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Amorality Play

What exactly is the appropriate response when you’re sitting down in anticipation of a thoroughly profane and blood-spattered movie, only to find yourself joined in the cinema by a couple who have brought their clearly much-too-young children with them? Should you speak to them? Tell the cinema staff what’s going on? Isn’t it the staff’s responsibility anyway? Is this a mistake? Have they gone to the wrong movie, or snuck in after buying tickets to something more innocuous?

This was the situation I found myself in during the opening moments of Patrick Hughes’ The Hitman’s Bodyguard. Thankfully, I was spared the trouble of, you know, getting off my backside and actually doing something, because a minion appeared and explained the situation to the family and they promptly decamped. Which was a good thing, because I’m not sure I could really have relaxed and enjoyed this film knowing there were minors present. Then again, it has made me wonder about the degree to which one should really relax and enjoy this movie at all.

Hmmm. The movie opens with disgraced Belarussian ex-tyrant Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman, in it for the money) on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. However there is no hard evidence and witnesses keep turning up dead, so he looks like walking free. Only one man can give the testimony that will put him away – notorious hired killer Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson).

The job of getting Kincaid from Manchester (where he is in the clink) to the Netherlands is given to crack Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung, currently cornering the market in ass-kicking babe roles), but there is a traitor in her organisation and Kincaid is nearly killed in an intense gun-battle on the streets of Coventry (just another day in Warwickshire, I guess). In order to get him to the court on time and in one piece, Roussel is obliged to call in Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), a disgraced freelance protection agent – this is slightly complicated by their own history together, and the fact he blames her for the fact he’s disgraced in the first place.

Nevertheless, Bryce and Kincaid set off for the ICC together, quite clearly destined not to get along, as they are polar opposites in virtually every way: the bodyguard is uptight and methodical, his charge relaxed and spontaneous. Dukhovich’s goons are hot on their heels, the authorities can’t be trusted, and Kincaid insists on stopping off in Amsterdam where his wife (Salma Hayek) is incarcerated. No wonder there is very strong language and bloody violence throughout…

Well, it’s extremely clear what kind of movie we’re in for, practically from the word go – an action comedy buddy movie, with the two leads trading heavily on their established screen personae. Ryan Reynolds delivers the usual slightly-narcissistic snarkiness, while Samuel L Jackson basically just does his Samuel L Jackson act – being effortlessly cool and funny, while shouting a lot about, um, melon farmers. Reliable comedic material there, I think you’ll agree, and you can probably imagine the substance of most of the movie. Scathing put-downs! Crackling by-play between the two stars! Hilarious comic chemistry! Truck bombs going off in major European cities! Women and children being cold-bloodedly executed!

…er, what? Well, yes – I think this is where a lot of people are going to find themselves having issues with The Hitman’s Bodyguard, because doing a knockabout action comedy where faceless goons are scythed down like wheat is one thing, but including major terrorist acts and the murder of young children is crossing a line, if you ask me. You simply can’t put that stuff in a comedy film without it seemingly incredibly tasteless. It doesn’t give your movie any more dramatic heft, it just makes all the jokes and so on feel immensely inappropriate. This is non-negotiable. (It doesn’t surprise me to learn that this started life as a straight drama which was rewritten as a comedy in very short order. At least one more rewrite was definitely required.)

And while we’re on the subject, it strikes me as rather off that the film implies that, as recently as 2012, Belarus was a dictatorship where ethnic cleansing was going on. Now, I know that by western standards, Belarus is not a shining example of a free democratic state, but I don’t see how presenting it in this way helps matters much. It treats Belarus like a made-up cartoon nation (Oldman is certainly playing a cartoon bad guy), rather than a real place where people live today. I had the pleasure of getting to know someone from Belarus quite recently, and I would be frankly embarrassed to watch this movie with them.

Ooh, listen to me, I’m on my moral high horse a lot today, aren’t I? I should say that if you can discount the disturbingly tasteless violence and highly dubious geopolitics, The Hitman’s Bodyguard does what you would hope for, in that the action sequences are slick and competent, and the comedy stuff also gets a very satisfactory number of laughs – the flashback to Jackson and Hayek’s first meeting is probably the high point, and it’s a shame that Hayek basically disappears for the final third of the movie. As I say, this was only really a couple more drafts away from being a highly entertaining, essentially inoffensive buddy comedy.

But as things stand, I don’t know. I mean, I enjoyed most of it, and don’t really regret watching it, but it did leave kind of a bad taste in my mouth, not least because at various points it makes a big deal out of issues of morality and guilt, stressing that the moral choices people make are important. Fine in theory, guys, but you made the moral choice of including bombs going off in crowded cities and children being shot dead in your freewheeling comedy film, so what are we supposed to conclude? I’m not sure The Hitman’s Bodyguard even counts as a guilty pleasure, but I’m very glad I wasn’t watching it in the company of some very young children.

 

Bodies and Seoul

All good things must come to an end, apparently, but the wave of zombie horror films which effectively began in 2002 with 28 Days Later shows no sign whatsoever of losing its momentum or popularity. It’s almost reached the point where one is tempted to stop describing it as a wave or fad at all, and just accept the popularity of zombie films as being an innate part of the contemporary cinema landscape, in the same way that, over the last fifteen or twenty years, superhero movies have come to dominate blockbuster film-making (according to this logic, a big-budget version of the Marvel Zombies miniseries would surely obliterate all known box-office records).

