Metropia: dystopian science fiction animated film offers little that’s fresh

Tarik Saleh, “Metropia” (2009)

Set in a future post-apocalyptic Europe in 2024, where all underground train networks in the different countries have been unified in one giant Metro system, “Metropia” is a dark dystopian animated spy / noir film that explores paranoia, mind control through an ingenious nanotechnology and secret corporation conspiracies to dominate society and profit from exploiting its citizens through consumer products and entertainment. The type of animation used is a computerised photomontage technique that exaggerates characters’ heads and faces over their bodies. Faces have minimal expressions, eyes barely blink and even lips barely move when speaking. One such affected character is typical worker bee Roger Olsson (voiced by Vince Gallo) who works in a call centre: he’s a frail, skinny guy with a young, smooth face whose main emotion is worry, indicated by slight creases in his forehead and eyebrows. He certainly has reason to frown as he believes society is somehow against him, to the extent that he’d rather cycle every day between his dreary, grey workplace and his equally dreary, rundown apartment that he shares with his girlfriend, than catch the trains. His paranoia increases when he starts hearing strange voices in his head and he struggles between dismissing them as delusions and wondering if they are in fact real. One day his bike is stolen so he has to use the metro and while travelling down the escalator to the platforms, he spies a beautiful blonde woman (voice: Juliette Lewis) who he recognises as the actor spruiking a brand of shampoo made and marketed by the giant Trexx Corporation which rules all of Europe. He decides to follow the woman on the trains, the woman becomes aware of his presence but allows him to follow her …

So begins an odyssey through a huge, grimy underground labyrinth of tunnels and corporation secrets, the result of which Roger realises the voices in his head are not only real but have been placed there to govern his thoughts and actions. The conspiracy is for real and the film spends its leisurely time detailing it: the plot appears to be complicated but by the end of the film, it’s not so convoluted after all and even has a little ingenious twist that absolves Roger of any crime he might have committed. Due perhaps to the limitations of the animation technique, there isn’t a lot of physical action: characters walk when perhaps they should run or jump and much of the darkness and shadowy quality of the film exists to cover over the animation problems, especially where a character might look unrealistic doing something. The focus is on close-ups of characters’ faces, eyes and expressions so viewers are likely to be disappointed that people’s facial and mouth movements turn out to be so minimal. I wonder why the particular animation method, in which photos of real people were taken and then manipulated by computer, is used here: with the emphasis thrown onto characters’ faces, together with the unrelenting bleakness of their environment, dialogue becomes important in pushing the plot but because it is about a conspiracy, characters must speak obliquely, dish out information in dollops and maintain poker-faces throughout. Viewers have to work out what is actually being said, if it’s a clue to the mystery, if it gives any background to Roger and Nina the blonde woman. The effect is to distance viewers from feeling any sympathy for these two characters who remain resolutely one-dimensional as they descend deeper into the conspiracy and get closer to its core.

The environment in which they move in is strange and not something viewers can relate to: Europe has always been distinctive for its man-made environments which imply large bustling, vibrant crowds, a deep history and distinctive cultures. The Europe of “Metropia”, even its Paris, seems mostly abandoned by people and bare of any culture except the very kitsch. Admittedly most activity takes place at night or in underground places where few people go anyway but viewers would expect that even there, Roger would meet various beggars living in and around the metro networks who in themselves would be a comment and a criticism of the society that produced them.

