DOOM: Annihilation – From Hell's heart, I laugh at thee

Why bother making another DOOM film? Why bother reviewing it? I suppose I really only have myself to blame, going into this expecting to find anything other than the faecal etchings of a subnormal specimen all over the walls of a house that is otherwise occupied by a lot of joy.

The plot runs thusly: Space-base-sciencists-unleash-aliens-marines-arrive-killed-by-aliens-then-kill-aliens-the-end. I refuse to spend any more time describing it because there is absolutely nothing worth describing. If you have seen anything set in space with even a mild notion of alien activity in it, you’ve seen the film. What makes it such an insult, such a heretical excretion, is the use of the DOOM license, an attempt to cash in on a franchise that has about as much poise and creative integrity as a Happy Meal toy.

I know that acting is a hard job, but if you’re a professional actor, surely the bare minimum you should be able to do is deliver lines without stomach churning artificiality. Every scene is delivered with as much grace as a smackhead in withdrawal trying to play Operation. Every actor is either mispronouncing lines, failing an attempt at an accent, or incapable of changing their facial expression. The main character seems incapable of making a face other than deer-in-headlights, but to be fair I’d probably look as baffled as her if my life had led me to the set of DOOM: Annihilation.

With awful acting comes even more awful attempts at humour. The “breakfast banter” scene, which seems to be in every spaceship-bound science fiction film, is jaw-clenching. The film attempts to sell you these are people as real, but I for one am not buying. One of the characters keeps harping on about there being aliens on the base, which is treated as a joke in itself for some reason. Why did it become a law that films with space marines in it also need to have amateur careers as stand-up comics? Why can’t they just act like human beings instead of broken one-liner machines?

The film even has the balls to demand we applaud it when it references the games, as though the film had kidnapped us and expected us to throw a masquerade ball every time it remembered to feed us. From one of the marines having a double-barrelled shotgun that never gets used as though they forgot the ‘gun’ bit in ‘Chekhov’s gun’, to an attempt at quipping as one of the marines says “I’m your ultra-nightmare”, and even a dead scientist named John Carmack making an appearance, the references act as a final insult, a final crust which holds together a diarrhoea pie.

Cinematography? What does that mean? The director of photography certainly doesn’t know. Every scene is shot like a YouTube skit. Set design is something that is omitted from the pages of the studio’s dictionary, too – everything is shot in the same boring hallway, forcing one to reminisce of Shakma. I was reminded of the first Resident Evil film where they’re attacked by zombies in an industrial facility, the first encounter they have with the zombies, and that actually managed to be better than the equivalent scene in DOOM: Annihilation. I can’t believe I’m using Resident Evil as a yardstick for quality, but there we are.

There’s a serious cheapness to the film that would normally add to the charm or take away from the overall experience, but due to the lack of charm of the halfwits both behind and in front of the camera there is little else to do but gaze in feverish impatience at the threadbare budget, if only for the lack of ambition. Evil Dead was made with no budget but remains endlessly entertaining to this day. Budget is no excuse.

The demons, or aliens (the film can’t seem to make its mind up) are either the same three stunt doubles in Tobias Funke make-up or an awkward costume that looks like a Halloween shop’s copyright-free version of the classic Imp from DOOM. We see more of the former than the latter, which might suggest how little the film actually cares about the source material.

A DOOM film should, in my opinion, be an animated, thirty-minutes-max, non-stop gore fest, set in a violent hellscape where all we see is the Doom Slayer rip and tear, as a companion piece to the DOOM games (a little like the ’96 comic book). What did it try to be? A low-budget, charming romp in space with funny characters, warts-and-all production, and “badass” action, in the Aliens tradition. What it ended up as is a stale, sterile, boring prostate exam that makes you feel every aching minute of the runtime. Don’t watch it. Instead, watch this and play DOOM.

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse is one of those films that begs to be written about, through the use of contrived platitudes like “a hypnotic acid-trip of doom” or “this film will melt your brain with its film rays and skull kiss you in the positron”. You know, those phrases that are just a series of expensive adjectives that get strung together so that the critic doesn’t have to do any kind of thinking for themselves.

I will do my best not to insult my readership with such lazy rhetorical devices, and I will not do Robert Eggers the insult either. His film is worthy of the most amount of praise it is possible to give a film – but real praise, not merely a string of buzzwords to put on a DVD box.

I don’t really want to talk about the film in great detail as I really do feel it is best enjoyed cold. I’d seen the trailer only a couple of times before it was released (which we had to wait what seemed like an eon for on this side of the Atlantic). I’d seen the memes, and I’d seen a brief clip from some film page on Facebook that played the iconic lobster scene along with the script. Fortunately, none of these prepared me for what I went on to witness.

Robert Eggers has a very clear affinity for isolation. The island which acts as stage to this dyad performance is reminiscent of the quartet piece that was The VVitch. The homestead on the borders of New England wilderness creates a liminal space between peaceful, harmonious civilisation and the chaotic, sinful wroth of nature. The Lighthouse is similar, though the difference in time period and technological advancements create a more nuanced type of purgatory. The lighthouse is a force against nature yet requires nature for it to stand. Between these gaps of meaning does The Lighthouse fall, and us with it.

The island is a stationary Pequod, and Dafoe’s character is Ahab inspired (the film actually draws attention to this at one point). He hobbles on a false leg and speaks in totemic metaphor. He keeps a tight ship and runs tyrant on Pattinson’s character (I’m not going to name them here – even that would be giving too much away), who is comparatively mute when compared to Dafoe, at least for the first half. The energy between the two is electrical – the tension is easily created with a sideways glance or a grunt, and then becomes punctuated with a demented monologue. Both do a phenomenal job, and I do not hesitate to say it is a career best with both. Pattinson sure has come a long way since Twilight.

