Never Let Me Go (2010)

The recent critical success of Annihilation (to say nothing about the film’s financial doom at the hands of its distributor) has been a welcome opportunity to look back to Alex Garland’s career-long achievements as a sci-fi screenwriter before he made the jump to buzzworthy auteur in his debut feature as a director, Ex Machina. A significant part of that reexamination has been tied to a rumor, recently confirmed by actor Karl Urban, that Garland was the uncredited director of the sci-fi action thriller Dredd. I very much enjoy Dredd as a slick, bare-bones slice of schlocky spectacle, but it’s not quite of the same cloth as what I enjoyed so much in Annihilation & Ex Machina. To me, Garland’s personal brand of sci-fi is one of heady, introspective melancholy. His films might feature Domhnall Gleeson seducing a sexy robot or Natalie Portman firing bullets at a monstrous alligator-beast, but they’re still works built on the backs of sci-fi ideas, as opposed to sci-fi spectacle. To that point, I’d suggest that the undersung work of Garland’s past is not Dredd at all, but rather the sci-fi melodrama Never Let Me Go. Adapted from a widely adored novel by Nobel prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, who also penned Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is a romantic period drama set in an alternate timeline version of the 1970s (and later stretching to the 1990s). It details a decades-long love triangle melodrama between three doomed characters, recalling more the historical romantic epic ambitions of a film like Atonement rather than the shoot-em-up spectacle of Dredd. It’s not an especially fresh, attention-grabbing work. There’s no space travel, ray guns, or alternate dimensions. Instead, it dwells on the glum, moody repercussions a sci-fi dystopia wreaks on the emotional state of the characters who live it, which makes the film feel right at home with Garland’s more recent, more revered directorial efforts.

I was intrigued by the trailer for Never Let Me Go when I saw it nearly a decade ago, but also confused why the advertising made its central twist so obvious. As it turns out, it’s because the main conceit is not a twist at all, but a premise that’s stated up front and seen to its logical, emotional conclusion. A breakthrough discovery in the alternate history 1950s raised the live expectancy rate of the average citizen well past the 100-year mark: clones. Clones are systemically raised as part of an organ-farming program. Donations are involuntary, required without exception, and donors are raised to understand what fate awaits them as their purpose in life reaches “completion” (hint: they don’t get to enjoy the extended life expectancy rate the new technology affords the rest of the world). Our window into this scenario is a traditional British boarding school that only appears sinister at the margins. Cloned children are taught that it’s their special duty to keep themselves “healthy inside.” Chip readers, daily pills, and mysterious art contests hint at the administration behind their care, but we never peak behind the proverbial curtain. Instead, we watch them mimic social behaviors form music & television, find enormous pleasure in the thrift store castoffs of regular children, and search blindly for clues to the identity of the “originals” they were cloned from in any scraps of the outside would they can gather. From this grim backdrop emerges a decades-long tale of unrequited love & romantic jealousy among three of the boarding school student as they age out of the safety of childhood education and into active, repetitive organ donations. Some attention is paid to the mysteries behind the administrative structure of their preparation as donors, but the story is much more concerned with the emotional repercussion of an unfulfilled romantic life of people who were “born” to die young. It’s a small, intimate story told within the context of a massively ambitious sci-fi premise, so it’s no wonder Garland was drawn to telling it onscreen (he was also reportedly chummy with Ishiguro on a social basis, which helps I’m sure).

