Upgrade (2018)

2019 #44
Leigh Whannell | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

Upgrade

Leigh Whannell is best known for co-creating the Saw and Insidious franchises, so he steps outside of his horror stomping ground to write and direct this cyberpunk action-thriller. It’s set in the kind of near future where we have self-driving cars (and similar tech), but there are still people who prefer the old ways, like mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), who makes his living restoring classic cars for people like tech genius and entrepreneur Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). After an incident leaves Grey paralysed, Eron offers to help by implanting him with a cutting-edge top-secret chip he’s developed called STEM. It works even better than expected, and Grey begins to use his newfound abilities to hunt for the men who did this to him.

On one level, Upgrade is a straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, following Grey’s investigation as it leads him to some shady figures who have near-future tech of their own, and then they fight. While that may seem simplistic, it’s full of neat little touches, particular in the action’s choreography — it almost begs a rewatch just to see everything that’s going on in the frantic fight scenes. I don’t mean “frantic” in the over-cut, can’t-see-shit sense of so many action sequences in the last couple of decades — in fact, Whannell often uses wide shots and long-ish takes — but there’s so much going on, with the characters making decisions at such speed (boosted by that body-modifying tech), that parts do become a bit of a blur.

Change can be painful

On another level, the film has something to say about the technology that drives its storyline. Okay, maybe it doesn’t have a lot to say, and if you’re well-versed in sci-fi they’re not necessarily original comments either, but it poses questions and makes you think about what could be just around the corner, and what value it might have, or what danger it might pose. Plus it pushes the story into some interesting places; places a low-budget Australian-produced movie can go that other mainstream-minded sci-fi/action flicks wouldn’t dare. If you’ve ever seen a Saw film then you can guess that Whannell likes twists, especially of the “sting in the tail” variety, and Upgrade has more than its fair share of last-minute switcheroos. How many you see coming is up to you — one seemed glaringly obvious to me, but anticipating that ‘reveal’ blinded me to some more that came after.

Combining those two levels renders Upgrade a strong mix of straight-up action thrills and thought-provoking near-future sci-fi. A definite must-see for genre fans.

4 out of 5

Upgrade is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Matrix Revolutions

Everything that has a beginning
has an end.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 129 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 5th November 2003 (60 countries, including the UK and USA)
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $427.3 million

Stars
Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 47 Ronin)
Laurence Fishburne (Boyz n the Hood, Mystic River)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Chocolat, Disturbia)
Hugo Weaving (Captain America: The First Avenger, Mortal Engines)

Directors
The Wachowskis (Bound, Jupiter Ascending)

Screenwriters
The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Speed Racer)


The Story
With Neo having rejected the destiny prescribed for him, but discovering his power is greater than previously thought possible, he sets out on a long-shot mission to save humanity, even as the machines prepare to destroy mankind’s last city.

Our Heroes
The trilogy centres on the actions of Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus, but in many respects they’re just part of an ensemble in this finale, with many other characters getting to be in command of screen time, including the likes of ace pilot Niobe, Neo-idoliser the Kid, and a whole bunch of citizens of Zion during the big battle.

Our Villains
The machines threaten the surviving humans, while in the Matrix the increasingly dominant Agent Smith threatens Neo’s chances to save them all.

Best Supporting Character
Amongst the many humans fighting to save Zion, perhaps the most noteworthy is the captain of the Armoured Personal Unit corps, Mifune, who’s as much of a badass as the guy he’s obviously named after.

Memorable Quote
“Everything that has a beginning has an end. I see the end coming, I see the darkness spreading. I see death.” — The Oracle

Memorable Scene
Before Reloaded there was much hype about the “Burly Brawl”, in which Neo fights dozens of Agent Smiths. Unfortunately the final result was marred by some iffy CGI and overshadowed by the freeway chase. Here, we get the sequel: the so-called “Super Burly Brawl”, in which Neo fights just one super-powered Agent Smith in what remains of the Matrix, and it’s a much more exciting, visually extraordinary climax.

Memorable Music
Don Davis’ score for the trilogy has always used a mix of electronic-y rock and more traditional orchestral music, but the epic final battle adds choral voices to the mix in a very effective way. Thankfully rejecting the idea that they sing just “oohs and aahs” or, even worse, “this is the one, see what he can do” in plain English, Davis instead had the choir sing the Pavamana Mantra, so it’s not just nice texture in the soundtrack but meaningful too.

