Not So Much Ascending as Coasting

February 14, 2015 Leave a comment
Sometimes you just have to let go.

I know how you feel, Mila…

One definition of insanity is to repeat the same activity and expect a different outcome. A modern variation on that might be to go to a Wachowski Siblings movie expecting something akin to The Matrix. Watching Jupiter Ascending last week, I wondered if this was a case of optimism triumphing over experience or a more simple case of refusing to heed the signs.

This is not to say that The Matrix is a perfect movie—it hasn’t aged well. Nor is it to say that the Wachowskis haven’t done anything else of worth—their movies have remained visually imaginative and have never shied away from incorporating big ideas. All the same, the shadow of their game-changing early success seems to weigh as heavily on them as it does on their audience.

So what do we get with Jupiter Ascending? We get a weirdly unbalanced mix of overstuffed science fantasy, underplayed “big ideas” and a selection of narrative cliches that combine to waste just about everyone’s time. It’s remarkably ambitious, but it doesn’t seem to be ambitious to do anything in particular—it’s happy enough to just be ambitious.

To trade in spoilers for a little while, one of the nicer things about Jupiter Ascending is its heroine. Mila Kunis is a Russian emigre housemaid, cleaning the toilets of the super-rich in Chicago. Essentially, she’s a romantic comedy character who suddenly finds that not only is she in a science fiction epic, but that she’s genetically destined to be the ruler of the Earth. Actually, she’s the genetic owner of the Earth, rather than its ruler, but the legal basis for that, as well as just how she came to inherit her genetic payload (if it wasn’t just random chance), is one of the many things that Jupiter Ascending skips over rather than engages in.

So what is the galactic civilisation that she finds herself a player in? Well, you could watch the entire movie and not really have a clue. There’s a galactic police force that mostly exists to give people a spaceship to fly around in (because they’re certainly not enforcing any laws). There’s a bureaucracy borrowed from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, to the point of including a bizarre cameo by Gilliam himself. And there are the main antagonists, who are competing over a valuable youth treatment—not that there seems to be anyone around to actually buy the stuff.*

This absence of context infects the entire movie, making it feel oddly hollow even as it tries its best to fill itself up with incident. The main victims of this include the aforementioned antagonist family: Of the three of them, one is shunted off the stage after explaining the plot to the heroine, another has an interesting scheme that he abandons at the end of the second act, and the last just pouts and scowls in the background until it’s time for the big finale.

If the movie had the confidence it desperately needed, it wouldn’t have felt the need to fire off every arrow in its quiver in one go. Whereas The Matrix was a focused, low-stakes, personal story—which led to the sequels increasingly revealing the lack of a coherent universe—Jupiter Ascending puts the fate of the Earth at stake from the start, leaving it nowhere to go but sideways.

So what about those big ideas that the Wachowskis like to play with? Well, they’re there, sort of. As mentioned, there’s the Soylent Green-style youth serum, but as it’s embodied in just three people, none of whom are given any depth as characters, it’s a rather one-sided critique of capitalism. (There’s even a wedding two-thirds of the way through the movie where the crowd are all robots.) Beyond that, well, aren’t the chase scenes and the explosions nice? Certainly, there’s nothing like The Matrix’s juxtaposition of an appealing simulated world with a grimy reality. Both movies might count as high concept, but The Matrix’s high concept informs the entire film. Jupiter Ascending’s high concept drifts out of sight for long stretches of time and is entirely absent in the finale.

Whatever flaws there are in the film though can’t be blamed on the actors. Eddie Redmayne happily chews away at the scenery as the final boss, and Douglas Booth is surprisingly good as his kid brother and the penultimate boss. Kunis and Channing Tatum are likeable enough leads, if never particularly believable in their underwritten romance, and Sean Bean commits to his supporting role as well as he ever does. The sad fact though is that there’s no one else in the film of note. This is a very, very empty galaxy.

The Wachowskis might never make another Matrix, but that’s hardly a criticism—few filmmakers ever make a film that has such impact. But their triumph is also their curse. Knowing what they’re capable of, we’re always going to hope, if not expect, that they’ll reach those heights again. Jupiter Ascending aims for that, but it never even comes close.

