Archive for the ‘films’ Category
In 1994 I bought my first issue of Interzone. It was half price from a cardboard box of back issues in a secondhand book shop on Camden High Street, just before the canal. The bookshop is long gone but the experience was formative. For my birthday that year, I asked for a subscription to the magazine and I remained a subscriber for the next twelve years. This obviously wasn’t my first exposure to speculative fiction but it was my first sustained, systematic reading of the genre and it was my first exposure to SF criticism. I have forgotten the names of many of the reviewers who introduced me to writing about SF but some like John clute and Nick Lowe, writing about fiction and cinema respectively, have stuck with me ever since.
That same year, I also asked for a copy of the second edition of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, edited by Clute and Peter Nicholls. My uncle duly bought it for me and, out of ignorance and hunger, I decided to read this bloody big book cover to cover. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this but it is hard to think of a better crash course in the history of the genre, its possibilities and the possibilities of writing about it.
So it was a slightly strange experience to find myself last week in flat not five minutes walk away from that lost bookshop, having dinner with Clute, Lowe and Graham Sleight, the managing editor of the third edition of encyclopedia. Strange but extremely enjoyable. The upshot of this meal is that I will be writing some of the cinema entries need to update the encyclopedia from 1992 to 2012. The first three of these have already been published: Pandorum, Avatar and Moon. Those last two were co-authored with Lowe which feels more than a little surreal to write. I will continue to work with him on ensuring that the essential films and directors are covered but, for the moment, I am mostly going to be concentrating on children’s animated science fiction of the last decade or so.
The Guardian wonders if science fiction is creeping into more mainstream films. My ears pricked up at this as this is something I started thinking about earlier in the year. However, I didn’t get round to actually completing my thoughts so here is the first half of them:
Non-genre science fiction is a pretty ugly term but it is also nice and straightforward. SF is a mode as well as a genre and quite often authors produce works of science fiction from outside of the community, published by different publishers and in dialogue with different influences. It often gets a bad rap within the community but usually this is no more reflective than a moan about bloody foreigners coming over here and stealing our jobs. Personally, I’m a big fan. It often gives me something that I am missing from most genre SF, although it can be relatively limited. I’ve reviewed quite a bit of non-genre SF for Strange Horizons and it usually falls into three main camps: near future satire (Barleypunk, if you will), dystopia and post-apocalypse. Only very rare exceptions feature core genre tropes like spaceships.
Things are different with film. It is a younger medium and is attendantly more democratic both in terms of producers and consumers. Studios are much less signifiers of content than publishers, directors are much more likely to move between genres and influences are much more universal. (There is also the small issue of money but let’s ignore that.) As such, non-genre SF doesn’t really exist in cinema. So it is interesting to compare and contrast two post-apocalypse films which, if they had been published as novels, would have clearly sat on different shelves. On the silver screen things are a bit less clear cut.
The Road, of course, is a book. Cormac McCarthy Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 novel is probably the most famous and acclaimed work of non-genre SF in recent years. The 2009 film adaptation was directed by John Hillcoat and by written Joe Penhall. Like many film directors, Hillcoat started out making music promos and then went on direct The Propostion, Nick Cave’s 2005 Australian Western. Penhall is a playwright who has also written crime dramas for television and adapted Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (1997, 2004).
The Book Of Eli isn’t a book and was written and directed by the Hughes Brothers, Albert and Allan. They are not a particularly prolific pair. Over the last two decades they have produced four films: a piece of violent social realism, Menace II Society (1993); a crime drama-war film hybrid, Dead Presidents (1995); a documentary about pimp culture, American Pimp (1999); and an adaptation of Alan Moore’s Jack The Ripper comic, From Hell (1991-96, 2001).
Er, and that is as far as I got with that argument.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I never got round to watching The Road. When is the right time to watch an adaptation of a remorselessly grim text whose only joy comes from McCarthy’s inimitable prose? Secondly, Adam Roberts’s review of The Book Of Eli killed it dead for me.
