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Rupert Sanders’ remake of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal anime, itself an adaptation of Shirow Madamune’s manga, plays like Blade Runner crossed with The Fifth Element on steroids. Set in a future where cybernetic ‘enhancements’ are commonplace, the eye-scorching Ghost in the Shell focuses on Major (Scarlett Johansson), a special agent of Section 9 that tracks a mysterious cyber-terrorist known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt). Sanders’ film creates a visually arresting vision of the future, with huge buildings sharing the skyline of (presumably) Tokyo with giant holograms advertising the latest technology from the ubiquitous company Hanka. Shots capture the city in the background while the officers of Section 9 perform superhuman feats, the cumulative effect hinting at the uncanny nature of this world, like and unlike our own, while other startling images include Kuze connected to a dense mesh of cables that imply infinite connection. Unfortunately, the film lacks faith in these visuals, often resorting to telling rather than showing with an over-reliance on exposition and laboured storytelling. A more fluid directorial style might have helped, such as that of Luc Besson or the Wachowskis, or indeed the original anime. Further comparisons with the earlier film hurt this one also, as Johansson’s Major forgoes the cynicism of Atsuko Tanaka’s Motoko Kusanagi and the film as a whole lacks the nihilism of Madamune’s version. In the earlier film, cybernetic enhancement is a given and the questions posed look ahead to explore new understandings of life consciousness. This screenplay, by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, looks backward as Major attempts to piece together her past. Glitches in Major’s perception hint at this past in cumbersome ways, Sanders’ style often buffering the content rather than delivering a steady data stream of plot, theme, character and world-building. Slo-mo and lingering shots of bodies have their place, but here they emphasise artifice rather than express the fusion of biology and technology. While the film does raise many interesting ideas about memory and identity, especially in relation to the controversial ‘whitewashing‘, the end result is a case of too much shell, not enough ghost.
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.
No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.
The penultimate film in this countdown of my top five transportive sci-fi films has some similarities with a previous entry. Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner transports its viewer to a sci-fi environment on Earth with suggestions of the beyond. Unlike Close Encounters, however, Blade Runner is far from a hopeful dream of a journey that we can envy, but a dystopic nightmare of a grim world in which hope, equality and life have been largely devalued. At the same time, it is a hypnotic and mesmerising vision with a haunting, otherworldly beauty. That the presentation of something so bleak could be so beautiful is testament to Ridley Scott’s superb direction, Jordan Cronenweth’s gorgeous cinematography and Lawrence G. Paull’s exquisite production design, as well as Vangelis’ melancholic score. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles is the gloomy city of film noir turned up to 11, with enough rain for an Indian monsoon and enough filtered, neon light to accentuate the expressive mise-en-scene of sets, costume and performers. The combined effect of these cinematic features is to transport the viewer to this city of the damned, in what may be the most detailed and (chillingly) plausible dystopic landscape ever committed to film. Many sci-fi films predict the future. Blade Runner seems to get parts of it right.
Transcendence does what the best science fiction stories do – gives big ideas the big treatment. This is both the great strength and the great pitfall of the genre: if the dramatisation of these ideas is effective, extraordinary cinema can be created (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix). If it is ineffective, you can be left with little more than tedious, pseudo-philosophical, techno-babble (see The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions). Transcendence falls somewhere inbetween, as it engages with its grand ideas with conviction and creativity, director Wally Pfister showing a keen eye for the tiniest details, both of nature and technology. At times, the overall scale of the events is not made clear, while several of the characters are essentially cyphers, and these features can undermine the drama. Overall though, the film’s conviction wins out, as Transcendence pursues its questions about humanity, identity, mortality and the dangers of good intention to their logical and, at times, unsettling, conclusion.
The Hunger Games was a delight in 2012, merging elements of Winter’s Bone, Battle Royale, The Running Man, Blade Runner, Never Let Me Go and quite a few others to create a grim and compelling vision of the future. The only thing that bugged me about Gary Ross’ film was the excessive use of shaky cam, which distracted from the sense of oppression and fear intrinsic to the setting. Happily, the cinematography of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is, as one satisfied viewer put it, as steady as the bow of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), allowing greater appreciation of the wide vistas of the various districts, as well as the malevolent jungle of the arena in which the Quarter Quell Games take place. A stark colour palate conveys the sombre situation of District Twelve, where Katniss along with fellow victors Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) prepare for their victory tour. Meanwhile, Katniss must balance her growing feelings for Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) with the need to protect her family, especially as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) responds to the stirrings of rebellion.
In an early scene, Snow asks Katniss if she would like to be in a real war, indicating the wider ramifications of this instalment. We see more of Panem this time around, including the other districts and the oppression they suffer, as well as the decadence of the Capitol, where a far more garish mise-en-scene emphasises the excess and over-indulgence of the inhabitants who take purging agents to make themselves sick enabling them to eat more, while people in the districts are starving. This sociological dimension is one of the strongest elements of The Hunger Games franchise, as its dystopia is based upon class divisions held in place by an iron fist. As the seeds of rebellion begin, the ironically named Peacekeepers crack down on dissenters, whipping people in the streets and, at one point, threatening to shoot Katniss where she stands until Haymitch points out the negative publicity.
