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.

Oscars 2016 — Final Predictions

Oscars 2016

Another year, another highfalutin awards season (we love it really) culminating in an Academy Awards ceremony blighted by controversy. Despite the perceived change in acceptance and diversity — 2015 welcomed same-sex marriage legalisation, for instance — Hollywood, it seems, is struggling to keep up. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs declared a plan to usher in urgent change, though chances are the Oscars’ lack of diversity is a consequence of a grander Hollywood problem as opposed to the definitive headache.

I digress. We have what we have and, in fairness, this year’s nominee crop is a good one. On a personal level, I enjoyed all of the films up for Best Picture, some pretty significantly. The women are top of the acting class having smashed their male counterparts to performing pieces, and in a Streep-less year too. Only one of the five directors up for a statuette has been nominated before, and Rocky Balboa’s back after a 40-year break. Alright, let’s get on with it.

I’ve watched more of the crop than ever before this time around, but as circumstance would have it I still have a few blind spots. The categories below the break host films I haven’t seen for various reasons (mainly the UK release schedule — disappointingly, many of the foreign language nominees are not yet out over here), however I’ve still made a prediction in those categories, for the sake of completion if nothing else.

Click links for reviews.

 

Best Picture

The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Room

Spotlight

— Will win: The Revenant

— Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should’ve been nominated: Girlhood, SicarioStraight Outta Compton

The Revenant, Spotlight and The Big Short have been jostling for the number one spot throughout this awards season, with each film taking home at least one main prize (critics have favoured Spotlight and producers The Big Short). The Revenant, meanwhile, seems to have cleared the pack following its victories at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, though this one could still go any way. It should go to either Mad Max: Fury Road for its sublime achievement against all odds, or to Room for its sheer emotional devastation.

 

Best Director

Lenny Abrahamson (Room)

Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant)

Tom McCarthy (Spotlight)

Adam McKay (The Big Short)

George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

— Will win: Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant)

— Should win: George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

— Should’ve been nominated: Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies)

Iñárritu has all of the momentum as well the admiration of the Academy, who rewarded him last year with Best Director and Picture wins over Richard Linklater and Boyhood (grrr). And with no clear, solitary challenger, it looks like a similar scenario will play out again this year. George Miller could be in the running though, and he should be given his stunning all-round effort on Mad Max: Fury Road. The Aussie has a significantly better chance of winning in this category than the one above.

 

Best Actor

Bryan Cranston (Trumbo)

Matt Damon (The Martian)

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)

Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl)

— Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

— Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

— Should’ve been nominated: Jacob Tremblay (Room)Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton)

Okay. It is not his best performance; there are times it mightn’t even be a performance. He should have won for one of The Aviator, Django Unchained or The Wolf of Wall Street. And sure, the end-of-days narrative peddled throughout his campaign has jumped from barely-worth-considering to head-rollingly-cliché. But of the five fighting for Best Actor, nobody is better than Leonardo DiCaprio. Fassbender comes close as Steve Jobs, but that’s it. The Academy will see this as righting a wrong — it’s DiCaprio’s year.

 

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett (Carol)

Brie Larson (Room)

Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)

Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)

Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

— Will win: Brie Larson (Room)

— Should win: Brie Larson (Room)

— Should’ve been nominated: Emily Blunt (Sicario)

Jennifer Lawrence elevates Joy far beyond the limits set by its messy underbelly, and Blanchett and Rampling both offer subtle, powerful performances. But this one, rightly, will go to either Brie Larson or Saoirse Ronan. It’ll almost certainly be the former given her numerous wins on the circuit — Larson’s showing in Room is probably the best of the year, pained and hopeful in equal measure — though a victory for the wonderful-in-Brooklyn Ronan would be just as pleasing.

