The Efficient Martian

THE MARTIANThere is something almost brutally efficient regards Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Its a mean, lean machine- I think Scott says in his commentary that the film was shot in just 74 days, which is formidable indeed for a film of its scale, of its visual complexity. I would not suggest its a great film- like Interstellar, its a film I can enjoy and quite admire but its far from a personal favourite or a film I love. Which is, considering its subject, like that of Interstellar, rather strange- you’d think this kind of film would be right up my street. Maybe its the lack of tension, which may have something to do with the film’s particularly laid-back, relaxed score. I’d read the book beforehand so I knew how the film would play out the first time I ever saw it, but I don’t think anyone unfamiliar with that book has any doubt how it will turn out. At any rate, I do think that had this film got a moody, tense Jerry Goldsmith score, it would be a different experience entirely.

So anyway, The Martian certainly looks gorgeous (I watched it this time in 4K UHD, and in its slightly extended cut), with brilliant art direction, it has a fine cast, and a great story and screenplay, and no matter my misgivings is clearly superior to Apollo 13, the film it obviously is most similar to. Its just misfiring a little, and I’m beginning to think its because of its brutal efficiency- there’s little chaos to it, its all… not mundane exactly, but it just feels so calculated. Every shot, every line, its all like a machine with a particular purpose, to tell its story.  Its possibly a film via a committee, rather than a passionate and involving film from a single visionary director. Its quite true that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but somethings missing, and whenever I watch this film,  I’m never sure quite what.

The Wandering Earth (2019)

This is almost infinitely bonkers. I don’t even know where to start regards reviewing it. If I were to suggest its best bits compared to the worst excesses of Armageddon, and that it also just went beyond that in featuring almost blatant lifts from Interstellar and Gravity and The Day After Tomorrow and Sunshine, becoming some kind of sci fi Disaster Movie Greatest Hits package, well, I guess that would just about sum it up and make the rest of this post quite redundant.

Its not that I haven’t seen anything quite like it, it’s just that, well, I have, but it was spread across several movies, and this thing condenses it all into a two-hour effects marathon that just assaults your eyes and intelligence in ways that even The Transformers movies stumbled at. I remember everyone scoffing at the science of Gerry Anderson’s Space:1999 back in the 1970s, and here we are with somebody suggesting that, well…

The sun is dying (Sunshine) and the only (?) hope for humanity is to pilot Spaceship Earth by, er, strapping several thousand huge bloody engines to it and letting rip, er, breaking out of orbit and literally flying the planet Earth to another star. Wait, just pause and digest that a moment, they are taking the Earth on a two-thousand year journey out of the solar system across interstellar space to another star. Okay. This also involves building a huge spaceship to lead the way with a Chinese astronaut sacrificing his family duties in order to step up and do his astronaut duty (Interstellar/Armageddon) and leaving his estranged children rather pissed off. Earth of course plunges into winter as it moves further from the dying sun (The Day After Tomorrow) and as the cities above plunge into icy horror (Snowpiercer) the remnants of humanity live in gigantic underground cities, busy maintaining and fueling the massive rockets on the surface pushing the planet into space. Unfortunately there has been some miscalculation or freak act of interplanetary gravitational mechanics because the Earth is moving too close to Jupiter (2001 etc) and is caught into its gravity well and planet Earth’s journey to another star (no, I can’t quite get my head around the sheer audacity and stupidity of that) is threatened to be cut short by the Earth plunging into Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

It really is that insane, and I haven’t gone into the details about giant trucks on Earth or the HAL9000-wannabe up on the spaceship or the disparate groups and arcs running through the film. Its like someone took the sci-fi writer’s handbook of credibility and chucked it into the bin. A hugely successful blockbuster in its native China, it seems to have slipped onto Netflix out of nowhere and is quietly gathering some notoriety as being the film to make Michael Bay seem the very definition of restraint. I suppose the one good thing about it appearing in the West so quickly on Netflix is that it nixes some damn fool in Hollywood deciding to make a Hollywood remake. Its not to suggest that Hollywood could have done it any better or worse- one thing I can say about this film is that it definitely puts Chinese film-making on the map, technically at least, as it’s certainly up there with the kind of scale of effects spectacle previously the domain of the major American studios. Sure, it does look a bit too much like videogame cutscenes much of the time, but that’s true of some Hollywood stuff too.

