Insipid Sequels

This blog post is born out of my frustration of watching so many film sequels which are, frankly, not worth the discs they’re coded onto.  The latest example was my attempt to watch the entire Jurassic Park trilogy.  Although the original film isn’t the best film I’ve ever seen it did manage some awe-inspiring effects and was genuinely frightening in places.  It’s only big problem was the thinly constructed storyline.  It was abundantly clear that the film-makers wanted to make a thriller using their newly developed CGI; every element of plot in the film brings the characters to this point where they’re hunted by dinosaurs through the Park.  There’s nothing wrong with this, it just leaves the plot seeming rather stale, but the film mostly manages to hold its own in spite of this.

The problem arises when, as with many highly successful films, it’s decided to make sequels in order to capitalise on the popularity to gain greater profits.  This is an assumption on my part but the desire to make a profit seems to be the primary reason for making the sequel, rather than the film-makers have a burning desire to make another film.  Hence the complete lack of vision which Jurassic Park: The Lost World seemed to possess.  I’ll confess I gave up on it after half an hour of watching* – I was bored to death by the total lack of a storyline and none of the reviews I found suggested it improved, nor that the third film was any better.  Circumstances force the characters back to an island covered with dinosaurs, where they proceed to engage in banter regarding the lead’s girlfriend and his daughter, getting into danger solely through the characters’ own stupidity (“I’m going to go look at this dinosaur!” “No!” “Your girlfriend is crazy, lol.” “Ahhh, I’m being attacked, help me!”).  These seem to be common attributes of these insipid, profit-driven sequels: poorly written character-focused drama in which the characters create the film’s drama through their own unconvincing stupidity.  This does nothing to endear the audience to the film or its characters.  I’m aware The Lost World is based off a book, as is the first film, though I believe it’s quite a loose adaptation (and looking at the synopsis for the novel on Wikipedia, it doesn’t look particularly inspiring either).

The Lost World is [probably] a poor film; I could have left it at that, except this is a pattern I’ve seen so often before.  The worst offenders are often Disney films.  A couple of examples of sequels which absolutely ruined the legacy of the original which come to mind are Mulan II and Brother Bear 2.  The latter particularly annoyed me when I watched it – Mulan was a fantastic film with one of the best female leads Disney has produced, which the sequel reduced to an unbelievable romance film.  I’d also include sequels to The Matrix, my hatred of which I’ve already written about extensively.  There’s plenty of other examples, you just need to Google “worst film sequels” to find lists upon lists of terrible films, most of which I’ve mercifully never been exposed to.

Although universally popular, I’m not including sequels in franchises such as the Star Wars prequels or Pirates of the Caribbean.  The quality of these films may be up for debate – I personally quite like them – but I think most people would agree they’re different from the films I described above.  They do at least have plotlines which run throughout the entire film series and feature real character development across the films, rather than being 90 minutes spent emulating a sitcom (although the latest PotC film has begun to head down this direction…).  Other successful examples are The Lion King and Toy Story sequels. The difference is that, although these films were made because they were guaranteed successes at the Box Office, the filmmakers had a vision for the films they wanted to make.  So I’d say to screenwriters, producers, directors, and everyone else involved in sequels, by all means make a follow-up to the latest Box Office success but, please, have a vision which can justify it.  Perhaps if profits were determined by the quality of reviews rather than the number of sales we’d see more sequels with a justifiable existence.

Also, the reason I’ve focused on films rather than books is that although many terrible sequels to books exist, most do tend to have a certain minimal degree of plot and character development.  Perhaps this is because novels are usually the creation of one mind, who can easily stamp their vision into them, whereas film sequels seem to be the product of money-hungry film executives.

Have you got any examples of film sequels you feel fall into this category of ‘insipid sequels’, or ones you feel worked successfully?  Please let me know in the comments box!

*I know, this makes me sound such a lazy critic!  I’ll redeem myself when I review Ulysses

The Hunger Games [Film] (Review)

Contains spoilers.

