Tag: Dystopia

The Matrix (1999)

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

Director: The Wachowskis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hunger Games (2012)

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

Director: Gary Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children of Men (2006)

Clive Owen and Claire-Hope Ashitey could be the last hope for mankind in the masterful Children of Men

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: Clive Owen (Theo Faron), Julianne Moore (Julian Taylor), Claire-Hope Ashitey (Kee), Michael Caine (Jasper Palmer), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Luke), Charlie Hunnam (Patric), Pam Ferris (Miriam), Peter Mullan (Syd), Danny Huston (Nigel)

Children of Men was overlooked on release. But the more it ages, the more it clearly hasn’t aged it at all. Criminally ignored at the major awards, this might well be the finest film of 2006 and certainly one of the best movies of the noughties. Rich in thought-provoking content and cinematic skill, this is truly great-film-making from Alfonso Cuarón. Dark, grim, edgy but also laced with hope, faith and kindness, Children of Men grows in statue with each viewing, rewarding you more and more.

It’s 2027 and the world has gone to hell. Mysteriously mankind became infertile 18 years ago, and faced with the despair that the extinction of the human race is inevitable, society has collapsed. Cities lie in ruins and war has torn countries apart: Britain “stands alone”, one of the few with a functioning government – even though that government is a totalitarian, nationalist police state. Aggressive campaigns are waged against refugees from around the world, who are herded into hellish concentration camps. In this chaos, Theo (Clive Owen) is a disaffected civil rights activist, now plodding through a dead-end job and smoking weed with his friend, ex-newspaper cartoonist Jasper (Michael Owen). All this changes when he is entrusted by his activist/’terrorist’ estranged wife Julian (Julianne Moore) to protect Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who carries inside her something that could change the whole of humanity: an unborn child.

Today Children of Men seems alarmingly prescient. In a world of migrant crises, Brexit, Trump and coronavirus (the film even refers to a flu pandemic of 2008!) the vision of the future it presents seems only a few degrees away from our reality. Rather than a hellish view, it seems more and more like something that could happen. Everything is worn out and grubby. Streets are lined with rubbish, buildings coated with graffiti. Televisions and advertising screens alternate between demands to report immigrants with promotions for “Quietus”, a suicide pill. Fences, armed police, barbed wire and crowds of filthy, terrified and brutalised people are common. Humanity has given-up: there is no hope in the world.

It’s that collapse of any sense of hope and optimism that has driven this collapse of society in Cuarón’s vision. In a world where the extinction of mankind is inevitable, what’s the point contributing to society or worrying about your legacy or the future? Why preserve anything when no-one will be around to see it in a hundred years? By such fragile threads, does society hold itself together. The crushing depression of knowing you live in the final days of humanity is everywhere. There is not a single person alive in their teens: a fact hammered home by the characters visiting a deserted and derelict school. Everyone has lost any sense of purpose, with life a grim daily grind.

Perhaps that’s also why physically the world hasn’t changed much. Unlike most “future set” dramas, this view of 2027 could be 2006, just dirtier and with a few more electronic screens (in fact this has helped hugely in not dating the film). It’s like all life has stagnated. And liberals like Theo have turned into apathetic drunks, drifting blithely through life not bothering to engage or change anything about the shit show all around them

All this makes the film sound impossibly grim – and Cuarón is superb in building this world (including the genius stroke of never explaining, even in the smallest detail, what has caused this pandemic of infertility – the film is refreshingly free of any clumsy scene setting) – but it works because it’s a film laced with hope and a belief in the fundamental goodness of people. The story has overtones of a religious fable: Theo and Kee as a sort of Joseph and Mary travelling to protect an unborn child whose birth could save the world. Specially composed choral music, rife with religious overtones, underplays key moments and scenes subtly leaning into this spiritual journey.

And the goodness that people find in themselves is inspiring. Theo, brilliantly played by Clive Owen who has just the right dissolute cynicism hiding crusading courage, may have given up but actually he’s a deeply empathetic and caring man. Animals instinctively love him. He’s a natural protector, who shows concern in all sorts of ways for people him, who puts himself at risk to protect people and refuses to ever accept defeat. But he’s a million miles away from a super-man, getting increasingly dishevelled, bashed and brutalised, while his struggles with footwear (he carries out action sequences  wearing just socks, then flip-flops and finally barefoot) is both a neat little gag and also a sign of how vulnerable he is in this dangerous world.

Cuarón’s film builds brilliantly on his empathy to carefully and beautifully build the growing understanding and trust between Theo and Kee (equally well played by Claire-Hope Ashitey). Again, it stems first from his protectiveness (Theo also works hard to protect people around him from disturbing sights, twice urging Kee not to look back and that whoever has been left behind is fine), but also from her instinctive trust in him as a good man and above the only one who seems to have her interests at heart (everyone else is concerned only with what Kee can symbolise – Ejiofor’s vigilante Luke can’t even get the sex of the baby right). Kee is vulnerable, but strong and determined, someone trying to carry the burden of being the hope of mankind.

She’s also brilliantly a member of the very migrant community that the government is trying to destroy. Cuarón’s film wants us all to remember that we are all the same deep down, that what happens to one affects us all. The horrors of what the British government are doing in the war-torn slums of migrant prisons (all of Bexhill has become a lawless hell hole, where executions and riots are daily occurrences) reek of everything from Auschwitz to Guantanamo. But amongst these migrants come the only strangers who seek to help Theo and Kee out of simple goodness and humanity. Strangers put themselves at huge risk, and in many cases sacrifice their lives, to help them. It makes a stark contrast with the revolutionaries who claim to fight for the migrants (but show no compunction in shooting them when needed), but really are only interested in their own selfish battles with no understanding of the bigger picture.

