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Aquaman

Aquaman

In one of the stupidest moments in movie history, Jaws: The Revenge features a shark that roars. Aquaman may remind viewers of this epic piece of idiocy, as it features a range of sea creatures, including sharks, giant seahorses and an apparent Kronosaurus, that growl and snarl. The toothsome recollection is just one of many reminders in a film that is not only so oceanically stupid that it collapses like tissue paper in the tide the second you think about it, but so overtly derivative it feels like a deliberate pastiche. Narrative and visual tropes from the likes of Thor, Batman Begins, Gladiator, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Panther, Clash of the Titans and more compete for space within a world of wet sand that disintegrates under its own tide. The visual effects teams create bright and bombastic digital environments, but they fail to create a sense of wonder. As the titular hero Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) experiences an underwater kingdom, there seems little effort to make it strange or wonderful, which is a waste of the fine visuals. Yet despite these problems, director James Wan still manages to craft a decent superhero adventure. Adventures of this sort largely depend on the exploration, both narrative and visual, of super powers and heroic identity. When it comes to the action sequences, Wan shows stylistic flourish with some immersive long takes in which combatants spin, slash, shoot and swim at great speed. Central to these sequences are the powers of Arthur, who possesses super strength, speed, resilience – what self-respecting superhero doesn’t have these? – and the ability to breathe and talk underwater. A further power that proves crucial is the ability to communicate with sea creatures. An early scene in this origin story shows the young Arthur ridiculed for talking to fish, and a striking visual image captures the inhabitants of an aquarium assembling in a formation behind him. This conceit suggests that the greatest power is communication, a worthy addition to the pantheon of superpowers, and is one of two things that save the film from being a completely damp squib. The other is Momoa himself, a likable and engaging lead who delivers a performance of physical grace and witty personality. Arthur’s interplay with Mera (Amber Heard) is enjoyable, and while their globetrotting raises objections of ‘That was awfully quick’ and ‘How do they know how to do that?’, it also allows them to build a fun relationship. Thanks to its engagement with communication, and the charm of its leads, Aquaman manages to keep its head above water despite the currents of dumbness that threaten to engulf it.

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War, what is it good for? Movies!

Not long ago, I reviewed Fury (2014), which I thought was a very fine film that showed both the hideous damage of mechanised warfare as well as the camaraderie between soldiers. War is a continually interesting subject for filmmakers, indeed some of the first American films in the early 20th century depicted the Mexican-American War. War is often a subject of award films, because the portrayal of historical events like D-Day and the Holocaust, the American Civil War, the trenches of WWI etc., often leads to a type of reverential, “important” cinema that the Academy repeatedly rewards.

Lists of the “Greatest War Films” abound, so I thought I would call my personal top ten to attention. Some are obvious, others less so, but these are the war films that I have found particularly affecting, sometimes moving and always powerful. What actually counts as a war film is open to debate, as this can range from films like Fury that depict combat to films a long way from the front line, such as The Imitation Game (2014). For the purposes of this list, I have defined “war film” as “film that “depicts soldiers in combat”, as all of these films are interested in presenting the human experience of warfare. The technical and logistical challenges of presenting combat onscreen were met, in my view, with verve and vivacity in these films, each managing to convey the thrills and fear of the combat experience. That makes them my personal Top Ten War Films.

  1. The Thin Red Line (1998)

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Not only is this my favourite war film, but it is one of my top ten films of all time. Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ novel about the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942 is an enthralling meditation on war, peace, life, death, humanity, nature and everything in between. Rather than offering any definitive statements on these concepts, Malick fills his near-three hour movie with questions, sometimes delivered in dialogue and sometimes through multiple voiceovers from his extraordinary cast, including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, John Travolta, John C. Reilly and, in the key role of Private Witt, Jim Caviezel in his first high profile role. The constant voiceovers combined with the seemingly endless shots of grass, trees and water, juxtaposed with horrific sequences of flying bullets and exploding shells, may not be to everyone’s taste, but for me, The Thin Red Line remains a beautiful, mesmerising and deeply profound piece of work.

  1. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

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War may not seem the most obvious aspect of Michael Mann’s adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, as the film was marketed and is largely consumed as an epic romance. But this romance is epic precisely because of its war background, as wildly passionate relationship between Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Cora (Madeleine Stowe) occurs against the backdrop of the French-Indian War. Cora laments that “The whole world’s on fire”, and combat sequences as well as the cost of military action are evident throughout. The impact of war upon civilians is a key concern, as homesteads are attacked and women and children are victims as much as soldiers. Furthermore, the war between colonial powers adds to the decimation of Native Americans, the true victims of European colonisation of the Americas. While romance may be the central narrative of the film, The Last of the Mohicans remains a mournful lament for the passing of Native Americans, a passing hastened by the dehumanising effects of war.

  1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

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OK, this is an obvious one. Apocalypse Now is a film I first encountered on a university module about 20th century novels and their film adaptations. I can therefore testify that writing about Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now can make you morbidly depressed, which is good to know. Much about Apocalypse Now is extraordinary, not least its tortuous production history as detailed in Eleanor Coppola’s documentary, Hearts of Darkness. But as a film in its own right, Apocalypse Now serves as a mesmerising and compelling journey into humanity’s heart of darkness. The Vietnam War serves as context not only for the inhumanity of combat, but also the depravity of the mind in which truly lurks “the horror, the horror”.