Back to the Guardian article. Just as I’ve contrasted these two films, Anne Billson contrasts Never Let Me Go with The Island and points out that “Hanna was sold as a junior Bourne Identity, whereas it was essentially a junior Universal Soldier. She starts by mentioning the recently released Another Earth and Melancholia, the film industry suddenly producing a simultaneous pair of existential art house SF films in the same way it has previously done did for films about volcanoes, asteroids and any number of other topics. The point is less about this strange symmetry than the fact that the science nature of these film is unremarkable. Billson concludes:
It’s tempting to dismiss such films as SF for People Who Don’t Like Science Fiction, since mainstream pontifications on the genre still yield blinkered pronouncements from folk who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Star Trek movie. Conversely, a lot of people who might have enjoyed Monsters were probably put off by it being marketed as a variation on District 9 (“After six years, they’re no longer aliens. They’re residents”) when it was really the sort of thing that plays better at Sundance than at a fantasy festival – a low-budget relationship movie that happened to have tentacled aliens as walk-on extras. But it’s more likely a symptom of the way boundaries between traditional genres are dissolving.
So I was sort of wrong and sort of onto something. I’m not sure where I’m going with any of this but it is interesting to discuss.
I’m writing this not long after the announcement of the Hugo Awards at Renovation and again musing about science fiction’s apparent Transatlantic divide. The Hugo Award for Best Novel was won by Connie Willis for two books, Blackout and All Clear, which form a single novel. This novel runs to almost 1,200 pages and I’ve yet to see anyone suggest such verbiage was necessary or served any purpose beyond making the poor reader pay twice for the same story. I’ve also yet to see anyone in the UK praise the novel at all. Rather I’ve seen it remorselessly criticised for research so sloppy it is borderline offensive. In contrast, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House – winner of the BSFA Award and Vector reviewers’ poll as well as being shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award – came last in the vote.
This is less about the taste of the Hugo voters – although there is always scope for criticism on those grounds – than the fact publishing in the US and UK seems increasingly out of synch. It is something I noticed earlier in the year when Locus published their recommended reading list and you can also see it on the rest of the Hugo shortlist. Although Blackout/All Clear ultimately won the award, Mira Grant’s Young Adult zombie novel Feed gained the most first preferences. Like NK Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms it was published in this country by Orbit and received mixed but respectable reviews. The final book on the list, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn, hasn’t been published in this country. This gives a sense that the US and the UK are two quite distinct science fiction cultures.
The Transatlantic divide is more prominent whilst being simultaneously less important in other award categories. No one will be surprised that the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form award consisted of five American films. Even the latest instalment in the surprisingly good Harry Potter series, which makes much use of British labour, is ultimately American under its skin. (Britain does have the dubious honour of having a stranglehold on Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form thanks to Doctor Who.)
For me, it is a much more interesting list than that for Best Novel. It goes without saying that Toy Story 3 is the best film on that list, it also goes without saying that Inception won (but it is hard to get too upset about that). As I said, I liked the Death Hallows Part 1 for its successful polishing of JK Rowling’s turd and, although I hated Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (in large part because I had read the comics), I know a lot of people took it to their hearts. The only film on the list I hadn’t seen was How To Train Your Dragon, based on a series of children’s novels by Cressida Cowell. Having now seen it, I can report that whilst a lot of fun, it shows why Dreamworks will always play second fiddle to Pixar.
Hiccup is a weedy little kid, completely out of place in his village of burly Viking warriors. The biggest and burliest is Stoick the Vast, chief of the village and Hiccup’s dad (as is inevitably the case with Hollywood films, his mother is safely dead). To compensate for his lack of physical prowess, Hiccup is a brilliant engineer, although of course this talent is not held in any esteem by the others. Completely isolated, he secretly lusts after Astrid, a girl who embodies all the Viking virtues he does not. I think you can see where this is going: Hiccup uses his brain to save the day, make his dad proud and get the girl.
The not-so-secret ingredient that adds some much needed spice to the extremely familiar structure of the films is the dragons. They eat the villagers’ sheep and burn down their houses and, however many the villagers kill, there are always more. Despite this rather grim premise, it is joyfully outlined in a clever opening sequence. In another nice touch, there are many different types of dragon, the most deadly and feared being the Night Fury which is so fast no one has actually seen one. Using his mastery of technology, Hiccup manages to wing one but when he catches up with the downed beast he finds himself unable to deliver the coup de grâce. From this a friendship develops between the two because – who would have thought it? – the dragons are just misunderstood. It’s hokey and overly familiar but the animators do a great job of non-verbally conveying the dragon’s intelligence and personality.
And that sums up How To Train Your Dragon: there is quite a bit of wit but it never manages to rise about its generic plotting. As for Blackout/All Clear, well, I’ll be reading it later in the year (Gollancz publish the second volume here in October) so I’ll be able to see if it is as witless British reviewers have suggested or whether the Hugo voters are really onto something.
