Category: Films about science

Solaris (1972)

Solaris (1972)

Tarkovsky’s search for inner meaning and depth in the framework of space

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Cast: Donatas Banionis (Kris Kelvin), Natalya Bondarchuk (Hari), Jüri Järvet (Dr. Snaut), Vladislav Dvorzhetsky (Henri Burton), Nikolai Grinko (Kelvin’s Father), Olga Barnet (Kelvin’s Mother), Anatoly Solonitsyn (Dr. Sartorius), Sos Sargsyan (Dr. Gibarian)

When Tarkovsky saw 2001 he was not impressed, calling it “a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth”. Tarkovsky thought science fiction was in thrall to machinery and effects, rather than intellectual heft. (By the way, it shows how much Tarkovsky saw himself as a philosopher-poet, that he felt Kubrick a lightweight). Tarkovsky’s aim with Solaris was to present science fiction about people and ideas, rather than technology. Solaris is in equal parts fascinating and frustrating, wilfully slow (as Tarkovsky liked it) but also hypnotic, a film that never quite manages to marry up his stated aim to explore human feelings with his own intellectualist distance as a film-maker.

Adapted from Stanislas Lem’s novel, Solaris is set in an unspecified future and revolves around psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis). Kelvin is sent to a station orbiting the alien world of Solaris, an ocean world that quite possibly might be a gigantic living brain. It’s hard to tell if that’s the case, because contact with the planet has proved impossible over decades. Now the last three scientists on Solaris station are sending back strange reports and Kelvin’s job is to decide if the programme should continue. On the station he discovers the planet has somehow accessed the inhabitant’s dreams and made figures from their subconscious flesh – and he is horrified and then overwhelmed when his late wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) appears on the station, a ghost made real by the strange powers of Solaris. How human is she? And does it matter?

Lem cordially disliked Tarkovsky’s Solaris. He couldn’t understand why the film didn’t exactly follow the book – where were the long chapters of scientific philosophical discussion? He felt it a shallow palimpsest of his work. I like to imagine that infuriated Tarkovsky, a director who prided himself on his intellectualism like few others. Huffily retorting films are different from novels, nevertheless he later claimed Solaris was the least favourite of his films, preferring the pretentious Stalker. But Solaris is ghostly and haunting in a way that the self-important Stalker (for me) never is.

Tarkovsky’s view of man’s exploration of the stars is that it blinds us to the more rewarding search for truth and meaning here on Earth. Not for nothing does the film start with a long, wordless, sequence following Kelvin walking through the grounds of his father’s dacha. Reeds dance in the river, long grass strokes Kelvin’s waist, rain spatters down from the sky.  Nature is a key part of what makes us human – on the station, the scientists affix paper streamers to air vents to replicate the sound of wind among the trees, to make Solaris feel a little more like home. To Tarkvosky space is a boring, featureless mass, and Solaris nothing but a pale shadow of Earth’s glories.

What’s the point of hitting the stars, if we are cold and lifeless ourselves? Kelvin is this at the start of the film, a distant, emotionless man, plagued with regret, barely engaged emotionally with his world. A mysterious child runs around his father’s house – we assume it must be Kelvins daughter (Tarkovsky never confirms) but our hero never takes an interest in her. This will change with the appearance of Hari, exactly as he remembers her – unaged (she died at least twenty years ago) and a strange mix of who she was and his half-remembered memories.

But Kelvin isn’t ready to explore this yet. He puts the ghost in a rocket and shoots her off into space. Pointlessly, as his fellow inhabitants of the station tell him. They’ve tried similar with their own ‘visitors’ – they always reappear when they wake from sleep. And Kelvin can’t do the same again with the second Hari. Especially as this Hari is so distressed at the slightest separation from him, she tears her way through a metal door after he closes it on her.

It turns Solaris into Tarkovsky’s real aim: an exploration of what lies within, rather than ethereal dreams among the stars. As Dr Snout says, real exploration would require mankind to find a mirror not a rocket. Solaris becomes about how far Kelvin will go to emotionally connect to a woman who may or not be real and both is and isn’t the person he remembers. How much will he put aside his doubts and reconnect with feelings he has long suppressed? And in Hari’s case, as her self-awareness grows with every minute of her ‘existence’, how much will she change? And, as she is born from Kelvin’s guilt at her suicide, is she always destined to embrace self-destruction?

Solaris (1972 Andrei Tarkovsky) Donatas Banionis and Natalya Bondarchuk

These ideas become the heart of Solaris, unfolding in Tarkovksy’s trademark style. Solaris is awash with long unsettling takes and an eerie lack of music – and even, in places, ambient sound – in which the actors move with a coldness and lackadaisical precision. Solaris is, in many ways, an awkward fit for the director. Tarkovsky is not one to embrace raw emotion. Donatas Banionis remains, throughout, an austere and unknowable figure, whose exact feelings remain at times unconnectable behind his stoicness. Solaris is like a terrible ghost story that looks at the impact of loss with the same professional interest Kelvin as a psychologist has. At times Tarkovksy seems like a philosopher juggling the enigma of humanity, but getting a little bored with the question. Crude as he would find it, an emotional outburst or two would do wonders for Solaris.

But perhaps that would sacrifice part of what makes Solaris as compelling, haunting and lingering as it can be. Because there is a feeling the whole thing is taking place in a drained-out dream that could cross into a nightmare. Hari is beautifully played by Natalya Bondarchuk, carefully balancing the slow flourishing of a shadow into a human, scared and alarmed by the onslaught of emotions she cannot understand. Her slow of a distinct personality, rather than as an extension of Kelvin, contrasts with the cagey uncertainty of the rest of the characters. And makes us wonder how real they might be, since she feels at times the most vibrant.

Tarkovsky’s film uses his style to wonderful effect throughout. His lack of interest in the trappings of the modern world actually adds to its eerie disconnect. Clothing and technology basically look exactly like the 1970s, cars are unchanged, the space station is a grimy wreck. Kelvin’s journey to the space station takes about 45 seconds of screen time – compare to the long, dreamlike drive Burton takes through the city (actually – and clearly – Tokyo). Tarkovsky’s heart is in the poetry of a horse’s movement. It adds to the sense of space exploration as a chimera and the 45 minutes the film takes in its prologue on Kelvin’s father’s dacha reminds us that understanding the world around and inside us is where Tarkovsky feels our aims should be directed.

Solaris ends with a sequence that has stayed with me for decades. Kelvin repeats his long walk through his father’s land, all of it this time in a chilling stillness. Not a gust of air or ripple on the water. He approaches his father’s house to see rain falling inside. A long cut back shows the truth. It’s a close to the theme Lem felt was least engaged with by Tarkovsky: the impossibility of communication between two species so fundamentally different they can only offer a simulacrum of each other’s behaviour.

