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Posts Tagged ‘Rosamund Pike’

Every producer hopes his film is going to at least make its money back, probably, but with some of them this is more of a priority than others. As I have suggested over the last few days, there are films which are funded (if not made) largely with a view to winning awards for their producers and financiers. When one of these films fails to cut through, then, should we automatically considerit a failure? I’m not sure. One of the things I like to believe, sentimental old thing though I may be, is that any good film will eventually find an audience for itself.

What got me thinking along these lines was Matthew Heineman’s A Private War, which is clearly the kind of film which wants to be taken seriously, but which doesn’t quite seem to be cutting through and reaching a mainstream audience like some others. This may be simply due to the subject matter, which largely consists of things which people don’t want to be reminded of, and may indeed be actively trying to forget.

I think I’ve mentioned in the past my occasional tendency to get the Prime Minister of Canada (Justin Trudeau) mixed up with the guy who wrote Iron Man 2 (Justin Theroux); well, I have a similar problem with Marie Helvin (American-born British-based fashionista) and Marie Colvin (American-born British-based war correspondent), too. A Private War should certainly help with the latter issue, being an account of the final years of Colvin’s life.

Rosamund Pike plays Colvin, who as the film starts has been a reporter for the London Sunday Times for about fifteen years. The thing that made Colvin instantly identifiable was the fact she wore an eye-patch, and the attentive viewer will note at once that Colvin’s eyes are both in full working order in the opening scenes. This occasioned a queasy feeling of tension in your correspondent, i.e. me, rather akin to the one I felt during All the Money in the World while waiting for the ear-removal scene: something grislyis inevitably coming.

One does not have to wait too long, as Colvin’s next mission – rather against the wishes of her editor (Tom Hollander) – is to visit rebel forces in Sri Lanka, in full knowledge of the reality that if she is caught by government forces she will be executed. In the course of her work she and her escort are ambushed and a grenade ends her days of stereoscopic vision. Her friends rally round and try to cheer her up by listing other famous people with only one eye: Sammy Davis Jr, Thom Yorke, Moshe Dayan, and so on (no-onementions Lt. Columbo, oddly enough). Soon enough the iconic eye-patch is in place.

Any sane person would have had enough of putting life and limb in peril at this point, but Colvin goes back to work, and the rest of the film intersperses scenes from her somewhat turbulent life in the UK with a succession of visits to places virtually comprising a record of recent real-world horror: Iraq during the American invasion, Afghanistan during the American occupation, Libya during the Arab Spring uprising, and finally Syria in the early stages of the civil war which is still ongoing. You probably know how the story ends; even if you don’t, it’s easy enough to find out.

With any film based on a true story that has an ending as downbeat as this one, it’s fairly obvious that simply entertaining the audience is not necessarily the object of the exercise. This is frequently quite an uncomfortable watch on many levels, for reasons both visceral and intellectual – the film dwells at length on the conflict in Syria, something which I think future generations will view as a cause of profound shame for western nations for so many reasons.

That the film stays watchable is largely down to the kind of central performance from Rosamund Pike which generally gets called vanity-free, whatever that is really code for. Colvin was reputedly a tough cookie and a difficult woman to get along with, a heavy drinker, a chain-smoker and at one time a sufferer from PTSD (as one character observes, she’s been through more wars than most soldiers), and Pike works hard to get all this up on the screen. The results are undeniably impressive.

(Maybe we should take a moment to reflect on the achievement of Rosamund Pike in establishing herself as a serious, credible actress entirely capable of carrying a movie like this one, especially since she first rose to prominence as Second Girl in a Bond movie – something which always used to be a career graveyard. No doubt it owes something to her willingness to take on roles which are, shall we say, less emollient than those that many American actresses seem entirely comfortable with.)

Pike’s main support comes from Jamie Dornan, playing her photographer Paul Conroy – Dornan seems to be an able actor, but one who’s been most visible (in the cinema, at least) doing projects which are perhaps more lucrative than credible. He is also very good here, as is Holland, even though the latter is saddled with some fairly ripe and portentous dialogue (he is basically given the job of putting across the film’s message concerning how important reporters like Colvin are). Probably also worth a mention is Raad Rawi, who has the ticklish job of portraying Colonel Gaddafi in a couple of scenes – he manages to deliver a convincing performance while still suggesting someone just a bit unhinged.

