29 October 2012

Looper Review

Warning: Mild spoilers-by-inference contained within.

Perhaps the key to making a successful sci-fi film is to ensure that no matter how grand your ideas get, you always ground them in a relatable reality. Avatar was grounded by the incredible detail in its special effects. Moon was grounded by an incredibly human performance from Sam Rockwell. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (yes, it counts as sci-fi) was grounded by its central love story. And The Matrix? That was grounded by centralising an all-too-inevitable conflict between humanity and artificial intelligence.

After the event, the fact that Looper has been even mentioned in the same breath as The Matrix is somewhat confusing - there isn't a single shade of the Wachiowski brothers' opus here.

The story goes that in 2074, time travel is invented, but is immediately outlawed. That of course doesn't stop criminals from putting it to nefarious means, using the technology to circumvent their time's ability to track corpses - hurling people they want dead back in time to be murdered by people known as 'loopers' in 2044. When the time comes to end a looper's contract, they are sent back to get killed by themselves for a retirement-grade payday - a process known as 'closing the loop', and hence the name of the job.

If anything, this should've been coined as Back to the Future's psychotic younger cousin - it's newer, angrier and a whole lot more complicated. But the key difference that sets this apart from The Matrix - and indeed Back to the Future - is that the latter two work. Sadly, Looper does not.

At least, not fully - I'm not necessarily saying that it's without merit. The central premise of time-travel as a means of assassination is one of the best ideas to be committed to film in quite a while, and it gives way to an astonishing sequence involving one of the titular loopers, his future self and a surgery table that is beautifully unsettling. If nothing else, it proves that Rian Johnson has come into his own as a director - everything is handled with a dark, dry sense of humour that has come to be his unique selling point even in the disappointing The Brothers Bloom.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are also fantastic as the present and future versions of Joe, with Gordon-Levitt in particular nailing the speech patterns and mannerisms of a 1980s Bruce Willis. This, coupled with the extensive make-up disguising him, makes for a compelling dynamic between these two aspects of the same character, and the best character moment is shared between the two in a Pulp Fiction-style stare-down in a remote diner. Jeff Daniels is laconically menacing as the mob boss who runs the loopers, and Noah Segan's bug-eyed secondary antagonist is a spluttering, incompentent joy to behold - the indignation when he's asked if he's blown off his other leg is fantastic.

But despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the movie ultimately comes to rely on three central conceits that aren't particularly grounded. The first is that the film's take on time travel is not particularly consistent - not being able to choose between Twelve Monkeys' approach of one set timeline in which everything has already happened, and BttF's multiple timeline's approach. The stuff involving telekinetic powers is clearly just shoe-horned in to up the visual spectacle, and could've easily been excised whilst preserving the narrative.

The final, crippling conceit, however - and this is the one large spoiler that you may wish to avoid - is the fact that the loopers are armed with weapons that cannot fire further the 15 feet. It's frankly ridiculous, and never properly explained - 'just because' is the best Johnson can come up with - but two of the film's major set pieces (including the chaotic finale) rely on this fact, and it completely undermines the joy of the admittedly spectacular sequences.

Disappointing would be the word of choice on this one, though a part of this is the comparisons with The Matrix colouring my expectations. But even discounting this fact, the best that can be said about it is that it's an admirable mess, much like The Brothers Bloom that preceeded it. Johnson has a real talent for direction, but it's possible that self-indulgence is getting the better of him, and it may be time for him to direct something that he didn't write himself.

But it's still certainly worth a look - the performances are great, the premise sound and inconsistencies aside, the story progresses in a relatively satisfying manner, with some excitingly played set pieces. It's also darkly amusing to boot - it's just such a shame that the story doesn't hold up to closer scrutiny. Have a pinch of salt ready, but otherwise, there are worse ways to spend two hours at the movies.

10 October 2012

Dredd 3D Review

Character development is an interesting thing - whilst it's more or less essential for making a movie whose timeline encompasses the passing of a few weeks or months, what if a movie takes place more-or-less in real time? Can character development be sidelined in favour of character presentation? Can we get to know and even like a character based purely on their actions within a certain scenario?

'Yes', is the reverberating answer that Dredd 3D tries to drill into you like a slow-motion bullet to the brainpan, and ultimately, it's quite successful. It's intriguing and exciting to see a comic-book movie that is not overly concerned about extolling an origin for its primary protagonist, instead opting for exploring the characters by having them react to a scenario, all of which is set up in a swift and elegant first 10 minutes.

For those of you unfamiliar with Judge Dredd - and to be fair, I was hardly what one might refer to as an expert - he, and his fellow Judges, are the logical extreme of the American system of law. Judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one, Judges are empowered to apply the law as and when they see fit in the MegaCities of the future that serve as their jurisdiction. In one such MegaCity - where crime and drug abuse are rampant - Judge Dredd and his fresh-out-of-the-academy partner Judge Anderson are called to a triple homocide in a tower block - and whilst murder is never simple, these get particularly complicated particularly quickly.

What follows this set-up is more or less 80 minutes of action, with a few stops for breath. It's beautifully filmed and directed, and whilst the 3D can feel a little perfunctory for the majority of the movie, there are a handful of moments that do make it worth sitting with those awful glasses on your face - not that you have much of a choice in the matter, if you wish to see the movie, given that there's no 2D release.

However, any sequence which involves the MacGuffin narcotic 'Slo-Mo' is a treat, with the water droplets and shards of glass suspended amid over-saturated, prismatic colours, that quickly drop back to the dull grey of the unenhanced world. It elicits a modicum of sympathy for the characters that do use it - it's a way for them to escape their colourless existence in what may well be the closest thing to an actual Hell on Earth.

The action packs a fairly meaty punch, too, with visceral slow-motion shots of bullets entering faces, chests, legs and other appendages from a variety of angles. There's some grim satisfaction, as well as mild horror to be had here, and the efficiency with which Dredd cleans up the bad guys is both impressive and a little unsettling, with the more tactical set pieces unfolding at such a blistering pace, and yet precise, technically accomplished camera allows the audience to keep up with it beat for beat.

Performance-wise, there're no weak links. Karl Urban - or at least, Karl Urban's face from the nose down - is great as Dredd, all dogged surliness and pinpoint markmanship. He also gets the best lines in the film, and delivers them with a snarl that is pitch perfect to the character. The lion's share of the character development goes to Olivia Thrilby as Judge Anderson, and she does a convincing job of finding the grey areas in Dredd's black and white morality. Lena Headley is quietly menacing as the primary antagonist Ma-Ma, and a slew of strong bit players help to create a convincing world of rather facistic oppression.

It sags a coupled of times between action sequences, and there's not as much satire as one might've hoped for, with Alex Garland himself admitting that the script was written as a wide-eyed teenager might interpret the character and world. It's still funny, but in a badass, one-liner way rather than as a skewering of the establishment. But given its strengths, it's easy to forgive the film for these minor blemishes.

Considering that Dredd 3D has next to no introduction to its characters, and even less by way of a plot - we're talking less plot points than Star Wars, here - it's genuinely surprising that not only is it quite enjoyable - in a darkly humourous, action-packed way - but thoroughly so, with slick direction, great performances and a fantastic script that characterises through action, not prevarication. A sequel needs to be earned, so go see it!