Smith hits the fan: Jaden takes a knee before facing the Volcano Zone level of After Earth
The original teaser trailer for After Earth felt like an M. Night Shyamalan movie. In deep space, in the future, super-soldier Will Smith and his would-be hero son Jaden crash land on an unpopulated, savage world. But twist! It’s Earth!
But much like Shyamalan’s last disastrous venture, The Last Airbender, After Earth isn’t one of the director’s traditional twist-based thrillers, rather a sci-fi action adventure film. And once more the director is considerably out of his element.
Based on a story idea by Smith the elder, and written by Shyamalan and Book of Eli writer Gary Whitta, After Earth is a father/son bonding tale set within a clumsily considered (and more clumsily realised) science fiction universe. The whole venture feels like an excuse for Will to show off his son; Shyamalan certainly has no chance to show off anything here.
Set some 1,000 years after Earth is abandoned for environmental reasons, mankind has settled on a sunny, Grand Canyon-esque planet called Nova Prime (‘new one’ – not even the most embarrassing use of Latin this film demonstrates). Ranger Corps general Cypher Raige (Will Smith, overcompensating for how ordinary his real name is) has become the hero of humanity after defeating an alien invasion; in what would probably have been a much more entertaining movie to watch. He has perfected the art of “ghosting”, suppressing all fear so that the alien beasties can’t see him. But the death of his daughter at the claws of one of the creatures has scarred his relationship with his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has sort of been blamed for her demise despite being only about six at the time it happened.
Attempting to reconnect, Cypher takes Kitai on a mission with him, but soon enough an asteroid collision leaves them the only survivors of the starship once it crashes down to Earth. With Cypher’s leg broken, and the only working distress beacon in the tail section of the starship some miles away (alternative title: ‘Lost in space’), Kitai must venture into the sort-of-unknown to save the day and earn top-billing on the movie posters.
Daddy’s issues: Will Smith begins to regret relinquishing top-billing to his son
The lush landscape of Earth is now dotted with plenty of predators and poisonous nasties, mostly mild evolutions of creatures we already have – slightly bigger eagles, slightly bigger cougars, slightly bigger monkeys, slightly bigger leeches, ordinary-sized boars. But, due to science and why-the-hell-not-ery, the temperature plummets to below freezing after nightfall, meaning Kitai must race to reach a series of hot spots – thermal safe zones, assumedly where he can save his game and regenerate in case he is killed in his mission.
In a plot mechanic worryingly borrowed from space Viking movie Outlander, an alien monster being transported by the ship has also survived, and is after Kitai, who must prove himself a fearless hero like his father. The alien, a feral xenomorph thing that shoots needles, is called an ‘ursa’, from the Latin for ‘bear’, because screw education that’s why. There is nothing remotely bear-ish about these things.
There is almost a decent story in the pre-Earth sequences of this film, although Will Smith’s robotic delivery and 14-year-old Jaden’s slightly awkward performance don’t capture the militant father/struggling son dynamic as well as maybe it appeared behind the scenes. Smith Sr., reduced to Morgan Freeman impressions in Jaden’s ear for much of the film, gives his son as much room as he can to act the star, but the young performer is just not up to carrying a movie – especially with only CGI animals to perform against for much of the time.
The locations are lush but the CGI is poor, and when swarms of computerised monkeys rumble through the ferns it looks almost laughable. The action scenes in general are disastrous, with all but one of them cut short after only a minute – an aerial showdown with an eagle ends almost as soon as it begins.
While the architecture of Nova Prime is briefly interesting, the story leaves it so quickly that we never have a chance to be wowed by the $130m production values. The inside of Cypher’s ship looks like something out of Blake’s 7, all cardboard walls and hangar netting. They were going for a look, clearly, but they forgot to finish it. The one piece of design truly worth commending is in the Ranger Corps’ weaponry – they wield ‘cutlasses’, blade handles with control panels on them allowing the wielder to select the blade of their choosing to shoot out from it. It’s a nice idea, and gets a few brief clever uses; but if you’ll remember the last time a sword was the best thing about a film you were watching The Phantom Menace.
It’s impossible to know what anyone saw in this project. What is the moral? Certainly not environmentalism – mankind has only been gone a millennium and Earth looks gorgeous again! The father/son bond is central but never really pushed, and climaxes on a remarkably awkward joke that suggests not so much an understanding has been reached but that neither man is up to their line of work. Wedged in the middle is the most preposterous re-enactment of Androcles and the Lion you could ever hope to witness. The running theme of overcoming fear allows for a lot of The Secret-meets-FDR nonsense talk from Smith, suggesting fear is something we choose to have, even when watching our sisters get impaled by colossal lizard bug monsters, called bears.
Ursa, minor: Kitai (Jaden Smith) faces off against whatever the hell that thing is supposed to be
Shyamalan’s failure is most of all not knowing how to control an action sequence, and he seems to have no sense of what audiences want from their thrill rides. Lacking pacing, drama, emotion, action and even a truly unique vision, After Earth is about as big a dud as Hollywood can hope to churn out these days. Not even the combined starpower of Mr. and Mr. Smith can save this one.
