by killing half the human population with a plague he has designed- the Inferno virus. He sets the deadly virus in a bomb in a bag (seen any unattended bags just laying around lately?) and then goes on the run so the Good Guys of the World Health Organisation can’t catch him and torture the bombs location out of him. Why on earth, having got virus and bomb all ready, that he doesn’t just trigger the damn thing and be done with it escapes my understanding. Anyway, he throws himself off a tower and dies. Somewhere a deadly bomb is going to go off and launch a plague that will kill billions. It could be anywhere.

So as usual with Dan Brown’s stuff, the daftness is launched almost immediately. The bomb is going to go off at a certain time and to ensure that it all goes to plan Zobrist has left elaborate clues based on Dante’s vision of Hell so that his girlfriend can ensure that the bomb will indeed go off. I mean, what? The same clues that can ensure the good guys can find the bomb and ensure it doesn’t go off? What? The same clues that ensure that some bad guys can get the bomb and sell it to the highest maniac bidder? What?

inf3.jpgIt feels that this film is just a few years too late (it is, after all, some seven years since the second film). Tom Hanks is dependable as ever but even he looks tired and disinterested this time around. The one genuine plus point for this film is Felicity Jones as his doctor, who just happens to be a huge superfan since her childhood of Robert Langdon’s books on symbols (what?) and elects to assist Langdon as he launches into his quest to unravel Zobrist’s clues by visiting museums and messing up historical facts. Jones is earnest in her role and seems to be having some fun with it all, as is Irrfan Khan who leads a shadowy organisation that despots and Bond villains hire to hide conspiracies (you know, the guys who hide the truth about who killed JFK and who was really behind 9/11- you’ll find them in Yellow Pages or something). There’s a few twists and good guys turning out to be bad and a few bad guys gaining a conscience (well killing a few billion people mist be bad for business, after all). Its a Dan Brown movie.

Even Hans Zimmer’s score, ditching the high strings and religious choirs of the previous films in favour of noisy electronic muzak, betrays a lack of effort that seems to run through the film- at least the last two films had decent scores that raised their profile; this noise is hardly music at all.

I haven’t read the book, but my wife has and it was her fault we watched this at the cinema (well, that and a cinema voucher for her birthday), and it has to be said she was more disappointed by the film than I (like I had any expectations to disappoint, aha). It turns out that the film-makers changed the ending from that of the book, which had a rather more downbeat conclusion. I must say after she told me about it, I had to agree that the books ending would at least have offered an unusual twist on what viewers may have expected at the start (I mean, we all know how these things are going to turn out, don’t we?). Perhaps that would have been a saving grace for such a lightweight film, having a darker conclusion than one might expect. Hollywood does like its moral high ground though, doesn’t it, and the good guys always win, even if we are past caring at this point.

Interstellar (2014)

inter2I’m not quite sure what to make of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. On the one hand its a bold, intelligent and epic movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe, and on the other hand, its an incredibly flawed, dumbed-down and infuriating movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe. How can it be both things at once? I saw the film in Imax (if you see the film, it HAS to be in Imax) last Tuesday and have refrained from writing this post, preferring instead to consider the film for awhile, discussing the film with colleagues at work who I saw the film with. Over the past few days I’ve started to reflect more on what the film does well than its flaws, but I’m still worried this post will swiftly degenerate into a confusing morass of conflicting thoughts…. its that kind of movie.

Its certainly no masterpiece though. Its a good film in many ways, but anyone going to see this expecting something as important and profound as 2001: A Space Odyssey is going to be disappointed.  Sets your sights more towards 2010: The Year We Make Contact or perhaps even Sunshine and you’ll be happier with it. If that sounds like a damning comment then there it is. The one thing I will say in its favour is that they simply don’t make many films with space exploration  as a serious subject so we should cherish Interstellar for all its flaws- we simply are not going to see another science fiction film like this again for some years to come. That makes its flaws all the more frustrating, obviously…

What annoyed me most about Interstellar? For all its touted vision, all the huge effects and scope and acting talent, what this film lacks is a commentary, a voice of its own. Its bloodless. For me one of the most interesting parts of the film is its first act, on the blighted near-future Earth and a humanity that is facing a long, slow extinction. Text-books are rewriting history (the Apollo landings were faked, claimed to be a successful ploy to bankrupt the Soviet Union), farming is the only thing that matters, there are no armies, no space programmes… but nowhere does the film state a reason for this End of the World scenario. Climate change? Global Warming? Rampant population growth? Is the film so afraid to be outspoken, afraid to alienate viewers by being political? With a premise like this , the film should be pissing people off, if only the current political establishments of this planet. Maybe it should be pissing all of us off, blaming us and our way of life for the blight. Have we killed the Earth? If so, do we even deserve to survive? The question isn’t even asked, as if believing that humanity is some innocent victim itself. There is an extinction event going on, God knows how many species already wiped out by the time the film begins, but no explanation offered, no reason or blame for it. We are meant to just accept it somehow. Its the reason for the odyssey that follows, and that’s all. The central premise of the film is stated as ‘Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here‘. It doesn’t ask why. Why are we not meant to die here, considering its us that fucked it up? The film should be asking do we deserve to survive, and the rest of the film demonstrating the answer.