Certainly, the zombie movie seems to be in paradoxically good health at present, with the films themselves showing no sign of losing the capacity to surprise, delight, and appal. Just last year there was the exceptional British SF-zombie movie The Girl With All The Gifts, and also a South Korean take on the genre, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan.

Just fleetingly, it looks like Train to Busan is going to go where virtually no movie has gone before and actually show Ground Zero of a zombipocalypse, as a bad-tempered van driver is stopped by police at a roadblock and told there’s been a leak at a nearby biological research facility. Going on his way, the driver hits and apparently kills a sweet-looking deer – but after he leaves the scene, the animal twitches, writhes, and then gets back on its feet, eyes now milky and dead. Is it a zombie? Is it Bambi? No, it’s Zombambi! (A brilliant title for a zombie film about undead woodland creatures, I think you’ll agree.)

However, at this point the movie jumps ahead and we meet Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a workaholic fund manager who has been neglecting his relationship with his adorable young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an), even when it’s her birthday. In an attempt to make up for this, he agrees to take her to visit her mother in the coastal city of Busan. All the way to the station there are signs that something odd is going on – there are reports of rioting, and the emergency services seem to be out in force – but Seok-woo and Su-an make their train without much difficulty, and it gets away on time. But not before a young woman scrambles aboard at the last minute, in distress and suffering from a peculiar bite on her leg…

Well, you can doubtless see where this is going, as Seok-woo, Su-an, and everyone else on the train find themselves having to contend with the zombie virus going, well, viral in a rather confined space. These are hyperactive zombies of the modern kind, rabidly attacking everyone around them, and the non-infected passengers have to battle their way to safety. But what does safety mean on a train full of zombies, with the rest of the country falling into chaos even as they travel through it?

The thing about Train to Busan is that, once you take away the slight novelty factor of this being a zombie movie from South Korea, it’s not immediately obvious what makes it so distinctive as a film. Certainly it doesn’t make any great innovations in terms of how it treats its monsters – these are pretty standard high-energy modern zombies, although there’s a plot point about them not being able to see in the dark – or the way in which it uses the zombipocalypse notion as a vehicle for social commentary. There’s not a great deal new about its characterisations, either. Yet it’s every bit as arresting a film as The Girl With All The Gifts, and arguably works even better on a visceral, kinetic level.

This is largely because the script (written by Park Joo-Suk) takes one deceptively simple idea – zombies on a train! – and really puts it to work. The images of swarms of zombies surging down narrow train carriages towards the protagonists are terrifying, but film goes on to systematically work the basic concept for all it’s worth – train bathrooms, train connecting doors, train luggage-racks: all of these are put to work in the ongoing narrative, and when the story is obliged to get off the train itself (as it occasionally does) there are always train stations, train depots, and train crashes to provide the scenery for a bit more blood-soaked jeopardy.

It’s also fair to say that the film’s influences extend beyond the classic zombie movie to include, most obviously, the various tropes of disaster movies. For a while the film definitely becomes an ensemble piece, with Seok-woo and Su-an forced to co-operate with a bunch of other characters, including a pregnant woman (Jung Yu-mi) and her loudmouthed husband (Ma Dong-seok), members of a high school baseball team (luckily, they’ve brought their bats), and a pair of elderly sisters. The film does a great job of really making you care about these people, and each time one of them is slowly picked off by the zombies, it’s a genuinely moving moment.

It seems obvious from the start that, thematically, this is going to be the story of how Seok-woo learns the importance of his relationship with his daughter, but the film actually goes some way beyond this – Seok-woo is initially only concerned about saving the pair of them, but Su-an is dismayed by what she sees as his selfishness. If the film’s actually about anything, it’s about compassion and concern for other people, and how these are the secret to surviving. As is quite common in this kind of film, many of the most wrenching scenes are not actually about the zombies, but the awful things that people are capable of doing to each other in order to ensure their own survival (there’s a not tremendously subtle subplot involving a repugnant businessman and his utterly self-centred attempts to get away in one piece). You could also argue the film is about responsibility – at one point Seok-woo learns his own company funded the experiments which started the zombie outbreak, and in the next scene he is in one of the bathrooms, distraught, trying to wash blood off his hands (as I say, this isn’t always the most understated of films).

But also it works because it’s a hugely ambitious film that isn’t afraid to go big when the situation demands it – the big set pieces are huge, and terrifically exciting, with zombies hurling themselves through windows or being dragged behind trains like an undead carpet in an attempt to reach the main characters. This isn’t just an action horror movie, by any means, but it is that too – and it’s an action horror movie that delivers thrills and gore and shocks in spades. No doubt an inferior US remake is already in the works, for this is one of those films that simply works, on every level. Watching Train to Busan feels like watching your very first zombie film all over again, for it takes the genre and makes it feel new and vital like few other movies have managed recently. A phenomenal piece of entertainment.

