Alien: Covenant… Increasingly familiar

Recommendation: NO

Summary: Colonists find their ship hit by solar winds, leaving their captain toasted and the rest of the crew unwilling to reenter their cryosleep pods lest they befall the same fate. The acting captain, a man who believes his religion makes him untrustworthy in the eyes of the crew a mere 10 years after a devoutly religious person was part of the crew of the most expensive space expedition to that point, gives into popular demand to investigate a much closer, possibly hospitable planet rather than travelling their years long journey to their actual, safe destination. Due to terrible safety protocols, things go wrong.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right off the bat:

  1. Alien: Covenant is not a good film
  2. Alien: Covenant is not a good Alien film
  3. I prefer Prometheus to Alien: Covenant

If Prometheus is what happens when you take a slasher film and hurriedly retrofit it into a “thinking person’s science fiction film”, Alien: Covenant is what happens when you go the other way.

Be warned, if you were at all even the slightest bit interested in finding out why the Engineers created us and why they wanted to destroy us, prepare to be disappointed. That plot thread is hurriedly swept aside in a flashback in an attempt to course correct towards being more closely connected with the Alien franchise. But people hated Prometheus! Isn’t a course correction towards the rest of the franchise a good thing? Let’s take a moment to remember what else was part of the Alien franchise:

  • Alien 3
  • Alien Resurrection
  • AVP
  • AVP: R (I don’t remember what the R stood for, but it was probably Requiem or something equally terrible)

And let’s also take this moment to remind ourselves of a slow, ponderous science fiction film that Scott directed that wasn’t looked upon kindly until a few years later:

  • Blade Runner

Ultimately, what I am trying to say is that in the grand scheme of things, people don’t know shit; neither the authors, nor the audience.

And that is evident in Alien: Covenant. The ponderous core of Prometheus has been swapped out for that of a sleazy thriller, one that operates in the vague neighbourhood of Alien (complete with a condensed recreation of that first film in what passes for Covenant’s third act) after taking a detour through 80s slasher territory. People do stupid things for the sole purpose of delivering gory kills for the audience to enjoy, there is a lurid sex scene that gets bloodily interrupted, and the alien itself, far from being an unknowable walking metaphor for violation and sexual assault, is nothing but a bad special effect. They even managed to do the alien POV shot worse than it was done in Alien 3. Think on that.

Save for some two scenes of body horror (neither of which entirely approach the heights of the cesarean scene from Prometheus, though the first one gets close), the film is almost always better when the aliens are not on screen. In an Aliens movie. Prometheus at least had the good fortune of being distanced somewhat from Alien so it could be its own weird slow burn thing.

But aside from the aforementioned body horror and some effectively atmospheric gothic production design, Alien: Covenant is a film that puts on a show of being a horror film without actually committing to it. Everything else good about it comes as part of its past life as a Prometheus sequel. And all of its grandiose and “literary” discussions of the relationship between creator and created were better suited by Prometheus’ more consistently considered pacing. Sure, I did not think Prometheus got it right, but it sure as hell was better built to get it right than Alien: Covenant.

The one (two?) saving grace(s) of Alien Covenant is Michael Fassbender. This time playing a new Synthetic named Walter and returning as the creative and unhinged David, Fassbender electrifies the screen with his winning take on the uncanny valley. Affecting an American accent in something of a Lance Henrickson impersonation, Walter is a character that impresses in his coldness and restricted affect. And he is the perfect foil to David, a creature designed with a desire to create and understand. No better is this weird undercurrent of “humanity”, for lack of a better term, seen than in the film’s opening, a prologue introducing us to David’s first few hours. So much of the contempt between creator and created is suggested through reactions and body language as David prods and pokes at Peter Wayland’s insecurities about his mortality to see how far he can push and get away with it.

And then we have the scenes where the two synthetics interact. These sequences are crackling with an uncomfortable yet captivating “Platonic homoeroticism” while the two explore each others boundaries and try to seduce each other to their way of thinking. It really, really makes me wish the movie jettisoned the Alien connection altogether and became its own psychosexual thriller. But the aliens, creatures created out of unconvincing CGI, are the main draw, and Covenant: These Two Gay Robots are Totally Amazing would not a winning investment make.