inter3Doubly troubling is that everything is American-centric, a throwback to films decades past. There’s an irony that if its the free-capitalism and mass-consumption of the Western way of life that has destroyed the planet, its only the Americans that can save it. There’s no Big Picture here, despite the films huge subject. Beyond the rural land of Cooper’s farm, or the rather ridiculous subterranean hide-out of NASA, the big world picture is ignored. Bear in mind that as I write this in 2014, America and NASA cannot even get a man into orbit any more, in light of which the basic premise of the film (forget the Rest Of The World, America Can Save Everything) is insulting, frankly, in something that’s supposed to be so intelligent. Its more Armageddon than Contact, something I found quite surprising.

Some sequences are indeed jaw-dropping pure cinema, as one would expect of a director of Nolan’s credentials. When Cooper finally leaves home to pilot the mission to the stars, he leaves behind his young daughter begging him to stay. The music swells up powerfully, he drives off into the horizon, and as the music lifts up even more the picture cuts to the launch of the rocket, the magnificently bombastic Zimmer score propelling, simply willing the rocket into orbit. Its huge, exhilarating stuff, worth the price of admission alone. Indeed this may well be Zimmer’s finest score in years (it’s up there with The Thin Red Line in my eyes). But goodness is it loud. It drowns out so much of the dialogue some of these plot-points I’m moaning about may indeed have been addressed in the film, I perhaps simply missed it in all the noise. The sound design of this movie is problematic to say the least. It seems to be by design, but if so then I’m not sure it worked to the film-maker’s intentions.

inter1
So once we get into space, and all the promised spectacle of a blockbuster movie, its surprising how mundane it all seems. Have we lost our propensity for awe? Its troubling that Interstellar lacks the sense of wonder or spectacle that the Birth of the Solar System sequence of The Tree Of Life had, or so much of Gravity had (indeed, much of the film looks spectacular but Gravity remains visually superior, and it must really irk Nolan that it beat him to it). Going further back, Kubrick’s 2001 had such a grace in its scale, a sense of the vastness of space, our place in it: the Discovery a dot in the vast blackness of the 70mm frame, and then the humans in turn dwarfed by the construct carrying them. Nolan deliberately avoids hero-shots of the ships, perhaps to maintain an intimacy, or docudrama approach, but this hurts the films sense of scale and majesty. Originally Steven Spielberg was lined up to direct this film, if he had, I don’t think the film would have suffered this particular failing.

Nolan seems so distracted by time dilation and the years separating Cooper and his family back on Earth that the sheer physicality of space travel, the distances and the zero-gravity, food and air supplies, don’t seem to interest him. Even a film as derided as Sunshine had a greenhouse on its ship and a concious concern with supplies and survival. Interstellar is in such a rush to get to the wormhole it treats the odyssey to reach it (the wormhole orbits way out at Saturn)  as something ordinary, like a regular outing. We don’t have time, funnily enough in a three-hour movie, to really get a sense of the ship they are travelling in, establish its internal and external spaces, its functions. The crew leave Earth orbit, jump into cryosleep and wake up at Saturn minutes later. Sure, it moves the film forward but it loses so much grandeur and sense of awe, and once through the wormhole and we reach the Other Side, this sense of the ordinary continues, the prospective planets all (apparently) fairly close to each other, the astronauts tripping between them like in some kind of Star Wars movie. It’s necessary to keep the running time down, but it really diminishes the scale, which is odd, because this film is close on three hours long, and if that’s not long enough to maintain a proper sense of scale in a space movie, then are you doing it wrong? If sub-plots are forcing your hand condensing it all into three-hours, should it even be there?

Its as if they shot two three-hour movies and cut it down to one. Sort of like making a Peter Jackson movie in reverse.

I have endeavoured to keep as much of this spoiler-free as I can. People who have seen the film will have noted that I haven’t even raised certain elements of the film up. Derisive as I may already seem, I haven’t yet brought up a number of elements of the film that are really contentious. Bookcases and coordinates and surprise actors, rather problematic robot designs…  I’ll leave that for another day, perhaps when the Blu-ray comes out.

Suffice to say that while people still argue about what 2001 means, there’s no such argument regards Interstellar– its love conquers all. Yes, I’m afraid its about as high-concept as that. Which is not to say that its a bad movie, its just a frustrating one. Not quite worthy of all its ambitions. This post makes it seem as if I hated the film. I really quite liked it. I look forward to seeing it again. It just isn’t what we had hoped it would be, what it really should have been- a really great space movie. Nearly there, I guess.

Well, we’ll always have 2001...