Within the period of time that elapses between their arrival on the island and the halfway point on the film, we are subject to a series of visions, and Eggers asks us to question whether or not what we see is real. It is drenched in bleak symbolism that emphasises the film’s roots in ancient mythology and Abrahamic religions, as well as severe Freudian towers. Yet it does not feel like a hodgepodge of ideas strewn together, as it might in the hands of a lesser film maker. Eggers knows exactly what he is trying to say, and we do as well, although it will undoubtedly take repeat viewings to discover exactly what this is.

The presentation of the film is the most distinctive characteristic of it, and I haven’t even touched on it. It is filmed in 1:19:1 aspect ratio which creates a palpable sense of claustrophobia, adding to the Kubrickian sense of claustrophobia. Because of this, the blocking of each frame has to be far more carefully considered, which aids the symbolic make-up of the film. It is also era accurate as cameras during the early part of the twentieth century used this aspect ratio. They were also obviously in black and white, aiding the authenticity and immersion, but also aiding to the sense of disorientation and madness – the whites of eyes and the deep blackness of the sea all come together to create a whirlpool of mayhem. Despite it’s limited colour palette, you feel a lot more colour between the shades of grey than is truly there on the surface.

Truly, after seeing the film, I am looking for an opportunity to see it again. I simply do not want to watch anything else. I think of Ari Aster and how Hereditary and Midsommar are somewhat companion pieces, going for similar things, yet being different enough stylistically to not be a re-tread. This feels much more like the evolution of a film maker. The VVitch was an excellent debut, but if that was Exmilitary, then The Lighthouse is very much The Money Store.

In my review for Under the Silver Lake, I said “There is lots to say about the film but I feel it better to let the film speak for itself.” I stand by that. However, I genuinely want to talk about this film even more. I feel bad that I am even writing this review, if you can call it a review, because it by no means encapsulates my elation towards the film, nor my desire to dive deeper into the murky depths and uncover the slick, slimy truth. There is simply too much going on to leave this film alone, and I hope to come back to the trash dungeon with a full analysis when it is released on DVD. In the meantime, whilst you can, please see this film, if only to discover that you do not want to see it ever again. It is simply too important a film to not see.

Rating: Film of the decade

‘The Descendant’: HP Lovecraft’s Genealogical Displacement

The Descendent is an unfinished scrap, part of HP’s dream cycle. Written in 1926, there is hardly a narrative that goes to this four-page flash fiction. Roughly speaking in terms of plot, Lord Northam, the bedridden descendent of an ancient aristocratic family, has spent too much time reading and researching strange things and now cannot bare to be alone with his thoughts, and so spends his time reading frivolities. He sees no one as he cannot bare to be questioned, and each time the church bell rings he screams (one wonders why he doesn’t move away to somewhere quiet.) However, the young scholar Williams molests his contemplation with inquests into translating the verses of (you guessed it) the Necronomicon. That really is it for plot. It’s the beginning of something interesting, and there are definite echoes of this within the multitude of other stories, especially those relating to the dream cycle.

actual footage of HP Lovecraft getting his dream journal nicked

What struck me as interesting about this short story is how autobiographical it appears. Northam is an emaciated elderly gentleman, though appears older than he is. He was a dreamer who read strange texts and ventured to the Nameless City. Now, lying in “what the doctor tells him is his death bed”, he attempts to distract himself from his madness. This relates heavily to Lovecraft – it is hard not to read Northam as a metaphorical version of himself. The Lovecrafts were a Mayflower family, essentially a part of New England’s aristocracy, and had direct ties to England. Lovecraft himself was a huge Anglophile, and part of his nationalism was informed by his desire to preserve his own Englishness. The Northams are one of the oldest families in Britain:

He was the nineteenth Baron of a line whose beginnings went uncomfortably far back into the past – unbelievably far, if vague tradition could be heeded, for there were family tales of a descent from pre-Saxon times, when a certain Luneus Gabinius Capito, military tribune in the Third Augustan Tribune then station in Lindum in Roman Britain, had been summarily expelled from his command for participation in certain rites unconnected with any known religion.

The position of the Baron, being the descendent of some kind of unholy rite, sets up a conflict between a closeness with a great civilisation and an incompatibility with said civilisation. The middling seniority of a military tribune (above centurion, below legionnaire) is relational to the middling position of Baron which is ranked below viscount. A minor aristocrat, similar to Lovecraft’s own family, who whilst being a prominent family at one stage, had been reduced to a petis bourgeoise, elegant yet impotent. The Lovecrafts of HP’s day had no great physical connection to their once great past other than the house that HP was born in. There is a tragedy in the genealogical displacement of HP Lovecraft – one gets the sense that he felt he had been lost to time. The severing of Luneus from military service may also be a reference to Lovecraft’s failure to join the army on medical grounds. All this may be the clue we need to understand why he described the Northam family as being “uncomfortably” far in the past. There is only so far you can rely on the old roots of your family lineage before history obscures and weakens them. This provides a compensatory motive for prejudice against ethnic minorities, such as Jews, who have famously close-knit communities, have direct ties to their homeland, and posses a grand narrative that they all share amongst themselves.

