Unlike many of my critical brethren, I do not view Michael Bay as the devil incarnate. I think the man has definite talent and is one of the finest visual stylists working in the realm of film. I’ve enjoyed about half of the Transformers franchise and don’t consider it the end-all-be-all of modern American cinema. Transformers: The Last Knight is exactly what the detractors have railed against from the start: a cacophonous ejaculation of incomprehensible nonsense. The charge has often been made against Bay’s long filmography that his stories are unintelligible, but Transformers 5 proves to be the new measuring point for incensed incredulity. This isn’t only the worst Transformers entry in a seemingly never-ending franchise (thanks product placement, merchandising, and toy sales) but an early contender for worst film of 2017.
Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is hiding out with other Autobots in a South Dakota junkyard awaiting the return of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). Prime ventured into space to find the remnants of the Autobot home world, Cybertron. Once found, he’s brainwashed by the Cybertron goddess Quintessa (Gemma Chan) into being her servant. She’s after an ancient staff that will prove to be the key to restarting Cybertron. It was last seen on Earth during the Dark Ages and rumor has it was given to Merlin. Cade is enlisted by a centuries-long secret society to help find the staff before the evil forces at bay get hold of it.
It feels like the Transformers 5 writers were on a week-long cocaine bender when they cobbled together this impenetrable narrative. Let me give you but a taste of the confusing, muddled, and overall mind-numbing plot as it exists. There’s a magic staff from the robot world that will recharge the robot world, and it just so happens 12 robot knights, which form a giant robot dragon, landed on Earth and gave it to Merlin, played by a soused Stanley Tucci who was already a different character in the fourth Transformers movie, who then established a secret order that would keep the giant alien robots secret even as they were doing things as high-profile as literally killing Hitler, and the members of this secret society include Frederick Douglass and Queen Elizabeth and Shia LeBouf, and this staff needs to be retrieved from an underwater spaceship under Stonehenge by Merlin’s blood progeny and will be aided by an alien talisman that forms an alien sword that does something, and the evil alien robots are going to recharge their planet by scraping the Earth’s crust, which has horns protruding from it that once aligned with Pangaea, and there’s an evil alien robot goddess who brainwashes Optimus Prime to retrieve her magical items on demand and then Megatron is being hired the U.S. government and a team of special ops are trailing him to get to the staff and… I’m sorry; did your brain start bleeding out your ears? I looked over to my friend Ben Bailey during the screening and saw him slumped over in his chair and thought, for a fraction of a second, that the movie had literally killed him (he had just fallen asleep for the third time). What an ignoble end.
The movie is a nonstop barrage of yelling and movement, an assault on the senses that leaves you dumbfounded and dazed, and without anything to moor onto. Almost every single actor is on screen for one of two purposes: quips or exposition. These are not characters but devices for words that ultimately don’t make sense. Wahlberg has two different female sidekicks. For the first half, he’s got a plucky teen that serves as a surrogate daughter figure. Izabella (Isabella Moner) is a kid with attitude and carefully arranged strands of hair that always fall over her face in every single shot in the entire movie. Izabella’s introduction actually might be the highlight of an otherwise soul-crushing experience. Then Wahlberg leaves for England and he adopts a new sidekick, this time the hot smart woman who changes into a more comfortable outfit but literally keeps her heels. Vivian (Laura Haddock) is pretty much the next in a long line of highly sexualized, tawny female characters under Bay’s alluring gaze (I wrote about the second film: “Women don’t seem to exist in the Michael Bay world, only parts and pieces of women.”). Her mother doesn’t care about the end of the human world, or her daughter’s many academic credentials, and instead pesters her about getting herself a man. This leads to one of the film’s worst comedic moments, as Vivian’s mother and friends giggle and eavesdrop on her and Wahlberg trashing a library as a spontaneous bout of sexy time. Wouldn’t it be weird for anyone’s mother to take pleasure in listening to your escapades and offer a play-by-play?
But the strangest characters are Anthony Hopkins’ Sir Edmund Burton and his 4-foot robot ninja (voiced by Jim Carter). You can clearly tell that Hopkins didn’t care at all what he was saying. He uncorks ungainly monologues with relish and then transitions into strained comedy as a doddering old man. The robot butler begins as a C3PO-esque prim and proper servant with a disarming fighting ability, and it works. However, as the movie progresses, the robot butler gets downright belligerent and seemingly drunk. It’s truly bizarre, as if this robot is acting out to be seen like he’s one of the cool kids, but whom exactly is he trying to impress? At one point, he tells Wahlberg that he is “on my shit list” and torpedoes out of a submarine, brings back fish, prepares a sushi dinner for the humans while supplying ingredients that were totally not found on a WWII-era sub that was parked as a tourist locale up until 20 minutes ago. The character makes no sense and seems to bounce around behavioral extremes. Take this passage late into the film:
Robot Butler: “Of all the earls I’ve served-“
Me: “You were the greatest?”
Robot Butler: “-You were the coolest.”
Another confusing part of the film is the setting of its story. We’re five movies in to an alien civil war taking place on Earth, so you would assume that normal life shouldn’t feel normal after so many catastrophes. Egypt was destroyed in the second film (only Six Wonders of the World left in your punch card, Bay), Chicago was decimated in the third film, and China was blown up in the fourth film. It’s about time that people started paying attention to these things and behaving differently. A new government agency is tasked with hunting down Transformers and there are war zone portions of the world that are quarantined, but that’s about it. I initially thought this fifth movie was going to take place in a somewhat post-apocalyptic Earth where human beings have to struggle to survive. That’s not Transformers 5 at all. It seems all too easy to ignore reality; Wahlberg’s daughter is away at college. After four movies, the world of this franchise needed a jump in its stakes. Bay’s films have always possessed an alarming sense of urgency but it rarely feels earned. Characters yelling, running, and explosions going off like fireworks isn’t the same thing as genuinely developed stakes.
Another confusing aspect of Transformers 5 is Bay’s jumbled aspect ratios (i.e. how wide the frame of the movie is presented). Sizeable portions were shot on IMAX, which has become all the rage for action movie directors since Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was three different aspect ratios that jumped from shot to shot. Two characters will be having a conversation and the aspect ratio will cycle and it rips me out of the movie every time (there are SIX credited editors). The Dark Knight’s IMAX sequences worked because they were sustained sequences. I expect the higher-grade IMAX film stock for the expansive action or picturesque landscapes to take in the natural splendor. What I wasn’t expecting was measly interior conversations to be filmed in IMAX. Did I really need to watch a conversation with Vivian and her mother in IMAX to fully appreciate their bookshelf? Like much else in this perfunctory movie, this game of pin-the-tail-on-the-aspect-ratio makes no sense.
I don’t normally like to quote myself, but reading over my concluding paragraph of 2011’s Dark of the Moon, I was struck by how much of my assessment could equally apply to the fifth film, even down to the exact running-time: “Transformers: Dark of the Moon is likely everything fans would want from a franchise built around the concept of robots that fight. There’s wanton destruction, a plethora of noisy explosions, and plenty of eye candy both in special effects wizardry and pouty, full-lipped women. But at a colossal 150-minute running time, this is a Transformers film that punishes as much as it entertains. There’s really no reason a movie about brawling robots should be this long. There’s no reason it should have to resort to so much dumb comedy. There’s no reason that the women should be fetishized as if they were another sleek line of sexy cars. There’s no reason why something labeled a ‘popcorn movie’ can’t deliver escapist thrills and have a brain too.” Take this assessment and times it by ten for The Last Knight. The incomprehensible plotting, infantile humor, nonchalant misogyny, empty action bombast, and dispiriting nature of the film are enough to suck the life out of you. I was bored tremendously and contemplated walking out on the movie (I stayed for you, dear reader). It feels like the screenplay was put into a blender. Transformers 5 is exhausting and exhaustively mechanical, and if this is the first start in a larger Expanded Transformers Cinematic Universe (ETCU?) then resistance may be futile. Still, it’s worth fighting against brain-dead spectacle that only moves you to the exits.
