Film, TV

Infinity War and the Marvel ‘lack of consequence’ problem

So you’ve seen Infinity War, right?

First of… *clears throat* ‘Holy fucking shit, that ending! Geez, did you just see that…Jesus!’

Right, now I’ve got that out of my system, let’s move on. Oh, and if you haven’t already seen the movie, stop reading and come back later. Unlike the Marvel universe, you can’t use a Time Stone to undo the consequences (burn!) of reading and frankly the film deserves to be experienced first-hand.

Still with me? Well, good, because Infinity War was pretty fun, right? An admirable smashing together of a whole bunch of Marvel properties that by-and-large works very well, assuming you know your Peter Quill from your Peter Parker.

But given that ending, and the various deaths racked up along the way, I want to ask a question. Does Infinity War solve the Marvel ‘lack of consequences’ problem?

 

Accusation: In most Marvel movies, there are very little consequences

The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are so much fun. They’re dependable slices of blockbuster entertainment and even if you don’t love one of the movies, you’ll still probably have a good time with it nonetheless.

This makes it all the more frustrating that the MCU tends to have very little actual consequences. By that I don’t mean exclusively characters dying, although that is certainly part of it (oh, and ‘dead but not really’ fake-outs are the worst – Loki, Nick Fury etc.) No, stories can have huge consequences without it necessarily involving the death of a character. In fact, I would go so far as to argue Game of Thrones has literally used up all its ‘story progression by death’ and has come up unstuck in delivering storytelling not dependent on shock-death.

But the clincher is, the MCU very rarely has any form of consequence. Certainly there are some good character journeys over the course of the films (Tony and Steve effectively switching ideologies being one of them) and some of the solo films are exceptions (Guardians 2, in particular, lands a fantastic character death) but, largely, stakes feel huge but mean nothing.

Let’s go through a few examples. In The Winter Soldier, it turns out that SHIELD has actually been infiltrated by Hydra, an extreme Nazi cult. Doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Ultron ends with a whole country being destroyed partially as a result of the Avenger’s actions, and it’s not really mentioned at the end of the movie. Civil War wants us to believe character relationships are damaged, but backtracks with Steve’s letter to Tony straight away.

None of it matters. Now, on occasion, stuff gets weight retroactively in a latter film – for example, the destruction of Sokovia has a huge impact on Civil War – but that’s not quite the same (more on this latter.) Most movies can’t rely on a sequel to give them meaning, and pretty much all good movies have immediate tangible consequences. That’s what gives them purpose.

So, the question is, in light of Infinity War, has this problem been solved?…

The answer is no, by the way, absolutely not. It actually makes things worse.

 

Is Infinity War the most inconsequential Marvel movie?

After a decade of being terrified to kill characters, Infinity War goes nuclear, killing Loki, Heimdall, Gamora, Vision and then a huge chunk of the other Avengers in one go.

Shit, boy! It’s like Marvel’s Red Wedding…apart from we know a whole load of it won’t stick. Spiderman, Guardians and Black Panther all have movies coming up so they aren’t gone for good. Straight away that undermines the ending. The funeral music credits, so powerful at the time, can’t help but feel like a gimmicky, weightless bit of audience manipulation rather than earned as a result of, you know, actually telling a good story.

The film has stones that can alter reality and reverse time. All the while those stones are around, nothing sticks, even if the film genuinely is committing. Are Loki and Gamora actually gone for good? If so, brave decision, I guess. But the film is crying wolf at the end, and so those deaths feel as temporary as every other.

There’s even a version of events whereby this could become the most inconsequential and pointless Marvel movie yet if it turns out they can rewrite time completely. If all the events of this film are undone then what on earth was the point?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the next movie will require sacrifice (Tony Stark basically has a target on his head the whole time now), but they can’t keep relying on subsequent movies to prop up the significance of the last. It’s bad storytelling.

And here’s the thing. Impossible, unbelievable stakes don’t need to be this empty and, to demonstrate my point, I want to compare Infinity War to an episode of the single greatest television show ever made – Doctor Who.

 

Infinity War and The Doctor

Although the most obvious episode to compare to Infinity War would be ‘The Stolen Earth’ (both stories involve aliens attacking, various different properties coming together and both have to juggle a huge amount of characters) I actually want to compare it to a slightly weirder episode, ‘The Pandorica Opens.’

If Infinity War thinks its stakes are high, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is like ‘bitch, please. You killed half of all life in the universe? Well we’ve literally exploded every star and the universe itself has faded out of existence. Those are REAL stakes.’ Yes, seriously, the penultimate episode of Series 5 ends with the whole universe blowing up. Go big or go home, I guess!

So, presumably, this should exhibit all the same problems as Infinity War. The universe can’t stay blown up for obvious reasons, it’s going to have to be undone. But, far from feeling pointless, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is a sublime bit of storytelling even before its excellent finale solves everything in a witty and cerebral way.

Why?

Because ‘The Pandorica Opens’ is about a lot more than the fate of the universe. There are important character moments between the Doctor and his companion, and between the companion and her husband that she forgot existed (who is also now a Roman Centurion, and also an evil plastic alien who doesn’t realise it…God damn, I love Doctor Who.)

It hinges on a fascinating question – ‘What monster is so feared in all the universe that it needs to be locked in the Pandorica?’ The answer turns out to be *spoilers* The Doctor. This isn’t just clever and shocking, it’s an insight into the theme of Matt Smith’s tenure – how The Doctor himself, with the best intentions in the world, can be seen by others as a monster and destructive force. Fear of him literally threatens the entire universe.

The episode ends with The Doctor imprisoned, the companion dead, the TARDIS blowing up and the universe ceasing to exist. Even though every single one of these is undone in the next episode, it’s actually about something greater than the obvious stakes – you can’t undo the character development or thematic exploration.

But if I asked you what is Infinity Wars about, I think you’d struggle to answer beyond ‘a purple alien wants to destroy half of everything’. There isn’t time for character development between the main heroes, so it’s a pretty surface level watch. The character explored the most is probably Thanos, and the biggest take away from him is maybe ‘crazy bad people sometimes think they’re justified’…but it’s all very flimsy. It’s relying on the shock factor of its deaths and stakes in a way the aforementioned Doctor Who episode just isn’t.

And the funny thing is, Doctor Who IS a TV series, ‘The Pandorica Opens’ IS a penultimate episode. This form of ‘all is lost’ storytelling is suited for television where you can find out the resolution next week. It sits uncomfortably in a movie that won’t get a follow-up for a year. (Although if Avengers 4 turns out to be a small, character driven piece exploring zany ideas on how to save the universe in the way ‘The Big Bang’ follows up ‘The Pandorica Opens’, all will be forgiven. Just saying.)

