Interstellar (2014) – Dir. Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan is a film-maker who polarises audiences and critics: for each viewer who regards his work is intellectual, ingenious and stylish, there seems to be another who finds the British director’s films pious, hubristic and self-consciously serious. Interstellar – following on from Nolan’s 2010 concept-laden hit Inception – does little to close this chasm of division.
For fans of Nolan’s work, there is much to admire here in this story about a deep space mission to find a new home for the human race, but for sceptics, this grandiose, meandering and lengthy voyage into the mind-bending world of astrophysics will do little to endear them to the man who reinvented Batman as a dark, joyless and brooding allegory of a post-9/11 world.
Interstellar is a hugely ambitious film which aims to explore universal motifs like relativity and love, whilst portraying the possible end of humanity, and it never really locates a happy groove to slip into in the midst of the drama, action, adventure and the 2001-esque space epic it is striving to be. This results in an uneven ride as Interstellar’s tone, pacing, mood and style battling to reconcile such a wealth of content.
The acting on show is sound – with Matthew McConaughey as protagonist Cooper on good form in particular as a father torn away from his children – but like Nolan’s previous films, there is a tendency for his actors’ performances to feel as if lines are being delivered for the film’s trailer in an overtly stilted manner. It often feels as though the actors are conveying ideas to the audience rather than living and being their characters. In a text that places so much stock in the emotional journey of its participants, this is a great shame and considerable blow to Interstellar’s intentions.
As is true of his ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy and Inception, Nolan owes no small thanks to the contribution of Hans Zimmer here whose beautifully poignant and – at times – overwhelming score frequently provides rhythm, energy and emotional depth to events, covering some of the cracks rendered by a busy script.
Interstellar is a grand but flawed attempt to realise a very interesting story idea. It ultimately fails to find the right notes for a gripping film-text as it becomes laboured and overburdened with multiple plotlines and an excess of characters and exposition. In a film of this nature – that is, in order for the audience to experience and immerse themselves in the awe-inspiring scale of the ideas within – the story needed stripping back and simplifying – reducing some of the ‘noise’ and letting the epic, sweeping ideas breathe a little.
This is certainly not Nolan’s best work but it is a fascinating and occasionally brilliant watch nonetheless. To the director’s credit, there are no other film-makers working today who are taking risks on such creative, ambitious and cerebral blockbusters – even if, on this occasion, they happen to miss the mark.
Locke (2013) – Dir. Steven Knight
Tom Hardy reminds us of his burgeoning status as one of the most diverse and captivating acting talents of his generation in this taught, claustrophobic film about a successful, workaday construction manager whose tightly regulated existence is about to be irrevocably dismantled.
Set entirely within the eponymous Ivan Locke’s car as he makes an evening journey from Birmingham to London, Steve Knight’s narrative acutely explores how one person’s life can be packed with a combustible and delicate assemblage of parts; all of which require managing, controlling, maintaining and dealing with. At some point, the text suggests, this process reaches a precipice; it finds its elastic limit.
Locke is well directed and atmospheric, and its writing is sharp, biting and believable – in fact, the whole text is refreshingly bereft of hyperbole or exuberance – instead it is keenly interested in the everyday, the mundane and the grinding, unbearable functionality of modern day life.
Ultimately though, it’s Hardy who lifts Locke up a peg from a decent character study piece into a thrilling one act tour-de-force. With the camera fixed on him throughout the film’s eight-five minute run-time, the actor provides a stunning portrait of a controlled, pragmatic man as he fights to impose structure on the caprices of his world. Hardy measures Locke’s emotional transitions superbly; measured and stoic, he occasionally, in between the constant phone-calls he receives which are the text’s primary storytelling device, bursts into bitter, sorrowful monologues in his passenger-less vehicle as he confronts his past and the things he simply cannot accept that he has become.
Locke is a captivating and entertaining piece of cinema: it is simple in its premise, clinical in its direction and has a stellar performance gluing it together. Most certainly recommended.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) – Dir. Peter Weir
Mankind’s fascination with the sea stretches back into the distant past and will endure far into the future. Being able to conquer the vast unknowns of the world’s oceans has commanded the attention and resources of the great and powerful throughout history, as empires of ancient times and those of the past millennium fought to expand their interests into hitherto ventured shores by traversing the great plains of water that surround us.