Out of the Machine, God?

January 28, 2015 Leave a comment
Face to face with ... what exactly?

Vikander makes for an alluring and unsettling presence.

Amid all the bombast of superhero blockbusters and science fiction franchises starting with “Star”, it hasn’t been easy for thoughtful science fiction and fantasy to leave a mark in recent years. Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been efforts. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was as fascinating and ambitious as it was flawed, and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie is hopefully going to remind us why District 9 was great and why we should all try to forget about Elysium.

In the meantime, we have Ex Machina, the directorial debut of writer Alex Garland, and I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as thought-provoking and unsettling a work as you might expect from the writer of The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine.

Some spoilers below, inevitably, but mostly I’m going to be ruminating on themes.

Read more…

There and Back Again

December 14, 2014 Leave a comment
The inspiration for a thousand New Zealand holidays.

A young filmmaker, a familiar door, a journey begins.

In December 2001, a group of friends gathered in a cinema on the outskirts of Dublin. They’d known each other for six or seven years at that point, having met in college and bonded over roleplaying games, science fiction and fantasy. They were in the cinema to watch a film they’d been waiting years to see: Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. It didn’t disappoint.

Earlier this morning, I was in a cinema in central Dublin, watching the last of Jackson’s Tolkien films, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. None of those friends were there, but there was another group of cinephiles around me. It was a very different person watching as the credits rolled for the last time. The experience was never going to be the same, but even so, some of the spirit of that first night carried over.

The Fellowship of the Ring was one of those events you never expect. We were all lovers of Tolkien to one degree or another, and there had been one very patchy animated version years before. Scepticism about Jackson’s version was high, but we weren’t about to miss it. One of us had just flown in from California that morning, and was fuelled by caffeine and Ben & Jerry’s as he took his seat.

From the opening credits and Cate Blanchett’s voiceover, the doubts washed away. Through the combination of music, actors, New Zealand scenery, artists and computer wizardry, Jackson had summoned Middle Earth to life. If it wasn’t what we’d seen in our minds’ eyes, it was undeniably a complete creation: the Nazgul were terrifying, the One Ring a force of evil bound in a band of gold, the Fellowship a believable cast of characters flawed and noble. Even moments that veered from the book, such as Gandalf and Saruman’s duel in Orthanc, worked. The sight of two elderly actors acrobatically battering each other somehow balanced perfectly with the gravitas that Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee have to spare.

We were sold, and most of the cinema-going world were too.

The arguments began with the sequel, The Two Towers. Though they’d all been filmed together, here and there Jackson’s vision failed to please everyone. For example, I liked the changes to the character of Faramir, who I’d never been fond of in the book. Others found the same changes annoying.

So it went through the next film, The Return of the King. A fine end to the trilogy, but more and more niggling arguments about how the books had fared in the translation. We disagreed, we debated, the films were over, we went on with our lives. Our lives changed, and years passed. Many of the events that nine years can bring were visited on us, but we stayed friends for the most part, drifting but not severing the ties.

Then came another Jackson film in Tolkien’s world: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Scepticism was higher yet, but it wasn’t something to be missed. Those of us who were able to made their way to the cinema. We watched it, we discussed it and it was clear that it wasn’t the same experience at all. As is often the case, I was looking for the good points, playing devil’s advocate against those annoyed by the bad. Even I couldn’t argue though that Jackson was suffering from auteur syndrome, which had previously afflicted J.K. Rowling, George Lucas and George R.R. Martin: he’d become so successful that either everyone else bought into his vision or no one dared to tell him when to rein it in.

The thing that has bothered me about the second Jackson trilogy is the lack of subtlety. Many of the best moments of the first trilogy came when actors interpreted words straight from Tolkien’s book. But The Hobbit is a much shorter book than The Lord of the Rings and written in a very different tone. It’s a children’s adventure that draw on fairy tales and Arthurian romances, with the mythic history of the later book very far in the background. In stretching a slender book out to three lengthy movies, Jackson had to fill in the gaps with much that Tolkien only hinted at, or material that he didn’t even write at all.