 

There are now less consequences

There’s still no evidence Marvel has learned its lesson when it comes to consequences and frankly, that’s becoming increasingly frustrating. God damn it guys, just commit already! If stones can literally alter reality, things feel less at stake than ever.

But if this piece has been overly grumpy, I want to emphasise I had a great time with Infinity War. It’s great, stupid, magnificent fun and a cinematic experiment that we just haven’t seen before. And oh boy has it got us talking and speculating. I’ll be there on opening night for Part 2, so I guess it kind of did its job.

It’s just the lack of consequences that I think the Marvel movies really need to overcome. Without consequence there can be no meaning, and the whole point of stories, even dumb fun ones, is to leave the audience with something beyond pure plot.

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Film, Philosophy

Why is The Dark Knight so damn good?

Ask me what the best superhero film is and I’d not hesitate to answer. The Dark Knight. A modern masterpiece of blockbuster filmmaking that, even ten years later, still feels shockingly unique and unparalleled in the genre.

Given that I’m hardly alone in this opinion, it got me thinking, what exactly makes The Dark Knight so damn good?

And, to answer this, I’m going to take for granted a lot of things that most of us agree on – Nolan is an incredible director, Pfister’s cinematography is beautiful, the acting is uniformly brilliant and the action sequences are spectacular – and answer the question with one word: ideas.

The Dark Knight is a movie about ideological conflict. It’s political. It’s philosophical. Whether we recognise it or not, that’s what makes it so compelling.

But to begin to break down these ideas, we need to address the elephant in the room when talking about what makes this movie work. We need to first look at the iconic character who drives the philosophical discussion of the film…

 

The Joker

The combination of a truly incredible performance by Heath Ledger supported by a great script made The Joker an all-time great screen villain. Did you know, though, The Joker is only in 33 minutes of The Dark Knight, a movie that is over two-and-a-half hours long? It’s a testament to both Heath Ledger and the character that his presence is felt in every scene and dominates our memories of the movie.

The Joker is a huge part of what makes The Dark Knight work, so we need to determine exactly why he is such an incredible villain to understand how he contributes to the film as a whole.

He’s not a typical Nolan character

Christopher Nolan is a genius, there can be no doubt of that, but his work often feels slightly detached from humanity. I don’t mean this in a Ridley Scott ‘Alien Covenant’ kind of way, where the characters are just things to inflict suffering on dispassionately, but in how Christopher Nolan characters tend to speak and behave.

There are not many of the traits we’d necessarily recognise as human – humour, flirting, warmth – and instead the characters tend to speak in the same cerebral way Nolan writes and directs. Often they’re sexless characters who regularly articulate complex philosophical worldviews as if in place of discussing the weather. It’s not problematic, it’s more a stylistic leaning, but it’s certainly not naturalistic.

This can make Nolan’s work feel a little sterile – emotionless is perhaps too strong a word (especially after Dunkirk, which hits pretty hard), but certainly restrained.

So when The Joker walks into this ordered Nolan movie with his crumbling clown make-up and his purple coat, he feels from another universe entirely. The Joker isn’t restrained – he tells jokes, he plays to the room, he performs violent magic tricks. In most movies, when The Joker walks into a party and acknowledges Rachel Dawes with ‘why hello, beautiful’ while adjusting his hair, the moment would be creepy. But in a sexless Nolan movie, The Joker’s sexual recognition feels like an act of anarchic defiance itself. The character’s theatrical demeanour and penchant for chaos feels like it’s tearing apart Nolan’s sterile world at the seams.

Which is not to say The Joker is entirely without Nolan quirks. He certainly philosophises, a lot in fact, and his very existence is more as pure ideological force than actual character. But the tussling of the theatrical clown monster with Nolan’s preference for restrained cerebral characters makes for a truly magnificent concoction.

The Joker is a terrorist

The Joker isn’t a typical supervillain. In him we see not a cartoon caricature of evil but a threat that’s very recognisable. He’s not an alien trying to blow the world up, he’s a terrorist trying to provoke fear. He doesn’t use magic MacGuffins to achieve his aims, he uses bombs, knives and hostage videos.

In this way The Dark Knight is very much a post-9/11 blockbuster. It taps into 21st Century fears of the destructive force of an enemy who cannot be understood or reasoned with, an enemy that can strike at any moment and slaughters indifferently.

‘Some men just want to watch the world burn’ Alfred warns a Bruce Wayne who is taken aback by a villain with seemingly no motivation. The Joker himself actively mocks the idea that he can be explained away by telling two different tragic origin stories. When we come onto the politics of this movie, this might well be part of the reason some interpret it as ‘right-wing’ – to perceive terrorism as a threat that is created and sustained in a vacuum is a slightly problematic idea – but for now let’s just acknowledge how strikingly that chord chimes with audiences of the movie.

 The Joker is an existential threat

But let’s get onto the meat of what The Joker represents. Moral Nihilism. He calls society’s morality a ‘bad joke’ and tells Batman he’s not a monster, he’s just ahead of the curve.

The Joker describes himself as an ‘agent of chaos’, a dog chasing cars who wouldn’t have a clue what to do if he caught one. Alfred compares him to thieves who steal for the sake of stealing.

What’s interesting though is something much more insidious still lies at the heart of what motivates The Joker. He’s not merely interested in causing chaos, he’s determined in proving that deep down everyone is as ugly as he is. It’s best summed up when he tells Batman:

 ‘They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.’

Every course of action he takes is aimed at proving just that. He manages to rile an angry mob into trying to take the life of an innocent man, he pits two ferries against each, hoping one would blow up the other. In Harvey Dent, the face of justice, he sees a target to corrupt. With Batman, a man who already has shaky moral foundations, he desperately wants him to break his one rule – not killing. To The Joker, any moral code is an illusion that needs to be broken.

In our darkest thoughts, it’s hard not to have a nagging doubt that maybe The Joker has a point. Maybe our morality is something of a lie, ready to be dropped the moment it’s no longer expedient. This is what makes him such a terrifying threat. He’s not trying to destroy Gotham as a physical place, he’s trying to destroy Gotham’s soul. He’s making a horrifyingly compelling case for Moral Nihilism, and is inviting the audience to agree with him.

To the extent The Joker actually acknowledges this aim, and to what extent he really does just see himself as an agent of chaos, inadvertently gives layers of psychological depth to the character. He very much is aware he’s playing the role of ‘villain’ in the narrative, but only because it’s a narrative he ultimately rejects.

 

The film’s politics – Is the movie a right-wing allegory?

So having established what makes The Joker so special, let’s glance at the politics of The Dark Knight.

Batman, when taken seriously, is actually a surprisingly problematic character. He’s a billionaire who spends his time acting as a vigilante, beating up the poorest in society. Unlike Superman or Captain America, he symbolises less something that is to inspire and more something that is to be feared. If you’re a criminal, he’ll get you, even if the law can’t.

