Advertisements
    Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

  • Advertisements

Not the Alt-Right Stuff: “First Man” and the Postnationalist Depoliticised Space Myth…

There is something uniquely American about the space programme.

Of course, America is not the only country that went into space. China has successfully launched a man into space, and India is planning to launch another person within a few years. America was not even the first country to launch a man into space. Many of the important “firsts” in space travel were claimed by the Soviet Union; the first dog launched into space, the first man launched into space, the first orbit of the planet, the first space-walk. In hindsight, America’s claim to winning the space race might not be that they went first, but that they went furthest.

Nevertheless, the space race is an important and defining part of American identity. It might be because the United States won the Cold War, and this sort of journey is perfectly representative of a symbolic victory in an ideological war. It might be because the space race sits so perfectly within the American self-image, the logical extension of distinctly American concepts like the limitless (whether “new” or “final”) frontier or “manifest destiny.” It may simply be that the United States is a country very keenly focused on its future, and that reach towards the sky is the ultimate push towards the future.

It is almost impossible to separate the space race, at least historically, from American identity. Even the utopian postnational future of the Star Trek franchise is very consciously filtered through an American lens. (Jean-Luc Picard, the franchise’s only non-American lead, is a delightfully hazy mix of vague European clichés including a taste for tea and British accent, against a French name and ownership of a vineyard.) To be fair, modern space-set stories like The Europa Report or Doctor Who or Sunshine tend to place a greater emphasis on international cooperation, but space is till seen as a primarily American concern.

When British-American director Christopher Nolan decided to make a movie about the space race in Interstellar, he steeped it in Americana. The film was not only about a mission organised by NASA, but the entire film was steeped in Americana that suggested the whole enterprise was inseparable from American identity; baseball games, tales of the Great Depression, the corn fields of rural America, even the soothing Texas accent of Matthew McConaughey. A charming piece of retrofuturism, of nostalgia for how we used to look at the future, Interstellar was an ode to the space race as a defining part of American identity.

This makes sense. Many of the images and signifiers of space are still tied specifically to the United States. After all, it is estimated that almost fifteen percent of the world’s population watched the moon landing, a defining moment of American triumph. The image of the American flag planted on the lunar surface is one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, inexorably tying the moon mission to ideas of nationalist endeavour and triumph. Like Antarctica, the moon might theoretically exist beyond the claims of any one government, but it’s also impossible to separate it from that image of the flag.

This perhaps explains why the decision not to show the planting of that flag in First Man has been so controversial, quite aside from the general (and exhausting) trend towards politicisation of everything. The moon landing is so casually and so straightforwardly accepted as a triumph of American nationalism that even eluding a part of the story that everybody knows anyway is treated as an affront. The response to this artistic decision treats it as a betrayal to American identity and an attempted erasure of what is a fundamental part of this story.

However, there is something very interesting in the way that First Man approaches the nationalism inherent in the space race, and the movie’s decision to place its emphasis elsewhere feels like a very pointed (and very timely) shift of focus on one of the defining narratives of the American century.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Non-Review Review: First Man

First Man offers a novel take on a familiar story.

The moon landing is one of the most important moments of twentieth century history, a defining for both America and the larger world. In fact, it remains emblematic of the furthest soil to which  man has ventured to this point. Our species had crossed the threshold of the upper atmosphere before and has done so since. In fact, mankind has even gone back to the moon, although those trips are fading from living memory. The moon landing remains a cultural and historical touchstone, and has been explored from countless perspectives.

Take your protein pill and put your helmet on.

It takes a lot to find a fresh pair of eyes on this journey, but Damien Chazelle does exactly that. The director makes this clear as early as the opening scene. The first time that the audience sees the Earth as a planet, it is not through an establishing shot or the windows of the makeshift space craft. It is reflected in the visor of Niel Armstrong, the warm blue horizon cutting across his visor just below his striking and piercing eyes. Ryan Gosling has always been an actor capable of communicating much through his eyes, and First Man asks us to appreciate space reflected back from them.

So much of First Man is told either focused on or looking through the eyes of Neil Armstrong; the majesty of space and lunar surfaces reflected in the visor of his helmet, or various first-person shot from inside elevators or falling swiftly to Earth. The audience is placed very much in Armstrong’s shoes. Even when Chazelle isn’t literally shooting the film from Armstrong’s perspective, he favours tight close-ups and handheld camera work in confined spaces to suggest that the audience is literally trapped within that space with Armstrong.

