Monday, January 26, 2015

"Science fiction triple feature" does still fit the meter, right?


2014 Espana/USA
Directed by Gabe Ibanez
Written by Igor Legarreta, Javier Sanchez Donate, and Gabe Ibanez
With Antonio Banderas (Jacq Vaucan), Dylan McDermott (Sean Wallace), Robert Forster (Robert Bold), Brigitte Hjort Sorensen (Rachel Vaucan), and Melanie Griffith (Dupre)


Directed by Charlie McDowell
Written by Justin Lader
With Mark Duplass (Ethan), Elisabeth Moss (Sophie), and Ted Danson (The Therapist)


2014 (our future selves traveling to the past)/2015 (while we're still on the upward slope of our curved worldline)
Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
Written by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig (based on the story "All You Zombies" by Robert Heinlein)
With Sarah Snook (The Unmarried Mother), Ethan Hawke (The Barkeep), and Noah Taylor (Mr. Robertson)

Spoiler alert: moderate all around

Hey!  Buddy!  Do you like Blade Runner?  Because I know someone who does, and he directed AUTOMATA, a movie that's a little bit like Blade Runner, in the same way that your reflection is a little bit like you: an identical copy rendered in two dimensions.

I mean, I know.  Practically every dystopian movie made since Blade Runnerhell, somehow, probably every dystopian movie made before Blade Runneris indebted to Lawrence Paull's inescapably-iconic used-future production design.  But they usually aren't this blatant, let alone in a movie that escapes precisely duplicating Blade Runner's plot in only two respects: its protagonist is no good, and he does not have sex with the female-coded robot.  Yet it would be a far more worthwhile movie if he had, since she/it looks like this:

He slow dances with her instead.

The less said about the specifics of Automata's post-apocalypse, the better, so let's turn instead directly to Jacq Vaucan, both a waste of a great stupid sci-fi name as well as our emotionally-inconsistent hero.  Vaucan's an investigator for the insurance company underwriting the policies on the Tyrell Corporation's (or whoever's) robot slaves.  Naturally, then, Vaucan finds himself at ground zero when the robots begin to achieve sapience despite the limits in their programming.

Antonio Banderas dies on screen trying to do anything with Vaucan.  The results of his efforts are a whiny, unpleasant jerkoff, moderately humanized by his hot, pregnant wife.  Though we like Banderas generally on Kinemalogue, I don't know if anyone would have been capable of forcing coherence upon his arc, for it bounds up and down from epiphany to retrenchment, despite overwhelming evidence by the end of the first act that, yeah, guess fucking what?  Them robots is people too!  (As we approach a culturalif not a technologicalsingularity, it becomes increasingly annoying when the characters in our fiction seem to have never been exposed to any fiction themselves.)

Meanwhile, Melanie Griffith cameos, and the unavoidable conclusion is that Automata was the cause of Banderas and Griffith's separation after almost two decades of marital blissprobably because he laughed out loud and right in her face after he saw her performance (she's a scientist).  I'll only say that it's a good thing that this country has the no-fault divorce.

It's easy to make fun of the unimaginative imagery of Automata, which is why I did, but I will give director Gabe Ibanez this much: as far as realization on a budget goes, his movie does look good, in that it's very professionally put-together.  The robots themselves look pretty fantastic.  (Hey, you have to admit that Blade Runner cheats by making its Replicants basically humanin other words, all but useless for their intended tasks, with the obvious exception of Pris.  That said, there's only one nonhumanoid robot in Automata, too, and it's not built for any industrial purpose.  But at least they all look more employable than an overweight, middle-aged guy who wants to tell you about his mother.)

Meanwhile, there is some outright sublime desert photography when Vaucan finds himself exiled from Mega-City One and out amidst the Cursed Earthif Dredd 2 ever comes to fruition, I hope they find the space for a scene shot in this same wasteland.  Last but surely not least, Automata features a straight-up bitchin' car chase, with the blue-haired sexbot at the wheel.  It involves a truly visceral crash (and only a smidgen of shitty CGI before that).