Tarkovsky is straining for a different type of psychological journey. Solaris offers little in the way of emotional investment – it’s far too restrained, cold and distant for that. Such emotions are placed at the heart of Soderbergh’s remake – but that sacrificed the austere, ghostly haunting of this. Solaris plays like a construct from the planet of our emotions, thoughts and fears, its characters moving in journeys of discover in our world much as Hari does in theirs. It’s unknowability and discordant stillness and jagged long-shots make it unique. It’s one of the Tarkovsky films I always want to revisit.

Steve Jobs (2015)

Michael Fassbender excels in Danny Boyle’s superb Sorkin scripted biopic Steve Jobs

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs), Kate Winslet (Joanna Hoffman), Seth Rogan (Steve Wozniak), Jeff Daniels (John Sculley), Katherine Waterston (Chrisann Brennan), Michael Stuhlbarg (Andy Hertzfield), Perla Haney-Jardine (Lisa Brennan aged 19), Makenzie Moss (Lisa Brennan, aged 5), Ripley Sobo (Lisa Brennan, aged 9), Sarah Snook (Andy Cunningham)

The art of movie biography shouldn’t be slavishly covering every second of the subject’s life. It should be capturing their essence. Steve Jobs does exactly that, a superb distillation of its subject’s life and personality through focusing on the preparation for three vital project launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1998, each playing out in real time. The contrasting (and continuing) clashes and tensions at each event – personal and professional – tells us more about the man and his impact than a cradle-to-grave biopic ever could.

It also helps that Steve Jobs has an electric script from Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin approached the project not like a film, but as a classic three-Act play. Steve Jobs is an explosion where all the special effects are the words, held together by pulsating ideas and a sense of rhythm musicians would envy. This is Sorkin at his absolute best, a script with zip and jokes but also a profound understanding of exactly the sort of tunnel-visioned visionary perfectionism Jobs encapsulated, all wrapped up with a beautifully judged emotional through-line. Only Sorkin can make just actors delivering dialogue as dynamic and edge-of-the-seat as a car chase.

And (like The Social Network) his intensely intellectual style, and sense for the frustration of the super-intelligent at the rest of us for not keeping up, is perfect for this tale of the creation of the future of computing. Sorkin uses product launches as a window into how fresh idea can be accepted (or not) by the world. The battles over them, with the focus on small details that communicate the big picture and the difficulties of making others understand the visionary core that makes something work is crucial – and brilliantly delivered here. That’s perfect for Sorkin, who is gifted at making big-picture passionate thinkers sound as brilliant as they are.

But what makes Steve Jobs perhaps his most compelling script, is that he adds an emotional undertone to it. Jobs was a visionary, who understood better than the customer what they really wanted. But he was also a flawed individual. Sorkin’s script makes clear that, like his computers, he was a closed system. Just as the Macs were designed to only work with their own software and not interface with others (Jobs’ gospel, the exclusivity of the product being what makes it special), so Jobs himself built his own conception of the world and refused to let anything outside that influence it, or allow any external factors to change his mind. Decide he was loyal to someone, and nothing they do will shakes that. Decide another has betrayed him, and the system locks them out.

Central to this is Jobs’ relationship with his unacknowledged daughter. From the 5-year-old he reluctantly spends time with, to the young girl he starts to form a carefully emotionally managed bond with to the 19-year old who finally tells him how much she resents his closed-system management of their relationship. Sorkin’s script brilliantly balances an insight into why Jobs might have acted like this (bound up in issues with his birth parents) and the emotional impact it has on the daughter (the hugs not returned, the words not said). Jobs isn’t a bad man – although the script doesn’t shy away from his selfishness, or the appalling things he said about Lisa’s mother in the press – or a straight-forward terrible dad. He’s just not quite capable (or willing) of giving the emotional commitment needs. It’s written tenderly with a great deal of empathy for both father and daughter.

This emotion is further bought out by Boyle’s dynamic humanism at the helm. It’s a reminder of what a great theatre director Boyle is: this film is basically one of the most dynamic plays you’ll ever see, fast cuts and graphics intermixed with extended one-shot dialogue scenes that allow his actors to flourish. Boyle employs on-screen graphics and montage to move us between the product launches, but isn’t afraid to let his camera serve the dialogue, with the exchanges brilliantly cut to the rhythm of the dialogue.

He also sets out a space for the actors to deliver uniformly superb performances. Front and centre is Michael Fassbender’s transformational performance. He communicates Jobs’ brilliance and his ruthless determination to never compromise. It’s a performance of messianic intensity, but also extremely grounded and real – and, like Sorkin, he understands the heart of the film is the father-daughter relationship. Fassbender carefully hides Jobs’ emotional need, just as he understands the dynamism that wouldn’t allow a hint of vulnerability and arrogance that judges everyone as second-best to himself. He’s a tough, difficult, uncompromising man – but also an egalitarian one, (eventually) willing to acknowledge his flaws, the biggest being his fear of emotion.

Equally brilliant is Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ long-time confidante and ‘work-wife’, manager of each of the launches and a combination of mentor, conscience, counsellor and parent. Jeff Daniels is excellent as the businessman who goes from mentor to unforgiven rival. Seth Rogan gives his finest dramatic performance as Steve Wozniak, here a decent man and computing genius, who lacked Jobs’ ability to “play the orchestra” and shape events to his will.

It’s all wrapped up in a gripping film that feels like a fusion of theatre and film. If it has a problem, it’s that many will find its focus on the nuts-and-bolts of Apple hard to follow (and I confess, the script makes me understand the drama without understanding the product). But its strength is in understanding visionaries, their ability to shape ideas that wouldn’t occur to the rest of us – and the selfishness, and the damage that causes, that often goes hand-in-hand with that. With scintillating acting, skilful direction and, above all, a superb script, Steve Jobs is sharp and engrossing drama.

The Social Network (2010)

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg bring the making of Facebook to life in Fincher’s modern American classic

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg (Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield (Eduardo Saverin), Justin Timberlake (Sean Parker), Armie Hammer (Cameron Winklevoss/Tyler Winklevoss), Max Minghella (Divya Narendra), Brenda Song (Christy Lee), Rashida Jones (Marilyn Delpy), Joseph Mazzello (Dustin Moskovitz), Rooney Mara (Erica Albright), John Getz (Sy), David Selby (Gage)

Nothing has changed our interaction with the world faster than the internet. And nothing on the internet has changed how we interact as much as social media. As it drives changes in the way we relate to other people, it’s a brave film that tries to capture this zeitgeist and turn it into an effective movie. The Social Network is a brave movie – and also a brilliant one, a defiantly modern and far-sighted movie that avoids being the sanctimonious message movie it could have become, by concentrating on personal relationships, drama and, above all, a strong and compelling story.

Its October 2003 and a 19-year old Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) gets dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). So, he responds like many people today would – but not in 2003 – by writing a series of rude and angry blogs about her. And at the same time, he does something you and I wouldn’t be able to do – he builds overnight a campus website called Facemash that allows users to rate the attractiveness of female students. It’s a sensation – and a scandal.

