Attack the Block (2011)

2018 #231
Joe Cornish | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

Attack the Block

The directorial debut of comedian Joe Cornish seemed to become an instant cult classic on its release back in 2011 — I distinctly remember US geek websites urging people to see it and even arranging screenings, leaning hard into the kind of word-of-mouth promotion that is often how these small but dedicated fan bases are born. It has the kind of online scores that back up that status: as much as everyone who talks about it seems to love it, it only rates 6.6 on IMDb. I guess you’re either in a cult or you’re not. While I did enjoy it on the whole, I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about.

The film centres on a gang of teenage lads, led by John Boyega in what it turns out was a star-making performance. They roam their inner city London tower block and its surrounding streets, and we first meet them mugging a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker); and, when an alien creature falls from the sky, they savagely beat it to death. Hardly E.T., is it? Of course, murdering the little thing turns out to have been a bad idea, because soon more of the bastards are falling from the sky, and they seem to be particularly targeting our “heroes”.

I’ve bunged heroes in quotation marks there because this gaggle of protagonists are a right bunch of little so-and-sos (to be polite about it). The film sets itself a hurdle by making them so initially unlikeable, and then struggles to overcome it — frankly, I was cheering on the aliens to give the little chavs what for. You could certainly make a movie where the protagonists are unlikeable and the thrill comes from waiting for them to be slaughtered by the ostensible villains (I feel like someone has, probably something incredibly high-profile, but I can’t remember what it is right now), but I don’t think that was Cornish’s aim.

Thugs'r'us

On the brighter side, the boys eventually come across Whittaker’s nurse again, because she lives in the same block as them, and so we have her to root for. Her earlier experience makes her as non-disposed to the gang as I was, and it’s her connecting with them somewhat that comes to rehabilitate them. There’s also Luke Treadaway (that’s the one from Clash of the Titans and A Street Cat Named Bob and Ordeal by Innocence and so on, not to be confused with his brother Harry, who’s appeared in The Lone Ranger and Cockneys vs Zombies and Penny Dreadful and so on; although they’re twins, so, y’know, good luck) as a posh kid trying to score some drugs, and Nick Frost as the dealer he’s trying to get them off, to bring some comic relief. Not that the rest of the film is super serious (it’s about teenage chavs battling ferocious alien bears, c’mon), but their more direct humour is welcome too.

Despite my reservations about the characters, the film is a great calling card for writer-director Joe Cornish. Although tonal similarities between the movies invite comparisons to what Shaun of the Dead did for Edgar Wright (especially as he’s friends with Cornish and an executive producer here), I feel like Wright’s breakout film was even more assured. Instead I think of something like Guy Ritchie and Lock Stock: an imperfect film in itself, but which suggests a lot of potential from the man behind the camera. Quite why it’s taken eight years for Cornish’s second feature to come around is a mystery.

4 out of 5

Attack the Block was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Joe Cornish’s second feature, The Kid Who Would Be King, is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

2016 #147
Don Siegel | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | PG

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

A sci-fi thriller about a stealth alien invasion using human duplicates (clue’s in the title), this original film version of the oft-remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers is best not at genre-movie chills, but at evoking and commenting on paranoia and what causes it.

Thematically, the narrative of insidious outsiders slowly replacing good honest people with braindead versions who are on their side has been read as either anti-communist or anti-McCarthyite, with some critics claiming the framing story (more on that in a bit) changes it from the latter to the former. Allegedly none of these themes were intended — not by the author of the original story, the screenwriter, the producer, or the director. Which doesn’t mean you can’t see them there. Indeed, director Don Siegel felt the anti-McCarthy subtext was inescapable, but he tried not to emphasise it. Whichever reading you prefer, or none, the sense of unease, distrust, and lurking danger that the film creates are a peerless reflection of paranoid feelings.