It’s little wonder, then, that accusations of the mythology being a ‘right-wing power fantasy’ have been levelled. Further still, there are those who see The Dark Knight as a whole as ‘right-wing’.

If The Joker represents the terrorist threat, then does Batman represent the Bush administration going above and beyond to heroically put an end to terrorism, when the law, with its hands tied, cannot? Does Batman’s use of the phone system at the end (which spies on every Gotham citizen) represent the necessary temporary curtailing of civil liberties until the terrorist threat is neutralised?

Whilst I certainly appreciate this reading, I’m not entirely convinced by it. In fact, I’m not sure the film has a coherent political vision at all. Instead, quite wisely in my opinion, it opts more to ask questions rather than provide easy answers.

What’s certain is the whole trilogy sees the criminal justice system as flawed. There’s too much corruption and Batman is seen as kickstarting the cleaning up process. This is still a problematic stance but the film fully acknowledges that. Speaking in relation to Batman, Harvey Dent says:

‘When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service.’

This is then immediately corrected by Rachel, his girlfriend, who reminds him that the last person they appointed to protect was Caesar and he never gave up his power. Whether this is historically accurate is beside the point, the key is the film is wrestling with how it perceives Batman.

And, for the remainder of the movie, Bruce is hoping to let Harvey Dent, who represents the just rule of law, take over so he can retire Batman. Of course things don’t go to plan, and Harvey Dent ends up corrupted by The Joker’s actions.

Batman knows how important Harvey Dent and the rule of law is, however, and decides to take responsibility for Harvey’s actions so the people can still believe in him. This echoes ‘The Noble Lie’ found in the works of Plato’s ‘The Republic’ – a myth or untruth that is propagated for social harmony. Is that then the film’s message? That the criminal justice system is unfit for purpose but we need to believe in it anyway?

Well that would be odd, because if the sequel ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ has anything to say (and, frankly, it doesn’t say nearly enough for my liking), it’s too refute the idea of The Noble Lie. In that movie the untruths have rotted away at everything and the truth is eventually outed.

This ultimately reinforces my sense that Nolan doesn’t have a grand political vision, he’s just wrestling with these questions in the confines of a superhero movie. The fact it asks these questions at all, however, is remarkable.

 

The film’s philosophy – Is the movie nihilistic?

Much more interesting to me than the politics of the movie is the film’s philosophical conflict. I already highlighted above how I think The Joker is the physical manifestation of Moral Nihilism, which makes Batman’s position representative of Moral Objectivism – there really is such a thing as morality that exists independently of our social structure.

What’s shocking is The Dark Knight goes some way in showing that The Joker really does have a point (this movie has balls – what other superhero movie would blow up the love interest halfway through?!) People do call for Batman to reveal himself, they do attempt to kill the innocent man when a hospital is threatened, Dent is shown to be corruptible etc. So does this indicate the movie ultimately sides with The Joker?

I don’t think so, and that’s thanks to the ferry scene. One of the biggest criticisms of recent blockbusters, and especially Marvel superhero movies, is that no-matter what themes the films are exploring, they’re usually side-lined or forgotten entirely for a big punch-up in the third act. This is not the case with The Dark Knight. Until the very end the film stays focused on its themes with razor sharp precision.

In the ferry scene, The Joker offers two ferries (one carrying convicts, the other civilians) a choice – blow up the other ferry and live, or he’ll detonate both ferries. In The Joker’s mind it’s obvious that, out of fear, one of the ferries will blow up the other. What happens, however, offers us a glimmer of optimism. On the ship full of convicts, one of the prisoners tosses the detonator out of the window, taking the choice out of their hands. On the ship of civilians, they take a vote. Although they vote overwhelmingly to detonate the other ferry, none of them actually wants to be the one to do it. And so both ferries accept their fate. They’re going to be blown up because neither group is willing to murder.

On top of that, Batman never does break his rule. Not only does he not kill The Joker, he actively catches him when he falls out of the building. As The Joker dangles upside down, lost in his own madness, he says ‘You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you?’ It’s a brief and rare admission of partial defeat.

That’s not to say everything else in the film is undone. Out of fear and loss, a lot of Gotham has now done some incredibly shitty things. But by the actions of those on the ferries and Batman himself, we’re offered a reason not to entirely despair.

 

The legacy of The Dark Knight

Many movies have tried to capture what makes The Dark Knight so special but have failed. Some have tried to mimic the serious tone but forgotten to actually have anything to say (I’d go so far as to suggest this is even true of The Dark Knight Rises), whilst others have produced pretentious pseudo-philosophical movies that are a chore to sit through (Batman V Superman!)

The Dark Knight really does feel like lightening in a bottle, an example of everything coming together to produce a rare modern classic. It stands atop the superhero heap not because it’s serious or tries to treat comic books as ‘adult’ (in fact I would say most films should avoid that.) No, it stands proud because it’s about ideological conflict and what it means to be human, and that will always resonate no matter how it is packaged – even if the main character insists on dressing up like a bat!

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Film, Politics

Okay, let’s talk about Black Panther…

As insidious as it is that Disney seem to be buying pretty much everything at the moment, it’s hard to argue with the quality of their recent output. Thor Ragnarok was an offbeat comedy that tackled colonialism head-on, The Last Jedi was one of the deepest blockbusters in recent memory (easily the best Star Wars film since Empire), and now we have Black Panther.

Anyone who thought that Black Panther was going to be breezy and turn a blind eye to its cultural relevance just because it was part of the MCU were in for a shock – Black Panther is an incredibly political film. Wakanda is a kingdom unaffected by colonialism, T’Challa is a king who struggles with both his own and the kingdom’s conservative views on isolationism, and Killmonger, the movie’s antagonist, wants to use their advanced weaponry to liberate people against systemic oppression.

I’ve seen Black Panther twice now and it’s clear this is a movie begging to be dissected and discussed for years to come. And yes, I know what you’re all thinking, ‘Yay, the hot take we’ve been waiting for – what does the white guy think?’

Fear not, I don’t plan to spend long giving my ‘verdict’ on the film. In short, I really like it but I don’t quite love it. I love the characters (Shuri is now my favourite MCU character), I love the soundtrack and I love the sheer weight of its political themes, but there were one or two plot points which clunked for me.

But you know what, that really doesn’t matter because I’m not the film’s primary audience. By that I don’t mean I can’t enjoy it – as I say, I really did – I just mean that the most visceral reactions are going to be from the people seeing themselves represented in a way they haven’t before. As a white geek, the last decade or so of blockbuster cinema has been almost entirely aimed at me. That’s starting to change. Slowly. And I can’t wait.

With a different primary audience we get different stories, different beats and different issues to explore. From a purely selfish point of view, that’s surely more interesting than watching the same western white male experience play out in every single form it possibly can.

