Category: Dystopia film

Things to Come (1936)

Things to Come (1936)

HG Wells ultra-serious view of the future is stilted but also visionary

Director: William Cameron Menzies

Cast: Raymond Massey (John Cabal/Oswald Cabal), Edward Chapman (‘Pippa’ Passworthy/Raymond Passworthy), Ralph Richardson (The Boss), Margaretta Scott (Roxana Black), Cedric Hardwicke (Theotocopulos), Maurice Braddell (Dr Edward Harding), Sophie Stewart (Mrs Cabal), Derrick De Marney (Richard Gordon), Ann Todd (Mary Gordon), John Clements (Enemy pilot)

Alexander Korda was thrilled. He’d secured the rights to the legendary HG Well’s new novel. Even better the Great Man would work, hand-in-glove, with Korda’s team to bring The Shape of Things to Come to the screen. It would be a grand science-fiction hit, that would echo the success of American films based on Wells’ work (films, to be fair, Wells pretty much hated apart from The Invisible Man). It became a continual struggle before the final flawed-but-fascinating film arrived in cinemas.

Things to Come opens in the (then) near future in 1940 as war tears “Everytown” on Christmas Day and flies 100 years into the future. Bombing destroys the city and hurtles the world into over twenty years of never-ending war that leaves civilisation wrecked by carnage, advanced weapons and poisonous gases. A legacy of the war, “the wandering sickness” devastates the survivors, killing half the remaining population. In the ruins of Everytown in the 1960s, the Boss (Ralph Richardson) rises to take power, one of many warlords across the world being challenged by the “World Communications” alliance of engineers and scientists in Basra, Iraq. When they reshape the world, decades of progress lead to a new civilisation in 2036 aiming at the stars.

HG Wells saw Things to Come as a polemic, an ambitious and optimistic look at how mankind should progress, leaving behind war and politics to embrace rational thought and the quest for knowledge. Written at a time when tensions were high in Europe, it would show the world torn apart, devastated and reborn greater than it ever was before. Never-the-less at every point, the unambitious, myopic and power-hungry gather to hold back progress. What he didn’t really see it as was a conventional “drama” or those involved as “characters” more devices, ciphers and mouthpieces for his viewpoints.

Which helps explain the curious project that made it to the screen. Wells was guaranteed approval over the dialogue, which remains flat and heavy handed. Actors felt constrained within the sonorous phasing and over-written prose. It wasn’t helped by director William Cameron Menzies’ discomfort with dialogue scenes. Whenever two people stand around (which sums up the blocking) and chat, the film is frequently a little dull, settling for a semi-disguised lecture on humanity, science and progress. Korda correctly identified the dialogue problems and cut as much of it as possible.

In doing so, he snipped away much of the narrative framework of the film. In a film that flies forward through time and world-changing events, we frequently get confused about the exact details of who goes why and where and what makes characters do the things they do. Characters disappear and reappear, fly across the world in seconds, form and break alliances and argue and drop cases all on a sixpence. Raymond Massey later talked about how hard he found his character (a man and his grandson, bridging all timelines) to bring to life with dialogue largely devoid of emotion. Much of Things to Come can be dry-as-a-bone.

But yet… Away from the weaknesses of the script, much of Things to Come is quite awe-inspiring. While the characters might be a little flat, the energy of the film’s first two acts (in 1936 and 1966) offers a host of striking scenes and images. Things to Come remains powerful and horrifying when it looks at the darkness and damage of war. The 1936 bombing attack on Everytown still shocks with its superbly assembled shots of buildings exploding, crowds panicking, dead bodies slumped in cars, terrified faces and dead children in the rubble. Imagine watching this with the Blitz just a few years away. Menzies may not direct acting or dialogue with much inspiration, but his skill with visuals and editing is clear. The montage carrying the world over the next thirty years is a masterful mix of fake news-footage and technological innovation as ever more advanced tanks and airplanes roll past the screen. The film’s use of design and visuals is frequently haunting and impressive.

It carries across to the bombed-out design of Everytown in the 1960s. A shell of a city, where wrecks of cars are pulled by horses. Those suffering from “the Wandering Sickness” move like zombies through the city. Homes and buildings are gutted remains. Newspaper headlines – of newspapers that become ever more basic in printing and more expensive in price – had previously helped communicate the passage of events. Now the news is chalked up onto a board outside the home of the Mussolini-like Boss (the film’s finest performance of charismatic swagger and delusional power-mad greed by Ralph Richardson). Clothing is basic and functional, pulled together from scraps leftover from the war, in a world largely devoid of all technology.

This wasteland makes the futuristic designs even more striking. The “Wings Over the World” organisation – growing from the cradle of civilisation in Iraq – is sleek, metallic and efficient in its construction. When John Cabal (Raymond Massey) lands back in the 60s ruin of Everytown, he looks like a spaceman. He might as well be. His fleet of unimaginably vast airplanes have inspired visions of futuristic flight right up to the mighty airbases the Avengers operate in the MCU.

While you can snigger a little at the utopiaish version of the future – very Star Trek in its flowing robes and shoulder pads – it’s vision of subterranean cities full of everything from wrist communicators to widescreen TVs feels quite prescient. Everything is clear, polished and perfect – much of it doesn’t look a million miles away from an Apple store. While the villains of the future (a band of luddites led by Cedric Hardwicke) may be little more than paper tigers, given only the vaguest motivations, the grand engineering accomplishments of the future and their glances at the stars feel inspired in their detail and ambition.

It’s where Things to Come triumphs. It might not often have much to listen to, but every single scene carries a slice of design or visual interest. Its frequently assembled into effective – and even terrifying – montages. And its design of the future – based on Wells vision and bought to life by Menzies and his technical team – is a perfect mix of striking and prescient. Things to Come isn’t always the best drama, but as a forward-looking piece of design it’s truly memorable.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

You’ll believe an ape can talk in this brilliant relaunch of a franchise that had become a joke

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Cast: Andy Serkis (Caesar), James Franco (Dr Will Rodman), Freida Pinto (Dr Caroline Aranha), John Lithgow (Charles Rodman), Brian Cox (John Landon), Tom Felton (Dodge Landon), David Oyelowo (Steven Jacobs), Terry Notary (Rocket/Bright Eyes), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Richard Ridings (Buck)

It was always a concept some found hard to take seriously. Actors, in heavy make-up, pretending to the Ape masters of Planet Earth. It didn’t help that, after the first few films in the Planet of the Apes franchise the quality took a complete nosedive. Quite a lot for Rise of the Planet of the Apes to overcome: could it take this staple of popular culture and make it not only not a joke, but something people actually wanted to see? Well yes it certainly could. Rise is an intelligent, cinematically rich, surprisingly low-key and brilliantly done relaunch.

It has the advantage of course of decades of special-effects development. Gone are the days of Roddy McDowell in a monkey suit. Now motion capture can literally transform an actor into a chimp. In a way that other Planet of the Apes films never could, it can make the Apes the centre of the film. And if you are going to call for an actor who can help you bring life to a motion capture created character, who else are you going to call but Andy Serkis?

