The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (US 2014)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 July 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:

Posted in Hollywood | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Under the Skin (UK 2013)

Posted by nicklacey on 16 April 2014

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.

Posted in British Cinema | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

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

Posted by Roy Stafford on 18 March 2014

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

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Spanish Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Her (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 February 2014

Theodore waits for his new OS to load – and become 'Samantha'.

Theodore waits for his new OS to load – and become ‘Samantha’.

A few years ago Her might have been called a ‘smart film’ – made for and appreciated by a specific niche audience (of well-educated, arthouse patrons). In 2013-4 it has taken $23 million at the box office in North America and I’ll be intrigued to see how it does in the UK. It already has an IMDB score of 8.4 and 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. I found it an ‘interesting film’, well worth seeing but not completely satisfying. It’s been described as a romcom which I don’t think is helpful. I would say that it is a hard science fiction film utilising comedy. I realise that this won’t be a common reaction, but I can argue a case.

I find it very difficult not to see most SF films coming out of the US as anything other than Dickian narratives – i.e. inspired in some way by the ideas of Phil K. Dick. Possibly I haven’t read enough or I became obsessed by Dick at a particular moment in my cultural education and I can’t throw him off. Still, I can imagine this as one of Phil’s short stories. Set in the ‘near future’, Her focuses on Theodore (itself a Dickian name, referring to ‘God’s gift’). He’s in early middle age, recently separated from his wife and working as a writer of emotionally-charged letters for customers who are themselves less than emotionally literate. His social life is as he indicates a non-choice between internet porn and videogames. One day he buys a new Operating System, ‘OS1′, for his phone/computer and promptly falls into a relationship with the artificial intelligence who voices the software and calls ‘herself’ Samantha. I don’t want to give away any more than that (though in contemporary cinema, blogs and promo material tend to tell you everything).

The film looks beautiful. It is shot in LA and Shanghai which provides cityscapes and, I suspect, the High Speed train that takes Theo on holiday. The photography is by the Hoyte van Hoytema who has worked in Sweden, UK and North America and the costume design with its distinctive (but hideous) high-waisted pants for men combine to create a world of warmed-up pastels and bland environments. The music, mostly by the Canadian band Arcade Fire, surprised me by sounding a little twee for my taste but it worked in terms of the narrative. Joaquin Phoenix as Theo and Amy Adams as his close friend give good performances and Rooney Mara copes well with the difficult role of Theo’s wife. The problem is that as a film the narrative poses problems for writer-director Spike Jonze. Many scenes consist of shots of Joaquin Phoenix talking to Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) via his smartphone’s integrated microphone. I confess that people who talk on their mobiles in public via earphone/mike combinations drive me almost to murder so I was aggravated by these long sequences. OK, perhaps that is an extreme reaction, but these sequences are not cinematic. The Amy Adams character is trying to construct a documentary film about sleeping. This – and the reactions to it from Theo and Amy’s husband – make for an interesting commentary on the overall narrative of the film.

There is a great deal of talk about relationships – and about sex. There is little sexual activity on screen though I did find one scene strangely arousing. I’m not sure that there is much ‘romance’ and for me not much emotion. More important, I think is the satire on social relations in this future world. And what a sanitised world it is – seemingly ‘cleansed’ of old people, poor people, black people, disabled people etc. I was reminded at various points of Charlie Kaufman’s script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don’t think Her is as good.

I am intrigued by the discovery that Samantha Morton is the Executive Producer on the film and that she was initially the voice of the OS. It seems that her voice was replaced for production reasons. I’m a huge Samantha Morton fan and I do wonder what her voice would have contributed. Johansson does a good job, but it would have been a different element in the mix as voiced by Morton.

Her did make me laugh at various times, not because of the romance but more because of the recognition of human frailties in the face of artificial intelligence. I think the film could lose 30 minutes and it might have benefited from more, not less, ‘plot’. I don’t regret 126 mins in the cinema and I enjoyed the overall experience, but as with American Hustle, if this is one of the Oscar choices, American cinema is in trouble. The film is in some ways ‘global’ but its sensibility seems to be the wan emotionless world of Southern California.