Its just a shame, really, that instead of being uniquely Chinese and its own thing, it spends so much effort clearly mimicking Hollywood and recent Pop Culture excess, but on the other hand, it is refreshing to see a film in which its someone other than the Americans saving the world. Thinking about it, it perhaps indicates the future and real world order- I suppose in the Victorian era, it would have been the British Empire saving the world, in the last century it would have been America saving the world, but in this new millennium power is clearly shifting, and perhaps its true that it will be Asia and the Chinese that will step up in future apocalyptic movies to save the world.

Its stupid. Its a blast. I felt a little dirty after sitting through all of it. I mean, really, it’s almost insulting, how daft and spectacular this thing is. But it’s certainly something. Just not really sure what it is. Crazy, yes, certainly. Lousy. Noisy. Eye-candy. Its the film that almost makes Armageddon seem like an arthouse movie. Perhaps there will be a sequel where they take a wrong turn near Saturn… I mean, considering the film’s huge success in its home territory a sequel is surely inevitable, it’s just I’m rather scared at where they will take the next one.

 

All Things Shining

all thingsI’ve been reading a book about Terrence Malick- well, to be more precise, its a book about Malick’s films, as he is so media-shy and prefers to maintain some privacy, and it consists of interviews culled over the decades from his associates, freinds and people who have worked with him on his films, and therefore offering glimpses of how Malick works. The book is All Things Shining: An Oral History of the films of Terrence Malick, by Paul Maher Jr. – I bought the kindle edition as it was only £2.30 compared to something like £16 for the paperback (there is another book  that treats Malick’s work in a similar way, Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected, which I also have my eye on).

Its a very interesting and revealing read. One passage caught my attention in particular, during the chapter about The Tree of Life. The film’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had this to say about the film, commenting on audiences walking out during performances (something I myself experienced when I saw the film at the cinema): “This reminds me of all the movies that I loved (in the ’70s) where we left the theatre and discussed and disagreed. We carried the experience out into the open. Things were not over explained and you went out with your freinds after and tried to make sense of something…” 

It made me think about how much films have changed from the 1970s to now- I’m not necessarily defending Malick’s obtuseness here as he has rather run astray with his way of making movies since then, so that even for a fan they can be infuriating (The Tree of Life is more a tone poem than a narrative but is clearly Malick’s strongest film post- Thin Red Line.) His films do, however, demand some attention and active work from his audience, whereas the standard way of making films now is to make them simple, make them loud. Back in the 1970s, films often had conflicted characters, genuine twists and some unfulfilling endings. We see less of that now. Indeed, when discussing contemporary films at work or with freinds, there may be some debate on whether a film is good or not but we seldom have arguments about what a film meant or what the director was trying to say. One of the things I love about BR2049 is all the layers of  subtext and threads of meaning in the film. I have previously mentioned here on this blog the anecdote of a frustrated forum post written by an American viewer who, at the end of the film where Deckard asks K why he did what he did, and who Deckard was to him, was left aghast and horrified when K just shrugs and after a silence changes the subject. We don’t need the film to spell that out- well, we shouldn’t, but modern audiences prefer to be told, not left to flounder at interpreting complex ambiguities of a film. It ruined the film for this forum writer, which struck me as typical and oddly funny.

Actor John Dee smith had this to say about The Thin Red Line as it approached its premiere and Malick was ordered to cut the film further to ensure it came in under three hours: “(Terry) doesn’t think this mainstream formula clustering bullshit audience he’s dealing with would benefit from it. He wasn’t just telling a story, he was fleshing out the human psyche. I don’t think America is ready for his work, and he probably doesn’t think so either.”

For some odd reason it had me thinking about the comparisons between Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Back when Interstellar came out, there were all sorts of ridiculous allusions made to the film being equal to or the successor to 2001, and it got me into quite a few arguments at the time. 2001 has something to say and a brave way to say it, and while Interstellar is a film worthy of some admiration, it doesn’t really have much to say and confuses much of what it does say. Contemporary audiences however seem to think that the film is very clever and challenging but they haven’t seen 2001 at all so really have no way of qualifying that judgement in my mind. However, I hesitate to recommend they actually watch 2001 because I really don’t think they’d manage it- would they even get through the Dawn of Man sequence? Kubrick’s film was odd back in 1968 and while it eventually found its audience I think it’s doubly odd compared to modern films, its pacing and ambiguity the absolute anathema of today’s audiences. Well, the majority, anyway, I guess you have to be wary of absolutes.

