An interview with director of short film Artificially Intelligent, Ben Lister, here
Perhaps unfairly criticised at the time of its release because of the weight of fan expectation and hype surrounding it, Prometheus emerges these days as a much finer, more intelligent science-fiction film, albeit not one without flaws. In its grandiose production design and excellent special effects, it truly is a breathtaking sight to watch, laden with awe and wonder. In its ambitious attempt to ask fundamental questions about the meaning of life (questions that science-fiction was made to ask), it reaches for lofty heights, even scaling them from time to time. A lack of focus, particularly with an overlarge (though excellent) cast, does harm the complexity of the film, and the final act’s devolution into standard action filmmaking does feel like studio imposition rather than authorial vision, but regardless this is the most worthy successor to Ridley Scott’s original Alien; a superior work to even James Cameron’s Aliens and perhaps as close as we might get to realising the unachieved ambition of Alien 3’s messy conception.
The Andromeda Strain is the kind of science-fiction film that was ten-a-penny back in the early ‘70s in the aftermath of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by veteran Robert Wise (who had also helmed The Day the Earth Stood Still, one of the best ‘50s sci-fi film), The Andromeda Strain details the pursuit of a cure against a potentially planet-destroying microscopic alien life form that kills almost everything it comes into contact with by a team of experts. There are some excellent details here; the workaday actors (mostly career-long support players) make believable, fallible scientists, and the film’s focus on the forensic, machine-like nature of their research is fascinating, but it ultimately makes for a somewhat inert, dry, impersonal film in which little of note happens for more than two hours.
Of that stretch of late-‘90s/early ‘00s films that spoke to a particular brand of frustrated masculinity, dealing with millennial anxiety and an increasingly computerised world, (Fight Club, American Psycho, American Beauty), The Matrix is the most cheesy and self-knowing in its own pseudo-philosophy. Whilst Fight Club and American Beauty both take themselves entirely seriously and fall flat on their faces as a result, The Matrix seems to understand that the zen nonsense that Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus spouts is exactly that, nonsense. What’s left is a wonderfully imagined cyberpunk world and some excellent action sequences, courtesy of legendary Hong Kong director/choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (even if he has directed some even better fight sequences back home). The Wachowski siblings haven’t done much of note since, but the enduring popularity of The Matrix will almost certainly guarantee them some sort of place in the annals of film history.
It would be the laziest of critical clichés to compare Arrival to 2001: A Space Odyssey (as many others have done) because outside of the obvious visual inspirations—clean, modernist lines, symmetrical framing—there isn’t much similarity between the two films thematically. 2001 is about humanity’s listlessness and inconsequential place in the universe, at threat of being overtaken by higher consciousness and even by our own machines. Arrival is about humanity’s place on its own Earth, and about the philosophical problems associated with making contact with an entirely different species. Thematically, this is much closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s legendary Solaris; that too is a film about humans making contact with alien consciousness and attempting to understand it. However, whereas that film finds human nature every bit as ultimately confusing and unknowable as alien nature, Arrival comes to the conclusion that we are capable of understanding our own nature.
Such a positive and affirmative solution can come across as lazy, but then again this is a film built to be crowd-pleasing whilst being moderately philosophical, not overly ‘difficult’ in its head-scratching possibilities. The story goes that 12 huge oval-shaped alien structures appear in various places across the Earth, with aliens inside attempting to converse with the human race. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a world-renowned linguist, is tracked down by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and persuaded to join the research team attempting to decipher the aliens’ language, alongside theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Whilst they are investigating the alien structure in Montana, countries all around the world are joined in collectively trying to decipher what’s going on in an unprecedented level of international co-operation. Eventually, Louise and Ian make a major breakthrough in communication, making the first steps towards deciphering the alien language, built out of circular symbols. At the same time however, Russia and China become increasingly paranoid that the aliens have more sinister purposes, and decide to mobilise their militaries instead, putting our protagonists at a deadlock.
At the same time as it preaches the value of humanist understanding and openness, Arrival subtly becomes a prime example of American Exceptionalism in cinema; why, of course it’s those bad egg Chinese and Russians that threaten to destabilise world peace and co-operation, and any similarly militaristic movement by the US is always simply a reaction by the powers that be to defend the great American people. Of course it’s the valiant, hard-working Americans who eventually solve all humanity’s problems.