It can’t have been an easy job, and as much as he might be attached to the project, I imagine that he’s happy to put down it and move on to pastures new. Throughout the Hobbit movies, the need to provide something truly cinematic has been at the forefront. Stretched though they might have been, they’ve also been packed with incident, drama, action, humour and scares. Roller coaster cinema, with all the good and bad implications of that.

The final film is perhaps the strongest of the three. It’s also the shortest, showing signs of having been cut very tight. There are some impressive moments, and some annoying ones. I suspect most of my friends from that long-ago night would have been mostly annoyed, but I enjoyed it for what it was. I’ll not spoil any of it for those of you yet to see it, but I will mention one scene from right at the end, so if you don’t want to know about it, skip the next paragraph and know that I recommend the film.

In that scene, Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Ian McKellan as Gandalf sit quietly together in the aftermath of battle. No words are spoken, but you understand perfectly all that the two of them have been through. Jackson knows well enough to let the two actors, who between them have been the moral and emotional heart of six films, carry the weight of the moment. It’s beautiful and it’s subtle and to my mind it’s worth the price of admission on its own. It made me think of absent friends and shared experiences, of those who’ve gone and yet remain in memory and affection.

For all their ups and downs, Jackson’s films stand as a remarkable achievement. That they happened at all is impressive. That they built a recognisable world of their own, attracted millions of viewers and sparked a rebirth of fantasy and science fiction on our screens is something to be thankful for. HBO’s Game of Thrones wouldn’t exist without Jackson’s films, to say nothing of many other works, both lesser and greater. And while opinions may be divided between my friends and I, it’s a pleasure to have so much to argue about.

Interstellar and the Art of Humanity

November 9, 2014 1 comment
...but seriously, it's not that much of a spoiler.

This image may count as a spoiler. So don’t look too close…

Films that are worth talking about are worth seeing twice. Sometimes the second viewing can open up a film, revealing just how good it really is. On the other hand, it can confirm that despite all its promise, it somehow falls short of being truly great.

So far I’ve only seen Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar once, so I can’t say for certain where it falls on this scale. All I can say is that it is worth talking about. Rather than a review, this is going to be a critique, a musing on certain points, and thoughts about where Interstellar fits into the history of science fiction cinema.

Spoilers, obviously, but not too many.

With Interstellar, I made as much of an effort as I ever have to avoid learning anything about the film. It wasn’t an entirely successful effort. Thanks to Facebook and RSS feed summaries, I ended up learning about the movie’s main scientific conceit and the surprise cameo. Thankfully, neither of these are key to what the film cares about: it’s a space opera rather than hard science fiction, despite its trappings, and the cameo is, well, a little pointless.

When it comes to space-based science fiction films, two great films loom largest for me: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon. Like Interstellar, both of them focus on humanity against the background of space and science, yet they present this central obsession in different ways. 2001 universalises its humanity, to the point where Keir Dullea’s Dave Bowman becomes an everyman, no more specific than one of the apes who encounters the monolith at the start of the film. Interstellar’s debt to 2001 is everywhere, from its use of music and model work for effect to scenes that harken back to specific scenes in 2001. It’s a very high bar to aim at, but Nolan has never had a problem with ambition.

Moon, on the other hand, makes its humanity intensely personal, and in Sam Rockwell it has an actor whose agonies are always believable. It’s a much more focused film than either 2001 or Interstellar, and its use of science is limited to its setting and the twist that sets its plot in motion. Interstellar bears no specific debt to Moon, but it is as just as emotional and its science is if anything relegated even more to the role of window dressing.

The problem with Interstellar is that it falls between two stools. Despite an excess of verbiage (something neither Moon nor 2001 could be accused of), there are some fine performances here. the emotional heart of the film falls by the wayside in the second act and only really comes into focus in the third, by which point it’s too late to sell it. And in trying to restart that emotional heart, it abandons its efforts to say something all-encompassing about humanity apart from a vaguely voiced notion that we’re going to save ourselves. For Nolan, who mastered the difficult art of the closing scene in Memento and Inception, Interstellar feels like it just peters out, unsure of what it’s trying to say.