Torturing us all for the shock success of Battle: Los Angeles back in early 2011, Hollywood has begun its own alien onslaught, flinging some half dozen end-of-the-world science fiction films at us this year.
The first up is Oblivion, Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to the flashy and distracting, if slightly moronic and empty, Tron: Legacy. An eye-wateringly glossy post-apocalyptic mystery adventure, it is a finely assembled work, that has been finely assembled from other, better films.
Seventy years after a war with alien scavengers, the Scavs, Earth has seen better days. The destruction of the Moon has caused geographical discombobulation on an Emmerichian scale, and the plundering of the resources of what used to be the blue planet has meant that mankind has had to relocate to one of the moons of Saturn. The Scavs, defeated, have scurried in fragmented numbers underground.
Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, one of the last humans remaining on Earth, as part of a clean-up detail. A high-tech mechanic, he repairs the drones and devices that keep the Scavs at bay and recoup the last of Earth’s energy for the new human homeworld. His only contact is with his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who keeps him advised on every move he makes. They live together in a Big Brother house in the sky, and, at the slightly creepy encouragement of their mission commander, Sally (Melissa Leo), who directs them in fractured messages from beyond the stratosphere, to engage in carnal discourse, because that’s what makes “an effective team”.
But not everything is as it seems. Jack has incomprehensible flashbacks to a time before the war, despite his memory having been wiped for mission security reasons. He collects trinkets from the once great civilisation of New York, now flooded in silt and rubble: toys, records, books, a Yankees cap. Soon the Scavs begin to take a personal interest in Jack’s movement, and then the woman of his dreams literally comes crashing back into his life. What, exactly, is Jack and Victoria’s mission?
Date with destiny: Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise recall better times
If any of this sounds familiar, you shouldn’t be surprised; it should. “Derivative” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and in relation to science fiction it’s as commonly used as “darker” is in superhero movie reviews. But Oblivion might just be the most derivative film ever made. Like, class action lawsuit derivative. Its central ideas and themes are fused from a number of recent and classic science fiction films. Visually, its space pods and structures hearken back to countless other sci-fi designs. Even its action scenes seem overly familiar in pace and choreography.
Take the drones – almost identical to the pods from 2001: A Space Odyssey, they are similarly controlled by a red electric eye. Instead of claw arms, they have cannons which fold out from their sides like EVE from WALL•E (and they share her iPod veneer). But reacting to Cruise’s raising of his weapon, and failing to react to his lowering of it, the drones show an identical programming to ED209 from RoboCop. When a drone is summoned for termination purposes, a drone without a minty white coating appears, revealing a black skeletal series of patterns across it in the vein of a T-800. At a moment of supposed high tension the Terminator allusion is simply guffawable. That’s four films unmistakably sampled in one brilliantly realised prop.
Other films blatantly referenced or “borrowed from” in Oblivion include (in alphabetical order to avoid spoilers): Aliens, I Am Legend, Independence Day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Matrix Revolutions, Moon, Planet of the Apes, Predator, The Road Warrior, Silent Running, Solaris, Star Wars, Stargate, Total Recall, Transformers: The Movie, War of the Worlds. It’s actually a fun game to count them, although repeatedly it forces you out of the film, as Oblivion makes you think of beloved classics instead of, well, the story in progress. Kosinski, directing from a script polished by Toy Story 3’s Michael Arndt and The Departed’s William Monahan but based on an unpublished graphic novel he had written himself some years back, is all too unsubtle in his inspirations, and they cloud the fact that at many levels Oblivion is quite a strong film.
Cruise takes a role that only a select few actors could have made work and, despite limited characterisation, holds the movie together when it is at its weakest, most ramshackle points. Riseborough plays the increasingly Pod Peopled Victoria with some admirable restraint. Olga Kurylenko does her best in a role the film’s four writers all managed to overlook, while Morgan Freeman shows up to take the most relish he has in any role since Wanted.
On a technical side, the movie looks sublime, and not much of that can be handed to its… influences. Kosinski has a great feel for the visual, and refusing to shoot in 3D to keep the whites dazzling and the blacks standing out was a great decision that shows a huge amount of confidence in the director on behalf of production studio Universal. Life of Pi’s D.P. Claudio Miranda brings every image sharply to life, while the soundtrack by French electronic outfit M83 pulses with an energy that drives much of the film forward and escalates some of the weaker drama.
In the end, Oblivion falls on its own laser sword*. It looks and sounds great throughout, but assembled like a Frankenstein’s monster from so many superior films not only dilutes the enjoyment but dilutes its own sincerity. “Earth is a memory worth fighting for” runs the tagline, but the memories on display here are all film memories, scavenged from the sci-fi greats of the ’50s to the present. They are worth fighting for, and remembering their origins and not the film that dared to harvest them all is what matters.
