Wonder Woman

Recommendation: YES

Summary: A US born British spy by the name of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashlands off the coast of a hidden island inhabited by Amazons. Hearing his tales of a war without end (World War 1), Diana (Gal Gadot), an idealistic princess, decides to help Steve return to London with crucial intel on a deadly chemical weapon if he in turn will point her in the direction of the front so she can hunt down Ares, whom she believes is responsible for corrupting the minds of men and prolonging the war. Lessons are learnt.

Here we are, witness to the first unqualified good film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It is a shame that the most drastic about face I have witnessed in recent history had to be surrounded by the relative shittiness of the internet. Rest assured that there is no conspiracy here, no campaign against men. Women only screenings did not end the world, nor were they the responsibility of WB, so you can stop blaming them for it. That Wonder Woman was a film directed by a woman is not the most significant nor sole reason for its incredibly warm reception.

The answer to why we suddenly have a well received film in the DCEU is a bit simpler than that. Director Patty Jenkins (of Monster fame) is someone who understands that Wonder Woman as a character is an embodiment of love and compassion. Patty Jenkins isn’t David Ayer, a person whose filmography to date largely revolves around the “coolness” of self destructive or poisonous masculinity, or appeals to violence and power (that said, End of Watch is a genuinely good and character focused aesthetic experiment). Nor is she Zack Snyder, a Randian Objectivist who writes his worldview into characters diametrically opposed to it.

I would get into Suicide Squad, but its failings are so numerous and its production so troubled that I can’t rightly tell what is a result of Ayer’s philosophy and approach as a story teller, and what is resultant on, for example, Ayer being forced into completing the screenplay in 6 weeks, or the reshoots, or Trailer Park being hired to recut the film.

So let us discuss Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) for a moment and contrast its approach to that of Wonder Woman. BvS takes cues largely from The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel in which a Randian Batman eventually takes on a non-Randian Superman, who is rendered as a stooge for the government (because you are either smart enough to believe in ethical egoism, or you are a self sacrificing slave to an overreaching government). In BVS however, Batman is consumed with a rage and desire to prove himself a capable actor with agency and an ability to affect change from without, refusing to cooperate and uncaring of the fate of those he goes up against, as long as his ends are met. Superman is a pouty, put upon, selfish and capricious person of mass destruction. Snyder frames him in glorious, approaching iconic compositions, saving people and averting catastrophies, but forever with a scowl on his face. There’s an inherent disconnect between what the Words Say about how Superman is the best most altruistic of actors in this universe, and his actions that suggest he is doing so reluctantly out of a misplaced sense of obligation that both his mother and ghost father say he shouldn’t feel.

They are then pitted against each other in what the film insists is a battle of opposing ideologies, but in reality is Snyder taking two toys infused with his Objectivist world view, and smacking them together in a climax that is in no way climactic, and much less so when a second, tacked on climax fails to dazzle with so much CGI nonsense. Whatever good BvS brings to the table outside of Snyder’s penchant for framing beautiful compositions, is snuck in at the periphery (see Holly Hunter’s character trying to hold Superman accountable for acting unilaterally with no oversight in and outside the United States), and then too only at the level of individual scenes.

But Wonder Woman offers an uncluttered, focused, self contained narrative with a simple thesis that it explores at both the level of character, and a higher thematic level. The film makes it its business to posit that displaying love and compassion for your fellow man in the face of their shittiness is the one thing for anyone ever to strive for, no matter their origin. And it is this singular focus on its thesis that makes Wonder Woman an at times profoundly humane film watching experience. Wonder Woman, unlike the DCEU version of Batman or Superman is a character worth deifying. She is a character who will do what is right because it is what she ought to do, and this is no better exemplified than in the film’s stand out set piece, the No Man’s Land sequence. It has the most effective use of speed ramping to suggest the physicality and grandeur of comic book splash pages since Snyder’s own 300. It highlights the strength of Diana’s moral character through action rather than speechifying. It is a sequence in which the rousing score inspires awe rather than beating us over the head with a suggestion of unearned poetry. And it’s the most damned super hero-y sequence I have seen in a movie since, I don’t know, the bit with the train in Spider-Man 2. This is a movie that is operating on a level of quality in all domains that far exceeds anything the DCEU has offered to date. And Wonder Woman continues to operate at this level of quality until its obligatory CG nonsense climax.

And it’s also so adorable and affectionate about it’s characters. From the young Diana play acting at being a warrior with a look of wonder on her face, to the playful chemistry between her and Steve Trevor, there’s a genuine interest in the inner workings of its characters and the struggles they are facing. Even the rag tag group of misfits (a la, Captain America’s Howling Commandos) have moments hinting at an inner life. The actor turned spy who couldn’t make it big because of his race, the braggart sniper with what is fairly evidently PTSD, the opportunistic Native American smuggler who only does what he does because his people have been displaced by Americans and it’s his best option for making a living. All of this is handled so deftly that the complexities of these character arcs are set up, delivered, and paid off in relatively little screen time. This is a big budget event movie where the small, quiet scenes are just as powerful as the bombastic ones because they are all in service of character or theme. And when a movie can have you in rapt attention at a character playing the piano and singing out of key because of what it means for that character in particular, then it is doing something right.