- Out Of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It, exhibition (20 May to 25 September 2011, British Library) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
- Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm by John Clute (Beccon, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
- Embassytown by China Miéville (PanMacMillan, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven
- The Noise Within and The Noise Revealed by Ian Whates (Solaris, 2010 and 2011) – Reviewed by Ian Sales
- Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Chris Amies
- Son of Heaven by David Wingrove (Corvus, 2011) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
- Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (Simon and Schuster, 2011) – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
- Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Čapek, translated by David Short (Hesperus, 2011) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
- Black Halo by Sam Sykes (Pyr, 2011) – Reviewed by Donna Scott
- The Heir Of Night by Helen Lowe (Orbit, 2010) – Review by Mark Connorton
- The Hammer by KJ Parker (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
- The Inheritance by Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm (Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Amanda Rutter
- Regicide by Nicholas Royle (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Dave M Roberts
- Epitaph by Shaun Hutson (2010, Orbit) – Reviewed by Martyn Taylor
- The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon (Solaris, 2011) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
- Horns by Joe Hill (Gollancz, 2010) – Review by Lalith Vipulananthan
- Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett (Corgi, 2010), The Folklore of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson (Corgi, 2009) and I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 2010) – Reviewed by Jessica Yates
- Ghost of a Chance by Rhiannon Lassiter (Oxford University Press, 2011) – Reviewed by Graham Andrews
- The Prometheus Project: Stranded by Douglas E Richards (Paragon Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Cherith Baldry
The week I went on holiday it was impossible to avoid A Game Of Thrones which was an important reminder of just how big television is and just how small books are. It was also a reminder of how people tend to get locked into narratives: fantasy is a form of historical fiction; recent historical telly has got lots of shagging in it; fantasy fans are asexual. Cue mild cognitive dissonance from assorted journos and a million identical ledes. Anyway, I liked the preview for A Game Of Thrones but I won’t see it until it has aired in America then aired in the UK then been released on DVD. So to deal with the wait I settled for the next best thing: Black Death (2010).
Or so I thought but I’d made a major category error. Yes, it stars Sean Bean as a long-haired, sword-wielding soldiers but this is a long way from Boromir/Ned Stark territory. Rather than being fantasy or historical fiction, Black Death is a horror film. In particular, it is a horror film in which faith is an instrument of torture. I shouldn’t have been too surprised since the film is directed by Christopher Smith who was previously responsible for Creep (2004), Severance (2006) and Triangle (2009). I’ve not seen Creep but the other two interesting and effective horror films with lots of unusual touches. Black Death is certainly full of unusual touches but the result is bonkers and baffling rather than effective.
Eddie Redmayne is Osmund, a nervy young novice monk in 14th Century England at the height of the plague. His love for God is in conflict with his love (which we are given to believe has been consummated) for a local woman. When the plague reaches the monastery he forces her to flee to the forest for her safety, only to be torn by doubt over whether to follow her or stay with God. He prays for a sign. This appears in the form of Bean’s Ulric, a paladin and envoy of the local bishop. He requires a guide to take him and his men to nearby village which is hidden in the marshes and is rumoured to be free from the plague. More importantly, it is rumoured that the reason for this freedom is necromancy and it is Ulric’s job to lay God’s vengeance upon them.
Following this introduction, the next act unfolds as you would expect: Osmund signs up as the guide and gets to know the motley crew, the tension between being a man of God and a man of war is explored and, inevitably, the crew get all medieval on the arse of various persons who get in their way. In the midst of this is an important scene in which the crew come across a witch burning. Osmund, the man of God, pleads for the release of the young woman and argues that it is not God’s will. Ulric, a man of God but also a man of the world, stabs her to death. This is, he argues, an act of charity since even if they had freed her the mob would have found and burned her. At least he gave her a painless death (although, to be honest, it didn’t sound that painless.) There is a rich stew of faith, fear, gender and morality here and it is a stew that is brought to boiling point by the crucible of the God-less village.
