Category: Survivalist film

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Östlund’s super-rich satire lines up straight-forward targets to easily knock down

Director: Ruben Östlund

Cast: Harris Dickinson (Carl), Charlbi Dean (Yaya), Dolly de Leon (Abigail), Zlatko Burić (Dimitry), Iris Berben (Therese), Vicki Berlin (Paula), Henrik Dorsin (Jarmo), Woody Harrelson (Captain Thomas Smith), Alicia Eriksson (Alicia), Jean-Christophe Folly (Nelson), Amanda Walker (Clementine), Oliver Ford Davies (Winston), Sunnyi Melles (Vera)

In my review of The Square, Östlund’s previous Palme d’Or winner, I described its targets as “so obvious, the entire film might as well be footage of fish being shot in barrels”. If only I’d known: Triangle of Sadness, his satire on the super-rich, takes this to the Nth degree: it’s an entire film of Östlund spraying machine gun bullets into an aquarium of drugged fish. That’s not to say there ain’t good jokes in here and several of its sequences are cheeky, engaging and funny. It’s well-made and high quality: but it’s also obvious and is in a such a rush to make its oh-so-clever satirical points that it frequently blunts its own impact.

The film revolves around a luxury cruise liner. On board: the self-obsessed, selfish, greedy representatives of the world’s oligarchs. A Russian who repeatedly amuses himself by bragging that he sells “shit” (fertiliser), a Danish app builder who splashes his cash, a married couple of British arms-traders who jovially bemoan how UN restriction on landmines made for tough financial years… you get the idea. Also on board: Instagram influencer supermodel Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and her insecure male model boyfriend Carl (Harris Dickinson). All of them treat the staff like slaves. But when the ship sinks after a storm and an attack by Somali pirates, the surviving passengers find they entirely lack the skills needed to survive on an island, unlike toilet-cleaner Abigail (Dolly de Leon) who rockets from the bottom to the top of the social hierarchy.

Östlund’s film lays into the emptiness, greed and selfishness of the super-rich with glee, even if it hardly tells us anything we don’t already know. The rich are only interested in their own needs and can only see others as tools for their own pleasure: who knew? Wanting to expand his satirical targets even further, Östlund also takes a pop at the social media generation. Apparently, they are shallow and interested only in commodifying their own lives. Who knew? It’s the sort of stuff that makes for a punchy student revue, but you want something a little bit more challenging that moves above cheap shots from a Palme d’Or winner.

In many ways the film’s most interesting section (and most subtle ideas) take place before we even reach the boat. The film’s first chapter exclusively follows Carl and Yaya. Carl auditions for a modelling job where he’s treated like a piece of meat (hilariously they mutter about him needing botox). At a fashion show, staff pleasantly demand three people move out of their seats to make way for VIPS – who immediately ask for one more seat. Everyone shuffles along one (the camera following this with a neat tracking shot), leaving Carl seatless. This is a more subtle commentary on the self-obsessive focus of the super-rich than anything that follows.

Carl and Yaya are in an interesting position: they are both part of the beautiful super-rich and not (they don’t have any money). That early act opener balloons from a disagreement over who pays for a meal into Carl inarticulately arguing for sexual-equality and mutual partnerships that defy gender roles. It’s more interesting than almost anything that follows, because it’s multi-layered and raises genuine issues we all face (to varying degrees).

But the film abandons multi-layered the second it steps foot on the boat. There are fun set pieces. Carl unwittingly gets a pool attendant fired because he’s jealous of Yaya’s admiration for his topless body. The staff on the boat gee themselves up for days of enthusiastic deference with a tip-expectant-group-chant. A Russian lady demands the staff all swim in the sea so they can have as much fun as she is having (and to show how ‘normal’ she is). The film’s most infamous set-piece occurs as a storm coincides with the captain’s dinner (with the fish courses under-cooked due to the aforementioned obligatory staff swim) leading to nearly all the passengers projectile vomiting across the state room, then sliding around the floors of the swaying ship in their own filth.

Amusing as that can be in its guignol excess, it tells you how subtle the film is. The film is awash with obvious, lazy jokes – of course the polite arms trading couple are called Winston and Clementine! To hammer home the social issues the film whacks us over the head with, the Captain (an awkward performance from Woody Harrelson) an alcoholic Marxist spends the storm pissed in his cabin, reading Noam Chomsky and his own anti-capitalist ravings over the ship’s tannoy. This takes up a huge amount of screen-time and manages to be both obvious and not very funny.

The film enjoys taking these pot-shots so much, it ends up feeling rushed when we arrive at the island. If we had seen more of Dolly de Leon’s Abigail earlier in the film (in actuality, the film sidelines her as much as the characters do, barely allowing her more than a minute of screentime in its first hour), the shift in social hierarchy would have carried more impact. If Östlund’s film had more patience to show the passengers expectation that shipwrecked life would be identical to that on the boat, then Abigail taking charge after a few days that would have carried more impact. Instead, Abigail takes command from arrival, and then essentially behaves (in a way I’m not sure the film quite understands) with exactly the same self-entitled greed as the passengers did. She takes the best cabin, establishes a hierarchy, keeps most of the food and turns Carl into a sex toy.

Because we’ve not really seen Abigail earlier in the film, we don’t get a sense of her earlier mistreatment (really, most of the film would have been better told from her point-of-view) or join her satisfaction at the tables being turned. The film also exhausts its commentary on the super-rich leaving it with little to say about in its third act Lord of the Flies set-up. Instead, the film dawdles its way to a conclusion and cliffhanger ending that feels unearned.

