Review Roundup - Spore


Interesting, small scale science fiction stories are something I often harp on about. There's just something appealing about features which are cold and clinical in their approach whether the subject matter is alien life or artificial intelligence. So, it's typical that this sort of thing is given an extremely limited release and then the freshly minted 'dumped on Netflix' treatment. Why this was deemed necessary is a mystery beyond some vague notions that it lacked broad appeal, but in an age when low budget horror films are often successful I fail to understand why a few marketing tricks wouldn't have solved the problem. But I digress, this is a follow-up to Alex Garland's Ex-Machina. Where his 2015 film looked at life being developed in a robotics laboratory, this is all about the creeping dread of unknowable organisms from outer space. It's a shift in theme but the result is just as successful.

In a few brief shots we get introduced to this idea, as a meteorite hits a small coastal town and envelopes a lighthouse in a kind of alien soap bubble. This iridescent spectacle is a recurring visual motif as the story progresses, it's appealing in one way but invasive and unnerving at the same time. The mixture of the familiar being blended with the horror of the unknown is a major part of the story as it unfolds and we're treated to a lot of sequences that are both beautiful and distressing. Like mutant flowers and mysterious fauna, it's a tale of the nature of things being twisted in ways that seem horribly unnatural but exist regardless of our ideas about conventional logic and fairness.

The characters themselves are often self destructive and lack the sense that a scientific approach should mandate, but this kind of duality is common throughout the story. Investigating the ever growing quarantine zone is biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) who wants answers after her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was the only survivor from several previous expeditions. After one year away from home he's not quite his old self, and soon Lena decides to find out exactly what his mission was. It's soon very apparent that Lena has some problems of her own, and that her military and teaching background aren't helping her cope.

Joining her are Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a surprisingly distant psychologist, and Anya (Gina Rodriguez) a paramedic who is often passionate but quick to deny clear evidence of what happened to the last team. Josie (Tessa Thompson) is the group physicist and Cass (Tova Nototny) is a geologist, but like the others they seem to have some heavy baggage under their cool exteriors. Not everyone is particularly well defined, but as an ensemble they all have a role to play, whether it's because of their professional status or their personal demons. It lends everything a sense of desperation, and this becomes an idea which pushes them onwards into dangerous territory.

It's this kind of character study that makes it all so engaging, although a little extra-terrestrial dread also helps. The cast may look tired, sickly and often at the end of their patience, but the world they enter is only going to make things worse. The nature of the threat is mostly an enigma, and it's nice to see a subtle approach regarding this sort of organism. Despite nods to films like The Thing and The Andromeda Strain, there are no sudden realisations about the problem. It's dealt with in a far more unsettling way that leaves a lot to the imagination. There are a lot of strange plants and fungus like growths inside the land covered by the oil slick dome they dub 'the shimmer'. But there are also many instances of real body horror and even a few monster movie style sequences that ooze with atmosphere.

The creations included range from the uncanny and eye popping to the genuinely distressing, just like many things found in real life biology. Mixing up ideas like mutation, tumours and parasites but having the team never really figure it out makes it very tangible but at the same time still altogether alien. A lot of the set pieces in the third act will really get under your skin, whether it's the cabin drama, the animals they find, or the finale when they reach the lighthouse and face the problem. It's not exactly Giger, but the use of bizarre structures and weird lifeforms works in a way that feels both like an alien story and a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Both feel appropriate for a tale that feels like it could be about radiation or disease.

Credit for making this all so gripping also has to be given to musicians Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow who return from Ex-Machina to provide another pulsing and twitching electronic score that fits with all the itchy and bewildering goings on. In a way it often sounds like the growth or the language of an unknown being. Like that previous feature it's often a stressful experience and one that wears its influences on its sleeve, but ultimately the results are still fresh and entertaining. If sloppy film distributors haven't ruined the prospects of more of this sort of thing from Alex Garland, I hope we get to see more like this in the near future. In the meantime be sure to see this one wherever you can. It's a dark, nebulous and often mesmerising effort that deserves a wider audience.


MUTE (2018)

Onto another film that I was anticipating, Mute is the latest story from Duncan Jones - director of Moon and Source Code. After dabbling with high fantasy and huge budgets with the middling and often muddled videogame adaptation Warcraft, a return to form was surely on the cards. With this getting no big screen release whatsoever I thought it must be just too dark and cerebral for all the blockbuster watching plebs. But while it's easy to be sarcastic and cynical by pointing fingers at an undefined mass of viewers, the reality is that this just isn't up to the standards I was expecting. It's bleak, yes. But as just as an engaging drama there are many other problems.

Jones made a mark with his debut which had a certain Outer Limits style quality to it, and the same can be said of it's successor. Small, character based dramas that had neat science fiction trappings and a memorable premise. So why doesn't this work? It's mainly a case of too many ideas fighting for attention, and none of them are explored properly or executed with enough panache. On the one hand, a story about a man trapped in a dystopian future but refusing to become part of it by using technology is a fantastic hook. On the other you have a follow up to Moon, or at least a spiritual successor in set the same world. And then you have a plot about seedy deadbeat dad Paul Rudd and his daughter, a tale of terrible parents and grotesque back alley doctors.

But jumping between all of this on the fly, often making tonal shifts that are bizarre and disjointed really isn't the way to do it. It's flabby and often patience testing at the best of times, while its worst moments are just baffling. The world and the visuals are pretty good in a time when everything is a post Blade Runner concrete jungle. Some ideas like shady American surgeons and AWOL soldiers hiding in a future Germany are nice touches that add detail and texture. There are some really good moments that have both eccentric characters and a good sense of tech-noir flair. But it's all just so rickety and lacklustre. None of these threads are satisfying as they all collide in the closing minutes, it all needs more focus and a lot of trimming.