Truly Special Effect
There’s nothing as obviously groundbreaking or original as in the other two films, but a lot of the effects still hold up exceptionally well 15 years down the line. It’s difficult to imagine how the battle of Zion (created through a mixture of live-action, miniatures, and CGI) could be achieved any better today.

Letting the Side Down
The untimely death of actress Gloria Foster, who played the Oracle in the first two films, necessitated her recasting for this final instalment. Unfortunately, her replacement just isn’t as good, seeming to struggle with her portentous dialogue.

Making of
Christopher Nolan gets a lot of credit for bringing regular films into the IMAX market (or vice versa, depending how you look at it) with actually shooting on the format for The Dark Knight (a notion copied since, obviously), but Revolutions was actually the first live-action feature film to be released in IMAX at the same time as its regular theatrical release.

Previously on…
The story began in The Matrix and continued in The Matrix Reloaded, while spin-off anime shorts The Animatrix and video game Enter the Matrix filled in some of the blanks.

Next time…
The story continued in MMORPG The Matrix Online, which ran from 2004 to 2009. Rumours of some kind of reboot or continuation flare up now and then.

Awards
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Director)
3 Saturn Award nominations (Science Fiction Film, Costumes, Special Effects)

Verdict

I used to think Revolutions was better than Reloaded, mainly because at least it brought everything to an end and didn’t have that confusing stuff with the Architect. But reflecting on the sequels now, I have to agree with the consensus that this isn’t as good — there’s nothing that matches the highway sequence for entertainment value, and, actually, the lack of overt philosophising is almost to its detriment. It does have its moments (see: Memorable Scene), and I do think it ultimately comes to powerful resolutions, but the journey to them doesn’t have the same spark.

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Matrix Reloaded

Free Your Mind.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 138 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th May 2003 (US & others)
UK Release: 21st May 2003
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $742.1 million

Stars
Keanu Reeves (Point Break, Man of Tai Chi)
Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got to Do With It, Contagion)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Red Planet, Unthinkable)
Hugo Weaving (Babe, Transformers)

Directors
The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas)

Screenwriters
The Wachowskis (Assassins, Sense8)


The Story
With just 72 hours until the machines arrive to destroy mankind’s last city, all ships are ordered to return home for its defence. But Morpheus still believes the answer to their salvation lies in the Matrix itself and what Neo is meant to do there.

Our Heroes
Neo is just a man, but within the Matrix has abilities and power beyond any other. As he journeys deeper in the fake-world’s workings, can he free mankind? Will his love for fellow freedom fighter Trinity get in his way? Is their captain, Morpheus, misguided in his belief that Neo is The One?

Our Villains
As hordes of machines drill down to the human city of Zion, a more pressing threat is Agent Smith, who has found a way to multiply himself and is on the warpath within the Matrix, with his sights set on Neo.

Best Supporting Character
The Merovingian is a snobby Frenchman (is there any other kind, ho ho) who holds prisoner a key program our heroes need access to. First, they’ll have to endure his philosophising; after, they’ll have to fend off the men he sends to kill them.

Memorable Quote
“Now consider the alternative. What if I am right? What if the prophecy is true? What if tomorrow the war could be over? Isn’t that worth fighting for? Isn’t that worth dying for?” — Morpheus

Memorable Scene
The freeway chase. It’s so long it almost doesn’t count as just one scene, but it’s spectacular quarter-of-an-hour long action sequence packed to bursting with impressive stunts and effects.

Technical Wizardry
See above. The logistics of filming the sequence are mind-boggling. Now they’d just throw it all together in a computer with a bit of green screen for the actors, but back in the early ’00s they built a massive stretch of freeway and filmed most of the practical stunts for real — and it’s all the better for it, of course.

Truly Special Effect
Some of the CGI is a little ropey 15 years on (though the digital body doubles looked just as bad at the time as they do now, to be honest), but all of the real-world stuff with Zion and its ships still looks fantastic.

Letting the Side Down
Depending on your point of view, the climax is either philosophically engaging or impenetrably incomprehensible. I feel like repeat viewings and time have made it more understandable, but it’s still suffused with more big ideas than people expect to find in their blockbuster movies.

