Cinema in the summer of 2017 has taken us in many different directions. We’ve had not one but two Vietnam War-themed simian features. Wonder Woman dispelled an age-old Hollywood prejudice against women fronting blockbusters. And the biggest box office smash of the summer (in the UK at least) was set in a time when your grandfather was just a youth. As always, there were more sequels than true originals, as with so much money invested into their biggest movies, studios are aware that they cannot afford to have a box office flop on their hands. They feel, and not entirely irrationally, that audiences want the comfort of familiarity rather than the thrill of originality. But while totally new ideas are still in short supply, we have at least moved into an era in which sequels add something to stories whilst developing characters, and the films are not just tacked-on franchise fillers.
Just before summer kicked off, Logan threw down a steel-clawed gauntlet to the movies that would follow, with an unusually gritty take on the superhero movie. This was less a film about heroics, and more a film about pain, punishment and withering strength. It was a much needed reality check for an X-men series which had become ludicrously overblown after last year’s X-Men Apocalypse; although this had more in common with an apocalyptic Western than a comic book-based blockbuster. The rules had changed: superheroes could get hurt. With that came a thrilling sense of vulnerability to house-hold heroes like Wolverine and Professor X. Deadpool made adult-themed superheroes commercially viable; the visceral and extremely dark Logan has now set a new template for the superhero movie. Watch your backs, superheroes, you may be in for a world of pain.
King Kong Skull Island
King Kong has had many different incarnations in his eighty year cinematic history, but he has never been depicted as a metaphor for the struggles in the Vietnam conflict – until this summer. He has always been one of the most sympathetic movie monsters, since he is a great beast attacked in his homeland by invading forces who want to exploit him. This time the invading forces were American soldiers of fortune and mercenaries returning after the end of the Vietnam War. Both thematically and metaphorically, Kong Skull island found a lot of inspiration from this conflict, or more accurately, the great body of work made about the Vietnam War – most noticeably Apocalypse Now. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts tips his hat to Coppola’s masterpiece so many times – even borrowing that iconic ‘helicopters at sunset shot’. It is such strange territory for the great ape god to be in, that it actually feels radically different to the generic Kong remake expected. There isn’t really justification for the American military antagonizing Kong with their technology, so the scene in which Kong swats away heavily armed helicopters like you would bat away annoying insects, frames him as rightfully sympathetic. You want to bang the armrest with a kong worthy display of emotion in reaction to the scene. It’s a thrilling set-piece, one of many in the film. It would appear that the American military with all their technology had underestimated the force of nature that is Kong, and thus a clever metaphor for the struggles of the Vietnamese against invading American forces was born: Viet Kong – indeed.
Ridley Scott re-invented the B movie creature feature with Alien; he then went on to totally transform how we perceived A.I with Blade Runner. A lot of people cannot fathom why he has shown a desire this century to revisit his masterpieces and expand the world with Alien prequels and a Blade Runner sequel. Yes, an argument could be made as to why adding new chapters to his films jeopardizes the legacy of the originals – just look at what has happened to the Terminator series for a case study of the risks of re-opening seemingly completed film sagas. Ridley Scott has risked his reputation on his decision to revisit Alien territory; and the backlash he received might be one of the reasons why he only takes an executive producer role in the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel. I believe though that his motives are not financially driven and are more to do with the fact that we are now 17 years into the 21st century; we are closer than ever before to the timelines in which the Alien films and Blade Runner are set.
