Children of Men (US-UK-Japan, 2006) – GFF9

The future of humankind

As we live in a sort of dystopia with the Covid-19 enforced lockdown, we can cheer ourselves up by observing that things ain’t as bad as they might be. In Children of Men, director Alfonso Cuarón and his four other scriptwriters, show a truly terrifying vision of a future without children (based on PD James’ novel). As is the way with science fiction, the film is about now; and the now of 2006 is even more relevant in 2020. The focus of the film is on the treatment of migrants and things have got much worse in the last 14 years as the right-wing dehumanisation of human beings has gained more traction. It’s noticeable that there are those on the right, in the current crisis, who are being honest in their defence of the economy over the lives of the old and infirm (I won’t link to any as they are not worth reading). If the likes of Toby Young are seen on mainstream broadcasters such as the BBC again…

In the film Cuarón highlights the lack of human empathy in our world through: the treatment of migrants; police state tactics; the desecration of the environment; the war on terror; celebrity culture. It shows illegal migrants being caged before deportation and a police state similar to that imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984  (published 1949). There are numerous contemporary UK references, such as the burning of livestock because of ‘mad cow’ disease and the hysteria that accompanied the ‘national’ mourning of Princess Diana. 

In a documentary short that accompanied the DVD release of the film, The Possibility of Hope (US, 2007), the broader issues of climate change and capitalism (which both fuel increased migration) are investigated showing Cuarón to be a political filmmaker even if his films are commercial in nature.

I’m not sure why Children of Men wasn’t a hit as it is a brilliant action movie containing some of the most thrilling sequences in cinema. Cuarón likes to use the long take, also used to devastating effect in Roma and with didactic purpose in Y tu mama tambien. Film theorist André Bazin would likely have approved of Cuarón’s aesthetic except for the fact he favours a moving camera. Having screentime mirror the audience’s experience of time does signify realism, we get a sense that we see characters acting in real time and so avoiding the manipulation of editing (ignoring the fact that a number of long takes in the film are separate shots digitally welded together). In addition, this ‘sense’ of real time can serve to heighten suspense in a ‘race against time’ narrative sequence. Hence, when the protagonists are under attack in a car the escape unfolds in the same time experienced by the spectator and, as there are no cuts, it seems as if the profilmic event happened as it is shown. Having the camera inside the vehicle further enhances the suspense as this gives the audience the same viewpoint as the characters. 

Cuarón’s long takes are not always focused on key narrative action. For example, at one point the camera wanders away from Theo, who is present in every scene of the film, to seemingly investigate what’s going on elsewhere: when he’s on his way to work, soldiers are standing on the street and the camera walks through them to see a block of flats being emptied, presumably of refugees. 

Clive Owen’s taciturn persona as the protagonist Theo is perfect for the role. Danny Huston’s cameo as a government minister is a masterful portrayal of the vapid urbanity of the English upper class. Michael Caine channels John Lennon as a Steve Bell-like political cartoonist (Bell did the actual cartoons on view) and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a revolutionary, manages to convey deranged fervour and genuine concern. However, the true star of the film is Cuarón and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who have produced a devastating vision of life without a future and life with humanity.

James vs. His Future Self (Canada, 2019) – GFF4

Back to the past

Director Jeremy Lalonde co-wrote this with his star Jonas Chernick and they’ve produced an agreeable SF-romcom. If the hybrid is unusual the narrative trajectory isn’t: blinkered boy eventually gets the ‘hot’ girl (Cleopatra Coleman). The science fiction element is James’ future self visits his young self, a nerdish scientist, to tell him it’s a mistake to develop time travel because he’ll lose ‘the girl’. The time travel paradox is interestingly dealt with as the future self, Jimmy (Daniel Stern channeling Christopher Lloyd though not as manic), will disappear if his advice is followed. Although formulae abound on chalkboards (they’re retro!) the science, understandably, is as fictional as the narrative and the film barely qualifies as SF.

