Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

★★

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Independence Day Resurgence PosterDirector: Roland Emmerich

Release Date: June 23rd, 2016 (UK); June 24th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher

When you make as many disaster movies as Roland Emmerich, a few things are bound to happen. One, the law of averages suggests you’ll eventually churn out something a bit rubbish that’ll be branded a “disaster” by a publication whose wordplay skills aren’t quite up to scratch. And two, it is likely customers will start to encounter genre fatigue. Independence Day: Resurgence is Emmerich’s sixth out-and-out catastrophe appraisal, having averaged around one every two years since 1996. And while it certainly isn’t a poor effort, it is a tired one.

We’re 20 years removed from the events of Independence Day and humanity has taken significant steps towards protecting itself against future attacks. The Earth Space Defence programme operates from locations like the Moon, made habitable via good old militant colonisation. Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is one of those orbiting the Earth, a fighter pilot with skill and a cocky demeanour. He’s no Han Solo, but then Resurgence is no Empire Strikes Back. What the film is, though, is familiar, hitting many of the same notes as its predecessor only this time with crisper technical tendencies — the Moon base purveys that futuristic grey-silver Prometheus sheen. Hemsworth’s Morrison is a reflection of that sameness: a marketable replacement for Will Smith’s Steven Hiller, Smith either too expensive to rehire or personally fed up with sci-fi roles.

Some of the familiar is good though. Jeff Goldblum, for instance, recaptures plenty of that self-aware wit he displayed as scientist David Levinson (now a lead Area 51 researcher) in the original. Whenever he appears the film lights up, freely recognising its silliness and gleefully bathing in it. “I heard his son is much more of a moderate,” Levinson says in reference to warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) before meeting with the commander’s militia, each fighter sporting high impact weaponry and a no-nonsense facial expression. It is the sort of snappy levity popularised for better or worse by Marvel cinema, but perfected by Goldblum whose poise and timing are, arguably, unmatched.

However, just because the film is generally aware of its wackiness doesn’t mean it should skimp on an engaging story. Aside from its predecessor, Resurgence has more in common with White House Down than anything else in Emmerich’s portfolio, especially tonally. Both movies take would-be serious predicaments — an attack on the President there and an attack on the world here — and imbue them with carefree notes. There is no narrative weight, which is fine, but Resurgence doesn’t offer any alternative means through which stakes can conjugate. We have already witnessed a failed alien attack on this world and it’s not enough simply that the scale is larger this time around. The characters, though generally likeable, are as expendable as the other billion civilians squished by an enormous spacecraft docked atop half the globe.

The manoeuvring of pieces often feels forced. Former President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), whom we meet in a state of mental anguish, evades his high-level bodyguard and appears on stage alongside the current President (Sela Ward). You can only fathom such a thing happening because the story needs it to. It needs to have a panicked Whitmore warn the world about incoming aliens and the only way to get there is through an unrealistic turn of events. While it is true these calamity blockbusters rely little on sturdy plot dynamics, the successful ones often find a way around that issue. San Andreas managed to distract from any story inefficiencies by dabbling in simplicity: hosting a handful of straightforward characters led by a charismatic force of nature in Dwayne Johnson. Goldblum could be that force of nature here but there are so many other players in the game, therefore everyone’s arc suffers and the overarching narrative is rendered a bit baseless. This issue comes to a head right before the third act: as Goldblum spews out waves of exposition, he might as well be reading from the Instruction Manual for Ending Disaster Flicks.

Maika Monroe, breakout star of The Guest and It Follows, is someone who should have more to do. At one point you think she’s going be lumped into a love triangle opposite Hemsworth and Jessie T. Usher (he plays Steven Hiller’s son Dylan, another accomplished flyer). But the complexity of their three-way relationship soon makes itself known, born not out of love but Jake’s cockiness gone wrong (he almost killed Dylan in training). When it becomes clear Patricia’s only romantic ties are with Jake, the focus then shifts to her productivity elsewhere. She is Whitmore’s daughter and an adviser to the current President but Patricia can also handily navigate a fighter jet — not that the film wants to show it. She could be assisting the resistance from the air but instead splits her time between house-buying conversations with Jake and controlling her erratic father. There is a moment of reprieve as the film reaches its finale but by then it has already wasted the fiery talents of Monroe. She even says it herself: “You should’ve let me [fly].”