Although I deemphasised the genre aspect above, that doesn’t mean it lacks for sophistication there either. It’s as much a thriller as it is science fiction, and more mature in that regard than what’s commonly brought to mind by the phrase “50s sci-fi movie” (whether that’s fair or not). The way the mystery slowly unravels — the calmness of it; how even our heroes unwittingly allow some of it to happen — sucks you slowly deeper into its anxious grip. (“Slowly” being a relative term, because this is a short, quick movie.) Nonetheless, the most outright SF elements — the plant-like pods that the clones emerge from — are suitably creepy. Not in themselves, but when they first burst open and the bodies inside begin to ooze out… Though not strictly a horror movie (at least not as we’d define it today), those moments are chilling.

Extreme gardening

The impact of this sequence is supported by the black-and-white photography, which helps obscure any cheapness or amateurism to be found from the era- and budget-restrained special effects work. But such photography benefits the film as a whole, too, with some great film noir visuals during nighttime scenes. Siegel had previously helmed several such crime pictures (and would go on to a couple more) and it’s clear those skills crossed over. It also works very nicely with the film’s paranoia — what’s lurking in the shadows?

In some respects it’s amazing Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as successful as it is, because the studio chose to dick around with it in a couple of ways. Originally the film had some humour, which (as I think we all know by now) definitely can have a place in a horror movie, generally to help manage tension levels. Despite successful test screenings in which the audience screamed or laughed as appropriate, the studio ordered the humour be cut. I guess they then felt they’d made the film too glum, because they next ordered the addition of bookend sequences, against the wishes of both the producer and the director. It’s clear these couple of scenes were shot much later, with much less care given to their quality. They do somewhat detract from the pervading pessimistic, bleak, increasingly hopeless tone — which was why they were added, of course, so at least in that respect they’re a success.

Those late additions aren’t bad enough to ruin the film, however, which still comes away as a well-made exercise in tension.

4 out of 5

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

2017 #64
Roland Emmerich | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

Independence Day: Resurgence

With nostalgia-driven reboots and belated sequels all the rage these days, it was inevitable someone would eventually get round to Independence Day, the highest grossing film of 1996. Back then it took $817 million, a total most producers would be happy with even today… especially those behind Resurgence, which managed a comparatively paltry $389.6 million, leaving it in 21st place on 2016’s chart.* I guess nostalgia doesn’t win everything.

One thing the two-decade delay has given us is an interesting setup for a sequel. Reflecting real life, the film begins 20 years after “The War of ’96” (i.e. the original movie). Humanity has rebuilt, integrating alien technology with our own to create more advanced aircraft and weaponry, including a moon base and defensive satellite system, all on the assumption that the aliens will come back. But they don’t and everyone lives happily ever after.

Not really! The actual mechanics of the plot are far too fiddly to bother getting into here, but suffice to say the aliens do return, and, in typical sequel fashion, they’re bigger and badder. Facing them on humanity’s side are returning faces (Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman), returning characters with new faces (Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher), some surprising new faces (Charlotte Gainsbourg?!), and Liam Hemsworth, who somehow merits top billing. No Will Smith, because he died. Well, his character died, because Will Smith was busy doing Suicide Squad, which is basically the same thing.

The cast who DID come back

I jest at the Squad’s expense, but I actually enjoyed DC’s notoriously messy movie more than this. I think. (I intend to review it next week, when it’s also on Sky, so we’ll see what I say then.) You see, although from the outside it may look like Resurgence is just a rehash of the first movie, but with bigger spaceships, there are actually good ideas in here: how the world has developed since the last film, where the characters are, some new facets to our understanding of the alien race. Unfortunately, the film is in such a hurry to churn through Plot that it doesn’t take time to let any of the potentially-interesting stuff settle; doesn’t allow the space for it to be developed or appreciated. It feels wrong to complain that a blockbuster isn’t long enough, especially in this day and age, but you wish Resurgence had just given itself a little time to breathe; to properly explain why characters were doing certain things, rather than throwing in a speedy line of dialogue that there’s no time to process; to allow its set pieces to show off their scale, rather than racing from one to the next as if having as many as possible is better than making the most out of… well, any of them.

