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Lucy dramatises the title of a film from earlier this year that also featured Morgan Freeman explaining pseudo-science – Transcendence. Lucy has already been more commercially successful than Wally Pfister’s film (over $270 million at the time of writing as opposed to $103 million for Transcendence’s entire theatrical run), and Luc Besson’s film could easily have been called Transcendence while Pfister’s could have been called Singularity (which might also work as a title for the forthcoming Interstellar, but I digress). Lucy is effectively a superhero film, the digital sequences that display the effect of a mysterious blue powder on the titular protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) are reminiscent of scenes in Blade (1998), Spider-Man (2002), Hulk (2003) and Daredevil (2003). But rather than emphasising spectacular action (which does appear but in a subordinate role), Lucy’s focus is on higher states of consciousness, increased intelligence and alternative perceptions of reality. The character Lucy transcends the film’s starting point for humanity and the film builds steadily towards transcendence with a focus upon heightened experience. Besson does not always strike the right balance between his (completely fictional) science and the spectacle of elevated experience, but Johansson is an engaging and reliable presence who carries the film for its brief running time.
Marvel are one of the few studios whose brand is itself a selling point. Whereas punters are unlikely to see the next Warner Bros. or Twentieth Century Fox film purely on the basis of the studio, Marvel gives a strong impression of what to expect. Furthermore, Marvel’s commitment to a single mega-franchise aids the consistency of their productions, which have maintained tone and continuity across ten films, a TV series and several Marvel One Shots.
Despite Marvel’s continued success, Guardians of the Galaxy is a tough sell. None of the characters have the cultural familiarity of Captain America or the Hulk, and none of the stars have the proven draw of Robert Downey, Jnr. The setting is outside that of previous Marvel instalments, a cosmic adventure with only the opening sequence taking place on Earth. Thor and Thor: The Dark World featured other realms and The Avengers an inter-dimensional portal, but the narratives always centre on Earth. In GOTG, multiple alien planets, cultures, technologies and histories need to be introduced, as well as an ensemble cast of fairly wacky characters. These include human thief Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill (Chris Pratt), assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana, looking as accomplished in green as she did in blue), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), cybernetic experiment Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and sentient tree Groot (Vin Diesel). Compared to these oddballs, the Avengers look almost pedestrian.
Despite the inherent weirdness, co-writer/director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman opt for recognisably human characteristics and cultures. This may be conservative and unimaginative, but it ensures that the viewer is not confused about the societies of Xandar and the Kree, or the villainous motivations of Ronan the Accuser (Luke Pace), which are established early on and also create a link with The Avengers. Our bunch of misfit heroes – or ‘A-holes’, as one law officer describes them – are efficiently established and their relationships develop naturally from antagonistic to mutually beneficial to comradeship.
These relationships form the heart of the film, as the interplay between the Guardians is warm and very funny. Peter is a cheeky chappie who recognises the humanity in his companions, while Gamora and Drax gradually warm to the rest of the team (pleasingly, the only suggestion of romance between Peter and Gamora is quickly abandoned). A particular source of amusement is Drax’s non-comprehension of metaphors and symbols, as his species are very literal. The relationship between Rocket and Groot is quite moving – Diesel manages to express a significant range of emotions through different enunciations of ‘I am Groot’ while Rocket delivers as many barrages with words as he does with weapons. The bickering between these two is very funny but also betrays a deep affection, culminating in a tear-jerking climax.
Humour may be the film’s strongest element. While the production design of the various alien worlds and creatures is impressive and the action sequences spectacular, the abiding memory of the film is amusement, the filmmakers fully embracing the film’s absurdity and having a lot of fun with it. Thankfully, the film is well-disciplined enough to avoid self-indulgence and strikes the perfect balance between horse-play, character and action, often all at the same time such as in the climactic dance-off (no, really). Guardians of the Galaxy is more reminiscent of Star Wars or Serenity than The Avengers, but it is still a recognisably Marvel movie with its attention to detail, warmly rounded characters and laugh-out-loud humour.