Off the back of it, Zuckerberg is approached by the Winklevoss brothers (in a skilled double performance by Armie Hammer) to see if he’d be interested in building an elite social network, Harvard Connection, for them. Zuckerberg agrees – but did he independently already have the idea for Thefacebook, an elite social network for Ivy League students? Either way, with funds from friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) he builds the platform which is to become Facebook. Does it all end well? Since the story is framed around Zuckerberg in 2009, sitting in depositions while being sued by both the Winkelvoss brothers (“the Winklevi”) and Saverin, you can guess not.

Fincher’s film reflects its central character in many ways – cool, efficient, tightly wound, juggling intellectualism with simmering tension. It’s vibrant, fresh, razor-sharp, perfectly paced and superbly dramatic. It turns what could have been a terrifically dull story of very clever people typing lines of code into a whipper-sharp story of jealousies, rivalries and suspicions. It also brilliantly veers away from being a polemic. It could easily have made points – as many films have – about the “evils and dangers of that creepy thing the internet” or constantly reminded us how morally superior film-makers are to social media kingpins. It does nothing of the sort. Instead it’s a brilliantly insightful look at the birth of a phenomenon that also makes subtle, intelligent points about some of the behaviours that phenomenon led to. All while keeping us gloriously entertained.

A big part of the film’s success is in Sorkin’s superb script. The material is perfect for him. The character’s intellectualism fits with his pithy turn of phrase, while their perceptions of themselves as victims or on a moral crusade fits with his ability to write morality with empathy. It also helps that he is the master of crackling dialogue. The idea to structure the film around the depositions is also a master-stroke. Not just a reminder of what’s to come, it adds an air of artificiality to everything we see (perfect as well for Sorkin’s smarter-than-life dialogue) – after all, each scene is based on the filtered remembrances of people in the depositions. And all of them remember a subtly different story.

Sorkin and Fincher also manage to avoid having villains in play. It would be easy to make Zuckerberg a villain: many films would have done. But Zuckerberg here isn’t bad – it’s more that he’s tunnel-visioned, selfish and socially inept. Erica (a marvellous turn by Rooney Mara as the first victim of social media bullying) has a point when she says she dumping him not because he’s a geek but because he’s not really a nice person. But Zuckerberg’s actions – his betrayals as some read them – come not from vindictiveness but a shark-like moving forward that leaves people behind him. And he’s also, as the film is keen to show repeatedly, lonely. He has one friend – whom he sacrifices on the altar of his creation – and is ruthless at cutting people out of his life when they fail to meet the standards he has set them.

The film channels the skills of Eisenberg – whose range is not huge – perfectly here, in a role he was surely born to play. Eisenberg crafts his physicality in something hunched, oppressed and sullen while his flat voice is perfect for a man who expresses himself through his creation not his personality. He gives Zuckerberg both a ruthlessness, but also a strange lack of knowledge – constantly surprised that his actions have consequences that leave him alone. He makes him a true lonely god of the internet – the man who invented the biggest social networking centre in the world, but who doesn’t have a friend himself.

But it also makes clear that Zuckerberg lacks the usual flaws of his kind: he’s not interested, it seems, in money, riches, fame or drugs. To him, the prize is to do not to be seen to do. He makes a rich contrast with Sean Parker (a brilliantly charismatic Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, who briefly influences him but is primarily interested in the flash and bang that the retiring Zuckerberg isn’t. What he does have is the drive and ruthlessness that his friend Eduardo Saverin (a wonderful performance from Andrew Garfield as a marvellously sweet, but clearly naïve and out-of-his-depth man completely lacking the vision a project like Facebook needs) doesn’t have – and which makes Saverin unsuitable for thinking in the global terms Zuckerberg is.

And the film has little time for the Winklevoss twins. Played with chutzpah in a double role by Armie Hammer (who skilfully distinguishes both of them), Zuckerberg is right when he describes them as rich kids who had everything they ever wanted in life – and seem outraged that they can’t be given the rights to Facebook as well. As he points out they intended to do nothing other than come up with a concept. These rowers – in a witty touch their boat is sponsored by that dinosaur Polaroid – also represent the old elite under siege from new media. The entitled rich, who can’t comprehend that the world is being handed to them on a plate.

The film also makes for an intriguing meta-commentary on the growth of social media. From the trolling of Erica, through the bitter feuds and arguments, the he-said-she-said fighting of the depositions, and the quick shifts between friendship and rivalry, it also manages to capture the world of social media in a nutshell. The atmosphere where actions can explode in people’s perception, where statements you made years ago come back to bite you, where judgement and criticism are constant and the ability to communicate more easily also makes fights easier to start, seem more and more prescient.

Fincher’s film does this marvellously, with a wit and sense of dramatic flair that reminds me of a more grounded Network. Sure the scene at Henley-on-Thames is hand-in-the-mouth agonising for any British person to watch (it is littered with major errors from turn-of-phrase to its understanding of life in Britain), but when every other scene in it is perfectly done it doesn’t matter. Like any victory, Facebook has many people claiming to be its father. You could say the film about this film: superbly directed, a brilliant script and perfectly cast, it’s a triumph.

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Spencer Tracy and Fredric March go toe-to-toe in Stanley Kramer’s liberalism-on-trial movie Inherit the Wind

Director: Stanley Kramer

Cast: Spencer Tracy (Henry Drummond), Fredric March (Matthew Harrison Brady), Gene Kelly (EK Hornbeck), Florence Eldridge (Sara Brady), Dick York (Bertram T Cates), Donna Anderson (Rachel Brown), Harry Morgan (Judge Merle Coffey), Claude Atkins (Reverend Jeremiah Brown), Elliott Reid (Prosecutor Tom Davenport), Paul Hartman (Deputy Horace Meeker)

In 1960, Inherit the Wind was a parable. The teaching of Darwinism being illegal in a small town that defined itself by its faith couldn’t really happen today could it? So, the film used the concept as an angle to criticise the restrictions placed on free speech during the McCarthy years. The wheel has come full circle now: it’s no longer unlikely at all to imagine something like this happening. Indeed, versions of it have already taken place in America this century. This change does actually help the film look increasingly more prescient as time goes by.

A fictionalised version of the famous Scopes monkey trial (with most of the names changed, but many of the court room events fundamentally the same) a local schoolteacher, Bertram Cates (Dick Young), in a small Southern town is placed on trial for teaching Darwinism in his school. Staunch Christian and former Presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) volunteers to put the case for the prosecution. Cates’ defence will be handled by the renowned liberal lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy). Sparks fly in a courtroom and around the town, where many people are instinctively opposed to anything that can be seen to draw doubt on intelligent design.