A larger problem in terms of Interstellar’s potential to become a classic of the genre is the fact that, at its heart, it’s an American film, not a universal one. The Dust Bowl theme standing in for environmental collapse is one thing, the self-mythologising tendency at its heart, the repeated moments of folksy wisdom, and the cowboy hero of the last frontier that it can’t look away from is quite another. That last one is perhaps Interstellar’s biggest problem. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is the ostensible hero, and his adventures are certainly the most cinematic and visually interesting aspect of the film, but the focus on him detracts from the role of his daughter Murph, played with equal weight by Jessica Chastain and Mackenzie Foy. Her struggle becomes incidental, when it could and perhaps should have received equal billing.

This may seem like a negative article so far, but in balance of that, remember that I had big expectations when it came to Interstellar. Nolan’s record is as good as anyone’s at the moment, and I’ve only seen it once (and my initial reaction, before I’d had a chance to think about it, was a lot more negative). On the plus side, it looks beautiful, even though there are a few points where the models look a little too model-like. Hans Zimmer’s score hits the high notes too, as ought to be expected of him by now. Now that I’ve had a chance to read a few reviews, it seems that mixed responses are the order of the day.

Bear in mind too that 2001 was met with similarly mixed responses when it first appeared and only ascended to its towering role within the genre over time. Interstellar may well have a similar path ahead of it. I doubt I’ll ever love it as much as I do Moon though. Whether it’ll improve on second viewing will depend on whether, behind all of its verbiage, there’s brain to match its heart.

Edit: So I went to see Interstellar a second time (this time in IMAX). And while I’m glad I did, it didn’t change my mind much. It’s a fascinating, ambitious, flawed film, notable as much for its tendency to hammer you over the head with its themes as for the epic sweep of its visuals. For all its focus on delivering an emotional, almost mystical experience, there’s only one point where it succeeds in truly touching the heartstrings. That particular scene though is the one part of the movie that is a classic piece of cinema, and while I won’t spoil it by describing it, I will say that it involves a countdown.

On Being Back Home Again

November 4, 2014 2 comments
Storms and sunset. I like it.

There was a lot of this while I was in Chania.

 

This one is a bit delayed. A bit more than a month delayed, in fact. Apologies for that—I don’t like leaving things unfinished, and just because my Greek odyssey ended in quiet fashion was no reason to leave my audience (you’re out there, right? Is this thing even on?) hanging.

Chania, in the west of Crete, was a quietly pleasant way to wrap up my travels. Founded as Kydonia long ago in the Minoan age, it passed through the hands of multiple powers, both foreign and domestic, over the intervening centuries, all of which left their mark. No massive museums to rival those in Athens or Thessaloniki, or fortresses like those of Nafplio or Mycenae. Yet with a cafe tucked into a narrow alleyway, twisting streets filled with craft shops, the relics of Venetian fortifications, and an old church turned into a museum, with relics of the Ottoman occupation in the garden, there was more than enough to see.

It would perhaps have been nice to spend an hour or so on the beach (or preferably in the sea), but wild weather and the first hints of autumn in the air put paid to that. I got plenty of the sea in my face just by strolling along the promenade, and the main adventure of my time in Chania was had the first night, making my way all along the long, crumbling breakwater to the old lighthouse, joining a French couple in climbing over the locked gates to do a little light trespassing for the sake of a good photo.

So Chania was a place for resting and relaxing, either collecting my thoughts and resting tired limbs after more than a week of walking to and around new experiences, or steeling myself for the inevitability of a five-hour Ryanair flight and the cattle drive of the airport that preceded it. With that in mind, as well as the long gap between getting home and writing this, here are a few collected thoughts.

