This week’s list maker: By day, Heidi Samuelson is a science writer for a government agency. By night, she is a writer of fiction, pop culture analysis, and social commentary (sometimes posting on her blog). In the moments in between, she lovingly pets her sorely neglected Ph.D. in philosophy.
Going to the movies is my vice. If I can lose myself in another world for two hours while eating chemically-treated popcorn mixed with Reese’s Pieces (try it, trust me) then I will do it. I will see movies in any genre–children’s movies, romantic comedies, action flicks, foreign, science fiction–I’m actually pretty easy to please. I willingly paid money to see Vampires Suck, and I do not regret that decision.
I especially like Indie films or quirkier blockbusters that make me think or give me a pleasant escape from my life. I saw a few great ones this summer–Boyhood, Begin Again, What If, The Grand Budapest Hotel. But sometimes artsier movies have a really fascinating premise and then try too hard to be clever or deep. I end up wishing I had liked them a lot more than I did.
The following movies I saw this summer all fall into that category. I’m not going for the obvious choices here. These are all movies that have a “certified fresh” rating (in parentheses next to each title) on Rotten Tomatoes and were not totally panned by critics. But they’re movies that, for my mind, you can definitely skip and don’t have to pretend you like in order to look cool.
This contains spoilers, but, really, I’m doing you a favor.
1. Lucy. (64%) Don’t see Lucy. Just watch the preview, pretend like you saw it, and pretend that it was awesome. Because the preview makes it look awesome. Scarlett Johansson conquering the human mind by gaining telekinetic powers after being kidnapped and used as a drug mule? This has all the potential for a smart thriller! While it has been criticized for the starting (false) premise that human beings only use 10% of their brain, that wasn’t actually the biggest problem in the movie. The biggest problem is more that writing a movie about someone whose brain is extraordinarily powerful is impossible when it’s being written by someone who is a regular ol’ human.
I’m (technically) a philosopher and the question of the separation between the mind and the brain is basically one of the main questions philosophers ask (the contemporary version of dualism). Lucy didn’t address that at all, and it would have been a lot more interesting had it done so, because the powers that Lucy had just didn’t make any sense. Even though what she did do made for some spectacular visual effects, trying to start from a possible premise (a drug that alters brain functioning), and then moving into absolute nonsense was disappointing.
2. The Rover. (65%) Let me spoil the ending for you Citizen Kane-style. Skip this one if for some crazy reason you think you’ll see and enjoy this film. Ready? The whole movie is about a dead dog. Yup. You suffer through stilted acting, senseless violence, characters you don’t know (and don’t want to know), and Guy Pearce being a complete twit to Robert Pattinson all for a dead dog in a (presumably) post-apocalyptic world. If this is what the end of the world looks like, then I hope I go out in the first wave.
A lot of the criticism of this movie references the lack of world-building, and that is most definitely a problem with it. I don’t mind loose ends or a backstory that requires me to piece it together. But there just weren’t enough pieces to make any sense of who these characters were or what happened to their world to bring it to the point of martial law and scarce resources. When you finally make it through all this mess, the end of the movie feels like a bad punchline.
3. Under the Skin. (86%) I actually kind of liked this movie, but I’m also an intensely strange person. I feel like an alien observing the human race from a distance most of the time, but I probably could have gone my whole life without seeing this play out literally, which it does in Under the Skin. Scarlett Johansson (I really don’t mean to be picking on her) plays an alien of some sort who seduces men, takes them back to her lair, and consumes their insides–I think. The men she picks up mostly weren’t actors, so there is a nice element of realism to it.
But unfortunately, this is one of those movies that people will try to make deeper than it is. The details of how she’s consuming men don’t actually matter to the plot, but they also don’t make any sense. Where was this pool of water? How did she suck out their bodies? You end up feeling like those scenes were just an excuse to get Scarlett Johansson naked. (She looks fantastic, but it felt gratuitous.) It’s also probably not necessary to know what she was doing on Earth–Was she banished? Gathering information?–but because she had watchers, it would have helped to understand what their purpose was. At the end of the day, if you want to see Scarlett Johansson feel alienated, just go watch Lost in Translation.
4. Locke.* (88%) Nothing but Tom Hardy trapped in a car for 84 minutes? How could this movie possibly be anything other than the best 84 minutes of your life? This movie was certainly unique, I will give it that. It was literally just Tom Hardy in a car making phone calls for 84 minutes. As riveting as this sounds, unfortunately as the movie goes on, you don’t really like the character. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to be trapped in a car with Tom Hardy, I want to like the guy.
Locke has the same conversation over and over with the woman he knocked up whom he’s on his way to the hospital to see. He also repeats himself constantly when he’s giving instructions to the man filling in for him on a work project. He sounds completely detached when he tries to explain what’s happening to his wife. It’s not entirely his fault, of course, because everyone he talks to is irritating, but it just isn’t entertaining to watch. I can screw up my own life and try to backpedal my way out of it, thank you very much, I don’t have to watch someone else do it to theirs.
5. Frank. (91%) Like Under the Skin, I enjoyed this to some extent, but I would proceed with caution. This film suffers from the same unfortunate condition as Lucy, where the preview looked like the movie was going to wow you. Ultimately it suffers from the all-too-common problem, where I didn’t like any of the characters. Frank is somewhat likable, but he isn’t the narrator, so you only get to see him through the eyes of Domhnall Gleeson’s character, Jon.
The reason why the other characters don’t like Jon (because he’s a wannabe) is the reason why I didn’t like him either. He pushes Frank, a mentally unstable man who wears a giant wooden head over his own, too far in trying to get their band popular. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the other members of the band either. They seem like the (now aging) kids who tried way too hard to be artistic and deep but ended up being art school clichés. Wearing all black and/or vintage nightgowns? It’s been done. So even though you sort of feel for Frank (and Michael Fassbender is excellent in this), you are left with the unfortunate message that you have to be either traumatized or mentally ill to make art.
6. Snowpiercer.* (95%) Wait, no, GO SEE SNOWPIERCER. Unless you aren’t into extreme violence, because it is super violent. Snowpiercer is a movie that not everyone will like, but I think it does the post-apocalyptic world genre good. The reason for the end of the world was relatively plausible (human stupidity) and the reason for the remaining few’s survival is utterly absurd (a self-sustaining train that makes a lap around the world every year), but that combination somehow works. It takes the overdone class struggle that occurs in all your favorites–1984, Brave New World, etc.–but it’s done in a totally arbitrary way that makes you extra furious and root that much harder for the revolt to be successful.
Also, Tilda Swinton is a badass, and that makes any movie worth watching.
*I realize these were released outside the U.S. in 2013, but they only came to theaters here in 2014.
Coronet theatre photo by City of Toronto Planning and Development Department (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACoronet_Theatre_Yonge_and_Gerrard_Streets_1979_Toronto.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.