In my review of Life of Pi five months ago, I spoke about the… MoreIn my review of Life of Pi five months ago, I spoke about the difficulties of adaptation and the snobbery associated with film versions of celebrated works of literature. This becomes all the more magnified when we combine F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the great American novelists, with Baz Luhrmann, one of the world's most divisive filmmakers. But while The Great Gatsby may not quite be great, it is a great deal better than many would have us believe.
Like all of Luhrmann's films, appreciating Gatsby requires at least some understanding of his style and intentions. Many of the common criticisms of his work stem from misplaced expectations, with people reprimanding him for consciously emphasising things he never intended. Many will dismiss this film as flashy, shallow or over-the-top, but to do so would greatly underestimate the unique qualities that Luhrmann brings, which set the film apart from many more conventional adaptations.
Luhrmann has always been more interested in drawing comparisons between different themes and cultures than he has ever been in historical fidelity. He never settles for realism as a substitute for storytelling, and frequently bend the rules of reality to make a point. Take Gatsby's car as an example. Any historian or mechanic will tell you that no car in the 1920s could possibly drive that fast - but it doesn't matter. Luhrmann is using it to make a point about Gatsby as a person, using it to represent his affluence, his individuality and the danger that surrounds him.
It's therefore fair to say that this film is not one for purists of period detail. While many of the novel's most famous moments are replicated (including the famous shirts scene), Luhrmann makes no attempt to ground every second in the 1920s. This is clearly seen in the soundtrack, arranged by Jay-Z and featuring a Jack White cover of U2's 'Love Is Blindness' during the car crash. Merely capturing a period is not a sign of substance, and there is a lot of substance in amongst the show-stopping fun.
As with Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann is drawing a parallel between two different periods of Western history, illuminating similarities with the past in order to provoke discussion about the present. In Moulin Rouge! he compared the Bohemian culture of the 1890s with the rave culture of the 1990s, highlighting the similar levels of drug abuse, sexual freedom and potential levels of heartbreak. Christian's reaction at Satine's sudden death from tuberculosis reflects the anguish of anyone who lost their friend to an ecstasy overdose or other such tragedy.
In this case, Luhrmann contrasts the Roaring Twenties that Gatsby inhabits with our world before the collapse of Lehmann Brothers. The characters operate in a world in which traditional boundaries (whether moral or regulatory) no longer have any power, meaning or relevance. Hedonism and financial prosperity go hand in hand, and it doesn't matter where the money comes from so long as it ends up in the right places. This is truly akin to the world Professor Millar described in Britannia Hospital as "a tiny minority indulg[ing] themselves in absurd and extravagant luxuries!".
There's no denying that Luhrmann knows how to shoot a party. The parties at Gatsby's mansion are even more elaborate and chaotic than the dance floor antics in Moulin Rouge!, with impeccable choreography and a constant need for the next act to one-up its predecessor. Both Christian and Nick Carraway are caught in the middle of a maelstrom, and so the same principle applies with regards to the editing of these parties. Luhrmann intends to confuse and deprive you of the full picture, putting you in the shoes of impressionable young men whose minds are truly being blown.
The Great Gatsby is emphatically about money, using each of the main characters to make a point about different kinds of wealth. Tom represents landed or old money, treating his future wife like another one of his sporting trophies. Nick is technically a member of the nouveau riche, working as he does in the stock exchange, but Tom tolerates him because he seems honourable - though their friendship is based many on pity and a shared interest in certain, allowable kinds of indulgence.
Gatsby's wealth, with its mysterious and sudden origins, threatens Tom's ethic of hard work, good sportsmanship, and above all knowing one's place. Gatsby's recurring remark, "old sport", has a ring of mockery to it, which only gets louder as we discover more about his humble beginnings. In the middle of these are the two women, one a charming parasite, the other an innocent with a voice like money. Daisy may be part of Tom's world, but she allows her head to be ruled by her heart, and its many conflicting decisions make her impossibly impulsive.
As much as it captures the excess of 1920s America, the film avoids falling into the Scarface trap of accidentally celebrating it. On the contrary, Luhrmann uses the indulgence of the characters to draw out the novel's comments about deification and the pursuit of empty gods. Both Daisy and money are deified in the characters' eyes, with neither Tom nor Gatsby being able to see any fault in her. They devote their lives to satisfying both gods through material offerings, Tom by legitimate means, Gatsby by illegal ones. But of course, Daisy isn't perfect, and as both characters realise this their lives steadily crumble, with one being murdered and the other leaving his estate.
The performances in The Great Gatsby are largely excellent. Leonardo di Caprio is brilliant in the central role, exuding the intriguing confidence of Gatsby, but also doing well to highlight his obsessions and insecurities. Joel Edgerton is deeply intimidating as Tom, contrasting his aggressive physical presence with Gatsby's flamboyance and laid-back demeanour. Carey Mulligan understands that her character is meant to be unlikeable, and she holds our attention by playing Daisy's reactions with unerring honesty. Even Toby Maguire makes the best of arguably the weakest role, resisting the urge to just play gormless in every shot.