Making of
The Matrix Reloaded” is a funny title when you think about it. I mean, it’s very much “from our perspective” — in the film’s world the Matrix has never stopped running, so it’s not being reloaded; it’s an allusion to computer-y stuff and the fact this is a sequel, nothing to do with the actual content of the film. Though I guess it’s not really any weirder than just sticking “2” on the end or whatever, so…

Previously on…
In 1999, sci-fi actioner The Matrix blew everyone’s minds. In the run-up to this sequel there was also The Animatrix, a series of anime short films that explained some of the backstory to the films’ world and detailed certain events that occurred between the first film and its sequels.

Next time…
The video game Enter the Matrix occurs alongside Reloaded, featuring characters and situations from the film in a parallel storyline. It included around 45 minutes of live-action scenes shot by the Wachowskis, which has since been made available on the film’s DVD/Blu-ray/etc releases. Later the same year, The Matrix Revolutions concluded the trilogy, while MMORPG The Matrix Online continued the story. There have also been other video games and some comic books, but for a modern media franchise it’s been quite tightly controlled beyond that.

Awards
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Director)
1 World Stunt Award (Best Overall Stunt by a Stunt Woman (for motorcycle work in the freeway chase))
3 World Stunt Awards nominations (Best Fight (for the chateau hallway), Best Stunt Coordination Feature Film, Best Overall Stunt by a Woman (for a car stunt in the freeway chase))

Verdict

The Matrix sequels are generally viewed as a big disappointment, which isn’t wholly accurate or fair (for one thing, this first sequel actually has pretty solid ratings online, from both critics and viewers). It was always a big ask to follow-up a movie as original, groundbreaking, and straight-up entertaining as the first Matrix, and that the Wachowskis chose to do so by doubling down on the mythology and underpinning ideas obviously wasn’t successful with too many people. So perhaps making the plot 50% a straightforward quest-against-time narrative and 50% impenetrable philosophy lectures wasn’t the best idea, but the action sequences are still absolutely stunning. And, actually, if you bother to engage with the film on its own level, there’s some interesting stuff here.

RoboCop (2014)

2018 #151
José Padilha | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

RoboCop

This reboot of the popular sci-fi/action satire wasn’t received too warmly on its release back in 2014, but nonetheless I’d been vaguely meaning to watch it (just because every high-profile sci-fi/action-y kind of movie goes on my back-burner). Then, after the news earlier this year that Neil Blomkamp had signed on to direct a new sequel to the ’87 original, I saw a fair few people say this reboot was actually quite good; that it only suffered due to comparisons with an original that’s a beloved genre classic. So I watched it, and, well, those people were being too kind.

The year is 2028, and mega-corporation OmniCorp have transformed warfare with their robot soldiers. Keen to deploy the same product as domestic law enforcement but blocked by legislation, they instead develop a proposal for a cyborg police officer — all the physical benefits of a machine, but controlled by the mind of a man. When Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is fatally injured in the line of duty, they have the perfect candidate; but they haven’t anticipated the emotional toll the procedure will take on its subject… So, it’s broadly the same plot as before, then. Well, it is a remake.

I wasn’t actually a huge fan of the original — I didn’t dislike it, but in my review I did say I thought it’d had its day and the idea of a remake was fine because “the concept’s a good’un and could withstand a refresh.” I stand by that assertion, I just don’t think this remake is a very good film. Reportedly the screenplay was based on an unfinished draft from 1985, which was commissioned by director Paul Verhoeven when he was considering making the film more serious. After reading that draft he realised he was wrong, returning to the original idea of “humour and brutal satire on the corporate future.” To put it another way: this film is based on a serious/humourless screenplay that was rejected because it wasn’t as good, rather than the one that was made and which garnered all the praise and fans and everything. What a bright idea.

Machine man

It’s clear that the writers (whoever they are — there were numerous uncredited rewrites) have serious things on their mind, with the film touching on various topical issues — overseas wars, prosthetics, murderous law enforcement — but instead of satirising them it mostly wants to take them seriously. There is a bit of satire left (Samuel L. Jackson ranting away as a commentator on a Fox News-esque TV network), but it lacks anything deeper than surface spoofery. Primarily, I think the film wants to say something about corporate America — about big business being above the law, and indeed manipulating politicians to set the law — but it doesn’t have anything particularly insightful on that subject. Indeed, I think my previous sentence summed up all of the film’s points on the matter. And that’s annoying because, now more than ever, takedowns of that Fox News mentality are important to how America-as-it-knows-itself is being destroyed from the inside.