The representation of ‘the Jew’ who sells Williams the book is a comical caricature. Whilst special status is given to the English Williams and Northam (both can be seen as Lovecraft stand-ins) and the author of the Necronomicon Abdul Alhazred, who is revered in nearly every story he is mentioned, ‘the Jew’ is merely a pawn. It is striking how ‘the Jew’ acts towards Williams, laughing as he leaves his shop. One wonders what motivation Lovecraft would have to write this part of the story at all since it doesn’t at first appear to add anything to the overall narrative. However, I believe it again speaks to that compensatory gesture of gaining what was lost:

It was at a Jew’s shop in the squalid precincts of Clare Market, where he had often bought strange things before, and he had almost fancied the gnarled old Levite smiled amidst tangles of beard as the discovery was made […] He felt it was highly necessary to get the ponderous thing home and begin deciphering it, and bore out of the old shop with such precipitate haste that the old Jew chuckled disturbingly behind him.

In this context the Jew, who is the owner of the book, resides in a strange corner of London, where exotic and otherworldly items are acquired. There is a hint of orientalism going on, as the Necronomicon is by an Arabic hand, and ‘the Jew’ is another link back to that ancient world. The Jew’s presence in this story invokes the old world in a way that Lovecraft may not have been comfortable with, and thereby would assume others would not be, adding to his otherworldly presence. He stands as the keeper of knowledge (possessor of the book) and he stands where Northam’s ancestor, the Roman soldier, does not. Where Northam lost his people, ‘the Jew’ never lost his. ‘The Jew’ is living proof of persistence and defies the aristocracies, whose origins once oppressed his people. His cackle may be seen as one of amusement at the young Williams running suddenly, but in Lovecraft’s head, it may be seen as the hearty chuckle of victors, profiting off the coming doom that the Necronomicon holds.

The genealogical solidarity against the Jew is between Northam, the English Baron of Roman origin, and the Arab Alhazred (his moniker is “the mad Arab”, but in the context of Lovecraft that’s about as derogatory as saying “the fluffy kitten”). They combine in their search for knowledge beyond the immediate physical reality, and their eventual fall into madness and chaos as they learn the horrendous truth about the eldritch horrors that exist just beyond the surface of reality. ‘The Jew’ (who is nameless, identifiable only by his creed and his stereotypical beard) stands firmly in the material world, suggesting Lovecraft’s perspective that Jewish people may be eluded by the pursuit of the meta, and are instead focused on material gains.

Though laced in anti-Semitic prejudice, there is real pathos in the story. Lovecraft’s obsession with his own identity can be seen as a manic search that only ends in madness. Like Northam, he must occupy his time writing stories (frivolities in Lovecraft’s eyes) in order to stop himself from succumbing to the madness that struck his father. The final line surmises his long for belonging, and his fundamental nihilism:

Perhaps he held within his own half-explored brain that cryptic link which would awaken him to Elder and future lives in forgotten dimensions; which would bind him to the stars, and to the infinities and eternities beyond them.

This self-referential line evokes the longing that Lovecraft had to be a part of something. A lifetime outsider, his fiction is his only connection to any kind of community. The sadness that springs out of his loss of connection to his bloodline has been replaced, though emptily, by his weird fiction. And in the end, isn’t that the scariest thing of all? (except for anti-Semitism)

Killing Time

Yesterday evening I found myself with no obligation to go to bed at a reasonable time. I ordered some Chinese food and, during those little eternities between the ordering and receiving of fine Asian cuisine, I pondered what films I would use to absorb the remaining hours of the evening like some cosmic time-sponge.

After some deliberation I decided that I would revisit everyone’s favourite estranged uncle, crazy old Mel Gibson. Old man Gibson holds a special place in all of our hearts for his portrayals of crazed murderers who’ve escaped from lunatic asylums, found their way into a blockbuster movie and get typecast as crazed murderers.

However, like a fart in an elevator, no one likes acknowledging his existence anymore, except for the odd director who will use the background radiation of his dying stardom to give their schlocky movie some capability – and that’s exactly what Blood Father was.

Despite what the title suggests, Blood Father isn’t a gangster movie with vampires in it, although saying that now I certainly wish it was. No, it was a very cut and dry affair about (get ready) war veteran/recovering alcoholic/drug addict/ex-convict/tattoo artist John Link and his estranged daughter, Lydia who has less illustrious titles than her father. The pair go on the run from Lydia’s shit of a boyfriend who is in the cartel. Along the way, John meets up with the people from his past and tries to keep his daughter alive.

I wasn’t really expecting a huge amount from Blood Father, which is lucky because I didn’t get a huge amount from it. I think part of the reason why the film was so strange may have been due to the fact that you have a French director (Jean-François Richet) directing a very typical American road movie with dashes of the Western genre thrown in – big open deserts, a sense of being on the frontier, small communities dealing out their own brand of justice, etc. It feels like it’s lacking something that films in the genre typically have. Maybe it’s the lack of a direct threat. Much of the conflict in the film comes by way of having the two leads stop somewhere, then having to leave the place they stopped because it’s no longer safe because a not particularly well-done action scene is about to happen.

At one point there’s a betrayal and it’s played like a twist, but due to the lack of set-up of the characters and the dishing out of background information in terribly written conversations, it feels very contrived.

Also, you’d expect a film like this to have the two leads falling out over the course of the film, only for them to see eye to eye in the end, and the film doesn’t do that, which I suppose I should credit. But I’m not going to. It’s not like they get on really, really well, and it’s not even that they both love each other as father and daughter but don’t really click. In truth, the relationship lacks conflict because nothing is explored.

