Tag Archives: sci-fi

Melancholia (2011)

9 Dec

Lars Von Trier is a provocateur in the grand tradition of European martinets; continuing the lineage of wilful creative tyrants who revelled in furthering their mythology, bridled against the restrictions imposed on them, posed awkward questions and relished the discord, disquiet and discomfort they created. While his comrades in the pseudo-movement that was Dogme ‘95 have floundered, Trier has managed to remain a vital, divisive figure. Love him or hate him, he’s an artist who continues to evolve. Winner of Best Film at this year’s European Film Awards, ‘Melancholia’ is disarmingly beautiful; displaying an elegance that Trier abandoned in favour of the studied harshness that characterized his Dogme films, and the Brechtian rigour of his as-yet-unfinished ‘America’ trilogy.

On the day of her wedding, ad copyrighter Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is in the throes of a full-scale manic episode, retreating to her room and struggling to maintain her thin veneer of composure. As Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), struggles to help her through this breakdown, Claire’s stentorian husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), is watching the skies in anticipation. A planet called Melancholia that had been previously been hidden behind the sun is due to pass by Earth; and though the scientific calculations confidently state that the planet will leave Earth unscathed on its journey, creeping doubts remains as Melancholia draws closer.

This existential disaster film features a bravura opening sequence: loaded with gloom and foreboding, it encompasses Resnais’ surrealism, Dreyer’s pictorialism and Kubrick’s epic scope to create a heady melding of celluloid depth and digital crispness. This effect, moving forward while cognizant of the past, is achieved with the help of Manuel Alberto Claro’s stunning cinematography, Jette Lehmann’s detailed production design and Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s stirring arrangements of Wagner. But Trier hasn’t totally jettisoned the stark neo-realism of old; he uses natural light and handheld cameras throughout to track events in the imposing mansion straight out of ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ (1961).

For all his alleged misogyny, Trier treats his female characters with the utmost compassion; conversely, their male counterparts are callow, craven, pompous and overbearing. From Udo Kier as the comically highly-strung wedding planner, to Stellan Skarsgaard as Justine’s hard-nosed ad exec boss, to John Hurt as Justine’s raffish father, to Sutherland as the uptight social climber; they serve to embody the worst male traits, and their performances border on caricature when placed next to the complexity of Dunst and Gainsbourg’s contributions.

Like Hitchcock, Trier takes pleasure in putting the starlets of the day through the emotional ringer; working with Trier is an endurance test, a battle of wits that is a gateway to instant credibility if it works. Dunst is an actress in the process of transition; no longer able to portray the all-American girls with which she made her name, she must spread her wings or face an uncertain future. Dunst throws herself into the maelstrom of Justine’s mania, laying herself bare without recourse to overheated theatrics: in the context of Trier’s universe, performances work best when they are unadorned, and Dunst rises to the challenge with assurance and maturity. Charlotte Rampling, whose career trajectory provides the perfect model for Dunst, plays Justine’s iconoclastic mother with her usual poise, and Gainsbourg provides understated support to Dunst’s mercurial turn.

 The ‘doomsday writ small’ scenario is not a new one, but the majority of films that explore cataclysmic events from a single perspective or confined environment often feel like the story is subservient to the conceit. ‘Melancholia’, on the other hand, is a fully formed dramatic work, imbued with the Animistic spirit that first found its voice in ‘Antichrist’ (2009) and has much in common with Terrence Malick’s recent work, albeit laced with Trier’s usual sly humour and grandiose gestures. Trier deals with the subject unencumbered by mawkish sentiment, asserting that the prospect of impending doom won’t bring out the best in us, but serve to expose us for who we really are.

A warning issued by a Toronto cinema.

Priest (2011)

31 Jul

Once again, 3-D is a panacea for a floundering industry rapidly running out of ideas. Though the technology had existed in various forms since the 1890s, 3-D was rolled out by Hollywood in the post-war doldrums, when the flight to the suburbs and the growing popularity of TV dealt business a double blow. As with its initial commercial incarnation, 3-D in 2011 is adhering to the law of diminishing returns; the spectacle on which the early films coasted rapidly palling. Running parallel to this is the primacy of the Nerd Paradigm: what was once a risible fringe has become the dominant pop cultural discourse. There is, of course, a societal dimension to this; as people withdraw from the world and retreat from reality, they seek solace in uncomplicated, morally unambiguous fantasy worlds populated by mythical figures and heroic protectors. ‘Priest’ is a product of both these phenomena: a long-delayed 3-D spectacular based on – what else – a little-known comic book depicting – what else- a post-apocalyptic world where humans and vampires do battle; it reunites director Scott Charles Stewart with leading man Paul Bettany, who collaborated on the equally underwhelming ‘Legion’ (2009).