Emmerich and his squad of writers do try to reflect the catastrophic reverberations of the Independence Day attack in their characterisation of various individuals. Whitmore, as discussed, and also the returning Dr. Brackish Okun (Bret Spiner), fleetingly humorous as he ambles around excitedly looking for the next thing to shoot with a giant ray gun. It’s because these characters are played for laughs that the piece is unable to really delve into the emotional scarring they might be privy to. There is also an instance where you think the film might explore how said scarring has had an impact on the moral endurance of humankind: it involves military decision-makers and government officials debating whether to destroy a seemingly neutral ship. Alas, popcorny action stuff gets in the way.

The brooding hum that plays in tandem with the alien mother ship’s arrival is an example of what could have been had the outing further tapped into its natural sci-fi/horror instincts. Another such flirting occurs later, when military men and extraterrestrials play a game of cat and mouse in a dark bunker. It’s essentially a scene from Alien or Aliens, only without the benefit of a creepily construed atmosphere. Clearly Emmerich had one eye on Ridley Scott’s work when making Resurgence given the alien mother looks like a cross between H. R. Giger’s Xenomorph and Smaug from The Hobbit trilogy.

In 1996, Emmerich used scale models to achieve the level of bombast required to compel the cinemagoing public. While I can’t see too much that sets this sequel apart from its parent, there is something about the practicality of blowing up a mini White House that endears more than the admittedly impressive visual palette on display here. Maybe that sums up Resurgence: a film made with so much technical proficiency that it seems to forget about intuition, be it something akin to the scale model intuition that once charmed viewers, or the sort of narrative intuition that plants us in a recognisable world with new, engaging possibilities. It all feels too easily earned.

Independence Day: Resurgence - Jeff Goldblum & Bill Pullman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

The Gallows (2015)

The Gallows PosterDirector: Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing

Release Date: July 10th, 2015 (US); July 17th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford

Remember the days when movie titles made use of inanimate objects and animals to induce a sense of clinical creep? The Birds. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Alien. Those are probably bad examples given chain saw massacres are far from inanimate and aliens aren’t technically animals, but the point is The Gallows could have been one of those movies with a creepy title backed up by creepier content. It’s not, as it transpires, and that becomes fairly obvious fairly quickly.

We’re back in the found footage dimension — you know, the black abyss of modern horror — and in the company of cameraman Ryan (he’s really a high school footballer but for the purposes of this film he’s also a cameraman), his girlfriend Cassidy, pal Reese, and Reese’s crush Pfeifer. The foursome find themselves locked in school after dark and, unsurprisingly, are drawn into a sinister game of cat and mouse opposite the ghost of tragic history. Moral of the story? School finishes at 3:30 pm.

A common problem with the found footage design is it tends to hinder character development because it limits how we literally see those on-screen, often from the same angle and same perspective, while hiding the person behind the camera. As such, the characterisation here is pretty sub-standard: “Hey Reese, can I borrow your blouse?” are some of the first words Ryan says to his mate after a dodgy drama rehearsal (Reese has decided the most effective route to Pfeifer’s heart is playing opposite her in their school theatre production). It’s a bland, easy introduction to a bland, easy set of students and one not at all aided by the rest of the football team’s boyish insults that follow.

This is the stereotypical, grating, douchey high school behaviour Richard Linklater mercifully avoided in Everybody Wants Some!! and the sort of behaviour that serves only to undermine any care we have for those on-screen. Even the drama students are unbearably caricature: geek attributes maximised, ‘dorky’ glasses abound, lead actress buoyed by more positive energy than the Sun. The film has only been on for around 10 minutes by this point but even by the 70th minute the same broad strokes are stifling people. At least in this version of high school the drama geeks manage to dish out some prank revenge on the football douches.

