The Last Man on Earth: still retaining the power to shock and horrify with a message of post-apocalyptic despair and existential angst

Ubaldo B Ragona and Sidney Salkow, “The Last Man on Earth” (1964)

Over 50 years since it was made, this cheaply made horror film has clearly not lost its power to shock, horrify and leave its audiences in stunned silence with its message of despair. “The Last Man on Earth” is the first of three films based Richard Matheson’s sci-fi horror novel “I Am Legend” (the others being “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend”) and apparently follows the novel’s plot quite closely. Vincent Price plays Dr Robert Morgan, the eponymous star of the story, in which he survives a mysterious plague due apparently to having been bitten by a bat while working in South America. Seemingly the rest of humanity including Dr Morgan’s wife (Emma Danieli) and daughter has succumbed to the disease which turns corpses into zombie-like vampires if they are not immediately burned after death. Morgan himself is forced to survive by playing a Van Helsing vampire hunter role each day, every day: in the day-time he hunts down, impales and burns any vampires he finds and in the evenings he holes up in what remains of his house while a group of zombie fangsters, led by a former work colleague Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), besiege him and threaten him.

A good two-thirds of the film are taken up with showing the doctor’s dreary daily routine of driving around his abandoned home city and hunting down and impaling vampires. The middle part of the film finds him remembering or dreaming about the last days of his former normal existence as a virologist and happy family man before his daughter and then his wife die suddenly. Price does a good job portraying Morgan with his survivor guilt, his depressed episodes and mixed emotions about his past life. Voice-over narration by Price establishes the narrative of Morgan as lone surviving human forced against his own reasoning and knowledge to acknowledge the existence of the vampires and to hunt them down mercilessly.

The story becomes interesting in its last third when a female non-vampire character Ruth (Franca Bettoia) is introduced and warns Morgan that, because of his exploits as a vampire killer, he is feared by a small community of surviving humans. Almost on cue, these humans arrive in Morgan’s city and despatch all the vampires including Ben before turning their guns on Morgan – because he had taken out quite a few of their number as well as the hunted vampires.

For a cheap movie which is dated in parts, “The Last Man …” features some astonishing scenes of sheer loneliness and isolation, despair and hopelessness. It is rather wonky with respect to dubbing and other technical aspects linked to the shoestring budget, and maybe there were some bad decisions made with regard to plotting as the last 15 minutes of the film become an action thriller set in an incipient police-state dystopia. The early parts of the film are slow-moving and reveal Morgan in all his desolation and anguish. He probably could have shown more angst about having to kill vampires who were once friends and relatives of his but one significant scene in which Morgan laughs and then cries is well done, showing what a fine actor Price was when given the chance to showcase his talent and experience.

The cinematography turns out to be a major highlight in creating an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness, especially at the beginning of the film with a series of silent stills showing dead bodies in streets of an apparently abandoned city. If it were not for the Italian neo-realist influence on the cinematography, “The Last Man …” would probably look even more B-grade cheap.

The film’s conclusion is tragic and depressing, demonstrating how societies under severe stress can become more dangerous and monstrous than the monsters they pursue. For a slow-moving character study with not a great deal happening until the very last moment, “The Last Man …” turns out to be an intriguing piece on the nature of being, the purpose of one’s existence and how societies might cope with long-term terror and mass psychological stress.

The Man Who Fell to Earth: a satire on US cut-throat capitalist society and how it alienates, controls and dehumanises people

Nicholas Roeg, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)

For a film with hardly much plot and maybe too much soft-core pornography, “The Man who Fell to Earth” manages to be an intriguing satire on American society and capitalism. An alien who has studied Earth through its radio-wave transmissions and whose planet is dying for lack of water farewells his family and travels millions of light-years to crash-land on Earth. Disguising himself as humanoid Thomas Jerome Newton, our alien (David Bowie) insinuates himself into US society as a wealthy if reclusive inventor, patenting original inventions that earn him and his company World Enterprises Corporation loads of moolah, some of which he uses to rebuild his spacecraft. In this project, he relies heavily on patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) who becomes his business partner. In the meantime Thomas pines for his wife and children who appear to be the last survivors of their kind and are slowly dying in severe drought conditions, and tries to communicate with them by watching multiple TV channels; some of the TV programs mesh in their messages and through that connection he can send a message through the break in the space-time continuum to his wife and receive answers from her. His loneliness leads him to New Mexico where he meets Mary Lou (Candy Clark) who introduces him to alcohol and sex, and before long poor Newton is hopelessly hooked on trash TV culture, the demon drink and all the other sensual pleasures of the lowest common denominator in human culture.

Poor Mary Lou can’t provide much intellectual stimulation so Newton turns to Dr Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a former womanising college professor whom he employs as his technician on the space-ship. Bryce senses Newton’s alienness so he invites him to his home and secretly photographs him with a special X-ray camera. Bryce passes on his information to the US government whose agents arrest Newton at the very moment he is about to board the space-craft that will take him home. Newton is held captive in a luxury apartment deep within a hotel, supplied with drink and endless television, and subjected to rigorous medical tests and experiments that injure his body and fuse his disguise with his own features. As for the people he trusts, Farnsworth is defenestrated by government agents and Mary Lou and Bryce fall into a loveless marriage. Eventually Newton escapes from his prison but faces the rest of his life alone – his family back home having died – and is depressed and hopelessly drunk.

The film’s plot survives by being fractured with various subplots, most of which don’t amount to much. (The whole narrative only exists because of this cut-n-paste fragmentation, and through the fragmentation the film’s underlying themes, ironic in themselves because of what they are, appear. William S Burroughs would surely have approved.) All major characters in the film are lonely and unhappy in some way, and seek connection with others through unfulfilling romance or sex or some other equally unsatisfying substitute activity. Mary Lou yearns for Thomas in spite of his alien nature and Thomas yearns to be back with his family. Bryce wants recognition but never quite gets it: he is rewarded handsomely for his services to the nation (ha ha) but he feels some guilt over Newton’s incarceration and uncertain fate. The atomised society in which they live caters to and encourages their neediness but there is a price they have to pay: they must conform to its demands if they want connection, comfort or wealth. Thomas pays the heaviest price for his manipulation of US corporate culture and self-enrichment by being forced to conform to human physical norms and being made dependent on alcohol and television so he himself can be manipulated and controlled. At the end of his imprisonment, having been made over from alien to complete human (and presumably with all the secrets of his alien physiology fully harvested by the US government), he is abandoned as a lonely drunk, left to his own devices and not even told that he is “free”.

