Annihilation (2018)

★★★★★

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Science fiction, at its best, is about bending the rules just enough to expand the mind. Refreshing the realm of possibility through intellectual pursuit. Often, drawn against the backdrop of humanity, be it human suffering, exploration, or endurance. In Annihilation, it’s a bit of all three. The first, painted across the expression of just about every character we meet, from Benedict Wong’s frustrated interrogator to Natalie Portman’s uncertain solider-biologist-spouse. The second, on both a physical and metaphysical level, as we watch a group of female scientists explore an ever-changing realm while debating its ever-changing properties. And the third, endurance, a necessary attribute displayed by the quintet throughout their navigation of this new world, as well as the one left behind.

Portman plays Lena, a biologist specialising in the behaviour of cells, who is surprised by the sudden reappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). An army specialist, Kane was presumed dead by Lena who lived with the weight of his vanishing, and more, for at least a year. Circumstance lands her in Area X where she learns about her partner’s exploits in The Shimmer, a creeping electromagnetic fortress with rainbow walls and a penchant for harming those who enter. Enchanted by the unknown, Lena joins four other scientists, physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and geologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), on a fact-finding mission inside.

The film blends dread with intrigue, often evoking that feeling of dangerous wonder, where you know you’re watching something uneasy unfold but can’t take your eyes off the screen. This is Alex Garland’s second feature as director, following Ex Machina, and his grasp of tone is already excellent. Annihilation is less clinical than Ex Machina, more subservient to the fluidity of nature, but it exudes that same sense of simmering tension. We feel it from the beginning, the tension increasing as the five women enter The Shimmer embodying that sense of dangerous wonder, fully aware their survival chances are slim. (They enter anyway.) Self-destruction drives the film and there are many moments of violence and anguish, but there are also discreet moments of hope. Maybe ‘beauty’ is the wrong word (though the film does look stunning, another reason to be angry at Paramount for not giving it a theatrical run here in the UK), but characters find relief amongst all the despair and regret, and we do too.

Thus, The Shimmer is a bi-functional venue: A faux refuge, a place where our scientific group go to escape the woes of reality or to chase answers, both with varied results, and also a Rubik’s Cube that seeks to change the face of physics and natural order. The narrative itself is fluid, morphing from present to past through flashbacks with no clear time-stamp, designed to further flesh out the emotional states of those on-screen. In and of itself, these flashbacks don’t defy cinematic convention, but by interspersing them at various points along the group’s excursion, Garland brings The Shimmer’s bending of natural order beyond the fourth wall.

The film owes a little to the horror genre, certain visual moments capturing that hair-raising creepiness common in the genre greats — I’m thinking of the way the camera foregrounds and backgrounds people and space in a certain sequence towards the end (reminiscent of Mike Gioulakis and David Robert Mitchell’s efforts in It Follows). Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow contribute to similar effect via a metallic, invasive score that climaxes with a now infamous four-note sound that unsettles and compels in almost equal measure. You really do have to hear it.

I alluded to Annihilation’s Netflix-only release here in the UK, which was a consequence of a dispute between Garland, supported by producer Scott Rudin, and Paramount bosses who felt the film was both too complex for audiences and that Lena lacked sufficient moral clarity. Conversely, it is to the film’s credit that we have a female protagonist who isn’t vilified for poor decision-making, and whose greyness is an enriching attribute. Garland’s screenplay, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, is challenging, but not any more than Eric Heisserer’s work on Arrival, which more than quadrupled its production budget at the box office. Portman, by the way, is brilliant in the role, never overplaying her character’s internal heartache. She isn’t lovable but we’re with her every step of the way, which is a credit to both actor and filmmaker. Her partners in expedition are also great, particularly Gina Rodriguez as Anya.

It all leads to a unique conclusion, a final half hour that draws a line in the sand, challenging another filmmaker to conjure up something as enthralling, as spooky, as wonderfully disconcerting. I hesitate to deify a film I’ve only just seen and haven’t had the chance to fully digest, but Kubrick’s 2001 springs to mind as far as third act feats go. Garland downright refuses to answer your questions — there must at least three “don’t knows” uttered in the final 10 minutes — and whether or not this delights you or makes you tear your hair out will depend on what type of moviegoer you are: Someone who loves mystery, or someone who needs definitive truth. (Psst! Either is fine.) That may be the greatest thing about Annihilation, that it implores you to think about it, and then watch it again, and then think about it some more, and then watch it again. Timeless? A sci-fi classic? Maybe.

