Life (MA15+) National release Clash (Eshtebak) (tbc) Melbourne only release Zach’s Ceremony (G) Limited release
Crew members of a space station find themselves in mortal danger from a nasty alien creature: that’s the plot of Life, and it’s hardly new. No one who’s seen Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) will forget the suspense generated by what is surely the best film to tell this story — though it wasn’t the first: The Quatermass Xperiment was perhaps the pioneer of this genre, and the film version of that TV series was made in 1955. Still, it’s a serviceable plot that basically updates the hoary old “people trapped in a haunted house” yarn to a sci-fi context. It’s no wonder it’s being constantly revisited: Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) is another variation, and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant is heading our way next month.
What makes Life a little different is the sheer technical skill with which it’s been made. It opens, for instance, with a breathtaking continuous shot, lasting about seven minutes, in which Seamus McGarvey’s camera prowls around the Pilgrim 7, introducing us to the sixperson international crew. The space station’s commander is Ekaterina (Kat) Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) — which explains why all the signage on board is in Russian. Her crew includes Americans David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a doctor who saw action in Syria, and techie Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds); Brits Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), the lead scientist, and Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), who’s in charge of disease control and prevention; and Japanese Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), who is desperate to get home to his wife, who has just given birth.
When the film begins, Pilgrim’s mission is to capture a beleaguered, empty spaceship returning from a mission to Mars carrying with it what may be Martian life. At first the sample Derry examines is inert, but as he begins to examine it (cue for an avowedly nerdy reference to Re-Animator) it begins to show signs of life. At this stage it’s tiny and looks like a rather beautiful plastic leaf. We know, of course, that it will get bigger — and that it won’t be friendly when it does.
At this point, fans of this sort of thing will start calculating in which order the hapless crew members will have a close encounter with this nasty creature, and the countdown may not entirely turn out as they expect. But it’s a shame the screenplay, by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who also authored the superior Deadpool and Zombieland), can’t seem to inject anything original into the concept. The shock moments occur at predictable intervals, but there’s little interest in the stock characters or their fates.
Visually the film is constantly impressive as the characters float weightlessly around the claustrophobic interiors of the space station, usually one step ahead of the Thing that’s out to get them. And the cast is nothing if not interesting. But in the end there’s a distinct feeling of let-down, that this is an inferior addition to the genre. Perhaps Scott’s forthcoming variation on the theme will deliver more punch. Clash, an Egyptian film that opened last year’s Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, is now having a limited exposure in Melbourne but hopefully will find its way to other cities eventually, because it’s a riveting viewing experience.
Directed by Mohamed Diab, the film is set in Cairo in 2013 during the chaotic period that followed the military overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi that had taken power after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak two years earlier.
Daringly, Diab’s film unfolds entirely within the confines of a police paddy wagon that becomes a microcosm of Egyptian society at that precise moment in time. It’s a bold concept and it works pretty well, with the events taking place outside the truck’s interior seen through its windows and, on occasion, the open door. Not only does the drama unfold in this very confined space, but also in real time.
The film begins with the arrest of an Associated Press journalist (Hani Adel), an American Egyptian, and his Egyptian photographer. Before long, police and military also round up demonstrators from both sides of the conflict: pro-military, anti-Muslims and also Muslims, some, but not all, of whom are radical members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Clearly, Diab’s intention is to remind us of the eternal reality that if you are forced to connect with people you supposedly hate and to see them as human beings, hatred can’t survive. As the temperature inside the truck rises and individuals react in a variety of ways to their incarceration, differences and ideologies become less important.
Meanwhile, outside the truck demonstrations and violence escalate. A sniper shoots at police from high up in an apartment building, killing the driver of the paddy wagon. There are also conflicts within the police and between the hardliners and the moderates. My impression while viewing the film was that Diab and his team were adventurous in restaging these conflicts, presumably on the same streets where they occurred in reality not so long ago. Zach’s Ceremony is a beautifully made and insightful documentary study of Zachariah Doo- Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson in top; Egyptian film Clash, above left; a scene from the documentary Zach’s Ceremony madgee, and was filmed over a number of years, starting in 2009 when Zach was 10.
Zach belongs to two worlds. For much of the time he lives with Alec, the father he adores, and his stepmother in the suburbs of Sydney and attends a public school. But father and son regularly visit Doomadgee in far north Queensland, their country, where they can connect with the land, family and people, and where Zach can prepare for the ceremony he will undertake at the age of 15 to signal his manhood.
Filmmaker Aaron Petersen, not to be confused with Aaron Pedersen the actor, allows the viewer access to the two worlds in which Zach and his father live, worlds that, on a basic level, could not be further apart. The film also explores the knowledge and tradition that must be passed on to Zach and other young men of his age from the older generation.
The destructive role played by missionaries in these remote settlements in the past is not overlooked, and nor is the current problem of suicide — Zach’s cousin, Brandon, kills himself during the period in which the film was shot.
Robert Morton’s widescreen photography is outstanding, and as Zach grows up before our eyes, his story, and the story of those close to him, unfolds with insight and tenderness.