Nate’s Grade: D
Was Prometheus really as bad a movie as fans made it out to be? While the 2012 Alien prequel could be rather obtuse, and the characters made some of the stupidest decisions as reportedly intelligent scientists, it had an intriguing central mystery, moody sense of atmosphere, great sets, some viciously memorable sequences like Noomi Rapace’s self-directed surgical operation, and a delightfully supercilious Michael Fassbender bot. By the film’s end there were still plenty of outstanding questions unanswered, and so five years later director Ridley Scott has returned with Alien: Covenant to further confound and entertain. The crew of a colony ship takes a detour to land on a habitable world and trace the mysterious transmission belonging to the android David (Fassbender). As expected, all is not what it seems and the crew is almost immediately put into jeopardy. For fans who wanted more answers from Prometheus, there is a surprising amount of carryover to serve as a resolution for the prior film. There are a few big reveals, particularly about the xenomorph evolution, but the overall Alien storyline is moved just mere inches forward, slightly closer to the events of the 1979 original. The biggest problem with Covenant is that it’s too pedestrian for far too often. It sticks pretty close to the formula we’ll all familiar with, so we know it’s only a matter of time before the xenomorphs hit the fan. There is a dearth of memorable scenes here. The characters in Covenant aren’t that much smarter and make their fair share of stupid decisions (hey, let’s ignore the existence of wheat on an alien world or the possibility of killer microbes being in this breathable air). There’s just more of them to be killed off. The movie doesn’t really bother getting to know a far majority of them, consigned to the fact that they’re only here to be later ripped apart and exploded in gore. Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) does a fine job as a Ripley replacement. Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down) has some effective dramatic moments too. But the best reason to watch Covenant, an altogether middling Alien sequel/prequel, is for twice the Fassbender robot action (there’s a Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss, which will likely break Tumblr). Alien: Covenant is a missed opportunity of a movie hampered by a disappointingly predictable script, tedious characters, and a lack of strong set pieces. It’s acceptable entertainment but not much more. The moral: don’t be a dick to robots.
Nate’s Grade: C+
When news broke that Hollywood was going to make a live-action version of the much-beloved 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, fans were understandably nervous and excited. The original movie was a major hit that crossed over into the mainstream much like Akira, another movie Hollywood has long been trying to bring to life (run away, Jordan Peele!). People got extra worried when they heard that Scarlett Johansson was going to play the main character and cries of “whitewashing” were hurled across the chasm of the Interwebs. The “white washing” charge, which in context is possibly misapplied, might have been the smaller worry. The 2017 Ghost in the Shell remake is missing just about everything that made the original a standout. It’s a ghost, if you will, of its former, superior self.
In a cyberpunk future, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is an android fighter working for a special operations group tasked with taking down cyber criminals. The Major was injured in a terrorist attack and her brain was placed in a robotic shell (looking like ScarJo is one of the upgrade features). Every so often she gets hallucinations of events she cannot recall. After an encounter with the hacker criminal Kuze (Michael Pitt), a fellow android, she begins to doubt the true intentions of her superiors and what they have told her.
If you’re a fan of the original Ghost in the Shell, you might be depressed from what the live-action Hollywood adaptation does to its noteworthy source material. If you’ve never seen the anime, then you might find some scraps of entertainment to be had in what is essentially a drizzly cyberpunk product dumbed down for the largest mass audience that would be adrift with any minor hint of ambiguity. The 2017 Ghost in the Shell is not a good movie and it’s an even worse Ghost in the Shell movie. First off, we don’t need live-action versions of superior animated films just to have them, and this same statement goes for the equally underwhelming Beauty and the Beast remake. Just because a film lacks “real people” does not mean it is missing some crucial element, and I bristle at the notion that animated films are somehow inherently inferior or not “real movies.” With that being said, Ghost in the Shell will invariably disappoint fans of the original anime. There are visual signifiers and shots that it mimics with fealty; it’s just the overall story, characters, narrative complexity and mystery, and everything else that lacks that same level of fealty. Who cares if the main character is a shell of herself because, hey, they recreated this one shot fairly accurately, and that’s why we go to the movies, right?
Whereas the original was thoughtful and trusted the intelligence of an audience, the 2017 Ghost in the Shell resorts to explaining everything all the time, and even that it does badly. This is a muddled and frequently incoherent plotline, and the magnitude of its ineptitude is even higher considering how stupidly obvious the screenwriters make every twist and turn. This is the most obvious, simplistic conspiracy you could possible write. When Major wakes up in the opening scene and is being told what happened, the audience should already be alert with suspicion. This secret conspiracy goes in the most obvious direction (the good guys might not be the good guys after all) in a manner that should be transparently obvious to anyone except those unfortunate souls who have never seen another movie before in their lifetimes. So much of the plot is the untangling of this mystery, the Major’s real back-story, who the true villains are. To make it as obvious as possible and still devote so much time is not a good decision. The movie is constantly tagging characters to explain all exposition, leaving no subtleties to chance. The sadder part is that the plot is still muddled for long stretches even with all this handholding to straighten things out for the neediest.
The world building and themes are kept at a distance, further denying the movie depth and substance. With any science fiction world, let alone one borrowed from other famous cinematic influences, it’s important for the viewer to get a sense of how the world operates. This can be done with small moments and larger moments, enough to properly contextualize this brave new world. With Ghost in the Shell, we’re told that mankind has become increasingly intertwined with machines and that cybernetic enhancements are en vogue. Except we never see this in the outside. We see loads of floating hologram advertisements, an overblown visual motif, but outside of our three main characters, this aspect that they felt merited inclusion in text before the movie gets underway is weirdly absent. It makes the characters feel less like they belong in an environment that makes sense. The larger themes of self-identity, the nature of humanity, and the questions over body autonomy are glossed over with the faintest of observations. Major is discovering her identity, but it leads her to what may be the most tired of conclusions. You would think having a robotic body would create some sort of existential reflection. You would be mistaken. Sure, Major feels unsure of herself and out of place, though why should she since we’re told man-robot hybrids are all the rage in this vague future landscape. I’m surprised someone didn’t just start explaining what the title meant at any given point.
The movie feels entirely surface-level and that’s where it has one redeeming value — its visual presentation. Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) is an above average visual stylist who benefits from strong production design and cinematography. At least the visual aesthetics could keep my attention, even if part of that attention was occupied in playing a compare-and-contrast game with certain scenes. The special effects are suitable and stylish enough, borrowing more than a few elements from the original. The action sequences are relatively muted, occurring in bursts but never really developing further. There’s an initial attack, then a response, and sometimes a chase, but that’s about it. The tech also doesn’t seem to factor in the combat. The strike team has the ability to communicate telepathically, but if they can do this why would they ever turn off this secret channel? It’s also lazy as it means we can just focus on filming scenes and record whatever dialogue we need later, as if the screenplay was incomplete.
The 2017 Ghost in the Shell live-action version is a disappointing cyberpunk thriller that pays lip service to its source material, copying the movements but losing sense of the substance and soul. I’d advise people to merely watch the 1995 anime instead or the TV series that followed. It all feels like an expensive, slick, yet peculiarly ramshackle production that loses sight of the bigger picture by worrying at every turn whether a mainstream audience is going to need help understanding the most obvious. Johansson can be a great actress, which is important to remind yourself because she goes on kickass heroine autopilot with this movie. The action is short and inadequate, the visuals are impressive albeit derivative to the source material and its myriad influences, and the story has nuance, ambiguity, philosophy, reflection, and general substance replaced with a generic conspiracy structure that renders much uninteresting. The 2017 Ghost in the Shell doesn’t quite go to the insulting derisive lows of the Dragonball Z live-action remake, but it’s certainly not a good use of anyone’s time, and that includes you, the audience.
Nate’s Grade: C
What seemed like a mere rip-off of Weird Science instead became one of the most uncomfortable, unfunny, and downright soul-destroying 86 minutes of the year. Two nerds, clearly patterned off the archetypes from Superbad, stumble upon a sex robot escaping the dirty-minded clutches of a senator (Larry Miller, why?). At first the boys think they’ve run over and killed a sexy lingerie-clad living Barbie, so they elect to take her back home to dispose of the corpse. This is also the part where the “Jonah Hill”-esque guy debates defiling her dead body… and this is before they know she’s a robot. The characters are powerfully unlikable but even worse are exasperatingly unfunny. The comedy is too often obvious and toothless, luxuriating in bad improv from actors given not enough of a script and far too much leeway. The vulgarity is lame and for a raunchy sex comedy the material is weirdly chaste, trying to insert a dissonant romance for our Hot Bot and nerd. The premise is so ripe for comedic potential that it’s almost baffling how much they blunder. It’s about as baffling as comprehending that this cheap-looking, sloppily executed dreck is made by the Polish brothers, a pair of indie auteurs responsible for much more thoughtful and adventurous cinema like Twin Falls Idaho and Northfolk. I didn’t know these guys were even capable of making something this bad and this pathetic. Watching this movie saps the life out of you as only a bad comedy can. It’s disheartening to watch ordinarily funny people strut and fret with weak material, and Hot Bot is the weakest of material. The movie can barely put together enough material for a feature-length narrative, and even that is inflated by the end credits outtakes that prove making the movie wasn’t any funnier than watching this unfortunate and miscalculated mess. This movie will serve as a dark reminder for everyone who worked on it as they try and pay penance for the rest of their lives to eliminate the awfulness that they helped bring into this world.
