Director: Richard Linklater
Seven years from now, around one quarter of the American population is dependent on a powerful and highly addictive psychoactive drug known as Substance D. ‘Agent Fred’ (Keanu Reeves), an undercover police officer assigned to monitor a household of drug users, is also Bob Arctor, a member of that household whose girlfriend and dealer, Donna (Winona Ryder), is suspected of having links to the uppermost source of Substance D. So far, so simple, right? Er…
Robert Linklater’s much-anticipated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel is, unsurprisingly, a little trippy in places. After all, we are being drawn into the world of a man whose consciousness is literally splitting in two and who is becoming increasingly incapable of even recognising the correlation between his two parallel identities. However, despite the often hilarious scenes featuring the paranoia, psychobabble and stoner logic of Arctor’s associates Freck, Luckman and Barris (Rory Cochrane, Woody Harrelson and a scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr.), it would be sheer folly to dismiss this film as simply being for and about the chemically-enhanced. If I were to liken it to anything it would be more classic film noir than Cheech and Chong, with prominent themes of corruption and betrayal and Arctor as the fundamentally-flawed hero trying to get to grips with something he can’t fully understand while being led to his ultimate demise by a femme fatale (although there is a rather clever twist to this that is pretty unexpected unless, unlike me, you’ve actually read the novel).
Much has been made of the fact that this film is rotoscoped, the live action film painstakingly traced by animators to give it a grown-up cartoon effect. This device certainly pays off and adds to the whole atmosphere of A Scanner Darkly, contributing to the sense of detachment and feeling that nothing is quite real or as it seems. It’s also strangely satisfying seeing the cast of familiar names in a new way and, on a more prosaic level, simplifies the inclusion of Dick’s ‘scramble suits,’ something that would have been incredibly difficult to create without big-budget CG effects.
Keanu Reeves is one of those actors that people seem to just love to criticise but, having seen this film, I find it hard to imagine Arctor being played by anyone else. Reeves’ characteristic lazy and laconic style fits the role perfectly and he can certainly do blank and bemused very well, making him ideal as an unwitting cog in a machine. The casting of actors who, in the majority of cases, have had highly-publicised dalliances with illegal substances is a very knowing move and slightly adds to the air of despair and inevitability that pervades a lot of the piece. That said, this film is not a depressing didactic on the dangers of drug abuse. A Scanner Darkly is rich, intelligent and compelling while also being entertaining and thus can be appreciated on a variety of levels.Maria Hall
Director: Steven Soderbergh
I should be honest from the outset and admit that Soderbergh’s adaptation of Solaris is the only version of the story that I am familiar with, having seen neither Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film nor read Stanislaw Lem’s novel on which both adaptations were based. However, I do not necessarily believe this to be a negative thing as I feel Soderbergh’s Solaris works perfectly well as a stand-alone piece and is perhaps even more interesting when viewed in isolation, without any baggage from previous incarnations of the story affecting interpretation.
The plot is deceptively simple – psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is summoned by an old friend to a space station orbiting a world called Solaris. On arriving, he finds most of the crew dead and the remaining members in a state of mental instability caused by a strange phenomenon that he is told cannot be explained until he himself experiences it. Soon enough, like the others before him, Chris receives a ‘visitor’ in the form of his deceased wife Rheya (Natasha McElhone). The arrival of Rheya is the point at which the film really becomes interesting and starts to delve deeper into the psyche of Dr Kelvin, as he moves from professional skepticism and fear of this aberration to a renewed longing for the woman he has loved and lost — even to the point of being willing to reject the concepts of science and reason in order to hang on to his second chance at happiness. Through the character of Rheya, Solaris raises questions about the nature of love and the nature of what it means to be human without providing any obvious answers – my interpretation of what Rheya and the planet Solaris were was remarkably different to that of the first person that I discussed the film with afterwards. That, for me, is the beauty of this film. It does not spoon-feed the viewer facts but deftly leaves ambiguous clues that point to several plausible meanings.
The tone of this film is generally rather restrained, with pared-down settings and costumes and sparse dialogue giving it a dream-like feel. Stylistically, it is near-perfect, with the claustrophobia and the strangeness of the space station denoted by unusual camera angles and heavy shadow, and a crew member’s belief that the ‘visitors’ are nothing but reflections of human need and desire being echoed visually through frequent shots of reflections in mirrored surfaces to denote Chris’ increasingly fragmented self. The station is given a sinister and artificial appearance by harsh white and blue neon lighting which adds to the air of foreboding and creates the feeling that something is not quite right about the place; however, the ‘memories’ of Chris and Rheya, shown through flashback, are no more realistic in appearance and thus call into question our willingness to trust a subjective version of events narrated to us by a man who may (or may not) be slowly losing his sanity.
This certainly isn’t the film to watch if you are in the mood to be passively entertained – it is far too philosophically and psychologically challenging for that. Solaris isn’t the most straightforward film to watch but it is one of the most truly human pieces of science fiction I have ever come across and deeply satisfying even if, like me, you feel compelled to watch it again almost straight away to see if you really ‘got’ it.Maria Hall
Director: J.J. Abrams
Growing up, I always wanted to be part of an adventure, one of a group of kids ready to fight monsters (like in The Monster Squad) or hunt for pirate treasure (like in The Goonies). These kids were tough and brave and put themselves in the path of danger because no one else would. My adventurer aspirations didn’t last very long but these films had a big impact on me. Super 8 brought back a lot of those memories and if I’d seen it back when I was a kid in the 1980s, I would’ve been first in line to join their group of adventurers, shooting zombie movies and investigating the mystery of an Air Force train crash.
Abrams does an excellent job of capturing the idea of smalltown life in the 1970s. The kids roam the neighbourhood on bikes, hang out at each other’s houses and generally spend all their summer together. Leaving aside whether this is an accurate depiction, Super 8 hits all the nostalgia points head on, recreating the feeling of the 70s. This is strengthened by the terrific and natural performances from the main actors. The acting in general is quite good, though Eldard seems out of place as a troubled father.
The most interesting element in the film is the characterisation of the creature, which is given complex motivations and behaviour. Alternating between sympathetic and menacing, this nuanced depiction creates a genuine feeling of peril and ensures a steady level of tension throughout the film. Refreshingly, Abrams reigns in the anthropomorphic tendencies seen in similar films and presents a truly frightening creation.
With a likeable cast and an interesting creature, Super 8 is both a nostalgic look at childhood lost and a new interpretation of an old idea.Colin Le Sueur