Oblivion is a superbly crafted film, but its memory will not be long for this world.
*Laser swords are one of the only clichés of the genre Oblivion skipped, thankfully.
Has it really been only four years? The Dark Knight was such an enormous success on its release in 2008, both critically and popularly, that it upended the common perception of the summer blockbuster as infantile or mindless. Already a regular on many film fans’ favourite movies lists, it has even repeatedly permeated somewhat hyperbolic lists of the “best films ever”. Regardless of negative opinions some might have, there is no denying it was a step above the Hollywood machine’s average output, and, to borrow from the Joker, it changed things.
So expectations were high, probably too high, for The Dark Knight Rises, the “final act” in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Following on from the remarkable success of The Dark Knight (and the director’s popular, inspired, flawed Inception), the loss of that film’s breakout star (Heath Ledger’s Joker is perhaps the most iconic villain of the past decade) and the need to conclude a saga that, in many ways, had only just begun, have proved to be too much for Christopher Nolan and his brother and writing partner Jonathan Nolan to live up to. But while The Dark Knight Rises is the weakest film in the trilogy that started with the brilliant but overshadowed Batman Begins, it does not let the side down and brings the story to an acceptable, if premature, close.
We pick up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne is still physically and emotionally damaged from his encounter with Harvey Two-Face and the death of his beloved Rachel. He has not put on the cowl in that time, but the myth of Harvey Dent as a hero has allowed for the streets of Gotham to be kept free of scum by strictly legal means. Wayne, now a Howard Hughesian shut-in, is led back down the path of the Batman after an encounter with a cat burglar, Selina Kyle (the traditional Catwoman, though never named as such in the film), who is discovered to have links to a conspiracy within his own company and, worse still, connections to a vicious, hulking terrorist known as Bane.
World-weary Bruce and Alfred
The film opens with an impressive if over-elaborate Mission: Impossible-style airborne action sequence, but slows down rapidly after that, taking its time to reintroduce to us to a very different Gotham, as well as a few new characters. It’s not until the 45min mark that Wayne is back in the Batsuit, chasing Bane and evading the police. The film becomes quite gripping from here on, as Batman tackles Bane and his henchmen, with a little help from the slippery Selina, before the revelation of Bane’s masterplan brings the film to a screeching halt. Dragging out the penultimate half hour with a bloated, convoluted and frustratingly unauthentic city-under-siege scenario, it is only in its final action sequence – a massive street brawl and a pulse-pounding chase sequence – that the film fully recaptures the viewer’s attention and excitement. One can’t help but feel there was just too much story for one movie here, and the scale was simply too big for the subject.
Despite a handful of surprisingly predictable plot twists in the final act – hardly believable from the men behind Memento and The Prestige – the story is strong and the dialogue is tight. The Nolans have done a good job returning to the themes of the previous movies – identity, justice, chaos – and extending them through this film, although they touch upon little new. The simplicity of the Joker’s master stroke in The Dark Knight – bombs on two boats with the triggers in the hands of the passengers of the alternate boat – is here echoed and extended to ludicrous proportions, dragging out the sense of terror and chaos. An earlier scene where Bane detonates a bomb at a sports stadium and threatens the spectators with more to come creates far more panic and horror than what actually follows.
Linking Bane to the League of Shadows, the terrorist guild from Batman Begins, helps to bring the story full circle, and Wayne’s character arc comes to a well-executed conclusion. Perhaps The Dark Knight’s greatest flaw was taking the focus away from Wayne and Batman, but here his struggle is once again at the forefront of the drama. Christian Bale continues his restrained performance as Wayne/Batman, though has little new to show off that he didn’t in the first film. His only real challenge is in the romantic subplots, balancing attractions to femme fatale Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and charitable billionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). These subplots don’t run smoothly, but Bale captures something of a man who desperately needs to be loved but cannot admit it.
Disappointingly, the refocus of attention on Wayne comes at the expense of the minor characters, Alfred (Michael Caine), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). All three were given brilliant, short, simple character arcs in The Dark Knight, but here are reduced to their basics. With the exception of one emotional scene with Bale, Caine’s Alfred is little more than a butler. Gordon, now one of the few devotees of the cult of the Dark Knight, offers unconditional, undramatic support – although Oldman gets a chance to have some fun during the final action sequence. Fox is once again just black Q.
Anne Hathaway shows off her safe-cracking figure
Thankfully the Nolan brothers have found something special in their interpretation of Selina Kyle. Treating her as a Robin Hood-esque thief who believes the rich should sacrifice all their belongings, but still wants to keep the good stuff for herself, the pair have written a strong, feisty female role that it is both witty and sexy, and Anne Hathaway pulls it off with ample aplomb. Christopher Nolan has often (and justifiably) been criticised for the weak female characters in his films, so his Selina is a welcome addition, and the strongest woman to feature in a Nolan film since Memento. The fact that Hathaway kicks plenty of ass in a skin-tight catsuit with serrated stilettos makes her fanboy gold.