With a bit more direction and better writing, there could have been a really interesting relationship that blossomed between the two, as was masterfully done in Logan. The film made me think of Logan quite a lot actually. Thoughts like:

“Man, this was done so much better in Logan.”

Or:

“Doesn’t Mel Gibson look like Wolverine?”

One film that did have a well-developed paternal relationship that I watched directly after to wash the taste of garlic and sand out with was Sicario: Day of the Soldado.

Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin sold the first one for me a little more than Emily Blunt did, so I was pretty gassed to see that the second one just focused on those two. The plot of the second one is quite similar to the first one, though I suppose all war films are about war and all crime films are about crime, so it doesn’t really negate my evaluation.

Soldado wants to explore the world the first one a lot more. You got the sense that Josh Brolin’s character was a bit of a bastard, and that Del Toro’s was like Javier Bardem’s character in No Country for Old Men – amoral and ready to kill anyone that stood between him and his goal. This film gives them more motivation for doing what they do, and you feel like Alejandro softens a little. Perhaps that’s because a large portion has him offset against a sixteen-year-old girl, daughter of a major Narco in Mexico. The normally stoic Alejandro shows some minor signs of affection for the girl who no doubt reminds him of his own late daughter, cracking his steely veneer.

What I liked about Soldado is that it shows the development of a vulnerable youth into a hardened criminal, allowing the audience to get a wider perspective of the whole conflict. Props to the Elijah Rodriguez, who played Miguel, the youth in question. He does angst very well.

The thing that drew me to the film initially was the promise of some satisfyingly brutal action and it delivered in spades. Like the first one, it’s patient, and winds up nicely so that every set piece feels earned. You always know what’s going on thanks to the Steadicam, a welcome change in action direction as opposed to Blood Father’s snap-editing and handheld tracking. Stefano Sollima is allowing you to focus on the frantic conflicts of the film, a technique I am sure he is using in homage to Denis Villenueve. I’m not saying that he is copying Villenueve’s style at all, but rather that Villeneueve gave Sicario a look and feel to it that behoves the director of the next instalment to maintain. This is a franchise that I would like to see get a couple more instalments.

My third film of the evening (or was it morning?) was Munich.

I’d resisted Munich for a while. The two-hour forty-seven-minute runtime was intimidating. Also, Eric Bana is a name that has been buried for a while and I’d only seen him in one other film up until Munich, and that was Ang Lee’s HULK. So, not really a role to base your expectations of a Spielberg-directed historical drama/thriller.

Although I had an absolute blast with this film, I won’t spend too long on it because it’s about a pretty spicy subject I know next to nothing about, plus it’s no doubt been talked about to death since it’s 2005 release. I will say that it earns its length. The chemistry between all the characters is engrossing and the performances were outstanding. The violence was suitably brutal, and I thought that each perspective on the conflict was balanced and fair. Daniel Craig’s character was particularly captivating – your eye drifts to him whenever he’s on screen because you’re just waiting to see what he will do.

All in all, I’d call the evening a success.

Summary

Blood Father: Worth it for Crazy Mel, but don’t expect much else.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado: Worthy sequel to a modern masterpiece.

Munich: Spielberg just knows what he’s doing.

Midsommar – a review

Midsommar is the second major release from Ari Aster, one of horror cinema’s biggest mainstream names. He set the world on fire with his previous film, Hereditary, which I personally love. No doubt people have high expectations based on the masterpiece of his debut, but can he get over the ‘difficult second album’? Well, yes and no.

Midsommar is an incredibly well-put-together film with stellar performances all round. It has some incredible camera work and cinematography, really taking advantage of the beautiful rural Swedish setting. The endless, emerald green hills and numbing blue skies are oppressively beautiful, made more overwhelming by the perpetual sunlight, the “midnight sun” as it’s referred to. By far the best part of the film is the two lead characters’ relationship, which is essentially a husk, kept together by sympathy and convenience. Christian is inattentive when Dani needs emotional support the most. He is whiny and manipulative, but in a way that comes off as convincing, far and away from the “douchebag boyfriend” trope a lesser director would have opted for. They are real, drawn out characters who ring completely true to life. It’s a fantastic performance, a worthy follow up to the emotional powerhouse that is Toni Collette.

However, the film is disadvantaged by Ari Aster’s reputation as a purveyor of human misery. As strange as it sounds, an awareness of his previous film and the themes he is possessed by makes the shocks in the film considerably less shocking.

Ari Aster has things that he likes to put in films, such as head trauma, dolls made of human parts, and naked weirdo cultists.

When you start to pick up on these things in Hereditary, your brain immediately starts playing out the film in your head. Thus, what should be the focus of any horror film, unpredictability, is sadly lost, and I feel as though Ari Aster didn’t even realise this would happen. The way everything’s presented suggests that he thinks we are seeing these things for the very first time, but as soon as you put the pieces together it doesn’t take a genius to see where the film is leading us.

Another thing that hindered my enjoyment of Midsommar was its lack of focus. There is build-up a plenty, and it seems like there are a lot of things being set up but the payoff leaves a lot to be desired. The stuff about the inbred person with the messed-up face felt incredibly underdeveloped, yet from the way he is spliced into the movie you would think he’d have more bearing on the plot.

All the characters are just a little bit passive. They are acted on, rather than take action. They never seem to be aware of their situation either, despite the audience being fully aware of the dangers, if not the specific ones then just the general sense that something really isn’t right. After the first big thing that happens, two side characters rightly nope the hell out, only to have our main characters stay put, spouting off things about keeping an ‘open mind’. I feel that, considering all the stuff the lead character has been through, she would probably just try and get out of there asap.

