The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 (2015)

★★★★

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2 PosterDirector: Francis Lawrence

Release Date: November 19th, 2015 (UK); November 20th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 is an empowering film, and it was likely always going to be that. However, there is no denying the impact that recent tragic events have had on further funding its overarching message of hope. Movie-making, of course, manifests as a trivial pursuit when considered alongside matters of life and death. It’s a luxury, a pastime, a hobby, a passion. But it’s also a love, a source of joy, a triumph, an escape. Cinema is one of life’s most important unimportant things, and when it reflects reality in any form — big or small — cinema is arguably at its most engaging.

The Hunger Games franchise has always had its finger on the pulse of geopolitics and society; the struggle that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) faces, against tyranny and barbarism, is also the struggle that many people in this world are currently caught up in. You can feel the heightened reverence as you watch, and those behind the series — from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence, from Suzanne Collins to Danny Strong and Peter Craig — deserve credit for bringing those aforementioned weighty themes to the forefront of young adult fiction.

The film opens with Katniss hoarsely attempting to say her name, battling against the damage inflicted by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) towards the end of the previous film. Instantly the outing is reinforcing its central notion of a silenced body fighting against said silence and not giving into an oppressive society. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is the oppressor in Panem, Katniss the symbolic body speaking out. As Snow and his cohorts sit around lavish dining tables, eating and drinking and toasting their own unsavoury greed, Mockingjay — Part 2 initiates the conclusive rebellion.

We know there won’t be any messing about when the title card appears on screen, white letters bluntly protruding from a black background. But the moral structure of this tale isn’t as clear-cut. “It’s war Katniss. Sometimes killing isn’t personal,” says Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whose righteousness has apparently seen better days. For the rebels, cause is supposed to take precedent over spectacle — The Hunger Games and Catching Fire particularly honed in on the consequences of the latter via their televised Gaming exploits — but there are even those in Katniss’ team who adhere specifically to marvel. This blurred morality keeps us on our toes as characters waver on who to trust.

Even Katniss, leader of the rebellion, feels harnessed by the warring tactics invoked by her superiors: “It doesn’t matter what you want,” Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) spits. The film has a grey palette that is quite distinct from the flashiness of earlier films, but that is similar to the chalky aesthetic of something like Saving Private Ryan. Katniss, Gale and co. are part of an insurgent team that takes to the booby trapped Capitol in an effort to fuel their cause and, perhaps, deal with Snow. We think back to Saving Private Ryan again as the rebels carefully navigate the urban decay, threat constantly hanging over the screen like a dark shadow. It really feels like the final battle, especially following Mockingjay — Part 1’s more subdued, poised, and frankly justified prerogative.

Fans of The Walking Dead will see familiarities in the Capital-set roulette game, where death could befall anybody at any moment; as such we sit through nerve-shredding uncertainty. A genuinely scary sewer sequence is coincidentally similar to a scene in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, only this one bears even more edgy ferocity. The underground monsters here are spawns of World War Z’s sprinters and The Descent’s crawlers. Neither Francis Lawrence nor his writers shirk away from tough subject matters which means death, a lot of it, is inevitable. It’s a brave mantra and an honest one in my view (i.e. not exploitative), though there is a truly horrifying moment that some might find too tough for a film rated 12A.

We do get small glimpses of cheer: the wedding of Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson), for instance, ushers in a deluge of celebratory dancing. War thoughts never abate though; Katniss and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) watch the festivities from afar as they debate their separate roles in the rebellion. It’s a scene akin to one in The Return of the King where Gandalf and Aragorn discuss the probability of Frodo’s success while Merry and Pippin party nearby. The brooding calm before the inevitable storm. The screenplay also investigates how individuals scarred by war operate. Johanna, for example, is dependent on drugs. Avox cameraman Pollux (Eldon Henson) bears not only physical but also mental ailments. And Peeta spends much of his time conflicted, Josh Hutcherson playing the tortured soul with a sense of purpose.

Given the large cast involved, some characters only appear fleetingly: Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), to mediate the revamped Hunger Games with despicable aplomb; Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), affording the film greater substance with a simple glance; Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), humanised to the point of no return; Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), a key player in generating emotion; and President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), a burst of thunder amongst the clouded moral spectrum.

There are a few fairly minor problems, namely that the all-seeing Snow constantly believes Katniss has met her demise when it is clear she hasn’t and, without tempting spoilers, the unfair and somewhat puzzling fate of one key character (no death involved). The final half hour is unexpected in many ways — some good, some not-so-good — but it at least ought to be hailed for not conforming to a prerequisite narrative. It’s also worth pointing out that this is an action movie that manages to dazzle without sacrificing its politically-infused roots, which must be worth something in 2015.