Kramer’s films are often both praised and criticised for their rather heavy-handed liberalism. Inherit the Wind is no different. You’d be hard pressed to miss the message here about the dangers of intrusive laws designed to govern what we think and believe. Kramer’s film edges away from making criticism of fundamentalism too overt. Sure, the local preacher (a lip-smacking Claude Atkins) is a tongue-frothing “burn ‘em all!” maniac, only happy when stirring up an outraged mob. But on the other hand, Drummond is revealed to be a man of (liberal) faith – and, in an agonisingly heavy-handed final note, the film ends with him literally weighing The Bible and On the Origin of the Species in his hands then clasping them both together. You see – science and faith can work together!

While it’s easy to smile at Inherit the Wind’s striving for inoffensive liberalism, it means well and actually produces some effective court-room set-pieces. While its overlong – the sections outside of the court could do with trimming down and a rather shoe-horned plot with Cates dating the local preacher’s daughter (not helped by the blandness of both actors) promises much but delivers very little. What the film really works at is a chance for two seasoned performers to go at each other hammer and tongs in the court. Chances they both seize.

Spencer Tracy sets a template of sensible, liberal reasonableness mixed with a well-defined sense of right and wrong that would serve him well in a further three collaborations with Kramer. He brings Drummond a rumbled worldliness, a shrewd intelligence and a patient forbearance but never once lets us forget his righteous fury that this case is even happening in the first place. His courtroom performance hinge on a winning reasonableness that can turn on a sixpence into ingenious traps for witnesses. He’s a rock of decency in a shifting world and Tracy effectively underplays several scenes, making Drummond seem even more humane.

It also means that Tracy makes a lovely performing contrast with Fredric March’s firey passion as Brady. Sweating in the heat of the court, March’s Brady is overflowing with moral certainty and fury. March’s performance is big, but the character himself has a court-personae that depends on him appearing like an embodiment of God’s fury. It works because March gives Brady a quiet air of sadness. This is a man raging against the dying of the light – this case is his last hurrah. Brady is becoming yesterday’s news, but can’t seem to consciously accept this. In quieter moments, he is clearly a man of reflection and reasonableness – but (in a surprisingly modern touch) is all to aware that a raging public personae is what “sells”.

Kramer’s film is at its strongest when it lets these two actors go toe-to-toe. These moments aren’t just in the fireworks for court. Private scenes between the two show a great deal of mutual respect and even admiration. The two men are old friends. Drummond is very fond of Brady’s wife Sara (played excellently by Fredric March’s real life wife Florence Eldridge), who also regards him as a man of decency. They can sit on a bench at night and reflect on the good times. Brady may be a type of demagogue but he’s not a rabble rouser like the Reverend Brown (who he publicly denounces) even while he enjoys the attention of crowds. Drummond isn’t adverse to whipping up a bit of popular support – or enjoying the attention. It’s a fine contrast of two men who both similar and very different.

Aside from this, Kramer sometimes trips too often into rather obvious and heavy-handed social commentary. Gene Kelly is on good form in an over-written part as a cynical journalist – he sort of cares about justice, but only if its a good story and has only scorn for anyone else who believes anything. The film closes with a rather heavy-handed denunciation of his lack in belief in anything, compared to Brady’s faith. The script is at times a little too weak – Tracy and March sell the hell out of a vital confrontation near the end, playing “gotcha” moments that the script largely fails to deliver – but there is still lots of meat in there. Some of the staging and performances – including the extended pro-religion protests that pad out the run time – are a little too obvious.

But at heart, there is a very true and increasingly more-and-more relevant message in this film – and when its acted as well as this, it’s hard not to enjoy it.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Russell Crowe struggles with reality as Math’s genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Russell Crowe (John Nash), Ed Harris (William Parcher), Jennifer Connelly (Alicia Nash), Christopher Plummer (Dr Rosen), Paul Bettany (Charles Herman), Adam Goldberg (Richard Sol), Josh Lucas (Martin Hansen), Anthony Rapp (Bender), Judd Hirsch (Professor Helinger)

There is nothing Hollywood likes more than a man overcoming adversity. Make him a troubled genius and that’s even better. Throw in a supportive wife who bends over backwards to help him and you’ve got the dream Hollywood scenario. You can bet Oscars will follow – and they certainly did for Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, which hoovered up Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (it probably would have also nabbed Best Actor if Russell Crowe’s personal behaviour hadn’t turned him from idol to Hollywood’s most unpopular actor).

The film is a romantically repackaged biography of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a pioneering mathematician whose life was turned upside down by his diagnosis with schizophrenia in the 1960s. Even before then, Nash had become increasingly preoccupied by delusions and fantasies, many of them revolving around “secret government code-breaking work” for a bullying CIA Agent (Ed Harris). Slowly coming to terms with his diagnosis, with the help of his loving wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), Nash must learn to put aside the things he knows he are not real, while trying to rebuild his life.

Ron Howard’s film is assembled with his usual assured professionalism. It is never anything less than effective, what it never quite manages to be is inspired. Perhaps because it’s a very standard Hollywood biopic. It effectively presents the life of its troubled genius as something very easily digestible, hitting all the beats of suffering, determination and eventual triumph you could expect when the film starts.

This makes for exactly the sort of middle-brow filmmaking made with absolute professionalism that, if you turn your head and squint a bit, can be made to look like Oscar-winning art. That seems incredibly harsh on the film: but there is really nothing particularly “new” about anything here: in many ways, it could have been made almost exactly the same in the 1940s (and it would probably have won an Oscar then as well).

That’s not to say it’s a bad film. Howard’s direction is sharp and exact, and he stages the film very well, drawing very good performances out of the cast. The film is good at immersing us in Nash’s delusions, particularly in the first hour of the film (it’s not until the hour mark that anyone overtly states there is anything wrong with Nash beyond eccentricity and social awkwardness). Howard shoots the fantasies totally straight: in fact if you had managed to avoid knowing what the film is about, you can totally imagine being tricked into thinking it’s a genuine spy thriller.

With that though, the film gives you just enough hints. Take a beat and look at Nash’s CIA actions and they don’t make much sense. A secret code that involves him tearing pages out of thousands of magazines and pinning them up around his office connected with bits of string (standard filmic language for the obsessive nutter)? The CIA injecting a number implant into his arm? A dead drop at a posh house which requires letters to be sealed with wax? The film gives us the hints that Nash is more troubled than just awkward around people, but doesn’t lay it on too thick. And at least one plot reveal that something we have seen was in fact a Nash-delusion the whole time is so skilfully presented that it surprised me (and I know surprised several other people).

The film is also strong on schizophrenia and delusion. Reworking Nash’s real-life auditory hallucinations into visual fantasies (including imagined buildings and people) works really effectively for film. It also really opens up for us the horror of how difficult living with something like this might be. How would you feel if you could never trust the world you saw around you? What if you discovered things that were central to your life turned out to be fantasies? That people you had built relationships with were not real? That’s a traumatic emotional burden, and the film is very strong at building your empathy with Nash.