More problematic is new character John Blake, a rookie cop whose smarts soon raise him to the rank of detective, and who becomes a close ally of Gordon and Batman. It’s not that he is a weak or thinly drawn character, but that the story forces him upon the viewer. Before we’ve had a chance to get a sense of the character he rattles off a story about his childhood that screams “Like me! Like me! I’m an important character!” You can feel the hand of the writers at work, and it’s disconcerting. In the hands of a lesser actor it would have been a disaster, but, portrayed by the immensely charismatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Blake is elevated and carried through the story. It was a close call, though.
Featuring the top half of Tom Hardy’s head as Bane
And then there’s Bane. Played by a beefed-up Tom Hardy, the massive enemy has impressive screen presence, but not much more. With his face half-covered by a breathing device, and his voice echoing like a less-sleepy Orson Welles from Transformers: The Movie, Hardy’s performance can barely be seen. His mouth is completely cloaked, so it is his eyes and hands and body that do the acting. He is never quite dull, but he is truly limited, and many of his lines, laced with Nolanesque menace, are inaudible in the troubled sound mix. In many ways this Bane is little more than the previous cinematic incarnation of the character, as a grunting henchman in the lambasted camp farce Batman & Robin.
Production values are as high as one has come to expect, and Nolan’s camera never misses a chance to show off the glossy grit on display. The choice to film an undisguised Manhattan as Gotham is an odd one, however. Several famous landmarks can be seen in wide shots as bombs go off, including the half-constructed new World Trade Center. The illusion is briefly shattered. But the action scenes are gloriously paced and captured, particularly the high-speed chases. The fight scene choreography is a bit lax, and one punch-up between Batman and Bane is out of focus for a disappointing amount of the time. CGI is well used to show the scale of Bane’s warpath, but one longs for an on-set demolition, like the hospital in The Dark Knight.
Editing is quick and clean, although Nolan relies too heavily on flashbacks, particularly to the less-seen Batman Begins, to make sure that everyone is up to speed. Further patronising can be witnessed when a minor character is killed and the camera whips in to a close-up on their body and lingers there until people who aren’t even watching the movie have all understood that yes, this relatively unimportant character is now dead. “Have you got it yet? They’re dead. Right? Yes? Let’s move on.”
What the film lacks in balance it makes up for in style and scale, and there is so much to enjoy here, despite its exhausting length. Much of the wit of Batman Begins lost in The Dark Knight is back this time round. There are more one-liners, with two of the film’s finest lines delivered by an unexpected but well-chosen character. Wittier than The Dark Knight though it is, it takes itself even more seriously, if that can be believed. Hinting at issues such as class struggle and the Occupy movement is all well and good, but you need to back them up with conclusions that are absent here.
Still, while Nolan has delivered the weakest film in his trilogy, he has still delivered a fine third instalment, and this trilogy will be immortalised for his incredible efforts. Rises is a better film because of the films that have preceded it; the characters already developed, the music carried over, its brilliant look and dramatic style. It brings little new to the table, but it repackages the old things with a sizeable punch. While its climax is overly predictable and oddly familiar, it is a suitable denouement.
Batman’s new Batwing the Bat
Nolan’s Batman may have finished his work, but the inspiration this series of films has provided audiences with will linger, and we will no doubt see the character again soon, in this guise or in another. The bar has been set for all future Batmans, and thanks to The Dark Knight Rises it is still an imposing height to reach.
The recent critical and Oscar success of Michel Hazanivicius’s The Artist has gotten people talking about silent movies again, even if, perhaps, it hasn’t got them watching any. Watching The Artist and other silent movies lately, I have developed a fascination with the intertitle, the styles different filmmakers preferred and how they can be used.
Intertitles don’t just fill in the gaps in dialogue, but often in atmosphere. While nowadays a film set in ancient Rome will likely say “Rome 89AD” on the screen near the beginning (proof the intertitle still lives on in some form), traditional intertitles will give us descriptions of sounds, sights (multiple shot set-ups and edits were less readily available in the ’20s) to help us settle into the setting, just as a storyteller will give us seemingly unnecessary details that help conjure up worlds in our imaginations. Nowadays that manner of storytelling is only available if you have Morgan Freeman to narrate your film, and even then it still feels dated (Million Dollar Baby is a prime example).
This list is in no way definitive; I am no expert in silent cinema and these are just my favourites of the intertitles I have come across. I hope yet to come across many more.
10. The Last Laugh (1924) – Deus Ex Intertitle
F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh is perhaps most famous for having one single intertitle. But what an intertitle!
After telling the depressing story of an elderly hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) demoted to washroom attendant and then scorned by his friends and family, the film does an about face and gives him a happy ending. The intertitle descends from on high and brings our hero good fortune – a wealthy relative dies and leaves the hero all his money. It’s all a bit meta really, isn’t it?
