Apparently adapted from an Isaac Asimov story, Alex ProyasI, Robot is either an insipid or cliched. It relies on the old sci-fi adage that technological progress doesn’t live up to the second half of that phrase, and that humans’ reliance on technology and reproducing it in mass amounts will lead to their downfall. Especially if this new innovation means that the machines we have invented are capable to decide whether humans are useful or destructive, as decided by, in the case of this movie, a robotic program named VIKI.
There is a new model of robots replacing the clunky, gray ones in the streets of Chicago of 2035. They’re painted white, a mix of shell and wire skeletons (the whole colour palette of the movie is white to black to brown and the occasional green, making the spaces look liked in and it’s at least being devoid of the neon bluish tint that is in most sci-fis). Their joint movements are smother than the old ones but unlike the latter they can actually move their faces. And when they attack either our protagonist Detective Spooner (Will Smith) or the Chicago’s citizens (including Shia Laboeuf) they seem to be crawling instead of being rigid militaristic beings.
Sonny (Alan Tudyk), a name either given by his master (James Cromwell, now known as Jean Dujardin’s elderly butler in The Artist) or by himself, is a robot accused of murdering the latter, his investigation confirming Spooner’s prejudice against robots. He is aware enough of how advanced he is to want to know what he is capable of. This is some strange casting since Tudyk has a pretty distinct face and voice although it’s a successful collaboration of acting, design and directing that these features of his are tuned down. He asks Spooner what a wink signifies, which to Spooner is rude question but this education becomes useful later on. He ends up being a witty bastard too, catching Spooner when the latter’s prejudiced fences go lower.
Either way, the transitions between wide shots and close-ups of Spooner in these scenes aren’t seamless and make the movie look cheap. These battle scenes also aren’t challenging enough for the humans, the creepy way they move makes them seem less solid also means that the leading characters can easily defeat them. Tthe denouement of every other sci-fi ends in some vertigo-inducing circular-shaped chamber, where pathways to the centre are made of narrow steel beams and the robots come in through the glass windows in intimidating numbers but they don’t look tangible enough for a real fight.
is a grating actor to watch, taking any sci-fi project to compensate for turning down the role of Neo in The Matrix trilogy. Although at least he competently handles a character’s prejudice sparked by a traumatic event involving a robot rescuing him instead of doing the same thing to a little girl – the best part of the movie is his soliloquy which, intentionally or otherwise, questions details of this back story. Of course Spooner is representative of the humanity lost within a logical-driven mindset of a fictional futuristic society. His Spooner gets another cliche by quasi-platonic, opposites-attract love interest (Bidget Moynahan) who is cold and culturally ignorant as he is temperamental and streetwise. His badge being taken away from him for pursuing the Sonny case without authority – how is he going to take it back!? Despite of what happens and of Sonny, he still carries a minor strain of that point of view.
That’s who representative Effie Trinket chooses out of a glass bowl to see who will play in the futuristic, titular 74th annual Hunger Games. It’s the nightmare scenario for the girl bearing that name (Willow Shields), as well as for her sister, our heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), because the former will be too young to survive the bloodbath that comes with these games. Imagine if the neon lights of “American Idol” have younger and more homicidal contestants. But let’s get back to the real issue – this representative looks so ridiculous that I didn’t even know that Elizabeth Banks was playing her. It’s as if Nicki Minaj apparently is the face of the future, one of the adults from Panem’s Capitol – the seat of power of a futuristic version of North America – who all look like anime villains. And I haven’t run out of metaphors and references – as if Zac Posen and the now-defunct Heatherettes’ palettes puked on Stefano Pilati and Viktor and Rolf’s otherwise perfect tailoring, these futuristic designs fitting within the uber-capitalistic society, the latter’s flag looking like an Aryan bastardization of Rome built in the Rockies. It reminds me of what Walter Benjamin said about how France under Napoleon emulates Rome. And it’s not just because science fiction stories, by nature, are pretty much ideas and fashions and designs from the present day set in titanium. Present and future societies will always repeat their past. And these games are a reminder of the past, Effie repeating the words of the video she shows to the district about how the games are the Capitol’s way of giving peace and fear, indoctrinated that her messed up world is perfect.