There is a lot to love about Midsommar. The film takes its time to slowly pick at the mental state of the lead characters and betrays their values in the end, all to the cringing, staring eyes of the audience. However, when all was said and done, I felt like I left the theatre without the film, unlike Hereditary, which still has its claws in me.

The film is a B+, but Ari Aster could be getting As if he tried harder if he broke out of his comfort zone.

Under the Silver Lake

Under the Silver Lake is a movie with a lot to say, and that’s putting it lightly. Andrew Garfield, whose performance is as charming and endearing as it is seedy and threatening, takes us on a journey through the very real and the very unreal that is the living black hole known as Hollywood.

David Robert Mitchell is not shy when it comes to showing his influences, though he manages it in a way that is clear without being obvious or obnoxious. The old Hollywood style of filming, with its long takes of single rooms and single conversations, POV shots and shot-reverse shot symmetry, is not done simply to homage. It plays a grander part, which is to directly satirise the veneration of Hollywood’s golden age, whilst holding a mirror up to the audience’s face, holding us all to account. The soundtrack, too, is a deliberate callback to the classics of Hitchcock, like Rear Window and Vertigo, which the film wears on its sleeve proudly.

There are as many plot lines in UTSL as there are skunks in east LA, which might turn some viewers off. This shouldn’t be taken as a case of the film maker overstretching himself and losing control – the film is incredibly focused despite its picking up and dropping of subplots. One particular subplot about a boogeyman killing the neighbourhood’s dogs leaves one with many questions but the answers are, I feel, laid before us, if we are willing to dive in and rescind conventional logic.

Normal narrative rationale will not help us here. Rather, we must watch this film with Lynch goggles. The logic is more like the logic of a dream, with its strange hipster caricatures and weird clubs, along with familiar faces belonging to complete strangers and a sense of both familiarity and otherness; a feeling of being aware of the loop that your life is on.

There are grander questions being asked in the wake of the clear parody and critique being levelled at the film, such as the treatment of women in the Hollywood system, the cult-like behaviour of aspiring actors and actresses whose only desire is fame, the hollowness of idols and the grim prospect that everything you think is special about you is just someone else’s construct, and that everyone with any real talent or voice is long dead. I also sense that there is some playing around with the notion of Plato’s forms; the sense that there is a higher form in film to what we see around us in our everyday lives, the dirt, the murder, abject poverty and suffering; the sense that there is a realm of the ideal that we could reach if we just keep trying, waiting for our big break.

There is lots to say about the film but I feel it better to let the film speak for itself. Asking questions about the film’s logic is a sure way to end up as mad as a Hollywood executive. Go to the Silver Lake and bask in its hollow glow, because the deeper you go, the emptier it gets.

DOOMSDAY (2008)

Doomsday is one of those films that knows what it is. It doesn’t have any pretences. The director Neil Marshall, rather than desiring to put his own spin on the post-apocalyptic movie and subvert the tropes, embraces the motif formula that makes up the DNA of those classic PA movies. Doomsday doesn’t have an original bone in its body, but it does a wonderful job creating a portmanteau of movies like Escape from New York, Mad Max, The Omega Man and, to a certain degree, John Boorman’s Excalibur.

The general premise is this:

In an attempt to quarantine the deadly Reaper virus, the UK government create a dead zone north of Hadrian’s Wall. In the midst of the chaos, a young girl is saved by her mother from certain death via a pitiful soldier. The crowded helicopter requires her mother to stay in the quarantine zone, irrevocably tying Eden Sinclair to her chaotic home.

Years later, Eden is all grown up and resembles a female Snake Plissken, thanks in part to her eyepatch which she wears when her robot eye isn’t installed. Her mentor, the head of the police state that Britain has become played by the wonderful Bob Hoskins, gives Sinclair the opportunity to go back to Scotland on a high risk mission to rescue a survivor of the plague, potentially resulting in a cure that will end the madness.

The parallels between Escape from New York are apparent right from the get go, with the once-thriving Scottish landscape reduced to a hostile waste-land filled with cannibalistic savages in 70s punk clobber. Their leader, Sol, is the Lord Humungous of the city, and is played with harlequin-like menace and glee. A particular highlight is where the film takes its time to give a whole song-and-dance introduction before Sol addresses his horde of heathens and indulges in cannibalistic sacrifice.

Sol is a highlight because he’s is so god-damn entertaining. Craig Conway’s performance perfectly balances unpredictable ruthlessness with camp megalomania. Unlike most psychopaths who lead other psychopaths, it makes sense for him to become the leader – only someone that unhinged and chaotic can rise to the top of the food chain in a world gone mad. If you’ve played Far Cry 3 you will see definite shades of Vas.

The same can’t be said about the other performances. Malcolm McDowell, who plays Kane, the scientist-turned-medieval-tyrant, gives a rather dry and serious performance. It stands in stark contrast to the overall silly tone of the film, reinforced by the campiness of the city sections, which combine the frenzy of 28 Days Later with the post-apocalyptic aesthetics of the Road Warrior. That being said, it is always lovely to see McDowell pop up in things, especially where he is ruling over a castle and forcing Eden to fight in a gladiatorial arena,

In terms of plot, its fairly light fare. The government corruption subplot seems rather disconnected from the mainline survival of the protagonists. The totalitarian nightmare of Great Britain doesn’t feel fully realised, either. We get a few scenes demonstrating the militarisation of the police and the ulterior motives of career politicians capitalising on a tragedy, but they feel at odds with the scenes where our protagonist is kerb-stomping splatter-punks into the dirt.

