David Strat­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

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.


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