Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

I’ve tried to make this film review spoiler free, so I’ve been a little circumspect about some of its incipits. I am of course familiar with the Ted Chiang story, but I’m not here considering what has been changed between the two versions.

The last three films I have seen at the cinema have been sf — Passengers was predictably pants and I’m still processing Rogue One. It is one of Gareth Edward’s earlier films, Monsters (2010) that is most relevant here though, in which the US-Mexican border has been “infected” by sublime, incomprehensible aliens and the US is at war. Arrival’s heptapod aliens owe a debt to Edwards’s, as well as, perhaps Spielberg’s “Martians” in his War of the Worlds (2005). Aliens have arrived at twelve seemingly random if strategic points all over the world (which recalled Simak’s Visitors for me, but it must appear elsewhere) in giant, apparently rugby-ball shaped, ships. The race is on to find out why they are here and, more to the point, how we can exploit them. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), hero linguist, is called in to help decode the alien language, alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is there for less clear reasons.

The film opens with what appears to be a sidetrack — the birth, life and death of Louise’s daughter. This made me rather nervous — that precursor film Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) features a female protagonist with a dead father, and a tragic loss is an easy character motivation. There’s a certain amount of frustration to the camera angles — odd zones of focus and unfocus, characters offframe or not quite heard, so that we don’t quite get to see what’s going on. There are also a series of shots that for me recall Tarkovsky, although probably Nostalgia (1983) or The Sacrifice (1986) rather than Solaris (1972), although thematically that is in the mix too. In retrospect, it turns out, Villeneuve is playing fair with us but he has a helluva get out of jail free card. But I was a little distracted by the photo that Banks doesn’t have on her desk.

Of course, the bulk of the film is taken up with Banks and Donnelly’s attempt to communicate with the aliens, whom the latter names Abbott and Costello. This is odd, since neither of the heptopod duo engage in slapstick or banter, and it seems a very odd fashioned reference. Why not Laurel and Hardy? Ren and Stimpy? Cannon and Ball? Banks makes progress when she uses a whiteboard and when she recalls her daughter learning to read with picture books. We have a child’s garden of linguistics, as she explains her thinking to Weber (Forrest Whitaker), her military handler. The aliens, who haven’t seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), communicate in mandala-like ink blots, characters that seem to be entire sentences rather than symbolic representations of phonemes. Time clearly passes, and you might think they get their Rosetta Stone moment rather too quickly, as Banks begins to forge a relationship with Abbott.

By then there’s a ticking clock — even though we are focused on the American translations the film never forgets that aliens don’t just invade London or New York. The Chinese and the Russians seem the quickest to get to the point of being militaristic, and risks making the film look like old fashioned Cold War propaganda. Banks has to solve the puzzle before the nuke from orbit option is exercised. And it is elements in the US military that she has to fear as much as overseas forces. We teeter on the edge of action adventure when the film is much more interested in sublime tableaux.

The film, largely, trusts us. As the prologue alerts us, we should distrust beginnings, middles and ends, and there is no character who properly sits down and tells us the bigger story that is unfolding. To my taste, there are three missteps: an insert of a post-encounter documentary (which refers to Banks as Louise), the Doctor Who tell-not-show tactic of news bulletins to narrate the story and a line of dialogue that is absolutely predictable and vomit-inducing from the mouth of a major character. But we’re sneakily told what non zero sum games and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is, even if I’m not convinced that being immersed in a society where people only speak a foreign-to-you language is the same as thought being constructed by language. But pay attention or you’ve missed the key to the film. (There’s an early exchange between Banks and Weber, where she asks him to ask a question of another expert. The answer, “a desire for more cows”, presumably meaningful, is lost in the noise.)

Adams, low key, understandably nervous, is utterly convincing throughout. Renner looks somewhat bemused, presumably aware that his job is to be eye candy. Whitaker balances a difficult mix of potential threat and kindly go between. Meanwhile, almost every thing you take to be an idiot move has got a pay off. I don’t think that Solaris is that bad a model to bear in mind, stylistically and thematically. Put Stalker (1979) in the mix, too. This is sf for grown ups rather than frustrated teens, handling its big central idea much better than Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). It almost demands that you watch it again on a loop.

