Apocalypse Now Lite

Watching Gareth Edwards’s The Creator for New Scientist, 4 October 2023

A man loses his wife in the war with the robots. The machines didn’t kill her; human military ineptitude did. She was pregnant with his child. The man (played by John David Washington, whose heart-on-sleeve performance can’t quite pull this film out of the fire) has nothing to live for, until it turns out that his wife is alive and working with the robots to build a weapon. The weapon turns out to be a robot child (an irresistible performance by 7-year-old Madeleine Yuna Voyles) who possesses the ability to control machines at a distance. Man and weapon go in search of the man’s wife; they’re a family in wartime, trying to reconnect, and their reconnection will end the war and change everything.

The Creator’s great strength is its futuristic south-east Asian setting. (You know a film has problems when the reviewer launches straight in with the set design.) Police drones like mosquitos rumble overhead. Mantis-headed robots in red robes ring temple bells to warn of American air attack.

The Creator is Apocalypse Now Lite: the Americans aggressors have been traumatised by the nuking of Los Angeles — an atrocity they blame on their own AI. They’ve hurled their own robots into the garbage compactor (literally — a chilling up-scaled retread of that Star Wars scene). But South East Asia has had the temerity to fall in love with AI technology. They’re happy to be out-evolved! The way a unified, Blade-Runner-esque “New Asia” sees it, LA was an accident a long way away; people replace people all the time; and a robot is a person.

Hence: war. Hence: rural villages annihilated under blue laser light. Hence: missiles launched from space against temple complexes in mountain fastnesses. Hence: river towns reduced to matchwood under withering small-arms fire.

If nothing else, it’s spectacular.

The Creator is not so much a stand-alone sf blockbuster as a game of science fiction cinema bingo. Enormous battle tanks, as large as the villages they crush? think Avatar. A very-low-orbit space station, large enough to be visible in the daytime? think Oblivion. Child with special powers? think Stranger Things. The Creator is a science fiction movie assembled from the tropes of other science fiction movies. If it is not as bankrupt as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels Prometheus and Covenant (now those were bad movies), it’s because we’ve not seen south-east Asia cyborgised before (though readers of sf have been inhabiting such futures for over thirty years) and also because director Gareth Edwards once again proves that he can pull warm human performances from actors lumbered with any amount of gear, sweating away on on the busiest, most cluttered and complex set.

This is not nothing. Nor, alas, is it enough.

As a film school graduate Gareth Edwards won a short sci-fi film contest in London, and got a once in a lifetime chance to make a low budget feature. Monsters (2010) managed to be both a character piece and a love story and a monster movie all in one. On the back of it he got a shot at a Star Wars spin-off in 2014, which hijacked the entire franchise (everyone loved Rogue One and its TV spin-off Andor is much admired; Disney’s own efforts at canon have mostly flopped).

The Creator should have been Edwards’s Star Wars. Instead, something horrible has happened in the editing. Vital lines are being delivered in scenes so truncated, it’s as though the actors are explaining the film directly to the audience. Every few minutes, tears run down Washington’s face, Voyles’s chin trembles, and we have no idea, none, what brought them to their latest crescendo — and ooh look, that goofy running bomb! That reminds me of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow…

The Creator is a fine spectacle. What we needed was a film that had something to say.

An all-out cyberwar is coming

Watching Billion Dollar Heist by Daniel Gordon for New Scientist, 6 September 2023

On Thursday, 4 February 2016, after a year of meticulous malware-enabled close observation of its computer systems, an international criminal group called Lazarus tried to steal a billion dollars from Bangladesh Bank. The country’s central bank was a soft target, with no firewall, and simple $10 electronic switches connecting it to the SWIFT global payment system — used by over 11,000 financial institutions around the world.

The Federal Reserve in New York, meanwhile, is the largest bank in the world, housed in one of its most secure buildings, with its own power plant, water supply and communications system. One problem: back in 2016, it hadn’t thought to put in an emergency hotline for its customers. This, in an institution responsible for providing financial services to foreign central banks and international organisations as well as to the US government, has since proved to be, shall we say, a source of embarrassment.

