Arrival

I don’t know’s on third

arrivalDenis Villeneuve’s Arrival is probably the best first contact movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no abduction, no galactic civil war, no silly “grays,” and no sainted white man who has to save the Earth.  In fact, there’s only one real character: Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is summoned to translate the language of an alien race that has recently landed spacecraft in disparate locations across the globe.  Despite the fact that the militaries of every nation have more or less quarantined the “shells” from the public, conflict doesn’t seem imminent; everyone still thinks it would be a good idea to see what the aliens want first.

Louise’s present narrative, in which she teams with physicist Ian Donnelly  (Jeremy Renner), straightforward military grunt Weber (Forest Whitaker), and antagonistic CIA stooge David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) to communicate with the aliens before the rest of the world – particularly China and their de facto leader, hair-trigger General Shang (Tzi Ma) – decides that it would be less trouble to open fire, is percussed by intermittent visions of her daughter’s life.  The flashbacks (or are they?) begin with a joyous birth, meaningful moments, and all the stuff you expect from movies-apologizing-for-reality montages, but then it becomes clear that Louise’s daughter, Hannah, died in adolescence from an inoperable cancer.  The past seems to weigh heavily on Louise, who struggles for the freedom to work in the quarantined shell zone, which is kept air-tight by the army.

The aliens themselves, called “heptapods” for their seven limbs, are one of the film’s greatest achievements, visually and in terms of originality.  Absent are the expected bipedal war-monger aliens who either possess convenient translators or just want to rip into us instead of talking.  The heptapods, who are so alien I can barely describe them (maybe picture a benevolent, organic version of Mass Effect‘s “Reapers”) speak in some kind of starfish language, but actually communicate via their writing system, which is more or less a magical ink that hangs in the air for a moment, and then vanishes.  Louise, chosen for a reason, slowly begins to break down this system and learns to introduce herself to the aliens, then to ask them simple questions, deciding to hold off on the “big one,” which is of course “Why are you here?”

I call Louise the only character because the others, while competently performed, exist to provide assorted foils to her.  She’s the one whose thoughts matter, whose struggle is real, and whose painful memories we have access to.  Whitaker’s character just wants to get this job finished and go home, preferably without getting court-marshaled for letting Louise go too far (though it is a bit convenient that she ended up supervised by someone so understanding, rather than Petraeus or Major Paine or some shit).  Stuhlbarg’s character is there because there needs to be an asshole government employee who reaches his boiling point before anyone else (and if Boardwalk Empire taught us anything, it’s that Michael Stuhlbarg is good at being reserved for a long time and then exploding).  Jeremy Renner isn’t actually in the film too much, which isn’t a bad thing, as his character isn’t important (honestly, for all Donnelly is good for, he could have been played by an extra whose face you never see – he serves the same purpose as Topher Grace’s character in Interstellar, although that movie seems extraordinarily silly compared to this one).

The titular “arrival” really has nothing to do with aliens.  Consider the fact that the source material is a novella called “Story of Your Life.” As it turns out (spoilers ahead), the heptapods do not even experience time the same way we do.  Instead, they experience all time periods at once, knowing from the time they are born exactly how and when they will die.  They’ve come to Earth because they have foreseen an undisclosed cataclysm that will impact them in three thousand years, and already know that they will need the help of humans to deal with it (sidenote: I’m not sure they should bank on humans being around for that long).  Therefore, they’ve come to Earth to gain our trust now.  In order to communicate this to the rest of the world, however, Louise needs to absorb this ability from the heptapods, and essentially travel to the future to stop Shang from obliterating China’s heptapod shell.  The kicker: that’s what we’ve been experiencing the whole time.  The visions of Hannah haven’t happened yet.

