Isolation, Science Fiction and Ridley Scott

Scott’s sci-fi films explore isolation in people, places and processes.

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If you are a film fan, you are probably a science fiction fan. And if you are a science fiction fan, there is a fair chance you have enjoyed a Ridley Scott movie or two in the past. What makes sci-fi so utterly compelling is its potential; the thematic possibilities are endless and, tonally-speaking, very little is off bounds. The genre fits in any number of settings – dramatic, funny, mysterious, scary – and riding the waves of its theme pool are a host of subjects ranging from encroaching capitalism to religious allegory.

It is a rich genre, one that has provided the basis for a true cinematic icon to develop and deliver. Ridley Scott’s relationship with science fiction is fleeting when you consider his total output (he has made 24 films and only a fifth have sci-fi hallmarks). But when he does shoot for the stars, the outcome tends to strike bullseye.

Two of Scott’s earlier jaunts, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), remain seminal touchstones for film lovers and filmmakers, and while Prometheus (2012) has its fair share of detractors, you will only ever find me bowing to its eerie overtures. All three of those movies, alongside both The Martian (2015) and Alien: Covenant (2017), have a central thematic commonality woven throughout their narratives: Isolation. Here, I am going to explore the ways in which Scott intriguingly tackles different forms of isolation in his sci-fi films. Warning: There will be spoilers.

It is one of the most famous taglines in movie history: “In space, no-one can hear you scream.” It is also a logistical reminder that space is a lonely place. The opening shot of Alien reflects exactly that, slowly panning across the atmosphere into darkness with only a dim hum for company. Cinematographer Derek Vanlint then takes us on a trip around the Nostromo, during which silence and emptiness reign supreme. There are no spoken words – certainly nothing distinguishable – for at least six minutes, and when the crew do spark into life there are only seven mouths primed for yapping.

Alien is essentially a parable about the woes and anxieties brought on by inescapable isolation. Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon probe at our innate fears surrounding solitude and the inevitability of it; at some point – be it for an hour, or a day, or a year – we are all alone. When technical problems make it difficult for the crew to maintain a link with ‘the outside world’, that primal fear is set in motion. As the film progresses, members are picked off one-by-one until only Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains, left to squirm in a blend of isolation and uncertainty.

But before we get to that point, Scott and co. examine the various factors that cause isolation. It is money that forces the crew to alter their homeward-bound route, subsequently driving them directly into danger and death (as Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) reminds everyone, investigating potential alien life is a must otherwise they will all forfeit their pay). The planetoid that hosts said lifeform is misty and grainy and dark, with craggy mountains and tough terrain – perfect conditions to get lost in.

The dead creature the crew finds acts almost as a warning. Left to languish for an eternity, the alien body represents the results of inactivity and desolation. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) also discover large eggs, prompting a symmetry between how the facehuggers inside said eggs and the Nostromo crew members are introduced – both species are fragmented and alone at first, hatching from their personal zones of seclusion (the seven aboard the Nostromo are initially shown waking from a stasis effect while inside separate pods).

Humans and facehuggers are introduced in a similarly isolated fashion, the former inside stasis pods and the latter giant eggs.

As disaster bursts from the chest of Kane in that famous scene, the impending threat ushers in urgent anxiety. “I just wanna get the hell outta here, alright?” Thereafter, individuals succumb to the Alien – which has grown significantly while out of sight aboard the ship, using isolation as a weapon against the humans – in systematic fashion. The longer the crew are locked away from civilisation, the bigger the Xenomorph becomes and the more danger they face.

MOTHER, the ship’s version of Siri, is the only external contact, an artificial form of life and an untrue companionship experience. It transpires that Ash is an android and that he has manipulated his astral acquaintances directly into their volatile situation. Technological marvel Ash could be considered the primary cause of the crew’s isolation, an idea Scott explores with greater vigour in both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.

Ripley is the last woman standing and her anxiety is palpable, particularly when left on her lonesome to battle the Xenomorph inside an emergency escape shuttle. Even after Ripley defeats her terrifying enemy there remains a wary uncertainty surrounding whether or not she will survive alone in space (thankfully she makes it, and subsequently cements her reputation as a badass action hero in Aliens).

