“This dream you’re chasing, where you end up at the top of the mountain, all eyes on you… it’s the dream you never wake up from.”
Marketed as an extraterrestrial mystery, Jordan Peele’s third feature seems structured haphazardly as it morphs into a classic monster movie befitting the 70mm projection I saw. Its intention to obfuscate emerges from its opening with two separate and bloody prologues, followed by a long and meandering opening act that follows two sibling horse-wranglers — one laconically disengaged and the other energetically grating. The most enjoyable films of this type either trim the fat and dive straight into the meat like Tremors or focus almost entirely on the human relationships like Monsters. Nope lies somewhere between, though it tends toward the latter with Peele’s script exploring the capitalist tendencies that lead the siblings to an obsession with capturing footage of the UFO that they can exploit, whilst a nearby amusement park owner seeks to turn it into a crowd-pleasing spectacle. A particularly uncomfortable scene demonstrates the extent to which Yuen’s character is willing to market his own childhood trauma, a discarded subplot that is arguably more interesting. The film’s second half is more straightforward but also more successful, with familiar scenes as the characters learn the rules of interacting with the entity, and jury-rig solutions out in the California desert, its wide expanse of hills and skies captured dramatically by Hoyte Van Hoytema. With its overarching themes about humanity’s desire to control and exploit nature — and the risk in attempting to do so — Nope is not really covering new ground for the genre, but it is still an impressively-made throwback.
“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”
Although Her is ostensibly science fiction — one of its central characters is a sentient artificially intelligent operating system — Spike Jonze approaches this ambitious film as a traditional love story in which one of the participants simply lacks corporeal form. Theodore and Samantha’s chemistry rests as much on Scarlett Johanssen’s charm and curiosity through just a disembodied voice (no doubt recorded with a great deal of direction when she replaced Samantha Morton who originally voiced the role during filming) as it does on Joaquin Phoenix’s presence onscreen. Jonze uses the premise of this unusual relationship to deconstruct the loneliness of modern life as we regard one another from an increasing distance and — one decade and a global pandemic later — his vision of how our computer-dominated society is evolving feels eerily accurate. Theodore, sympathetically underplayed by Phoenix, is a kind and creative man struggling with divorce and, although he has friends and colleagues who like him, only his OS seems to understand how to support him. Whatever one’s view of the relationship, its effects on Theodore are tangible, and that is where Her, with its non-judgmental perspective, truly fascinates.
“What’s happened, happened. Which is an expression of fate in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”
Leaving aside Christopher Nolan’s misguided messianic desire to be the saviour of cinemas in the midst of a pandemic, Tenet is an ambitiously crafted, big budget disappointment. Relative perception of time has a been a consistent theme throughout most of Nolan’s filmmaking, manifesting here in the form of “inversion” whereby people and objects can be manipulated to move through time in reverse. This culminates in a couple of densely choreographed action sequences in the film’s final hour which operate with some characters moving forward through time and others in reverse. Unfortunately, the preceding hour and a half of less creative action and obtuse discussion by emotionally vacant characters will exhaust many viewers’ patience, worsened by Nolan’s oft-criticised sound mixing, frequently rendering dialogue incomprehensible as it is muffled by masks or overpowered by the soundtrack. Nolan’s past scripts demonstrate his capability at effectively communicating high concept ideas, be it the realistic time dilation of Interstellar or the multi-layered dreamworlds of Inception. By contrast, the rules by which Tenet operates only really come into focus as the film ends, rendering most of the action little more than pretty spectacle without clear stakes. Perhaps the intention is to force multiple viewings but nothing about Tenet is engaging enough to warrant the time investment.
“I do what I do because of my dad. He was a hero. He gave his life for the pursuit of knowledge. Because up there is where our story is going to be told.”
Ad Astra (literally “to the stars”) is the kind of slow and thoughtful science fiction, grounded in reality and exploring themes of humanity, that takes time to percolate after the credits roll. It lies somewhere between Moon, with a gradually emerging mystery, and Gravity, with most of its peril coming from the very real dangers of space. Despite its scale, spanning the solar system, Ad Astra is a supremely personal story and Pitt acts largely with his eyes, his focused steady gaze as the unflappable astronaut gradually giving way to doubt. He is driven to discover what became of his father’s pioneering mission to Neptune and we see in both men how heroic determination leads to an unscientific need to be right, but it is in shedding those ideas of cold masculinity and accepting the fragility of his isolation that Roy emerges a far stronger figure than his father.