While the film is saying something about free will, it isn’t just asking whether you’d take the same path if you knew what was going to happen to you in the future (although it asks Louise to make that choice).  In a film like Another Earth, where a mirror planet’s versions of all of us have followed the same narrative right up until becoming aware of one another (essentially saying that we were all slaves to our destiny until that moment) Arrival (and its source story) assert that free will means not changing the timeline when tempted to.  In the original story, these ideas are conveyed via tenses – future tense for the daughter visions, past tense for the heptapod interactions – but you don’t have to study Fermat’s Principle to get it: Louise’s choice to conceive Hannah despite knowing how the girl’s life will end confirms the existence of choice itself, and that such a thing can seem monumental in the face of an inevitable future space war is amazing. Would we call it a “pro-choice” film, then?

arrival2c_movie_posterArrival (2016); based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; screenplay by Eric Heisserer; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams.

 

 

Advertisements

Star Trek Beyond

I like the beats and shouting

jaylahI gave Into Darkness some flack for lifting imagery and design material from the Mass Effect series, and joked to myself about what they might steal this time.  Lo and behold: Star Trek Beyond‘s entire premise is taken from the opening of Mass Effect 2, wherein Commander Shepard’s ship is attacked by never-before-seen aliens who decimate her beloved Normandy (replaced with the Enterprise here), “take” members of her crew, and possess technology that converts people into gray fluid.  Is this kind of pseudo-plagiarism commonplace because video games aren’t considered an art form, so any good ideas found in the gaming realm are fair game for use in something bigger and more important?  This question is half-rhetorical.  I’ve been playing video games since I was a child, and have had some of the most meaningful emotional experiences I’ve gotten from visual media by playing certain games, but I’ve only ever played one game that I would consider a pure work of art.  Still, even though this is conventional sci-fi fare, you’re taking someone’s work.

Gear shift here.  Despite all the ways in which Beyond‘s trailer looks like the filmmakers are phoning in an obligatory threequel, this is my favorite of the three.  Beyond feels the most like an actual episode of Star Trek, makes better use of its cast of women (and let’s face it: all it had to do was stop painting Uhura and others as yelping ingenues and scolding wives, but it goes beyond that – it’s aptly titled), normalizes same-gender (and different-species) relationships, and valiantly tries to make a group of relatively bland people who have no real stake in whether they discover anything during their five-year exploration mission endearing enough to an audience that they remember why so many of these damned series (and films) were made in the first place.

Kirk (Chris Pine, still less interesting than he was in Smokin’ Aces) is three years into his five-year stint as captain of a Starfleet exploration gig, and is oddly tolerable this time. His hair is more Shatner-y, and he seems to have grown up a bit (though he’s conveniently forgotten the time his remorseless recklessness got dozens of his own crew jettisoned into space).  Still, the womanizing fratboy is gone, and he seems to genuinely want to be a good leader, even going so far as recommending Spock (Zachary Quinto) for the captain’s chair if he should be unable to fulfill the duty.

Spock himself is more fun to spend time with now as well, partly because his tumultuous relationship with Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) happens between movies.  Interesting implications arise when he learns that Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has died, which in turn lets Spock know when exactly he’s going to die (or does it?  It’s not made clear whether that’s a rule, but Spock’s moroseness at the news certainly points in this direction).  His trajectory involves his coming to terms with this, as well as being paired with Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) in an adventure where he must rely on the beleaguered doctor for medical help and moral support.  Banter, friendly insults, etc. (never quite hilarity) ensue.  For better and worse, the focus on Spock’s survivor’s guilt is lessened, so while he’s less of a downer, he’s not as sharply drawn, nor is he much different from anyone else wearing a blue shirt (he just acts more like Abed than the rest do).