Where Automata collapses is in its characters, because they were the only thing likely to save it from its semi-boring plot, as dully generic and dumbed-down as any "guy learns humanity from machines" story could ever be.  It's not an awful movie, but it never wholly justifies its existencedespite being written by three whole human beings, it nevertheless doesn't have a thought in its head that isn't the CliffNotes version of other people's ideas.  It's too bad, because I was looking forward to it.  But there's still hope, for another film cut from the same basic material is arriving toot-sweet: maybe Chappie won't suck.  (And directed by Neill Blomkamp, what a huge Goddamned "maybe" that is!)

Well, there goes the robot movie.  Now comes THE ONE I LOVE, and Love is another entry into the increasingly crowded subgenre of Twilight Zone stories about people tired of fucking each other.  The simple failure to be humiliatingly terrible already marks it as better than the similarly-themed, recently-reviewed Coherence.  This is a relief, but Love isn't half as good as it could be, either.

Like Coherence, Love involves doubles.  Also like Coherence, it continues 2014's trend of bad doppelganger films, inagurated by Denis Villeneuve's half-written pseudo-thriller Enemy.  (The microgenre's losing streak has only been broken once this yearThis odd man out was The Double.  It was a picture I already loved, and it just keeps looking better every time we visit upon its competitors.)

Ethan and Sophie are the couple in this one.  Their marriage is collapsing due to Ethan's infidelity and the general entropy inherent to all human endeavors.  Thus have the two sought counseling, something that I strongly doubt ever works.  It works even less well than usual in Love, for their therapist, Sam Malone after a few drinks, sends them on a couple's retreat to a cabin in the Mirror Universe.  To their great surprise, they each find themselves confronted by the perfected version of their significant other.  In Sophie's case, she finds the other Ethan far easier to lovefor (to provocatively paraphrase Gillian Flynn) he is the Cool Guy that she always wanted, and very rarely got.

Cool Ethan has 20/20 uncorrected vision and drinks cocktails at 11 o'clock in the morning.

The allegorical content of Love is notlike, not at allhard to grasp.  And Love manages to explore some weird, interesting, even upsetting aspects of human pair-bonding before it's done.  Unfortunately, Love shoots itself in both feet, and by the end doesn't have a leg to stand on at all.

The first bullet is that Love is pretty disgustingly misogynistic, indulging in what presents as incredibly gross gender essentialism when it contrasts Ethan and Sophie's differing reactions to their discovery of the doppelgangers.  Ethan, a Man, confronts the situation as a mystery that must be solved with Manly Logic.  Sophie, a Woman, approaches it as an emotional experience to be understood with Womanly Feelings.  This is so stupidstupidstupid that it practically breaks the film right there and then.  I am neither a scientist nor sociologist, but I am certain there is nothing about masculinity or feminity, in either their biological or socially constructed varieties, that would manifest as any difference at all in the event of meeting your magical fucking clones.  Across individuals, across sexes, and across cultures, there is not a member of the human race who would not approach this scenario with, at a minimum, a serious sense of caution.

The second shot comes later, whenbafflinglythis metaphysical mystery actually does wind up solved.  To Love's credit, it doesn't bore with details, but the reveal of what's really happening and why dooms the film immediately.  In just a few moments, it undermines its themes and twists one character so badly out of shape that not even a superior, post-climax denouement can save the story.  If the staggeringly ill-considered last half-hour of Love were reshaped to remove the most offensive material, it still probably wouldn't become a great movie, but at least it could have been good.

Ah, but perhaps you also spy the brilliant metanarrative the film builds around itself!  Indeed, just like with any long-term relationship, Love soon gets lazy and bloated, too.

Now, finally, we can move on to an actual good science fiction movie, and by my lights not close to soon enough.  PREDESTINATION is a largely-successful thought experiment in just how preposterously convoluted a Novikov consistency loop can get before you stop being able to tell a story about it.  And it's a strikingly well-made and gorgeously-acted experiment on top of it.

The surprise on that last count isn't Sir Ethan Hawkeof course, he's wonderfulbut Sarah Snook.  Snook's an actor whom I only know I'd previously heard of because I wasn't likely to forget her rather silly name.  But in Predestination, she is exactly as great as Predestination permits.  That is, maybe her performance cannot be said to be truly perfect, but given the basically insuperable obstacles Predestination puts in front of her, her achievement of a merely extremely good performance makes it inarguable that Snook, herself, is great.

