The Raid: Redemption (Indonesia, 2011)

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Of all the unique capabilities of film as an art form, I think you can make a decent case that the most significant innovation—the biggest game-changer in the way we entertain ourselves—is its ability to record and depict exceptional physical feats. There have always been people who push the boundaries of human physical capability, but before film, their exploits were always more legendary than famous. The work of great storytellers could be set down in writing, great music could be reproduced, great visual art could still be seen long after the artist was gone—but until the 20th century, unless you were physically present at a circus or a sporting event, you couldn’t truly experience the achievements of great athletes and acrobats. Words can describe these things in great detail, but only moving pictures can fully capture the power and grace of a great physical performance. Our appetite for this sort of thing is seemingly boundless, and unlikely to diminish anytime soon. Look no further than the massive share of TV content devoted to live professional sports and feats of daredevilry, and the enduring, widespread popularity of action movies. From The Great Train Robbery way back in 1903 to the breathtaking comic stunts of Buster Keaton to the high-octane blowouts of modern times, we simply can’t get enough of those genre-defining physical extremes that are, for most of us, mercifully absent from real life: chases, battles, explosions, fights and shootouts.

It would be hard to find a purer, more exuberant expression of this than The Raid: Redemption, a 2011 Indonesian martial arts flick that’s (almost) entirely about the spectacle of bodies in thrilling, violent motion. (Quick note: If you’re thinking that Redemption sub-title is a bit silly, the filmmakers would probably agree; it was added for rather banal legal reasons, and from now on, I’ll refer to the movie by its intended title The Raid.[i]) We should say up front: this is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea. If you see no appeal in watching a few dozen people shot, stabbed, kicked, punched, and otherwise violently dispatched, no matter how beautifully it’s all put together, then this movie isn’t for you and makes no attempt to persuade you otherwise. But for those of us who do enjoy such spectacles, The Raid is a glorious breath of fresh air; it knows what we’re here for, and seeks only to deliver the goods as expertly as possible. Made for the relative pittance of $1.1 million,[ii] it runs for a lean 100 minutes, the vast majority of which contain ‘action’ in some form or another. The setup is almost primal in its simplicity: a police squad is trapped in a tower run by a ruthless drug lord, and must fight their way out or die trying. It’s a prime example of the so-called ‘worst day ever’ movie, which could technically describe a pretty wide range of work, but is traditionally applied to action flicks that trap their heroes in some restricted space to fight off hordes of homicidal enemies, from Die Hard (1988) to Black Hawk Down (2001) to Judge Dredd (1995) and its underrated 2012 remake Dredd. The dialogue is sparse, and mostly restricted to the exclamations of amped-up combatants: “He’s here!”, “No, wait!”, “Get me the fuck out of here!”, etc. The characters are developed just enough to technically register as characters, capably filling archetypal roles: skilled but green rookie; tough-as-nails sergeant; enemy leader with complex loyalties; wounded comrade who must be saved; cold-blooded killer with a perverse sense of honor. While there is some CGI—muzzle flashes, bullet casings, presumably (hopefully?) some of the more egregious impacts and injuries—in an era where far too much action is nothing but zeroes and ones, The Raid offers the inimitable thrills of real performers in real space, dazzling us with stunts and acrobatic maneuvers that few normal people could even attempt. And most importantly in this genre, it’s all clear as day, shot and assembled with exceptional care and skill.

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The story behind it is nearly as fun as the movie itself. It begins not in Indonesia, but in Wales, where a young film school graduate named Gareth Evans, probably feeling a bit unfulfilled teaching Welsh over the Internet, “sidestepped an apprenticeship in the British film industry by moving to Jakarta.”[iii] I doubt that was his exact thought process, but in any case, he makes the move and becomes fascinated with the place and its culture. He gets hired to direct a documentary about pencak silat, an Indonesian variant of the Silat style of martial arts practiced throughout Southeast Asia. There, he meets Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, pencak silat champions then making their livings as a truck driver and a trainer, respectively. Evans hires them as actors and fight choreographers on his next film, Merantau (2009), which becomes a hit in Asia and among martial arts buffs—clearing the way for the trio to try something more ambitious, if still far removed from Hollywood action extravagance.[iv]

The result is The Raid, a movie with an interesting blend of influences reflecting its unique origins. Low-budget Silat action movies are apparently a fixture of Southeast Asian cinema, and while they’re little known (and probably impossible to even access) in the West, Evans is surely familiar with the subgenre, and seeking to channel some of its best features. The movie also exhibits many defining elements of Asian action cinema as a whole: the commitment to live stunts, the reduction of plot and character to the most basic necessities, and a preoccupation with honor and integrity even in the midst of violence and chaos that would seem to render them obsolete. At the same time, the influence of Western action cinema is also evident in the filming techniques; the macho, profanity-laden dialogue (“When it comes to the lives of my men, you’d be wise to shut the fuck up!”); and in the depiction of violence with (relative) realism, as opposed to the more stylized/comic approach of Asian stars like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. The juxtaposition of these differing aesthetics could have been awkward, but the streamlined simplicity of the plot helps keep things tonally consistent; as Andrew O’Hehir writes, “there’s not the slightest iota of snarky, jokey, postmodern pastiche in The Raid. It never feels like a tougue-in-cheek, Tarantino-style East-West hybrid… and if you didn’t know the director was British, you’d never guess it from the internal evidence.”[v] The movie is informed to some degree by Evans’ Western sensibilities, but he’s careful to let it remain an Indonesian film at its core.

Evans does exemplary work (more on that in a bit), but the success of The Raid is rooted first and foremost in the remarkable talent of its performers. There’s a certain ineffable quality, I find, to the movements of truly exceptional athletes: Michael Jordan, Jackie Chan, Simone Biles, Mookie Betts, Kylian Mbappé, and countless others who noticeably stand out even among their professional peers. They’re not always the fastest or the strongest, but they move with a seemingly instinctive efficiency, each motion flowing into the next, constantly calibrated for maximum efficacy—when they jump, they seem to hang in the air longer than the rest. We see that same quality in the martial-arts stars of The Raid: Uwais as our rookie hero Rama, and Ruhian as the psychotic enemy enforcer Mad Dog, whose moniker is so apt that we never learn his actual name. One of them is centrally featured in each of the fight sequences, giving us ample time to marvel at their skill and creativity; there’s an internal rhythm to the choreography that makes it all the more gripping, and every sequence contains multiple moves that would be the climactic capstone of a lesser action movie. We can even begin to register subtle differences in their fighting styles—Rama more focused on precision and anticipation, turning his enemies’ attacks back on themselves, and Mad Dog, described by one critic as “the closest the movies may ever come to a live action Tasmanian devil,”[vi] more about speed and athleticism, turning his entire body into a weapon—making it all the more stunning when they finally square off against each other. And it’s not just them; several supporting actors, all with varying levels of martial arts training, are also given central roles in the action and prove to be thrilling fighters in their own right: Joe Taslim as Sergeant Jaka, Donny Alamsyah as Rama’s estranged brother Andi, and Eka Rahmadia as the skilled police officer Dagu. And of course, there’s also the rest of the police squad and the thugs on the receiving end of Rama’s prodigious ass-kicking—dozens of anonymous stunt performers who have the different but equally difficult job of not only performing their moves, but also convincingly acting out the brutal hits, throws and maimings that their parts entail. The violence is harrowing, but so impressively performed that it’s wondrous to behold.

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It also helps that the insane stuff these guys are doing is so expertly assembled onscreen. Directing action is a highly specific skill, one that some of the most accomplished filmmakers struggle with, and if it’s done poorly, no amount of ebudgetary largesse or post-production wizardry can really save the sequence. There could be (and probably have been) entire books written about action film theory, and obviously the best directors put a great deal of thought into every moment of their sequences, but I also believe that just as some people are naturally gifted musicians, builders, writers, or anything else, certain directors simply have an instinctive feel for action. It’s not restricted to any particular style; Paul Greengrass uses quick-cutting shaky-cam, Kathryn Bigelow goes for docudrama realism, George Miller has his smoothly roving camera, and Jackie Chan uses carefully sequenced static framing, but they all have that seemingly innate talent for creating exhilarating, visually coherent action sequences. Watching The Raid, it’s clear that Gareth Evans has it, too.

Which is not to say we can’t identify some of the technique and decision-making behind it. First, Evans keeps things quite visually consistent; the movie was filmed mostly with a Fig Rig, a steering-wheel-like mount for smal digital cameras that produces images somewhere in between the jerkiness of handheld and the less maneuverable smoothness of a true Steadicam. So almost all the shots are fundamentally similar: halfway between shaky and steady, mostly at standing eye level, prowling nervously around the edges of the fight. The angles change regularly and sometimes quite rapidly, but the perspective is almost always the same: that of a bystander watching the fight at a close remove. Because of this, our eyes don’t have to make split-second adjustments to a new type of image, like a handheld close-up or a static wide shot—we have a rudimentary idea of what we’re going to see next even before it comes. When he does go to something different, typically a near-static wide shot or one looking down on the action from above, the motion of the camera or the figures in the frame always leads smoothly into it. In general, Evans also frames his shots wider than many action directors; we can usually see multiple combatants, and enough of their bodies to tell what they’re doing. The camera moves feel intuitive, reflecting the way we would shift our gaze if we were actually there watching the fight. Evans also takes special care to keep the action in or near the center of the frame, so that when he cuts, our eyes don’t have to scan the image for the thing they’re supposed to be focusing on. Some cuts might seem unnecessary in the moment (‘That shot was fine; why change it?”), and some significantly alter the point of view, shifting a full 180 degrees around the fight, but whenever that happens, Evans is setting up the next moment, making an upcoming camera move or combat flourish easier to register.