 

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale (The Big Short)

Tom Hardy (The Revenant)

Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)

Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

Sylvester Stallone (Creed)

— Will win: Sylvester Stallone (Creed)

— Should win: Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

— Should’ve been nominated: Benicio Del Toro (Sicario)

Though Rylance entered the season as the likely winner here, Stallone seems to have gained increasing momentum since his win at the Golden Globes. I think Tom Hardy’s performance has been undervalued, and Ruffalo too is terrific in Spotlight. Come to think of it, this is probably a stronger category than it has perhaps been given credit for. The award could go to Stallone or Rylance. I’d be happy with either.

 

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

Rooney Mara (Carol)

Rachel McAdams (Spotlight)

Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)

Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)

— Will win: Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)

— Should win: Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

— Should’ve been nominated: Fiona Glascott (Brooklyn)

Competitiveness is key in the Best Supporting Actress section, arguably the toughest of the bunch to call. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a massive outsider here despite her maniacal excellence in The Hateful Eight, and McAdams’ chances are even lower (though she is great too). Winslet is back in the race following her BAFTA win and her grounded performance in Steve Jobs would be worthy most other years. Rooney Mara is the lead in Carol, she’s in the wrong category. I’ll go for Vikander, who steals the show in The Danish Girl.

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short (Adam McKay, Charles Randolph)

Brooklyn (Nick Hornby)

Carol (Phyllis Nagy)

The Martian (Drew Goddard)

Room (Emma Donoghue)

— Will win: The Big Short (Adam McKay, Charles Randolph)

— Should win: Room (Emma Donoghue)

— Should’ve been nominated: Steve Jobs (Aaron Sorkin)

When I sat down to watch Room, one of the last things on my mind was Emma Donoghue’s screenplay. Not because I expected little from the novelist-turned-screenwriter, but because the buzz surrounding the film had mainly been for its two central performances and Lenny Abrahamson’s deft direction. But Donoghue’s adaptation of her own work is careful and stunning, truly. The Big Short will probably win here given its wit and snap (some very good wit and snap too), but it’d be nice to see Donoghue take the trophy.

 

Best Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

Inside Out (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Ronnie del Carmen)

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer)

Straight Outta Compton (Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus)

— Will win: Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer)

— Should win: Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

— Should’ve been nominated: The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

Any of the above could conceivably win with justification: the Coens’ sly influence over Bridge of Spies is noticeable and welcome; Inside Out thrives upon words carefully constructed and beautifully relayed; McCarthy and Singer’s steely determination to shine a light upon good reporting works because their script allows it; and the seemingly written-by-committee Straight Outta Compton fizzes with authenticity. But I’m rooting for Alex Garland’s Ex Machina screenplay, a smashingly construed, tense, and insightful piece of writing.

 

Best Documentary — Feature

Amy

Cartel Land

The Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

— Will win: The Look of Silence

— Should win: The Look of Silence

— Should’ve been nominated: N/A

Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking Act of Killing should have won in 2014. Amy and Cartel Land are probably the more obvious choices facing the Academy, but I’m going to put my (perhaps misguided) faith in voters to pick Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing follow-up, the less striking but still wholly compelling and defiantly brave Look of Silence.

 

Best Cinematography

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Sicario

— Will win: The Revenant

— Should win: Sicario

— Should’ve been nominated: Slow West

Roger Deakins is long overdue Oscar-shaped recognition having received 13 nominations with no return, and Sicario should be the conduit for that eventuality. This is another strong category; any of the five could win with justification — Robert Richardson captures the claustrophobic egomania of Minnie’s Haberdashery, John Seale the muscular aplomb of a post-apocalyptic desert-scape, and Ed Lachman the crackling romance of 1950s New York. Emmanuel Lubezki looks destined to claim the award for the third year running though, which would be a cinematography record.

 

Best Visual Effects

Ex Machina

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should’ve been nominated: The Walk

Much has been made of George Miller’s desire to be as practical on set as possible, and when the result is as good as Mad Max: Fury Road, that desire ought to be rewarded. A word too for the visual effects team on Ex Machina, whose budget would have been significantly lower than those of their category compatriots, yet whose end product is futuristic, uncanny, and effortlessly employed.