The Machinery of Utopia

It is one of those curious and perhaps somewhat cherishable paradoxes that probably the most alien society depicted in any depth on Star Trek is that of the Federation itself, the one to which the vast majority of the various series’ human characters belong. When you think about it, this isn’t so surprising, given that the various other cultures are intended to illuminate less enlightened aspects of human nature as it exists today, while the Federation represents the Roddenberry ideal of an evolved humanity.

The Federation is a difficult concept to get your head around, in some ways. One thing that both admirers and critics of Star Trek have seized upon is the fact that the Federation, according to several of its more prominent citizens, does not use money. Critics conclude that the franchise is therefore a puff-piece for a spurious and imaginary socialist utopia. Supporters sometimes take a different view: and the most cogent explication of these that I’ve read is Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek, by Manu Saadia.

Saadia does not attempt to explain how the economies of the Alpha and Beta Quadrant function in the year 2370. This is probably quite wise, as – just between you and me – I don’t think there is much sense to be made of this. Saadia takes the ‘we don’t use money’ position, as stated by Captain Kirk (amongst others), at face value, and ignores the multitude of occasions where people casually talk about buying a boat, or selling a house, or paying for someone else’s dinner, or have a purchase charged to their account, or whatever. He assumes that the Federation, if not some of the other quadrant powers, is effectively infinitely wealthy, with its inhabitants living in a post-scarcity utopia, operating a reputation-based prestige economy. This arguably doesn’t match up with what is shown or implied on screen, and begs numerous questions about how and why the Federation engages in trading relationships with the other polities of the 24th century, but it’s one of the central planks of Saadia’s thesis: which is that Star Trek depicts a situation which could be achieved here on real-world Earth in the foreseeable future.

As always with this kind of The (Academic Discipline) of (Popular Franchise) title, the question is one how much it’s actually about the Academic Discipline and how much it’s just a grab for the cash of fans of the Popular Franchise. Pleasingly, Trekonomics combines impressive intellectual heft with a deep and loving knowledge of Star Trek – Saadia obviously knows his stuff in both departments, and Trekkies who check this book out will come away with a greatly expanded knowledge of theoretical concepts such as doux-commerce and the tragedy of the commons, while economists will gain an equally practical grounding in topics as diverse as the galactic warp-speed limitation crisis of 2371 and the legal status of authors who are holographic AIs in the closing years of the same decade.

This is more of a collection of essays than a book with a single coherent argument – there are opening chapters discussing topics such as the (apparent) absence of money from the Federation, the fact that everyone nevertheless seems to be working very hard for no apparent material reward, and the manner in which the Federation’s economy seems to be built around the principle that access to the replicator (a make-virtually-anything-out-of-virtually-thin-air machine) is available to all citizens at all times (money, the great metaphorical all-purpose conversion technology, has been superseded by the replicator, an actual all-purpose matter conversion technology).

From here the book moves on to touch on such topics as the limitations of natural resources, the management of common goods, and the place of Star Trek in the lineage of utopian science fiction (the Strugatsky brothers get a name check, as does Iain Banks for his wonderful Culture stories, but Saadia argues that Trek’s main inspiration was the SF of Isaac Asimov – a curious idea, given Trek features robots and the like less than arguably any other well-known SF franchise, but one which actually seems to be sound. Then there’s a whole chapter devoted to a look at Star Trek’s great economic adventurers, the Ferengi, and finally a discussion of what the genuine chances are of a Trek-like economic settlement being reached in the real world.

And it is, for the most part, a fascinating read. Apart from the fact that Saadia interprets the various ‘we don’t use money’ quotes to suit his argument, there are a few places where his suggestions seem a little bit overcooked – he suggests that the faction most similar to the Federation in Star Trek are the Borg, which seems a bit counter-intuitive. Admittedly the Borg definitely don’t use cash, but on the other cyber-prosthesis they are certainly consumers (even if it’s not in a strictly economic sense). His assertion that Deep Space Nine is on some level the story of the development and enlightenment of Ferengi society is also a bit much to swallow – although I have to say I am one of those people who finds many of the Ferengi-centric episodes of the series a bit wearisome. (For what it’s worth, I think the thematic core of Deep Space Nine is the issue of how to retain your enlightened principles when surrounded by people who don’t share them and are willing to exploit you for having them – which does have an economic angle to it, just not one which the show ever really dwelt on. How would a predatory merchant like a Ferengi really deal with a potential customer who was (effectively) infinitely wealthy?)

Set against this, however, are a range of fascinating insights into Trek, both in terms of canon and theory, which make the book well worth reading even if you’re just not that into economic philosophy. Saadia draws the reasonable and pertinent conclusion that the miraculous replicator, source of the Federation’s immense material abundance, was not invented until some point in the (largely uncharted) decades between the end of the original cast movies and the beginning of TNG, which therefore means that the cashless economy (if you believe in it) came first (the most famous instance of a ‘we don’t have money’ line comes from a Kirk who hails from about the year 2285). He also suggests that it’s the material abundance enabled by the replicator which is responsible for the transformation in human behaviour by the time of the series set in the 2360s and 2370s – the reason why most of the characters from these shows are somehow not quite as vital and engaging as the original crew (according to Manu Saadia, anyway) is that by the 2360s everyone has gone a bit Spock – freed from economic concerns and pressures, they have fewer recognisably human drives and motivations.