Most notable of all is what Evans doesn’t do, and here again, the skills of his cast are crucial. In lesser, merely passable Western action movies, the stars typically don’t have the skills to convincingly perform all the moves, especially when it comes to taking hits. So in addition to using shaky close-ups to exaggerate motion, they’ll often cut right on the hit; it’s a tried-and-true way to paper over the impact, stitching together the beginning and end of it without showing the whole thing. But it’s also visually confusing, asking us to register something that we didn’t actually see, because it didn’t actually happen—and cutting exclusively for that reason. If that happens a lot, as it often does in movies where it’s necessary, it wrecks the visual coherence of the action, and the sequence becomes exhausting rather than exciting. Evans, even when he’s cutting rapidly, almost never cuts on impact, because he doesn’t have to; his performers are good enough to make the fight convincing without disguising anything. Their skill means that Evans can cut in the softer moments between the hits, complementing the rhythm of the fight rather than working against it, and that he’s always able to show the most awesome stunts—the crescendos in that combat rhythm—in a single shot, so we can see clearly how amazing they are.

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Nevertheless, coherent action isn’t the only thing Evans does exceptionally well. The Raid is often described as constant, unrelenting action, and that’s accurate, but it’s not pure martial arts combat from start to finish. The fight sequences are numerous, but they’re also clearly demarcated, and relatively short compared to the overall runtime. The key is what occurs between them; Evans has fun devising sequences that are relatively simple to film (no real ‘stunts’ to speak of) but still keep the tension relentlessly ratcheted up. He never uses slow-motion in the fights, but he makes judicious use of it to draw out two key moments early on: once when a sentry just barely relays word of their presence before they silence him, and once when an ill-timed muzzle flash betrays their position to gunmen lurking in the darkness above. Otherwise, Evans almost never strays from the quasi-Steadicam type of images that he uses in the action sequences, infusing the rest of the movie with a similar tense energy. The early scenes of the police infiltrating the tower are, in their own way, just as thrilling as the fight scenes that follow, because they’re filmed in much the same way. Once the mission goes awry, whenever our characters get a reprieve from the fighting, the nervously hovering camera keeps us on edge, reminding of the danger that might lurk behind every door. Evans devises some very effective sequences of cat-and-mouse tension, mostly involving Alfridus Godfred as the leader of the machete gang, who becomes a menacing presence long before he fights or says anything, repeatedly appearing in the frame just after the cops have left it, slowly tapping his machete against the tiles as he searches the bathroom where they’re hiding, and finally driving his blade through a wall behind which Rama and his wounded comrade are hiding.

This is another advantage to the simplicity of Evans’ premise: our police protagonists are trapped in a building full of criminals who want to kill them. There’s no nuance between the sides, no negotiation; the second the thugs spot the cops, they’re after them with murderous intensity. As in a real-life war or ‘action’ scenario like this, there’s no clear dividing line between combat and rest, and it never feels like our characters are truly safe. There are only a few scenes—the kingpin Tama strategizing with his two lieutenants, and the conversation between Rama and Andi—where we don’t feel the imminent threat of violence breaking out at any moment.

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The story may be aggressively simple, but that doesn’t mean the constant intensity is the only interesting thing about the movie. Evans does a good job of making the narrative just involving enough to leave us with a little bit to think about besides the action badassery. As Western viewers, we don’t learn much about Indonesia except that corruption is a problem, which isn’t exactly a shocking revelation in that or any other part of the world. But it’s still fun to listen to the lively rhythms of the Indonesian language, and to get even a vague, genre-specific sense of a place that most of us know next to nothing about, even though it’s the fourth-most populous country in the world. The plot twists are predictable, but interesting enough to pay attention to, and as the story goes on, they change up the combat dynamics in entertaining ways. Moreover, as primal as the battle between police and thugs is, Evans does allow for some gray areas: some of the police are cruel or corrupt, some of the thugs fight honorably when they have the choice not to. Not a groundbreaking sentiment, but certainly more satisfying than the rah-rah bellicosity that often defines action movies, especially those that go as all-out on the violence and mayhem as this one does.

At the end of the day, though, the story isn’t what anyone watches a movie like this for, and Evans knows it. We watch it to be amazed, and he delivers on that expectation many times over. There’s violence in The Raid, so much ghastly violence, but Evans, Uwais, Ruhian and their small army of committed artists make it as beautiful and exhilarating as anything you’ll see at the movies—and for a tiny fraction of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Forget whatever Transformers sequel some studio just paid $200 million for. In a hundred years, The Raid will still be blowing people’s minds.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] Apparently the distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, was somehow unable to secure rights to the title The Raid, so they had to tack something on to release the movie in the U.S. The original Indonesian title is Serbuan maut, and I think it would have been great if they’d simply gone with the literal translation: The Deadly Raid.

[ii] My favorite stat: that’s less that the cost per minute of your typical Transformers flick, which makes the fact that The Raid is so much more entertaining than that garbage all the more satisfying.

[iii] From a good review: https://www.npr.org/2012/03/22/148945789/the-raid-hand-to-hand-thrills-in-a-jakarta-slum

[iv] There’s actually a good chance you’ve seen Uwais and Ruhian before, if only briefly. A few years ago, I was thrilled to see their names among the cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens—but all they were allowed to do was bark a few menacing lines at Han Solo and then get eaten by a monster, which has got to be the most inexcusably wasteful cameo in recent memory. Oh, what they could have done with lightsabers…

[v] Also insightful and informative: https://www.salon.com/2012/03/23/pick_of_the_week_a_dazzling_martial_arts_sensation/

[vi] Also very good, like all of Ty Burr’s reviews: http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2012/03/30/the_raid_redemption_movie_review____the_raid_redemption_showtimes/

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

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In these heated days—when controversy seems to arise from everything that everyone does, all the time—the idea of a single movie inciting a fierce nationwide debate can seem like a relic of a naive and distant past. And yet, that’s exactly what happened just seven years ago upon the release of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s sweeping account of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Already it’s easy to view the movie, what it depicts and the concerns it grapples with, as belonging to a recognizably different era in American history; as far as I can see, it hasn’t become newly insightful in the feverish, cranked-to-11 politics of today. But it’s worth revisiting now for many reasons: it remains as immersive and disturbing a piece of fact-based filmmaking as Hollywood has ever produced; it offers compelling insights about an episode of recent history that’s ongoing, with no end in sight; and the questions it explores, about morality and nationalized revenge, are just as relevant today as they were back then.

It’s worth noting what an outlier Zero Dark Thirty still is. Despite many significant developments in both politics and filmmaking over the past seven years, there’s never been a fiction film quite like it: written with such extensive access to sensitive material and directed with such close attention to realism, telling a true story so inherently thrilling and so emotionally significant to the target audience. It’s an epic—set all over the world, spanning nearly a full decade, and exploring timeless themes—but it’s also a ripped-from-the-headlines procedural that delves into the nitty-gritty of contemporary geopolitics. There’s so much to unpack here (I’m hard-pressed to think of a movie that packs more into 2 hours and 45 minutes) that it’s hard to know where to begin. But in any great movie, you can be sure that the opening will be highly significant, and this one is no exception.

Indeed, much of the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty centers on its infamous first half-hour, with its graphic portrayal of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation.’ But, crucially, the movie actually begins a few moments earlier, with a black screen and a short mélange of actual sound bites from 9/11, including a few stomach-turning clips of victims in the final moments of their lives. This brief prologue caused a good deal of controversy in itself, with critics claiming (reasonably, I think) that using the voices of the real victims in a fiction film, sometimes without the explicit consent of the families, is ethically dubious at best. But the sequence is undeniably powerful, and it serves an important purpose. 9/11 was such a paradigm-shifting event that it’s already mythologized in the American psyche—arguably ever since the government started invoking it to justify the War on Terror, and certainly at the time of Zero Dark Thirty’s release. The prologue forcefully reminds us what this increasingly abstract event actually entailed—the horror and the real-life tragedy.

Then it’s two years later, and we’re immersed in another whirlwind of human suffering as an unnervingly easygoing CIA agent named Dan (Jason Clarke) carries out a brutal interrogation. It’s convincingly established that Ammar (Reda Kateb, doing excellent work in the thankless role of the century), is somehow involved with al-Qaeda, yet it’s hard to imagine any decent person not feeling repulsed as the bruised, helpless detainee is waterboarded, deprived of sleep, sexually humiliated, and finally locked into a horribly small wooden box. This is the movie’s first signal that it’s not simply propaganda in support of such practices; it’s impossible to watch these scenes and conclude, as the Bush administration long tried to claim, that these techniques don’t constitute torture. Bigelow confirms that this is a textbook violation of human rights, while also reminding us of the incident that initially let us convince ourselves it was necessary. (Sure, Dick Cheney is enough of a cartoon villain that he probably wanted to do this stuff anyway, but he still needed something like 9/11 as a pretext.) So we have one atrocity, the torture of detainees, in response to another: the 9/11 attacks.[i] The basic arc of the narrative to come is so well known that we already have expectations about what sort of movie this will be: part espionage thriller, part combat picture. It has elements of both, but the opening makes clear that this is, first and foremost, a movie about revenge. And if there’s one part of the American soul that’s just as forcefully present today as it was back then, it’s the desire for revenge against those who cross us.

