Posts Tagged ‘Morten Tyldum’

It’s a reasonable working assumption that Disney and its stellar conflict franchise are going to own the Christmas cinema release schedule for the foreseeable future – at least until audience fatigue sets in, anyway. Until then, it will be a brave studio that puts out anything in the way of popular mainstream genre entertainment, especially in the SF or fantasy genres – although, on the other hand, there will be a lot of fruitful territory for counter-programmers to operate in.

Nevertheless, here is Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, courtesy of Columbia Pictures, Village Roadshow, the amusingly-named Original Film Company and a bunch of other entities, a mainstream SF genre movie which has the cojones to go pretty much directly head to head with Disney’s latest offering. The script has apparently been knocking about for nearly ten years, so this may just be a case of oh-I’m-sick-of-waiting-let’s-just-release-the-damn-thing, but I doubt it.


I rather suspect the producers are relying on the cachet and star power of what is, on paper at least, something of a dream coupling of two of today’s most charismatic performers, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. One of my friends is fond of proclaiming that Lawrence and Pratt are, essentially, the same person, in terms of their appeal, but I tend to disagree: if this were so, there would be more pictures of Chris Pratt wearing a snake on my laptop’s hard drive. Besides, Lawrence has received more Oscar nominations at such a young age than anyone else in history, while Pratt is, um, the amiable leading man guy from a bunch of comic book movies, remakes, and sequels. (It’s telling that Lawrence is receiving a considerably bigger paycheque for this movie than her co-star.)

Despite all that, it’s Pratt who has by far the bigger presence in the first act of the movie. He plays Jim, a passenger on an interstellar flight to a remote colony world. As the trip takes 120 years even at 50% of the speed of light, the passengers and crew are spending most of the voyage in suspended animation – yet a series of unprecedented events results in system failures that leave mechanic Jim (Pratt) and journalist Aurora (Lawrence) wide awake with almost 90 years of flight time still to go and no-one else for company except an well-mannered android bartender (Michael Sheen).

Well, as you might expect, there is soon a degree of chemical engineering in progress between our two stars, but not quite enough to take their minds off the looming prospect of living out the rest of their lives in total isolation on the giant ship. Plus, the ship’s systems are growing increasingly glitchy, which may also cause them some problems in a rather nearer future…

If you’ve just seen the trailers and so forth for Passengers, you may have come away with the impression that this is a fairly disposable piece of mainstream Hollywood entertainment, a vehicle for the two stars with some cute relationship stuff, a little light physical jeopardy round about the climactic regions, and as many shots of Jennifer Lawrence in something clingy and/or skimpy as they can reasonably get away with. And much of this is indeed the case.

However, those trailers (along with all the other promotional material I’ve come across) have been quite carefully fashioned to obscure one fairly major plot element. Fair play to them for trying to give the audience a proper surprise, for once, if this is indeed the thinking here – but I rather doubt that’s the case. It’s quite tricky to write about this without blowing the gaff on the stuff the trailer’s keeping quiet about, but basically it gives the film a whole new angle, and one which is not unproblematic. Without going into too much detail, it makes the film rather uncomfortable and creepy to watch.

One consequence of this is that Chris Pratt gets rather better material than Jennifer Lawrence. As I mentioned, I’ve always found Pratt to be a very amiable screen presence, but I would have said the jury was definitely still out on his ability as an actor of significant range. Well, he’s okay here, he doesn’t embarrass himself, but on the other hand it’s not a revelatory performance either. Lawrence is as immaculate as you might expect, but I doubt her award-nominations tally will be going up this year.

In both cases this is largely the result of the script just not being quite there. The main driver of the first two acts is the issue of loneliness and isolation and how people react to it, but you can’t base an action-packed finale on something like that, so there’s a rather inelegant shifting of the gears, with the appearance of a new character played by Laurence Fishburne, and a sudden onset of peril and excitement. Now, the film does work quite hard to ensure this doesn’t appear completely out of nowhere, and indeed it’s also trying its best to smooth over some of the issues with the awkward material mentioned earlier. But in the end just a bit too much is discounted just a little too easily.