Posted in American Independents, Comedies | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 January 2014

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Attending this screening with Rona felt a little like a cultural studies day out. There was a big audience for a 4 pm showing in the Hebden Bridge Picture House – young teenagers and some parents and grandparents. I didn’t count them but my impression was that the audience was more female than male. This was a different experience to watching part 1 of the franchise in an early evening show in Cineworld with the usual dozen people in a 200-250 seat cinema. Since then the franchise has really taken off and Jennifer Lawrence has become the star of the moment.

Our interest in the film is principally in terms of a social phenomenon. I remember enjoying Part 1 but finding it insubstantial apart from Ms Lawrence and the presence of Donald Sutherland, an old favourite. At the beginning of part 2, I realised that after 18 months I had forgotten most of the other characters (and most of the plot details) and it took me a while to get up to speed. It’s a long film at 146 mins and although never bored I did find myself reflecting on the nature of blockbusters. Half the film is a variation on the first film with more sophisticated games (with much more spent on effects) and the other half deals with the politics of preparing the contestants. This half has moved on and allowed some development of the theme of resistance in the fascist state that created the games. So, on the one hand we have a film that increasingly resembles the experience of playing a game (but I’m not a gamer and I might be reading this incorrectly?) and on the other at least the possibility of some kind of political comment. Critics and audiences have seemingly found this irresistible since the film is one of the biggest box office successes of the year with over $800 million worldwide. Half of that comes from North America suggesting that the international appeal is slightly less (the ‘normal’ split is more like 37:63). I’m not sure how to read that and it may be something worth investigating. Like the Twilight franchise, The Hunger Games is not a major studio release and the international market may be a harder sell for Lionsgate.

There can’t be too much doubt that much of the film’s success is based on the performance and star persona of Jennifer Lawrence. A genuine female action hero is hard to achieve. All the comic book female heroes seem to end up in some kind of  fetish gear outfit like Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, in leather like Kate Beckinsale in Underworld or in hot pants like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Ms Lawrence does wear a wet suit in Hunger Games but her appearance is much more like a triathlete in the Olympics with a body for fighting not posing. She looks terrific without make-up but she can still carry off the twirl in a fantastic wedding dress. She’s a young woman with a great mind, a great body and a healthy attitude, no wonder she is a potential role model. She carries the film but I did wonder, sitting amongst a large audience, exactly how they were interacting with her screen presence. I was surprised that I didn’t feel more of the excitement of the audience. Instead there was the stillness of rapt attention.

I would concur with the critics who see this as a highly competent directorial effort by Francis Lawrence (perhaps helped by Simon Beaufoy’s addition to the writing team). The money is on the screen and the addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a major plus. The ending of the film is well-handled, setting up the next in the franchise. I think, however, that the ‘political’ theme has been over-hyped and I did find most of the other characters rather bland and unmemorable. I know the film isn’t aimed at me and the target audience won’t have seen many of the earlier films referenced – or have the same bored response to a satire on reality TV. I excuse Jena Malone from the bland tag. I recognised her from Donnie Darko and she injected a bit of extra life. Otherwise Jennifer Lawrence commands the screen.

One one trail for the film I spotted a typo in the director’s name which was listed as ‘Frances’ Lawrence. That did make me wonder why the film doesn’t have a female director – who might have a clearer idea of how to exploit the star power of Jennifer Lawrence in even more productive ways for the benefit of a young female audience?

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World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, West Germany, 1973)

Posted by nicklacey on 3 September 2013

(Not) SF iconography

(Not) SF iconography

I stumbled across this Rainer Werner Fassbinder + SF recently and was intrigued to see what the master of melodrama would do with the genre. Predictably, I guess, Fassbinder did what he normally did: use a highly stylised mise en scene to great effect. The two-part television production, Fassbinder made a number of TV films, was based on Daniel F Galouye’s novel, Simulacron-3 (1964); later remade as The Thirteenth Floor (Germany-US, 1999). I won’t give too much away of the intriguing narrative which, while it may not have inspired The Matrix, certainly was a precursor.

Sensibly Fassbinder eschewed SF iconography though, as this excellent essay points out, they shot some scenes in Paris shopping malls, places that looked futuristic in West Germany at the time. Instead Fassbinder ramps up his usual stylised mise en scene with elaborate set-ups and playful imagery, such as the one above. He also uses telephoto zooms imaginatively to give the narrative world an unsettling quality. Mirrors are typically used in melodrama to signify issues of identity and so Fassbinder was clearly at home with much of the plot which focuses upon Fred Stiller’s (Klaus Lowitsch) attempt to find out the truth about the computer simulated world he is working on.  Lowitsch is one of many Fassbinder regulars and recognising the actors adds a surreal quality to the film as they are playing out of their usual genre.