Fittingly, we end with a nod to Jennifer Lawrence. Mockingjay — Part 2 packs an emotional punch because it has good writing and good direction, but those are only conduits for a performer and Lawrence’s performance here, just as it has been throughout the entire series, is wholly affecting. She absolutely is a filmmaker’s dream, both talented and marketable. But her commitment, her discernibility, also makes Lawrence a film-watcher’s dream, and it is through her leadership that this smart, pertinent blockbuster franchise has flourished.

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2 - Katniss & Gale

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

Chappie (2015)

★★

Chappie PosterDirector: Neill Blomkamp

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

Genre: Action; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Shartlo Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chappie - Jackman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

The Maze Runner (2014)

★★★

The Maze Runner PosterDirector: Wes Ball

Release Date: September 19th, 2014 (US); October 10th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Action; Mystery; Science-fiction

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Thomas Brodie-Sangster

Twilight kick-started the craze only for it to ripen amongst the chaos of The Hunger Games’ Cornucopian anarchy. The young adult adaptation trend is sweeping cinema and its latest passenger, The Maze Runner, is certainly one of the better book to screen jobs. This latest jaunt owes a great debt to Suzanne Collins’ novels in particular, and manages to hold up stringently despite not sharing The Hunger Games’ politically infused backbone. It’s a solid film that will likely play better when pitted alongside the planned sequels, but for now Wes Ball’s directorial debut should be considered, at the very least, a steadfast success.

Devoid of his ability to remember, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) awakens inside a noisy metal cage that is rapidly ascending skywards. It suddenly halts, opening to reveal bright sunlight and a group of grubby males. Thomas soon learns that about the Maze, an ever mobile entrapment monitored at night by dangerous spider-like Grievers. To make matters worse, the boys are stuck in the Glade — the grassy centre of the Maze — and there doesn’t appear to be any way out.

The rules: trust, run, return. Led by the longest serving inmate, Alby, the group of young males have systematically formed and subsequently cater to a subsistence society; some build bamboo prisons, some farm vegetables, some run the Maze. These Runners, we’re warned, must return from their exploration exploits before dark or else they’ll be trapped for the night and “no one has ever survived a night in the Maze”. The opening act is very pre-occupied with Basil Exposition. Launching us into this new, mysterious world without any briefing, the filmmakers do their damnedest to catch us up on happenings without giving too much away.

What we have, then, is a Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games narrative composite, and one that works rather well. Whilst thematic exploration is a tad frothy, the film definitely has the latter’s industry. It shows too. Visually, The Maze Runner dips into that familiar gloomy, metallic sheen before unravelling with energy and turbulence as characters enter the Maze. Perhaps too caught up in the action, the camera itself becomes overly-eager on occasion but cinematographer Enrique Chediak ultimately reflects the disparate tone of proceedings. It is worth pointing out John Paesano’s brooding score also, one that spikes in moments of danger and gets the heart racing.

And it’s not just in these areas of technicality that the film resembles its older cousin, but also in plot make-up. The Maze, it turns out, is split into eight sections much like games’ twelve in Catching Fire. The cage that elevates Thomas into the Glades at the start is essentially the glass pod that drops Katniss off at the Cornucopia. Although the piece doesn’t resonate thematically — at least not with the same rigour — there are interesting momentary flares. At its heart, The Maze Runner is an analysis of defeatism, of struggle and acceptance. Thomas’ arrival signals a resurgence in moral determination for some Gladers (“I don’t know if [Thomas] is brave or stupid but I think we should make him a Runner”) whereas others, such as the group’s perennial enforcer Gally, seem somewhat content with their chained destiny. We can almost empathise with him too, given the Glades isn’t really all that horrifying a place.

The aforementioned element of mystery — amplified when Kaya Scodelario’s sole female Teresa shows up — helps us relate to the characters as a collective; essentially, we know as much as they do and vice versa. By the same token, Wes Ball is faced with the task of balancing the integral build of tension with restraint when it comes to use of the Maze. He almost achieves this unity too and that simmering atmosphere is nearly there — the brutalist appearance of the snaring stone structure combined with hardly any knowledge, a sense of dissolution and a lack of someone to villainise all coalesce together into a medium-sized wave of carpeting tension.