The arrival of the crew at the village, following a journey through an exaggerated and heightened landscape, marks the turning point of the film. Their entrance is reminiscent of the arrival on Skull Island towards the beginning of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), the initially seemingly abandoned village revealing itself to be populated by silent, haunting figures. Smith switches entirely into horror mode at this point. Despite the deliberately eerie way the scene is shot, the group receive an incongruously warm welcome from the head of the village, Hobb (Tim McInnery). The modern viewer is left to assume that the village is simply the innocent victim of rumour, just like the poor woman damned as a witch earlier in the film. Or, at least, we would be if everything wasn’t imbued with a heavy air of the unheimlich and the villagers weren’t quickly revealed to be a bunch of atheists. They make no secret of this and are ahistorically contemptuous of Christianity to these heavily-armed messengers from God.
This contempt comes most strongly from the village herbalist, Langiva, who is played with frankly bizarre modernity by Carice van Houten. With her modern manners, mannish behaviour, cartoon lasciviousness and foreign accent she simply screams witch. Could it be that Langiva really is a witch? At this point I started scratching my head. We know witches don’t exist. Equally we know that thousands of women were murdered in the false belief that they were witches. Is Smith making a film that seeks to justify this slaughter?
Two things happen next. Firstly, the villagers throw a feast in honour of their visitors, complete with gallons of booze and slutty local woman. Secondly, Langiva gives Osmund the come on and beckons him out into the night. You can see that this isn’t going to end well. In fact, Langiva has invited Osmund to watch a necromancy ceremony where, complete with prosthetic witch make up, she raises his beloved from the dead. Simultaneous his compatriots are all passing out from the drugged grog and being interred in Viet Cong-style water cages. So Langiva is a witch, right? Certainly the facial transformation, the magic and the plan to protect the village from the Black Death by crucify and disemboweling her Christian captives suggests so. This allows the film to easily cast Ulric and his crew as the good guys and lets us cheer at their subsequent escape and raving of the village. Hooray! The church has finally turned the tables on those bloody women!
This would be puzzling and unpalatable enough on its own but the film has a few more unwelcome surprises to spring. Because it turns out Langiva isn’t a witch at all. The make-up was just make up (remarkably quickly and professionally applied), the necromancy was just a trick (when Osmund saw her previously she was sleeping not dead – that old chestnut) and she is well aware that her sacrifice plan is bullshit. It is all just a rouse to give her power over the village, although why she wants or needs that power is left unexplored. So Langiva isn’t a witch, she is just a mad bitch pretending to be a witch. So that makes everything okay.
Black Death saves the the worst for last though. Until now Osmund has been the protagonist and our narrator, now that latter role transfers to Wolfstan (John Lynch), the last surviving member of the crew. In voice over he tells us how Langvia’s torments pushed Osmund over the edge and transformed him from sensitive novice to heretic-purging witchfinder. He travels up and down the country murdering innocent women in the guise of hunting his “witch”. Wolfstan audibly shakes his head at this sad news. Poor, poor Osmund. The film’s final words are Wolfstan’s heartfelt wish that Osmund achieved some measure of peace, words that take place against the backdrop of another young woman being sentenced to death by torture. I’d like to believe they were spoken with irony but given the clumsiness, confusion and attitude to women that proceeded this, I don’t think they.
The only major role for a woman is that filled by van Houten’s ridiculous performance but all the roles are underwritten. The relationship between Osmund and Ulric should be the core of the film but, after some initial gestures in this direction, the approach is abandoned to concentrate Osmund, only for that to be abandoned too. I liked the performances from both Redmayne and Bean but there is not enough from either. Both McInnery and Andy Nyman return from Serverance but both have substantially reduced parts that highlight the contrast between the films. Black Death was written by Dario Poloni and completely lacks the wit of Severence or the intelligence of Triangle, both of which Smith himself wrote. Here’s hoping that for his next film he gets his own pen out again.
My review of Source Code is now up at Strange Horizons.
Moon is quiet, oppressive and uses an extremely muted color palette. It presents the universe as being grimly deterministic. Stevens, by contrast, is almost immediately aware of his situation and from there it is only a small step to accepting it and, ultimately, changing it. His journey much more conforms to the Hollywood archetype. Correspondingly, the color palette is reversed and the film is suffused with a self-help sensibility: carpe diem, every second counts, what you do if you only had a minute to live? Although Moon concluded with an unlikely happy ending, it always seemed bolted on. Source Code’s happy ending is never in doubt and Ben Ripley’s script could have been written by Basil Fotherington-Thomas (hello sky, hello trees; hello train, hello terrorists). The film’s capacity for sentimentality still manages to surprise, though.