It’s also helped by Crowe’s very effective performance in the lead. Shy, buttoned-up, physically awkward, his eyes always cast down, body slouched and voice an embarrassed mumble, Crowe brilliantly embodies a nervous outsider whose problems fitting in only magnify his growing dependence on fantasies that place him at the centre of the world. There is a touching vulnerability about Crowe here that so rarely gets seen. A big part of the film’s success is due to his performance.

Jennifer Connelly also makes a great deal of her very traditional role as the supportive wife, bringing just the right level of assurance, spark and warmth to the role. Connelly carefully shifts the character from flirtatious confidence to heartbroken but supportive wife. But she doesn’t lose track of Alicia’s own frustrations at living with a medicated, unresponsive husband – even if, of course, any regrets she may have about the way her life turned out are overcome swiftly.

Which of course is completely different from real life where, for all her support, the couple divorced. Nash also had a baby (which he didn’t acknowledge) with a nurse he had an affair with. But these are real life complexities that have no place in a crowd-pleasing biopic like this. Similarly gone are Nash’s possible flirtations with bisexuality, his experiments with drugs or his flashes of violence. Added in are an entirely invented “pen gifting” Princeton ceremony and Nash’s Nobel prize acceptance speech where he gives thanks to his loving wife (in real life no such speech happened and the couple were separated). But that’s not the story this film wants to tell, so truth can go hang.

Perhaps these, post-diagnosis, difficulties are why the final third of the story – which sees Nash casting aside the invasive treatments to overcome the power his delusions have over him through willpower alone – is the least involving part. After all, they had to drop most of the actual real-life events that happened (see above). But there simply isn’t as much drama in watching someone quietly adjust to rebuilding a career in maths as there is in seeing them struggle.

Perhaps as well, because maths is a pretty difficult to bring to the screen. The film falls back into many accepted visual tropes – you’ll see a lot of writing on windows – and explains Nash’s theory of co-operative dynamics with a bar-and-booze based conversation around pulling girls in bars. That’s about as far as engagement with maths and understanding his theories goes – but we take it as read that Nash is a genius because he acts like one, people tells he is and he writes lots of big equations on boards.

A Beautiful Mind offers few real surprises (except for one) and presents a story that Hollywood has basically been making for decades. Things from real-life that don’t fit the story have been cut out, to make this as conventional a film as possible: the troubled genius and the loving wife behind him. It’s very well played (as well as Crowe and Connelly, Paul Bettany is brilliantly charismatic as Nash’s eccentric college roommate) and directed with a professional skill. But it’s also a very safe and even conservative film that has skill but not inspiration.

The Sound Barrier (1952)

Sound barrier header
Ann Todd and Nigel Patrick on a dangerous mission to break The Sound Barrier

Director: David Lean

Cast: Ralph Richardson (John Ridgefield), Ann Todd (Susan Garthwaite), Nigel Patrick (Tony Garthwaite), John Justin (Philip Peel), Dinah Sheridan (Jess Peel), Joseph Tomelty (Will Sparks), Denholm Elliott (Christopher Ridgefield), Jack Allen (‘Windy’ Williams), Ralph Michael (Fletcher)

David Lean’s film career can be divided into two eras: his early films are British-based literary adaptations and family dramas, many of them front-and-centring the experiences and tribulations of women. The later era are the jaw-dropping epics he became best known for. The Sound Barrier is towards the end of the first era – and it’s almost a bridge between the two, an impressively filmed story of man’s triumph over nature, that sneaks under the wire an emotional family-in-crisis storyline, with a daughter suffering the damaging impact of her father’s obsession.

That father is John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), a famous aeronautical engineer and airline entrepreneur who, with the end of the war, returns to his fixation: discovering a way to make a plane fly so fast it breaks the sound barrier. It’s a vision that has dominated his life, but which his daughter Susan (Ann Todd) finds hard to understand. John is a domineering, demanding father, whose son Christopher (Denholm Elliott) gets himself killed trying to qualify as a pilot to win his father’s respect. In his place, Susan’s husband Tony (Nigel Patrick), a test pilot, is claimed by John as a surrogate son and equally pushed to risk all to try and fly faster than sound.

Lean’s film is a wonderful mix of post-war military-based exploits and stiff-upper lip exploration of family dynamics, where resentments and passions go unspoken but shape everything. With a superb script by Terence Rattigan, whose work is filled with monomaniacs like Ridgefield and sympathetic and emotionally intelligent women like Susan, The Sound Barrier might seem like a celebration of British pluck (it hardly matters that we Brits didn’t actually break the sound barrier first – no mention of Chuck Yaeger here…), with some stunning aerial photography. But it’s a lot more than that.

What’s fascinating about The Sound Barrier – and what makes it such a rewarding watch – is how much it questions the value of these sort of quests. The film’s focus is less on the engineering struggles and the bravery of the pilots (compare and contrast this film with the more straightforwardly triumphant The Dam Busters), and more on the human cost of obsession and this sort of adrenalin-fuelled airborne machismo.

The Ridgefield family has been damaged almost beyond repair – under their wealth and comfort – by their father’s demanding perfectionism. Ralph Richardson is superb as this bluntly-spoken man who sees no reason to sugar coat anything or hide any disappointment. The character has more than a hint of a Gradgrind of engineering – and just like Hard Times patriarch, his well-intentioned but misguided parenting has distorted both his children.

His hero-worshipping son Christopher (a wonderfully fragile and charming Denholm Elliott) pushes himself through chronic air-sickness to lay down his life trying to follow in his father’s footsteps (John greets his death with a sad criticism of his flying skills and goes back to work with his jet-plane models straight after the funeral). Susan has a cold relationship with her father (strikingly she calls him Father while everyone else – even her husband Tony – calls him Dad), and can’t understand why all this goal is worth sacrificing lives and any chance of simple domestic happiness. Her father’s coldness and distance from his children – not to mention his obvious and continual disappointment that she was born a girl – has led her to treat him with respect but not love.

It’s a dynamic completely missed by her husband Tony, played here with a bluff simplicity by Nigel Patrick. But then it’s pretty clear that this risk-taking pilot is quite simply not that bright. His lack of independent thinking is even identified by engineer Will Sparks (a ‘sparkling’ performance of avuncular surrogate fatherdom by Joseph Tomelty) as his major weakness as a test pilot. Tony has no idea of his wife’s concerns or emotional problems with her father, and instead quickly gets sucked into filling the role of “son I never had” for John. But then Tony has everything John wants – the flying skills Christopher never had without the questioning independence of Susan. He’s exactly the sort of weak-willed would-be-hero who can be quickly sucked into taking huge risks.