We do get the sense that Ball and company have been sold down the river when it comes to matching the tone with on screen events. Put simply, the film needs to be a little more violent. Instead the audience can just about smell the stench of studio-implemented pandering at the expense of storytelling. Sequences in the Maze are effective yet never totally capture the risk that would normally be glaring from the screen, and it’s because of this sterilised approach. The Griever monsters, all hybrids of the Xenomorph, the Predator and Shelob, look like they could do some hefty damage but we never really feel the brunt of their potential capacity.

As is often the case in this genre these days, the cast do well. Dylan O’Brien leads the way as the “curious” Thomas and manages to garner a feeling of hard-to-pinpoint inner turmoil whilst also coming across as capable, as someone fuelled by purpose. The arrival of Teresa does prescribe in tandem worries over a clichéd romance between the pair, but love takes a back seat as it should under the circumstances. Kaya Scodelario is also effective in her role, but she’s the one who draws the shortest straw in terms of character development. More to come, I suspect.

Two other stand-outs are Will Poulter, who seems to be carving out a niche for himself as a promising big screen talent, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Game of Thrones fans will recognise Brodie-Sangster, here playing second in command Newt who is arguably the most accessible of the bunch. Despite his role as the most remonstrative resident, Poulter ensures that Gally retains an understandable righteousness. Friction-causing notwithstanding, Gally’s thoughts are always practical and occasionally hold greater verve than the riskier doings of others.

The inconclusive ending does hurt the film. Revelations arrive a tad too easily before concluding abruptly, and it is clear that those in charge have at least one eye on the sequel by the time the final act rolls around. It is also true that during the two hour runtime, there ought to have been a warrant for deeper examination into societal codes between the boys. Having said that, opting to engage with The Hunger Games over Lord of the Flies is probably a wise decision in 2014.

The Maze Runner is a very good three star film that could, given time and triumphant sequels, become a laudable four star franchise opener.

The Maze Runner - Dylan O'Brien and Will Poulter

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

The Last Days on Mars (2013)

★★

The Last Days on Mars PosterDirector: Ruairí Robinson

Release Date: September 19th, 2013 (UK); December 6th, 2013 (US limited)

Genre: Horror; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams

The Last Days on Mars begins with a fairly promising sequence that sees two characters attempt to navigate an approaching dust storm. They bat around bouts of small talk, clean-sounding due to the atmospheric vacuum, quickly establishing their roles in the process. The air is quite eerie, uncanny almost. For five minutes, Ruairí Robinson’s outing works. Unfortunately, for ninety minutes it doesn’t. This subtle, edgy poise rapidly loses out to a flimsy skeleton; plot, characters and decision-making all broken and seemingly unmendable. On the Sunshine scale, The Last Days on Mars drifts miles yonder of Event Horizon before landing worryingly close to Apollo 18. Eek.

Thirty years or so from now, a team of scientists stationed on Mars are less than a day away from extraction. The incoming Aurora spacecraft is set to shuttle the crew back to Earth, but not before Marko (Goran Kostić) can covertly investigate some odd bacteria that he has come across. His findings are extraordinary, indicating the primitive existence of some new life form. However the nature of said discovery proves to be horrifying, and subsequently puts the remainder of the team in immediate danger.

In translating to the big screen, sci-fi historically carries a fairly patchy record. One element that has consistently shone though, is how the genre permeates atmospherically. Vastness is vast, and filmmakers are essentially unlimited given the nature of space potential. The Last Days on Mars makes fine work of the opportunities on offer, parading a visual spectrum that is encapsulating for the most part, and an aura that meanders tactfully between normal and creepy. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan delivers more than any other, affording the piece its one true success story. It’s only fair to point out Max Richter’s occasionally disconcerting score too, his musical interludes apparently effective enough to land him recent gigs as part of The Leftovers and As Above, So Below.

Annoyingly, this eerie-cum-wondrous soundscape signals the end of all things positive. The film tries too hard to be a slasher when the setting is far better suited to a probing approach. For some reason director Robinson cannot wait to show off his monster, and as a result the reveal comes sooner than expected. Scare factor crumbling, we turn to chaotic, jerking camera movements surrounded by pitch black darkness, all fruitful cinematography gone. Slotted indiscreetly amongst the outpouring of brash-yet-monotonous horror are snippets of philosophical musings.