‘Priest has the feel of a project that was overseen by a focus group of ‘typical cinemagoers’ – i.e. teenage boys. It is a disjointed mess of second and third-hand visual and conceptual tropes – an Orwellian dystopia that is pure ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), a lawless wilderness that is firmly in ‘Mad Max’ territory overrun by faceless creatures borrowed from both the ‘Alien’ and ‘Resident Evil’ franchises, Matrix-lite fight sequences and quasi-Western window dressing that is more Marilyn Manson than Sergio Leone. If you see the film, I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with your own list of influences; it is one of the few joys to be had from the film. ‘Priest’ is Tarantino’s magpie sensibility taken to its high-concept extreme; shorn of wit, irony and humour.

Despite being considered one of the most exciting actors currently working, Bettany’s filmography is littered with clunkers like ‘Wimbledon’ (2004), ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2006) and ‘The Tourist’ (2010). His portrayal of the heretical killing machine here will do little to enhance his standing; but given the trite material with which he had to work, it is hardly surprising that his performance has all the emotional depth and intensity of a video game cut scene, growling hackneyed lines and seething beneath his cassock. Brad Dourif and Christopher Plummer are wasted in peripheral roles, Maggie Q is here merely to advance the clunky romantic subplot, clean-cut pretty boy Cam Gigandet seems to have been airlifted in from a daytime soap to play the dutiful sidekick and Karl Urban is more Giorgio Armani then Lee Van Cleef as a high-camp vampire desperado hilariously named ‘Black Hat’.

Cory Goodman’s script is one of the most ineptly written in recent memory – at least ‘Drive Angry’ (2011) didn’t take itself too seriously. A kernel of a good story resides within ‘Priest’; but it presents ideas without seeing them through, resulting in a cliché-ridden mish-mash. All the high-octane violence that action fans hunger after is here, but it is forced into an ill-fitting allegorical,  cod theological straitjacket. The characters are so poorly defined that their fate is a matter of supreme indifference; delivering painfully contrived dialogue that has no emotional hook and is merely there to advance the plot, such as it is.

‘Priest’ is indicative of the creative entropy that has gripped mainstream cinema, highlighting the stultifying effects of the corporate mindset; a brash, brainless, cut-and-paste exercise that takes the surface elements of superior works and revels in its palpable lack of originality. Its financial failure will thankfully spare us a slew of sequels, but as Hollywood continues to operate like a high stakes casino, be prepared for more of the same.

Black Hat: Pure Evil!

Paul (2011)

28 Mar

Of all Britain’s recent comedic exports, Simon Pegg is the least likely to overstay his welcome, possessing a charm and likeability missing from Gervais, Brand, Cohen et al. Though the roles he has chosen since ‘Shaun of the Dead’ catapulted him to global prominence have been a mixed bag – not even he could invest the odious Toby Young with sympathy – his ability as a writer and versatility as a performer may well sustain him beyond the instant rush of celebrity he has enjoyed.

All of which makes ‘Paul’ such a disappointing experience. British Sci-Fi nerds Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) travel to the nerd Mecca, Comic-Con, before setting off on a road trip taking in all the famous UFO hotspots. Graeme and Clive encounter Paul (voiced by Seth Rogan), an alien who has escaped from the military base where he was being held. Paul is tracked by Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) under the instruction of The Big Man (Sigourney Weaver).

‘Paul’ peddles the usual insider references to the Spielberg/Lucas canon, the ironic veneration for the campy original ‘Star Trek’ series and the dissections of comic book culture found in countless Kevin Smith films. So, for example, the band in a biker bar plays the music from the Mos Eisley Cantina scene in ‘A New Hope’ and Paul claims to have been a creative consultant for ‘The X-Files’ and ‘E.T.’ – with a vocal cameo from Spielberg – which is fine if you’re aware of its significance, but means nothing to the casual viewer.

