Tagged: science fiction

Lucy (France/Taiwan/Canada 2014)

Scarlett Johansson as 'Lucy' in superhero mode sorting through thousands of phone conversations on a Paris street

Scarlett Johansson as ‘Lucy’ in superhero mode sorting through thousands of phone conversations on a Paris street

Luc Besson signalled his desire to make films in English for the international market as long ago as 1994 with Léon (known in the US as The Professional). In the mid 1990s he was loosely partnered with Matthieu Kassovitz, both striving to make big budget films as French productions with partners in Europe or Canada. Kassovitz couldn’t sustain the production role and mostly turned to his acting career but Besson has been prolific as writer, producer and director. His company EuropaCorp (set up in 1999) has become a major international integrated studio.

Lucy is bonkers – but it is entertaining and it is clever. It also indicates how alive Besson is to the potential market in East Asia. His co-production/funding partners here comprise Teléfilm Canada because of the visual effects work by Rodeo FX in Montreal and the Tapei Film Office for the location work in Taiwan. The story and casting scream ‘international’. There are two Hollywood stars, Scarlett Johansson as Lucy and Morgan Freeman (basically playing himself a ‘professor with gravitas’). The film begins with a cameo by Pilou Asbæk (star of Danish hit series Borgen) and there are secondary roles for the British actor Julian Rhind-Tutt and the Egyptian-French Amr Waked. The film’s villain is played by the South Korean star Choi Min-sik.

The narrative begins in Taipei where Lucy (Johansson), an American expat student in the city is persuaded (against her will) to make a ‘delivery’ for a friend. She is correct in suspecting that it might not be a good idea and she becomes an unwilling ‘drug mule’ for a Korean gangster. This is no ordinary drug and when a large quantity is inadvertently forced into her bloodstream she becomes possessed of superhero powers. Intercut with these events is a lecture being given in Paris by Freeman’s professor about brain capacity and the potential for expanding human brain power. Lucy then attempts to escape the gangsters and head for a meeting with the professor. The three other carriers of the remainder of the drug consignment are also bound for Europe (Paris, Rome and Berlin) hotly pursued by the gangsters. Car chases and gun battles await us as well as all kinds of CGI wizardry to represent the turmoil in Lucy’s head.

The Korean gangsters headed by Choi Min-sik

The Korean gangsters headed by Choi Min-sik

Hollywood seems to have been slightly surprised by the success of Lucy. Diehard science fiction fans have been very sniffy and reviewers have generally laughed at the film’s pretentiousness. But writer-director Besson is no mug. They laughed at The Fifth Element (1997) which made more than $250 million worldwide and Besson/EuropaCorp’s lucrative franchises Taxi, Transporter and and Taken may have many detractors but they make good profits in international markets. Lucy is one of the few films from the EuroCorp slate that Besson has written and directed himself. As well as the high quality cast, the film also features the cinematography of Thierry Arbogast and the music of Eric Serra, both long-time associates of Besson.

Putting aside, for the moment, Scarlett Johansson’s controversial decision to continue her work with the Israeli company SodaStream (with its factory in the West Bank) as its celebrity face in advertisements, there have been other controversies about Lucy. The film has been accused of racism in its representation of East Asian characters. I’m not sure this is valid. The Korean gangsters are not that dissimilar to those I have seen in Korean films. More problematic are the low level criminals in Taiwan who Lucy encounters when she first wakens after the drug takes hold. One of the main points is that she shoots a man seemingly because he can’t speak English. It’s worth remembering however that the plot suggests that at this point her ‘selfish gene’ has the upper hand and is propelling her towards ‘survival’ at any cost. She actually shoots the man in the leg to get him out of the way. As she gradually comes to realise what her new powers enable her to do, she becomes calmer and uses her powers more carefully. Having said that, the car chase she initiates causes quite a few accidents.