The media presence of the Hunger Games victors, and indeed the media as a tool in Panem, is for me the other key elements of the franchise, explored in greater detail on screen than on the page. I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games after seeing the first film, and am reading Catching Fire at the moment (I’m funny with books). Being a first person, present tense narrative, Collins’ prose never wavers from Katniss’ perspective, and while a lot of detail can be included in Katniss’ internal monologue, the films take a wider perspective and show events beyond her experience. In particular, scenes of the control room and interactions between Snow and his advisors, especially the new head game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman), demonstrate the mechanics and predictions of propaganda, such as Plutarch’s chilling line: ‘I agree that she should die but in the right way’ – i.e. on television. While The Hunger Games emphasises the malevolent ideology of having children fight to the death, Catching Fire demonstrates the power of the media to both the state and the populace, a power that is all too apparent in contemporary society.
Catching Fire, therefore, builds upon the premise of its predecessor, doing what all good sequels do – expand the world, give us what is familiar but also what is different. The legacy of the first film appears as trauma, as Katniss wakes from a nightmare and, when it is announced that the tributes for the 75th Hunger Games will be drawn from the pool of winners, makes a desperate, futile flee into the woods, the scene palpably expressing her panic and horror. To have been through hell and then be informed that you’ll be doing it all over again (she is, after all, the only living female victor in District 12) would be horrendous, and the film conveys the fear and dread of such an ultimatum, with the added understanding that this is an act of political oppression conceived by Snow and Plutarch. Here is the greater scope of Catching Fire, the development of the initial premise to allow a fuller understanding of the fictional world.
Some interesting features, that were not evident in The Hunger Games, become apparent in Catching Fire. In the first film’s reaping scene, a video is shown that recounts the historical Uprising, including footage of nuclear blasts. When I saw this, I took it to be stock footage or simply special effects put into the propaganda film by the Capitol’s producers. But when Snow threatens Katniss, he reminds her of District 13, which was reduced to a radioactive ruin during the Uprising, and remains a potent symbol of the Capitol’s power. Furthermore, once the Games begin, Catching Fire does not simply repeat the survival drama of the first film, with Katniss battling the various perils and other tributes as they come at her. Catching Fire has plenty of action set pieces during the Games, including ferocious baboons (much like the ghastly After Earth), poisonous mist, forcefields and gigantic waves, but also an element of mystery as the other tributes assist her and each other to a surprising extent. Having not read the book, the final revelation and its resultant cliff-hanger came as a genuine shock, opening the tale even wider. Fans of the books report that Mockingjay is the weakest of the trilogy, but I eagerly anticipate where the story will go from here.
A late release of 2012, which I expect to be one of my films of the year, arrived with high expectations as to its quality. Rian Johnson’s Looper is, unusually, not a sequel, nor a prequel, nor a franchise instalment, a reboot, a remake or even an adaptation, but that rarest of films, an original mainstream movie. I found Looper an excellent sci-fi thriller, which used its time-travel conceit to effectively fuel its gangster setting and explore themes of freedom, destiny and responsibility. As Old and Young Joe, respectively, Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt convey excellent contrast between naïve nihilism and desperate hope, while Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan and Jeff Daniels provide sterling support, and Pierce Gagnon is thoroughly creepy.
Johnson’s style is unusual for an action film, favouring longer takes and a more measured pace than might be expected. The style is, however, effective, as rather than being caught up in frenetic action sequences, the film lingers on the consequences, both physical and mental, of violent action. We are used to seeing Bruce Willis wipe out a room’s worth of armed thugs, but at several crucial moments, Looper pauses to allow contemplation of what is about to come, and at one point denies showing us the kill. Instead, Joe’s face(s) shows the impact of what he has done, experience steadily etched into both, one youthful, the other aged, but both deeply pained.
Consequence is crucial, as the time travel conceit of Looper is deeply concerned with the impact of one’s actions, responsibility for those actions, and consideration of what impact actions have upon the future. Looper can become confusing if you think about its temporal mechanics too much, as Abe (Jeff Daniels) mentions. But it also uses these mechanics to motivate the overall plot and individual scenes, including a thoroughly nasty yet remarkably bloodless torture scene, and an emotionally powerful conclusion that emphasises personal responsibility. Whether the laws of causality would allow such attempts to change the future by altering the past is debatable, but that’s why we call it science fiction. However, the resonances with other science fiction films is quite striking, as it is easy to relate the film to others that are similar and yet different.
