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In 1979, cinema audiences were informed in no uncertain terms that ‘In space no one can hear you scream‘. For nearly forty years we have been reminded of this universally acknowledged truth, with varying degrees of success. In the case of Alien: Covenant, it seems everyone needs to hear you PANIC! because the film is so overloaded with PANIC! that I wondered if the various gruesome deaths were redundant in the face of surely inevitable heart attacks. From an opening space accident that introduces the viewer to far too many indistinguishable characters to set pieces in a medical bay and a field of tall grass to a climax followed by a climax followed by a climax, Alien: Covenant delivers far too many reasons to think ‘Don’t go off alone’, ‘Don’t look at that’, ‘Exercise more caution’, ‘Behind you!’ and ‘Slow down, Ridley!’ I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott and think Prometheus is pretty good, but it is telling that Covenant‘s best scene is a quiet moment of two characters playing a flute, captured in a long take of beautifully chilling serenity, helped by the wonderful Michael Fassbender who is easily the best thing(s) in the film. A crucial element of the original Alien is its slow pace, the longueurs of drip feed menace steadily creating an atmosphere of dread. Here, we charge headlong into danger because that way we can get to the PANIC! all the sooner, or perhaps this reckless charge is an attempt to disguise the general lack of narrative or thematic coherence. The conclusion of the film points to a further instalment, so it seems we’ll be reminded once again that in space, no one can hear you scream ‘Enough!’
Life is an original film that lacks original ideas. While it is not based on any previously published material, its narrative and themes are familiar to any fan of science fiction or horror. Obvious references are Alien and Gravity: the initial shots of space and the slow appearance of the International Space Station seem to deliberately echo the credits of Ridley Scott’s classic, while the opening action set piece is conducted in a single shot, reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s award magnet. Xenomorph references continue as the appropriately diverse crew members of ISS have a close encounter of the dangerous kind with a single-celled organism brought back from Mars. Nicknamed ‘Calvin’, experiments with this globular entity quickly turn grisly and gruesome. But Life‘s lack of originality does not stop it being an entertaining ninety minutes, as director Daniel Espinosa delivers a gripping romp, making smart use of the zero-gravity environment and the classic dangers of space. Depleted oxygen, dropping temperatures and loss of communication with Mission Control are all handled with aplomb, with the added tensions of medical drama, as Dr Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) reminds us of the various safeguards to prevent alien contamination of Earth. Calvin itself is commendably intriguing and revolting in equal measure and the different responses of Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) and David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) provide an effective progression through the drama. There are plenty of jumps and a good dose of tension, and part of the fun is predicting who will die, when and how. However familiar it may be, Life ticks all the boxes for an enjoyable orbital journey.
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.
My last post discussed the treatment of violence in Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011). Another theme in Drive is urban alienation, a theme explored in greater depth in another film which came out the same year: Shame, written and directed by Steve McQueen (no, not that one). Like Ryan Gosling’s Driver, Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is a man isolated in the urban wilderness, both men deriving meaning from specific activities, driving for Driver and sex for Brandon. Amusingly, both encounter Carey Mulligan, who plays Driver’s neighbour and potential romance Irene, and Brandon’s emotionally damaged sister, Sissy. Both films are made by non-Americans who turn a penetrating eye on American urban environments, Los Angeles in Drive and New York in Shame. A key element which emerges from these environments is isolation, and a key tool is high-definition digital film.
When discussing Shame with fellow movie buffs, the film has been described as “beautiful”, “haunting”, “hypnotic” and “mesmerising”. The underlying commonality among these responses is that Shame draws you in and maintains your attention, compelling the viewer to keep watching. McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt achieve this effect by staging much of the action in long takes. Many shots last several minutes and capture a lot of action, sometimes lasting for entire scenes. Furthermore, these long takes make use of deep focus, capturing detail in the distance as well as that close to the camera. In high definition, this detail is clearly visible, resulting in a rich and textured image, but not a cluttered one – everything within the frame is neat and ordered.