Like Luhrmann's other films, The Great Gatsby is awash with references to other heady works of cinema. Gatsby's death has a real similarity to the ending of Scarface, right down to di Caprio's fall into the swimming pool. The parties drew on the elaborate dance sequences of Busby Berkeley, which also inspired the opening of Temple of Doom. And much of the film reflects the jaded cynicism of Chinatown, though the car crash is nothing like as earth-shattering as the final four minutes of Polanski's film.
There are a couple of small problems with Gatsby, which are hard to overlook even for a die-hard Luhrmannite. The most obvious of these is that the wraparound doesn't work. Luhrmann must be given props for wanting to keep the attention focussed on Nick, and it makes sense for him to be writing his work while drying out from alcohol abuse. But while a similar device worked wonders in Moulin Rouge!, in this case it undermines some of the cinematic quality that Luhrmann was going for.
The other huge problem is the 3D. As with Life of Pi, there is no part of the film that benefits from it, and it frequently serves to alienate the audience. The opening sequence of walking through Gatsby's doors is pure showing-off, and the long tracking shot across the bay feels like it was included purely for showcase the technology. Such sequences are not impressive, nor do they contribute to the story, and the 30% colour loss works against Luhrmann's ravishing cinematography.
The Great Gatsby is an audacious new adaptation of Fitzgerald's enduring novel. The artistic liberties that Luhrmann takes with the period setting and narrative mean that it may not bring in new audiences in quite the same way as Romeo + Juliet. But despite its problems, it is still a meaty and exciting visual feast, which provides much by way of thrilling spectacle and leaves you with plenty to dwell on afterwards.
When something is billed as being the scariest film of all time, it's… MoreWhen something is billed as being the scariest film of all time, it's already setting itself up for a fall. Being scared is an entirely subjective experience: what will leave one person catatonic with terror would have almost no effect on another - worse still, they might even laugh at it. The Exorcist still has much to offer in the ideas it raises, or the performances through which they are raised, but after 40 years of iconic pop culture status, it's nothing like as scary as once it was.
Much like its cult contemporary The Wicker Man, there are whole sections of The Exorcist which don't feel like a horror movie at all. It spends a lot of its running time as a mystery film or character drama, and only truly becomes a horror film in its last couple of reels. Both films seek to create unease through a series of strange events, which arouse our suspicions while also leaving the possibility that we are just being paranoid. But for all its odd diversions into musical and comedy territory, Robin Hardy's film is the more effectively unnerving.
The reason for this lies in the director's sensibility. Throughout his career William Friedkin has been a filmmaker who has confounded expectations, in ways both good and bad. He has always made the films he wants, just the way he wants them, and to be a true Friedkin fan we have to totally buy into these unusual creative decisions. But where Hardy's juxtapositions in The Wicker Man actually contribute to the unnerving atmosphere by throwing us off the scent, Friedkin's choices feel more archly choreographed, like he is toying with us often at the expense of the film's content.
This practice of counterpointing the serious and the frivolous can be seen at the beginning of The French Connection. We are introduced to Popeye Doyle, one of the roughest, toughest, hardest detectives in film history - and one of his first scenes involves him busting a drug dealer while wearing a Santa outfit. Likewise, in The Exorcist, Friedkin shoots one of the main conversations about the ethics of exorcism in front of some nubile young ladies playing tennis. In both cases the juxtaposition makes the film memorable, but it also offsets and compromises the intended mood; we might remember it, but there's no guarantee that we'll remember it fondly.
Because of its iconic status, it's very hard to judge The Exorcist impartially. Most new viewers will be aware of some aspect of its legacy, whether it's the infamous spider-walk (cut from the original version), Regan's head spinning all the way round, the levitating bed, or the opening theme of Tubular Bells (which barely appears at all). There is a real danger of judging the film by its reputation, rather than actually seeing if it works plain and simple as a film. The only way to do this is to look at its different components in turn, assessing its technical strengths and the ideas it seeks to raise.
Whatever Friedkin chooses to fill his scenes with, The Exorcist is a good-looking film, at least for the time. Owen Roizman collaborated with Friedkin on The French Connection, and would later shoot The Stepford Wives, Network and Tootsie - in short, he knows what he's doing. His use of shadows is very effective, particularly in the exterior scenes around the Georgetown steps and the corners of Chris and Regan's house. Some shots are overly static, lending the film a creaky feel, but it never feels like the cinematographer is trying to impose himself or a given genre onto the story.
The film also has a very good cast, many of whom have become icons of the horror genre. Linda Blair is magnificent in her most famous role, drawing us in with the sweetness and innocence of Regan, and then freaking us out as this part of her is steadily drained and corrupted, before finally being rediscovered. Jason Miller is great as Father Karras, using his slumped shoulders and the lower part of his face to convey the burden on the troubled priest. Max von Sydow has a good amount of gravitas as Father Marin, and Ellen Burstyn rounds the cast out nicely as Chris McNeil, though she can be annoying at times.
