Threads

The mid-1980s were a great time for horror movies–Jason, Freddy, Michael, poltergeists, werewolves, and all their many companions. But on the cusp of the Cold War’s end, nuclear destruction was probably the biggest threat in our collective imagination. And in illustrating that threat, the legendary TV movie Threads  manages to be one of the most frightening films ever made without anything supernatural at all. 

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ThreadsFirst broadcast in 1984, Threads is deceptively mundane and remarkably familiar in its background details. 

There is a recession, conflicts in Afghanistan and Iran, rising tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Russia, protests, police violence, growing internal political strife–proof that the more things change, the more they don’t. 

The story as it is opens in blue-collar Sheffield, England, framed around an unplanned pregnancy and the two families dealing with it when their world ends. These characters are the nominal protagonists, lab rats demonstrating all the expected effects. One of them even survives long enough to see society beginning to recover. But the characters are kept at a clinical remove. Somehow, that makes the whole experience more horrifying. They could be anyone. They could be us.

***

ThreadsStep by step, the voiceover and on-screen text explain the preparations, the timeline, the circumstances. It shows us the piece by piece dismantling of life as we know it. Based on documented societal collapses and well-educated speculation, Threads is a steady drumbeat of the known and possible outcomes of a nuclear war.

Objectively, there is little about Threads that is genre. Yet it builds such dread, such despair, with it’s simple presentation, that it cannot be anything but horror. There is precious little character development. The special effects are rudimentary. The script is entirely exposition. And yet the impression it makes lasts. 

***

There is a reason Threads is as revered as it is. It works–too well. The two hours are grueling viewing, and in my opinion far more terrifying than 1983’s identically-themed  The Day After. With low-budget practical effects and well-used stock footage, Threads creates a post-apocalyptic nightmare scenario that is all too believable. 

This one is a must-see. Once will be enough.

blood quantum

Blood Quantum presents its take on the zombie apocalypse with a sure hand and a wry sense of humor. It starts in the usual place, and follows the generally accepted plot line of zombie flicks, but it also chooses a much-needed new perspective. By focusing the story on the experiences and actions of its First Nations characters, we get a view of the end of one world from another one that may just survive.

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blood quantumSet in 1981 on the Red Crow Reservation in Quebec, Blood Quantum wastes no time in diving into the beginnings of the plague. To do so, it relies on most of the instantly-familiar tropes of zombie horror. As always, people begin to act strangely. Animals won’t stay dead. People become violent, dangerous, bitey. Chaos erupts at the hospital. Things go downhill fast. 

The zombies here are dubbed “zeds”, and the tribe figures out very quickly that headshots are the best method of stopping them–but they still burn the bodies to be sure. The tribe also figures out very quickly that this plague turns White people into zeds, and that Indigenous people are immune.

Six months later finds the reservation transformed into an armed compound, with the Red Crow tribe holding their own and rescuing what White survivors they can. But there are long-standing family conflicts, wide-open racial wounds, and the question of how dangerous or vulnerable a new baby will be. As always, somebody lets the zombies loose in the middle of it.

***

The actors are excellent in roles that are familiar, but still outside the usual zombie apocalypse range.

Michael Greyeyes brings a believable dedication to Traylor, the reservation sheriff.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is frustrated, competent, and caring as Joss, a nurse and Traylor’s ex-wife

Forrest Goodluck plays Joss’s and Traylor’s son, Joseph, as a good person struggling to make better choices.

Kiowa Gordon is Traylor’s other son, Lysol, who has already embraced his rage at what the world has handed him.

Stonehorse Lone Goeman gives Gisigu, Traylor’s father, both wit and gravitas as an elder intending to make a stand.

Olivia Scriven is sympathetic as Joseph’s pregnant, White girlfriend, Charlie, who’s condition raises both real-world and horror movie questions.

***

blood quantumI was struck by how beautifully filmed Blood Quantum is. It opens with a spinning shot of sea and sky, bridge and shoreline, before it descends into the reservation and the town. There are brief segments of animation mixed into the live action, bringing to mind the spaciness and style of Mandy but on a more human level.