Lucy is entertaining, partly because Besson doesn’t take himself too seriously and there are several comic touches I enjoyed. Scarlett Johansson is very good as the student transformed into ‘action woman with a superbrain’ – a worthy successor to Anne Parillaud as Nikita and Nathalie Portman as Mathilda in Léon. And actually, Besson has been restrained in his presentation of Johansson who isn’t dressed in revealing outfits (or at least, I don’t remember any!). Given her other three action/SF roles of 2013/4 in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Her and Under the Skin, she is developing an interesting star profile. But she’s wrong about SodaStream and its factory in a settlement on the West Bank.

Here’s the EuropaCorp trailer:

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (US 2014)

A still showing the extraordinary detail in the faces of the apes.

A still showing the extraordinary detail in the faces of the apes.

My second Summer blockbuster found me in a large London multiplex screen, virtually full with a second evening house audience – the early evening show was full as well. I usually sit on the front row of the main part of the stadium seating with the four rows of non-raked seats empty. With every seat taken it was a very different experience. The audience was young (15-45?) and I see now why it isn’t surprising that London takes a disproportionately large slice of the English film audience.

I mention the audience because my attention wandered in this 130 minutes slog and I noticed people coming and going in the screening and the annoying use of a phone part way through. Apart from Omar, everyone in the critical fraternity seems to have liked this film but while it had some good points I wasn’t totally convinced. I should point out that I don’t remember seeing any of the previous ‘Apes’ films and I definitely didn’t see the immediate predecessor – so I’m not going to comment on the various prequels and sequels and re-boots. I’ll only note that the films all derive in some way from the French science fiction novel by Pierre Boulle. The ‘global’ flavour of this current film is down to the cast with nearly all of the leads from the UK and Australia. Why? I don’t know.

As I watched the film four debates/issues became apparent. The first was about technologies. The apes, here represented via ‘motion capture technologies’ and CGI, are convincing. These apes are recognisable as the other hominoid species (along with humans): chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and a single orangutan. This aspect of the film contributed to the plausibility of the general scenario – although I have no idea how apes would sound producing human-type ‘speech’. When one of the apes deliberately behaves in a way to make the humans think that he is still ‘primitive’ (rather than ‘developed’ by genetic experiment) this seemed a nice comment on the transformation. The aspect of the cinema technology which annoyed me was the lack of masking on the screen. The film was presented in 1.85: 1 but the screen itself was 2.35:1 and the blank strips at either side showed grey in the cinema. (Someone once corrected me saying that nobody noticed these things: well I do and it distracted me in several scenes.)

The trio in the centre are the surrogate family unit who will attempt to work with the apes.

The trio in the centre is the surrogate family unit who will attempt to work with the apes.

The second issue is about casting in blockbusters. It’s usually the case now that an effects-heavy film is able to dispense with A List stars. Alternatively, if the character is very well-known (i.e. Superman or other comic-book heroes) a young ‘up and coming’ star might be most suitable. Thus in this franchise film we have one genuine star in Gary Oldman as a secondary (but important) character while the key human characters are rather amorphous. By this I mean that the actors (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) while perfectly competent are not distinctive. I didn’t recognise them but thought they looked familiar in a generic way. Certainly they are not distinctive in the manner of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, two British actors, each with a strong presence but not visible behind the CGI as the two leading ape characters. Does any of this matter? I think it does in that the narrative matches the ape family of ‘Caesar’ (Serkis) with the putative family group of Clarke, Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee (she has lost her partner and daughter but teams up with the father-son duo). Kebbell’s ape character Koba is matched (less clearly) with Oldman’s. I know Hollywood is obsessed with father-son relationships, but even putting aside the marginal female role issue, the narrative would have been more interesting with Oldman as the single man trying to get close to the apes.

