[I saw this film a couple years ago, but never posted a review. I will do so now, for no particular reason. 🙂 ]
I don’t feel fully qualified to review this film, because it’s in Hebrew, which I don’t speak. So I can’t comment on the actors’ delivery of their lines, or even on the script, since I’m basing it off of English subtitles that may not reflect the full meaning.
Even more significantly, Hebrew etymology itself is an important concept in the film, and I can’t be sure to what extent I grasped the word play that goes on. At one point, the narrator alludes to the fact that the Hebrew word for childlessness is related to the word for darkness, which is related to the word for forgetting. This leads me to suspect the title has more meaning in the original. (The film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Israeli author Amos Oz, from which this passage is adapted.)
All that said, I’m going to do my best to review what I can, and let you know when I think my opinions might be colored by my ignorance of the language.
The film is told from the perspective of the young Amos Oz (Amir Tessler) and chronicles his experience growing up in what was then British Mandatory Palestine, which over the course of the film is partitioned by a U.N. Resolution and then falls into civil war.
This political element is mostly shown through glimpses and murmurs in the background, since Amos is a young child, and what he perceives first and foremost are incidents in his own family. His father Arieh (Gilad Kanana) and mother Fania (Natalie Portman, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay) are his main influences. Both are well-educated and, in their own ways, teach him about language and storytelling. His father, a scholarly and bookish man, frequently lectures him about Hebrew words and their interrelated meanings.
Fania is a more romantic type than her husband, and early sequences show her fantasies as a girl growing up in Europe. envisioning Israel as the “land of milk and honey”, to be settled by heroic pioneers. In keeping with her imaginative nature, she tells young Amos stories—some fanciful and fairytale-like, others more depressing and realistic, such as the story from her childhood of a Polish army officer who committed suicide as she watched.
Amos also overhears things he shouldn’t—such as Fania’s mother berating her, causing the younger woman to slap her own face in shame, or Fania telling another grim tale of her youth in Europe: a woman who committed suicide by locking herself in a shed and setting it on fire.
The film shows these scenes, as imagined by young Amos, and you can’t help feeling these aren’t healthy for a child to hear. At the same time, even if you didn’t realize that Oz grows up to be a writer, it becomes very clear in watching the film that this is his calling—everything in his upbringing leads him towards it.
Gradually, as the film wears on and political upheaval takes its toll, Fania begins to succumb to depression. It’s a grim decline, as we see her slowly wasting away, but the film does a good job capturing the pain and frustration seeing a loved one with a mental health disorder brings upon a family. (Even more heart-wrenching is the fact that the doctors prescribe sleeping pills and other depressants—at the time, proper treatment for such disorders was not widely available.)
Fania goes away to her sisters’ home in Tel Aviv, and there overdoses on sleeping pills. In the closing moments of the film, we see Amos as a young man, meeting with his father at a kibbutz. Finally, we see an elderly Amos writing the word “mother” in Hebrew.
The overall film is haunting and evocative, with a gorgeous soundtrack by Nicholas Britell that captures the gloomy mood of Jerusalem, which Oz at one point likens to a black widow.
I did have some issues with the cinematography. It has that washed-out gray/green palette that is way, way overused in films these days—especially those set in the past. I would have preferred to see it in the normal range of colors.
However, while this was a drawback, I did think it very successfully communicated one thing about Jerusalem: its age. Throughout the film, but especially in the shots of the winding, narrow streets that Amos and his family traverse through the city, I could practically feel the weight of all the accumulated history of this ancient place. The film conveyed the mystical power of its setting, and gave a sense of why it is so important to so many.
Again, I don’t want to comment too much on the acting, since I was reading subtitles rather than listening to the speech, but it seemed very good indeed. Tessler is the standout—he had to carry the immense burden of seeming wise beyond his years while still behaving like a normal child, rather than The Boy Who Is Destined To Become A Famous Writer. And he manages it splendidly from what I can tell.
Small moments, like the sequence in which Arieh is celebrating that all five copies of his new book have been purchased, and Amos later sees all five, still in their wrapping paper, at the house of an author Arieh knows (either a friend or relative; I couldn’t tell which), are what stick in my mind. The man simply closes the shelf lid over the books and gives Amos a look that says “we will not speak of this”, without uttering a word.
I went to this film expecting it to be a downer—I knew that it ended with Fania falling into depression and ultimately committing suicide—and for a large part of the second half, it did feel excruciatingly bleak. Watching someone sit silently in the dark, overcome with psychological torment, while her family members suffer in impotent grief, while perhaps true to life, is not a pleasant cinematic experience, and that’s how the film trends for some time. I was ready to write it off as an interesting picture that drowns in mental anguish in the second half.
And then something amazing happened.
I want to write about it, because I haven’t seen many others address it—but I also hate to spoil it. So I’ll make a deal with you: if you haven’t seen the movie, but think you might want to, stop reading now and watch it. Pay particular attention to the scenes of Fania’s stories—the drowning woman, the woman in the shed, the Polish officer. Then come back and read the rest of this. If you’ve already seen it, or just don’t care to but read this far and want to know it all, read on.
What a crazy idea, to make a comedy about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But there is something about the absurdity of the overly-bureaucratized communist mass-murder machine that lends itself to dark humor—the petty logistical concerns and office politics familiar to white-collar workers everywhere, combined with the matters of life and death that concern a government, particularly a totalitarian one.
The film definitely plays this weird juxtaposition to the hilt right from the opening scene, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the manager of a concert broadcast live over the radio to demand a recording of it. When the manager learns there is no recording, he frantically tries to reassemble the orchestra to perform it again. The piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) initially refuses, but ultimately gives in when bribed. After the performance is finished, she places an insulting note to the dictator inside the record sleeve.
Intercut with this are scenes of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of Stalin’s secret police, dispatching his men to seize people from their homes and torture them in secret prisons. Beria holds immense power in the government, and when Stalin dies—on reading the note Maria has written—Beria is the first into his office, hastily removing important documents before other members of the Central Committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), arrive.
