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Posts Tagged ‘Jim Sturgess’

As chance would have it, just the other day I passed several fairly agreeable hours watching Euston Films’ 1979 pre-apocalyptic drama Quatermass, even as the telly was full of pre-launch publicity for Euston Films’ 2018 pre-apocalyptic drama Hard Sun, currently showing on BBC One. The media has also been marking the fact that it’s forty years since the TV debut of Blake’s 7, with some unusually complimentary retrospectives concentrating on the programme’s dystopian sensibility and paranoia rather the overacting and spaceships made out of hair-dryers.

I mention the last because Hard Sun is, by some metrics, an SF show for adults, a genre which the BBC has been reluctant to take a chance on since the failure of Outcasts in 2011. (Yes, yes: I know there is what remains of the world’s greatest fantasy series, which I no longer talk about, but here we speak of actual proper science fiction.) BBC disquiet about doing an SF series appears to have been assuaged by the fact that this is only really nominally science fiction, squatting on the border with the police procedural/conspiracy thriller genre. (The show is the brainchild of Neil Cross, who created cop show Luther and also wrote a couple of middling episodes of that fantasy series.)

The first episode establishes the tone for much of what follows, as we meet DCI Cockney Geezer (Jim Sturgess), who seems like a devoted family man despite the fact he’s quietly knocking off his dead best mate’s wife. The circumstances in which the dead best mate passed on are sufficiently suspicious for Geezer’s boss, DCS Annoying Pen-pusher, to believe Geezer may have done him in, and to this end DI Cynical Gamine (Agyness Deyn) has been planted on Geezer’s team to secretly investigate him. (I like shows which have a bit of Agy, but I’ve never seen one with as much Agyness as this one.) Gamine is doing this so her unhinged son, whom she appears to have given birth to when she was about seven, does not go to prison for attempting to murder her. One thing you can say about Hard Sun: it’s never knowingly under-plotted.

Well, in their first day on the job together Geezer and Gamine find themselves working on the case of a conspiracy-theory obsessed hacker with ASD (oh, sigh) who has turned up dead. One of his mates has got his hands on the dead guy’s USB stick, which is disguised as a Saturn V rocket but may as well just be a box with PLOT DEVICE scrawled on it. Our heroes recover the USB but find themselves pursued by the security services, intent on killing everyone who comes into contact with the information on the stick. But why?

Needless to say, Geezer and Gamine can’t resist taking a peek, hoping this will give them leverage to get the homicidal spooks to back off. It turns out that – well, here’s the thing: we never get to see what’s on the stick beyond a few blipverts of graphs and suchlike, but everyone who does look at it properly confirms that it concerns the government’s advance planning for the end of the world (codenamed Hard Sun), which is due in five years time.

Cheer up, it might never happen. Oh, hang on a minute…

 

I have to admit to being somewhat bemused by this, because the government appear to have managed to plan their response to the end of the world without ever letting on exactly what’s going to happen. Even after they’ve looked at the stick, Geezer and Gamine are left speculating as to just what is heading their way – is a comet going to hit Earth? Is it some kind of environmental catastrophe? They seem to be in the dark. Presumably this is just to maintain a sense of foreboding mystery; it also gives them a ready-made opportunity for a big reveal come the last episode of the series.

Well, the first episode reached fairly deep into the bag of Modern Cop Show cliches, but I do like a bit of apocalyptica, and I was curious to see just how the rest of the series would play out (episode one concludes with Gamine taking a redacted set of the information to the media), and just how strong the SF element would be in the mix.

Courtesy of iPlayer’s box set function and the fact I had a day with not much going on (not to mention the fact that Hard Sun is the kind of show you can put on in the background while doing something else and honestly not miss much), I ended up having watched the rest of the first series within the next day. And the answer to the ‘how SF is it?’ question is: really not very much.

Hard Sun boils down to being another of those bleak and bloody cop shows, with the difference being that this time it’s understandable why the leads are so glum all the time: the world’s apparently going to end, after all. The thing is, though, that the impending apocalypse is primarily just a mood-setting thing – the various killers that Geezer and Gamine find themselves contending with are all nutters who’ve been drawn out of the woodwork by the release of the Hard Sun info, but it’s established at the top of episode two that nearly everyone has been convinced this was a hoax. Life goes on as normal for nearly everyone; you could rewrite the middle episodes of this series to extract the impending doom/science fiction element very easily. It’s mainly just there to provide an atmosphere of existential misery – Hard Sun‘s signature bit is a scene where Gamine and Geezer sit down together in the middle of a case and wail ‘But what does any of it matter anyway? We’ve only got five years left!’, which happens in nearly every episode.

