Mute (2018)

2018 #31
Duncan Jones | 126 mins | streaming (UHD) | 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.

Warcraft: The Beginning (2016)

aka Warcraft

2017 #38
Duncan Jones | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, China, Canada & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Warcraft: The Beginning

Produced by Legendary — one of the companies behind the Dark Knight trilogy, Jurassic World, Godzilla, and many other massive hits — the only thing that’s “legendary” about the Warcraft movie is how terrible it is.

Based on the long-running video game franchise, Warcraft (optimistically retitled Warcraft: The Beginning in many territories) is, based on what I’ve read, less an adaptation of the game (which has many different incarnations anyhow) and more an expansion of its universe. Rather than take the game itself and try to mush it into the shape of a movie, as most video game adaptations are forced to do, Warcraft depicts some of the game-world’s backstory, taking care to keep events canonical. I’m sure this is brilliant for fans and players, but I wonder if it’s part of why the film feels muddled and tacky to those of us who are uninitiated. Of course, at its best such efforts can make newcomers want to learn more; but at its worst it leaves you feeling confused and shut out. Warcraft is definitely a case of the latter.

It plays like a $160 million fan film. It doesn’t bother with world-building, just throwing the viewer in at the deep end. That can work, but it needs to be carefully managed. Warcraft just ploughs ahead, going deeper and deeper. It’s been made for people who know this world, its places, its people, its concepts, its rules. The film is a prequel to something that doesn’t exist — or, rather, something that doesn’t exist as a movie. And yet, for all co-writer/director Duncan Jones’ efforts to remain faithful, apparently it’s not faithful enough for some of the hardcore. It seems the movie has wound up in a place where it’s not stuck to the backstory enough to please initiated fans, but not opened itself up enough to be accessible to newcomers either.

This could get orcward

Unfortunately, the problems don’t stop there. Characters’ personalities change from one scene to the next, with no sense of development or connection. Many of the performances are stilted or clumsy, with a good deal of the actors feeling miscast. Scenes exist in isolation, with little sense they should follow what was before or precede what comes after. It feels like it was heavily messed around in post — not just stuff chopped out (reportedly Jones’ director’s cut was 40 minutes longer), but things moved around within the story — but then something will happen that suggests those scenes were always meant to be where they are. Whatever the cause, it makes it even harder to follow a story that already feels like it’s shutting out newcomers.

The biggest shame is that you can see glimmers of potential — mainly in the world itself, which is clearly quite thoroughly realised (presumably thanks to having been developed over many, many years of the games’ existence). But then, the story that takes place within that world isn’t an especially original or interesting one. Or, rather, I don’t think it is. I mean, it’s hard to tell what precisely is going on half the time.

A lot of the technical merits are strong, too. Almost every shot is loaded with CGI, but the vast majority of it looks pretty incredible. It’s no wonder some bits come up short, however, because the sheer volume of different locations, creatures, and spell effects is mind-boggling. Obviously some parts are going to suffer when you bite off more than you can chew. If there’s a problem here it might be that the design work is quite “high fantasy” — it’s all exaggerated and almost cartoony, as opposed to the more realistic take of something like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. That’s not to everyone’s taste; indeed, it might be part of why such fantasy tales used to be (and, often, still are) such a niche market.

Totally realistic costumes

Talking of the market, reports say Warcraft needed to gross $450m just to break even. In the US, it took $47.4m. No, I didn’t put the decimal in the wrong place. And that’s not opening weekend, that’s in total. It was a big hit in China, but that wasn’t enough: worldwide it managed just shy of $434m (which, fact fans, makes it one of only two American movies to gross over $400m without making $100m in the US (the other was Terminator Genisys)). Jones had plans for sequels (he’s shared them on Twitter, which naturally got turned into news articles, if you’re interested), but, yeah, they’re not happening. Thank goodness the Chinese didn’t give it another few million, because this project already feels like a waste of five years of the director’s promising career. You could see Jones as currently being on a similar path to that previously trodden by the likes of M. Night Shyamalan and Neill Blomkamp: a hugely successful debut followed by increasingly poor, eventually terrible films. Hopefully his next movie, Mute (available exclusively on Netflix from today), will rectify that.