It makes you regret the loss of its earlier more subtle commentary on Instagrammers Carl and Yaya (good performances from Harris Dickinson and the tragically late Charlbi Dean) who are drowning-not-waving in a world where they must commodify their bodies but have no power over them, struggling to work-out where they fit in a world. It throws this overboard to go for some (admittedly at times funny) gags about greed and very obvious social commentary. If it had committed to its social underclass uprising earlier – or carried on with its more subtle themes from the opening prologue – it would have been a better film. Instead it’s as subtle and probing as the faceful of vomit it serves up halfway through.

Thirteen Lives (2022)

Thirteen Lives (2022)

A real life rescue attempt that defied belief is bought to the screen with gripping power and skill

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Richard Stanton), Colin Farrell (John Volanthen), Joel Edgerton (Dr Richard Harris), Tom Bateman (Chris Jewell), Pattarakorn Tangsupakul (Buahom), Sukollawat Kanarot (Saman Kunan), Teerapat Sajakul (Captain Anand), Sahajak Boonthanakit (Governor Narongsak Osatanakom), Vithaya Pansringarm (General Anupong Paochinda), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Ekkaphon Chanthawong), Nophand Boonyai (Thanet Natisri), Paul Gleeson (Jason Mallinson)

In Summer 2008 one story gripped the world. In Thailand on June 23rd, 12 members of a boys’ junior football team and their coach Ekkapon Chanthawong (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) were stranded underground in the Thum Luang caves by flooding. Rescue attempts would call for an international effort: Thai Navy Seals, American military, the local community and a team from the British Cave Rescue Council pooled talents and knowledge to help save the boys before they drowned, suffocated or starved to death.

It’s bought to the screen in Ron Howard’s gripping true-life disaster film, Thirteen Lives, a scrupulously respectful yet compelling dramatisation reminiscent of his Apollo 13: it wrings maximum tension from a story nearly all of us know the outcome of. Just like that film, it superbly explains the huge obstacles the rescuers faced – the near impossibility of navigating the flooded caves, the onslaught of water, the claustrophobic underwater conditions, the panic-inducing nightmare of swimming through kilometres of tight space for inexperienced divers…

Each of these is swiftly but carefully explained, before Howard focuses on the international effort resolving them. Onscreen graphics – in particular a map of the route through the cave complex, including distances and time spent travelling underwater (over four hours) – help us understand every inch of the journey and its implications. Carefully written scenes avoid the trap of exposition overload while making the dangers of an hours-long swim through dark, flooded tunnels clear.

Howard skilfully goes for show-not-tell where he can. The gallons and gallons of water running down the mountain and into the caves in the monsoon conditions are made abundantly clear. The first expedition of experienced cavers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) is staged in careful detail: the sharp currents, confined conditions (some parts of the cave are almost impassable – particularly when dragging two oxygen cylinders), the inability to see where you are going, the hours of oppressive time spent underwater.

In case we in are any doubt of how difficult any rescue will be, we see Stanton take a stranded rescue worker a short distance underwater: the man panics, nearly drowns them both and then nearly kills himself trying to surface. The eventual plan – to sedate each boy and have an experienced rescue diver carry him out – is as carefully explained as is its risk (if the dose is not exact, suffocation or panic induced drowning can and will occur). Howard’s careful, unflashy but captivating filming of the rescue attempt that follows is nail-biting and deeply moving.

Not least, because the film doesn’t shy away from the terrible risks. The accidental drowning of Navy Seal Saman Kunan – tragically volunteering from retirement – is sensitively, heartbreakingly handled. Every character is painfully aware of the dangers: Teeradon Supapunpinyo’s coach begs the families to forgive him for putting their children at risk (the children fall over themselves to praise him for saving their lives, in a heart-rending scene). Tom Bateman’s (fabulous) Chris Jewell breaks down in relief, guilt and a fear after he briefly panics during the rescue (no one blames him for a second – they all know each of them has been seconds away from the same countless times). This is a film that understands heroism is not square jawed machismo, but a grim awareness of the risks and a determination to not let that analysis stop you from helping those in need.

But Thirteen Lives is very pointedly not a white saviour story. It’s a story of teamwork and skills coming together: the British and Australian divers join a rescue effort being led by Thai Navy Seals, supported by local Thai officials. All of them are vitally assisted by a Thai water engineer who travels a huge distance to the site to help, and who brings vital knowledge, but can’t succeed without a local man who knows the terrain and a team of ordinary volunteers.

A triumphalist story would have opened and closed with one of our British heroes – the coolly professional ex-firefighter Stanton perhaps – and had them learning lessons and rising to the challenge. This film starts with the boys’ plans for a birthday party, and closes with the eventual much-delayed party. As soon as it’s revealed they are alive inside the cave complex, the film returns to them time and again and stresses their role was in many ways the hardest of all: trapped, lonely, terrified and slowly starving and suffocating, powerless to do anything. Howard’s film never forgets it is their story, or the courage they showed.

Equally, the film  doesn’t forget the role of ordinary people. Thirteen Lives is full of people unquestioningly making sacrifices, putting themselves in danger or working at the limits of endurance to help. It’s not just the divers who carried the boys out who saved them. It’s the Thai farmers, living in poverty, who willingly agree that their farmlands (and crops) be destroyed by redirected water flow from the mountain to buy the boys time. The Thai volunteers battling for days with sandbags, pipes and eventually bamboo funnels against a never ending waterflow.

