There’s been a furore about the issue of Scarlett Johansson playing the lead in the movie version of the classic Japanese anime story Ghost in the Shell. Some critics say that casting a white Hollywood star in the role (just as Matt Damon was the lead in The Great Wall and Tilda Swinton was the sensei in Doctor Strange) is cultural appropriation, or ‘whitewashing’. But it’s not actually that simple, because Scarlett plays a human brain in a synthetic body (a body that is non-racially specific and unrealistically augmented) in a racially mixed future society. One of the key messages of the film is that under the skin we’re all human. It’s an essentialist message. Added to that, there’s a similar intertextual message if you look at other recent Scarlett Johansson films e.g. Under the Skin, Lucy, etc. At the end of the day, I’m not entirely sure which side of the argument I come down on, but it’s perhaps a shame the ‘issue’ is putting people off going to see the film at all, since there is no doubt this is a thought-provoking film.
So what’s this high-concept scifi movie actually about? Well, Scarlett wakes up and finds that scientists have saved her from death by transplanting her brain from her dying body into a synthetic body. She is now expected to work for the government (as secret service) since they kind of own her. Turns out, of course, that she’s being used by unprincipled parties. Ultimately, she has to break free of their control, which sees her branded as a dangerous terrorist. All hell then breaks loose.
The special FX are stunning. There are some lovely scifi ideas, many of them incidental. The world is intricately imagined and delicately described. And we do care about the characters.
There are other themes I could explore (feminist, child-soldier, alienation, etc), but it’s probably best to leave these for you to discover for yourself. So, Ghost in a Shell scores a respectable 8 out of 10 from me.
Chris Pratt is brought out of suspended animation by a computer error. There’re still 90 years to go before his ship will arrive at the new colony. There’s no way for him to re-enter suspended animation (the first contrived plot point). Of the 5000 passengers on the ship, he’s the only one who’s awake. A year goes by and he’s all but suicidal. He’s ‘saved’ by falling in love with one of the sleeping passengers (the comely Jennifer Lawrence, who’s left video diaries which he’s watched over and over again). No longer able to resist, he brings her out of suspended animation, robbing her of her future on the new colony. It’s an interesting moral dilemma that he’s been wrestling with, and he can’t bring himself to tell her that he’s responsible for her waking up (rather than it being down to a computer glitch). A romance blossoms between them, only for her then to discover the truth. The fallout is believable – Pratt and Lawrence work well enough together on-screen.
But then the plot starts to intrude once more. A crew member of the ship is awoken by accident – and he explains a lot of plot for us (including, yet again, the impossibility of re-entering suspended animation – almost as if the movie is so embarrassed by it that it overdoes its explanation). The original computer error has now become a mission critical cascade failure. The engine needs to be flushed and rebooted, but the door is jammed (an even more ridiculous plot point, given how hyper advanced the technology of the ship is). Needless to say, Chris and Jennifer rush around and scream a lot… and save the day. Phew. They then live happily ever after (albeit only with each other for company).
Look, the good things about this film are the SFX, the moral and existential issues and some of the acting. It’s such a shame the film didn’t confine itself to a deeper study of such things, really. It’s such a shame that Hollywood feels a need to insert a hackneyed, well-worn set of things that they label plot. A missed opportunity, but an interesting one. Scores 7 out of 10 from me.
Hidden Figures is based on the true story of the black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the 60s to enable manned space travel. These women were treated like a ‘secretary pool’, given a dress code and segregated toilets (a long way from where they actually worked). They also couldn’t use the communal coffee supply. They weren’t allowed to put their names on reports, even if all the work was theirs. Yet the racism within the NASA of the time was institutional rather than personally enforced. Watching the movie, we find most of the white characters likeable (if not admirable), making it hard for us to square that with our feelings about how the black women are treated. The film cleverly manages to weave race issues and social themes with the dramatic narrative about the US’s ‘space race’ with Russia. There are many levels of juxtaposition that make this movie so insightful that you can only be enlightened and enriched by watching it. There can be no doubt it’ll win multiple Oscars. It scores 9 out of 10 from me!