Whereas Alien depicts literal loneliness in the form of people being stuck millions of miles from refuge, Scott’s noir-ish sci-fi entry Blade Runner is set in a land that bustles with bleak vibrancy. The isolation in this instance is born not out of anxiety, but of identity crisis. Is Deckard (Harrison Ford) a human or a replicant? Ford reckons his character is a genuine guy made of flesh and bone, and many agree with that interpretation.

However, Scott has always maintained his belief that Deckard is a none-the-wiser replicant designed to annihilate his own kind. In a 2007 interview with Wired he stated, “[On whether it was ever written down on paper that Deckard is a replicant] It was, actually… Deckard, too, has imagination and even history implanted in his head”. Whichever way you see it, this mystery grants the character special status – in flux between human and machine. He has to be one or the other but since the film does not explicitly state which, we can consider the merits and demerits of both prospective forms.

Deckard is a figure steeped in seclusion: When we meet him he is living by himself in a quiet, lightless apartment that gives off a claustrophobic resonance. Ford’s character is very much a loner, a disagreeable antihero caught up in a busy haze that he clearly has no time for. Light has to fight tooth and nail to get some air time, otherwise darkness and shadow loom large.

Light fights its way into Deckard’s otherwise shadowy, dark room.

Shots guided by Jordan Cronenweth’s deft hands often hone in on Deckard’s morose expression, his singular existence emphasised further by Vangelis’ stunning-yet-melancholic score. There might even be value in comparing Deckard and Blade Runner to Bill Murray’s Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, alongside each film’s respective score.

“How can it not know what it is?” Deckard poses the question in reference to Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant under the impression she is human. But is he actually questioning his own internal complex? The way he treats Rachael – unsympathetically breaking the news to her that she is not a person – is unorthodox and unkind, suggesting an inexperience around others perhaps brought on by his inability to understand himself.

It is a similar story later when the pair get intimate: Deckard is forceful, almost as if he is desperate to escape his personal isolation and can see a way out, can see a similar yearning, in replicant Rachael. When she ‘disappears’ in anguish over her true identity, Rachael actually goes looking for Deckard and saves his life. Perhaps Scott and writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples are implying these characters have come to the realisation that inter-species comfort is their only way to evade loneliness.

Aside from identity strands, Blade Runner also considers how isolation can cloud morality. The replicants Deckard is tasked with eliminating, led by the creepily mesmerising Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), need to find their corporate creator Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) in order for them to extend their lives. The latter group crave collective survival whereas the former, Deckard, seeks to enforce terminal solitude.

Pris, a female replicant insurgent played by Daryl Hannah, preys on a lonely designer who has close links to Tyrell, taking advantage of his separation from civilisation in an Under the Skin-esque turn of events. The replicants are constantly shown working in tandem (or at least trying to) whereas the human characters all function apart: Deckard as a lone ranger, Sebastian as the aforementioned designer, and even Tyrell, whom we find alone in his room playing chess with a machine.

When Rachael asks Deckard if he has ever taken the empathy test that identifies artifice, he has no answer. By the end of the film we finally see Deckard refute isolation by running away with Rachael, and perhaps accepting his identity as a replicant. Or perhaps not.

Scott’s first return to the Alien universe brought with it many familiarities – the lone female survivor, the impending remoteness – but Prometheus also introduced a more complex agent: David the android (Michael Fassbender). This time when the camera has a peek around the ship at the start of the film, David is the solitary presence filling the steady silence.

Android David examines a mysterious egg, harking back to a similar scene in Alien.

David is in isolation from humanity because he (we’ll go with he) is not human. He is a literal loner in Prometheus. But Scott uses David’s uncanniness, his humanlike appearance and voice, to invert the norm. It also helps that Fassbender is a recognisable Hollywood star. And as it turns out, we, humanity, are actually the ones in isolation – again, the Prometheus crew are separated from home by millions of miles and a handful of years.

But Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s script opts to jab at the figurative. At one point, while donning a spacesuit he does not need, David says, “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”. The Weyland Corporation has created a synthetic non-human solely to have it fit in with its human counterparts, to aid their quest away from isolation.

David is imperative to the crew’s success: He appears to run the ship when they are all in stasis; he identifies dangerous atmospheric changes; he even saves archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) life during a huge storm. The suggestion, quite indiscreetly, seems to be that without artificial intelligence humanity would be isolated from achievement, from discovery, and from the answer to the film’s central question: Who created us?

