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Posts Tagged ‘William Eubank’

What do you get when you put an IT expert, a rocket scientist, an electrical engineer and an unemployed God-only-knows-what into a darkened room together? Either experimental theatre, or – as was indeed the case on the particular occasion I am thinking of – a night out to the cinema for my gaming group. This, I should make clear, is a fairly unusual occurrence: when we get together, it’s usually to play games, as the fact we are a gaming group might lead one to suspect. Our only previous outings of this nature were to see the two most recent stellar conflict movies, and this was simply because it is our shared love of the stellar conflict franchise (and associated entertainments) that originally brought us together. Needless to say, there was a similar rationale behind our decision to go and see William Eubank’s Underwater.

That said, I knew literally nothing about this movie beyond the title and the fact that it contained one particular story element, and was half-expecting something very low-budget and rough around the edges. It was therefore a fairly pleasant surprise when the opening credits indicated that leading the film would be Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel, for these are both classy performers, and Stewart, in particular, has acquired that talent of always being impressively watchable even when the film she’s appearing in is not really up to much.

Underwater is very much part of Stewart’s return to mainstream entertainment. She (still with basically the same haircut as in Seberg) plays Norah Price, an engineer working at a deep-sea drilling installation at some time in the fairly near future. Pretty much the first thing that happens in the movie is that the station suffers a catastrophic breach, killing most of the crew. Stewart survives, obviously, and together with a couple of fellow survivors she makes her way to the command deck where she encounters the captain of the project (Cassel) and a few others. Something has gone horribly wrong – but what, exactly? It’s not at all clear. In any case, survival must come first and Cassel has a plan: all the escape pods in the station itself have gone, but if they descend through the wreckage of the rig to the ocean bed and then trek across it to what’s left of the drillhead, they may yet find the means to return to the surface alive.

This, naturally, involves clumping around in damaged deep-sea suits under pressures that would almost instantly reduce any normal person to mulch (and, this being a horror movie, that indeed happens to someone). But it gets better, by which I mean worse. Hostile and grotesque new forms of marine life have apparently been stirred up and are infesting the area around the station and the drill site. What exactly has the drilling project woken up…?

The first thing one should say about Underwater (not the most imaginative title, but accurate) is that it is a solid genre movie that understands and respects the conventions of the kind of film it clearly is, which is to say it is a horror-SF film. (By this I mean that you can guess more-or-less in which order the cast are going to get killed, you see progressively more of the monsters as the thing goes on, and there are various sequences in which Stewart and the other female cast member, Jessica Henwick, run around in their underwear.) However, this itself almost constitutes a surprise given William Eubank’s CV: he also made (though I had forgotten this) The Signal, an impressive piece of slightly experimental pure SF, stronger on visuals than strict narrative coherence. This film boasts the same kind of solid production values and impressive special effects, but it’s the kind of movie which you can’t imagine had its origins in anything other than the director watching a film they really enjoyed as a teenager and really wanting to do their own version of it.

Even the brief capsule synopsis I have provided is possibly quite indicative of just how derivative Underwater feels: the grimy, industrial aesthetic and some elements of creature design instantly recall Alien; there’s a sequence strongly reminiscent of Gravity; you can point out elements which have been pinched from everything from The Abyss to the 2014 Godzilla to DeepStar Six. New ground is not really being broken here.

Now, obviously I am not suggesting that derivative films are necessarily bad ones; you could possibly argue that genre movies are by definition to some extent derivative. Underwater indicates from the start what kind of film it’s going to be and then proceeds to be that film. It’s a solid, meat and potatoes piece of work: I can easily imagine it making regular appearances in the 9pm slot on the Horror Channel a few years from now, but possibly the only thing it will really be remembered for is the fact it was the very last film put out under the 20th Century Fox marque before Disney renamed the studio (sic transit gloria Mickey).

Well… that said, there is of course still the question of just why this film lured four veteran role-playing gamers out to the late night showing which is the only one this film managed to secure. Here I am a little reluctant to go into much detail, although talking about ‘spoilers’ in this instance may well be pushing it: I’m not so much talking about plot points as a kind of massive in-joke or Easter egg. You’ll either get it or you won’t; my understanding is that it wasn’t in the original script and even the film’s producers weren’t really informed about it. Oh, well: word of the ‘twist’ in Underwater has spread like wildfire through certain sections of the internet so I expect most people who would be interested will already know. Nevertheless, ‘spoilers’ will follow the poster.

This is a horror movie; we are currently playing the world’s best-known and best-loved horror role-playing game, based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft (there is perhaps something slightly ironic about the fact that Kristen Stewart’s famous ex is also appearing in a distinctly Lovecraftian horror movie at the moment). Anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s work will have a very good idea of just why it is a very bad idea to go poking around in the deepest, darkest parts of the Pacific Ocean, and just what it is you are likely to disturb. If you know your HPL you will now have a very good idea of who or what turns up in the third act of Underwater, and I have to say the realisation is pretty good (although everyone probably has their own idea of exactly what Lovecraft’s Dreamer actually looks like). Seeing ol’ squidhead on the big screen is certainly a memorable moment, but on the other hand it isn’t much more than the in-joke or Easter egg I mentioned earlier. I’m a bit of a purist about Lovecraftian horror (couldn’t you guess) and I wouldn’t really call this a Lovecraftian movie per se: the decision to include one of Lovecraft’s monsters was made during post-production, so it’s not like it’s strongly present in the script. Still, maybe if this film does good business, coupled to the decent notices received by Richard Stanley’s adaptation of the Lovecraft story Color Out of Space, there may be more interest in doing this kind of thing properly – maybe even Guillermo del Toro’s long-mooted crack at At the Mountains of Madness. A man can dream (of weird, cyclopean architecture, with hideous, non-Euclidean angles, probably). As it is, this is a decent SF-horror film with a fun and quite cool treat for the initiated.

