Archive for the ‘sci-fi’ Category

High_Rise_2014_Film_Poster

Director: Ben Wheatley

Screenplay: Amy Jump

Country: UK

Runtime: 112 mins

Cast: Tom Hiddleston (Dr Robert Laing), Jeremy Irons (Anthony Royal), Sienna Miller (Charlotte Melville), Luke Evans (Richard Wilder), Keeley Hawes (Ann Royal), Reece Shearsmith (Nathan Steele)

A mordantly witty adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel about a concrete apocalypse

Watching the opening scenes of High Rise, I found myself musing how film adaptations of a book one has previously read can change forever the way you envision the book. I can’t now read J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun without imagining Christian Bale and John Malkovich as the main characters. I also recall one contemporary reviewer expressing disappointment that the film’s depiction of drained swimming pools – one of the central motifs in many Ballard stories – just seemed a bit underwhelming when viewed on the big screen.

It will probably now be impossible to read High Rise without imagining Tom Hiddleston as physiologist Dr Robert Laing and Jeremy Irons as architect Anthony Royal. But I am delighted to report that Ben Wheatley’s film really brings to life the imagery and spirit of Ballard’s novel. More than anything, he brings to the fore the mordant wit of the book (something I recently discovered upon re-reading but missed entirely when I read it as a younger man).

The story begins with Laing cooking a dog on the balcony of his apartment, part of a luxury tower block complex that has somehow gone to wrack and ruin. Then we flash back to the early days of the building three months before in order to learn just how the concrete apocalypse has come about. The inhabitants are all middle class professionals, but even within this privileged group social divisions arise and are exacerbated as the building itself becomes increasingly dysfunctional. People don’t care about those two or more floors above or below them and, in particular, those on higher levels have greater disdain for those further below them.

In a dreamlike fashion (reminiscent of Wheatley’s earlier A Field in England) anti-social behaviour escalates, from people blocking the rubbish chutes with used nappies, to parties that get out of hand, through to outright violence. As food stocks run out living takes on the characteristics of an urban hunter-gather existence, with the stronger men vying to monopolise the female inhabitants. Where Ballard presciently satirised the behaviour of a group of proto-Thatcherites, Wheatley is more explicit about the political nature of the material. Following an uproarious party on the middle levels, Royal’s acolytes plan a grander party to show the others how it ought to be done. As one of them explains, competition is at the heart of a modern economy. They then decide that the first step in their party planning must be to commandeer all the resources, surely as pointed a commentary on the nature of capitalism as it’s possible to make? High Rise actually closes with an excerpt of a speech by Margaret Thatcher.

Tom Hiddleston is totally convincing as the canny survivor “hiding in plain sight” who, as with so many of Ballard’s protagonists, embraces the catastrophe around him. And Jeremy Irons is an inspired piece of casting as the patrician architect of the luxury apartment complex, who watches with fascinated amusement at the creation of a new kind of society within his decaying empire. From the men’s terrible moustaches to the cars in the parking lot, Ben Wheatley does a great job of depicting the mid-seventies whilst nonetheless making it seem like the dystopian near-future that Ballard first envisioned. And if it won’t be possible to read his novel in the same way again, the same will be true of Abba’s song S.O.S. which is featured at several points in the soundtrack.

Rating: 5/5

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Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (novel)

Country: USA

Runtime: 141 mins

Cast: Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Melissa Lewis), Kristen Wiig (Annie Montrose), Jeff Daniels (Teddy Sanders), Sean Bean (Mitch Henderson), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Vincent Kapoor)

Ridley Scott’s latest SF blockbuster is mildly diverting but don’t expect too much

Ridley Scott is responsible for some of cinema’s best-loved science fiction films, such as Blade Runner and Alien, as well as successful movies in other genres (Thelma and Louise). However, recent years have seen duds such as The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Does The Martian represent a return to form? Well, not quite, though it’s definitely an improvement of sorts.

The story follows the plight of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars, believed dead, after his crewmates abandon the planet to escape an oncoming storm. A botanist by training, Watney devises a way to extend his limited food supplies by growing potatoes on Mars’ barren surface, though he does remain suspiciously healthy for a man who spends months and years eating only spuds (albeit garnished with ketchup). When he eventually manages to mend his damaged communications he contacts NASA, who then have to figure out how to rescue him.