Nate’s Grade: D-
Reading the raft of reviews for director Morten Tyldum ‘s (The Imitation Game) new sci-fi movie Passengers, you would think the movie must have killed somebody’s mother. The resoundingly negative press stems from a an early plot development that critics have decried as offensive, disgusting, misguided, misogynist, and even “Titanic in space.” After having seen this controversial film, I feel like some of the moral outrage is overblown, or at least purposely ignoring complexities and context. Passengers is a movie that makes you think and feel and my feelings were more than billious invective.
Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is a passenger onboard the Avalon spaceship as it hurtles across the galaxy toward the colony of Homestead II. It’s a gigantic, sleek, and powerful vessel and the trip is expected to last 120 years. Except Jim was awakened early. 90 years too early. His hibernation pod short-circuited and he’s unable to go back to sleep. He’s destined to live out his life and die alone before any of the approximately 5,000 other passengers awakens. The Avalon is large and lonely, save for a handful of robotic and holographic guides, notably an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) who advises Jim to accept his circumstances and find enjoyment. One year later, binging on exotic food, playing video games for hours, and living without rules has lost its appeal enough that Jim is considering suicide. Then he sees the sleeping face of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and is awestruck. She’s beautiful but she symbolizes more. She’s a journalist and he reads all of her works, admiring her courage, sense of humor, ambitions, and determination. He feels like he’s falling for her and wishes she were awake. Jim asks Arthur, “What if you were stranded on a desert island and had the power to wish somebody else there? You wouldn’t be alone anymore but you’d be stranding them.” Arthur’s response: “Jim, these are not robot questions.” Jim decides to purposely wake Aurora, because if he didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a movie left. He hides his culpability and welcomes her to this new grim reality and they find solace with one another. The truth hovers over their heads but it’s not the only danger for Jim. The Avalon is experiencing a wealth of small technical glitches that cascade into bigger problems. If Jim and Aurora don’t stumble upon an answer, all 5,000 people onboard could perish far from home.
While far from flawless, Passengers has plenty at play to engage an audience on different levels, be they intellectual, ethical, or science fiction thrills. The premise is strong from the first minute onward and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) has an astonishingly imagintive command of world building. The first act is one of discovery for Jim and the audience, and Spaihts provides plenty to discover that fits within the logical future. Jim sends out a video recording asking for help and then learns it will take 18 years to be sent to Earth and another 30 years to get the answer. It’s a nice moment that brings some science smarts to the proceedings. Colony planets are the next big corporate venture, and I appreciated the little touches that made this future world feel all the more plausible and authentic. Jim is a lower-class skilled laborer and will owe a percentage of his life’s earnings to pay for the voyage (sound familiar?). There’s also a class system alive and well, as Jim is denied the more delicious food and beverage breakfast items because he is not a Gold Star passenger. Beyond these little touches, Spaihts delivers a remarkably efficient story structure. The emphasis shifts in half-hour segments just long enough to fulfill a plot purpose before moving on to a natural transition. The rich contours of the Avalon are explored with plenty of built-in mysteries like what’s on the other side of the crew door. It’s a story implanted with strong mystery elements to smoothly guide the intrigue of an audience. The small scenes open up to wider scenes, and every set on the Avalon fulfills a purpose either emotionally or with suspense. I was definitely hooked and wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of this brave new world. Tyldum impresses with how easily he translates his visual prowess into the realm of large-scale science fiction. The set design by Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception) is immaculate and had me begging to visit as many locations as possible aboard the Avalon. The many designs are more than just clean, sterile surfaces; there’s craftsmanship and personality in the rococo symmetry. I also greatly enjoyed the very intentional Shining visual motif of Arthur’s red velvet bar.
The film’s selling point is the relationship between its mega-watt stars, and Pratt (The Magnificent Seven) and Lawrence (Joy) deliver on their end. You could do far worse than spend 90 years with some of Hollywood’s most effortlessly charming, gorgeous, and self-effacing actors. Pratt and Lawrence seem to exist on a similar goofy yet spirited plane, and it works toward their eventual courtship. There’s a cute scene where Jim quizzes Aurora on her observational reasoning, guessing real aspects about several sleeping passengers. Jim is a man who feels out of place on Earth, looking to build anew, and Aurora is looking for an adventure worthy of a great story to equal her famous father’s literary works. It’s a fascinating question of whether a person would willingly jump forward in time 250 years, as Aurora plans to when she returns to Earth (if there still is an Earth). You’d be severing all tethers to human relationships from your past and also the world as you conceived. The characters aren’t the most in depth, and “Aurora Lane” is definitely a name that’s one step removed from being downright Jetsonian, but it’s the exceptional situation that makes them compelling to watch. How does one court the only other waking human being on a ship of thousands? What if Aurora happened to be gay? It’s a Last Man on Earth scenario that has been explored many times on TV and the big screen but there’s still something inherently interesting about the premise. I also enjoyed the care they build for their only other companion, Arthur the loyal bartender and confidant.
Whether you see the movie as a parable about the horrible things people do when confronted with despair or as a fantasy for unchecked misogyny will depend upon if you view the problematic relationship as morally wrong but potentially empathetic or only irredeemably creepy. “You murderer!” Aurora accuses Jim when she discovers the awful truth, and she’s right. Jim has robbed her of a future and taken away her choice. I like to consider myself a relatively enlightened and progressive chap but I’ll admit I that I can only see things through my own white heterosexual male lens, so your mileage may vary. When Jim falls in love with Aurora from researching her background and pouring over every word she’s written in print, this may be the telltale sign for an audience. If you view it as a more heightened equivalent to falling in love through correspondence, an unrequited love fueled by missed chances, then perhaps you’ll still be onboard. However, if you view Jim’s love as the equivalent of falling in love with a coma patient (Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her?) and projecting feelings onto an unresponsive woman without agency, then this is a romantic paean that you’ll associate more with a horror movie.
There are several great and touching one-sided romances in the annuls of film, and I viewed Passengers as a higher concept rom-com where the misguided man (it’s usually the man) is hiding a secret about the murky circumstances surrounding the start of their relationship (like a She’s All That in space). That’s a fairly cheeky assessment of what could also effectively be dubbed a Stockholm syndrome romance, as Jim is the one responsible for kidnapping her from her planned future. I’ve read lots of ink from critics decrying this movie as an offensive, deeply flawed film. I think Passengers effectively communicates the full implications of Jim’s choice. It wants us to wade into that ethically troublesome pool with Jim. It doesn’t pretend he’s the good guy, though that judgment can be read too easily. It says Jim is a human being in a unique setting and that he made a selfish choice. There’s a complexity there I think is going ignored in a rush to moral indignation. I honestly think most people if given similar circumstances would make the same selfish decision. That’s not a lazy excuse but it is empathy, and empathy does not require comprehensive endorsement to still exist in some form or other.
With that being said, the movie certainly stacks the deck in Jim’s favor for some sort of redemption and/or forgiveness. The very fact that we have an actor as handsome and charismatic as Pratt shows the movie’s intentions. It’s not like Steve Buscemi was the one who woke up Jennifer Lawrence, and now that I’ve just written that sentence I’d be seriously interested to see that version of this story. I think that audience sympathies might be different for a more ordinary, homely man awakening a woman who, by conventional dating standards, would be out of his league on any planet. I think an audience might be more apt to interpret a lecherous angle to Jim’s actions if the part wasn’t so young and generally appealing. The opening act is the Cast Away section of the story that follows Jim’s discovery and isolation for a solid year, and it does much to engender good will for an audience, enough that his actions waking up Aurora force us as well into the uncomfortable ethical muck. “He was a drowning man, and he’ll grab onto anyone to save himself if he could,” is the only real overt effort at approaching apology.
This premise is strong enough that different angles could have been explored. What if we only spent the opening ten minutes establishing Jim and his life on the Avalon? The awakening of a second passenger would serve as the inciting incident but the movie would purposely hide behind the plausible theory that she woke up by accident, by the same mysterious malfunction that Jim will relate. It would also provide a longer period of time for Jim and Aurora to develop together. Then the Act Two midpoint would be the reveal of Jim’s involvement and the fact that he had been awake far longer than he initially told her, perhaps with the original opening half-hour cut down to a few impressionistic flashback bits to communicate the stark loneliness and desperation. We would be just as shocked as Aurora. It’s here that the movie could completely become a horror movie, with Jim chasing her down through the empty space station. Maybe she even finds a locker with other women he woke up that were then murdered because they too found out too much. Then she has to take him down or else he will keep repeating this murderous behavior until he gets his perfectly submissive Eve. Admittedly, that takes the movie in an entirely different, albeit still interesting, tonal direction.