These grand notions surrounding humankind and seclusion can be localised by examining individual crew members. Charlize Theron’s corporate employee is cold, sort of like Deckard, but wants to be accepted. When Idris Elba’s captain follows up a sex proposal with, “Are you a robot?” a subtly downbeat Vickers obliges not the captain’s identity question, but his sex request. And much like the replicants in Blade Runner, Prometheus CEO Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) wants to be saved from death.

It is Shaw, though, who is the most interesting case. The end of Prometheus yields another sole female survivor. A trembling Shaw exclaims, “I can’t do it anymore”. She is alone, truly separated from aid, until she hears David’s voice and feels a semblance of hope. Shaw is the only believer aboard a ship full of sceptics, scientists, and money-hoarders. Her isolation is also wrapped up in faith, which arguably abandons her as the film develops (she cannot conceive and then conceives a monster; she spends her life working towards meeting her maker and then her maker kills those around her).

Prometheus’ take on isolation is both hopeful and grim, but The Martian wholly falls under the tutelage of the former. Buoyed by a sprightly, energetic, and light-hearted air, Scott shows how isolation can bring out the best in humanity. Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut thrives both mentally and technologically because he has to, but also because solitude affords him time to thoroughly plan and execute tasks (such as growing potatoes). The film is a “feel-good hymn to human ingenuity,” according to Den of Geek’s Ryan Lambie, and was also a welcome shift in tone for Scott at that stage in his sci-fi career.

Mark Watney grows potatoes, showing inventive qualities despite his lonely predicament on Mars.

But all hope dies eventually, especially in the often bleak world(s) of science fiction. And in the form of Alien: Covenant, we see this decimation of hope. Scott both reinforces and slices through notions of isolation early on as he kills the captain of the Covenant, the husband of main character Daniels (Katherine Waterston), before introducing a crew made up of married couples.

Covenant charts humanity’s attempts to overcome isolation, exemplified in the crew’s central mission to lead their colonisation craft – populated by thousands of in-stasis colonists – to a remote planet. Unlike both the original Alien and Prometheus, there is significant personnel volume backing up the cause, a cause built around the desire for human connection between multiple planets.

We also see the crew fight back against isolative tendencies when they decide to uncover the source of a mysterious call. And this is where the crew’s willingness to connect with others backfires. For not only does their collective decision to explore result in the death of various crewmembers, it also reacquaints us with Prometheus’ David. Only, on this occasion, the Covenant unites David with an upgraded twin, Walter (Michael Fassbender).

No longer is David the ‘literal loner’. He now has a partner, or a muse, or a tool to further his own agenda. In Covenant, Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper invert the liberal attributes of internationalism (or universalism, if we are talking space) by presenting a story that sees humanity’s attempt to discover new peoples, planets and species result in death – David has essentially been breeding Xenomorphs using human DNA, and unleashes said Xenomorphs on humanity.

Walter: David’s upgraded android sibling.

Covenant, as such, also bears the hallmarks of an anti-colonisation movie. We might read it not as a parable against the virtues of internationalism, but as a warning that isolation is not always a cut-and-dry form of existence. Accordingly – forgetting for a moment the troubling binary symbolism set out by humans vs. monsters – the film echoes anti-imperialist sentiments, perhaps decrying the West’s warring tendencies or the European colonisation of Indigenous places and peoples.

Isolation as a form of anxiety. Isolation as a consequence of identity-crisis. Isolation as a technological problem. Isolation as a beacon of hope. Isolation as a warning against imperialism. One thing is for sure: You won’t feel isolated from thematic meaning while watching a Ridley Scott sci-fi film.

Images (©): 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros.

Jason Bourne (2016)

★★★★

Jason Bourne PosterDirector: Paul Greengrass

Release Date: July 27th, 2016 (UK); July 29th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Thriller

Starring: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander

The prospect of another Bourne movie with Paul Greengrass at the helm and Matt Damon in the mix brought out the hopeful side in my otherwise sequel-averse instinct. While The Bourne Legacy done its best to redistribute the focus of a successful, smart franchise onto a new character, it never really looked like hurdling the post-Damon problem. Jeremy Renner has proven to be quite the asset since 2011, each new turn as Hawkeye in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe more successful than the last. But Aaron Cross was no Jason Bourne and director Tony Gilroy couldn’t muster the same level of thrill as Greengrass had during his time in charge (it is worth pointing out that as screenwriter Gilroy has had as much to do with the Bourne franchise’s success as anyone).