I can’t kick myself too much for missing Never Let Me Go in its initial theatrical run. Practically nobody saw this thing. It earned $9 million on a $15 million budget, only $2 million of which was domestic box office. The real shame there is that I believe the film could have been a huge hit if it had arrived just a few years later. Its romantic strife amidst a grim dystopia would have been right at home with the YA craze that followed The Hunger Games in 2012. Then there’s the cache of the film’s cast, which only gets more impressive every passing year: Keira Knightly, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Sally Hawkins, Domhnall Gleeson, and so on. With Garland’s recent critical success, Never Let Me Go now has a unique context as a primer for his auteurist voice, but it’s honestly baffling that the film has yet to become a hot topic before, whether initially or upon reappraisal. The film may be a little low-key melancholy for a star-studded sci-fi picture, but it’s far from the limited appeal of the art house version of this child-farming territory in works like Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Evolution. This is the tragic story of young people being disfigured & discarded by a menacing society who treats them like appliances, but in the midst of watching it the weight of that premise never overwhelms the simple love story at its core. If there’s anything Garland has proven himself to be particularly adept at, it’s achieving intimacy against the backdrop of far-reaching sci-fi concepts and Never Let Me Go is a great, distilled example of how effective that dynamic can be. He’s never quite turned that talent into boffo box office (not even with the popcorn action spectacle of Dredd), but Ex Machina & Annihilation both enjoyed a critical goodwill Never Let Me Go deserves as well. It’s doubtful that wide scale reappraisal is ever coming, since the movie’s previous lack of attention doesn’t make much sense either, but it’s still pure-Garland in its intimate sci-fi introspection, an auteurist voice we’re just starting to fully understand.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

I can’t tell if J.J. Abrams’ current career status would be a nerd’s wildest dream or their worst nightmare. Both? Simultaneously tasked with commanding sci-fi nerdom’s two most beloved properties, Star Wars & Star Trek, I’m sure he’s giddy with the power of adapting two franchises he surely grew up loving. Nerds are a tough bunch to please, though, so there’s an absurd amount of external pressure to not muck up their sacred texts, a pressure even Star Wars creator George Lucas wasn’t protected from (after he admittedly mucked them up spectacularly). One of the most delightful things I have to report about Abrams’ first Star Wars feature (of presumably many to come), The Force Awakens, is simply that it is by no means a misstep or a failure. I’m in a nice sweet spot of expectation where I grew up loving the original Star Wars trilogy, but not to a rabid, detail-obsessed degree that would leave me nitpicking whatever Abrams delivered. Coming from that perspective, I can’t exactly speak on behalf of Star Wars fanatics, but as a movie lover it’s hard to imagine that they’d be anything but pleased by The Force Awakens as a finished product. A great balance of enthusiastic fan service & promising new ideas/story threads, the latest entry in the Star Wars universe is far from the muted, just-good-enough, tragedy-averted compromise of 2015’s The Peanuts Movie (or Abrams’ own Star Trek work, for that matter). It’s an actually-great, entirely successful new birth for the franchise, sometimes feeling like it could be in contention as being nearly just as good as Episodes IV or V. The overall feeling I got while watching The Force Awakens is “What more could you ask for?” Abrams has successfully walked the Star Wars tightrope & delivered something sure to please both newcomers & skeptics and, more importantly, something that’s deliriously fun to watch when divorced from the burden of expectation.

Of course, because the film is so fresh & so highly anticipated, there’s an intense fear over the possibility of spoilers among some viewers, so I’ll try to tread lightly in this review. Even a simple roll call feels like a small betrayal, but it’s a somewhat necessary one. On the fan service end of Abrams’ well-calculated formula, the film could’ve just as easily been titled Star Wars Episode VII: The Gang’s All Here. Luke Skywalker’s importance to the universe has escalated to mythical proportions as he’s reported to be “the last Jedi.” His sister Leia has graduated from princess to general, establishing herself as the figurehead of The Resistance. Speaking of which, The Resistance is an obvious stand-in/update for The Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy, just as its The First Order big bad is a stand-in/update for the older films’ Galactic Empire. The only figure that seems to not have changed a lick is swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo, who remains as steadfast in his personality as a droid would, just as unable to evolve in his demeanour as the same-as-ever C-3PO. The characters are far from the only elements re-purposed from the franchise’s origins, though. A quest to locate Luke & the wisdom of Jedi knowledge is very much reminiscent of Luke’s quest to train with Yoda. There’s also some major theme callbacks like struggling with identity in the context of parentage and, of course, the eternal struggle of Good vs. Evil (in the succinctly-framed balance of The Force) mixed among much smaller tips of the hat to details like space chess & the infamous Cantina scene. I also had a lot of fun with the way it indulged in recreations of the older films’ exact screen wipes & Force-manipulation battles (which are essentially 100% sound cues & intense trembling). The greatest trick The Force Awakens pulls off, though, is when it finds a metaphor for its own existence in the callbacks. For instance, an almost exact replica of The Death Star is represented here, except that it’s 20 times larger, much like Abrams’ budget vs. what Lucas was originally working with. And then, of course, there’s the BB-8 “ball droid”, which is essentially a cuter, more technically impressive, surprisingly versatile version of R2-D2. It’s a modern update to a classic model, much like the film itself.