Director: Alex Garland

Rating: 15

Runtime: 1hr 55mins

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Science fiction

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson

Images ©: Paramount Pictures, Netflix

Eye in the Sky (2016)

★★★★

Eye in the Sky PosterDirector: Gavin Hood

Release Date: April 1st, 2016 (US); April 15th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Thriller; War

Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Alan Rickman

I often find that the most engaging films are those which, in one way or another, encourage viewers to invest more than just the alertness of their eyeballs. Films that oil the brain, that challenge you to weigh up testy themes or unfurl complicated arguments both in the cinema and later at home. Some of the best movies reflect the prevailing zeitgeist (Boyhood), while others re-evaluate histories (Bridge of Spies). There are also those which, having aged over time, can be examined under the guise of new perspectives (2001: A Space Odyssey). Eye in the Sky is one of the former, its content exclusively in tune with the woes of modern drone warfare and, unsurprisingly, it’s a heart-thumper.

A low key opening sequence outlines the active operation, the personnel involved, and the everyday atmosphere at play. There’s Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a senior intelligence official who has tracked down a group of terrorists residing in Nairobi, Kenya. She wishes to eliminate the group, one of whom is a former British national, and has the support of Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman). Evidently, the duo are used to navigating tough situations from afar — they are working from separate UK bases — though the situation Powell and Benson are about to encounter is probably as tough as it gets. That is, juggling the life of young girl selling bread in the vicinity of their prospective drone strike.

Gavin Hood’s film is formatted almost to match that of a 24 episode, which is to say it ticks along more or less in real time as people in suits number-crunch death percentages and debris projections. Foreshadowing is a factor too: Rickman, superbly authoritative yet typically human, drolly sweats over dolls and toys as the Lieutenant General, unaware his job will shortly have him deciding the fate of a child. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert colours his characters with titbits of everyday information in an attempt to humanise them, quite successfully given the amount on-screen. We learn, for instance, that American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is only monitoring the controls of such a weapon in a bid to counter his college debt.

These people are secure, detached from a teetering war zone in Nairobi, their most immediate danger apparently food poisoning — Iain Glen’s queasy British Foreign Secretary struggles with an upset stomach, a first world problem if there ever was one. You wonder if they actually care about the civilians caught in their crosshairs or whether it is all just a political game of Pass the Buck (there was a laugh of incredulity in my screening following one such buck-passing incident). Some do care, primarily those ordered to get their hands dirty: Watts and new recruit Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) wear the emotional baggage of their piloting well, while Barkhad Abdi’s undercover ground agent evokes conscientiousness despite having to navigate the tumultuous streets.

Others struggle with the dilemma too — as time goes on, it increasingly looks as though the terrorists are about to commandeer an enormous suicide attack, however their assassination in present circumstances would almost certainly kill the aforementioned young girl. We see timid bureaucracy in action; the chain of command gains branches by the second as nobody seems willing to make the final call, apart from Powell. This is militancy versus diplomacy and she is firmly aligned with the former, calculated and desperate, unwavering in her kill-or-be-killed motto. Mirren compels throughout and rules those around her with a cracked iron fist. At times you feel her judgement has been clouded by her innate desire to end what must be a years-long operation.

It’s possible too that she has been desensitised by process: surveillance technologies used by the conglomerate of global forces (borders are irrelevant in this inter-connected world) include spy cameras disguised as airborne birds and bugs (brick walls are irrelevant too). These trinkets embody the disconnect between tangible ground activities and those making the crucial decisions from afar, and such technologies likely lighten the load for senior decision-makers such as Powell. Interactions between UK and US agencies hint at the statistical and mechanical nature of modern warfare, a notion embodied by the varying systems of collateral damage interpretation between the two nations. It’s not a matter of saving every life, but rather reducing the total number of deaths.

