Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Okay, okay, I'm fully prepared for the fact that most people will completely disagree with me on this review, but here goes...
Crippled ex-marine Jake Sully gets offered the job of replacing his dead twin brother, who was a scientist involved with the Avatar project on the planet Pandora. The avatar project involves putting one's consciousness into the body of a genetically modified and grown body that is part human, part native Na'vi (The name given to the indigenous population). Supposedly the expense of creating this simulacrum, is the reason Jake was offered the job of replacing his brother, as only his DNA makes him capable of using it. Cue the Pocahontas/Dances With Wolves story of Jake as he gradually learns the ways of the perfect eco-friendly natives and ends up helping them against the evil greedy humans who are strip mining parts of Pandora, and especially want the area underneath the giant tree-home of the Na'vi.
Firstly the good stuff. In 3D, Avatar is admittedly visually stunning. What is relatively revolutionary about Avatar, is the way in which it was filmed, as opposed to what is seen on screen. Every performance of an actor was stored digitally when they were filmed on stage, including facial expressions (A technique that has been used for some time). The director, James Cameron (This is his first feature film since the hit Titanic) was then able to go back after initial filming with a 'virtual' camera. He could run around on the sound-stage, and on the screen of this 'camera', 'see' the actors and the alien world in a rough 3D form, as powerful computers generated the image live, based on the position of his camera in relation to the position of the actors when they had done their real performance previously. The obvious benefit for a director, is the ability to go back and endlessly tweak camera angles and movement, where before the only opportunity would be during initial shooting.
The 3D technology, and performance capture technology have been refined and built upon in the last few decades through various films, and in most recent years with director Robert Zemeckis' Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, etc. However, Avatar has taken it to a stunning level of reality, finally creating characters that look (for the most part) quite real. They appear to have just made it across what is termed the 'uncanny valley', where CGI character performances don't quite look real enough for the human eye, and make us feel disconnected from them. Though this is usually a problem when trying to replicate actual humans (As in the Zemeckis films). Perhaps Cameron's trick here has been to utilise creature designs that are essentially human, but not quite, so we the viewers don't feel as alienated by their performances.
The world of Pandora is eye catching, filled with bio-luminescent colour most especially in its night scenes. Films such as Outlander have utilised such creatures (And even included brief glimpses of such worlds) but not on this scale. This was all heavily influenced by Cameron's obsession with under-sea exploration, from which he wanted to bring the bio-luminescent life to the surface of an alien world.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Pandora is how un-alien their world is, except for this bio-luminescent theme. Everything is all too familiar. Dog-like creatures look like dogs and sound like dogs. Swinging monkey beasts look like, well, monkeys. Horse-like creatures look just like horses (And sound like Velociraptors from Jurassic Park, so-much-so that one must ask if they even changed the sound-effect). The flying beasts are very pterodactyl-like, though perhaps manage to be the most 'alien' creatures of this world, whilst the 'Thanator' (Supposedly the most ferocious ground-based creature, and the one that Cameron chose to design himself) looks more than a little reminiscent of Cameron's own design for the alien queen in Aliens (The head, certainly). Meanwhile, the Thanator suffers the same problem as the 'horse', utilising Jurassic Park T-Rex sounds, seemingly almost unchanged. The plant life on Pandora is also all-too-familiar when shown in the daytime views, with one or two interesting exceptions. Cameron has been praised for creating an entire world on screen, but I hesitate to say that everything from The Dark Crystal to George Lucas' Star Wars movies have created complete alien worlds with more originality.
There are a mish-mash of unsubtle references in Avatar. The Na'vi pander to every 'native' stereotype you can think of, but primarily Native American and African. Even to the point that they refer to themselves as 'The People' rather than 'The First People' as native Americans now do. The tribal leader is performed by Wes Studi, a native American actor, probably best known for his role as Magua in Last of The Mohicans. Meanwhile, having 'schools' in which the human 'Avatars' try to teach the natives our ways, directly parallels our human past with various populations across the globe, from Africa to America. There are numerous examples of such parallels. The accented English used by some of the Na'vi even sounds like what we would consider an insulting cliché when used in old westerns, or B&W Tarzan movies.
Cameron has also crammed in every politically correct reference he can, including the unsubtle use of having his villainous humans come out with statements such as “We will use Shock and Awe” or “Fight terror with terror”.
Perhaps Avatar's biggest problem is its lack of characterisation. None of the actors fare well in this respect, with possibly only Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, Snow White: A Tale of Terror) retaining some connection, when in human form. Considering their screen time, the lead characters of Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington (Terminator: Salvation) and Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), are shockingly forgettable and unremarkable. Even the villains are the worst form of cardboard cut-outs. Giovani Ribisi (Sky Captain, Saving Private Ryan) plays the soulless corporate evil, while the Mercenary Commander played by Stephen Lang (A regular 'guest star' actor in numerous TV series) hams it up no-end, coming out with some of the worst dialogue, which is admittedly not his fault. I'm not even sure some of the characters made it to two dimensions. There are no shades of grey in Avatar. The villains are unreasoningly evil without good reason, while the eco-friendly Na'vi appear to be perfect in every way, at one with nature, their world, the animals, the plants... They all even seem to be physically perfect, with nary a short or slightly overweight Na'vi in sight (Perhaps off-screen their species indulge in their own form of eugenics?)