This bigger picture is very much like the thematic richness of the film that was missed on its released. It’s almost a victim of its own technical brilliance, which attracted much more attention at the time. Cuarón constructs several sequences to appear as single-takes, and the stunning camera work really helps establish this grimy, brutal world. It’s a wonderfully immersive film, a technical marvel. Every single part of the photography and design is pitch-perfect, and the key sequences are stomach-churningly tense, inspired by everything from The Battle of Algiers to A Clockwork Orange.

But the film works because it is underpinned by faith and trust in the human spirit. Mankind is being challenged like never before, but Cuarón shows us that the human spirit can survive. That simple acts of kindness can still happen. That there is a chance of hope. The final conclusion of the film is both sad but also upliftingly hopeful. Cuarón’s direction is just-about perfect, as are the performers (not just Owen and Ashitey but also an almost unrecognisible Caine as an ageing Hippie). With its acute and brilliant analysis of humanity – both in its grimness and capacity for goodness and selflessness – and with its prescient look at how easily our world could collapse, Children of Men is vibrant, brilliant, essential film-making.

Oblivion (2013)

Tom Cruise goes all Top Gun (Olga Kurylenko is along for the ride, pretty much all she does in the movie) in would-be intellectual sci-fi thriller Oblivion

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Cast: Tom Cruise (Jack Harper), Morgan Freeman (Malcolm Beech), Olga Kurylenko (Julia Rusakova), Andrea Riseborough (Victoria Olsen), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Sykes), Melissa Leo (Sally)

Spoilers: I’m going to discuss the entire content of the plot from the third paragraph. You’ve been warned!

It’s 60 years after an alien attack. The world has been destroyed, cities lie in ruins, and mankind has fled to Jupiter’s moon Titan. Earth is being drained of its last few resources to power the new civilisation on Titan by massive machines. Drones fly around the planet, protecting the machines from the last surviving alien forces still on Earth. The drones are tended by Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Vika Wilson (Andrea Riseborough), whose memories have been wiped for security reasons and who are dedicated to keeping the drones functioning. 

Or is this all a lie?

Well it won’t be a huge surprise to hear that it is, of course. And there are some decent ideas in Kosinski’s film: the twist reveal that the organisation Harper and Wilson are working so hard to preserve is in fact the very alien invaders they so hate, or that the strange figures on the planet they are helping the drones to kill are actually the last surviving remnants of mankind. Harper and Wilson are clones of NASA astronauts captured 60 years ago and replicated over and over again in order to serve the robots. The “Tet” in space that they believe is their HQ is the alien mothership. These are all decent twists. So why do they combine together to have so little real impact?

I think it’s because Kosinski rushes the film. He’s so pleased with the narrative rug pulls that he seems to want to reveal many of them one after the other. Additionally, the biggest twist – Tom Cruise is actually working for the baddies! – immediately makes most of the rest easy to predict. Not least the constant references to Base 49 where he and Vika work – sure enough it’s a clone number, so the planet is filled with clones of this pair. The only thing stopping them bumping into each other is that they have been told everything outside of their “patrol zone” is irradiated and they must never enter it. 

All of this world building – and the film does take its time establishing it a piece at a time early on – is interesting stuff. But it loses its way once the film surrenders itself to a string of reveals that overwhelm it. By the time we are watching super-man Jack shooting down drones from his helicopter, the film seems to have lost the more meditative start. With Jack at first we get a sense of a guy longing to find more depth to live with. But the film loses this sense, with Jack become steadily less interesting the more we find out about him.

Then once you accept the idea of Cruise and Riseborough being endlessly cloned, the logic gap starts to click into place. It’s never explained why the aliens are so reliant on human engineers for their drones – if they have conquered loads of planets before without them, why do they need them here? Furthermore, we are told the first wave of Jacks were mindless soldiers who killed everyone on the planet – why then are these engineer Jacks and Vikas given so much independent thought? Why not just make them automatons? Why clone them and then lie to them about who they are working for – why not just program them to obey the robots?

Then after a slow build of questions and revelations about Jack’s world, we get a standard Independence Day style mission up into space to “blow up the mother ship”. Of course this is a mission that only your man Tom can do. And do it he does, because Tom Gotta Do What Tom Gotta Do. It’s all a rather disappointing resolution to a film that toys around with being something a bit more complex and interesting earlier on.

Ah, Tom Cruise. To be honest he’s probably miscast here. There is something so incredibly, movie-star strong about Cruise that he somehow overpowers the shocks and make them seem silly. On top of which, the part is another ego-stroke. Jack is the ultimate man’s man – he fixes things, he loves sports, he builds a cabin in the woods, he’s clearly dynamite in the sack; but he’s also sensitive and caring and in touch with his feelings. On top of which both female characters in the film – Riseborough’s sadly besotted Vika and Kurylenko’s mysterious astronaut who lands on Earth and awakens strange memories in Jack – are both pathetic ciphers who need Tom’s help for everything, while of course also being way, way, way too young for the Cruiser.

But the film still looks good, and still has some very interesting twists. The design and visuals are faultless – in fact they seem to become the main focus, all those long shots of deserted, sand consumed parts of New York. Its main problem is that it’s low on themes – I guess it’s trying to make a case that humanity can’t be bashed out of us, no matter how many times we try and clone it out of someone – but it gets lost a bit in plot mechanics and the delight the director has in executing them. For a film that only really has four characters in it, I still felt they were hazy and undefined. A lot is left to the viewer’s own suppositions, so the film gets pretty reliant on your adding the depth it needs. If you are inclined to do so, this works. But the essential dramatic thrust of the film itself isn’t compelling enough to make you willing to make the effort the film needs.

Oblivion wants to be the next big, thoughtful, twist-filled, sci-fi epic. But it just doesn’t have enough interest and complexity to really engage the viewer. Instead it all becomes a bit forgettable – not because it’s bad but because, at the end of the day, it’s nothing special.