Serkis plays Caesar, the ape who (those of us familiar with the franchise know) will become the founder of the Ape civilisation. The first Ape who stood up and said “No”. He’s the son of Bright Eyes, a chimp who receives ALZ-112, an experimental drug designed to cure Alzheimer’s. Its invented by Dr Will Rodman (James Franco), desperate to cure his father Charles (John Lithgow). The experiment goes wrong and Bright Eyes is killed – but not before giving birth to Caesar, who inherits unnatural levels of intelligence from the drug. Will protects and raises Caesar, treating him as a son. But when Caesar is taken from Will and placed in an abusive ape sanctuary, he begins to see it as his mission to help his fellow apes. The revolution starts here.

Rise – for all it has a computer effect in almost every frame – works because it is small-scale intimate story. For a film full of nothing but effects, it feels remarkably like a sort of sci-fi relationship drama. It’s effectively about a child learning to become a man and find his own destiny, leaving behind a loving (but ineffective) father who, unknowingly, is blocking his progress, to stand as his own man (or rather ape). The motion capture is so stunningly well-done you forget that you are looking at a special effect for in almost every frame, and instead accept Caesar as our lead character.

Wyatt’s film eases us into this, centring Will (played with a generosity and warmth by James Franco) as our lead character and filtering our perception of Caesar through his eyes, as he grows up in his suburban house and learns to climb in San Francisco’s Redwood forests. The careful shift to making Caesar our central character – complete by the time we see him imprisoned in the dangerous environment of the ape sanctuary – is so masterfully done, that we hardly notice that large chunks of the second half of the film take place in wordless silence among the apes, Caesar’s thoughts and emotions communicated only by body language, expressive eyes and hand gestures.

To get that to work, you need a stunning actor behind it. Serkis’ performance is extraordinary: he used motion capture to become an ape, exactly capturing the physicality but also marrying it with real human emotions. We can look at Caesar’s face at any point and know exactly what he’s thinking and feeling. His joy in his home, his protective fury when a confused Charles is assaulted by a furious neighbour, his distress at being locked away, his fear and confusion at his new surroundings his hardening resolve and his determination to liberate his fellow apes. This is extraordinary stuff.

It’s not just Serkis. Every ape has a talented actor behind it. Notary is a master of ape physicality, Konoval creates a beautifully wise and tender orangutan, Ridings finds loyalty and tenderness in a gorilla, Christopher Gordon a psychotic energy to abused lab-rat ape Koba. The marriage between actor and ape is perfect, and means we are completely on their side against mankind (be it in the lab or the ape sanctuary) they are up against. Wordless sequences of Caesar’s ingenuity: establishing himself as the Alpha with shrewd combat tactics, winning friends with cookies, stealing drugs to gift the other apes his own intelligence (their silent wonder at their interior worlds expanding is brilliantly done) and finally leading a revolt (including that goose-bumps rousing “No!”) is superb.

Wyatt’s skilful, calm and controlled visual storytelling is a triumph in making the determination of a CGI Ape a punch-the-air moment. Wyatt makes each Ape as much – sometimes more – of a character than the humans and weaves an emotionally complex story for Caesar. This isn’t about an angry Ape leading bloody revolution. This is a confused, gentle teenager trying to work out who he is. Is he Will’s son or his pet (do sons normally wear leashes in public)? Is he a dreamer or a leader? And, above all, is a man or an ape? When push comes to shove, where will his loyalties lie?

This makes for emotionally rich stuff – so much so that when the Apes make a final act stand for freedom on the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll shed tears over the self-sacrifice of one of their number. It’s also an intriguing look at humanity, none of whom come out as well as they could. The ‘good’ people – like Will and ape sanctuary worker Rodney – are kind but ineffective (everything Will does goes horrifically wrong, despite his best intentions). The ‘bad’ – Oyelowo’s money-first Drugs Company CEO or Cox and Felton as abusive ape sanctuary owners – are corrupt, selfish and greedy. No wonder the apes, stuck in a hole and only pulled out to be sold for drugs trials, feel so angry.

It’s not perfect. There are some clumsy, awkward homages to the original film (the worst being Felton shrieking “it’s a mad house!”) that don’t pay off. The human characters are at times two dimensional. But that doesn’t matter when the story-telling around the chimps is so superbly done. Wyatt fills the film with effects, but focuses so completely on character and emotion that it never feels like that for a moment. Rise is a small, intimate film about personal growth and a struggle for limited freedom. It helps make it a powerful and highly effective one – and easily superior to every Apes film made since 1968. A superb start to what became a wonderful trilogy.

WaterWorld (1995)

WaterWorld (1995)

As the waters rise, the world sinks down – and WaterWorld went down with it in the very average mega-budget sci-fi

Director: Kevin Reynolds

Cast: Kevin Costner (The Mariner), Dennis Hopper (The Deacon), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Helen), Tina Marjorino (Enola), Michael Jeter (Old Gregor), Gerard Murphy (The Nord), RD Call (Atoll Enforcer), Kim Coates (Drifter #2), John Fleck (Smoker Doctor), Robert Joy (Smoker Ledger), Jack Black (Smoker Pilot), Zakes Mokae (Priam)

In 1995 they called it “Kevin’s Gate”. Costner cashed all – and I pretty much mean all – his superstar chips to make Waterworld, a sort of water-logged Mad Max crossed with a Leone Western, starring himself as a nameless mutant with gills behind his ears. You needed to be the Biggest Box Office Star in the World to get that one up and running. But then Costner’s last “all-in” bet had been Dances with Wolves – and that won seven Oscars. What could do wrong?

Waterworld has been pretty much defined – then and now – as the (at the time) most expensive film ever made, which went on to be a damp squip, a box-office stinker. It’s not that: it’s a solid, entertaining-enough B-movie with some neat Dystopian ideas. In 2500, the world has been completely flooded after the polar ice caps melted. Mankind exists in rusted boats and small floating camps on the ocean. Dry land is a myth and actual soil is worth a fortune. Costner’s Mariner ends up protecting Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her adopted daughter Enola (Tina Marjorino), as Enola has (handily tattooed on her back) a map to the last piece of dryland left in the world. But Enola’s map is hunted by the Smokers, and their maniacal leader The Deacon (Dennis Hopper), who want to claim Dry Land for themselves.

Waterworld largely lives on as a hugely successful stunt show at Universal Studios (I’ve seen it and it is amazing – all the exciting bits of the film, done in about fifteen minutes) that has been running non-stop since 1995 (other shows, based on more successful movies, have long since disappeared). It focuses on all the stuff that’s good about the film. Kevin Reynolds’ can shoot the heck out of action scenes and professional stuntmen really know their business. The best sequences in Waterworld involve pounding action – jet ski chases, the Mariner’s transforming trimaran, jet skis flying over walls and diving under water, stunning boat chases – and they are great.