Make no mistake, Cameron is having a good old bash at the now-extinct Bush administration, right through to good ol' Vietnam. As well as trying to tell us all to give up the evils of technology and go be one with Gaia (Sorry, Aywa, the Na'vi equivalent) by hugging a tree. Never mind the fact that he has spent absurdly huge sums of money and used the latest cutting edge technology to create this film. In fact, the whole movie feels as though Cameron has become so in love with showing off what the technology and his new techniques can do, that he almost completely forgot about the non-visual aspects of the film altogether.
Avatar is an enjoyable enough experience for one viewing, but it has to be seen in 3D on the big screen. If you see it any other way, I think you'll miss out on everything positive about the film. In all honesty, I can't think of any other reasons to recommend Avatar, other than the 3D and the special effects. There certainly aren't any characters or story that make me want to re-visit this alien world.
In Search Of A Hero
Gerard Butler (Dracula 2000, P.S. I Love You, 300) plays Clyde Shelton, whose wife and daughter are tragically raped and murdered. Public Prosecutor (Later District Attorney) Nick Rice, played by Jamie Fox (Ray, Collateral) makes a deal with the primary perpetrator, in order to get a death sentence on the lesser villain and maintain his conviction rate. Essentially Nick is a lawyer who cares little for justice, as long as he can play the system for his own benefit, convincing himself that he is making compromises for small yet certain victories over potentially big losses. Clyde returns ten years after the event, in order to wreak his vengeance on those he blames, as well as attempt to bring down the corrupt system that allowed his wife and daughter's rapist and murderer to go free after a short sentence.
Law Abiding Citizen has an intriguing premise, but in typical Hollywood style, lacks any conviction in its ideas and has to take the easy route. Initially we are made to feel great sympathy for Clyde, but his first acts of vengeance and justice are so over-blown, sadistic and awful that it screams out 'blatant plot device'. It is as though a great big sign is whacked in our faces, saying “You are not meant to sympathise with Clyde!”. He is going to be the movie's villain, and we are not permitted to have any cause for doubt. Lest we forget, in a later scene, there is even a clear manipulation of the audience with “pretty young woman who is now questioning her ethics, and obviously doesn't deserve to die”. Just to ensure that the miscellaneous cold-hearted lawyers are not faceless, and become sympathetic victims.
It may seem harsh on the surface to refer to the character of Nick Rice as caring nothing for justice, but as Clyde's character states at one point, he would have had respect for Nick and accepted the outcome, if he had fought to put the heinous villain away and failed, rather than settled for a pathetic sentence to ensure a conviction. The character is a selfish self-absorbed ladder-climber, who is willing to put a minor villain to death (Who merely stood by, though later regretted his actions) then make a deal and shake hands with a child rapist and murderer in order to ensure his 'victory'. Yet ultimately we are meant to empathise and support him, because he finds a loophole that enables his discovery of Clyde's methods of vengeance. The conclusion is played as though the mighty hero has finally defeated his nemesis. Instead we are left wishing neither had won.
In general it is a slick and well produced movie that keeps you gripped, but becomes ultimately frustrating, annoying, and disappointing. By the conclusion (which throws credibility and common sense out of the window), you don't actually care what happens to either lead, because there is almost no sympathy to be had for either. What little sympathy there might be, is for the man we are obviously supposed to consider the villain. At least he has suffered a tragedy that has driven him to commit such deeds, as opposed to the 'hero' who is essentially a man willing to let evil continue by inaction and self interest.
I wanted to see something with far more bite. Something with grey areas of morality that made us think and question, as well as being a comment on the terribly flawed legal system of not only America, but most countries that work in a similar way.
There are plenty of films that disappoint yet entertain reasonably. They leave you wishing they had been better, but you don't regret seeing them as a bit of fun to pass the time. Law Abiding Citizen is unfortunately one of those that keeps you interested most of the way, but ultimately makes you wish you had never wasted the time. Steer clear, and watch something like Liam Neeson's 'Taken' instead, if you wish to see a movie that is a considerably more interesting character study about revenge and how far someone is willing to go, in order to save or avenge those they love.
Definitely Not Close Encounters
In Nome, Alaska, psychiatrist Abigail Tyler, played by Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil, The Fifth Element, Ultraviolet), begins to discover strangely similar memories in some of her patients. It is not long before hypnotic regression reveals some frightening events that ultimately lead to Abigail and her family becoming more embroiled in the terrifying occurrences than they could ever wish to be.
The Fourth Kind introduces itself as a tale based on actual events, including a mix of supposedly real footage, interspersed with actors portraying the events that occurred off camera. If this fact had indeed been true, it would have leant the film an unsettling atmosphere by its conclusion.