Whether or not you agree with the author’s take on Trek, this is stimulating stuff, if you have the right kind of brain; certainly it made me want to revisit several of the episodes he examines (and also regret the fact the various shows didn’t find a way of exploring these issues in a more coherent and systematic way). If the future of Star Trek is in doubt at the moment (and we must admit that this is perhaps the case), then it’s because many people seem to have lost the capacity to be optimistic: there is no place for utopianism in a world where Trump and Putin are in power, runs the argument. Well, I’d say exactly the opposite, and I suspect that Manu Saadia would, too: his conclusion is that the paradise-like Federation depicted in the TV shows is not a fantasy enabled by improbable machines like the replicator, but the result of concrete social, political, and economic choices on the part of its people. The same choices are available to us now. He doesn’t suggest this will be an easy path – quite the opposite – but that the option at least exists. Is the book’s argument convincing? Well, perhaps not completely, but I think it makes more than enough points to qualify as worthy of consideration. One of the best books of its kind that I have read, and certainly one of the most relevant to the real world.

The Curse of King

And now for another installment in our current series entitled Underperformance Anxiety, in which we consider the plight of a movie which has not lived up to box-office expectations in a fairly serious way. This time around it is Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, based on a (I’m tempted to say ‘interminable’) lengthy novel sequence by one of the greatest storytellers of our day, Stephen King. Many people have tried to bring The Dark Tower to the screen, for the sequence has gained legions of fans for its rich mythology, engaging characters, and imagination, apparently (I should point out that while I’m a big fan of King, I’ve always shied away from these particular books for no reason I can easily articulate). On the other hand, the two most famous of these were Ron Howard and JJ Abrams, neither of whom I would honestly describe as a visionary film-maker, so maybe that was for the best.

Or maybe not. What exactly, you may be well be wondering, is the Dark Tower, and why have they made a film about it? Well, fasten your seatbelts and I will have a go at explaining. The Dark Tower, you see, is the metaphysical bulwark which supports the structure of all the worlds of the multiverse, which stands at the centre of creation and holds back eternal, demon-infested darkness. Yes, apparently the Dark Tower holds back the darkness, which is a little counter-intuitive, but I shouldn’t worry too much about it. No-one in the movie actually visits the Dark Tower, it is just a sort of symbol or plot device – the movie could have been called The Pink Bus Stop or The Tartan-patterned Shed and it would be functionally exactly the same, just with a lower special-effects budget. (Although neither of those would have the same kind of archetypal mythic resonance. The whole movie is very big on symbolism and archetypes, which may be one of the reasons why it is as coherent as it is.)

Well, anyway, for reasons best known to himself, evil sorcerer Walter (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to knock the Dark Tower down and end the world, using the psychic powers of children whom his bestial minions have kidnapped from across the multiverse. This is causing mysterious earthquakes in the various worlds, and giving nightmares to Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled young lad living in New York City with his mum and stepfather. His various visions of the Tower, of Walter, and of an enigmatic gunfighter (Idris Elba) just lead everyone to conclude he’s one book short of a novel sequence, and when Walter’s minions turn up offering to take him to a Special Clinic for Troubled Children he finds it very hard to say no.

But say no Jake does, and he manages to find his way into one of the other worlds, looking for the gunfighter. His name turns out to be Roland, and he is in fact a Gunslinger (the capitalisation seems non-negotiable), the last of an ancient and noble order of warriors, carrying a pair of pistols forged from the metal of Excalibur. Or something. However, Roland is having a bit of a crisis and seems in danger of becoming terminally grumpy (as you can imagine, this element of the character really plays to Elba’s strengths as an actor). However, the chance to kill Walter (with whom he has an old beef) perks Roland up a bit and he and Jake set off to find Walter’s supervillain lair together…

Hollywood Marketing Dogma #1 these days is that, if you’re promoting a product with an established following, you have to keep the fans onside, or else your movie could end up capsized by the bad buzz before it even reaches theatres. The alarm and disquiet with which early news of The Dark Tower was greeted by fans of the books probably chilled the soul of the marketing department – for one thing, this is an adaptation of a 4,250 page novel sequence that clocks in at a far-from-expansive 95 minutes, and for another, it’s not really a straight adaptation of the novel sequence at all, but also to some extent a sequel (I get the impression things get metaphysically weird on a fairly regular basis in Dark Tower-land).

On the other hand, while not many people seem to be going to see The Dark Tower, the ones who do seem to be having a reasonably good time – critics excepted. And the fact is that it’s not a terrible movie by any means, and indeed has some interesting things going on in it. It very much reminded me of a bunch of other, thematically similar films, such as Forbidden Kingdom and The Last Action Hero, in which children from ‘the real world’ find their way into a fantastical realm, hook up with a paternal tough-guy, fight against evil, and so on. Nothing wrong with that – a sturdy narrative archetype, I would say. The distinctive and perhaps problematic thing about The Dark Tower is that its fantasy element is not drawn from something as resonant as Chinese mythology or cinema itself, but has been created almost out of whole cloth – you’ve got gunslingers, Dark Towers, parallel worlds, high-tech dimensional portals, demons, psychic powers, evil sorcerers, and monsters in stolen human skins, all crammed into the same movie. Being hit with all this stuff at the same time is admittedly rather bracing, but at the same time you feel perpetually on the verge of being flummoxed by it all.