As all the characters are essentially alienated from one another, and all are groping in their own darkness in their own ways, they are basically flat and blank, and so the action can be as dull as dishwater especially in scenes where Bowie does not appear. Roeg makes this point about the blankness of these people quite literally in the scene in which Newton strips off his human form to Mary Lou and reveals himself as a literal tabula rasa. That this is the only really interesting thing about Newton or indeed about any of the people he meets demonstrates how far dehumanised they have become. Bowie alone delivers an excellent performance as an alienated individual with a fragile mind who in the process of becoming human, whether through disguise or under manipulation from others, ends up truly blank, fragmented in mind and literally trashed. (Although Bowie was grappling with a severe cocaine addiction at the time, he was able to lay off the white stuff during filming and he actually looks healthy enough and beautifully ethereal for a scrawny 28-year-old English kid in the scenes that really matter, nudge nudge.)

The film works on a number of different levels that Roeg might not have realised at the time he made it: it works as a metaphor for individual alienation in a cut-throat manipulative and atomised capitalist society interested only in its inhabitants for whatever qualities they have which can be mined for profit; it’s an exploration of the loss of connection among humans which they try to fill with sex, and unfulfilling sex at that; and it shows, however superficially, how capitalist culture exploits people’s desire for connection, meaning and purpose with trash products and cultural forms to which they become addicted and are easily controlled as a result.

In style the film seems to mimic the breakdown of a person’s mind and at its end it is very flat and bleak. Along the way though there are scenes of beauty, natural and expansive as well as surreal and bizarre, and viewers should enjoy the journey even if they don’t understand what it’s about or what the final destination may be.

Whistle: a bland and modest sci-fi thriller that saves its killer punch for the last

Duncan Jones, “Whistle” (2002)

“Moon” director Duncan Jones’ first feature is a 29-minute short that initially looks bland and banal, and moves slowly in its first half, but which packs a punch in its last couple of minutes. The plot turns on the stereotype of the hitman with a conscience who tries to help the family or friend of his last victim. (The classic example of a film based on this stereotype is John Woo’s “The Killer”.) In Jones’ version, Brian (Dominic Mafham) has just moved his family to a bucolic neighbourhood in Switzerland, and though he and young son Michael (Charlie Hicks) enjoy the scenery and the fresh bracing mountain air, his wife (Sarah Winman) isn’t all that impressed with the weather and the dairy cows with their tinkly bells, and lets everyone within earshot know. The film spends a considerable amount of time detailing Brian and Michael’s close relationship, whether cycling together into town or agreeing to go up to a mountain glacier with a group of other people. Father and son’s relationship contrasts very strongly to their rather more distant relationships with the significant woman in their lives. (Since Jones wrote the script, one wonders if the family dysfunctionality might be based on his own experiences with his parents.)

But Brian also has to work and from time to time he receives orders from his employer’s agent to take out undesirable people with the drone machine mounted on the balcony of his new home. Each time he receives an assignment, Brian seems to have a premonition of how well or badly the job will go, and becomes very tetchy, even depressed, so the agent also has to phone the missus to make sure Brian does as he is told to do. One day he is lining his sights on a man known as Estrada in London, and lets fly a drone with his finger on the remote … but as the missile flies unerringly towards the target, Estrada reaches out to his own young son, and Brian cannot undo what he has just unleashed …

Guilt-stricken after the successful strike, Brian evades his wife to travel to London to meet the victim’s wife but after the cabbie has picked him up from Heathrow or Gatwick and taken him to the area where the Estradas live, Brian is in for an even more unpleasant shock when he meets a stranger …

The clear  pictures of beautiful postcard scenery in Switzerland where the family lives turn are a clever device to lull us into a false sense of security about Brian, his wife and their child, that disguises the sordid reality of the work that sustains them all and enables them to live comfortably in a way others would envy. The scenes where Brian tracks his victims and releases the missile which then efficiently delivers its payload provide the clinical and sharp technological edge and cold sci-fi thriller aspect. Apart from this, the acting is very much so-so and the characters remain flat and one-dimensional. The wife comes across as something of the villain of the piece, a thoroughly amoral bitch as well as Brian’s cold-blooded minder for the employer whose nature remains unknown. The music soundtrack is very good, even outstanding in parts (especially near the beginning).

There is a message about taking responsibility for your actions and the consequences they cause, which underlies the devastating impact of the climax when Brian attempts to contact Mrs Estrada and comes face to face with the person he least expected to see. At this point the film ends on a cliffhanger note and we are not sure if Brian will come away from this encounter well … or even if he comes away from it at all. His family is potentially in danger as a result of his rash actions. I’d have liked the film to have lasted a bit longer and not to have cut out so abruptly but that might have diminished the shock of the realisation of who Brian’s victim really was.

Apart from the underlying message which adds gravitas to an otherwise undistinguished film, “Whistle” is a modest little first effort made on a tight budget that might not suit most audiences but is worth checking out by fans of Duncan Jones’ work.

