So many hideous jokes, but this is the best and most honest review of TFA.
Spoilers. Do not read if you haven’t watched Arrival, Interstellar or Midnight Special.
Arrival is part of the usual Oscar circlejerk right now but I actually left the cinema feeling underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is good, especially on a technical level, but I wasn’t happy with the way Villeneuve balanced the sci-fi with the personal emotion of the film’s protagonist.
Weirdly enough, a friend recommended this movie to me as “what Interstellar was supposed to be”, and while I do think it’s a better movie than Interstellar, it has the same pitfalls; focusing very hard on the science of the premise before making a hardcore switch to character drama. This movie spends the first hour and a half or so dealing with how humans would realistically deal with an alien encounter, and it does this extremely well. Suddenly, the film’s themes change to predeterminism and eternalism in its final act. I don’t mean that there isn’t any foreshadowing- there’s clever misdirection and anachrony, but other than the plot twist being that the flashback that starts the film is actually a flashforward, the film does little to actually flesh out the non-linear perception of time. Moreover, there is only one line in the film about the protagonist asking her would-be fiance if he would change anything if he could perceive time in a non-linear fashion, before she decides she will appreciate every moment.
However, for the above idea to work, the film would have to show instances of her breaking away from predestination, to show the consequences of free will, but the film conveniently eschews that for a soap opera with the protagonist and her daughter (gee, does that sound familiar). Of course that in itself isn’t a sin, but my problem with modern sci-fi movies is this, jamming emotion and science into a movie. Of course, great sci-fi, or rather, great movies have emotional impacts that far outweigh the scientific accuracy of the film, but it becomes jarring when the film does not to bridge the two halves. The protagonist barely shows any form of chemistry between her and her future spouse (and even more annoying, it tried to hide the obvious fact that he would indeed be her spouse in the future). There is one throwaway line in the beginning with the daughter shouting “I hate you!” at her mother, but there seems to be no reason to believe the relationship between mother and daughter has anything meaningful for her to remember. Watch any family drama or character-relationship movie, there will always be friction scenes in between. The only real friction in this film is not even for the protagonist, but at the bureaucratic level with the nations struggling to achieve consensus (a theme that is also wrapped up with a soapy emotional beat rather than an exploration of international conflict). As with Interstellar, the film puts in a lot of effort into hard science but decides to answer all its questions with vaguely emotional moments, a trend which doesn’t sit too well with me.
In contrast, there has been another sci-fi family drama earlier
this year last year that I genuinely enjoyed- Midnight Special. Unlike Arrival, the scientific aspect of the film is barely explored and serves as backdrop to the character drama. Unlike Arrival, the protagonist is not a scientist or a learned individual in any way, but a simple father trying to find a solution for his son. The film also has a consistent theme of dealing with loss, explored via various characters who are connected to the child with strange powers. There is also some clever characterization, with a scientist working with the government becoming more spiritual as he interacts with a power or phenomenon he cannot understand. The film also shows government and religious responses to the child, without in any way undermining their role to society in real life. It’s a simple, heartfelt film that is cathartic for parents who have had to lose a child. There is a lot of back and forth with the child and the father, before the father finally agrees to trust his son and let him go- so that the child’s departure is truly earned in the movie.
In Arrival, we know nothing about the character’s daughter other than her use as a plot gimmick.
On the philosophical spectrum, the last sci-fi movie that I’ve seen that presented two sides to an idea was The Matrix and it’s sequel. Even if it’s on the nose, it added on to the intellectual experience, because you see both the idea of free will and predeterminism (the Wachowskis tie it up in a very Vedic way), and when you leave the cinema, you can choose your takeaway from the movie. Nobody in Arrival acts out in his, her or its free will, providing no contrast to the protagonist’s convenient desire to accept and appreciate her fate. The protagonist is not given any choice in the film, nothing for her to choose to walk away from. So why does she choose to appreciate anything? Is it even a choice for her to appreciate? If I could perceive time like she did and have no idea what would happen if I changed fate, why would I think it’s better to accept things the way they are?
The film tried to do a lot of things and didn’t flash out a lot that could have made a much bigger impact.
But that’s just my opinion.
Cinematographer deserves an award for the shot when they walk up the alien ship, though.
“Once you realize what a joke everything is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense.”
Had an unexpected opportunity to watch this film in an unfamiliar new cinema at 321 Clementi last Thursday.