1984 (1984)

John Hurt is simply perfect as Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s faithful Orwell adaptation 1984

Director: Michael Radford

Cast: John Hurt (Winston Smith), Richard Burton (O’Brien), Suzanna Hamilton (Julia), Cyril Cusack (Mr Charrington), Gregor Fisher (Parsons), James Walker (Syme), Andrew Wilde (Tillotson), Phyllis Logan (Announcer)

Few novels of the 20th century have had such a far-ranging impact as George Orwell’s 1984. Its concepts and ideas have dominated the popular language around topics from politics to reality television. Orwell’s idea of a dystopia, ruled by a controlling government, has inspired virtually every other story in a similar setting since. Hell, Orwellian is now an actual word.

Michael Radford had dreamed for years of bringing a film version of Orwell’s last masterpiece to the screen. This film is the end-result, shot (as it proudly announces at the end) in the exact times and locations the original novel was set in. Radford has created a hugely faithful adaptation that strains at the leash to cover all the complex political, philosophical and personal questions Orwell’s novel explores. From the opening sequence, expertly recreating the books “Two-minute-hate”, it’s immediately clear that Radford knows (and loves) this book.

Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a party worker in Oceania (a sort of super country consisting of North America, Britain and Ireland), whose role is to edit and adjust the historical records to ensure that everything the ruling Party has ever said was always accurate and correct. Unpeople are removed from old newspaper cuttings, economic targets are edited to match the final results. In his heart he has sincere doubts about the system and yearns for freedom – but it is not until a chance meeting with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) that he finds a way to express his individuality through their love affair. But what does Inner Party member O’Brien (Richard Burton) have planned for him?

Radford’s film is a marvel of design. Its look and feel could have been ripped from the pages of Orwell. Today we’d call it almost steam-punk – every piece of technology is made of antiquated and repurposed pieces of equipment (such as phone dials or computer screens) that have a rusty, poorly maintained feeling that immediately communicates the run-down crapsack world the film is set in. Every building seems to be crumbling, collapsing, poorly made, unpleasant, dirty – every street is littered with wreckage. Who on earth would want to live anywhere like this?

The oppression of the design – all dark blues, greys, blacks and crumbling stone and rusty metal – is contrasted at key points. The (relative) opulence of O’Brien’s apartment – with actual comfortable chairs, plastered and painted walls and decent furniture – really stands out (as does Burton’s well-tailored boiler suit compared to the uncomfortable rags of the others). Roger Deakin’s photography also really mixes up the grime of London with the sweeping vistas of the countryside, the only place we see greens or brighter blues. 

Radford’s adaptation of the novel manages to hit every beat from the original. I’m not sure if it is quite accessible to someone who hasn’t read the novel: there is a lot of information only briefly communicated here, and the film makes no real effort to set up or establish the situation in Oceania. Some moments work a lot better if you know the book – the nature of Winston’s job most especially. However, Radford really captures the spirit of the original – and he really understands the contrasts in the book between its gloom and oppression and the free spirit of Julia, and what their love affair represents to Winston. 

The film contains a lot of nudity in these scenes (Suzanna Hamilton does full frontal several times –John Hurt’s bottom similarly appears a fair bit) – but it’s kind of vital. The characters are literally (and figuratively) laying themselves bare. It’s a clear visual sign of how they are rejecting the rules, systems and crushing control of the state itself. Alone they can shed the burden of being controlled and truly be themselves. It’s one of the few films where extensive nudity actually feels completely essential to the plot – and vital to communicating the character’s desire for openness.

Radford also draws some neat (inferred) visual parallels from the material of the book, most notably around Winston’s fear of rats. In the book, this visceral fear is never fully explored, but here in the film Radford has Winston plagued with dreams and flashbacks of stealing chocolate as a child from his starving mother – and returning to an empty room full of rats. Rats are linked in Winston’s mind with betrayal and inhumanity, the very qualities he most fears in the real world – and the impact of these animals psychologically on Winston seems all the more clear.

The film is further helped by the casting of John Hurt as Winston Smith. If ever an actor was born to play this role, it was John Hurt. Not only does Hunt’s gaunt face, emaciated frame and pale cragginess fit perfectly (he also looks a lot like Orwell), but Hurt’s gift as an actor was his empathy for suffering. His finest parts were people who undergo great loss and torment, so Winston Smith was perfect. He gives the role a great deal of damaged humanity, a naïve dream-like yearning, a desire for something he can barely understand. There’s a real gentleness to him, a vulnerability – and it makes Winston Smith hugely moving.

Suzanna Hamilton (in a break-out role) is a great contrast, as a confident, controlled, brave Julia – again there is something tomboyish about her that really works for the part. She’s both certain about what she is doing, but also unwise and naïve. It’s a shame her performance often gets overlooked behind Hurt and Richard Burton. This was Burton’s final film – and while he clearly looks frail, he gives O’Brien all the imposing authority of the melodious voice: you could believe Burton as both a secret rebel and as the face of the state. He’s really good here, hugely menacing and sinister.

1984 is perhaps one of the most faithful and lovingly assembled tributes to its source material you can imagine. In fact that’s the root of its two biggest flaws. Radford had an electronic score by the Eurythmics imposed upon the film (the band was unaware that Dominic Muldowney had spent almost a year working on a score rejected by the producers). This electronic, slightly popish soundtrack feels completely out of whack with the tone and style of the rest of the film. It’s very 1980s electronic tone doesn’t match the novel and it looks even worse today. That’s the danger when your passion project can only get finance from a record company!

The other problem is the film is very much an adaptation: wonderfully done, brilliantly designed and acted, but it exists best as a companion piece. In fact the full enjoyment of the film pretty much relies on having read the book – and it has virtually no appeal to someone who didn’t already know the book (even the 2-minute hate that opens the film isn’t explained). Historically I think the film is very easy to overlook as it came out at a very similar time to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Brazil doesn’t adapt the plot of Orwell’s book – but in all other senses it’s an adaptation of the heart of that novel, told with greater artistry and imagination than here. It’s a thematic adaptation that is its own beast not just a page-to-screen version. That’s what 1984 is and, however well done, it will always be in the shadow of the original.