I thoroughly enjoyed part one but the first hour of the second episode focused on a fairly unconvincing ‘chase Fred’ narrative; and the ending didn’t satisfy. However, Fassbinder wasn’t simply addressing melodramatic questions of identity, he was also making a political point about private interests influencing government policy. Forty years on issues of identity (privacy) in cyberspace, and the influence of business interests, are more relevant that ever. World on a Wire is certainly worth a watch by fans of SF and Fassbinder.

Posted in German Cinema, TV | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Prometheus (UK/US 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 8 June 2012

Noomi Rapace as archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw in ‘Prometheus’

Prometheus is a good example of ‘Global Hollywood’ and its release in 2012 points to several aspects of how Hollywood is coping with the evolving global film ecology. The film is a prequel of sorts to the Alien franchise which began in 1979 with three further instalments (and two more related to the Predator franchise) over the next thirty years.

The production cost an estimated $130-140 million to produce and a great deal to market ($60 million if the 50% of production cost rule applies). Only a Hollywood studio could afford that kind of money. It was produced by three companies, two American and one British for the studio major 20th Century Fox. Producer-director Ridley Scott is British, the scriptwriters are American. The principal technical credits are for Europeans who are all US residents (Polish cinematographer, Italian film editor, German music composer). There are thirteen speaking parts in the film and these are played by five English, two Scottish, one South-African, one Irish-German, one Australian, one Swedish-Spanish and two American actors. Having said that, all the principals are known to American film and television audiences. As if to add to the confusion, the art director Arthur Max is an American who has worked mostly in the UK. The film was shot mainly on Pinewood sets in the UK and on location in Iceland, Scotland and Spain. The extensive visual effects work was carried out in the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.

Trying to assign ‘nationality’ to a film like Prometheus is clearly pointless. IMDB currently describes it as a ‘US’ production. That must be wrong. If anything it is a British production using international talent and facilities, all of which are paid for with American money (though of course that money probably comes ultimately from a variety of sources).

Prometheus is a ‘tentpole’ release by 20th Century Fox, a News Corporation company. Its release strategy follows that of Avengers Assemble (or whatever it is called internationally!) in releasing to the ‘International’ market a week before the ‘domestic’ North American release. I haven’t yet seen a convincing argument as to why this development has taken place. We know that ‘international’ is now twice the size of ‘domestic’ but that doesn’t explain why it necessarily comes first. In the UK, Prometheus opened on 1,019 screens with 73% of box office coming from 3D presentations (UK multiplexes are now almost completely converted to digital projection). Given that the opening date coincided with the Jubilee celebrations this was perhaps an odd decision. On the other hand, it was also a school holiday (it’s a ’15’ release) and the weather in the UK has been terrible – which is always good for the box office. I expect a healthy total for the full week following a weekend screen average of $10,000 (though the inflated cost of 3D presentations disguises the admissions numbers). The film opens in the US today.

But what about the film as a narrative? It deals with a mission at the end of the 21st century to find an alien civilisation which may have visited the Earth 3,000 years ago – as seen on cave paintings. (This idea is loosely drawn from The Chariot of the Gods, the 1968 book by Erich von Däniken.) The ship’s crew find the remains of an alien base, which at first appears derelict, but then . . . etc.

I confess that I’m not a Ridley Scott fan. His films are brilliantly ‘visualised’ and always contain exciting sequences – but most of the time they are also confused and messy in their storytelling. On a few occasions Scott has had a decent script and a strong cast and the film is a standout – I give you Thelma and Louise and Alien. (I still can’t forgive the scriptwriters for what they did to Phil K. Dick’s work in Blade Runner.) Unfortunately, I have to agree with what I think is the majority verdict on this, his latest film. Prometheus looks great, the cast is terrific and the script is pretty ropey. (I watched a 2D version.)

Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are terrific, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron have less to do but certainly have a presence and with supporting cast as strong as Kate Dickie, Sean Harris, Timothy Spall and Benedict Wong there shouldn’t really be a problem (the casting and the theme of the film are very reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s underrated Sunshine).

