A scene from EX MACHINA.

Ex Machina

United Kingdom. Directed by Alex Garland, 2015. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac. 108 minutes.

Ex Machina stars Domnhall Gleeson (Frank) as Caleb, a code monkey for Bluebook, a Google-in-all-but-name tech company whose flagship product is a search engine. Bluebook’s boy-wonder founder and guiding light Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (Being Llewyn Davis), flies Caleb out to his isolated complex to work on what he describes as the most important scientific breakthrough of all time. Nathan has developed an artificial intelligence, which he calls Eva (Alicia Vikander). He wants Caleb to run a Turing test on Eva, to determine if she really is conscious or is merely faking it. But it soon becomes clear that Nathan is hiding his real agenda…

Defining and exploring concepts like “humanity,” “life,” and “consciousness” are business as usual for narratives about artificial intelligence. So it’s no surprise that Ex Machina, the directorial début of screenwriter Alex Garland (best known for his work with Danny Boyle, particularly 28 Days Later), deals with these themes. But they’ve also been part of the science fiction lexicon since at least Frankenstein, which provides a layer of the story and gives Garland the chance to examine some other themes as well.

At the forefront is the relationship between the creator and the thing he creates. At certain points, Nathan seems to deliberately mis-interpret remarks Caleb makes about his seemingly god-like achievement. What’s the difference, ultimately, between being a god and merely playing at it? Another key moment comes when Caleb asks Nathan why he built what is essentially a fembot to house Eva’s intelligence. The ensuing conversation allows Garland to explore gender relations and touch on feminist themes, as does the relationship between Caleb and Eva, which starts off in the form of mild flirting which gradually transforms into sexual tension over the course of the film.

Ex Machina features excellent characterization and performances to match. I was most impressed with Vikander, who has the tricky task of juggling an outward naïveté with a broad, strong intelligence. Nathan’s arrogance makes him the obvious villain of the film, but Isaac’s performance brings out a lot of implied depth. Gleeson presents Caleb as a relatably awkward figure with a lot of book smarts but lacking in what pop-psychologists call “emotional intelligence.”

Garland’s performance as director is very strong, featuring excellent camera work and a steady, measured pace. The consistency of the mood stumbles once or twice, notably in a dance (yes, dance) sequence that turns out more comic that it probably should have. One or two plot developments are very obvious, but are more “inevitable” than “predictable.” Composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow turn in a score that perfectly accompanies the story and visuals, ominous and occasionally dissonant; Barrow’s pop-music experience, as musical mastermind behind the legendary Portishead, serves the final product very well.

All told, Ex Machina is a decisive victory for dialog-heavy, cerebral, non-explosion-based science fiction in the 21st century. I hesitate to declare it 2015’s equivalent of Under the Skin or Upstream Color, but consider it essential viewing for anyone who’s interested in SF as the cinema of ideas.

Ex Machina poster

Donald Pleasance and Tom Baker star in THE FREAKMAKER.

Retro Review: The Freakmaker

United Kingdom. Directed by Jack Cardiff, 1974. Starring Donald Pleasance, Tom Baker, Brad Harris. 92 minutes.

Half Freaks, half Frankenstein, half Quatermass Experiment, and half Hammer Horror, Jack Cardiff’s 1974 film The Freakmaker (originally released under the less colorful title The Mutations) is a hybrid of disparate elements that shouldn’t really go together. Donald Pleasance plays the brilliant but deranged Professor Nolter, who believes he’s hit upon the perfect cure for world hunger: combine human and plant DNA, so future generations can photosynthesize their own sustenance. Sadly, he has a penchant for experimenting on unwilling subjects, procured for him by the performers of a carnival freakshow managed by the deformed and cruel Mr. Lynch (an unrecognizable Tom Baker). But then the carnies make the mistake of abducting one of Nolter’s own students, raising the suspicions of her friends, who are also entertaining eminent American scientist Brian Redford (Brad Harris). Can Redford and the undergrads stop Nolter and Lynch, or are they all doomed to a horrifying existence as human Venus flytraps?

The Freakmaker gleefully recycles half-baked ideas from its earlier, better influences and isn’t ashamed of it: one scene outright acknowledges the story’s debt to Freaks. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in grue. It’s a sort of missing link between cerebral examinations of physical transformation (and its close cousin, plants that behave like animals, like in The Day of the Triffids or the Genesis song “Return of the Giant Hogweed”) and the later explicit body horror of Cronenberg and Alien. As stomach-churning as the monsters are–there’s nothing pleasant about something that looks like a Sleestak with Audrey Jr. grafted onto its chest–they’re uncomfortably beautiful, as are the dizzying array of genetically-engineered freak plants that don’t walk and talk. Of course, Cardfiff doesn’t quite have budget to do the designs justice, but if you’re a fan of this sort of thing you know when to adjust your expectations.

