Saturday, January 31, 2015

Movie Reviews: Predestination, Lucy

Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig
This is a science fiction film which involves time travel that goes both forward and backwards depending on your perspective. The initial storyline involves a law enforcement/intelligence agency that operates to stop crime before it starts by going back in time to change just enough in the timeline to prevent the future murder or other atrocity. Although this might immediately put you in mind of Looper or Minority Report, Predestination is a more hauntingly personal and downright weird film with its own musings on life, the choices we make and whether or not things are meant to be. I thought this film seemed strangely familiar. I wasn't too surprised to discover later that it was based on a story by sci-fi giant Robert Heinlein. I'm not sure that I read the source story but I'm not sure I didn't either. In a bit of a paradox, much like the world it envisions, the more ridiculous this film becomes the more it makes you think or in some cases shudder. It is somewhat amazing that any of us are here. What are the odds that your mother and father met and fell in love? And what are the odds that they created you on the day they did? And what are the odds that your grandparents, great grandparents, and on back to antiquity met or created all the people they had to meet or create to become your ancestors and give you your particular set of biological and environmental strengths and weaknesses, quirks and talents that make you you? If anything changed, no matter how small, you might not exist. There are some theories based on quantum physics interpretations which claim that there are an infinite number of universes all based on each individual decision that we all make over our lifetime. Maybe if your mother doesn't leave home exactly when she does she never meets your father. Perhaps if you don't go to the coffee shop at exactly 7:25 AM you don't meet the barista with the nice smile, smooth moves and good looks that you want your children to have. 
Then again maybe everything was always meant to be or from someone else's point of view has already happened. Maybe, like in the movie Prince of Darkness, a future you is desperately trying to warn you against making a critical life altering mistake but s/he can't change the past and you blissfully ignore the nutter with a strange resemblance to you.

The Temporal Agent (Ethan Hawke) is trying to catch the Fizzle Bomber, a masked man who will kill over 10,000 people in a 1975 NYC bombing. He's on the man's trail but is badly burned trying to defuse a bomb. He travels to the future to get healing and reconstructive surgery as well as some advice and warnings from his boss (Noah Taylor). Healed, the Agent travels back to 1970s New York to work as a bartender in an area and time period where he knows the Fizzle Bomber hangs out. There he meets an odd young woman who calls herself The Unmarried Mother (Sarah Snook) who says she has the strangest story to tell which anyone has ever heard. The story she tells is indeed weird and draws in The Temporal Agent. And's lets stop detailing the narrative right there. Even as the film becomes stranger and stranger it also becomes more poignant and gentle in some ways. You will definitely come out with your preconceptions shaken up a bit. The film is just chock full of paradoxes. The filmmakers can't resist leaving some clues as to the nature of the story. Visual and auditory Easter eggs are scattered across the film. Unless you're smarter than the average bear you might have to watch it a second time to pick up on all of them. This is not a movie with big shootouts or tons of crass special effects. The special effects are good but Hawke's and especially Snook's acting are what drive the film and story. Snook's range is just short of astonishing. 

The film looks like an updated film noir with its lighting and shadows, cigarette smoke and heavy overcoats. There were also some art deco architecture and settings which I enjoyed. The pacing was a little off in a few spots but it was otherwise a quiet film that drew you inwards to the story and made you think afterwards about what makes you who you are. I liked the film. So to conclude, if you are willing to let a film warp your brain for a while, check this film out. If you want more conventional fare, check out Lucy.

Directed by Luc Besson
Lucy is the movie that Transcendence could have been. Well. For me anyhow part of that is because Scarlett Johansson is far more interesting to watch on screen than Johnny Depp. The fact that for about a third of the film Johansson was running around in a tight t-shirt probably helped with that. But animal instincts aside Lucy is fun and visually involving in a way that Transcendence simply wasn't. Although the premise behind Lucy isn't true (we use more than 10% of our brainpower) and indeed the film becomes increasingly and outrageously ridiculous as the story proceeds it's still more entertaining than Transcendence was, not because Johansson is a better thespian than Depp but because the story doesn't get bogged down into taking itself too seriously for long periods of time. By the time we realize how silly this movie is (and for some of you who are smarter than I that may happen in the first ten minutes) it's easier to just kick back, put your feet up and enjoy the ride. The movie is only about 90 minutes. It maintains a breakneck pace throughout. Transcendence came to mind not only because of the similar themes but because Morgan Freeman basically plays the same character in both films, the comforting wise avuncular scientist who is pleased as punch to help younger people and witness what may be a new frontier in human advancement.

This film has a little something for everyone. There's plenty of action, sadistic violent baddies, the aforementioned cleavage factor, some warped science, and philosophical questions (and answers?) about the nature of life, the universe and everything. That's a lot to pack into ninety minutes and on one actress but Johansson pulls it off. This is a Johannson film through and through. I can't imagine anyone else doing it. In many aspects some of this is a continuation of her roles from the Black Widow parts in the Avenger series. Lucy (Johansson) is a college student and girlfriend of a useless (American?) goofball in Taipei, Taiwan. We know that he's cowardly because he's trying to convince Lucy to do his job and deliver a briefcase to a mysterious Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik), his ultimate employer who doesn't tolerate tardiness or mistakes. When Lucy declines to do so her erstwhile boyfriend handcuffs the briefcase to Lucy and forces her into the hotel where Mr. Jang is waiting. Well sometimes you just have a bad day. Jang's employees kill the boyfriend and take Lucy upstairs where she sees they've murdered others as well. It turns out that the briefcase contains packets of very powerful synthetic psychotropic drugs which Jang requires Lucy and other hapless mules to move into Europe. This isn't a request. The drugs are surgically inserted into Lucy and company with a warning from a dapper English translator (Julian Rhind-Tutt) that any attempt to remove the drugs, alert authorities, or deviate from instructions in any way will result in a sudden case of death for their loved ones.

Later on, a lower ranking bad guy, bent on a little "fun" which Lucy rejects, gives her a beating which causes some of the drugs to leak into her bloodstream. That was a mistake. For him. The drugs rework and rewire Lucy's brain. They turn her into something that is growing beyond homo sapiens. This all happens in the first 10-15 minutes. The film's balance is concerned with Jang's attempt to get his drugs back, Lucy's attempt to understand and deal with what's happening to her and Professor Samuel Norman's (Morgan Freeman) attempt to explain things to the audience and to Lucy. Much like with Neo in The Matrix or the Superman reboot, if someone has powers beyond the human, we had better hope that they maintain some sort of moral control and human connection. Because if they don't we're all in a lot of trouble. The action showdowns are really just the fluff to get you into the meat of the film. Where did we come from? How far back does it all go? What's the meaning of life?  The film often looks good while asking the questions. But if you realize that the premise is nonsense you may not be able to take anything else seriously. Besson is also less interested in what Lucy can do than what this all means for mankind. It's an uneven film but Johansson puts it on her back and carries it into the end zone. You may laugh and cringe at places that weren't meant for either. After her dosage with the drugs, Lucy often speaks in a distracting near monotone.
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