  1. Green Zone (2010)

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A recent entry and a very fine one, as Paul Greengrass’ Baghdad-set thriller balances plot, action and politics superbly. The combination of Greengrass with star Matt Damon inevitably echoes the Jason Bourne franchise (a further collaboration was recently announced), but Green Zone is a more explicitly political piece of work, as well as being an intense thrill ride. The occupation of Iraq remains hugely controversial and Greengrass, along with screenwriter Brian Helgeland in his adaptation of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s memoir Life in the Emerald City, pull no punches in their exploration of US deceit in the justification for the invasion. Damon’s Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller is both a soldier committed to the army and an investigator committed to the truth, but the film really excels with its Iraqi characters, General Al Rawi (Iqal Naor) and Freddie (??). As representatives of both Saddam’s and post-Saddam Iraq, these characters are villain and victim, both of the previous regime and current US policy. With its detailed portrayal of a complex war, Green Zone succeeds as gripping action cinema and as an angry political statement.

  1. Henry V (1989)

Henry V

Kenneth Branagh’s debut as a film director has held a special place in my heart for many years. I studied Henry V at school and eventually directed a production at university, and Branagh’s cinematisation of the play was a major influence on me. To a contemporary audience, Henry V can be attacked for its propagandist message (intrinsic to its original production) and for a glorification of war. That has never been my understanding of the play and it is not Branagh’s either, as his adaptation conveys the horror of combat, the isolation and responsibility of those in power as well as a wide view of those affected by war. Much of this material is in Shakespeare’s text, but Branagh uses his cinematic scope to create striking visuals, especially the climactic Battle of Agincourt and the scenes preceding it, with enough mud to rival the finest portrayals of Flanders and the Somme.

  1. The Hurt Locker (2009)

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The most significant contribution of The Hurt Locker to cinema history is Kathryn Bigelow being the first woman to win the Oscar for Achievement in Directing, but that is no disparagement of the film itself. Whereas Green Zone is an active engagement with the politics of the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker is a largely depoliticised dramatization of contemporary warfare, creating an experience akin to that of an embedded journalist. The war-reporter experience of screenwriter Mark Boal is translated by Bigelow and DOP Barry Ackroyd into a harrowingly intimate approximation of the combat experience. Whatever one’s views on the Iraq War may be, it is hard to deny the white-knuckle tension of disarming explosive devices. The experience is shown in agonisingly intimate detail as Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner) risks his life on a regular basis, dismantling detonators and disassembling death-dealing devices. Yet the film also generates ambivalence through James’ enjoyment of his work. Whereas the standard attitude of war films is that war is hell, The Hurt Locker takes the interesting step of suggesting that it may not be. This element makes it a fascinating as well as thrilling viewing experience.

  1. Glory (1989)

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Another obvious one but a very fine example of hope and despair amid the horrors of war (cheerful, I know). Ed Zwick has fashioned a cinematic oeuvre of VERY IMPORTANT SUBJECTS, ranging from the epic corn of Legends of the Fall (1995) and the dissection of propaganda in Courage Under Fire (1996) to the didactic chin-stroking of Blood Diamond (2006) and the critique of US health care in Love and Other Drugs (2010). But with this Civil War drama he may have got the balance just right, as Glory spends more time focusing on its characters and the historical events they are involved in than pontificating about human rights. Serious topics are absolutely appropriate material for film in general and war films in particular, but they are best expressed as dramatic content rather than lectures. Glory features the visceral horror of 19th century war as men are blown apart and left with hideous injuries, as well as the institutionalised racism of the Union Army, which may be fighting to end slavery but still treats black people as lesser beings. Its ending is also one of the most… Well, that would be telling. Glory may be 25 years old, but if you haven’t seen it, go check it out.

  1. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood made a film in Japanese. Is this a publicity stunt? No, it’s very true. Eastwood’s two films about the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945 show the two sides of the conflict, but whereas Flags of Our Fathers is a tiresome dirge of flashback foolery and voiceover-drive, Letters from Iwo Jima is a subtle and melancholic tale of haunting combat experiences. The film focuses on three soldiers within the Japanese army fortifying Iwo Jima: General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, familiar to Western audiences after his roles in The Last Samurai, Batman Begins and Memoirs of a Geisha); Ito (Shidô Nakamura), a lieutenant who has spent some time in America; Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), who understands from an early stage that he and his comrades are way out of their depth. Through the experiences of these three men, as well as the others around them, the film provides some unusual perspectives. For a mainstream Hollywood film from one of the world’s most recognisable directors be almost entirely subtitled is extraordinary, and the strangeness helps to convey an alternative perspective. Seeing the American forces hit the island and feeling the impact of their attack places the viewer in the position of sympathising with who is normally the enemy. The different military strategy of the Japanese, largely ensconced in caves and burrows rather than bunkers and frequently with inferior technology, creates a palatable sense of fear and foreboding. This is reinforced with the knowledge that they will lose, lending a tragic air of futility to the narrative that is strengthened by Kuribayashi’s belief that his troops are fighting a hopeless battle. Eastwood and DOP Tom Stern also use a washed out visual palette, adding to the grimness of the spectacle and removing any sense of victory or even a noble death. Death in this battle is as futile as any other military engagement, but rarely has this futility been expressed with such powerful melancholia.

  1. Platoon (1986)

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Oliver Stone has made no secret about Platoon being inspired by his own experiences in the Vietnam War, the film portraying combat both against the Viet-Cong and within a US platoon. The visceral horror of mechanised combat is on display as well as the inhumanity of soldiers towards the enemy and to each other. It can be argued that the impact of the conflict is reduced solely to the experience of an individual soldier, Chris (Charlie Sheen) going through the tagline’s claim: the first casualty of war is innocence. But Platoon is among the finest of (American) Vietnam War films in that it convincingly portrays the senselessness of the conflict. War ultimately serves a political agenda, and while the politics of the Vietnam War seem clear today – it was to stem the tide of communism – Platoon presents the irrelevance of such a concept to a soldier on the ground. All Chris encounters is pain, death, violence and misery, the tool as well as the victim of US foreign policy. Less psychological than Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket or The Deer Hunter, Platoon remains a seminal film in depicting the physical horrors of war in the jungle.