Subsequent episodes are mostly competent but fairly undistinguished takes on the kind of story you’ve seen before – a barking ex-husband takes his children hostage, a man outraged by the cruelty of the world starts killing nice people and challenges God to intervene and stop him, a serial killer preys on suicidal people, and so on. There are lots of people in hoodies stalking darkened streets, and so much knife-related violence that it’s easy to imagine the BBC being forced to pull Hard Sun on taste and decency grounds, given the current plague of knife crime in London.

What’s really absent is any kind of moral centre, for as the series proceeds Geezer and Gamine reveal that they are prepared to do just about anything to further their cause, which only occasionally involves catching criminals. When they’re not actively beating each other up with their collapsible truncheons, the doom-conscious duo are forever disregarding standard procedure, obstructing or perverting the course of justice, or plotting the cold-blooded murder of a government employee. This sort of thing reaches its most uproarious extreme in a scene in which Geezer seems to be actively considering waterboarding a priest (one story revolves around that old chestnut of a priest not being able to reveal the identity of a killer due to the seal of the confessional being sacrosanct).

I say ‘uproarious’ because so much of Hard Sun really beggars credibility – there’s the peculiarly vague contents of the USB stick, along with the behaviour of the leads and their byzantine back-stories. Coupled to the fact that the show clearly takes itself very seriously indeed, the result is a programme which is just an unintentional black comedy more than anything else.

I suppose I could imagine the BBC making a show like Hard Sun and it being more, um, good, about twenty years ago, when even the best of us were not immune to the odd pre-millenial jitter. Nowadays, though? Not so much. One plot thread which feels like a particular misstep concerns the ominous dark apparatus of the Security Services, who pursue Geezer and Gamine throughout the series in order to get the USB stick back (despite the fact that everyone is supposedly convinced the apocalyptic data is fake). Playing their nemesis is Nikki Amuka-Bird, who played the curiously inept government minister in New Survivors and plays a somewhat more competent spook here. That’s the thing, I would say: these days we’re not worried that our governments are up to brilliantly-conceived and ultra-secret machinations behind our backs. In the time of Donald Trump and Theresa May, our main concern is that our governments really are as hapless, clueless, and incompetent as they routinely seem to be.

It would be great if the BBC actually had the nerve to make a proper SF TV series, rather than just smuggling a few SF elements into what’s essentially a very dark, very silly cop show. But there you go: such is the world we live in today. Every episode of Hard Sun concludes with a countdown timer, ticking down the days before armageddon’s arrival, and one can only conclude that the BBC and their co-producers Hulu have half an eye on this actually running for five years. Well, I’ll be surprised – but if it even makes it to a second season, the manner in which this one concludes suggests that in any subsequent outings this show will become a rather different beast. That can only be a good thing, because at present there’s at least as much daftness as darkness in Hard Sun.

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There’s no such thing as a job for life these days, so it’s as well to branch out, even in the movie industry. Actually, this sort of diversification has been going on for ages – models become actresses, actors and actresses become directors, writers become directors, producers become directors… hmm, it seems like everyone wants to be the director – except for the odd director who decides to become a producer, anyway.

You can see why – the director gets to make all the big decisions and all the artistic cachet when a movie turns out to be good. All the producer gets to do is count beans and, perhaps, pick up the Best Picture gongs when awards season rolls around. How hard can it be? You get to tell everyone else what to do, in accordance with your creative vision, and wear a pair of Cuban-heeled boots, too. Matthew Vaughn started off as Guy Ritchie’s producer and has gone on to have the kind of directorial career which Ritchie himself would probably quite like nowadays. All in all, it’s enough to tempt anyone to give it a try.

Even Dean Devlin, who is best known as the producer and writing partner of director Roland Emmerich, has fallen prey to this dubious impulse. Now, I’m fully aware that Devlin and Emmerich and their movies are hardly cool, and are never going to win any of the noteworthy Oscars, but I honestly really like Independence Day, and I didn’t really have an actively bad experience watching Stargate, or their version of Godzilla, or The Day After Tomorrow, or 2012. As you can see, if there’s a running theme through the work of these guys, it’s that of special-effects-facilitated catastrophes – nothing too serious, just a lot of running and screaming and the occasional one-liner and moment of unmitigated schmaltz. Devlin’s new movie as co-writer and director, Geostorm, is very much one of these, so at least he’s in his comfort zone.