This style is used from very early in the film, as a naked Brandon rises and goes through his morning routine, a single take capturing him in his disciplined but sterile apartment as he walks, urinates and ignores the phone ringing. Through the expansive windows appear the first indications of his isolation – various anonymous buildings whose detail can be seen in high definition deep focus. This visual arrangement continues through the film, Brandon situated in expansive environments in which he is isolated. This isolation is achieved both by long shots which make him diminutive, and the high definition deep focus which does not emphasise him. The viewer identifies Brandon as different from the metal, concrete and glass around him, but with everything in equal focus and definition, the person is no more or less emphasised than what surrounds him. People are not only anonymous in Shame’s vision of New York, they are practically part of the scenery.
This scenery features many flat panels, including the plate glass windows of New York buildings, glass walls and doors in the office where Brandon works, sleek, shiny tables and computer screens. These smooth panels are visually echoed in the sleek planes of Brandon’s body, the naked breadths of his chest, back and legs are similarly smooth and almost featureless. These planes again integrate Brandon with his environment, which further expresses the disengagement he has with others. The protagonist glances off people as though he were made of glass or stainless steel himself. A subsequent role played by Fassbender was David in Prometheus, and his role in Shame serves as a fascinating precursor to the android. Although Brandon does have emotions, he as unable to operate as a human being as the artificial person.
McQueen’s long takes serve to emphasise Brandon’s isolation and immersion in his environment, in some scenes reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. This is especially striking when Brandon goes jogging, the camera capturing his progress in continuous tracking shots. As he jogs, he passes people, shops, restaurants, cars, never stopping or pausing, his progress uninterrupted either by obstacles or camera cuts. Again, his disassociation and alienation is emphasised by the film’s style, as the HD footage places the fibre of Brandon’s clothes and the texture of his skin and hair within an equally detailed environment – the reflections on water and oil patches, the sheen on car bodies and the detail of other people, not to mention the mottled walls of buildings. Everything is equally detailed, and so nothing is emphasised, our protagonist one feature among many, equally apparent and only discernible by the camera following his movement. This creates an intimacy between Brandon and the viewer, taking us (literally) along for his journey, sharing his isolation and disconnection which may be a reflection of many viewers’ experience of 21st century urban life.
Another version of this alienation appears during two scenes between Brandon and his co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). They have a dinner date in which Brandon explains his aversion to relationships, his longest being four months. The scene occurs in a single take, the camera focus slowly narrowing either through a zoom or tracking shot, drawing the viewer closer to this intimate conversation. Outside the windows of the restaurant, the New York street is once again exquisitely detailed in the high definition deep focus, the couple, such as they are, merely the details that we can hear. Later, the deep focus creates an even more isolating effect, as Brandon and Marianne go to a hotel room and begin kissing and undressing, but Brandon stops before they proceed to intercourse. It seems that if he has an emotional connection to a sexual partner, he cannot become fully aroused. His isolation is again emphasised by the high definition deep focus which allows the viewer to see what takes place outside: rain spattering on the floor-to-ceiling windows, cars passing on the roads outside, cranes at a nearby construction site. Urban life progresses, this failed attempt at intimacy occuring in the midst of indifference. Brandon is emotionally distraught but, cruelly, the camera remains on him even once Marianne has left, a tearful Brandon gazing out at the uncaring city which continues uninterrupted. The viewer’s focus cannot focus on Brandon and Marianne, because the background action is a constant distraction. This distraction expresses the alienating effect of urban life, perpetual motion and empty expanses, in which Brandon, at least, cannot connect.
The long takes express Brandon’s discipline and continuity, his sexual addiction compartmentalised alongside his work and home life. Even when Sissy arrives unexpectedly, Brandon surprising her in his shower, the discipline continues as their first heated conversation occurs in a single take, Sissy’s naked form seen as a reflection, expressing her separation from Brandon. In a later conversation, when they talk on Brandon’s sofa, the focus becomes shallower, reducing the TV in the background to a blur of indistinct movement which is situated between them. Even while Sissy tries to find some way into her brother’s compassion, he coldly rebuffs her, the indistinct image of the TV expressing the barrier between them. The scene occurs in another long take, but the shallower focus helps to use the mise-en-scene to express the characters’ strained relationship.
