There’s an intelligent sci-fi film in here somewhere but it’s bludgeoned to death by the typical Paul WS Anderson computer game approach.
Ben Foster, Henchman of the Year in my 2007 Film Awards for his psychotic turns in 3:10 to Yuma and 30 Days of Night, graduates to leading man status and acquits himself well. However he does so in a film that lifts large chunks from Joss Whedon’s 2005 film Serenity. Perhaps the passing physical resemblance between Foster and Serenity’s Alan Tudyk saw writer/director Christian Alvart suffer some unconscious free-associating while co-writing the script about psychotic cannibals in outer space.
Foster plays the unintentionally hilariously named Corporal Bower (pronounced Jack Bauer) who awakes from hyper-sleep on the super-space ship Elysium some hundreds of years from now to find something has gone badly wrong with the power, navigation systems and crew… He wakes his commanding officer Lt Payton (Dennis Quaid) and their struggle against amnesia regarding their identities, mission, and the basic functions of the ship’s equipment is all nicely intriguing before Foster sets off on a trek to fix the nuclear reactor. At this point he meets Antje Traue, who plays the obligatory busty scientist with a tight top, greasy hair and kung-fu skills, and Cung Le, the token Asian character, who gardens when not being a ninja. Predictably enough getting to the nuclear reactor involves completing a number of levels first, sorry, navigating a number of layers of the ship.
These levels are populated by the CGI villains, who appear to have strayed in from I Am Legend, but are still terrifying. I hate fast-moving scary monsters, you should see me squirm when demons move in missing frames every week in Supernatural. Meanwhile back on the secondary bridge Dennis Quaid once again proves that he is a remarkably under-appreciated screen presence as he tries to guide Foster thru the ship, before another crew member appears… Twilight villain Cam Gigandet does surprisingly well in what is basically a two-hander against Quaid. Gigandet has a pretty boy physique but his eyes somehow always hint at something deeply sinister, a fabulous asset in a film which plays on the fact that memory-loss is endemic among the crew and no-one knows just what happened to the ship. Gigandet’s scenes with Quaid are more interesting than the running from cannibals action as they both start to get paranoid and accuse the other of suffering from Pandorum, a wonderfully conceived deep-space illness that starts as an uncontrollable twitch of the hand before escalating to a certainty that the ship is cursed leading to a suicidal mass-evacuation of hyper-sleep pods into the empty wastes of space.
Alvart’s film can be very clever, especially in its creation of a very plausible future Earth riven by conflict over food-supplies, or the tiny touch of laser-shaving, but producer Anderson’s trademark drivel sinks it.
If Sigourney Weaver wasn’t in the cast you’d have the horrible suspicion that the writer/director behind this film was not James Cameron but George Lucas…
Cameron’s return came with not just a trailer but world-wide screenings of 15 minutes of scenes from the first and second acts of Avatar, chosen to give a taste of the film without revealing spoilers, as he explained in his introduction. They should then give a good flavour of what to expect from the 3-D CGI animation/live-action mash-up extravaganza that is Cameron’s first film since Titanic, but the taste is sweet and sour.
The first scene showcased was a briefing about the extremely hostile inhabitants of a planet the military was trying to colonise (how very Aliens) but as you paid more attention you realised with a shock that this wasn’t bad motion-capture CGI but actual actors, 3-D had somehow made flesh and blood look oddly unconvincing compared to the CGI animation that followed. The next scene where Sigourney Weaver explains the preposterous plot to Sam Worthington improves on that unsettling experience dramatically but most of the film will obviously be the CGI animation adventures of Sam Worthington in his alien avatar body goofing around on the planet. And the plot is preposterous. Worthington, a crippled military hard-man, has his mind inserted into the big blue body of a humanoid alien inhabitant of the planet, and ends up closely resembling Joshua the dog-man from Cameron’s TV show Dark Angel.
