Macbeth

No country for off-screen deaths

macbethI sometimes wonder what William Shakespeare would think of modern adaptations of his tragedies.  Patrick Stewart in a random Soviet dystopia, Ed Harris running a leather-clad biker gang for some reason, etc.  But then I remember that Shakespeare would probably be far more interested in seeing Bad Santa 2 or Office Christmas Party than a grimdark battle epic or a Michael Fassbender vehicle.  Seriously.  I dare you to find one work of Shakespeare that doesn’t contain a crude sexual innuendo.

Justin Kurzel’s version of the Scottish Play actually takes place in Scotland, which means OP out the window and inconsistent accents all over the place, but it strips away the self-awareness that so much of “filmed Shakespeare” has, and never do the characters wink at you, or otherwise seem like they know they’re in an adaptation.  On the other hand, the filmmakers know that you know, so if you’re not thoroughly familiar with the story, expect to feel like an alienated party guest.

Macbeth (Fassbender), supporting King Duncan (David Thewlis) in the civil war, receives a prophecy before returning home: he is the Thane of Cawdor and the true king, while the sons of Banquo (Paddy Considine) are future kings.  For context here: in the original text, the prophecy is spoken by three witches.  In Shakespeare’s time and place, witches would have been considered the most evil, antagonistic characters imaginable, maybe next to the Devil himself, thanks to general ignorance and superstition.  However, centuries later, when we can look at history more objectively (including the knowledge that “witches” were in fact healers, medicine women, and benevolent mediums), adaptation can serve old stories in intriguing ways.  Here, the women Macbeth sees are never called witches, and the “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene, in which they reveal that they’re interfering only to cause mischief, is cut.  So is Macbeth hallucinating, then?  Has this toxic ambition been inside him all along?  Later, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) sees the women as she wanders to an inevitable conclusion, muttering “to bed, to bed, to bed.”  Do the women represent the spirits L.M. prays to once she is aware of the prophecy?  Do they represent exactly the kind of power, albeit impartial, ambitious people call upon to achieve violent ends?  Something to consider.  It’s not every day a new Shakespeare film brings new questions with it.

Fassbender’s Macbeth is one of the most authentic on film.  He’s used to playing complex characters full of internal conflict and despair, and isn’t afraid to embrace the side of Macbeth that isn’t the badass warrior we’re introduced to at the beginning.  The character first becomes a cartoon of himself, his kingly clothing too large for his body, creating deceptions that only he thinks are clever, and in the end, he transforms further into a wretched, confused shell of a person, left with nothing but his instinct for fighting, and even that melts away in his final moments.  You can see why it doesn’t take MacDuff (Sean Harris) and Malcolm (Jack Reynor) long to puzzle out what exactly happened to Duncan.  And when the dust clears, no one’s sad that this mad dog didn’t get a chance to explain himself.

Marion Cotillard, while slightly underused, is the film’s foundation.  Rather than portraying Lady Macbeth as “crazy,” which is easy, Cotillard’s scheming queen is instead increasingly plagued by depression (after losing a baby, which is hinted at in the original text), which later transmogrifies into guilt.  It’s an incredibly layered performance that not only sets an interesting bar for this kind of character, but allows us to believe Lady Macbeth and her husband as a couple.  The film gives us a look into their private relationship, and it becomes easy to believe that Macbeth would take her plan seriously.  Subsequently seeing her with a “What have I done?” look on her face creates a portrait of a real person experiencing a staggering shift in control, rather than the borderline sexist caricature we often get.

The rest of the cast is appropriately unremarkable – not in their performances, of course, but part of the idea is that the rest of these people are just trying to live their lives and do their jobs, for the most part.  Sean Harris’s MacDuff is notable for being the one who looks the most like a person from 5th-century Scotland might actually look, but my dark horse favorite is Elizabeth Debicki as Lady MacDuff.  She doesn’t get much screen time, but the tear-and-mucus-filled mini-monologue she gives in the face of the rawest form of Macbeth’s madness is enough to make anyone step back and realize how unspeakably wrong this all is.

Due to the length of individual moments and monologues, combined with the film’s relatively short runtime (under two hours), the story feels a bit truncated.  But it’s the power of those individual moments that keeps it afloat.  The play’s most famous speeches – “Out, damned spot,” “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” and others – are captivating and meaningful even when you know they’re coming, because Kurzel’s characters weave them into moments that already exist, rather than creating moments around them.  Cotillard and Fassbender practically whisper words that in other versions are expressed as booming, profound pontifications.  No room for that here.  Despite the film’s emphasis on battle scenes and violence (in a play where most, if not all, of the deaths take place offstage), everything feels intensely personal.

Maybe that’s the key going forward with Shakespeare adaptations on film: not trying to make them cool and different (i.e. looking at the macro, the outward, the exterior), but to turn inward and examine what we can get from these characters now.

220px-macbeth_2015_posterMacbeth (2015); directed by Justin Kurzel; starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris, and Elizabeth Debicki.

 

 

The Lobster

The less grand, not-so-exotic, neither Budapest nor Marigold hotel

lobsterYorgos Lanthimos is what you’d call a “visionary director” if you knew that what you saw was pretty good but didn’t know exactly what to say about it.  He’s got a cynicism akin to Lars Von Trier.  He seems to care about shots as much as Terrence Malick.  He wraps these into the microscope-lens of an Alex Garland pic.  Then again, name-dropping and saying nothing else is basically the same as leaving it at “visionary director,” so let’s dissect.

In a dystopia that is never referred to as such (I might call it an alternate universe instead), newly single people are taken to the Hotel, where they have forty-five days to find a suitable partner or else be transformed into the animal of their choice and live out the remainder of their existence in anachronistic misery in the nearby forest.  Everyone speaks in an unsettling monotone.  Masturbation is prohibited, but the Maid (Ariane Labed!) makes sure everyone is sexually frustrated 24/7.  Single-by-choice folks who have escaped the Hotel are hunted down by Hotel residents with the promise of extra days as a human.  None of the transformation technology is explained, nor is the necessity of the Hotel (for instance, is the human population at rock bottom?).  Residents are subjected to embarrassingly campy propaganda (including a painfully inaccurate simulation of rape) meant to convince them that partnership is the key to happiness.  The whole thing has been compared to a Samuel Beckett piece – sure, it’s got the quiet cynicism, the allegory, the navel-gazing, the bizarre end-of-time scenario focused on a tiny sliver of the world – but there’s an underlying anger to The Lobster that neither Endgame nor Waiting for Godot possess.

David (Collin Farrell), the only named character, chooses a lobster as his animal, due to his love for the sea and the creatures’ generally long lives (apparently grocery-store seafood departments and the state of Maine no longer exist in Lanthimos’s fiction).  This choice is ridiculed by a know-it-all with a limp (Ben Whishaw), who along with an also-unnamed lisper (John C. Reilly) constitute David’s friend base.  The issue is that not just anyone can get together and have a good time; relationships are formed based on what the Hotel staff see as compatible features.  In other words, completely arbitrary traits, such as shared physical ailments (nearsightedness, a tendency to get nosebleeds, etc.), fondness for cookies, and so on.  It’s a fairly transparent criticism of online dating culture: the speed of it, the fakeness, the images people create of themselves vs. who they actually are, the methods by which we decide so much about a person without having met them.