Aside from the animation which can be awe-inspiring, especially in scenes where the “camera” pulls back to show scenes of the devastated urban environment or the explosions that occur at the Trexx Corporation offices, the film sticks to a spy / noir story type. There’s the mysterious blonde woman with hidden secrets who befriends Roger; Roger is attacked by security guard thugs at the start of his investigations; a minor character (Alexander Skarsgård) who passes on some useful information to Roger and warns him of danger ends up dying violently; and there are two, maybe even three, climaxes in the film coming fairly close together. What could have been the film’s real strength if director Tarik Saleh had thought to emphasise it, is that Roger turns out to be a pawn in a banal family dispute, the nature of which is never clear but is sure to have major political and social consequences. The Corporation is a virtual monarchy and, like all monarchies, subject to family intrigues and disloyalties: the CEO Ivan Bahn (Udo Kier) and his right-hand man Parker (Stellan Skarsgård), both at the centre of the conspiracy, realise too late their most dangerous enemy is Bahn’s child and heir. While Roger might be lucky to pick up his old life again, the Corporation continues on, perhaps initiating new forms of mind control and mass entertainment under the new CEO and not learning any lessons from the power struggle until a new generation of Bahn heirs wants to take over. All that might be needed would be a brief voice-over narration from Roger at the end, wondering at what will happen after Bahn’s gone, whether the Corporation will continue selling its mind control products or allow the people in the united Europe more freedom in their daily lives and some say in their government.

As it is, “Metropia” is an interesting warning at what Europe might become and look like as a poverty-stricken unified state. It offers little that’s new and fresh in plot and genre exploration. The political message is undeveloped at the film’s end but there is always the possibility of a sequel that will pick up where “Metropia” ends and explore the politics of the Corporation. People with experience of living in Communist states are sure to have feelings of deja-vu when they see the buildings where people live and work and the cramped, crumbling apartment where Roger lives. The animation technique does have definite limitations in telling this particular kind of spy / noir story where characters’ expressions and minimal dialogue become more important than the actual plot and could have been augmented with voice-over narration and various visual and audio special effects at particular points in the story to add drama and tension.

Noi the Albino: film about a teenager needing a purpose and anchor in life … like a proper film

Dagur Kari, “Noi the Albino” (2003)

This is a curious film where  little happens and then all of a sudden, something happens and bang … THE END. “Noi the Albino” is a study of teenage frustration and isolation: main character Noi (Tomas Lemarquis) is a 17 year old youth who lives in a tiny village at the foot of a snow-covered cliff overlooking a bay in a remote part of Iceland. Born into a poor family that’s always been down on its luck – he lives with his grandmother Lina (Anna Fridriksdottir) and his taxi-driver father Kiddi (Throstur Leo Gunnarsson) who drifts in and out of his son’s life – Noi has the misfortune to be highly intelligent and non-conformist in a place that’s too small or narrow-minded to make use of his abilities and quirks. His folks can’t provide him with the financial and moral support he needs to advance farther in life so, unmotivated and lacking in direction and guidance, he wags school frequently – frequently enough to end up getting expelled – and spends his time hanging out at a local bookshop, drinking ginger beer at the local petrol station cafe, wandering around the bay shooting at icicles on the hill or frittering time away in his secret room in the cellar under Lina’s house.

A couple of things happen that brighten Noi’s life: the bookshop owner’s daughter Iris (Elin Hansdottir) comes into town to work at the cafe and Lina gives Noi a View-Master gadget which has images of scenes from tropical countries. Iris’s father Oskar (Hjalti Rognvaldsson) warns Noi to stay away from Iris but Noi seeks her out when he can and they end up falling in love. When he’s not with Iris, Noi spends his spare time looking at photographs of the beach and the American man in Aztec regalia on his View-Master, among other photos. On one occasion Noi and Iris break into the local natural museum and hide in a storage place; they see a map of the world and Noi discovers Iceland’s true significance – or rather, insignificance – to the rest of the planet. Iris encourages him to press a button, which he does so, and the Hawaiian islands light up on the map. This sets Noi off, dreaming about leaving his home village with Iris and heading off for sunnier, tropical climes, and trying to achieve that dream, however clumsy and stupid his methods are.