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Like all the best revenge stories, Zero Dark Thirty uses its subject matter to examine some difficult themes—trauma, violence, obsession, and the moral cost of payback. It’s not surprising that so many people, especially those of us who consider the CIA’s use of torture a moral abomination, would be upset that the movie doesn’t present the hunt for bin Laden in a way that explicitly validates our position. That complaint is not unfounded, but it reflects an unwillingness to grapple with a deeply uncomfortable issue, not to mention a certain disdain for what film as an art form is capable of. If you’re willing to ascribe worth only to movies that reduce the mess of real life to a simplistic moral equation and come down on your side of it—well, all I’ll say is that you’re depriving yourself of most of the best movies ever made. One could claim, for instance, that The Godfather glorifies the Italian Mafia because it takes their point of view and depicts them as more than heartless monsters; that case is there to make. But people rarely do, because they realize that they’d have to ignore many significant elements of the movie, including most of what makes it interesting. Anyone who wants to dismiss Zero Dark Thirty as a nationalistic, torture-glorifying revenge fantasy can find everything they need to make that case, too.[ii] But that would be textbook bad analysis: determining the moral stance of a complex work based on a few offensive elements, and willfully disregarding pretty much everything else the movie says, shows, and implies.

Most attacks against the movie boil down to essentially this: that it depicts torture as a valuable tool in the hunt for bin Laden. There are many moments in the movie that support that idea, but if you’re willing to look deeper, you’ll find a great many others that challenge, confuse, or refute it. It’s true that in the beginning, Dan goes to work on Ammar with gusto, using exactly the sort of gloating, jingoistic language that advocates of torture might nod along with. Meanwhile, Maya (Jessica Chastain), the newly arrived analyst who will become our protagonist, is shaken by what she sees but does nothing to stop him, and coldly rebuffs Ammar’s pleas for help. It’s discomfiting because they’re supposedly on ‘our side,’ but it’s also sensible characterization—they’re committed front-line fighters in the War on Terror, and they’re also employees carrying out orders from their superiors. More importantly, though, nothing comes of it; Ammar ends up incoherently rattling off random days of the week when Dan asks him about the next attack, and then we cut to civilians being mowed down in Saudi Arabia as Dan and Maya watch the images on TV, stewing in their failure to stop it.

Of course, Ammar does finally produce a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a trusted al-Qaeda courier and the lead that Maya will eventually use to track down bin Laden. Once again, though, the role of torture is tricky—Ammar only gives it up when Dan and Maya sit him down, give him some food, and interrogate him without violence,[iii] and yet, he only does so because of Maya’s bluff, which relies on his disorientation after torture and the threat of more to come. But as the story progresses, we learn that the CIA already had the same information from other sources; we see Maya combing through old interrogation tapes in which multiple detainees (some under duress and some not) mention Abu Ahmed as well. It turns out that the CIA even has his real name—something even Ammar didn’t know—in a file that got lost in the early years after 9/11. We’ve seen how driven Maya and her colleagues are; it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have found it eventually. It’s never explicitly stated, but the implication is clear: torture played at least some role in Ammar’s confession, but the CIA could have found the same information using more orthodox methods, and probably would have done if they hadn’t been so caught up in spinning intelligence for the pointless Iraq war and torturing people for unreliable information.

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The confession isn’t the only example that the movie’s detractors cite as evidence of a pro-torture stance. Much is made of the fact that later on, Maya herself presides over the torture of Abu Faraj, a senior al-Qaeda commander. But once again, it gets her exactly nowhere; in the very next scene, she’s frustrated and dismayed that it isn’t working. It’s also true that in the same scene, Dan warns Maya about the changing politics back home, advising her to be careful with the detainees lest she put her career in jeopardy. But, significantly, neither of them seems particularly disappointed or angry about this; although Dan insists he’s fine, he’s clearly troubled by the brutal things he’s done, to the point that he’s transferring back to Langley. In a sign of his growing disillusionment with the methods they’ve been using, he even declines her offer to interrogate Faraj himself. There’s another important moment soon afterwards, when we see the newly elected President Obama on TV, insisting that under his leadership, “America doesn’t torture.” Maya’s reaction is studiously hard to read. She doesn’t seem pleased or relieved, but neither does she sneer, throw up her hands, or hurl something at the screen—none of which would be out of character if she were outraged by this news. Instead her expression is neutral, contemplative, as if she’s simply thinking, “Well, I guess this is what we’re doing now.” The point is reiterated soon afterwards, when a CIA higher-up named George (Mark Strong) gathers Dan, Maya, and their colleagues together and rips them all a new one for doing such a terrible job finding terrorists. His language is bellicose (“Bring me people to kill!”), but his implied point is clear: what they’ve been doing up to now has failed miserably. And this is where they start making real progress—when they stop torturing detainees and devote themselves to the painstaking detective work of normal intelligence gathering: combing through files, tapping phones, cultivating local sources, and studying satellite imagery.

It’s complicated, though—it always is with Zero Dark Thirty—because the same character also has one of the movie’s most seemingly pro-torture lines. When the National Security Advisor demands proof that the mystery occupant of that famous house in Abbottabad is bin Laden and not some other criminal kingpin, a frustrated George complains: “You know we lost the ability to prove that when we lost the detainee program.” With a shrug, the Advisor replies, “You’ll think of something,” and it comes across as classic bureaucratic waffling. Except, George and the others do think of something; they do more research, come back with stronger evidence, and gradually convince the rest of intelligence community (and finally the unseen president) that their assessment is worth acting on. And in this they are hindered, not helped, by the fact that torture played a role in the initial confession. In a surprising reversal, Dan, the one who carried out the interrogation, is among those least convinced that the information is reliable. His doubts are reflected in the rest of the CIA brass, who offer only tentative agreement that bin Laden is really there. The implication is that if they’d found the house without torture (and we’ve seen that they could have) the decision to act might have been easier to make.

All of this is not to suggest that Zero Dark Thirty is really an anti-torture polemic in disguise. It may not glorify CIA torture in the way its detractors claim, but nor does it definitively show that such techniques played no role in finding bin Laden. Since the movie’s release, many people with detailed knowledge of the actual events have even asserted that it overstates the importance of torture, and I see no reason to doubt them. Indeed, there are moments that can’t be explained away, such as an early scene when Maya interrogates a former al-Qaeda financier, using the threat of extradition to Israel—and the certainty of torture there—as leverage. (No, she doesn’t use violence herself, but come on—the man literally says, “I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question; I will answer.”) For me, the scene that best captures the movie’s split mindset comes later on. Dan meets with his boss, who complains about the political fallout in typically hawkish fashion: “Abu Ghraib and Gitmo fucked us,” “We’ve got senators jumping out of our asses,” etc. Dan agrees to take the heat for the program if necessary, but he does it to secure funds to bribe a Kuwaiti official for help with cell phone surveillance—in other words, to facilitate the normal, nonviolent intelligence gathering that he now recognizes as the more effective way forward.

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The most that can be said is that Bigelow and Boal are clearly going to great lengths to preserve ambiguity on the issue of torture, and I think that’s because their intellectual goal is more sophisticated than to deliver a definitive ideological verdict. As we’ve mentioned, this is a revenge movie at its core. And revenge stories are all, in their own ways, about trauma and the victim’s response to it. What sets Zero Dark Thirty apart from other revenge movies is a question of scope. The filmmakers are exploring a phenomenon that’s common enough throughout history but still difficult to wrap one’s head around: trauma on a national scale, and a nationalized quest for vengeance. Film critic Andrew O’Hehir perfectly encapsulates the central issue that I think the movie is grappling with:

We have taken Dick Cheney’s famous taxi ride to the dark side, in search of justice or vengeance or whatever payback term you like. How has that worked out for us? What are the consequences of embracing not just the enemy’s tactics but the enemy’s essentially nihilistic worldview, in which the standards of universal morality that supposedly formed the basis of the Western world’s liberal revolutions simply do not matter?

Bigelow and Boal did not invent this problem out of nothing, people, and it’s not limited to the 9/11 era or the United States of America. Every single powerful nation throughout history, whether Western and supposedly enlightened or not, has used torture and brutality and state terror as instruments of policy, pretty much whenever it convinced itself it needed to. What has changed since, say, the end of the 18th century is that the great powers are now compelled to pay lip service to higher ideals and pretend that they never do such things, or to explain them away as aberrations perpetrated by rogue elements. When all else fails, there’s always the appeal to patriotism, still the last refuge of scoundrels, as it was to Samuel Johnson. We had to break the rules to “protect the homeland,” as characters repeatedly say in Zero Dark Thirty, which was approximately the rhetoric used to justify British torture in Northern Ireland, French torture in Algeria, American torture in Latin America and the Phillippines, and on and on.[iv]

The message I take from Bigelow and Boal is this: torture was a significant, ugly part of our reaction to the trauma of 9/11, so whether it played an essential role the manhunt or not, it has to be included in any serious examination of what that trauma has done to us. Bigelow herself said as much: “Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes. But it was.”[v] You don’t get to tell the story of our response to 9/11 and pretend this wasn’t part of it.

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Bigelow and Boal really do something quite radical here: they take the most inherently cinematic story of the War on Terror, the one that would be easiest to spin into a simplistic tale of good vs. evil, and make it into one of the least triumphalist blockbusters Hollywood has ever released. For them, a movie about the War on Terror, even one depicting a clear American victory, should not leave us feeling triumphant or comfortable. With its docudrama cinematography, brisk pacing, and realistically unadorned production design, Zero Dark Thirty unfolds so naturally that it can seem like this story couldn’t have been filmed any other way. But at every turn, Bigelow makes conscious choices that inject a sense of discomfort into the proceedings. She skillfully walks a fine tonal tightrope: the movie is gripping but sobering, a story of success that’s almost relentlessly grim.