I think we have lost something though, the way most films are now. Clearly they are chiefly entertainment and intended to be popular and therefore financially successful, and being simple and undemanding seems to go hand in hand with keeping the majority of viewers happy. Perhaps the biggest culprit is the high budgets and the need to be hugely popular (rather than mildly popular) to recoup such huge investments – just witness the problems BR2049 had. I think if we could get more financial restraint more risk or openly ambiguous/complex films might have more chance of success. Conversely, I think it’s such a shame that you simply cannot make an intelligent big-budget film like BR2049 and still get an audience, and for this you have to blame either the audience itself, or society in general, or Hollywood’s slow decline into crass stupidity in its blockbuster school of film-making that makes popcorn movies really popcorn for the mind.

Or do we just blame George Lucas and Star Wars? I don’t think that’s fair (and there’s also an argument that Star Wars actually saved Hollywood and ended a steady decline in cinema audiences etc) but there is some validity to the view that Lucas began a trend of making entertainment via escapism and less of a tie to reality and issues beyond the auditorium. The problem is that escapism can slide into crassness, dumbness and stupidity, particularly if you make the package so loud and spectacular that audiences get carried away by the experience and not having to think- and films these days are so very loud and spectacular.

I rather suspect that future of serious and challenging cinema lies away from the multiplex and perhaps in the domain of Netflix and Amazon Prime, if they get enough time, and don’t get pulled into competing with all the fireworks of cinema offerings. A Terrence Malick film for Netflix might be something to see, I think.

The Beyond (2017)

bey1A poor-mans’s Arrival and Interstellar knock-off, unfortunately, this low-budget UK sci-fi has a few moments of impressive visuals but that’s about it, betraying the fact that it was written and directed by a guy who has worked as a visual effects supervisor. For the most part it is ruined by both its blatant  ‘inspirations’ (which no doubt got the project green-lit) and its ill-conceived and ineptly executed script.

A wormhole (hello Interstellar) appears above the Earth and is somehow kept secret by the Space Agency that runs the ISS etc from the UK (!) until lots of giant alien spheres suddenly appear above cities etc down on Earth (hello Arrival). While the world appears to be on the brink of war, with the military heads world over itching to attack the spheres (hello again, Arrival)  the Space Agency plans a secret (!) mission to enter the wormhole (hello again, Interstellar) and contact the aliens  presumably responsible for populating the Earth with floating Death Stars. For some reason deciding that humans aren’t up to the ordeal, it is reasoned that cyborgs, robots with human brains placed into their metal craniums, will make the trip instead. Just as well we have all this handy tech in the year 2019.

I can only imagine that it was at the behest of the budget, but the choice of shooting the film as a fly-on-the-wall docudrama is a big mistake, reducing much of it to a literal talking-heads piece. I mean, really, it seems to go on forever listening to ‘scientists’ chatting to the camera-crew about what they think is going on. How in the world  this camera-crew happens to be filming this ultra-top secret event (allowed to film the preparations for First Contact even when, outside the Space Agency,  no-one on the planet knows the wormhole is even up there, amateur astronomers the world over presumably looking the other way) is beyond me. And its rather hysterical seeing the POV camera prowling the garden of the Space Agency chief and sneaking shots through the marigolds as she talks to a candidate for the First Contact mission over tea on her patio. Please, please, don’t get me started about the space-physics implications of a second Earth appearing right by us and being told that Venus and Mars etc have suddenly ‘disappeared’. Who writes this silly stuff and thinks they can get away with it?

So anyway, it looks good -even great in places- and therefore looks the part of a Hollywood blockbuster but it really needs a script, and a director who can direct actors. This film has neither. Its truly woeful in places and its simply betraying the fact that it was dreamed-up after watching Arrival and Interstellar and that its essentially just a tech demo for some CGI effects rigs. Which is infuriating, because if you’re given the money to make a movie like this, you should make the most of that money by doing a character-driven piece, an intelligent, low-budget drama. Don’t pretend you can be as flashy as the big boys and expect that to be enough.

But its free on Netflix so if you want to blow your mind at how bad-but-pretty modern sci-fi can be, go knock yourself out. But you’ve been warned!