Therefore in late 2014 when it was announced Greengrass and Damon would, in fact, be returning for a third outing together — and a fifth overall — I welcomed the news. A lot has happened in world of geopolitics since The Bourne Ultimatum, notably the rise of social media and the undercutting of questionable surveillance techniques by the likes of Edward Snowden. WikiLeaks has become a force, for better or worse disseminating otherwise secretive information around the world, affording us the opportunity to learn about foreign policy tactics and moral mistakes. And just recently, the Pokémon Go app launched to the delight of almost everybody with a smartphone, users a simple ‘yes you can use my location data’ away from catching Pikachu.

Miraculously, Jason Bourne covers all of those bases with a familiar garnish of Greengrass grit. We reconnect with Bourne (Damon) as he steps out of the bare-knuckle frying pan and back into the fugitive fire. The former sleeper agent, now practically free of his debilitating memory loss, learns from former Treadstone contact Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) about some new information regarding said program and his father (Gregg Henry). The CIA pick up on Bourne’s re-emergence and, under the guidance of Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and rising star Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), seek to bring him in — or worse.

Stylistically, Greengrass remains a champion of the 24-influenced techno-sheen: operatives hunch over computers showing complex maps and databases; Barry Ackroyd’s camera harangues characters, zooming in on their stressed faces and back out again; edits are snappy, driving momentum. A tip of the hat, too, to the practical effects used throughout and especially those on display during the final act. All of these visual footprints coalesce to invoke a sense of urgency, as you would expect. Perhaps more importantly they help to paint the on-screen world as our world, as an arena built for the era of borderless technology and ethically dubious decision-making.

The film manoeuvres around three typical set pieces: the first, a multiperson jaunt through an anti-government protest in Athens; the second, a London-based double-cross; and the third, a lengthy game of cat and mouse around the convention centres and streets of Las Vegas. These aren’t exactly new action frontiers for the series — the scene in Athens borrows heavily from the Waterloo Station sequence in The Bourne Ultimatum — but they are all expertly crafted and thoroughly involving. Primarily because they place us right there with Bourne as he searches for answers while attempting to avoid the CIA’s traps. It can get quite tense.

Unsurprisingly, then, the outing is a winner both structurally and technically. What about themes, character, and narrative? The latter two are certainly weaker, though that’s not to say they are weak. Bourne himself has always got by on Damon’s brutish charisma which is again the case here (for a marquee attraction, the actor has but a few pages of dialogue). We see an ageing protagonist at the onset, a lost soul battered by a gruelling life: “All that matters is staying alive,” he says, yet he earns his way as an underground fighter. Tommy Lee Jones’ gruff Dewey is as world weary as the man he wants to capture, but has amassed experienced and is a master player of the game. There is no villain per se — Vincent Cassel comes closest as a hitman employed by the CIA — meaning the piece evolves into a grey area battle between Bourne, courting a lighter shade, and Dewey’s darker prerogative.

Alicia Vikander was always going to be a winning get for the franchise, though the shuffle does dizzy her character at times. She unveils a great glare, her serious face on point throughout as Lee, however the actor is asked to use it a little too often. It’s as if the filmmakers want to her to be the next Bond so badly they’ve created a character so brisk in personality that the casting suits over at MGM simply have to take notice. I suppose everyone on-screen is wrapped up in the seriousness of their various predicaments, and rightly so. Lee does get more involved as the piece progresses and her final destination is an intriguing one, it’s just that Vikander’s talent, for my liking, should have commanded that bit extra. Julia Stiles likewise. Parsons serves a purpose here but as one of the few characters already ingrained in the Bourne community, a grander presence would have been welcomed.