Pity the rest of the production doesn’t approach the standard set by the production design. Pleasance’s subtle, understated performance is marred by a bad, fake, and entirely unnecessary German accent. Baker struggles to break through the barrier built by a laughably terrible makeup job, but once or twice he really does let ‘er rip with impressive hurricane fury. His physical performance is altogether better, six feet three inches of looming menace but always managing to seem half a foot taller. The rest of the “norms” are forgettable, although Harris fits his generic square-jawed Yankee hero fairly well, and second-string Bond girl Julie Ege understands she’s only here to supply eye candy. Despite the production’s reliance on Freaks, the carnies aren’t quite as distinct as their spiritual predecessors, the exception being Willie “Popeye” Baines. Be warned, he didn’t earn that nickname by exhibiting an affinity for spinach.

But really, we’ve got to go back to the script as the single most flawed element. The lack of originality glares like lens flare, and in the bad way–this isn’t a daring remix of familiar tropes but a lazy retread of things you’ve seen a thousand times before. You can spot every twist coming ten minutes away. If the character development was any thinner, you could see through the actors. Screenwriters Edward Mann and Robert Weinbach try too hard to make the dialog “hip” and “relevant” by shoehorning in lots of casually inappropriate drug references. (The reference to Timothy Leary is worth a laugh, though.)

Overall, The Freakmaker isn’t some lost gem just waiting to be rediscovered; it’s a somewhat-below-standard specimen of cheap exploitation that’s largely notable for its design, its gore and its months-away-from-cult-stardom villain. (Baker would, of course, make his proper début as the fourth Doctor Who later in 1974…and face off against a plant-human hybrid two years later, in “The Seeds of Doom.”) But it’s not entirely devoid of entertainment value, and a perfectly valid option when you have ninety or so minutes you’re not doing anything better with.

The Freakmaker

Katia Winter stars in BANSHEE CHAPTER.

Banshee Chapter

United States. Directed by Blair Erickson, 2013. Starring Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillan. 87 minutes.

Clandestine medical experiments, government mind-control projects, extradimensional entities and the works of H.P. Lovecraft: what do they all have in common? Banshee Chapter, that’s what. Plus, numbers stations! I’m the sort of freak who cues up The Conet Project as casual listening, so when I heard about this (thanks Adrian!) I knew I would be there, with bells on.

Katia Winter (Sleepy Hollow) stars as Anne Roland, a web journalist researching her college friend James’s disappearance. James, a struggling writer working on a book about the U.S. government’s mind-control projects, vanished after taking a drug the CIA reputedly used in its MKULTRA experiments. Central to the case is the fact that many of the MKULTRA subjects reported terrifying encounters with…”entities”…while under the influence of the drug. Anne’s research brings her to the doorstep of Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), an eccentric, reclusive, burned-out novelist with a head full of wild theories and wilder revelations. What did James get himself involved in, and who–or what–is responsible for his disappearance?

Banshee Chapter’s story (inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s weird-fiction classic “From Beyond”) has a distinct retro vibe; sometimes it feels like the sort of thing that would have been made in the wake of The X-Files’ popularity in the mid-to-late-’90s, and at other times it resembles an alternate-universe version of the third-season Fringe episode “6955 kHz” (which uses a lot of the same elements). While the plot occasionally gets a bit creaky–very few of the twists and turns genuinely surprise–the script makes up for with fascinating characterization–particularly Blackburn, whom it pitches as a sort of demented love child of Hunter S. Thompson and Thomas Pynchon.

Levine–probably still, after all these years, most familiar as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs, digs into the character with gusto, stealing all his scenes with an infectious gonzo energy. (My favorite moment: Blackburn describes scientists strapping down test victims–er, subjects–before administering the drug, and concludes his anecdote with a casual, “That’s entertainment.”) As memorable as he is, he usually leaves room for Winter to do her job–an altogether more restrained performance–and the two play off each other rather nicely.

The direction, by first-timer Blair Erickson, is quite effective: very moody and suspenseful, with a heavy sense of existential dread gradually building throughout the course of the film. Erickson tastefully deploys handheld camera techniques and a faux-documentary structure, occasionally blurring the lines between “subjective” and “objective” (for lack of a better term) footage, something that annoyed me in The Taking of Deborah Logan, but works much better here. He also has a tendency to rely a bit too heavily on jump-scares, but many of them actually work.