 

Sci-Fi Short: FTL (2017)

Here’s a YouTube link to a 15-minute sci-fi short, FTL, that won a few awards last year. It isn’t wholly convincing- its really more a tech demo, I think, a proof of ability on the part of the writer/director Adam Stern who has a visual effects background from some tv stuff like Almost Human and Childhood’s End. So inevitably it works more as a tech exercise than a dramatic one. It features Ty Olsson in the lead, a face you will likely remember from all sorts of tv stuff over the last few years. Sort of a cross between Gravity and Interstellar, maybe its something that might have been expanded into a movie if some studio saw sufficient promise in it. On the other hand, it just goes to demonstrate that fairly ambitious stuff like this is no longer the preserve of major studio blockbusters as it was back in the Original Trilogy days of Star Wars. Worth a look, anyway-

Favourite Films- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I’ve been wondering where to start with my ‘Favourite Films’ series of posts and the answer was staring me in the face, as this month is the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s monumental movie, so here we go-

2001paperbThere isn’t really much new that I can say about this extraordinary film, a film that exists as a piece of culture almost beyond cinema itself, a film whose impact resounds even today, some fifty years later. Where to begin? Well, I’m one of the Star Wars generation, too young to have seen the film when it first came out in 1968 (oh what it must have been like for those first audiences) but old enough to have been around when the film was still part of the then-recent cultural zeitgeist of the 1970s. I’d read the book by Arthur C Clarke, seen some images from the film. I read the Marvel comics 2001: A Space Odyssey by Jack Kirby, one of the strangest, weirdest comic book series anyone might ever see, certainly at the time. It all added to the strange mystique surrounding the film. It was something enigmatic, something I’d heard and read about but never seen. Of course, little did I realise it would remain just as enigmatic even after I had seen it, only maybe even more so.

So yes, eventually the stars aligned and I saw it, on its first UK network screening, which was, I think, sometime around Christmas 1979 or 1980, I’m not certain which it was. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to think. Which was as true of audiences back in 1968 or indeed in  2018- the first time you see 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Its only on the second viewing, or the third or  fifth that you really ‘get’ it. Or maybe you don’t really ‘get’ it  even after the fiftieth time. Maybe you’re not supposed to ‘get’ it. Arthur C Clarke said “if you understood 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise more questions than we answered.” There, in a nutshell, is the magic and fascination of the film and why it still remains the very antithesis of traditional cinema, and particularly current cinema which feels the need to force feed audiences everything. Most every film these days feels the need to explain, rationalise, feed endings or tease new beginnings/sequels.

I read a comment back when BR2049 came out last year, about the ending where K and Deckard reach  Dr. Ana Stelline’s office, and they stand in the snow and Deckard asks K why he has done what he did, what Deckard is to K. Following a pause, K just smiles and tells Deckard to go see his daughter, and they part. What was interesting is that this really pissed off the guy writing the comment. “Why doesn’t K say something?!” railed the guy. “Its stupid! I want K to tell us why!” To me, this is the genius of the film. Attentive viewers will know why K did what he did, and what Deckard meant to him, what Deckard represented. We don’t need it spelled out for us. Well, some of us don’t.

Which is the deepest heart of 2001. Its never got the slightest intention of explaining anything or everything. In a way, it rather does, but it leaves it up to the viewer to extrapolate meaning or sense from the film. So anyway, when school resumed after that Christmas holiday, members of my form came over to me (as the class resident sci-fi geek and film nut) and asked me what the hell 2001 was on about. I remember shrugging my shoulders and giving some general summary of the plot and what I thought but didn’t feel entirely sure myself. 2001 wasn’t Star Wars. 2001 was something else.

So began a fascination that followed for all the near-forty years since.

2001vhsI re-watched some of 2001 in art school, particularly the effects shots. Even back then, the film seemed particularly slow (God only knows what it seems like to new viewers coming to it now). I remember how control of the image, fast-forwarding and rewinding the VHS tape still refused to reveal the films secrets to me. I remember that the film was one of the first catalogue films sold on VHS in the very earliest days of affordable sell-through, and it was of course an inevitable Christmas present to me. Of course it was pan-and-scan version that mutilated the framing and the image quality was typically poor of VHS, colours blooming and dropouts etc. Well, it was long before DVD and even Blu-ray, and no doubt a 4K UHD is due eventually.

2001abelAll the books. I have read so many books about 2001. There’s still books coming out about it, fifty years later, and surely in another fifty years time there will be more.