The film also seems to have tried to switch satire for psychological matters, asking how this procedure would really affect a man. That aspect was in the original film too, but I felt it had greater focus here. Unfortunately, they cast personality vacuum Joel Kinnaman as the lead, immediately undercutting any attempt to effectively explore the character. He’s surrounded by an all-star supporting cast (Jackson, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, many other recognisable faces), who give decent performances, but the material hardly gives them a lot to work with. Oldman fares best: his character actually has an arc (unlike, well, pretty much anyone else in the movie), as he gradually sells out his ethics to attain his desired result. This brings in a theme of how good people can be corrupted bit by bit, but it’s still pretty thin. You never really feel that he’s selling his soul, meaning his redemption is kind of muddled. It doesn’t come off in the triumphant way you imagine someone had in mind when they wrote/filmed/edited it.

Shoot 'em up

If you want to block all of that out, sadly it’s not particularly satisfying as an action movie either. The attempt to genuinely focus on the morals leaves action pushed aside for most of the running time, which might be admirable if it worked, but it doesn’t. When it finally arrives, the action is as bland as the rest of the movie. In the original film’s climax, Robocop fought a stop-motion animated ED-209 that looks kinda clunky and cheap today; in this one, he fights half-a-dozen CGI ED-209s, but now they lack any weight and the sequence has no tension.

Basically, the film does nothing particularly well. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not good either. It’s fine. It’s adequate. Normally I’d now say it’s good for a couple of hours of brain-off entertainment, but is it? The action quotient isn’t really high enough for that. More likely you’ll end up pondering all the things the film itself doesn’t bother to adequately work through. It should be cutting and provocative, but it’s just bland. That’s the biggest shame, because if there’s a movie 2018 needs it’s one about corrupt businessmen hijacking the government’s decision-making while right-wing TV chatterers cheer them on and police officers are replaced by an ultimate-killing-machine robot. Put another way: 2014 probably didn’t need a new RoboCop movie, but 2018 does — but it needs one with more smarts than this.

2 out of 5

RoboCop is part of the opening night of Film4’s Fantastica season, airing this evening at 11:50pm.

The Matrix (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #60

Believe the unbelievable

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 136 minutes
BBFC: 15 (cut, 1999) | 15 (uncut, 2006)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 31st March 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 11th June 1999
First Seen: VHS, 2000

Stars
Keanu Reeves (Speed, John Wick)
Laurence Fishburne (Event Horizon, Predators)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Sabotage, Memento)
Hugo Weaving (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Lord of the Rings)
Joe Pantoliano (Bound, Memento)

Directors
The Wachowski Brothers (Bound, Speed Racer)

Screenwriters
The Wachowski Brothers (V for Vendetta, Jupiter Ascending)

The Story
Thomas Anderson, aka hacker Neo, is searching for answers to questions he doesn’t know. This search brings him into contact with Morpheus, a mysterious individual who claims to show Neo the ‘real world’ — something the powerful Agents are keen to prevent…

Our Hero
By day, Thomas Anderson is an office drone computer programmer. By night, he’s renowned hacker Neo. After he meets Morpheus and gets some of the answers he’s been seeking, it turns out he may be something greater…

Our Villains
The forces of the controlling machines are represented by Men in Black-style suit-wearing sunglass-sporting agents, the foremost of whom is Agent Smith. I don’t know about you, but I can’t read about / hear of / meet anyone called Anderson without hearing Hugo Weaving’s syllable-emphasising delivery of “Mr Anderson”.

Best Supporting Character
Hardened PVC-and-leather-clad warrior Trinity — a kick-ass female action heroine 17 years ago, while we still seem to be desperately hunting for them today.

Memorable Quote
“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” — Morpheus

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“There is no spoon.” — Spoon boy

Memorable Scene
Neo + Agent + rooftop + super-slow-motion + impossible leaning-over-backwards-ness = one of the most iconic scenes in the movies.

Technical Wizardry
Hong Kong cinema has been using wirework to create kung fu action scenes for decades, but The Matrix brought it to the Western mainstream. The fights were choreographed by legendary action choreographer/director Yuen Woo-ping (Drunken Master, Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey, etc).

Truly Special Effect
The much imitated and parodied bullet-time effect, where the action stops and rotates around the static scene before continuing. It was mind-blowing at the time, before it became overdone. And though it looked impressive, it was achieved with strikingly obvious simplicity: a rig of still cameras arranged around the subject, with a film camera at either end.

