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Star Wars (1977)

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aka Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (reissue title)

Director: George Lucas
Screenwriters: George Lucas, Willard Huyck (uncredited), Gloria Katz (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Most films lose their battle for cultural attention. Sometimes that proves an advantage. They’re free to be constantly rediscovered, to be alive for each viewer in a different way. Other films win the battle, and the price they pay for this can be they become so familiar they stop being seen, in the sense that, as a shared point of reference for a vast audience, they lose any quality of the unexpected, and instead become unshifting landmarks. This is especially true of Star Wars, which has been in turn celebrated and blamed for a monumental detour in screen culture in the years since its release. Decades after their first viewing my parents still mentioned the gobsmacking impact of the opening images of Star Wars, with the sight of a small spaceship fleeing a colossal pursuer, the passing of which unfolds on a new scale of imaginative transcription through cinematic technique. Suddenly the movies grew bigger than when D.W. Griffith besieged the walls of Babylon or Cecil B. DeMille parted the Red Sea. There’s a video on YouTube presenting an audio recording made by a mother and her young son during their first viewing of Star Wars in a movie theatre in 1977. The whoops of joy from the audience greeting Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) cowboy yelp when he intervenes in the climactic battle, and the applause when the Death Star explodes, record a great moment in mapping the idea and ideal of moviegoing: you can hear the audience in the palm of a filmmaker’s hand, experiencing everything old being made new again.

That said, I would say the moment that makes Star Wars what it became arrived a little earlier in the film, during the scene where the assailed heroes Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are trapped between two forces of enemy Stormtroopers whilst perched on the edge of a chasm. Whilst Leia exchanges fire with Stormtroopers on a high vantage and another band try to break through the sealed door behind them, Luke improvises a way of swinging across. John Williams’ music indulges a flourish of florid emphasis as the young would-be white knight and the lady fair in the flowing silk dress swoop across to freedom. This moment condensed generations of movies, serials, comic books, and their precursors in fantastical literature and theatrical melodrama and on and on back to classical folklore, into a new singularity. A moment that somehow manages to exist at once with scare quotes of knowing around it, an ever so slight tint of camp not really that far from the jokey, satirical lilt of the 1960s Batman TV series built around both puckishly mocking and celebrating juvenile heroic fantasy, whilst also operating on a completely straight-faced level: this is the universe Star Wars has successfully woven by this point, one where that heroism isn’t a wish but simply part of life.

The genesis of Star Wars is today just about as well-known as the movie itself. Young filmmaker George Lucas, taking time off after releasing his debut feature THX-1138 (1971), wanted to make a film out of the beloved comic strip Flash Gordon, but couldn’t afford to buy the rights. After rifling through the history of the subgenre commonly dubbed “space opera” the strip had sprung from, Lucas sat down and began dreaming up his own, working through variation after variation on his ideas until finally arriving at the form that would become so familiar. Even before Lucas scored a hit with American Graffiti (1973), he was able to convince 20th Century Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr to back his other, riskier project, and got American Graffiti’s cowriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to punch up the dialogue. That nobody quite knew what they had on their hands is made clear by the film’s first teaser trailer, which evinces in lacking Williams’ scoring that the images still had thrilling energy on their own, even as it completely fails to communicate the tone of the thing. The roots of Star Wars are far more liberally free-range of course – Lucas took obvious and largely admitted inspiration not just from Flash Gordon but from DeMille, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Sergei Eisenstein, Frank Herbert, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Isaac Asimov, Alistair MacLean, James Bond, the movie version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs, cultural theorist Joseph Campbell, and a panoply of Saturday matinee adventure serials and 1950s war, fantasy, and swashbuckler films. The real trick was fusing them all together into something not just comprehensible and individual but, on the whole, original, something the audience that greeted its release in 1977 beheld as new and exciting despite its hoary components, and which instantly sank hooks deep into the popular consciousness.

The trick lay partly in the way Lucas made the film, with perfect confidence in the medium, but also in the way he framed it. Those air quotes hover about the entire movie, as Lucas approached the material as if it was an artefact, something designed to seem like it had an identity that existed long before Lucas stumbled upon it, a little like the hero of his other great pop culture creation, Indiana Jones, and the relics he plunders. Star Wars has an odd relationship today with its many follow-ups and imitations. It’s become a singular point of reference as Lucas and others built vast fictional precincts around its story, which is a lot more complex than it’s often given credit for, but exceedingly straightforward in terms of its essential plotting, and built upon manifold reference points of its own. If Star Wars had failed at the box office it would still be perfectly sufficient unto itself, except perhaps in the detail of its major bad guy Darth Vader not getting a comeuppance at the end, and even that could be taken as a nod to the finale of The Prisoner of Zenda, where Anthony Hope resisted killing off his charismatic villain too (and indeed also brought him and other characters back for a follow-up everyone likes to pretend didn’t happen). And yet it’s conceived and executed as a story within a story. The in medias res plunge directly into the middle of a story already in motion not only nodded to the storytelling method of ancient epics, but also to the more profane traditions of the serial drama. The branded title card, the fairytale-like epigram “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” and in-universe flourishes, including character and place names that sound like they’ve been translated into some other language and back again, and the technological and architectural design – all cordoned the experience of Star Wars off into its own discrete space even as its roots lead off in every direction.

This aspect was greatly amplified when upon the film’s first rerelease in 1980 Lucas added to the opening explanatory crawl a new detail – suddenly the singular movie became “Episode IV,” specifically titled “A New Hope,” designating it as not merely a work in itself but part of what was then still an entirely theoretical legendarium. Compared to some of the films in the series it birthed, including the richer, darker palette of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), or the more lushly romantic and deceptively complex prequels, the original seems oddly stripped-down, absent some of the accumlated mythos, but it’s also that essentialised quality that helped it land so powerfully. Star Wars came out when dependable movie genres were dying and proposed a way to revive them through transposing their setting, freeing them from the constraints of real world reference points. The Western no longer had to be rooted in the increasingly, cynically questioned reality of the American colonial experience, the heroic war movie no longer the provenance of another generation. Star Wars was also a pure product of its cultural moment even as it seemed to reject that moment. Lucas based his all-encompassing evil Empire on the Nixon White House and the struggle against its predations in the Vietnam War zeitgeist, but with enough cultural echoes of other struggles – the American Revolution and World War II most obviously – to give a mollifying smokescreen. Lucas consciously turned the abstract, alienated parable of THX-1138 into something more readily engaging, more commercial, more communal, whilst still working with the same basic elements.

At the same time it can be said Star Wars grew conceptually out of the sporadic popularity of a certain brand of pop art-inflected moviemaking and TV that burgeoned in the late 1960s, encompassing the likes of the Batman TV series, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), Richard Lester’s antiheroic deconstructions of adventure films like his Musketeer movies and Robin and Marian (1976), and retro pulp tributes like Michael Anderson’s Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975) and Kevin Connor’s Burroughs adaptations. Moments like that swing across the chasm have a similar informing spirit to Lester’s films in particular, although Lester would probably have had them thud into the wall just to one side of the landing. The comedy in Star Wars helps build up the heroic infrastructure rather than question it ironically, lending it propulsion as the characters react to situation  but also ultimately helping create credulity rather than undercut it. Lucas’ famous stylistic flourish in punctuating scenes with wipes rather than dissolves or jump cuts, nodding to both Kurosawa and 1930s serial forebears, had already been employed by Anderson in recreating the old serial style on Doc Savage, if to much lesser effect. Science fiction film in the first half of the 1970s has a largely deserved reputation for a thoughtful, clever, but often grim sensibility, although playful fare wasn’t entirely dead, and was chiefly hampered by budget restrictions and directors who had little technical facility: witness the way the Planet of the Apes movies remained popular but had their budget cut with each entry.

Along came Lucas, who above all had schooled himself in the nuts and bolts of film production like few directors before or since. Star Wars in its time connected with similarly successful works by Lucas’ friends – much as it translated the generational anxiety of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) into a radically different generic zone and also presaged Coppola’s mythopoeic war movie Apocalypse Now (1979), it also accompanied Steven Spielberg’s semi-incidental companion piece in baby boomer sci-fi mythicism, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), arguably the superior movie but much less influential, in finding a way of tapping into a cynical audience’s hunger for transcendental cinematic experience. Those genre, industry, and imagination-altering opening moments of Star Wars, as a colossal Imperial Star Destroyer chases down a much smaller rebel spacecraft, give way to more familiar precepts. A gunfight between Rebel warriors and invading Imperial Stormtroopers, a conflict highly recognisable from who knows how many low-budget sci-fi movies and TV shows where people fire ray-guns at each-other along corridors. Two comic relief factotums stumble through the struggle. The great villain of the piece makes his dramatic entrance, directing the unleashed carnage. The newness lay in the veneer of strangeness applied through the technological vision, informed by the tangible and specific atmosphere inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s design work and John Barry’s production design, and the canniness of the filmmaking.

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic, but in creating a fictional zone that does actually include magic, or something like it, Lucas and those designers moved instead to cut across the grain of that and make the craft, machines, and equipment look palpable, as gritty, purely fit-for-purpose, grimy, and banged-about as the technology familiar to us: the Millennium Falcon, one of the series’ enduring icons, complete lacks any appearance of streamlining or aesthetic edge, and its appeal lies instead in its steely-looking functionality, like a Frisbee with a golf club head stuck on the side and a giant blazing energy portal in back. The Star Wars films have long been talked about as vital creations of audio effect as well as visual, thanks in large part to Ben Burtt’s groundbreaking labours. The care for the effect of sound as a storytelling device is plain at the get-go, as Lucas builds tension through the eerie, threatening noises the rebels warriors hear as their crippled spacecraft is intercepted by the Star Destroyer and drawn into its docking back, the fighters grimly waiting for the assault they know will be coming through the airlock bulkhead. Suddenly, action – the bulkhead door cut through and blasted out in moments, invading Stormtroopers plunging through. The Stormtroopers would eventually become a kind of punchline in movie lore as easily killable enemy soldiers, but here they’re first introduced as blankly terrifying and competent enemies, suffering a couple of casualties whilst shearing through the Rebel ranks, quickly setting them to flight.

The film’s wit on a visual exposition level is also made apparent as Lucas seems to undercut the cliché of villains dressing dark colours whilst merging set decoration and costume design with a deliberation scarcely seen in cinema since the days of Lang and Eisenstein, by having the Stormtroopers clad in white armour that matches the polished white environs of the rebel spaceship. It’s as if they’re animated parts of the ship rather than mere invaders, the technological paradigm threatening the paltry humans. Ironically, the most “human” characters we get for much of the first part of the film are the “droids” C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), seemingly hapless pseudo-sentient mechanical beings caught in the midst of war and terror. This was in part the result of editing choices to make the early scenes more fluid, but the consequence was to provoke a distinct new idea of what a protagonist in a movie could be. The twist on cliché twists back as we gain out first glimpse of the enemy commander Lord Darth Vader, emerging from the blown bulkhead and resolving from smoky haze, pausing to survey the scattered corpses of the rebels before sweeping on. Vader is swathed in black like a superscientific edition of Dracula, the embodiment of evil from the very first, face masked, breathing registering as a hoarsely filtered sound. Here is a figure who exists between the two paradigms, a fusion of man and machine where the combination is most definitely malign, and whose appearance has been carefully engineered, both for the people within this particular world and for those watching it, for the pure sake of intimidation.

Whilst actor David Prowse, the actor filling out Vader’s costume, would have his voice dubbed over by the originally unbilled James Earl Jones, his talent as a mime is nonetheless very important to Vader as a character in his ability to convey a remorseless purpose, an inherent physical aggression and fixity of purpose, charging the way he moves, even before he’s portrayed as throttling and tossing about rebels and fearsomely confronting and accusing the captive Princess Leia. Leia herself, a diplomat and envoy for the newly defunct imperial senate, makes her own impression in standing up this figure of menace incarnate. The casting of Fisher, a 19-year-old progeny of Hollywood royalty invested with levels of knowing far beyond her years, proved perfect for amplifying the way the script plays updating games with the figure of the classical aristocratic heroine, inflecting the hauteur with pure ‘70s California sass. But Leia first enters the movie in the shadows. Like Vader, she is initially glimpsed amidst smoky haze as a figure, resolving out of the pure stuff of myth, the incarnation this time of good in her white silken garb, even as her actions are initially ambiguous: she’s seen from the bewildered viewpoint of C-3PO as she loads information into R2-D2, before gunning down a Stormtrooper and getting shot herself with a stunning blast. Leia condenses the movie’s whole frame of cultural reference into her petite frame, fulfilling a role directly out of legend and melodrama tradition, whilst also presenting modern spunk and attitude.

It’s well known that Lucas took strong inspiration from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) for the early sections and general narrative shape of Star Wars. C-3PO, and R2-D2, or Threepio and Artoo as they’re generally dubbed, are inspired by the two shit-kicker peasant antiheroes of the Kurosawa film, and their early travails similarly playing out in a desolate setting that eventually sees their path intersect with proper heroes. The differences are important, of course. Threepio and Artoo are robots, and instead of wandering medieval Japan, they eject from the captured spacecraft and land on the neighbouring desert planet of Tatooine. One thing that’s a little surprising today about Star Wars is how coherent and consistent the story is, despite the outlandish conceptual conceits, and when the need for such a thing is often casually dismissed as an interest in such genre zones. The plot stakes are initially vague, but soon gain shape and urgency as it becomes apparent Leia used Artoo as a last-ditch vehicle to try and get the plans for the Empire’s new, terrifying superweapon, the Death Star, to her fellow Rebels. The Death Star will soon provide both a partial setting for the story and the great threat driving the last act. Leia’s choice of Artoo as a messenger capable of slipping the net of Imperial scanning proves inspired and logical, where humans would be detected. Artoo is characterised as knowing in ways well beyond his nominal status and electronic twittering language, whereas Threepio, despite his effetely loquacious and pompous manner, knows even less than he thinks, and this disparity proves a propelling element for the story as well as a source of character comedy. The two split up once dumped by their escape pod in the desert, with Threepio furious at his companion for maintaining his wilful way, only for both to be quickly snatched up by a race of nomadic scavengers called Jawas, who specialise in selling on anything of value they find.

Artoo’s capture by the Jawas creates an unsettling atmosphere as Artoo makes timorous sounds as he becomes aware of hidden, watching beings in the desolate landscape around him, a little like a character from some early Disney animated short. A Jawa jumps up and zaps him with a paralysing ray gun, causing Artoo to topple over with a slapstick thud. This brief but ingenious sequence illustrates both Lucas’ talent at toggling swiftly between tones whilst kneading them into the unfolding narrative, switching between points of view and allowing the audience and onscreen characters to discover things in tandem. That the Jawas are themselves diminutive and faintly absurd in their frantic industriousness leavens the note of creepiness they initially strike. The process of them bundling Artoo to be sucked up into a huge tube connected to their giant crawling vehicle is allowed to play out without any dialogue necessary, using visuals to present the already rapidly expanding sense of this universe and the teeming oddity and wonder, and the oddly familiar opportunism, it contains. This evinces a sense not just of a variety of sentient species and their technology but also clues to the social setup on Tatooine, with its many kinds of survivors with different ways of weathering the blasted and seemingly dead landscape, and also the way this eventually feeds the narrative back from vacant outskirts towards the centres of power in the universe. Threepio’s own encounter with the Jawa sandcrawler sees him calling out to the distant vehicle in appeal, framed as he is by the huge skeleton of some long-dead creature. Once both Artoo and Threepio are trapped within the shadowy, sleazy space of the Sandcrawler’s belly, Lucas offers glimpses of the other robots of radically differing designs the Jawas possess, an early example of a motif taken up more vividly and strangely in the later Mos Eisley cantina sequence, where Lucas delights in showing off a vast array of peculiar beings.

Artoo and Threepio are soon sold to Owen Lars (Phil Brown), who lives with his wife Beru (Shelagh Fraser) and adopted nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who engage in what is described as “moisture farming” somewhere in this flat and barren zone. Here the narrative performs another zigzag whilst also reorienting to another viewpoint, and another genre: now we’re in the classic Western territory of the isolated homesteaders and the wistful young farmhand. Luke, like the heroes of American Graffiti, is on the verge of moving on. Where Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt in that film suffered cold feet, Luke seems desperate to “transmit my application to the Academy this year.” Like the characters of American Graffiti and the protagonist of THX-1138, Luke’s voyage of discovery is announced via imagery of the sun, with a small but important difference. The rising sun in the first two films signalled the end of childish things and simple dichotomies of choice, whereas the setting sun(s) here preserve the dreaming: thanks to both the visuals and Williams’ plaintive, evocative scoring, this locks that pure moment of yearning in a crystal of expressive perfection. Luke Skywalker gazing at the twin suns setting is of course a singular character, a young man eager for experience and as much pained as excited by his dreams, and is also the audience itself, an essential avatar for every dreamer, every anxious eye turned onto the cinema screen looking urgently for transportation and release. It’s also a moment of incantation, immediately rewarded by Luke being presented with his mission, when he heads back into his repair space to find Artoo missing and Threepio hiding in anxiety. Hamill, doomed to be remembered for a long time as a failed star, was too perfect for the role in providing a ready connecting point for the audience: if Fisher was Hollywood royalty Hamill presents heroism as looking a bit like a SoCal surfer. But Hamill was crucially able to communicate Luke’s deep emotional need underneath the dreamy, frustrated optimism and youthful charm duelling with his early callow streak.

Generational tension is also in play. Owen doesn’t want Luke heading off to “some damn fool idealistic crusade” and is afraid that Luke “has too much of his father in him.” But Luke is bent on a course that will eventually lead him to the “dark father.” At this point the mythos of Star Wars was still evolving and things that are now set in concrete were still nebulous at this point, but the connection between Luke and Vader is already predestined, Vader identified as “the young Jedi” who “betrayed and murdered your father.” He is the ultimate and inevitable nemesis for the young man who has to find his way not just through space but pick his way through the wreckage of a collapsed political paradigm and a waned parental generation. Luke quickly gains the call to adventure when, as he cleans up Artoo, he accidentally plays the end segment of a holographic message recorded by Leia, addressed to an Obi-Wan Kenobi. The portion of Leia’s appeal with its looping, totemic phrase “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” gives Luke the first intimation that he’s stumbled onto something tantalising in its import. Moreover, it’s personally suggestive to him in the familiarity of the name Kenobi, making him think of the local hermit Ben Kenobi. This in turn gives Artoo a lead, and he quickly flees in his determination to fulfil Leia’s assignment to fetch the old sage and press him back into action for the Rebel cause, forcing Luke and Threepio to follow him into the rocky wastes.

But it’s the vision of Leia herself, beautiful, distressed, rendered ghostly in the flickering holographic recording, that powerfully evokes a fundamental psychological need, as if Artoo is projecting Luke’s own private anima, the pure spirit of romantic longing that is also a direct urging towards great things. If Darth Vader is the dark father, Kenobi is of course his counterbalance, part Gandalf, part guru, part aging but still able gunslinger from a Howard Hawks movie. These two spiritual parents supplant Owen and Beru, who are murdered by Stormtroopers on the trail of Artoo and Threepio, and are bent towards their own fatal showdown. Lucas presents a brief synopsis of that vital Movie Brat foundational text, Ford’s The Searchers (1956), as Luke ventures out into the wilderness and encounters both savagery in the form of the Sandpeople, also called Tusken Raiders, another nomadic and larcenous desert race but these frightening, brutal, and seemingly subhuman, forms a bond with a protective paternal stand-in, and returns to the homestead to find it burning and the smouldering skeletons of loved-ones sprawled nearby. The pacing of Star Wars in this portion is a telling counterpoint to many of its imitations and even direct follow-ups. Where, say, Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) crams four different special effects-heavy set-pieces into its first hour, Lucas’ template only offers one, at the very outset, and then a couple of minor tussles. The sequence in which Luke is attacked by a Sandperson whilst he think he’s safely surveying them from a distance is a good example of restraint as well as a spasm of violent action.

Lucas plays a game with viewpoint, harking back to the obsession in THX-1138 with viewing through technological detour as Luke spies on the Sandpeople through the fuzzy image of a pair of electronic binoculars, only for a strange rush of motion to rise into his field of vision – a Sandperson suddenly looms in front of him, the safe vantage suddenly and rudely swapped for imminent danger. This is impressive and clever not just on a visual exposition and drama-setting level but also on the thematic: this is the first, actual occasion where Luke is faced with a genuine danger in the course of his nascent adventure, as what was before remote and harmless is suddenly very real and deadly. It’s an early test Luke fails, as the Raider, swiping down at him on the ground, easily bests him, and the Sandpeople dump his unconscious form and begin looting his hovering “speeder” (the closest thing to a reliable old Chevy in this universe). The actual disabling blow to Luke isn’t showing, only the fearsome and disturbing image of the creepily masked Sandperson brandishing its club and releasing a triumphant, bloodcurdling cry that echoes off amongst the surrounding canyons, a recourse back to the mood of the early moments on Tatooine and the permeating mood of disquiet and dislocation in an oneiric space. For the first but certainly not for the last time in his career, to occasional disquiet, Lucas displaces the old, racist function of Native Americans in the Western narrative onto the imaginary race of the Sandpeople, who are daunting but are also small potatoes, displaced from their role in many Westerns as engines of turmoil and resisters of civilisation, whilst nominally defusing the cultural tension between myth and reality that was rapidly dismantling the Western’s pre-eminence. Here, instead, the Empire is both the zenith of civilisation and its purest foe. That it’s not just humans and droids who are jittery in this region is made clear when the Sandpeople are suddenly driven off by a weird cry and the sight of a weird being looming into view. This proves to be Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) himself. He quickly admits to Luke to being the former Obi-Wan, in one of those indelible little instances of various elements – Guinness’ incarnation of wistfully ruminative good-humour and Williams’ trilling woodwinds on sound – woven together to forge mystique and spark new mystery even as the answer to a propelling narrative question is resolved.

The reference point of The Searchers is purposeful not just in orientating the audience to a fantastical universe in terms of pre-existing generic touchstones, but also arguing with its essence, the source of the intimidating power it had for filmmakers of Lucas’ generation. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was above all a man, one with a history, who cannot erase his past mistakes but finally avoids making new ones, and provides uneasy mentorship to Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin Pawley, who eventually learns to stand up for himself, but that means placing himself in the way of a bullet. The Searchers is a work for an age where the crux of drama fell to grown-ups, where Star Wars is the by-product of a youth culture, made for a generation for whom the most dramatic events of the average life take place between the ages of 15 and 25, and so the stress of the story moves from the older man’s experience to the younger’s. Star Wars presents the orphaned hero as severed from continuity, forced to essentially invent his own method of maturing when the adults are dead or dying: by story’s end he has lost all his elders, but the lessons he has learnt are literally ringing in his ears as he takes up the mantle. The killing of Owen and Beru invests all that follows with an emotional wellspring that doesn’t need reiterating. The grammar in the scene of Luke’s discovery of their remains is simple but enormously effective. The camera tracks in imitation of Luke’s point of view until he focuses on the scorched skeletal remains of his aunt and uncle, and Lucas allows a medium close-up of Hamill as he registers the awful moment. Importantly, the rhythm of Hamill’s gestures are the same as in the earlier sunset scene — gazing on in fixation, dropping his gaze and hiding from his reaction for an instant, before resuming with a new glaze of acceptance, except this time with different, terrible, life-changing import. Lucas then cuts to a long shot of Luke before the burning homestead as Williams’ music swells. His solitude and complete excision from what was just a day earlier a stultifying but settled and stable life is encapsulated, before an inward iris wipe shifts the scene.

The depiction of consuming evil and raw violence visited by offended authority immediately segues into a sequence depicting Darth Vader preparing to use a hovering droid to torture Leia for information about the Rebels’ secret base. That’s soon followed by a sequence where Death Star’s commander, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), uses the threat of destroying Leia’s home planet Alderaan with the Death Star’s incredible firepower to get the information out of her. Leia gives an answer, albeit a deceitful one, but Tarkin still destroys Alderaan because it fulfils the basic function of the Death Star, which is to inspire fear, as a substitute for any lingering vestige of collaboration and consultation (“The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away,” Tarkin reports). Such moments obviously indict the Empire as a truly despicable beast one absolutely no-one will mind seeing taken down a few pegs, but also as one possessed of reasoned motives and a sense of what their force is intended to achieve. Which points to another peculiar aspect of Star Wars: as the title suggests, it’s preoccupied by war. Not a war like, say, the clash of civilisations in the Trojan myths, or a fusing of factional chaos into order as in the Arthurian cycle. Lucas instead presents a specifically modern political paradigm, however naively rendered: absolute authoritarianism versus romantic resistance. Not at all hard to see Lucas fretting over the military-industrial complex, with the Death Star as the atomic bomb, the deaths of Owen and Beru as suggestively My Lai-eque. Luke, Han, and Leia (and Chewie, Artoo, and Threepio) remain individuals even when they join a faction, a point underlined at the film’s end where the characters remain smirking and ironic even when being showered with rewards in the midst of martially regimented ranks.

Kenobi’s brief narration of the truth of Luke’s background and its connection to the current events, once Kenobi takes Luke to his remote domicile, is in itself a little marvel of screenwriting concision and general mythmaking, with its allusions to the Old Republic, the Jedi Knights, and the Clone Wars, all grounded not just in recent political history but in the personal identity of both old man and young. All of these have long since been elaborated upon, but here are allowed to float as grand things lost to time and nearly to memory in the age of the supplanting Empire. Kenobi hands to Luke his father’s lightsaber, a tantalising weapon, ridiculous but irresistible, humming with totemic power and meaning, a little bit Excalibur, a little bit Notung, a little bit the sword D’Artagnan’s father gives him. Guinness, not an actor who needed by this point in his career to prove himself in any fashion and easily the biggest name in the film, lends inestimable sagacious presence, encapsulating the nature of the Jedi, composed, restrained, intelligent, moral, and spiked with just the faintest edge of world-weariness and regret over the calamities of the past. Here finally the whole of Leia’s message is seen and its import processed. Luke displays the classic resistance to the call to adventure when Kenobi tries to enlist him in his looming mission to spirit Artoo and the stolen plans to Alderaan. Luke, who was champing at the bit to leave Tatooine hours earlier, still feels the tethers of responsibility as well as intimidation when actual adventure demands. Soon Luke has a double motive to join the Rebellion, as both the entity in large has killed his guardians, and a personal grudge against Vader.

When Luke sets off back home with Kenobi and the droids, they come across the shattered sandcrawler of the massacred Jawas. Luke, grasping the reason for their slaughter, rushes home too late. Finally and completely freed from who he was, Luke elects to “learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi like my father,” and he and Kenobi make for the spaceport of Mos Eisley, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” crawling with Stormtroopers looking for the droids, but also a motley collective of species representing a cross-section of the galaxy’s swarming populace. The cantina sequence, where in Luke uneasily mingles with a rough crowd of humans and aliens representing the demimonde of innumerable worlds whilst Kenobi looks to hire transportation off Tatooine, is another inspired, instantly iconic vignette. Again, it’s a fairly familiar situation, redolent of a thousand tough saloons in a thousand westerns, but transformed with the application of sci-fi elements. Here are manifold species, ingeniously designed and animated through makeup and puppetry, drawn together in one place by what is to a human eye at least a perfect logic, sharing a penchant for intoxicants and doing dirty business in a disreputable dive. There’s even, for added piquancy and indeed resonance, the spectre of seemingly arbitrary prejudice, as the bartender tells Luke the joint doesn’t serve droids, forcing Artoo and Threepio to withdraw.

Appearances can also be deceiving: one of these motley denizens, the huge, hirsute Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), appears one of the roughest, but is actually an intelligent being who falls into conversation with Kenobi, and proves a link to the rest of the story. Luke is picked on by a pair of bullies looking for a fight, but gets one instead from Kenobi after he tries to defuse the confrontation. Here, for the first time, the lightsaber is seen in action, in a vignette that again utilises Luke’s viewpoint to underline the startling impression of the weapon’s deadly precision in the right hands, and alters the visual technique to effect: glimpsing a blur of motion punctuated by the already familiar sound and flash of the weapon and the dreadful scream of the suddenly curtailed thug as conveyed through a brief handheld shot, Luke focuses on his severed arm lying on the floor amidst drops of blood. Kenobi slowly eases from his tense and ready poise as he’s sure no-one else wants to try it on, and disengages the lightsaber. Whereupon everyone in the bar, momentarily arrested by the spectacle, goes back to what they were doing. Strong as lore-enhancing action; just as good as wry pastiche of classic gunslinging spectacle.

This sequence fulfilled a largely ignored promise of science-fiction cinema until this point in presenting a vision of a universe of deep variety and eccentricity that nonetheless evokes something amusingly familiar in its concept of sentience. It comes directly after Kenobi has given Luke a first demonstration of Jedi power, using psychic influence to get past some searching Stormtroopers with seemingly casual ease. The threat of Jedi power to the Empire becomes clearer here, and suggests a symbolic link with the artist’s relationship with power, dismantling it through artfully broadcasting on wavelengths incoherent to the authoritarian mindset. The first encounter with Han Solo is consequentially defined by him being at first just another of these shady characters in a shady den, so shady indeed he’s no sooner finished arranging to fly Luke, Kenobi, and the droids to Alderaan than he’s accosted by Greedo, an obnoxious, green-skinned, snouted bounty hunter who wants him dead or alive, preferably dead, to please their mutual master Jabba the Hutt, a gangster Han owes money too. Fans were understandably aggravated by the clumsy revision of this scene in Lucas’ 1997 special edition of the film, which tried to reforge this confrontation to make it seem that Greedo shot at Han first, where the point of this moment is defining Han as accustomed to dealing with dangerous opponents with both guile and brute force. Moreover, it established him as a character entirely adapted, just as Kenobi already has, to this environment, knowing precisely when and how to unleash deadly force. Han’s motivations are also plain enough, his motivation to make money not just pure greed, but necessary to extricate himself from a deep hole.

Han emerges from a different wing of pop culture to Leia, Luke, and Kenobi, and a nominally more modern one. He’s initially a film noir hero connected to Bogartian characters like To Have and Have Not’s (1944) Harry Morgan, putting both and craft on the line and urged on by his uneasy place in the food chain of profit motive, and whose streak of heroic decency only emerges over time. A sceptical figure for whom The Force has no meaning. Someone whose actions and reactions can be surprising, at least in his first outing, because his nature seems confused and dubious, his actual values concealed under a hard shell of wiseacre pith and stoic cool. Where Luke is pure youth and Kenobi is wise experience, Han lurks between, a player in the game who knows all too well how hard the game is and sees no way out of it. He’s the essential interlocutor in the drama, negotiating the perspective of the more cynical sectors of the audience. There’s keenness in the difference in dialogue patterns attached to each character. Kenobi’s speech is courtly, structured, replete with aphorisms and slightly archaic curlicues (and, it’s worth noting, sounds exactly the same as the dialogue in Lucas’ prequel trilogy), whereas Luke, Han, and Leia are more “contemporary,” particularly Han, who shifts from salesman lingo to gunfighter terseness on a dime. When Han improvises a line of verbiage after he, Luke and Chewbacca shoot up the Death Star prison command, in trying to keep more Stormtroopers coming to them, he reveals a more subtle survival skill than gunplay, and it’s a trickier one, one he doesn’t quite pull off. It’s a moment that became the seed for a more sustained comic streak to the character as scene in later movies, but the striking thing about Ford’s performance on his first go-round, and the character he’s playing, is precisely that hard, ambiguous, deadly edge he’s allowed, a quality that the notes of occasional diffidence in Ford’s performance only helps strengthen.

The cantina scene is also an example of a renowned aspect of the film’s aesthetic, its presentation of a convincing physical universe, where the technology, no wonder how fantastic, and the settings and life-forms have a solidity and a feel that evokes some inchoate need for a splendid diversity of life. The close-ups of Artoo and Threepio present the tiny scratches and dents all of their bodies, looking just like what they are, machines who have been working since the moment they were first switched on. That first shot of the Star Destroyer completely rejects what had been the general sci-fi movie faith in sleekness as the totemic quality of the futuristic, appealing instead to everyday associations in the age of technology and industry where things are busy and functional, their workings often obscure to those not directly engaged in the making or upkeep. Moreover, the special mystique that distinguished Star Wars then and now is evinced not merely in the busy paraphernalia of set, costume, FX, and makeup design, but in the careful construction of mood, and the connection of that mood to the deeper underlying aesthetic. Artoo and Threepio’s desert wanderings, Luke’s venture out after Artoo and his encounter with the Sandpeople, the meeting with Kenobi – all of these scenes weave a sparse, dreamlike mood, nudging the realm of fairy-tales where the young and vulnerable venture into the dark woods alone, whilst also evoking the vast spaces of Salvador Dali’s surrealist landscapes and Lang and DeMille’s oversized, monumental evocations of past and future.

This pervasive mood continues even when the heroes are trapped within the “technological terror” of the Death Star, a place containing pockets infested with nightmarish monsters and tremendous canyons of space, where crucial mechanisms seem to have been deliberately placed to make them difficult to access without master control of the apparatus. From the careful downward pan from deep space to a triptych of tantalising planets that sets up the inimitable opening, we are drawn in two different directions, at once tactile and subliminal, where both the evocations of scale and the ghostly image of Leia touch the boundaries of a Jungian zone. In this regard Star Wars rearranges the spare, haunting, submerged imagery explored in THX-1138 for clear narrative ends – it feels very telling, for instance, that the sight of a flashing point far away in an otherwise featureless zone, the sign that helped THX and his companions escape the void prison in that film, is here recreated when Threepio sees the Jawa sandcrawler miles away in the deep desert. The underlying oneiric quality is rendered more literal in the first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke comments that the planet Dagobah is like out of a dream, before heading into a place that makes the stuff of his subconscious come to life. In this manner, despite its bright and jolly visual palette and love of chitinous technology, Star Wars is in essence a full colour distillation of the early Expressionistic urge in cinema: the entire design of what we see is an animation of a psychological zone. It adds another axis of torsion to the film as a whole, working in synchrony with the multi-genre play, travelling back to the point where all stories become one somewhere in the subbasements of the consciousness.

The gathering crew of Luke, Han, Chewbacca, Artoo, and Threepio, with Kenobi at first and later Leia, forge a core gang of heroes, at once describing a child’s idea of adult life, and an updated take on teamed-up heroic bands ranging from the Argonauts to Dumas’ Musketeers. Luke’s first glimpse of Han’s ship, the Millennium Falcon, sparks his inimitable comment, “What a heap of junk!” only for Han, with ever so slight irritation and a dash of professional smarm, to talk up his souped-up hot rod (this is also the viewer’s first glimpse of the ship, unless one has only seen the reedit, which clumsily inserted a cut scene featuring Jabba). Han boasts that his ship has accomplished legendary feats, like a sword in myth, and that’s pretty much the function it has here, as a tool of greatness, serving for Han as the lightsaber does for the Jedi, albeit simultaneously deglamourized as the tool of a roguish smuggler and a mutt of machinery. Things of value in Star Wars often turn a slightly absurd face to the world, in a way that, whilst the overall story seems to be bending reality towards a romantic vision, the nuts and bolts cut across the grain of the traditionally heroic. The “your kind” droids are dynamic players. The nobody farm boy is a future hero. The old hermit is a great warrior. The shady loser in the bar is a man of myriad gifts and his “piece of junk” a ship out of folklore. All require only the correct stage to operate and interact upon. The Falcon also signals that Han is essentially a spacefaring version of the drag racers in American Graffiti, keeping one step ahead of the cops in his workshop-cobbled racer: Ford, who had played Bob Falfa, the blow-in challenger to the local racing champ, in the precursor film was here promoted to a lead role, initially just as slippery and ambiguous, but showing his true mettle when he unleashes thunderous havoc on the Stormtroopers who try to intercept them before fleeing at top speed.

After the thrills of escaping Mos Eisley and the Star Destroyers patrolling around the planet, the voyage on the Millennium Falcon provides a respite, but still provides important character and scene-setting elements, particularly as Kenobi uses the time to start introducing Luke to using The Force, including learning how to defend himself against beam-shooting drones without using his sight. The idea of The Force provides the essential new aspect of the appeal of Star Wars, distinct from its precursors. Of course, Lucas hardly invented science-fantasy as a subgenre, and space opera had sported quasi-supernatural and magical powers since its earliest exemplars. The Force owed a little something to the role of the spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels as a device charged with metaphysical vitality occurring in a universe otherwise defined by technocracy, and perhaps the Ninth Ray in Burroughs’ Barsoom novels too. But The Force provided Lucas with a supple tool, one that gives definition to both story and character. The Force is itself a distillation of traditions, part wuxia film chi power, part 1970s New Age creed (Guinness found himself fending away offers to become a guru), with a description as “an energy field created by all living things” that evoke the craze in those heady days for things like auras and Kirlian photography and biofeedback. Lucas offered a version of it anyone could get on board with, given the very faintest lacquer of rationality in stemming from the life-force of beings rather than being a power working on them (Lucas would firm this up to much complaint in his prequel trilogy). The Force also operates on the same quasi-medieval level as other elements of the story, echoing an age of human thinking where faith in unseen forces was immediately connected with perception of the world, and renders the good-vs-evil motif more than symbolic: those extremes of action and principle are instead literal powers in the world that become more significant, more dangerous, more cruelly tempting, the more one becomes attuned to its workings.

At the same time, The Force is also a metaphor for the screenwriter’s power, drawing its heroes together and gifting them with advantage in situations where they would otherwise flail and die, and excuses coincidences that would make Charles Dickens blush. That Kenobi experiences the extermination of Alderaan resembles an artist’s capacity for pure empathic connection. It’s also chiefly registered in this original outing through its absence. The Force, along with the Jedi Knights who once wielded it as “the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic,” has slipped beyond the horizon of general cultural memory. “That wizard’s just a crazy old man,” is all Owen has to say about Kenobi. Han disdains Kenobi’s championing of it, claiming to only put faith in a good blaster. The only force user in their prime on hand is Vader himself, who casually throttles Imperial Admiral Motti (Richard LeParmentier) from a distance, after he echoes Owen’s description of Ben in referring dismissively to Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways” in comparison to the Death Star’s encapsulation of technical and military might. This scene makes the strength of the Force, even its “dark side,” very clear, and establishes that not only does Vader adhere to it but considers it a higher loyalty than whatever political faction he works for. One reason, perhaps, Tarkin is described by Leia as “holding Vader’s leash,” nominally holding him, as a kind of discrete weapon himself, in obeisance to the needs of the military hierarchy and the more stolid precepts of the era he is ironically trapped in enforcing. In the following films Vader ascends to sole command once it becomes clear another Force user has come onto the scene. Kenobi’s demonstrations of The Force are craftier. Even in the climax when Luke decides to trust his primal, mystic intuition rather than technology at Kenobi’s unseen insistence, it’s a matter of a slightly heightened edge of awareness added onto skills and talents he’s mastered through his youth on Tatooine: he’s already an experienced pilot and a good shot, tested in both indeed in by the extremes of his home planet in a way that proves to transcend tamer learning processes.

Tarkin himself represents authority at its most icy and contemptuous, a pure minister for technofascist force and the relish of wielding it, to the point where he’s able to boss even Vader around with supreme confidence. Cushing’s presence in the role provided an authentic link to some of Lucas’ genre film touchstones, and much like his characterisation of Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films series, Tarkin acts like a surgeon remaking the universe in his own image, entirely divorced from any sense of consequence: he plainly gets more satisfaction from shocking and tormenting Leia than from exterminating millions of Alderaanians. The heroes’ journey to Alderaan goes all wrong as the Death Star is still hovering near the field of debris left from the planet’s destruction, and the Falcon and its crew are scooped up in a tractor beam and brought forcibly aboard the awesomely massive station. It’s a pity that, by necessity, the Death Star had already been glimpsed by this point, considering the effective pitch of ominous realisation that something incredible and indelibly threatening looms before the hapless heroes, captured as Kenobi murmurs in awe, “That’s no moon, it’s a space station,” the Falcon already having ventured too close to avoid capture.

Han’s quick thinking as a professional evader of authority helps them escape initial discovery by hiding in smuggling compartments, and the heroes infiltrate the Death Star, managing, in the early glimmerings of a theme flowing right through the initial trilogy of films, to turn their nominal disadvantage of small numbers to great effect with guile and improvisation. Whilst trying to work out a way of escaping the station, they’re distracted when Artoo plugs into the station computer network and finds Leia is a prisoner aboard. Han, Luke, and Chewbacca take the chance to rescue her, whilst Kenobi moves to shut down the tractor beam. Compared to the careful story, character, and mythos-building of the film’s first half, this portion becomes something of a tour through the hub of different but connected genres, like innumerable war and adventure films where the heroes put on enemy livery and sneak about, before invoking classic cliffhanger situations, as the foursome dive into a trash compactor when it proves the only escape route only to find the walls closing in, and when Luke and Leia encounter the aforementioned chasm. True to the essence of such adventure stories, the characters emerge most fully reacting to peril, from Han’s edge of aggravation ratcheting higher along with the danger and as Leia’s presence perturbs him, gaining a head of madcap steam useful for the fight, to Leia revealing her own talents for quick thinking and unexpected gutsiness in a laser battle, and Threepio cleverly adlibbing in a tense situation when Stormtroopers burst in on him and Artoo. There’s an edge of comedy to much of this, in the queasily funny diminuendo where Threepio thinks the whoops of joy he hears from the quartet in the trash compactor are their death throes, and Han howling in trying to seem like a small army to intimidate some Stormtroopers only to be forced to retreat when he runs into a squad room, and the Stormtroopers themselves trying to seal off his escape only to foil themselves. Except again perhaps in that chasm-swing, the humour is blended into the texture of the action, rather than commenting on it – a subtle but important distinction, as the characters are absurd within these situations rather than the situations themselves kidded.

The high spirits dampen when the other thread of character drama reaches its climax, as Kenobi, who’s been sneaking about the Death Star interior with all his Jedi art, encounters Vader, who has sensed his presence and lies in wait. The sight of Vader on the vigil, clutching a lit lightsaber, this one glowing a malefic red, and guarding the way out from within the Death Star’s labyrinth, returns after the jaunty swashbuckling to the innerverse of myth and dark fairy-tale. Like the Minotaur in the labyrinth,  the dragon on the road through the forest, Death waiting at Samara, Vader is a malevolent force at the height of his powers and cannot be escaped. But Kenobi is the smarter and braver opponent, knowing exactly what he needs to do, in providing a key distraction for the other heroes to get back to the Falcon, and to complete his new mission of helping Luke become a Jedi. Kenobi proves unafraid of perishing upon Vader’s saber, indeed confident that he will ascend to a new kind of strength and influence in death, and after giving Luke a knowing sidewards glance lifts his lightsaber and takes the death stroke. Luke unleashes his anguished wrath on Stormtroopers and manages to cut off Vader by forcing a bulkhead to close (I love the shot of Vader still advancing with unnerving fixity until the doors shut tight) and he and the others finally flee on the Falcon, with the effect of Kenobi’s sacrifice already clear, as Luke hears his disembodied voice guiding him on. They manage to destroy a flight of four small Imperial ‘TIE’ fighters sent after them, but Leia correctly suspects they’ve been set up by Vader to lead the Empire to the Rebel base.

Again, the plotting here is sensible despite all the fun derring-do. Moreover, the mythos is again still expanding even as it seems to be resolving. The clash between Kenobi and Vader, whilst far less physically dynamic than many subsequent, presents the first true lighsaber duel, suggesting the fierce concentration and skill required to fight in such a fashion, as well as revealing the powers of the Jedi extend beyond death. The fight with the chasing TIE fighters is a vivid piece of special effects staging, but is most important as the moment that sets the seal on the bond between the heroes, with Han simultaneously congratulating Luke and warning him against cockiness, and Leia joyfully embracing Chewbacca, who she called a walking carpet not that long before. These particular Argonauts are fully defined. They reach the Rebel headquarters on a moon of the planet Yavin, a jungle zone where cyclopean ruins are repurposed as the operating zone for the Rebels, another fittingly dreamlike zone that also again visually underlines the dialogue between the arcane and the futuristic. The contrast between the teeming greenery of Yavin with the desolation of Tatooine also speaks to Luke’s evolution, arriving in a place where he’s no longer faced with a paucity of options but an overwhelming explosion of experience.

On his first two films Lucas had mediated a spare and evocative style, employing subtle zoom lensing and layers of mediating effect, both visual and aural, with a documentary-like effect, at once seemingly happenstance and carefully filtering, with manipulation of the captured images in the editing room to imbue them with a density accruing a very specific mood, the fractured reality of THX-1138 and the seamless melting between vignettes in American Graffiti. Star Wars inevitably wanted a more forceful touch, and getting the right editing approach proved difficult until Lucas assembled a team including his then-wife Marcia. Lucas’ choice of a clean, bright, easily legible look, achieved in uneasy collaboration with the veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, imbued the film with comic strip-like fluency that sometimes look like Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art panels filmed (particularly in the whaam!-rich climax), and the varying wipe techniques that simultaneously provide keen brackets for each stage in the journey whilst also constantly urging the story on. The best, wittiest example of this comes after the attack by the sandpeople when Luke and Kenobi retrieve Threepio, who’s been sundered in pieces in the melee, and as the two men pick up his top half the screen wipes up as if daintily covering his sorry state. If the landscape shots were patterned after maximalist talents like Lang, Ford, and David Lean, the interpersonal scenes and character group shots have a stark, clean hardness and efficient use of the frame more reminiscent of Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh.