Fortunately the romcom side has its pleasures, particular Coleman’s Courtney; Coleman is an Aussie and I look forward to seeing more of her. She manages to convey her female exasperation with male stupidity with deft changes of facial expression; the film is very much on her side. However, of course, James is the protagonist and while it’s unfair to chide Lalonde for focusing on the man, we do need more female orientated romcoms (as far as we need them at all).

Frances Conroy is excellent as the demented boss of the lab that James and Courtney work in. She is a truly unhinged creation that portrays the ‘mad scientist’ as both female and old; this is the sort of genre tweak that make can films interesting.

Unfortunately the dynamic of Jimmy seeking his own destruction is not investigated. This isn’t surprising as it would shift the narrative weight onto the older character and the focus, in true romcom fashion, is on the move toward coupledom. There are some good lines: Courtney says her putative partner dresses as if he were higher on the ‘spectrum’ than he actually is. The best scenes are between the two when James, urged on by Jimmy, tries to move his long-standing friendship with Courtney toward sex. She obviously fancies him but is savvy enough to know the switch in the dynamic from friendship to lust (she reckons the moment has long past) is fraught with difficulty. This isn’t investigated in detail, which is unfortunate but then it the number of laughs would have been reduced.

Overall the film’s worth seeing for its offbeat indie vibe; for some reason it reminded me of Killing Jessica Stein (US. 2001), which is indisputably female-orientated.

Jessica Forever (France, 2018)

Sort of super hero

Writer-directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel won an award for their short As Long as Shotguns Remain (Tant qu’il nous reste des fusils à pompe, France, 2014) at the Berlin film festival and hence this, their feature debut, was greeted with interest. And the first part of the film is interesting, a dystopian future where orphans are treated like, and actually seem to be, homicidal maniacs and hunted down by the state. ‘Fortunately’ Jessica (Aomi Muyock, who starred in Gaspar Noé’s Love) is on hand to maternally protect them. If my summary sounds a bit facetious that’s probably due to my annoyance at the film’s failure to be convincing. Dystopias tend to be warnings about the present and the treatment of orphans, particularly those housed in institutions, can be highly problematic; in the UK many girls, in particular, find themselves in abusive situations. However Poggi and Vinel never convince me their society is a metaphor for anything.

Jessica’s orphans are all male and she is barely older than them (they are probably in their 20s) making her maternal role problematic at best. The boys are clearly hormonal and it’s barely convincing that none of the men would fancy her, and given their behaviour, not try to act upon their desire. It’s not until toward the end of the film that sex is treated as a key aspect of being young. Psychologically it’s simply not convincing and the ending doesn’t solve any of the narrative issues.

It’s also the first feature of cinematographer Marine Atlan and she comes out of the film with a lot of credit. Altan gives the settings, often middle class suburbia, a slightly ethereal feel which creates a sense of uncanny suitable to the dystopia. Muyock is adequate in the virtually silent main role but she isn’t given much material to work with. Sally Potter, speaking recently on Radio 3, stated that the script is the key element of film, the architecture on which everything is hung, and in the case of Jessica Forever, its lack of coherence meant the film was almost certain to fail.

I saw it as my first screening of Myfrenchfilmfestival which runs online for a month from 16 January and includes 31 films (19 shorts available for free) for a nominal €7.99. Although Jessica Forever hasn’t been a good start the festival is certainly worth a punt and hopefully other national cinemas follow suit and sponsor cheap online distribution as most/all of these films won’t be seen outside festivals in the UK.

Tag (Riaru onigokko, Japan, 2015)

Bloody patriarchy

I’m very much a later-comer to the Sono Sion party who directed four other films in the year Tag came out; his total is over 50 features. He reminded me Miike Takashi, who now has over 100 films as director, in that he is prolific and multiplies ‘going overboard’ with ‘throwing in the kitchen sink’. I stumbled across the film on Prime and had zero idea what to expect so my eyeballs were well and truly shredded around five minutes into the film. Critical commentary on the film is favourable but as I watched it I had no idea whether I was watching something that was entirely exploitation horror or whether there was, as is often the case in this type of horror film, more to it. When I realised, about half way through, no male character had made an appearance so far I twigged that writer-director Sono was saying something.