It is as if the filmmakers, having mismanaged or simply forgotten the science-fiction element of their piece, feel the best solution lies with invariably adding earthy monologues. (“Do you think any part of us survives after death?” says one character, the notion shot down in a flicker as the next creature attacks). At one point we float over into unintentionally hilarious territory as the group argue about existing and dying over a deceased corpse that is showing signs of life. Sci-fi should engage its audience by channelling smart reflections and themes with gravitas, but the faint attempts displayed here reek of laziness.

The cast, quite well known despite the small budget, haven’t a hope in the world. Or in any world. Liev Schreiber leads as the claustrophobic Vincent and is granted the most material to work with. Once we’ve given up hope in terms of trying to figure out why a person afraid of small spaces would select space travel as his profession — he refers to their shuttle as a “coffin” — we’re left with hardly any inkling as to who Vincent and the other crew members are. The human characters are so poorly mapped out that it’s a wonder all of the actors found the set. It becomes an eternal struggle to care about any of them, or their fates, simply because we don’t know anything about the group. Mission psychologist Robert is the first one to lose his mind. Tedious.

Clive Dawson’s screenplay isn’t much better. Aside from the lack of scares and occasional deep thoughts, the narrative trundles along without vigour and fuelled by coincidence. The entire set-up hinges on a chain reaction of monumental contrivances: having spent a whole six months on Mars the team just so happen to discover this evil bacteria hours before they jet off home and the only reason said bacteria makes it on board is because a petulant crew member decides to look up the location of an errant mate and subsequently finds him at the site of the bacterial breeding ground. It is ridiculous and unashamedly so.

Perhaps the most grating factor of the lot is the fact that The Last Days on Mars could have been fun hour and a half. It never shows any signs of restraint or wisdom, thus the film was never going to be a serious sci-fi jaunt. But there is room for some B movie silliness. Though the whole thing is ravaged by a disappointing and ineffective requisite to walk the line tonally, a few looser ends here and there would undoubtedly have induced waves of low end but high value madness. It would’ve been a welcome turn of events for most of the cast — including well-travelled names such as Olivia Williams and Elias Koteas — who are instead left to suffer through cringeworthy speeches and poorly written characters.

The Last Days on Mars has been done immensely better before. It’s not necessarily that this is a horrible film, because it isn’t. Robinson’s piece is certainly bereft of many working parts but I’ve seen much worse. The movie is unavoidably boring though, and lazy. It wallows. With the ingredients laid before us — brimming with promise — it should, at the very least, be shooting for the stars and missing. Yet, The Last Days on Mars relents from even aiming skywards.

The Last Days on Mars - Liev

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures, Focus Features, Magnet Releasing

Godzilla (2014)

★★★

Godzilla (2014) PosterDirector: Gareth Edwards

Release Date: May 15th, 2014 (UK); May 16th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe

On a scale respectively topped and tailed by Gareth Edwards’ Monsters and Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, the former’s reincarnation of the latter beast is perched around the middle. In other words, Godzilla 2014 is something of a disappointment. Not a bad film, far from it. In fact its technical aspects are better than many a modern blockbuster has to offer. Edwards’ contemporary version of the giant kaiju is both reminiscent and magnificent, and it bellows a rumbling roar that’ll have your popcorn flying and Coke Zero spilling. The problem isn’t when he’s on screen, but when he’s not. The director’s intentions are clear and commendable: to gather tension in preparation for that first monster reveal. But while said anxieties are simmering the characters must carry the torch and they, unfortunately, are burned by a deficiency in multi-dimension.

Having attempted to destroy the creature known as Godzilla half a century ago with the aid of nuclear weaponry, civilisation now faces another threat in the form of Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTO). Physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) believes that a 1999 earthquake in Janjira, Japan is actually a government cover-up rather than a natural disaster, shielding from view the mistakes of humankind. His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) heads out to Japan after hearing of his father’s arrest and witnesses first-hand the validity of Joe’s argument in the form of a creature wreaking havoc on everything in its path.

Clocking in at just over two hours, Godzilla is a game of two halves. The first hones in on the people involved and their actions, whereas the second explodes into a big-budget blockbuster bonanza. For a long time we don’t see Godzilla, instead teased only by murmurings and the occasional fin shot. In the monster’s place are a number of characters set to fulfil a variety of uninspired roles and, sadly, none of them really matter. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford isn’t a compelling lead and it’s not just him either. Ford is our latch, the constant human presence who we are supposed to invest in: he has the loyalty chops as a US Navy officer, whilst his young family denotes a common identity and demands empathy. But we’ve seen it all before. There’s nothing particularly special about him, nor anyone else. Ford’s wife is a nurse and she spends her limited screen time frantically pushing hospital gurneys and panicking over the phone.