It’ll raise questions, and that’s great. It’ll challenge the fundamentally flawed idea that the default character is a white guy, and it’ll challenge the image that the default setting is Western (or else be deemed ‘tokenistic’.)

Black Panther gives those of us who are white the chance to engage with art in a deeper way than logical nit-picks, Cinema Sins-style bullshit, and arbitrary star ratings – for once we can just shut up and listen.

For many black viewers, it’s clear that Black Panther means something very special. Representation matters and everyone deserves to feel empowered by what they see on screen. Black Panther is crushing it at the box office because people have wanted this shit for so long, and to read the writing of both black critics and general black moviegoers permits us an insight into the responses of those who this film is truly for.

It’s also important to remember that the black response to this is not homogeneous, people have reacted in different ways. After all, no white film maker has ever had to carry the burden of capturing all differing white perspectives so we shouldn’t expect the same from Ryan Coogler.

For example, Christopher Lebron, Associate Professor at John Hopkins university, has described the film’s central arguments as racist.

He warned on Twitter that ‘black folks should always be a little suspicious when white #liberalmedia crowns a work of black art as revolutionary, because that usually means they think all the work has been accomplished by the art and their part is over, when it’s just supposed to be starting.’

Can a film with a predominantly black cast, made by a black director, be racist? I guess if you see it only as an extension of the Disney machine then yes, even if you’d have to cynically see Ryan Coogler as selling out or ungenerously presume he’s too stupid to see what he’s doing. Yet there’s undeniably something instinctively gross about a white CIA agent shooting down the tools of liberation for the oppressed as the film’s victory moment – especially if divorced from the larger context of the movie.

Whilst I certainly prefer Film Crit Hulk’s interpretation that the movie is much more of a dialogue than that, and actually about the duality of the black experience, it’s important to recognise the many reactions to this movie in the black community (whilst acknowledging, of course, that it is overwhelmingly positive).

I also found Stephen Bush’s article in the New Stateman to be a really interesting perspective. He’s much more interested in seeing a black hero who is incidentally black than a hero who is defined by it, but he goes on to concede ‘for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is.’

There are plenty of issues to be worked through, and it’s almost a relief that the white perspective on them is irrelevant. It’s the perfect antidote to today’s ‘everyone has to have an opinion on EVERYTHING’ mentality – not because we should be passive zombies, but because we need to recognise people have unique worldviews, experiences and backgrounds which make their opinions on certain topics better informed and more vital.

I think Black Panther as a movie is itself a dialogue and has gone on to create a healthy discussion. It’s on us to learn from what is being shared.

To be clear, it’s important to point out I do not mean to appropriate a cultural landmark and make it about what white people can learn from it. The representation provided and debates about said representation in the black community are absolutely the fundamental good from Black Panther. Only as a secondary good, from the periphery, do we talk about what we can learn from this.

So let’s hear differing perspectives with empathy so we can begin to understand experiences beyond our own. There are so many good pieces on this movie out there – go and read them! Yes, let’s talk about Black Panther, but let’s also listen.

That’s part of what makes Black Panther so awesome. That’s why it’s incredible a film like this has been released as a tentpole movie. Wakanda forever!

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Film, Musicals

The Greatest Showman review – Very far from the greatest!

Ughh, I really wanted to like this movie.

When it comes to musicals, I’m a pretty easy lay. Give me half-decent showtunes and a bit of choreography and I’ll usually enjoy myself. Heck, if it’s a good musical I’ll probably declare it my film of the year.

So it’s quite damning that The Greatest Showman doesn’t even clear my low hurdles. Despite an insanely talented cast bringing their a-game, they can’t compensate for a film that is misjudged in nearly every way, and from beginning to end feels fake and emotionally hollow. I’m sure Michael Gracey had the best of intentions, but it all falls flat (this is his directorial debut, and it shows!)

Perhaps the biggest misjudgement, but the one that’s strangely easiest to overcome, is a film about PT Barnum being the saviour of the downtrodden is slightly distasteful. I’m sure there’s plenty of nuance to be discussed, but the real Barnum was a con-man who did exploit ‘freaks’ to make his fortune, and was also responsible for introducing animal performers to the circus (a cruel trade we’re still trying to bring to an end.) That being said, this isn’t a biopic and I’d be happy to have switched my mind off and just embrace this starry-eyed rags-to-riches version if the film was any good…but it isn’t.

Firstly, there’s the hideous CGI. Look, I’m not one of those guys who hates on all forms of CGI, it’s often a necessary part of modern filmmaking and vital to many blockbusters, but here it’s overused and utterly ugly. If you’re expecting the audience to feel a sense of awe when you first show the circus, you’re really undercutting yourself when it’s plainly visible most of what we’re seeing only exists on a hard-drive. Perhaps if the film had some strong stylistic choices it would make it more forgivable (Baz Luhrmann regularly uses CGI to make hyper-stylised settings and it often works to great effect), but The Greatest Showman lacks any such vision.

And then there’s the music…oh God, the music. I won’t deny that there are two or three catchy tunes in the pack, but it’s all been over-produced in a studio somewhere, and the use of autotune is all too obvious. The moment I can tell Hugh Jackson is merely miming to a backing-track, my suspension of disbelief is dispelled. And, again, there’s no real consistent style for the music choices, it all just feels like generic pop music you would hear in the charts. You could literally insert Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ into the movie and it would fit perfectly (not that there’s anything wrong with that song, per se, it’s just hardly the stuff of high art!) Whereas Luhrmann used anachronistic music choices in Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby to shocking affect (like two creepy old men singing ‘Like a virgin’), the decision to use generic sounding modern fluff just feels uninspired here. In fact, the whole movie feels like a Baz Luhrmann picture if he had just had his balls cut off the day before.

Finally there’s the script, which is less a story and more a bunch of half-gestated clichés glued together. Loads of stuff happens (in fact the film piles on problem after problem for our characters), but none of it matters because we’re never remotely emotionally invested. The ‘freaks’ really are just freaks, with only Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady coming close to having anything to actually do (although she’s as bereft of character as everybody else.) When she starts her big speech about how Barnum gave her a family it just feels so unearned, a classic case of telling not showing.

In fact, the film doesn’t put the legwork into setting anything up at all. Characters fall in love, face social pressure and make up again in about five minutes of screen time – conflict really only works if we actually get time to feel it. A number of times characters break into acapella song reprises to remind us how bad everything is, but it feels mawkish and cheesy because it’s so fake. I’ll say it again, it’s dramatically unearned. It feels like watching Emma Stone’s audition song in La La Land, but if the character had only been introduced a few minutes ago and had just suffered her first failed audition. Say what you want about High School Musical, at least it had a solid grasp of investment, conflict and pay-off – The Greatest Showman is dramatically inept.