They are reluctant to pronounce him dead, and even the doctors hastily assembled to examine him are hesitant to give their assessment. When they finally do, the Committee proceeds with Georgy Malenkov nominally in charge, but with all of the Committee members, Khrushchev and Beria in particular, jockeying for power.
Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), arrive for their father’s funeral. Vasily repeatedly launches into drunken rages, attacks guards and makes wild threats. Beria keeps Khrushchev busy dealing with these matters while he moves to consolidate his power by putting the city under the control of the secret police, increases his popularity by pausing arrests, and seizes control of the train system, preventing people from entering the city.
Beria also reveals that he has the note that Maria wrote to Stalin. She is an acquaintance of Khrushchev’s, and Beria uses this to threaten Khrushchev, implying that he will use the note to incriminate both of them should Khrushchev try to cross him.
In frustration, Khrushchev orders that trains to Moscow resume running, causing people to enter the city and be shot by Beria’s secret police. The Committee argues over whether Beria or his lower-level officers should be blamed for this.
Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives in Moscow, annoyed to find his army confined to barracks. Khrushchev secretly strikes a deal with Zhukov to help him remove Beria from power during Stalin’s funeral. Zhukov agrees, on the condition that Khrushchev has the support of the entire Committee, which Krushchev manages to secure by bluffing that he has Malenkov’s backing.
At a Committee meeting after the funeral, Khrushchev signals Zhukov and his men to storm the room and arrest Beria. After much badgering from Khrushchev, Malenkov reluctantly signs off on the summary trial and execution of Beria.
The film ends with Khrushchev watching Maria play at a concert while Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) looks ominously over his shoulder.
It’s an odd movie, with scenes of slapstick comedy (the Committee members awkwardly transporting Stalin’s body from the floor to his bed) mixed with more subtle satire, as in the sequences depicting Committee meetings, and one unforgettable scene in which Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are speaking contemptuously of Molotov’s presumed-dead wife Polina, who was arrested as a traitor to the Party, only to change their tone mid-sentence to singing her praises as Beria appears with her in tow, having released her from prison to secure Molotov’s loyalty.
The humor throughout is very, very dark: for example, there is a running gag in the scenes in the secret police prisons where we repeatedly hear prisoners off-screen exclaiming “Long Live Comrade Stalin!” followed by a gunshot.
But in addition to the sometimes over-the-top satire, the plot is that of a very tight and coherent political thriller, as Khrushchev and Beria joust for power. I went in expecting it to paint all the Soviet elites as villains in equal measure—and they certainly all do some nasty things—but in my opinion the film pretty firmly sides with Khrushchev as the hero and Beria as the villain. The former is depicted as vulgar and a bit corrupt, but reasonably well-meaning. (He reminded me, in both looks and manner, of a Don Rickles character.) It’s impossible not to root for him over Beria, who, besides all his other crimes as head of the secret police, is a sexual predator of the most evil sort. It is altogether fitting and satisfying that the most graphically violent death in the film is Beria’s execution.
As you might expect, the film is very controversial, and was banned in Russia and former Soviet States. A member of the Russian Culture Ministry stated: “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.”
I can’t speak to the hymn, the orders, or the medals, but I will say that while Zhukov is certainly a caricature (he’s played by Jason Isaacs, whose hammy acting works much better here than in Harry Potter), for me, he was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, after Khrushchev and Maria.
I would like to see a historian specializing in Soviet history do a thorough examination of what is and isn’t accurate in this movie. This article mentions some inaccuracies—notably, that Beria’s downfall was more protracted than the hasty arrest and execution depicted in the film. But that’s the sort of change that can be excused for the sake of the drama. I don’t know much about the Soviet Union post-World War II, but on cursory scanning of Wikipedia entries about the people and events depicted, I was surprised (and quite often disturbed) to learn how much of it was accurate.
Of course, the mark of a really good work of historical fiction is that it’s not just about the time period depicted, but that it contains observations about human nature that are relevant to the present-day. This is why, for example, the historical dramas of Shakespeare are still read and performed today.
So does The Death of Stalin contain any interesting lessons beneath the caricatures of historical enemies of Western capitalism and farcical depictions of Soviet state ceremonies? It’s hard to say. Maybe there is something about the dehumanizing effect that power has upon both those who wield it and those upon whom they exercise it. But that has been pretty well picked-over by people like George Orwell. The absurdity of bureaucrats administering lethal force? Joseph Heller covered that. So I’m not sure this picture brings anything new to the table in that regard.
Would I recommend seeing it? I don’t know. If you’re a Soviet history buff, it might be interesting to see what they got right and what they got wrong. If you like your comedy extremely black, then it might be worth a watch. But if you prefer uplifting cinema, or if you don’t like violence, or if you are offended by swearing, or–above all else– if one of your relatives worked for the Soviet Secret Police, then you should probably skip it.
Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.
This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.
This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1
Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.
What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.
Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:
“1984” by George Orwell
“Knights of the Old Republic II” (2004)
“Jane Got A Gun” (2016)
“Eating Bull” by Carrie Rubin
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
Nineteen Eighty-Fourby George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
Eating Bullby Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)
KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.
Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.
I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.
Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3
But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.
To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.
I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.
It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)
The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.
This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.
My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.
WARNING: I AM GOING TO SPOIL THE WHOLE MOVIE. DON’T READ THIS IF YOU WANT TO BE SURPRISED.
Annihilation tells the story of a biologist exploring a mysterious region called “Area X”, where the fallout from a meteor strike has enveloped the landscape. In the film’s first scene, we see the biologist (unnamed in the novel on which the film is based, but here called Lena and portrayed by Natalie Portman) being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, whose questions she can answer only vaguely, or not at all.
