Ad Astra (US, 2019)

Retrograde

Brad Pitt’s Plan B has a history of producing interesting films, using Pitt’s star power to help with the financing; 12 Years a Slave is a prime example. Ad Astra is a bit different in that it is a big budget (in the region of $100m) action film seeking a large audience; but it also has pretensions to thoughtfulness. In theory it should have been visual and intellectual treat: it only offers the visuals.

Pitt’s assigned a humanity-saving mission to Neptune but it is also an Oedipal journey. The latter is intended to give the film intellectual heft but is merely a retread of retrograde tropes of masculinity. Pitt can do, and does in this film, sensitivity but the script is such a mess that neither the science nor the psychological aspects are successful. It’s written by the director James Gray and Ethan Gross and while it’s not necessary that the science necessarily makes sense for good drama there are far too many stretches to the narrative. I’m not sure how long it would take to send and receive and message to Neptune from Mars but I am certain you wouldn’t hang around waiting for the answer: it would take a good few hours. Even the psychological elements don’t make sense: I really have little idea what happens at the ultimate father-son confrontation. It’s more a flop than climax.

There a number of gratuitous action sequences (a buggy chase on the moon and mad primates on a spaceship) that add nothing to the narrative and presumably are present only to ensure the ‘popcorn crowd’ are kept happy. Action and ideas are not anathema and could be combined.

Patriarchy is still raging in 2019 but is increasingly desperate; like a dinosaur bewildered by the changing climate. There are women in the film but they’re mere ciphers for Pitt to define himself against. The mixed race casting is heartening but all they do is ratify the hero’s WASP ethnicity. It’s also retrograde in vaunting the American pioneer spirit when it’s clear that, in reality, it is an empire in decline.

The pluses: Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography and Kevin Thompson’s production design. Inevitably 2001: A Space Odyssey lurks and I was also reminded of Soderbergh’s version of Solaris (US, 2002). The comparisons on make Ad Astra pale into insignificance; that said, the film has done good business and elicited some rave reviews. I’m not saying all cinematic SF should be like Claire Denis’ High Life but if the makers have more than commercial aspirations they need, particularly in SF, to look forward not backwards to near-Neanderthal representations of gender. I’m sure they were trying to critique ‘heroic masculinity’: they didn’t.

Advertisements

High Life (UK-France-Germany-Poland-US, 2018)

Life sentence

It’s difficult to write about Claire Denis’ latest film after just one viewing not because it is particularly dense, and so hard work to watch, but its rich allusiveness and elliptical narrative offer more questions than answers. As the Sight & Sound reviewer points out, the first English-language films of arthouse directors can lead to simplification; not in Denis’ case.

Arthouse science fiction immediately brings to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR, 1972) and there’s no doubt that it was in Denis’ mind when making High Life. In the former, an alien sentient ocean learns about humanity by bringing back to life loved ones; in the latter, life sentence prisoners are sent on an interstellar voyage to harness energy from black holes (Silent Running, US 1972, 2001: A Space Odyssey, UK 1968, are other references). The similarity between the films, apart from the standard SF trope of investigating what it means to be human, is in the mise en scene of the spaceship corridors and the flashbacks to wet and wooded Earth. Although not as dense as Tarkovsky’s film, Denis’ refuses to offer easy understanding as we are given little information about characters’ motivations; even though there is an intermittent voiceover from Robert Pattinson’s protagonist, Monte. We probably learn most about Juliette Binoche’s diabolical Dr Dibs who is determined that procreation will happen, in an unorthodox fashion, during the voyage.

Even if you struggle somewhat, as I did, with the narrative there is Yorick Le Saux’s sumptuous cinematography to revel in and Olafur Eliasson is cited in the production design; he was responsible for the awesome Tate Turbine Hall installation, Weather Project. The manifestation of a black hole is memorable if a little off-putting as the blackness surrounding the cinema screen was darker than the hole itself. However, although Denis consulted scientists when writing the script, it’s clear (in one scene particularly) that the needs of art over-ride the laws of physics (which is as it should be).

Elliasson’s Weather Project

Am I clearer about what it means to be human after seeing the film? I’m not sure because the choice of characters as ‘lifers’, some of whom live on the feral end of the spectrum, skews the sample; though Andre Benjamin’s Tcherny exudes humanity. Monte himself if something of an enigma and as such is superbly played by Pattinson; an actor to be praised for his choice of material when he could have been a ‘matinee idol’. What I am sure about is the haunting quality of the film, in part due to Stuart Staples’ score, because I’m interested to see if I can understand more about the film (and so about life) and to enjoy the startling imagery again.

