The latest sci-fi spectacular from the Wachowskis is one of the few original blockbusters of recent years. It has a troubled history, having been pushed back from its original release date of July 2014 to the studios’ dumping ground of the following February. It is an overblown smorgasbord of plots and plotting, dazzling spaceships and alien technology, weird creatures both humanoid and otherwise, high camp performances and heady themes about one’s place in the universe, duty and loyalty, consumerist greed, immigrant status and gender relations. It combines elements of Star Wars, Stargate, Flash Gordon, The Fifth Element, Soylent Green, Brazil (complete with a cameo from Terry Gilliam) and probably others, yet manages to maintain a distinct identity of its own. It is narratively unwieldy, conceptually confused and rather a lot of fun.
Overall, Jupiter Ascending is a case of more being less. The film would have benefitted from being more streamlined and having a less complex fictional world, as this would reduce the need for lengthy exposition and plot-necessary kidnappings. Equally, it could have been an hour longer, allowing more time to display and explore the power structures and political infrastructure. And it would have been fascinating as the first instalment of a franchise, focused on a specific event that would have wider ramifications. The film’s financial failure makes this extremely unlikely (although never say never, this is Hollywood after all), but Jupiter Ascending remains an entertaining and remarkable noble failure.
What is a “political film”? Is it to have an ideology? If so, a great many films are political in relation to the socio-political context of their production, whether they oppose or endorse it. Or is a political film one that expresses a specific point that is central to the film’s meaning? This more restrictive definition is often applied to filmmakers such as Tim Robbins and Ken Loach, who have been described as expressing political agendas across their respective oeuvres. I suggest a definition somewhere inbetween: a political film is one that dramatizes the practice of politics through a narrative concerned with this practice and characters are involved in the events. Such films can be about political figures, such as Lincoln (2012), or they can be concerned with political movements and events such as Pride (2014). The latter is the case with Selma, which does a superb job of presenting political activism as a dramatic and engaging story.
The title of Ava DuVernay’s film indicates its remit as, rather than being called King or having a broader title such as Marches, Selma is named for the location of a specific event. In 1965, Selma, Alabama, was the site of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign, for although African Americans had the right to vote institutionalised racism in southern states repeatedly blocked their attempts to register. Selma highlights this racism: Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is humiliated by a voting office clerk who demands absurd information so as to catch her out and deny her registration; Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) as well as Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and Colonel Al Lingo (Stephen Root) are shameless in their prejudice and refusal to change; several scenes depict brutal and shocking racial violence. These attacks provide ample ammunition for Martin Luther King, Jnr.’s (David Oyelewo) non-violent activism, he and his supporters submitting themselves to beatings and arrests in their goal to guarantee all citizens the right to register to vote.
Selma’s great strength is its willingness to include the activists’ meetings and strategic planning, in favour of breast-beating histrionics. DeVernay wisely keeps her style reserved, while Kim Jennings and Elizabeth Keenan’s production design allows a sense of homes and community. Director of photography Bradford Young lenses much the film with a nostalgic golden light, similar to that found in Oyelowo’s other recent film, A Most Violent Year. But much like J. C. Chandor’s film, Selma is far from a staid historical curio. It is a vibrant and engaging political drama, which demonstrates the nous and understanding of King and his fellow planners and highlights how people working together, wisely and pragmatically, can affect genuine change. Oyelowo is superb as King, a man who wishes to make the world better because he cares for his fellow humans, and cares enough to rise above quick solutions or simplistic moralising. Other performances are also very fine, especially Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, long suffering but still loyal supporter of her husband’s endeavours. And what endeavours, as while Selma focuses on the strategies of political activism, it also provides stirring and inspiring sequences, allowing catharsis from the tension of its earlier scenes. It is a truly political film, both in terms of its subject matter and the manner in which this subject is presented, and all the more engaging and entertaining for it.
The question of what is human is a continuous one in science fiction. This philosophical topic has been explored and discussed in such films as Blade Runner (1982), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Never Let Me Go (2010) as well as many others, including the stunning directorial debut of Alex Garland, Ex_Machina. A young coder in a major software company, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a staff lottery to spend a week with the company owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, he learns that Nathan wishes him to test an artificial intelligence that Nathan has built: a female-gendered machine named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb and Ava’s conversations along with Nathan’s observations cause Caleb and indeed the audience to question their own expectations about what constitutes consciousness, personhood and humanity.