I’ve just recently been re-watching this film before and, my word, it’s good.  Adapted from the first book of Suzanne Collins’ hit trilogy (which dominated my list of favourite books read in 2012, taking the 2nd, 3rd and 6th places), it’s been a box-office hit, becoming the 59th highest grossing film of all time* and has the 9th highest earnings from the opening day in North America.  It was directed by Gary Ross, and produced by Lionsgate films.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for the film’s brilliance is its writing.  Every now and then a story comes along which entranced the imagination of the young and old alike; The Hunger Games achieved this with most success since, I would argue, Harry Potter.  The source material is fantastic, featuring an engaging, suspenseful plot with well-developed, realistic characters.  It’s full of detailed, ingeniously paced action scenes which are easy to be translated into film, but also complimented with substantial themes and a message that’s relevant today.  With such quality of a book to go on, it would have taken a lot for the film to fail.  I was particularly impressed by the dialogue: every line felt breathed into life by an actual person, rather than the scripted sequences common in other films.  Such heavily ‘scripted’ dialogue can compliment the film, as is the case with the Harry Potter films, but here the rawness of the dialogue compliments the gritty tone Ross went for.

Of course the best dialogue in the world couldn’t succeed if the acting talent is weak, but fortunately the film excels in this department also.  The part of Katniss needed to be perfect to truly sell the film and fortunately Jennifer Lawrence delivered on the front.  She made Katniss’ fear, her love, her hope and her determination believable.  One of many examples was a sequence on the train to the Capitol after the reaping.  I imagined the character to be plainer and less likeable but Lawrence’s portrayal stands up well to my pre-conceived ideas.  She had no dialogue yet managed to convey every emotion and thought Katniss experienced.  Josh Hutcherson portrays the charismatic Peeta, and of all characters is just how I imagined the part to be played; understated but believable.  Woody Harrelson is great as the drunken mess that is Haymitch but, like the character, can effortlessly switch to being cunning and sincere.  Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Liam Hemsworth all ‘get’ the characters of Effie, Caesar and Gale, too.  We didn’t see much of Donald Sutherland as the antagonist President Snow, but he brings such power to the role that I look forward to seeing in future films.

A lot of people have criticised Ross’ direction of looking cheap and having an irritating fixation on handheld, shaky camera shots.  I shared these thoughts initially but, upon rewatching, have realised what Ross was trying to do.  It’s supposed to look cheap, raw, and real.  He saw that the book is entirely driven by the perspective of its narrator and sought to emulate that narration in the film.  To have created a slick, beautiful world would have lost the point.  That said, every shot slots in perfectly into the film and exists for a reason; each movement is calculated, deliberate.  The pacing is also fantastic – even knowing what happens I can’t help but become dissolved into the screen, reacting with every emotion Katniss experiences.  I feel her fear, her jubilation, her suffering.  My one criticism is that the film devotes a bit too much time to the first half and, arguably, comes close to glorifying features like Katniss’ costumes, Capitol glamour, etc.  It’s not so much that the first half dragged but that the second felt rushed.  Rue and Katniss’ relationship in particular just glossed by, depleting (though certainly not ruining) the impact her eventual death had.

The music, too, is divine.  From the haunting vocal track in district 12 to the majestic Panem anthem, it seamlessly compliments the film and has an individual identity.  James Newton Howard has definitely planted himself on my list of favourite film composers.

Overall, The Hunger Games is an utterly brilliant film worthy of high praise indeed.  I await with excitement the next film in the franchise, Catching Fire.

Catching Fire Theatrical Trailer

Contains mild spoilers but not, in my opinion, anything that would ruin the film.

The full trailer for the second film in the Hunger Games Trilogy (of four films), Catching Fire, has been released!  You can watch it here.

I’m really excited for this film for the reasons I mentioned in my write-up for the teaser trailer back in April.  You can never fully judge a film by its trailer, which is in many ways an artform of its own, but I think we can glimmer a bit of insight into how Catching Fire may differ from The Hunger Games from it.  We know it’s being directed by Francis Lawrence, replacing Gary Ross – he certainly has a tough act to follow – who, I’m guessing, appears to be taking a more cinematic approach to the film.  Ross intentionally made The Hunger Games a rough, very handheld adventure from Katniss’ viewpoint.  Perhaps as the story begins to take a larger significance and move away from being solely Katniss’ experiences this is the natural route.