If I’m making Arrival sound like a propaganda piece, don’t be deterred; this still functions as a finely-crafted sci-fi film, built on solid ground with ideas and character in the script, and then executed superbly by director Denis Villeneuve and his cast and crew. Much like last year’s hit thriller, Sicario, Arrival shows a fascination with professionals doing their job, although in this case they are scientists rather than morally ambiguous drug cops. Asides such as romance and personal trauma are kept in dreamlike Terence Malick-riffing flashback sequences, rather than being central to the main arc, thus relieving the film of having to crowbar in banal subplots designed to flesh out the characters in place of allowing the action to develop them. It’s an admirable balance, and the film’s major players all put in excellent work. Amy Adams’ onscreen aura of intelligence and detachment means she’s completely suited to the role, and Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are equally up to the task.
There are issues however; it does overreach into Terence Malick territory towards the end, with a rather melodramatic approximation of his style as well as a final plot twist which is blatant deus ex machina. But at the same time, the first two-thirds of the film are rather excellent, a finely-tuned and well thought-out discussion of the value and meaning of language, and how we might try to find out how to communicate with non-human species. Arrival is philosophical, although not in quite the as in-depth a way as Solaris (Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is maybe a closer approximation).
One particular moment from Renner’s character has stuck with me since viewing the film; he notes the theory learning a new language can rewire a brain. Language is not simply a set of words to denote meaning, but a whole construction of understanding the world. Opening yourself up to that might well be crucial to becoming a more open, empathetic human being, and indeed that is Arrival’s primary takeaway. Now, how many of those who voted furiously for UKIP, Brexit, and Donald Trump, speak any language other than English?
Taking on the themes of Christopher Nolan’s Inception a good two decades before every teenage wannabe film student’s favourite director tackled it, Paul Verhoeven crafted an intelligent and deft science-fiction film in Total Recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger does his thing, but Verhoeven harnesses him in such a way so as to flesh out the whole Arnold persona beyond its usual one-note one-liner functions. Certainly, the way Total Recall challenges the notion of wish-fulfilment in the movies whilst also being exactly that puts it firmly within the framework of Verhoeven’s style, whereby his films subversively become the thing they satirize (see: Starship Troopers). It’s perhaps a little too heavy on endless action and running down corridors at times, but it still remains a smart and entertaining science-fiction film.
Black Mirror returns, this time with a bigger scope, bigger budgets, and longer and more numerous episodes. What does this mean for Charlie Brooker’s warped, sinister creation? In some cases, the bigger scope allows for a fuller realisation of Brooker’s vision, but the series’ greatest asset to date has been its very nearness; almost all the episodes in the first two series were based on premises that felt very possible within the near future (or in the case of a certain Mr. Piggy, actually happened). Series Three strikes towards implausibility more than once and as a result struggles to have the same otherworldly impact at times. Still, it’s a damn good series all the same, and the move to Netflix allows it greater freedom in terms of episode times and structure, leading to a larger variety of stories being told and perhaps a stronger overall impact.
Episode Ranking (+spoilers sometimes)
1 – Nosedive (3.5/4): The most openly humorous of the third series, Nosedive is a satire on our Instagram/twitter-obsessed culture where people base their self-worth on how others view them. The tragedy is of course that much of the world depicted herein has already come to exist, and the more totalitarian elements of Nosedive (firing of employees or lack of access to certain services based on your social media ranking) already have certain real-world precedents, with employers more and more frequently implementing strict social-media policies at work.
2 – Playtest (3/4): The weakest episode of the third series, although it is certainly the most fun one to watch for video game fans. Whilst its premise is within the realms of near-plausibility, its execution is less so—who would agree to playing a virtual/augmented-reality game which penetrates your deepest fears and makes them seem real and also includes a painful-looking implant?—but despite that, Playtest is an effective mini-horror, tense and jumpy enough to be worthwhile.
3 – Shut Up and Dance (4/4): Not so much plausible as already reality, Shut Up and Dance tells the story of Kenny, whose webcam is hacked mid-wank; he is then blackmailed into carrying out instructions decided upon by a mysterious organisation. Such things have already become reality in many ways, although not yet in such a dark, ugly way. The entire episode sustains a mood of itchy, nervous tension and panic. Easily the fastest-paced and best of the series.