In this the British team are another group of (admittedly more prominent and vital) experts, volunteering their skills. Their presence is at first resented by the Thai Navy Seals – do they fear a white saviour story as well? – who feel a personal duty to rescue the children. Such clashes are not glossed over – but Howard’s film demonstrates the growing respect between them. The Seals are superb divers: but less experienced in the caving conditions the British team practically live in. The British are experts, but strangers in this land.

As those divers – this is surely the first Hollywood blockbuster to feature a hero from Coventry – Mortensen and Farrell are superbly committed and human. (There is a British delight to be had from their discussion of the merits of custard creams.) Mortensen is the hardened realist: he is sceptical that the impossible can be achieved and is firm that he won’t allow himself or others to undertake suicidal efforts. Farrell is great as his counterpart, determined to leave no one behind. Both actors spark wonderfully off each other – and their commitment, and that of the rest of the cast,  to filming in these punishing conditions is stunning.

Thirteen Lives is a superb reconstruction of an incredible story, that wrings the maximum drama from an international sensation. It carefully celebrates internationalism and co-operation (its dialogue is largely not in English) and the struggles of the highly professional to find solutions to insurmountable problems. Channelling all Howard’s skills with biography, against-the-odds survival stories and ability to draw committed performances from actors, it’s his finest film in a decade and a worthy spiritual follow-up to Apollo 13.

Nope (2022)

Nope (2022)

Be afraid of looking in Jordan Peele’s puzzling but less enlightening horror suspense film

Director: Jordan Peele

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Otis Jnr “OJ” Haywood), Keke Palmer (Em Haywood), Steven Yeun (Ricky “Jupe” Park), Brandon Perea (Angel Torres), Michael Wincott (Antlers Holst), Wrenn Schmidt (Amber Park), Keith David (Otis Haywood Snr), Donna Mills (Bonnie Clayton)

Spoiler warning: Peele loves to keep ALL the plot details on the QT – so I discuss more than he would want, but hopefully not enough to spoil the plot.

Jordan Peele’s previous horror films brilliantly married up genuine chills with acute social commentary. Plot details have often been kept under wraps – after all half the joy of watching Get Out or Us the first time is working out what the hell is going on. Nope continues this trend, but for the first time I feel this is to the film’s detriment. I actually think Nope would be improved if you know going into it that this was Peele’s dark twist on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with added body horror). Instead, Nope plays its enigmatic cards so close to its chest that it ends up never having a hand free to punch you in the guts.

Pensive and guarded Otis Jnr (Daniel Kaluuya) – known, unfortunately, as OJ – and his exuberant wanna-be-star sister Em Haywood (Keke Palmer) are trying (with differing levels of enthusiasm) to keep their father’s Hollywood horse handling business alive after his freak death from a coin falling from the sky (everyone assumes it fell from a plane). The business is struggling, with OJ forced to frequently sell their horses to their neighbour, a former child star turned ranch theme-park owner, Ricky (Steven Yeun). Their lives are altered however when they discover a huge UFO living in a cloud near their ranch, sucking up horses (and other animals) and spitting out any inorganic remains. Seeing this as their path to fortune (and in Em’s case fame) they try and capture the UFO on film.

Nope is all about our compulsive need to look. Nothing draws our eyes like spectacle – and what could be a bigger spectacle than a huge saucer in the sky that eats people? It doesn’t matter if we know we shouldn’t, our eyes are drawn up (now imagine if Peele had been able to call the film Up!). We want to be part of the big event, whether that’s seeing the latest blockbuster at the big screen or rubber-necking at a roadside accident. Nope hammers this point home, when it becomes clear you are only at danger from the saucer when you look directly at it. Spectacle literally kills!

This is all an inversion of the mid-West America that starred at the skies in wonder in Close Encounters. There the Aliens capped the film with a glorious light show with awe and wonder from the humans watching. Here the appearance in the sky is a prelude to sucking you up, digesting you and vomiting out blood and bits of clothing a few hours later. Despite this, Ricky tries to make an entertainment show out of the creature (something he, of course, learns to regret), and OJ and Em find little reason to re-think their attempts to capture the animal on screen.

Peele’s film takes a few light shots at social media culture. Of course our heroes’ first instinct is to reach for their phones (they are looking for that “Oprah shot” that will guarantee fame and fortune). OJ at least is largely motivated by the cash influx his struggling business needs – Em wants the fame. But the film still attacks the shallow “main event-ness” of social media, where having the best and most impressive thing to show off (for a few seconds) is the be-all-and-end-all.

Peele remains too fond of these characters to judge them too harshly. But he has no worries about taking shots at the fame-and-money hungry Ricky, or a TMZ reporter who arrives at the worst possible moment and dies begging to be handed his camera so he can record the moment. Arguably Ricky would have made a more interesting lead: a man chewed up and spat out by the fame machine and angling for a second chance, who thinks he’s way smarter than he actually is.

The film opens with a chilling shot of what we eventually discover was the bloody aftermath of the disastrous final filming day of Ricky’s sitcom from his childhood-acting days, Gordy’s Home. Gordy was a chimp living with an adopted family: until the chimp actor snapped in bloody fury. It sets up a sense of danger, but the plot never quite marries it up with the main themes of Nope. Parallels are thinly drawn with Ricky’s attempt to commercialise this infamous tragedy, but it feels forced: the whole section plays like a chilling short story inserted into the main narrative. And the film never explores in detail the lesson from this bloody tragedy, that we underestimate the dangers animals can pose (despite the film being littered with creatures).

