Dystopias enough to drive you to toy­land

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FILM REVIEWS - Evan Wil­liams

Only Lovers Left Alive (M) Limited re­lease from Thurs­day Di­ver­gent (M) Na­tional re­lease

WHEN the main ti­tle of a film ap­pears on the screen in red gothic let­ter­ing against a black night sky, it seems rea­son­able to ex­pect that we’re in for a se­ri­ous movie-go­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. And sure enough, turns out to be an­other of those post-apoc­a­lyp­tic, dystopian fan­tasies much loved by film­mak­ers these days, as if the world weren’t gloomy enough al­ready. The di­rec­tor is Jim Jar­musch, the in­de­pen­dent Amer­i­can film­maker re­spon­si­ble for fa­mously down­beat master­pieces such as Dead Man and Mys­tery Train.

His new film is shot en­tirely at night, and much of it is set in the US in­dus­trial grave­yard city of Detroit, which per­fectly re­flects the mood. It’s el­e­gantly crafted, vis­ually strik­ing, crammed with strange ideas and is among the most mis­er­able films I can re­mem­ber. It is also, at odd mo­ments, very funny.

So make of it what you will. To help au­di­ences get the hang of things, Jar­musch has pro­vided a “di­rec­tor’s state­ment” — a de­vice favoured by art-house di­rec­tors deal­ing with the deeper mys­ter­ies. From this we learn that the film’s main char­ac­ters, two lovers called Adam and Eve (played by Tom Hid­dle­ston and Tilda Swin­ton), are “metaphors for the present state of hu­man life — frag­ile and en­dan­gered, sus­cep­ti­ble to nat­u­ral forces and to the short­sighted be­hav­iour of those in power”. So that’s quite clear. We know now why Only Lovers Left Alive feels so pre­ten­tious and over­wrought, as if Jar­musch were more in­tent on hint­ing at deeper mean­ings than get­ting on with the story.

Un­for­tu­nately his state­ment tells us noth­ing about his lovers’ strange be­hav­iour. And since he makes no se­cret of the film’s main plot de­vice, I have no qualms about dis­clos­ing it my­self. We dis­cover about half­way through that Adam and Eve are vam­pires. Yes, vam­pires. They have been around for a few hun­dred years, and that sticky red wine they’ve been drink­ing from lit­tle crys­tal glasses turns out to be ... you know what. Like all vam­pires, they need end­less sup­plies of hu­man blood to sur­vive. And fair enough in a vam­pire movie.

But since vam­pires are known to be more or less in­de­struc­tible, why should we take them as metaphors for the “frag­ile and en­dan­gered” state of hu­man­ity? I look for­ward to an­other di­rec­tor’s state­ment.

Nor is it clear why the world is in its present re­duced state. Adam, a mu­si­cian, muses near the end of the film: “Have the wa­ter wars started yet — or is it still about the oil?” One way or an­other, hu­man con­flict has taken a ter­ri­ble toll, and Adam has had enough. He toys with the idea of do­ing away with him­self — not an easy thing for a vam­pire — and spends much time ob­tain­ing a spe­cial wooden bul­let that he can fire into his heart.

But he can’t bring him­self to do it. In­stead we are taken with Eve on a tour of Detroit’s old fac­to­ries and streets. Jar­musch’s cam­era lingers on the in­te­rior of some ven­er­a­ble, de­serted theatre: 87 years old and once the site, we are told, of Henry Ford’s first au­to­mated pro­duc­tion line. Detroit is no longer what it was. Barely a car can be seen in these for­lorn and empty streets, but even in the post-in­dus­trial era there are still things such as smart­phones, credit cards and tran­satlan­tic air­lin­ers.

Hid­dle­ston never smiles (he didn’t smile much in Thor: The Dark World) and his clothes are like some­thing from the era of mid-1960s rock ’n’ roll. Swin­ton, a spec­tral pres­ence even in real-life, down-to-earth roles, looks more spec­tral than ever.

One ad­van­tage of hav­ing vam­pires and zom­bies as leading char­ac­ters is that we can re­visit the past with first-hand rec­ol­lec­tions. Jar­musch’s screen­play may lack sense and co­he­sion, but it’s full of throw­away cul­tural ref­er­ences and vaguely in­tel­lec­tual in-jokes. Mia Wasikowska ap­pears briefly as Eve’s sis­ter, bring­ing a touch of bois­ter­ous en­ergy to these other­wise sombre pro­ceed­ings; and John Hurt turns up as a wiz­ened old-timer called Kit, who ap­par­ently has writ­ten Ham­let and some of Schu­bert’s great­est cham­ber mu­sic. Kit turns out to be play­wright Christo­pher Mar­lowe, though how he be­came a vam­pire is un­clear.

The film is a mud­dle, its black hu­mour never sit­ting com­fort­ably with its dark­est moods. I sup­pressed a ner­vous chuckle when Adam and Eve suck on iced lol­lies made of frozen blood (O-neg­a­tive be­ing one of their pre­ferred flavours). Funny? As Adam would say, it’s all a mat­ter of taste. IF you think Detroit looks bleak in Jar­musch’s film, wait un­til you see what’s hap­pened to Chicago in Neil Burger’s dystopian thriller

A global catas­tro­phe has wiped out much of the world. Could it be a con­se­quence of global warm­ing? No one says so, but what I took to be Lake Michi­gan is now a parched, grassy waste­land, and the city’s bat­tered build­ings are fes­tooned with wind-driven fans (pre­sum­ably a sub­sti­tute for old-fash­ioned air­con­di­tion­ing). The place is ruled by a dic­ta­tor­ship headed by Kate Winslet, who looks and sounds like a well­groomed exec in a Wall Street bro­ker­age firm, de­spite her lin­ger­ing English ac­cent.

We know one per­son’s re­hash of stale ideas can be an­other per­son’s trea­sure trove of orig­i­nal­ity and in­ven­tion, but Di­ver­gent looks de­riv­a­tive from the start. A post-apoc­a­lyp­tic world in which a plucky young hero­ine strug­gles for sur­vival? It may sound like The Hunger Games, but there’s a big dif­fer­ence. In The Hunger Games, Amer­ica was di­vided into 12 districts; in Di­ver­gent it’s di­vided into six fac­tions. I liked the idea that people’s thoughts and mem­o­ries can be re­pro­duced elec­tron­i­cally on com­puter screens, but didn’t Kathryn Bigelow comes up with that idea in Strange Days, her sci-fi thriller with Ralph Fi­ennes? The end of the world sce­nario was por­trayed more con­vinc­ingly in On the Beach, and ruth­less mil­i­tary-style train­ing rou­tines have been a fea­ture of boot camp movies since Full Metal Jacket.

What else? People con­fronting their worst fears as a test of en­durance — see Nine­teen Eighty-Four. Our hero­ine fight­ing off swarms of at­tack­ing birds? — see the Hitch­cock movie. Yet an­other fer­ris wheel se­quence? I know film­mak­ers love them — but re­ally.

The source is a best­selling novel by Veron­ica Roth, who went on to write two best­selling sequels (don’t they al­ways?), with the re­sult that two more in­stal­ments of Di­ver­gent are on the way. In this one, Tris (Shai­lene Wood­ley) has to choose which fac­tion she should join. Nor­mally this is de­cided for you by a se­ries of psy­cho­log­i­cal tests, but people still have a choice. Tris’s fam­ily be­long to a fac­tion called Ab­ne­ga­tion, which means they’re gen­er­ous, self­less types, but Tris goes for one called Daunt­less (in pref­er­ence to Amity, Can­dour or Eru­dite).

And, yes, she’s a brave girl. To qual­ify as a Daunt­less she has to con­front wild dogs, jump into bot­tom­less pits, scale tall build­ings in a wild roller-coaster ride and sub­mit to other in­dig­ni­ties. Luck­ily she gets on well with her in­struc­tor (Theo James), the best-look­ing male per­son in the cast, and a lit­tle ro­man­tic in­ter­est helps re­lieve the te­dium.

Most of the film con­sists of spec­tac­u­lar stunts and spooky spe­cial ef­fects, which are well enough done. Wood­ley dis­plays plenty of courage and re­source­ful­ness, but she’s no Jennifer Lawrence. Nor is Di­ver­gent an­other Hunger Games.

If I had to join a fac­tion my­self, I’d be look­ing for one called Baf­fle­ment or Ex­as­per­a­tion. And af­ter spend­ing the best part of five hours watch­ing Di­ver­gent and Only Lovers Left Alive, I can un­der­stand why au­di­ences are flock­ing to see the Mup­pets and The Lego Movie. Only Lovers Left

Alive;

Di­ver­gent,

Tilda Swin­ton and Tom Hid­dle­ston in

Shai­lene Wood­ley and Theo James in

be­low

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