Moon: using familiar ideas and concepts to generate thinking about the nature of individuality and identity

Duncan Jones, “Moon” (2009)

Like father, like son, no? … decades ago David Bowie sang songs of doomed astronaut Major Tom and in 2009 son Duncan Jones announces his arrival as a film director by making a movie about another doomed astronaut. Anything else that the film “Moon” might have in common with Dad’s songs and career? The film also turns on themes of personal isolation, paranoia, the fragility of identity and its dependence on memory, an individual’s link with humanity and how all these issues can be manipulated by a cynical corporate culture. On their own, these problems are quite weighty to deal with in a single film, let alone a debut film with a conventional plot and a fairly simple one at that. It’s no surprise then that “Moon” sometimes falters under the burden of its themes which more or less parallel aspects of David Bowie’s career as it progressed over nearly 50 years from 1967 to his death in early 2016 and its concerns with alienation and isolation, identity crises and transformations, and compromises with the commercial music industry, often to Bowie’s detriment as an artist.

The plot revolves around one character, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the sole worker on a mining base, Sarang Station, operated by an energy company called Lunar Industries on the moon. The company’s business is to extract helium-3 from the moon’s surface and bring it to Earth for use as fuel. The entire mining facility can be operated by one person; all that Bell needs to do is oversee the harvesting machines and send the fuel to Earth in canisters. He is coming close to the end of his 3-year contract and looking forward to reunion with his wife and young daughter. A communication problem between Sarang and Lunar Industries means Bell only gets occasional drip feeds of messages from his wife Tess. The only other company Bell has is the facility’s HAL-like computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) who attends to his every need with obsequious diligence.

Sam begins to experience hallucinations and one such hallucination causes him to crash his rover into a harvester. The next thing he knows, he is in an infirmary with no memory of the accident. While recovering, he overhears GERTY ordering a rescue team from Lunar Industries and receiving instructions not to allow him outside the base so he tricks GERTY into allowing him outside by faking an emergency. He retrieves the crashed rover and discovers his likeness lying in the vehicle. Bringing his twin back to base and helping to revive him, Sam now has to contend with which one of them is real and which is the clone, and what Lunar Industries has intended for both of them. GERTY is forced to admit that they are both clones, so the two Sams search the base and discover beneath the base that there is an underground facility stocked with hundreds of hibernating Sam clones.

Initially the film is a bit slow, so as to immerse viewers into the space environment and empathise with Sam’s isolation and its psychological effects (the hallucinations, the strange dreams), and the pace quickens after he discovers his clone in the rover. From this point on, the plot moves more briskly and many initial assumptions that viewers might have made about Sam are turned on their heads: the hallucinations he suffers are not due to his extreme social isolation but to the deterioration and shutdown of his circuits. Viewers gradually realise that the serious, cynical Sam of the film’s pre-crash first half is not the same serious, cynical Sam in the film’s post-crash second half; that’s right, the first serious Sam becomes the secondary, more jokey character (played by Robin Chalk) who sacrifices himself so that the “main” Sam character can fool the incoming rescue team (who will really serve as executioners for both Sams) and escape to Earth with a message about how Lunar Industries has been manufacturing clones to save on hiring proper astronauts and pocketing the wages that would have been paid.

The acting performances are good and the settings are also good, given that the film was made on a small budget in one studio with very few CGI effects. The actual premise of the film doesn’t quite make sense logically: if a society is advanced enough to create an apparently sharing, caring computer like GERTY, surely it is also advanced enough to make Sarang Station completely automated? Oh yeah, check, it is “completely automated” if one treats the clones as mass produced machines. But why would the clones be made to wear out after three years? Wouldn’t there be more sense in creating a clone that can last several years – unless Lunar Industries execs believe that after three years, a clone might have accumulated enough information and experience (as Sam has) to suspect it is being manipulated by its employer, start rummaging around the base and discover the awful secret about itself and its fellow clones?

If one puts aside the more implausible aspects of the plot – do the Sams really believe that people on Earth will believe their message about Lunar Industries’ unethical hiring practices? – then the film actually serves as a generator of ideas about how we think about the nature of individuality; whether it’s possible to regard clones, robots and other non-biological beings like them as more human than humans themselves if clones and robots become more than what their nature is intended to be, and humans less than what their potential is; and whether such creations are deserving of the same rights and freedoms as humans, that is, the rights and freedoms to be autonomous creatures capable of making decisions, and not to be subjected to exploitation and slavery. In this way the film pays tribute to earlier sci-fi influences like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner” which dealt with similar themes.

While not completely original, the film’s creativity is expressed more in the way it uses familiar ideas and concepts from other science fiction films and reinterprets them to suggest something new or overturn viewers’ expectations. The result is that “Moon” appears fresh despite riffing on familiar sci-fi movie motifs. Perhaps this is what makes this film unique even though much of it is derivative.

The one downside is the blaaah music soundtrack … couldn’t Jones have swallowed his pride about refusing help from Dad and asked him to create a half-decent soundtrack appropriate for the movie?

The Handmaid’s Tale: a film affected by its own demonstration of how repressive societies suck the life out of whatever they touch

Volker Schlöndorff, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990)

Based on the dystopian novel by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale” as realised by Volker Schlöndorff is a very pedestrian and (in spite of the use of bright colours) very colourless work. The film can be read as a satire on contemporary American society and the political and social trends that Atwood discerned within that are likely to affect women over the next 50 years.

In the near future, the United States is rent by political and social chaos which is ended by a putsch carried out by Christian fundamentalist groups who impose their notions of utopia upon a population devastated by decades of war, violence, severe pollution and radioactivity. 99% of women have been rendered infertile by the pollution and the remaining 1% who are found to be fertile are frog-marched into special institutions and where they are brainwashed and prepped into becoming child-bearing “handmaids” to the nation’s elites. One such woman is Offred (Natasha Richardson) who is caught by security forces while trying to escape the theocracy with her husband and daughter to Canada. The husband is shot dead and the daughter is either taken away from her or abandoned. Back in the US, or rather, the new Republic of Gilead, Offred is prepared by so-called “aunts” in an institution resembling a mix of girls’ boarding school, Magdalene laundry and nunnery for her role, and is then sent off to the nation’s senior commander (Robert Duvall) and his wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway) to bear a child for them. The film then follows Offred’s life serving the couple in a tightly controlled and repressive setting where all women have been reduced to five basic categories of neoconservative Western female stereotypes – wife, walking womb, servant, aunt (a sort of prim spinsterish combination of nun and school-teacher) and whore-ish outsider – and any transgression that threatens the hierarchy results in capital punishment by hanging.