As it happens, I saw the film on the same day as both my current and previous editors at Strange Horizons (Abigail Nussbaum and Niall Harrison). They both liked it rather more than be and Abigail published her review on Saturday:
Source Code, then, is an underbaked war movie and a slightly wobbly science fiction film. What’s left is an entertaining and occasionally moving SFnal action flick that is smarter and more thought-through than it has any business being, and refreshingly uninterested in wowing us with explosions and special effects. There’s been a mini-glut of low-budget science fiction films from major studios recently (Skyline, Limitless, Battle: Los Angeles, The Adjustment Bureau), and though I don’t yet know how Source Code stacks up (and am anyway only planning to see the last of the four) I think that trend is something to celebrate in itself. A wider field means more chances for quality to accidentally make its way to the screens, and lower budgets put less pressure on filmmakers to stick slavishly to proven, and brain-dead, formulas.
There is also further discussion in the comments on both these reviews.
This, then, is the concept:
Deep Focus is a series of film books with a fresh approach. Take the smartest, liveliest writers in contemporary letters and let them loose on the most vital and popular corners of cinema history.
And first off the blocks we have Jonathan Lethem writing about They Live, “John Carpenter’s 1988 classic amalgam of deliberate B-movie, sci-fi, horror, anti-Yuppie agitprop.” It is an unusual book, a flicker book of thoughts that often reads more like an extended blog post than a conventional work of criticism, despite rather grandly opening with the claim that this is “the first monograph” on the film. Lethem acknowledges Raymond Durgnat’s A Long Hard Look At Psycho as an aspiration but at the same time makes clear he lacks the space and skill required for such a project.
The book opens with five epigrams. Then five introductions. Then dozens of short chapters of only a couple of pages or so. These chapters are split between scene-by-scene dissections of the film and digressions on mood, theme, symbolism and anything else that pops into Lethem’s head. In his second introduction, Lethem notes that They Live is “howlingly blatant and obvious on many levels” yet “marvellously slippery and paradoxical”. I watched the film on Saturday night and it really is a deliberate B-movie, a bizarre collision of high and low art of the type you just don’t see any more in mainstream American cinema (Darren Aaronofsky’s Black Swan is the only recent example I can think of). Lethem deftly unpicks these contradictions and establishes Carpenter as a sort of gutter auteur.
Lethem is usually good and always readable, only occasionally collapsing into self-congatulatory praise for suriving his umpteen re-watches or going slightly stir-crazy from his intense focus. After commenting perceptively on the “bifurcation” of the film – not just high/low but, let’s be honest, the good first half and the bad second half – he closes the chapter by saying: “Or is it something between the two? Am I hedging here? Sure I am!” He is talking to the walls here.
Perhaps, though, Lethem never betters the concision of his very first page where, after a brilliantly brisk synopsis, he notes the two totemic sequences of the film that ensure its continued appeal:
One, when the wrestler first dons the sunglasses and, exiting an alley, walks through a city revealed. Ten minutes of cognitive dissonance as sublime as anything in the history of paranoid cinema, shot partly in black-and-white, and composed with the serene assurance of Hitchcock or Kubrick.
Two, a fistfight in the same alley: crass, bruising farce stetched to an absurd limit, wagering the film’s whole stakes decisively on a pop-culture/”termite art” bet.
He concludes with another five quotes, a grading (B+) and – as if his thoughts hadn’t wandered freely enough – a selection of notes on his notes. That probbaly sums up exactly what Deep focus where after and, while none of the forthcoming titles (Death Wish, The Sting and Lethal Weapon) grab me in the same way as this book, I will definitely be keeping an eye on the series.
There won’t be any Everything Is Nice Awards this year for the simple reason that most of what I watched was shit and I can’t talk about most of the good things I read. I still won’t be able to say much about science fiction literature in 2011 but I’m hoping to fit a few other reading projects in around the Clarke Award. And I’m certainly going to try and watch less bilge.
If you are desperate to know what I think about the state of SF in 2010, the Strange Horizons review of the year features a contribution from me. It is pretty clear that The Dervish House by Ian McDonald takes the lion’s share of the laurels over there. I am currently working on the end of the year issue of Vector, including the reviewers’ poll, and it seems likely that McDonald will place highly there too. But will it claim the top spot? And what else will make the podium?
Finally, all BSFA members, reviewers or otherwise, should nominate for this year’s BSFA Awards by 14 January 2011. Here is a list of nominations received so far to prompt your memory of what is eligible.