And so we have part homoerotic thriller, part mad scientist movie (that totally robs the mystery of and defangs the Xenomorph), and part movie that dresses in the discarded skin of a gothic thriller by way of 80s slasher. A movie with no idea what to do with itself for an audience with no idea what is actually good for it. It’s time to put this franchise to bed before anymore damage is done to one of Cinema’s most iconic horror creations.

The end of the world all over again

No.

Independence Day: Resurgence is what is wrong with contemporary blockbuster cinema. At least western blockbuster cinema.
We pick up 20 years after the end of Independence Day. The aliens have been thwarted, earth has adapted their technology into ours, the world’s nations have come together in much the same way Ozymandias hoped the giant space alien squid would do at the end of Watchmen, with a combined world wide Earth-Space Defense Force. I suppose in that way the pandering to China feels more organic than in something like Transformers 4.
Jeff Goldblum is now an adviser to the earth-space defense force, one they don’t ever listen to, but I guess the title counts for something. There are human outposts throughout the solar system, and it’s at the lunar outpost that we blow a hole through a non-hostile alien ship and leave ourselves unprepared for the alien onslaught to come.
Independence Day: Resurgence has a wonderful cast: Jeff Goldblum, Charlotte Gainsbourg, William Fichtner. It then elects to do nothing with them. It has a breathtaking sequence that eclipses anything the original manages, then becomes much much smaller. It is goofy and amiable, not taking itself too seriously, then invests much energy in Poe faced mythology and franchise building. Independence Day: Resurgence is not so much the disaster film with sci-fi trappings of the original as is a cynical game of moving pieces into place for sequels to come.
Aside from that there are weird technical issues you would not expect in a tent pole feature. Some cuts result in poor communication of the flow of time, ending up temporally confused and confusing. Actors fail to meet eye lines. CG effects do not feel like they belong in the world, like they are weightless and without substance (a complaint that also applies to the transformers films).
But the biggest sin… Other than Jeff Goldblum, there is nothing that Independence Day: Resurgence does that other big CG laden movies cannot provide. What made Independence Day novel in its time was its sense of scale. It was more massive than its contemporaries. Now a days, a big, loud, flashy blockbuster is old hat. Anyone with the budget can and will do that. So what does Independence Day: Resurgence offer? Nostalgia? Perhaps. But then the movie looks and feels so much different due to the change in visual design. The incorporation of alien technology in our technology and building design makes it feel more like a generic futuristic film than a film that takes place in the same universe.
Independence Day: Resurgence may be less insufferable than a Transformers, but it is a beast with no identity of its own. It is content to do everything that other films are doing without offering anything unique. It is just another big, loud, waste of time that is too busy thinking of the future to focus on the present.
ID4 was a big film. ID: R is the shadow it cast.

An adventure 14 years in the making?

So I saw Jurassic World a few days ago, and it’s finally processed that I have seen a 4th Jurassic movie. After the 14 year wait, it was somewhat surreal and heady an experience.

This isn’t going to be an easy thing to write. How do you unpack 14 years of expectations for a sequel to a movie you’ve seen 70 times over a 22 year period across 5 different formats?

Let’s do an obligatory plot summary, because that’s how these things go. It’s 22 years after the Jurassic Park incident. InGen has been purchased by Masrani Global, a megacorp of sorts, run by the son of a friend of John Hammond. Masrani have created and successfully run Jurassic World for ten years. There is now a whole generation of kids who have grown up not knowing a world before Dinosaurs (keep this in mind, I’ll return to it). In a bid to keep interest in the park high and increase profits, InGen create a designer dinosaur through gene splicing. Things go wrong, the dinosaur escapes and endangers the lives of everyone on the island.