The stylistic rules Lucas set down dispensed with slow motion, Dutch angles, zooms, non-linear or associative edits, and anything but the most functional tracking, handheld, and crane shots. This approach harkened back to another age of cinema, rejecting much of the New Wave stylistic lexicon that had infiltrated Hollywood even if the film’s overall glitz seemed cutting-edge, wringing all the visual energy from the interaction of elements within the shots and the rhythm of the cutting. It would be borderline ridiculous to talk about Star Wars without talking about Williams’ score in more depth, as well-trodden a topic as it is. The mission brief Lucas handed Williams, recommended to him by Spielberg, was to provide a score reminiscent of the kind Erich Wolfgang Korngold did for the likes of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Whilst he had already provided some major hit films with scores, including The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Jaws (1975), it was with Star Wars that Williams made himself a genuinely rare thing, a star composer, and almost single-handedly revived the ideal of the big orchestral film score at a time when most were rather spare, pop-inflected or muted and atmosphere-chasing. This in turn had an impact that’s sometimes been less than salutary in terms of the bombastic strains that decorate many a recent blockbuster-wannabe. Listening to Williams’ score in isolation is an instructive experience in distinguishing it from pale imitations, in encountering the dense layers of instrumentation as well as the illustrative cunning invested in each motif and phrase, the evocative tenor of even the most casual passages as well the instantly recognisable, quite Pavlovian intensity of tracks like the title theme, Leia’s theme, and the scoring for the setting suns scene, as well as the skull-drilling catchiness of the oddball space jazz played by the cantina band. Star Wars would still have been a success without the music, but the film with the music became something else: Williams allowed Lucas to plug more directly in the purest language of fantasy.

Despite being remembered as the film that enshrined the ideal of the special effects blockbuster, Star Wars was hardly a huge-budget film, costing half of what Irwin Allen spent on his marvellously awful The Swarm (1978) around the same time. Lucas had a specific desire to create special effects on a par with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but didn’t have the time or money to pursue the same painstaking work as Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull had achieved. So the special effects team (which included new luminaries of the field John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, and Phil Tippet) took advantage of evolving technology and created the motion control camera, a computer-guided mechanical system that allowed photography of model work to be made vastly easier and briefer. Which helps the overall aesthetic of film more than simply in being dynamic and convincing: the action scenes are the moments when the camerawork becomes unfettered, tracing vivid lines and arcs of motion, most impressively in the climactic Death Star attack as the camera adopts a fighter-eye-view of plunging into the equatorial trench, visuals that have an immersive vigour barely seen in cinema before. The impact of these effects in 1977 was colossal, and they still, despite the odd awkward shot, look very good: indeed the original work has aged far better than the terrible CGI inserts Lucas purveyed in his special edition.

But a great part of the texture and pleasure of Star Wars lies in its small touches. Threepio laying slain Jawas in a pyre with paltry but definite sense of duty. The tableaux of the aliens in the cantina locked in conversations of varying intensity. Luke chasing away Jawas who take too much interest in his speeder, and the long-snouted spy who tracks the heroes through the busy alleys of Mos Eisley. Chewbacca playing a variety of animated, 3D chess with the droids. Shots of Imperial soldiers perched on catwalks and work stations beholding awesome vistas of space and colossal energy surges. So much of this stuff bolsters the impression of richness and incidental commotion in the Star Wars universe, even as it never feels tempted, as many such movies do, to collapse into a succession of world-building exercises. That’s largely because of the basic plot, which resolves in an attack by the Rebels in small fighters and bombers trying to take advantage of an identified weakness in the Death Star, working according to the information Artoo has brought them, with Luke volunteering to pilot an “X-Wing” fighter amongst their ranks. Before setting off to war Luke has a charged confrontation with Han, who seems determined to return to type and declines joining the Rebel assault, but offers Luke a salutary “May the Force be with you,” to the young tyro – a vital concession for the arch cynic, underlined when it’s hinted he might have other intentions in mind. A fine little character moment that also has inevitably large consequences for the way the story plays out.

Perhaps the only addition for Lucas’ special edition I feel was effective is the restoration of the subsequent vignette of Luke encountering his old friend from Tatooine, Biggs (Garrick Hagon), giving context to Luke’s early mention of him, and bolstering our sense of Luke’s movement as a character. Biggs goes to bat with a superior in assuring him of Luke’s great piloting talent. Notably, in the coming fight Biggs’ death and Han’s resurgence are signal moments, one leaving Luke to find the nerve to survive alone and the second proving he doesn’t have to. The Rebel pilots try desperately to fend off the Imperial fire long enough to deliver a hit that can ignite the station’s reactor. As a climactic sequence this has many forebears in classic war movies including The Bridges At Toko-Ri (1954), The Dam Busters (1956, which Taylor also shot), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and 633 Squadron (1964), as the impossible mission to knock out the enemy extermination machine comes down to the wire. The obeisance to this specific wing of the war film makes sense – this is, after all, a film about war in the stars, as well as handing Lucas a situation easy to make sense of and render propulsive and exciting. But it also stands to a degree at odds with most of its follow-ups, in winnowing down the concerns to a single act of martial courage, where in the later films the schism between the Force users as a microcosm of conflict and moral contention, and the more standard warfare as macrocosm, would become a consistent contrast and finally, in Return of the Jedi, pulling ethically and imperatively in differing directions.

The assault on the Death Star is nonetheless one of the great movie sequences, thrilling and, as clear-cut as it is conceptually, impressively intricate as a feat of filming, editing, and scoring. Part of the beauty here is the way the outcome is kept in contention, as in The Guns of Navarone, until the very last seconds of the battle as the Death Star looms closer and closer to blasting the Rebel moon and the attacking force is whittled down. Tension constantly whips up as Luke is finally left almost alone, Biggs is killed, and new comrade Wedge (Denis Lawson) is forced to withdraw after saving Luke’s life, whilst Vader leads a tag-team of TIE fighters taking out the small foes. In their brief moments between life and death the Rebel warriors become shining avatars of heroism whilst they’re chased down by enemy pilots who wear black, grinning skull-like masks (one of many nods to Eisenstein’s stylisation of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, 1938). Artoo is badly damaged by Vader’s gunfire. Luke again experiences Kenobi’s guidance and switches off his targeting computer, signalling his new confidence in using the way of the Force, pure instinct, for the last possible chance at a day-saving shot, which he’s only saved to give thanks to Han’s intervention, which accidentally saves Vader in turn when his fighter is flung off into space. There’s an extra edge of malicious pleasure supplied by Tarkin, as intense and nervelessly cool as ever, calmly ordering the moon’s destruction and confidently expecting victory until he and everything else that comprises the Death Star explodes like a small sun, spraying the void with a trillion gleaming pieces of superheated matter – the end of evil and the death of thousands becomes a brief vision of strange and perfervid beauty.

This all works on both the level of pure myth – the pure knight guided to victory by the hand of his magic guardian and the aid of his fated companion. And on a rather more profane level, a very American story of the star quarterback scoring the winning touchdown thanks to his own personal Jesus and his defensive tackle. The film’s last scene sees Han and Luke presented with medals by Leia and the fully repaired and lively Artoo making his presence known, before they’re applauded by the ranks of Rebels. This climax has been a strange object of contention despite seeming to offers plain old heroic validation, as snarky commentary has been levelled at this noting its seeming similarity to some shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). Most likely, the reference points are the same, both drawing from Lang’s rectilinear framings and fascination with a finely balanced tension between order and decay as the ranked humans and the grandiose cyclopean surrounds, as well as the Michael Curtiz swashbucklers that drew on Lang. In that regard Star Wars is of course much truer to the source, particularly as, again, the tone here is at once officially noble but also comedic. Han, Luke, and Leia can’t keep a straight face through the ceremony, Han winks at Leia, and Luke gives Threepio the nod to let Artoo come out, shattering the formality of the proceedings, telling us these heroes remain themselves and not puppets of power.

No-one looks at Star Wars as a work of private imagineering and pop art anymore; it’s become its own sequestered thing, practically a substitute for the mythologies it references. How well Star Wars works, then and now, depends on one’s attachment to the fantastical, to that state it evokes that’s located in the subliminal zone between childhood and adulthood, the place of epitomes and symbols and the need for excitement and release, even as it masquerades as a story. Such art is generally described as escapist, but there’s no such thing, really, as escapism, as such works simply transmute experiences into other less immediate, less realistic, but, conversely, more powerful forms. It’s a truism now to state that Star Wars begat a specific style of cinematic blockbuster that gained a complete stranglehold on pop culture. What’s more peculiar, though, is that it didn’t. Certainly Star Wars gave science fiction box office voltage for a time, proved that special effects could be a force equal to star name marquee appeal in drawing people into movie theatres, and inspired a host of cash-ins ranging from cheap and cheerful to monumentally expensive. But for decades after Star Wars most successful movies were still in old-fashioned genres driven by old-fashioned filmmaking precepts, in large part because aspects of it were too hard to mimic. Rather than revive space opera, Star Wars permanently foiled it by assimilating it all into an essential glossary. Star Wars rather laid a seed for imitators constantly trying to revisit the specific feeling it captured, a feeling it was trying itself ironically to recall. Which is perhaps the deepest underpinning reason for Star Wars’ indelible success, on top of all the basic cinematic things it leverages to effect. The ultimate act of homage it tries to pay is to the cinematic experience itself.

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2020s, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2021

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By Roderick Heath

My late father used to ritually quip on every New Year’s Eve: “Well, we survived another one.” Actually, I’ve cleaned that up somewhat, but you get the idea. These past couple of years surviving has started to feel like more of an achievement than it used to be, and that’s as true for the movies as any of us. Year Two of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to wreak havoc on cinema’s traditional tenets, but things are clearly still in flux. The colossal success of the latest entry in the Disney-Marvel junket, Spider-Man: No Way Home, in the last days of this year gave the whole idea of mass movie-going a shot in the arm, but it was a singular hit that seemed to come at the expense of a slate of far more ambitious and interesting movies by great filmmakers, in a time when just about everything pitched at anyone over the mental age of nine flopped hard. It also raised the curtain on a dread new phenomenon: early-onset millennial nostalgia as a box office value. Then again, the great collective shrug given to the release of a new The Matrix movie suggests that even that has its limits.

Godzilla vs Kong


Against all the odds, however, 2021 managed to be a strong, even superlative year for movies. Whether it was with films that won distribution and attention simply from having less competition, or amongst the backlog of major releases which eventually came out only to trip over each-others’ feet, it was a year bursting with goodies. Even when major directors turned their minds towards remakes and reimaginings, like Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story or Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, there was definite creative purpose exhibited, and the messiness of something like Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections went hand-in-hand with its ambition. Some films took on the circumstances of their making in such an odd time and wove it into the texture of their efforts, like Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn and In The Earth, whilst others took the enforced limitations and used them to advantage. And others, like Red Notice, felt like dress rehearsals for a grim new age of lazily shot and assembled sound stage wonders with digital backdrops rather than rear projection, now entirely freed from any reference to reality in production as well as writing.

Red Notice


One increasingly notable trend perhaps speeded up by the pandemic as evinced in the likes of Spencer, Azor, Pig, The Power of the Dog, Nightmare Alley, Titane, and others was the infiltration of high-end horror movie aesthetics into psychological dramas, the camera’s truth increasingly inflected with a bewildered, spacy sense of telling absence and unknowable dread. By contrast the resurging popularity of musicals in the past few years finally birthed some more adventurous and stylistically diverse examples of the breed, ranging from the muscular realism of West Side Story to the surreal conceits of Annette. 2021 also saw a plethora of movies sharing persuasively similar preoccupations, some of which instantly congealed into new clichés, many riding the swell of the past few years of social questioning and discontent. Parables for women being mistreated and fighting back or just weathering the storm were plentiful, encompassing a slew of releases too numerous to easily list.

Army Of The Dead


The testing, wearing zeitgeist didn’t spare beloved and usually omnicompetent heroes, who faced and often suffered death, ruination, and the splintering of their identity, in No Time To Die, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Jungle Cruise, The Matrix Resurrections, Black Widow, Godzilla vs Kong, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, The Harder They Fall, Cliff Walkers, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League; only the beloved petro-swashbucklers of F9 came through enhanced, and even the hero of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings gained his birthright and hero status at the cost of his father’s life. Some protagonists found monsters hatching out of their flesh and psyche, as in Titane, Malignant, Last Night In Soho, Dune: Part One, The Card Counter, Cruella, Nightmare Alley, Censor, Nitram, and Azor, pushing them to commit terrible acts to sate a dire inner need.

Mass


People debilitated or thrown out of all compass by encountering grief or cruel experience abounded in the likes of Pig, Eternals, Those Who Wish Me Dead, Last Night In Soho, Identifying Features, The Matrix Resurrections, Wrath of Man, C’mon C’mon, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Censor, The Lost Daughter, Nitram, Drive My Car, Mass, The Hand of God, CODA, Spencer, The Power of the Dog, The Card Counter, This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Films like The Woman In The Window, Censor, Dune: Part One, The Matrix Resurrections, Benedetta, Malignant, The Souvenir Part II, and Riders of Justice encompassed characters struggling with the malleable nature of their reality and finding submitting to the force of their own mental conjurings easier than facing the chaos of real life. Other protagonists in movies like The Night, In The Earth, Last Night In Soho, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and Memoria encountered zones where reality crumbled and forces from beyond twisted experience out of all shape, presenting paths that demand to be followed to the end.

Censor


Nostalgia itself had a siren song power both within movies and in selling them, but many of the best films of 2021 dealt with it as a double-edged thing. Creativity, as an elusive and sometimes torturous and destructive wellspring, was ransacked for meaning in the likes of The Disciple, The Matrix Resurrections, Malcolm & Marie, Annette, The French Dispatch, Pig, Ema, The Souvenir Part II, and Drive My Car. Some films, like Belfast, The Hand of God, tick, tick…BOOM!, and The Souvenir Part II, presented autobiographical depictions of creative artists in genesis, passing through stations of learning in loss, disillusionment, and the getting of inspiration. King Richard dealt with sport rather than art but still saw it as informed by a radical drive defined by a contradictory need for grounding and the urge to escape gravity. Some made by anxious male auteurs explored their uneasy relationship with the assertive independence of their female lovers and muses in a climate of prosecutorial interest in such things, evinced in the likes of Malcolm & Marie, Ema, The Worst Person In The World, The Woman Who Ran, and Annette.

Malcolm & Marie


Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie tried to turn the limitations forced by the pandemic into a dramatic weapon, by making a chamber-piece drama about domestic strife. Levinson portrayed two young black creatives, one, John David Washington’s Malcolm, a director who has just scored his critical breakthrough, the other Zendaya’s Marie, an actress and recovering junkie whose youthful travails inspired her husband’s movie, and the film, played out in and around the chic modernist mansion hired for them by the movie studio, detailed the strife unleashed by Malcolm forgetting to thank Marie during his post-screening presser. Malcolm & Marie was admirable in flying the flag for a type of adult drama filmed and acted with theatrical gusto, depicting the couple’s borderline-perverse mixture of ardour and emotional sadomasochism, and took sidelong glances at current culture and critical pretences via Malcolm’s amusing rants. The problem was Levinson’s verbal warfare too often felt calculated and overblown, in a work that indulged its own tendency to hyperbolic effect rather than explored that of its characters. Also, his choice of filming in black-and-white, perhaps to nod to inspirations like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, whilst shooting his gorgeous actors in a spotless environment, insistently gave proceedings a sheen of glossy posturing, like a Calvin Klein commercial.

Ema


Pablo Larrain’s Ema presented a similar starting point in Gael Garcia Bernal’s choreographer and Mariana Di Girolamo as the title character, one of the major talents in his troupe of dancers, and the aftermath to their disastrous attempt to adopt a young boy. When eventually they separate Ema begins a journey of self-discovery involving lots of sex and random acts of arson that finally lead her to embrace something like a group marriage. The film’s opening movement, as Larrain sketched the situation of his characters, intercut with one of their dance performances, signalled a new level of stylish velocity and structural daring for the director. His choice of theme, too, offered an antistrophe from the suffering stoicism of Jackie and his many looks backwards to the repression of Chile’s past, here embracing a heroine who explodes all cages about herself and eventually creates a small world ordered to her needs, and those close to her. Something about the film remained frustratingly opaque, however, with a patchy script that never quite accessed the ferocity of the characters’ emotions. Larrain tried to make Ema a multileveled and bravely transgressive figure trying to mature without losing her trademark wildness, yet she never convinced me, being one part melodrama vixen, one part cuckold fantasy.

Spencer


Larrain’s second movie of the year, Spencer, told a similar sort of story, harking back to another tabloid heroine of yesteryear, presenting what it described as a “fable based on a true tragedy,” which roughly translates “pseudo-arty fan fiction.” Kristen Stewart was cast with a degree of cunning as a version of Princess Diana in the waning days of her marriage, stifled by the absurd weight of Royal tradition and pissed off by getting a pearl necklace as a present from her husband the same as one he gave to his unnamed mistress, and struggling through the tedium of a joyless royal Christmas feast. Larrain’s take on the myth of Diana aimed to transform it into an experiential passion play, describing oppressive straits ironically applied by people not evil or hateful but prizing their own glum and boring outlook. Somehow though it had nothing interesting or insightful to say about Diana or the people around her, inventing characters including Timothy Spall’s ambiguous major-domo and Sally Hawkins’ loving servant instead to better leverage its shallow and contrived description of a nascent rebellion, mixed with overbearing pseudo-gothic visuals. Stewart gave a nervy but affected and superficial performance.

The Night


There were a large number of art-house-skewed horror movies this year, and many of them looked and felt rather interchangeable in subject and approach. The best of them was Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth, a return to Wheatley’s early fare blending folk horror motifs and lysergic delirium, but with a new precision to his thrill-mongering and evocation of enigmatic powers. Kourosh Ahari’s The Night had an interesting slant, filmed in Los Angeles but largely made by, about, and starring Iranian expatriates with separation and dislocation a vital factor in the drama. Ahari’s protagonists were a husband and wife, beset by personal tension and with a small baby in tow, who check into a large, virtually deserted hotel only to find themselves harassed by spectral beings that demand they expose and confess their guilty secrets if they want to escape. The film was absorbing in its early scenes, capturing a charged and aggravated tension in the characters before the customary wandering around in the dark waiting for something to go boo began, complete with the compulsory Lynchian drony-rumbly soundtrack. Ahari remained excessively vague about the lode of guilt suffered by the husband, however, and left off with a non-ending that aimed for a chilling note of waking dreaming, but failed to elicit more from me than a weary sigh.

The Power


Corinna Faith’s The Power also featured a lot of wandering around in the dark waiting for something to go boo. Faith depicted a naïve and troubled young nurse spending her first night on the job in a cavernous London hospital in the late 1970s, during a power cut caused by a strike, and soon finds herself dogged by a haunting entity out for revenge. This time the thematic roster ticked off institutional abuse and a “believe women” message, but despite an initially restrained and eerie approach, the film was riddled with unsubtle characters, pushy thematic underlining, and eventually some very ordinary evil possession stuff, building to the inevitable, cringe-inducing moment when the double meaning of the title was spoken aloud. Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor was more effective in dovetailing a similar evocation of a period and place and its antiheroine’s damaged headspace. Bailey-Bond depicted a straitlaced but fraying film censor of the early 1980s dealing with the wave of “video nasties” and becoming convinced her sister, who went missing in a vaguely remembered traumatic incident when she was a child, is now the enslaved starlet featured in a renegade goreteur’s movies. As a debut Censor was intriguing and promising, despite its problems: Bailey-Bond forged a strikingly surreal netherworld where traumatic delirium and confrontational junk-art formed an effectively poisonous brew, but didn’t develop the slow uncoupling of heroine’s mangled psyche from reality as carefully as she might have, leading to a confused climax.

Shadow In The Cloud


Some other genre entries went for gaudier thrills, like James Wan’s Malignant. Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud tried to mate suspense and action with feminist parable in boisterous style, casually ripping off the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and resituating it aboard an Allied bomber over the Pacific during World War II, and making Chloe Grace Moretz the dubious witness to a marauding gremlin. Shadow in the Cloud started very well, with a lovely, eerie prologue on a fogbound runway, and ratcheted up tension splendidly as Moretz’s enigmatic heroine was trapped in a belly gun turret and forced to contend with the variably suspicious and dismissive voices of the crew as well as lurking enemy fighters and a malevolent critter. Liang managed to sustain something very close to a radio play whilst still proving energetically cinematic. The second half went badly awry as eventually both plot and action took increasingly absurd swerves, and like too many other recent movies insisted in turning its dramatic underpinnings and amplifying them into deliriously on-the-nose metaphors, delivering a kind of animated Rosie the Riveter poster at its climax. Still, the film managed to be enjoyable all the way through.

Till Death


S.K. Dale’s Till Death was another chamber-piece thriller concerning misogyny and entrapment, but this one emerged as one of the year’s quieter successes despite not being as affected as its rivals: rather it was a triumph for old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts suspense. Megan Fox was the guilty and traumatised wife of a DA who shoots himself after chaining himself to her, in revenge for her infidelity as well as avoiding the consequences of his corruption, leaving her to drag around his bloody corpse at a remote lake house and elude a violent criminal. The set-up had a rather Hitchcockian blend of simplicity and resonance, and Fox was surprisingly strong in the kind of role she ought to have been cast in ten years ago, part neo-Gene Tierney suffering beauty, part splatter movie heroine. The situation was cleverly heightened without too many gimmicks, and the theme of variably weak men constantly trying to offload responsibility onto the shattered but resourceful protagonist, as well as the more obvious metaphor for the dead weight of a failed marriage, came across without needing a rhetorical bullhorn.

The Woman In The Window


Joe Wright’s adaptation of the bestselling trash novel The Woman In The Window also dealt with a fraying woman caught up in a drama of deception and lethal intent and played out in an entrapping space, although this time in the mould of a bold-faced psychothriller. Amy Adams was the intelligent but psychologically crippled therapist trapped in her New York townhouse by trauma-enhanced agoraphobia, convinced her new neighbours are up to something whilst forced to establish her own sanity. Wright had an uphill battle given the general cynicism sparked by revelations about the meretricious source material and the film was met with some withering reviews, but Wright give it the old school try, wrapping the clunky plot with its multitude of red herrings in a veneer of high style laced with swooning staircases and hypervivid hallucinations. Wright teased by inserting a clip from Rear Window, but his chief inspiration proved less Hitchcock than the more decadent phases of Italian giallo. Adams and the rest of the cast were also enthusiastic, and the whole package was enjoyable it in its absurd way. The other top British director surnamed Wright, Edgar, offered his own, superior spin on giallo with Last Night In Soho.

Werewolves Within


Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within set out to infuse fun horror with a vein of satirical purpose, drawing on the likes of And Then There Were None and The Thing as it threw together an assortment of neo-Americana caricatures, from rude crude rednecks to a disruptive Trumpian magnate to a folksy, needy Black hero, in a small Vermont town where the power’s been cut off in the dead of winter and a lycanthrope seems to be at large. Werewolves Within proved a tiresome experience, largely because of its weak script, with a comic approach that seemed like a Comedy Channel show writ large but never delivered the laughs, and failed to develop its potentially interesting plotline and social commentary, where the predations of the werewolf were almost incidental compared to the mixture of greed and stupidity afflicting the townsfolk, before the real villain proved to be a gaslighting, self-righteous millennial. The film looked surprisingly good on a low budget, that said, and Milana Vayntrub as a wry and illusive mailperson gave an eyecatching performance, including a brief spasm of dancing to Ace of Base more entertaining than either movie Dwayne Johnson was in this year.

A Quiet Place Part II


Dealing with similar ideas if in a resolutely non-cynical vein, John Krasinski returned to the director’s chair for a follow-up to his big 2018 hit, A Quiet Place Part II. Krasinski initially moved back in chronology to portray the invasion of the marauding alien beasts, sowing havoc in Smalltownia USA. Eventually we returned to where the first film left off, as the remaining members of the Abbott family each learn to forge ahead, with Cillian Murphy brought in as a surrogate father who travels with young Regan (Millicent Simmonds) on a mission to let others in on her method for paralysing and killing the monsters, whilst her mother and brother contend with their own troubles. Krasinki confirmed he’s a genuinely dynamic and intelligent director of action and suspense sequences, and he wisely if not always effectively expanded the scope of the drama to explore and test diverse brands of survivalism and questions of mutual responsibility amidst calamity. Krasinski couldn’t overcome the increasingly apparent truth that the story played itself out in the first instalment, as the sequel couldn’t muster the same level of heart or excitement because it was clear there were now unkillable characters, and moved a little too impatiently to effectively introduce new ones. Nonetheless it was a superior entertainment.

The Tomorrow War


Chris McKay’s The Tomorrow War came across like a gene-spliced chimera of a few different sci-fi action hits including the first A Quiet Place with its scuttling, marauding monsters. Chris Pratt starred as a former soldier turned frustrated teacher who finds himself, along with millions of others, drafted into a war in the near future by time-travelling emissaries. Those future dwellers desperately need manpower to fight off an invasion by a race of marauding alien hellbeasts, and he learns his own grown-up daughter is leading a research team racing to develop a toxin to take out the beasts before extinction hits. The plot hinged on a global warming warning, which, in case that was too lefty for some in the audience, was balanced by a clunky libertarian anti-government theme. But the real meat of the story lay in its metaphors for intergenerational resentment and need, becoming essentially a monster-killing version of It’s A Wonderful Life. Pratt was decent if unremarkable in the lead; Yvonne Strahovski was more effective as his older, wounded daughter. All in all it was just well-done enough to be a decent matinee flick, with a solid, serious tone, forceful, intimidating action, and an effective climax, even if the characters’ actions often seemed too conveniently stupid.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League


When it came to monster movie business, Godzilla v. Kong was determined to deliver the audience what it came to see, and horror auteur Adam Wingard brought headlong energy to proceedings, hurrying to set his story in motion as the titular beasts resumed their respective species’ warfare only to find them both up against a new, inimical threat. The freewheeling pulp magazine pace and imagery made up for Wingard’s choice, for better and for worse, to throw out the conceptual and metaphorical pretences of the previous entries in the series, as well as signs of rather severe editing to the human-level drama, and settle for a big, noisy, extravagant good time. It did, at least, succeed in that. Zack Snyder resurged with two films in the course of the year, one the much-anticipated restoration of his original vision for the 2016 flop Justice League, the other the zombie action flick Army of the Dead. Surprisingly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League proved easily the superior of the two, with its rich and spectacular, if unwieldy, exploration and expansion of the superhero mythos Snyder erected in his previous entries in the DC superhero series, with a newly textured feel for character as well as grandiose action sequences. Army of the Dead by contrast felt like a big step backwards even as it tried to put something new in motion, as an exasperatingly clumsy mixture of laddish black comedy, straight-up horror and action stuff, and an emotionally exposed metaphor for loss. Those elements impeded rather than amplified each-other, with a script that constantly felt a few drafts away from working despite Snyder applying all his technical might.

Undine


In a very different kind of monster movie, German auteur Christian Petzold made an unusual segue into magic-realist romance, albeit laced with his refrains delving into ambiguous identity and history, with Undine, the tale of a woman who proves to be, true to her name, a mermaid. After being dumped by her lover, she resists the established course of action she’s supposed to take of killing him and returning to the water: she instead falls in love with another man, a diver, but eventually finds fate cannot be easily cheated. The first half, exploiting Undine’s job as a museum lecturer in Berlin history as well as her hidden identity as a repository of the city’s underground dream-life so Petzold could incorporate an essayistic element, seemed to be gesturing towards symbolic aspects to the drama that never resolved into much of anything. But as the film settled it blended deadpan realism and the oneiric with unique assurance, leaving off with a lingering note of romantic melancholy, making it easily my favourite of Petzold’s films to date.

Black Widow


Cinema’s all-powerful overlords at Disney-Marvel had both a good year and a bad year – good in that they had, as usual, several of the most successful movies of the year, but bad in that three of those very expensive movies likely didn’t turn a profit. The best of the three was Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, which also served as Scarlett Johansson’s kiss goodbye to her superspy character Natasha Romanoff. Despite being killed off in Avengers: Endgame, she was allowed her own vehicle at last, one carefully situated in the series timeline. Black Widow pulled off action feminism with some real flash and did well by both Johansson and her heir apparent Florence Pugh, building to a dynamic blow-everything-up finale. On many levels Black Widow had a frustrated air, trying to offer something darker, tougher, and more suggestively perverse than the MCU had ever been, but never daring to truly break the mould. Still, Shortland managed to invest the movie with flickers of personality, both visual and thematic, turning it into one of her familiar dark fairy-tales about young women lost in the world and learning to fend for themselves, and dedicated to evoking her characters’ identities as the tormented playthings of power and the refuse of great designs who find themselves fused into a false yet real family. Action scenes came laced with kinetic Bond and Bourne tributes.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings tried for its part to introduce a new hero, a superpowered kung fu warrior created originally as a comic book version of Bruce Lee and son of Fu Manchu. Here Shang-Chi was presented as the listless slacker son of an ageless and magically endowed crime lord, who tries to escape his legacy and take up a new life in America, only to find destiny, and inane plotting, pulling him back into his father’s maniacal orbit. Cretton invested the film with sufficient superficial energy to keep it watchable. Virtually nothing about the script bore up to even the slightest scrutiny, that said, on top of the tepid, imagination-free attempt to annex Chinese folklore and mysticism into the MCU, which only achieved some traction in the loopy climax. Simu Liu in the lead role seemed to have been cast to be as blandly inoffensive as possible, obliged to awkwardly play both a hardened, purpose-built war machine from a nefarious underworld and a nice, reluctant hero rendered sufficiently assimilated to still be relatable to American teens. Tony Leung was both the best thing about the movie and miscast as Shang-Chi’s obsessive papa, whilst Awkwafina and Ben Kingsley were embarrassingly wasted in comic supporting roles.

Eternals


Somewhere in between was Chloe Zhao’s much-hyped Eternals, an attempt by the fresh-minted Oscar-winner to invest some mythological gravitas into a drama drawn from one of Jack Kirby’s more obscure cosmic creations. Eternals depicted a team of manufactured guardians beings sent to Earth in civilisation’s infancy who foster human development, but eventually learn there is a grim motive for the great project, on top of their own varying levels of private disillusionment and torment, eventually sparking schism and strife within their own ranks. Zhao, working with an interesting cast and a megabudget production, invested her visuals with a classy lustre and strove to introduce some plaintive, meditative depth to signal how far the franchise had come, or at least hoped it had, since the first Iron Man. The sprawling, millennia-spanning storyline badly lacked a compelling focal point, that said, and despite all it was yet another MCU film saddled with a clumsy plot and rote monstrous antagonists, as well as ungainly overlength. Where the movie needed efficiency and drive, it provided loping wistfulness, and vice versa. Gemma Chan was trapped in an oddly listless performance as the nominal lead whilst Richard Maddern was effective as the fanatical antihero, but easily the most potent performance came from Angelina Jolie as the troubled warrior Thena, giving despite her oddly displaced part in the film a swift lesson in authentic star hustle.

Spider-Man: No Way Home


Jon Watts returned for his third turn at the helm of a (partial) Marvel film with Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that performed an unexpected, near-miraculous rescue job of its own for the moviegoing box office in the waning days of the year. That success was in large part because of a remarkably cunning marketing campaign that whet the appetite with glimpses of returning, classic (and not-so-classic) villains from the Spider-Man legacy, whilst playing coy about the implied return of previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield as well, and then the actual film ably gave the audience what it seemingly wanted. The story involved Tom Holland’s Peter Parker making an appeal to Doctor Strange to cast a spell to nullify the revealing of his secret identity, only to cause a rupture in reality, allowing alternative dimensional editions of Peter and his foes into his. For Watts third time was definitely a charm: No Way Home gained unexpected gravitas as well as fun from loudly ringing the nostalgia gong, but it was solid and smart in its own right, far more shaded and mature than the previous, flimsy character instalments in the MCU. Stars Holland and Zendaya gave newly felt performances, whilst the storyline took some risks in killing off a beloved character and leaving its hero in a desolate limbo. Watts offset the darker edge by balancing the energy of three different Spider-Men to delightful effect, and handling their differing angsts with finesse. But the frisson of galactic-level fan service did much to also mask the very questionable plotting and the awkwardly structured script, which needed some lessons in efficiency.

The Matrix Resurrections


As if determined to contrast Watts’ film in exploiting millennial nostalgia with a far more metafictional and self-referential edge, Lana Wachowski returned, sans sibling, to the franchise that once made them pop culture heroes, with The Matrix Resurrections. Wachowski tried to make nostalgia, creative legacy, and audience investment aspects of the drama itself, in depicting a now middle-aged Neo, played with stricken, hangdog intensity by Keanu Reeves. Entrapped in a new version of the Matrix, Neo thinks he’s the creator of a hugely popular video game standing in for the original trilogy and is forced into rebooting the property, only to be soon plucked out of the digital realm by a new generation of rebels desperate for leadership. The Matrix Resurrections was initially intriguing and inspired in weaving a dialogue between fantasy and reality in terms of creative control and fan affection, and teased the commercial impetus behind its making with spry humour. Once the story proper got moving, familiar elements resurged and the film devolved into a succession of messy impulses, some engaging, some tired, some silly, trying to be revisionist in regards to Neo’s relationship with his great love Trinity, but never quite breaking through to fresh ground.

Jungle Cruise


With Jungle Cruise, Disney tried to pull off the same alchemy that made its Pirates of the Caribbean films so successful by turning to another of its theme park rides and fashioning a big, expensive spectacle around it. The story, such as it was, pitted Emily Blunt as a determined explorer, Jack Whitehall as her effete brother, and Dwayne Johnson as the rough diamond skipper they hire, against evil Germans and zombie conquistadors in the hunt for a tree with miraculous medicinal properties deep in the Amazon. Jungle Cruise had a good director in hand with Jaume Collet-Serra as well as likeable stars, and if it had been executed with a lick of sense it could have been a grand old-fashioned romp. Instead it proved a monument to everything wrong about modern Hollywood, swathed in flashy but flavourless CGI, replete with incoherent, ripped-off story beats and strained messaging, blowing the talents behind and in front of camera on a frenetic yet joyless, zany yet witless, fantastical yet unimaginative exercise in marketing fodder. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, billed as a thankful swing towards violently larkish absurdity in following up David Ayer’s much-loathed 2016 Suicide Squad, wasn’t as wall-to-wall bad, with a few good moments and impulses, and yet it was too often painfully unfunny and glazed with a smug and smirking conviction it was being clever and offensive on some level. 

Dune: Part One


Audiences and critics grasped on to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One in famished glee, as it was the rare new special effects blockbuster that wasn’t a superhero movie, even as the property it’s based on supplied the mythopoeic fuel for a swathe of current franchises, including The Matrix. Villeneuve was the one to dare treading again into a deluge that nearly drowned David Lynch, and chiefly leveraged it by cutting Frank Herbert’s cult novel in half and proposing to do the rest whenever. Dune: Part One had many things going for it. As well as the inherently meaty source material, the new take came armed with a fine, star-studded cast and good-looking, clever special effects. But I was enormously disappointed by the stripped-down script, which wasted much of the time splitting the adaptation bought on a long, climactic chase, whilst leaving out extremely important plot and world-building details, and that great cast was often poorly served in scantily written roles. Villeneuve’s direction proved superficially chic but tonally monolithic, stripping out complexity and then belabouring the obvious. All that said, it was an entirely watchable movie, one that did just enough to whet the appetite for the second part.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife


Jason Reitman emulated his father Ivan in making Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a loving homage-cum-sequel that proved a curtain raiser for 2021’s late wave of nostalgia bait, one that took the opposite tack to the clumsily farcical 2016 remake of Ivan’s fiercely treasured 1984 hit. Jason’s take on the story leaned for much of its length closer to his own early style of low-key indie comedy, following the teenage kids of a frazzled single mother who learn they’re the grandchildren of the late Egon Spengler, who destroyed his life in the conviction the monstrous entity Gozer would return, sparking an adventure that eventually sees the resurgence of both familiar villains and heroes. Afterlife took some savage reviews, most of them barely disguised payback to the perceived cadre of fans who rejected the 2016 take. And the movie was certainly imperfect, taking too long to get going and then rushing its best elements, offering some limp stabs at new-but-not flourishes like a cadre of tiny Staypuft Marshmallow men, and not knowing what to do with all its characters. Jason’s choice of a kid-centric, Spielbergian take on material seemed notably at odds with material originally defined by its zany disreputability, but there was just enough sardonicism in there to maintain the brand. Young Mckenna Grace, wonderful as the heir to Egon’s smarts and fortitude, helped bridge the uneasily coexisting frames of reference. The finale, which finally brought the remaining original team back into the fray, saw the old boys in delightful form, particularly Bill Murray as his Peter Venkman taunted his ancient foe with the lament they never became a great power couple.

Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro’s first movie since his Oscar-winner The Shape of Water proved a sharp pivot away from that film’s romantic fantasy. Del Toro chose to make a new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s infernally bleak novel Nightmare Alley, previously filmed with the more morbid and downbeat edges sanded off in 1947 by Edmund Goulding. It’s easy to see what drew del Toro to the material – the heart-of-darkness anatomisation of both the old weird America and its shiny uptown superstructure encompasses a whole genre in miniature much as del Toro has tried to assemble for himself in movies like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, swerving from the garish trove of the old timey carnival to art deco bastions inhabited by gilt-haired succubi. Nightmare Alley was initially absorbing in exploiting the carnival setting, complete with high-cineaste nods to Tod Browning’s Freaks and The Show, only to bleed steam as Bradley Cooper’s tunnelvisioned conman fell into the clutches of Cate Blanchett’s more patient quack in the course of spiritualist machinations. The film was ultimately too heavy-footed, too weighed down by the regalia of its own dark nostalgia and prestige movie trappings to really dig into the cruel, surreal edge of Gresham’s story, and star Cooper was strong playing a slick asshole but could never quite penetrate this shell to get at the self-destructive neurotic below.

Cruella


Another tale of an outcast, criminally talented antihero who destroys themselves in the course of seeking riches and power, albeit very different in tone, Cruella saw Craig Gillespie revisiting territory akin to his I, Tonya in offering sympathy to a female devil. This time Gillespie made over the gleeful villainess from the 101 Dalmatians films into a would-be fashionista bitch-queen, played with archly stylised relish by Emma Stone. Cruella charted her life from arrogant tyke to hardened survivor to would-be worker drone, before she finally and effectively unleashes the punk provocateur, doing battle with her professional nemesis and secret mother, played by Emma Thompson. Cruella was one of the odder, and more oddly entertaining, packages of the year, part comedic romp, part dark psychodrama. Something that by rights should have been more egregious IP exploitation instead came laced with jazzy imagery and perverse psychology, even if it came to a shuddering halt with a weak climax that stopped well short of the kind of grand guignol spectacle the outsized characters deserved.   

No Time To Die


After considerable delay, Daniel Craig’s last dance in the role of James Bond arrived in the form of No Time To Die, a would-be epic farewell to the actor and his version of the character. The Craig Bond’s drift towards a mere stolid and generic weepy tough guy was completed in an overlong and jarringly uneven entry that hinted at uncertainty on the behalf of the filmmakers as to how far to push their end-of-an-era motif. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction only came to life in spasms, as the film briefly regained some of the old razzle-dazzle in a couple of early action scenes, particularly one sporting Ana de Armas as a surprising newbie agent, and Rami Malek was effective if mostly wasted as the fey and sibilant evil mastermind. No Time To Die proved strangely committed to revealing the very premise of the Craig Bond era, as an origin story for the classic character, to be a false promise, seeming to kill him off after wading through acres of half-hearted plotting and some narrative busy-work. By the end of it I felt a little glad to finally see Craig go.

The Protégé


To get some more genuine Bondian spirit ironically one had to look to the ladies this year. Martin Campbell, who first vested Craig in the role and proved he still knows how to shoot and cut a good ass-kick scene, offered The Protégé, a star vehicle for Maggie Q that paired her with Samuel L. Jackson as the man who schooled her in the deadly arts and whose apparent assassination drives her into battle with a shadowy mob, and Michael Keaton as her weathered but spry foe-cum-lover. The film had a thin, standard-issue story, aging cast, and a slickly tony look that identified it squarely as straight-to-streaming fodder. Campbell’s touch with action and the strong cast elevated it considerably into the kind of B-movie that satisfies: Q and Keaton had more actual, sexy spark than just about any other pairing of the year, and Campbell knew how to take advantage of it.

Kate


Kate, sporting Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the title character, had a very similar starting point but took it in a different direction, as a variation on D.O.A..  Winstead’s Tokyo-based super-assassin embarked on hunting down the men who served her a dose of radiation poisoning, only to find the trail leading back home (with Woody Harrelson playing basically the same corrupt father figure as he did in Solo), and gained a last chance for redemption in protecting the daughter of a Yakuza kingpin. Winstead was terrific, again playing the kind of role she should’ve been given years ago, and director Cedric Nicolas-Troyen put The Huntsman: Winter’s War far behind him by making a sleek, fun, good-looking movie, even if the Japanesey tropes piled up a little thick. The main pity of it was the ending necessarily precluded a sequel, as I would much rather have seen Kate’s return than some of the other dullards we’re doomed to see resurge.

Those Who Wish Me Dead


Angelina Jolie returned to a proper leading role in another valiant heroine part, albeit one more grounded, in Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead. Jolie played a forest fire fighter haunted by deaths she couldn’t prevent, who by pure accident takes in charge a teenage boy who stumbles upon her in the woods, after his father has been murdered by some hired killers. Like a lot of recent movies of this kind, Those Who Wish Me Dead had a chintzy, knocked-off feel from a combination of a strained budget and a lazy production filled out with weak special effects, and the storyline rushed through its set-up, leaving a pile of plot holes and broad-stroke characterisations. The improbably classy cast and director helped a lot, that said, and as it unfolded reminded me a little of some good 1950s noir thrillers with similar stories and settings, with a couple of strong and surprising suspense sequences, and a lot of kick provided by Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen as the grade-A scumbag villains.

No Sudden Move


Steven Soderbergh’s busy retirement continued with No Sudden Move, a 1950s-set thriller that tried to double as an acid satire on the period’s suburban pretences, social schisms, and corporate malfeasance. Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro headlined as two losers hired to take a family hostage to force the father to hand over some valuable industrial secret, only to quickly find things are deliriously complicated and literally everyone is playing their own game. Soderbergh pulled together a terrific cast and the first couple of reels were strong. But as a whole it summarised many reasons Soderbergh has long aggravated me, with a script that devolved into an endless maze of plot and intolerable characters, the brittle, affected visual style (shot once more on iPhone but without the pulpy enthusiasm of Unsane), and a strained attempt at cynical social commentary, which Soderbergh actually ripped off from The Nice Guys, a much better film.

Wrath of Man


Guy Ritchie’s recent run of form continued with Wrath of Man, perhaps his most controlled piece of direction to date matched to a story that kept twisting with verve and delivered with unusual seriousness. Jason Statham was the ice-eyed new recruit at an armoured car company who quickly proves to have skills, and purposes, far beyond natural for a security guard. Ritchie’s choice of turning to a greyer, sterner mould of crime drama closer to Peter Yates and Michael Mann was hampered by his relative lack of a feel for the minutiae of the different milieu and subgenre. But the story gave Rashomon a run for its money in its ellipses and managed to do something new with the well-worn heist movie template, building to a ferocious robbery and shoot-out sequence. Only right at the end did the film felt like it cheated a little and ran out of really good ideas to bring its story home.

Nobody


Ilya Naishuller’s Nobody offered a more waggish and sarcastic take on the idea of an omnicompetent action man hidden in sheep’s clothing, ingeniously casting Bob Odenkirk as a middle-aged family man who loses his son’s respect when he refuses to intervene in a home robbery, only for another, suppressed side to his identity to begin emerging, one craving brutal and bloody expression. Nobody was short, snappy, and a bit slight, with frustrating signs it might have been heavily cut before release, as its running thread contemplating familial masculine identity, with Odenkirk’s relationship with both his son and his aging but deadly father (Christopher Lloyd) and withdrawn but still loyal brother (RZA), never quite got the attention it craved. That said, the finale where the men got together to battle off an army of gangsters, was beautifully zany and hilarious, and the set-piece fight on a bus that raised the curtain on the violence wielded a rare sense of physical intensity and intimate damage of bone and flesh and metal colliding, as Odenkirk found his old gifts for bringing and taking pain still operating, if in need of some fine-tuning.

The Dry


Robert Connolly’s The Dry cast Eric Bana as a federal cop drawn back to the small Australian country town he grew up in, and finds himself investigating the fates of two of his old high school friends. One was a girl he himself was accused of killing when they were teens, the other a man who seems to have shot himself and his family in the midst of a sweltering, gruelling drought, and solving one mystery demands reckoning with the other. Some of the plotting, particularly the final revelation of just what happened to the girl, was unconvincing in the mechanics, but Connolly forged a strong atmosphere evoking the oppressive in both temperature and social climes. Bana was very good as an intelligent and haunted hero constantly obliged to step back and forth in time and contend with the possibility of the monstrous lurking behind his most cherished yet double-edged memories, resulting in something close to a Proustian detective movie.

Silk Road


Tiller Russell’s Silk Road recounted one of the more fascinating and oddly tragic true crime sagas of recent years, involving a young would-be libertarian entrepreneur who set up the “eBay of drugs” and found immediate, enormous success, but for all his new-age ideals quickly found himself driven to the oldest and most despicable of kingpin activities, and the burnt-out DEA agent who first set out to nab him but then, through a variety of motives, became something like his protector. Russell’s direction was plodding and the film didn’t have the budget and scope to do the story justice, but it held my interest by focusing on the psychology of the two men and their different urges towards self-destruction, and setting up what seemed to be a familiar heroic arc for Justin Clarke’s weary and cynical agent only to see it twist in dismaying directions.

The Ice Road


Blockbuster screenwriter turned director Jonathan Hensleigh released The Ice Road, a sub-zero Canadian take on The Wages of Fear mixed with action-thriller elements, casting Liam Neeson yet again as a grizzled veteran, this time of truck driving, who along with his troubled younger brother, left brain damaged by military service, accepts an offer to lead a truck convoy carrying equipment to help save some trapped miners in the frozen north. They and the other drivers soon find the mining company using a saboteur to foil their mission to cover up their nefarious business practices. The Ice Road made me wish one of the high-octane talents Hensleigh used to write for had tackled the film back in a ‘90s heyday, rather than trying to pull it off with a thin-looking straight-to-streaming budget and too much CGI. But the film hung together and delivered enough thrills and spills to count as a solid action programmer. Neeson and Laurence Fishburne gave proceedings a dose of gravitas, Benjamin Walker was niftily cast as the seemingly bland but relentlessly malevolent villain, and Amber Midthunder injected spunk as a bristly Native American driver on the crew.

