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‘So, do you think they’ve left the door open for another one?’ asked this blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent, as we left our screening of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (I should point out he was not there in his professional capacity). After a picosecond’s thought I was moved to observe that when a film franchise has earned more than $3.5 billion at the global box office, and shows no sign of running out of steam in terms of audience appeal, the door will most likely not just be left open but carefully taken off its hinges and burned. Whichever way you cut it, the Jurassic Park films (as I still think of them) do make squijillions of dollars, although why they continue to be quite so successful I have no idea: the original movie had Spielberg at the height of his powers, plus gobsmackingly innovative special effects, but none of the others have really done more than remix the ideas from that movie.

Is this true of Fallen Kingdom? Well, for this outing, previous director Colin Trevorrow has been replaced by J.A. Bayona, whose last film was the (really good) A Monster Calls. So you could be forgiven for cautious optimism (it is never a good idea to be uncautiously optimistic when dealing with major movie corporations and $170 million budgets). Things kick off with a highly promising, genuinely scary prologue as a team returns to the ruins of the Jurassic World park in order to retrieve the genetic material of one of the engineered hybrids from the previous movie. Lightning flashes, shadows lurk, people get chomped; hope begins to flutter in the chest of the jaded so-called film critic (hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson observed, unlike Jurassic World’s dinosaurs – but we went over that last time around).

Well, from here we’re off into the film proper. It turns out that Isla Nublar, where Jurassic Park and then Jurassic World were located, is volcanic, and fixing to blow up and kill all the dinosaurs, and people are not sure what to do about this. (Just what happened to the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, the setting of Jurassic Parks 2 and 3, is not addressed.) Many, including former park visitor Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, but don’t get too excited, as he appears for literally only about two minutes), are of the opinion that this is very much not a problem. Others disagree, including former park manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Cowboys, who clearly had one of those ‘make my character less irritating’ discussions between films), who is now a dinosaur rights activist. Helping her are a couple of new characters, a young man who is a somewhat craven comic relief clown, and a young woman who is incredibly feisty and competent – such is the way of the modern blockbuster, as any disgruntled stellar conflict fan will tell you.

Claire is contacted by representatives of an old business partner of John Hammond, who was involved in the very early development of the technology that recreated the dinosaurs. This man (James Cromwell) has a plan to transport the dinosaurs to a nature preserve where they can live peacefully, but he needs Claire’s knowledge of Jurassic World’s systems and also the help of her old beau Owen (Chris Pratt), the animal behaviourist and raptor trainer. (Owen has retired to the countryside to build a cabin, clearly unaware of the iron law that nobody who starts building a cabin in this kind of film ever gets to finish it.) Well, Claire recruits Owen and off they all go to the island to save the dinosaurs. What could possibly go wrong…?

It is a bit naïve to suggest that a tentpole blockbuster such as this is motivated by anything other than financial concerns – the studio’s notes to the director really only have one line, which reads ‘Make as much money as possible.’ But it always seems to me that this is particularly obvious with the Jurassic Park films – if there are any genuinely interesting or unexpected new ideas in any of these films, it is because they have managed to sneak in without anyone noticing, rather than being put there on purpose. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true, because I did note a slightly knowing and rather subversive element to the last one, albeit kept under extremely strict control.

The directors of these latterday movies do seem to be trying to move the series on, for all that the first half of Fallen Kingdom adheres strictly to the Jurassic Park formula (characters go off to an island infested by dinosaurs). Here things go pretty much as you would expect, with many imposing beasties, an altogether too nonchalant attitude to being thirty centimetres away from molten lava, and so on. People inclined to disparage Chris Pratt’s range as an actor should bear in mind the material he is usually given to work with – at one point in this film he is required to run stoically downhill, pursued not only by stampeding dinosaurs but also a volcanic eruption. I’m not sure even Sir Ralph Richardson could have given much nuance to that.

It’s where the film goes after this which is curious, as it becomes less of a traditional monster movie and more of a kind of faintly surreal gothic suspense thriller, with killer dinosaurs lurking in and around a stately old manor. But there’s also almost a sense of the film trying on lots of different ideas to see which, if any, fit: there are elements of an action thriller movie, a subtext in which the dinosaurs become symbolic of the natural world and its treatment by man, some (carefully veiled) criticism of Donald Trump, and even a move towards a much purer form of science fiction (it turns out that not just the dinosaurs have been genetically interfered with). The narrative ticks all the required boxes, but it still feels like a really mixed bag, and one reliant on some dubious plotting in places.

The key difference, I suppose, is that whereas the previous films operated purely in terms of ‘run away from the dinosaurs!’, this one is much more ‘save the dinosaurs!’ There are scenes involving our extinct friends solely intended to elicit pathos from the audience. Goldblum’s character, it is implied, is wrong to want to see all the poor dinosaurs killed off, despite the fact that these films have mostly been about dinosaurs causing trouble and eating people. It’s a curious shift and one the film struggles to negotiate elegantly – the workaround is that ‘natural’ dinosaurs are noble creatures which deserve to survive, it’s only the genetic hybrids created by man which are monsters with no right to exist (this film features an especially preposterous laser-guided prototype military dinosaur). It’s a rather artificial distinction, if you ask me.