Unfortunately the evidence (and the fact that the film takes things down a less believable route than expected) implies it is all fictional. That in itself is not a bad thing, but where a story without a satisfying resolution is an acceptably fascinating scenario when dealing with events based on fact, it ceases to be anywhere near as satisfying when the story is so obviously false. It yearns for some kind of conclusion, some kind of coherence to the plot. Articles imply that the few websites that corroborate the existence of Abigail Tyler, were in fact set up on the same dates, that also coincide with the production of the film. They also lack other information such as contact details, that legitimate sites would be expected to have. There were indeed disappearances in the town of Nome over a certain period, however authorities initially put them down to the work of a serial killer. Later FBI investigations maintained that the disappearances were more likely the result of drunken accidents, and people being caught in the generally harsh environment. It is not outside the realms of possibility to believe a 'cover-up' of some nature could have occurred, or simply authorities ignoring other extreme facts, but unfortunately everything points to the story of The Fourth Kind being utterly fictional and using those disappearances simply as a jumping off point.
On the plus side, Milla Jovovich plays her part well, and proves once again that she can act in serious films as well as adventurous action packed ones. She's one of the few saving graces in the film, as your empathy with her plight is what keeps you watching. It's a shame that she's somewhat wasted.
The filming style of The Fourth Kind is somewhat reminiscent of The Mothman Prophecies in places, most especially in its scene-setting long shots. Although not quite on the same level, some of the photography is quite stunning. The integration of the supposedly 'real' footage is also done rather interestingly, and avoids the 'shaky cam' use that often mars other 'reality' style films (e.g. The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield). In fact it opts for the complete opposite, which is appropriate to its supposed source, of the camera being locked down, such as on a tripod in the character's office or mounted in a police car. The atmosphere builds up suitably until the first hypnotic regression, during which one of Abigail's patients abreacts when remembering certain events. The fear and terror that is shown by the patient creates a genuinely creepy and unsettling atmosphere. Unfortunately it is all downhill from there. The reactions of later patients become over-the-top and unbelievable, and the only other potentially effective moment is Abigail's unexpected dictaphone replay (I won't give anything away by saying more).
The other major problem with the story is that it doesn't seem to know which tack it wishes to take in relation to events. The title of the film, and other references indicate that this is about alien abduction. However later events, and the lack of any visual recreation of remembered abductions, create a distinctly supernatural tone that is at odds with the alien angle, and the well known established lore of 'genuine' alien abduction cases.
From an interesting premise that was rather promising, whether true or false, The Fourth Kind dissolves into an incoherent mish-mash that doesn't know what it wants to say or do. As it progresses, it even occasionally feels like a film made for TV rather than the big screen. Ultimately it makes for interesting viewing, but nothing more. Prepare to be disappointed unless you view it with very low expectations.
It's The Best Film You'll Ever See
In a world where lying has never been discovered, one man abruptly discovers he can use this miraculous skill. That's it, really. There's a general plot about getting the girl, some heavy handed religious commentary, and the message that our mere physical appearance does not determine who we are, or control our fate. In essence, that sums up the film.
Okay, hands up, I admit, I've never been a Ricky Gervais (TV's The Office, Night at the Museum, Ghost Town) fan. I never understood what was so funny about The Office, and he's usually been annoying in his various film cameos. However, around the same time last year he released his first Hollywood film, with himself as the star. It wasn't a ground breaking hilarious comedy, but it was far less annoying and obnoxious than it could have been, and was surprisingly under-stated in places. I actually started to warm to Gervais (Or at least the character he played). The film had a general atmosphere that was easy to warm to, and made a change from the usual slapstick of most Hollywood comedies of recent years.
In comparison, The Invention of Lying isn't bad, but it certainly doesn't rise to the level of Ghost Town, which itself was merely a smile inducing romantic comedy. The premise is interesting enough, but you can't help feeling that while the ramifications of lying in such a world are quite well explored, a lot of the associated potential humour is completely missed.
Unfortunately there are two glaring elements that really do not sit well, within the context of the story. Firstly, the mere inability to lie does not mean that people have to blurt out inconvenient truths. Even in our own world, there are people who try not to lie, but that does not always mean they have to volunteer hurtful truths. It could be argued that in a world where lying is impossible, this tendency has become part of human nature, but in the context of the story it often seems merely silly.
Secondly, why does the simple fact of a world without lying, mean that people only feel they can be partnered with those of equal physical appearance? Wealth, power, money, personality, decency, what-have-you, would surely all be of equal lure to potential mates, as they ever are. If an individual genuinely falls in love with another who is powerful, successful and uniquely skilled, why would they choose another who they do not like, simply because of physical superiority? It doesn't make logical sense that a world without lying must necessitate a desire for genetic purity. All it implies, is that the character is shockingly shallow, and therefore undeserving of our sympathy or care. As a result of these two factors, the film often doesn't quite seem to gel.
On the acting front, Gervais is still less annoying and obnoxious than his Office persona, but only just. He starts to yet again overdo his 'half-finished-sarcastic-sentence' form of acting. Jennifer Garner (TV's Alias, 13 going on 30, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) is the romantic lead, and as lifeless as ever. She plays her role with pedestrian style, always doing the job, but never becoming likeable or interesting.
I didn't hate The Invention of Lying. It is still pleasant to see a Hollywood-backed comedy that doesn't rely on slapstick, and doesn't shove every 'funny' moment in your face. Having said that, The Invention of Lying is simply an amusing enough viewing experience and nothing more. An interesting idea, largely undeveloped.