Villeneuve is set to film the sequel to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). As directors of utterly pointless sequels go, the signs are good.

Stockholm from Home

Passengers (Morten Tyldum, 2016)

I have a memory of being taught by an alleged ex-nun who, when she was teaching film, apparently kept reaching for “it was all a dream”. Psycho, for example, didn’t happen, but was dreamt, presumably by Marion Crane in the hotel before Loomis arrived and before she stole the money and drove to a motel. Passengers could well be a dream — it certainly comes across as wish fulfilment.

Spoilers will follow. Continue reading →

I See Dead London

“Disfigured Myth: The Destruction of London in Postmillennial SF Film”, Foundation 122, pp. 122-32.

There is a moment in Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire (2002) when the hero, Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale), climbs a wall from a river and gazes across at a semi-destroyed Palace of Westminster and says, ‘Well, this town’s gone to Hell.’ It is not the only landmark to have survived several decades of destruction: Tower Bridge has also made it through. This article explores the symbolism and meaning of such landmarks, drawing upon the ideas of Charles Peirce, Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud, within a number of recent British science fiction films: Reign of Fire, 28 Days Later (2002) and its 2007 sequel, and Children of Men (2006). To already indicate the instability of a British identity that these films work to prop up, only 28 Days Later is a fully British production whereas the others are co-productions. The director of Reign of Fire is American, of 28 Weeks Later Spanish, and of Children of Men Mexican, but they all feature a British-born star (although the protagonist of 28 Days Later is Irish-born).

This is a version of the paper “London Death Drives” I gave at the Worldcon in August 2014, fleshed out and theory-enriched. It strikes me that there are a couple more films that could also be included here (I watched Doomsday (2008) and Flood, but neither quite fitted in the word count) and I’m sure I’ll return to British sf film soon.

May be we are set in our ways — I note here I am still in the Freudian paradigm with the uncanny and the death instinct — but note also the importance of Tom Shippey’s chapter, “The Fall of America in Science Fiction”, in Tom Shippey, ed. Fictional Space, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell for The English Association, 1990), pp. 104–32. That Shippey collection was some of the first serious sf criticism I read and it influences me more than I usuallly realise.

Out Damned Scott

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

I hate this. I really hate this. I really don’t have the words to begin to describe how much I hate this. I mean, everyone else loved The Martian.

For a decade or so, I’ve wrestled with two dilemmas:

a) is Tony Scott a better director than his brother?
b) is Ben Affleck a better actor than his old mucker Matt Damon?

I’d think I’d have it resolved and that it was Tony and Ben and then I’d see a film directed by Tony or Ben and suspect I was wrong. I realise that Tony died in tragic circumstances and his oeuvre is complete, but he gave us The Hunger and (the best Tarantino film) True Romance. On the other hand, Ridley has two genuine masterpieces: Alien and Legend (not, obviously, to be confused with the recent remake). Tony rarely seemed to hint that his films were anything more than vacuous tosh (although with an African American protagonist surprisingly often), whereas Ridley seems to try for the Meaningful and miss, whilst white washing all too often.

Then there’s Matt and Ben. Meh. I’m a fan of Kevin Smith films. What can I say?

Everyone else has done the jokes already — if you want a character who gets left behind and needs to be rescued, Damon’s your man. You’d think he’d get the message. So, as in the book, Matt Watney (Watt Damon), has been left behind in a sandstorm on Mars and begins to work out how he can survive until the next mission survives. There’s rather more of the crew than there is in the book, softening us up so we actually care when one of them dies.

And then, otherwise, there’s a fidelity to the book. Damon might strike you as being more buff than normal, but that allows for the malnutrition of later sequences and film is much better at given you a tabula rasa onto whom the audience can project emotions than a book in which the author has to tell you what they are thinking. The mission log can be used to justify voiceover, but it isn’t overwhelming.