The gorgeousness extends to the splatter, as well. And there is a lot of it. Beside the thoughtful sociological issues it raises, Blood Quantum is a good, gleeful, old-fashioned gore-fest. 

It is full of great effects, from the makeup to the sunlight glistening off entrails to the creative destruction of various zeds. 

***

My takeaway? Tight, engaging, and fast-paced, Blood Quantum packs a lot of story into an hour and a half. It raises issues that need to acknowledged, while still delivering a great little horror movie. This is definitely one to watch, and relish, more than once.

la llorona

La Llorona, director Jayro Bustamante’s new interpretation of the popular legend, is a deeply affecting ghost story. Without any gore or jump scares, its terrors become more insidious, its horrors far more personal. In this version, the troubled spirit is not the source of fear for the people she haunts. She is more like them than they wish to admit.

Set against the long aftermath of the Guatemalan civil war, La Llorona is measured, deliberate and stylized, with a subdued palette and muted background noises. The film is full of whispers, of weeping, of running water, of billowing white curtains. Alzheimer’s is suggested. Superstitions abound. The real threats are internal, no matter what happens outside. 

***

la LloronaThe story opens as General Monteverde is finally tried for his crimes against the indigenous Mayan-Ixil people during the civil war in the 1980s–burning their homes and crops, raping, killing, stealing their land for its oil. The survivors’ testimony is grim. The General is convicted of genocide. The liberating verdict is annulled by the courts.

In the chaos following his acquittal, the General and his family retreat to his compound. It is not a comfortable place any longer. All but one of his servants abandon him. Protestors mass outside the gates, demanding justice, becoming increasingly violent. The family’s lives begin unraveling under the pressure.

And then a woman, Alma, knocks at the door and is allowed to enter. With her arrival, the family’s falling apart begins in earnest. 

***

The small cast is outstanding.

Maria Mercedes Coroy portrays Alma with dreamy grace and determination, as the lost, searching soul she is. 

Sabrina De La Hoz brings a sense of constant worry as the General’s daughter Natalia. She doubts her father’s innocence, in war and in family matters.

Margarita Kenéfic is haughty and cool as Carmen Monteverde, the General’s wife and Natalia’s mother. She refuses to believe her husband committed the atrocities he is accused of, but she suspects him of other betrayals.

Ayla-Elea Hurtador is gentle as Natalia’s daughter Sara, a lonely girl who befriends the mysterious Alma and begins to learn some of her secrets.

María Telón is stoic and dedicated as the family’s remaining servant, Valeriana. She understands more of her circumstances than she lets on.

Julio Diaz plays General Enrique Monteverde as an old lion, fading but still trying to wield the power he once had. He may be slipping into dementia, but he is still dangerous.

Juan Pablo Olyslager plays the General’s bodyguard Letona with a sense of hero-worship, but an underlying kindness.

***

la LloronaThis La Llorona explores the intimate damage done under the excuse of war. The pain that the aging General Monteverde has caused to the Guatemalan people and to his own family is laid bare. While women are the primary victims of the General’s crimes and infidelities, Bustamante gives the female characters real growth and agency. They lose faith in the General. They stand up to him. They diminish him. They achieve some measure of closure for what he has done.

Bustamante presents his retelling as the tragedy it is, and makes its ghosts as real as the living characters. This La Llorona is well worth seeking out.

Color Out of Space

 

Color Out of Space has been on my radar for a long time. H.P. Lovecraft. Nicolas Cage. Cosmic horror and vigorous over-emoting. What’s not to love?

It turns out, more than I hoped there would be.

***

Directed and co-written by Richard Stanley, Color Out of Space opens beautifully, with haunting vistas that set a mood of wildness and isolation.This is almost immediately shattered by a main character showing up wearing a Miskatonic University tee shirt. The film is littered with many other similar, unnecessary call-outs to HPL– a paperback copy of The Necronomicon being the most egregious–that strike me as attempts to build a credibility the movie doesn’t need. Stanley is able to evoke the blind horror of the utterly unknown and build to a stunning conclusion without having to put his inspirations on display.