This is not to say that Bigelow completely neutralizes the story’s inherent appeal; her portrayal this rarefied world and the covert struggle taking place within it is appropriately engrossing and intense. It’s still thrilling when the characters discover a new piece of information, and the tradecraft, technological wizardry, and deductive reasoning they use to acquire and interpret it all is still fascinating and impressive. Yet at the same time, Bigelow creates an atmosphere of pervasive dread and doubt. Her principal characters are not like us; they’re zealous workaholics grasping for answers in a world of uncertainty and deception, with little evident connection to the civilian society that they’re ostensibly serving. The score is haunting and melancholy even at the most triumphant moments. The restless handheld camera keeps us on edge, moving skittishly through environments that bear little resemblance to our own: hectic Middle Eastern cities, blandly threatening military bases, and soulless office spaces. Bigelow expertly amplifies the sense of menace by focusing on odd, minute details: a rustling canopy, a single van wheel beginning to creep forward, the hem of a burkha shifting to reveal the black boots of an agent in disguise.

Nowhere is this duality more apparent than in the movie’s final half-hour, which meticulously reconstructs the Navy SEALs’ famous assault on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Bigelow’s gifts as an action director are on full display in this remarkable sequence. She stages the raid almost in real time and largely without musical cues, forgoing typical action-movie flourishes in favor of unmitigated realism—she knows this incident needs no cinematic enhancement to make it riveting. She has a fantastic instinct for conveying space and motion, expertly cutting between close-ups and wider angles so that even as we witness a complex event with many moving parts, it’s always clear what’s going on. This is especially impressive when you consider that it’s shot almost entirely with handheld cameras and switches frequently between two distinct color schemes: the green glow of night vision goggles and the murky grays and blues of a moonless night. This nervous cinematography does much to create a sense of potential danger around every corner and behind every door; the scene is a masterwork of sustained tension despite the fact that most viewers already know how it’s going to end.

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Most remarkable of all, however, is that even when squarely focused on physical reality and moment-to-moment action, Bigelow engages meaningfully with the larger themes. If there’s any part of the story that could be presented without much ambiguity, this is it: a dramatic, successful military action that the vast majority of Americans approve of, and are intensely curious about. There are certainly moments when the sequence functions in the expected way: as an expression of our collective fantasy of revenge against the mastermind of 9/11. Yet Bigelow never allows it to stay in that vein for long, using the facts of the mission and her own directorial discretion to create frequent counterpoints, yanking us out of the fantasy and complicating our sense of vicarious satisfaction.

So during the SEALs’ initial journey to the compound, Bigelow gives us what we want: stunning images of the stealth helicopters flying hair-raisingly low to avoid detection, skillfully intercut with the nervous SEALs inside and the operators back at the base to create a rhythmic, visceral sense of breakneck flight and mounting anticipation. But in doing so, she also draws our attention to the setting, painting a brief but vivid picture of the mountains between Afghnistan and Pakistan—a rugged, desolate landscape still largely untouched by human civilization. She highlights the fact that the SEALs are flying through one of the most historically significant mountain ranges in the world: the Spin Ghar range, and the larger Hindu Kush that it connects to, have formed a natural barrier and gateway between disparate civilizations since ancient times. Bird’s-eye views of the helicopters, tiny and indistinct against the mountains, invite us to consider this small skirmish as part of a much longer history of confrontation between East and West. Technology has changed the battlefield and the geopolitics are different, but there’s nothing new or original about our War on Terror; it’s just the latest iteration of a conflict that has existed in myriad forms for thousands of years.

The counterpoints are even more pronounced as the SEALs make their way through the compound. Bigelow places us right there on the ground alongside them, encouraging us to identify with them on a gut level—their panic during a chaotic helicopter crash; their nerves as they approach a doorway, unsure of what’s on the other side; and the adrenaline-fueled surge of action when an enemy emerges from the gloom. She gives us thrilling depictions of their bravery and skill, their cohesiveness as a unit and their composure under extreme stress, but she doesn’t shy away from the devastating results of their work, either. Repeatedly, tension builds to an instant of deadly confrontation, and the SEALs prevail, but it’s immediately followed by the consequences: sobbing children, screaming women, and the peculiar, sickening sound of silenced rifles pumping extra bullets into the body. Fittingly enough, we see it most clearly when the squad reaches the top floor of the house. A SEAL lurks in the stairwell and, as we’ve seen others do, calls out the name of the man he believes is hiding there: “Osama!” In our nationalized fantasy of payback for 9/11, this is where everyone most wants to be, and Bigelow knows it. She shoots directly over his shoulder and down his rifle as he scans the doorways, as close to his point of view as we can get. A few of the SEALs have become readily identifiable by now, but this guy isn’t one of them, and with dim glints of light reflecting off the four separate lenses of his night vision goggles, he seems almost more cyborg than human—an anonymous, avenging avatar onto which any American can project themselves. But what happens next isn’t exactly rousing: just a creaking door, a muffled gunshot, a body slumping to the floor, and the family’s anguished cries. All we see of the world’s worst terrorist is a flash of furtive motion in a doorway and a lifeless body absorbing extra bullets. When the moment of vengeance comes, it’s not an epic showdown with evil incarnate, just a man being skillfully murdered in his bedroom. We don’t see the celebrations in the streets back home, and there are no cheers from the operators back at the base. Even the SEALs are pretty subdued, at least in the immediate aftermath; when they do celebrate later on, it mostly comes across as the ‘holy shit we made it!’ kind of triumph.

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In another significant move, Bigelow doesn’t present bin Laden’s death as the climax of the sequence. There is faint background music as the SEALs hastily exit the compound, but the true end of the raid—the moment of transition from hyperrealism back into standard cinematic storytelling, with its necessary distortions of space and time—is clearly signaled when the score suddenly returns to dominate the soundtrack. And that doesn’t happen when bin Laden is killed, or when the last SEALs leave the compound. Instead, the score returns when they blow up the downed helicopter—a controlled demolition to protect military secrets. The music that rises up is melancholy, almost spooky, and after such a protracted fast-paced sequence, Bigelow lingers for a notably long time on shots of the burning wreck, mining this actual event for symbolic import and driving home a crucial point: we may have prevailed, but we haven’t come out unscathed. We’ve gotten the vengeance we were after, but we’ve lost something, too.

That message is everywhere in Zero Dark Thirty—never explicitly stated, but subtly telegraphed in character interactions, implied in framing choices and musical cues, and vividly embodied in the main character, Maya. The movie’s detractors often point to her lack of scruples about the use of torture and her occasional slides into jingoism as evidence of the movie’s bad faith. But depiction is not the same as endorsement, and a protagonist (even one brilliantly portrayed by a talented actress) is not the same as a heroine. In this story, we are definitively on one side and against the other, but no one is pure enough to be considered a straightforward hero, least of all Maya. Bigelow and Chastain invite us to admire her intelligence and resolve, and to sympathize with her uphill struggle as the only woman in an organization run by men. But she’s relatable only insofar as she’s seeking the revenge that we crave; the movie emphatically does not present her as someone we should aspire to be. Even in the all-consuming profession of espionage, she’s singularly alone, with no romantic life and, as one colleague sympathetically observes, no real friends at all. She presumably has some family, but as portrayed in the movie, she never even thinks about them. The one time we see her socializing, she talks about work, and the scene ends with a harrowing explosion. She has no life outside of her job—even eating and sleeping are annoying chores that get in her way.

We still root for her as she tries to convince her wary superiors to act, but that’s largely because we already know she’s right. Imagine yourself as one of her colleagues, trying to work with her without the benefit of hindsight, and she starts to look different: intractable and unpleasant, if not downright ornery, and obsessively attached to a pet theory that’s far from ironclad. We share her frustration when Dan questions the intelligence; he seems to be cynically trying save his own skin by making his views conform to political changes. But if you think about it, his doubt makes perfect sense: we’ve seen two separate occasions where he tortured detainees and got nothing out of it—there were presumably many more. The same is true when Maya argues with her boss Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), demanding more resources to track bin Laden’s courier. She has more passion and better rhetoric, but he has the better argument. Without the knowledge that she’s right, his assessment that she’s “chasing a ghost while the whole fucking network goes all around [her]” sounds pretty spot-on.

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This is a character often lionized in the movies: the hyper-competent warrior/civil servant who lives only for their work. But Bigelow is clear-eyed about how easily such deep commitment can drift over into fanaticism. In another pitch for more resources, Maya implores a colleague: “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this. I believe I was spared so I can finish the job.” Unless you’re the sort of person who views our adventures in the Middle East as a righteous resuscitation of the Crusades,[vi] that line makes you uncomfortable, and it’s meant to, because our protagonist is starting to sound disconcertingly similar to the people she’s fighting. Apart from showing a dark side to Maya’s zeal, this crucial line suggests that the War on Terror, and the hunt for bin Laden in particular, contains more of an element of ‘holy war’ than we’d perhaps like to admit. Most of us would balk at the idea of a grand struggle between Christianity and Islam, but religions aren’t the only things that a society can hold sacred. For us, it’s more often about principles: democracy, personal liberty, happiness through consumerism and mass wealth. If there’s anything that unites the vast majority of Americans—especially when the movie was released, before the current shitstorm—it’s a deep-seated belief that we know the right way to live, and one of the driving forces behind the War on Terror is an urge (admitted or not) to spread that gospel to supposedly less enlightened areas of the world. Zero Dark Thirty suggests that in the final analysis, our endeavor is not so different from our enemy’s, and ultimately just as futile.