They also exploit, in their rusted crap-sack props, one of the film’s other triumphs, it’s detailed world-building design. Sure, it owes a heavy-debt to the cobbled-together semi-steam-punk of Mad Max, with rust that covers everything, adapted wet-suits and rags (augmented with various pieces of fishing equipment and light fabrics) that characters wear, the bashed out colours contrasted with the glorious blue of the water. But the film never looks anything less than an outre mad-house. Throw in James Newton Howard’s very effective score – romantic and mournful when required, but then pounding with heroic action beat – and you’ve got elements of a decent movie.

But decent is all it ever is. Because, aside from the novelty of being set on water (a hugely time- and money-consuming expense, that partly explained why the film went zillions of dollars over budget), there isn’t anything that new about the story. A gruff outsider is roped into grudgingly protecting a mother and a daughter, but then his heart-is-melted – just as the villains turn up to snatch the daughter away. The villains are cartoonish monsters (Dennis Hopper seems to be on a mission to counter the water-logged misery of most of the rest of the performers by acting as much as possible), who are either ingenious or incompetent depending on the requirements of the script. The quest for the land-of-plenty is so familiar, you could scribble it down on a postcard in advance.

The question is, why did Costner want to make this? It’s not even a part that showcases him very well. I’ve always found Costner’s mega-stardom a bit of a mystery: once he graduated from more young, naïve parts (such as in The Untouchables), action films more and more exposed his slightly blank sulkiness as an actor. Perhaps due to the pressure of Waterworld (he worked non-stop, six day weeks, mostly on or in the water, for six months), perhaps due to his inability to find any warmth in a role he clearly sees as an Eastwoodish man-with-no-name, he largely comes across as sullen and hard-to-engage with. This is double hard for a film set in a dystopian future, where we really need to understand and relate to the hero in order to get into the world.

The rest of the cast follow his lead – no one, apart from maybe Hopper, really looks like they want to be there and most of them give of a sense of suffering under the constant threat of accidentally drowning. Tripplehorn isn’t helped by playing a dull, functionary, by-the-numbers character although Marjorino does get to have a bit of spark as plucky Enola. None of the characters step out of the formulaic surroundings of the film they have been trapped in.

You can have a bit of fun with the film’s wonky science. The Mariner is introduced pissing into a bucket and converting the piss into drinking water: cool character establishing moment, but since the salt quota of piss is higher than sea water, why not just convert the sea water? (I’m staggered at the idea that, in 500 years, no one has discovered a way to make sea water drinkable). If the polar ice caps melted, they would not flood the world as much as this. Would an oil tanker and fleet of jet skis really have managed to eek out the 235k cubic metres of oil it carried for 500 years? (How do they even convert it into petrol?) Where are all the fish? Why is the Mariner the only one with deep sea diving equipment – especially when he has flipping gills and doesn’t need it?

But hey, it’s only a movie. Waterworld eventually became profitable: but not till after it had cemented itself in the public perception as an uber-stinker. Really, it’s not that different from Avatar in its functional story, it just made a worse job of selling its big-budget effects as must-see moments. Costner’s alleged megalomania on set didn’t help (re-writing scenes, ordering special effects cover his receding hairline, falling out with Reynolds during editing – so much so Reynolds walked out), but really Waterworld isn’t terrible, just a huge lump of soggy okay. But that Universal Stunt Show? It’s the bee’s knees.

Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)

Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)

It squeezes so many characters in, it totally forgets to make room for plot, invention or anything new at all

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Cast: Chris Pratt (Owen Grady), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing), Laura Dern (Dr Ellie Sattler), Jeff Goldblum (Dr Ian Malcolm), Sam Neill (Dr Alan Grant), Isabella Sermon (Maisie Lockwood), DeWanda Wise (Kayla Watts), Mamoudou Athie (Ramsay Cole), Campbell Scott (Dr Lewis Dodgson), BD Wong (Dr Henry Wu), Omar Sy (Barry Sembène), Justice Smith (Franklin Webb), Daniella Pineda (Dr Zia Rodriguez)

As I was leaving the cinema, I heard a twelve-year old talking about which of the dinosaurs in the movie was their favourite. Then they said: “it was a bit samey though wasn’t it?”. I’m not sure I can beat that precocious nail-on-the-head judgement. Nothing happens in Jurassic World: Dominion you’ve not seen many times before in the franchise. Underneath the flash, Jurassic World: Dominion is a tired retread, crowbarring in references from better films left, right and centre, all to hide that there are no new ideas here.

Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) have dedicated their lives to protecting human clone Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon) from the grasp of corporations. When she’s kidnapped by foot-soldiers of clearly-evil-corp BioSyn (they even have “Sin” in their name), they pull out all the stops to get her back from BioSyn’sNorthern Italy research compound. Meanwhile, Drs Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Alan Grant (Sam Neill) are investigating genetically modified locusts which are destroying every crop in the Southern USA – except those using BioSyn seed. All roads lead to that Italian compound – where Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is employed as a contrarian philosopher – to try and stop BioSyn’s nefarious schemes.

You know what struck me when I wrote that summary? I didn’t use the word dinosaurs. The prehistoric beasties are pretty superfluous. Sure, they down a plane and our heroes dodge them in various places (BioSyn’s compound doubles as a dinosaur refuge). But, seeing as the last film ended with dinosaurs escaping into the wild and becoming part of our everyday lives… this sequel takes the concept nowhere. Bar an opening news report montage (showing, among other things, pterodactyls – yes, I know they’re not dinosaurs – stealing a bride’s bouquet) and a Star Wars style under-ground market where dino-pets and fighting-pit beasties are traded on the black market, Dominion finds almost nothing to do with this.

In fact, Dominion struggles to find anything to do at all. It’s an extremely loosely plotted mess of a film that feels like two vaguely (very, very vaguely) connected plotlines rammed together in a way designed to shoe-horn in as many legacy characters and call-backs as possible. Laura Dern gets the bulkiest (and only plot essential) role among the returning trio. Sam Neill feels dragged along for the ride (Grant serves literally no narrative purpose) and, while Goldblum gets most of the best lines (delivered in his trademark, improvisational oddness), Malcolm merely splits the role of “inside man” with another character so cursorily introduced and vaguely motivated he feels like he was only there because covid made some of the other actors unavailable for parts of the filming.

The legacy framing is so lazy that all three of these characters essentially wear the same costumes as they did in Jurassic Park. Everyone in universe seems to know who they are (Which I find highly unlikely) and the film bends over backwards to introduce clumsy links between them and the characters from the first two Jurassic World films in ways that feel forced.