Passengers seems to bounce back and forth between existential horror movie and broadly romantic soap opera. It doesn’t always mix but I enjoyed the collision of ideas, tones, ethics, and discomfort, at least before it rumbles into a third act that becomes a series of life-and-death action set pieces. It’s not that Passengers goes slack in its final act; the visuals are consistently engaging as the spaceship shuts down piece by piece. When the gravity goes, Aurora’s swimming pool water becomes a floating prison, endangering her life. It’s a terrific moment even if it only serves as momentary suspense. There was always something to keep my interest with Passengers, from the world itself to the mysteries to the ever-changing script to waiting for the awful truth to finally hit about Jim’s misdeeds. Ultimately your opinion of this movie will be entirely based upon your view of how the movie handles Jim’s decision and its aftermath. You may view the movie as a fiendish masculine fantasy that strips away a woman’s right to consent or as an empathetically challenging, morally dubious drama with a relatably selfish choice that requires real consequences and introspection. Pratt and Lawrence are winning actors even if they might not make the most winning couple. Passengers is engaging science fiction made with pristine technical care and a smart screenplay that layers mysteries worth unwrapping. I hope more audience members decide for themselves rather than turning up their noses thanks to the staunchly negative critical reviews reeling with offense. There’s more here than given credit and I feel Passengers is a journey worth taking for fans of large canvas science fiction that still demand a personable entry point.
Nate’s Grade: B
If you’re a fan of James Cameron’s iconic Terminator franchise, you’ll probably want to hold onto something as you watch Terminator: Genisys, which hits “delete” on the franchise and starts from scratch with, we’ll call them, “mixed results.”
In the future, man and machine are at war with one another. Skynet went sentient and launched an arsenal of nuclear weapons to obliterate mankind. The human resistance is lead by John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his lieutenant Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney). The machines send back a T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and wipe out the human resistance. This part you know. Reese is sent back in time but during the process, John is attacked by a new Terminator and the world as we know it, past, present, and future is altered. When Reese arrives in 1984 L.A., he’s being chased by a T-1000 and Sarah is the one saving him. She’s been preparing for his arrival and training with her own aging T-800 model who saved her from a childhood attack (she calls him “Pops”). With new memories, Reese is determined that Skynet is now Genisys and Judgment Day is now in 2017. He and Sarah travel to 2017, meet back up with “Pops,” and are surprised to find a familiar face waiting for them with sinister intentions.
For a while there it seems like Genisys is going to become the Back to the Future II of the Terminator franchise, which could have been fun watching a different team of actors hiding on the peripheral while 80s Linda Hamilton was going about her day as a café waitress. In many ways, Genisys is akin to Jurassic World in the sense that it holds such nostalgic reverence for the source films. It repurposes the familiar catch phrases and even visually recreates several scenes that fans should recognize. However, that reverence has a limit because it isn’t too long before Genisys just chucks out the entire franchise canon and starts anew. Remember Judgment Day with Skynet? Now it’s… Judgment Day with Genisys. Okay, some things aren’t all that different. Discarding the established timeline of four movies, Genisys takes a path similar to the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films where it creates an alternate timeline that is not beholden to canon. One way of looking at this approach is that it frees you creatively. Another way of looking at it is that is abandons the stories that the fans enjoyed for decades. Neither approach is wrong; it just depends upon your personal perspective. The larger plot points of the Terminator franchise never captivated me; it’s all about preventing one very bad day that just keeps getting delayed. We’ve never had a story that takes place after Reese is set back in time. Genisys certainly has more surprises because of the new timeline; however, many of those surprises were spoiled by a cowardly marketing campaign that must have feared fan uproar. It’s not a bad idea if it didn’t casually destroy all the logic of the franchise.
Let’s just dive face-forward into the convoluted and troubling nature of the Genisys script. Needless to say, numerous spoilers of both the large and small variety follow.
There are certain storylines that are just never cleared up, the first amongst them is who is sending all these other Terminators back in time? We watch the T-800 model go to 1984, along with Reese, but Sarah informs us later that when she was a child a different T-1000 model attacked her family. Apparently Plan Kill John’s Mom was replaced with Kill John’s Grandmother and will likely soon be replaced with the even more surefire Kill John’s Great Grandmother. If we’re already sending Terminators even further back then why stop? Also, why can’t Skynet send more than one Terminator to the same time? Upon the point that Reese travels back in time, John is attacked by a Terminator Matt Smith (Doctor Who) and transformed into the human-machine villainous hybrid. We’re told this is a nexus point of time that is such a turning point that it’s altered the timeline. But why? It happens AFTER Reese is sent back in time, so why does it affect anything in the preceding past? How does this even, which happens again after Reese is propelled back in time, eliminate the entire established Terminator canon? Likewise, this Reese has a separate timeline so why would he have new memories? He never existed in this new timeline so the fact that he remembers new things doesn’t make sense.
This brings us to the centerpiece of logical fallacy, which is killer robot John Connor. I was never really that invested in his character to care that much that he was turned into the film’s bad guy. What I do care about is that Genisys just completely gives up in this moment. If he was just trying to stop Sarah and Reese from stopping Skynet/Genisys, that would be one thing, but John 2.0 is actively trying to kill his parents … before he is conceived. When it comes to time travel, we can accept some degree of suspension of disbelief with plot holes (more of those to come in just a bit), but John wiping out the reason for his existence is just too much. He half-heartedly explains his theory that they’re holdovers from another timeline, so they can just do as they like with no greater repercussions to their own pasts. Maybe, but there’s not two Sarah Connors in this timeline, so killing your mom is still going to negate all your evil robot business, son. With that the very drive of the main antagonist is compromised. With every new attempt to kill mommy and daddy, the film reminds you how this cannot work.
There are other less egregious plot holes but they still can be irksome. How about the fact that Sarah and Reese jump forward to 2017 to thwart Genisys, failing to give birth to John in 1984? He won’t be born yet to lead the human resistance against the machines, which kind of means just by jumping forward in time and delaying Johns birth, the machines have sort of won. When Sarah and Reese travel to 2017 in order to stop the launch of Genisys, why do they travel to within 24 hours of its launch? That’s pretty poor time management. And why hasn’t “Pops” been doing more to prepare for Sarah’s return. He spends thirty years working construction and building the offices of Cyberdine, but couldn’t he also have been sabotaging the company or at least the building? And if John Connor knew his parents were coming to 2017, why didn’t he do more to set up Genisys to withstand their counter attacks? Couldn’t he have had Genisys go online like the day before they arrived in 2017? If you know when they’re going to show up then you have no excuse to fall victim to people you otherwise could be trapping. Also, Skynet realizes that their real problem for never besting the humans is a branding issue? Did changing the name to Genisys really need to be part of the masterstroke? Why is everyone so excited for what is a glorified app that connects people’s electronic devices?
Much can be forgiven in action and comedy movies if they just go about doing their job and entertaining you, but Genisys can only do so much in that department. The action sequences are fairly mundane with the occasional impressive stunt. The problem is we’ve seen these sequences too many times and in other movies and Genisys brings precious little of its own action invention to the big screen. Until the third act, the movie is a series of chases and escapes. The best sequence is likely the hospital brawl between the T-800 and Robo-John as they wantonly destroy every wall within prime smashing distance. I know many in the fan community do not look favorably upon Terminator 3, and it admittedly has the lamest villain of the entire franchise, but the action sequences were memorable and developed organically and were nicely conceived. With Genisys, the action is too rote and familiar. It is competent but for me I found the action sequences to be too underwhelming in design and execution to forgive the film’s other sins.
I also can’t help but think that all three of the main actors were miscast for their parts. Emilia Clarke can do great things and showcases her range as a strong authority figure on HBO’s Game of Thrones. With the role of Sarah Connor, Clarke does a lot of running and barking but she can’t shake our memories of Hamilton. The part doesn’t play to Emilia’s strengths as an actress. Courtney can be a good actor (as seen in the first season of Starz’s Spartacus) but rarely does he prove this to be the case in films. I enjoyed his cavalier bully in Divergent, but he’s mostly a vacant presence in Genisys, gaping at all the changes. Then there’s the other Clarke who too has proven himself a capable and intimidating actor in films like Zero Dark Thirty. When he’s menacing he comes across as, dare I say it, too sincere, and when he’s meant to be inspiring he comes across as too phony. Are the performances the fault of the actors, the director (Alan Taylor), or the screenwriters (Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier) who gave them such little to do?