Instead, Peele settles for a stately reveal of his plot. It takes almost an hour for the film’s true purpose to become clear, but it lacks the acute and darkly funny social commentary that made his previous films so fascinating while they took their time showing you their hand. Interesting points are made about how black people are (literally) whitewashed out of Hollywood’s history (the Haywoods claim to be descended from the black jockey featured in the first ever moving film made in America). But it’s a political point that sits awkwardly in a satire (about something else!), and Peele overstretches the opening without making the central mystery compelling enough.

There are, however, fine performances from the actors, Kaluuya’s shuffling physique – slightly over-weight, the troubles of the world weighing him down – is matched with his charismatically sceptical looks. Keke Palmer is engaging and funny as his slap-dash sister, and the warm family bond between these two works really well. It never quite makes sense that someone as publicity-averse as OJ would really want to become a social media sensation, but you can let it go.

There is lots of good stuff in Nope – it’s beautifully filmed and assembled and once it lets you in on its plans, it has a strong final act. But its social commentary isn’t quite sharp or thought-provoking enough – people are shallow and love spectacle and social media, who knew – and neither the mystery or the plot are quite compelling enough. It’s told with imagination and Peele has a fascinating and unique voice: but Nope isn’t much more than a solid story well told.

Wild (2014)

Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon finds herself in a film that is more than just Eat, Pray, Hike

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Cast: Reese Witherspoon (Cheryl Strayed), Laura Dern (“Bobbie” Grey), Thomas Sadoski (Paul), Michel Huisman (Jonathan), Gaby Hoffmann (Aimee), Kevin Rankin (Greg), W. Earl Brown (Frank), Mo McRae (Jimmy Carter), Keene McRae (Leif)

Ever thought tackling a 1,100 mile hike would be a fun adventure? The opening of Wild might change your mind. Gasp as Reese Witherspoon rips out a bleeding toe nail and then throws her ill-fitting hiking boots down a mountain, screaming abuse at them all the way! Want to grab that back-pack now?

In this adaptation of a memoir about loss and self-discovery, Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed who (fairly impulsively) decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 to try to find in herself the woman her late mother “Bobbie” (Laura Dern) believed she could be. After Bobbie’s early death from cancer at 45, Cheryl had collapsed – ruining her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) in an orgy of anonymous sex and heroin addiction. Now she wants to make a new start.

Adapted by Nick Hornby with a good deal of skill and emotional intelligence, Jean-Marc Vallée’s film is an interesting character study via the survivalist genre, mixed with a touching exploration of grief, loss and self-loathing. After throwing us into Day 26 with that bloodied toe-nail, the film rolls back to follow Cheryl’s walk: intercut with powerful memories of her relationship with her mother, each memory activated by different encounters along the way and bubbling into her mind along with a distinctive soundtrack (most especially Simon and Garfunkal’s El Condor Pasa) that reflects the music that reminds Cheryl of her mother.

It could have been a sentimental finding-yourself movie – Eat, Pray, Hike anyone? (I also rather like Reese Witherspoon Finds Herself in a Backpack) – and I won’t lie, there are elements of that. But maybe it caught me in the right mood, maybe because I’ve always fancied testing myself with an epic hike, but I actually found it intelligent, sensitive and just the right side of sentimental.

Wild carefully avoids simple points. It’s a film not about a long journey leading to revelation, but a journey that helps you accept all your past decisions, right or wrong. There is a pointed lack of emotional breakdowns, tearful confessions or flare ups of self-anger and revelation. Instead, it’s about the long grind of starting an internal journey towards contentment. Because trekking 1,100 miles is the long haul: there ain’t any easy ways out or short cuts on this trek.

The film’s principal asset is Reese Witherspoon. Also serving as producer, Witherspoon is in almost every single frame and delivers an under-played but very emotionally satisfying performance. She plays Cheryl as quietly determined, having already hit rock bottom and knowing every step she takes from now is upwards. She meets adversity – aside from the odd flash of frustration – with a stoic will and finds an increasing spiritual freedom in the wild that serves as an escape from the horrific wilderness of her self-destructive years. But she never lets us forget the pain that underpins this journey for Cheryl. It’s a very impressive performance.

The reminders of that pain are distributed through the film, which unflinchingly chronicles Cheryl’s escape from grief in the arms of a parade of sleazy men, anonymous hotel sex and (finally) shooting up heroin on the streets of San Francisco. It ends her marriage to Paul – but not their friendship, in the sort of adult emotional reaction you hardly ever see in a movie. Paul – played with warmth by Thomas Sadoski – may not be able to continue his marriage after discovering his wife’s parade of trust-breaking, but it doesn’t stop him from helping a person he loves who is in need.

All of this is nicely counterpointed by the hike itself. Naturally it’s all slightly episodic, as Cheryl moves from location to location, but Hornby’s script makes these vignettes really work. Vallée’s direction also does a fantastic job of intercutting between the long walk of 1995, and Cheryl’s memories of both her mother (played with a vibrancy that makes a huge impression from limited screen time by an Oscar-nominated Laura Dern) and her own emotional collapse after her death.

I also appreciated that Wild doesn’t shirk from showing the vulnerability of an attractive young woman hiking alone. Some potential predators are revealed to be the opposite: others are exactly what they appear to be. But not every encounter is one of potential danger: far from it.