The fidelity is a problem. Just as it is a bit of a wrench when we cut away from Watney to Earth for the first time, so it is here. The parallel editing is surprisingly clunky as characters wonder “I wonder what he is up to right now?” or “Do you think he’ll work this out?” out loud. For a Ridley film, the cast is surprisingly more multiethnic than of late, although there are a couple of whitewashing. And there’s also, spoilers, some additional sequences at the end to Get All Meaningful. To turn it into a recruitment ad for NASA.

And somehow Damon can pull that odd combination of nothing-special and resourceful man. The NASA team balance that concern and bureaucracy. This is a film — like the book — where the only enemies are the cold equations. The lone astrogating genius perhaps needed to have his performance dialed back a bit, and I was uncomfortably reminded of the Random Pot Smoking Rastafarian in Thelma and Louise. There’s a geeky Lord of the Rings reference in the novel which gets repeated here, with added nuance that Sean Bean is in the scene.

And of course, we know that Sean Bean has to be killed off. It’s what he does well.

So, unbelievably, and I hate this, Scott has produced a reasonable film. I think Moon and Gravity pull off similar situations of isolation with more aplomb, and there are similar moments of massive disbelief suspension, but this might be the first non-crap Scott film since well… well… his Hovis ads.

Inheritance Rites

TRON: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

tronSo, I accidentally saw TRON: Legacy.

I’d planned to watch it, but I wanted to rewatch TRON (Steven Lisberger, 1982) first, but it turned out that the bar code was slapped across the word Legacy in a somewhat misleading manner.

So I’m coming to this without having seen TRON since 1999 or 2000, whenever it is I wrote the Pocket Essentials Cyberpunk volume.

There will be spoilers.

Continue reading →

Fast and Furiosa, Or: Foiling this Fiend’s Foul Plots

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)

Just to be clear, the Mad Max of the title should not be confused with that other Max.

But basically we have a feature-length episode of Wacky Races directed by whoever did those Lynx adverts. Only feminist. Honest.

Because that woman who did The Vagina Monologues helped out.

In Road Runner country — although actually it’s a whitewashed Namibia.

It’s post apocalypse time and Mad Max (Tom Hardy) is kidnapped and dragged back to a citadel that produces water and mother’s milk to be used as a blood bank to Tony from Skins (OK, Nux (Nicholas Hoult)).  Meanwhile, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has been employed to drive a tanker to a refinery, only this is an escape bid for her and the wives of citadel leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). The citadel sends out its best warriors and drivers to catch them.

Presumably one of the genetic abnormalities caused by the apocalypse is pale skin, because almost everyone at the citadel looks pasty. The women are of various ethnicities, and presumably mutant free, and I’m guessing they had been kidnapped.

The chasers include Dux, with Max doing a Bane impersonation on the front of his vehicle and a guy with a flame-throwing, double-necked Fender guitar because, hey, in this scarcity world we can afford to waste gas like that. And someone’s been looking at too many heavy metal album covers. Seeing a means of escape, Max jumps ship from the notably rubbish chasers and joins Furiosa, along with Nux.

There’s a bizarre encounter in a canyon — somehow Furiosa has communicated long distance that she can have free passage in return for gasoline, and nobody noticed that she set off to the refinery with a lot of gasoline — and then a pretty sandstorm and then a mudflat (gloriously macabre) and then a meeting with more women, I assume the surviving lifetime subscribers to Spare Rib. And then everyone heads home, somehow avoiding the mudflat.

The action hardly gives you a chance to breathe, although it is mostly followable even if it takes a big dollops of suspension of disbelief. Max is reluctant to give his name, but then I caught barely any of the women’s names.

And somewhere, as you try to work out if the Bechdel Test might be passed in a multi-million dollar franchise, you wonder whether it might not be a much better movie without young Max. He’s clearly heroic and knows both ends of a Glasgow kiss, grunts appealingly and can’t make eye contact in a Heather Ledger/Brad-Pitt-in-Twelve Monkeys kind of way,  but is he necessary for anything other than getting the project green lit, twenty years after first mooted. There’s Ethan Edwards and Shane in the mix of course, as well as the man with no name.