The film slowly consumes itself with references back to previous films, linked by sequences that feel ripped out from other hits. Owen and Claire’s opening plotline plays out like an odd Mission: Impossible spy thriller, including a Bourne-ish roof top chase (with Owen haring away on his trademark motorbike from killer velociraptors – the film’s only exciting set-piece, and even that is ripped from other films) with Claire transformed into a semi-adept free-runner. The dino-market is essentially Mos Eisley, by way of that Kamono Dragon fighting pit from Skyfall. By the end a host of famous set-pieces from Jurassic Park and Jurassic World are effectively re-staged or openly referenced and props (such as Nedry’s shaving foam can) are reverentially pulled out.

Any interesting ideas raised are swiftly crushed. Maisie’s concern that, as a clone, she isn’t a real person is fascinating, but the film forgets it in seconds. The villain (a neat Steve Jobs parody from Campbell Scott) spends a fortune capturing Maisie – but when she escapes (thanks to a key to her cage being helpfully left on a table in front of her) he makes literally no attempt at all to recapture her. It’s stressed to us that the whole world is looking for Maisie and that if she is found it will be dangerous for her – by the end of the film she’s doing a press conference and no one gives a damn. The moral implications of a ‘mother’ cloning herself and curing her clone child of a life-ending disease in the womb, is thrown on the table and then ignored.

The whole film revolves around ridiculous coincidences. Villains run away and then helpfully return to ludicrously unsafe places, purely because the plot requires it. Stupid decisions are made right, left and centre. Plot armour ruthlessly protects the expected. The dinosaurs are just irrelevant set dressing: we are told no less than three times the Gigantasaurus is “the biggest hunter there’s ever been”: solely to build up an inevitable face-off with the T-Rex. The deadly locust plot is such a naked attempt to motivate shoe-horning in legacy characters, the film doesn’t even bother to explain what it’s about or what the baddies plan was.

At one point Laura Dern says something to the effect of “we shouldn’t live in the past, we should aim for the future”. Imagine if this slightly lumpen rehash of its better predecessors had done the same.

12 Monkeys (1995)

12 Monkeys (1995)

A world-ending-virus can only be cured through the power of time-travel in Gilliam’s twisty, paradox time loop

Director: Terry Gilliam

Cast: Bruce Willis (James Cole), Madeleine Stowe (Dr Kathryn Railly), Brad Pitt (Jeffrey Goines), Christopher Plummer (Dr Leland Goines), David Morse (Dr Peters), Jon Seda (Jose), Christopher Meloni (Lt Halperin), Frank Gorshin (Dr Fletcher), Bob Adrian (Geologist), Simon Jones (Zoologist), Carol Florence (Astrophysicist), Bill Raymon (Microbiologist)

2035 and the world is a plastic-coated hell, where what remains of mankind huddle below the Earth in rudimentary, environmentally controlled, airtight refuges. The surface is a dream, now home to a deadly virus that wiped out 99% of the population. That virus was unleashed in Philadelphia in 1996: nothing can stop that. But time travel can help the scientists of 2035 gain a sample of the original pre-mutation virus. They believe it was unleashed by an organisation called “The 12 Monkeys”. Track the organisation in the past and find an original sample of the virus. Easy right?

Wrong. Time travel messes with your mind, making it hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. The travellers are penal “volunteers”. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is selected as he has a photographic memory and a strong memory from 1996 of witnessing a Philadelphia airport shooting, that will help send him back. However, he’s flung back to 1990 and thrown into an asylum, treated by Dr Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and sharing a room with environmentalist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Rescued and correctly sent to 1996, can Cole convince Railly he’s telling the truth and track Goines who has become the leader of the 12 Monkeys?

12 Monkeys is one of the most intriguing time-travel films ever made – and its future, ripped apart with plague, seems chillingly closer today. It puts a vulnerable, scared person at its centre – and makes him a dangerous, inarticulate Cassandra who reacts with violence when no-one listens him (which they never do). It repeatedly tells us things cannot end well, but still gets us hoping they might anyway. It presents puzzles that provoke debate and stretch the imagination.

Gilliam’s most main-stream film is an eccentric, unsettling, tricksy film that juggles time travel and paradoxes, as well as mental health and the nature of reality. Shot with a Dutch-angle infused oddness – reflecting its hero’s mental unbalance – and scored with a French-inflected whirly-gig musical theme that is reminiscent of the demented street people that pepper the film (and may, or may not, be other unbalanced time travellers), it constantly puts you on edge and unsettles.

This extends to its casting, which takes two Hollywood superstars – Willis and Pitt – and deglamorises them to a shocking degree. As Cole, Willis is shambling, vulnerable, scared and struggling to distinguish between reality and fantasy. An 8-year-old boy when the virus destroyed the world, in a way he’s never grown up. He looks around the world of the past with a wide-eyed wonder (he adores the sun and the feel of the soil beneath his feet) but has the stroppy impulsiveness of a maladjusted teenager. He’s so twitchy and insecure, you start wondering if he is the mentally disturbed man who imagines he’s from the future, that his doctors think he is. It’s Willis’ least-Willis performance ever and one of his finest.

Similarly, Pitt pushes himself as the disturbed, aggressive Goines. Prone to obsessive rambling, that stretches Pitt’s languorous vocal register (he trained for months to improve his vocal range), Pitt’s performance is wide-eyed, unpredictable and unsettlingly dangerous. With a single eye swollen and askew, it’s a performance that plays with being OTT but manages to work because he mostly avoids actorly showing off. Madeline Stowe, by contrast, has the most difficult role as the ‘normal person’, a sceptical psychiatrist becoming more and more convinced Cole is telling the truth.

Of course, despite the film’s efforts to play with reality, the audience are always pretty certain he isn’t wrong about the future. But, with the sight of fellow deranged time travellers, not to mention Willis’ vulnerable performance, that Cole could still be crazy. Even if you are right, doesn’t mean you are sane.

Gilliam’s surrealist future helps with this. Every time Cole is pulled back to 2035, the world becomes ever more deranged. Is his grip on reality eroding, as he is feared it is. Design wise the future is a triumph – but it also seems eerily similar to the 1990 asylum Cole is in. Has the building, and the things in it, been repurposed in 2035? Or, as the scientists of 2035 become ever more surreal (including serenading Cole at one point in a Dennis-Potteresque fantasy), questioning Cole via a circular floating series of TV screens while he sits in a suspended chair, is Cole’s grip on reality gone?

It keeps the tension up in the ‘past’ plotline, even as the things Cole has seen in the future – strange messages on walls, photos, voicemail messages – accumulate. 12 Monkeys is a fascinating time-travel movie, that establishes from the very first moment it is impossible to change the past (something the audience, like the characters, get sucked into forgetting). After all, if the plague was stopped, then time travel would never be invented in the first place. All Cole, and the other travellers, can do is collect information.

But that doesn’t stop the future influencing the past. Goines decides to form the 12 Monkeys based on a conversation with Cole in 1990. Dr Railly becomes fascinated with apocalyptic predictions – writing a book that will influence the man planning viral annihilation in 1996 – only because she meets Cole. And, above all, 2035 Cole’s presence in 1996 leads to that strong childhood memory happening in the first placce. The final reveal of the meaning behind Cole’s recurring memory-dream is the perfect example of a time-loop closing (so much so the scientists in the future bend over backwards, giving Cole a doomed mission, to ensure it happens).

