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.

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

★★

X-Men: Apocalypse PosterDirector: Bryan Singer

Release Date: May 18th, 2016 (UK); May 27th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Oscar Isaac

It’s fitting that X-Men: Apocalypse should arrive on the heels of Captain America: Civil War, though not for the most flattering reason. Since Marvel Studios launched its Cinematic Universe back in 2008, the studio has carved out quite the mountainous niche for itself. From Iron Man onwards, the films under the MCU banner have followed a fairly compact narrative structure: stories with potentially world-ending consequences told atop a spine of levity. Civil War is the clearest, most effective representation of that structure we’ve had thus far, its serious themes of accountability and government distrust lightened via bouts of humour. While other outings have had some success, the Russo brothers’ tonal balancing act in Civil War is as close to faultless as the MCU might ever see.

Back, then, to X-Men: Apocalypse, a feature that strives to have more in common with this Marvel prerogative than its own pre-established mantra. Bryan Singer’s film, penned by Simon Kinberg (they last worked together on Days of Future Past), is probably the funniest X-Men instalment to date, bearing a commendable number of snappy one-liners and some less commendable instances of accidental amusement. But elements of its story are also deeply serious and the filmmakers struggle to marry this seriousness with the humour, at times to the movie’s downfall. The issue is not that Singer and Kinberg want to make us laugh, it’s that the filmmakers’ deployment of humour is grossly misplaced. More on that later.

It’s pretty much your bog-standard superhero showdown: a big bad (En Sabah Nur, played by an Oscar Isaac struggling valiantly against the character’s broad strokes) rises from the dust and ruin of a fallen ancient empire to wreak havoc upon the 1980s, and it’s up to the good mutants (led by Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy) to stop him. En route to worldwide recalibration — an odd sequence sees Nur decry the weakness of humankind and our technologies via television montage — the super-mutant recruits a handful of powerful followers, one of whom is Magneto (Michael Fassbender), plucked from a covert life in Poland with his wife and daughter. There are a bunch of others involved but that’s about the gist.

Unsurprisingly, most of the others are mutants and again we see a few treated unfairly, like freak attractions. We are introduced to Angel (Ben Hardy) in the midst of a one-sided cage fight and reintroduced to Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as his next opponent. Scott Summers’ (Tye Sheridan) unearthed Cyclops ability sets him apart in high school and primes him for bullying — lots of characters are either new or feel new because they haven’t had the chance to shine before, not that many get a chance to shine here. This demonisation of mutants, a class/race theme the X-Men series has sought to investigate more intensely in the past, is why Erik Lehnsherr wants to keep his true identity a secret from fellow co-workers and the authorities.

Lehnsherr is by far the most interesting character, not least because he’s the sort of intellectual powerhouse who can back up an Icarus and Daedalus reference (careful) with actual menace. While the excellent work carried out by the likes of Kinberg in previous outings has afforded Lehnsherr intrigue, it’s really Fassbender who has instilled authority and ethical contention into the character. A terrific moment in Apocalypse sees Lehnsherr have his peaceful family life unmasked through preventing the death of a co-worker, and Fassbender’s expression of subtle anguish as Lehnsherr realises his veiled existence is about to be torn apart is wonderfully judged. I won’t give anything else away about the catalyst that sends Lehnsherr over the edge other than noting its compelling moral dichotomy.

It’s fair to say this instalment is less concerned with class warfare undercurrents than before (Days of Future Past pitted human against mutant with more complex personal tension). Humour takes precedence in moments that otherwise would be weighty, most notably during a scene where Lehnsherr, Magneto tendencies in full flow, interrupts his own heartbreaking diatribe about loss and tragedy with a cheap made-for-laughs F-bomb. There are also unintentionally funny lines, such as Moira MacTaggert’s (Rose Byrne) revelation that Nur’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might have fed religion and not vice versa (“The Bible got it from him”). Another hokily hilarious moment: an 80s hard rock guitar riff playing over a brooding shot of Nur.