However, whilst the plot is about women being more than baby factories, there is a tendency to slide back to being the hope for the future and the seeds of life to come and female as nature. There is a degree of objectification — but less so than say Princess elia by the time of being chained up in Return of the Jedi. They do seem to be able to hold their own in a fight and there is a minimum of love interest as characterisation. If there’s little character development for them then that’s true of all but Furiosa.

Curious this: a film in which at least three characters find redemption, one way or another, but no character is especially changed.

GRUMPiE

CHAPPiE (Neill Blomkamp, 2015)

So the afternoon was skating on ice — the gallery I was going to go to is now only open Thursday-Monday, but that gave me longer to write stuff in the coffee shop. And when I got to the cinema, they said that they might not show the film, because I was the only person to show. But two people turned up for Insurance (which I may well see sooner or later, but I would have hated today) and apparently that was enough — in fact a second person wanted to see CHAPPiE. But in twenty-five plus years of solo cinema-going I’ve never experienced that. I guess they in theory make a loss, but it hardly encourages me to return. I’d hoped to see it in Westgate on Sea, but that was last week.

So Blomkamp teases us — we have the after-the-event documentary and then we have the eighteen months earlier news footage and then, clearly, he can’t be arsed as we go into standard continuity editing. There’s this RoboCop rip-off police system of robot cops remote controlled by head sets which seems to be bankrolled by the guy who won that Slumdog Millionaire (Dev Patel) competition. Wolverine, meanwhile, has an even bigger badder robot that he’s trying to interest Ripley in.

Meanwhile, in another part of Joburg, Yolandi (Yolandi Visser), Ninja (Ninja), Amerika (Amerika) and Hoodie Guy (Hoodie Guy) have pulled off a drug deal only to be caught by Evil Subtitled Guy (Brandon Auret) who shoots one of them and demands 20,000,000 Rand within seven days. Ninja decides that he will kidnap the guy from Skins to access a RoboCop to… do something or other. Skins chappie, meanwhile, has stolen a RoboCop and has developed artificial intelligence when he clearly doesn’t have any of his own.

RoboCop is the spitting image of Sharlto Copley from District 9, or would be if they hadn’t done all that MoFocking MoCapping. It’s pretty, I grant you, but you too easily forget it’s a RoboCop and it seems to have rather too much servo motion. It needed to be more robotic. Copley gives a great comic performance but Woody Allen was a more convincing robot in Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973). Then you mix in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), because RoboCop has a broken battery — although it’s five days rather than four years. Skins chappie is a younger and more handsome Tyrell, and you keep waiting for the burning so very bright speech. Frankenstein, too, as he’s a bad father and RoboCop gets bullied by some retrobates and some rather unconvincing fire. We have a Meaningful bit when he ponders why his Creator would give a faulty body and you just know that sooner or later he’s going to need a wife, sorry, Bride of RoboCop.

Wolverine’s robot echoes the military suit from District 9, which in turn echoes the suit from Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), or possibly the first one. It’s pretty poor stuff, frankly, which perhaps explains why the South African police force ain’t buying. By now, of course, you have the sense that it’s really an audition piece for Alien This Time It’s Three, in which Copley and Patel are going to play MoCapped aliens as some kind of mismatched buddies. A certain actor presumably was only there for about two days and you have to admire her presence of mind to grab her coat and handbag before exiting in an emergency.

Copley gets to wander around more South African waste grounds and shanty towns and CHAPPiE has a certain amount appeal even if it requires an awful lot of hand waving. Just as Evil Subtitled Guy (random alleged Nigerian) in District 9 wanted Wikus (Copley), so here Evil Subtitled Guy does too. Presumably he’s evil because he’s got knurled at having his perfectly comprehensible dialogue subtitled. There’s a rather better nonwhite acting quotient here — a Black chief of police, Patel of course, Amerika, a television journalist and so forth — but only two females with any significant dialogue. With the exception of Wolverine, I don’t recall anyone getting a backstory.

Maybe I should have gone to see Insurance? Although, of course, it seems to feature Kate Winslet continuing an audition to be Sigourney Weaver.