It doesn’t help that those portraying these inconsequential characters are a talented bunch, their talents frustratingly wasted to all intents and purposes. Elizabeth Olsen, the aforementioned wife, is fairly fresh off of exceptional work in the likes of Martha Marcy May Marlene, but here she’s diminished to nothing more than husband-fodder. Bryan Cranston plays Ford’s father and probably delivers the best performance as his character’s flesh is allowed to grow, but even he struggles to be memorable. It’s less of a shame than a surprise really, given Edwards’ track record when it comes to delivering engaging presences on-screen. Perhaps we’ve become attuned to gorging our way through masses of CGI and rip-roaring action when blockbuster season hits and in that sense, well-rounded human beings aren’t necessarily top of the menu. However, given the nature of this narrative in particular — one that endeavours to build before letting loose — audience captivation must begin with the characters as they are the primary load carriers.

The story itself is customary and therefore doesn’t offer much in the way of support to its participants. We watch an awful lot of Tab A into Slot B shenanigans — there’s to-ing and fro-ing aplenty — but again, we’re only really here to see gargantuan beasts collide. Right? On occasion the film does delve into the semantics of its historical monstrous figure and in those moments Edwards is in control. The opening sequence sets an ominous tone as the theory of natural selection is enshrined by images of nuclear testing and bolstered by a booming sound. Not long after, Japan’s misfortune sees it become the site of both natural and human-made catastrophe; we view both a volcano and a nuclear power plant as they loom forebodingly over family homes and a local school. Somewhere amongst the raft of uninteresting characters and impressive effects is a serious satirical backbone that denounces the domineering attitude of humanity. (“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.”) Edwards brings a semblance of dignity and respect to the nuclear-nature fable, two traits totally lost throughout the franchise’s 1998 meltdown, and this version would benefit further from purveying greater impetus in this regard.

The director’s obvious admiration is also wholly captured in Godzilla’s visual manifestation. The reptile is a mishmash of classic and modern, wearing a familiar scaly attire that has been furnished by digital implants to make the creature look as grotesquely fearsome as ever (and, thankfully, as un-tyrannosaurus rex-like as possible). The reptile itself is going through post-Emmerich debilitation syndrome and Edwards successfully paves the way for phase one of recovery. The filmmaker who now infamously created his previous outing whilst curtailed by a minute budget of only $500,000, is eager to unleash the grander financial backing afforded to him here and to the Brit’s credit, he absolutely makes the most out of the cash available. From an early mine visual through to the final showdown, no skyscraper is left standing and each demolition job is almost as fun as the last. The ghostly infestations of urban decimation seen in Monsters are carried into this outing, destroyed landscapes as disconcerting as they are imposing. The film is also capped off by one of the year’s best scenes: a HALO jump that is both haunted by eerie hums and utterly scintillating in execution.

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is an odd concoction. His decision to reveal the monster later in the game is a good idea. A great one in fact. But the minutes subsequently left action-depraved must then be filled by goings-on that are even more engaging, and the characters offered are simply unable to comply. Perhaps high expectations are to blame but, more than anything else, Godzilla is an opportunity missed.

Godzilla - ATJ

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Legendary Pictures, Warner Bros.

After Earth (2013)

After Earth PosterDirector: M. Night Shyamalan

Release Date: May 31st, 2013 (US); June 7th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Jaden Smith, Will Smith

M. Night Shyamalan has a grand idea. His mind urging him forth, he embarks upon creating a film shepherded by characters who are inherently devoid of emotion. It’s not that emotional attachment is hard to come by, rather, that these people strive valiantly to become absolutely emotionally detached. An inspired scheme. Someone give the Academy a call. Only, hold the phone for a moment. A bunch of characters whose individual and collective M.O. is to be uninterested and, subsequently, uninteresting? I digress, our gallant director must have a couple of top actors lined up who’ll be able to effectively balance this indifference with microscopic poignancy. Is that the Academy on hold- wait a minute. Will Smith, a quintessential purveyor of emotion — be it comedic or dramatic — and his extremely unseasoned son, are our emotionless duo? Who wrote this thing? Ah.

