It’s not even a movie (not in the old sense): Mockingjay Part 1.

mock1I remember back when The Empire Strikes Back was released, back in the summer of 1980; it was criticised by some for having a poor structure. Films generally have a beginning, middle and end (at least they used to- these days some films are more like serials that might make perfect sense when viewed in a Blu-ray boxset but prove rather more problematic viewed as individual entries). My reference to TESB however isn’t chiefly because it was the middle part of a trilogy, moreover it was how the film was structured itself. I recall John Brosnan pointing out in his TESB review in Starburst that in an ordinary movie, the battle of Hoth would have been the grand climax. Instead it was placed in the first third leaving everything beyond it rather anti-climatic, even the duel between Luke and Vader (which itself, when you think of it, ends without any real resolution). Back at the time I was your typical teenage Star Wars-nut and thought Brosnan was talking nonsense; TESB was even better then the first Star Wars in my eyes, and Brosnan’s talk about film-structure flew over my head. But over the past few years I’ve thought back to Brosnan’s comments.

In a strange way, that odd structure of TESB would prove rather prophetic though. Films really don’t have that beginning, middle and end anymore; not always anyway. Of course TESB had not just put its traditional grand climax in the first third, it also ended on something of a cliffhanger,.Again, this was very unusual at the time, but Star Wars was famously based on old movie serials, so people could get their heads around what Lucas was doing. But I don’t think anyone back then could have predicted how films would eventually make TESB look rather normal, its then-odd structure rather mundane. Imagine Lucas saying back then “someday, all films will be made this way”- people would have thought he was crazy, his huge successes at the Box-Office notwithstanding. But now, people have become used to films lacking any real resolution, indeed, some entire films are just a tease for the next one. Were people coming out of screenings of Interstellar thinking that all their questions will be answered in the next one, only to be frustrated when informed that’s it, its just Interstellar, that was The End, there is no sequel?

I was thinking about all this watching the most recent film in The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay Part 1. I don’t know much about the books, but I understand that there are three in the series and the third book Mockingjay is being split into two movies. Its all very The Hobbit (not forgetting the last Harry Potter.book being split into two or indeed the next entry in the Divergent series).

I won’t go into how cynical it all seems regards maximising ticket sales in cinemas or further along with the DVD/Blu-ray sales. What concerns me is how it effects the individual films themselves. Mockingjay Part One is not a bad film, indeed, in some ways its the most interesting of the Hunger Games series I’ve seen. But it is inevitably hamstrung by the decision, right or wrong, artistic or purely business-based, to split its original book’s story into two. Essentially Mockingjay is, by its very nature, the beginning and part-middle of a bigger story. There is no resolution here. Characters are being introduced, arcs being set up, that will not come to fruition until the second part. It makes for  very frustrating experience, especially in light of having to wait another year for the conclusion (I much preferred how Warners managed the two Matrix sequels, released, as I recall, only six months apart?).

hob3Moreover, I do think the second part itself will also suffer, as these films usually do. It won’t have much time (or feel any need) to set events up, it will likely leap into the storyline in a rush to the grand finale. That might be fine, or indeed welcomed, by fans, but it won’t really be functioning like a ‘proper’ movie. It’ll be the second part; the middle and end to a larger story. Maybe I’m alone in thinking in how annoyed I was by the beginning of the third Hobbit movie, leaping into the Smaug attack on Laketown, shoving a noisy climactic sequence into the beginning of a film where I should have been settling into it, not having my senses assaulted from the very start. For myself, that entire sequence was ruined by not having any build-up. CGI suffers without dramatic storytelling around it as it is; here there was no build-up of tension, no raising of dramatic effect, no context. It was just “Bang-here we go, have a visual effects reel before we start the movie proper!” That sequence should have been the end of the second film, giving that film a much-needed climax, and the third film allowed to set up its own arcs/storyline for its own climax. Good business for Warner/MGM maybe but lousy artistic sense; it spoiled two movies and crippled what should have been a highlight.