Elsewhere we see a throughline about sacrificing oneself for the greater good, or bad. The film’s prologue — almost a National Treasure spin-off short — depicts the reinvigoration of an ageing Nur and those putting it all on the line to ensure his rebirth. Later, Charles offers himself up in a mental battle like any hero worth his or her weight in righteousness would do. Beneath these two opposing leaders are fractured souls: all four Horsemen are broken before teaming with Nur, for instance, while Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) feels the brunt of inner turmoil on the good side. Turner offers promise as the mind manipulator, a well-balanced mixture of Sansa Stark’s newfound steel and a teenager’s self-doubt, but the material doesn’t serve her well: “You’re not the biggest freak in the school now,” Grey laments to Summers as if reading from page one of How to Create School Stereotypes.

Summers fares little better, moping and angry in one scene then cockily orchestrating a mall trip the next. Their arc factors in burgeoning love, another trope explored under various guises with varying success. For Grey and Summers it’s about the immaturity of youth and finding common ground in how they are each unable to fully grasp their powers. Charles is whipped into an awkward frenzy when he reacquaints with Moira, she unaware of their previously held bond, he having erased it from her memory in First Class. The most effective relationship (or lack thereof), though, is also the most nuanced: shared by Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank (Nicholas Hoult), at least there is some historical clout behind it.

Newton Thomas Sigel delivers scintillating shots from above as nuclear rockets shoot skyward, images that brilliantly denote the scope of Nur’s plan. It’s a shame such scope falls by the wayside during a climactic battle scene that devolves into a disengaging CG stramash, something the MCU has also struggled with. It’s clear the filmmakers are visually better than their final act, especially when you factor in another superb Quicksilver (Evan Peters) sequence from earlier in the movie. Again it is one of the best scenes, vibrant and witty and full of style and flair. Peters’ version of the character is an alacritous gem, free of the cynicism incumbent upon other mutants who have spent so much time fighting wars. He really ought to be a banner act.

McAvoy’s hair is more glorious than ever in preparation for the balding we all know is coming, and that aesthetic prerequisite is indicative of the film in a general sense. There is a lot of surface promise going on, a bunch of mild chuckles and some solid acting endeavour, but when it comes down to thematic development there is a sense of inevitability. You can see how all the pieces are going to fit and that hasn’t always been the case with X-Men. I did find the two and a half hours enjoyable enough, but then this is a movie that had Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender standing next to one another reciting baloney, both limited by bad tone management. That’s almost unforgivable.

X-Men: Apocalypse - Rockets

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: 20th Century Fox

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

Steve Jobs (2015)

★★★★

Steve Jobs PosterDirector: Danny Boyle

Release Date: October 23rd, 2015 (US); November 13th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels

That it has taken the combined efforts of a handful of cinema’s specialists to create a portrait of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, he himself a specialist in complexity, is somewhat fitting. Others have tried and subsequently missed the mark. Perhaps films such as Joshua Michael Stern’s Jobs lacked the raw materials to match the man, languishing instead in a pit of shallow personification. Shallowness is certainly not a characteristic that Danny Boyle’s pseudo-biopic (it’s more of a triple snapshot than a life journey) can be accused of. For his direction supports a piercing Aaron Sorkin script, the screenwriter’s words delivered with panache by an in form Michael Fassbender.

Steve Jobs stalks two primary areas of its protagonist’s life: technology and family. Most of us are aware of his technological feats, but here we see the visionary fear familial commitment, something Sorkin demonstrates early on. Backstage before the 1984 Apple Macintosh launch — the first of three elongated launch sequences; the 1988 NeXT Computer and 1998 iMac unveilings are the others — we watch as Jobs coldly interacts with his young daughter Lisa (played by Mackenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine depending on the era) and her mother Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).

