Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)


This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago, the Icarus project sent a mission to restart the sun, but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), and a crew of seven, left Earth frozen in a solar winter.
Our payload: a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island.
Our purpose: to create a star within a star.
Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb.
Welcome to the Icarus II.

Opening voice-over is hit-or-miss with me, as are on-the-nose ship metaphors. Naming your solar rescue mission Icarus seems problematic, especially for a second attempt. I suppose we could’ve revived Apollo (a literal sun-god) for this, but the first Apollo mission…erm…died in a fire, so I guess there’d be trouble either way. In any case, it seems branding wasn’t a major priority – we don’t actually see much of Earth in this “solar winter”, but the planet seems to have unified, at least to the point of mining and transporting all of Earth’s fissile material (including, presumably, all of the nuclear weapons), so assuming Dr. Capa (Cillian Murphy)’s second attempt to save the dying sun manages to succeed, Earth might be a bit more peaceful than before. Or at least return to conventional warfare.

I first saw Sunshine in theaters on a friend’s recommendation. She assured me it was “two thirds character-based indie sci-fi, one third aggressive slasher flick”. This is largely accurate on its face – in fact, the movie has a handful of plot beats in common with Event Horizon, the Doctor Who episode “42”, and even Aliens if I’m playing a bit loose with it. “The first group went missing so now you have to complete their mission and grapple with the [unknown] problem they failed to solve” is a solid adventure trope, and imbuing it with world-ending stakes and psychological torment definitely sets this film up for success – that, plus its powerhouse cast. Besides Murphy, the crew includes Rose Byrne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, and Benedict Wong. Most of them have gone on to bigger and better genre projects, and they really do have a chance to shine here. And of course there’s Mark Strong, who generally gets a more comprehensible voice than this, but has made a career of playing equally creepy villains. The key takeaway here is that I went into this film knowing that it would eventually turn horrific, and that tension may have compromised my objectivity when it came to evaluating the movie’s world-ending stakes. Nonetheless, Capa’s opening voice-over spells it out concisely enough – this is Earth’s last, best shot, and if it fails, the species is done – and this cast (Evans and Curtis in particular) does a stellar job of letting those stakes inform their every action and character beat, even as the slasher elements gradually appear.

The screenplay, written by Alex Garland (Never Let Me Go, Ex Machina), begins at just the right moment, right when Icarus II is about to enter the “dead zone” – an area in which the sun’s electromagnetic field is so powerful that they will be unable to send transmissions back to Earth. So they get one final round of messages home, and then it’s radio silence for two years. I don’t know if this dead zone is based in fact, but the movie does get one other detail right that I didn’t know when I first saw the film – flying into the sun from the Earth is really hard – actually harder than leaving the Solar System! That’s to say, if you point a rocket directly at the sun and fire it off, you’ll just keep missing it, because the rocket begins by orbiting the sun at the same relative velocity as the Earth (30km/sec). So you need to fly very, very fast in the opposite direction along the orbital plane (or do something much cooler and more difficult to slow yourself down) before you’ll be able to fly toward the sun in any meaningful way. MinutePhysics on YouTube tells the tale better, so I’d encourage you to check them out. But the key takeaway is that this rocket had to expend a massive quantity of fuel to make it to the sun, and we briefly see a photo of the crew which confirms that it nailed this (record-fast) velocity at some point. What’s my point in bringing this up? This movie is not a scientific documentary (its scientific advisor is quite explicit on this point, and is happy to hand-wave things like artificial gravity), but it at least seems interested in science, and that was something I very much appreciated while watching it. Like Moon and Interstellar after it, this movie gets enough details right for me to believe that it respects the audience’s intelligence, and doesn’t toss away science for mindless peril like so many others.

Back to the imminent comms blackout – Capa and Mace (Evans) have a bit of a brawl. I like this moment, not because I think a fistfight on a spaceship is particularly professional, but because this is over a legitimately unsolvable issue. Capa took a bit too long to send his message, and now Mace won’t be able to talk to his family for two more years (or perhaps ever again). It’s more than just an accident – it’s a wound, and it won’t heal. There will be more of these. These astronauts, collectively, are the most distant humans in history from the rest of humanity, and this moment exemplifies that loneliness. The ship’s pilot, Cassie (Byrne), is not having it, and promptly calls the entire crew in to deal with the “excess of manliness breaking out in the Comm center”. Before too long, Mace is baring his soul with the ship’s doctor and shrink, Searle (Curtis), then basking on the holodeck grinning into a simulation of crashing waves on a boardwalk. We’re just now starting to understand the full psychological effect of long-term close quarters space travel and isolation, and virtual reality has been proposed as a means of mitigating its effects. 2007 was the year of the first iPhone, and portable computing power is finally starting to reach the point where VR could make a serious comeback. And by allowing the astronauts to feel like they’re outside of a confined space, perhaps their minds will forget their cramped quarters and intractable quarrels for a while.

And then the trouble really starts. Harvey (Troy Garity), the ship’s comms officer and XO, informs the crew that they’ve received a transmission from Icarus I. Apparently the previous ship survived, and is floating in orbit of the sun like Russell’s teapot, cloaked in the dead zone, just waiting for a ship to get close enough to hear their distress call. Trey (Wong) says – pending some very complicated math – that they could adjust their course and intercept with Icarus I. Mace, the consummate rationalist, immediately shuts down the idea. This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Mace is, of course, correct – they have one bomb, and one chance, to save humanity. So literally nothing else matters – not the other ship, not its crew, and not any of them. Searle chimes in to agree, but with a dangerous caveat: it may be worth it to retrieve the second bomb. Everything about the bomb is theoretical, and even with an ingenious physicist like Capa aboard, they still don’t know, can’t know, if it will work. So they have to decide whether or not the potential benefit of a second bomb is worth the danger of trying to retrieve it. This is a movie. We know the answer they’re going to choose. But I must emphasize, this is the moment where I really believed this was a crew of professionals. Mace may be correct in his assessment of the mission’s objectives and stakes, but it’s not his call. Captain Kaneda (Sanada) says it’s not his call either. There won’t be a vote, like some of them clamor for. The most qualified person will decide on the best course of action. “Shit,” says Capa, realizing who that means. Putting Mace and Capa on opposite sides of this debate, right after they’ve just had an irrational brawl, was an inspired choice, particularly since there is no perfectly correct answer to this question – they just have to make a choice. And so they go.

After a minor miscalculation, the ship is in peril. Two of them have to go outside to repair the heat shield, and the butcher’s bill is heavy. I won’t dwell on this sequence for too long, but suffice to say, it is one of the most tense and thrilling sequences in the entire film, is the first of several appearances of John Murphy‘s outstanding Adagio in D Minor (which would go on to appear in Kick-Ass and innumerable other projects). As the crew deals with the fallout of this minor arithmetic hiccup, they do so in gigantic gold spacesuits on a massive, James Bond-sized setpiece, and the sun’s imminent rise hangs ominously just over the ship’s tiny horizon, with the fate of the ship (and thus, the entire species) at stake. It is awe-inspiring, as is the battle of wills between Cassie, Mace, and the ship’s computer over whether or not to let the captain die for the sake of the mission. These are some smart, tense thrills, and I felt the same way watching this as I did watching Ryan Stone re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in Gravity – that astronauts are the closest thing we have to superheroes in real life, strapped to a nuclear-powered chariot hurtling through the heavens. Ideally, with the utmost safety and professionalism. But it’s still glorious.

I’m starting to sound a bit like Searle here, who – in addition to semi-religiously hanging out in the ship’s forward observation room and subjecting himself to higher and higher brightness levels recreationally – seems to be starting an internal sun-worshiping cult of sorts. As Kaneda is facing his imminent demise on the prow of the ship’s heatshield, Searle demands to know what he sees. Curtis plays this character with remarkable stability, and this fleeting, creepy moment almost feels like him indulging his hobby. But it’s a moment that comes back to mind as we meet Captain Pinbacker (Strong) later on in the film. Searle is tapped with maintaining the entire crew’s mental health, and he seems to be casually creating his own god. The rest of the crew should probably be a bit more concerned about this. But they have bigger problems at the moment. Not only is the captain dead, but the entire botany bay is destroyed, sapping the ship’s oxygen. They now have no choice but to rendezvous with Icarus I.

Cassie and Capa have a moment in the payload room, which appears to be a massive cube. Cassie thinks they’re going to die. Capa describes how he thinks the bomb will go off, in semi-poetic terms. He’s not scared. She is. I’ll say here, Byrne does an admirable job with Cassie, even though she’s a fairly limited character (and naming your resident doomsayer Cassandra sounds like more of that on-the-nose naming that Garland is so fond of). But the friendship between Cassie and Capa is one of the film’s only reasonably fleshed-out relationships, and it’s probably for the best that they didn’t take it any further into space romance territory. Really not the movie for that.

I’m going to skip ahead a bit on the recap, because the scenes of exploring Icarus I and discovering the fate of its crew (minus Pinbacker) are genuinely tense and well-staged, and lead to another moment of tense pragmatism. The ship’s airlock mysteriously explodes, and they have no means of getting the four of them back to Icarus II. And this is the moment when Harvey, the comms officer, XO, and least mission-critical person on the ship, reveals himself to be a selfish coward, demanding the only spacesuit for himself. Mace has already volunteered Capa for that slot, because he knows the physicist is more important than any of them. Searle finally solves the situation by volunteering to stay behind and die. He doesn’t do this out of suicidal nobility – it’s just that someone has to stay behind and cycle the airlock from inside, and he knows Harvey (the next least important person) can’t be trusted to do the job. So Searle does his duty, waiting in the sun room to literally meet his maker (if we’re being poetic about our parent star), while his three colleagues are blasted out of the airlock: Capa in a spacesuit, the rest in open vacuum, wrapped in shipboard insulation. My only objection to this scene (apart from being the most direct ripoff of Event Horizon) was that it was a bit narratively tidy – the movie still needed Capa and Mace, so they got to live. But it’s not like an exploding airlock has a sense of justice or practicality, and the conventional hero (Mace) surviving rather than the briefly selfish jerk (who floats away and dies horribly) was pure dumb luck – one of the only times the movie indulges in such contrivance.