In the future, Earth is of course over-populated. By this time, humans have also discovered a new world that has exceeded all expectations of habitability. As a result, a large vessel has been despatched to colonise this new home with thousands of humans. Mid journey, crew members Bower (Ben Foster – X-Men 3, 3:10 to Yuma, 30 Days of Night) and Payton (Dennis Quaid – Enemy Mine, Inner Space, Frequency) wake up from stasis with partial amnesia, to find their vessel is on the verge of destroying itself unless the reactor is restarted. Payton remains in a control room to guide, while Bower must make his way through a ship mysteriously filled with horrific cannibal mutants, to reach the reactor. While on the way, he of course discovers the ultimate fate of the vessel and crew.
The general plot and style of Pandorum is reminiscent of various films, though it shares more than a little in common with Event Horizon and When Worlds Collide. It all starts interestingly and mysteriously enough with a suitably creepy atmosphere, but before long the film simply drags interminably. It rapidly becomes repetitious, while the director and/or editor rely so much on the all-too-popular quick-cut form of action editing, that the viewer has no real sense of what is happening, thus losing any sense of immediacy or care. In fact, some action scenes appear to blatantly miss required shots that would show what has occurred, making me wonder if perhaps the budget was significantly cut in post production (I felt the parts missed would have likely been effects shots).
Pandorum is quite literally a noisy mess of a film. Many of the events have little or no reason, or stretch believability too far. For example, the ferocious killer mutations have little reason for existence (A poor reason is given, admittedly), and appear to be there because the film makers really wanted 'scary things running around in dark corridors'. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy 'scary things running around in dark corridors' more than most people, but they still need a half-decent reason for being there. Another example is when one character (who has a thankless role, and thus is probably one of the few that we have any real sympathy or interest in), is killed for no good reason after surviving almost till the end. They were probably killed off, simply because the writers couldn't think of a good way to guide them through the conclusion.
Dennis Quaid feels rather wasted in this role, and I have a suspicion it was more of a handy pay cheque. The final twist and finale alone, make Pandorum feel as though it really could have been an interesting story, given the right treatment. Sadly it is an otherwise disappointing and repetitive journey.
*** EXTRA NOTE (Oct 2010) ***
In recently watching an episode of the old science fiction series 'Farscape', which was made a good number of years before Pandorum, I was reminded of an episode called 'Eat Me' from its third series. Unless that episode of Farscape was itself a nod to a previous series or film, Pandorum bears far-far to close a resemblance to be a mere coincidence.
Visit the Waxworks
Surrogates takes the basic premise of what would happen if almost everyone in our world were able to live their lives through an idealised robotic replacement. These replacements feed each person all of the sensations required to feel everything as normal, while their real body lies in a sensory chair at home. In this world, actual murder and most crime have been made pointless, because any crimes carried out, are done so via 'surrogates' on 'surrogates' (So presumably most crime would class as vandalism and criminal damage).
Bruce Willis (Die Hard, The Sixth Sense, TV's Moonlighting) and Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill, TV's Neighbours) play a pair of police officers tasked with investigating the murder of two people whose deaths occurred via the destruction of their surrogate bodies. This leads to a relatively straight forward plot involving a mysterious new weapon and a mad genius intent on mass murder. Meanwhile Willis' character re-discovers what it means to be human when he becomes separated from his surrogate body.
Where Surrogates succeeds, is in having a somewhat original story concept (For cinema, at any rate). The initial idea is extremely interesting, and does make us think about how life would be led in such a situation. Where the film fails somewhat, is in its execution. Initially it is off-putting with the actors all looking waxy and perfect, their emotions rather wooden and their physical motion always perfect, and begs the question, how many people would live out their lives this way, when the alternate versions of themselves are lacking in many basic aspects of human appeal? Perhaps this is a moot point, given that many people live such lives already online, addicted to part time lives that are severely limited in comparison to the real world. On the positive side, this does all create an effective contrast later in the film, when our lead begins to return to life in the normal world as his human self.
Other films that question our humanity and what it means to be human in different ways, such as District 9 or The Sixth Day, avoid giving us easy answers. They present us with the possibilities in such a way that there is no clear cut right or wrong, yes or no. Surrogates makes its message far too direct. “It is wrong to live life through a Surrogate!”. There are no ambiguities about the lifestyle presented in the film. No 'what ifs?'.
A lot of the general concept points are also skirted around. Why is murder practically non-existent?Although it seems reasonable to say that most crimes of passion and anger would be drastically cut, most reasons for other murders would not change. For example, political murders, revenge, money, etc. Also, what about muscle wastage for Surrogate users? A simple explanation that something in the seats keeps muscles active would have sufficed, but there is none.
Bruce Willis looks somewhat unnerving in his surrogate form, essentially a 'Young Bruce' via the miracle of modern CGI effects. Whilst the other actors get similar treatment, though obviously to a lesser degree. Unfortunately the lead characters seem a little underdeveloped. The troubled relationship between Willis' and his wife, played by the reliable Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day, TV's Wives & Daughters), is rather cliché and should have been explored in more depth. Radha Mitchell's character seems almost unused and superfluous, simply a plot-device for the finale. Likewise, the villain and his motivations come as no surprise and merely make us wish for something more original. It could be argued that James Cromwell (Babe, Star Trek: First Contact, I, Robot) is cast in practically the same role as he had in I, Robot, in order to undermine our expectations, but this seems rather too subtle for Surrogates and I suspect it is simply a case of bad typecasting.