My point is this, as a species we have an enduring desire to see ourselves as unencumbered buccaneers, escaping our land-locked trappings to take to the high seas, and there is a substantial canon of fiction devoted to seafaring, the ocean and the like. Peter Weir’s 2003 filmic adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s novel series about a Napoleonic-era Royal Navy Captain, Jack Aubrey, is a recent attempt at tapping directly into this lingering sensibility.
Set aboard British Frigate the H.M.S Surprise, Weir’s film pitches Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his crew in a cat-and-mouse pursuit of a powerful French privateer – the Acheron – around the south Pacific, as they strives to stop Napoleon extending his interests into a new parts of the world.
Master and Commander is an excellently paced and thoughtfully structured text which provides a potent fusion of a restrained character-based piece with an energetic adventure/action yarn in the conventional spirit of stories about warfare and seafaring. Russell Crowe is aptly cast as confident, assured Aubrey (not suffering from the inconsistencies of accent which blighted some of his other ventures into similar roles) – yet his character portrayal refrains from straying into clichéd traits which could have made the text more prosaic; Crowe presents Aubrey as being revered by his crew, peerless in his skill as a sailor, but deeply human beyond his outward bravado – traits explored largely through his relationship with his friend and the ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Aubrey and Maturin share a series of scenes in which they talk candidly, share their love of music and debate the ethics, morals and role of the military – scenes which become increasingly strained as the two’s personal interests begin to clash with Naval duty. This interplay is really the substance of the film and glues the plot threads together handsomely. Aubrey is fiercely committed to his cause, but his personal ambitions and pride are explored as being so keenly welded with his sense of duty that he perhaps is no longer able to discern one from another. Stephen’s frequent questioning of Aubrey’s actions and motives are the mechanism through which Aubrey is given perspective about his actions – something which he is intolerant of – creating an immensely watchable dichotomy which both Crowe and Bettany rise to well.
It is director Weir’s willingness to shine a spotlight on the H.M.S Victory’s people which makes Master and Commander highly evocative and linger long in the memory. Weir uses some wonderfully photographed and acutely juxtaposing shots and compositions to convey the extremities of life at sea: violent storms are contrasted with barren heat, whilst hectic battle scenes are used alongside eerily-still moments where the ship is set resting against the endless inky-black of the surrounding waters. Weir places a focus on a range of supporting characters, shifting the narrative focalisation away from the film’s leading star to fully realise the ‘world’ of the ship with all its hierarchical and procedural mechanics and conventions . A decision to have no shots throughout the film set on land – other a handful of sequences set amongst the the barren, alien rock formations of the Galapagos Islands – further adds to a sense of isolation amongst the protagonists. Some solid work from the text’s supporting cast enables this be achieved, with a series of sub-plots drawing together themes about loss, loneliness and the fear of failing to be the things that others expect of you.
Master and Commander is a nautical adventure which transcends its immediate premise through thoughtful direction, some wonderful scoring choices and an intriguing, suspenseful story that withholds information from the audience, patiently swelling its momentum. As a result, Weir’s narrative delivers some terrific intellectual and emotional payoff for the viewer.
Sadly, the film only made $90 million at the box office against a budget of some $150 million, shattering the chances of any further instalments. This is a great shame as Peter Weir brought the same cerebral, precise storytelling to this project as he did with his other great works The Truman Show and Dead Poets Society – demonstrating that action-adventure-centric films need not be merely vacuous set-piece assemblies, and proving again that he is one of the most gifted film-makers in the industry. Check this one out.
Dredd (2012) – Dir. Pete Travis
Novice Director Travis takes on a script written by ‘Judge Dredd’ creators Carlos Ezquerra, John Wagner and 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland, hoping to revive the comic-book law-enforcer’s cinematic career after the desperately silly Sylvester Stallone 1995 live-action effort Judge Dredd temporarily sank the franchise.
And do you know what? He succeeds assuredly. Dredd is a radically different take on the character than its forerunner; dark, grimy and echoing great dystopian cinematic works like Blade Runner in its fierce, chaotic vision of the future. Where Stallone’s film tried to open up a vast, sprawling world for the viewer – full of colourful, hyperbolic characters – Dredd sensibly anchors itself within an enclosed, isolated setting, allowing Travis to ratchet-up tension and claustrophobia; a choice that seems to suit Dredd’s character much more aptly on the big screen.