An interview with British investigative journalist Misha Glenny provides the narrative for Billion Dollar Heist, a documentary that makes up, with its talking heads and comic-book graphics, what it lacks in expensive location shots. Reuters journalist Krishna Das guides us through the heist itself. Of the 35 financial transactions Lazarus attempted, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York cleared five, sending 101 million dollars in two directions: $20 million to Sri Lanka (where a spelling error raised a red flag and stopped the transaction) and $81 million to the Philippines, where Under Philippine banking laws, the stolen funds could not be frozen until a criminal case was lodged. Most of the $81 million disappeared into the country’s casino industry, which is exempted from anti-money laundering laws, and was lost, presumably forever.

Requests for payment continued to pour in, totalling around a billion dollars. By then, though, and frankly more by luck than good management, the fraud had been detected. (The fraud: not the hack. That took months to unpick.)

Finnish computer security expert Mikko Hyppönen and Eric Chien, technical director of Symantec’s Security Technology and Response division, lead the film’s discussion of the implications.

The Lazarus Group, bankrolled by the North Korean government, was responsible for the heist. In 2017, a year after the events recounted here, it attacked five Asian crypto exchanges and made off with $571 million.

If they worked purely to line their own pockets, this would be bad enough, but such organisations — and there are about a dozen of them, including APT 10 (backed by China) and Sandworm (backed by Russia) — are very much thieves for hire, riding the boom in state-sponsored cybercrime that’s been triggered, we’re told here, by the growing effectiveness of the global sanctions regime.

If the daylight world of international diplomacy stops your bank accounts, you know who to call.

Billion Dollar Heist is directed by Daniel Gordon, a sports documentary maker whose 2002 film, about the 1966 North Korea national football team drew him into more politically charged territory. True to his pedigree, he spins a logistically complex story in terms that are easy to follow. No ponderous political generalisations cloud his narrative. This is a caper movie, albeit one with a vicious sting in the tale, as Misha Glenny spends the last few minutes of screentime preparing us for the world this heist and others are ushering in. The world hasn’t had an all-out cyberwar yet, but it’s coming, care of Lazarus and other groups the US State Department has designated “Advanced Persistent Threats”.

Health services, transport networks, communications, finance and the apparatus of government: all are a single human error away from compromise, and then annihilation.

Remember that, next time you forget your keys.

The press of a single red button

Watching Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer for New Scientist, 19 July 2023

At 05.29 and 45 seconds on 16 July 1945, an electrical circuit clicks shut and thirty-two detonators fire, driving a uranium plug into a core of plutonium. The plutonium fissions, each atom splitting into lighter elements, a blast of gamma radiation and two or three more neutrons, which hurtle forth, triggering further reactions. A new world order is born: one in which the human species has the capacity to all-but wipe itself from the face of the planet; a world in which the terror of annihilation helps avert global conflict, unevenly, at great cost, and by no means necessarily for ever.

J Robert Oppenheimer directed atomic bomb development at Los Alamos in New Mexico, and then spent many subsequent years arguing for international arms control, and against US development of the even more powerful fusion bomb. Not only did he midwife this new Cold War world into being; he gave us the vocabulary with which to talk about it, agonise over it, and fear it.

It is possible to miss the point of Christopher Nolan’s superb biopic of Oppenheimer. One and a half hours of screen time follow the successful Trinity test of an atomic device. If all that interests you is how Nolan, a filmmaker famously wedded to analogue production and real (70mm IMAX) film, conveys the scale of an atomic explosion, you’re in for a long haul.

Oppenheimer is about the war in its hero’s head. It reflects the world in which Oppenheimer actually operated. It’s a film set in lecture rooms and laboratories, in living rooms and kitchens, shacks and bunkers. (The horror of Hiroshima is conveyed quite simply: Oppenheimer, sat in front of footage of the aftermath, cannot stand to watch, and looks away.)

Following America’s use of two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of the second world war, walls shake, exposures wobble, continuity stutters and different film stocks are muddled together to convey Oppenheimer’s increasingly nightmarish experience of the new reality. Were Nolan’s story (drawn from Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus) not so grippingly told, the final film, with its invarying pace, portentous, minimalist musical score and abiding humourlessness would, I suspect, prove unwatchable: like 2020’s Tenet, a film easier to read than to watch: a three-hour-long promo video.

What transforms Oppenheimer — and makes it, for my money at any rate, Nolan’s best film since 2006’s The Prestige — is the sheer crafti evident in the script.

The film orbits around two official hearings, both of which took place in the early fifties: Oppenheimer’s appeal against the revocation of his security clearance with the Atomic Energy Commission; and former AEC commissioner Lewis Strauss’s cabinet confirmation hearing as he tilted for reappointment as US Commerce Secretary. Those who know Strausss’s fraught attitudes towards Oppenheimer will relish Robert Downey Jr’s screen-chewing perfomance as the multifaceted Strauss. Those coming to the material fresh have a cracking twist in store, as the pair’s relationship comes to vivid life in the final act of the film.

Fragments of Oppenheimer’s odyssey — from theoretical astrophysicist to father of the atomic bomb — orbit these two centres of gravity. The narrative surface that results is as complex as anything Nolan has achieved before, but less confusing. Oppenheimer covers a staggering amount of intellectual historical and biographical ground, with nary a trace of gallumphing exposition. The script finds room to give Russian physicists given their due, and conveys very sensitively the internationalist sentiment that dominated research at Los Alamos.

Of course, the physicists and engineers at Los Alamos could think what they liked. There was a war on, and a Cold War to follow. Oppenheimer’s largely fruitless tilts at geopolitical realities after the war was over became emblematic of the plight of the conscience-stricken government scientist. His damaging run-ins with officialdom during the anti-communist scares of the 1950s only confirmed his status as a modern Prometheus, punished for handing atomic fire to humanity.

Strauss had little time for the idea of Oppenheimer-the-tragic-overreacher, and Nolan, funnily enough, seems to agree. At any rate, he finds no use for Oppenheimer’s own self-dramatising. (Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad-Gita, used to notoriously bang on about becoming Death, Destroyer of Worlds; this dark flourish is got rid of early on.) Nolan is much more interested in Oppenheimer’s impossible bind: an intelligent man, by no means naive or “unpolitical”, whose background in academia and theory un-fits him for the world he helps create. Emily Blunt’s performance as Kitty, Oppenheimer’s increasingly embittered and partisan wife, is crucial, if almost wordless. Other big names flourish in supporting roles that allow them unusual freedom. Matt Damon is positively gruff as Leslie Groves, the general in charge of the Los Alamos project; Dane DeHaan relishes a gratingly unsympathetic portrait of Kenneth Nichols, director of US Army R&D; Bennie Safdie makes even the peaceniks among us fall in love with Edward Teller, hawkish father of the fusion bomb, a straight-shooting adversary Oppenheimer can’t help but shake by the hand, to Kitty’s lip-curling disgust.

Even before he starts acting, Cillian Murphy’s resting demeanour drips a sort of divine cluelessness that makes him a shoo-in for the role of Robert Oppenheimer. He goes on to deliver a shuddering performance that, more than any finely wrought dialogue, conveys the impossible moral bind of scientists recruited into government service.

To know the world is to change it. On 16 July 1945, knowledge and deed were separated by the press of a single red button. Oppenheimer takes three hours to explain why this moment matters, and there’s not a second of screentime wasted. It’s a rich, strange, compelling film. A tragedy, yes — and a triumph.

“I want you to laugh openly at it”

Watching Sebastien Blanc’s Cerebrum for New Scientist, 12 July 2023

A year after the car he was driving span off the road and into a tree, William is shown into an all but empty room. There’s a camp bed. A TV. It’s not his old bedroom — it might not even be his house, it’s so anonymous — but it’ll have to do. William’s still learning to walk again, and the stairs will be too much for him. This is a shame, because he wants to see his mother, who never comes downstairs, never visits him, and is, it seems, constantly “under the weather”.

William scribbles a message to Richard, the man who brought him here: “Is she angry?” and Richard protests just that little bit too much. Already we feel we shouldn’t be watching, not because there’s anything bad going on, but because the script, by first-time feature director Sebastien Blanc, absolutely refuses to acknowledge our presence.

The camera work is no guide, either. Shot in the flat, pseudo-factual style of a British soap opera, Cerebrum views everything that happens with same dispassion. No jump scares. No plangent chords. We’re going to have to figure all this out for ourselves.

And so we do. Richard is William’s adoptive father. The house, for all that it is virtually empty, is indeed — or was — their family home. Dad is killing and burying women in the garden. And Mum is — or jolly well ought to be — dead, killed in the accident for which William (rightly, as it turns out) blames himself.

“You have no idea what I am doing to fix what you have done,” says Richard, in a rare moment of lost temper, and hands the astute viewer pretty much the entire plot.

It’s a gutsy, deliberate move, placing suspense over surprise. We know our Frankenstein. We know what happens to the mad professor in the attic. For one hour and 37 minutes we watch, with growing excitement and gathering horror, as the expected denouement approaches, and Ramona Von Pusch, playing William’s mother, gets the briefest of brief moments in the limelight.

Tobi King Bakare’s more or less mute turn as William, damaged in both body and mind, is visceral to a fault. Best of all, he never plays for sympathy: William hates himself so much, we rather hate him too, at least at first.

Steve Oram, who plays Richard, is a ubiquitous presence on British TV, but nothing prepared us for this. It’s impossible to keep in mind that the man is acting. Richard is a terrifying creation: a quiet, unimaginative man building his very own road to Hell.

When the floodgates finally crack, and Richard sits William down for a spot of family therapy, things take a very dark emotional turn. “I want you to visualise what is troubling you,” says Richard, “and then I want you to laugh openly at it” — at which point half of me wanted to cheer at the scriptwriter’s chutzpah, the half to run screaming from the living room.

Cerebrum is not an important movie. It’s a no-budget labour of love that gives writer-director Blanc something to talk about in pitch meetings. Structured entirely around suspense, the film can’t help but leave us feel disappointed in the final reel, though I can’t help but feel that any extra twists would have felt tacked-on. The script, which gives a black twentysomething white adoptive parents, and then hands everyone plenty of conversational rope with which to hang themselves, suggests Jordan Peele’s superbly queasy 2017 debut Get Out — but the threads here aren’t gathered nearly so tightly or so cleverly.

Watch Cerebrum for its performances, for its chillingly spare script, and for the trust it puts in its audience. Don’t expect miracles. Richard did, and look what happens to him…

Don’t be fooled by that Grateful Dead concert

Watching Wild Life by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi for New Scientist, 14 June 2023

Don’t be fooled by that Grateful Dead concert near the beginning. Wild Life is not about happy-go-lucky hippies who fell backwards into money.

It’s about three major outdoor apparel companies, and the minds that founded and controlled them. And it’s the story of how two of those minds, Doug and Kristine Tompkins, spent their middle years engineering the largest ever private land donation in history, all to save diverse and rapidly degrading ecosystems.

Kristine (then McDivitt) met rock-climber Yvon Chouinart in 1965 and went on to help him turn his blacksmithing business (turning out pitons and other climbing gear) into a world-leading outdoor brand, Patagonia. Chouinart conceived Patagonia as an “anti-corporation”, campaigning to preserve the environments its products let you explore.

by the early 1990s Chouinart, despairing of the garment industry’s environmental footprint, had started promoting advertising copy that all but urged customers not to buy his clothing.

That was the moment Kristine decided there had to be more to life. She quit her role as Patagonia’s first CEO. She wanted something “wild”. Something “outrageous”. And by marrying Doug Tompkins, she got it.

Doug and his wife Susie were long-time friends and rivals. They were the ones who got Grateful Dead to play at the opening of their first store, called North Face. Later, they founded Esprit. Now Doug was divorced and out of the business, living in Chile, haemorrhaging money on experiments in sustainable agriculture and trying to buy his way into the conversation game, one acre at a time.

He had set up home in Chile, was widely mistrusted, and didn’t seem to care. Once, when word went round that he had set a bounty on a man hired by salmon farmers to shoot sea lions, he had to hide out in the US embassy.

Chile was emerging from the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The last thing ithe country needed was to see its land bought up and (many suspected) parcelled off by an American tycoon. Chile is narrow — a strip of land between the Andes and the coast, just 90 km wide at its thinnest point. Doug’s plans for a public nature reserve not only looked unfamiliar; they also split the country in two.

Doug died in 2015 from hypothermia following a sea kayaking accident. His death, Kristine says, nearly finished her. Instead she dedicated herself to expanding on what he had started.

She has triumphed. For every acre Kristine has donated up to 2018, Chile’s federal government has set aside nine acres of unused land. 17 wildlife parks have been created, covering 14.7m acres. That’s more than three times the size of Yosemite and Yellowstone combined. About the size of Switzerland. And the work continues, in Chile and in neighbouring Venezuela.

Wild Life is billed as a love story. Kristine’s presence on camera, her passion, and her continuing grief, are visceral.

The directors are out to capture breathtaking shots of unfamiliar coastal and mountain ecosystems. They’re out to assemble an intimate portrait of a remarkable couple through interviews and archive. They are not in the business of asking difficult questions about the role of capital in conservation. But Kristine proves more than capable of asking a good number of those questions of herself. She’d be the first to tell you that the adventures of Tompkins Conservation over the last quarter-century have been anything but plain sailing.

Ultimately, Wild Life succeeds because it treats the Tompkins’s success as a laudable highlight of the conversation movement — not some sort of blanket solution to all the world’s problems.

We’re not going to save the world by buying it. But someone saved a corner, and filled it with giant anteaters, jaguars, red-and-green macaws, and giant river otters, and that is worth remembering, and should be, for all of us, both a provocation and a challenge.

“So off we go to the future”

Watching Alastair Evans’s A Crack in the Mountain for New Scientist, 17 May 2023

“Everyone on a bicycle wants to be on a motorbike. Everyone on a motorbike wants to be in a car. And everyone in a car wants to be in a helicopter.” A wry smiles creeps across the face of local business owner David “multi” English: “So off we go to the future.”

Ten years ago Phong Nha in Quang Binh province was arguably the poorest region in Vietnam. English arrived during the 2010 floods and remembers the region’s air of despondency. People fished the rivers and grew a little rice. Hunger was commonplace.

But the arrival of British caving expedition the previous April already signalled a big change. They had arrived to explore a cave system known to local farmers since 1991 but very remote, and up until then, entirely ignored.

Following a 5 kilometre-long fault through limestone, they discovered chambers that could each quite happily contain an entire city block. In places the ceilings are 200 metres high. Here and there, where the roof has fallen in, there are sunken forests boasting unique species of tree fern and other plants.

With its two jungles, two rivers and a waterfall, Hang So Doong is not just the largest dry cave in the world; “it doesn’t feel like you’re on planet Earth any more.” So says Meredith Harvey, who visited the cave in 2017.

Now the local government wants to put a cable-car through the site, opening it up to 1000 tourists per hour. Conversations with UNESCO have won a reprieve to 2030, but no-one seriously believes the site will remain pristine forever. Jonathan Drake, who visited in 2019, puts it this way: “Just imagine if the Grand Canyon was just discovered this week and it didn’t belong to anyone… how would that go?”

Alastair Evans’s documentary tells a story we have heard before, many times. In 1968 biologist Garrett Hardin coined the expression “tragedy of the commons” to describe a situation in which individuals use a shared resource in their own self-interest, leading to its eventual depletion. Will this happen to So Doong?

Certainly. It’s impossible to imagine the rulers of an Asian Tiger economy simply writing off their most potentially lucrative natural wonder, just so that a handful of wealthy foreign tourists can continue to enjoy its untouched charm.

It is not unreasonable to want an adventure. It is not unreasonable to make the most of one’s birthplace. It is not that unreasonable, after a lifetime riding to work on a motorbike, to want your children to be able to afford a car. This is what makes the tragedy of the commons a actual tragedy.

Of course, it is still possible to watch A Crack in the Mountain simply for its beauty, and for this, some credit must go to the local expeditions company Oxalis Adventure, founded by businessman Chau A Nguyen to put considerable sums (enough to buy schools, anyway) back into the local economy. The production values on show here are extraordinarily high. The expeditions through the cave appear very well managed. One might wish that Nguyen and his kind could simply be left alone to tailor the region’s development according to the needs of local people.

But then, that’s to forget the ravages of Covid-19, that closed down 90 per cent of Phong Nha’s small businesses, not to mention a series of recent floods that brought what little activity that remained in the region to a standstill. Big government, big finance and big engineering can weather such storms — but their activities come at a price.

This is a film about a wicked problem, sure to despoil a wonderful location, if not today then tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. By then, if a way to square this impossible equation ever does present itself, it will surely have been inspired by films as intelligent and passionate as this one.

Not our Battle of Britain

Watching Andrew Legge’s film Lola for New Scientist, 12 April 2023

Two sisters, orphans, play among the leavings of their parents’ experiments in radio, and by 1938 the one who’s a genius, Thomasina (Emma Appleton), is listening to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on a ceiling-high television set that can tune in to the future.

The politics of the day being what it is, Thom’s sister Martha (Stefanie Martini) decides that this invention (named Lola after their dead mother) cannot remain their personal plaything — it belongs to the world. With the help of Sebastian, a sympathetic army officer (soon enough Martha falls in love with him) the sisters are soon collaborating with British intelligence to fox Nazi operations a day before they happen.

Drunk on success, Thom lets her ambition get the better of her, and starts sacrificing the civilians of tomorrow in order to draw out the Wehrmacht. When a horrified President Roosevelt catches wind of this, it spells the end of Churchill’s efforts to draw the US into the war against Hitler.

Good intentions, ambitious plans and unintended consequences usher the world into Hell in this often stunning piece of micro-budget science fiction. As high concept movie ideas go, Lola’s counterfactual 20th-century history is up there with Memento and Primer and Source Code.

Attentive readers will feel a “but” hovering here. For some reason the director and co-writer Andrew Legge took a day of rest after fleshing out this winning idea; he seems neither to have finished the script, nor given his actors much directorial guidance. Lola is more a short story narrated to a visual accompaniment than a fully fledged film. Thom and Mars are supposed to be nice 1930s gals transfigured by their access to glimpses of 1960s pop culture — but it’s impossible not to see them for what they are, personable young actors from the 2020s let loose to do their thing in front of the camera.

This makes Lola a good movie, rather than a great one — and it’s a shame. Some extra scriptwork and a spot of voice coaching would have added hardly anything to Lola’s admittedly tight budget. In 2009, Legge made The Chronoscope, a 20-minute foray into the same territory. Lola is more solemn than that short outing, but no more serious, as though Legge were intimidated, rather than inspired, by the possibilities offered by the feature format.

Elsewhere, the film’s resources are deployed with flair and ingenuity. The film is an historically and technologically impossible but highly convincing assembly of found footage and home movie. (Among Thom’s other incidental inventions is a hand-held camera that records sound.) Famous radio broadcasts of the period are repurposed to chilling effect. (Lola’s “Battle of Britain” is not our battle of Britain). The Zelig-like manipulations of newsreel footage are fairly crude in purely technical terms, but I defy you not to gasp at the sight of Nazi invaders waving their Swastika over a bombed-out London, or Adolf Hitler being driven in state down the Mall. And Neil Hannon (the maverick musical talent behind The Divine Comedy, not to mention Father Ted’s “My Lovely Horse” song) has a quite indecent amount of fun here, cooking up the beats of a counterfactual 1970s fascist Top 10.

These days the choice confronting British and Irish filmmakers is stark: do you want to make your movie as quickly as possible, on the lowest possible budget, get it seen, and generate interest? Or do you want to spend twenty years in development hell, working with overseas production companies who don’t know whether they can trust you, and — with many millions of dollars on the line — are likely to homogenise your project out of all recognition?

I wish Lola had impressed me less and involved me more. But in a business as precarious as this one, Legge’s choices make sense, and Lola is an effective and enjoyable industry calling card.

The sirens of overstatement

Visiting David Blandy’s installation Atomic Light at John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton, for New Scientist, 22 March 2023

The Edge of Forever, one of four short films by Brighton-based video and installation artist David Blandy, opens with an elegaic pan of Cuckmere Haven in Sussex. A less apocalyptic landscape it would be hard to imagine. Cuckmere is one of the most ravishing spots in the Home Counties. Still, the voiceover insists that we contemplate “a ravaged Earth” and “forgotten peoples” as we watch two children exploring their post-human future. The only sign of former human habitation is a deserted observatory (the former Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex). The children enter and study the leavings of dead technologies and abandoned ambitions, steeped all the while in refracted sunlight: Claire Barrett’s elegiac camerawork is superb.

The films in Blandy’s installation “Atomic Light” connect three different kinds of fire: the fire of the sun; the wildfires that break out naturally all over the earth, but which are gathering force and frequency as the Earth’s climate warms; and the atomic blast that consumed the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

There’s a personal dimension to all this, beyond Blandy’s vaunted concern for the environment: his grandfather was a prisoner of the Japanese in Singapore during the second World War, and afterwards lived with the knowledge that, had upwards of 100,000 civilians not perished in Hiroshima blast, he almost certainly would not have survived.

Bringing this lot together is a job of work. In Empire of the Swamp
a man wanders through the mangrove swamps at the edge of Singapore, while Blandy reads out a short story by playwright Joel Tan. The enviro-political opinions of a postcolonial crocodile are as good a premise for a short story as any, I suppose, but the film isn’t particularly well integrated with the rest of the show.

Soil, Sinew and Bone, a visually arresting game of digital mirrors composed of rural footage from Screen Archive South East, equates modern agriculture and warfare. That there is an historical connection is undeniable: the chemist Franz Haber received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, a method of synthesising ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen. That ammonia, a fertiliser, can be used in the manufacture of explosives, is an irony familiar to any GCSE student, though it’s by no means obvious why agriculture should be left morally tainted by it.

Alas, Blandy can’t resist the sirens of overstatement. We eat, he says “while others scratch for existence in the baked earth.” Never mind that since 1970, hunger in the developing world has more than halved, and that China saw its hunger level fall from a quarter of its vast population to less than a tenth by 2016 — all overwhelmingly thanks to Haber-Bosch.

Defenders of the artist’s right to be miserable in face of history will complain that I am taking “Atomic Light” far to literally — to which I would respond that I’m taking it seriously. Bad faith is bad faith whichever way you cut it. If in your voiceover you dub Walt Disney’s Mickey “this mouse of empire”, if you describe some poor soul’s carefully tended English garden as the “pursuit of an unnatural perfection wreathed in poisons”, if you use footage of a children’s tea party to hector your audience about wheat and sugar, and if you cut words and images together to suggest that some jobbing farmer out shooting rabbits was a landowner on the lookout for absconding workers, then you are simply piling straws on the camel’s back.

Thank goodness, then, for Sunspot, Blandy’s fourth, visually much simpler film, that juxtaposes the lives and observations of two real-life solar astronomers, Joseph Hiscox in Los Angeles and Yukiaki Tanaka in Tokyo, who each made drawings of the sun on the day the Hiroshima bomb dropped.

Here’s a salutary and saving reminder that, to make art, you’re best off letting the truth speak for itself.

Wandering off into a blizzard for no reason

Watching Creature, directed by Asif Kapadia, for New Scientist, 5 March 2023

In an isolated research station, lost amid snow and ice, a highly disciplined team of would-be astronauts are putting an experimental animal through its paces. Will their Creature survive the tests they throw at it? The cold, the isolation, the asphyxia? A punctilious Doctor (Stina Quagebeur) palpates and measures the creature, summons handlers and equipment and calls for urgent aid when it looks as though an experiment has gone too far. She is meticulous, not malevolent, and when the Major in charge tears the creature from its one source of comfort, the station cleaner Marie (Erina Takahashi), and abuses her, the Doctor fears for the whole team.

It’s up to the captain to calm his superior officer down, and goodness knows he tries. Since this is a ballet loosely based on 19th-century dramatist Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck — about the mental deterioration of a soldier so utterly beholden to his commanding officers, he agrees to medical experiments — it’s not likely that things will end well.

Jeffrey Cirio plays the Creature in this unusual project from English National Ballet — a collaboration between choreographer Asif Kapadia and filmmaker Akram Khan, best known for the documentaries Senna (2010) Amy (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019).

It’s a grim fable of human ambition and ruthlessness, superbly performed, and shot in a way that draws the audience fully into the action, capturing moments of private emotion and the subtlest of gestures without losing any of the spectacle of an ensemble piece.

For almost its entire length (the last five minutes are rotten) Creature explores its extreme set-up with tenderness and intelligence, slowly eroding the distinction between a somewhat simian test subject and its hardly less simian handlers. The Creature wants to copy its masters. We don’t have very long to wait, however, before its masters are learning to copy the Creature. Though the hierarchies of this isolated, militaristic society are clear, and the Creature’s expendability is never in doubt, the piece holds out the possibility of real communication here, and even trust, and even love.

And then, out of nowhere, all that subtle, clever, sensitive work gets thrown away. The Captain (Ken Saruhashi), who’s been keeping the Major contained, wanders off into a blizzard for no reason, and the Major (a jaw-droppingly arrogant turn by the dashing Fabian
Reimair) makes merry hell and gets away with whatever he likes.

Creature wants to be an indictment of cruelty, obedience and power, but its central metaphor will not hold. First, astronauts are notoriously disobedient. Second, space agencies are chronically underfunded. Really, only the point about cruelty might stick, and even here, I have my reservations. Do we sacrifice experimental animals to further our research goals? Certainly, though much less than we used to. And even in the bad old days, these creatures were honoured. Look at the statues to the space dog Laika (I know of at least two), or the remains of NASA’s chimp Ham, interred at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico. You can argue that these gestures were insufficient, but you can’t say they were empty.

By the end, did Creature leave me impressed? Thrilled? Moved?

Yes, all three. It also left me aggrieved.

Here I was, preparing to sing the praises of a science-fiction ballet about our difficult relationship with other primates, and what I was left with, at the end, was a by-the-numbers glimpse of how horrid people can be.

It may be that expanding human efforts into outer space is a silly idea, but the show’s censoriousness left me cold. A shame, because the dancing — ironically enough — was out of this world.

 

“Our trained mediums are standing by”

Watching Mali Elfman’s Next Exit for New Scientist, 22 February 2023

From out of nowhere, a chink of light appears. With painful slowness, the light grows stronger: we are inching towards a half-open door. Beyond the door, everything seems normal. A little boy is playing a game of pretend. At least, that’s what we think. Soon enough, we learn what’s really going on: the boy is playing cards with his dead father.

Nothing else in Mali Elfman’s debut feature lives up to this unsettling opening sequence (though there’s a sight gag — two would-be suicides renting a car from Charon Vehicle Rental — that comes close).

Rahul Kohli and Katie Parker — actors who turn up regularly in work by horror director Mike Flanagan — play Teddy and Rose, driving across the US to an appointment with Dr Stevensen (Karen Gillan) who has promised them a clinically managed euthanasia. Teddy, a Londoner, has spent ten years trying and failing to make it in the United States, and figures that being turned into a pioneer ghost (his transition from life to death monitored with all the latest gear) will at least give his life some meaning. Rose is weighed down with guilty secrets, and just wants to be done with it all.

Mind you, even Rose is not as nihilistic as the man who, early on in the film, wonders in front of their hire car, and under their wheels, with a note pinned to his chest: “Thanks for the help”.

Suicides and homicides are common now, as Heaven beckons (or whatever passes as Heaven), and our hardscrabble lives on this ordinary Earth lose their preciousness and meaning. “Our trained mediums are standing by,” a radio advert announces, offering contact with the newly visible dead. This is a world lost to itself, snared by fantasies of the hereafter.

But what do these newly discovered ghosts really want, as they stream into our world through every available screen? Not every haunting is as touching as that of the boy and his dead parent. Rose guzzles bourbon by the bottle so as not to see her mother watching her from inside the motel pay-per-view. A friendly cop, caught up in a drinking game, confesses to a thoughtless on-duty prank that killed a family of five; not surprising then, that he thinks “they’re here to hurt us.” Karma, a hitchhiker Teddy and Rose pick up out in the desert, has her own doubts: ”Just because we can see them,” she points out, “doesn’t mean we understand them”.

It’s at this point, about half way into the movie, that the viewer’s heart, if it does not immediately sink, certainly begins to tip: surely this film has bitten off way more than it can possibly chew?

Teddy admits that what he really wants out of his own managed death is for the news to get back to his absentee father: “I’d rather kill myself than live the life you gave me.” This is not a bad line, but what follows is horrific, and not in any intended way: a stage-managed confrontation with Teddy’s dad; an impromptu psychodynamic therapy session in a filling station car lot. The script rights itself, but having lost all confidence after this compound pratfall, it delivers, in the end, only a low-key retread of Joel Schumacher’s 1990 flick Flatliners. (Judgement waits for us all; struggle gives life its meaning; you know the rest.)

Next Exit is a promising film, but not a good film. It warps the world into a very strange shape, to ask some valid — indeed, pressing — questions about where the value of life resides. But it loses its way. If the writing had exhibited half as much commitment as the acting, we might have had a hit on our hands.