The effects work, particularly the CGI, is qualitatively on-par with what you might expect from a production with this budget, but I was quite impressed with the creature design, and Erickson wisely confines the ickiness to quick cuts or shadows. One particular shot of a “monster,” towards the end of the picture…that thing’s gonna give me more than a couple sleepless nights, I think. (Sadly, whoever the damn fool is who designed the U.S. poster decided to incorporate a slew of visual spoilers. Sigh.)

While not as strong an example of “existential horror” as other recent efforts such as Black Mountain Side or The CorridorBanshee Chapter will remain lodged in your head long after lesser contemporary shock-fests have been relegated to your mental recycling bin.

Banshee Chapter

Ejecta

Ejecta

Canada. Directed by Chad Archibald & Matt Weile, 2014. Starring Julian Richings, Lisa Houle, Adam Seybold. 82 minutes.

The promo material for Ejecta intrigued me. IMDB describes it as “The story of one night on earth that changed everything we know about the universe”; a blurb from the directors goes on to call it “the story of two men who witness an unexplainable event in the atmosphere on the eve of a historic solar storm and must survive a terrifying life form that’s hunting them.” Add a lead performance from the eternally overlooked Julian Richings (recently seen on Orphan Black and in The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh) and a screenplay from Pontypool scribe Tony Burgess, and Ejecta definitely had my attention.

Sadly, that “unexplainable event” can be explained in one word. To quote the guy with the hair on the History Channel: “Aliens.” Ejecta is a bog-standard alien-abduction/action horror flick, kind of what an X-Files episode might have been like if it was made for HBO with a Game of Thrones budget. Richings plays a multiple abductee, living off the grid in the middle of nowhere, posting dire warnings to internet forums. One day, obsessed documentarian Adam Seybold shows up on his doorstep, wanting to tell Richings’s story. That night, a solar storm knocks a UFO out of the sky. Richings and Seybold investigate; later, Richings ends up in the hands of the ruthless Lisa Houle in her immaculate black uniform, who wants something to do with the aliens and is willing to torture and kill to get it.

…at least, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. The story isn’t told in chronological order, which is fine, but it’s not particularly coherent, which isn’t. I was never quite clear on who Houle was, who she was working for and what her real goal was–and eventually, I just stopped caring. It doesn’t help that she seems to believe that whoever acts loudest acts the best–I assume that I’m supposed to find her character authoritative and intimidating, but mostly it just reinforces how one-dimensional her character is. She’s impossible to take seriously, which is a major impediment considering the film’s oh-so-serious tone.

Meanwhile, the film is structured as a hybrid of found-footage and, um, I’d guess we have to call it non-found-footage, giving the filmmakers an additional set of tropes to absorb whole-hog and not try anything remotely fresh with. Although I do have to say Seybold never puts anybody’s life in danger so he can get some precious footage, so there’s that, at least. All these flaws rob the film of what little power it does have, so by the time we get to the climax–which should, by all rights, be disturbing and memorable–it does little more than provoke a noncommittal “Oh.”

Still, I shall try to remain upbeat. Richings’s performance is powerful and fascinating; it’s the rest of the film that lets him down. The CGI isn’t half-bad (it’s really only about two-thirds bad) and the score is actually listenable, if occasionally a tad obtrusive. Oh, and the clip from that fake alien autopsy video is priceless.

Unfortunately none of this is enough to make Ejecta worth the price of admission. You’ve seen this movie before, and better (even if you saw it earlier this year and it was called Extraterrestrial), so there’s really not much compelling reason to bother.

Review originally published by Cinema Axis.

Ejecta poster

A scene from ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY

Errors of the Human Body

Germany. Directed by Eron Sheean, 2012. Starring Michael Eklund, Karoline Herfurth, Tómas Lemarquis, Rik Mayall. 102 minutes.

Is it possible to have mad science without a mad scientist? Errors of the Human Body takes a swing at the idea.