F9


For more high-speed thrills, this time delivered with a budget equivalent to some countries’ national debt, there was F9, the ninth instalment of the once-trashtastic, now venerable and classy Fast and Furious franchise. Justin Lin returned as director for an entry that gleefully decided to clear the last obstacles between it and utter fantasy with a car launched into space, yet another old character returning from the dead, and Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto taking out a fighter plane with a truck. Absurd, silly, and barely bothering to conceal the cracks in its aging fuselage with its many retcon patch jobs, F9 was nonetheless riotously entertaining, readily showing off the qualities that have kept the series alive – the characters whose reflexes feel like old friends, and the fluency and finesse of Lin’s direction, with a special delight in letting everyone, from the newest characters to the old salts, have their vignette of derring-do.

Mortal Kombat


Simon McQuoid’s tilt at reviving the cinematic wing of the video game franchise Mortal Kombat tried its best to fashion a working storyline out of the game’s trippy pretext mythos, involving warring dimensions and ritual combat by anointed superwarriors. This was never likely to earn itself a place on top ten lists or Oscar nominations, but as far as this sort of thing goes the film was surprisingly okay: the plot was slim enough to be translucent and and the cast lacked star power, but the film had a bracing sense of its own ridiculousness, spent just enough time setting up the characters to make their eventual evolution a little cheering, and embraced a gory, foul-mouthed vigour. Josh Lawson enlivened proceedings enormously as a ratbag Aussie fighter, and the film looked better than many of these CGI-caked movies: one image, of a hero’s wife and child impaled and frozen together by his malignant enemy, had more visual and metaphorical kick than anything in some of the year’s more self-serious fantasy films. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Red Notice tried to revive a classic brand of screwball action-comedy, as two roguish thieves and a straight-arrow FBI nemesis forced in league with one of them went on the hunt for some old treasurey things that are worth something and yadda yadda and the twist with the thing and stuff. Stars Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson (not having a good year), and Gal Gadot were handed a script that seemed to have been scribbled on the back of a matchbook and told to be fun whilst standing in front of a bunch of poorly greenscreened backdrops.

The Green Knight


David Lowery’s The Green Knight presented the would-be highbrow counterpoint to fantasy-action movies like Shang-Chi and Mortal Kombat. I had remained highly suspicious of Lowery, director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Ghost Story: the latter film was laboured but doggedly interesting whilst the former was a trite imitation, so whatever he made next he made was going to be the test case for his evolution. That follow-up proved to be an adaptation of the medieval poem about a callow member of King Arthur’s court, Gawain, who finds himself committed to a possibly fatal quest after playing a Christmas “game” with a mysterious visitor to the court. Dev Patel was an inspired choice to play the questing hero, but the film gave him little to actually do in playing a character who’s supposed to be learning lessons but instead is trapped by Lowery’s relentlessly dour and witless stylistics, yearning desperately to be taken for something profound and arty, and yet leaning heavily on anime and computer game imagery in tracking a hero with an oversized novelty weapon and a cute offsider. The script’s hollow take on the driving parable translated the evergreen poetics of the source material into an airless mass of dimly lit images and dead-on-arrival conceptualism. Lowery coated proceedings with a host of affectations like barely legible ye-olde-timey chapter titles flashed on screen and plenty of witchypoo segues, promising to make him the king of millennial cinema at least, and yet the film desperately lacked the energy and creative furore apparent in Excalibur and The Last Temptation of Christ, two movies it notably ripped off.

Riders of Justice


Danish director-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen trod the well-worn paths of the revenge movie with Riders of Justice, only to apply a mischievous, satirical lilt, blended with a study in the irrationality of grief and the lingering pall of various forms of trauma. Jensen cast regular collaborator Mads Mikklesen as a hardened soldier forced to return home and look after his teenage daughter, following his wife’s death in a railway accident. Soon a trio of nerdy statisticians, one of whom was also in the disaster, convince him it was actually staged by a nefarious biker gang to assassinate a witness, sparking a campaign of payback. Jensen set out to deconstruct the familiar motif of violent revenge as cathartic and rewarding for über-machismo, playing the taciturn warrior off against the obsessive and damaged savants for rich and surprisingly nuanced comedy, whilst still delivering a dose of thrills and violence. If the mixture was just a little too affected in places, Jensen’s deft humour and the excellent performances made it a very enjoyable ride all the same.

Six Minutes to Midnight


Andy Goddard’s Six Minutes to Midnight aimed to be a good old-fashioned spy thriller and had, in theory, an interesting setting and premise to leap off from – an English girls’ boarding school on the eve of World War II catering entirely to the daughters of high-ranking Nazi officials. Judi Dench was the nostalgic headmistress trying very hard to remain oblivious to the dark side of her student body and faculty’s new brand of patriotism, and Eddie Izzard was the MI5 agent posing as a new teacher, trying to uncover an enemy spy ring operating around the school. In practice, the film was a half-hearted effort, and came across like the discarded rump of a more ambitious project. What should have been a study in the divided loyalties of the girls instead took recourse in pseudo-Hitchcockian suspense, as our inept hero was forced to go on the run from the police, with Izzard trying desperately to be nondescript despite being the least nondescript person imaginable, and the script (from a story Izzard cowrote) was packed with incoherent character actions and contrivances, like villains who give the plot away to a hero crouched behind a desk.

Cliff Walkers


Another retro spy thriller, Zhang Yimou’s Cliff Walkers, saw the director returning to the 1930s milieu of his Shanghai Triad, albeit in a very different key, as he focused on a team of Communist Chinese spies parachuted into the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchukuo with the intent of exposing a war crime; meanwhile a team of collaborationist police, knowing they’re coming thanks to a turncoat, try to net them, but have to deal with their own hidden traitor. As usual with Zhang the film looked gorgeous, with a painstakingly art-directed period Harbin, using the snow as a character in itself in painting the moral and existential climes for the embattled heroes and villains. There were some punchy action scenes and an eye-catching performance from Liu Haocun as an angel-faced but deadly member of the heroic team. And yet Cliff Walkers finished up little more than a mild exercise in well-worn thriller stuff, laden with poorly delineated characters and a byzantine plot, lacking the interludes of operatic emotion and style Zhang usually conjures to compensate. Gestures towards exploring the struggle as one of gruelling communal attrition expressed through individual fates had potential, but too often this was displaced by the zigzagging business at hand, and Zhang leaned on some rather clunky sentimentality to provoke sympathy for the protagonists. Ultimately Zhang seemed much more energised by the bad guys, a mixture of Japanese officers and local quislings, some wielding cynical cruelty and others a strangely fraternal respect in their situation as both occupiers and the besieged, but again the jumbled script kept Zhang from exploring them in depth.

The Harder They Fall


Musician-turned-filmmaker Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall set out to revive the Western with added Blaxploitation attitude in the tale of two criminal gangs, consisting of characters named after some authentic African-American Wild West figures, on a collision course to rumble in a small, entirely Black community over debts both fiscal and moral, with the will to revenge entwining the two leaders for extra spice. Samuel’s flashy, energetic direction showed real visual talent, backed up by Mihai Mălamaire Jr’s terrific photography, and the climax went for broke with a great fight between Zazie Beetz and Regina King as the opposing pirate queens, and the last jolt of melodrama between Jonathan Major’s sort-of hero and Idris Elba’s mostly villain was interesting. Problem was, to get that far I had to wade through Samuel and Boaz Yakin’s tediously smug, one-note script, big on tough posturing and bloody violence and very light on convincing characterisation, memorable dialogue, and good twists. It also made highly confused stabs at a meditation on period racial politics, like trying to complicate the story by presenting the nominal villains as proto-Black nationalists, but then abandoning that when the film needed to make sure we knew they were the bad guys.

Cry Macho


Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho played as something like a gentle send-up of the year’s genre films, as well as sigh of relief for Eastwood’s entire screen persona. The nonagenarian actor-director was quietly delightful, trying to will away the years in playing a broken-down former rodeo hero sent to Mexico by his frenemy former boss to fetch his son away from his mobbed-up mother, and stumbles into an idyllic village where he finds a community and one special lady to while away his remaining days with. The droll, ambling story mostly set the scene for grace-notes of acquiescence, an expression of an old man’s sentimentality hampered to a degree by flashes of goofiness when ticking off its supernal plot and perhaps deliberately avoiding some more pointed potential dramatic and thematic flashpoints. Underlying the pacific tone, nonetheless, I sensed a desperate stab not merely at providing Eastwood with a fitting career coda but an attempt to counter the negativity that’s cast a heavy pall in the past few years, a wish for peace and connection for all.

Stillwater


Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater was another portrait of a hardened American male flung far out of his comfort zone, and one that saw McCarthy trying to do something interesting and delicate: blend the torn-from-the-headlines realist-thriller aspect of his Oscar-winning success Spotlight with the humanistic tone of his earlier indie hits about wounded people forging relationships despite wildly different worldviews. Taking evident but very loose inspiration from the Amanda Knox case, McCarthy cast Matt Damon as an Oklahoma oil driller and recovering addict who goes to France to help his daughter, who’s been imprisoned for murdering her former flatmate and lover. He’s drawn into staying by both his sense of duty and obligation, and because he finds himself drawn to a young girl and her actress mother he crosses paths with. Damon gave a superior performance, nailing both a type and also his hidden layers, and the film was at its best when concentrating on his interactions. The plot, when it finally kicked in, unfortunately squirmed in awkward and forced-feeling directions, although McCarthy recovered for an ending charged with weary regret and sad self-knowledge.

Nitram


Justin Kurzel returned to Australia to rekindle some of the old Snowtown attention by tackling another true-crime subject: with Nitram, Kurzel regarded Martin Bryant (referred to on screen only by the title, being his first name backward), the mass shooter who committed the Port Arthur Massacre, parsing the events that set him on such a murderous path, painting a portrait of a painfully asocial and mentally unbalanced creature, for whom the loss of his few stabilising human contacts proved calamitous. Caleb Landry Jones played Nitram with fierce commitment, in a film that tried at once to be sympathetic to his excruciating solitude whilst stopping short of apologia. Kurzel’s direction was less mannered than usual but still sometimes pushed the grotesquery a little hard, encompassing flashes of garish Aussie Gothic in Essie Davis’ performance as the equally troubled heiress who became one of Nitram’s few friends and accidental patron in homicide, whereas Anthony LaPaglia as Nitram’s depressive father was quietly believable. The film itself was superficially persuasive, but ultimately lacked any driving motive for existing: its Bryant was too recessive a personality to glean any immediate insight or empathy from, so it made a stab late in proceedings in reinforcing an anti-gun message. All it really achieved was being awfully depressing. Fran Kranz’s Mass took on the same terrible phenomenon from an opposite viewpoint, depicting the parents of a mass shooter and those of one of his victims locked in a purgative meeting many years after the event, in the bland confines of a Midwestern church hall. The film made no bones about being an actors’ showcase with theatrical rules and confines, and proved just a little too compressed to be entirely convincing as a portrayal of catharsis, with an excess of noble gravitas towards the end. It was gripping and psychologically sharp for much of its length, that said, and the cast were dynamite whilst being cast ever so slightly against type, including Jeremy Isaacs and Ann Dowd.

House of Gucci


Ridley Scott resurged with force in 2021, offering two movies that tried to fly the flag for old-fashioned grown-up cinema for the mass market to dismaying results, with The Last Duel and House of Gucci. Both films featured Adam Driver expanding his repertoire, playing a smarmy, self-deluding, charismatic creep in the former and an awkward young man with promise who evolves into a smarmy, self-deluding, uncharismatic creep in the latter. The Last Duel proved the superior of the two, working as both a contemporary parable and an historical vivisection, whilst House of Gucci chased a note of tabloid pep, as the true crime/Fortune 500 companion piece to Cruella. House of Gucci saw Driver playing the scion of the titular clan who married a hard-driving social climber, played with broad but spunky force by Lady Gaga, a woman who proved to have the will to take the reins, but not the tact or guile for navigating this hermetic little world, causing mutual and eventually fatal offence. House of Gucci was an odd duck of a movie all told, sometimes playing as broad satire on the inherent absurdity of a family business, whilst quietly setting the scene for a tragic melodrama about differing types of ego and entitlement. Scott’s direction settled in the most part for being merely efficient and glossy, but he did seem to be having fun through the variably arch and broad performances from a sterling cast, which in the best manner of dark comedy often risked caricature to find peculiar truths beneath.

The Dig


Australian director Simon Stone tackled difficult material in The Dig, an adaptation of a well-regarded novel depicting the events around the discovery of the Sutton Hoo horde of Anglo-Saxon artefacts just before World War II, centring on Ralph Fiennes as the reticent, self-educated archaeologist who first discovered the site and Carey Mulligan as the sickly but purposeful widow who commissioned him. The difficulty lay in the allusive approach to a story without major incident, blending gentle character portraiture with a meditative tone poem as the people drawn into the dig comprehend both the immutable depth of the past and the imminent fragility afflicting their own lives. Stone arguably leaned a little too heavily on mimicking Terrence Malick with lots of running montage and shots of sun-touched fields, and the script had some awkward sojourns into romantic subplots and social commentary, as when Ken Stott’s pushy bigwig turned up to provide both snobbery and sexism for the price of one. For the most part, nonetheless, it managed to be quietly powerful and sometimes mesmerising, as Stone wisely trusted the work he was detailing would convey an appropriate sense of the excitement in finesse and discovery. Uniformly good performances helped.

The Human Voice


Pedro Almodovar returned to material plainly crucial to his artistic sensibility in adapting Jean Cocteau’s famous stage piece The Human Voice, which he previously partly filmed in Law of Desire, realised here as a short but lushly styled and mordant work that served in some ways as the non-genre companion piece to other movies of the year like Till Death and The Woman In The Window. Almodovar cast Tilda Swinton as the spurned woman oscillating between nobly wounded stoicism and destructive wrath in dealing with her former lover over the telephone. Almodovar’s overtly theatrical conceits, presenting the woman’ abode plainly as a set in a movie studio and decorating it with Almodovar’s beloved colourful kitsch, provided an effective aesthetic to match the ironic match of potent emotions to elegant articulations in the dialogue, the stylised theatre finding grandeur in ignominy, building to a spectacular auto-da-fe. Almodovar also released the full-length feature Parallel Mothers this year, but unfortunately I haven’t seen it; in fact at this point I’m wondering if it was a rumour started purely to frustrate me.

Pig


Michael Sarnoski’s Pig offered a peculiar spin on star Nicholas Cage’s popular cachet as the great shaggy renegade of star acting, casting him as a former chef of renown who’s retreated into a hermit lifestyle in the Oregon woods after his wife’s death, spending his days digging up boles of truffle with his beloved pet pig. When the pig is stolen, apparently to exploit its foraging talent, his owner goes on an odyssey through Portland’s haute cuisine scene in the hunt for whoever took it, and eventually finds the crime connected with the callow, wannabe-player sprat who buys the truffles from him, and his powerful bully of a father. The film’s mix of Sahara-dry humour and feeling, contending with the background radiation of intense grief and regret, was quite unique, and almost transcended the way it was built around an odd, gimmicky pseudo-lampoon of a revenge movie plot. Pig proposed weirdness like hidden underground fight clubs for restaurant employees only for the storyline to ultimately prove to actually be about catharsis and acts of compassion. This approach left me more than a bit unsatisfied in the desire to more properly understand the characters and the mystique the film sought to describe surrounding the ability to make good food. It was, nonetheless, an affecting experience.

Zola


Janicza Bravo’s Zola hinged upon an arresting gimmick, adapting a viral Twitter thread reporting on an apparently true course of events that befell a young Black waitress and part-time pole dancer who found herself drawn into the crazy, scary world of a white girl she became fast friends with. She found whilst accompanying her pal on a supposedly fun trip to Florida that she was actually a deceptive prostitute under the thumb of a volatile, browbeating, oddly pathetic pimp, and found herself pressganged into serving as her minder, only to prove rather better at rustling up business than the half-smart panderer. Bravo attempted to nimbly encompass the story’s heady blend of menace and black comedy, and the hot-button issues of sex and race, as well as the complicating factor of the story’s basis in social media where different narratives compete and images are invented and discarded at whim. She beautifully captured the seamy, sleazy atmosphere of a world lying just under the surface of the fantasy life of sun-kissed swinging. And yet by the film’s end I wasn’t sure if there was enough of a story to justify the whole thing. Bravo tried to comment on the shallowness of the culture she’s describing, but came close to reproducing it in lacking any sense of character beyond the obvious, and willingness to venture beyond the sketched superficial facts of the story. Eventually the film didn’t so much end as stop.

Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar


Bridesmaids screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo reunited to write and act in Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, an infinitely lighter spin on the same basic story (and setting) as Zola. The authors played a pair of middle-aged, recently retrenched furniture store workers who have scarcely ever left the hermetic climes of their small town, but decide to invigorate themselves with a vacation at a Florida resort. There they become involved with an enigmatic young man who proves to be engaged in nefarious business on the behalf of his supervillainess girlfriend-boss. The film had, at its heart, a classical comedy precept, building on caricatured types in the two titular ladies, a relentlessly chatty, joined-at-the-hip duo whose general optimism helps them skate over their anxieties, interlaced with a freeform mixture of nonsensical segues, musical sequences, ribald cheekiness, and genre film send-up, all tied up with an earnest message about friendship.  Director Josh Greenbaum gave it all a lively gloss and it was exactly the kind of movie 2021 needed more of. Jamie Dornan was surprisingly fun as the befuddled love interest, whilst Damon Wayans Jr as an overly-talkative assassin and Wiig’s excoriating Cate Blanchett lampoon in her secondary performance as the baddie, stole proceedings.

Don’t Look Up


Adam McKay aimed to move beyond the stylised, pseudo-satirical reportage of his The Big Short and Vice to make a would-be Kubrickian screed in the form of Don’t Look Up, focusing on Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of astronomers who find themselves thrust into the spotlight when they identify a comet on a collision course with Earth, only to find the forces of ignorance and corruption foiling all attempts to deal with the problem. The film’s central conceit was plied as an obvious but questionable commentary on climate change denialism, whilst also taking detours into mocking Trumpism and Silicon Valley, but really, much as one might expect from contemporary Hollywood, was actually mostly about the media and its narcissism. Don’t Look Up was given occasional jolts of passion by its two classy stars and some nice supporting turns, particularly Mark Rylance as a phlegmatic tech giant. Otherwise the film was an excruciatingly blatant and almost entirely unfunny disaster, hitting cheap and easy targets again and again with nothing to say about any topic beyond the most shallow and self-congratulatory hipster postures, by way of tacky homage-cum-theft from such movies in the same vein as Dr. Strangelove and Network. McKay’s complete incapacity to develop either the comedy or the necessary mood of hysteria eventually drove him to take refuge instead in mawkish, faux-Capra feels.

The Woman Who Ran


Panic was set off amongst cineastes early in the year because almost 15 minutes went by without a new Sangsoo Hong movie, but the day was saved by The Woman Who Ran. Minimalist even by Hong’s standards, The Woman Who Ran was nonetheless a real if minor triumph for the director, portraying a woman, released from the company of her husband for the first time since getting married, visiting various friends who are all settling into life, and contending with still-potent memories of one of her own, fairly recent yet remote-seeming past romances. With some sidelong dashes of self-critique akin to that in other movies this year, Hong managed with his unique dexterity to offer a movie that seemed at once utterly affectless and plainspoken, and yet managed to both evoke and conceal hidden realms of meaning and history, painstaking in depicting both the consuming tyranny of everyday foibles and the background radiation of personal big bangs, as well as finally affirming the ever-welcoming embrace of cinema’s amniotic warmth.

Annette


Possibly mad, certainly long-suffering French director Leos Carax released Annette, his first film since 2011’s Holy Motors and one all but bullet-proofed by its impeccable hip credentials, with Carax working from a story and score provided by the Mael brothers from the cult band Sparks and wielding a hit-for-the-stands performance from Adam Driver. Driver played an edgelord comedian whose career sputters after he marries Marion Cotillard’s revered opera singer, and his increasingly desperate and self-centred actions harm everyone around him, including the title character, his preternaturally talented infant daughter. Annette started well with a dynamic prologue featuring the cast and authors singing on the street. But once it got going it proved the director, far from rebounding to form, had made another conceptual stunt project, one it was easy to conclude would have made a better concept album. The thin story and thinner characterisations came laced with self-conscious touches – Annette, was played until the very end by a succession of marionettes – but despite the nominally zany approach, Annette proved protracted and faltering in story and aesthetic gestures, and struck through with another, oddly smug take on reckonings for male artists in the #MeToo moment. Carax’s usually dynamic eye was often paralysed in having to track through masses of banal recitative.

The Card Counter


With The Card Counter, Paul Schrader revisited very familiar ground in again depicting characters exiled within society who feel temptations to vigilantism. This time Schrader focused on a former soldier who spent time in prison for his involvement with abuses at Abu Ghraib, who moves just a little out of his solitary and sharklike existence as a professional gambler when he forms new connections, one romantic, with a fellow gambler, and one quasi-paternal, with the son of one of his former comrades. Trouble is the lad has designs on assassinating their former commander, whom he blames for destroying his father and his own life. The Card Counter was a study in both the bracing qualities and habitual problems with Schrader’s films, even as it was certainly one of his best. The film unfolded with spacy, nerveless cool whilst focusing with on a sequestered lifestyle ideal for the rootless and the self-excised, with concerted performances, particularly from lead Oscar Isaac. Sequences depicting flashbacks to Abu Ghraib were the most effective cinema Schrader has offered since Mishima. Otherwise his direction, however, as usual ultimately felt too mannered for my liking, like a coating of gelatine on a storyline that was just a little bit too much like fan fiction for Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket with added quasi-political dimensions, dimensions which, once again, Schrader refused to truly burrow into.

The Souvenir Part II


Joanna Hogg returned with her promised The Souvenir Part II, a continuation of the autobiographical saga she began in 2019, taking up in the immediate aftermath of the death of Anthony, the drug-addicted older lover of budding filmmaker Julie, once again played with rare, limpid intelligence by Honor Swinton Byrne. The wrenching process of coming to terms not just with loss but also lingering mystery and unease ultimately provides her with creative meal, as she channels experience into an ambitious student film project that ultimately launches her career, whilst also trying to fully emerge into independent adult life. The film was a fascinating, sometimes funny, often penetrating work, not simply as a continuing bildungsroman but as a contemplation of art itself, and how the artistic persona, and its overriding urges, is formed, as Julie bucks teachers and others to realise a personal vision, which in turn presents a transformed, surrealist mirror to life. What the film lacked, for me, despite its real quality, was the same feeling of intrigue and powerful but inchoate romantic gravitas the first film had, and Julie’s fellow director tyro Patrick, played again by Richard Ayoade, ironically emerged as a more interesting figure, doomed by his own driving but unyielding talent.

Titane


Raw director Julia Ducournau captured the Palme d’Or with her second feature film, Titane, a would-be outrageous, punkish clarion work depicting an exotic dancer who, thanks to a childhood car crash, has a steel plate in her head, an attraction to muscle cars, and a tendency to murder people. Torn between humanising impulses and the desire to retain her singular existence as she falls pregnant to one of her vehicular lovers, she eludes police by pretending to be the long-lost son of a macho firefighter, who has his own reasons for playing along with her glaring deception. Titane contained intermittently arresting vignettes, but all in all was a bit of a mess, absurdist narrative conceits tethered to some half-baked commentary on gender, family, and sex, sometimes playing as an overtly surreal edgelord epic and other times as a slightly heightened familial melodrama: the gruesome, affecting climax almost forced the two hemispheres into cohesion.

The Lost Daughter


Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut film as director, The Lost Daughter, had a completely different style but some definite thematic similarities to Titane, in again contemplating a mother’s ambivalence regarding her offspring in terms of what it costs her own, separate flesh and mind. Gyllenhaal’s movie, an adaptation of a novel by the acclaimed, pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante, depicted a middle-aged English academic taking a solitary holiday in Greece where she encounters a large, pushy Greco-American family on holiday, and drifts through often painful reminiscences of times when she put her own needs above her family life, choices she now feels she’s paying the price for in her solitude. Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley gave strong, if not that convincingly connected, performances as the main character at different ages, whilst Colman’s chemistry with Ed Harris as an aging bohemian gave shots of entertainment amidst the angst.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye


Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye proved a different, cosier, if perhaps ultimately no less depressing a drama about aging with regret, recounting the ascent of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker from Bible School cut-ups to cable TV squares to celebrity preachers through expertly combining religion and show business, but ultimately running afoul of their own errant characters and desires as well pure-sprung greed, and the conniving of supposed allies. Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield eagerly played the Bakkers as they evolved from goofy, talented youngsters to beings embalmed by wealth and self-betrayal before finishing up as pitiable exiles. The film tried to balance a puckish, semi-satiric lilt indicting the contorting effect of the Bakkers’ attempts to exemplify prosperity gospel, as well as taking cues from the couple’s terminally perky style, with a fair-minded attempt to portray Tammy Faye’s principled and empathetic attempts to stick up for gay people and AIDS sufferers. The film was a lot more entertaining than expected, but also felt superficial. Some caution in the narrative felt enforced by legal niceties, meaning the film didn’t quite dare to get to really interrogate the Bakkers, either in terms of Jim’s apparent bisexuality or Tammy Faye’s complicity in financial misdeeds, whilst Showalter’s direction was slick but derivative, particularly in the climax.

King Richard


Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard set out to tell the opposite kind of true story, portraying the near-legendary project of Richard Williams to set his two daughters Venus and Serena on the path to becoming tennis stars, a venture that begins running about in a van in Compton and concludes with world domination. With an ending not just happy but triumphant looming as inevitable for everyone not on Mars for the last 30 years, the film wisely used that to avoid some sports movie clichés, ending on a relatively muted note as Venus loses her first big-time match but emerges stronger for it. It also used that inevitability as an excuse not to ask too many questions about the title figure, whose exasperating streak is expertly captured but also constantly excused, and like The Eyes of Tammy Faye seemed to buy what the title character is selling just a little too unquestioningly. The film plainly offered a riposte to media portraits of Richard as a high-handed self-promoter, with Will Smith’s lead performance capturing the affect of a man long used to deflecting the world’s stones and holding to his own, fixed internal compass, but without really giving access to the man within. The occasional moment of complication, as when it’s revealed he has other children and when he goes too far in pushing his progeny towards lessons he considers desirable, were neatly called out and then put to rest by his fearsome wife (played with no-nonsense punch by Aunjanue Ellis).

Passing


Rebecca Hall made her directorial debut with an ambitious project, Passing, adapted from a well-regarded novel that was both a product and portrait of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Hall depicted two African-American women, one, played by Tessa Thompson, who had married a prosperous but fretful Black doctor, and the other, her old school friend played by Ruth Negga, who was light-skinned enough to pass for white and marry an obliviously racist man. Hall, drawing on both her family background and her theatrical grounding, proved remarkably adept at portraying a dichotomous time and place, with characters belonging to an uneasily diplomatic intelligentsia aware of both the insidious craziness of racism and the absurdity of the human condition in general, and aided Thompson and Negga to excellent performances as the two friends who find themselves doomed to embody that dichotomy. Hall’s stylised approach was attractive, but also finally hampered the impact of her strong script, filming in soft-palette black-and-white that emphasised a wistful, bygone, hermetic texture, in a story that might have been better played as busy and immediate. Also, the last third depended on a portrayal of one character’s spiral into pathological jealousy, leading to jagged tragedy, but this felt a wee bit contrived.

Petite Maman


Celine Sciamma cleverly made Petite Maman to suit the restrictions of the COVID-19 lockdown by utilising a minimum of performers and settings and winnowing down concerns to the most intimate in taking up a theme of generational connection and loss. Sciamma portrayed a young girl who, staying in the house of her recently deceased grandmother as her parents work through grief and prepare to sell the estate, heads out into the neighbouring woods one day and finds she’s gained access to the past, meeting her mother at her own age and making fast friends with her. The film was more a gently meditative fable than a narrative and within those confines worked well. The delightful performances by the Sanz sisters as the girls provided the film with most of its charm, even if it offered perhaps the most haute bourgeois parental wish-fulfilment vision of children behaving ever: kids who speak with very proper diction, put on plays rather than play video games, don’t get mud on their clothes, and learn to see the world through their parents’ eyes.

About Endlessness


Ryûsuke Hamaguchi had a banner year with two films, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car, movies tonally similar if subtly different in style depicting the lovelorn, the grieving, and the terminally bewildered, the first film telling three different stories, the latter an epic anatomisation of a doomed marriage and its fallout. Swedish director Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness flitted through a free-ranging selection of random vignettes tied together by an overarching fascination with the scantness of human life and the eternal desire for something immutable, some comic in tone, some tragic, many both at once, all filmed in rigidly framed single shots. Andersson’s hyper-minimalist, fustily clean aesthetic often verged close to a self-parodying extreme for a brand of droll, chilly, deadpan Nordic absurdum, and the recurring image of a ghostly couple floating in an embrace over a ruined city had a flavour of Magic Realism 101. The film’s best moments nonetheless had a piercing quality, from a scene depicting Hitler at the moment of realising he would lose the war, to one where an enraged husband alternates between attacking and embracing his unfaithful wife, and another where some girls spontaneously dance to the bemused fascination of onlooking boys, somehow managing to tether them together into a coherent if unsummarisable totality.

The Worst Person In The World


Next door in Norway, Joachim Trier made The Worst Person In The World, a companion piece to his Oslo, 31 August from a few years back in studying another anxiously eddying personality, albeit this time not a suicidal young man but a young woman on the search for personal fulfilment, fighting to avoid taking the path of least resistance in her life. Trier’s heroine Julie morphed from straight-A student to boho photographer and left one partner, an aging bad-boy comic book artist, for a younger, more fun if less interesting chap in the course of her adventures, only to find the former relationship still binding when the artist falls fatally ill. Trier made a determined attempt to offer a complex female focal point, one whose actions often cut across the grain of expectations, and it felt accurate to a degree to a generation experience. But it also reminded me of Ema insofar as it had a strong element that reeked of a male auteur’s masochism in the face of female independence (particularly in a vignette depicting the artist’s roasting by caricatured feminists). More importantly Julie, despite Renata Reinsve’s committed efforts in the role, simply never really proved that interesting, more a collection of gestures than a truly sketched person.

Memoria


Several major releases of the year from international filmmakers, like Azor, Identifying Features, and This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection, shared a troubled and sometimes nightmarish sense of mystery and cast a sidelong view at centrifugal forces shattering social structures in their respective cultures, as well as sporting protagonists driven into the wilderness in the hunt for answers. One of the year’s most placatory movies took on a similar theme but with a very different tenor: Apichatpong Weerasethakul ventured out to Colombia with Tilda Swinton (officially displacing Isabelle Huppert as the big European actress most likely to work with international auteurs), to make Memoria, a typically dreamy, if more nominally procedural than usual, tale for the director. Swinton played an academic awakened one morning by an unidentifiable sound that even a sonic engineer can’t exactly identify. Thanks to a seemingly chance encounter with a man who claims to be able to remember everything that’s ever happened to him she gets a chance to understand the sound, and moreover when he’s in in contact with her they form a psychic receiver able to pick up echoes of long-ago, mysterious events. Apichatpong’s filmmaking was at a height here, his ability to evoke vast hidden worlds and alternate identities with the most minimal elements still singular and sublimely poised in trying to reorientate the viewer’s perceptions towards nature and time. Even if the story, in again depicting a lost woman encountering a visionary who helps evince those hidden zones, recycled elements of Cemetery of Splendour, and the change of locale robbed the film of Apichatpong’s usual, needling political and historical subtexts, and so insights into darker truths were held at arm’s length.

Belfast


Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God both converted the stuff of their makers’ early lives, winnowing crucial formative experiences into movie narratives revolving around wrenching loss of family and place and the birth of creative aspiration, and represented the directors returning to something like their best form, albeit in ways that evinced their differences. Branagh’s film depicted events that drove his family out of the title city when he was still a pre-teen, and so represented a more innocent and jocular perspective, the relative purity of Branagh’s impressions – the first unsullied love, the transporting pleasures of movies and theatre, the embrace of family – were darkened but not tainted by perceived tensions of family and identity, whilst Branagh’s style alternated a poised and deadpan air of wistfulness in evoking his lost world, with a vigorous, immediate, frightening evocation of a community falling prey to violence and sectarianism. Branagh’s approach to dramatizing and illustrating his tale was derivative, but he made up it for it with the sheer poise of his filmmaking and the quality of his cast.

The Hand of God


Sorrentino’s resurgence was more fraught and impish as The Hand of God depicted his teenage years, bifurcated by the tragic death of his parents, an accident from which he was only spared because of his obsession with Diego Maradona, who had recently joined the football team of his home city Naples. Sorrentino seemed bent here on exorcising both personal memories and aesthetic influence, leaning into his Fellini emulation to the nth degree with his parade of bizarre and beautiful physiques and attending eccentric behaviour, and depicting his wayward teenaged horniness which focuses on his hot but unbalanced aunt, whilst also portraying his tight-knit if not untroubled clan with boisterous high-spirits before the inevitable, radical tone shift. The film’s first half was as good as anything Sorrentino has done; the second, depicting his rootless experience after terrible loss, failed to completely shift to a more interior narrative and ultimately couldn’t entirely reinvent the familiar patterns of budding-young-artist tales. Sorrentino’s more provocatively strange touches, like a scene of his alter ego losing his virginity to an elderly Countess, might well have been true but nonetheless felt rather too iconically self-conscious in a manner that habitually mars Sorrentino’s work.

tick, tick…BOOM!


Lin-Manuel Miranda made his directorial debut adapting Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s musical tick, tick…BOOM!, a work that portrayed yet another stage in the life an evolving artist, in this case Larson’s own struggle to complete and stage his first musical project whilst battling the angst of turning 30, faced with the escalating problems inherent in resisting moving on with his life, including a girlfriend who wants to leave New York, two friends sick with AIDS, and a shit day job, all the while straining for crucial creative inspiration. Andrew Garfield proved his musical theatre chops by playing Larson with gusto, easily carrying the film even as it forced him to abandon all subtlety. tick, tick…BOOM! investigated both the pains of facing up to failure and also the equal, opposite pains of blinkered determination and the demanding spectre of responsibility to talent. There was some irony, however, in filming a thirty-year-old musical which contains a demand for fresh visions. Manuel’s direction was serviceable and sometimes clever (like a song number offered as a music video within the film itself). But for material that was rooted in a specific time and place and valued an earthy sense of that life, everything in the movie was rendered glossy and slick and invested with restless theatre major poptimism, even when dealing with personal tragedy, and Manuel had surprisingly few good ideas for staging the performances. Also, speaking as one allergic to Larson’s music style, there was little pleasure to be had in that side of things either. Still, Bradley Whitford’s brief but amusingly shaggy performance as Stephen Sondheim was salutary.

In The Heights


Miranda’s own, pre-Hamilton Broadway hit In The Heights was brought to the screen by Crazy Rich Asians director John M. Chu, endeavouring to weave a panoramic portrait of a vibrant but endangered community, the Latin American populace of Washington Heights, with a focus on two pairs of lovers with wildly divergent ambitions and uneasy feelings about their culture-spanning identities. The film had superficial flash and energy to spare, with a couple of fun production numbers and one excellent vignette in which the aged matriarch of the district reminisced on her life journey, a sequence particularly inventive in blending flashy filming and artful choreography that seemed sensibly close to how it was probably handled on stage. By and large though I found the film an aggressive mediocrity: Miranda’s songs were unmemorable with his processed takes on blended musical influences. Chu shot the whole thing with an airbrushed and idealised style that Disneyfied the experience, and if ever a movie screamed out for the streetwise grit of many ‘70s and ‘80s musicals this was one. It didn’t help that the characters and their travails were bland and generic and the plotting unnecessarily silly, whilst the baby’s-first-pop-up-book political messaging didn’t help. Ironically, Miranda himself as a finally triumphant street vendor provided the biggest dash of real charm and lyrical fun, right at the end. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, whilst adapting a much older property, nonetheless felt far more immediate and meaningful in presenting a melodic exploration of racism and community.

Benedetta


With Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven seemed to be reviving and relishing his provocateur cred in tackling the true story of a 17th century nun who was in her time both exalted for her mystic visions and condemned for a lesbian dalliances with a fellow nun. Here at last was a project to focus Verhoeven’s many facets – the raunchy intellectual pervert, the medievalist imagination preoccupied with the wrenching poles of physical nature and transcendental urge, the social satirist mocking power and greed. Come for the hot lesbian nun sex, stay for the meditations on spiritual ecstasy and institutional abuse. The film didn’t entirely work, partly through never quite getting to grips with the title character: Verhoeven presented her as both potentially an authentic visionary and accidental transgressor and also a deluded con-artist whose egotisms destroy people close to her, before avoiding resolving the question by switching gear for a finale where the patriarchy was literally slain. Verhoeven’s direction didn’t work up the madcap passion required to portray such delirious and dangerous straits either, with an overly-clean period milieu and strained Ken Russell-esque hallucination sequences. But Benedetta was well-acted, particularly by Efira, Charlotte Rampling, and Lambert Wilson as vengeful but complex church elders, and the sex scenes were refreshingly full-blooded.

The Power of the Dog


Jane Campion made her first feature since 2009’s Bright Star, adapting Thomas Savage’s cult novel The Power of the Dog. Campion cast Benedict Cumberbatch, against type but cunningly so, as Phil Burbank, a rancher in 1920s Wyoming who likes to bully and belittle everyone around him, in part to disguise his own homosexuality. Phil is provoked to his most insidiously destructive efforts when his brother marries a widow and brings her and her gawky teenage son into their homestead, only to find himself and the boy locked in an enigmatic dance of attraction and repulsion. Certainly the film was in line with Campion’s fascination with people trying to get the upper hand over each-other. But of all the films of 2021, The Power of the Dog left me the angriest as the implications of the superficially cunning climactic twist sank in. On top of the banal and dated driving psychology – angry macho men are really frustrated queers – the film seemed utterly unaware of the way what it frames as a justified act of protection and retaliation actually stumbles into horror movie territory, as well as stretching a long bow in portraying a clever enemy not only murdering his foe invisibly but playing upon his secret predilections as well, making it a kind of heroic hate crime. That’s on top of Campion’s chosen style, rich with exactingly framed and filmed but entirely inert landscape shots and endless atonal music to make sure we know dark and serious things are happening. Only the performances, from Jessie Plemons and Kirsten Dunst as well as Cumberbatch, alleviated the unpleasant taste it left in my mouth.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn


Radu Jude returned for another commentary on life in Romania with Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a project that served as a reflection and by-product of the moment, in particular the COVID pandemic, which helped exacerbate the mood of free-floating, reactionary hysteria. Jude’s unfortunate lead character was a school teacher whose raunchy home-made mpeg of having sex with her husband has escaped onto the internet, setting her off on an odyssey across Bucharest that must inevitably end with her confronting a meeting of irate and viciously insensitive parents at her school. Jude’s approach had a strongly Godardian flavour, presenting his narrative in three segments after a prologue consisting entirely of hardcore footage, the first tracking his heroine through the city, noting casual vignettes and sights totemic in various ways for how Romania has fared in the post-Communist era. The middle third comprised of sardonically illustrative vignettes wrestling with history, war, violence against women, and other bugbears. The last third finally dealt, in a more absurdist and confrontationally theatrical manner, with the actual war of words at the school meeting. The changes in style were invigorating at a time when so many filmmakers labour fastidiously to achieve a dominant aesthetic and never deviate from it. Results wavered between the sophomoric – Jude, for instance, made the parent body a caricatured embodiment of all that’s septic and hypocritical in Romanian life – and the truly biting. The last of the three different possible endings presented at the close was certainly, hilariously cathartic.

The French Dispatch


Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch was by contrast a study in an entirely imaginary world that deliberately cut itself off from all connection with historical fervour and seeking. Anderson applied his familiar doll’s house/magazine cartoon aesthetic to synthesising the legend of a formerly great magazine supplement to a Kansas newspaper, a sort of combination of The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and within that frame telling three distinct stories through the eyes of its best writers, each a riff on a different kind of fetishised Frenchypoo cliché – the tale of a mad artist and his prison guard muse, a cod-Godardian portrayal of student rebellion, and a Maigret-esque police caper. Anderson’s France was one where buildings are impossible tangles of architecture and scruffy artists paint naked ladies, accomplished with some of his most admirably exacting and ingenious stylisation, and it all wielded a few fitful chuckles here and there. It was also Anderson at his most aggressively shallow, pining for a bygone day of sardonic and spectacular intellectuals whilst remaining entirely detached from any concept of consequence in words, although there were glimmers of an attempt to wrestle with the isolation of creative life for the various writers like Jeffrey Wright’s elegant James Baldwin avatar. Amidst the ridiculously good cast, Wright, Adrien Brody as a slick art dealer, and Léa Seydoux as the stone-faced guard turned supportive and gymnastic nude model came off best.

C’mon C’mon


Siân Heder scored plaudits with CODA, an American remake of a French hit, about a young woman who faces the challenge of moving on from life with her deaf family, who rely on her as their interlocutor with the world in their work as fishermen, when her singing talent opens up new worlds. The story was as hackneyed as it gets and Heder was shameless in plying both calculatedly eccentric humour and sentimentality, particularly in the climax, whilst the overbusy storyline was crammed with drama-cranking plot elements, including one of the most boring romances ever to hit the silver screen, that were then left dangling to get on with the officially feel-good project. Heder did at least wield a skilful mix of Hollywood poise and indie energy in utilising the setting, one that allowed the film to unfold against a reasonably fresh backdrop and maintain a level of class consciousness and authenticity in dealing with family dynamics and disability, whilst still providing a slick and populist brand of entertainment, and proceedings were kept buoyed by generally terrific performances, especially Troy Kotsur as the often overly-enthusiastic patriarch. Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon offered a more precious glaze of artistry with its soft-palette black-and-white and tone of lo-fi realism whilst dealing with a similarly sentimental theme in depicting the bond between an uncle and his nephew. I have nothing to say about it.

The Disciple


By contrast, Chaitanye Tamhane’s The Disciple illuminated another, much less explored facet of show business, in countenancing failure. The title character was a student of Indian classical raga music who has devoted his entire life to mastering the complex blend of traditionalism and highwire oral improvisation that defines the form, obsessively mastering technique and assimilating the advice of older masters, but finds himself drifting into middle age without success and faced with mounting evidence he doesn’t have the authentic spark of artistry to make all the sacrifice worthwhile on a creative or fiscal level. Tamhane told a universal story, which in many respects might have unfolded anywhere, but in culturally specific terms, contending with the wane of a once-mighty folk culture and the feeling of being cut off from a powerful wellspring of spiritual and creative meaning, a feeling illustrated in a bleakly amusing vignette in which the hero encounters a brutally demystifying music writer. The Disciple did an excellent job of sensitising the viewer to the particular art at its heart and was teeth-grittingly acute in portraying the pains of weathering career doldrums. Both the most interesting and most vexing aspect stemmed from contending with a central character who was almost a self-rendered void, lacking the kind of inner life to fuel expression in part because he has no life to imbue it.

Being The Ricardos


Much as he inspires eyerolling amongst the cognoscenti these days, Aaron Sorkin still has enough of a classy lustre about him to be an awards season player, and he took on authentic Hollywood legends in depicting Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Being The Ricardos. Sorkin cast Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as the husband-and-wife team, trying to make it through one particularly fraught week at the height of their zeitgeist-defining career, dealing with a red-baiting scare targeting Ball, a magazine accusing Arnaz of womanising, and a flabby script and dull director for the week’s show. Kidman and Bardem in particular gave their all, but ultimately there are likely axolotls that look more like the duo and have a better approximation of their comic timing; Nina Arianda and J.K. Simmons fared better as their long-suffering supporting stars. The real problem though was Sorkin’s ambling, shapeless, more-stagy-than-ever direction, and his facetious script, which proposed to analyse Ball and Arnaz’s fruitful if fatefully unstable marriage, but kept silent on an important aspect of it to serve a bitter punch-line. As a whole the film was infinitely less memorable and convincing than the brief portrait of Ball in Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s far more dynamic and inventive portrayal of retro Hollywood and its heroes.

CODA


Performances of Note

Niamh Algar, Censor
David Alvarez, West Side Story
Adam Arkin, Pig
Richard Ayoade, The Souvenir Part II
Caitriona Balfe, Belfast
Paula Beer, Undine
Nicholas Bro, Riders of Justice
Matt Damon, Stillwater
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar / Belfast
Virginie Efira, Benedetta
Ralph Fiennes, The Dig
Megan Fox, Till Death
Andrew Garfield, The Eyes of Tammy Faye / Spider-Man: No Way Home / tick, tick…BOOM!
Mercedes Hernández, Identifying Features
Jason Isaacs, Mass
Oscar Isaac, The Card Counter
Michael Keaton, The Protégé
Troy Kotsur, CODA
Thomasin McKenzie, Last Night In Soho
Mary Twala Mhlongo, This Is Not A Burial, This Is A Resurrection
Jason Momoa, Dune: Part One
Anthony LaPaglia, Nitram
Vincent Lindon, Titane
Chloë Grace Moretz, Shadow In The Cloud
Ruth Negga, Passing
Renata Reinsve, The Worst Person In The World
Diana Rigg, Last Night In Soho
Fabrizio Rongione, Azor
Reece Shearsmith, In The Earth
Emma Stone, Cruella
Tilda Swinton, The Human Voice / Memoria
Annabelle Wallis, Malignant
Kristen Wiig, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar
Lambert Wilson, Benedetta
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kate
Zendaya, Malcolm & Marie
Ensemble, Licorice Pizza
Ensemble, The Last Duel
Ensemble, Shiva Baby
Ensemble, Drive My Car / Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Ensemble, The Woman Who Ran



Favourite Films of 2021

Azor (Andreas Fontana)


A Swiss banker and his wife travel to Argentina in the 1980s to pick up the pieces after the absconding of his business partner, trying to finalise some business deals and mollify some anxious clients. Doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of high drama, and director Andreas Fontana’s quiet, inferring approach even less so, offering a story that unfolds as a succession of business meetings, working lunches, and quiet soirees where little of immediately apparent meaning is ever said and larger tides of history seem displaced by the most banal activities. Even the title was in code, drawn from the peculiar lingo of the banking community, a plea for someone to help extricate anyone driven to utter it from awkward and boring situations. But Azor slowly accrued the quality of a waking dream whilst being concerned with fiddly minutiae and only the vaguest suggestions of mysterious and disturbing things, as its protagonist was slowly drawn into elite circles in the period junta and finally became agent for an operation in wholesale plunder enabled by political repression and murder.