From a creature feature standpoint, there isn’t much that the new Alien movie can do visually with the monster that doesn’t diminish the threat of Dan O’Bannon’s original terrifying designs. However, there was always a lot more going on in the Alien movies than B movie monster threats. The films also explored man’s desire to colonize more than one planet and future A.I’s potential ability to blend with humanity and how a man made life-form would perceive humans after achieving superior consciousness. Both Alien and Blade Runner have shown that Ridley’s key theme has always been about how A.I could evolve. Since we now live in a world in which A.I is beginning to get closer to the level predicting in sci-fi, particularly, Scott’s sci-fi, it is understandable that Ridley would want to reboot his visions. In terms of it’s depiction of A.I and the overall central quest to colonize space, this second Alien prequel adds a great deal. In the original Alien, the mystery of where the Xenomorph came from was never dealt with, which is one of the reasons why it was so terrifying. Purists will claim that any attempt to flesh out their origins will detract from the mystery and some people will hate Alien Covenant for what it does. Personally, I think it adds even more threat and intent to the creature, whilst tying two different themes in the Alien universe together quite cleverly. This feels less like a scripted afterthought and more like a film that provides the lost strand of DNA. The explanation given for where the Xenomorphs came from makes more narrative sense than anything else that would attempt to fill in the murky lack of explanation in the Alien origin story. Ridley’s decision to make the story about Michael Fassbender’s David, was the best directorial decision he made here. In the originals, the A.I played a supporting role; in Covenant, A.I is in the narrative driving seat. David is a mesmerising character and his attitude towards creativity makes for a fascinating sci-fi. The many detractors of the film have allowed anger to blind them from seeing the inventiveness of some of the scenes. The scene in which David eerily communicates the importance of the creative mindset to a character, whilst making a penny-whistle threatening, is both creepy and poetic. In the seventies and eighties, sci-fi was asking questions like: could A.I pass as human? Could it be capable of emotion or reasoned thought? Would it threaten us? Now sci-fi is asking questions that reach to answer how much more intellectually sophisticated, artistically superior, socially advanced and cerebral powerful AI could become. Alien Covenant can be added to a list of films, including, Her and Ex-Machina, in making a rebooted statement about where A.I could be going now the science is beginning to erode the fiction of Artificial Intelligence.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2
Guardians of the Galaxy delighted audiences a few summers ago with it’s kooky charm and spirited comedy. The sequel was at a disadvantage to the original though, as the first’s colorful adventure was a Galaxy apart from anything else around. This time people new what to expect, but that allowed director James Gunn to be even more off the wall with his story-telling. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 was like a vibrant, kaleidoscopic seventies album cover come to life. For more evidence, take a look at that outrageously offbeat opening set-piece that saw the lovable heroes fighting a monster on the front of what looked like the UFO off ELO’s into the blue LP. It was a sequence that was even sound-tracked by ELO’s Mr Blue Sky – a track of course that features on that very album. As this is a franchise that is firstly playing for laughs and comedic absurdity, with an aim to tell a story, with it’s tongue firmly in its cheek, it has a lot more license to be playful and fun. The more absurd the story became, the more far-out an alien it all seemed. The comic interplay was parred with some surprising character development as certain aliens became likeably more human. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 delivered another refreshing dose of mad-cap cosmic comedy.
For years, Hollywood had silently displayed its prejudice against women by being too afraid to allow a female superhero to front a blockbuster. You can blame Catwoman for this prejudice solidifying, as the Halle Berry-fronted feline-themed theatrics in that film did not exactly have either audiences or critics purring. Consequently, Hollywood assumed that this was due to a female lead and not due to a shoddily-constructed story and a cruddier script than three month old cat litter. The box office success of Wonder Woman, a female directed and fronted blockbuster, has sent the studios a strong message that their prejudice was unfounded. Wonder Woman has made studio chiefs eat a considerable amount of humble pie. This summer, Wonder Woman may have also saved D.C from getting a knock-out punch from Marvel. She tagged in when both Batman and Superman were brought to their knees by each other via the leaden Batman Versus Superman. She was an utterly likable superhero, with a feisty spirit, a strong sense of ethics and a charming innocence. The opening, set in a Xena Warrior Princess-like fantasy world, was like nothing in the modern D.C or Marvel world. D.C films, which have veered from turgid and dull to vapid and inconsequential of late, came up with a story that didn’t just entertain, but contained a charming screenplay that managed to have a social commentary mocking the chauvinistic attitudes of a male-dominated world. The comedy, which saw stuffy, middle-aged white men consistently try to put Wonder Woman in the same restrictive little box they put over women, could even be read as a satire of a similar attitude that stops female superheroes breaking out into their own films in Hollywood.
The period setting of World War 2 added lots of bold new directions for a comic book movie too. Since Wonder Woman could not know about the destructive, self-defeating wars of men, her incredulity at what she saw captured something of the senselessness of war. Watching feeble little white men try to patronise a character closer to a god than a mortal was very amusing. When she burst out of her disguise and literally broke across no man’s land in a scene that gleefully undermined the threat of Nazi barracks, the film felt genuinely euphoric as we willed her to show what she could do. Yes, the film’s third act was majorly flawed with the film gravitating back to the same path of fiery destruction that defines the ending of all, Zack Snyder styled D.C films, a formula that numbs more than thrills. You would have expected Ares, the Greek God of War to be a worthy adversary to Wonder Woman, but here he was comically miscast. Wonder Woman by then had done enough to win over audiences. The film had box office stamina and since Hollywood will always allow money to erase long time prejudice, we can suspect Wonder Woman has broken down the barricades for other female superheroes to follow.
When Sony announced that they wanted to re-brand and recast Spider-Man for a third time this century, the movie world groaned. It was almost as if Sony raised its hand in anticipation of the outrage and said, ‘well hear us out. What if we do it without the spider bite backstory? What if we drop the emotional baggage from Uncle Ben’s inevitable demise? What if we subvert Spider-Man’s mantra with great power comes great responsibility? How about irresponsibility?’ We all went; ‘let’s see what that would look like’. As it turned out, those creative decisions are what turned one of the seemingly most creatively bankrupt decisions in comic book history, to a film that was more fun, breezy, entertaining and closer to the comics than Spidey had ever been before. Taking a leaf out of the Josh Trank Chronicle, this was a depiction of an ordinary teen, who wasn’t sure if he could handle all the extra power and thrillingly let it get out of control on more than one occasion. Having the narrative start shortly after Spider-Man’s exploits in the last Avengers saga, was one of many inspired story directions. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was buzzing with the same enthusiasm and energy that we might have had we gotten to swing out and fight alongside Ironman and company. That youthful exuberance freshened up than web-slingers adventures, and allowed for a film that fizzed with wit and humour.
War for the Planet of the Apes
It is one of the greatest twist endings of all time – an ending that shakes your world in the most literal way possible, but the thing about The original Planet of the Apes finale is that it creates more questions than it answers. Questions like: (Original Apes spolier alert)…. If this isn’t on a parallel planet, then how exactly did Apes evolve to speak? Why did humans lose both the power of intelligence and speech?
It’s because of questions like these that this modern apes franchise is one of the most justifiable trilogies in cinema history. With the question of how the apes evolved covered in the earlier films, this concluder was free to offer explanation as to how humans lost control to such a spectacular degree. It offers a believable and credible answer to decades-old lingering questions in a film that really broke the cinema trend of weaker third installments. We’ve been comfortable enough with the science-fiction of talking apes in this franchise thanks in part to some revolutionary effects work and also some underrated acting by an actor who has made simian behavior method acting: Andy Serkis. It is no longer wondrous for us to see fully believable talking apes; this is a good thing as it allows us to immerse ourselves in the characters and the compelling dynamics between the leading ape figures, without distracting thoughts like: oh aren’t the effects marvelous? As a result, this film took us deeper into the question of the Apes films have explored: ‘would apes be better equipped to live in harmony with each other than humans? The idea of talking, socially connected apes has been given such credulity over this franchise that the film stylistically was allowed to move from the realm of science-fiction into that of a character-driven Western. The frost-bitten environment and sweeping photography gave the film a really believable western feel, whilst the central theme was about how the unquenchable thirst for revenge corrupts the soul.
It is somewhat bizarre that there have been not one but two Apocalypse Now-themed Apes movies. I thought the influence of Coppola’s War opus, added interesting dimensions to both Kong: Skull Island and War for the Planet of the Apes. Woody Harrelson, playing a colonel character who seems to be an absolute descendant of Kurtz, was a divisive character. I thought it gave Serkis’ Caesar a focal point and personality to spectacularly clash with. The always excellent Harrelson provided an interesting character that balanced out his genocidal power trip with a philosophy on the future of humanity that made some sense. There was a lot more depth to his character than one-dimensional evil. The film had a good sense of humour too to balance out the weighty drama. Steve Zhan’s Bad Ape may have had an impossible back-story but he sure did provide some great comic moments. It also had a really satisfying conclusion that provided the err, missing link to the seventies original.
Young people in the UK grow up with at least a vague sense that our freedom and existence can be attributed to all the young men who put their lives on the line in WW2. The events of Dunkirk represent a time when those men were at their most vulnerable. The compelling true story of Dunkirk is extremely unappealing from a Hollywood perspective, as it doesn’t have the potential for a focal point of individual heroism. The men stranded on Dunkirk beach were all in a state of heightened fear and anxiety – in which survival rather than heroism was the defining mindset. It is a tremendous tribute to Christopher Nolan that he could get a very British war story on screen done with a very British sense of humility, but with the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster. In the UK, it has had considerable staying power at the box office as it has crossed generations who have been brought emotionally closer to the stories that were previously handed down through the word of those who lived through the Nazi threat. But the greatest endorsement that the film has received, is that it has moved to tears some of the now elderly veterans who experienced Dunkirk first hand.
Since the story has been done with the greatest sense of authenticity and realism, it is as close as cinema has ever come to taking audiences to the front-line in World War 2. Dunkirk is an unconventional war film since the majority of men depicted were in enemy territory, but without weapons. The heightened sense of danger and looming catastrophe run all the way through the film, intensified by Hans Zimmer’s pulsating, and gut-churning score. The film was a technical marvel – a film that simultaneously gave you the perspective from land, sea and air –suggesting how all three fronts were united in an up hill battle. Yet the film felt entirely grounded in reality and genuine human perspective on a seemingly doomed scenario.
It feels like a living piece of history, but one that strategically provides more questions than answers. You either bring the historical knowledge to it, or you take Nolan up on the homework assignment he sets audiences unaware of the events of Dunkirk. Nolan strategically doesn’t provide any context for why exactly so many British and French forces were stranded without the means to defend themselves against Nazi bombers – this actually heightens the sense of peril and threat since audiences are not fully aware of what scale of Nazi threat these men are currently facing as, for large parts, Nazi threat remains terrifyingly anonymous.
It brings the emotional and psychological reality of what the men faced and Nolan has done it in a way where those unaware of the historical context will definitely feel compelled to pick up a history book and fill in the blanks that are deliberately left in mystery. Dunkirk is the cinematic experience of the summer a brilliantly realistic war film that leaves its audience suitably drained and shaken up, while reflecting on this particular chapter of the second world war from a renewed perspective of understanding of what the men faced.
The Emoji Movie
It seemed that the critics were sharpening their knives ready to sacrifice The Emoji Movie to represent all that is wrong with modern cinema, way before the film had even been released. Few films this summer have been savagely torn apart as much as this one. It is easy to find fault with the film. It does shamelessly rip-off many inventive family films of the last few years: Inside Out and Wreck-it Ralph are practically mined for inspiration. Plus, since the film took place entirely in a smart phone, there were some horribly crass product placements for apps that do not need any extra promotion. However, there is some much needed attempt in the film to satirize the whole culture of emoticons. It seemed to me that a lot of critics allowed themselves to be swayed by the anger they had built up about something as silly as emoticons being used to sustain a film. The film had quite a nice involving little plot-line about a character labelled meh against his will who yearns to express himself and show the world how much passion he has inside. Be less meh is quite a useful message to direct at teenagers who think the height of cool is total indifference. I thought the little yellow guy was one of the most sympathetic characters in a film this summer; his journey was quite charming, amusing and even kind of moving. Break out of your little box is always a great message – plus it counterbalanced the vibes elsewhere in the film that seem to endorse staying in a box of another kind – the smartphone.
So, critics – come on, since it’s based on emoticons, they got quite a lot of plot out of something for something as seemingly unsupportive of cinematic narrative. A lot of what you are saying about this film is churlish and unfair. Yes, there are poo gags in the film and usually poo gags are clear signs of scraping the bottom of the barrel – critics love to criticize a bit of toilet humour. But the poo character in this was suave and well-spoken – it is played by Patrick Stewart after all – and as a result the poo gags were funny. Plus, the film had an absolutely laugh out loud gag about what emoticons have done to punctuation; that joke has made me chuckle every time I have thought about it. Critics of all people should hail such a gag.
Overall, summer 2017 in cinema was not the best ever, but pretty colorful and it provided hours of spectacular entertainment and at least one film that will be topping end of year best of lists and challenging for accolades come awards season. Cinema in summer 2017 was way above meh then.