Short digression: the Eng Wah hall at Clementi has a pretty sharp screen but a rather steep slope for the seats, meaning that the guys at the back are way too far from the screen and the people in front are way too close. The middle seats are mostly couple seats, so single straight men may want to plan their seating carefully. Screen is also relatively small, but sound system is pretty immersive (perhaps because of the smaller hall size). Movie had a couple lag moments (thankfully not at a crucial part), maybe the staff arent very experienced.
For those who are unaware, Gojira first started out in 1954 in a black and white film, focusing on the lizard as an unstoppable force of nature and the grievances of the country in the fallout, a clear allusion to the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The franchise has already had two reboots, and each one tries to come back to its roots as a serious commentary on Japan’s place in the world. However, in each timeline, the famed monster becomes a parody and the movies slowly descend into childish camp. The last Gojira film in 2004 was an absolute clusterfuck with an alien that somehow looks like an average Japanese man decides to destroy Earth by bringing back all of Gjira’s enemies back to Tokyo to fight Gojira. Toho studios stopped making Gojira films since then.
Godzilla was adapted by Hollywood in 1998, though the butchered the ‘character’ by modelling it more like the dinosaurs from the Jurassic Park franchise (which makes sense, seeing how successful the franchise was in the 90s). There are a lot of insider jokes in the later Japanese films that mock this iteration of Gojira. Hollywood gave a go at it again in 2014, and I loved it for its direction and cinematography. Director Gareth Edwards really nailed the sense of scope of the monsters (kaiju, in Japanese), with lots of shots of the human characters in the foreground against the giant silhouettes of the kaiju in numerous portions of the film. I’ve embedded one of my favourite scenes below, specifically the shot from 2:22 when the lead character turns around and the camera suddenly pans to a further position to capture the size of the creature; it’s intimate, terrifying and awe-inspiring all at once (especially on the big screen). Of course the movie was not replete with its own issues (poor acting, meandering storyline and the now infamous cockteases of the monsters). It did, however, capture the spirit of Godzilla really well.
I am not sure if Toho was inspired to outdo this movie or if a Japanese Gojira film was already in the works, but the new movie definitely respects the original film and returns the franchise to its nationalist roots.
The first 30 minutes of Shin Gojira was absolutely amazing. Rapid footage from handheld cameras and surveillance quickly establish an issue at sea when a boat is found without its crew members just as a monster is emerging. The footage is spliced with scenes from the parliament houses, with the government taking its own sweet time to respond to the situation. It’s also the moment when the song ‘Persecution Of The Masses’ starts playing, as the tension escalates with the creature coming ashore and destroying buildings in its wake. In 30 minutes, the movie already sets up the return of a revered monster that has become a cultural icon, while also contemporarizing it by juxtaposing it with the slow government (a metaphor for the Japanese government’s delay in responding to the 3/11 earthquake). While the original film antagonizes the atomic bomb over which the country had no control over, the new film antagonizes the government, which had no excuse for its bureaucratic cock ups. It’s a subtle shift, but one that shows an awareness that there is no time for self-pity in the modern world.
I won’t pretend the film continued this level of great film-making throughout the rest of the movie. There are many cringe inducing lines (specifically from Satomi Ishihara’s character) and the CGI does not even come close to the Hollywood version (which was itself made on a relatively small budget by blockbuster standards). Directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi handled the themes exceptionally. Considering how this could have been the Japanese equivalent of the Transformers, one cannot help but marvel at lines that take a dig at American trade deals, red tape within the government and the elder’s inadaptability to change or welcome new ideas (yes, this is mentioned in the movie). Black humour was the last thing I expected from a low budget Japanese monster film. The editing is also very quick, with numerous shots clocking a couple of seconds (shot-reverse-shot, basically). It’s a boring technique when drawn out between long lines, but the actors seem to be trying to complete their lines as fast as possible. The result is a very fast-paced film that satisfactorily fleshes out a lot of the themes brought out by the film. For the MOST part, they are well handled.