The story is narrated by a near-sighted woman (Rachel Weiss), who doesn’t meet David until about halfway through.  At this point, David has forsaken the Hotel after a disastrous attempt to partner with a complete sociopath (Angeliki Papoulia).  As a story in this genre must explore the perspectives of both major factions, David joins the “loners” in the woods, who are led by a ruthlessly rigid woman played by Palm d’Or-winning superstar Léa Seydoux (doing what she does best here – playing a fascinating Alpha – rather than the love-interest and femme fatale stuff she finds herself doing in American movies).  Here, the rules of the Hotel are inverted: masturbate all you want, but relationships are banned.  Even flirting is punishable by permanent disfigurement.  The viewer quickly finds that David doesn’t fit in this world either, because he quickly falls in love with Weiss’s character, and both strive to keep this relationship secret from the leader.

What I was slower to realize is that The Lobster would have worked better as a stage drama, where justification is vital only as far as character behavior, and the worlds, rich as they might be, are still confined to the room you’re in, and what you can believe is determined only by the performances (think Beckett and Pinter).  In a film, you get a look at what’s there, and you start to ask questions like, what is the rest of the world doing?  Are there other Hotels?  Why do the loners stay in the woods around the Hotel when they could get out of danger by going pretty much anywhere else?  Where are all the gay and gender non-conforming people (the Hotel allows one to register as gay or hetero, but not bisexual because of some plot-convenient Noodle Incident, yet we never see any gay people or couples on screen, and the propaganda is all aimed at hetero couples)?  Why does the loner leader have such arbitrary rules?  If everyone hates these rules, why don’t they overthrow her?  There’s more, but you get the gist: story beats and character behaviors are introduced in order for the film to make a point about something, rather than because it’s what makes sense.

It’s also a film that includes lots of interesting women, most of whom die, and all of whom exist in order to have diametrically opposed effects on the male protagonist.  It becomes frustrating, in part because characters with dramatic potential are wasted, and also because you feel like you’re supposed to cheer for it.  In the end, as David prepares to blind himself with a steak knife in order to be “equal” to his now-blind lover, do he and (by extension) the filmmakers realize that the duo are still abiding by the Hotel’s rules, this far away from the place itself?

It’s the job of a picture like this to generate discussions, not questions based on lack of clarity of intention.  As it stands, The Lobster is an awesome piece of art, but not a particularly good movie, in spite of the dedicated and deliciously weird performances by Farrell, Labed, and Seydoux. Let me know if there’s ever a stage version, yeah?

220px-the_lobsterThe Lobster (2015); written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weiss, Ariane Labed, and Léa Seydoux.

 

Room

Red bells

room_stillIt’s a bit problematic that many internet reviews of Room refer to the ordeal of the characters as “outrageous,” considering how often stories like this appear in the news (with a much less happy outcome, more times than not), and how important it is to realize that abductions of the kind presented here are a very real problem.  Nevertheless, Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s novel, manages a few impressive feats: creating a realistic, terrifying/magical look at a very specific type of bonding; doing it without a single trace of “missing white girl syndrome,” and in the process giving Brie Larson the pivotal role she’s deserved from the beginning.

Joy Newsome (Larson) has been a captive of a monstrous man she calls Old Nick (named after the Devil and played by Sean Bridgers) for seven years.  Her family has long given up the search, having no clue that she’s been in a local man’s shed, nor that she has a four year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has never left the shed (referred to as “Room” by the pair) and is completely unaware that there is a world outside of it.  Whether or not biology helps soften the blow he’s about to receive when they inevitably escape, we don’t know.

It’s no “spoiler” to say that the duo makes it out, as the film is not about a victim’s battle against a predator, but about all of the possible directions a relationship between a mother and son can take when they’ve been incarcerated for nearly a decade and have never been apart from one another, and about which direction that relationship ultimately takes.  There’s depression involved.  There’s a lot of confusion.  There are things none of us think about, such as having to accept the fact that “real people with faces” exist, or that stairs are a thing.  The mental trauma doesn’t end with the escape, which drives Joy into a downward spiral of frustration and resentment even though she’s not in danger of being recaptured.  Her father (William H. Macy, once again playing a character we want to feel bad for, but can’t) cannot handle the fact that he has a grandson, nevermind that he’s already accepted that his daughter was deceased, and refuses even to look at Jack during dinner.  Joy’s high school friends, little more than memories in photos, have all moved on and away, now college grads with full lives.  Joy explodes at her mother, even blaming her for the original kidnapping (“If I didn’t have your voice in my head saying ‘Be nice,’ maybe I wouldn’t have helped the guy with the sick fucking dog.”)

Jack’s personal development is difficult to track, his being a child and all, but he’s actually the narrator of the story, and his take on being a prisoner is one nobody else would think of: it’s whimsical.  His monologues about what Room means to him, if put on a pamphlet, would make one think it were the most wonderful place in the world.  And naturally, these sections devolve into kid-babble that seemingly has nothing to do with the story (and frankly, it doesn’t, but that’s the great thing about kids: they haven’t yet been brainwashed into thinking that everything has to be plot-related), such as “I’m the best at running, and jumping, and everything!”  Young Tremblay, while actually closer to nine years old when playing the role, is a marvel.  Not once does he seem like he’s acting – how often is he?  Y’know, considering how often child actors are simply expressing their real emotions (every time a child cries on Boardwalk Empire?  Actual trauma!).

Brie Larson, deserving of the suitcase of awards she’s carrying away this season, plays Joy as a complicated woman now living two lives – the free-spirited one that was abruptly cut off by an evil rapist, back when the entire universe was open to her, and the one she must face now, as a mother in the world, after a third, middling life – the one in Room, a fantasy life that no one but she and Jack knew – has likewise been cut off.  Those who would question the motivations behind Joy’s various post-Room decisions are exactly the ones who need to understand (hopefully by the end) why she makes them, and that she cannot be blamed for any of it.  Larson’s performance is so nuanced and honest that I’ve finally come to terms with her exclusion from the final season of Community in order to film this – we needed this movie, and what’s even better is that the people in charge of moving money and golden statues seem to realize it as well (as oblivious as they may be to other issues).

220px-room_posterRoom (2015); written by Emma Donoghue; based on her novel; directed by Lenny Abrahamson; starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.

 

 

 

 

The Hateful Eight

There won’t be many comin’ home

hateful_eight-jennifer-jason-leighQuentin Tarantino and I are sort of like exes.  I remember our best times (True Romance, Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Death Proof) as fondly as any memories I have; however, every few years, he attempts to reignite our relationship, and because he once charmed me so, I’m always seduced again.  “It’ll be like old times!” is what I hear.  My friends warn me against dating again, or they roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, I’m sure it’ll work out this time.”  And when it comes down to it, I’m never sorry that I gave it another try, but I can’t deny that things have changed, and I’m ultimately left feeling exhausted at how hard I’ve tried to convince myself that things could be the same as they were.

I introduce this piece this way because True Romance and some others meant so much to me on a cinematic level when I first saw them that I’ve since referred to Tarantino as “Quentin” in conversations with my friends about his films.  These conversations (in the past few years, at least) often involve whether Tarantino has “matured” as a filmmaker, which is to say, “Will he ever do a third act wherein everyone doesn’t get blown away?”  These days, it seems like he keeps doing that simply because everyone keeps criticizing it, but let’s explore a little.