4 – San Junipero (3.5/4): Despite being the most implausible episode premise-wise—the terminally-ill and the already-dead can pay to stay in San Junipero, a digitally-crafted beachside paradise town to party their infinities away in whatever era they choose—San Junipero is also the most heartbreaking and humane episode of the series. Two visitors meet and fall in love, but troubles arise as we find more and more about their real lives, the ones they live outside of sunny San Junipero. San Junipero sets its sights high, aiming to handle such lofty topics as the finality of death, the commitment and hard work of a lifelong marriage, and the ephemeral nature of youth. For the most part it succeeds with supreme confidence, helped along by two brilliant performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, both of whom are real rising stars. Unfortunately SPOILER Charlie Brooker pulls his punches at the very last moment. San Junipero is the only episode with a happy ending in the entirety of Black Mirror. Our two leads riding off happily into the sunset sounds great on paper, but with all that comes before it, it saps the emotive character of Brooker’s message. What could have been one of Black Mirror’s best ever episodes is merely just an excellent one, sadly.
5 – Men Against Fire (3.5/4): Bearing similarities to the recently-released British zombie film The Girl With All the Gifts, Men Against Fire is a fine treatise on the nature of propaganda control and how it effects how we view others, particularly refugees and the poor. Its central premise SPOILER, that soldiers are implanted with chips that make them see the enemy not as fellow human beings but as horrendous, vile monsters is almost certainly something that militaries across the world are already working on, and the episode’s ugly atmosphere goes a long way to creating the right degree of verisimilitude. Of all the episodes in this series, Men Against Fire offers perhaps the bleakest view of humanity’s future: everywhere else our protagonists are at the very least able to retain some glimmer of humanity, no matter how dim. Here, it is the very thing we have long since lost.
6 – Hated in the Nation (3.5/4): This one would work just fine as a standalone film. It’s perhaps the most idea-loaded of the six episodes, many of which again feel entirely plausible. SPOILERS It’s entirely logical that we might soon have to use drone bees to pollinate flowers and prop up the ecosystem. It’s entirely logical that governments would want to use them as spies. It’s entirely logical that the public would be goaded into using Twitter hatestorms to kill people, and only the episode’s late-game twist feels implausible in real-life, even if it is perfectly logical in the context of the episode. Some excellent performances here too, and a fine way to cap off an excellent series. Series Three may not reach the same heights as earlier episodes so frequently, but when it does it’s a pleasure to watch.
E.T. is the pinnacle of Steven Spielberg the tearjerker. As a work of craft, I admire as much as I do most of his work; it is seamlessly put together, the work of a master who makes the filmmaking process look effortless. There are flaws of course, there always are; in its majority-white, endlessly middle-class suburban setting, E. T.’s epitomises the narrowness of Spielberg’s worldview (this is after all, a filmmaker who struggles to produce historical films that encroach beyond his own liberal conceptualisation of history). To quote Jonathan Rosenbaum: “[E.T.] remains a veritable manifesto about what it feels like to be ten years old, male, suburban, lonely, and captive to the Spielberg spell…the movie’s unusual achievement is to make it seem that way.” He’s right in a way. Dreamlike, wondrous, and sentimental, this is Spielberg at his best.
The story behind Alien 3 is arguably more interesting than the film itself: a litany of discarded concepts, ideas and wasted money, only to result in a messy creation where first-time the director was frequently hamstrung by brain-dead studio execs watering down his work. One can still spot David Fincher’s buried vision of a final film underneath the film’s missteps, which range from an utterly not-scary CGI alien (prosthetics every time goddamit!) to an overlong, action-filled second half which is low on actual tension. Yet, in attempting to bring the buried subtext of the series’ mythos to the fore—Ripley’s femininity against the Freudian antagonist, the all-male prison environment of fanatical religious converts, the nihilistic overtones of the all-destroying nature of the alien—the third entry in the series has the potential to be the most intellectually challenging of the series. An interesting but very flawed ‘what-if?’ of a film.
As far as ‘so bad they’re good’ films go, Plan 9 From Outer Space may well be the most enduringly infamous of the lot. The Room might be more incompetent, Sharknado might be more preposterously insane, and there’s surely plenty of forgotten monstrosities that predate Plan 9, but in a sense the cult pastime of watching awfully terrible trash films may well have started with the works of Ed Wood. Nonsensical and grammatically incorrect dialogue, studio backdrops so shoddily put up that you can see the shadows cast by actors appearing against them, and of course, an anonymous lookalike holding his cape up to his face so as to disguise the fact that he is not in fact recently deceased star Bela Lugosi, Plan 9 is just an absolute litany of laugh-out-loud absurdities. There’s a reason why it remains a classic of cinematic incompetency.