Friday, 17 February 2012

The Phantom Menace 3D

This afternoon, my daughter Isobel and me went to see The Phantom Menace in 3D. Strangely, it was my first experience of 'real 3D' and we both found it very tiring. The film is too, of course; while not as exhausting as the romance scenes in Attack of the Clones, Phantom Menace also has its longeurs. Part of the film's problem, I think, is that it isn't well structured, and the point-of-view is erroneously focused. It may be heresy to say this, but the film needed to be focused much more clearly on Anakin himself, and really, the film could lose that part of the film prior to the Jedi's arrival on Tatooine, and sketch in what has happened on Naboo in a very economical manner - because it doesn't really matter. Why are the Trade Federation blockading Naboo? We are never told. Why does Palpatine/ Darth Sidious want to invade Naboo in the first place? Why the pretence of legalism with the need for Amidala to sign the treaty? Who cares?

It doesn't make sense, never has done, and never will. Lucas, I think, lost sight of the crucial conflict that he needed to set up and motivate in this film, to see the narrative through the prequel, and to really make sense of why Darh Vader comes to be, why Anakin turns to the Dark Side. The central conflict here isn't between the Jedi and the Sith, but between the Jedi and Anakin. Anakin's words to Obi-Wan in the middle of their light-saber duel in Revenge of the Sith, 'From my point of view, the Jedi are evil' makes no sense in terms of what we have seen in that film and his relationship with Palpatine (or even his desire to forestall Padme's death). However, it might seem to make sense in a narrative where he's taken away from his mother by a guild of 'knights' whose very code of emotional detachment is demonstrably unethical, or even hypocritical (see Obi-Wan's reaction to the death of Qui-Gonn). We get hints in the Phantom Menace that Qui-Gonn has been at odds with the Jedi Council, that he has even transgressed the 'code'; in my own 'what if?' re-write of the film, I would make Qui-Gonn much more transgressive and emphasise the paternal emotional closeness to both Obi-Wan and Anakin; and in his role as Anakin's 'father', I would have suggested some kind of liaison between him and Anakin's mother, who remains a slave (and is not freed at the end of the film), suggesting a much more direct betrayal and ethical difficulty when they leave her behind on Tatooine. You see Qui-Gonn with his hand on her shoulder several times; it would not have taken much to suggest that this physicality goes much deeper. It might also suggest that Qui-Gonn would not be above using sexual attraction to complete his mission.

The problem with Anakin's rejection of the Jedi, as I discussed in a previous post, is that the Jedi are portrayed as heroic, by and large. But one can see in The Phantom Menace the high-handed, arrogant behaviour of Mace Windu, Qui-Gonn's stubborn and errant behaviour, and even Yoda's rather brutal handling of the boy Anakin in his interview with him. Lucas needed to go further, I think, in shading the ethical and political problems of the Jedi role in the galaxy, and the behaviour of some of their order. Anakin's reaction against it would then seem much less like a teenage snit and more a visceral rejection of the hypocrisies of an order who paint themselves 'pure', but who are knee-deep in blood (and shit).

The other structural problem that watching the film again drove home was the badly thought-out climax. There are 4 concurrent battles: the Gungans against the droids; Padme's attempt to seize the Viceroy; Anakin's inadvertent destruction of the orbiting droid-control ship; and the light-saber duel between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gonn and Darth Maul. It's at least two too many, a lesson learned by the time Lucas made Revenge of the Sith, where the Anakin/Obi-Wan duel is given full rein without too much in the way of cut-aways. In Star Wars, Lucas paced the action much more effectively: the Obi-Wan/ Vader fight was followed by the escape of the Millennium Falcon from the Death Star and the TIE fighter attack spectacle sequence; this leads in short order to the X-Wing attack on the Death Star. There is a simplicity about this that creates narrative impetus and rewards the viewer at regular intervals. Star Wars has rhythm; The Phantom Menace has none. Prior to the 4-in-1 battle sequence in Phantom Menace, we are given the 20 minute hiatus of Padme on Coruscant and the manoeuvrings in the Senate. Between leaving Tatooine and returning to Naboo, the film falls asleep, and so do the audience - today, I found myself consciously bored in this sequence. Lucas might have cut all this out - if Palpatine turns up at Naboo as a newly-crowned Chancellor, the point about the disconnection between Republic politics and struggles 'on the ground' would have been made well enough. The 'distress calls' from Naboo would have provided enough motivation for a direct return there by the Jedi, Anakin and Padme.