The first and probably best was ‘The Making of Kubrick’s 2001‘ edited by Jerome Agel. Its a paperback published in 1970 which is utterly brilliant in its approach. Its basically a compilation of quotes and reviews and articles surrounding the film from its genesis and the months immediately following its release, complete with a 96-page insert of b&w stills and behind-the-scenes images explaining some of the technical aspects of the production. It includes Arthur C Clarke’s original story The Sentinel which formed the basic foundation of the plot, sections from the MAd magazine parody, the instructions from a model kit of the Orion Pan Am clipper. Letters to Kubrick from confused/angry/ecstatic viewers. Its a brilliant book, and I only wish someone had done something similar for Blade Runner.

The funny thing about 2001 is that it was never about prediction. Even the rosiest predictions from the mid-sixties with the manned moon landings planned and NASA’s huge budget at the time couldn’t really have led to the films visions becoming reality by the year 2001. But as the years and decades passed everyone was making the comparison of fiction vs reality.  Probably pissed Kubrick off no end, and how unkind and yet almost fitting, that Kubrick himself didn’t live to see the real 2001? So in a weird way, passing the real year 2001 was something rather liberating for the film, far as I’m concerned. Yes, the film is partly a fascinating glimpse of what the future looked like from the optimistic and thrilling vantage point of the 1960s, when everything was possible. And yes, it also looks rather quaint and retro-’60s, now, from our 21st Century perspective. But it’s really only reinforced the mythological intent of the film all the more clearly. As such it feels all the more powerful and allows fresh insights. Its cinema as art. Its Pure Cinema. Its a timeless masterpiece.

Or its breathtakingly self-indulgent, boring, slow, frustrating, stupid.: the film still maintains the ability to thoroughly piss people off. I’m not going to suggest that those people are wrong and that I’m right about it being a masterpiece. Oh, go on then.

Marking 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of my favourite films is almost redundant and almost as boring and predictable as had I started this series of posts with Blade Runner. But the fiftieth anniversary of this film clearly is apt excuse to start with this particular film. How many films that are made today will still be so hotly talked about/praised/hated in fifty years time as this one? How many films have really measured up in the years since? When Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar came out a few years back, so many people were comparing it favourably to Kubrick’s 2001 that it drove me nuts. People thought Interstellar was groundbreaking and intelligent and thought-provoking, but it’s nowhere near the same league as 2001, no matter its ambitions. No sci-fi film director has really come close to what Kubrick achieved in 1968. No-one has pushed the envelope, challenged how people ‘see’ sci-fi or that genre as a whole, or what it might be capable of.  It is one of my saddest observations that for all the technological breakthroughs we have seen from CGI etc, that no-one has carried it through to some new Odyssey for our own age.

Stanley Kubrick said “How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written a the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001” There’s not many films that could possibly ever be compared with the Mona Lisa, as a piece of art of such magnitude, but 2001 surely can. A film for the ages then, and yes, one of my very favourite films.

 

 

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.

Arrival (2016)

arrival2016.89: Arrival (Cinema)

Film of the year.

Yes, its that good. Everything you may have heard from reviews/word of mouth since those September previews is true. Good grief this film is something special. I actually think it is also one of, perhaps the most intense emotional cinematic experiences of my life. I almost staggered out of the cinema, fighting back tears, feeling like my heart had been pulled out of my chest. Just thinking about it now, hours later, almost breaks me up. I feel like an emotional punchbag, a wreck. Its been such a long time since a film connected with me so profoundly.

To be fair, this film clearly can’t and won’t have this effect on everyone. Its just one of those rare cinematic experiences that came at just the right moment, just when I have been personally going through such a rough time these past few months, in order for it to connect with me in such a profound way. Its almost like Denis Villeneuve made this film just for me, as if it was speaking just to me, striking me right between the eyes. Its a beautiful film.

With it being a new release just out at the cinema, I won’t go into spoilers, I’ll leave that for the disc release next year. This is really a film that needs to be seen with as little foreknowledge as possible. I’m certain everyone knows the premise of alien ships arriving on Earth and the attempts at First Contact that follow. Its the story behind that story that is so profound and which I will not go into here. I’d read the short story Ted Chiang ‘Story of Your Life‘on which the film is based, so I knew it would be a heady brew of cerebral science fiction, but good lord, Villeneuve nailed the emotional heart of that story too. Its so rare for such an intelligent piece of serious, adult science fiction to be put on screen as it is, but to nail the emotional side, to make it so achingly sad and tragic and beautiful, its… well, words fail me. This film is everything Interstellar wanted to be.

I could understand the title change to Arrival making the film an easier sell, but its clear that ‘Story of Your Life’ would indeed have been a more fitting title. Its the story of all our lives, of how we live them, experience the joy and pain. Its powerful film-making, its a work of art. This guy is making Blade Runner 2049 even as I type this. My God my expectations for that film are going to be going through the roof now.