The supporting cast gets supporting-cast stuff to do, while their collective conflict surrounds escaping a planet that has become something of a ship graveyard after the Collecto – erm, I mean, a group of hostile bipeds have wrecked ship after ship there. These villains are led by Krall (Idris Elba), a hulking goblin who sounds like he’s perpetually out of breath and whose only motivation (until the final ten minutes of the movie) seems to be For the Evulz.  Funnily enough, he’s one of the two best things about the film, particularly once he’s actually played by Idris Elba (i.e. with reduced/no makeup).  At this point, he becomes something like a space-age Stringer Bell, albeit with much more black-and-white goals (he’s a former Starfleet captain who became disillusioned after the Federation made peace with the Romulans and other enemies, making the sacrifices of his people a waste, not to mention abandoning his ship, the Franklin, on an uncharted world – it’s a pretty good twist, not something you usually hear me say).  He’s the perfect foil to a reformed Kirk, who (while also having laughably black-and-white motivations and alignments) honestly tries to understand his opponent rather than just shouting “Let’s kick ass” and having at it.

Regrettably, Krall’s ultimate goal of pushing back against Federation expansion (an allegory for indigenous people vs. colonizing) isn’t given enough time or depth, so by the time the film ends, we’re not really sure whether Kirk was “supposed” to win or not.  He claims that he would “rather die saving lives than live with taking them,” but he never apologizes for doing it before, nor do the filmmakers give Krall much opportunity to explain whether Federation expansion would obliterate the Frontier races.  Thus, Krall appears to us as the Founding Fathers portrayed our Natives to the public (and how the current media portrays every other person with a different idea): a ruthless terrorist whose extremism overwrites the validity of his grievances.

The other best part of the film is newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a loner also confined to the uncharted world, living in the shell of the Franklin.  She’s one of a million Star Trek species who just look like humans with funny makeup, but some weight and respect is given to her character: she’s been severely wronged by Krall’s people, her family was killed by Krall’s right-hand dude (whom she conveniently gets to duel to the death in the scene immediately after she reveals this), and she’s lived a difficult life in the planet’s wastes.  The film’s crowded cast makes Jaylah seem like the protagonist of a really cool survival movie we’re not allowed to see, although her scenes with Scotty (Simon Pegg) are genuinely endearing at times (plus she gets to lead her own scenes, including tthe aforementioned fight, albeit with a lightweight Elite Mook who only exists to make the movie seem like it cares about Jaylah – points for effort).  Ultimately, Jaylah joining Starfleet serves as a way to say, “Hey, the Frontier races and the Federation can coexist without murdering each other,” but it’s a conversation that should be had onscreen.  Leaving it out makes Krall something of a tragic would-be hero.

Ripoffs of other things aside (seriously though, didn’t they have enough material they could use from, say, I don’t know, STAR TREK?), the worst I can say about Beyond is that it wastes its supporting villains, phones in some CGI, and delivers so many obligatory plot points that one begins to lose faith in how interesting the rest of the universe actually is: what’s the point of leaving Earth if every planet’s genre fiction follows the same formula?

220px-star_trek_beyond_posterStar Trek Beyond (2016); written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung; directed by Justin Lin; starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella.

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.

Lucy

The Great Transhuman Empire

lucyHere’s a fact.  The name Lucy was given to the first “person” we know about: a 3.2 million year-old hominid, whose discovery proved that our taxonomic family was bipedal before our brain size increased, shedding further light on human evolution (i.e. which primates we came from).  Here’s a fact about that Lucy: she used 100% of her brain capacity, and so do I, and so do you.

Ignoring the film’s issue of presenting urban legend as science (see here), Lucy lists between human drama and sci-fi goofiness, occasionally trying to remake Akira and 2001: a Space Odyssey in its structure and imagery.  The title character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a grad student abroad in Taipei.  Her boyfriend of one week is worried that his employer, who overpays him for simple courier services, is up to something devious, and tricks Lucy into making today’s delivery in his place.  Of course, this is the day his employer, Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) is expecting the delivery of a volatile drug that he and his identically black-suited mooks will sell for a fortune in Europe.  Jang decides to use Lucy as a drug mule, sewing a package of the drug – a tiny blue crystal – into her stomach.