The movie’s final shots definitively quash any lingering sense of triumph, with Maya sitting alone in a cavernous military transport plane, finally letting her roiling emotions bubble to the surface. She’s an embodiment of America in its quest for revenge: deeply committed, but also obsessive to the point of misery and ill health, moral compass blown to bits, alone and directionless once it’s over. Not for nothing is the movie’s final line, “So, where do you want to go?” We fought brutal wars, adopted our enemy’s cruelty and disregard for innocent life, spent thousands of man hours and literally unimaginable sums of money, killed god knows how many people and sacrificed many of our own—all to kill one man who, by the time we get him, hasn’t been a serious threat to the country for years. Zero Dark Thirty wrestles with a crucial question: Was it worth it? On the level of instinctive patriotism, of course it was. He was the mastermind of 9/11; we’d do anything to get that bastard! Fine, the movie says, here’s what that looks like, up close and in human terms. Do you still think it was worth it? We got our revenge, but are we really better off? I think you’d have to ignore an awful lot of this movie to claim that Bigelow and Boal’s answer is yes. During the SEALs’ frantic evacuation of the house, the camera lingers on two significant images. We see a pool of blood on the floor of bin Laden’s bedroom, and a room full of computers and filing cabinets, only partially ransacked for valuable intelligence—the pitiable side of our revenge, and its ultimately negligible impact on the broader conflict.

Politics have changed, but Zero Dark Thirty is just as thought-provoking today as it was when it came out. It’s not always easy to watch, but it’s an achievement that deserves to be remembered: an entertaining and immersive thriller that also manages to explore difficult issues with uncommon depth. It’s a masterful piece of cinematic craft, and it will eventually be a valuable historical document, partly for its nuanced depiction of what happened, and partly for the way it captures the mindset of a nation lashing out in response to trauma. It shows us who we are, what we did and what it did to us—raw, unfiltered by ideology, without the comfort of a simple moral judgment.

No wonder it pissed so many people off.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] Bigelow and Boal don’t delve into the thorny history behind that one—after all, there’s only so much one movie can do—but anyone with a passing knowledge of the Middle East knows that 9/11 didn’t come out of nowhere, either.

[ii] Glenn Greenwald, an astute and talented investigative journalist, does so very articulately here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/14/zero-dark-thirty-cia-propaganda

[iii] Manohla Dargis makes this point well, in this excellent review: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/movies/jessica-chastain-in-zero-dark-thirty.html

[iv] Read the rest of this exceptionally thoughtful and incisive review here: https://www.salon.com/2012/12/14/pick_of_the_week_kathryn_bigelows_mesmerizing_post_911_nightmare/

[v] https://www.thewrap.com/zero-dark-thirty-steps-line-fire-answers-critics-68781/

[vi] And if you are, then pretty much everything about this movie probably looks very different from the way I’ve discussed it.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

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I fully understand how it would be easy, at first glance, to dismiss this movie as just another one of the forgettable, CGI-drenched blockbusters that Hollywood churns out each summer. In the poster, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt stand poised in futuristic exoskeleton-cum-battle-suits with war raging behind them. His forearms bristle with large-caliber weaponry; she slings an outsized, cleaver-like sword over her shoulder. They look into the distance with grim determination. The title, Edge of Tomorrow, is typical of these sorts of movies—vaguely epic, but essentially meaningless once you stop and think about it. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to guess how the story will unfold. Our handsome hero will fight a war with the nifty, advanced technology of an imagined future. Emily Blunt will pay her Hollywood dues as the secondary female comrade. The two of them will probably start out at odds, then find common ground and work together. It looks like they’ll save the world. Probably from aliens.

The thing is, that’s all pretty much correct. The impression we get from the poster isn’t so much inaccurate as incomplete. Only the tagline, “Live. Die. Repeat.”—which is, for some reason, more prominently displayed than the title[i]—hints at the time-travel antics and wry, winking tone that make this movie exceptional. It’s no great masterpiece like The Godfather, but it is a great summer blockbuster: exciting, solidly acted and cleverly written, not to mention smarter and more emotionally resonant that it initially appears.

None of which will come as a surprise to those familiar with director Doug Liman, who’s been a skilled cinematic showman throughout his career, from early cult classics like Swingers and Go to the action flicks that he has mostly made since. Sometimes his movies work (The Bourne Identity, Fair Game, or the recent American Made), sometimes not so much (Jumper, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), but Liman always makes the screen crackle with an infectious verve and energy. His enthusiasm and lightness of touch are perfectly suited to a movie like Edge of Tomorrow, with its frequent, often darkly comic battle sequences and its tongue-in-cheek vision of the near future. Working with an engaging screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, and with lively visuals by cinematographer Dion Beebe and editors James Herbert and Laura Jennings, Liman continually finds entertaining new dimensions in this twisty sci-fi story.

Even in the initial exposition—related via a newsreel montage of general calamity and the pronouncements of a brusque Irish general (Brendan Gleeson) in the first scene—there are indications that Edge of Tomorrow is not just another mindless blockbuster. Start with the alien invaders, first glimpsed in the vividly hectic battle sequence that rounds out the opening half hour. Dubbed ‘Mimics’ for their uncanny ability to anticipate our actions, they’re tough, merciless, and refreshingly bizarre—typically visible as little more than whirling, seething masses of tentacles, with heads and legs vaguely discernible on the rare occasions when they stand still. While perhaps not truly frightening, they’re genuinely convincing as an existential threat to humanity, emerging from underground burrows and zipping lethally around the battlefield; it takes a great deal of firepower to kill even one of them, and their shape-shifting limbs quickly decimate entire squads. Indeed, the writers seem to have conceived the Mimics with the explicit goal of silencing skeptics. Don’t believe that the nations of the world would band together in fairly uncomplicated fashion, with every able-bodied human desperately needed for the war effort? Check out these monstrosities—if we’re ever going to create a ‘United Defense Force’ (UDF), this is what it would take. Just to hammer the point home, the Mimics have landed in Germany and quickly steamrolled most of mainland Europe. The conflict is never given a name, but it might as well be called ‘The Perfectly Unquestionable War of Self-Defense.’

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Things aren’t looking good for humanity, but we join the story at a pivotal, relatively hopeful moment. New weapons (those badass exoskeletons) have given our troops a fighting chance, and some have even mastered them to the point of becoming true super-soldiers. Chief among them is Blunt’s Sergeant Rita Vrataski, whose heroics have led to a crucial, improbable victory at Verdun,[ii] buying time for a retreat across the English Channel. At the outset, the UDF is preparing to launch a massive, last-ditch counterattack—landing on the Normandy beaches, no less!—and Sergeant Vrataski has become an icon, lionized in the media as the ‘Angel of Verdun’ and known to the rank and file by the half-derogatory, half-admiring, very semantically satisfying moniker ‘Full Metal Bitch.’

And if you still find yourself thinking, “Okay, that all sounds fun, but… Tom Cruise, really?”—well, I’m right there with you. I’m definitely against him as a human being, and pretty torn on him as an actor. He’s almost always an engaging screen presence, but it can be hard to tell if you’re actually watching a good performance, or simply appreciating the fact that he’s so clearly giving it everything he’s got.[iii] The wonderful thing about Edge of Tomorrow is that you don’t need to like him—indeed, Liman almost seems to be banking on the fact that many people don’t.

Cruise plays Major William Cage, a smooth-talking military PR officer leading the effort to drum up public support for the impending attack, and at the beginning, he’s thoroughly unlikable: vain, self-absorbed, and a coward to boot. He’s happy to look pretty and project confidence on TV, convincing millions of people to enlist in a war against a near-invincible enemy, but he balks at the idea of going anywhere near combat himself. When Gleeson’s General Brigham assigns him to film the landings in France (only mildly dangerous, since the beach appears to be undefended) he dodges, flashes a million-dollar smile, and does everything he can to wheedle his way out of it. Whatever Cruise’s limits as an actor, he excels at this sort of thing, and it’s worth pausing for a moment over that smile. It’s central to some of his best roles (Magnolia, Jerry Maguire) and one of the keys to his overall success—a strange but beguiling mix of sleaze and genuine charisma. Anyone can see that there’s manipulation behind that smile, yet you can understand how people would still fall for it. It’s a perfect fit for a character like Cage—the confident grin of a man who has coasted through life mostly on his good looks and his ability to charm and disarm. (In a satisfying dig at a few other deserving targets, we learn that before the war, he was an ad executive from New Jersey.) It’s not as if no other actor could have played this role well, but Cruise’s presence dovetails perfectly with the cheekily self-aware tone that makes the movie work.

This is still a summer blockbuster, so we know that Cage will eventually learn his lessons, become a better man, and rise to the occasion. After an ill-advised attempt to blackmail his way out of combat, he finds himself stripped of his rank, thrown in with the grunts of J Squad, and dropped, in a dizzying single take, out of a troop transport and into battle. He’s completely ineffectual, but he manages, mostly through dumb luck, to kill the Mimic that massacres the rest of the squad. In a lesser movie, this would be his wake-up call, and he’d quickly acquire a sense of duty, master the battle suit, and generally become a skilled and honorable soldier—all in time to single-handedly turn the tide and save the day. But wait, now a half-dozen more Mimics are gathering nearby… maybe they won’t notice him? That would be a little hard to believe. But nope, the big blue one sees him! He has the presence of mind to grab a claymore and blow its face off, but—yikes, now his own face is a mess, and apparently Mimic blood corrodes like acid. Until a movie finally goes there, you don’t realize how rare it is to see an A-list leading man like Cruise die painfully onscreen, and Liman has fun lingering for several nasty seconds on the blood burning through Cage’s face and liquefying his brain—just to remove any lingering doubts that, yes, this guy really is dead.

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Then Cage wakes up back at the base as if from a bad dream, and we have the movie’s central conceit: he’s trapped in a time loop, doomed to live the day of the battle over and over again. And this trippy-est of sci-fi plot devices has the welcome effect of making Cage’s character arc, and the story in general, a great deal more convincing. The UDF really does have no chance on that beach, and Cage doesn’t magically become a super-soldier in the course of a single battle. If a clumsy coward like him is eventually going to do his duty and help save the world, it makes sense that he’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming into it. It’s the perfect role for the polarizing, sometimes overly ingratiating Cruise; those who like him still get to watch him carry the movie and do the action-star stuff, while those who hate him get to point out that he becomes a hero only when all other options have been exhausted, and watch him die dozens of times along the way.