The ideas raised in The Exorcist remain hugely controversial, particularly in this age of increased public scepticism and a heightened awareness of church scandal and corruption. Its main idea is that there can be discernible, physical proof of the existence of good and evil, and that faith is a powerful and important means of combatting the latter. While many film villains are built around and ultimately explained through trauma and psychology, Pazuzu is far more intangible, and the film offers few answers about his origins, motivations or eventual fate.
The four main characters are arranged on a spectrum according to the extent of their faith, and in what force they chose to believe. Chris has no faith, referring to priests as "witch-doctors" when the idea of an exorcism is first floated. She spends the film is a state of desperation, barely clinging on, and arguably the only reason she survives is because the demon did not target her initially.
Karras wears the cloth but is troubled by the death of his mother; the demon exploits his insecurity, and only when faced with the reality of his own death does he fully commit, and in doing so save Regan. Marin's faith is rock-solid: previous experiences with exorcism, coupled with a life spent in the service of God, have completely removed his fear of death. In the middle of all this is Regan, the unfortunate innocent who is not yet capable of understanding the forces warring over her soul. We could spend an age discussing the role and purpose of her suffering in a theological context, but the debates are perhaps too nuanced and complex for such a brief review.
The film also uses Chris' scepticism as a means of exploring the position accorded to medicine in Western society. So much of the discourse around science concerns its place in a grand narrative, moving humanity out of superstition and into a place where we know all the answers. But Chris is ultimately just as shaky and insecure in the doctors' keeping as she is with the priests. The fear of the unknown still dogs her, and the emphasis we place on science and reason is not proof that evil doesn't exist, nor an effective means to combat it when it manifests itself.
The central problem with The Exorcist is that it fails to manifest these fascinating ideas in a way which can genuinely terrify an audience. Giving evil physicality is an interesting idea, and it's easy to appreciate the craft that went into Dick Smith's make-up. But the film becomes reliant on these physical effects to such an extent that the atmosphere built up in its early sections is compromised. It's not a shock-fest, but it isn't as intimidating as it should be.
When he made Rosemary's Baby five years previously, Roman Polanski very consciously played on the characters' surroundings to increase the tension. By emphasising the intimidating architecture of Rosemary's flat and the apartment complex as a whole, he created a sense of the whole world being against her even before the devil worshippers were introduced.
The Exorcist has moments where it becomes visceral and very scary - one of the main ones being where Regan is under medical examination. But these moments are interspersed with long sections of rudderless calm, so that when the scares intrude, they seem like more of a gimmick than was ever intended. You will be scared at some point watching the film, but Friedkin never quite achieves the level of unrelenting terror that Polanski created. There's something not quite right when a story driven by the Devil's influence isn't constantly intimidating.
The Exorcist is an intelligent and interesting horror movie which is more successful as a series of theological problems than as a means to be constantly scared. The cast and production values are very solid, and its ideas are well-formed without being neatly resolved - it just isn't scary enough to match the standard laid down by Polanski or his predecessors. In the end, the film is a must-see but not a must-love, and is by no means Friedkin's finest hour.
Before we can critically assess The Shawshank Redemption, we first… MoreBefore we can critically assess The Shawshank Redemption, we first have to deal with The Shawshank Reputation. In addition to its Oscar nominations and huge critical acclaim, the film has topped the IMDb Top 250 for years and shows no signs of dropping off any time soon. Any attempt to criticise it could come across as churlish or contrarian, the work of someone attempting to be above what is popular for their own self-righteous sake. Fortunately, there is little need to criticise - for Shawshank really is as great as people make it out to be.
It's easy to forget how much of a slow-burning success Shawshank was. Despite favourable reviews and its many nominations, the film barely broke even on first release. It was only with the VHS release that word began to spread like wildfire, so that by the turn of the century it had garnered a reputation as a modern American great. In an age where films are dead in the water if they don't perform on opening weekend, it is hard to imagine a situation in which another Shawshank could emerge (although Slumdog Millionaire is a reasonable candidate).
It's equally easy to forget how brutal the film is, particularly in its first 20 minutes. Shawshank's reputation as a popular favourite might lead the uninitiated to thinking that it's an uplifting, feel-good film - and it is true that these later moments are the ones which have most entered into popular consciousness. But any film about hope needs a source of despair to provide conflict, and Shawshank has more than enough violence and emotional trauma to justify its 15 certificate. As Mark Kermode famously remarked, there's a whole lot of Shawshank before the Redemption.
Even without its reputation, Shawshank is one of the best adaptations of Stephen King's work. Indeed, among King's dramatic stories, it is outshone only by its successor The Green Mile. Frank Darabont has a greater understanding of King than almost any other filmmaker: he gets the tone spot on and recreates the period setting brilliantly with the help of Roger Deakins' cinematography. Despite the much-parodied narration that punctuates the film, the drama unfolds naturally and believably throughout, with the characters always being at the forefront and naked exposition being kept to a bare minimum.