I say this as someone who is more than passingly familiar with the Stephen King opus. I like King more than many people (my writing coach, for instance, is by no means a big fan), and ideally this film would tip people off to the fact he’s not just a big-selling horror author, but the creator of a complex and intricate fictional universe of his own – there are various references to other King stories threaded into this one, which you don’t even have to be that big a fan to spot (in addition to Jake’s psychic powers being nicknamed ‘shining’, there’s a spot of free publicity for the forthcoming It movie, while Walter is so transparently another incarnation of King’s recurring supervillain Randall Flagg you nearly expect the revelation of his true identity to be a plot point). On the other hand, if you’re not into Stephen King I suspect all of this will just add to your sense of bafflement.

Perhaps it’s the need to keep the wider audience on board that is responsible for the film’s structure feeling so very, very familiar. You can almost see the flags popping up as the various points in Classic Story Structure are reached and ticked off. For all its textural and thematic weirdness, the movie is on some level very routine, even predictable, and perhaps this is the single biggest problem with it. It’s almost like taking pieces of ancient, gnarled, mysterious wood, from trees at the edge of the world, and then using them to make flat-pack office furniture, in strict accordance with the assembly instructions. The film should really be bigger, richer, weirder, more sprawling, and definitely have more than three significant characters.

That said, all three of the leads are perfectly acceptable, with McConaughey in particular seeming to have fun with his role. The production values and direction are also never less than thoroughly competent, and occasionally you do get a glimpse of the remarkable film which could be made from this material – some of Tom Holkenborg’s rousing music, for instance, seems to have wandered in from a rather more effective fantasy adventure movie.

No doubt the producers would agree, defending this movie by saying it’s only intended as an introduction to the Dark Tower mythology, with various TV series and sequels in the works which will explore this universe further. Well, if so, that nearly reduces The Dark Tower to the status of the world’s longest and most expensive teaser trailer – and one which doesn’t really do its job, for at the end you don’t really feel a burning desire to spend any more time with these characters. The uninspired efficiency of the movie robs it of genuine power and magic. It seemed like everyone had forgotten about the famous hoodoo afflicting Stephen King, where for the longest time his most famous and accomplished novels would come a terrible cropper when they were adapted for the screen. It seems to be back in full effect as far as The Dark Tower is concerned. Still, not an actively bad film, just a rather odd and not particularly exciting one.

 

Collective Responsibility

Hmmm: I seem to have run out of Star Trek films to write about. If only there was more Trek of some kind, not necessarily movies, that I could occasionally cast an eye over… wait a minute!

Ah, God bless Netflix. They may not have all the movies (at least they didn’t, last time I checked), but they do have all the TV episodes, which will extend to include Discovery, when it eventually arrives in our quadrant of the galaxy. To be perfectly honest this is (if you’ll pardon the expression) the best of all worlds, from my point of view, as while there are individual episodes of all the Berman-era series that I like very much, the prospect of expending money and space on buying all of them on DVD makes me quail a bit – in the latter couple of shows, certainly, there’s just a bit too much filler I can’t honestly imagine myself watching again more than once, at most.

Still, Next Gen and Deep Space Nine, when they were in their groove, offered up consistently good and interesting stories on pretty much a weekly basis. Picking an episode more-or-less at random, I ended up watching I, Borg, written by Rene Echevarria, one I hadn’t seen since its first BBC transmission back in 1995 (if memory serves, and it usually does). This is from the back end of Next Gen‘s fifth season, when the show was routinely smashing it with great confidence, and while you can perhaps take issue with some elements of the conception of the episode, its execution is strong.

The Enterprise is (for once) doing some exploring in an uncharted system when the ship picks up a signal from a crashed ship on an icy moon. Following the unwritten code of the spaceways, Captain Picard sends down an away team to minister to any survivors who may have come through the crash, but things take a somewhat unexpected turn when the wreck has an ominously cube-shaped aesthetic, and the sole survivor is, indeed, a young Borg drone (Jonathan Del Arco)…

Almost at once, things don’t follow the usual pattern: a sign of the dread the Borg inspire in even our well-adjusted Starfleet heroes. Picard’s initial instinct is to leave the drone to die, on the grounds that it would be insanely dangerous to bring it onto the ship, and pointless to give succour to an implacably deadly enemy of civilisation as they know it. Dr Crusher takes a different view and refuses to leave without at least stabilising the injured Borg. Picard eventually relents and allows the Borg onto the ship, under tight security – but, it is implied, this is because he is already brewing up a plan to use it as a weapon against the Borg Collective as a whole. Infecting the drone with (effectively) malware and then allowing it to rejoin the Collective should result in the disintegration of the Borg hive-mind, and remove the Federation’s single greatest enemy.