Canadian utility player Michael Eklund stars as Dr. Geoff Burton as a genetic researcher obsessed with finding a cure for the rare disease that killed his infant son. But his unorthodox opinions and methods have alienated his American peers, causing him to look abroad for the resources to continue his work. Taking a position at a prestigious German institution, he’s soon embroiled in a turf war between his former protégé and ex-lover Rebekka (Karoline Herfurth) and the cocky and ambitious Novak (Tómas Lemarquis). The two were originally part of a team researching cellular regeneration, but personality clashes led Novak to break away and continue his research separately…and clandestinely. Both want to poach Burton for their projects; but Novak, possessing little in the way of boundaries or ethics, has taken his work further than anyone believed possible. And it’s all thanks to Dr. Geoff Burton…

The science is undoubtedly weird but Errors rarely feels like a horror movie. Hell, it rarely feels like a science fiction movie, and even when it does the tone is more in line with Michael Crichton than David Cronenberg. The development of subplots such as Rebekka and Novak’s office-politics battles or the romantic tension between Geoff and his former student aren’t just filler–they’re the point of the entire enterprise. Science is a means to an end for Errors, and the end is exploration of emotions and relationships. The science-oriented subplots occasionally prove a bit hard it follow, but the emotional payoff is devastating.

Unfortunately, the film’s clinical tone–boosted by location shooting at Dresden’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and an earnest attempt to make the science not feel like total bullshit–often works against its emotional core. There are times when one might think that director and co-writer Eron Sheean hasn’t so much made a movie as grown one in a Petri dish. Chilly thought it is, there’s still a stark beauty to Sheean’s direction, particularly in the exterior work. Aesthetically, the film’s high point is a rave(ish) party sequence involving Eklund in Baron Samedi-style makeup–those scenes seem to have provided the promotional team with most of their imagery.

Eklund is probably best known for playing eccentrics (having played the freak-of-the-week in the excellent Fringe episode “The Plateau”) and slimeballs (including a recent stint as ambitious drug lord Zane Morgan on Bates Motel) but delivers a restrained performance here that suits the film very well. Lemarquis plays Janek a bit flamboyantly, but that fits his character’s arrogant personality. The late Rik Mayall (yes, that Rik Mayall, he of The Young OnesBottom, and Drop Dead Fred) shines in a supporting role as the institute’s director. Herfurth tends to get a bit lost between the more domineering personalities, but keeps the tone down-to-earth and has great chemistry with Eklund.

Errors of the Human Body is a rarity among techno-thrillers in that its characters are as important as its technology and thrills, and it proves that a weird-science story doesn’t necessarily require diabolical cackling or Tesla coils. Sometimes, a simple road to hell paved with the best of intentions is all you need.

Errors of the Human Body poster

A scene from EXTRATERRESTRIAL

Extraterrestrial

Canada. Directed by Colin Minihan, 2014. Starring Brittany Allen, Freddie Stroma, Jesse Moss. 100 minutes.

Grave Encounters auteurs Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz (better known as the Vicious Brothers) are back with the Cabin in the Woods/X-Files/Alien mash-up nobody asked for. Brittany Allen heads up to her parents’ cabin in the woods to run some errands for her divorcing parents, but with her boyfriend, bestie and a couple of hangers-on in tow, it turns into a weekend of…well, the sorts of things that twentysomethings always do at cabins in the woods in movies like these. That’s when the aliens show up in their spaceship, probes at the ready.

The above synopsis doesn’t suggest much in the way of potential and the script lives up to that expectation. Too often, the Brothers substitute genuine scares with knowing winks at the audience (the “anal probe” sequence is the best example of this). Allen’s character is the only one given any depth, and for the most part the supporting cast only exists to define her character by comparison–a common flaw of the Final Girl formula. Much of the dialogue is terrible (a heated debate about marriage sounds, for all the world, like one of Matt Walsh’s straw-man arguments), and there’s far too many stupid plot points (the bit with the roman candle made me groan).

That all being said, Extraterrestrial mostly works because of the execution. If you absolutely must have a Final Girl in a film, you could do a lot worse than have Allen play her, and her pluck engages the viewer when the writing doesn’t. (Indeed, almost all the genuine feels in the movie come from her performance and not from the script.) Reliable Canadian supporting players Gil Bellows and Emily Perkins make the most of small roles that never quite get the attention they should. Michael Ironside steals every scene as an off-the-grid libertarian conspiracy theorist with a greenhouse full of sweet leaf.

The only duds in the cast are Jesse Moss, who talks like Jesse Pinkman and looks like Skrillex, and Sean Rogerson, who saddles his sheriff’s deputy with the worst Barney Fife-ish yokel performance since what’s-his-nuts in the first Cabin Fever.

Minihan’s direction also contributes to the enjoyment. In a visual sense, he’s not a particularly distinctive stylist and there’s very little that separates the look of Extraterrestrial from that of any other modern horror movie. But he keeps everything going at a brisk pace (the film feels a bit shorter than its hour-forty running time), his approach to action is coherent and even moderately exciting, and he kept proceedings tenser and more suspenseful than I had expected. The design and effects work look nice from an aesthetic point of view even if they appear exactly as you’d expect them to (no deviating from the Fire in the Sky/“Duane Barry” template here).

