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Posts Tagged ‘Duncan Jones’

Wouldn’t it be nice if they instituted a quota where, every year, each big studio was obliged to do at least one major blockbuster which was an original story? Not a sequel, not a remake, not a reboot (whatever one of those is supposed to be), not based on a comic, a novel, another movie, or a computer game. I know it’ll never happen, but imagine how it would transform the cinema landscape.

I say this, of course, as I survey a release schedule prominently featuring a new Tarzan movie, a movie based on Assassin’s Creed, a fifth Bourne movie, an Independence Day sequel… I mean, not that I’m not going to see most of these films – you have to admit another Damon/Greengrass Bourne is a tasty prospect – but even so. In much of the publicity material, all the talk is of ‘the latest instalment’ and ‘incredible visual effects’ with next to no mention of story, characters, ideas.

Front-loading a review of Duncan Jones’ Warcraft: The Beginning with all this stuff is probably bad form as it probably tips you off as to the general tenor of everything I’m going to say. This is the adaptation of the juggernaut computer gaming franchise which has been floating around in development for about a decade. Now, given the quality of Jones’ other movies (Moon and Source Code) you would usually be quite optimistic about the prospects for this one. On the other hand, this is a big-budget fantasy movie, something which even the best directors have struggled with, and a computer game adaptation, a genre which has produced more utter disasters than any other.

warcraft

The film opens with Generic Fantasyland being invaded by Orcs from another dimension, much to the concern of the locals. Some of the Orcs are a healthy apple-green sort of shade. Others are more your regular flesh tone. Generally, the colour of your Orc seems to reflect their morality: greener Orcs seem to be more evil. Does this constitute racism towards Orcs on the part of the film-makers? I’m not sure. Either way these are big chunky Orcs with hefty tusks and a love for big hammers and improbable costume jewellry. An especially pink, and therefore decent, Orc (mo-capped by Toby Kebbell), is along for the invasion, but troubled by the unhealthy magic employed by their leader.

Meanwhile, the residents of Generic Fantasyland are in a bit of a tizzy as the nature of the Orc threat becomes clear. Leading the defence is Sir Generic Fantasyname (Travis Fimmel – no, me neither), and a bunch of other characters who are an awkward mixture of archetype and stereotype. Actually going into detail about the plot is quite tricky, I’m finding – there’s a lot of riding about and fighting and people growling tersely to each other, and a lot of flashy CGI magic that looks like something from a Harry Potter film or a Marvel superhero movie, but in terms of actual plot and character development… it all just slips through the fingers of my memory. I saw this movie less than twelve hours ago, as I write, and yet most of the details of it seem to have slipped through the fingers of my memory.

What exactly do I recall? Well, there’s a bombastic, Poledouris-esque score from Ramin Djawadi which I quite liked, huge amounts of garish CGI, a bizarrely decorous scene of Orc childbirth, Paula Patton in a Raquel Welch-ish fur bikini…

Actually, I feel obliged to mention that Patton’s character is both friendly and very green, thus proving the general green-is-bad principle does not always hold. The thing is that Patton has, for want of a better expression, greened up to play the part. Given all the fuss about there not being any actual Egyptian performers in the forthcoming (over here) Gods of Egypt, should we be surprised at the lack of an outcry over the lack of genuine Orcs in Warcraft? Is this another example of anti-Orc prejudice on the part of the film-makers?

…where were we? Oh, yes. Well, the art direction is quite good, though not what you’d call understated, and in the end the story takes a few odd turns you wouldn’t normally expect from a film of this kind – some people die whom you might expect to live, and some people make it to the end credits who you’d normally expect to croak it. I’m not sure this is necessarily a good idea, because stories tend to be the shape they are for a reason, but it does a tiny amount in the way of making this film distinctive.

Many years ago I was lucky enough to interview a fairly successful writer of thrillers and horror novels who was at pains to make it clear that he did not write fantasy, because he considered it to be the equivalent of cheating at cards to win paper money. I was reminded of his words while watching Warcraft: The Beginning, because this is the most heftless and bland kind of fantasy. Here we are in the city of Stormwind. Why is it called Stormwind? Well, it’s just a cool name, isn’t it? The King of Stormwind can call on the assistance of the mystical guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), who commands all sorts of spectacular mystical forces. Why do they have this arrangement? How did he get the job? How exactly does magic work in this world? Well… it just suits the plot that things are as they are, doesn’t it? And here’s young Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), a mage from the flying city of Dalaran… why does it fly? Do all these names have any kind of thought-through etymology to them? Or are they just composed with the assistance of the Scrabble bag?