It really should be emphasised that everyone involved is fantastic though. As someone who couldn’t put one foot in front of the other on the dance floor, any criticism of this movie has to be couched in the acknowledgement that the talent is out of this world. Hugh Jackman is giving a great post-Wolverine performance which shows his incredible range, Zac Efron is always a good screen presence and Zendaya is a mega-star in the making. The choreography is also, at times, very impressive. In particular, there’s a sequence in a bar where, for a rare moment in the film, everything comes together, let down only by the lingering artificial feeling that can’t be shook-off.

In the end, The Greatest Showman is all climax and no foreplay. The movie knows what it wants you to feel, but has no idea how to make you feel it. There’s not even any levity, the film’s earnest to a fault. It’s like watching a two-hour long X-Factor singer intro, where they manipulatively play sad music over contrived editing. It’s way too sanitised and over-produced.

Before the movie started, a trailer for Mamma Mia 2 played. All the way through I kept wishing I was watching that – whatever you think of Mamma Mia, at least it bothers to make sure the audience is having fun.

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Philosophy, religion

10 terrifying things that should scare us much more than they do

As it’s still the season of good cheer, now seemed like the perfect time to take a look at 10 terrifying thoughts/facts that we should find way scarier than we actually do.

What? This piece would be more suited for Halloween, you say? Shh you, it’s all planned…wait, you don’t think I have a strict editorial calendar? You think I just come up with these random ideas when I’m bored and write them without thought for their appropriateness? How dare you! I resent the implication.

As humans we spend so much time worrying about trivial things, like whether we set Geordie Shore up to record, we forget (or maybe choose?) to not ponder terrifying facts about our existence.

So here are 10 scary things I really think we should give more thought to. Each gets progressively worse and number 10 is…disturbing. Number 10 will make you question everything you thought was good and could potentially drive you to madness so I won’t be offended if you choose to quit at number 9. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Up to you!

 

1) Nearly 50% of all marriages end in divorce

Look at your partner. Flip a coin. The chances of staying together pretty much come down to that. Still, you might be one of the lucky half who get the happy ending. Well, I say happy ending, one of you will still die first…so happy ending within reason.

 

2) Your opinions don’t matter one iota

What did you think of the latest Star Wars movie? What’s your favourite colour? Which Elvis song is the best?

Spoiler alert…no-one cares!

As conscious beings we are the centre of our own universe, and so we give an extraordinarily disproportionate amount of weight to our own opinions. But most of us shouldn’t bother having them, for what they’re worth. We’re like cattle being lead to the slaughterhouse, mooing away, placating ourselves that we mean something until the bolt enters our brain.

I mean, sure, maybe our political leanings might get heard in an election. A two-party system is SURELY going to represent your views and what you stand for in a meaningful way, and it’s not as if a politician has ever failed to deliver on what they’ve been voted in to do.

But what is Twitter if not just millions of people shouting out their opinions into the void, occasionally going ‘me too’ when one of the rare people who are listened to say something. Some people might even write lengthy blogs that no-one’s going to read, just to feel validated. Could you imagine?

 

3) Living in the moment might not be all it’s cracked up to be

We all know that we should ‘live in the moment’, yet so many of us struggle to do so. We take loads of photos when we go on holiday. We film concerts whilst we’re watching them (seriously, why go to see a band live and then watch it through your phone screen?)

Why do we do this? To capture happy memories, we tell ourselves.

But what if it’s a darker, more insidious reason?

What if the reason we don’t live in the moment is because the moment isn’t as great as we imagined it would be, and looking back on a photo in a year’s time with the benefit of nostalgia and rose-tinted goggles is actually more rewarding than being there in the first place.

What if photos are just a lie we tell our future-selves. Remember how much fun that holiday was? Bet you can’t wait for the next one?

‘Love, did you pack the camera?’

What if photos are just promises to our future-selves of a happiness that doesn’t really exist…

 

4) Almost everything you believe is culturally conditioned

We humans like to think we’re so autonomous, freely choosing what we do and don’t approve of. But, really, everything from our manners to our morality is a product of where and when we were born.

This doesn’t seem so shocking until you’re asked to ponder whether you, should you have been alive during the slave trade, would have condemned slavery. Of course we’d like to think we would, but statistically that just doesn’t seem the case.

Every culture seems to have a ‘moral blind spot’, something terrible that everyone seems to accept – whether it’s slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia or whatever. Chances are, if you were born into that culture, you’d be subject to the same moral blindness.

And even if you could recognise the immorality, would you do anything about it? I think there’s a good case to be made that many of us would at least indulge these immoralities until it became socially disadvantageous to do so. Speaking of which…

 

5) Most humans sustain themselves on the cruelty of animals

It’s kind of horrific, in many ways, that when we celebrate love and good-will at Christmas, most of us do so around a carcass of a dead bird – a bird that had parents, wants and needs, and was probably murdered only a few weeks ago (Christmas reference – see, this post IS seasonal).

It rather torments me that so many of my favourite foods come from the body of a creature who just wanted to live their live. By eating meat we are complicit in an unimaginable number of slaughters each day of animals who probably did not have the best of existences.

And it’s not just meat. Did you know to eat dairy, we require calves to be dragged away from their mothers at a young age when the maternal bond is still strong? Did you know by consuming eggs, we create a surplus of male chicks who have to be ‘disposed of’?

Is this not our moral blind spot? And, oh dear, maybe we’re not blind to it after all. Maybe we’re indulging in this cruel luxury simply because it’s not yet socially disadvantageous to do so.

 

6. One day, you’re going to be dead. Forever.

Sometimes I lay awake at night, thinking about this. Imagine not existing. Not just for a long time, but for an eternity. There really will never be another dawn, just an eternal cold oblivion.

Aldous Huxley once said most people live their lives as though ‘death were no more than an unfounded rumour.’

But when you give it some thought, it’s totally terrifying. And, of course, totally inevitable.

 

7. We are trapped within our senses

It’s weird to think of our senses as a prison, but they kind of are. We can only experience what our senses allow. Anything beyond our senses is unknowable. Like, could you imagine explaining colours to someone who is blind? What are we missing out on with our sensory limitations?

Here are a few interesting thoughts. If our senses evolved to help us survive, does that guarantee that what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch are what is real? Or are they mere expedient approximations evolved for survival, not for truth?

And are there things beyond our five senses that we can’t begin to understand? What could it be? It might be beautiful. It might be horrific.

 

8. You can’t know anyone else is real

If our senses are a physical prison, our mind is our epistemological one. To indulge in some first year philosophy, how can we know anyone else is real? Well, we can’t.

We know we exist (well, our mind at least) thanks to Descartes – ‘Cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore I am.’

