The Dark Tower (2017)

2018 #25
Nikolaj Arcel | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower started life as a literary work that is, according to its author, Stephen King’s magnum opus: a series of eight novels, written over 30 years and spanning some 4,250 pages, that not only tell their own genre-mash-up story, but also reference or connect up many of King’s more widely-known works. Since 2007 there have been various efforts to try to wrangle such an epic work onto the screen, with perhaps the most high-profile being Ron Howard’s ambitious plan to spread it across both film and TV, alternating a trilogy of big-budget movies with seasons of TV on HBO in order to adapt the whole saga. This clearly proved to be too formidable a goal, but eventually paved the way for what was released: a single 90-minute film. From one extreme to the other, eh…

It’s easy to imagine why fans of the books have found this film disappointing, then — I mean, there’s no way they’ve managed to accurately condense seven novels (and some of them very long novels at that) into an hour and a half. But, despite the series-encompassing title, it’s my understanding that it’s primarily an adaptation of the first novel, so surely fans would know they could expect the rest of the narrative if sequels were produced? The perceived problems must go deeper, therefore, and be more general: leaving aside fan reaction, the film has a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 16%.

Strut

Well, I don’t know what people were hating, because I thought it really wasn’t that bad. I can’t comment on its faithfulness or thoroughness as an adaptation, but as an action-fantasy movie in its own right I thought it held together pretty well. It only cost $60 million (a bargain for a blockbuster nowadays), but they got good value for money: it doesn’t look cheap, and it has a respectable lead cast as well. Idris Elba’s presence may’ve pissed off some people (his character has consistently been depicted as white in illustrations accompanying the books), but he seemed to fit the role. Matthew McConaughey makes for a decently unsetting bad guy. Our identification figure is a kid played by Doctor Foster’s Tom Taylor, who’s fine here but got to show more chops in that series.

The relatively stringent budget probably explains why it’s a little light on things like epic action sequences, with those that are included feeling like the makers were probably doing their best on a limited expenditure — the action isn’t bad, but those scenes aren’t as awesome as the film thinks they are. Less readily excused is the plot, which is a bit slim — the story is very straightforward, despite the intricate fantasy gubbins dressing it up, moving directly from A to B to C with minimal complication. Similarly, familiar character arcs are efficiently executed. But if a film’s biggest crime is unoriginality, it’s no worse than the majority of Hollywood’s output for the past 20 or 30 (or more) years, is it?

Slinging guns

Well, according to script editor (and fan of the books) Andrew Ellard in his discussion of the movie, that’s precisely the problem. He argues the film represents “the exact same competent mediocrity we’ve seen before from — say — I, Robot or I Am Legend. Not a bad film especially. Just kinda nothing. Or like Inkheart or Assassin’s Creed, fantasy you won’t remember tomorrow. But the books are fascinating. Full of ideas & imagery that haunt you. To pick the blandest, most generic stuff? Dumb.” This, I do suppose, is what fans were primarily upset about. If you don’t know the books then the film we’ve been given is fine as just a reasonable time-passer, but if you feel that it could — should — have been something truly special, how frustrating that must be.

The Dark Tower grossed $113 million, which, at less than double its budget, probably isn’t enough to secure the mooted sequel (especially when it’s put in comparison to 2017’s other Stephen King adaptation, It, which surpassed $700 million). I guess someday it’ll get re-adapted, probably as a TV series, maybe by Netflix, or Amazon, especially if they still haven’t found the Game of Thrones-beater they’re currently looking for. Until then, this version stands as a reasonably enjoyable quickie — not as bad as you may’ve heard, but apparently not all it could’ve been either.

3 out of 5

The Dark Tower is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Director and the Jedi (2018)

2018 #59
Anthony Wonke | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12

The Director and the Jedi title card

So, The Last Jedi, eh?

No, okay, let’s not get into that again. Instead, how about this: the film’s Blu-ray making-of documentary. But oh, how that undersells it. More indicative, perhaps, is the fact it was screened as part of the South by Southwest festival last month. The Director and the Jedi isn’t some cobbled-together EPK featurette, where talking heads tell you how wonderful everyone is and how great the working environment was, while tech guys show you how to build a puppet or paint out greenscreen or, you know, whatever. No, for this one Last Jedi’s writer-director Rian Johnson and his producer Ram Bergman contacted documentary-maker Anthony Wonke to follow them around throughout the film’s production and provide a more truthful account of the film’s creation.

If that sounds like it would just turn out a video diary (another familiar special feature of the DVD era), the key would seem to be Wonke, who brings considerably more artistry than that. Most making-ofs are, for want of a better word, educational — “this is how they did it”. There’s some of that here, naturally, but it’s not about that. It’s more often about the psychology and emotion of being the people making a new Star Wars movie. But not heavy-handedly (Wonke isn’t constantly making people say how they feel or something), and that’s why it’s so artfully done. It’s even beautifully filmed and edited. It doesn’t look like crummy behind-the-scenes B-roll — there are some legitimately gorgeous shots in here.

The producer, the apprentice, the director, and the Jedi

If that makes it sound faked, no, it’s definitely not been staged. Far from it, in fact: this is a warts-and-all making-of. Exceedingly rarely for a documentary about a new release, Wonke has been allowed to include comments critical of the process or filmmakers. Chief among them: Mark Hamill’s much-discussed reservations about Johnson’s treatment of Luke Skywalker. As the title might imply, this is the doc’s strongest throughline, and would be its most affecting were it not for another part (more on that later). I say that because the feeling you eventually get from Hamill and Johnson is one of immense mutual respect, even as their beliefs about what should happen in the film clash. Except they don’t clash because Hamill, the dutiful actor, informs Johnson of his misgivings before committing to realise Johnson’s vision as best he can. It causes Johnson to doubt whether he’s doing the right thing — and, again, such elements of doubt are not something we normally witness in documentaries like this, even as they are surely always a part of the creative process.

Indeed, the creative process of filmmaking is another major point, especially in how it clashes with reality. The Last Jedi may’ve had a phenomenal budget and a massive production machine to back it up, but it also had just a 100-day shoot to squeeze in the construction of and filming on 120 sets, not to mention travelling around the world for location shooting. What Johnson and co want to achieve constantly clashes with what’s possible with the time and budget available. (The amount of effort that went into making the thala-siren milking scene happen just makes it all the funnier how much some people hated it.) As one producer puts it, eventually you have to fit everything in a box — “this box is big, but it has limits”.