The actors use their own first names because it’s all real and they are not really actors. (On a serious note, aren’t we past the point of trying to pretend this found footage stuff is in any way authentic?) Their performances are fine, though Ryan — the guy hauling the camera around — oscillates between high-pitched wailing and incomprehensible whispering a little too often. Another thing that’s odd: the play that the students are rehearsing is a rerun of the same one that killed a child many years prior, and given people still seem traumatised by that event, why even do a rerun? Sure, it’s the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. But wouldn’t a memorial service have sufficed? It’s especially grisly when you consider the child died via accidental hanging.

Regardless, it’s an inevitable part of the plot therefore you’re left hoping for something to differentiate the film from the usual genre pack. Writer-director duo Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing dabble in the superstitions (“Break a leg”) of stage performing without reinventing them, or at the very least provoking any new connotations — maybe by not having the characters angrily coax the dead or leave an injured mate behind. Everything goes belly-up: open doors become locked (apart from the large brick one with an eerie cross engraved on it); the group start blaming each other amid ensuing relationship drama; the gallows’ noose, previously removed from its perch by Ryan, saunters back up there unassisted.

Of course, the school does bear windows that the group could break open and escape out of at any moment. The dialogue and situational development are both so poor you wonder whether the filmmakers are actually embarking down a purposefully satirical route — for instance, at the start of the movie Ryan discovers a damaged door primed for after-dark entry. See, Reese needs to destroy the play’s set because it is the only way he can get out of a would-be terrible performance. The only way. A performance, incidentally, that he agreed to deliver because he fancies Pfeifer and it is the only way Reese can initiate a relationship between the pair. The only way. That’s high school for you.

There are a handful of quiet-quiet-bang moments that give us a fright, but these are frights without substance. You won’t remember any of them because none of them hold any weight: they aren’t emotionally or audibly or visually scary (that’s not true: there is one suitably unsettling visual during a red-tinted scene that revisits the hauntingly quiet manoeuvres of the Babadook). But otherwise the attempted scares encourage a human reaction as natural as visiting the toilet during a three-hour Tarantino film.

Look, this is cheap horror, and worse, cheap found footage horror, made for popcorn audiences searching for an easy cinemagoing escape. I don’t doubt the people involved in the process put in a lot of hard work and effort, and perhaps for some of them The Gallows conveyed genuine promise. But it should be held to the same standard as the best outings, films like The Blair Witch Project, and there simply is no comparison. It’s another case of dollar bills over quality. Lo and behold, The Gallows made $43 million — so who cares?

The Gallows - Cassidy Gifford

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Jaws (1975)

★★★★★

Jaws PosterDirector: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: June 20th, 1975 (US); December 26th, 1975 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss

It is probably fair to say Jaws cemented Steven Spielberg’s status as a prominent athlete in the movie-making race. Released in 1975, the film ushered in a fresh era of monster flicks. Those hallmarks that we deem familiar in the genre today made their mainstream debut in Spielberg’s classic: the inaugural attack and subsequent denial; the saviour who is the only one bearing initial clarity; the prevention plan executed atop a wave of mayhem.

It is a blueprint that studios and filmmakers have followed since — the pitch for Alien famously included the tagline “Jaws in space” — primarily because the structure indiscriminately appeals to audiences. You only have to glance back at the last two summers to see the formula play out in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World. Speaking of summer, Jaws is often also touted as the first seasonal blockbuster (it broke box office records upon release in the US). The catch? This blockbuster is one of those intelligently composed things.

Following the watery demise of a teenage girl via shark attack, the residents of Amity Island find themselves on high alert. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is tasked with developing a solution, but when the problem takes the form of a person-guzzling creature solutions are hard to come by. Bill Butler’s camera focuses directly on the words “shark attack” as Brody punches them into the death certificate of the aforementioned teen, the surrounding silence signifying both the solemnity at hand and the imminent danger. Everybody is a potential target because, on Amity Island, everybody is water-bound.

The locale is a “summer town [that] needs summer dollars,” according to Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton). Speaking to an agitated Brody, he continues, “You yell shark and we’ve got a panic on our hands on the 4th of July.” Though his use of the word panic is probably a reference to any incoming tourists, chances are he is more concerned about panic on the business front. It’s commercialism versus well-being, a duel unethically buffeted by a mayor who slinks around in a bright suit looking like a candy floss vendor selling treats that appear appetising but are ultimately bad for your health. And it’s Brody who takes the brunt of his poor decision-making: after a grieving mother vents her fury to Brody’s face, the film evolves into a tale of redemption and vengeance.