It also explains why he is drawn towards Stowe’s Railly, who resembles (with the exception of her lack of Hitchcock Blonde hair) the woman in his dream. The relationship between Cole and Railly develops into a slightly forced romance (it feels like a script requirement, for all Gilliam’s taking the characters to watch Vertigo to hammer home the obvious contrasts). But when it focuses on two people drawn together for reasons they can’t quite understand (and there are hints of predestination) it just about works. That and the commitment of both actors to the roles.

12 Monkeys is about 15 minutes too long (it’s 1990 section outstays its welcome), especially as the audience is never in doubt that the plague is real (after all this is a movie). But Gilliam keeps us on our toes with how confident we feel in Cole: we’re repeatedly shown he’s violent, inarticulate and impulsive. The final half of the film, where the origins behind events we have been shown or heard in the first half, is fascinating. The tragic turns of the film’s paradoxical temporal loop is brilliantly executed and haunting. Gilliam’s film is quirky, unsettling and a design triumph: but it also tells a fascinating story. It’s his most accessible and crowd-pleasing film.

The Matrix: Resurrections (2021)

The Matrix: Resurrections (2021)

We saddle up one more time for this belated sequel, which does enough to be the second-best film in the franchise

Director: Lana Wachowski

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Thomas Anderson/Neo), Carrie-Anne Moss (Tiffany/Trinity), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Morpheus/Agent Smith), Jessica Henwick (Bugs), Jonathan Groff (Smith), Neil Patrick Harris (The Analyst), Priyanka Chopra Jones (Sati), Jada Pinkett Smith (Niobe), Toby Onwumere (Sequoia), Max Riemelt (Sheperd), Brain J Smith (Berg), Erendia Ibarra (Lexy), Lambert Wilson (The Merovingian), Christina Ricci (Gwyn de Vere)

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is the most famous games designer in the world. His award-winning game The Matrix revolutionised the genre, but now he needs to make a sequel. But Anderson is juggling all sorts of depression, chugging blue pills like there’s no tomorrow in order to keep back disturbing feelings and sensations that there is more to that Matrixconcept than he remembers. Was it in fact closer to reality? Why is he so drawn to Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) the woman he sees in his coffee shop? Why is he unsettled by his business partner Smith (Jonathan Groff)? Should he follow the White Rabbit?

Bringing The Matrix back is a tough ask. It’s been well over twenty years since the first film revolutionised action and sci-fi – and then the two sequels managed to progressively strip out any of the fun, romance and wonder from the original. Now Resurrections attempts to put it all back in again. It’s a noble attempt – and this is easily the second-best Matrix film – but there is still an air of obligation about the whole thing.

It’s hard to escape that feeling from the on-the-nose opening act, which literally includes dialogue from Smith to Anderson to the tune of: ‘Our parent company, Warner Brothers, say they want a sequel to The Matrix and they’re going to do it with or without us, so we might as well come up with an idea’. Partially set in a new Matrix where the events of The Matrix form the basis of an award-winning game everyone knows by heart, characters constantly riff excitedly on how some events in this film parallel those in the first film (always the first film). There is a spit-ball planning session at Anderson’s workplace, where his design team bounce phrases like “Guns. Lots of Guns” at each other or playfully mime out bullet time. I suppose this relates to Wachowski’s experience of having the Studio for years demand a fresh new Matrix film. But it is a little on-the-nose.

The self-reverential nature of the film continues throughout. From an opening that sees Hacker Bugs (a very good Jessica Henwick) watch a simulation of the opening of the first Matrix film – with a few changes – a mixture of homage and nostalgia runs through the film. As an alliance of humans, machines and programmes try to free Anderson/Neo from his new Matrix cage, they ease him in by playing (on huge projector screens) iconic scenes from The Matrix. Anderson’s flashes of memory, as things start to fall in place, are full of flashbacks to the earlier films. When Neo arrives in the real world, he finds himself in a dystopian future where he is a celebrity, and the events of his life are as much a part of this world’s folklore, as memories of the plot of the original trilogy is in the minds of my generation watching the film.

It’s quite a tribute that the film manages to keep all this self-reverential stuff balanced and neither becoming too annoying or collapsing in on itself. It does so because Wachowski manages to keep it playful. She’s clearly learned from the legacy of the two Matrix sequels, that puffed themselves up so much they burst. This features some discussions around truth, reality and choice but keeps them low-key and free of sequel’s aura of pomposity. It wisely (and plot logically) depowers Neo so that he is no longer completely invulnerable. It again makes him an outsider, fighting against a dominant system that seems to hold all the cards. And it puts at its heart a battle of two people to be together.

It’s also lovely to see Reeves and Moss back in these roles, which they fit back into with a charming ease and comfort – and also to see that their chemistry still exists. The plot of the film is at times garbled and even poorly communicated – it is very hard at times to understand why things are happening or what the rules are in this new Matrix (and its particularly hard to understand the plot around Smith, and how, if at all, he is restrained within this Matrix). But what you do understand is the emotional imperative that lies behind these characters actions – in a way that was often lost in the two original sequels.

The film also manages to keep more than its share of inventive action set-pieces. While its ending – a motorbike chase through a city where the whole population is turned against our heroes – feels very reminiscent of other things we’ve seen, earlier set-pieces use a lot more invention. In particular there is a very neat innovation of doors that jump thousands of miles – and see the characters move from one orientation to another as they pass through them. A chase through these allows for some dynamic movements and more than enough of the gravity defying bouncing and gunplay the franchise is famous for. New actors do very good jobs, in particular Henwick and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a new version of Morpheus and Jonathan Groff as a twist on Smith.

But Resurrections feels like a dutiful film and it’s laced with the odd clunky scene (none more so than a reappearance of Lambert Wilson, ranting direct to the audience about social media) and the odd gap in logic and plot definition. Its main problem is that it never feels essential. To bring the franchise back after all this time, into a world where its cultural cache has declined, you feel it needed to do something really special or redefining. It doesn’t really do this: it seems more interested in riffing on the past rather than building a future. It’s a reassuring film that hews closely to the plot and structure of the original film (deliberately so, with the characters even refencing similarities) that isn’t going to scare or annoy the fans – but also (and the film’s box office failure supports this) also not going to win over new converts. But it’s still the second-best film.

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Tension, drama and thrills… all go missing in these increasingly ponderous self-important sequels

Director: The Wachowskis

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Neo), Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity), Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith), Jada Pinkett Smith (Niobe), Monica Bellucci (Persephone), Lambert Wilson (The Merovingian), Gloria Foster/Mary Alice (The Oracle), Helmut Bakaitis (The Architect), Harold Perrineau (Link), Ian Bliss (Bane), Harry Lennix (Commander Lock), Collin Chou (Seraph), Nona Gaye (Zee), Gina Torres (Cas), Randul Duk Kim (The Keymaker), Daniel Bernhardt (Agent Johnson)

If you ever want to study a crash-course in how not to make sequels to a genre redefining film, these might be the perfect examples. I’m going to break a golden rule here and review them both together, which I’ve not done for anything else so far in this blog. The flaws in these films are so interlinked, I think you have to almost treat the whole misfire as one single, dreadfully disappointing film. And I just couldn’t bear the idea about writing two articles about each of them.