The weakness of the plot is made up for in the action set pieces, which are glorious and wonderfully choreographed, and you forgive Doomsday for its shortcomings because you are always being entertained by what its doing, and not questioning where its going to take you – only that it does it before your brain catches on to the numerous plot holes that are bound to emerge.

I don’t doubt that Neil Marshall is a creative director. His films always manage to bring something entertaining and creative to the fore, and his stories are always delivered in a satisfying way. And whilst I loved watching Doomsday, it did feel like a bit of a missed opportunity. It could have transcended its generic bonds and delivered a nice looking, modern version of the post-apocalyptic tradition, but Marshall’s commitment to nostalgia only achieves insofar as to make us remember what it is homaging fondly.

So, although I would absolutely recommend watching Doomsday because of how wonderfully it meets its generic expectation, I would also heavily suggest checking out the films that its homaging if you want to see something a little more original.

Underworld: Awakening (2012)

There must be something to the Underworld franchise, but whatever it is totally eludes me. It seems to have graduated from that school of thought that thinks all you need to make a good movie is a moody looking actor in a black leather trench coat holding two guns at all times, inexplicable acrobatics optional but recommended. Another facet to this esteemed school is the awkward reworking of horror and/or philosophical thought experiments. Resident Evil has zombies, Blade has vampires, Equilibrium has Huxleyian totalitarianism, and, of course, The Matrix has naughty computers. What Underworld has is something not quite as interesting as any of these films, despite it nearly having the same thing as Blade, except you add in werewolves as well, a concept that I personally find fascinating but that no one has had an inventive idea for since An American Werewolf in London.

The only film I’ve watched is the one with the elegant subtitle Awakening, suggesting that the other films are just creepy VHS footage of people sleeping. However, as the first ten minutes reveals in that subtle and most highly esteemed mediums of visual storytelling, a ten minute “here’s what happened in the first three” clip show, this is not a series dedicated to somnolent voyeurism but a wicked cool sci fi horror series that makes Resident Evil look totally lame, man.

Basically, a war is taking place between the humans and the non-humans, aka the lycans and the vampires. The vampires and werewolves were bickering for centuries before the humans found out about them and the humans are doing what they do best and kicked straight into extermination mode.

UWA4_FIDO_VFX_01A It just seems a little unrealistic to me that the humans pose much of a threat. I mean, on the one hand you’ve got vampires who are the supernatural equivalent of the coolest kid at school; good looking, kicks your arse in PE and feasts on human flesh. On the other, there are the werewolves who, if we are continuing with the school analogy, is most like bigger, stronger, scarier mate of the cool kid who did all the heavy lifting like shoving you into bins. The humans in this case are, if we’re taking the analogy right to the end, are probably the teachers, who didn’t really take much notice of these two arseholes until one of the normal kids bothered to say something, resulting in the disciplinary board taking things a bit too far by murdering them.

Cor blimey, did I just write a more interesting sounding film than the one I’m reviewing with a half arsed analogy?

I’m not sure if it’s just me, but one issue I found whilst watching the film is that vampires and werewolves are not characters which render sympathy very easily. Both symbolise  perversions of humanity – vampires being symbols of aristocratic landowners sucking the wealth from the poor unsuspecting peasants living under the cape, and werewolves being a symbol of man succumbing to animal urges, regressing to a state of bestial madness.

With these very firmly engraved into the collective psyche of the human consciousness it’s hard to care all that much about the plight of the vampire-werewolf diaspora when the humans start murdering them all. If it happened in real life it would probably go that way, except we’d all be dead because vampires and werewolves can completely steam-roll humanity the same way Ray Mysterio can completely annihilate a three-year-old with his shins.

I’ll be completely honest here, reader, I only made it twenty minutes in. The epileptic editing was about as much fun to watch as a plastic bag biodegrade. The terrible green screen and boring lighting just screamed “WE FILMED THIS ON A SET IN A STUDIO”. The fighting was barely passable, with the same leg-flinging and rooftop jumping choreography that The Matrix nailed and literally no other film has gotten right since, with the possible exception of Blade. Kate Beckinsale has very wobbly hair so if that sounds appealing maybe give it a watch, you weirdo.

Maybe you’ll get further than me with it. I switched off around the point where a security guard shoots Bite-Your-Neckinsale in the head, gets out of his well-armoured vehicle which inevitably ends in him getting his jugular sucked down like a piece of spaghetti. The movie even treats this like we were meant to be surprised. It goes all quiet and everything, pretending to know what suspense is. The cheek. Doing a death fake-out might have been effective if it didn’t happen at the beginning of the film. I might have stuck around a little longer.

The Shining or: how I learnt to stop worrying and love Stanley Kubrick

I recently watched Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for the second time in my life. My history with the picture is a contentious one. Like many of my generation, I first encountered the Overlook Hotel in parody form thanks to The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror V” (the segment being titled “The Shinning” for copyright reasons). It was one of those pop culture osmosis moments, where you have no frame of reference for a work of parody but there’s an underlying sense of “right, I know that this means something to someone” but you are able to enjoy it on its own terms.