There will no doubt be a sequel (i.e. at least one more prequel to Alien) but I hope that more work goes on the script. I’ll just mention one irritating script element. At the beginning of the film a credit tells us that the ‘Prometheus’ has a crew of 17 – yet only 10 of the crew have lines of dialogue. In a confined space like the ship, doesn’t it seem lazy to have nearly half the crew as simple, mute spear carriers?

I think in the end that this ‘global film’ isn’t in fact ‘global’ enough. It will be interesting to see how it fares at the box office outside Europe and North America. An English-speaking audience will hear its ‘Britishness’ in the dialogue but that will be lost in dubbing. In the first week, Prometheus was released in 15 territories and entered the international chart at No 3. It failed to beat Men In Black 3 (in 90 territories) and Snow White and the Huntsman (in 45 territories). The comparison with Snow White is significant. That film was in its second week in some territories but its screen average was still higher than that of Prometheus. The grittier, more ‘realist’ end of science fiction is not such a global attraction as comedy and romance/fantasy.

Many territories will see the film as simply ‘American’. On the other hand, there is not a specifically American ideological feel about the story – though it does have a ‘creationist’ discourse which I assume will resonate more in the US than it does over here. It’s worth remembering that the original Alien was written by Dan O’Bannon (co-creator of one of my favourite science fiction films Dark Star (1974)) during the counter-culture years in Southern California – indeed, Wikipedia suggests that the Alien script was developed from Dark Star. I don’t know if that influenced the sense of corporate exploitation of space with its truculent crew but the Alien films seem quite different in ideological terms to the Star Trek franchise (which has always felt like an odd combination of progressive, liberal ideas married to an American military ethos).

It’s going to be interesting to see how feminist film studies approaches this ‘re-boot’ of the Alien franchise. And I’m particularly looking forward to the analysis of Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw v. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, triangulated with Noomi as Lisbeth Salander. I suspect that Ms Rapace is here to stay. She looks and sounds different – and she is an outstanding acting talent.

Posted in British Cinema, Hollywood | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

In Time (US 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 November 2011

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried 'on the run' – a reminder of 'The Adjustment Bureau' (but without hats!)?

In Time seemed to come out of nowhere. That’s what happens when you don’t watch American films or TV on a regular basis. The plot sounded interesting but when I heard that it was  an Andrew Niccol movie I was determined to see it. Niccol is the closest filmmaker I know to aspects of 1950s/60s science fiction literature. His script for The Truman Show was quasi-Dickian. Gattaca is a favourite film for many reasons – not least its production design and cinematography. (Niccol, a New Zealander, worked in the advertising films business in London and he seems to have good contacts.) S1mone was, if nothing else, an original idea that satirised Hollywood and celebrity (simulacra and celebrity – another Dickian theme). I haven’t seen Lord of War – a satire of a different kind – but it has many supporters. In Time is said to be very similar in its narrative ideas to a Harlan Ellison short story ”Repent Harlequin! said the Ticktock Man’ written in 1965. Ellison appears to have filed a plagiarism suit against 20th Century Fox but there doesn’t seem to be any injunction against the film’s release.

In Time finds Niccol back in potentially Dickian territory. It has elements of Minority Report (a dogged policeman chasing the hero through an alternative future/present landscape), some design ideas that at least remind us of the intelligence of Gattaca, an underclass borrowed from Soylent Green and The Matrix and it ends like Bonnie and Clyde. What’s not to like? Best of all it offers the most sustained critique of a capitalist system (in which time is literally money and is accumulated by the few to oppress the many) that you are likely to see in mainstream cinema. Perhaps this is why the film has been deemed something of a flop in North America, but a hit in the rest of the world. With plenty more openings to come the ‘International Box Office’ is nearly twice North America. According to Box Office Mojo it has taken $13 million in Russia, but only $30 million in North America. In the UK, audiences have made it into a successful release despite only moderately good reviews. In some ways I think that the film is working like The Adjustment Bureau – which it resembles in narrative ideas and overall feel. With senses dulled by a succession of clunky action pictures, I imagine some mainstream audiences have been surprised to find a film that has intelligence, a romance of sorts and some good performances in amongst the obligatory car chases.

Cillian Murphy as the 'Time Keeper' – the display behind him lists 'time as money'.