Amongst these scenes of long takes, there are also moments of discontinuity, especially during Brandon’s virtual breakdowns. When he is overcome by shame and throws out all his pornography, the scene is presented in short takes, punctuated by jump cuts as he sweeps magazines, videos and a laptop into bin bags and dumps the bags on the street. A more intense and indeed upsetting scene occurs later, when Brandon goes to the apartment of two prostitutes and engages in a furious but agonising threesome. The scene is a montage, cutting between the expressions of Brandon and the women, their pumping bodies and the room’s furniture. It may rank as one of the most uncomfortable presentations of sexual intercourse ever committed to film, bereft of intimacy or even simple pleasure, Brandon screaming as though under torture.
Not that the prolonged takes are far away, as in probably the film’s most distressing scene, Brandon returns home in a panic to find Sissy in the bathroom with her wrists slashed. His discovery is captured in a long take, but without sound, Brandon’s anguish expressed through his face, contorted into a howl of agony. Here the film expresses the ineffable – the unspeakable and incomprehensible pain at finding a loved one dead or dying. Such scenes are common in films – Heat features a very similar one – but Shame offers one of the most effective encounters with an attempted suicide. Once again, the long take prolongs the agony, lingering on Brandon to an uncomfortable degree.
Shame demonstrates remarkable cinematography and editing choices, as one is largely merciless and the other restrained. New York is used to great effect, the HD footage capturing the city in exquisite detail, which serves to demonstrate the isolation of the protagonist. In another heartbreaking scene, Brandon sinks into an almost foetal crouch in a wasteland part of the city, crying out for something beyond his addicted and hollow existence.
Once again, we see everything, the pores of his face as richly textured as the tarmac around him. This is one the great effects of HD, creating a visual palette in which people and environments are presented in equal detail (I have published elsewhere on the use of this in Collateral). It need not be used in this way – particular shots as well as depth of focus can still emphasise actors’ faces. But in the case of Shame, urban alienation is effectively conveyed through long takes, deep focus and high definition digital film.
Spiritual themes run throughout the work of Danny Boyle, from the rise of greed in Shallow Grave to the transcendent states in Trainspotting, “what is written” in Slumdog Millionaire and the delirium of 127 Hours. In my previous post, I discussed the themes of salvation and the soul in 28 Days Later…, Boyle’s visceral and frightening non-zombie zombie film. Five years later, Boyle experimented with science fiction in Sunshine, which works as an interesting counterpoint to 28 Days Later…. The spirituality of Boyle’s work is especially apparent in Sunshine, and while parts of the film do not work as well as others, it remains a fascinating psychological and philosophical journey.
Whereas 28 Days Later… quickly breaks into a mad, frenzied dash, Sunshine has a more sedate opening act, the voiceover of Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy, again) easing us into the steady movement through space. The voiceover provides simple and necessary exposition, informing the viewer that the sun is dying so the vessel Icarus II has been sent to reignite the star with a gigantic bomb. We also learn that the first mission, Icarus I, failed and, as the film progresses, this failure and its ramifications will form both the narrative and spiritual conflicts of Sunshine.
Much of Sunshine resembles other space travel science fiction: the living quarters of the Icarus II and the banter between the crew are reminiscent of Alien; the film’s spiritual concerns are similar to Solaris, while the isolation and alienation, as well as the gardens, recall Silent Running. I greatly admire Sunshine’s willingness to engage with serious themes of spirituality and confrontations with death, life, God and science. When science fiction does this, like in other recent films such as Inception, Avatar and Prometheus, it is at its most satisfying. Inevitably, “serious” sci-fi echoes 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are moments in Sunshine that echo Stanley Kubrick’s opus. One of 2001’s many memorable scenes is when astronaut Dave Bowman moves through a stargate, described by some as “the ultimate trip”. Sunshine features similar moments when the screen is filled with light, a golden expanse that is both beautiful and terrible. The general aesthetic of films set in space is to emphasise the void of blackness, but Boyle uses light in Sunshine to extraordinary effect, bathing the Icarus II and the performers in golden radiance.