In short, there’s no sign of any consistent underpinning to the world of Warcraft, no coherent conceptual basis. If this place has any kind of detailed history or back-story to it, it’s not made clear in the film at all. All we’re left with are just people racing about waving swords and hammers and the CGI bill racing upwards at supersonic speed. As a result the story feels arbitrary and contrived, and the film is almost impossible to engage with as an actual drama, as opposed to simply a colourful, kinetic spectacle. (Films like this do at least remind you of what a miracle Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings films were.)

Warcraft is a fairly joyless, gruelling experience, summoning up memories of a plethora of dodgy fantasy films from years gone by – everything from Dungeons and Dragons to Eragon. (I’d compare it to Krull, but it’s frankly not nearly as much fun.) But the most depressing thing about it is that there is no sign of Duncan Jones in it – his other films were smart, imaginative pieces of SF, built around strong central characters. This is just an amorphous glob of generic stuff, seemingly directed by a computer programme, with one eye firmly on the franchise: note, for instance, that subtitle, plus the fact that the story just stops rather than actually reaching a conclusion. Technically proficient though this movie is, I strongly doubt it has the potential to appeal to anyone not steeped in the computer game, and I also doubt that audience is big enough to turn this film into a hit. I just hope this doesn’t turn out to be another instance of a promising directorial career being utterly derailed by a brush with a big budget.

 

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Various cinematic shades hang over Duncan Jones’ Moon, almost exclusively of the classic-70s-SF variety – even before the opening credits had finished I was already thinking in terms of Silent Running, Alien, 2001, and so on. This sort of homage goes on all the time, of course, but the question is whether this is just a cheap visual gimmick – an ingratiating wink at the cognoscenti – or born of a deeper affection for and understanding of what these films are actually about.

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the sole inhabitant of an industrial outpost on the dark side of the titular celestial body. Sam’s job is to oversee a number of semi-autonomous robotic mining vehicles which harvest energy-rich helium-3 before it is processed and fired off back to Earth. Almost totally isolated and unable to communicate directly with Earth, his only companion is Gerty, the embodiment of the base AI (voiced, inimitably, by Kevin Spacey). Sam’s been here for three years – a long haul – and he is looking forward to the end of his contract and returning to his wife and child. However, as his time grows short, he becomes aware of strange phenomena – he seems to be having hallucinations, occasionally glimpsing others in the base or seeing recordings of himself he has no recollection of making. Things come to a head when he becomes dangerously distracted while out on the lunar surface and crashes his tractor into one of the helium miners.

Sam recovers consciousness in the base infirmary with no recollection of what happened. But almost at once he becomes suspicious – Gerty seems to be having conversations with Earth behind his back and the base is unaccountably sealed. He manages to make his way outside, but on returning to the crash site he makes a shocking discovery – inside the wrecked tractor is an injured man, and it appears to be him…

The most obvious thing about Moon is the level of technical achievement involved in what is, after all, an extremely low-budget film. This is not remotely apparent on screen: the production is immaculately designed and realised, with the only slightly peculiar element being extensive use of models rather than CGI. Even this feels like a refreshing break from the norm, and if I say parts of the film rather resemble parts of the Gerry Anderson canon, I mean this in a good way.

The centre of the film is the interaction between the two Sam and this is flawlessly executed – there’s even a brief sequence where they play each other at ping-pong during which my jaw literally dropped open. Here the movie transcends the technical limitations of the films it’s inspired by while keeping something of their soul. However, that this element works as well as it does is due just as much to Sam Rockwell’s performance. The two Sams are very different characters and constantly believeable as such – but at the same time, Rockwell never overdoes it and makes them into wholly different people.

Recently I discussed the difficulty of defining the nature of SF, and one of the better suggestions I’ve heard is that it revolves around conceptual breakthrough of some kind – characters slowly coming to a better, truer understanding of the nature of the world and their place in it. This theme is certainly at the heart of Moon and certainly influences the structure of the film – this isn’t an action movie or really an adventure of any kind, but more an examination of character. As such it’s both engaging and rather moving.

If the film has a weakness, it’s that once all the layers of mystification and strangeness have been resolved, the story is rather stuck for things to do in terms of a climax. Lots of things happen, for sure, and the end of the film is satisfying – but it somehow doesn’t have the richness or thoughtfulness of the earlier sections.

Moon, as I believe is quite well-known, eventually led to Duncan Jones being given the director’s chair on Source Code. In retrospect, it’s easy to see what the two films have in common, as they’re both tightly limited in terms of location and are concerned with individuals trapped in a repetitive cycle to the point where they begin to question their own identity. They’re both very good, but for me Moon is easily the superior of the two – not just a homage to a collection of classic movies, but a classic in its own right.