In the meantime, Lina and Kiddi try to find work for Noi – Kiddi gets him a grave-digging job at the local cemetery and Lina consults Gylfi (Kjartan Bjargmundsson), a mechanic and fortune-teller, to tell Noi’s fortune. Noi visits Gylfi who foretells death which Noi finds nonsensical. A series of other incidents follow in which Noi gets in trouble with the police and has to be bailed out by his dad. Retreating into his underground cellar room, Noi discovers his room is shaking, dirt comes pouring out of the ceiling and all the lights go out …

With no plot to speak of, “Noi the Albino” is an impressionistic view of how one teenager, an outsider in his village by an unlucky combination of personality quirks, looks (he has alopecia so he looks like an alien) and family circumstances, tries to cope with the isolation and boredom of his monotonous life with the limited resources he has. There are other local kids like Dabbi about but they are too different from him or their parents don’t want them hanging out with him. The movie gives no indication of the period it’s set in but the lack of computers in the school (the principal has no PC on his desk in one scene) or in the bank (there’s no ATM on the outside) suggest the 1970’s or 1980’s and in those days, without the Internet and the information sources and social networks it offers, loners like Noi really were loners, adrift through no fault of their own in a world cut off from everywhere else and where everyone knows you and has certain (non)expectations of you. As Noi, Lemarquis does well in portraying a youngster brought up to be stoic and unemotional yet troubled and at sea morally, needing help but refusing it when offered by people he happens to dislike. He’s clearly the type who’ll work for something that’s worth achieving but won’t do so just for the sake of being a hard worker and being disciplined: in his own way he diligently pursues Iris though whether he ends up loving her for herself or because he sees her as a life-line is another thing. Some of his problems with others arise because he figures out how to work smarter or takes the initiative to do something creative and different that would actually benefit everyone but upsets more conventional types. To take an example, the maths teacher at school complains about Noi’s use of a cassette-recorder to record his lessons in his absence, even though the arrangement would benefit him as well as Noi as he wouldn’t have to put up with Noi’s insolent behaviour. Noi is the kind of personality difficult to like on a purely social level but spend enough time with him as Iris does and you may find he’s not really a bad guy, he just needs a purpose and anchor in life, a bit more humility and something or someone to show him the way or throw him the opportunity.

The world Noi lives in is portrayed beautifully in a matter-of-fact way: repeated shots of the village, hugging the shoreline of the bay beneath a huge and brooding hill with an almost sheer cliff-face, suggests the awesome and unpredictable power of nature which drastically turns Noi’s life upside-down and fulfills Gylfi’s alarming prediction. The event might appear to some viewers as a theatrical deus ex machina device to get the film really going and finished with a climax that would justify everything that’s gone before but it didn’t seem that way to me, perhaps because I’ve heard a fair amount of Scandinavian and other northern European popular and alternative music and read about their creators, seen a few movies from that part of the world, and read a bit about its history and culture, to know that Icelanders have a perverse sense of humour which they probably developed to cope with their harsh and unpredictable environment, isolation and poverty over the centuries, and they would find an avalanche slamming into Noi’s small world and giving him what he needs blackly ironic. There’s a hint that Noi himself precipitates the event in a small way when he shoots down icicles hanging off the cliff earlier in the film so the climax isn’t entirely an after-thought. Nature affects Noi in other ways too, particularly in his dreary job as grave-digger where he must brave cold winds and dig in unforgiving permafrost. The conclusion which brings the beach photo in the View-Master to life is enigmatic, suggesting on one level that Noi finally loses contact with the real world and drifts off permanently into a fantasy world, and on another level, confirming to him that his life purpose is to escape Iceland and hinting at the possibility of a sequel in which Noi finally makes his way to Hawaii.