Mace gives a post-mortem. He concludes that the ship’s airlock could only have been destroyed by sabotage, and the only possible saboteur is Trey, who at last word, was on suicide watch, blaming himself for Kaneda’s death. And there’s more, chimes in Corazon (Yeoh), who was responsible for the now-extinct oxygen garden. If Trey dies, they’re down to four breathers, and they have enough oxygen to make it to the sun and complete their mission. And so…we get the next scene of hyperrationality. These scenes hammer away at my psyche every time I watch the film, and as I watch these scientists coldly calculate the costs and benefits of murdering their colleague, I can’t help but think this alienation of their humanity is one of the film’s most important themes. Save the world, the movie asks? Sure. But it’ll cost you all the best parts of yourself. Mace volunteers to do the deed himself, but insists on a unanimous decision. “Kill him,” says Capa. But Cassie refuses. “You’re saying you need my vote, and I’m saying you can’t have it.” Their own mini-Circle has failed to reach a consensus, and Mace treks off to murder Trey anyway. But he quickly finds that Trey has beaten him to it, with a scalpel from the infirmary. Mace takes a moment to blame Capa for Trey’s death, and literally smear blood onto his hands, and then they have another feckless brawl while the women look on in disgust. And this is where Mace officially got on my nerves. I still like the sum of this character, but he is just as much of an emotional creature as the rest of them, and the film’s insistence on his rationality strains when he continuously engages in petty bickering, especially over the corpse of a man he was about to murder himself. He may be more reliable than someone like Harvey, but he’s not much better in the end. But as much as the character manages to put me off by the end, Evans’ performance is outstanding, and I can see why he was tapped for Snowpiercer after playing this character. His hyperrationality and stoicism were inflated to villainous excess in that film. He may have eventually become the cheery and optimistic Steve Rogers, but between those two films, I’ll never forget what Evans is capable of.

And finally, we have a showdown with Pinbacker, who was responsible for the airlock sabotage and has made it onto Icarus II. It’s a well-done thriller sequence (resulting in two more cool deaths), but I can’t help but wonder at this point what kind of film this might have been without Melanoma Man (props to Daniel for this) as the final twist. Pinbacker represents the worst excesses of mankind’s failure, monologuing about our foolishness in the face of annihilation by God. My final verdict on Pinbacker is that he was good, but not essential. Humanity could be destroyed by an asteroid or a gamma ray burst in the blink of an eye, and the collapse of our sole lifegiving star is on the same level. The Great Filter is terrifying enough without carefully-vetted professional humans bringing irrationality and quasireligious nihilism to the party. Humanity may bring its own demons to bear on its extinction, but it strikes me as unlikely that those demons will be quite so literal. But I may be trying to thread an impossible needle here. My main complaint about Europa Report was that watching competent professionals do their jobs well – even if that job is something that would utterly capture my imagination in real life – is pretty boring. Sunshine gets this balance right, whichever side it lands on.

Once the cinematic terror is sorted, it’s time for the surviving crew to fall into the sun, and that’s when things get a bit magical and weird. Earlier in the film, when Capa and Cassie were discussing the prospect of changing course, Capa explains, “Between the boosters and the gravity of the sun the velocity of the payload will get so great that space and time will become smeared together and everything will distort. Everything will be unquantifiable.” This is as close as we ever get to an explanation for the film’s ending, and you know what? It works. Humanity’s best scientist and smartest computer both can’t say what the subjective experience of falling into the sun strapped to a giant bomb approaching relativistic speeds will be like. Time dilation kicks in, and perhaps there’s room for a conscious being to experience its own annihilation in the elongated space within an instant. Either way, Murphy’s score is playing its heart out, Capa’s voiceover kicks back on, and the film is over. An ever-so-slight brightening of the sun over a snowy Sydney, Australia reveals that the crew succeeded, eight minutes after the crew becomes stardust. This isn’t an ending that belabors itself or grasps for meaning. This tale of salvation is big enough on its own, even after a decade and plenty more to compare it to.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

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Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” – An uneven, but fitting end

Poster for "War for the Planet of the Apes"

Caesar (Andy Serkis, voice and mo-cap) really is an epic, tragic hero, and his odyssey over the course of the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy is a grand spectacle to behold. It owes much of this to Weta Digital’s stunning visual effects and creature work on Caesar and his ape companions (Maurice the Orangutan is a particular masterpiece, and looked as good in 2011 as now). At the time, I said of director Rupert Wyatt‘s series reboot that “it’s easy to overlook just how smart and well-executed this film is, given that Rise of the Planet of the Apes nearly drowns in its rush to saturate itself with big-budget blockbuster stupidity”. The sequels from director Matt Reeves have only heightened these competing impulses – toward deeper and grander themes of the nature of war amid the collapse and clash of a pair of sapient civilizations, and increasingly ridiculous levels of well-rendered, low-stakes blockbuster twaddle. In this way, War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting end to this trilogy, because not only does it deliver a satisfying ending to the film’s only continuous group of characters – apes all – but because it doubles down on many of the series’ most facile impulses. Its homages to classic cinema perform a tenuous and inconsistent tonal dance as the film tries to have its cake and eat it too – delivering a sincere, satisfying, and at times, devastating emotional journey for Serkis and his team to digitally render before us, but also allowing his marvelous creature to become an over-the-top action hero who is repeatedly bailed out of serious trouble by happenstance, antagonist stupidity, and script-demanded good fortune.

I’m being harder on this film than I expected, but I actually had a great deal of fun watching it. After Rise showcased the accidental fall of mankind, Dawn delivered an astonishing allegory on the fragility of peace, showing how bad actors on either side can topple the equilibrium with far greater ease than those who are trying desperately to preserve it. The second film had a clear-eyed message: it didn’t have to be this way. If humanity’s remnants had simply listened to the better angels of their nature – and if its intelligent ape children had done the same – then they might have found a way to coexist on a planet that would be forever changed. It was a real achievement that the series ever made this peace seem possible (even knowing that a blockbuster’s second chapter seldom ends happily), and as this film returns years later into full-fledged conflict, that fleeting memory makes it that much harder to bear. Human soldiers creep through the jungle, ambushing apes and getting ambushed in return, with dozens dead on either side. The film revels in that tragedy, but it never feels exploitative. And it comes as no surprise when the ruthless human Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) is first introduced as a staticky voice on a radio, first telling a lone surviving grunt that he is now in command, and then – when his imminent death becomes clear – ferociously ordering him to “kill as many of them as you can”.

Woody Harrelson in "War for the Planet of the Apes"

The most obvious of the film’s influences is Apocalypse Now (an ape-pun version of this is literally spray-painted on a tunnel wall), but the strongest component of that homage is certainly Harrelson, who delivers a solid performance on fairly limited dialogue and screen presence. The Colonel is introduced as a sort of nightmare-creature – a nemesis who spits on your attempts at peace or compromise, and sneaks up in the dead of night to butcher you in your bed. And when his truer nature is revealed later as something a bit more banal in the fanatical fog of war, the distinction hardly matters. The film’s handling of the Colonel is masterful, because we first meet him from the apes’ perspective as a figure whose existence is so loathsome that it will rip Caesar away from his beleaguered tribe of apes on a suicidal vendetta. Strong, stoic Caesar, whom we’ve witnessed learning about the goodness and ills of human and apekind alike, is shattered by the basest of human desires – to vanquish one’s enemy at any cost. And what a grand journey it becomes. It is perhaps somewhere in Weta Digital’s contract that every one of their films must include a LOTR-esque epic journey, and this film certainly delivers it, as Caesar and his team of besties tear off on horseback. You know these beats already. Caesar doesn’t want them to come, but Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and a strange newcomer known as Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) simply can’t let him undertake this journey alone. Composer Michael Giacchino has grown since his Lost days, with the film’s boisterous themes trumpeting forth like a classic adventure film – Howard Shore meets Sergio Leone. The lush, cavernous cinematography as the troupe distantly (but not too distantly) trails the Colonel’s army will make you gawk at the glory of this cinematic war odyssey, but also ponder why no one in the baggage train bothered to glance back with a clean pair of binoculars. And the less said about the film’s haphazard use of floodlights, the better. War is a gorgeous and eminently watchable film that lets its characters get away with any reckless, ill-conceived action until the moment the script decrees that it’s time for the next conflict – and even then, the sheer lucky spectacle of it all makes those bad choices seem almost correct.

In a sense, the film is predictable, insofar as its genre influences are clear. If there’s an enemy camp, it will be invaded. If there are prisoners, they will escape. All of this will end in blood and fire and death, perhaps right where the giant fuel tanks are discourteously stored. But from a broader perspective, the film manages to maintain a foreboding sense of mystery about the overall tides of the war, as well as the state of the larger world and either species. The series is called Planet of the Apes, and yet it feels suspiciously like the death spiral of all life on Earth, and that is an unyielding source of tension as the series goes on. In much the same way as Game of Thrones, I found myself screaming silently at these characters: Stop this. Stop it now, while some of you are still alive. But that’s perhaps where the film maintains a sheen of optimism, because its most persistent and surprising message is about the tenacity of our nobler instincts. I say “our”, but I’m including the apes in this assessment. The film repeatedly argues, in a manner that is true to these characters, that the overriding impulse of any intelligent being is toward acts of grace, mercy, and compassion. The film hammers this sanguine point repeatedly through character beats, then drives the entire thing off a cliff for a final action sequence that, if I’m being honest, I had quite a bit of fun watching, but found rather narratively unsatisfying. The clashing CGI armies look as good as ever, and yet feel far more anonymous and inconsequential than ever before. War for the Planet of the Apes freely depicts the brutal and unfair horror of death in warfare, but is also happy to showcase death as an admirable, peaceful thing that happens on a mountaintop before sunset.