The film’s MVP is Schwarzenegger. I wasn’t expecting the 68-year-old former Governor of California to contribute this much to the film. I figured Arnie would be a small player and played for comic relief. He keeps asking if Sarah and Reese have “mated” since it’s their destiny. He is certainly played for welcomed comic relief but he’s also the fourth most important character in this reboot. He has a father/daughter bond with Sarah and it produces the closest thing to an emotion in the movie. There’s an ongoing joke that he’s “old but not obsolete” and it could be the tagline for the next Expendables film. With all the time travel tomfoolery, it was easier for me to believe the reason they throw out to explain why the Terminator is aging: it’s living tissue so it ages. Done. I’m fine with that. The older Arnold vs. younger Arnold fight is the major highlight of Genisys and a testament to how much better the de-aging CGI has gotten since the waxy young Professor X and Magneto in 2006’s The Last Stand.
Much like its ongoing star, the Terminator franchise is old but not obsolete, and even a disappointing movie reminds us just how much life can come from this series. It’s got a sense of fun that entertained me enough for one viewing. The characters and action sequences and iconic in our pop-culture, which makes erasing them from a new movie plot problematic. If you strip everyone’s fond memories of the first two Terminators and start over, what’s left? You can repeat some of the more memorable scenes (the Hollywood adage of “same but different”) but this does little other than make you remember how much you preferred it the first time (see: Star Trek Into Darkness). I wish Genisys had been more risky because so much of it feels far too safe, from the average action sequences, to the boring characters, to the ho-hum conclusion meant to set up a new trilogy of movies in this brave new non-Skynet world. I haven’t watched Terminator: Salvation in many years but I’m curious to see it again if for no other purpose than to determine which is the least of the Terminator films.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Crafting movies around theme park rides is a rather risky creative proposition. For every Pirates of the Caribbean mega-franchise, there’s a Haunted Mansion. Theme park rides are more locations then they are stories, so it’s an adaptation where there’s nothing really to adapt except for a setting starting point. Tomorrowland has a few nods to its spiritual source material, but it’s an original science fiction film with much on its mind beyond entertainment. With Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, The Iron Giant) turning down the new Star Wars to make Tomorrowland, I had definite expectations. Bird hasn’t made a bad movie yet. He still hasn’t but Tomorrowland is definitely the worst film in Brad Bird’s heretofore-unshakable pedigree.
Casey (Britt Robertson) is a dreamer with a capital D. While her teachers bemoan the cataclysmic shape of world events and instability, she doggedly raises her hand to ask, “Yeah, but what can we do to fix it?” Her father works for NASA but the nation has lost interest in space and has stopped looking at the stars. Casey sneaks out every week to thwart the demolition of a NASA launch platform. She can’t let it go. She comes across a mysterious pin that, when touched, transports her to a hidden world, a future city called Tomorrowland. But there are others that are looking for this city too. A slew of androids chases after her to retrieve the pin. Robot child Athena (Raffey Cassidy) becomes a protector for Casey and the two set off to find Frank (George Clooney), a hermit and mechanical mastermind who once lived at Tomorrowland before becoming disillusioned.
This is one of the few movies where the more characters explained the plot the more confused I ultimately became. The story by Bird, Damon Lindeloff (Prometheus, HBO’s The Leftovers) and Jeff Jensen doesn’t exactly a clear narrative, and that begins with the structure, inserting two framing devices that are too cute for the movie. The first 15 minutes is Frank’s childhood experience discovering Tomorrowland, and this is probably because we won’t see Clooney’s grown-up Frank until an hour into the movie. It takes far too long to get going, instead becoming a series of unnecessary plot detours, like a trip to a collectibles store in Austin or a trip to the Eiffel Tower. Is there a reason that a return to Tomorrowland is saved for the very end of its final act? Probably because utopias are boring, which the movie itself admits and admonishes us for accepting. You see, dear reader, it’s all of us and our collective negativity poisoning the planet. Our use of cynicism and our love of dystopias in movies and literature are to blame. In this proclamation, a movie as madly genius as Mad Max: Fury Road is leading to the downward spiral of humanity, and nobody who sees that brilliant film could accept that. Tomorrowland has some legitimate points, precisely aimed at the inconvenience of action over the convenience of stasis. In one of the better articulations of its shiny happy message, a character says that people accept the worst because “they don’t have to do anything today.” It’s the global equivalent of, “I’ll start my homework tomorrow,” knowing we’ll probably never get around to it, to our own detriment.
Tomorrowland’s idealism would be easier to swallow if it wasn’t so oppressively scolding. First, allow me to reject its notion that popular culture wallows in darkness and there is no inherent value with this predisposition. If this was true then no one would read the wealth of Russian literature, which is reams and reams of pages of suffering, unrequited longing, confusion, anxiety, pressure, and finding what grace one can. One of Casey’s teachers upholds George Orwell’s 1984 as a living testament to what we’re going through today, but Orwell’s novel isn’t popular or well revered just because it’s desolate. Would millions of readers be foolish for finding something powerful and poignant in Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning dystopian cannibal road trip, The Road? Just because one is optimistic doesn’t mean you’re in the right, and just because one is pessimistic it doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong. Perhaps the culture is too hesitant to take necessary action because it’s easier to buy into the argument that our actions are meaningless; hence why the newest argument against environmental reforms to curb the effects of climate change amount to, “Yeah, but what difference will it make now?” If Tomorrowland was trying to rouse its audience into action, it went about it the wrong way. The movie’s tone is far too scolding and stuck on can-do platitudes to be anything beyond an earnest motivational poster that will ultimately be ignored.
Then there’s the film’s restricted view on what constitutes the Right Dreams. Casey refuses to allow the NASA launch station to be demolished because it supplies her dad with a job, but really it comes down to her idealism of man’s capacity to achieve. And yet, her chosen way of expressing this, besides general perkiness, is to cling to an older definition of what constitutes achievement. The space shuttles were grand but we’ve outgrown them and space travel itself has migrated into the private sector. Just because U.S. astronauts aren’t being launched into space with the frequency they once were, does that means the country has somehow lost its ideals? Or are we allowed to adapt to the demands of the times? Strangely, Tomorrowland holds onto a retro definition of what constitutes achievement, something also touched upon in Interstellar, where Matthew McConaughey shook his McConaugh-fist at all these young kids for not having the same level of interest in the old technologies and pursuits. Tomorrowland fixates on the scientific dreams of the 1960s, but that’s no longer a representation of our world. What it ends up pining for is a throwback to Disney’s own era of gee-whiz futurism, a world where flying cars are valued above, say, the Internet.
If you think about it, Tomorrowland’s utopia is pretty much a progressive version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In Rand’s famous ideological tome, the “best and brightest” (a.k.a. rich industrialists) decide they’ve had enough with the common man getting in their way, and so they up and leave and start their own secret paradise where they won’t be disturbed by the likes of us “normies.” With Tomorrowland, it’s not the business types who take their ball and go home but the inventors, scientists, and artists, the creative class, who are given magic passage to a hidden world where their work will be undisturbed by those deemed less creative and/or essential. It’s intended to be inspirational but it awkwardly falls into a murky class-consciousness it can’t escape. Who defines the value of creativity exactly? Is there a Tomorrowland board of directors that says, “You know what, we definitely need that guitar player. Forget having plumbers.” Are the day-to-day laborers and paper-pushers, the ordinary people that keep the infrastructure of the world running, are they just deemed less significant? Tomorrowland apparently only has the best and brightest when it comes to all things, including the people that take out your garbage and unclog your sinks. Are the gravediggers the finest from around the world? Is the world’s greatest and most creative gravedigger still a few notches below a rather lackluster environmental scientist? As you can see, it invites all sorts of questions that will go unanswered because, again, the film’s message is everything, and the particulars of its invite-only exclusive society are off limits.
The action sequences are also strangely dull for a filmmaker such as Bird. Each sequence has its moments of inventive orchestration, especially a brawl in the sci-fi collectible shop that squeezes in lots of homage. Too often the action is missing the creative spark Bird has showed in so many of his past films, particularly 2004’s The Incredibles. The mayhem is also a little too intense for younger children, especially with real people being so callously zapped into dust out in the open (not exactly keeping a low profile, robot henchmen). There’s also a child robot who factors into a lot of the peril, and then very uncomfortably into a late scene where she expresses her love for the grown-up Frank. I understand they had a connection when they were kids but the movie still ends with Clooney cradling a child in his arms and talking what could have been their tale of romantic love. It’s just a little creepier than affecting. Speaking of which, are children going to be entertained by something this message-laden and obtuse in plot? Are adults going to be entertained with this movie? Who is this movie actually for?