I am not alone in this response, as without pre-existing material to base expectations upon, the buzz surrounding Johnson’s third film seemed desperate to relate the film to other films, particularly in the science fiction genre. It makes sense to form associations through the time travel trope: Looper explores time travel in a similar way to The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Donnie Darko and Twelve Monkeys. All involve a traveller from the future who attempts to change the future by altering events in the past. Stylistically, Looper is very much its own entity, not as smooth as Cameron’s cyborg opus nor as trippy as Kelly’s debut or as skewed as Gilliam. A hard edge runs throughout Looper, perhaps echoing Johnson’s debut, high school noir Brick that also starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The measured pace restricts the visceral thrill of Looper’s action sequences, and the brutality of the film’s gangster setting is maintained, creating a grim and oppressive atmosphere. This brooding, malevolent oppression is in constant tension with the conceit of being able to change your destiny, through time travel or any other means. Looper’s grimness distinguishes it from Back to the Future, which is far more light-hearted and, furthermore, that film’s time travel and temporal causality is accidental rather than intentional. A more recent comparison is Source Code. Like Looper, Source Code involves an individual trying to change the past within a context that works against him and places him in terrible danger. Unlike Looper, Source Code is more concerned with alternate time lines than actual time travel, but both play to the conceit that one man can make a difference, face the past and fight the future (hang on, isn’t that Looper’s tagline?).
Other films that have been related to Looper include The Matrix, Children of the Corn, The Adjustment Bureau and Blade Runner, and these seem less obvious. A dystopian future need not always echo Blade Runner, and Looper’s largely rural setting is very different from Ridley Scott’s noir cityscapes. Only the final act bears resemblance to Children of the Corn, as Looper brings horror into its already potent genre mix of gangster, chase thriller and sci-fi. It is testament to Johnson’s skills as a writer-director that these elements integrate rather than clash – much like Argo, Looper performs an impressive balance between potentially disparate elements.
To compare The Matrix with Looper is strange, as the film’s subject matter as well as Johnson’s style is very different to the Wachowskis. While there is an element of mind-over-matter in Looper through the telekinesis of various characters, in The Matrix that element is part of the artificial reality, which is not a feature of Looper at all. Looper and The Matrix both involve men with a lot of guns, but that is hardly a distinctive feature. Similarly, as Looper is an intelligent sci-fi film with some complex ideas, an obvious reference point is Inception. Indeed, a moment in the trailer in which objects levitate reminded me of the famous upward tilt of a street in Inception, but when I saw Looper itself there was very little that reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s dream heist film.
Why is it so hard to take a film on its own without reference to other films, and why is it so easy to make these inter-textual connections? Saturation may be partly responsible, especially in an era of cross-media platforms where films, TV series, video games, music videos, webisodes, trailers, advertisements and YouTube videos assail us from every screen. But such inter-textual references are hardly new, as studies have demonstrated how major texts from Gothic literature such as Frankenstein fed into the work of later writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Subsequently, this literature fed into science fiction films from A Trip to the Moon and Metropolis, to The Blob and The Day the Earth Stood Still, to Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Blade Runner, The Matrix, Inception and Looper. Science fiction is inherently inter-textual, as any science fiction film seems influenced by others and may well have been, consciously or unconsciously on the part of the filmmaker. As sci-fi consumers, we link one text to another as part of our textual understanding. As another example, when I recently saw the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (which was not as bad as I feared it would be), while being very different from the original film, it also looked to have been influenced by Independence Day, Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial. Similarly, Looper is perceived and understood as a science fiction film in relation to other science fiction films, so critics and audiences alike forge these links as part of our understanding of the science fiction mega-text. This works in several ways, as audiences are savvy enough both to see the commonalities between films like Source Code and Looper, and to create their own links between Looper and The Matrix or Inception.
These inter-textual references, not to mention marketing and commentary, created expectations for Looper. Not being a franchise instalment, marketing was more moderate and I only noticed the trailer and posters. But reviews had an influence: Total Film, which I tend to agree with, gave Looper a five star review and described it as the best sci-fi film since Moon, while Empire also gave it five stars and compared it favourably to Repo Men, Surrogates and In Time. The BBC’s Mark Kermode was positive but more reserved. Overall, critical reaction was very positive, so one could go into Looper expecting something good.
Precisely because of its non-franchise status, I was not sure what to expect of Looper except that it be very good, based on the reviews that I encountered. Most years deliver a major film which is not based on pre-existing material. Looper was the original oddity of 2012, much like Super 8 in 2011, Inception in 2010 and Avatar in 2009 (Avatar can be accused of being unoriginal, but it is not an adaptation of any previously published property). Super 8, Inception and Avatar were all among my favourite films of their respective years, and they are also all sci-fi. The link I made for Looper therefore was with earlier favourites of mine, and I expected the film to blow me away as those had. It is perhaps unsurprising that it did not, as Looper is not an emulation of those films and, overall, I do not think it is as accomplished. Super 8 created a convincing, believable community that was afflicted with something very strange; Inception used its high concept to explore issues of grief and memory while also being meta-cinematic; Avatar re-invigorated cinema and performed a spiritual call to arms. Looper merges genres in an intriguing and cohesive melange, but I did not feel it offered me the combined emotional and intellectual satisfaction of those previous films. Looper has much to admire and to enjoy, regardless of what it is like and unlike, but once again, expectations were too high and had a negative effect upon my appreciation of the film. That said, I imagine it will be rewarding on repeat viewings, and like Prometheus, should be an interesting film for philosophical discussion.