It ain't easy at the top

Consequently, there’s a lot of stuff with department heads butting against Johnson’s vision a little bit, either because of time, or money, or “that? In Star Wars?” feelings. But, like Hamill, they all get on with their jobs to serve his vision, because that’s filmmaking. And this is why we, as film fans/theorists, still discuss the notion of the director as auteur, even though filmmaking is undeniably a massively collaborative exercise. The Director and the Jedi is as a good demonstration as any of why the seemingly-conflicting notions of “filmmaking is entirely collaborative” and “auteur theory is relevant” are both true.

The other most memorable part of the film is how it handles Carrie Fisher’s presence and, well, eventual lack thereof. The bulk of the documentary is dedicated to the actual filming of The Last Jedi (Wonke wasn’t privy to either the writing or post-production, which is a shame because they’re certainly key parts of the creative process), but Fisher’s death is an unavoidable topic, and clearly they conducted at least a short interview with Johnson after it happened. Aside from those few comments, Wonke builds a tribute to her through her work and the regard others hold her in. He chooses to end the documentary, not with the last day of shooting, but with Fisher and Hamill finally reunited on set and on screen, the crew watching in hushed awe as they film that beautiful scene in the Crait hangar. It forms a fitting, respectful tribute.

The princess and the director

“Beautiful” is a word I keep coming back to with this documentary — how it’s shot and constructed; how it handles its subjects; how the relationships between people come across. I guess those who hated Last Jedi and Johnson’s contribution will still rile against it to some degree, but even for them I think it’s worth a watch, if only to try to appreciate that no one was deliberately trying to “ruin their childhoods” or whatever. Quite the opposite. And even for non-fans, there’s insight here into humanity when its applied to a joint creative endeavour. If that sounds a bit grand for a blockbuster’s making-of, well, The Director and the Jedi is much more than your bog-standard making-of.

5 out of 5

The Director and the Jedi is included on the Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is released in the UK today.

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

2018 #47
Michael Bay | 155 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 + 2.35:1* | USA, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: The Last Knight

Here we have the fifth Transformers film in 11 years from director Michael Bay. At this point you ought to know what you’re getting — the style hasn’t fundamentally changed since at least the third movie, arguably since the first, so if you dislike those then most probably there’s nothing for you here. I say “probably” because I’ve seen at least one review from someone who despised the fourth film but enjoyed this one, so clearly there’s always room for variability.

We’re dealing with variations on a theme, then, and The Last Knight brings a few fresh-to-the-franchise plot spins to add a different flavour and texture this time out. Firstly, a prologue tells us that Transformers were already in England about 1,600 years ago, when they fought alongside King Arthur and Merlin, the latter of whom didn’t wield magic but actually Autobot technology (and is played by Stanley Tucci, hamming it up something rotten). This relates to the present day because… well, I could explain it to you, but it gets fiddly and, frankly, if you care then you’ll find out when you watch it. But, basically, in present day America Transformers are hunted and Cade (Mark Wahlberg) is an outlaw helping hide some of them and rescue others. When a MacGuffin from Arthurian times attaches itself to him, he winds up on his way to England to meet Sir Anthony Hopkins, the last in a long order of… oh, yeah, I said I wasn’t going to explain it. Anyway, only Marky Mark and Clever English Totty (Laura Haddock, playing the kind of Oxford professor who dresses like a secretary in a porn film) can save the world. Who do they need to save the world from? Optimus Prime! Dun dun duuuun!

Now he's called Nemesis Prime, for no good reason

It’s all nonsense, of course, but then the inherent concept of Transformers never made any sense so what does it matter? Adding in Arthurian legend and making Optimus Prime a baddie doesn’t make it any dafter than it already was. And that’s only the half of it — there are more disparate story threads and subplots than a particularly complicated miniseries. Despite being shorter than the last movie, it’s still indulgently long — and needlessly so, too. There’s a ton of stuff that could be cut to streamline the plot, from individual shots and lines (the Arthurian prologue is probably twice as long as it needs to be) to whole characters (a street girl Cade basically adopts, Izabella, contributes nothing of major significance in the end). After about an hour, the story basically stops and starts again — that’s how long it takes to get to Sir Hopkins. Stuff from the first hour remains relevant, certainly, but I’m sure there were other ways to handle it. By getting through the first hour of the movie in half the time, for one thing. For another, don’t introduce major-seeming characters that you’re then just going to set aside and ignore for the next hour while you introduce whole new ones.

It’s remarkable how the Transformers movies can have way too much plot and not enough plot all at once. If you want to follow it you have to pay attention, not only because there’s a lot of mythology to take in, but also because Michael Bay chops it all up into bite-size chunks amongst frenetic action sequences. The film is cut like one long trailer — but that’s been Bay’s MO for a while, so, as I said at the start, no one should be surprised. It remains, in its own way, impressive. As I previously said in my review of Age of Extinction, it’s almost avant-garde: a tumble of images and sound that give you an impression of what’s occurring rather than straightforward traditional storytelling. And I say it’s impressive because it must be so much work to create — all the camera setups involved; events staged for a single, fleeting, couple-of-seconds shot; and then edited together with non-stop dynamism, rarely pausing for any notable period.

Non-stop Bayhem

And if you think that’s mad, wait until you see how Bay uses aspect ratios. Thanks to Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight blazing a trail, we’ve now had a fair few movies that use the IMAX format for select sequences, and emulate that on home media by allowing the aspect ratio to change — for laypeople, that’s when the black bars at the top and bottom disappear and the picture fills the screen. As I say, generally this is used for specific sequences, or occasionally for a particularly grand individual shot; and usually there are two ratios, approximately 2.40:1 (with the black bars) and approximately 1.78:1 (without). Bay uses… more than that. And he does so almost indiscriminately. They’re so all over the place that you can’t miss them. Like, there are standard shot-reverse-shot conversations between two characters, but each character has a different aspect ratio… and then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, halfway through the scene one side will switch to another ratio! It just leaves you wondering why and how it ended up this way. What was the intention? What was the point? Well, that’s not a new question with Bay — he still uses five shots when one would do, so why not extend that same thinking to the film’s aspect ratio?