The characters’ entrancement (see what I did there?) is mirrored by the viewer’s envelopment, as the film transports us into its world through its “retina-scorching” visuals. For me, the best science fiction is that which transports you, and Sunshine certainly does that. A key element of this transportation is the film’s spiritual concerns, closely tied to the film’s use of light. The first scene after the opening voiceover presents Searle (Clifford Curtis) viewing the sun at what appears to be intense brightness, yet it is only 3% intensity, and much of Sunshine is almost unbearably bright. Searle describes his experience as something transcendent and profound. This element of the mission through space remains prominent throughout, an encounter with something immensely powerful and magnificent. Salvation for the Earth is the goal of the astronauts, but beyond this, each of them seek spiritual salvation or enlightenment in different and often misguided ways. Mace (Chris Evans) is the most cynical of the crew, committed only to completing the mission, which he does not live to see. Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) focuses upon life through the ship’s garden, which is both a living environment and the means to life for the crew, but the garden is destroyed by fire and she dies among its ashes. Cassie (Rose Byrne) is the heart of the crew and the film, caring for everyone as much as she can, and there are suggestions of a (nascent) romance between her and Capa. Of course, it comes to nothing and her compassion and sympathy is overridden, largely by Mace. Harvey (Troy Garity) and Trey (Benedict Wong) are more minor, but it is interesting that after his mistake endangers them all, Trey seeks redemption in suicide. But the most interesting quests for salvation are those who seek it in light.
For Searle and, to a lesser extent, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), salvation/enlightenment is achieved by “touching” the Sun. Searle demonstrates this conceit through his fascination with seeing as much light as he can. When Kaneda sacrifices himself to the Sun’s rays for the good of the mission, he turns towards the approaching wall of searing heat that will destroy him. At the moment of his death, Kaneda is calm, humble and seemingly embracing the great power that consumes him. Searle is intensely curious, repeatedly asking Kaneda over the radio “What do you see?” What Kaneda sees is his death, his eternal darkness, in the midst of light. What can you see when the retinas are overloaded by light? Too much light is ultimately blindness, while in the midst of darkness one heads for light. This paradox again reflects the film’s spiritual journey, a journey simultaneously into light and darkness.
The major contrast, of course, is between Capa and Pinbacker (Mark Strong), captain of Icacus I who went mad and killed his crew. Capa describes the ignition of the bomb, and by implication the Sun as a whole, as beautiful; Pinbacker has embraced death as he sees the Sun as expressive of God’s majesty, before which humanity should die. Pinbacker believes he has found salvation in death, Capa does so as well, but his death is life for Earth. Sunshine’s final explosion of light, and Capa’s almost ecstatic face as the reaction takes place, confirms his prediction that it will be “beautiful”. Indeed, Capa seems to achieve the transcendence that Searle pursued and that Pinbacker possibly found, but without the murderous madness. In its ultimate embrace of death as a transcendent experience, Sunshine resembles another film that came out the previous year, which also involves travelling to a dying star and confronting death: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. To an even greater extent than Sunshine, The Fountain fills its frame with almost tactile light, blinding and beautiful all at once. And in this enveloping light, both films express transcendence and spiritual salvation.
Sunshine does have problems, especially the final sequence which suffers from Boyle’s over-stylisation. When the character of Pinbacker appears, naked, scorched and space-crazy, the erratic editing and cinematography distracts from the danger. Narratively and thematically, the ending is fine, but stylistically it is a problem and straighter presentation might have been more effective. This is a recurrent problem with Boyle’s films, although I think he gets the balance right in Trance. In Sunshine, the final spill into horror undoes some of the tension generated in earlier scenes, but the spiritual journeys continue, presenting a route to salvation even, or perhaps especially, in the face of death.
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Eleven Grey wolves
Ten Joes a-killing
Nine Lives of Pi
Eight Raiders Raiding
Seven District tributes
Six Unexpected Journeys
Five Looping Loopers
Four Argo film crews
Three Assembled Avengers
Two Dark Knights Rising
And a Skyfall from 00-Heaven.