Extraterrestrial is a flawed piece of work, too derivative to take entirely seriously. And yet it’s enjoyable enough, if you take it on its own terms.

Extraterrestrial poster

Kirsten Dunst stars in MELANCHOLIA.

Melancholia

Denmark. Directed by Lars von Trier, 2011. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland. 136 minutes.

We have a wedding to attend. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) has just married Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) are holding them a reception at their estate–an estate so large it comes with its own 18-hole golf course.

In time, it becomes clear that Justine is miserable. She pretends to enjoy herself, but she doesn’t want to be here at all. So she keeps sneaking off to take a bath, or a nap, or bond with her nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr). Meanwhile, her father (John Hurt) is drunk, her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is disinterested, her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) won’t stop hounding her for a tag line for his latest print campaign, and the wedding planner (Udo Kier) hates her.

Meanwhile, a rogue planet has appeared from…somewhere…and is on a journey through our solar system. Soon it will “fly by” our planet. The experts assure us that it will pass the Earth harmlessly, and that there is no chance of a collision between the two celestial bodies.

We’re all safe. Perfectly safe.

If the Nightmare Gallery had a patron saint, it would be Lars von Trier.

Having seen two of his films (the other being Antichrist) plus both series of The Kingdom, I can say with absolute certainty that the man represents the values we here at the Gallery hold dear. His films do not challenge the audience, they double-dog-dare it. He has spent much of his career pissing off viewers, critics, the film-making establishment, much of the entertainment media, and most Western nations. He co-authored the Dogme ’95 rules and then broke several of them in making his Dogme film. He founded a porn studio to finance his “mainstream” films. He cast Björk in her first and only film role. If the phrases enfant terrible and provocateur didn’t exist in French, we would need to coin them, to describe Lars von Trier. This is not a guy who fucks around.

To prove my thesis, I humbly submit Melancholia’s prologue. It’s fifteen minutes of planets and stars moving in slow motion, interspersed with shots of Dunst, Gainsbourg and their castmates running in slow motion. And when I say “slow motion,” I mean very slow motion. Like, you can barely tell they’re moving. There’s no dialogue to go along with this, only opera.

Those who hope von Trier is finished testing their patience once the story actually starts will find those hopes not just dashed, but flamboyantly slaughtered like a Game of Thrones character. The first section of the movie details the debacle that is the reception; the second section picks up a few days later, and observes how Justine and Claire (and to a lesser extent, John and Leo) respond to the catastrophe they fear is coming.

Von Trier doesn’t present the rest of the film in slow motion but sometimes it feels like he does. Anyone who’s ever been part of a family will recognize these situtations, and the film stretches them to the point of snapping. Most of the guest in attendance are unpleasant to some degree or another, and we get to spend a lot of time with them.

But that unpleasantness doesn’t manifest only through the characters. It’s woven into the fabric of its lead character. Justine’s depression isn’t necessarily a function of her asshole parents, or her asshole boss, or her asshole brother-in-law. In the film’s second half, after the wedding is over, Claire freaks out about the fly-by while John assures her that we’re not all going to die. This is when Justine lays out her philosophy towards life: “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it. Life on Earth is evil.” Furthermore, she claims to know there is no life elsewhere in the universe: “I know we’re alone. Life is only on Earth. And not for long.” A regular rainbow of love and happiness, she is.

Von Trier isn’t just positing atheism here. I’m not sure he’s even positing nihilism. Rust Cohle, the character played by Matthew McConaughey on True Detective and the current pop-cultural archetype for the modern nihilist, at least believes in the possibility of doing good, and of actions having good ends. Von Trier, through Justine, expresses cosmic pessimism.

In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Thomas Ligotti writes, “Strictly considered…our only natural birthright is a right to die.” If Justine were real, I’d send her a copy of that book for her birthday. I get the feeling she’d get a lot out of it.

And, yet, Melancholia is an intensely moving film. One of the things that struck me about Antichrist is how von Trier seemed to be the star, not either of the lead actors, and it seems even moreso here. The locations, camera work and editing make the setting feel like a construct of the subconscious, not an actual place. Justine and Claire may not be authorial stand-ins or Mary Sues, but they still feel like reflections of something that is personally experienced or felt. It’s like von Trier cracked his psyche open to see what was inside.

And while the film is undoubtedly set in a dark place, we recognize it as a very human place. A place that exists inside every one of us, even if many of us prefer to pretend that it simply isn’t there.