I 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.
Not 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.
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.
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.
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.
My last posts discussed 3D in general and the lack of need for it in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My falling out of love with 3D has become more firmly established with another auteur’s experiment with the format. Since James Cameron started using the new technology, other auteurs have been getting in on the act. Martin Scorsese used 3D to dramatise early cinema in Hugo; Steven Spielberg brought Tintin to the big screen with performance capture in 3D; Werner Herzog used 3D in his documentary about proto-cinema, Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Ridley Scott went back into deep space with Prometheus while Jackson returned to Middle Earth. 2013 will see Baz Luhrmann’s 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and Ang Lee used 3D for his adaptation of Yann Martel’s “unfilmable” novel, Life of Pi.
Life of Pi is a surreal fable about faith, survival, one’s place in the universe and the nature of storytelling. I was impressed with its dramatic story and compelling central character, superbly played by first-time actor Suraj Sharma. Pi’s relationships with his family, his girlfriend Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath) and, most importantly, Richard Parker the Bengal tiger are engaging and moving, and the film delivers an interesting discussion of faith. The young Pi’s (Ayush Tandon and Gautam Belur) embrace of the Hindu, Christian and Muslim religions, set against his father’s (Adil Hussain) insistence on science and rationality, is presented sympathetically but not didactically. As a theoretical agnostic and practical atheist, I had no problem with Pi’s faith nor his belief that his story would make the listener believe in God. It didn’t, but I could sympathise with his beliefs. Perhaps that is itself a form of faith.
Visual effects are frequently accused of being empty spectacle, but they can also be an integral part of the filmic experience. Life of Pi uses its effects as part of its narrative and thematic meanings. An early scene of Pi (Sharma) and Richard Parker the tiger on the lifeboat recalls the fantastical landscapes of the afterlife in The Lovely Bones, the boat adrift in a flat sea that reflects the sun and sky perfectly. Other images include a raging typhoon, ship corridors filling with water, a sea exploding with flying fish, the ocean by night coming alive with bioluminescent lifeforms, an island rippling with meerkats. The images are simultaneously beautiful and threatening, such as a humpback whale bursting out of the sea, mouth agape, in a dazzling cascade of glittering water; yet as the whale crashed back into the sea, the raft of our hero Pi is capsized. Simultaneously, we are awed by what we see and never allowed to forget how dangerous this situation is.
Paramount among these effects is the character of Richard Parker. Just as Gollum in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey demonstrated the advances in performance capture, so does Richard Parker demonstrate an incredible combination of CGI, animatronics and green-screened animal footage. Digital animals still look digital, and the menagerie in Life of Pi is a combination of real creatures and CGI creations. At times, they do look fake, including Richard Parker, but at other times it is genuinely difficult to tell whether you are seeing a flesh and blood animal or a beautifully animated set of pixels. Not that it matters, as Richard Parker is extremely engaging whether physical or not. At no point did I not believe Pi was in danger from the huge cat, and the film maintains this conceit. It is always tempting to sentimentalise animals in fiction, make them more human and sympathetic, but Life of Pi keeps Richard Parker ferocious and Pi’s relationship with him cautious at best. The one moment in which they share physical contact is contextualised so as to avoid unnecessary sentimentality (although a little is alright), and therefore succeeds as a touching engagement between human and animal. Equally, Richard Parker’s exit from the film maintains the animal’s indifference, which adds to Pi’s distress even at the moment of his rescue.