Despite the faffing around, much of it still looks impressive in a purely visceral sense. Like every modern tentpole, it cost a fortune to make ($217 million), but at least it looks like it did: there are so many grand sets and large-scale set pieces, much of it built or performed for real — not the giant robots, obviously, but there are car chases and human stunts and so forth that they did in real-life rather than in a computer. The money is splashed all over the screen, to the nth degree. Is that inherently a good thing? Eh. But it makes you wonder where some other $200m+ movies spend their money — especially when you consider that apparently production difficulties resulted in a lot of material being filmed but never making it into the final cut. How much? Well, supposedly a whole hour of footage was ditched from the original cut to get to the theatrical version. As I’ve already said, the film’s too long as it is, but it’s a shame there are no deleted scenes available because I’d be kind of fascinated to know what more was meant to be there, and to see how much money it looks like they wasted on it.

They really did hang Marky Mark out the side of a speeding vehicle, donchaknow

In what we did get to see, the size of the endeavour and the impressive quality of the imagery is emphasised by how it was filmed. A large proportion of the movie was shot in IMAX 3D (apparently 98%, but I’m certain there was more than three minutes in non-IMAX aspect ratios), and there are innumerable moments that benefit from the depth and scope of the format. Post-conversion has come a long way, but I’m not sure it can always equal doing it for real, especially on a format with the quality of IMAX. That said, the visual splendour didn’t strike me as much as it did in Age of Extinction. Perhaps that’s because, as Richard Brody put it in his New Yorker review, Bay’s “sense of speed works against his sense of scale and of detail. All the best moments in the movie — pure images, devoid of symbol and, for that matter, nearly empty of sense — go by too fast, are held too briefly, are developed too little.” There are some great shots in here, but the rapid editing just races past them. If you wanted to find and appreciate the shots fully, you’d have to damn near go through the whole thing frame by frame. I’m not sure they’re that good.

Although Bay and his directorial style always get a critical slating for these movies (more so than others he’s made in the same period — Pain & Gain and 13 Hours both attracted a reasonable amount of praise), they let him keep making them, and he keeps wanting to. The former makes sense: although you rarely find someone who admits to liking them, they keep making money (The Last Knight is the series’ lowest grosser worldwide, thanks to a particularly poor US showing, but it still took over $600m). As for the latter… no, I don’t know why he keeps coming back. Can you think of another blockbuster-level director who’s made five films in the same series? No one instantly comes to mind for me, and even those who are close (Lucas with Star Wars; Spielberg with Indiana Jones) did so over a long period of time with many films in between. I mean, if Bay wants to do it then why not — it’s his life and career — but I don’t quite understand it.

The three-headed robot dragon that I almost forgot

As I said nearly 1,500 words ago (I never imagined I’d have so much to say about this movie — and I haven’t even mentioned the three-headed robot dragon, or the C3PO-alike comic relief butler), everyone should know what they’re getting with the Transformers films by now. The Last Knight shares the same pros and cons as the other entries in the series, to one degree or another — by which I mean that, for instance, I found the plot a little more coherent than last time (though still totally barmy), but I wasn’t quite as bowled over by the visuals (which are at least half the point of these films, I feel). On balance, I’d say it’s one of the franchise’s better instalments.

3 out of 5

Transformers: The Last Knight is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* The listed ratio for The Last Knight is 1.90:1, because that’s the tallest, but its shifts into various other ratios are very obvious, as I discuss in the review. The three I’ve listed are the most obvious, but one of the trailers was shown to use eight slightly different ratios, so who knows how many there really are? ^

Annihilation (2018)

2018 #45
Alex Garland | 115 mins | streaming (4K) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Annihilation

Many column inches (and even more tweets) have been penned about Paramount’s decision to relegate director Alex Garland’s second third film straight to Netflix outside the US, Canada, and China, so I presume the pros and cons of that move have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Personally, I’m on the fence: it’s disappointing not to see intelligent sci-fi being given a shot at the box office, but I’m one of those people who’s 50/50 on whether I go to see it or just wait for disc/streaming/etc. (I’ve not even seen The Shape of Water, for example, although that’s partly due to a dearth of convenient screenings during its brief theatrical appearance. Conversely, I did go to Arrival.) Anyway, it is what it is at this point, so let’s move on to the film itself.

Loosely based on the acclaimed novel by Jeff VanderMeer (reportedly Garland read the book once then wrote the screenplay from memory), it follows biologist, academic, and former member of the Army, Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went missing a year ago during a secretive mission. After he suddenly reappears, apparently with no memory of his time away but with some severe medical problems, the couple are scooped up by a military organisation investigating Area X, a top-secret quarantined zone affected by an unexplained phenomenon known as the Shimmer. Various teams have been sent inside the Shimmer, but Kane is the only person to ever return. As his health deteriorates, Lena, desperate for answers, joins the latest squad to venture inside. That’s where stuff gets crazy…

Squad goals

The first thing Annihilation made me think of was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. The connection was initially triggered by the score: the ambient soundtrack by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury reminded me so much of Arrival’s that I had to check this wasn’t a last work by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Once I spotted that, the other similarities in the story leapt out: they’re both thoughtful sci-fi parables about a female university lecturer being co-opted into a military operation to investigate a strange extraterrestrial presence on Earth, while also remembering her family life in flashbacks.

Despite Paramount’s insistence that the film was too intelligent for non-US audiences (you can take a moment to laugh at that notion if you like), Annihilation is perhaps more accessible than Arrival, at least initially. Whereas Villeneuve’s film played like a character drama, Garland’s has a strong adventure-movie vein, also laced with elements of the horror genre. It’s still not a mile-a-minute thrill-ride, but, if you wanted, you could engage with it on the level of a quest through an alien event, encountering strange phenomena and creatures, with events of life-threatening jeopardy. However, for all the original sci-fi ideas, it does also touch on weightier, more human psychological issues — as the Empire review summarised it, “depression, grief and the human propensity for self-destruction.”

All the better to eat you with

Naturally this material is carried by the cast. Portman makes for an interesting lead. Clearly damaged by grief, she’s quite a cold figure, which may distance her from some viewers in the way it does from some of her team mates. But there’s more to it than that, and Portman delivers subtle nuances that hint at more beneath the surface. The rest of her all-female squad — played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Gina Rodriguez — all have distinct personalities, all get brief subplots and moments, and they’re mostly managed with an equal level of understatement. Perhaps the best is Thompson, whose calm, gently heartfelt performance is quietly superb, and even more striking as it marks a huge contrast to her star-making turn in Thor: Ragnarok just a few months ago. As a pair of films to be a calling-card for her skills, one could barely ask for more.

