Dunkirk (2017), dir. Christopher Nolan

dunkirk

Christopher Nolan might be one of the most recognisable directors this century, establishing an acclaimed body of work in less than two decades, with strong visions and a good base of collaborators. His Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) allowed DC to reclaim cinematic space with one of most successful blockbusters of all time, reconceiving complex mythology within worlds of noir and crime. Nolan had experienced Dunkirk first-hand, sailing across the channel with wife and producer Emma Thomas and friends, a very difficult crossing; the film was shot on the same beach on its 76th anniversary.

One of Nolan’s most interesting innovations is his dedication to physical film and 15/70mm IMAX. Though often associated with experiential, visual documentaries, IMAX has increasingly become a desirable format, beginning with Disney in the early 2000s but expanding with digital projection with The Dark Knight (2008), expanding the ratio during key sequences: sweeping pans over the corporate city, the bank heist, the Batmobile chase and hospital explosion. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) expanded this further, placing the viewer within the baseball stadium, with Nolan continuing with Interstellar (2014); Nolan notes that both Snyder and Abrams have borrowed the IMAX camera from him. But Dunkirk represents a first with the majority of its sequences shot in IMAX.

Speaking in Little White Lies, Nolan argues reduced costs of digital are a “fallacy”; for Nolan, “[e]very digital format so far devised is just an imitation of film”. Though digital can have many applications in lower budget and documentary cinema, Nolan’s use of 70mm makes a reasonable argument for its use in the blockbuster. Nolan is asking existential questions of upholding the cinematic experience in an age of streaming. But neither box office nor the industry follows simple, predictable logic, the films audiences will seek out for the big screen never set in stone. In part, Nolan is seeking nostalgia, retelling World War II history through a filmic method of filmmaking outside the norm, rather than looking towards the future. But cinema must apply a wide variety of styles to have future.

Dunkirk’s physical film offers a complicated question, presented across multiple mediums from widespread release in digital and IMAX projection but only a handful of major cities offering 35mm or 70mm IMAX projection. Watching in London’s Science Museum, its postage stamp shaped screen the size of a wall. The film leads in with digital adverts, perhaps a contradiction to physical film. A preshow video mocks the staginess of Dunkirk’s own era through the artificiality of monochrome in the style of a Ministry of Information video, detailing entrances and exits. As the film concluded, it felt as though we were back in the film itself, surrounded on a floor of RAF planes.

The IMAX aspect ratio (1.43:1), though not exactly Academy, offers a different cinematic experience to anamorphic widescreen: horizons become the middle of the squarer frame. Seaweed and coral become noticeable upon the shoreline; in the cockpit, we notice small details of markings and switches upon Farrier’s (Tom Hardy) spitfire. His head fills the frame, sitting in the cockpit with him. The voyage home and the setting sun towards the conclusion look incredible. For sequences with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Nolan fills the background of the frame with motion and fluidity. As he says in a conversation with his brother Jonathan in the film’s screenplay, Nolan states he wanted to “go back to the silent films that I love” and the “large images and the mass movement of people”, mentioning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)’s “silent-era mechanics”. As Nolan states in the Little White Lies interview, the wider frame “allows you to hold shots longer” giving audiences “time to scan the image”. Nolan’s limited use of dialogue creates an experience that is largely image based, allowing the viewer to focus upon physical motion. As Max Hastings writes, acting is “reminiscent of the silent movie era”, with its actors “merely required to look staunch, stressed, and indomitable at appropriate moments.”