That said, despite all the fine acting, the film occasionally feels trite and excessively portentous, threatening to drown the audience in horror – laying it on a bit thick, in other words. The significance of the title is never completely made clear, either – what exactly was Marie Colvin’s private war? The woman’s life stands as a monument to dragging people by the collars and forcing them to confront the things they are complicit in: public, rather than private wars. Perhaps it is simply reflecting the fundamental struggle inside Colvin: genuine footage of the reporter appears, in which she speaks of the fear that accompanied her on all of her assignments (including the self-appointed ones), and yet there was also something in her compelling her to return again and again to places of tremendous danger and speak of what she saw there.

The film never really manages to get to the bottom of what it was that drove Marie Colvin to such lengths of extreme bravery, if bravery it indeed was. But it is very clear and persuasive in arguing that she and war correspondents like her serve a vital role in the modern world (something everyone is aware of – the film touches on this, both in terms of the US Army’s ’embedded reporters’ and insurgents deliberately targeting foreign journalists). The strength of the film’s message, the general quality of its storytelling, and Pike’s performance in particular combine to make this a fine film and one which it is well worth watching.

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An everyday scene from a typical English workplace:

Your Correspondent (spying a colleague with whom he is on friendly terms): ‘Oh, hi [name of guilty party redacted] – how was your weekend?’

Colleague: ‘All right. Went to the cinema.’

Your Correspondent: ‘Oh yes, [other colleague’s name] told me she saw you. Gone Girl, right? What did you think?’

Colleague: ‘It was okay, but I was surprised that [MASSIVE SPOILER redacted].’

Your Correspondent: ‘AUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH’

I spent the rest of the day following her around shouting ‘Rosebud is a sledge! Bruce Willis is a ghost! Darth Vader is his father!’ but the damage was done. I suppose it serves me right for not going to see Gone Girl at the weekend, but – hey! There was a Gerry Anderson retrospective in the next screen! What was I supposed to do?

gong

Recent studies have suggested that having a story spoiled for you may not in fact impair enjoyment that much, so I suppose I can treat Gone Girl as an experiment to this end. (Of course I went to see it anyway.) Given that a big adaptation like this is relying on people who’ve read the book turning up to see it, it’s possible that the makers may have been bearing in mind the fact that much of the audience may have already known the story: it’s certainly not entirely dependent on shocks and surprises to work as a film.

David Fincher’s film, based on a book by Gillian Flynn, primarily concerns the marriage between Nick Dunne (Ben ‘I’m respectable again and loving it’ Affleck) and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). Having met and got wed in New York, where both were writers, economic and family issues have led to their moving back to Nick’s home town in Missouri. But life has been tough regardless.

And it gets tougher. On the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick returns home to find signs of a struggle and Amy nowhere to be found. He calls the police, like anyone would, and does his best to answer their questions, also like anyone would. But what rapidly becomes apparent is that things that are fairly unremarkable in the everyday running of a wobbling marriage can be horribly suspicious when viewed by a police detective looking for foul play. As some facts Nick would rather keep secret come to light, suspicion builds in the police, the media, and those around him – has he in fact done his wife in?

Well, obviously I can’t tell you that, but what I will say is that, before it plays its cards, the film does a very good job of making Ben (look, I’m entitled to call him that, we go back a long way – I actually paid to see Paycheck and Jersey Girl, for crying out loud) look like an ambiguous figure. And fortunately, the film does not hold back all its revelations to the end – halfway through it transitions from being a genuine mystery to an equally accomplished, and possibly even more gripping, psychological thriller.

I must confess that I did enjoy the first part of the film a lot – less obviously plot-driven, it allows the film to comment en passant on a whole range of topics. Some of these, such as the degree to which two people can ever really know each other, and the demands of marriage, are quite universal, but others will, I suspect, make this film of particular interest to the social historians of the future, particularly in its handling of the media – both the influence of social media, and the phenomenon of trial-by-TV – and its commentary on the sheer social damage caused by the economic collapse of the late 2000s. The shadow of the credit crunch hangs over this film like a fallout cloud, for money problems are at the heart of Nick and Amy’s travails – what happens to a marriage when one partner is forced to become totally dependent on the other for an income? What’s it like to feel trapped in a marriage by your own pre-nup agreement?