Cheryl is met time and again by people who only appear to support, share their expertise and help her in her quest. At an early station, a man talks her through the huge amount of equipment she’s bought and advises what she can leave behind (Vallée opens the film with the strenuous effort, including rolling around on the floor, Cheryl has to go through just to put this backpack on). She finds a touch of romance with a handsome musician (a charming Michel Huisman). There’s also comedy, most of all with Cheryl’s encounter with a self-important journalist (Mo McRae), who won’t be convinced that she isn’t a female hobo.

This is all packaged together in a quiet, un-pretentious way that culminates in a thought-provoking monologue about the value of self-acceptance and putting aside regrets. Others would have layered on the sentiment, but here the balance is just right. With Witherspoon at the top of her game, Wild is a well-made and involving road trip that also makes you think.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Our heroes climb up an overturned cruise liner in the film that launched a thousand enjoyable disaster movie clichés

Director: Ronald Neame (Irwin Allen)

Cast: Gene Hackman (Reverend Frank Scott), Ernest Borgnine (Mike Rogo), Red Buttons (James Martin), Shelley Winters (Belle Rosen), Jack Albertson (Manny Rosen), Carol Lynley (Nonnie Parry), Roddy McDowell (Acres), Stella Stevens (Linda Rogo), Pamela Sue Martin (Susan Shelby), Arthur O’Connell (Chaplain John), Eric Shea (Robin Shelby), Leslie Nielsen (Captain Harrison)

New Year’s Eve on the biggest cruise liner in the world and the money men have ordered “Full steam ahead!” into a storm – after all, it would be terrible publicity to arrive late at harbour. Needless to say, it’s a terrible idea, as the Poseidon is hit by a tsunami and flipped upside down. Everyone at the top of the ship is killed, leaving only the party goers in the promenade room alive. Who is going to make it out from the one of the most famous disaster films of all time?

Produced by the Master of Disaster himself Irwin Allen – he personally staked half the budget and made a fortune – the ship’s passenger log is a host of Oscar-winning stars, each balancing soapy plotlines. Gene Hackman is the maverick priest, body pumping with muscular Christianity, who believes God helps those who help themselves. Ernest Borgnine is a grumpy police chief, on a long-delayed holiday with his ex-call girl wife Stella Stevens. Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson are a retired couple heading to Israel to see their grandson for the first time. Red Buttons is an unlucky-in-love fitness freak, Roddy McDowell a plucky steward. Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea are two (unbearable) kids travelling to join their parents while Carol Lynley is the ship’s terrified singer.

The Poseidon Adventure cemented the tropes you’d come to know and love in disaster films. The maverick leader, the grouchy contrarian, a plucky pensioner with a vital skill, adorably brave kids, a self-sacrificing nice guy… They’re all in here, the actors playing these cardboard cut-out characters with gusto as they climb up the endurance obstacle course set of an upside-down cruise liner.

Allen’s film takes a while to get going: a quarter of the run time is dedicated to setting up the various character dilemmas. Is a member of the crew a former client of Stevens’ Linda? Will Gene Hackman find new purpose in his faith? Will Red Buttons find love? Neame shoots these opening exchanges with the uninspired professionalism the exposition-filled dialogue demands (there are several variations on “What am I doing on this ship? Let me tell you…” lines). But what makes the best of these films work is when the soapy shallowness manages to make the characters endearing. It’s what happens here: the cast could do these scenes standing on their head, but gosh darn it we end up hoping the Rosens will live to see their grandson at the foot of Mount Sinai.

The film of course “starts” proper with that wave hitting. At which point, Allen (and Neame) knows exactly what works. He makes the stakes clear, the target simple (climb up, get out) and taps into common fears of falling, drowning etc. He knows how to make us thrill at the stunts – that tipping ballroom, with various stuntmen plunging downwards – and throw in the odd moment to remind us how tragic it all is (like Red Buttons sadly laying his jacket across some poor soul).

It also understands that we need to feel smarter than the crowd of extras caught up in the drama. When Gene Hackman earnestly tells everyone their only chance of survival is up, we want to feel that we’d be smart enough to go with him, rather than join the sheeple listening to the literally-out-of-his-depth purser (“What you’re suggesting is suicide!”). Allen knows we need to feel smarter so much he later throws in another group led by a confident-but-wrong authority figure (the ship’s doctor) blithely walking downhill to the flooded aft, ignoring Hackman’s cries that they are striding to a watery grave.

No, we’d definitely be with the plucky stars. After all Hackman can’t be wrong! (Gene Hackman’s priest, for all his bluster, is remarkably unpersuasive – he even only just holds onto authority in the group). The stunt work and production design as the battered stars climb up the overturned ship to the hull are remarkable – not for nothing did this scoop nine Oscar nominations – and while the film is undeniably slightly cheesy, it’s played with an absolute earnest seriousness by the cast (Hackman, to his eternal credit, acts as if his life depended on it – which considering it’s clearly a pay cheque role other actors would have coasted through is admirable).

The set pieces are superb. As the cast is whittled down, the deaths carry a certain weight – again conveyed by the honesty of the grief from those left behind. Shelley Winters bagged the best role – and the most iconic scene – as an overweight old lady with a Chekhov’s skill, performing (at great cost) an act of heroism no one else could manage. (She landed an Oscar nomination, largely for this stand-up-and-cheer moment with a sting). Most get a moment to shine – although Carol Lynley’s pathetic, panicking singer (she can’t swim or climb or hold her breath or run…) who spends her time shrieking tries your patience no end.

The film is so much about the experience of seeing this group of people overcome death-defying climbs, swims and flames that when the survivors stagger into the sunlight, the film abruptly ends. It’s all about the ride, with most of the plot points established earlier settled by someone dying on the way up. But it’s entertaining and lands just the right side of involving. The characters may be artificial, but we still care about them.