Shawshank is a good example of how adaptation works - or more specifically, how changes made to the original story in translation often benefit the finished product. The best example of this is the character of Red, who in the original novel is a red-headed Irishman. This is referred to jokingly by Morgan Freeman in one of his first conversations with Tim Robbins; when Andy asks why people call him Red, Red responds: "Maybe it's because I'm Irish.".
On top of Freeman's obvious ability, the casting decision makes sense because it adds an extra layer of meaning to the character. Red is one of the few black characters we come across; while he applies himself in different ways, he is as much of an outsider as Andy DuFresne. This is borne out by his remarks about institutionalisation, which are laughed off by his fellow inmates. Red may be well-connected when it comes to smuggling things in, but otherwise he is just as lonely as Andy.
Shawshank approaches the theme of institutionalisation with great grace and dexterity. Because the story takes place over three decades, the temptation would be to canter through the plot points and cut straight to Andy's escape - you could even stage the entire story in flashback. Instead, Darabont allows the film to unfold at a gentle, gradual pace, reflecting the mind-set of the characters. They don't realise how trapped they are until it's too late, just as we don't realise that two-and-a-half hours has passed until the credits have begun to roll.
The characters reflect the different extents and effects of institutionalisation. Brooks has built his entire identity around his books and role in the prison; he is so afraid of this being taken away that he attempts to kill William Sadler's character so he can stay inside. Red is aware of how trapped he is, and shares Brooks' fears, being unsure that he could get things for Andy on the outside. But at the same time, he refuses to let himself be vulnerable, trying to play the system and constantly getting turned down for parole. Andy allows himself to be vulnerable and endures all the pain that it brings him, sustained by the knowledge of his innocence and the hope that he will escape.
Shawshank is perhaps the most powerful depiction of hope in all of cinema. The original short story, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, was subtitled 'Hope Springs Eternal'. The film returns to hope and the celebration of the human spirit like a leitmotif, and succeeds because it retains Andy's humanity in all its many shades. While he is very different to the other prisoners, he is never presented as a saint or goody-goody, smiling gormlessly in the face of maddening torment. This makes his endurance all the more powerful: we recognise our faults in his moments of weakness, and aspire to his inner moral strength.
The film has attracted many Christian interpretations - in fact, in my review of John Carpenter's The Thing, I called it "a poster child for Christianity". It's not hard to see why, considering its celebration of inner strength and devotion, and its overall arc of good triumph over evil against the greatest odds. While Andy has been called a Christ figure, he's just as close to the character of Daniel in the Old Testament: he finds himself in a strange land against his will, and in order to survive he applies his natural talents to the service of his temporal masters. Through his labours the people around him benefit and the system is eventually changed for the better - albeit through pain, suffering and several deaths.
An equally intriguing interpretation comes from Mark Kermode, who authored a BFI Modern Classic on the film in 2003. In a video discussing cinematic depictions of Richard Nixon, Kermode made the argument that Warden Norton (played brilliantly by Bob Gunton) is an allegory for Nixon, with Andy's prison term matching Nixon's political career. Norton begins reaching out for friendship (Nixon seeking to be elected), then becomes the corrupt leader (beginning in the year that Kennedy was shot), and finally descends into paranoia and disgrace, culminating in a more literal suicide than Nixon offered us.
Whether you believe these interpretations or not, Shawshank is a terrific piece of dramatic film-making which soars on the strengths of its main performers. Tim Robbins perfectly captures Andy's distant, ethereal quality while retaining his wry and infectious sense of humour. Morgan Freeman's performance may well be responsible for his subsequent type-casting, but he matches Robbins beat for beat, offsetting hope with world-weariness and guilt. There's also great support from two actors who would subsequently work with Darabont again - William Sadler (who appears in The Green Mile) and James Whitmore (The Majestic).
The only fly in the ointment with Shawshank is its ending. The film is about hope as a value in and of itself, emphasising the importance of having it even if it is not rewarded. Red's transition to embracing hope is far more important than his reunion with Andy, and this reunion shifts the film's message from celebrating hope to justifying the characters' pain on the basis of a happy ending. It's also clear that this ending was put together at the last minute, with subtle shifts in the cinematography and a far more rushed pacing to it.
The Shawshank Redemption may not be entirely worthy of its number one ranking on IMDb, but it remains a really terrific piece of drama let down only by its final scene. In every other aspect it's a masterpiece, as a character piece, a treatise on hope and a beautifully paced and mounted Stephen King adaptation. It remains a must-see for all film fans of penchant or persuasion, earning its status as a modern classic and securing a warm place in our hearts.