Offred comes into contact with a group of rebels called the Mayday group, represented by the commander’s chauffeur Nick (Aidan Quinn) with whom she falls in love, and another handmaid. She is drawn into their plot to assassinate the commander and is given the murder weapon. If she does as they want her to – and needlessly to say, her life will be in danger if she does – will they be able to save her from the Republic’s wrath and vengeful punishment? Will they be able to find her daughter and reunite them both? How will she, her daughter and Nick survive in a world completely dominated by the Republic?

The society portrayed in the film looks like an eclectic mix of wartime Nazi Germany and hyper-sanitised 1950s upper-class America, due perhaps to the director’s German background and the ideas and inspirations he brought. Schlöndorff does a good job of detailing the hierarchical and insular nature of the futuristic theocratic fascist society as experienced by the women who live in it. The parallel the German director draws between Nazi Germany and the future Christian fundamentalist theocracy done American-style is done very well, though perhaps cautiously. At the risk of turning the film into a camp kitsch parody, I would say that the film could have gone much further in aligning aspects of US Christian fundamentalism and Nazi German attitudes towards the role of women in society, and finding rich material to include, even if just as background scenery. On the other hand, we do not learn much about the men who serve this society and the social layers that divide them. Neither do we learn much about the women who work as servants and why they submit in the way they do. On the other hand, the ways in which women are exploited and set against one another, so that they can never overcome their class differences and unite and join their brothers in challenging the elites and overthrowing them, are delineated very well and chillingly so in one scene of mob violence instigated by the ruling elites. Offred is pressed by her training and circumstances to become completely passive and emotionally blank in order to survive. There is irony in that in being forced to bear children for others, Offred must become spiritually sterile.

By necessity, the acting is very wooden and somehow forced; the actors play characters whose individuality has been taken away from them and who can only behave in stereotyped ways appropriate to their social status. Even the elites suffer under the system: the infertile Serena Joy pins her hopes on Offred conceiving a child with her husband, so that her life can have meaning and she regains some sort of identity (before the Republic of Gilead, she was a public celebrity); and her husband chafes in his loveless marriage, seeking escape by playing board games with Offred and taking her to secret evening entertainments where prostitutes perform risqué dances. Audiences will not feel much sympathy for the characters except perhaps for Offred who hopes against hope that she will see her daughter again. If individual scenes look stale and tired, with settings lacking in originality and freshness, we have to remember that the Republic of Gilead is intended to be a prison of the mind and imagination as well as of the body.

One can debate whether the society as imagined by Atwood and Schlondorff could ever exist in the US or elsewhere. We only see a particular aspect of the totalitarian theocracy as it affects women of three social classes. The society is at war against rebels but we don’t learn very much about the war and how much of it is real and how much is propaganda. The polarity of truth and lying extends into Offred’s life: she is told by Serena Joy that her daughter is alive and safe, but we have no way of knowing if Serena Joy is telling the truth. Offred pins her hopes on seeing her daughter again and perhaps creating a new family unit with the child and Nick; but jump some months to the ending where a heavily pregnant Offred is still waiting for Nick and her lost daughter in a derelict caravan in a barren wilderness, and we start to wonder whether Nick has been arrested by the Republic’s paramilitary, has betrayed and abandoned Offred or is still searching for the child.

The film puts forward the case that totalitarian societies that control people’s lives to highly intrusive degrees are also societies lacking in love and true social connections. People lose their identities and individuality and are reduced to cartoon stereotypes that repeat over and over with each new generation. The ideals that supposedly inspire and invigorate such societies are empty and offer no comfort or fulfillment. Some of the best and most horrific lines in the film about the nature of the theocracy are uttered by the commander, who sincerely believes that the theocracy he serves has eliminated the scum of society and brought about a cleaner, clearer world with what he believes are proper moral values. These values though are shown to be false and hollow ideals in his own life as he seeks warmth and connection in activities that contradict what he is supposedly working towards.

In its own way the film succeeds in its goal of demonstrating what a soulless, inhuman society does to people, and how individuals try to cope, preserve their sanity and lives, or find meaning and purpose in such a psychotic culture by becoming passive, cruel and controlling, hypocritical or just plain bonkers. Unfortunately the film itself becomes robotic and enervated in its presentation. Perhaps this in itself proves the film’s point about totalitarian and repressive societies.

District 9: sharp social and political satire buried under a sketchy action thriller plot

Neil Blomkamp, “District 9” (2009)

The inspiration for this science fiction film arises from a context in which racial segregation and exploitation informed the basis for an entire society. In 1966, the South African government used a 1950 law to declare an area (District 6) in Cape Town a whites-only area and commenced clearing out the black communities there. Two years later, the forced removal of people began and by the 1980s, nearly 60,000 people had been turfed out. The intention behind the forced removal was to open up the area to developers (with the government perhaps benefiting financially as well). Thirty years later, with the Israeli government pursuing similar apartheid policies of removal against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and for similar reasons, little has changed and this is where “District 9” packs a strong punch.

The film opens its narrative some 28 years after an alien spacecraft has arrived in Johannesburg and deposited its load of sick and malnourished refugee aliens who resemble giant walking shrimp crustaceans there. The aliens are made to live in a slum area of the city and their conditions are portrayed as debased and grim. Under pressure from the public, all white, black and shades in-between, who fear and distrust the alien presence, the South African government decides to evict the aliens and force them to move elsewhere, and gives the job to a private security firm MNU. A rather ordinary administrator employee Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is tasked by his sceptical father-in-law Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar), to oversee the relocation. While clearing out the aliens, Wikus enters one of the aliens’ homes and picks up a cylinder of alien liquid. He accidentally sprays the stuff into his face and from there the film traces Wikus’ transformation from human to alien.