The Hateful Eight, referred to in the opening titles as “The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino” (which gives him two more chances, if you’re keeping score) is a western not in the exact style of any other, but that borrows characters who might wander into a midseason episode of Bonanza and take Michael Landon hostage.  The story centers around Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter “open for business,” attempting to hitch a ride with a stagecoach occupied by another of his kind, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his current prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is wanted for murder but whose crimes are never explicitly revealed to us.  Through one thing and another, the trio, along with soon-to-be-sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), end up at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they plan on weathering a blizzard before they head into Red Rock.  However, when they reach their destination, they find that other folks – Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Confederate General Sandford Smithers (Bruce Dern), and black-hatter Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) – are already making use of the premises, and caretaker Bob (Demián Bichir) wasn’t expecting another group.  Oddly enough, Warren, who has been to the haberdashery before, has never once seen Bob, and notices that owners Minnie (Dana Gourrier) and Sweet Dave (Gene Jones) are inexplicably missing.  None of this aids the paranoia of the already-paranoid Ruth, who makes a big show of warning the others to stay the hell away from his prisoner.

The film is essentially Reservoir Dogs if the latter took place in the mid-1800s.  It involves several hours of dialogue between very bad people on a single set, initially concerning everyone’s suspicions about one another, and later confirming them in Clue fashion.  It also features Tim Roth not only as a mole, but in a role where he spends a good portion of the film bleeding from the abdomen; and Michael Madsen as another violent maniac who receives the same tracking shot he got in Dogs: walking out of the main set to grab something from his “car” in order to commit another heinous act (and in the process, maybe embracing the fact that he still has not escaped the shadow of Mr. Blonde).

But there’s another layer to The Hateful Eight.  Warren is a black man in America following the Civil War, and is constantly threatened by men like Mannix and Smithers, who resent even sharing a room with him (Smithers, otherwise a kindly-seeming old man, is particularly despicable in that he won’t even speak directly to Warren, instead having Mannix relay the insults for him so that Warren hears them twice).  Not that there are many Tarantino films in which the N-word isn’t employed, but it seems heavily topical in this case, not only for the characters, but in general, when one considers the current social climate in America.

Warren, though, essentially the protagonist of the piece if we have to pick one (making Mannix the deuteragonist), is no Django.  He’s not a straight/narrow good guy simply because he once lived on a plantation.  His actual deeds (if he’s telling the truth about a certain encounter with Smithers’s son) are as bad as those of the other characters, and he’s not shy about relating his experiences in extreme detail while laughing, not to mention using them to goad a feeble old man into a deadly duel he can’t win (not that he doesn’t deserve it).  Samuel L. Jackson once again plays a layered and intense character, and although he has appeared in most of Tarantino’s work in some form, his characters never become repetitive or blend together (something that cannot, sadly, be said for frequent contributor Madsen at this point).

The other real wildcard is Daisy, who acts like she doesn’t much care about being taken to her death by Ruth (although she doesn’t appreciate it much when he blatantly elbows and punches her in the face for so much as talking or singing a song he doesn’t like).  She’s a hardened criminal, but we can’t quite see her as a villain when surrounded by so many other bastards.  Add to that the fact that she’s the only woman among these gruff brutes, and that she’s in chains throughout the entire movie, and she doesn’t seem so bad next to neurotic lunatic Ruth, racist war criminal Smithers, stoic-butcherer-of-innocents Bob, or, y’know, Mr. Blonde.  Regardless, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays what could have been a one-note psychopath as someone that we’re constantly keeping an eye on because she’s just so damn exciting to try to figure out.

Early on, Ruth suspects that someone in the haberdashery was planted there in order to spring Daisy loose, and Tarantino plays curiously close to formula by not only having Ruth be correct, but in some cases telling us what’s going to happen (literally: Tarantino himself voices the narrator who lets us know that “Somebody poisoned the coffee!” while we were watching something else).  Having nearly everyone who was waiting at the haberdashery be involved in the prison-break plot seems obvious and too easy, especially since both Warren and Ruth guess as much two hours before it’s revealed (whereas Mr. Orange being revealed as a cop was a genuine surprise that also made sense with context).  Alas, Gage/Mobray/Bob are all just bad guys who that very morning executed poor Zoë Bell and a cast of the most unsuspecting, likable ingénue-types you’ve ever seen, with the help of Daisy’s brother Jody (for some reason played by Channing Tatum, who seems out of place).  If the intention is to have the result be unexpected because it’s what the audience thought they were supposed to expect, it doesn’t quite work, simply because it’s too tamely handled (even with the vicious actions of the outlaws), and renders some very interesting details we thought we were supposed to be paying attention to (for example, wondering how a pink jellybean wedged between two floorboards ended up where it was) relatively futile.

I’ll give Tarantino this, though: he avoids the extended Django-esque shootout in favor of having each shot fired count for something.  Scenes in which characters are killed take not the form of action scenes, but of old-fashioned duels and straightforward executions.  Appropriate and realistic (aside from the buckets of blood), yes, but still fatiguing after we make it to the end, sitting with the last living characters (who are soon to be goners anyway) and thinking about what we’ve just been through and what it was all worth.  The union of Warren and Mannix is a nice illustration of how things may have been if the South simply looked at slaves as human beings, or perhaps how things could be now if everyone chilled the fuck out and loved one another, but it’s done in such Rocky IV fashion that you have to ask, “What else?” after the credits pop up, even after being in the theater for three hours.

As usual, Tarantino brings out career-highlight performances from the actors, especially Jackson, Leigh, and Goggins, keeps it all hilariously and satisfyingly in-universe (Red Apple Tobacco, anyone?), and leaves us feeling like we’ve witnessed something big happen.  Much like Basterds and Django, it’s not a film I’d probably watch again (something that hurts me to say about a Tarantino piece), but it’s enough to keep me, y’know, casually seeing him.

220px-the_hateful_eightThe Hateful Eight (2015); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Walton Goggins.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I have a cautiously optimistic feeling about this.

Star_Wars_6-580x387Suffice it to say my reasons for seeing a Star Wars movie today are different than they were when I was five. “Fun” is pretty easy to come by without spending twelve-something on a theater ticket, and “entertainment” is something I can achieve by watching nuthatches devour birdseed outside my living-room window, so that’s not the reason.  Is there nostalgia involved?  Yeah, sure.  But I’ve voiced my views on those things during plenty a review of the pop-culture brainjunk that I get off on chewing into so many celluloid pieces, so I want to look at The Force Awakens objectively.

Fair warning: story and character details (read: “spoilers” for the entire movie, including the ending) follow.

J.J. Abrams (in danger of being called “Jar Jar Abrams” until the end of time if he’d screwed this up) directs the film, under the watchful eye of Kathleen Kennedy and with help from Lawrence Kasdan (the screenwriter who did edits on Leigh Brackett’s original Empire Strikes Back script). Set thirty-something years after Return of the Jedi, the story follows Rey (Daisy Ridley), a desert scavenger who reminds one of a young Luke Skywalker, both in environment and fashion sense.  Sadly, Rey is homeless, abandoned by her parents on the desert world of Jakku at age five.  She lives in the shell of an Imperial AT-AT walker in Jakku’s pseudo-badlands, where she is (mostly) left alone but always aware of the fact that while she awaits the return of her family (who never actually promised to return), she risks spending her entire life spit-shining pieces of salvage for an uncaring dealer (Simon Pegg) who trades portions of food for refurbished parts.  An early scene that simultaneously warms and breaks the heart involves Rey eating dinner (a sort of instant-biscuit powder) while wearing an old discarded rebel pilot helmet and grinning at a starship leaving the planet.  No dialogue necessary.

