Okay, LOTS AND LOTS OF SPOILER ALERTS here, because I’m going to give this one a doing, despite actually, well, between you and me… quite enjoying it.
It’s a movie that’s kind of crept under the radar, what with big blockbuster sci-fis like the new Star Trek and Iron Man getting all the attention. It’s also a quiet sci-fi, attempting something more cerebral, despite starring Tom Cruise as Jack, a repairman left behind on Earth with his partner Victoria (a gorgeously porcelain blank Andrea Riseborough) to fix drones protecting sea-sucking machines that provide power to a human population forced to flee the planet after an alien invasion.
The world created is fantastic, an absolutely believable wasteland of silt deposited over skyscraper cities after the aliens destroyed the Moon, letting mammoth tidal waves and earthquakes do the dirty work for them. Visually, it is stunning. Technically, too, it’s excellent: the technology is utterly believable, with nothing pushing the bounds of credulity too far. Jack’s aircraft – a cross between a helicopter and a dragonfly – is one of those “I want one of those” movie gadgets, and the drones are chunky, threatening little monsters that might well become the sort of thing the US military deploys against Afghan tents next.
Cruise is fine too. If you can forget (a) just how ugly he was in his spotty, dribbling earlier days (“The Outsiders”, “Legend”) and (b) that he hangs about with dodgy cults, he’s actually a fine sci-fi action movie stalwart. He was, of course, excellent in “Minority Report”, and I liked his everyday Joe in “War of the Worlds”, when he got to be a bumbler rather than a hero. He delivers everything he has to here, both physically and emotionally, with some genuinely exciting, heart-stopping moments; however, there isn’t much of a spark between him and the excellent Riseborough or the woefully passive eye-candy of Olga Kurylenko, and that takes a bit of the heart out of it.
Plot wise, it follows the age old sci-fi habit of stealing as much as it can from other films from the genre. The world created is reminiscent of “Planet of the Apes” or “Legend”, the set up reminiscent of “Silent Running”, the ending a blatant larceny from “Independence Day” (there you are, you know the big mother ship blows the fuck up at the end). There are lots of other echoes: “Logan’s Run”, “Zardoz”, “Moon”, “The Time Machine”… I stopped name checking after a while.
But the holes, the holes… stop reading now if you want to see it with an unjaded eye.
Of course, it’s a paranoid conspiracy thriller, and all is not as it seems. The “aliens” are actually the remnants of human civilisation, while the “humans” are actually an alien machine that travels the galaxy sucking planets dry of their resources (“Independence Day” again, “V”… arrgh!) that has cloned Jack and Victoria as soldiers to invade the planet. A few things began to jangle with me. If an alien culture is so technologically advanced it can destroy a Moon – and the shattered orb in the sky is really effectively done – and have a capability to hunt humans with drones, then why do they need flesh and blood troops? Why go to all that effort to clone thousands – tens of thousands – when they could surely easily crush such a puny species?
Perhaps this is their plan – save resources by turning alien species on themselves. But if so, then why is the interior of the mother ship set up with banks and banks of pods for humans (“The Matrix”… stop me, stop me!)? Are all alien species in the galaxy human sized, human shaped? Hardly seems likely.
Anyway, that’s not the biggest problem. Nagging away is that this has sneaky undercurrents of a propaganda movie. Just as I despised “Eli’s Book” because it was so obviously an Evangelical response to the nihilism of the far superior “The Road”, I just can’t divorce this from the elephant in the room: Scientology. This is a space opera, and it’s impossible to watch this, with plot lines filled with deeply repressed memory playing such a prominent role and Earth being a Battlefield (God, Travolta with a big head and dreadlocks!) that you just know there are subtle interpretations going on here. Or maybe I’m paranoid. That’s what you get when you show me paranoia for two hours.
But even that isn’t the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the ending, which is the most dishonest and maudlin cop-out in the history of cinema since the execrable ending of what was otherwise a perfectly good movie, “AI”. There, the makers lost their nerve and had sweet little robot boy reunited with his mother for a day; here, the implication is that girls always need a hero and, as long as it looks and sounds and smells like Tom Cruise, it really doesn’t matter if it’s the original who died 70 years earlier or number 49 that blew up in the spaceship or number 52 that wanders the desert looking for redemption. The look on Olga Kurylenko’s face at the end as yet another version of her husband – but it’s NOT your husband, you dizzy besom!!!! – is almost as vomit inducing as Cruise’s leer as he intones the lines “I am Jack Harper” and no doubt thinks “And the hottie’s mine, all mine”. It really is utterly excremental, and while the possibility of doing something totally, honestly dystopian fritters away with the ridiculously easy destruction of the mother ship, this capitulation to the happy clappy middle-of-the road audience who can’t cope emotionally with anything nasty happening to the all American good guys is wholly inexcusable.
So, a movie that offers much, delivers bangs for bucks for long periods and then throws all its credibility away for one disgraceful moment of narrative cowardice. A real pity.