Colin Trevorrow managed to land the gig of directing Jurassic World back when Brad Bird was still considered to direct Star Wars Episode VII. Being a newcomer with only a modest indie comedy under his belt, Trevorrow seemed like an odd choice for director. He insisted he was a huge fan of the material and paid his due respects, but other creatives have said that and churned out substandard product. The casting of a number of comedy actors also seemed somewhat strange, hinting at a potentially bizarre tone. Bizarre and uneven is ultimately what Jurassic World‘s tone is. It springboards from childlike awe and wonder, to the odd scene with suspense, to broad comedic jabs, to miscalculated and fetishistic mean spiritedness, with one kill in particular feeling like it wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie if it were played for horror rather than petty spectacle.

It’s not entirely horrible though, the blue colour mix was toned down considerably. All kidding aside, in one or two scenes, the Indominus Rex makes for an interesting antagonist, if one that never gets given its dues, having abilities introduced and never seen again. Seeing the park fully functional during the opening moments made me feel a giddy joy I hadn’t felt while watching a Jurassic Movie since Jurassic Park. An initial exploration of animal husbandry, and behavioural science, with subtle commentary on the practice of keeping animals isolated in captivity to the detriment of the animal’s social development hearken back to the discussions of the futility of assuming control over a complex system no human had any intimate knowledge of that took place in Jurassic Park.

Beyond these brief moments the script is painfully cheesy and flatly written, with characters embodying outmoded stock types rather than feeling fleshed out or in any way compelling. The screenplay’s shallowness leads to awkward moments where attempts to give characters depth only ends up making them spout alternately contradictory sentences at the screen. Masrani, for example, alternates between a carefree billionaire who doesn’t give a damn about Jurassic World being profitable, and a Scrooge who doesn’t want a kill order put out on a dinosaur endangering countless lives because it cost $26 million to develop. It is somewhat awkward in hindsight when Joss (I wrote a movie in which it is accidentally implied a woman states her infertility makes her as monstrous as The Hulk) Whedon was on point with the movie feeling 70s era sexist. In what was an attempt to come across as an adventure serial like Romancing the Stone, Jurassic World‘s gender politics is distressingly retrograde. Brice Dallas Howard’s Claire is a workaholic prig what don’t need no man, who spends the entire movie in high heals, and whose character arc involves her realising she should settle down with a man and maybe having kids isn’t a bad idea. The majority of Jurassic World‘s world building is done through telling, and it is plagued with scenes where characters talk plot points and exposition at each other, rather than engaging as believable humans. In light of action movies that do exceptional amounts of world building and story telling visually through action, such as John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road, it was disappointing to see such a clumsy approach to narrative. While Jurassic Park was guilty of this to an extent, it had the good sense to be witty and playful with its characters in its downtime, and often mined them for genuine pathos in the process.

Despite this, most of the principle players do a lot with what they are given. Chris Pratt does his best in a role that tasks him with being almost entirely serious, robbing him of the charm he displayed in Guardians of the Galaxy. Howard does her best to flesh Claire out into more than a stereotype. BD Wong and Omar Sy are magnetic, though criminally underutilised. Chief human antagonist, Vincent D’onofrio’s Hoskins is clearly having fun mugging for the camera as what amounts to a villain out of Captain Planet.

Now let’s get to the thing that bothered a number of Jurassic Park fans, the fact that the majority of the dinosaur screen time was created using CGI. For the most part, the CG looks amazing in terms of its rendering. There’s a level of texture and attention to detail that was not present in Jurassic Park, and anyone who says Jurassic World‘s CG is worse than Jurassic Park‘s would do well to watch Jurassic Park again. However, where Jurassic Park succeeded and Jurassic World failed is that it used its dinosaurs sparingly and for maximum emotional impact. Jurassic Park is 127 minutes long, and the dinosaurs are only on screen for 15 of them. Most of the dinosaur related mayhem takes place at night and in the rain, allowing for a certain roughness to the CG, something that you cannot get away with in harsh, bright, daylight. And while Jurassic World’s CG detail may surpass that of Jurassic Park‘s, there are times when animations feel a little bit off leading to Jurassic World falling further into the uncanny valley than the 22 year old film. With the increase in action comes an over exposure to the dinosaurs, making them feel more familiar and less threatening. As mentioned above, set pieces were created to create spectacle, rather than to elicit an emotional response, and it feels like a loosely connected series of scenes that looked cool in previz. The one scene where animatronics are clearly used turns out to be one of Jurassic World‘s emotional high points, a touching scene that mirrors the reveal of the sick triceratops in Jurassic Park.