Brennan is disgusted at Jobs’ lack of humanity, that his daughter is living on benefits as his business thrives. The conversation switches to an earlier Apple product, the Lisa, and Jobs maintains his unflappable detachment by stressing that there is no titular connection between said machine and his child: “Nothing was named after you. It’s a coincidence”. We don’t believe the revelation, but emotional compromise isn’t how his mind functions. For a man whose existence is sustained via precision and calculation, coincidence doesn’t seem to fit. Perhaps that is why Jobs distances himself from his offspring; he cannot deal in uncertainty.

Sorkin temporarily counters this glacial mantra by having Jobs reel off other acts of kindness, but even those are wrapped up in a commercial blanket. Donating computers to schools for underprivileged kids (good publicity is great publicity after all), for instance. Meanwhile, only after a significant amount of pestering from Brennan does he agree to fund his own kid’s future. They somewhat bond after Lisa uses the Macintosh to doodle, a positive step born out the youngster taking an interest in something her father has created, and not vice-versa. It is a relationship that improves with time, Fassbender’s delicate touch increasingly indicating greater compassion.

There’s a shot around the halfway mark that is reminiscent of the one in Skyfall where techno-villain Raoul Silva can be seen ambling towards Bond from afar, camera frozen. Here, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, brilliantly recapturing his Newsroom malaise) adopts the role of Silva and Jobs of Bond, though it is part of an extended montage delivered with a kinetic, stylish drive. This is probably the most Danny Boyle-esque the film gets, as elsewhere the director sits back and lets Sorkin’s electric screenplay absorb us. An unrelenting barrage of words does mean the verbiage can occasionally be tough to follow, and instances of humour are rarely afforded time to breath, but it really is a wicked script.

Alwin H. Küchler’s fluid lens work invokes Dutch tilts and floats alongside Jobs, funding his unique air. People constantly fuss around him, his demands fortuitously sky high right before product launches. This takes a little suspension of disbelief — chances are he never faced such family drama prior to the Macintosh introduction — but you do eventually begin to believe the hype. The man is like a rock star, a faultless salesman, and an underhanded criminal mastermind all at once. The cult of Apple is apparent too, with staff members “oohing” and “ahhing” during practice sessions. We even see Jobs wash his feet in some sort of messianic ritual.

The inventor dips in and out of the company for various reasons as the film progresses. When he ends up back with Apple for the movie’s final third, the iMac inauguration, Jobs is at his most charismatic and humorous. Fassbender affords him a chirpier exterior, or so it seems, cracking jokes and congratulating staff members for fixing problems (this clearly mirrors an earlier scene during which he unfairly admonishes an employee). It’s worth pointing out at this point that following his performances both here and in Macbeth, Fassbender ought to start dusting off the awards circuit apparel. The Irish star captures Jobs’ imperfect allure, but it is how the actor wins our empathy that truly astounds.

The spikiness remains. Issues with his now teenage daughter arise again, and it becomes apparent that the entrepreneur’s success is directly related to his relationship with Lisa. When the latter is fractured, the former is non-existent. You get the sense Jobs has spent a career over-egging one rather than focussing on both, and he realises it too: “What you make isn’t supposed to be the best part of you,” says close confidant Joanna Hoffman (a wonderful Kate Winslet), often the mediator between calm and crisis. The three time-sensitive snapshots collectively tell a succinct story and, though they are a tad repetitive, watching the layers unravel is a rewarding experience.

Daniel Pemberton delivers a technologically-infused score that sounds, oddly, like the Jaws theme sped up with light beeps replacing dense strokes. A Zimmer-like quality looms large late on, reflecting our central figure’s faux-heroic transformation. Camera filters change with each passing season, incorporating both rustic woodiness and a crisp sheen. The surrounding textures alter too — plastics make way for glass as the old oblong age evolves into a pre-Millennium new age that favours smoothness (see the difference between the rectangular Macintosh and the curved iMac).

Steve Jobs’ world makes sense to him but nobody else, and the film clearly expresses that. There are verbal jousts too with former partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), most of which highlight Jobs’ ignorance. But this is not a hatchet job. It is not a character assassination. Boyle’s picture is instead a contained examination of a convoluted man, a piece that refrains from taking sides and, in truth, never really suggests there were any sides to take in the first place.