The Poseidon Adventure was a massive hit and still the best maritime disaster film made (certainly much better than its belated, lame, remake). Allen cements a formula where swiftly sketched characters, played by recognisable actors, go through endurance tests in front of us via terrifying set-ups and death-defying stunts. It’s grand, old-fashioned entertainment, perhaps taking itself a little too seriously, but giving us lots to gasp and cheer at.

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.

Twister (1996)

Twister (1996)

Cardboard characters try not to get blown away in this extremely silly disaster movie

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Helen Hunt (Dr Jo Harding), Bill Paxton (Dr Bill Harding), Jami Gertz (Dr Melissa Reeves), Cary Elwes (Dr Jonas Miller), Lois Smith (Aung Meg Greene), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Dusty Davis), Alan Ruck (“Rabbit” Nurick), Sean Whalen (Allan Sanders), Todd Field (“Beltzer” Lewis), Wendle Josepher (Haynes), Jeremy Davies (Brian Laurence), Joey Slotnick (Joey), Zach Grenier (Eddie)

In 1996 Twister blew through cinema screens with a vengeance, becoming the second most biggest hit of the year. Yes, you read that right. Stop me if I am wrong, but has anyone thought about, even for a second, this bog-standard disaster film since? Staffed almost exclusively by characters so lightweight a puff of wind would blow them away, never mind a tornado, the whole thing is full of sound and fury and signifies absolutely nothing at all.

Drs Jo (Helen Hunt) and Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) are trying to get divorced. He’s finally had enough of risking his neck on their joint passion for storm-chasing, deciding to jack it in for a lucrative life on the media circuit and marriage to relationship therapist Dr Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz). He arrives in Oklahoma to get Jo to sign the divorce papers – but doncha know it, he gets sucked in to “one more job”, to road-test the storm measurement doo-hickey device he and Jo dreamed of making but she’s actually built. And, handily, one of those pesky twisters is on the way.

The doo-hickey – I’m really not sure what it’s meant to do – is the sort of ludicrous scientific device that only exists in the movies. It’s basically a huge metal cauldron full of marbles that needs to be placed in the path of a twister. It’s also – in a terrible design flaw – hugely fragile and unstable, constantly falling over at the worst possible time. There are apparently three prototypes, of decreasing quality, each a back-up of the one before – you have one guess as to how many of these they burn through in the film.

In fact, you can pretty much one guess almost everything that might happen. Will Jo finally come-to-terms with the death of her father in a storm? (That’s right – she has a “I’m passionate and obsessed because a twister killed my dad” backstory!) Will Bill realise Jo is the one for him, not fish-out-of-water big-city-girl Mel? Will Cary Elwes’ lip-smacking, moustachio-curling copyright-stealing storm expert get his (fatal) comeuppance? Will sweet Aunt Meg (and her dog) survive her tussle with the storm? That “it’s almost never happened” super-storm they talk about at the start of the film – do you think it’s possible our heroes will find themselves in the middle of it before the end?

All of this is shuffled in a film with a hideously over-loaded deck. Jo’s team consists of around eight assistants, none of whom have so much as a character between them. They are a feeble collection of archetypes: the geek, the shy one, the techie, the religious one and the loud-mouthed one (a role of flamboyant indignity for Philip Seymour Hoffman, yet to be recognised as a great actor and instead relegated to feeble comic relief roles). But then it’s not like the leads are that interesting either: she’s committed, passionate but gosh-darn-it puts the storm before her personal life. He’s trying to move on but doncha-know-it he’s just lying to himself that he doesn’t love the storm.

In fact, as this rather smug ex-couple riffed on in-jokes, storm facts and their shared love for their doo-hickey made of marbles I felt rather sorry for Mel. Obviously, we are meant to scorn Mel, with her hand-wringing profession of counsellor (as opposed to the macho jobs of Bill and Jo) and her reluctance to run into a massive twister. Actually, I think she’s rather sensible. Bill and Jo are both clearly insane and take suicidal risks. She puts up with her fiancé flirting with his ex far longer than most of us would and she is hugely patient with the polite scorn she’s treated with by Jo’s rag-tag band of tedious risk-taking geeks playing at being alphas. She hangs around far longer than anyone else would do, before departing after maturely and sensibly telling Bill he should stick with his first two loves (Jo and storms – maybe not in that order).

People aren’t watching these films for the character or plot though – just as well as the film doesn’t really have either – but the special effects. These are impressive, I suppose, as the storm rips through sets, throws CGI buildings around and generally makes for loud and impressive noise. The film has a sort of goofy wit at times – at one point a CGI cow is blown through the sky in front of the Hardings, mooing rather sadly.

There are some decent set-pieces, even though they are basically all the same set-piece repeated over and over again at a different scale (first the storm blows over a car, then a building, then a village, then most of a town while our heroes duck and cover their heads). Lots of it was done with practical effects, shot with an alarming lack of regard for safety – Hunt got an infection from being flung into a drain and she and Paxton were temporarily blinded by a burst of artificial lightning.

De Bont directs all this with a personality-free competence. The film is at absolute best less than half as good as his first film, Speed – and de Bont’s subsequent film, The Haunting, would be half as good again in a career of ever-diminishing returns. Twister offers nothing new or even particularly interesting, other than some wind special effects that are of passing curiosity value but nothing else. It’s almost quaint that, in 1996, this was seen as something earth-shatteringly impressive. Now it’s as fearsome a burst of raw natural power as a fart.