But we don’t know that everyone else isn’t a product of our imagination. We might just be a brain in a vat, and everything around us a simulated illusion. And even if the person is physically before us, we have no means of knowing they have the same complicated thought-processes we go through. They could be mere automatons with the illusion of free-thought.

We must assume others around us are real but we simply cannot ‘know’.

 

9. We could be wrong about everything

Imagine an ant. When they see a giant boot nearly crushing them, can they begin to comprehend what it is, what it belongs to and what goes on in that creature’s world? Do they even have the remotest capacity to do so?

We may just be (in fact, we probably are) like the ant – utterly oblivious to an existence we couldn’t begin to comprehend. This might bring a sigh of relief after all the terrible things listed above, but the universe does seem an uncaring and indifferent place, so who’s to say what we don’t know is better than what we do?

What if consciousness isn’t dependent upon an alive brain, but still connected to the physical body? What if death is total paralysis, but your consciousness remains?

What if there really is a wrathful God who sends most of us to burn for eternity?

What if immortality is a result of the same blind processes that formed the universe, and it’s a state of eternal ethereal torment?

It’s all a little horrifying to ponder.

 

IT’S TIME FOR NUMBER 10.

FEEL FREE TO STOP READING NOW AND GO BACK TO YOUR PEACEFUL LIFE IN BLISSFUL IGNORANCE, YOUR MIND FREE TO REST EASY THIS EVENING.

I WARN YOU, ONCE READ, IT CANNOT BE UNSEEN.

YOU SURE?

WELL, OKAY. BUT YOU CAN’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU.

 

10. Jurassic World is the fourth highest grossing movie of all time

I’m sorry, I tried to stop you. But yes, Jurassic World is the fourth highest grossing movie of all time*. This just sums everything up, doesn’t it? The stupidity of humanity. The cold indifference of the universe. The complete lack of justice. I mean, did you see this fucking movie? (well, statistically speaking, you probably did.)

It’s such a garbage fire. The characters are boring, it’s mildly sexist throughout, Owen Grady is an asshole, the kid keeps doing that fucking creepy staring at girls thing, John Williams music is used completely inappropriately, the secretary lady is given the worst dinosaur death ever for no reason other than she’s not particularly maternal, they keep talking about using dinosaurs in the military, it’s shot in the most pedestrian way…

Jesus Christ, this movie sucked. Out of all the great movies ever made, people went to see this one. I saw it. Worse than that, I saw it in Imax 3D. I’m part of the problem. Who knows if I’ll ever be able to forgive myself. And they’re making a sequel. WE. ARE. ALL. DOOMED!

 

*This isn’t adjusted for inflation. One tiny flicker of light in the darkest of shadows.

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My top 5 movies of 2017

Another year is nearly over (the ever increasing passage of time isn’t scary…no, not at all…), and what a great year it’s been for film. From big blockbusters to weirder more subversive films, I can’t remember the last time so many great movies came out in one year.

So, I’ve decided to pick my top 5 movies of 2017 (beware a few spoilers), just because I love every single one of them!

5) Okja

Bong Joon-Ho’s Netflix movie is a slightly off-beat play on the usual Disney-sounding set-up of a girl and her pig. But Okja is NOT a Disney movie. As wonderful as it is to see the cute CGI creation running through the forest playing with her friend, it’s a disarming moment before the film takes a descent into hell for its final act and we get to see the absolute horrors of the slaughterhouse. To watch a cute super-pig who looks exactly like Okja take a bolt gun to the head is really quite affecting – there’s something so off-balancing about a Disney-like creation going through real life trauma.

Okja isn’t perfect but it’s a movie with balls. The horrors that happen to these poor creatures isn’t done by evil entities, but by big corporations looking to satisfy our desires. In that way, all us meat-eaters are complicit and, really, responsible for the horrendous mistreatment of such beautiful animals. Don’t be surprised if you feel a tinge of guilt when you next tuck into a sausage.

But the movie isn’t preachy (not that I think there would be anything particularly wrong with preaching on this topic.) The animal rights activists are portrayed as weird at best, prone to strange and violent tendencies. And the ending is less an optimistic statement about saving the world, and more a simple personal victory, as the lead goes back to live happily with her pig. It’s almost as if we can live with animals and treat them like family members, and yet be indifferent to the suffering of thousands of other creatures equally deserving of our protection…

 

4) Guardians Of The Galaxy 2

What a year it’s been for Marvel. Three out of three for 2017, with each movie largely achieving what it set out to do. Some may say that Thor Ragnorok was the standout, with director Taika Waititi’s distinct brand of irreverent humour giving the weakest Marvel property one of the best Marvel movies.

But for me, Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 is still my favourite. In fact, I stand by my post earlier this year that it’s my favourite Marvel movie so far. It brings everything I loved from the first one back, the wacky sense of humour, the awesome soundtrack and sincere emotion, but tells a deeper story. There’s a surprisingly effective exploration of familial abuse, and how Nebula blames her favoured sister for her childhood suffering before realising it is her father, the abuser, who should be at the end of her wrath.

Sure, Ragnarok might be the better flowing movie, but Guardians 2 is the first Marvel movie to truly make me feel (well, beyond a vague sense of ‘this is awesome.’) As Rocket, a frickin’ CGI racoon, has an emotional coming of age story, realising he can be, and is in fact, loved, his watery eyes stare out at fireworks for a Ravager’s funeral, all to the soundtrack of Cat Stevens ‘Father and Son.’ I’m not gonna lie…I cried.

 

3) Mother!

If the recent Star Wars film has been somewhat divisive, it ain’t got shit on Mother! It’s one of the few films to get the F Cinemascore, the worst audience reaction a movie can have. And yeah, let’s be honest, no-one’s gonna ‘like’ this film – you’re either going to totally dig what it’s doing, or you’re going to hate it. I happen to be one of the people who love it.

If you’re familiar with any of Aronovsky’s previous work, you know you’re going to get something a bit weird, but even by his standards this is pretty bat-shit. Advertised as a home-invasion movie, Mother! is actually much stranger. People catch on at different times but slowly you’ll realise that it’s a retelling of the opening chapters of Genesis (and, perhaps, a little beyond).

As a Philosophy/Theology graduate, this is clearly of immediate interest to me, but such obvious symbolism could just end up as pretentious posturing (I mean there’s literally a scene where two brothers fight, for no discernible reason, before one kills the other. Obvious symbolism is obvious!) But what gives it power is the film feels like a primal scream, an existential cry, about the destructive nature of humanity. This isn’t the ‘humans can be bad’ cliché, it’s a full acknowledgment of how we’re a consuming, destructive disease, incapable of much more than destroying. There’s a scene where Javier Bardem (representing God) tells Jennifer Lawrence (Mother Earth) that the people need saving, and she’s like ‘Are you fucking crazy?!’ Mother! suggests we may not be worthy of forgiveness.