The basis was a distant but discernible take on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, swapping out gothic colonial plunder for something more nervelessly systematic, all horror and danger well beyond the margins of the storytelling. Fontana cunningly obliged the viewer to form a certain level sympathy for Yvan, his tense, self-doubting main character, beautifully played by Fabrizio Rongione, as a scion who feels anything but worthy, particularly in comparison to his charismatic but wayward predecessor, as he drifts between camps of the sullenly enraged and bereft and the suited, soft-spoken mandarins of power. Reduced to exploring this world of secret designs like a medieval cartographer guessing at the size and shape of continents, Yvan eventually gained a longed-for triumph, in a climactic gut-punch, that came at the cost of thousands upon thousands of lives: his sickly smile lingered in the mind after the movie ended like the Cheshire Cat’s grin.

Drive My Car / Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)


I hadn’t seen any of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s films before this year, which at least gave me the pleasant feeling when I watched his one-two punch for 2021 of seeing a great filmmaker seem to arrive fully formed. Hamaguchi’s blend of delicate melancholy and often wry, sometimes indulgent, always empathetic study of human need permeated the two movies, although they were ultimately quite different. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy told three distinct if tonally connected stories meditating on regrets amplified by passing time and the evanescence of human contact, whilst Drive My Car was an epic dedicated to small things, depicting an actor working his way through his wife’s death whilst in the process of rehearsing Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Ideas and figurations recurred throughout both films – romantic betrayal and lingering affection, bewildered and exhausted creators and their angry younger rivals, erotic perversity linked closely to acts of both creation and destruction, and the simultaneous specificity and interchangeableness of humans in relation to each-other.


Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’s episodic approach presented tight units of supple, ironic storytelling, particular its best, middle chapter depicting a shambolic woman whose entitled younger lover sends her to ruin the life of his former teacher, also a successful novelist, by seducing him, a task she ultimately succeeds in through cruelly ironic means. Drive My Car also had an episodic structure, with a first hour that served more or less as a prologue, and was indeed the strongest portion of the film with its fascinatingly ambiguous portrait of a married couple who are somehow at once desperately intimate and estranged, ghosts in each-others’ lives, and where inchoate acts of artistic inspiration take the place of actual children. Hamaguchi’s style, whilst focused on his performers and their interactions, nonetheless had a firmly propelling touch as a subtle sense of atmosphere: the chapters of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy felt beautifully fulfilled just as Drive My Car’s length never felt wearing.

Identifying Features (Fernanda Valadez)


Like Azor, Identifying Features was concerned with a largely oblivious character forced to explore a dark antiverse of violence, terror, and pure amorality in a Latin American setting, although its focus and method were more traditional and plainly urgent. Director and coscreenwriter Valadez followed Magdalena, an aging woman who makes a groping effort to find out what happened to her teenaged son, who set off with a pal to cross the Mexican-US border and find work, only to vanish and likely be murdered when a gang of bandits held up the bus they were on. Along the way she encountered other women in the same situation, before eventually falling in with a young man just kicked out of the US and looking for a way back in, a lad who proves something of a surrogate for her son, eventually playing out the role to the last, full measure.


Valadez’s film unfolded as a briefing for a descent into a particular hell, where the homely landscape of Mexico has transformed into a space as alien and unknowable as the Zone in Tarkovky’s Stalker, a place where people vanish and return transformed, and the bright lights of modernity in the cities suggest islands of stability but just beyond their field primal forces rule. If Azor emphasised the banality of evil, Identifying Features approached it from a folkloric understanding, as Magdalena experienced her approach to the infernal through appropriate imagery, conjuring a lurking devil as the embodiment of the consuming, nihilistic forces that took her son, before the coldly ironic and inevitable kicker when the devil’s identity finally became clear. Valadez took on the subject of maternal devotion, that most familiar and patronised of transcendental forces in the world, whilst also exploring its ambiguities, the way not everything it embraces is necessarily worthy of it, and how its strength can be measured in knowing when to let go as well as what to hold onto.

In The Earth (Ben Wheatley)


In abstract, In The Earth looked like a retreat for Ben Wheatley, following the highly underwhelmed reception of his take on DuMaurier’s Rebecca, back to the kind of movie he made his name with – a creepy, low-budget, small-scale genre movie with strong doses of folk horror and psychedelic imagery, in which mundane English eccentricity bonds with surreal and disturbing cosmic forces. But in returning to formative passions Wheatley showed off what he’s learned in the past few years in sustaining more genuine suspense as well as trippy weirdness, and came close with In The Earth to offering the horror movie equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in trying to leap beyond the liminal and portray an entirely different way of experiencing existence. Along the way, Wheatley cleverly riffed on the film’s made-in-a-pandemic minimalism, incorporating a heightened version of the same phenomenon into the film to reinforce the spell of latent hysteria and anxiety, and focusing on a small cast.


In The Earth casually inverted a familiar figuration as Wheatley obliged a very urban man with few survival skills and no bushcraft to team up with a hardy if hardly superheroic female forest ranger, as he journeyed into the depths of a seemingly benign English forest in search of a scientist colleague, and his former lover, who’s engaged in esoteric research that might be connected with an ancient myth about a mystical intelligence living in the forest. Wheatley beautifully built up an air of oblique and spacy dread even before a tormenting encounter with a seemingly decent hermit with his own ideas about how to communicate with the entity, punctuated by flashes of very dark humour, particularly in the scientist’s efforts to bridge the divide by becoming a sort of new-age DJ and laserium maestro. Wheatley brought malicious glee to vignettes like our hapless hero having a couple of gangrenous toes hacked off, and sustained the sense of siege and the unknowable without special effects, only sheer camera and editing chutzpah.

The Last Duel (Ridley Scott)


The first of Ridley Scott’s two films for the year was the superior, and despite lucklessly ringing a loud gong at the box office it emerged as one of Scott’s best films. A rich, nuanced, troubled disassembly of the same historical macho mythology Scott rode to career-renewing glory with Gladiator, The Last Duel recounted known facts and imagined particulars in the true story of the duel to the death between French knight Jean de Carrouges and squire Jacques Le Gris in 1386, a duel sparked by the accusation Le Gris raped Carrouges’ young wife Marguerite and a fin-de-siecle moment for what was left of the old, chivalrous worldview. Scott ticked off three disparate versions of the events leading up to the duel, each account invested with different emphases and sometimes diverging details by a trio of smart screenwriters. Cowriter Matt Damon was the glum, resentful, but to his mind stolidly fair and courageous Carrouges, Adam Driver the emergent Renaissance man and deluded lothario, and Jodie Comer the lady almost crushed between their armour plating, whose attempt to secure justice means facing the most hideous of potential deaths.


Scott managed something appreciable and rare in making The Last Duel simultaneously coherent as a parable for contemporary concerns as it dealt with sexual assault and difficulties in gaining credence and aid in suffering it, and a general, smouldering dissection of a time and place, deftly depicting the mores and semi-submerged social structures of the late medieval setting and skewering the lingering ideal of knight and lady fair. The deliberate contrast in screenwriting styles presented a challenge in cohesion of style and dramatic approach, a challenge Scott couldn’t entirely mask, but he managed to keep those centripetal forces mostly in balance, rendering the varying perspectives of the characters coherent even as the ultimate reality of the situation steadily and unsparingly came into focus. The finale, a depiction of the duel that represents one of the best single units of filmmaking in years, finally saw the attendant questions of guilt and wrath swapped out for the pure spectacle of intimate and deadly violence where the drama of truth has to be finally and inerasably etched upon a tablet of flesh and bone.

Last Night In Soho (Edgar Wright)


Wright’s first real tilt at making a mostly straight-up genre film was a tribute to bygone epochs and beloved art, but also one preoccupied by the distance between such half-imagined golden ages and the disillusioned now. Wright’s heroine Eloise was an innocent abroad, gifted and cursed with a preternatural awareness of things lost, pining after the glory days of Swinging London whilst trying to animate her own nascent ambitions as a talented youngster hitting the big city. Wright cleverly bound his frames of reference together as Eloise experiences psychic visions that plunge her into the past, offering her a movie that reflects her fantasies in all their lush and swooning spectacle, before suddenly breaking down the distance between viewer and tale, plunging her into a nightmarish netherworld haunted by victims of self-perpetuating violence and abuse. Anya Taylor-Joy was the trapped thrall of Matt Smith’s slick-haired creep whose cracked sanity collapses not just her reality but that of her unwitting future witness, and Diana Rigg had a great last role as the seemingly thoughtful little old lady who proves the wicked witch in her own, particular brand of gingerbread house.


Wright’s filmmaking was much less frenetic and forcibly dynamic in Last Night In Soho than in his earlier comic deconstructions, but never more poised, from the epic first entrance into the heart of period London where the macho heroism of yesteryear, embodied in Sean Connery’s James Bond smirking down from billboard, reigns supreme whilst Cilla Black’s singing encompasses an equal feminine ideal in soaring expressions of devotion, to the fiery climax where the survivor of lost illusions sits amidst billowing flames. In between were Wright’s familiar refrains of troubled maturing and flecks of mischievous humour, as well as trying with new finesse to dovetail one of his familiar comic weapons, his carefully diagrammed sense of cause and effect, with an approach to genre that was knowing without being outright satiric, as a flashing restaurant sign threatened giallo colour schemes, a library visit sparked a witty riff on the cliché jump scare, and joyous art student jaunts scored to Siouxsie and the Banshees presaged visits by psychedelic wraiths. Last Night In Soho wasn’t a perfect film, as Wright, in trying to do without the familiar crutch of his sense of humour, instead belaboured horror shtick in places. But as a whole it still had a swaggering cinematic poise and force, as well as a sense of a director trying at once to indulge and exorcise his fetishes, and it offered up to a film much more substantial than many took it for at first glance.

Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)


On the face of it, Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most intentionally relaxed and frivolous film, delivering the fun period soufflé he refused to turn Inherent Vice into and returning to the milieu of Boogie Nights whilst avoiding directly contending with the same shady, decadent dimension, whilst not as woozy in its exploration of fixated romance as Punch Drunk Love or Phantom Thread. Counterpoint: Licorice Pizza is strangely, restlessly, beatifically individual and inspired in exploring its conjured world and the characters Anderson plants in it, managing to at once satisfy a need for breezy comedy charged with oddball joie-de-vivre whilst painting a delicate portrait of a knotty love affair. Alana Haim gave a star-making performance as a character also named Alana, a flailing twenty-something who finds herself against all her wishes gravitating with increasing intensity to a fifteen-year-old former child actor turned entrepreneur, played with remarkable poise by Cooper Hoffman, she meets whilst taking school photos. Soon she ends up joining him in clammily platonic partnership, trying to get rich quick in an LA that’s wide open, populated by fading heroes of yesteryear and livewire riders of the moment.


Licorice Pizza actually managed to not just emulate certain kooky 1970s comic studies like Brewster McCloud and Harold and Maude, but to match and maybe outdo them. Anderson inflated brilliant comedic arias, laced with moments of trenchant and unexpected emotional sting and a sustained note of rising desperation in the way two non-lovers keep trying and failing to move on, out of such period-specific and humdrum elements as attempts to sell waterbeds and weather gas shortages. Along the way our heroes had to endure and survive encounters with celebrity figures, like a slightly disguised William Holden and Lucille Ball and a not-disguised Jon Peters, fixtures of the town so numbed from feeding off its mainline energies they charge with crazed and jealous fervour through existence. The climax, with a surprisingly delicate emotional epiphany gained thanks to Alana’s attraction to a closeted politician, managed to describe a more subtle and genuine sense of the past’s sadder zones, and oblige the final, still-verboten and impossible yet perversely cheering get-together.

Malignant (James Wan)

The most purely entertaining movie I saw in 2021, Malignant had a level of colourful gusto rather missing from the year’s big spectacle-driven movies and indeed absent from major-league horror cinema altogether of late. James Wan, who’s signalled for a while now he might prove one of the most visually dynamic of current genre directors in Hollywood, had a happy old time freely mashing together slasher and giallo clichés and taking them to a ludicrous extreme in the story of a woman, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), stuck in a marriage to an abusive creep and pregnant in the latest of many failed attempts, only to find a monstrous entity starts stalking her life, killing her husband and others, and seeming to share some kind of psychic connection with her that allows her to see its murders. Could it all be related to the time Madison spent in a mental hospital when she was a child? Who is the mysterious Gabriel, once thought to be her imaginary friend? Why is Gabriel targeting former employees of the hospital? Why does he seem to have supernatural powers? Why does he apparently reserve a particular hatred for Madison’s adopted sister?


Malignant’s plot proved the ne plus ultra for the kinds of games played in giallo movies with deception, doubling, and physical perversity, pushed to a parodic extreme but playing its essential story absolutely straight. Wallis, freed from playing posh English birds for a moment, had a whale of a time playing the tortured heroine who finds her own body quite literally rebelling against her, in a film that had timely themes but settled for using them as light spicing for an otherwise deliciously corrupt stew. The Seattle setting was cleverly exploited in a dynamic chase sequence through the underground city, and the climactic scene where Gabriel finally emerged in all his glory and rampaged through a police station was delightfully sick and spectacular. Wan brought on lashings of gore and vibrant colour. Great special effects and stunt work amplified the blend of slick, classy filmmaking and balls-to-the-wall drive-in-flick energy in a manner that reminded me a little of the great days of stuff like The Manitou and Prophecy, and the film as a whole presented a thankful counterpoint to the more pretentious variations on similar motifs in the likes of Titane and Censor this year. Long live unelevated horror.

Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman)


Amazingly assured for a debut film, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby presented a very modern fable and proved a master-class in mixing tension, drama, and cringe-inducing hilarity. Seligman’s antiheroine Danielle was a young woman who, trying to avoid making serious choices about where her life is going and defensive about her less-than-practical choices of study, has struck up a relationship with a sugar daddy, and finds herself trapped with him and his shiksa wife after going to a shiva with her parents. Seligman sustained a singular blend of vinegar humour and teeth-gritting suspense, drawn not from life-or-death danger, but simply the imminence of public humiliation and emotional wounding. Danielle struggled not just to keep a tight leash on her own jealousy, frustration, and flashes of imploding attitude as the temptation to say too much gains singularity-like power, but in negotiating with her parents, a diptych of tart-tongued and shamelessly oblivious helpfulness, and her former high school girlfriend, who constantly provoked with her x-ray vision for Danielle’s bullshit, as well their still-simmering attraction.


The stifling set-up and liberal doses of very New York Jewish humour broadly resembled a Neil Simon one-act given a contemporary gloss. Seligman brought something new to the table in her prickly, flailing, rudderless central character as well as the sops to contemporary mores, a more unusual but also more convincing portrait of an intelligent but confused woman careening in a 21st century quarter-life crisis than The Worst Person in the World, one able to use her sexuality but not sure what her sexuality is, withering under the constant bombardment of other people’s designs on and for her, constantly tempted to throw back bombs of her own whilst knowing that could only bring about Mutually Assured Destruction. The climax consisted simply of Danielle’s happily cajoling father offering everyone a lift in his van, forcing the motley crew to jam themselves in, combining unforced slapstick and a hint of delighted metaphor, the perfectly excruciating ending for a perfectly excruciating film seeing the whole contorted, ridiculous, shiftless bunch rolling down the road together.



This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection (Lemosang Jeremiah Mosese)


Like Identifying Features, Lemosang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection portrayed an old woman contending with the loss of a son and a rapidly changing, increasingly inimical world. This Lesotho film, one that took some time to gain international exposure, nonetheless is very different as a less immediately bristling but equally uneasy depiction of gruelling change and threat. Mosese’s film depicted an ancient but still sturdy grandmother whose miner son dies on his way back home for holidays, leaving her entirely without living family, and soon after finds that she’ll be forced to abandon her dead too when a new dam project threatens to flood the valley where her small but tight-knit village lies. The tough old bird soon becomes a rallying figure for the locals as they begin to protest and push back against the project, but they find out quickly enough that resistance is dangerous. Director Mosese’s elliptic style suggested failure from the outset and the subsuming of the fertile little culture into the gut of a blankly dispossessed world, as the tale was narrated as a new legend by a storyteller inside some grimy tavern, a flicking light of empowering myth to be sustained in an alienating new world of sorrow-drowners and rootless labourers.


The mystically invoking and resisting tenor of the title was nonetheless justified through the portrait of simmering anger, passion, and the determination to remember, the most seemingly disposable member of a community the one anointed as champion and voice of disdain for change that pays no heed to the people it’s nominally serving, even as she struggles with being forced to remain alive when everything that gave her life meaning and shape has been lost. Mosese’s focus alternated between his aged heroine and the community to which she belonged, a group etched with an occasionally sardonic but always loving eye and expertly charting the way they maintained both a firm sense of their history and culture whilst also being inhabitants, however bewildered and impotent, of the modern world, resisting any hint of quaintness, whilst the sense of mourning was mediated with tinges of irony, as when it’s noted the village was both created through expedience during a time of upheaval, as a stopping point for travellers during a plague, and ended by one. The climactic image of a naked old lady advancing defiantly on infuriated enforcers achieved a quality of genuine, precipitous delirium.


West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)

After nearly a half-century of patently harbouring desire to make a musical, Steven Spielberg finally took the leap. His choice to tackle a mighty but obviously dated Broadway show, already filmed to the glint of many Oscars in 1961 and still familiar and beloved of that genre’s aficionados, was a risky project. The new film’s failure to make a dent at the box office seems pretty well to confirm that risk. And yet West Side Story emerged as a remarkably vibrant, relevant work, worthwhile in updating not just the casting and the sense of milieu, but in proving surprisingly volatile and engaged in its portrait of period racism and sexism. This made it, in a way, a companion piece to movies like Last Night In Soho and The Last Duel, both summoning and dispelling nostalgic fantasies about the past, presenting it as a place where a knife in the gut and a racial epithet both land with undeniable and deadly consequence at a time when there were no cell phone cameras to document such things. It also emerges as an ideal confluence for Spielberg’s two most significant personas, the dynamic choreographer of action and the compulsive storyteller obsessed with communication and its failure at the heart of social schisms.

Spielberg’s lingering affection for the old-school, leather jacket-clad rebel ultimately didn’t cloud his and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s disdain for the things they represent in the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents show. Spielberg purposefully contrasted the old film’s shticky take on a long-vanished rough side of Manhattan and the pop-art flourishes of its direction, with his more imperative vision of encroaching desolation as gentrification threatens everyone, and the modern urges starting to emerge from this particular melting pot – the staging of “America” even more forceful in understanding it as a feminist anthem as well as an immigrant’s patriotic one, whilst the temperatures of the Jets and the Sharks climb in frustration, both gangs of potent young men provoked to contest as they sense, with different causes, their old cock-of-the-walk impunity fading. Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort were if anything even blander than Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in the original, but they did their jobs as the endangered innocents who ironically provoke death and calamity with sufficient lyrical and performing poise to let the other, more colourful elements blaze, particularly David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose as Bernardo and Anita, and Rita Moreno returning in a role revised for her, providing at once a presence comforting in nostalgia and invigorating in her vitality.

Added To Favourite List After Posting:

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Honourable Mention

About Endlessness (Roy Andersson)
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude)
Belfast (Kenneth Branagh)
The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)
Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood)
The Dig (Simon Stone)
The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane)
Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg)
Undine (Christian Petzold)
The Woman Who Ran (Sangsoo Hong)

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven)
Black Widow (Cate Shortland)
Cruella (Craig Gillespie)
Eternals (Chloe Zhao)
F9 (Justin Lin)
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Jason Reitman)
House of Gucci (Ridley Scott)
Kate (Cedric Nicolas-Troyen)
Malcolm & Marie (Sam Levinson)
Passing (Rebecca Hall)
Riders of Justice (Anders Thomas Jensen)
Titane (Julia Ducournau)
Till Death (S.K. Dale)
The Woman In The Window (Joe Wright)
Wrath of Man (Guy Ritchie)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

Army of the Dead (Zack Snyder)
Cliff Walkers (Zhang Yimou)
Dune: Part One (Denis Villeneuve)
No Sudden Move (Steven Soderbergh)
No Time To Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga)
The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Destin Daniel Cretton)

Crap

Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay)
Jungle Cruise (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Red Notice (Rawson Marshall Thurber)
Spencer (Pablo Larrain)
The Suicide Squad (James Gunn)

Unseen:

∙ A Chiara ∙ All Hands on Deck ∙ Ahed’s Knee ∙ Beginning ∙ Bergman Island ∙ Candyman ∙ Compartment No 6 ∙ Cyrano ∙ Flee ∙ France ∙ A Hero ∙ Jockey ∙ The Killing of Two Lovers ∙ Mandibles ∙ Murina ∙ Old ∙ Old Henry ∙ Parallel Mothers ∙ Red Rocket ∙ Saint Maud ∙ The Tender Bar ∙ The Tragedy of Macbeth ∙ Vortex ∙ What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? ∙ Wife of a Spy ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2021

Antigone (Yorgos Tzavellas)
Beach of the War Gods (Jimmy Wang Yu)
Buffalo Bill (William A. Wellman)
China 9, Liberty 37 (Monte Hellman)
City of Women (Federico Fellini)
The Coward / The Holy Man (Satyajit Ray)
The Far Country (Anthony Mann)
Hondo (John Farrow)
A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon)
Les Maudits (René Clement)
Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur)
Nine Days of One Year (Mikhail Romm)
No Name On The Bullet (Jack Arnold)
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin)
Penda’s Fen (Alan Clarke)
Sanshiro Sugata Part II (Akira Kurosawa)
The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1923)
The Traveller (Abbas Kiarostami)
The True Story of Jesse James (Nicholas Ray)
Under Fire (Roger Spotiswoode)
Wild Bill (Walter Hill)
The Wings of Eagles (John Ford)

In Memoriam

∙ Michael Apted ∙ Ed Asner ∙ Ned Beatty ∙ Jean-Paul Belmondo ∙ Shane Briant ∙ Sonny Chiba ∙ Richard Donner ∙ Olympia Dukakis ∙ Charles Grodin ∙ David Dalaithngu Gulpilil ∙ Haya Harareet ∙ Monte Hellman ∙ Patricia Hitchcock ∙ Hal Holbrook ∙ Jean-Marc Vallée ∙ Yaphet Kotto ∙ Cloris Leachman ∙ Norman Lloyd ∙ Jackie Mason ∙ Helen McCrory ∙ Roger Michell ∙ Mike Nesmith ∙ Melvin van Peebles ∙ Christopher Plummer ∙ Jane Powell ∙ John Richardson ∙ Tanya Roberts ∙ Giuseppe Rotunno ∙ Richard Rush ∙ George Segal ∙ Barbara Shelley ∙ Anthony Sher ∙ Felix Silla ∙ William Smith ∙ Stephen Sondheim ∙ Dean Stockwell ∙ Bertrand Tavernier ∙ Cicely Tyson ∙ Jessica Walter ∙ Joan Weldon ∙ Betty White ∙ Clarence Williams III ∙ Michael K. Williams ∙

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2020s, Film Freedonia, This Island Rod, This Island Rod

My Collected Film Writing For 2021, Free To Download

Well, that’s another year gone by. It was a busy one for me, both here at Film Freedonia and its sister site This Island Rod — 54 essays and reviews posted comprising over 200,000 words. The good news is, if you missed anything at either site, or want to read it again, or just want me to shut up already, you can download my collection of all my online film writing for this year simply by clicking this link…

Roderick Heath Film Writing 2021

…and I shall you in a few days’ time with my annual year-in-review article, Confessions of a Film Freak 2021. Ciao ’til then.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Historical, Uncategorized

The Last Duel (2021)

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Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Nicole Holofcener

By Roderick Heath

Ridley Scott’s first film in four years wields the unavoidable feeling of a culmination, and repudiation, more than forty years after his debut feature, The Duellists (1977). Scott’s career hardly seems finished yet and yet if he had retired after making The Last Duel the sense of circularity in regards to The Duellists would be irresistible, particularly in coming after his divisive but brilliantly grim and meta revisit to the Alien series, Alien Covenant (2017). Here he offers another film with “duel” in the title, sustaining in part the same driving theme of irrational and self-destructive resentment and fixation and acts of antiquated violence, as well as casually casting two American actors as period Frenchmen and avoiding Old Vic accents, to the consternation of some. The differences are revealing, of course. The Duellists was made heavily under the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), whilst The Last Duel, whilst paying overt homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951), sees Scott truly wrestling with only one master, himself. It’s also now more than twenty years since Scott revived his stature as a major Hollywood director with Gladiator (2000), one of his most popular and beloved movies, albeit one that dated with punishing speed. Scott’s been returning to and improvising variations on that hit since, partly for obvious reasons – sticking “From the Director of Gladiator” on a movie poster featuring some hairy, sweaty dude clutching a sword seems an easy sell, even as these revisits have generally failed with audiences – but also, as has become increasingly clear, because it was the gateway into his late career obsessions.

So Scott has been revising Gladiator’s straightforward, even simplistic exalting of heroically bemuscled men resisting tyranny (I’ve long thought of Gladiator as less a modernised sword-and-sandal film than as a period transposing of the sports movie, depicting as that mode usually does the physically dynamic sporting hero as the only figure left to use who can transcend pure commerce and stick up for individual will in determining outcomes) from different angles of questioning, in the tangle of religion and sectarianism explored in Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), and the exploration of emerging democratic impulses as presented by folklore in the violently uneven but doggedly interesting Robin Hood (2010). All of those films dealt in varying ways with Scott’s recurring late-career fascination with the birth of a modern concept of individual worth and identity in relationship with raw tribal identity and political power. The Last Duel completes the arc in essentially renouncing Gladiator’s fantasy, by recounting an obscure but fascinating nugget of authentic history, involving a duel to the death. The battle between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris was one of the last to gain official sanction as a holdover of the old chivalric faith that trial by combat invoked direct deistic judgement. The clash was held outside Paris in 1386, after Carrouges accused Le Gris of raping his wife Marguerite.

Through its very nature and moment, the event of that duel rests on a fault-line in historical consciousness, confronting our lingering fascination for the days of old when knights were bold and ladies fair walked with wafting silk trailing, with our simultaneous cynicism, which is also the period setting’s, an emergent scepticism close to the cusp of the Renaissance when, whether the powers that be admitted it or not, people knew damn well God didn’t express his will through two guys trying to murder each-other. It’s the sort of subject one could imagine an array of great filmmakers tackling with very different art – Robert Bresson, say, casting his dour eye on men wrapped in cold grey metal bashing each-other to death, or Richard Lester, impishly smirking at the absurdity, or Ken Russell, relishing the ritual of bloodshed and locus of wilful lunatic energy. For Scott, it’s a story that engages multiple strands of his career long concerns and stylistic explorations. The Last Duel offers a chance to bind together ways of seeing, ways that unfold on multiple levels – the narrative itself proffers multiple versions of the same events according to different viewpoints, correlated with the way the film operates as both a definite portrait of a historical epoch and a parable for contemporary concerns.

Unlike Rashomon, The Last Duel doesn’t hinge on a disinterested party’s viewing of events. Instead it presents the viewpoints of Carrouges (Matt Damon), Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite (Jodie Comer). After a brief prologue showing the preparations for the title duel in all its careful ritual measure presaging the unleashing of pure physical force, the relationship between the three characters is sketched in Carrouges’ opening narrative. Carrouges, the son of a respected Norman knight, sees himself as a doughty, unappreciated, wronged and justifiably frustrated man who has to pay his way through the brutal and dangerous life of a professional soldier. He saves Le Gris’s life when the two men are involved in an ill-advised but honourable attempt to lift the English siege of Limoges in 1370. Whilst they remain friends for a time afterwards, their bond sours as Le Gris becomes a trusted agent of their mutual lord Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck) and is increasingly favoured by him to the extent of being handed both Carrouges’s father’s former title and estate. Carrouges marries Marguerite, the daughter of Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker), an aristocrat held in general odium for formerly siding with the English. Carrouges is willing to overlook the disgrace in the face of Madeleine’s beauty and the opportunity to get hold of fine new estates.

One valuable parcel of land, Au-le-Faucon, which Carrouges firmly insists Thibouville give as part of his dowry, is instead claimed as recompense for feudal dues by Pierre and then handed over as a reward to Le Gris. Carrouges sues Pierre over the title to the estate, but fails, earning the lord’s peevish enmity and convincing Carrouges that Le Gris is plotting against him. Carrouges and Le Gris reconcile for the sake of accord amongst Pierre’s vassals, but the peace doesn’t hold, and Marguerite eventually reports to her husband that Le Gris assaulted her whilst Carrouges was in Paris collecting payment for one of his military ventures. The second narrative presents Le Gris’ perspective, seeing himself as a man of talent and intellect suitably rewarded. Pierre, disliking what he sees as Carrouges’ stiff-necked, charmless, and resentful persona, prefers Le Gris as an industrious employee and friend, inviting him into his inner circle and nightly orgies. Le Gris sees himself as tested to the utmost by Carrouges’ increasingly paranoid and irate streak and generally poor judgement, and feels an immediate connection with the multilingual and well-read Marguerite when he encounters her after reconciling with Carrouges, a connection which he interpreted as inevitably romantic. When questioned about his visit to the Carrouges castle to expiate it, Le Gris explains, “Of course she made the customary protests, but she is a lady.” The third chapter illustrates Marguerite’s experience, a perspective from which both Carrouges and Le Gris are seen as stripped of their pretences and self-delusions.

In terms of the film’s interlocking units of storytelling, each bearing the contrasting imprint of a different screenwriter which Scott has to stylistically unify, the impossibility of knowing crashes against the certainty of result. Damon’s chapter hands himself a part that hinges on his screen persona as a man who people tend to underestimate, for his curiously nondescript good looks, turned increasingly heavy-set in middle-age and matching capacity to play men driven by deeply repressed social or class resentment. Affleck’s chapter is as much a lampoon of Hollywood players in the fashion of his own movie Argo (2012) as it is a portrait of a destructively egocentric pair of men. Holofcener brings the feminine perspective, forcing a discomfortingly close identification with Marguerite as she sweats through several different forms of abuse. The real history invoked in The Last Duel is opaque. Just what really went down between the Carrouges and Le Gris is unknowable beyond what they themselves said happened. The film itself finally is not. I gritted my teeth just a little bit as Scott designated the first two chapters as “the truth according to” but the last, more than a shade archly, sees “the truth” as those words fade more slowly from the screen. The ultimate point of Rashomon was that people inevitably see events that encompass them with a slanted perspective, according to the way they think of themselves and of other people. But fair’s fair: The Last Duel has a different end in mind, that yes, there can be a specific and ultimate truth that other people don’t always want to see, for whatever reason, and that people can also edit their own reality to make sense of what they do.

With a kind of irony allowed only to deities and film directors, Scott can make his film equivalent to the proposed metaphysical reasoning behind the concept of the trial by combat itself, as a vehicle to reveal such hidden truths. Only at a couple of points in the film does Scott and his trio of screenwriters entirely contradict what has already been portrayed, a way of approaching cinema that has a controversial aspect, as it requires the camera which reports narrative to us to lie. But it is used here with exacting purpose. Thus, where Carrouges remembers his attempt to intervene when the English slaughter French hostages at the Battle of Limoges as a valiant if doomed charge demanded by honour and humanity, Le Gris recalls as a calamitous surrender of reason to emotion that cost victory in the battle and almost got him killed. The event binds the two men in their erratic orbit, whilst also defining their relationship to Pierre, whose power over their lives and careers plays no small role in what happens. Carrouges becomes increasingly convinced that Le Gris, perhaps constantly aggravated by owing his life to the older, tougher knight, has become pathologically fixated on taking his stuff and showing him disrespect. Le Gris sees Carrouges as increasingly ridiculous and impossible in his lack of moderation and reason, and that he himself is merely the accidental beneficiary of Carrouges’ self-invited bad luck. Pierre’s personal detestation of Carrouges, sparked by his actions in the battle and reinforced when Carrouges sues him, and his indulgence of Le Gris, reinforces the deeply personal nature of power the age, as the lord has the right and facility to award and strip favours and posts, to oversee and manipulate legal contests, and generally make life easier or harder. Moreover, as Pierre admits to Le Gris in speaking of Carrouges, “He’s no fun.”

Affleck, in a performance reminiscent of the kind Peter Ustinov once gave in movies like Quo Vadis (1951) and Spartacus (1960) in the way he manages to offer levity and glimmers of satirical anachronism without despoiling the overall texture, portrays the medieval lord as a man with a strong streak of smug brattiness, but also a keen sense of his own prerogative and a good sense of which people will meet his needs and those who will not. Pierre comes to lean on Le Gris as both an intelligent manager of his affairs who can get things done, chiefly by employing standover and shakedown tactics to get money out of his vassals and tenants, and as a friend and confederate who comes increasingly to share and enjoy Pierre’s predilection for hedonistic pleasures, pleasures that are readily served up by the in-built pyramid scheme that is medieval social structure. Affleck helps to also bridge the film’s period setting and the more contemporary concerns, pitching Pierre as an indulgent friend and protector for Le Gris, and coaching him on how to handle Marguerite’s accusation: “Deny, deny, deny.” Affleck and Damon of course owed much of their breakthrough as major Hollywood players to the now disgraced and jailed Harvey Weinstein, and this line had the stinging quality of something they might have heard bandied about the Miramax offices at some point. Scenes depicting Pierre playing the easy, jocular host for his circle of friends, making a tart speech farewelling his pregnant wife as she heads off to bed, similarly lampooning a certain kind of Hollywood grandee as he and Le Gris then settle down to the proper business of buttering up the gathered with choice bawdiness.

A key encounter in the course of the tale as a whole sees Pierre deftly counter Carrouges’ scarcely controlled fury in reminding him of what he has every right to do, in a scene where Carrouges confronts Pierre and Le Gris at the celebration of Le Gris being given his father’s title. This scene is cut away from in Carrouges’ chapter, as he reports to Marguerite that he feels he spoke well, whereas through Le Gris’ eyes it’s the spectacle of his old friend making an ass of himself before a much-amused crowd, where Carrouges’ anger is self-defeating, and his attempt to argue to Pierre that Le Gris is a snake in the grass falls totally flat. Carrouges sees himself as a kind of working stiff of the aristocratic warrior class, the guy who, robbed by The Man and unfairly penalised for standing up for his rights, has to go to Scotland to find work, risking life and limb, gaining a knighthood in the process but still returning home to what he feels is snooty disdain. Glimpses of combat in the film in which Carrouges fights at Limoges and in Scotland exemplifies the famous formula of life being nasty, brutish, and short, but battle is also a realm where Carrouges is at least comfortable and competent. This self-portrait is undercut to a degree later when Marguerite learns Carrouges neglects collecting rents on his estate, and takes it in hand herself. Which is actually a nice depiction of one rarely elucidated aspect of medieval life, when the running of a great estate was a task that needed intelligent and competent people and often fell to wives to perform when their husbands were off at war, which tended to be frequent.

The Last Duel in this fashion assiduously details the mores and structures legal, military, and financial that underpinned feudal Europe, and examines the way those things meshed with the people who inhabited it. Part of the challenge in making such a film is to animate the very different ways the society of the age understood cause and effect, truth and falsehood, and individual identity itself, even as the actual people are entirely recognisable to us in their motives and emotional and behavioural extremes. Carrouges, for instance, is revealed through signing his name with a mark, to be illiterate, not uncommon for his time but giving a fascinating and revealing dimension to his feelings of paranoia and persecution in the face of Le Gris’ learning and competence in abstract matters like finance and letters. This represents an entire world at once readily visible to Carrouges but also entirely incomprehensible, much in the same way that much biliousness today stems from the simultaneous ubiquity and incoherence for many of dominant areas of specialised learning like computer technology or high finance. As the titular duel itself confirms, this was still a time when a fearsome price to be paid in physical suffering was supposed to both substitute for, and potentially alleviate, spiritual suffering. Or, to take another attitude towards the same idea, fear of the latter was made more palpable and therefore more impressive and real by the threat of the former, helping create a kind of mental surveillance system to ensure good behaviour.

A very crucial part of the plot of The Last Duel as it reaches its home stretch is the revelation that loss in the duel for Carrouges also means an even more terrible fate for Marguerite too as the accuser, placing Marguerite in an impossible situation according to the sexist and doctrinaire rules of the time. Marguerite would be brandished a liar and heretic through the failure of her husband’s muscle rather than through any reasoned parsing of her testimony, and whilst Carrouges himself certainly risks violent and gruesome death in the hunt for satisfaction, still rather pleasant compared to being burned alive. Marguerite doesn’t even learn this until they’ve travelled far too far down this road to turn back, but she successfully maintains a façade of adamant poise in front of the hearing. Carrouges, knowing that Pierre controls the local courts and can therefore ensure Le Gris’ acquittal, as he does, instead petitions the king for the right to trial by combat, which means weathering a hearing presided over by the king and his Parlement including church elders. Le Gris, for his part, turns down the plea by a cleric, Le Coq (Zeljko Ivanek), to take advantage of a loophole that will let the case be heard in an ecclesiastical court instead, nullifying the risk of the combat, insisting that to do so would be tantamount to cowardice and a tacit admission of guilt, which means he is, more subtly, a victim of a similar bind to Marguerite.

At the same time, the contemporary likenesses are hardly disguised as the film’s driving concern is winnowed down to the offence done to Marguerite, an offence that to gain any kind of justice entails risking still worse suffering. The hallowed cliché of “he said, she said” trotted out in ambiguous accusations of sexual misconduct played here as a particularly lethal game of chicken. The problems identified in the period are the problems of today when it comes to such matters. Marguerite has the right to have her accusation taken at face value and seriously delved into, but faces the presumption that she’s a pawn, or a harlot, or a conspirator in her husband’s desire to revenge himself on Le Gris, who himself has friends in high places who can stymie any semblance of justice, and so she must submit to questioning tantamount to another form of rape as her sex life is probed. Meanwhile by this stage she’s grown heavy with child, an event that might be the ironically late fulfilment of her marriage contract with Carrouges or the product of Le Gris’ assault.  It would be more than a bit rich to call Scott the inventor of Hollywood feminism, but what he did do was create, with Ripley for Alien (1979) and later Thelma and Louise (1991) and G.I Jane (1997), templates for how popular cinema approaches such things. Marguerite is a particularly potent extension of this facet of Scott’s oeuvre, in the way her presence is used to purposefully unpack the kind of warrior mystique Scott served up so ripely in Gladiator. But she’s also something of a critique of that iconography of strong women. Marguerite is at the mercy of the men around her, be they officially protective like Carrouges or predatory like Le Gris, and her attempt to stand up for herself never really escapes this zone. The Last Duel dismantles the idea of the white knight standing up for his abused lady, but it also firmly reminds that the kinds of empowerment fantasies we see in a lot of movies today are just that.

Carrouges’ self-perception laid out in the first chapter is undercut in the second and finally laid totally bare in the last, particularly when his reaction to Marguerite’s rape is revised from calm sympathy to one of raging peevishness, seeing himself wronged before Marguerite and demanding she prostrate herself so he can try and efface Le Gris’ imprint on her. It’s an ugly scene that largely dispels what little sympathy one has for Carrouges by this point. But the film succeeds in being more nuanced than expected on this score. Carrouges’ anxious desire to sexually please his wife whilst knock her up avoids the standard vignette in a lot of recent historical dramas of a brutishly indifferent husband, and even in this scene there’s the feeling this is another of Carrouges’ incoherent emotional expressions, beset by the absurdly provoking notion that he can literally fuck Le Gris’ taint out of his wife’s vagina. Driver has perhaps the most perfectly medieval face to appear in cinema since Ron Perlman with the added advantage of being considered handsome, and he gives perhaps his best performance to date as Le Gris, particularly in his playing of the crucial rape scene(s) where he seems to be acting a little drama to which he’s written the script in his head with scarce reference to reality, a playlet in which he’s the ardent suitor locked in a game of erotic hide-and-seek with a proper but lusty lady, much like the games played in Pierre’s chambers every night. Indeed, Scott films one such game, which culminates in the beginning of an orgy, and then recreates the framing in Le Gris’ version of his attack on Marguerite, suggesting the degree to which his reality is by this point forged by the bubble he lives in.

The shift to Holofcener’s presentation Marguerite’s viewpoint adopts a similar tactic to Affleck’s but with a different frame, ticking off chick flick clichés. Marguerite contends with her haughty and critical mother-in-law Nicole de Carrouges (Harriet Walter) whilst being left alone with her for long stretches of time, and hangs out with her social circle amongst the real castle wives of Normandy like Marie (Tallulah Haddon) as they assess the local male talent, with all agreeing Le Gris scores high in the looks department, casual fun which provides another bitter consequence as Marie later resents Marguerite for her accusation against Le Gris. Marguerite weathers her returned husband’s anger over showing excessive quantities of boob, having adopted the queen’s latest, risqué fashion, and experiences bewildered frustration over her primary function, trying to bear children for Carrouges, with her clueless husband shooting blanks and leaving her resolutely unsatisfied, although in her inexperience she has no way to express this, much in the same way her husband cannot himself articulate his most powerful needs.

More substantively, Marguerite is able to put her intelligence and learning to beguiling use in running Carrouges’ estate and expertly assessing Le Gris’ real character whilst seeming to charm him, a foray that leads her to ultimately agree with her husband that Le Gris is a cunning but facetious personality, but also backfires as she hooks Le Gris’ interest. Comer, hoisted to prominence playing a globetrotting assassin in the TV show Killing Eve, gives a formidable and completely different performance here that immediately and firmly establishes her as a major movie actor. She’s particularly interesting in portraying not just the more spectacular dramatic moments, but in touches like her Marguerite suddenly crying whilst trying to sustain a conversation with Marie, and her slight air of pleased self-approbation as she reports her observations of Le Gris to her husband as they dance and notes the advantages in her way of handling problems. A crucial moment comes late in the film when the Carrouges matriarch confronts Marguerite and accuses her of stirring up dangerous strife to suit herself, and mentions that she herself was raped once when young, a secret she kept for the sake of avoiding more trouble, exposing a vast gap not simply in attitude towards such a crime between her and her daughter-in-law but in their methods of survival, as Marguerite notes the cost such stoicism has inflicted, solving nothing, salving nothing.

Alien Covenant achieved a mode of brilliant self-indulgence for Scott as a garish self-satire, restlessly rearranging and re-enshrining horror and melodrama canards whilst using them as fodder for the theme of a creator moving forward with eternally dissatisfied hunger, inventions both great and flawed left in a billowing wake. The Last Duel encompasses a similar reflex, albeit it more applied, in its triptych of auto-critiquing storylines. As well as allowing Scott to revise and complicate his own popular mythologies, The Last Duel unifies strands of his cinematic reflexes evinced throughout his career. Scott’s exactingly wrought and densely layered visual tableaux have sometimes been purely decorative but in his best work also support his attempts to weave a holistic vision of a created, or recreated, world, in movies as diverse as Blade Runner (1982) and American Gangster (2007). The latter film tried to do something most similar gangster films avoid and show how the criminal enterprise worked from the mastermind to the junkie at the bottom of the food chain, shedding light on the antihero’s wilful blindness to the misery he causes, and The Last Duel exhibits the same top-to-bottom thoroughness. The Martian (2015) was more jocular and light-footed in its similar preoccupation with process, exploring the manifold forces human and cosmic required to save one stranded human being. Blade Runner wove dreamlike visual textures from a rigorously detailed setting, and touched on a similar fascination for the depth of the cinematic frame as a zone where every grain or digit can contain meaning, most particularly in the long sequence of Deckard exploring a photograph for clues in the mystery he was unravelling, a sequence of which The Last Duel can be described as the feature-length extrapolation.

The business of husbandry is codified in a sourly funny and cunningly layered vignette, in which  Marguerite looks on in bewildered anxiousness whilst her husband gets furious over a big black stallion breaking into the stall of his in-season white mare and trying to mount her. This potent unit of imagery comes straight out of Shakespeare’s Othello but converted from verbal usage to visual. This image doesn’t just comment on their marriage and the impending act of sexual violence, but delves to the bottom of things, establishing how everything in this world is the attempt to desperately control the power of natural forces over the tentative stability of social structures, a world where dynamic, daemonic urges are scarcely leavened by fear of hellfire or a well-swung mace, and the weak are at the mercy of the strong. More subtle but most vital as a visualisation of theme and character are the three different versions of one kiss, which Carrouges bids Marguerite give Le Gris as part of their ritual of reconciliation. What is for Carrouges a glancing, purely polite gesture is for Le Gris a striking moment of chemistry and for Marguerite a perturbing signal, conveyed through both the actors’ actions and the variation in Scott’s camerawork. Such dramas that eventually finish up consuming a nation’s attention, as well as ultimately threaten three lives, can pivot on such fleeting yet intense moments, infinite realities packed into such junctions of human attitude.

The portrayals of the rape itself in both Le Gris and Marguerite’s chapters, again exemplifies the filmmaking care even in showing something that isn’t pleasant to watch. Small details tellingly differ – where, say, Le Gris sees Marguerite leaving shoes behind her like a saucy maiden discarding clothing, Marguerite remembers as simply accidental in the course of her flustered fear – and so too does the visual language. Scott holds back for the most part in Le Gris’ version, filming mostly in wide shots that emphasise the physicality of the event, Le Gris as lanky coyote after Marguerite’s darting roadrunner, before concluding with a point-of-view shot of Le Gris looking down at Marguerite’s face in contorted profile. Le Gris’ version of sex is duly pornographic, defined not by connection but by the erasure of need, and his self-created fiction resumes as he makes his apologies and leaves. In Marguerite’s version the shots are more intimate and urgent, climaxing in a long close-up on her shattered expression as Le Gris penetrates her and then leaves her, the storm having visited and then departed like some deeply ugly and surreal dream, reminiscent in a way of the imagery of violation and sudden, sundering ugliness in Alien.