I should say something about the 3D. To be honest, it did not affect the viewing experience that much: Isobel made a few 'oohs' at the beginning, but these faded away. It made me realise the The Phantom Menace doesn't actually have much in the way of flat-out space-spectacle sequences to compare with Star Wars or Return of the Jedi. What we did see of this in 3D was nicely rendered and you could appreciate the depth of field (as with the introductory scroll of writing), but the attack on the droid-control ship competes fro attention with the 3 battles, and doesn't really get that much screen-time. The Pod-race looks ok, but not really that much different to 2D. In all, I thought it made negligible difference to the viewing experience.

The Star Wars prequels aren't bad films, really (although Attack of the Clones is only half-watchable), but they're cluttered where they should be direct and simple, concentrate on politics when they should focus on human motivation, and think they're offering a 'sophisticated' narrative of the fall of the Republic while shying away from offering real ambiguity or complexity. In an ideal world, you'd give the prequel trilogy materials to Coppola and Walter Murch and say, 'make me a really dark epic out of this, lads'. For Michael Corleone, read Anakin Skywalker.

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Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Sun and the Moon

In trying to write an article about British science fiction cinema, it has struck me how difficult it is to pin down consistent themes or ideas. One I am juggling with is to do with the inheritance of the disaster or catastrophe mode, and its contemporary re-uses; but there is another strand, of British space fiction which uses an American star or multi-national cast to gain leverage in international marketplaces, one that can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and in Gerry Anderson’s ‘Century 21’ production house and UFO and Space:1999 in particular. (Anderson’s work is particularly interesting, and I would think that there’s a lot more work to be done on him, and his influence.) Two recent British space fictions are Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2006) and Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009).

Sunshine was written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle, the same creative tandem that had worked on 28 Days Later (2002). The film was made in Britain, at the 3 Mills Studios in London, with a largely British crew, but used a truly international ensemble cast: Irish actor Cillian Murphy (using an American accent) as the main character, physicist Robert Capa; and Australian Rose Byrne, Hong Kong actress Michelle Yeoh, New Zealand Maori actor Cliff Curtis, Americans Chris Evans and Troy Garity, Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, with British actors Benedict Wong and Mark Strong. As Sunshine’s narrative is based upon an internationally-crewed space mission to ‘restart’ the Sun’s internal nuclear fusion, which had failed due to an ‘infection’ by a ‘Q-ball’ particle field, such casting is narratively justified, but does indicate an eye to international distribution. The Earth begins to freeze (recalling British disaster fictions such as John Christopher’s The World In Winter or, in inverted fashion, the film The Day the Earth Caught Fire) but the film only shows one scene on Earth, at the very end, after the mission has succeeded (at the cost of the crew’s lives): a frozen Sydney Opera House is lit by a re-vivified Sun. If Sunshine has connections to the disaster narrative, they are tangential or ‘backstory’ connections: the film remains focused upon the psycho-dynamics of the crew initially, but then upon the disaster visited upon the ship (the Icarus II) in the course of the mission.

Sunshine is, unfortunately, broken-backed. Its first half marries the scientific, rational teamwork of the disaster narrative with the metaphysical allusions of the scientific romance tradition (2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, or Stapledon’s  Last and First Men); however, when the crew of the ship divert to investigate the hulk of the first mission to ‘restart the Sun’, in orbit around Mercury, they inadvertently allow the insane Captain Pinbacker (Mark Strong) aboard, who sets about sabotaging the ship (as he had done the first). Sunshine then becomes a reprise of Event Horizon, the 1997 sf film directed by Briton Paul W.S. Anderson and featuring a largely Anglo-American ensemble cast. Event Horizon narrates a mission to investigate an abandoned ‘hell-ship’ in deep space, where the insane Dr Weir (Sam Neill) embodies a kind of ‘ultimate evil’ inhabiting the ship since it left this universe for another. In its generic splicing of sf with body-horror, Event Horizon is a clear intertext for Sunshine’s third act and Dr Weir’s monstrosity (he appears as a kind of flayed man) anticipates Pinbacker’s scorched, post-human malignancy. Narrative incoherency in Sunshine increases under the influence of this unlooked-for generic turn until the very end of the film, when the nuclear physicist Capa manages to deliver the payload. Here, on the surface of the sun, time and space become smeared together, and the film redeems itself in replacing unintentional incoherency with intentional incoherency.