Radford’s labour of love is still a very good film. Somehow what was pretty bleak on the page is even more traumatising on screen. A lot of this is due to Radford’s balance between oppression and freedom, and the film’s perfect adaptation of the book’s themes. But a lot of it is due to Hurt’s heartfelt, sympathetic and perfect performance in the lead role. Literally no-one else could have played this role: and from the opening shots of him at a party rally, through scenes of love, torture and traumatised aftermath, he’s simply wonderful. Read the book: but once you do enjoy (if you can!) the film.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road – a crazy car chase film

Director: George Miller

Cast: Tom Hardy (Max Rockatansky), Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa), Nicholas Hoult (Nux), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Immortan Joe), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (The Splendid Angharad), Nathan Jones (Rictus Erectus), Riley Keough (Capable), Zoë Kravitz (Toast the Knowing), Abbey Lee (The Dag), Courtney Eaton (Cheedo the Fragile), Josh Helman (Slit)

Sometimes films seem designed to give you a visceral thrill, to throw you into an experience and see whether you sink or swim. To pull off that sort of hard-edged momentum, you need a film-maker skilful enough to create an addictive energy that never slackens and never gives you a second to question the film while it’s going on. Mad Max: Fury Road has such a director in George Miller, and its demented, high-octane excess, married with a film-making style that felt modern, vibrant and grounded in reality, surprisingly made it one of the most acclaimed films of 2015.

In a post-apocalyptic future Australia, the world is a ruined desert and basic requirements like water, greenery and fuel are more valuable than anything. In a rocky outcrop, cult-leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules one of the few populations by controlling access to the water. “Road warrior” Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is captured by Immortan Joe’s warriors and put to work as a “blood bag” to transfuse into Immortan Joe’s warriors. However, this coincides with a planned escape by Immortan Joe’s wives (the few remaining women capable of conceiving children). Led by road warrior Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the women flee to find a mysterious paradise in the wilderness. Cue an almighty chase and running battle between Furiosa’s road carrier and Immortan Joe’s forces, desperate to reclaim the wives.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a bizarre, extreme, surreal thrill ride, a high-octane road chase, crammed with action, thrills and dynamism. It’s directed with extraordinary vibrancy by George Miller, who makes it fresh and scintillating. Miller crams the action and design with an explosion of style. Everything is amped up to 11, from the look to the characterisations and motivations. But what makes this such a well-directed film is that Miller shoots much of it with careful, professional clarity: so many other films would be cut with a frantic craziness, but this has a polished traditionalism to it. Basically Miller knows the actual content of the story is “insane” enough that he doesn’t need to gild the lily with bizarre, swooping camera angles or choppy editing. 

That’s partly why this film has had such a strong positive reaction. While being insanely OTT, it’s actually quite an old-fashioned piece of film-making, and it looks like a lot of it was shot for real on location, using real practical stunts. This may or may not be the case, but it certainly looks like this. And in an era where so many action films are about superheroes, and crammed with special effects, to have a world where things feel grimy and real, where the objects we are watching feel like they exist, is like a breath of fresh air. The design throughout the film accentuates this sense of reality. It makes things feel like they have depth and force. It immediately adds stakes to the action.

That action takes place in a unique looking world. The visuals in this film are crazy. The design of Immortan Joe’s half-nude soldiers, with their silver paint aerosol and petrol smeared faces, is terrifyingly cultish. The look of the many different vehicles is immediately striking, with each being clearly of the same world, but each distinctive in look, like some Wacky Races. The steampunkish mix of cobbled-together remains of technology to create the cars and trucks is brilliantly done. It’s a film that looks like nothing else, and shot with radiant streaks of yellows and blues, mixed with scenes shot in almost painterly black and white. It’s an explosion of style, but not straining too hard to force itself upon you like so many films do. 

The film also has a simple structure and storyline, that allows it to focus on the action. It’s slick, steamlined and very focused. The villains are clear, and their motivations easy to understand. They are presented with a certain depth, but their essential villainy is easy to have a gut instinct against. This also helps us bond with our heroes – despite the fact that most of the wives have only the most briefly sketched of characters. But we totally understand their position, fear and desire for freedom. Just as the film is a primal explosion of “fight or flight”, so are the feelings our heroes carry. Everyone can relate to them.

It’s also great that this is an action film where the women largely drive (literally!) much of the action. The film may have the Mad Max name on it, but the true lead of the film is Furiosa. It’s her actions that drive the film, it’s her conflicts that are at its heart, the film is her journey and Max is largely along for the ride (again literally!). Charlize Theron is very impressive in the lead, a strong warrior woman, but also someone with a buried poetic soul and a clear emotional arc. Tom Hardy delivers as the grizzled Max, but this is very much Theron’s film.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an exciting and engrossing film. But it’s made with such professional inspiration on the visuals that it invites people to read into it a lot more depth than I think is actually there. It’s got such old-fashioned control and brilliance to it, while being so explosive and vibrant, that it’s tempting to read into it a thematic complexity. Let’s be honest, this is a chase movie. It’s a hell of a chase movie, but it’s a chase movie.

It may be set in a world of post-apocalyptic totalitarianism, but it’s not trying to tell us anything hugely original about what such a world may be like. It creates such a world with huge inventiveness, but it’s not an enlightening film. Similarly, this is a film that places women at the centre of its action, but I’m not sure you could call it a film that has much to say about feminism. Most of the women in this film are still defined primarily by their breeding abilities. Furiosa may be the leader, but most of the rest of the women are under her protection. The film does something different with gender, but it also does a lot of quite traditional things. 