Hibbert’s screenplay ties in real-world strands by referencing the ongoing migrant crisis (“Well let’s hope she’s not coming back,” bemoans Powell regarding the homegrown British terrorist) but really Eye in the Sky is all about the immorality of war in 2016. The best result the military’s facial recognition software can hope for is a “highly probable” match, which would be great in a university science lab but not ideal when lives are at stake. Any margin of error is amplified in battle and the debates between officials take on that extra weight, a weight that we also incur as we sympathise with various characters. Megan Gill edits Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography to full effect, highlighting the stark anomalies in Nairobi: Gill cuts from the young girl setting up her bread stall to the extremists preparing their suicide vests, mere metres separating the two.

The film avoids problematic whirlpools and discriminatory icebergs by riding a wave maturity — it would be very easy to take a side, but as the piece nears conclusion it shines a blatantly more rounded light on a number of brutes earlier seen authoritatively commanding vehicle checkpoints. Unlike London Has Fallen, which clumsily waded its way into the drone debate, Eye in the Sky sets out to discuss and not to distract. Clearly they are different films in a tonal sense, aimed arguably at different audiences, but both speak the same thematic language and only the latter does so with any credibility.

There is one issue that the film only manages to partially iron out. You’ll almost certainly enter this having already formulated an opinion one way or the other, especially given the relevance and significance of drone warfare in today’s political climate. And although it is possible you’ll be made to reconsider that opinion — it helps that Hood’s gripping direction increasingly positions you alongside the toiling decision-makers — chances are the events depicted will not shift anyone’s viewpoint. This isn’t necessarily a reflection on the movie itself, but rather the divisiveness of its real-world content.

People band around the phrase “spoils of war” in relation to any profits gained through military victory. But it is war that spoils, and here we see that spoiling in action: it spoils ethical frameworks established by the civilised strand of humanity; it spoils urban locales that have hosted and continue to host generations of livelihoods; and, crucially, it spoils the daily existence of normal people living their normal lives. Eye in the Sky suggests war spoils some people more than others, and while that mightn’t be a new conclusion, the method of warfare on display is as morally challenging as it gets.

Eye in the Sky - Aaron Paul

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Entertainment One, Bleecker Street

Independence Day (1996)

★★★

Independence Day PosterDirector: Roland Emmerich

Release Date: July 3rd, 1996 (US); August 9th, 1996 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman

Two years before his monstrous monstrosity Godzilla, Roland Emmerich hit the streets of Washington DC to tackle an alien invasion. Time — and a great deal more effort — would go on to prove extraterrestrial superiority over the giant lizard, though that’s not a particularly astounding declaration. Just how effective is Independence Day? If popcorn-munching and Coke Zero-slurping is your kind of thing then the global disaster flick works a treat. Don’t expect any intellectual poise for there’s hardly an ounce to be had. But that’s not a problem — you wouldn’t show up to Comic-Con looking for a Jane Eyre panel. Emmerich zaps many of the right notes here and, despite the modern datedness of a visual palette once heralded as ground breaking, Independence Day cajoles along boisterously.

The unexpected arrival of alien spaceships only a few days premature of July 4th sends the United States into disarray. Major cities are under immediate threat causing the peoples within them to scatter. With less than a spoonful of hope to consume, President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) finds himself seeking aid from somewhat unconventional sources; specifically, ambitious pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and nutty computer expert David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum).

Technology finds its way into the heart of on-screen antics more often than not. Alien or otherwise, this is sort of a love letter to technological innovation. The grandiose ships planted neatly above cityscapes not only hover with pristine accuracy, they also completely wipe out the land below with bellowing power. It’s technological warfare and the otherworldly beings have the upper hand, even when it comes to pertinent human made artefacts. (“They’re using our satellites against us.”)

But this appreciation of and for innovation speaks to a higher purpose relayed across the exceedingly long two and a half hours. Though the implementation is fairly blasé in terms of a ponderous deficit in depth, the film does propose the age-old alien versus human musing that has captured the imagination of pop culture since Neil Armstrong and of cinema since Stanley Kubrick, more or less. Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin’s script struggles to delve anywhere past the glossy surface — in truth, it can be really glossy — but the vigilant thinkers amongst us are still able to briefly consider some interesting possibilities as events roll across the screen.