The film’s sympathies though are with Susan, played with a real warmth tinged with a sad expectation for disaster by Ann Todd, whose presence slowly grows to dominate the film. She can’t understand why it is necessary to risk all for this nebulous goal: it’s a refrain she repeats throughout the film “I wish I knew, I really wish I knew”. We’ve just gone through a second calamitous war – why are we throwing our lives away for a concept? Why should her husband put himself at huge risk like this for a brief mention in the history books and nothing else? Why not be content with a happy family life and living to see his son? Not to mention that the film proves her right – the nice-but-dim Tony isn’t good test pilot material and Susan’s new family is destroyed just like her old one.

At first it might seem that Todd’s character is the stay-at-home “don’t go Darling” type, but the film increasingly shows the validity of her doubts. There is a slightly toxic “carry on” Englishness about Tony and her father. Obsession is shown to drive out all over considerations – and Richardson has a late scene that carefully but brilliantly demonstrates how it has left him isolated and alone. It’s telling the barrier is finally broken by devoted husband and father Philip (a very decent John Justin), who is aware of the danger and has the most settled family life of the lot (and who greets his triumph with tears of relief rather than cheers).

The Sound Barrier could have easily been a “Britain triumphs in the skies!” with soaring music and heroic filming. Instead, it demonstrates the danger of obsession and the damaging impact it can have on people and their families. It concentrates not on the men in the sky, but increasingly the potential widows on the ground, forced to acknowledge that life with the family is less important than the chance of glory. It’s a rich and emotionally intelligent film, very well directed by Lean with warmth and humanity and with three terrific actors leading from the front.

Gravity (2013)

Sandra Bullock is stranded in space in Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Ryan Stone), George Clooney (Matt Kowalski), Ed Harris (Voice of Mission Control)

It’s often been said space is mankind’s final frontier. It’s beautiful and awe-inspiring. But it’s also a terrible place, a void where the normal rules that dictate how our bodies operate are completely suspended. We can only breathe what we carry with us and the lack of any atmosphere or gravity means a few metres might as well be a million miles. It’s in many ways the perfect conditions for a survival film – which, at its heart, is what Gravity is.

On a mission in space to repair the Hubble telescope, a collapsed satellite triggers a chain reaction of space debris hurtling in orbit at extreme velocities. Turned into a vast number of deadly bullets flying completing an orbit once every 90 minutes. This shrapnel destroys the mission, leaving specialist Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as the only survivors – and left with their only chance of return to Earth being to travel somehow to one of the other space stations in orbit and hitch a ride home on one of their escape pods.

Cuarón’s film is an engrossing and edge-of-the-seat 90 minute thrill ride, combined with a quietly meditative reflection on how our internal pain can make us drift through life. The film is titled Gravity but it’s there to draw attention to what is missing in the film. Not only the obvious – the lack of pull on her body – but also the lack of grounding in Stone herself. In mourning for the loss of a child, Stone has very little ties to earth or indeed anything. She is drifting through her life emotionally, much as she drifts through space itself. When asked why she likes it up in space, she replies “the silence”. She’s a woman untethered from life on earth in more ways than one.

So this is a film that is not just a survival but also a rebirth. We see Stone go through immense, dangerous moments of tension and terror, battling against all the odds to survive and return home. At the same time, the film carries an emotional weight because it’s also about Stone making a conscious decision to survive, to decide to re-engage with and commit to the world – to choose life if you like. Someone suffering from grief and depression as she does at the start of the film, may well have understandably embraced despair. Instead, the film is her coming to terms with the loss of her daughter, and a resolve to live her life for her.

All of this happens of course in the vast majesty of space, a vision beautifully captured by Cuarón. Filmed in an immersive style, with several long takes that don’t draw attention to themselves – a shot length that serves the purpose of the story not vice versa – and Cuarón is happy to use quicker cuts where needed. The camera follows the journey of Stone in epic and intimate detail, with shots exchanged between vast panamas of the astronauts as dots in space, to extreme close ups that bore into Stone’s eyes and capture her emotions from guilt, to hope, to terror. 

The long opening shot, that ducks and weaves around the weighless astronauts in space as they repair the Hubble telescope is of course a technical marvel, but it also brilliantly established the situation and the joy and fear of being an astronaut, of being allowing in the darkness and emptiness of space. It sets the scene perfectly from later shots that throw you into the adrenalin burning terror of spinning wildly in space with no resistance to slow you down or dodging debris moving at thousands of kilometres per second through space.

In fact the film is almost unbelievably tense – probably the most tense space film since Apollo 13 and in that we actually knew they were coming home alive (in a nice nod to that film, Ed Harris ‘reprises’ his role as mission controller in a voice-only cameo). With its brilliant immersive style, and the emotional bond it swiftly builds with the viewer, it means you will find you hardly draw breath along with the heroes. I’ve seen the film three times and each time after the first viewing I was sure it wouldn’t have the impact the first viewing had. But goddamn it, it works every time. The film is quick – at little under 90 mins – but you won’t feel it (in fact if anything you might be relieved).

Cuarón won the Oscar for direction, and the film is not just a load of flash and technical marvel (although it has a lot of both). It’s grounded in a very simple emotional story of survival, matched with an internal story (not overplayed) of resolving and dealing with grief. A lot of that works from the effectively unflashy performance from Sandra Bullock, who is very good in a part that requires not just physical but also emotional commitment. She’s well supported by George Clooney, who is perfect as the charming but calm and controlled mission commander who mentors her through the early stages of survival in space.

The film has a series of breathtaking set pieces – collapsing Hubbles, spinning astronauts in space, desperate space walks trying to grab any inch of objects to stop them drifting into space, collapsing space stations, burning up on re-entry – all of them shot with an elegance that marries technical excellence and dazzling camerawork and vision with a powerful story. A bag of tricks but one that is delivered with real heart.

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Felicity Jones and  Eddie Redmayne bring to the screen the life of Stephen Hawking

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking), Charlie Cox (Jonathan Jones), David Thewlis (Dennis Sciama), Simon McBurney (Frank Hawking), Emily Watson (Beryl Wilde), Maxine Peake (Elaine Mason), Harry Lloyd (Brian), Guy Oliver-Watts (George Wilde), Abigail Cruttenden (Isobel Hawking), Christian McKay (Roger Penrose), Enzo Cilenti (Kip Thorne)

If you want a story of a triumph over adversity, there are few where adversity was faced off so successfully and publicly than the life of Stephen Hawking. Diagnosed with motor-neurone disease while still a postgraduate, Hawing defied the diagnosis that gave him little more than a few years to live, to shape a life and career that would have a profound impact on the world and make him probably the most famous scientist alive. Not bad for a man who spent a large part of his life confined to a wheelchair, only able to communicate through a synthesised computer voice.

But his life was not just a story where he was the only character. Many of his accomplishments came about because of the unflagging support of his wife Jane. This film takes as its source the book Jane wrote about their life together. And while it arguably sugar-coats or plays down some of the more uncomfortable or divisive elements of their marriage (a marriage that was eventually to end in divorce and several years where they did not speak), it also serves as a warm tribute to the many years they spent together where their support for each other was total and offered with no agenda or demands.