(It’s a minor issue, but the film’s world-building seems a little suspect to me, too: quite apart from the horrible corporate future depicted here – this is almost the colonisation of the galaxy as envisioned by Donald Trump – the ship looks more like a cruise liner than a colony vessel. We are told there have been ‘thousands’ of trips in the past. Assuming 120 years is standard for each voyage, who is crewing these vessels? Who would want to work on a ship where every round trip propels you the best part of 250 years into the future? It’s like The Forever War with nicer decor.)

The film is visually lavish and Morten Tyldum does his best with it, but I don’t think it’s up to the standards of either The Imitation Game (his last film) or Headhunters (the one before that). Pratt and Lawrence keep things watchable, naturally, but I came away with a strong sense of a film shying away from properly engaging with all the issues it was raising. It’s not just that the film brings up some awkward questions – it’s that it seems fully aware of these questions and is actively trying to pretend they don’t exist. I wouldn’t call this a bad film, quite – but I couldn’t call it a good one, either.


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‘…It’s as if the writers wanted to tell the story of the Bletchley Park station but realised that this would involve lots of rather complex stuff about cryptography, and make the lead character homosexual… There’s a great film waiting to be made about the station’s contribution to the winning of the Second World War…’

some idiot on the internet in 2001

Well, thirteen years is an extremely long time in cinema, and you can’t keep a good idea down forever. The only question is, just how much credit should I be prepared to take for the eventual appearance of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game? I am prepared to be magnanimous about this, naturally.


The Imitation Game is named after one of the mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing’s landmark papers discussing the potential and nature of artificial intelligence (indeed, for many years Turing was probably best known as the creator of the Turing test, a thought-experiment designed to assess whether an artificial network was truly intelligent or not). Although The Imitation Game is itself only very tangentially about AI, it is still at least the third major release this year (after Her and Transcendence) to be concerned with the topic in some way. Is this indicative of the fact that we have reached some sort of cultural tipping point with respect to AI? Perhaps, perhaps not: as I say, this is fundamentally a film about something else.

On the surface it looks very much like the kind of period drama which the British film industry does so well, for all that this particular project was written by an American and directed by a Norwegian. It is, for one thing, primarily set during the Second World War, an era distant enough to be interesting yet close enough to still be accessible and nostalgic, a time of unambiguous values and comfortingly definite moral certainties.

As the film opens, Britain is struggling to contend with the Nazi war machine, its intelligence effort seriously hampered by the fact that the enemy is using a code system known as Enigma, which is widely held to be completely unbreakable, simply due to the sheer number of possible solutions. Amongst the people interviewing to join the Admiralty’s team working to break Enigma is maths and cryptology prodigy Alan Turing (Cumbersome Bandersnatch). Turing’s social awkwardness and lack of modesty about his considerable intellect do not win him many friends on the project, but he eventually rises to become team leader and sets about putting into operation his plan to break the Enigma system.

This involves building what he terms a Universal Machine – or, as we would call it nowadays, a computer – to run through the millions of possible Enigma solutions at immense speeds. To assist him with this he assembles a group of brilliant linguists, logicians, and crossword-puzzlers, amongst them Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and they set out to change the course of the war…

Running in parallel with this are two other narratives, much more about Turing the man: a boyhood relationship with a fellow pupil at his school, and the circumstances surrounding the police investigation of Turing in the early 1950s, in which the investigating detective (Rory Kinnear) initially believes he has uncovered a Soviet spy, only to realise he has in fact stumbled upon a different kind of secret: that of Turing’s sexuality. The consequences of this are to shape the final years of Turing’s life.

