Category: Indie Sci-Fi/Fantasy


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I’ve reviewed Todd Solondz’s brutal dissection of the possibility of human contentment (and the facades that mark all our lives) in Happiness. I’ve lauded the transformative power of the existentially challenging final sequence of Charlie Kauffman’s Synecdoche, New York time and time again. I’ve peered into the nihilistic desperation of Christopher McCandless during the haunting final stretches of Into the Wild. So, it should mean something when I say that perhaps no film has ever presented as powerful an argument for the meaninglessness of life as Lars von Trier’s indie sci-fi drama, Melancholia, a highly flawed picture with moments of astonishing clarity and vision.

I should stop tweeting about the movies I review on Netflix before I write these reviews because I’ve already used up some of the jokes/insights I had into this film but beyond describing Melancholia as Life Is Meaningless: The Movie (Now Shut the Fuck Up About It), I also told a friend that I thought it could have been called Depression: The Movie. Melancholia has many things going for it, but highest of all, it is easily one of the most realistic portrayals of severe clinical depression that I’ve ever witnessed in a film. And the raw details of the hell of chemically induced clinical melancholia (one of two sources of the film’s title) is worth the two and half hour time investment alone.

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Broken into two parts (with each part named for one of the film’s two female leads), Melancholia is a peek into the lives of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The film begins with a surrealistic montage of slow-motion, seemingly disconnected images of the film’s cast as a large planet collides with Earth and destroys. And from there, we flash back a week prior to Justine’s wedding reception (to True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard) at the palatial mansion where Charlotte and her husband John (The Lost Boy‘s Kiefer Sutherland) live.

But, all is not well in the lives of this family. Justine is a self-destructive mess, suffering from severe melancholia and as her wedding reception begins, her brief period of respite is coming to a crashing, cataclysmic close with her mood disorder returning with a vengeance. Her husband is seemingly a good man, but with the presence of her controlling sister, her lecherous father, and her equally depressed mother, Justine has few pillars to rely on, and besides, her illness isn’t simply something that she can just will away.

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Compounding this family’s domestic problems is the present of a massive planet, Melancholia, that has been hiding in the sun’s shadow (Lars von Trier understands depression and family resentments; he doesn’t get astronomy or general physics) will be doing a perilously close fly-over into Earth’s orbit. Scientists and Claire’s husband are convinced the planet will simply fly past Earth and do no harm, but we no from the film’s opening sequence that isn’t the case, and the air of an impending apocalypse hangs over the film’s entire proceedings.

I don’t believe that there is any inherent, a priori meaning to life. I suppose I’m an existentialist of the Sartre bent and I believe that we create the meanings of our lives through the actions we take and the values we adhere to. And that is to say that I don’t believe life is without meaning or value. It just doesn’t exist alone in a state of nature. Lars von Trier clearly believes that life is a futile struggle full of nothing but suffering and pain and then suddenly, in a blink of an eye, all we’ve endured will mean nothing as we disappear into the nothingness of the ether.

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And while I may not agree with Mr. von Trier’s philosophical position, he presents it in stark and convincing terms. Von Trier stacks the deck by placing his story at the end of the world, but he isn’t so cheap as to make that the crux of the argument. Instead, he uses the apocalypse as a way to examine how we deal with the inevitable end of our own lives, particularly when we know the exact moment that it shall arrive. It’s easy to internalize our own mortality when it’s going to happen at some unknown juncture in the future in a way that we can not guess or control. It’s entirely different if we know the exact moment and context of our own demise.

And that raises questions in our mind. If I were to die tomorrow (and I have to drive back to Morgantown in terrible road conditions, so, hey, it’s a possibility), will my life have meant anything? I’ll be dead and I don’t believe in an afterlife so I thankfully wouldn’t have to wrestle with that question, but suddenly, everything I’ve ever been will have no meaning to me. There will be no me. And if, when we die, we cease to be what was the point? And if you argue, “the future of our species,” what’s the point if at some moment, humanity manages to wipe itself out (through nuclear war) or is itself wiped out (aliens/supernova/heat death of the universe)? When life itself ceases to be, what was the point of it ever being in the first place?

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And, Mr. von Trier’s aim is to show that life itself is a cruelty that humanity endures because the only other alternative, non-existence, is hard-wired into our genetics as being unpalatable even if its the far more merciful option. The films I mentioned in this review’s first paragraph dealt with nihilism without being nihilistic themselves (except maybe Happiness). Melancholia is the closest I’ve ever come to understand and agreeing with the basic tenets of nihilism as a philosophy. And, even on some level, I suspect I only disagree with Mr. von Trier because the only other option would be too unbearably sad.

Moving past the philosophical implications of the film (which are vast and will likely consume my thoughts for days to come), Melancholia succeeds on other fronts. It is an absolutely gorgeously shot film (which is ironic considering Lars von Trier’s status as the founder of the minimalistic Dogme ’95 school of filmmaking), and even though I thought the film’s surrealist opening montage was one of the film’s more glaring flaws, no one can deny how well it’s shot. When Melancholia begins to inch closer and closer to Earth, the film’s otherworldly lighting adds not only to the science fiction feel of the film, but it shines a more than metaphorical light on the truths Claire would like to escape.

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And Kirsten Dunst’s performance is a revelation. She’s become something of a running joke to me. Any time I want to bring up a terrible performance in an otherwise great film, I’ll talk about her in Spider-Man 2. In those films, Tobey Maguire’s mask was more expressive and emotional than her. But as Justine, there’s a fearless vulnerability and edge in Kirsten Dunst that I’ve never seen before in her career, and I doubt I’ll ever see again. Her usual air of “What’s happening right now” works great as Justine loses herself further and further in the pits of her crippling depression and alienates and infuriates everyone around her.

And Lars von Trier mainstay Charlotte Gainsbourg is even better as the beset Claire. At first, Claire seems to be the only person in her family that has it at all together. She runs Justine’s wedding even as Justine seems to be going to great lengths to ruin it. She puts up with her status-obsessed husband who may or may not have a sexual attraction to her sister. But, when existence itself crumbles around her, we quickly learn that Charlotte is even more lost and confused than her sister. At least Justine can face the reality of their situation. And Charlotte Gainsbourg does a marvelous job of portraying Claire as her carefully built world explodes in her face.

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Despite the brutal existential queries of the film’s second half, it was never as good or focused as the first part which takes place during Justine’s doomed wedding reception. The value of the examination of the destructive nature of Justine’s depression far outweighed the fiery call of nihilistic futility. And, it also doesn’t help that the film’s focus was (even in the superior first part) never particularly tight. There were too many excursions into aspects of character that while perhaps interesting, they weren’t interesting enough to justify their place in the story.

Melancholia isn’t for everyone. My dad considers it one of the worst films that he’s ever forced himself to sit through (though, had he read this review before he watched it, he might have known it wasn’t his cup of tea). Melancholia requires not only a dedication from the viewer to be willing to dive deep into the flaws and impulses of its female heroines but also an ability to not flinch away from the true horrors of the nature of life itself. If that sounds like an intellectually invigorating way to pass your time, then few films will challenge you the way that Melancholia intends to.

Final Score: B+

 

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Shane Carruth is a demanding filmmaker. Like David Simon, Charlie Kaufman, and David Lynch before him, Carruth refuses to hold audiences by the hand and offer simple solutions and recognizable tales. If you’re willing to devote the intellectual resources needed to comprehend one of his stories, Carruth rewards you with mind-bending science fiction unlike anything else out there. And, if you won’t…, well it’s clear that Carruth isn’t interested to catering to the Michael Bay audience. And, his total refusal to make anything other than the art he wants to make is what makes him such a special and valuable artist.

2004’s Primer took inaccessibility to new heights with its graduate-level physics technobabble, but if you pierced its thick veil, you were taken down a recursive rabbit-hole and got to engage in Olympian mental gymnastics. And, because of the intricately complex nature of Primer‘s plot, it’s become the very definition of a modern science fiction cult classic even if I bemoaned the film’s almost total lack of an emotional context. But, by taking a cue from a fellow Texan, Terrence Malick, Carruth has answered all of my complaints about his debut feature by revealing the marvelous Upstream Color, which is quite possibly the best science fiction film since Children of Men.

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I bring Terrence Malick up because, despite the labyrinthine nature of his plots, Shane Carruth is proving himself to be a master of minimalism. Going beyond the fact that Primer was shot for $7,000 and Upstream Color was rumored to be made for somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, Carruth is a master of stripping away the non-essentials of his storytelling. Although Primer got by on occasional expository speeches, Upstream Color is the closest thing to The Tree of Life in modern film-making to almost totally eschew exposition. The plot occurs, often not even on screen, and Carruth requires you to pay attention and put the missing pieces together yourself. And it is magnificent when that happens.

Much like Primer, much of the fun of Upstream Color will be trying to piece the plot together for yourself so I fear spending too much time discussing the story on the off-chance that I spoil something. But, even a cursory introduction of the plot should entice viewers to lose themselves in the mystery at the heart of this tale. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a young professional that finds her laugh destroyed when she is kidnapped and drugged by a thief. But her captor doesn’t have her under the sway of any ordinary drug. This drug, distilled from orchids and the worms in their soil, allows for the brainwashing and control of anyone in its thrall, and the Thief (Thiago Martins) steals every last penny of Kris’s savings.

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And when the Thief has taken all he can from Kris, he leaves her without a second thought, but her troubles are only now beginning. With no memory of what happened to her, Kris loses her job (for missing work for so long with no explanation), loses her home (the Thief took out equity against her house), and the life she’s known and loved, and she simply thinks she’s going crazy. And that’s when she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth). The two are immediately drawn to each other, and Jeff has gone through what neither of them can remember happening. And all the while, a mysterious man, the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), seems to be toying with his power over this pair.

And, that’s all I’ll say about the plot of Upstream Color except to add that just when you think you know what’s going to happen next, you’ll be shocked to discover just how wrong you are. Like Synecdoche, New York and Primer, it’s clear that Upstream Color will only grow in power with repeated viewings as the subtle implications you may have missed on your first go will suddenly make sense when you see them a second time. Carruth is a big fan of “Chekhov’s guns” and he has them laying all over the place. When it comes to tightly scripted stories that emphasize masterful foreshadowing, Carruth may only be bested by Robert Towne’s Chinatown.

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Minimalism isn’t the only area where Carruth is clearly inspired by Terrence Malick. Somewhere between 2004 and this year, Carruth learned a thing or two about cinematography, and Upstream Color is a stunningly gorgeous film to behold. There are numerous, lengthy swaths of the film where dialogue is at a minimum, and the story is conveyed through hauntingly beautiful shots and creative editing. Shane Carruth did virtually all of the major technical jobs in the film (directing, editing, writing, cinematography, music), and not for a second do you get the impression that he was stretched too thin.

My biggest complaint about Primer was that I had virtually no reason to care about its protagonists. While the puzzle aspect of the film was deliciously complex, I could never emotionally invest myself in the world of the film. And it’s a testament to the tightness of Carruth’s time-travel plot that it didn’t bother me more. Upstream Color obliterates that concern. Though Carruth isn’t capable of a Sunday Bloody Sunday-style of character depth, it’s not his goal, and through strong writing (and even stronger performances), I found myself enticed and enveloped by the trials of Kris and Jeff.

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If it wasn’t clear from all of the surprisingly accurate (despite the technobabble) engineering and physics at play in Primer, Shane Carruth loves science, and though Upstream Color may not seem as immediately high-concept and as directly sci-fi as Primer, it tackles an equally esoteric (but fascinating) field of science as Primer did with time travel. Without wanting to spoil too much, for anyone interested in quantum entanglement theory (but played from a psychological perspective rather than quantum physics) should find plenty to love in the nuts and bolts of Carruth’s story.

Science fiction this smart comes along so rarely that when a director with Carruth’s vision and intelligence comes along, he must be prized. Ten years is a long time to wait to follow up a beloved debut feature, but the wait was well worth it for Upstream Color is an undeniable science fiction masterpiece. Although I hope we won’t have to wait this long again for another Carruth picture, I suspect it will be years and dozens of viewings later before I’m finally able to piece together every part of the Upstream Color puzzle. And it’s a guarantee that at least the attempt will be made.

Final Score: A

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This review is going to be as much about the fundamental rules of storytelling as it is a traditional critique of Primer. So, if you aren’t interested in a metatextual examination of the limits of cinematic storytelling, you should skip this review. Also, it is beyond impossible to discuss the labyrinthine nature of this time-travel puzzle’s plot without engaging in what some would claim are spoilers and for that I apologize. Primer is the type of film that every fan of high-concept cinema should force themselves to watch. And though I didn’t walk away from this movie with the sort of rapturous adulation that its most ardent supporters bestow upon it, I understand that has as much to do with my structural beliefs regarding the nature of cinema as it does the quality of the movie itself. Taken on its own terms, Primer is a scientific jigsaw puzzle of the highest order; as an entertaining or enlightening viewing experience, it leaves a little more to be desired.

I’ve written four screenplays (haven’t sold any yet; haven’t really tried to yet either though); but I know that I will never in my entire life write a film that reaches the masterful complexity of Primer. I was always a shitty strategist in chess, and I’m just not that capable of thinking that far ahead. Most pieces of fiction are lucky if they include one well-placed Chekhov’s Gun (check the hyperlink if you are unfamiliar with the literary device). Primer is composed almost entirely of subtle and easily-missed foreshadowing. There is so little “fat” in this film that beyond the budget requirements of the film (the movie was made for around $7,000 with most of the money being spent on film stock), the movie’s 77 minute running time could be as much a commentary on reducing storytelling to its essentials as it is an act of frugality.

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However, what qualifies as the bare essentials of Primer could fill up the essentials of around a dozen other films. Calling Primer dense would be like calling the Pacific Ocean damp. I proposed this to an engineer friend of mine and he concurred with my sentiment so I feel comfortable stating it here. Primer is like porn for engineers and practical scientists. Though the basic concept of time-travel used is silly and technobabble to some extent, the scientific and mathematic language used in the film is rooted in actuality. And, thus, if like me you don’t have a Master’s in one of the physical sciences, engineering, or math, Primer can be an impossible cliff to climb. Thankfully, my best friend (a, for lack of a better word, genius and modern renaissance man) was present while we watched the film and he helped to keep me up to speed about what the characters were talking about. Primer exceeds even The Wire in its expectation that an audience will be able to follow its plot without any artificial exposition.

And therein lies the rub of the film. On the one hand, I praise Primer as an intellectual brain-teaser of the highest order. It is so smart and detailed and expertly complex that it is without question that I will watch this film at least half a dozen more times in the next year or two trying to suss out its secrets. It’s the type of movie that I’ll have to watch with explanatory charts open so that I can keep of the various timelines and iterations of the plot. But, and this is incredibly important, once you solve the puzzle of the film, I worry that Primer has little else to speak for it (besides an exceptional use of a tiny budget). Multiple viewings will help me understand the byzantine structure of the film’s narrative. But will it ever make me care about its characters? Will I ever find an actual emotional arc worth investing in? Based on my viewing of the film and a subsequent obsessive consumption of synopses of the film’s plot, I think not.

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It is a testament to the outlandish, almost Lynchean complexity of the film (more on why I prefer a Lynch-style puzzle later) that I haven’t even actually touched on the plot of the film yet, the idea that I needed that sort of preface to any sort of analysis of this film. Four friends run a small-scale lab out of the garage of Aaron (Shane Carruth) as a way to make money on the side apart from their boring day jobs as engineers. But a schism over the direction of their entrepreneurial activities causes a schism in the group, and without informing the others, Aaron and Abe (David Sullivan) begin work on their own invention, a room-temperature super-conductor. But, without realizing it, the pair have also invented a machine whose contents are shuttled back and forth through time roughly 1300 times. And that’s not the complicated part of the film.

After realizing the potential of their machine (which goes beyond their original hope to create a cheap, more efficient energy source), Aaron and Abe decide to create a larger version of their machine, which they now call the box, which would be able to fit a person inside of it. And, thus they invent man-made time travel, but with serious limitations. The box can only send someone back to the time that the machine is turned on so in order to travel six hours in time, you have to turn the machine on, wait six hours, and then, you must wait six hours in the box to go backwards in time. They use this extra six hours of causal influence on the universe to try and influence minor events like the stock market and sports betting, but when their careful attempts to cause as little change as possible proves more than they can handle, the plot of Primer spirals outward to near insanity as multiple iterations of the same timeline show the continued change Abe and Aaron’s interference is wrecking on the time stream.

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If that sounds complex, that’s the dumbed down version of the plot. If you’ve seen the film, you’re probably familiar with graphs like this which attempt to explain the looping/spiraling plot of the film. Based on what I’ve read of these charts, Shane Carruth’s plotting is masterful to an insane, Chinatown-esque degree. In fact, I imagine Robert Towne would have to bow down to the attention to continuity and detail that Shane Carruth displayed in literally every second of Primer. And, if Primer is meant as a commentary on what would have to be the inherently insane details of time travel and messing with causality, then the film is an unqualified success. The viewer is as lost in the woods as the heroes of the piece. But I still fret that the puzzle is all Primer has to offer.

Once you’ve conquered the puzzle of Primer (and if you’ve done that without the help of graphs and charts and internet forums, congratulations; you’re a genius), is there anything left to comeback to? Great storytelling rewards repeat viewings even after you’ve “mastered” the film. There is nothing left in Annie Hall for me to notice, but the emotional power of the film grows with each viewing as I mature and come to appreciate the adult romance of it or Manhattan. Clearly, getting in lost in the seemingly countless little details that Carruth has hidden throughout the film is a pleasure in its own right. But that’s pure plotting. Great storytelling is a combination of great characters and great plotting. I feel fairly safe in saying that Primer leans entirely to the latter side of that equation. For when you find all the details, I worry the film leaves you with no new resonances.

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I’m going to cut this review short because I watched two films with my best friend last night. We watched this and (500) Days of Summer, and I need to review both. Though I am coming off as especially critical of the lack of an actual substantive core of the film, I hope that isn’t read as a critique of the value of Primer. Shane Carruth accomplished exactly what he wanted to. He made a mad, brain-stretching puzzle that will be confounding new and old audiences for decades to come. My desire for more character and for more emotional context to the actions of the heroes is a comment on what I want in a film, not necessarily what makes a film good. As long as you have an IQ of around 120 or so, you owe it to yourself to watch Primer. If you’re anything like me, you’ll lose sleep trying to unravel its secrets.

Final Score: B+