Here in James Marsh’s inventive and well-made film, which manages to more-or-less transcend its “movie of the week” roots, Hawking and Jane are played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in performances that scooped an Oscar and a nomination respectively. Both are deserved, as these are rich, dedicated and empathetic performances, crammed with admiration for their subjects. It all fits perfectly well in Marsh’s moving if (at times) rather conventional film, which he directs with a lack of flash and plenty of heart. 

It’s a film that sometimes avoids delving too deeply into the emotional heartlands of its lead characters, and the frequently messy situations that life throws you into (the end of this relationship comes with a remarkably calm sadness, which contrasts heavily with the furious argument Jane describes in her book). It’s also a film that has a very clear agenda of framing Jane as a near saint in her devotion and patience, and Stephen as a brave soul with a superhuman perseverance and regard for his wife. So the introduction of choir leader Jonathan Jones (played with a sweet charm by Charlie Cox) into their domestic life as a surrogate father to the Hawking children and friend to Jane (very definitely not a lover, the film is eager to make clear) is very much something accepted by both without a hint of doubt or recrimination. Similarly, Hawking’s later divorce of Jane is set in a context of “setting her free” rather than the more (allegedly) definitive break it was in real life.

Real life, you suspect, was messier than this. The film does mine some excellent emotional honesty from Jane’s decision to marry Stephen being, at least partly, based on her belief that this man she loves only has a few years to live. From the start she doesn’t anticipate signing up for a lifetime of providing care and abandoning her own aspirations to support Stephen’s (the film makes no real mention of her own dreams of becoming a translator) – but Jane does so with a decided willingness and sense of duty. Similarly, Stephen does not anticipate a life essentially trapped in a wheelchair – finally speechless – and the film allows beats of frustration from him, alongside the determination to not let these problems prevent him from achieving his potential.

The film revolves around Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Hawking. Needless to say it’s a technical marvel, a stunning accomplishment not only in its physical mastery (especially as it was all shot out of sequence, so in each scene Redmayne needed to carefully map how far the symptoms had progressed) and commitment, but also in its searing emotionality. Hawking’s brightness, his bashful playfulness, his intelligence and sense of cheeky charm are all there – and they’re later married with a pained, just-controlled bitterness mixed with stern mouthed resentment and gutsy determination to deal with the hand he has been given. Redmayne’s performance is a superb capturing of the all-consuming feelings of being betrayed by your own body, of no longer being the master of your own frame and being forced to adjust your plans and expectations to meet the limits nature has put on you.

Felicity Jones is equally good in a superbly heartfelt performance as Jane, a woman who gifts Stephen the determination and will to see past the limits the disease places on him. But it’s also a performance that acknowledges the draining burden of having to support someone this ill, of having to constantly be the strong member of the marriage, the one who must always be as ready to save her husband from choking at dinner as she must be to drop everything and fly across Europe to take life-saving medical decisions about him. Jones’ performance never slips into self-pity, but mines a rich vein of willing sacrifice powered by love.

Marsh’s film is largely unflinching around the everyday miseries and sorrow of the terminally ill and restrictingly disabled. We are confronted in every scene with the limits that Hawking’s body places upon him, from deteriorating handwriting and clumsiness to the loss of all speech and movement. This progression is presented with a detail uncoloured by maudlin sentimentality. Doctors are sympathetic but bluntly clear about the dangers and risks of treatment, each adversity is met with a quiet determination to carry on.

The Theory of Everything is a heart-warming watch – and features two superb performances. The portrait of a marriage that works, for the most part of their lives together, despite all obstacles is inspiring. While the film glosses over well-publicised issues over the end of the relationship – and perhaps downplays the emotional strains on both towards its end – it still succeeds in making a largely unsentimental picture of a genius who overcame all, and the brave woman who gave him the dedication he needed to do it.

The Aeronauts (2019)

Redmayne and Jones go up, up and away in The Aeronauts

Director: Tom Harper

Cast: Felicity Jones (Amelia Rennes), Eddie Redmayne (James Glaisher), Himesh Patel (John Trew), Tom Courtenay (Arthur Glaisher), Phoebe Fox (Antonia), Vincent Perez (Pierre Wren), Anne Reid (Ethel Glaisher), Rebecca Front (Aunt Frances), Tim McInnerny (Sir George Airy), Robert Glenister (Ned Chambers), Thomas Arnold (Charles Green)

When you have found two actors with such natural and easy chemistry as Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, it makes sense that you would seek other projects for them to star together in. Let’s try and recapture that Theory of Everything magic in the bottle! The Aeronauts brings these two actors back together, but the law of diminishing returns applies in this impressively mounted but rather uninvolving epic that has more in common with Gravity that it does Theory of Everything.

James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) is a scientist, one of the first meteorologists, determined to prove that man can predict the weather. While his theories are laughed at by fellow members of the Royal Society, Glaisher raises the cash for a private balloon trip to the heavens to take meteorological readings. But he needs a pilot: who better than Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones) a famous balloonist and show-woman, the widow of a fellow balloonist (Vincent Perez) who fell to his death in an attempt to break the record ascent. Will the two mismatched aeronauts – the uptight scientist and the freespirit with tragedy at her core – reach an understanding amongst the clouds?

If you got the sense that the story of the film is rather predictable from that paragraph well… you’d be right. It’s the sort of film that has bookend scenes: an early one where our hero desperately tries to make himself heard during a speech at the Royal Society while his colleagues walk out in contemptuous laughter, and then another near the end with the same hero being applauded to the rafters by those same colleagues. Even his harshest critic claps politely – because it’s that sort of film. Meanwhile our other hero overcomes her survivor guilt by heading into the skies. Whenever the story, written by workaholic Jack Thorne, focuses on these personal stories, the film falters into cliché and dull predictability.

It’s told mostly in real time, following the just over 1 hour and 40 minutes of the pair’s ascent in the balloon, with flashbacks to their first meeting and their own backstories plugging the gaps in conversation. No major revelations happen in these flashback sequences, and a host of respected actors go through the motions, filling in the paint-by-numbers stories of bereavement, scientific isolation, an inspirational father with early onset dementia, and pressures to just conform to what women are expected to do. The two leads do their very best to animate these rather dull and tired plotlines but with very little success.

In fact, both actors are largely struggling the whole time to add breadth and depth to thinly sketched characters. Tom Harper leans heavily on their pre-existing chemistry and there is certainly very little in the characters to challenge them, particularly Redmayne who can play these stiff-necked, all-business, shy science types standing on his head. Felicity Jones has by far the better part as a natural adventuress who has locked herself in isolation and guilt (and in a dress) due to her guilt at her husband’s death. Jones gets the best material – and also the best vertigo inducing action sequences – in a film that is most successful when it is far away from the ground.