Mockingjay Part One rather meanders through two hours (!) leading to an inevitable tease promising a ‘proper’ conclusion that leaves it inevitably wanting. It doesn’t function as an exercise in traditional storytelling. Being split itself in two surely risks alienating its audience- I wonder how many people stayed away, preferring to wait until Mockingjay Part Two is released? I was tempted to delay watching the Blu-ray until the second film gets released on disc next year but my curiosity got the better of me. But even then, to (eventually) watch the entire Mockingjay story will require something like four hours over the two parts. What is the sense in that? Does the storyline deserve that much screentime, can it carry all those hours? How many people will ever watch both in one sitting? Is it always doomed to be two parts over (at best) two consecutive nights? Would it just work better as a two and a half-hour movie, or even one approaching three hours in one whole, with its own beginning, middle and end? Don’t we as an audience deserve that? Shouldn’t we be demanding that?

Somehow none of these trilogies/serials feel like ‘proper’ movies any more, but splitting the individual parts of these trilogies/sagas into two just makes it even worse. Where will it end?  A three-part Hobbit movie? Ahem.

Fifty Great films: 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001bContrary to the Love Conquers All message that festers Chris Nolan’s Interstellar, the message of Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent 2001: A Space Odyssey is rather more profound, albeit rather harder to define. Indeed, even after all these decades people are still arguing about it, and as I have  re-watched it over the years I still find myself changing my mind about what the film means. Sometimes I think the Monolith is an Alien artifact and 2001 a story of aliens shaping our evolution- other times the Monolith is God and 2001 is a bold religious movie disguised as science fiction. The films very strength is the vagueness that some find so infuriating. One thing I am certain of however, we will never see a science fiction film ever so serious and ambitious ever again- something only further cemented by the recent release of Interstellar. Its not that Interstellar is particularly bad, its just films in general- the scope and ambition of films now falls far below what Kubrick was attempting back then.

Sobering thought though- discussing Interstellar with my friends at work who saw it with me, I compared the film with 2001 and was surprised that they hadn’t seen 2001 at all. Well, I dread to think what this generation would think of 2001‘s glacial pace and obscure plot- films over the decades have gotten faster and simpler, and 2001 is clearly the very antithesis of what the consensus of a ‘good’ film is these days, so I hesitated to recommend it. Would my work colleagues have even gotten past the Dawn of Man sequence? Likely not. Yet some of them clearly felt Interstellar was a great science fiction film.  Hades in a handbasket.

2001 of course is not a film for everyone and had its many detractors even when it was first released in 1968. I can’t imagine what the impact of the film was back then, what it must have been like back then seeing it  for the first time. Nearest thing I can imagine is Star Wars in 1977 or Blade Runner in 1982. Maybe Gravity last year? Alas, these days its more about what a film shows (the technology used, cgi /3D/Imax etc.) than what a film says. 2001 had such a lot to say about our history, our future, the dehumanisation inherent in technology. 2001 was the first truly serious science fiction film with A-list credentials/production values- science fiction was generally the domain of the b-movie before then. I know there are exceptions to that but it was an attempt at real science rather than, say, Forbidden Planet‘s fantasy. 2001 remains the grandest vision of any science fiction film, almost fifty years after it release.

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I first saw 2001 on the BBC over one Christmas- 1979 or possibly 1980, I can’t remember which- and I remember John Brosnan writing afterwards in Starburst magazine vehemently condemning the BBC’s treatment of the film’s original widescreen format. It didn’t get any better on home video, Brosnan no doubt later venting further wrath with the films’ treatment on VHS. Anybody else reading this own a copy of the film on VHS pictured here? It was back  in the very earliest days of video sell-through. I don’t recall if it was a retailer exclusive in Woolworths, but that’s where I had my copy from- there were loads of old catalogue films (John Wayne films mostly) . It was,as usual for those days,  a horrible pan and scan version with fuzzy  colours (a travesty when you consider the work that went into the film, its framing and cinematography), but it was still a remarkable thing back then being able to own a personal copy of a film, particularly one like 2001.  But yeah, it sure was ugly. A reminder of how spoiled we are now with the excellent version on Blu-ray we have now.

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.

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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...