A smart and often snarky screenplay accommodates various themes and elevates Jaws well beyond popcorn entertainment (though it can be just that if you want it to). Originally written by Peter Benchley, the screenplay was reshaped by Carl Gottlieb, adapting his own novel, as filming got under way. And to his credit Spielberg values the duo’s writing just as much as he does tension building and aquatic action. This means there is wit in abundance, “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” being the obvious calling card. It is more than just a throwaway line though — the iconic scene quite brilliantly combines comedy, timing, and terror.

The shark seems to strike out of the blue. Though precautions are in place (shutting down beaches etc.) everything seems a bit rushed, a bit chaotic, as if the appearance of the creature is a wholly uncommon event. A rubbery meteor thrashing into an otherwise idyllic seaside lifestyle. Then there are the constant distractions — while Brody tries to keep an eye on swimmers, a plethora of unwary residents inundate him with random musings. And when the islanders catch a bogus shark, the local photographer is too busy taking photos for anyone to notice it’s the wrong fish.

Like an old Wild West villain, the shark has a $3,000 bounty placed on its fin. We don’t see it for a long time, but we do catch a glimpse of the consequences left in the monster’s wake: a crab-strewn arm; a volcanic bloodbath; various images of unevenly dissected limbs. You can do nothing but watch as its grey silhouette stalks the dangling legs of helpless victims whose idea of a beach vacation involves more relaxation and less chomping. Simmering in the background is this domestic strand about a father trying to introduce his sons to a dangerous world, juggling the virtues of the sea with the violence of its inhabitants.

There is a masculine theme at play too, and it particularly rears when boatman Quint (Robert Shaw) shows up, gruff and tough, parading a confidence and idly disrespecting those around him. But there is more to Quint, a clouded morality that swims beneath the surface. Robert Shaw delivers a revelatory monologue with a look on his face that denotes unsubtly disguised horror in one of the film’s more serene, excellent scenes. He joins Brody and oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) on a voyage to oust the shark and as the three guys get grimier and drunker, you constantly wonder just how exactly they’re going to conquer the aqua beast.

Jaws’ score is often heralded for its tense beat that builds to a crescendo, but it also bears a swooping grandiosity that marks the film’s action-adventure element. Sharp high notes chirp along pleasantly, notes that composer John Williams would go on to recycle for the first few Harry Potter outings. The film isn’t an out-and-out horror flick but it does dabble in gruesome visuals and a playfully heart pounding atmosphere.

There is a bit of dip in stress levels just before the final act plays out, but you let it slide as Spielberg has spent so long admirably refraining from bluster, favouring human drama instead. Led by the quintessential everyman Chief Brody, his regular qualities superbly highlighted by Roy Scheider, Jaws manifests as a clever genre-chewer that still boasts significant bite 40 years on.

Jaws - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, The Guardian

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Man Crates: Horror Movie Survival Guide

Scream - Randy Meeks

There is a sequence in Wes Craven’s Scream where local horror buff Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) takes centre stage before a group of apparently in-the-know teenagers and explains to them the various rules of scary movie survival. “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie,” he exclaims with hilarious passion. Be a virgin. Don’t announce your imminent return. And damn it, everyone is a suspect!

Taking inspiration from the lovely people over at Man Crates, I reckon it’s time we shifted our collective focus away from the reactive and towards the proactive. Let’s stop worrying about who the killer is and start worrying about how to conquer said killer. A zombie apocalypse? Forget wearily looking around for fresh water, we ought to start stocking up on the good stuff now. Below is a list of must-have possessions, things everybody should own in the event of a horrifying disaster. Let’s not kid ourselves, in a few years The Walking Dead will probably be eligible to win Best Documentary Series at the Emmys.

You check out Man Crates’ numerous crate combos here — my personal favourite is the Retro Gamer edition. The crates are primarily aimed at guys (we’re notoriously indecisive when it comes to gift wish lists) though I reckon many women out there would be interested too. Crowbars at the ready.

