Revisiting Contact (1997)

contact2I have a fascination with space travel, alien civilizations and our own place in the Cosmos that dates back to me as a kid watching Star Trek. Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Carl Sagan’s book and tv series Cosmos only reinforced my conviction that we are not alone, that we should watch the skies and being alone in this vast universe is surely a big waste of Space. 

I never read Carl Sagan’s book Contact. I’m not entirely sure why, it seems a strange omission but life is weird like that, we make some choices which, looking back, don’t entirely make a lot of sense.   

So I don’t know what differences exist between Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film and the original book, or whether it is wholly faithful. It feels like something Carl Sagan would have written; certainly it has novel ideas and extrapolates from scientific ideas a plausible premise about First Contact. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter to me, although now that I consider it I really should catch up with the book sometime. Its enough that the film was, when I saw it at the cinema back in the day, and remains today watching my Blu-Ray copy, a pretty strong and quite satisfying film. 

Its perhaps a wee bit melodramatic, a little too Hollywood… maybe its just that its a product of the 1990s. I think it would have benefited by being made several years ago with a less emotive director, someone like Denis Villeneuve, really- its no mistake that the film I kept on thinking about while watching Contact was Villeneuve’s own First Contact film, his superb Arrival from 2016. Arrival is a better film by some margin, I think, but I would dearly love to see what someone like Villeneuve might have made of something like Contact, given the material and a big cinematic toybox.

I was oddly disturbed, funnily enough, when I considered that the last time I had watched Contact was before Arrival existed- this was the first time watching Contact in which Arrival was in my thoughts, and it made me consider the strange thing it is of re-watching films over the years. We are different, the world is different, the cinematic landscape is different: and that later point is perhaps the most telling of all. Films made decades later with better technologies inevitably have some bearing on whether a film still holds up years down the line. For one thing, I seem to remember the visual effects of Contact being pretty cutting-edge back in 1997; its funny how much some CG effects have aged spectacularly badly. Many of Contact’s visual effects hold up pretty well, and some of them, er, really don’t look good.   

The search for extra-terrestrial life always made perfect sense and great importance to me. As Arthur C Clarke put it,  “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Contact doesn’t voice it in the same way, it leaves that argument unspoken and I keep on thinking that Jodie Foster’s character, our central heroine, Ellie, should scream that sentiment out at her loudest voice: how can any one of her detractors critiquing her obsession with SETI deny it? Contact seems more concerned with arguments of Faith, examinations of Faith, either in God or Science and its a bittersweet stroke of genius that Ellie’s First Contact experience ultimately becomes a matter of Faith. Are we believers (of course we are, we saw what she saw) or are we non-believers (did we really just see what she thinks she saw)? I think the film would have been incredibly brave had it just left it that way- instead it tips its hat with a reveal that Ellie’s digital recorder may have recorded just static- but it recorded eighteen hours of it, which validates Ellie’s claims. It feels a little too literal, too obvious to me, I think I would have preferred a vaguer conclusion. I think what I’m getting at is that Contact is still an enjoyable and fairly strong film- it just isn’t sophisticated enough, for me today. Maybe its too literal. 

contactThe films constant tension between God and science, between Faith and Empirical Evidence is both its most interesting dynamic and its most irritating. It keeps on forcing its way in. It feels like something Carl Sagan would have written, even if he always seemed quite dismissive about anything Divine- God always seemed too simple a solution for Carl. My suspicion, having not read the book, is that a lot of the films preoccupation with God and science are from the Hollywood direction, not the book, but hey, I could be way wrong and should-have-done-my-research.

The cast is really good. Jodie Foster is great as Ellie, and its wonderful seeing Tom Skerritt as the  boo-hiss villain of the piece, scientist/bureaucrat/bastard David Drumlin. James Woods of course could play the frankly despicable -if wholly believable- government senator Kitz in his sleep, and seeing him in this I wonder again why we see so little of him these days (has he retired?). How wonderful, too, is John Hurt as tech magnate S. R. Hadden (and me suddenly realising he’s a fellow Alien colleague of Skerritt, and yep they both die in this film too). Really, the cast is one of the films strengths. Even a rather young-looking Matthew McConaughey, who always irritated me in the film and still does -too cool, too self-confident, too sexy, too Hollywood- has the novel perspective gifted from his later roles, particularly Interstellar, a film that assumes intelligence but is frankly quite behind Contact in that regard (Interstellar’s twist that the ‘aliens’ are our future selves communicating via a Cosmic Bookcase is just… I’m always rather lost for words). 