  1. Enemy at the Gates (2001)

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I know, most of my choices are American, but here’s one a European production that delivers a very interesting view of the war experience. Set during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II, Enemy at the Gates concentrates on the interpersonal battle between peasant Russian sniper Vassili (Jude Law) and aristocratic German sniper Major Konig (Ed Harris). Soviet political officer Commisar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) recognises the skill of Vassili and turns him into a hero for the demoralised troops. Fellow Russian soldier Tanya (Rachel Weisz) becomes involved with both Vassili and Danilov, and these intimate dramas are played out against the backdrop of urban warfare that includes precise sniper shots as well as major battles. What is especially effective about this film is the tension of duelling snipers. Victory and life are not determined here by superior numbers or firepower, but by skill and patience, not to mention courage. Courage in this case, however, is presented in its true form – dealing with fear and carrying on despite being, at times, terrified. There are some nail-biting set pieces on both a large and intimate scale, and the film does not shy away from the implacable cruelty of combat nor the tensions within the political ideologies followed by the central characters. Enemy at the Gates is a much underrated war film that is worthy of greater attention.

Honourable mention – Black Hawk Down (2001)

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This is another tale of urban warfare, but a more nihilistic and downright horrifying film than Enemy at the Gates or indeed Full Metal Jacket. Black Hawk Down shows the appalling damage and indifference of mechanised warfare (which has been something of a pattern on this list). Intimacy is again an important feature, as director Ridley Scott and DOP Sławomir Idziak bring the viewer from the eponymous helicopter down to street level, amid the ghastly (and Oscar-winning) noise and visually disorientating barrage of enemy fire. Despite the big name cast, including Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor and Eric Bana, the soldiers are largely anonymous, blurring together amidst the carnage. This is an interesting depiction of military combat because, on the one hand, it reduces everyone to cannon fodder. On the other hand, it places the viewer in that position as well, giving the viewer an appreciation of this combat experience. This anonymising effect creates the nihilism of the film. Who you are means nothing in combat, echoing a sentiment expressed in the film that tops my list: “It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you’re at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna get it.” Black Hawk Down, much like the other films I have discussed, emphasises this point, showing no glory in war and the indifference with which life can be extinguished.

Top Ten Directors – Part Three

Nolan

Following my review of Interstellar, I thought it time to discuss another of my top ten directors. Christopher Nolan has had an impressive ascension through the hallowed halls of Hollywood, attaining a position similar to those of previous directors I have written on, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. All of these filmmakers are able to make distinctive, personal films within the institution of Hollywood, films that bear their unmistakable stamp.

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Nolan’s progress has been remarkable – in fifteen years and with only nine films to his credit, he is now a marketable brand. This is evident in the publicity campaign for Interstellar: posters and trailers emphasise that the film is FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, relying upon the director’s name rather than that of the stars as is more common practice. This is surprising considering the bankability of the principal actors of Interstellar – while their names appear on posters, they are not mentioned in trailers and there is no mention that these are Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey, Academy Award Winner Anne Hathaway, Academy Award Nominee Jessica Chastain and Academy Award Winner Michael Caine. Publicity for other recent films featuring these actors has emphasised them, but in the case of Interstellar, the director is used as the major selling point.

This emphasis upon Nolan has grown over his career – publicity for Insomnia mentions that the film is from THE ACCLAIMED BRITISH DIRECTOR OF MEMENTO. Similarly, publicity for The Prestige describes the film as being FROM THE DIRECTOR OF BATMAN BEGINS AND MEMENTO.

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Both these films, however, were largely sold on their stars, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are simply promoted as Batman films. Following the success of The Dark Knight and Inception, however, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar declare the director; these films are FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN. What then, does this publicity refer to?

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The Nolan brand is one of major releases of ever-increasing size, and with particular emphasis upon complexity – in short, brainy blockbusters. If the Spielberg brand is one of sentimentality then Nolan’s is intellectual – here is the filmmaker who makes you feel intelligent (if you can make head or tail of his films). While this is unfair to Spielberg, whose films are often as complex as they are sentimental, Nolan’s films consistently display interests in time and identity, and utilise elaborate editing patterns that confuse and delight in equal measure. This has led some reviewers to describe the director as chilly and unemotional, more interested in calculation than feeling. This seems strange when considered in light of the consistent interest in loss and grief that runs through Nolan’s oeuvre. Consider the grief that drives Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and perverts Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, as well as Cobb’s haunting guilt in Inception and the tragic self-perpetuation of Memento, not to mention the parent-child relationship that runs through Interstellar. Nolan’s films are driven by the emotional torment of their protagonists, and the various narrative and stylistic tricks all serve this central conceit, taking the viewer into the emotional state of the characters through a dazzling mastery of the cinematic medium.

Memento-Poster

For all the scale and grandeur of Nolan’s blockbusters since Batman Begins, it is Memento that I pick both as my favourite Nolan film and the best introduction to his oeuvre. This is not to say that Nolan has lost his way or his interests and concerns have been swamped by bloated budgets and studio demands, but Memento’s deceptive complexity rewards repeat viewings and endless discussion (having taught this film several times on a film-philosophy course, I have repeatedly found this to be the case). Memento’s chronological rearrangements express the subjectivity of memory and knowledge, and the lack of certainty over what is presented at face value, while the presence of tattoos highlights the (unreliable) use of embodiment to fix oneself in the world. The ethics of revenge and personal goals are questioned and answered, and those answers are then questioned afresh. And the emotional core mentioned above provides the film with a deeply tragic dimension that leaves the viewer unsettled, both sympathetic and uncomfortable towards the protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce). This ambivalence has continued throughout Nolan’s work, and while Memento may not be the most ambitious work in his oeuvre, it remains an enthralling and compelling introduction to the work of this distinctive and singular director.