For all its flaws, Color Out of Space is a remarkably well-realized vision of Lovecraft’s story. Stanley faithfully captures the essential ideas behind it. Weirdness bleeds from almost every scene. The inexplicable alien menace grows until it overwhelms. There is no happy ending–especially not for the characters who survive.

***

Those poor characters.

Because of the script’s weaknesses and the direction’s inconsistency, the characters are almost afterthoughts to the action. Backstory details are dropped in without any context or relevance. Family interactions become non-sequiturs as parents and children talk past each other or shift emotional gears midstream without warning or provocation. There is an awful shortsightedness to how the characters are presented–there is no sense of them being a family, or of them even existing in any meaningful way.

I blame this on the direction, simply because of the competency of the cast. Good actors can transcend a limp script, but not indecisive, inconsistent direction. 

Nicolas Cage’s Nathan Gardner is all over the map–angsty, maniacal, befuddled. Perhaps if Cage had been allowed to take it all the way over the top he would have been more convincing.

As his wife, Theresa, Joely Richardson seems thoroughly disconnected. I don’t think she knows what she is supposed to do with her character.

Madeleine Arthur as their daughter Lavinia gives a genuinely strong performance. Her witchy power is diminished by weak, often inane dialogue. Elliot Knight as the narrator and sort-of-hero Ward Phillips also gives a comparatively steady performance despite the uneven demands made of his character. 

Unfortunately, Brendan Meyer as the family’s older son, Benny, is saddled with “stoner” as his defining trait and doesn’t really move past it.  Speaking of stoners, Tommy Chong as the mystical squatter Ezra iplays the same character he usually plays–but among the general chaos he is at least believable.  

Rounding out the main cast we have Q’orianka Kilcher appearing briefly as Mayor Tooma, an otherwise talented actress given a pointless role. She at least fared better than poor Julian Hilliard, who as Jack existed merely as a plot device.

***

For me, Color Out of Space produces a weird cognitive dissonance that has nothing to do with the source material. While I can’t say I truly liked it, I do recommend it.

As a comeback film for Richard Stanley, Color Out of Space does what it needs to do. His vision is gorgeous and clear, and his interpretation of the source material captures its bleak and dreadful feel. Despite awkward performances that made my skin crawl for all the wrong reasons, when it came time to bring the unspeakable alien horror crashing down the movie absolutely nails it. The ending is as overwhelming and hopeless as being swept out to sea. 

As many times as I have read Lovecraft’s story, I never saw it. Not like this. 

It seems Stanley did.

 

Dead don't die

The Dead Don’t Die is nothing but delightful. Jim Jarmusch’s star-laden zombie flick is part homage, part send-up, and entirely, absurdly, hilariously meta. I laughed. A lot.

In addition to an amazing number of Romero references, Jarmusch infuses The Dead Don’t Die with bits of Phantasm, The Walking Dead, and even a healthy dose of Plan 9 From Outer Space. I’m sure I missed others, because many of the tropes he so pointedly played on are almost standard-issue for the movies he mocks.

***

The set-up is familiar: Man’s quest for cheap energy has knocked the earth off its axis. Terrible things are happening. The sun doesn’t set. Animals run away. The moon gives off strange rays. And the dead are up and walking around.

It’s a good thing that the people of Centerville know a zombie apocalypse when they see one.

***

In tribute to the low-budget zombie movies of yore, The Dead Don’t Die features low-tech zombie makeup, cheap special effects, and wonderfully stilted dialogue. It would be inaccurate to call many of the small details foreshadowing, since the film’s assumption is that the audience already knows how this story goes.

The cast certainly does.

The players are a mix of Jarmusch regulars and new faces along for the ride. Bill Murray and Adam Driver as most of Centerville’s police force step in and out of character seamlessly to discuss random details and bicker about the script. Tilda Swinton gleefully chews the scenery as a katana-wielding Scottish mortician. Tom Waits, Chloë Sevigny, the ever-quirky Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, and Caleb Landry Jones back them up as assorted varieties of townsfolk. A slew of other famous and familiar actors round out the cast in smaller roles and in cameos–as zombies and their first victims.

***

From Tom Waits’s framing moral philosophy to Tilda Swinton’s extraordinarily pointless deus ex machina, The Dead Don’t Die delivers exactly what you would expect from a cheesy zombie movie, but with a wonderful awareness of its conventions.The actors, for the most part, play it straight–which only serves to exaggerate the irony of the dialogue and the deadpan inversion of predictable situations.

Despite decidedly mixed reviews, I found The Dead Don’t Die to be quite simply brilliant. It’s an affectionate take on a nearly tapped-out genre, delivered by people who seem to revel in the silliness. And that’s my kind of summer movie.

lurker in the lobby

Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft is an older but still handy guide to the many attempts made at filming Lovecraft’s cosmically weird tales. Authors Andrew Migliore and John Strysik bring a fan’s enthusiasm to the project, producing an often unpolished but still joyful compendium of Lovecraftian media. They approach their subject from several different angles, and end up giving quite a rich experience to their readers.

***

Since Lurker in the Lobby dates from 2006, it serves primarily as an historical reference. But what a history! The authors cover all the major films to that point, from Quartermass to The Thing to Dagon, with many familiar and lesser-known movies in between.

And when seen through the right lens, Lovecraftian elements show up in many places you wouldn’t normally think to look. Unexpected additions to the movie list include The Trollenberg Terror (1958) with its giant crawling eyes, Uzumaki (2000), based on a horror manga, and The Maze (1953), about the classically subversive threat of hereditary evil.

The television show list is also surprising, with Lovecraftian themes and references showing up not just in the usual horror anthology series but in the Saturday morning cartoons, as well.

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But while the capsule reviews of the movies and TV shows are great fun, the interviews end up slowing the book down. Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Roger Corman, Jeffrey Coombs, and Bernie Wrightson are among the luminaries the Lurker spoke with, and their interest in Lovecraft and filmmaking is inspiring. But the overall tone of the interviews is uneven. The questions are fairly formulaic and not particularly probing. They end abruptly. And while many of the interviewees have long had an active interest in the source material, others are included only by the chance of having worked on an adaptation.

***

To round out their offerings, the authors include a picture gallery featuring art by Richard Corben, Mike Migliore, and Bernie Wrightson, a pretty thorough list of short Lovecraft adaptations, and an index of feature films listed by year and again by the story that provided the basis for them.

So while it is imperfect and rough around the edges, Lurker in the Lobby is still an essential read. It is an affectionate look at some of the many, many films and filmmakers inspired by Lovecraft, presented in a way that can only inspire more.

captain marvel

Captain Marvel’s reviews are all in, and the arguments for and against her are in full swing. I’m not going to get involved in either, really. I have my own thoughts on the latest entry in the MCU. My standard disclaimer is that I am not familiar with the original (or multiply retconned) comic book version of the character. So this is the best chance for Captain Marvel to make a good impression.

***

While it is formulaic (and really, what expensive studio blockbuster isn’t?), it’s no surprise that Captain Marvel ticked all the boxes for me. It has well-drawn and well-played characters, an exciting, nicely-paced plot, and an emotionally honest core.

As a film, Captain Marvel is not as epic as I was expecting, yet it is still satisfying enough. Despite all the excitement and hype around it, this is, after all, an origin story. I think origin stories are by their very nature lower-key–especially when they spread out to cover multiple origins. In addition to the transformation of Carol Danvers, we get to see Nick Fury’s initial inspiration for the Avengers, and are given a glimpse of the little girl who will also, someday, be Captain Marvel. And since the Marvel machine is nothing but efficient at connecting dots, we’ll get a heaping dose of epic to make up for anything we missed when Avengers: Endgame opens.

But epic isn’t actually enough. To me, the reason the Marvel movies work so well is the casting. It’s A-list all the way. Brie Larson brings a convincing sharp humor, insouciance, and and appropriate arrogance to her Carol Danvers– a woman who does difficult things well, and knows it. Lashana Lynch exudes the same capability and confidence in her role as Carol’s best friend, Maria. Annette Benning is a pleasure to watch as both a force of mercy and a means of control. Samuel L. Jackson continues to be his remarkable self, and Jude Law turns in another reliably sturdy performance.

***

This is one superhero movie that passes the Bedchel test with flying colors, with the story driven by the relationships between Danvers, Mar-Vell/Lawson, Rambeau, and Monica. It is refreshingly free of romantic subplots or flirtations, and allows its female characters to exist simply as people.

I’m not entirely comfortable with how much that stands out for me–because what does it say about all the other MCU films out there that I’ve also enjoyed?

Another response I didn’t expect to have is to wonder how well Carol Danvers will handle Captain Marvel’s immense power. Maybe it was the Dark Phoenix trailer that triggered my train of thought, but it strikes me that many of Marvel’s most powerful superheroes are haunted by psychological issues, as they struggle to balance their humanity against their almost god-like abilities. Scarlet Witch, multiple X-Men, even Wade Wilson all wrestle with it. Perhaps the arrogance that comes of being a highly-trained, highly- skilled Air Force test pilot (or highly-skilled surgeon, in the case of Doctor Strange) overrides the expected mortal weaknesses.

***

So, in summation: It made me think, but not about the storyline or, specifically, the characters. Not much new to see but well worth seeing, if only for the questions it raises outside the limits of the MCU.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is absolutely delightful. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, the 2010 Finnish comedy-horror film has a sly sense of humor, a creepy troupe of monsters, and a youthful sense of wonder. Based on his somewhat grimmer 2003 and 2005 shorts, the full-length version of Rare Exports plays like a children’s movie that took a left turn at Albuquerque and just kept on going.

rare exports

***

Rare Exports’s plot is quite simple, resembling nothing so much as a strange, silly fairy tale. It is set just before Christmas, on Korvatunturi Mountain at the Finnish-Russian border. Legend has it that the mountain is a vast grave where ancient Laplanders buried the frozen body of a gigantic demon.

A foreign mining company is excavating there, looking for the legend. They uncover something big, and dangerous–especially if you misbehave. Pietari, a young boy who still believes in Santa Claus, accidently sees what the miners have dug up and realizes that he will need to work fast to keep his family safe.

No-one believes Pietari’s warnings. But when his father captures a bloodthirsty, not-so-jolly old elf and tries to sell him back to the mining company, they discover that the elf is not the real problem at all. And so Pietari takes control of the situation, ordering his father and the other men around according to his own clever plan and ultimately saving the day.

rare exports***

The cast is outstanding. Onni Tommila and his father, Jorma, play the heroic Pietari and his father, Rauno. Ilmari Järvenpää plays Pietari’s slightly older and cooler friend, Juuso, while Tommi Korpela plays Juuso’s English-speaking dad Aimo. Rauno Juvonen rounds out the group as Piiparinen, Rauno’s friend and sometime village Santa Claus–the traditional kind.

rare exports***

Rare Exports’s horror element is not exactly horrifying. The dirty, feral, naked old elves are as ridiculous as they are dangerous. They are Santa’s helpers, all right, eating gingerbread, sniffing the air for children, killing anyone who curses, drinks, or smokes, and working to release their master from his imprisonment. Wisely, Rare Exports’s monster-Santa is left to our imaginations, showing up as illustrations in various old books and as a huge pair of curved horns jutting out of an enormous block of ice.

The comedy is rather gentle, as well. Pietari, his father, and their friends tend toward goofiness rather than cruelty, and they are all basically honest people. But that does not mean there isn’t a lot of blood. Pietari’s dad butchers reindeer for a living. Somebody loses an ear. The elves do their killing with shovels and pickaxes. Gore happens, but somehow the movie manages to keep the mood light and playful.

I think the never ending supply of gingerbread has something to do with it.

***

Will Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale become a holiday staple like It’s a Wonderful Life, or Gremlins? Maybe. It certainly has plenty of family warmth, charm, and the magic of the season to go with its murderous elves and commercial aspirations.

And really, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

don't look now

don't look nowNicholas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now has long been considered a classic of the horror genre. But it was the director’s recent death that inspired me to finally watch it. I’m glad I did. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s chilly short story, Don’t Look Now is not just a grim, ghostly tale. In fact, the supernatural elements are background to the central agony. Don’t Look Now is a study in two people crumbling under the weight of grief, and watching their pain is disturbing in a way that monsters cannot be.

Nothing Is What It Seems

Don’t Look Now is driven by the painfully direct performances of Donald Sutherland as John Baxter, and Julie Christie as Laura Baxter. Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania are more collected as the sisters Heather and Wendy. The rest of the cast manages a consistent, cool disconnectedness from the Baxters’ pain.

don't look nowThe story begins with a tragedy. John and Laura Baxter have moved to Venice temporarily, following the accidental drowning of their daughter, Christine. John is preoccupied with his work restoring an ancient church, while Laura is left at loose ends.

Laura is on the verge of a breakdown. John is distant. Their marriage is fraying.

When they meet a pair of sisters, one of whom claims to be clairvoyant, Laura attaches herself to them. They tell Laura that her daughter is there, with her parents, and happy. They also warn her that John is in danger, and needs to leave Venice.

Laura is thrilled to know her daughter is happy, and actively chooses the comforting fantasy while still urging her husband to go home until the threat is past. John believes the sisters are running a scam of some sort, yet he begins to notice a small, cloaked figure that he conflates with his daughter. As the film progresses, John’s and Laura’s beliefs see-saw between what is true, what is imagined, and what they want to be real.

don't look nowThe sense of dread in Don’t Look Now comes from the reactions John and Laura have to their daughter’s death. While Laura is heartbreakingly fragile, John too is coming apart at the seams. He tries to appease his wife, indulging her growing friendship with the sisters. But when he snaps at her that their daughter is “dead, dead, dead” she places the blame on him so blithely, so matter-of-factly, that its impact is stunning.

A Study in Scarlet

Don’t Look Now has few secrets after forty five years, but its impact is still profound. Stylized and portentous, the story is doled out in intercut scenes and flashes of memory. Roeg’s technique keeps the viewer off-balance without confusing the narrative. The once-shocking sex scene has become tame over the years, but the graphic pain of Christine drowning will never dim.

don't look nowThe use of the colour red throughout is already well-known, as is the recurring motif of water–flowing, spilling, dripping. Onscreen the juxtaposition of colour and texture is absorbing, pulling the viewer into the subtly threatening world of the film. Close-ups of the actors create an uncomfortable effect. Rather than inspiring intimacy, they become alienating. We are shown things that may or may not exist outside the characters’ imaginations. We are left as lost as they are.

The muddy ugliness of the child’s death is echoed by the dank loneliness of Venice. The city is filmed as dim and full of echoes, with too many dark, empty alleys to get lost in. And although Laura and John are familiar with Venice and its old ways, they remain outsiders. There is a distance between the English visitors and the native city dwellers expressed through unreadable expressions and dismissive questions, and attitudes that treat the Baxters as difficult and troublesome.

Dead, Dead, Dead

Roeg’s film is a classic for a reason, and I recommend it for what it reveals. The horror infecting Don’t Look Now is not the supernatural. It is the inescapable pain of loss. Loss drives the characters to believe in the impossible, to follow leads they know are lies, to pretend everything is finally all right. None of it works. The only escape is, at last, to break with the real world and accept the ghosts.

automata

automataAutomata, a bit of Spanish-Bulgarian science fiction from 2014, begins in familiar territory. A post-apocalyptic world. A monolithic city with the remains of humanity huddled inside. A vast, radioactive wasteland. And, naturally, sentient robots.

Many films have made these components work. But despite some talented actors, dramatic scenery, and the best of intentions, Automata does not manage to bring its vision fully to life. After a strong start, Automata falls into the trap of easy sentimentality and loses its way.

***

Automata is set in 2044, after the world has effectively ended. Humankind has been reduced to a only few million, living in fortress-like cities and served by ROC Corporation’s Pilgrim 7000s–humanoid robots designed for protection and manual labor. The robots operate under two immutable protocols: They cannot cause harm to any living thing, and they cannot repair or modify themselves or any other robot.

And then, one is discovered making its own modifications.

Insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan is assigned to find out who broke the robotic protocols and enabled the robot’s new ability. His search leads him deep into the remains of society’s underbelly, where he encounters dirty cops, dirtier corporate enforcers, child assassins, robotic sex slaves, black market “clocksmiths,” and, eventually, evolving, self-determining robots.

***

automataVisually, the cityscape is very much Blade Runner, right down to the rain, but without all the teeming people. The depopulation aspect spoke more to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, while the dull cubicle apartments hearkened back to Brazil.

Yet despite its obvious derivativeness, Automata’s worldbuilding is pretty good. The aged machinery, the old cars, and the ancient tech all contribute to the weariness of the world. What is left is either industrial and dirty, with monolithic structures and walls, piles of garbage, or a bleak, dusty wasteland. The culture is adapted to the conditions without becoming outlandish. The slang seems unforced, with the bulky robots nicknamed “clunkers” and the radioactive desert called the Sandbox.

But Automata is less successful with building its characters.

***

automataThe cast, overall, is overqualified and quite good, but many of the roles are flatly written or simply stock-types, too underdeveloped to be fully alive.

Antonio Banderas stars as Jacq Vaucan, an insurance investigator sucked into the heart of a mystery. He is as brooding and mournful as ever, bringing a believable jadedness to his character. Dylan McDermott is threatening, cynical, and wasted as the corrupt cop, Wallace. Robert Forster plays Jacq’s supervisor Robert Bold believably as a worn-down but still compassionate company man. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen plays Jacq’s pregnant wife, Rachel, with convincing frustration and fear. Melanie Griffith, on the other hand, fails to convince as the robot-altering clocksmith, Doctor Dupré, with her baby voice and painfully slow delivery. She is more credible as the voice of the modified robot Cleo. 

The remaining cast is filled out by Tim McInnerny, Andy Nyman, David Ryall, Andrew Tiernan, Christa Campbell, Bashar Rahal, and, surprisingly, Javier Bardem. The actors’ talents far outshine the scopes of their roles.

***

automataAutomata’s plot also has problems. The film wants us to believe it is deep, but it is more stylish than substantive. The story builds steadily until Jacq leaves the city and enters the desert with a group of robots. From there, the plot loses its focus enough that at a reasonable 109 minutes, Automata felt padded. The long, sweeping scenes of desert and sky, the multiple flashbacks to the sea, the lingering close-ups of automata, all add length without contributing any needed development of the characters or story.

For all the visual grandeur, Automata is far less philosophically nuanced than Ex Machina or even Chappie. The robots are credited with incredible intelligence that far outstrips humanity’s. Unfortunately this intellect is expressed in soppy platitudes like, “Surviving is not relevant–living is,” and in creepy human-robot interactions that fail to highlight the intelligence of either species. Characters frequently toss out the idea that someone thought a robot was alive, but the implications of a living robot are addressed in a cursory, melodramatic way. The idea that the automata have become autonomous remains unexplored. The attempted religious overtones are not supported by the underlying themes, and the predictable action and sentimentality of the ending feels lazy rather than revelatory.

***

Automata is no classic, but it is not entirely a waste of time. While the plot is thin and the story stretched, the film is still quite beautiful. Banderas turns in one of his reliably lovely, melancholy performances, and the supporting cast is polished. In the end, I enjoyed it for what it is–an average film that wants to be more, but never does figure out how to get there.