Initially, we’re fed a distinct juxtaposition: disparate humans manifest, from the amusing to the serious to the disbelieving, whereas the stoic extraterrestrials are collectively brooding and sophisticated. It’s not until further down the heavily destroyed road that similarities strike; aliens, though technologically adept, can be just as frail as humanity. The suggestion of familiarity is intriguing but it doesn’t receive enough focus to fully unravel.

That’s because Independence Day rockets along with energy and sappy joy. Let’s be honest: the President’s Independence Day speech is amiably absurd, even more so than preceding the alien invasion. (“Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom.”) This mightn’t boast the scholarly prowess of a 2001 or even the tingling tension of an Alien, but it does come armed with fun and humour. Maybe it’s simply the childhood beer-goggles still clouding my judgement 15 years on, however it seems like the 90s was a time for chaos and frantic comedy on the silver screen. I’m thinking Space Jam. Jurassic Park. Home Alone. These films each share the same semblance of bumbling pandemonium as Independence Day, a trait that is rather infectious.

Admittedly, it is true that the quartet of aforementioned films come equipped with the stock aloof goof. We’ve essentially got two here, though Jeff Goldblum’s David Levinson is a tad more measured than his father Julius. (“‘All you need is love’ — John Lennon, smart man… shot in the back.”) The two bounce off each other with amusing distrust yet above the familial cabin fever, they’re a healthy duo and probably the best characters. Will Smith is as charismatic as ever, it’s the lack of well-roundedness that lets him down. His character Steven Hiller, along with most others, suffers from genericism syndrome. At least the guys fare better than the girls, the few of whom don’t have an awful lot to do.

Granted, this isn’t a spectacular examination of the human psyche or anything, it’s pure entertainment with a spectacular visual array. Unfortunately almost 20 years has passed and this once award winning ocular jigsaw has become penetrable. There are a number of clunky moments — the tunnel fireball stands out — but it’d be unfair to criticise a film for ageing.

One area that ought to attract some denunciation though is the prevailing lack of threat, an element that is sorely needed in order to usher in the full effect of disaster. There’s hardly any depth to the story, nor is there any strand of worry interwoven throughout proceedings which is odd given we watch the decimation of huge cities. Personal anxiety should arise, but never really does. Exposing the audience to so much carnage early on sanitises the remainder of the film — we know the worst has come and gone and the characters themselves aren’t really worth investing in, thus there is no obvious agent of emotion to clutch dearly.

Nevertheless, that is not Independence Day’s primary prerogative. Emmerich directs a film that should command greater emotional gravitas given the velocity of proceedings, but when push comes to shove this does what it sets out to do with exuberance and laughter. In fairness, compared to Godzilla, this is Citizen Kane.

Independence Day - Smith and Goldblum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Sunshine (2007)

★★★★★

Sunshine PosterDirector: Danny Boyle

Release Date: April 5th, 2007 (UK); July 20th, 2007 (US limited)

Genre: Adventure; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Bryne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh

Quite appropriately, Sunshine spends a significant amount of time focusing on the eyes of its pawns. Sometimes a pair will fill the entire screen, strained with sentiment either good or bad, though often the latter. On occasion, they will fight menacingly through an iffy transmission from another spacecraft and act as a warning. The Sun allures them with its fiery aesthetic and unwavering appeal. Without hesitation, characters ask, “What do you see?” in moments of impending demise as if nothing else matters in the universe. Look, even, at the poster. Yielding a blazing visual palette and dreamt up by the mind’s eye of screenwriter Alex Garland, the film is a sci-fi celebration, though you won’t see much celebrating. Riddled with mystery and psychological incoherence, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine floats very close to the sublime.

It is 2057 and an ominous solar winter has a stranglehold on Earth. Aboard Icarus II, a team of eight personnel are voyaging to the dying Sun with one aim: to reignite it. Carrying a nuclear payload, the crew only have one chance to hit their target and, given the operation’s purely theoretical prerogative, those odds aren’t as robust as the situation warrants. Upon discovering the location of Icarus I — a prior failed mission — physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) recommends taking a detour in order to attain another bomb, and another attempt.