It has to be said that over the last few years, Benedict Cumberbatch has lent himself more to high-profile projects that increase his fanboy (and fangirl)-friendliness, rather than his stature as a serious actor. Sherlock Holmes, Smaug, Khan Noonian Singh (and, it’s rumoured, Doctor Strange) – none of them are exactly the kind of thing you win Oscars for. (Perhaps I’m being unfair – he was, after all, in serious films like The Fifth Estate and Twelve Years a Slave, too.) However, while it initially looks like Turing is a part perilously close to the sort of thing Cumberbatch can do in his sleep (utterly brilliant, socially useless genius), it does allow him the opportunity to give a great movie actor performance. His Turing is believably prodigious when it comes to anything cerebral, but equally at a loss when dealing with people operating on a more everyday level.

However, while the movie is undoubtedly Cumberbatch’s, its success is also due to the strength of the performances across the board. There’s a nice ensemble performance from the team of cryptographers which Turing finds himself in command of, with Matthew Goode the most prominent of these, while Charles Dance is on top form as the naval commander who initially employs Turing and rapidly grows to hate his most gifted underling. Doing typically excellent work, also, is Mark Strong, here playing the MI6 officer overseeing the Bletchley Park project. Keira Knightley, perhaps inevitably, struggles to make the same kind of impression in a part which is perhaps slightly underwritten, but she certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.

The script is complex and manages to tell an intricate story well, although it did seem to me that it could have gone a bit more into the detail of how Turing’s machine actually operated in breaking the Enigma cipher (sorry, should have said there would be spoilers): thoughtful and mature though the film is, it still feels as though it’s shying away from really delving into the mechanics of the codebreaking effort in favour of a more accessible human story. Perhaps this is understandable, given this is a drama rather than a historical documentary.

I also found myself feeling a little disappointed by the closing stages of the film: it peaks with Turing’s great triumph, the breaking of the Enigma codes, and the intelligence effort which followed – the decisions as to how much information the Allies could utilise without revealing to the Nazis that their system had been compromised – is somewhat passed over. There was the potential there for a very thought-provoking and serious drama, hardly any of which is utilised.

Then again, this is the story of Turing the man, not his machines or the projects which he oversaw. It is gratifying that someone of such singular gifts, who made such an unparalleled contribution to preserving our way of life, is finally receiving his due acknowledgement. You can perhaps criticise The Imitation Game for not going deeply enough into Turing’s codebreaking work, or his pioneering of computer science, or his invention of mathematical biology. You can criticise it for rewriting history or glossing over Turing’s sexuality (which is spoken of but never really depicted). But the fact remains that this, finally, is a film actually about Alan Turing, and a prestigious and very well-made one too. An important film in many ways, and well worth seeing.

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John Wyndham, when not inventing the English catastrophe novel, was occasionally wont to write wry little short stories with isn’t-life-quaintly-ironic themes. One of these, Oh, Where, Now, Is Peggy MacRafferty?, is about a young Irish girl who displays unsuspected guile and resourcefulness in order to achieve her dream of becoming a Hollywood actress. She succeeds largely because her background and character make her refreshingly different from all her rivals. Nevertheless, she is still sent off to the usual studio ‘finishing school’ in order that she can present herself appropriately to the public. And when the finishing school is over, she has been transformed into another cookie-cutter starlet, all traces of what made her so appealingly different expunged.

Wyndham was writing over fifty years ago, but the attitude he wrote about still persists today: Hollywood, rightly believing that audiences are always interested in seeing fresh new ideas and talent, scours the world for creative people and rewards them handsomely for working on big studio movies. But Hollywood is a business, and sees no need to change a profitable formula: so the fresh new ideas and talent of the imported creative people generally tend to get swamped by the same old formulaic movie-making they’ve supposedly been brought in to get away from. The number of people this has happened to is enormous: in recent years, John Woo, Sharlto Copley and Noomi Rapace, to name but three.

All this came to mind while watching Morten Tyldum’s new thriller Hodejegerne (English title Headhunters). This is a cracking little film, every bit as good as any American or British thriller I’ve seen in the last eight or nine months, at least, and much better than most.

