COLOSSAL




A Nacho Vigalondo film is a strange beast.  He, it was, who brought us Time Crimes (2007), the film in which a character’s story folds over itself, as he travels back through time and tries to save himself and his wife, time and time again.  It very cleverly uses the character’s limited perspective; we never leave his side, so we only discover what is going on, as he does.  It’s kinda like the second half of Back to the Future Part II (1989), without the Chuck Berry music.

Vigalondo also, more recently, brought us Open Windows (2014), which takes the conceit of turning the cinema screen into a computer screen and opening various windows to run several narratives at once.  Both films use a cunning narrative structure and strictly limits point of view, to tell stories about perception and about voyeurism. 

There is a deeply disturbing scene at the heart of Open Windows, where movie-star Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey) is blackmailed into performing a sex act in front of her laptop camera, so an insane fan (Neil Maskell) can feed the video to the internet.  This scene is uncomfortable, not just because it is upsetting to watch, but also because of the questions it raises about the viewer’s culpability in the creation of the images they watch.  

Gloria takes delivery of a colossal telly ... All the better for watching the world burn.  In HD.

This isn’t the first film to ask such questions:  The idea of people being tortured live on-camera for the amusement of viewers over the internet has been explored in films like the Gregory Hoblit / Diane Lane film, Untraceable (2008), Bernard Rose’s gothic horror Snuff Movie (2005), and in several police procedural TV shows - notably Criminal Minds and several of the CSIs.  It’s such a common motif, that it even has its own entry on the invaluable TV Tropes site, here.

It’s also worth mentioning that the much-reviled Brian DePalma, from the earliest days of his career (with Hi, Mom! in 1970, Sisters in ’72 and Phantom of the Paradise in ’74), was asking difficult questions about the relationship between audience, voyeurism and the unwary victim.

I mention all this, because Vigalondo has, with Colossal, taken the involvement of the voyeur with the viewed to a whole new level.  He’s reworked the idea for the generation accustomed to the idea of fighting a war by remote control from the other side of the planet.

But these high-flying ideas dawn slowly; the film begins simply enough by charting the travails of depressed, alcoholic, burned-out journalist, Gloria, played somewhat improbably by Anne Hathaway.
What’s this?  Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway in a monster movie?  What nonsense.  Well, Oscar-winner Brie Larson was in Skull Island.  Oh, yeah.  Okay, then.

Like all writers, Gloria does her best displacement in a pub, with a beer.
 Now, I say that Hathaway is improbable in the role, not because her performance is bad, it isn’t.  It’s a fine study in failure and rudderless depression.  She makes Gloria complicated and contradictory and very human.  And it’s refreshing to see the hoary old trope of the burned-out gin-soaked writer being played by a woman.  What I struggled with was her being this depressed and this soaked in booze ... So young.  Hathaway is in her thirties now, but looks younger.  One would expect a writer to be driven into the bottle by their despair and cynicism to the point where they can no longer function, when they’re in their 40s or, maybe, 50s.

But, let’s gloss over that and move on.  Gloria’s boyfriend, Tim (played by Mr is-there-a-film-he-isn’t-in-this-year Dan Stevens), has put up with her chaotic lifestyle for a long time, but finally has had enough and throws her out.  So she goes back to her home town, which is shot in autumnal browns and greys and looks as downbeat and depressed as the characters within it feel.  Not an accidental use of mise en scene, I suspect. 

Gloria immediately bumps into Oscar, her old friend from the old school old days, who just happens to own an old bar.  She follows him to the bar, and only has eyes for his tequila bottles.  This isn’t the most therapeutic location for her.

Jason Sudeikis is wonderfully down to earth as Oscar, in this, the first ‘straight’’ role I’ve seen him give.  He and his bar-buddies are all gentle, easy-going souls, who are a bit damaged, a bit lonely, but holding themselves and each other together.  It could so-easily have turned into one of those life-affirming romantic comedies from the early 90s.  Doc Hollywood anyone?