Still, as I say, Fallen Kingdom does pretty much what you want it to, even if the first few minutes are by far the most impressive. The special effects are impeccable, and there is actually a really impressive cast – Rafe Spall is in there, along with Toby Jones, Geraldine Chaplin, and Ted Levine. I don’t think the studio need worry too much about getting their money back, even if the film is only competent rather than genuinely great. And the ending implies that the next one will be a thoroughly different kind of film, even if the basis for this doesn’t really hold up to serious examination. In the end, this is a capable blockbuster with some curiously weird touches.

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Sigh. Coming up with original and engaging opening paragraphs isn’t easy, you know, and I was all set to go with a rumination on how hard it was to find a cinema showing Andrew Niccol’s Anon, which would have led into a by-the-by mention of the fact that all the multiplexes are currently stuffed with films about Josh Brolin beating up superheroes. In my neck of the woods, Anon has only managed to land a very low-profile release at the Curzon, Oxford’s most stylish but least-frequented cinema. Seriously, this is the second time I’ve been there and literally had the auditorium to myself. The whole cinema is like a luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere; I can’t help feeling sorry for them, because it’s quite a beautiful cinema which so often seems empty.

Anyway, you’ll be spared all that. My initial introduction to Anon basically consisted of finding a photo of it online along with a brief description. Upon cracking open Wikipedia to do some proper post-screening pre-review research, I discovered that this is yet another example of a movie which has been grabbed by Netflix and is available to view online for rather less than the price of a ticket to the Curzon. So the message, rather than being that sometimes the universe tries to stop you from going to a movie for very sound reasons, is instead that you should always do at least a little research. As it is, this is a film about the merits of obscurity which may well find itself ending up enjoying them more than the producers would like.

 

Hey ho. In Anon, Clive Owen plays police detective Sal Frieland, who has an American name but a London accent; the movie is set in a sort of mildly dystopian brutalist future archetypal City, so you can forgive the accents being a bit all over the place there. As Frieland walks down the street to work, we see the world from his point of view, with constant real-time annotations telling him the make and model of every passing car, the history of the buildings, and the names, ages and occupations of every passing person.

Yup, we are in gimmicky sci-fi territory here, and the main conceit of the movie is that everyone has had the perception centres of their brains hooked up to Google and Wikipedia (well, effectively: the movie is brand-name free) and their memories connected to YouTube, so they have a digital record of their experiences which can be accessed by the authorities, shared with friends and family, and so on. Being able to download a suspect’s memory, or indeed that of a victim, makes being a detective really easy, and yet Owen still spends most of the movie with the haunted expression of a man once talked of as a future Bond who now finds himself north of fifty and trapped in a string of duff genre movies. So it goes, old boy, so it goes.

However, a string of murders have the cops worried, for the killer has the ability to mask their presence and avoid being recorded by the system: they also appear to have the power to delete themselves from people’s digital memory recordings. Soon enough Sal is on the case, his prime suspect being a nameless young woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose business is hacking people’s memories and editing out things they’d rather other people didn’t learn about. Soon he begins to wonder – is the interest of his superiors because of the killings she has supposedly committed, or because her special skills undermine the whole basis of the way society is currently organised?

What can I say: I have a lot of time for Clive Owen, and I’m always on the look-out for a genuinely smart science fiction film, but Anon is not the latter and doesn’t really do the former many favours, I fear. Now, given the recent kerfuffle about data harvesting by Facebook and the whole issue of privacy on t’internet, there is clearly an issue here to be explored by the right movie. However, Anon is not it. What Anon is, is a rather pedestrian mash-up of Minority Report, Strange Days, Johnny Mnemonic, and various other undistinguished sci-fi films that nobody remembers with any great fondness.

This is the kind of film which touches on what it considers to be Big Important Issues, but doesn’t actually do anything with them. There’s some stuff about memory, and some stuff about the nature of truth, and some interesting dialogue about the difference between privacy and secrecy, but it doesn’t tackle these things in anything approaching a systematic way. It doesn’t discuss ideas, it ponders and pronounces on them, rarely saying anything especially memorable. There’s quite a good sequence exploring what a potentially lethal enemy someone who can hack and manipulate your perceptions would make, but once again it’s only briefly touched on (and one has to wonder why Owen doesn’t just disconnect his brain’s wi-fi – presumably this is illegal).

I imagine we are supposed to cut the various implausibilities of Anon‘s premise some slack, given that this is supposed to be a serious film dealing with important contemporary issues in a metaphorical manner. I don’t think the film does nearly enough to earn this. Nor do its attempts at topicality excuse several rather implausible plot points, or the fact that you just stop caring about who did the murders well before the end and just want them to get on with the climax of the movie. Plus, I notice yet again that this is one of those serious SF movies for intelligent adults where nearly all the significant female characters are required to perform a gratuitous nude scene. Having said that, the balance is possibly redressed a little by a scene in which Clive Owen humps someone while still wearing his vest: calm yourselves, ladies.

Anon looks good but the story is too sluggish and over-familiar for the film to really come to life; there is the odd decent moment and Owen and Seyfried are always kind of watchable, but it never grips as a thriller and it’s not nearly as profound or original as it thinks it is. Yet another of those films that basically resembles a long episode of Black Mirror but without the wit, focus, or humanity; it also commits the cardinal sin of any movie, especially one in the SF genre, and that is that it’s quite boring. Eminently forgettable, if you can manage it.