That’s my musical version of presenting my top twelve films of 2012, and the reason I decided on a top twelve rather than a top ten. Not that 2012 featured so many astounding cinema experiences that I could not pick less than twelve – originally there were ten. But then I decided to put them into musical form, which necessitated an extra two. Ranking them was surprisingly difficult, and the factor I used to ascertain their positions was surprise. What surprised me, what met expectations, and what exceeded expectations were the deciding factors in deciding my favourites.
As I’ve written previously, expectation plays a large part in my engagement with a film, largely because I get involved in the hype and let it influence me – the cinematic experience is not only the time spent in the auditorium, but the anticipation that builds up through news, trailers, reviews and reactions of other viewers. My most anticipated film of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, and when I saw it I was far from disappointed. But Christopher Nolan’s EPIC CONCLUSION TO THE DARK KNIGHT LEGEND (sic) only met my expectations, it did not exceed them. It has divided opinion, although there seem to be fewer who thought it “sucks” than those who found it “awesome”. Similarly, while it was great to be back in Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there was an unshakeable sense of déjà vu which meant the film lacked freshness, unlike Avengers Assemble which united familiar figures in a new situation. Skyfall also divided opinion, as many thought it was superb but there were (apparently) instances of people walking out, which is baffling to me. I probably had a prejudice about Skyfall because it is a Bond film, and there is only so much I expect from the series. Happily, Skyfall gave me so much more than its franchise led me to expect, working as a great film in its own right.
When it comes to ascertaining what makes a film good, different people have different standards. For many, a crucial factor is character consistency and/or sympathy. For others, flashy action and special effects are important. Ultimately, there will never be universal agreement on what constitutes high cinematic quality, there will always be differences of opinion, and thank goodness for that because it would be very dull if we all liked and disliked the same things.
Fundamentally, I want high technical quality, such as detailed production design (Prometheus), expressive cinematography (Life of Pi), effective editing (Avengers Assemble, Argo) and direction that pulls all these elements together (The Dark Knight Rises). I also want conviction to subject, as few things frustrate me more than a film that raises a topic and then abandons it (The Iron Lady), so a film that sticks to its guns (The Grey) and has the conviction to deliver on what it sets out to do (Killer Joe) is a good one to me. Exploration of themes such as responsibility (Looper) and loyalty (Skyfall) also work, again so long as there is conviction throughout the filmic text. Detailed fictional worlds, especially science fiction (The Hunger Games) and fantasy (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) work very well on me, and I like something visceral that draws me into the diegetic world and to make me feel what’s going on (The Raid). The films on this list gave me what I wanted, and the best gave me more than I expected.
I often ask people to explain their opinions and their explanations indicate the standards which they use for assessment. My standards probably seem strange and idiosyncratic, but they enable me to organise the list below.
Classic features meet contemporary panache in the year’s most surprising and satisfying film. Nobody did it better.
2. The Dark Knight Rises
An operatic conclusion to an epic saga. Sublime technical features express weighty themes in a compelling story.
3. Avengers Assemble
A marvellous assembly of sparkling characters, high stakes, wit, brio and inventive action.
A superb combination of satire, history, political commentary and nerve-shredding suspense.
An atmospheric crime thriller that uses its time travel premise to effectively explore issues of responsibility and culpability.
6. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
A warm yet thrilling return to Middle Earth.
7. The Hunger Games
A grim vision of the future with powerful comments on voyeuristic pleasure.
8. The Raid
The most intense action movie in years.
9. Life of Pi
Beautiful, spiritual and metafictional glory.
10. Killer Joe
A jet black comedy which displays fearless conviction to its macabre tale.
11. The Grey
An enthralling, existential tale of survival.
Questions of faith and science collide with suspense and shocks.
A delightfully affectionate reboot of reinvigorated old favourites.
The Woman in Black
A genuinely chilling ghost story.
Slightly undercut by its episodic structure but still an emotional journey with moments of real power.
A humorous and touching tale of a family struggling to cope with loss and betrayal, with great use of its Hawaiian backdrop.
The Cabin in the Woods
Smart, funny and scary meta-snuff film about why horror movies happen.
Turkeys of the Year
1. The Iron Lady
A mess of under-developed ideas that squanders every opportunity for compelling drama.
2. Safe House
A potentially gripping thriller undone by distracting cinematography.