A lot of disappointment about the lack of a theatrical release stems to not being able to see these visuals on a cinema screen; not being able to experience the audio with a cinema sound system. Well, that partly depends on your own setup at home, of course. Setting that aside, though, while there are certainly some very striking visuals, it wasn’t as consistently stunning as some reviews made it sound. I’m not saying it wouldn’t benefit from the big screen, especially if you’re particularly fond of that experience, but I didn’t feel I was missing much scale by watching at home. I felt similarly about the sound design, though I do say that as someone with a 7.1 system. For spectacle, the intricate and colourful end credits are the most striking bit — I’m certain they benefitted from my viewing the film in 4K HDR.

Scared of the dark?

However you get to see it, writer-director Alex Garland has crafted another sci-fi mystery/thriller that engages on multiple levels. For me it was somewhat damaged by the hype, perhaps a result of US reviewers frantically urging people to get out and see it to prove that Paramount’s lack of faith was a mistake. While I didn’t instantly love it in the same way as, say, Arrival, or Garland’s debut, Ex Machina, it’s undoubtedly a fascinating, thought-provoking slice of science-fiction — and a much-needed critical success for the “Netflix Original” brand after a couple of recent duds. I’d also say it places Garland ahead of genre contemporaries like Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Okay, he’s not quite Denis Villeneuve, but he’s a lot closer than the others.

4 out of 5

Annihilation is available on Netflix in most of the world now.

Mute (2018)

2018 #31
Duncan Jones | 126 mins | streaming (4K) | 2.00:1 | UK & Germany / English & German | 15

Mute

For those in the know, Mute was probably one of the most anticipated movies of 2018. The new film from writer-director Duncan Jones, who made waves with his excellent debut, the low-key sci-fi mystery/drama Moon, and backed it up with the strong sci-fi thriller Source Code, this was his return to that genre after an ultimately futile aside into studio blockbuster-making with Warcraft. More than that, it’s a passion project that’s been gestating for 16 years, rejected by everyone else and now only made possible by Netflix. Greatness was expected. Unfortunately, instead it’s been met with critical derision (11% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audience apathy (5.4 out of 10 and dropping on IMDb; 2.2 out of 5 on Letterboxd and heading in the same direction). Empire’s review perhaps summed it up best: “a crushing disappointment… sadly, almost tragically, not worth the wait.”

Set in near-future Berlin, the setting is probably the best part of the film. It’s extrapolated from the present to give a very convincing world, where technology has advanced in ways that already feel just around the corner. The production design also owes a huge debt to Blade Runner, though clearly on a lower budget. That doesn’t mean it isn’t effective, just familiar. It’s not quite as nihilistic as Blade Runner, though — again, this is our world a few years hence, and there are still malls and diners and libraries and other such mundanities.

Leo's looking

The protagonist is Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender getting by in a world not built for him: he’s Amish, meaning he avoids using most technology, and he’s mute, thanks to a childhood accident. As the story unfurls he has to engage with a bunch of tech for the first time, and when he comes up against devices that are only voice-controlled then he’s got a problem. I’m not sure if this is designed as a social commentary on how some people struggle now and it’ll be even worse in the world to come, or if it’s just a convenient way to put more obstacles in Leo’s path. I’m tempted towards the latter, but that’s okay. It seems his muteness is a barrier to some viewers, with critics describing him as a blank canvas, either unknowable or personality-free. I think that’s a bit harsh, but Leo does fall into the familiar bracket of the “strong, silent type”. He can’t express himself vocally, obviously, but rather than that leading to him letting his emotion out in other ways he seems to have repressed it. I got the impression that he was now having to deal with certain feelings, and how they’re expressed, for the very first time.

That’d be because Leo is now in love, with Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a blue-haired waitress at the club he works in. Naadirah clearly has secrets, both from Leo and from us, and when she goes missing Leo has to venture into the seedy underworld of future-Berlin as he tries to track her down. If the overt Blade Runner stylings hadn’t already clued you in, this is very much a noir detective movie, full to the brim with dark people and dark deeds. It gets grim indeed at times, more thematically than visually (though there are a couple of scenes of surgery, if that’s your particular bête noire), and this is where one begins to wonder if Jones has full control over his film’s tone.

Gone girl

That’s not much of a problem in Leo’s storyline — I’d wager you could recut Mute to focus on him entirely and create a more straightforward future-noir tale — but rather in the concurrently-told B-plot. This side of the film focuses on Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd), an army surgeon who deserted and now plies his trade for gangsters, hoping to afford passage back to the US for himself and his daughter. Bill works alongside his best mate Duck (Justin Theroux), and much of their half of the film plays more like a hang-out movie, just spending time with the characters as they go about their business. As they mooch around sharing comical buddy banter, it’s a definite tonal counterpoint to Leo’s story. That’s not necessarily a problem unless you want a straight-up serious noir, but later Bill and Duck’s thread diverges into some heavy territory; stuff that some viewers would find distasteful no matter what, but which is made more so as their chirpy-funsters act is allowed to roll through it.

For this reason I thought Mute was more effective in its first hour-or-so than in its second. Others disagree, calling it either slow or disjointed, because the links between Leo’s and Cactus Bill’s storylines are not immediately evident. I didn’t think the pace was a problem: it’s gradually drawing you into this world, setting out the mystery and then peeling back more layers as Leo begins his hunt. It’s not as dreamily atmospheric as Blade Runner 2049 in this regard, but it’s closer to that than to an action-thriller, which makes me tempted to say pace issues are a viewer problem rather than a film one. In the first half, at least, because by the second it does seem to go on a bit. As for the disconnect between the storylines, it didn’t bother me at all. Links are actually established early on, and you know these two halves are going to come together eventually — that’s how narrative structure works.

After surgery drinks

The idea some reviews are peddling that “maybe everyone else rejected the Mute screenplay for a reason” is disingenuous. If a decent exec wanted to make this kind of movie (i.e. a mid-budget sci-fi noir) then they definitely could have seen its potential. But few studios are interested in that kind of work anymore, for reasons that barely make sense, and so the film ended up passed to Netflix. One wonders if their hands-off approach is part of the problem. People complain about studio interference, and clearly that can scupper projects, especially ones with unique voices, but execs who are good at their jobs do improve movies. Jones has said that, after Netflix bought the project, they just gave him the money and let him make whatever; and they gave him final cut too, so when the finished film came in and they weren’t sure about it, they just went ahead and released it as-was. Maybe if someone had helped him develop the project better, had helped him even out the tone, or tighten up the pacing, we’d be looking at a great movie right now.