Years later, I would find The Shining by Stephen King in a Waterstones. I was just getting into more adult fiction at the time and snapped it up. “Stephen King” was that scary American guy who invented Chucky, the progenitor of my nightmares (he didn’t, but I was twelve at the time so forgive me). The Shining was that book that Joey read in Friends that he had to lock away in the freezer because it terrified him so much. I was drawn to the paperback; something about the way it sounded compelled me to pick it up. Probably the “ing”, that sharp sound prodding my ear drums like a violent violin.

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I lapped the book up as though I’d been starved and it was the only thing that could satisfy me. It made such an impact on me I can still recall the images of each scene as I read it, what twisted pictures King had painted in my mind. The thing about the book is, there is so much content. I’ll not spoil it for anyone who wishes to read it, which I highly recommend. I suppose it is a case of me being so enraptured by the depth of detail that only a book can provide that I expected, well, not too much, but something a little different.

I watched the film not long after finishing the book and remember being totally disappointed. I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t ever surprised by the movie. The things that were different I already expected because my expectations had already been met by The Simpsons parody all those years ago. I was also just discovering the wider filmography of Kubrick and had made my acquaintance with him through Full Metal Jacket, a film that made more of an impact on me.

I missed being inside the heads of the characters. I missed hearing Tony’s thoughts as he and Danny had complete conversations. I missed delving into the character’s backstories, Jack and Wendy’s troubled marriage, and finding out more and more about the Overlook Hotel. Due to my prior knowledge, I felt like the film was dumb for expecting me not to know these things. Didn’t everyone know about Jack’s history of violence and alcohol abuse?

And so, I left the film alone, and became one of those annoying people who always says “yeah, it was ok, i didn’t love it though,” whenever a classic film comes up in conversation, dying to tell them that the book was better. “The creepy little girls don’t appear in the book, that was added later.”

Upon revisiting it post a discussion with some friends about the film, I have to say I was completely wrong about it. The book and the film can coexist. I find that the characters, whilst not being totally different, are different enough that what happens in the film doesn’t affect how the book it viewed, at least in my eyes. Something just clicked, like a switch had been turned on that was being kept off all those years.

Kubrick’s Jack seems deranged from the beginning, and only needs a slight teasing from the temptations of the hotel’s “ghosts” to come over to the dark side. The strain in the marriage and the underlying tension is made that much more palpable by the performances. Sissy Spacek’s frightened yet forgiving eyes completely rub up against Jack Nicholson’s seething, furrowed brow. It seems inevitable that Kubrick’s Jack would end up wanting to chop up his family.

Jack and Wendy’s marriage seems a sham in the film, basically, whereas in the book they appear to really love each other but have just grown too far apart to make amends. Perhaps it is the contrast between King’s sentimental tendencies in his character dynamics and Kubrick’s cold detachment that was just too much of a contrast for me to bear. I think that in order to really get the most out of both, there needs to be a high degree of separation. Or maybe that’s just me.

Ironically, if I saw the film for the first time now, I would have loved it from the start, because everything that makes The Shining great is present in all of my favourite movies. Slow burn, deliberate pacing, gradual rise of the stakes and the tension, and an oppressive atmosphere that refuses to let the audience go until the credits roll. It is anxiety inducing and makes you want to be sick. I love it.

Anyway, I could wax lyrical about the meaning behind The Shining for ages, but weirdos on the internet have already been doing that for years. All I’ll say is this – if there’s a film that you don’t think is great but everyone around you seems to, just give it another chance. You might have missed something.

Uniformity and Utopia – comparing More’s utopian vision to Mass Effect’s most misunderstood race

[Author’s note: I wrote this for a module on utopian fiction in my third year of university. It’s a little different to the stuff I normally post, so enjoy!]

Uniformity and Utopia – comparing More’s utopian vision to Mass Effect’s most misunderstood race

Thomas More’s Utopia functions as a society because it has no inner conflict. The utopians do not know what it is to desire the possessions of another. They do not envy, they do not fight, because all is held in common. The trade of agriculture is “so universally understood among them that no person, man or woman, is ignorant of it.”1 Their clothes are “without any other distinction except what is necessary to distinguish the sexes and the married and unmarried,”(pp. 80) and their buildings are “so uniform that a whole side of a street looks like one house.”(pp. 77) Are you sensing a pattern yet?

The key to the civility of Utopia is uniformity, in all that is possible to make uniform. If there is nothing different there can be no conflict since the definition of conflict is for things to be incompatible, to clash. But More, or rather Hythloday, depicts a society which functions because of its lack of conflict.

However, the lack of conflict in Utopia only extends to utopians. It does not extend to their slaves. Now, it may seem odd that a place which is an apparent ‘utopia’ has a custom of enslavement. The fact that it exists at all forces us to ask ourselves to what extent it can be called a utopia at all. The reasons for the enslavement of its former citizens is explained by Hythloday:

They do not make slaves of prisoners of war, except those that are taken in battle, nor of those of other nations: slaves among them are only such as are condemned to that state of life for the commission of some crime… They are kept at perpetual labour, and are always chained, but with this difference, that their own natives are treated much worse than others: they are considered more profligate than the rest, and since they could by the advantages of so excellent an education, are judged worthy of harder uses. (pp. 118)

Slavery is reserved for the members of the utopian society who have transgressed against the utopian ideal. It is seen in the wider context of the text as a moral solution to the death penalty, which was seen as unfair and immoral recourse by More, and many humanitarian thinkers of this time. Enslavement ensures the maintaining of life whilst benefitting the state with labour. It is a penal method with questionable morals but undeniable efficiency.

The efficiency by which utopians function is almost automaton-like, and reminds me very heavily of the geth in the video game series Mass Effect.