The visual effects of Life of Pi serve as part of the film’s themes and narrative, rather than distracting from them, because they are part of Lee’s visual style. Life of Pi combines a straightforward shot pattern during the wraparound story with a more fluid approach for Pi’s story. This approach begins with the opening credits, words and names appearing like the animals in the zoo, with the final credit, “Directed by Ang Lee”, forming as if floating on a pool of water. This level of visual invention permeates Pi’s narrated story. Dissolves that ripple like reflections, superimpositions and multiple planes of action, as well as digital enhancements and backgrounds, create an almost ethereal visual palette. This obviously makes Pi’s story more fantastic, but it also demonstrates the construction of storytelling. Storytelling is not just a process of simple relation, but of imagination and construction, the film suggests, and beautiful shots of the lifeboat floating on a mirror-like ocean at night, as if it were floating in the void of space itself, indicate the way Pi’s narration is working. When Pi and Richard Parker gaze over the side of the boat into the watery abyss, we see the imagined wreck of the freighter, the other animals that died in the sinking, and the myriad of creatures that inhabit the deep. By presenting these as part of Pi’s imagination, the viewer is drawn further into his/the film’s imaginative/creative process. The mind, and the stories told by it, work in free form, surreal processes, and the abstraction allowed by digital effects is utilised to great effect in Life of Pi.
Intriguingly, despite Pi being in constant danger, my overall impression of Life of Pi was one of serenity, which I argue to be a prevalent theme throughout Lee’s work. Sense and Sensibility shows women trying to achieve balance between their emotional and practical well-being when their options are very limited. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon uses its balletic fight sequences to express the warrior’s serene discipline, but this discipline is in tension with their personal relationships. Brokeback Mountain portrays two characters that want nothing more than the peace they bring each other, but are thwarted by societal mores. Taking Woodstock portrays serenity and beauty amidst what should be chaos (and a lot of mud). I have long been an advocate of Hulk, which I consider a very interesting meditation on superheroics: despite its central character being fuelled by rage, Hulk includes moments of serenity, which is what Bruce Banner needs but only finds, ironically, in the form of Hulk (when left alone). Pi, for all the ghastly danger he encounters, also possesses an inner serenity, facilitated by his faith. That is why the religious element of the film is effective, because it demonstrates that Pi is grounded by faith, but guided by hope.
From a strictly narrative perspective, I initially thought the film would have benefitted from more ambiguity as to what happened to Pi. The framing narrative, in which the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) narrates his story to the writer (Rafe Spall), is presented as the truth, and the alternative version the young Pi presents to Japanese insurance investigators is simply something official. By including this alternative at the very end, the narrative of Life of Pi does not explore the pliability of truth, just the need for non-fantastical stories. At first, I found the exploration of storytelling in Life of Pi to be underwhelming, because of the alternative story’s inclusion at the very end (which I assume is how it appears in the novel), but on reflection, I realise that the film as a whole is exploring this point, but through visual, cinematic storytelling rather than straightforward narration. This interest in the construction of visual narrative gives Life of Pi significant depth, even in two dimensions.
It is perhaps notable that the auteurs who have made 3D films have subsequently returned to 2D: Spielberg followed The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn with War Horse; Scorsese’s next film, The Wolf of Wall Street is in 2D as is Scott’s The Counselor. Robert Zemeckis has made several 3D motion capture animations including The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol and Beowulf, but up next from him is the more typical Flight. Other directors such as Christopher Nolan are opposed to the format, and others are committed to 3D, most obviously James Cameron, who spoke very highly of Life of Pi. Life of Pi has much in common with Avatar: while one is an action epic and the other a tale of (almost) lone survival, both use visual effects to create their environments, jungle in one case, ocean in the other (which is slightly ironic, as Cameron has a fascination with water as demonstrated in The Abyss and Titanic, while reports of Avatar 2 indicate it will feature Pandora’s oceans). Through their use of visual effects as key to cinematic expression, both films explore issues of cinema and visual understanding. 3D does enhance this experience, but it is not integral to it. The digital landscapes and characters, rendered through crisp, digital cinematography, are rich, vibrant and alive in two dimensions, without a 30% light loss. Maybe in 3D I would have been swept up in Life of Pi more than I was, and realised the meta-storytelling immediately rather than afterwards, but I don’t mind the wait. Rich aesthetic experiences need not come in a rush, time taken to reflect is time taken to savour. And besides, Lee’s choice to place the camera at sea level and have it rocking with the swell might have induced greater nausea in 3D.