It’s six months after the events of The Matrix. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is an invulnerable phenomenon in the Matrix. He and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are in love. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is being dragged over the coals by Starfleet Command (I know it isn’t called that, but it might as well be) for disobeying orders. And even worse news than that: the Machines have found the location of Zion, the secret last human city in the world. And they plan to destroy it – in 72 hours. Neo must undertake one final mission in the Matrix to find the secrets that will prevent this destruction of the human race – and he’ll have to do it with only the support of his friends, as the rest of mankind decides to batten down the hatches and wait for the uncoming storm. But is there more going on here than we think? Is there more to Neo’s existence than meets the eye? Why is he being plagued with dreams of Trinity’s death? And what is going on with Smith (Hugo Weaving) who know seems to be acting as rogue agent, working against man and machine?

The answers are all eventually revealed, with maximum pomposity and self-importance, over the nearly five hours these sequels drone on, seemingly determined to drain out everything that anyone found cool about the original movie and leave it with a stuffy, pretentious, dull shell that won’t win any new converts over. Before these films, The Matrix was a franchise that would have a life in films, video games, anime and fan fiction for decades to come. After them, it was dead in the water.

Why? What did people like about the first film? They liked the action sure, and they liked the cool action and visuals and the anti-authoritarian nose thumbing. But those all really worked because we related to the characters, we saw that they were vulnerable, outmatched and in peril. In the real world they were plucky, brave resistance fighters. In the Matrix they were desperate rebels who could do really cool things. This all gets blown away here. In the Matrix, Neo is now so invulnerable, that fights are pointless: they are little more than dull displays of choreography with inevitable outcomes. Reloaded hammers home time and again Neo can do anything he likes in the Matrix. Fighting hundreds of clones of Smith at once? No problem. Flying faster than the speed of sound? Sure thing. Reworking the reality to suit him? It’s just a shrug of the shoulders.

This is a disaster to drama in two ways. Firstly, it drains all the peril out of any moment in the Matrix world because we know that there is no way Neo can get hurt – or that he will allow any of his friends to get hurt. Secondly, it means to get any tension Neo has to be somehow depowered or separated from everyone else. This happens three times over the films: Neo gets dispatched to China, flung into an underground station purgatory and blinded in the real world. When the film becomes reliant on continuously finding a way to put its hero out of the way (a blight that also often hits Superman on film), you know you are in trouble.

Where Neo is still vulnerable, is the real world where the films spend more and more time. Sadly, the real world is a tedious, uninvolving place. Remember in the first film where Morpheus seemed like a super cool, sage-like leader of a rebellion? Well in fact he’s just a cog in a large, stuffy command structure that takes all the worst, most uncool elements of Star Trek’s Starfleet and doubles down on it. Zion is a stereotypical sci-fi city, with characters dressed in flowing robes, quasi-uniforms or urban rags (that’s when they are dressed at all – Reloaded’s early doors rave/orgy rightly draw oceans of sniggers). The real human world isn’t a gang of plucky, anti-authoritarian types but a typical sci-fi, rules-bound society. The flair of our characters is stripped from them.

All this is wrapped in a package that doubles down on the stuffy, Bluffer’s Guide to Philosophy that popped up in the first film. There it added a bit of self-regarding intellectual heft to a film about people kicking each other and dodging bullets, here it’s the be-all-and-end-all. But the films are nowhere near as clever as they think they are: various characters parrot crudely scripted stances on everything from free will to determinism to the greater good. None of it is new or intriguing, and nearly all of it feels like the directors straining to show off their reading list.

It hits its apotheosis in Reloaded as the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the bearded brain behind the Matrix, lays out in a long speech how Neo is in fact a part of the Matrix programme designed to help the system reboot and refresh in cycles, an interesting idea totally crushed under the weight of needlessly long, incomprehensible words, phrases and Latin quotes that don’t sound smart, only like the speech was written out in plain English and then run through a thesaurus.

And it was a neat idea that our Messiah might actually have been created by the machines to help their prison renew itself. But it gets lost in the clumsy, pleased with itself delivery, in conversations about choice and free will (will Neo choose his destiny or saving Trinity’s life? Guess!) and the generally turgid plotting. This gets worse in Revolutions which finally seeps the life out of the franchise, with a video-game shoot-out at Zion (which makes no tactical sense), a trek by Neo and Trinity to commune with the machines and Agent Smith converting every human being in the Matrix into a copy of himself, in a vague philosophical comment on the death of individuality.

The worst thing about these films is that they are self-important, hard to enjoy and often more than a little silly. Fights take place at great length with very little tension. Reloaded does have a fab freeway car chase – but again it depends on Neo being absent for any tension to exist (and as soon as he turns up it’s all solved in seconds). Almost everything in the real world is stuffy, earnest and bogged down in the sort of uncool sci-fi tropes the first film stayed away from. Nearly anything in the Matrix involves watching a God like figure hitting things (including a bizarre ten-pin bowling effect when Neo knocks over a host of Smiths).

The actors struggle to keep up the genre-redefining cool that made the first film so popular. Fishburne looks bored (and rightly so, since his dialogue is awful and he’s given almost nothing to do in Revolutions) and Weaving treats the whole thing as a joke. Reeves is earnest, but frequently restrained by the dullness of his role as an almighty God. Moss has most of the best material as Trinity makes drastic decisions for love and faith. The rest of the cast struggle with either paper-thin characters, painfully over-written dialogue or a mixture of both.

The Matrix sequels managed to drain out everything that was great about the original. Where that was nimble, these were stuffy. Where these were anti-authoritarian, these laid out a dull and stereotypical sci-fi society. Where the first was gripping, desperate and adrenalin fuelled, this sees invulnerable heroes, extended runtimes and a frequent lack of peril. Worst of all Revolutions in particular feels like hundreds of other “sci-fi war films” and about a million miles from the actual revolution of the first film. It doubles down on nearly everything that was less good in the original and strips out the things that most impacted people. How not to make a sequel.

