Monday, 5 January 2015

... And Everything Nice: Part Six

Say something nice, or nothing at all. 

This is the sixth instalment in a review of 2014 releases begun here (the concept of 'everything nice' is explained), and continued hereherehere and here. Spoilers abound, large and small. I also clearly don’t apply too strict a notion of what “2014” is.

Mostly these review articles haven’t split the content along genre lines, but as a few of the below were written, their common science fiction background was apparent, so I gathered together any other releases from the year from that broad church. Obviously a few have flitted by in earlier articles – Snowpiercer, Mockingjay, Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men, The Infinite Man, The Rover, even Under the Skin (closer to fairy tale or horror for me, but not far off the tone of some literary sci-fi). 

It’s interesting to see how this genre, even more than superhero, is the basis of so much filmmaking modern filmmaking, and how similar the insecurities are. Technology will go too far, it will make the individual null, remove free will, supersede, enslave.  Or it will fail, after the point where we have become dependent on it. (Even Noah was getting at this.) I can think of only one unambiguously positive vision of technology among the below: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Even there, anti-technology concerns feature in the plot (those early school-based scenes in particular), and the response to them seems to be a kind modernist optimism that itself feels like a throwback.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves) – Rise of the Planet of the Apes followed in the spirit of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, ruminating on the dangers of playing God in biochemistry, projecting them into a franchise that has always proved a good carrier for insecurities. Dawn jumps the story ahead, and despite its sci-fi cloak, it’s the nearest thing you’ll see to a western these days. (Genres tend not to die, but when they do, they forward their concerns to others.) It’s a settlers-in-the-wilderness western, with a weakened ragtag of humanity in place of the usual colonists/settlers, and the flourishing ape culture in place of the indigenous other. There’s a nice inversion in that the colonists are striking out from the West Coast rather than the East Coast, and they’re perilously weak. 

War hasn’t begun yet, but it seems inevitable. Competing influences within each culture are convinced of the necessity of war or peace between men and apes. The story aspires to the tragic revelation even the best doves will struggle to achieve a first-best world while hawks abide. Both hawks and doves are more simplistic than they need to be here, but nonetheless I was moved by the relationship between Jason Clarke’s character and Andy Serkis’s Caesar. (There’s a beat of eye contact between the two towards the end of the film that is a testament to the naturalism of modern special effects.)

There’s a lot that works about this reinvigorated series, and the aesthetics have moved even further in the right direction. The taste of Cloverfield that comes mid-battle as a tank is torn apart is a good example of the right camera angle raising the stakes.

These Final Hours (Zak Hilditch) – More millennial fever than sci-fi. It may not be intentional, but Lars von Trier’s Melancholia felt like it might have been an inspiration, particularly for the ending. (Although I guess there’s a broader tradition of things like The Road, On the Beach and Last Night.) The team have done well for their budget to give a sense of the end. The child actor, Angourie Rice, is well directed. The choice of dilemma and the hero it was handed to seem to have worked for audiences, going on IMDB comments. My thoughts were mostly with the other side of the story: Zoe’s (Jessica de Gouw). That character needs sufficient magnetic pull to bring the story back to her, so it’s no surprise her desire leaves a stronger impression than that of the film’s protagonist. Australian cinema’s commitment to the emotionally reticent male is strong, but I’m not sure his was the right desire line to follow this time.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn) – The year’s space opera, and highly aware of it. It’s a team-formation drama as well – much like the Mission Impossible films or most forensic investigation TV. The fresh ingredients here are the characters, a blend of loquacious, child comics (Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper) with humourless ‘straightmen’ (Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and Vin Diesel). Diesel’s Groot character, reduced to asserting his name at every line reading, is used well. There’s a nice recurring idea that everyone in this universe, even the villains, want to be taken more seriously, which works well for comedy, as there’s no shortage of situations where self-images can be deflated.