Rocket man.

There is no small irony in this, and Chazelle knows it. It seems strange that freshest pair of eyes on the lunar mission should be those of the first man to set foot on the moon. One might have expected the mythology to start there, but instead Armstrong has long remained a figure of mystery. Tacit and introverted, Armstrong has always seemed more like a legend than a human being. The novelty and the power of First Man comes from studying the man who made both that small step and that giant leap.

In doing so, First Man offers a powerful and intimate exploration of a very personal story that just happens to be told on the broadest canvas imaginable.

All fired up.

Continue reading

Non-Review Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale is over-stuffed, over-long, and unfocused. It is a muddle of big ideas thrown against one another, the sparks flying in whatever direction they will.

There is a sense in which writer and director Drew Goddard wants Bad Times at the El Royale to be about everything, to find some space within the movie for just about every possible allegory. It is difficult to explain what Bad Times at the El Royale is actually about, for reasons that extend beyond contemporary spoilerphobia. This is a movie that feels at once like it has important things to say, and a very abstract way of trying to say them.

Red guy at night, Hemsworth fans’ delight.

There is also something brilliant in all of this, in the way that Drew Goddard swings wildly at such a broad array of big ideas in such a surreal context. Bad Times at the El Royale is packed to the brim with big ideas, offering a story that could easily be read as scathing political commentary, powerful religious allegory, or biting social satire. It is an unashamedly odd film that is wrestling with a variety of interesting themes. If it can’t pick just a handful to focus upon, it is because there are so many rich veins to tap.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a bold and infuriating piece of pop art. It’s also unashamedly ambitious and enthusiastically esoteric. It’s a movie that certainly won’t be for everybody, but it is broadcasting very strongly on its own distinctive wavelength.

Flower power.

Continue reading

Non-Review Review: 22 July

22 July is both a very well made and a spectacularly ill-judged film.

Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, 22 July focuses on the infamous attacks conducted by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011. The attacks were brutal and horrific, and sent shockwaves across both Europe and North America. To a certain extent, Breivik’s attacks prefigured a wave of similar violence in the years that followed, violence driven by nativism and xenophobia, toxic forms of ethno-nationalism that crept in to the social and politic spheres. There is no denying that these attacks (and their aftermath) deserve attention and discussion. They are a formative moment in modern western politics.

However, there is also a sense that Paul Greengrass might not be the best director to tell this sort of story. There are several reasons for this, but most them come down to Greengrass’ stylistic sensibilities, his strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. It is incredibly obvious from the outset what kind of film Greengrass is trying to make. Greengrass is trying to capture the horror and brutality of Breivik’s actions, and to present the ordinary everyday heroism of those who survived and endured his assault. However, Greengrass’ directorial sensibilities conspire to undercut these aspects of the film.

Greengrass may be a very naturalistic film director, who at times seems almost like a documentarian in his storytelling, but he can direct a visceral and effective action sequence. This means that the part of 22 July that really feels alive and propulsive is the mass shooting. More than that, Greengrass’ no-frills style means that most of the characters in 22 July never feel particularly well-developed or well-formed, never having a life outside of the frame or what the movie expects of them. As a result, the only character who does stand out is Brievik himself.

The result is a film about mass murder and ethno-nationalism that structurally resembles more conventional issue-driven movies, but without any of the strong emotional cues or distinctive performances that serve to place the moral weight within those narratives. Instead, 22 July often feels rather blunt and matter-of-fact, a collection of events and occurrences without any actual living characters to clog up the mechanics. The only things that stand out within 22 July are those elements that are (by their nature) heightened and extreme.

The result is a movie about a horrific terrorist attack that only seems to come alive in its depiction of the attack, and an ensemble drama about the cultural response to trauma where the only compelling character is a white supremacist terrorist.

Continue reading

Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth (Review)

“Don’t worry. I have a plan.”

“Really?”

“Well, I will have by the time I reach the top.”

– the more things change

The Woman Who Fell to Earth has a lot of pressure working upon it as Doctor Who season premieres go.

This is the first time that the Doctor has changed gender during regeneration, and is the first time that the title role will be played by a female actor. This is only the second time that the series has changed showrunner and rebuilt itself from the ground up since it returned more than a decade ago. There is a lot riding on The Woman Who Fell to Earth, and a lot of expectations that need to be satisfied.

Doctor who?