That said, the second half of the film is a terrifically enjoyable thriller, perhaps surprisingly so given it contains some tough material: there are F-bombs and more aplenty, some shocking man-on-woman violence, and one sequence of grand guignol gore that is all the more appalling for coming seemingly out of thin air. Even worse than this, perhaps, is the general theme of the film, which is bleak, bordering on the nasty – it makes marriage look like a blood sport, like something men and women do to each other rather than together.

That it works as it does is mainly down to Fincher’s skill in controlling the story and stopping its more startling aspects from seeming too prominent, at least until the audience has become properly invested in the characters. Without going into too much detail, this is a story which makes some pretty big asks of the viewer, but Fincher makes you agree to them quite cheerfully.

He’s helped by a really good cast: this is a story with a lot of significant characters, and they are all portrayed absolutely solidly. You can instantly believe in Tyler Perry’s superstar attorney, Kim Dicken’s cautious detective, or Carrie Coon’s concerned sibling (well, apart from the fact that she’s nearly a decade younger than her supposed twin – oh, Hollywood!). But that said, the film really depends on its two leads: Rosamund Pike isn’t the most obvious choice for the leading lady of film of this prominence, but she grabs a good part and runs like the Devil with it. Ben, meanwhile, gives a properly rounded movie-star leading man performance, quite as good as anything else he’s ever done. Given that Ben is currently heading for the big screen as a moderately unlikely and distinctly controversial Batman, I suspect all his performances until then are going to be scrutinised for their potential Wayneyness: well, here he delivers his customary wit and charm, but also the ability to seem completely ambiguous (if not actually chilly), not to mention a capacity for brutal rage. I think Ben’s going to be a very different sort of Batman, and potentially a very good one.

That’s for the future, however. For now, Gone Girl is a very accomplished and entertaining film, if one that should leave the viewer uneasy and unsettled. In a way it’s almost a shame it didn’t come out later in the year, because it’s certainly good enough to be a contender for major awards come next spring. The question is simply whether or not it will still be remembered then. A shame, as everyone involved is on top form.

 

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Yet another new Vue this week, readers: I know, I know. I was all set to check out the Everyman on Baker Street, but then I had a couple of hours to spare, wandered over to Leicester Square, and found out that if I just spent the afternoon there I could enjoy a couple of new movies and a tasty Mexican-inflected burger-based meal. The only downside was that one of the movies had to be at the Leicester Square Vue, but there you go. This does at least seem to be as nice as any other Vue (which is to say, quite nice in most respects), and Leicester Square is a fun place to go to the cinema. I note that weird, costume-wearing Frenchies have already started queueing to see The Lone Ranger, a film so blatantly and painfully misconceived that it’s currently 50-50 as to whether I go to see it at all (and this is from someone who paid to watch Battleship and After Earth). Hey ho.

Anyway, the film I saw at the Leicester Square Vue was Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, his latest re-teaming with writer and star Simon Pegg (not to mention co-star Nick Frost). To briefly recap, after making an name for themselves in TV, these boys scored a bit of a hit with the 2004 zombie romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead – still pretty much the gold standard when it comes to funny zombie films – and also did rather well with the 2007 comedy action pastiche Hot Fuzz (a film I personally find somewhat less accomplished, but still bags of fun). Then Pegg and Frost went off to make Paul with someone else, a film which did quite well though it wasn’t particularly great, and Wright went off and made Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, a film which didn’t do very well even though it was quite good.

Now here they are again, with what’s being advertised as the final instalment of a trilogy – helps with the marketing, I suppose, because in terms of story the three films are completely separate, not even taking place in the same genre.

The-Worlds-End-poster

This time round Pegg plays Gary King, a highly dubious and unreliable character, who at the start of the film is intent on reuniting the gang of his teenage years. Frost plays his best friend Andy, while comprising the rest of the crew are Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Martin Freeman. Many years ago this bunch set out to complete an epic pub crawl in their home town, but failed: now Gary is insisting they give it another try.

