Armageddon (1998), dir. Michael Bay

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Through the 1970s and 80s, the summer blockbuster had been the product of Universal and 20th Century Fox thanks to Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), alongside many others that tried, flopped, bombed or weren’t as successful as projected. Disney held a corner of the summer market, but the Renaissance era fall and winter successes – The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) – catapulted Disney back into the centre of summer. Summer movies might now seem defined by the effects driven superhero action of Marvel Studios. But for the emerging directors of the 1990s and 2000s, Michael Eisner’s Disney had been a place for the distinctive visions of Wes Anderson, M. Night Shyamalan and Michael Bay. Touchstone Pictures was a fiction: a way to shake off the assumption that Disney inherently signposts animation, joy, colour and fantasy or represents a merchandising empire of theme parks, comic books, storybooks, films, toys and clothes for kids and families. Touchstone forged its identity with comedies, like Good Morning, Vietnam and Three Men and a Baby (1987) and the combined animation and musical techniques of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Alongside Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith at Miramax, Disney committed itself to independent cinema and R ratings in production and distribution. Disney hid beneath a label, but a familiar DVD template and a shiny lenticular castle marked its provenance. From Buena Vista’s origins as Walt Disney seeked to establish itself outside of the distribution infrastructure of RKO, one can just about trace a line from Welles and Hitchcock to Michael Bay: and into the Criterion Collection.

Touchstone faded away into North American distribution for Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks projects, with the Buena Vista name resurrected once more for the international distribution of Glass (2019), yet another Disney superhero film. But before the Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm acquisitions, Disney’s mid-00s blockbusters, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and National Treasure (2004), had been led by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, projects begun at Touchstone that moved over to the Disney label. In the Walt Disney Studios era, Bruckheimer’s name has faded behind critical and commercial bombs; Michael Bay has risen to mass critical revulsion thanks to his Transformers (2007-present) series of films at Paramount, alongside a distribution slate of films like Iron Man (2008), Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger (2008) – films that had formed out of a toyline franchise built out of a Marvel comic series and Marvel Productions animated series and film.

As Bay notes in the audio commentary, he developed Armageddon as a “favour” when none of Disney’s scripts interested him. The confusion of the Transformers (2007-present) franchise has marked Bay’s career with its numerous references to balls, dicks, and masturbation, lengthy runtimes, incoherent plots, deaths and resurrections, conspiracy theories, product placement and skyscraper destruction. Though Wes Anderson might be the most recognised visual stylist of the Touchstone era, both Bay and Shyamalan, simultaneously met with critical disdain, have more going for them than might be credited. As both Tony Zhou and Lindsay Ellis argue in their video essays, Bay has a recognisable style, with Zhou noting Bay’s dynamic use of telephoto lenses and parallax in scenes of motion, and, in her film theory series The Whole Plate, with Ellis arguing that Bay fits with Andrew Sarris’ concept of auteur theory. Film historian Jeanine Basinger, a college tutor of Bay’s, argues that Bay has always been “ahead of his time”. On the commentary, Bay expresses that critics missed the point, arguing Armageddon is meant to be a summer blockbuster that isn’t taken seriously. Pearl Harbor (2001) might be wildly historically inaccurate, but it doesn’t matter: it’s a romantic action spectacle. Bay’s push for filming set pieces with IMAX cameras since Revenge of the Fallen (2009) only heightens this degree of spectacle.

Armageddon is a product of the 1990s: notably, Aerosmith dominate the soundtrack with I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing; Greenpeace activists protest an oil refinery drilling at sea, but its brand of pre-9/11 action heroism is perhaps more significant. HyperNormalisation (2016) argues that Armageddon and films of its ilk allowed a foreshadowed performance of American anxieties of destruction, during a period in which, per Lawrence Wright’s astounding The Looming Tower (2006), al-Qaeda were a known quantity hidden behind the FBI and departmental bureaucracy. In the years since, 9/11 has become an unavoidable visual reference for gritty and grounded action and superhero cinema. Armageddon is concerned with the apocalyptic: a presence, vaguely known but outside our control, that the American working class must come together to combat with casualties and sacrifices. The heroes of Armageddon must be squared against not only real world astronauts on the ISS, but the first responders to 9/11 and the soldiers of the War on Terror, especially considering the Transformers franchise received material support and script approval from the Department of Defence. Bay’s cinema is not apolitical. If we extend our understanding of heroism, within this paradigm reflects not only instilling ‘good’ over ‘evil’, but American nationalism and patriotism, conduct and perception overseas, imperialism, and the individual and their culpability within a larger group. Across Top Gun (1986) and Black Hawk Down (2001), Bruckheimer’s films often deal with the Armed Forces, individual sacrifices, unity and complex military operations. Although NASA functions under wide autonomy, it still nominally exists in tandem with federally sanctioned branches.

These 9/11 parallels are most closely seen as we witness the meteor shower against New York City. On the commentary, we learn New York was chosen as it is a “great visual city”. Bay uses economy of storytelling: as newspapers and TV reports cover impending threat, Bay focuses upon a man pushing his bicycle and walking his bulldog. The bulldog becomes a movie monster, fighting against a street vendor’s plastic inflatable Godzillas, the same year Columbia brought Godzilla back to American audiences, with Bay arguing that Emmerich’s film hurt their performance. Shooting scenes over four days and using an LA intersection, alongside model work, Digital Domain and visual effects veteran Robert Legato only a year after the impressive effects of Titanic (1997), New York becomes a spectacle of flame, exploding cars and broken windows. For the 1990s, Bay offers a visual effects antecedent to the heroism and destruction of the disaster cinema of the 1970s. Models of the Chrysler Building are destroyed; Grand Central Terminal is engulfed in flame; the towers of the World Trade Center are scathed, smoke billowing out of the top of 2 WTC. Survivors run; living bodies fall to the ground. But Bay places our empathy not in countless dead men, women and children, but in the devastation of falling architecture and the survival of the bulldog by its leash. The bodies of men wearing “I ❤ NY” t-shirts are eviscerated. In Europe, Bay murders Haussmann in a sequence added late to production: in a few shots, Paris, is used to symbolise Europe as an easily identifiable city. From aerial and in close-up, the gargouilles de Notre-Dame de Paris are reduced to smithereens; the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile no longer exists; blocks and blocks and blocks are devastated for kilometres around. Bay casually destroys lives and history with no exploration of human reality or its aftermath; after a few shots, we move onto the next scene. In a soundstage facsimile of Shanghai’s ports, Bay places a focus on Asia, before quickly forgetting about it. There’s a brazenness that has become commonplace: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) would destroy the tour Eiffel; Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and London Has Fallen (2016) destroyed Washington DC and London; 2012 (2009) predicted an impossible Mayan end of the world scenario. The effects are impressive, but Bay’s trademark hyperkinetic editing that often works perfectly never allows us to appreciate the impact. How do Amtrak, businesses, tourism industries and the French government cope with staggering death tolls and a lost culture?

In the establishing shot, depicting the supposed extinction of the dinosaurs through an asteroid collision in CGI, Charlton Heston’s voiceover narration stresses:

It happened before. It will happen again. It’s just a question of when.

Two years later, the fusion of live action nature plates and CGI elements of Dinosaur (2000) provided a strange quasi-prequel. During the development process, an opening sequence that approached extinction was excised for its similarity to Armageddon. But a similar uneven tone abounds: fire rains down from the sky, with the trauma and destruction and the mortality of a species barely explored as viewers are led to root for a couple’s romantic survival in the face of death. Dinosaur, like Armageddon, is as much interested in an external, natural threat and the resilience of a species that can only last so long. Mortality and the collapse of civilisations become cyclical. The previous decade lingered with a Cold War nuclear threat with a human face, but Armageddon shifts the threat into the unknown, an alien threat governed not by civilisation and governance, but the laws of the universe – inevitable and indefensible. Unlike alien invasion, terrorism and natural disasters within our atmosphere, Armageddon deals with an unknowable force beyond. In the final act, Bay depicts global religious unity together in prayer and worship against an ‘act of God’ – but it remains throwaway.

The concept of Armageddon – that guys outside of NASA can do a better job than federally funded NASA – isn’t unfamiliar. It’s the mission objective of capitalistic private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, working alongside NASA to provide space travel a future in the absence of federal funding. It’s also the plot of an episode of The Simpsons (1989-present): in Deep Space Homer (1994), NASA’s desperately bids for federal funding and relevancy against low Nielsen ratings, training “average-nauts” Homer and Barney to fly into space alongside Buzz Aldrin as a publicity stunt. Homer reflects an everyday American: overweight, alcoholic, without a background in science or flight, with his incompetence smuggling a bag of potato chips on board and displacing an ant colony threatening a fatal flight. In Armageddon, our astronauts are oil drillers, an aspect Ben Affleck roasts to death on the audio commentary. Bay is building upon decades of science fiction. Notably, Heston’s opening narration carries a spiritual science fiction link to Planet of the Apes (1968): his astronaut, Taylor, is rugged, bearded and masculine, traversing the landscape as one of the last men on Earth. But as depicted in Bowling for Columbine (2002), Heston is a conservative monster, supportive of the NRA and gun rights, offering a rather more toxic portrait of white masculinity.

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Deep Space Homer (1994)

Armageddon adopts a rebellious attitude towards NASA, updating the organisation’s antiquated Americana and “simple guys” for “sexy” modern technology, as he describes in the commentary. Over the intercom, Harry S. Stamper (Bruce Willis) inverts “we have a problem” a la Apollo 13 (1995), throwing it back at NASA as “Houston, you have a problem!” For Bay, NASA must modernise and change and embrace the little guy, rather than rely upon its establishment of scientists. But Bay adopts these attitudes while working alongside NASA as an essential collaborator, shooting upon the gantry in one take with NASA permission, and tethering 12 cameras to a shuttle launch (and a subsequent night launch). Bay exploits NASA iconography: against a mural of JFK, we witness children playing with cardboard space shuttles and costumes; archival video of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon plays through a television monitor. The film’s production design, reinventing bulky grey spacesuits (a $1 million production investment) beyond anything officially tested, still allows the NASA logo to appear on spacesuits and mugs. NASA’s loss is as much a story in Armageddon as anywhere else out heroes stand against the girders and memorial plaque commemorating Apollo 1. As the film progresses, the patch reading the words “For All Mankind” becomes an important memento. Bay finds a way to incorporate Soviet involvement, anachronistically introducing a cosmonaut on a fellow space station as though lost from Solaris (1972), adorned with the shirt and red star of the CCCP.

Each astronaut embodies different personalities, utilising a model adapted from The Dirty Dozen (1967): in montage, NASA executive Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) recruits each character in montage set to Come Together, two decades before Justice League (2017) emulated the same idea. Bear (Michael Clarke Duncan), is pursued on motorcycle by a parade of cop cars and helicopters; Rockhound (Steve Buscemi) flirts at a New Orleans bar; Oscar (Owen Wilson) races by horse against FBI helicopters and the falling sunset near El Paso; Chick (Will Patton) throws dice in Vegas; we witness the irony of a tattooist defending himself from his mom’s illegal accusations as the FBI appear. Criminal records are washed away in an instant. Real world astronauts might be connected by shared backgrounds and the rarity of flight into space, acting as educators and biographers in the decades afterwards, but Armageddon stretches its nepotism: Harry (Bruce Willis) recruits his oil rig colleague A.J. (Ben Affleck) in a situation as plausible as Sue Storm going into space with her brother and future husband in Fantastic Four (1961-present). Harry and A.J.’s interpersonal relationship is not just about survival in space, but A.J.’s burgeoning connection with his daughter Grace (Liv Tyler). Our astronauts know about space from movies, with pop culture references to Star Wars peppered throughout just as Bay builds Armageddon upon drawing direct visual parallels to The Right Stuff (1983).

Their medical physical becomes a playful joke, between Rubik’s cubes and Rorschach tests, asserted within a fight for the strength of masculinity: Bear strips naked in hospital; nurses are flirted with; searching the anal cavity becomes seethed in fear; needles are unbearable. The film’s version of masculinity interplays with the film’s depiction of women: Rockhound is a hypersexual womaniser, decoding the authenticity of a married woman’s diamond ring, and fighting in drunken stupor outside a strip club, insisting he is actually an astronaut. Bay might imbue Armageddon with a magical quality, wanting to capture the idea that amateurs are largely the ones who discover interstellar objects as he explains in the commentary. Bay frames the discoverer of the asteroid as a caretaker in an observatory, Karl, but Bay demeans and undervalues women in his punch line, as Karl suggests NASA name the asteroid after his “vicious, life sucking bitch” of a wife, Dottie. In space, Bear rides atop a bomb in a throwaway gag, in explicit reference to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), yet remains more interested in whether his fellow astronauts have seen the film, unaware of the film’s obvious phallic symbolism and his position within a broader system of masculinity and the implications of complete obliteration through nuclear war. (Perhaps most distressingly, the T-slur is used multiple times, but within an entirely different context outside of its derogatory usage.)

On the surface, the crew of Armageddon might have an appearance of diversity through the presence of black astronaut Bear, but these dynamics never truly interplay; Bear’s race remains overshadowed by the dominance of whiteness. Each character clashes in their masculinity to assert dominance. Liv Tyler, with her own familial connection to Aerosmith, does a good enough role, but Grace’s presence remains marginalised: she isn’t an astronaut, but a romantic partner to ground home and progress the narrative towards matrimony. In the sunset beside their product placement BMW, Grace embraces closely with A.J., as he touches down upon her lingerie. The self-sacrifice of Harry as each character draws straws to decide upon the last man is foregrounded upon this relationship. In a deleted scene, we witness Harry’s generational history as he says goodbye to his father in Pasadena, also an oil driller. Harry, as a father-in-law, becomes the film’s adoptive father figure: in the face of death, A.J. expresses his expressive, emotional love beyond their comradeship. Harry’s last words offer his approval and blessing for marriage. Even in death, Bay projects a heterosexual trajectory of life: in expressionistic montage, his entire life flashes before him, between childhood and falling in love. In the closing credits, Bay concludes the film not in remembrance of death, but by utilising 8mm and super 16 home movie montage of the wedding of A.J. and Grace, taking us through their ceremony in church. Grace’s marginalisation follows a trend throughout the male gaze of Bay’s films, sexualising Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), Sam Witwicky’s teenage love interest in the Transformers series, only to replace her with an English model after Fox referred to Bay as a “Nazi”. As Ellis stresses, part of Bay’s misogynistic tendencies also becomes present in homophobia, with an explicit rejection of the possibility of homosexuality in Bad Boys II (2003) playing to an assumed heterosexual male audience. Bruckheimer’s Top Gun (1986) is open to a queer reading in its presentation of masculinity and the male body, but it cannot escape its foregrounding within a heterosexual relationship.

The strength of the film’s sequences beyond the Earth lies in their portrayal of each character’s relationship with each other, conflicts and sense of suspense, and particularly in the deployment of visual effects. As Basinger describes, Bay is a “master of movement, light, color, and shape”. The thorough deconstruction within the supplemental material on the Criterion release becomes most interesting within these sections, with numerous effects and matte paintings utilised to depict an alien landscape, from the glow of the horizon and effects utilised to provide texture and life to green and blue coloured gases, reflections and a shockwave. As a prehistory to the visual effects of the 2010s, Dream Quest Images’ use of textures, renders, animatics, motion control and compositing is fascinating, used in conjunction (as Dinosaur would be) with maquettes, models, live action plates and particulate explosions. As Roger Ebert writes in his memorably derisive 1 star review of the film, Armageddon is a “150-minute trailer” and highlight reel assaulting “the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained.” But the film’s adrenaline editing is genuinely impressive, adopting a Terrence Malick approach of constant filming but without the elegant, floating, spiritual transcendence of his sequences: Armageddon went through multiple editors, often editing rushes on location, shifting scenes around across different approaches; Kodak gifted the crew with a gift basket of champagne after they ran past a million feet of film. In the digital era, reshoots and constant filming and editing, especially with regard to Rogue One (2016) and Solo (2018) at Disney, seem to be par for the course. Bay achieves a fight against the clock that is equally against the human species, from the threat of selecting a blue or red wire of a nuclear weapon seconds before detonation, and fights breaking out at the terminal between a wrench and a gun. At its best, Armageddon achieves a story of comradeship and heroism in the face of extreme obstacles. The film’s sense of camaraderie may never be its most memorable element, but it is the most essential. Despite Bay’s problematic perspectives on race and gender, and his constant upholding of masculinity, Armageddon remains an enjoyable space adventure. The ‘genre’ of astronaut cinema has so many better examples, but Armageddon, as an artefact of the 1990s, at least deserves a place within there.

Hard to be a God (2013), dir. Aleksei German

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Hard to be a God is a testament to vision and persistence. German began a screenplay of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Hard to be a God (1964) in 1967; Boris injected the piece with his own feelings on the political situation, but with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia the following year, work was abandoned. As German tells Anton Dolin in a 2011 book of interviews, republished within Arrow Academy’s booklet, he tried to take over Peter Fleischmann’s adaptation, Hard to be a God (1989), but was unable to negotiate as Fleischmann’s finances were already invested. Under Gorbachev’s relaxations, the film’s relevance seemed to have dissipated; German felt a national feeling of “the evil had been conquered”. German didn’t start production until 2000, shooting over a six-year period and editing until his death in 2013; completed posthumously through wife Svetlana Karmalita and son and filmmaker Aleksei German Jr.

German died considering himself a failure despite awards, producing only a handful of films within limitations of censorship; never achieving worldwide distribution or acclaim and suffering from depression. As he joked to Dolin, compared to a “severely beaten human being” or political prisoner, he was a “winner”. Shot on 35mm, the sheer scale of Hard to be a God is difficult to grasp, ostensibly science fiction but lacking few identifying characteristics besides its premise of a visitor to another world.

Hard to be a God is an exercise in worldbuilding, thanks to the efforts of designers Sergei Kokovin, Georg Kropachev and Elena Zhukova, and directors of photography Vladimir Ilyin and Yuriy Klimenko. Shot in castles in the Czech Republic and Lenfilm Studios in St Petersburg and recruiting numerous extras, Hard to be a God astounds. In the opening scenes, we feel distance: expositional narration offers a fairytale-esque glimpse, scientists gazing upon inhabitants framed by the circular lens. Rather than an escapist, futurist world, Arkanar becomes a reflection of our own history within the same genre as the swords and sorcery epics of films like Labyrinth (1986), series like Game of Thrones (2011-present) and multimedia franchises like Conan the Barbarian and Dungeons & Dragons. Though Hard to be a God lacks mythical creatures, it follows the same principle, just as steampunk refigures industrial technology into the future.

German coordinates mise-en-scène perfectly, creating a sense of the chaos of overcrowded streets, characters overlapping each other. German has less interest in narrative progression, without a clear journey: the film is circular, opening in snowfall by a black pool of water, ending in white snow as a man and a young girl walk by; people on horseback walking through the desolate landscape, the corpse of a dog hanging from a swing set. German’s worldbuilding is his philosophy: referencing Ivanov’s masterpiece The Appearance of Christ Before the People (1857), he told Dolin he would “rather create a single piece but a good one”.

As a medieval world trapped 800 years in the past, Arkanar’s Renaissance was forestalled by the repression of Don Reba, head of Crown Security, dissolving universities and its intelligentsia of “thinkers, smartarses, bookworms and artisans”, in war between Blacks and Greys. Reba is central to the film’s political commentary, drawing parallels between the Tower of Joy and the KGB; the Strugatskys foregrounded the novel within the repressions of the Soviet regime. Presented an award by Putin, German reportedly told him “the most interested viewer should be you”. Precepts become ludicrous: the world’s caste system, with slaves employed in tin mines, designate “gingernuts” as other, purely for the shade of their hair.

Arkanar feels otherworldly and anachronistic: the Renaissance exists as an alternative universe, references to Da Vinci, Baron Munchausen and a local tobacconist dropped throughout. Technology seems from another time and place, from spyglasses to an intricate flute that plays catchy yet equally as desolate blues music throughout the film that gives the young girl a “tummy ache” in the final scene. As a visitor, Don Rumata acts as a conduit to the contrast between this world and our world but with a Renaissance anachronism. Through the centuries, we feel distance from medieval life, unable to imagine what it must have been like. Perhaps the most successful vision of the degradation is Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), but it is still ultimately a comedy; German creates a world real and tangible. German wanted to “make a film with a smell”, immersing us within the Middle Ages “through a keyhole”. In Stalker (1979), adapted from the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic (1972), Tarkovsky created distance between science fiction and present reality through his industrial and natural landscapes to represent the Zone, grounded within our relationship with nature itself; Arkanar follows that same relationship. Natural elements are stark: a world of rain, fire, mist and swamps smothered in blood, alcohol and faeces, roses unable to distract from the disgusting.

German builds a terrifying vision of death. Bureaucracy relies upon torture; traders sell eyeballs; disembodied heads litter streets; rotting bodies hang from gallows, eaten by flies and marred by white splotches; poets drenched in fluid; disease spreads cholera and plague. It is a world of memento mori: Ruba handles the skull of a cow, before a young boy tells him it’s actually a boar. In an overhead shot, the Black Order march through the Land Beyond the Straits as premonitions, seen only in helmets and cloaks, a passing bird revealing the sheer scale. The precepts of the ordained authority of the Crown Security make fearing death itself a heretical crime. God’s existence becomes a constant act of debate: as a lone visitor attempting to shape the future, Rumata has a god complex, but in the Dolin interview, German argues he is only acting. God is dead, but Rumata asks God to stop him (if he exists), still debating whether there are souls or no souls. Frescoes create insight into the history of religious icons and the Arkanar Massacre itself, an event never directly glimpsed on screen.

Agrarian existence depends upon a relationship with animals. Eggs are held as produce; butchers handle animals; fish lay dead; cows, goats, hedgehogs, tortoises, monkeys and ducks walk through the frame; in close-up detail, we follow a horse in armour marching on. “May your donkey shaft you” becomes a visceral threat of violence. Sexuality runs rampant, one of the few things to entertain in a world where nothing seems to have any value. Naked bodies are as prominent as animals, filled with dicks, boobs and flagellation of butts. In the opening scene, we hold on a man defecating from an open window. Balls and bulges are fondled; German holds the camera on the oversized dick of a donkey’s. Bestiality is commonplace; rumours abound about a man having sex with a goose. Women become punished by archaic systems: abused by a solider, looking up her dress to determine whether she is a “gingernut”; burned at the stake as “whores”, with little to verify the authenticity of those slurs. German’s open use of sexual and needs driven bodies might seem to place him in the same category as Walerian Borowczyk, in the crossroads between high art, pornography and exploitation, but adds an additional layer of authenticity and reality to his world.

Almost the entirety of German’s films have documented Stalinist era history, shot in black and white. As he tells Dolin, two crimes were committed against cinema: the emergence of sound and colour cinema. German comments that he “see[s] the world in black and white”; colour is but a sensor within the mind. Black and white affords timelessness, placing Hard to be a God firmly within another era, its scale evoking the great Russian epics of Alexander Nevsky (1938), Ivan the Terrible (1942-44), Hamlet (1964) and Andrei Rublev (1966): nationalist mythmaking intersecting along exploration of faith, death and value systems.

Inspired by the scale and thematic exploration of Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bertolucci and Bergman, by the end of his life German felt disengaged with cinema, becoming what he described to Dolin as “a spectacle for people who are too lazy to read”. Hard to be a God seems unmatched in its slow and contemplative 3-hour runtime. In long shots, the camera acts as a character within itself, never seeking to hide its presence. Extras walk up and look into the eye of the camera, watching out at us, performing to or avoiding as the camera catches their gaze. German breaks the fourth wall in much the same way as Tarkovsky did with Stalker, imagining the audience as participants and observers within this world. Largely avoiding close-ups, German allows us to examine the frame for ourselves and find our own narratives.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), dir. Matt Reeves

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One of the most successful rebooted franchises of recent years has been the Planet of the Apes series, finding a new perspective on how the world emerged. Planet of the Apes (1968) pitted astronaut Taylor against a future Earth, screaming against the Statue of Liberty buried in sand. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) destroyed the world itself, but the films that followed travelled back through time through deus ex machina. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) positioned us in the near future as Will Rodman sought an Alzheimer’s cure, exploring the relationship between man and chimp and touching upon contemporary anxieties, with the global pandemic of the Simian Flu spreading on an airplane. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) expanded that world further, as a diminishing human population sought to survive. Director Matt Reeves might be best known for Cloverfield (2008), but is quickly becoming a big name, developing The Batman for Warner Bros.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) may be the defining character of the rebooted trilogy, but Caesar was never the focal character in the original series, played by Roddy McDowall in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). Serkis has dominated motion capture, roles as diverse as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2002-04) and The Hobbit (2012-14), Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and the mysterious Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Serkis is so recognisable it becomes distracting: beneath his voice and eyes, we see Serkis, not Caesar. Caesar is never entirely sympathetic, forced to make uneasy decisions that cast his leadership in a bad light. Apes exist on a spectrum of colours and textures: orange, white, black, with characters like orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer). WETA Digital have developed an impressive array of visual effects, but WETA’s realism is a contradiction, falling into the uncanny valley, seeking sympathy and emotion for ape characters that we know have no physical presence. Faces begin to look like a videogame, with close detail on wrinkles, fur, rain and blood vessels within the eye.

War for the Planet of the Apes positions conflict between apes and humans. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) suggested unity, a post-nuclear society of peace: in the forest, apes learnt human qualities through a school system. Rise attacked our treatment of animals, whilst in Dawn, we find sympathy in some characters but contempt in man’s militarism. War offers few shades of grey. Military faction Alpha-Omega is headed by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), outfitting signs with “THE BEGINNING AND THE END”. Mute girl Nova (Amiah Miller) reminds us of our humanity, but barely: picking pink flowers in the snow, taking her name from a metal plate from an abandoned Chevy. Nova feels like a sister to Laura in Logan (2017), expressing herself through body language. Reeves positions her within the frame alone, a singular remnant of what humanity could be. But War for the Planet of the Apes is far more interested in its apes. Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), perhaps the most infuriating character, crosses boundaries between ape and human: hermit and sole survivor from the Sierra Zoo, personified by a hat he adopts from an abandoned ski lodge whilst attempting to convey comedy.

War draws upon imagery of multiple conflicts across different terrains, through forest and snow, evoking World War II in tanks, Iraq in uniforms and green lights, and pre-industrialised wars with apes riding upon horseback. In the opening, we gaze upon graffiti on Vietnam-esque helmets, soldiers marching forward in camouflage, outfitted with phrases like “BEDTIME FOR BONZO” and “COMBAT KILLER”. We follow a first-person perspective, staring through crosshairs at an ape on a horse. At times, forest combat feels like Return of the Jedi (1983), Ewoks protecting land from the Empire’s machinations.

In the snow, human bodies become identical, lines of white uniforms demarcated by a circle of blood. In his muscularity and masculinity, McCullough acts as an archetype, speaking highly in his admiration of Napoleon. He listens to Hendrix, holding onto his youth. McCullough peddles fundamentalist Christianity, hanging a cross upon the wall next to a picture of the son he sacrificed in biblical fashion for the greater good. His battle is spiritual, crucifying apes upon battlefields. When he commits suicide, drowned out by whiskey, we feel no sympathy.

In its runtime and 65mm, War for the Planet of the Apes attempts to be an old war epic: Reeves riffs on the relationship between Nicholson and Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and the scale of Apocalypse Now (1979), similar to Vogt-Roberts’ emulation of Vietnam War cinema in Kong: Skull Island (2017). Apes move through tunnels, setting off explosives, throwing mud at a soldier as a small act of revolt. There’s pathos to the destruction of the natural landscape: though a victory, devastation remains felt. War’s intertextuality is painstakingly obvious: graffiti on a tunnel reads “APE-POCALYPSE NOW”, as though we didn’t get the reference.

The Planet of the Apes series is directly tied to racial politics, both in how societies are structured and in how we treat others. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes built upon the racial conflict of the Civil Rights Movement, imagining a similar system to apartheid and segregation; apes kept as pets and slaves, leading to the fiery bloodshed of revolution. But the difficulty of reading the Planet of the Apes series through a racial lens is it embodies contradictions, no clear message lying beneath the surface. Human characters reflect white America: McCullough is obsessed with borders, but War is never about Trump. McCullough heads a rogue, militarised United States, groups of soldiers worshipping the American flag as an old record plays The Star-Spangled Banner; a flag set aflame during ensuing conflict. Alpha-Omega is dominated by white men; African-Americans and women become homogenised into the dominant system, without a voice, used as faces but not characters.

Imprisoned in camps, the old guard seeks to contain the new; apes are never a minority, but are kept back by existing power structures. Apes become redeployed in a way mirroring systems of slavery: redeployed in combat as lackeys, carrying equipment and turning on their own people. Apes become brandished with new names that aren’t their own, without heritage.

Borders aren’t just a question about Mexico, but about how America deals with Native Americans. The ape colony emerging in the Muir Woods around San Francisco represent new settlements; apes’ faces are painted in tribal imagery, seeking to reclaim land that was always theirs. War exists within a post-civilisation resembles an early America of manual labour, rooted in trees and overgrowth: remnants of the past still exist, faded Coca Cola trucks and tractors dotting the landscape, run-down corner stores, an abandoned ski resort thawed away by ice, frozen in time, but its landscapes never feel as effective as the concrete and hydroelectric dam in Dawn. Shot in Vancouver, natural landscapes are capped by waterfalls and snow, replenishing where humanity lived.

Reeves’ use of the imagery of westerns is a contradiction. In Muir Woods, whispers tell of great deserts and lands upon the horizon. Apes ride on horseback like cowboys, traversing the landscape of North America in a dream of new land and survival. In some respects, War draws parallels to Logan: a neo-western road movie, moving across from the Mexican to Canadian border in search of an Eden prophesied in comic books. In the final scene, War makes the western parallel obvious: Reeves slowly fades between shots as we walk into another film, discovering a colourful lakeside paradise that might as well be Monument Valley, clouds hanging stationary as though an artificial, painted backdrop. Caesar lays dying of his wounds, passing on to another generation, but his death captures little emotion; we never have enough reason to care. Logan’s parallels to the western worked because Mangold still innovated, developing his own visual style whilst acknowledging the influence of films like Shane (1953) within the film itself. But Reeves proves unable to find his own style, creating discontinuity of form with the previous films.

Reeves’ achievement is in sound and dialogue. From the opening logos, the soundscape immerses us with war drums, rain and the call of birds. The exposition in the opening captions conveys a documentary quality but with the same substance of a Wikipedia summary, RISE and DAWN awkwardly emphasised: we gaze upon a nature documentary, watching a civilisation we cannot entirely understand through human eyes. The director is not Matt Reeves, but David Attenborough. Scenes play with minimal dialogue, apes communicating through gestures, grunts and subtitled dialogue. Within world cinema, subtitles have direct justification, transcending cultural and language barriers. But Reeves’ subtitles create a hindrance to conveying meaning. Grunts seem a string of meaningless sounds, unable to capture emotion. Michael Giacchino’s score overpowers the soundscape, manipulating mood whilst never immersing us within the scene.

Caesar acts as interlocutor between apes and the viewer. Although Caesar’s use of English affords uneasy power within the tribe, it draws attention to the limitations of the film itself, speaking English with little justification. Dawn crafted narrative out of communication: conflict arose from miscommunication and conflicting needs, Alex’s sketches and love of Black Hole (1995) to emphasising the universality of visual communication. In War, Reeves explores how language acquisition is socialised. Raised in a zoo, Bad Ape’s broken English was acquired as a means to survive, embodying the philosophy of a working class sage. Devolution emerges from a loss of language acquisition. Nova’s communicates through her gaze with Maurice, edited in shot reverse shot and framed in close-up.

War builds itself as a remix of earlier genre works within a blockbuster franchise. But Reeves uses elements in a way that isn’t transformative, relying too heavily on recreation. War never feels fresh, with little to offer that hasn’t already been told in previous war or post-apocalyptic films. War can never be an old war epic or western, because that isn’t what it is.