There’s also the soundtrack. Shirō Sagisu re-uses a lot of the tracks from the 50s films, and they do not sound very out of place in the film. There’s also quite a lot of variation (a hallmark of Japanese soundtracks, to be honest), with jazz pieces playing over news reports (mocking?) and sparse drumming whenever military action was taken. There’s also the central theme song (Persecution Of The Masses) and the surprisingly operatic ‘Tragedy’ that plays during a very interesting part of the film. The lyrics speak of pain and sorrow… from the point of view of Gojira? It’s an unexpected level of depth when you actually see what plays on film when the song is used, and I found it particularly profound. Gojira has interesting powers on this one. I am not sure if I’m a fan, but I’m definitely more forgiving since I’m well-versed with how off-kilter the Japanese are willing to go in all their media.
Seriously, I’ve been listening to Persecution Of The Masses on loop for the better part of the month.
The cinematography isn’t up to par with the Hollywood one for obvious reasons, but they are still a lot of fantastic shots: especially at the beginning of the film, and during the military response to Gojira at the end. I also like that the new Gojira is modelled after a shark, with its piercing eyes and mouth shape (the 2014 Godzilla was modelled after a bear).
All in all, I think the film was a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately the film blows its load in the first 30 minutes, and most of what happens in the second half is very predictable. It’s a valiant effort by the production team, and I think it’s the perfect direction to go if they intend to reboot the franchise. I definitely enjoyed the film and the maturity of its themes given that it’s still a movie about a giant lizard rampaging about Tokyo, and I cannot recommend the first 30 minutes enough.
This was my first experience viewing a Korean film in the cinema. So far the only Korean movies I have watched are Oldboy, The Host. Wolf Boy and Snowpiercer (it’s American, but directed by Bong Joon-ho, the same guy behind The Host).
The movie wasn’t that bad, but it annoyed me by not setting out to fully explore themes it was clearly aware of.
The story follows a fund manager who spends too much time at work to care about his family. He’s undergoing a divorce while his mother helps to look after his daughter. On the day of the events in this film, he brings his daughter to Busan to visit her mother, while a zombie outbreak takes place.
- Setting – The train is a very unique location for a zombie survival story, and the film utilizes the claustrophobia of narrow corridors pretty well.
- Cinematography – Probably because this is the rare big budget film for this genre, there are some mesmerizing wide angle shots of the South Korean landscape; large empty roads, the busy cities in the urban area, etc.
- Ma Dong-seok’s Sang-hwa was an absolute delight to watch. Charismatic character / actor.
- Some dark humour with parodies of Korean teen romance, I’m glad it was intentional.
- The film is aware of moralistic themes that go beyond the genre: one striking scene is when Jong-gil opens the train door for her sister in the film. It’s an unexpected event, but one that has enough build-up and foreshadowing sprinkled throughout the film.
According to my friend who is more well-versed with Korean culture, this is supposedly the first zombie film by the Korean movie industry, and if that were true, this is a pretty huge milestone for them. This is also director Yeon Sang-ho’s first live action film. It didn’t feel like an amateur effort when I was watching.
- The zombies aren’t scary, These are very similar to the ones from I Am Legend and a couple of zombie scenes seem to have been lifted of World War Z. There is barely any gore, only a little blood when the zombies are biting the living. The zombies not being able to “see” their prey has got to be one of the weirdest zombie mechanics I’ve seen in a zombie film.
- Despite setting up the foundations for examining selfishness and family in the movie, the ending seems to have thrown all this development out for a melodramatic moment that doesn’t even flow well with the narrative. The lead character’s role as a fund manager seemed like a fantastic window to critique the financial world but is only referenced for a couple of jokes and a weird scene towards the end when an assistant calls the fund manager and asks if it’s their fault for funding the science research centre from which the zombie epidemic started.
- Follows the “everyone must die” cliche for all zombie survival films. Deaths feel cheapened if you have to kill off every character.
- Gong Yoo is a terribly wooden actor. He has a crying scene and smiles for one part of the film but he’s staring about blankly for the most part.
Comparing with the other two Korean films I’ve seen:
One of the reasons I loved The Host was it’s critique on the inefficiency of the government as it dealt with the monster of the film. There were explicit scenes where the cast is placed in humorous situations in quarantine zones with government officials, which begged the question: who was the real monster? Snowpiercer also took place on a train in an apocalyptic world, and explored the spectrum of class as the main cast traveled to the front of the train where the upper class enjoyed better spaces and privileges. The problem I have with Train To Busan was that such ideas WERE touched upon, with various characters of different financial background, with both the protagonist and antagonist playing similar roles in society. However, the antagonist just goes on the become the stereotype asshole of a zombie film who would sacrifice others to save himself. Perhaps, as a big budget film, the production team was constrained on how much time it allocate to these themes, as opposed to popcorn fare (of which there was plenty in this movie). Nevertheless, it’s a damn shame because I personally thought this movie could have been on the forefront of the genre had such themes been explored. As it is, it feels more generic.