Is Terminator: Salvation’s star really the right choice to carry such a huge film? For a long time I thought it was Sam Huntington (sublime as Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns) who had got this part, which would have made for a funnier contrast between avatar and human rather than the pathos Cameron is aiming for, but arguably also made us root for the hero more. Worthington’s not that charismatic a presence in the footage screened and he’s not helped, as he blunders about shooting at various ill-tempered beasties, by a script packed with very obvious punning which recalls The Phantom Menace painfully at times. Zoe Saldana’s sexy tough as nails native alien love interest comes right out of the Ripley/Sarah Connor stable of Cameron heroines but her accent is right from the Jar Jar Binks School of Racial Stereotyping.
As for the 3-D, if you like seeing shell-casings fly towards you or fronds sweep around as the camera tracks then the 3-D is great, and scenes of night-time phosphoresce are stunningly beautiful. However the action depicted feels very, very familiar – in one scene Worthington has to tame what is basically a pterodactyl and then fly off on it to, oh who cares? And ow! why do my eyes hurt? Avatar has all new glasses for the latest refinement of the technology but (leaving aside the fact that since 3-D’s first appearance in the 1950s an ever-increasing percentage of the population has to put 3-D glasses over glasses) 3-D is still at best a draining experience, and at worst a painful one, which is why most 3-D films in this latest wave have been around 80 minutes long. Avatar will probably march towards the 150 minute mark, and, combined with action that’s distinctly déjà-vu of Jurassic Park, Star Wars, et al, that’s a hard sell…
(500) Days of Summer would be the best romantic comedy of the year but for the small fact that it’s really the perfect anti-romantic comedy.
It casually dispenses with the great mind-numbing cliché of romantic comedies whereby a secret comes to light in the second act that scuppers the relationship until a grand romantic gesture is made in the third act by one of the sundered lovers which leads to a happy ever after reconciliation, and pass the sick-bucket please. Here, thanks to a sublimely fractured chronology, we see office assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and greeting card writer Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) break up (because Summer’s just not happy anymore, not because of some contrived plot device) before we’ve even seen them get together as a couple. Not of course that Summer ever admits to herself or Tom that they are a couple. A refreshing change from rom-coms featuring the male with commitment issues here we have the (common in real-life but scarce on the ground in movies) female with terminological issues: ‘boyfriend’ is out, it’s more ‘the guy I’m seeing’, or ‘the guy I’m sorta seeing’, or ‘this guy I’m hanging with, I may possibly start seeing in the future, I don’t really know…’
Events occur mostly chronologically but with jumps forwards and backward to replay events so that we get an emotional oomph from scenes we thought we understand playing differently in context, like Summer being bored by Tom’s quirky humour which it transpires is a riff she had started earlier. It is important to note that this film is not a non-stop laugh marathon, but it is always warm, and filled with touches that would not look out of place in Annie Hall; such as an extended split-screen sequence depicting Tom’s expectations of a party hosted by Summer versus reality, a sparingly used droll narrator, Tom’s lists of Summer’s traits that he adores being identical to his post-breakup list of Summer’s traits that he despises, and Tom’s friends desperately calling in his 12 year old sister Rachel (wise beyond her years, of course) for an intervention to stop his distraught crockery-smashing.
Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber penned Pink Panther 2 and this is extremely clever atonement because (500) Days is a systematic deconstruction of the tropes of rom-coms which annihilates the concept of idealised soul-mate romance they perpetuate. Zooey Deschanel is luminous when she needs to be but her character is also deeply flawed, as indeed is the always excellent Gordon-Levitt, whose everyman Tom has settled for second-best in life and thus treats Summer as a Hollywood style ticket to redemption. The ending manages to be hilarious, realistic and life-affirming while being deeply subversive of the genre. If you’re sick of the Sandra Bullock rom-com conveyor belt then you should catch Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt being both charming and emotionally realistic and soak up the feel-good factor of an indie rom-com with the most joyous musical number since Enchanted’s Central Park extravanganza.