In Veronica Roth’s future-dystopia story, Divergent, the first of an as yet unfinished trilogy, the post-nuclear war society of Toronto has been split into five factions of like-minded people. The idea is to apply lateral thinking to the prevention of future wars by nurturing a culture that upholds certain qualities; the virtuous opposites to five of the human flaws that give birth to conflict. Thus ideal led to the creation of Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Abnegation and Erudite, the five factions designed to counter aggression, dishonesty, cowardice, selfishness and ignorance respectively. Everyone in this rigid society must conform to one of these character types and those that don’t are considered dangerous. Continue reading
Looper is the latest in a long tradition of films that wrestle with the questions, paradoxes and bewildering logic of a subgenre of science-fiction that has produced everything from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to The Terminator. This is the fourth dimension, a frontier strewn with booby traps and the potential for massive plot holes. I’ve been fascinated with the storytelling potential of time travel for as long as I can remember and in my time as a writer have fallen hard into some of its pitfalls. Looper has already been lauded as an instant classic and has drawn comparisons with such sci-fi heavyweights as The Matrix. Can the film live up to this lofty billing and go down in history? Continue reading
Sometimes it helps to go into a movie with low expectations. That’s exactly what I did with this remake of the classic 1990 sci-fi adaptation of Philip K Dick’s We Can Remember it for you Wholesale (still can’t decide whether or not I like Dick’s ridiculous titles). Having previously been rather looking forward to see how an older film I’ve always liked can be reimagined with modern tech the less than favourable reviews the film has received reduced those expectations somewhat and perhaps that helped it. Continue reading
Planet Zebes is no more and the Metroid threat has been neutralised but Samus Aran is about to discover why the Metroids were created by the Chozo in the first place. Continue reading
Hype can be a dangerous thing and few movie releases this year have generated as much of it as Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s return to the universe of Alien which he helped create in his seminal 1979 masterpiece. Fans jaded by the sci-fi horror franchise’s fortunes following the first sequel have been rubbing their hands together in anticipation for his return to the saga, ready to banish the memories of Alien 3, Alien Resurrection and those disastrous crossovers with the Predator series. This one was bound to be a classic because Scott was on board and because the plot would finally be solving the great mystery of the Space Jockey. Continue reading
A Princess of Mars, action, Andrew Stanton, Ciaran Hinds, Dinsey, Dominic West, Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter, John Carter of Mars, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, science fiction, Taylor Kitsch, Willem Defoe
If you trace the history of popular science fiction back through the twentieth century you will eventually arrive at a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs known collectively as John Carter of Mars which stands as the grandfather of all of them. The series first appeared exactly one hundred years ago with A Princess of Mars and went on to influence absolutely everything from Star Wars to Avatar. If there is a sci-fi cliché chances are it started in John Carter of Mars. Now the property finally makes its big screen bow controversially minus the last two words of its own title.
The question of why the title was changed has sparked inevitable debate to accompany the incredulity of fans and the consensus is that the Disney bigwigs didn’t want the title to suggest the film was sci-fi in case it put people off. If this is the case it’s a little difficult to understand given that just three years ago a science fiction film, moreover one so heavily influenced by JC that works with an extremely similar plot became the most successful film ever made. There is another theory that reference to the red planet in a film’s title is itself a signpost to catastrophic failure, Mission to Mars, Mars Attacks! and Mars Needs Moms to name but a few. In fact just about the only really successful film set on the fourth rock from the sun was Total Recall which, tellingly, doesn’t make mention of the planet in the title.
Whatever the reason for Disney’s decision it doesn’t change the fact that this $250million budget movie isn’t raking in the cash it needs even with Pixar’s Andrew Stanton at the helm. Perhaps that has nothing to do with the title because the film that marks the centenary of one of the genre’s most important moments cannot stand as tall as some the creations it gave rise to.
John Carter is a maverick cavalryman in 1868 Virginia who avoids being pressganged into the Union Army by escaping into a cave rich in gold where he is mysteriously transported to a desert finding the place lacking some gravity. Turns out he’s on Mars or Barsoom as the warring locals call it and no sooner has he arrived than he’s again being pressganged to fight and make good use of his newfound superhuman abilities.
We’ll start with the positives, it’s a great looking movie boasting vivid and convincing production design that doesn’t overdo the details with superb use of CGI throughout from the excellently realised alien characters to the ambitious spectacle. Everything about the film convinces that it comes from a rich background of source material and that the mythology of this universe extends far beyond what appears on screen. Unfortunately the script didn’t receive anything like the same level of attention. A brief piece of back story at the opening doesn’t go nearly far enough to paint the picture of the planet necessary to invest yourself in its fiction. And that’s not the only problem.