It’s interesting that Picard seems to have ginned up this somewhat uncharacteristic plan off his own bat – it’s never explicitly stated that Starfleet Command or anyone at the Federation has signed off on it. Just how much initiative is Picard granted? He is, after all, contemplating instigating genocide. But is it genocide? The Borg are neither a discrete species nor a genuine culture as it is routinely understood. Does this, or their inherent hostility to non-Borg, justify what Picard is planning?

Well, needless to say, some of the crew have doubts, too, especially Crusher and Geordi, who are tasked with studying the drone and preparing the Borg-toppling computer virus. Of necessity kept isolated from the Collective, the drone begins to show signs of emotional distress and other behaviour not usually associated with the Borg, even adopting a personal name, Hugh. In short, the drone is rapidly becoming an individual being. Can Picard’s plan still be justified?

If you’re going to have a serious problem with I, Borg, then it’s probably because this is the episode which starts to dispel the deadly mystique of the Borg as a genuinely terrifying and unstoppable force. This is only the third Borg episode, and prior to this they are notable for the sheer terror they inspire in the regular characters and everyone else in the Federation, and their capacity to wreak utter havoc with less advanced species. This is the episode which begins to humanise them a bit (for want of a better word), indicating that they are not all irretrievably bad or hostile, and opening the door for the eventual appearance of a regular Borg character a few years later. I doubt it would have been possible to maintain the Borg as the implacable menace of their initial appearances over a large number of episodes, but still: perhaps better hardly to use them at all than to water them down as happens from this point on.

By this point in time, Next Gen was usually very much a character-based show – while watching an episode, you can normally say ‘This is a Riker story’ or ‘This is a Worf story’ – and one slightly odd thing about I, Borg is that it’s not immediately clear who the focus is on. In fact, it seems to have something of a split focus, which is quite rare. Much of the story concerns Geordi’s burgeoning friendship with Hugh – well, it kind of makes sense, as Geordi’s best friend is also a synthetic life form, and he’s a bit cybernetic himself – and this proceeds in the kind of way you would expect, though it’s well-played by both performers.

What’s more interesting, and probably the best element of the episode, is the reaction of not only Picard but also Guinan to the presence of the Borg (Guinan, it’s implied, only hears about the drone’s arrival second or third hand, which leads one to wonder how much the ship’s civilian contingent are aware of the peril Picard routinely takes them into). Usually, Picard is a man of impeccable moral judgement; he always says and does the right thing. Usually, Guinan is carefully non-judgemental, and only offers good advice to the rest of the crew. And yet in this episode, the memory of their experiences with the Borg lead them to behave very differently. Guinan initially criticises the captain for not leaving the Borg to die, and is hostile to Geordi’s suggestion it is changing. Picard’s attitude is very similar, brusquely telling Geordi to ‘unattach’ himself from the drone.

The heart of the episode is a scene in which Picard interrogates Hugh – Hugh recognises Picard as his Borg persona, Locutus, which the captain adopts (rather chillingly). As Locutus, Picard argues in favour of the assimilation of the Enterprise and its crew, and it’s Hugh who rejects this and resists the idea. Hugh’s rejection of the Borg philosophy is what convinces Picard of his individuality, and the wrongness of the virus plan.

Which leads us to the slightly peculiar ending of the episode, in which Hugh goes back to the Borg Collective, mainly to ensure they don’t hunt down and destroy the Enterprise in the course of retrieving him. But Picard has hopes that Hugh’s sense of individuality will cascade throughout the hive-mind and fundamentally affect the nature of the Borg.

Now, I agree that introducing a hostile pathogen into an entity to utterly destroy it is morally questionable, especially when you use an unwitting sentient creature as your vector of infection. However, I’m not at all sure that this suddenly becomes acceptable when your hostile pathogen is an alien pattern of thought – in this case, the liberal humanistic outlook which is at the heart of Trek‘s philosophy. Does Picard honestly think this concept is going to have pleasant effects on the utterly monolithic and hive-minded Borg Collective? He’s basically still carrying out the same plan, it’s just that his weapon is now philosophical rather than technological in nature. The end result will surely be the same. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Star Trek‘s devotion to liberal humanism is so absolute that the writers find it literally inconceivable that it could in any way be considered in a negative light.

Normally, I would tend to agree, but the episode has made such a fuss about the moral basis of Picard’s actions that this does strike me as a little dubious. I suppose you could argue that Picard’s get-out is that he’s only respecting Hugh’s desires as an individual, and the introduction of the lethal individuality-meme into the Collective is happening naturally and incidentally, rather than as a result of premeditated action by the Enterprise crew. But I still think he’s on unusually thin ice, morally speaking. As I say, an episode with some pleasingly complex and thought-provoking stuff going on under the surface, from a series near the top of its game.

 

Blondinen Haben Mehr Spass

There’s a conversation that comes around every few years, concerning the long-term prospects of the big studio blockbuster and whether in fact it is a viable form of entertainment. (As most major studios base their business plans on the assumption they will have at least one blockbuster hit every year – this is why they are sometimes called ‘tentpole’ releases – this is far from an idle discussion.) The last time I recall it properly doing the rounds was in 2005, when Stealth (it is perfectly acceptable to have forgotten or never heard of this movie) lost $60 million, A Sound of Thunder (ditto) lost $70 million, and Sahara (ditto again) lost at least $100 million.