I also noticed the differences between the people in the Capitol and Katniss’ peasant-like District 12, where pastel and steel are separated from earthier tones. She’s her family’s provider but when she volunteers as the district’s female tribute to replace Prim, she transforms. Her earlier ‘masculine’ habits of hunting are still intact. I never imagine her in a beautiful dress, as I’m supposed to, but there she is wearing a red number in her publicity tour as one of the tributes. She even twirls and shows off her ‘fire’ for the audiences. I saw this as a change from awkward, unsightly adolescence to full-blossomed adulthood but that binary is complicated that she’s one of twenty-four chosen while the rest of the people in many districts are stuck without ‘growing.’ But then again that seems more realistic, that the glamourous adulthood of our imaginations can’t come true for everyone. And even with being chosen she still has to compete with twenty-three other youths to ‘have it all.’ It’s like what Panem’s President Snow (Donald Sutherland) says to the man presiding the games (Wes Bentley), that this kind of entertainment brings false hope to the masses. Dystopic sci-fis are really great in bringing up these issues in exaggerating present day conundrums and it’s really to Suzanne Collins’ – who wrote the original novels and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Billy Ray and the movie’s director Gary Ross – credit to have created such a detailed world.
And Lawrence, playing a younger version of her Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone, is one of the foundations that make this world more solid, especially with the contradictions within her character. Her full cheeks masks her eyes’ rage and curiosity. She’s awkward – during athletic/publicity training she asks her designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) how she can make people like her. Effie criticizes her for being ill-mannered after many conflicts against the sponsors and her co-tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). But this young woman eventually finds and protects her new family, inadvertently becomes the face of a new rebellion and rides out a semi-fabricated story that she and Peeta are the games’ star-crossed lovers. That the characters, Collins and Ross’ final and cynical word on their love feels subversive for a young adult narrative. Although at least some of their love is real, Katniss bringing him medicine and both saving each other’s lives during the games.
If there’s anything I’ll strongly say against this movie, it’s that Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern bring their camera too close and fast, especially in its opening sequences. As much as I would like to be acquainted with these characters – the shaky cam replicating her perspective as she walks and runs through her journey – I also want to see the world where they belong. The Bourne-style quick-cutting also doesn’t help with the violent scenes. Seeing those deaths, admittedly, was part of the sadistic fun and it kind of sucks that the audience doesn’t get to fully experience this. The cast also includes Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson and Alexander Ludwig. Image via Villagevoice.
It’s surprising that a “Buffy” fan like me – I’ve seen and love the movie too – wouldn’t catch “Firefly,” but I had my stupidity to blame. I wanted a “Buffy” 2.0 – so why didn’t I read “Fray?” – and it seemed too much of an outlandish concept for me. But Nathaniel, probably the only person guiding me through my schizophrenic viewing habits, chose “Firefly’s” movie adaptation for his best shot series, keeping in mind that creator/writer/director Whedon’s having a big year this year. So why not? Above is a shot of carnage fitting for the movie’s ‘space western’ genre mash-up and that although Joss Whedon isn’t on top to direct Blood Meridien but he should at least be in consideration.
This experience is making me regret that I didn’t watch the series, the logical reason should be Whedon’s sharp writing and I suppose it’s nice to see futuristic cowboys but it’s really because of the characters and casting, including Alan Tudyk, David Krumholtz and Sarah Paulson. Specifically, of Adam Baldwin of Full Metal Jacket fame. I wouldn’t say that this part of the movie’s premise is ludicrous, and that his character Jayne butts heads with the titular Serenity‘s Captain Malcolm (Nathan Fillion) a lot and wants to kill the mysterious River Tam (Summer Glau). But like come on guys, his tight, short-sleeved shirts makes me think that the show should have given him a love interest. Things would have totally been different if I was on that ‘boat.’ Looking at his iMDb “Firefly” isn’t the only show I should watch for him. Apparently he was in “Angel” too and fuck do I have to watch “Chuck” now too? What kind of fan am I?