The film and its success reveal more than Disney’s marketing prowess. Firstly, the most satisfying conflicts in a team drama are amongst the team. Maybe the film needed Lee Pace’s character as a McGuffin to test the team, but most of the appeal is in the friction – in goals, personalities, and even diction – between the team members themselves.

Secondly, the film is about as self conscious as they come. Brad Bird’s The Incredibles came to mind more than once. The script calls for an inspiring speech at the ‘lowest point’ to stir team spirits where you wouldn’t be surprised if Chris Pratt’s character said ‘if I can turn your attention to p75 of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat’. By the time Benicio Del Toro’s camp middleman shows up (not a million miles from Michael Sheen’s equally fey figure in Tron Legacy), we’re a long way from the stony-faced approach to comic lore that often used to explain the appeal of Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga (contrasted with Joel Schumacker’s Batman and Robin). But the relatively rare commodity becomes valuable, and of late in this genre it has been humour. Doubtless Warner-DC is hoping steely gravitas will be in demand again before long, and if too many imitators chase the tail of Guardians success, it will be.

Thirdly, one of the most distinctive elements of the film is its use of 70s pop. There is a bit of Wagnerian heave-hoing in the underscore, but it’s the songs that seem to have made the stronger impression. (Especially Redbone’s ‘Come and Get Your Love’.) They obviously support the film’s self-conscious humour (particularly when they contradict what’s going on), but Gunn goes beyond using it as mere adornment. Why this music is in this story, and why it matters so much to Star Lord, is planted from the opening scene, and (if I’m not mistaken) not resolved til the last. It’s the film’s most personal arc, and perhaps it makes up a little for the fact that of all the films in this article, this one has the least on its mind besides the mystery that any of us get along with each other at all.

Upside Down (Juan Diego Solanas) – A more traditional ‘freedom from slavery’ sci-fi epic, with class exploitation largely on its mind, and as earnest as Guardians is cheeky. The aspect of this that most lingered with me was the visualisation of the two worlds meeting, sometimes in the macro scenes, but in particular in the close quarter encounters. An office, where a row of desks with upside down workers on the roof match those on the floor. The images never fail to be counterintuitive. If ever Christopher Priest’s Inverted World is put to images, instincts will prove a good starting point.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) – We can probably thank this film for endeavouring to ensure that a few more minds out there can relate to relativity theory. Dylan Thomas’ estate probably appreciates the attention too. There’s a coming cohort of quantum physicists inspired by this film that’ll have at least one line of poetry to muse on as they spend millennia transcribing the quantum data of their broken watches.

There are some interesting things going on in this film. I can’t recall seeing a film of its sort intercutting scenes of unrelated energies and events before, and I’d be interested to see if that pattern of scene alternation (which really starts with Jessica Chastain’s first appearance) is there in the screenplay or is, as it feels, an experiment that began in the editing room to balance narrative momentum. 

The grain of the imagery, particularly in the spaceship, also has a unique feel to it (quite unlike Gravity or Prometheus) – could that be the elusive look of film?

The emphasis Nolan gives to music in his filmmaking is also heartening to see in an era where that tool is often employed timidly or haphazardly. The second striking work of Hans Zimmer’s team this year (after Spider-man 2) is a potent brew of glistening electronics, Straussian violin melodies, organ arpeggios and col legno strings. The fresh ingredients distinguish the work from the Zimmer tricks that make so many films indistinguishable. If not his most interesting musical smorgasbord since The Thin Red Line, it’s at least his strongest since Inception. For the album alone, I’m grateful for the film.

The music’s relationship to the imagery is as striking as its character. Few scores play through action as relentlessly as they do here. At moments, the serene parallelism of 2001’s indifferent music is within reach. (How striking the moment when a tiny ship floats through space to piano chords made equally small by reverb.) At other times it’s the more heated melodrama of Pino Donaggio in a Brian DePalma setpiece – more the driver of story than the accompaniment, and not all of these avoid haphazardness. (McConaughey’s departure sequence, or the build-up to Matt Damon’s betrayal, are about as close to running the show that a film score can get short of turning off the pictures altogether.) I’m not sure I can quite trumpet the choice to position some dialogue on the knife-edge of audibility. There’s more than one reason why nobody objects to that choice in 2001, and few of them apply here.