We open, of course, with a voice-over explaining everything. ‘People were warned. People should have listened,’ laments a grave voice. Yes, but they went ahead and bought tickets to Geostorm anyway, ha ha. Ahem. Following murderously bad weather in the distant year of 2019, a global weather-control network has been set up, code-named ‘Dutch Boy’. Hmmm, I suppose people shouting ‘Dutch Boy is out of control!’ (as they inevitably end up doing) sounds marginally snappier. Anyway, the system is the brainchild of maverick alpha male climatological engineer Jake Lawson (GERARD! BUTLER!), who proceeds to annoy all the politicians in charge of it and gets himself kicked out and replaced by his kid brother Max (Jim Sturgess). (It is just one of those unfortunate things that the heroes of a movie about bad weather should share their surname with a particularly ridiculous British climate-change denier.)

Very early on you get a sense of what a special movie Geostorm is going to be. Jake Lawson turns up at a hearing and is greeted thusly by the security guard: ‘Hey, you’re JAKE LAWSON! Jake Lawson! What a great guy you are! You invented Dutch Boy! Any bad weather in the world, you can stop it! You saved everyone! You’re a hero, Jake Lawson.’ Do you know, I get the impression the audience is supposed to like him.

Well, anyway, years go by and preparations to turn over the weather-modifying gadgets to international control are underway, but then a village full of Afghans turn up, transformed into corpsicles by unknown means (presumably they casually kill off some Afghans because, well, they don’t matter as much as Americans or Europeans or Chinese people, do they?). Could something be up with the weather satellites? Hmmm. Max is obliged to drag a rather grumpy Jake back from exile and pack him off to the ludicrously large space station where the weather network is run from. Soon both brothers are turning up evidence that the system has been interfered with, and lots more absurdly bad weather is on the way…

It is a source of mild embarrassment to me that I was such an enthusiastic promoter of Gerard Butler’s career ten or fifteen years ago, back when he was turning up in things like Timeline and Reign of Fire. It is indeed true that he has scaled the peaks of Hollywood stardom and become a proper leading man. But it is also the case that any Gerard Butler-led movie you stumble upon these days is likely to be – how can I put this delicately? – absolutely bloody awful. Just what kind of advice is he being given?

The trailer for Geostorm promises a full-on bonkers apocalypse in the true Emmerich style, but it actually starts off by looking more like one of those ‘peril in orbit’ movies that have become somewhat modish since Gravity came along. Butler spends most of the movie in space (which many might say was the best place for him these days) – luckily, in space everyone can still hear you growl, and quite possibly sweat – leaving Sturgess to run around on Earth trying to uncover the conspiracy. Once again, every time he meets a new character there’s a lovely scene where they tell each other at great length who they are and how they know each other, even if they’re both already aware of this. What a script this is.

Well, in the end the person behind the conspiracy turns out to be exactly the one you thought it was all along (honestly, only a tree would be surprised by the revelation), and there are various scenes of good-looking extras being chased down the street by bad weather. The Kremlin melts in the sun, but in the name of balance, the Democratic National Convention is struck by lightning and blows up (they really missed a trick by not getting Al Gore to come on and shout ‘I did warn you-‘ at the last minute), and the International Space Station blows up too – it has a rather odd self-destruct device where it blows up a tiny bit at a time over the course of about an hour and a half. Fortunately, the President escapes: the thankless task of playing the leader of the Free World falls to Andy Garcia.

No, really, how are you supposed to include the President in a movie these days? It was easy when Clinton was in power – just get someone young and a bit roguishly charming, easy peasy. During the Obama administration, you could just hire someone like Danny Glover or Jamie Foxx to be grave and inspiring. But who do you hire these days? Isn’t the reality just too bizarre even for a movie like Geostorm? I suspect CGI would be required.

Garcia isn’t the only person who seems to have wandered in from a rather more sensible film – Ed Harris phones in his performance stoically, while Abbie Cornish – a pleasing but peripheral presence in dodgy movies for some years now – plays a Secret Service agent who ends up kidnapping the President (in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s that sort of film). Giving quite possibly the best performance in the whole thing is Talitha Bateman as Butler’s daughter: one to watch, methinks.

A friend of mine is also a connoisseur of the Butler canon and his advance word on Geostorm probably lifted my expectations too high – ‘this film makes London Has Fallen look like The Dark Knight,’ he promised. Well, no it doesn’t, I have to say, because Geostorm is just very, very stupid, rather than actually being offensive to the soul. In terms of just this year’s films, it’s less actively irritating than Hampstead, and has strong competition in the stupidity stakes in the xXx sequel. This still makes it a very bad film, of course.