It’s really tempting to see great symbolism in such a dynamic and striking piece of film-making. But thematically there isn’t much there. Miller directs a film that is brilliant too experience, so brilliant you expect there to be more at its heart. In truth there isn’t really – it’s largely what it appears to be on the tin. There’s nothing wrong with that though. You just need to know what you are going to get. This is not some great game changer of a motion picture, that will reinvent and reposition the genre. It is a skilfully made and compelling chase movie, where a group of people run to a point, turn around and head back, being chased all the way. It’s shot with a near poetic, old-school brilliance – but it’s still just a chase movie. Accept it as that – a high-octane action thriller – and you will be swept away. Look to it for the thematic depth some have claimed it carries and you will be disappointed.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Ryan Gosling does a man’s job filling some difficult shoes in Blade Runner 2049

Director:  Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Ryan Gosling (Officer K), Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Ana da Armas (Joi), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Robin Wright (Lt. Joshi), Mackenzie Davis (Mariette), Carla Juri (Dr Ana Stelline), Lennie James (Mr Cotton), Dave Bautista (Sapper Morton), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), Barkhad Abdi (Doc Badger), Edward James Olmos (Gaff), Sean Young (Rachael)

SPOILERS: It’s pretty much impossible to discuss Blade Runner 2049 without revealing some of the workings of the plot. Since the film makers have gone out of the way to say “don’t reveal any of the plot” I thought it fair to say I’ll discuss some things fairly freely here. So you’ve been warned!

Making a sequel is a risky business at the best of times. Then imagine making a sequel to a film that is not just a cultural and artistic landmark film but one people genuinely love. The possibility of creating a massive disappointment? Pretty big. You need some guts to take that on – like announcing you are making Gone with the Wind: Blown Away or Casablanca: Everyone Back to Rick’s. That’s the sort of challenge for the makers of the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel. Could they make something that both complemented and expanded on the original?

The year is 2049 (of course!). K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner with the task of hunting down long-lived Nexus-8 replicants – the twist being (and its revealed in the opening minutes of the film!) that K himself is a replicant, a more obedient Nexus-9 model. After “retiring” aged replicant farmer Sapper Morton (a career best Dave Bautista), K locates the buried remains of a female replicant who died after an emergency caesarean section. Terrified that replicants may be developing the ability to reproduce, K’s superiors order him to “retire” the child and all who know of it. As K investigates, his loyalties become ever more divided – while sinister corporate genius Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his Nexus-9 hit-woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) have their own plans for the replicant child.

So the big question is, does Blade Runner 2049 succeed? The answer is a firm and reassuring yes. The big issue is, does the existence of this film affect (or even ruin) the previous film? Blade Runner 2049 not only complements the original, it builds on and expands its themes, and poses far more questions than answers. In some ways it’s even more profound and searching than the original – arguably it engages with ideas and concepts even more overtly (and richly). If your concern going into this film was it would end any discussion about whether Deckard is a replicant or not, then have no fears – the question remains as open as ever (and works either way for this story).

Even more than the original, this film tackles what it means to be human and how we define humanity by the ability to express emotions and empathy. It comes at this from a different stand-point from Blade Runner by removing any doubt about our hero’s nature. What is more, he is a replicant deliberately designed to be more obedient than earlier models. A cool, minimalist actor with a mastery of small expressions, Ryan Gosling is almost perfectly cast as the quiet K, developing deep yearnings to be more than what he is. The entire film revolves around this question of how capable K is not only of forming emotions, but of making his own choices.

The ability to live freely and choose is at the heart of the conundrums for all our characters. To what extent are they able to do this? K goes about his work of dispatching fellow replicants with a quiet reluctance, but does his duty nevertheless. But he is a character yearning to be “more” – and what, in many ways, is more human than that? The film taps into this expertly with K’s belief that maybe he himself is replicant child. The film’s mantra is about choosing what we live and what we die for and, regardless of who or what we are, being able to do this is what makes us “more”.

In a film stuffed to the gills with replicants and other artificial characters, we are constantly asked to address and question how far each of them goes towards achieving “humanity”. Just as with Blade Runner, the only two definitely human characters (Niander Wallace and Lt Joshi) are strangely distant, hard to read or even cruel authoritarian figures, making a damn bad case for real humans.

Joi (brilliantly played by Ana de Armas), K’s girlfriend, is a warm, caring, loving woman – but she’s also a hologram, designed to be the perfect companion. K and she go to great lengths to protect and care for each other over the film – and her final fate is a deeply moving moment. But Joi is a computer programme – and a late sequence in the film where K interacts sadly with a looming holographic advert of another Joi that repeats many of her phrases in a disconnected style casts a sad light on all their previous interactions. Every time Joi said anything with love or affection to K, was this just a computer reflecting back what her owner wanted to hear?

It’s not a great surprise to say K does eventually learn to make his own choices and to decide his own fate. In many ways this is a fable of growing up – K accepting his limitations while forging his own destiny – but it makes a contrast with other replicants. While the older models form their own resistance, K’s counterpart Luv (an imposing Sylvia Huks) can’t or won’t break free of following Wallace’s commands. There are more than a few hints Luv is not always happy with the duties she is asked to perform (at one point she weeps quietly as a replicant is dispatched). But at others, she’s clearly striving as much as K to be “special” – she triumphantly repeats a mantra to herself about being the best, like a daughter trying to impress her father.

These new characters offer such diverse and exciting story-telling opportunities, you almost don’t notice that Deckard doesn’t appear in the film until nearly the third act. Harrison Ford may have been slightly uncomfortable in the original – but he fully understands the more assured, confident Deckard in this film, who has made his peace with leaving the world behind. Ford gives this new Deckard an almost Han Solo-ish shoot-first swagger, but mixes it with a world-weary sadness. I’d go so far as to say he’s actually better in this film than the first one.