The strongest musical ideas for me are the simplest. The ticking of col legno strings renders the tense moments unique among recent spectacles. The build-up to the complete break of sound in ‘Imperfect Lock’ was the film’s most memorable moment for me, as is the swelling organ chord in the following sequence (‘No Time for Caution’). And the simple organ melody, first present in ‘Cornfield Chase’ and later central to ‘Stay’ and ‘Quantifiable Connection’, lend the film’s closing scenes an emotional heft for me that would not have been there in their absence. Ironically these are the most conventional moments of scoring within the film.

It is gratifying as well to see an attempt to weave a scientific idea (or even the smattering of one) through a story, something that seems – going on recent results – to be among the hardest dramatic feats in Western filmmaking. And I’m not talking about the film’s solution to the theory of everything, rather the setpieces and plot developments that communicate ideas about space-time relativity and higher order dimensions. It visualises black holes, neutron stars, wormholes, singularities and tesseracts. I wish the film offered more than a smattering of thought, that the film’s form didn’t continually work against its themes, that ideas were shown at least as often as they were told, and above all, that the drama was as emotional for me as it seemed to be to the frequently-teary characters. But I did appreciate that the film set-up an explanation for Rust Cohl’s cosmic epiphany in the finale of True Detective. It’s a rare film that not only explains not only all of its own mysteries, but those of others too.

Transcendence (Wally Pfister) – Sometimes you miss the memo on what makes a film so bad, and so I felt when I finally saw this film. I can actually see why Nolan himself eyed this as a project – in some ways it’s more suited to his sensibilities than Interstellar (which has a few strong legacies of Spielberg’s involvement). It’s true there’s a lot that doesn’t quite work here. What I think works about it is that it’s a love story at heart, with shades of Orpheus (Rebecca Hall) and Eurydice (Johnny Depp). Rebecca Hall’s character wilfully commits the error of denying death its prize (or does she fall for the impression of life?), and because of it, much more will be lost. She’s also Mina Harker by the end, joining her lover in both death and what might lie beyond it. Paul Bettany makes a good Jonathan Harker, although I can’t say the same for Morgan Freeman as Van Helsing.

In between, the scenes of Hall in the love nests built by Caster’s digital avatar (Johnny Depp) have a beautiful ambivalence about them. (It says everything about this film that it spends more time dramatizing her bedtime manner than it does showing the FBI’s late film machinations.) Perhaps I’m the rare romantic soul that can survive the high concept conditions and find something to like here. For everyone else, perhaps the year’s other singularity romance – Her – is more your cup of tea.

Working the death of Alexander Litvinenko into the scenario was a nice touch. It’s probably the closest we’ll see to the Michael Mann project on that assassination that Depp was intended to star in. (Although possession of polonium bullets renders the film’s neo-Luddite terrorists even more incongruous.) The position of the FBI by the end is interesting dramatic territory – shades of the Waco siege – although the filmmakers play the authorities as more heroic than makes sense. By the end of the film the whole scenario feels more like a war of religious factions, also an interesting choice.

On the decorative side, the screenplay (as edited) seemed to get the balance right between verbal and visual exposition, and for most of its length, moved quickly past places I expected it to settle into others. The plot unfolds with visual economy, and a strong sense of what an image can say. Fades to white, planar layers, and strong vanishing points within imagery repeatedly feature in its arsenal. I can't entirely disapprove of a film so committed to montage editing (consider the climactic choice of Depp's character). And I like the circularity brought about by the prologue – I doubt the closing images would be as resonant without it.

By no means am I suggesting the film was without flaw, and I’m probably projecting more into it than was there (a common weakness for sci-fi viewers), but this is ‘everything nice’ after all.

Next time around, we conclude the science fiction tour with Her, Predestination, The One I Love and Enemy.

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