The basic premise is that this alternative society has evolved to the point where genetics and medicine are able to keep the population alive indefinitely. But to maintain control, the rich have developed a system which decrees that when anyone reaches the age of 25 they must ‘buy’ extra years of life in order to stay alive. The ‘life bank balance’ is displayed on the forearm and paying for anything is like giving up blood or receiving a transfusion of new funds when payments are received. When your time runs out, you die immediately. The elite have thousands of years available but the poor live, like the working classes have always done since the start of the industrial revolution, ‘on the edge’, borrowing time or pawning goods. The ‘inciting incident’ sees the hero, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) ‘receive’ over a 100 years of time unexpectedly. This young man from the ‘ghetto’, who is used to living with only a day or so ‘in the bank’, determines to visit the rich gated enclave in order to make a statement of some kind. He is driven by personal grief and an overall belief in living on the edge  but also a genuine sense of sharing whatever he has – the nearest Hollywood gets to a socialist hero. (I don’t want to spoil the narrative, suffice to say that there are many interesting inferences about past insurrections, including perhaps actions by Will’s dead father.) Inevitably, Will ends up seducing/abducting Sylvia Weis the daughter of the richest man in town, a genuine ‘time lord’, and being pursued by a determined cop – a ‘timekeeper’ (played wonderfully by Cillian Murphy). The cop, of course, is from the ghetto himself and attempts to keep a ‘professional attitude’ towards his job even if his sympathies might be with the poor rather than the rich. Each day he works with only a limited number of hours on his arm so as not to attract too many time thieves, the piranhas of the poor communities. Alex Pettyfor plays a gangster with a British accent straight out of a Guy Ritchie film leading a group of time thieves known as ‘Minutemen’. This seems like a good bit of satire. As well as the pun on ‘time thieves’, ‘minutemen’ were American militia groups fighting the British in the War of Independence and subsequently the name of the US silo-launched missile defences against the Soviets. The cynical amongst us might see them as agents of the American ruling class – personified by in the film by Sylvia’s father (played by the curiously soft but vampiric Vincent Kartheiser).

Alex Pettyfor as Fortis, leader of the 'Minutemen'.

Amanda Seyfried as Sylvia, playing the Patty Hearst role. This image is so fetishised (the gun, the dress, the shoes) that it refers to Faye Dunaway in 'Bonnie and Clyde' as well as 'Nikita'.

The film looks great photographed by Roger Deakins in various shades of blue and sepia-gold. Production designer Alex McDowell worked on Minority Report and Costume Designer Colleen Atwood has a very long list of credits including Gattaca and most of Tim Burton’s films. However, I guess she was partly resonsible for my one niggle with the film. The rich girl hero is played by Amanda Seyfried who spends most of her time in the action sequences running and climbing/jumping in various short skirts and vertiginous heels, both stiletto and more substantial but all designed to ruin her feet. I wondered if this was some kind of hommage to the Anne Parillaud character in Luc Besson’s Nikita. (Ms Seyfried also sports an Anna Karina bob.) The first time we meet her, the little black dress and heels are appropriate for the setting but after that I was almost wishing for some product placement that would allow her to don skinny jeans and trainers. The rich girl with the poor boy is a genre staple of course but in this case a reference to heiress Patty Hearst, abducted by the ‘Symbionese Liberation Army’ in 1974, seems appropriate. There have been many sniffy reviews about Timberlake and Seyfried and their acting abilities but I thought that they were both fine in their roles and exactly what this kind of material required.

The main sensible criticism of the film focuses on the difference between the ideas heavy first half and the action-packed second half. The first half certainly has a very clever script – possibly with too many ideas. I’ve seen some reviews that suggest that the writer has not thought about the ideas at all. Perhaps this isn’t surprising as the promotion of the film has followed the same misguided route as that for The Adjustment Bureau. The trailers we sat through before the film were all for violent action films.  I’m not an action fan but the sequences in In Time seemed OK to me. There are some interesting twists in the closing stages and the final shot is terrific. Take this as a genre film which makes satirical points about greed and inequalities in capitalist society (while simultaneously fetishising youth and the promise of sexual excitement – not actually shown) and you have an entertaining night out. The more I think about the film, the more the ideas come. The central premise means that no-one looks over 25 and the actress playing Justin Timberlake’s mum (Olivia Wilde) is actually younger than he is. This is a neat comment on Hollywood and roles for older women – cf Cary Grant and Jessie Royce Landis, the actress playing his mother in North by Northwest who was actually a few months his junior.

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