The fact that Luke was hidden on a similar desert world, Tatooine, in order to conceal his identity, is lost on zero percent of the audience, not to mention that Rey’s surname is withheld.  More on that in Rian Johnson’s sequel, we can assume, but the backdrop here is that the First Order, a splinter group formed when the Empire collapsed, has now taken a Germany-invades-France approach to reclaiming the galaxy.  Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, of course) has vanished after his attempt to restart the Jedi Order was sabotaged.

The new “power trio” is filled out by Finn (John Boyega), apparently the only individual in the legioned stormtrooper army who thinks rallyin’ ’round a family with a pocket full of shells isn’t something to do casually, much less every day for the rest of your life; and Poe Dameron (the incomparable Oscar Isaac), a character mentioned in Shattered Empire and Leia-centric spinoff material.  Poe, working for Leia’s Resistance (the current incarnation of the Rebellion, no longer working to overthrow a corrupt and tyrannical governing body, but now pushing back against an illegal terrorist occupying force), meets Finn in the first of many endearing scenes between the new protagonists.

While George Lucas’s prequels (which now feel more like a recurring childhood nightmare – toxic but blurry enough that you can discuss it when the mood is just right) attempted to develop characters by having them shout expository dialogue in one another’s faces, not to mention giving each character so few layers that even a pre-Strindberg playwright would have cringed, the characters of The Force Awakens have real layers, both implied and directly explored, and the most wonderful thing is that the writing, directing, and acting allow for characters to often say a lot without speaking (something severely undervalued and sorely needed in the Star Wars universe, and used to achieve a remarkable degree of genuine emotion here).  Gone are the days of “I will be the most powerful Jedi ever!” and “Careful, Greedo, or you’ll come to a bad end!” and “I don’t care what galaxy you’re from – that’s gotta hurt!” and the vending-machine version of the original trilogy’s most winsome humor.  Anyone can claim to have a story about watching a protagonist grow from nobody to hero, but here, the most important facet of that formula is intact: we actually know the people doing the growing.  When Rey, a scavenger who has never had a friend, smiles or gets excited, it means something.  When Finn, a trained killer who may as well be the TK assassin droid from Knights of the Old Republic, drops a hilarious one-liner, there’s something beneath the laughter he induces, something that the Jar-Jars and Van-Wilder-era Threepio and Artoo of the prequels could only dream about.  I’m only talking minutiae here, but that’s what makes a story with archetypal roles and formula narratives worth telling at all.  Here’s the aphoristic version of what I mean: archetypes and characters cannot occupy the same space.

And then there’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the face (well, mask, at least) of the movie, expected to fill the shoes of Darth Vader for the new trilogy.  But here’s the thing: Ren himself knows that’s what he’s supposed to do.  He’s got Not-Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis), the dopily-named mentor who turned him from light to dark, expecting great things, yet the very thing that turned him against his own family was his own insecurity.  When a mook delivers bad news, Ren destroys a computer terminal and then employs the infamous force choke.  When an opponent expresses the least bit of resistance, he becomes afraid.  Even with Han Solo (Harrison Ford, obvi) and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, duh doy) as parents, and Luke as a master, he couldn’t settle into himself.  His crossguard lightsaber represents his own personality: warped and unstable, and even the parts meant to guard the user can be used as weapons.  He wears a breather mask that distorts his voice, but he doesn’t need it.  He’s a perfectly beautiful human being underneath it (and impervious to helmet hair, no less).  Everything about Kylo Ren, including his assumed name, is an attempt to create an identity as opposed to inheriting one.  And he’s a great character because he’s not an oven-ready villain; he’s a person with serious mental health problems experiencing a forced transition.  All that stuff he tells Han about being torn apart isn’t a line of bullshit, even given how the conversation ends.

In fact, plenty of the film’s characters subvert their antecedents.  Kylo Ren aspires to be the new Vader, which is a secret to no one, but Vader was more measured and secure with himself (despite having very few of his own body parts and the inability to breathe without wearing a suit of metal and circuitry) and didn’t mind taking orders.  Rey seems to be destined for greatness, but she’s not a bratty Aryan extrovert like Luke; in fact, she has demons we have not yet earned the right to see (just look at Maz Kanata’s face when she examines Rey’s eyes).  Finn thinks he’s supposed to be a combo platter of Luke and Han, but everyone who looks at him sees something more like C-3P0.  General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), the most effective evil character in the film, plays the same role Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) did in A New Hope, but he’s more ruthless and twice as smart.  Both are aboard their own version of the Death Star when it crumbles, but Hux isn’t foolish enough to think it’s invincible, and he lives on to hold another Nuremberg Rally in the next episode rather than becoming an easily forgotten Disc One Final Boss (hashtag: NoDisrespectToGrandMoffTarkin).

The original power trio also appears, made meaningful by the fact that they’ve grown quite a bit in the last thirty years.  Han, once jaded and self-centered, is now gentler, perhaps too gentle to continue on with the lone smuggler life he once led, especially now that he’s swindling opponents who are younger, faster, and more tech-savvy.  He tried to settle down and start a family with Leia, but the Kylo Ren incident caused another rift, and each of them went back to the thing that always distracted them from confronting their emotions.  For Han, that was gallivanting around the galaxy with Chewie (Peter Mayhew), and for Leia, it was concentrating on her military career and putting the screws to the First Order.  It’s difficult to watch them try to reconcile, mostly vocalizing things the other (and the audience) already knows, sharing what always threatens to be their final embrace because Han keeps pointlessly wandering off.  Even R2-D2 has become despondent, choosing to stay in “low power mode” ever since Luke disappeared.  The only ones who haven’t changed much are Chewie and Threepio, the latter of whom still seems to exist only to obnoxiously interrupt poignant moments between Han and Leia.

Happily, the film’s only objective issues have to do with quality control and things that could have been fixed with a single line.  For example, how the hell did Poe’s jacket get where it was?  Why does Finn automatically assume Poe is dead, creating a synthetic element of surprise for the audience in place of actual suspense?  Does the Resistance really need to keep a protocol droid around when galactic technology has been more or less streamlined in the last thirty years?  Why does R2-D2 have free will?  Stay with me here.  I love Artoo, in all his snarky adorableness, as much as the next nerd, but let’s face it: in-universe, he’s a piece of equipment.  How does he simply choose to shut down with no possibility of any tech expert in the Resistance able to revive him?  Did everyone just forget about him because he became obsolete when BB units were introduced?  I like to think that Luke programmed him to behave this way and to reactivate when Rey arrived, which would make her more than an everywoman who fell into this adventure (Han and Leia’s other child?  More on that if you talk to me in person).

Speaking of the map pieces, that scenario is taken from Knights of the Old Republic, as is the basic design for Kylo Ren’s armor.  And speaking of Kylo Ren, the whole “Han and Leia’s son becomes a dark Jedi” story is straight outta the EU.  While I think it’s worthwhile to acknowledge these things, the film actually takes much of the best stuff from the EU (including stuff that’s still canon, like KOTOR) and utilizes it in an original and passable way.  At least they didn’t rip off anything from Mass Effect (which is more than I can say for any other space opera of the last five years).  There are enough other plot-related nitpicks to satisfy the parameters of any drinking game.  I guess the studio would not have been as fine with a 3-hour Star Wars as virtually everyone else would have.