And Amy Adams? If this film doesn’t reward her with an Oscar nomination, there is no justice. She manages such a powerful, understated performance it will likely be under the Oscar radar (Oscar loves the big loud and melodramatic ‘Look At Me I’m Acting’stuff). There is so much going on in just her eyes, its breathtaking really. The rest of the cast is sublime, the cinematography is beautiful while also rather subtle, and the music score is such an alien-sounding, other-worldly and intense experience its like another character in the film, quite extraordinary.

I’m afraid I may be hyping this film too much, that it can never hope to live up to this praise for most other people. It just connected with me, I won’t apologise for that. Sadly the cinema screening I attended had only a dozen people in there other than my wife and I. I do hope this manages to find its audience. I urge anyone reading this to go see it big and loud on the big screen.

Maybe come back and talk about it in the comments. We can do spoilers in the comments, yes? Cool.

 

 

Man in a Bookcase

inter2Interstellar (Blu-ray)

Last night I re-watched Interstellar. I was just in the mood. (Its great, isn’t it, those times when your mood just gets linked to watching a particular film, as if that’s the only film that will really do at that particular moment. Somehow, if everything is just right, it all clicks and its a great few hours, but really its a mystery why certain films equal certain moods at certain moments. If you could quantify that, reason it out, you’d likely enjoy more movies by watching them at just the right time).

So anyway, Interstellar. Yeah, I really quite enjoyed it. Its as daft as it ever was, as exciting and interesting and frankly as infuriating as it ever was. Distanced from all the hype and madness that surrounded it when it first came out, its easier to appreciate what it got right, as well as forgive (or put up with) what it got wrong.

One observation in the films defence. Watching it this time, its clear to me that it wasn’t really about finding another world to live on. The NASA scientists saw a wormhole appear and reasoned that it was an escape route gifted them from aliens. But it wasn’t. It was really a route to Gargantua, the black hole and its Event Horizon and its revelations about gravity that would, once the data is sent back home,  propel humanity from extinction, in just the same way as the Monolith teaching the man-ape to use the bone as a killing tool moved humanity forwards in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The NASA guys sending astronauts to those 11 or 12 planets was them missing the point entirely. Those worlds were never fit for human habitation/global exodus. I mean, so close to a Black Hole? It just seemed stupid to me back when the film came out and it clearly still is, but I rather think the film knows that too. It just gets itself in a funk trying to reason it out when its really just a method for getting drama (gigantic tides! Matt Damon suffering from Space Madness!) into it.

inter1But really, the central premise of the film. How on Earth would you move a global population to a New World? At least in When Worlds Collide they had the honesty to depict an ark in which a relative few could escape Armageddon and take flight to a new world. Interstellar seems to make it its business to save everybody. To paraphrase Clint, Every Movie Should Know Its Limitations.

The film does take more than its fair share of liberties though. Just how many spaceships have they built in orbit and sent out through the Wormhole to investigate those possible New Worlds? How did they do all that in secret? How much would that all cost? How would you resource it in an (apparently) collapsed economy on the verge of mass starvation?  And just a bunch of Americans at that? At the very least you’d think it would be a global exercise- indeed on the evidence of current capacity for spaceflight you’d expect it be built by the Chinese leaving the Americans behind entirely.Good luck embarking on a New World without the good old USA, eh? I know, I know, I know-  Its Only A Movie, as John Brosnan would say.

(There’s a rather sad thought- I wonder what John Brosnan would have thought of something like Interstellar? Its a sobering reminder that there will be great films made long after I myself am gone, that I will never see. There ain’t no justice).

So back to those NASA guys thinking they have to find an inhabitable planet in that star system across the Wormhole (and the films misdirection of that). Its rather clever in a way, if its really intentional.  A slight of hand worthy of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. The guy travels to another galaxy and winds up in his bookcase back home. It really is that preposterous. But its all intended to be that way, its that exploring of other worlds on the way that is misguided. But I guess that’s how you fabricate a dramatic/exciting space movie if your name isn’t Stanley Kubrick. Imagine if Interstellar had been as dry and direct and logical as 2001: A Space Odyssey, literally just dealing with going through the Wormhole and doing serious science with Gargantua, and getting that data back to Earth via a Bookcase. Talk about the Ultimate Trip.

inter3

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.