The film won’t suit all tastes and in spite of Lemarquis’s acting and the cinematography I did find the film uninteresting overall and it runs out of puff quickly. Elin Hansdottir as Iris is blank and it’s difficult to see what Noi might see in her, which suggests his contact with women has been very limited or maybe he does see her as his life-line out of Iceland. The relationship which should have been the film’s spine barely gets off the ground. Grandmother Lina and dad Kiddi provide humorous moments (Kiddi smashing a piano with an axe is the most exciting thing to see in the whole film, and the sausage-making scene where Lina and Kiddi are accidentally splashed with sheep’s blood is the second most exciting thing) as do some minor characters such as the French teacher who demonstrates how to make mayonnaise in class and ends up with a ruined result. Lacking a plot and with a support cast of mostly sketchy characters existing for Noi to bounce off, the film has an uphill struggle appealing to viewers emotionally. I’m not against films with no obvious narrative or plot, some of my favourite films have no plot; it’s just that a film must have something else strong to compensate for the lack. Perhaps the film could have been condensed into something much shorter, say, around 80 minutes with a cryptic message at the end along the lines of “To be continued … maybe …”, that might encourage viewers to see “Noi the Albino” as a prequel to a main event that would justify its existence and Noi’s. Yes I think Noi’s life purpose includes a proper film vehicle to make use of his talents and quirkiness.

Pusher: highly recommended viewing about small-time heroin dealer

Nicolas Winding Refn, “Pusher” (1996)

Just managed to catch this film last night after seeing a video copy for loan in a video rent shop earlier in the day. This is a gritty and very distressing snapshot of a week in the life of a small-time middle-man heroin dealer, Frank (Kim Bodnia), in an unnamed inner-city district in Copenhagen, in Denmark. Early in the film, Frank meets Swedish ex-con Hasse to set up a large drug deal. Frank goes to see his boss Milo (Zlatko Buric) to get the heroin; he already owes Milo about 50,000 kroner but Milo lets him take the heroin provided that he return immediately with the money plus what he owes. As luck would have it, as Frank goes with Hasse to conduct the exchange, they cross paths with the police, forcing Frank to flee and jump into a lake where he dumps the heroin. He ends up spending the next 24 hours in the slammer during which time he is told his friend and usual partner-in-crime Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) set him up. On leaving jail, Frank seeks out Tonny in a pub and vents his rage on him severely with a baseball bat. (Why are baseball bats always the first choice of weapon to beat up people?) Leaving Tonny unconscious and bleeding, Frank visits Milo who refuses to believe his story about his 24-hour absence and increases the amount Frank owes him – 170,000 kroner to 230,000 kroner including the past 50,000 kroner – which must be paid by the end of the week. From this point on, Frank calls on all his clients to demand money, becoming more and more frustrated and violent when they can’t pay up, and at the same time trying to placate his prostitute girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbaek) and working out ways he can trick or evade Milo and his right-hand man Radovan (Slavko Labovic).

Milo does relent somewhat and tells Frank he will accept a token payment and forget all the other debts to end their quarrel. You’d think at this point Frank should be glad and be able to relax and think more clearly but then he tells Vic he won’t be going to Spain as they had planned so she steals all the money he had collected from some bodybuilders in a gym and flees. The last we see of Frank, he is waiting for Milo’s men and the bodybuilders to pounce on him all at once.

Shot entirely on a hand-held video-recorder, the film has a strong documentary or news article feel which gives it an air of “authenticity”. Much of the action and dialogue may well have been improvised though of course the scenes of violence and drug-taking will have been staged. Funnily, night-time and interior scenes during night seem a lot more real and hard-edged, probably because in the outdoor day-time scenes there is that soft natural light often seen in Scandinavian films, unaffected by air pollution and enhanced by open spaces and the distinctive clean lines of Scandinavian architecture and design, which endows people and objects with a purity and innocence they don’t need. At the time “Pusher” was being made, people were getting excited about the Dogme 95 manifesto that a few Danish directors including Lars von Trier had written up and signed to, and which was invigorating film-making in Denmark by laying down particular rules and restrictions that actually opened new ways of seeing and thinking about film scripting and direction. The film does look a little like a Dogme 95 film but the manifesto’s rules prohibited the use of weapons and did not allow murder to occur in any of the films made under its directions; some of the music used in the film also breaks the manifesto rule about not using music unless it happens to be part of the background scenery anyway.