It is said that big budget films like these need three things to succeed; big action, big special effects and a big star. John Carter manages one and a half. The effects as stated are top drawer but the action is somewhat less compelling. There’s spectacle all right but nothing on the level you’d see in something like The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, meanwhile the main man is the unknown Taylor Kitsch who looks the part but isn’t as sympathetic as he needs to be. Early scenes on Earth show him as a borderline sociopathic loner whose resourcefulness isn’t enough to make him likeable as Kitsch growls his way through most scenes. He’s difficult to really care about and that’s half the battle lost right there. The rest of the cast are a bit better, Lynn Collins gives a spirited turn as Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium managing to handle both action and some outlandish lines with aplomb and looking damn good doing it while Mark Strong proving himself Hollywood’s go to villain again is on Machiavellian autopilot and still walks away with it.
But the main problem is that the complex depth of the fictional world is just too much work to penetrate. The fish out of water device is wasted and the clear exposition necessary to be able to feel satisfied by the plot is missing. The result is that it’s hard to know what the various factions are fighting about or why you should care and that’s unforgivable.
There’s spectacle to spare but it comes at the expense of clarity and any kind of hook for emotional investment. John Carter is a mess of alien names and moderate action scenes that waste the source material’s obvious richness.
Proving that you don’t need big stars, a famous license or a megabudget to craft a genuinely fresh and engaging blockbuster, Chronicle comes out of left field to become a surprise critical hit. The story involves three high-schoolers, philosophising Matt (Alex Russell), political Steve (Michael B Jordan) and cameraman Andrew (Dane DeHaan) who explore a conspicuous hole in the ground whilst at a rave finding inside what can only be described as a huge star-shaped mass of Kryptonite which gives all three telekinetic powers. Pretty soon their playing catch, building Lego towers and blowing up girls’ skirts, all with no hands, forming a unique if slightly fractious bond.
For a significant stretch of the running time the film plays for laughs getting great mileage from the practical jokes and stunts the trio pull in shopping centres and car parks. The three charismatic leads are wonderfully naturalistic, effortlessly convincing that this really is how three American teens would react to such superpowers, and it’s enormous fun (watch out for Steve’s priceless reaction when Andrew saves his life at one point). The pick of the bunch is clearly DeHaan as the socially awkward main character who has no trouble getting us on his side thanks to his deft characterisation and excellent handling of scenes depicting Andrew’s miserable home life (terminally ill mother, drunken bullying father).
The other selling point is the way it’s filmed, Andrew having just bought a camera to ‘film everything from here on out’. Although it shares many of the tropes of the found footage genre I didn’t read it that way. I think the context is perfect, if you and your mates get superpowers you’d film yourselves testing them out right? The camera becomes our window into their private world and is worked into the script like a fourth character. The story is even used to dispel one of the prohibitive quirks of the found footage genre, Andrew uses his powers to make the camera float meaning he can film himself. It’s also worth noting that the film is shot on more than one camera within the story and therefore can’t masquerade as found footage at all. Instead the camera works as a framing device to highlight camera culture in an the age of YouTube and video blogs, something the film openly references. It’s not enough for there to be kids with superpowers there needs to be a record of it even though they’re keeping it a secret, after all the title, when expressed as a verb instead of a noun means to record.
The concept really comes into its own in the thrilling and inventive climax which I won’t spoil except that suffice to say things go a bit awry as Andrew struggles to keep to Matt’s rules. The film has been called a live-action Akira and while it could never be as pulverising as that movie I heartily agree with this observation. In fact now that Chronicle exists that live-action New York set remake of the anime classic is not only a huge mistake of an idea but an entirely redundant one too.
In a year set to be dominated by huge superhero flicks Chronicle might just have stolen some of their thunder. Creative, entertaining and very well played, this is a must see.
With my good school buddy Simon from Wiltshire over for a weekend visit I had a busy Sunday entertaining that took us to the Natural History Museum and Hyde Park. Inevitably the road guided us to the cinema where we considered The Inbetweeners Movie but the lure of a movie promising the unlikely pairing of Wild West tough men and visitors from outer space starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford no less was too hard to resist.
Craig plays a man who wakes in the western frontier with a weird metal bracelet on his wrist and a wounded side instead of a memory. After punching his way through a gang of opportunists figuring he’s a wanted man with a bounty on his head he winds up in the decidedly one-horse town Absolution where he soon finds himself altercating with the obnoxious Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) the son of the town’s cattle running patriarch (Ford) but the ensuing feud is interrupted when a fleet of none too friendly spacecraft swoop in and lasso half of the inhabitants of the town.
As setups go this one is not the subtlest, something reflected by the very literal title which might not do the film too many favours. Yes the film contains both cowboys and aliens, yes that is a silly idea but director Jon Favreau doesn’t quite see it that way. Far from being tongue in cheek Cowboys & Aliens feels gritty and hard-edged, violent and serious, the few jokes character based as opposed to the Will Smith ‘Welcome to Earth’ approach. The result is that many cinemagoers expecting a giggle might be disappointed which perhaps reflects the film’s poor box office takings but it works as a straight up action adventure too.
