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Posts Tagged ‘Catastrophe movies’

Well now, the sun is shining and the UK is basking in wholly unseasonable good weather. The scent of barbecues drifts gently on the afternoon breeze and the sound of young people at play floats up to the window of my attic. All is well with the world. In these circumstances, what could make more sense than to talk about the futility of existence and the destruction of all life as we know it, both things which feature strongly as elements of Lars von Trier’s latest offering, (wait for it) Melancholia.

Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a young PR woman who’s just getting married to a man who’s clearly devoted to her. They arrive for their wedding reception at a golfing hotel owned by her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), which is where nearly all the movie takes place. Numerous friends of Justine are present, along with members of her family, and an ostentatiously dysfunctional bunch they are too.

As the evening goes on it becomes clear that not all is well with Justine: she seems to be struggling, merely going through the motions and not as happy as she affects to be. Amongst other things, she keeps sneaking off to secluded parts of the golf course to do things that would outrage the greenkeepers if they found out about them. She develops a strange fixation with the sky, and an odd sensitivity to something anomalous happening to the constellation Scorpio.

Some time later, we find that Justine is in a state of near-catatonic depression and being cared for by her sister and brother-in-law. The wider world is anticipating a more significant event: the approach from deep space of a new planet, Melancholia, which is due to pass close to Earth in only a few days time. The coming of the new world has different effects on the two sisters: Claire becomes increasingly nervous, while Justine seems to make a recovery. Claire’s husband assures her not to worry – there is no danger of the two planets colliding.

He is of course wrong, and the audience is fully aware of this from the start. The most striking and memorable sequence in Melancholia is at the very beginning, when apocalyptic tableaux depicting heaven and earth in chaos and concluding with the annihilation of the planet unfold, all to the strains of Wagner on the soundtrack (the relevance of von Trier’s choice of music, given the ongoing is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-Nazi-sympathiser debate, I leave to others to decide). We know how this is all going to end even as it begins.

So, you may be wondering, what’s the point of it all? A very reasonable question, and I think to some extent this movie reviews itself – the plot is about the extinction of life as we know it, the theme is the effects of depression, and the name of the thing is Melancholia – what do you think it’s like to watch?

However, that said, there is much interesting stuff going on here. All the stuff about the dysfunctional family and co-workers in the first half does feel a bit stagey and contrived but it does at least partially explain Justine’s depression, which for a long while was what I thought this film was about. Her slide into ill-health begins as the first signs of Melancholia’s approach become apparent (even the name of the planet is a bit of a giveaway) – you could even interpret this as the planet being her illness made manifest, drawn down out of the depths of space. Certainly her reaction to Melancholia’s approach seems one almost of rapture rather than disquiet: one striking scene has Claire discovering Justine basking in the light it gives off.

And yet the second half of the film is Claire’s story as much as Justine’s, and Claire’s response to the looming cosmic encounter is much more straightforward. It’s the difference that is crucial here, I suppose – calm acceptance as opposed to nervous agitation. Certainly the film strongly suggests that the more rational your mind, the less well-equipped you are to cope with extraordinary circumstances like these.

This is a hard film to categorise – the very vague plot similarities with the likes of Armageddon and Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre have led some to go down the route of ‘hmm, SF and psychology – must be a bit like Solaris, then’. This seems fairly fatuous to me as the level of accuracy in the celestial mechanics is about what you’d expect from an episode of Space: 1999. A much better comparison, to my mind, would be with Black Swan – both are to some extent about mental health issues, both feature striking performances from actresses best known for much more mainstream fare, and both toy with genre material for their own ends (though I should point out that Melancholia features considerably less ballet dancing and girl-on-girl action).

Kirsten Dunst is extremely good in what must have been a fairly challenging role, but Charlotte Gainsbourg is equally accomplished in a less showy part. Von Trier has managed to attract an extremely strong cast – John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Jesper Christensen – who do the best they can with some faintly melodramatic material. This does add to a faint sense of artifice throughout – von Trier isn’t afraid to repeatedly remind you that you’re watching a movie – but given this is established from practically the first moment it’s not really a problem.

