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


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


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.

The 10th Victim (1965), dir. Elio Petri


A particular strand of science fiction is built upon a certain question: what would happen if society’s morality became unbound, creating a culture of legalised killing? In The Running Man (1987), the arena between life and death becomes state-sanctioned reality TV entertainment, with the garish aesthetics of a game show. Battle Royale’s (2000) mass violence restages this moral question as high-schoolers fight to the death upon an island, inspired by Kinji Fukasaku’s experience as a teenager in World War II. The Hunger Games (2012) situates itself as a futuristic, downtrodden dystopia, its young inhabitants randomly selected as tributes, but remains limited through its younger audience. But perhaps the most bizarre rendition of this question is The 10th Victim.

The 10th Victim is unable to escape its aesthetic; its aesthetic is its reason for being. The 10th Victim relies upon the garishness and absurdities that dominate late 60s cinema. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) cradles a robot doll upon his chest. Bras conceal guns. An alligator is bathed in water. Saxophone plays stand motionless upon a podium, as action moves on around them. A house is surrounded by limbless statues. Part of the film’s joy is in its vision for the future, just as Fahrenheit 451 (1966) predicted the evolution of television. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) combines its 1960s fashions with tablets and modern passport control.

Is it the future, or is it 1965?

The 10th Victim delivers a futuristic vision, with white backgrounds, city steps and computers. Petri drowns certain shots in yellows. PanAm flights land upon American tarmac; Marcello wears cool, suave sunglasses; women wear white dresses; telephones look like game controllers. Marcello is in love with The Phantom, his favourite comic book. Parts feel like an early James Bond film: both the gadgets of the Sean Connery series, and the absurd colours and throwing everything at the wall of Casino Royale (1967). As we witness the training programme, other hunts going on around parked cars, it feels as though we’ve stumbled on Bond’s training at MI6, with Q offering an array of fantastical gadgets. A cigarette is lit from a lighter emanating from a metal claw. Caroline (Ursula Andress) customises one-of-a-kind body armour to protect herself, invisible and matching her skin.

The training sequences feel like something out of a James Bond film

Beyond its aesthetic, The 10th Victim asks questions. The 10th Victim captures a world in transformation, a hyperbolic version of the present reality. Marriage becomes a casual affair, moving between wives in rapid succession. Weddings are held on aeroplanes. IVF has given rise to a generation of women born from stem cells. Service stations are no longer a place for petrol and a bite to eat, but a place for sex amid a selection of prostitutes, where Marcello pulls a Holden Caufield, finding space to hide in a room but without desiring sexual contact. Looking out to the golden sunset of the beach, a regime of murder becomes justified by a religious cult, worshipping the sun in translucent robes with bathing suits underneath, as onlookers throw tomatoes. The 10th Victim’s youthful mortal fear isn’t so far apart from Logan’s Run (1976), where the state operates on killing its population at 30, leaving the ruins of old age as a hermit in the remains of Washington DC.

Murder becomes justified by a religious cult

The 10th Victim begins questioning the role of the media, in a world where Marshall McLuhan’s own theories around the role of television, radio, newspapers and other mediums were gaining traction as a celebrating scholar. A giant, moving eye watches from the bedroom as a piece of abstract art, as though it were the eye of Big Brother. Caroline shoots with both her gun and her camera. Death becomes an act of performance to play towards the camera. After shooting a young Hamburg man as victim at a horse race, Marcello becomes met by constant questions from interviewers, but objects to the constant barrage. The television offers an all-seeing eye, as monitors spy on Marcello. At the Colosseum in Rome, we acknowledge a history of performed violence going back millennia. The aerial helicopter flies over Rome’s fountains, squares and churches, surveying the best location for the cameras. Death becomes a media spectacle and commercial, staged with elaborate teacups, signs and cheesy dialogue for the Ming Tea Company.


The 10th Victim’s most gripping sequence might be it’s opening, as we follow an Asian man’s desperate escape from death on the streets of New York City, seeking the help of a cop, intercut with the rules of the game laid out in exposition. We feel his pain as he is killed by a woman in the Masoch Club. The 10th Victim imbues itself with a socio-political reality still relevant today. America is presented as a space of violence: guns are openly carried in hunts on the streets of New York, as though the assassinations of the 1960s and the school shootings today weren’t enough. Rome becomes caught behind restrictions: churches and restaurants refuse to allow hunts to be committed in its spaces, as though its restrictions were as simple as no smoking signs today.

Hunts are openly committed in the streets of New York City

Our animal instincts regress through state sanction, hunting game transposed against humanity itself. Where does the difference and boundaries lie? Murder becomes perversely justified: in the wake of World War II, expressing our rage and inhibitions in a controlled manner stops wars. Even Hitler would have been a member, we are told. Marcello and Caroline turn their brushes with death into a flirt, imbued with sexual tension, staging elaborate ruses and fake-outs until Caroline eventually succumbs to fate, Marcello heralded by the media. Or does she? Neither of our protagonists can escape the clutches of death.

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.

The Matrix (1999), dir. Lana & Lilly Wachowski


It’s remarkable one of the most influential films of the past two decades was directed by two trans women, earning $450 million against its $60 million budget. Celebrating the achievement of Patty Jenkins obscures the major financial success of The Matrix, or high profile female directors like Kathryn Bigelow. In a male-dominated industry, Hollywood gave the Wachowski sisters power because they passed as male, but they have struggled with their gender identities since childhood.

Keanu Reeves, embodying queerness in My Own Private Idaho (1991), masculine action hero who gets the girl in Speed (1994), becomes our audience avatar as programmer Neo, because the audience is assumed to be male. But the Wachowski sisters explore queer themes in films like their debut neo-noir Bound (1996), shot on a $6 million budget, or Cloud Atlas (2012), splitting the soul between hundreds of worlds and bodies, although problematic in its gender and racial fluidity; while including trans characters like Nomi in Sense8 (2015-present).

Many trans writers have interpreted The Matrix as a trans narrative. E.A. Lockhart reflects thatlife early in transition felt a lot like being Neo”, finding solace knowing the Wachowskis went through a similar process. Marcy Cook argues The Matrix is “Lana’s (and maybe Lilly’s) soul laid bare” as “the most successful transgender-focused movie ever made”, through dualities between the dream world and the real world. For Cook, Neo and Thomas Anderson represent two identities, asserting his identity as Neo “in defiance of death”. As she argues, “trans people are always playing two roles” between societal expectations and relationships between friends, family and coworkers. Cook positions Morpheus as the “transgender elder”, guiding Neo’s fate between the red and blue pill without making the choice for him.

The Matrix is never an explicitly trans narrative; the only time the word ‘trans’ appears is as prefix in computer code. Yet signs are there. The Wachowskis create Cronenbergian body horror as the Bug forcefully probes Neo’s stomach during his interrogation, reflecting a sense of bodily dysphoria. As an emaciated body within a vat, unable to speak, Cook argues Neo represents transitioning through HRT and surgery. Through androgynous characters like Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Switch, the Wachowskis challenge expectations around masculinity and femininity. As Neo tells Trinity, “I thought you were a guy!”; she retorts that “most guys do”. 

With its challenging of gender expectations, The Matrix is the late 90s. It’s about as 90s as Sandstorm, from black leather jackets to a grunge soundtrack, mixing Marilyn Manson, Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein.