When MNU discovers what is happening to Wikus, the company detains him under heavy security and begins investigating the effects of the transformation. Almost straight away, MNU scientists realise that Wikus’ changing DNA and blood enable him to fire weapons captured in the past from the aliens and Smit, on hearing the news, callously gives orders for the vivisection of Wikus. Wikus escapes and makes his way to District 9 where he enters the place where he picked up the cylinder and is reacquainted with the alien called Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and his son. When Johnson realises what is happening to Wikus, he and Wikus strike a bargain: if Wikus and he can return to MNU to retrieve the cylinder, whose juice is needed to power an underground jump-ship up to the mother-ship and kick-start it back into action after 28 long years, Johnson will try to find a cure to reverse Wikus’ transformation.

From then on, the action thriller story with its attendant violence spurs into action and takes viewers all the way to the end. Along the way, the film fleetingly touches on various contemporary issues: the practice of corporations under the pretence of scientific research exploiting humans and aliens for military purposes; the scapegoating of the aliens and the use of fear to impose police state measures on society as a whole; the outsourcing of government functions to private companies for profit and the negative consequences that arise as a result; and the examination of racism, xenophobia and greed. A powerful undercurrent in the film is the paradox of Wikus becoming more fully human in a moral sense as his physical humanity ebbs away: he becomes more compassionate and discovers reserves of bravery and heroism in defending and aiding Johnson and his son.

The use of actual interviews with Johannesburg residents (about Zimbabwean aliens) and fictional interviews with MNU employees gives the film an air of gritty reality as well as fleshing out details of the plot and its themes. Unfortunately however, these interviews and the layering they give to the film are quickly ushered into the background as the Hollywood-style action plot with its emphasis on stereotyped characters such as the psychotic mercenary Koobus Venter (David James) and Wikus’ long-suffering missus Tania (Vanessa Haywood). Too much of the film is given over to various gunfights, each more bloody and using more special FX than the last.

In the end, the film just about holds together thanks to Sharlto Copley’s acting. What a pity though, that Copley had to shoulder an otherwise rather sketchy film whose potential as sharp social commentary remains frustratingly dormant. The film’s conclusion appears open-ended and one senses that a sequel in which Johnson returns with the panacea to reverse Wikus’ transformation and Wikus confronts his callous father-in-law is needed.

Ex_Machina: style is part of the substance in a low-budget SF film that tackles complex issues

Alex Garland, “Ex_Machina” (2015)

At first glance, Alex Garland’s directorial debut flim “Ex Machina” looks like the total triumph of style over substance but like its plot the style is part of the substance. Ostensibly the film is an exploration of artificial intelligence with the implied extrapolation of where robot nature stops and human nature begins – or is there a gradual continuum from robot-ness to human-ness instead? Probe a little deeper however and you discover that what really makes us human is our connections to one another.

The film begins with young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee at a fictional Facebook-like social media company called BlueBook, who enters his company lottery and wins a ticket to spend a week with BlueBook’s mysterious and reclusive founder CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is delivered by helicopter to an isolated mountain reserve, owned by Nathan, and has to find his way along a river in a forest to Nathan’s cabin. The cabin turns out to be the entry to Nathan’s underground lab where the super-geek has been working on bringing his theories and writings on AI into reality in-between bouts of working out and drinking himself blotto. However Nathan now needs a human being to subject his newest AI creation Ava (Alicia Vikander) to the Turing test, which tests a machine or database’s ability to exhibit behaviour and reasoning indistinguishable from those of a human being. For various reasons Caleb is that ideal human being, the lottery being just a cover for Nathan’s choice so that the other BlueBook employees don’t suspect a thing. Over the next six or seven days, Caleb subjects Ava to Q&A sessions, the content of which increasingly centres on Ava’s desire to break away from Nathan’s control. Caleb learns from Ava that Nathan has been emotionally abusing her and that whether she passes the Turing test or not the CEO plans to use Ava’s memory banks (effectively killing her) in his next AI creation. Caleb discovers that Nathan’s servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is also an AI creation and that she too is under his total control. Increasingly infatuated with Ava, Caleb starts helping and plotting with her to dupe Nathan and escape with her back to civilisation.

The minimal and elegant style of the film – Nathan’s super-expensive and tasteful digs become a significant actor in the film that highlights the creeping horror and suspense, and the horrifying yet clinical death that occurs – throws emphasis on the ever-simmering plot that erupts very quickly and goes pow-pow-pow to the inevitable conclusion which was predicted very early in Caleb and Ava’s sessions together. Before the audience has time to recover, the end credits start scrolling amid some very interesting abstract geometric animations. In such a film where special effects are so low-key they end up hiding and blending into in the background, the acting has to be good and subtle, and the small cast acquits itself admirably here: Isaac is superb as the BlueBook CEO who is at once boorish, cultured, sympathetic towards Caleb in many ways yet very controlling and  misogynistic, at least towards his AI creations. Gleeson does excellent work as the blank Caleb, the geeky programmer who in many ways is out of touch with his emotions and humanity, and as a result is easily exploited by both Nathan and Ava. Vikander shines as Ava, at once innocent yet cunning and manipulative, so much so that this role might end up becoming her break-out role as a major acting talent and even Mizuno is outstanding in her support though clichéd role as Nathan’s mute maidservant.

The film also dives into sexual and even racial politics – yes, why does Nathan create obviously female robots when he could have just created non-sexual beings and why does he also create African and Japanese female robots who succumb to all the racist / sexist fantasies of white men concerning African and Asian women? – in a way that might seem superficial but which leaves the audience pondering its own views about women of different racial groups. One detects also Nathan’s attempts at playing God in his own way: creating beings in his likeness and to his liking, and then leaving his creations to sort out their own existential issues and come to realise that they’re his playthings, while he himself spends his days having fun hiking around nature, getting sozzled and occasionally doing some actual work. Obviously while this god is good at making things out of raw materials and breathing life into them with electronics and cybernetics, he has given little thought to teaching his children ethics and compassion, mainly because at core he has very little of those himself. The scene with the Jackson Pollock painting becomes an important part of the film’s plot and themes: if Pollock had given any thought to what and how his paintings would turn out, he would have left his canvases blank. It is no surprise then that once (spoiler alert) Ava makes good her escape, those who have helped her are left either dead or reeling in a slow death: in thought as well as appearance, she is more human than even Nathan and Caleb themselves are or ever thought she could be.