But the way Bardem’s character is so indifferent towards his wife’s suffering is also deeply disturbing. No matter how much pain she is caused, he always makes excuses for everybody. He seems not to care for her at all. And, in perhaps the film’s most disturbing moment, he finally takes her baby and hands it to the mob who do what humans always do…they consume it. Why does he care so much about the people? Well they’re in utter awe of him. They worship him.

Shit man, this movie is blasphemous as hell…and I adore it!

 

2) Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Well this was a very nice surprise! I’m a huge Star Wars fan, in fact it’s the reason I fell in love with cinema, so I have a special kind of emotional attachment to the franchise. But when 2015’s The Force Awakens came out, I was a little dubious of the franchise’s future. Sure, TFA was a charming enough reminder of why we enjoyed Star Wars in the first place but it was so insular looking that I really wasn’t sure that Star Wars was relevant to modern cinema-goers.

So it’s my pleasure to report that The Last Jedi isn’t good, it isn’t great…it’s a fucking masterpiece! It’s a deep, thematically-rich, progressive and often subversive film made by a genuinely talented auteur. Remixing moments from the original trilogy to, at times, genuinely shocking affect, it marks a distinct break from simply worshiping the movies of the past.

It’s also the most human of all Star Wars movies. You really believe in the characters, their relationships, their struggles and their inner-demons. No-one in The Last Jedi is perfect, everybody can make a mistake…but that’s okay, the movie reassures us. We learn most from our failures. Mark Hamill kills it as an older guilt-ridden Luke Skywalker, but the standout has to be Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. If everybody else is giving it exactly what they need to, Driver is going above and beyond. He’s utterly captivating in every scene, totally believable both as a terrifying monster and as a vulnerable young boy who has simply lost his way. The very fact he has done so much terrible stuff yet remains bizarrely sympathetic is a real testament to Driver’s performance.

And the film is packed with interesting themes about life, about storytelling and the meta-narrative of Star Wars itself. It argues that Star Wars and the characters within need to move on from the past. The history of the Jedi, Luke reminds us, is a history of failure. Should it all be burnt down then? No, that’s Kylo’s way. But to be a Jedi has to come to mean something different. It can’t be simply falling back into arrogance and hubris (there’s so much meat here that’s begging for a full dissection in relation to its exploration of progressive religion.)

And that’s just one of the themes. The movie also explores what it means to be a hero, the dangers of becoming a legend and even has time to throw some shade at the 1% who actually benefit from the continuing cycle of war.

Sure, some fans have reacted with disdain to this new direction (not surprising, really, when the movie’s message is basically ‘all that shit you obsess over, it needs to change to survive’), but I have no doubt this movie will eventually be viewed as one of the greatest of the series, and just a great work in its own right. Don’t get me wrong, the decisions it makes are risky – even Hamill himself has admitted he didn’t agree with the direction they took Luke, especially at first. But great art is birthed from this creative tussling. This is a Disney tentpole movie taking big storytelling risks…can we just celebrate that for a moment?!

Some of the fan complaints seem the result of a generation raised on Cinema Sins, as if that kind of plot nit-picking is actual film criticism, as opposed to stupid, misinformed garbage that totally overlooks character, theme and story for the first quick dig it can get in. If they did one for ‘Goldilocks and The Three Bears’, you know they’d be like “Bears have a house. Ding!”

But when the movie itself has bore out such thoughtful think pieces, like the way the movie refocuses Star Wars, the necessary disappointment of epilogues and how it has created one of the most compelling villains in modern cinema, I’m happy to ignore the initial fan whining.

It is precisely because of the risk taking and the thematic depth Rian Johnson brings to the movie that it significantly transcends everything Marvel has done so far, and is at least the best Star Wars film since Empire…if not the best one ever.

It’s everything I could have wanted a Star Wars movie to be, and it’s a genuinely fantastic shock to see a Star Wars movie representing the best of populist blockbuster movies again.

 

1. La La Land

This didn’t arrive in the UK until January 2017, which is why this beautiful film makes this list’s top spot. Those who read my review know I adore this movie – if it’s possible to be in love with a film, I am. Ryan Gosling’s charm and Emma Stone’s…everything, make this movie an absolute pleasure and one of the best cinema experiences of all time.

The tunes are catchy, the direction and cinematography gorgeous, the acting sublime – this movie really is joy encapsulated. There’s not a moment of shame for being a good old-fashioned musical, and nor should there be!

But what makes La La Land really special is it goes beyond simply telling a love story.  In fact, one of the comments about the new Star Wars movies is they go beyond the happy ending, to the inevitable struggles that continue to be faced after the credits have rolled. In much the same way, La La Land has a moment in the middle where you could stop it and you’d have had a fantastic romantic story.

But the second half of the film goes beyond that happy ending and explores the real strains put upon, what looks like initially, a fairy-tale romance. And, in the end, they don’t end up together. There’s a brutal melancholic sadness that these two people’s lives aren’t destined to be aligned forever, but it also brings home a relatable truth. Just because something doesn’t last forever, doesn’t mean it wasn’t real or important. For a moment, they really were the centre of each other’s worlds.

 

 

And so that’s my list, folks. What a great year for movies it has been. I also think it’s interesting that in times of uncertainly and anxiety (Brexit and the awful Trump administration), art seems to become that bit more impactful. This might simply be because it has greater meaning or it could well be the art itself is reacting. There’s something more powerful about fighting space fascists when real-life Nazis are beginning to become a new norm, inspired by inflammatory remarks from the US President.

And it’s not just in the darker movies this reaction can be seen. It’s been noted that musicals are often at their most popular at times of hardship. The escapism they offer becomes invaluable. Just an interesting observation.

Thankyou for reading, and I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Blade Runner 2049 review – Is it okay not to love Blade Runner?

Well, Blade Runner 2049 is certainly something. At nearly three hours long, the film finds its own pace, happy to slowly gaze across a grim futuristic vista whilst a fantastically unconventional Hans Zimmer score roars in the background. Its capacity to generate mood is beyond question. More comfortable pontificating about the human condition than in portraying action set pieces, this isn’t your average blockbuster. It’s a bold, risky piece of art that provides a truly unique cinema experience. They really don’t make them like this anymore.

So, I ask myself, why twenty-four hours later do I feel so indifferent towards it?

I’ve got to preface this review with a guilty admission. I don’t love the original Blade Runner. Sure, I get why people do – just look at it, it’s gorgeous! – but it always left me a bit cold. In many ways this is probably a product of watching something thirty plus years after it was originally released. There’s no denying that Blade Runner had a huge influence on a lot of the science fiction that came after it, both aesthetically and intellectually, but perhaps that’s the problem. When you’ve consumed so much of the inspired media, the inspiration can feel slightly underwhelming. Everything that once felt so original and exciting had been picked clean.

