Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) – Part 1, dir. David Lynch


Welcome back to Twin Peaks! Since the release of Inland Empire (2006), Lynch’s name might have receded. But Lynch hasn’t stopped creating, producing experimental short films, Lady Blue Shanghai (2010) for Dior, launched a coffee range, remaining an artist, collating The Missing Pieces (2014), yet Twin Peaks acts as his return to both television and longform narrative storytelling.

Lynch became embittered by his experience attempting to produce Mulholland Drive (2001) as a series at ABC, but television has shifted radically as a medium in years since. Though television remains a difficult industry, built upon unfulfilled pilots, premature cancellations and racial and gender disparities, relying on rote narratives, unnecessary filler and cheaply produced content, the rise of showrunner-led shows with clear visions and passion for storytelling and incredible cinematography has created an industry of high-profile productions, thanks in part to the high budgets of Netflix, Amazon Studios and HBO. David Fincher directed House of Cards (2013-present). Nicholas Winding Refn is directing the Ed Brubaker-scripted Too Old to Die Young. Barry Jenkins is directing The Underground Railroad.

Twin Peaks existed before boxsets; television was ethereal, only available in cut-down versions, scriptbooks or synopses, before binges became possible without a VCR. But its influence on longform storytelling was immense, even as recently as series like Riverdale (2017-present), using the basic premise of small-town teenagers and a deceased fellow student washed up on a lake.

Other series tried to resurrect themselves, with Dallas (2012-14) struggling to find a foothold. Twin Peaks ended with a cliffhanger, recently touched upon within The Missing Pieces but never properly concluded. Whatever happened to Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan)? The series’ ending had been obscure enough that it never demanded an ending; its lack of resolution is conclusion in itself. The Return follows along that narrative arc, but never offers an immediate answer.

Twin Peaks built itself upon worldbuilding; Twin Peaks was a character in itself, the meeting place for students, FBI agents, parents and prostitutes, defined by Angelo Badalamenti’s score, the Packard Sawmill, the Great Northern and the Welcome to Twin Peaks sign in the series’ iconic opening, leading the viewer in. Filmed in Snoqualmie Valley, the locations have become a tourist destination in itself, carrying a sense of depth. Twin Peaks was a soap opera, frequently leaning upon the absurd and surreal, remaining lovable with a cast of well-written characters to keep going back to. The series rarely penetrated its own borders; even as characters entered Canada into One Eyed Jack’s, it remained in driveable distance, within the linear confines of the story. Fire Walk With Me (1992) might have expanded the series’ world, elaborating upon key backstory, yet its traversing of location only occupied the film’s opening act, a prelude to events before Angelo Badalamenti’s score opens the film for real.

The opening episode is not so much interested in Twin Peaks as a unified location but in its characters, themes and concepts. We move between New York City, Twin Peaks and Buckhorn, South Dakota, free from the confines of location, within a world where travel seems more freely available, the small-town an illusion. Most of the students at Twin Peaks High School in the original series probably upped and left long ago, seeking their own personal homes. Even our new title sequence is tied less to physical place but more ethereal emotion, traversing the texture of the Black Lodge and the flow of the waterfall. Moving from 4:3 to 16:9, the mountain ranges and the Great Northern suddenly seem uneasily broader.

Lynch’s depiction of NYC owes something to his approach to LA in Mulholland Drive. A city of nighttime skyline, it betrays a different lifestyle. Sam (Ben Rosenfield) and Tracey (Madeline Zima) drink lattes from oversized paper cups, more concerned with Starbucks than percolating cups of black joe. Sam’s obsession with the camera, observing changes within a window-shaped glass box, feel a reinvention of Mr. Roque’s hidden gaze in Mulholland Drive. Our mysterious place becomes an unoccupied warehouse, befitting any hipster wanting to move in rent-free, its sofa and lamp transposed from the surreal domesticity of the Red Room. In Buckhorn, the procedural elements play as a more competent version of the Sherriff’s Department, as principal Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard) is charged with murder. Constance (Jane Adams) checks fingerprints against a database in seconds, still drinking her mug of coffee, beyond the paper trail that could lead an episode’s entire subplot within the era of Twin Peaks. Yet some of the series’ most iconic locations are absent, with no Double R Diner to position the viewer; Badalamenti’s score is largely subdued.

The Return demands strong knowledge of what came before, refusing to offer clear guidance for those late to the party. Twin Peaks continues as though it were 1992, or as if 24 seasons had followed with the same cast. It takes getting used to, characters aged by decades yet acting unchanged, dressing the same, without movement, shattering the illusion of their iconic youthful appearance. The Sherriff’s Department has no young replacements, with deputy chief Hawk (Michael Horse) adopting Cooper’s fondness for donuts and coffee in his absence. Andy (Harry Goaz) and Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) reappear still together, delivering exposition as they mention their 24 year old son; Lucy’s choice to leave Dick Tremayne is here to stay, still acting as receptionist. Only an updated computer by her desk has changed.

Less egregious is the opening appearance of Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn), sans Hawaiian shirts or therapy. As Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) meets up with his brother Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) at the desk in the Great Northern, we sense time’s progression. Ben is an old man holding onto an empire, beyond the pine weasels and confederate flags of male insanity of the original series. Ben and Jerry look backwards, commenting on his new secretary Beverly (Ashley Judd), remembering how their relations with women used to be. Perhaps the episode’s most welcome appearance is the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson), speaking on the phone to Hawk, offering mysterious clues. Coulson passed away of cancer in 2015, and her emaciated body, short hair and oxygen tank make this clear, unable to deliver the strongest of performances. The Log Lady is a symbol, the subject of t-shirt prints and rerun openings filmed for syndication, but her presence, however brief, remains appreciated. But The Return becomes its most engaging where we focus upon new characters, following forgetful Marjorie (Melissa Bailey) and dog Armstrong as police attempt to open the room of deceased librarian Ruth, unaware she has the key in the first place, using a Lynchian sense of farce.

Moving to Showtime, The Return allows the series to push itself beyond ABC’s guidelines, just as Fire Walk With Me allowed a far more brutal and honest depiction of Laura and Donna’s sexuality; Sam and Tracey make out on the sofa, escalating as Tracey strips naked, left in bloody death as they take their eyes off the box. The Return’s murder mystery avoids the immediacy of the hook of both the original series and Fire Walk With Me, the discovery of Laura and Teresa’s bodies launching forward both narratives. Laura’s presence hangs over, throughout promotional material and in the opening as a photograph within the school’s cabinet, an unavoidable ghostly spectre. Cooper becomes immersed within the monochrome surrealism of the Black Lodge, evoking back to Eraserhead (1977), sitting alongside ??????? (Carel Struycken) and his phonograph.

Although the series’ opening is far from Lynch’s best work, never capturing its heights, its questions weigh down upon the viewer, unravelling within the mind. Lynch leaves hooks, between the glass box and Cooper’s presence, remaining to be answered.

Alien: Covenant (2017), dir. Ridley Scott


Ridley Scott has one of the most diverse directorial careers, beginning his career as a set designer on Out of the Unknown (1965-71) and Z-Cars (1962-78), touching seemingly every genre from sci-fi to crime to fantasy epics. Other directors expanded Alien (1979)’s mythology, from Cameron to Fincher to Jeunet, but since Prometheus (2012), Scott has created new worlds, hoping to launch a new prequel franchise alongside other resurrected franchises like Planet of the Apes.

Moving from the USCSS Prometheus to the Covenant, we focus upon a new crew, searching for Origae-6. With 15 crewmembers, Scott avoids centring the narrative with a focal protagonist; like a military unit, all of them are equals. Scott has achieved similar before: in Black Hawk Down (2001), Scott honours the legacy of real soldiers, imbuing each character with a distinct personality or trait, from storybook artist dads to basketball players and coffee drinkers. Covenant has distinctive characters: chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), in his Stetson and love of John Denver’s Country Roads; Oram (Billy Crudup), holding onto his Christian belief; Dany (Katherine Waterson), acting as a modern day Ripley. But we never see our crew bonding, outside of the prologue Last Supper. A group assembles to toast deceased members with a bottle of Jack Daniels, but no one is ever in the same room.

Scott’s group is diverse, including female characters like Faris (Amy Seimetz), Rosenthal (Tess Haubrich), Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and Karine (Carmen Ejogo), and people of colour like Lope (Demián Bichir), Cole (Uli Latukefu) and Ricks (Jussie Smollett), yet does little with them. Lope is married to Hallett (Nathaniel Dean), but Scott barely makes their relationship clear. Our characters split into different crews, some remaining in orbit like Tenessee, Ricks and Upworth, others covering different parts of the planet. Our characters are marked for death, sensing their mortality from the opening, following grisly fates from combusting bodies to infections to attacks by Neomorphs, Facehuggers and Chestbursters, without end.

It feels like a morality tale: like the crew of the Prometheus, seeking secrets of God and the universe, those that seek out what they must not know are doomed to die. Covenant is a colonisation narrative: our protagonists look upon the planet’s wheat and hospitable atmosphere and see resources, a new paradise to move forward and grow, and build their log cabin, surveying the landscape with cameras and rovers. Filming in Fiordland, New Zealand, Scott creates an unnerving yet beautiful natural topography of trees and rocks, evoking the landscape of North America, a forest to get lost in beyond the Icelandic and Scottish vistas of Prometheus. Nature treads a delicate balance, trying to destroy our protagonists as they attempt to penetrate the storms of the ionosphere. Even in death, as 47 colonists are incinerated upon the ship, coffins sent out into space, we remain aware of space’s inhospitality and silence, their bodies likely to burn up, final destination unknown. Ledward (Ben Rigby) lights a cigarette, blowing smoke rings, affects the planet’s microbial life at a scale far beyond comprehension. Scott zooms in, spores collecting within his ear.

Using horror elements, Scott increases the film’s body horror and gore. Ledward’s body self-cannibalises itself: the alien existing within us, not an external threat, evoking Shaw’s fear of pregnancy in Prometheus. Quarantined in the med-bay, we experience Ledward’s violent convulsions as blood emerges from his back, the Neomorph within him. In a shower sex scene between Ricks and Upworth, the alien becomes almost phallic, emerging as an appendage, increasing an unnerving bodily distress. Scott’s use of body horror is perhaps the film’s most exciting aspect, yet his conventional use of the Neomorphs in the final act is far less engaging, becoming a generic threat attacking the wing of the ship. However, Scott remains able to create an unnerving, claustrophobic ‘base under siege’, following Dany through the corridors in first-person camera, aided by the unease of Jed Kurzel’s score.

Covenant owes a debt to an entire history of science fiction cinema, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). David (Michael Fassbender) acts as HAL embodied within the consciousness of David Bowman, uneasily inhuman in his high intelligence. In the opening scene, taught by Weyland (Guy Pearce), David gazes upon a statue of Michelangelo’s David, his namesake; looks upon a painting of the Nativity; rehearses a piano piece of Wagner’s Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla. The white room reflecting the planet’s surface seems almost endless, outside time, like the neoclassical bedroom combining anachronistic artistic styles in 2001’s conclusion. David’s cultural knowledge is artificially constructed, carrying no personality, reciting verses of Ozymandias (1818) yet revealing traces of artificiality as he confuses Byron with Shelley.

David develops a nihilistic god complex, telling Weyland that he as a human will die, whilst David will live. David must protect the planet’s landscape from humanity’s intervention, akin to HAL’s murder of Poole, forcing Dany into stasis. Weyland’s creator is unknown, just as humanity’s creators, but David becomes his own creator, moving the legacy of the Xenomorphs forward as he freezes a pair of embryos upon the ship.

In the opening scenes, Scott’s slow movement introducing the vessel reminds us of 2001’s model work, framed as an orchestral spectacle of humanity’s achievement. As our 2000 colonists lie in hibernation upon the ship’s 7 year mission, we’re reminded of the endless rows of frozen bodies in 2001, as Dany’s husband Branson (James Franco), the ship’s captain, is incinerated alive within his own capsule in the whirr of warning sounds. Covenant almost belongs to another era of science fiction, balancing the 1970s spacesuits of the original film with modern technology. In its use of nature, art and spirituality, Covenant also owes something to Solaris (1972). In Solaris, Tarkovsky imbued rooms with personality as life is recreated away from home. Scott moves between screens, Dany yearning for the autumn trees of nature, like the opening scenes of Solaris. She mourns for the memory of Branson, recreated in a video of him ascending a mountain, playing on her tablet, just as Solaris reconciled Kris with the memory and hollow recreation of Hari.

Covenant exists upon the legacy of Prometheus, a decade after the events of 2093. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) exists as trace, a hologram, dogtag, grave and photograph, yet never as flesh and blood; Shaw only takes upon a physical presence in the prologue The Crossing. Although Scott is interested in expanding the film’s horror and alien presence, beyond science fiction worldbuilding, he remains interested in the same existential questions that drove Prometheus forward, as Shaw searched for the universe’s holy grail. Scott positions people of faith within a science-oriented world that denies religion’s unanswered questions, creating an interest conflict and dynamic. Dany holds onto her cross as she watches Branson’s video, yet never takes time to pray. Oram hangs onto his faith, speaking of seeing the Devil as a child, feeling ostracised by his own crew as fundamentalist, without reasonable judgement.

David adapts to a new world, draped in long hair and cloak, leading a sheltered, Medieval-esque existence, finding an interest in zoology as he draws sketches of insects, bodies and anatomy. David’s android form becomes contrasted by Walter, a new model with an American affectation, marked by difference. In the opening sequences, we’re introduced to Walter casually, walking through the ship’s corridors in a hoodie. Walter has been built for servitude, less complex and without sense memory, without sleep, one of an infinite series of identical versions of himself. David becomes a mentor for Walter, teaching him how to play the flute like cigarette papers, concealing his emotional manipulation.

Covenant continues upon Prometheus’ worldbuilding, creating an immersive science fiction world that continues to ask questions. As David recites Ozymandias, we witness the mass genocide of the people who came before, reduced to petrified corpses that the crew of the Covenant must walk upon. In the darkness of the world, the pillars of old empires remain, within the neoclassical architecture of the temple. Though the black pools of the Engineers might seem abstract, Scott creates a world of ideas that only build this franchise further. Covenant is only a step along the way: in the film’s final scene, we move towards a new mission and a new world, as our protagonists continue to seek out Origae-6. The Alien franchise still has new stories to tell. As the vessel moves forwards, to Kurzel’s hopeful score and Wagner’s Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla, we have a new destination.

Colossal (2016), dir. Nacho Vigalondo


Nacho Vigalondo began his career making cult Spanish sci-fi films, but has begun to reach into the American market, following segments in horror anthologies and Open Windows (2014) with Elijah Wood. For American audiences, Colossal marks the launch of a new distributor, Neon, bringing festival hits and cult films like The Bad Batch to wider audiences.

The strength of Colossal is it accepts its budget limitations, balancing indie movie aesthetics with the effects-heavy kaijū giant monster genre. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a freelance writer creating content for a website, living in New York City with her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), left unemployed for the past year within a fragile industry. Hathaway is a familiar voice, beginning her career as teenage characters in The Princess Diaries (2001) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), animated characters in Rio (2011) and resting on franchises as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Gloria might seem an indie movie cliché, yet Hathaway delivers a strong performance, remaining relatable and funny.

Even in its soundtrack, the film accepts the indie movie, as Crybaby’s When the Lights Go Out plays in the bar. The film is self-aware: Gloria jokes that they’re in a Wes Anderson movie. But the film isn’t self-aware enough to turn this into a visual gag in the style of Anderson’s cinematography, leaving the joke hanging in the air. The film relies upon quirky contrivances, as Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) threatens Tim to leave his bar with illegal fireworks smuggled from Mexico, kept in storage for ten years, telling him this is “the most irresponsible thing I could do”, merely to make a point. Oscar loses customers and sets half of his bar on fire, probably unable to recoup half of the costs, merely to tell Tim to fuck off.

Moving back to her childhood home in middle America, Tim forcing her out of their flat to sober her up from her alcohol addiction and find new, Gloria finds a changing landscape; some things stayed the same, some changed. Working in a newly renovated pub, Gloria finds new family and a life as a waitress, befriending Oscar, Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson). Filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, the setting epitomises the smaller scale lifestyle of films like Nebraska (2013), Manchester by the Sea and Paterson, beyond the busy city.

Colossal might have some romantic comedy conventions, yet largely tries to avoid a love triangle. Colossal has its share of conflict and jealousy, yet tied to childhood arguments than romantic drama. Oscar is nice to Gloria, giving her half his furniture so she doesn’t just have a half-inflated airbed to sleep on. Words are thrown; chairs are broken; TVs destroyed. Gloria forms a bond with Joel away from Tim, accepting his questionable advances and sleeping with him, waking up with her arm trapped underneath his comatose body the following morning.

Dan Stevens was a joy in The Guest (2014), portraying a similar character who doesn’t reveal his entire motives, caught in a small-town where he doesn’t entirely belong. Tim might be hot with a tightly-groomed beard, the epitome of #boyfriendgoals, but he’s a total dick. He lives in his own New York City bubble, insistent his way of life is better than Gloria’s: sober, aesthetic interior décor, working with clients for a big company, staying at Holiday Inns as he travels across the country. Tim can’t accept Gloria working as a waitress, because she’s too good for it; he can’t accept small-town people serving their local community with coffee and booze.

Colossal is a film about addiction, as Gloria becomes pressured to keep up a lifestyle of alcohol. In New York City, she attends an endless string of parties. At home, we see her alcoholic desire, staring at drinks in the fridge, waking hungover in the middle of the day, only for her next shift to begin. Everyone in their 20s knows her pain. In the bar, she’s pressured by Oscar to have another beer, pouring away to the floor in defiance. In the closing scene, we’re still left with open-ended doubts. Garth has his own secret struggles with addiction, snorting cocaine in the bathroom.

Using the kaijū genre, the monster and robot attacking Seoul become videogame avatars of Oscar and Gloria, manifesting their own conflicts. Colossal feels like the childhood dream of anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s; Oscar and Gloria literally play with action figures in a sandbox every morning at 8:05am. The premise almost feels out of The Twilight Zone (1959-64), using science fiction as a moral lesson, feeling like a PSA. But there are also shades of The Giant and A Monster Calls, metaphorically representing human issues and anxieties. Beyond the simulated deaths of videogames, Oscar and Gloria struggle with the real consequences of their actions. Their small conflict is transposed against the huge-scale fantasy of giant monsters running through Seoul, killing hundreds of civilians in the process. She feels grief over what she could have done. We’re given a sense of responsibility, between threats and blackmail, as Oscar threatens to kill hundreds unless she makes a change. Tim kicks Gloria out at the worst point, refusing to deal with her problems in favour of himself.

Like with Pacific Rim (2013), we cross the boundaries between American and Asian cinema. Rather than first-hand perspectives, we learn of destruction from cheering crowds in the bar. The tears of South Koreans are never ours. Gloria hears of her destruction through screens, from newspapers to websites to images on TVs to phonecalls, learning hours after the fact through her own media bubble. Colossal engineers a global response, reports informing us of a plummeting stock market, nuclear weapons and a tense relationship with North Korea. As Gloria stands her ground as a peaceful monster, apologising to South Korea through a message transcribed by the owner of a Chinese restaurant, she punches Oscar in the face, remixed as a THUG LIFE meme on YouTube as a viral video.

Oscar and Gloria carry awareness of their spectators, onlookers cheering from the houses beside the playground, unaware the fight is happening right in front of their house, private conflict becoming public. In the final act, Gloria rejects Tim’s offer to go back with him, flying to Seoul to end her conflict with Oscar for good. To resolve the space between, Gloria needs greater distance. As she demolishes Oscar, destroying her childhood playground and the threat of nuclear war in the process, she becomes a spectacle cheered on by cellphone-brandishing crowds, a superhero defending the city. In dramatic irony, her achievements become unacknowledged, standing just away from the cameras.

Colossal might be derivative, re-appropriating tropes from indie movies, romantic movies and kaijū films, yet remains a fun ride from its comedy to performances.

Kong: Skull Island (2017), dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts


Jordan Vogt-Roberts is best known for his young adult film The Kings of Summer (2013), yet Vogt-Roberts is expanding into a $190 million blockbuster. The film never denies Vogt-Roberts’ authorial voice, projecting his name in big letters during the opening credits. Like with Gareth Edwards, moving from Monsters (2010) to the big budgets of Godzilla (2014) and Rogue One (2016), Legendary is helming up-and-coming voices at the forefront of their new monster movie franchise.

Kong’s history might not be as illustrious as Godzilla’s, appearing in a handful of sequels and reboots yet nothing compared to Godzilla’s dominance in everything from comics, toys, animated series and videogames, failing to secure his own franchise. Rather than seek gritty emotional melodrama or scientific explanations for Kong’s existence, the film embraces its B-movie quality. The film makes its statement from its opening scene, as crashed fighter pilot Hank Marlow (John C Reilly) becomes ensnared in a swordfight with Japanese fighter Gunpei Ikari at the edge of Skull Island. Cinematographer Larry Fong captures an incredible sense of composition, utilising contrasting blue and red neon lighting in the club scenes in Saigon, or fireballs reflecting in a pilot’s visor.

Skull Island is elevated by its cast, reuniting Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L Jackson as protagonist James Conrad (evoking Joseph Conrad) and deranged colonel Preston Packard, alongside powerhouse Brie Larson as photojournalist Mason Weaver. Yet the film is also joined by young talent: Thomas Mann, beautifully playing teenage adolescence in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), is warrant officer Reg Slivko (Mann’s co-star RJ Cyler is busy launching another franchise with Power Rangers (2017)).

In the opening titles, we chart our way through remixed footage of the evolution of the atomic bomb, tying into Godzilla’s post-war origins as a product of Hiroshima and American occupation. Skull Island is a film about war, in the shadow of a wave of films from the 70s and 80s seeking to reconcile the war as its servicemen came of age: most notably Apocalypse Now (1979), shot contemporaneously, evoked in its golden sunsets, but others like Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket and Good Morning Vietnam (1987), achieving catharsis or comedic satire at the war’s incoherence. In Marvel Comics, The ‘Nam (1986-93) sought to provide a month-by-month account of the war, without superheroes. Its soundtrack may be strong, yet plays as a beat-by-beat emulation of every other Vietnam film, moving between Time Has Come Today, White Rabbit and Bad Moon Rising. The film namedrops Bowie with Ziggy Stardust, emphasising Marlow’s disassociation with the modern world. None of the power of The End in Apocalypse Now is here, played at low levels in the background attempting to elicit audience recognition.

Shooting in Oahu, the film uses the island’s beautiful vistas as an analogue for American conduct in Vietnam. Skull Island attempts to create a dialogue around the nature of war, as characters discuss weaknesses and strengths amid a backdrop of disillusionment, but the film does little to evoke these feelings in practice. We see the glee as bombs destroy the natural landscape from aerial view, animals caught in the destruction. Bombs are fetishised, framing agents of destruction in close-up. We never see human destruction: no bodies explode, nor guts and brains picked away by flies. A member of the group self sacrifices themselves, yet the film never offers explanation or a process of mourning. Gojira (1954) captured the shaken Japanese consciousness, yet Skull Island tries to be entirely apolitical.

Preston Packard evokes the archetype of the corrupt colonel, leading his men to death in a vain attempt at glory, wanting revenge against Kong. For Packard, America did not lose the war, but “abandoned it”. Packard is the cavalry, and will stop at nothing to reach his goal, determined with an invincible squad. Packard is far from an engaging portrait of the corruption of war, but a cartoonish villain.

Our protagonists remain torn by their parent’s generation and the impact of World War II. Conrad speaks of his father, mythologised as a John Wayne figure who fought Nazis. Marlow is an anachronism, in bomber jacket and curly grey beard, evoking the crashed fighter pilots of pulpy adventure novels or wartime comic strips as they attempt to adapt to the jungle wilderness. Reilly might be better known for his comedic roles in films like Step Brothers (2008), yet under the right director, Reilly can achieve real emotional gravitas, as the father in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) or the animated protagonist of Wreck-It Ralph (2012). Here, Reilly is left with forced humour, playing up his fish out of water nature yet without finding an emotional centre, with dialogue worthy of George Lucas.

But no film can escape the conditions of the environment that made it. Vogt-Roberts described a sense of “catharsis to setting the film in the early 70s, moving our characters from a “world crumbl[ing] around them” to “an island untouched by man.” Like with the X-Men prequels, Skull Island uses the past to evoke a timeless aesthetic, working in real historical events amid its retro technology, clothing, music and values, tying the film to a previous socio-political reality than commenting on the state of war and terrorism in the present day. Even in King Kong (1976), the film sought to engage with contemporary issues around environmentalism and oil crises.

In an early scene, in the months surrounding Watergate, conspiracy theorist Bill Randa (John Goodman) moves past a protest assembled on Capitol Hill, presciently bemoaning that there will “never be a more screwed-up time in Washington!” Packard, as a powerful black man, rejects the implications of the Civil Rights Movement, with no care for inequality or the radicalism of the Black Panthers, but in service of his own power. As a photojournalist, Weaver exists amid a backdrop of second-wave feminism, in a war defined by its horrific broadcast and printed images. As Packard tells her, “a camera does a lot more damage than a gun”. Weaver photographs the crew; captures images of friendly natives. Larson often steps up to the role of the strong female, as social worker in Short Term 12 (2013), recast from the short film’s male protagonist, or the only survivor amid the warehouse shootout in Free Fire (2016). Weaver exists as far more than the girlfriend character to Conrad, or even to Kong; she is her own person. But the film does little to show the sexism and sexual harassment Weaver would have experienced as a woman against a man’s war, given only cursory acknowledgment.

Marlow may live along natives, but his existence seems a recreation of colonial narratives. Marlow treats Ikari’s memory as his “brother”, beyond uniform and war, leaving a promise to “never leave each other behind”. Yet our mad, aged fighter pilot might just have easily been Ikari, caught against the backdrop of a new American world. The voices of our face-painted natives are silenced, Marlow acting as interlocutor to relay their backstory and identity. But this comes from a franchise that originated in racial stereotypes: in King Kong (1933), Kong embodies an ape-like image, living among natives, running wild in New York City as he takes a white woman for his own.

The success of Skull Island is in its worldbuilding, creating an island that feels truly unique. Whereas other incarnations sought to juxtapose Kong against the expansive, historical metropolis of New York, Skull Island avoids this well-trodden story. Kong becomes a benevolent lonely god, wanting peace and harmony over his island without the invasion of humans. In its impressive production design, the film hints towards Kong’s ancestors, walking past skulls of previous Kongs in a foreboding graveyard. In its Harryhausen-esque CGI, the backlit Kong begins to look stop motion, fighting off helicopters in silhouette. Using motion capture with Toby Kebbell (also playing major Jack Chapman) and Terry Notary, the film avoids the immersive realism of Peter Jackson, favouring Kong as animated monster. Fighting Cthulhu-esque tentacles in a lake, viewed by a young soldier, we know who this Kong really is.

Where Godzilla is the “king of the monsters”, we encounter many prehistoric threats that serve to increase the film’s tension, from water buffalo to camouflaged stick-bugs to pterodactyls, thanks to immersive production design and CGI. Godzilla and Kong might have met before in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), but Legendary are setting us up for a reimagined showdown, closing the film with a post-credits scene sowing seeds for Mothra and Ghidorah. Though Skull Island may not be the greatest blockbuster of recent times, it remains a fun adventure expanding a world.

La La Land (2016), dir. Damien Chazelle


The 2017 Oscars have placed Hollywood in dilemma. Contenders like Manchester by the Sea, The Salesman and I Am Not Your Negro were produced or distributed by Amazon Studios. Suicide Squad won an Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Debates shall be eternally waged over Moonlight vs. La La Land.

La La Land still won 6 Oscars.

Though Stone is powerful, Portman was more affecting in Jackie. Linus Sandgren won an Oscar for cinematography, yet the film only looks as good as it does because of choreography and costume design; Moonlight and Silence were more creative in their image composition. The most beautiful, heart-warming ode to life, 20th Century Women, didn’t even secure an Oscar for its incredibly crafted screenplay.

Was La La Land overhyped? As Dan Golding argues in his essay The Dreamers of La La Land, the film is “likely to suffer the fate of most other life-affirming Hollywood hits”, as “too light, too fluffy, too insubstantial, too reactionary, too nostalgic”. Yet there is power in positive narratives, beyond identity formation in Moonlight or confronting mortality in Manchester by the Sea. Some might question the Academy Awards’ favourability towards films about the acting industry or show business in general, like The Artist (2011) or Birdman (2014), yet they won Oscars because they’re good films.

Moonlight is a victory for independent cinema, yet La La Land still challenges the established Hollywood system. Lionsgate’s identity is disparate, with young adult series like Twilight (2008-12) and The Hunger Games (2012-15) and horror films like American Psycho (2000) and the Vestron Video catalogue, yet the studio is gaining greater credibility within a changing media landscape. Focus Features, wanting a $1 million budget and Sebastian as a rock musician, dropped it under a regime change. Musicals had been driven by the studio system, with 20th Century Fox and MGM and outliers like RKO showcasing their leading men and women.

In test screenings, La La Land was deemed a failure. Musicals relied on innovation and subversion to survive, from rock operas like Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2000) to jukebox musicals like Moulin Rouge! (2001), becoming easy properties to adapt from the aged original cast in Rent (2005) to Les Misérables (2012). Disney used live action musicals like Beauty and the Beast (2017) to inspire new audiences. Musicals live on nostalgia; Grease (1978) looked back to the simpler time of the 1950s. La La Land succeeds existing as both throwback and innovator, adapting to the modern world without sacrificing core tenets.

Meeting in their college band, Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz built the soundtrack as co-collaborators, reaching for a timeless sound; recording with a 90-piece orchestra in the same room as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) with a sense of profound legacy. With dynamic painted sets from designers Sandy and David Wasco, the film developed an impressive visual aesthetic on its $30 million budget, rehearsing scenes on iPhones with choreographer Mandy Moore. In the stunning opening, Another Day of Sun, what David Bordwell describes as a “blowout”, we see the immensity of the 105-110 interchange as Mia (Emma Stone) drives to her audition and meets Seb (Ryan Gosling), theatrical as people dance on top of cars, shot over 48 hours on the hottest day of the year. Using the fluid motion of a crane, Chazelle emphasises individuality: sound becomes collage, cars honk and radios blare, multi-coloured crowds of different ethnicities drive different cars, or even skateboard.

The opening musical sequence, Another Day of Sun, is filled with colour and diversity

La La Land frames anachronistic protagonists against an anachronistic world. As David Sims writes, they are “trapped in amber”. Seb is a hipster, listening to cassettes in his car and vinyl records at home. Mia is a barista on the Warner Bros backlot, walking past cowboys and gladiators shot on soundstages. Writing the script to her one-woman show, So Long Boulder City, she uses physical paper, heaven forbid she use a Macbook. At the party, the film frames immediate nostalgia, Seb performing I Ran and Take on Me in an 80s college band alongside Chazelle and Hurwitz’s college buddy D.A. Wallach; Mia even calls him George Michael.

Mia works as a barista on the WB backlot

The film relies upon intertextuality, opening in Cinemascope and ending with a titlecard. Chazelle uses in-camera optical effects to depict movement in the party or being lost amid the city’s neon signs. Moving from Mia and Seb’s relationship, a model plane flies around the globe, a la 1930s adventure serials.

In her bedroom, Mia is watched down upon by actresses of Hollywood’s past, with posters of Ingrid Bergman, The Black Cat (1934), The Killers (1946) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), alongside her colour-coordinated roommates, draped in headscarf and fur. Achieving her actress dream, she becomes an Audrey Hepburn clone, adorned with fashionable sunglasses.

Mia’s bedroom is an anachronism

Chazelle found influences from sources as diverse as Pixar’s Wall-E (2008) for City of Stars, West Side Story (1961) for Someone in the Crowd and Singin’ in the Rain as Seb grabs hold of a lamppost. As Chazelle says in The Verge, he “combine[d] those things in new ways”, carrying a subtextual self-awareness of “characters knowing they’re in a musical”.

Seb is singing, just not in the rain

JK Simmons’ restaurant owner is an “inside joke” to Whiplash (2014): according to the commentary, he “decided he despises jazz and only wants to hear Christmas jingles for the rest of his life”. Made on a smaller scale, paving the way for La La Land’s larger budget, the rapid editing of jazz sequences evoke the masterful rhythm of the drumbeat in Whiplash, alongside the jazz themes of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009).

Los Angeles itself is throwback, beyond the dark city of Mulholland Drive (2001) but an explosion of colour, between the El Rey Theater, Lighthouse Café and Angel’s Flight railway; cinematographer Linus Sandgren sought to capture a feeling of “something magical”. Seb stares out, a painted mural for California oranges behind him. As he comments in a featurette, Chazelle didn’t want to pretend “L.A. was a city that it wasn’t”; location manager Robert Foulkes sought locations never represented before.

This is definitely California

Inscribed within cinematic history, Mia points Seb to the window balcony from Casablanca (1942), an unacknowledged monument; she walks past murals of Chaplin and Monroe in nighttime streets. At the Rialto in Pasadena, Mia and Seb attend a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), film within a film. An anachronism: resurrecting the largely defunct Rialto, closing it once more amidst a wave of gentrification and redevelopment. At the dinner table, we overhear a conversation as a party bemoans the cinema experience.

Moving to the Griffith Observatory as a dream, we delve within, walking the path of James Dean. In his essay From Los Angeles to La La Land: Mapping Whiteness in the Wake of Cinema, Billy Stevenson argues “all the homosocial angst […] is smoothed away”, “canonising and sterilising” what made it “provocative and edgy”. Writing in Paste, Geoff Nelson argues the film speaks in a displaced “vocabulary of loss” as generational conflict between past and present, rather than disaffected youth and conservative parents in Rebel.

The Griffith Observatory is one of the most beautiful locations for the City of Stars sequence, evoking Rebel Without a Cause

Chazelle feels the city has been “careless and negligent” about its cinematic history. Which brings us to what Golding describes as Sebastian’s “jazzsplaining. Seb’s makes Mia love jazz, refusing its death under his watch. Black musician Keith (John Legend), arguing that “jazz is about the future”, is sidelined. As Ira Madison III comments, the city’s diversity in the opening is “quickly whisked away so the Caucasian sing-along can begin”.

Keith is largely sidelined in the film

Golding argues La La Land embodies an “alternative universe”, ignoring its roots as a Hispanic and Latino Mexican city. Seb appropriates a cultural heritage of jazz, disallowing minority residents to “samba all over its history”. For Stevenson, it invokes an “older media ecology” where “cinema was never supplanted or supplemented” by “multifarious voices”. As Nelson writes, nostalgia returns us to “the era before federally mandated segregation, voting and civil rights”, forgetting racial history or housing discrimination.

Writing in 2010 as he arrived in Hollywood, as Chazelle tells The Verge, he was touching on “experiences that were very close to my own”, capturing the truth of a city of “unrealistic dreams, within the real world. Musicals are dreams: a perfect woman finding her perfect husband and life. La La Land tries to reconcile these dreams with our reality.

In Whiplash, we see the intensity of Andrew’s obsession to cartoonish level, his hands bleeding as he drums, in a car crash as he goes to his performance unscathed. Writing in Little White Lies, Tom Bond argues “it’s hard to argue that Chazelle fully endorses this message”, Andrew feeling “romantic love can only ever hinder artistic success”; in La La Land, Mia and Seb become “more in love with their partner’s mutual passion” than each other, becoming a means to achieving career ambitions. As Bordwell argues, the film rejects conventional musical narratives of love triangles and subplots in favour of emotion, shifting between changing seasons.

Jazzsplaining isn’t romantic

Seb plays at weddings, going on tour for two years yet rejecting the notion of innovating through synth, idolising Louis Armstrong as he attempts to walk the same path. Working at a cocktail bar, Seb is caught between playing his own music and the Christmas music assigned to him. During a photoshoot, Seb is forced into a pose by the photographer, artificially in a place that doesn’t come from the heart. Music becomes a background distraction, beyond the live traditional jazz Seb favours.

Seb decides to play his own music at Christmas

Leon Thomas argues in his Renegade Cut analysis that Seb becomes an egotist and “music martyr”, rejecting the notion of “paying bills and working for a boss”, interested in his own needs over others. As he retorts:

Oh no, Seb, you have to make sacrifices for money and work your way up in your chosen profession? How do you think life works?

Through Mia’s auditions, we see the realities of the acting industry, her opening audition met by the casting director on their cellphone, based on an audition Ryan Gosling had gone through. She spills coffee on her shirt, covering it up with her coat. In Someone in the Crowd, we see Mia’s isolation, rather than being popular and successful. Her Prius gets towed; no one turns up to her one-woman play. Yet if she likes it, what else matters? Forced to return home to Nevada after 6 years of auditions and perseverance, she must live her own dream; in The Fools Who Dream, we see the speed and pressure. Stone “whirl[s] through five feelings in one minute: delight, confidence, panic, pain, false bravado, filled with life.

Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as they may seem

Seb is neither Mia’s first nor last love, questionably cheating on her boyfriend in favour of Seb, away from the fantasy of the woman who runs away with the first guy she falls in love with. As the film progresses, costume designer Mary Zophres de-saturated her wardrobe, maturing into adulthood. In the fantasy, we see the artifice of the alternative universe relationship of what could have been, a Parisian dream between Hollywood sets, shot in an anachronistic 8mm home movie aesthetic. Narratively fooling the viewer, we return to reality, as Mia remains with her husband in the present, 5 years later, successful in her celebrity lifestyle with a nanny looking after her daughter.

Positioning Mia and Seb against a half-finished white painted backdrop, Chazelle questions the unreality of the musical

The film justifies its existence, questioning the fiction of the musical. Chazelle penetrates the artifice with iPhone notifications and ringtones, bleeding into the film’s soundscape. The print of Rebel Without a Cause becomes caught in the projector; as Golding acknowledges, “old technology that has erroneously been remembered as better than it was” burns to flame.

Some superficial criticisms might question the film’s performers, yet Emma Stone came to the film straight from Cabaret; Ryan Gosling spent 3 months learning and rehearsing the piano. John Legend is an actual singer. From its direction to music to production design, La La Land remains a masterwork. It’s just not Moonlight.

Personal Shopper (2016), dir. Olivier Assayas


Kristen Stewart is a joke, forever defined by her stilted acting in Twilight (2008). Twilight is what it is: an adaptation of a YA novel, spanning several fanfic erotic sequels not featuring Kristen Stewart in the Fifty Shades (2014-present) series. Stewart started out as a child actress, appearing in masterpieces like The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000). Every child actor has an interesting path. Elle Fanning grew up to be one of the greatest teenage actors around. Macaulay Culkin became Macaulay Culkin. Elijah Wood grew up to be that weird guy in Spy Kids 3-D (2003), Frodo, a serial killer and Dirk Gently’s friend.

Stewart isn’t going to win any Oscars any time soon. But Assayas proves she’s capable, lifting her out of American cinema into French cinema. Casting an American lead, Assayas sacrifices none of his film’s reality in favour of commercial intent, never breaching the film’s internal world. Maureen exists as outsider, with a diasporic American identity. Working for Kyra, she never fits into the Parisian world, with her old knitted sweaters or addiction to her cellphone. As a personal shopper, Maureen is continually alone, absorbing other people’s identities in shallowness and materialism, spending thousands of euros on clothes that aren’t hers. She follows her late brother Lewis’ French lifestyle because of a pact they made. As she tries on a sparkly dress, Maureen is caught between taking an identity which isn’t hers and the sheer joy of rebellion.

Personal Shopper captures a sense of modern job insecurity and globalisation. Maureen’s boyfriend, Gary, works in the Middle East, seen only through Skype calls. Maureen must travel across Europe between London and Milan, never able to enjoy travel. It’s a job, but never a rewarding one. In a film like Only God Forgives (2013), Ryan Gosling’s insertion into Thailand’s culture as an expat felt forced, as though our only way to relate is through a white figure. Here, cultural conflict is central to the narrative. 

Personal Shopper’s genre is difficult to classify. In part, it is a horror film. As Maureen explores Kyra’s apartment, it becomes a haunted house, like the gothic horror of the 1800s or a female-centric film like The Innocents (1961). Personal Shopper avoids representing its ghosts as the goofy cartoons of Ghostbusters (1984), but returns a sense of the unknown beyond clichés. Assayas’ ghosts are a spectre and trace of the past, an invisible presence caught between two realms of existence not immediately discernible. Assayas avoids the well-trodden tropes of gusts of wind or slamming doors, never falling for jump scares.

Maureen carries a self-awareness of the genre she exists within, akin to the awareness of genre trappings in films like Scream (1996) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Maureen wants to be a strong, independent woman, telling her invisible stalker she hates horror films, where the helpless female character must avoid a male murderer. As she finds the body in the apartment, covered in blood, Maureen must embody this role, caught between the fear of the messages and her own independence. The camera moves through the corridors of the hotel as though in Steadicam, like the eeriness of the Overlook in The Shining (1980). As she is questioned by police, devolving into a cliché of the detective genre, Maureen finds these roles inescapable.

Personal Shopper’s horror is not in its ghosts or serial killers, but in its technology. Cinema, after all, is technology in itself. Often, films like Unfriended (2014) and Cyberbully (2015) have tried to tap into the internet as horror, failing to feel realistically terrifying, playing paranoia entirely ineffectively. Technology is so ingrained within our everyday life it feels difficult to critique without sounding out-of-touch or conservative. But technology is something we should be skeptical of, thanks to writers like Evgeny Morozov and documentarians like Adam Curtis. Technology has restructured social interaction, political engagement, working life, the news industry and so on, placing big data within corporations and governments. Anti-terrorism and internet security adverts may seem melodramatic, yet there are genuine fears.

I cannot control my phone. As I type up my notes for this review, Google voice command activates out of nowhere. Trying to listen to The Eclipse Viewer, it lowers the volume to 0. It skips to the next episode. My phone calls home, with no reason why.

Assayas tries to capture how overwhelming this all is. As Maureen attempts to relax and sketch, she’s interrupted by the blare of Gary on Skype, unable to ignore. In one scene, she attempts to ask a question, caught between a multi-person business call. There is no escape.

In his excellent video essay Smartphones in Cinema and TV – A Missed Opportunity?, Luís Azevedo questions how smartphones affects narrative and cinematic form, creating a sense of distance beyond our instinct to present text messages as a visual aesthetic as utilised by series like Sherlock (2010-present). Rather than embed technology in the frame, in the desktop documentary form used by video essayists like Kevin B. Lee, Assayas shows us technology as something we see on a screen through our own eyes. Assayas never aestheticises, but shows Gary’s Skype call continually breaking up.

Maureen’s iPhone, an everyday object, becomes something she fears. Like the emotionless computer voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Maureen receives texts from a stranger, conveying no emotion in their delivery to discern tone or meaning. Assayas never attempts to speed this process up, creating sheer tension out of sending and reception.

As she questions who is sending the texts – a friend, the ghost of Lewis? – Assayas never reveals the sender. In its anonymity, the phone receives new power. Maureen experiences the fears of many women – unwanted texts, stalkers, creepers sending dickpics – becoming a psychological fear. The sender pretends to be in the same space as her on the Eurostar, with nothing saying otherwise. But her curiosity must be met. In London, trying her dress on, Maureen instinctively grabs the phone. Her boundaries break down: she sends the sender a photo of her in the dress, an artificial sense of trust built through repetition.

Assayas uses technology in an expository function, to explain information. The phone becomes a manifestation of Maureen’s internal monologue, in anxieties and desires, becoming a voice on her shoulder telling her to try Kyra’s dress on. The phone becomes her closest confidant, to sleep beside and voice her thoughts to, as though the words will dissipate with no tangible connection to the real world. Technology is a tool: we see Maureen’s process of researching Hilma af Klint on her phone on the metro (before buying a physical art book), or watching a 1960s TV movie about Victor Hugo’s spiritualism on YouTube after her friend’s suggestion. Assayas connects these scenes, as the video plays on with no temporal or spatial constraints, moving between locations. Rather than unnecessary quirk, these elements become essential to advancing the narrative.

Assayas uses these technological mediums to connect us to our understanding of spiritualism. Spiritualism is directly tied to advancement of technology, through the party tricks that emerged with the advancement of electrical telegraphy in the 1850s. Assayas moves beyond the crystal balls, Ouija boards and campy horror to ground Maureen and her brother Lewis as mediums within our contemporary context, helping us understand spiritualism as a legitimate belief system. Despite the advancement of science and technology, faith and spirituality are going nowhere; they lose none of their power. Religion may seem dead, but it’s not.

Recently, I lost a friend.

I only met him a few times. But it still affects me; I must still come to terms with it, and question where his soul resides now. Assayas captures a search for meaning in the aftermath of a death. Maureen’s relationship with Lewis, dying of a heart condition they both share, creates a symbiotic blood tie between the two. Maureen follows in his footsteps, carrying an innate sense of her own mortality as she reconciles her beliefs, even in weakness. She holds onto the smallest chance, because it is a chance. Assayas depicts her desire to find peace and faith, yet no answers are forthcoming. Her friend attempts to swiftly get over the loss of Lewis, finding a new boyfriend, but we see an unspoken sense of repression: she can’t come to terms with his passing, even though she tries to.

Assayas’ ghostly spectre is at its most powerful here. Through a breaking glass, we infer a ghostly presence. Maureen tries to find scientific justification, surmising the glass broke some other way. But she knows her instinct is true. In the final scene, Maureen travels to the Middle East, and is haunted once more. In the film’s final lines, she asks:

Is it you, Lewis? Or is it just me?

The film fades to white (as opposed to black), as Assayas gives no answer.

Jackie (2016), dir. Pablo Larraín


There’ll be great Presidents again–and the Johnsons are wonderful, they’ve been wonderful to me–but there’ll never be another Camelot again. Once, the more I read of history the more bitter I got. For a while I thought history was something that bitter old men wrote. But then I realized history made Jack what he was.

Jacqueline Kennedy, 29th November 1963

Pablo Larraín has built his career exploring the darkness of Chilean history and Pinochet’s legacy: concentration camps, genocide, American intervention. As we see in Nostalgia for the Light (2010), Chile’s past exists in fragments, entire lives as faded photographs or memories. In Larraín’s film Neruda (2016), we see the power of the underground and written word to counter official narratives, whilst No (2012) offers an affirming call to democracy.

Jackie is easy to imagine as a miniseries, submerging the viewer into the four days following Kennedy’s assassination, drawing from multiple sources. We might question why these stories need to be told. Why not make a documentary, or read a monograph? Or Jackie’s original 2 page interview in Life magazine, essentially the film’s framing device? Through its fractured narrative, Jackie reconciles episodes within her life: her 1962 televised tour of the White House; the bullet’s impact; the inauguration of Lyndon B. Johnson; Kennedy’s funeral.

History is a constantly negotiated process, subject to available sources and the unreliability of memory. Documentaries like HyperNormalisation attempt to give coherent narrative to the immensity of history, yet only reveal biases. There are unquestionable facts – John F. Kennedy really was assassinated on 22nd November 1963 – but no innate truth. In historiography, we must grapple with multiple accounts, determining which is dominant. Jackie’s non-linear narrative confronts memory as emotional experience and living process, rewritten and redefined. As Hidden Figures shows, revisionist counter-histories exist, the women that built history often overlooked.

Kennedy’s legacy remains subject to speculation: an incomplete president, next moves forever unknown. His assassination is the centre of conspiracy debates, centrepiece to time travel paradoxes in 11/22/63 (2011), or in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Magneto becomes implicated in the bullet’s movements; JFK (1991) brought scepticism back into the public sphere. The mockumentary Death of a President (2006) invokes similar imagery, using a fictional assassination of George W. Bush to question the War on Terror and institutional Islamophobia.

Jackie and Bobby attempt to understand an unfinished legacy. Bobby laments Vietnam, NASA and Castro, whilst Jackie questions had Kennedy been assassinated for Civil Rights, would it hold greater meaning? The 60s is defined by assassinations, from MLK to Malcolm X, to Bobby himself only five years later. Fifty years on, we know where these questions lead: Vietnam will fall to communism, man will walk on the moon, Obama will create new ties with Cuba. We know the answer to whether Jack merely handled or created the Cuban Missile Crisis. But moves are never certain. Jackie’s vulnerability within the present moment is heightened, as Valenti fears for her safety as a target alongside other foreign dignitaries.

The journalist concludes Jackie’s “dignity” and “majesty” shall be remembered; we see the plaque commending the Kennedys’ place in history. But we don’t remember. John F. Kennedy is the young president who boned Marilyn Monroe, and declared we would “set sail on this new sea”. JFK’s televised debates with Nixon may have been radical at the time, celebrated by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media (1964) for his “cool” personality, but these are footnotes. Martin Luther King, despite his mixed reputation by the FBI at the time, is our titan of the Civil Rights Movement, with LBJ securing Kennedy’s bill. Jackie is just the slain president’s wife, relative to the eccentric Beales of Grey Gardens (1976).

Jackie confronts another legacy: Lincoln, valorised as American icon, his face on pennies, celebrated for ending the American Civil War and slavery. Lincoln emancipated the slaves, why can’t Kennedy end segregation? Jackie is a reader of history, wanting Kennedy’s funeral to symbolically relive Lincoln’s. Physical space stands as symbol and legacy; Bobby takes pride standing in the room where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, as Jackie points out to her driver, nobody remembers James Garfield or William McKinley, despite their assassinations.

Speaking to the journalist, Jackie exercises power over the manuscript, removing details of the cigarette she smokes and her trauma. As she points out, just because something is written down, it doesn’t make it true. Jackie’s identity as a public figure is a construct, built through her persona in her tour of the White House and in Life. As screenwriter Noah Oppenheim explains to Vox, Jackie was mythmaking, creating an “illusion of transparency” through mass media.

Identity is a central element to Larraín’s films. In Tony Manero (2008), Travolta’s American symbol of disco from Saturday Night Fever (1977) is worn as costume. In Neruda (2016), Pablo Neruda’s identity is created by himself and others, as nom de guerre, poet, communist, traitor and polygamist, shifting between conventions of fiction: the western, noir, pulpy detective novel.

Jackie embodies the insularity of personal trauma, reconciling public and private grief. Her face tells the story of a nation, seeking to comprehend national trauma alongside her symbolic and real family: Nancy, LBJ, Bobby, her own children. Larraín shows Jackie’s vulnerable humanity, not a flawless symbol: her insecurities and uncertainties as she debates the procession, the immensity of emotion as she washes away blood. As Portman tells The Guardian:

She can be brave, and self-interested, and vulnerable, and super-tough, and sensual, and cold, and all of these things at once because that’s how human beings are.

Jacqueline Kennedy highlighted these contradictions of symbolism and grief in an unpublished part of her interview with Theodore H. White, released as part of the Camelot documents, recreated in the film as visceral imagery. 

I saw myself in the mirror; my whole face spattered with blood and hair… I wiped it off with Kleenex. History. I thought no one really wants me there. Then one second later I thought, why did I wash the blood off? I should have left it there, let them see what they’ve done.

Literature may be built upon madwomen stricken with grief. Jackie could easily become a melodramatic caricature or Ophelia, destined to tragically drown. Yet her trauma is grounded in reality. She endures the unimaginable, required to attend the autopsy of the husband and president she loved. Jackie must detach herself from the lifelessness of the human body. In the immediate aftermath, she tells the journalist how beautiful his corpse looked, reflecting on his “most wonderful expression”. In Manchester by the Sea, we similarly confront Patrick’s inability to comprehend his late uncle as a body sitting in a freezer. Through Mica Levi’s haunting soundtrack, we sense the constant disquiet of grief, where everything feels slightly off.

Portman is often underestimated as an actress, placed as girlfriend as Padmé Amidala in the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005), or Jane Foster in Thor (2011). For as much she is placed as a strong woman – as queen, senator and mother, or astrophysicist, her roles remain overshadowed by her male counterparts, destined to be a damsel in distress. Yet as we see through producer Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), Portman is able to capture visceral emotion and pathos. Her Oscar victory with Black Swan and nomination with Jackie prove her capabilities. Her Mid-Atlantic accent for Jacqueline Kennedy may take some getting used to, but defines her character.

Jackie is a specifically female narrative. In a heartbreaking scene, Jackie attempts to explain to her children, Caroline and John Jr., their father’s disappearance; struggling to come with the loss of their siblings herself. She tells them he is in Heaven, keeping Patrick company, the child she knew “just long enough to fall in love”. She wants to show the nation the truth of “two heartbroken, fatherless children” in news coverage. Like Arrival, what may first appear to be a typical narrative of genre fiction, becomes a maternal narrative, inseparable from the rest of the film.

Jackie faces the reality the White House is never her own; she has no home. As she tells the journalist, “a First Lady must always be ready to pack her suitcases. It’s inevitable”. Jackie grounds her identity in the temporary and ethereal, objects that must move out of the White House, in storage ready for her incumbent to create her own legacy. Like many women, her identity is controlled by the man she married, even after death, unable to forge her own destiny. Though she forms a bond with Nancy, who insists she has her life ahead of her, she knows this is not reality. Her life shall forever be defined by the grief, unable to move fully past it.

Larraín confronts the power of music and memory as Jackie plays the record of the musical Camelot (1960), recontextualised with new meaning through time’s progression, whilst we learn of Jack’s fascination with Arthurian legends as a child. Government becomes revealed as a construct itself: Camelot is mythical. Government is an apparatus, built on policies and amendments. Ideologies become simplified to soundbites and slogans, never in-depth or complex. Sean Spicer stands behind a wall of facts and lies, controlling data filtered out through to press outlets. Donald Trump was built through his brand and the heavy editing of The Apprentice (2004-present).  As Oppenheim explains to Vox, politicians create fairy tales.

Jackie is a fashion symbol: in one of the final scenes, we see her aghast at identical models in a shop window wearing her outfit, reducing the individual to mass-produced commodity. In his desktop documentary Not Another Camelot, Kevin B. Lee contrasts Jackie’s symbolic construction with Melania Trump, one of Trump’s many wives, model, owner of a jewellery line and crusader against cyber bullying, subsuming Jackie’s iconography as her own for Trump’s inauguration. Jackie, as construct, becomes worn as performance.

Although Kennedy’s assassination acts as the inciting incident, it is never the focal point. When Jackie is interviewed by a reporter, she rejects the notion of giving a “moment-by-moment account”. As Angelica Jade Bastién describes in The Outline, we see the “unflinching gore” as Kennedy bleeds out, brain matter leaving his skull. There isn’t the distance of the Zapruder film, but a grounded, subjective “emotional terror”, confronting the viewer to the incident’s unreality. Kennedy is never presented in full, but as a ghostly “aberration haunting Jackie and the film itself”, within the unreliability of recreating the past in memory. In No, reliving the past becomes a cathartic process; using similar techniques to documentary filmmakers like Louis Theroux and Joshua Oppenheim, he allows those present in the original campaign to become a part of its fictional version.

Larraín is grounded in aesthetic, yet never superficial. Neruda is built upon its artificiality, with rear projection motorcycle chases and lens flares. Larraín shot No on a TV broadcast camera from the 80s, framing the viewer within the influence of the media in the election whilst avoiding the superficiality of found footage or digital plug-ins. Using 16mm, Larraín evokes the female instability and vulnerability of Carol (2015), whilst grounding the viewer within the archive, achieving the epistemological and emotional process Jaimie Baron terms the “archive effect”, as the viewer recognises “images of time’s inscription on human bodies and places”.

Kennedy’s assassination will forever be defined by Abraham Zapruder’s home movie, captured as an accident of history, never knowing the significance of the film he would capture, and providing vital evidence to the event’s reality. Jackie’s use of 16mm acknowledges the importance of that 8mm film. Larraín recreates Jackie’s tour of the White House shot for shot, using the same tri-tube camera from No, creating performance of performance. Jackie’s world is a world of images, witnessing the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald broadcast in real time, in mass media frenzy. Scroll down Facebook today, you’ll see a similar frenzy, whilst a news notification on your phone tells you of the next terrorist attack or celebrity death.

Jackie is perhaps most moving as it tackles questions of faith, grief and absence. The past year has seen powerful explorations of faith, like Scorsese’s masterpiece Silence, speaking universal truths. Jackie’s invoking of faith invites comparison to A Quiet Passion, where Emily Dickinson’s faith not only asks questions of meaning, but gender and female identity. Jackie questions what God could take a father away from his children. In her role as mother, female identity is instantly politicised through faith.

The late John Hurt, in one of his final roles, manifests these questions as Father Richard McSorley, tinged with an Irish lilt. McSorley’s philosophical musing is universal, yet carries added resonance as a reflection of Hurt’s own thoughts around mortality in the final year of his life, offering Jackie spiritual guidance through Biblical passages as they walk through Arlington. McSorley is neither fundamentalist preacher nor radical atheist, but a realist with his own doubts around God, his life behind him. McSorley’s words continue to haunt me, and give me comfort in my own life, offering a way to move on from trauma.

There comes a time in man’s search for meaning, when one realizes — there are no answers. When you come to that horrible, unavoidable realization — you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you simply stop searching. I have lived a blessed life. And yet every night when I climb into bed, turn off the lights, and stare into the dark, I wonder… is this all there is? And then, when morning comes, we all wake up and make a pot of coffee. Because we do. You did this morning, and you will again tomorrow.

In sun-tinged shots, we see Jackie’s bond with her children. In the small moments, fragments of images burned within memory, our true life really shows.

You did this morning, and you will again tomorrow.

Elle (2016), dir. Paul Verhoven


2016 has seen a strong offering of female-centric narratives. But does a female-centric narrative immediately qualify as feminist? Hidden Figures and 20th Century Women empower, whilst I, Olga Hepnarova and Jackie approach trauma and mental health issues without resorting to melodrama. Some from female voices, like Baden Baden, Toni Erdmann and Raw, allow an honest approach to female sexuality and identity. Yet as Angelica Jade Bastién argues in The Outline, as much as representation should be celebrated, we should remain critical before hailing everything as feminist. At the same time, we should question what feminism means, especially among trans (and non binary) exclusionary communities.

To entrust a female-centric narrative to Paul Verhoven opens questions. Verhoven is a provocateur, eroticising female bodies and sexualities in Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995). Verhoven has license to tell the narratives he wants to. But he also doesn’t. His perspective, as male gaze, will never be the same as a female perspective, never knowing the everyday, subliminal manifestations of sexism. Verhoven has power to abuse. In her video essay Consent in Cinema, Ivana Brehas questions Sharon Stone’s genital exposure in Basic Instinct, filmed without consent or preparation.

To depict women in film walks a complicated tightrope. As sexualised heroine? As chick flick/rom com office worker pining over men? Sexual trophy? Victim? The Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit On Your Grave (1978) invoke rape and trauma as both exploitation and female empowerment – fantasy for the male gaze, or feminist wish fulfilment? Fatal Attraction (1987) presents Alex, as victim of mental health issues and depression, as femme fatale and murderer to be tamed. The films of Dario Argento and Brian De Palma offer superficial critiques of femininity, whilst conforming to negative stereotypes. Serial killers becomes otherised as creepy guys in the shadows, whose actions can be excused through mental health issues.

Verhoven never depicts Michèle’s (Isabelle Huppert) rape as eroticised or explicit; Elle is not pornography. There may be an occasional flash of a nipple, but Verhoven doesn’t glorify. But it remains impossible to watch: how can one voyeuristically place eye on screen as a woman is victimised and abused? Verhoven still otherises the rapist: though we discover his identity later on, he becomes defined by nothingness, dressed in black leather fetish wear and ski mask; we know only his eyes. Verhoven attempts to subvert the tropes of the female rape-revenge fantasy, and question his own culpability in representing women on screen, yet his gaze does not go away. As Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker:

[Verhoven] displays no imagination because he’s uninterested in Michèle except as a tool for his problem set, for his message mechanism, for his facile issue-mongering, issue-muddying provocation.

Rape is not uncommon, but institutionally and structurally common. Criminal wrongdoing becomes excused because of alcohol, or marriage, or the provocation of a dress, or lack of pushback. Rapists remain venerated as movie stars and YouTubers, their accusers met with suspicion. For male and queer victims of sexual abuse, these facts are made more invisible. Meanwhile, rapists like Brock Turner are allowed to have prison sentences reduced to 3 months, or never charged at all. The bankrupt Detroit has only begun to process a backlog of tens of thousands of rape kits dating back to the nineties.

As Margot Singer reflects in The Normal School,

Rape happens behind closed doors, between the sheets, in locker rooms, in prisons, in churches, in refugee camps, in dorms, in back alleys, in three-thousand-dollar per night luxury hotel suites. It happens between the powerful and the weak, between men and women, men and boys, husbands and wives, adults and children, strangers and lovers, between ordinary people like you and me. You might say you’re just having a little fun, horsing around, hooking up. Sometimes there’s a knife or gun. Sometimes there’s a kiss. It isn’t so easy to tell lie from truth, intention from mistake.

When I was fifteen, I was raped. I never knew it at the time. I was never assaulted, never screamed, he was never a stranger. I defended it, bragged about it to friends, accepted it as my first time. I felt no power to say no, for fear of offending him. I felt no power to speak to friends about it, fearing stirring the pot. It took me years to acknowledge it as rape; he never allowed me to consent.

Michèle responds to her assault casually, moving on with life. She is already empowered, working as CEO of a video game company in a male-dominated environment. We see her discouragement from going to police. In a restaurant, Michèle finds confidence to matter-of-factly confess to family and friends her rape. Immediately, they insist she go to police, never realising everything is stacked against the victim. Why become spectacle to media attention and tabloid headlines, investing time and energy in a futile court case? Michèle’s fears are justified, as the daughter of imprisoned serial killer Georges Leblanc: an event she maintains some responsibility for, still sensationalised in TV documentaries. Michèle becomes subject to the sins of the father, unable to escape his legacy. Yet these issues affect all women, not just sufferers of childhood trauma.

Michèle’s harassment may seem unbearable, yet women bear it every single day, from unsolicited dickpics to eroticising comments from strangers. Michèle receives threatening text messages from her neighbour, and returns home to find her house broken into, her bed covered in a stranger’s cum.

Verhoven complicates Michèle’s rape, developing a sadomasochistic relationship with her rapist, leaving open questions of empowerment. Again, this is not uncommon. Maintaining a friendship with a rapist happens. To be raped more than once happens. Verhoven argues to Little White Lies that “the moment she discovers who the rapist is, American cinema and philosophy dictates it would have to be a revenge movie.” Yet many women are never afforded the power to assert revenge.

Though Verhoven does little to indict the power of cinema in asserting negative images of women, he finds another target: video games, using it as a perfect metaphor for complicity in screen violence”. The games Michèle develop conform to the male gaze, placing the viewer inside a Cthulhu-esque rape, controlled by the (male) gamer. Michèle asks the developers to make it more orgasmic, complicit within her own oppression. Michèle is not a feminist, but acts within the parameters set by a male-dominated industry. The sequence is remixed by a male co-worker, editing her face onto the victim’s avatar, highlighting the contradiction that Michèle remains blind to. When Michèle bribes a techy co-worker to discover the culprit, she finds he was the culprit all along.

Michèle is not innocent, or even a nice character. She drives her car into a neighbouring vehicle, in lieu of an empty space. She repeatedly rejects her mother’s potential partners. Michèle weaponises her sexuality in self-defence, yet this is not enough. She trains herself at the shooting range with a gun; keeps a hammer next to her pillow; carries pepper spray; looks in a store to protect herself. Unable to escape the incident, her memories are visceral: she fantasises about what she could have done, imagining crushing his skull in. Her cat, just as the viewer, watches on, complicit in the male gaze.

But Michèle is never afforded the possibility of her fantasy. Vincent attacks him, crushing his skull in as in her fantasy, affording the heroic rape-revenge scene to a man, manifesting patriarchal power systems more deeply.

Despite the trauma, Michèle does not close into a shell, but asserts sexual autonomy. We see her pressured into jerking off a co-worker in the office out of the blue, finishing in a bin. Michèle never becomes submissive, asserting power, in spite of male presence. As she spies through her window a la Rear Window (1954), she masturbates; spends time in the bath; masturbates a guy at the dinner table with a foot; maintains an affair with a friend’s partner, meeting together at a hotel. This honesty evokes the honesty of female sexuality in Toni Erdmann, where we see Winfried take pleasure in instructing her partner to climax over a petit fours.

At points, Elle has the vibe of a 1970s sex comedy, with the mundanity and ridiculousness of the sexual lives of Michèle, her mum and her friends. But sex comedy largely privileges male voices and female objectification, disseminating problematic ideologies, than allowing feminist voices. Elle struggles to become entertainment; like with the child abuse scandal of The Hunt (2012), the viewer is left with a constant sense of unease. In spite of its efforts at female empowerment, it remains problematic. The fact Elle lost an Oscar is a promising sign.

Raw (2016), dir. Julia Ducournau


Universal seem to be undergoing a horror renaissance, thanks to some surprising hits by Blumhouse – Split, a not terrible M Night Shyamalan film, whilst Get Out, produced on a budget of $5 million and making over $150 million at the box office, has shown issues of race and privilege can be explored to large audiences. Where other studios rely on tentpoles, Universal latches on to other voices, like Andrea Arnold and Jeff Nichols, and, apparently, a French film from a first-time director, shown in Cineworlds across the country. Perhaps the horror film, in light of other international hits like Ringu (1998), is best at crossing cultural boundaries.

Raw is many things – a horror film, cannibalism film, coming of age film. Cinema struggles to depict university experience, presented as continuum, identical to adult life or high school life, rarely occupying a space in-between. In Boyhood (2014), university represents optimism as an endpoint to youth, whilst in Starter for 10 (2006), the conflict of university is reduced to a TV gameshow. Meanwhile, the CW teenager exists as unrealistically hot or unrealistically sexual, having experiences most people in their 20s never have. But university is complex, a period of identity formation and personal growth. Through first year, my entire self changed: changing priorities and interests, new bonds; I came to terms with my asexuality and, unlike Justine’s journey, I stopped eating meat. But I had to go through a lot of shit to get there. Raw reveals university for what it actually is: institutionalised initiations and hazings, used to justify physical harm and sexual assault; freshers pressured with alcohol and sexuality and no choice but to conform, whilst lecturers openly favour certain students whilst disregarding others.

The veterinary school of Raw is a construct: as she tells Little White Lies, Ducournau sought the concrete, brutalist image of the major campuses of American universities than French campuses. The film seeps of style: bloodbaths, paint-drenched sex, parties in abandoned buildings, neon clubbing, an electro soundtrack. Ducournau uses long takes, throwing the audience into a car crash on a road or the campus’ students walking around early in their PJs with little prior context. Yet Raw carries a degree of authenticity: Ducournau is a young, first time director, not someone twice her age looking back nostalgically. Garance Marillier brings youth to Justine: cast into the unknown, about to graduate high school and go to college herself, unable to invoke personal experience.

Ducournau speaks to a specific experience: a female perspective, reclaiming the dudebro masculinity of films like Animal House (1978). For Ducournau, to invoke the female gaze is an “instant reflex”; unlike the rape scenes of Elle, where female sexuality is presented through male perspective. Raw is filled with naked bodies: Justine’s underwear, her naked chest as her body is under attack by a rash, showering, pissing on the roof with Alexia; the casual freedom of clubbing, as bodies become more exposed. But Ducournau refuses to titillate, avoiding the eroticism of Brian De Palma. In one scene, Justine, adorned with dress and lipstick, makes out with her own reflection, as we hear the lyrics:

First seduction lesson:

Be an educated slut

Make fun of boys

Ride ‘em like horses

Find oral sex amusing

Just don’t call it

But when it comes down to it:

Be the best at it!

As Ducournau points out in a Q&A with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the song is by feminist sisters Orties, taking clichés of rap and “mak[ing] it their own”, treating men the way “men talk about women”. In a broader sense, Raw does the same. Justine undergoes rites of passage, entering the film virginal and innocent, having never eaten flesh, or tasted human flesh; she’s even smoking cigarettes by the end. As Ducournau acknowledges to Little White Lies, “losing your virginity is unfortunately always associated with something very sacred, very important.” Sexuality never becomes romantic, grounded in friendships and needs, animalistic as extension of cannibalistic desire. When Justine is pressured to fuck a stranger during a party, we see her hesitation. Ducournau abstracts this sexuality, bathing both in yellow and green paint as though it were an experimental art piece, yet speaks to the reality of our culture of coercion.

Justine’s cannibalistic relationship with her sister Alexia feels like a trope, evoking the vampiric sisterhood of Byzantium (2013), the lesbianism of Carmilla (1872), or as Ducournau points out in a Q&A, the classical sibling rivalries of Biblical stories and Grecian myths. We don’t learn their relationship immediately: we’re introduced to Justine in the car with her parents, deploying information gradually before learning of Alexia’s cannibalism. Indeed, Alexia wasn’t Justine’s sister within early drafts, yet sisterhood brings an unconditional blood bond beyond expositional friendship conflicts, with a lifelong history to a time before.

Alexia, as older student and sibling, pressures Justine to conform: follow hazing rituals, go clubbing, drink heavily, have sex. Alexia encourages Justine to perform to the male gaze: she can’t just wear jeans and a t-shirt, must wear a dress, bathe herself in make-up, “Brazilian” any sign of vaginal hair. In the process of transformation to cannibalism, Justine asserts her sexual autonomy: it’s her vagina, not to be circumcised, slicing off Alexia’s finger with a pair of scissors in the process.

Justine’s relationship with her roommate Adrien is more complex, complicated by his friendship with Alexia. Adrien introduces himself to Justine with his homosexuality, using university as his sexual liberation after twenty years in the closet; within minutes of his introduction, he’s making out with a dude whilst clubbing. Later, Justine returns home at night, walking in on Adrien receiving oral. But this isn’t treated as a joke; Justine closes the door, as he whimpers on, still tempted to listen in.

Ducournau invokes Adrien as an identifying character that refuses a heteronormative male gaze, disallowing us a proxy for sexual gaze to Justine’s sexuality. As she points out in the Q&A, were Adrien presented as heterosexual, the viewer would perceive a sexual tension within their relationship. Justine and Adrien do have sex, highlighting the complicated nature of their relationship and perceptions around homosexuality: flexible, or as though it doesn’t “count” because he lacks attraction. But needs and desires transcend genders, identities and labels, just as asexuals can have sex without attraction. Adrien jerks off to porn, then makes a mistake to satisfy her needs over his own. Where does friendship begin and sexuality end? Justine becomes enraptured by sex, whilst Adrien repeatedly tells her to stop, explaining his issues to her the next morning in class.

To have sexuality this complicated is refreshing. My sexual identity in first year seems completely apart from my identity now: questioning my homosexuality and attraction to other genders; feeling obligated to have sex, whilst dismissed for not wanting to when everyone around me seemed to be screwing; drunkenly sleeping with people I should never have seen in the first place. Adrien and Justine eventually go back to each other, because sexuality is never simple.

Using cannibalism to explore issues of female identity and sexuality draws parallels to The Neon Demon, where cannibalism acts as metaphor for how ideals of beauty (literally) eats one alive. But cannibalism inescapably ends up asking questions; in The Lost City of Z, cannibalism becomes associated with the primitivism, whilst The Hills Have Eyes (1977) invokes similar imagery. Cannibalism asks questions of where we set our socially accepted rules. If it’s okay to eat chicken eggs, why isn’t it acceptable to eat human uteruses? If animal flesh is okay, why isn’t human? Are we truly ordained by God with dominion? Justine asks similar questions based on her vegetarianism, before the upbringing constructed by her parents unravels. Her conversion is gradual: pressured into eating a raw rabbit kidney during initiation; stealing a burger from the lunch counter; eating shawarma with Adrien, as though it were the postcredits scene to The Avengers (2012).

Raw reveals the horror of life as a veterinary student, and, by extension, ethical questions of animal testing and the meat industry. Is Justine eating a human cadaver in the morgue at a party or finger food as though it were a chicken leg the real horror? Ducournau is confrontational, using long takes to reveal cows and horses treated as objects to be killed and dissected; taxidermied animals displayed in basements; the family dog put down for fear of developing a taste for human flesh.

Justine’s journey is inversion, using conversion to carnivorism as metaphor. The first time my revulsion to meat manifested, I was drunk. Sat in an unreputable fast food place past midnight with raving socialists, some film about communism in an Eastern European country playing in the background on late night television. A visceral moment and memory: eating meat without any semblance of sustenance, for the sake of eating. This was my shawarma scene, though it took me many months to decide completely.

Raw may have its share of horror tropes, like the creepy old guy in hospital the night after Alexia’s accident, yet the greatest horror comes from our own reality. Raw speaks to our realities of sexuality, university life and the animal industry where it exists within the echelons of the greatest of coming-of-age films.

Hidden Figures (2016), dir. Theodore Melfi


Around the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a Twitter debate seemed to rage around the right over the politicising of Star Wars. #DumpStarWars seemed slightly ridiculous, but I wonder how the same people might respond to Hidden Figures. The very existence of the film’s protagonists is a political act. Though I’m slightly disappointed the Screen Unseen wasn’t Jackie, Hidden Figures has similarities: it creates a new narrative of the 1960s, recontextualising the dominant male narrative as a female narrative.

Nearly five decades after Apollo 11, space cinema continues to inspire. The fact we sent man to the moon in a vessel is remarkable. NASA’s funding may be a struggle; we may not be on Mars yet; but the arc of history is slow.

We sent man to the moon because of the calculations of black women working at the Langley Research Center in a segregated state. That itself is perhaps more remarkable.

Katherine Johnson.

Dorothy Vaughn.

Mary Jackson.

Like Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) attempting to comprehend the heavily redacted document given to her, we must navigate between the lines in history to find forgotten voices. Alongside 12 Years a Slave (2013), Moonlight and Fences, more African American-led narratives are being brought to the screen, often led by black producers, cutting across white cultural hegemony.

Hidden Figures feels like progress.

The Help (2011) may have created a strong portrait of African-American segregation in Mississippi, but it was ultimately a white narrative, filtered through the perspectives of Skeeter (Emma Stone) and a white writer and director. The Dish (2000) illuminated the unheard voices of Apollo 11, but those unheard voices were white Australian men. Often, mainstream black narratives have a tendency to sanitise themselves; in Red Tails (2012), we learn of the Tuskegee Airmen’s involvement in WWII, yet the film exempts itself from depicting strong racial resentment and controversial politics of the period.

In the backdrop of a Trump administration so vitriolic to the existence of minorities and women, this is exactly the narrative we need. The Help still clung onto a post-racial present where we have cured racism, decades after the demise of segregation. Hidden Figures has sympathetic white characters – but as the minority, not the rule, in a world dominated by entrenched racism and segregation. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) gives leniency and the benefit of the doubt to Katherine, but she is still granted agency within her own narrative. The late John Glenn (Glen Powell) stages an unintentional war against the minimisation of black women in NASA, shaking our protagonists’ hands amid press coverage on the runway against the instincts of everyone else, whilst granting Katherine a new job to double check the stats before he launches off into space. Harrison and Glenn never overshadow the narrative: it is not theirs to have; Glenn’s story was already told in The Right Stuff (1983).

Working as human computers in NASA, Katherine, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae) are never seen as people – they’re the disembodied voice of Siri, able to fit in your pocket, attending to one’s every need, stripping them of any personality or humanity. As women, they may never be considered fit for the workplace. As black women, they may never be considered as fully people. They become trash, equal to a stack of their work stuck in the trashcan by Al.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), humanity only launched into space because the first ape threw the first bone in combat; here, the agent of progress is a stick of chalk, transitioning between bone and spacecraft as Al hands Katherine the chalk as though from God to Adam in The Creation of Adam (1512). Our protagonists are not just black women – they’re mathematicians. Culturally, we celebrate the male genius, hailing the efforts of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). That is not to say we shouldn’t hail the efforts of a schizophrenic, or a gay man screwed over by his country – but to tell young black girls that they can change history, and be launched off in a rocket ship to outer space, is very powerful indeed.

Like the technological scepticism of an Adam Curtis documentary, the enemy of the film is IBM, attempting to murder our protagonists just as HAL did in 2001. Hidden Figures, set in 1961, exists in a transitory window between human computers and digital ones: yet as the film makes clear, the digital computer can never be depended upon in isolation. The women under the tutorage of Dorothy Vaughn must cannibalise themselves in service of the machine, working overtime to facilitate the launch of the IBMs, eliminating their own job security. Where in The Help black narratives were only allowed to be told because Skeeter was ‘generous’ enough to publish them, Katherine is constantly split between crediting herself as co-author on documents only to have them rejected, or erasing her own existence from history.

Looking back on the 1960s, its easy to focus attention on one paradigm over another: on one side, social reforms, NASA, culture, fashion and LSD; on another, nuclear annihilation, systemic racism, Vietnam and assassinations. NASA is defined by astronauts, flags, the dream of Kennedy and the war against Russia, removed from the context of segregation. High school never taught us how segregation played out, only a century after emancipation, as a handful of states refused to follow the Supreme Court’s mandate.

Here, we see the fringes of wider battles of the Civil Rights Movement – on television, we see coverage of a racist bus bombing; Katherine feels distraught at her kids seeing this, but her partner Jim insists that they must watch, and understand what it means to be black in the United States. Our protagonists walk past a race riot as police intervene, batons in hand. We never see the beatings play out; we never see any lynchings. The N-word is never spoken. But this is not the film’s focus: it’s a PG rated film about NASA.

Racism manifests in subtle ways: where The Help presented going to a segregated bathroom as painful, deemed an ‘unclean’ act, here it is amplified, as Katherine takes a 40 minute walk across the NASA campus, folders of calculations in hand, to go to the solitary colored bathroom. Elevated to working in the office, Katherine becomes subject to the disbelief of white male co-workers, defined as a spectacle, her colourful dress drowning out an office of white shirts and black ties. It is a joy that, unlike The Help, Hidden Figures devotes so much of its runtime to making white people uncomfortable. Even when Katherine is granted the privilege to attend a board meeting, treated with some level of respect, her calculations are met not with applause but jokes. The frame minimises Katherine’s role, blocked out of view by Al, impossible to be seen.

It persists through complacency: Katherine, Dorothy and Mary may be the best of the best working in NASA, but to the average white man, there is no material benefit nor payrise to showing basic respect and human decency. Paul (Jim Parsons) refuses to ever go against protocol in a workplace which has never employed women in major roles, leading to consternation with Al and a refusal to enact change. Yet as Katherine makes abundantly clear to him, “there’s no protocol for a man circling the Earth.”

As a woman in the workplace, Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) shows how deeply the status quo penetrates. Gender equality acts as a form of politeness when objections to black women working in NASA are raised, softened to being because of their gender, even perpetuated within the black community by Jim. Vivian, blind to the systemic racism within herself, never embraces femininity nor treats Katherine as an equal or friend; becoming an extension of the white patriarchy, complicit within their injustices, never advocating for her own struggle for gender equality.

Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Jewish veteran of the Holocaust working on the project, having survived pogroms and extermination, symbolises the hope of the future for African Americans. Jewish Americans rewrote American culture and politics: Stan Lee created a superhero empire; Robert Oppenheimer cracked open the atom and gave birth to the nuclear bomb; Mel Brooks made icons of American cinema. If Zielinski, in 20 years, has come this far, why can’t African Americans?

When we narrativise the Civil Rights Movement, we often focus on individual, extraordinary figures, like Rosa Parks, MLK, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, whilst forgetting smaller, forgotten voices, who played just as instrumental a part. Rosa Parks was far from the only black woman. Small acts of rebellion are central to the struggle. The film’s protagonists may be exceptions rather than the rule, but there were still thousands of black women working for NASA in the 1960s, each with their own narrative.

In retroactive joy, the opening scene introduces Katherine, Dorothy and Mary, their broken-down car on the side of the road as they drive to work, pulled over by a white cop. Today, we might expect to see the three beaten and shot, but the film twists this, as he escorts them to the NASA facility, chasing after his vehicle at breakneck speed as they revel in the miracle of being three black women chasing a cop in 1961.

Change is only able to come when one demands change; just as with man’s footsteps on the Moon, it requires “one small step” to make a “giant leap for mankind”. But as with Cathy’s involvement with the NAACP in Far from Heaven (2002), change depends upon the willingness of white people. In her courtroom case for the right to an education, Mary makes a personal plea to the white judge to allow her to study night classes in a segregated school that refuses to even acknowledge the existence of women, for him to be the first and go down in history. It may never express the same emotional power as a similar scene in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), but it’s still important. In response to Katherine’s powerful, rain-soaked demand for respect and sympathy from her male co-workers, Al makes fighting segregation a personal issue, removing “COLORED” labels from coffee machines and removing the sign from the women’s bathroom with a wrench.

The tragedy is, this feels like fantasy. Al would receive a talking to. Other southern NASA institutions wouldn’t follow suit. Someone would go back in there with a screwdriver and reinstate the sign. Yet in the midst of transgender bathroom debates, the question over whether bathrooms need a race or a gender for the most basic of human acts still speaks a power.

All the film’s protagonists desire is parity. To learn programming, Dorothy must venture outside the Colored section of the library to find a book on FORTEAN, be shouted at by a librarian, pulled outside by an aggressive white guard, and hide the book in her bag which she bought with her taxes anyway. In doing so, she appears to turn the first IBM on ever. Our protagonists must work above and beyond their male coworkers, finding as many loopholes as possible, in order to just keep up with them. To rise above, Mary must apply to a degree that isn’t open to her.

Hidden Figures is a story of both regression and progression: each small step forward only brings our protagonists one step back. In the most illuminating example of this, Katherine demands the unaffordable pearls that are an essential part of her uniform she’s meant to have on day one; she only ever gets them when she leaves the job, out of the kindness of white people. Even when she attends, she is marginalised, unable to watch the mission that she ensured happened.

We understand our protagonists as fully formed characters, with their own personalities; Katherine is embedded within black culture, attending church sermons preaching of the struggle, living as a mother yet as far more than just that, with the same struggles of finding time between work and family as any other adult, with her own developing relationships. The soundtrack refuses to evoke white music of the period, instead opting for new songs by Pharrell Williams.

Yet directed by the white guy who did St. Vincent (2014), Hidden Figures will never carry the intensity and anger of a Spike Lee joint, or of Beyonce’s unapologetic Lemonade (2016). It may not do anything remarkably new either: it is not the definitive account of the Civil Rights Movement, nor is it the definitive film of the Space Race. The film never has the budget to recreate rocket launch-offs or shuttles recovered from the ocean, instead relying upon an uneasy mix between CGI and archival footage, relaying historical information through awkward expositional text. Mid-way through the film, as with how For All Mankind (1989) opens, we see JFK’s iconic speech:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. […] We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Maybe ABC’s The Astronaut Wives Club (2015) already explored the struggle of women amidst the Space Race. Timeless (2016) already invoked Katherine Johnson’s role within NASA just a few months ago.

Not every scene works perfectly, nor is every line of dialogue perfectly written. But that is besides the point. Hidden Figures never strives to be a masterpiece of American cinema.

But it is heartwarming. It is essential.