While she’s being held, Lucy is assaulted by a bored henchman, who accidentally ruptures the package inside her and releases the drug into her bloodstream.  Just like that, she knows Kung Fu, how to use a handgun, how to navigate the city on her own, and how to fearlessly use violence and intimidation to get people to do what she wants.  She escapes captivity, has the package removed from her abdomen, and finds out what it is: CPH4 (made up by Besson, at least as far as its name), a synthesized version of a substance that pregnant women produce to help a fetus grow.  Apparently, when you ingest a whole bunch of this as an adult, you gain telekinetic abilities and all sorts of insight into how the universe works, as well as gradually losing your humanity in the process.  Lucy, who somehow knows what’s happening to her, phones her mother and reveals that she now vividly remembers details of her infancy, including nursing.  She then launches a solo attack on Jang, whom she inexplicably refuses to kill after decimating his security force and reading his mind in order to glean the whereabouts of the other three drug mules (she needs more CPH4 to continue transcending her own abilities).

Meanwhile, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) lectures a French university on what might happen if humans could harness a larger percentage of their cerebral capacity (I feel compelled to again point out that this is all nonsense; humans use one-hundred-percent of our brains at all times, and Besson should be embarrassed not only for perpetuating a dangerous myth, but for insisting that he spent years on this film’s “science” before even writing a script – Freeman delivers his lecture while his facial expressions tell us “Everything I’m saying is bullshit, and so can you!”).  With her newfound omniscience, Lucy discovers his research, reads all six-thousand pages of it in seconds, and hashes over the meaning of life with him.  Through a few conversations made up of profound tripe, they decide that the purpose of existence is to pass on knowledge, and Lucy devises a way to allow humans to finally learn to “use” their lives once she’s gone.  As she travels from country to country, memory to memory, era to era, she keeps French police captain Del Rio (Amr Waked) around as a “reminder” that she’s human (How so?  Because he’s handsome?), all the while being stalked by the Korean gangsters she left alive for plot convenience.

What works about the film is Scarlett Johansson.  The bad science and derivative story don’t get a pass, but with Johansson’s voice, what could have been a tough sit becomes pretty engaging, even in a universe where the highest of minds produce philosophical drivel that wouldn’t impress a mildly well-educated middle-schooler.  But carry the film as Johansson might, a character needs to be characterized.  She almost is, but the plot gets in the way far too early, and the effects of the drug cause Lucy’s personality to become increasingly stoic and robotic.  But we still root for her, and it’s hard not to when her opponents are essentially the Devil (I mean, come on; does anyone imagine that Mr. Jang and his seemingly regenerative mooks have actual home lives?).  The biggest difference between she and her Akira predecessor, Tetsuo, is that Tetsuo’s inferiority complex and lack of control led him to transmogrifying legions of people into puddles of gore at the wave of a hand, whereas Lucy would rather leave them in suspended humiliation as she casually leaves the room in stiletto heels, taking their prized MacGuffins with her.

As for the rest of the cast, Waked shows some real versatility as the bewildered-but-capable police captain, and Choi, prolific as he is, turns it off to play a villain who has to be menacing no matter what he’s doing.  The Professor character, maybe, should have been played by someone other than Morgan Freeman.  Nothing against him; quite the opposite – a thin character’s thinness is made even more obvious when a famous actor, known for complex and intense performances, is relegated to inhabiting it.  The result is, “Hey, there’s Morgan Freeman doing something,” not “Hey, this film needed this character.”  In fact, the whole thing would have been passable if Lucy had gained the powers from the drug the exact same way, but without including the brain-capacity angle.  Think of how much room there would have been for characterization without all the big-headed pontificating and fake jargon.

The real emotional apex occurs when Lucy, in the 2001 part of the film, briefly travels back to the time of the primordial Lucy, who is busy drinking from a river.  Present-day Lucy extends her finger, and old furry ape Lucy reciprocates, recreating Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, but with two women (not to mention at least one person who actually existed).  I love that this can happen in a film, and that this film can outsell Dwayne Johnson’s leviathan-esque biceps.