Astute readers may have noticed that all of the above movies were not very good, but the big studios seem to have trouble grasping the fact that the failure of a bad movie may simply be down to its badness; they are so frequently successful in pushing dross on audiences that these occasional moments of rebellion from cinemagoers must be quite confusing for them. Nevertheless, here we are again, with the latest Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers movies (relatively) underperforming and the latest version of The Mummy not exactly setting the box office on fire either. Deja vu beckons, as the people responsible cheerfully ignore the fact that some films have done exceedingly well this year (Wonder Woman for one; Fast and Furious 8 for another) and suggest the whole system is flawed, not their dud product.

Having said that, some films seem to be struggling for no apparent reason – for example, well-reviewed, mid-budget genre films like David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, which you might expect to be well-positioned to do okay. Perhaps it’s just not quite big or accessible enough to be a real summer movie nowadays. Comparisons have been made with Keanu Reeves’ ultra-stylish, ultra-ridiculous John Wick movies, not least because Leitch worked on those, too.

The movie is set in November 1989, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, although the movie takes great pains to point out this film has only the noddingest acquaintance with actual historical fact. As the communist grip on the city begins to falter, chaos begins to envelop the intelligence community there, and an MI6 plan to retrieve a highly important McGuffin goes bad, with the lead agent being killed by a Soviet assassin and the McGuffin being lost.

Not content to leave it at that, the top brass at British Intelligence send in Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), quite possibly the most preposterous MI6 agent in cinema history, and that includes Roger Moore in A View to a Kill. Broughton is packed off to Berlin to liaise with semi-rogue agent Perceval (James McAvoy) and recover the lost information – but quite apart from the competition from other agencies (the CIA, KGB, and French Intelligence are all on the scene), the situation is complicated by the suspicion that a double-agent may be involved and trying to prevent their identity from being revealed…

Or, to put it another way, Charlize Theron swanks her way around Berlin in a succession of chic thigh-flashing outfits for the best part of two hours, pausing only to beat the living daylights out of the local cops, occasionally drawl a profanity, disrupt a revival of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and engage in some eye-catchingly hot girl-on-girl action. Hrrmm.

Theron does kind of have form as an action movie heroine, especially following her recent successes in the last Mad Max and Fast and Furious 8, but I have to say the movie that leapt to mind was Karyn Kusama’s Aeon Flux, the main virtue of which was its sheer oddness. Atomic Blonde is a slightly more conventional proposition, in that it doesn’t feature killer topiary or people with an extra pair of hands in an unexpected place, but it’s still very much a vehicle for Theron (not surprisingly, given she produced it). Not that there isn’t a strong supporting cast – John Goodman plays a senior CIA dude, Eddie Marsan a Stasi officer looking to defect, and Sofia Boutella is Theron’s love interest (appearing without prosthetic makeup or limbs, for once).

As a thriller it is only marginally successful, I would say, as the plot becomes quite startlingly and bafflingly convoluted in fairly short order, the fact that most of it is told in flashback not really helping much. But you could certainly argue that the plot is the most dispensable part of Atomic Blonde, which trades heavily on its ass-kicking supermodel aesthetic, stylish direction, and retro vibe.

(To be honest, for a film supposedly set in 1989, most of the well-known songs on the soundtrack hail from rather earlier, and the film has a touch of punk rock attitude which is arguably more 1970s than 80s. You could also argue that the movie overdoes it when it comes to establishing its historical credentials: at one point a breakdancer is savagely beaten with a skateboard, while in the background ’99 Red Balloons’ is played on a ghetto blaster. All right, all right! It’s the 1980s! We get the idea!)

On the other hand, it does work rather well as a ridiculous, very stylish action movie, provided you’re happy to buy the conceit of a leggy supermodel repeatedly beating up gangs of big strong men without her hair getting overly mussed by her exertions. The movie is crunchingly violent, I should say, and even though Theron generally emerges victorious, I found some of the male-on-female violence a bit uncomfortable to watch. On the other hand, there are some highly impressive sequences, the highlight being one which incorporates two separate fist fights, a gun battle, and a car chase, all in (apparently) a single travelling shot. I’m practically certain they cheated, but it’s still a bravura piece of film-making.

Yet I have to say that for all the film’s supposed aspirations towards feminine empowerment, I couldn’t help but detect a slightly leery whiff about it, because Theron is depicted in a way that almost certainly wouldn’t be the case if she were, you know, a male action hero. There is copious nudity from the lead of a kind you will look for in vain in your typical Jason Statham or Tom Cruise (or even Roger Moore) film, and there’s also the girl-on-girl stuff, which feels just a bit salacious. Can you imagine a Hollywood studio releasing a mainstream action movie with a gay protagonist? Me neither, but a bit of lipstick lesbianism is a different prospect, of course.

In the end I had a pretty good time watching Atomic Blonde. I couldn’t really find it in me to take it seriously at all, but then that’s hardly the point, is it? The plot may be a blithering tangle, but it’s plenty stylish and the fisticuffs, gunfights, and car chases all pass muster with the greatest of ease. I’m not sure this is the stuff of which successful franchises are spun, but as a one-off piece of slightly disposable entertainment, it does the trick rather nicely.