As I’ve gotten older my own faith, as it were, that it would surely be just a matter of Time before SETI found some evidence of an alien signal and proof of neighbours in the Cosmos, has not been realised. Years and decades went by and the euphoria of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was eventually worn down by mundane reality. When that film originally came out I read something by someone remarking that the events of CE3K had they happened would have been kept secret, we -the public at large- would never have been told, it was an event just too big, too huge. It would change too much, so such revelations would be hidden away for our own safety. Reading that as a kid, I dismissed it with my usual youthful enthusiasm, but as I’ve gotten older and more jaded… partly I think, how do you keep such secrets secret in this Information Age, but then I think, grow up. They can hide anything.

Maybe something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind couldn’t be made today. Its message of Good Aliens after decades of Hollywood alien invasions felt quite radical at the time, even if its sentiments proved short-lived with Alien and Independence Day and so many others reasserting the alien’s rightful place of outsiders and menace. Are we ready for First Contact? Robert Zemeckis’ film suggests that we’re not, and its possibly right, but its a great question to ask and ponder over. For my part, a recurring problem for me every time Contact finishes, is that its somehow pressed some magical ‘reset’ button worthy of 1960s television- there is no mention of the alien technology just sitting waiting to be used again, or the various applications of that technology that would filter down into military and civilian use. Ellie is even back at her old job listening for signals again. James Woods dismissing the whole thing as an elaborate hoax by some high-tech industrialist is like some kind of magic trick, and its that one moment in which Contact becomes, at the last moment, utterly stupid.

Just as at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there would be no going back, and maybe the REALLY interesting films, in both cases, would be the films telling us what happened next, but neither CE3K2 or Contact 2 ever happened. Sometimes film-makers get away scot-free.

Interstellar Strikes Back

inter1In the spirit of all things Ad Astra, I’ve elected to embark on a rewatch of similar sci-fi films (maybe it would be more pertinent that I should get around to that 4K edition Apocalypse Now first, but I’m sure its time will come, having just given that sets Hearts of Darkness doc a rewatch yesterday). First on the list was Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which gave the me the opportunity to watch it on a 4K UHD disc that I bought last year and never watched.

Well, as far as 4K goes, I couldn’t really tell much difference in the picture quality, other than some nice careful use of HDR (the Black Hole effects at the end really benefit)- what I did find improved was the sound, with a nausea-inducing low level on the bass that threatened the walls of my house. I don’t know if its the same track as the Blu-ray but goodness its a loud and energetic track.

This time around the film held a few surprises- I  discovered  that Timothée Chalamet, who is playing Paul in Denis Villenveuve’s Dune project, featured in Interstellar, playing the young Tom (son of Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper). I really hadn’t realised I’d already seen him in something- turns out Hollywood really is a small world. Speaking of which, David Gyasi, who played scientist Romily on the mission through the Wormhole, was featured in Carnival Row that I watched a few days back- he played Agreus, a Puck and therefore a performance under considerable make-up (one of the most noteworthy roles in the series, I thought). Of course the film also stars Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon, who will both turn up in the next film on my list; The Martian.  So yes, small world indeed. I won’t mention that McConaughey also featured in that ‘movie’ I saw the other night because, well, we’re all pretending I didn’t see it.

While I did enjoy rewatching Interstellar, it remains a difficult film to really connect with- something I find true of many of Christopher Nolan’s films. They always seem detached, films of soulless characters in admittedly astonishing situations. Something like Interstellar, I should probably love, but I don’t, and I think that as its true of all his films, that’s down to Nolan’s style.

inter2What Interstellar undoubtedly is, is a fantastic audio-visual experience. Its use of music is pretty extraordinary, abetted by a brilliant Hans Zimmer score which dominates the film more than anything else in the picture. I think its Zimmer’s second-best score of his career (Thin Red Line having the number one spot, naturally), and it works so well in the film it never fails to ‘wow’ me. Of course much of its success is in the editing of the film, as it really seems to be edited to the score, rather than the other way around, and it really is a huge part of the film’s success.

The usual things still bugged me however. Nobody builds rocket engines alongside a conference room. I can never see those doors/wall slide open to reveal the silo next to them (that conference room must have extraordinary soundproofing) without a groan and I’ll never understand that thing of the NASA complex actually being clandestinely built to be spaceship. For a film that purports to be a serious science fiction film with real science etc, I’ve never been at ease with some of its ‘leaps of faith’ that would rankle Kubrick and Clarke no end.