The drug-dealer life-style portrayed here is unglamorous and degrading: the never-ending search for money to pay off outstanding debts and the stress, frustration, anger and violence that accompany it, along with the wreckage of friendships betrayed and love abused, strip people like Frank of their humanity as much as a job in a sweatshop factory in India, in a Chinese coal-mine or in other places recycling and chopping up discarded laptops, breathing in poisonous fumes, would do. There is a curious code of conduct that Frank and the other dealers follow, one based on people’s desire, however superficial or self-serving, to meet outstanding debt and other obligations, which helps to generate much of the tension, aggression and violence seen. A poignant and hilarious moment comes when Radovan admits to Frank that he’d like to get out of the junk-dealing business and open a restaurant as he loves to cook, and that Milo loves making cakes and dreams of owning a bakery. One lesson here is that any young person with ideas of making it big and acquiring easy riches and girlfriends in the world of drug-trafficking, or dealing in heroin anyway, ought to see this film to be disabused of such notions.

As Frank, Bodnia puts up a first-rate performance as a grubby criminal: you can’t help but sympathise with him and even root for him a bit in spite of often impulsive and self-defeating actions as he spirals lower and lower in a trap partly of his own making, a trap that squeezes him more and more to the point where he is totally stranded with no options or life-lines, and time is fast running out on him. The actors playing Milo and Radovan are notable as well, injecting some humanity, played for laughs, into their characters but Bodnia outshines the whole cast by far.

The plot may not be original and the treatment of the drug dealers as ordinary human beings with aspirations like the rest of us – why, even drug pushers might want to be on MasterChef programs! – may have been done over and over in past films. As an unflinching study of a character caught in an extreme situation by his own actions and those of others, and behaving in ways that drag him lower and lower and sap his strength, “Pusher” is hard to beat. There is no examination of Frank’s motives or why he chose to go into the business in the first place but that might have stalled the action of what basically is a brief view of how small-time dealers go about their work. While the film’s budget does not allow Refn to examine the wider Danish society and its attitude to drugs – after all, making drugs illegal drives them underground, encouraging the kind of criminal activity seen in “Pusher” – we do get something of the overall social indifference to people like Frank and Vic in the scene where Frank is being interviewed by the police: one officer insultingly tosses lollies at Frank while he is sitting mum and refusing to answer questions from the other officer.

I definitely recommend this film as a psychological character study of how an individual might react when caught in an increasingly difficult situation with no hope of escape. It’s like watching a fly zoom accidentally into a spider’s web and struggle for all it’s worth while the spider homes in on its vibrations for the kill; a certain voyeuristic thrill to see whether the victim can escape its fate in spite of the very heavy odds stacked against it comes out of that and so it is also with “Pusher”. Can Frank succeed against all the odds or will he crack up at the last minute?

Let the Right One In: first, the Swedish version is allowed in

Tomas Alfredsson, “Let the Right One In” (2008)

Often when a novel is translated to the screen, the result is a superficial imitation of the printed word: the novel has an extra aspect or sub-plot that can’t be translated successfully to screen. In the case of the vampire novel “Let the Right One In”, about 30% of the book didn’t make it to film and I’m happy that it didn’t because most of what John Ajvide Lindquist left out – he wrote the screenplay based on his novel – is a trashy, gory sub-plot in which a minor character becomes a rampaging zombie. Stripped of this sub-plot and with another sub-plot considerably trimmed down, the movie becomes a concentrated and subtle investigation of pre-adolescent angst and alienation within the vampire horror sub-genre.

The plot revolves around a young boy, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), bullied at school by his class-mates and unwilling to fight back yet seething with inner rage at his tormenters: in the evenings when he’s home from school, he reads up on serial killers and broods over his knife collection. He and his mother live in a dreary set of flats in a generic suburb of Stockholm. One night, two new people move in next door to their unit. These mysterious new neighbours keep to themselves: they don’t even change the window blinds every morning and every evening, let alone meet and greet the other tenants.