The saving grace of Tomorrowland is the performance of its plucky heroine played by Robertson (The Longest Ride, TV’s Under the Dome). She’s got great presence on screen and a naturally charm that is far less oppressive than the material she’s delivering. Clooney (The Monuments Men) is his standard appealing, handsome, wounded leading man, and it’s a mistake to hold his character out of the action for so long. When George Clooney is on the poster for your big-budget sci-fi movie about the power of dreamers, you shouldn’t wait a whole hour to get around to his character. Magnifying this problem is the fact that the narrative has so few characters who actually matter, mainly four, and one of them isn’t significant until an hour in and another isn’t until the very final act.
Tomorrowland is a sincere, hopeful, and idealistic film that shoves its message in your face and doesn’t offer much in the way of an alternative besides, “Do better.” The problem is that this message of hope and agency is lost amidst a plot that is swallowed whole by near-constant exposition, a clunky framing device, and a world-destroying scheme that seems horribly convoluted in a manner unfitting for the supposed smarty-pants antagonists. It’s simply not a very good story, not told in a very good way, and a message that needs to go beyond a simplistic slogan to be more inspirational. It’s a pretty film with some fun moments, but Tomorrowland is a reminder that not all nostalgia is credible, not all dreams are equal, and messages are digested better when the audience cares about what is happening and (key point here) understands it. Me? I’ll prefer going to see Mad Max: Fury Road again, but that’s just me dooming humanity. Worth it.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Avengers wasn’t just a blockbuster it was a mega-blockbuster and rewrote the Hollywood playbook in the summer of 2012. It wasn’t just about powerful franchises anymore. Now it was about franchises that would link into a super franchise. Sony got anxious to expand their Spider-Man universe in a similar fashion as Marvel had done in buildup to The Avengers. After one poor movie, that plan was scuttled and now Spider-Man is being rebooted for the second time in five years, this time with active help from Marvel itself (look for Spidey to appear in Captain America 3). Writer/director Joss Whedon (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was the mastermind behind the jaunty smash-em-up fun of The Avengers and was quickly signed on for a sequel after the billion-dollar mark was crossed. With great success comes great risk of upsetting that continued success. It feels like Whedon’s hands were tied to the greater forces at work. As a result, I shouldn’t be surprised but I’m still disappointed with how muddled and overstuffed as Age of Ultron comes across.
The Avengers are cleaning up the last remnants of HYDRA, taking them to a castle in a fictional Eastern European country. The HYDRA doctor has been genetically experimenting on volunteers, birthing Wanda “Scarlet Witch” (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She can tap into people’s minds and he can run super fast. They’ve got a grudge against the Avengers, particularly industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark takes a piece of alien technology and plugs it into his home system to build a super fleet of automated robots to patrol the world. In no time, the A.I. has taken form in the shape of an insane robot named Ultron (James Spader) whose mission is to save the planet by eliminating mankind. He builds an army of robotic soldiers with the assistance of the Maximoff twins. Tony, along with Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), must stop Ultron while not destroying much of the world themselves with their collateral damage.
Eleven movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a movie of the size of an Avengers sequel cannot simply be a movie. It’s too important to the overall vision of the MCU, and so it has to set up and establish other characters, franchises, and the many monetary tributaries that keep the world of superheroes going. It’s already got a slew of superheroes and it adds even more new faces into the mix (I guess we needed an Avengers B-Team). The development of Ultron is also far too rushed; it’s literally minutes from being plugged in that he’s already settled into kill-all-Avengers mode. The movie barely has any time to even contemplate the perils of artificial intelligence before Ultron is already proving their fears correct. While Ultron is a fun villain (more on that later) his plan feels quite haphazard. His biggest strategic advantage is his duplication, the fact that he can exist without a physical body and can inhabit many bodies at once. Except for a hasty escape via the Internet and a climax stuffed with CGI robot mayhem, this advantage isn’t really explored. Why does a self-replicating creature beyond the bounds of physicality need or even desire a physical body? If you’re made from a nigh indestructible metal and can control numerous beings at once with a hive-mind intelligence link, why would you want to be turned into flesh thanks to what amounts to a 3D printer? The introduction of The Vision (Paul Bettany, this time in the flesh) is quite muddled and confusing. The incorporation of the Maximoff twins is awkward and they feel more like accessories than needed additions. This Quicksilver doesn’t come anywhere close to the memorable prankish Quicksilver from Days of Future Past. The pacing of the film is so ramped that it feels like the movie is falling over itself to get to the next large-scale action set piece. At 140 minutes, they could have removed one or two action pieces and devoted more time to streamlining and cleaning up the narrative.
And the action sequences start off with a bang but they invariably fizzle out. The opening sequence begins with a Birdman-styled tracking shot to connect all our fighters, and it’s a fun way to kick things off while visually tying together the team. The Hulk vs. Iron Man brawl is fun for a while, partly because it harkens back to the pleasures of the first film, namely watching our heroes battle each other as much as the villains. After a while, the CGI onslaught becomes overwhelming and just dulls the senses. You’re watching CGI smash into other CGI and then keep smashing, with little variation. The disappointment with the action is that it too often feels weightless and hollow. It has glimmers of fun but it can’t hold onto these glimmers because the action doesn’t change. It gets bigger and more chaotic, yes, but it doesn’t develop with organic complications and real attention to setting. These big battles could happen anywhere because they almost all descend into simply fighting amidst rubble. Even Iron Man 3 found ways to spice up its action set pieces through complications, limitations, and clear differentiation. Perhaps this is a larger outcry of fatigue with the overall state of CGI overkill in effects-driven films. The concluding fight versus Ultron and his many copies just feels like the same scene on repeat but in slightly different locations. Whedon has shown an affinity to coordinate exciting and satisfying action sequences, but you just feel like the pressure and demands get the better of him.
However, every moment with Ultron onscreen is a highpoint because of the malicious cattiness of Spader (TV’s The Blacklist). He’s a perfect fit for a character who is at turns childish and petty, bonkers, and condescending. In some ways he’s like a giant robotic teenager who thinks he’s just above the rest of these so-called adults. It’s such an enjoyable villain, an area of real need in most MCU films (Loki can’t be everywhere for every movie), that I wanted more and more of him. My friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey describes Ultron as the villainous alternative Tony Stark, and Whedon does a fine job of laying out the parallels, especially with regards to ego. It’s a weird reunion for the stars of 1987’s Less Than Zero.
The most boring characters, i.e. the humans, are the ones that get the biggest expansion for character development, with mixed results. Let’s face it, Hawkeye is never going to be anyone’s favorite Avenger. I think even he acknowledges this in a moment that almost breaks down the fourth wall (“None of this makes sense. I’m fighting with a bow and arrow.”). Hawkeye’s personal life is given a spotlight and it sets up an obvious worry that he’s going to bite it by film’s end. If there was an expendable member of this team, it would have to be Hawkeye. The added attention and personal attachments seem like a dead giveaway that he’s going to be dead. I don’t think I was any more invested in his character knowing about his hidden life outside the Avengers, but I certainly played a game of, “Is this gonna be it?” as the film continued. Black Widow started as an interesting character, a spy trying to make amends for her bloody past, or the “red in [her] ledger,” as they referred in the previous film. Her budding romance with Banner makes some sense but it still feels like the character is being forced into Romantic mode not because of her character but mostly because she has a vagina. Any romance with a guy who turns green and monstrous seems like it might be best as unrequited. She’s also defined by a past trauma that, while upsetting and cruel, is also a bit too tied into her identity as Woman/Mother. It’s an unfortunate positioning for what is an inherently interesting character (the slut shaming of the character in promotional interviews by certain Avengers cast members is also highly unfortunate). Can’t we get a Black Widow movie yet, Marvel?
An aspect of Age of Ultron I did enjoy was how conscious the heroes are about mitigating collateral damage and especially human casualties. At every turn, the Avengers are thinking about saving those caught in the cross-hairs first. They go out of their way to save those left behind. I think, and I’m not alone in this conclusion, that Whedon is directly responding to the disaster porn that was Zack Snyder’s miserly Man of Steel. The latest Superman movie bothered me with how callous it was with human life, treating devastating city-wide 9/11-style destruction as mere entertainment. As Superman and Zod were colliding through every damn building in Metropolis, you knew thousands if not millions of unseen people were perishing in this rather pointless melee. Whedon’s band of heroes places a priority on human life regardless of region.