Still from "War for the Planet of the Apes"

The result is a mixed bag. Caesar makes some atrocious choices in War for the Planet of the Apes, and the film, in a sense, lets him off the hook by presenting a third act that felt utterly devoid of conventional stakes and still allowed him to be a triumphant hero. And yet, I can’t call the film a failure for it, because it still feels like as deep and consequential an exploration of warfare as this series has ever delivered. Perhaps the best avatar for this film is Zahn’s character of “Bad Ape”. He is almost a circus clown version of Koba, the scarred, bitter ape who gleefully started this war in the second film. Bad Ape was mistreated by humans in his former life, but retains the name they used to shout at him, as well as his status as a bitter, lonely, broken-down coward. He is nominally a comic-relief character, and yet I never once stopped feeling compassion for him. And that compassion felt vindicated through his actions by the film’s end. Bad Ape – in addition to being one of the finest CGI creations since Maurice – embodies a deep, abiding sadness. That’s what I felt at the end of this film. That might’ve been exactly what it wanted.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Alex Kurtzman’s “The Mummy” – A Movie About a Mummy and Some Other Stuff

Poster for "The Mummy" (2017)

Ladies and gentlemen, your Dark Universe. The Invisible Man (Johnny Depp), Frankenstein’s monster (Javier Bardem), Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe), and saving the best for first, The Mummy (Sofia Boutella). Don’t be perplexed, dear reader, by the fact that every single other monster is played by an A-List dude. Don’t spend too much time pondering Dr. Jekyll, this film’s Nick Furian monster-hunting super-spy, who runs Prodigium, this film’s S.H.I.E.L.D.. Don’t gaze long at the poster, which exclusively features the name of Tom Cruise above the title, despite his role as a soldier of fortune whose only distinguishing characteristic is a punny surname that means “Deadguy”. And think not upon the trailer which literally shows him dying in an almost vertical plane crash and resurrecting in a single piece. Whatever conclusion you may be drawing about Cruise’s prospects of replacing Boutella as a Mummy-themed Avenger by the end of the film is almost certainly not worth the time it took to type it out. Because The Mummy is not just a bad, boring film, devoid of original thought or a moment of suspense. It’s a film by committee, made in front of a corkboard replete with flash cards of ideas from other, better films. The Mummy is a thief, a liar, and a cannibal.

I shouldn’t rag too hard on Crowe, because he is given the thankless job of setting up a framing device for Universal Studios’ hamfisted attempt to create a megafranchise based on their stable of mostly public-domain, but strictly trademark-controlled movie monsters. And despite his dubious motivations, wildly ambiguous plan (see if you can figure out whether being stabbed with a ruby-hilted dagger is a good or bad thing during the last act, the answer may surprise you) and dialogue composed exclusively of self-important trailer narration, Crowe’s performance certainly provided the film’s only moments of levity. His Dr. Henry Jekyll is an amusing pastiche of Willy Wonka and Albus Dumbledore (with a good deal less narrative focus or skill), and his Edward Hyde is a cockney horrorshow. Crowe at least seems to be having some fun, which is a rare thing in this film. Granted, the creature design of Mr. Hyde makes me genuinely worry that Universal’s only look and feel for these monsters will be “shambling, lightly CGI’d corpse”. If you want poorly zombified actors, this film’s got em, and the quality (for a scant $125 million) is easily put to shame by premium cable these days. Hopefully we’ll get a half-decent Wolf Man or Creature from the Black Lagoon out of this Universe before it collapses.

The Mummy herself, on the other hand, with her ashen skin punctuated with black and blue hieroglyphic tattoos, and her strange double-pupiled eyeballs (the second pupil apparently represents eeeeeevil), is at least interesting to look at, even if her plan doesn’t make much sense. Revisiting Stephen Sommers‘ 1999 version of The Mummy last night, I was struck by just how much energy was put into the design and look of Ancient Egypt. Significant modeling (or late-90s CGI) was put into crafting Ancient Thebes, and that Mummy’s evil plan at least started with a mildly sympathetic motivation – forbidden romance between High Priest Imhotep and Pharaoh’s wife, punishable by death or worse. 2017’s Mummy, Princess Ahmanet, not only lives in a staggeringly low-rent version of Egyptian antiquity, consisting almost entirely of translucent curtains, off-screen stabbings, and standing on undeveloped sand dunes looking at distant pyramids, but her plan is incredibly basic and unsympathetic. She was heiress to the throne of Egypt, but then her Pharaoh father had a baby brother who jumped to the head of the line, so she made a pact with Set, the god of death, to allow her to rule the world in exchange for murdering everyone. This plan has some serious problems. Notably, it is incredibly vague what Set adds to this plan, since Ahmanet seemed quite capable of slaughtering her family without divine intervention, and this didn’t elevate her to the throne. Subsequent to this, she was immediately caught, killed, spirited away to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and Syria), and buried in a cursed tomb. In the end, all Set adds to her plan is a proxy – she needs a mortal to embody his spirit, and that mortal will obviously be played by Tom Cruise. But it’s unclear what her role will be after the death god’s avatar takes over.

Still from "The Mummy" (2017) with Sofia Boutella

Back in the present day, we get a depressingly forced action opener featuring soldiers Nick Morton (Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson). Of these two, I’ll simply say that I never bought them as friends or adventurers, despite some strong work by Johnson later in the film (when he’s done dropping audience-friendly gems like, Iraq is a whole different country that’s a thousand miles from Egypt). But there’s really no better way to sap all tension from an action sequence than to give your heroes the ability to call in an instant airstrike, and announce that ability several minutes before it actually happens. But no matter. The Hellfire missile drops, the unspecified insurgents flee, the cursed tomb is unearthed, and their surly superior (Courtney B. Vance) arrives to tell them that the Mayor’s going to have his ass for this, but also assure them that they will face no consequences whatsoever, and a woman named Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) shows up, seemingly by magic, to explore the tomb for a moment or two. Jenny and Nick, you see, had a one-night stand in Baghdad, he stole her map, she impugns his sexual prowess, and that’s the entire basis of what this film laughably calls a romance between these two. They lack any chemistry or even a plausible motivation to care about each other’s survival. And this is a major problem for the film, because the third act – and Nick’s dire decision of whether or not to vaguely embrace evil – entirely relies on buying these two as romantic partners. The Mummy so thoroughly botched its romance that it actually makes me look back even more fondly on Wonder Woman, which shares a number of adventure and romantic plot beats in common with this film, but executed them with a great deal more skill.

I like Tom Cruise. I like him even when he’s playing cocky or unlikable characters, which is more often than not these days. But this character is an utter failure. His “infection by evil” carries no real weight or tension, because The Mummy‘s inept storytelling telegraphs the ending repeatedly from the opening voiceover. The result is a mirthless slog that I struggled to even make it through without repeatedly checking my watch. And I really have to hand it to this film. It takes a lot of work to not only make me not care if any of the characters live or die, but to also make it objectively not matter.
This has easily outclassed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as the saddest (hopefully abortive) attempt to start a megafranchise to date.

FilmWonk rating: 2 out of 10

D.J. Caruso’s “Disturbia” (2007) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.


Consider yourselves spoiler-warned.

Disturbia is a film that I never thought I’d watch again, yet inexplicably own on DVD. As I recall, I was on a paid internship, had few other expenses or responsibilities, and routinely went to Target and looked for brand new DVDs for films that I hadn’t seen, to purchase at full price (about $22.99 at the time). Silly, silly thing to do – but that’s the sort of weirdo (living with my parents) I was in 2007. I’ll begin this recap by saying, Disturbia is a film which both reminded me intensely of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rear Window (more on this below), and yet, managed to do a few innovative things with the formula, and genuinely impressed me at the time. Many aspects of the film have aged poorly, however, and the rest of this review will be a scene-by-scene litany of them.

Right off the bat, it is deeply unnerving to see Shia LaBeouf refer to an someone as “Pop”. He and his father (Matt Craven) share some banter while fly fishing, before the shot surges wide and we see their stand-ins hike out of a stunningly gorgeous valley. It’s lovely, and OH FUCK THEY CRASHED AND HIS DAD IS DEAD and my wife just turned and asked why I would ever watch this movie as Shia is selling the hell out of staring into his father’s dead eyes beneath the crushed hulk of a former Volvo. Seriously, whatever other snark I bring to bear on this film, the acting prowess of its leading man-boy (even as he’s delivering some truly atrocious dialogue) is genuinely beyond reproach. This is the guy who played Mutt Williams the very next year, and I honestly can’t get enough of him. Title card. It goes without saying that in the next scene, Shia will be wearing a hoodie and doing poorly in school. He gets into a serious altercation with his teacher, and ends up in front of a juvenile court judge, who sentences him to an electronic ankle bracelet for 3 months. Also, if I heard correctly, Shia’s on-screen name might actually be Kale? No, that can’t be right.

The top of the next scene is a commercial for Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter on the then-new Xbox 360 – an Ubisoft game whose single-player campaign, as I recall, begins with the main character in a helicopter receiving a briefing before – in a shocking and unprecedented twist – the helicopter is shot down, but the main character survives and is forced to shoot his way out of an unexpected firefight. The game doesn’t last long, as his mother Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss) has apparently cut his Xbox Live and iTunes subscriptions to finance his incarceration. I should mention, I’m actually rather impressed that the film included the backward real-world detail that a convict under house arrest gets billed (sometimes quite exorbitantly, and by a private company) for their incarceration, precisely when they’re least in a position to be able to earn income to pay for this. This is also true of people out on bail awaiting trial, and people out on parole, and it’s one of the more shameful aspects of our prison system. Ten years ago, I might still have casually made jokes about being sent to a Turkish prison, despite not really understanding the reference. In the same breath, I would also have made jokes about not dropping the soap in an American prison, because rape as a punishment for the largest per-capita incarcerated population in the world was something I still considered funny at the time. I also cringed a bit as the judge tells Shia that he’s cutting him a break (by not sending him to juvie until he’s 21) because his parent died, because this is a break that he’s categorically and statistically more likely to get as a white kid. We only hear about the most egregious cases like Brock Turner or Ethan Couch, but it happens every day in this country – children and adults of color getting harsher sentences for the same crimes compared to their white co-offenders. I don’t joke about American prisons anymore. They’re just not as hilarious as they used to be.