It is this focus on characters that helps turn a functionally invincible one like Diana into an interesting one, even if almost every physical challenge she faces is trivial. Where Wonder Woman succeeds and BvS, or even Man of Steel failed is in establishing Diana’s core values and beliefs (that man is inherently good), and challenging it at every turn. Dramatic tension is maintained throughout the movie by playing Diana off against everything that surrounds her, including the characters that are ostensibly there to support her. What happens when push comes to shove and none of her compatriots believe in her conviction that Ares is the one pulling all the strings? What happens if she was wrong all along? Does it matter more or less if she keeps going? And how funny can we make a woman walking around early 20th Century London carrying a sword and a shield?

Okay, so turning Man of Steel into a fish out of water comedy may not have worked out as well as it did with Wonder Woman (owing in large part to the fantastic chemistry and performances of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine), but the main thing is the fish out of water-ness cuts both ways when it comes to the film’s drama, and this is something that the dramatically inert Man of Steel could have used. As she goes on her journey, she learns about the cycles if warfare and oppression of indigenous peoples, the existence of racism, the horrors of PTSD, to name a few things, and the film is refreshingly honest about its depiction. It doesn’t gloss over any of it, but simultaneously doesn’t get bogged down in the dour tone of BvS. “Yes, humans are shitty,” the film intones, “but that is not justification enough to turn your back and stop fighting for what is good and right. Not when there is still love in the world and a chance for a better future.” And this is a far less ugly message than what any of its contemporaries have managed to convey.

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Gravity

Gravity is a movie that has to be seen in cinemas and in 3D if one wishes to get the best possible experience. As an active disliker of the current 3D cinema experience, I was originally sceptical. The friends I saw it with insisted, and I am glad they did. Never before have I ever seen 3D used so effectively as a dramatic device. Gravity does a lot to lend credence to the format.

There is a reason the 3D is so effective. Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) composes every shot of Gravity with such care and intent that it becomes so much more immersive a film than one would expect a 3D movie to be. Previous high water mark Avatar used 3D as a way to give its richly imagined world a “reach out and touch it” immediacy. Cameron painted the screen with lush visuals for the purpose of transporting the viewer to another world. He didn’t really use his camera, his 3D, or his visuals to add to the film’s narrative richness.

In Gravity, Cuarón utilises the entirety of his frame to tell his story. Events happen in the background that cause ripples that affect what happens in the foreground in sometimes catastrophic ways. Background events drive characters to perform actions. This deliberate framing makes full use of the 3D format. The added depth increases the audience’s immersion in the scene, and it is incredibly powerful to see something small happen in the distance, only to have it grow in scale and menace as it moves towards Sandra Bullock’s character, and by extension, towards the audience, in the foreground.

I can’t help but feel the affect of huge chunks of broken machinery careening towards the camera would be dampened by a 2D screening.

The attention to visual story telling extends to the way the characters interact. There isn’t much in the way of character development, and the screenplay spends little time in establishing them before all hell breaks loose. However, characterisation is strengthened by the way the characters act more than by what they say. A particular scene involves George Clooney’s character attempting to calm another down as he tows them across space. The dialogue in this scene feels forced. Based purely on what is said, what is meant to be a poignant scene that sets up an entire character arc would feel flat. Being in a space suit, Clooney cannot directly look behind him, and instead gives a concerned glance into a mirror attached to his arm, while maintaining his cool tone of voice. It is a tiny moment, but one that breathes personality into a character the way the words they say could not.

Cuarón’s previous film, Children of Men, is the more thematically rich film, with a much more meaty narrative. It also boasted some very impressive sound design and cinematography. However, the technical intelligence on show in Children of Men is nothing compared to what is to be found in Gravity. Being freed from the constraints of terrestrial, practical film making, Cuarón orchestrates some of the most amazing long take shots I’ve ever seen. Additionally, Cuarón often frames the audience as part of the action. Often during some of the most dazzling moments, the film cuts to a first person point of view shot of Bullock’s character. It is us and not just Bullock trapped in an impossible situation. It is us fighting for life in an alien, incredibly hostile environment. And it is us who experience the majesty of the images Cuarón subjects us to. We are participants in the action rather than passive observers.

The sound design is equally impressive. Space in Gravity is soundless, and this soundlessness is played for maximum tension. Collisions occur silently in the background while characters remain oblivious, focusing on more immediate concerns. It is haunting to see such large scale destruction without hearing it. Positional audio is also incredibly well utilised. This is particularly noticeable in the film’s opening, when we see the earth and hear a voice in the rear right. The voice slowly moves towards the centre and then to the left as the setting of the film slowly drifts into view. It speaks to the incredible immersive quality of good sound design when you are given a sense of your place in the scene before seeing any of the principle players.