Issue 3 is about the overall approach to a generic ‘post-apocalypse’ narrative. I was reminded of the Spanish film I saw earlier this year, Los últimos días (2013),  with a similar premise in the aftermath of an epidemic wiping out the bulk of the human population. So we get the city festooned with creepers, trees growing in the roadways etc. and the seemingly inevitable chase down the tracks of the underground railway. In an American film there are always going to be not just weapons for survivalists but entire arsenals of weapons. My feeling was that, consciously or not, the film felt like one of those early 1970s SF films such as Soylent Green (1973) or indeed the original Apes franchise which started in 1968 and ran through into the 1970s. Like those films, this one had its serious underpinning with subtitles for much of the ape sign language. However, that seriousness began to disappear before we got to the predictable (and for me tedious) final action sequences.

And so to the film’s ideology. This isn’t clear to me. At first I thought that the film was going to be clearly pro-apist and sceptical about the humans. I was just naïve. I was disappointed with the sentimental stuff about fathers and sons and the music throughout was dreadful, signalling everything quite crudely. The film lost it for me in a short sequence where Koba seems to have taken over from Caesar and suddenly he was presented as a terrorist/dictator figure. At this point, one shot seemed to sum up the message by showing apes swarming across the ruined city with a tattered stars and stripes pointing down on a broken flagpole. Koba suddenly became the kind of leader that the US likes to defeat in the name of ‘freedom’. Note that his actions have been motivated by hate that the humans forced onto him. I won’t spoil what finally happens for those who haven’t yet seen the film, but overall I thought the ideology of this science fiction film was regressive. I thought it might have conjured up some of the adult satire of the best SF in the struggle between species but I think in the end it is just another Summer kids’ film about good guys and bad guys.

This YouTube video shows some of the remarkable motion capture transformations:

Under the Skin (UK 2013)

Alien being

Alien being

On the basis of his first two features, Sexy Beast (UK-Sp, 2000) and Birth (UK-US-Germany, 2004), there’s no doubting director Jonathan Glazer’s talent and it’s disappointing that it’s taken nine years for his third feature; but it was worth the wait. Based on Michel Faber’s unsettling novel of the same name (2000) the film follows an alien’s exploration of Scotland. Although I’ve tagged the film SF it eschews the iconography of the genre with its distinctly art house sensibility. Mark Kermode links the film to Nic Roeg’s work, particularly The Man Who Fell to Earth (UK, 1976) and the opening sequence references 2001: A Space Odyssey (US-UK 1968). However the images in the sequence, that recalls space ships docking in Kubrick’s film, consists entirely of light and transpires to be the lens that are creating Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien’s eyes. It’s a beautiful abstract image followed by an extreme close up of an eye; itself extremely beautiful.

This abstractness runs through the film, her lair is more art installation, or  video art, than SF, but it is counterbalanced by the literal realism of the alien picking up men off Glasgow streets. This was done, in the most part, candidly. Whilst I realised the scenes had the quality of being improvised but I concluded that they were just very well done as the cameras didn’t seem to be concealed. However, it transpires that Glazer used up to eight hidden cameras. Not all the men gave their permission to be used in the film; I guess it’s not everyday that a Hollywood star tries to pick you up.

The casting of Johansson is crucial as, to coin a negative stereotype of Glasgow, it’s hard to imagine someone like her being more out of place than the rough streets of the city. I’m not  sure that’s fair on Glasgow but it does work dramatically. Although Johannson’s bewigged and fake-fur dressed, there’s no disguising her sensuous lips and, entirely appropriately, she drives a white van.

Hard SF deals with ‘what it means to be human’ and the alien is therefore characterised as an ‘other’ (to human) as we can’t truly conceive of the alien. However, Glazer’s film has come closest, I think, to conceive of what an alien sensibility might be like in a disturbing scene on a beach.

Mica Levi’s music is brilliantly ‘other-worldly’, its hypnotic repetition of microtones perfectly reinforces the otherness of the mise en scène. As noted earlier, placing Johansson ‘fly-on-the-wall’ in Glasgow is other-worldly in itself but we are also invited to see the mundanity of everyday life, walking in the street, shopping etc., from the alien’s perspective. It ‘makes strange’ our reality and it didn’t look pretty. Obviously shooting in a wet Scottish winter loads the dice in this but, nevertheless, street scenes have never seemed as uncanny. However, the focus here is on, stereotypically, working class people and I’d have felt easier in accepting the film’s representation if it hadn’t been so classed based.

