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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.
Amid great fanfare as only the Academy can deliver, the nominees for the 89th Annual Academy Awards were announced on 24th January 2017. As always, the AMPAS members have come in for sneering over their ‘snubs’ and everyone, their pet bandicoot and the bandicoot’s veterinarian (and probably the veterinarian’s tennis partner) believes that they know better. Well, I do not know better, I’m just a guy on the Internet with some views. Rather than declaring the most deserving winners, I find it far more interesting to analyse the nominees, consider what these nominations represent and make some educated guesses about what might win and, more importantly, why.
For this first post, let’s take a look at Best Picture. Drumroll, please! The nominees for Best Motion Picture are:
Generically, these nine films are an interesting bunch. A science fiction film (a rare nominee in itself); a domestic drama adapted from a successful stage production; a war film; a modern Western; a historical drama; a musical; a true life story; a bereavement drama; an LGBTQ drama. Perhaps these nominees show a certain self-reproach on the Academy’s part over the lack of diversity among previous years’ nominees. Fences, Hidden Figures and Moonlight could all be classed as ‘black films’, while Lion is also concerned with issues of race and racial identity. Moonlight is a film with LGBTQ concerns, a rare thing indeed for the Academy to take notice of. More cynically, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are typical Oscar fare featuring white men dealing with the problems of being white men. While these two films are fine examples of such dramas, they are hardly challenging in their subject matter. Whereas last year’s nominees included films critical of US institutions, only Hell or High Water and Arrival offer such a critique of current events.
Several of the nominees feature award-friendly subject matter, including American history (Fences, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge), World War II (Hacksaw Ridge), nostalgia (La La Land, Hell or High Water), true stories (Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, Lion), Hollywood self-love (La La Land). As I have commented previously, films with historical settings are frequently rewarded, which would work in favour of Fences, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge and Lion (more recent history, but Lion is based on a true story, which the Academy also often rewards). However, according to various publications, the smart money is on La La Land to be the big winner, despite or perhaps because of its nostalgia for the ‘grand tradition of MGM musicals’, as well as having a record number of 14 nominations, equalling those of All About Eve and Titanic. Perhaps the light-heartedness of La La Land will work against it, while the weightier subject matter of Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea will carry them through.
Subject matter is not the only factor, however. Analysis of previous winners demonstrates that winners of the Best Picture award also win one or more of these other three awards: Directing, Film Editing, Writing (both Original and Adapted Screenplay). Five of the five Best Picture nominees are also nominated for Directing – La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Arrival. Of these, Arrival, Moonlight, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are also up for Writing (the first two for Adapted, the second two for Original). Furthermore, only Arrival, La La Land and Moonlight are also up for Directing and Writing. Combine these factors with the non-award friendly genre of Arrival, and the potentially controversial subject matter of Moonlight, and La La Land emerges as the frontrunner. Were I a member of AMPAS, I would vote for Arrival, my top film of last year, but I suspect come the night La La Land will be dancing all the way to Best Picture.
It’s a wonderful night for Oscar! Or at least it should be on February 28th. As the 88th Annual Academy Awards approach, it’s time for me to look over the various categories and offer Vincent’s View on the nominees and likely winners.
I decline to arrogantly presume that I know best and say what the Academy got wrong. I don’t necessarily agree with the nominees and, were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I would have voted differently. I had my own favourites last year but that’s simply my view – the assembled results of nearly 7000 people do not pale in comparison to my almighty judgement, or indeed anyone’s. What interests me is what the particular nominees say about tastes and trends about Oscar nominees, now and historically.
Beginning with the nominees for Best Picture, they are a rather surprising bunch. I have written before on the kind of film that tends to win Best Picture and the commonalities among nominees. The cliché is that biopics win Oscars, but more broadly historical films win Oscars. Historical films attract awards, presumably because the AMPAS members (not to mention other institutions) respond to the apparent gravitas of “history.” Furthermore, films “based on a true story” do well, as few things offer more “importance” than “truth.”
With that in mind, consider the eight nominees for Best Picture:
If the nominees were still restricted to five, I believe that the nominated films would be Bridge of Spies (based on real events), Brooklyn (literary adaptation), The Revenant (literary adaptation, based on real events), Spotlight (based on real events) and either Room (literary adaptation) or The Big Short (literary adaptation, based on real events). In addition, all of them are concerned with ideas of “America,” a common theme of Best Picture winners from Wings (1928) to Patton (1970) to Unforgiven (1992). The six films here are concerned with, respectively, the Cold War, the immigrant experience, frontierism, church and community, family, financial disaster. All of the key nominees present aspects of America in relief and highlight them to the world. Cinema has long been an important form of US propaganda, so it is unsurprising that the Academy reward films that effectively advertise the USA. And if the advertisements are about less than savoury events, like Spotlight and The Big Short, this shows a degree of self-reflection and introspection somewhat lacking in US foreign policy and election campaigning.
Two of the nominees are, however, anomalous: The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw both films and enjoyed them very much, but to see them nominated for Best Picture is actually staggering. Both are science fiction films (space travel, post-apocalyptic), which makes them part of a very rare group. The only other sci-fi films to be nominated for Best Picture are Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), Inception (2010) and Gravity (2013), so to have two such films nominated in one year is quite extraordinary. Furthermore, Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie and a sequel, only the fifth to ever be nominated after The Godfather Parts II and III, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King. So for the first time, a sci-fi sequel is up for Best Picture! This is actually radical and groundbreaking for the Academy, and perhaps signals a possible shift in its members’ typically conservative tastes.
Insurgent posed high expectations because I enjoyed Divergent very much, finding the dystopia as metaphor for teenage isolation compelling and effective. Unfortunately, Insurgent falls apart in its expansion of the central premise into a wider society facing a growing insurrection. Inevitable comparisons with The Hunger Games highlight the problems with the Divergent series. In The Hunger Games, the titular games are only a part of the wider oppressive society, and through them the narrative moves into a broader tale of rebellion. In the Divergent series, the conceit of a faction society based on personality types (Dauntless, Erudite, Candour, Amity, Abnegation) sustains a single film that is concerned with one young woman finding her place in the world, but proves too flimsy for a second film with a broader tale of rebellion. Shailene Woodley remains a very engaging screen presence and the presence of Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer in non-gender specific roles, make the film interesting from a gender perspective. But in spite of some competent action sequences, Insurgent lacks enough dramatic material to sustain its running length.
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.
The appearance of Under The Skin in several best films of the year lists compelled me to check it out on Blu Ray. It is one of those rare occasions where a film lives up to the hype, as Jonathan Glazer’s lo-fi adaptation of Michel Faber’s science fiction novel is a haunting and mesmerising portrayal of Otherness. The Glasgow locations, anonymous characters and subdued performances provide a (literally) down-to-Earth naturalism, but the objective camera and eerie score create an atmosphere of strangeness. The human body is presented as an object of curiosity, while the central character’s (Scarlett Johansson) interest in her body also serves to de-naturalise basic human features. Human interactions and activities are similarly presented as strange through sound and production design – simple undertakings such as kissing, eating, walking and resting become journeys of discovery. The film takes the viewer on such a journey, making the everyday unfamiliar and casting the familiar as alien.
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.