 

Best Film Editing

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: The Big Short

— Should win: Spotlight

— Should’ve been nominated: Straight Outta Compton

Mark Kermode talks about the key to a great editing job being its undetectability. You should be so wrapped up in the content that cuts should play naturally, and to an extent that is a fair assessment. I would challenge his assertion when it comes to The Big Short though, a film which is so furiously edited by Hank Corwin you are supposed to take notice (this rapidness fits the crazed culture of Wall Street). Having said that, I’m pulling for Tom McArdle’s considered work in Spotlight.

 

Best Production Design

Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: The Hateful Eight

One of the most endearing and successful things about Bridge of Spies is how the film pits an internally bubbling United States against an externally fractured East Germany. Much of that has to do with the Cold War climate drawn up by the production design team: you feel the domestic, retro anxieties of the US, and then you really feel the frostiness of Germany. Plus, Mark Rylance tinkering with magnificently integrated espionage devices? Come on.

 

Best Costume Design

Carol

Cinderella

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

— Will win: Carol

— Should win: Carol

— Should’ve been nominated: Crimson Peak

Sandy Powell is up against herself here, though her chances for Carol probably carry more weight than her chances for Cinderella. Unlike the production design in The Danish Girl, the film’s costume design is interminably fitting: at times bombastic, at times reserved, always representative of the time period. Having said that, I really like Powell’s work in Carol and Jenny Beavan’s efforts in Mad Max: Fury Road, so a win for either of those would suit me.

 

Best Original Score

Bridge of Spies

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: The Hateful Eight

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: Macbeth

Since it’s his first western score since the 1980s (not to mention the first original score in a Tarantino flick), chances are Ennio Morricone will take home the bacon here. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s piercing, unsettling Sicario sound is a real masterstroke and would justify a win, though my favourite of the five is Thomas Newman’s score for Bridge of Spies. It flirts tremendously between Saving Private Ryan’s brassy grandness and a number of beautiful, touching piano melodies.

 

Best Original Song

“Earned It” (Fifty Shades of Grey)

“Manta Ray” (Racing Extinction)

“Simple Song #3” (Youth)

“Til It Happens to You” (The Hunting Ground)

“Writing’s on the Wall” (Spectre)

— Will win: “Til It Happens to You” (The Hunting Ground)

— Should win: “Manta Ray” (Racing Extinction)

— Should’ve been nominated: N/A

I quite like “Manta Ray”, but y’know, it’s Gaga and the Oscars.

 

Best Sound Editing

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Sicario

— Should win: Sicario

— Should’ve been nominated: Everest

As mentioned above, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score in Sicario is a beauty, though it is complemented and enhanced by some gritty, punchy sound editing (I’m reliably informed editing refers to the seeking out or creation of various sound recordings, such as gunfire or general dialogue, whereas mixing involves finding the correct combination of all sound elements within a film).

 

Best Sound Mixing

Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

— Should win: Bridge of Spies

— Should’ve been nominated: Sicario

I’m surprised Sicario hasn’t been nominated again in this category. Given mixing incorporates all sound elements, I feel compelled to root for Bridge of Spies.

 


 

Best Animated Feature Film

Anomalisa

Boy & the World

Inside Out

Shaun the Sheep Movie

When Marnie Was There

— Will win: Inside Out

 

Best Foreign Language Film

A War (Denmark)

Embrace of the Serpent (Columbia)

Mustang (France)

Son of Saul (Hungary)

Theeb (Jordan)

— Will win: Son of Saul (Hungary)

 

Best Documentary — Short Subject

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

Body Team 12

Chau, Beyond the Lines

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

Last Day of Freedom

— Will win: Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

 

Best Live Action Short Film

Ave Maria

Day One

Everything Will Be Okay

Shok

Stutterer

— Will win: Day One

 

Best Animated Short Film

Bear Story

Prologue

Sanjay’s Super Team

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos

World of Tomorrow

— Will win: World of Tomorrow

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

— Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road

 

Oscars 2016 - Best Picture

Images credit: ScreenScoopVariety

Top 10 Films of 2015

2015 then. How best to sum the year up? Jurassic World chomped its way through the global box office with enough bite to break the Marvel mould (defeating those pesky Avengers in the process). Jurassic World was also part of a popular franchise revitalisation scheme, one that included fellow big hitters Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The latter, of course, is currently challenging Avatar for the highest-grossing movie of all time crown.