The best lines and situations saved for Malcolm, or Mal for short (Why isn’t Fillion, this movie’s star, getting the Jeremy Renner roles? The guys look alike but he’s taller yet yes, more intentionally awkward). And there are some good shots of him being framed by the movie’s well-done mix of multicultural sci-fi punk ethos, contrasting yet perfectly complementing his character as this old school masculine gunslinger. Above is him moving a fan to see what River is up to and below is him being irreverent, mocking Buddha – one of the religions and ideals that he as a character questions – for his love interest Inara’s guilty pleasure. Kudos to the movie’s art director Daniel T. Dorrance and costume designer Ruth Carter for this awesomeness.
But the movie’s most visually compelling character is River, who only gets into and stays in the boat because she’s the younger sister of one of the newer crew members (Sean Maher) and because she’s psychic. She looks like a friend of mine here in Toronto who also blogs about movies, actually. My best shot actually involves the movie’s intricate opening sequence, a series of scenes that would get novices like me confused as to what the movie is about. There are wide shots of different planets followed by a teacher explaining ‘the verse’ in an outdoor elementary school – thank God the future has smaller class sizes, am I right or am I right? – which turns out to be a dream sequence, Matrix style. Her brother helps her escape her almost permanent comatose state, which is actually hologram-recorded by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character, Javert looking at his Valjean and waify Cosette and trying to find out where they could be hiding.
But the fun of watching her doesn’t stop there. She has two kinds of entrances, one where her leg(s) and the seam of her flowing dress come into the shot and one where the camera zooms or shock cuts into her perma-startled face. She also climbs up the ceiling to hide sometimes. And the one below? Bad. Ass.
For style guide’s sake, I will call this movie Solyaris while the supposedly misunderstood masterpiece by Steven Soderbergh will be Solaris, which I’ll write about in that Viola Davis retrospective that I’m too lazy to do. I also heard that it expands on the original’s love story.
Despite beginning by looking into a wide lake’s reeds, Solyaris is a breeze compared to Andrei Tarkovsky’s other work. Rublev is comprehensible and straightforward enough despite its three-hour running time, Stalker devastating in its showing of the longest non-magic tricks ever. It makes me feel like a young luddite not remembering anything plot wise from Zerkalo but do you? What probably makes me think that this movie is fast paced – clocking in at two hours and forty-six minutes – are the quick cuts in the sequence portraying a non-hostile interrogation of a man who has previously been to the space station near the titular planet. It also adds to this eerie aura because the witness can’t corroborate his testimony with video footage, subverting the ‘show, not tell’ adage and successfully heightening the mystery.
Yes, despite its big budget, it has cheap sets, a grievance I have in other classic movies, but that criticism tries to make the movie sound like it also features Gondry’s cardboard box aesthetic. I treated this lightly. The protagonist, Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), travels to a space station near a planet with strange magnetic waves, throwing rules of physics and even life off-kilter. Everything is grubby and made of plastic, buttons are unlabeled and look similar, other characters stuck in the station smoke and light candles and tobacco occasionally, there are master bedrooms and flammable books. But what makes the movie enigmatic is the resurfacing of Kelvin’s wife, either as wishful thinking or a gift from the planet. Mrs. Kelvin’s love towards her husband adds to her heart wrenching pleas to prove herself human to the space station’s men. Her conundrum can be seen as an allegory of prejudice but how can we sympathize when her existence crosses the boundaries that science irreverently crosses.
The romance in Tarkovsky, in my humble opinion, is enough and even surpasses its Western equal in the well-crafted but overrated 2001:A Space Odyssey. Solyaris will no longer be showing for now. But I hope that this post goes live just in time for the last movie featured in TIFF’s Attack the Bloc retrospective, Piotr Szulkin’s film rendition of the Golem story, screening at the Lightbox tonight at 9PM. Images via TIFF and cine y literatura.