‘Paul’s’ concession to the mass audience is bucket loads of scatological humour, casual swearing and frequent allusions to the homoerotic nature of Graeme and Clive’s relationship. Pegg and Frost’s screenplay actively courts the Apatow audience, expunging much of the uniquely British flavour that made ‘Spaced’, ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ so special. ‘Superbad’ director Greg Mottola fails to match the technical invention that Edgar Wright brought to previous Pegg/Frost vehicles – an integral part of what set them apart from anything else in the genre. The visual effects are passable, but would probably not pass muster in a less light-hearted context; it feels as though the actors are pitching their dialogue towards the space occupied by the alien, rather than interacting with it.

Pegg and Frost have the effortless chemistry that comes from years of friendship, but removed from their comfort zone, the dynamic fails to spark as it has in the past, their badinage dwarfed by the demands of the narrative and the scale of the project. Pegg and Frost play lovable man-children with their usual panache, but they seem trapped between the urge to joke around and the need to push the plot forwards, too in love with the subject matter to lampoon it with any conviction, embracing the archetypes rather than subverting them.

Rogan doesn’t diverge from the shtick that already feels tired by virtue of its sheer ubiquity, approximating the stoner idioms of the ‘the Dude’ from ‘The Big Lebowski’ – if aliens are as crass and irritating as this, we can be thankful they have never made contact. Bateman struggles to convey an air of menace, which makes sense by the end but hampers the film’s dramatic momentum. Elsewhere, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio are Bateman’s bumbling sidekicks, while Kristen Wiig is the lightning rod for the film’s rationalist message as the Creationist who is enlightened by Paul and becomes Pegg’s love interest – listening to her learning profanity gets very boring very quickly.

The premise of ‘Paul’ was devised by Pegg and Frost on the set of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ as a means of alleviating boredom between takes, and its freeform origins are apparent on the screen; the narrative engine sputters along, locking into a pattern of pursuit and evasion, a set of ideas held together by the slenderest of threads, fleshed out by in-jokes referring to everything from ‘Mac and Me’ to ‘Capturing the Friedmans’. With the commercial failure of ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’, the time has come for the Wright/Pegg/Frost triumvirate to reunite and complete their ‘Cornetto Trilogy’.

ALF, 2011

Herzog Double Bill

12 Dec

A pioneer of New German Cinema, Werner Herzog has enjoyed creative peaks and overcome commercial troughs to settle on a duel artistic life, operating a ‘one for them, one for me’ strategy that allows him to parlay his work on commercial fare like ‘Rescue Dawn’ (2006) and ‘Bad Lieutenant’ (2009) into a slew of personal projects delving into the deepest, darkest recesses of human compulsion. A common thread in Herzog’s work is the exploration of existential, geographical and physical extremes.

From ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ (1972) to ‘Grizzly Man’ (2005), Herzog presents characters driven by inexplicable desires and consumed by implacable urges that place them outside the bounds of conventional behaviour, ignoring the portents to forge ahead to their doom, swathing their folly in divine purpose. His reputation in Hollywood’s portals of power as a feral merchant of ‘chaos, hostility and murder’ has been rehabilitated in the last few years by a series of remarkable films that guided the syntax of cinema into new and strange directions.

The Wild Blue Yonder (2005)

Billed as a ‘science fiction fantasy’, ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ is a difficult film to place within any accepted parameters, taking a fanciful subject and presenting it with such unerring immediacy and plausibility that it feels like a Von Daniken novel adapted by Errol Morris. Carried with admirable gusto by Brad Dourif’s central performance, Herzog delivers a requiem for a dying planet that is at turns playful and earnest.

Dourif is an unnamed alien, an intergalactic refugee from the ‘Wild Blue Yonder’ of Andromeda whose forebears settled on Earth in an attempt to lead the indigenous population in the right direction, occupying roles of influence in government and intelligence agencies. With the Earth now barely habitable, humanity seeks to escape the planet and colonize Andromeda. The Alien must watch in despair from Earth’s desolate husk as his home world is ‘adapted’ to humanity’s rapacious demands, delivering an impassioned monologue on the background to such a development.

‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ is a remarkable example of taking footage without any apparent connection and from it assembling a narrative arc, expounding grand theories from the sparsest of starting points and utilizing a charismatic actor to unify the disparate elements. The film casually throws out ideas that could provide material for a number of films – from re-examining the Roswell Incident to positing that breeding pigs marked the beginning of the end for humanity.

Dourif delivers a tour de force as the forlorn ET, narrating the ten chapters into which the film is divided with a barely concealed anger and bitterness, railing against our hubris and lamenting the neglect of our most valuable resource. Herzog slyly plays with the nature of truth, presenting us with a number of phoney experts who present their ideas with a veneer of authenticity and conviction that would lead some to believe they were credible sources if viewed outside the context of the film.

‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ is quite unlike anything that has preceded it. A particular highlight is Henry Kaiser’s footage from the base of the ocean, which is used to replicate the conditions of Andromeda. Kaiser captures the manifold life forms that reside there with stunning clarity, detailing an environment so eerie and otherworldly that it outstrips anything the human mind could create, a world where beauty and brutality have learned to co-exist. Herzog’s intentions are as unclear as ever; but whether consciously or otherwise, ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ presents an argument for environmental responsibility more persuasive than all the PowerPoint presentations in the world.

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Inspired by Henry Kaiser’s underwater footage in ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’, Herzog set off to Antarctica at the height of the Austral Summer; keen to understand the sort of person who would live in a place with five months of permanent daylight and determined not to make a mawkish anthropomorphic film about penguins. Herzog travels to the McMurdo research centre, where his romantic notions of Scott and Shackleton are shattered by the base’s prosaic environs, with its modern amenities and resemblance to a construction site. Stifled by the cosy modernity of McMurdo, Herzog sets off into the heart of the planet’s most inhospitable terrain, providing narration in his breathy, mellifluous timbre.

Along the way Herzog encounters all manner of striking scenes that repudiate the Disneyfication of nature and highlight the creeping homogeneity that is eroding our planet’s diversity – the Teutonic fatalist in Herzog comes to the fore as he details the cruel realities of a landscape that is brimming with life above and beneath the surface. The ultimate rebuke to those who seek to dull nature’s sharp edges and manipulate it for their own ideological purposes is the sight of a penguin breaking from its group, heading towards the mountains and certain death without any apparent motive.

‘Everyone who’s not tied down falls to the bottom of the planet,’ says William Jirsa, a linguist at McMurdo. Herzog meets a succession of ‘professional dreamers’, restless, obsessive souls who must keep moving, searching for something in the stillness and silence they failed to find elsewhere. There is the driver who was accused of kidnapping a child in Guatemala, the plumber whose fingers signify he belongs to the Mayan royal bloodline, the Iron Curtain refugee who is always packed to leave at a moment’s notice and the woman who travelled to Peru in a sewage pipe. That such stories are commonplace tells us much about those who are drawn to Antarctica.

Herzog laments the dilution of our adventurous spirit, how our innate curiosity and desire for personal glory has transmuted into fatuous pranks and ludicrous record attempts, using footage of Shackleton performing an unconvincing recreation of his quest on a soundstage to illustrate this adulteration. ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ is a celebration of those hardy souls who remain on the fringes, enduring the hardship out of a desire to mitigate human damage and gain a deeper understanding of their surroundings.

‘It’s a horribly violent world,’ says Sam Bowser, a biologist studying life beneath the ice. We are treated to the full majesty and menace of the primordial environment that the Tetrapods clambered to the surface to escape. Equally primal is Mount Aribus, whose lava lake sends jets of magma shooting above the crater rim. A dedicated team studies the volcano, risking their health and sanity in an attempt to understand her awesome power and potential impact on humanity.

What is abundantly clear in ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ is just how precarious our existence is, that if we wish to escape the fate of the dinosaurs or humanity in ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’, we must respect nature and fear its capacity to inflict catastrophic damage. Herzog’s ambivalence is unmistakable; he shrinks from the sunlight but marvels at the callous configuration of it all, but even this most lugubrious of voices sees that it isn’t all chaos, hostility and murder.

Beautiful, isn't it.