Interestingly, there seems to be a slightly subversive quality to Jurassic World, as if it were a summer blockbuster that hated being a summer blockbuster. It plays up the inherent ridiculousness of a highly intelligent, genetically spliced together Frankenstein’s Monster of a dinosaur, and the audience demand for “Bigger, Louder, More Teeth”. There’s even mention of the Indominus Rex being put before focus groups to determine what it should be for maximum audience enjoyment. A character talks about how Jurassic Park was the real deal, and that product placement and corporate sponsorship is horrible. “Verizon Wireless presents the Indominus Rex,” Claire announces proudly, confirming she landed a sponsorship deal. Might as well go all the way and give the corporations naming rights for the dinosaurs after they took over sporting arenas, replies her co-worker, offering such choice options as “Pepsisaurus” (a thing that made me laugh, not because the joke landed, but because Gasosaurus is a thing).

Trevorrow has mentioned that he was inspired to go in this particular direction by the image of a teenage boy on the phone with his back to the glass of a t-rex enclosure, and to an extent the film follows through with its explorations of Hollywood triteness, and our increasing solipsism and disconnection from the grandeur of the natural world.

However, for all its lecturing about how people aren’t impressed by dinosaurs any more, only one character shows any disinterest. The majority of park goers seem thrilled to be there. The tropes it mocks (e.g. Claire being totally unprepared to travel safely in a dinosaur infested wilderness while dressed in fashionable clothing), it also plays straight (e.g. Claire running in heels for all of her screen time). It is stuffed full of product placement, including shots of vehicles driving that look like they were lifted out of car advertisements. What it makes passes at subverting, it also tries very hard to be. It wants to have its cake and eat it too. Jurassic World is a film without any unifying identity, trying to be too many things for too many people and never really succeeding at any one thing other than being the least terrible Jurassic sequel. And still being blue. For no discernible reason.

This is a movie aimed at people who have grown up with Jurassic Park being our Star Wars, while trying to service the needs of an audience that have not known a world of film making before Jurassic Park shook the world. Where Jurassic Park succeeded with sincerity and an overwhelming desire to please and engage its audience, Jurassic World is a cynical, undercooked commentary on itself as an action movie, a Jurassic Park sequel, and as a movie that was originally going to be about a gene spliced paramilitary raptor squad.

In a perfect world, Jurassic World would have leaned more heavily into its satirical and subversive elements. It could have made an excellent Paul Verhoeven movie. Instead, what we’ve ended up with is more Robocop (2014) than Robocop (1987).

5.5/10

Why is Jurassic World so BLUE?

No, really, why is Jurassic World so BLUE?

I have some idea of why Jurassic World IS blue, but no idea why it is SO blue.

Teal (or blue) and Orange colour correction is not a new thing, and it’s not a trend I am particularly fond of.

That being said, when I first watched the Jurassic World trailer, it really seemed aggressively blue to me, more so than other similarly colour corrected films. It wasn’t until rewatching the trailer today that I realised why.

Let’s have a look at it:

The film’s blueness goes beyond just its colour correction. The scenes presented in the trailer are actively aggressively blue. Take the following for example:

jw1

Almost everything in the frame is really blue, the one big exception being the top worn by the children’s mother. I’ll dig into a possibly entirely unfounded interpretation of the visual story telling going on here later.

Here are a couple of more screen grabs from the trailer to illustrate what I mean by there being a lot of blue packed into the frame even before colour correction took place.