These final few minutes of the film are by far the most striking and return the film to the claustrophobic intensity of its opening act. As the payload moves towards the surface of the sun, space and time become fragmented. The experience of this fragmentation is achieved through mise-en-scène and particularly through editing. Some shots become smeared, the images made unclear through step-printing and other optical effects (not always in post-production, through CGI: Pinbacker’s blurry, unstable image throughout the second half of the film was produced by special camera lenses rather than special effects work). Shots seem to end half way through, or are caught in freeze-frame; the horizontal plane becomes vertical and vice versa, the characters sliding down the surface they had been standing on; distance is elongated or collapsed, the actors appearing in long-shot or close-up in consecutive shots. Continuity, in other words, is successfully abandoned at this point. This sequence is a kind of cinematic tour-de-force, a near-hallucinatory rush towards the end point (detonation), and then the cinematic otherness finally gives way to a kind of transcendent calm. As Capa detonates the device, the surface of the sun appears like a wall of plasmatic fire: Cillian Murphy stands, beatific, his hands open and arms held in embrace of the moment of transcendence/ transfiguration/ death. The (suicide/ sacrifice) mission is successful, but the doubled figures at the end (diabolic Pinbacker/ transcendent Capa), and the moment of transfiguration at the end (placing the film clearly in the metaphysical territory of 2001’s Stargate sequence) ultimately move the narrative away from the rationalist ethos of the disaster narrative.

Moon, directed by Duncan Jones (the son of David Bowie) with a British crew, won awards at the 2009 British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs). Moon, deeply indebted to the mise-en-scène of 2001, Alien, Outland and Gerry Anderson productions in its enclosed white-walled living quarters, stars American actor Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, who it appears is the sole inhabitant of a mining-operation moonbase, descending into eccentricity at the end of a 3-year tour. After an accident in a moon rover vehicle, a clean and shaven Sam awakes in the medical facility, but soon realizes that the moon rover still outside the base. When reached, Sam discovers the ‘first’, original Sam, unconscious within it.

The scenario is partly dystopian. The mining company has produced a series of clones illegally, implanted memories from the ‘original’ Sam, and disposes of each clone as it comes to the end of its 3-year ‘tour’, in fact revealed to be its life span. The malign operations of ‘the Company’ can be found in Outland and particularly the Alien tetralogy, as well as most overtly in the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner. Where Blade Runner asserts, through the character of Baty, the fallibility of assumptions of ‘human’ superiority over replicant, ‘original’ over ‘copy’, the fact that Moon is largely a two-hander where both protagonists are clones of an absent ‘original’, though in markedly different states, lends a poignancy to their condition. Sam Bell is no Baty, no Blakean rebel demanding ‘more life, fucker/ father’; in a wonderfully underplayed scene, the dying ‘first’ Sam eventually manages to contact what he believes to have been his home, only to discover that his ‘daughter’ Eve is now 15, and his ‘wife’ has been dead a number of years. We even hear the ‘original’ Sam Bell asking Eve who is phoning. She does not know, because, in a subtle and unemphasised gesture, the dying ‘first’ Sam covers the camera of the video-phone with his hand so Eve cannot see who it is, or perhaps, who Sam looks like. Where Blade Runner is able to suggest the difference (not inferiority) of replicant subjectivity through the power of Baty’s (heroic/ Satanic) agency, Moon offers instead a kind of tragic hollowness: life is indeed elsewhere. Although the ‘second’ Sam escapes to Earth, and we hear at the close of the film Congressional hearings into the company’s activities, it would seem that the three years of the second Sam’s life on earth might be taken up in courtrooms rather than in roaming mountain ranges.

On the dvd commentary, Duncan Jones is rightly proud of the model effects work done for Moon (and limited CGI), work that places it clearly in the ‘classic’ tradition of British space sf. In part, this choice was made for budgetary reasons, but it serves to make the look of Moon very coherent for the knowledgeable sf film fan. Issues of budget are always going to be problematic for British sf, and so it is perhaps not surprising that it has tended towards near-future (dystopia/ post-apocalyptic) scenarios where the everyday world can be dressed as the present-plus.  Sunshine was financed by Fox Searchlight, after a pitch to the subsidiary’s parent studio 20th-Century Fox had proved unsuccessful because of the perceived failure of Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 Solaris; however, the estimated $50 million budget was in excess of what Fox Searchlight would normally expect to finance, and the film-makers were able to draw on UK lottery funding through the UK Film Council to complete the film. Sunshine can be said to be highly unusual for a British sf film in terms of its budget, and in terms of its effects-driven scenario; its worldwide takings of around US$32million, making a considerable loss, suggests it will remain so.