Futuristic organized crime uses time travel to send the condemned into the past to be killed and disposed of. One of the condemned is set to be murdered by his past self.
Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt
Review by Jon Kissel
Any science fiction concept has to establish rules. How is this world different, and with one limit removed, what are the new limits? So many films get tripped up at this requirement. Get too complex, and the film becomes a maze. Fail to demonstrate the rules visually, and the viewer’s in a lecture. Time travel is particularly susceptible to these kinds of traps. Everyone with a working memory can imagine going back in time, but the rules of such a thing are impossible to conceive. The emotional stakes get lost in the mechanics and the timelines and the paradoxes, when the root question, as it is in all sci-fi, is simply ‘What if?’ Rian Johnson undoubtedly wrestled with how to bridge all of this and more when he was writing his 2012 breakthrough Looper. Whether it was always his intention to have his characters dismiss the intricacies of what it would physically mean to go back in time and sit down at a diner with one’s younger self, or if he cut a 10-minute sequence that laid out what can and cannot happen, that disinterest in indulging the Reddit crowd who might’ve dissected this film as intricately as they pick at Johnson’s Last Jedi fight scenes becomes what makes Looper so distinctive. Johnson frees the viewer from having to understand and gives them permission to feel the impact of what the characters are doing and why. We can’t travel in time but we can think about changing the narrative of a person’s life, of what is worth hanging onto at all costs, of how much evil can be endured in pursuit of a good end. Give me the film that prompts those questions every time over the dry intellectual exercises in Primer or Tenet.
David Fincher’s first film, Alien3, infamously begins with all the hard sacrifice from its action crowd-pleaser predecessor up in smoke before the opening credits are finished. Ellen Ripley’s surrogate daughter and potential love interest that she’s both saved from the alien queen don’t survive a crash landing on a prison planet, and the movie continues without them. That kind of ruthlessness will be with Fincher throughout the rest of his career. As bleak as his debut is, he tops himself with his smash hit follow-up Seven, a serial killer noir that constructs the worst contemporary world possible and dares the viewer to find a glimmer of hope. Featuring career-changing performances from its main cast and a series of unforgettable images, Seven stamped Fincher as a major filmmaker, an iconoclast who rejected audience expectations and kept coming back to whatever fucked up thing popped into his head.
Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, my favorite book, doesn’t introduce its protagonist or any of its main characters for its first sixty pages. As is typical of sprawling 19th century novels, the lengthy prologue is given over to historical scene-setting through the eyes of a minor character, the bishop who will set Jean Valjean on his path to redemption. One of these early chapters is given over to the bishop’s encounter with a dying revolutionary who was present at the major events of the French Revolution some decades earlier. The bishop starts off indignant about all the crimes of the Reign of Terror, especially against Queen Marie Antoinette and her children, but the revolutionary grants him sympathy for them if he’ll extend the same sympathy to the millions who suffered under absolute monarchy. Focusing on well-known sufferers is a choice that lacks scope and imagination, memorably described by Hugo as taking in the thunderbolt and ignoring the storm clouds that made it possible. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is all thunderbolt, a fatally flawed film whose considerable style and technical mastery cannot overshadow how perverse it is to frame Madame Deficit as any kind of victim of the patriarchy. History or feminism owes this person nothing, and no small amount of pleasure is taken from knowing that many of the people onscreen , including her, are going to get theirs. However, if a film is going to be this unnecessary, it may as well be as fun as this one is.
Steven Soderbergh's Contagion remains one of my favorite films of the 21st century because it so perfectly mixes the rational and the emotional. In its well-researched and coherent vision of what a deadly pandemic might look like, it perfectly balances the what-if exercises of the head with the human drama of the heart. Denis Villeneuve's Arrival attempts to replicate that finely-tuned mixture, as applied to an alien encounter. It eschews Soderbergh's global approach for a localized one in which a team of US scientists tries to establish contact with the visitors. The events of Arrival feel ripped from the pages of a history book, and that verisimilitude should make it a can't miss for this lover of competence-porn in many of his favorite films. However, Arrival’s strength towards the head is mucked up when it tries to go for the heart. Villeneuve frequently has this problem, where a provocative premise is fouled when he fails to expand it from the specific to the universal. Of his English-speaking works, this film contains his baldest pitch towards emotionality, but like Prisoners and Sicario, there's a chill in spite of the considerable filmmaking powers on display.
Hayao Miyazaki released his ultimate homage to the wonder of childhood in 1988 with My Neighbor Totoro, but he wasn’t finished dissecting the first phases of life. A year later, his follow-up Kiki’s Delivery Service provides a melancholic look at adolescence, smuggled in amongst an adventure story about a witch establishing herself in a new city. It’s not surprising that Miyazaki and his fellow artists at Studio Ghibli would add depth to their films, but it is surprising in this particular package, an underappreciated gem compared to the recognition of Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke. Kiki’s Delivery Service is another of Miyazaki’s low-stakes stories without an antagonist, but when a studio makes some of the best hang-out movies in cinematic history, who needs major conflicts?
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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