The early 90s, like the 80s, is becoming nostalgic, from clothing to aesthetics, resurrecting Power Rangers (2017) and series like Fuller House (2016-present). Yet, as someone growing up with late 90s and early 00s culture, it’s off limits. The late 90s isn’t cool.

The late 90s represent crossroads between two centuries and millennia. As we look through the TV set in the Construct at the society we are, the destiny of the red and blue pill is ultimately a question of where we have come so far, and where society goes from here. Our crossroads isn’t merely between 1999 and 2000, but 2199. Just as The War of the Worlds (1898) looked towards the growing global conflict of the oncoming century, The Matrix embodies contemporary anxieties. In retrospect, we see the society arising out of this: the post-9/11 world of an altered global outlook with new online fears. Neo jumps between two buildings, falling to the ground perfectly unscathed. A building explodes in a fireball; this isn’t controversial. In the lobby shootout, Neo and Trinity pass through security guards with guns, but remain heroes, not anti-American terrorists.

As Todd McCarthy, David Thompson and John Powers argue on the film’s critic commentary, Neo represents a ‘slacker’ archetype: an ordinary (white) guy, working in an office cubicle for Metacortex, alienated from society, dishevelled and skinny. Neo isn’t so far apart from the disillusionment of Tyler Durden in Fight Club the same year, embodying anti-consumerist disenfranchisement:

You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.

As Carrie-Ann Moss describes in an interview in The Matrix Revisited (2001), the film reflects a “sense of wanting to be free, of not wanting to be controlled, to fight the norm, or to fight people telling you how things should be”. The Matrix positions itself as social critique in opposition to the modern world of capitalism, deregulation and population growth. Neo walks through crowds caught in a trance in the final scene, awoken. Agent Smith wants to rebuild the world as a better one, at the peak of civilisation, dismissing the notion of a perfect world, reflecting a search for a new American identity. Trans writers have suggested these anti-establishment feelings also reflect the trans experience: Neo escapes the institutional system of oppression built upon erasure, bathroom bills and medical gatekeeping. In her speech as recipient of the HRC Visibility Award, Lana Wachowski spoke of her experience of institutional control:

In Catholic school the girls wear skirts, the boys play pants. I am told I have to cut my hair. I want to play Four Square with the girls but now I’m one of them — I’m one of the boys. Early on I am told to get in line after a morning bell, girls in one line, boys in another.

Yet 1999 signals another societal shift: the internet. The Matrix is not so much about the internet as we understand it today, but the Internet, capital I. From the opening sequence, juxtaposing the green computer code of the Matrix against the Warner Bros logo, signals we’re in for something radical, looking to the future. In part, it acts as a manifesto in line with other cyber and techno-utopians around this era. In his closing monologue, Neo declares the rise of “a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries” where “anything is possible”. John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace isn’t so different, declaring “cyberspace does not lie within [governments’] borders”. Theorists like Manuel Castells, in his Information Age trilogy (1996-98), began to grapple with the implications of the internet as a separate realm of existence, whilst films like Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Pi (1998) posed similar questions.

The Matrix’s world is transitional. Its bulky, white shell computer monitors with Matrix code evoke the green monochrome displays of the 80s. Our world is tangible: the cellphones are Nokias, Neo has a landline, the internet isn’t everywhere. On the Nebuchadnezzar, concept designer Geofrey Darrow sought to create a dirty and used world made of detritus, in opposition to the stainless steel worlds of sci-fi: an almost post-internet world. When Neo is silenced by the agents, his gooey mouth sewed shut, relates an era where this was an existential question, where verbal communication was our primary form of contact, without anyone to instant message. For Marcy Cook, this represents a sense of “yelling into the void”, when trans people were “unable to defend” themselves, before the internet allowed for greater trans awareness and the growth of online communities.

We approach the internet through the backend, within infrastructure as we witness the déjà vu of glitches in the Matrix. Neo, as a hacker, has a modern analogue in luminaries like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, or angry trolls on message boards, locked within his messy bedroom. But the internet is evolving into an internet of experiences. From Wi-Fi in cafes to Pokémon Go to transmedia technology, digital augmentation creates an internet not as a separate realm as The Matrix presupposes, but embedded as an extension of our environments and senses. Through VR and 360 videos, the internet opens questions around posthumanism and transhumanism.

In part, The Matrix builds upon existing science fiction tropes. Its post-apocalyptic dystopia is not worlds apart from The Terminator (1984), whilst the journey in the Nebuchadnezzar feels like the Millennium Falcon. Grounding its science fiction in theory, the Wachowskis asked Keanu Reeves to read books, handing him copies of Simulacra and Simulation, Out of Control and Evolutionary Psychology, asking philosophical questions. As Reeves comments in The Matrix Revisited, “[y]ou can get meaning out of anything. You can make that reason whatever you want.” For Baudrillard, reality has become hyperreal, a fairy tale, where simulations of reality – our consumer culture – have become more real than reality itself.

In its science fiction worldbuilding, The Matrix expanded beyond its trilogy into videogames, graphic novels and online content, becoming what Henry Jenkins describes in Convergence Culture (2006) as “entertainment for the age of media convergence”, creating a “horizontally integrated” form of narrative storytelling ensuring “consumer loyalty”. Franchises like Star Wars, through the Lucasfilm Story Group, have become more transmedia than ever, collaborating ideas and connecting elements between Rebels, The Clone Wars, its novels and Rogue One (2016), requiring wider knowledge.

The Matrix goes beyond science fiction, combining an intertextuality of elements from heist films, martial arts, John Woo-esque action, anime, videogames; creating a Moebius-esque vastness of worlds, and FBI-esque agents straight out of the 1960s. The Wachowskis enlisted Yuen Woo-ping, legend of Asian cinema for films like Drunken Master (1978), as stunt coordinator. As Jenkins argues, the Wachowski sisters “positioned themselves as oracles”, offering fans “cryptic comments”, allowing them to deconstruct the film’s allusions for themselves. In the film’s opening tease, we follow Trinity as central protagonist fighting cops, in martial arts formation as ‘the eagle’, running sideways across a wall. As Patrick H Willems deconstructs in his video essay How to Begin a Movie, this scene plays off of noir elements through chiaroscuro, vertical lines and shadows, while utilising superhero powers as she jumps between roofs and through windows.

Yet The Matrix is radical in another area: CGI. The late 90s and early 00s are filled with CGI that look like a bad hangover today, from Naboo in The Phantom Menace (1999) to Garfield in the real world in Garfield (2004), before the photorealism of Grand Moff Tarkin, or CGI existing entirely unnoticed. From its anime-esque bullet time, cellphones falling from hundreds of stories, sentinels, electricity, fire, or morphing in the telephone booth, The Matrix told its story as spectacle, becoming part of its aesthetic through the advancements of digital editing. From liquid mirrors made of mercury, to reflections within warping spoons, The Matrix pushed the envelope, yet still used practical effects to ground itself within reality, like the animatronic baby in one sequence.