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I first saw James L Conway’s Hangar 18 when it showed up on prime-time UK TV in the summer of 1986 (the film itself came out in 1980). I seem to recall I was more pleased than anything else, at the time – it wasn’t that often that a new sci-fi movie turned up at a time I could actually watch it – and the movie itself seemed engaging. Looking at the movie again now, however, I am somewhat astonished that, even thirty-two years ago in the dog days of summer, the BBC actually put this sucker on in the middle of the evening. As far as the development of my critical faculties go – well, we were all young once.

 

Hangar 18 was the product of Sunn Classic Pictures, an outfit which is indulgently remembered as a producer of a series of rather credulous sensationalist drama-documentaries, with names like In Search of Historic Jesus, In Search of Noah’s Ark, Beyond and Back (a movie about near-death experiences which made it onto Roger Ebert’s most-hated films list), The Bermuda Triangle, and The Mysterious Monsters. Hangar 18 has a go at whipping up the same kind of ‘could it be true?’ vibe, but is nowhere near up to the task.

Things get underway and we find ourselves watching the inaugural mission of the space shuttle (which presumably gave the film a near-future kind of vibe on release, as the first shuttle launches lay in the future in 1980). Aboard the ship are astronauts Steve (Gary Collins) and Lew (James Hampton). I would say they are the world’s least convincing astronauts, but then almost nobody in this film is convincing as their character. The crew are in the process of launching a satellite when they find themselves joined by another space vessel of extra-terrestrial origin. Despite their enormous technological prowess, the aliens prove themselves unable to get out of the way of the satellite and there is what orbital mechanics experts would describe as a bit of a ding.

The UFO falls out of orbit, landing in Texas, and the third crewman on the shuttle is beheaded by flying debris (the unconvincing special effect of the floating corpse seems to be one of the things about this movie that everyone remembers). Steve and Lew land back on Earth safely, but find themselves being blamed for the accident, with the presence of the alien ship not mentioned. What on Earth is going on?

Well, there’s a presidential election only two weeks away, and Machiavellian White House chief-of-staff Gordon Cain (Robert Vaughn, on autopilot) has decreed that all information relating to the saucer be kept under wraps until the votes are in (his reasoning here is a bit complicated but essentially spurious). This is almost certainly the least convincing cover-up in history, or possibly the worst thought-through. Steve and Lew get hung out to dry for the death of their crewmate, but there seems to be no attempt to keep tabs on them, as they are allowed to wander about doing some fairly inept sleuthing with no real difficulty.

Meanwhile the saucer itself has been whisked off to Hangar 18, which is not the same as Area 51, of course: Hangar 18 is in Texas, for one thing, and looks like a beat-up old aircraft hangar rather than a state-of-the-art government installation, although they try to get round this by suggesting it is cunning camouflage. ‘Don’t let the outside fool you!’ cries NASA boss Harry (Darren McGavin), introducing his team to the site, which is about as close to inventiveness as the film gets.

Mind you, the alien ship looks even more cruddy than the hangar, resembling a collection of vacuum-formed plastic boxes glued together, and it has not-terribly-interesting black-with-black-highlights décor, too. (On the other hand, it does seem to be bigger on the inside than the outside, so maybe one shouldn’t be too critical.) Harry and his team set about studying the ship and the bodies of the dead aliens inside, uncovering the odd abductee, translating the alien language with almost unseemly speed, and so on.

All this time, however, Steve and Lew are closing in on the heart of the cover-up, threatening to expose the secret of Hangar 18 and potentially really mess up the presidential election result. How far will Cain go to keep the situation under control…?

It’s not very far into Hangar 18 that you realise that, for whatever reason, you have sat down to watch what is fundamentally a bad movie. It is not quite the case that it is a comprehensively bad movie, for Darren McGavin works his usual magic and manages to lift many of the scenes he appears in to the level where they are relatively engaging. The film has a decent premise and is somewhat revealing as a post-Watergate, pre-X Files conspiracy thriller. But most of it is very heavy going. Partly this is because it has clearly been made on a punitively low budget, with minimal special effects.

However, a low budget does not excuse the suckiness of much of the script, which is the kind of thing that gives melodrama a bad name. The main driver of the plot is the sheer ineptness of the government cover-up, which allows Steve and Lew to roam the country gathering evidence and following tenuous leads almost with impunity. It is not one percent convincing as a depiction of the intelligence services in action, and as a result the film is almost impossible to take seriously as a drama.

The stuff with Harry and the others investigating the saucer is somewhat more interesting, though there is little original to be found here, either: it turns out the aliens have been abducting people, and also possibly armadillos (it’s not entirely clear); the ancient astronaut ideas of Swiss hotel manager and convicted fraudster Erich von Däniken are also dusted off and wheeled out. It barely qualifies as proper science fiction, to be honest, and I can imagine many modern commentators having issues with the fact that this is a movie almost wholly populated by middle-aged white dudes.