The time-loop gimmick is also central to the movie’s sense of humor, allowing Liman to eschew the kind of trite solemnity that often pervades big blockbusters when the fate of the world is at stake. (Think of the two needlessly dour Matrix sequels, which had eye-popping action galore but lacked the original’s anarchic sense of fun.) Cage’s first death is shocking in both senses (graphic and unexpected), but once dying has become a mere minor setback, Liman is free to stage most of the subsequent deaths with a healthy dose of slapstick comedy. He puts Cruise through quite a gauntlet; Cage is crushed, drowned, blown up, slashed by Mimic tentacles, run over by large vehicles in two different contexts, and, once he begins his ‘training,’ repeatedly clobbered by whirling Mimic simulators and unceremoniously put down by an impatient Rita Vrataski. It’s amusing, and even becomes rather profound as the deaths keep piling up. Viewed a certain way, Edge of Tomorrow is an oddly powerful meditation on the absurd, arbitrary brutality of war—to survive, you need either incredible luck or an unlimited number of chances to get it exactly right.

This setup is hardly original; several other recent movies have put their protagonists through similar existential wringers. The most obvious parallels are with thrillers like Déjà Vu and its much-better, criminally lesser-known cousin Source Code, which sees Jake Gyllenhaal trapped on a doomed commuter train until he can identify the terrorist who blows it up. In spirit, however, the closest companion to Edge of Tomorrow is probably Harold Ramis’s classic comedy Groundhog Day. The settings are wildly different, but both movies feature an arrogant protagonist forced to relive the same day until he learns not to be a selfish asshole. Liman wisely doesn’t try to hide this, opting instead to be cleverly self-aware about Edge of Tomorrow’s relationship to its obvious antecedent. A clear example is the way the two movies signal the day starting over. Bill Murray, effortlessly magnetic even when acting like a jerk, wakes up in a cozy bedroom to a soothing Sonny & Cher ballad. Tom Cruise, somewhat grating even when he’s doing his utmost to be magnetic, gets a literal kick in the ass and a drill sergeant in his face, yelling, “On your feet, maggot!”

Liman also follows Groundhog Day’s fine example by not getting too bogged down in time-travel mechanics. Ramis recognized that such explication wasn’t necessary for his story, and didn’t offer any. Liman can’t quite get away with that, but he knows that the movie’s appeal doesn’t lie in the specifics of how the time loop works. He gets most of the explanation out of the way in a few efficient scenes, mostly from the mouth of a dotty scientist played by Noah Taylor, who unfortunately isn’t given much else to do.[iv] Even here, Liman doesn’t push too hard; Taylor’s Dr. Carter simply tells Cage that there’s an ‘Omega’ hidden somewhere, which constitutes, along with those big blue ‘Alphas,’ the central nervous system for all the Mimic drones. It’s the standard Achilles heel of invincible alien invaders—destroy it, and we win the war. Cage got that blue blood into his veins the first time he died, so now he can reset the day, because, well, “The Omega has the ability to control time.” Even when sci-fi movies do flood us with esoteric terms, inventing whole branches of pseudoscience to make things sound plausible, the exposition essentially boils down to the same thing: this is just how it is. Suspend your disbelief and let’s get back to the fun stuff.

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Taylor may get stuck with a largely functional role, but not so for the other supporting actors, most of whom play Cage’s sardonic J Squad comrades. Liman and the screenwriters take care to give them at least rudimentary personalities, and find ample humor in their increasing confusion as Cage learns more and more about them, while they keep meeting him for the first time. The mostly unknown actors have fun with their hammy dialogue, and everyone gets at least one laugh line. Tony Way gets several of them as the archetypal overweight slob, and those who recognize her will be amused to see Charlotte Riley, best known for embodying the upper-class English charm of bygone eras, clearly enjoying herself as a scrappy, foul-mouthed grunt. (At one point, she even gets to grin at Cruise and yell, “Hah! Jinx, bitch!”) The late Bill Paxton probably has the most fun of all as an uptight, built-Ford-tough platoon sergeant, spouting southern-fried platitudes about the glory of combat that evoke militaristic philosophies of the early 20th century.

Such sentiments aren’t just amusing characterization; they’re central to the appeal of the movie’s imagined future. The outlook for the human race may be grim, but Liman’s inclination to keep things lighthearted leads him to imagine humanity in a way that rings weirdly true. The soldiers of J Squad (and, by extension, the rest of the UDF) aren’t terrified conscripts; they’re fully and enthusiastically immersed in the military mindset: the human race on all-out war footing. Assuming the pre-war world was as morally murky as ours is now, it makes sense that they might find the simplicity of the situation perversely refreshing. Faced with the prospect of annihilation, humankind hasn’t just united, but morphed into a slightly brasher, more cocksure version of itself. They almost seem to be relishing the role of the underdog: if we win, it’ll be a truly epic triumph; if we lose, at least we’ll go down swinging. Either way, the choice is clear: get out there and kick some Mimic ass. This is the world of all sorts of punk-inflected sci-fi, especially video games and comic books (the screenplay is adapted from a Japanese graphic novel with the delightfully barefaced title All You Need Is Kill) and Liman imbues the movie with a heightened-reality vibe that echoes such influences.

One of these parallels is particularly striking. Even among other time-loop protagonists, Cage is uniquely similar to a whole other category of fictional characters who find themselves temporally imprisoned, even when their stories don’t revolve around it. I’m talking, of course, about video game avatars. It might seem like a stretch to compare these controllable masses of pixels to the richer, more autonomous characters of traditional fiction, but as technological advances have made games ever more impressively photorealistic, the line has become increasingly blurred. The biggest contemporary video games feature settings at least as vividly detailed—and characters as intricately expressive—as those of early 3D-animated movies, and the scale of the creative enterprise has grown in concert, with crews, budgets, and revenues often rivaling those of the biggest movies.[v] The stories have a mostly deserved reputation for being lazy and hackneyed, but most games do have a narrative framework, and game developers, equipped with ever-improving visual tools (and faced with ever-rising financial stakes) have increasingly invested creative resources in sophisticated narratives, decent dialogue, and complex characters—sometimes including top-tier actors to supply their voices.[vi] I’m no expert on video games, but as they continue to proliferate, diversify, and be taken more seriously as works of art, the similarities with other creative industries are striking. Game categories increasingly resemble those of film; the big, action-focused blockbusters look amazing and offer simple escapist thrills, but rarely have much of a soul, while scrappy ‘indie’ games are less dazzling, but make up for it by being smarter, wittier, and more emotionally stimulating.[vii] And we haven’t even touched on the now-ubiquitous practice of adapting movies into video games, and vice versa.

My point is simply that there is a considerable and increasing amount of overlap between movies and video games, especially the big action blockbusters of both mediums. The world of Edge of Tomorrow could easily be that of a first-person shooter—the Omega even functions as the requisite ‘end boss’—and the story makes the same demands of Cage that we make of our avatars. Welcome to the world! Now charge into the chaos of war. Die a violent death. Now do it again. (On your feet, maggot!) In the second act, Cage and Rita work, through lethal trial and error, to plot a survivable course through the battle, which is exactly what the player does in a game set to the highest (i.e. most realistic) difficulty. This is something that older generations often don’t seem to understand about the appeal of difficult games; it’s not just about killing and blowing stuff up, but about learning from your mistakes and mastering a sequence of actions: turn here, take cover there, get that one, move before that one sees you—over and over until you make it through alive. And for as long as digital avatars have looked even mildly realistic, artists have imbued them with human consciousness and imagined the tragicomic results. In fact, an entirely new video art form has arisen over the past twenty years, in which players record certain points of view in multiplayer games, effectively turning them into cameras. The multiplayer map becomes the set; the other avatars, plus recorded voiceovers, become the actors. Known by the unwieldy term ‘machinima,’ these stories are usually quite amateurish and juvenile, but the best among them imagine the inner lives of the avatars with genuine insight and humor.[viii]

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Working with flesh-and-blood actors rather than pixels, Liman explores how a more recognizably human character might be affected by the mind-bending absurdity of such an existence. And it truly is mind-bending; one of the hidden pleasures of Edge of Tomorrow is letting your imagination run wild with the implications of the time loop. The movie encourages such speculation; no sooner have we wrapped our heads around Cage’s predicament than Liman starts messing with our newly adjusted sense of time and scale. In a crucial early scene, Cage saves Rita from incoming fire, and as he kills a few Mimics with practiced efficiency, we realize along with her: he’s done this before. In almost every subsequent scene until Cage loses his power, Liman repeats the gimmick, dropping sly and frequently entertaining hints that although we’re seeing this part of the story for the first time, Cage has been here many times already. We quickly lose track of how many times Cage has lived and died, and Liman refuses to give us even a vague indication of the total number. Indeed, there’s no guarantee of continuity even within individual scenes; whenever a conversation or sequence of actions reaches a halfway plausible endpoint, the next thing we see could be many loops further down the line. The images we see aren’t a sequential story so much as a highlight reel lifted from hundreds—if not thousands—of iterations of the same journey. Cruise does a fine job of imagining what the effects might be; an almost imperceptible sag comes into his shoulders, and his face hardens into a grim mask as frustration gives way to resignation. The fact that Cage’s experience so far outstrips our understanding also makes the incremental rewiring of his personality all the more believable. Even as he becomes numb to death and destruction—he probably sees more of it than any other person in history—he’s inevitably growing closer to the people who are his only company in the midst of it, and whom he has to watch die every day.