  • Greece is utterly worth the effort. I’d waited for years to go there, and while I didn’t get to see everything I wanted (who could, in only ten days?), I saw wonders.
  • It’s a country of two parts. The Isthmus of Corinth has divided the Greek world for millennia, and it still does. To the north and east are the two main cities of Athens and Thessaloniki, connected by the country’s main railway. To the south and west is the Peloponnese, with smaller towns and cities, truly ancient ruins and wild hills, and no working railway.
  • It’s a straight travel choice. Either travel by bus, of which there are plenty, or by car and risk Greece’s occasionally tricky roads and drivers. The risks of the latter are probably a little overstated, but then I didn’t have to deal with them. Being bus-bound wasn’t a major problem for me, but if you want to get off the beaten path, you’ll need a car.
  • Get there early. Tour buses and the hordes they disgorge are the enemy. In Delphi and Mycenae, I got there before the worst of the crowds, and in Delphi in particular the result was magical. In Knossos I didn’t, and I ended up dodging the crowds and queueing up to see some of the best bits.
  • Alternatively, get there late. The Greeks had a tendency, not uncommon in the ancient world, to build their most imposing monuments on hilltops. If you’re going there in September/October, you’ll be able to catch sunset before they close. There’s not much that improves a sunset more than ruins two thousand years old…
  • Get comfortable with waiting. Service in Greece isn’t bad, it’s just not hurried. At all. Which should give you plenty of time to chill out, enjoy the ouzo or raki, and contemplate the meaning of life.
  • Travelling with one bag? Not that I’m the first person to figure this out, but it’s perfectly doable, even when travelling for more than a week. Just make sure that you know where to find a laundrette, and be aware that bringing presents home is going to be limited, size-wise.
  • Ditching the electronics… This is the second trip I’ve had where I limited my electronics to my phone alone. Given that I prefer to write freehand when I can, and that my iPhone is pretty capable, it wasn’t much of a sacrifice. The only issue is battery life—next time I’d bring a battery case.
  • …but using the ones you have… I was flying by the seat of my pants with regard to a lot of my travel planning. Beyond my flight in and my flight out, plus my first two nights in Thessaloniki, everything was booked the day before, using Booking.com and/or Tripadvisor. It all worked pretty smoothly, but…
  • …paying attention to the details. My one big error on the trip was not realising that there would be so few ferries from Athens to Iraklio per day. I made the best of it in the end, getting to watch the close of the Ryder Cup in a Sports Bar, but the overnight trip was something I could have been better prepared for. Lesson learned—next time I’m not going to assume that everything will be convenient.

History Turned Up to 11

September 29, 2014 3 comments

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Knossos, both restored and unrestored.

Travelling to Crete is like taking the lever that controls the Greek history time machine and pushing it as far back as it will go without breaking. Modern political divisions notwithstanding, this is a very different country, and there’s no better place to see this than in Knossos, heart of the Minoan civilisation of Crete and fabled palace of the mostly legendary King Minos, his daughter Ariadne and her half-brother the Minotaur. (Look it up – it’s a little icky.)
Even for the Mycenean Greeks who supplanted them, the Minoans must have appeared to be something alien and ancient. In the court of the Pharaohs of Egypt, the men of “Keftiu” were regular visits and the acknowledged masters of the wide green sea. The first maritime kings of the Mediterranean, they bequeathed some but not all of their practices to the Myceneans when disaster and strife somehow brought down their power. (The role of the Thera eruption in that downfall is yet another fascinating possibility.)
Looking at the art of the Minoans, it’s still easy to note the gulf that separates them from the later, more realistic depictions of the Greeks. In religion, the Minoans were goddess worshippers, and while they did venerate male deities too, the shift that placed Zeus (born and raised in a cave on Mount Ida on Crete as the tale goes) at the head of the pantheon of Olympian deities came after their time.
This shift in culture, art and language is a fascinating one to try and follow. There are Greek scripts that seem to depict the ancient Minoan tongue. The Linear B text seems of Minoan origin but is used to depict Greek language. The Minoans rose and fell several times over the centuries, coexisting with the Myceneans for several of them until their uniqueness was eclipsed.
The Iraklio Archaeological Museum does an excellent job of putting this tale in its proper context. (Any flaws in my understanding of it all, I’ll have to put down to my sleep-deprived brain – and while I’m at it, I’ll blame any typos on that too.) It seems that the more the Cretans were plugged into the trading networks and political systems of other Mediterranean powers, the less distinctive they became. Eventually, the people who had built and decorated the palace at Knossos so gloriously (though not necessarily as it now appears, depending on your opinion of Arthur Evans) became just another territory. An appendage and territory of other powers, whether Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, or Venetian.
It seems a shame, but we have the memories in myth and legend of those times and the relics recovered from the concealing earth and painstakingly restored. For me, I’ve enjoyed all that and more. My travels have taken me from Thessaloniki in the north of Greece, with its Byzantine and Ottoman influences, all the way to Crete, going ever deeper into history as I’ve continued south. This seems as good a place as any to stop. Maybe tomorrow, before I fly home, I’ll just lie on the beach for a while instead…