Lucy (2014); written and directed by Luc Besson; starring Scarlett Johansson, Choi Min-sik, and Morgan Freeman.

Snowpiercer

Size ten chaos

snowpiercerYour first hint about the depth of Snowpiercer is that it’s named after a gigantic plot device: a self-sustaining train that bashes through solid walls of ice and snow in order to continue its eternal loop around the world.  The film is effectively the underdog version of Edge of Tomorrow: based on dystopic graphic novels, starring a reliable Hollywood actor, and far more concerned with what’s happening than why it’s happening or why anyone should care.  Which parts, I wonder, did Harvey Weinstein want to trim or change?

The story takes place after humans attempt to combat global warming, and instead cause a new ice age that apparently wipes out all life on Earth, though I’m not sure whose in-universe conclusion that was.  Either way, the remaining people have taken refuge on the aforementioned train, whose magic engine is responsible for sustaining the lives of the few thousand humans left.  A few issues already: why can’t they just turn on the engine and keep the train at a standstill?  The treacherous snowstorms at every turn aren’t exactly facilitating the goal of survival.  Also, even with the great length of the train, a few thousand people are not enough to keep the human race alive, so it’s kind of an all-for-nothing game already, but the narrative itself seems unaware of that, so we’re left to suspend our disbelief.

We start with Curtis (Chris Evans), a Boring Hero who has become sick of the caste system put in place by those who run the front of the train.  Those in the “tail section,” including Curtis’s friends Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Edgar (Jamie Bell), as well as one-armed/one-legged mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), live in squalor and eat nothing but blocks of protein that look like Jell-O and probably taste much less pleasant.  The story begins as a small army of mooks shows up and inexplicably takes away two of the tail section’s children, much to the chagrin of Curtis and Edgar, who spend five minutes speaking in exposition in a scene that would have been much more effective (and no less clear) if they hadn’t said anything at all.  A would-be riot occurs, during which inciter Andrew (Ewan Bremner) throws a shoe at the wrong person: Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton at her hammiest), who then makes an example of Andrew by making him stick his arm out the window of the train, exposing it to the cold until it is frozen and useless.  Then they slam it with a carnival mallet, because it’s fun to watch stuff shatter, and let’s face it, there’s nothing better to do.

Through some of the exposition, we gather that there was an attempt at revolution four years ago, but no one has been able to run the gauntlet to the front of the train.  But during today’s kidnapping, Curtis notices that Mason’s soldiers do not have bullets in their guns.  Gilliam agrees: these guys come in here with guns every day, but have never even fired a warning shot.  The next time they try something, Curtis rallies every able body in the tail section, including Tanya, whose son was one of the children abducted.  The good guys defeat the guards and rush through the gates that they’re not allowed to pass.  The movie still has two hours left, and it waits almost that long to try to develop the characters (y’know, after most of them are dead).

From here, Snowpiercer becomes a relentless Game-of-Death-style battle movie, in which each train car involves a different type of fighting, ranging from various Bull-shitsu to unnecessary slow-motion kills to Zero Dark Thirty found-footage night-vision.  The one bit of story that happens in between involves the freeing of Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the film’s Belligerent Savant, from the prison car, along with his supposedly clairvoyant (because that’s normal!) daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung).  Nam is the creator of the gates that separate the train cars, so Curtis’s troupe needs him if they’re going to get far.  Through one thing and another, Curtis, Nam, and Yona make it to the end, where the two men have a heart-to-heart about whether they should open the final gate that leads to Wilford, the Godot Character who rules the train, or just blow a hole in the side of the car they’re in and see if they can survive outside (Nam has evidence that the snow is melting, but it’s mostly a blind-faith idea).  Just in time, Curtis is invited to the obligatory Dinner at the Ivory Tower, after which he has to choose whether to become the new, erm, “conductor,” as it were.