Before too long, Shia (whose character name we finally see in print, and it really is Kale) goes stir crazy and starts building a Twinkie fort. Shia, my dude – I won’t call you Kale, but what did I just say about that single-player campaign, and also do you own any books? Next, in another stunning twist for a mid-2000s teen adventure film, a pretty girl in daisy dukes (Sarah Roemer) moves in next door, and the long shot appears to be framed to ensure two distinct appearances of her posterior and thigh-gap. Her face does not appear in this scene. Shia’s mind is blown as a bag of flaming dog poop is dropped on his doorstep by some neighbor kids, and he seems legitimately confused by the concept. A brief chase ensues, and Shia breaches the monitoring perimeter. He will be in handcuffs at the end of this scene, and only then will the front end of the girl next door be shown. As her family looks on in shock and confusion, she throws Shia an intense stare. She’s SMIZING, my wife remarks. “Smiling with her eyes?” I ask. Yes. This is why we’re together. Indeed, The Girl is throwing the sort of simmering look at Shia that portends the pair’s eventual awkward cinematic lovemaking, but lacks the psychic foresight to watch a similar scene in Lars von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac and instinctively steer clear. If you’re curious what the hell I’m referring to… “3+5 Scene”. YouTube it. Prepare to be intrigued and disturbed. Then go watch the whole thing if you can handle it, because it’s awesome.

Next up, Shia uses a series of pristine lawn implements and fishing line to mark the frontiers of his kingdom. Those tools are going to be rusty as fuck by the end of this movie, and as I recall from my first viewing, this will not be the last time Shia disrespects an expensive piece of metal. Shame. There also appears to be a hedge row three feet past this line, so I’m really not sure what purpose the Line serves. 22 minutes in, we have our first genuine Rear Window moment. After briefly watching The Girl undress, Shia realizes the power of peeping, and aggressively explains it to his buddy Ronnie (Aaron Yoo). “This is reality without the TV,” Shia actually says out loud with his mouth, and makes a few tawdry observations about the soap opera ensuing outside his door. Shia finally meets The Girl, whose name is Ashley, and she comes from The City, and I can already tell by the quality and detail of her dialogue that she will have a great deal to contribute to this narrative. He peeps on her some more later, this time with binoculars, and she seems to know it, since his window is wide open, his lamp is on, and she looks directly at him. “She can’t see you,” says Shia, “it’s too dark.” He’s wrong. There’s also an aggressively specific news report blaring in the background about a missing woman who may have been snatched by a man driving a classic car with dents on the front left fender, but that’s probably not important. He then sees his Murder-Neighbor (David Morse) pulling that exact car with that exact damage into his driveway after unloading a couple of garbage bags, each roughly the size of a human torso. Probably also not important.

The next morning, he peers through the fence and sees Murder-Neighbor (whose name is Robert Turner) murder a garden bunny, and I don’t want to dismiss this scene out of hand, as it’s emblematic of this film’s legitimately clever visual use of their suburban landscape. Rear Window took place facing what was essentially a two-dimensional apartment block – really just a vast cinema screen divided into different scenes playing out en masse, with Jimmy Stewart free to peer between them. In this film, Shia is in a house with a preternaturally awesome view of every house around it, and he not only has to run around his room and house and yard to get a proper view of everything that’s going on. The film is forced to create some elaborate visual setups in order to make all of this work, and I can scarcely imagine how difficult it was to find (or build) a housing complex that fulfilled all of these requirements. For all of the film’s superficial Hitchcockian touches, it still manages to innovate on its own terms. The bunny-murder scene is one such moment, and it turns out the three-foot gap between the monitoring boundary and the hedge row/fence forces Shia to lie on his belly and peer through a tiny gap in a fence in order to both gather information and keep his foot within his kingdom. We see his POV through the camera, and it’s quite a tense scene.

Shia and Ronnie peep on Ashley some more. Her sole outdoor activity seems to be sultry undressing – she even stands next to the pool in a bikini for an awkwardly long time and tests the water, as if expecting it to have changed substantially since she swam in it yesterday. Then she catches them, gets dressed in a matter of seconds, and comes over to confront them. And by confront, I mean hang out with. A brief, murderous exposition dump later, she has joined the Scooby Gang, which dumps out a bag of unspecified stakeout gear (“My uncle is a Type A Sociopath,” explains Ronnie), and they continue their surveillance of Murder-Neighbor. The camera pans past Ashley, who’s twirling a pen and also typing at a computer. She clicks multiple times while scrolling (which is just bad mime), then gets hungry from all the googling, and suggests they order pizza. Ronnie falls asleep holding hands with the pizza, leaving the lovebirds to Connect. Ashley changes Shia’s ringtone to something loud, obnoxious, and vaguely sexual (like all the 2007 kids were doing), and in a manner which I’m sure won’t be important later. She draws little hearts on his ankle bracelet, and he breathes heavily as she explains that her family moved out of the city because of her father’s extramarital dalliances. “City life has its temptations,” Ashley explains, because she’s a badly written noir floozy and not a person. Poor thing. At some point during this scene, Shia says the title of the movie aloud.

Suddenly, some brakes squeal next door, and Murder-Neighbor brings home a badly written floozy of his own. Ashley successfully identifies the woman’s club bracelets (making her first definite contribution to the plot), and they watch him start an awkward sexual encounter and are actually pretty mean about it, before it gets aggressive and creepy later. The next morning, Shia is making a bagel and cream cheese with a red-handled butcher knife. He shuts the fridge, and Murder-Neighbor is standing right behind it. Turns out he ran into Julie at the grocery store, and she seems a bit taken with him, even as neither of them are reacting naturally to Shia’s brandishing of a butcher knife.

“It’s a knife, what’s the difference?”, asks Shia.
“About sixty bucks at Bed Bath,” schmoozes Murder-Neighbor.

I’m going to talk briefly about David Morse in this film, because I actually quite like his acting, but I think the film couldn’t quite make up its mind as to Robert Turner’s motivation or strategy. The character is a serial killer – the Scooby Gang has him pegged correctly on that point. And Morse manages to play up that superficial, predatory charm quite well. But it’s genuinely unclear what the character is trying to accomplish from scene to scene. When Ashley is surveilling him later on at the hardware store, he hops into her car and gives her a talking-to about how much he likes his privacy, and how he’d really appreciate it if they left him alone. And for a man looking to maintain his cover and keep on murdering, the scene works great. But he also hits on her (a twenty-something playing a 17-year-old), which seems like an excellent way to keep them watching him. This will continue to be a problem throughout the rest of the film – the wild inconsistency in Murder-Neighbor’s strategy, skill, and personality. Morse does the best he can with this material (and he’s really quite an effective creep), but it’s a serious flaw in the script, even if I’m totally on his side about the butcher knife.

About an hour into the film is its very worst scene, in which it poorly attempts to continue the love story of Shia and Ashley. Ashley wants to throw a party, which Shia will be unable to attend because of his ankle bracelet. Quel dommage! Shia responds most immaturely, insulting her motives and taste in friends, then saying that she has disappointed him by being the type to conform so fast. This scene made me squirm internally, because I definitely said things that were this selfish, stupid, and condescending to girls I liked at that age. But that’s not what makes this the film’s worst scene – that’s Shia’s continuing surveillance of the party, and his possessive, jealous behavior which includes a merry prank of pointing his stereo speakers out the window and playing some obnoxious music to mess up the party next door. Ashley, rather than calling the police, storms over, and after a brief struggle over his iPod and stereo receiver, Shia tells her to wait a minute and then explains exactly why he Loves Her So Much. What ensues is a litany of thinly justified character observations he’s made by creeping on her with binoculars in her bedroom. You can read the whole damn nonsensical thing here, and it’s honestly one of the worst romantic speeches I’ve ever heard.

“That’s either the creepiest… or the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard,” says the girl. Literally one minute later, the party has ended, several hours have passed, and the newly merged entity known as Shiashley is furiously making out. And, I swear, Shia drops this sultry line between kisses: “Remember last night where we talked about my issues?” Meanwhile, next door, Robert drags a bloody tarp with “dead body” written on the side down some stairs, and this somehow causes the couple to peel apart and surveil him some more. And it is at roughly this point that I lost interest in painstakingly recapping the film, because honestly, it turns into a conventional slasher film from this point onward. With the exception of some poorly rendered Blair Witchery with Ronnie breaking into Murder-Neighbor’s house with a jury-rigged wireless camcorder (a pretty impressive feat of homebrew engineering in 2007), all that’s left of the film at this point is some shadows and musical jumps and hand-to-hand combat, followed by Shia stabbing the neighbor to death with a pair of garden shears to save his mother’s life. The whole sequence compounds the film’s inability to deal with Morse’s character in a consistent fashion. Where’s the urgency? All of the adults are on his side, and Shia’s about to have to go face a judge in the morning. There’s simply no reason for him to suddenly turn violent and attack all of his neighbors at once – particularly Julie, who is coming over to apologize on her son’s behalf. These violent thriller elements are seemingly less motivated by any imminent need for Murder-Neighbor to blow his cover and leave a pile of bodies in his wake, but rather by the film’s sudden need for an unearned climax and resolution. And it gets genuinely comical by the end! All of the basements of their houses are connected somehow (this is very briefly discussed earlier in the film), and the final showdown takes place in actual fucking catacombs. It’s bizarre. And feels tonally out of place with the rest of the film.

When I first watched this film, I was reviewing movies for the website of UW’s Rainy Dawg Radio, which I’m pleased to see still exists. I launched FilmWonk two years later, and I like to think that both my writing style and film standards have evolved since then. My tolerance for contrived romance (and disposable, useless female characters) has decreased, even as my tolerance for contrived action has remained about the same, and I’m still able to laugh about taboo subjects even if I’m a bit more aware of the implications. I’m sure that evolution will continue as I continue into middle age, but the most steady tendency that I’ve noticed in the intervening years is that I’m much less concerned with a film presenting a completely original plot – a rare thing – than I am with how well it puts its own spin on a familiar tale. Disturbia may bear a superficial resemblance to Rear Window, but that’s a premise that I can only imagine has become more relevant in an age of social media and mass surveillance (only the first of which we were aware of in 2007). If Disturbia had executed its character and thriller elements with a more consistent level of quality, I think it would be a much more memorable and relevant film today than it turned out to be. But if someone else wants to take another crack at it after ten more years, I’m in.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Zhang Yimou’s “The Great Wall” – A grand effort

Still from "The Great Wall"

There’s something to be said for effort. It’s usually an attribute for which one gives a semi-sarcastic “A”, meaning that they liked the subject’s work ethic or moxie despite whatever objectively crappy result they managed to churn out. That’s not what I mean here. But when I hear that Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero, is about to make an American-Chinese co-production in which Matt Damon fights monsters on top of the Great Wall of China (from a concept by the writer of World War Z and the head of Legendary Pictures), my expectations plummet to roughly Dracula Untold levels. I expected a perfunctory genre exercise in which a bankable action star was handed a simplistic studio premise that appeals to both East and West in an effort to return a strong box office both globally and in a burgeoning marketplace. What I was not expecting was to be wearing a big, stupid grin for quite so much of it, and to experience a persistent sense that everyone in the film was really trying their darnedest to create something worth watching. I don’t exaggerate when I say that this film delivers a battle sequence in the first twenty minutes that is easily as well-made as the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers‘ Battle of Helm’s Deep, and after watching a trio of sub-par Hobbit films, I’m comfortable saying that that doesn’t occur by accident.

The film starts its focus on William (Damon) and his buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal), on the run from some bandits in Mongolia, on a mercenary Marco Polo effort to reach China and steal some black powder. They’re in rags, have long scraggly beards, and are immediately baffled when their chase leads them to the base of an architectural marvel staffed by a professional army in incredibly elaborate costumes/armor and corresponding castes. There is infantry, with armor styled like black bears, archers, like red birds, and “Crane Corps”, a blue-uniformed, all-female, close-quarter combat troop that is even cooler than it sounds (pikemen on pulleys!). This is the Nameless Order, under the leadership of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), and strategist Wang (Andy Lau), sworn to defend China from the hell-mouth just north of the Wall, which spews forth monstrous creatures every 60 years to attack the wall and devour the north of China.

“Have you ever seen an army like this?” William sycophantically remarks to Tovar as they sit with their hands tied while the Chinese deftly fend off the several thousand monstrous creatures that choose that exact moment to attack. This critic’s answer is…not since Lord of the Rings, and it wasn’t nearly this colorful.

Jing Tian in "The Great Wall"

The inclusion of Andy Lau brought another film to mind as I was evaluating this setup: Iron Man 3. Lau – a major Hong Kong action star with a career spanning decades – was originally offered the part of a heart surgeon (eventually played by veteran Chinese actor Wang Xueqi) who has a minuscule bit part that solves a huge problem for the title superhero. That subplot was some trite nonsense, and essentially contributed nothing except for a brief Mary Sue persona whose sole purpose is to provide a sounding board for the American actors to talk about how cool China is for a couple of minutes, in an effort to bypass China’s foreign film importation restrictions through sheer toadying. This is a phenomenon I’ve remarked upon before – and while I’m not concerned in the least by China’s rise as a film market (the more the merrier), I’ve almost invariably found these “China cameos” to be a bit superfluous and condescending – and by some reports, critics in China felt the same way. Damon’s inclusion in this film almost feels like an inverse of Iron Man 3‘s debacle – the inclusion of a popular American actor playing a skilled mercenary who is present throughout the film, but largely along for the ride as the Chinese characters (and organization, and technology) actually drive the plot. But overall, the balance feels much cleaner here. Yes, having a European trader randomly show up on the occasion of China’s once-every-sixty-years monster invasion is a bit convenient, and his motivation for being there is quite flattering to China itself. But it helps that both Damon and Jing’s characters (who essentially become the co-leads of the film) are every bit a combat and charisma match for each other, even if their accents are both a bit odd and inconsistent. The end-result feels like a true international film – a bit like Pacific Rim, with the slight improvement of having the confidence to showcase its CGI monstrosities during daylight hours.

Still from "The Great Wall"

The plotline of this film, even for its simplicity, doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the film does make some visual and practical effort to suggest that the monsters are evolving greater intelligence, with the army and monsters alike forced to adjust their tactics as the film goes on. It’s a great deal of fun to watch, although why all of this escalation would occur along the most fortified and well-manned hundred-yard section of the 5,500-mile Wall is a mystery best left unpondered, as there’s no good answer for it, and it didn’t particularly bother me during the film. What did bug me were the film’s tepid ambitions beyond the Wall. The stakes of the film are world-ending – if the monsters are allowed to reach the Chinese capital (which has a population of two million, but looked virtually empty whenever we saw it), they will consume the entire population and reproduce in sufficient numbers to destroy the world. Did I buy these stakes? Largely yes, even if the final battle relies on the same “Take out the [central thing] and you’ll vanquish the entire army” nonsense as every sci-fi exhibition film from to Star Trek Beyond to The Avengers. At a certain point, I’ll probably have to stop regarding swarms of CGI whatevers as a credible threat if they’re as easy to destroy en masse as the Death Star, but it appears that I haven’t reached that point yet. The final action setpiece is outstanding, featuring Jing and Damon performing exhilarating fantasy acrobatics worthy of Cruise and Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, always feeling like they’re mere seconds from being devoured alive. Ramin Djawadi‘s score (which includes diegetic taiko drums used to direct the army’s tactics) is marvelous – and as a point of comparison, I just watched a Marvel Studios film yesterday, and was (once again) underwhelmed by its fade-into-the-background generic score. Marvel is good at many things, but scoring superhero antics with memorable themes is not one of them. Djawadi has done some truly breathtaking work on Game of Thrones and Westworld last year, and I’m quite pleased to see him pushing back against the tide of bland superhero music on the silver screen.

Astute readers may note that I haven’t remarked much on Matt Damon playing the white hero of a Chinese film from a standpoint of “whitewashing” or a lack of minority representation in film. That’s mainly because after seeing the film, I neither agree with that characterization, nor particularly have much to say on the subject. To me, The Great Wall only superficially resembles white savior films like The Last Samurai, and I honestly haven’t read many actual complaints on this subject outside of members of the American left who made up their minds about the film months before it came out. I don’t wish to be dismissive of an important and persistent issue, but politics is a target-rich environment at the moment, the US has just put a Captain Planet villain in charge of environmental protection, and for the moment, I’d rather focus my attention on issues where I can meaningfully contribute to the discourse. Including, for instance, goofy monster battles.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

2016 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2016)

#10: Trifecta:
Weirdos in the Wilderness

Combined

Written and directed by Matt Ross (Captain Fantastic)
Written for the screen and directed by Taiki Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople)
Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Swiss Army Man)

Don’t worry; the rest will be individual films. I don’t know if Wes Anderson slipped something into the water supply last year, but it became clear to me during my December catch-up that “weirdos in the wilderness” were having a cultural moment in 2016 (although the less said about The Legend of Tarzan, the better). I’ve grouped these three together because they all hit a similar level of quality, I went around in circles trying to decide which one to include, and cheating the Top 10 format is a tradition as old as the Glennies. So here we go.

Captain Fantastic is about a man (Viggo Mortensen) raising his children with physical and intellectual rigor in the wilderness of my home state of Washington, jogging them up and down a mountain every morning, quizzing them on string theory and math and literature every afternoon, and answering any question and discussing any topic that they wish, no matter how conventionally inappropriate it might be. This is an odd family forced to confront its oddness as a family crisis sends them onto a road trip, much in the darkly funny, whimsical, and well-acted vein of Little Miss Sunshine.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about the bond that forms between a weird kid (Julian Dennison) and his cantankerous adoptive uncle (Sam Neill) as they wander through the backcountry of New Zealand and become outlaw folk heroes. Does exactly what it says on the tin.

And finally, Swiss Army Man is about the bond of friendship that forms between a shipwrecked man (Paul Dano) and a talking, farting corpse with superpowers (Daniel Radcliffe). I feel as if I’ve given you plenty to go on with those first two, so let’s talk about Swiss Army Man for a moment. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a brief appearance, and her final line of the film (“What the fuck?!”) just about sums this up, and loses nothing in delivery. This is a film like no other, it is alternately heartwarming and horrifying, incredibly well-acted by Dano and Radcliffe, and utterly bizarre in every scene. It is a film about love, friendship, and the meaning of life (all explained in detail to a corpse who has no memory and no verbal filter). And also farts. Mortensen may talk a big game in Captain Fantastic about wanting to live away from civilization, but Swiss Army Man is about a man who might rightfully be drummed out of civilization with torches and pitchforks for being just a bit too weird, and he knows it. And then he and the film examine what exactly it means to be so weird. Each of these films is touching, and inspiring in its own way, but if you want the one that’ll alter your mind (for weal or woe), go with Swiss Army Man.

#9: Under the Shadow

Poster for

Written and directed by Babak Anvari

Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a mother stuck with her daughter (Avin Manshadi) inside an apartment building in Tehran during the War of the Cities, a series of bomb and missile attacks between Iran and Iraq during the 1980s. This is, on the surface, an outstanding horror film dealing with the Islamic and Arabian legend of Djinn, and Shideh’s struggle to protect her daughter from these vengeful demons as their relationship strains in the process is quite fascinating on its own (see also: The Babadook). But the background elements of this film amp up the stakes even higher. Most horror films deal with the threat of imminent death, but this is seldom rendered quite so literally as, “This building may get hit by a missile and explode at any second.” War is the horror that hangs over this film, and will continue to do so even if the supernatural terror is defeated. The other demon is inside Shideh herself, whose doctor husband is up at the front lines of the war. She simultaneously struggles with fear of his imminent death, and jealousy at the injustice that she was barred from resuming her medical studies after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, due to her involvement with student groups (later deemed to be counterrevolutionary) at her university. Her husband is now on the front lines doing the job that she has been barred from ever doing, and she’s stuck in one terrible situation feeling jealous of another. This is a deep and fascinating twist on the horror genre, and essential viewing when it eventually hits Netflix (the service apparently acquired it at Sundance).

#8: Kubo and the Two Strings

Poster for

Directed by Travis Knight, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler

Laika delivers another dark and fascinating stop-motion journey, pushing the medium beyond any limit I could’ve imagined previously, this time through Japanese legend. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy with the power to magically move origami figures by playing his guitar, and he uses his supernatural busking to raise money to take care of his ailing sorceress mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron). She warns him that he must never stay out at night, or her sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) and father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) will come back to steal his other eye, having taken his first eye when he was a baby. And that is one hell of an origin story. This quickly escalates into an active chase, Kubo on the run with his burgeoning magical powers, with only his companions Monkey (also Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to guide him. Theron’s vocal performance is easily the strongest of the three, and Monkey is a fierce and terrifying screen presence, even as she is under siege by Sariatu’s bone-chilling sisters (seriously, these things are so creepy). My only beef with this film isn’t really a beef at all – it’s a bit predictable. It’s clear where this film is going, and what steps it must take to get there. But this is a clear instance where the journey, the stuff of Japanese myth and imagery, is quite satisfying. If Laika didn’t have such a distinctive visual style, I would’ve expected this story to emerge from the workshop of Studio Ghibli. It is a rousing adventure and a visual triumph. And it really doesn’t want you messing with your phone while you watch it. You’ll know what I mean with literally the first line of the film.

#7: Last Days in the Desert

Poster for

Written and directed by Rodrigo García

“But I’ll stay as long as it takes, forever…to witness the end. The final sunset. If there is one. Maybe on that day, late in the afternoon, seconds away, He’ll want to start it all over again…from the beginning. He’s done it before. Recreated the whole thing, retold the whole thing. On a whim. With little differences that must mean the world to Him – a branch that crooks in a different direction, one egg more or less in the nest of a flea. What a self-centered, self-indulgent creature He is. Isn’t He? Deaf-mute. Insatiable. These things He expects of you. Do you think anyone will care? Men of 1,000 years from now?”

Whether you follow them or not, there are few figures as essential or fascinating to western civilization as Jesus Christ and Satan, and this film features Ewan McGregor in a fascinating dual performance as both, wandering the desert for 40 days and 40 nights during the Biblical “Temptation of Christ“. This is an event spelled out in vague detail in three of the four Gospels, and the essential elements of the tale are: Jesus gets baptized, wanders through the desert fasting, and during that time, Satan offers to help (and make him a powerful human) in exchange for a bit of good ol’ devil-worship. Jesus tells him to sit and spin, then returns to his ministry and eventual execution for humanity’s sins. This film is García’s imagining of what that these two might have discussed in human form for 40 days, and the result is quite psychologically and theologically fascinating. The framing device is a family drama, featuring an unnamed father (Ciarán Hinds), son (Tye Sheridan), and dying mother (Ayelet Zurer). Satan bets that Jesus can’t solve their problems to everyone’s satisfaction. Jesus – unlike his Father – refuses to take the bet, but tries to help the family anyway, and Satan sticks around to see how it goes.

The two have a fascinating relationship, with Jesus acting as a divine man apart, and Satan acting like his put-upon older brother who’s angry to see which one has their parent’s favor. McGregor’s performance is outstanding, making it quite plain which of them is in frame at each moment, even when he has nothing to say. And the ensuing dialogue is what makes this film worth seeing. These two know each other well, and that prior relationship is plain in all of their interactions. When Satan is attempting to trick Jesus, it always falls flat, and Satan seemingly knows it in advance.

“You think you are his only child?,” Satan asks, “There are others.”
“No,” says Christ, without hesitation, “There is only Me.”

This is some stilted dialogue, seemingly written exclusively for the Biblical page (or the trailer). And given Satan’s unending knowledge of past and future events, he surely must know it, because the scenes where the two are talking plainly about destiny (of specific humans, and broader humanity) are much more electrifying. Hinds and Sheridan also work well, even if their family struggle isn’t quite as interesting as the one happening over their heads. This is a fascinating little gem, shot with great visual splendor in the Colorado Desert by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who continues to demonstrate his talent (he shot two of my previous #1 films, Birdman and Gravity).

#6: Moana

Poster for

Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, screenplay by Jared Bush

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a musical genius, newcomer Auli’i Cravalho has a marvelous and powerful voice, and that’s only the start of this film’s appeal. This is a deceptively simple and high-stakes journey about a Polynesian princess brokering a peace between warring demigods amid stunning animation. I like to think that when Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), the giant villainous coconut crab, sings, “Fish are dumb, dumb, dumb; they’ll chase anything that glitters” – before devouring several – that it’s a good-natured shot across the bow of Pixar’s 2016 sequel, Finding Dory. And indeed, Moana‘s water and sand animation – particularly the fine details of how translucent blue waves crash on the shore, and how sand sticks to (and then unevenly sloughs off) wet human skin, etc. – are as much a triumph of physics simulation as a work of art, and certainly push the visual envelope further than Pixar did this year.

Maui (Dwayne Johnson) is quite a fun character, with his song, “You’re Welcome” being the closest thing this film has to an instant classic (is there anything The Rock can’t do likably?). This is perhaps a missed opportunity, not finding such a moment for the film’s heroine, because while Cravalho’s climactic solo reprisal “I Am Moana” is both musically and narratively satisfying, Moana’s portion of the song is essentially just a list of character attributes (“I’m a girl who loves my island; I’m a girl who loves the sea…”), so it doesn’t stick in the mind nearly as well. Don’t get me wrong; Cravalho plays this ambiguity and mixed motivation for her sea jaunt quite well, but if there’s anything approaching the memorability of Frozen‘s “Let It Go” in this film, it’s Johnson’s chipper cockiness as he explains that Maui created their entire island existence as a lark (with his tattoos – in some impressive hand-drawn animation – performing matching dance choreography on his skin). Moana, who had sought Maui out in order to kidnap him (since he also caused the film’s central conflict), is noticeably taken in by his godly charm in spite of herself, which gives this song the dual purpose of a marvelous character and relationship introduction, since Maui is really just peacocking so that he can con Moana out of her boat – not realizing that she literally has the ocean working for her by this point.

This is what I mean when I say that the songs – co-written by Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina – and Cravalho’s voice are just the beginning of Moana‘s appeal, even if they’re the part that I’ve been consuming non-stop since I saw it. There’s a lot more going on in this film, with Moana herself being the agent of a major political change, as she decides to return her society to their former ways as ocean voyagers. Just because she wants to, and because their island is on the verge of an ecological collapse. First, she just needs to make the ocean safe by resolving a world-ending divine conflict. This princess contains multitudes – and is a badass.

#5: Arrival

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Directed by Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on short story by Ted Chiang

Arrival is smart and well-rendered hard sci-fi, in the “competence porn” vein of The Andromeda Strain or Apollo 13, in which we get to see what it looks like when experts take a credible, multidisciplinary approach to such an intractable problem as a deciphering a completely unknown language from the ships of a silent alien invasion. I don’t want to say too much here, but Amy Adams in particular is outstanding as linguist Louise Banks, and her arc (both practically and emotionally) is what ties the entire film together. All of the linguistic details are quite clever – I particularly liked the scene in which Banks diagrams the sentence that the US government wants the aliens to answer: “What is your purpose on Earth?”. She explains all of the linguistic and conceptual precursors that are necessary for the aliens to even reach the point of comprehending this question, and that’s before we decide what their response means, whether they think of “purpose” in the same way that we do, or whether we believe them.

Bradford Young‘s bleakly gorgeous cinematography tells a compelling visual story of the cordons, ad-hoc bases and perimeters, and other minutiae that would inevitably accompany an alien invasion, as the global situation is laid out at a slow, deliberate pace. We explore two of the alien landing sites in the greatest detail – the first in the US (in an incomprehensibly vast field in Montana), and the other over Chinese territorial waters, surrounded by a naval blockade. In the vein of Soderbergh, Villeneuve does an outstanding job of selling the alien invasion as a worldwide crisis through background details alone (the war/comms room on the Montana base was a particularly nice touch). This is also a good place to mention – I was glad to see China put to good use in this film. After several years of dubious Hollywood pandering in which China’s biggest actors are put to token and pointless use so that the film will either qualify for, or entirely skirt, the foreign film importation limits, surely China itself must be as tired of this sort of condescending inclusion as I am. So when I see such a strong example of Chinese inclusion in American cinema, it seems worth calling out, even if they managed to torpedo their chances of a Chinese release in other ways. Tzi Ma appears as a Chinese military leader, and forms an essential part of the plot as the film goes on, as much of the world follows China’s lead when deciding what to do with the aliens. China is a perfect choice for this role, given the film’s focus on linguistics, as it feels entirely plausible (and supports the film’s underlying use of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) that American and Chinese linguistic experts could see the same message from their respective spacecraft and come to slightly different conclusions about it.

And…that’s about all I want to say, because this is definitely a film where spoilers matter. While I haven’t yet read Ted Chiang‘s “Story of Your Life”, it is now on my reading list, and I’m told that it makes a better digestif than aperitif. That is to say, see Arrival, then read the short story.

#4: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Directed by Gareth Edwards, written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy

I mocked the very concept of this film. I questioned the need for it. I pointed out how hilarious the hordes of online fans were for fearing spoilers for a film that would unquestionably end with the team of unlikely heroes retrieving the Death Star plans (with one or more of them probably dying in the process), paving the way for its direct and immediate sequel, the original Star Wars. I plan to continue this advance mockery for the Boba Fett movie (didn’t we already see his crappy origin story?), if it really does end up happening. And since Disney’s plans for the foreseeable future include a Star Wars film every single year, I will definitely need to be a bit more discriminating when it comes to evaluating them. Now that my nerd bonafides are out of the way: Rogue One is incredible. It knocked my socks off.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is about as compelling a Star Wars protagonist as Luke Skywalker – which is to say, not very. This may be due to her instantaneous transformation from an unresponsive, hiding child to a nondescript adult in imperial custody, with little regard for what might’ve happened in-between – but this doesn’t make her actions in the service of the Rebellion any less interesting or heroic. Her scrappy, militant upbringing is perhaps most similar to that of rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Erso worked for a separatist Rebel fringe led by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) before ditching him at the age of 16, and Andor has fought for the “official” Rebel Alliance since he was 6 years old. The distinction between these two factions is never quite made precise, but this feels like a deliberate choice on the film’s part. Rebellions are built on hope, the movie tells us aloud repeatedly, but more than that, they are built on coalescence – disparate military and aristocratic and populist elements coming together to accomplish a shared goal. This is certainly the first time the Rebel Alliance has felt this nebulous, long-term, or real. Andor is introduced in a conversation with a panicked imperial officer on the moon Jedha, and he ends the conversation by shooting the man in the back to keep him quiet. While this is an undeniable spy trope (looking at you, Tony Gilroy), Luna’s performance perhaps carries off this ambiguity better than Jones’ – no matter which faction he identifies with, he’s been at this fight for too long, and doesn’t know anymore whether he’s truly on the side of the angels.

And that’s just the first two members of the ensemble. This group is headed off onto what’s most likely a suicide mission to counter an Imperial weapon of mass destruction, and this film not only gave me just enough time with each character (and a few preexisting relationships) to make me care about them, but it really managed to make the Death Star, the planet-killing weapon of the original trilogy, seem incredibly scary. I can’t overstate how well the film pulled this off. The Force Awakens turned an entire planet into a Death Star, and while it was undeniably…larger…it was nowhere near this terrifying. Ben Mendelsohn and CGI Peter Cushing make solid villains, even if I’m ill-equipped to evaluate the second one, having known the actor was dead for 20 years prior to this film. My wife and several of my coworkers, for what it’s worth, never noticed that Grand Moff Tarkin, the commander of the Death Star, was a computerized amalgam, and for my part, I was far more dubious about the noticeably older-sounding James Earl Jones coming back for a fun, but superfluous Darth Vader cameo.

I have many nits to pick with this film, but here’s where it ended for me – the last half-hour of this film, a balls-to-the-wall space and ground battle – is some of the best Star Wars I’ve ever seen. Unlike the prequel trilogy, this fight didn’t seem like a mere byproduct of modern technology. That is to say, this battle didn’t feel like it was being fought with this level of visual splendor just because we can do that now. This battle served the story on an epic scale. It’s easy to imagine the Rebellion reminiscing about Rogue One as fervently as the Alamo. This isn’t a story whose impact is reduced by knowing where it’s headed. It’s the sort of conflict that lends the ensuing trilogy even greater weight in retrospect. Remember Rogue One. Remember this team. They fought long odds and delivered – on the human side – what was needed for the Jedi to save the galaxy.

#3: Zootopia

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Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston

This has been an outstanding year for animated films, and Zootopia was far and away the most memorable one I experienced. This film’s backdrop – a city of realistically-sized anthropomorphic animals all living together, predators and prey alike, is just the sort of impossible nonsense that the animated medium was made to tell. The entire film is a colorful metaphor for the fragile human experiment we call civilization, but the film expends a great deal of visual energy (and a significant number of adorable sight gags) explaining to me exactly how it all works. And all of the details – from the different environmental zones, to the variably-sized infrastructure, to the de facto caste system between predators and prey (which correspond to specific jobs in the city, with the police being almost all from predator species) – make this an incredibly well-realized world. Indeed, it’s of the caliber that Pixar might’ve created a decade ago, and Disney Animation is really giving them a run for their money this year.

With this stunning backdrop as a starting point, Zootopia shocked me even further by engaging in some rather mature storytelling. Rookie bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and civilian con-fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) make an outstanding team, with Hopps as the eager, career-driven upstart looking to buck tradition by becoming the first of her species to be a cop in the city, and Wilde engaging in some clever (and occasionally disgusting) food arbitrage in the city’s various animal-sized trade-zones (in what seems to be the latest of many hustles for the character). These are outstanding voice performances, and this burgeoning friendship forms the backdrop of a far more compelling mystery than any of the similar – and usually R-rated – buddy detective stories I saw this year (lookin’ at you, The Nice Guys). This is a story about police and civic corruption, prejudice and stereotyping, and – ultimately – the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, even if a cartoon water buffalo is jumping up and down on it. And that’s exactly what a classic children’s film should be.

#2: How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change

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Written and directed by Josh Fox

I referred to this film when it came out as “group therapy for climate realists”. And given recent events, this riveting documentary may prove essential viewing for anyone who is inspired to make a difference on climate change against seemingly insurmountable practical and political obstacles. This documentary, from Gasland director Josh Fox, initially put me on my guard, and ran a serious risk of coming off as manipulative or self-indulgent. But the film strikes just the right balance, spending a brief first act with its director learning about the stark reality of climate change, and then promptly and deliberately pulling himself out of the limelight, pointing his camera instead at the most vulnerable people around the world who will be affected by it. This globe-trotting story goes a lot of unexpected places, including into the heart of a protest attempting to blockade an Australian coal port. This sequence is exciting and lighthearted as presented, but the stakes feel no less real.

Incidentally, one of the producers of this film, Deia Schlosberg, was arrested in October for filming a similar act of civil disobedience at a TransCanada Keystone pipeline in North Dakota. Schlosberg is – as of this writing – facing multiple felony charges that could lead to up to 45 years in prison, and this is a stark reminder that even if all we get to see is an exciting documentary sequence, the risk required to get it, to life, limb, and freedom, is very real. This sort of advocacy journalism is a public service, and How to Let Go of the World is a fine example of it.

Check out my review here:
“How to Let Go of the World” (dir. Josh Fox) – Group therapy for climate realists

#1: The Lobster

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Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou.

As I mentioned in my review (which lays out the plot in a bit more detail), I love short films in which all of the characters share a commonly skewed moral sensibility. That is to say, they see the world in the same bizarre way, and noticeably filter all possible acceptable actions and words through that lens. The Lobster is a feature which contains not one, but two simple, but fully-realized dystopias along these lines, those of single and attached people. No stragglers, no variants, and absolutely no one who falls into the middle (or variable points on) the Kinsey scale. Pick a side, and obey its bizarre rules.

From my review:

“This is Lanthimos’ cruel satire at its very best – it paints both relationships and singlehood as oppressive, shallow, inauthentic institutions, issuing strict, two-faced codes of behavior and exacting devastating consequences for those who inevitably fail to abide by them. You’ll find people in each institution who will support you – but only if you meet their precise expectations. Trip up, or attempt to live somewhere besides the precise extremes that they delineate – and they’ll throw you to the wolves. Or turn you into one.”

And if you can believe it, this same film tells quite a striking and sweet love story. This is nearly as bizarre a film as Swiss Army Man, and it is definitely not for everyone. But if you stick with its seemingly deliberate attempts to annoy and disturb you, you may find it quite rewarding.

Check out my review here:
Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” – When competing dystopias fall in love

Honorable Mentions:

  • Doctor Strange (directed by Scott Derrickson)
  • The Birth of a Nation (directed by Nate Parker)
  • Don’t Think Twice (directed by Mike Birbiglia)
  • Captain America: Civil War (directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)
  • Angry Indian Goddesses (directed by Pan Nalin)
  • Loving and Midnight Special (both directed by Jeff Nichols)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low results.

  • Ghostbusters (directed by Paul Feig)
    This fucking movie. Like The Interview before it, the Ghostbusters remake took on far greater importance than it ever deserved, due to factors that were completely external to the film itself. Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first: It is a sad and continuing generational struggle that little girls didn’t have 50 or 100 different female-led action-adventure films to watch growing up, like I did. Their own blockbusters – their Indiana Joneses and James Bonds or anything else where a heroine is credibly driving the plot on the backdrop of [what would now be] a $150M+ budget. And this thoroughly middling and passable action film is no better or worse than most of the escapist adventures I immersed myself in as a boy, because you love everything as a kid, and when everything’s written for your demographic, it’s easier to pick and choose. I can plainly see that I’m not the target audience for the film. But to those girls, as an honest film critic, I still have to say – you deserve better. You deserve Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is utterly packed with strong and well-realized women driving the plot). You deserve the next generation of Star Wars, led by the outstanding Daisy Ridley (inheriting the torch from Carrie Fisher, RIP), hopefully the first of many interesting and capable women to inhabit this universe. You deserve Moana and Zootopia and Rogue One. You deserve the far more representative film world that is slowly but surely coming.For my part, I had high expectations going into Ghostbusters, because two of these actresses (and this director) had made me laugh many times before, and this reboot (of a film I absolutely adore) was really a quasi-sequel, telling a new story for a new generation of paranormal investigators. But with the exception of McKinnon, these four bored me as an ensemble nearly as much as the villain (whose plan and motivation I still can’t actually explain), even if they seemed to be having a fun time together – I never took the threat seriously, because neither did they, and their lack of seriousness never particularly amused me. And that rambling sentence, right there, is the worst that any of them deserve: my dispassionate assessment that this comedy didn’t make me, personally, laugh all that much. I can’t change that reaction no matter how despicable some of its bedfellows are. And here’s the other easy observation: those same little girls I mentioned above also deserve better than to see how the internet excoriated this thoroughly inoffensive film and its cast (particularly Leslie Jones, who received a torrent of disgusting racist and sexist garbage). This movie flopped, and kinda deserved to. But that should’ve been the end of it.Now, let’s fiddle while Twitter burns. Let the punishing, racist, misogynistic dystopia that is the Twitterverse die an overdue death and crush our President-elect’s masturbating, mendacious, nonsensical “Dear Diary” of a Twitter-feed along with it. 95% of it was already a bunch of harmless people (and bots) howling into the void to be read by no one, so let the rest of it become a ghetto of white supremacy and hatred like Stormfront, isolated, mocked, and ignored. And let us all go back to heaping bullshit where it belongs – on the actual people who make bad decisions. Like whoever at Sony Pictures thought it was a good idea to re-use their lousy CGI Times Square from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for another lifeless lightshow of an action climax.
  • Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (directed by Zach Snyder)
    In Man of Steel, a film I inexplicably enjoyed despite having major problems with, Superman does a terrible job of saving lives. Metropolis is almost completely destroyed, thousands die, and the chickens come home to roost in this film, as a bitter Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) – one of whose skyscrapers was apparently destroyed in MoS – tools up with Kryptonite and a robo-suit to eliminate the alien threat for good. Okay, I’m sorta lying, calling this a disappointment – my expectations were rather low going into this film. Although I find the premise of Superman facing consequences for his superheroic destruction to be legitimately fascinating, that does not add up to a convincing reason for Batman and Superman to want to murder each other.Bruce Wayne citing Dick Cheney‘s “one-percent doctrine” as a rationale for his murder spree in pursuit of a racially-motivated assassination was an abject betrayal of the character, and mostly (mostly) a non-sequitur to the Dark Knight trilogy that we’ve just seen. And on top of that, there’s no compelling reason for Superman to show up for this fight at all, which is why the film had to use Lex Luthor to unconvincingly manipulate them into it. I referred to Ghostbusters as “inoffensive” above, and this one (as surely as Passengers) meets my definition of “offensive”. This film is, conceptually and in execution, utter nonsense. It shouldn’t exist. And it doesn’t deserve any more commentary than that.
  • Allied (directed by Robert Zemeckis)
    This film had the great misfortune to be viewed in the same year in which I saw Casablanca for the first time. As such, when watching a pale imitator of a deservedly well-regarded classic, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I was just watching some talented Hollywood actors (including the irresistible and reliably spooky Marion Cotillard) amid a technically well-rendered backdrop…playing dress-up. This film is replete with modern-sounding dialogue (and F-bombs) and some pretty uninspiring spy drama. Even Valkyrie had more of a reason to exist than this film – or at least, it sold me on the real-world stakes of the thing in a meaningful way. If you’re going to set a film against the scourge of World War II, you have to remember – they don’t know how the war is going to end, or if any of them are going to survive. In the case of Casablanca, which was released in 1940, this was literally true, as much for the characters as for the actors and filmmakers. This sort of tale can deliver life-or-death stakes on a silver platter, and all it has to do is not ignore them. Instead, we get a first-season Alias arc that could just as easily have been set in the modern day.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • The Accountant (directed by Gavin O’Connor)
    The thing about Autistic Murder Batman – the informal title that I use for this film – is that it’s a solid and engrossing action thriller whose myriad twists and turns are grounded in a central, character-based question of, “What drives this guy to do what he does?” that is answered continuously through the actor’s performance, and gives me a reason to care about the rest of the film. And to see Ben Affleck pull that off while kicking innumerable quantities of ass really sold me on the actor coming back as a genuine big-budget superhero. As such, I have reluctantly high hopes for his far-from-certain turn in the creative seat.
  • Finding Dory (directed by Andrew Stanton)
    I’m not sure who was clamoring for this sequel 12 years on, and it does violate one of Pixar’s cardinal rules of storytelling by relying on coincidence to get its characters out of trouble (lots of convenient water for these fish to dive between on land!). But it’s also lovely, well-made, and touching. Ed O’Neill‘s octopus ninja is quite fun, as is Ellen DeGeneres‘ return performance as Dory. It’s worth seeing, even if it’s a bit inessential (see also: Monsters University) (or don’t).
  • Snowden (directed by Oliver Stone)
    After Laura Poitras‘ documentary Citizenfour, whose subject matter I found fascinating, but whose documentary craft I did not, I was not expecting to find much to enjoy in this film, a dramatization of Edward Snowden‘s rise and fall in the service of US intelligence, and his decision to leak classified information about NSA surveillance programs and flee the country. I’ll be blunt – I treated all of the details of Snowden’s rise through the intelligence ranks as speculative fiction (and this was apparently a good choice, as the bulk of the film was based on a novel by Snowden’s lawyer, whose protagonist might as well be called Bredward Browden). Joseph Gordon-Levitt absolutely nails Snowden’s voice, cadence, and physicality, Rhys Ifans plays an utterly chilling mentor, and Nicolas Cage presumably allowed a few cameras to film him speaking unscripted in his basement for a bit. While some of this is a bit cheesy (Snowden’s one alleged experience as a field agent alongside a fun and superfluous Timothy Olyphant felt totally out of place), this film did an excellent job of what Citizenfour couldn’t quite manage: explaining technically, logistically, and ethically complex surveillance programs to an audience that is mostly unfamiliar with them, in an entertaining fashion.