Given this is the fifth instalment of the series, and a picture not based on any sort of primary source material, it is right to consider the film’s aim. What does Jason Bourne have to offer that the previous pictures did not? The answer almost wholly is of thematic content, in that the film expands upon its already established surveillance lexicon and roots itself in updated issues of the present day. That Athens protest I referenced earlier could be happening right now, for instance. Bourne’s unravelling of the Treadstone program brought to light a seedy government process, true, but it also revealed the location of active field agents and subsequently put them at risk. Similar, in conclusion but not effect, to the WikiLeaks reveals which, in some cases, have inconvenienced innocent civilians.

Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse also incorporate the rise of social media and particularly its knife-edge promise to protect user information. The duo mean well and have the correct issue at heart; we are challenged to consider the probability that our personal data isn’t really that safe when in the hands of mega corporations, which is almost certainly true. It is a clumsily handled narrative thread though. When upstart CEO Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) exclaims “no-one will be watching you” before an audience of technologically savvy people during a lecture on what users should expect when they sign up to his new social media platform, those in attendance all vigorously applaud like mindless cattle. Surely we’re too sceptical for that sort of behaviour these days.

The filmmakers try to squeeze in as much compelling and relevant detail as possible, though are clearly mindful not to overdo it. (A discussion between Dewey and Kalloor even hints at the recent Apple-FBI iPhone encryption saga.) The series has always been admirably faithful to process, much more so than its genre counterparts. This approach doesn’t always work: the need to establish mission procedure and tick every box can occasionally halt character development, and I think it does here. But Jason Bourne is an intelligent action-thriller, a rare breed of tentpole movie that we should demand more frequently. Its message, apt: moral clarity has no place in muddy waters and our geopolitical world is utterly caked.

Jason Bourne - Tommy Lee Jones & Alicia Vikander

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Top 10 Performances of 2015 — Actor

A rubbish film can bear great performances, but a great film can’t really bear rubbish performances. The actor, in many ways, is the bread and butter of motion picture creation. It is his or her job to take the prescribed raw materials (a screenplay, a set, a prop) and recalibrate those errant parts through personal experience and analytical understanding into a final, visceral product that audiences can — hopefully — relate to or engage with.

2015 was another tiptop year on the acting front, across the board. Mainstream movies, under the radar indie flicks, big budget creations, genre pieces — you name it and there was at least one performance of note. Now that said year has ended and we are hammering down the motorway towards awards season, I think it is worth reflecting on some of those excellent portrayals.

These are my top ten male performances of 2015 (five leading and five supporting). If you so desire, you can check out my celebration of the work done by a few fantastic females here.

Leading Roles

5. Jake Gyllenhaal — Southpaw

A film and lead performance indicative (at least to an extent) of the first sentence in this feature, perennial powerhouse Jake Gyllenhaal elevates Antoine Fuqua’s riches-to-rags-to-riches boxing tale beyond convention. The actor has never really had a bad patch to bounce back from — unlike, say, Matthew McConaughey — but his work in recent years has been McConaissance-esque in quality. In Southpaw he plays a devastated boxer, matching a chiselled physique with a nuanced emotional exterior. It’s a shame his name has dropped out of the Oscar race, because this showing genuinely is a knockout.

Southpaw - Jake Gyllenhaal

4. Matt Damon — The Martian

It is always a pleasure to sit back and watch smart people do smart things, and Mark Watney fulfils that criteria. The Mars-stranded botanist was originally conceived on the pages of Andy Weir’s novel, and while books by nature offer readers a blank canvas to visualise content as they so please, it is tough to imagine anyone other than Matt Damon as Watney. He purveys a resilience that endears, a wit that encourages laughter, and an occasional serious streak that demands wholesale sympathy. Good thing too, given Damon spends the majority of the two and a half hours on-screen by himself.

The Martian - Matt Damon

3. Michael Fassbender — Steve Jobs

Giving a personal face to an Aaron Sorkin screenplay seems difficult enough, but turning the notoriously hard-headed Steve Jobs into someone we can somewhat relate to is something else entirely. Michael Fassbender does just that as a specific version of the Apple genius — the showman — taking us on a journey through three product launches and three personality evolutions. There is a magnetism to the way he interacts with those around him as well as an initial, purposeful iciness that naturally melts into generous acceptance. Between this and his headline role in Macbeth, Fassbender’s had a strong year.