I’m also pleased that the trailer appears to be focusing on the message of the story.  There’s a temptation to glamourise the film, discuss Effie Trinket’s stunning fashion style (which completely defeats the point of her; she’s supposed to be hideous), and turn this into a Twilightesque love story.  Instead the trailer emphasises that trouble is brewing in Panem – that the social order is slowly beginning to catch fire from the spark Katniss provided.

That said, I have one issue with the trailer.  Structurally the novel is very similar to the first book, so therefore the film will inevitably be too.  This is fine – the events occur under completely different circumstances and have different significance.  However in the trailer, for simply a casual viewer of the films it will appear in some ways to be a carbon copy of the first film, with even the very same shots and lines being included.  Again, when you actually watch the film (I hope) each of these scenes should highlight a difference, but it’s difficult to get that across in the trailer.  This is why it’s possibly a mistake to focus entirely on the first half of the film, though I can appreciate why the action-packed second half is being kept under wraps.

I can’t wait to watch it, anyhow! *cough* IN EDINBURGH *cough*.

HAL 9000’s Motivations

Contains spoilers for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 

There are so many aspects of Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey that I love (and also, for different reasons, Arthur C. Clarke’s novel).  I could blog about this film for years – and probably will – but for now I’ll focus on the character of HAL 9000.

Generally speaking, humans find artificial intelligence rather chilling.  I’m convinced this is one reason why our computers, phones and cars are very clearly designed as tools rather than given lifelike features.  While not yet at the levels of complexity envisioned by Clarke and Kubrick, artificial intelligence certainly has come on a long way since 1969 – you can now have a somewhat convincing conversation with a computer, for instance.  But we’re still a long way from the complexities of Hal, of it being necessary to analyse a computer’s motivations beyond it having a short circuit.  I’m sure, with unlimited time and resources, we might one day have artificial intelligence as deep as Hal – we’re evidence that such brains can exist, therefore they can be created – but for now I’ll content myself with the question: why did Hal try to kill the crew of Discovery One?  There are several speculated explanations for his actions:

  1. Hal could not keep secrets.
    This is the reason given by the film and novel.  Hal was tasked with keeping the true nature of the mission – that instead of investigating Jupiter they were investigating alien life – secret from Dave and Frank.  Hal was not designed to actively withhold information from people and so, when required to lie, experienced a major crisis of logic.  Killing the ship’s crew would remove the need to lie to them.  Or alternatively, the fact that Dave and Frank became suspicious put into question Hal’s infallibility, which was a doubt he could not cope with.  A major function of his was to be “incapable of error.”  His ‘mistakes’ regarding the communication equipment were instead deliberate ploys to kill the crew.
  2. Hal simply malfunctioned.
    An error of coding, recurring loop, whatever, caused Hal to mess up his operations and kill the crew.  Nothing more complicated than that – Hal’s user interface only made it appear that more was at work.  Bit of a dull explanation…
  3. Hal malfunctioned then killed for survival.
    Hal genuinely did malfunction regarding the communication equipment, then realised that if this became known then he may be shut down due to unreliability.  If Hal had been designed based on human psychology then survival would be his ultimate priority – beyond that of even the mission – and therefore he became convinced that it was a case of “me or them.”  He opted to kill the crew before they could deactivate him.
  4. Xenophobia
    This is my favourite explanation.  Again, if Hal was designed on the model of human psychology then he was susceptible to human flaws.  Unlike Dave and Frank who were unknowing, and the rest of the crew who were in hibernation, Hal had a long time to ponder on the implications of discovering alien life.  Could they pose a threat?  Would either their intentions or their diseases wipe out humanity?  Or even more subconsciously, the concept of aliens tapped into the human fear of ‘the other’.  For whatever reason this became exacerbated in Hal and he killed the crew to prevent the mission ever making the discovery.
  5. Boredom.
    It’s not easy being stuck on a spaceship for several months with no one of a similar intellect to converse with.  Neither Dave nor Frank had an expert knowledge of computer systems.  Hal may have gone mad from boredom.
  6. Sabotage.
    He was programmed to make the mission a failure.  Unlikely but given the geopolitical situation during the story – it ends with the world on the bring of nuclear war – not impossible.
  7. George Bush.
    Hal found out about George Bush becoming president despite winning fewer votes than his opponent, Al Gore.  This illogical result, and perhaps also the implications of Bush’s presidency, set Hal into a misanthropic fit causing him to lash out at any human beings within his reach.  Actually… that’s rather plausible.