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Hunger, desperation, the sea and a very big whale in this Moby Dick origins story

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (Captain George Pollard), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Tom Holland (Thomas Nickerson), Brendan Gleeson (Old Thomas Nickerson), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), Michele Fairley (Mrs Nickerson), Gary Beadle (William Bond), Frank Dillane (Owen Coffin), Charlotte Riley (Peggy Chase), Donald Sumpter (Paul Mason), Paul Anderson (Caleb Chappel), Joseph Mawle (Benjamin Lawrence), Edward Ashley (Barzillai Roy)

1820 and the world is run by oil. Not the sort you get out of the ground, but the sort you fish out of a whale’s corpse with a bucket. America is the leading exporter of whale oil and Nantucket is the centre of the industry. But it’s a dangerous business: as the crew of the Essex are about discover. Attacked by a whale, their ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from land. Passed-over first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and privileged captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) must set aside their differences to lead the survivors to safety. But starvation and desperation will lead those survivors to ever more desperate acts. All of this is told to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) by final living survivor Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland and Brendan Gleeson), and it all sounds like a perfect inspiration for that Big Whaling Book Melville wants to write.

That Melville framing device is a good place to start when reviewing the many problems of In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard’s misfiring attempt at a survivalist epic. When we should be consumed by concern at whether these men survive, the film keeps trying to get us care as much about whether Melville will write a novel worthy of Hawthorne. The clunky prologue eats up a good sixth of the film, and we keep cutting back for Gleeson to tell us things the script isn’t deft enough to show us. Worse, it keeps ripping us way from the survivalist story that should be film’s heart.

Howard should know this: he directed one of the best survival-against-the-odds films ever in Apollo 13. Maybe the difference is that Apollo 13 is, at heart, a hopeful story. In the Heart of the Sea is about grimy sailors in a trade the film can’t find any sympathy for, eventually drawing lots in a long boat to see who is going to get killed and eaten by the others. It’s the sort of thing Werner Herzog would (pardon the metaphor) eat up for breakfast. For Howard, a fundamentally optimistic film-maker, its an ill fit. No wonder he wants to end the film with the triumph of Moby Dick.

In the Heart of the Sea is the rare instance of a film that is too short. The narration keeps skipping over time jumps in the first hour, that means we don’t get invested in the characters (most of whom are barely distinguished from each other, especially as beards and wasted bodies become the uniform). The sinking doesn’t take place until almost an hour in the film, meaning the time we spend with them lost in boats is a mere 40 minutes or so.

That is nowhere long enough for us to get a sense of either the monotonous time or the ravages hunger and desperation have made. Difficult as that stuff is to film – and I can appreciate its hard to make five men sitting, dying slowly, in a boat visually interesting – it means the film is asking us to make a big leap when it goes in five minutes from the men leaving a stop on an abandoned island to regretfully slicing one of their party up for dinner. We need to really understand how desperation has led to this point, but the film keeps jumping forward, as if its impatient to get to it.

Understanding is a general problem in the film. It can’t get past the fact that, today, we don’t see whaling (rightly so) as a sympathetic trade. But to these men, plunging a harpoon into a whale wasn’t an act of barbarous evil. It was more than even just making a living: it was a noble calling. Several times the film makes feeble attempts to push its characters towards moral epiphanies which seem jarringly out of chase (would Owen Chase, a hardy whaler with multiple kills, really hold his hand when confronted with a whale he thinks is trying to kill him?). Clumsy parallels are drawn between the heartless corporate oil industry of today, and the ‘suits’ back at Nantucket who only care about the bottom line.

Without accepting that, to these men, striving out into the ocean to bring back whale oil was as glorious a cause as landing on the moon, the film struggles to make most of the earlier part of the film interesting. Hard to sympathise with the characters, when the film is holding their profession at a sniffy distance. The film even radically changes the future career of its hero, Owen Chase, claiming he joined the merchant navy and never whaled again (not remotely true).

On top of this, Howard doesn’t manage to make the act of sailing feel as real or as compelling as, say, Peter Weir did in Master and Commander. Everything has a slightly unconvincing CGI sheen. Strange fish-eyed lenses keep popping up zooming in on specific features of pulleys and sails (is it meant to be like a whale’s eye view?). The film never manages to really communicate the tasks taking place or the risks they carry. There is a feeble personality clash between Pollard and Chase that fills much of the second act of the film, but is written and acted with a perfunctory predictability that never makes it interesting.

You can’t argue with the commitment of everyone involved. The cast noticeably wasted themselves down to portray these starving dying men. But it all adds up to not a lot. Chris Hemsworth gives a constrained performance as Chase – his chiselled Hollywood bulk looks hideously out of place – while Cillian Murphy makes the most impact among the rest as his luckless best friend. But the film’s main failure is Howard’s inability to make us really feel every moment of these men’s agonising suffering and to really understand the desperation that drove them to lengths no man should go to. Eventually that only makes it a surprisingly disengaging experience.