The plot unfolds in linear fashion as a posse sets out to reclaim their stolen loved ones experiencing regular encounters with both aliens and bandits. There’s a degree of mystery driving it along as Craig’s character slowly rediscovers his identity and in the form of Olivia Wilde’s enigmatic Ella. The former never delivers much by way of twist but Wilde’s character at least takes the plot to unexpected territory. The rest is all Craig being tough and it’s fun but not as fun as it could be.
Craig brings his Bond experience to several action beats and is as convincing as you’d expect but he never has any really meaty moments in the script or set pieces to get stuck into. Meanwhile Ford growls his way through the film playing a seemingly less moral character than you’d expect but behind his rough exterior you sense beats a heart of gold. The two play off each other nicely but don’t have any obvious chemistry.
Cowboys & Aliens is a blockbuster but an underwhelming one. The action is fine, the special effects good, the performances decent, the story okay and that tells you all you need to know. It’s okay but no more. Worth a watch but don’t rush to the cinema.
Promising a big show with top stars Cowboys & Aliens disappoints with its moderate results that leave you never less than entertained but will struggle to truly enrapture.
In a summer filled with blockbuster sequels and second string superhero flicks, most of which have underwhelmed it’s truly refreshing to see this old-school, heartfelt throwback to classic family cinema of the seventies and eighties. A clearly personal escape directed by J J Abrams, Super 8 clearly owes a debt of gratitude to Spielburbia, particularly the similarly themed E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial but can also be compared to other favourites like Stand By Me. Both reverential and charming it’s the perfect antidote to robots bashing the bolts out of each other and Ryan Reynolds looking like a tit.
It’s the summer of ’79 and young Joe (Joel Courtney) is struggling to connect with his local deputy father (Kyle Chandler) following the tragic demise of his mother in a sleepy Ohio berg. His hobby of making and painting impressive miniature models lands him the role of make-up artist on buddy Charles’ (Riley Griffiths) zombie movie shot on the eponymous Super 8 camera, a job that puts him in close proximity to the attractive Alice (Elle Fanning). Keen to imbue his picture with production values Charles shoots an important scene with the noisy backdrop of a passing freight train which derails spectacularly and releases its mysterious cargo including scores of strange shape-shifting cubes and, as caught on film, something alive. Things get really freaky when the neighbourhood dogs scarper and car engines disappear from vehicles overnight, not to mention the local sheriff.
There are two stories here, the atmospheric alien cover-up conspiracy which sees Joe’s dad squaring up against a tight-lipped air force colonel and Joe’s continuing battle with his feelings. The beautifully pitched budding romance between Joe and Alice drives the narrative (there’s a really sweet scene where he tentatively applies her make-up) and smart direction keeps the alien plot rolling and the two complement each other nicely. What they don’t do is have any real impact upon each other barring the obvious but that’s not unrealistic – stories both personal and fantastical can happily coexist without interacting.
The important hook for the film lies in Joe’s awesomely geeky circle of friends, whose deprecating banter and wide-eyed resourcefulness will win the hardest of hearts. The characters are all archetypes, there’s the chubby guy, the lanky, nerdy one, the pyromaniac, but they’re good archetypes and played tremendously by a cast of fresh-faced youngsters that fit the period so perfectly you suspect some real world time travel kidnapping may be involved. The heart of the gang is their collective awe at pop culture, festooning their bedrooms with Star Wars memorabilia and possessing a single-minded drive to complete their motion-picture masterpiece. They are Abrams’ ambassadors for his own experience of growing up in that era, slightly autobiographical in their situation and the love and nostalgia for their pre-internet lifestyle is infectious.
As great as the gang is Joel Courtney steals it from all of them with a quiet, nuanced performance, effortlessly convincing as a bright young man discovering the world and the first realities of puberty while struggling to accept the passing of a parent. Everyone else who matters plays off him, every important relationship in the film hits the spot and by the time the credits roll you care about what happens. We’ll see more from this young man in the future for sure.
The sci-fi side of things doesn’t match the irresistible charm of the human element but there’s enough going on to keep you engaged. Abrams very sensibly keeps the creature from us for most of the running time and presents us with the unique scenario where the vicious killer monster from outer space is just as terrified of us as we are of it and just wants to go home, something we know courtesy of an all-too-convenient exposition device. It’s an original idea but a bit flawed since we’re expected to both fear and sympathise with this thing but it’s nice to see some shades of grey.
Super 8 was always going to be compared to E.T. which is hardly fair but enough time has passed since that landmark title in family viewing that a whole new generation perhaps unfamiliar with Spielberg’s classic have arrived for whom this might well achieve something similar. Not short of heart or entertainment value it’s a very worthy example of good, original live-action family escapism free of the irritating wackiness rife in the genre. Forget Transformers and its whizz-bangs and give something with both heart and brains a go.
A brilliantly played homage to better summers with exciting young talent and a soul above the commercial. One of the best films of the summer.