Steve Jobs

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Macbeth (2015)

★★★★

Macbeth PosterDirector: Justin Kurzel

Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (UK); December 4th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Drama; War

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard

Justin Kurzel’s ferocious take on Macbeth begins and ends with death. Though its Shakespearean format might isolate those who aren’t well-versed in the Bard’s prose, the film attains a degree of accessibility by dealing in brute force and thematic clarity. We see a Star Wars-esque information trail at the start, but this time the text is in blood red. Jed Kurzel, Justin’s brother, concocts a score that drills and hammers in tandem with bellowing battle cries, bestowing total discomfort upon us. Writers Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, and Michael Lesslie opt to examine how the loss of innocence can incite the immoral side of power, and the results are unflinching.

Upon discovering he is destined to be king, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) weighs up the immediacy of his sure-fire thronage. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) urges her husband to commit treasonous murder, to speed up the process by killing King Duncan (David Thewlis). Convinced, and perhaps driven by grief brought about by the death of his own child, the Thane of Scotland slays his superior. From then we see the man crumble, haunted by visions of dead clansmen he swore to protect in battle. He becomes a mad king increasingly propelled by unfettered impulsion and corrupted by power (“Full of scorpions, is my mind”).

Kurzel’s film will likely appeal to a specific audience; attempts to widen its potential reach are few and far between. Ye who enter devoid of prior knowledge, like myself, will have to contend with a movie that communicates entirely through the diction of Shakespeare. As such, it functions much in the same way a foreign language piece without subtitles would, which might alienate some viewers. It shouldn’t though. Blindly following the story is never too difficult as the actors offer a tangible, precise translation. It’s a testament to the performances of Fassbender and Cotillard in particular that the narrative is sold to us without a verbal parachute.

With Fassbender, it’s all in the eyes. His Macbeth, a brooding warrior at the fore, grows bags that darken beneath increasingly absent pupils as the pressure of sovereignty takes over. We never really know where we stand with him — his irreverent actions eventually hit a point of no return, but until then there’s a sorrowful tragedy surrounding Macbeth. In a case of role-reversal, it is Lady Macbeth who must take on the burden of regret. Cotillard is more subtle than her male counterpart. Her words, though often beautiful, are enshrouded in hysteria and pain; the camera unblinkingly lingers on her face during a scene towards the end as the actor speaks with utter command, evoking genuine heartbreak.

The framework from which the duo perform is comparable to how Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones navigated The Theory of Everything: one exercises true physicality while the other evokes a delicate-yet-purposeful poise. There is often a lingering stillness that is only interrupted by Fassbender’s increasingly perturbed movement, and only Cotillard has the guile to reign in said eccentricity. Friend-turned-foe Macduff, played by an emotionally-wrought Sean Harris, christens Macbeth the “Fiend of Scotland”.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising might have been a touchpoint for Kurzel, especially in a visual sense: the unquenchable mist, the moorish setting, the breadth of visceral savagery, all invoked. Battle scenes could very well be taking place among the Dead Marshes on the boggy road to Mordor. The Scottish setting, not unlike modern times, is always cloudy, or rainy, or dank, but the aesthetic is never mundane — fog is crimson coloured and dynamic. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw mixes steady shots with a shaky cam effect, mirroring the vacillating levels of order and chaos afoot.

Arkapaw shot the soon-to-be iconic six-minute drug den raid in True Detective season one, and Macbeth revels in similar technical prowess. From sound, to look, to how the film is edited, it’s quite stunning. Scenes showing brutal murder, such as the death of King Duncan, are intercut with instances of solemn hush. A contrast is evident throughout, pitting light against dark (or perhaps it is dark against post-dark). The sound design is worth mentioning too: rallying howls echo with spine-tingling reverence around cavernous cathedral-like rooms.