There’s also a scene mid-film that goes on so long that it evokes (albeit in a coded way) sexual assault, and if the characters involved are potentially related (or, by the same token, we take into account the horrors that Rey may have endured after being abandoned as a five year-old and dragged into a world of skeevy men, few women, and no law enforcement), the implications are more than a little uncomfortable, and maybe not intentional.

The Force Awakens respects its audience enough to let themes, motifs, and vaguely related moments speak for themselves.  Rey has a trigger involving being pulled by the hand, something that she would understandably be annoyed at anyway (especially when it’s some dude she just met who thinks he needs to rescue her), but then, later, when she touches Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, the Force shows her a vision that partially involves reliving the day her family abandoned her.  We see her being pulled by the hand as she cries at the sight of her parents’ starship leaving Jakku’s atmosphere.  Layers!  And the film doesn’t ruin it by having Rey explain to Finn why she doesn’t like having her hand held while they’re running for their lives.  Similarly, during the above-mentioned-mid-film scene, when Kylo Ren claims that he can “see the island” in Rey’s mind, there’s no need to explain what it is or what it means, because even if we don’t know why her brain conjured that image, both of the characters in the scene do.  In the last moments of the film, Rey ends up on an island.  Is it the same one?  Did she invent the island in her mind as a place to escape to when it became difficult to deal with the harsh desert landscape day after day?  Or did the Force decide it was Rey who needed to fly to Ireland and give Luke his saber back?  These are good questions to have at the end of a story like this: not questions of clarity, but questions that open up dialogue about people we’ve just gotten to know.   A question of clarity would be how exactly Finn has no trouble interacting normally with other people when he’s just been sprung out of an organization that raised him to be a mindless war machine.

Abrams’s Star Wars is the most well-characterized of the series, and we can only hope Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (the one I’m most worried about after the boring, CG-slathered, bizarrely sexist fiasco that was Jurassic World) can maintain the quality.  The original characters have aged realistically, and the fatigue shows on them all, especially Luke, in what might be Mark Hamill’s best piece of onscreen acting ever.  Han, for all his solo-ness, just wants to be useful, and truly cares about Rey (look at his face when she mentions not knowing there was “this much green in the whole galaxy”), not to mention approves of her as a successor to the Falcon.  Would the old Han have admitted being impressed by anyone else?  Leia continues to be a competent leader that everyone respects, and has even grown to be able to tolerate Threepio (though the ranking system in the Resistance is a little murky – the crawl claims that General Leia runs the entire thing, but Ken Leung plays a guy with “Admiral” as a title).  Poe is every bit the guy you’d want running your ace X-wing squadron: able to both destroy a planet-sized genocide machine and handle diplomacy with secret contacts, but also treats his underlings like family (he’s even got Jessika Pava from Shattered Empire as a wingwoman, played by Jessica Henwick).  Finn is not only charming and hilarious, and not only serves as an example of how the stormtroopers can be just as victimized as anyone else, but also provides an interesting look into gender roles: when he’s drinking the gross water on Jakku and runs over to help Rey (who doesn’t need it), what is he doing?  Does he think she needs help because she’s a girl, or is he trying to begin his atonement by helping anyone he sees?  If it’s the latter, it’s worth noting that although Finn has no knowledge of the natural development of things outside the First Order, he’s still falling into the gender trappings of what boys his age generally think they should be doing: “protecting” girls (who, again, don’t need it).

Finally, there’s Rey, the film’s hero, and the new Golden Child of Star Wars.  Where Luke whined his way to destiny and had his path set before him by twenty years’ worth of planning by Yoda and Obi-Wan, Rey is a hardened, involuntary loner from a bitter environment.  Despite this, she hasn’t lost the ability to experience joy, to recognize irony, or to take advice, even when it criticizes her own tendency to pine.  She’s athletic and powerful, but not physically infallible.  She’s driven, but knows how to laugh.  She appreciates little things.  Every decision she makes and every lie she believes makes sense, and they all serve to deepen her rather than weaken her.  She can channel the force, but has very real reasons not to.  She’s independent, but has plenty of room to grow and mature – specifically in areas of interdependence, something she might understandably have difficulties with going forward.  The most important thing is that she’s been given the space to grow in just about any direction, and if Johnson’s script can avoid making her a flouncy shell of what she was in this movie (can’t you just see the filmmakers chalking it up to her recent “socialization”?) or giving her the sudden urge to have sex with the nearest action dude (as Johnson’s women characters tend to), this might truly be the beginning of a saga that should be passed forward.  To call Rey “wish fulfillment” or a Mary Sue is an insult to those of us who have had to put up with an eternal assembly line of indestructible male mannequins with the same stupid stubble, dubious morals, unpunished womanizing, and identically stiff delivery of meaningless bromides.  Rey is not just an answer to that crap; she transcends it.  And the story ends with exactly what she needs as she comes upon a world-weary Luke Skywalker, and what we need as we ponder her future: a profound moment of quiet.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015); written by Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams; directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher.

*Special thanks to A Certain Poet for her help and insights with this one.

Mockingjay 2

Recognition, restoration, reparation

hunger-games-mockingjay-2-teaser2-900Just when I was trying to have a quiet year over here (not completely voluntarily – the indie theater I frequent around here has changed ownership and is currently closed for who-knows-what-horrifying alterations), the sluice gates of ignorance opened upon the release of the final Hunger Games film, and I felt the need to add my spices to the pot, as it were.  So here’s how it actually is.

The second part of Mockingjay, based on the final novel in Suzanne Collins’ subversive-heroine-in-generic-dystopia trilogy, continues to center on its characters, particularly Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who narrates the novels and stands at the center of nearly every scene in the film.  The story follows Katniss’s involvement in the rebel District 13’s final move against the autocratic Capitol, led by President Coriolanus Snow, played once again by Donald Sutherland, who continues to smirk his way into movie-villain history.  Although Katniss has become the symbol of the rebellion, she does not fight on the front lines as most “YA” protagonists would; instead, she is placed with a filmmaking crew led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and tasked with creating propaganda videos.  However, Katniss has her own plan, which is to kill President Snow herself.  Her crew, of course, is in no less danger than anyone else, given the fact that Snow has placed deadly “pods” around the Capitol, which makes the journey to his mansion resemble the old Hunger Games arenas.  Roughly half the movie deals with the most expendable members of the crew being picked off in traditional adventure movie fashion whilst Katniss attempts to talk Peeta (Josh Hutcherson ) into becoming himself again. The second half concerns what happens after the war ends – something too few stories about war actually explore.

Criticism has been aimed at the fact that this is not the expected ending of a series like this.  Apparently, the absence of a rousing finale with orchestrated victory music, a concrete happy ending, and a “final battle” is too much (or too little) for some to handle (none of whom have actually read the source material).  But Mockingjay ends as it should, with Katniss trying to find her place in the new system of government, or rather, being told what her role is going to be in an administration that has used her as a pawn for years.  Now bereft of her sister and countless friends, plagued by PTSD and nightmares, and without any sense of “mission,” not to mention recognizing that a horrible cycle is about to repeat itself, Katniss has never been more truly alone among other people.