Though his portfolio doesn’t suggest much science-fiction enthusiasm, Danny Boyle’s admiration for the genre fireballs from the screen here. There are elements of seminal space cinema splashed all over Sunshine. From the vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the fraught psychology depicted in Solaris, to Event Horizon’s incessantly doomed outlook, Boyle’s take on sci-fi pays homage to a plethora of greats. But it does more than that. This isn’t simply a historical Pick ‘n’ Mix of stars and planets, rather it incorporates the genre’s best components with subtlety and proceeds to tell a new story. We do not witness Capa and company enter a separate desolate spacecraft and subsequently become overwhelmed by thoughts of Event Horizon because Boyle does not allow it. The Brit always has control and his film always has us transfixed, not by inter-genre nods, but by an ever-enveloping tension and disconcerting mystique — in truth, the film refrains from sparing us any time to consider references until long after the credits have rolled (I’m recounting citations right now).

The director employs traits familiar to him, such as gritty realism and terminal dejection, and combines them with far more expansive notions that pit science against religion. In between philosophical conversations (“A new star born out of a dying one, I think it will be beautiful — no, I’m not scared”) crew members discuss the practicalities of their predicament: oxygen supply levels, or the Sun’s angle. Astronauts aside, we cannot relate to the quandary in which those aboard Icarus II find themselves, but we can ascribe to the pragmatic mindset that they often reverberate. The characters are normal people. Yes, they are each excessively intelligent and well-versed in specialist areas. But despite floating many miles above in space, they remain grounded — we have to take each individual at face value as none of their past lives are explained. You can forget surnames too: Cassie, Harvey and Mace will do just fine. These are ordinary people in an extraordinary circumstance, decision-making dictated by scenario and each individual just as vulnerable as any of us would be.

The characters’ incomplete personal logs contribute to another of the film’s successful narrative strands: a growing sense of tension. This is not a horror film yet it bears a variety of horrifying aspects, one of which is personnel ambiguity. Since we only know that which is in front of our eyes and nothing more, it is plausible to us that any member of the team could snap at any given moment. Boyle explores isolation and the subsequent psychological trauma faced by those disconnected from civilisation, a concept captured magnanimously by one character’s reaction to the decimation of a homely, naturalistic oxygen garden. As Icarus II advances closer to its destination (“Entering the dead zone”) a haunting strain is emitted, one that is eerie and difficult to pinpoint. Searle, the vessel’s doctor, becomes increasingly transfixed by the Sun which appears to be hauling the spacecraft ever-nearer to imminent death.

A slight tonal shift occurs in tandem alongside the crew’s interactions with the ill-fated Icarus I. From a tantalising slow-burner, proceedings deviate towards disorientating terror. The final act is probably the film’s weakest, but it is by no means a weak offering. If anything, the conclusion ushers in greater mythological tendencies spearheaded by religious impetus (in Greek mythology, Icarus flew too close to the Sun). Perhaps it is only fitting that a narrative adjacent to the heavens should juggle Godly morals. Nevertheless Boyle, a man with religious associations himself, ensures that Sunshine does not become overburdened by spirituality and instead strikes a wholesome balance between the film’s various thematic veins.

A scorching visual gloss is as all-encompassing as it is magnificent. The dark and inherently inanimate interior of Icarus II seems to not only seep from the crew’s mellow demeanour, but also abets an air of warped uncertainty. Battling to infect the spacecraft’s overcast insides is the Sun; rays burning with unlimited effervescence, so much so that you will be rolling up those sleeves in a desperate plea for cool air. Accompanying the wonderful cinematography is John Murphy’s tender-yet-lofty score that shines brightest towards the Sunshine’s concluding chapter.

