Film review: GHOST IN THE SHELL, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Ghost In The Shell is an adaptation of a popular Japanese graphic novel although it looks like it was spliced together from the DNA of Blade Runner and RoboCop with a dash of The Matrix. Like those films, Ghost in the Shell is set within a futuristic dystopia in which people have literally been submerged in questionable technology. Within this world the film touches on themes of identity, humanity, scientific tampering and the nature of reality.

In its vision of a future Earth, cybernetic enhancements allowing rapid learning and communication have become commonplace and the lines between human and cyborg have started to blur. Protecting this world is a security force of soldiers who have been given a cybernetic upgrade by scientists at the creepy Hanka Corporation.   Taking human machine integration a step further, Hanka scientist Dr Oulet (Juliette Binoche) had transplanted a human brain into a robot body creating an elite soldier named Major (Scarlett Johansson). When a mysterious hoodie-wearing hacker begins infiltrating Hanka executives’ cybernetics enhancements and physically killing people, Major delves into a dark virtual world to find him. Her search for the hacker, however, provides astonishing revelations about her past.

As its slightly obvious title tells us, Ghost In The Shell is a cautionary tale about the loss of human identity in a world of machines.  It’s a fascinating theme but one that was explored more powerfully and inventively 30 years ago in Robocop. For this type of lost identity tale to have much impact we have to feel for the character but Scarlett Johansson’s Major isn’t a particularly moving or sympathetic figure and she simply doesn’t convey the existential angst necessary to give this story real potency and emotional depth.

In addition to its existential themes the film touches on the contemporary issues of refugee deaths, exploitation of terrorism fears and the growing threat of cyber warfare. While these are vital concerns they’re not examined in a particularly insightful manner here.

Still, many viewers will want to see this film for two reasons, the first being its special effects driven depiction of a futuristic world. In this respect Ghost in the Shell succeeds. Director Rupert Sanders and cinematographer Jess Hall have conjured an impressively vivid and strange world that recalls the astonishing city-scapes in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Also, Sanders applies meticulous art direction in each scene with compositions often recalling the panels of a graphic novel.

The other lure for many people will be the action scenes and for the most part they’re fluent, vigorous and inventively staged. Also, the fact that we’re dealing with cyborgs allows us to forgive some unrealistic fighting techniques and the characters’ apparent indestructibility.

In the end, though, the film doesn’t quite engage the way it needed to. It’s an attractive shell but it’s heart doesn’t beat strongly enough.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Science Fiction.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Rupert Sanders.

Release date: 30th Mar 2017.

Running time: 107 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

Film review: ALIEN: COVENANT, by Nick Gardener from Built For Speed

The first two Alien films were so iconic that any sequels or prequels will inevitably carry a burden of expectation so weighty that even Dwayne ‘the rock’ Johnson would struggle to lift it. This partly accounts for the disappointment that will gnaw at your guts like the infamous title creature while watching the latest instalment in the franchise, Alien: Covenant but just as in Director Ridley Scott’s previous effort, Prometheus, poor scripting is the real monster here.

With Prometheus and Covenant Scott has attempted to directly link with the original 1979 classic by slowly unravelling what occurred in the lead-up to the cargo ship Nostromo’s arrival on that foreboding planet. Within this plot-line Scott has added a story about mankind’s possible alien origins via giant baldy extra-terrestrials called engineers and their sinister pathogen that forces its hosts give birth to a bouncing alien bub.

Alien: Covenant is set 10 years after Prometheus and sees the crew of the ship Covenant hurtling toward a distant planet which they hope to make home to thousands of humans currently in embryo form. When the ship’s crew receives a strange signal from a nearby planet their leader, Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) unwisely decides to investigate placing the hapless crew at the mercy of a sinister cyborg (one of two Michael Fassbender roles) and his hungry alien menagerie.

Does this sound familiar, well it should because this is the plot of the first Alien film. Not only does Covenant shamelessly crib the storyline from original, it contains some near-identical scenes, lifts some of the dialogue and uses very similar music. Some of this is deliberate homage and an attempt to establish continuity within the franchise but it’s also flat-out unoriginal.

Unfortunately, this film lacks the thrill of first exposure to this strange world or the artistry that Scott brought to that first film. Scott’s original was a masterpiece of art direction and white knuckle tension that astonishingly combined the grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey with gritty working class realism. Alien Covenant does contain some stunning vistas of the New Zealand wilderness that doubles as the alien plant surface but despite this and all the money spent on cgi effects, Covenant doesn’t look as good as the intricately detailed 38-year-old original.

Also, Like Prometheus, Alien: Covenant promises so much with its tantalising alien origins mythology and the mystery of what happened to android David (one of two Michael Fassbender roles) but delivers so little. Scott and the scriptwriters have failed to construct a story that can sustain interest across the film’s two hours and the result is not just a sense of anti-climax but one of emptiness.

The film touches on fascinating themes of mankind’s origins, what it means to be human and the threats imposed by artificial intelligence and robots. It also continues the series’ obsession with psychosexual themes from the creature’s reproductive cycle to an oddly homoerotic recorder playing session between the two the Michael Fassbenders. Again, though, as in Prometheus, none of these themes are explored in a deep or compelling way, they’re simply hinted at and left to evaporate.

Also, as a horror film Alien: Covenant fails to shock or deliver the necessary nail-chomping tension. It’s occasionally gory but the attacks by a variety of aliens occur in such a confusing flurry that they have little visceral effect. Also, film confirms the adage (or at least the ‘Built for Speed’ whinge) that a cgi monster can’t top the old man (or woman) in the suit. The attacks in the original Alien had an element of sexual violation which made them particularly disturbing, much of this feeling is lost when we’re clearly looking at a computer-generated monster.

Fortunately, some strong performances add a little grit and credibility to Covenant. Although she’s clearly a surrogate Ripley – even pinching a couple of her lines – Katherine Waterson makes a fine heroine as the emotionally troubled but resilient First Officer Daniels. Michael Fassbender once again brings a creepy coldness to his robot character David and likeable warmth to his latter day twin Walter. Billy Crudup also does a reasonable job as the stereotypical sweaty bumbling commander. Elsewhere though, the cast are given little chance to make any sort of impression.

Alien: Covenant is by no means a dud but it appears Ridley Scott has not heeded the outcries that followed the disappointing Prometheus.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Science fiction/ horror.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Ridley Scott.

Release date: 11th Apr 2017.

Running time: 122 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


Film review: PASSENGERS, from ‘Built For Speed’

We can almost hear the boardroom meeting: “that Titanic made a bundle and so did that Gravity let’s mash them together, throw in a couple of Hollywood’s hottest stars and it’s new Ferraris all round”. The result is Passengers a sci-fi/ adventure/ romance that should have been a moving and thrilling space adventure but winds up being surprisingly tepid.

Chris Pratt stars as Jim Preston a mechanic who, at a time in the future, has, along with 5,000 other intrepid souls, volunteered to be placed in suspended animation and transported across the galaxies in the spaceship Avalon so he can be among the first people to populate a new planet named Homestead 2. When a mishap causes his sleep pod to malfunction and wake him from suspended animation 30 years into the 120 year journey, Jim finds himself floating through space alone. At first the intergalactic cruise ship’s numerous high tech attractions stave off the misery of Jim’s solitude but he soon begins to crave human contact. When he is joined by another passenger Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) and starts to form a romantic relationship with her, Jim’s lonely fate seems to have been averted but he also confronted with a painful moral dilemma.

With the film predominantly focused on the two main characters, the pairing of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt needed to produce phenomenal screen chemistry. Unfortunately, their romance isn’t especially moving or even believable. Most of the time they’re just two ridiculously good looking people larking about in space. Added to that, the sci-fi drama in which their lives are threatened is mostly predictable and pinches ideas from superior films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Still, it’s hard not enjoy any Jennifer Lawrence performance. Even if the script doesn’t realise her character’s potential, Lawrence still imbues Aurora with strength and emotional depth. Pratt on the other hand seems more suited to quirky action hero roles like the ones he played in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World and he doesn’t convince as a man undergoing an existential crises or as a romantic lead. The only other actor with substantial screen time is Michael Sheen who is appropriately creepy as the suspiciously polite android bar tender Arthur.

Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum fashions a slick, shiny and somewhat soulless world aboard the Avalon, a ship whose interior resembles a futuristic games parlour mixed with a shopping mall after closing time. He conjures a few visually impressive sci-fi action set pieces but this film lacks the indelible art direction of sci-fi classics like Alien.

The potential was here for a sci-fi epic and a touching human story but Passengers winds up as a mediocre space romance.

Nick’s rating: **1/2.

Genre: Sci Fi/ Romance.

Classification: M.

Director(s):  Morten Tyldum.

Release date: 1st January 2017.

Running time: 116 mins.

Screening at: General release.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


Film review: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, from ‘Built For Speed’

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a prequel to the original Star Wars film A New Hope and tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance came to acquire the plans to the Death Star.  This is no spoiler as the broad plot of this film was scrawled across the screen in the opening minutes of A New Hope back in 1977.

The story focuses on young female rebel fighter Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) the daughter of the scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who is press-ganged into designing the Death Star. Jyn, rebel officer Cassion Andor (Diego Luna), two samurai-like fighters Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and droll android K2 (voiced by Alan Tudyk) journey across the galaxy in pursuit of the Death Star blueprints along the way battling most of the imperial army and the man who appears to be the Death Star site manager Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).  As much as a typical Star Wars film, Rogue One plays like a 1960’s war movie with a rag tag band of soldiers going on a mission to destroy an enemy installation.

Like The Force Awakens this film has moved away from the campy fun and gloss of the original trilogy and (thankfully) has completely jettisoned the cgi cartoon horrors of the prequels for a grittier aesthetic with more sweat, dirt, visceral action scenes, wobble cam and even traces of blood.  This gives the film greater verisimilitude but also deprives it of the epic quality of the original trilogy.  Unlike those first three films, there’s nothing revolutionary from a cinematic point of view as we’ve seen just about everything on offer here in one form or another before.

Rogue One provides some tantalising information for Star Wars obsessives, however, including an answer to one of the burning questions from the first film and an intriguing link between Jedi Light Sabres and the Death Star.

Like The Force Awakens this film is often about fan service and to titillate fan boys and girls, the film plucks elements of the first Star Wars film including having characters from the Cantina scene pop up in the bustling streets of desert planet Jedha.

While much of this film’s and The Force Awakens’ appeal is pure nostalgia, it still stands alone as an action adventure. The action set pieces are fluid and exciting and there’s an excellent dog-fight set above the strange but welcome location of a palm tree-infested beach front.  Unfortunately, the film also makes the classic action movie mistake of having pissweak henchman with the Imperial Stormtroopers so inept in combat it’s a wonder they even bother turning up.

Most of the cast deliver the standard earnest, po-faced space opera performances although Diego Luna brings some much needed emotional intensity to the role of conflicted rebel officer Cassion Adnor.  A couple of the players, however, are outrageously hammy.  Ben Mendelsohn struts around in a ludicrous cape and chomps on the scenery like a ravenous shark as Krennic.  Even more ridiculous is Forest Whittaker as Colonel Kurtz-like rebel Saw Gerrera who has hair like Don King and sucks on an oxygen mask like Frank from Blue Velvet.

Rogue One doesn’t represent a big step stylistically from The Force Awakens but peppered with artefacts from the original films and filled with explosive action it will prove a satisfying continuation of the Star Wars saga for long-term fans and an exciting sci-fi adventure for newcomers.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Science Fiction/ Action.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Gareth Edwards.

Release date: 15th December 2016.

Running time: 134 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

Film review: INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE, from ‘Built For Speed’

In 1996 the original Independence Day set a new high in spaceship special effects and a new low in silly-ass American propaganda movie making. Its cartoonish tale of gung-ho Americans repelling an invasion by slimy aliens was dumb but tolerable sci- fi action fare. Even though it was a box office hit that film has taken 20 years to spawn a sequel.

That sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence is Hollywood mega-budget film making at its most depressingly formulaic. Predictable and extremely derivative, it only diverges from the plot of the first film when it pulls in bits of other superior science fiction films such as Star Wars, War of the Worlds, Aliens, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Cloverfield.

The film is set in an alternative version of the present day where the Earth’s population has enjoyed 20 years of peace after defeating the first alien attack. That all changes when the sinister cousins of the first film’s evil extra-terrestrials decide to wreak vengeance on poor old Earth. Equipped with a ridiculously huge death star (sorry) spaceship, the aliens begin demolishing human civilization but for some reason haven’t learned that, in movie world, no one beats chest-beating Americans.

The screenwriters have gone to torturous lengths to shoehorn original cast members into the story, even having one character return form the grave. Jeff Goldblum is once again piss-taking computer wiz environmental activist David Levinson although thankfully he isn’t quite as smug and annoying as he normally is. Judd Hirsch who plays Goldblum’s Dad, does the same kooky old guy routine he pulled in the first film and while it’s not necessarily the sort of thing we want in a sci-fi film he’s a likeable screen presence. Brent Spiner returns as the eccentric Dr Brakish Okun and is so ludicrously over-the-top Star Trek fans will be grinding their teeth with anger at the way Mr Data is demeaned. Bizarrely, Charlotte Gainsbourg appears in this film as medical scientist Dr. Catherine Marceaux; she must be in some sort of competition with Ninja Turtles’ Laura Linney for the ‘most credible actress in a turkey’ award.

For some reason people have been disappointed by the absence of Will Smith whose cocky, alien-punching antics were a low light of the original film. He has effectively been replaced by two characters, bad boy pilot Jake Morrison played in non-descript fashion by Liam Hemsworth and the Will Smith character’s son Dylan (Jessie Usher).

The film’s dreary, convoluted plot produces almost no drama so all we’re left with is empty spectacle. Admittedly, there are some remarkable effects set pieces featuring gigantic spaceships and aerial dogfights although the effects haven’t evolved much from the first film and are almost entirely devoid of emotion and thrills. Also, murky cinematography makes it feel as if we’re peering at the film through a muddy window.

This isn’t an obnoxiously awful film like Dirty Grandpa or an embarrassing mess like Zoolander No.2, it’s merely uninspired cinematic junk food and a disappointingly obvious Gen X nostalgia cash in.

Nick’s rating: *1/2.

Genre: Science Fiction/ Action.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Roland Emmerich.

Release date: 23rd June 2016.

Running time: 120 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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