Headhunters is a Norwegian film and therefore fair game for people currently making a fuss about ‘Nordic Noir’ – a name which I suspect indicates a greater fondness for alliteration than actual genre knowledge. At the risk of sounding a tad ‘I liked this band since waay before they were famous’, I’ve been quietly impressed by the Scandinavian facility for crime fiction since happening across the original Wallander‘s UK transmission back in 2009. All the recent fuss about these shows therefore leaves me with a vague sense of ‘been there, done that, knitted the sweater’. (Though I would thoroughly recommend The Bridge to anyone interested in promisingly bonkers thrillers.)

This is based on a novel by Jo (pronounced Yo) Nesbo (O with a diagonal line through it) and tells the story of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a high-flying Oslo recruitment expert. Roger is a very bright man with a somewhat atypical pathology and a diminutive stature. Because of the latter he constantly worries his wife (Synnove (O with a diagonal line through it) Macody Lund) is going to leave him, especially as she is very broody and he isn’t. In order to keep her affections he lavishes her with gifts beyond his ability to pay for them. However, luckily for Roger he has a second job, as a highly-professional art thief, but an averagely successful robbery isn’t even enough to help much with the mortgage.

Then he learns that Clas Greve (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), a new client, is in possession of an immensely valuable ‘lost’ painting by Rubens – which should be worth enough to allow him to keep his missus in her accustomed manner indefinitely. Roger quickly makes plans to relieve Greve of the picture – but he has misjudged the situation in a potentially terminal fashion, and soon finds himself on the run from someone considerably more psychopathic even than him…

There’s something very pleasingly Hitchcockian about Headhunters, most obviously in the way the story largely boils down to being that of a man on the run, losing virtually everything he values in the process and forced into some horribly humiliating situations as he struggles to stay one step ahead of his enemies. The fact that Roger is an anti-hero rather than a genuinely good guy makes this much more palatable, as well as allowing space for some extremely well-handled character development. Aksel Hennie gives a terrifically nuanced performance as Roger: one point Roger seems to have achieved his heart’s desire, but then suddenly – and this manages to be completely startling and utterly logical at the same time – something happens which starts the unravelling of his world, and Hennie portrays this brilliantly. All the other performers are good, but it’s Hennie’s movie.

Of course, he’s allowed to do this courtesy of a tremendously solid script, which excels at dropping apparently casual details into early scenes which later turn out to be absolutely crucial to the plot. Every time I thought I’d spotted a plot hole, the screenwriters almost at once turned up with a fix for it. Not only is the story tightly-plotted and exciting, it also manages to be blackly comic in places and rather moving in others.

This being a modern Scandinavian movie, there’s some material here which Hitchcock was not allowed to put into his classic films, of course. I can’t imagine anyone outside the BBFC or the Daily Mail crypt has serious problems with nudity any more, but Headhunters is also properly grisly in places – I suspect this is towards the top end of a 15 rating in the UK – and features one scene which pet lovers will probably have considerable difficulty with: the payoff to this is a sequence so grotesquely bizarre and darkly funny it’s impossible to imagine it in a mainstream American film.

So how is it, then, that a low-budget Norwegian crime thriller manages to surpass most things produced by the big players in California, despite their working with much greater resources? I suspect the question answers itself. Low-budget Norwegian movies can afford to take chances and be creative with their storytelling, and they have to have smart scripts and good acting – if they want to stand a chance commercially, at least. The big studios, certain of their domination of the major markets, can afford to relax and turn out bland and formulaic thrillers with repetitive scripts and somnolent performances: I expect many people do like things to be comfortingly familiar, and some of them may have issues with subtitled films as well. Nevertheless I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them, and annoyed at the lack of ambition of most mainstream English-language thrillers. Headhunters is an example of how these things should be done: well worth seeking out.

(Since writing this I have learned that a Hollywood remake of Headhunters is already in the works. Sigh. – A)

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