Cillian Murphy leads the way as Capa, whose contemplative nature suggests that only he is truly aware of the task’s magnitude. The skill here is in generating a sense of normality and the best plaudit that can be awarded to Murphy — a generally charming presence — is that he emphatically portrays a professional physicist. Capa may partake in a few scuffles with Chris Evans’ Mace, but other than that he is plainly a physicist driven by nuclear properties and measurements. The aforementioned Chris Evans does well in a slightly different role as the morally strict engineer whose sole focus is the success of the mission. The other noteworthy performance comes from Rose Byrne as vessel pilot Cassie. Bryne develops a solid equilibrium between strong-willed and sensitive, and also strikes up a believable dynamic with Murphy, one that would undoubtedly be romantic in another environment.

Capa’s opening monologue outlines one purpose: “To create a star within a star.” Boasting admirable scope, a tense and engaging atmosphere, and a variety of well-oiled thematic roots relevant to the genre, Sunshine is undoubtedly a star turn from Danny Boyle.

Sunshine - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Rotten Tomatoes

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures

Prometheus (2012)

★★★★★

Prometheus PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Release Date: June 1st, 2012 (UK); June 8th, 2012 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Mystery; Science-fiction

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba

Is Prometheus really that bad? Ridley Scott’s loose prequel to Alien digs an enormous hole and subsequently fills it with even grander musings; of humankind, creation, belief and life. It then plunges nose first into said crater, now as deep as the questions posed, before admirably clambering back to fresh air armed with purpose and answers. During this ascension we marvel at spectacle, engage in mystery, taste small bites of action, are disconcerted by horror and ponder classic science-fiction. To a certain extent Prometheus truly is a genre-splicer, but the outing always has its reels firmly planted in the wonders of sci-fi, exactly where they should be. In an era when summer often denotes the arrival of popcorn-churners, Prometheus survives on the front-line, waving the flag for intelligent and thought-provoking cinema.

Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are archaeologists on the brink of silencing the most emphatic of all historical debates: who created us? The year is 2093 and a team of seventeen personnel including Elizabeth and Charlie have just landed on LV-233, a moon prominent in a number of ancient diagrams discovered by the duo. Aboard their vessel funded by Weyland Corporation is David (Michael Fassbender), a robot whose appearance resembles that of a human being, and whose thought process is occupied exclusively by sense. The landscape that enshrouds the team bustles with unknown activity, enticing the crew’s inbuilt need to forage, which they do unwittingly and at their own peril.

Zipping up his spacesuit, David is confronted by Charlie who queries the need for the machine to dawn such protective attire. “I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind. If I didn’t wear a suit, it would defeat the purpose,” retorts David, summing up the philosophy of Prometheus in a single answer. The crew are on a voyage to meet their maker, but in doing so unknowingly present a case denouncing the ignorance of humanity. Collectively, we see ourselves as the pinnacle species yet we are wholly unjustified in our complacency. Damon Lindelof’s script explores how we not only rely on other genetic divisions — plants for medicine, animals for food, machines for everyday ease, Gods for belief — we even mistreat them.

Humanity’s naive demeanour is reflected in Charlie’s actions: he howls like a domineering wolf upon reaching a huge stone dome situated atop the uncharted moon, and proceeds to remove his helmet without approval, seemingly above any potential atmospheric ramifications. The film is an eye-opening critical analysis of human behaviour and although the results stop short at shining a positive light on us, they do beckon forth an important topic of discussion.

David’s response also reflects the insightfulness and opulence of Lindelof’s script, one that is not afraid enter to a room packed full of grandiose ideas, and is then brave enough to exit whilst leaving the door ajar. The occasional question is left unanswered which is absolutely fine (but we need some answerable continuity in the upcoming sequel). No issue remains unchallenged though, much to the filmmakers’ credit. Scenes prompted by deliberations over the various characters’ motives and beliefs are subtly tantalising; one involving David, Charlie and a snooker table particularly stands out.

These moments never overstay their welcome as they flirt with extravagant perceptions that are inherently connected to the science-fiction genre. Entering said realm we expect to contemplate life, the universe and everything and Prometheus encourages us to do exactly that. (“Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens to us when we die?”) Thankfully events refrain from boiling over into an indulgent territory; the aforementioned questions — unending in scale — are questions that cross our mind often and the significant consideration on show is warranted.