Steven Spielberg was responsible for a lot of my sniffly moments in cinemas from the 1980s: yes, I cried when ET came back to life, and cried when he went away on his spaceship (“Come” / “Stay”) and don’t deny you did too. And a scene that always has me in absolute tatters is when Schindler is leaving the camp after Germany has surrendered, and his workers press a little gold ring in his hand, and touch and soothe him as he goes to pieces thinking about how many more he could have saved.
It’s all emotional manipulation, of course, but that’s what cinema does. There’s no point in criticising a film for successfully doing what it sets out to do, although when it goes wrong it’s as if it’s been ladled on with a bucketful of sickly sweet honey; the ending of “AI”, for instance, is one of the most dishonest bits of cinema I’ve ever seen.
This is billed and marketed as a Spielberg film, even though it’s directed by JJ Abrams and only produced by the man himself. It’s a definite and deliberate throwback; set in 1979, it feels in many ways just like Spielberg’s epics of that time – although those weren’t clumsily telegraphed with a suitable soft rock soundtrack that includes, of course, “My Sharona”. Thematically, it’s all there; troubled teenage central character coping with emotional distress while trying to grow into adulthood; lost and frightened alien trying to get home; honest, mid-West sense of community threatened by remote and arrogant government forces; sensitive kid, dumb kid, fat kid, mad kid, pretty blonde girly kid. Stylistically, too, some of the touches are distinctly 70s-Spielberg; shots of bicycles being taken from the rack reminded me as much of the beach shots of “Jaws” as “ET”, while there are characteristic scenes of family dysfunctionality (God, do Americans really behave like that at meal times?). Of course, there also has to be the final feelgood signing off as the feuding families realise their commonality and stare in awe at the departing alien in a wistful lineup shot.
However, Abrams’ stamp is on it too, most especially in the portrayal of the creature, which is far too reminiscent of his breakthrough movie, “Cloverfield”: it is savage, panic-stricken, multi-limbed and largely unseen. Keeping the beast hidden until as late as possible is becoming a bit of a cliché; we know it’s ugly, so just show us the damned thing. As such, we never really feel any sympathy whatsoever for the creature; it’s a nasty piece of work because, even if it does keep the nice humans alive for no discernible reason, it slaughters the nasty humans in unspeakable ways.
As far as it goes, it’s entertaining enough, but again Abrams isn’t Spielberg. There is none of the subtlety of the master’s use of the surprise; in “ET”, the whole cinema goes “Ah” when the little turd-like thing croaks “ET go home!” because it’s just so damned cute. And sometimes you expect a surprise, and it doesn’t come. Abrams’ surprises are all of the pyrotechnic whizz-bang kind and, while some are undeniably impressive (a shell exploding in a house is a truly visceral moment), they are too one-dimensional.
There’s also a problem with the plotting. For instance, in “ET”, part of the joy of the film was watching the problems the two species had with communication with each other, the developing awareness and understanding. Here, it is deemed essential to tell us of the creature’s emotional state and motivation, so Abrams falls back on the tired old cliché of the “psychic connection”; “How do I know it’s frightened and wants to go home? Well, it touched me and I just knew”. Codswallop.
And while the special effects of the 1970s were, by today’s standards, crude, at least they had some humanity and reality. The train crash which sets the story in motion is preposterous, of course. A tiny pick up truck collides head on with a thousand ton military train built to withstand nuclear attack, and derails the whole damned thing while sustaining only relatively minor damage to its right front wing. The film ends with a “battle scene” in which tanks and jeeps pointlessly drive around shooting up a town with no apparent plan; the alien’s underground at the time, and the tracks of the tracer shells would suggest that these soldiers are so incompetent, they’re much more likely to shoot each other. Finally, I’m sure CGI specialists high-fived each other at how detailed and how accurately they portrayed every single bit of metal in the town as it whizzes through the air in the final scene, but I found it largely unwatchable because of the confusion of it all – and no-one nice gets hit by a flying fork…
The film ends, like “ET” and “Close Encounters”, with a shot of the spaceship leaving Earth; no winding up of the characters, no continuation of the human plotting to see the aftermath of the events. In those earlier films, that works because there’s a sense of loss, a sense that we have been visited by something wonderful and we want it to come back; in this film it’s just a relief, because then the carnage can end.
Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s wee boy) avoids difficult second feature syndrome with a cracking sci-fi starring the always reliable Jake Gyllenhaal. I liked his first film, Moon, very much because in addition to hitting all the right techno-buttons required of the genre, it also created huge empathy for the main character, the equally impressive Sam Rockwell lost in space. Source Code is far more high concept: scientists create a way of hacking in to the last eight minutes of a dead person’s short-term memory in order to influence the future – and whoever came up with that idea deserves a long rest in a dark and quiet room. In this case, Gyllenhaal is sent back repeatedly to the terrorist bombing of a commuter train to identify the guilty party so that a much bigger attack can be averted.
