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The disaster movie provides an opportunity to show the experience of, well, disasters from various perspectives. 1970s classics The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno brought together disparate people whose differences proved essential to their survival, a trope also used in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland follows a similar pattern to those of Emmerich, but with a serious tone more akin to those of Irwin Allen. Rather than treating the impact of a comet on the Earth as a rollercoaster ride, Greenland leans into the grim and frightening aspects of the disaster. Part of this comes from the wide scale destruction, but there is just as much horror to be found in the actions of humanity. Structural engineer John Garrity (Gerard Butler) and his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are selected for evacuation by the US government. However, no one that they know is selected, and their journey towards safety rapidly exposes the severe triage being enacted on the population. Only those designated as healthy and useful are to be evacuated, and desperation leads to panic leads to violence. There is ample destruction and some jaw-dropping spectacle, but Waugh wisely keeps the focus on the human drama, ensuring that we feel every panic-stricken step of the Garritys’ journey. The film’s commitment to this conceit results in a tense and gripping tale of family, fear and hope, that also succeeds in being emotional and moving.
It is a cliché to say that Hollywood action blockbusters have no plot or story. This is nonsense as even perfunctory analysis highlights that Hollywood filmmaking is, as it has been for many decades, rooted in narrative progression and plot development. Indeed, if a film has narrative problems this is more likely to be down to an excess rather than sparseness of plot. Such is the case with Independence Day: Resurgence that, despite its title, lacks any significant surging and no discernible independence from the other films it references/pays homage to/rips off (depending on how generous you feel). Set twenty years after the events of the inter-galactically superior original, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s follow-up sees the nations of Earth celebrating the unparalleled peace and unity they have had since defeating the alien invasion when, wouldn’t you know it, those pesky ETs show up again (someone must have phoned home, yes, I went there, judge me all you like). David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) along with Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who starts English but subsequently and inexplicably becomes French) have a handle on what’s going on, but the leaders of the world including US President Lanford (Sela Ward) don’t listen (if you figure out how that works out, you can have a cookie); former US President Tom Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is beardy and traumatised; his daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) is brave if tremulous; Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is rebellious; Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher) is angry and still grieving over the death of father Steven (Will Smith, who made the smart choice not to return); I am watching this piffle waiting for it to go somewhere. Meanwhile, other narrative threads crop up to add to the confusion, a certain amount of techno-porn sashays across the screen and, somewhere in the mix, aliens arrive and attempt the old ‘destroy all life on Earth’ thing. With so many disparate elements flying around, it is small wonder that the film feels utterly incoherent and lacks the two crucial elements that make its predecessor so re-watchably enjoyable: wit and suspense. Will Smith punching an alien and quipping ‘Welcome to Earth!’ is a glorious and far from isolated moment in the first film. Equally glorious is the wonderfully ominous first act in which the gigantic ships loom over Earth and there is deliberate and effective build-up to the metropolis-sized destructo-porn. The absence of these elements, and the lacklustre set pieces that Resurgence offers without enough build-up or sustainment to be exciting, mean that tension and therefore drama are sorely lacking, while scenes that could offer emotional weight are instead throwaway moments that leave you wondering why the writers bothered to include them. And there is the problem: ID4: R has too many cooks and they really spoil the broth. Whereas Devlin and Emmerich wrote the original film at the height of their mid-90s power, here they are joined by Nicolas Wright (who also plays an irritating but at least vaguely interesting bureaucrat), James A. Woods and James Vanderbilt, all seemingly competing for our derision. It might be fun to work out exactly who wrote what part, at least more fun than wondering why those kids in the car are there and why we don’t get more of the guys on the boat and what dramatic purpose Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) is serving, or why these discordant elements are not tied together by Emmerich who has demonstrated on more than one occasion that he is more than capable of putting together a decent disaster film. The end result is an incoherent mess, a baffling, blundering barrel of feeble, underpowered non-spectacle that lacks wit, suspense, coherence and emotional heft. Oh, and it has the prospect of another one. Hooray, today we celebrate our Indepen… No, let’s not.
I have always found the concept of ‘guilty pleasure’ rather strange, because I find guilt and pleasure to be mutually exclusive feelings. If I feel guilty, there is no pleasure, so if I start to feel guilty about something pleasurable the pleasure is removed. That’s just me, because for plenty of others the two feelings are clearly compatible. As far as films are concerned (I write about those, in case you didn’t know), I used to refer to Last Man Standing as a guilty pleasure and then realised I felt no guilt about it (nor should I). In discussions, the following films have been described as guilty pleasures:
Mega-Shark VS Giant Octopus
The Devil Wears Prada
Conan The Barbarian
Sleepless in Seattle
Legally Blonde and Legally Blonde 2
Commando (that came up a lot)
Battle: Los Angeles
A Knight’s Tale
I Spit On Your Grave
The dictionary definition of ‘guilty pleasure’ is ‘something, such as a film, television programme, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is NOT generally held in high regard’. Therefore, if you regard something as a guilty pleasure then there is a belief (which you may or may not share) that there is something wrong or bad about the text in question, so you feel guilty about taking pleasure in it, and furthermore this guilt can itself be pleasurable. Exactly what makes these films guilty pleasures will vary, depending on one’s perception of what they ‘should’ like or admire.