Making of
The character of Switch was originally intended to be played by two actors, an androgynous male in the real world and an androgynous female in the Matrix, hence the character’s name. According to IMDb, Warner Bros “refined” the idea (one wonders if “vetoed” might be a more accurate word), and Belinda McClory played the role in both locations. Maybe this signifies something, maybe it doesn’t, but given that both Wachowski siblings have since come out as transgender, it seemed a particularly interesting point.

Next time…
Laurence Fishburne committed himself to two sequels before he even read the scripts. “Of course you would,” thought everyone who’d seen The Matrix. Then they came out. As well as the two films, there was: a series of anime shorts; a computer game so ‘significant’ that scenes from it are included on the film trilogy’s DVD/Blu-ray release; and an MMORPG that ended in 2009. Rumours persist of more in the future.

Awards
4 Oscars (Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects)
2 BAFTAs (Sound, Visual Effects)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Production Design, Editing)
2 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Director)
7 Saturn nominations (Actor (Keanu Reeves), Actress (Carrie-Anne Moss), Supporting Actor (Laurence Fishburne), Writer, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects (it lost to The Phantom Menace!))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (it lost to Galaxy Quest)

What the Critics Said
“In addition to resembling both in concept and content the worthwhile Dark City, there’s not much more to it than ideas about the subjectivity of reality reworked from Descartes, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson and channeled into an operatic science-fiction metaphor about non-conformity (and drug use). But the Wachowskis do it so playfully well, keeping The Matrix’s potentially confusing plot intelligible, intelligent, and suspenseful, that it doesn’t matter. As far as sheer spectacle goes, it’s the most exciting thing to come along in quite a while. Where other films are done in by the freedom offered by computer effects, The Matrix integrates them beautifully” — Keith Phipps, A.V. Club

Score: 87%

What the Public Say
“The degrees to which The Matrix changed our cinematic landscape are inescapable. This is one of those rare cultural landmarks that overcame its cult status and truly became a part of our shared existence. It helps that The Matrix is a bit of a whole bunch of sci-fi, cyberpunk and dystopic fiction blended together with classic Hong Kong action film elements. Not bad for a film that stole much of Dark City’s thunder.” — The Hi-Fi Celluloid Monster

Verdict

There are some movies where their significance almost outstrips the ability to judge them independently — Citizen Kane, for the most obvious example. I don’t know if The Matrix now appears that way to newcomers, but it could, because it’s hard to understate the impact it had on action/sci-fi movies (and other media) for the next decade or more. But I haven’t included films in this list just for the impact they had: The Matrix is an exciting, thought-provoking, and innovative sci-fi-actioner. Unsurprisingly, all the reasons it was so influential are the reasons it’s so good.

#61 will be… future crime.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #36

It’s found its voice…
now it needs a body.

Original Title: Kôkaku Kidôtai
Also Known As: Mobile Armored Riot Police: Ghost in the Shell (Japan)

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 83 minutes
BBFC: 15

Original Release: 18th November 1995 (Japan)
UK Release: 8th December 1995
First Seen: DVD, 2000

Stars
Atsuko Tanaka (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Bayonetta: Bloody Fate)
Akio Ôtsuka (Black Jack, Paprika)
Kôichi Yamadera (Ninja Scroll, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie)
Yutaka Nakano (Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence)
Tamio Ôki (Journey to Agartha, Wolf Children)

Director
Mamoru Oshii (Patlabor: The Movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence)

Screenwriter
Kazunori Itō (Patlabor: The Movie, .hack//SIGN)

Based on
The Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊 Kōkaku Kidōtai, literally Mobile Armoured Riot Police), a manga by Masamune Shirow.

The Story
Japan, 2029: Public Security officer Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team are assigned to track down and capture a dangerous hacker known as the Puppet Master, but they soon find themselves embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy…

Our Hero
In a future world where humans can undergo varying degrees of cyberisation, Major Motoko Kusanagi is a “full-body prosthesis augmented-cybernetic human” — only her brain is organic. Her body is a generic mass production model, so she can blend in while being a kick-ass law enforcement officer.

Our Villain
The Puppet Master, a cyber criminal who hacks into people’s brains and gives them false memories. But is there something even worse going on behind the hacker?

Best Supporting Character
Kusanagi’s second-in-command Batou is stoic to the point of brusqueness — apparently quite a different characterisation to his portrayal in other Ghost in the Shell media.