9. City Lights (1931) – A visibly happy ending
Perhaps the crowning achievement of Charlie Chaplin’s career, City Lights is one of those romantic comedies where the guy does everything to win the girl, and only succeeds at the last minute.
Chaplin’s Tramp falls for blind flower girl Virginia Cherrill, who mistakenly takes him for a wealthy man. He manages to get her the money she needs for an operation to restore her sight, but when they finally meet, she does not recognise him. In the style of a fairytale romance, it is only when she touches his hand that she realises this down-and-out is the man who changed her life.
“You can see now?” he asks her, and she smiles back and says “Yes, I can see now.” It is the final intertitle of the film.
City Lights was made three years after the talkies had become popular, but Chaplin insisted on keeping the Tramp a silent character in a silent world. The movies, after all, are something that we can all see now. Sound can always wait.
8. Orphans of the Storm (1921) – It’s all about em–pha–sis
I must admit I really love this one. It sums up everything about D.W. Griffith’s neglected French Revolution epic; it sets the time and social mores, is both humorous and romantic, and defines the character of the strong-willed heroine Henriette (Lillian Gish). It also features some excessive underlining and the most unnecessary hyphen-
ation you may ever see.
7. The Artist (2011) – The sound a gun makes
The Artist was a wonderful achievement, but for me nothing sums that up so well as this intertitle. It comes as our hero, washed-up silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), despairs at the death of his career and the mistaken belief that the girl he loves, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), is interested in him only as a trophy from a bygone era. As he raises a gun to his mouth, Peppy races recklessly in her car to find him. As the film’s score dies down George, sweating with terror, bites down on the barrel of the gun and BANG! – Peppy crashes into a tree outside.
This audio-visual pun on the two sounds (and yes, there’s a pun in audio-visual there) is perfectly timed and handled. The crash, and by extension the intertitle, interrupt George’s suicide and thus save his life. Similarly, the audience, close to seeing their hero make such a grave and irreversible error, have the tension relieved with a wonderful gag that makes full use of the film’s potential as a silent movie. It is a gag worthy of Chaplin himself.
6. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) – The animation station
Another entry for Murnau, and one of the most famous silent dramas of all, Sunrise is a remarkable genre mashup, infusing romantic drama, thriller and comedy sequences into one incredible tale of 24hrs in the life of a rather ordinary couple. The film opens with a montage to set the scene, letting us know that it is “Summertime… vacation time”. But it’s not just the gorgeously illustrated intertitle that makes this a top pick, but how it dissolves into the shot, and indeed the film, that follows.
Sunrise has plenty more delights in store, including one superbly animated intertitle. In the film, a man from the countryside (George O’Brien) is having an affair with a woman visiting from the city (Margaret Livingston). When he asks how they can be together, she suggests they dispose of his wife (Janet Gaynor), saying: “Couldn’t she get… drowned.” But rather than use an ellipsis or second intertitle, the word drowned materialises on the intertitle after a delay, moments before the entire sentence melts away, or drowns, to expose the wickedness of her suggestion.
The intertitle then dissolves into a fantasy of the man throwing his wife off a boat. You can see the whole spectacular sequence here.
5. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – Remember when people talked like this?
This one really speaks for itself. The Phantom (Lon Chaney) reveals himself as a creature too hideous to post in this article (click here, if you dare!), and then utters this delicious line. I struggle to deal with the fact that nowadays a movie villain could not deliver a line like this without descending into high camp. Alas, I don’t think we’ll ever get the chance to hear this sort of scenery-chewing genius again. Somehow, I blame Aaron Sorkin.
4. Battleship Potemkin(1925) – What a difference a word makes…
Surely the most famous intertitle in all of silent cinema history. The “Suddenly…” that unleashes the forces of the Tsar on the citizens celebrating on the Odessa Steps is the definitive intertitle. It literally breaks apart two sequences with incomparable moods: beforehand high spirits and high jinx after the rebelling sailors seize control of the Potemkin; after, a screaming, hectic, bloody slaughter. Too many words have been written about Eisenstein’s immaculate filmmaking and the carnage that follows. I can only let it speak for itself.
3. Faust (1926) – All you need is liebe
Murnau (again) directed his version of the 19th Century German legend in 1926; his last film before leaving for Hollywood to make Sunrise. An alternative take on the story of Job, Faust is about a man led astray by the devil, in the guise of the demon Mephisto (a wonderfully over-the-top Emil Jannings). Faust (Gösta Ekman) falls victim to Mephisto after the demon bets an Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) that he can destroy all the good in a man.
In the end, it seems Mephisto has succeeded. Faust is made miserable by the Devil’s plans and in the end throws himself on a pyre to burn with his beloved. But as Mephisto claims victory, the Archangel tells him he has in fact lost the bet, because of the power of one word. Mephisto demands to know the word, and in a fit of light worthy of the Stargate in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the word “Liebe”, or “Love”, flies straight at the screen, practically punching the audience in the face with its glory!
