There is something of the uncanny about Allied, a pervading sense of “not-quite-right-ness” that pervades the film.
In some ways, that vague feeling of uncanniness recalls director Robert Zemeckis’ work in stop-motion computer animation in the earlier years of the century. There was something deeply uncomfortable about the director’s work on films like The Polar Express or A Christmas Carol, a sense of strange lifelessness beneath meticulously and painstakingly crafted exteriors. Zemickis’ computer-generated experiments often felt like they were trying too hard to mimic something organic and spontaneous.
There is a similar sentiment to Allied, which plays very much as a love letter to classic Hollywood cinema. Indeed, the opening forty minutes of the film are dedicated to a very stylish couple operating out of “French Morocco.” Inevitably, their clandestine dealings bring them to a version of Casablanca that seems rooted more in Hollywood history than in reality. Unfolding against the backdrop of the Second World War, dealing with themes of love and betrayal, and starring a bona fides movies star, Allied feels very much like an approximation of a classic movie.
However, it never quite gets there.
To be fair, there is a lot to like about Allied. It is relatively easy to criticise some of Robert Zemeckis’ creative directions in recent years, but Zemeckis remains a director with a very strong sense of craft and a very clear visual sensibility. Allied is a movie that always looks impressive. Like those computer-generated creations, it looks reasonable convincing. This applies to just about every aspect of the production, from the costuming to the set design. On a technical level, Allied is top notch.
Even in terms of basic direction, Allied is solid if unremarkable. Zemeckis is very comfortable with the genre in which he is working and with the technology with which he is working. Desert shots of Morocco are saturated to an almost cartoonish degree, looking like something from the technicolour era. There are a number of (unnecessary but still technically impressive) long takes that seem to exist for little reason other than to demonstrate that Zemeckis can pull them off.
More than that, the movie very skilfully emulates the look and feel of classic Second World War espionage thrillers. The camera is voyeuristic, with Zemeckis often zooming or panning so as to emphasise the idea that the characters are constantly being watched and scrutinised. Shots are framed and reflected through mirrors to underscore that theme of surveillance and the recurring idea of projection. One particular shot finds the lead character watching his wife’s reflection through another mirror.
None of this is particular innovative or clever. But that seems to be the point. In terms of basic production, Allied feels like a conscious attempt to hark back to “older” or “classic” movies. It is not too difficult to imagine a slightly less explicit version of this film emerging from Alfred Hitchcock at some point in the late forties or fifties, starring Cary Grant or even Jimmy Stewart. Although, to be fair, Allied eels very much like the knock-off version of that potential lost classic, an attempt to mimic that style and tone without understanding it.
Allied is never subtle in its allusions. The movie’s introductory act is set in Casablanca, and its climax hinges on piano playing. The themes are familiar; a couple in love facing up to the reality that their mutual affection might ultimately count for nothing against the backdrop of the Second World War. Brad Pitt frequently poses like he escaped a black-and white film, leaning on a desk with his other hand theatrically on his hips; it is a pose that very few people have ever seen outside of a classic feature film.
There is a certain lifelessness to Allied, a limpness that is decidedly unsatisfying. At times, Allied feels like a piece of classic cinema rendered through production software not too dissimilar to that employed in rendering The Polar Express or A Christmas Carol. The film contains a selection of elements that work reasonably well individually, and is build on any number of strong foundations. However, these elements never gel into a singular cohesive or convincing whole.
In fact, the elements frequently seem to compete with one another, the script disappearing down particular rabbit holes for ten or fifteen minutes before committing to another series of adventures. Matthew Goode has a distractingly small role that serves a clear thematic purpose, but proves completely meaningless in terms of plotting. Another plot thread sends a major character hundreds of miles to pointless action sequence, only to have them return home in time for breakfast. (Almost literally, although one senses his appetite is gone.)
To be fair, there is a sense of irony in all of this. Allied is very much a movie about fakery and deception. After all, Zemeckis is not just interested in the technical mechanics of storytelling, he is very much engaged with the theme. The joy of The Walk was to be found in a central character making his narrative real. In some respects, Allied plays with that idea, toying with the suggestion that various essential and defining narratives (such as love or loyalty) might ultimately turn out to be false.
Allied is populated by characters giving uncanny and arch performances. “Now we laugh,” directs Marianne Beausejour as she directs her first true conversation with Max Vatan. “Now kiss me.” Over the course of Allied, Max is presented as an actor more than a soldier; he receives stage direction and character motivation from various characters, as he is repeatedly asked to conceal his true intentions from those around him. There is something uncomfortable about that, a deep-seated fakeness.
In some ways, this fakeness feels appropriate for Allied, a wry and ironic commentary on the uncanny nature of the film. As Max begins to question the honesty and integrity of the people around him, the audience finds their attention drawn to the stylised and uncanny world in which Max finds himself. There are points in Allied where it seems like Max is just short of realising that he is trapped inside a Second World War film rather than fighting the Second World War itself. In these moments, Allied almost seems to cohere.
However, even when these aspects of the film come close to working, there is still a hollowness to the movie as a whole. “I keep the emotions real,” Marianne assures Max early in the film. “That is why it works.” It seems almost as if Allied might learn something from its female protagonist.