With Blade Runner 2049 (2017) in cinemas now, all the kids (and me) were revisiting Ridley Scott’s original. Long famous as much for the director’s endless tinkering and various cuts, it feels like of recent years people have started to actually consider the final product, and rightly position it as one of the better sci-fi films of all time.
Once forced to endure the horrors of the theatrical cut as part of a university course, the director’s cut of Blade Runner (1982) is now the only one for me. Who knows what the differences are except for the scrapping of the abysmal Harrison Ford voiceover and the total flipping of the ending’s tone, but that’s enough for me. Actually just canning the voiceover would be enough, there’s argument to be had about which ending is superior. The film follows Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, employed as a Blade Runner to hunt down synthetic replicants who have been banned from earth. The film is small for a sci-fi flick, and the story beats can essentially be reduced to a crime story. A fair amount of the film is just Deckard running down clues. It’s a slow burn, not heavy on plot and taking place in a pretty confined setting (as in a single city, not multiple worlds or galaxies). These genres are melded visually too, subtly evoking noir films through lighting and weather, and directly referencing the genre through costuming elements. It is these aspects that put the visuals over the top, and to this day it is a remarkable looking film (even on the shoddy VHS copy I watched). One element of the film that is perhaps underappreciated are the excellent action sequences. The early rain soaked chase as Deckard hunts a female replicant who has escaped him encapsulates everything the film is going for. On a stylistic level at least, if not thematically. A dour vibe is lent to the sequence through the weather, Deckard gets his weariness from Ford and there’s some surprisingly good gun battling and chase elements through the crowded, polluted streets shrouded in a neon glow that oppresses as it illuminates.
Discussion around the film so often focusses in on whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant (driven in large part by the change to the ending in the director’s, and subsequent, cuts of the film). However the assertion that Deckard is a replicant is not all that supported by the text, aside from the insertion at the ending. And the film’s main thematic concern – what it is to be human – is a strong focus without attempting to answer the question of Deckard’s nature. Indeed this focus on the constitution of humanity is present from the opening text crawl right through to the excellent final showdown. We all love Harrison Ford. But he doesn’t have the greatest range and here he slips into a bit of an Indiana Jones as spacecop territory. The real star performance-wise is Rutger Hauer as replicant Roy Batty. Hauer is just a raw physical presence here, but somehow communicating that with a level of subtlety. His line readings from some of the best parts of the script certainly help in that regard. He carries the key end sequence that is the film’s high point. A bravura, extended showdown that eschews wild action beats for a mental and even spiritual confrontation. It is rightly iconic. Batty’s dialogue and philosophy, plus the reserved arch beauty of the shooting provide the artistry. Deckard copping a real beating (most notable the symbolism laden nail through the hand) provides the brutality. It’s a heady mix. Just how alive Batty is in the face of death, the bliss of feeling rain on his face, even if he is not ‘real’, is the most affecting element of the film. Moreso than any of the supposed ‘human characters’, playing into those considerations of what it is to be human, and if that even matters all that much.
Verdict: This is kind of beautiful sci-fi filmmaking. Thought provoking without being unnecessarily cerebral in its plotting, incredible noir-infused visuals and underrated action. Well worth a look, even in the face of the underwhelming sequel. Pint of Kilkenny
There has been a steadily growing stream of low-budget Australian sci-fi over recent years, helping to complement our strong horror output. With streaming finally making some decent headway, that looks set to continue. That is the path that Infini (2015) has taken, with a streaming focused release, coupled with a few select cinema screenings, helping to get the film out there.
Infini takes a relatively old fashioned approach to the genre. Back story is conveyed via text onscreen, which actually functions quite well. Much better than if they had tried to flesh out the timeline more, which would have just stretched the budget too thin you suspect. The text states that in the 23rd century poverty is overwhelming, with the poor forced out of necessity to take low paying jobs and exceptionally dangerous jobs. Many are subjected to slipstreaming, which is a highly dangerous form of transport, that more or less looks like teleporting. This is all simple, but well constructed worldbuilding that allows the film to jump more or less straight into the action of the plot, after a brief moment lingering on the main character’s family life. The story that follows is a nice mishmash of common sci-fi elements, themes and sub-genres. There’s an isolated planet in deepest darkest (coldest) space, a rescue team and a crazy person. It’s very survival horror, with more than a dash of influence from zombie films too. The script does get a little scrappy in the final act when it tries to ramp up the delirium of the characters and the situation, but that is sort of saved by the unlikely element of sound design. The cacophony of voices in the heads of the characters does a much better job of conveying the descent into chaos that is taking place.