However, the freewheeling teenagers of decades before have grown up to be lawyers, estate agents, and so on, and even getting everyone back together is a challenge. Slowly the realisation dawns that Gary himself hasn’t appreciably grown up at all, and the question of exactly what his motivation for this reunion is becomes increasingly pressing.

Several pubs into the crawl, of course, things take a rather different and unexpected turn, as does the tone of the film. This does rather come out of nowhere, if you haven’t seen the trailer anyway, but suffice to say that, as usual, what started as a comedy turns into a different sort of genre movie entirely…

I seem to recall being instinctively well-disposed towards Shaun of the Dead when it came out in 2004, mainly because I’d met Simon Pegg the year before and he turned out to be one of the good guys. (Pegg’s rise to something approaching bona fide moviestardom since then has been gratifying.) I find myself equally inclined to say nice things about The World’s End, but again I am unsure whether this is simply due to the quality of the film, or the fact it seems precision-aimed at me as its target audience.

Because this is essentially a film about looking down the barrel of forty, realising your youth is all but over, and coming to terms with the fact that the past is past. All the characters have done this except Gary, and the emotional arc of the film is about how this affects their relationships. There is inevitably a good deal of nostalgia for the late 80s and early 90s, which is reflected in one of the most evocative and memorable soundtracks I can recall: Blur, the Stone Roses, the Soup Dragons, Suede, they are all here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this story winds up hitting a few emotional notes you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a mainstream comedy film, but I found this just made the film more engaging. Certainly, I went to see The World’s End looking forward to the genre element of the story, but found myself enjoying the character-based comedy-drama much more. In addition to sharp and witty dialogue, there is also some well-executed slapstick and a brilliant gag about the plague of homogenous gastro-ification sweeping British pubs.

This is not to say that the other stuff is by any means bad, of course: it’s smartly written and immaculately assembled, with some superbly inventive action choreography along the way (even if the unarmed combat skills displayed by virtually every character seem a little implausible). But by the climax, one almost gets a sense of the film itself having had a couple of pints too many – things become just a touch out of control and silly, though not enough to spoil proceedings. (It’s definitely a stretch to claim the film is on some level an homage to Wyndham or Youd, as some publicity materials are claiming.) The conclusion, though fairly logical, seemed to me to be distinctly odd and tonally rather at odds with the way the rest of the film had been going.

Nevertheless, this is still a quality piece of work, as you would expect from the assembled talent involved in making it. Given the A-Team of actors involved, the only real surprise is Nick Frost’s continued ability to steal scenes apparently without effort. Doing that when you’re sharing the frame with Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman (often all at the same time) is a really remarkable talent. Frost might also want to consider branching out into action movies: he shows considerable potential in this department. Rosamund Pike and Pierce Brosnan also pop up in key roles: there’s something weird about the fact that not much more than a decade ago it was perfectly okay for the two of them to get it on in a movie, but now he’s being cast as her former schoolteacher. Typically strange cinema attitudes to ageing, I suppose.

The World’s End is very much of a piece with the two other Wright/Pegg/Frost films in the way it combines comedy-drama with genre pastiche, but it isn’t afraid to try some new things – the roles played by the two leads are effectively reversed, while there’s less of a focus on their relationship and more of an ensemble feel to the film. For the most part, this works, and if this really does turn out to be the last time these three work together, they are concluding their relationship on a high. The World’s End is consistently very funny, frequently moving, and often rather exciting. A great piece of intelligent entertainment, and one of the best films of the summer so far.

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Every now and then, for no reason I can really discern, we tend to get a bunch of films with roughly the same subject matter coming out at around the same time. Nearly twenty years ago, for instance, there were a handful of Christopher Columbus biopics (though in that case it was sort of understandable, given the date), while Hollywood has also doubled up when it comes to releasing films about Robin Hood, volcanoes, and giant asteroid impacts threatening the earth. At the moment we’re coming to the end of a bit of a spy cluster: with Tomas Alfredson’s le Carre adaptation occupying the critical high ground, and The Debt offering perhaps the most accessible and involving story. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a spy movie you can watch with the kids and not have to worry about paying the slightest bit of attention to, there’s always Johnny English Reborn, directed by Oliver Parker (whom I had pegged as a bonnet opera/Oscar Wilde adaptation specialist, but there you go).

