Saturday 13 July 2019

Screen time

Space Battleship Yamato (2010)

I know, I know, but I couldn't resist Yamato! One of my main interests apart from SFF is 20th century military technology, especially of World War 2. So I really had to see an SF film featuring a futuristic version of the greatest battleship ever built, the Japanese Yamato (to appease the pedants I should also mention that she had a sister-ship, the Musashi).

In terms of its iconography and overall ambience, the film is a kind of blend of Star Wars and Star Trek, with a uniquely Japanese flavour – which means rather more in the way of dramatic formal attitudes and gestures than Hollywood might produce. I did wonder, before I saw it, if the plot involved salvaging the actual Yamato from her watery grave and kitting her out with all of the systems she would require to become a spacecraft, but it wasn't quite that dotty – she was a purpose-designed space ship that just looked remarkably like her WW2 ancestor.

Anyhow, the plot (if it matters) takes place in 2199 and involves superior alien spacecraft systematically destroying the Earth defences and sowing the surface with radioactivity, forcing the dwindling remnants of humanity to take refuge underground. When all seems lost, a message capsule is received containing information about building a warp drive able to cross interstellar space, plus giving the coordinates of a distant planet. The Yamato, fitted out with the warp drive and associated warp gun at t'other end – sets sail (to use a slight anachronism), but discovers some surprises on arrival.

There is the obligatory pairing of a hot-headed but highly-skilled young officer in conflict with his apparently staid but worthy captain, and an attractive young female pilot who is at first hostile to the handsome hot-head but…. well, I don't really need to go on. The climax of the film is classically Japanese, which is to say not how Hollywood usually does it.

It is totally absurd from start to finish, to the degree that there is no point in trying to analyse the plot, but I have to confess that I parked my critical faculties and actually quite enjoyed it. It certainly stands comparison with some of the lesser Star Trek/Wars output.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

This also has a Japanese link, as it is based on a manga series of that name dating back to 1989, and there have already been various screen treatments. Cue lots of criticism of the film for not being faithful to the original, and for having a westerner (Scarlett Johansson) playing the lead role. Since I was unaware of this background until after I had watched the film, that did not spoil my enjoyment at all.

As far as the film is concerned the story begins with the creation of an ideal warrior by transferring a human brain into an artificial body to create a cyborg. The plot follows the adventures of Mira Killian, the cyborg, as she enforces law'n'order by killing lots of people, very efficiently. But then she meets her supposed enemy who causes her to question her role, and ultimately to find out the truth of her own, human origin.

This is not a great film but it's not bad either and the CGI is spectacular, with a rather Blade-Runner feel to the futuristic/grotty urban setting. Worth seeing if you like this kind of action movie.

 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Also known as Star Wars: Episode VIII, this is the second movie in the post-Star Wars reboot, and the sequel to The Force Awakens (2015 – reviewed on this blog in June 2016). The start is the worst part of it, with the evil Supreme Leader Snoke making melodramatic threats against the heroic Resistance, in a scene apparently pitched at the comprehension level of a rather dim-witted eight-year-old. Of course, we knew that Snoke was a bad guy before he said a word because he is incredibly ugly, so in compliance with all such movies he must be bad, right? It would clearly shake something fundamental in the conventions of such movies for the bad guys to be handsome or beautiful and the good guys rather ugly, for once.  How did virtue become so firmly asssociated with good looks?

The film doesn't get much better as it goes along, being careful to press the nostalgia button to appeal to those who fondly recall the original trilogy, so it's just more of the same, really. There is one scene which stands out from the rest (and doesn't really fit in with it) when Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on the planet where Luke Skywalker has sought refuge, and falls into an underground space which has surfaces which reflect her image apparently to infinity. This looked interesting and for a moment I hoped the plot would be heading off in an intriguing new direction, but sadly it led nowhere, like the rest of the story.

Jumanji (1995)

I first saw Jumanji quite a long time ago and recalled it as a fun, family, light entertainment. Having seen the favourable reviews of the much-delayed sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I decided to see the original again as a warm-up for the new film.

Jumanji focuses on a mysterious board game of that name, found by a young lad in 1969. The boy starts to play but is sucked into the world of the game – a wild jungle. Some 25 years later the game is rediscovered by two children who start to play only to discover that they have released from the game the long-lost boy, now a man in his 30s (Robin Williams). He tells them that to escape from the game they must finish playing it. So they continue rolling the dice, despite the fact that each move results in some new disaster – huge, stinging insects, a horde of destructive monkeys, a fast-growing man-eating plant (eat your hearts out, triffids!), and a stampede of African big game, all happening in their home town. Naturally, everything ends up as it should, with the good guys on top and the villain getting his just desserts.

I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. The original plot makes a very refreshing change from the current take on heroic fantasy films, far too many of which can be summed up in four words: superheroes beat up antiheroes.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

This long-delayed sequel features the same magical game only this time it upgrades itself to a virtual reality version into which a quartet of youngsters are accidentally uploaded, finding themselves in something like the Amazonian jungle. As before, completing the game is the only way to escape from it; this requires returning a large jewel to the statue it was stolen from. This is made more complex by the opposition of the heavily-armed gang who stole it.

The twist – and the source of much humour – is that the youngsters do not appear as themselves, but as the avatars they have hastily chosen. So the weakling nerd finds himself portrayed by Dwayne Johnson while the massive football jock becomes a very small man (Kevin Hart), the painfully shy girl appears as a red-hot martial arts expert (Karen Gillan), and (best of all) the self-absorbed beauty becomes an overweight middle-aged man (Jack Black). Cue lots of gender-change jokes as the youngsters try to get used to their avatars. Each of these avatars has certain strengths and weaknesses, and this assorted bunch has to learn to work together to finish the game. Each has three lives – after which they are dead for real.

The film is lively and amusing, with a healthy dose of moralising concerning the importance of developing trust and cooperation. This sequel manages the rare achievement of being a considerably better film than the original. I see that a third film in the series is due at the end of this year, and I'll be looking out for it.