To the credit of those on and off-screen, it never feels like we’re watching a play. In many ways this is a niche offering; much of the verbiage might not make sense, yet you can’t help but stare. And when what you’re staring at is this good, this impactful, words are almost inconsequential. Here are two more anyway: Hail Macbeth!

Macbeth - Michael Fassbender & Marion Cotillard

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

★★★★

X Men Days of Future Past PosterDirector: Bryan Singer

Release Date: May 22nd, 2014 (UK); May 23rd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence

Whereas Matthew Vaugh’s franchise revitaliser X-Men: First Class gained plaudits for its cast-iron story told with an injection of slickness and youthful energy, this next stop in mutant-ville is something quite different indeed. Ambition is the word that instantly springs to mind; from the moment livelihood-altering time travel is suggested (though it’s more mind travel) until the film’s final buzz-inducing reel, X-Men: Days of Future Past presents a whirlwind of famous faces enraptured in a spider’s web of plot, humour and enticing entertainment. Along the way Bryan Singer’s instalment exhumes a few hiccups, particularly as well-versed characters get caught up in allegiance purgatory, and the film’s lack of transparency when it comes to who wears the most villainous shoes is a problem too. But d’you know what? It’s tough to get anywhere without ambition, and this Inception-cum-Minority Report outing sprinkled with comic book enthusiasm has enormous ambition. Unsurprisingly then, it gets somewhere.

It’s 2023 and the world is being pillaged by Sentinel robots that bare only grudges, towards mutants and humans alike. Long-time enemies Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) congregate with a number of X-Men and hatch a plan to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) mind south, back to 1973, in an attempt to cut the Sentinel problem at its source — that is, Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Wolverine’s solitary hope in regards to changing the course of history lies in tandem with a united mutant front, where differences are pushed to the side for the greater good. Only, this proves to be an obstacle for Professor X and Magneto’s younger selves, the duo irrevocably at odds over morality.

Days of Future Past purveys an ever-increasing sense of magnitude. As the film progresses we entertain thoughts of grandeur, that this might be a final hurrah for some. There are so many faces on screen that the loss of simply just one begins to feel unlikely. Many will succumb, we feel, and this undoubtedly instils a weighty load atop proceedings. At one point Trask urges the need for his Sentinel program: “A common enemy against the ultimate enemy… extinction.” The line represents this all-or-nothing undercurrent that drives events, ushering forth supreme unpredictability. The most engaging X-Men films are those that contort whichever mutant-human relationship is in fashion during said time period, and here we begin to see the inner-workings of primitive convolution.

Much like its predecessor, Days of Future Past wears the international climate within which the film is primarily set like a rain jacket on a cloudy day: posing relevant questions and suitably prepared for any proceeding answers. We’ve advanced a few decades since First Class and are now thoroughly engulfed a Vietnam War culture where blame is tossed left and right like a hot potato and international relations are frazzled at best. Musings over corporate-compelled destruction of the mutant race are a reflection of US military intervention across Asia. Discussions between the suit-wearing brass are centred on geopolitics, the language bolstering accusation and condemnation. (“You will have lost two wars in one lifetime.”) Despite an inordinate helping of fantastical powers such as shape-shifting and object manipulation — a stadium relocation is equally as impressive as it daunting — the shrouding of events in familiar histories gives the film vital realism that otherwise might be lost. At various points, Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography shape-shifts into stock footage of JFK assassination ilk, further furnishing authenticity.

Action sequences that spawn from the aforementioned clash of mutant and humankind are exhilarating. Carrying a wonderful visual gloss, these moments serve to get the heart pumping and, admirably, never oust the film’s emotional prerogative. Though, the same cannot be said for plot goings-on. It’s not universally indecipherable, however the narrative does falter on occasion. As Wolverine awakens in 1973, “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” consciously lamenting with poignancy in the air around him, there’s a struggle between reality and non-reality that never fully realises closure. His present self is dropped into the past, but where is his past self? The Wolverine character hits a stumbling block or two as the film progresses. His main objective is to rally the X-troops, but that’s about it. Afterwards, the mutant mainstay becomes something of a generic piece in the puzzle. An impeding notion arises, therefore, that him being selected to go back in time is more of a Hugh Jackman star power issue as opposed to a Wolverine character arc issue. “You sent back the wrong man,” says the Aussie.

