Stowaway (2021)

stowI’m not sure why exactly, but there was something of Michael Crichton about Stowaway, something about how the high-concept premise was grounded by realistic characters/scientists trying to survive a dangerous situation against mounting odds. The title says it all really: a three-man mission to Mars is scuppered by a fourth person being accidentally stowed onboard. Its a neat premise even though eminently unlikely- the kind of thing that might work for a thirty-minute Twilight Zone as a neat idea (thinking about it, wasn’t it the plotline of the 1960s Lost in Space?). Stretched to a full movie though its hard to suspend the element of nagging disbelief. Indeed it almost ruined the whole thing for me, as I kept on expecting some major revelation towards the end that would answer my doubts and questions. 

Just how does a launch platform engineer get trapped inside a space capsule bulkhead, without anyone realising he was missing, and then only retrieved from said bulkhead by unscrewing the panel trapping him inside like some kind of space age reversal of The Cask of Amontillado? It didn’t make any sense to me, and the characters plea of ignorance/amnesia too convenient to really convince, either. I maintained doubts and a hope that my questions would be answered, but they never were, so consequently it was a constant distraction that almost ruined the whole thing for me and left me frustrated at the end.

So I suppose one’s entire enjoyment of the film is predicated upon how easily one can accept its premise and lack of explanation. Certainly there is plenty to enjoy- the art direction is absolutely top-notch, its as convincing a setting as I can remember in recent space films (perhaps taking a nod or two from Ad Astra) and the characters are just as convincing too.  Ships commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) is an astronaut veteran of previous Mars missions, calmly reassuring and nudging her two crewmates, scientists Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim, who quietly steals the show). Both Kendrick and Kim are rather endearing and most importantly quite convincing as scientists trying to prove themselves and validate their research (possibly the Crichton element I referred to). Stowaway Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) is a prospective applicant for a later mission who seems to have inadvertently circumvented the application bit until its realised that having an additional consumer of ship consumables endangers everybody.

Its a dramatic film and really quite impressively made, technically- I wasn’t entirely convinced by some of the science, as the MTS is set to revolving in order to maintain an artificial gravity reminiscent of how Christopher Nolan did it in Interstellar and then an extension rolls out like some kind of counter-balance and solar array but surely the centre of gravity was subsequently wrong (surely the MTS would continue to be the centre of gravity, but instead this shifts to the Solar array instead). I watched external visual effects shots of the ship on its journey and it just seemed at odds with what I’d seen earlier but never mind, maybe that’s just me missing something, or I saw it wrong, but this coupled with my nagging doubts about some guy being somehow sealed/screwed-in behind an important bulkhead panel left me troubled.

I suppose this film is the very definition of a flawed film, then. Maybe another viewing would alleviate my suspicion/disbelief, and likewise I had to wonder about how healthy a canister of oxygen would be having been blasted by deadly cosmic radiation, but that latter point is really the lesser of my concerns. When the central premise of  film, the crux of the whole drama, is predicated on something that just did not satisfy me at all, then I guess the film’s in some trouble. Either I missed a central piece of dialogue that answered everything or the film deliberately rushed past everything bluffing its way through (I suspect it was the latter). But its definitely well worth a watch, and no disaster.

i’m thinking of ending things (2020)

end1I thought this was exceptional, frankly. Naturally its difficult to really touch on why I think that, or even what this film is about, without treading into spoiler territory, but I’ll give it a go and, well, we’ll see how that goes.

Let’s see: the film opens with a young woman who may or not be Lucy (Jessie Buckley) ruminating in melancholy fashion about ‘ending things’ as the camera lingers over abandoned, silent rooms, and then she is picked up by her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) who is taking her to his parents house where she will meet them for the first time. The trip is out into a desolate wilderness as a snowfall intensifies, and Lucy seems distracted, her internal monologue a moody voice-over as bleak as the landscape they are driving through. 