It would be disingenuous of me to say Age of Ultron is not entertaining. Whedon is still a terrific storyteller and that still shines through the troubled areas and spotty plotting. The action makes good use of the various heroes and their abilities, providing fun combos like Cap hurling his super shield so Thor can redirect it further with his hammer. The use of humor was one of the bigger enjoyments of the first Avengers, and while it’s still abundant and enjoyable here as well I’d say it’s overdone. When every character is cracking quips every fourth line of dialogue, it pulls you out of the movie and the stakes feel lesser. The running joke where the Avengers make fun of Captain America for his prudish sensibilities on profanity is a joke that works at first but then loses all sense of fun as it’s pounded into the ground on repetition. The larger set pieces each have their moments to delight, especially the opening and the Hulk vs. Iron Man battle. Age of Ultron isn’t a bad movie and it has some truly great moments and great character moments and payoffs, but it’s only moments. The plot meant to connect the dots is too labored with the burden of setting up several Marvel franchises. In the MCU pecking order, I’d place Age of Ultron right around Iron Man 2 quality (another movie compromised by the extra burden of setting up other movies, namely The Avengers).
It’s sure to set box-office records and I imagine fans of the original will happily lap up another super team-up, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is something of a disappointment for me. The more I think about it the fun parts become a little duller and I find more areas of criticism. It’s just not as fun a movie experience, and that’s due to the rushed and muddled story and too many characters. After the critical and commercial success of the first film, I doubt that Whedon could have produced a film that would live up to the sky-high expectations, but that doesn’t excuse the finished product. It feels like Whedon had to struggle to pull this one off, especially with the added demands, and I can’t blame him for wanting a break from the MCU. The Russo brothers who so dazzled audiences with their direction of Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be stepping in to direct the next Avengers sequel(s). I hope they’re up to the task because the burden of carrying a billion-dollar franchise with its tendrils connected to other franchises appears to have been overwhelming for one of the greatest storytellers of a generation. Enjoy Age of Ultron but be wary of what the future holds for the larger MCU.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Alex Garland is a screenwriting staple in Hollywood. He’s a science fiction specialist, adapting everything from Kazuo Ishiguro’s wrenching Never Let Me Go to the Halo movie. He’s worked with Danny Boyle, adapting his novel The Beach, and then on 28 Days Later and Sunshine. If you’ve noticed a theme with the titles, Garland tends to subscribe to a pessimistic view of human nature. And yet each film is grounded by the humanity of its characters no matter the extreme circumstances. Garland’s gift is making the fantastic grounded on a recognizable human level. Ex Machina is his latest and his directorial debut but you’d never have guessed it with how controlled and polished the film comes across. It’s a cerebral sci-fi film that haunts, enchants, and consistently engaged the imagination.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a corporate contest to spend a week’s vacation in the home of a reclusive Google-esque tech billionaire, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is here to test out Nathan’s newest invention – artificial intelligence. He’s built an android woman named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and he wants Caleb to interview her.
Ex Machina throws you right into the hook within minutes, and it was mere minutes for me to get hooked. Garland does a glorious job of teasing an audience with his story and unlocking further mysteries that develop intrigue. At the start, knowing the Turing test, we’re just as interested in Ava as Caleb is, trying to figure her out and how lifelike she may be. But then the conversations start to linger and, during a brief power outage that cuts the feed to the omnipresent cameras, Ava warns Caleb that his host is not whom he thinks. As soon as the power is back and running, it’s as if the comment never happened. The pristine underground quarters have an eerie tranquility to them, almost as if Apple is designing high-end prisons. Garland’s movie becomes consumed in paranoia. Is Ava being honest? Is Nathan being honest or underhanded? What’s in some of those “off limits” rooms? What is the true test at hand? Who is the silent Asian assistant? At one point, Caleb slices open his own arm to search for circuitry, and you completely understand his reasoning. This mounting sense of paranoia and dread, tagged with Garland’s mysterious and well-developed storyline, are enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen and rapidly second-guessing and triple-guessing your shifting loyalties.
Garland also smartly doesn’t dance around the obvious plot device of having a beautiful robotic woman, namely the inevitability of romance to bloom. What is it about android women that science fiction seems to love so much? From Blade Runner to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the genre loves the concept of robotic women. Perhaps this is merely a byproduct of a genre written by a majority of men, or perhaps it taps into something more unconscious about the desire to control women, or a fear of women, but that’s a conversation for another day. Ava is certainly a stunning creature, thanks to Vikander, but also from the sleek production design that makes her feel like the world’s most gorgeous Mr. Potato Head with her lycra-like skin for easy detachment. Her exposed stomach of bolts and bulbs is also a constant reminder of her “other-ness.” There’s an obviously sexual dynamic to the character, and while she’s technically nude for most of the film, watching her slip out of stockings and a dress has a strange erotic quality. Thankfully, the percolating would-be romance between man and machine actually plays a vital part throughout the script and especially with the end. There’s even a darkly comic yet disconcerting reveal about why Ava looks as she does. Is Ava capable of feelings? Is she falling for Caleb, or does she merely view him as a means to an end?
It’s essentially a sci-fi play with limited locations and three primary actors. The power is on Garland’s effortlessly engaging script, which is far more cerebral and philosophical and nuanced than you might expect from its premise. This is a film that allows its characters to breathe, to organically develop relationships and doubts. The concept of A.I. has been explored in many sci-fi stories before but Garland finds fresh resonance by paring down his story to a manageable trio. Nathan’s reclusive home is like a twenty-first century version of the haunted house and full of fun detours begging to be explored. Garland’s cinematography and production design are reminiscent of the cool artifice of David Fincher’s films. The world feels like a small step into the future but constantly unsettling. Garland’s story always has another mystery to unlock, always driving the story further as Caleb’s weeklong stay is coming to a close. Garland has a natural eye for images and composes several startling sequences that can equally evoke beauty as well as disquiet. There’s a moment where Ava passes a wall of faces as if they were simply a row of hats. Simple moments like Ava “dressing up” are given a gentle poignancy that isn’t overplayed for effect. Garland’s film is what I wanted 2014’s Under the Skin to be. Both of them are unsettling, moody, and atmospheric with striking Kubrickian imagery, but Garland’s film is less purposely oblique.
The trio of actors provides strong work, especially Swedish actress Vikander (Seventh Son, A Royal Affair). As the film is told from Caleb’s perspective, she has to find a very exact balance with her performance with elements of innocence, uncertainty, and ethereal curiosity. She’s rather placid but you always feel like there’s more just under the surface, whether it’s the ache of sentient realization or something more sinister. She’s a test subject, a captive, and a possible romantic interest. Vikander hits every right note to remain mystifying and beguiling. Gleeson (Unbroken) is becoming a go-to young actor for Hollywood. His awkwardness and enthusiasm to be part of history is an easy channel for the audience, but as Garland’s script spins along, Gleeson’s enthusiasm ebbs to concern, for Ava and then himself. The source of Ex Machina’s surprising font of humor is Isaac (A Most Violent Year) as a too cavalier tech genius. He’s so nonchalant and chummy, usually soused, that you start distrusting his amiable nature.
It’s a shame then that the film couldn’t quite hold onto these ambiguities to the end. Garland has had third act missteps in many of his films, some tone-altering and simply losing momentum like 28 Days Later, and some as disastrous as Sunshine’s blurry slasher killer, which ruins a perfectly good-to-great sci-fi thriller. Ex Machina too exhibits its own share of third act issues, namely a confluence of contrivances with the characters. There are certain revelations you should already be suspecting giving the nature of the film, and if you’ve watched other movies before. Those reveals work in relation to Garland’s plot; however, the climax feels a bit too forced and obvious for a movie that has been, up to that point, expertly keeping the audience on its toes. Nathan spilling the beans on all the different levels of the experiment comes across not as an outlet of his character’s blasé narcissism and more a need for the script to force a confrontation. The different levels of intrigue fade away to what is a rather conventional climax that feels poorly developed and woefully inadequate for the story being told. I will credit Garland with the courage of his resolution, though, which provides deliberate decisions that cast the rest of the film in another dimension. It also feels completely right, while still allowing for Garland to work his Kubrick fetish fully to its eerie erotic ends.