Memento (2000)

eXpanding and Continuing Part Two: X-Men: Days of Future Past

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X-Men: Days of Future Past pulls off the remarkable feat of being sequel, prequel and reboot all at once. It continues plotlines of X-Men: First Class, while also referring to the events of X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine. But it also performs a remarkable piece of internal resetting, making an alternative title X-Men: Restoration. Whereas other franchises have delivered reboots that simply play out as though earlier incarnations never happened (see Batman Begins, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel), X-Men: DOFP uses its time travel conceit to have its cake and eat it, featuring elements that, in any other narrative, would never work. In doing so, it echoes Star Trek (2009), which also created an alternative timeline to run parallel, rather than separately, from that established in earlier instalments.

Much of the pleasure of X-Men: Days of Future Past comes from its knowing engagement with the franchise’s established history. Most obviously, we see new and old versions of familiar characters, especially Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier as well as Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. The differences between the young and old versions of Xavier are highlighted in a sequence that sees McAvoy and Stewart play against each other, McAvoy a burned-out drug addict who has given up, Stewart a grizzled war veteran who, despite everything he has seen, still has hope and urges his younger self to rediscover his hope. Hope is perhaps the central conceit of all superhero movies, and is especially important given the bleak future that occupies the film’s early scenes (reminiscent of Terminator 2: Judgment Day), including a genuinely shocking battle sequence between Sentinels and mutants. In a previous post, I criticised The Wolverine for the low stakes of its drama, and that problem is easily avoided in X-Men: DOFP as Stewart’s ominous voiceover informs us that mutants cannot win this war. On an intimate level, we see familiar characters cut down mercilessly, demonstrating that everyone is at risk in this grim vision of the future.

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At times, the grim seriousness of the future sequences does not gel with the humour of the 1973 portion of the narrative, which leaves the film feeling rather flimsy overall. However, the intertextual/intra-franchise references are a lot of fun and well-judged as the film never tips too far into wink-nudge territory. Furthermore, director Bryan Singer shows the same flair for visualising superpowers on screen that made his earlier X-Men films such a delight. A much celebrated scene features Quicksilver (Evan Peters) literally moving faster than a speeding bullet as he darts around a shootout scene, while Magneto’s manipulation of metal as well as Xavier’s telepathy continue to provide visually arresting scenes, as do the abilities of Blink in the future. Overall, the film is like the X-Men themselves – a motley assemblage of disparate elements that do not always harmonise, but an assemblage that is nonetheless engaging and compelling.

Unity

Man of Steel – SPOILER WARNING

MOSI recently posted on my top five of the year so far, and placed Man of Steel at number 4. This puts it ahead of Oblivion, After Earth, Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness as the finest blockbuster I’ve seen in 2013, a film I would describe as swell, and it is a film that swells. This might be a controversial choice, as Man of Steel has been met with very mixed reviews, some disappointed over its treatment of beloved comic book elements (which always happens with adaptations), others complaining that it is too dour and not enough fun, and the standard criticism of blockbusters that plot and character get left behind in the midst of all the destruction and special effects.

For me though, Man of Steel provided everything I want from a blockbuster and a superhero movie. There are others later this year, including The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World, but the standard set by Man of Steel (as well as Iron Man Three) is pretty high. I have never been as big a fan of Superman as I am of Batman and Spider-Man, because Superman can be too powerful to be relatable – if he is invulnerable, there is no drama. Man of Steel avoids this pitfall of the character, making Kal vulnerable, relatable and human. At the same time, director Zack Snyder delivers enthralling and enveloping action sequences that allow the viewer to experience the thrills and pains of super powers, which is a key ingredient in the superhero genre.

Movie of Swells

The trope of swelling recurs throughout Man of Steel, apparent from the very beginning as Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) gives birth, her screaming and panting swelling along with the music. As we subsequently learn, Kal is the first Kyptonian to have been born this way in generations, so his very existence is a swelling of resistance. Rebellion swells across the opening sequence on Krypton, as Jor El (Russell Crowe) faces the senior council and urges evacuation as the planet itself swells with tectonic forces. The swelling menace erupts as General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, and the sequence culminates with the explosion of Krypton.

Swelling continues as the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) travels north in search of answers, and his memories demonstrate his swelling confusion and inner turmoil. Man of Steel’s flashbacks echo Batman Begins, with the young adult developing his hero persona through current events, like saving men aboard a burning oil rig, and those from his childhood, such as lifting a school bus out of a river. Finally, when Clark reaches a crashed Kryptonian scoutship and learns the truth of who he is, the swelling of his potential continues through a montage, once again reminiscent of writer/producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The suit that Kal El will wear, the history of Krypton, the philosophy that Jor delivers to him, are all intercut with Kal striding out of the ship, cape billowing behind him, until he stands in the sun and crouches, ready to take flight. His first flight comes one hour into the film (just like “I’m Batman!”), which has been swelling towards this point. When I saw Kal ascend, less like a speeding bullet and more reminiscent of a bolt of light, the hairs rose on my arms as I felt myself vicariously hurtling up with him. The greatest moments in movies are often those that transport us, and for that moment, I felt myself transported with him.