The attack can only be properly avenged in the trial by combat, which means the Carrouges must work tactically, making their friends and social circle unwitting confederates by telling them and using them in the project of forcing the King to pay attention, circumventing Pierre’s control, essentially the medieval edition of a social media campaign. The hearing the King calls eventually sees the parties grilled by legal minds, a sequence that’s used to encompass the most egregious aspects of the period’s approach to things like sex and justice. The young monarch, Charles VI (Alex Lawther), essentially treats the event as a particularly juicy entertainment, whilst the duel itself is a spectator sport that’s also like watching a movie in that everyone has their rooting interest. Scott builds suspense as the film nears the duel as the potential price Marguerite must pay becomes clear, a truth that displaces the tension over Carrouges and Le Gris’ fates onto her, as she stands up to her irate husband with intense and righteous anger but then finds both a source of solace and further worry when she has her child and wonders if the infant will soon be orphaned after such a long effort by the parents to have him. Carrouges meanwhile is left isolated in both his alienation from Marguerite and most of the onlookers who want to see him fall, and Damon does an excellent job in invoking pathos in the character even when that’s not the focal point through his stolid, chastened affect as the moment of confrontation with mortality looms.

The duel, when finally returned to, represents an apotheosis for Scott in terms of sheer moviemaking craft,  capturing with concussive immediacy both the awful violence of the fighters and the nightmarish state of watching it with the certainty that life and death acted out on the sand is also one’s own fate being settled. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, with its stern, frigid, muted grey-blue palette only swapped out for the honeyed glow of candlelit interiors, mostly rejects the penchant for beauty found in Scott’s other historical films, and here become furious and alive in a way that feels as cutting-edge as anything Scott’s ever shot – beautifully dashing tracking shots cleaved brutally with inserts of mounted camerawork pursuing the duellists into the joust. Thunderous editing of both images and sound helping lend you-are-there palpability to the shattering lances spraying splinters, horses colliding with walls, and cold steel blades sinking into soft warm flesh, and none of it seems to be augmented with special effects, a particular blessing in this accursed moment in action filmmaking. Every blow and movement communicates physical effort and cost. What it isn’t is a cheer-along struggle of good and evil, even as Scott finally allows Carrouges to become what he wanted to think of himself as, the plucky, honourable underdog with a righteous cause, as he faces not just Le Gris’ unexpected fearsomeness in the fight but the general disdain of the aristocrats in the crowd, including Pierre, who want their charming favourite to win.

The fight comes to its terrible, gruesome end as Carrouges manages to outwit Le Gris and tries to force him to confess, before showing his dagger into the man’s mouth, a bloody and awfully intimate mirror to his assault on Marguerite. Carrouges, still faintly hapless even after proving himself awesomely tough as he needs the king’s cue to face and embrace his released wife, now exhibits sufficient poise to offer Marguerite to the crowd for exaltation as well, before leading her to an under-construction Notre Dame, whilst Le Gris’ corpse is hung up naked and pathetic. Even Pierre is offered a moment of pathos as he’s left clearly mourning his friend. Carrouges fails at being a hero but finally triumphs in offering the crowd a better story, of a knight who has vindicated his wife. Scott nonetheless suggests the awful, lingering bleakness under the relief nonetheless as he cuts out the noise of the cheering mob and has only the sound of Marguerite’s strained breathing on the soundtrack as she rides in slow motion. A brief coda does give a modest dose of reassurance as Marguerite is glimpsed as a happy mother whilst Carrouges has gone off to get himself killed in the Crusades. But it’s with that image of Marguerite after the duel where the film should have ended, with that feeling that won’t go away, like standing on the beach with a colossal wave about to crash down upon you.

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2020s, Horror/Eerie

Last Night In Soho (2021)

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Director: Edgar Wright
Screenwriters: Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Edgar Wright

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Edgar Wright built his fame as a filmmaker with a very particular brand. Wright offered sarcastically comedic takes on well-worn film genres that, rather than playing as outright lampoons, took the up the thrilling, extraordinary, dynamic experiential journeys found in the likes of a George Romero-esque zombie horror movie or a Michael Bay-style cop action movie, and inserted very ordinary characters contending with the most commonplace and stodgy life problems into the midst of such craziness, taking the truism that the heightened metaphors found in genre films represent more fundamental and familiar human quandaries and gaining strange fizz from the disparity, the awareness that in some ways it’s easier to face up to big disasters and epic calamities than the small, everyday terrors of life, and wielding filmmaking technique skilled and kinetic enough to bind the two seemingly opposite dramatic styles into lucid, giddily amusing wholes. Wright’s breakthrough feature Shaun of the Dead (2004) and its follow-ups in the so-called “Cornetto Trilogy” Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2014), were also fuelled by that disparity, but also the tension between the very British settings with their air of cosy familiarity, and the adrenalized, stylised, fantastic precepts of Hollywood blockbusters.

Wright’s first Hollywood film, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2011), whilst working in a similar fashion, inevitably lacked that tension of sociology as well as genre, although it tried to retain it to a degree in adopting a Canadian setting. Wright’s 2017 hit Baby Driver, whilst a divisive experience that proved oddly aggravating to some viewers in mashing together bratty comedy, neo-musical, and action thriller, signalled Wright starting to shift ground. Last Night In Soho, his latest film and judging by early signs his least well-received to date critically and commercially, continues that shift in offering what is essentially a straitlaced mystery-horror film. That is, straitlaced to a degree. Last Night In Soho is every inch a Wright film in its stylistic and thematic refrains. The fetishism for pop music and use of it as a seismograph of life experience for the characters and a texture-imbuing device for the filmmaking. The constant theme of a hero trying to come of age even as life proves rather more daunting and dangerous than expected. But where in Wright’s previous films the pop culture fun was presented as a kind of spicy sauce layered atop the smart-aleck allegories, Last Night In Soho goes a step further and makes the allure of nostalgia and the habits of creative young folk in wrapping themselves in a self-mythologising cloak of preferred culture into a topic to be dissected rather than played off. Wright is certainly out here to do something more ambitious than offer a feature-length version of Don’t, the terrific little unit of pastiche he made as a fake movie trailer for Grindhouse (2007).

Wright’s heroine Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is a pure avatar who for myriad young, talented dreamers, albeit with her own, particular abilities and inspirations. She’s first glimpsed dancing about her grandmother’s house in a tape-and-newspaper dress to Peter and Gordon’s “World Without Love” and fantasising about being a famous fashion designer. Eloise’s penchants for a world of retro glamour are given a plain story basis, as she was raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) on a diet of 1960s LPs, after her mother’s death by suicide. Eloise is blessed with an extra layer of oddness in that she has a form of psychic awareness, allowing her to stay in touch with her mother’s watchful shade. Eloise’s embracing world of old music and big dreams faces the challenge of going to the London College of Fashion from her home in Cornwall. Eloise’s stranger talent is the vehicle for the plot as it leaves her especially vulnerable in both her sense of detachment from other people her age and her ability to absorb the dense layer of experience, good and bad, soaked into every inch of London. But it also provides Wright and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns with a clever metaphor for a certain kind of heightened, transformative awareness that would surely feel familiar to many an artistically inclined youngster. Eloise’s private universe allows communing with history, both personal and social, conjuring a glorious lost golden age when the culture’s fruits were in full bloom compared to the petty, happenstance, unpredictable present, all the better for drawing on as fuel for one’s own attempts to create alternate universes where more perfect things can exist.

Eloise’s specific spur to such yearnings is her childhood loss of her mother. When she first lands in London she’s both been schooled to be cautious in the Big Bad World to a degree that she overreacts at some manifestations of it – a flippantly libidinous taxi driver, ads for sex workers festooning phone booths – and quickly finds herself run ragged when she falls into the hard-partying company of her new roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) and her circle of friends, finishing up zoning out whilst listening to her favourite sounds and falling asleep wrapped in a blanket at her first student dorm party. This part of the movie is the most familiarly Wright-esque as Jocasta and her circle are swiftly and wryly sketched as insufferable poseurs and providing a few good laughs in the process, with Jocasta explaining why she’s dropping her last name thanks to the example of Kylie – Jenner, not Minogue – and tries to make social capital out of belonging to the “dead mum’s club,” and desperately trying to make up ground when Eloise incidentally outmanoeuvre her in the pitiable stakes. Jocasta and her pals provide suitably snooty foils for Eloise, whilst also representing the debased modern world with its most shallow and transitory obsessions and heedless disinterest in anything that doesn’t feed into the machine of current commercial appeal.

Wright might be making a nod to Pretty In Pink (1986) as Eloise turns up to college wearing clothes she designed and made herself only to find Jocasta and company festooned in designer gear. Jocasta does a least perform the essential service of introducing Eloise to the pleasures of booze and a rowdy night out in Soho, where Wright cheerfully plays John Barry’s theme for Beat Girl (1959) on the soundtrack. But the only person Eloise finds any real connection with at school is John (Michael Ajao), a young man who admits that he also has had trouble fitting in in North London. Being as he is from South London. Quickly tiring of dorm life, Eloise chooses to seek out a place of her own and seems to find the perfect place in a small flat in Soho rented off the elderly Ms Collins (Diana Rigg), who seems like a reassuring substitute for her grandmother, and the flat seems to harbour hidden pleasures available specifically to a person like Eloise. When she falls asleep on her first night there, drifting off whilst listening to Cilla Black’s “You’re My World,” Eloise enters into a dream so vivid it seems more like an inherited memory, in which she witnesses young and lovely Sandie (Anya-Taylor Joy) saunter into the Café de Paris, the hub of Soho nightlife, circa 1965, and goes about trying to catch the eye of the right person to help her dream of becoming a singing star.

This sequence is perhaps the most unabashedly grandiose and idealised Wright has ever dared be in his staging and evocation of a past that’s imperial in its renascent confidence and glamour, an embrace of something in a fashion that Wright, long the hipster’s hipster in his blend of fervour and irony, has clearly both admired but held himself wary of. He stages a travelling shot from Eloise’s point of view emerging from a side street into the midst of busy Soho, a huge poster for Thunderball (1965) pinpointing the historical moment as Black’s singing rises from soft and enticing to grand and swooning in force, before entering the Café de Paris. There Eloise finds herself the reflected, fragmented image of Sandie descending stairs as the perfected dolly bird, and Eloise is able to share the experience as Sandie dodges the sleazy, grasping Cubby (Paul Brightwell) and makes a beeline for Jack (Matt Smith), who seems every inch Sandie’s period male counterpart with his slicked-back pompadour, sharp suit, and insouciant charm, still daintily gripping drink and cigarette even as he joins Sandie on the dance floor. Sandie sets about wowing Jack, who seems to be the man to talk to break into Soho show business, by dancing to Graham Bond’s “Oh Baby”: Sandie gets to act out her fantasy of arresting the very eye of the zeitgeist whilst Jack plays her ideal swashbuckling lover, socking Cubby as he becomes insulting and dashing off with Sandie to make out in a telephone booth.

Eloise’s vicarious experience through Sandie’s persona gifts her a vision that fits her concept of the past and also an idealised edition of her own hopes and anticipations: Sandie has all the brash confidence Eloise (and Wright) associated with a spectacular era and which Eloise finds conspicuously lacking in herself. Here Wright touches on an essential matter that’s fascinated him since Shaun of the Dead – how people construct themselves not only through their own lived experience but the art they love and how those two realms interact, art itself being an inheritance whether it’s a week old or a century and presents a way of seeing that contains truth but not reality. Although both characters are linked by their maintained bubbles of detachment from the world, Wright makes Eloise the opposite to the hero of Baby Driver: for him all the music he loved, soaked in through his perpetually present ear-buds, was rendered equal and contemporary through the omnivorous way he encounters, where Eloise, detached from the mainstream by her life circumstances, uses music to create a world to retreat into. Eloise’s psychic talents, in this regard, are unabashedly presented as an amplification of her creative talents, and the tale of Sandie and Jack, at first at least, operates like her fantasy projection of herself, a vehicle to evoke the textures she tries to recreate in her design work, birthing designs taking inspiration from Sandie’s apparel. Of course, Wright is creating both stories, and the hall-of-mirrors story structuring is recreated within, as Eloise finds herself increasingly uncomfortable and unable to maintain the vicarious perspective, trying to escape the mirrors, but finds the price of that is the other world can access hers, too. Finally, after taking Jack back to her flat in an attempt as much to try and escape that other world as to gain experience of her own, Eloise is driven into screaming hysterics as she envisions Jack threatening Sandie and seeming to kill her in a gruesome welter of blood.

That Wright plainly loves the mid-1960s pop culture and the fabled stature of Swinging London is etched into every frame of the film even when considering its dank and malevolent side – indeed Wright knows full well part of the allure of nightlife groves is that debauched and seedy aspect, the feeling of a place carefully cordoned off from polite society where animal pleasures can be indulged, so long as it’s place where one can safely be a tourist rather than a permanent resident. A little like horror cinema itself. If Last Night In Soho had been made at the time the period scenes are set they would in turn be transposed to about 1910. And, indeed, there were a number of horror movies in the mid-1960s and early ‘70s that cast their minds back, if not quite that far, then to the Jazz Age as a sounding board for contemporary drama, with a similar motif of an age of quaint glamour on the edge of popular memory, recalled by bedraggled and ancient survivors, a la Robert Aldrich’s gothic valentines Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1963) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967), and Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Wright makes the obvious gambit of casting Tushingham, Rigg, and Terence Stamp in prominent roles as actors who aren’t just the right age for their characters but carry a distinctive cachet from the era that gives an extra sense of import in their roles: Tushingham still has the limpid crystalline gaze she had in Doctor Zhivago (1965), now used to give a little twinkle of familiar compassion to Eloise’s aging but reliable guardian.

Stamp is cast as an elderly man Eloise keeps encountering around Soho including in the Toucan, a pub where she gets a job pulling pints. Eloise soon begins to suspect he may be the older Jack, a suspicion that gains solidity when he seems to recognise her inspiration once she changes her hairstyle to match Sandie’s. Stamp is still a formidable screen presence, and he brings something ineffable to his part, expertly deploying his native Cockney accent in alternations of gruff, chisel-on-stone scepticism and passages of wry, almost lilting wistfulness: “How dare you,” he retorts when Eloise notes he was once a ladies’ man as he bangs out air piano on the bar: “Still am.” Eloise’s conviction that he is Jack leads to a confrontation in which she tries to get him to confess to Sandie’s murder and record it on her phone, only for the increasingly irate man to become so distracted in his irritation he’s hit by a car, and Eloise learns not only isn’t he Jack, he’s actually Lindsay, a former policeman – the same one who decades before encouraged Sandie to get out, and has survived into old age as the keeper of the memory of all Soho’s nasty secrets. Wright leaves it frustratingly vague as to whether Lindsay dies, and indeed it’s a subtly dark touch where Wright makes his heroine essentially responsible for the death of the closest thing the period scenes offer to a hero figure.

Last Night In Soho is, evidently, a homage-cum-revision of 1960s and ‘70s giallo thrillers, most famously and specifically associated with Italian cinema and directors including Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci. But giallo can be argued to in part have British roots. The style took heavy licence from Alfred Hitchcock – Wright mischievously closes the stylisation loop by referring back to Vertigo (1958) in having Eloise’s room flooded by red and blue neon light, in good Bava style, from the neighbouring sign of an Italian restaurant much like the hotel room in the Hitchcock film – and directors like Seth Holt and George Pollock were engaged in giallo-like stories and visual motifs at the same time Bava was synthesising the giallo style and creating his signature colour film filled with clashing, drenching hues which Wright quotes copiously. The very Italian quality of the giallo as it developed was of course more one of aesthetic, the delirious gusto in entering entirely into a tricky, deceptive way of seeing that in the hands of directors like Argento and Fulci all but lost contact with standard ideals of coherent narrative. Wright honours the giallo style with expected levels of referentialism, nicking from Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) the motif of a murderous assault witnessed but misinterpreted in terms of who is attacking whom, and the obsession with dream visions and psychic connections from the Fulci films like A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971) and The Psychic (1977), devices that allowed Fulci to play cinematic games with perception and enter completely into a dreamlike space. And, in classic giallo fashion, the climax involves a gender switch of the expected killer, a gender switch connected with the style’s concern with disrupted social mores. Like Suspiria (1977), Wright’s film tracks a young student as she enters into a dark fairy-tale realm where the dangers and strangeness about her dramatise her urgent attempts to mature.

Wright also nods to a more local tradition in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), and some of its odder children like Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning (1972), variants that drew on a more psychological and realistic style of horror preoccupied with sympathetic killers whose sanity has broken down until they are isolate islands of neurosis. Wright also reminded me a little of “The Mirror” episode from Kevin Connor’s From Beyond The Grave (1973), which similarly depicted a hapless person experiencing mind-twisting visions in a recently-rented apartment, although Wright stops well short of going down the route in that story of having Eloise possessed and start killing herself, as amusing as the thought of the winsome McKenzie going on a killing spree is. Alongside the horror movie trappings, though, Last Night In Soho is also like Baby Driver before it a covert musical, and again takes its title from a song, in this case by cult ‘60s band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch, whilst its heroine is named after the song by Barry Ryan, featured in a key scene. The way Wright weaves music into the film’s texture and its storytelling rhythms is represents perhaps his best filmmaking to date. Wright’s use of music has always been inspired – the scene in Shaun of the Dead where the heroes bash zombies in semi-choreographic time to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” being a beloved example. But here he goes deeper in the way he exploits emotional associations with music, most obviously in Eloise’s first dream where Black’s singing encapsulates all her fantasies about the past and the authority of its art, segueing into Sandie and Jack’s dance together as a tableaux of retro cool.

In Eloise’s second dream of her, Sandie performs an a capella rendition of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” a song specifically about the romantic allure of the big city’s most fervent quarters, to Jack and the owner of a club called the Rialto (Terence Frisch), in an audition Jack arranged. The performance is a success, and the boss gives Sandie a job, leading to Sandie and Jack becoming lovers. So far Sandie’s story is still perfectly on song for Eloise’s idea of emerging into adulthood. Next dream, however, Eloise finds herself watching Sandie from amongst the all-male audience in the Rialto, and beholds Sandie as merely one of several back-up dancers in a burlesque act headed by “Marionetta” (Jeanie Wishes), who performs a tawdrily naughty dance whilst lip-synching Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String.” This sequence, whilst depicting bawdy high spirits, nonetheless represents one of the most effective tonal shifts I’ve ever seen in a film, as Eloise confronts the squalid flipside of her throwback dreaming. Soon enough she realises Sandie, as well as being degraded in the show, is doomed to become Jack’s thrall and pet prostitute, rented out to a parade of bland middle-aged businessmen who go through the motions of charming her to a predestined outcome involving her sprawled in depressive self-loathing on her bed back in the flat with a wad of cash laid out beside her.

Wright uses the lyrics of the Shaw song, with its jolly but oddly sinister evocation of romantic dependence, to set the scene for Sandie’s downfall, and segueing into a deliriously garish vision in which Eloise swaps places with Sandie and flees through the interior of the Rialto, glimpsing visions of grim fates for girls like her glimpsed in dressing rooms engaged in sex acts or drug use, whilst being chased by Jack who’s now become an ogrish incarnation of the sleaze. The fantasy suddenly becomes a bleak, Fellini-esque nightmare zone where the fetid flipside of the period is unveiled with all its abusive prerogatives. Wright follows this sequence with an equally effective episode where Wright communicates Sandie’s mental fracturing and apparent total defeat through her dancing frenetically to the Walker Brothers’ cover of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” dissolving in deliriously psychedelic imagery, intercut with her listless and repetitious encounters with prospective johns. Amongst these, only an encounter with a man she takes to be a cop (Sam Claflin) stands out, as he suggests she’s too good for what’s she’s doing and should get out while she can.

Last Night In Soho is, then, a story about the problems of nostalgia, rather than an unleavened paean to it. Eloise is an apt vehicle for such explorations: thanks to her empathic gifts, Eloise is able to explore the past both as spectator but also actor in it, cinema viewer and theatrical performer, a detachment that becomes increasingly frustrating – at one point Eloise tries to shatter the barrier, represented by the mirror she exists in as Sandie’s reflection, and grab hold of her in a gesture of desperate protectiveness, a moment that perfectly illustrates the powerful feeling a lot of us have in contemplating the lives of people from the past we admire but know came to a bad end, wishing we could have intervened. But detachment is also deliverance, as Eloise is safe to awaken from the vicarious demimonde. At first, at least, before her dream life begins to invade her waking one, and she’s stalked by grotesque shadow-men with blurred faces who resemble Sandie’s client-rapists, as well as Sandie and Jack themselves. The dichotomies built in here involving the difference between safe distance and immersion, sentimental longing and grim reality, cinematic image and immediate reality, invest Last Night In Soho with a depth that eludes many such genre-sampling tributes, stumbling into territory for Wright close to Brian De Palma, another arch image-player with a penchant for quoting giallo cinema, although Wright, thus far, lacks De Palma’s deeper perversity, his fascination for the dark battles in the soul he represents through his characters who are often brutally stripped of their naiveté.

Wright by contrast prizes the gawky innocence of his characters whilst also meditating on the inevitability of disillusionment and the sometimes unbearable impact of it. He has Eloise strikes up a tentative romance with John as the two uncool kids in the College of Fashion, but when the two finally try to take some time out for a little authentic youthful fun of their own as they attend a student union Halloween party and start bouncing about joyfully to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House,” and where Eloise and John’s sudden exuberance might partly be the result of Jocasta giving them spiked drinks. This island of true, personal, potentially transformative experience for Eloise nonetheless becomes a jagged trap as she starts seeing the ghostly men hovering around the dance floor, their grey semi-transparent forms flickering like the strobe lighting. An extremely effective image that also, oddly, calls back to the imagery of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World in Wright presenting the arena of music as a literal warzone, a place where people battle for control of their personalities, and perform great acts of self-discovery. Here Wright counters the jollity of that film with a jolt of ghostly visitation that can also be read as a portrait of melancholia piercing through fun, the melancholia that Eloise is trying to outrun, inherited from her mother. This theme of preternatural sensitivity to environment which operates as a kind of recording device for the common consciousness connects to a later comment by Ms Collins when Eloise asks her if someone once died in her room, “This is London – someone’s died in every room in every building in this whole city.” All cities are cities of the dead as well as the living.

The Toucan’s owner, Carol (Pauline McLynn), offers her converse version of this when she expresses a faith that her pub’s walls are haunted by ghosts of good times, as a stage where everyone – “Every gangster, every copper, every red-faced lush” – has some time of another stopped in for a drink and a laugh, forming part of the great mesh of community and continuity that imbues the city with its identity, in which every person is both a fleeting presence and a vital player, stars of their own movie overlapping with everyone else’s, and life happens in those overlapping margins. Eloise’s decision to seduce John leads into a keen example of Wright’s talent for layering his motifs, presenting her as at once a normal but troubled young person contemplating a familiar rite of passage in part to try and root herself in the here and now rather than her dark obsessions, and a very unusual one, making a desperate but oddly practical attempt to find a way to distract herself from a haunting that’s not metaphorical: from Eloise’s viewpoint an array of kissing couples in the street outside the nightclub blur and become their predecessors from another era, including the abused and maligned, part of a chain of events. When Eloise freaks out at the vision of Sandie’s apparent death as she and John try to have sex, John becomes the fool of absurd fortune, his humiliation and anxiety illustrated as he shatter a mirror and dashes out past Ms Collins with glass cutting up his feet, whilst Eloise is lost in a delirious and horrifying scene of flashing steel and spraying blood, taking to the most hyperbolic reaches imaginable the basic proposition of an initial sexual encounter proving tragically clumsy and hurtful.

Eloise, trying to find some historical record of Sandie’s death in part to prove she’s not simply suffering from a hyperactive imagination, goes trawling through old newspaper microfiche reels in the college library, not noticing that some of the faces from the old missing persons cases are awfully familiar. The Halloween dance party and its nightmarish interrupting is a brilliant scene that Wright, perhaps trying to really live up to his ambition to make above all a horror movie rather than a deconstructive impression of one, repeats arguably once or twice too often, as Eloise keeps experiencing similarly bloodcurdling and disorientating encounters with the wraiths. She cracks during one such assault during her library sojourn and tries to stab one of the ghosts, only to for her blow to be stopped just in time by John, and Eloise realises she was actually about to stab the understandably perturbed and wrathful Jocasta. It’s not at all hard to guess where the plot of Last Night In Solo leads, for anyone who’s ever watched a giallo or even an episode of a TV show like Medium, and when the casting itself serves to a degree as a giveaway. Suffice to say that there’s a very good reason Eloise finds her double-edged dream-life in the place she does, which turns out to be as crammed full of dead bodies as Reginald Christie’s notorious address. Classic giallo films liked playing games with perception, of course, much of it built around preoccupations with alluring images of beauty and complications of gender. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage climaxed with the revelation a psycho killer was actually the seemingly victimised young woman, whilst Deep Red rifled a whole Freudian litany in its often literal deconstruction of bodies and the beings that inhabit them.

Last Night In Soho takes up those preoccupations in a manner that can be seen, depending on one’s predisposition, as timely or trendy, but it’s also wound deeply into its form and function. Whilst the narrative follows a classical giallo arc to its end, why we get there is given a new spin rooted in the exposure of sexism and exploitation in the entertainment industry, where monsters beget monsters. Wright’s cunning approach to casting also made me think of how different actors in different eras are used to encapsulate similar personas, linking the ambidextrous talent of Taylor-Joy as well as her unusual looks to Rigg, and Claflin’s brief but eye-catching embodiment of the young and urbane Lindsay, ingeniously able to reproduce the notes in Stamp’s performance as a figure who is in many ways the closest thing to a hero in the narrative but fatefully stymied by a streak of smug detachment that curdles eventually into angry, guilty boding. This is also reflected in the casting of McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, who don’t really look that much alike but are able to almost will themselves to resemble each-other. Rigg, for her part, in her last role, goes out luckily with a part that depends entirely on her specific talents as an actor: Rigg’s particularity, going back to her days in The Avengers TV series, lay in her ability to suggest something steely and dangerous under a carefully maintained surface, be it the chic insouciance of Emma Peel or a wrinkly old granny type here.

When it’s finally, inevitably revealed that sweet old Ms Collin is actually Sandie, or Alexandra as was her full, true name, Rigg handles the shift in manner to great effect, letting the sly, maniacal edge Sandie’s used to survive for half a century show as she proposes to kill Eloise and John. The edge of fierce and unsentimental knowing in Rigg’s performance as well as a certain indulgent awareness about life and the mistakes people make in it up until that point changes in perception from crusty-but-likeable to disturbing, like her comment that she would have killed John if she’d caught him in the bedroom scene. Sandie confesses that she killed Jack rather than the other way around before embarking on a campaign of vicious revenge by slaying all her old johns as well, and she drugs Eloise and stabs John in a last-ditch, determined attempt to keep her secret. Wright goes for broke in the finale in a way that risks excess – indeed many have found it so – in seeking reaches of quasi-operatic grandeur to match the emotional heat of the songs Wright deploys in the film, returning to “You’re My World” as Wright switches between the reality of old Sandie stalking Eloise up the stairwell and the swooningly stylised version of her fantasy where she’s young again and bringing the murderous pain in a most glam way. Here, Wright tries to twin the opposite poles of his cinematic lexicon in a new manner, the adoration of grandiose spectacle and show business colliding with sordid reality.

The climax still has its twists, as the ghostly men seem to erupt out of the floor and walls, and demand Eloise gain revenge and kill Sandie, only to wring a note of tragicomic sickness out of the sight of the shades all cringing like chastised boys as Sandie looms over them and they remember the savage wounds she inflicted. Only the ghostly Jack with his leering, provoking sneer holds the line in maintaining what is actually his perpetual puppet-play where even in murder and afterlife Sandie and the others can’t escape until cleansing fire claims them all. Wright tries to have his cake of genre fulfilment and eat his slice of revisionism, and there is some concomitant awkwardness. But ultimately I appreciated his attempt to be more complex, the dead men just as misogynistic and implacable as they were alive but not merely rendered as undead demons needing putting down again, Sandie neither fully crazed nor entirely sympathetic in answering abuse with abuse, grinding on in a joyless cycle that creates little hells on earth, a hell which, as Lindsay warned earlier, was in part Sandie’s own choice. Eloise refuses to let Sandie cut her own throat, but still has to leave her to her auto-da-fe, catching a last sight of the youthful Sandie seated on her old bed, about to be consumed by boiling flames, striking in her pathos but also at least finally gaining the kind of spectacular ending any good performer deserves. Wright includes a coda that sees Eloise emerging as a designing star with her flowing retro creations now bobbing on the bodies of male models, watched by her grandmother and the healed-up John, whilst Sandie’s image is now the one that keeps watch from the mirror, signalling Eloise has embraced the ambiguities, gender and otherwise, of the present and is keeping the cautionary example, and sense of mission, gained in her ordeal.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Thriller

No Time To Die (2021)

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Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Screenwriters: Cary Joji Fukunaga, Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Phoebe Waller-Bridge

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

It feels like an eternity ago when Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond. The thought of a rugged, jug-eared, blonde-haired bruiser in the role caused consternation and debate amongst fans fond of the character’s popular image as a slick, dark, handsome toff in a tuxedo. But Craig’s debut in the role, Casino Royale (2006), proved an audience-delighting smash hit and a smart reinvention of the well-worn franchise: taking its cue from Ian Fleming’s debut novel, Casino Royale stepped back from familiar, much-loved template filled with absurdist action, sci-fi gimmicks, and quasi-surreal villainy, and instead aimed for something tougher, earthier, more realistic, an edge that had been present in the earliest films in the series like From Russia With Love (1963) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and briefly returned to in For Your Eyes Only (1981). Casino Royale owed much of its success to the direction of New Zealander Martin Campbell, who had previously reinvented Bond effectively for the 1990s in Goldeneye (1995). But it was Craig’s strength in the role that enthralled the zeitgeist, his muscular sex appeal and skill in depicting Bond’s evolution from a relatively unsophisticated government goon to something more like the familiar, suave, ice-cold agent. Craig’s stint as Bond has been the longest of any actor to date at 15 years, although he’s made less movies in that time than either Sean Connery or Roger Moore, thanks to oddities of fate like the credit squeeze that held up making Skyfall (2012) and the Covid-19 pandemic that delayed release of No Time To Die, Craig’s avowed last turn in the part.

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Craig’s tenure has also been bedevilled by violent unevenness in the quality and reception of his actual movies, even if the actor himself has held on to general, if not universal, acclaim essaying the role. Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace (2008) was met by many as an excessively hyperactive, underwritten entry, and Sam Mendes’ Spectre (2015) was also met as a letdown after Mendes and Craig scored a colossal success with Skyfall, a movie that managed to convince the rest of the world to play along with Britain’s reborn nationalist delirium. For myself, despite being a Bond fan and nominally appreciating the moves the franchise made back towards Fleming’s model, I’ve found it hard to really like the Craig era. Quantum of Solace was a bruising disappointment after the excellence of Casino Royale, and I also found Skyfall rather ungainly; ironically I liked Spectre a lot more than many, whilst conceding it had serious problems. Campbell’s touch on Casino Royale expertly mediated the new sock-in-the-teeth grit with some of the old globetrotting lushness in a manner at once smart and unpretentious, but the production team’s choice to bring in artier talents proved frustrating. Forster’s tilt, much like his supposedly serious movies, proved flashy and facetious. Mendes’ gift for creating adamantine imagery with a sense of scale and solidity and touched with gentle abstraction helped the series retain its aura of lush, ultra-classy style – you could all but smell the money being spent during his entries – but at the price of a somewhat languid pace and a sense of top-heavy self-importance in a franchise that once served up neo-matinee serial thrills.

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There were subtler problems with the Craig-era films, too. The Bond series had long sustained itself vampirically through emulating pop culture trends – annexing Blaxploitation for Live and Let Die (1973) and the sci-fi craze of the late 1970s for Moonraker (1979), for instance, or even the parkour and Texas Hold ‘Em portions of Casino Royale – whilst retaining its own, mooring roster of demarcating tropes – the inimitable Monty Norman and John Barry theme, the opening gun-barrel logo scene and dreamy pop-art credit sequences filled with naked, silhouetted women, the familiar in-universe touches like Bond’s weapon of choice, the Walther PPK, and supporting characters like Q and  Miss Moneypenny. The choice of divesting the series of many of these for Casino Royale came with a mooted promise to bring them back as Craig’s Bond evolved, whilst in the meantime the new films heavily emulated first the Jason Bourne films with their maniacally edited hand-to-hand combat and chase scenes and superficial cynicism towards statecraft, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, particularly The Dark Knight (2008), which Skyfall emulated to such a degree it sometimes felt like someone had erased the names from Nolan’s script and pencilled in new ones. The emulation of strong tendencies in contemporary serialised storytelling also drew the Craig Bonds to adopt a running storyline that managed to be at once negligible and convoluted, and an insistence on personalised conflicts and revenge themes based in backstory, leading to the point where even protozoa on Ganymede rolled their eyes when the series reintroduced Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the mastermind of SPECTRE, only to now characterise him as Bond’s resentful adoptive brother and chronic behind-the-curtain tormentor.

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Skyfall and Spectre did at least serve to fulfil the promise of reintroducing the familiar Bond tropes with a fresh sense of their function. Spectre, in bringing back Blofeld (played inevitably but with curious miscasting by Christoph Waltz) and resetting the table so SPECTRE could once again provide ideal running villains detached from geopolitical tides, seemed to finally set the scene so the series could go wild again. Trouble is, the Craig-era films were simultaneously locked into another pattern, one obedient to current screenwriting clichés and the niceties of star vehicles. Craig’s advancing age was thematically tethered to Bond’s backdated status as a retro kind of hero and already being joked about in Skyfall, and now with No Time To Die Craig’s popularity in the part essentially obliges the franchise to eat its own tail. What was supposed to be a superhero’s origin story is suddenly, abruptly a fin-de-siecle meditation and dismantling. No Time To Die breaks with series traditions in many obvious and very arch ways, starting with being directed by an American for the first time, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who sometime back suggested a gift for filming very English material with his intelligent and textured work on Jane Eyre (2011) and brought cinematic attitude to the TV series True Detective. On the face of it, he seems like just the sort of talent to give the series a shot in the arm and help Craig wrap up in a blaze of glory. But something went very, very wrong here.

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No Time To Die opens with a long flashback sequence to when Bond’s current paramour, Madeleine Swann, a doctor and the daughter of the deadly former SPECTRE operative Mr White, was a child (played at that age by Coline Defaud), at home with her alcoholic mother (Mathilde Bourbin): a man wearing a kabuki mask, who we later learn is named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), traverses the snowy woods outside, enters the home, and kills the mother. Madeleine shoots Safin, but fails to kill him, and as she flees she falls through the ice covering a neighbouring lake. The intruder, rather than leaving her to die, saves her life. Cut to thirty-odd years later: Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) is travelling through Italy with Bond after he quit MI6 at the end of Spectre. As the pair resolve to make their peace with the ghosts haunting them as they stay in the town of Matera, Bond at Madeleine’s encouragement goes to say farewell at the grave of Vesper Lynd, his great love from Casino Royale. But Bond is almost killed by a bomb secreted in her tomb, and is chased by a gang of SPECTRE agents working under Blofeld’s command despite him being in strict isolation in an English prison. Hints given both by one of the assassins and Blofeld himself as he rings Madeleine on her cell phone, as well as her earlier encouragement, tell Bond she set him up for the assassination, and after he manages to wipe out the killers Bond stick her on a train and tells her she’ll never see him again.

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The opening flashback puts a value on Madeleine’s past and perspective which does resurface later in the film, and yet I still don’t feel it was justified especially in a movie so long, but Fukunaga does tap the image of the masked man suddenly appearing in the window of the house for a jolt of effective creepiness. The subsequent sequences in the lengthy pre-credits movement are excellent. Fukunaga and the production team do their best to provide some thundering good action with some thankfully real-looking stunts as Bond throws himself behind a small brick fixture on an ancient stonework bridge to avoid being run over by a speeding car and then leaps off the bridge using a power cable as a bungee cord, and a few moments later rides a captured motorcycle up a cyclopean wall and leaps onto a terrace. This is the sort of daring, vivid, no-bullshit stunt work that’s been sorely missing from too much contemporary action cinema. But Fukunaga breaks the spell a few moments later when he has Bond, behind the wheel now of his beloved Aston-Martin, eject some miniature bombs that blow up a pursuing vehicle, done with obviously, horribly fake CGI. It’s dismaying that even James Bond films no longer have the courage of their own megabudget, go-big-or-go-home convictions.

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Nonetheless Craig-as-Bond is at his best in this sequence: the way his eyes go wide and glazed in their fixed and murderous ferocity where he was warm and romantic a few seconds earlier, betrays Craig’s intelligent feel for how being an action hero requires a rarefied and demanding kind of acting, and builds to a moment when he seems paralysed by rage and heartbreak as he and the bewildered Madeleine are trapped in the Aston-Martin by gunmen who pound it with machine gun fire. Bond seems to be considering letting them both be shredded by the bullets once they finally puncture the armoured body as a just end for her deception and his foolishness, before his better self kicks back in as he beholds Madeleine’s weeping, terrified face, and he wipes out the shooters with the car’s secreted machine guns. A marvellous moment that knows how to express character through action, and seems to promise a Bond movie for the ages. The familiarly stylised credits sequence tips one of many nods to Peter Hunt’s series high On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in revisiting the imagery in Maurice Binder’s credits sequence for that film involving a Britannia figure and hourglasses, seen here crumbling to pieces and sinking to the ocean floor, with Billie Eilish’s duly dirge-like theme song on sound: the increasingly morbid and languid tenor of the last three Bond themes has exacerbated a certain cheerlessness starting to cling to the series.

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The narrative proper takes up five years after the shootout in Matera, with a unit of heavily armed SPECTRE goons invading a covert germ warfare laboratory in a London skyscraper (!) to snatch a turncoat scientist, Obruchev (David Denchik), and a nanobot virus he was developing at the behest of M (Ralph Fiennes), capable of being programmed to kill anything from a specific person to an entire ethnic genome, and codenamed Heracles. Bond now in solitary, disaffected retirement in Jamaica, is visited by his pal and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), along with a State Department official, Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen): they want to hire Bond to track down Obruchev as they’ve caught wind of the danger his invention represents. Bond initially turns them down, before he’s confronted by a British agent, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), who is soon revealed to be Bond’s replacement as 007: Nomi warns Bond not to get involved, which is a good way to make sure he does. Bond goes to Cuba where Leiter and Ash tell him Obruchev was last spotted, and in downtown Havana he finds the entire SPECTRE team gathered together to celebrate Blofeld’s birthday. Bond makes contact with an American agent, Paloma (Ana de Armas), who professes to being a recent recruit with three weeks’ training, but unleashes major skills when things go haywire.

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Bond realises too late that he’s been lured to this place by Blofeld who wants his death by Heracles to be the crowning moment of the celebration, but when the virus is released it instead kills all the SPECTRE bigwigs: Obruchev, whose true master is Safin, has doublecrossed them. Bond and Paloma fight their way out and engage in a little friendly rivalry with Nomi in trying to catch Obruchev: Bond wins and flies him to a CIA spy ship disguised as a trawler where he meets with Leiter and Ash. But Ash proves to be another traitor in league Safin: he shoots Felix and leaves him and Bond to die as a mine blows a hole in the boat. Bond can’t save Felix, but he manages to escape and when he returns to London has a charged confrontation with M, before allying with Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw) to fully understand Heracles and seek out Safin. Bond demands to see Blofeld, who usually only allows Madeleine, now living in London and serving hand-picked as his psychotherapist, to visit him. Preparing for the next session, Madeleine is visited by Safin, and who blackmails her into spiriting a vial of Heracles in to Blofeld. Madeleine flees before actually confronting Blofeld, but Bond, having touched her, transmits the virus to Blofeld when he gets mad and tries to throttle him, and Blofeld promptly expires. When Bond goes to visit Madeleine, they swiftly reconnect, but life throws a new wrinkle Bond’s way – Madeleine has a daughter, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet), who he notices has his eyes: Madeleine swears she isn’t his, but of course she’s lying.

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No Time To Die proves maniacally determined to cross the Ts and dot the Is when it comes to wrapping up Craig’s tenure, which, I might as well say now seeing everyone in the universe knows already, ends with Bond dying. In the process, the film completely contradicts the supposed initial promise of Craig’s entries as origin story. Instead, it exacerbates a trend that had been noticeable in Skyfall and Spectre in playing as a compressed greatest hits collection of tropes, but muted and pinched to fit in with the nominally more terse and down-to-earth Craig style, whilst also burning them as fuel for its own star vehicle engine. No Time To Die bewilderingly sets about wiping out Blofeld and SPECTRE just after they were restored to their proper place in the franchise, and also Wright’s Leiter, on the build-up to the climax where Bond himself finally seems to bite a bullet. Or missile. It’s as if the filmmakers feel that Craig is now so integral to Bond mystique that the character can’t survive in the same form beyond him as far as his fans are concerned, and so as far as this wing of the franchise goes, all the outstanding business must be ticked off. Or is simply that contemporary Hollywood screenwriting needs big bangs all the way through, and the only way to prove how big No Time To Die must be taken as is to be, as TV commercials might put it with thumping music stings, The. One. That. Changes. Everything.

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Craig’s films have repeatedly tried to root themselves in concepts and lore taken in Fleming’s books, many of which were casually tossed aside as the film series became its own happily ridiculous thing, in continuing on from Casino Royale, the film of which obeyed the novel in presenting Bond as the product of heartbreak and disillusionment. The death of Vesper Lynd left him hollowed and icy, but Fleming’s most cunning and effective twist on this was that it finally made Bond the perfect spy. The Craig film accepted this as its own new beginning, but has, ironically, been dedicated to contradicting it since. Fukunaga and the screenwriters tip their hand many times to Fleming’s closely linked later novels, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice, which saw Bond married and widowed at the hands of Blofeld in the space of a few pages, then travelling to Japan where he tracked down Blofeld and killed him before finishing up as an amnesiac living to a local diving girl and presumed dead by the world. Fleming had made a stab at killing off Bond before in From Russia With Love, only to bring him back for Doctor No, and when he tried to rid himself of the spy a second time deliberately left it more open-ended. So Fleming was hardly averse to the idea of his great hero proving very mortal, but he kept walking it back anyway.

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The film version of You Only Live Twice threw out much of that novel’s business, but the adaptation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service stuck closely to the template, ending famously with a note of tragic romanticism with Bond murmuring “We have all the time in the world” over his wife Tracy’s dead body, the phrase also providing the title to the Louis Armstrong warbled theme song for the film. No Time To Die gives warning this will be a reference point early on by having Bond repeat the “All the time in the world” line to Madeleine as they drive about in bliss, which for anyone who knows the series lore immediately sets antennae twitching, and wraps up with the Armstrong song, which is both agreeable – it’s one of the great themes and Armstrong’s singing is unbeatable – and a bit arch. It also incorporates the marvellous concept in You Only Live Twice of the villain propagating a garden filled with poisonous plants, although this classic touch of Fleming’s borderline surreal morbid imagery is here rendered in flavourless visual terms. At least, for the first time since Pierce Brosnan’s run, the plot stakes here offer the once-standard motif of a megalomaniac out to terrorise the world, working from a secret headquarters on a remote island – Safin’s father was in charge of a former Soviet chemical and missile plant on an island in disputed waters, where Safin grew up and now has set up a plant to manufacture Heracles there. Safin’s remorseless project of revenge was set in motion when Mr White killed his family by poisoning them all with smallpox, which Safin survived albeit badly scarred. Now, once he finishes his mission of wiping out SPECTRE, he turns his attention to remaking the world, mostly into corpses. He also seems to feel some sort of proprietary interest in Madeleine, feeling that he in effect owns her after saving her life, which makes it a bit confusing as to why he’s decided to wait thirty years or so to take possession of her.

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Most of this heavy stuff is held off to the second half of the film at least. The first half tries on the other hand to restore some jauntiness too many felt had deserted the series. The added screenwriting hand of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose TV series Killing Eve offered its own, semi-satirical spin on a Bond-esque universe of assassins and spies, and which No Time To Die clearly seeks to emulate to a degree, is very apparent in this half, if not to much advantage. A lot of the humour falls flat, or at least it did for me, feeling entirely at odds with the tenor of the rest of the film. This in particular clings to Obruchev, who despite being a major villain in the film is also its comic relief: in his first scene where he’s being teased by his fellow scientists, he threatens to kill them in return. This tendency also inflects the scenes involving Paloma, although it works much better there, in part because De Armas knows exactly how to sell a blend of superficial naiveté and secret dynanism. The scene where Fukunaga cuts between Bond and Paloma engaged in their own style of fighting, Bond in brutal fisticuffs with a SPECTRE goon, Paloma using explosive gymnastic dexterity and ingenious physical wit, is a highpoint not just for movie but the series in general, particularly in the wry punctuation of Bond falling from a balcony and springing back up again and patting himself down again to recover his savoir faire, before pouring himself and Paloma a drink and the two downing theirs with brusque aplomb.