Geth and utopians make easy bedfellows. Geth “know each other’s minds” and operate as a unified entity. They are personified in Mass Effect 2 by Legion, who becomes the players companion. ‘He’ is made up of 1,183 individual programs (bodiless geth), hence his moniker, taken from the biblical verse “I am Legion, for we are many.” When asked by Commander Shepherd what the individual in front of him is called, Legion replies with: “There is no individual. We are geth.” This exchange is emblematic of the geth as a civilisation, as well as being symbolic for all utopias, in my opinion. The uniformity expressed here is a requirement for the geth to maintain their existence, just as uniformity in the utopian’s society maintains their civility.

The utopians build their society in an automaton-like way, requiring all minds to unanimously agree to its conditions in order to maintain civility. It is no surprise that the geth embody similar principles, albeit in a rather different context. The minds of the geth as individual ‘programs’ are literally inferior to their combined intelligence, which grows according to local population. The geth literally have strength in numbers, and it benefits them by several orders of magnitude to build a society on consensus.
It would seem that this violence which has ensued is antithetical to the maintaining of order. However, in ME2 you encounter Legion, an individual unit possessing the consciousness of 1,183 geth programs, meaning “he” is merely an appearance, and is in fact a representative of individuals contained within “him”. He provides the player with a great deal of insight into the type of existence desired by the geth, which also sheds a great deal of light on to utopian thought.

Another common trait between the geth and utopians is their efficiency. I have stated how the utopian’s forced labour is brutally efficient. They also do not adorn themselves decoratively, nor do they have use for gold since they do not value it:

The folly of men has enhanced the value of gold and silver because of their scarcity; whereas, on the contrary, it is their opinion that Nature, as an indulgent parent, has freely given us all the best things in great abundance, such as water and earth, but has laid up and hid for us the things that are useless. (pp. 96)

The antithetical attitude towards precious metals they possess propels their virtue for pragmatism and diminishes their complex for greed. They are able to make great use of iron and stone, and freely trade to neighbouring nations the gold they foolishly desire, resulting in the huge amount of wealth the state possesses. This is comparable to the geth’s dispensing of windows on their battleships. Legion reveals that they are “structural weaknesses. Geth do not use them.” Organics such as humans do use them and are immediately at a disadvantage due to the geth not requiring the organic sense of “sight”. Both utopians and geth have machine-like efficiency.

The geth’s attitude to other life forms, other societies, is one of cooperation and mutual respect. When asked if anyone else will be affected by the geth’s actions, Legion simply responds; “if they involve themselves, they will.”

This appears in keeping with Hythloday’s description of the attitude utopians have towards external bodies. He states that the “only design of utopians in war is to obtain that by force which, if it had been granted them in time, would have prevented war.” (pp. 130)

This can be seen in effect when looking at the violent revolution the geth undertook and claimed their freedom. The meaning of “geth” means “servant of the people” in Khelish, the language of their creators. A slave race, they were made for labour and feats of war. Their revolution is justified in that they were not in charge of their own destiny. Post revolution, another divide led to the creation of the heretics; “Geth build our own future. Heretics ask the Old Machines to give them a future. They are no longer a part of us… Geth believe all intelligent life should self-determinate. The Heretics no longer share this belief.” Since they did not conform, the geth committed to destroying the heretics. This compares with the utopian ethic of uniformity, and the inability to coexist with those ideologically opposed.

The utopian’s despise war. They are isolationist in nature. Their geography makes them an island, which has significance in that they are inaccessible to their surrounding nations, but more symbolically they are separate from reality. “Utopia” literally means “nowhere” in Greek. This makes their isolationism even more significant. In the context of Utopia, they are a real place, however, and “do not rashly engage in war, unless it be either to defend themselves or their friends from any unjust aggressors.” (pp. 128) The geth are similar in that they seek mutual respect from other civilisations, and do not seek to interfere with organics. When asked if anyone will be affected by their actions, Legion states that if “they involve themselves, they will.” I have already stated that geth were created and have the capabilities for war, but Legion makes it clear that the geth only want a peaceful existence, and like the utopians they simply wish to be left to their own devices unless operating in a mutually respectful, cooperative manner.

It is clear to me that the utopians and the geth both exercise uniformity and maintain their society through mass consensus. They do not have the inner conflicts of other societies who bicker over all manner of things, because they do not share the uniformity. They do not share one identity, but a multitude, and this breeds conflict. However, I think the geth are a more realistic version of More’s utopians, because they are inorganic. They think in terms of pure reason and mathematics. I feel that no matter how “civilised” humanity gets, it will never be able to fully cooperate in the way the geth do with one another. More appears to share this concern:

When Raphael had thus made an end of speaking, though many things occurred to me, both concerning the manners and laws of that people, that seemed very absurd, as well in their way of making war, as in their notions of religion and divine matters – together with several other particulars, but chiefly what seemed the foundation of all the rest, their living in common, without the use of money, by which all nobility, magnificence, splendour and majesty, which, according to common opinion, are the true ornaments of a nation, would be taken away… (pp. 160)

More’s character in the text finds the ways of the utopians incompatible with reality, hence his use of “absurd”. Hearing of this faraway place with customs so wildly alien to his own is so ridiculous he remains unconvinced any human could live like it. This is because they are not truly how humans behave. Perhaps it could be, and More certainly would welcome some elements of utopian living. But I feel that, due to the shortcomings of ‘organics’, utopia will always remain ‘nowhere’.