It’s worth noting that ‘babies in space’ is an unusual representation and the opening of the film focuses on  Monte with a child. They are affecting scenes that emphasise human bonding even when the technological interface is paramount, as it is in a spaceship.

The Night Caller (UK, 1965)

Trouble with blondes

The American title for this low budget SF film was Blood Beast from Outer Space which, while making its exploitation credentials clearer, is more than misleading. Spoiler alert: the beast is kidnapping young women, who aspire to be models, for procreation purposes on Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter). As Steve Chibnall points out in ‘Alien women: The politics of sexual difference in British sf pulp cinema’ (in ed. IQ Hunter British Science Fiction Cinema), the British at the time were worried about young women, not aliens.

Although the beginning of The Night Caller suggests Cold War paranoia, Patricia Haynes’ blonde scientist is soon portrayed as rebuffing John Saxon’s advances. No doubt at the time his double entendre (about beds) would be seen as flirting; now, hopefully, we realise that this behaviour isn’t appropriate in a work situation. So she is characterised, despite being blonde, as somewhat frigid. On the  other hand, female scientists are thin on the ground in film (and life) and she is a particularly dynamic character and takes it on herself to act as a bait by replying to the ‘beast’s’ advert in Bikini Times to be a model. During this confrontation the beast explains:

‘I fear what I cannot control, and I cannot control an intelligence which is almost equal to mine. A mind such as your searches and destroys’.

Clearly young ’60s women were giving men some problems and, of course, she is punished for her ‘uppityness’.

As you may have gathered, The Night Caller is more interesting as symptom of the mores of the time than drama. It has the production values of early Doctor Who though cheapie specialist John Gilling does direct with some vigour. The best scene is when a victim’s parents explain their bewilderment about their young daughter: Warren Mitchell and Marianne Stone are hilariously deadpan culminating in the moment when the former produces a requested copy of Bikini Time from beneath a sofa cushion.

The City and the City (UK, 2018)

Not really there

Is anything ‘unfilmable’? Probably not because everything can be adapted but it was brave of the BBC to put China Mieville’s intriguing novel in a primetime Friday night slot. The premise of his novel, that two cities exist in the same place but it is illegal to acknowledge the presence of the other, is obviously a major challenge for the visual medium. Director Tom Shankland conveys the division brilliantly by blurring the forbidden parts and using the excellent David Morrissey’s troubled expression, in shot-reverse/shots, to indicate he’s trying not to see. Tony Grisoni’s script moves mountains to convey the weirdness of the place whilst keeping the detective narrative going. However, I’m not sure whether audiences without knowledge of the novel will cope.

Mainstream television narratives require momentum because if it stalls the remote is too close to impatient viewers. When reading a novel a stalling narrative is less of a problem because (my tendency at least) it’s easy to put down and have a break; very few of us expect to consume novels in one sitting. The same could be said for pre-recorded television though I suspect few break up individual episodes very often. Apparently the trend is for binge viewing where many episodes can be consumed at once. So in the weird world of The City it is essential that the strangeness does not get in way of comprehension.

I can’t imagine The City in the City being produced, say, 10 years ago. The explosion of ‘quality television’ has shown there is an appetite for complexity; for example, series three of Twin Peaks (2017) was typical Lynch in that events are never fully explained and he does shoot some scenes as longueurs. The second season of Twin Peaks failed because this weirdness was not allowed by the network.

The art direction (David Bowes) is superb, a scuzzy noir world that is a melange of times and places. The mixture of iconography (including I think East Germany (GDR) and Turkey), numerous accents and ethnicities give the programme a modern edge that is beyond postmodern eclecticism. In our world where borders are a key issue The City and the City is a timely and must-see broadcast.

Annihilation (UK-US, 2018)

Entering the uncanny

Apparently Paramount were doubtful about the box office appeal of writer-director Alex Garland’s follow up to Ex Machina so chose to distribute it via Netflix internationally. In commercial terms they may have been right as it’s only grossed just over $30m in North America, but in artistic terms we are missing out in not being able to readily see such an interesting looking movie in the cinema.

Garland’s freely adapted the first of Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘Outreach’ trilogy and I enjoyed the film more than the book. He channels the spirit of Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) – both USSR – through a more mainstream sensibility. The ‘Outreach’ is an alien zone where, using a horror movie trope, a group of scientists enter with the expectation of being ‘bumped off one by one’. The group is all female but the gender politics are not the issue; one character points out that they are ‘scientists’ rather than ‘women’.