Visually, the filmmakers have done a really good job here. Nothing ever looks cheap and they manage to render a slick looking dystopian vision really well. It’s apparent that they’ve used a fair few ‘household’ style items (corrugated iron seems to feature a fair bit), which they manage to combine into sets that well and truly serve the purpose of the film, which is especially true on the isolated planet. Likewise the CGI is really good in the film, mainly because they don’t use that much, focusing more on practical effects. But when they do throw in a bit of CGI, generally to flesh out an expansive background, there are none of those distinctive cheap looking effects so common in sci-fi. Actually I barely even noticed the CGI at all, which is about the biggest compliment you can pay it. On the acting front, the film is populated with a relatively diverse cast and a bunch of Aussie character actors. Daniel MacPherson, best known for appearing on a fair few soapies out here is in the lead role and does it well. He has enough gravitas, at least in a genre sense, to buy into him as a hero. There is the odd patchy performance, but they thankfully never take you out of the film for too long.
Verdict: If old fashioned sci-fi is your thing, then the creative throwback style of Infini will be to your taste. There are patchy moments, but the loving manner in which traditional genre tropes are combined makes this a nice ride. If you’re still on the fence, it also contains the phrase “primordial ooze”, so 10,000 bonus points for that. Stubby of Reschs
Ex Machina (2015) is the far less hyped of the two films currently doing the rounds about looming artificial intelligence. But what it lacks in hype, it makes up for in smarts and is a much more satisfying and thought provoking experience than Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Less explosions and witty banter though.
The film is the directorial debut of accomplished novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland, he of 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007) and Dredd (2012) fame. It sees timid boffin Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) visiting the palatial home of the owner of the company he works for Nathan (Oscar Isaacs). Caleb is there to help the exceptionally clever and calculating Nathan test the proficiency of a new form of A.I. that he has developed. You can possibly hazard a guess at the intrigue that is to follow, thought that is not to say that it is predictable. There is a familiarity to it all coupled with an edge of intrigue as you can sense that perhaps you are not totally all over where this is headed. Garland’s script is chiefly responsible for this and it’s a very clever piece of work. There is a denseness to the scientific language that never feels too oblique or conversely jokey in its use of jargon. The script smartly guides the action and feels at times like a tightly crafted mystery almost rather than a sci-fi script. Its relatively talky, as most of the plot and themes come out in the conversations between Caleb and the feminine A.I. Ava. This includes the exploration of Ava as a sexual being, Caleb’s interest in that side of her as well as her fear of ‘death’. Interesting to see that last rather specific theme reappear so soon after Chappie (2015), which I thought (probably in the minority here), explored that pretty interestingly.
For a film by a first time director such as Garland, Ex Machina is remarkably assured. Perhaps it helps that he has been around sets so often and worked with so many maestros. It probably also helps that he wrote himself a darn good script. Despite the slow pace, there is an economy to the storytelling in the film. The first scene rapidly establishes the backstory to the film and quickly whisks the viewer off to the expansive ice covered and lush greenness of Nathan’s property. This economy never really leaves the film, with non-disclosure agreements, small chips in glass panels and much more conveying so much of the exposition that in the hands of a lesser filmmaker would be in the form of throwaway dialogue. Even the construction of the story is pretty bare bones. Alicia Vikander, as the A.I. Ava, joins Isaacs and Gleeson as the only three really key players in this story. Vikander is exceptional too, nailing that so close to human but not quite vibe that is so intrinsic to her character and the themes of the film. All three of the central performances are very good, Isaacs makes you believe in the brash, arrogant genius of Nathan whilst Gleeson, after initially overplaying the awkward overwhelmed geek aspect of Caleb, makes you really believe in the interactions between him and Ava. To see three skilled performers and have so much of the film’s success, both in terms of themes and buying into the plot, dependent on their skill is part of what makes Ex Machina so satisfying.
Verdict: If you like your sci-fi thoughtful and very smart, you will probably not be faced with a better choice at the cinema this year than Ex Machina. From what I’ve heard, Alex Garland is not all that keen to direct again after this one. Which is a shame, because if he keeps writing scripts with as much thematic depth and clarity as this one, he could have brought us a bunch more ace films. Pint of Kilkenny
Nothing gets me excited like a film that has truly split opinions. So by the time I finally got around to watching Snowpiercer (2013) a couple of weeks ago, my expectations were pretty high. I don’t particularly fit into the love or hate camps for this film, but that is not to say that the experience was a letdown.