Memorable Quote
“If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: overspecialise, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.” — Major Kusanagi

Memorable Scene
Pursuing the Puppet Master, Kusanagi comes face to face with a six-legged tank. After a blazing gun battle, she tries to physically rip it open, her cybernetic body straining to breaking point — and beyond…

Technical Wizardry
Ghost in the Shell was groundbreaking in its skilful combination of traditional 2D animation with CGI additions. It used a process called “digitally generated animation” (DGA), which combined cel animation with computer graphics to create lens effects that simulated depth, motion, and unusual lightning techniques, as well as mixing in 3D CGI and digital audio.

Letting the Side Down
In 2008, Oshii revisited the film to create Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which regraded the colour, replaced some of the original animation with new CGI, omitted several scenes, and featured a remixed and re-recorded soundtrack. (More details here.) As is almost always the case when directors fiddle with their creations decades later, it wasn’t well received by fans.

Next time…
As befalls many a popular anime franchise, Ghost in the Shell has spawned a raft of sequels and reboots. The only direct sequel, Innocence, was released in 2004. TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex ran for two seasons between 2002 and 2005, with the first run compiled into movie The Laughing Man and the second into Individual Eleven, all of which were followed by a final film, Solid State Society. Another reboot came in 2013 with direct-to-video series Ghost in the Shell: Arise, which so far totals five episodes and, last year, continuation film Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie. (Only four episodes have so far been released in the West, but the movie — which continues the story from the fifth episode — came out on Monday in the UK. Just to make things more complicated.) A live-action American remake is currently shooting for release in March 2017 — you’ve probably heard about it.

Awards
5 Annie Awards nominations (Animated Feature, Directing, Producing, Writing, Production Design)

What the Critics Said
“When Akira first blasted out of Japan back in 1991 it looked like the Western concept of widescreen animation would be changed forever. […] Unfortunately, it was not to be. Sure, on video, the Manga scene has gone from strength to strength, but as far as theatrical releases are concerned, nothing has really come along to match Akira’s sheer retina-scalding magnificence. Until now. […] From its baddie-eviscerating opening sequence through innumerable car chases, shoot outs and tongue-in-cheek dialogue exchanges, this is exactly the kind of film that James Cameron would make if they ever let him through the Disney front gates.” — Clark Collis, Empire

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“both the film and Oshii have fallen into a kind of disrepute among the anime community. The common line on GITS is that it’s wordy, masturbatory, and pretentious with nothing going on intellectually and that the (plainly inferior but more easily accessible) GITS: SAC is a better alternative. I wanted to write this article to respond to that notion. GITS is a highly thoughtful film and worthy of comparison to virtually any scifi feature you could name. ” — tamerlane, too long for twitlonger

Verdict

Ghost in the Shell was the first anime I consciously saw, which maybe helps it earn a place here. It’s an initially accessible movie that’s also very complicated — there are pulse-pounding action scenes and a thriller storyline to keep things exciting, but also a lot of deep philosophical discussions, touching on themes of gender and identity. I think for some viewers the latter are a negative, while for others they’re the entire point. (I imagine the forthcoming Hollywood remake will either ditch or seriously curtail them, but you never know.) The combination makes for a stimulating (in multiple senses) sci-fi actioner.

Next… who ya gonna call? #37 !

Nirvana (1997)

2011 #75
Gabriele Salvatores | 89 mins | TV | R

NirvanaThe Radio Times film section may be steadily going down the drain, but when anyone describes something as “one of the best science-fiction films ever made” it’s worth paying attention. “Yet few people outside Italy have seen it,” they add. Indeed, despite screening at Cannes (albeit out of competition), this Italian movie has never been classified by the BBFC, so I presume it’s never been released here (though this was its third showing on the BBC). It’s been released in America though… by Miramax. They did their usual foreign film job, chopping out 17 minutes, changing the music and adding an English dub. This is the version shown by the BBC (at the time of posting, also available on iPlayer) and reviewed here.

Most sci-fi we see is of the American variety — partly due to the fact most of any cinema and the vast majority of imported TV we get is from there, partly due to that being where the money is for special effects and what have you — and that tends to mean tonnes of CGI, a fast pace and action sequences up to the eyeballs. Nirvana is more stereotypically European, however: it’s clearly a Deep and Meaningful film, though unlike many examples of Thoughtful cinema it at least has a slightly thriller-ish plot and a hefty dose of cyberpunk styling for us plebs to pick up on.