Which is a further testament to the strength of this film. All the themes and ideas of the original are used as bouncing-off points for further exploration. This never feels like a retread, reboot or remake – it feels like a rich and rewarding piece of intelligent sci-fi by itself. I actually feel it could be watched independently of the first film, and still have plenty to offer. It’s not interesting in tying the first film up in a bow – instead it serves as a stimulus for future discussion. You could imagine a sequel to this film sustaining enough interest for 35 years.

Technically of course the film is an absolute marvel. Roger Deakins’ photography is gorgeous, capturing every element of this dystopian nightmare world in a series of brilliant images, in turns drained, bleached and sun kissed. Every frame is artfully composed for maximum impact. The production design is similarly magnificent, Dennis Gassner’s work melding the world of the original, with its steam-punk look, with a mix of technological developments. The score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is similarly perfect, giving the film a brooding intensity.

But most of this artistry comes back to the film-making mastery of Denis Villeneuve, a director so gifted I think he may be more interesting than Ridley Scott. His control of the pace of the film is brilliant – despite being very long, it never drags – and he shoots every scene with a careful, intellectually engaged brilliance. He is able – possibly even more than the original – to mix emotion and elliptical theorising, and to draw a raft of brilliant performances from an outstanding cast. More than anything else, he treats the audience with respect, giving them a measured and thoughtful film that trusts we have patience. Villeneuve tops Arrival here, and does so with confident aplomb.

Blade Runner 2049 is a film that demands to be seen more than once. It’s a patient and intensely thoughtful piece of science fiction, that asks profound questions about humanity and the characters in it. I don’t really feel from one viewing I’ve got a grip on it – in fact the more I think about it, the more its haunting, elegiac quality starts cramming into my head. You need to be patient and go with it – you need to be in the right mindset for this slowburn concept film. But, get in that mindset and this film is constantly rewarding. If you want to criticise something, I will acknowledge that many of the female characters are a little more clichéd (most are prostitutes or similar) – but this world where many women seem to be in subservient roles to men is in many ways an extension of the world created in the original film (and now an expression of the dystopian future).

However this is a great film. A really great piece of adult science-fiction. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest it is better than the original film.

Blade Runner (1982)

Harrison Ford hangs on for dear life in Blade Runner

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Rutger Hauer (Roy Batty), Sean Young (Rachael), Edward James Olmos (Gaff), M. Emmet Walsh (Harry Bryant), Daryl Hannah (Pris Stratton), William Sanderson (JF Sebastian), Brion James (Leon Kowalski), Joe Turkel (Dr Eldon Tyrell), Joanna Cassidy (Zhora Salome)

Everyone knows Blade Runner surely? And everyone has a viewpoint on its central mysteries. Why for a film largely ignored on release? Because as well as being tight and engaging, this is a rich thematic film, crammed with mystery and enigma. And there are few things more engaging than a film that succeeds in being as open to interpretation as possible.

In 2019 a dystopian, polluted Los Angeles is a launch pad for the wealthy to head out into the new colonies in the stars. Off-world, the unpleasant tasks are carried out by artificial humans known as replicants. Replicants are banned from returning to Earth – but a group of five led by soldier Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) have come to Earth looking to extend their pre-programmed limited lifespans (no more than five years). On Earth, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is reinstated as a Blade Runner, an agent whose job is to ‘retire’ (i.e. kill) replicants on Earth. Deckard is reluctant, having an increasing distaste for his work, but begins to hunt and eliminate the replicants.

Blade Runner may be one of the most influential science fiction films ever made. Its look and style influenced virtually every other dystopian future you’ve seen in any other film since. Tall, run-down buildings. Overbearing corporate advertising. Flashing neon lights. Terrible weather. Everything dark all the time. Poverty and degeneracy on every corner. You’ve seen it in every dystopian future since. Visually, the film is a landmark, a testament to Ridley Scott’s graphic artistry.

But that wouldn’t be enough for Blade Runner to last the course. When released it was perhaps too elliptical and hard to categorise – equal parts dystopian thriller, noir detective story, sci-fi morality tale, dark romance – for audiences to really understand. Certainly the studio didn’t. After disastrous test screenings, it was re-cut. So began a fable of slice and dice that made Blade Runner perhaps second only to Brazil in the annals of re-versioned films.

The release included an overtly “happy ending” (bizarre images of our heroes driving into a blissful countryside, totally at odds with the rest of the film) and a disengaged voiceover from Harrison Ford that eradicated all the film’s subtlety. This was the only version for 10 years until a “Director’s cut” was released. This removed these elements, retooled scenes and introduced the famous “unicorn dream” sequence (of which more later). Fifteen years after that, Scott finally found the time to work on a “Final cut” which presented the film as Scott had intended it – with all its mysteries and questions intact. Has there been any other film with so many different “official” versions?

Anyway, was it worth the struggle? Certainly. While you could argue it is predominantly a triumph of style, Scott laces the film with a sense of mystery and profundity that makes it a rich and rewarding viewing experience. It’s a trim detective thriller that also questions the nature of humanity. It is a perfectly formed elliptical mystery, an archetypal cult film that engrosses the viewers to such an extent that 30 years later there is still a healthy debate about what the film means.

Humanity is =the key issue. The human characters are functional, cold, distant and unengaging. The hunt for the replicants (who are basically slaves) is brutally and unremorsefully executed. The replicants have been designed to learn and grow but cruelly had their lives capped to stop them taking advantage of this. Their world is polluted, tawdry, soulless and lost.

Meanwhile, the replicants exhibit far more (whisper it) humanity than the aloof human characters, ]despite the fact we are repeatedly reminded they cannot feel empathy. Clearly this is not completely true. And, the film argues, if an artificial human can display loyalty, fear, love, anger and pain, what actually is the difference between that and a “real” person. If a replicant can only be identified after dozens of questions in a test, can they really be that different from a human being?