There is plenty of exciting action but, like Ex Machina, Garland is more interested in the ideas: issues of identity; grief; our place in the universe; evolution and so on. He’s packaged this in a fascinating narrative that features a number of excellent performances. Natalie Portman in the lead and Jennifer Jason Leigh, channelling her ‘slightly-psycho’ persona, are particularly good.

Mark Digby’s production design is fabulous, the landscape ranges from being subtly altered, and therefore uncanny, to the bizarre and beautiful.

Annihilation is another reason why Netflix may be becoming indispensable which, alongside Amazon Prime releasing Suburbicon (2017) a month before the DVD, is a concern for cinema distribution. Whilst blockbusters continue to make cinemas a viable business, niche movies are increasingly squeezed and no matter how much I’m impressed by the picture on my television IT’S NOT CINEMA!

Blade Runner 2049 (US-UK-Canada, 2017)

Life?

After seeing Arrival (US, 2016) I did start to get excited about this sequel to the 1982 classic, one of my favourite films. Denis Villeneuve is an exciting director and it was co-scripted by Hampton Fancher (who’d also co-scripted the original) thus the outlook was promising. All involved have delivered a visually stunning and mind boggling film; there are spoilers ahead.

It’s difficult to know where to start as there are so many ideas, drawn from the original and placed in a 2017 context, which makes this a film that needs a lot of thought. One thing we didn’t have in 1982, of course, was the Internet so now it is easy to see and engage in the discussion about the film.

In 1982 the buzz was that the film, which in those days were always released in America weeks in advance of their UK distribution, was amazing to look at. As an SF fan, particularly of Philip K. Dick, I had to see it and wasn’t disappointed. Obviously I saw the original version with the tagged on happy ending and explanatory voice over. Apparently Harrison Ford read the voice over, which he didn’t want to do, in as a dead pan way as he could hoping it wouldn’t be used. However, the world weary delivery was perfect for a film noir protagonist so it worked well. As for the ending, I understood it to mean (as we didn’t actually see Deckard and Rachel in a green world, it is only suggested) that we’d better look after our planet or we’ll end up in the dystopian world of 2019. Of course (because capitalism reigns) we haven’t looked after our planet and although I don’t expect it to go ‘tits up’ in two years it’s clear we are heading to a climate apocalypse of some description. The production design of 2049 is phenomenal (take a bow Dennis Gassner), the enormous sea walls of the climax are quite chilling, and the world is convincingly 30 years more shit than in the original.

SF is not a genre of prediction because, at its best, it is always about now. By extrapolating trends it seeks to hold a mirror to our world. AI was SF in 1982; now it’s with us. 2049, where most of the protagonists are not human, brilliantly investigates the philosophy of AI, and therefore what it means to be human. K’s relationship with Joi, an AI holograph, is contrasted with Mariette, a ‘pleasure model’. The latter says to the former, after one of the most bizarre and fascinating love/sex scenes ever filmed, (I’m paraphrasing) “There’s less inside you than you think.” A division between different types of humanoid AI is a fascinating idea.

Joi is a male fantasy in terms of her looks, and domestic devotion, and there’s a degree of understandable feminist flak about the representation of women in the film. The film is representing a patriarchal world, though few would dominate Robin Wright’s Lieut. Joshi, and so sexist representations are going to be used. The final time K sees Joi could be particularly exploitative of the female body, the narrative freezes in the way Laura Mulvey describes as typical of Classical Hollywood, but then ‘she’ speaks to him and the point is made. Our understanding of Joi’s and K’s relationship is that it was one of love. However, when she calls him Joe here, and it was she who had named him, we are reminded that she isn’t real, she calls everybody Joe. K stares at her presumably grieving for her but also questioning whether the love was real between them. Hence the narrative isn’t freezing but giving time for the audience (and K) to think: was his relationship with Joi real or a fantasy?

Objectified gratuitously?

Ryan Gosling’s taciturn (he’s always taciturn isn’t he?) Joe K refers to Franz Kafka’s The Trial; the modernist parable of an absurd world. The reference is to the existential angst of a meaningless life which fuels the film’s narrative trajectory; ultimately K’s life has meaning through altruistic sacrifice. His death scene in the snow, where the ‘tears in the rain’ music beautifully infiltrates the soundtrack, is extremely moving. One of the advantages for those of us old enough to have seen the original in 1982 is that 2049 works on our memories through subtle references. Of course anyone who’s seen the original will get the reference however, particularly sitting in the cinema, in an almost Proustian way, the references trigger vivid memories of the first experience of the film; well, they did for me. I was taken back 35 years and watched it with my, now long dead, dad.