Notice the number of park visitors dressed in blue in these two shots? (Speculation on this later as well).

jw6

jw9

Going back to the monorail, the seats are blue as well, though this is part of the in fiction branding of Jurassic World, given it is being run, not by InGen, but by Masrani Global Corporation and they clearly use a lot of blue in their branding.

jw7

There’s also some generic BLUE IS SCIENCE and BLUE IS TECHNOLOGY in the following two shots:

jw14

jw18

Also Chris Pratt wearing blue is once again part of Masrani branding.

Here’s some shots from a Lab in the Jurassic World trailer:

Look at that teal and orange.

Look at that teal and orange.

Blue and Orange here too. Also eggs.

Teal and Orange here too. Also eggs.

And let us compare it to a scene from the lab in Jurassic Park:

There's even eggs in this one too!

There’s even eggs in this one too!

Notice, the blue in this shot is coming from the fill lights and Sam Neill’s shirt, rather than through aggressive colour correction. It probably is a product of its time, given that Colour timing was a lot harder before prints could be scanned and then digitally manipulated. That said, they still could have used blue gels on the lights and a blue filter on the camera if they wanted more blue. Which they didn’t.

SPECULATION TIME

With regard to the first shot I posted, the one really strong non blue element in the scene is the children’s mother. During this part of the trailer she is giving the younger child a kind of pep talk, hyping him up for the trip to Jurassic World while his older brother stares uncaringly into the distance and his father stands as a smiling observer. The fact that she is wearing red already makes her stand out from everything else in the frame and gives her a sense of importance, visually, which seems to be echoed in what we see of her relationship with her younger son. Red is a warm colour in an otherwise cold and sterile looking environment, and from that one can infer that she is quite protective, and very warm towards her children.

As for the remainder of the shots, what I have to go off of is Colin Trevorrow mentioning that this movie takes place well into Jurassic World’s existence, and that the park has existed long enough that just seeing Dinosaurs isn’t exciting the public as much. I’m wondering if there’s some deliberate visual story telling going on with the blue clothing there. Blue being a cold colour matching the cold reaction of the visitors. That said, there are a lot of visitors at the park during the trailer and they do seem to be enjoying the attractions. I’m not entirely sure if it was made public that the D-Rex was developed and bred, or whether the D-Rex was actually bred to drive up interest in the park again, so really this talk about visitors dressed in blue visually signifying the cooled down public reception of Jurassic World is pretty flimsy based on what I have to go off.

Really I don’t have a particularly satisfying answer to why there are so many people wearing blue, adding to the already overabundant blue in the movie. I mean, the Jurassic World and Masrani Corporation branding is blue enough. It’s kind of distracting, and really odd to have such an aggressively blue looking movie, especially compared to its predecessors.

interstellar

I went into Interstellar with mixed feelings. Prior to watching it, I had heard things ranging from Interstellar captured the spirit and feel of old hard science fiction novels (for ill and good), that the sound mixing was abysmal, and that the film was initially a Spielberg project that fell to Nolan to direct and ultimately fell apart in the home stretch as a result.

Ultimately, I think my feelings on the film can be summed up with the following:

“Saw interstellar. It wasn’t good or bad, but mostly bad.”

I enjoyed my experience looking at the film more than I did engaging with or listening to it.

Nolan works best at creating films that misdirect and create a sense of mystery. His movies seem to be vacuum sealed, having all sense of sentimentality sucked out before being packaged and released. We watch Memento, or The Prestige, not out of a desire to follow the emotional journeys of his protagonists. We watch to unravel the mysteries of his narratives; his protagonists serving more as tools to deliver clues and exposition than characters with emotional lives. Interstellar develops into a hard science fiction film with the promise of staying as such before evolving yet further into a meditation on humanist metaphysics and the nature of love as a thing bigger than us. This is a transition that the film, as a product of Nolan’s helming, cannot survive. Try as it might under the weight of an oppressive, and aggressively mixed Hans Zimmer score, the film cannot land its sentimental finale.