In fact, I have to say that possibly the most interesting thing about Hangar 18 is the ending, or perhaps I should say endings, for there are two: the original theatrical one, and another one cobbled together for the film’s TV broadcasts (some of which took place under the spoiler-tastic title Invasion Force). Now, it seems to be the case that it’s the second ending which is in general circulation at the moment. The difference between the two, so far as I’ve been able to find out, is as follows. Both versions conclude with Cain deciding to make the problem of Hangar 18 go away by blowing it up in a faked plane crash (listen to the 9/11 conspiracy nuts squeal). Meanwhile, Harry and the others have just discovered that the alien ship is an advance scout for an imminent invasion. But before they can raise the alarm generally, the hangar is blown up and Cain’s machinations leave humanity unprepared! (In the theatrical version anyway.) In the TV version, the ending is somewhat recut to suggest the alien ship survived intact, along with everyone who was inside it. It’s a bit of a cop-out, to be honest, concluding a rather bland movie in a very bland way. So I suppose it has consistency to commend it, but at least the darker original end would have been more memorable. Even so, I’m not even sure Hangar 18 really has any particular claim to be remembered.

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A couple of weeks in and Ready Player One seems to be doing okay, although I suspect not quite as well as its producers might have hoped, all things considered. (Just to digress a little, the list of the best-performing films of the year so far is fascinating reading, with Chinese blockbusters unheard of in the west doing massive business, and the appalling you-know-what having made a soul-bleaching $275 million so far.) Maybe this is because wider audiences are indeed struggling a bit with the non-stop in-jokes and pop-culture references which are such an integral part of the film. You could probably get a good sense of a person’s age and background based on how many of Ready Player One‘s Easter Eggs they recognise; most people will get the Back to the Future DeLorean and the chestburster from Alien, probably rather fewer the glaive from Krull.

One of the things that is likely to separate the adults from the younglings (oh yeah, post-Weinstein my idioms are all going to be gender-neutral) is their response to Olivia Cooke’s ride during the race sequence: once again, the majority will, I suspect, limit themselves to something along the lines of ‘Cool motorcycle’ – for the rest of us, of course, it is instantly and obviously recognisable as The Bike From Akira.

It is a little strange and perhaps even unique that a single element of design should become quite as emblematic of the film it appears in as The Bike From Akira. If you google for Akira-related images then six of the first ten results are pictures of The Bike. This is despite the fact that The Bike has relatively limited screen-time and is really only tangentially significant to the plot of the film. Just goes to show the power of a really great piece of design, I suppose.

Hard to believe though it is, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is thirty years old this year, and its futuristic setting should be our here-and-now – thankfully, most of its predictions have turned out to be incorrect, with the amusing exception of the fact that Tokyo is indeed hosting the Olympics in 2020. I first saw it as a teenager, and hadn’t seen it again until very recently; it was a bit of shock to realise that if I leave it as long again before watching it for a third time, I’ll be in my seventies. However, time has not diminished the exceptional qualities of this film, while a little bit of distance has allowed the film’s cultural significance to become clearer.

There’s a fair of backstory to Akira, most of which the film quite sensibly parcels out in the course of the story. The essentials are as follows: in 1988, Tokyo was destroyed by a devastating, unexplained explosion, triggering a third world war. By 2019, it seems that civilisation has recovered, up to a point – the movie takes place entirely within the sprawling megacity of Neo-Tokyo. The city is beset by political tensions and random violent crime, with rival biker gangs battling for control of the streets.

Members of one such gang are Kaneda and Tetsuo – Kaneda is the owner of The Bike. (A number of versions of this film exist, with different actors voicing the characters.) They are both orphans and have been friends since childhood, although the more insecure Tetsuo is wont to chafe a bit in the face of Kaneda’s swaggering cockiness.

Things change for the duo one night, when a run-in with another gang takes an unexpected turn. Tetsuo encounters a very peculiar child who has recently been abducted from a government installation; when the forces of Colonel Shikishima take the child back into custody, Tetsuo is taken too.

Kaneda and the others are worried about their friend, and possibly with good reason: he is having visions of a mysterious boy calling himself Akira, and rapidly developing extremely potent psychic powers. The authorities already have a trio of psychics, trapped in a state of arrested development by the drugs they take to control their powers, and are using them to investigate the forces that Akira represents. They want to add Tetsuo to their programme, but have they underestimated his raw power?

Meanwhile, Kaneda has fallen in with an anti-government group (suffice to say there is a girl involved) determined to free Tetsuo. However, they too don’t quite appreciate just what they are up against, as events spiral out of control and Tetsuo attempts to waken the dormant power of Akira…

Animated Japanese cinema is experiencing a bit of a spike in its profile at the moment, following the recent passing of Isao Takahata and with the imminent release of the not-Studio Ghibli movie Mary and the Witch’s Flower. In the UK, of course, animated Japanese cinema is essentially synonymous with Studio Ghibli and those associated with it. Akira is the great exception to this, being the product of a bespoke coalition of companies, such as Toho, who came together specifically to make the film.

Nevertheless, the much-commented upon beauty and technical virtuosity of any Studio Ghibli film you care to mention is absolutely matched by Akira, which is a visually stunning film from start to finish. Every frame is filled with colour, energy and movement; the detail of every piece of design is breathtaking. I imagine one could watch the original Japanese version of Akira, not actually comprehending a single word of the dialogue, and still have a pretty good time with the movie.

Of course, even being able to speak Japanese, or have access to the English dub, doesn’t necessarily mean you will completely understand the movie the first time you encounter it; I know I struggled a bit, certainly. The fact that it’s called Akira and yet there isn’t really a character called Akira in it can be a bit wrong-footing; the sheer density of the film’s plot and ideas, which are concerned with themes of transhumanism, can also take the unwary by surprise. As well as being several flavours of SF film, there is a sense in which Akira is also a superhero movie and a political thriller, to name but two.