When reviewing children's films, there are two main approaches one can… MoreWhen reviewing children's films, there are two main approaches one can take. One is to review the film in question as first and foremost a piece of cinema, analysing its narrative and technical aspects and giving out recommendations on this basis. The other is to take a more moralistic view, imagining whether you would show a given film to your own children (real or hypothetical) on the basis of the messages or lessons that it contains.
Both approaches are problematic, insofar as they use adult language, knowledge and expectations of a medium to recommend something that was never intended for adults, at least not primarily. But either approach is infinitely preferable to the dim view that children are stupid enough to watch anything, and that a 'children's film' does not have to be as well-made as one intended for grown-ups. Whichever approach one takes, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is not worthy of any recommendation, being one of the laziest animated films in recent memory.
When I reviewed Treasure Planet three months ago, I drew a comparison between Disney and PIXAR in the early-2000s. I argued that while PIXAR were pushing the envelope of what mainstream animation could achieve, Disney were aggressively re-treading old ground, "trying to push the same old stuff overlaid with snazzier visuals." Since the Disney empire diversified in the 1950s, the animation department has had to fight for power against the cash cows of theme parks and merchandising - and the success of these arms has often influenced the output of Disney's more creative elements.
Apologists may defend Atlantis as a break from the Disney norm of fairy tales and princesses. But this argument holds no water, since in every other way the film is conventional to the point of utter contempt. The film is a relentless race to the bottom, treating its audience young and old like complete idiots and not offering up one original or creative idea in compensation. It's ironic that the film disappointed at the box office, considering that most of it feels like it was created to sell a toy rather than tell a story.
All this could be somewhat rationalised if the film were a straight-to-video project, or an episode of a TV series based on another Disney film. Most of us are aware of Disney's track record in this regard, and would therefore lower our expectations from expecting the best to hoping for something other than the very worst. But Atlantis comes from an original treatment by Joss Whedon, and is helmed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the same team behind Beauty and the Beast. The only thing more painful than a bad film made by bad filmmakers is a bad film made by good filmmakers.
It's clear that Trousdale and Wise's strengths lie in adapting existing stories. Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame both come from reputable sources, and both successfully channel the sources' darkness for a younger audience. Atlantis, by comparison, is utterly aimless, floating from set-piece to set-piece without a map or rudder. For all the flack that Disney gets for its creative liberties in adaptation, its attempts at original material are often just as inept.
What makes this all the more painful is that there is so much potential within this story. The myth of Atlantis is a fascinating one which opens up all kinds of possibilities about different cultures, languages and technologies. Even if the myth were handed with kid gloves, this could have still have been a really fun adventure. The setup is an enticing blend of Jules Verne, Tintin and Indiana Jones, with Atlantis serving as the great, undiscovered 'other world' into which our heroes venture as the eyes of the audience.
But all of this potential is quickly squandered, thanks to poorly-drawn characters and terrible storytelling. All of the characters are flat and entirely one-dimensional - Milo is the well-meaning dork, Kida is the headstrong but naïve princess, Rourke is the blinkered military leader, and so on and so on. The writing is so lazy that there is actually a scene where most of the characters sit down and tell their backstories one at a time. Alfred Hitchcock once said that exposition was a bitter pill that had to be sugar-coated for audiences, and no amount of sweetness or visual beauty can make up for this particularly bitter pill.
As for the plot of Atlantis, it's deeply derivative to say the least. It is possible for a film to come from well-worn conventions and yet still offer something new - Indiana Jones is a brilliant example. But there comes a point when similarity to another work becomes so close that is borders on plagiarism or self-parody, and Atlantis falls firmly into the latter trap.
The plot is essentially the same as Pocahontas, with the central relationship between Milo and Kida having the same dynamic as John Smith and Pocahontas. The traveller or pioneer falls in love with the native's daughter, conflict ensues and they unite to save their two worlds. That would be fine, except that the lead-up to finding Atlantis takes far too long, with the film getting bogged down in needless distractions, lazy exposition or bad jokes. And that's before we address the use of language in the film: Disney commissioned Marc Okrand to create a whole new language for the Atlanteans to speak, only for the language barrier to be dealt with in the stupidest possible way (yes, worse than magic leaves.)
The influence of Indiana Jones is writ large over Atlantis - the filmmakers even cited Raiders of the Lost Ark as their inspiration for shooting the film in widescreen. But if the Pocahontas similarities aren't enough to put you off, then you could easily transpose the plot of Last Crusade onto the film, to the point where the characters completely overlap.
Milo's decision to go after Atlantis is driven by the need to fulfil his father's dream - the same reason that Indy takes up the quest for the Holy Grail. Rourke is essentially Walter Donovan, appearing to be on the heroes' side but ultimately wanting the 'grail' for his own power. You could even argue that his assistant, Lieutenant Helga, doubles for Dr. Elsa Schneider - though the film doesn't imply that both father and son were attracted to her.