Earlier in the year Patrick Hudson put forward the idea of Gap Year SF, named after the British tradition that school kids go off travelling for a year to see the world before going on to university. The aspiration is that you gain life skills by Peace Corp-style volunteering; the perception is that these life skills are more likely to involve having sex with other Westerners, learning rude words in foreign languages and doing a bit of minimum wage manual labour in Australia to make ends meet. As it relates to science fiction, the idea is that the United States has been the default future for so long that, as readers, we are predisposed to be attracted to SF set in the developing world. But, as with kids on a gap year, is our understanding and interest only likely to be superficial?
Sam (Whitney Able) is as close to a gap year student as you can be without actually being one. She is a trustafarian with a media mogul father and a honking great diamond engagement ring. We are never told why she is in San Jose but it is strongly implied she is in Central America to “find herself” before getting married, settling down and living the American Dream.
Then a disaster hits her hotel. She sprains her wrist and her father orders one of his locally based employees, Andrew (Scoot McNairy), to escort her home. Andrew is a photojournalist and he is as much an archetypal war photographer as Sam is Daddy’s little rich girl. He is cynical, reckless and arrogant (he hasn’t even bothered to learn Spanish). Above all, he has no interest in babysitting his boss’s daughter. So we are all set for a Hollywood romance, right?
Well, actually, we sort of are. But, of course, there is something I have been deliberately concealing, something signalled rather bluntly by the title of the film. That is to say, the disaster which struck Sam’s hotel wasn’t an earthquake or a terrorist attack but rather a giant space squid.
Six years previously a NASA probe brought back extraterrestrial life but unfortunately crashed on re-entry. This resulted in the infestation of vast swathes of northern Mexico and the southern United States with alien life forms and the subsequent coast-to-coast quarantine of a third of the continent. The whole of this area is a No Fly Zone so Andrew is unable to simply stick Sam on a plan. Instead they strike out for the nearest port using the traditional developing world combo of train, truck and shank’s pony. On arrival they find an equally traditional combo of corrupt officials, vibrant nightlife and passport stealing prostitutes. They miss the boat and – whoops – it is the last one for months because the alien mating season is just starting. Their only solution is for Sam to pawn her engagement ring and, in a nice piece of irony, employ coyotes to smuggle them over land through the quarantine zone and back into America (in a further irony, when they arrive at the border the anti-alien wall proves to be just as ineffectual as the current anti-Mexican fence). This all unfolds with a fluid naturalism which makes it possible to ignore the rather rudimentary construction of the plot.
So Monsters is fifty percent romance, fifty percent road movie. As they face travails both terrestrial and otherwise, Sam and Andrew grow closer to each other and start to question what is really of value in their lives. In her case, this means increasing doubts about whether she loves her fiancé; in his, increasing angst about the son he never sees and isn’t allowed to call him dad. The film ends with a genuinely beautiful moment of transcendence and emotional connection. Just like Gap Year students, they have found themselves by exposing themselves to an alien culture.
Monsters is the feature film debut of Gareth Edwards, a British documentary maker. It was written, filmed and directed by him, he provided the visual effects and reputedly brought the whole film in for half a million dollars. Now, film budgets always need to be taken with a pinch of salt but regardless, it is an impressive achievement. And, in many ways, Monsters is an impressive film. I just wish I could have liked it more.
Its strengths can be seen in the obvious comparison to Cloverfield, Matt Reeves’s schlocky 2008 re-imagining of Godzilla. Before are shot on hand-held cameras, although Edwards avoids the extreme contrivance of making the film an unedited, real time record. In both films, the monsters are usually glimpsed obliquely or in the dark. These two decisions were taken for financial rather artistic reasons but, although Reeve had fifty times Edwards’s budget, it is Edwards who has made the best of his constraints. He utilises the inherent intimacy of the shooting style to good effect in what is after al a small story but he also invites light, colour and scale onto the screen. More than this though, Monsters poses a refreshing question: what if NYC wasn’t the centre of the universe?
Once you’ve posed that question, you have to answer it though. Whilst it is always welcome to be reminded that cinematic science fiction can operate on another model to Hollywood, Monsters does not step too far from this path. The problem is not with its aesthetic but with its bones; Edwards is a Renaissance Man but I hope it is not uncharitable to suggest that he is one with a greater facility with images than words. If Hollywood (exemplified by the producer of Cloverfield, JJ Abrams) is habitually and accurately lambasted for preferring style to substance then where is substance to Monsters?