Reflective themes in the bank, Prometheus turns towards tension-ratcheting atmospherics. Alien is in part a horror franchise, there it is imperative that Scott’s prequel retains prequel retains an element of fear to complement the titbits of recognisable Xenomorph mythology on display. Marc Streitenfeld’s jarring soundscape is the genesis of discomfort; sequences that take place inside the aforementioned dome are accompanied by a chilling congregation of distant screaming. This eerie ambience disorientates us. The characters panic. A search buoyed by ambitious questions seeking conclusive answers yields unsettling possibilities. Never has the notion of being stranded in space upon an unknown entity felt so terrifying.

Then brass horns prevail, baring a deep verve that reflects the profundity of proceedings. The film’s stunning visual scale is just that, and its impressive execution qualms any potential worries over digital misfiring. Space vessels flow effortlessly, emitting a sense of authenticity as they embed into the landscape. At times, Prometheus’ sheen resembles that of Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychedelic Valhalla Rising; shots of unnaturally rapidly convulsing clouds remind us that we are in a foreign and undoubtedly hazardous environment. The weather too, another reminder that humankind is not the dominant species.

One element that doesn’t quite acclimatise is the occasional spouting of humour. Some may argue that without a light-hearted adage every now and again, the film would be taking itself too seriously. However, the ideas being batted back and forth along the outing’s grand narrative arc warrant a serious tone. Fifield and Millburn — geologist and biologist respectively — are the stock comic relief duo and though Sean Harris and Rafe Spall are solid in their roles, the characters are wholly unnecessary. In truth, the duo’s presence on the ship doesn’t really make sense — they’re buffoons, why would a multi-million dollar corporation hire them? If humour prevails at any point, it’s through Idris Elba’s suave poise and effortlessly blunt attitude as captain Janek.

There are no disastrous performances here by any means, nor are there any bad ones, but Michael Fassbender stands streets ahead of everyone else. One of two surprisingly ambiguous characters (the other being Charlize Theron’s practical Meredith Vickers, whose ethical mindset rides on a Ferris wheel throughout) Fassbender resonates a peculiar charm as robot David, whilst instantaneously channelling the nonchalant precision of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much like HAL, David’s actions take an increasingly perturbed turn; the combination of Fassbender’s astute portrayal and Lindelof’s creation of an opaque character adds up to compelling viewing. Noomi Rapace is another noteworthy performer as expedition leader Elizabeth Shaw. Her pained abdominal acting will have you grasping your stomach and wincing.

This dialogue-driven piece demands total engagement for just over two hours and justifies the attention it seeks. There’s a mountain of ideas here to sink your teeth into and, trust me, your jaw won’t ache. Scott’s film is a modern cinematic gem. Is Prometheus really that bad? No, it’s really that good.

Prometheus - Fassbender and Rapace

Images credit: IMP AwardsCollider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

★★★★★

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Release Date: April 3rd, 1968 (US limited)

Genre: Adventure; Mystery; Science-fiction

Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain

Where to begin?

The beginning of time, apparently. A group of apes, shepherded by an apparent leader, are growled at and hounded from their waterhole having already lost a member via the scissor-like teeth of a leopard. It appears; seemingly from nowhere, from nothing: a large and brooding object, known as the monolith. The beasts shriek, cower and then gain strength in its presence. Shortly thereafter, the now tactical, abrasive early hominids have reclaimed their waterhole. Clutching a bone, envisioning a tool, the leader tosses his symbol of construction, destruction and all else into air.

We’re floating in space.

It truly is a remarkable opening sequence, Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of premature life dissolving into an achievement-driven existence, an existence embodied by the amazing feat of spatial prosperity. By squashing life’s inception all the way through to thriving humanity into only a few minutes, is Kubrick trivialising said time period? Is he playing down the importance of thousands of years in anticipation of what is to come next? Perhaps. Yet it is the black structure, the monolith that is most intriguing. So odd in its appearance, the edged object turns ominous; what of its instantly empowering effect on the apes? Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most influential pieces of cinema, of art, to be born out of the last century, and in less than 10 minutes it pillages viewers with more questions than answers. Over a two hour and 40 minute run-time these questions double, treble, as Kubrick raises issue after issue including our reliance on machines, mechanical manipulation, the significance of alien existence, of shapes even. He does all of this whilst celebrating humankind and our limitless prerogative. It’s wonderful.