Questions about this coalesce around Deckard. If the film has remained such a part of cultural discussions, it’s partly because of the fun of theorising about his true nature. Is he a replicant? Scott’s insertion of Deckard’s unicorn dream (implying the origami unicorn left by Gaff at the film’s end shows Gaff knows Deckard’s dream, meaning the dream is an implant in an artificial mind) very much suggests so. There is a case to be made either way, both of which work.

Deckard’s ruthless replicant hunt is deliberately juxtaposed with their own warm feelings. Deckard grows in humanity and reluctance as the film progresses – is this him becoming more human, or is it is humanity emerging? His coldness and reserved hostility contrast with the vibrancy of Batty, Pris and the replicants. In many ways, he fits in as the quintessential human in this world – a vague discomfort with what he is doing, but no real hesitation about continuing. Thematically, it makes more sense if Deckard is human – that he represents dehumanisation (and gradually realising it) while the replicants become more human.

However, clues are sprinkled throughout that Deckard is not what he appears. His distance from other characters. The treatment he receives from his co-workers. The photographs that fill his apartment (replicants enjoy photos as it gives them a sense of a past). His bond with Rachael. His relentlessness – and the fact that he is clearly considered expendable by the police. Then there is the rich irony: the best way of hunting down replicants is to create a hunter replicant. Either way, it’s a debate and conversation that sustains the film – and allows multiple interpretations of every scene.

It’s a debate that feeds into the main theme of the film: humanity, free will and our God complex. Batty, the dying replicant searching for new life, confronts his maker – a distant, arrogant man with no interest in his creation. And kills him. But Batty feels more human than any other character. He shows more affection, frustration, anger and grief than anyone else. His last words (the famous “tears in rain” speech) had such cultural impact because it has such poetic joy and depth to it. They are lines enthused with a desire to live, a romantic vitality. It’s the most poetic moment in the film and it comes from someone who isn’t “real”. What more sign do we need that the replicants are human? If we can create poetry in a machine, does it stop being a machine?

Empathy is the quality the replicants are judged on – but as we see replicants dispatched with little sense of regret, and then witness Batty and Leon’s grief for their fallen comrades, or Pris’ ease with man-child Sebastian, the lack of empathy from humans is all the more clear. Deckard is a fascinating character as he falls between two stools – either a human who has buried empathy, or a replicant discovering empathy. Strange and disjointed as the relationship between Deckard and Rachel is (and there is an uncomfortable moment where Deckard gets too physically forceful) it fits into this – are these two artificial people discovering the ability to bond? Or is it an emotionally stunted human finding himself drawn towards someone who feels more real than the other humans?

What makes the film work is that it doesn’t hammer home, these issues. It allows us to make our own minds up. It frames the action within a noirish detective thriller, laced with mood and awesome visuals. It’s sharply and sparingly written, with real intelligence. For all its discussions about humanity, it does feel at times a cold film – but it’s so rich in suggestion and implication that it doesn’t really matter. Yes you could argue the implication and playful suggestion imply more depth than actually exists, – but the film gets away with it, because it works so well.

Rutger Hauer gives easily the finest performance as Batty (he allegedly wrote the famous speech on the day). Batty is the most vibrant and dominant force in the film, who goes on the most engaging emotional arc. For me the dark secret of the film is Harrison Ford is slightly miscast– he’s aiming for moody, Bogartish disillusionment, but he comes across more disengaged (he’s strikingly better in Blade Runner 2049). I think Ford struggled with the character – it’s a role better suited to a John Hurt or James Caan, rather than Ford’s more conventional (if world-weary) magnetism – he’s not a natural fit for a bitter cynic. Olmos, Cassidy, Walsh, Sanderson and James give strong support.

Blade Runner is a visual triumph and a rich experience. Its story is compelling, but the real richness is the thematic layers under its skin. Scott created a film open to interpretation, and that’s what really grabbed the imagination. It marries mystery with curiosity and avoids pretension, becoming intriguing and engrossing. Scott has rarely made a film with such intense ideas and poignant confusion before. You could argue the final cut leans too far one way in the central mystery, but there is more than enough eerie richness under that – helped by Vangelis’ unsettlingly grand score – to keep people viewing and talking about it for another 30 years.

Dredd (2012)

Dredd. He is THE LAW!

Director: Pete Travis

Cast: Karl Urban (Judge Dredd), Olivia Thirlby (Judge Cassandra Anderson), Lena Headey (Ma-Ma), Wood Harris (Kay), Domhnall Gleeson (Computer expert), Warrick Grier (Caleb), Deobia Oparei (TJ), Rakia Ayole (Chief Judge)

Dredd is the second attempt to bring the brutal post-apocalyptic lawman to the screen, after a disastrous 1990s version starring Sylvester Stallone. Famously, that film gained the undying enmity of the comic book fans by having Dredd remove his signature helmet (and show his face) at every opportunity. Here, Karl Urban dutifully keeps the helmet on at all times.

In a future USA, Mega-City One is a sprawling metropolis of 800 million residents and 17,000 crimes a day. To combat crimes, the Judges are a police force with the powers to sentence and execute criminals on the spot. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the most feared and experienced Judge on their books, a man of rigid rules who sees the world in black and white. Given a new psychic recruit, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), Dredd makes an arrest at Peach Trees, a 200-storey slum building ruled by brutal crime lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). After Dredd and Anderson arrest one of Ma-Ma’s key lieutenants, she locks down the building, isolates the Judges, and demands their execution by the residents.

Dredd is a super violent but entertaining siege movie, with the twist being that the siege involves the heroes being locked in with their opponents – the heroes trying first to get out, then to stop their enemies getting in. Now I know very little at all about the source material, but, unlike the Stallone film, this film succeeds as a Dredd movie by simply treating its events as a “regular episode” rather than a ground-shifting, world-at-stake mega-movie. As such, it can focus on the events that are relevant to the immediate, simple story and loosely sketch out the other elements of the future (enough to keep us interested and to understand the context). It focuses on a fast-paced, exciting story and enough character detail and interest to keep you involved. 