"Herself" I write with emphasis, because it's the last time where I can use a third-person pronoun for this film without confusing either you or myself.  Predestination is the reason this triple-feature review even exists: I wanted to talk about the movie, because I liked it a lot, but I cannot dig into Predestination for even a couple hundred words before striking its rich deposits of spoil.

That Snook plays a dude in this film (sort of) is not a serious spoiler (however, I beg you don't take that as transphobia, because within that "sort of" does hide a serious spoiler).  The makeup isn't quite good enough to really fool anybody, even if one shot is well-done enoughand bold enoughto entirely overlook any technical imperfection.  For the most part, like Snook's attempt at a masculine voice, it's only good enough that we can meet her and the film halfway and play pretend.  (Maybe Daniel Day Lewis would've put himself on years of hormone treatment before filming, but she's not in this picture.)

You see, Snook first manifests as the Unmarried Mother, a man who writes sordid stories for women's confessional magazines.  He has a story to tell the Barkeepand it's a Goddamned doozy.  The Barkeep has a tale of his own, however, and his involves traveling through time with a magic guitar case to save the alternate 1970s from a super-criminal.  (In a touch that I expect is fealty to the Heinleinian source material, and which I cannot help but adore completely, the Barkeep hails from the farflung 1990sthat is, some years after the invention of time travel.)

And that's about all I can tell you about the plot, without being accused of ruining it.  There is not a twist in the film that I didn't manage to get ahead of, but perhaps others are not as conversant in the tropes of time travel.  If Predestination does retain the capacity for in-the-moment surprise, I would be a real bastard to destroy it, so I won't.

For my part, I was satisfied rather than shocked, but satisfied deeply that someone managed to build a good time travel puzzlebox, a feat that hasn't been done since Primer.  Indeed, what else has even tried?  Of course, Interstellar's gestures in that direction need not be mentioned in a conversation between grown-ups.  Timecrimes?  Sure, that movie exists.  To my recollection that leaves only Looper.  My feelings on Looper are that it's faintly terribleand if we're in the business of comparing Predestination to Looper, then let's say that as not-entirely-convincing as Snook's makeup might be, at least it's not the kill-it-with-fire abomination they wound up making of Joseph Gordon Levitt.

If I can't talk too deeply about Predestination, I'll talk shallowly about its writer-directors, the Spierig Brothers, instead.  If Predestination isn't a great film, then it comes really damned close, representing an incremental but crucial improvement over the brothers' last Ethan Hawke joint, the vampiric what-if Daybreakers.  Now, Daybreakers does have an absolutely killer premise.  The Spierigs accepted the logical extrapolation of vampirism as blindingly obvious: if vampires actually existed, they would immediately organize and conquer the world by contagion and brute force within a matter of months.  Daybreakers fails solely in that its solution to the vampire apocalypse is extraordinarily dumb, so dumb that it eliminates a lot of goodwill the concept and cast generates (besides Hawke, it features fellow super-actors Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe).  Predestination doesn't entirely stick its landing either, but it comes so much closer, and it's all a matter of its precise staging, rather than any issue with its paradoxes.

Predestination is a better-looking film, too; if the twilit blue-and-gray of Daybreakers was surely appropriate, it also wasn't terribly pretty, either.  Predestination has a significantly more varied color palette, and some pretty fine production and costume design, to boot, capably achieving period piece hyperrealism in three different eras, the staid 1950s, the mod 1960s, and the decadent 1970s.  And speaking of being good-looking... well, of course there's Ethan Hawke the Immortal.

He'll live to see this happen, for example.  (They're all watching Gattaca.)

But it really does come back to Snook.  (She is also very good-looking, but that's not that important.)  I forget if she made me actually tear up or just think about it, but the Unmarried MotherJanewhatever name you want to give her roleis what capital-letters ACTING is all about: being challenged to connect with an audience through a ludicrous character, and meeting that challenge head-on, making you believe in her, or him, despite the half-delighted, half-agonized screaming of your brain that everything happening to him, or to her, is impossible.

Or, maybe Snook being good-looking is important, and maybe I truly shed a tear because the Unmarried Mother gets to live out my most cherished fantasy of all: fucking my smoking hot early-20s female double.  Ohhhh, brother!

Score, Automata: 4/10
Score, The One I Love: 4/10
Score, Predestination:  8/10

No comments:

Post a Comment