This is, of course, a star vehicle for Rowan Atkinson, allowing him to reprise his role as the hapless secret agent from a load of credit card commercials and 2003’s original Johnny English. As the film opens our hero is in exile following a disastrous assignment some years previously, but circumstances demand his recall. Intelligence has been received that an attempt will be made on the life of the Chinese Premier during a meeting with the British Prime Minister, and so the head of MI7 (Gillian Anderson) packs English off to Hong Kong to investigate. There he encounters CIA agent Titus Fisher (Richard Schiff, really briefly), and…

…you know, I don’t think there’s much point going into the plot in too much detail. You’re probably not that interested, and, anyway, it manages at the same time to be predictable, convoluted, and completely superfluous. Every time some serious exposition has to be laid in (always by one of the other performers), Atkinson will start falling over or gurning or messing about, almost as if the movie is afraid that people will forget it’s supposed to be a comedy. This seems to me to be wholly misconceived – it’s perfectly possible to make a brilliant comedy with a strong plot and some touches of darkness (for instance, Some Like It Hot or the original Ladykillers).

But instead we get an awful lot of Atkinson being pompous, pulling faces, and falling over, with the rest of a rather good cast (Anderson, Schiff, Dominic West, Rosamund Pike, Pik-Sen Lim) required to play it as straight as they can manage in the background. The only other person who gets a chance to be properly funny is Daniel Kaluuya as Atkinson’s sidekick.

As you can probably tell, the word Reborn in the title is pushing it a bit – Johnny English Rehashed would have been more honest. This is more broad, farcical, knockabout fun, marginally darker in tone than the first movie. It’s still pitching to the huge international audience Atkinson established playing the clownish Mr Bean, rather than the UK following he built up playing the much more acerbic and interesting Blackadder character. There is a section near the beginning of this film where he is (briefly) allowed to be sardonic and capable, and outwit his opponents, and it’s refreshingly different and no less amusing than the rest of the film: but it’s not sustained. The film goes for the easy option and the rewards are less as a result.

And along the way it makes the common mistake of believing that Bond Movies Are Easy To Parody. They’re really, really not – parody is all about making the serious look ridiculous, and the Bond films are always so close to seeming ridiculous that it’s hard to go beyond them without simply becoming silly. This movie crosses the line into silliness more often than it should.

One of the strengths of the first film is that it didn’t try too hard on this score, and just concentrated on being a comedy. Here, the desire to spoof Bond seems much stronger – ex-Bond girl Pike is prominent, Anderson’s character hits the same notes as Judi Dench’s M, and there’s a sequence attempting to parody the Bond-visits-the-gadget-department staple – how can you parody something which was almost always played for laughs anyway? Answers on a postcard please. It’s all a bit baffling as even the Bond movies themselves, in their current joy-averse incarnation, don’t look like this any more.

I have been almost wholly negative so far but I feel I ought to say that this film is not a complete waste of time and money. Atkinson is simply incapable of not being funny for too long, and there are some great pieces of physical comedy and other sight gags. I thought it was generally quite amusing: too silly and lightweight to be really satisfying as a film, but not awful by any means (and other people at the viewing I attended were laughing much, much more than I was). But considering the time, money, and talent involved, the returns – as far as entertainment is concerned – are not that impressive. New character next time, please, Rowan.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 5th 2009: 

Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column which has recently crawled one space higher on the Sugababes reserve list. Were you to have really nothing worthwhile to do and dive back into the tottering, mouldy piles of 24LAS back issues which perpetually threaten to clog up my virtual office space, you would discover in the Christmas 2003 edition a heartfelt plea for a talented young actor named Gerard Butler to be released from the near-obscurity a succession of bad script choices had landed him in. Fast forward a few years, and good fortune and a lot of shouting whilst wearing leather shorts have indeed made Butler a bona fide star – it’s just a pity the column was on hiatus when it happened. Anyway, he’s back on the big screen now as the leading man of Neveldine and Taylor’s Gamer.