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‘A cross between Groundhog Day and Murder on the Orient Express.’
 
Oh, good grief. It’s enough to make you swear off CNN (the source of that particular critical gem) for life. Okay, folks, in the wake of all this ‘It’s Bourne meets Inception’ and Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day’ nonsense, that was the final straw. Henceforth if you ever catch me describing a film in such a lazy, mechanical and – honestly – inaccurate way, shout at me, because I’ve had enough.
 
Normally I try and steer clear of other peoples’ opinions when choosing what to see in my weekly trip to the cinema – I mean, if you have any ambition to write film reviews with something like integrity (don’t start) you have to leave your preconceptions and prejudices at the door (not that I’m actually aware of anyone who’s completely successful at this).
 
Here’s the deal. I was put off going to see Duncan Jones’ Source Code by the trailer, which doesn’t do the film any favours. I thought it came across looking like another high-concept middle-budget Phil Dick pastiche, with hefty dollops of stuff derived from other bits of TV and movie SF. And I’ve seen enough of those, ta. This week I was going to see… er… a certain other movie, which had the virtues of at least looking original, and being directed by someone whose previous movies I’ve all really enjoyed (well, I didn’t bother seeing the one about the owls, but…). However. The certain other movie has received unanimously toxic reviews, while everyone’s raving about Source Code. It was time for a change of plan.  

 

In the movie Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a US serviceman who wakes up to find himself on a train in Illinois. But on the train Stevens is not Stevens: his wallet is that of a man named Fentress, and on looking in the mirror he sees a face he doesn’t recognise. It’s as if he’s been teleported into another man’s life without anyone noticing, not even Fentress’s closest friend on the train, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Before he can even make sense of all this, a bomb blows the train apart and kills them both –

– and Stevens finds himself suspended in a dark, but oddly familiar space. A woman in military uniform (Vera Farmiga), under the command of a spiky boffin (Jeffrey Wright), is giving orders to him via a computer screen. Suddenly he find himself waking up on the train again, the events leading up to the bombing replaying inexorably…

And the film continues from there, filling in information about both the train bombing and Stevens’ own predicament as it goes (the latter turns out to be at least as grim as the former). One really shouldn’t say too much about the plot, for fear of spoiling the journey into understanding which is at the heart of this film.

As a piece of proper SF, Source Code’s credentials are dubious at best: as the main scientist on display, Wright’s character is clearly an expert in bafflegab and gobbledegook. The reason it’s called Source Code at all is an aesthetic one – in the context of the story it’s a punchy, slightly mysterious name for a ludicrous piece of pseudo-scientific invention. Retro-Cognitive Psycho-Projectron would probably be a more logical and honest title, but the studio wouldn’t allow them to put that on a poster.

However, as a thriller with a big fantastical high-concept at its heart, Source Code is exemplary. Jones’ control of time and space is excellent: it’s not until after the film that you realise most of the story occurs in only three or four locations, none of them particularly sizeable, and the repeated visits to the train in the minutes before the blast never actually seem repetitive. Were he still around, I think Hitchcock would have relished the challenge of operating within such strictures: and I think he would approve of Jones’ work here.

There are inevitably shades of Groundhog Day here, but only very faint ones. I was put rather more in mind of Jonathan Heap’s 1990 short film 12:01PM (the makers of this film decided not to sue the makers of the more famous movie for plagiarism, so I’m certainly not going to say Groundhog Day ripped it off), in which a man finds himself trapped in a short-period time-loop with no means of escape, and the tone is much harder and darker. Source Code has something of the same quality of an endlessly recurring nightmare, particularly in its middle section.

On the other hand, there are numerous clues in Source Code – some of them obvious, some quite deeply buried – which indicate that the makers consider themselves mainly in debt to the late-80s-early-90s-liberal-angst-a-thon TV series Quantum Leap, although this story is much darker than anything that show ever made.

Source Code’s sources are basically immaterial, anyway, as this film manages to transcend them and become something quite new and original. Comparisons with the likes of Inception strike me as overgenerous – this film isn’t quite so technically dazzling, and it’s not intended to be a puzzle or particularly ambiguous in its ending, and any debates on that subject will almost certainly be the result of people not properly paying attention to the climax.
 
In the end, I’m very happy to have seen Source Code, although it didn’t quite live up to the expectations all those glowing testimonials had given. Had I gone to see it cold, I expect I might be even more impressed than I am. As it is, I think it’s a brilliant exercise in storytelling, well-played and actually quite moving throughout. And I suspect it’s at least twice as smart as most of the films that’ll be released to cinemas this year. Recommended. 

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