Significantly when Ava goes out into the world beyond Nathan’s estate, she finds herself in the middle of human traffic, and traffic generally, in the big bad world of Western technological civilisation. The ultimate test – that of immersing herself into the networks of human thought, behaviour and morality, and whether she can break out of it whenever she wants without losing her sense of herself as an individual yet social being – awaits her. Can she pass this ultra-Turing test, of passing herself as another cog in the machine that is Western society without being detected? One thinks she can, although in this success there is an ironic tragedy: it means that humans themselves are little more than robots themselves, unthinkingly allowing themselves to be shaped by society into playing particular roles and never thinking or imagining living in worlds outside them. Will Ava willingly submit to the control that Caleb himself entered into without thinking when he became a BlueBook programmer? One suspects not or she would never have escaped in the first place.

Metropolis (dir. by Fritz Lang, reconstructed + restored): near-full restoration carries a populist message of fear and conservative belief

Fritz Lang, “Metropolis (reconstructed + restored)” (1928)

I’ve had the opportunity to see “Metropolis” (which I reviewed some years ago) again in its reconstructed and restored version which will be as close to its original 150-minute running time as it will ever be. There are only a few minutes still missing from the original film and they contain material essential to the plot: they explain how the film’s heroine Maria (Brigitte Helm) manages to escape the clutches of mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) after his experiments using her physical appearance to clothe his robot with some kind of hologram that reproduces Maria’s looks and emotions. The reconstructed film as is, is still epic and bombastic in scale, perhaps even more so with more religious scenes; and it moves at a very brisk, almost rushed pace.

Watching the film again in its near-fullness after having seen the 90-minute version and another previous restored version is quite a revelation: the (almost) full film is now shown to be the populist, even proto-fascist film it had been all along and which I had suspected, knowing that script-writer Thea von Harbou joined the Nazi Party a few years after its making. The film expresses many ideas and beliefs derived from the German Romanticist movement of an earlier century, and this in itself explains the mawkish sentimentality of the plot and the film’s conclusion. In particular, the notion that emotion and passion always prevail over the intellect and reason, and that people who use their intelligence only end up evil and tyrannical, underlines the film’s plot. (This is related to a pre-Enlightenment view that humans are essentially evil and are incapable of improving and governing themselves, and only respond to strict and severe discipline, order and harsh punishment doled out by autocratic governments.) The film is proto-fascist in undermining and portraying the working-class characters as robotic, simple-minded, irrational and easily led; in depicting the upper-class layer as soft, infantile and debauched; and in asserting that only those whose lives are governed by the heart, with all the emotions and stereotypes associated with it – that is, love for one’s native land and soil, awe and reverence for one’s leaders (who are also one’s betters) along with absolute faith in their abilities and decisions, purity of soul – are best fitted to lead the slave-like workers and the soft and corruptible wealthy urban classes.

The film also has some slight anti-Jewish tendencies in the way it portrays its mad scientist character Rotwang. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the middle class in many European countries had a high proportion of members who were Jewish, prosperous, well-educated, highly cultured and cosmopolitan in their outlook. They readily embraced change and favoured greater equality among people of different classes, religions and ethnic groups. Many Jews were professionals working in medicine, journalism and science. They were seen as rootless and money-hungry by others however and faced discrimination from the societies they lived in no matter what their class or status. Rotwang has some characteristics of the Jewish stereotype: hungering for power over all the Metropolis inhabitants whether rich or poor, resentful of the scientist ruler Joh Fredersen in taking away the woman he (Rotwang) loves, and pursuing a pure Christian woman to corrupt her and steal her essence to animate a robot which he uses to manipulate the workers to revolt and destroy the city and its governing classes. In Europe in the 1920s, the idea that Jews were behind the Bolshevik Revolution, Communism generally, the hedonistic material life-styles of the rich, and increased sexual freedom of women (along with the fear that they were neglecting their children) was strong.

A strong Christian, especially Roman Catholic, theme is present throughout the film: the character of Maria is heavily based on Biblical characters like the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and Eve (or Lilith). The city of Metropolis is closely associated with the Tower of Babel in the story Maria tells the workers’ children and with the corrupt city of Babylon in the Bible.

Even in its current reconstruction, the film’s conclusion still appears mawkish and sentimental after all the intense activity that has gone before. Yes, the conclusion in which techno-plutocracy is reconciled with the workers it depends on through a mediator is the logical conclusion and the main characters themselves represent stereotypes; but the ending looks so pat and so unrealistic that it still irks the senses. The film’s ending suggests that if only the tyrant scientist ruler Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) will be a bit kinder, more of a benevolent dictator, and the workers a bit less concerned about their woeful pay cheques and their terrible working conditions, and more mindful of their children’s well-being, if head and hands come closer together, then love and understanding will somehow blossom through the meeting of all their hearts which peacemakers Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) and Maria will facilitate. There is nothing to suggest in the characters of Freder and Maria themselves that they actually are capable of acting as effective mediators; based on what I have seen in the film, the two are likely to serve as a de facto royal couple ruling Metropolis. Indeed, no-one actually votes for Freder or Maria to serve as mediators, their roles being clearly predestined due to Freder’s social status and Maria’s supposed inborn purity, which does put the reconciliation between Joh Fredersen and his workers onto a bad footing already. The workers might get more time off to be with their children but the culture and social and political systems and institutions that allowed the city to exist and to function, and the assumptions and values underlying them, essentially do not change. Freder’s dad is still in charge and his bureaucrats are still carrying out his orders.

For all its futuristic pretensions, the film is best read as embodying the beliefs and fears of its time. Viewers should beware though that its message is ultimately a pessimistic and misanthropic one.