A young man wins a high-level IT competition to spend a week with the world’s leading tech guru on his country estate. It turns out the guru wants our hero to test a cyborg that he’s built, to see if the artificial intelligence is truly ‘sentient’. The movie is then organised via a series of film-recorded ‘interviews’ between our hero and the ostensibly female cyborg. However, there are periodic power-outages and the film recording fails, at which point the cyborg tells the hero not to believe anything the tech guru says. Ultimately, the hero begins to fall for the cyborg and agrees to help her escape her prison!
This storyline bears an uncanny resemblance to the plot of the madam in Westworld, of course. A lot of the visuals are also strikingly similar. Ex Machina pre-dates Westworld by a couple of years, of course. Nuff said.
If you’re a scifi fan who likes movies with the thoughtful vibe of Moon, then you’ll love Ex Machina. A must-see, with clever plot twists throughout. It’s a 9 out of 10 from me.
In the future, we have been genetically (re-)engineered to be less emotional (a bit like Vulcans, I suppose), since it is emotion that leads to war, etc. Expressing emotion (love, anger, etc) is a ‘crime’ and a sign that you have Switched On Syndrome (SOS). To avoid being sent to prison or hospital, those with feelings (like Kristen Stewart) have to discipline themselves not to show anything in public (earning themselves the name ‘hiders’). Anyway, Kristen (predictably enough) falls in love with a young chap and they cannot resist ‘coupling’ (would have been a much more interesting movie if it had been a young woman). They then have to go on the run to escape (aided by a support group).
‘Equals’, of course, nicks the premise of better scifi films like ‘Equilibrium’. Does Equals offer anything new? Kinda. It explores the interior pain and abuse that ‘sensitive’ people experience rather than looking to engage in big SFX and an action-based fight against the politics of a dystopian world. The sound track is brilliant – a transcendental white noise that is as much psychological as melodic. Equals, then, is a tender, sweet and contemplative little movie. Worth a look if you’re in that sort of mood. It scores 7.5 out of 10 from me (more than most of the nitwit critics out there have given it). So there.
I watched Now You See Me last night. The story’s about four stage magicians apparently robbing a bank while still on stage. Inevitably, the FBI get after them and there’s lots of chasing around, from pop-up magic event to pop-up event. It’s an entertaining movie if you’re into the problem-solving ‘how did they pull that off?’ aspect of proceedings. If you’re looking for rounded characters and issues of moral conflict, you’ll be a bit disappointed and probably missing the point. The themes of the movie are those of magic itself – 1. spectacle used to misdirect the audience 2. theatrical persona and 3. whether magic really exists or whether it’s just a con.
There’s a star cast involved, including Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Woody Harrelson and so on, so many in fact that a good number of them are wasted/redundant. Some people will enjoy the special FX, but others will be irritated by the CGI (cheating really) and the implausability of the explanations around some of the tricks. That being said, there is a genuine/logical twist at the end about who the ‘mastermind’ behind it all actually is. Now You See Me is one of those films that you’ll be glad you’ve seen, because it does offer a fresh take on the usual crime-caper/heist genre. So, it’s a 7.5 out of 10 from me! (Paul Daniels will be spinning in his grave though.)
If you don’t know anything about the Warcraft games or second-world fantasy, don’t bother seeing this cos you’re just too far behind the curve and should be ashamed of yourself. This movie has had extremely mixed reviews, but for this fanboy (oh, and international fantasy author) Warcraft is spot on. Each protagonist has a well constructed moral dilemma, to the extent that the movie successfully makes you root for orcs and humans alike. The orcs are ill mannered (and overly violent) but they have an honour code of sorts, whereas the humans are a bit holier-than-thou while still being admirable. The orcs almost steal the show actually (especially the evil mage and the foxy halfbreed – can’t believe I’m in love with an orc-maid). The plot is strong (based on Warcraft 1 and 2 games) and the special fx (just about avoiding accusations of being derivative) make Lord of the Rings look duff. Basically, the homeworld of the orcs is dying, and so a scouting force comes thru a portal to the human realm to start making it a home for the horde. Unfortunately, the orcs are enabled by some life-draining magicks, so they have to capture ‘sacrifices’ in order to survive. It’s conundrum enough for the average orc to think ‘Oh bugger it, let’s cause some random mayhem – at least that way we’ll go out enjoying ourselves!’ It’s a solid 7.5 out of 10 from one A J Dalton. Put that in your pipe.