But it does feel like it goes on forever without a great deal of importance actually happening for long stretches at a time, and given the Big Themes that are not terribly subtly woven into the story, I was hoping that in the end the film would have something more significant to say than actually appears to be the case. It’s a stunning-looking movie with some very strong performances in it, and it may well be that with Melancholia Lars von Trier has made another profound and very important cinematic statement. But if he has, I have absolutely no idea what it is.

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From the Hootoo Archive. Originally published September 19th, 2002:

Regular partakers of this column may well feel a twinge of déjà vu as for the second week running we look at a film in which the aforementioned Texan thesp shows up as a nutter with a big axe [the previous week featured a review of Frailty – A]. This time it’s Rob Bowman’s Reign Of Fire, an odd but rather entertaining aspiring blockbuster…

Reign Of Fire kicks off in contemporary London as schoolboy Quinn Abercrombie (Ben Thornton) – yeah, like that’s a real name! – visits his mum (Her Cybernetic Majesty Alice Krige), a site engineer on the London Underground. The transport authority clearly don’t have a clue about proper health and safety procedures as not only is Quinn allowed to wander about without even a hard-hat, but they also have no idea what to do when they accidentally disturb one of your actual giant fire-breathing dragons from its hibernation. Obviously one of the irritable-when-roused type, the dragon toasts the place and flies off, leaving Quinn the only survivor.

Fast-forward to 2020, and the now-grown Quinn has turned into Christian Bale and developed a terrible Cock-Er-Knee accent. The dragon and its spawn have crushed civilization as we know it and Quinn is leading a small community of survivors, holed up in northern England. The people are starving (though Bale’s pecs look well-nourished enough), and the isolation and lack of contact with other groups is wearing at them: ‘we haven’t heard from Norwich in two years,‘ someone says, if nothing else proving that even the worst post-apocalypse is not without the odd silver lining.

But then who should appear to save the day than barmy US army dragonslayer Van Zan (McConaughey) and his army of followers (‘if there’s one thing worse than dragons, it’s Americans‘), who inevitably include beautiful pilot Alex (Izabella Scorupco – a rare example of an ex-Bond girl getting to play the love interest in a big studio release). Van Zan’s in Britain because he has a plan to solve the dragon problem once and for all – and Quinn’s going to help, whether he likes it or not…

Reign Of Fire is kept from being a really first-class piece of hokum by its script, which is a bit perfunctory and poorly paced, and by its budget, which obviously isn’t as expansive as the writer and director had hoped for. A film can overcome one of these problems, but not both together. The most obvious example here is in the sequence linking the present day prologue with the main part of the film – we’re told, through voice-over, graphics, and stock-footage, that the dragons destroyed all the existing governments and systems of authority, despite the vast military arsenals which would surely have been employed against them. It’s asking a lot of the audience to make this a fundamental part of the film’s background, and what’s worse is that we don’t even get to see the dragons torching any major landmarks or otherwise actually doing it. I’d prefer sense to spectacle, but I would like at least one of the two to make an appearance. The end result is perhaps too much post- and not enough apocalypse.

There are other problems in Reign Of Fire, of course, but they all stem from one or other of the two flaws mentioned above. The CGI is a bit iffy, resulting in some rather manky-looking dragons, and the climax is a bit of a damp squib (the money appears to have been running out). But there’s still a huge amount to enjoy here, if you can suspend your disbelief: it’s engaging played, with solid performances from most of the cast (Bale and Krige’s accents excluded). Gerard Butler is pretty good as Quinn’s best mate, and sharp-eyed Trekkies will spot Alexander Siddig in the crowd from time to time. But McConaughey steals the acting honours with a marvellously looney turn as Van Zan.

It’s not all in the acting, either – post-apocalypse England is rather well put on (excepting some of the CGI, as mentioned above), and for all its weaknesses the script serves up some very nice moments – my favourite being a wonderful scene where Quinn and his mates entertain the community’s kids by re-enacting scenes from The Empire Strikes Back by candlelight. Bowman’s direction is solid enough, and the whole thing has a rather bleak and sombre mood, a refreshing change from most blockbusters. I enjoyed Reign Of Fire a lot – worth seeing, if you’re willing to cut it some slack.

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