The scene prior to this, nearly two hours into the film, is the first time anything is revealed about Curtis and his motivations.  It’s a pretty good scene, but we needed it much earlier, before the exhausting battles and slaughter.  Chris Evans can act; there’s no question about that after The Iceman, but it would be nice if he were given the opportunity to do so before we’re asked to support his violent coup.  Sadly, his steak dinner with Wilford, which is thankfully not rushed (and which reveals that, much like the revolution in The Matrix, this revolt was planned by Wilford and Gilliam in order to keep the population of the train under control), brings attention to an important bit of Fridge Logic: why does the caste system exist in the first place?  No reason is given for the horrid conditions of the tail section, and it’s not as if finances have anything to do with it, since there’s no currency in this particular dystopia, just the damn train.  And after enduring so much intense violence, the lack of answers or depth is a real groin-punch, and it opens the sluice gates for a zillion other questions we’d have been willing to keep quiet about if we’d gotten some attempt at resolution or character development: why, if Wilford has spent his entire life obsessed with trains, does he never use one bit of correct railroad terminology?  How/why did the government greenlight the construction of a train that spans the entire world and never stops running?  How does a community of people survive on pure protein, without fruits and vegetables, without getting scurvy?  Why does Curtis react the way he does when he realizes that the protein blocks are made of processed insects?  People eat those in real life, and in many areas, are pretty happy to have them.  What is Minister Mason (Swinton’s character) “minister” of?  Why is she, in all her madcap glory, cast aside early and replaced by a silent Übermook?  How does such a large percentage of such a small human society have the exact body-type and low-rent aspirations conducive to becoming monstrous security guards who stand in a room all day, waiting for opponents to show up?  Why do they wear black masks?  Why use unreliable weapons like axes when the exact outcome of the battle is so vital to Wilford’s plan?  Why does a genius like Wilford think that cutting down an already-reproductively-insignificant population by 70% will ensure the survival of the human race?  Why keep the tail-section people in filth, poverty, and boredom, without even giving them the option to work jobs or somehow contribute, and then blame them for being useless?  Why keep them alive at all if you only want them for their children, when the people in the front are clearly reproducing too?  How did Edgar ever know what steak smelled like if he was born on the train?  Why are all the women either bereft mothers or vilified?  Does anyone not comprehend what Mason’s painfully obvious innuendo about keeping the aquarium population balanced is an allegory for?

Most important of all, if Curtis’s anger is based around the fact that he hates himself for becoming a selfish, deranged cannibal when he and his people were first corralled into the tail section – a scenario that almost saw him kill and eat the infant Edgar, after killing his mother, when food was scarce – how does he so readily abandon Edgar to die at the hands of Wilford’s forces, and then later execute a woman at pointblank range, right after ordering one of his mates to kill yet another woman (this time a pregnant teacher played by Alison Pill)?  Are we really supposed to sympathize with him after this?  It’s almost as if Curtis was deepened as an afterthought, without retrospect.  Does he really think he’s going to make humanity better by killing most of the remaining people?  Are we supposed to be inspired by the ending, in which two whole people survive the ordeal?  Good news for the polar bears.  Not so much for the humans.

The problem is the same one so many films and TV series have: the abundance of answers, and complete absence of justifications.  The focus on plot and not on characters.  We can’t care about what happens if we don’t care about the people it happens to.  Again and again, these House of Cards plots dictate a film’s story, and any coincidental characterization serves only to string one noisy, desensitizing fight scene to the next one.  Everyone loves to guess who will still be alive by the end, rather than get to know anyone before they’re put on the chopping block.

One piece of advice for aspiring dystopians: don’t struggle to have a point.  Don’t orbit some shopworn theme or broad idea.  Have a character worth caring about, and don’t kill them for shock value.  The rest is pretty easy.

Snowpiercer (2014); based on the graphic novels Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob; written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson; directed by Bong Joon-ho; starring Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-sung, and Song Kang-ho.