The film feels like a fusion of Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey by way of Contact. It started off with an extended sequence set on a dying, anti-intellectual USA, struck down by a crop jumping blight. History books have been rewritten to push students away from science and engineering and into farming in a last ditch effort to produce food for an increasingly starved human population. There are hints of desperate military activity (a military drone flying aimlessly, brief mention of the US government attempting to bomb other nations out of existence so they can focus on only feeding US mouths), but the majority of the on Earth run time is set up for ultimately underwhelming emotional through lines that will get into spoiler territory, but if you’ve seen Contact, you may guess where the film is going in the end. It is in this moment that the film also begins setting up its more humanist underpinnings, as well as making more overt allusions to 2001. Humanity is pointed in the direction of an artificially placed wormhole by an unknown, possibly alien benefactor, gravitational anomalies that communicate in Morse Code and Binary in Interstellar, and the Monoliths in 2001.

The earthbound sections of Solaris served as a test of character, barring entry to all but the most dedicated. What lay in wait was a heady exploration of mankind’s interaction with itself, its neuroses, the unknown, and things much bigger than itself. In ways, Interstellar tries for much the same, while where Solaris was a sobering exploration of humanity’s inability to comprehend an intelligence that was entirely other and much vaster than it could handle, Interstellar posits in all seriousness that “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space”, that Love is a fundamental force, and that Love will direct and shape the course of human evolution. As a Spielberg project, I can imagine this would have been more successful. As a film that promises a hard science fiction romp through quantum physics and realistically rendered wormholes, it feels like a betrayal of the spirit of what preceded it.

Nolan approached the sound mix for the film in an incredibly deliberate way. He wanted the audience to experience moments in the movie as the actors in the scenes would have. This has lead to people complaining about diagetic and non-diagetic sound drowning out dialogue in an attempt to craft emotion. In the case of the diagetic sound of a space craft launch drowning out the dialogue, I can understand. However, there were moments when Hans Zimmer’s score was mixed so loud and so aggressively that it began to sound more like a wall of white noise than a film score. Nolan may have approached the film like an impressionist, but it seems like he didn’t quite understand that other films utilising impressionist sound design did not drown out the dialogue, and further did not feel the need to fill themselves with dialogue either. His supposed impressionist and “Experimental” film relies more on dialogue to fill in spaces than other such impressionist films, resulting in the problem of dialogue being drowned out in the first place. While it may not be an entirely successful film, Beyond the Black Rainbow utilises its visuals and score to create an utterly unsettling atmosphere of control and dread.

Interstellar‘s major thematic arc is the presence of Love as a fundamental force that can transcend time and space, and both Cooper (McConaughey) and Brandt (Hathaway) are motivated and guided by love to complete their mission. What comes across as a bit problematic is the film’s portrayal of this love motivated decision making. Brandt is motivated by her love for one of the initial astronauts sent to survey possible habitable worlds. She is given possibly the worst monologue in the film, and is ridiculed for even considering love as a factor in her decision making. However, Cooper keeps insisting on returning to be with his children, he lectures others on what a good parent he is, and the film goes a long way towards portraying his motivations and his love as admirable.

The film also felt weirdly episodic, as if 4 stories from a science fiction anthology were stitched into an unsatisfying whole. At 169 minutes, Interstellar is a long movie and its narrative being broken up into segments served to make the film feel longer and more disjointed than it needed to be. Editing and transition decisions near the film’s conclusion made it feel like the film was reaching a climax, before building to another climax, and then another climax, before finally coming to an end. A 3rd act twist and subsequent cross cutting between the mission and the film’s Earthbound characters served only to artificially heighten tension in an unnecessarily generic way rather than in one that foregrounded the film’s thesis about love. A section inside a tesseract reminded me so strongly of 2001’s finale that it drew me out of the experience. Of course, your mileage will vary on this.

As for what I enjoyed about Interstellar, it was really good to see a major Hollywood production make large use of miniatures (3D printed and exceptionally good looking), and being shot on film contrary to the increasing industry wide move to digital. It lent the film an appropriately old school vibe, which was kind of cool, really. The miniatures lent the film a physicality that is missing in contemporary sci-fi cinema.

The film was gorgeous to look at. The technical brilliance of the visuals alone is reason enough to watch Interstellar. A sequence involving approaching and eventually travelling through a wormhole is probably the film’s stand out, but that is not to say its other set pieces are any less visually appealing, even the ones I don’t feel landed narratively.