The film then flashes back to a meteor crashing into a lighthouse, and then forward again to a scene of the biologist giving a lecture in her class at Johns Hopkins. (It seemed hard to believe she would have been giving a lecture on the basics of cells to pre-med students, but whatever.) After class, she meets a fellow faculty member named Dan, who invites her to his house for a party. She refuses, as she is still mourning the loss of her husband, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac, and yes, apparently Kane is his only name)—a soldier missing and presumed killed in action. She stays home and paints their former bedroom, thinking of happier times.
Then her husband suddenly appears. She’s overjoyed to see him, but it soon becomes clear he is not well, and has no memory of what his mission was or how he got back. He begins to bleed from the mouth, and Lena calls an ambulance. En route to the hospital, they are intercepted by a SWAT team that drugs Lena and forcibly removes her husband from the ambulance.
She awakens in a holding cell where she is interrogated by a psychologist called Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually reveals that they are in a research station just outside of Area X—where Kane was deployed. He is dying, and Lena realizes the only way to find out what happened to him is to join the team of researchers about to deploy into the mysterious Aurora-like substance called “The Shimmer” that covers Area X.
The team consists of physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and medic Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). They are led by Dr. Ventress. Ventress throughout seems cold and distant, and in early scenes has her hood pulled over her eyes like she’s Darth Sidious or something. She also sounds almost bored when describing to Lena how Area X will slowly grow until it consumes the entire planet. Leigh is a fine actress, so I’m assuming the director told her to deliver her lines in this awkward way.
After entering the Shimmer, Lena and her team awaken after a few days with no memory of how they reached the part of the jungle they are in, or of setting up their camp. Moreover, they discover that none of their communications equipment works, while Ventress lurks ominously at the edge of the camp, saying dismissively “Did anyone really expect our equipment to work?”
In other words, Ventress is pretty much the worst leader imaginable, and gives them every reason to distrust her.
The team makes their way into the jungle, trying to find the coast and the lighthouse that lies at the epicenter of the strange phenomena. At one point, they find an abandoned boathouse where they are attacked by a huge albino alligator.
This scene really annoyed me, because when the creature attacks Radek and pulls her into the water, Lena immediately runs in after her, dropping her rifle. And then Sheppard and Thorensen follow suit.
Lena is supposed to have been in the army! I find it hard to believe she would just throw down her gun and blindly jump into the water. The fact that the others would do the same, leaving no one to cover them, is just inexcusable.
Miraculously, they rescue Radek, and then–despite inexplicably letting the gator get too close before firing on it–kill it and examine its corpse, discovering it is mutated, with teeth like a shark.
As they move deeper into Area X, they discover an abandoned army base where they find a video memory card left behind by the previous team–including Kane. On playing the card, they see a disturbing scene of Kane cutting one of his comrade’s stomach open to reveal his intestines writhing like a living creature. Later on, they find the remains of this unfortunate man, with strange vine-like structures radiating out from his skeleton and covering the walls.
Unable to sleep after studying the strange behavior of the cell samples, Lena joins Ventress taking the night watch. Ventress tells her that, in light of the disturbing footage, it’s a good thing that Lena didn’t tell the other team members that Kane was her husband. Ventress’s musings on the human urge for self-destruction are interrupted when a monster breaks through the perimeter and drags Sheppard into the night. Lena finds her remains the next day
After this, Thorensen grows (rather abruptly, I thought) distrustful of the other members of the team. She comes to suspect that Lena murdered Sheppard.
Now might be a good time to mention that all of this has been interspersed with flashbacks to Lena and Kane’s marriage as she thinks back on their relationship. First, she recalls their happiness together, but gradually, her thoughts turn to his deployment–and her infidelity with Dan during his absence.
She wakes from a dream of one such memory to see Thorensen holding a gun on her. In her escalating paranoia, Thorensen has found a locket of Lena’s with Kane’s picture in it, and realized he was her husband. She is now convinced that Lena, possibly working with Ventress, killed Sheppard, and ties both of them up, as well as Radek. She seems on the verge of slicing them open when the monster that killed Sheppard appears and kills her. (Eerily, the sinister beast growls in Sheppard’s voice.) Radek gets free and kills the monster, saving Lena and Ventress.
Ventress decides to press on, heading alone for the lighthouse. Lena and Radek remain behind in the ruins of suburb overrun by strange vegetation and trees that resemble human beings. Radek wanders off, apparently deciding to become one with Area X, leaving Lena to find her way to the lighthouse alone.
The lighthouse scenes were some of the best in the film–it’s a tower surrounded by human skeletons and strange glittering trees; a perfectly creepy set. Inside, Lena discovers a camera (which mysteriously still has power after all this time) that contains a recording of Kane giving a chilling speech that ends in instructions to “find Lena”. He then commits suicide with a phosphorous grenade, after which a doppelganger of him steps into the frame.
Lena enters a small hole in the lighthouse floor, leading to a strange catacomb structure where she finds the psychologist, who says some threatening stuff and then explodes into a dazzling display of light and strange alien forms.
I know a lot of reviews talk about how weird and trippy this scene is, but honestly, it was not nearly as weird as it is in VanderMeer’s book:
“Not a wall of light–gold, blue, green, existing in some other spectrum–but a wall of flesh that resembled light, with sharp, curving elements within it, an textures like ice when it has frozen from flowing water. An impression of living things lazily floating in the air around it…”
Weird lights as shorthand for the Great Unknowable Cosmos is a pretty common science fiction idea. I thought of this line from Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann:
“I saw… only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.”
I even fancied I heard the demonic pipings of some nameless flute on the soundtrack, another Lovecraft standard.
After the light show ends, Lena is confronted by a strange creature that resembles a person in an oddly-colored full-body suit. (Honestly, you could be forgiven for thinking the special effects department gave up and said “Just send the stunt person in their mo-cap garb.”)
This creature fights Lena, prevents her from escaping the lighthouse, and mimics her every move. It’s a mesmerizing and well-choreographed dance-fight, although I couldn’t help thinking of this classic Marx Brothers routine.