Instead, I don’t think the Mute we’ve got is anything like as unremittingly terrible as some reviews would have you believe, but it is a tonally strange film. I’m not sure it works as a whole, but bits really do. I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of it becoming a cult classic, and maybe in a couple of years we’ll all be reevaluating it. Before its release Jones did say it would be a Marmite film — that some people would love it and others would absolutely hate it. Broad reception is undoubtedly hewing to the latter end of the spectrum; and while I’d love to be the former instead, there are too many inconsistent oddities for me to embrace it. I think it may someday be worth a revisit though, which is not something you can say about a genuinely bad film.

3 out of 5

Mute is available exclusively on Netflix now and forever.

Black Panther (2018)

2018 #23
Ryan Coogler | 134 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Xhosa & Korean | 12A / PG-13

Black Panther

Black Panther is not the first superhero movie to star a person of colour in the leading role — not by a long, long shot. But it does look set to be the most successful. In part that’s down to its association with the MCU (the last time one of their movies grossed under $500 million was the first Captain America, 13 movies ago), but it’s also due to a general underrepresentation of non-white heroes right now — Black Panther may not be the first, but it may be the most mainstream. It also won’t hurt that it’s a very good action-adventure movie in its own right, and one that feels especially fresh thanks to tapping into an under-utilised cultural milieu.

Picking up shortly after the events that brought the title character into the MCU (as seen in Captain America: Civil War), the film begins with T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), returning home to be crowned king of his country, Wakanda. A scientifically advanced African nation, with incredible technology fuelled by its deep reserves of the extraordinary metal vibranium, Wakanda has kept its abilities hidden from the rest of the world, who believe it’s a third world country of farmers. However, T’Challa must face forces from within and without who think Wakanda should play a greater role on the global stage — in particular long-time enemy of the state Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his new partner in crime Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to rule Wakanda and then the world.

The name's Panther. Black Panther.

A villain who wants to rule the world? Black Panther doesn’t spell out his goal quite that bluntly, I don’t think, but that’s what it is. It’s just one of several clues that this is, in many ways, a James Bond movie… only one where James Bond is a black African king with superpowers. The film’s whole structure is more Bond than Marvel, though: most obvious is the gadget-explaining Q scene, but then it becomes a globetrotting adventure (the film sets significant sequences in California, Nigeria, London, and Busan (though they don’t get there by train, thankfully)), complete with undercover operatives, a casino, car chases, and a plot with significant geopolitical elements. I’m not claiming you can map this one-for-one onto the Bond template, but the inspiration (consciously or not on the part of the filmmakers) is certainly there. One Letterboxd user described it as “The Lion King meets Skyfall”, which might sound pithy but is also surprisingly accurate — and Skyfall in particular, not just any old Bond film; but there we’d be getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave that for you to think about yourself after you’ve seen the movie.

An even more significant influence, for numerous reasons, is African culture. Much has been made of the film having a predominantly black cast (aside from (to use an already well-worn joke) a couple of ‘Tolkien’ white guys), but it fully embraces that too. It isn’t nominally set in Africa with faces that happen to be of a different colour to the blockbuster norm — African traditions, designs, and ways of life have been woven throughout the film. Are they real ones the filmmakers co-opted or were they just inspired by the iconography of the continent? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t think so. It’s a different flavour on the blockbuster stage, and that adds freshness to just about everything.

African culture, real or imagined

For one, it helps the film to look beautiful. It’s colourful without being cartoonish, the vibrant palette coming through via costumes and locations in a very real way. Design is naturally a big part of this — make-up; costumes; however the production design department breaks down across locations, sets, props, etc, etc. They were obviously able to cut loose, finding inspiration from different places to usual (i.e. Africa) and imagining a whole alternate world, similar to ours but a bit more Sci-Fi.

There’s the light, too — this is frequently a gorgeously shot film. Not just the quality captured by DP Rachel Morrison (who made headlines recently when she was Oscar nominated for Mudbound), but also the shot choices and editing — it’s filmic, whereas too many Marvel movies look like TV but with a humungous effects budget. Director Ryan Coogler stages the action well too. Across the board, the visuals don’t feel so generically “Marvel”, while also not forcing themselves so far outside the house style that it doesn’t feel like A Marvel Movie. Put another way, it’s probably not that radical, but it is fine-tuned.

The music is oftentimes striking as well, with Ludwig Göransson’s score and various songs* mixing different styles for a heady but effective blend. In fact, the music occasionally achieves a feel or atmosphere that I don’t think Marvel’s usually-generic soundtracks have reached before, and not necessarily ones you’d expect.

Suited up

The film is rich and fresh in plenty of other ways too. The story is loaded with varied thematic concerns: there’s politics, both on the world stage and internal; the battle between tradition vs modernity; the pros and cons of both isolationism and being open to the world; issues of colonialism and its aftereffects (and the morality of a possible reversal thereof)… Obviously race is a factor as well, but in specific ways rather than some kind of generic “hey, look, black people can do this too!” I feel like there are many different things to read into and out of this film — numerous facets that could be focused on either singularly or in various combinations — and that, actually, the film would reward such a close reading, rather than falling apart when put under a microscope.

Yet another thing it juggles well in this mix are the characters and the performances behind them. There are a lot of people to get to know here, but they’re all so effectively sketched that most are interesting, likeable, or memorable (or all three) within just a few moments. The film may be called Black Panther and he may be the central hero, but he’s not the only strong, capable, heroic figure here — far from it. Indeed, another aspect that will surely generate plenty of discussion is the film’s strong female roles. The Q figure, currently at the forefront of all Wakanda’s incredible technology, is T’Challa’s younger sister (Letitia Wright); the army (or security service? I’ll confess to not being 100% on Wakanda’s military structure) is made up of women, led (of course) by a female general (Danai Gurira); their best spy is also a woman (Lupita Nyong’o); and the Queen Mother (Angela Bassett) is a powerful figurehead who gives strong advice.