Gamer is not a movie afraid to partake freely from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches. In the future the world is dominated by powerful corporations, but nobody minds that much as they’re all obsessed with computer games – plus ca change and all that, but the twist is that in these games, rather than controlling a sprite on a screen, you control a real live person whose motor cortex has been injected with nanotechnological cells. The game at the centre of the film is Slayers, where death-row inmates are equipped with high-powered automatic weaponry and let loose on each other under the remote control of computer gamers from around the world. If one of the cons survives for thirty sessions in a row, he wins his freedom. Current champion Kable (Butler), under the control of star player Simon (Logan Lerman), is getting perilously close to releasing himself. The mogul running the game, Castle (Michael C. Hall, in a role that demands he use anything up to thirty percent of his talent), has his own reasons for wanting Kable silenced, so it’s rather unfortunate that one of those improbably well-resourced subversive networks so often found in this kind of film set about springing Kable and stopping Castle’s plans.

As you can probably surmise, unlikelihoods pile up on unlikelihoods in quite dizzying quantities as Gamer proceeds (my favourite being when Kable fuels his getaway vehicle by chugging a bottle of vodka and then widdling in the petrol tank), especially as this film is supposedly set only a few years into the future. The story is so implausible (a less charitable individual might prefer ‘incoherent’) that to begin with it’s a little difficult to follow, something not helped by the onslaught of whip pans, smash cuts, handheld camerawork and crazy-paving editing the viewer is bombarded with. To be honest, your reviewer is feeling rather old and embarrassed for not twigging straightaway that this is the signature style of the game-savvy directors who perpetrated the indescribable Crank movies.

Gamer aspires to be rather more serious than either of the Cranks, but it’s not appreciably more mature. I would normally assume with a story like this that the directors’ message was basically ‘Isn’t the way we’re entertained by sex and violence just awful?’ – which, of course, would be immediately and terminally undermined by the fact that the film is being marketed on the strength of its sex and violence – but it seems to me that this is hardly the kind of line likely to be taken by the guys who in the past have gleefully given us Jason Statham sticking a shotgun up someone’s backside before frottaging an old lady. Any serious moral condemnation Gamer appears to be making is surely only a trick of the light, or a convenient pretext should this movie itself be taken to task for its content. Similarly, the potentially fruitful subtext of the movie – that people behave on-line in ways they’d never dream of doing in real-life – is only really examined in passing.

I was going to observe that Gamer is the first movie in history to be named after its target audience, which if nothing else is considerate, but I’m not entirely sure the computer-gaming community will appreciate being depicted as they are here. Simon comes across as a far from likeable spoilt nerd, and he’s by far the most positive specimen on offer. The only other real candidate is a morbidly obese slob living in squalor whose life appears to revolve around using his computer to engage in vicarious sex acts. Not exactly guaranteed to get the crowd on your side, guys. By extension the rest of the gaming community is depicted as morally bankrupt and/or depraved, quite happy to see human beings blown away for entertainment (in Slayers) or used and abused in grotesque and personal ways (in Society, the movie’s version of something like Second Life). One gets a strong sense that Neveldine and Taylor have a low opinion of human nature. (I’m inclined to wonder what Castle’s version of Hootoo would look like, but it would probably be in a rather lower-octane movie than this.)

I’m sounding quite negative about this film, and I feel I have to, and yet, and yet… Crank and its sequel were by most civilised standards utterly horrible, but also pieces of bravura film-making and hugely enjoyable in their way. Gamer doesn’t have the same freewheeling absurdity to make it fly, and the plot itself isn’t really anything special once you take away the admittedly striking visuals. The actors all do as well as they can with underwritten parts and the plotline about Castle’s hidden agenda in wanting Kable dead feels very much like an afterthought. The sequences in the Slayers games are surprisingly brief and confusing – the rules of the game are never made entirely clear. I wouldn’t make a very good Rollerball player (to choose a relevant example), but I at least know how to play it – in Slayers I would only have the faintest clue what to do beyond just shooting everyone in sight. The faintest sign of the spectre of Stanley Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange wafts through the film, but this may largely simply be due to an eye-catching musical-routine-come-graphic-punch-up near the climax, which surprises more than nearly anything else on offer.