 

‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen Being John Malkovich,’ said Bloke From Next Desk.

‘I didn’t say I’d never seen it, I just said I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Fifteen years or so,’ I said.

‘No problem,’ he said (I’m not entirely sure he actually heard me). Within a couple of days he had brought in his copy of the film on DVD for me to watch. He is a thoughtful fellow, even if I find him rather too inclined to be generous towards Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

So, anyway, Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which reached the UK a short while later, as tended to be standard in those days. I was living in the north of England at the time, many hours from the nearest art-house cinema, and so I could often only listen and sigh as London-based film critics extolled the praises of bold, brilliant, unusual films, that I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of actually getting to see on the big screen. Ah, my wilderness years; however did I make it through? Being John Malkovich was just one especially notable example of this – there was a distinct buzz about this film, presumably because of both its startling premise and relentless originality.

John Cusack, that dependable and likeable screen presence, is cast rather against type as Craig, a struggling puppeteer who is married to obsessive animal-lover Lottie (Cameron Diaz, who is also cast very much against type). At Lottie’s request, Craig puts his unusual dexterity to use in a steadier job, working as a file clerk for the mysterious LesterCorp. Here he meets and is instantly attracted to the spiky Maxine (Catherine Keener) – she, quite sensibly, wants nothing to do with him.

All this changes when Craig discovers a mysterious blocked-up doorway in the file room. Going through it results in him being sucked down a passage and finding himself in the mind of the distinguished American actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes he gets to experience life as a famous thespian, before he is disgorged onto the side of a road just outside New York.

Craig and Maxine decide to make the most of their discovery, by selling tickets to Malkovich’s mind for $200 each (as you would). Needless to say, there are dozens of interested parties, and it looks like the pair of them have a good thing going – until Lottie discovers that occupying Malkovich allows her to live out her fantasies of being a man, and engages in a relationship with Maxine from within the actor. Malkovich himself becomes suspicious of the odd events happening around him, and decides to find out just what is going on…

These days, you look at Being John Malkovich and think, ‘aha, a Charlie Kaufman movie’, for the writer has gone on to carve out a unique furrow as a purveyor of existential strangeness in wildly original and blackly funny films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. It’s almost enough to make you suspect he has some kind of superpower when it comes to persuading A-list actors to appear in very, very strange films.

So it is with this one. If you haven’t seen it, you may be wondering how on Earth the film goes about selling the notion of a metaphysical portal into someone’s mind to the audience – well, it is a ridiculous idea, but Kaufman and Jonze make it work by setting the whole film in a ridiculous world. No-one in the film behaves entirely normally – Craig is forever getting punched in the face for putting on age-inappropriate puppet shows in the street, the LesterCorp receptionist appears to have some kind of bizarre problem with her hearing, and the company itself is on the Seventh-and-a-Half floor of its building, with the result that everyone has to go around stooped over all the time. Given that all the characters accept these various elements without questioning them in the slightest, the existence of the Malkovich portal seems relatively less weird when it first appears.

Not that this makes the presence of John Malkovich himself in the film any less astounding – getting him to participate at all is possibly its greatest achievement. ‘If the film is bad, my name’s not just above the title, it is the title,’ Malkovich reportedly complained to Jonze, ‘and if it’s any good, everyone’s just going to assume I am this character.’ It’s not even as if this is a particularly flattering depiction of Malkovich – there’s a running joke about how he is universally acclaimed as a great thespian, but none of the other characters can actually name any of the films he’s appeared in. The fictional Malkovich takes himself very seriously, too – which presumably the real one doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near it (apparently the studio head would have preferred Being Tom Cruise, as well).

If you’re the kind of person who likes to try and guess what the theme of a film is before watching it, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is essentially a comedy about our contemporary obsession with fame – everyone gets their fifteen minutes of Malkovich, after all. And while this is a consistently funny film, if you come to it with the right attitude at least, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It may sound like a comedy, but it doesn’t behave like one – neither the performances nor the direction do anything to suggest that this is anything other than a straight drama, admittedly one with an outlandish element of fantasy, perhaps even of horror: after all, the plot resolves itself as ultimately being about a secret immortal who has hit upon a method of vastly extending his life by overpowering the free will of unsuspecting victims. Only the deadpan seriousness of the presentation makes it funny (an engaging paradox).

You can’t fault the film for its entertainment value, or endless inventiveness – as Roger Ebert said at the time, this is one of those incredibly rare films which is as surprising in its last thirty minutes as it is in its first. It is consistently funny, surprising, and… well, I’m not quite sure I’d call it thought-provoking, but it does delight in throwing strange ideas at the audience. The problem is that the price of this is that the film departs from any kind of recognisable dramatic structure – who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Just which way is this going to go? Bereft of any of the usual signposts or markers, my memory of this movie after my initial VHS encounter was one of a collection of wildly disparate individual bits rather than a coherent narrative, and I’m not sure meeting it again on DVD has done much to change that impression. A very well-made, very funny film, but a total oddity on nearly every level.