Unfortunately, Surrogates' greatest weakness is its finale. It certainly pulls the old 'Deus Ex Machina' trick to some extent, with little set-up or reasonable explanation as to why things would work the way they do. Yes, we are given explanations, but they appear rather suddenly and conveniently, everything is concluded far too simplistically. Not to mention a voice over at the end stating that everyone is okay, after a situation that really implies a whole host of potential problems. What about those flying aircraft via surrogates? What about doctors using surrogates who are in the middle of operating on live people? What about babies in hospital wards, or mothers giving birth, where the doctors and nurses would likely be surrogates? I won't give away the plot by explaining why I am asking these questions, but if you see it, you will most likely find yourself asking the same things.
On the whole, the effects are excellent, though there are one or two extremely obvious green-screen environments that pull us out of the story. The action is all fun, though nothing especially original. It may sound like I'm being extra hard on Surrogates, as I did enjoy it. I enjoyed the originality, but as you find yourself questioning the story afterwards, it quickly loses its charm. It is better than much of its recent competition, but is perhaps most frustrating due to its under-used potential. Again, as with so many films of recent years, this may be symptomatic of its graphic novel roots. A medium rife with high concepts and visual flair, but often lacking the basic thought, character and emotion of normal literary fare.
The director, Johnathon Mostow (Breakdown, Terminator 3), is functional, taking few risks and showing little of the potential he once showed years ago with Breakdown. Surrogates is not a bad film, but it has (ironically, considering its subject matter) been made on automatic, when it had the opportunity to be so much more. It is enjoyable, and certainly worth seeing, but don't expect it to stay with you for very long.
20 Years ago, an enormous alien spacecraft drifted to a hovering rest over the South African city of Johannesburg. Within are discovered a race of insectoid aliens derogatorily known as 'Prawns'. These Prawns are in a seemingly broken vessel that has come to rest on Earth, while the creatures themselves have lost their leadership. Due to a hive-like societal structure, the worker populace are somewhat aimless and not exactly of superior intelligence. Wikus Van Der Mere (First time actor Sharlto Copley) is the hapless human tasked with evicting the aliens from their makeshift shanty town of District 9 below the giant craft, in order to relocate them for the benefit of the resentful Human populace. He works for the MNU (Multi National United) who are also one of the largest arms dealers in the world, and currently in the process of trying to master the miscellaneous weapons brought by the aliens. It's not long before Wikus finds himself embroiled in a situation that will have him fighting for his life and re-assessing his priorities and beliefs.
District 9 is that rare thing. A science fiction movie with an allegorical message that is not preachy, and does not compromise it's science fiction elements in the process. On it's most obvious level, it is an allegory for the former apartheid situation in South Africa, and the associated real-life District 6, but it can be read on many other levels, including but not limited to the potential in every race of humanity to act vindictively or dismissively to another they feel as being inferior.
Wikus is presented to us as neither a particularly sympathetic nor loathsome character. He is a perfectly constructed balancing act of a man who is a product of his environment and upbringing. We can see him doing things that are immediately repulsive but unwittingly so to him. Yet likewise, he will make an effort (albeit it somewhat limited) when he sees action being taken that goes against his innate morality. Wikus is without a doubt the greatest strength of District 9. Watching his character work on so many levels, as he grows and changes with the story, is the element that keeps us riveted to the screen. Wikus can be almost humorously inept at times, right through to being occasionally amoral, flawed, yet ultimately becoming sympathetic, courageous and touching.
The story of District 9, from a science fiction perspective, has been used many times in the past, perhaps the most obvious example being the film-to-tv series Alien Nation. Where District 9 succeeds as something new, is by making its alien species less immediately sympathetic. We the viewer are not presented with an easy side to take. The aliens are sometimes stupid and often repugnant in their behaviour, making it all too simple to feel sympathy with the humans who detest them. This is yet another strength of District 9, avoiding the simple and often over-used contrast of 'Good aliens, bad humans' though perhaps as the film continues this is weakened a little with somewhat stereotyped villains. There are also elements of 'body-shock' horror not unlike those often explored by David Cronenberg, that will have you wincing as it questions our ideas of what makes us who we are, and plays on our fears of the worst things that can happen to our bodies.
On a more basic cinematic level, the film is again a careful balancing act. We have all seen the hand-held 'documentary' style of film-making, with movies such as The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. Again, where District 9 succeeds is in using such techniques for much of its beginning, yet gradually segueing more and more into traditional 3rd person style. As such we do not get tired of the technique, as we can do with the other examples, and because much of that footage in District 9 is shown as either news or security camera feeds, it does not have the badly filmed nausea-inducing tendencies of the above.
