Almost any film (or narrative story) is about “the journey.” It is what gives a character their arc and shows their growth. Sometimes there is a very literal metaphor of this arc with a character climbing a mountain or driving across the country with a friend or their father’s ashes…or Einstein’s brain. Regardless, something they all have in common, though, is that the journey is the means by which the character grows. This is the essence of “The Hero’s Journey” and the well-trodden Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces and what not.
But what about a film that is not about the hero’s journey and how it changes them? What about a film in which the journey itself is the point? A journey that, while somehow revelatory of the character and either their motivations for the journey or society as a whole, rather than changing them or causing them to grow as a person, instead ends up either not affecting them or, if anything, leaving them worse off for making the trip.
If there is one question left in my brain at the end of Ex Machina, it is “who was the true villain of the film?” For so much of its runtime we are left in a state of unease at the actions and personality of its erstwhile genius creator Nathan (Oscar Issac)—some sort Steve Jobs crossed with Mark Zuckerberg crossed with Dr. Frankenstein mad scientist—and we wonder when the other shoe will drop. Nathan is erratic, quick to anger and just as quick to soften; unpredictable, clearly an alcoholic, and also paranoid. His security measures prove to be his very undoing, and also cause the death of his unwitting test subject/examiner, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of Nathan’s employees who is there to perform a Turing Test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan’s android creation.
Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007), written by the future Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018) writer/director Alex Garland, was, for me, the film from which I learned the phrase “third act problems.” In this way, it was a seminal film in my development as a critical viewer and analyzer of the cinematic arts. And yet, despite these problems, it remains, in my regard, an outstanding example of the science fiction genre and a film that I whole heartedly recommend.
The following essay had its start in my long delayed hauntology project (I promise that will begin posting soon), but in the process of streamlining that series and removing a number of films because the essays I was writing kept getting longer, I decided that both Sunshine and Ex Machina did not really fit with the themes I was developing…though Sunshine was heartbreaking to remove because I do want more people to watch it, flaws and all. Continue reading “Stardust to Stardust: An Adagio to Life and Death (Alex Garland’s Sunshine)”→
Steven Spielberg is an interesting director. Often derided by “refined” cinephiles as too commercial and mainstream, not to mention his part in the creation of the modern blockbuster with Jaws (1975), Spielberg is, in reality, a very astute and sophisticated director whose films have surprising depth when you peel back the surface layer. His works have undergone a bit of critical reappraisal thanks to many YouTube essayists and such opinions are beginning to filter into the mainstream. And with this new criticism has come some re-evaluation of films that, upon first release, suffered from disappointment critically or financially (at least in the public perception).
In my memory (which could be flawed or skewed in this respect), early 2000s Spielberg is and was undervalued by the public, that some thought he had somehow lost a step. Coming off the successes of Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), he followed those up with the three films under discussion here: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report(2002), and War of the Worlds(2005)—with Catch Me If You Can (2002) and The Terminal (2004) sandwiched in between the latter two for good measure. These are not objectively bad films, they demonstrate a master in full command of his craft. Yet, I never saw any of these three films in theatres, catching them only after the fact on DVD. In my memory, I also do not remember overwhelming praise nor box office (though the internet tells me otherwise). However, they have remained in the back of my head as films that I would like to revisit, especially when taken as an interesting grouping in Spielberg’s career. Three sci-fi films coming in relative proximity, and all adaptations at that. Continue reading “Artificial Reports of the Worlds: Steven Spielberg’s Early 2000s Sci-Fi Trilogy”→
In 1999 the Wachowskis burst into the cultural zeitgeist with the anime inspired The Matrix—a “heady, post-modern, what is real, how do we know we are alive or just simulations, bullet time fight, genre defying, how the hell did two relative unknowns do THAT” kind of film.
It was kind of popular.
They followed that up with two sequels that doubled down on the philosophy, fight choreography, and green tint aesthetic, yet also failed to connect with audiences in the same way, though still made truckloads of money for Warner Bros. The Wachowskis have yet to have a true hit film since then, but have directed, written, and produced a string of films (and TV) that while all finding a small, niche audience, have failed to match that earlier success for some reason. In this post want to look at a mighty handful of these and hopefully make the case for at least some of them finding a broader audience.
Note: I am leaving Cloud Atlas out for right now as I will be taking a deeper dive into it as part of my hauntology series, however know that I believe Cloud Atlas to be worth your time.
I really wanted to love Pacific Rim. Like, unabashedly, giggling like a little kid at a silly joke, deliriously love it. And the trailers set me up for such a love! I mean, the plot was something that two eight-year-olds playing with their toys would dream up on a weekend: giant robots fighting giant monsters. It was a live action anime. It was every nerdy “what if” conversation you would have as an undergrad when you finally found “your people.” And that line from the trailer was perfectly hammy yet earnest: “WE ARE CANCELLING THE APOCALYPSE!”
So what happened? Why didn’t I have that complete rush of joy when I left the theatre? I liked it, sure. I even enjoyed it. But the giddiness I felt at the first trailer didn’t materialize. And the “apocalypse” speech fell flat. It was too short and didn’t earn its tag line, like “TODAY IS OUR INDEPENDENCE DAY!” did during the summer of 1996. And I think that is a good point of comparison, as I view both films similarly as to what I wanted: a fun, goofy, science fiction romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That is what Independence Day is and what I thought Pacific Rim was going to be. So where did PacRim go wrong where ID4 went right? Well, the latter went for broke with the goofy one-liners and tongue in cheek remarks, whereas the former played it too safe and didn’t lean into its silly, kids playing with toys premise. Continue reading “Not The Films We Need, But the Films We Deserve: Safe vs. Daring Yet Flawed Films”→
Well, I finally did it. I watched all six Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films back to back to back to back to back to back, and all in their Extended Editions (the only way to watch the films, as will be assumed throughout this post). That’s almost 21 hours of movie, to say nothing of breaks for cooking food, taking periodic walks, let alone sleep and other necessities. But throughout my viewing, the question lingered: what is the right viewing order of these six films? A film series I hereby dub the Tolkien Hexalogy, for lack of a better term.
Back when the final Hobbit film was released, an article on Medium.com was published that gave a number of possible viewing orders outside of the obvious options of story chronology option (Hobbit followed by Lord of the Rings), which is the how I watched them over two days this past week, or the release order (Rings followed by Hobbit). But none of the orders in the Medium article really resonated with me, and I mused if there was a viewing order that solved some of the viewing issues with the Hobbit films (somewhat bloated storyline, spoilers and foreshadowing for Lord of the Rings that might not make sense without seeing those films, etc.) the way that the rightfully famous Machete Order makes the Star Wars prequels watchable.
I have written about trailers and music more than once on this blog, though it has been quite a while since last I thought about it. For the most part, trailers are quite unremarkable and meant to be little more than hype reels to sell a film, but that is really missing a golden opportunity to make an audience really excited for a film and drive interest (see the first Force Awakens trailer).
As I wrote in two very (VERY) early posts on this website (so please excuse the weirdness of my earlier writings), part of what can really sell a trailer is a good music choice. Rather than using canned, generic trailer music or reusing tracks from an earlier film (unless it part of a franchise), one of the best decisions can be to find the right pop song that somehow conveys something about the tone or story of the film. Continue reading “A Good Trailer Is Hard to Find: Thoughts on Music and Trailers”→