For some sequences, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema carries the 54-pound camera handheld. Through Nolan’s limited digital effects, Nathan Crowley’s matte paintings to disguise the promenade and Hoytema’s visuals create an incredible experience grounded within the materiality of cinema. Although the expanded ratio is often empty space, offering little information not glimpsed within widescreen presentation, the IMAX presentation remains more immersive. Dunkirk’s aesthetics are a gimmick in the best possible meaning, but narrative will always come first. Through the limitations of IMAX’s size and noise, the granular quality of the noise in the Panavision sequences upon the Moonstone conveys a home movie quality to the intimate and fatherly relationship between Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), Peter (Tom Glynn-McCarney) and George (Barry Keoghan). Hoytema’s night-time shots of the dark blue sky upon the ocean carry a haunted quality; Kristin Thompson parallels these images to James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes, with “shadowy shapes of buildings or ships or distant shorelines” and a “barely distinguishable horizon line”. Though ratio often changes between scenes, this rarely distracts; shifting aspect ratios are often a useful technique beyond IMAX.

War and conflict unify humanity from man’s emergence; its persistence seems innate. Dunkirk joins a wide canon of films about World War II stretching back to the beginning of the war itself. Working within propaganda, Powell and Pressburger helped define British cinema; as Mark Harris explores in Five Came Back (2014), directors like Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra and Stevens were in combat or filming newsreels and propaganda on American values, pioneering documentary methods through (sometimes fabricated) reports from the frontlines, leaving a profound impact on each man. But as Nolan notes in his Little White Lies interview, newsreels interpose “a camera between the audience and the subject”. Post-war waves like Italian neorealism took film into the ruined streets. War epics of the 50s and 60s, often in Technicolor, presented a specific image of wartime heroism, British kids coming of age in the 60s and 70s exposed to the mythbuilding of comic series like Commando (1961-present) and Battle Picture Weekly (1975-88); American readers had Sgt Fury (1963-81) and Sgt Rock (1952-88). Its same techniques became part of the wartime aesthetic of Star Wars (1977).

Relationship to war was generational, connected to the immediate lives of parents. World War II reshaped values, borders, philosophy and state of being. Unlike conflicts of today, soldiers had been conscripted willingly or unwillingly into battle. But World War II continues to find narratives. With so many, lives and testimonies documenting every story would be impossible. But we should remember these narratives: though 77 years have passed, it is still living history in parents, grandparents and great grandparents, beyond abstract facts and statistics in textbooks outside of their context.

As Lynne Olson writes in Last Hope Island (2017), through the end of May 1940, Allied losses were “escalating” and troops were in “retreat”, with Churchill offering “material assistance” to French troops as the Belgian army took the “brunt” of the Blitzkrieg and surrendered to Germany. The threat was existential. Codenamed Operation Dynamo, the events lasted 9 days, between 27th May and 4th June. As Hastings writes, the film offers no “historical background”, never referencing Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. As he tells in Little White Lies, Nolan drew upon eyewitness testimony to create a sense of immediacy. Speaking about A Bridge Too Far (1977), a multinational anti-war film depicting the defeat and sadness of the 1944 campaign, Nolan argues the representation of German High Command takes him “out of the experience”, creating too wide a scale to geopolitical events. As David Bordwell typifies of genre conventions, “Big Maneuver” films create a sense of “briefing rooms fitted out with maps and models of the terrain”, with a vast cast “played by instantly recognizable stars”. A Bridge Too Far can barely fit its cast onto its poster. Hastings praises Nolan for “declining to include even a token American […] showing the stupid English how battles should be fought”; as he concludes, drawing upon his analysis of Saving Private Ryan (1998), “if any nation wants its part in any conflict glorified, it must make the films for itself.”

Nolan drew upon a well-documented period with conflicting feelings and observations. As Bordwell writes, Nolan’s interest in “subjectivity” follows war fiction, noting the “first-person present tense” of All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) and the “jumbled memories” in Catch-22 (1961). Films like Ivan’s Childhood (1962) focuses the end of the war through the perspective of a young boy, whilst Overlord (1975), drawing upon archival footage, constructs a new narrative within the intimate life of an everyman soldier through training, his relationship with his girlfriend and the D-Day landings. Although Dunkirk is interested in “immediacy”, it remains a testament to scale: Nolan worked with marine and aerial units and 1300 extras, planes, props and Spitfires, working alongside marine construction to create a destroyer. Actors immersed themselves, eating corned beef on set.