Heroines took centre stage: the battle-hardened Furiosa; the admirably persistent Kate Macer; the multi-skilled Rey; the emotionally resilient Riley. Critics hailed everything from smart sci-fi to nifty nostalgia while maintaining a sense of analytical balance by dealing stinging verbal blows to the likes of Entourage (full disclosure: I still haven’t seen it). Adam Sandler evaded baying cinema audiences though, opting instead to take his claptrap to Netflix’s smaller screen.

But there was plenty of good stuff too. Lots. So much, in fact, that gems such as It Follows, A Most Violent Year, Carol, Spectre, Macbeth, Ant-Man, and Whiplash haven’t even made it onto my list of top films. Cinema, as is always the case, is ending the year in pretty good hands. Here are 10 reasons why.

10. Brooklyn

Sentimental love stories are a tough thing to get right. You can overdo the romance and end up with a gallon of unappetising sap, or you might underserve the tender connection and leave audiences cold. John Crowley avoids both traps and instead tells an immigrant tale that blossoms with the aid of a genuine, lovely screenplay. Saoirse Ronan unveils a career-best performance as an Irish lass caught up in a turnstile of emotion; she is helped through the barrier by Emory Cohen, oozing 1950s appeal, and a poignantly plagued Fiona Glascott.

Brooklyn - Saoirse Ronan

9. Ex Machina

Alex Garland, whose screenwriting portfolio includes Danny Boyle’s sci-fi masterstroke Sunshine, paves his own directorial path with another, smaller science fiction spectacle. The scale might have changed but, like Sunshine, Ex Machina thrives on simmering tension and ambiguous characterisation. Domhnall Gleeson plays an employee who’s afforded the opportunity to spend a week with his innovative boss, Oscar Isaac. The catch? Alicia Vikander’s uncannily human-like android. It is a glossily realised melting pot of intellect and deception.

Ex Machina - Isaac & Gleeson

8. Sicario

Emily Blunt takes the lead as a gutsy FBI agent in Denis Villeneuve’s latest English-language film. Those that preceded — Enemy and Prisoners — focused on weighty themes and this is no different: Juárez, Mexico is the volatile setting and drug cartels are the violent subject. Roger Deakins’ cinematography transports us to a place we’d rather not be, juxtaposing coarse imagery with oddly beautiful landscapes. There’s also one of the scenes of the year: a traffic jam imbued with unadulterated anxiety. The ensuing beads of sweat could fill a river basin.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

7. Inside Out

Pete Docter heads up an instant Pixar classic, another one of those ‘for all the family’ rarities. Inside Out has that vital energy and colourful exuberance youngsters cherish, but its beauty lies in its multi-collaborative screenplay that sends adults on a moving analytical journey. It examines social growth, mental strength (or lack thereof) and even the importance of parenthood. Admirably, the piece never shirks away from tough subject matters which means the rewards are plentiful.

Inside Out - Emotions

6. Girlhood

From one human drama to another, Girlhood follows the exploits of a teenager flirting on the fringes of adult life. A sister at heart to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Céline Sciamma’s touching tale tackles everything from commercial idealism, to economic division, to the richness of human interaction. Newcomer Karidja Touré is exceptional as the adolescent at the centre of proceedings, matching innocence to dissent with a natural flair beyond her years of experience.