Speaking of BB-8, that little bugger has got to be the most exciting new addition to the Star Wars canon right? It’s at least the film’s breakout star, a kind of acknowledgement to the merchandising end of the franchise (in that it’s super cute & palatable for children), but also a ruthless, shrewd, determined, even dangerous character in its own right (possibly in a conscious effort to distance its cuteness from the heavily debated, somewhat purposeless existence of Ewoks). For the full year of advertising we all survived in order to get to this point, all I could think about in relation to this film was BB-8. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins’ four second delivery of “I’m Ball Droid. I gotta roll on out of here,” got me more hyped on watching The Force Awakens more than any particular ad did (and, of course, that clip continuously played through my head once I actually got to watch it). There are a lot of of other great, new characters introduced to the Star Wars universe in The Force Awakens, including a new possible future for the Jedi tradition, a rage-filled Sith-in-training prone to on-brand temper tantrums, and a Storm Trooper With a Heart of Gold, but in a lot of ways they feel like echoes of characters we’ve seen in the past films (well, except maybe for that Storm Trooper dude). There’s just something really special about the BB-8, whether or not it’s taking up the baton from a still-beloved R2-D2. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement in character design as well as exploitation of body language & subtle vocal manipulation. For new viewers entering the Star Wars universe for the first time with The Force Awakens (and they do exist) a lot of old, well-established familial ties & big concepts like The Force are going to be somewhat off-putting, since the film is not going to be able to hold their hands through the catch-up process, but BB-8 is such a great encapsulation of what makes the franchise work for so many people that it might not be a problem. It’s the perfect little tour guide for a space-set soap opera that’s only going to get more tangled & complex as these films continue to be produced (which will probably be for eternity, considering how much money this one will make at the box office). It’s instantly loveable & accessible.

I’m not going to pretend that The Force Awakens is perfect. I was a little off-put by some of the CGI reliance, particularly when it came to intimate interactions with alien faces. A lot of the CGI is nicely restrained & deftly employed, but it gets tiresome to look at (and is guaranteed to age poorly) whenever it’s used on a green-screened character with more than a line or two of dialogue. I also felt that the action sequences could sometimes go a bit long in a way that softened their impact, but that’s a small quibble, especially considering just how visceral & vicious things get in the climactic lightsaber battle. For the most part, though, it’s a remarkably difficult film to complain about. Even with lines like the racially-tinged throwaway gag “Droid, please”, which should fall flat in a very uncomfortable way, the film somehow makes it work. It’s easy to tell that Abrams & his collaborators were huge fans of the franchise doing their best to deliver a film that most people could love. He finds an immensely satisfying balance here of recreating past successes from the original trilogy, but with entirely new purpose. Much like the universe it inhabits, The Force Awakens feels old, beat up, lived in, the exact kind of world-building last year’s The Guardians of the Galaxy strained to establish in just one film, but this time with an extensive back catalog of content for support. The film’s ragtag group of heroes more or less winging it in their quest to overthrow The First Order may be very reminiscent of a similar motley crew who tried to overthrow The Galactic Empire (for instance, a female lead most certainly not in need of constantly being saved shouts “Stop taking my hand!”, which could have very easily been an old-school Leia moment), but they’re more of a refreshing evolution than a shameless retread. Sure, The Force Awakens can rely on work already put in by past films for lines like “Without the Jedi there can be no balance in the Force” to actually mean something, but it also finds its own touching moments, like in the question of when is running from a threat a form courage & when is it a submission to fear or in finding the simple goodness of people in exchanges like “Why are you helping me?” “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Most importantly, it feels like all of the ground work of pleasing fans through callbacks & establishing its own competence as a unique property are now out of the way, which is in a lot of ways a burden lifted. When the film ends, you’re genuinely excited to see where the story goes next because the future of the franchise is promised to be less self-reflective, more open-ended, uncharted territory. I’m already getting amped about Episode VIII‘s release in Spring 2017 as I type this, which I guess is a sign that Abrams did something exactly right in The Force Awakens.

Bonus points: There are a lot of great new-to-the-scene actors in this film – Adam Driver, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, etc. What really made me giddy, though, is that both Domhnall Gleeson & Oscar Isaac made the cast, which makes for just about the most unexpected Ex Machina reuninon I could possibly imagine. Those two films are so far from one another on the opposite ends of the sci-fi spectrum that it’s difficult to justify that they’re billed as being in the same genre at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Brooklyn (2015)

three star

When I first heard of Brooklyn‘s young-Irish-immigrant-tries-to-make-it-in-NYC premise I expected a Christ in Concrete or The Jungle type narrative set decades before in a time where the Irish & other immigrant communities were worked to death building NYC’s massive infrastructure & quickly discarded once the job was done. There’s a little bit of that history visible in Brooklyn‘s 1950’s setting, particularly in the film’s second-generation Irish-American communities & in the old men left homeless after their construction work dried up. Brooklyn is an entirely different kind of immigrant-story costume drama, though. Its protagonist, Eilis, has a relatively easy journey to the United States, with a remarkably large network of support helping her assimilate into a new land. After a prison-conditions, sea-sick ship ride across the ocean & a nervous encounter at customs, Eilis’ journey is less of a history of immigrant struggle in the New World & more of a traditional coming of age drama & chest-heaving romance.

The conflicts in Brooklyn are less life-threatening than they are emotionally troubling. Eilis struggles with severing family ties in her big move, petty jealousies among her boardinghouse mates, neighborhood gossip, the possibility of lifelong poverty, Catholic guilt, the pressures of rapid dating cycles (mentions of “I love you”s & children are almost instantaneous) and, of course, culture shock. The concerns are far from the grim trials & tribulations I had assumed she’d go through based on the film’s premise & from past films like last year’s The Immigrant. Besides a prudish shopkeeper & an overactive teenage libido, there isn’t much danger in Eilis’ life at all. She loses intimacy with the family & community she left behind in Ireland & they try to suck her back into their world, but for the most part her conflict is internal. Her love for a little James Franco-type Italian weirdo & her transition into a confident, autonomous woman are what drives the narrative, with nearly every other conflict falling into place seemingly without effort.

Saoirse Ronan is an incredibly gifted actor, a world class emoter, and she does as much as she can with Eilis’ torn-between-two-worlds inner-conflict, but it’s difficult to say if the low-stakes narrative she’s afforded is worthy of the quality of her performance. A couple other gifted, familiar faces, including Mad Men‘s Jessica Paré and Frank & Ex Machina‘s Domhnall Gleeson, check in for limited impact, all dressed up with nowhere special to go. The best chance Brooklyn has for finding a longterm audience is in fans of costume dramas & traditional romance plots built on yearning & the threatened development of love triangles. Outside Saoirse Ronan’s effective lead performance, I mostly found the film entertaining as a visual treat. Its costume & set design are wonderful, particularly in the detail of Eilis’ wardrobe – beach wear, summer dresses, cocktail attire, etc. That’s probably far from the kind of distinction the Brooklyn‘s looking for in terms of accolades, but there’s far worse things a film can be than a traditional, well-dressed romance.

-Brandon Ledet