The Matrix (1999)

Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving defy gravity in ground-breaking sci-fi The Matrix

Director: The Wachowskis

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Neo), Laurence Fishbourne (Morpheus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity), Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith), Joe Pantoliano (Cypher), Marcus Chong (Tank), Anthony Ray Parker (Dozer), Julian Arahanga (Apoc), Matt Doran (Mouse), Gloria Foster (The Oracle), Belinda McClory (Switch)

In 1999 we all waited for the release of a science-fiction film that would change the genre forever. Problem is we all thought it would be Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, when in fact the entire world went crazy for The Matrix. It helped that The Matrix was everything The Phantom Menace wasn’t: tight, exciting, brilliantly made and above-all endlessly, effortlessly and completely cool. And it still is: not even its dreadful, dreadful sequels could dent its genius or legacy. The Matrixis a flash of counter-culture: anarchic, teenage fantasy taking over the main-stream. It’s still brilliant.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is an office-working drone by day, hacker Neo by night, who wishes there was more to life than this. He’s going to get more than he wished for when he’s offered a choice between the “Red Pill and the Blue Pill” (truth or fantasy) by Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne), leader of a mysterious hacker group with super-human athleticism and strength. Choosing the Red Pill, Neo wakes up to find himself plugged into a massive machine – and that the world he knows is nothing more than a post-apocalyptic cage, a computer simulation known as The Matrix, used by the all-conquering machines to keep humanity docile while they use their bodies as batteries for their empire. Even more than that, Morpheus is convinced Neo is “The One”, a prophesied saviour who will bring an end to the Matrix. Can Neo accept his destiny?

The Matrix is a superb fusion of a whole host of questions that clearly fascinate the Wachowski siblings. Questions of identity come flying to the fore, as well as the battle for individualism in a conformist society. The Matrix has very earnest points to make about learning to embrace the people we really are, which it delivers with a host of references to philosophy and psychology. It could have become indulgent and self-important (a trap the sequels would fall into), but it delivers the story with a crowd-pleasing burst of energy, mixing in film noir, kung-fu and some rather endearing characters that we end up really caring about.

It’s also of course super, super cool. Everything about it passes the test: from the leather trench coats and shades to the high-octane action and the sense that the film is speaking directly to the alienated, authority-nose-thumbing teenager in all of us. This is a film for the people, the under-dog, with something for anyone who has ever felt trapped, bored or oppressed by their fate (i.e. nearly everyone) and reassures them that their dreams of having a special destiny might actually come true. It tapped into people’s joy and fantasy in a way The Phantom Menace totally failed to do.

This is a classic slice of mysticism. It’s not a film as clever as it thinks it is – it’s main calling card is still Alice in Wonderland the go-to for all films musing on dreamlike fantasy worlds – but it still throws a host of fun little questions and thinking points at the audience. Today, its also easier to see how the film is a celebration of counter-culture and sexual fluidity in a way that had to be snuck under the wire in the 90s. It asks (in a simple) way questions about who we are and what is it all about, in a way that really appeals to rebels. It’s the sort of film a Camus-loving teenager who is fed up with their parents, dreams they had the skill to make.

Skill is the key here. This is a superb achievement by the Wachowskis. It’s brilliantly directed, fast-paced and electric. The camera-work frequently makes use of a flurry of flashy tricks (reflections are a common theme), but which never over-whelm the narrative. It’s revolutionary use of freeze-frame camera work – an ingenious invention created “bullet time” where a series of cameras each taking one shot seem to allow us to rotate at normal speed around actors caught mid jump – introduced something we’d never seen before (and was much imitated and parodied later). The action sequences are stunning – a series of high-stakes, super-cool kung-fu-laced punches and kicks that are shot with a fluid camera that manages to seem both classic and deeply immersive.

It also works because our heroes are really underdogs. We are told again and again that they are vulnerable in the Matrix – that for all their gravity defying feats of strengths, when they come up against the “Agent” sentient programmes, they stand little or no chance of surviving. The goodies die with astonishing regularity in the film, and even the leads are shown to be extremely vulnerable in combat. Our empathy for them is so well crafted, that we even forgive the fact that they gun down countless numbers of their fellow humans during the film (it’s handwaved that anyone can become an agent at any time, so the slaughter of dozens of regular Joes is pretty much essential to prevent this).

A lot of that is also down to the excellence of the main performers. The film channels Keanu Reeves instinctive sweetness and gentleness in a way few other films managed to do as successfully before – he’s brilliantly convincing as both the kick-ass hero, but also the endearing fish-out-of-water who says “woah” as Morpheus jumps over a building. Carrie-Anne Moss is determined, assertive and very humane as Trinity while Laurence Fishbourne’s natural poise and authority are perfectly utilised as Morpheus. Opposite them we have a performance of such dastardly, lip-smacking, Rickmanesque consonant precision from Hugo Weaving, that Agent Smith becomes an iconic villain.

It all comes together into a film that delicately weaves a plucky under-dog story of a hero trying to find his purpose around a few perfectly staged, edge-of-the-seat action set-pieces, that hits a perfect balance between a wider-audience and a cool and pulpy indie vibe. It’s the sort of film that will please the masses, but many people will still feel is speaking very personally to them. Hugely influential, it remains a masterpiece of action and science fiction cinema which, while never as clever as it thinks it is, is hugely vibrant in its filming and endlessly, repeatedly exciting when watching.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson head back into the area in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee Latier), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Coriolanus Snow), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Lynn Cohen (Mags), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason)

It’s a year on from Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) victory at the 74th Hunger Games. They and the other victors live a life of relative luxury in the dictatorship of PanAm. Problem is Katniss’ humanity and defiance of the ‘rules’ from her victory have started to inspire whispers of discontent into open mutterings. When a “victor’s tour” fails to impact on her lustre, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) follows the suggestion of Games Maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – let’s celebrate the 75th Anniversary by chucking two victors from each district back into the ring. As the only female victor from District 12, this means Katniss will either wind up dead – or be put into a position where she has to abandon her humanity to become the killer she never wanted to be. But is there another game going on inside the game?

Catching Fire is an entertaining, fast-paced, well made sequel to The Hunger Games that successfully broadens and deepens the franchise. Far from being a difficult middle chapter, it’s well structured to tell a pretty self-contained story that riffs on events from the first film without being enslaved to them. It also very sharply deepens the social and political commentary from the first film, widening our knowledge of PanAm and our understanding of its corrupt, murderous system.

Lawrence’s direction is punchy, pacey and provides plenty of emotional depth and scope. It’s a film that skilfully balances questions of trauma and the horrors of murder-for-entertainment, with poundingly exciting action sequences in the games themselves. In some ways Catching Fire is the only film in the series that ends (more-or-less) with a triumphant bang, and it’s possibly why the film is the most satisfying of the lot, with the cleanest structure. It also has the advantage of widening the outer edges of the world of the film, while still largely operating within the self-contained world of the games arena.

Within that, it also manages to keep us on our toes. Many of the same set-ups – both in the build-up to the games and the action in the arena itself – echoes or reflects what we’ve seen before. The film uses this to throw at us moments the surprise us – as allegiences are revealed – or provide opportunities for dark humour (such as the setpiece Katniss decides to use to showcase her skills this time round, markedly, darkly different from her archery display in the first film).

The film is entertaining and also thought-provoking. Within the confines of its 12A certificate, it doesn’t flinch from the oppressive horror of PanAm in the districts, where sudden executions and brutal beatings are an everyday occurrence. Similarly, it demonstrates even more the heartless opulence of the capital, a world of hedonism where no questions are asked about what props this whole system up.