Until one evening when Oskar is loitering in the playground: one of the two new people, Eli (Linda Leandersson), a girl about his age, joins him on the playground equipment. Strangely, though snow is all around them and the temperature must be below zero Centigrade, Eli is very lightly dressed. Although she advises Oskar that they can’t be friends, over several similar evening meetings they bond and form a friendship of sorts. In the meantime, Eli’s companion Hakan (Per Ragnar) tries to obtain blood for Eli -yep, she’s a bloodsucker – he manages to kill someone but is interrupted while trying to milk the corpse for blood and he is forced to flee. Eli later has to kill a man Jocke (Mikael Rohm) for blood and this sets up a sub-plot about Jocke’s friends who meet regularly at a pub.

As the movie progresses, Oskar and Eli become closer and eventually Eli starts offering advice to Oskar on how to deal with the bullies. Oskar starts working out at the local sports centre and takes up swimming lessons, eventually becoming confident enough to fight back when the bullies start abusing him again. He also discovers Eli’s true nature in scenes that can be very shocking, one of which provides the title to both the movie and the novel. The bullies aren’t happy with Oskar sticking up for himself so they lift their taunting to a more dangerous level by recruiting an older boy and plotting to lure Oskar into a trap at the swimming centre where he trains.

Meanwhile the pathetically tragicomic Hakan continues searching for more victims but ends up having to mutilate himself to avoid identification; he ends up in hospital where Eli later finds him and he ends up falling to his death. At this point the movie and the novel diverge with the novel diving into the zombie sub-plot and criss-crossing from that to Oskar and Eli’s relationship and the other sub-plot about Jocke’s friends.

Filmed mostly in a town in northern Sweden, the movie features beautiful and sometimes bright snowy landscapes which contrast sharply with the bleak lives of many characters in the movie: the minimal furnishings and buildings beloved of Ikea brochures and magazine articles on Scandinavian design and architecture look dull and banal in many scenes, and Jocke’s friends are revealed as struggling working-class people who’ve had more than their fair share of setbacks, desperation, hard times and plain bad luck. The acting comes over as minimal or matter-of-fact so that when gory or shocking events occur, they seem so much more extreme, particularly in the climactic swimming-pool scene which for many viewers will sum up everything about the movie’s style: at once sparing and restrained on the surface yet on further reflection, layered with meaning and open to many interpretations. The scene itself is set up to look beautiful, even poetic, so the sudden violence that enters is a real eye-opening shock. The camera then pans around the swimming pool in silence to reveal a boy sobbing quietly among various dismembered and bloodied remains. The equally dialogue-free denouement which follows – Oskar is travelling alone on a country train with no attendants – looks like a fantasy scene and I can well agree with one interpretation of this scene that Oskar may have actually died and is on his way to Heaven with Eli being his one faithful link back on Earth.

I can’t find much to fault about the film: the main criticism I have is that the sub-plot revolving around Jocke’s friends treats them as diversions from the main plot and could have made more of the anguish one friend feels when she discovers she has become a vampire and must decide whether to live or die. Otherwise there’s much to commend this film to the general audience and film students alike. The camerawork, using a track-mounted dolly and a fixed camera with no reliance on handheld cameras, is steady and calm and enables the use of wide tracking shots that reinforce a particular mood or emphasise an important moment or event in the plot. Such shots add to the mystery and apparent complexity of the film’s plot and themes. Hedebrant and Leanderssen work well together as Oskar and Eli and are convincing in the way they gradually build up their friendship and look out for each other despite the danger Eli must pose to Oskar. The use of voice-over and special effects for Eli’s character to demonstrate that the character is otherworldly is very subtle and believable in a world that’s otherwise bleak and mundane.

Above all, the use of the vampire horror movie sub-genre to explore subject matter that otherwise might not attract audience attention – bullying, family breakdown, pedophilia, surviving in a world that grinds you down and where your choice of friends might literally be a matter of life or death – is an original idea that has potential to reinvigorate the sub-genre itself with new life. Oskar, if he is in Heaven, would be pretty happy at that news.