Sometime in the future (I read 2005 in one review, but best to ignore that now), Christopher Lambert is a computer game designer working on a new title for Christmas. Somehow a virus invades his system, in the process making his lead character, Solo, fully sentient. Unable to escape the game, Solo wishes to be deleted, but Lambert can’t because the final software is owned by some giant corporation and will be released in just three days… so he has just three days to get into their computer system and delete the file, before Solo is condemned to never-ending life stuck in the game.

Nirvana's SoloThe most obvious point of reference for Nirvana is Blade Runner, which I’d wager was a hefty inspiration. Writer/director Salvatores introduces themes of what it means to be human and a lead character one might like to decide isn’t after all, and sets it in a perma-night, dystopian, multi-cultural future. It doesn’t quite have Ridley Scott’s consistency of vision, though: while he just rendered an Asian-American future L.A., Salvatores takes globalisation to the max, running us through locations named after Marrakech and Bombay City, which may or may not be part of the same sprawling metropolis, and which all exhibit appropriately specific cultural stylings. These aren’t just pretty backgrounds, but in some ways reflect the film’s use of video games — in which you can, of course, constantly re-spawn your character — as a metaphor for reincarnation.

In aid of this, while Lambert is collecting the plot pieces needed to attack that corporation — at the same time as following a subplot about a missing girlfriend — we get to witness Solo’s experiences inside the game, frequently dying and re-living the same story with a group of characters who aren’t aware in the way he is. To be blunt, the in-game stuff is a bit odd. It doesn’t really go anywhere, and builds to a lacklustre climax — indeed, the word climax is a bit strong. But perhaps this is part of the point: as the only character in the game capable of independent thought, Solo is stuck in a loop of story and fellow characters who just re-enact what they were programmed to re-enact. Literally, he can’t go anywhere.

This part of the film calls to mind eXistenZ, David Cronenberg’s film about a virtual reality game that blurs the line between reality and the game. It’s rather a surface similarity though — Lambert barely spends any time in his game, I think there's something in my eyeinteracting with Solo merely though a series of screens on his journeys (and, one presumes, a series of microphones too). Cronenberg’s film was made a couple of years after this, so commending it for not doing the same thing would obviously be a bit rich. It is to be commended for not descending into a needlessly twist-strewn third act though, which I had thought was coming — there’s plenty of bits along the way that could be used to build a ‘surprise’ or two. There’s some ambiguity in the ending, but not too blatantly (unlike later versions of Blade Runner, for instance), and Emmanuelle Seigner’s ex-girlfriend character is never quite used in the way I expected.

For all its intellectualising, Nirvana can still be a fun film, and not just because Lambert’s accent is always set to provoke a giggle. That sounds horribly xenophobic written down, but it’s all Highlander’s fault: there’s no reason he shouldn’t sound European here (and he has dubbed himself), but the memory of that accent supposedly being Scottish does linger. (And, just so we’re clear, I love Highlander.) But no, there are proper dashes of humour, scattered here and there to provide some subtle texture. And there are action sequences too, and dated ’90s music (presumably thanks to Miramax), and even some boobies. To be honest, though, if you just want humour, action, dated music and boobies, there are dozens of films that will serve you better. At least they stop it becoming too dry, and give you a chance to let what’s going on sink in, helping prevent total confusion every time the film threatens to become incomprehensible (maybe it’s just me, but it took a little while to work out what Lambert was actually getting up to in the main plot).

I’d quite like to see the original version. Who knows what changes Miramax have wrought with their fiddling (that woman on the poster certainly isn’t in this version, at least), Smells like teen somethingand I imagine subtitles could be easier to follow than this dubbed version, in which everyone’s covered by either the original actors straining with English (based on the accents) or the typically bad voice actors employed for such dubs. The Italian DVD is reportedly English-friendly and very good quality, so perhaps I’ll get hold of that (expect another review if/when I do… well, eventually).

Apparently Nirvana “has achieved something of a cult status, especially in Europe”, and I think I can see why: there’s a few themes that might be worth a ponder, and enough splashes of style and action to keep one’s attention… most of the time. It might not be as stylistically delineated as either of the films it brought to mind, but then Blade Runner is perhaps the pinnacle of screen SF and eXistenZ… well, now I really want to see that again. I don’t know if this is “one of the best science-fiction films ever made” — especially not in this Americanised version — but it certainly has a few things going for it.

4 out of 5

Nirvana is available to UK viewers on the BBC iPlayer until 3AM on Saturday 3rd September (i.e. Friday night).