And at the heart we have Katniss. Wonderful played, with a full-blooded emotional commitment from Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss is slowly become aware of her iconic status, but hasn’t changed dramatically from the at-times judgmental, prickly, abrasive loner she was at the start. She’s a reluctant figure-head for a new movement, but that’s what makes her both so effective and so moving. She’s not pretending or playing a hero – she simply does the right thing, because that’s what she believes she should do. Sure she makes a host of poor character choices, but that’s what genuine people do.

Lawrence’s grounded emotional realism in the lead, helps sets the tone for the whole franchise as something surprisingly gritty, dangerous and at times quite emotionally challenging. Hutcherson does fine work as the true heart of the film series, a decent, kind man who not only sees but also brings out the best in other people. Claflin is very good as a matinee idol victor who keeps us guessing on his motivations. Harrelson and Banks provide skilled depth to characters that could have been flamboyant cartoons. Sutherland enjoyably quietly munches some scenery as the dastardly Snow, while Hoffman coasts showily but effectively.

Catching Fire bursts along with a great deal of flair and lets us really see how despotic regimes like this operate. Katniss is manipulated into situations designed to fit a narrative that will cement the position of the regime. Ordinary people are corrupted by the wickedness around them. Humanity is seen as a dangerous quality. It’s intriguing and way more insightful than you might expect from a YA blockbuster. And its treated with a profound respect by everyone involved.

And it works because it also tells a cracking, entertaining story, revolving around richly drawn characters with fully fleshed out hinterlands and personal story arcs. For all it takes place in a dystopian future, it feels a real and grounded story. And its hard not to relate to a film where the central character, for all her flaws, is fighting for her right to not kill, maim and slaughter those around her for entertainment: who clings to her humanity despite all temptations to the contrary.

Catching Fire is also blessed with being the neatest, most straight-forward and cinematic of the stories (it’s the only film in the series that ends with anything near a triumphant bang rather than a searching question – for all that it’s a compromised triumphant bang). Told with verve, smoothness and pace it’s a very entertaining movie – and surprisingly rewarding.

The Hunger Games (2012)

Jennifer Lawrence takes aim against a corrupt system in The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Coriolanus Snow), Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane), Toby Jones (Claudius Templesmith), Alexander Ludwig (Cato)

“May the odds be ever in your favour”. They certainly were for The Hunger Games, the first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA trilogy. It was one of many franchises trying to ride the success of the Harry Potter series – and easily the best (it’s vastly superior to, say, Twilight or the woeful Divergent). Shepherded to the screen by a confident Gary Ross, it’s a film that doesn’t shy away from book’s social politics and darkness, while also balancing that with complex and engaging characters. It stands up well to repeated viewings and never lets you forget it’s a film about teenagers involved in a brutal series of murderous blood sports.

In the future, after disasters and wars, the nation of Panem has been built. Twelve colonies are ruled from the capital. As punishment for a past rebellion, each year each district sends two tributes to the capital. These tributes will be feted, celebrated – and then pushed into an area and made to fight to the death in “The Hunger Games”, all of it transmitted on TV across Panem. To the winner, a lifetime of fame and comfort. To the losers – well, death. In the poorest district, District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers as tribute after her sister’s name is selected. Stubborn, surly, defiant and an expert archer, Katniss surprisingly finds herself capturing the public imagination – helped by a faked romance with her media-savvy fellow District 12 tribute (Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta). But in the ring will it be everybody for themselves? Or can Katniss keep hold of her soul?

The Hunger Games is rich material. Panem feels more and more like a mix between Gilead and Trumpian pomposity (the capital is a heavily stylised and artificial Rome-inspired centre of excess), in which life and death matters for very little. It’s a film that has astute things to say not only about how totalitarian regimes operate, but also how the oppressed often connive in their own suppression. So wrapped up is the population in the excitement of the Hunger Games, so invested in the results, that they’ve almost forgotten it is a tool of oppression. That the capital can only continue to exist if all the districts co-operate in following its orders and meekly supplying anything it asks – from food and resources, to teenagers for slaughter.

What this world needs is someone like Katniss. An individual who knows her own mind, who won’t play the game and will be herself. The film is brave in not softening the edges of this often prickly personality. Expertly played by Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss is compassionate and caring – but she’s also judgemental, untrusting, holds grudges and in person is often surly, resentful and impatient. But what makes her a hero, is her refusal to collaborate in softening the Hunger Games. She knows she is being manipulated to make a world feel better about itself – and she is repulsed by the idea of taking life needlessly and the slaughter of the weaker and more vulnerable tributes. Indeed, she will go to huge lengths to keep others alive in the games – something that helps to wake a population up to how they’ve been hoodwinked by bright lights to forget their own humanity. Her defiance is less about politics and more about simple human decency and being able to make her own choices – something a whole world has forgotten.

Even the people in the capital have forgotten that the Hunger Games exist to suppress not entertain. The film gets some delightful mileage out of its satire of blanket media coverage. The TV coverage is pure ESPN or Sky Sports, mixed with shallow chat shows. Stanley Tucci has a ball as a flamboyant anchor who lets no moral qualms even cross his mind as he banters with the tributes in interviews with the same excited ease as he will later commentate on their slaughter. Wes Bentley’s would-be Machiavel TV producer has been so drawn into the mechanics of his games, he’s stopped even seeing the combatants as human beings, just another set of ratings-tools he can use to advance his career.

It’s a neat commentary from the film on how we can be so beaten down and crushed by the everyday that we forget – or overlook – how it is both controlling our own lives and forcing us to rethink our own views on life. This is a world where people are being taught that life and death are not valuable, that murder can be entertainment and that everyday burdens are worth dealing with because you have a chance of being allowed to fight to the death for a shot at eternal comfort. It’s a deeply corrupt and savage system, and the film doesn’t flinch away from exploring it.

Alongside that, it’s an entertaining, gripping and involving film (if one that is a little overlong in places). The second half – which focuses on the games – is both exciting and terrifying in its (often implied – after all this is still a film that needs to be shown to kids) savagery. It encourages us to identify closely with Katniss, to experience the same terror she does as well as delight in her ingenuity and inventiveness to escape death and plan strikes against her brutal opponents. By the end of the film we’ve taken her to our hearts – for all we’ve seen how difficult a person she is – as much as the population of Panem have.

Ross’s film is a triumph of adaptation, and you don’t say that about many YA novels. Suzanne Collins’ adaptation of her own book captures its thematic richness, while compressing it effectively. There are a host of interesting actors giving eclectic performances, including Harrelson as Katinss and Peeta’s mentor, Banks and Kravitz as their support team, and Sutherland as the controlling dictator behind it all. The Hunger Games is prime entertainment, with some fascinating design work (the costumes and sets are spot on) and very well made. It’s a franchise to watch.