(Video on Demand, August 2015) Writer/Director Andrew Nichols has had a checked career with hits and misses, but he’s almost always interesting and Good Kill certainly fits that description. A five-minutes-in-the-past depiction of what feels like a five-minutes-in-the-future anticipation, this is a film preoccupied not just by military drones, but the people flying them. Our protagonist (played intensely by Ethan Hawke) is an ex-fighter pilot struggling with the ease with which the drones allow consequence-free killing –feeling emasculated, worried about the video-game crazy younger drone operators, and increasingly estranged from his wife. It all leads to a definitive break, but not before musings on the nature of this new kind of war, where decisions come too freely to people safely insulated from the consequences of their killing. It’s not an entirely successful film –January Jones is bland as the housewife, some sequences seem out of place, it’s easy to wish that the ending could have been stronger. But Good Kill is very clever, both with its themes and the way it presents its topic, intentionally contrasting the desert landscape of Las Vegas with those of Afghanistan, the plight of housewives in either places and how even push-button killing takes a toll. It still feels like a strange quasi-science-fictional idea even though it’s all real, and increasingly pertinent as the United States invests more and more heavily in drone warfare. For a writer who also penned Gattaca, S1M0NE and Lord of War, I’d say that this latest film is a pretty good addition to his resume.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) I read Stephenie Meyer’s The Host shortly after publication five years ago, but while I recall buying, reading and eventually giving away the book, I recall almost nothing from the novel beyond “romantic twaddle featuring parasite aliens and teenage love triangles”. As it turns out, this also describes the film pretty well: While The Host features body-riding aliens having taken over Earth in a fit of benevolent eradication, there’s no real science-fiction to be found here: no extrapolation beyond base sentimental melodrama, no extrapolative surprises, no real world-building. It’s not really surprising to see Meyer stick close to what made Twilight such a runaway young-adult success; it’s what she presumably knows and does best –but the real bitter disappointment here is seeing writer/director Andrew Niccol waste his time and energy by slumming in a framework so far away from his cerebral track record: The Host needs a lot of sloppy romanticism to work, but Niccol seems to have far more sympathy for the gleaming-chrome cleanliness of the aliens than for the messy humans in the story. That’s fine (I liked the aliens better than the human as well), but when it’s played straight it means an interminable and somewhat silly film. Saoirse Ronan does as well as she can with the material she has (and it’s a measure of her potential that her reputation as a fine actress will survive this film intact), but The Host is a clear example of how some aspects of a novel don’t survive the literalisation process of the movie medium: Having a protagonist engage in internal dialogue works fine on the page, but just sounds silly on-screen. Saying that the film is aimed at teenage girls sort of misses the point given how many car crashes are crammed in a story that didn’t even have any on the page. Some of the details are mildly entertaining (the cars, the ultra-generic “store”, the mirror-powered cavern fields) but there’s little else to lift the film above its basic problems: The dialogue is bland (try reading the IMDB quotes page and try not to fall asleep), most of the young men of the cast can’t be told apart, the story doesn’t go anywhere interesting once it becomes obvious that Meyer’s intent is far too nice (“You’ve been doing it all wrong!” our protagonist says of the alien-removing effort, “You need to do it with love!”). Give me a year, and I’m pretty sure I will remember nothing more from The Host as a film than I do from the novel.
(In theaters, November 2011) I’m glad to see that writer/director Andrew Niccol is back on-screen after a lengthy hiatus following the memorable Lord of War: With high-concept science-fiction thriller In Time, he recalls his even-more-memorable Gattaca in delivering an intriguing retro-futuristic allegory. In Time’s premise makes no sense, but it’s bluntly delivered within moments of the opening credits: All humans are genetically engineered so that they live “freely” until 25; after that, you have to purchase your own life… to immortality if you have enough time. Never mind how that happened; In Time picks up in a distant future where the system has been operational for centuries and where people never stop to question the artificial nature of the entire construct. That is, until a young day-to-day worker (played with some energy by Justin Timberlake) gets an unexpected gift of centuries and decides to go against the system following the death of his mom. There isn’t that much more plot to the movie than a slide into Bonnie and Clyde territory during the second half, but like Niccol’s own Gattaca and S1m0ne, In Time works far better as a fable than an attempt at realism. The stylised visual design of the film (which mixes influences from the forties to the seventies in a Los Angeles that feels out of time) is a clue that this is not meant to be take entirely at face value. Indeed, it’s a happy accident of release timing that In Time arrives in theaters during the first significant wealth-equality movement in a long time. “Occupy Wall Street” and “We are the 99%” happens to coincide strongly with the film’s populist leanings, and its make the film feel more satisfying in consequence. From a science-fictional perspective, In Time makes little sense either in conception or execution. It does, however, manage to extract quite a bit of mileage out of its premise, and feels like another decent SF movie in a year where (witnessing films such as Source Code, Limitless and The Adjustment Bureau) the genre has been blessed with a few competent outings. I suspect that many non-SF-fans will feel that In Time is a bit too cold and intellectual (a constant in Niccol’s films so far) to be truly satisfying, and they have a point: Still, it’s a decent, thought-provoking film –and let’s hope that Niccol’s next project won’t take another six years to arrive on-screen.
(In theaters, September 2005) Being disappointed with Lord of War feels a lot like being ungrateful given how it’s already better than most of what you’ll see in theatres this year. This docu-drama about the life of an international weapon dealers is heavy in sardonic humour and originality. On the other hand, sometimes it slips and grinds to a halt as it clumsily goes for earnestness when cynicism works so much better. Nicolas Cage works wonders with a role that plays so well with his image, but the real star of the show is writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, S1m0ne). His script, based on real events, offers a unique and even daring look at the recent history of gun-running, with details as fascinating as any documentary. A number of crunchy scenes enliven the show, from a life-of-a-bullet opening credit sequence to the highly entertaining aftermath of an emergency plane landing. The movie suffers from trying a bit too hard to be moral in the last third (we already know that arms dealing is bad, m’kay?), but recovers just in time to conclude with a final three minutes of savage realism. Lord Of War is good, but the worst thing about it is that it’s just good enough to make one see how it could have been even better. It’s sort of a Goodfellas-lite, but it could have been a Goodfellas-full.