One of the most jaw dropping visual aspects of District 9, is its special effects. Amazingly, almost all of the alien creatures were CGI (With very few physical creature effects, such as bodies undergoing autopsy). On the whole, District 9's digital effects are flawless and stunningly photo-real, created using a combination of cutting edge effects from WETA digital (The effects company owned by Peter Jackson and created initially for the Lord of the Rings films) and creature designs that do not require fur or a great deal of moving flesh. This means that even with the film's limited budget, they have been able to use the most positive aspects of the technology without too many of its flaws. Much like the film Starship Troopers, which still dates well in comparison to many of its contemporaries, because it knew where to draw the line in what it could and couldn't do nearly perfectly.
The action in District 9 is also brutal and tough. This isn't your average glamorised blockbuster with wire-stunt batmen, or kung fu experts doing the impossible with nary a bruise or scratch. Bodies are ripped apart, exploded, shot, electrified and generally dismembered in a variety of ways. When the film kicks into its action scenes, they are pulse-poundingly raw and visceral.
District 9 is director Neill Blomkamp's first feature film. Originally he had been recommended by Peter Jackson to direct the feature adaptation of the computer game 'Halo', but when the deal fell through, Jackson reportedly gave Blomkamp thirty million to make a film of his choice (A very small budget for something of this scope and level of effects). Blomkamp then went on to make the full length version of his short film 'Alive in Joburg', which mirrors District 9 almost exactly in general concept and premise. In my view, we are lucky that events unfolded in this way, because I am much happier to see an original piece of work, than yet another miscellaneous video game adaptation.
This is an adult film that has not been watered down to stay safe for the kids. The characters swear repeatedly, and everyone has a tough time of it. It is by no means an 'easy' film to watch, but it will leave a lasting impression and keep you thinking. Is it perfect? No, there are some things that happen too easily for the sake of plot convenience, occasionally unanswered questions that are more frustrating than mysterious, and the story ideas are often far from original. Yet on the whole this is a genuinely impressive, often gruelling and hard-hitting film. I also have it on good authority that the accents and cultural references are dead on the nose. District 9 is neither a video game or comic adaptation, or a remake of an older film. As such it is a real treat amongst all of the other genre offerings of recent years. Just be warned, if you eat out and see a prawn dish, you may find yourself inadvertently uttering an appropriate expletive often used in the film. Trust me, you'll see what I mean...
On The Moon You Can Hear Yourself Scream
Sam Rockwell(Galaxy Quest, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) plays Sam Bell, a Helium3 harvester on the moon, Helium3 being Earth's newest and cleanest fuel supply. He's coming toward the end of his three year contract, tired and worn out, and desperate to return home to his wife and daughter from whom he receives intermittent messages. Keeping him company is an artificial intelligence called Gerty (Voiced by Kevin Spacey, and with obvious and intentional nods to HAL from Kubrick's 2001). However, it's not long before Sam begins to uncover a disturbing mystery that will forever alter his fate.
On a reported budget of only five million, it's fair to say that Moon works miracles, especially in the modern movie market place, with hideously expensive yet mediocre blockbusters. It's not perfect, and misfires occasionally, but on the whole is an expertly crafted and edited piece of work by director Duncan Jones (Son of singer David Bowie). It's not giving away any of the plot, to reveal that Sam discovers he is a clone, used to farm the surface of the moon (This is fairly obvious from the trailers). Sam Rockwell plays his part superbly, and with the aid of the direction and story, manages to create two distinct and different characters, who we the viewer never confuse.
There are a few un-answered moments. It's that old problem of what is best left as mystery, and what is relevant to the story. For example, one of the characters is slowly dying, but why? Radiation poisoning? Internal Injuries? Limited life-span running out? This question is left un-answered, but is relevant if we are to know the ultimate fate of the other character. Then there is the question of the willing or unwilling participation of the original Sam Bell. At first this may seem an unimportant question, but with regards to the psychology of our leads, it is entirely pertinent.
Where the film really shines, is in the characters' gradual realisation of their fate. The interplay as they deal emotionally with the repercussions. The only bit that jarred for me personally, was the initial avoidance the clones had with discussing their existence. It kicked me out of the otherwise engrossing story, as it felt disjointed and unrealistic. Though it can be argued that it is in fact a more genuine human reaction, as the characters avoid consciously dealing with such a psychologically shocking fact. A genuinely stand-out moment arrives when one of the Sams successfully makes contact with his remembered home, only to discover the emotionally shattering truth. A moment that re-enforces everything the characters are being forced to undergo.
The production contains nods to several classic science fiction films, all of which are very much about isolation. Namely Kubrick's 2001, Scott's Alien and Hyams' Outland. The set design owes a lot to all three (which themselves were influenced by each other in reverse order). There is 2001s clinical and near-future feeling to much of the equipment, the used and lived-in atmosphere of Alien, and the mining life of Outland. The spacesuits are an amalgam of Alien and Outland blended with realistic modern design. The countdown arrival of the armed 'rescue' team, even down to the displays, is a clear nod to Outland (even the brief view of the vessel at the end is reminiscent). Gerty is an intentionally subversive nod to 2001s HAL-9000 (Even labelled Gerty 3000L on its main unit), used in order to play with our expectations by initial similarity and later difference.