Nonetheless it is the characters who generally hold the key to success. A few have never been better relayed on screen. As young Charles Xavier, James McAvoy steals the show in a performance of initial enduring frailty and disillusionment. He has lost everything, yet refrains from morphing into a charity case. Rather, our sympathy is earned through the Scot’s heart-wrenching depiction of a broken man, one of McAvoy’s best turns to date. A scene between he and his older manifestation is arguably the best of the entire piece, a memorable moment made so with the aid of Patrick Stewart. On the flip side, Michael Fassbender’s domineering Magneto is cold and calculated; we never truly know where his allegiance lies. The impressiveness in Fassbender’s performance comes by way of a subtle regret that he exudes, a nuance that holds greater verve as Magneto embraces his thirst for resolution. Jennifer Lawrence is icy as Mystique, her desire for revenge both ambiguous and purposeful.

Though Mystique engages in a number of villainous acts, she’s never intended to be the definitive villain. In fact there is no real categorical antagonist here. The closest we get is Peter Dinklage’s suit-wearing scientist Bolivar Trask, though his infrequent appearances on screen tend to hinder any evil momentum. “Trask is the enemy,” we are informed and, although his Sentinel program is born from an unsavoury mindset, Dinklage never really comes across as the heinous bad guy that he probably should. Days of Future Past is layered with humour, often successful attempts too, and Quicksilver speeds off with many of the funniest moments. Evan Peters emits wit as quick as his feet, striking up a comedic dynamic with the dry banter of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Listen out for Jim Croce’s “If I Could Save Time in a Bottle” and look out for the ensuing scene; intuitive excellence.

Despite a small helping of problems associated with narrative, X-Men: Days of Future Past manages to leave a lasting impression on us, an emotional impact bred by the people involved and the morals that they relay. This has a special aura surrounding it, a magnitude that usurps its few flaws. Regardless, we ought to applaud scoping aim, particularly when the aimer just about hits bullseye.

I suspect Singer and company have been practising their darts.

X-Men Days of Future Past - James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Frank (2014)

★★★

Frank PosterDirector: Lenny Abrahamson

Release Date: May 9th, 2014 (UK); August 22nd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Mystery

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal

As wannabe musician Jon strings together lines so monotonously hilarious in an attempt to spur lyrical inspiration, you get the sense that Frank is about to deliver (just ask the lady in the red coat). And it does deliver to a point. When it strikes a comical chord, the reverberating guffaws tend to be high in pitch and volume. Not to mention the outing’s headline act: a stupendous bodily performance from Michael Fassbender. But there’s something not quite right, a node of irony that occasionally jars indulgently. When wackiness overrules narrative, a handful of disengaging characters remain. Utterly bizarre beyond its frames, Lenny Abrahamson’s outing is as much Talk to Frank as it is Frank Sidebottom.

A keyboard player languishing in his own pit of disenfranchisement, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) finds himself taking the faux-piano reigns as part of an eclectic band. Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the lead singer, his psychedelic sound usurped only by the group’s psychedelic demeanour and his own terminal cartoon-head. At first, Jon is perplexed by just about everything the band has to offer. However, as he is dragged further into their unorthodox make-up by manikin-loving manager Don (Scoot McNairy), the keyboardist remembers his toils as a struggling musician and engages in a game of manipulation and admiration.

Though the antics are told from Jon’s point of view, the titular Frank is wholeheartedly the film’s star and this is in no small part down to Michael Fassbender. Stripped of any ability to facially exhibit emotion (an element quickly acknowledged in a humorous manner) Fassbender suitably readjusts in a display of manoeuvres that are as admirable as they are chucklingly peculiar. Like bees to honey, the band whiz to Frank’s side in a constant plea for attention, particularly Jon and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stern Clara. Frank is the cream of the crop to them, both of whom aspire to gain his level of musical insight and, in the same vein, we look to him as the central figure of goings-on.