I don’t think anyone would honestly watch Akira and believe it was a Ghibli movie, of course, for – other than a few sequences of surreal grotesquery – it is clear that Otomo’s movie has an entirely different sensibility. Ghibli movies are, with the occasional famous exception, fairly soft-centred and ultimately quite gentle; there’s a sense in which Akira revels in its scenes of carnage and devastation. It is absolutely of a piece with a whole movement of dark SF from the 1980s, embodying a kind of dystopian urban alienation. You can draw lines between Akira and Robocop, Akira and Blade Runner, Akira and The Dark Knight Returns.

It’s not simply that Akira has clearly been influenced by these other things; it may in fact be the case that it influenced some of them. It’s that it is every bit as sophisticated and challenging as any of them. It may conclude on a guardedly hopeful note, perhaps somewhat inspired by 2001, but on the whole it is asking harder questions about the dehumanising effects of urban life, the real nature of progress, and – perhaps the quintessential SF theme – our ability to responsibly use our own potential. A great animation and a great SF movie, too.

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You would have to be a real curmudgeon, I submit, to object to the rise of genial Dwayne Johnson to his current position as the most world-bestriding movie star in the business. As it happens, Johnson started his movie career at round about the same time I started sticking my first bits of film-related writing on the internet. There have been a few missteps and quiet patches since the likes of The Scorpion King and The Rundown, of course, but since he joined the Fast and Furious circus in 2011 he really doesn’t seem to have looked back. (I, on the other hand, have steadily progressed from writing humorous film reviews on a fairly obscure website, to writing humorous film reviews on an entirely different and even more obscure website.)

They’re not doing a Fast and Furious film this year, thus freeing up genial Dwayne to make another film instead, and his choice has turned out to be Brad Peyton’s Rampage. While I was buying my ticket for this movie, I noticed one of the ticketeers struggling to deal with a young mother who’d brought her kids to the cinema.

‘I brought them to Peter Rabbit but this one says he’s already seen it,’ she complained, indicating a small child. (Another young life needlessly blighted.) ‘What’s Rampage about?’

Panic glittered in the ticketeer’s eyes. I felt it incumbent upon me to step in. ‘Dwayne Johnson plays a zookeeper,’ I said helpfully. ‘But there’s an accident and the animals get sprayed with magic chemicals that turn them into giant monsters. So he has to fight them all.’

The rictus mask of horror which settled upon the face of the young mum is not something I can easily describe, but I think it’s safe to say that Rampage did not receive her custom. This is a shame, for Rampage is pretty much the perfect Dwayne Johnson vehicle – big, slightly absurd, but essentially good-natured and very likeable.

I must confess to having simplified the plot a bit when I was pitching the movie to the lady in the cinema. It says something about Rampage that genial Dwayne plays a crack special forces soldier turned brilliant primatologist, and yet this is very far from the most preposterous thing that the film requires you to believe. Well, anyway, the film is predicated on the fact that ‘genetic editing’ technology exists allowing unprincipled scientists to basically mash up different kinds of animal.

Some experiments along these lines have been taking place on a space station, which as a result is experiencing an infestation of Rodents of Unusual Size (this sequence kind of resembles a gonzo remake of Gravity). Needless to say things go badly and cannisters of the (very vaguely defined) monster-animal-creating jollop fall to Earth in various locations across America.

The principal one of these, from our point of view, is the zoo to which Dr Davis Okoye (genial Dwayne) is attached. Davis likes animals more than people, on the whole, and his special friend is George, an albino gorilla. So he is as cross as two sticks when exposure to the falling space debris results in his pal growing two feet in height in a matter of hours and becoming uncharacteristically violent and aggressive.

Other people have more serious problems. The evil corporate types responsible for the whole mess, the Wydens (played with cartoon gusto by Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy), need to get a sample of the jollop in order to shore up their stock price, so they pack a team of mercenaries off to Montana to find another one of the cannisters. But they all end up getting eaten by a wolf the size of a bus.

So, as you would expect from people who think that creating giant mutated near-indestructible monster animals makes good business sense, they hit upon an equally sensible plan B: sending a radio signal from the roof of their skyscraper in Chicago which will attract the monster animals to the city, thus allowing the armed forces to kill them all (and letting the Wydens get their sample).

In the meantime, Davis and a female scientist who is mainly there to be decorative and exposit (Naomie Harris, who is not, perhaps, over-stretched by this role) have been nabbed by the government, along with George the gorilla. Agent in charge Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan in scenery-devouring form) would quite like the whole mess clearing up, but with George and the wolf proving uncontainable, and a third even larger beastie swimming up the Chicago river, it’s clear that a lot of things are going to have to explode before it’s all sorted out…

Even by the standards of Hollywood blockbusters, there’s something fundamentally weird and off-kilter about the premise of Rampage – for example, why a wolf, a gorilla, and a crocodile, exactly? The answer may partly lie in the fact that this is yet another movie based on a computer game – in this case, however, one from the 1980s with minimal plot and depth. The barest essentials of this – monsters vaguely resembling an ape, a wolf and a crocodile tearing down buildings – are at the heart of the movie. (It’s perhaps somewhat ironic that this production was at one point sued by Uwe Boll, director of many terrible video game-based movies – not, as you might expect, for threatening to bring the genre into repute, but because he himself directed a series of movies called Rampage and felt he held the rights to the title.)