The Matrix questions what can be done within the cinematic medium, simultaneously questioning our notions of reality. Delving into dream worlds, The Matrix questions human experience and how we ascribe meaning. As far back as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), science fiction attempted to grapple with the construction of our own world. But this is a real field of study. In 2016, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk became viral for suggesting our own existence is a simulation, based on our shift from “pong, two rectangles and a dot” to “photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously”.

Subverting the tropes of the cyberpunk movement, The Matrix ascribes our own world as the fake world. Driving through Chinatown, we see the inauthenticity: using Hitchcockian rear-screen projection in the car, the world becomes dreamy, defocused with saturated colours. The Wachowski sisters shift the colour timing of each scene between green and blue, drawing a visual duality between the real world and the matrix.

Neo, like us, has experienced the matrix from birth, seeing it as organic. Reality is a sensory experience. As Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo, “real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. Cypher eats a steak, knowing full well the steak is not real. On the Nebuchadnezzar, their goopy food attempts to recreate the taste of chicken. Taste buds can be manipulated. The film’s mantra of “this is a spoon” evokes The Treachery of Images (1929): representation, not reality.

This is not a pipe

Morpheus questions Neo’s disavowal of fate, fearing “not [being] in control of my life”. Yet we aren’t in control: every time we say the wrong thing, drop a pen, do something on instinct, our minds and bodies betray us. Free will scarcely exists. Or, as Marcy Cook argues, not being in control is the “central theme in becoming transgender”, a remolding of existence whilst “fighting your birth” and societal expectations.

Philosophy, as universal thought, can be found in every text, from choices a character makes to fate and destiny. The Matrix immerses itself within it, calling upon the thought experiments of Nozick’s experience machine and Plato’s allegory of the cave, given visual representation. Reality is constructed, from societal expectations, to laws of governance, aspirations and dreams, fashions and incomes. Though we debate universal laws, nothing, or very little, is pre-ordained, varying between different cultures. As Edward Soja argues, physical spaces contain a thirdspace – a real-and-imagined space – built upon materiality and semiotics, political discourses and lived dimensions. Nothing is real, beyond reality itself.

At its core, The Matrix is an exploration of identity. Though the film may play a kiss between Neo and Trinity, it is not a love story. We never follow Neo as he attempts to woo her, or becomes caught in an awkward romantic comedy. The narrative arc is internal. Neo may become a modern messiah, with a prophecy and mythos behind him as saviour, yet these are not the abstract struggles of Jesus, they are our own. Neo loses his identity on the Nebuchadnezzar, placed in identical clothing, yet he never had it in the first place.

Nearly twenty years after its release, we might question whether The Matrix still holds its power. Its CGI, soundtrack and radical aesthetic are horrifically outdated, its genre-bending becoming subsumed in wider pop culture, numerous other science fiction franchises taking its place. As the internet is caught in a frenzy over the notion of making a reboot or sequel or spin-off, there are still stories that could be told. Through the John Wick series (2014-present), Keanu Reeves has become a badass and household name once more, teaming up with stunt double-turned-director Chad Stahelski and Fishburne. Yet The Matrix remains a powerful, multi-layered form of filmmaking, and spectacle.

My 2016 in Film: The 1980s

The 1980s are my decade. Which feels odd to say, given I was born in the late 90s. Politically, the period is interesting, juxtaposing commerce and capitalism and giving rise to neoliberalism (see: every Adam Curtis film ever), alongside nuclear paranoia and the legacies of Thatcherism and Reaganism. Comic books became darker, bringing interesting and meditative new takes to superheroes through V for Vendetta (1982-88), The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Watchmen (1986-7), Batman: Year One (1987) and The Sandman (1989-96). Music became what Donnie Darko (2001) would go on to celebrate. Meanwhile, the decade was populated with directors like Joe Dante, Oliver Stone and Walter Hill.

This list will never be complete: by my count, I watched 40 films from the decade over the course of the year. There’s simply too many to devote enough space to Blow Out (1981), The Last Starfighter (1984) or From Beyond (1986). But hopefully this will give a good overview of a decade whose cinema was populated by a diverse set of worlds.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982), dir. Lou Adler

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains feels like how a model for how a Jem and the Holograms (2015) movie should be done. Rather than a surface level message around embracing individual identity and a modernised narrative of the social media popstar, the Fabulous Stains tells a story of teenage musicians from a genuine place, implicating the role of the media in promoting artists (and demonising its young followers) and its effects on the artists themselves. Where the punk aesthetic saw youth disenfranchisement and nuclear obliteration in Repo Man (1984), here we see how a cult emerges around an artist. Through the mantra of “never put out”, it grounds itself within the punk ideology of not selling out – but how tenable is that position? Incorporating faux news footage, Fabulous Stains settles more for ambivalence than anything else.

Lou Adler’s name may seem familiar – Adler has spent his entire career producing musical artists and launching Cheech & Chong as known artists. Adler knows the industry, so is able to use that experience to build an authentic narrative.

This type of empowering, feminist film feels particularly 80s; in The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), the commercialised, media cult of personality is again called into question, as Billie tries to defend herself against her rapist. In Brian K. Vaughan’s comic series Paper Girls (2016-present), the suburban young teenage narratives of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and more recently Stranger Things (2016) is subverted, applying those same coming-of-age struggles to female protagonists.

Starman (1984), dir. John Carpenter

No other decade is as good at science fiction as the 1980s: from the acceptance of mortality in a Floridian retirement home in Cocoon (1985), to the nautical first contact of The Abyss (1989), to the apocalyptic, reality TV visions of The Running Man (1987). I have a soft spot for John Carpenter, and that’s not just because I spent the year blazing through his filmography with Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Christine (1983), or saw him perform live in ManchesterStarman is far from one of Carpenter’s best efforts, and frequently transcends credibility, yet Starman is such a heartfelt story of a man from another world that it hardly matters.

The Starman’s appearance on Earth is Christ-like, visiting for a handful of days to bring peace until he must return home. Though he may seem creepy as he stalks Jenny and initiates a relationship with her in the form of her dead husband Scott, his only malice emerges from outside influences: government operatives, or a fight in the bar. In some ways, Starman is a road movie, as the Starman must travel from Wisconsin to Arizona in Jenny’s car before time runs out. Though Starman will never reach the cult appreciation levelled towards Escape from New York (1981) or They Live (1988), it still carries a special place in Carpenter’s filmography. Hopefully, with Indicator releasing ChristineVampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001) from Sony’s catalogue on Blu-ray, we’ll be able to see a UK release of this very soon.

Blue Velvet (1986), dir. David Lynch

I’m unable to deal with the fact it took me five years to lose my David Lynch virginity. Back in 2011, when my friend Zach was introducing me to the Criterion Collection and other incredible films, I never thought to pick up the David Lynch DVD boxset I was eyeing up. I’ve still not watched Eraserhead (1977) or Mulholland Drive (2001), whilst I’ve still yet to complete my journey through Twin Peaks (1990-91) that I began in June amongst every other film or TV series, like Class (2016) or Black Mirror (2011-present) that is on my radar.

Rarely do I give a film 5 stars, unable to determine whether something is truly perfect, or the difference between 4.5 and 5. Yet Blue Velvet is as unquestionably perfect as a Stanley Kubrick film. Lynch stared into the frame and created a film with a true vision. As with the musical sequences within Twin Peaks, music takes on a performative female identity. Within the noir genre, aided by the presence of Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch creates a gripping portrait of sexual power, dominance, masculinity and femininity, with shades of some of his later works.

Miracle Mile (1988), dir. Steve De Jarnatt

Miracle Mile opens in a nighttime coffee shop in Los Angeles; it ends in a helicopter. Over the course of the film, Harry tries to outrun the inevitable, moving between the Mutual Life Benefit Building and gymnasiums, rescuing family in the process. Miracle Mile‘s nihilistic approach to the end of the world seems to have shades of how the Death Star’s power is treated in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Yet it fits with an entire genre of 1980s cinematic nuclear apocalypses, from The Day After (1983), Threads (1984) to When the Wind Blows (1988).

Yet Miracle Mile embeds lightness within its darkness: Night of the Comet (1984) may have dealt with the death of almost everybody in Los Angeles, but it still had Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Here, we open in a diner defined by caricatures, from drunks to clerks to drag queens; later, we meet body builders, or old women going on dates. Unlike the soul-crushing Threads, the strength of Miracle Mile is how it oscillates between these two tones, only amplifying the power of the desperation of the film’s ending.

For All Mankind (1989), dir. Al Reinert

Brian Eno’s music can help make any film moving and incredible, from Rachel’s struggle with cancer in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) to Todd Haynes‘ portrait of 1970s London in Velvet Goldmine (1998). Here, Eno’s music almost becomes a transcendental experience, as beautifully linked to the visuals as Philip Glass’ was in Koyaanisqatsi (1984). Rather than leave archival footage of the moon landings in a vault, ready to be used in extract form in every TV special or documentary, alongside assorted talking heads of variable value, allows this footage to be played in full, in the best quality available. For All Mankind is one of very few films which can truly attest to being largely filmed in outer space.

Space may be just as inspiring within fictional narratives, but For All Mankind is something special. We never doubt the science, or the dubious CGI, or if this is what a spacecraft is actually like. Yet it still feels like science fiction, never our reality. Though many voices have tried to retell their experiences of the Apollo missions, here their voices become a collective – a collective experiences of multiple missions – told within one story. For All Mankind never reaches the narrative suspense of what one expects from a fiction film or a documentary – but it remains a spectacle, that needs to be seen. Not in some 480p YouTube version – but on the Criterion or MOC Blu-ray. Looking out at the universe, this film deserves to be seen in all its glory.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), dir. Steven Soderbergh

Sex, Lies, and Videotape makes for uncomfortable viewing. But it’s meant to. Often, there’s a recent tendency with films examining the emotional impact of sexuality to rely upon explicit sex scenes, whether simulated or real. Think of recent examples like Shortbus (2006), Nymphomaniac (2013) or Love (2015), even outside of Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). These films seem split in critical opinion: are they porn, or are they art? I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with my own sexuality. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and bad decisions, something I’ve really had to confront over the past year, embracing my asexuality.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is uncomfortable, yet it is uncomfortable in its characters and scenarios, from Graham’s VHS library to Ann’s actions within the film, instead resorting to confessional style monologues; never does it use sex itself to make the viewer uncomfortable. It is not about the sex act itself – but the impact of it. Videotape carries a universality around its taboo – whether one is poly, ace, mono, straight, queer, everyone has their own relationship to sexuality. Soderbergh deconstructs sexuality – just as he does with masculinity in Magic Mike (2012).

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), dir. Gareth Edwards


This review contains spoilers

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

When The Force Awakens was released last year, I felt ambivalent. Not that it was a bad film, but my love of Star Wars had dissipated. My hype was non-existent I waited over a week to see it. In the wake of almost universally positive reviews, I felt obliged to judge it, holding too strongly onto the works which had come before. I’d been raised on the prequels and The Clone Wars (2008-14); this would never be my Star Wars.

But in the year since, things changed. I went back to the old podcasts I loved. I played the LEGO game with a friend. I’ve kept up with Charles Soule and Phil Noto’s Poe Dameron series month by month, falling in love with the character even when Oscar Isaac isn’t playing him. Through the trailers, I stayed actually pretty hyped for Rogue One.

I’d avoided Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) when I’d seen reviews criticising its focus on human characters, barely giving the monster any screentime. Yet if this is what Edwards brings to Star Wars, I can’t imagine how incredible Godzilla must be. But I’ve avoided IMAX for a long time too, still scarred by the horrific experience that was Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians (2010). Star Wars deserves to be seen on the big screen: it demands to be immersive. Rogue One‘s 3D isn’t anything spectacular, remaining more a superfluous spectacle than anything with a narrative purpose, drawing the eye’s attention towards elements which are not the camera’s focus.

Expanding the Star Wars filmic universe beyond the trilogies has been in the works for a long time. Even if discounting the Ewok films (1984-85) and The Clone Wars (2008) theatrical pilot, as far back as 2011, whilst promoting Captain America: The First Avenger, Joe Johnston, designer of Boba Fett, raised the possibility of directing a solo film based around the character.

Where the universe had been dominated by books, video games and comics, a film offers a chance to expand the universe in its original medium. Books, with too many releases for anyone but the most dedicated reader to keep up with, should not be given primacy or dominance. We shouldn’t need to turn to fan films to see a new cinematic vision. Maybe, at points, Rogue One can feel like a fan film of sorts, exploring unexplored corners of the universe without the involvement of Lucas or the saga’s major players – but it has enough talented people and enough of a budget that it never diminishes its authority as a Star Wars story.

The Rebel Alliance’s quest to retrieve the Death Star plans had been told numerous times in the old Expanded Universe, through Kyle Katarn’s missions in Dark Forces (1995), or the adventures of Twi’lek mercenary Rianna Saren in Lethal Alliance (2006); the Death Star plans became an easy object of video game missions. We already knew what Vader was doing before A New Hope thanks to The Force Unleashed (2008), disempowering him with an apprentice of his own, Galen Marek.

But Rogue One is able to prove its existence in opposition to Legends. Where the prequel trilogy detailed the fall of the Republic, established in the Journal of the Whills that prefaced A New Hope‘s novelisation, Rogue One takes what was once exposition in the opening crawl to A New Hope (1977), fleshing it out into an engaging narrative, the previous chapter in a Flash Gordon serial that Lucas forgot to show us. Though not an essential component of the series, it is far from unnecessary.

It may only be a story: a parable, a chapter within an anthology in a fictional universe. Rogue One brings with it an awareness that it is outside the saga: the film’s logo de-emphasises the Star Wars aspect, whilst the pre-credits opening and lack of opening crawl refuses to give us established conventions (although The Clone Wars somewhat already did this.)  Rogue One embraces using flashbacks, showing the younger life of Jyn and her father Galen, and training under Saw Gerrera. Structurally, it avoids the archetypal ‘hero’s journey’ of the saga: though we root for Jyn as a protagonist, the film shifts between multiple character groups and dozens of worlds. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) followed a linear path between Hoth, Dagobah and Cloud City; here, we don’t need to follow Jyn between worlds for another setpiece to arise.

The universe is diverse, not defined by one location. The Force Awakens created new yet familiar planets – Jakku was still a desert world; lightsaber battles were still fought in snow; Anch-To was a tourism advert for Ireland more than anything else. Yet Rogue One is truly creative with its worlds: Scarif’s design is unique, split in two through Imperial presence, and bringing the Empire to palm tree beaches, recalling both the Pacific War and the D-Day landings on Omaha – defining Star Wars by its military history.

Rumours questioned whether extensive reshoots softened Rogue One‘s tone (they didn’t), but the film is still dark, still gritty, placing the viewer within the greatest war scenes ever seen within a series titled Star Wars. Stormtroopers aren’t shiny and pristine, but covered in grit. There may be no blood to show, but the universe is still populated by suicide bombers, assassinations, rain, destruction and death. Outside of the binary of light and dark, we see multiple forces uprising against the Empire on Jedha. The characters we root for are terrorists. But Rogue One remains faithful to the spirit of Star Wars, without ever contravening the notion of a gritty war movie.

Seeing Felicity Jones portray Jyn Erso here a few weeks after after her role as Lizzie in A Monster Calls (2016) takes some getting used to. In A Monster Calls, she was at her weakest, an ambitious artist and mother suffering from cancer. Yet Jyn must carry the weight of a franchise and a galaxy, as the strong female protagonist for a million girls to look up to. Though her character isn’t as developed as she could have been, we still get a good sense of who she is, seeing her young teenage rebellion. Her relationship with Cassian never becomes explicitly sexual nor romantic, a welcome relief within an industry dominated by heteronormative relationships.

Central to Rogue One is a sense of spirituality within war. Though the Jedi are nowhere to be seen, their legacy lives on, passed on through rumour and hearsay. Spirituality has surrounded Star Wars since its inception, through Yoda’s role as a spiritual guide or master, or, the Prequel Trilogy’s depiction of the Jedi Temple, monk-like robes and vows of chastity. Even as far back as A New Hope, Admiral Motti spoke of the Jedi as an “ancient religion”. Rogue One‘s theme is at the very centre of Christian theology: hope.

Outside of Midichlorians, the force still carries a power to non-Jedis. Donnie Yen’s character, Chirrut, connects the film back to its influences from Japanese cinema, in the films of Akira Kurosawa. As a blind swordsman, he utilises the power of the force through his staff; lightsabers are merely tools, imbued with spiritual significance. Even without the Jedi, like the fan film Kara (2016), the force still pervades all living things, manifesting in new ways. Chirrut’s faith is more explicit than any other Star Wars film has ever made it: he repeats the prayer “I am one with the force, the force is with me” , essential to his character.

But Rogue One owes more of a debt to Kurosawa: like Seven Samurai (1954) (or indeed The Magnificent Seven (1960)), a group of rogues band together, each with their own qualities, plot functions and backstories, and internal and external conflicts. Similarly, like the simple villages of farmers whose lives are interrupted in Seven Samurai, the film opens, we become aware of a traditional way of living, as Galen is recruited by the Empire:

Rogue One embeds itself with references to the other films, yet it does so with purpose. Whereas The Force Awakens could easily be criticised for its structural and thematic similarities to A New HopeRogue One depends upon interconnectivity. Like with Disney’s other major theatrical property, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Wars films serve a dual purpose: exist as standalone, whilst teasing future instalments and referring back to previous ones.

Rogue One brings us back to the world of 1977. Cassian sports a hipster moustache. Spaceships are lo-fi, though they had been sent to space on the first NASA missions. The Death Star plans aren’t hosted on an online network, but exist as a physical computer. Certain shots, like the Death Star’s lazer being powered up, recall A New Hope instantly. The major players are all here: the Rebel Alliance on Yavin IV, Tarkin, Vader, Leia, Mon Mothma, AT-ATs and Probe Droids, archival footage of X-Wing pilots Garven Dreis and Jon Vander, taken from outtakes from A New Hope.  The film weaves a web of references: glasses of blue milk; the Whills; a spaceship populated entirely by Mon Calamari; the traditional C-3PO and R2-D2 appearance (having already appeared in every Star Wars film); Saw Gerrera returns from a small role in The Clone Wars; K2SO talks about having a “bad feeling”.

Some scenes seem pure fan service: Ponda Baba (aka Walrus Man) and Evazan walk past our protagonists on their way to Tatooine, wanted in 12 systems, returning to the screen for the first time since the Holiday Special (1978) – existing not to advance the plot or connect the film, but to give a chuckle to fans and confuse newbies.

But Rogue One doesn’t neglect the Prequels: rather than 70mm, its beautiful cinematography is still shot on digital, with state-of-the-art lighting equipment. Genevive O’Reilly reprises her role as Mon Mothma from Revenge of the Sith (2005), an aged Jimmy Smits returns as Bail Organa, whilst Vader takes a home on Mustafar.

Perhaps more controversial is the return of Tarkin, performed not by Wayne Pygram but Guy Henry (better known to British viewers for his role in Holby City), imbued with CGI to resemble the late Peter Cushing: not as the back of a head or a reflection on a window, but in full motion as an essential character. Had the film been set further away from A New Hope, recasting should have been the priority, yet set in the days leading up to A New Hope, I fully accept the limitations. Tarkin seems photoreal, existing within the scene; I was only ever taken out by his voice. Rather than a prose character written by James Luceno, Tarkin is given new life. Tarkin’s role is necessary, though it could have easily been filled by a greater dominance by Vader, Krennic, or another Imperial officer.

But Guy Henry will never be Peter Cushing. The young Princess Leia closes the film, but her presence never seems off to me. Robert Downey Jr.’s role as 1980s Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War (2016) seemed creepy as hell to me. But, as ever, art is subjective.

Yet, even with James Earl Jones’ voice, Vader never feels entirely authentic. His suit, worn by monster actor Spencer Wilding, feels too shiny and pristine to be the same one as in A New Hope, even with the red lenses. Vader is never menacing; he looks like a cosplayer. Where the film’s ending intersects with the opening of A New Hope, Vader’s rampage, murdering multiple rebel fleet troopers per second, seems entirely unlike the more calm and reserved Vader of A New Hope.

But Rogue One can never be A New Hope. The Death Star plans are introduced in loaded euphemisms, as Daniel Mays’ character warns of a “planet killer”. The Death Star seems a perennial obsession of the Star Wars universe, through A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens, yet Rogue One elevates its importance.

Fuelled by Kyber crystals, the Death Star reappropriates the peace of the Jedi for evil intent, just as Coruscant was reappropriated for the Empire’s ends. Rather than an overlooked flaw, the reactor port is intentional sabotage by Galen. Where A New Hope never truly managed to communicate the emotional impact of the loss of Alderaan on Leia, Rogue One shows the sheer impact of the Death Star in devastating fashion, ripping a planet apart as a gradual process, as our characters desperately run from its impact. (The Force Awakens deployed this similarly well with the destruction of Hosnian Prime.)

The film’s closing act becomes its most daring, making us aware of both the futility and heroism of the protagonists’ journeys. Their stories do not end all at once, but as a gradual process as the Empire regains a greater stronghold: first Saw Gerrera, then Bodhi, Chirrut and Baze, then Jyn and Andor as Scarif is destroyed. Our protagonists are not special. How many others came before in trying to fight the Empire, or in trying to salvage the Death Star plans? As Rebels (2014-present) reinforces, there is nothing inherently special about Han, Luke or Leia. Anyone else could have been in their position: the only thing special is that they were the ones that survived. One move different, they could have died at any second. Like Ed Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men prequel Deadly Genesis (2005), we become attached to a group of alternative protagonists, who exist only to die as casualties of war.

In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Tarkin orders the destruction of Scarif, our protagonists still upon it. Not only does this show Tarkin’s ruthlessness, but it becomes a propaganda coup: the Empire erases their failures from existence, no matter the loss of life. As Jyn and Cassian embrace on the beach, recalling the ending of Miracle Mile (1988): as much as our characters have spent the entire film trying to escape nuclear destruction, one can only outrun death so far.

IMAX exclusive poster to the film

Your Name (2016), dir. Makoto Shinkai


This review contains spoilers

I try to keep track of every new film coming out. But one day, browsing the showtimes for a local Birmingham cinema, The Electric, I suddenly find the showtimes for an anime film I’ve never heard of. Its reviews are almost universally positive; in its native Japan, it has dominated the box office for 13 weeks in a row. No home media nor VOD release is on the horizon, though Funimation is planning a nationwide US release next year. 5 ODEONs, plus a handful of Vues and Cineworlds, even considered showing the film.

On the last day of screening, with all deadlines passed, I made a pilgrimage to Birmingham. For the briefest moments, I wondered whether a crowded train to New Street, a tram, a bus and a nighttime return was worth it. I sat in a vegan coffee shop, enjoying my latte more than any film could.

In the current cinema climate, the very notion of a subtitled foreign language film playing in an ODEON seems kind of incredible. Even the most interesting new films get overlooked. The ODEON at Broadway Plaza seems kind of tacky: a facade of a 1930s cinema emblazoned with a badly painted Nicholson Joker and Episode I Obi-Wan, as if a decade and a half of cinema had never happened.

But let it be said: Your Name is one of the most incredible cinema experiences of the year.

Makoto Shinkai has directed films for over a decade, but Your Name is probably his most ambitious project. Its genre seems impossible to quantify: a sci-fi film about a falling meteor; a fantasy about shifting between body; a high school comedy about modern Tokyo; a coming of age drama set in a rural town.

To western viewers without a Crunchyroll account, anime is known by a couple of shining examples, dominating over all others. But anime has never been one genre: Studio Ghibli produces both youthful fantasies and emotional war dramas; Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) helped define the cyberpunk genre; whilst something like Mind Game (2004) is a yakuza fighting, Moby Dick-infused acid trip.

From a western perspective, some of Your Name‘s scenes seem though no other culture could produce it. In its opening sequence, its razor sharp editing as Mitsuha and Taki’s lives are mirrored seems sheer insanity. The title credits are a music video (sung by Japanese band Radwimps), tracing Mitsuha as she grows up. The film falsely places us within sequences, only to exit them through a thought balloon held above a character’s head.

Your Name could only ever exist within Japanese culture. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki affected the Japanese consciousness, informing its cultural objects: the destructive power of Gojira (1954); the nuclear hellscapes of Akira; Japan’s most iconic directors, from Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August (1991) and his uncompleted work on Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), to Shinodo’s Children of Hiroshima (1952). Toho’s Gojira shifted to a full colour children’s fantasy; Tokyo rose up, rebuilt after the war to become a neon metropolis.

70 years later, the shadow of Hiroshima still hangs over, living on in the elder generation. But there is another influence: the 2011 Fukushima disaster, catastrophic to the urbanised landscape, leading to cancer growth and ongoing plans to decontaminate the landscape, as life goes on as normal.

In the world of Your Name, three years have passed since the rural landscape of Lake Itomori was ravaged by a meteor, killing 600, enshrined in memory through photobooks and lists of the dead. To the American consciousness, the meteor is not a symbol of the bomb, but as a fun action movie in Armageddon (1998), or, as Adam Curtis argues in HyperNormalisation (2016), a reflection of American anxieties which manifested as reality through 9/11.

Your Name’s elements can be found throughout American cinema: switching between the dreaming and waking lives of Taki and Mitsuha, it almost becomes Groundhog Day (1993), as every new day becomes paradoxical, trying to find an escape. But Groundhog Day was still largely a comedy. Your Name begins as a comedy, before shifting towards something much more serious.

The unreal presentation of dreams is nothing new: through Waking Life (2001)’s meandering, philosophical quest, we begin to wonder what separates the dream and the real. In Inception (2010), we ask similar questions, framed within an action movie aesthetic.  Your Name refuses to give us a reason as to why Taki and Mitsuha’s lives are connected; any science fiction or fantastical explanation would ruin the mystery. Like Waking Life and Groundhog Day, it becomes an unraveling puzzle box: each day informs the next day, not existing in isolation. Taki and Mitsuha exert more control on an uncontrollable world, coordinating their lives through diary entries and text messages on their phones.

Though Taki and Mitsuha’s lives draw an interesting parallel, gendered life is not the film’s primary focus, playing a role more often for comedy. Within the continuum of gender, we become aware that feminine and masculine qualities must interact to create a cohesive whole. Taki embraces feminine qualities, speaking in the feminine tense, and stitching a flower pattern on his crush Miki’s ripped dress, securing a date with her over the hundred other waiters with a raging boner for her; one of Taki’s straight male classmates ends up being all “I’m gay 4 u”.

As though she were an anime cliche, Mitsuha wakes up every new morning to fulfil the male gaze, squeezing her breasts and looking at herself naked in the mirror – becoming a repeated joke, undercutting the film’s more serious elements.

Taki’s life in Tokyo represents modern Japan: yet as he notes in his job interview, even Japan is vulnerable to devastation. Unlike Mitsuha’s concrete high school, his is built on massive glass frames; living in a cramped apartment with his dad, he travels to school on the city’s subway, spends his lunch breaks in nearby cafes with his friends, and micromanages his life on his cellphone, as he works his evenings away in a posh restaurant.

Mitsuha’s Japan represents centuries of tradition – tradition which is disappearing, new ones embedded within. Her grandmother speaks of traditions of two centuries ago, as we see the rituals of fermenting sake, ingested in the mouth before being spat out. Where Tokyo has entire districts of cafés and restaurants, Itomori has iced coffee in a solitary vending machine. Teenagers wear American style baseball shirts; power cables embed themselves within the landscape. The film ends up feeling like a coming of age film set in suburban America, as Mitsuha seeks out a better life in the distance, unable to be perceived or experienced.

Enshrined within tradition is spirituality – their grandmother walks with Mitsuha and her sister through the natural landscape, telling us that, in death, we must give something in return. Outside the modern city, the rural landscape carries a spiritual power of its own. Even when life is gone, the landscape survives, untouched by death. In the film’s most powerful scene, walking across a seemingly unending landscape, Taki tries to cross between realms to touch Mitsuha’s ethereal hand; separated by space and time, outside of physical dimension, yet together through shared location.

Like with Groundhog Day, small differences alter the nature of reality: passing trains, or two people walking past each other on the street, or the person you see on the other table at the coffee shop. Taki and Mitsuha never truly meet within the film, creating awareness of the fleetingness of romantic destiny. Taki follows after Mitsuha out of instinct, sketchbook page in hand, dragging his friends along on a train ride through rural Japan; a chance conversation with a cafe owner informs his destiny. In Taki’s search for Mitsuha, he uncovers a cave painting, predicting the fall of the meteor, as it fell 1200 years earlier: traditions and civilisations rise and fall. Yet this destiny is overlooked even by modernity: news reports fail to predict its impact; Mitsuha’s father, acting as the town’s mayor, has no system in place to evacuate in the event of an impact, refusing the very possibility of it occurring.

Your Name could have played with the time paradox, creating a deus ex machina: reversing the devastation, moving the meteor’s path and saving a generation. The film plays with this somewhat, but like Hiroshima and Fukushima, as much as we pray, as much as we hope, we cannot undo the past. We cannot escape fate.

Safe to say, this was genuinely incredible and one of the best cinema experiences of the year.

As much as I wanted to, not even A Monster Calls could bring me to cry.

Your Name succeeded.

Solaris (1972), dir. Andrei Tarkovsky


Solaris is a different beast to Andrei Rublev (1966). Rublev is steeped within the Soviet historical epic, mythologising certain values on historical figures in the tradition of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944). Yet it diverged from that tradition radically, imbued with Tarkovsky’s signature long takes and philosophy. One can draw some parallels – Tarkovsky’s close attention to small detail, with a painting of a snowy winter by a river recalling the modern day remnants of the Medieval artwork of Rublev; a picnic, shot in extreme close-up, ruined by the rain.

Its world feels like 1972, living and breathing within a world of modernist architecture. Giant, widescreen TV sets (with a Skype-esque set-up that feels familiar to 2001) are in theory modern, yet appear dated today. The widescreen serves more of a purpose than feeling futuristic, though: it matches the frame of the film itself. A scene in which the family crowd around the television set doesn’t resort to artifice through computer generated overscan lines. It’s fully immersive; it’s a window. We move from one world to the monochrome scenes of the meeting, and through another window as footage is projected to the men in the room. Yet even the lens flare feels far too J.J. Abrams to have been used in 1972.

Russia’s contributions to the Space Race can often be overlooked; released in 1972, Solaris came after the Americans had landed the first man on the moon, and in some ways, can act as a counterpart to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). More than 20 years before the ISS became a reality, the concept of a space station itself feels modern, devoid of the incredible journey of travelling to the moon (or beyond). Travelling to space is no longer fantastical, but it’s been adapted to; it’s just another part of everyday life. There are no scenes of any intensive training programme. No impressive lift-off. Tim Peake receives massive TV and social media coverage as a national hero, yet there is no celebration of Russia’s heroes here.

On the outside, the bland white walls of the space station are run-of-the-mill. Yet the internal life reveals a different story. Tarkovsky concerns himself with individuality – what sets one man apart from a couple of other billion people. One man across a lonely ocean; one man in a lonely universe; one man living in his own house as its own island. Space is a frontier for us where we can scarcely comprehend the knowledge we are bombarded with within the vastness; the same goes for outer space. It might as well be a nautical voyage – more often than not, the rooms in the space station feel like cabins in a ship.

A facade of home is rebuilt in space: a wood panelled library, covered with ancient books. Bedrooms seep with personality – Renaissance art, ceramic heads and so on. Even the very conceit of suicide in space feels like a noir murder mystery, not a philosophical sci-fi film. Or the idea of having a body transported home to Earth, dismissed as preposterous, is a concern at home, transporting a body from the deceased’s lived city to their hometown. The facade is confronted when we see an illusion of the house we were introduced to in the beginning of the film – the house, the real but constructed place that defines our identity.

Hari is herself a manifestation of memory. She is but a hollow shell of a past, learning how to be human from Kris, with the express intention of pleasing Kris. It has an interesting modern analogue, through explorations of AIs in Ex Machina (2014) and Jonathan Luna’s comic series Alex + Ada (2013-15). The internet, as a graveyard of inactive profiles, changes this concept of resurrection. Such as the late David Carr’s Twitter profile a few months ago, which was hacked by a ‘sexbot’, leading to upset amongst his followers until it could be restored. Or the much publicised breach of the Canadian dating site Ashely Madison’s personal information last year: a thoroughly interesting analysis by Gizmodo found that the site relied upon bots feeding off the data of inactive profiles, becoming in effect self-cannibalising. In this film, the hollow shell is human memory – but human memory has taken on a new form in our modern age.

Every culture lives on stories of quests for immortality, or the Faust myth. But the art that pervades the film is another kind of immortality. It can survive storms (as we see in Andrei Rublev), yet humans can drown. It can become a part of the vacuum of space, yet humans need spacesuits. It’s a form of afterlife that lives on for centuries, if millennia: but Hari is vulnernable – as she gains more humanity, she gains the ability to almost suffocate on oxygen, perceived to be dead. Kris’ memory of her death a decade ago will disappear with his death.

Art, as a preservation of memory, to build a memory, is based on memory. The painting of the icy river draws parallel to the home movie of the snow back home. But it’s a hollow shell, just as Hari is, complete with embellishments, not representing human experience as humans experience it.

Doctor Who (1996), dir. Geoffrey Sax


Is it bad that I love this film so much? Doctor Who is a major part of my identity. The TV Movie was one of my first ventures into classic Who, alongside stories like Survival, cementing McCoy and McGann as, still to this day, two of my favourite Doctors.

But this wasn’t my introduction to Paul McGann’s role as the Doctor. Instead, thank Big Finish. Late 2005 or 2006, I stayed up late for a BBC Radio 7 omnibus broadcast of Shada (2003). Come 2006, I was recording The Stones of Venice, Invaders from Mars and The Chimes of Midnight onto DVD-Rs. By 2007, I was listening to the adventures of the Eighth Doctor and Lucie, before I got distracted and fell behind mid-way through Phobos and promptly gave up (I’ve still yet to catch up). Fans may complain of McGann’s limited appearance – but he already had an era for me, before I came into it.

Perhaps my nostalgia for the film may overshadow it somewhat, but it still holds up as a very competently made backdoor pilot. The production history of the film is very interesting, charting between numerous major (and minor) names, from Steven Spielberg, to Leonard Nimoy, to John Leekley. But there are many names to praise: Alan Yentob, looked more favourably towards the programme than Michael Grade, whilst the failure of The Dark Dimension and Last of the Time Lords helped to pave the way towards its return.  Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher’s government saw the BBC forced to invest more in independent television. Many of the contenders for the part were familiar names, including John Hurt and Peter Capaldi.

If the film feels disjointed, it’s because it was, trying to meet the needs of different producers and parties, melding different drafts together. It kicked into production within weeks of script completion, still undergoing last-minute revisions, and only months before broadcast. The half-human aspect of the Doctor is only a holdover from Leekley’s concept of the show. Leekley’s concept had some interesting elements too – exploring the mythology of Gallifrey, and launching the Doctor into an overarching quest for the scrolls of Rassilon and into the battlegrounds of World War II (which would be explored more during the new series).

Whilst other potential revivals for the series were steeped in nostalgia, the TV Movie sought to move the series forward. Seagal expressed his dismay at the script for The Dark Dimension, whilst Downtime (1995), sought to relive the nostalgia of 1960s and 70s Doctor Who. But the TV Movie’s echoes can be found throughout the new series.