The narrative does develop slowly and I won’t spoil. However, true to its art house provenance, the film doesn’t explain everything. In many ways it’s an open text and I’m not sure that knowledge of the original novel is helpful, it might actually get in the way of reading the film. Casting a Hollywood star is one way of getting finance and, hopefully, an audience, but it works also entirely to this film’s purpose. Johansson is naked in a few scenes of the film and in one of them, where she examines, what is to her, her alien body I was reminded of the scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (France-Italy, 1963) where Brigitte Bardot’s body is similarly scrutinised (though there by a man). Johansson is examining her own body and maybe, in doing so, is reclaiming it from the male gaze.  Peter Bradshaw described the film as ‘very erotic, very scary’; I’m not sure about the eroticism. The alien’s seduction, she is a femme fatale, is hypnotic and matter of fact; it doesn’t know what it’s like to be sexy. Later in the film she finds out and this leads to a turning point.

Daniel Landin’s cinematography superbly captures the bleakness of the film’s world. Glazer combines the elements of the film brilliantly and this is will be one of my films of the year. Hopefully we don’t have to wait a decade for Glazer’s next outing.

¡Viva! 2014 #2: Los últimos días (Spain 2013)

The abandoned cars after the virus strikes

The abandoned cars after the virus strikes

Viva14The broad genre category of horror/science fiction/fantasy has long been popular in Spain and this latest example is a CGI-heavy CinemaScope dystopian narrative set in Barcelona after a mysterious virus associated with agoraphobia has killed most of the population caught outside their homes. This basic premise is perhaps the major weakness in what is otherwise a well-mounted and entertaining narrative. Simply being outside a building seems to bring on all kinds of physical afflictions (bleeding from the ears, frothing at the mouth, heart attacks etc.). The ‘virus’ is never really explained, except that a volcanic eruption is said to be a trigger. Otherwise people seem to be dying from mass hysteria. In one sense it doesn’t really matter – this is a classic survival/rescue story. A computer coder, Marc, is desperate to find his partner Julia who he thinks was at home in their apartment when the crisis began. Circumstances mean that he must share his quest with Enrique, the HR executive who has been sent into the company to ‘reduce staffing levels’.

The prohibition about ‘going outside’ means that the characters are forced to travel along subways and sewers, attempting to navigate precisely to ‘come up’ inside buildings. A working satnav becomes a highly-prized tool and Marc and Enrique meet the usual gangs of thugs who control food stores and who maraud along the subways. Most of the action is familiar from other films using the same repertoire. Several scenes reminded me of Havana as seen in Juan of the Dead (Cuba-Spain 2011) and aerial shots of Barcelona’s boulevards reminded me of the empty Madrid streets in Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre los ojos (Spain 1997). Underground we could be anywhere and my favourite scene (thought to be the silliest by one reviewer) is set in a church where the pair have a confrontation with an unlikely opponent. I always find church scenes in Spanish films to be intriguing. When I came out of the screening I heard one audience member explaining that Enrique was a Christ figure in the narrative. He had a point.

IMDB gives a budget estimate of 5€ million. If that is correct it is an efficient job by the two directors Àlex and David Pastor. The film doesn’t just attempt to offer constant eye-catching action but spends time on character development. They offer us an entertaining genre film with an ending that made me think of manga/anime stories. It isn’t very original but it works well in this film. The two central performances by Quim Gutiérrez as Marc and José Coronado as Enrique carry the film. I’m not sure if it is significant that one of the pair of actors is from Barcelona and one from Madrid but the film is in Castilian Spanish with only the occasional word of Catalan (some of it not subtitled I think, but some dialogue given as “spoken in Catalan). The film does appear to have got a UK DVD release from Metrodome so if you like this kind of film do look out for it.

HD Trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ky4T9cIXN5g