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The ebullience of this scene nonetheless points up the shortcomings of the rest of the film rather painfully, particularly when it comes to Nomi, who’s posited in the film alternately as Bond’s replacement, rival, foil, and comrade-in-arms. Lynch has the right statuesque swagger for the part, but Nomi emerges as seriously underwritten and scarcely conceived beyond the basic proposition of “tough black chick,” and by comparison to the eager, surprising Paloma, she feels like a walking cliché and no fun to boot. I also got the feeling she’s a victim of the rather garbled midsection of the film which might have been the result of hasty reshoots. Bond’s contretemps with M also feels like a victim of this, leaping from the two having quite the falling out, in very English polite English fashion, when they meet face-to-face for the first time in years, only to be relatively chummy again a couple of scenes later, and there’s definitely some connective tissue missing there. This is also strongly suggested through small but consequential plot details like the fact Blofeld in prison is able to communicate through a bionic eye implanted in him somehow, which is a nice, very Bondian idea, except that its discovery and removal all take place off screen. The core team of M, Q, and Moneypenny, well-served in the past two entries, here get very little to do. Q in particular, despite being playfully characterised here as gay, is still reduced to a character who taps rapidly at keyboards and explains the plot. Oh, and Rory Kinnear’s Tanner is still around, doing whatever it is he does. Other problems are more existential for this material. Spectre interestingly mooted the continued need for the human touch in spy work in an age of cyber and drone warfare, which actually gave that entry a hint of contemporary political relevance, something the Bond series has generally run away from since its earliest days when it swapped out Soviets for SPECTRE as the necessary villains. But it also saddled itself with the silliest countdown in movie history as Bond and company had to race against a ticking clock…to when a computer system would go online!

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No Time To Die similarly chooses a MacGuffin in the nanobot virus that’s both difficult to make work in a movie and also somewhat worn out as a plot device in sci-fi action flicks. Which wouldn’t be as much as an issue but it feeds into the clumsiness of the film’s narrative, which the urgent attempts to earn gravitas through killing off familiar characters feel mostly designed to paper over. No Time To Die take the cake-and-eat-it-too tendencies of the Craig era to the limit, setting up all the old-school Bond tropes at last but still also play off the beat, in a way that foils narrative intensity, as when Safin simply lets Mathilde go, whilst the jokey playing of Obruchev means he’s never convincing as a villain but not actually funny either. Nomi feels like the biggest victim of this indecisiveness. She’s plainly introduced as a sort of goad to the much-mooted idea of generation change in supplanting Bond with a black woman, one who treats him with an edge of cutting condescension (“I’ll put a bullet in your knee,” she promises when warning him against interference, “The one that still works.”), even if she finds he’s still able to give as good as he gets. Of course, they eventually become mutually reliant partners, and Nomi hands back the 00 title to Bond. There’s no particularly good reason given for why they’ve become less antagonistic by this point or why Nomi should give up a rank she presumably earned: of course James Bond should die, if he must, as 007, but the script fudges, and somewhere along the line Nomi was left as a fifth wheel rather than a potent new figure. Nomi is eventually given one would-be iconic vignette late in the film when she vengefully pushes Obruchev into a vat of his own nanovirus after he threatens to turn his invention on the “west African diaspora.” Mass-murdering bad guy? Fair enough. Racist too? Die, mofo!

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It’s been compulsory for film critics to take a poke at the nominally outmoded aspects of Bond as a character and franchise for decades now, apparently oblivious to the fact that the series itself has been tapping it as a source of humour since the quips in Live And Let Die about “following a cue ball” and through segues like Judi Dench’s M tautologically calling him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” in Goldeneye, as well the issue of a superspy belonging to a country that had devolved into a mid-range power by the time he was created. There’s been a lot of debate lately about replacing Craig with an actor of colour or even a woman. The problem with such proposals, modishly pleasing as they are, is they reveal a fatal misunderstanding of what Bond is. The basic appeal of the character is rooted in ironic contrast, his surface appearance of the classic English gentleman hiding an existential shark whose interests, talents, and occupation all converge in bringing mayhem, delivering orgasm, and tempting chance, in about that order. Mendes got that, at least, particularly at the start of Spectre when he had Craig-as-Bond wearing a Day of the Dead mask and waving a red rose, his basic functions as bringer of death and life reduced to essential symbolism with a hint of morbid humour. There’s still nobody quite like him around: compare him to the gelded stable of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, full of grown men who can barely speak to a woman. Only Tony Stark, who tellingly birthed that franchise, was conceived in a Bondian manner – his first entry even sported a direct lampoon in playing Bondish guitar music over Tony having a quickie. Of course, Stark’s maturation saw him obliged to leave that behind, and Craig’s tenure sees him somewhat ironically obliged to follow that arc, now even forced to mimic Stark in Avengers: Endgame (2019), which also saw him become a father and die at the end. There isn’t even a hint of the fun Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) found could be tapped in the idea of a loner hero finding he’s a dad.

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The cinematic Bond’s arrival on the pop culture scene in 1962 heralded a tectonic shift in many regards, but one above all. Certainly Bond was a male power fantasy at a zenith, but he owes his success to also being a female one: Bond’s sexual prowess was a resource more valuable than all Auric Goldfinger’s bullion, capable of rewriting the world’s rules, as in Goldfinger (1964) itself, where the only actual, positive thing Bond does to alter the outcome of the plot is be a good enough lay to win Pussy Galore back to the side of right and virtue. Bond became thus the first authentic modern icon of female sexual need, save perhaps Dracula, a character with many fundamental similarities to Bond. The way a lot of critics talk about this aspect of Bond now, you’d think nobody in the world has casual hook-ups. Anyway, the Craig era’s general response to this has been to make Bond less an erotic swashbuckler and defined more as a kind of emotionally crippled pseudo-stud. Which would be fine, close indeed to Fleming’s character, but the Craig cycle has refused to stick to it; again, we are trapped within the formats of modern screenwriting manuals. Craig’s arrival in the role rang bells across the world with his shirtless beach scene, but now he’s middle-aged despite still being in ferociously good shape. Skyfall’s best moment also gave the best new twist on Bond’s sexuality, when the villain teased him with queer flirtation, “First time for everything,” to Bond’s unblinking, ever-so-cool retort, “What makes you think this is my first time?” The perfect line: on the one hand a nimble revision of the undercurrents (and sometimes overcurrents) of homophobia in some earlier movies and in Fleming, on the other one that just seemed to fit: of course Bond would have tried every dish before settling on a favourite. Anyway, No Time To Die has no such adroitness. Instead it settles for a few jabs at the idea of aging lotharios, with Bond striking out with both Nomi and Paloma, before taking it to the logical extreme of having suddenly face up to being a family man.

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Craig and Seydoux were good together in Spectre, but here they totally fizzle in terms of chemistry, not that the script gives them much chance to work it up again. Madeleine’s reappearance in the story is so sudden and happenstance it’s almost like a reel got skipped, before the film underlines Bond’s new emotional dimension in the most hackneyed manner conceivable. In the prior film Madeleine was cool and ambiguous: now she’s the vaguely tragic baby mama, and that does her as few favours as it does Bond, until she becomes the object of Safin’s weirdly obscure attentions. It pains me to say that Craig himself eventually became part of the problem he was supposed to cure. There’s a pretty familiar pattern to Bond actors getting tired with the demands of the role and the consuming nature of the career-arresting fame that comes with it, and Craig’s increasing unease in the part has been apparent for a while now, even as he’s become so fixed to it in the public imagination. Craig’s good-humoured recent performances for Steven Soderbergh and Rian Johnson have indicated the kinds of parts he’d rather be playing. Craig still delivers in some vignettes, as already noted: he’s too good an actor and too smart a star to walk through a part. But somewhere along the line his characterisation was drained of the roguish force he evinced at the start of his tenure, and Craig’s pinch-mouthed and squinty impersonation of grim grit, once refreshing, is now somewhat rote, and as the character’s basic qualities have been eroded – his sex appeal, his omnicompetence, his jet-setting savoir faire, his dark relish for adrenalized thrills – his Bond stopped feeling groundbreaking and just became, well, a bit of a drag. The irony of No Time To Die is that it suggests the filmmakers were aware of this and wanted to put some zest back into things, only to then be obliged to double down on the pseudo-seriousness.

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Of course, one can simply say that No Time To Die obeys the logic of Craig’s Bond as something distinct and discrete in the history of the character, and that’s fair enough, I suppose, but it also made me really pine for the good old days. Malek is surprisingly effective as Safin, playing his supervillain as soft-spoken almost to the point of feyness whilst retaining a cold conviction that he feels is perfectly reasonable even when revealing utter mania. The film does its best to build him up as a truly threatening, apocalyptic figure, from his creepy, slasher movie-like entrance through his process of wiping out such storied figures as Leiter and Blofeld. And yet Safin never comes close to being a Bond villain for the ages: he feels more like the ultimate by-product of the Craig era’s tendency to take an each-way bet when it comes to the series legacy, trying at once to present a vaguely realistic figure but also inhabit the superstructure of the old, epic-scale series villainy. He’s not physically threatening enough to lend real, feral intensity to their final confrontation – compare the limp tussle here to, say, Bond and Blofeld’s bobsled battle in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – and he lacks the kind of arrogant stature and venom that’s long defined Bond’s most indelible enemies. Instead he’s offered rather too nudgingly in the screenwriting manual fashion as a mirror of the hero, to the point of giving him a very slightly revised version of the archetypal “we’re not so different, you and I” speech, and having them battle over possession of Madeleine and Mathilde. In that last regard, the film can’t even really commit to the basic melodramatic spur of a bad guy endangering a hero’s mate and child: instead we get a helluva lot of wandering around corridors shooting anonymous henchmen.

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I counted down to the virtually inevitable moment when Fukunaga would, as he did on True Detective, interpolate a one-take action scene, another contemporary cliché that Mendes already ticked off at the start of Spectre: Fukunaga’s version is a long strenuous tussle on a flight of stairs that’s not half as engaging as recent variations on the same idea in movies like Atomic Blonde (2017) and Extraction (2020). Whilst I still think Fukunaga’s a talent, his work here for the most part feels rather fidgety and anonymous, and poorly geared to the rhythm of the performances. The action scenes aren’t particularly clever or well-staged either, except, again, for the opening, and bits and bobs like a nod to the gun barrel logo sequence in a different context, and the smart use of wildly varying vantages in the Havana fight. The scene of Obruchev being kidnapped begins with sleek, semi-abstract images that suggest a real style-fest is in the offing. There’s a solid chase that caps the second act in which Safin, Ash, and an array of goons chase after Bond and his new family into a fog-drenched Norwegian forest, which reminded me nonetheless just a little too strongly of the battle on Takodana in Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) in serving the same purpose of providing a lot of bash and crash as a distraction whilst the villain snatches away someone precious to the hero. Ash is another character who suggests possibilities that barely get to register: Magnussen plays him as a bland WASP who’s also a star-struck Bond fanboy (do secret agents have fans?), but also a cunning and ruthless turncoat, a mixture that could be witty but here just feel random. He ought to have been kept around to loan some extra villainous presence to the climax, but he bows out in a nod to For Your Eyes Only when Bond literally drops a car on him as revenge for Leiter.

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The film does finally hit the right notes again quite late in proceedings when Bond confronts Safin after invading his island base and finding its overlord seated behind a modernist-minimalist desk with Mathilde on knee. Suddenly, for a couple of crucial minutes, No Time To Die feels like an ideal James Bond film, with the classic situation of two extremely dangerous men with very different worldviews playing at calm conversation whilst discussing stakes both personal and global, given a new gloss by the hard conviction of the actors. The punchline of the film must be that Safin deliberately infects Bond with a dose of Heracles, this one programmed to make sure he can’t ever touch Madeleine and Mathilde again without killing them. This is entirely contrived to place Bond into a cul-de-sac he doesn’t want to escape as missiles rain down to wipe out the base, even as it scarcely makes a lick of sense on a basic plot level. Why the hell would Safin waste time on such a thing? Why not actually just kill Bond with it, especially considering Bond shoots him dead a few seconds later? Then he could still make sure his evil plan can be carried out. All right, so Safin’s a man with a well-developed sense of irony as well as a mass-murderer, sure. All this still plainly happens entirely so the film can have its ending, and apparently disturbs Bond so much he can’t face living without Madeleine and Mathilde, who he was doing a perfectly fine job of living without a few days earlier. So he climbs to the top of the base and lets the missiles rain down on him. This is designed to preclude any doubt of the character’s fate, with Bond disappearing in the blinding light of erupting bombs. “James Bond Will Return,” the very end credits nonetheless assure. There is direct heed paid to the end of the novel You Only Live Twice in the choice of poetic eulogy M chooses to read to his team in memorial of Bond.

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Perhaps the filmmakers intend a segue into some variation on Fleming’s last, posthumously-published revival of the character, The Man With The Golden Gun, where Bond turned up after several years in amnesiac exile after being thought dead. But if they want to go that route, they ought to have been a tad less explicit. Such questions are, I expect, being held off for the time being. The real point of this ending is to allow Craig to draw a firm line under his tenancy and allow another reboot. After all, if Spider-Man can keep going through the same origin story again and again, why not James Bond? It’s the sort of thing that might please those who considered Craig the apotheosis of the franchise, but will leave others wincing and wondering why they even bothered. What’s most galling is that when one considers the many references to previous entries and to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, realisation dawns that as well as filching from Marvel and The Force Awakens, No Time To Die is also powerfully beholden to another J.J. Abrams movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013). That film, whilst okay in itself, has deservedly become a byword for incoherent franchise remixing and self-sabotage, particularly in the finale where it decided to rearrange the immortal end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) so that Kirk dies instead of Spock, whilst casually denuding all the qualities that made the model so memorable. No Time To Die does basically the same thing in having Bond rather than his great amour die, and also forgets what made that long-ago tragic ending so strong, the stinging irony of a man so talented at keeping himself alive cursed to remain that way after crushing loss. By comparison this Bond’s end feels like a sigh of relief. Bond’s greatest enemy isn’t Blofeld, or Safin, or love, or time, or fate, but the shrunken horizons of modern franchise creativity. The price paid for making Bond more earthbound, it seems, is to eventually drive him into the mud.

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2020s, Auteurs, Drama, Fantasy, French cinema, Horror/Eerie

Titane (2021)

Director / Screenwriter: Julia Ducournau

By Roderick Heath

Film festivals are in an odd position these days. Given the wealth of venues for viewing movies we have now, the idea of gathering everyone together in one place to watch the new crop threatens to feel passé. And yet critics and cognoscenti still look to the major film festivals to winnow down the ridiculous number of movies produced these days, to showcase and gate-keep for the supposed crème de la crème. The Cannes Film Festival has been the premiere event in the international cinema calendar since the late 1940s, providing a great crossroads for the many artistic streams around the world, but it’s still had a bumpy ride in the past few years, with a large number of Palme d’Or winners failing to make much impact. Recently, however, Cannes has managed to reverse that to a degree, first with 2019’s anointed Palme d’Or winner, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, and this year’s Titane, both choices well-attuned to capitalise on contemporary cultural talking points, much as the Venice Film Festival created a stir with its 2019 choice Joker. Such choices, however good as actual films they are, nudge awareness that current film discussion is animated as much by the way art is framed as much as by what it does in itself. The way movies are sold to us today is in terms of cultural discussion as important, or indeed more so, as the movies themselves, one reason why today YouTubers can make a good living fossicking through trailers interpreting the signals blockbuster movies are transmitting into the populace, and in art-house cinema touching on hot-button issues can make a movie seem vitally important even if its message is something like, “greed is bad,” and when you’re desperately trying to make up for a roster of seventy-odd previous Palme d’Or winners where only one was directed by a woman.

All that doesn’t really have much to do with Julia Ducournau’s Titane beyond noting that it’s very easy these days to be pulled into reviewing the way a movie is framed by external factors rather than the movie itself. But today we might well be facing cinema that plays this game within itself. On YouTube it’s common to see movie trailers that start off with a kind of miniature trailer within a trailer, a little grab-bag of moments of action and spectacles offered as a taster presumably offered to instantly capture the attention of attention-deficient young people. Again, this doesn’t necessarily have much to do with Titane, except that the film’s narrative approach reminded a little of this: Titane is frontloaded with elements of attention-getting intransigence before taking a swerve into something for the large part more conventional. Ducournau emerged in 2017 with the gruesome, stylish Raw, a portrait of a girl attending a veterinarian school, who contends with the abusive social strata in the student body and begins to develop voracious cannibalistic traits. Ducournau immediately declared herself in the running as one of the many possible heirs to David Cronenberg as the founder and champion of “body horror” on the current scene. Ducournau is also working in a familiar stream of outrageous, carnally and intellectually provocative French filmmaking long plied by the likes of Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, and Jean-Claude Brisseau: Ducournau borrows Vincent Lindon to play a similar character type as he did in Denis’ Bastards (2013), the igneous but weathered exemplar of Gallic manhood.

Body horror retains an aura of cool because it readily situates itself at a fruitful nexus of cinema’s most low-down and most exalted aesthetic vantages: any director who dabbles in it is automatically edgy because not everyone can stomach it, but it’s easy to be considered elevated in the mode too, because body horror challenges contemporary culture’s obsession with physical wellness and beauty and easy commercialised images of such by degrading, perverting, and outright assaulting such imagery with inversions of decay, damage, and grotesquery: it is therefore, intellectually and aesthetically, connected with the deliberate destabilisation and defiling of form found in post-World War I modernist art. Which leads me to consider another odd contemporary trait: nostalgic attachment to yesterday’s iconoclasm, often matched by an absolute resistance to current iconoclasm. Anyway. Ducournau’s first film, in a manner that’s becoming increasingly pervasive in current, ambitious horror cinema, turned the cannibalistic theme into an unsubtle metaphor, in this case for emergent sexuality, which was something horror cinema had done arguably to more effect before, but the framing of quasi-abstract artiness made it more respectable, more discourse-worthy. One problem with body horror is that, to me at any rate, it’s a style most effective when being sparing. Many of Cronenberg’s imitators, constantly trying to up the ante of provocation and abnormality, see their films devolve into sprawls of blood and other bodily fluids without that much wit or depth to their musings, and indeed I too often get the feeling the showmanship is substituting for anything actually stimulating to say.

Ducournau is most interesting for most onlookers as a female filmmaker venturing into this zone, and both Raw and Titane are predicated around impudently twisting ideals of femaleness on screen. Actually Titane is ultimately rather old-fashioned, given the fiercely schismatic debates going on about gender and its meaning today, in what it says about the female body. Ducournau’s journey to that end is a long and winding one. She begins with a jarring scene that presents an everyday sort of life-altering disaster: 7-year-old Alexia (Adele Guigui) sitting in the backseat of her father’s (Bertrand Bonello) SUV, stokes his irritation with constant humming, fidgeting, and finally unbuckling her seat belt and flipping about; when the father turns momentarily to force her back into her seat, he loses control of the car and it crashes against kerbside barrier blocks. Cut to gruesome surgery scenes as surgeons implant a titanium cap in her skull, which leaves her with a large scar, and Ducournau’s vision of the shaven-headed Alexia, encaged by a steel truss (nodding less to Cronenberg than to the vision of the hospitalised father in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, 1986, another constant point of emulation for would-be art-house provocateurs) presents her as something already ambiguous in gender and physical integrity, a fusion of human and machine, a misbegotten by-product of rage, damage, and family. As she’s released from hospital, Alexia walks to the family car, caressing it and hugging it, pressing her scar against the window glass as if in intimate communion.

Ducournau takes this basic idea to a weird and literal extreme as the adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is portrayed as erotically attracted to cars. Ducournau stages a long, dynamic tracking shot travelling through the environs of an auto show where exotic dancers gyrate atop vehicles to The Kills’ “Doing It To Death,” conjoining the fetishisation of flesh and of shiny steel for the titillation of the mostly male consumers, but Alexia has ironically taken this to the logical conclusion as her dances are to covertly get her rocks off with the machines, even as they’ve made her famous in this world. But Alexia’s strange tastes have a dangerous side. Showering after her performance, she gets her hair entangled with the nipple ring of a friendly fellow dancer, Justine (Garance Marillier), in a moment of comic intimacy; as she heads out to her car later, she’s tracked by a male fan who crosses the line between eagerness and offensiveness when he tries to force her to kiss him, whereupon he stabs him in the ear with a sharp metal file she hides in her hair like a hairpin. Ducournau seems to stoke sympathy for Alexis here, presenting her as a cold-blooded survivor who’s justified to a degree in lashing out at a sexist and abusive world. But this is soon enough revealed as Ducournau trolling the audience: Alexis is an active serial killer, murdering anyone she gets close to.

We’re obviously in quasi-surrealist territory here, even before our antiheroine fucks a car and gets pregnant by it. Or at least, surrealism in a contemporary usage. Original, authentic surrealism aimed to move beyond mere symbolism and strangeness to explore a realm of total instability, where all things can become their opposites; it aim was anarchic. Titane is not anarchic, not really: how it works as a movie depends on the degree to which one swallows the storyline’s outlandish ideas as metaphorical. We can, say, interpret Alexis’ injury and reconstruction as recovery from childhood abuse and her later persona as a resulting maladaption, her ardour for cars a symbol of a need for perverse and self-mortifying kicks, as well as offering a clear enough nod to Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). But it’s more fun to take literally: Alexis, infused with foreign metal as a child, has been infected with the hunger for steel: only such fearsome penetration can satisfy her, and the language of the metal beings is the one she speaks. Ducournau depicts Alexis having an actual erotic encounter with a self-animated Cadillac that demands she emerge from her dressing room, car bouncing up and down with glaring headlights and beeping horn as Alexis within has a raging orgasm, wrists wrapped in the seatbelts and tits jogging merrily, sweat flowing down her tattooed form. A bold, funny, weird, sexy image. We, and she, will of course pay a price for this. Turns out if you have an automobile for a lover you can still get knocked up.

Anyway, Alexia’s taste for violence asserts itself when she hooks up with Justine, biting her nipple with hungry force when they make out at a waterfront locale, just before Alexia vomits and realises she’s fallen pregnant by the car. When she goes to Alexia’s house and they resume their make-out session, Alexia slays Justine once again by her hair needle, missing at first and plunging it into her cheek, before a struggle that ends when Alexia manages to plant it in Justine’s ear. But she’s quickly confronted by the necessity of killing the two people Justine shared the house with, plus a random guy one had brought home for sex. Here Ducournau feels locked in the same creative zone as Raw, basically repeating its driving, punkish preoccupation with a young woman whose carnal needs manifest as a desire to kill, only sans cannibalism and with a different motivation. It could be that Alexia is supposed to be gripped with such a homicidal impulse because of her injuries, or because she’s not entirely human anymore. But the real explanation is that Ducournau simply wants to galvanise the audience with images of bloodshed and mayhem ironically committed by a young and sexy woman: when she has Alexis tussle with a topless woman on the stairway, it seems Ducournau’s trying to do an arty lampoon some concept of trashy thrills. Alexia, deliberate as she is in her murderous activities, experiences a blackly comedy exasperation as her task keeps getting more gruelling, including killing a sweet-natured black man named Jerome (Lamine Cissokho) and one of Alexia’s housemates: a second manages to throw her off and escape. Realising she’s going to be busted, Alexia returns to her home and sets fire to her clothes, seeming to set fire to her family home as well, and flees northwards.

It’s easy to see why Ducournau kept all this stuff in her script, because it’s provided all the talking points for many critics and viewers ever since, the sort of thing that gets reported in breathless “it’s so crazy” terms, even though it only accounts for about a third of the film. The rest of Titane is an oddball take on a Shakespearean pastoral play, mixed with a variation on the Monster and the blind man scene from Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Alexia adopts a cunning plan to elude police: a couple of times early in the movie an old missing persons case is mentioned on TV broadcasts, with the father of a young boy named Adrien Legrand who vanished several years earlier still searching for the son he still resolutely believes it alive. Realising she looks just enough like a new computer-aged picture of the boy that’s being circulated by investigators to possibly pass for him, Alexia retreats to a bus station bathroom and quickly gives herself a brutal makeover to look like a teenage boy, even breaking her nose on the sink to complete the illusion. And so she’s ironically able to use the police hunting for her to instead deliver her to Adrien’s father, Vincent (Lindon). Vincent proves so eager to find his son that it quickly becomes clear he’s willing to accept anyone in the role, refusing to get a DNA test and immediately taking “Adrien” under his wing. Vincent is the captain of an all-male squad of firefighters, and he swiftly inducts his reclaimed son into their ranks.

This portion of the film felt the most adroitly observed and successfully ironic in the contrasting visions of people doing gruelling things to themselves in bathrooms: Alexia’s self-effacing, self-mutilating adventure, strapping down her breasts and smashing her nose and shaving her head to a ragged crop, segues into vignettes of Vincent not just forcing his body through a gruelling nightly exercise regime, but injecting himself in his bruised and track mark-riddled flank with steroids, in his ongoing attempt to maintain his physical fortitude as the macho hero and king of the crew of professional heroes: as Alexia is trying to erase and overcome her biological identity, Vincent trying desperately to hang onto his. This works because, wild as the adult-woman-passing-as-a-teen-boy twist is and these scenes nudge zones of heightened grotesquery, it’s still made just sufficiently believable by Ducournau and the actors. I’m sure someone’s also already writing a thesis comparing the scenes of attractive women breaking their own noses in this and Cate Shortland’s Black Widow from earlier this year, an act with the quality of a last taboo: with so many women, and men, in the world desperately trying to improve their looks, to reverse their aging, to assert their inner vision of what they are over the crude material of their genetics and environmental moulding, what perverse freedom in the act.

Once this point is made, however, Titane begins to tread water, settling into a wash-rinse-repeat structure of Alexia/Adrien constantly trying to avoid being caught in the altogether, first when she’s bunked down for the night when her/his “father” comes to give her clean clothes, and then repeatedly thereafter. In between are vignettes of Vincent fiercely declaring his determination to protect Alexia/Adrien at all costs, and his pseudo-offspring interacting uneasily with the firefighter squad, including when she accompanies them on an emergency call and manages to save a life. The smirking younger men take the slight and shy-eyed Adrien to be “gay.” For a moment I imagined a more farcical variation on the situation where all the nominally straight young braves start hitting on the newbie who has to keep his own secrets, but this is a supposedly serious movie. Finally Vincent’s ex-wife (Myriem Akheddiou), the mother of the missing boy, barges in on Alexia and recognising her fraud demands a basic compact: she won’t tell on Alexia if Alexia will continue her charade for Vincent’s sake as one who truly knows how deep and painful his psychic wound is. Underlying all the superficial perversity here then is a straightforward emotional arc: Alexia, so badly damaged by her own pinch-faced father’s incapacity to control himself, finds a superior father figure in Vincent, who engages Alexia/Adrien in an extended dance of role-playing where each is entirely willing to sustain their role according to their needs, leading to moments like Vincent insisting on shaving Alexia/Adrien’s face, as well as ignoring the gigantic scar from her childhood operation on her head.

Their relationship seems to be constantly in danger from the ticking biological clock of Alexia’s pregnancy, and she finds herself increasingly, frustratingly beset by her body’s rebellion against her attempts to bury it. Eventually she’s forced to survey her mangled form, covered in bruises and gouges and with the stigmata of her unnatural pregnancy breaking out regardless as she leaks out motor oil in place of milk and blood from nipples and vagina, and splitting skin on her bulging belly reveals the infesting gleam of metal. This narrative turn reminded me, in a seemingly distant swerve of attention, of something out of ancient ritual myth, or variations transmitted in some more profane vehicle like Jane Seymour’s Solitaire in Live and Let Die (1973) – the seer who loses her mystic power when she’s sexually awakened. Similarly, Ducournau seems to offer Alexia as depowered by the admission of anything like human feeling, with her killings representing some sort of sovereign power – a ridiculous metaphor but okay – that she loses, although it’s her impregnation that nominally starts her down this road, an impregnation brought about by her rare nature. The trouble with this is that the early scenes of Titane seem to explicitly disavow sentimentality in terms of its characters, only to then try and milk Alexia/Adrien and Vincent’s relationship for something resembling grounded pathos. Their connection is deepened when Alexia finds Vincent prone after one of his steroid injections goes wrong, and finds she can’t take advantage of the chance to kill him.

More power to artists trying to walk a tonal tightrope and reach for strange new epiphanies, but I never felt particularly convinced or compelled by any of this, despite Lindon’s vehemently committed and deeply felt performance: Lindon is one of the best actors in movies today, and he brings a depth of feeling and a palpable sense of his character’s bleary mental and emotional exhaustion and desperate attempts to keep up appearances. The greater part of the problem is that Alexia/Adrien is by comparison an empty vessel: the casually murderous entity of the first section of the film becomes a poor vehicle for exploring unexpected and unusual bonds later in the film. It might have been more interesting if Alexia/Adrien was allowed a greater degree of self-expression, but the character is stricken with an impassive blankness beyond mere registers of transient feelings – pain, anger and so forth – particularly emphasised in the long mid-section of the film where Alexis/Adrien refuses to speak lest her voice give the game away and it’s taken for a traumatic symptom. Such blankness is rather too common in contemporary “serious” movies, usually because filmmakers want characters who function as ready viewpoint figures, but Alexia remains stuck someplace else, between multifarious symbol and actual character. Alexia’s scar is constantly, improbably on show, obvious both when she’s a dancer – is that a good career move? – and later when she’s posing as Adrien, gaining no comment from anyone. Again, of course, one can read it as symbolism of a kind, but it still feels overly garish and distracting.

In Raw Marillier also played a character called Justine, whilst the two major characters framing her emergent nature were named Alexia and Adrien, suggesting those names have some totemic meaning, particularly in their ultimate pseudo-fusion. Ducournau killing off this version of Justine, who’s bold and queer, might represent some leaving behind of the past. Or maybe it’s just a precious screenwriting touch. The version of Alexia presented early in the film is completely unsympathetic; the version we get later, the quasi-Adrien, we’re asked to feel some odd sympathy for as she’s beset by increasing impotence, stricken as her body rebels on her and her former cold-bloodedness deserts her – she can’t kill Vincent and she fails in her attempt to abort her new body-infesting foetus with her hair needle. She can’t even wield the same sexual imperiousness as before – when she’s laughingly goaded by the fire fighters into dancing atop a fire truck during one of their unit’s occasional parties, her sexy dance style falls flat by the weirded-out young men. This scene aims for cringe-inducing discomfort and obtains it, although Ducournau seems to think it’s utterly verboten for a young man to dance like a sexy woman. Most guys would find it hilarious and the highpoint of the party. The repeated jabs at the raunch culture Alexia profits off feel rather dated in themselves, whilst Ducournau’s collection of firefighters looks like a gang of male strippers anyway. The cultural targets in Titane feel a bit hackneyed is what I’m saying. Alexia’s revisit of her ritual seduction dance is then followed by her attempt to get it on with the fire truck, but gains no result: Alexia has lost her ability to give or gain satiety that way.

Being inducted into the firefighter crew at least seems to offer Alexia/Adrien the chance to enter a world defined by madcap physical heroism and gutsy dedication that’s the polar opposite of her/his sharklike and parasitic existence, an induction that also sees Alexia/Adrien slowly embrace the role of sustaining Vincent’s illusions, something everyone around him seems to agree to do on one level or another. Vincent already has a surrogate son figure on his team, Rayane (Laïs Salameh), who gets jealous of Alexia/Adrien. It’s not a thread of the film that goes anywhere, and Rayane is killed later when he and Vincent fearlessly venture into a forest fire and Vincent gets him to take charge of a gas canister retrieved from a caravan which then explodes. This event serves to chiefly serve to drive Vincent even deeper into his self-imposed role, even beholding Alexia naked finally but still avowing his function as father and protector. Things build to a head as Alexia tries to seduce Vincent, a move that creeps him out too much, but also seems to finally provoke Alexia to give birth, with Vincent desperately trying to coach her as her body tries to do something at once natural and inimical.

Much of Titane made me wish Ducournau had stuck to the initial epater-le-bourgeois zaniness or had started with Vincent accepting this odd changeling and had rolled from there in a more careful journey through a game of arbitrarily agreed rules in deception and acceptance, because it feels like an uneasy conjunction of a couple of different script drafts, and there are points in the film where it comes close to – quelle horreur – a typical indie feels entry where some life-ragged people find each-other and form an oddball unit. Or perhaps it’s the dream life of the Fast and Furious films turned inside out, with their obsession with cars and family. The scene with Vincent’s ex-wife, although exceptionally well-performed by Akheddiou, nonetheless disrupts the dragonfly-skating-on-water tenor of the rest of the film’s mutually agreed reality, a veering into quotidian psychological realism that feels misjudged. Overall, as a film Titane lacks the derivative but compelling aesthetic of Raw, and in many ways feels like a classic awkward sophomore effort, even if the faults it shares with its precursor are fairly consistent: an indecisive tenor to the toggling between realism and anti-realism, the lack of sense for somewhere interesting or exciting to go after the basic conceits are employed and their elemental value expended until a great climactic image partly makes up the difference. This climax does manage to bring many of the film’s meandering threads and depraved emotions to coherent and fitting terminus, culminating with the indelibly sick image of Vincent cradling Alexia’s offspring with veins of rippling metal running up its spine and head, ironically reborn himself as a father to some fresh hybrid whilst the misbegotten mother lying dead and mangled.

Ducournau’s attempt to restore some of the primal anxiety inherent in childbirth is fascinatingly visualised even if it remains at an arm’s length from the nominal narrative containing it. Maybe if I felt something more maniacal and wilful in Alexia, something that made her body’s rebellion and her ultimate fate feel more palpable, I might have been more persuaded by the drama overall. But I kept thinking back to the moment in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) where Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein) wails “Oh no!” when she suffers a crippling injury that finally foils her brash physicality, and it hits in a few brief seconds exactly the note Titane tries constantly to hit. In terms of the film’s nominal exploration of gender role-playing, Titane actually makes an unfashionable point – that, no matter how it’s denied, disguised, revised, and inhabited, the body is still ultimately a slave to nature. Perhaps the proper zone of ambiguity there is just what nature is, what it imposes on us, the people trapped within such cages of flesh, could be a much larger question than anyone knows. Which is a damned interesting point to chase down, and the pity with Titane is that it doesn’t really ask it until the very end.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Dune: Part One (2021)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

As a dedicated fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune and its literary children, I anticipated a new film adaptation with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Dune has managed to sustain a potent cult over the half-century since its publication, its influence manifest in subsequent hits as diverse as Star Wars, The Matrix, and Game of Thrones, to the point where its building blocks now seem pervasively familiar, even if its most individual and esoteric qualities remain largely untapped and evergreen in their strangeness. Herbert’s legendarium, with its encoded metaphors for mind-expanding drug use, fossil fuel dependency, post-colonial politics, nascent feminism, and religious seeking, seemed exactly attuned to gathering forces in the modern zeitgeist and so caught the imagination of three generations of dorm room dreamers, but also connected with a larger, more mainstream audience in a way hardcore science fiction rarely does, albeit also erecting a firm barrier between those who could penetrate Herbert’s odd, dense writing style and those left totally cold by it. On a more immediate level, Herbert’s preoccupation with the figure of a quasi-messianic hero who finds himself anointed the one person who can rebound from near-oblivion to lead an uprising helped connect the science fiction genre’s roots in pulp heroism and exotic adventuring with a new preoccupation with the experience of maturation as the key modern narrative, birthing the “chosen one” motif in just about every emulating fantastical epic since.

And, of course, there were earlier versions. David Lynch’s big, bizarre, contorted, but almost endlessly fascinating 1984 version became mostly remembered as a debacle echoing in the corridors of pop culture history but has since gathered a fervent cult following. Jim Harrison’s 2000 TV miniseries proved modestly popular and proficient in its indulgence: whilst scarcely memorable, it seems to have laid seeds for the age of prestige television. For myself, I love both the Herbert novel and Lynch’s film, even if they’re passions that cannot ever quite overlap: they exist a little like matter and antimatter, reflecting the image of the other but unable to touch without annihilation. Lynch’s film manages the unique task of being both maddeningly fastidious and wilfully odd as adaptation, sometimes obsessed with communicating the most finicky details from Herbert and elsewhere badly distorting and even avoiding important elements. Now comes the first part of Denis Villeneuve’s proposed two-instalment adaptation of Dune, a bombastic unit of expenditure and epic portent that seems to have been produced with a determination to avoid the heralded mistakes of Lynch’s version, by taking a leaf from Andres Muschietti’s financially successful adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017-19) and splitting the book into two movies.

It’s easy to see a dismaying motive behind the new version: present-day Hollywood’s reliance on familiar intellectual property with a hopefully baked-in audience has become so unshakeable that it would rather try again to adapt a book commonly described as unfilmable after Lynch’s version proved a massive financial failure, on the vague expectation the novel’s fans will come, than take a chance on something new. But hope for a new adaptation that would prove sufficiently balanced and coherent, able to at once honour the material’s most specific qualities and appeal to a big audience, has long preoccupied Dune’s fandom, particularly as I suspect every aficionado has long cherished their personal idea of how it should be done. Bifurcating the story promises that the novel’s meticulous construction of its imagined future 8000-odd years hence could be carefully meted out along with the strong, fairly straightforward central storyline. This approach has its own, big risks of course, as any of the three people who remember The Golden Compass (2007) can testify. Regardless, in familiar fashion, Dune unfolds in a distant future in which humans have colonised tracts of the galaxy and have developed a neo-feudal system of control where an all-powerful Emperor and the feudal houses under him administrate the many planets.

We see the House of Atreides, led by the canny and noble but world-weary Duke Leto (Oscar Isaacs), assigned to take over the planet Arrakis by his Emperor, displacing the previous clan of administrators, their hated rivals the Harkonnens, and taking on the responsibility of mining the substance called spice that only occurs there. The spice is absolutely crucial to the shape and operation of the Empire, so whilst the spice mining is an incredibly lucrative business, failure to keep it flowing could bring down harsh penalties. Leto and his advisors also suspect they’re being set up for a fall, a correct assumption, as the Harkonnens are being backed by the Emperor to wipe the Atreides out and rid him of rivals. Leto and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) have one son, the teenaged Paul (Timothée Chalamet): Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a sect who operate at the nexus of priestesses, nuns, witches, and genetic scientists. The sect has long been dedicated to breeding a human with psychic gifts pronounced enough to see the future and actively control future human evolution, a notional being dubbed the Kwisatz Haderach in ancient prophecy, and Jessica represents the near-culmination of the project. But Paul’s birth, the result of Jessica’s desire to please Leto after she unexpectedly fell in love with him, disrupted the project, and now Paul is displaying nascent signs of being the Kwisatz Haderach. The Atreides are attacked by the Harkonnens, who break through their defences thanks to the treachery of their house physician Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), but Yueh’s complex motives also see him arrange to save Paul and Jessica from the massacre.

Villeneuve wisely casts familiar faces even in relatively minor parts, making Dune something of an old-fashioned star-studded epic, even if it resists the Lynch version’s delight in showing off its all-star cast in a long curtain call-like final credits scene. Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin play the ultraloyal and omnicompetent Atreides warriors Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, respectively, whilst Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the house strategist and “Mentat” Thufir Hawat. The three actors have the ability to swiftly and effectively make their characters interesting and palpable, even as they’re also essentially wasted. Brolin gets one of the very few jots of humour in the film as he maintains his familiar tight and stoic grimace even whilst answering Leto’s teasing command to smile with “I am smiling.” Charlotte Rampling is somewhat inevitably cast as Reverend Mother Mohiam, the stern, mysterious, haughty exemplar of the Bene Gesserit creed who nominally works for the Emperor but pushes the Bene Gesserit agenda at all times. Liet Kynes, the Imperial ecologist assigned to study Arrakis turned covert renegade and a male in the book, has here been turned into a woman for some reason or another, with Sharon Duncan-Brewster taking the role. Javier Bardem turns up for two scenes to mumble impressively as Stilgar, a leader of the so-called Fremen, the original human colonists of Arrakis who long since adapted to life on the planet and consider themselves its true custodians, but have since suffered from persecution at the hands of the Imperial and Harkonnen enforcers.

Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth peel away much of the story superstructure in digging down to the fundamental melodrama that forms the spine of the plot, which, he’s decided, is the fate of the key Atreides themselves – Leto, Jessica, and Paul, with interpersonal exchanges between the three trying for a mix of familial affection and pained gravitas, and the tragedy that presages the rise of the young scion on the path to revenge and mystical transformation. There’s an early scene in the novel, dutifully recreated in all versions, which provides a galvanising moment in the narrative, when Paul is visited by Mohiam, who insists on testing his mettle for at that point obscure reasons. She forces him to stick his hand into a box that induces terrible pain, challenging him to withstand the pain or be killed with a poisoned needle pressed to his throat, in a rite of passage designed to distinguish if he’s a true human, infinitely capable of patience and resistance, or a mere “animal,” slave to impulse and reaction. It’s a scene that, I expect, most genuinely hooks the attention of about-to-be fans, as it not only presents a thrilling situation, but also encapsulates much of how Herbert’s writing and storytelling works – the lengthy, ritualistic confrontation of strong personalities, the suspense based in the problem of a surviving a situation when hemmed in by potential checkmates of lethal capacity where cast-iron willpower must be met with the same, and the unsettling description of a teenage boy being forced to endure perfect agony without flinching as a preparation for life in a world without safe and comforting moral boundaries.

Villeneuve handles the scene as well as Lynch did, in the contrast between Chalamet’s open-faced youthfulness and Mohiam’s veil-clad and forbidding embodiment of all that’s powerfully arcane and dismissive of weakness, particularly with the added touch of Jessica able to maintain sympathy with her son from outside the room and experiencing what he experiences, reciting the famous mantra against fear. Villeneuve and his screenwriting team seem to be trying to take a leaf from The Godfather’s (1972) example in trying to communicate the relationships between the central family characters whilst they seem to mostly discuss business, as in another early scene where Paul and his father discuss the looming challenge before them whilst walking between grave markers of their ancestors on the grey and watery world of Caladan that has long been their home and fiefdom. The trouble is despite this approach I never really felt convinced by their family dynamics. Isaac and Ferguson are strong actors and are undoubtedly the right age, but it still feels a little odd seeing them cast as the grizzled patriarch and weirdly hot mother who has a perturbing dynamic with her on-screen son. It doesn’t help that Isaac and Ferguson are both forced to quell their natural charisma to fit into Villeneuve’s pinched, po-faced dramatic style. Villeneuve’s essential approach is one of characters muttering earnestly at one-another in dimly-lit spaces.

What’s surprising about Villeneuve’s Dune is that despite being given a nominal wealth of space to tell the story, it doesn’t really know what to do with it. Despite the simplifications, the script essentially settles for being an exposition machine, with very few flashes of effective and engaging interpersonal detail, like Paul being teased by Gurney whilst being welcomed for the first time into one of the House strategy meetings. It’s the sort of movie that makes you long for the day when a director would spice up an epic with a few dancing girls or something. Villeneuve takes almost exactly as long as Lynch did in telling the story from beginning to the point where Leto finds Fremen housekeeper Shadout Mapes (Golda Rosheuvel) dying, signalling the start of the Harkonnen attack, and then spends the majority of the next hour and twenty minutes of running time on a listless succession of chase scenes Lynch was more effective in compressing. As a fan of the book I’m in a dichotomous position in this regard. Familiarity helps me keep up and indeed a step ahead of everything so I don’t need to expend the mental energy it will undoubtedly cost a newcomer to the material. But it also makes me susceptible to possible boredom when I simply see things being checked off rather than being truly, creatively explored. Unfortunately, that’s what I began to feel watching Villeneuve’s Dune.

The Quebecois Villeneuve emerged as a feature filmmaker with 1998’s August 32nd On Earth, a debut that immediately gained him notice as a talent screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and his French-language follow-ups, Maelstrom (2000), Polytechnique (2009), and Incendies (2010), were all acclaimed and award-garnered, with the middle film stirring some disquiet in portraying an shooting spree at the University of Montreal in 1989. Villeneuve then went Hollywood with the would-be thoughtful, moody thriller Prisoners (2013), sparking a swift rise up the Hollywood totem pole as he followed with the paranoia study Enemy (2013), the drug war drama Sicario (2015), and sci-fi tales Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I haven’t seen Villeneuve’s French-language films: if I had I might have a different perspective on his later stabs at mating art movie postures with popular storytelling. As far as they go, I find Villeneuve a largely insufferable filmmaker. But he’s one who certainly seems to be finding a particular niche in current mainstream cinema discourse similar to those held in the recent past by David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, in that his particular approach seems to impress some and dismay others through a carefully filtered aesthetic sensibility aiming to deliver chic spectacle.

Villeneuve’s mainstream works to date have been defined by this smothering aesthetic matched to storylines that are generally far less deep and intensive than the stylistic cues insist they are. Those cues, including a relentlessly drab colour palette and droning, booming music scores, seem to me hallmarks of a particular brand of modern quasi-seriousness even when, upon close inspection, there’s little substance to back them up in Villeneuve’s films. I still cringe when I remember how the plot of Arrival was explained by a randomly info-dumping Chinese general to the time-unmoored heroine, or Sicario affected to be a grim investigation of the drug war only to become a ridiculous revenge drama, and Prisoners waded through highly unsubtle character signposting and emblazoned themes even whilst affecting a glaze of knit-browed profundity. Like Blade Runner 2049, Dune sees Villeneuve being relatively restrained, but there’s still something relentlessly pummelling and joyless about his filmmaking to me. Dune has been sucked dry of all its exotic strangeness and dynamism, all its semi-surreal, florid liveliness, with a kind of dry, pseud efficiency in its place. “My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low,” Chani (Zendaya), Kynes’ daughter and a Fremen warrior, is heard in voiceover at the very outset. This immediately evinces an attempt by the filmmakers to combine exposition and low-key genre poetry, a method that continues throughout. But the unconvincing clumsiness of the line, the lack of actual, proper expressive language and specificity apparent in it, also neatly demonstrate how this method fails.

Rather than the artists who provided beloved illustrations and cover art for the books, like Bruce Pennington and John Schoenherr, Villeneuve moves to take inspiration from more European styles in sci-fi illustration, with a particular emulation of the work of Jean ‘Moebius’ Girard in the oddball costuming and weirdly-shaped spaceships, designs which, as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) which had actual Moebius design work proved, just don’t work very well off the page. But that’s a relatively minor issue. It’s in the specifics that Villeneuve really falls down. The actual uses of the spice and way the substance informs the entire social, political, and economic structure of Herbert’s universe are more or less dismissed in a couple of pithy lines of dialogue, and so we’ve subtly but firmly shifted from any attempt to convey the depth of Herbert’s text in favour of simply delivering its most basic story points. Sometimes this can be a wise move – Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked in large part because whilst it happily included much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s esoterica, it knew how to impart it in a fashion that wove around rather than interrupted the central story. The trouble is Dune doesn’t work in the same way. Tolkien deliberately structured his stories so you didn’t have to worry about the quasi-angelic background of the many magical figures including Sauron, Gandalf, and Balrog, even if to understand all that does make things more explicable: nonetheless we intrinsically grasp their function. Similarly, in Dune, it’s possible to approach it without thinking too much about the larger structure and historical meaning of organisations like the Bene Gesserit and the guild of mutated Navigators who need the spice to fuel their precognitive ability to steer colossal spaceships.