Girlhood - Cast

5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens was either doomed to fail or destined to thrive. Either way, J.J. Abrams had an enormous task on his hands: without relying too heavily on fan service, the former Lost aficionado had to reclaim the magic of the original trilogy while also paving the way for future intergalactic adventures. We should hardly have worried given Abrams’ reboot track record (see Star Trek). His film is packed full of affecting nostalgia and is arguably the funniest instalment to date. Perhaps most importantly, the Class of Episode VII are as fresh and exciting here as their iconic ancestors were back then.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Kylo Ren

4. Foxcatcher

Laughs aren’t quite as forthcoming in Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller’s tragic sports-drama based on true events. It follows the Olympic-driven efforts of amateur wresting siblings Mark and Dave Schultz, played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo respectively, and their increasingly noxious relationship with trainer John du Pont. Steve Carell has the showiest role as du Pont, both terrifying and disturbing, however all three actors are equally effective. It is not an easy film to sit through, but it is a tremendously well-constructed piece of macabre cinema.

Foxcatcher - Carell and Tatum

3. Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks team up for a fourth feature outing, their latest effort an absorbing masterclass in classic filmmaking. Set at the height of the Cold War — Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography is crisp throughout, especially when we reach Germany — it sees Hanks in his typical everyman getup as a principled lawyer out to defend a potential Soviet spy. Mark Rylance’s grounded mannerisms humanise a would-be enemy (there are no real enemies on display, only opposing pawns) while Thomas Newman’s exquisite score mixes patriotic brass with a touching piano melody.

Bridge of Spies - Tom Hanks & Mark Rylance

2. The Martian

Being stranded on Mars for close to a thousand Sols eventually proved to be quite the grating experience for Mark Watney (Matt Damon), but spending a couple of hours at the cinema with the botanist was a complete joy. Ridley Scott brings more than just visual spectacle to screenwriter Drew Goddard’s fantastically witty take on Red Planet isolation. Damon is very funny throughout, and his moments of emotional weakness are wonderfully played too. The Martian must also boast the most impressive cast of 2015.

The Martian - Matt Damon

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller borrows from his own barnstorming back catalogue in order to rewrite the rules of action. Working within a genre that seemed destined to bow before digital effects for the foreseeable future, the director shot most of Fury Road using practical stunts and real life locales. Tom Hardy excels as Max, but the true lead is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a rampant survivor hell-bent on outmuscling tyranny and redressing social equality (yes, really). If any film managed to tap into the year’s cultural zeitgeist, it was this — and with absolute style.

Mad Max: Fury Road - Hardy and Theron

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): A24Fox Searchlight Pictures, Universal Studios, Lionsgate, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Pyramide Distribution, Sony Pictures Classics, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. Pictures

Crash of the Titans: The Decline of the Actor

Stars - J Law 2

Following a dour weekend stateside for new film releases, that ever-intrusive question is banging around the cinemasphere again: What has happened to our movie stars? Now more than ever films are sold to audiences through an expertly crafted marketing gaze, and it seems the most effective marketing strategy for studios these days is to repeat that which was once successful.

Through no fault of their own, actors are no longer truly bankable; even the biggest and best have financial flops lingering in their back catalogues like an unwanted infection. The same could be said for directors, many of whom have helmed a financial disappointment. If you’re not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, chances are you’re not getting top billing on the poster. In fact hiring less well-known directors to oversee large productions is becoming an increasingly popular trend in Hollywood.

Instead, distributors are all wrapped up in promoting a marketable product these days. It’s partly why franchises are in vogue; they have a ready-made narrative structure in place and are therefore easier to sell. Skyfall currently flies the most successful British film ever made banner and, as good as his performance is in the film, chances are people didn’t scramble to their nearest cinema to catch a glimpse of Daniel Craig. They went for James Bond, the character, the familiar entity. Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the world’s most in demand actor, a reputation she has carved out for herself by being very good in two huge movie series (The Hunger Games and X-Men).

In the US, this past weekend saw name-value take another hit: Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock both had films released, and both films succumbed to poor box office returns. Cooper stars in Burnt, a culinary drama that took as little as $5 million, while Bullock’s vehicle is the political comedy Our Brand Is Crisis. The latter only managed to recoup $3.2 million of its $28 million budget. As those films struggled, grander ventures such as The Martian continued to reign supreme — thankfully, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi jaunt is one of the year’s best (another, in fairness, is franchise reboot Mad Max: Fury Road).

