Dystopias enough to drive you to toyland
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
Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in
Shailene Woodley and Theo James in