That being said, I think I’ve made my piece with Gargantua and the bookcase. Its clear to me now that the wormhole wasn’t put next to Saturn, and set for Gargantua, in order for humanity to find a world to live there. Those worlds in orbit/proximity to the Black Hole were never candidates for human colonisation. That was an assumption by the NASA boffins and quite wrong- I’m sure humanity actually uses Murph’s gravity equation to travel to different worlds entirely. No, the wormhole was set for Gargantua simply because Cooper had to fall into the Black Hole and transmit the gravity equation data to Murph so that she could realise the technology to save humanity. It was all orchestrated by the ‘Future Humans’ in a kind of cosmic time paradox. It always bugged me that the last place to settle a human colony would be anywhere near a Black Hole, and rewatching it again I kind of realised that was never the case, whatever the NASA boys thought – in a nice Time Paradox kind of way, Matt Damon’s Space Madness-infected (hey, say hello Ad Astra!) Mann had to behave the way he did in order for Cooper to ‘sacrifice’ himself. So finding habitable worlds near that Black Hole was a fool’s errand rather than the film being stupid.

And I still think a whole film set on that dying Earth would be a splendid thing. Some of the best stuff in the whole film is in that sequence, including things like history being rewritten to show the Apollo landings were a hoax. I love that stuff, and there’s a whole great film in there- I’d love to know whats happening in the rest of the world.

 

Between Two Ferns: The Movie

bet1What? I didn’t. Please tell me I didn’t watch this. Its a bad dream, surely.

Sometimes, sometimes I’m my own worst enemy. And I’m clearly the worst person to have watched (and then moved to review) this show, because I’m totally unfamiliar with Zach Galifianakis’ long-running “Funny or Die” web series, whatever it is. So shoot me, I’ve been living under a rock or something. I gather its some kind of irreverent comedy series posing as a chat show in which celebs get sent-up or something, a comedy insult-trap thing. Anyway, somebody decided that they should make it into a movie. And Netflix of course is just there for the taking these days, hey, easy money. Maybe they should have written a movie about entertaiment peeps taking a media giant for a ride, and hey, gotten that same media giant to finance it; it’d be some kind of meta-joke.

So Will Farrell. Somebody out there thinks he’s funny, and he’s undoubtably one of the two of them, but I digress. I don’t get it. Watching paint dry or waiting for a kettle to boil is funnier than him. He features in this movie… well, I say ‘movie’ but thats a fairly loose use of the term. Its not like how they titled Superman: The Movie a movie because that was a movie and this really isn’t, but anyway, I digress again. Back to Will Farrell, if I must. He plays an internet media channel magnate or something, always after extra clicks like some demented blogger or YouTube savant. So one of his ‘stars’ is Zach Galifianakis whose Between The Ferns talk show is popular for unintentional reasons- Galifianakis is a totally inept host who insults his guests with truly inane questions and who is frequently undermined by his lack of research (often unable to pronounce guests names). After a disastrous interview in which Matthew McConaughey is nearly drowned when the studio is flooded, Farrell puts Galifianakis on the road looking for celebs, tasked to create ten futher episodes whilst the studio is repaired- his reward being a ‘proper’ late-night talk show for a bonafide network (Galifianakis’ dream).

So there’s a few jokes worth a titter, and loads of celebs in for the ride- Keanu Reeves, Benedict Cumberwatch, Brie Larson, Peter Dinklage, Jon Hamm and a load of others who I honestly didn’t know. Maybe thats why this film isn’t for me, I’m too far south of the cultural zeitgeist. The best bits are clearly the interview clips which are what the original web series are all about, but a lot of even that fell short for me. It was a little sour seeing that the celebs are clearly in on the joke now.

Celebs love to send themselves them up. It promotes the myth that they are self-effacing normal joes and makes them feel better about jumping into their private jets and screwing up the environment. And I don’t like talk shows anyway. They are just media junkets with carefully sanctioned questions and adulatory gushing (“You have a new movie out. I loved it, I think its great. Tell me a story you are so funny”), just perpretuating the celebrity nonsense that is the Western worlds new religon.

Hey, really, I’m the last person who should be reviewing this ‘movie’, let alone watching it. But I did, so here we are. Anyway, I’ll stop now. Lets agree to forget that I ever watched this, and forget that I posted this review, and that you read it. I’m sure we’ll all feel much better.