Sisters, doing it for themselves

The film doesn’t make a big to-do about all this — it doesn’t boast about how well these women are doing, or have people try to “put them in their place” only for them to overcome it — it just gets on with them being awesome. Obviously the race aspect is going to be the most talked about thing here, at least initially, but I’d wager Black Panther is second only to Wonder Woman in its foregrounding of exceptionally capable female characters in the superhero genre… and, considering how many of them there are in this, one might argue it surpasses even that. Although the lead’s still a bloke, so…

Said bloke is an interesting lead character. He’s often quite quiet and thoughtful, very different to the wisecracking action men who typically lead Marvel movies. I’d guess he’s going to get on well with Captain America come Infinity War because they both have that stoic intelligence. It means that Chadwick Boseman doesn’t have the easy likeability of jokes to fall back on, as has so benefited… well, all those other Marvel leading men. But quiet strength is its own reward, if slightly slower burning, and T’Challa is ultimately a very engaging hero. On the other side of the equation, Michael B. Jordan’s villain is one of Marvel’s rare strong ones — in fairness, something they seem to have been improving since everyone pointed it out. While Erik is unquestionably a bad guy doing bad things, he has an understandable motivation, and Jordan even makes you feel for him a bit by the end.

He just can't wait to be king

Marvel Studios have often talked about trying to mix other genres into each of their movies, to try to add some much-needed variety to the familiar superhero movie formula. On the whole I’d say the effect is minimal — I’m always minded of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which they tried to push as a ’70s-style political thriller, but which I thought was still very much a superhero movie with a dash of political thriller in the mix. Although maybe that’s enough. Anyway, Black Panther is once again undoubtedly a superhero movie in more than just the literal sense that it’s adapted from a comic book about a superhero, but this particular mix of varied influences — some familiar (it’s not the first movie to imitate Bond), others less so (African culture in an action-adventure blockbuster) — does make it feel genuinely different to the norm.

I know some people say this every time the studio releases a new movie, but it probably is Marvel’s best film to date. Nonetheless, I was going to give it 4 stars again; but the more I think about it, the more I feel like it’s time to break my duck and make this the first Marvel movie I’ve given:

5 out of 5

Black Panther is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now.

* I’m sure there was a “songs by” credit, but I can’t remember the name and it doesn’t seem to be in any of the credits lists online. ^

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

2018 #18
Julius Onah | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Chinese

The Cloverfield Paradox

“Logic doesn’t apply to any of this.”

So says Tam, played by Zhang Ziyi, about halfway through this third movie in the Cloverfield sort-of-series. She’s talking about the crazy circumstances they’ve found themselves mixed up in, but she may as well be talking about the movie itself.

Set in the near future, the energy crisis has reached a point where it threatens the continued existence of mankind as we know it. Our last hope is an experimental particle accelerator that could provide all the energy we need, but it’s so potentially dangerous that it’s being tested in space. After almost two years of failed attempts the accelerator finally works… until it fails spectacularly, crippling the station. When the systems come back online, the crew realise they’ve lost something: the Earth. And that’s just the start of the crazy shit that’s gonna go down.

One worried astronaut

The Cloverfield Paradox started life as a spec script titled God Particle, which was at some point Cloverfieldised by J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot. The writer who originated the project, Oren Uziel, has said that “sometimes [sci-fi] movies tend to be more concerned with whatever the obstacle is, and I’m more concerned with the characters’ relationships to each other and that obstacle I guess. So to me, when you say it’s a contained astronaut movie, I’m just curious what those astronauts are going through and what they’re experiencing and what the character story is, and what specifically the threat is is often less of a concern to me.” Oh boy, is that apparent in the finished film. Whatever else Abrams & co changed to make this a Cloverfield film (and I’ll get to that later), I guess it’s Uziel’s original work that’s responsible for the half-arsed, inconsistent, and poorly-explained threats that the astronauts must face. No spoilers, but the explanation for what’s going on (which is so obvious that I don’t think even the film itself tried to play it as a twist in the end) doesn’t even vaguely begin to explain some of the random shit that happens. Uziel just throws sci-fi or horror ideas at the screen one after the other, with no care for if it hangs together consistently. Consequently, it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, his alleged interest in character hasn’t resulted in anything worthwhile either. At best they’re broadly defined archetypes — the Funny One; the Noble Captain; the One With A Tragedy In Her Past That We’ll Eventually Learn And It Will Affect Her Decisions; etc. At worst they’re utterly blank, with little or no time devoted to establishing or developing them. There’s a strong cast of good actors — people like Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who gets the best of a poor lot), David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris O’Dowd (who at least gets to be funny) — but they’re left to battle bravely against the mediocrity, and often terrible dialogue that comes with it, as they attempt to instil any kind of personality into their roles. They’re fighting a losing battle.

Two worried astronauts

Suffering most of all is Roger Davies as Michael, who’s the star of his own subplot back on Earth. Davies is probably aware this is his big break (his previous roles are mainly in things like Sky’s football soap Dream Team and Channel 5’s attempt at a soap, Family Affairs), but he’s lumbered with some of the clunkiest material of all. He struggles gamely to make Michael seem like a plausible human being while delivering first-draft-level dialogue, but I don’t think even Daniel Day Lewis could make this material work. An item of trivia on IMDb (source uncited, as usual) claims that all the Michael stuff was added later (in reshoots, I presume) to strengthen the film’s Cloverfield connection. It feels like that too: his stuff is completely divorced from the main thrust of the story aboard the space station, and it looks like it’s been achieved on as few sets with as few additional characters as possible.

Indeed, almost everything that’s explicitly Cloverfield-y smacks of reshoots. There’s a newscast about the eponymous “Cloverfield Paradox” that’s all inserts, i.e. it’s on a screen with none of the main cast also in shot. The main characters do refer to the paradox later on, but I’m pretty sure they only ever called it “the paradox”. (Also, side note, I’m not sure anyone involved in the making of this film knows what a paradox actually is.) The space station is actually called “Cloverfield”, but that’s mainly (only?) seen on CG exterior shots and green-screened monitors. Perhaps I’m forgetting something — perhaps there was a Cloverfield reference or two in the main body of the movie — but the vast majority of them could just have been shoved in during post-production. And if they weren’t, they feel like they were.

Three worried astronauts

I enjoyed the original Cloverfield and I liked the idea of them creating a franchise that was Twilight Zone-esque — movies connected by theme and style rather than plot. It seemed like a good way of getting original sci-fi movies made at a time when Hollywood only wants franchises. But we’re two sequels in now, and they were both marred by the Cloverfield elements forced upon them. And whereas 10 Cloverfield Lane was a very good movie before its tacked-on finale, The Cloverfield Paradox is pretty terrible throughout. We’re on a downward curve.