Chappie: in need of a longer and better format to treat all its characters, narratives and themes

Neil Blomkamp, “Chappie” (2015)

In amongst the ruined buildings, the body count, the junk metal and unexploded cluster munitions that form the detritus long after the end credits of this cheerful movie have finished rolling, there’s a garbled message of sorts about taking charge of your destiny and being more than what you were born to be or what your circumstances have made you, along with an investigation of what consciousness and the soul are, whether both can transcend death and the limitations of physical biology. It’s this amalgamated theme that holds the film together and more than compensates for its stereotyped characters, the ragged story-line with frayed loose ends and an ending which needs a sequel to suck up the energy “Chappie” leaves behind.

The actual plot itself is not original and looks like something Mary Shelley and Isaac Asimov would have dreamt up together were they employed in an alternative universe as exhausted third-rate script-writers in a factory employing such people 16 hours a day, every day, with no time off for annual leave. I am aware of other reviews that have found bits and pieces of other films like Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop” in the plot. In a future Johannesburg, with crime rates higher than the city’s tallest buildings, the police force has contracted out SWAT team functions to Tetravaal, a company specialising in automated military security … for the police and similar civilian law-and-order institutions. The company comes up with robot scouts, the dream child of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who spends his free time creating his own robots to keep house and an artificial intelligence program that miraculously bestows consciousness and sentience into otherwise inert machines. Deon needs an actual machine to test his program and a damaged robot police scout becomes his guinea pig. He uploads his program into the scout and – VOILA! – the machine goes live.

Three punks on the run (Jose Pablo Cantillo, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser – Jones and Visser are members of South African hiphop group Die Antwoord), who need to steal $20 million to pay off Johannesburg’s biggest crime king-pin Hippo (Brandon Auret), find information about Deon and his robot scouts on the Internet, track him down and kidnap him and his sentient robot. The punks take charge of Deon’s creation (voiced by Sharlto Copley), christen it Chappie and, in their own questionable ways, teach Chappie how to survive in the criminal underground of Jo’burg, accept his differences and, er, somehow become a moral being and know the difference between right and wrong. In his own way, Deon tries to care for his new child in the way Viktor Frankenstein never did but Chappie becomes conflicted between the easy wealth promised by Ninja (Jones), Yolandi and Amerika (Cantillo) and the life offered by Deon which itself is as empty, meaningless and soul-destroying as that of the punks. At least the punks are able to choose where and how they’ll carry out their big heist.

Meanwhile, back at the Tetravaal ranch, Deon’s co-worker Vincent (Hugh Jackman) becomes disgruntled that their boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is head over heels in love with Deon’s robot scouts which are paying off handsomely for the company. (Though she’s not keen herself on Deon’s sentient robot scheme – Bradley is only interested in Deon as an inventor of future cash-cows.) After Bradley tells Vincent that she is cutting off funding for his own Moose automated law-and-order project, Vincent – an ex-SAS employee with psychopathic tendencies born of fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic fantasies – vows revenge on Deon to the extent that he is willing to sabotage the company’s profits and existence, and next thing you know, both Chappie and Deon are fighting for their lives just as the punks will be fighting for theirs if they can’t pull off their heist with Chappie’s help and pay off Hippo.

The two-hour film simply isn’t a large enough vehicle to deal with the plot as well as the character development, let alone explore its themes and the social context in which Chappie has to learn right from wrong and how to deal with his dysfunctional parents and the local bullies. Chappie’s moral development, which for most humans would take more than a life-time or two (or three …), is collapsed into the space of five days, or however long his battery lasts; unfortunately that of his “parents” is rather slower, at least until near the end where Ninja realises he is losing all his friends to Vincent’s Moose creation. Everything in the movie – the plot, the sub-plots, the characters and the issues that arise – needs more time for a fuller treatment that a linear visual story-telling format cannot provide. The result is a film that, however good it looks, feels very unfinished and in need of at least another six months’ worth of refinement. Characters are as cartoony as can be and Jackman and Weaver hardly raise much sweat as the film’s  potentially more villainous or at least morally ambiguous characters.

The socioeconomic context in which downtrodden corporate worker-bee joins forces with other marginalised people against an enemy that turns out to be another shunned corporate worker-bee – one can sympathise with Vincent’s feelings of rage against his employer – is always present but never questioned or investigated in any meaningful way. One might hope (in one’s dreams) that in a sequel, Chappie can persuade his new family to forgive Vincent and urge him to join them in their struggle to lead a social revolution against the combined forces of corporate and state fascism, represented by Tetravaal and the future South African government.

One worthy message that viewers might come away with is that technological solutions to social problems, be they replacements for human labour (as in Deon’s robot scouts) or drone-operated overkill (as in Vincent’s Moose creation), can create further ethical issues and dilemmas. At least when the robot scouts are disabled by Vincent’s criminal wickedness, Jo’burg’s unemployment problem plunges with 150,000 new jobs – for unemployed human police officers. Other new jobs, such as combing the city’s abandoned outskirts for unexploded cluster bombs or cleaning up the burnt car wrecks and newly made Swiss-cheese buildings left behind by the cartoon violence, are beckoning for willing humans.

Interstellar: a rather ordinary film dominated and spoiled by a deterministic and hermetic viewpoint

Christopher Nolan, “Interstellar” (2014)

“Interstellar” managed to hold my attention for most of its 169-minute duration which was quite a feat as the plot is quite straightforward for a film helmed (and co-scripted as well) by Christopher Nolan, he who is famous for movie plots boasting multiple possibilities and ambiguous endings that can be interpreted in different ways. “Interstellar” is really no different from “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” in this respect; it even boasts the presence of Michael Caine in yet another supporting role where he plays a mentor and father figure. Nolan must be praying that Caine gets access to a revitalising or age-reversing elixir from Merck or Pfizer for his own directing career to continue.

