Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Oblivion



As I mentioned in my previous review, 2013 has not, thus far, been a good year for film. So neither mediocre reviews from film critics nor the presence of action-hero Tom Cruise were going to stop me from seeing the latest sci-fi blockbuster during opening week. What they did do, however, was provide me with those ever-so-helpful low expectations. 

As a result, Oblivion was one of the few films I’ve seen this year which succeeded in capturing my attention (i.e. it captivated me). This success was largely due to a very slow-paced start. It may have reminded me a little too much of Wall-E but it was the perfect way to begin this story, a story which actually focused on providing the thought-provoking intelligence I look for in a sci-fi film instead of on the action too many recent films have offered (with Tom Cruise, who’d have thought?). Not that there wasn’t a fair bit of pointless action in the film, but it was by no means what the film was about. 

I am not, of course, going to tell you what the film is about, but I’ll provide the setting: In the near future, aliens attack the earth. They lose the war but what’s left of the earth after the war is uninhabitable, so all surviving humans are evacuated to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.  But Titan needs energy, which is supplied by humungous fusion reactors sucking up the earth’s oceans. Jack and Victoria are assigned to look after the drones protecting those reactors. They are the earth’s last caretakers (sound familiar?). 

Then one day Jack spots a small ship crashing to earth and goes to investigate (despite protestations from Victoria). What he finds in that ship will change everything, and I will say no more about that.

While I wouldn’t call his performance outstanding, I have no complaints about Tom Cruise in the lead role (and he appears in almost every scene). The two women who play Jack’s love interests (Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko) are very well cast and also perform commendably. The cinematography is outstanding and the score, while occasionally overwhelming, is also very good.

So if Oblivion (written and directed by Joseph Kosinski) is an intelligent, well-made and well-acted film, what are the critics on about? Well, the truth is that Oblivion has its fair share of flaws. It may be intelligent, but it’s not original, stealing ideas from many greater sci-fi films, so there is some inevitable predictability in the story (tempered by the fact that there are so MANY ideas involved, it’s impossible to predict all of them). 

Added to this is the weird ending, which either lacks the intelligence I just mentioned or I lack the intelligence to figure out how anything that happens in the last twenty minutes or so is remotely plausible. And then there’s the disappointment that comes from watching a film with thought-provoking ideas fail to give those ideas their due. In other words, the film is rather superficial and should have been better.

Nevertheless, Oblivion has much more to offer than most of what passes for sci-fi these days, including thoughts worthy of theological exploration (once enough time has passed that I can refer to the plot). In my opinion, the critics were way too hard on this film, which I am giving ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Olympus Has Fallen



So Katrina and I were in the neighbourhood of a theatre with time to kill and stopped to see if there was anything worth watching. There wasn't (2013 has not started well at all), but Katrina, who enjoys her action flicks, was willing to watch Olympus Has Fallen, so we did.

Let's start with the film's redeeming qualities:

Uh, well, hmmm, uh, nope, it has none.

There are some good actors trying their best, but that's nowhere near good enough. Olympus Has Fallen, the story of a terrorist takeover of the White House, is very violent, poorly written, ridiculously nationalistic and, of course, predictable. Unless you are in need of an action fix, you'll want to give this a miss. ** My mug is down.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Host



When a film gets panned by every major critic, including Roger Ebert (who sadly is no longer with us), I would normally stay far away, especially if those critics agree the film can only be enjoyed by twelve-year-old girls. 

But what if that film is a sci-fi written and directed by one of our more under-appreciated filmmakers? And what if that filmmaker is known by me to make only films with ‘heart’, the ‘heart’ missing in many recent films? Indeed, what if I have repeatedly praised this filmmaker for making some of the most thought-provoking films in the past twenty years (e.g. The Truman Show, Gattaca, Lord of War, In Time), regardless of how well those films are made? And what if my daughter, whose opinion I trust, has read the book on which the film is based and it, too, has its heart in the right place? Then, if I have a couple of hours to kill and there’s nothing else worth seeing at the cinema, I might, with some trepidation, take the plunge.