What was once set to be the expensive big-screen older brother to Black Mirror is now cast in its shadow: they’re both debuting on Netflix, but while Charlie Brooker’s TV series benefits from months of enormous anticipation and glowing reviews, Cloverfield was dumped just a couple of hours after its first trailer premiered, presumably in the hope you’d watch it before the reviews rolled in. When you combine that with the fact it was meant to be a theatrical release but Paramount ended up flogging it to Netflix as one of their “originals”, you have to think that even the studios knew it was a dud.

2 out of 5

Blade Runner 2049 3D (2017)

Rewatchathon 2018 #5
Denis Villeneuve | 163 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UK, Hungary & Canada / English, Finnish, Japanese, Hungarian, Russian, Somali & Spanish | 15 / R

Blade Runner 2049

With its home media release comes my second viewing of Blade Runner 2049 (my review from the first is here); and, I must confess, it kinda makes me wish I’d gone back to see it on the big screen again…

First things first, though, what the title of this post promises: the 3D. Blade Runner 2049 was shot in 2D, but that’s commonplace for 3D releases nowadays — post-conversion has reached the point where its quality and, I presume, cost effectiveness means that it’s seen as the preferable option by studios (who’d’ve predicted that in the format’s early days? Some people still blame the bad post-conversion jobs on films like Clash of the Titans for damaging 3D’s prospects as a popular format). In the case of this film, however, I presume it was an artistic decision as much as a practical one: cinematographer Roger Deakins is, I believe, no fan of 3D. Indeed, he’s publicly expressed that his preferred version of Blade Runner 2049 is the 2D one — and the regular 2D version at that, not the one specially formatted for IMAX. Nonetheless, he also personally supervised the film’s conversion to 3D. I guess that’s some kind of dedication.

Distance

It shouldn’t be a huge surprise, then, that this is not a film designed to show off in 3D — but that’s not to say it’s bad. Rather, what it most often offers is a subtle, believable delineation of space. Confined rooms and the distance between objects within them all feels very real, very plausible. In some respects that just ties into the film’s overall style: it’s a beautifully shot movie, no doubt (give Deakins the bloody Oscar!), but only occasionally does it do that in a heightened way. Think of the scenes in K’s apartment, for instance, or his boss’ office, or several other locations along those lines. They look very naturalistic, which is surely part of the point.

Now, there are other times when the added emphasis of depth highlights things — Wallace’s little drone whatsits make their presence more known, for example; how see-through Joi is at times becomes more apparent (the fact the background is ‘peeking through’ her is understandably clearer when you’re able to sense how far away that background is). At other times, wide-open scenery stretches for into the distance. One of the most visually standout locations was the old furnace that K’s memories lead him to — the size of the space, plus all the levels of pipes and gantries, makes for a lot of depth markers.

Another was the office / seclusion chamber of the memory-maker — another large space, albeit empty this time, but I thought its isolating size felt clearer in 3D. That’s the kind of thing that can make quantifying the effect of 3D hard, especially for laypeople: sometimes it’s creating an effect that you don’t immediately notice (because it’s not poking you in the face or whatever), but if you directly compared it to a 2D version you’d see what it’s adding. I’m not going to argue Blade Runner 2049 is a demonstration piece for that particular quality, but one wonders how often it’s a factor.

K's journey

Setting the 3D aside, this was (as I said at the start) the second time I’d watched the film, and I found it to be almost a weird experience. Blade Runner 2049 is not a film that’s just about the answers to its own mysteries; but, nonetheless, knowing those answers, and knowing where the story was going and how long it was going to take to get there, made the second viewing a very different experience to the first. For one thing, it doesn’t feel like such a long film at all — it’s in no hurry, but the pace is measured, everything happens for a reason, unfurls with the space it needs. (I’d still be fascinated to see the reported four-hour cut though, or at least the deleted scenes from it.) Knowing the answers also refocuses your attention. K’s often-silent reactions to what he uncovers are a big part of the film, and that feels different when you know how things will pan out versus when you’re discovering them alongside him.

Finally, swinging back round to the purely visual again, watching this particular movie at home came as a reminder of why the big screen can still matter. Deakins’ magnificent photography still looks incredible, of course, but those horizon-stretched vistas, or the tall city streets with their looming holographic advertisements, don’t have quite the same impact when they’re not being shown at more-or-less life size. I bet the IMAX version was a wonder…

5 out of 5

Blade Runner 2049 is released on DVD, Blu-ray, limited edition Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, limited edition 3D Blu-ray Steelbook, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, HMV-exclusive 3D & 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Steelbook, and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray gift set (not to mention being available from all good digital retailers) in the UK today.

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017)

aka Gojira: Kaijū Wakusei / Godzilla: Monster Planet

2018 #13
Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters

Two of Japan’s most successful cultural exports meet for the first time here as the King of the Monsters, Godzilla, gets the anime treatment. Originally conceived as a TV series, the box office success of Shin Godzilla prompted studio Toho to restructure the project as a trilogy of movies and release them theatrically (in Japan, anyway — the rest of the world gets them via Netflix). Part 2 is due later in 2018 and Part 3 in early 2019.

The standard plot of a Godzilla movie, as I understand it, is a giant monster (aka kaiju) turns up, stomps all over some cities, then we find a way to destroy it; or, if it’s one of the ones where Godzilla is a good guy, he fights it and, presumably, wins. Planet of the Monsters uses its animated form to do something new with the concept. The opening credits montage informs us that, in the final years of the 20th century, kaiju suddenly sprung up all over the planet and mankind were unable to defeat them. Fortunately some aliens rocked up and offered to help by evacuating what was left of humanity. Twenty years later this mission to the stars is proving a failure, with minimal chance of finding a habitable planet and the survivors decimated by diminishing supplies. The best course of action is deemed to be a return to Earth — it’s estimated thousands of years will have passed there (thanks to relativity) and the hope is the monsters will have died; and if not, hotshot young captain Haruo Sakai has come up with a new plan to defeat Godzilla once and for all.

Good God

If that reads like a lot of setup, it’s because Planet of the Monsters contains a lot of setup. It takes about half the movie before they’re back on Earth and… well, technically this is a spoiler, but if you’re intending to watch the movie it might help you manage expectations: Godzilla doesn’t properly show up until the final half-hour. This has led some reviewers to accuse the movie of being slow and light on what we came to see, i.e. giant monster action. They have something of a point. However, contrary to most opinions I’ve read, I actually enjoyed the early space-bound stages of the movie better.