You may, for example, have detected a certain sarcasm to my introductory synopsis of the film. While I was aware of the many familiar elements of the film whilst watching it, it was only as I started to write this review that I became aware of just how many and how cumulative they are. Edwards is clearly striving for the universal but that is only a whisker away from the archetypal. Sam and Andrew are not clichés but they don’t rise far above them; they are characters we know well and whilst Able, McNairy and Edwards turn them into real people, they don’t turn them into particularly interesting characters. Their dilemmas are familiar, adolescent even. So too are their solutions.
Ultimately, I was reminded of Duncan Jones’s Moon: another recent debut by a British director, another quietly impressive science fiction film with a minimal cast, another rarity that was overly praised due to the paucity of similar films to act as any sort of benchmark. Isn’t the potential of science fiction cinema so much more than this though? Is the chasm between the boneheaded blockbuster behemoths and the slightly solipsistic small-budget films too wide to be bridged? Is there no room for an intelligent, exciting middle ground? I hope not and there is some evidence for this hope. Moon won the Hugo last year; I doubt Monsters will do the same and instead it will go to Inception, a blockbuster which, for all its undoubted flaws, had brains. Then there is next year’s Source Code, the next film from Jones and what (from the trailer) looks like an attempt to claim that very middle ground. Hopefully it will be artistically and commercially successful and this will be a progression that Edwards will also take. At the moment, Monsters is more of a calling card (one that is very likely to be successful). If someone hands him a bit more money and a good script I will be really exciting to see what he does with them.
After watching last year’s cack-handedly compressed Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince I wondered if the cynical marketing decision to split The Deathly Hallows into two films might pay artistic dividends as well as cold hard cash ones. To my pleasant surprise it has. Yes, it is still clogged with too many characters and minor plot cul-de-sacs but it has the time and – free of Hogwarts – the space to evolve.
My memory of JK Rowling’s novel is that it was 700 pages of wander aimlessly through a forest and 50 pages of a climactic battle at the end. My worry was that would be exactly the split of the two films. Luckily, whilst Harry, Hermione and Ron’s bickering peregrinations do take up a huge portion of Deathly Hallows Part 1, my memory was faulty and there a good few set-pieces. More importantly, it replaces Rowling’s childish prose with a tone of emotional maturity which turns the tedious squabbling that appears on the page into something approaching actual drama.
Of course, it would help if any of the three principal actors could actually act. After this many years together they certainly have some level of rapport and they have learnt to mask their limitations but still. Director David Yates makes the best of this by treating his cast as simply another prop, using his budget to conjure up tableaux in which he places them in some of the most scenic parts of the UK. Often, like a Take That concert, it resembles nothing more than a sustained advert for knitwear.
This sounds like sustained snark but I did enjoy the film. Where the books provide the reader with nothing but increasingly idiotic plotting, the adaptations have developed a rich and impressive visual language. Rowling’s novels moved through the years but they never grew up but this is exactly what the cast and the films themselves have done before our eyes. Deathly Hallows Part 1 is dark and violent and intense, it is a film you can get your teeth into and exactly the sort of blockbuster we should be making for children. It is also, for the first time, sexual.
At the beginning of the film, Ginny asks Harry to zip her up. The old ones are the best. This inevitably leads to kissing until the scene is punctured by the arrival of one of the Weasley twins. The scene is perfectly composed but unfortunately there is zero chemistry between the two actors. Daniel Radcliffe can brood but, for the Chosen One, he isn’t very charismatic. This actually works to the film’s advantage later on when Harry dances with Hermione to the slightly ironic sounds of ‘O Children’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds playing on the radio. When Harry initiates this, it is a moment ripe with sexual tension. I doubt if anyone in the audience I saw it with came within ten years of the films 12 Certificate and they were practically baying for penetrative sex on the tent floor, right then and there. Instead, Radcliffe’s immense gawkiness transforms it into an extremely touching that brings home the isolation of the protagonists. Still, the audience got what it felt it had been cheated out of: later on Ron is confronted with a CGI image of Harry and Hermoine, naked and touching each other up, that is straight out of a Zack Synder film. Good stuff.
Basically, everything the books do badly, the film does well. Conversely, everything bad about the films is because of the books. If you’ve grown up on the Harry Potter books (and millions of people have) then I can’t imagine a better realisation of their potential. Well, unless that casting session so many years ago had gone a bit differently.