The effects work, especially considering the budget, is simply superb. It is either CGI enhanced model work, or CGI created expertly enough to appear like traditional model work. Whichever it is, it serves the story perfectly, and there is more than a sufficient amount for the film to never feel as though made on such limited funds. On a personal note, I felt that the addition of sound effects to the exteriors was out of place. In action and adventure situations it is an excusable conceit, but in this case I felt the atmosphere of isolation would have been greatly enhanced with creative use of silence and alternative sounds, such as a film like 2001. Having said that, it is a minor point, and really only a personal preference as very few films attempt it. The musical score by Clint Mansell is a limited and occasionally mixed bag. It serves its purpose, but one can't help feeling that a more delicate and nuanced soundtrack would have worked more appropriately.
The story isn't shockingly original and is certainly predictable, but as with many films, knowing the destination isn't as important as the journey getting there. Moon provides a thoughtful character study, that doesn't overstay its welcome. In our time of vapid blockbusters, it is a welcome, if slightly flawed return to the days of intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction. For that alone Moon deserves to be praised, but it is clearly able to stand on its own feet, making for a satisfying antidote in a sea awash with mediocrity.
Back On Form
The latest instalment of Harry Potter has well and truly taken the plunge into the sea of raging teenage hormones. Although a couple of the previous episodes had occasional hints, the romantic elements have always played second fiddle to the effects-laden portions of the story. In this case, it is no longer about how many swirling spells and flying broomsticks we can cram in during the running time (Though of course it has its fair share).
Harry returns to a Hogwarts under siege. It has been magically sealed off to protect the students within, from the threatening world beyond. Meanwhile, inside its walls, love triangles abound as characters veer between dating side-characters they are not intended for, while their intended go around mourning the fact that the others cannot see what is in front of their faces.
I personally found the previous instalment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, one of the weaker films. The filming style was a little too contemporary, the colour tones a tad too drab in an effort to make it all darker and less child-like, and character moments often felt squeezed into a corner to make way for the set-pieces.
Half Blood Prince works, because Director David Yates has learnt from his prior effort, even stating so himself. The ongoing battle against the villain Voldemort is an ever-present threat, without always taking full control of the events on screen. Of all the Harry Potters so far, this is the character piece, and Yates keeps the camera locked down more frequently, allowing us to savour the framing of shots and bring us more intimately into the personal moments on screen. It's all laced with amusing snippets that keep the audience laughing, but not to the point of losing the film's bite.
This is 'The Empire Strikes Back' of the Potter Saga. The characters are the real core of events, the heroes do not inevitably win, and the conclusion is surprisingly sombre and downbeat. If the next two instalments (The final novel is being broken into two films) can keep up this balancing act and deliver the goods, we could be in for a very satisfying series of films.
More Entertainment In Disguise
How to review a film such as this? Perhaps we should first list the expectations from the original. Action, adventure, fun. That's it, really. All packaged with just enough story and character so as not to be completely vapid and pointless. These films are what they are, nothing more, nothing less.
Transformers 2 picks up a couple of years after the first film, with the main character of Sam Witwicky played by Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Eagle Eye), on his way to college in an attempt to carry on his life in a more normal fashion after his robot infused adventures during the first instalment. Meanwhile, the 'Transformers' have teamed up with the U.S. Military to hunt down their evil counterparts, while simultaneously having drawn more of their kind to join them on their new home, our Earth.
The adventures soon revolve around the evil robots attempting to procure an ancient forgotten power source left by their ancestors millennia ago. Which of course, will destroy the world if used. Simultaneously, our hero must find a way to save the leader of the good robots, in order to help defeat the villains. It's all silly fun, no better or worse than the first film, and serves its purpose.
The character of Major Lennox, played by Josh Duhamel (TV's Las Vegas), is the second lead, though he feels under-used. He probably has as much screen time as the first film, yet seems to have been relegated to a supporting role around which to base the human involvement during the finale, and does precious little else.
Sam's parents make a welcome return as the supporting comic relief, and in many respects have a tendency to steal the show. A few other supporting characters (Both robotic and human) make their return, albeit for the most part in diminished roles. While we are also treated to a new character, Leo Spitz, played by Ramon Rodriguez (TV's The Wire), and two new comic-relief robot twins. Unfortunately, after an initially interesting introduction, the Spitz character becomes utterly pointless and superfluous. The robot twins are likewise just slightly too far into 'annoying' territory, rather than being genuinely amusing side-characters. If you remember Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, just multiply him by two with (thankfully) slightly less screen.
A lot of complaints were levelled at the film's excess running time, and while this is a legitimate complaint, in most part it is down to adding a little more plot in between the action. It's unlikely with a budget such as this, that the action scenes would have been cut down. So to be honest, I actually welcomed that excess running time for a little more story and character, rather than have an endless stream of robot battles (Which the film is close to being anyway)
It's hard to complain about anything in this film, in relation to the first, given that the prior film was essentially enjoyable cinematic eye-candy. Yet in the end, this is just that little bit weaker than the first. The story isn't quite as involving, credibility is stretched slightly further, characters and situations are that little bit more stupid and/or predictable (The college 'seduction' scene stands out as a prime example).