If I say they do a pretty good job with some unpromising material (it took four people to write this thing), this is not because I am claiming that Rampage is a film of great moment which will long be remembered as a significant contribution to world cinema. It is not. It is a film about Dwayne Johnson having a fight with a giant albino gorilla, a giant mutated crocodile, and a giant wolf-porcupine-flying-squirrel hybrid. But as such, the movie knows exactly when the audience will probably cut it some slack (yeah, so the monster animals can home in on radio signals…) and when it really has to deliver – namely, in the scenes of the monsters running amok in Chicago and fighting the armed forces.

I don’t know, maybe we’re living through a new golden age of the American monster movie and we didn’t even notice it start – in the last year or so, there’s been Skull Island, Pacific Rim: Uprising, and now this, all of which have captured the energy and fun of classic monster movies much more than things from even four or five years ago. The original Rampage game clearly owed a debt to King Kong and Godzilla, of course, so there’s a sense in which the circle is closed here – it also seemed to me that the croc in this movie bears something of a resemblence to a classic Toho monster. The shade of Ishiro Honda would surely approve of the various sequences of urban devastation which make up the bulk of the third act of the movie.

However, I think we are in danger of overlooking the contribution made by the actors to this film. It’s true that the villains are just there as plot devices, and they are essentially ciphers, and it’s equally true that no matter how hard New Line Cinema push for an Oscar nomination for genial Dwayne, he ain’t gonna get one for this movie – but he and Harris and Morgan do an essential job in putting a human face on all the CGI, and giving the film a bit of warmth and humour and even soul (Johnson’s range obviously has its limits, but within those limits he’s a very effective performer). Even when the film is at its most over-the-top, there will be a little moment of knowing humour, just to reassure you that the film is entirely aware of how preposterous it is, and I can’t describe how relaxing this feels.

It’s fair to say that the only award Rampage is likely to win is Popcorniest Popcorn Movie of the Year (emphasis on the corny) – unless they introduce an Oscar for best flying CGI wolf, anyway. I am also very sure that this is the kind of film that many people would run a mile rather than go anywhere near. But as a bonkers monster movie, it is simply a huge amount of fun. It is probably the most ridiculous thing that will appear in cinemas this year – but ridiculous doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

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I have commented in the past on the dangers of giving your movie a punchy, catchy one-word title: other people may have the same idea, which can be terribly confusing. Twilight, Steel, Roadkill: all of these titles have been round the block a few times and have wildly different movies squabbling over possession of them.

Short titles can be equally problematic: just now I noticed that The Black Hole was on TV, but rather than the 1979 Gary Nelson stellar-conflict knock-off, it turned out to be a Ken Badish Z-movie with Kristy Swanson. In a similar vein, I wonder how many people are going to check into their favourite streaming site and decide to watch The Darkest Hour, comfortably settling down to enjoy an Oscar-winning turn from Gary Oldman, oblivious to the fact that they have actually made a fairly significant mistake?

Not that this is likely to long remain the case, for I cannot imagine anyone watching much of Chris Gorak’s 2011 movie The Darkest Hour and long remaining under the impression it is Joe Wright’s 2017 movie Darkest Hour. One of these films has an embattled Winston Churchill trying to keep the cause of liberty and freedom alive. The other features attractive young people being chased around Moscow by invisible monsters. A definite article can make a big difference sometimes.

These days it’s a little hard to imagine a US-Russian co-production quite as brazenly commercial as this one, but there you go, the past is another country. (As is Russia. Presumably the past of Russia is several different countries simultaneously, but I’ve no idea how that would work.) Prime mover behind this enterprise appears to have been Timur Bekmambetov, reigning nutcase behind such family favourites as Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the remake of Ben-Hur, and though someone else is left to do the actual directing, followers of the Bekmambetov oeuvre will know more or less what to expect.

Things get underway with aspiring young American entrepreneurs Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), who arrive in Moscow (everyone uses the American pronunciation, by the way) to try and find investors for their new website-stroke-app. But zounds! It turns out their perfidious Swedish business partner, Skyler – is this a common Swedish name? – has done the dirty on them and ripped off their idea. (The evil Swede is played by Joel Kinnaman, by the way.)

To drown their sorrows, Sean and Ben retire to a swanky nightclub where they meet feisty backpackers Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor). You know, I wasn’t aware that Moscow was such a hub on the international backpacking scene, but it just goes to show you. Even Skyler ends up in the same club, where he is as objectionable as earlier.

But then! Following a mysterious power failure, everyone stumbles out into the street to see strange aurorae appearing over Moscow, and swirls of glowing light raining down onto the city. It all looks very pretty, until it becomes apparent that the swirly light things are all people can perceive of vicious alien gits intent on invading the city and disintegrating everyone in their path. There’s only one thing for an appealing young ensemble cast to do at a time like this – hide in the cellar for a day and a night!

Making their rather cautious return to the streets 36 hours later, our heroes discover that Moscow is largely deserted, with everyone either having fled or been eaten by the invisible alien monsters. Everyone decides to go to the US embassy (even the Australian and Swedish characters), but what hope is there, with aliens still on the prowl and no apparent hope of escape…?