How do you reconcile with a best friend whose aggressive carelessness is responsible for the death of your beloved sibling?  Do you?  How do you move on with your life when a war that has lasted your entire adult life finally ends?  How do you accept the mantle of “hero” when your victory was achieved through the slaughter of countless innocent people?  To whom do you turn when everyone close to you is equally broken, despite the larger goal being achieved?  These are the sorts of questions the film asks, and it doesn’t shy away from them or pretend that the future is bright just because the “correct” side won the big battle.

I’m not sure The Hunger Games really is “YA” anymore.  Sure, Collins’ prose is accessible to even the least well-read of preteens, and sure, giant cinema chains pair the film with trailers for teenage brainjunk and Justin Bieber albums, but its themes resonate in a way that is important now, especially for ambitious young people, but also for adults who don’t think about the way they talk about war and death.  In the world of Katniss, just like real life, killing is not glorious, and the idea of “war heroes” is fiction.  But although Katniss sacrifices her chances at normalcy and calm (not to mention becomes irreversibly disfigured in a way that is severely toned down onscreen), there is a mite of optimism.  She’s done this out of hope for the next generation: the hope that her children will be the first living people to experience an entire life without the Hunger Games.  She may be too shell-shocked to bond with them, may have taken the guy she ends up with only because he’s the sole person who knows what she’s been through (save for Johanna, but she’s another story), but ask yourself this: has any entire generation of Americans been able to live without witnessing our country involved in any kind of organized violent conflict?

J-Law is at her best once again in this (and on fire – at least one trailer before the film has her in it, albeit as David O. Russell’s muse for the third time).  Jena Malone is still incomparably powerful and seen too little, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who makes his final-final-final onscreen appearance, fades away with a (digitally rendered) smile.  It’s obvious which scenes he was supposed to be in and unable to do, and it’s heartbreaking.

Katniss is an important character for the unique place she finds in the YA canon.  Her very real vulnerability turns off the faux-masculine and those who need their heroes to be blocks of wood with just enough stubble and the same inability to express emotion that they themselves are inflicted with.  Her self-sufficiency, take-no-shit attitude, and various talents are enough to make anyone root for her, but in spite of what we (or the people of Panem) might demand of her, she refuses to stop being a real person, and in a world where so many narratives, especially for young people, feature only girls and women who find themselves in the stock roles of the virgin, the Tsundere, the whore, the nerdy friend-zoned best pal, and so on.

I’m not made of stone.  The Hunger Games is populated by characters with dumb names (combine a random nonsense word with a name from Shakespeare, and you’ve got someone who could live in Panem without making anyone flinch) and contradicts its own anti-reality-TV/anti-coliseum/anti-war-as-spectacle commentary by being a blockbuster film series in the first place.  But I think we’re well-served to also recognize its importance as a popular franchise that not only has a fully realized woman at its center, but confronts themes of death, futility, and the horrors of war.  It just hasn’t happened enough to be tired yet.

220px-mockingjay_part_2_posterMockingjay: Part 2 (2015); based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Peter Craig, Danny Strong, and Suzanne Collins; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, and Josh Hutcherson.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

We are not things

Mad Max Fury Road - Charlize Theron As Imperator Furiosa WallpaperI am thankful that a forty year-old disabled woman can be the main character of an action movie.  I am thankful that George Miller can not only combat the macho, faux-masculine baloney that constitutes so many action movies these days, but that he can also still create superior action scenes whilst making this point.  I am thankful that a group of warrior women of all ages can make up the ragtag band of revolutionaries that sit at the core of any proper dystopia.  I am thankful that the women who play the prisoners can be three-dimensional people with dreams, personalities, badass names, and agency, not just helpless pregnant damsels.  I am thankful that more than one woman can make it out of an action film alive, and that “Vasquez” doesn’t always die.  I am thankful that a woman and a man can share top billing in a brutal, action-packed setpiece without ever once kissing each other or musing about running away as a couple.  I am thankful that the creator of one of the most lucrative and culty “man movie” franchises of all time would consult the writer of The Vagina Monologues to look over his new script.  I am thankful for that scene wherein Max (Tom Hardy) screws up two difficult shots and needs Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to snipe a difficult target.  I am thankful for the name “Max Rockatansky” and the opening credits that feature only two names.  I am thankful that Miller and Nicholas Hoult can turn a sociopathic mook into a sympathetic character in under an hour.  I am thankful that Hugh Keays-Byrne still acts, and that the same actor can play different characters in films by the same director, a la Leone’s spaghetti westerns and grindhouse fare of every stripe.  I am thankful that the MPAA no longer takes issue with the fact that a female character “fights back.”  I am thankful that a movie like this did not deafen me; in fact, I wanted to listen.

Furiosa.  Forever.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015); written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris; directed by George Miller; starring Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult.   

Ex Machina

Who ya gonna call?

Aex machinalex Garland’s directorial debut is a very-near-future sci-fi that uses both the “Rebellious AI” formula and a modern retelling of Bluebeard to delicately veil some vital commentary on the male gaze, what happens when women are literally reduced to objects, and the horrifying idea that the most abominable abuses of technology will be perpetrated not by mad scientists or terrorists with world domination on their minds, but by our eccentric billionaire tech moguls when they happen to be bored.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a lonely schlub doing code work for Bluebook, a facsimile of Google.  He apparently wins a lottery that rewards him with a week at the secluded residence of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator and owner of Bluebook, who is so averse to trespassers and interruptions that even his personal helicopter pilot is only allowed within a mile or two of the complex (when Caleb is dropped off, he is told to “follow the river” to reach Nathan).  All of this happens within a concise minute or two, which makes room for what’s actually important (most of that is in retrospect, but it always feels like it’s moving at the right pace).

Of course, Nathan, who lives entirely alone save for a silent “assistant” named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and spends most of his time stifling hangovers, has not invited Caleb here just to hang out (although he does treat him like a frat buddy most of the time).  He wastes no time in revealing that he’s already built an artificial intelligence, and that Caleb is here to perform a Turing Test on her – normally, this would involve the tester not knowing whether he was speaking to a computer or a human, but Nathan believes that the real test will be whether Caleb still relates to the AI on a human level after already knowing she’s an android.  A round of testing begins, separating the film into several “sessions,” and Caleb meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), the real protagonist of the story, whose ordeal is only viewable through glass walls and security cameras.  They get to know each other through carefully contrived small talk, but by the third day, Ava is wearing a dress and wig and asking whether Caleb is attracted to her.  Of course he is.  Her face and body were designed by a heterosexual man.  Luckily, Caleb is aware of how preposterous this is.  He confronts Nathan about whether Ava was “programmed” to flirt with him, but Nathan just sees it as exciting proof of Ava’s ability to pass for human.

The film avoids mumble-science and plot holes by having Nathan simply not care to explain to Caleb how Ava’s circuitry works (which seems like one of those “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you” jokes, but makes much more sense when the layers are peeled back later).  We are, however, taken on a tour (along with Caleb) of Nathan’s laboratory, where we learn that Ava’s brain is a flexible gel, not a bunch of rigid metal parts, giving her the potential to grow.  During the off-hours, Caleb and Nathan drink beer and discuss various uses of Ava’s body, including her sexual abilities, which are apparently as functional as any human’s.  These scenes are meant to be uncomfortable and gross, but imitate that thing a lot of men do: make disgusting talk about a woman’s body when she’s not in the room.  Whether or not that makes you cringe is actually the movie testing you (and I’m guessing there will be a direct correlation between folks who don’t squeam at Nathan’s claim that “Technically speaking, you could screw her” and folks who think this is just another fun android movie).