Gamer is a bit too frenetic to pass muster as an actual thriller or piece of SF, but too thematically dense to be dismissible as simply a piece of high-energy fluff. I found myself getting desensitised to its various excesses rather rapidly and the sheer implausibility of the story really stopped me from getting involved in it. Butler and Hall do their considerable best with it, and the direction and visuals are frequently striking, but on the whole, given the talent involved this is a bit of a disappointment.

Speaking of living vicariously through your computer… one of the truisms of proper SF is that it really says more about the time it’s written than the time it’s set in. One of the ways this manifests in movies is that technology just tends to be enormously exaggerated versions of things we’ve already got rather than anything wholly innovative (not many pre-1990 movies saw the internet coming, for example). Unusually, this isn’t quite true of Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates, a thriller which still shares quite a few similarities with Gamer. In a (different) unspecified near future, life has been transformed by a single new technology developed by a reclusive boffin (James Cromwell this time) and opposed by rebels, the refusenik Luddites being led by a rather hammy Ving Rhames here.

The technology in question is surrogacy, whereby people spend all their time at home with their brains hooked up to an android replica which goes out and lives their life for them. The utopia this has supposedly created (no crime, no accidental deaths, and so on) is disrupted when somebody finds a way to kill people via their link with the androids, liquidising their brains (I caught half an episode of What Katie Did Next recently so I have a good idea how this feels). On the case are FBI agents Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell (and before you smirk, yes, Bruce’s android does have hair).

Once again improbabilities abound – we’re told ninety-eight percent of the global population routinely uses an extremely sophisticated robotic proxy and the associated high-spec communications network. Ninety-eight percent! Who’s paying for all this stuff? Then again someone at one point implies that the total population is only a shade over one billion so there must be a bit more cash in circulation. Even so, why the fall in the crime rate? (And so on.)

Anything like this would surely utterly transform the world beyond recognition, and to be fair the film runs with the ball as far as it can, showing amongst other neat moments a future where war is almost literally a computer game – armies sprawled in front of massed computer screens, ‘dead’ soldiers simply being issued a new robot and sent back into battle – but it’s beyond the scope (not to mention the budget) of Surrogates to explore the full possibilities of its central idea. So we end up with a world with astoundingly advanced robotics, cybernetics, and data processing systems, but where the cars, guns, and phones are virtually unchanged and people still use USB sticks. That said, the movie does make use of its central idea intelligently in terms of both plot (it soon becomes apparent that you simply can’t be sure who’s connected to a particular android) and character (Willis goes out on the street ‘in the flesh’ for the first time in ages and finds he’s well outside his comfort zone). There’s interesting, if not exactly subtle stuff going on here, although it perhaps does the ‘shocking contrast between inhumanly perfect android and its unexpectedly decrepit operator’ bit once or twice too often.

I must confess I turned up to Surrogates expecting something as bland and mechanical as the titular machines, and to begin with I thought I was right – Mostow’s direction isn’t exactly inspired, while all the actors playing their robotic avatars seem to feel obliged to give blatant ‘I’m really an android’ performances. Add to this the subtle but still intrusive CGI used to create the surrogate characters, and initially at least the film has a rather odd, tranquilised quality. But it improves quite considerably as it goes on. The thriller plot whizzes along cheerfully, it’s neatly played by most of the cast (and Rosamund Pike is probably slightly better than her part deserves as Willis’ traumatised wife), and there are a couple of well-executed if sub-Matrix action sequences where a fleshy mortals pursue or are pursued by souped-up androids.

I’m still not completely convinced about the climax (without wishing to spoil the ending, and despite what the film itself states, I can’t believe Bruce Willis’ character wouldn’t end up in court on charges of multiple manslaughter), and the film never quite rises beyond the level of simply competent at any point, but it focuses on telling an effective and interesting story without getting all in a tizzy about shocking the audience or stuffing every frame with a different kind of directorial razzle-dazzle. In short, it feels like a film made for grown-ups, and of the two films we’ve just discussed it’s Surrogates I’d recommend you went to see.

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