Whilst some of the criticisms laid against the film is that it’s “too Americanised” (I’d retort that it’s “too Canadian”, though filming in Canada is a very American thing to do), that isn’t exactly a criticism. Although some of the CGI effects are a little dated, the production values are high, the sets are designed well, scenes alive with background extras and attention to detail, the editing is solid, and Geoffrey Sax’s direction helps the film a lot. Think of our introduction to Chinatown: we open with the eye of a fish about to be sliced up, as we pan out through a window into the street and Chang Lee running through. It’s the type of direction we rarely even see today. The film never feels completely like a film or completely like a TV pilot – but the cinematography lends it a very cinematic quality. It’s ‘Americanised’ enough to actually be able to afford to license music and lend the world some reality. John Debney’s memorable operatic score (though not recorded by an actual orchestra), shows the potential of a new series, removed from the synth scores of the 80s.

Grace is as strong a companion as any in the new series. She’s a doctor, like Martha. She stands up for the right thing, quitting her job because her superior won’t listen to her curiosity around the anomaly of the Doctor’s two hearts. She drives him away from the hospital, even when she’s unsure. Ultimately, she saves the day.

Like the new series, it fuses multiple genres. In our introduction to Grace, it could be another episode of ER (1994-2009), presenting a sitcom-esque hospital complete with colorful characters, like joke-cracking morgue attendant Pete. During the chase scene, it feels like an action movie. When the Doctor and Grace open the beryllium clock, it might as well be a safe-cracking scene in a heist movie. There are elements of comedy: a cop drives a motorcycle into the TARDIS; Pete faints at the resurrected sight of the Doctor; brainless scientists wave their hands around like “idk”.

The Doctor’s prescience about time steeps him within Earth history, namedropping Puccini, Freud and an “intimate” encounter with Marie Curie. He knows where Gareth will be ten years from now based on a question on his midterm, knows Grace’s future with her ex-boyfriend, and knows where Chang Lee will be in Christmas 2000. But the film is obsessed with time too – continually, we see shots of clocks, whilst the film’s conceit is an atomic clock; as the physical properties of time bends, the film’s resolution turns back time; Grace wants enough time to save a human life, and hold back death.

In many ways, it’s a conventional regeneration story. The Doctor returns to Earth unexpectedly, encounters a new companion initially hesitant towards him, but by the resolution they form a chemistry and have defeated an enemy. One common complaint is that McCoy’s appearance doesn’t give McGann’s Doctor enough time to shine. But it also reframes the narrative in an interesting way: it is a story about life over death, as the Master tries to claim the Doctor’s lives in order to further his own (very much a continuation of his possession of Tremas, creating a ‘final battle’ with the Doctor). We are introduced knowing the Doctor has multiple lives and is immortal of sorts. He conquers life, almost dying because of Grace’s anaesthetic hampering the regenerative process. Life and hope is a central aspect of this Doctor – from a sense of joie de vivre to Molly O’Sullivan as a symbol of hope in Dark Eyes (2012-14), to his  role as a reluctant warrior in The Night of the Doctor (2013).

My main criticisms of Sylvester McCoy’s presence is to do with performance, unfortunately. He performs a handful of lines with mediocre delivery, requiring either a larger role, setting up his demise in the first act, or a smaller role. He dies a small yet very dark death, not a grandiose regeneration story: he exits the TARDIS only to be gunned down, an accident that could have happened anywhere else. Lying on an operating table and forced unconscious under anaesthetic, but he, the unrelenting fan, won’t stop; in a parallel to Frankenstein (1931), brought a new energy of life under the electricity of a storm.

The universe is a dangerous place. It’s refreshing to have a story about regeneration, rather than because of regeneration. Yet the cinematography and editing adds no gravitas to this, acting as a plot device, a necessary event but given little emotion. How much cooler would it have been were we introduced to the story from Lee’s POV (as we are from Rose’s in Rose, discovering the corpse of the Doctor in a disused backalley, thereby leading more ambiguity to the character and allowing more to be set up later on?

His habit of sitting alone in the TARDIS, reading books, drinking tea and listening to records presents a wonderful idea for a more weathered Doctor, but the circularity of the Eighth Doctor sitting back in the TARDIS and doing exactly the same thing subtracts his characteristic individuality.

The Doctor becomes a Jesus figure: the shroud in the morgue; his quest for identity within a human world; Pete’s exclamations of “oh my God!” at the sight of him; Grace dismissing the notion of the “Second Coming”; Grace later positioning the Master as the Devil and the metal crown of nails could just as easily be the crown of thorns (or possibly something out of Hellraiser or a BDSM device); the TARDIS granting grace to all who are its passengers.

Setting an Earth story set in San Francisco, the film gives us a more diverse cast than even the Andrew Cartmel era could give us; we see Chang Lee actually existing within Chinatown, outside of the yellowface of The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977). Although gang member perhaps isn’t the most positive role, in an era today of colourblind casting, seeing Lee exist within his actual community is a relief.

Chang Lee could have been a much better character, but he needed to be more developed. To have one of the semi-antagonists of the film but also potential companions be a gang member who carries a gun is interesting: a street urchin with a troubled past but a nice soul, becoming an adoptive son to the Master. He isn’t sure where his life if headed. When the Master grants him anything in the world, he chooses money. But this could have been the perfect way to show his hardships: surely his greatest wish is to see his family again, to get off the streets, for his friends not to die? He is redeemed through his resurrection in temporal grace, but the script could have done with another rewrite.

Unfortunately, the film is let down by its unsubtle melodrama. A poster advertises London in Chinatown, right next to where the TARDIS materialises. The Doctor reads The Time Machine (1895), because he flies a time machine. Bruce has a space alarm clock, because he’s five years old and about to be possessed by an alien. The Doctor is compared to Frankenstein, because Universal have the rights. The TARDIS’ interior is impressive, but the Eye of Harmony is still a gothic cathedral complete with flames and bats.

As Bruce, Eric Roberts is comedic and likeable – but none of that carries over to his hammy performance as the Master, complete with a cackling, maniacal laugh, an implausible false identity (whereas Roger Delgado’s Master could pass for a vicar), a propensity for ripping off his fingernails and wearing a lavish cloak (“I always dresssssss for the occasion.”) He never takes off his sunglasses, driving around SF in greased hair and a leather jacket,  whilst referring to Lee as “the Asian child”. The Master’s supposed dramatic ‘final battle’ with the Doctor devolves into nothing but the two kicking each other, the Master leaping into the Eye of Harmony whilst speaking in a comical voice, flitting between the Doctor’s face as if it were The Mask (1994). I’m not sure Christopher Lloyd could have done any better than Roberts, though it would perhaps have brought the viewing figures up – but what we needed was a British American.

But there’s something that feels so perfect when we see the Doctor, Grace and Chang Lee together, looking out upon the stars from a projection upon the console. Out there is Gallifrey and the distant galaxies. Through everything that has happened, we have the perfect Doctor/companion team – but licensing rights means that will never happen. We’ve seen glimpses into Grace’s future, with the Doctor reuniting with her a couple of times. We’ve seen the Eighth Doctor be given multiple British companions, but there’s something about a doctor and a teenager from SF that would be more appealing than another Edwardian adventuress, northern lass or a nurse from space. There’s fertile ground to be explored – it’s just a shame that this was the closure.