Fassbender’s vocal expression is intentionally difficult to pinpoint, an element that bolsters the mystery surrounding Frank — it also adds verve to his singing which sees one scene towards the end particularly stand out. It’s not necessarily Fassbender’s face that garners any amount of intrigue — we already know what the Irishman looks like — rather, it’s his character’s motivations. (“What goes on inside that head, inside that head?”) Even then, the reason behind the lead singer’s mask-wearing becomes irrelevant as Fassbender’s actions whilst wearing the head gear become increasingly engaging and unpredictable. A man without a face, but not without allure. Face hidden by a large head, if we didn’t already know it was Michael Fassbender we’d be absolutely certain it was an actor of extraordinary talent anyway.

Despite being too whimsical in dramatic delivery, Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s screenplay is often very funny. From shoddy song creation, to blunt feedback, to hurling objects at one another, there is undoubtedly a plethora of laughs to be had. Though, whilst striving for humour the outing progressively trundles through a sea of perplex. In itself, a film without conventional boundaries is not necessarily a bad film — conversely, though innately different, Valhalla Rising is surreal and still very good — but Frank suffers as it dips in and out of madness, resultantly losing tonal focus. Unless it can be found obscured underneath a papier mâché head, there’s no real on display plot here, not one of intuitive significance anyway. This is the story of a band locked away in a cabin writing an album. The attachment must therefore lie with those on screen and, out-with Frank himself, there aren’t many hooks.

Jon is our mediator of mania; he’s the ‘normal one’ in an abnormal setting. Despite Domhnall Gleeson’s best efforts, the character isn’t all that interesting; an inevitable outcome given those in Jon’s immediate vicinity — a fake head wearer, a wrathful theremin player, a manikin admirer — but the keyboardist is just a tad too plain and subsequently sticks out like a sore thumb. Even when he does generate a semblance of interest, it’s at the expense of likeability: as Twitter followers increase, affinity decreases. Clara presents an even greater problem. She’s dismissive and abrasive and this isolates Maggie Gyllenhaal’s persona. Rather than becoming part of the crazy prerogative, Clara exists disparagingly on the outside. Between plods of hysteria, the film puts all of its eggs into Frank’s basket, a lot for a faceless anomaly to take on. When inadvertently the most amiable presence is one wearing a mask, something ain’t quite right.

On another problematic note, Frank attempts to juggle the trials and tribulations of modernity and music, before incorporating issues of mental health towards the conclusion. We often hear of musicians hiding away in isolation as they congregate ideas for the next album in an attempt to avoid the hyper-connected external world, and this is exactly the case here. Frank and company occupy the confines of a wilderness cabin for months on end, though ironically they’re concealing their music from a non-existent expectancy — nobody knows who they are. Heck, nobody knows how to pronounce the band’s name (Soronprfbs, if you want to have a go) highlighting their incessant need to stand out in an overpopulated industry. The lead singer adopting a giant fake head is probably enough regardless. Jon invariably narrates proceedings via Twitter, a nuance that sears as an unneeded attempt by the filmmakers to make Frank more current. Perhaps those like myself without much musical inclination, other than downloading the latest hit from The Killers or Katy Perry, will struggle to relate to Frank’s attempt at industry irony. Abrahamson’s late bid to relate Frank’s concealment and musical idiosyncrasy with mental instability, though well-meaning, is pillaged by a lack of cohesion.

In response to Jon’s apparent anguish, a bystander confesses, “I thought it was supposed to be funny”. This retortion reflects Frank, a film that is inherently humorous yet unsuccessfully aims for melancholic satire. Are we meant to laugh or cry? I’m not entirely sure. The song plays boldly and certainly hits an occasional high note, but unfortunately suffers from a muddled beat in the long run.

Frank - Frank

Images credit: Movie Review World, Guardian

Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures