Criterion Sunday 338: Equinox (1970)

Undoubtedly a very silly film, something akin to a student film in the shlocky Corman monster movie vein extended to feature length. Two guys and two girls go for a picnic and to visit a scientist, during which they stumble across some caves where a crazed old man presents them with a book that opens a Pandora’s box of monster which attack them, and there are demons and park rangers and maybe they’re the same and basically, yes, it’s very silly. It seems to filmed in the same place as the climax of Short Cuts: certainly the whole thing had me expecting Robert Downey Jr and Chris Penn to pop up, being very dubious while out for a picnic, such that I took the occasional withering sexism as a commentary on toxic masculinity (though I suspect it was more intended as cheap laughs). However, the stop-motion effects are all rather delightfully done and it maintains a level of consistent silliness that keeps it from ever being boring or offensive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Jack Woods [and Dennis Muren, uncredited]; Writer Woods; Cinematographer Mike Hoover; Starring Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Frank Bonner, Robin Christopher, Jack Woods; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 23 July 2020.

Godzilla (2014)

Remaking and reimagining the Japanese creature feature Gojira (1954) seems to be a periodic interest of filmmakers, especially those in massively capitalised industries like Hollywood. Therefore, it’s a bold choice to choose as director Gareth Edwards, whose previous credit was a low-budget feature, Monsters (2010), renowned for its relative paucity of monsters and featuring his own self-made special effects. If this, then, is a big step up for him in terms of budget and impact, Edwards and his writer have also been quite canny in the way the film introduces its titular monster, whose existence is only hinted at for the first half of the running time.

The story retains its allegorical thrust about the hubris of humanity — reawakening this primaeval creature through the proliferation of nuclear power — though here the dinosaur is joined by a pair of huge mantis-like insect creatures called “MUTOs” (for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism — except that, as pointed out right after this term is explained in the movie, “they’re not terrestrial, they’re airborne!”). These latter are the film’s real threat, their eggs gestating for decades in massive underground lairs that resemble nothing so much as the Giger-designed pods of Alien, and which come over like steroidal versions of Starship Troopers‘ insectoid menace. The MUTOs’ first appearance in the film results in personal tragedy for scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), and fifteen years later it’s his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who muscles in on the effort to deal with the now-fully-grown threat, although Ken Watanabe’s Dr Serizawa is the one who’s really in charge.

While the primary interest for this type of film remains the punishingly monstrous creature effects (the CGI for which has a weighty feel to match those in Pacific Rim, which remains my high-water point for this kind of thing), there’s still a nice human interest drama that plays out between Ford and his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and between them and Ford’s now-paranoid dad. That said, even Cranston and Olsen’s fine acting is quickly overshadowed once the monsters are all in full flow, and it’s to the film’s credit that it all feels satisfying in the end despite the fact that nothing any of the human characters do in any way affects the drama being played out amongst the warring creatures.

Of course, it’s yet another film that takes an urban setting and delights in crushing it to bits, which seems like something that’s been a bit overdone in recent years, given it’s been the basic formula of all the recent Marvel and DC films. This time the city is San Francisco, chosen presumably for its Pacific rim proximity to Japan, and truly there’s a lot of collateral damage as the MUTOs and Godzilla square off under the impotent gaze of the American military. It’s this utter ineffectiveness of humanity in the face of Godzilla that’s the point, though, I suppose, and the film succeeds well in conveying this.

Godzilla film posterCREDITS
Director Gareth Edwards; Writer Max Borenstein; Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 17 May 2014 [2D].

Pacific Rim (2013)

There’s not really been any shortage of films featuring robots pounding one another or the wholesale mechanised destruction of cities recently. It could almost be a genre; it certainly sells in the global marketplace. In fact, I’ve read persuasive essays online arguing that this need by Hollywood to make money from the worldwide market is precisely the reason for such a template being used, requiring the minimisation of any kind of dialogue or human interaction. Pacific Rim follows this trend, very much emphasising the metallic technology over the human element, and within the context it sets up for itself (and certainly compared to these other recent films), it’s rather entertaining — though every bit as punishingly loud and thudding as you’d expect.

I don’t really feel there’s much I can add to the discourse surrounding these films: the high concept ensures that the viewer cannot possibly be in any confusion as to what will happen. In case you’ve missed the hype, the story is that huge slimy aliens (called “gaiju”) are being sent to Earth via a wormhole under the Pacific in order to crush humanity and take over the planet for some shadowy reason. As a result, the world’s governments have co-operated to create a programme of vast mechanised robots (called “jaegers”) to battle the aliens before they destroy too many of the large seafront cities of the Pacific rim. Now, on the brink of being overwhelmed, their final desperate gambit is to close up the wormhole. So, rephrasing that high concept in the words that must have hooked in the Hollywood executives: it’s robots vs monsters.

The sea- and city-bound battles between the two antagonising forces are at the heart of the film, and the special effects are indeed very good. There’s a great sense of the vast size and clunking solidity of the jaeger robots, along with plenty of biological gloop and miasma on the part of the gaiju. In amongst this, though, we have the humans. And sure, there’s a range of cultures and languages on display, but the key roles go to gravelly-voiced half-shaven white guys and a pair of hyperactive boffinish science geeks none of whose names I can in any honesty recall (though the lead character was called Raleigh), but more than one of the actors is definitely named Charlie.

Just about the only human who makes any impression whatsoever is Idris Elba as the commanding officer Stacker Pentecost, who guides the jaeger programme to its final showdown with the gaiju. His soft-spoken British accent and intense gaze, burdened with all the responsibility of the world, is used to good effect. Meanwhile, Rinku Kikuchi plays a young woman, Mako Mori, who has been raised by Stacker and proves her skills to become a jaeger co-pilot. Mercifully, there’s no teasing sexiness or short skirts for her: all the pilots, Mako included, are no-nonsense and dedicated. However, once the suits are on and the robots are fighting, the dialogue just sputters out. They shout things, but over the din of such massive forces colliding, it’s really difficult to pick out what’s being said.

For all that, it’s not a bad experience by any means. Director Guillermo del Toro keeps things interesting with some engaging sub-plots, primarily that involving Ron Perlman as a shady underworld character who has been given semi-official clearance to trade in recovered gaiju body parts. Del Toro is also interested in exploring, through the way that jaeger pilots must meld their brains during combat, the way that the experiences of childhood shape adult identity. Other plot strands are rather more clichéd, such as the emerging romance between Raleigh and Mako (there’s no chemistry and it just feels rote) or those hyperactive scientists working to try to understand the gaiju, who provide a bit of levity as comedy sidekicks but become very wearing very quickly. However, it’s these hints at a world subsisting around the edges of the epic battles that give the film its heart.

Alongside that humanity struggling to assert itself within the film’s narrative, I cannot pretend I didn’t find the hulking yet strangely glamorous robots (they each have their own specific identity) appealing in the battles; they certainly look good on the posters. If I had to commend to your attention one recent overpowering world-imperilling tentpole blockbuster franchise, then I suppose it would have to be Pacific Rim, for what that’s worth.

Pacific Rim film posterCREDITS
Director Guillermo del Toro; Writers Travis Beacham and del Toro; Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro; Starring Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi 菊地凛子, Charlie Hunnam; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green [2D], London, Sunday 21 July 2013.

Attack the Block (2011)

Possibly there are exceptions (I’m no connoisseur), but it seems that whenever aliens visit Earth, they stand in allegorically for some popular fear of the era. 1950s films did well trading on fears of an atomic age, while 1970s films were more concerned with loss of identity. In fact, this trope is well enough understood that in Attack the Block one of the disaffected urban youth at the centre of the film gets a speech acknowledging it. For those familiar with the newspaper headlines in the Britain of the 2010s, you’d expect the threat to allegorically represent the fear of immigrants or indeed of the aforesaid urban youth (“hoodies”, to use a popular term referencing a favoured item of clothing). However, Attack the Block is too metropolitan and knowing to be so simplistic: the hoodies, it turns out, are the heroes and the fear is of the state and its oppressive apparatus (the police… sorry, “the feds”).

There’s a lot to like about Joe Cornish’s feature film debut. He comes from a background as a comedian wryly satirising popular culture (particularly on his TV and radio shows with Adam Buxton), and plenty of that shines through here. Attack the Block is not precisely a comedy though it has strong comic elements; it’s more of an updated ‘creature feature’ with ridiculous hairy dog-like aliens, lots of splatter and gore, and most of all, that pervasively resonant allegory.

Our heroes in the fight against the alien menace are led by Moses (John Boyega) and introduced as the kind of nefarious ne’er-do-wells that the tabloids would have us believe are at the core of ‘broken Britain’: mugging virtuous white nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) at the edge of their council estate. However, the film swiftly pushes on from there, undercutting some of those initial assumptions and bringing all of these characters together in the fight against the real threat. Into this mix is introduced the real bad guy of the estate (drug dealer Hi-Hatz, who has the kids under his thumb) and his likeably stoned sidekick Ron (Nick Frost). It’s set against an aggressive soundtrack of disaffected urban music, and the script is packed with contemporary slang.

In a sense, these kids are the core of ‘broken Britain’, but it’s soon established that they are more the outcome of the malaise at this society’s heart rather than the cause, and it’s in them that the film places its trust. There aren’t many films that are more acute about the (psycho)geography of the typical inner-city council estate. This one is located near Oval tube station in South London, near the Elephant & Castle (where I first lived, also in former council estate housing, when I moved to London), and brings together a range of underprivileged people who aren’t all entirely cast out by society. It transpires for example that Sam’s key worker is resident on the same estate: even the burgeoning professional classes can’t always afford more on London’s steep property ladder. And though there’s some hint of community, the sense of bleak emptiness is more suggestive that the space of the council estate — its concrete entrances and tall buildings, winding bike ramps, lighting which switches itself off after only a few seconds — is set against humans and breaks down basic humanity, which of course makes the alien intrusion theme seem the more apt.

Perhaps then the actors are loaded down with a bit too much baggage, but they do well, especially Boyega as the kids’ leader. Attack the Block is a persuasive look at the dehumanising effect of this kind of ghettoised environment, and its inhabitants’ deeply-held fear of the police — albeit via the medium of the monster movie. This is one allegory which hasn’t yet been played out.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Joe Cornish; Cinematographer Tom Townend; Starring John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Nick Frost; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (TV), London, Monday 27 May 2013.