Despite the unwavering focus on plot over everything else (it even sidelines spectacle at times, which is what big-budget disaster movies like this should be about), the headlong rush to get through the narrative means its storytelling is really sloppy. For instance, we’re reintroduced to Goldblum’s father (Judd Hirsch) trying to hawk his book to a room of uninterested pensioners; then we next see him on a boat, just in time to get caught up in the giant spaceship’s arrival. So, does he live on this boat? It doesn’t look big enough for that. So is he just hanging out there? Why? I mean, he was just at a book reading. And why does he have a boat anyway? Yet for all this rushing, the film begins to waste time on a bunch of random kids in a car, or some salvage sailors performing a job that (in story terms) doesn’t actually need doing. Clearly the script needed a good going-over by someone with an objective eye.

Independence Day: The Next Generation

Maybe it’s daft to focus on the quality of the screenplay in a film like Independence Day — as I said just now, its genre dictates it should be all about spectacle. But it’s the poor screenplay that undercuts those things. Not just because it has iffy dialogue or muddled character motivation (which it does), but because they’ve made the story more complicated than it needed to be and the film is desperate to tell us it as quickly as possible. I suspect it’s not a coincidence that it runs exactly two hours, because it feels like it’s been sliced as thin as possible on an individual scene level, as if they were trimming frames here and there to have it run no longer than 120 minutes.

The big show-off scenes are further marred by variable effects. Much of the really grand stuff is decent, if hurried past, but the film is flooded with green screen work that is consistently atrocious. Like, “it was better 20 years ago”-level bad. The deleted scenes may hold the key to why this is: there’s one where a character is picked up from a bus stop on an ordinary street, except it’s been filmed on a green screen instead of on, y’know, a street. If you’re making your effects team waste time generating something you could’ve filmed by popping down the road, no wonder they don’t have time to do the tricky stuff properly.

And, quite bizarrely, there are a couple of action bits that mirror sequences from, of all things, San Andreas. They happen back to back — intercut, in fact — which just emphasises the parallel. This signifies nothing, really, it’s just… strange.

We're gonna need a bigger spaceship

I really wanted to enjoy Independence Day: Resurgence, because I thought the “20 years later” ideas had promise, and also I have a soft spot for the original. Sure, it’s cheesy as hell, but mostly the cheese works thanks to an earnestness and the evocation of some degree of emotion. Plus, it achieves what it sets out to be — that is, an entertaining disaster movie cum alien invasion actioner. This follow-up wants to do the same thing on a bigger scale, and it is indeed even cheesier at times, but not in the same likeable way. If the first is a tasty chunk of mature cheddar (which, for the purposes of this analogy, we’re going to say it is) then the second is a thin slice of processed burger cheese. And, also like fake cheese, it fails to achieve even the straightforward thrills it sets out to create.

2 out of 5

Independence Day: Resurgence is on Sky Cinema from today.

* For what it’s worth, if it had equalled the $817 million then it would’ve been 8th on 2016’s chart, beating the likes of Fantastic Beasts and Deadpool. ^

Independence Day: Special Edition (1996/1998)

2016 #102a
Roland Emmerich | 154 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I’m not sure when I last watched ID4 (as it was so often branded and marketed, for only semi-clear reasons — sure, US Independence Day is July 4th, but other than that the “4” has nothing to do with anything), but it’s been a damn long time — my DVD copy, which I know I never watched (I have the shiny new remastered Blu-ray now), has a postcard inside advertising the forthcoming Planet of the Apes remake, in cinemas Summer 2001. The time I best remember seeing it was in cinemas on its initial release. Independence Day was a phenomenally huge deal back in 1996: it felt like that shot of the White House being destroyed was on TV on loop; there were making-of TV specials (I remember the behind-the-scenes footage of how they did those incredible, much-discussed effects as clearly as I remember anything from the film itself); I listened to the Radio 1 Independence Day UK audio drama on tape (it was… so-so), read the tie-in comic book adaptation, and also the tie-in novelisation — which was the first book I ever gave up on without finishing because I thought it was so badly written. Ten-year-old badblokebob, literary critic. The film itself was also the first 12-rated movie I went to see in the cinema, so it was even more of a big deal for me.