None more so, of course, than Rita. The arc of their relationship is formulaic, but relatively plausible for multiple reasons, and Liman handles her character in refreshing, even subversive ways. Well, mostly. Three repetitions of that shot of her rising up in slow motion from a yoga pose is probably overkill, but you can understand the inclination. It’s a remarkable image, and one that says something about the movie’s attitude: even here, at the moment that most plainly objectifies Rita in the way action movies so often do to women, she’s attractive in a way that’s as much impressive as seductive. This is still Emily Blunt playing her, so Rita is gorgeous to an improbable degree, but she’s also strong and athletic enough that her in-story reputation remains credible. That is to say, she’s entirely convincing as a super-soldier who happens to be as gorgeous as Emily Blunt—still the kind of coincidence that happens only in movies, but she looks the part in a way that such characters rarely do.

She’s allowed to act the part as well. That thrice-repeated shot is easy to roll your eyes at, but it’s in slow motion for a reason: it’s the split second of simple curiosity when she first sees Cage, before reality and her personality kick in, and she greets him with undisguised contempt: “Who said you could talk to me??” The movie even allows her to play that icy demeanor for laughs, something only men are typically allowed to do. The one person who actually calls her by her vulgar nickname gets a turbocharged punch to the gut, and the one time Cage does bring up sex, her response is exactly what I presume most women envision for men who won’t take a hint. The dynamic between them is (mostly) a subtle inversion of the usual one between male and female leads in action movies; this time she’s the reticent, battle-hardened veteran subjecting the new recruit to brutal training regimens and instilling the values of duty and self-sacrifice.

She even gets to be—in a subtle, roundabout way—the real hero of the movie. The story is centered on Cage’s redemption, but if you think about it, Rita’s journey is far wilder and more impressive. Prior to their meeting, she spends an indeterminate amount of time as the only person on earth to have gone through the craziest experience in human history. She’s the only soldier in the UDF who truly understands the enemy they’re fighting, and as such, the only one who can formulate and carry out the near-suicidal plan that has a chance of winning the war. She has to charge into a battle that she’s virtually certain will be a massacre, while at the same time staying on the lookout (then and throughout the preceding 24 hours) for someone else who’s stumbled into the time loop. And she has to be mentally prepared to play her part at any point in the plan’s progression, while knowing that she’ll only actually experience a few possible outcomes: a slaughter on the beach, or an epic journey to kill the Omega. In either case, she’s unlikely to survive. If she does, then all she’ll probably ever know about her part in saving the world will be a story told to her by someone she’s just met. Just try to imagine her radical state of mind as the battle approaches; how beautifully apt that she trains by balancing on one hand amid giant spinning blades.

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Not to mention her emotional state; along with the near-certainty of imminent death, she has to be ready to meet and work with a stranger who already knows her very well. Here again, the time-loop premise makes the movie’s adherence to blockbuster conventions feel less arbitrary and more honestly earned. As tough and withdrawn as Rita is, it makes sense that she might open up somewhat to Cage; having been in the time loop herself, she understands that they’ve already spent countless days together. And while Liman doesn’t completely eschew the genre-prescribed romantic element, he notably downplays it. Cage falls in love with Rita because she’s beautiful and a straightforwardly admirable person, but his deep emotional attachment to her is more rooted in the intensely harrowing experience that they go through together. When Rita does kiss him, it’s a gesture not so much of romantic attraction as of respect for his bravery and gratitude for his assistance—the quick and perfunctory farewell of two warriors who know they’re about to die.

As such, it’s of a piece with the sequence it takes place in. The endings of time-loop stories are always tricky—even the excellent Source Code struggled to come up with an emotionally satisfying resolution that also made logical sense. The climactic showdown in Edge of Tomorrow certainly isn’t perfect; only a couple of J Squad grunts get a proper resolution, while the heroes, so realistically mortal beforehand, become more conventionally damage-proof once Cage is out of the loop. But the sequence is agreeably efficient and straightforward for an action blockbuster, and does a surprisingly good job of holding to the story’s internal logic. Meanwhile, Liman handles it with his usual panache; the action is lively and coherent, while the flooded, abandoned Louvre and Tuileries Gardens have a bleak and arresting beauty.

Nor does the movie overstay its welcome with extravagant scenes of celebration once the world is saved. Cage lands in London amid ringing church bells, watches a brief news report on TV, and just like that, he’s on his way to the place we know this scene is headed. He sees that J Squad is still alive, then walks into the training center to find Rita, who of course greets him just as coldly as she always has. In one final satisfying moment in a movie full of them, Liman leaves the interaction that follows up to our imagination. Cage just chuckles, and for once there’s no obvious manipulation behind that smile; he’s simply thrilled that a person he’s come to admire and care about isn’t dead after all. And when someone is that genuinely delighted onscreen, their happiness is inevitably contagious.

Even if that person is Tom Cruise.

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[i] This was supposedly considered for the actual title right up until the last minute, then seized upon as a sort of alternate title in the studio’s attempts to re-brand the movie for home release after it performed badly at the American box office (as so many of the best ones do). The DVD release just went ahead and used both in concert, yielding the terrifically nonsensical title Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow.

[ii] Yes, that Verdun—the threat of the ‘Mimic scourge’ is such that it must be likened to the antagonist of not one, but both World Wars. It also confuses the allegory in subtly humorous ways; the Mimics are a merciless force of pure destruction, but maybe they’ve started this conflict due to fears of strategic encirclement, and the breakdown of a convoluted galactic alliance system.

[iii] My favorite assessment of his acting comes from Christopher Orr’s review of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: “You don’t overcome the ‘impossible’ by thinking it over a little more carefully… You overcome the impossible through the application of sheer, unvarnished willpower, a quality that Cruise has always possessed in abundance. Other performers might cry more persuasively, for instance, than Cruise did at Jason Robards’ bedside in Magnolia, but none will cry harder. Others may juke more gracefully in their underwear than Cruise did in Risky Business; none will juke with greater conviction.”

[iv] Taylor looks the part and delivers his lines well, as always, but I’ve found him much more compelling when he takes his eccentric demeanor in more sinister directions—most famously as the loathsome mercenary Locke, who cut off Jaime Lannister’s hand in Game of Thrones.

[v] For example, the latest Call of Duty game made $500 million the weekend of its release, and surpassed $1 billion within two months. Meanwhile, the video game industry as a whole grossed a staggering $74 billion worldwide in 2015, and continues to grow.

[vi] This trend is, of course, hardly universal; some older games—the Legend of Zelda, Deus Ex, and Thief come to mind—are known for their compelling storylines, while many contemporary games are as narratively vapid as ever. For interesting (and hilarious) commentary on all this, check out the Zero Punctuation YouTube series by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, a motormouthed, flamboyantly profane British critic who articulately skewers weak narratives in his often scathing reviews of new games.

[vii] One of the most widely acclaimed games of all time, for example, is Portal, a bare-bones puzzle game with plain graphics and an impish sense of humor, in which the player uses a portal-generating gun to move through spaces that they otherwise couldn’t. I’ve heard of sniper simulators that take place in real time, so you might have to wait hours for the chance to land an almost impossibly difficult shot, and entirely text-based games about depression and suicide so shattering that they reduce the player to an emotional wreck. The cleverest indie game that I’m aware of is Papers, Please, in which you play an immigration officer at a checkpoint in a drab, fictional Eastern-bloc country, and must review paperwork for an endless parade of immigrants and returning citizens. You gain points for following the increasingly heartless and convoluted laws, and lose points for bending the rules or mistakenly letting in political undesirables.

[viii] As teenagers, my friends and I watched countless episodes of the best-known machinima series, Red vs. Blue, which turned the armored avatars of the Halo games into characters in a M.A.S.H.-esque sitcom. Stranded in concrete bunkers at opposite ends of a desolate box canyon, the lazy, dim-witted, and otherwise inept grunts in the eponymous armies have no incentive to actually fight each other, and spend most of their time the way real-life soldiers do: bickering and goofing off in an attempt to stave off boredom. The humor is often crass and immature in the ways one might expect from the gamer crowd, but when it’s good, it reaches impressive heights of screwball comedy and absurdist satire. When the Red and Blue squads each receive a new recruit, their separate attempts at hazing spiral out of control in classic sitcom fashion. The onboard computer in a massive tank asks to be called ‘Sheila’ and grows increasingly sassy as the story progresses. A mute soldier on the Red team turns out to be an android with a missing speech unit; he gets a new one and it promptly short-circuits, causing him to speak only in flat, robotic Spanish. And when one recruit asks why the flag at the base (the object of the ‘Capture the Flag’ multiplayer mode) is so important, his superiors falter: “Because it’s the flag, man… It’s blue, we’re blue…” A fantastic layman’s introduction to the series and to machinima more generally can be found in this rather charmingly dated article from 2005: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/07/magazine/the-xbox-auteurs.html

Captain Phillips (2013)

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If, like me, you can’t help but love action movies, then you may have noticed a recent trend in the way they’re made. No, I’m not talking about CGI—although computer-generated effects have certainly come to dominate action movies as well, and rarely with good results. I’m talking instead about the ‘shaky-cam’ technique, as I’ve often heard it described, in which we watch the action through handheld cameras constantly jumping and swerving around, never staying in one place (or on the same shot) for more than a second or two. A scene filmed in this way is certainly exciting, but it can often feel disappointing as soon as it ends, as you find yourself struggling to reconstruct exactly what you just saw. It’s exhilarating in the same way that wiping out hard on a surfboard is presumably kind of exhilarating—not because you’re watching cool stuff happen, but because your senses are scrambled and you’re not sure which way is up.