But – and this is a large but – to not understand those things means to miss what’s important and interesting about Dune as a mythos and as a work of speculative fiction. If you haven’t read the books you’ll have no idea from this movie about the Navigators; whilst the function and method of the Mentats are depicted through Thufir, just exactly what they are and why they exist is likewise impossible to properly deduce, nor why the flying machines and spacecraft are conspicuously missing guidance computers. Anyone who’s read the book knows about the Butlerian Jihad, which saw all robots and artificial intelligences destroyed and forbidden in the universe, and obliging human beings to stretch their abilities to limits unthought-of in our current time, most of it allowed by the spice. Herbert’s real fascination was with human intelligence and physical development as our vehicle, for which our machines are mere externalised devices. I didn’t sense any real intellectual curiosity in Villeneuve’s Dune, nor desire to put across Herbert’s world beyond what’s strictly necessary to the plot. In Villeneuve’s vision, the spice is reduced from a substance of vast, fantastical conceptual importance to the mere, tinny metaphor for fossil fuel it started as, combined with a kind of light hallucinogen. Villeneuve’s renderings of Paul’s visions are the most banal imaginable, consisting of lots of adolescent yearning glimpses of Chani, swanning about in flowing garb, and occasional glimpses of tussling warriors.

This tendency, to mine the prosaic from the visionary, is an awfully common failing of a lot of recent genre film and television in the contemporary obsession with grounding and pseudo-realism. With Villeneuve it’s particularly acute, having already taken Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and tapped it for straightforward plotting and self-consciously obvious thematics, reducing the original’s unique dreamlike palette and narrative density to just another plodding blend of action movie and TV commercial-like sentimentality in its odes to human qualities. Similarly, there’s a monotony to the acting and dramatic beats here. The introduction of the Harkonnens themselves, including the bulbous, infinitely malevolent Baron Harkonnen himself (Stellan Skarsgard), his henchman Raban (Dave Bautista), and Mentat Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian), takes the mumbling-in-dark-rooms aesthetic to a logical conclusion: the entire world of the Harkonnens seems to have a lighting problem. The obvious, cliché casting of Skarsgard, swathed in a fat suit, is matched by the equal, exhausting obviousness of the nods to Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now (1979), as Skarsgard strokes his greasy bald pate with monstrous meditation.

The portrayal of the Harkonnens in Lynch’s film has long seemed to me the biggest problem with that work, in trying to graft Lynch’s penchant for leering id-beasts and wild, bristling bullies onto Herbert’s material with its hypnotic fascination with intellectual evil and total amorality. And yet I found myself longing for the vividness of Kenneth McMillan’s Harkonnen and his outsized delight in obscene behaviour, compared to this drab substitution, and Lynch’s most gleefully appalling touches, like giving a poisoning victim a surgically stitched-together cat and rat to milk for an antidote daily, or Raban crushing a small animal and drinking its bodily fluids like orange juice. The closest Villeneuve gets to such twisted flavour is a brief glimpse of some genetic chimera, part humanoid, part spider that his Harkonnens keep as a pet. Yueh was played with some force by Dean Stockwell in Lynch’s film, and his pathos as a man who betrays himself and his friends for the sake of one, desperate tilt at a more personal revenge was allowed to register as he screamed at Harkonnen after being stabbed in the back for his aid, “You think I don’t know what I’ve done? For my wife?” By comparison, Cheng’s Yueh is bland and blasé even as he dies, his motive not suggested until just before he’s killed, one of the many tributaries of potential melodramatic juice reduced to mere plot function in the face of the impassive-grandiose style. There is, that said, a good touch when Harkonnen has Leto prisoner thanks to Yueh’s machinations: Villeneuve has the Duke stripped naked and laid prone before his enemy, a potent little encapsulation of his sudden vulnerability before a truly evil foe. But Lynch’s crazy, disturbing imagination imbued his Dune with something by and large missing from this one. Which is one reason I’ve long felt that Lynch’s Dune is not a perfect adaptation but is perfectly itself, wielding a specificity and, most importantly, a fearlessness of creative passion almost entirely missing from contemporary big-budget cinema.

Not that I want to get bogged down in simply comparing Lynch and Villeneuve’s versions. Villeneuve goes for an aesthetic, full of monumental forms and a kind of medieval minimalism in décor and design, that’s quite different to the tangled Gothicism, Austro-Hungarian martial dress, and madcap Rococo dominant in Lynch’s film, and it’s a look that struck me as more appropriate to the material. And yet Villeneuve’s style of shooting too often has the hyper-sharp, gritty-glossy look of high-end video game cutscenes, particularly in the special effects sequences, although there’s still some genuine awe stoked by visions like the Atreides fleet being disgorged by one of the colossal “heighliner” space transport vessels. His vision of Caladan makes it look like a drizzly patch of New Brunswick – understandable perhaps for Villeneuve – rather than a watery world where the primal power of the ocean matches and opposes the similar power of Arrakis. Villeneuve swaps out a blue filter for Caladan for a grey-brown one on Arrakis, and he makes the desert planet relentlessly dingy and colourless. Villeneuve’s approach has drawn a lot of comparison to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but I can’t see why. David Lean (who was apparently approached to direct the first version at one point, whilst Herbert himself took strong inspiration from T.E. Lawrence’s story) knew how to convey the scale of the desert as well as its physical extremes through his approach to light, framing, and colour – the more brilliantly blue the skies the more relentless the sense of sun beating down, of exposure and dire physical straits. Villeneuve makes all of his shots colourless, his skies filled with omnipresent dust, and his desert looks, well, rather tepid.

One telling disparity in Villeneuve’s take on Blade Runner was where Scott’s street scenes were teeming with life carefully conveyed not just through hiring extras and costuming them but with the camera’s sense of how to pick up that life, Villeneuve’s felt stodgy and depopulated. There’s a similar lack of any real energy and sense of lifestyle in his approach here. Here everyone seems afraid to raise their voices too high or gesticulate too much lest they disturb the carefully composed symmetry of the shots. There’s genuine visual ingenuity sometimes, that said. Herbert’s cleverest touches, like the ban on nuclear weapons and the personalised force-fields that have returned warfare back to a matter of who’s best at hand-to-hand combat rather than one of projectile weapons, helped at once to give a clever legitimacy to the old-school space opera’s Wagner-in-space sensibility, whilst also feeling coherent and well-thought-through in terms of its imagined future’s construction, where the path to victory for both villains and heroes means threading a path through seemingly impregnable bulwarks of technology and behaviour. The visualisation of the fights between force-field-wearing warriors are good, but only when dealing with one-on-one fights. The big, tragic combat between the invading Harkonnens and Atreides host is oddly curtailed and lacking much dynamism in staging, the sort of moment that really makes you wish some ebullient meathead like Zack Snyder or Neil Marshall was directing rather than a hyperfussy aesthete. Herbert’s ornithopters, the usual mode of flight on Arrakis, long seemed one of those ideas easy to imagine and write but just about impossible to effectively film, are realised nonetheless with true visual élan, with Villeneuve’s take offering helicopters with side-mounted blade that beat like dragonfly-like wings. There are some truly beautiful images scattered throughout, testifying to the cinematographer Greig Fraser’s masterful talents, including the striking prologue depicting Fremen resistance against the Harkonnen spice miners during a sandstorm.

And of course there’s the sandworms, the massive beasts that infest the sands of Arrakis and provide an omnipresent threat, as well as a potential source of power, and are connected to the spice. Villeneuve handles the first scene involving a worm well, in part because it’s a strong suspense situation: Leto and his team, being flown over the desert by Kynes, spot a worm advancing on a manned spice harvesting machine and race to save the crew before the unimaginably large creature swallows the harvester up. Modern special effects are more than equal to the task of realising the worms, and there’s a nice tightening of the suspense as Paul is abruptly distracted during the rescue as he breathes in the unrefined spice and is plunged into a visionary state, demanding Gurney fetch him, the two almost getting caught in the liquefying sands caused by the worm’s approach. After this, however, in the subsequent appearance by the worms as one swallows up a team of Imperial “Sardaukar” troops after they’ve executed Kynes in the desert, and another chases after Paul and Jessica, the worms rapidly become familiar and prove a bit dull-looking: whilst obviously better-realised in a technical sense, they never register as effectively nightmarish as Carlo Rambaldi’s creations for Lynch did, particularly in the latter pursuit. Villeneuve’s versions have long hair-like teeth and perfectly round mouths and crinkly, puckered skin that make them look a bit, well, anal, particularly in a very misjudged shot when one pauses it attack and sits centre-frame. Not that this represents some lurch towards Freudian imagery. If Lynch arguably went overboard in trying to tease out the surrealist imagery and dream symbolism inherent in Herbert’s material, Villeneuve’s edition strains in the opposite direction to make everything clean and hard-edged, plunging Herbert back into the regulation techno-fascist style he broke with.

Momoa’s presence, with his innate muscular swagger and obliquely twisting grin, gives the film a thankful jolt of matinee heroism that’s also appropriate for the character, who, as his name suggests, is offered as a kind of holdover of an ancient kind of frontier grit – one reason Herbert kept reviving Duncan over and over in the books. Villeneuve gives him an appropriately spectacular end, something Lynch fumbled rather badly, as he fights a unit of the Sardaukar hunting Paul and Jessica after the Atreides’ downfall, still managing to battle on even after being skewered with a blade. Momoa’s presence is particularly vital as he offsets Chalamet. Chalamet is definitely a current It Boy on the cinema scene with his anime-drawing-of-a-young-man looks, and he’s an actor with great potential – he did, for instance, an excellent job as the compulsory stand-in for the director of A Rainy Day In New York (2020). The film tosses in a ribbing joke about his lack of muscular manhood, but it doesn’t quite cover up the fact that he feels wrong in the role, whereas Kyle MacLachlan, whatever else you can say about him, expertly negotiated the shift from eager teenager to fearsome messiah: here Chalamet kept reminding me a little too keenly of his character in Lady Bird (2018) as a gangly brat who read a Marxist text once, here with a few added taekwondo lessons. One problem is that Villeneuve’s relentless approach to the style means the only moment where Paul feels at all boyish is when he first meets Duncan on screen, displaying a smile reserved for a kind of older brother or alternative father hero figure. Later in the film when he’s called upon to display emerging grit and gravitas he falls totally flat.

A more obvious problem with Dune: Part One is there in the title. We don’t get a complete story here, and the point where Villeneuve and company choose to leave off is at once fairly natural but also tormenting only in being anticlimactic. Villeneuve ends not on a cliffhanger but at a relatively lackadaisical story juncture, as Paul and Jessica are accepted into the Fremen fold after Paul finally meets Chani, and he is obliged to kill a Fremen, Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), when the offended and xenophobic warrior challenges him to a duel, a fight that establishes Paul really does have a deadly streak as well as training. This provides a solid fight scene that nonetheless caps off the multimillion dollar blockbuster about some kind of war in the stars with a knife fight. “This is only the beginning,” Chani says in a trailer-ready line, whilst looking and sounding just like a sophomore at a SoCal performing arts school. The time Dune: Part One spent on the shelf awaiting post-COVID release is telling as Zendaya still looks rather young and pouchy-cheeked, with no sign of the impressive maturity she brought to bear in this year’s Malcolm & Marie – not that she’s in the film long enough to make much impression either way. Hans Zimmer matches Villeneuve’s style perfectly in his scoring, alternating drones and ululating songstresses and throbbing-propulsive, drum-thumping cues in a succession of current scoring clichés. Zimmer’s scores are inseparable from the contemporary blockbuster scene, and more specifically from the way movies are sold now: Zimmer’s work maintains a perfect synergy with the art of modern movie trailers, and in effect his work essentially does advertising for the movie within itself, refusing any kind of lyrical invitation in an imaginative universe but instead twisting the viewer’s wrist to find it all grand and darkly thrilling.

Herbert nodded to the early history of science fiction with Dune, with quite a bit of Flash Gordon and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars tales in its makeup as well as more sophisticated concerns and investigation of mythopoeic patterns. So to a certain extent it’s fair enough that the movie emphasises this aspect, even if it doesn’t do it all that well. But Herbert deconstructed that kind of old-fashioned adventure tale at the same time, commenting on what’s often seen as the quasi-imperialist assumptions of stories where outsiders, usually white and western, become leaders of far-flung populaces, whilst his narrative both mimicked and commented upon the power of messianic mythology, uncovering links with twentieth century totalitarian movements. Herbert kept in mind things like the way Moses’ emergence as prophet and nation leader led directly to a war of extermination after the wanderings in the desert waged upon occupants of the Promised Land, and saw the way such narratives are pitched as self-justifying for aggrieved nations. He also had an evident fascination for Arabic legend and culture, appropriate considering the story’s basis in the current reality of the oil boom in the Middle East, but also tackled in a complicating fashion: Herbert’s future is a great melting pot of all past human culture and identity, where religions, creeds, and races have long since all formed into a melange as rich as the spice. The Fremen are hardly supposed to be mere stand-ins for Arabic peoples, but a society that’s retained and transmitted a classical culture as appropriate to their lifestyle. This is, after all, once again supposed to be science fiction. Villeneuve’s choice nonetheless is to hammer home the relevance and the more stolid side of the fantasy by emphasising the Fremen culture as quasi-Arabic, which manages at once to be more of a sop to emphasising contemporary parable but also more retrograde and confused in the contained politics.

As for Paul’s dread of the potential of unleashing a genocidal holy war, Villeneuve signals, at least, unlike Lynch who avoided and indeed entirely contradicted it, that he plans to deal with this consequence, but still only has Paul very quickly mutter some malarkey about holy war along with some flash-cut visions of a bloody hand. Lynch’s theatrical cut was forced to compress the second half of the novel in extremely ungainly fashion, so in this regard Villeneuve has left himself plenty of room to deal with the oncoming deluge of fresh weirdness, including Paul’s self-inflicted visionary trip to emerge as Kwisatz Haderach, the arrival of his sister Alia, the bloodthirsty adult in a child’s body, and the great battle for control of Arrakis and the Empire, as well as the bleak side to Paul’s ascension. And yet I’m also forced to ponder how Villeneuve will drain these of their perverted fervour. The ultimate impression Dune: Part One left me with was of something utilitarian, a work that seems to have finally managed, judging by the box office and general reception, the task of successfully selling Herbert’s creation to a broad audience, and indeed it’s worth celebrating insofar as it finally revives hope for franchise blockbusters more ambitious and mature than superhero movies. But the price paid for this is pyrrhic, as too much of what made Herbert’s work lasting and interesting has been sacrificed, and what’s left in its place is occasionally striking but essentially inert. Moreover, it forces me to say something I never, ever expected to say: Lynch’s version remains the superior.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Aliens (1986)

Director / Screenwriter: James Cameron

By Roderick Heath

If Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) sounded in abstract like a movie unlikely to leave much of a mark on cinematic culture upon release, the sequel seemed if anything even more ill-starred. Alien had been a big hit, but attempts to make a sequel soon became bogged down in changing executive regimes at Twentieth Century Fox, lawsuits, and wrangling over returning star Sigourney Weaver’s salary. Despite having emerged as a potential major star thanks to Alien, Weaver had only had one major success since, with her strong if not essential supporting turn in Ghostbusters (1984). A potential answer to the question as to who would make the film, at least, provided when an employee at Brandywine Films, the production company of the first film’s producers and co-writers Walter Hill and David Giler, was on the lookout for interesting new scripts and found a pair by a young filmmaker named James Cameron. Cameron, a graduate of the film schools of Roger Corman and Italo-exploitation, had submitted a potential sequel for First Blood (1981) and his own original sci-fi work called The Terminator, and was busy trying to forget his first foray as director, Piranha II: The Spawning (1982). Hill and Giler, who had taken a chance with Scott and would continue later to hire interesting new talents for the series like David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Joss Whedon, fed Cameron a basic idea of thrusting the first film’s heroine Ripley into a situation with some soldiers. Cameron hit the ground running in developing the project, but was considered too green to take on directing duties until he made The Terminator on a low budget with maximum industry and potent results.

Cameron was officially hired to make the Alien sequel, given a large but, even by the standards of the time, hardly enormous budget of $16 million, with his then-girlfriend Gale Ann Hurd, who had produced The Terminator, taken on in the same capacity. Cameron’s osmotic knowledge of sci-fi, which caused problems for The Terminator, also drove his interest in portraying spacefaring soldiers in the mould of writers like Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt. The sequel was filmed at England’s Pinewood Studios, and the 31-year-old Cameron upon arrival found himself facing a lot of scepticism from the British crew, as The Terminator hadn’t yet opened in the UK. Cameron’s own relentless approach to filmmaking, soon to become notoriously onerous, also ruffled feathers, but the film came in, as studios like so much, on time and budget. Aliens was finally released seven years after the first film, an eternity by pop culture standards, particularly in the 1980s. Nonetheless the film proved an instant smash with audiences, and one that would soon enough prove perpetually influential, to the degree that it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say that Hollywood’s been trying to make it again and again for the past 35 years and never quite succeeding. All anyone who was young and impressionable thought when they first saw it, most likely on video, was that it was awesome.

Arguing over whether Alien or Aliens is the better film is one of those topics movie lovers enjoy fighting over, but what’s certain is that Cameron managed the very rare trick of emulating a great model in a manner that both suited his own sensibility and logically expanded on the original. Indeed, the significant problem that beset subsequent entries in the series was in the inability of any single entry to pull the same trick. Cameron had the unenviable task of mediating Scott’s stylistic approach, which had invested the first film with much of its unique power, and find something new to offer the audience through bringing his own sensibility to bear. The simple addition of an S to the title was all the promissory needed, as simple a declaration as any possible: where before there had been one alien, and the situation matched it, now there would be many, and Cameron follows through on the expectation to expand upon the world and the nightmares Scott depicted. The opening seems to take up where the first film left off, with Ripley drifting through deep space in the Nostromo’s shuttle, the Narcissus, ageless in cryogenic sleep. The craft is intercepted by a much larger salvage vehicle, with a remote robotic unit cutting through the escape hatch and scanning the shuttle before salvagers enter and find Ripley and the Nostromo’s cat Jones still alive. This prologue is exacting in returning the viewer to the mood and method of Alien, not just in the careful recreation of the shuttle set and the hushed, eerily romantic strains of James Horner’s scoring mimicking Jerry Goldsmith’s work, but in the rueful and world-weary comment by one of the rescuers, “There goes our salvage, guys,” immediately recapitulating that this is a universe inhabited by working stiffs where the profit motive looms large and deep space is hardly an escape route from the mundane, where the possibility of rescuing someone is a secondary concern when rounding up a drifting spacecraft.

Cameron continues to follow Scott’s model at first, artfully building a mood of quiet dread where for a vast chunk of the film little seems to happen, although of course every moment of charged intensity without payoff eventually gains it counterweight in thriller action. Such an approach to storytelling in a blockbuster feels all but impossible today, but it’s part of Aliens’ greatness, testifying to a near-vanished moment when crowd-pleasing on the biggest level could also still involve patient, careful storytelling and directorial conditioning. In the theatrical cut of the film, a full hour passes before any actual alien is seen on screen; well over an hour in the “Special Edition” director’s cut assembled for laserdisc in 1990, which stands now as the essential version. Cameron does break from Scott and follows a lead more reminiscent of Brian De Palma in a fake-out dream sequence early on, in which what seems to be the authentic memory of being told by Burke (Paul Reiser), a representative of the company that owned the Nostromo, that she was rescued after 57 years in cryosleep, in the medical bay of a huge space station orbiting Earth: Ripley’s probably real panic attack becomes a nightmare in which she imagines herself impregnated with one of the alien beings which starts to hatch inside her as it did in her fellow crewmember Kane, until she abruptly awakens, panicked and sweating, in the real medical bay. This dream both illustrates the deeply traumatic impact of Ripley’s experiences and provokes the audience’s presumed memory of the first film’s most infamous scene.

As made particularly clear in the Special Edition, Cameron’s script works initially to undercut any hope Ripley’s homecoming will be as positive as the last frames of Alien suggested. She finds herself jobless, disgraced, doubted, and wracked by traumatic nightmares, without friends or family to recognise her upon return, a relic and an exile torn out of her moment. Even her daughter Amanda, who was a young girl when she left, has since grown old and died, a wizened face gazing out at her still-young mother from a pixelated image, time, fate, and identity all in flux. As Burke comes to give Ripley this news, Ripley seems to be sitting in a garden, delivered into nature to recuperate, only for her to pick up a remote control and switch off the large TV screen feeding the illusion. Cameron’s wry visual joke here about technology and falsified environments feels oddly connected with his own extended act of providing such illusion in the fantasy world of Avatar (2009). Soon Ripley is unable to keep her temper when thrust before a review committee who plainly don’t buy her story about the infiltrating alien and seem more concerned by the destruction of the Nostromo and its cargo, and to an extent one can see their point. Finally Ripley is found to have acted negligently, has her flight officer licence cancelled, and learns to boot from the committee chair Van Leuwen (Paul Maxwell) that the planet where the Nostromo’s crew found the alien spaceship and its deadly cargo, now known as LV-426, has now been colonised and is undergoing terraforming.

Aliens immediately recapitulates the cynicism of Alien towards the company, whose canonical name, Weyland-Yutani (suggesting in very 1980s fashion the future convergence of American and Japanese corporate interests into one all-powerful gestalt), was first revealed in the Special Edition, scapegoating Ripley and reducing her to a menial with a tenuous grip on existence. Burke introduces himself by assuring her that “I’m really an okay guy,” which is a pretty good sign he isn’t: although he does seem at first like a solid advocate for Ripley, he nonetheless uses a practiced line of clichés in the course of trying to manipulate her into helping him when it appears she was right all along. Cameron allows images of the cast of the previous film to appear on the computer feed scrolling behind Ripley during the meeting, a salutary touch. But another of Aliens’ qualities is that it’s well-told enough to be a completely stand-alone entity, as the film carefully lays out Ripley’s survivor guilt and contends with the consequences of a situation in a manner most similar types of movie gloss over whilst also offering enough sense of what happened to make her fear as well as the continuing plot entirely comprehensible. Cameron alternates visions of Ripley awakening in stark, body-twisting terror with moments of glazed stillness as Ripley smokes and stares off into nothingness. One nice, barely noticeable touch sees her mane of wavy hair as sported in the first film still present in early scenes but later shorn away to a more functional do, suitable as Ripley is by this time working a labourer in the space station loading docks.

The Special Edition also sports an early visit to LV-426, allowing a glimpse of the colonist outpost, dubbed Hadleys Hope – the outpost’s place sign has “Have a nice day” scrawled in graffiti over the stencilled lettering. Futuristic all-terrain vehicles trundle by the pre-fab structures, buffeted by wind and dust in this tiny island of human civilisation located amidst roiling volcanic rock forms, located someplace between a Western movie town and the outer precincts of hell. A conversation between two administrators (Mac McDonald and William Armstrong) establishes their jaded and frazzled state of mind in running this pocket of habitation whilst an important plot point is conveyed: some company honcho has sent a message asking for a grid reference far out in the planetary wilds to be checked out, so wildcatter mining couple, the Jordens (Jay Benedict and Holly De Jong), have gone off in search of it. Of course, the Jordens come across the all-too-familiar wrecked horseshoe spaceship. I’ve always found this portion of the director’s cut interesting but ungainly: effectively atmospheric, it gives a glimpse of Hadleys Hope as a functioning zone of labour and community, with convincing touches like the playing children who invade the control area of the otherwise tediously functional outpost, and a glimpse of the Jordens as an example of the kind of people who would choose such an existence – tight-knit, working class, adventurous. But it dispels the highly effective sense of mystery and discovery sustained in the theatrical cut, has noticeably weaker acting, and it goes just a little too far in coincidence in presenting Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn), later to prove an essential character, as being at the epicentre of the nascent crisis. Newt screams in horror as she beholds the sight of her father with a facehugger gripping his head with remorseless biological purpose whilst her mother urgently sends out a mayday.

An unstated amount of time passes before Burke comes to Ripley’s domicile with a representative of the Colonial Marines, Lt. Gorman (William Hope), and tells her that contact with LV-426 has been cut off, and they want her to come with them as an advisor as a unit of Marines are sent to investigate. Ripley is at first, understandably, determined to not to go, resisting Burke’s arsenal of pop psychology cliché (“Get out there and face this thing – get back on the horse!”) and the offer of protection from the armed forces that Ripley already, plainly half-suspects might be vainglorious. Only another wrenching nightmare and a long, hard look in the mirror convinces Ripley there’s only one way out of labyrinth for her, and that only after calling up Burke and seeking assurance that the plan is to exterminate the aliens. Cut to the Marines’ spaceship, the Sulaco, cutting through deep space: the name, taken from a town in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, extends that running gag and the connection with Conrad’s grim contemplation of hearts of darkness and corporate-imperial enterprise. Cameron apes Scott’s creation of mood and tension by recreating the quietly gliding camera movements Scott explored the Nostromo with, now scanning the Sulaco’s interior. James Horner’s scoring, like Goldsmith’s employing horns and woodwinds to illustrate the eerie absence of life, interpolates faint drum taps that match the sight of military hardware dormant. One quality that invests Cameron’s early films with much of their populist muscle is the respect and feel he had, certainly earned in his time working as a truck driver in his early 20s, for working class characters, strongly defined by their little social units and camaraderie. It’s a quality Cameron shared with John Carpenter, his immediate forebear as the hero of neo-B movies, although with Cameron it’s arguable this quality arguably hardened into a kind of shtick by the time of Titanic (1997) and Avatar, and where Carpenter’s sensibility led him to increasingly ironic considerations of genre storytelling, Cameron knew which side his bread was buttered on. Nonetheless this lends weight to Cameron’s glancing portrait of life LV-426 and the attitudes of the grunts of the Colonial Marines, as well to Ripley herself. Weaver herself noted that Aliens is essentially one great metaphor for Ripley overcoming her trauma, albeit in a way that thankfully avoids overtness.

It’s important for Cameron that Ripley, originally portrayed in Alien as an officer who makes a slightly snooty impression on her more plebeian crewmates and irks others with her cautious mentality even as circumstances prove her right, here falls basically to the bottom of society as well as mental health. Burke, whilst assuring her there’s nothing wrong with it, tries to plants hooks in Ripley by commenting on her newly tenuous existence. What he doesn’t know, nor Ripley herself, is that her fall also occasions her rise, with particular consequence in the climax, where her specific skill and talent learnt on the loading docks arms her for the ultimate battle with her personal demon. The detachment of Gorman’s Marines, awakening along with Ripley and Burke from cryosleep, is quickly and deftly sketched individually and as a functioning team, particularly the dominant if not necessarily most genuinely strong personalities, including the motor-mouthed, enthusiastic Hudson (Bill Paxton) and the formidable Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), as well as the quiet, calm Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), and the no-nonsense sergeant Apone (Al Matthews). The Marines are reassuring in their confident certainty of their own toughness and competence, and also their generic familiarity, combining classical war movie archetypes and modern sops: the unit includes women, a touch that illustrates Cameron’s cunning retrofitting of old movie templates for a new audience as well as suiting his own sensibility – Apone, who jams a cigar between his teeth within moments of awakening, is right out of a Sam Fuller. But the most crucial point of emulation is Howard Hawks, as the core team fuses together in to a functioning unit once the authority figures are dead or counted out and prove more effective once reconstituted as a semi-democratic whole. Ripley could be said to play the part of the traditional Hawksian woman, except Cameron inverts the old emphasis: she doesn’t have to adapt to the group, but the group fails because it doesn’t adapt like her. Cameron disposes of any dissonance as Hudson teases Vasquez, as she immediately starts doing chin-ups, with the question, “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” to her immortal riposte, “No. Have you?”

The soldiers patronise Ripley not as a woman but as a civilian, something she gauges immediately, and she takes a certain wry, challenging delight in showing off when she clambers into a robotic loading suit that resembles an anthropomorphic forklift and casually handles a heavy load, much to Apone and Hicks’ approving amusement. Cameron drops in effective, intelligently accumulating character touches that give depth to the Marines, from Hicks falling asleep during the bumpy descent to the planet, to Vasquez and Drake (Mark Rolston) displaying their deep sense of camaraderie as masters of the big guns, drilling in choreographed movement and sharing their own sense of humour, and shades-wearing, ultra-cool shuttle craft pilot Corporal Ferro (Colette Hiller) spouting surfer lingo as she steers her craft down through the stormy clouds of LV-426. There’s also the android (“I prefer the term artificial person myself”) Bishop (Lance Henriksen), present as a standard member of the team. At one point Gorman gets Hicks and Hudson’s names mixed up, a hint at the speed with which the unit was formed that can also be taken as a wry acknowledgement of the difficulty in telling a bunch of young men with buzz cuts apart and of Gorman’s lack of deep investment in noticing the distinction. Hudson himself has an edge of bratty braggadocio that first vanishes when Drake forces him to give aid to Bishop in his party trick display of speed and precision with a knife, but resurges as he regales Ripley with the splendours of these “ultimate badasses” and their arsenal of cutting-edge technological weaponry. The soldiers and their tag-alongs eat before getting mobilised, and another facet of social tension manifests: the grunts notice Gorman doesn’t eat with them, another early sign he’s not going to prove much of a leader. Ripley, remembering Ash from the Nostromo, reacts with virulent unease when she realises what Bishop is, despite his Isaac Asimov-quoting reassurances.

Later, during a briefing for the unit, Gorman generically describes the creatures Ripley has encountered as a xenomorph – exterior-changer – in some official taxonomical flourish that has become since the general name for the malevolent species. After preparing for deployment, the unit is dropped into LV-426’s atmosphere and upon landing find Hadleys Hope seemingly deserted, with signs like half-eaten meals, in a nice nod towards the mystique of the Mary Celeste, betraying the suddenness of what befell the colonists. The Marines soon turn up signs that prove Ripley’s story, particularly patches of metalwork eaten through by the xenomorphs’ spilt acidic blood, and occupy the command centre which was hastily fortified for a last stand. Whilst exploring the deserted domicile, movement detected on their sensors proves to Newt, now bedraggled and deeply traumatised, but also having managed to survive thanks to her intricate knowledge of the domicile’s air duct system, gathered in her years playing in them. Ripley quickly takes on a motherly role for Newt. The team discover two live specimens of the “facehugger” strain that implants larvae in living hosts, kept in plastic tubes in the centre’s Med Lab, with a surgeon’s notes queasily reporting a patient died having one specimen removed. Finally the Marines, trying to find the missing colonists by looking for their subcutaneous tracking chips, locate them seemingly all congregated together in a space under the gigantic atmospheric plant, a fusion reactor-powered array busily making the planetary atmosphere breathable. But when the Marines venture into the plant, they quickly find signs they’re entering a xenomorph nest, and the one living human they find amongst the many eviscerated victims they find fused to the walls quickly dies as one of the larval aliens explodes from her chest. Within moments the unit is attacked by swarming xenomorphs, quickly reducing their ranks and setting the remnant to flight, and it falls to Ripley’s quick thinking to save them.

One aspect of Aliens, relatively minor on the dramatic scale but important to the deep impression made by its overall look and texture, was Cameron’s strong feel, bordering on fetishism, for both a realistic technological milieu, and for military lingo and tough-hombre attitude. Some of the hardware, like futuristic guns mounted on steadicam harnesses and the robotic loading suit, still remain exotic, but other touches, from the Marines’ helmet-mounted cameras to video phones, have become familiar, and all still seem part of a coherent vision of a future that’s at once hi-tech but also rough-and-ready, everything designed for hard encounters on far-flung rocks. That the Marines would use a “drop ship” to shuttle them to and from the planet rather than land a cumbersome spaceship like the Nostromo on LV-426, provides both a logical-feeling aspect of the mechanics of the enterprise whilst also echoing both World War II landing craft and helicopters in the Vietnam war, and also, eventually, provides an important component of the plot. The drop ship itself disgorges an Armoured Personnel Carrier, which the Marines use as a mobile protective base of operations. The visual sheen of Adrian Biddle’s cinematography, with omnipresent steely blues and greys, suggests that the atmosphere itself has soaked up the cobalt-hued lustre of gunmetal and industrial colossi, and the first sight Ripley and the Marines have of LV-426 is of the enormous atmospheric processor installation, powered by a fusion reactor, looming out of the grimy haze, and Hadleys Hope beyond, blurry and smeared in being seen through cameras.

Cameron’s use of such mediating technology also gives Aliens flashes of estranged menace, as the signs of battle and carnage the Marines find once they penetrate the interior of Hadleys Hope, bearing out Ripley’s accounts, are mediated through grainy, fuzzy camera feeds. The oft-emulated scene of Gorman steadily losing all connection and control as the Marines are attacked and the mission turns to lethal chaos intersperses immediate footage and glimpses conveyed through the way their cameras capture incoherent flashes of action and, in the cases of those grabbed or killed by the xenomorphs, blacks out: the technology, which seems to embrace and unite the humans, instead only testifies to their breakdown and impotence. This sequence, which sees the film finally combust after its long, nerveless build-up, cleverly reproduces a key aspect of Alien in the idea of the responses to the xenomorphs being limited by situation, as the nest is directly underneath the plant’s cooling systems, which means that firing off powerful weapons could critically damage the reactor and result in a nuclear explosion. Given the unexpected signs of sentient intelligence the xenomorphs display, too, this might not be a coincidence. This means the team is left almost defenceless as the aliens pounce, save flame throwers and Hicks’ shotgun (“I like to save this for close encounters.”), although Drake and Vasquez, having contrived not to hand over all their ammo, start blasting away wildly as the attack comes.

Cameron and the design team gave the xenomorphs a slightly different look for the film than the sleek anthropoidal shark look of the original model, kicking off a motif in the series where the creatures adapt to their environment. Here they’re distinctly more demonic with a more veinous-looking exterior, hobgoblins surging out of dark reaches they’ve decorated to suit themselves, an environ festooned with eviscerated corpses in a vision of a Dantean hellscape. They discover one living woman (Barbara Coles) who, as Ripley did in her dream earlier in the film, begs her would-be rescuers to kill her, but they’re too late to stop the larval “chestburster” alien from erupting from her chest. The Marines immediately incinerate it with a flamethrower, but this has the unfortunate effect of stirring the other xenomorphs from their nooks. Gorman, pale and sweating and delirious in his horror, quickly proves incapable of a response, so Ripley leaps into the seat of the APC and charges through the corridors of the processor plant, Horner’s furiously martial scoring booming out in announcing the gear change from cosmic horror to rumble-time action. Ripley’s frantic driving in her compelling sense of mission, APC careening against walls, and Gorman’s attempt to intervene only sees him fought off by Burke and then knocked silly by falling containers. Ripley crashes through a partition and reaches the Marines, but not in time to save Drake, who takes a face full of acid blood when Vasquez blasts a xenomorph about to launch on him. As it tries to force open the APC doors, Hicks jams his shotgun in a xenomorph’s mouth and cries “Eat this!” before blowing its head off – an all-time great cheer-out-loud flourish that deliberately makes mincemeat of one of the most disturbing aspects of the xenomorphs as seen up to this point, their double jaw.

One of Cameron’s most important storytelling inflections that recurs throughout Aliens is evinced here in near-throwaway fashion, as Hick’s heroic action nonetheless results in spraying acid blood burning Hudson’s arm. This motif of rolling crisis where gestures and actions constantly result in unintended consequences drives much of the story in a manner that feels realistically chaotic whilst also forcing it onwards in compulsive motion. Ripley manages to barrel the APC out through the plant door after running over a xenomorph that tries to break through the windscreen to get at her, at the cost of shattering the APC’s transaxle. The Marines call in Ferro and the drop ship to come pick them up, but a xenomorph gets aboard the ship and kills the crew, resulting in the drop ship crashing and colliding with the atmospheric plant, setting in motion exactly the inevitable nuclear meltdown they feared. Later in the film Vasquez and Gorman’s final action of blowing themselves up to avoid being eaten and take a few xenomorphs with them offers a moment of valiant kamikaze grace, but also causes another accident that forces Ripley to even more dangerous and strenuous actions.

Aliens tends not to be thought of as a horror movie, unlike Alien, which more obviously straddles the narrow gap between that genre and sci-fi. And yet it has just as much horrific imagery and atmosphere as its precursor, and indeed goes a few steps further, like showing the results of people getting sprayed with the acidic alien blood, and the imagery of the hive festooned with dead, eviscerated colonists. As well as the obvious Horror cues Alien subsumes – the “haunted castle” space ships, the blasted alien planet, the lurking monster, the presence of Ripley as an early and defining “final girl,” the strongly Lovecraftian tilt of the imagery and ideas – it exemplifies how Horror is a style or genre defined by tension derived from the fallibility of the feebly human before forces beyond their control. By contrast, action as a genre is defined by the dispelling of such forces through exemplars of human resilience and toughness: filmmakers don’t have some big, tough muscleman turn up in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Halloween (1978) to kick the fiend’s ass, precisely because such stories require the heroes to be distinctly more vulnerable than the avatars of evil. Aliens can also count classic horror films like The Birds (1963) and George Romero’s Dead films as precursors in the theme of fighting violent inhuman besiegement.

But of course Aliens is also a war movie and an interstellar western, and the argument between the immobilising dread of horror and the proactive furore of these other genres is part of what makes Aliens endlessly engaging as a grand nexus of various storytelling traditions and inflections. As legendary as the film’s heroic beats have become, they wouldn’t be at all effective if Cameron wasn’t also so committed at walking his characters up to the edge of the truly nightmarish. The disparity can be traced to the divergent urges expressed in the roots of the two genres. Both go back to stories told around tribal campfires in a far-flung past. In such oral traditions, horror is based in the kinds of stories told to keep children close to the circle of light, warning balefully of the gleaming eyes watching from the dark, whereas those other genres are based in the tales told about great warriors and leaders, the defenders of the tribe, the ones strong enough to go out into that dark. Something Aliens does better than just about any other example I can think of is find the interlocutor of the two in the image of a protecting parent.

Cameron’s approach to the war movie, whilst containing character types going back to silent films like The Big Parade (1925), is nonetheless shaped by his own and his original audience’s cultural moment. Aliens presents a strongly nudging subtext for a popular understanding of the Vietnam War: the Marines, confident in their edge of both machismo (even the women) and technological superiority, as they descend into an environment which their foes, who prove far more intelligent and dangerous than expected and motivated by more coherent, communal urges, are all too good at exploiting. Cameron emphasises the motif through both casting – Matthews, in a casting touch anticipatory of R. Lee Ermey in the following year’s Full Metal Jacket, had been a real-life US Marine, and knew the required attitude inside out – and details like the future-but-not drop ships and the subsumed banter and attitude of Vietnam-era American soldiers. Cameron had success writing the post-Vietnam revenge and homecoming fantasy of Rambo: First Blood Part II and to a certain extent Aliens can be read as its distaff variation, with Ripley fulfilling the role of resurgent natural warrior. But Aliens feels closer to the more considered metaphorical meditation Cameron had woven into The Terminator, where Biehn’s Kyle Reese was easily read as a damaged returned veteran.  Aliens came out in the same year as Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and the two films’ similarities include a soldier’s-eye sense of disdain for officer school training grad lieutenants.

Aliens feels its way around all this in portraying Ripley’s reconstruction from PTSD-riddled human cargo to the essential and emblematic action heroine. Ripley’s place in finally and persuasively creating an archetype scarcely seen so unfettered since folkloric figures like Boudica, Kahina, or Jeanne Hachette has been very well covered ever since, but it’s worth noting on some of the things Cameron and Weaver manage to do through her that made her so vital. As noted, Cameron presents a largely gender-egalitarian world, mediating the traditional Hawksian testing of the outsider on the level of civilian versus soldier and grunt versus officer, cutting out any of the usual jockeying and bickering or tendencies towards what is now called “girlboss” politicking. Ripley’s wisdom, as in the first film, is a mere edge of awareness and forthrightness, and what seems to be her chief liability, the crippling horror of her prior experience with the xenomorph, proves to be a great advantage too, able to recover more quickly from the dizzying blows of their attacks and already knowing what kinds of behaviours will save lives and which will get them all killed. A crucial moment comes when she reacts to the horrible death of the cocooned survivor, recreating her own image of herself from her dream as impregnated and doomed, as Ripley grips her own stomach and grimaces in terrible sympathy. As far as catharsis goes, this is about as rough as it gets, but it nonetheless immediately precedes her resurgence as a fighter.

To this Cameron added a faith that Ripley’s specifically feminine qualities were potent virtues rather than discomforting appendages to be denied or ignored in the course of enabling her. Alien suggested maternal instinct in Ripley in her choice to save Jones at the risk of her own life, and to a certain extent Cameron merely elaborates on this streak in reiterating the lengths Ripley will go to to save those she cares about and in subtly reproducing the original film’s basic plot beats. Nonetheless Aliens is much more specific, and particularly in the Special Edition makes it clear that for Ripley such instinct is because being a mother is a significant and immediate part of her identity. This signals why she’s able to form such a quick and intense bond with Newt, and also underlies her instinct to race to the rescue of the Marines. It’s also apparent even in small but consequential gestures as when Ripley orders Newt to leave the APC’s command space when the cameras show the Marines exploring the hive and seeing colonist bodies festooning the walls: as well as the awful spectacle in and of itself, in which Ripley amusingly resembles a dutiful parents warding a child off from something verboten on TV, Ripley also knows well Newt might see her parents and brother amongst them.

Newt herself is in part a nod to the kinds of urchins who attach themselves to soldiers in classic war movies, whilst presenting an ideal surrogate daughter for Ripley in the way too she is an uncommon, alternative kind of survivor: at one point Ripley admonishes the ranting Hudson with a reminder that Newt found ways to subsist for weeks without help or training, so surely the ultimate badasses can take a few lessons. Newt wields a mixture of the authentically childlike – picking up the Marines’ idiom and gestures (“Affirmative!”) with mimicking delight – and an edge of premature awareness and gravitas, in her certainty that the Marines’ firepower “won’t make any difference” against the aliens, and her nudging reminder to Ripley that her doll Casey isn’t cursed with scary dreams unlike herself and Ripley because “she’s just a piece of plastic.” It’s a measure of the depth of Weaver’s performance, and probably the reason why she gained a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role, a rarity for such a genre movie, in that she’s coherently able to shift between more fearsome postures and gently coaxing maternal interactions with Henn’s Newt, in utterly convincing vignettes like her murmuring ruefully, after dabbing away some dirt on the girl with some cocoa when she’s first discovered, “Now I’ve done it, I’ve accidentally made a clean spot here – now I guess I’ll have to clean the whole thing.” Newt is of course also, like Jones, a plot device, providing a motive for Ripley to not only survive, but to take the kind of risk usually reserved to heroes of classic mythology.

Meanwhile the rest of the humans interact with a deft combination of acting and writing to the point where they’re more precisely drawn than many another film’s lead character, from Paxton’s brilliant slide from posturing wiseass to whiny hysteric before finally going out in a blaze of authentic glory, to Goldstein’s strident Vasquez demanding of the injured Gorman, “Wake up, pendejo, and then I’m gonna kill you!” Henriksen, a familiar enough character actor in movies including Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), had been the star in Cameron’s Piranha II: The Spawning and his initial proposed casting for the role of the Terminator. Cameron’s fondness for him was justified as playing Bishop finally boosted him to cult acting hero status, in part because he expertly walks a line of studied blandness that sustains the question as to whether Bishop is another cyborg monster like Ash – he has a similar awed regard when studying their anatomy – or a good guy. The answer finally comes when he makes a quip, “I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid,” when he volunteers for a risky mission only he can likely pull off, and it’s impossible to doubt him henceforth, even when he seems to abandon Ripley and Newt to their fate.

Biehn, hastily brought aboard the movie to play Hicks after James Remar was forced to drop out, finished up playing a similar role to the one he had in The Terminator as an ideal male hero who nonetheless finishes up too battered and scarred to be of much help to the heroine as she faces evil alone. Hicks however isn’t a damaged case like Kyle Reese was, but rather a quiet, intense dark horse who clearly isn’t eager to be the star: “Yeah…yeah,” he murmurs ruefully after Ripley points out he’s now in charge, a marvellous little moment for Biehn. But within moments, after being incidentally belittled by Burke, Hicks readily commits to command and to implementing Ripley’s suggestion of aerial nuclear bombardment of the area – “Only way to be sure” – in a way that suddenly confirms he’s the rare character both smart enough and sufficiently untroubled by ego to know the right idea when he hears it, and so is precisely the leader the crisis needs. The crash of the drop ship foils this plan, and obliges the team to fortify themselves in the command centre, sealing up every conceivable door, pipe, and conduit, planning to wait out the 17 day interval before another rescue mission is sent. But Bishop soon tells them they can’t wait that long: the drop ship’s crash damaged the atmospheric processor and it’s now on a countdown to explosion. Bishop agrees to venture outside to patch into the outpost’s transmitter and remote pilot a second drop ship down from the Sulaco. During the wait, Ripley and Newt find themselves trapped with two freed facehuggers specimens, and are only rescued by the Marines in the nick of time. Ripley knows full well this must have been orchestrated by Burke, who she already knows both ordered the search for the alien ship and wants to take the specimens back to Earth, and saw a good way of getting what he wants whilst silencing Ripley. And, incidentally, everyone else.