The Devil learns never again to mess with a guy armed with a lightning-shooting sword and love.
Two summers ago I saw Faust at an outdoor screening, with a live score provided by the endlessly talented 3epkano. It was after midnight when the film drew to its close, and the audience was inebriated on any number of substances. But when that Liebe hit the screen, a cheer rose up from the hundreds present that could have scared away the Devil himself.
Look at that! I mean really look at it. Is that the best word you’ve ever seen written down? What font is that? Times New AWESOME?!
Would it make it better if I told you that the letters making up the word “Moloch” assemble themselves by rocketing in from different sides of the screen? Oh, it would, would it? Well they do.
So here’s the story. Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) is the pampered son of the ruler of Metropolis, a massive, futuristic city. After seeing a beautiful girl, Maria (Brigitte Helm), he ventures into the city’s underworld where she works in one of several power stations that keep the city above running (it’s all about class, don’t you know). Joh is impressed when he sees a massive machine in operation, but moments later it overloads and begins exploding the men who work on it. Joh is suitably horrified.
To add to his horror, he takes this moment to have a fantasy in which the machine is Moloch, a pagan god from the Old Testament to which children were regularly sacrificed. The machine morphs (through brilliantly handled double exposure) into a fire-breathing monstrosity, chowing down on slaves (workers, get it?).
Cue that remarkable intertitle. To be honest, I’m not sure one exclamation mark will quite do. Now that every character in modern cinema from Sam Gamgee to Darth Vader has ruined the screaming of the “Noooo!”, maybe it’s time we went back to the screamed intertitle. No? Fine then.
Actually, I know I’ve posted this link before, but this scene really needs to be seen to be believed. Enjoy!
1. Nosferatu (1922) – Best. Intertitle. Ever.
Nosferatu’s full title is Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, or Nosferatu: A Symphony ofHorror, putting it in the running for best subtitle ever, also. But this example here is the spirit of all intertitling. Let me set the scene.
Dracula, that is to say his non-union German equivalent Count Orlok (Max Schreck), has fallen in love with Ellen Hutter (Greta Schröder), the wife of his real-estate agent. An aged, monstrous vampire, with a lethal allergy to Vitamin D, he attempts to reach her by shipping himself from Transylvania to Germany in a coffin full of dirt (a similar trick is later used in the film Three Colours: White). One by one the sailors on the ship fall victim to a terrible plague, brought by the rat servants of Orlok. When only the captain is still alive he chains himself to the wheel determined to make it to port. But Orlok has other ideas.
We see the face of the captain; sheer horror. Fade to black. And then BAM! “The ship of death had a new captain.”
This isn’t exposition. We know it had a new captain, because we just saw the captain die. This is literature. It is dramatic. It is punchy. If it were the last line in a chapter of a book, you would forego eating and sleeping until you read the next chapter. It is the purest demonstration of something that intertitles can do that voice-over narration simply can’t, and that is to romanticise the language which is being used. Morgan Freeman could say those words, but like the ending of War of the Worlds, they could only come out corny. The intertitle disrupts the film to bring you breaking editorialising. An amazing piece of storytelling that cinema has sadly lost.
As a final note, I should point out that not all prints of Nosferatu (and given it’s in the public domain, there are many) use this translation. This version, for example, uses the slightly less punchy “Driven by the fatal breath of the vampire, the vessel moved rapidly towards the Baltic.” Although, in fairness, that’s pretty cool as well.
“Do you know what I am?” asks the Joker in a pink dress. “I’m like a dog chasing cars; I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.” The demented nature of Heath Ledger’s Joker, violently obsessive in his nihilism, is the greatest indicator of how The Dark Knight is not traditional comic book fare.
Even 2005’s Batman Begins, also directed by Christopher Nolan, seems very by-the-books when compared to this dark character drama in a comic book setting. While Begins should be and has been lauded for its style and character development, it still obeys all the comic book movie rules. Just like this summer’s Iron Man, the lead hero has an enlightening experience in the Far East, realises he can do more with his life and starts to save the day before correcting an evil that he is partially responsible for.
The Dark Knight shares very little in common with similar comic book sequels. In fact, characters and actors aside, it feels like an entirely different film to Begins; a development, an improvement. The huge hype that precedes the film (attributable to its admirable predecessor and the passing of Heath Ledger, who it should be remembered was being much talked about for his performance even before his unexpected death) will not have escaped many, and given the sheer intensity of the storyline and the film’s surprising length (2 and a half hours), the film may alienate the fun-seeking public in what has been quite a crowd-pleasing summer so far.
But it is because of this maturity and ambition that it will be the most memorable film of summer 2008, and its potential failure to find a sustained audience (it will no doubt burst the banks on its opening) would suggest only that audiences are so used to being spoon-fed their entertainment that they can no longer accept anything with sophistication and class. But its success is almost assured – this is superb filmmaking.