Revisiting it 20 years later, with a sequel imminent, ID4 obviously no longer has that attendant hype, but it does hold up pretty well in its own right as a blockbuster disaster epic. At least, it did for me — I read a review on Letterboxd from someone who watched it for the first time this January, saying that, in the age of the modern spectacle-based blockbuster, Independence Day doesn’t compete. Which feels weird, because it was all about the spectacle when it came out; but of course, things date, and what counted as sheer cinematic spectacle in 1996 is (it would seem) underwhelmingly run-of-the-mill in 2016. It’s fair to say that not all of the model effects still hold up, but there’s a physicality to them that really works. The best ones are still among the best movie effects ever.

The film’s first half is superior to its second. Co-writer/director Roland Emmerich and co-writer/producer Dean Devlin conceived the film off the idea of 14-mile-wide spaceships just appearing one morning, and the realisation of that concept (and the ensuing destruction) is where the film really shines. That’s not to say there’s not good stuff after the aliens unleash their devastating destructive power — the famous presidential speech comes just before the climax, for one — but it’s from the midpoint on that some things begin to get a tad muddled, some subplots are rushed along, and other events get needlessly elongated. That said, it’s all relative: the 2016 version of this story with this many characters would surely run for five hours as it endeavoured to give them all a starring-role-level storyline and turn every effects-fuelled alien encounter into a 20-minute action sequence.

One area it really succeeds is humour. It doesn’t lose the scale or seriousness of the events, but it keeps the tone entertaining. That feels like a skill a lot of blockbusters used to have that’s gone awry in recent years, though you could use the tone of Marvel Studios’ movies to counterpoint that. Those Marvel films are definitely subject to a different criticism of modern blockbusters, however, which is their mindless destruction of whole cities. It’s a just criticism, and some of the blame for it can surely be traced back to the popularity of ID4. However, here the destruction isn’t so unfeeling: the morning after the aliens’ famous landmark obliteration, President Whitmore mulls over how many people died and how many didn’t have to if he’d made different choices. Both Marvel and DC have had to make that kind of reflection a plot point in sequels to retrospectively justify it happening in the first place.

This was the first time I’d watched Independence Day’s extended Special Edition cut, and I’d advise not bothering. It adds around 8½ minutes of new material, but the scenes don’t add all that much, and some of them are so awkwardly rammed in that it’s almost irritating — for instance, several are inserted in the middle of an existing music cue by merely fading out the score immediately before the new scene, then fading it back in afterwards! They’re deleted scenes that have been shoved into the movie, with the score often fudged to make room and stuff like that, rather than it being a genuine “extended cut”. People seem to love extended cuts on disc, but sometimes a nice deleted scenes section is preferable.

With the way things are nowadays — every hit sequelised; old IPs regularly dragged up for new moneymaking opportunities — it was kind of inevitable we’d get ID4 2 eventually. I’m looking forward to it, but not insanely hyped up. It probably benefits from the 20-year wait story-wise, allowing for a drastically new status quo on Earth when the aliens return, but with blockbusters released all year round now, and CGI meaning every one is overloaded with effects shots that are far more epic than ID4 had, there’s little doubt that the sequel won’t have the same enduring impact on the blockbuster firmament. For its faults, you can’t deny ID4 that.

4 out of 5

Independence Day: Resurgence is in UK cinemas now, and is released in the US tomorrow.