SoarNot that the first flight goes too well, as Kal crashes into a mountain and takes some time getting used to his abilities. This is one of Man of Steel’s great strengths, showing the confusing effect of superpowers as well as their glory. Superpowers are often presented as exhilarating, such as Peter Parker’s discovery of his ability to climb walls and jump great distances in both Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man. Powers can also be presented as dangerous, as in the emergence of Jimmy Logan’s bone claws in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Rogue’s ability to suck energy in X-Men, or the first emergence of the Hulk in both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. But these are presented as dangerous to the viewer, in the position of a bystander. In Man of Steel the frightening element of superpowers is presented from the perspective of the super being himself. An impressive instance of this appears in an early flashback, as Clark becomes disorientated and scared at school because he can see and hear too much. The scene begins with extreme close-ups of pencils, the edges of desks and other classroom clutter, culminating in his teacher and classmates appearing as moving skeletons. This visual and aural cacophony overwhelms the viewer much as it does Clark, who hides in a closet until his mother Martha (Diane Lane) can talk him out, soothing him with the recommendation to make the frighteningly large world smaller. He may have super powers, but they are no protection against fear.

Powers

Man of Steel works for me because it conveys consistently and convincingly the experience of super powers. As Kal grows in confidence, so do we follow his progress. Subsequent scenes of flight are both beautiful and compelling – the tagline for the original Superman: The Movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Man of Steel, oddly, has no tagline, but it could easily be “You’ll believe a man can fly, and you with him”. Not only fly, but fight, as the final act, when Kal battles the forces of Zod, yanks the viewer right into the action. This sequence has been a major target for criticism, described as nothing but mindless action in the vein of Transformers, rendered in such a way that you cannot see what is going on, and with insufficient attention paid to the inevitable death toll of such extensive destruction.

I did not have these problems, as not only could I see everything that was going on, I also felt it, the kinetic force of Snyder’s camera, not to mention the cacophonic soundtrack, had me sharing every swoop, collision and explosion. As mentioned above, a key ingredient for me in a successful superhero film is the cinematic expression of superpowers, and Man of Steel delivers both on the intimate scale in the flashbacks, and the epic grandeur of the almighty Kryptonian smackdown. In addition, the stakes of this climactic battle are abundantly clear, as Zod’s mission is to preserve the Kryptonian race, to the extent of terra-forming Earth into a new Krypton. The impact of this mission is illustrated in a dream Kal shares with Zod, in which Earth is re-shaped and Kal sinks into a pile of skulls, this grim horror serving as perfect motivation for the climax.

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Man of Steel is not without problems. Shaky cam in the opening sequence is an unfortunate distraction because Krypton is a glorious creation that cannot be fully enjoyed. Also, while the climax is spectacular, it takes too long to get going, initial skirmishes between Kal and Zod’s forces proving to be false starts that become tiresome as they are clearly preludes. That said, these skirmishes do continue the film’s interest in power as disorientating, as Zod and his troops also have to adjust to seeing through their own hands. The alien element of Man of Steel is well-handled, but the early scraps fail to add drama, although it is effective to see Kal getting his ass kicked by trained soldiers.

Once the final battle really kicks off though, it is as spectacular as anything I’ve seen in a cinema this year, rising above Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness to name a couple (although at the time of writing I am yet to see Pacific Rim). Kal’s desperate attempt to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams), his struggle to destroy the world engine and his eventual return of the Kryptonian ship to the Phantom Zone are all enveloping action sequences, the slightly grainy film quality and detail of the production design and effects creating an absorbing and enthralling cinematic experience.

Best of all is the final clash between Kal and Zod, as Zod fully embraces the power that Earth’s sun imbues him with, mocking Kal with his warrior background while ‘Superman’ was raised on a farm. A true clash of the titans, Kal and Zod’s titanic duel is literally out of this world, as the two hurl each other out of the atmosphere and collide with satellites (amusingly branded as Wayne Enterprises, perhaps foreshadowing a Justice League movie). But the culmination of their clash is a perfect encapsulation of inner and outer conflict, as Kal must kill Zod in order to save innocent bystanders. I had a debate over the importance of this killing, as it seems did the director, writer and producer. For Superman to kill was shocking, as I had never seen that before. Apparently there are comic book stories in which he has killed, but these are outside the accepted canon. Either way, that moment in Man of Steel was superb because it was genuinely shocking. I’ve barely read a Superman comic book, but the film and TV versions I have seen emphasise Superman’s moral compass and restraint. Therefore, seeing him kill someone was a huge surprise and clearly a massive emotional blow, demonstrated by his scream of anguish and collapse into Lois’ arms. We now know how far Kal-El can go, and to have him traumatised makes him all the more interesting.

Anguish

Trauma

It is probably no coincidence that the superhero genre has been so embraced in the aftermath of 9/11, and much like Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and The Avengers, the shadow of the infamous terrorist attacks hang over Man of Steel. The devastation of Metropolis is reminiscent of images of New York from 9/11, as buildings collapse and debris falls from the sky. Some have criticised the sanitisation of this destruction – surely thousands of people must have been killed – and while this is valid I think the criticism misses the point. In a crucial moment, Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller) is trapped under debris, and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly) struggle to free her. They are themselves in danger, and indeed they would all have died had Kal not arrived in the nick of time, but the moments of Perry and Steve doing what they can to try and free Jenny is a wonderful illustration of ordinary heroism. Perhaps they have been inspired by Kal’s example, willing to surrender himself to Zod’s forces, or they were already brave and selfless, but whatever their motivation, it is a powerful moment, mixing the terror of the attack with a positive vision of humanity. It is post-9/11 romantic wish-fulfilment, to have a superman come to the rescue, and I find it satisfying because of the recognition and catharsis stimulated by this fulfilment.