The fact that most of the characters to that point had been Japanese school girls in short skirts and had included many knicker-shots suggested dubious (to be polite) character but it turned out that the film was making a point about gender. Having cake and eating it does spring to mind but to critique patriarchy does sometimes require it to be mimicked.

To avoid spoilers I won’t go into the details of exactly how Sono is critiquing male dominance as the film does manage to pull off, in the denouement, the pretty impressive trick of actually explaining the bonkers-ness of what we have seen before. The source material is Yusuke Yamada’s novel Real Onigokko (2001) but I suspect that this has only formed the narrative premise rather than the feminist perspective.

It’s not a film for those for whom gore is a turn-off, though it is strictly cartoonish rather than realistic hence its 15-certificate in the UK. I’ve tagged the film SF as the narrative explanation for the bizarre events qualifies for the genre rather than fantasy, which seems to be the usual category used in reviews.

I now have the challenge of catching up with the rest of Sono’s ouevre; come to think of it, I’m still in single figures for the number of Miike films I’ve seen. Of course, it is an impossible task to keep up with everything, especially as most of the rest-of-the-world cinema never gets distributed in the UK. By the way, the Japanese title apparently translates as ‘real tag’, the game when you’re ‘it’ until you touch someone; we used to call it ‘tick’.

Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren , China-France-Japan, 2015)

SF melodrama

To an extent most films are melodrama because they rely upon a narrative that, by its nature, is contrived and try to engage emotions through exaggeration. That said, melodramas – and there are many different types – do form a distinct genre; in them the emphasis is on relationships, often using a particular time and place for context. Jia Zhang-ke’s films, however, although melodrama (A Touch of Sin may be an exception), emphasise the time and place as much as the characters. Mountains May Depart has an epic scope, it covers 26 years of Tao Shen’s life; at the start she is a young woman having to choose between two male friends.  Strikingly the years cover 1999-2025, so the final section of the film can be defined as science fiction! There aren’t many films that move from the past to the future, unless it’s a time travel narrative; 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK-US, 1968) is one. Whether the final segment is strictly SF is debatable, although there is some futuristic technology, but as writer-director Jia is clearly making a comment about the China of 2015, like most SF it is a film that is about the now.

Somewhat bizarrelyit can be argued the film is based on The Pet Shop Boys’ song ‘Go West’. It frames the  narrative which is about the lure of western capitalist values: just like the song, there are scenes on a beach; friends depart; the west (Australia in the final segment) is seen as a kind of utopia. The protagonist, Tao Shen (played brilliantly by Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife), is seen dancing exuberantly at the start. One of her friends, Jingsheng (Zhang Yi), is a successful businessman; the other, Liangzi (Dong Liang Jing), is alienated from the go-getting world that China had become at the end of the 20th century. The film is set in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, in the Shanxi province of Northern China; as are a number of his other movies. Fenyang, we see, has an amazing pagoda which sticks out in contrast to the rundown nature of the town. There are some typical Jia almost-surreal shots: blasting dynamite in the ice floes on the river; an aeroplane crashes at the roadside. From a western perspective, China is an unusual place but Jia accentuates this weirdness as a melodramatic emblem of how capitalism is making China a place where no one belongs – Still Life is a great example of this. Jingsheng even names his child ‘Dollar’, such is his love of money.

Whilst the ‘loser’ character somewhat peremptorily drops out of the narrative, the focus is undoubtedly on Tao Shen who struggles to reconcile a life of wealth with a soulless existence. In the final scene, she achieves some kind of redemption though it obviously can only be temporary.

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.

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.