2 out of 5

Warcraft: The Beginning featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

Blindspot Sci-fi Roundup

With my 2018 Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” selections now chosen, it’s about time I got on with reviewing those from the class of 2017 that are still in my “to do” pile. Here, then, are four more reviews of my 2017 must-sees, connected (as you may’ve guessed from the title) by all being works of science fiction.

In today’s roundup:

  • District 9 (2009)
  • Moon (2009)
  • Her (2013)
  • Forbidden Planet (1956)


    District 9
    (2009)

    2017 #88
    Neill Blomkamp | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | South Africa, USA, New Zealand & Canada / English | 15 / R

    District 9

    We begin this roundup with two 2009 sci-fi thrillers that made the names of their respective directors. District 9 got the wider attention, being backed by Peter Jackson and receiving a Best Picture Oscar nomination (alongside three other nods), but I’d argue it’s ultimately the lesser of the two films.

    Although District 9 remains highly praised, co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s next two movies — Elysium and Chappie — haven’t gone down so well. Having seen both of those first, I feel like there are a lot of structural and tonal similarities between all three films, so it’s interesting to me how poorly the next two were received. Basically, they all start with some kind of societal sci-fi issue, explore that for a bit as the world of the story is established, then transition into being a shoot-em-up actioner.

    In District 9’s case, it starts out as a documentary about (effectively) alien refugees who live in a segregated community in South Africa. The obvious real-world parallels are, well, obvious. Then events transpire which make the idea of having to identify with those who are Other than us — of becoming affected by their culture — very literal. Then it turns into an achieve-the-MacGuffin shoot-em-up runaround. It’s done well for what it is, with some strikingly gruesome weaponry to give the well-staged shootouts a different edge, but that’s still what it is. Presumably it was all the rather-obvious allegory stuff that helped land the film a Best Picture nomination, and the fact the second half is a not-that-original humans-vs-aliens shooter was overlooked.

    Not so different. Okay, pretty different.

    For me, the clunkiest bit is the storytelling style it adopts. It’s a mockumentary… until it decides it doesn’t want to be so that it can tell its story more effectively… but then it sometimes slips back into mockumentary later on, most notably at the end. I found that distracting and formally inconsistent. I’d rather it had kept up the mockumentary act throughout or not used it at all; or, if you’re going to do both documentary and ‘reality’, have a point to it — show differing versions of the truth, that kind of thing, don’t just mix it together willy-nilly.

    All told, I found District 9 to be a mixed bag. The first half is excitingly original and interestingly ideas-driven, with allegory that is powerful if perhaps a little heavy-handed (I suppose that’s kind of unavoidable when you make a movie about segregation and set it in South Africa). The second half is just a shoot-em-up.

    4 out of 5

    Moon
    (2009)

    2017 #145
    Duncan Jones | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    Moon

    The other 2009 sci-fi debut feature was that of director Duncan Jones. Although it received no Oscar love it did get a BAFTA, but seems to remain less seen: it has almost half as many user ratings on IMDb as District 9. Personally, I thought it was the superior film.

    It stars Sam Rockwell as the sole inhabitant of a mining facility on the Moon. As the end of his tour of duty approaches, his investigation in a malfunction unearths a startling secret. To say any more would spoil things, though Moon gets to its reveal pretty speedily. Also, you may’ve guessed it from the trailers (I more or less did). Also, it’s nine years old now and you’ve probably seen it — though, as those IMDb numbers show, maybe not.