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The lighthouse at Chania in western Crete. On a stormy night like this, there’s no place better to be.

The Sublime and the Ridiculous

September 29, 2014 Leave a comment

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Knee-stomping (really), whirling dancing fools.

When one is given a chance to attend a full orchestral performance in a theatre some 1,900 years old, one doesn’t turn it down. Thus it was that I found myself buying a €5 ticket to gain access to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, in the shadow of the Acropolis, there to watch a performance by the Azerbaijan National Orchestra and several other Azerbaijani performers, notable among them a troupe of dancers.
Whether or not the ticket seller was offering a dramatic flourish of his own when he said that I had bought the very last ticket, I can’t honestly say, but the Odeon was probably as full as it could be while still being safe. Likewise, I’m not exactly sure what the cultural links between Greece and Azerbaijan are – perhaps my attention wandered during the introductory speeches that took up a fair chunk of the evening. Still, there’s no arguing with the fact that the orchestra’s performance was very warmly received, whether they were accompanying other acts (including, incongruously, a tenor offering up his take on “Nessun Dorma”). The dancers turned out to be the stars of the night though, their kinetic leaping, whirling and shouting inspiring the audience to clap in time to every flourish as light and sound illuminated the inside of those ancient stones.
Sublime history of another kind was the order of the day the next morning, as I made my way to the National Museum of Archaeology. With such a resource as the history of Greece to draw on, this could hardly fail to be spectacular, and as much as I may have seen more statues in the past two days than in the course of my life to date, I haven’t tired of them yet. The museum contains the Death Mask of Agamemnon (so called by Schliemann), several rare and exquisite bronze statues (far fewer of these survive from ancient times than their marble equivalents), and items both unspeakably ancient and of such quality of manufacture and art that you can’t help but linger over them.

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Possibly Poseidon, probably Zeus, definitely striking.

Perhaps the most fascinating piece that the museum now holds is a relatively recent acquisition. In an ancient shipwreck off the tiny island of Antikythera were found not only a collection of sculptures (probably looted and on their way to imperial Rome) but a nondescript lump of fused bronze. That lump, carefully studied over decades, now has an exhibition all to itself and is known as the Antikythera Mechanism. An intricate clockwork device, seemingly constructed to track and predict the motions of celestial bodies, it’s a glimpse into the little guessed complexity of ancient craftsmanship, forgotten for centuries afterwards.
So much for the sublimity: whence comes the ridiculous of this article’s title? Well, I’ve supplied most of that myself as I’ve come to the last few days of this trip. For example, on my way to the museum, I managed to get completely turned around and found myself wandering through a mostly deserted park until I figured things out.
The main ridiculousness though has more to do with where I am as I write this. I’d always planned to head to Crete for the last two days of the trip, but following my thus-far successful plan of booking things at short notice has caused me a few problems this time around. First off, I went ahead and booked accommodation without checking ferry times. Bad idea – the only ferries from Piraeus, Athens’ ancient and modern port, are overnighters. Still, I get in early enough that I might be able to use breakfast and a shower before I have to check out. As a final insult, trying to book a ferry ticket online resulted in a lost connection somewhere between the agency and the ferry company. And then it turns out that I could and should have bought the ticket at a booth at the port for half the price! Sigh. Lesson learned for now. Time to try to get some sleep while hoping that the boat doesn’t sink and that the guy behind me stops snoring at some stage…

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Antikythera – A mechanism’s mechanism.

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