 
Sudeikis gives an understated performance as Oscar.  Like everything else in the film, his damage is deep down and is betrayed by behaviour rather than by visible wounds.

But, where’s the colossal monster, I hear you cry.

Well, it’s in Seoul.  It strides through the city, causing widespread devastation and leaving colossal footprints, very much like the little ones Gloria leaves when she walks through the town’s abandoned playground.  Everyone sits around in shock, watching the horror unfold on 24-hour rolling news.  

The world unites in support of the stricken Korean city, and braces for an assault from this giant bipedal monstrosity, since no-one knows where it will strike next.  Then it goes back to Seoul.  The film makes the point that, as soon as the rest of the world realises this terror is only happening to Seoul, the cease-fires collapse, the warm-fuzzy sense of international collaboration evaporates and everyone goes back to hating each other; because no one feels motivated by a disaster that is happening somewhere else.

Gloria notices that the strange beast scratches its head, just as she does.  Slowly, realisation dawns that whatever she does in that abandoned playground, the monster does too, on the far side of the planet, as though somehow being remote controlled by her.  When Oscar steps into the playground, a giant robot joins the giant kaiju and smashes its way through the sky-scrapers.  So, both Gloria and Oscar have this strange, magical super-power.

Where Gloria is wracked with the guilt at the death and destruction she has somehow inadvertently caused on the other side of the planet, Oscar is remarkably calm and level-headed about it.  At first.
Their relationship suddenly changes, becoming much darker, as Oscar's true nature is quickly revealed.  After which, the conflict between them, which has repercussions on both sides of the planet, is edge-of-the-seat stuff, involving great acting from the two leads, audacious film-making from Vigalondo and, in one scene in particular, exceptional use of sound - when we can hear death, destruction and screaming, but we can’t see it.

 
Tiny cruelties on one side of the planet can have major repercussions on the other, when the mysterious monster is joined by an equally unlikely robot.  And there's not a butterfly wing in sight.

Gloria goes from a woman whose defining characteristic is the lengths she will go to to avoid responsibility, to feeling like she is responsible for the woes of the world.

This is a film which buries its themes deep.  It is concerned with the power of social media, a tool which can have world-altering influence and consequence, but which is fuelled by raw emotion rather than considered and reasoned argument (cough-Trump-cough), and which allows one to divorce oneself from the culpability of one’s actions through distance and anonymity.  The film considers (through metaphor) the lengths people will go to, to become internet celebrities (as Open Windows did, before it).  Colossal looks at the way that fighting real wars, with real casualties, has become a video-game simulation fought by kids in front of video screens.  You pull a trigger in America; a building full of real people explodes in the Middle East.  This is an issue which is also dealt with, head-on, by the excellent Eye in the Sky (2015), which I encourage you to seek out.

Colossal is not a film big on logic.  For one thing, it’s hard to believe that Seoul wouldn’t have been evacuated after the first attack, leaving no innocent civilians to stomp under foot on subsequent visits.  But, hey, if you can accept colossal beasties and giant robots, a little extra suspension of disbelief shouldn’t be a problem.  What the film lacks in logic, it more than makes up for with heart and, if you’ll forgive the pun, soul. 

The trailers made this film look like a whimsical comedy, and the film certainly has its light, comical moments, but it also has depths unhinted-at in the marketing.  And, just one word of warning: if Colossal confuses you at all, don’t scratch your head.  Lives are at stake.

I don't know what it means, Tim, it's a real head-scratcher.
Writer, Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Dur: 110 mins
Cert: 15

ALIEN: COVENANT

I don’t generally do prequels.  I’m also not the greatest fan of sequels.  And this is a sequel to a prequel, so ... Double jeopardy.

Of course, part of the reason I don’t do prequels is Prometheus (2012), the film which promised so much (not least Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction after 30 years) and delivered so little (by way of a coherent narrative with a satisfying conclusion).
 