Stars - Sandra Bullock

While middle-of-the-road outings such as Burnt and Our Brand Is Crisis feel the weight of their franchise-less, big budget-less predicaments, the past 12 months have brought us this lot: Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Minions, four sequels (or prequel in the case of Minions) that greatly emphasised their pre-existing worlds during the sales pitch. Heck, Jurassic World went full throttle and unveiled distinctly recognisable posters to the world before incorporating an updated version of John Williams’ wonderful score in its trailer. Those movies, incidentally, are four of cinema’s largest ever grossers.

If the waning power of the actor wasn’t so explicitly obvious before, Suffragette may well have totally pulled the plug. Focus Features heavily promoted Meryl Streep’s involvement in the project alongside main players Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, even though the iconic actor only appears on screen for a handful of minutes. Presumably, the studio expected her name-value to grasp the consumer’s attention and subsequently increase viewership. Unfortunately, the film has only grossed $11.6 million up until now (it’s in its fourth week), $2.4 million short of its initial budget.

There are pros and cons to our present age of sequel-dom. On the one hand, we get to see exhilarating and smart blockbuster outings such as the aforementioned Mad Max: Fury Road and also Marvel’s Ant-Man, these films succeeding in spite of their pre-established identities. But we also have to sit through monstrosities such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film that when issued back in 2009 arrived on the silver screen warmed by the security blanket of a guaranteed audience. A film, sadly, that hardly values quality.

There are exceptions to rule — some may call them diminishing lights amongst the bleak darkness — and one of those might be The Revenant. Granted the upcoming film will be riding the Oscar wave, particularly given its director Alejandro González Iñárritu is fresh off a golden statuette victory himself. But even films touched by the shiny sheen of an Academy Award nomination rarely yield monster returns — the 2015 crop harvested a circumstantially low intake — and it’s worth noting that these often host the flashiest names too. Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender, is another potential awards-hauler performing poorly.

Stars - Leo DiCaprio

But back to The Revenant. There is an argument to be made that any financial success incurred by The Revenant will lie solely at the feet of its genuine A-list star, Leonardo DiCaprio. One of the last original flicks to make any real cash was Christopher Nolan’s Inception, also starring DiCaprio, though to claim that movie’s monetary success was exclusively down to said actor’s involvement would be a stretch. A genuine exception might be Spring Breakers, starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hugdens who, at the time, were Disney starlets. It made over $30 million on a $6 million budget.

A24 Films delivered Spring Breakers to audiences back in 2013 and since then the studio has prioritised freshness (though its movies don’t always boast big names). Its highest grossing picture thus far is Ex Machina, which featured relative newcomers Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. Conversely, Under the Skin starring Avenger Scarlett Johansson failed to regain even half of its initial outlay. American Hustle, of the non-A24 Films variety, done well at the box office under the guidance of a conglomeration of star power: Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner were all involved.

Is it a good thing? Recent history suggests that the demise of the actor as a wholesale draw has meant most studios see the establishment of a brand as the only way forward. If true this approach cannot be healthy, as it would almost certainly encourage a lack of diversity in cinema (many will claim cinema is already lacking diversity). You might argue Gravity, starring Bullock and George Clooney, is an example of a film that was beefed up by its two major stars, but even that was marketed largely as an immersive and stunning cinematic experience. Clooney himself felt the brunt of ebbing clout when audiences opted not to see Tomorrowland: A World Beyond this past summer.

None of this should come as a surprise. The days of the star system are gone and in their place we have a society that subscribes to Netflix not to see a particular film, but because it’s Netflix. A Will Smith-led Bad Boys can no longer make over $140 million based solely on Will Smith’s appearance. The solution, if there is one, is an entirely different matter, though perhaps actors don’t need one. Perhaps studios and audiences just need to have more confidence in original movie-making.

Stars - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: Metro, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures, 20th Century Fox, The Weinstein Company

The Martian (2015)

★★★★★

The Martian PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

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

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Martian - Matt Damon

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox