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.
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.
There was a brief period where I thought The Brood was the Cronenbergiest David Cronenberg film, in which a psychiatric drug has the unfortunate side effect of causing horrible growths that become toothless monsters. That title was later taken by Videodrome, in which James Woods develops an organic gun hand and VCR stomach. Dead Ringers, with its drug-addled gynecologists and their insect-appendage-like tools, should've been the new champion, but for a film with that description, it was surprisingly restrained. After watching eXistenZ, I can confidently say it reigns supreme, as it Cronenberged all over the screen. Enthralling in its fleshy transgressiveness, Cronenberg's 1999 sci-fi puzzler is easily the best film of that year involving digital realities reached through bio-ports installed on humans, all while avoiding the philosophical natterings of The Matrix (which beat eXistenZ to theaters by a month). There's no bullet time here, but who needs it when the world construction is this intricate.
Contact is about nothing more than humanity's place in the universe and how we see ourselves fitting into it. This breadth is fitting for writers like Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, whose earlier work in TV includes the seminal series Cosmos. Sagan, an astronomer and brilliant science communicator, died shortly before Contact's release, but Contact is an often-beautiful distillation of his worldview and his way of thinking. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster, Contact brings Sagan briefly back to life, asking the kinds of questions he asked through his scientifically-skeptical outlook. It's not a perfect film, but it is one made specifically for me.
If the Matrix Resurrections is to be believed, every property that belongs to a movie studio will be recirculated and rehashed ad infinitum. A creator can take the paycheck and churn out some mindless pap that evaporates the second the viewer leaves the theater, or they can see what they can get away with and make something visionary and idiosyncratic. The best scenario is Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that somehow sharpened its action choreography on top of a visceral, heart-grabbing hymn about the righteousness of freedom. The worst case is 2011’s Robocop, a soulless cash grab and a thin shadow of its former self. To Lana Wachowski’s great credit, she won’t let her, and her absent sister Lily’s, work be thrown to some director-for-hire, and she made a fourth entry that is exactly what she wanted to make. Kudos for receiving a reported production budget of $190 million and making fun of the studio that gave it to you. However, Lana, and maybe Lilly too, have lost whatever it was that produced the Matrix 22 years ago, and Matrix Resurrections is a sappy academic exercise in search of stakes and compelling interest. The original Matrix, and at least Matrix Reloaded, started with world-building and action and the charisma of its actors and layered philosophy and meta-commentary on top of it. Matrix Resurrections inverts the pyramid, boring the viewer with the commentary and turning everything that follows into an unmotivated slog.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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