Of course, it goes without saying that my expectations for Andrew Niccol’s The Host (book written by Stephenie Meyer) were extremely low (sometimes I think low expectations are one of the keys to happiness). It would have been impossible for this film to disappoint me. So it didn’t.

Not that it took long for me to agree with the critics that The Host is in many ways a dud. To explain why, I need to introduce the very simple plot.

Set in the near future, we begin with an earth on which virtually all poverty and violence have been eradicated. Impossible, you say? Not if peace-loving always-content aliens have invaded the planet and taken over the bodies of more than 99.99% of all human beings (i.e. every single body the aliens can find). A few desperate humans remain at large, though one determined ‘seeker’ (human-hunter) will not rest until every last human has been found and converted. 

One of those hunted humans is a young woman named Melanie Stryder. The Host begins with her ‘capture’. When Melanie’s body is inhabited by a ‘soul’ called Wanderer, Melanie refuses to go down quietly and becomes one of the ‘hosts’ who refuse to die and instead torment their alien masters. In the case of Wanderer, this is depicted by a constant voiceover in which we hear Melanie talking and arguing with Wanderer. To put it bluntly, this was a bad decision on Niccol’s part. Melanie’s interaction with Wanderer doesn’t work at all. I cringed almost every time it happened, and it happens throughout the film. Strike one (baseball season has begun)!

Overwhelmed by Melanie’s passion and determination, Wanderer begins to appreciate the ‘alien’ voice in her head and helps Melanie escape the ‘souls’, eventually to search for her brother, her uncle and her boyfriend. Much romance ensues, involving much internal dialogue. This romance also doesn’t work at all. Strike two!

The question is whether there is a third strike, a strike that would guarantee I would never see The Host again and would give it a mug down. Well, there a number of significant plot holes (things that are not adequately explained or just don’t make sense). And the acting is rather unimpressive, though Saoirse Ronan as Melanie/Wanderer makes a valiant effort and William Hurt did not disappoint as Uncle Jeb. And then there’s the slow pacing and overbearing score, more at home in a Youtube meditation than a film. Sounds like more than enough for a third strike (maybe even a fourth and fifth). And yet …

It IS an Andrew Niccol film and it IS thought-provoking on many levels. Leaving aside the psychological implications of the internal power struggle in Wanderer’s head (I decided to view the film on a more literal plane), there’s the big question of what it means to be human. This is handled far more ambiguously than one might expect.

For example, the alien ‘souls’ are portrayed as ‘monsters’ because they dispassionately kill billions of people in order to use their bodies for their own survival. But humans are also portrayed as ‘monsters’ because they are violent liars who constantly allow their passions to overwhelm their better natures. On the other hand, the ‘souls’ are peace-loving, truthful and content while the humans embody love and compassion. In the internal struggle between Melanie and Wanderer, is ‘Wanda’ becoming a better ‘person’ because she is becoming more human or is Melanie becoming a better person because she is becoming more alien? Are the violent humans in The Host better than the peaceful but murderous aliens because their violence is fueled by the same passion which would make planetary genocide anathema or is it the gentle and self-sacrificing alien who is the film’s real Christ-figure?

Perhaps the answers lie in humanizing the other (even if the other is an alien) and recognizing that we can all learn from each other as we strive to become more ‘fully human’ or more ‘fully alien’.

The fact that my review for this panned film is one of my longest is proof enough for me that I would be willing, under the right circumstances (i.e. with the right group) to watch The Host again. This automatically puts The Host into *** territory and my mug will have to be up. Just don’t expect much flavour from what’s inside.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Roger Ebert Died Today



It is a very sad day for film fans. Easily my favourite film critic ever, Roger Ebert died today at age 70, after more than a decade of struggling with thyroid cancer.

No other major film critic has come close to Ebert in matching my own opinions on films. Through the years, there were many times when he was the only major critic who appreciated some of my favourite films of the year. His reviews were always the first reviews I read on any film and my blog posts make frequent mention of him as I argued or agreed with his reflections.

I have recently been unimpressed with how many critics fail to take a film's "heart" into account in their evaluations. Ebert always took such things into account, and regularly challenged films for not taking a stand when such a stand was required for the good of our planet.

I will miss Roger Ebert very much.