The creature gradually starts to take on Lena’s physical features, creating another doppelganger. Lena–at least, I think it’s the “real” Lena–takes a phosphorous grenade from Kane’s pack and thrusts it into the creature’s hands. It explodes and Lena escapes as the creature and the lighthouse are engulfed in flames.
Flash forward to the interrogation chamber, where the man in the hazmat suit reveals that The Shimmer disappeared after the lighthouse was destroyed, and that Lena’s husband–or, the person who looks like her husband–has recovered. She asks to see him, and a flicker of The Shimmer is seen in their eyes as they embrace and the credits roll.
For all the talk of Annihilation‘s many influences–Apocalypse Now, Alien, 2001, everything Lovecraftian–it reminded me most of the video game Spec Ops: The Line. The scene of Lena gazing back at the flaming tower reminded me of a similar surreal shot in Spec Ops, and both game and film are driven by an ever-increasing uncertainty as to what is real amid mounting death and destruction. (Also, minor note, but Spec Ops was the first time I ever heard of white phosphorous.)
Annihilation is a solid sci-fi thriller. Portman and Isaac’s performances are the standouts, but everyone is good–in later scenes, Leigh makes up for her early flat line readings about the end of the world. There are a few truly disturbing scenes, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The special effects occasionally look cheesy, but for the most part they were decent. The soundtrack is a little weird. A strangely soothing stringed instrument crops up at ill-timed moments, but it wasn’t a major problem.
The script is likewise solid: the love scenes, Kane’s final message, and the very last line are the best parts, and there are only a few pieces of clunky exposition, including Lena’s opening speech to her class.
If you like science-fiction, horror, and especially weird fiction of the cosmic variety, this one’s for you.
And that’s my review. What are you waiting around for? Go on, shoo! Go watch the nice movie. There’s nothing to see below the page break, I promise.
I’ll skip my usual plot-point-by-plot-point synopsis for this one–I think most readers are already familiar with World War II. Darkest Hour chronicles Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) first days as Prime Minister in May 1940. Hitler’s armies are advancing through France and closing in on British forces at Dunkirk.
The film depicts Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Churchill’s predecessor as Prime Minister, and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) attempting to force Churchill to negotiate with Hitler. Churchill argues with them repeatedly, as the Nazis draw ever closer to Dunkirk, and the news grows more bleak by the day,
Churchill is on the point of giving in to the calls for negotiations when he makes a spontaneous (and apparently completely invented for the sake of the film) visit to the London Underground, where all the passengers he talks to are strongly in favor of fighting to the bitter end–bricklayers, new mothers, and children all are fiercely opposed to the idea of negotiating.
This is a major over-simplification of how public opinion works. I understand the scene was intended to convey that Churchill was in tune with the spirit of the people, but it just seemed ham-handed and unbelievable, which raises the question of why they bothered to invent the scene at all. Why make something up just to have it be the weakest part of the drama?
His faith in the British fighting spirit restored, Churchill makes his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to Parliament. The evacuation of Dunkirk he ordered is a success, and the film ends with Churchill receiving overwhelming applause for his resolve.
The plot may be a bit thin, and of course, like all historical dramas, is hampered by the fact that we know what’s going to happen, but the performances of the major roles are all quite solid. Oldman does a terrific job, portraying Churchill as a flawed, temperamental man, capable of brilliant oratory as well as moments of confusion and depression. Kristin Scott Thomas is also very good as Churchill’s wife Clementine, although it seemed at times like the writer and/or director didn’t know what to do with her.
The big problems with the film were immersion-breaking things like the scene in the Underground, or another scene where they are playing a film reel to brief the Prime Minister, and the images displayed are fairly obviously what you get if you ask for “stock footage of Nazis”. (Why would Churchill, at a briefing about Dunkirk, need to see footage of Hitler giving a speech?)
Also, the cinematographer applied that grayish blue washed-out color filter that apparently everything set in England is supposed to have these days. This is far from the only movie to do this, so I don’t mean to single it out, but this desaturation business is getting tiresome. Can’t we just have normal colors?
Still, this is one of those movies that hinges on the performances, and those are certainly good enough to make it enjoyable.
This movie is based on a French sci-fi comic series called Valerian and Laureline. I’m not sure why they didn’t just call the movie that, because Laureline (Cara Delevingne) gets at least equal screen time with Valerian (Dane DeHaan).
The film begins by showing the aforementioned “City of a Thousand Planets”–a massive space station where millions of species, including humanity, all coexist. This is followed by a lengthy sequence of primitive, peace-loving aliens frolicking on a beach and collecting pearls, only to be interrupted by missiles and burning spaceships falling from the sky. A few of them manage to seek shelter in a crashed ship, but the alien Emperor’s daughter doesn’t make it, and he watches in horror as she perishes in the fiery destruction of the planet.
Agent Valerian wakes up suddenly, having apparently just dreamt the apocalyptic scene. He and his partner (in both the romantic and professional senses) Laureline are assigned to retrieve a “Mül converter”–a small alien creature which Valerian saw on the doomed planet of his vision.
After much bickering and flirtatious banter, Valerian and Laureline arrive at a trans-dimensional market where a deal for the converter is being done. Along with a team of soldiers who looked like they were auditioning to be in a Borderlandsmovie, they get the converter and escape from the gangster who was selling it.
As they examine the creature, they learn that the planet Mül was destroyed 30 years before, although the details of this are classified. Mysteries!
On returning to the City of a Thousand Planets, Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) informs them of dangerous radiation growing within the station. The Commander is attending a summit of the species on the station to discuss the threat, but is kidnapped by aliens similar to the ones Valerian saw in his vision.
Valerian gives chase, but falls into the supposedly deadly radioactive area himself. Laureline eventually manages to track him down through performing what I can only describe as “fetch quests” that are too complicated to explain here. She eventually finds Valerian, but is then captured herself by another type of alien, which then forces Valerian to rescue her, which is another fetch quest that involves watching a shape-shifting alien named Bubble (Rihanna) perform a pole-dance.