Ex Machina is a hard movie to pin down because it balances various genres with delicacy, providing a little something for every sci-fi fan. It’s a well-developed mystery that constantly unravels new layers that only hooked me further, but then I was hooked from the immediacy. The relationship between the main three characters is enough to hold an entire film thanks to Garland’s scripting. I started doubting my own senses and that is a testament to Garland’s artistic vision. It’s a nice antidote to the louder bombast of Hollywood, especially with science fiction films that confuse shrill and busy with appealing and satisfying. Here is a film that doesn’t forget to entertain but respects an audience enough to take its time to properly develop its mysteries, tension, and characters. Ex Machina is a stellar debut for Garland as a director and I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts shifting more of his attention to getting back into the director’s chair. It’s not a perfect film, as it too suffers from Garland’s streak of third act troubles, but it’s a remarkably assured, sleek, and absorbing movie that gets under your skin.
Nate’s Grade: B+
With each passing film, it regrettably is becoming more evident that District 9 seems to be the possible exception for writer/director Neill Blomkamp. It seemed like a new visionary had broken through who could meld heady themes with rousing sci-fi spectacle, a champion of both the visceral pleasures of genre movies and the satisfaction of narrative complexity. After two more films under his belt and with complete creative control, it’s starting to look like Blomkamp’s sense of storytelling is a bit more limited than District 9 would have lead on. The man is excellent at putting together concepts, and he likes to delve into major themes and messages, but the execution has been hobbled and the themes are simplistic to the point of being childish. Perhaps the man is suffering from unrealistic expectations or perhaps the greater world is finally seeing that Blomkamp has been remaking the same movie over and over with diminishing results each time. If you disliked 2013’s Elysium, you’ll probably have an even lesser opinion on Chappie.
In the near future, Johannesburg, South Africa is being policed by a series of rabbit-like robotic “scouts” created by Deon (Dev Patel). His boss (Sigourney Weaver) is happy with the results but very wary of Deon’s interest in artificial intelligence. Deon takes an old robot and installs his A.I. program, giving it sentience. But before he can marvel at his newest creation, a pair of grimy criminals, Yolandi and Ninja, kidnaps him. They dub the new sentient robot Chappie (Sharlto Copley) and plan on making use of him for a heist. Deon strongly disapproves, promising to come back so he can nurture Chappie’s creativity. Yolandi becomes “Mommy” who wants to encourage the robot’s sensitivity, Ninja becomes “Daddy” and wants to toughen him up, and Deon the absent father figure. At work, Deon’s rival inventor, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), is anxious for any opportunity to promote his own police force, a giant flying mech warrior known as the Moose. Unlike Deon’s robotic scouts, a human operator controls the Moose. Discovering Chappie is exactly what Vincent has been waiting for to destroy his competition.
Chappie is a tonally inconsistent mess that ends up being a weird, garish, and unsatisfying hybrid between Robocop and Short Circuit. It jumps around from being a slapstick comedy, a sentimental unconventional family, an urban warfare action thriller, and a science fiction film exploring the possibilities of artificial intelligence. The tonal shifts can be quite jarring; one moment the movie wants you to feel sorry for Chappie getting beaten (he’s a helpless robot!) by a group of hoodlums (why does a robot fear pain anyway?), and the next moment Blomkamp wants you to laugh at the trashy gangster shenanigans. If the film could ever settle on one tone and take the time to develop it properly, Chappie might have been salvageable. Of course this assumes that Blomkamp restrains himself from explaining everything to his audience. He’s not exactly a subtle filmmaking when it comes to his deeper allegories even with District 9, but it just gets insulting how little faith he has with an audience, bludgeoning them silly. At one point, “Mommy” reads Chappie a bedtime story and it’s about the black sheep, the outcast, and just from that alone, we get the thematic connection. That’s not enough. Blomkamp has “Mommy” explain the thematic significance. Okay, fine, now he’s made the message explicit but even that’s not enough. “Mommy” then literally points to Chappie and says, in case anyone still wasn’t getting it, that he is the black sheep. It’s an illusion of greater intellectual depth that unravels as the film chaotically continues.
Let’s get to the biggest problems with the film: Chappie and his would-be adoptive parents are annoying. While Chappie is a technically impressive visual effect with a motion-capture performance by Blomkamp staple Sharlto Copley, the character is far less winsome. Why would a robot be acting like a child? It’s because Blomkamp wants to rely upon easy sentiment and emotional manipulation to get you to feel for his characters when the story alone is incapable of achieving this. Chappie as a personality is something of a blank slate, and this is filled by the trashy gangster wisdom of Yolandi and Ninja played by South African rap duo Die Antwoord. They’re pretty much playing themselves, credited as their stage names, they wear their own merchandise, and their exaggerated, beyond-ironic-back-to-pseudo-reverent garish style is off-putting in large doses. THEY’RE THE MAIN CHARACTERS. That’s right, two non-actors who plays themselves are the main characters. The movie relies on many Die Antwoord tunes to highlight its sense of funky nihilism. As performers, I’ll admit that there is something unique to them, but it’s foolish to give them a whole movie to carry. It feels like Blomkamp took the profane comic relief characters from another movie and said, “Hey, what would it be like to stretch them out for a whole movie and raise a kid?” Either you find a “gangster talking” robot with gold chains hilarious or you don’t.
The world of Blomkamp seems like it’s stuck on repeat, setting his futuristic steam punk tales in the slums of South Africa, but is this location really integral to tell Chappie? It was essential to District 9 because that movie was an allegory about the apartheid, but none of that specific history of culture plays into this movie in any meaningful sense. The setting then becomes inconsequential, though I could level the same charge at the overwhelming movies set in New York or Los Angeles. The world building of Chappie, like much of its narrative elements, feels half-hearted and curiously rendered. Yolandi and Ninja are threatened with seven days to pay off their debt, but you never feel like there’s a sense of urgency, as if the movie would prefer you forget about this ticking clock. This secondary bad guy seems to be the source of all crime in Johannesburg. Deon has created a widespread police force and yet it never feels like the other characters treat this with the magnitude it warrants. Likewise, Deon doesn’t seem to treat artificial intelligence as a big deal. Then again his boss, of a huge robotics corporation I want to emphasize, has to have artificial intelligence explained to her (again, Blomkamp of little faith). There’s also the way the movie is mired in weird office politics. Vincent is jealous that another program was successful and makes his program look bad, so he works to sabotage Deon’s robots so his project will get the go ahead. Vincent’s project is a glaringly obvious rip-off of the ED-209 from Robocop. It seems so strangely isolated, as if Vincent never thought about selling a flying mobile tank to the lucrative military. The most outlandish moment in the movie might be when Vincent points a gun to Deon’s head, threatens him, all within full view of a slew of co-workers, and then sheepishly retreats with the excuse, “It’s not loaded. Just a joke, mate.” How does this guy still have a job? Is the human resources department of the future replaced with robots as well?
Here are a small number of other directions Chappie could have gone that I think would be more compelling than what we get, and these just came to me during the movie. Instead of having the robot officers being responsibly used, why not have the world as a police state overrun by these sentinels, an oppressive regime worth toppling. Then Chappie ends up being a robot that’s captured, reprogrammed by revolutionaries, and fights against his programming for what he believes is truly right. Isn’t that a better setting, and far more topical with the current militarization of police forces dominating news? This scenario is better than a work force of robots that most characters shrug over. Then there’s Vincent’s plot to sabotage the robotic scouts (mild spoilers). Instead of just turning the robots off and letting chaos reign, wouldn’t it be a far better angle for him to turn the robots against the civilian populace? Instead of broken robots we have killer robots. Again, it adds a greater sense of urgency but also a route that would seem far more in keeping with the nature of Vincent. Chappie is filled with these hypothetical plot detours you see in your head and wish the film had taken. The movie that Blomkamp delivers is a profane fairy tale that teases a greater experience that fails to materialize.
Chappie is one of those movies you sit and keep hoping it’s going to turn a corner, to get better, to finally capitalize on the setups its been throwing around, to coalesce tonally and magically reveal the madness behind its sloppy methods. Unfortunately, it just remains a disappointing film that feels like several revisions away from proper execution. The plot elements don’t come together. Worst, Blomkamp cannot trust his audience to get even the simplistic metaphors on display. It’s two movies in a row where Blomkamp has miffed on his story. His sense of visuals is unmistakable, and he sure knows how to fill his movies with cool stuff. I imagine his pitch sessions are great with studio execs. It’s just now becoming more apparent that his major shortcoming comes to realizing these stories. There’s a host of other miscues with Chappie. I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’ll never be seeing Die Antwoord as the lead actors in another movie again. Maybe Blomkamp hired them just to get a discount on playing their music throughout the movie. Blomkamp has recently been hired to direct an Alien sequel, and I hope he takes full advantage of this opportunity to creatively leave behind his old stomping grounds. Otherwise in space, no one can hear you yawn.
Nate’s Grade: C