Unable to harness his impassioned outbursts, Kitai (Jaden Smith) is rejected by the cadets. He’s physically capable, but an inability to ‘ghost’ — hide one’s feelings in order to battle the Ursas, creatures that can smell fear — puts a dampener on Kitai’s attempts to impress his father Cypher (Will Smith). The pair share a disgruntled relationship that is a product of Cypher’s long stays away from home and Kitai’s self-condemning attitude in regard to his sister’s death. Midway through a family bonding trip, their spacecraft crashes on the now uninhabited Earth, leaving Cypher injured and Kitai as the duo’s only chance of survival.

An Ursas is loose and Kitai must repress emotion. Prepare for 100 minutes awkwardly depicting a person’s attempt to be boring. This premise is After Earth’s most debilitating problem, of which there are many. Renowned for his twists, we’re crying out for an M. Night Shyamalan tide-turner in the face of events that struggle to spark and ultimately dissolve into a sea of monotony. Devoid of any nuances designed to connect character and viewer, the film tries to infuse heaps of sentiment by way of inventing a dramatic predicament; the crash forces an incapacitated father to rely on his son who is mentally unequipped for the dangers ahead. But straight away this concept flails without emotional gravitas. There’s no tension as happenings are hampered by a lack of realism: surrounded by an almost universally dead crew, it’s inconceivable that Kitai would escape a plane crash without so much as a skin laceration. Heck, even dad Cypher’s broken leg sounds pretty welcoming considering he has just been zapped by whirling turbulence. (Always wear your seat belt kids.) After Earth is as diluted as science-fiction gets, plain-tasting and without scope. Look away now Stanley.

Neither Will nor Jaden is afforded much in the way of a relatable character, but the senior Smith should know better. Cypher does a lot of sensing — a trait that seems to come with the reticent territory from which he spawns — and it’s a shame that Will was unable to sense just how hopeless After Earth promised to be before putting pen to contract. In this sense the actors are more idiotic than their characters, but it’s not a foregone conclusion by any means. At one point, junior notices that a significant portion of his breathing equipment has been destroyed and opts not to tell senior. Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s because he’s scared of his father’s reaction to wasted Jammie Dodgers. At least by lying Kitai is awake and therefore offering some sort of interaction with the audience rather than sleeping, a popular action of his that consumes at least half of the runtime and subsequently jars an already wobbly narrative flow. Though in fairness, if it wasn’t for an inordinate amount of caffeine, he mightn’t have been the only one dozing. Perhaps I should have indulged in some of Cypher’s painkillers – y’know, the tablets that he decides not to take for fear of drowsiness before succumbing to his unconscious anyway?

There’s an overbearing sense of woodenness going on too, and it’s not simply the vast array of trees that now cover an unpopulated Earth. Everything is very mechanical: the way people walk, the way people speak, and especially the way people act. Will and Jaden were authentic as a pair in The Pursuit of Happyness, their family connection purveyed with total wholeheartedness. In that outing we believed in them as father and son, not simply because that is reality, but because the two transferred their reality to the screen in a genuine manner. Here, it’s difficult to gain sight of this beneficial legitimacy as two poorly construed characters terminally intrude, along with a script that occasionally has us reconsidering The Phantom Menace for Best Original Screenplay (“I will guide you, it’ll be like I’m right there with you,” says assured father to timid son).

In seeking emotionless vigour, both Will and Jaden act as if they’ve just been told that McDonald’s is out of Big Macs whilst incurring the wrath of a food-demanding hangover; faces unwaveringly sorrowful, eyebrows lapsing and pupils heavy, emotionless but also purposeless. Next time nobody ought to invite Tony Montana over to any script-writing sessions, then we might see a film with dialogue that hasn’t been tanned by a machine gun. Cypher informs Kitai, “You are not a ranger,” before ordering his non-ranger son around a little more, probably in a similar vein to that which he instructs his rangers. These holes devour our lead actors and leave them stranded, unable to escape. It’s worth noting that there are one or two faint bids at humour, chuckle-inducing to a point, but gags that primarily urge us to contemplate the reasoning behind Shyamalan’s decision to present his piece with such a dreary and serious tone in the first place — a tone that, it turns out, doesn’t succeed in being all that serious anyway.

This recipe for disaster might boast a visual sheen that is moderately impressive — if not invariably cut-and-paste when it comes to Mordor-esque volcanoes — but it tanks in every other department. There are bad films, however there aren’t too many $130 million bad films. After Earth scores high in said category and, given its lofty price tag, that’s pretty unforgivable.

After Earth - Jaden

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

Sunshine (2007)

★★★★★

Sunshine PosterDirector: Danny Boyle

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

Genre: Adventure; Science-fiction; Thriller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunshine - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Rotten Tomatoes

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures