Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” – A harbinger of doom for spy cinema

Poster for "Blackhat"

I must admit, when the FilmWonk Podcast reconvened after the New Year to review Inherent Vice, and I found myself uttering phrases like “trenchant statement on post-war masculinity,” I was a bit concerned that the wondrous, cinematic wasteland that is the first month of the year might fail to deliver its full measure of seasonal stupidity. Vice may have been a holdover from an awards-qualifying run in NY and LA, but it is still a January release, and January releases are supposed to be dumb and terrible.

On that count, Michael Mann‘s Blackhat did not disappoint – it is incredibly stupid at times. But what was truly baffling about this film was just how much it got right. Out of the gate, its treatment of 21st century hacking was pretty much spot-on. Screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl uses many real tricks – undiscovered (zero-day) exploits that abuse the autorun features of USB thumbdrives, attacks targeting industrial control systems that have the capability to both physically destroy their mechanized targets, and hide any sign of their malicious activity from safety monitoring software until the destruction can’t be stopped. All of these things are real (even if they tend to operate a bit more slowly and less publicly in real life) – and the irony of duplicating Stuxnet as a cinematic attack on both the US and China was not lost on me. And the film also remembers the best old tricks. Social engineering is by far the most resilient hack – the easiest way to get into a system in an unauthorized fashion is to convince a silly, flawed, Mark-1 human being to let you in.

But for all that it got right technologically, this film was an utter failure as a coherent piece of cinema. It attempted to apply a 20th century espionage formula to a 21st century technological crisis. As criminal superhacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) and his network engineer-cum-Bond girl, Lien Chen (Wei Tang), jaunt across the globe through multiple countries, physically chasing after a hacker who quite realistically operates from a single location behind seven proxies, my mind was abruptly drawn to the abysmal 2014 comedy, Sex Tape. Like that film, Blackhat never escapes the nonsensical logic of physically chasing errant data around the real world. But it might have worked, if only its every attempt to depict a realistic human interaction or relationship hadn’t fallen so flat.

Bless these actors, they tried hard to make this weak material work. Viola Davis steals the movie in several scenes as FBI supervisor Carol Barrett, but is criminally underused, and the film’s few attempts at humanizing her – as well as US Marshal Jessup (Holt McCallany) – were clunky in the moment, and embarrassing in retrospect. Even Hemsworth and Tang try their best to make their contrived romance succeed, and a few times, their half-decent chemistry almost makes it happen. But the worst thing about this romance is that it could easily have been buoyed with a single line of dialogue. Hathaway’s old friend from MIT, Chinese military cyber-commando Dawai Chen (Leehom Wang), is Lien’s brother, and is solely responsible for getting the two of them involved in the film. Rather than saddle Tang with awkward meet-cute lines, it would’ve been a simple enough matter to simply give the two of them some prior relationship. But the film seems content to let Hemsworth’s abs do the talking when it comes to the plausibility of their torrid affair, then proceeds to take it far too seriously.

Still from "Blackhat"

In fact, the film’s self-seriousness really becomes a problem as it becomes bizarrely, graphically violent. There are some well-choreographed sequences of hand-to-hand combat and marvelously staged gunfights in this film, each more out of place than the last. Hathaway inexplicably morphs from imprisoned hacker to improvisational super-soldier in minutes, dispatching enemies with chairs and tables, handguns, and prison-fu with alarming speed and capability. Meanwhile, Lien changes from a network engineer (who does zero network engineering) to a bizarre fantasy construct that’s equal parts spy, nurse, and helpless arm-candy. Bond meets girl. And the tone is obscene.

In keeping with Mann’s devotion to every advance in digital cinema, this really is a gorgeous film, even if it does little to justify the majority of its scenery. At one point, the power-couple takes a trip to Middle-of-Nowhere, Malaysia to solve the villain’s master plan. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that it was a breathtaking location, their presence was superfluous, and the ensuing dialogue provoked audible laughter in my auditorium. And what’s more, the film bizarrely jumps to the duo sifting through code and financial records in a hotel room moments later, redundantly solving the mystery in a much more realistic manner. The grand finale continues the film’s descent into ultraviolent madness. We know what the bad guys are up to – time to go kill them. And if the laughter in the previous scene wasn’t audible enough, it certainly resonated as Hemsworth donned his prisonesque arsenal – sharpened screwdrivers concealed about his person, and torso armor composed of magazines and duct tape. I wish I were making this up, and if the film didn’t devolve into a level of Assassin’s Creed (with inexplicably unresponsive AI from the crowd NPCs), I might have credited it with a bit of self-awareness.

But Blackhat – Hathaway – is no hero. And its awkward, genre-straddling attempts to merge globetrotting spycraft with virtual warfare do not bode well for the genre as a whole. You can’t have a Western with automobiles, and you can’t have a Bond film with realistic hackers and semi-realistic violence. Might be best to stick with the magical Skyfall nonsense next time.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10

Gavin Hood’s “Ender’s Game” – Don’t be expendable

Poster for "Ender's Game"

One of the major shortcomings of the first Harry Potter film is that it asked the audience to come along on a hero’s journey with a character who has no apparent reason to be respected or taken seriously. Any of the self-awareness and nuance that might have been present in the source material is absent, and what we’re left with instead is a boy being led into a wondrous world and constantly told how special he is, while doing nothing whatsoever to justify that claim. Such are the difficulties of a franchise adaptation, wherein the hero is whoever the script says it is, and named characters are introduced and discarded seemingly on a whim, leaving newcomers wondering why they bothered to show up for the barest threads of story that might not pay off until the second or third blockbuster in the series. Gavin Hood‘s adaptation of Orson Scott Card‘s Ender’s Game surely demonstrates a few of these shortcomings with regard to cast and story structure, but impressively, none of them are present in the character of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) himself.

Fifty years after a devastating invasion by a race of fearsome alien bugs called Formics, Earth is arming for a full-scale attack on the invaders’ home planet. Fleet Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) are tasked with training a gang of child pilots to command the fleet, winnowing from their ranks a single cadet who might become the savior of the human race. The question, from the film’s outset, is never whether this fleet commander will be Ender Wiggin, but rather, why? And it is in answering this question that the film is most effective. Ender is placed in one situation after another that tests his mettle, strategic mind, and ruthlessness. Much of this is under the unseen guidance and surveillance of the military, but it often occurs through sheer dumb luck. Many of these situations are unsurprisingly softened from the source material, but all of them do an effective job of establishing Ender as a force to be reckoned with – the plausible product of a worldwide search for someone who is so willing to thoroughly vanquish his enemies.

Still from "Ender's Game"

The film is at its visual strongest during the first half, in which the cadets head for an orbital station to train in a team-based war game that bears unfortunate retrospective resemblance to Quidditch. The teams float around in a massive, zero-gravity battle room playing an elaborate three-dimensional game of laser tag. They score points by paralyzing enemy players, and can ultimately win the game regardless of the current score by slotting a single undamaged player successfully into the enemy’s open gate on the opposite end of the chamber. As an aside, I’d like to take a moment here to marvel that this film was not shot or upconverted to 3D. While it is certainly to this film’s detriment that it comes so closely after Gravity for visual comparison, these sequences are undeniably impressive, and it is frankly a marvel that the studio didn’t try to cash in on them further. The suit design and camera work makes it a simple matter to follow the progress and flow of the game, and the chamber itself – covered in windows to open space outside, and filled with floating platforms for cover and strategy – is absolutely gorgeous. If these sequences have any shortcoming, it’s that they all seem a bit rushed. Rather than full story events with a clear trajectory and consequences for multiple characters, they feel more like montages designed to propel Ender (and no one else) into the next act of the story. Ender changes rank more times in an hour than 2009’s Captain Kirk, and it would not surprise me if non-book-readers have a hard time making sense of any of it.

Vague spoilers will follow.

But then, I suppose that’s what it always comes down to with adaptations. I read Ender’s Game nearly a decade ago, and it would be easy to say that this disqualifies me from objectively judging the story’s effectiveness – particularly its final act and twist. But when it comes to an adaptation as long-awaited as this, it’s important to remember that as long as it is still available for public consumption, nothing can take away or destroy a prior work of art. No remake, adaptation, spinoff, sequel, director’s dubious past work, or author’s vociferous homophobia can ever take away the effectiveness of the original work. At best, the new version can serve as a worthy companion piece, and at worst, as an object lesson in the effectiveness of the original story and its original medium. My conclusion, based on a distant memory of the book, is that the film’s revelation is about as effective as it was in the original book. To repurpose a lovely phrase from Looper director Rian Johnson, even if a revelation is obvious, it can trade the cheap coin of surprise for the priceless one of dread. Even if you remove the sci-fi trappings, the plight of Ender Wiggin is being lived out by present-day drone pilots who become bloodless killers in an intensely video-game-like fashion. The film addresses this with a denouement that is about as baffling and unexpected as in the original work, in which the exploration of Ender’s psyche pays off in a way that feels just a bit unearned. But the film is effective enough at establishing that Ender will ruthlessly destroy his enemies and feel bad about it in more than just a token fashion, and it has the decency not to commit and portray an act of immense destruction without lending it the appropriate amount of weight. Remember in G.I. Joe: Retaliation when the entire city of London was destroyed for no reason? Neither do I.

Visually, the final space battle is a bit of a letdown – a thorough demonstration of CGI quantity over quality as one undifferentiated swarm of drone-ships meets another. After demonstrating an impressive grasp of the dimensionality of space in the first half, the film’s final battle feels oddly planar, taking place relative to “horizontal” asteroid belts or planetary rings. But despite the visual chaos on display, the film succeeds in giving us an acceptable reason for it all. There are number of repeating scenes in which the film’s grownups – Ford, Davis, and an elusive turn by Ben Kingsley – debate the consequences of what they’re doing with Ender and the enemy fleet. They speak of genocide and crimes of warfare. They speak of child soldiers and post-traumatic stress. Their interactions eventually get a bit repetitive and strain credulity (would they really compare Ender to both Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte in front of his face?), but it is these performances – along with that of Butterfield himself – that imbue the film’s dense visual annihilation with a modicum of humanity and tears. And that may ultimately be what made me take Ender’s Game seriously. These themes are hurriedly made explicit in the last five minutes, but they are teased effectively throughout the film. Ender is ultimately both the savior and damnation of mankind, and exceeds his elders’ expectations in the most horrific way possible. And for all of his reluctance and humility, the clearest lesson he presents is that if you’re anything but the best…you’re expendable. Is this the lesson the film was going for? Hard to say. But the single, gigantic space-gun wasn’t exactly a soft touch.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

2008 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actress

Top 5 Supporting Actresses:


#5: Taraji P. Henson – Queenie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


henson
Oh, Ben Button, you hapless, eponymous bastard, what a curse you have, to be constantly surrounded by more interesting and better-acted characters than you. Your adoptive mother is among the best of these, providing a secondary emotional center for your otherwise cold and lifeless biography.

#4: Mila Kunis – Rachel Jansen, Forgetting Sarah Marshall


kunis
I’m surprised to be putting Mila Kunis on a best actress list, being that I only knew her previously as “that hot, dumb girl from That ’70s Show“. Jason Segel’s script casts Rachel as his version of the perfect rebound girl. The wrong spin on this character could have turned Rachel into the random front-desk hottie (a role that anyone could’ve believed Mila Kunis in), but her performance completely elevates this character. She is likeable, down-to-earth, far from perfect (she nearly provokes a fistfight with her ex), but completely sympathetic. It is Kunis’ performance that sells this relationship, and the strained emotional bond that develops between her and Segel’s character is what elevates this film from merely one of the best comedies of the year to also one of the best romances of the year.

#3: Marisa Tomei – Cassidy, The Wrestler


tomei
Could Cassidy be called a “stripper with a heart of gold”? Not exactly… But she does make a fascinating counterpoint to Mickey Rourke’s aging pro wrestler. Much as Randy “The Ram” Robinson pretends to put on a show of violence, Cassidy pretends to put on a show of sex. They made their living in the pretense of our most primal interests, and now they’re getting too old… It’s no surprise that they seem to forge a bond. But how much of this bond is just Cassidy’s smile and work ethic? Hard to say, but the ambiguity is there, and Tomei completely sells it. As Randy wonders if there’s anything real in his life, Tomei does a fine job of never definitively answering that question.

#2: Viola Davis – Mrs. Miller, Doubt


davis
I almost didn’t include Davis in my list, because she only appears in one 10-minute scene of the film. But in those 10 minutes talking with Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) about her son, she manages to make you believe something truly shocking. Her reaction to the Sister’s suspicions is so far removed from what you would expect, your jaw will hit the floor. And the scene gets even more unnerving as she starts to convince you that she might just have a point. All of the subtext of the film’s central conflict comes out in this brilliantly written scene, and it owes entirely to Davis’ performance.

#1: Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona


cruz
Like I said, there’s something incredible about a well-written and well-acted psychopath. No description that I give can do this performance justice. Just see the film, and do your best to take nothing seriously. It’s laughable and fun and you’ll be unsure by the end whether it was comedy or tragedy.

Honorable Mentions:


Tilda Swinton – Elizabeth Abbott, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Amy Adams – Sister James, Doubt
Gwyneth Paltrow – Pepper Potts, Iron Man