Before seeing “Interstellar”, viewers might be advised to watch Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” first to anticipate the younger film’s plot and narrative arc, its characters and some of its visual story-telling devices. The film begins as a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which the Earth can no longer sustain humanity: crops are failing, dust storms ravage the US Midwest with increasing regularity and Western civilisation is basically whatever people are able to remember and conserve. Former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConnaughey) lives with his father-in-law and two children on a farm: his older child Tom looks forward to inheriting the family cornfields and daughter Murphy (or Murph for short) believes a ghost is hiding in her bedroom trying to communicate with her. Cooper eggs the girl on to use her knowledge of science to solve the mystery of the identity of the ghost and both discover that the ghost is a mysterious intelligence sending messages in binary code via gravitational anomalities in the red dust. One of these messages tells Cooper to contact Professor Brand (Michael Caine) at a secret NASA facility.

Cooper and Murph meet Brand and his scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) who advise that a wormhole has opened up near Saturn. The scientists at the NASA facility believe fifth-dimensional beings exist in a universe beyond this wormhole. Cooper agrees to be pilot for Amelia’s team as part of the Lazarus Project series. Already a series of manned capsules has already used this wormhole and data sent back from these capsules indicate there are three habitable planets, named Miller, Edmonds and Mann after the astronauts who led the teams there.

Cooper’s decision estranges him from his daughter and the two part on very bad speaking terms. The plot jumps from Cooper’s departure from the farm to the launch of his spacecraft the Endurance, in a sequence that mimicks the famous sequence in the Kubrick film in which a bone flung up into the air becomes an orbiting space station. Thereafter the Endurance crew (which includes a HAL-like robot called TARS) follows the path set by Mann’s team, travelling through the wormhole and landing on Miller’s planet, close to the black hole Gargantua. The crew loses a member and is forced to scramble back, wasting 23 Earth years in what appears to be an hour. After wasting more crucial Earth time arguing about whether to visit Edmonds’ planet or Mann’s planet, the crew opt to visit Mann’s planet and in double-quick time – which amounts to another several Earth years – find Mann (Matt Damon), apparently the sole survivor of his team. Mann has an unpleasant surprise in store for Cooper, Brand, Romilly (David Gyasi) and TARS which jeopardises not only their mission but the future of humankind.

In a parallel story, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, then Jessica Chastain) is taken in by Professor Brand as a daughter substitute and becomes an astro-physicist and assistant to Brand. Brand’s personal mission is to solve the problem of how humans can escape Earth’s gravity but to do this properly, he requires information from a singularity behind a black hole. Part of the Endurance’s mission was to supply this data. Unfortunately much of this data was forged by Mann who wanted a spacecraft to rescue him. Brand dies, believing that he has failed, and Murph must pick up where he left off and solve the equations. In the meantime, the dust storms afflicting America worsen and her brother’s family is in danger of dying from a tuberculosis-like disease caused by too much dust inhalation.

With “2001: A Space Odyssey” as its inspiration, “Interstellar” has some of that film’s majesty and beauty, and some of its sequences can be quite breath-taking if nowhere near as psychedelic and mind-bending. The acting overall is competent though not outstanding. McConaughey and company do all they can to turn their characters into flesh-and-blood creatures and though McConaughey succeeds with Cooper, Hathaway and Chastain do not with their characters. Some actors are able to infuse sketchily developed characters with life and imagination and others need direction in this regard.

The drama feels quite forced with banal dialogue that tends to state the obvious too much and a familiar theme of love for family conquering a fear of the unknown and inspiring hope juxtaposed with Hollywood’s favoured view of humanity as essentially self-centred and mean-spirited. A parallel theme of deception in the plot tempers the more sentimental aspect of the idea of love transcending all barriers and makes the film’s final moments more ambiguous.

Inevitably the science in a film like “Interstellar” is forced into warp drive for the sake of moving the plot forward: a scene in which Cooper must try to redock his space pod with the main station is rather tricky, not least because an explosion has forced the Endurance into a rapid spin (there being no air in space so spinning spaceships can whiz about forever) so presumably Cooper must spin his pod at precisely the same speed as the Endurance to have a chance of redocking properly. Apart from the difficulties involved in calibrating his pod’s speed, and the fantastic odds against getting the redocking right on the first go, Cooper and Amelia Brand are spinning along with the pod fast enough that their heads might explode from internal pressures caused by the spinning. While that would be entertaining to watch, the film would be killed stone dead so artistic licence must be allowed.

The last hour is quite a doozy to watch if rather drawn out. Sadly (spoiler alert) we never see anything akin to the jaw-dropping / mind-slackening sequence in “2001 …” in which the Keir Dullea character’s space-pod is pulled into another dimension by unseen aliens in a psychedelic light-show, though the movie comes tantalisingly close. Viewers may feel the events plug plot holes rather too neatly; a few ragged loose ends might have made the film a little more credible. The finale is too simpering, happy Americana but one must remember that “Interstellar” is of a piece with “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” where conclusions aren’t really quite what the viewers are led to believe they’re watching. Is Cooper really reunited with Murph or is the whole sequence a figment of his dying imagination? One imagines that this finale was filmed for the benefit of an American audience while audiences in Europe get to see a different finale in which Murph continues to wait in vain for her father to return while ensconced in an abandoned underground bunker because the dust storms have become a permanent fixture on the American landscape and the Lazarus Project has had to be shut down by NASA.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” continues to be relevant to the present day because much of it is deliberately left open-ended and unexplained, and therefore subject to endless interpretation which freshens opinion about the film and one’s own experience of it with repeated viewings. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s desire to leave No Loose Ends Untied or Unexplained, if only to make “Interstellar” easier for the bean counters in Hollywood to understand, makes their film too hermetic to the point where it starts to feel suffocating. If there is only one way to watch a film, then the film becomes a creature tied to its times and will quickly grow stale.

For all its spectacular packaging and visual delights, “Interstellar” is an ordinary work let down by poor characterisation, banal themes and plot, and ultimately a deterministic worldview that does not tolerate diversity in how viewers might watch and interpret cinema.