Once more, Duncan ensures that the audience identifies with and roots for the characters, something missing from similar recent releases such as Inception. We find ourselves willing the decent Gyllenhaal and the pretty girl next door Michelle Monaghan to do the impossible, to change time, to win out against their horrific destinies, and all of the Fancy Dan stuff about Time and Quantum Mechanics and Warp Drives (sorry, wrong movie) and The Matrix (sorry, wrong movie again) really doesn’t matter, since the story boils down to a tale of love against the odds. What is nice is that the beautiful Monaghan isn’t in love with the dashing, handsome army captain Gyllenhaal, whose face she doesn’t see, but with a geeky teacher the audience only sees in reflection; “I knew he was a keeper,” she giggles at one point. Now that’s a really, really clever touch.
Totally at a tangent, in the opening title sequence, Duncan manages to make Chicago look like the most beautiful place on earth. Quite a feat. I haven’t been as gobsmacked by the first five minutes of scene-setting in a movie since that epic sequence of the biplane flying over the Sahara in The English Patient.
Of course, this is also a movie that warns us of the heartlessness of the military-industrial complex, and the rapaciousness of corporate greed that strips both science and humanity of any dignity in the pursuit of “higher goals”. It amazes me how many hugely popular and financially successful film narratives are built on a bedrock of anti-corporatist, anti-corruption, anti-technology, anti-military and anti-government sentiments, and yet when it comes to the ballot box, we settle for the same old same old. It’s almost as if we are willing to tear down the world and see the possibilities of better ways to live in our movies, but are terrified of actually doing anything to change the one we have in reality. Sad, really.
This has been a bit of a bumper year for science fiction movies, with the noisy nonsense of the Terminator reboot and a whole new Federation timeline for the Star Trek franchise to exploit. My own favourite was the much more downbeat “Moon”. Now, out together, are two other pretty good offerings in the genre.
“District 9″ has been lauded for its dirty realism, and it certainly does that. While most science fiction concentrates on the developed world and the shiny futures of the Western privileged (“AI”, “I, Robot”, “Minority Report”), little attention is paid to what might be going on in the rest of the world. Africa, you know, will be just as impoverished, exploited, violent and starving, no matter how far in the future you care to look, and it will therefore be just as unworthy a subject of Hollywood blockbusters as it is now. “District 9″ pays Africa the respect it deserves by redressing that balance. And yes, the townships, the shacks, the black marketeering, the grind for survival will all still be there – only now, a race of earth-marooned aliens will share that misery.
The film’s knowing nods and ironic touches are great (wonderfully, the racist epithet “fucking prawns” is delivered in the thickest of Boer accents by the terrific lead, Shalto Copley, as the venal Wikus). As social commentary, it’s spot on. However, the film’s weaknesses lie in its use of sci fi conventions, such as the ridiculous and lazy cliché that an “infection” can change one species into another, making the race-swop satire a bit clunky; or that an hysterical amateur can walk out of a high-tech fortress and then walk back in again with a big alien gun. However, the necessary suspension of disbelief is a small price to pay for a film that’s well worth the entrance fee.
“Surrogates” has one big thing in it’s favour, and it’s getting bigger round the middle every year: Bruce Willis. I’ve always found him watchable and often mesmerising (Walter Hill’s “Last Man Standing” is a particular favourite, and he steals the show for me in “Pulp Fiction”), and underneath the supremely dependable action-hero pyrotechnics, he is capable of delivering real moral engagement, from weariness to ambiguity to outrage. You may debate whether or not he’s a great actor, but there’s no denying he’s a very great movie star.
Unfortunately, “Surrogates” creaks under a plethora of been-there-got-the-t-shirts. Cop with a dead son and a fractured marriage? “Minority Report”. Too-perfect, spiritually empty simulacra? “Stepford Wives”. Iconoclastic robotocists redefining the relationships between humans and machines ? “I, Robot” – hell, it’s even the same scientist, James Cromwell. Or “AI”. Or “Westworld”. Or…
Bolted on to that is a classic cop-confronts-corruption storyline, but once more the clichés scream from the rooftops. The good cop gets suspended because good cops ALWAYS get suspended. The plucky partner pays the ultimate price. The boss is a piece of work.
So the problems with the movie lie in the lack of imagination in the narrative, and as a result, the film is less successful for me than “District 9″. And of course, it falls into the trap mentioned above by assuming the whole world is just like the swanky US 0f A: we are told in the prologue that surrogate technology becomes affordable and 98% of the world’s population plugs in. Somehow, I don’t see your average Ethiopian being able to afford a six foot plastic doll to walk the ten miles for a jug of water from the nearest well.
What is more successful is the portrayal of a society apparently fearful of danger but in fact more afraid of growing old and ugly. Willis’ surrogate, blond mop-topped and wrinkle free, looks creepily ridiculous, while the gobsmackingly beautiful Rosamund Pike and Radha Mitchell lose a hell of a lot of that beauty when airbrushed to perfection. Pike, especially, works well: the heartbreak of her loss is all the more effective when expressed by gorgeous, perfectly bland eyes and expressionless lips.