Any other ideas, please let me know!

Source Code [2011 Film] (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Knowing nothing about it, I happened to watch Source Code a few weeks ago at a party.  It’s very rare for me to begin watching a film with absolutely no knowledge of its content, cast or crew but here I was completely in the dark.  It’s worth considering how this might affect our opinion of a film.  Should its publicity or reputation be factored into the overall film experience?  I found it quite refreshing here to be able to judge the film purely on its own merits, only finding out other details later (like that it was directed by David Bowie’s son!). Yes, Source Code was directed by Duncan Jones and released in 2011.

Being in an age where the science fiction genre in film is dominated by high-budget, infuriatingly dense blockbusters – I may have mentioned this before – where Transformers, Iron-Man, The Avengers and Avatar are all in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time (though the list looks slightly better when adjusted for inflation), a simple, idea-based science fiction film is always a breath of fresh air.  Source Code tackles the idea of a machine which can send a consciousness back in time to relive the final 8 minutes of a person’s life.  Here, Captain Colter Stevens finds himself in the body of Sean Fentress on a train which was destroyed in a terrorist bombing.  He relives this experience again and again as he is tasked with finding the culprit, meanwhile trying to discover the circumstances of his ‘death’.

I’m highly impressed with the way the film gradually teases us with information and answers.  The revelations that Colter is clinically dead besides minimal brain function, that Goodwin can only see his words written on a screen and then the final, shocking revelation of just how wounded he really is all brilliantly develop the concept.  This occurs alongside a general shifting of perspective from Colter to the other characters, which is achieved effortlessly.  Then, everything is perfect about the final revelation that the source code creates parallel worlds.  The tone, the acting, music…  It proves that you don’t need gratuitous senseless action or violence to make a film interesting.  Where there is violence it serves a purpose, is never repetitive and advances the film.  This alone makes Source Code a far superior film to most others I’ve seen recently.

But that’s not all the film has going for it.  It’s intelligently written and Jones’ direction is extremely skilled yet subtle.  After watching the film I realised the story had taken place over just three sets, but amazingly never felt constrained or claustrophobic.  Jones and his crew made so many good decisions on even the small things, like creating a sense of fluidity with great over-the-shoulder shots and seamless movement.  The train was so realistic, with either the set or the camera having a slight jiggle and the scenery rushing past the windows as it would a real train.  Surely they didn’t make the film on an actual train?  It’s so realistic I can’t be certain.

The acting is essential in selling the complex ideas.  Jake Gyllenhaal was great as the tormented and confused, but eventually dedicated Colter.  I found the character occasionally veered into “typical arrogant male protagonist” territory, but when contrasted with his scenes of humility and sobriety proved to be a well-balanced character.  Likewise, Christina by Michelle Monaghan was never written to be a deep character, considering we mostly only see the same 8 minutes of her life, but she does feel like a three-dimensional person.  Goodwin, played by Vera Framiga, is by far my favourite character.  She is written and acted as first as an unthinking member of the military who obeys orders without question, but creates a convincing and moving bond with Colter – remarkable considering she’s only seeing words on a screen – and, against her orders, lets him die as he wished.  I also enjoyed Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Rutledge.

If I had to pick a flaw in the film, which is difficult, I would say that the source code idea could have been taken further.  I was left wanting more – while definitely a sign of a good film, also means it must have been even partially unsatisfying.  Speaking about the film with a friend, his view was that the idea was too big for one film and I completely agree.  I read something about a planned television series on the source code concept… ?  That would be a great premise!  There’s so much they could do.

In conclusion, Source Code is a masterpiece.  It perhaps isn’t the most memorable film but it’s an example of science fiction as its best.  It takes a concept and explores it, having great fun in the process.  I have heard good things about Duncan Jones’ so far only other film, Moon, and intend to watch that too.

Final rating: 9.5/10

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