Steve Jobs - Michael Fassbender

2. Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Transformative performances are in vogue in the world of Eddie Redmayne and it’s clear to see why: he is very good at them. Redmayne is back among the awards chatter having opened 2016 as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, but his early 2015 portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything is the superior of the two. The actor is exposed for all to see as the physicist, with very little to fall back on. His co-star Felicity Jones brings beautiful subtlety to Jane Hawking, the inverse of Redmayne’s painstakingly physical delivery. He won the Best Actor Oscar early in the year, and justifiably so.

The Theory of Everything - Eddie Redmayne

1. Oscar Isaac — A Most Violent Year

While Redmayne and co. celebrated the industry recognition afforded to them via golden statuette, Oscar Isaac found himself devoid of even an invite to acting table. Criminally overlooked as struggling businessman Abel Morales, in A Most Violent Year Isaac — and I mean this with absolute sincerity — nears an Al-Pacino-in-The-Godfather level of performance. J.C. Chandor’s script is cool and careful, affording Isaac a platform to excel from. Abel’s aura is built upon composure and a need to maintain moral correctness, but shots are occasionally fired and with real menace. Isaac ensures we never dislike him though, which is saying something given the murky presence of vehicle hijackings and loan sharks. It’s not a showy performance, simply an utterly engrossing one indicative of a genuine movie star.

A Most Violent Year - Oscar Isaac

Special Mention: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo — Foxcatcher

Major props ought to go to the trio at the forefront of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, all three as worthy of a top five spot as any. Ruffalo reverberates with awkward allure, playing someone who is keenly aware that his younger sibling could be as talented a wrestler as he. As said sibling, Tatum infuses the nominal jock archetype with a sense of unyielding desperation and highly sought after humanity. And Carell swaps bumbling comedy for haunting creep, dressed in a prosthetic getup that disguises his usual cheeriness and instead promotes true horror.

Foxcatcher - Carell & Ruffalo

Supporting Roles

5. Oscar Isaac — Ex Machina

It has been a terrific year for Isaac — he’s also great in an underserved Star Wars: The Force Awakens role — one that got underway in Alex Garland’s mind-prodding Ex Machina. Like Foxcatcher, this is another outing bolstered by three capable performances (and, indeed, a whole lot more). Isaac juggles a host of familiar attributes, from a macho physicality to a technological savvy to a weariness brought on by wealth, and it is fitting therefore that we can never quite pinpoint his mindset at any given moment. The untamed beard helps too.

Ex Machina - Oscar Isaac

4. Emory Cohen — Brooklyn

You’ll do well to find a more charming male protagonist this year than Tony Fiorello. He is the ideal boyfriend, nurturing but not overly invasive, and never a sappy thanks to Emory Cohen. Aided by Nick Hornby’s wonderful screenplay, Cohen brings a commendable amiability (particularly commendable when you consider who he acts opposite — the interminably delightful Saoirse Ronan) and a retro flair akin to that of James Dean: the wavy hairdo, the cheeky grin, the enigmatic charisma. It’s all there.

Brooklyn - Emory Cohen & Saoirse Ronan

3. J.K. Simmons — Whiplash

There is very little else that can be said about J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning turn as a maniacal music teacher in Whiplash, but I’ll say some more anyway. Having carved out a career playing bit part supporting roles, it feels right the most critically acclaimed turn of the actor’s career is his meatiest supporting stance to date. As Terence Fletcher, Simmons strikes fear into not only the mind of Miles Teller but of viewers also, unleashing a poised (and then not-so-poised) ferocity conceived in a pair of all-knowing eyes. No rushing or dragging here.

Whiplash - J.K. Simmons

2. Benicio del Toro — Sicario

Mystery is the key to Benicio del Toro’s negotiation-avoiding brute. In my review of Sicario, I lauded his performance as follows: “Del Toro saunters on-screen parading a mystique that suggests he ain’t to be messed with. He folds his jacket even though it is already creased, a move that mirrors his make-up: externally unruffled but internally blazing. The actor has that grizzled veteran demeanour, his hitman reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West.” That is to say, he’s quite good.