The film begins a short time after Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale once more) is still balancing businessman, playboy and midnight avenger roles, focusing largely on the latter as he cleans up the various factions of the Gotham City mob. “Batman has no limits” he insists, but as he learned Batman’s power for good in the first film, here the limitations of his secret identity are laid out for him all too clearly.
The Joker is the one who teaches him this lesson. No longer the giggling crook of previous incarnations, Ledger’s Joker is as insane as he is genius. Like a young Hannibal Lecter with Asperger’s he robs and kills not for profit or power, nor really for fun, but because there is sport in it; because someone else must lose for him to succeed, and even if he fails he might just bring the opponent down with him. Although as cold, calculating and unpredictable as Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men (not the last reference I will be making to that film in this review), it is not that which makes him terrifying, but rather the realisation that because Batman cannot kill him he simply cannot be stopped from killing.
Stepping back from the camp and outlandish interpretations of the Joker in the past, Ledger spends the first half of the film relaxing us into the role, making us comfortable with how incredibly unsettled he makes us. As his schemes become wilder so does his performance, he begins to laugh his horrible laugh more. Jack Nicholson’s Joker created panic through poisoning the masses. Ledger’s Joker creates panic by declaring that a single innocent civilian must be killed to save hundreds, making everyone a violent vigilante. His sadism is almost cartoonish in its villainy, if it weren’t so utterly gruesome in its body count.
Between Batman and the Joker is Harvey Dent (the regularly excellent Aaron Eckhart), the District Attorney and boyfriend to Wayne’s ex, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal acceptably replaces Katie Holmes’s acceptable performance in Begins). Dent is idealistic like Wayne, but works within the system. His rise, rise and crashing fall is actually the main focus of the film, as by trying to be more of a hero like Batman he ultimately becomes a monster like the Joker, highlighting the difference between the two “freaks” in his huge character arc.
While Ledger’s name has been repeatedly (and prematurely) touted for Oscar glory, and he is admittedly excellent, Eckhart really is the soul of this film, though understandably not the main attraction. His performance is simply excellent, and often difficult to watch knowing where it will lead to. For the second time this year a man has decided life or death with the flip of a coin (Chigurh in No Country being the first, of course) and the tension it creates is not traditional summer blockbuster stuff. As opposed to the raving lunatic Tommy Lee Jones portrayed in Batman Forever (1995), where he appeared to be channelling Cesar Romero as the Joker, this Two-Face is a ghastly spectre of vengeance and chaos – the effects used to create his scarring are indescribably unpleasant, though brilliant.
Of the returning cast members all are notable improvements on already great performances, though much of this has to do with the tightness of the script. Gary Oldman is far more comfortable in the Jim Gordon role, while Michael Caine continues to excel in a role that sometimes feels as if it might have been created for him. Morgan Freeman, little more than a likeable black Q in Begins, here has enough screen time to develop the limited character of Lucius Fox into something much more than a few one-liners.
So unlike such comic tripe such as last month’s The Incredible Hulk, story and character are the main foci here. But what about the explosions and punches that many come to see this sort of film (or rather the sort of film that this is being advertised as) for? There are some superb set pieces; a scene-setting bank heist, a Mission Impossible-style infiltration, an explosive road battle and a climactic sonar-vision brawl (you think I made that up, but I didn’t). Batman equips a new suit that unfortunately appears indistinguishable from the previous one (err, it’s also black), but his new gadget of choice is the fantastic Batpod (the lovechild of a ménage à trois between a tank, a motorcycle and a massage table), which makes a jaw-droppingly awesome first appearance.
The film has decidedly less humour in it than the first film, not including the not-sure-if-you-should-be-laughing-or-squirming contributions of the Joker. The romantic subplot is inoffensive. What this film really has going for it is just how smartly it has been developed. The Nolan brothers’ script is loaded with Memento-ish detail. What would be a minor subplot in other superhero movies – a Wayne employee stumbles upon his dual life – becomes, like a beer mat in a dead man’s jacket, a pivotal cog in the story’s development. Every iota of information is relevant and connected. There is no apologising here for the story originating in an “inferior medium” – this is complex, intelligent and stylish storytelling, as mature and dark as its title implies.
Certainly it does run a touch long (the major action sequence seen in trailers ends with an hour to spare), though one would be hard pressed to find what to cut without raising the Spiderman 3 “who needs another villain” argument. The score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is still lacking as it was in the first one, always building to a crescendo it never quite reaches. Bale’s Batman voice does become grating, and Cillian Murphy’s appearance as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow is pointlessly brief. But beyond those there can be few complaints that aren’t simply a matter of taste, bar perhaps the potential for young viewers to be upset or disturbed by what is really quite heavy entertainment.
The hugely affecting ending will no doubt have audiences and studio execs begging for a second sequel, making ever-more tragic the loss of Ledger, but we should hope that they are not disappointed. The Dark Knight (alternative title: No Country for Bat Men ?) is the best and most memorable film to be released this summer thus far. Do not miss it.