Cuarón played with diegetic and non-diegetic sound in Children of Men. An early series of scenes features the main character standing next to an explosion and a secondary character taunting him about a ringing in his ears. The very next scene makes it obvious to the viewer that ever since the explosion, a ringing simulating tinnitus was part of the soundscape of the movie, and this ringing continues for another couple of scenes. This experimentation continues in Gravity. Sound will often, and deliberately cut in and out, whether it is diegetic or not. During sections of Gravity, when a character is expected not to be able to hear anything, all sound, including the film’s score, drops out, only to reappear when the character is expected to be able to hear again. It’s another technique that Cuarón uses to not just frame his characters within the scene, but the audience.

Away from the technical side of things, the screenplay isn’t great, but is light and has enough character to provide some laughs and get the audience rooting for Gravity’s characters. The performances are amazing, and both Clooney and Bullock excel in their roles.

The film moves at a brisk pace and is over in under 90 minutes. It definitely does not overstay its welcome, a problem I seem to be noticing with more and more of its contemporaries. It is a movie that knows it has not earned 2 and a half hours, and so does not try to be 2 and a half hours long.

I found Gravity to be the most intelligently staged film I have seen in a long time. It’s not weighty in its themes, but is a show of pure film making talent. It is also a film that concerns itself with telling a story and ratcheting up tension above being scientifically accurate. While it’s depiction of a Kessler syndrome is chilling, the actions undertaken in the film are impossible given the orbits and locations of the places the characters visit in their journey towards salvation.

A suspension of disbelief is strongly advised.

I found it a case where the film was so well made and so exciting, that real life implausibility was of little concern. I found myself in a similar situation with a particular sequence in Jurassic Park. The sequence in question was staged with such skill at building tension and excitement, that the discrepancy in the height of the T-rex pit when the car is eventually pushed over the edge was inconsequential. There are times when one shouldn’t let fact get in the way of enjoying incredibly well made fiction.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN

I do believe that something has been made of the fact that Bullock’s character is made to appear incompetent and reliant on the men in the movie to keep her alive. While this is true to an extent, it is moderated by context. Bullock’s character of Dr Stone is a civilian noted as mission specialist. She is on the mission because she has specialist understanding of the upgrades being done on Hubble. She was not an astronaut, she was not in the airforce, and she was given very minimal training (six months) in preparation for her mission. She is a medical doctor, a profession not generally known to be comprised of incompetent or unintelligent people. In fact, the entire mission required her to be there in space making very specific upgrades to Hubble, based on her research into medical technology.

Clooney’s character, on the other hand, is a seasoned Astronaut who has conducted a number of space walks. It is to be expected that if something were to go wrong, Clooney would be the one to remain calm, while Bullock would panic, having never been in that situation before.

Throughout the rest of the film, Bullock shows a level of resourcefulness and quick thinking that ultimately gets her back to earth in one piece. Had she been a truly incompetent character, she would not have been able to manage piloting a craft with controls labelled in Chinese. She would have died off before getting to that point.

On the other hand, there is the low oxygen hallucination scene where Clooney returns to magically explain to Bullock how to get out of her situation. This scene can be read as problematic, where even in death, the male character is required to move the action forward for the hopelessly disheartened female character. I will not begrudge anyone for viewing this seen as such. It was a point in the film, where just for a moment, Bullock was taken from being resourceful and quick thinking back to being reliant on a man. It was a bit jarring and undercuts her development into a powerful agent free from male intervention.

I tried rationalising this through the use of psychological schemas, but I was unhappy with the outcome of the exercise as it was still problematic. I shall explain the thought process for those interested.

Schema are mental frameworks used by individuals to reduce the amount of information the brain is required to process in day to day life. You can think of a schema as a script. You have a specific schema for ordering pizza, for example. You know what the transaction involves, and you act it out in accordance to the schema, or script, contained in your mind.

Applying this to the mission depicted in the movie, it is fair to say that Bullock’s character would develop a schema that had Clooney, as commander of the mission, being the source of information about what to do in emergencies. Thus, when low on oxygen, and with higher level cognitive functions presumably close to shutting down, her brain resorted to her schema related to this particular mission: New survival information will come from a commander as a commander is naturally more knowledgeable about what to do in this situation. This lead to the hallucination of Clooney that facilitated Bullock’s brain in making her aware that she herself knew of a solution to her current predicament. Ultimately, it was her own ingenuity that saved her life, but filtered through her schema that told her she should expect survival advice to come from a more experienced source.

All well and good until you realise Clooney is still a man! Her brain’s shorthand for the context of the mission involved a man being in a position of power over her, thus it is still a problematic scene.

So much for that fix, eh?