After all is said and done, it's still great fun, and will easily provide an afternoon of humourous action and adventure. As with the first film, its saving grace is that it doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is, such as films like Terminator: Salvation, or Star Trek. In that respect, it works slightly better than its competition, because you can more easily forgive its flaws when it isn't attempting to be anything more than it is. It is bright noisy amusing explosive family fun, which is all it needed to be, or wanted to be.
Is That John Connor or Batman?
This is a surprisingly difficult film to review, mainly because I'm really not sure about it. There are some good things here, but there are just as many question marks, making a very mixed bag.
The directing reins have been taken over by 'McG' (Joseph McGinty Nichol), otherwise probably best known for directing the risible “Charlie's Angels” movies, and being one of the main producers on TV's “Chuck” and “Supernatural” (Both of which imply he is probably better sticking to producer rather than director duties).
This time around, we are treated to a full movie set in the early stages of the 'future war' otherwise only glimpsed in flashback (Or flash-forward, depending on your perspective) in the prior films. It carries on from where Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines left off, with the lead character of John Connor (Played by Christian Bale of Batman Begins/The Dark Knight fame), still with his love Kate Brewster, having survived 'Judgement Day' together (The nuclear war triggered by Skynet, the unseen villainous computer 'Artificial Intelligence' of the films). They are now a major part of the human resistance, though he has not yet risen to leadership. A new character also joins the fray, in the form of Marcus Wright played by Sam Worthington (Who's current claim to fame is being the lead in the as-yet un-released new film 'Avatar' from James Cameron, director/writer of Titanic and the first two Terminator films). The character of Marcus is an early cyborg experiment by Skynet, who does not initially realise he is anything more than human.
Rumours are that the film was never intended to centre around the primary character of John Connor, but instead the new character of Marcus Wright. Bale's involvement, and desire to play the core human character of the Terminator series, apparently triggered major re-writes to increase his role. Unfortunately this shows. The character of Marcus is clearly the lead here, gaining far more character-based screen time.
So where does that leave the film? With perhaps not enough time devoted to either character, to really flesh them out. Certainly Connor's part is under-used, and without having previously seen the earlier movies, we would not have had any real idea of his motivations or character. Likewise with Marcus, we are obviously supposed to see a story of personal redemption, but we do not learn enough of his past to give weight to this.
From a purely visual standpoint, there is little that jumps out in this Terminator outing. Likewise, there's nothing to complain about. The action is suitably exciting, but neither does it gel together especially well. There's so much of it, and all rather indiscriminate, that you find yourself yearning for the well paced and controlled action of the earlier movies. McG is a competent director, but he doesn't have the visual flare required to make things genuinely stick in our memories. For all its faults, even the much maligned Terminator 3 had a number of memorable moments from director Jonathon Mostow (Who is yet to really deliver on the promise he showed with 1997's Breakdown).
On the plus side, the serious tone of the film is a very welcome return to form, after the out-of-place humour of the third instalment. The story is actually quite interesting, despite the feeling that it could've been made truly riveting in someone else's hands. Sam Worthington plays his part well, providing quite a contrast to the “I'm playing Batman again” performance, phoned in by Bale. And surprisingly, Anton Yelchin playing the young Kyle Reese does a pretty good job. A definite improvement over his Chekov in the new Star Trek.
There are a lot of nice touches, especially between Marcus and Kyle, showing how the older Kyle of the first film learnt some of his skills. The finale battle is fun, though far too much of a straight amalgamation of similar scenes from the first two films. It ceases to be an homage, and just becomes an outright copy in places. One of the stand-out highlights, brief as it is, comes in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger's cameo (Made possible by his permission, using computer enhanced footage from the original film).
The whole thing does have a feeling that certain elements have been held back and restrained, in readiness for future instalments. As such, it often tends not to live up to expectations. Gone are the Phased Plasma Rifles of the original films. (Are we to presume they come into use in later years of the war?) A lot of the designs have been changed, losing their iconic feel, but again, they may resurface as 'newer' models in later films (If they get made). The Terminator sound effects seem to have been unnecessarily and inappropriately 'jazzed up' with growling sounds. We also get a giant robotic human-harvesting robot that comes across as a deliberate addition in the wake of the 'Transformers' movie. While a lot of the film's action scenes take place during daylight, unlike the mood set by the night-based future scenes in the originals. Perhaps as a way of changing the mood, as later films are planned to be darker? Who knows.
I can't help feeling that it will be easier to judge on DVD/Blu Ray, but I'm not sure if that will be for better or worse. Terminator one and two are considered near classics of the science fiction/action genre. Terminator 3 was considered an okay fun ride, though not in the same league. Terminator Salvation is on about the same level. For all the items it improves, it is also missing something, and comes out roughly on a par with that outing. It should have had the action scaled back for more plot and character, yet (Despite the now infamous and foul tirade of Christian Bale against one of the crew during production, which possibly had more publicity than the film itself) on the whole it still makes for an enjoyable enough action thrill ride. Like many of the continuous flow of remakes/sequels in recent years, perhaps the biggest flaw is yet again, not that the film is that bad, but simply that it does not deliver on the potential from its source material. We just have to keep our fingers crossed that things improve if the successive episodes get the green light.