Seeking a father is a key narrative driver of both films and movingly, through K, portrays the angst (maybe) experienced by a cyborg; a being with no biological father (or mother). Unlike the original, 2049 is equally interested in mothers and (evil capitalist) Niander Wallace wants to appropriate the female prerogative of being able to give birth. His actual blindness is a metaphor for his inability to understand that women are not meant to be under male power; in that he stands in for the numerous exploitative men that inhabit the film industry.

Male hubris

His (literal) sidekick, Luv, is another type of cyborg, one with fascist tendencies. She relishes being the ‘best’, as she says after beating up K. She enjoys destroying Joi and is aligned with capitalism when she remarks that she’s pleased K was satisfied with their product.

Another strong female, the cyborg revolutionary named after a Norse goddess, is Freysa and although a sequel in the near future seems unlikely, given 2049’s poor North American box office, it does appear that the human race in the film are doomed. To be honest, from the perspective of the dystopia of 2017, we probably deserve to be.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is brilliant, particularly the way he’s shot water (which brings us life) whether it’s the drops running down windscreens or the gorgeous ripple reflections in Wallace’s lair.

Hollywood is primarily interested in ‘worlds’ which can be transformed into franchises so, in some ways, box office failure is good as it discourages exploitation of ideas for purely commercial gain. Earlier this year Ghost in the Shell (UK-China-India-Hong Kong-US) attempted to remake the brilliant anime (Japan, 1995) into an origin story and I trust its poor quality (and box office) means that won’t happen. However, it is disappointing that cerebral SF films, that require $150m to make, are not a box office attraction; although it’s performed well in the UK and not bad internationally.

I’ve mentioned a few of ideas that are raised in Blade Runner 2049 but there’s a lot more to say. The ‘father-son’ fight, K and Deckard, played out amongst malfunctioning holograms in a ruined Las Vegas, was a tour de force and the eerie red lit mise en scene was haunting until, bizarrely, the sky turned red in the UK a few days ago as the ex-hurricane Ophelia barrelled up the coast of Ireland. It is a film that needs seeing more than once and, for once, the long running time is a bonus because there’s so much to see and you get time to think.

Climactic apocalypse

One thing that I don’t think the makers have right about the world of the future and that is it will be dominated by Caucasians. Like the original, 2049 has been taken to task for its representation of race. Like the original, most white people have gone ‘off world’ to escape the hellish world. They do so because they can afford it; the ‘little people’ are left behind. One shift of the last 35 years is the declining influence of white American power, accelerating under Trump, and the rise of Chinese and Indian influence. The protagonists of international cinema in 30 years time won’t necessarily be American. However, while North America remains the world’s biggest box office it’s likely that the hegemonic white (and male) perspective will continue.

Blade Runner 2049 is a haunting film that asks big questions and is great cinema.

Arrival (US, 2016)

The arrival of the uncanny

Arrival was one of the few films I saw in the cinema last year when I seemed to be incapable of enjoying movies. Thought-provoking science fiction; what’s not to like? And I enjoyed it even more on a second viewing.

First contact (with aliens) narratives is a staple trope of SF but what Arrival does differently, based on Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, is focus on the mechanics of communication. Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) imaginatively used music to cross boundaries; Arrival, though, deals with how language makes meaning. If that sounds dry, Amy Adams’ linguist protagonist ensures we’re interested. I’m not meaning that Adams’ looks are what grab our attention, it’s her character.

The film also uses memories in a particular way that I can’t describe without spoiling; but it is utterly fascinating. Jeremy Renner’s a fine side-kick playing a physicist also deputised to try and understand the aliens. It is interesting to speculate how different the film might have been if they gender of the roles had been reversed.

Unsurprisingly, governments’ first responses are to wheel out the military; in an increasingly belligerent age I’m sure that would happen if only because they have spent too many years of watching ‘first contact’ movies where it’s necessary to ‘kick the aliens’ assess’ – assuming there is one. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) still has plenty to tell us about humanity.

Arrival, relatively, was a box office hit which surprised me because it’s far more a cerebral film than the popular SF that rely on special effects; though they are great in the film. After a summer where Hollywood’s artistic bankruptcy is threatening its domestic box office, though not the rest of the world’s (yet), it’s heartening that an interesting, medium budget, independent film can still find an audience.

Canadian Denis Villeneuve, who directed, is undoubtedly a talent  (Sicario and Prisoners are both worth seeing) and the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel suddenly becomes an enticing prospect.