I must admit, as disorientating as the film is as it progresses -and believe me, it becomes INCREASINGLY disorientating and unsettling as it goes forwards- I may have been off-base from the start, because when listening to Lucy’s initial thoughts about ‘ending things’, I thought she was thinking about suicide rather than simply breaking up with Jake. I thought I was watching a suicide movie. It rather coloured how I ‘saw’ things and interpreted what was being said and what was done. The funny thing is, I was wrong about Lucy, and I wasn’t, because someone was indeed thinking of suicide, and nothing that we are seeing is what it seems. So there I was, becoming increasingly distracted by odd observations- a moment when Lucy’s lips are moving but we can’t hear what she is saying, and times when there seem to be continuity problems slipping into the picture, because Lucy’s sweater is changing colour… 

Now, already at this point I can imagine your typical Netflix viewer heading for the remote to pick something else to watch, something easier, less demanding, less strange, something in which something happens. And I have to wonder just how many people watching this manage to get through to the end, because it really just gets odder as it goes. I just found it totally absorbing, mostly because of the magnificent performance by Jessie Buckley, who forms the sensitive heart of the film and its mystery that unfolds. The central mystery is whose monologue are we really listening to, whose thoughts and experiences are we witnessing? Clearly what we are seeing is not ‘real’, as time and place seem to be fluid, ephemeral- the only thing we are really able to hold onto is Lucy. But Lucy is a walking contradiction- her name seems to change, her occupation seems to change, her mood and personality seems to twist and turn and we, like her, seem to be caught in a strange spiral.  

end2Jake’s parent’s farm appears suddenly in the snowy landscape, and once inside and Lucy meets them (wonderfully played by David Thewlis and Toni Collette), we suddenly notice that they are old one minute, younger the next, then even older, then even younger… the film becoming increasingly dreamlike, increasingly odd. We seem to have less and less to grasp hold of, to hold onto, in our attempts as viewers to discern sense and meaning. Everything seems to be unravelling.

Interspersed between the narrative of Lucy’s trip to meet Jake’s parents, we see apparently random moments in which an old school janitor cleans the High School’s corridors and rooms, unseen/ignored by the self-absorbed pupils. And references to the stage musical Oklahoma. And an imaginary Robert Zemeckis movie. And a talking animated pig.

Now, whether all of this is utter tosh or movingly profound depends on the viewer. Partly I suppose it all depends on how much effort the viewer is willing to expend on the film, to work things out, but on the other hand, I guess its just as valid to suggest that if you just sit back and let it wash over you it can be just as rewarding. Is it really even supposed to make any sense? I guess this is film as poetry, in which the images and scenes take the place of a poems words, but just as dependant on individual interpretation of meaning.  Its vague and obtuse but somehow obvious, too. It is, again, utter tosh or movingly profound. No, lets maybe change that, maybe its not either/or but both- its utter tosh and its movingly profound.  

Me, I definitely lean towards the latter. I thought it was deeply moving- i’m thinking of ending things is a poem about loneliness, and age, and the value of one’s life, and of the possibility that moments and decisions, seemingly innocuous and unimportant in the actual moment, can have a huge effect on ones’ life, years later. Is it healthy to focus on one decision, one moment, and blame everything that followed on just that moment? There’s no way of knowing in the moment of any moments importance in ones life and its effect on what follows, so why torture oneself about it? But then again, isn’t torturing oneself about things just part of the human condition? A sense of right and wrong, of injustice and unfairness at a life seemingly wasted. Regrets can haunt one for a lifetime, and a lifetimes memories become blurred around them, until they are no longer reliable. Memories as unreliable narrator. Makes it hard to hold onto things.

The magic of life is that people can walk into your life and change it forever. It is also true that people can walk into your life and back out of it, never to be seen again, but their memory can linger deeper than that of someone you see every day.  i’m thinking of ending things is a beautiful film, I think, but a very sad one, too.  I think its sadness is what lingers in me, thinking back on it. Its overwhelmingly sad, really. Enigmatic and melancholic, tender and bitter. Beautifully shot and crafted with a wonderful cast. One of the Films of the Year, I suspect: and its a Netflix movie. Sometimes it seems our world can be as strange as the films that we watch.