The film is set in a frigid near-future, where attempts to reverse the effect of global warming have backfired spectacularly. Only a very small amount of people survive, circling the earth perpetually on a train known as the “rattling ark” (a name I love as a piece of imagery, but which is never really utilised as it could be). The class system sees the poorer people contained at the back of the train, with the hedonistic rich folk up front. The rebellious underclass decides to fight back, which involves battling their way to the front of the train to take control. From this initial set-up, there is a charmingly natural video game level style progression along the train. For me, the best moments of the film were the action beats. They utilise the train setting best, as it is in those moments that you really feel the claustrophobic surrounds of the train pressing in on the combatants. The action also gives us the most riotously enjoyable silly moments of the film, such as the set-piece involving a night-vision massacre in a tunnel. Snowpiercer is best when it keeps it simple early, focusing on the journey to the front of the train, rather than as the action reaches the front of the train, where things get a little silly and focused on clumsy attempts at showing the hedonism of the rich.
There is more than a hint of old school sci-fi to Snowpiercer. It opens with images of chemtrails, and the music over the image definitely invokes an 80s Cold War paranoia vibe. Much of the film seems like an affectionate nod to that era of the genre. The presentation of the film, its high-concept construction and especially the class concerns that are so prevalent in much of classical sci-fi. There is little subtlety to how these class themes are drawn. But for the most part they work well, hitting there mark a lot more than the ham-fisted barbs thrown the way of organised religion which just seem a far too simplistic, superficial and tacked on to be at all satisfying.
It is quite strange to consider a film such as Snowpiercer a performance piece, but there are a lot of fantastic talents plying their trade here in what is a refreshingly multicultural cast. Chris Evans delivers a very different everyman hero to his combination of hyper-masculinity, hyper-everyman shtick from the Captain America films. It’s much more of a real character than Cap, with an inherent weakness that bubbles over throughout the film. Tilda Swinton is spectacularly over the top as an early villain, though it has to be said, she feels like she is in a completely different film… almost certainly one directed by Terry Gilliam. Actually the aesthetic of the film overall gradually shifts from a griminess to a rather Gilliam inspired one. There are strong hints of the visual and tonal style of something like Delicatessen (1991) through much of this. Even down to the look and feel of the technology of the film, which is definitely not steampunk, but there are certain parallels to that sub-genre that can be drawn. It became too familiar for me though, distracting even, and left me yearning for the earlier sequences that felt so dirty, decrepit and grimy that they stood out
Verdict: Snowpiercer is at its best when it sticks to the simple action premise of getting from one end of the train to the other. The film makes for a unique experience and one that should be checked out if you have the slightest interest at all. I just found that the stylistic and narrative meanderings lessened the overall film. Stubby of Reschs
There are plenty of highly hyped movies coming our way in 2015, most of them continuations of franchises. One more original film that has plenty of people psyched is director Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (2015) which he has been working on for what seems like ages. This first teaser trailer gives us an interesting concept, seemingly the presence of another utopian dimension in which you can escape the looming apocalypse. But it also has a pretty stock standard Clooney voiceover dominating it, which does give me some cause for concern. Bird is a talented dude, so I will be keen to check this out. I just hope Disney has given him enough freedom to deliver something original.
The Aussie Spierig Brothers have garnered a fair bit of acclaim for their first two genre flicks, Undead (2003) and Daybreakers (2009). Their latest effort Predestination (2014) will soon open the Melbourne International Film Festival with a wider release to follow. I haven’t seen their first two films, but I am definitely keen to check this one out in cinemas. I really like the imagery in the trailer, from the period flourishes to that initial image of Ethan Hawke exploding into glass. That’s an intriguing image and I can’t wait to see how that factors into the film as whole. I also really hope that this film breaks big, because the female lead Sarah Snook is a hell of a talent and deserves to be seen a whole lot more. Anyone happened to see the Spierig Brothers’ first couple of films?
The title The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) screams awesome B-movie schlock. However the reality of this Richard Matheson penned, Jack Arnold directed film is a little more contemplative and thought provoking than that.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still awesome battles between our shrunken hero and a ‘giant’ spider, but this is a fair way from Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) territory. The film wastes no time breaking with the convention you might be expecting, as a borderline meta voiceover is revealed to be the Shrinking Man himself, speaking in the past tense, so I guess we can presume that he survives the ordeal. We see the main character Scott Carey exposed to a kind of mist whilst lounging around on a boat and then the action shifts to six months later. There is a subtlety to the start of his change as initially his clothes do not fit right, he loses his appetite and then his wife no longer has to get on tip toes to kiss him. From there Carey endeavours to find a medical cure for his predicament, with mixed results. The film has that 50s sense of a great emotional scene. At one point as Scott is down about things and concerned his wife should leave him and she responds ‘as long as you’ve got that wedding ring, you’ve got me. Then right at that moment Scott’s wedding ring clatters off his shrinking finger. The second part of the film morphs into more of an adventure film as Scott becomes trapped in the basement, facing many tense dangers, not the least of which is a spider which resides in the same room. I like this latter section of the film, it is a nice change-up from the almost domestic drama feel to the first half. The entire film, even this more adventurous later period is played very straight. So what could have been a very light hearted look at a man shrinking becomes a cerebral look at the terror that would surely invade your psyche if you were literally shrinking. Where would it end?