From the moment Caleb arrives, something seems off.  As the tests go forward, mysteries pile up and unravel, including a series of power cuts in the complex, ostensibly caused by Ava, but it’s a bit odd that Nathan, a scientific genius, doesn’t seem to suspect her (he blames the “power guys” who installed the system).  The power begins cutting off during Caleb and Ava’s conversations, and while the cameras are out, Ava tells Caleb not to trust anything Nathan says.  The stickiest part is that Nathan hasn’t said much of any urgency; in fact, we have no clue what Nathan’s long-term plans for his AI project are.  If Ava passes the test, what then?  The seclusion of the complex has a Kubrik effect on both the film’s camera and music, and on Caleb, who gruesomely harms himself to make sure he isn’t actually a robot.  The two “buddies” clearly suspect the other of some sort of manipulation or foul play, but neither can be sure to what end, and we as audience can’t be entirely sure that Ava hasn’t manipulated the entire situation just so she can get out of that glass room she’s been in for years.  Then there’s Kyoko, that wildcard, who supposedly doesn’t understand English, but performs physical tasks for Nathan at the drop of a hat (cleaning, dancing, and you can guess what else).

Some secrets have to be revealed in order to really talk about this movie, so here goes.  Caleb does legitimately fall for Ava, but although this would allow her to pass the test, he can’t reveal it to Nathan, who plans on dismantling her and creating a new model, as he has done with about a dozen other beautiful female androids who have all shared the same mind; thus, Ava has been stuck in the same glass room for countless years (the footage of the previous “models” trying to escape is truly harrowing; luckily, Ava has learned subtlety through these experiences).  The reason that Nathan feels no need to explain Ava’s construction to Caleb is that Caleb is the test subject: although he is not a robot, he’s experiencing something of a reverse Turing Test – Nathan has instructed Ava to manipulate Caleb into helping her escape, just to see if Caleb will become attached enough to her to actually help.  Success here means that Ava has true human emotion.  Still no word on what Nathan plans to do with the AI next, but Caleb is disgusted at Nathan’s treatment of the older androids and feels personally betrayed by him as well.  Ava, however, does want to escape and has manipulated Caleb, as much as Caleb might think himself a genius for arranging a snafu in the complex’s security protocols.  Nathan warns Caleb that Ava doesn’t really love him, but it’s a bit late for regret now.

The endgame, in which we’re treated to the characters’ attempts to puzzle out who has more successfully manipulated whom as we try to do the same, is not only tense, but truly means something because of how well we know everyone.  Oscar Isaac (a.k.a. Isaac the Incomparable) plays Nathan as a genius billionaire who acts like a frat boy, not like Bruce Wayne, and for all of his latent brutality, he still reminds you of your bratty brother: spoiled, deserving of severe punishment, but so fucking amiable that you can’t imagine being the one to pass the sentence (luckily, we have a certain android to sort that out). Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb as the nerdy would-be hero of any other story like this: the scrawny everyman, ignored by women, who gets a big opportunity, uncovers corruption, and restores society’s moral compass after finally achieving his well-deserved true love.  But guess what?  He’s actually just as bad as Nathan, in all his Bluebeardedness.  Being ignored by women doesn’t make him a lovable loner; it makes him desperate and opportunistic: when he finally encounters Ava, an android woman who not only possesses human emotion and a sex drive, but whose very face is an amalgam of Caleb’s most frequently watched porn actresses, he can’t wait to bust her out of that glass room – not because of the unspeakable wrongness of her situation, but because of the promise of sex.  One of the many things the film does successfully – more successfully, maybe, than any film I’ve seen – is to subtly illustrate different types of evil and where they come from.  And I don’t mean Dark Lords and Talking Killers and expository psychosis; I mean real evil, the kind that actually exists in people who don’t consider themselves the least bit wrong.

Finally, there’s Ava, who has so thoroughly passed her “tests” before the story even begins that she is able to conceal her true feelings (and as we later find out, her plans).  Alicia Vikander plays her as what she is: an android, but also a person, and her inner conflict is perhaps even more difficult than that of the “real” humans because her past, her emotions, and her desires have all been programmed into a glob of complicated Jell-O that acts as her brain.  Like a human, however, she is able to grow, and that includes experiencing things like love and happiness, but also deceit, manipulation, and cruelty – all those things we employ in the name of desire.

Ex Machina (2015); written and directed by Alex Garland; starring Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson.

Interstellar

Space magic solves everything

interstellarChristopher Nolan’s Interstellar starts as simply another Dead Mom narrative with a throwaway title, orbiting a part-time Boring Hero with a heart of gold who only wants the best for his children.  This character, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who apparently has no first name, reminisces about the days when he was a NASA test pilot, before humanity screwed up the Earth so badly that we were forced to become an entirely agrarian society.  He speaks most of this in overt exposition to Donald (John Lithgow), his father-in-law, who shares a rural homestead with Cooper and his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and (more importantly) Murphy, also known as Murph (Mackenzie Foy, who will eventually grow up to be Jessica Chastain).  Murph is a borderline genius for her age, and her current project is an attempt to scientifically prove that a “ghost,” for lack of a better word, is sending her messages by altering the dust on her bedroom floor and knocking books off her shelf.  Cooper and Murph, bored with the farming life and convinced (whether through blind hope or something else) that the planet can be saved, follow coordinates provided by the “ghost,” which lead them to the HQ of an underground organization that turns out to be the thought-to-be-defunct NASA.

There’s some interesting background here.  In the gap since the golden age of space travel, the Apollo missions (including the first moon landing) have been discredited as clever propaganda, and Murph’s schoolteachers consider her insistence that humanity has traveled to the moon analogous to sharing porn with her classmates.  The idea is to encourage children to want to work on saving this planet, rather than fantasize about traveling away from it.  Very good point, actually.  But the film does not want us to side with the teachers, and makes quite clear to us that Earth is doomed.  At the new NASA HQ, Cooper is convinced at ridiculous speed (considering the pacing up to this point) by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his brilliant daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), to pilot an incredibly advanced spaceship, the Endurance (modeled after the International Space Station) to travel through a wormhole believed to have been placed near Saturn by another galactic civilization that wishes to save humanity, and through this wormhole, find a planet that can support human life.  A crew of other astronauts named Edmunds, Miller, and Mann (the latter’s picture is mysteriously the only one not shown) previously traveled through the wormhole to investigate three potential candidate planets, and the deal was this: if they landed on a planet that was not viable, they would remain there and perish so that no resources would be wasted rescuing them.  Cooper and Amelia, along with Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) and two robots called TARS and CASE, will visit these planets one at a time and confirm their viability.  The drama at home, however, trumps all of the sci-fi prep: Murph is devastated that Cooper is abandoning her, and it’s hard not to be on her side, even after all the dire hypothesizing by the roundtable of talking heads.  The scene in which Cooper accepts the mission is needed to begin the film’s main arc, but it’s a synthetic transition, as rushed and clumsy as an equal moment in a superhero origin story, complete with the audience realizing that this was a much better narrative before the hero gained his powers and everything went to sci-fi land.