The reveal that Burke is a villain isn’t at all surprising, as it was pretty compulsory for a 1980s genre film to have an asshole yuppie. It could be said his presence dials down the Kafkaesque portrait of corporate insidiousness in Alien to something more containable: rather than operating on the company’s behalf Burke’s self-defence suggests it’s his own opportunism driving his actions. Still he’s the avatar of the same forces at work, and Reiser makes the character effective in the way he carefully shades Burke’s purposefully inoffensive façade with his unblinking believe-you-me stare and air of practiced facetiousness, a film of sweat greasing his upper lip as he labours to keep up his bullshit in the face of the Marines’ murderous anger. His execution is only staved off by a sudden power outage, a failure that tells Ripley the xenomorphs are on the move with purpose, much to Hudson’s disbelief (“They’re animals, man!”), but quickly confirmed by the team’s motion detectors. Cameron’s use of the detectors, pulsing with ever-increasing pitch and squirming blurs on their readout screens confirming the horde’s approach, to generate tension is peerless, whilst also returning to the ambiguity of technology as a filter for experience. The relentless march of the monsters towards the command centre remains invisible and illogical as they seem to be right upon the humans but without any sign of them, until the penny drops and Ripley turns her gaze upwards towards the panelled ceiling – the one, forgotten conduit for invasion. The pure essence of the monster movie and everything the mode encompasses comes in the next moment: Hicks is boosted up to lift a panel and turn a torch down the duct, glimpsing the hellish vision of a horde of xenomorphs crawling inexorably closer.

Aliens created a template that young and eager genre filmmakers, and some not-so-young ones, would imitate exhaustively in years to come. The hard, chitinous look imbued upon the tech and environs would be endlessly imitated along with the plot patterns and lines of defiant dialogue. Cameron’s editing of the action scenes is quick almost to the point of being subliminal in places, generally to mask limitations of the special effects but also amplifying the sense of the blindsiding speed with which situations turn on a dime from anxious calm to life-and-death conflict. And yet it’s also still entirely lucid and precise in filming and framing. Cameron’s repeated, forceful use of point-of-view shots goes beyond the fascination with layered media, and provides much of the film surging, immediate energy – barely noticed in the rush of events as when he cuts between Burke’s viewpoint as he shuts the door sealing off himself from Ripley and Newt and theirs as they see the door close, and repeated with more bravura towards the end as Cameron adopts Bishop’s pilot’s-eye-view as he barrels the drop ship through plumes of smoke and fire amidst the jutting steel forms in fleeing the atmospheric processor. The sequence of Ripley and Newt trapped in the Med Lab is particularly great in exploiting what the audience both knows and doesn’t know as well as offering a moment of pure situational thrill-mongering. Cameron reiterates the constant motif in the film and its predecessor involving waking and sleeping and the blurred ground between dream and nightmare, as Ripley, who has fallen asleep with Newt who by habit hides under her bed from the very real monsters, awakens and spies the toppled tubes that contained the facehugger specimens, shifting from an idyllic portrait of her bonding attachment into imminent danger and threat, as well as invoking the basic parental role, as the person whose presence allows a child to sleep untroubled.

Ripley quickly finds they’ve been locked in, and Cameron cuts to a shot of Burke switching off the security camera in the Med Lab unnoticed by the Marines. Hicks has given Ripley one of the pulse rifles after showing her how to use it, but it’s been lifted and left on a table outside. Ripley has to find a way of attracting attention, a problem she solves quickly enough by setting off the fire alarm. Hicks and the other Marines dash to the rescue, but how long it will take them to get there is unknown. Ripley has gained their attention, but has made the situation even more nightmarish as infernal red fire lamps glow, the harsh siren buzzes and robs any advantage of listening for the creatures, and water pours down: will the water slow down the facehuggers, or do they love it? For those who had seen Alien, the facehuggers are known to be swift and akin to an instant death sentence once attached, but just how fast they can move and whether they can be outwitted is still moot. Cameron builds to the sear-itself-into-your-cortex shot of the facehugger scuttling after Ripley with obscene multi-limbed motion before it springs on her, wrapping its tail about her neck, Ripley trying to find off its furiously wriggling form, whilst Newt manages to pin the other one’s tail against the wall as it comes for her. Only then does Cameron cut to the sight of the Marines outside, having arrived in the meantime: their appearance is both logical but also a non-sequitir, a startling break from the suffocating moment of dread. Hicks tells the others to shoot out the plexiglass window before launching himself through it in a moment of fearless bravura, and the Marines earn a moment of heroic effectiveness as Hudson saves Newt whilst Hicks, Gorman, and Vasquez untangle the one on Ripley and toss it into a corner to be blasted to bits.

The final invasion by the xenomorphs likewise exploits the red emergency lighting to signal the change from placidity to hellish urgency, as monstrosities drop from the ceiling and erupt from the floor. Burke momentarily prevents the team’s retreat by locking a door, seemingly hoping the team will be killed so he can meet up with Bishop and escape, only to find himself trapped with one of the monsters. It’s a measure of the craftsmanship brought to bear in the film that this sequence manages to evoke the authentic chaos of such a battle as the jangling monsters spring and surge in the bloody red light, whilst also capturing iconic vignettes for its heroes – Hudson taunting the xenomorphs as he guns them down, Vasquez blasting them with her grenade launcher, with Horner’s most epic strains blasting all the way. Hudson, Vasquez, and Gorman all die in the rear-guard defence. Cameron allows each to go down as the reborn absolute badass they always sought to be, fighting to the last round with all their ferocity and grit brought to bear, Hudson dragged into the abyss still screaming out curses at the monsters, Gorman blowing himself and Vasquez up when he realises they’re trapped and can’t escape.

But it’s also worth noting that their gestures are also self-defeating, dying in part by their own heroic pretences as well as the monsters, as none of them quite has the sense to follow Newt at top speed: the little girl holds the key to their salvation in knowing the way through the air vents to the landing field. In this regard Cameron echoes something of the romantic fatalism of H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), and indeed its source novel with its last line describing its ill-fated hero as one killed by his own ferocious determination to live. The way Vasquez wails, “Oh no!” after she’s crippled by some of the xenomorph blood, is a perfect signature for her character, registering both fury at herself and terror in finally being crippled, before the simultaneously stirring and ironic sight of her and Gorman locked together in a moment of perfect fulfilment in the second before Gorman’s grenade goes off, and they vansish in a fireball. Problem is, this götterdamerung for warriors results in a shockwave that makes Newt fall into a vent and plunge to a lower level in the building, demanding Hicks and Ripley pursue her. By the time they reach her she’s been snatched away to the hive by a xenomorph, and Hicks is badly burned by acid blood killing another. Ripley manages to help Hicks reach Bishop as the drop ship arrives, but insists she has to back into the hive to rescue Newt. Cue perhaps the all-time greatest variation on a standard action movie vignette, as Ripley arms herself to the teeth in preparing for the venture whilst Bishop flies her into the atmospheric processor, which is beginning to show signs of destabilising in the face of imminent meltdown.

Everything up until this point has been great, but Aliens kicks to a higher level, reaching the innermost core where those divergent ancient storytelling traditions fork, in this sequence. This is of course in large part to the converging elements of cinema – Weaver’s performing, the shooting and editing, Horner’s big brass-and-drum scoring – but also because of the way everything seen before in the film and its predecessor unites into one, pure spectacle. Much like the following year’s Predator, the climax dispenses with all social-animal preliminaries and gets down to a basic, primal rite, the hero who must venture into the bear’s cave and risk tooth and claw. But with the corollary that Ripley’s motive is not symbolic or general, but a specific, deeply personal expression of maternal urge that overrides every other instinct in the existential manual. The deep-flowing fairy tale motif returns as Ripley uses flares like the breadcrumb trail in Hansel and Gretel, whilst on a more mythic level she combines in herself Theseus and Ariadne heading into the Labyrinth on the hunt for the minotaur, Perseus and Andromeda, St George and the princess. The processor plant, glimpsed as Bishop flies into it, has become a gothic monstrosity, spitting lightning and fire, the most literalised edition of William Blake’s vision of dark satanic mills as the blight of industrialism conceivable. All classical storytelling kneaded into modern psychological theory, and it’s working on that level too, as Ripley has also found the overriding urge that makes all inner demons ineffective. At the same time, Cameron lets the audience see Ripley thinking as well as acting: the weaponry she assembles – taping a flamethrower to a pulse rifle, readying the flares – is, far from heedlessly vainglorious, instead utilising every particle of knowledge she’s gathered about her foes and their home, from their physical traits to their numbers, which by this point if hardly decimated must be greatly thinned, and with the majority of the remaining host left behind in the abandoned command centre. In short, even as Ripley finally becomes an action hero unbound, she’s still very much the character she’s been portrayed as, quick on her mental as well as physical feet. If Cameron had by and large eased back on the protean erotic imagery Scott wielded by way of H.R. Giger’s art in the earlier part of the film, he brings it back with a more sickly, suggestive edge in the sight of Newt swathed in hardened cocooning gel that looks like ejaculate, a xenomorph egg peeling open in rather penile fashion, giving this vignette a coded quality of a wrathful mother coming to save her child from a paedophile.

The symbolism inverts nonetheless as Ripley successfully locates Newt and tears her free only to stumble upon the monstrous queen, a great bony crone with a gross, pendulous egg-sack spitting out monstrous seed. Ripley has found her own interspecies doppelganger – the queen’s squarish jaw even seems to have been deliberately moulded on Weaver’s – as another fiercely protecting mother, but this one diseased, spawning misbegotten devils. The two communicate in gesture, as Ripley gives a spurt of fire from her flamethrower, just enough to make clear to the queen she’ll set fire to her eggs if she lets the xenomorphs lurking in the wings come out, and the queen bids them retreat. The tentative little truce ends when one of the eggs opens: Ripley gives a tilt of her head, grits her teeth, and starts blasting. It’s impossible not to share Ripley’s raw, punishing, near-mindless expression of exterminating rage, and yet as with the Marines earlier, her warlike self-purgation is self-defeating, as she wastes most of her arsenal destroying a hive that will be blown up anyway in a few minutes, making herself very close to a victim of new warrior bravura. Tellingly, Ripley aims all her rage and grenades at the queen’s vestigial egg-sack rather than her exoskeletal body, and after Ripley flees with Newt, the alien queen rips free of the sack and follows, bent on vengeance. Ripley finds Bishop seems to have flown off with the drop ship, seemingly confirming Ripley’s anxiety about Bishop, and in the moment of ultimate confrontation with both parental and childhood fear, Ripley tells Newt, “Close your eyes, baby,” as the alien queen emerges from the shadows of an elevator. Except, of course, Bishop suddenly flies the drop ship into view and scoops up the two humans, before fleeing at top speed, just managing to escape the colossal explosion that consumes Hadleys Hope and everything around it and zooming back into the stars.

Cameron makes a dry nod towards a Spielbergian take on a cinematic fairy-tale motif, as he shifts from the cataclysmic vision of the explosion to the sight of the drop ship zooming up into the stars, Horner’s music now offering gently melodic, resolving sounds at a juncture that for most movies would mark the end of the bad dream. But this being Cameron, of course, he has a trick up his sleeve as he did with the emerging cyborg in The Terminator and with the same basic concept of an inimical form of intelligence simply refusing to observe the niceties of what a human would justifiably call enough, as well as repeating and expanding upon the finale of Alien. Right at what seems to be the hearty final moment of conciliation between Ripley and Bishop, who’s delighted by her praise, the hiss of burning acid and Bishop suddenly contorting in pain announces a last act as the alien queen crawls out of a landing gear bay, having skewered Bishop on its horny tail, before ripping him in half. Being as he is an artificial person Bishop doesn’t expire from such treatment, but the vision of both Hicks and Bishop left too injured to help Ripley not only demands she find a way to battle the monster alone but also carries potent metaphorical aspects – Cameron’s viewpoint of a fatally injured idea of masculinity, exposed in both the classical hero Hicks and the motherly, slightly fey male Bishop, whilst playing nice in that they’re both nobly wounded rather than toxic and imperious like the Terminator, nonetheless demands a new kind femininity evolve to take its place, and with the suggestion that the last act of all wars is ultimately fought by women, those who have to deal with the subtler but more pernicious monsters it unleashes.

Bishop’s sundering is also a bravura moment of visual ruthlessness, a shock twist that resembles Ripley’s discovery of the alien on the Narcissus in the previous film and also a last, needling reminder that the material is still mean stuff. Whilst the alien queen hunts for Newt, who tries to hide under the docking bay floor gratings, Ripley emerges wearing the power loader suit, augmented to a level of power equal to the monster. Okay, altogether now, three…two…one: “Get away from her, you bitch!” An unnecessarily rhetorical flourish, probably, given we’ve already seen the idea illustrated thoroughly, but still one of the most delightful moments in the genre film canon, and the signature for Ripley: this isn’t Ripley the damaged survivor or Ripley the hysterical berserker but the ultimate version, powered up with steel fists, completing the journey in now making clear it’s the monster that should be scared. Later, in Titanic and Avatar, Cameron would more conspicuously re-devote himself to what could be called new-age editions of imagery and themes echoing out High Romantic art and literature of the 1700s and 1800s, where artist-heroes rewrite reality with passion, flee collapsing idols, and bestride pristine wildernesses, a twist that might have seemed odd given his penchant for technology as a device both liberating and frightening.

But it becomes clearer in watching Cameron’s oeuvre that the dark side of technology lies in its potential, indifferently destructive effect on living systems, the appeal of it lies in restoring the kind of heroic agency associated with classical art forms. Thus Ripley repurposes a tool, one associated previously with her humiliation and reconstruction, into a new kind of knightly armour, able to step up to the nastiest demon lurking in Beelzebub’s caverns and sock it in the face. Finally, in the titanic struggle that follows, she manages to dump the creature into an airlock and blast it out into the same void as its predecessor, although not before the queen, with its species’ characteristic will to survive, keeps hanging on to Ripley to the bitter end. Finally Ripley seals up the ship as the bifurcated Bishop clings onto the flailing Newt, who finally, unthinkingly anoints Ripley as “Mommy!” as they’re finally united. Cameron returns to the fairy-tale motif for a final image of mother and daughter delivered back to their dreams, perhaps no better than before, but at least now just dreams.

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The City of the Dead (1960) / Night of the Eagle (1961)

aka Horror Hotel / aka Burn, Witch, Burn!

Directors: John Llewellyn Moxey / Sidney Hayers
Screenwriters: George Baxt / George Baxt, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson

By Roderick Heath

The City of the Dead and Night of the Eagle present two small gems of horror cinema, closely connected by the moment of their making and their basic genre film business. Both are products of the flourishing horror cinema in Britain inspired by the success of the Hammer Horror films. Each was directed by an interesting filmmaker well-known to genre fans but few others. The City of the Dead was written by the mystery writer George Baxt, who went on to co-author the script of Night of the Eagle with Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Both films offer horror narratives set firmly in the present day and involving witchcraft. Both are partly set in academia, hardly the usual location for horror apart from the reaction of the odd flunked student. Both are evidently influenced by other, recent great and popular films but have their own specific charm. Both were awkwardly retitled for American release. But the two films are quite distinct in other ways, exemplifying how movies can be both very similar in their basics and yet divergent in approach: The City of the Dead is a lesson in making the most of a miniscule budget to weave a classical brand of atmospheric dread, whilst Night of the Eagle is a study in psychological tension and metaphorical power.


The City of the Dead represented an early foray into producing British genre cinema by the entrepreneurial American producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, about to become two of the more consequential figures in that rarefied realm. The duo first collaborated in the US on the rock’n’roll craze-exploiting film Rock, Rock, Rock (1956) and a handful of other B-movies. The duo reached out to Hammer Films honcho Michael Carreras, trying to entice his involvement with a new version of Frankenstein Subotsky had written. Carreras became interested but eventually cut out Subotsky and Rosenberg, and his The Curse of Frankenstein, upon release in 1957, proved an earthquake that permanently revived horror cinema as well as, in the short term, making the UK the epicentre. Subotsky and Rosenberg moved to avenge themselves by moving to Britain and forming the production entity Vulcan Films, which would eventually be reorganised into the better-known Amicus Films, which tried thereafter to be a rival to Hammer. Amicus would produce an enjoyable if interchangeable series of anthology horror movies like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), and Tales From The Crypt (1972), and sci-fi flicks like Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Kevin Connor’s Edgar Rice Burroughs trilogy. Baxt had originally written the script as the intended pilot of a TV series to star Boris Karloff, and when Subotsky took it over he performed rewrites, adding a subplot and giving himself story credit, whilst the film’s stringent £45,000 budget was partly obtained from Nottingham Football Club.

For a director, Subotsky hired John Llewellyn Moxey, who at 35 had recently become a TV director. Moxey’s knowledge of how to conjure a convincing drama out of the most stringent needs definitely helped with The City of the Dead. The film kicks off with a prologue that’s intriguingly similar to the beginning of the same year’s La Maschera del Demonio, and anticipates the like of Witchfinder General (1969) and The Devils (1971) in evoking the bleak history of witch hunts and executions as a gruelling and gruesome social phenomenon. Moxey opens with the townsfolk of the small Massachusetts village of Whitewood in 1692 dragging Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) to be burned at the stake as a witch. Selwyn screams out for help to one of the men in the crowd, Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall), but when asked by the town elder supervising the execution (Fred Johnson), if he consorts with her Jethrow denies it. When Selwyn is tied to the stake and set on fire, she and Jethrow both make appeal to Satan to help her, and Selwyn begins to laugh with pleasure as thunder rings out as if answering her prayer, whilst the baying crowd chant, “Burn witch, burn!”

Moxey cuts to history professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) enthusiastically repeating the same chant as he instructs his students on the event in contemporary times, to the rapt fascination of prize pupil Nan Barlow (Venetia Stephenson), and the wry lack of interest of her boyfriend sitting in on the lecture, Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor), whose quips infuriate the teacher. Nan’s brother Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis), who is himself a teacher at the college, quickly gets into an argument with Driscoll, as his own hard-headed lack of credulity and interest in the historical events clashes with Driscoll’s preoccupation, as Driscoll notes the historical record suggests the lingering influence of malefic forces in Whitewood, which also happens to be his home town. Nan is despite Bill and Richard’s scorn so interested in the seemingly irrational subject that she tells them and Driscoll she wants to travel through New England during the term break and collect independent research on the topic, including a visit to Whitewood. Driscoll gives her directions and the name of a hotel in the town to stay at, and Nan heads off after promising to meet them at a cousin’s house in two weeks. On the rough and misty road to the town, Nan picks up a hitchhiker, a tall, plummy, sardonic man heading to Whitewood and who just happens to look just like the long-ago Jethrow Keane.

Nan is briefly perplexed when, upon arrival in Whitewood, Jethrow seems to slip out of the car without her noticing, but she soon books into the hotel, The Raven’s Inn, run by Mrs Newless, who also happens to look rather like Elizabeth Selwyn. The hotel has a plaque announcing it stands on the spot where Selwyn was burned. The town of Whitewood is a quiet, fog-shrouded place with a neglected church, a blind and ominously advising pastor, Russell (Norman MacOwan), and silent, glaring citizenry. Nan does encounter the blessedly normal Pat Russell (Betta St. John), the granddaughter of the pastor, who’s just recently returned to the town and opened an antique store. Pat digs out a book from her collection entitled A Treatise on Devil Worship in New England in trying to satisfy Nan’s researching needs, and Nan arranges to borrow it for the duration of her stay in town. Back in the hotel, however, Nan begins noticing strange incidents, as bracelet she likes to where vanishes, a dead bird skewered with a pin turns up in a drawer, and a sprig of woodbine appears on her door, all details that happen to recur in the historical documents recounting the human sacrifices Selwyn and her coven liked to perform. And there’s also the little matter of some eerie singing emanating up through the floorboards. When she finds the key to the old hatch in the floor of her room dangling from her window, Nan descends into a labyrinth under the church, where she’s suddenly grabbed by some robed and hooded figures and dragged to a ceremonial altar, where she’s laid prostrate and stabbed to death by Mrs Newless, who confirms she is actually Selwyn.

The pleasures of The City of the Dead walk a line that can strike many as campy, with its air of threadbare charm and almost comically oblivious characters. A brief vignette of Stephenson parading about in 1950s bodice and garters is a flash of sexploitation that’s both amusingly obvious as a ploy and dated in that women often wear less on the main street of my town these days. But it’s the kind of movie that’s held together by the conviction everyone involved wields. The ploy of setting up Nan as the apparent heroine of the movie and then killing her off sees The City of the Dead often compared with the looming example of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Given the filming and release of the two movies it seems unlikely Psycho had direct influence – Moxey’s film started shooting before Hitchcock’s – making The City of the Dead more significant and ballsy in this move. Psycho nonetheless announced a great genre sea-change, auguring in today’s general norm for the horror movie, built around lurking killers dealing out gruesome demises in modern, mundane locales, rather than the classical arsenal of supernatural monsters and stylised historical, foreign, or psychologised settings. The City of the Dead mediates the two ages with its simple but sufficient storyline. Another of the film’s obvious quirks is being a British film set in the US, which had been done before and is chiefly notable in this case for Lee doing a surprisingly good accent. Devil worshipper movies had been relatively uncommon before the late 1950s in Horror cinema except in when safely relegated to exoticised forms like the many misconstruing takes on voodoo, in part because they tended to be stringently censored, testified by the edits The City of the Dead underwent and the controversy sparked by The Devil Rides Out (1967) a few years later. One of the few previous major examples was Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934).

The City of the Dead avoids playing out as a kind of drive-in take on The Crucible insofar as it makes no bones about the supernatural nature of the events, even as it offers a sliver of sympathy for the devil as the viciousness of the repression of the witches scarcely seems preferable to any evil they can deal out, and the result is perpetually dooming Whitewood to subsist as a canker subsisting into the officially purified modern world. Witchcraft as a subject was a potentially fruitful one for genre filmmakers as it tackled the basic schism between the audience’s scepticism, backed up modern psychological and political understanding, pitted against a chthonic credulity. Despite the American setting, The City of the Dead also gave birth to a stratum of peculiarly British horror films involving heroes stumbling into strange communities where arcane cults and mores rule, a plot pattern that neatly encompasses a very British sense of the tension between communal mores and upsetting outsiders, modernity disturbing the balanced tensions underlying a fantasy vision of a settled, ordered, homey past. On came straight-laced variations like Devils of Darkness (1965) and The Witches (1966), ambitious and wilfully odd variations in The Wicker Man (1973) and Kill List (2011), and lampoons like Bloodbath at the House of Death (1983) and Hot Fuzz (2007).

Moxey had been born in Argentina, one port of call where his family had depots for their coal and steel business. Moxey underwent training at Sandhurst, the famous British military college, and fought in World War II, but left the armed forces after the war already world-weary at 20, and decided to instead realise a childhood ambition to get into show business. Moxey only made a handful of feature films in his long career, but they include several cultish gems of low-budget filmmaking, as he followed The City of the Dead up with the fascinatingly antiheroic World War II spy story A Foxhole in Cairo (1960), the gritty Hands of Orlac variation Hands of a Stranger (1964), and a string of Edgar Wallace-derived thrillers including Circus of Fear (1966), a thriller enlivened by Moxey’s flashes of visual wit, including Klaus Kinski dying with a huge leering mask in his grip, a great opening sequence depicting an armoured car robbery on Tower Bridge, and a general glaze of drizzly, moody British charm. When the low-budget UK movie scene began to dry up, cheating Moxey of any further chance of breaking out into higher-profile movies, he returned to work entirely in television and soon moved to Hollywood, working on shows as varied and beloved as The Saint, The Avengers, Mission: Impossible, Mannix, Hawaii 5-0, Magnum, P.I., Miami Vice, Murder, She Wrote, and the pilot episode of Charlie’s Angels, as well a number of telemovies. His signal success in the latter field was the hugely popular telemovie The Night Stalker (1972), which birthed the cult TV series starring Darren McGavin.

Moxey’s great eye, backed up by Desmond Dickinson’s excellent black-and-white photography, and ability to conjure a powerful atmosphere with minimal elements, are clear right from the opening shot in the Whitewood town square, coals burning in a metal brazier looming in the foreground with sketchy shapes of a bent tree and town buildings just visible through the heavy pall of fog, out of which resolves a mob of period Puritans on the warpath. Moxey then carefully orchestrates the ritual condemnation that follows as Selwyn is first seen, dragged out from the prison with her imperiously sensual and boding gaze cast down upon the momentarily arrested villagers: the camera scans their stricken faces for a moment before settling on one woman who hisses, “Witch!” and earns a gob of spit from Selwyn in the eye, kicking off the baying abuse again. When Selwyn sets eyes on the waiting stake she stares in dread, and Moxey has two more harridans of the village loom in the frame, one pointing to it and crying, “Burn the witch!” Selwyn’s terror, crying out Jethrow’s name, and the puckered rage of the villagers, puts one immediately on the imminent victim’s side, but Selwyn is nonetheless exactly what they think she is, and she makes her pact with Lucifer as the flames lick her flanks (much of her vow was cut out of the film’s American release under the title Horror Hotel). Moxey cranks up the note of murderous hysteria as his camera tilts and swoops up to the variably frantic, blood-lusting, wailing faces of the crowd whilst Selwyn, sensing her plea has been heard, begins to laugh with malefic joy.

The rest of the film’s first half revolves around Nan as the blonde, creamy-skinned co-ed falling under the spell of a mystique of devilry and atavistic forces more powerful and enticing in their dank vividness than the bright lights of the world she knows. The film’s cramped budget, as is often the case, is cleverly employed to help build the drama’s sequestered mood, from the relative normality of Driscoll’s lecture through to Nan’s encounters with the odd citizens of Whitewood, where the signs of lurking threat and oneiric eccentricity seem so overt one could rightly expect any visitor to run away screaming. The undercurrent of weird intensity Driscoll forges in his lecture is lightened by Bill’s jokes (“I’ll bring the matches.”) which feel, in their way, distantly anticipatory of the self-aware tone of something like Scream (1996). The recurring use of Ken Jones’ jazz music for diegetic music is an amusing touch but also one that Moxey uses with a degree of cleverness, managing to seem both drowsily seductive whilst also letting sounds of the ordinary, current world infiltrate Whitewood and its surrounds. Moxey’s glimpses of a number of couples dancing in the cramped lobby of the Raven’s Inn recalls the similarly eerie and stylised glimpses of a stygian dance in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) just as the story recalls Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943). Moxey makes the dance, to which Nan is invited by Selwyn in her guise as Mrs Newless, seem at once romantically inviting and quietly creepy and unreal, like a show put on Nan’s sake, which it is: when Nan emerges from her room after getting dressed, the crowd is revealed to have suddenly broken up, the music they were dancing to abruptly turned off: Nan’s solitude suddenly feels dangerous. The only potential ally Nan seems to have is the chambermaid Lottie (Ann Beach), who cannot speak but still tries to warn her, only to be foiled because Selwyn keeps a close and threatening watch on her.

Whitewood seems a place where the sun never comes up and the fog never lifts, a cute way to mask production shortcomings but also providing a deliciously iconic genre film setting. Whitewood is the essential Horror movie ghost town, a throwback to the purely stylised, set-bound variety of horror movie setting once seen in the Universal Pictures horror movies like The Wolf Man (1941), the kind where ground mist ran like rivers and twisted trees loomed like withered crones doing interpretive dance. Roger Corman seems to have emulated it for his The Haunted Palace (1963), and indeed whilst The City of the Dead isn’t based on H.P. Lovecraft like the Corman film, it is perhaps the first movie to capture a Lovecraftian mood in its vision of a fetid, forgotten corner of New England where strange cabals meet and dark forces hold sway. John Carpenter probably likewise remembered it for his own Lovecraftian riff, In The Mouth of Madness (1994). Moxey’s great images continue, most particularly in a recurring shot where first Nan and then Pat drive along the road to Whitewood in the foggy dark and see Jethrow picked out in their car headlights, standing at a crossroads, filmed from within the car: technically clever, this motif also helps Moxey firm up the urban legend texture he’s chasing, presenting the kind of frisson that’s come over anyone who’s ever driven along a dark country road at night. The shot occurs a third and fourth time when Barlow and then Bill drive to Whitewood, but do not see Jethrow. Bill instead sees the looming supernatural vision of the laughing Selwyn on the stake, so disorienting that he swerves off the road and crashes into a tree.

The build-up to Nan’s sacrifice is particularly good in vignettes like the dance and Nan’s spacy, somnambulant voice as she recognises it’s Candlemas Eve, one of the two favoured nights for witches’ Sabbaths. The noted plot detail that Nan’s stolen broach allows the witches to “call” her at least papers over the question as to why someone as smart and well-versed in this lore as Nan doesn’t flee the moment a clear pattern starts accumulating. Of course, there’s another dimension to this, in Nan’s desire to know, with all its quasi-erotic underpinnings. She falls under the intellectual spell of the charismatic Driscoll, inspiring her to travel to a place that represents the dark reservoir of history’s septic sense of sexual knowledge and falls prey to waiting fiends, amongst whose number Driscoll eventually reveals himself, his face becoming visible under the cowl as he and Selwyn lean over Nan just before killing her. Later Driscoll is depicted performing a minor sacrifice with a caged bird in a sanctum in back of his academic office, a moment to which Lee applies all of his grim-browed conviction. Driscoll delivers a memorably simple epigram in riposte to Barlow’s forceful insistence on rationalism: “The basis of fairy tales is reality. The basis of reality is fairy tales.” One significant common and immediate precursor for The City of the Dead and Night of the Eagle is Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), with both films mimicking that film’s heavy emphasis on the clash between realist and mystical worldviews, with a particular pertinence to the way Horror as a genre suddenly came roaring back at the time after the craze for science fiction earlier in the decade. In turn, Val Lewton’s films with Tourneur and others in the 1940s hover in the background, and The City of the Dead channels something of a Lewton feel in the moments quiet and subtle strangeness in pockets of detached reality, the dialogue between moments of quiet, even hominess, and pressing threat.

Moxey performs a jagged jump cut from Selwyn bringing the knife down on Nan to her and Barlow’s cousin slicing her birthday cake at a party in her house, where Barlow and Bill wait with increasing unease for Nan. Once it becomes clear she’s late, they set in motion an investigation, and some detectives visit The Raven’s Inn. Selwyn-as-Newless claims Nan left without any notice without paying her bill. Pat reclaims the book she loaned Nan from Selwyn and later travels to Barlow and Driscoll’s college to talk with them, and after Driscoll fails to throw her off her talk with Barlow and Bill convinces them to head to Whitewood and look around for themselves. On the return journey Pat picks up Jethrow, making it clear she’s the anointed sacrifice for the Witches’ Sabbath, a particularly apt victim for the witches as she’s a descendent of the original, cursed villagers. After crashing thanks to the tormenting vision whilst following Barlow to Whitewood, Bill crawls out of his wrecked and burning car and stumbles towards the town, whilst Barlow himself checks into the Raven’s Inn and then encounters Reverend Russell, who explains how the walking dead now control the town, but also recounts the formula for their destruction. Lottie is murdered by Jethrow and Selwyn when they catch her trying to leave a note for Barlow, whilst Bill manages despite his grave injuries to stumble into town just as Barlow finds Pat kidnapped and the Reverend dead.

The climax is suitably breathless and gripping as Moxey brings things home with ingenious cheapjack hype. Barlow searches for Pat, stumbling across Lottie’s corpse hidden in the labyrinth under the hotel, before managing to snatch Pat away from the sacrificial altar. The pair flee up into the cemetery only to be met there by more of the coven: in a deliciously campy-creepy shot, the Satanists lift their clawing hands from under their swathing robes to grab hold of their prey. Forced to wait until “the hour of thirteen,” that is an extra toll of the bell at one a.m., before they can kill Pat and claim another year’s extension on their undead existence, the coven are obliged to stand around just long enough for Bill, obedient to Barlow’s shouted instructions, to pluck out a crucifix from the cemetery ground and wield it as a weapon of faith whilst Barlows pronounces a ritual adjure. Even a notably good bit of knife-throwing from Selwyn, planting her sacrificial dagger in Bill’s back, doesn’t put him down for good, and the coven all erupt in flames screaming as the shadow of the cross falls on them, save Selwyn herself, who flees. Bill finally dies muttering Nan’s name. Barlow and Pat chase Selwyn, only to find her in The Raven’s Inn under the plaque describing her death, where she’s become a burned and blackened corpse.

Despite its many intersecting lines of story and theme, Night of the Eagle takes a very different approach. Night of the Eagle is more obviously made in the mould of Night of the Demon, down to its title (and borrowing that film’s cast member Reginald Beckwith), but it’s actually an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel Conjure Wife. Leiber’s book, one of the most famous and influential horror novels ever written, had already been adapted once as the Weird Woman (1944), a solid entry in the enjoyable series of B-movies starring Lon Chaney Jr and made under the imprimatur of the radio show Inner Sanctum. Baxt redrafted the script, which had originally been written by the lauded genre writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont as a collaborative project: both men were connected at the time with the TV series The Twilight Zone and Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe film series. Matheson and Beaumont’s love of the novel acknowledged how it presented an ideal model for blending mundane realism and suggestive supernatural menace, and it’s had the same impact on writers since. The movie project was first taken up by Corman’s usual backers at American International Pictures, and farmed out to their regular production partners Anglo-Amalgamated. When the film was released in the US by AIP under the title Burn, Witch, Burn!, it came with an awful opening narration provided by the inimitable Paul Frees and new opening credits that removed Baxt’s name.

The Scots-born director Sidney Hayers, who worked as a top-flight film editor in the 1950s, made his directing debut with The White Trap (1959) and quickly forayed in horror with the impressively Sadean Circus of Horrors (1959). Hayers’ directing career ultimately proved disappointing, rarely living up to the remarkable control of Night of the Eagle, although he would later make the striking wilderness drama The Trap (1966), starring Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham, which would transfer Night of the Eagle’s fascination with marriage as a kind of loving war in depicting a rudely matched couple surviving life on the frontier, and the lurid but effectively disturbing and atmospheric rapist-on-the-loose thriller In The Devil’s Garden, aka Assault (1971), a film that would return to a school setting with a rather darker and more direct approach to the idea of fetid institutional repression and vicious abuse feeding each-other. Hayers had a potent feel for percolating sexual hysteria and agents of monstrous will, both of which inform Night of the Eagle. The film commences with protagonist Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), a professor in a small, unnamed English college, lecturing his psychology students in matters of ritual belief and custom, in the face of which he maintains a ruthless scepticism, writing the phrase “I Do Not Believe” on the blackboard, a missive that will turn significant much later, but is offered here as a kind of reverse magic spell to exorcise all demons of irrationalism. Norman is much enjoyed by his students, most particularly his smitten prize pupil Margaret Abbott (Judith Stott), much to the aggravation of her boyfriend Fred Jennings (Bill Mitchell), a much less enthusiastic student.

Norman’s male colleagues Lindsay Carr (Colin Gordon) and Harvey Sawtelle (Anthony Nicholls) are enormously admiring of their young but brilliant and energetic colleague, and it seems he’s going to land the chair of their department. Harvey’s wife Evelyn (Kathleen Byron) is teeth-grindingly angry about Norman’s seemingly inevitable rise. Her sister Flora (Margaret Johnston) is Lindsay’s wife and also a professor at the college as well as Margaret’s guardian, and also walks with a limp. She seems more sanguine, and likes commenting on it all with teasing, ironic distance. The three couples and the college dean Gunnison (Beckwith) and his wife come to Taylor’s house for a night playing bridge, where the factional tensions register despite the air of genteel entertainment, with Norman’s wife Tansy (Janet Blair) playing the expert hostess but registering a certain jumpiness. Once their visitors leave and Norman goes to bed, Tansy makes excuses to begin a frantic search of the living room. Eventually she finds a tiny fetish figure pinned within a lampshade. She burns this and, relieved, heads off to bed. But Norman begins to find many similar items around the house, these all planted by Tansy herself, including a jar full of dead spiders. When he confronts Tansy about them she tries to dismiss them as keepsakes of a journey they once took to Jamaica to investigate voodoo practices, but Norman is unconvinced. Eventually the fraying and desperate Tansy admits they’re totems she uses to ward off forces of black magic she believes are constantly assaulting them, combating them using methods she was taught by a bokor named Carubias and which she first turned to when Norman almost died in an accident. Norman forces Tansy to burn them all, despite her conviction this will leave them undefended.

The key beauty of Leiber’s novel was the contrast between the insular, seemingly placid, rather dry world of the little academic grove that was its setting and the invocation of vast, powerful, inchoate forces, strongly anticipating some of Shirley Jackson’s fiction, and the clever way this contrast was joined to a story that played witty games with the basic theme expressed by the old saying, “Behind every great man is a good woman.” Leiber took that idea to an extreme in the tale of Tansy warding off the magical attacks by her fellow campus wives in an ongoing contest to fuel success or impose ruination. Night of the Eagle simplifies this aspect to a degree, as here Tansy only has one real foe, although the faculty politics are still drawn with amusing, stinging accuracy, particularly once Norman is exposed to malevolence involving jealousy and misdirected passion which could well manifest normally in any school setting, and the potential professional dangers that can befall a man like Norman Taylor feel all accurate, perhaps even more today than in 1961. Once Norman makes Tansy burn all her protections, including one she keeps in a locket with her photo that results, with particularly ominous import, in the photo being burnt too, nothing seems to change, and Tansy is briefly willing to entertain the possibility she really was being ruled by her anxiety. But soon events begin to rattle Norman’s assurance: he gets a lewd phone call from Margaret, is almost run down by a lorry as he enters the college, and is threatened by Fred. When Margaret, in a volatile state, tells Flora that Norman raped her, Norman confronts her and gets her to retract her statement, and she flees after tearfully telling Norman, “I hate you!” Shortly after, Fred pulls a gun on him. Norman manages to get it away from him, but the swiftly mounting number of sudden calamities starts to make Norman think Tansy had a point after all.

Night of the Eagle offers similar characterisations to The City of the Dead – Margaret and Fred resemble Nan and Bill as your basic Jane and Joe College, if here pushed through the gates of self-combusting neurosis by forces beyond their ken. Norman is a more high-powered and abrasive version of Barlow, similarly dismissive of the supernatural but far more zealous about his self-image as an unshakably lucid mind. Hayers presents him as the acme of a certain ideal of a high modernist intellectual, fascinated by the meaning behind cultural arcana but also dismissive and contemptuous of any belief system contrary to his own, his own neo-puritan project one of ridding the world of its shadows. The crux of the drama is the relationship between Norman and Tansy, as an only slightly intensified study in heterosexual marriage as both a meeting and clash of personalities and ways of seeing and knowing. Norman’s aggressive confrontation of Tansy’s beliefs ape a familiar pattern in horror movies, of the hard-headed man correcting female inanities, reacting to Tansy’s supernatural dabbling as if she were a closet gambler or alcoholic, only to teasingly invert the certainties as Norman becomes increasingly frantic and unmoored. Equally often in horror movies the anxious woman proves correct, and here that turn is given hyperbolic force. The phrase “It got on my nerves” recurs in the movie, and Hayers conveys that feeling of locked-in, up-close, frayed-nerve portent, from the early scene of Tansy searching for the hidden fetish she knows her enemy has brought into her home with increasingly febrile purpose. Cinematographer Reginald Wyer’s zoom lensing keeps pushing closer and collapsing perspective to ratchet up the visual impression of things pressing in, whilst William Alwyn’s score unsubtly but effectively matches with its own agitating force.

The title comes from the imposing eagle sculpture that sits ominously perched above the main entrance to the college, directly outside the window of Flora’s office: for much of the film it seems the emblem of the many raptors eager to peck over Norman’s career bones. The aura of threat becomes more immediate when Norman receives a tape recording of one of his lectures about supernal ritual practice as a psychological phenomenon, and tries to make Tansy listen to it. His professorial words dismissing all irrational forces are undercut by a strange, undulating sound dubbed in underneath it, a sound Tansy recognises as a sorcerous invocation. She switches the tape recorder off, much to Norman’s anger, but the phone rings and the same sound comes through the receiver, and some monstrous form that releases a grotesque shriek thuds against the front door. Tansy manages to yank the phone cord from its connection just as Norman opens the door, and after being buffeted by a blast of the rainy night sees the caller has vanished. Here, as elsewhere in the film, Hayers generates remarkable hysterical energy that builds swiftly from baseline calm, aided by Wyngarde and Blair’s terrific performances, his hawkish features and hatchet-like force of personality colliding with her bright-eyed and vibrant anxiety, and the forceful editing rhythm betraying Hayers’ background.

Now entirely convinced that the enemy means to destroy Norman, Tansy gives him a laced drink and makes him recite words that will transfer any curse onto her, as a selfless gesture in her hope to die in his place: such gestures are the flipside to the tension between the couple as each is finally revealed to be willing to go to any length to save the other. When Norman awakens he finds Tansy gone, and figures she’s heading to the seaside cottage they own. He manages to catch up with the bus she’s taken but crashes off the road when forced to swerve out of the way of an oncoming truck. One the lorry drivers is a black West Indian immigrant (Frank Singuineau), and Norman awakens to focus on the totemic necklace around his neck, an odd little touch that obviously harkens back to Tansy’s embrace of magic in Jamaica whilst also suggesting the manifold ocean of belief Norman floats upon in a manner that’s correlated with the reverse colonisation of England, the nascent multicultural state. Norman shrugs off his injuries and continues in a hire car, but is too late to reach the cottage before nightfall.

Hayers keeps the tension mounting as the narrative begins to move with breathless pace, and delivers another great little set-piece here: Norman, realising he might find Tansy in the local churchyard thanks to a note he finds in one of her occult books, dashes along the moonlit beach, unknowingly passing Tansy who sits blank-eyed and motionless behind a boulder. When he reaches the churchyard cemetery, he claws his way through the old and overgrown tombstones and enters into a crypt. There Norman desperately performs a ritual to reclaim Tansy, whilst Hayers cuts to her robotically walking into the ocean as if to drown herself under the evil influence. Finally Norman gives up in a flurry of despair, only to turn and see Tansy standing in the crypt doorway, sodden, rigid, and staring-eyed, still under trance but having obeyed Norman’s ritual call back out of the water. Hayers manages here to deploy classical genre imagery – the craggy coastline and the lonely cottage, the gnarled and ancient graveyard, the creepy sight of the mesmerised Tansy returned – but still not any sign of literalised menace. Reginald Wyer’s grainy-gleaming, chiaroscuro photography and tight lensing enforce the tunnel-visioned reality of the characters as well as heightening the drama whilst also remaining real-feeling.

Indeed, Night of the Eagle manages something that Night of the Demon, thanks to that film’s producer-enforced glimpses of the demon, never quite got to do, in that it occurs in a grey zone of credulity: if the mood of The City of the Dead feels Lewton-like, Night of the Eagle is closer to Lewton’s ideal on a dramatic level in keeping things ambiguous. As dialogue throughout in the film hints, everything we see might be the result of entangled hypnotism, hysteria, and coincidence, even after the spectacular climax, although of course that kind of influence wielded with a malicious design could be scarcely less frightening than the occult. Norman takes Tansy to a doctor (Norman Bird) whilst she’s still under a powerful influence, but she manages to utter a few words, asking him to take her home. There, she wakes up, and everything seems perfectly normal again. But once Norman goes to sleep, Tansy goes into a trance again, leaves bed, goes into the kitchen, selects a big knife, and sets out to stab Norman to death. Norman manages to fight her off and notices that as she’s being compelled she walks with a limp, and he realises that Flora is the sender. After Tansy collapses and Norman puts her to bed, he goes to the college and seeks proof, finding a photo of him and Tansy attached to a fetish.

When Flora enters her office, Norman confronts her and puts on the tape recording of his lecture with the incantation, forcing her to shut it off. Flora then drives Norman to flee by building a deck of cards and affecting to set fire to the Taylors’ house; at that moment their cat sets off a conflagration that begins burning down the house with Tansy in it. Attentive filmgoers might then and now have expected Byron, so specifically associated with her role as the crazed nun in Black Narcissus (1947), to prove the agent of satanic mischief, but her presence proves a red herring. Johnston’s grinning malevolence nonetheless galvanises the climax, the sardonic quality her Flora had in the early scenes now touched with hints of lunacy and sadism as well as proud pleasure as she teases Norman about having his cage rattled by “just a silly woman,” revelling in the puppeteer power she can wield over people and institutions in compensation for her debilitation and general sexism, although of course she has no qualms about making her own ward a plaything for her own ends.

Flora turns the tape recording on and broadcasts it over the school loudspeaker system, and Norman begins to see the eagle statue seeming to relocate itself constantly as he tries to leave the college grounds. The statue soon comes fully to life, a colossal bird of prey swooping from on high with eyes set on ripping him to pieces. Ripping open Norman’s jacket and a chunk from the head of a statute, the beast soon crashes through the college front door when Norman tries to lock it out. Even here, as the film seems to finally indulge special effects and a literal manifestation of the sorcerer’s art, Hayers is judicious and the effects are good with smart use of a real bird and models, apart from one unfortunate shot where the string tied to guide the bird is visible. Wyngarde’s performance, which hints at the edge of hysterical energy in Norman in the first scene and gradates it throughout, reaches its tousled, sweat-caked apogee as Norman is reduced to screaming terror, backing against the blackboard in his classroom as the bird corners him there, his squirming incidentally erasing the word “not” from the slogan he wrote there at the beginning.

Norman is saved from the manifestation by Flora’s husband bemusedly entering her office and complaining about the noise on the loudspeakers: Lindsay switches the audio back to the office, alarming Flora as she plainly fears the curse might rebound, whilst for Norman the eagle and all signs of its visitation suddenly vanish. This again opens up the possibility that the eagle was a hallucination provoked by some mesmeric quality of the tape recording. Norman dashes home and finds the house on fire, but Tansy is safe amongst the onlookers. Meanwhile as Flora and Lindsay leave the college the eagle statue suddenly toppled and crashes down upon her, killing her instantly, the reel of audio tape unspooling across the gravel from her corpse. A nicely ironic blowback comeuppance that still offers the tiniest fig leaf for clinging on to a rational explanation. In any event Night of the Eagle is a superlative little movie, one that could still use more attention, and it both compliments and contrasts The City of the Dead perfectly as a relic of a time when all you really needed to make a good horror movie was a fog machine and a creepy sound effect.

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