Nolan’s interest in immersion requires attention to detail: soldiers lined up; a leaked container washing up on shore; Tommy’s base human needs, crouching down to take a shit before burying a body in the sand. In aerial shots, we witness black smoke emanating from the coast. Ships and bodies float in the water, untethered; on the boat, soldiers eat limited supplies of jam and tea. As the vessel sinks, bodies become charred as fire erupts in water. (Hastings notes 6 of the 39 destroyers sunk, with two thirds of men returning home on big ships.) Nolan avoids depicting decaying corpses, spilling blood, split fragments of brains: stretchers and helmets upon the beach say enough. As Nolan tells Little White Lies, Dunkirk is not a war film but a “survival story”, grounded within the present tense. Nolan is interested in human action, depicting routine and process upon the Moonstone: tethering rope, breaking glass windows, moving the wheel, depicting unrelenting tension.

Dunkirk is about defeat, but it is also about resilience. As his plane flies low, Farrier must accept his own death: he sets his plane aflame, captured by Germans; Hastings notes 41,000 British troops were captured. 338,226 soldiers were evacuated, including 193,000 British and over 100,00 French, with 11,000 British and 50,000 French dead. As soldiers are boarded onto trains, blankets offer respite, handed cans of beer through the window and lauded as heroes. But Nolan isn’t interested in cheering crowds. This exchange best summarises the film:

“All we did is survive.”

“That’s enough.”

But the events that follow hide an even greater cost. As Hastings writes, though the film suggests “the British sat down on their island and prepared to resist the Nazis on the beaches”, the British dispatched divisions of British and Canadian troops back to France. France was on the verge of armistice with Germany: as Dominic Tierney writes, a proposal passed parliament on June 16th proposing a Franco-British Union, laying the “seeds of the European integration project”, proposing “joint control of defense, foreign policy, finance, and economic policy” and a united parliament. As Hastings writes, “Churchill himself never saw anything in the least glorious about standing alone”, allying with the USSR and US in 1941. The British army never fully recovered, the “effectively disarmed” by lost equipment and unable to “face a major European battlefield” until American assistance and tanks in 1944.

Nolan contrasts the wider scale of war with his human subjects. Though Nolan has been criticised for his lack of minority troops, we glimpse black soldiers as soldiers line up. In the opening, we follow Tommy running through the streets and climbing over fences, telling forces under fire he’s one of them, although Hastings notes there was “no ground fighting”. Whitehead drew upon stories he’d heard from his granddad serving in Korea and Burma. Nolan is interested in comradeship: Alex (Harry Styles) follows a long line of pop stars like David Bowie and Mick Jagger who transitioned into cinema, but Styles never really acts, unable to offer much for One Direction fans besides his face. Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) faces constant otherising, suspected as a spy and dismissed as “sauerkraut sauce” under a heated moment, threatened with a gun. From the pier, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Captain Winnant (James D’Arcy) embody the film’s representation of authority, lost without clear guidance. (Hastings notes “the mole”, given the title of this section, is an “old term for a pier or jetty”.) As Olson writes, Churchill reacted to events with “shock and confusion”, troops and officers left “dazed”. As she writes, “the Allied command system had virtually ceased to function”, phone and supply lines cut, commanders only able to communicate through “personal visits.”

The section with Dawson, Peter and George plays as a Boy’s Own adventure, everyday people doing their bit, schoolboys enlisted to fight and needing to mature fast. Hastings notes Dawson’s similarity to Charles Lightoller, “a former officer on the Titanic” who saved 120 men on the Sundowner, aged 66, alongside “his son and a friend”. The crew must deal with the war’s personal effects; Peter tells Collins (Jack Lowden) that his brother died in the “third week into the war” flying Hurricanes. As Kristin Thompson writes, Nolan withholds this information, the viewer “inclined to sympathize with people in trouble” without needing “to motivate his decision”. As George’s loss is revealed to a teacher in sorrow, he becomes martyred in the newspaper. As Nolan reveals in his conversation with Jonathan, he drew upon accounts of young people who went to Dunkirk, finding it “very sad” in the way they were “memorialized” as “heroes” when their “life’s been cut short”. Farrier flies in a dogfight with the Luftwaffe in his Spitfire, with a cameo from Michael Caine communicating through the intercom, though Hastings notes aerial conflict happened thousands of feet in the air, “invisible to those on the ground or at sea”.

Through his multiplicity of voices, Nolan wanted to create a “constant reminder” that there is a “story that we’re not getting to hear”, embodying a representative experience through individual, physical and geographical dilemmas. Dunkirk’s effectiveness is elevated by its techniques, Hans Zimmer’s score elevating the sense of tension. Without using World War II-era music, Nolan creates a deeper sense of the immediate beyond cliché, utilising the illusive clocklike sound of a Shepard tone to place the viewer within the moment, aided by Richard King’s sound design. In his conversation with Jonathan, Nolan recalls the “relentless” synchronised sound of All Quiet on the Western Front, with its “shelling scene” going on “much longer than you can take.” War films like Saving Private Ryan equally use sound to great effect, bullets hitting American soldiers upon the beaches of Normandy, recreated with a sense of minute-by-minute precision. Hastings draws a parallel between Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan, “wrapped in a Union flag instead of the Stars and Stripes.”

Nolan’s manipulation of narrative structure is a hallmark, Following (1998) and Memento (2000) inverting its sequence whilst maintaining a linear structure. The Prestige (2006)’s focus on an alternative perspective to how we look at things is only an extension, whilst Inception questions the narratives embodied within dreams. Dunkirk makes its structure obvious, anchoring text for each section between air, land and sea, and intercutting between each. Though Bordwell notes each section “could have been presented as separate blocks”, Nolan creates “parallels” and “convergence” without utilising an “onscreen calendar or clock” or “explicit markers”. Nolan drew upon the impressionism and poetry of The Thin Red Line (1998), pointing to its nihilism. Nolan found author James Jones’ essay in Criterion’s booklet “quite sobering” as he wrote the script, outlining the “story models” of the war film and “shred[ding] them all” in contrast to personal experience beyond supposed virtuosity. The triptych structure bears comparison to the episodic delineation of Moonlight, each section given its own unique yet connecting identity. Though presented in a new way, it is far from radical, manipulating the confines of cinema but without anything substantial or innovative in its place. Nolan’s structure is an exercise in simplicity striving to create complexity.

The film’s immediacy allows a unique relationship with temporality, both to strength and detriment. In From Here to Eternity (1953), set against the onset of Pearl Harbour, each soldier’s life is driven by their relationship with women; Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) places Steve’s wartime sacrifice within the context of Peggy’s loss. Abstract values of freedom and democracy become embodied within human heroes. Films like Hacksaw Ridge issue a reckoning with belief in God and pacifism, carrying forward in war through faith through the life of Desmond Doss. But the characters of Dunkirk have no desires nor dreams to focus audience interest. Though rooting for survival, lack of deeper character makes it difficult to understand where these characters came from, or where these characters are going. Context is understood in fragments: a flyer falling from the sky; a commander and captain without routes of communication; Churchill’s iconic speech is presented not as radio broadcast but in press the following day. As Tommy melancholy reads aloud from the paper upon the train home, cut across montages of each arc, we sense how truly in the dark our characters are. As the train passes, the opportunity to gain knowledge could disappear in seconds.

Perceptions of war relied upon information available, filtered through propaganda and what the Ministry of Information was willing to reveal. At home, the war had become seen as the ‘Phoney War’. Before the Holocaust, wider purposes could not be fully grasped with, though visible in pieces. But Nolan never offers an alternative perspective, Germans an unseen spectre haunting from the fringes, more imagined than real. Though Nolan’s influences are anti-war, Dunkirk’s lack of deeper character and context creates a film entirely neutral. Although Nolan acknowledges loss, the film is malleable, shaped for what its viewers seek to see within. For Nigel Farage, the film becomes a plea for the young generation. As Hastings writes, the film “feeds the myth that has brought Churchill’s nation to the cliff edge of departure from the European Union”; he “half-expected Foreign Secretary [Boris] Johnson” to “hurl back the Hunnish hordes led by Angela Merkel”. Dunkirk might not be a film about Churchill’s imperialism and genocide, but its neutrality places us within war and nowhere else.

Advertisements

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

kongskullisland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

matrix_poster

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.

pipe
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.

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016), dir. Sam Liu

killingjoke

For the past decade, Warner Bros have consistently produced adaptations of celebrated DC story arcs; Year One (2011) and The Dark Knight Returns (2012) have been lauded for how faithfully they stuck to the original comic compared to Marvel’s animated films released through Lionsgate. Yet it seems their strategy has begun to shift: Son of Batman (2014) and Bad Blood (2016) are ostensibly adaptations of the Damien Wayne arcs of the Grant Morrison’s run, yet liberally shift things around to the point where they struggle to resemble the original, whilst Assault on Arkham (2014) lifts from a video game series, yet largely forms its own story.

The Killing Joke is not a film: The Killing Joke is a graphic novel. As a story, it is one piece, simultaneously both open-ended and close-ended, both within continuity and out of it. It is musing, reflective, very much within the literary tradition, pondering the relationship between the Joker and Batman. Both strict adherence to it and its direction chosen make little sense.

There’s so little to it in terms of running time (and page count), despite much in terms of the weight of the content, that I get the sense it could have killed it as an episode of The Animated Series.

Recently, in an episode of the podcast A Bit of a Chat with Ken Plume, animator Paul Dini spoke about the difficulties of adapting particular comic stories into an episode for The Animated Series, making sure it works in the 22 minute time slot when there’s enough material to stretch it to 40 minutes, but 60 minutes would be too long. Sometimes, brevity is better than padding.

Certain parts could have been condensed down, like the Red Hood scenes with the Joker. It works within the graphic novel – because it’s slow, able to be read at one’s own pace, able to transition between present and past through separate pages and tinted panels. These same rules could be applied to the rules of filmmaking: comics and films are both visual, but they are still different mediums. The original comic relies on a notion of the Joker as an unreliable narrator. Yet besides desaturated colours (within an already dark coloured film), the film is unable to communicate a sense of unreliability. A different animation style, or noirish monochrome to reinforce the timeless yet 1930s futurism Gotham, or to have Hamill’s voice to blend into all other characters within the scene, could have reinforced this unreliability.

The idea of expanding upon the graphic novel could have been a good idea, showing what happens in the hours before the story. Or maybe we can see more of the Joker’s backstory, perhaps incorporating material from Ed Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs (2005). Yet then I began to hear things. First, there was the trailer. Then, when Mark Hamill spoke about the film at a convention panel, he spoke about Batman and Batgirl having a *thing*. I assumed he was joking. Suddenly, io9 articles decried how awful it is.

I never had a problem with how Barbara Gordon was treated in the graphic novel. But when I read the graphic novel, she was just another character in the Batman universe for me, or the female sidekick in the Batman TV series (1966-68) that never landed a spin-off.

But recently, more attention has been brought towards more controversial aspects. Cameron Stewart’s reboot of the comic blocked a variant cover depicting Gordon at the Joker’s mercy, an homage to the graphic novel. The series ended by reversing the events of the story, or at least creating ambiguity about it (it has since been reinstated by the new Rebirth Birds of Prey series.) Her transformation as a disabled and intelligent character as Oracle helped to make up for the entire incident. I never felt that she needed to be fleshed out in order to justify the brutal attack.

What it ends up doing is create a sharp divide between two parts of the film. Apart from the many problematic implications of it, structurally it makes little sense. If The Killing Joke could have made a TAS episode, then this opening act really does feel like a TV episode. If it had been included as an extra on the Blu-ray, as has been done before with bonus episodes and shorts, it could make a bit more sense. Visually and tonally, its style is completely different. Barbara Gordon’s world is bright and colourful, with no natural shift to the dark world of The Killing Joke (which remains dark throughout), instead creating bland gangster villains who never appear again, without any connection to the Joker. We move from an extended prologue, set a week beforehand, over to another story set over perhaps a night or two. Even Barbara Gordon’s narration feels like an end.

Part of me wonders if the order for a prologue came from executives aghast at the idea of selling a 40 minute animated film. Brian Azzarello doesn’t try to write Alan Moore; for a strong writer (Joker, 100 Bullets), his prologue is painfully awful, complete with awkward dialogue. The animation itself conveys awkward, static frames, complete with CGI cars, transposing the timeless narrative of the original comics against modern computers and social spaces, including flamboyant openly gay characters: Batgirl is in her hip, modern, diverse and social media Burnside persona – not her timeless persona. Here, she’s still a librarian, but firmly in the world of 2016, only helps further complicate the Depression/Prohibition-esque world of the Red Hood flashbacks.

But let’s get down to it. Batgirl and Batman fuck.

It’s a philosophy of “yeah! Let’s give the fans something really unexpected!” The Killing Joke as a graphic novel is dark, yet not necessarily R-rated dark. There’s the odd swearword, some violence, implied rape, yet there’s no explicit sexuality. Convinced by the R rating, they went down The New Adventures route, regardless of whether it is in character or not.

“Let’s push boundaries!”

“Why? For the story?”

“Let’s push boundaries!”

In some ways, Batgirl is presented as a strong female character. She kicks butt, yet neither the animation nor the dialogue draws enough attention to her kicking butt. She is in control of her sexuality, not distracted by cute boys in the library, deploying it to her advantage against patriarchal villains obsessed with how hot she is. But she becomes a Catwoman clone, without enough of a developed backstory at the library, instead presenting the odd cutaway scene that completely fails the Bechdel Test.

Sleeping with Batman isn’t presented as a positive thing – she ends up regretting it, and it ultimately helps to fracture their relationship. A story about Barbara Gordon sleeping with a guy and regretting it could be a cool and completely relatable teenage story – but not with Bruce Wayne (maybe all billionaires are sleazy assholes after all), and not here – but within the soap opera lives of an ongoing comic series.

Similarly, exploring how their relationship fractures could be interesting, especially within the late 80s era of a lone Batman, set apart from Robin and into other introspective stories like Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (1989) – but it’s lazy for sex to be the one reason for that fracturing relationship.

Bruce Wayne spends the entire prologue as an absolute fucking douchebag I have no respect for, first telling her not to trust supervillains who flirt with her, before then telling her she’s not responsible, and then falling into a situation where they fuck.

Instead, it recontextualises the comic in awful ways. In the background of scenes, you can’t help but wonder “Bruce must just be thinking “oh fuck I screwed her” right now”. It adds another layer to the Joker and Batman as two sides of the same coin: whereas Batman pressures young women into sex, the Joker instead rapes them. It feels like a horror film cliche: a woman who has fucked therefore must die for her sins; the virgin will survive.

There was nothing certain about whether the Joker raped her or not. As an unreliable narrator, the readers become detectives of sorts: he takes nudes of her in a helpless position, another part of the game to misleading both the readers and the detectives of the story that he is even more fucked up than he actually is. Yet it is concrete that her and Batman screwed, with no ambiguity about it.

The Killing Joke, for the duration that it is actually The Killing Joke, is a fantastic animated version of the graphic novel. Mark Hamill kills it as the Joker, somehow managing to make up for every other flaw in it. Skip the first half hour, and you might just absolutely love this.