The Dark Tower

dark1Here’s something of a disclaimer: I have not read any of the Dark Tower series of books written by Stephen King, of which I understand there are several. I have no idea if this film is based on the first book, or is a rushed compendium of all of them, but I suspect it is the latter, as it would explain why the film races by in 95 minutes bereft of any weight or meaningful pause. This film is so rushed its unable to expand its characters beyond basic archetypes, it’s some kind of good vs evil saga, in which the bland battle against the bored.

There is clearly some kind of grand mythology at play, some kind of melting-pot of science fiction and fantasy that I guess can be found in the books, but it’s utterly AWOL here. Its confusing to people like me who are unfamiliar with the book saga and likely frustratingly simplistic to fans of that book series- perhaps like what condensing the Lord of the Rings trilogy into a single movie would be like- it just can’t work.

We have teleport stations to other worlds, demons attempting to invade our universe from some Outer Dark, a Dark Tower (I feel like asking Stephen King whether it should have been a White Tower, as its protecting the universe from Darkness but perhaps I’m being tetchy and its explained in the books) at the centre of the universe that thwarts them. Our bad guy Walter Paddick (Matthew McConaughey) is attempting to destroy the Dark Tower and our hero, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba, who between this and that Star Trek film should perhaps just give up on Hollywood), is the Gunslinger, who is trying to destroy Paddick before he succeeds. Its hardly mind-bogglingly imaginative stuff, and it’s not aided by having some kid who is (yawn) the Chosen One who Paddick can somehow use to power some weird laser cannon to finally destroy the Dark Tower and wreak the Apocalypse upon all creation. It really is that stupid. Maybe there was nuance and dramatic tension in the books, but there’s none of that here.

I suspect that this would have worked much better as a series on HBO or Netflix, across several seasons. Why exactly anyone thought this would satisfy as such an empty, thrilless, joyless movie is beyond me, the irony of the ending teasing further adventures just another example of Hollywood thinking absolutely anything can be a franchise. I am getting so pissed off with the films that don’t just end (ta da! ‘THE END’ like films used to), instead closing with a tease for something that will never happen- it’s just insulting to the audience and anyone who has invested any time watching it.

The Paperboy (2012)

paperb12016.64: The Paperboy (Film Four, HD)

I haven’t the foggiest. It suckered me in with the cast and by the time I realised what I was watching I decided to just grit my teeth and see it out to the bitter end. One of the most bizarre films I have seen in many a moon, this seedy tale of southern guilt/ pleasures/ secrets is told by Macy Gray (!) in flashbacks to 1969. Trailer trash Nicole Kidman (!) has fallen in love with prison pen pal John Cusack (!) and enlists the help of idealistic journalist Matthew McConaughey (!) to find evidence to ensure the wronged convicts release from his trumped-up murder charge before he fries on the electric chair.  The journalists younger brother Zac Efron (!) insists on wearing very little other than tight undies and becomes infatuated with Kidman. McConaughey isn’t bothered by Kidman’s sultry charms as he’s more interested in black men, a particular guilty secret that leads to no good as even as late as 1969 the swinging sixties haven’t really arrived in the Deep South. Oh, did I mention that McConaughey’s sidekick is David Oyelowo? Or that there’s a beach scene in which Kidman pisses over Efron to save his life?

Really, this is one of those brilliantly bad film disasters that has you wondering if it will be quickly forgotten or maybe turn into a cult classic in twenty years. I remember I used to think LifeForce was terrible- well it is a bad film but it’s turned into one of my favourite guilty pleasures, so maybe The Paperboy will work similar magic on audiences over the years.But not me, I’m sure.

It’s a bewildering, crazy film. A drinking game in which you take a shot whenever Efron slips down to just his indies would have you unconscious midway through the film. Not being judgemental, but I bet this film has a huge gay following. I guess I should think it’s novel and refreshing to see a film that is more interested in a guys body rather than that of its female star, but it’s really quite surreal.

Indeed it’s weird how the film turns from an investigative mystery, into a coming of age story, then a social commentary on racism in the South, then a film about sexual guilt, then finally a full-on horror slasher flick in its finale. Its clearly a sign of a film that doesn’t know what it is. All I know is it is truly, truly bad, but strangely worth watching if only for the bizarre experience of watching something just so thoroughly odd with such an A-list cast slumming in it. Utterly mad.