It feels like the makers had a ton of interesting ideas about the politics and social situation aboard the evacuation ship, especially with multiple races and some kind of alien religion involved too, but there’s no time to really explore or develop those facets. Maybe they planned to get into that in the series. Either way, I find it funny that others have criticised that part for being slow and talky while I felt it had to race past a lot of potentially-interesting stuff to keep the plot moving. I guess I just ought to go watch Battlestar Galactica again, because it’s broadly similar territory.

Back to Earth

But, as I said before, there’s a rub: this setup provokes interest as a Galactica-style sci-fi, but as a Godzilla movie? There’s far too little of the big guy. And when he does turn up for the big climactic action sequence, that was the bit I found kinda dull. There’s a lot of whizzing around on hoverbike-things and blowing up forests and whatnot — plenty of sound and fury, but signifying what? And then… well, still avoiding spoilers, but there’s a twist in the final few minutes that renders this whole film prologue. Perhaps that should leave us hopeful for the next two? Perhaps this is all effective world-building for where things will go in the sequels? Conversely, it could be revealed as unnecessary background info once all the monster smashing starts. Only time (and the next two films) will tell…

3 out of 5

The Man from Earth: Holocene (2017)

2018 #9
Richard Schenkman | 99 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

The Man from Earth: Holocene

Back in 2007, a low-budget sci-fi movie about a gang of college professors sat around having a chat kinda went viral: a screener copy was uploaded to piracy websites, from where people who would probably never have even heard of it otherwise were able to download and watch it. Interest in the film on IMDb jumped by 11,000%, and high user ratings earnt it a place on their list of the top 50 sci-fi films. The film in question was Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth.

Ten years later, here’s a sequel from the same crew (though not written by Bixby — his original screenplay was produced posthumously), and this time the makers have engaged with file sharing head on: rather than wait for someone to pirate the film, as would inevitably happen, they’ve uploaded it themselves. They’re banking on the honour system, asking people to donate if they liked the movie. If torrenting isn’t your thing, it’s also available to stream on MovieSaints, and on Vimeo next week, with a DVD and Blu-ray release coming soon. Personally, I first encountered the project 3½ years ago, when it was known as The Man from Earth: The Series and they were crowdfunding to produce a pilot episode. I backed it then, though ironically have ended up torrenting it now because the reward copy provided was through MovieSaints and I can’t watch that on my TV. But anyway.

Ageing hurts

The story picks up ten years on from the events of the first film, with the 14,000-year-old title character now going by the name John Young (David Lee Smith) and lecturing at a community college in California. When a gang of his adoring students stumble upon a book about the events of that fateful night a decade ago, they begin their own investigation into whether John’s seemingly impossible story is actually true. Meanwhile, for the first time in about 13,965 years, John has begun to show signs of ageing…

Holocene has some very good ideas that could’ve made for a worthy continuation of the original film. Chief among them is the mystery of John’s relatively sudden ageing. Is he dying? Is he just entering a new phase of his existence? Either way: why? The film asks these questions, makes nods towards possible explanations, but otherwise doesn’t seek to explore it too much. It’s more concerned with meandering through a story that doesn’t quite rehash the first film but is distinctly reminiscent of it: a group of college-related people, with diverse religious beliefs and levels of scepticism, investigate the incredible notion that a professor may be 14,000 years old and, during that time, once have been the person we know as Jesus Christ. Watching a bunch of students going through the motions of uncovering a story we already know isn’t the most thrilling narrative, quite frankly.

On the bright side, it eventually leads to a long scene in a basement which is loaded with tension and possibilities. It features an ‘evil Christian’ type, which is a dead giveaway for the authors’ atheist beliefs — fine by me, but it may not work for some people. This scene works particularly well as a sequel to the original film in itself, because although it too is a kind of re-run of the first film, it comes at it from a very different angle. It’s a little bit ironic that, for a film which is trying to open out the world of its story to be more than just a near-real-time fireside chat, the best bit is still an extended scene where two people just talk in a room.

The wannabe Scooby Gang

But Holocene’s biggest problem comes right at the end, when it abruptly finishes with various plot threads unresolved. As I mentioned, this project started life as a pilot for a TV series, later evolving into a standalone film (presumably as a way to secure funding — having something you can actually release is a safer bet than a pilot that requires a series pickup). Unfortunately, the makers still have hopes of either a sequel or that series, and so the story stops at a point which feels just a scene or two away from a resolution. To rub salt in the wound, there’s a bizarre mid-credits scene that throws a totally new, very different storyline into the mix. I think there were better ways to leave things set up for possible further instalments, and more interesting directions to suggest they might go in too. Or maybe they have a really good grand plan for this storyline? Perhaps we’ll get to find out.

One of the most accidentally striking elements of the original Man from Earth was that it was shot on SD digital video. They’ve upgraded to HD this time, meaning it doesn’t look quite as cheap-and-cheerful, but it does still have a lo-fi semi-pro feel. (As one commenter on Letterboxd put it, “still has that softcore porn vibe”. I think that says more about his viewing habits than the film itself, but you get his point.) On the acting front, David Lee Smith is still the clear standout. He imbues John with a quiet authority — you can believe this is a guy who’s lived for centuries; his very presence elevated by a lifetime of learning but weighed down by a lifetime of regrets. The rest of the cast are decent.

Pour yourself a drink, you might need it

The writing is a little up and down. Some bits almost sing with an understated focus on character. Other bits clunk, like a terribly forced encounter to kick off the third act. Most often it feels like scenes needed a trim to keep everything a little tighter. It’s not that it’s a slow-paced movie and I’m claiming that’s a problem, it’s that at times it seems to be drifting aimlessly. The first film is ‘slow’ in some people’s eyes, but it’s actually a very tightly constructed movie; it’s just that that tightness is driven by the dialogue and story construction rather than, say, fast cutting. Holocene lacks a similarly taut screenplay. Chopping out ten minutes, both of little bits here and there but also a few scenes that I guess are meant to build up the students’ characters but I kind of feel are ultimately unnecessary, might work wonders. Well, maybe not wonders, but it’d be better.

Holocene fritters away goodwill on a reheated teen remix of the first film’s story, has the audacity to not conclude that properly, and then does little to promise a bright future with a DOA mid-credits twist. Even still, I don’t think the film is the total disaster some reviews are painting it as, not least because I believe there’s potential left in a continuation of The Man from Earth — there are interesting developments of the series’ central concept here. Unfortunately they remain little more than teases as the film instead wastes time reinvestigating what we already know. It winds up disappointing.

3 out of 5

The Man from Earth: Holocene is available to stream and download in various ways now. For more details, visit ManFromEarth.com.