My review of it is here.

I’m happy to confirm that this film does answer some of the questions which were left hanging over the cliff at the end of Prometheus.  For example, we find out what happened to David and Elizabeth Shaw.
Scott directing Katherine Waterston as Daniels.  "Yes, luv, you do look a bit like Ripley.  But, don't worry, you don't have to strip down to your kecks."
This is very much Ridley’s passion project.  It’s almost like, as he approached the end of his career (he is 79, after all, although he has the energy of a man half that) he is finally finishing what he started with his breakthrough film.  A recent interview for Radio 4’s Film Programme (which you should still be able to listen to, here) betrayed that it is still a sore point for him, that the Alien sequel went ahead without him; so he seems to be reclaiming his creation with these prequels, as though he wishes to wipe out the memory of Cameron’s Aliens.

This film chooses to start with a prequel to the prequel, in a scene which echoes his other legacy piece, Blade Runner; we begin with an eye opening.  (Blade Runner will have been much on Scott’s mind over the last couple of years, as he green-lit, produced and, ultimately, decided not to direct its decades-in-gestation sequel).  In this case, the eye belongs to Michael Fassbender’s eccentric synthetic, David.  He discusses parenthood with his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, in a brief cameo, revisiting his performance from 2012), and asks “Who made you?”  Synthetic people ruminating on the philosophical questions of life was, of course, a driving force in Blade Runner, so we’re on comfortable Scott territory here.  The journey to find The Engineers in Prometheus began with this question and, for me, exploring the results and ramifications of asking it, is this film’s most interesting theme.

Fassbender returns as the hubristic, narcissistic David.  And also as the na├»ve Walter.  Both magnificent adverts for Weyland's A.I. business.
But, before we get to that, we need to herd some new cannon-fodder into the line of fire, so, please welcome on stage the crew of the colony ship Covenant.  As is usually the case in an Alien film, these people are all fast asleep, tucked-up in their cryo-pods, until something goes wrong with their ship and they all wake up.  Whether the solar flare that wakes them is an act of God, or possibly of a lazy script-writer, once they’re awake, they intercept a mysterious signal from a mysterious Earth-like planet so, being explorers, they decide to go and investigate.

As plot contrivances go, it’s not quite up there with Kirk being stranded on a random planet and running into a random cave and just happening to encounter Spock (a la 2009’s Star Trek) but it’s still terribly convenient that they just happen to be in the right place at the right time to discover the derelict Engineer spaceship from Prometheus (Ridley does like his derelicts) and, thusly, stumble upon the only other Weyland synthetic in all of space.
 
Another derelict spaceship.  Another planet.  Quite why this one crashed is one of the many plot points which isn't explained.
Yes, David has been patiently waiting for someone to arrive for ten years.  He’s been keeping himself busy, mind, studying the flora and fauna of his adopted home-world, and covering the walls of his dark cave-like quarters with drawings and dissections of all kinds of creatures (one does wonder where he gets the endless supply of paper and pencils ... But, he is in the middle of a forest, so I suppose he could make his own, if necessary).  This is partly why he is fascinated by the Covenant’s resident synthetic - Walter.  Their scenes together are a delightful interplay of classical allusions (David is well-read and pretentious with it) and subtext.  David clearly looks upon Walter as being another fascinating case-study; just another exotic form of life to study.  The bonding between them takes the form of David teaching Walter to play his flute, which they both take turns blowing and fingering ... And, yes, it has quite deliberate sexual overtones.