Harper’s film is by far at its most interesting when extreme altitudes, cold temperatures and reduced oxygen induce crisis in the balloon’s ascent. As Amelia has to go to extreme and dangerous lengths in order to force the balloon to begin its descent, the film finally comes to life. With several terrifying shots of the huge drop to the ground (they certainly made me squirm in my seat) and a compelling feat of bravery and physical endurance to force the balloon to start releasing gas (combined with some horrifyingly close slips and falls) the film works best from this moment of crisis, through to the hurried and panicked attempt of both aeronauts to control the descent of the balloon safely to the ground. The sense of two people struggling with the very outer reaches of mankind’s connection to the Earth – and their terrifying distance from the safety of the ground – really brings Gravity to mind far more than any other film.

It’s a shame then that I came away from the film to find most of it is not true. Glaisher did take to the skies – but with a male companion, Henry Coxwell. Amelia Rennes never existed (and most of the events in the sky never happened), although she is heavily based on a real female aeronaut and professional balloonist who had no connection with Glaisher or science. It shouldn’t really matter, but it kind of does as the film doubles down on Glaisher’s tribute to Rennes at the Roya Society and its general attitude of female pioneers in science. As one critic said: there were genuine pioneering women in science, why not make a film about one of them?

But it’s an only a minor problem really for a film that is impressively made when it is in the air, but dull and uninvolving when it is on the ground. At heart it’s an experience film – you can imagine as one of those immersive rides at Disney it would be amazing – but as a piece of storytelling it’s dull, predictable and uninvolving and largely fails to make the science that was supposed to be at the heart of it clear or significant. Jones and Redmayne do their best but this story never really takes flight (boom boom toosh).

The Dam Busters (1955)

Richard Todd leads the most famous bombing raid ever in The Dam Busters

Director: Michael Anderson

Cast: Richard Todd (Wing Commander Guy Gibson), Michael Redgrave (Barnes Wallis), Ursula Jeans (Mrs Molly Wallis), Basil Sydney (Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris), Patrick Barr (Captain Joseph “Mutt” Summers), Ernest Clark (Air Vice-Marshal Ralph Cochrane), Derek Farr (Group Captain John Whitworth)

It’s famous for its stirring theme. Those bouncing bombs. The fact that George Lucas, while still completing the special effects, spliced in the final bombing runs into his first cut of Star Wars. But where does The Dam Busters sit today as a film? 

In 1942, aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) is working on a plan to take out the German dams on the Ruhr, a strike that could cripple German heavy industry. Conventional bombs can never cause enough damage, and the dams are protected from torpedo attack. So Wallis has a crazy idea – to build a bouncing bomb that will skim the top of the water, hitting the dam, with its top spin taking it down to the base of the dam for detonation. It’s a crazy idea – but it finally wins favour, with Wing Commander Guy Gibson (played by real-life World War II paratroop veteran Richard Todd) given command over an operation that promises to be risky and dangerous beyond belief.

The Dam Busters doesn’t really have much in the way of plot, being instead a rather straight-forward, even dry in places, run through of the mechanics involved in planning the operation and overcoming the engineering difficulties that stood in the way of the operation. Throw into that our heroes overcoming the various barriers and administrative hiccups put in the way by the authorities and you have a pretty standard story of British pluck and ingenuity coming up with a left-field solution that saves the day. (Though Barnes Wallis denied he faced any bureaucratic opposition like the type his fictional counterpart struggled with for most of the first forty minutes).

Of course, the film is also yet another advert for the “special nature” of the British under fire, a national sense of inherent destiny and ingenuity that has frequently done as much harm as good. Made in co-operation with the RAF, it’s also a striking tribute to the stiff-upper-lipped bravery of the RAF during the war, and the sense of sacrifice involved in flying these deadly missions.  

In fact it’s striking that the film’s final few notes are not of triumph after the completion of the operation, and the destruction of the two dams, but instead the grim burden of surviving. After 56 men have been killed on the mission, Barnes Wallis regrets even coming up with the idea. The final action we see Gibson performing is walking quietly back to his office to write letters to the families. Anderson’s camera pans over the empty breakfast table, set for pilots who have not returned, and then over the abandoned belongings of the dead still left exactly where they last placed them. It’s sombre, sad and reflective – and probably the most adult moment of the film.

Because other than that, it’s a jolly charge around solving problems with a combination of Blue Peter invention, mixed with a sort of Top Gear can-do spirit. Michael Redgrave is very good as the calm, professorial, dedicated Barnes Wallis, constantly returning to the drawing board with a reserved, eccentric resignation to fix yet another prototype. The sequences showing the engineering problems being met and overcome are interesting and told with a quirky charm that makes them perhaps one of the best examples of such things made in film. 

The material covering the building of the flight team is far duller by comparison, despite a vast array of soon-to-be-more-famous actors (George Baker, Nigel Stock, Robert Shaw etc.) doing their very best “the few” performances. Basically, generally watching a series of pilots working out the altitude they need to fly at in training situations is just not as interesting as watching the boffins figure out how to make the impossible possible.

The flight parts of the film really come into their own in the final act that covers the operation itself. An impressive display of special effects at the time (even if they look a bit dated now), the attack is dramatic, stirring and also costly (the film allows beats of tragedy as assorted crews are killed over the course of the mission). The attack is brilliantly constructed and shot by Michael Anderson, and very accurate to the process of the actual operation, in a way that fits in with the air of tribute that hangs around the whole film.

All this reverence to those carrying means that we overlook completely the lasting impact of the mission. “Bomber” Harris (here played with a solid gruffness by Basil Sydney) later considered the entire operation a waste of time, money and resources. Barnes Wallis begged for a follow-up to hammer home the advantage, but it never happened. The Germans soon restored their economic capability in the Ruhr. Similarly, today it’s more acknowledged the attack killed over 600 civilians and over 1000 Russian POWs working as slave labour in the Ruhr. Such things are of course ignored – the film even throws in a moment of watching German workers flee to safety from a flooding factory floor, to avoid showing any deaths on the ground.

And of course, the film is also (unluckily) infamous for the name of Gibson’s dog. I won’t mention the name, but when I say the dog is black and ask you to think of the worst possible word to use as its name and you’ve got it. It does mean the word gets bandied about a fair bit, not least when it is used as a code-word for a successful strike against the dam. Try and tune it out.

The Dam Busters is a solid and impressive piece of film-making, even if it is low on plot and more high on documentary ticking-off of facts. But it’s also reverential, a little dry and dated and avoids looking at anything involved in the mission with anything approaching a critical eye. With its unquestioning praise for “the British way”, it’s also a film that reassures those watching it that there is no need for real analysis and insight into the state of our nation, but instead that we should buckle down and trust in the divine guiding hand that always pulls Britain’s irons out of the fire.