Sicario - Benicio del Toro

1. Mark Rylance — Bridge of Spies

Like the aforementioned J.K. Simmons, Mark Rylance has never really be one to court the cinematic limelight. He has primarily plied his trade in theatre, but there is nothing theatrical about his portrayal of potential Soviet spy Rudolph Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Precision is key; you can’t keep your eyes off Rylance because every inclination, every stutter, every action appears to have some sort of meaning. The chemistry he shares with Tom Hanks — another would-be worthy addition to any celebratory list — breeds authenticity across a companionship that might otherwise have felt cold. Full Marks.

Bridge of Spies - Mark Rylance

Images credit: Collider, Nerdist

Images copyright (©): A24Focus Features, Fox Searchlight Pictures, LionsgateSony Pictures Classics, TSG EntertainmentUniversal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesThe Weinstein Company20th Century Fox

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

Elysium (2013)

★★★

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Release Date: August 9th, 2013 (US); August 21st, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Action; Drama; Science-fiction

Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga

Acquiring aesthetic influence from director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, and combining that with a story inspired by Total Recall, Elysium takes its time as it slowly burns through its first hour — asking many of the same questions as those proposed in District 9 and Total Recall. However, with 40 minutes remaining and a more prominent role for Sharlto Copley developed, Elysium explodes into life with sci-fi action as entertaining and engrossing as much that has gone before it this summer.

Much like Total Recall, Elysium is set in a future where the wealthy live idyllic lives and the poor are left to fend for themselves. This time around, an enormous manufactured space station called Elysium plays host to those whose class and money outbid most others’. The Earth has been over-worked and over-populated, housing the vast majority of humanity — most of whom are poor and without essentials such as health care and shelter.

Elysium was hyped up fairly extensively throughout a summer dominated by science-fiction. Perhaps this was down to a combination of being directed by sci-fi extraordinaire Neill Blomkamp and boasting a juicy plot set to ignite many a discussion amongst viewers. For the most part, Elysium does hold up its end of the bargain and meets the high standards set beforehand. The film is not too dissimilar visually to Blomkamp’s District 9, which portrayed some of the Earth as extremely run-down and over-saturated by people, rubbish and rot. This obvious likeness is not a problem as the film certainly needs and benefits from the landscape it is primarily set in, with the contrast between Earth and the fresh, artificial Elysium comprehensively mirroring the gap between the rich and the poor. The film begins by scoping across the worn city of Los Angeles, projecting visuals which would not be out of place in a post-nuclear disaster. The camera then pans up towards the gleaming Elysium, signalling the overall objective of the film — to explore the results of mass-immigration and its impact on class divide.

Blomkamp appears to take significant inspiration from Total Recall, as Elysium incorporates two geographically and internally separate habitats into its story: a wealthy and a poor one. The film also sparks up many of the same questions asked in District 9, and the combination of these two somewhat recycled elements act as a small constraint against the piece. For example, just as District 9 is an analogy of oppression against ‘outsiders’ (the prawns), so too does Elysium focus on a lack of acceptance of ‘outsiders’ (the poor). Another key element which makes its way into Elysium much like it did District 9 is the lack of adequate health care offered to those who are in need of it. Installing similar themes to the extent Blomkamp does here runs the risk of being too referential in nature, however Elysium manages to overcome such an obstacle by way of an interesting (albeit slightly predictable) narrative and, in particular, a storming second-half.

After an hour comprised of plot points designed to set-up the main act of the film, Elysium bursts into life with the more prominent, speech-driven arrival of Sharlto Copley’s character, Kruger. A mercenary who works in an unofficial capacity for the Elysium Secretary of Defence, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), Kruger’s primary objective is to prevent any immigrants from escaping Earth and establishing themselves on Elysium. Copley — who also starred in District 9 — is tremendously vicious in the role, giving off the impression that his character is so unhinged he could snap at any given moment. Interestingly, Kruger’s dishevelled, vile look indicates that he has spent his life living off of scraps along with the rest of the poor on Earth, which adds another dimension to his relationship with the pristine Delacourt — it is likely that he does not want to see any form of success or joy amongst his peers on Earth and in order to ensure misery, he must ensure nobody can migrate to Elysium.

