At two hours and 45 minutes, The Towering Inferno is way too long and wastes an incredible cast on having them mostly look either stoic or worried for that length of time. Nevertheless, it is a solid action spectacle, ably directed by John Guillermin and producer/co-director Irwin Allen, both of whom keep the various complexities of the storylines and the geography of the 135-floor skyscraper in clear sight at almost all times. The actual action sequences haven’t dated much either, with the special effects still entirely believable, including the model of the skyscraper. In every era Hollywood has loved to churn out overlong, bloated spectacles, but The Towering Inferno is just about one of the better ones. But let’s not forget that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in the same year. It cost just a tiny fraction of this, and you could watch it twice over in the same time.
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.
Martin Scorsese has always cribbed from pulp influences in his work, be they gangsters, vigilantes, or madmen, twisting them towards his own personal ends, but Shutter Island is quite confidently one of his most thunderously over-the-top and preposterous films—a pure pulp B-movie buoyed by big actors and a big budget. The plot is majestically twisting (and finely tuned to the point where it can be read completely coherently in two ways) and Scorsese’s handling of it is loaded with style and enthusiasm. Most of the performances are excellent too, even if Leonardo DiCaprio does overexert himself as per usual. Finally, Shutter Island features plenty of men standing in trenchcoats in the rain smoking cigarettes, and I’m always a sucker for that.
Victoria has been winning plaudits left, right and centre since its release primarily for its cinematography: yes, this is one of those one-shot films, and no, it’s not a fake one like Birdman, but a genuine, honest-to-God movie done in one single take. The question of course, is whether that adds anything to the film. It does elevate a fairly standard crime thriller into something that feels more participatory, as if the audience is a direct but silent participant in the action. It is perhaps a bit too long (probably a result of the characters having to travel to the next location in between scenes, something that editing obviously cuts out), but a fine film it is nevertheless, held together in large part by Laia Costa’s effortless and natural performance as the titular character.
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.
A South Korean action thriller about Gu-nam (Ha Jung-Woo), an impoverished taxi driver in the Yanbian Prefecture (a part of China that’s majority Korean), who is forced to go to Seoul to perform a mafia hit whilst also looking for his missing wife, who herself went to South Korea to seek a better life, with things quickly falling apart from there. Whilst The Yellow Sea does admirable deal with xenophobia, social exclusion and migration (which domestic audiences are better equipped to understand than I), it ultimately fails as a thriller. Na Hong-jin directs almost every action sequence with plenty of shaky-cam, draining the violence of its gruesome impact, and the story very quickly devolves into utter incoherence (although I suspect this is partially the point, even if it is unsuccessful). There are some excellent scenes though; Na takes us through the planning of the hit step-by-step, and the first half of the film is crackling with nervous, outsider tension. Shame it isn’t sustained.
Martin Scorsese’s remake of the acclaimed 1962 thriller directed by J. Lee Thompson does, at the very least, make some interesting changes. The original story of a prosecuting attorney terrorised by an ex-con he helped put away is changed to a defence attorney terrorised for deliberately suppressing evidence that would have reduced rapist Max Cady’s (Robert De Niro, Robert Mitchum in the original) sentence is a intriguing and surprisingly still-timely change, considering the institutional weakness of justice systems in the US against rape charges, reflecting Scorsese’s more ambivalent moral worldview—Nick Nolte’s compromised, flawed protagonist here is a far cry from Gregory Pecker’s performance as Gregory Pecker in the original. However, Scorsese’s Cape Fear is let down by lackadaisical pacing and one crucial difference: De Niro here is trying to be evil and menacing, mostly succeeding. In the original, Mitchum simply is menacing. One acts, the other is. And that makes all the difference.
Basic Instinct is classic Paul Verhoeven, delivering the most preposterous of films with the most knowing of smiles. All of Verhoeven’s subtly take the piss out of their clichés and propositions whilst wholly inhabiting them; just as Total Recall was a pisstake of filmgoers’ wish-fulfilment fantasies, so too was it a wish-fulfilment fantasy; just as Starship Troopers was a pisstake of militaristic and fascistic messages in war movies, so too was it a militaristic war movie. Basic Instinct takes the piss out of American cinema’s lifelong hyperventilating fear of (and moth-like attraction towards) female sexuality onscreen, whilst also being a film about a cop (Michael Douglas) who evidently is utterly terrified of and attracted to potential serial killer Sharon Stone. Cue famous bush-flash shot and a noir plot so hardboiled you could break Raymond Chandler’s nose on it, and Verhoeven’s still back there laughing at the absurdity of it all.
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.