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.

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