The Walking Dead - Michonne

1 — Water (lots)

Given I’ve already mentioned it, this one shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Apparently us humans can only go around three days without water — unless you’re Frodo Baggins who, along with his mate Sam, went something like a week without H2O replenishment. Hoarding water is just common sense. You might even be able to recycle it too, though I’m certainly no expert.

2 — Michonne’s sword (and Michonne)

A weapon is essential, and you wouldn’t want to be lugging around a chainsaw all day and night. A gun would be excellent for a while but you would be snookered when the ammo runs out. I always fancied myself as a bit of an archer — on Skyrim, anyway — but arrows numbers would eventually diminish too. I reckon you’d want something long in length to avoid any close combat, and a Katana blade perfectly fits that bill. Perhaps it’d be best just to hire Michonne as your personal bodyguard.

3 — Notepad and pen(s)

You’d need something that would help pass the time in between any monster-evading exploits, and since technology requires power (which, presumably, would be difficult to garner in a world ravaged by villainous creatures), I reckon the old notepad and pen combo would do the trick. Us film fanatics could write. Arty folk could draw. Gamers could play noughts and crosses. Endless fun.

4 — Netflix

I know I said earlier technology would be a moot possession in an apocalyptic landscape, but who am I kidding? It’s 2015. Us Millennial lot can hardly survive a day wrapped up in bed without the wonders of Netflix. Chances are the big baddie at large — be it the Xenomorph from Alien, Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Ghostface him/herself — would end up addicted to Orange is the New Black anyway.

5 — Bear Grylls

He is basically humanity’s version of a pocketknife. Bear can hunt for food, he can seek out accessible shelter, create fire without equipment, built rafts to cross rivers etc. Even the world’s most powerful man, Barack Obama, trusts him (though according to the President, Bear’s culinary skills leave something to be desired). And besides, if you can’t survive a real life horror movie with a guy called “Bear” by your side, your survival chances were probably null upon arrival.

Bonus — Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility

This isn’t cheating, is it? You could sit peacefully, sword in tow, guzzling water, jotting down notes in between episodes of Twin Peaks, Bear Grylls camped by your side, and remain hidden from the atrocities of reality. I suppose if we are venturing down the magical route, Hermione’s Time-Turner would be a better option.

There you have it. Some words of advice, free of charge. What more can you ask? If you have anything to add, feel free to do so in the comments section below.

The Walking Dead - Walkers

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): Dimension Films, AMC

The Martian (2015)

★★★★★

The Martian PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Release Date: September 30th, 2015 (UK); October 2nd, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara

As Ridley Scott’s fourth headline entry in the science fiction genre, you might pre-emptively think The Martian is one giant leap too many. The film opens with a steady pan across wondrous space, a shot that harkens back to his first offering, Alien. But this isn’t Alien, far from it. Nor is it Blade Runner or Prometheus. The Martian is too busy swimming in the delightful proclivities of space pirates and gaffer tape to concern itself with morose terminators and monstrous creatures. In short, this giant leap is the best one Scott could hope to make at this stage in his career and, indeed, the right one for mankind to feast on.

Drew Goddard recalibrates Andy Weir’s highly regarded novel with impetus, creating a screenplay that sparks with life and manifests on screen in surprisingly slick 140-minute form. It’s about botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars after an Ares 3 mission catastrophe (a scene shot with intense furore). Accordingly, we spend a lot of time in the company of a man whose technical wizardry acts as a lifeboat. There is a lot of scientific space lingo and control room hubris, yet a combination of Goddard’s wily script and Damon’s charming performance renders the would-be impersonal exceedingly personal.

Mars’ landscape is incredible — when Watney awakens from his unconscious state and ambles across the rusty sand, you really feel his isolation. The grandeur both intimidates and inspires. His first call of duty is a squirm-worthy medical scene involving pliers and the astronaut’s gaping abdomen. Matt Damon recaptures the tortured spirit unleashed by Noomi Rapace in Prometheus, and the excruciating results would make her proud. His eyes are black and heavy at this point. To fund the sense of total seclusion, we’re stuck with Watney on Mars for a good chunk of the movie (though “stuck” suggests it is time spent against our will, when in fact it is some of the best time I’ve spent at the cinema this year).

The Martian is about a smart person (and later people) doing smart things, and Damon is perfect as the savvy loner. He is brilliant company, erupting with charismatic poise and an everymanness that usurps his specialised occupation. You feel an authentic burst of joy every time he connects the problematic dots via intellect and nous. Cinema will do well to conjure up a more likeable presence before 2015 is out. There’s no volleyball, but for a companion Watney employs a webcam and, like Cillian Murphy’s Capa in Sunshine, our hero speaks to the camera as if conversing with us and not with a machine. Emotions become capital and we absolutely get our money’s worth: whenever Watney wells up our natural instinct suggests we do the same.

The self-proclaimed greatest botanist on the planet often wears a scowl that implies a freak out is imminent, but instead whimsical quips relieve any tension. He has to be sarcastic and jokey in order to survive, and his jokes are unequivocally funny (“It has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup”). David Bowie’s “Starman” tune is part of an expertly employed soundtrack that feeds the genial air surrounding Watney’s shenanigans — potato growing, alphabet reconfiguration, machine hacking, to name but a few.

In any other Ridley Scott sci-fi effort, the titular man-Martian would be cursing God and trembling through his deserted predicament. But not here. Here, the prevailing sentiment is a hearty, somewhat sly, “Fuck you Mars.” Watney throws a plethora of insults at his host — the planet becomes the enemy. It’s man versus wild, and there is an acknowledgement from the filmmaker that threat ought to still linger despite the upbeat atmosphere. Watney, as such, has to contend with peril constantly swirling around him, danger emboldened by the movie’s forthright sound design.

Goddard’s screenplay — which he initially wrote intending to direct — likes to poke fun at PR and at press discourse. The film is barely five minutes old before the digs start: “Mark just discovered dirt — should we alert the media?” (as fate, or otherwise, would have it we got a water-related Mars announcement from NASA just days before the film’s release). While Watney does his best to stay alive, the mission back on Earth is to somehow spin his survival into a non-destructive PR story. Those doing the spinning, somewhat amazingly given the cynical Zeitgeist in which we live, are far from deplorable.

They each have flaws: Jeff Daniels’ NASA chief is a bit impersonal; Sean Bean’s Ares 3 crew supervisor heralds gut reaction over practicality; and even Kristen Wiig’s publicity woman can be on the dismissive side. But they are all amiable people trying to do good. While on Mars it is all about Spielbergian wonderment, quirky humour, and a genuinely winsome crust, the Earth arc mixes a jaunty detective movie with corporate drama. Bureaucracy plays a part — should they or should they not inform the Ares 3 crew that their man is still alive? Those at NASA struggle to keep up with Watney’s ingenious prowess despite their technological advantage, and the film hilariously emphasises this.

The cast is rich in depth but very large, and you worry that some might suffer due to a lack of screen time (a criticism many aimed at Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest). Thankfully, by the end, the vast majority are afforded a moment to shine. It’s great seeing Chiwetel Ejiofor in a breezier role, and he fits the bill as home-based NASA engineer Vincent Kapoor with coolness to spare. Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña and the remaining Ares 3 crew members function like a well-oiled team despite their comparatively short-lived screen stint. Mackenzie Davis is very good as the freshman NASA analyst, energising a potentially corny role. Kristen Wiig, too, confidently plays against type.

As the film advances, the Sol counts (the number of days spent on Mars) that are systematically thrown up on screen do lose their clout. It could be argued that the piece unwittingly stumbles into a pacing issue; not that it ever threatens to plod along, but rather that the on screen presentation of advancing time is a tad careless. The longer we go, the less it impacts on us (though admittedly, by the time the grand conclusion gets under way nobody really cares).

It is dramatically better than Apollo 13. Visually, it rides the same rocketship as Gravity — Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is foolproof. The Martian probably isn’t Ridley Scott’s best sci-fi movie (both Alien and Blade Runner will take some beating), but his love letter to human dexterity, perseverance, and personality is an utter triumph.

The Martian - Matt Damon

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Chappie (2015)

★★

Chappie PosterDirector: Neill Blomkamp

Release Date: March 6th, 2015 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Shartlo Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman

As Chappie gets under way atop a wave of rolling news clips and documentary-style snippets, there’s a vague familiarity in the air. We soon meet Dean (Dev Patel), a quirky and smart employee, and shortly thereafter encounter the film’s titular robot (Sharlto Copley). The two become entrenched in a rebellion against corporate injustice, where agendas are warped by power and economics. There is a CEO overlord (Sigourney Weaver) with iffy morals and a brash militant understudy (Hugh Jackman) with iffier intentions, and it doesn’t take long for our artificially intelligent robot to intertwine with humanity’s complexities.

If you can hear any bells ringing in your mind at this point, it is because Chappie is another Neill Blomkamp film wrapped up in the woes of society and class and science. It’s District 9. It’s even sort of Elysium. The thematic content isn’t bad at all — the director has proven in the past that exploring societal issues can be a rewarding experience. Rather, Blomkamp’s third film struggles because it doesn’t differentiate itself from his previous two.

Nor does Chappie click tonally. We’re in a constant kinetic flux, the tone jumbled and jumping around too much, a problem embodied by our central machine who manifests as a bubbly toddler one minute and a gun-wielding lunatic the next. The robot doesn’t garner enough empathy to start with because he (it’s male, apparently) has never been a human. But the disconnect is ultimately established due to Chappie’s lack of identity. A human character can get away with this lack of identification because we can relate to a person more than a robot. It is possible for an AI character to do the same — Alicia Vikander manages without personality in Ex Machina — but not in this instance. Chappie, voiced fairly well by Sharlto Copley, is at his most engaging when he’s acting up; a car-jacking scene is one of the film’s few brilliant moments, almost as culturally reflective as it is hilarious.

Generally though, the bits and pieces that make up the film are all a bit weird. As former soldier Vincent, Hugh Jackman (despite being an entertaining watch) looks like he is about to film a Steve Irwin biopic. The South African duo, a musical group known as Die Antwoord, don’t fit into the gritty urbanised world. They belong in a Tim Burton fantasy adventure, though on the basis of their performances here, that won’t be happening any time soon. For some reason, Sigourney Weaver — who will be teaming up with Blomkamp again for his upcoming Alien revival — is underused as a plain company figurehead.

On the more reality-mirroring side of things, we see capitalist manipulation: “It’s expensive, it’s big and it’s ugly,” is the reply Vincent receives as he tries to sell army-ready machines to the army (we’re subsequently left to wonder why money isn’t being thrown at him). A thematic favourite of Blomkamp, machine intelligence versus human ideology, fuels an underbelly that is certainly justified given the postmodern technological surroundings, yet never really amounts to much. Had they not been made in such close proximity to one another, you would be forgiven for thinking the folks behind Chappie were privy to Wally Pfister’s Transcendence in relation to ideas on concluding. Despite that movie’s many shortcomings, it is actually better and more accomplished than Chappie.

On an aesthetic front, the post-industrial setting is a good one, however instead of being a vehicle for entrapment, the relentlessly murky and dank atmosphere quickly becomes a trend-setter for the bland story unfolding (pathetic fallacy gone wrong). There are some impressive slow motion shots employed during the action sequences that reverberate well with the film’s technological arc. In fact, Trent Opaloch’s cinematography is a success — in purely visual terms the film does its job. Opaloch worked on Blomkamp’s previous two outings as well as The Winter Soldier, and his notable efforts have earned him a spot on the next Captain America film too.

Unfortunately, the visual aspect can’t quite rescue Chappie from a messy final third. The film slowly saunters along towards a fairly energetic conclusion but by then we’re sitting wondering why we should care. There are so many different parties involved in the action at the end that it feels like the battle of the five armies all over again. In screenplay terms, this wholly contrived finale is just about the final nail in a coffin of banality and nonsensicalness.

Chappie isn’t a bad film, but at some point Blomkamp needs to change things up or else risk artistic homogenisation. He is obviously a talented filmmaker; the simple fact that his films have something pertinent to say about how we live, have lived and might live is testament to his skill level. But after two solid outings, Chappie feels like a step backwards. It’s almost as if the director who once challenged the norm has conformed to it.

Chappie - Jackman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

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