Anyway, The Darkest Hour is an example of the kind of middle-of-the-road genre movie which occasionally slips past me at a busy time of the year: I didn’t see it back when it came out, and can’t remember a particular reason why not. Must just have been occupied with other stuff – this is certainly the kind of film I can imagine me going to see, what with it being an alien invasion SF-horror movie and all. I may have been persuaded to knock it down my list of priorities by the notices it drew at the time, which ran a fairly negative gamut from tepid to eviscerating.

This is understandable, as – and perhaps you have been able to glean this from the customary synopsis – The Darkest Hour is unlikely ever to win any awards for its blazing originality, in any department. The capsule description of this movie – ‘the one with the invisible monsters in Moscow’ – also contains every distinctive feature that it possesses, with the possible exception of the fact that it scores unexpectedly high on the ‘on their way to very slightly better things’ department – Olivia Thirlby went on to appear in Dredd (in addition to some TV stuff), Rachael Taylor has carved out a tiny niche for herself sort-of playing Hellcat in the Marvel TV shows, Joel Kinnaman later found work in the Robocop remake and Suicide Squad, and so on.

B-movies are not what they used to be. It used to be the case that in a B-movie you were more or less guaranteed substandard, or (let’s be charitable) overambitious special effects, but you kept your fingers crossed that the film-makers would do their best to make up for this by using their imagination and wits when it came to the script, and the actors would likewise try to compensate for giving interesting performances. These days, however, thanks to the development of cheap high-end computers, the one thing you are pretty much guaranteed in even a low-budget movie is that it will have good-looking special effects. On the other hand, your chances of happening upon a script which does more than hit the minimum benchmarks are much lower nowadays, and the cast often seem to be deliberately trying to be as anonymous as possible.

So it is with The Darkest Hour. It has one slightly curious quirk – the moss-cow setting – and one potentially interesting feature – the invasion of invisible energy beings – and while the scenes in a devastated Moscow are predictably well-staged in visual terms, the film has little else to offer beyond a formulaic runaround. It’s not that difficult to work out who amongst the original five is not going to make it to the closing credits, and in which order they’re going to get zapped, but the thing is that you don’t really care either, so thinly characterised are they. Only Olivia Thirlby demonstrates she has genuine chops as an actress by genuinely making you worry about her survival.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that The Darkest Hour goes to all the trouble of being a Moscow-set SF movie, without including a single leading Russian character. It kind of reduces the setting to a painted backdrop, which I doubt was the intention of the Russian producers. I suppose you could argue that Gosha Kutsenko and Veronika Vernadskaya both appear in supporting roles and are very Russian indeed, almost to the point of stereotype, and that this makes up for a lot. Maybe.

In the end it doesn’t really make up for just how generic and forgettable The Darkest Hour is. Like a lot of movies at around this point in history, it was originally released in the odious 3D format, something which seems to have become slightly less common, but I doubt yet another gimmick would have helped its cause much. The thing about it is that this is one of those movies which doesn’t have a single element in it which you could genuinely call actively bad, but it’s so totally lacking in anything really distinctive and (apart from the effects and a single performance) actually accomplished that it simply fails to register in your head much. It’s not awful – being awful would actually make it more memorable. It just is, in that it exists – it just does very little more than that.

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“In no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ This is proved especially by the omission of the words “thy neighbor,” which are inserted when false witness is forbidden.” – Saint Augustine

Yes, I know, nothing says ‘welcome to this semi-humorous (mostly) film review blog’ like a quote about self-slaughter from a mediaeval theologian. But bear with me, for Easter is just around the corner, and if we’re going to do religion, then what better time? We are, if nothing else, about to cast an eye over a film which is probably more concerned with Easter eggs than any other in history, and so surely there’s some kind of connection there, right?

Oh well, please yourselves. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One has managed to swing the coveted Easter weekend release for this year, although this may be less to do with the thematic connection than the fact there isn’t a Fast and Furious movie out this year. Certainly, were it not for Spielberg’s involvement, and the fact the film’s had $175 million spent on it, you might not expect it to get such an honour, for it is after all a computer game movie, not a genre with the most distinguished pedigree.

Think of the quarter-century-plus history of the computer game movie and your mind ineluctably crowds with memories of Bob Hoskins in Super Mario Brothers, Dwayne Johnson in Doom, Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil series, and much of the filmography of Uwe Boll. It can be somewhat traumatic, obviously. (Just the other day I observed that while watching the new Tomb Raider movie is more fun than is the case with either of the Angelina Jolie ones, the same can be said for sawing off your own feet.)

Ready Player One isn’t quite in the same category, being a film about playing computer games rather than an adaptation of one. There is a lot else going on here too, though, including some dystopian SF and something rather new which I haven’t really seen in a movie before (we will come to this in time).

The film tells the story of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living in a sort of poverty-stricken demi-monde of 2045 following various ecological and financial disasters (well, as poverty-stricken as is compatible with everyone having top-end gaming and computer gear in their shacks, anyway). The real world is so thoroughly grim that everyone has retreated into a virtual-reality fantasy called the Oasis, where they can live out their dreams and be and do whatever they want.