Most of the film consists of this three-hander, which could run the risk of making the film overly dependent on dialogue. Garland, however, makes this potentially staid scenario beautifully cinematic, the uncanniness of the situation encapsulated in Mark Digby’s production design that gives the film locations that feel both inhabited and alienating, as multiple reflections and surfaces that are partially transparent force the viewer to look harder at what may be more than it appears. Rob Hardy’s cinematography also conveys an eerie sense that what Caleb encounters is slightly off, as the play of light on “people” and their surroundings obscures as much as it reveals. This is also true of the characters, who steadily reveal more of themselves in a series of genuinely surprising and disturbing interchanges. Much of Ex_Machina is quiet but it is rarely silent, the ambient hum of technology, especially the inner workings of Ava, permeating the fabric of the film much as it penetrates the very beings of Caleb and Nathan. All three performers are mesmerising, as is a mute performance by Sonoya Mizuno as Koyoko, Nathan’s servant. Vikander especially conveys Ava’s curious interest in humanity, herself and the relations between them with a spellbinding appeal, making Caleb’s actions understandable. But just when you think you have the film figured out, it turns in an expected direction than can leave you re-evaluating what may have just happened and, indeed, what you expect to happen. In doing so, Ex_Machina performs philosophy, as the best science fiction does, illuminating our own expectations and encouraging us to question them.
I recently had the pleasure of watching two of this year’s awards contenders in quick succession. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash unfurled before my eyes in the same cinema, the same auditorium and the same seat over the course of a single day. It was rather tiring but very rewarding, although I wish the screenings had been the other way around. Foxcatcher was hugely engaging and rewarding, whereas Whiplash left me wanting more and wondering what all the fuss is about.
The two films have much in common. Both are up for multiple awards, and Whiplash’s J. K. Simmons has already won the Golden Globe, Screen Actors’ Guild award and BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor. Both feature highly skilled protagonists who seek to be the best at what they do: Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in Foxcatcher is already an Olympic gold medal wrestler and wishes to repeat this accomplishment; Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) in Whiplash wants to be one of the greatest drummers in the world. Both films feature tough trainers for these would-be superstars: John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell) in Foxcatcher and Terry Fletcher (Simmons) in Whiplash, and both these trainers have questionable behaviour. Both films also feature more sympathetic mentor figures: Mark’s older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in Foxcatcher and Andrew’s father Jim (Paul Reiser) in Whiplash, both of whom are more concerned about the well-being of their respective relatives than the professional success.
Fundamentally, both films are about the struggle over a soul, and it is here that Foxcatcher excels and Whiplash founders. Foxcatcher’s dour cinematography and measured direction, combined with the disturbing events and compressed performances of Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo, express the torment and confusion of its characters. Whiplash has slick editing and gives a striking presentation of obsession, but ultimately that is all it provides, a presentation. Foxcatcher expresses, Whiplash presents, and this difference means that the former has a creeping sense of menace and discomfort while the latter beats its drums in a flashy (not to mention bloody) but ultimately hollow display.
The most frustrating thing about Whiplash is that it does not appear to know what it is about. What is its attitude towards its protagonist’s obsession? I have no problem with ambiguity, but in order for that to work it must be presented as ambiguity rather than indecisiveness. Whiplash presents Andrew as so obsessed with drumming that he endures Fletcher’s relentless harrying and spurns the people around him, but the film neglects to make any statement about this. Is Andrew ultimately valorised or damned for his obsession? The film does not decide but not in such a way as to leave it open for the viewer, because Andrew’s arc is simultaneously too extreme and too triumphant, while Fletcher’s methods are so harsh as to be both a teacher-devoted-to-greatness and a vindictive bully. The film does not convince as an exercise in ambiguity because its focus is too narrow – the consequences of the characters’ actions are no more than incidental, especially in the perfunctory treatment of Andrew’s momentary girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist). In trying to have its cake and eat it, Whiplash fails to do both.
Foxcatcher, on the other hand, powerfully expresses the dangers of having and pursuing everything. John Du Pont is one of the wealthiest men in America and also one of the loneliest, and sees his wrestling team as a way of obtaining the companionship he has always been denied. Yet so blunted is his personality that when he fails to obtain what he expects the results are damaging for himself and those around him. Dave is well-adjusted and balances his status as an Olympic champion with his role as a husband, father and brother. Mark, however, is a tragic figure wrestling (pun intended) with a sense of inadequacy and irrelevance, chasing the dream that Du Pont offers him regardless of the cost. Foxcatcher brings the viewer into intimate contact with these three men, allowing us to appreciate Du Pont’s skewed view of the world and Mark’s steady descent into loss and confusion. It is a grim and compelling vision of obsession, thanks largely to the sense of oppression that permeates the fabric of the film. As for Whiplash, not quite my tempo.