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Once more unto the Phoenix in Jericho for a visit to their Discover Tuesdays strand, which happens on (duh) a Tuesday, hence no need to fear the blight of allocated seating. Discover Tuesdays is a pretty eclectic catch-all receptacle for any films Picturehouse have snagged the rights to but which they think are too fringe, minority, or experimental to warrant a proper run across the week – and when you consider their major release this week was a searing behind-the-scenes documentary about couture, you may get some idea of just how fringe, minority, and experimental some of the Discover Tuesdays films turn out to be (the last one I went to was, I believe, a true-life courtroom-drama documentary about dinosaur fossil smuggling).

It’s a tough call as to whether William Eubank’s The Signal is more or less out there than that, for all that this initially looks like a fairly conventional indie film drama. This is the point at which I have to go on the record and say that this review may end up being rather shorter than most, or at least continue an even higher than usual ratio of pointless waffle to useful information. I really wanted the experience of being totally surprised by a film, and so, beyond knowing the name of one of the actors and a few vague clues as to the genre of the thing, I deliberately avoided all knowledge of what was to come. I think this added to my enjoyment of the movie immensely – and having spent what feels like about four months watching, analysing, and discussing just the trailers for Age of Ultron, I can’t help thinking this would be true of a lot of other films, too. I don’t want to spoil The Signal any more than I have to, so henceforth I shall be very circumspect about the plot and so on.

the signal

Brenton Thwaites plays Nic, a young computer science student engaged on a roadtrip across America with his buddy Jonah (Beau Knapp) and girlfriend Haley (latterday Hammer starlet Olivia Cooke). Haley is moving to the West Coast and they, in theory, are helping her with her stuff, but there are various ulterior things going on too. Nic and Jonah are being plagued by a remarkably skilled hacker calling himself Nomad, and it may just be that the journey will allow them the opportunity to run their nemesis to ground and expose his true identity. Perhaps more seriously, strains are developing in Nic and Haley’s relationship – Nic is suffering from some kind of progressive medical condition (muscular dystrophy, apparently, though this isn’t made particularly explicit on screen) which will eventually put him in a wheelchair, and he is anticipating the moment when she breaks up with him on account of this. All this remains unresolved as they near their destination, which also happens to be close to the location they have tracked Nomad’s signal to: a remote shack in the Nevada desert, which initially seems to be deserted, but…

And here I must cease and desist, for the startling turns and twists the plot takes from this point on are really best experienced in a state of complete innocence.Well, I suppose I have to issue a few vague generalities, just for form’s sake and so people have a very rough idea of the tenor of proceedings: prior to this point, The Signal has looked not unlike an indie-ish drama about the lives of young people, albeit one with an impressively high level of computer science literacy. It proves to be very much otherwise, as Laurence Fishburne appears as an enigmatic figure in a hazmat suit, and the film reveals itself to be… well, from a very different genre.

Some of the advance publicity that I did see for The Signal compared it to a Shane Carruth movie, specifically the mesmerically cryptic Upstream Color, and I can sort of see where this comparison is coming from. However, it doesn’t quite manage to consistently strike an authentically Carruthian tone, because most of the time I felt I had a pretty good idea of what was going on from one scene from the next, at least superficially (I stress, most of the time: there’s one sequence with a cow and what seems to be an invisible monster I couldn’t quite figure out). This isn’t to say that the deeper workings of the plot are always apparent: in fact, as the film progresses, it almost gives the impression that it’s unravelling into spectacular visual and narrative incoherence, to increasingly stunning (but baffling) effect.

And yet, and yet. The Signal is ultimately an SF movie, and – perhaps – the most truly SF movie I’ve seen in a long time. Defining what SF actually is is one of those proverbially difficult things, but one suggestion which stuck with me is that it deals with the idea of conceptual breakthrough: the revelation and consequences of discovering that Things Are Not As We Thought They Were. The makers of The Signal have suggested that it is ultimately a drama about the conflict between logic and emotion, and to some extent this is apparent when watching the film – but my overriding impression when watching it was of a dizzying series of narrative transitions, not always tremendously coherent, it’s true, but with a remarkable cumulative impact.

Whatever you make of the conception and plotting of the film, it features impressive performances from the key performers – Laurence Fishburne is on particularly fine form – and it is visually highly impressive. Possibly¬†The Signal¬†is ultimately just a triumph of style over substance – and simply on the basis of the film’s technical virtuosity I can see William Eubank having talks with a couple of big-name movie-making outfits in the very near future – but it’s still a fascinating piece of storytelling legerdemaine with its own slightly unearthly sense of style about it. I got a very real kick out of watching it, and I’m very curious to see what Eubank does next.

 

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