There’s nothing like good unclean cinematic fun some times, and Wanted has that in spades. In fact it violently beats you over the head with those spades of fun and then shoots you in the face with a joy bullet from around a corner.
Directed by Russia’s leading action director, Kazakh Timur Bekmambetov, making his Hollywood debut after the visually fascinating though overly complex Night Watch and Day Watch. What those two films certainly had was a truly unpretentious sense of style, an awareness that what was being made was meant to be first-and-foremost fun, art second (or maybe third of fourth, who knows?).
Based loosely on the comics by Mark Millar, Wanted is the tale of an office slave destined to be an ultra-assassin due to his very absent father’s blood. The cowardly and socially disconnected Wesley Gibson, played by increasingly popular Scot James McAvoy, believes that the first flutterings of his natural talents are no more than health issues and anxiety attacks, unaware that his high blood pressure can trigger an adrenaline rush with the potential to make him half Neo from The Matrix, half Crank.
He is swiftly indoctrinated into the ways of the Fraternity, a guild of super assassins with high pain thresholds, knife mastery and the ability to curve the trajectories of bullets – it makes more sense if you try not to think about it. Wesley is trained as one of them and quickly becomes an elite assassin, and is thus sent to kill the man who betrayed the Fraternity and killed his father. But is all as simple as it seems?
Well who cares?! We know better than to analyse the plot of a film whose central construct is an all-powerful loom (yes, a loom. That kind of loom) that requests the deaths of the guilty in English, despite having been built in Eastern Europe circa 900.
This is just a madcap thrill-ride par excellence that manages to be more fun than any of the superhero movies or Will Ferrell comedies of the past few years. Eighteenth century pistols get fired as men jump across buildings. A car flips through the air, crashes into a bus (which falls over on its side), and then drives off the side of it. Rats squeak inquisitively before exploding. There is no sense, there is only violent comedy.
And violent it is. Audiences having forgotten gore due to PG-13 Die Hard films and having been desensitised to it by torture porn may have forgotten just how fun an action film is when stupidly gory things happen (and in colour – I’m looking at you Sin City). But this is old school 1989-style violence, not suitable for children, only suitable to adults with a dark sense of humour. If you don’t find something funny about using a man’s shot out eye cavity as a targeting reticule (allowing his body to double as a human shield), then get you to another film.
The action sequences are truly superb, particularly the first car chase and a battle onboard a train that has undoubtedly the highest death toll of innocent bystanders since 9/11 made it no longer ok for Hollywood films to kill off civilians. The final action spectacle, which amounts to a good 15 minutes or so, is everything that popular oddity Equilibrium wanted from its action scenes and more; lots of running and jumping, weapons get reloaded at speed, stolen, turned upside down. This film will be a bestseller on DVD as every male between 15 and 35 will need a copy to accompany spontaneous beer nights.
Speaking of male interests, Angelina Jolie does look rather scrumptious here as assassin Fox (it’s all in the name). For an actress with an Oscar happily stashed under her belt it is strange how it is action films that she always seems to excel in. Here she brings that same S&M style lust for fun that she brought to her marriage to Billy Bob Thornton. A brief glimpse of her ass as she emerges from a bath (actually hers or a body double’s? Who cares, it’s lovely), reminds one of the days that were before The Matrix revealed it was possible to have a good action film without a flashing of nipples.
One thing that makes Wanted quite special is Morgan Freeman’s performance as Sloan, the Fraternity’s commander-in-chief. Mysterious and slightly mischievous, he delivers absurd lines of dialogue such as “curve the bullet” and “shoot the wings off the flies” with so much conviction that you momentarily accept that these are perfectly logical requests. Indeed, he says the word “mother-fucker” with more potency than Samuel L Jackson has ever managed.
Supporting players are only modestly effective. Chris Pratt is a good choice as Wesley’s uber-obnoxious yuppie best friend. Terence Stamp does his best Malcolm McDowell impression but it only partially pays off. Thomas Kretschmann, the captain from King Kong, once again plays a character we would like to learn more about but don’t. Konstantin Khabensky, whose sole function it seems is to foreshadow, appears to have been included because he’s mates with the director, whether it works or not.
As for McAvoy, though an atypical action star and uttering a questionable American accent, manages to play both beaten-down loser and unstoppable havoc-monger believably in the same two-hour period.
This is good preposterous fun from start to finish, and is in fact cleverer than most other recent action films. As a comic adaptation it has a tendency to over-rely on tedious narration, though not quite like a Frank Miller story. Leaving your brain at the door will help you to ignore the ludicrous physics on display (the final action scene, as a friend put it, would require the use of an elephant gun and a very small black hole) and just enjoy a laugh-out-loud romp.
At the very least, Wanted features the finest use of an ergonomic keyboard anyone will ever likely find. Although I still say it’s not a very good title.