Yet I was fairly optimistic that Blade Runner 2049 would deliver something fresh and new…and it kind of does, in a skin deep way. This isn’t a hokey sequel shat out for a few bucks, it’s very much the work of a visionary, keen to evoke your memories of the original movie while also offering up a new experience with fresh characters.

But let’s get to the crux of my disenchantment. Blade Runner 2049 thinks it’s ever so clever, positively dripping in pretension, to the point that Jarod Leto’s pseudo-intellectual ramblings about angels entering Eden never feel out of place (gee, do you think he, a creator, has some kind of…God complex? Deep, right!)

Okay, I’m admittedly being facetious and slightly overstating the point. Blade Runner 2049 certainly does have a lot more on its mind than your average blockbuster, but it seems, to me anyway, lacking in its ability to say anything all that interesting. The key questions, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘To what extent do our memories define us?’ are great age old thought provokers, but I never felt the movie had much in the way of an answer or even a unique perspective.

For all intents and purposes, replicants are so human that any differences between the two species is negligible. Whether a character is replicant or not virtually doesn’t matter – I guess that’s kind of the whole point. The only real difference is how they came into being; one is born, the other created (the film’s whole plot hinges on this). These concepts might have been challenging to a religious generation who believed in a soul, but in an increasingly secular world ‘the soul’ has come to mean something entirely metaphorical to most people. Post-Darwin, mankind has had to re-evaluate itself. We’re no-longer the divine worker’s greatest creation, but another animal, just a biological machine. Fretting about our ‘uniqueness’ feels rather antiquated.

Similarly, the concept of memory is explored but again to not much effect. As a child I used to wonder how I could be sure I wasn’t created that day, with all my memories just implanted. Once you’ve experienced that existential worry, I don’t think there’s much more Blade Runner 2049 has left to say.

It’s not that these questions have lost their probing power, it’s more the film just tosses around all these big thoughts without either answer or thematic culmination. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was more left to offer than its beautiful visuals but there isn’t, at least not beyond further narrative questions that are only as interesting as the world that is portrayed. Because all the characters are so fundamentally unengaging and thinly written, the big questions blow around in the breeze and we, the audience, simply observe, detached from any real meaning, wondering what it’s all about.

There are two films I’ve seen this year that have done a much better job of asking big questions by anchoring them in character and theme. The first is Mother!, a fantastic horror by Aronofsky, and one of my favourite films of the year. The biblical symbolism of Mother! may be pretentious, but it’s so on the nose that it almost eventually ceases to be symbolism, dissolving to give way to Aronofsky’s true focus; the relationship between God, man and nature (there are other readings, of course, but there is surely no doubt this is the primary intent.)

On paper, exploring how God and man act indifferently towards nature is the exact kind of empty posturing I accuse Blade Runner 2049 of, an interesting question that has been thoroughly exhausted. And yet where Mother! succeeds is it’s not dispassionate at all. Far from it. As the horror grows, Aronofsky posits that humanity (you and me!) are the evil and any redemption we may have isn’t just difficult but unjustified. This isn’t some glib ‘humans are the real monsters’ though, Aronofsky means it. Far from sitting back and posturing on some abstract ideas, this is full blown rage, and it’s magnificent and unsettling all at once.

The second film that handles the relationship of creator and creation really well is Alien Covenant, from none other than the original Blade Runner director, Ridley Scott. Yes, I know, we’re all meant to say it sucked because it fucked up the Xenomorph’s origin story (I agree with that point, by the way) but Alien Covenant really isn’t about the Alien at all, at least not directly. The film constantly gravitates to and eventually orbits the character of David, an android who finds himself utterly disappointed with his creator. From his anger comes his own act of creations, arising themselves from destruction. He sees humanity as a failed species and indifferently orchestrates their removal as if they were nothing more than bacteria.

Covenant doesn’t really answer the questions it poses any more than Blade Runner 2049, but it locates them in character. Even if most of the other characters are two-dimensional at best, David really stands out as a fascinating fictional creation. The questions aren’t merely posed as hypotheticals but contextualised in David’s motivations, and you can feel the existential questioning of Scott, the film’s creator, pulling the strings. Covenant works because it is an artist grappling with their own thoughts about creation.

As Film Crit Hulk puts it (the best film critic out there, for my money):

‘I first harped on Prometheus because it seemed equally obsessed with answering an unanswerable question, failing to realize the simplest truth that knows that God, whether you believe or not, is unknowable. And in Alien: Covenant we finally get the believer’s reaction to that answer. It’s an angry screed of vengeance.’

The difference between Bladerunner 2049 on the one hand, and Mother! and Alien Covenant on the other, is the difference between an armchair philosopher asking abstract metaphysical questions, and an artist truly wrestling with their existence. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t want a filmmaker to ask me to engage with their dry questions, but instead I want to be right in the middle of the director’s existential nightmare. That, to me, makes better art.

After all, most of the best dystopian stories are those that capture the real fears of the author. By the time you’re in Room 101, I think it’s clear that Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t just a hypothetical musing on human society, but a reflection of some of Orwell’s greatest fears about the future. Much the same, The Handmaid’s Tale seems born out of genuine concerns with the inherent patriarchy and self-destructive purity systems within American Christianity and the very real threat they pose to a civilised society.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I didn’t for one moment believe that Denis Villeneuve, 2049’s director, is truly struggling with the questions he’s raising. Maybe that’s why there’s so little thematic coherence. When push comes to shove, there’s not much in the way of closure, emotionally or intellectually.

Yet Villeneuve has shown how capable he is of making a good, thoughtful sci-fi movie in the practically perfect Arrival. Perhaps thanks to fantastic (and unspoilt) source material, he not only is able to highlight an interesting question (to what extent does our language determine the way we think?), but brings it forward into the plot (spoilers!) enabling Amy Adams to see into the future using an alien language. This then has thematic and emotional pay-off by letting her character freely choose to pursue a family, fully knowing it will end in grief and heartache. That says more about what it means to be human than anything Blade Runner 2049 musters in its near three hour running time.

This is not to say I don’t admire the film, because I really do. The cinematography is staggeringly beautiful, the lingering sense of despair tangible. The fact it’s performing pretty poorly at the box office is a terrible shame, because cinema needs more risk-taking pieces of art that don’t follow the Hollywood cookie cutter approach to blockbusters.

But when it comes to the questions raised, I find the film unsatisfying. And yes, it’s probably personal preference. I’m sure many enjoy dreamy sci-fi, awash with big detached questions, the way one may observe a magnificent painting. But when wrestling with the big issues, Villeneuve is merely asking questions and, frankly, we can ask the questions ourselves. I want a filmmaker’s unique perspective, I want to feel their despair and get lost in their own existential turmoil. That, to me, is what gives a piece of art a soul. That’s when a movie is more than a movie.

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