Sin City (2005) and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (2014) (hereafter referred to jointly as Sin City), is a franchise that could be considered a guilty pleasure because of its stylish design but (apparent) lack of substance. When Sin City premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, critics described it as stylish but empty, and one review endorsed the second film with the caveat that ‘the stories are still about as deep as a shallow grave’. However, Sin City also highlights pleasure directly associated with its sinful characters and actions. ‘Sin’ is obviously a key element in Sin City, demonstrated both by its title (a bastardisation of its setting, Basin City) and creator Frank Miller’s emphasis upon ‘sinful’ behaviour including sex, violence, corruption, gambling, drinking, smoking, etc. All the major characters throw themselves (in some cases, literally) into ‘sinful’ situations, and the reader/viewer is invited along for the ride. The invitation is apparent in the graphic novels through constant alignment with particular ‘sinful’ anti-heroes whose internal monologues pervade the panels and gutters of the book, allowing the reader direct access to the protagonists’ views. This monologue becomes voiceover in the film adaptations, with the authority and alignment between viewer and character that this particular device creates, even though the alignment is with characters that embrace violence and vice with gleeful abandon. Glee is key, as Sin City takes pleasure in its abandonment of ‘polite’, ‘proper’ behaviour. This pleasure is apparent in the text’s excessive violence and sexuality: practically every woman appears in a state of undress (inviting obvious charges of sexism, to which I shall return); injuries are extremely gory; characters perform superhuman violent feats, such as crashing through the windscreens of moving cars, leaping off tall buildings without harm and (literally) cutting people to pieces.
Violent entertainment has been pleasurable for centuries, not simply because we are bloodthirsty but also because it is safe. Much like a rollercoaster, thrills on the screen are exhilarating but there is no risk of us suffering physical injury. But the excessive ‘sin’ of Sin City goes further, inviting not only pleasure but also something noble about in the abandonment of social niceties. Crucially, these are contemporary social niceties, the niceties of modernity and western capitalism. Although the setting, stylistics, hard-boiled dialogue and constant voiceover owe much to film noir, there are more primitive yet classical themes running through the streets of Sin City. The character Marv (Mickey Rourke) espouses a desire for violent revenge that would not be out of place in Jacobean tragedy, even if the vocabulary and syntax are distant from Shakespeare or Webster:
I’ll stare the bastard in the face as he screams to God, and I’ll laugh harder when he whimpers like a baby. And when his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I’ve done to him.
Marv is a recurring character across the various stories of Sin City, both on page and screen, and the narrative’s alignment with him encourages audience identification with his murderous intentions and deeds.
Similar alignment is made with Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen), who takes significant pleasure in ‘The Big Fat Kill’ along with Gail (Rosario Dawson) and the rest of the girls (prostitutes) of Old Town, while in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ Dwight (now played by Josh Brolin) has no qualms about murdering Damien Lord (Martin Csokas) in order to save Damien’s wife Ava (Eva Green). Similarly, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) murders several gangsters in defence of Nancy Callaghan (Jessica Alba), including Roark Jnr (Nick Stahl), the titular ‘That Yellow Bastard’. The anti-heroes of Sin City lack restraint but not honour or compassion, and their attitudes towards women reinforce this. One review describes Sin City as ‘an unreconstructed, man’s man’s world where the guys are either sickly or borderline sicko and the girls are classic noir femme fatales – – both in distress and deadly. Getting sniffy about sexism in Sin City would be like complaining about spaceships in Star Wars’. The sexism is not just (un)dressing but integral to the old-fashioned milieu of the protagonists and their fictional world – anti-heroes driven by antiquated chivalry in a world without honour. Hartigan, Dwight and Marv are knights out-of-time – Dwight pronounces Marv as being ‘born in the wrong century’ while Marv describes his quest of vengeance for Goldie’s death as ‘the bad old days’. A scene in which Marv learns that his adversary is Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer) features a giant statue of Roark, reminiscent of towering effigies in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). This iconography echoes epics, as does the casting of Clive Owen, who previously starred as the eponymous knight/monarch in King Arthur (2004). This is the noble sin of Sin City – the anti-heroes are modern day knights who defy law and convention in pursuit of their own sense of what is right. Furthermore, their adversaries are far worse – child molesters, cannibals and corrupt politicians who use murder and intimidation to maintain their power. But although Sin City takes glee in this medieval nobility, it does not simply valorise it.
Dwight’s devotion to Ava in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ is foolish and ultimately misguided, but he demonstrates similar devotion when he pursues Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) and his gang so as to stop them hurting anyone. As it turns out, the ladies of Old Town don’t need his help, because they are more than capable of handling a carload of drunken louts. Although Dwight proves helpful later on, the prostitutes clearly do not need male protection, which highlights the antiquated nature of the men’s attitude. Similarly, Nancy only gets into danger when Hartigan comes to save her – had he stayed in prison Roark would never have found her. In order to protect her, Hartigan ultimately kills himself, and the subsequent story features Nancy going steadily mad, disfiguring herself and risking life and limb to take revenge on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). As fun as ‘sinful’ behaviour may be, the cost is also on display, emphasised by the gory injuries and eventual deaths of Hartigan and Marv. Nor are these deaths resisted – Hartigan describes his death for Nancy’s life as a ‘fair trade’, while at his execution Marv says ‘it’s about damn time’. While these deaths are heroic sacrifices and pyrrhic victories, the demise of the anti-heroes reinforces the sense that they are out of time and their endeavours absurd. But that is part of the fun – in an era with no place for chivalry, what is sinful is also noble, demonstrating the lack of distinction between the two. The tagline for the second film is THERE IS NO JUSTICE WITHOUT SIN, and how true this is. The ‘sinful’ activities of Frank Miller’s characters are also acts of justice, highlighting the guilty pleasure of noble sin.
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.