TARS and CASE were the best drawn characters and it was interesting to see a film explore non-humanoid robots, while addressing the concessions which would be made to allow humans to feel comfortable interacting with them. It reminded me of GERTY from Moon.

What I hope to come out of Interstellar is for Miniature use and practical effects to be utilised more frequently in Hollywood, and I hope that 3D printers will potentially make that viable again.

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?

Children of Men, or a powerful commodity?

So like Children of Men is one of my favourite movies of foreverrrr!!!!!

I was so very happy when it came out. It was a brilliantly bleak soft science fiction film, not without an odd sense of optimism that explored something I think is a very interesting topic.

So let’s set the scene. It is 20 minutes into the future and women have all become infertile. The world collapses and the last bastion of civilisation is an increasingly xenophobic and totalitarian UK. The UK has shut its boarders to foreigners and refugees are rounded up into camps and may/may not be executed. Also there have been no babies born for 18 years.

18 YEARS.

Also the film starts off with everyone being depressed because the world’s youngest person (who really came off as kind of a prick) is stabbed to death.

So far so interesting, no?

The *really* interesting part comes when our main character is introduced to a woman who, beyond all odds, turned out to be pregnant. This is a huge shock to him. Bigger than Ben Hur, and that was pretty dang big to begin with. What complicates issues is that said woman is a refugee.

Being the world’s first pregnant woman in 18 years and being a refugee in a totalitarian, xenophobic country makes things complicated for the poor woman. People start moving to utilise her and her body for their own political, social, or monetary gains. Our hapless main character is tasked with escorting her to a safe haven that may or may not exist.

The real meat of the film comes in the form of these sociopolitical tussles between an extremist group that wants to use the woman and her baby as a symbol of hope to help topple the government, and the looming threat that if the government finds her, they will make her deliver the baby, kill her and claim the baby is born of a local woman.

The idea that a woman can be reduced to nothing more than a biological function in the eyes of various political factions is a scary one indeed. The situation is one opposite of abortion, where the woman just wants to give birth to her child in peace, but there is an underlying unifying issue here. The issue the film is getting at is the lack of decision making power the woman has regarding to the functioning of her own body.

With abortion, the woman’s choice in the matter is often overlooked because the issue of murder comes in. The issue becomes a political, social, and religious matter first, and a matter of an individual’s choice in how their body functions second. It becomes a matter of whether taking a life is ever permissible or morally justifiable. Once this question is resolved, the issue of the woman’s choice of what to do with her body can then be addressed. The woman’s choice is already shifted back in favour of the consideration of the nature of death. It is a political issue because governments are afraid of offending potential voting demographics with unpopular decisions. It is a social issue because if taking a life is murder in all cases (i.e. immoral and unjustifiable) then the woman is a monster. It becomes a religious issue because life is sacred and it goes beyond a mere moral wrong. It becomes an affront to God to go against his design.

With the movie, the woman’s choice in the matter is overlooked because of the important political and social implications of a woman who is a foreigner being pregnant. It becomes a political issue because ascribing the level of importance a pregnant woman would have to a foreigner would fly in the face of the government’s stance on foreigners. It becomes a social issue because people fighting for social change want to use the woman and her body and her status as a refugee as a catalyst for said social change. It becomes a monetary issue because some people want to sell her and her baby to the highest bidder. Never is the woman’s opinion considered. In all cases these people want to use her body for their own ends and they view her as an entity that performs a specific biological function first and a fellow human being never.

Really, rights are nebulous things and I do not think there are any ‘natural’ rights or laws that make humans particularly special or human life particularly worth protecting. By this I mean there is no objective worth to human life. There will always be subjective worth. I know I was personally struck hard when a friend of mine committed suicide, so I know that life can mean a lot to people. I am just afraid of the ‘value’ of life being perverted and used by groups to push their agendas upon others.

So a good, thought provoking, depressing and hopeful soft science fiction film. Well done all involved.