The difference between Last Crusade and Atlantis lies in the level of affection for the story and character archetypes. Indiana Jones is driven first and foremost by a deep-seated love for the fantasy and adventures genres. Even when the series became one of the biggest in film history, the films never felt like blatant cash-grabs on the part of the studios. Atlantis has creative talent and affection somewhere in it, but the film has been trampled on by uncreative minds, whether in marketing or middle management.
Internal logic is an important aspect in all fantasy stories, and Atlantis doesn't make a great deal of sense on either a physical or a mythological level. We may be able to laugh at the idea of sentient crystals after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but in this context the film sets up the idea and then makes no effort to explain it. It's just another plot device, designed to take Kida out of the picture for a quick battle scene. The film is structured like an ADHD theme park ride, its goal being to keep you distracted for as long as possible so that you don't have the chance to stop and take in this potentially complex world - and then proceed to pick it apart.
This rollercoaster approach to storytelling also defeats the film's big trump card - its visuals. Atlantis was the first Disney film presented in 70mm since The Black Cauldron - another film that was brutally compromised by studio interference. The animation is very pretty, with a nice range of colours and tones underscored by shimmering, iridescent blues. But even the prettiest scenes aren't impressive because the editing is choppy and we don't care about the characters. There's very little use made of the widescreen presentation, and the 70mm format is thoroughly wasted.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire is one of Disney's most conspicuous and disappointing failures. It epitomises the studio's reputation for brand paranoia, taking a potentially interesting and entertaining premise and draining it of all creativity and elegance. The result is a crushingly dull and uninspired offering whose only function is to depress and reinforce bad feelings towards the company. It's awful, tedious, lazy and empty - and really, really stupid.
In the aftermath of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, there has been… MoreIn the aftermath of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, there has been an explosion of interest in Scandinavian thrillers and crime dramas. The popularity of Borgen, Wallander and The Killing (amongst others) has also led to a number of English-language adaptations, with Kenneth Branagh starring in the acclaimed remake of Wallander and David Fincher helming his own version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
As with all trends, however, it doesn't take long for the cutting-edge to become a cliché. The fact that Midsummer Murders is one of the most popular programmes in Denmark suggests that the popularity of Scandinavian crime stories lies more in a fascination with cultural differences than any inherent difference in quality. Words like 'bleak' and 'gritty' have become redundant descriptors for these stories, and for all their merits, their general pervasion leaves you crying out for something different. All of which brings us to Headhunters, a great little thriller which takes the gritty, stylish aesthetic of these stories and douses it with a lot of dark humour.
Purely from a technical standpoint, Headhunters is one of the most breathless and efficient thrillers in the post-Bourne era. Its first half hour in particular is frenetic, with its need to set up all the plot points trumped by its greater need to keep the story and action barrelling along at a break-neck pace. But unlike the many Bourne imitators, who have misinterpreted and misused Paul Greengrass' aesthetic, the film is not needlessly flashy in its shooting style. There is some hand-held stuff during the scenes in the woods, but otherwise there are plenty of tripods to go round.
Because of this breathlessness, Headhunters avoids one of the big traps of the crime thriller genre - namely the belief that a bleak, forbidding atmosphere can only be achieved by slow pacing. The film does slow down at certain points, allowing the more intimate moments to breathe and to increase the tension during the near-misses in the chase. But Tyldum Mortem is careful never to let these scenes drag or otherwise interfere with the fun. This steady hand works in the film's favour in the opposite way: it gives off such a level of confidence that we don't ever get the sense that it would all fall apart if it did slow down.
The film also boasts great cinematography, courtesy of John Andreas Andersen. The opening section is incredibly stylish, with a crisp, glossy feel akin to The Social Network or the thrillers of Michael Mann. As the various plot points develop, Anderson matches the darker comedy with harsher and nastier tones, turning the colour palette right down and lightening the blood in a realistic manner. What little special effects there are in the film are also effective thanks to Andersen's work; we know full well that a real dog wasn't killed in the film, but it looks so real that you do stop and wonder, if only for a second.
On top of any visual similarities, the plot of Headhunters knowingly tips its hat to a number of other thrillers. There is a close comparison to the Coen Brothers' debut Blood Simple; both have a ruthless efficiency and are characterised by a balance of dark humour and dramatic tension. Making the main character an art thief immediately calls to mind The Thomas Crown Affair, though the film is tonally closer to the John McTiernan remake than the original. The truck sequence is arguably an elaborate reference to Steven Spielberg's Duel, and the scenes in the hospital are highly reminiscent of The Fugitive.
It's perfectly possible to enjoy Headhunters as a well-oiled machine, an efficient genre exercise. It is ultimately a film concerned more with pacing than with substance or insight, with the need to keep things moving occasionally working against its attempts at emotional depth. But it also has a few ideas of its own which set it apart from many of the films it is referencing or taking after. As clichéd as it is to describe it in such a manner, it is more introspective and self-aware than many British or other English-language thrillers borne from similar material.