The Woman Who Fell to Earth is efficient, if not excellent. As a showrunner and scriptwriter, Chris Chibnall immediately and effectively establishes himself as a safe pair of hands. On some level, this is disappointing. After all, both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat were showrunners who immediately and aggressively asserted bold visions of what Doctor Who could be, announcing their arrival on the series with a confident statement of purpose that left the series scrambling to keep up. Instead, The Woman Who Fell to Earth seems to promise business as usual.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, to be fair. There is some argument that Doctor Who might even need a safe and reliable pair of hands at this point. Chibnall is a writer who is much less adventurous than Davies or Moffat, but The Woman Who Fell to Earth is infused with a back-to-basics meat-and-potatoes approach. A lot of the episode is spent trying to avoid potential pitfalls that would emphasise Chibnall’s relative weaknesses, and instead play to a very broad “big tent” ideal of what Doctor Who can be.

Breaking out.

Indeed, The Woman Who Fell to Earth works best in its relatively straightforward nuts-and-bolts elements, when judged on the individual elements of the episode rather than how they all fit together. Jodie Whittaker throws herself into the lead role and understands that she’s effectively propelling the narrative forward. The new regular ensemble has a breezy and easy chemistry that feels suitably distinct from more recent inhabitants of the TARDIS. The actual plotting of the episode is fairly boilerplate Doctor Who, almost as if the series is showing that it can still do that.

That said, there’s a worrying lack of ambition evident in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and its business-as-usual approach to Doctor Who. This is a season premiere that feels more of a piece with episodes like Smith and Jones, Partners in Crime or Deep Breath, episodes that are less concerned with bold questions of vision than they are with the mechanics of simply introducing a new lead. It’s disappointing, because the stock comparison for The Woman Who Fell to Earth should be something as wonderful as Rose or The Eleventh Hour.

Jodie’s Wits-About-Her.

Continue reading

84. Touch of Evil (#241)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and this week with special guests Charlene Lydon and Grace Duffy, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.

A murder in a small border town stokes local tensions, as Ramon Miguel Vargas finds himself drawn into an investigation overseen by Police Captain Hank Quinlan. As Quinlan pursues his lines of inquiry, Vargas quickly comes to realise that his would-be partner is not what he appears to be.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 241st best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

Continue reading

Non-Review Review: Halloween (2018)

The Halloween franchise remains a strange beast, for a number of reasons.

Most notably, it is one of the relatively rare horror movie franchises that has actively and repeatedly refused the siren call of over-complication and entanglement. Michael Myers is an iconic horror character, on par with other seventies and eighties ghouls like the creature from Predator, the monster from Alien, Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th Franchise and even Freddie Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. However, as the mythology of those characters has spiralled and intertwined, Michael Myers remains a very simple, straightforward concept.

The Shape of things to come.

The horror reboot is a fixture of the modern pop cultural landscape, and Michael Myers went through his own version of that. There’s an argument to be made that Myers came out much better than many of his contemporaries with Rob Zombie’s Halloween. However, even before that, the Halloween franchise seemed to emphasise its essential blankness. Halloween III did not feature Myers at all, which seems crazy in hindsight. Halloween: H20 effectively rewrote the franchise’s history so that only Halloween and Halloween II actually happened.

Of course, there were films in the series that indulged in all the standard horror movie tropes, which tried to develop and cultivate a mythology around the iconic masked killer. This is most obvious in the iterations of the franchise without Jamie Lee Curtis, particularly in the sixth film Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. However, it is telling that these sorts of complications and elaborations have frequently been brushed aside as detritus, understood in hindsight to diminish the power of the character and the franchise.

Facing up to him.

The latest iteration of Halloween understands that this inherent blankness, this resistance against the pull of over-complication or over-mythologisation, is the key to the franchise’s success. Like H20, Halloween is what might be termed a “deboot” in modern parlance, a direct reversal of an earlier change in direction. Indeed, it’s notable for the thoroughness of the debooting. In its opening five minutes, Halloween wipes away not only the Rob Zombie reboot, but also the earlier H20 deboot, and everything in the past forty years.

In the teaser, the audience is bluntly informed by a British true crime journalist that Michael Myers “for the past forty years, by all accounts, has not said a word.” That statement is more than just an important bit of continuity wrangling. It is an important statement of purpose for Halloween‘s understanding of its own franchise and its central character. Halloween very pointedly updates its storytelling mechanics and framework to reflect the forty years since the original film, but it also understands that part of the appeal of Michael Myers has always been his blankness.

Homecoming.

Continue reading