Set entirely inside one of ‘Megacity One’s’ looming residential slum tower-blocks, the narrative focuses on the eponymous ‘lawmaker’ (played by Karl Urban) as he is despatched to deal with a vicious drug gang. Tagging along is a rookie ‘Judge’ Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) – who, owing to a genetic mutation has potent psychic powers – whom Dredd is required to evaluate whilst she is on call with the infamous law enforcer. When the gang – led by their ruthless leader Ma Ma (Lena Headey) – initiate a security lock-down and entrap the judges, they must fight their way out.
The strength of Dredd is that it simply plays to Judge Dredd’s, well, strengths. The writing team hesitate from straying too far into the black humour that characterised the comic books (an attempt at humour which contributed to the 1995 film’s abject failure) and instead opt for a much more straight-laced, ‘hard’ action version of Dredd. Karl Urban is well up to the task here – sombre, restrained and belligerent, just as Dredd fans remember him.
Dredd doesn’t try to be overly ambitious and it derives its credence from this; at times, some of the dialogue is a bit rigid, and some greater exposition could have been offered in places to help orientate the uninitiated viewer into the ‘world’ of Judge Dredd, but overall, the narrative is devised so that prior knowledge is not essential. Travis keeps things, clear, direct and pacey.
I’ve been critical in the past (and will be again in the future) about films that do not attempt to be original or ambitious in their storytelling, but this is one of the rare occasions when a text gets away with being simplistic. Dredd doesn’t require an elaborate storyline to work; its creativity stems from its mise-en-scene and mood. There’s a constant sense of urgency and tautness created by the film’s visuals, and the narrative devise of the protagonists moving up the building floor-by-floor creates continuous opportunities for fresh events, incidents and characters to be introduced. Furthermore, there’s a good splattering of gore in keeping with the violent spirit of the source material which lends the text some of the ostentatious brutality it needs to be striking.
Dredd is a solid and enjoyable action film; it is uncomplicated, unfussy and unswerving – whipping through its ninety minutes with barely a lapse in its momentum. Fans of Judge Dredd won’t be disappointed with this effort and causal viewers have more than enough to savour.
Crimson Tide (1995) – Dir.Tony Scott
Now tinged with some tragedy (Director Tony Scott and one of the film’s co-stars James Gandolfini both having died in recent years) Crimson Tide is an Military-Action-Thriller effort that transcends some of the more generic within its ranks through its gripping premise, strong characterisation and tight direction.
Set aboard a U.S nuclear submarine dispatched to intercede when a group of Russian rebels gain possession of some ICBM missiles, Crimson Tide is an exploration of ego, chain-of-command, loyalty, patriotism and, ultimately, morality. Specifically, it is the often subtle, ambiguous examination of these ideas which really elevates the film beyond a run-of-the-mill military/political commentary of the 1990s and mixed entries like Enemy of the State, Clear and Present Danger and Air Force One.
The film’s two leads are brilliantly cast, playing out the above-mentioned concepts through a series of intense, well-choreographed exchanges. Gene Hackman plays Captain Frank Ramsay; seasoned, decorated, loyal and very much tied to the ‘old world’ conservatism of the U.S military. Denzel Washington – assigned to be Ramsay’s new Executive Officer – is very much of the ‘new’ world: he is young, black, well-educated and liberal, and sees the military and warfare as an entirely different construct to his new commanding officer. In one particularly brilliant scene, Hackman attempts to goad Washington about his seemingly anti-war sentiments in front of the ship’s senior officers, an exchange which ends in an awkward, dubious stalemate. What works so well about Hackman and Washington in these roles is that the latter is happy to allow Hackman to chew the scenery and dominate scenes; Washington pitches his considered and articulate Lt. Commander Ron Hunter perfectly; he is cool, affable and restrained for much of the piece – and this dynamic establishes some fascinating territory for the narrative to roam into during the final act.
Crimson Tide is an entertaining and rewarding two hours of cinema: it is energetically paced, claustrophobic (was there ever a better way to create intensity than setting a narrative on a submarine?) and delves into some quite lofty existential ideas without ever being cumbersome or self-indulgent (if you were ordered to do X, and you assumed, to the best of your knowledge that Y would happen as a result, but Y might have terrible consequences, could you bring yourself to do X? But what if not doing X led to Z, which had equally as bad consequences as Y?!)
All round, this is a thoroughly enjoyable action romp which often feels like it should have come a decade earlier during the Cold War, and if you’re in the mood to get your thinking cap on, there’s much to savour under its testosterone-fuelled and bullish exterior.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – Dir. Ridley Scott
The commercial and critical success of Ridley Scott’s Roman-themed Gladiator in 2000 initiated a clamour for Hollywood studios to produce historical ‘Sword and Sandal’ epics on a scale not seen since Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston had donned eyeliner and dodgy wigs some fifty years before. The early 2000s would see a raft of underwhelming ventures into non-existent past-times including The Last Samurai (2003 – did I say before that I didn’t mind Tom Cruise? Hmm…), King Arthur (2004), Troy (2004) and Alexander (2004 – and we’ll be hearing more about this one in due course). It seemed every man and his dog in Hollywood was having a pop at Ridley Scott’s CGI-tiger-encrusted crown.
So after taking a five year sabbatical from the genre, Scott returned in the middle of the decade with a take on the 12th Crusades, bringing with him Orlando Bloom, fresh from his own wig-wearing success in Peter Jackson’s stunning kind-of-sword-and-sandal Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The master had returned with a new apprentice. It was a match made in Heaven (see what I did there?)
Except it wasn’t.
What audiences ended up with from Kingdom of Heaven was a lumpy mess of a film which attempted to mimic Gladiator’s underpinning narrative arc (‘average’, if not devilishly handsome, reluctant man turns hero) whilst offering a dubious political commentary on the Middle East. I say ‘dubious’ because the text never really works this angle consistently or to any great end: a ‘Hero’ narrative needs to have (surprise) heroes and villains and so Scott is forced to have the Muslim army portrayed as antagonists of a sort to make this device serviceable, yet he holds back from casting Saladin’s army as outright foes to Balian’s (Bloom) Christians. This is noble from a political perspective, and the director tries to forge a sense of a multifaceted, turbulent military and political era, but in a film such as this, there simply needs to be more conspicuous good/bad binaries to provide the requisite payoff for the protagonist (Gladiator’s climax was so emotionally wrought because the audience detested Joaquin Phoenix’s skilfully played Commodus and had fully invested in Russell Crowe’s Maximus). KoH spends too much time trying to portray the politics of various factions, traitors and religious groups, and in doing so it drifts from the ‘Hero’ arc it sets out with.
The film’s narrative is overly drawn-out (running to more than two hours), features a spate of needless support appearances by Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons whose characters are almost laughably clichéd, but ultimately Kingdom of Heaven is doomed to ignominious mediocrity by Bloom’s Balian. Lacking the physical presence required in action set-pieces and wheezing through what needed to be lung-busting speeches, Bloom’s tepid performance sealed the fate of KoH. If there were two lessons gleaned from this film they were this: firstly, Orlando Bloom had no future as a big-budget leading star, and secondly, Russell Crowe he ain’t…
Oblivion (2013) – Dir. Joseph Kosinski
Firstly, a confession: I don’t mind Tom Cruise. There, that’s out in the open. Although he seems increasingly to be morphing into a strange, rubber-faced parody of himself in recent years – with numerous bizarre T.V spots and revelations about his connections to Scientology (snigger) blotting his copybook – he can still anchor a Big-budget action film better than most and there are few better ‘Star’ turns in the Hollywood machine than he. Films like Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005) are good examples of Cruise at his best in recent years – perfectly cast and entirely at ease with his character in a Science Fiction film, which brings us to one of his latest sojourns into the genre,2013’s Oblivion, an effort paradoxically succeeds as a piece (to an extent) because of Cruise’s presence at its helm, yet ultimately leaves you wondering how better it might have been without his overbearing aura.
Director Joseph Kosinski’s film has great potential but somehow never seems to find its way to being a great film, trapped somewhere between the screenplay, the director’s mind and producer Universal’s expectations of a $120 million film with Tom Cruise starring in it.
There’s a classic science-fiction premise (An abandoned, future Earth) and an intriguing sense of mystery created by one my favourite science-fiction tropes – ‘absence’; the film looks and feels sparse and this works excellently early on to establish a measured, restrained aesthetic. The mise-en-scene is pale, bleak and starkly beautiful, and Cruise’s protagonist Jack Harper and his companion Victoria’s characters are fittingly monotone and withdrawn: Something’s definitely up from the outset and the viewer has no idea what it is. Compounding this feeling, the narrative establishes a series of intriguingly half-explained truths (the Earth is abandoned after a war against an alien race, Jack and Victoria are a surveillance team maintaining drones which extract resources to keep the human race alive in its new home of Titan) which set up myriad possibilities and pose intriguing mysteries. All promising enough stuff.
Now this is where Cruise’s presence is key: In the early movements of the film, Cruise’s pitch is perfect; his character is restrained enough to enable a sense of insecurity to pervade and to allow the film to breath around him, yet his recognisability provides the text just enough familiar anchorage to enable the viewer to emotionally invest in what is being established. Sadly, what transpires here on in is a gradual momentum shift into more quintessentially ‘star driven’ piece with Cruise’s protagonist overbearing and overwrought at the heart of the text, and this is where the narrative runs into trouble.
Oblivion is a text all about mystery, uncertainty and hidden truths, but is one which gets lost by trying to straddle the turf between being a big-budget action set-piece with a ‘Star’ lead, and a cerebral science fiction thriller. As the narrative calls for more action towards the film’s denouement, the hard-won subtlety from the opening acts is dispensed with and Oblivion loses much of its currency. Even though it is a narrative that fundamentally needs to be focused on its protagonist, the key to powerful character-driven texts is that the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions enable the viewer to empathise and transpose themselves into character’ place. With Oblivion, you merely feel you are watching Tom Cruise act from afar, and this diminishes any emotional bond.
Ultimately, Oblivion is an ambitious attempt at telling an interesting story, and it should be applauded for that at least. It could have been a really great Science Fiction film but instead it is an okay Science Fiction/Action film. Had it not had a star-turn in Cruise leading it, it could have been an entirely different, less protagonist-centric film in the mould of Solaris or Moon (to name two examples) – but then, without Cruise and his commercial clout fronting it, it may never have seen the light of day at all…
Elysium (2013) – Dir. Neill Blomkamp
Following-up on his 2009 science-fiction socio-political allegory District 9, Neill Blomkamp ventured back into the genre with Elysium – a film about a world where the wealthy elite have eloped to a man-made space station to live in utopian bliss whilst the rest of the world’s population are left behind on a decaying planet to live as serfs to their space-hopping masters.
Elysium is a film so keen to force home a similarly pungent socio-political message as its fore-runner, it fumbles its way haphazardly through 109 minutes of hectic action sequences and transparent dialogue, groping around to try and locate some form of meaning and direction like an 18-year old trying to unfasten a bra in the back of a Ford Fiesta.
Elysium isn’t a bad film per se; the special effects are effective, the mise-en-scene is stark and arresting, and there are, despite their messiness, some thought-provoking ideas about hierarchical class-structures that bulge out from behind the wall of chaos at times – it’s just a pity that director Blomkamp isn’t able to resist the urge to throw the film’s considerable budget so enthusiastically in the viewer’s face at every opportunity, diminishing any subtlety in the wake of lights and noise, stock characters and generic story arcs that rise and fall predictably.
Even more disappointingly, Blomkamp wastes the presence of Matt Damon as his protagonist, reducing his role to little more than a clichéd ‘Action’ lead. Given that he has so little to bring to the role, such is it written, it’s conceivable that Damon’s character Max could have been played by any number of Hollywood’s leading men, and that simply shouldn’t be the case when a director is in possession of such a charismatic and versatile asset as Damon. Jodie Foster is cast as one of the film’s antagonists – a ruthless administrator on the idealistic Elysium Space Station – and she plays this role opting for one of the oddest, most jarring faux-English accents ever committed to screen. Like Damon as her opposite number, she imbues her character with little beyond instruction-manual-grade villainous characteristics.
As stated above, Elysium isn’t bad, it’s merely forgettable. Its action sequences will entertain, It won’t cause much offense and it won’t live too long in the memory after the credits have rolled. Arriving on the back of a striking and at times deeply uncomfortable film like District 9 however, this is crime enough for Blomkamp to have committed.