One of the film's main themes is reputation. Roger Brown is a man whose life is built around both his own personal reputation and the belief that reputation is the only thing that matters. He steals priceless works of art to fund his lifestyle and make his wife happy, ensuring that they can be seen at the right parties and own the house that everyone wants. His job involves making judgements on people based on others' opinions of them and concerns about the images of the companies he serves. His numerous misfortunes as the film goes on find him discovering that this frame of mind is deeply damaging: his desire for status is ultimately what leads to the affair and his life falling apart around him.
The central conflict between Roger and Clas Greve furthers this theme, and asks a supplementary question about the importance of empathy over ambition. In their final showdown in Ove's house, Clas appears to have the upper hand. He stands lean and elegant against the shrinking, pathetic Roger, and ridicules him for lacking the power and will to keep the things he wanted. Roger then trumps him with the reveal about the bullets, signifying his motives were the better ones. He chose the love of his wife over the satisfaction of the deal, and after hours of running, he finally defeats his opponent.
Like many thrillers, Headhunters plays with the idea of deceitful appearances. Clas starts off as a distinctive client of Roger's, smartly dressed, straight to the point and a worthy opponent at the dinner table. He then becomes a ruthless soldier and hunter, then a soldier at the centre of a murky corporate deal, and finally a thrill-seeking killer comprising all of the above. On paper it all sounds fanciful, but Tyldum's direction holds the character and conceit together. Every time you think you can't go with a plot point, he pulls back and concentrates on making Clas threatening, thereby ensuring that we take him seriously even if we don't entirely understand him.
As I said before, Headhunters is more concerned with pacing than with substance. It doesn't contain any great insights into the world of art crime, or make any point like Killing Them Softly about how crime and big business are essentially built on identical foundations. But in spite of this it is supremely entertaining, possessing not just a good amount of pure spectacle (e.g. the truck scene) but also a number of rounded, believable characters underscored by excellent levels of tension.
Being a dark comedy, our empathy for Roger comes as much from wanting him to succeed as it does from a degree of pity for what happens to him. Aksel Hennie has the same distressed, worldly-worn look that Steve Buscemi has in Fargo, and Tyldum truly puts his character through the mill, forcing him to lug bodies around, sit on poisonous spikes, shave his head in a stream and even hide in human faeces to evade Clas early in the chase. The dark humour also extends to the supporting characters, with Ove's 'shootouts' with his favourite hooker and the recurring appearance of the two fat policemen.
The secret of Headhunters' success, as both a black comedy and a tense thriller, is its constant capacity to surprise us. Tyldum is brilliant at taking a comedic moment and turning it into a source of great tension - we go from watching Roger sink slowly into the latrine to Clas staring down at the toilet roll through which (unbeknownst to him) Roger is breathing. He also perfects this in reverse: we see Roger being followed by what he thinks is Clas' car, and he careers off the road, only to find that it was a tractor all along.
Headhunters is a brilliant darkly comic thriller which breathes new life into a sub-genre which is threatened with becoming stale. While it has a few silly or potentially ludicrous moments, it embraces its pulpy origins and uses audience familiarity to make its surprises stand out all the more. Morten Tyldum directs beautifully, with the perfect balance of terror and humour coming through with the efforts of a great cast. Above all it's a supremely entertaining piece of cinema which gives the Coen Brothers a run for their money.
The last five years have been very kind to Danny Boyle. Since 2008 he… MoreThe last five years have been very kind to Danny Boyle. Since 2008 he has enjoyed a wave of critical acclaim, with the Oscar success of Slumdog Millionaire, nominations for 127 Hours, and the rapturous reception for his opening and closing ceremonies for the London Olympics. His most recent film, Trance, sees Boyle kicking back just a little bit, to indulge himself and enjoy his success.
Lest we forget, however, that film is an unstable and unpredictable business; there is no road map to booming box office or Oscar glory. Slumdog Millionaire was originally going to go straight-to-video, only seeing the light of day after a last-minute deal with Fox Searchlight. The year before, Boyle delivered Sunshine, a thought-provoking science fiction film with a great cast - that promptly underperformed after being released on the hottest day of the year. Six years on, the film still has its problems, but it remains an impressive cinematic experience.
Even if nothing else about it worked, Sunshine is a visually arresting film containing moments of beauty and splendour. The film is shot by Alwin H. Kuchler, who worked on Michael Winterbottom on The Claim and Code 46. He makes very conscious choices with the colour palette to juxtapose the interior of Icarus II with the loneliness of space. Inside the ship the screen is dominated by greens and blues that put us at ease, so that when we cut to the bright yellow sun, it feels like it is invading us. It's a very effective ploy of both making the crews' behaviour seem natural and conveying the devastating power of a dying star.
Other aspects of the production design are equally arresting. So many sci-fi films have space suits that feel like direct copies of NASA suits, often out of a desire for realism and direct comparison with our society. The suits in Sunshine, nicknamed 'Kenny suits' after their resemblance to the South Park character, are far more unusual and bespoke; they are showcased for their advanced technology, but also their shortcomings, with characters falling over due to their weight. The design of the Icarus spacecraft is a similar case of verisimilitude; we think we recognise details from Silent Running or Event Horizon, but it still feels like an original design.