What it reminds me of most, to be honest, is one of those dimwit TV disaster movies that Syfy churn out by the dozen – as a single man in middle age who’s often at home in the afternoons, I end up watching a lot of these on the Horror Channel – movies like Tornado Warning, Solar Storm, Christmas Icetastrophe, Stonehenge Apocalypse, and so on. If you gave the makers of one of these films a $120 million budget and blackmail material on several major stars, I imagine the result would be something like Geostorm. Only the scale of this movie makes it particularly noteworthy.

But hey, at least Dean Devlin has got to direct a big Hollywood movie, which is more than most of us can say we’ve ever done. Well done, Dean; I would just focus on that and not worry too much about the reviews or the box office returns. Geostorm is pretty much what you’d expect from a movie about Gerard Butler having a fight with the weather, but the fact it’s so exactly what you think it’s going to be is almost a little surprising. Not actually morally offensive, but still not a film which sensible adults should really go anywhere near.

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Ah, what a great, iconic tale: victims of an oppressive, totalitarian regime, a motley band of dissidents and criminals escape from imprisonment in a bleak wasteland and set out to strike a blow for individual freedom. Fantastic material for a film there, especially if you’re multi-Award nominated film-maker Peter Weir. Unfortunately, the film rights for Blake’s 7 are already under option and so Weir has been obliged to search elsewhere for material for his new film, which he has nevertheless decided to call The Way Back.

(What an odd way to start a review, you may be thinking: it isn’t even that good a joke. Well, you may be right, but what the hell – some people may appreciate it. Let me know if you’re one of them!)

Anyway, this is an epic drama based on a supposedly true story (the events apparently happened, it’s just that nobody seems to be quite sure who they actually happened to). Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a young Pole banished to the Siberian gulag at the height of the Second World War. There he befriends a mixed bag of other prisoners, mostly other political dissidents, and together they decide to make a break for freedom – no small thing, given the lethal hostility of the Siberian wilderness and the immense distances separating them from safety.

Amongst Janusz’s new companions are a grizzled American (Ed Harris) and a brutal Russian criminal (Colin Farrell), while in the course of their journey southward they meet another young Polish refugee, Irina (Saoirse Ronan). Their initial plan to follow the shore of Lake Baikal and cross the border into Mongolia runs into trouble and it becomes clear their only hope of freedom is to try to cross the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, with India as their ultimate goal.

Given the scope of the story and Weir’s track record when it comes to epic, yet engrossing dramas, I went to see The Way Back with high expectations. And it scores in a number of departments – the scenery and photography throughout is stunning, and the performances are honest and convincing.

However, while the scope of the story is stunning, the actual detail of it isn’t that involving. Fatally, some of the members of the escaping group remain rather anonymous until the journey is well underway, and they’re not that well delineated even then. Not a huge amount happens, either in terms of the group’s internal interactions or the things they encounter on the way. (For some reason, the actual escape itself takes place off-screen.) The film devolves into the characters wandering along, worrying about getting lost and finding things to eat and drink, with only the landscape going through any significant change.

None of the pictures from the film were that interesting or funny, so here's a photo of Blake's 7 instead. Hurrah!

That said, the movie isn’t cliched and I suspect most people will be surprised at the identities of the characters who fall by the wayside in the course of the trek. It does, however, jump through some startling narrative hoops when it comes to language – initially it’s all in subtitled Russian (fine by me, as it allowed me to check in on the deterioration of my rooski yazik), but abruptly switches to accented English a few minutes in. Fair enough, thought your reviewer, it’s a translation convention… but no! It’s made clear that for some reason the Poles and Russians and other eastern Europeans are all choosing to speak in English throughout most of their journey, which is considerate of them and fortunate for Harris’s character (and the audience). I’m being disingenuous, of course – there are very sound commercial reasons why this film isn’t in a foreign language. Personally I don’t worry that much about verisimilitude, though – but then again I’m not the National Geographic people, who produced this film…

I suspect that may be a bit of a metaphor for the problems with The Way Back – it frets a bit too much about mundane details and in doing so forgets about being appropriately sweeping and epic and moving. This is by no means a bad film, but I didn’t emerge particularly thrilled or uplifted or caring about the characters (though I did emerge with a few ideas for possible future holiday destinations). Not inappropriately given the subject matter, The Way Back is really a bit of a plodder.

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