“All they ask of us is to stay here. Where it’s safe.”
After the excellent Booksmart, I had high hopes for Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial outing. Sadly, despite its panache, Don’t Worry Darling proves to be a shallow and often repetitive thriller that believes itself to be smarter than it is. The setup is a suitably surreal take on 1960s American suburbia where, like The Stepford Wives, something is palpably wrong. The leads’ idyllic relationship, with excellent performances from Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, is the film’s strength, Wilde’s direction providing eroticism through touch rather than nudity. As Alice becomes increasingly unsettled, the sound mix buzzes around uncomfortably like an insect, reflecting her mental state. Reflections are also a neat visual flourish, with several occasions where mirrors act impossibly. Third act twists are dangerous as they risk alienating an audience and Don’t Worry Darling manages the double sin of being entirely obvious with half of its conceit and entirely out of leftfield with the other. The result is an unsatisfying and disjointed reveal that leaves too little time to explore its ramifications. Chris Pine’s antagonist is overtly based on Jordan Peterson, particularly his obsession with order and chaos, and natural heirarchies, yet the film is content to make this allusion without attempting to debunk or even engage with his ideas. This is the film’s ultimate failure, which is that it never delves beneath the surface in any of its ideas, from cult programming to traditional gender roles to the broader concepts like satisfaction with our reality. There is far more to be gleaned from films with lesser ambitions like The Master or Martha Marcy Mae Marlene.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.
“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.
“We haven’t done anything. We haven’t broken any rules.”
Generally speaking I am not a fan of reductive descriptions like “a female take on Superbad” but in the case of Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut the comparison is apt, not only in its comedic end-of-high-school blowout premise but also in its prevailing themes of identity, social awkwardness, teenage desperation, and friendships on the cusp of change. Leads Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are believable as studious best friends approaching high school graduation and questioning their decision to focus solely on academic success. After seeing her performance, it was little surprise to discover that Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s younger sister, with obvious similarities in their delivery. Although the dialogue lacks the realism of The Edge of Seventeen, the light and witty script keeps things moving at pace. Of particular note is the film’s ability to flesh out a number of its supporting cast beyond their initial one-note stereotypes, paralleling Molly’s realisation that she has done her classmates a disservice by underestimating them. I fear limited marketing may hold Booksmart back on theatrical release but I expect it to find cult success in home viewing.
director: Joseph Kosinski writer: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horrowitz starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde running time: 125 mins rating: PG
“You can have a crack at the old man’s high score.”
As its name suggests, Tron: Legacy is not really a sequel to the 1982 Tron, but rather a standalone new take for a new generation. That said, I cannot quite imagine approaching this film without the original as a reference point. It was a mammoth task from the start and I was sceptical about what I would find, particular when the target audience consists of those too young to recall the original.
The plot is more a morality fable about the danger of chasing perfection. 20 years after Kevin Flynn’s [Jeff Bridges] disappearance, his wild child son Sam [Garrett Hedlund] discovers his father’s secret office and inadvertently gets pulled into the virtual world he created. Inside he finds father’s dream of a perfect world has been subverted into a dictatorship run by the program Clu [Jeff Bridges]. Sam and Kevin together race to escape through the portal back to our reality before Clu can invade with an army. While Tron takes itself seriously, it thankfully avoids attempting realistic explanations for the interaction between its world and ours, which would swiftly unravel. Many concepts and images are touched upon but left as unexplained ideas and the viewer is strongly advised to take a similar approach.
This is essentially fantasy for the digital age, and we meet familiar fairytale personalities: the awkward, wide-eyed innocent Quorra (though she is far from defenceless); the eccentric extrovert information-dealer Zuse; and the merciless authoritarian villain Clu. Bridges, meanwhile, seems to be channelling Lebowski in his zen elder Flynn. Strangely Tron himself is rather overlooked. A superb Daft Punk soundtrack lends a suitably epic feeling, though the electronica retains a fittingly lighter edge than most brashly pounding Zimmer-esque scores.
While certainly not every film ought to be made in 3D, Tron is perfect example of one that should. Its virtual world is brought to life with a sense of hyper-reality in a sequence transitioning between 2D and 3D. Like its predecessor, Legacy utilises every bit of the latest filmmaking technology to bring this stark black-and-neon world to life, and the results are spectacular. Recreating Jeff Bridges circa 1982 is an impressive feat, but the disconcertingly inhuman mouth movements make it evident that the digital actor is still not yet here. One might have forgiven this in the artificial Clu, but alongside other real-looking ‘programs’ he always stands out.
Tron‘s biker fashion has been somewhat fetishised, while the retuned light cycles pack some new tricks that are a not necessarily an improvement in crafting tense moments. Nevertheless the choreography shows a liberating understanding of the lack of rules in virtual combat, with some gravity defying stunts and a varied arsenal of glowing digital equipment. Ultimately it’s the old gear that works best however: our first glimpse of the iconic and imposing Recognizer is as powerful as ever.
Fans can rest easy that they should be more than happy with this beautiful, atmospheric return trip, but it is difficult to evaluate the response of a newcomer. Like Avatar, Tron‘s strength lies not in its story but in providing an incredible world for the viewer to experience. The original Tron was our first glimpse at a virtual world populated by avatars that has since become a reality. With Legacy, I wonder what the new generation — many of whom have grown up with these worlds — may find. While the stunning effects will have them craving more, the imprecise visual metaphors may leave them wanting.