I recently had a long debate over what superheroes are ‘doing’, beyond blowing stuff up and acquiring/achieving. I found the argument rather odd, because saving the world, in style, blowing stuff up and taking us along for the ride seems exactly what superheroes are there for. My fellow debater was being unfairly judgemental, I thought, as they seemed to have a sense that superheroes should do something more, but it was unclear exactly what that more would be. In the case of Man of Steel, I think the film is doing exactly what Jor El tells his son – that he will give the people of Earth something to aspire to. Superpowers are not necessarily a blessing, and they are not a prerequisite for doing good and helping others. The young Clark may have the strength to lift buses out of rivers, but one of the boys Clark saves offers his hand to help Clark up when bullies have knocked him down, but he has not struck back at them. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) sacrifices his own life to save others, including telling Clark not to use his powers to save him. Perry and Steve must use their own strength and resourcefulness to try and save Jenny, and Lois proves her mettle in Zod’s ship with timely advice from Jor. Repeatedly in Man of Steel, heroism is shown to be a choice, not a destiny, and a choice that we can all make. Perhaps, in time, we can all join Kal El in the sun.

Sun

Freshness and Familiarity Part Two – Repackaging Star Trek

SPOILER WARNING

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Star Trek Into Darkness (J. J. Abrams, 2013) constitutes a variation in the practice of re-launching previous texts and franchises. Whereas Star Trek (Abrams, 2009) was a re-launch of the Star Trek franchise as a whole, Star Trek Into Darkness combines features of both the sequel and the remake (Semake? Requel?), that repackages elements from previous Trek instalments into a new form that is influenced by its 21st century production context. STID’s narrative follows on from Star Trek, developing the relationships between Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana) etc., and also expands the universe established in Star Trek, especially the aftermath of the attacks of Captain Nero (Eric Bana) and the destruction of Vulcan, as well as the Federation’s uneasy relationship with the Klingon Empire. But STID also remakes Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982), updating it with 21st century sensibilities and re-interpreting the mythos around Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). This repackaging creates particular tensions within the film text, leading to frustrations for viewers and interesting areas for consideration.

Henry Jenkins and Billy Proctor give in-depth (and very funny) critiques of the film, and Rob Bricken writes highly inventive criticisms of STID’s relationship with Star Trek in general and with TWOK (two can play that game) in particular. These writers demonstrate both dissatisfaction with the film on its own terms, and its perceived besmirching of a treasured text. I consider myself a dedicated Trekker, but TWOK never seemed that great to me, which might explain why I was less bothered with the earlier film being referenced in STID. Let us not forget that referencing or remaking or even contradicting an earlier text need not impinge upon the integrity of the original or one’s enjoyment of it. TWOK stands on its own whether you consider STID or not, much like the originals of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, Friday the 13th, Psycho, Ocean’s Eleven, Get Carter, Alfie, The Italian Job, Ringu and other films that have been remade (there are a lot). Even if the remake is terrible, it need not tarnish your enjoyment of the original. I have never understood the obsession with the original, that which must not be distorted or besmirched because it constitutes some form of sacrilege. The responses to STID have been thankfully moderate, at least in comparison to Star Wars fans who protest that their childhood was somehow raped by Yoda’s pinball act in Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002). They’re just films, people.

Sorry, got side-tracked there. There is much to criticise in STID. The shot of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) in her underwear is gratuitous and annoying (no, I will NOT stick a picture of it on here). Many of the plot conveniences and gaps in logic are nonsensical, such as the Enterprise being hidden underwater to avoid being seen by the local inhabitants. Would it not have been better hidden in planetary orbit? In addition, the naivety of Starfleet in relation to “John Harrison” is rather striking. Harrison is perfectly placed to take advantage of Starfleet protocol in order to attack its command elite, yet no one thinks of this vulnerability until Kirk does just at the most dramatic moment in order to demonstrate that he is ahead of the curve. Later, the Enterprise as well as the dreadnought vessel Vengeance are heavily damaged and fall into Earth’s atmosphere, despite not having actually been in orbit. I don’t expect scientific accuracy, but would it have killed them to have the ships actually fighting in orbit?

Falling

The falling-out-of-orbit leads to the biggest absurdity of the whole film, which is that the correct process for warp core realignment is well-placed kicks. That’s right, an enormously powerful, dangerous, already damaged and unstable nuclear reactor is put back into working order with repeated, well-placed kicks. Maybe they should have tried that at Chernobyl. While Spock had to perform a similar task in TWOK, he had to rearrange some handheld objects in a delicate operation. (Actually, both instances of radiation contradict general Star Trek science – the warp core is run by matter-antimatter infusion, not nuclear power, so there should be no radiation anyway. It can be unstable, breach and cause a massive explosion, as seen in Star Trek: Generations [David Carson, 1994], but radiation is a pure plot convenience to allow agonising sacrifice.) STID’s intercutting between Kirk kicking the core and the ship spiralling through the clouds is very dramatic, but if you stop to think about it, it’s actually very silly.