The Incredible Shrinking Man comes from that era of film where such care was taken with each aspect of production before a film was released. This is evident right from the opening credits, which have a distinct James Bond feel to them, as a silhouette of a man gradually shrinks as a song plays. Perhaps not as common for the time was the presentation of the main character. His physical condition really affects him emotionally (in a very realistic way) which leads to him lashing out increasingly at his ever-loving wife Louise. So great is the strain on Scott, that he explicitly contemplates suicide which is pretty forward and shocking for a film of this vintage and is part of a seriousness that makes the film so original. The effects are a mixed bag watching them today. The parts where Scott is onscreen by himself, dwarfed by his former everyday surroundings, look great and were presumably achieved through practical and set dressing techniques. Also impressive, but more dated, are those instances where the shrinking man is onscreen with another person or an animal. There is a ghosting on many of these effects, with Carey appearing see-through at times. It is not particularly distracting, but I guess in an age where CGI would make that sort of thing exceptionally simple, it does stand out. Without a doubt the boldest and most shocking part of this film, one which bucks convention throughout, is the ending. The tension through the second part of the film builds and all the while I was expecting a conventional Hollywood ending. Instead, without giving too much away, the film delivers possibly the most un-Hollywood ending ever. Rather, it is an introspective and philosophical end that leaves you thinking about it in the days after the film finishes. I loved it, would have to be one of my favourite endings ever actually.
This is well worth checking out for any sci-fi fan or hell, even any fan of philosophical and thought provoking films. Didn’t think I would be writing that. It has some minor issues, but overall it is easy to see why it is considered such an all time classic.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
2014 Progress: 15/101
The South Korean triptych film Doomsday Book (2012) features three short films from two directors, taking a whimsical look at the apocalypse. Whimsy and the apocalypse don’t seem to mix you say? Well on the evidence of this film, you would be right.
Given the title, it is fair to say I was expecting a very different tone to what this film served up. It starts off with a light, comedy of errors segment, examining family relations. This part is delivered jaunty soundtrack and all. The same segment then flirts with the prospect of being an intense ‘patient zero’ focused look at the zombie apocalypse. In the end the first of the three segments lands with a thud. Really not working as either something fun or something intense. In fact it does not particularly succeed as being something of anything. With most films such as this, it is the job of the first short to intrigue the viewer enough to see where the filmmakers take us for the next segment. This doesn’t do that and instead it feels like a gimmicky stand alone short that would not realistically be able to cohere with anything that follows. And it doesn’t. You can dig down and find some thematic connective tissue between the three shorts, but it would be a very big stretch for you.
After holding zero anticipation going in, briefly the second segment ‘The Heavenly Creature’, holds a bunch of promise. A robot, utilised by a monastery, begins to exhibit signs of spiritual growth. But this promise is rubbished by something that cripples the entire film – really terrible writing. It is a shame that a story idea with such subtlety and scope is ruined by a script that is just plain dumb and lacking any of the required philosophical nuance. In fact most of the ‘philosophy’ here just sounds like a reading from Buddhism for Dummies. Along with a great central idea, ‘The Heavenly Creature’ also brings the other only real highlight of this movie. The robot, and the effects throughout the segment look really great. It is a wonder if they could do such a good job on the relative ‘straight’ special effects like this, why not take a straighter approach to the entire film, rather than aiming for the absurdity that is delivered. By the third segment, where a giant 8-ball meteor brings the end of the world as we know it, the film is too far gone to be any kind of a success. In fact throughout this section the film takes it up (down?) a notch from being not very interesting or well made, to verging very close to being incompetent.
Tonally all over the shop, the few good ideas in Doomsday Book are buried deep below terrible scripting and misjudged atmospherics. The reality is that it starts off by misjudging tone and it never recovers at all. A film dealing more or less with the end of the world that manages to establish absolutely no stakes results in a pretty miserable watch.
Verdict: Schooner of Tooheys New