Through one thing and another, the astronaut crew crosses the wormhole and visits Miller’s planet for only a few hours, though its proximity to a black hole causes time to pass much more quickly.  It’s close by and will not use much fuel to reach.  However, the classic “lost contact with operative” trope plays out predictably: long story short, Planet Miller is not viable.  It’s 100% ocean.  Nightmare fuel comes in the form of mountainesque tidal waves that seem to target whatever has just landed on the planet’s surface.  The whole scenario is not unlike similar planets seen in other sci-fi, including a Mass Effect mission (apparently, filmmaker after filmmaker underestimates how popular those games are).  Because of the time dilation, twenty-three years pass for Romilly, who is still onboard.  No word on what he ate and drank during that time.  It’s supposed to be a big moment, but the only difference in Romilly is that he’s grown a few gray beard hairs, plus he hasn’t figured out much of any use (not to mention that the film’s formula requires him to be the next bumped-off crew-member).

While all of this happens, Murph, now played by the prolific Jessica Chastain, remains on Earth, not knowing whether her father is alive, and still harboring a grudge for the way he left her.  One of the film’s strongest scenes involves Murph sending Cooper a message in which she reminds him of his promise to return home by the time the two of them are the same age – well, today, she’s the age he was when he left.  Outside of grieving over him, Murph has been working with NASA to figure out how humanity can collectively escape Earth’s gravitational pull if they indeed find another planet.  Brand, though, on his deathbed, admits that humanity can never escape without data from a singularity behind a black hole.  Murph reveals this to Amelia and Cooper, who argue about which planet to visit next, and ultimately decide on Mann, even though (or, on another level, specifically because) all narrative signs point to this being a terrible idea (see Principle of the Inept Adventurer).  Mann’s planet, of course, is a frozen wasteland, and Mann himself (played by Matt Damon) simply couldn’t go through with dying there per his mission, so he lied about the planet’s viability in order to be rescued.  Some truly terrific sequences, absent of the ridiculous CG most films would use, take place, and our characters are left with one choice: figure out some way to get behind the black hole and transmit the data back to Earth (did anyone think they wouldn’t have to do this?).

The film’s science, preposterous as its plot is, is relatively sound, especially considering that a cosmologist (Kip Thorne) birthed the idea for the film with producer Lynda Obst, and acted as consultant on it, often having to talk Nolan out of making the story any wackier.  While much of the space adventure is based upon hypotheticals (for example, an actual wormhole has never been observed, but given what we know about relativity and gravity, it is hypothetically possible).  The ultimate result, however, especially what’s behind the black hole’s event horizon, relies on molding the science around plot contrivance, so while watching Matthew McConaughey float around a five-dimensional space library wherein time is not linear is pretty satisfying in terms of achieving a profound conclusion to the “fi” questions of the film, it renders keeping track of the “sci” parts ineffectual.

The screenplay, penned by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, is much the same as any Dark Knight or Inception script.  No character speaks if it’s not either exposition or a seed planted for something later in the plot, and no one is ever wrong when they present some big idea (for example, Anne Hathaway’s character gives a lengthy and impassioned monologue about how “love” might be the key to solving everything in the universe because it’s an emotion/experience we don’t fully understand, before being dismissed by the predominately male crew).  Nolan’s oft-criticized female characters become more in Interstellar, but only marginally and not necessarily in the right way: it’s as if Nolan has responded to this criticism by having his female characters do more for the plot instead of actually characterizing them.  For example, Murph is continually emphasized as being the central character of the film, upon whom everything relies and whose intellect and accomplishments everyone reveres, but she actually doesn’t have many scenes by herself, and for being played by three exceptional actresses (the third being the magnificent Ellen Burstyn in a cameo), the only parts of her 80+ year life that are important enough to include in the film are the ones that revolve around her attachment to her father (read: Hollywood Daddy Issues).  We don’t see anything between Cooper leaving and Murph sending him a message for the first time (when she’s in her thirties).  We see nothing of her relationship with rando Getty (Topher Grace); just an impulsive kiss, and then it’s fifty years later and they have a gaggle of adult offspring.  Amelia, Hathaway’s character, the only female astronaut, operates entirely on emotion, in stark contrast to pragmatist Cooper, and she plays second fiddle to him throughout the journey (even if she ends up being right about which planet is best to visit, Cooper never acknowledges that he got someone killed and wasted valuable equipment and resources by heading to Mann’s planet when Amelia wanted to go to Edmunds’).  She’s also got that Ripley 2.0 hairdo going, similar to Sandra Bullock in last year’s Gravity (and it’s difficult not to compare that film to this one).  It’s as if the filmmakers are trying to placate those of us who consistently bemoan the absence of layered female characters in blockbuster films, but no amount of space stations named after Murph can stifle this question: why isn’t Murph the main character?  I.e. the astronaut who actually goes on the dangerous adventure to save humanity?  Jessica Chastain is one of the most adept and charismatic actors of any gender we have right now, and Anne Hathaway, juggernaut of nuance and onscreen honesty, is much more than a soapy foil to the brooding bro.  If we needed Murph on Earth, Amelia (or, say, Murph’s mother, if we needed Amelia in space) could easily have helmed the voyage.  Too often in Nolan’s films, the women are simply opposites of each other (e.g. Inception, wherein Marion Cotillard played a full-figured, exotic beauty against Ellen Page’s skinny teenage nerd/genius) who frame the male hero and affect him in the various ways he needs to be affected in order to keep, y’know, hero-ing.

Beyond that, while the film tries its hardest to dodge various genre trappings, it falls into twice as many and forgets about plenty of other ones.  It’s one thing to say your film is inspired by 2001 and Metropolis; it’s another to have the same basic thing happen at the end (think about the ways in which Dave transcends human existence, then watch Cooper’s tumble into the black hole again).  The film wants TARS and CASE to remind you of HAL, and thus fear that one of them will go rogue and try to murder the crew, while the dashing usual-lead Matt Damon is plotting carnage right there in front of you.  But none of this is surprising because virtually every sci-fi adventure since Event Horizon (and plenty before) has that character – the brilliant scientist, the “best of us,” who actually turns out to be a self-interested nut-job and tries to kill everyone – and from the moment Mann is mentioned, it’s pretty obvious that he’s the last person who’s going to be of any help (’cause this galaxy ain’t big enough for two rugged male leads).

Where Gravity’s most telling moments were silent shots of Sandra Bullock’s feet, Interstellar talks its themes at you.  All of the conversations are well-acted and nice to listen to, but they’re not actually conversational; rather, there is nothing said that you do not need to remember in order to “get it” later.  None of this is to say that the film is plodding, or trapped under mumble-science like Primer, or in any way difficult to understand, but it shelves itself next to a thousand family films with identical plots (and I understand why Nolan would want his film to be thought of amongst memories of Jurassic Park and Blade Runner, but one can do that without either remaking parts of them or defining the new film by what the old ones aren’t).

All said, I don’t have to do the usual roundup of unanswered/rhetorical/paradoxical questions I usually need to do with films like this (see Snowpiercer for perhaps the greatest litany so far) because Nolan takes every measure to ensure that the science (fictional or not) makes sense in-universe, and that the characters’ decisions (mostly) make sense in context, even if they’re not given much time to make them.  We’re invited to participate in the characters’ horror, guilt, and love, albeit only when convenient for what the filmmakers want us to care about, but it’s there on the table, whereas many genre filmmakers would withhold vital info for dramatic effect (a greenhorn’s flourish that accomplishes the exact opposite).  Furthermore, Chastain, McConaughey, and Hathaway believe their own characters, so as “stock” as they can be, it’s easy to believe in their existence – at least for a few hours.

Interstellar (2014); written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, and Anne Hathaway.

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