The film is snappily directed by Travis with a decent, stripped down script from Alex Garland, and has a good performance at its centre from Karl Urban, who has the collaborative lack of ego to make Dredd, rather than his own performance, the centre of the story, . Urban also manages to make a character who is an imposing and lethal killing machine into someone we also respect for his adherence to a firm moral code. And he adds enough texture to the part to suggest a certain softening in his attitudes towards Anderson (a very effective Thrilby) across the course of the movie. Headey also makes a great enemy, a sort of Cersei Lannister on heroin and acid, a totally remorseless megalomanic.

The film packs a great deal of punch and its design is very impressive. The Peach Trees setting is an imposing vision of a crap-sack future, while also having a very clear navigation for the deadly game of cat-and-mouse Dredd and Anderson play throughout the film. The film doesn’t have much in the way of wit to it – the source material is apparently more satirical, not something that comes across here to be honest – but it does understand the rigidity and certainty of its lead character and it doesn’t flinch from the dark consequences of its hero’s actions. 

I’m no expert on the original but this is rather a lot of simple, unchallenging fun that manages to swiftly establish characters – through neat writing and good acting – that make sense, are complex and feel very true to the tone of the source material. It’s violent and bloody, and yes it has many beats in it that are slightly predictable or twists on many similar “one man against an army” movies we’ve seen, but it has more than enough merit to be worth your time.

Elysium (2013)

Matt Damon takes aim. He’s wearing as well a mechanical suit that makes him look like a building under construction.

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Cast: Matt Damon (Max Da Costa), Jodie Foster (Defence Secretary Delacourt), Alice Braga (Frey Santiago), Sharlto Copley (Agent Kruger), Diego Luna (Julio), Wagner Moura (Spider), William Fichtner (John Carlyle)

In a dystopian future, the world has become polluted and overpopulated. The rich and privileged live on Elysium, a massive orbital space station with an Earth-like atmosphere where medical equipment can cure anything. The masses on Earth yearn to join Elysium, many resorting to black market routes. Max da Costa (Matt Damon) is an ex-thief who contracts a lethal radiation infection at work. With little choice, he agrees to take part in a dangerous data heist (wearing a suit that enhances his physical abilities) in return for a black market trip to Elysium. But his heist crosses the plans of Elysium’s ambitious Defence Secretary (Jodie Foster) and her ruthless black ops operative Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

The design of this world, as per District 9 (to which this feels almost like a spiritual sequel), is impressive and really captures the visual clash between third world poverty on Earth and the paradise in the sky of Elysium. The sense of a society firmly divided into the haves and have nots is (at first) very well sketched out. There is the potential for a compelling us-against-them narrative ready to burst out, and Damon’s character seems positioned as “our champion” to bring down the system. 

This is actually a really neat concept for a movie. What it’s crying out for, though, is more than the by-the-numbers execution it gets here. I suspect there were struggles between Blomkamp’s interest in putting social issues side-by-side with sci-fi action, and the demands of “the money” to get more Damon Bourne-inspired chaos on the screen. Either way, after the initial set-up the movie goes nowhere in particular. A lot of world establishment is needed here (I’ve just struggled to explain it in one paragraph) and the film doesn’t get the balance right between setting this up and then getting into the story – it’s a good 45 minutes before the story starts and 40 minutes later the film is more or less over. I’ll give it credit that the short runtime does mean it goes nowhere fast, but it’s still a pointless destination.

Anyway, the problem that cuts to the core is you don’t really care about anything. Copley brings charisma to his heavy role, but the character is a formless one who engages in any act of villainy the film needs him to do. Foster’s cold (English accented?) bureaucrat similarly never fully comes to life, despite her best efforts. Braga is a thinly sketched bit of human interest. The film is crammed with decent actors who were obviously attracted to some sort of idea behind the script – it’s just a shame that whatever got them worked up about the material never made it to the screen.

Damon’s character is key to this: he should be someone who finds his feet as the champion of the oppressed, who makes decisions and sacrifices that initially at first seem to be out the scope of his understanding of the world. The script pushes him towards this but it never feels real – we never get to know him (either before or after the event that changes his life) and we never get a sense of him being driven by anything beyond his original narrow aims until the film suddenly calls on him to make a series of huge sacrifices. It just doesn’t feel true: the film doesn’t take us on a journey with him, meaning the end lacks satisfaction. I’ll also mention in passing that, among the poor, downtrodden, entirely-Latino urban classes, the lead is the only white character – and yet he too has a Latino name, which to me suggests a certain level of white-washing for box office.

Instead this is a poorly sketched out bit of faux-thinking sci-fi, that sketches out a dystopia that never really makes any sense (it seems easy to cure the population of the world, but the inhabitants of Elysium never do – surely some sort of reason other than apathy might have added a bit more believability to this? Perhaps if more had been made of the need to depopulate the Earth?). Instead it’s a crapsack world for the sake of it, and the characters move through a series of events that happen but never engage us. 

It’s sad, as this could have been quite a little B-movie classic. Perhaps the best review of the film comes from Blomkamp himself: “I feel like I fucked it up, I feel like ultimately the story is not the right story. I still think the satirical idea of a ring, filled with rich people, hovering above the impoverished Earth, is an awesome idea. I love it so much, I almost want to go back and do it correctly. But I just think the script wasn’t… I just didn’t make a good enough film is ultimately what it is. I feel like I executed all of the stuff that could be executed, like costume and set design and special effects very well. But, ultimately, it was all resting on a somewhat not totally formed skeletal system, so the script just wasn’t there; the story wasn’t fully there.”

Couldn’t put it better myself.