The creator of this cyber-utopia, Halliday (Mark Rylance), has passed away, but left three keys hidden inside the game world. Whoever finds them first will gain ownership and total control over the Oasis, in addition to a stack of cash. Needless to say everyone is looking for the keys, including slimy corporate operator Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who plans to flood it with advertising and reconfigure paradise for maximum profit. After a chance discovery puts Wade on the path to winning the prize, forces both inside the simulation and in the real world start to take a serious and possibly lethal interest in him. He and his gamer buddies team up with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), another key-hunter who sees control of the Oasis as a means of bringing about social justice, and set about solving the rest of the clues…

Well, Steven Spielberg may be 72 this year, but he has lost none of his ability to wrangle a giant popcorn blockbuster, and with Ready Player One the great man is on magisterial form: the story is told with assurance, impeccably paced, and with stormingly good set-pieces at exactly the moments when they’re needed. I found it to be an almost irresistibly entertaining film, judged simply as an adventure and a piece of pure spectacle.

That said, of course, there is a lot of other stuff going on here. The actual story is not especially innovative, being a quest for plot coupons with various twists and reversals along the way, and most of the incidental fun of the movie comes from the fact that elements from a vast number of movies, TV shows and films exist in parallel in the Oasis. There’s a car chase near the top of the film in which one character is driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, someone else is riding the iconic bike from Akira, and a third person is behind the wheel of the 1960s Batmobile, all of which are being pursued by King Kong. In a battle scene, people variously whip out colonial marine pulse-rifles, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, or the glaive from Krull. At one point there is a brief appearance by a big name member of Toho’s monster stable. It goes on and on and on (though there are certain predictable exceptions – nothing from Marvel, obviously, and the most recognisable thing from the stellar conflict franchise in the movie is Ben Mendelsohn).

And while I found all this to be rather delightfully amusing, I imagine that if you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure fantasy and SF pop culture it may just be baffling, or even distracting. At one point the characters visit a lovingly recreated simulation of a well-known Stanley Kubrick movie, which is fine provided you’ve seen that movie already. (One does inevitably wonder why the youth of 2045 are quite so clued-up on – even obsessed with – pop culture from sixty to seventy years earlier, and why there’s relatively little from the 2010s. But I digress.)

Now, I am aware that some people have already taken Ready Player One to task over this, claiming the movie embodies the worst kind of geeky fanboy attitudes – basically, if you don’t have a vast knowledge of popular culture, you are only worthy to be scorned and pitied. The fact that this may actually be pushback against the attitude, still quite prevalent in society in general, that geeky fanboys are the ones who deserve scorn and pity doesn’t appear to have occurred to some people.

From here they tend to roll on to what is perceived as another problem with the film – namely, that it has a white male heterosexual hero, which is apparently practically anachronistic in a post-Wonder Woman, post-Black Panther world. I think this just sounds like people being determined not to like the film: it has very contemporary ideas about the fluidity of race and gender (who you are in real life doesn’t have to have anything in common with your virtual avatar), and it’s made clear that Wade only succeeds with the help of his very diverse group of friends.

What no-one seems to have really picked up on is what seems to me to be a genuine case of the film trying to have its cake and eat it. The central conflict is basically posed as one between free-spirited, iconoclastic, rebellious youth on the one hand, and massive, ruthless, profit-obsessed corporations on the other, with the kids obviously in the right. Well, fair enough, but the movie is being distributed by Warner Brothers, which made $31 billion last year, and is not noted for being a humanitarian charitable foundation: if they genuinely believed that high-end entertainment should be free to all, we wouldn’t have had to pay over twenty quid for our tickets (after taking concessions and my freebie card into account). And yet we did.

Well, this isn’t the first film to be hypocritical about big business, but it is emblematic of the way that Ready Player One comes on all street and revolutionary and ends up simply being rather timidly conventional in its attitudes. There is nothing genuinely surprising or unusual about its message or attitudes – in the end the characters decide that everyone should spend less time in the Oasis, because the only really real thing is reality (profound stuff, here – I’m surprised that Opus’ 1985 classic ‘Life is Life’ didn’t end up on the soundtrack, the period is certainly right).

What’s going on here is something fairly typical of films about VR and the like: the ultimate message that this can only ever be a poor substitute for the so-called ‘real world’. A really subversive and possibly much more interesting ending would be one akin to that of Brazil, with everyone retreating into their own personal solipsistic fantasies, leaving the real world deserted but for humming consoles and comatose gamers. But modern culture is ultimately as concerned with the preservation of social order as religion was centuries ago, and just as Saint Augustine was at pains to point out that suicide won’t get you into heaven (otherwise there is the risk of true believers topping themselves just to cut short their time in an imperfect world), so these days films and books about VR seem obliged to stress that they can only ever be a distraction, simply because someone’s got to do the work to keep the real world running.

In Ready Player One, this sudden emphasis on the priority of the real world comes as a crunching gear-change given we’ve just sat through over two hours of the Oasis being depicted as a miraculous utopia where dreams can literally come true, but it’s no less than what you would expect in a big mainstream movie like this one. It meets its social obligations with due diligence – but fortunately, Spielberg is also around to make sure it more than passes muster as a piece of entertainment, even if it isn’t as challenging as any of the episodes of Black Mirror it occasionally resembles. A big, shallow pool of a movie; lots of fun to splash around in, assuming you’re familiar with the water, anyway.

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