I enjoyed the early parts of the film best, as Watney patches up a wound  sustained in the storm and then sets about the business of surviving incommunicado on the inhospitable red planet. However, once NASA begin putting their rescue mission together disbelief becomes harder to suspend. The number of problems that arise and the increasingly far-fetched and risky solutions that are developed simply serves to remind us that we are watching a Hollywood blockbuster. All these critical problems are presumably a device to distract us from the story’s main shortcoming – we never seriously entertain the possibility that Watney won’t survive (I’m not even going to flag this up as a spoiler).

Although realism may be too much to ask of a SF movie set in the far future, nonetheless The Martian doesn’t even strive for psychological plausibility. Would Watney really be so relentlessly cheerful after months on a barren planet with no one to talk to? For most of the film we know nothing about his life. Does he have a wife? Children? Is there anyone he might be thinking about and anyone who might be worrying about him? Is there any particular reason for us to emotionally invest in this character other than that he seems like a generally ok guy?

Back at NASA big name actors are wasted in roles that are not fleshed out. Jeff Daniels is the Head of NASA who must push the organisation’s top brains to put together a rescue plan, whilst managing PR with a view to future funding. Sean Bean is the no-nonsense team leader for whom the rescue takes precedence over PR bullshit, even if it means breaking the rules. Even more cruelly wasted is Chiwetel Ojiofor as a boffin who must convince everyone that his mad ideas will work.

Despite these shortcomings, The Martian is diverting enough, especially if your expectations aren’t too high.

Rating: 3/5

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Interstellar_film_poster

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan

Country: USA / UK

Runtime: 169 mins

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, MacKenzie Foy, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Josh Stewart.

An entertaining and ambitious sci-fi epic

Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, Interstellar, is an entertainingly ambitious, if flawed, sci-fi epic. It begins in a near-future where food supplies are dwindling, as a result of blighted crops. Presumably this is the result of global climate change, although this is not spelled out and, in fact, we never go beyond rural America to find out what is happening elsewhere in the world. The opening scenes are given a documentary feel thanks to the inclusion of some talking head segments from senior citizens reminiscing about the ‘dust bowl’ that they had lived through (these are actually clips of people describing 1930s Dust Bowl America).

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed former engineer and NASA pilot who now reluctantly farms corn. His daughter, Murphy (MacKenzie Foy), is a chip off the old block but her brainiac tendencies don’t go down well at school, where the kids are taught that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax designed to prompt the Soviet Union into wasting money on rockets and other “useless machines”. Cooper is told that his children would be better off “learning about this planet, rather than reading fantasies about leaving it”. But when “Murph” becomes convinced that there is a ghost in her bedroom, Cooper’s investigations uncover a gravitational anomaly that is causing strange dust patterns on Murph’s bedroom floor. This discovery leads them ultimately to a top secret NASA base.

Because the American public no longer have any appetite for exploring space, the agency is now operating in a clandestine fashion. Their Lazarus Project, headed by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), has been sending missions to planets beyond a wormhole in space. Cooper is recruited to lead another mission beyond the wormhole, together with Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), and robots TARS and CASE (voiced, respectively, by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart). The wormhole appears to have been constructed by some alien intelligence, so Plan A is to return with the technology to save the Earth, but if this fails then Plan B is to recolonise a planet with the stored fertilised seeds from a variety of humans. However, Cooper is desperate to return from the mission because he wants to save his family. In addition, thanks to Einsteinian relativity Cooper’s children will age faster than him in his absence, therefore it is imperative for him that the mission goes as smoothly as possible (needless to say, it doesn’t).

For much of the first half of Interstellar, I couldn’t help ponder with some amusement as to whether the film would enrage some of the more anti-science US Republicans. You know, the ones who deny the reality of man-made climate change, who think it is arrogant to believe that people could disrupt God’s work, and who think that the end-of-the-world will involve the faithful being transported to heaven in the “rapture”. Whatever its faults, Interstellar comes across as a resolutely pro-science film, asking us to think beyond our immediate concerns and to work for the good of our species. A scene where we learn that school textbooks have been revised to show that the moon landings were faked brings to mind those American school districts that have tried to remove or water down material on evolution. Whilst some of what passes for scientific explanation in Interstellar is Dr Who-style hokum, nonetheless in a wider sense it treats its audience as intelligent adults, particularly in the aspect of the storyline that relates to relativity.

The second half, or perhaps final third, of the film is somewhat weaker as the ideas are gradually submerged beneath a swathe of frenetic action, except close to the schmaltzy ending where we get an outlandish explanation for certain events that occurred earlier on. The acting is serviceable, rather than outstanding, though this probably isn’t the kind of film that is likely to produce Oscar-worthy performances. However, even though a fair bit of suspension of disbelief is necessary, Interstellar is never less than entertaining.

Rating: 8/10