As Dave Barry would say, I swear I’m not making this up. But it might not be as bad as I’m making it sound.
Anyway, they eventually get back on track and manage to find their way to the center of the station, which turns out to be not irradiated at all. They meet the aliens who kidnapped the Commander Filitt , who explain that their world was destroyed when Filitt fired powerful missiles at an enemy ship, annihilating both the planet and the enemy fleet. He then classified the data to cover up his war crime.
The Emperor also tells them that his daughter’s spirit has been reincarnated in Valerian, which is why he received visions guiding him to this point, where the few survivors of the attack were taken in the remains of a damaged ship, and have since been working to build a new vessel that can recreate their homeworld. All they need is the Mül converter and a pearl–both of which Valerian and Laureline provide.
The kidnapped Commander–who has been unconscious to this point–awakens and Valerian and Laureline confront him for his crimes. Unrepentant, he defends his action as necessary for humanity and orders his personal robot guards–who, along with the rest of the military, have surrounded the alien ship–to attack and kill everyone.
Valerian and Laureline fight off the robots, and escape along with the remaining aliens. The Commander is left behind for the military authorities on the station to arrest. The Mül aliens part ways with Valerian and Laureline, leaving them to enjoy a romantic interlude while await rescue as the credits roll.
It’s a goofy, weird, often campy, but still fairly entertaining movie. Even if I hadn’t known it was based on a comic book, I probably would have guessed it–everything about it feels like a comic book, from the action scenes to the art style.
About that art style: there are tons of CGI shots in this movie. Sets, characters, backgrounds–huge swaths of it are digitally created. And it’s kind of obvious. In all but the most distant scenes, the graphics are, in my opinion, pretty fake-looking. There were some scenes that looked like Playstation 2 games.
If you’re a fan of high-quality graphics, this may be disappointing. But since the whole story felt like a whimsical comic book adventure anyway, I was able to write that off as just part of the style. Comic books are know for bold colors and fantastic scenery; not photo-realism, so I could live with it.
The acting from the two leads was nothing special, but it was mostly passable. A few of the bit parts (especially Alain Chabat, who plays a submarine pirate named Bob) are pretty well done, although they don’t get much screen time.
One final note for weirdos like me who are fascinated by movie weaponry: the mixture of guns in this film was very strange. Some of the soldiers seemed to have plain old AR-style rifles, like present-day Earth armies use:
But other times, the weapons were a bit more bizarre:
(And yes, that thing Laureline has is a weapon, even though it looks like a bottle of water.)
I’m not sure why this was or if it was even a deliberate choice, but I found it odd. It instantly surpassed the question of why people are always getting knives in Ghost in the Shell as the big movie weapons mystery of 2017 for me.
Anyway, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is far from a great movie. It may not even be a good one. It’s simultaneously very weird and extremely predictable, which is kind of amazing in its way. But as a light bit of silly science-fantasy fun, it gets the job done. It’s more fun to watch something weird with a little new flavor than to just watch yet another installment in an established franchise.
The movie’s title is misleading. The term “runner” is way too fast-paced for this 2.75 hour science fiction slog. It’s much more of a “Blade Walker” or even a “Blade Crawler”. Scenes drag on, and the camera lingers on things like trees, ruined cityscapes, and statues of naked women long after the viewer has gotten the idea.
The film follows officer K (Ryan Gosling), an LAPD officer in the year 2049. His job is to “retire” (that is, kill) obsolete replicants–synthetic humans created by the Wallace corporation. The older models, leftovers from the Tyrell corporation, which Niander Wallace purchased, have no built-in expiration date, unlike the newer versions–which is what K himself is.
In the opening sequence, K retires a rebellious replicant farmer, after getting into a ridiculous fistfight with him. The director and choreographer really should learn that people can’t get punched in the face repeatedly and then thrown through a wall and just walk it off. (There’s an even more egregious example later.) Also, the whole fight happened because K inexplicably set his gun aside. Very odd.
Anyway, after K kills the replicant, he finds a box buried in the yard outside his house, beside a lone dead tree. This allows for some nice shots of K standing around in his coat, looking contemplative and brooding. Get used to this.
K then goes home to his apartment, to install some upgrades on Joi (Ana de Armas), his holographic companion, who he apparently has set on “sexy over-solicitous housewife” mode. She makes him an artificial dinner, instantly switches her appearance from among a variety of revealing outfits, suggests various things they can do for fun, and in general behaves like a parody of what 13-year-old boys imagine a girlfriend is like. It’s cringe-worthy.
The new upgrade allows Joi to accompany him outside–so now, rather than just being his sexy overeager housewife, she can be his sexy, overeager constant companion. They are celebrating this by pretending to kiss while frolicking in the rain when they are interrupted by a call from K’s boss, Lt. Joshi. (Robin Wright) She tells him to come to the police station, where they are examining the contents of the box he discovered–the skeleton of a female replicant that died in childbirth.
I was really annoyed by this scene. Basically, it was the standard police procedural trope of “the forensic lab”–except it was Officer K who spotted all the key clues! He kept telling the forensic analyst to zoom in on stuff, and figuring out what had happened to the remains himself. It seemed hard to believe that he, an average replicant rent-a-cop, would pick up on clues the forensics person missed.
At any rate, this is an alarming discovery, as replicants are not supposed to be able to reproduce, and they fear that the discovery of one who did will lead to a replicant rebellion. Joshi orders K to destroy all evidence of this replicant and her child.
This leads K to the Wallace Corporation headquarters–a strange, extremely orange building that reminded me of some of the sets from The Mummy, except with shimmering water shadows on the wall for some reason.
The corporation seems to consist of just two people: Niander Wallace (Jared Leto)–a strange, monk-like character who speaks in nonsense sentences that are possibly supposed to make him sound smart, but in fact make him a comically obtuse guru–and his replicant secretary, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a femme fatale. It reminds me of a story I heard once about a company that employed only a lawyer and a secretary–their only job was to sue any companies who infringed on their corporation’s patents.
I frankly don’t know how the Wallace Corporation stays in business, with only two employees and a product line that exists solely to destroy other parts of the product line. Well, I guess there’s also a third product line designed to provide female companionship to the main product line.
I’ve heard of niche markets, but this is ridiculous.
Anyway, Officer K finds out from Luv that the bones are the remains of a replicant named Rachael, and hears some recordings showing she was once involved with another LAPD cop, Rick Deckard, the protagonist of the original Blade Runner movie. (That last part wasn’t included in the script, though I half-expected it would be, since this movie insists on spelling things out for the audience.)
At some point around here, K leaves the Wallace Corp. headquarters and gets approached by a prostitute, who has been sent to spy on him by a mysterious woman. It doesn’t mean anything at the time, but it will be important later on, so file that away. Also ponder this: why are there always so many prostitutes in these sci-fi and fantasy worlds? Seriously, it feels like one-third of every fictional economy is hooker-based.
Luv is sent by Wallace to destroy the bones and to follow K as he searches for Rachael’s child. The former she does with incredible ease, considering it means murdering the forensics expert in the middle of the police station.
Meanwhile, K is telling a (somewhat tipsy) Lt. Joshi about his childhood memories. They aren’t, of course, real childhood memories–he’s a replicant, after all, but he has implanted memories. He tells Joshi about one of the most vivid–a story in which he is hiding a small wooden toy horse from some other children. We flashback to scenes of him being pursued through a dark industrial maze, and carefully securing the toy in some shelves.
This scene–not the flashback itself, but the scene where K recounts it to Joshi–was one of the best in the film. Wright was terrific as the foul-mouthed and heavy-drinking but warmhearted Lieutenant. In this scene, she’s almost flirtatious, and has far better chemistry with Gosling than his holographic love interest ever does. It’s a pity she doesn’t have a larger role.
K returns to the scene where he first found the box of remains, and finds a date carved on the dead tree beside the grave–6/10/21, which was also carved on the toy horse he remembers from his childhood. He begins to suspect (bolstered by Joi’s reassurances) that he is Rachael’s child. He checks the birth records and learns that two children were born on that date with identical DNA–a boy and a girl. The girl died, but the boy was sent to an orphanage.
This was another scene that annoyed me. As they are looking at the strings of DNA, the various combinations of “G” “T” “C” and “A” are displayed and Joi comments that these four elements make up human beings’ “code”, whereas she only has two elements to hers. I liked this line, but I didn’t like that she then had to spell it out: “1 and 0”, she says, for the benefit of everyone who doesn’t know what binary code is. I suppose there are such people, but I doubt any of them would go to see this movie.
K (along with Joi, for no reason I can discern) decides to go to the orphanage, which is located in some sort of massive junkyard, where K’s flying police car is shot down by some group of bandits–who these bandits are is never explained. K fights them off and finds his way into the orphanage–a neo-Dickensian sweatshop of sorts, where he forces the cruel overseer to show him to an abandoned area that matches his childhood memory. There, he discovers the horse in exactly the place he remembers hiding it.
Somehow–it was not clear how, since we last saw his flying car being shot down–he makes his way back to his apartment, and from there finds Dr. Ana Stelline, a woman with a condition that forces her to live inside a glass chamber so as to be protected from all contaminants. She designs false memories for the Wallace Corporation to implant in replicants. She is a talented designer of memories, and on inspecting his (how she did this, I have no idea) indicates that it is real.
K then becomes inexplicably angry and consequently fails the replicant behavior test that they apparently give him after every mission. He tells Joshi this is because he successfully found and killed Rachael’s child. Joshi gives him 48 hours to either flee or try to pass the test again. So he…
Ok, this is really kind of bizarre…
He goes back to his apartment, where Joi has brought in the prostitute from earlier. She has done this because she knows that he’s been wanting to sleep with her (Joi, that is). But, since she’s a hologram and all, it doesn’t go very well. So she sort of superimposes herself over the prostitute.
Except the superimposition doesn’t totally work, so there’s this bizarre blurring effect, kind of like when you watch a 3-D movie without the glasses on.
It’s creepy and hilariously bad and stupid and probably one of the worst romantic scenes ever filmed. And it’s worse when you put it in context. I mean, I get annoyed enough when my computer installs updates without asking my permission. If it started letting prostitutes into my apartment while I was gone, I would be even more upset. And then when you add in that K has just been given 48 hours to run away from the authorities, it seems even more absurd that he would spend 8 of them making love to his virtual assistant.
Ok, looking at K, it was probably more like 10 minutes, but still.
Oh, and the morning after, as she’s leaving, the prostitute makes a catty remark to Joi. That was stupid too.
K has the toy horse analyzed by some random character who exists only to advance the plot but still manages to be vaguely offensive during his brief screen time. The levels of radiation found in the horse lead K (and Joi, natch) to the blindingly orange ruins of Las Vegas.
After finding an abandoned beekeeper’s station and some statues of naked women in high heels–just another day at the office!–K finds his way to an abandoned hotel and casino, where he meets Deckard (Harrison Ford)
Deckard enters with one of the best lines in the movie: “You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now?” This is a quote from Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, as K helpfully informs us, thus weakening the line immensely.
Deckard and K then engage in another ridiculous comic-book fistfight that serves no purpose to the story, but takes place in a casino lounge with various holograms of famous performers flickering on and off. It’s kind of cool, but it was done better in Dead Money.
After this is over with, they talk, and Deckard explains he left the pregnant Rachael behind and scrambled police records so they could not track the child.
This scene was another one of the film’s high points, thanks entirely to Ford’s acting. The dialogue is still awkward, and Gosling is pretty wooden throughout, but the gruff tones of the veteran actor make it compelling. As he was when reprising another of his most famous roles, Ford is the one of the few bright spots.
Meanwhile, Luv–remember her?–has killed Joshi and tracked K to Las Vegas. She and her men attack, capturing Deckard and badly injuring K. She also destroys the small device in which the Joi program is stored, effectively “killing” her.
Luv takes Deckard to speak with Wallace. And by speak with him, I mean have Wallace recite bunch of gobbledygook at Deckard in a dull, awkward monotone before finally producing a replicant of Rachael. Deckard gruffly responds that “her eyes were green.” I would say it’s absurd that they could get such an obvious detail wrong, but given the Wallace Corporation’s general ineptitude, it seems almost plausible.
Meanwhile, K has been rescued by some pro-Replicant freedom fighters–one of whom is the prostitute from earlier. They want K to kill Deckard before he can lead the Wallace corporation to his daughter. From this, K realizes he is not the child after all, and that Deckard falsified the records.
After a brief interlude with a giant pink naked holographic girl–just don’t even ask, ok?–K intercepts Luv and her men as they are transporting Deckard to… someplace… and, in a rather anti-climactic battle, K kills Luv and rescues Deckard. This scene takes place at night and underwater, so it’s not really a feast for the eyes.
Finally, K takes Deckard back to meet his daughter–Ana Stelline. K has realized that the memory was actually hers–she designed it and the Wallace Corporation put it in his brain. Deckard greets his daughter in her isolation chamber while K collapses in the snow outside and the credits roll.
It’s not a bad little plot, and might have made quite a good 90 minute or two hour movie. But the pacing is absolutely bad; not merely because it is slow–although it is definitely that–but also just because even with all that build-up, the final battle still seems rushed, confusing and unsatisfying. And we never see what becomes of Wallace himself, who is the main villain of the piece.
“But it’s not about the story!” say the fans. “It’s about the atmosphere! The cinematography!”
Ok, sure; but the atmosphere isn’t that great. It’s nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before in other films influenced by the original Blade Runner. I was struck, again and again, by how ordinary all of it felt.
As for the cinematography: it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as great as I expected from all the hype. That large parts of the film take place at night and in the rain doesn’t help–and frankly, as rainy noir-cinematography goes, there are much better examples.
And in the end, movies aren’t about cinematography. It’s just one tool that the filmmaker uses in service of the ultimate goal: telling a good story with good characters.
The story, as I have said, is not bad but it is also not remarkable, and certainly shouldn’t take this long to tell. And the characters? Well, there are a few good ones. Joshi and Deckard are standouts–I wish we could have had a film about the two of them working together instead.
K is probably the least interesting character in the whole thing, and that’s saying something. Joi–who is the de facto love interest–is also quite dull, since she exists entirely to serve K.
This brings me to another point: the film’s sexism. As I have said, there’s plenty of “male gaze”–besides the statues and holograms, there is a horrible scene where the camera focuses on a naked, newly-created female replicant who is immediately killed for no reason. (This should have been cut, not only because of the gratuitous nudity and violence, but also because it added nothing to the story and made the already overlong picture drag more.)
But even more significant than the sexist imagery is the fact that the women’s roles in the story are all secondary. Even Stelline, who is in a sense the central driving force of the whole plot, is shunted to the side to focus on the unremarkable officer K.
The irony is, it’s clearly a dystopian story, and the world they present could indeed be described as a dreadful dystopia for women in particular, where they are treated, with a few exceptions, as commodities. But the writers seem not to be aware of this. If they were, they could have explored that, rather than the story of officer K, the second-rate cop who wanted to bed his virtual assistant.
Blade Runner 2049 is the second cyberpunk film I’ve seen this year. The other was Ghost in the Shell. See that instead–it’s much better. You can even watch it twice in the time it takes to watch 2049.
For the last five years, I’ve been in a friendly fantasy football league. Fantasy football works like this: you have a team of a few players–my league’s format is 1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 3 wide receivers, 1 tight end, 1 kicker and 1 defense. Each week, players at those positions accrue points for what they do in the real-life NFL games. My league is head-to-head, so my goal is for my players to score more combined points than the team I’m matched up against each week.
It’s a lot of fun. It’s mostly luck, but there is a little skill involved–or at least, I’ll claim there is, because I won my league a few years ago, and it’s more fun to brag if I can say it was because I am a football expert.
So, I started thinking: for what other activities could you make up this sort of game? And I ultimately settled on movies.
Like many people, I like to imagine my “dream all-star cast” for movies. But anyone can do that. Fantasy film-making needs to have an element of strategy and resource management. So, I came up with some rules.
The format of the Fantasy Movie Cast/Crew is as follows:
1 Lead Actor
1 Lead Actress
1 Supporting Actor
1 Supporting Actress
Yes, I realize it takes a lot more people to make a movie, but as with Fantasy sports, there have to be some constraints.
Another constraint: you are only allowed to have two Academy Award-nominees per “team”. That is what brings out the strategic element–it forces players to prioritize where they want the proven talent. That’s not to say only Academy Award nominees are any good, but again, as with fantasy sports, you have to know how to find under-valued talent to succeed.
Also, you can’t cheat and use one nominee in multiple slots–no written by/directed by/starring the same person.
Finally, the selection is limited to living people–so no building All-Time teams with Stanley Kubrick directing Peter O’Toole or something.
So, here’s my team:
Director: Mike Leigh. Using one of my two Oscar slots right off the bat. I figured having an established presence at the helm would be important. He also has experience directing in theater as well as film, and I think that versatility would be useful.
Others I considered: Sir Kenneth Branagh, Rian Johnson.
Lead Actor: Roger Guenveur Smith. This is what I mean about under-valued talent. I have seen Smith perform live in his one-man show Juan and John, and he is a marvelous actor. Why isn’t he more widely known? Beats me. He is excellent at cycling through a huge range of emotions, and can create all different kinds of characters–often in the space of a few minutes. He also has a distinctive voice and memorable presence.
Others I considered: Ewan McGregor, Joel Edgerton, Ralph Fiennes
Lead Actress: Natalie Portman. Yeah, yeah; long-time readers probably knew I would pick her the minute they read the description of the game. Well, she’s a great actress with a wide range, and a particular knack for dark or tragic roles. Besides which, for a movie to succeed, it helps to have at least one big-name lead.
Others I considered: Rachel Weisz, Sigourney Weaver, Felicia Day
Supporting Actor: Stephen Colbert. People know him mainly as a talk-show host, but he does have a background in acting, which you could see sometimes on The Colbert Report when he would really dial up the crazy. I read once that he said he always wanted to play Richard in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Just the fact that he said that earns him some acting credit, in my book.
Others I considered: Jeff Lewis, Hugh Laurie
Supporting Actress: Sara Kestelman. Like Smith, I first heard of Kestelman when she was voice acting in the game Knights of the Old Republic II. Since then, I’ve seen her perform in all sorts of things. But it’s still her KotOR II role that best showcases what a terrific actress she is. While the writing is terrific, I think Kestelman’s acting also made Kreia into one of the greatest characters in gaming history.
Others I considered: Rashida Jones, Tina Fey
Screenwriter: Anthony Tambakis. His work on Jane Got a Gun and his novel Swimming with Bridgeport Girls impressed me enough to take a chance on someone with a relatively small body of work.
Others I considered: None. There aren’t too many active screenwriters whose work I like.
Cinematographer: Steve Yedlin. I’ve only seen one movie on which he served as cinematographer: The Brothers Bloom. But it had something I really, really liked: color. Not just muted greens and greys and browns, but honest-to-goodness colors. This has fallen out of fashion for some reason, and it’s annoying. So, on the basis of his willingness to accommodate the full spectrum of colors, I choose him.
Others I considered: Dick Pope.
Composer: Lisa Gerrard. Another talent I first discovered in Jane Got a Gun. Since then, I’ve heard her work in the band Dead Can Dance, and I was hooked.
Others I considered: Clint Mansell
As for what the movie would be about–well, we can sort those details out later! That’s how the big studio producers do it, after all. As for scoring and head-to-head competitions, those also can be determined later.
How would you build your ideal movie cast and crew?
In the days before CGI, epic war films were massive and costly undertakings. You wanted a shot of 10,000 guys marching across a field in full battle uniform? Well, you had to get them! You couldn’t just have Johnny the Computer Whiz draw them in after the fact.
As in actual warfare, there are innumerable logistical difficulties with re-creating these battles. You’ve got to have men in position, knowing how to use their equipment, and then film them as they maneuver in the field.
All that’s quite hard enough. But when you are making a film for wide release, you have to have all that plus a story the audience can follow, structured so as to play out in a coherent and satisfying way over the course of two hours.
It’s this last bit that’s really tricky, because while history offers plenty of incredible and compelling stories, they rarely fit into neat three-act schemes that can be concisely portrayed in a couple of hours.
Waterloo starts out well, showing Napoleon’s abdication to Elba in 1814 and subsequent return in 1815. Especially memorable is the moment when the Emperor walks alone to face his former soldiers, now under orders to kill him, and through sheer bravery and charisma wins them back over to his side. This is one part of the Napoleonic legend that seems made for the movies, and it certainly is a high point of the film.
After that, however, problems arise in this dramatization of the final chapter of Bonaparte’s career. There are unnecessary voice-overs in which Napoleon (Rod Steiger) thinks in exposition for the benefit of the audience. Many lines of dialogue uttered by officers on both sides seem like they were lifted from history books and changed to the present tense.
An inordinate amount of time is spent on Wellington’s staff at the Ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond. This scene also includes the introduction of a totally fictional and pointless love story that goes nowhere. The only upside is the chemistry between Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and the Duchess (Virginia McKenna).
The film dwells on things like this, Napoleon’s illness, and some peculiar episode involving a British soldier stealing a pig, and yet glosses over incidents like the Battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny with a couple lines of dialogue.
It’s not that the film is inaccurate–indeed, they seem to have gone to some lengths to describe things in historically correct fashion. (Except for the romance and a reminiscence about Major-General Ponsonby’s father) The problem is that the film depicts these events in a strange and sometimes incoherent manner.
The biggest technical flaw is probably the mud. The battle was famously delayed by wet ground after a rainy night, and indeed the film states this correctly. Where it falls down is the fact that the ground we see on screen is demonstrably dry, as evidenced by the huge clouds of dust kicked up by the columns of cavalry and infantry.
The end result is the comical visual of a frustrated Napoleon sinking in an obviously artificial mud puddle while all around him is a vast expanse of dry land. The fundamental historical fact is correctly depicted, but not in a dramatically effective way.
There are lots of issues like this. After Marshal Ney’s ill-fated cavalry charge against the famous infantry squares, Napoleon rushes back to the field from his sickbed, crying, “What is he doing? Everyone knows not to make a cavalry charge without infantry support!”
While completely factually accurate, this seems unlikely to be what Napoleon actually said at the time. It comes across as a line delivered for the benefit of audience members who aren’t familiar with the battle of Waterloo.
And this is the other difficult thing about making historical movies: balancing the history lesson aspect with the need to depict real characters, as opposed to instructional puppets designed to illustrate a historical lecture.
Chances are, if someone is watching the movie Waterloo, they are already a Napoleonic history fan. Sure, there might be the occasional viewer who is an ardent follower of Rod Steiger or Christopher Plummer, but if I were overseeing the production, I would make the executive decision that any viewer who doesn’t already know how the battle went is just going to have to piece it together as best they can–no reason the script should go out of its way to help them out.
Despite all of that, the movie isn’t horrible. As an instructional device, it is not bad, and there is something inherently impressive about seeing huge lines of soldiers and horses advancing across a smoky field. It gives you some vague hint of what it might have felt like to be in the battle.
It’s just that the film lacks a dramatic narrative. Napoleon and Wellington don’t “come alive”; they just repeat their famous quotes and stoically watch the battle. Because of this, it feels more like a recording of an elaborate re-enactment rather than a truly epic historical drama.