Matt Damon stars as an ex-convict named Max Da Costa who is trying to turn his life around and who finds himself, through a variety of circumstances, as the head of a mini-rebellion against the corporate Elyisians. There is a wonderful scene between Damon’s Da Costa and a robot near the beginning of the film (robots control the Earth as most upper-class humans deem the landscape unworthy and too polluted to exist on themselves). Da Costa becomes increasingly frustrated by the machine’s lack of care or understanding in regards to what he is saying to it. This essentially sums up the whole film, as Da Costa represents the poor and their struggle to be noticed and aided, against a discriminatory, emotionally unavailable upper-class. Both Damon and Foster are thoroughly convincing in their respective roles, however Copley’s effortless attempts at vulgarity ensure he is loathed universally, therefore he demands most of the plaudits. The final 40 minutes of Elysium are well worth the ticket price, as the drama evolves into hard-hitting action whilst maintaining an enveloping aura, much of which is to do with the uncertainty surrounding Kruger.

Even though the early stages of Elysium are slow-burning and a little nonsensical in parts, the film eventually hits full throttle as it meshes together awesome visuals, good performances and exhilarating action. The Total RecallDistrict 9 hybrid poses a number of recycled-yet-relevant questions to the audience, assuring its intentions are in the correct place.

Credit: The Location Guide
Credit: The Location Guide

The Summer of Sci-Fi

Okay, I will admit it: only fairly recently have I jumped on the sci-fi bandwagon. I have always enjoyed the odd science fiction film, but I used to be much more of a drama or comedy guy. Not anymore. Over the past two years, I have really begun to develop an admiration — through intrigue and awe — for science fiction. I think it started around the time Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was announced. Having never watched the Alien films (I have now) I was surprised that Prometheus had grabbed my attention as much as it did. The plot sounded interesting, the poster looked ominous, the actors lined up were of a very high calibre. Then the trailer arrived and I was completely sold. The mood set in the trailer was outstanding — total atmospheric eeriness. In terms of the film itself, I went to the cinema to see the day it came out and, in my opinion, it lived up to the hype. Perhaps having not seen any of the Alien films beforehand I went in with a different mindset to those who had seen them — I was not expecting a lot of Alien-related content because I didn’t really know what Alien-related content would look like.

But I digress. This summer — and beyond — we have the pleasure of being offered a significant number of science fiction films in cinemas. Having just finished my exams at university, I have only been afforded the chance to go to the cinema once in the last few weeks and that was to see Iron Man 3. But now that I am off university and free to do what I like for five months, the cinema beckons along with the upcoming sci-fi films. Up first, at the end of March The Host was released in cinemas, starring Saoirse Ronan, and having been panned more or less by critics — holding a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes — it has performed pretty well at the box office. Up next, the highly anticipated Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise. I regret not seeing this film in cinema as, at least for an hour, it harps back to classic sci-fi films like Silent Running and Total Recall according to Mark Kermode of Mayo and Kermode’s Film Reviews on BBC 5 Live. Other reviews have been moderate to favourable and the film has grossed over $200 million dollars. Of course, the biggest and most looked forward to science fiction film of the summer has to be Star Trek: Into Darkness (which I plan to do a blog post on soon, watch this space).

Following that are films such as The Purge (2013) starring Lena Heady and This Is the End (2013) with an ensemble of comedy stars. In July, Pacific Rim hits cinemas — perhaps literally going by the trailers. Billed as Giant robots vs. Giant monsters, Pacific Rim has a tough job in ensuring it does not just become a film where, well, giant robots hit giant monsters. The well-publicised Elysium begins screening towards the end of August — a futuristic take on current political issues, helmed by Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. Before the summer ends, The World’s End (hopefully not) will complete Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” and again it boasts the funny duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Even after summer, the science fiction fountain keeps flowing with the likes of Riddick, Ender’s Game and the second part of The Hunger Games franchise — Catching Fire.

I guess the reasoning behind this blog post is to not only give you an insight into how I got into science fiction, but also encapsulate how much the genre dominates our cinemas. Back in the 1970s and 80s — when I was not alive — sci-fi films were at the forefront of cinema: films like Blade Runner, Silent Running, The Terminator, and even before then Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps now, in 2013, science fiction is on a parabolic rise and hitting a return to form. Or maybe not. Perhaps it is simply an easier way for filmmakers to grab an audience’s attention with awesome visuals. But why can’t it be both? I for one am very much looking forward to this summer and am excited to get stuck into some sci-fi — are you?