The warp core sequence demonstrates both the strength and weakness of Abrams’ directorial approach. His aesthetic is highly dynamic, with extensive use of mobile, handheld camera with a slight wobble, and the ubiquitous lens flare that he is seemingly in love with. The screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof may have holes you could fly the Enterprise through, but with the plot whipping by at warp speed it is easy to miss these gaps in logic. But is this not rather patronising on the part of the filmmakers? The implication is “Don’t worry about the plot, kids, just look at the shiny-shiny while we shoot through space and everything is so coooooooool!” STID is certainly entertaining, but the care and precision of Gene Roddenberry and especially Ronald D. Moore, Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr is missing. This is a difference between television and film – the contained narrative of a movie frequently does not have the space to develop fictional worlds and their infrastructure. When Star Trek movies have inconsistencies, like everyone in Generations forgetting that the warp core could be ejected, they are only apparent to dedicated Trekkers. With Abrams’ films, I don’t start questioning the gaps in logic until afterwards, because I am enjoying the film too much to care. When I do think about it, it is rather patronising, but not so much that it makes me die a little inside. The previous Star Trek movies have a more coherent internal logic, but they are a rather more sedate.

star-trek-the-motion-picture

Not that they lack in action (despite the derogatory term, Star Trek: The [Slow] Motion Picture [Robert Wise, 1979]). Several of the earlier films feature spectacular space battles, including The Undiscovered Country (Nicholas Meyer, 1992), First Contact (Jonathan Frakes, 1996), Nemesis (Stuart Baird, 2002) and The Wrath of Khan, just one of several elements of that earlier film that are repackaged in this latest offering. In TWOK, the badly damaged Enterprise battles another Starfleet vessel, the Reliant, commandeered by Khan; in STID, the badly damaged Enterprise battles another Starfleet vessel, the Vengeance, first under the command of Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) and then commandeered by Khan (notice a pattern emerging?). Cunning and guile are the key weapons used to achieve victory in both cases, although STID features more lens flare.

Enterprise VS Reliant Enterprise VS Vengeance

A strength of Abrams’ warp speed approach to visual storytelling, however, is that it does allow for moments of world-building that previous Star Trek films neglected, as the vast majority of action in earlier films is confined to the Enterprise. First Contact and The Voyage Home (Leonard Nimoy, 1986) largely take place on Earth, but these are both time travel narratives and do not feature the infrastructure of Starfleet or Earth in the 23rd or 24th centuries. Abrams’ version spends more time on Earth, indeed in interviews Abrams mentioned that after making Star Trek, he wanted to spend time in the cities. Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness depict Earth in the 23rd century, the utopia of Roddenberry’s vision as there is no indication of poverty, class or even capitalism (although commerce is neatly avoided). But there is still trouble in paradise, as some diseases cannot be cured except by Khan’s super-blood, and men like Admiral Marcus still possess defensive mentality.

This mentality manifests as the covert organisation Section 31, an entity that appeared in several episodes of Deep Space Nine. This unsavoury agency of the Federation was responsible for very questionable activities during the Dominion War story arc of DS9, in which the agency was described as having existed since the birth of the Federation (it also features in a number of Star Trek novels). Its presence in STID is a demonstration of a less-than-perfect future, and a further element in the repackaging of Star Trek. Another element is Khan’s age of over 300 which would place his birth in the late 20th century. In his original incarnation, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) led a revolt against humanity in the 1990s, the revolutionaries sentenced to cryogenic exile in deep space. I didn’t notice Eugenics Wars in the 1990s, so the mention of this piece of 1960s future history is anachronistic to the 21st century viewer. But its inclusion demonstrates fidelity to the original, the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey relationship between Star Trek á la Roddenberry and Star Trek á la Abrams. Proctor comments that Star Trek 2009 was not technically a reboot, since its narrative connects to that of the original Star Trek, rather than working as a completely independent narrative like Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005), Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006) or The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb, 2012). Khan’s history is a further demonstration that this narrative is not separate from previous Trek, and that STID’s repackaging is a hybrid of sequel and remake. Much as Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) told Kirk that he and Spock are destined to have a great friendship, it also seems that Kirk and Khan are destined to clash.

Khan_spits_his_last_breath  KHANNNN

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Casting Khan as a wronged terrorist, rather than a revenge-crazed despot, articulates STID in a post-9/11 framework. Admiral Marcus justifies his militarisation of Starfleet as a response to the terrorist attack of Nero – Earth needs to be prepared against future attacks and the looming threat of war with the Klingons. You might therefore expect Marcus to be a little more paranoid about the 20th century superman he has been blackmailing, but again, only in so far as it serves the plot. Marcus resorts to extreme measures after Khan’s attack, sending Kirk and the Enterprise off to kill Khan before arriving in the Vengeance to kill them as well, but maybe he should have kept Khan on a tighter leash to begin with. But as Hitchcock said, then there wouldn’t be a film.

Marcus and Khan’s relationship though does create a further dimension which TWOK lacked – making Khan sympathetic. Ricardo Montalban’s Khan is crazed for revenge – the tagline informs the viewer of what to expect: “At the end of the universe lies the beginning of vengeance” (the name of Marcus’ dreadnought may be a further inter-textual reference). But Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan has been coerced into developing new weapons and defence systems. Placing Khan under duress makes him more sympathetic and interesting; his main motivation is to protect his people and at one point he and Kirk form an alliance against their common enemy Marcus. This was one of the most satisfying elements of STID for me – take the original clash between Khan and Kirk and turn it around. It made Khan (perhaps ironically) more human, especially as the key to defeating him was his compassion for his own people. Some elements of TWOK were repackaged less successfully, such as the death of Kirk and Spock’s anguished roar:

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It may be emotionally powerful, but perhaps it is an inter-textual step too far.

The treatment of Khan encapsulates the repackaging of TWOK that STID performs. STID repackages the iconic moments of TWOK with a different emphasis. This emphasis comes from the film’s concern with terrorism and violence, the Darkness that is Trekked into. Adam Ericksen discusses this in a fascinating reading of the film as the antidote to terror, rather than the War on Terror (which is apparently over). Kirk is initially committed to finding Khan and avenging the death of Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), but contravenes Marcus’ direct order (Jim Kirk, insubordinate? Shocking!) and takes Khan into custody, after punching him ineffectually a few times (violence solves nothing). Spock is consumed by grief and rage over the death of Kirk and attempts to kill Khan, but crucially Khan must live so that Kirk can be resurrected (sparing us Star Trek: The Search for Kirk). Marcus’ journey was into darkness because he saw violence and militarism as the solution to threats like that of Nero and the anticipated war with the Klingons, and he exploited Khan in serve this end. Khan’s journey into darkness is motivated by a massive superiority complex and fuelled by anger and, initially, Kirk and Spock both seek retribution. But crucially, when both of them could kill Khan, they do not, because killing is never the answer. STID may journey into darkness, but there is light at the end of the torpedo tube.