Comparing with Hollywood zombie films:
It feels like a tired genre (even though most people probably haven’t sat through an entire zombie film) not just for movies but for games, with countless titles like Left For Dead. Dead Rising and the fantastic Daylight all crossing the checks on all the cliches this type of stories would have. It might surprise people that many acclaimed directors today started out with zombie or horror films. Here’s couple that managed to overcome the boundaries of the genre the way Train to Busan should have-
- Shaun Of The Dead by Edgar Wright- already innovative by being a comedy instead of a horror film, the movie had fantastic social commentary, with the opening titles explicitly showing how people behaved like zombies even before the outbreak began. There are even some hilarious scenes where the lead characters are still unaware of what’s happening.
- Dawn Of The Dead, both the original by George Romero in 1978 and the remake by Zack Snyder in 2004. The former accidentally explores the characters running away from their predicaments by enjoying the consumables in a shopping centre, providing a social commentary on consumerism. On the other hand, the latter forgoes the social commentary (or does it? I may have to rewatch) in favour of pure horror and action, with some of the most tragic character arcs ever filmed for a horror movie.
All in all, Train To Busan was still a pleasant watch, despite my gripes with it. It’s slightly better than the average zombie flick.
Thousands of years ago the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light, but he left them a gift they had not conceived of, and he lifted darkness off the earth. Through out the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision. The great creators, the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors, stood alone against the men of their time. Every new thought was opposed. Every new invention was denounced. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered, and they paid – but they won. No creator was prompted by a desire to please his brothers. His brothers hated the gift he offered. His truth was his only motive. His work was his only goal. His work, not those who used it, his creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things, and against all men. He went ahead whether others agreed with him or not. With his integrity as his only banner. He served nothing, and no one. He lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement. Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. But the mind is an attribute of the individual, there is no such thing as a collective brain. The man who thinks must think and act on his own. The reasoning mind cannot work under any form of compulsion. It cannot not be subordinated to the needs, opinions, or wishes of others. It is not an object of sacrifice. The creator stands on his own judgment. The parasite follows the opinions of others. The creator thinks, the parasite copies. The creator produces, the parasite loots. The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature – the parasite’s concern is the conquest of men. The creator requires independence, he neither serves nor rules. He deals with men by free exchange and voluntary choice. The parasite seeks power, he wants to bind all men together in common action and common slavery. He claims that man is only a tool for the use of others. That he must think as they think, act as they act, and live is selfless, joyless servitude to any need but his own. Look at history. Everything thing we have, every great achievement has come from the independent work of some independent mind. Every horror and destruction came from attempts to force men into a herd of brainless, soulless robots. Without personal rights, without personal ambition, without will, hope, or dignity. It is an ancient conflict. It has another name: the individual against the collective. Our country, the noblest country in the history of men, was based on the principle of individualism. The principle of man’s inalienable rights. It was a country where a man was free to seek his own happiness, to gain and produce, not to give up and renounce. To prosper, not to starve. To achieve, not to plunder. To hold as his highest possession a sense of his personal value. And as his highest virtue, his self respect. Look at the results. That is what the collectivists are now asking you to destroy, as much of the earth has been destroyed. I am an architect. I know what is to come by the principle on which it is built. We are approaching a world in which I cannot permit myself to live. My ideas are my property. They were taken from me by force, by breach of contract. No appeal was left to me. It was believed that my work belonged to others, to do with as they pleased. They had a claim upon me without my consent. That is was my duty to serve them without choice or reward. Now you know why I dynamited Cortlandt. I designed Cortlandt, I made it possible, I destroyed it. I agreed to design it for the purpose of seeing it built as I wished. That was the price I set for my work. I was not paid. My building was disfigured at the whim of others who took all the benefits of my work and gave me nothing in return. I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy, nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim. It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing. I came here to be heard. In the name of every man of independence still left in the world. I wanted to state my terms. I do not care to work or live on any others. My terms are a man’s right to exist for his own sake.
– Howard Roark
Now everything Zack Snyder says makes sense. Now a lot of things make sense.