Zarathustra, speak. Cue the brass…

Across four far-reaching periods of time, each one linked existentially and thematically to the next, 2001: A Space Odyssey engages in a tale — the tale — of life. After encountering the early hominid creatures, we ascend over the horizon into space and join Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) are he prepares for a mission to Clavius Base in the midst of some abnormal goings-on. The narrative sprints ahead thereafter, to the Jupiter Mission, doctors Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and David Bowman (Keir Dullea), and their increasingly claustrophobic relationship with ship computer HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain). Finally, Kubrick takes us on a peculiar and tantalising journey across, through and around the cosmos, blanketed in an array of magnificent cosmological phenomena.

This collection of chronological mini-movies, although odd at first glance, succeeds two-fold: in compounding the monumental story being told, and in detailing the development of mindful curiosity, technological prowess and emotional manipulation. The first strand — the only section to be located on land — portrays everything primitive. The ape, soon to become man. The waterhole, soon to become territory. The bone, soon to become a sword, and a sceptre, and a hammer. It’s smart, cunning almost, as the sequence sets your brain clogs in motion. And the viewer’s mind is certainly going to need to be switched on, as the black vacuum above plays host to everything that follows.

An iconic image: the bone thrown and subsequently plummeting through the air, snappily followed by a space shuttle harnessed by gravity. Perhaps an indication of humankind’s selfishly perceived stability all these years later. Selfish in their control over nature, and negligence of mechanical reliance. Machines that seemingly have a “dependence on people,” at least that’s the view of Heywood, and later both Frank and David. Kubrick switches his line of questioning, batting that now aged-old ‘man versus machine’ adage that was gaining prominence around the film’s release in 1968. The internal AI system, HAL, is essentially the ticking heart of Discovery One, Frank and David’s space liner — HAL’s physical appearance burns a bright reddish-orange, symbolising the sun. Yet the system is almost secondary to the humans on board, simply a part of their routine; machinery assists in cooking food (unlike the raw meat off the slain bone eaten by apes), in steering the ship, providing entertainment (HAL wins at a game of chess), and almost all else.

This notion of machine-driven consumption prevails throughout the film, climaxing in HAL’s eventual devilishness and therefore implying both that machine has absolute rule over man, and that it is perhaps the next stage in the evolution of life. Douglas Rain is deadpan as the system’s voice, verbalising in an incredibly unassuming-turned-condescending manner (“Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult”). Coincidentally, this converging relationship between man and machine has once again reared its societal hand recently, in Spike Jonze’s Her, a story about a man who falls in love with his AI system. The topic is an intriguing one, and Stanley Kubrick tackles it as well as anybody has done (or will do).

There are also other subtexts rummaging around, including our intrinsic attraction to the search for alien existence, conveyed by how characters interact with the menacing monoliths scattered throughout. Another irregular data byte comes by way of shapes — the sphere: HAL, the ship’s centre, and planet Earth indicating a form of coming full circle; the rectangle: those brooding and dangerous monoliths, offering no leeway; and the picturesque octagon: part of Discovery One’s walkway, an uncommon shape signalling strange happenings.

Interspersed within this ocean of thought-provoking query is a soundtrack as wide-ranging as the eon covered, yet one that maintains a common brassy undertone. Celebratory and grandiose, Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” blares as a triumphant recognition of achievement. Conversely, scores of haunting, ghostly tones wail out like human souls in fear of extraterrestrials; it’s the ambience of the unknown. Geoffrey Unsworth has a whole universe to work with, and his cinematography is marvellous. The special effects, though obviously not up to present day standards, are admirable in their imagination — the influence of the camera work on show here can be seen propelling modern movies like Gravity. Performances from Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and William Sylvester are by no means the centrepiece of proceedings, but Dullea in particularly stands out depicting of the authority-battling and bearings-losing Dr. David Bowman.

Stanley Kubrick films are renowned for offering more questions than answers. This potentially problematic mantra shows no sign of miss-deployment here, instead thriving in tandem with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that encompasses all of time and that debates the multitude of lives lived throughout.

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer