Recent Movie Roundup 18
Wow, it's been a while since we did one of these. Usually fall and early winter are a dead season for movies, with the summer's blockbusters having died down and the winter's prestige films not having arrived yet, but this year there's been a deluge of genre and genre-adjacent work. I've written about some of these films--Gravity and Catching Fire--at greater length, and some others, like Frozen or About Time, will have to wait until I catch up with them out of the movie theater. Here, however, are some shorter thoughts on recent releases.
- The Congress - Ari Folman's follow-up to Waltz With Bashir, an (apparently, very loose) adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress, stars Robin Wright as a version of herself, who is offered the chance to jump-start a moribund career by allowing herself to be scanned and turned into a digital, eternally young actress. Twenty years later, Wright travels to the titular congress to see what changes scanning technology has wrought on human society. The first half of The Congress, in which Wright debates the pros and cons of being scanned, put me strongly in mind of the films of Andrew Niccol--it has the same kind of gorgeous, lushly lit, highly stylized look, and gives off the same impression of a world that has perhaps a few dozen people in it and whose worldbuilding would fall apart if you thought about it for even a moment. The second half, in which the film transitions from live action to animation, is something much weirder and harder to define. At the congress, Wright catches a glimpse of a society in which anyone can choose how they present themselves to the world, but when she's caught in an attack by anti-technology activists, her--and our--grip on reality slips completely. From there, she travels to the far future to see how humanity is remade by total access to drugs that allow one to shape their own reality--and exist in complete isolation from everyone else, who is doing the same. That the film is hard to parse and often nonsensical is obviously not a point against it, since its central theme is that of constructed reality, and the alienation that results from it. And even at its most opaque, The Congress offers some wonderfully psychedelic animation as an illustration of how foreign the world of the future has become. In fact, my problem with the film is that it isn't weird enough. In her tour through the future, Wright is guided by a former scanning engineer voiced by John Hamm, who spends most of his time explaining the world to her, which eventually leaves The Congress feeling more like a treatise than a story. Even the throughline about Wright trying to find out what became of her son can't quite overcome the fact that the film is an extended and luridly animated infodump. The Congress is worth seeing for its animation, and simply because there hasn't been anything else like it in genre cinema in a long time. But when it comes to opaque, non-linear genre films in 2013, it is definitely the also-ran to Upstream Color's winner.
- Thor: The Dark World - In a lot of ways, the second Thor film is a massive improvement on the first. The plot reaches for something a little more complex than the first film's half-baked redemption-cum-origin-story narrative, and integrates previously underused characters, like Natalie Portman's Jane Foster or Idris Elba's Heimdal, more fully into that story. The film features the same fish out of water humor that was Thor's most endearing trait, but doesn't use it as a crutch the way that film did--where I found myself, while watching Thor, waiting for the Asgard scenes to pass so that we could get back to Chris Hemsworth's comedy antics on Earth, The Dark World makes them compelling in their own right (not least because most of the action sequences take place there, and are quite kinetic and fun), and the transition to the more jokey tone of the Earth-set scenes is not so jarring. Most importantly, however, The Dark World manages to avoid the massive pitfall that is Tom Hiddlestone's Loki, an unrepentant, psychotic mass-murderer who was also the most compelling character in the first film (and is arguably one of the most appealing figures in the whole Marvel movie franchise). The danger of making Loki a misunderstood victim, or letting him walk away with the movie (again) is ever-present, but The Dark World manages to strike a balance in its handling of him. It features Loki heavily, but in such a way that the audience is never allowed to forget what he is. This Loki, who has been imprisoned as a result of his actions in The Avengers, is bitter and steeped in self-pity, blaming everyone but himself for his crimes, able to see (and ruthlessly castigate) everyone's flaws but his own, and fundamentally, constitutionally unhappy. The Dark World makes a compelling argument that Loki is, on some level, mentally ill, and the film's best scenes are the ones he shares with Thor, which drive home how difficult it is to care about someone who may be incapable of returning or deserving that love.
All of this, however, is to make The Dark World sound a great deal better than it actually is. As much as it improves on its predecessor, this film also confirms me in my feeling that the Thor films are the lemon of the Marvel cinematic universe. The plot may be more complex than the Thor's, but it is just as McGuffin-driven--an all-powerful object called the Aether which has the power to destroy all creation--and its solution consists of throwing technobabble at the problem and, when that proves insufficient, throwing Thor at it (at which he succeeds, despite the Aether's hysterically built-up power, by sheer dint of his main character-ness). Though a stab is made at giving Jane more to do, she still spends the middle segment of the movie as, quite literally, a damsel in distress, and the technobabbly nature of the film's final act means that her day-saving efforts in it don't register as strongly as this earlier passivity (neither, by the way, does her romance with Thor, which is still completely inert and unconvincing). Worst of all, Thor himself remains a bland, uninteresting character, his newfound gravitas and sense of purpose in the wake of Thor's events ringing as false as that film's selfish, oafish version of the character (in that sense, one of the film's biggest missteps is a cameo from Chris Evans's Captain America; though it makes for a very funny scene, it also reminds us that that sub-franchise has managed to create a main character who is earnest, stalwart, and fundamentally good but also interesting, while the Thor films haven't). So long as Loki is around, the Thor films will have life in them, but even in The Dark World's interesting handling of the character there are cracks (most frustratingly, playing Stellan Skarsgård's Erik Selvig, whose abuse at Loki's hands in The Avengers has left him permanently damaged, for comic relief; for a film that takes Loki's mental illness so seriously, it's disappointing to see such a flippant treatment of a mental breakdown he caused). The story set up by the film's ending feels like yet another go-around on a familiar track, and doesn't leave me hopeful about the future of this sub-franchise.
- The Challenger Disaster and An Adventure in Space and Time - Isn't it always the way? You wait around for years for a dramatized reenactment of historical events of interest to SF fans, and then two come along at once. The subject matters of these two films couldn't be more different: The Challenger Disaster tells the story of Richard Feynman's role on the commission investigating the explosion of the eponymous shuttle, exposing the failed institutional culture at NASA that led to it, while An Adventure in Space and Time, which was made to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, dramatizes the program's inception and early days. Nevertheless, they make some surprisingly similar narrative and stylistic choices (almost uncannily, both films end by playing their closing credits over a recording of the real events they had previously dramatized--Feynman showily exposing the rigidity of the infamous O-rings under low temperatures in a televized session of the inquiry commission, and William Hartnell as the first Doctor bidding farewell to his granddaughter Susan). I expected both films to be a great deal more procedural than they ended up being--to get into the minutiae of how the Rogers Commission operated or how Doctor Who as we know it came into being--but instead they seem to take it as read that the audience knows most of these details. They both take a more impressionistic approach, dropping in and out of events (and often eliding or underplaying the big "a-ha!" moments of discovery or invention), and focusing instead on the feeling--of both the characters and the audience--that what's being depicted is important and historically significant.
This works better on The Challenger Disaster, whose argument (which, for all I know, may be a known historical fact) is that everyone at NASA, and vast swathes of the US government, knew or at least strongly suspected the cause of the Challenger explosion as soon as it happened, and that Feynman's importance was less as a scientist or investigator and more as an outside voice willing to call out the way that bureaucracy and politics had been allowed to drown out science in NASA's decision-making. And it helps, of course, that with seven lives lost and the future of the American space program at stake, the film doesn't have to work too hard to sell the momentousness of its events. There are some people, I know, who might say the same about An Adventure in Space and Time, but though I like Doctor Who and recognize the accomplishment of a single program running (through however many regenerations) for half a century, I'm not one of them, and so the tone of hushed awe that the film often strikes, in lieu of a more detailed look at how Who came into being, aroused my cynicism more often than my sympathy. (After all, for all that the characters frequently pause to marvel at how special and significant their show is, the reason that Who's 50th anniversary was marked with such pomp and ceremony is that the program is once again popular and making the BBC tons of money; does anyone, for example, think that in three years NBC will do nearly as much to mark the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, a franchise that now exists only in a zombified form?) An Adventure is at its best when it allows its characters to argue for Who's significance, as when the show's first producer, Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), fights for the episode introducing the Daleks over the objections of the BBC's head of Drama Sydney Newman (Brian Cox), who wants the program to strike a more high-minded, educational tone, by arguing that they represent an important message about tolerance and compassion (it also helps that the film offers a counterpoint to Lambert's claims, in several scenes in which the show's juvenile audience is seen to embrace the Daleks as just the kind of "bug-eyed monsters" that Newman wanted to avoid). But too often the film seems, to its detriment, to take that significance for granted.
What saves both films--Adventure from its self-importance, and Challenger from its total lack of surprises--are their lead performances. As Feynman, William Hurt conveys not only intelligence but a genuine belief in the power of science and scientific inquiry to make life better. His outrage when scientists and engineers allow their judgment and conclusions to be superseded by business and political interests (which he also directs at himself, for his participation in the Manhattan Project) is all the more palpable for being understated, a sort of dark bemusement at the lethal foolishness and short-sightedness he discovers when he looks closer at Challenger and the culture that created it. His performance, however, isn't one of cool superiority and righteous indignation--in fact, I'd say that there is something almost Doctor-ish about Hurt's Feynman, who is driven by profound humanist principles and forges instant connections with those who, like him, aren't content to simply keep their heads down and do their job--in this story, Bruce Greenwood's General Donald Kutyna and Eve Best's Sally Ride, who help Feynman find and expose the truth about Challenger. (It might, however, have been worthwhile for the film to acknowledge that whatever effect Feynman might have had on NASA culture was only temporary, that less than twenty years later a small-mindedness similar to the kind he exposed would lead to the loss of another shuttle and its crew, and the end of the program.)
It's the Doctor, too, who is the heart of An Adventure in Space and Time. Though Lambert, and her struggles as the first female producer in the BBC's history, are the focus of the film's first half, she fades into the background after the show becomes a success, and it's David Bradley's performance as Hartnell that comes to fore. The crux of the film is that Hartnell, naturally enough, never thought of himself as "the first Doctor" but simply as the Doctor, and Bradley captures his joy and sense of responsibility towards the role, as well as his sadness when he realizes that the show will go on without him. That sadness--the recognition that, for all that it has become an enduring institution for its fans, Doctor Who was a fleeting, irretrievable experience for its creators and the people who worked on it--is the film's most complex note, so it's a shame that, in its final moments, An Adventure in Space and Time sinks back into the fug of self-congratulation, focusing more on the folks watching in 2013 than on the characters in the 60s. (In particular, a last minute cameo in which Hartnell seems to sense his connection with the long line of actors who will follow him is clearly all about the fanservice; the character of Hartnell, as developed by the film until that point, would have no reason to take comfort from the knowledge that the role he thought of as his own was in fact only his in stewardship.) Despite these flaws, both films are worth watching, if only for the novelty of such serious attention (and production budgets) being paid to stories about people who, to quote Craig Ferguson, work hard to make sure that intellect and romance will triumph over brute force and cynicism, whether in the real world or in the stories we tell. In their own way, they both seem to embody the spirit of science fiction, and I would be happy to see one or both on next year's Hugo ballot.
- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - I've seen a lot of reactions calling Desolation an improvement on the first volume in Peter Jackson's bloated Hobbit trilogy, and while I can see where these are coming from--it's certainly a more exciting, more propulsive film than An Unexpected Journey, whose meanderings occasionally crossed the line into a dull slog--I wonder whether that's not a function of the source material. Desolation covers some of my favorite parts of The Hobbit, including the journey through Mirkwood, the dwarfs' capture and imprisonment by the wood elves, and their escape and arrival in Lake Town. This gives Jackson, and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, a lot of scope for action and chase scenes, and makes for a less episodic story (especially as this adaptation contracts the timeframe of these events, which in the novel take several weeks, into a few days). Nevertheless, to my mind Desolation and Journey are very much of a piece, which is to say that I enjoyed them while recognizing that they are neither faithful to the original book nor particularly good in themselves. The flaws of self-indulgence, of a dissonance between the story Jackson is adapting and the tone he wants to strike, and of being more interested in (for the most part, invented) details about the early rumblings of the War of the Ring than in the actual story of The Hobbit, are back in force here, as are some increasingly distracting directorial tics.
Jackson seems to have little faith in the ability of his actors or his script to elicit an emotional response, because nearly every time a scene seems to be gearing up for some genuine character interaction (as opposed to characters expositing at each other to move the plot along), he cuts away and lets the New Zealand scenery, or some CGI version of Alan Lee's art, or the overbearing soundtrack, do the heavy lifting. And, if you thought the escape from the hall of the goblin king in Journey, with its shifting and crumbling walkways, its improbable feats of acrobatics, and its careening camera, felt a little too much like Jackson compensating himself for the fact that he will probably never be asked to direct an Indiana Jones film, Desolation features three such sequences. All are well done and kinetic, but the cartoon physics and the characters' seeming indestructibility leach all urgency and tension from the film, finally giving the impression that we're watching a theme park ride or a level in a computer game--a far cry from the fight scenes in the Lord of the Rings films, where every blow had real heft and consequences. Perhaps most importantly, though Desolation tries to acknowledge the importance of mercantilism (and its rejection) in The Hobbit--its two interim villains are the elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace), who tries to extort a share of Smaug's hoard from Thorin, and the Master of Lake Town (Stephen Fry), who spews 1% rhetoric so thick there might as well be a neon sign flashing THEME behind him--it can't get away from the fact that Jackson has irrevocably changed Thorin, from the book's hard-headed, greedy pragmatist, to an angst-ridden but heroic warrior. The film's insistence that Thorin is blinded by greed--which includes repositioning the Arkenstone as his equivalent of the one ring, seducing him with its promise of wealth--thus has very little grounding in the character it has created.
Nevertheless, Desolation has its pleasures, not least among them the discovery that it's not just Martin Freeman's performance as Bilbo that's carrying this new, lesser trilogy. Bilbo has a fantastic scene early in the film in which he begins to realize the power that the ring is already exerting on him (one of the few instances in which Jackson's attempts to turn The Hobbit into a prequel to The Lord of the Rings work, genuinely imbuing the older, simpler story with added power rather than simply changing it beyond recognition). But for the rest of the film he fades into the background, moving the plot along but no longer its emotional core (even the vaunted confrontation between Bilbo and Benedict Cumberbatch's Smaug falls flat, with the two characters failing to spark against each other as Bilbo and Gollum did in Journey). Instead, new characters come to the fore and discover new notes in this hybrid story. These include Pace's Thranduil, who is recognizably elvish even as he plays a villainous character, content to ignore the darkness sweeping over Middle Earth so long as his realm remains safe, and Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel, an invented character whose story is pure Mary Sue--she's a fearsome warrior who is the only one of Thranduil's subjects to recognize the coming danger of Sauron's return and object to his isolationist policy, and ends up in a love triangle with Orlando Bloom's Legolas and Aidan Turner's Kili--but who nevertheless turns out to be one of the film's bright points, for the first time humanizing the trilogy's throughline of Middle Earth's old powers realizing that they must set aside petty differences and prepare to fight Sauron. Her rapport with Kili, too, is one of the few places in which Desolation lets its characters breathe, and Turner, who also comes to the fore in this film, justifies the added presence given to his character in Journey. Like Journey, Desolation is a film best enjoyed for its moments rather than its whole, and the fact that these moments don't rest solely on Freeman's shoulders give me hope that, however lumpy and misshapen the Hobbit trilogy ends up being, there's something genuine at its core that makes it more than an addendum to the Rings films.