The superb ensemble cast, a series of performances so uniformly strong I can’t bring myself to single out one or the other (besides that Udo Kier is awesome as always) brings the world to life. There’s a lot of bravery on display here, on both sides of the camera.

Like its difficult and polarizing auteur, Melancholia requires a lot of patience and isn’t going to be for everybody. But those viewers who are attuned to it will find it an extraordinary experience–testament to the power of cinematic art.

Melancholia poster

John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell star in SNOWPIERCER.

Snowpiercer

South Korea. Directed by Joon-ho Bong, 2013. Starring Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Tilda Swinton. 126 minutes.

Of all the possible ways the tattered remnants of humanity could survive a global Hoth-pocalypse, “on a train” doesn’t seem like a particularly likely option. But that’s the option Joon-ho Bong chose to explore in Snowpiercer, a very loose adaptation of an early-’80s French graphic novel.

Seventeen years after a botched attempt to counteract global climate change causes a world-wide ice age that kills almost every living thing on the planet, the last few living humans travel round the world on the Snowpiercer, a massive train powered by a perpetual-motion locomotive. Society has degenerated to become a literal dystopia-in-a-box (well, series of boxes): a highly regimented class system with a place for everything and everything in its place. The poor live in squalor in the tail cars; the well-to-do dwell in the lap of luxury towards the front; and in the engine car, Wilford, the Great Engineer, rules over them all. The posh Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) periodically visits the train’s slums to dispense justice and tell the urchins who live there how lucky they are that they get to live here at all.

But rebellion is in the air, led by the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt) and his protege Curtis (Chris Evans). They plan to abduct Namgoong “Nam” Minsu (Kang-ho Song), the drug-addled tech who designed the train’s security systems, and use his knowledge to force their way to the front of the train and finally depose Wilford.

Cinematic history, I’d like to introduce you to Snowpiercer, the film that will be remembered as its generation’s equivalent of The Matrix if there’s any justice in the universe.

One of the axes you’ve probably seen me grind on this site in the past (and believe me, I plan to grind it even more in the future) is how Nobody Makes Science Fiction Movies Like They Used to Anymore. Science fiction was once known as “the literature of ideas.” Now it’s just a flimsy excuse for whatever hunk is fashionable this week to pop his shirt off and kick ass. Not that there’s anything wrong with action and eye-candy; I liked Godzilla and Pacific Rim and The Avengers just fine.

Snowpiercer looks similar on the surface. There’s plenty of effects work and gunfire and explosions and Chris Evans punching people. But this time those things serve the ideas and story instead of the other way round. Bong and screenwriting partner Kelly Masterson have actually put thought into the setting, how a society like this would sustain itself and what its leaders would need to do to keep the structure they’d imposed on it in place. The allegory is obvious, but it works because we can see ourselves responding to these situations in these ways. The answers it poses to its questions have a libertarian slant–part-and-parcel of the modern dystopia–but small touches keep the ideology at bay (Swinton’s performance, for example, which I’ll get to in a bit) and understands the price a revolution would have to pay for “liberation.”

Great ideas and a thoughtful plot are wonderful things to have, but audiences really like to have them married to good characterization and acting, and Snowpiercer offers us these as well. Both standout performances are supporting roles. Swinton’s Mason is a self-important, self-righteous latter-day aristo: try imagining a Tea Party caricature with a North of England Accent, or a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Pauline from The League of Gentlemen. Song is perfect as the unhinged Nam, a rogue who clearly knows more than he’s letting on.

Curtis is a bit of a cliché, the grim Byronic hero, but both the dialogue and Evans’s performance succeed in making the character engaging where so many other attempts have failed. It’s been said that Hurt has played the same damn character in most of his last ten movies and his Doctor Who episode, but here he demonstrates how he became the go-to man for this type of character. Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and a gloriously goofy Ewan Bremner–there simply isn’t a bad performance in this film.

Bong’s masterful direction pulls it all together. Snowpiercer feels like an impossible environment, a place that shouldn’t work in as little space as it has, but he makes it work by starting off in an oppressively claustrophobic mode and gradually opening space up as he goes along. The editing and pacing are similarly effective, and the film benefits by cutting its dark tone with a healthy dose of satire.

If I have any complaints, it’s with the massive fight sequence that comes about halfway through the film–it does its job well enough, but it feels more “awesome” than credible and at any rate it’s not the sort of thing I’m much into. Your mileage may vary.

Every so often a movie comes along and somehow, against all odds, manages to get everything right. Strong plot, thought-provoking story, memorable characters, terrific performances, exhilarating action, beautiful design and effects…a movie that is, in short, all things to all people. Snowpiercer is one of those movies. Treasure it.

Snowpiercer poster

Christoph Waltz stars in THE ZERO THEOREM.

The Zero Theorem

United Kingdom. Directed by Terry Gilliam, 2013. Starring Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Mélanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges. 107 minutes.

An eccentric loner struggling against a suffocating bureaucracy. A dystopian nightmare hiding beneath a colorful candy shell. Advertisements that follow you around and can’t properly determine your sex. Entertainment media that panders to the lowest common denominator. A populace so starved for spiritual sustenance that it’s willing to accept Batman as its lord and savior.

That can only mean one thing: Terry Gilliam must have a new film out.

The Zero Theorem stars Christoph Waltz as a hairless, hypochondriacal, pantophobic anhedoniac named Qohen Leth. Employed as an “entity-cruncher” (entities are like numbers, only more complex) by Mancom, he seeks permission work form home full-time–partially because he believes he’s dying, partially because his co-workers are a distraction, but mostly because he fears if he leaves the dilapidated church he bought at auction and now calls come, he’ll miss the phone call which he’s certain will give his life meaning.

Mancom’s reclusive Management (a hilariously towheaded Matt Damon) instructs Qohen’s supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to grant the cruncher his request–but with one condition. Qohen is reassigned to “T-Zip,” an ambitious Mancom project to solve the Zero Theorem–a mathematical formula that will prove, once and for all, that the sum total of everything is nothing. Along the way, he gains two unlikely allies. Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) is a virtual-reality sex worker who comes to feel a measure of affection for the isolated Qohen, and Bob (Lucas Hedges) is a rebellious, teenaged hardware specialist who provides tech support for both Leth’s computer and soul.

The thing about Terry Gilliam that makes his body of work so fascinating and compelling, and which allows him to remain relevant as an artist after the entertainment industry has chewed up and spat out so many other visionary filmmakers of his generation, is the fact that he seems almost incapable of producing work that isn’t personal to an almost blinkered degree. The essential Gilliam-ness of a Gilliam film automatically makes it worth watching, even if it’s an ambitious failure (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) or he’s gone completely round the bend (the imperfect but criminally overlooked Tideland). That’s why the only true dud in his C.V. is The Brothers Grimm, which is the one that feels like he only did it for the money.

It’s a bit of a disappointment, then, that while The Zero Theorem comes from the mind of a filmmaker whose imagination is singular to the point of madness, and yet feels recycled from so many other things. It manages to be the second film I’ve seen about a reclusive, eccentric and unbalanced computer wiz named Qohen, whose goal is to mathematically prove the mystical underpinnings of the universe: the first would, of course, be Darren Aronofsky’s π. Other bits seem cribbed from Idiocracy, particularly the “DuMBC” television network, the Church of Batman the Redeemer, and Occupy Mall Street (offering savings of up to 100%).

Yet the most obvious cannibalism comes from Gilliam’s own body of work: his masterpiece Brazil. The requisite bureaucratic oppression is here, as is the scathing indictment of consumer culture. So is the retrofitted fantastic technology: just as Sam Lowry’s world was the ’50s gone wrong, Qohen Leth’s is the ’90s on Miracle-Gro. (Note the fascination with VR.)

It’s hard not to come away from The Zero Theorem without drawing the conclusion that Gilliam has started generating his own fanfic, and so much of the film feels like he’s trying too hard to make Brazil 2014. (Bainsley’s custom-made virtual beach, for example, or a psychiatric app named SHRINK-ROM and played to its eccentric hilt by Tilda Swinton.) Yet when it works–when Qohen logs onto Bainsley’s website while a husky-voiced lounge act sings the opening lines of “Creep,” when he has a heart-to-heart with Bob in front of an improbable array of DO NOT signs, and during the film’s brilliant, heart-breaking finale–you get that unique frisson that only a Terry Gilliam film can give you.

Crucial to this is Christoph Waltz’s performance, a bastion of sanity in a world where everybody’s trying to be stranger than the next person. The Zero Theorem is the sort of film that’s so bizarre that Ben Whishaw actually manages to distract from Peter Stormare being Peter Stormare, and the audience needs a sort of anchor of normality, even if said anchor professes a fear “of everything” and habitually refers to himself in the first-person plural. Waltz is that anchor, holding his own against Thewlis’s Eric Idle impression, Thierry’s sex-kitten antics, and whatever the hell it is Swinton thinks she’s doing.

Has Terry Gilliam run out of things to say? Time will tell, and it doesn’t really matter in this case. The Zero Theorem doesn’t show Gilliam at his best or worst, but it does show him at his Gilliam-est, and for that alone it’s worth the price of admission.