The Lost City of Z (2016)

The Lost City of Z (2016)

An obsessive explorer plunges into the Amazon in search of a lost city in this imaginative epic

Director: James Gray

Cast: Charlie Hunnam (Percy Fawcett), Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin), Tom Holland (Jack Fawcett), Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett), Edward Ashley (Arthur Manley), Angus MacFadyen (James Murray), Clive Francis (Sir John Scott Keltie), Ian McDiarmid (Sir George Goldie), Franco Nero (Baron de Gondoriz), Harry Melling (William Barclay)

For as long as parts of a map so unknown, that all we write on them is “Here Be Dragons”, there have been explorers yearning to uncover their secrets. Exploring in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was a dangerous, sometimes fatal, call, as explored with a near-mystical thoughtfulness in James Gray’s ambitious film The Lost City of Z. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) was the courageous soldier, whose whole life was a campaign to prove he had nothing in common with his disgraced father. Fawcett became obsessed with discovering the secrets of the Amazon, principally the existence of a lost civilisation built by the indigenous people of Brazil, which he called The Lost City of Z. It was to become a quest that would dominate his life.

Based on a true story, Gray’s film taps deeply into a Herzog-by-way-of-Lean view of the Jungles of South America, a place of great awe and danger which creeps inside the soul of Fawcett until, as one tribesperson says, he seems to be of both the West and the Jungle. Shot on location, the Jungle becomes a place of great beauty, but also unknowable mystery and menace. As Fawcett and his companions hack their way through it, on what could be a fool’s errand, their growing respect for it and the indigenous people, is matched only by their increased awareness of its dangers.

The Golden Age of Exploration is a difficult subject to tackle today, with many seeing (in some cases correctly) it as underpinned by a Westernised Imperialism, that earnestly believed the best thing that could happen to these lands (and the ‘savages’ who populated them) was that they should gratefully concede their land and culture to Western ‘civilisation’. Gray’s film is careful to show that Fawcett acknowledged he didn’t always understand the world he was in and learned some hard lessons. But the key difference is that acknowledgment and, as presented here, the humility and respect he recognised the rights and skills of the indigenous people. It marks him out from several of his contemporaries who see them only as contemptable savages and simpletons.

Indeed, Gray’s film positions Fawcett as an admirable egalitarian. His belief that the people of Brazil were not only capable of building in the Jungle, but that they could create an advanced society of pottery and irrigation ahead of those in the West is laughed out of court by many of his fellow members of the Royal Geographical Society (as we see in an involving debate sequence). While staying with a tribe in the Amazon, he marvels at their ability to cultivate and farm the land – something he had been assured was impossible. Encountering a tribe whose custom is to eat parts of their dead (so as to preserve their spirit in themselves), he reacts not with kneejerk disgust but understanding and respect.

The respect he shows for the environment and those he finds there is contrasted with the reaction of famed explorer James Murray, who joins him for his second expedition. Played with a puffed-up self-satisfaction and rigid believe in his own righteousness by Angus MacFadyen, Murray (a noted polar explorer) proves a serious handicap on the expedition. Unfit, unprepared for the tropical environment and treating all he encounters with hauteur, Murray slowly alienates the rest of the party by displaying the imperialist confidence Fawcett and his companions avoid. Stealing supplies, nearly overtipping a raft and ruining some of their stores, Gray uses Murray as the picture of the arrogant classic explorer and a great contrast with Fawcett, who swears thereafter to never again judge a man on his standing and reputation rather than on his character.

Gray’s film has rather a good ear for the pressures and hypocrisies of post-Edwardian Britain. The film opens with Fawcett successfully shooting a leading stag during a state visit by Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It’s a feat that wins him praise – but not any form of meeting with the Archduke since Fawcett is, as a Lord puts it, “unwise in his choice of ancestors”. It’s a stigma Fawcett has to deal with at almost every turn, from being pooh-poohed for his advocation of the Amazonian tribes to dealing with the criticism of the entitled establishment figures.

Gray marshals this all rather effectively, bringing the film into a neat balance of acknowledging modern issues with exploration while still giving an excellent idea of why motivated these men. It all plays out within a dream like aesthetic that leaves a haunting impression. During his first expedition, Fawcett emerges from the bushes into a make-shift opera house built in the jungle (how Fitzcarraldo is that?), on a plantation ruled by a Portuguese landowner dripping with the greed of his class (Franco Nero in a delicious cameo). During his time at home – and at the front during the First World War – elements of the jungle creep into frame, reflecting Fawcett’s longing to return to this mysterious exotic land which makes him feel alive in ways the stifling life at home never does.

Gray’s sense of atmosphere is so well done in the film – its mesmeric shots and sense of unreality will linger – that it’s a shame Charlie Hunnam isn’t quite the right actor to play the role (he took over from Benedict Cumberbatch, who would have been perfect for the obsession, decisiveness and desire to prove himself). Hunnam gives a solid performance, and he really understands the egalitarian humanity of Fawcett, who treats all men and women as equals. But there is a deeper unknowability and mystical longing in Fawcett that is beyond his grasp.

Interestingly, Robert Pattinson – here grimy, eccentric and almost unrecognisable as Fawcett’s best friend Henry Costin – would have been a better call. This is an intensity and soulfulness in Pattison that Hunnam can’t quite bring to Fawcett. Tom Holland gives a heartfelt performance as Fawcett’s hero-worshipping son and Sienna Miller a sensitive and intelligent one as his devoted wife. Clive Francis and Ian McDiarmid play with aplomb sympathetic senior RGS men.

There are many more virtues than faults in The Lost City of Z. The photography by Darius Khondji is wonderful – no one has filmed the jungle better since The Mission. Gray’s intelligent and thoughtful film addresses questions of colonialism and prejudice, while also not shying away from the danger and aggression of some of these tribes. The portrayal of Fawcett’s final expedition is wonderfully done, culminating literally in a dream like sequence where reality, hope and fate merge. It’s a fascinating film.