Not only does Sunshine look good, it is also effectively directed. Boyle uses subliminal imagery in the form of quick cuts when the crew enters the Icarus I, putting us on edge and forcing us to second-guess ourselves. More effective, however, is the rendition of Pinbacker, who serves as the hyper-stylised intruder to this gritty vision of space.
Boyle shot Mark Strong's scenes with two lenses simultaneously, on in and one out of focus, and then overlaid the images in post-production. The resulting blurry effect puts us in an area of panic, withholding the villain in plain sight and making him more frightening. Even as we see him right in front of us, we get only the merest hint of his face or the extent of his burns. As a result he increases in power and takes on a more mythical, demonic quality, being much more Hellraiser than Hallowe'en.
There is a very conscious effort on Boyle's part to situate Sunshine in the pantheon of classic science fiction. While it is a product of its time in its budget, effects and directorial style, the works it draws upon are all at the smarter, bleaker, more introspective end of the sci-fi genre. There are big hints of Alien in the blue-collar surroundings and the various hierarchies that spring up within the crew. Pinbacker's character is a direct nod to John Carpenter's Dark Star, which subsequent led to Alien. If you were feeling facetious, you could speculate that this character is what Sergeant Pinback could have become had he survived past the end credits.
Like Alien and Event Horizon after it, the plot of Sunshine centres around the terrifying consequences of answering a distress call, though the monster in this case is a lot less Freudian or rooted in body horror. The airlock sequence is a straightforward nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the scenes in the oxygen garden are clearly inspired by Silent Running, with Michelle Yeoh standing in for Bruce Dern.
There are also thematic nods to Solaris in the crew's memories of Earth, and their troubling dreams of their families back home. And in its final reel the film does embrace or invoke many conventions of the slasher movie sub-genre. But where a lesser film would channel these without bringing anything new to the table, Sunshine raises a number of interesting ideas of its own. Not all of them are explored fully or resolved to a satisfying degree, but until its final act it is very much a thinking person's sci-fi film.
One such theme that keeps cropping up is finding or perceiving beauty in acts of great destruction. This is most evident in Pinbacker, who believes that allowing the human race to die out is part of God's plan. But the other characters reflect this idea too, albeit in ways that are far more equivocal. Capa reflects on the Sun as something that simultaneously kills and brings life; he is drawn to understanding how something can inspire such awe in the face of possible malice.
The film also explores the ethics of suicide and despair, something borne out in both Trey's fate and that of the human race. Capa's confidence in the mission and its eventual success is contrasted with the reluctance of the crew and the extremism of Pinbacker. Both take the failure of Icarus I to mean that death is increasingly the only option, differing merely on how and when they wish to die.
Within this there is a discussion of the interests of the many versus those of the few. After a near-miss that leads to Kaneda's death and Trey's suicidal tendencies, the crew speculate about how best to conserve the oxygen. In doing so the films raises a number of interesting questions. Does prioritising the needs of the many actually erode our humanity - for instance, agreeing to kill Trey to have enough oxygen to deliver the payload? If so, are we losing the very thing that the payload is designed to preserve? Is there any point surviving if we have no morals or ideals to survive for?
The film also delves into theology, using both the mission and the villain as focal points for a discussion of God's nature. The Sun symbolises God, something or someone that can simultaneously be viewed as a benevolent creator or a needlessly vindictive tormentor. Boyle described Pinbacker as the embodiment of fundamentalism; where Capa uses the circumstances to shape his ideas through scientific observation, Pinbacker forces his ideas onto the circumstances and will not be dissuaded from his calling.
But much like Life of Pi last year, this is the point where Sunshine starts losing its grip. Both films are feasts for the senses which feel amazing when you watch them, but both are intellectually and theologically undernourished. There are lots of interesting jumping-on points, but none of them are fully seized upon. There is a difference between developing a sense of ambiguity and idly raising ideas in the hope of seeming profound, and Sunshine settles for the latter just a little too much.
The film's scientific inaccuracies have been widely documented, and for the most part the objections are valid: you couldn't 'restart' a sun with a bomb the size of Manhattan. But this is not a problem for the most part, since the science is a backdrop for an examination of themes and morals pertaining to the human condition. It becomes a problem in the final section, when the film shifts into horror territory and common sense is suspended in order to kill the cast and blow things up. The film suffers from the same basic problem as Event Horizon: it builds to great heights, and then takes the easy way out.
Sunshine is an engrossing and visually arresting film which delivers on enough of its substance to make it worth the trip. While it doesn't fulfil on all of its ideas or end in a way that's entirely satisfying, it is a well-directed slice of sci-fi melancholy which will burn its way into your memory. If nothing else it proves it is still possible to make sci-fi films about ideas - even if it took more than 8 minutes for audiences to catch on.