The Zero Theorem

Emily Foxler stars in COHERENCE.

Coherence

United States. Directed by James Ward Byrkit. Starring Emily Foxler, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon. 89 minutes.

“What would do me head in is…does he think the same way, look the same way…how would I know which one I was?”

—Karl Pilkington, when asked about how he would respond to meeting his own doppelgänger

That seems…familiar. Where do I know it from?

Oh, I remember! Back at the beginning of June, I reviewed +1, a movie about a college student whose relationship woes are complicated further when a cosmic event creates a slightly 0ut-of-sync alternate timeline “incoherent” from the original (that is, inhabitants of both timelines can interact with each other) at a party.

Now we’ve got Coherence, a movie about a woman whose relationship woes are complicated further when a cosmic event (a passing comet) creates something something…

I’ll try to keep the +1 comparisons to a minimum, but many parallels exist between the two films and I really can’t ignore them, especially considering I just saw +1 like a little over two months ago.

Nor am I accusing one film of being a ripoff of the other. They’re hardly the exact same movie. +1 is about teenagers, Coherence about adults; +1 is ironic, Coherence thoughtful; +1 is largely a horror story, Coherence science-fiction. But, overall, they use the same themes, tropes, and motifs, and largely seem to be saying the same thing.

If +1 crosses Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Can’t Hardly Wait, then Coherence takes the same starting point, but uses the mumblecore relationship drama as its modulating factor. The “relationship drama” bit means that the science fiction elements are going to take a back-seat to character interaction and development.

The “mumblecore” bit means that, if you’re me, you’re going to have problems figuring out exactly how all these things connect because, Jesus Christ, everybody talks at once in this movie. I’m not entirely sure exactly what caused the tension between protagonist Em and her boyfriend (or maybe husband) Kevin, or why the revelation that Mike had slept with Beth was so important, but I expect I’d probably have a better grasp of the dynamics if the actors weren’t always talking or screaming over each other all the time.

I felt a lot of antipathy towards the characters, partially because of the “not being able to track relationships” thing, and partially because I don’t feel that the characters were developed well enough. Em is the lead character, Beth is the New Agey homeopath, Mike is a mostly-forgotten actor from a ’90s cult TV show, Hugh is Beth’s rational husband, Kevin is with Em, Amir is the guy who isn’t Mike or Kevin, and Laurie is Mike’s wife who wears glasses. That’s about the best you’ll get to know any of them.

Luckily, the cast brings personality to the characters to compensate, particularly Emily Foxler Baldoni as Em, Elizabeth Gracen (Miss America 1982, and Amanda from the Highlander franchise) as Beth and Hugo Armstrong as Hugh. (Yup, another movie where most of the characters are named, in one way or another, for their actors.)

Nicholas Brendon is fun to watch as Mike, although the ironic connection between actor and character is so obvious that I had to wonder if he was essentially playing himself. (Brendon played Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fans of Buffy, and people who hate Buffy but are more conversant with the damn thing than they ever wanted to be because they had to edit three seasons’ worth of episode recaps, need no explanation. Everybody else: just take my word for it that there’s a meta aspect to the casting that you’re not going to get. It’s not that important, and you can live with it.)

Alex Manugian (Amir) and Lorene Scafaria (Laurie) also turn in engaging performances…even though Laurie’s act-long nap seems to be the product of the writers not knowing what to do with her, despite trying to turn said nap into a minor plot point.

But oddly enough, despite the character-centric nature of the script, storytelling is the most compelling reasons to watch Coherence. Overall, it has the vibe of a classic Twilight Zone story, featuring solid pacing, intelligent plot development and a few genuinely clever twists…along with one, I have to admit, that I totally saw coming but might not have if I hadn’t watched +1 so recently.

Director–and, with Manugian, co-writer–James Ward Byrkit holds to a visual style best described as “boilerplate mumblecore”: about as artistic as shooting a home movie on your dad’s camcorder, with plenty of shaky-cam, although to his credit he manages to keep the shots in focus most of the time. On the plus side, he keeps the paranoia ratched up to a good level, and some of the visual motifs are truly inspired (the glowsticks are a stroke of genius).

Coherence is a good, albeit not great, doppelgänger thriller–although, admittedly, some of the stylistic elements, along with the film’s slight resemblance to another recently-released picture–block my enjoyment, so possibly it’s actually great and I just don’t realize it.

And, at any rate, I had better get used to doppelgängers, because I have Enemy and The Double coming soon…

Coherence poster