    If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth seeking out. Like so much good sci-fi, it uses its imagined situation as impetus to explore the effect on its characters (or, in this case, character) and what the human reaction would be in such a situation. Maybe this is becoming a cliché already, but it’s quite like an episode of Black Mirror in that regard. (Isn’t all sci-fi that puts a high concept through the ringer of human experience “like Black Mirror”? Such stuff existed before that series. That said, maybe there wasn’t as much of it.)

    It's like looking in a mirror. A black mirror.

    Jones marked himself out as a director to watch with his attentiveness to character in the midst of his SF setting, but also by helming an excellently realised production on a tight budget — the moonbase set looks great and the model effects are perfect. A major reason I reckon it’s clearly better than District 9 is this consistency of style and tone. It’s a film that better knows what it wants to be and how to achieve its intended effect.

    As for Jones, he went on to make Source Code, a solid follow-up, but then seemed to throw a lot of talent away on the risible Warcraft. Hopefully his forthcoming Netflix Original, Mute, will restore the balance.

    5 out of 5

    Her
    (2013)

    2017 #165
    Spike Jonze | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Her

    If Moon is “a bit like an episode of Black Mirror”, Spike Jonze’s Her virtually is one. Set in a highly plausible near future — which has clearly been developed from our current obsession with our phones, iPads, digital assistants, etc — it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lonely chap who gets a new operating system based around a genuine AI, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As Samantha develops, she and Theodore soon become friends, and then more.

    People often refer to the template of Black Mirror as “what if technology but MORE”, and Her definitely fulfils that brief: “what if Siri was genuinely intelligent and someone fell in love with her?” Also like an episode of Black Mirror, it’s as much about what this reveals about humanity as it is about the crazy sci-fi concept. It’s primarily a romance about a lonely guy who was hurt in the past finding a new connection, with the fact he’s falling in love with a piece of technology almost secondary. Even within the world of the film, he’s not some kind of outcast: we hear about other people who’ve fallen for their AI, and his friends unquestioningly accept his relationship as genuine.

    Such acceptance doesn’t translate into our current world, it seems. Although Her is generally very well liked, some people struggle to engage with it at all, and from what I can tell that mostly stems from them not being able to relate to Theodore and his situation, i.e. the very concept of falling in love with an AI is too impossible for them to even imagine. I can’t help but feel that says more about those viewers (for good or ill) than it does the film, which executes the storyline with a great deal of believability and heart.

    5 out of 5

    Forbidden Planet
    (1956)

    2017 #172
    Fred McLeod Wilcox | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Forbidden Planet

    This classic sci-fi adventure sees a spaceship crewed by blokes (led by Leslie Nielsen) land on the planet Altair IV to investigate what happened to a previous mission there. They find it inhabited only by Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his robot servant Robby, and his beautiful daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who perpetually wears short skirts and has a fondness for skinny-dipping. Turns out the crew are a right bunch of horndogs (they spend most of their time lusting after Altaira, tricking her into kissing them and stuff like that), but there are bigger problems afoot when the planet starts trying to kill them.

    Once it gets past everyone’s lustfulness (it feels uncomfortably like watching the filmmakers play out some personal fantasies), there are proper big sci-fi ideas driving Forbidden Planet. There are also some gloriously pulpy action sequences, like a fight against an invisible monster. It’s backed up by great special effects. Obviously they’ve all dated in one way or another, but much of it still looks fantastic for its time — the set extensions, in particular, are magnificent.

    Nothing's forbidden on this planet, wink wink

    Something I wasn’t expecting (but I’m certainly not the first to note) is how blatantly the film was an influence on Star Trek. You can even map the similarities between characters pretty precisely. Switch out the spaceship models and original-flavour Star Trek is all but Forbidden Planet: The Series.

    Although its gender politics have aged even less well than its special effects, and its story occasionally gets bogged down by stretches of explanatory dialogue (it sometimes feels like you’re watching the writer invent and explain his ideas in real-time), Forbidden Planet remains a mostly enjoyable SF classic.

    4 out of 5

    District 9 and Forbidden Planet were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Moon and Her were viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.