Morten Tyldum’s “Passengers” – A cascading failure

Fair warning. In this critic’s opinion, this film comes pre-spoiled by its own script. As such, I’m going to be rather flippant, including revealing the fate of one of the characters.

There comes a moment in the third act of Passengers when Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) are wandering alone through the malfunctioning bowels of their interstellar passenger liner, which is experiencing a “cascading failure” of the ship’s computers. Jim, a mechanic, opens a panel containing some identical pieces of futuristic computer-glass.

“Does it look broken?” Aurora asks dopily.

“Looks alright to me,” replies Jim, equally dopily, but we know he’s correct. They wander to a door. The door says “Danger!” and won’t open.

“This looks wrong,” says Jim, because he knows literally nothing else.

“We’re looking for wrong!” chimes Aurora.

Then they bust open the door and immediately get sucked into a basketball-sized hull breach, as the atmosphere of an open section of the ship the size of an airplane hangar gets evacuated past them. They wriggle and wobble and throw stuff and obviously stay alive. Note to any would-be space travelers: If the ship doesn’t want to open a door for you, maybe spend a few seconds trying to figure out why before you pry it open. But this scene does sum up the film rather well. Passengers‘ third mistake is its persistent inability to take its characters’ peril seriously. Second is its willful disdain for making intelligent use of its sci-fi scenario. And the film’s first, worst, and most persistent blunder is its unrelenting betrayal and misuse of Lawrence.

Let’s back up. Because there was some promise to the film’s setup. Bound from Earth to an offworld colony, the interstellar passenger liner Avalon is 30 years into its 120-year journey (just like Star Wars through US copyright law, amirite?), with its 5,000 passengers and 285 crew frozen in stasis pods for the duration (on-screen text helpfully informs us of all of this in the first 15 seconds). The ship autopilots itself into an asteroid field, which quickly overwhelms the shields and causes damage. One of the many ensuing malfunctions is the unexpected awakening of Jim Preston (Pratt), who pops out of his stasis pod, follows the holographic instructions to find his quarters and rest up, and quickly realizes he’s the only person awake. He has no ability to put himself back to sleep, so he’s all alone, condemned to never see his shiny new planet, and forced to live out his life alone in space. He wanders the ship, takes an unaccompanied spacewalk, grows a long beard, plays both of the video games, and develops a healthy functional alcoholism with the assistance of the friendly android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen). He also peruses some technical manuals and makes a few hamfisted attempts to fix his situation, including failing to break into the apparently impenetrable crew quarters. All of this passes in montage form, and we don’t get any real sense of what he’s trying to do or how difficult it is (except for pounding on the crew’s blast doors with a sledgehammer and welding torch), and it quickly ceases to matter. He’s alone, a year passes, and he gets a bit weird. Pratt does a passable job with these scenes, which is a very good thing, since Jim loses my sympathy the moment he stumbles upon Aurora’s pod, develops an instantaneous obsession with her, and ponders waking her up to join him in solo interstellar damnation, cursed to live out her life alone with her secret murderer.

I must emphasize, while I was never in any suspense about whether he would go through with this, the movie at least had the good sense to briefly treat this like the Bad, Bad Thing it is. The script was aware of it, and Jim himself was aware of it. His interactions with Arthur, the eternally non-judgmental bartender, take on a (presumably) deliberate Shining vibe, and the movie treats his decision like the unthinkable act that it is. And I was still with it, even at this point. Isolation is a proven means of psychological torture, and I could fully buy that Jim had become unhinged and was ready to do something unconscionable to relieve his situation. Comprehensible, if not condonable. And on a more trite level, man’s inhumanity toward a randomly selected beautiful woman is a tale as old as time, and if this woman were given a chance to learn the truth of her fate, react like a human being, then decide what to do next, this could have been a serviceable psychological thriller in which Pratt could have taken on the acting challenge of being the unadvertised villain.

The problem is, the film seems mostly unaware of the gravity of what it has done, and becomes a straight romance from that point on. WALL-E composer Thomas Newman‘s warm synth-infused score pours over the tragic tale of a pair of lone accidental voyagers, linked romantically by happenstance, A-List attractiveness, and some good, old-fashioned, thrust-free, PG-13 space-sex. Aurora is a writer whose sole unmotivated contribution to the plot (apart from making her fella some breakfast and patching up the robot bartender with her makeup skills – no, I’m not joking) is some schmaltzy “Dear Diary” voiceover from the terrible book she’s writing to be read by no one, talking about how they’re all just Passengers on the ship of fate and they didn’t plan to find each other but they did and I almost literally fell asleep while typing this. Like the put-upon ’50s housewife that she is, Aurora is helpless to advance the story, which constantly denies her agency and punts her from one life-altering decision to the next. But hey, at least we get to watch her jog and swim a bit, right? Make no mistake: This film’s concept and treatment of Aurora is obscene. And its script, characters, and Avalon itself conspire to force Aurora to fall in love and get betrayed, then tap their collective foot impatiently because they can’t wait on her precious timetable of forgiveness. Stuff’s exploding and we need to fall in love and fix it already!

Laurence Fishburne briefly (accidentally) awakens as a member of the ship’s crew, and honestly, I was a bit relieved. He quickly realizes what Jim has done to Aurora, and I expected some sort of human moment between the two non-murderers aboard the ship. One in which J-Law could look at him and say, “That was pretty f’d up, right? Does this ship have a brig?” And then he could nod, and they could learn to play chess for the next 90 years. But no – instead, he gives them just enough information about the ship to let them bumble around fixing it, hands his authorization wristband to Jim rather than Aurora, and tells her that a drowning man (he means Jim!) will always try to pull people down with him, and “that don’t make it right”, but… And then he coughs, which poorly-written movie characters only do when they’re terminally ill, and is dead a few minutes later from unspecified ailments inflicted by his rapid unscheduled thaw. This would be an excellent time for Aurora to point out, “See what happened to that guy? You risked that exact thing happening to me. Dick.”

But she doesn’t, because the film is completely unaware of that. No matter. Did I mention that Passengers is a bad sci-fi film as well? I could’ve overlooked Avalon‘s nosedive into a dense asteroid field, a cliché as old as a broken moon in the sky. But it also can’t be bothered to make consistent use of its spin gravity (or is it magical artificial gravity?), or use even the slightest bit of technobabble to describe the ship’s peril or the difficulty of fixing it. This is a sci-fi drama written with deliberate simplicity by Mitchell and Webb, or maybe accidental stupidity by the dullard who co-wrote Prometheus, which might explain his affinity for robo-surgery tubes. And don’t get me started on J-Law nearly drowning in the floating pool.

I can already see people trying to ennoble the setup of this film. He’s lonely! He needs company. You don’t know what you’d do in this situation! Let me be clear here. I don’t mind a film depicting a character committing such an act. I don’t even mind a film in which his victim decides she’s going to accept the intractable situation and forgive him. Or in which she decides she wants revenge. Or in which she throws them both out an airlock. Or in which she reacts in any way whatsoever. Passengers isn’t bad because it depicts a character doing a bad thing – it’s bad because it never acknowledges the reality it’s creating. And the result is as dumb as it is morally reprehensible. It insults its characters and its audience, and should be avoided like the plague.

FilmWonk rating: 2 out of 10