Through its engagement with violence and retaliation, STID repackages the features of TWOK in relation to its 21st century context. Much of Star Trek’s ideology, such as the platitudes espoused by Captain Picard in First Contact, can seem naïve in an era of violent clashes all over the world. Earlier decades were not necessarily more peaceful, but we had not seen planes fly into buildings back then, a contemporary trauma echoed in STID when Khan pilots the Vengeance’s death plunge into San Francisco. Furthermore, we did not have hatemongering assailing us from every other website, even if it is satirical. STID demonstrates that even in today’s cynical and embittered times, there is still a place for Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future. Kirk and Spock both turn away from violent revenge, and Kirk’s speech at the end of the film emphasises the importance of and need to turn away from violence. For it is when we put aside violence, and encourage life instead of death, that we can truly go where no one has gone before.

Enterprise Abrams

EXTRA ENTRY: The Grey

The Grey

Originally I was going to have a top ten of the year, but then decided a top twelve was more fun because that way I could devise my own version of The Twelve Days of Christmas (and let’s not forget, the only reason for lists like this is pure enjoyment).  Early in 2012 I saw a film that I expected would be in my top ten of the year, and it nearly was.  Being strict, it was squeezed out, but when I expanded the list to twelve, it slipped back in.

This re-entry, as it were, is The Grey, Joe Carnahan’s surprisingly grim follow-up to The A-Team.  Carnahan’s debut, Narc, was an extremely gritty, nasty, visceral cop thriller, with stellar performances from Jason Patric and Ray Liotta.  Afterwards, Carnahan somewhat drifted with Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team, a fairly light action comedy.  In The Grey, Carnahan does much the same with the actual wilderness as he did with the urban jungle in Narc.  Both environments are presented as cold, bleak and uncaring, with small acts of compassion, loyalty and humanity the only bulwark against unmitigated savagery.  Savagery in The Grey takes many forms, from the misery that haunts the protagonist Ottway (Liam Neeson), to the bleak white wilderness in which the oil rig workers operate, and the world beyond which seems to have sentenced them to this life.  A plane crash into the tundra demonstrates nature’s indifference towards the lives of the men killed or marooned, which then manifests physically as the relentless wolves that pursue them.

Animals in films rarely represent animals themselves.  The shark in Jaws represents the consuming maw of the sea; bats in Batman Begins represent the central character’s fear; the lions in The Ghost and the Darkness represent the untamed wilderness of Africa; even the horses in Seabiscuit and War Horse represent hope and courage in the face of adversity, the Great Depression in the former and World War I in the latter.  Films which present savage beasts preying on humans do provoke criticism, accusations of misrepresentation and even presenting negative views of animals which leads to their persecution.  This criticism gives films more credit than they are due – wolves, lions, sharks and bats were being exterminated long before they appeared in movies.  I actually avoided watching Jaws for a long time because I thought it had a damaging effect upon people’s attitudes towards sharks, then realised that me seeing a film or not was completely irrelevant to shark conservation.  Besides, the demand for shark fin soup is a far greater danger to these creatures.

There are very few accounts of wolves attacking human beings, but the wolves in The Grey are not there to serve as accurate portrayals of wolves.  If you want that, there are plenty of nature documentaries.  Anybody who believes cinematic representation to be accurate should reconsider that position.  Rather, these wolves serve as the main manifestation of nature’s savagery.  The men struggle to escape but the wolves are relentless, active pursuers by day and shadowy forms beyond the firelight at night.  Their constant presence, either visibly or audibly, maintains a malevolence that constantly threatens the men.  Nor are they the only threat, as sheer drops, jagged tree branches and raging torrents also endanger the men, as well as exhaustion, starvation and the elements themselves.  In possibly the film’s most intense scene, the men have almost reached the tree line and comparative safety, as the wolves pursue them through a blizzard.  One of the party is caught and Ottway turns back to help him.  Ottway’s progress is hampered by deep snow, presented in a long take shot over Ottway’s shoulder, which tilts down as he sinks into the snow, then up as he rises to see his friend being savaged, tilts down again as he sinks on his next step.  The duration of the shot expresses Ottway’s agonisingly slow progress, communicating his helplessness to the viewer and allowing us to share in the horror of simply being too far away and too slow moving to help.

This scene, in which the cinematography’s close association with the protagonist expresses his physical and emotional distress, encapsulates the film as a whole.  It is a bleak, relentless tale of one’s insignificance within nature, and the attitude taken towards one’s confrontation with death.  I have published on existentialism in film, and The Grey is an excellent dramatization of this philosophy.  Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you”.  The Grey portrays both directions of the abyssall gaze, as Ottway begins the film, in his own words, “at the end of the world”.  Although the peril he encounters gives him reason to live, he must work hard to maintain his resolve in the face of extraordinary adversity.  One of the other men in his party chooses to accept death, regarding the majestic beauty of the northern wilderness as a fitting place to die, when the best case alternative is returning to an oil rig.  The film performs a fine job of portraying contrasting existential attitudes: both the will to live, and the will to die.  It is this philosophical dimension that raises The Grey above being a simple survival tale, as it explores in intriguing depth the existential questions of survival.