Books have been written about the phallic imagery of Scott's 1979 Alien, with particular reference to the image of the creature's tail rising up between Lambert's legs.  The sequence originally came from the attack on Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), but, during the editing, Scott moved it to Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), to emphasise the sexual violence.
He has, seemingly, since decided that this was too subtle so, in Covenant, we get two people shagging each other silly in the ship shower, oblivious to the fact that someone else wants to make it a threesome.
Sex and death is a theme throughout (as, let us be honest, it was in the original 1979 Alien), from the xeno-erotic poster that caused quite a stir when the shot its load over the internet a few months ago, to the ultimate wish-fulfilment scene of the alien fucking up a couple while coupling in the shower.  That sequence, particularly, felt like an Alien copycat, giving in to the baser instincts that Scott’s original was always tasteful enough to suggest but not show.  Other sequences are subtler, particular in relation to David and his asexual birth, fascination with the reproduction cycle of the xenomorph, and cocky self-confidence because he knows he doesn’t have to die (he doesn’t have a six-year life span, you see).

The religious imagery also runs through the film like a pulse; not, surprisingly, in the presence of Billy Crudup’s character, Chris Oram, who mentions that he is a person of faith, then proceeds to do nothing with that.  If anything, David is the one with faith, because he had met his maker and his maker’s maker and has demonstrated (to his own satisfaction) his superiority to all of them.  He has faith in himself.  Hence why he starts to think of himself as a god.  Or possibly Lucifer.  His assessment of his creator:  “He was human.  Entirely unworthy of his creation.”  No narcissistic, psychopathology there, at all, then.
There's something genuinely disturbing about the soft, fleshy Engineer-Xenomorph, which doesn't suffer from the over-familiarity of the original Geiger model.
What of the visuals?  Well, you know you’re in safe hands with Ridley.  From the spaceship which has echoes of the Nostromo (the first Alien film is set about 17 years after this film), to the gorgeous landscapes on the Engineer Planet, to the now all-too-familiar innards of the Engineer spaceship, and the cyclopean expanse of the Engineer city ... (Which HP Lovecraft fans, will no doubt, become quite agitated about) that is decorated with thousands of twisted, fossilised Engineer corpses, as though the entire species died out in one place at one time.
They travel to the other side of the universe to find the ancient city of R'lyeh.  "Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"
I can’t believe I’m thinking this, but part of me is feeling it would be a good idea for Ridley to bring modern CGI animation to bear on his original Alien, and release a version that has the visual splendour that the new films are capable of, with none of the limitations of budget and technology from the 70s.  A bit like the wash-and-brush-up they gave to the original Star Trek TV series.  Then the original film can be watched and appreciated in the same way as the films that lead up to it.
The problem with the film, and you knew there’d be one, is that it is far too reliant on that standby of trashy horror movies: Intelligent characters doing stupid things for no good reason.  These films can’t function unless the victims stupidly put their own necks in the noose and, as such, they kinda deserve what they get. 

I mean, presumably these pioneers have been trained in how to work as a team, how to improvise (since they’re years away from help) and how to keep calm in an emergency.  And yet, the very moment things start to get hairy, the entire team flies apart so fast, the audience gets hit by the shrapnel.  They make bad decision after bad decision; they split up; the captain goes off by himself into the dark; they think about quarantine regulations when it’s too late; one of them opens fire with a machine gun inside a delicate, complicated and highly combustible space ship (why, in God’s name, do they even have machine guns?) and, of course, women can’t run without falling over.
Yeah, I'll take a look in that leathery, moving egg.  What's the worst that can happen?
 So, in short, don’t get too attached to anyone, don’t bother learning their names or developing an affection for them; cos they mostly ain’t gonna be around long.  Don’t bother wondering about how the Alien grows so big so fast (cos, to be fair, that happened in the original Alien too).  And don’t bother trying to follow the action of the big fight at the end, cos the camera’s too wobbly and the editing’s too fast.  In which case, I just switch my brain into neutral and wait for normal narrative to resume.

On the plus side, this film features James Franco’s most likeable performance.

Hi, James.  Bye, James.
Dir: Alien Covenant.
Writers:  John Logan, Dante Harper.
Cert: 15.
Dur: 123 mins.