Which is a shame, because the shaky-cam technique can be deeply compelling when properly deployed. No working filmmaker has a better track record of doing so that the British director Paul Greengrass, and for me, the movie in which the elements of his style combine most powerfully is Captain Phillips (2013) about the real-life attack on the container ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009. It presents a slightly condensed but meticulous reconstruction of all sides of the incident, from the pirates’ initial pursuit and capture of the ship to the U.S. Navy’s mission to rescue its captain, Richard Phillips, whom the pirates had taken hostage aboard a lifeboat. More so that Greengrass’s previous movies, there’s also a strong undercurrent of humanism in Billy Ray’s script, which, combined with Greengrass’s journalistic instincts, results in a survival-kidnapping thriller that’s uncommonly empathetic towards everyone involved, and contains a profound (if largely implicit) message about the dynamics of power and privilege in today’s densely interconnected world.

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The deeper implications are easy to miss on a first viewing, because Greengrass uses his jittery cinematography and rapid-fire editing keep the tension cranked up even during relative lulls in the story. But, as always, the chaos is carefully controlled; he’s a gifted director of action, with an instinctive feel for when to cut and where to place the camera to ensure coherence amid all that manic motion. After all, there’s nothing new or insidious about shooting handheld. It’s been around pretty much as long as the equipment has been light enough to allow it, and the increasing maneuverability of cameras has been instrumental in the development of film as an art form, allowing productions to move more easily into real locations and proving especially valuable to documentary filmmakers, who need to be able to follow their subjects in real time. Indeed, the idea that handheld cinematography equals realism has its roots in the ‘cinéma vérité’ school of documentary filmmaking that emerged in the 60s and 70s, which made frequent use of handheld cameras as it sought to portray the subject as objectively and unobtrusively as possible. This is probably how most directors, if asked, would defend the shaky-cam technique: it makes you feel like you are the cameraman, right alongside the action. Yet without the keen spatial awareness of someone like Greengrass, the results tend not to be exciting so much as chaotic and confusing.

It’s tempting to blame Greengrass for the recent outbreak of shaky-cam in action filmmaking, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair—it’s not his fault that no one else (so far) has proved able to use the technique quite as well as he can. He started out directing programs for a British news channel, and you can see those origins in most of his feature films, which tend to be fact-based dramas depicting episodes of recent history. So it’s hardly surprising that he would develop a mostly handheld, quasi-documentary style of filmmaking; when carefully executed, it’s the perfect stylistic choice for that sort of subject matter. It’s perhaps a bit ironic that he rose to international prominence as the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, two of the most consistently thrilling (but decidedly fictional) action movies of the 2000s.[i]

But perhaps not; I would argue that Greengrass’s journalistic sensibility is actually an important factor in those movies’ success. In his Bourne films (and in Doug Liman’s original, it should be noted), there is action and violence aplenty, but death, when it happens, is a somber event—decidedly not part of the fun. The thrill comes instead from simple kinetics, from watching people and things in rapid and spectacular motion. (I’m still waiting for him to make a sports movie; Paul Greengrass filming a hockey game would be absolutely bananas.) And the shaky-cam style works equally well at keeping an audience on edge in his more recent, less action-centric thrillers, like Bloody Sunday (2002), about a massacre in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and United 93 (2006), a slow-building heart-attack of a movie about the eponymous flight that fought back against the hijackers on 9/11.

Anyway, back to Captain Phillips: the movie begins predictably enough, with merchant marine captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) at his home in Vermont, preparing to head out on his next assignment. He and his wife drive to the airport, having an unduly portentous conversation about the rapidly changing world around them. It’s a good thing all this comes early, because it’s by far the weakest part of the movie. It criminally wastes a talented actress (Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife), the dialogue is clunky and excessively on the nose, and Hanks’ Boston accent remains woefully inadequate.[ii] This opening could certainly have been done better, but it nevertheless serves an important purpose in the narrative: it introduces us to the broader milieu that the Phillips’ inhabit. Their house is slightly cramped, but it’s cozy and situated in a beautiful, safe place. They voice concerns that reflect a certain degree of privilege, but are neither trivial nor unfounded. They both work hard and have a comfortable life to show for it. They’re not rich, but in a fundamental sense, the world economy is working for them.

But in the very next scene, Greengrass signals that this movie is about more than a decent American everyman victimized by nefarious foreigners. In an intentionally jarring transition, we suddenly find ourselves in a fishing village on the Somali coast, where political chaos and depleted fish stocks have left the inhabitants brutally impoverished. The world economy is emphatically not working here, to the point that young men are desperate to sign up for an almost suicidally dangerous job: holding ships for ransom in the service of the local warlord. The nervously roving camera captures the chaotic, crowded scene on the beach, but it also lingers on the pirate leader Abduwali Muse, allowing the first-time actor Barkhad Abdi to telegraph a great deal about the character even as he says very little. Muse is intimidating despite his slight build—an embodiment of the axiom that nothing is more dangerous than a young man with a gun and little to lose—but from the start, Abdi also establishes him as a respected and shrewdly perceptive leader.

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Greengrass keeps up that equality of attention as the story begins to ramp up, continuing to highlight the contrasts between the characters. Phillips arrives at the Port of Salalah in Oman, a sprawling metropolis of shipping containers stacked in massive blocks, and sets out on the Alabama, itself as tall as a several-story building. Meanwhile, Muse and another pirate crew launch a couple of battered skiffs with aging outboard motors into heavy surf—no mean feat in itself. We see Phillips scrolling through some foreboding email notices about pirate activity in the area and learn that he’s a bit of a hard-ass out at sea, the kind of boss who wields his authority with stern bluntness and doesn’t much care about the crew grumbling behind his back. Then we’re back with the pirates, where a rivalry is developing between Muse and the macho-posturing leader of the other crew as they search their radar screen for targets. The characters are still worlds apart, but Greengrass films them similarly, drawing—or at least indicating—parallels between them even before they first encounter each other.

In a fortunate twist of fate, the real-life sequence of events allows Greengrass to explore this dynamic still further before the two parties inevitably meet. The first time the pirates make a run at the ship, they fail, thwarted by rough seas and their motor cutting out at the last moment. It’s a sensational miniature chase sequence, its impact magnified by being shot (like the rest of the movie) using real boats on the real ocean. Phillips, already established as a humorless but solidly competent seaman, is also shown to be a wily quarry, manipulating the Alabama’s wake to make trouble for the pirates’ small craft and faking a radio conversation with a Navy warship, knowing that the pirates will be listening.[iii] At the same time, we see that the pirates are adept mariners in their own right, navigating through the huge waves and the churning wake in a tiny open boat at breakneck speed. Anyone who has been out on the open sea in a similarly small vessel can appreciate the skill and cojones required to pull that off. Muse in particular is shown to be audaciously brave; he pushes on despite hearing Phillips’ phony call for an air strike, and later, when the feud between the two crews boils over, he doesn’t flinch when a gun is pulled on him, calmly staring his rival down until he can slip his fingers around a wrench and knock the guy out.

Once again, the cinematography does more than maintain tension; it highlights both the contrasts and the similarities between the Alabama and the repurposed fishing trawler that serves as the pirates’ mother ship. The handheld camera hovers restlessly but is unable to move around much in the interior spaces, which are similarly cramped on both ships. Yet this closeness also calls our attention to the obvious contrasts: the utilitarian but pristine Alabama, with its relatively spacious bridge and expansive views of the ocean, against the derelict fishing boat with its grimy, dimly lit cabin and aging machinery. At the same time, these cramped close-ups, along with a few choice aerial shots in which both ships appear equally tiny and insignificant against the vast expanse of the open ocean, are crucial in conveying a deeper, almost subconscious sense of unease that persists throughout the movie. The two groups represent vastly different cross-sections of humanity, but everyone, however competent they may be out at sea, is by their very nature out of their element. This whole story is set in an environment that remains largely alien and mysterious to us despite being central to human life for thousands of years. The conflict is entirely interpersonal, but it occurs in a place where people fundamentally do not belong.

Things kick into high gear when the pirates make their second, successful attempt to board the ship, and while it would be tedious to examine every nuance and twist, it should be noted that the story encompasses several distinct types of suspenseful narrative. There’s another wild chase sequence, in which the pirates manage to get a ladder on the side of the ship and climb aboard. Thereafter, the nature of the suspense changes, becoming more of an interpersonal standoff when the pirates arrive at the bridge and the two contrasting worlds come jarringly face-to-face.[iv] There’s a period of cat-and-mouse tension as Phillips and others try to keep the pirates from discovering the rest of the crew. And finally, the pirates escape with Phillips in the lifeboat, and we have the multi-layered suspense of a hostage scenario—with Phillips, the pirates, and soon the U.S. Navy all maneuvering to try and come out on top of an increasingly fraught situation. The handheld, up-close cinematography adds to the tension in ways we’ve already explored, but its consistency also provides a crucial sense of narrative continuity as the story progresses through these different settings and varieties of suspense.

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However, there are also moments sprinkled throughout the story where Greengrass pulls back and gives us a larger view. With each movie, he seems to get a bit better at this: judiciously settling his camera down and allowing us to take stock of the situation before things hurtle into motion again. Nor does it always mean pulling back for a wide shot; in a wonderfully strange moment just after the pirates’ engine dies, Phillips and Muse stare at each other through binoculars, still in their separate vessels but momentarily close enough to see each other quite clearly, hinting at the rivalry and tenuous understanding that will eventually develop between them. In moments like these, Greengrass plays with scale in compelling ways that add new depth to the movie. The aerial shots of the ships against the vastness of the open ocean are just one example. Amid the mayhem of the second chase sequence, the Alabama, ringed by protective jets of water from its fire hoses, looms like a skyscraper over the small skiff, making the pirates that much more intimidating by showing what a perversely impressive feat they pull off in boarding the ship. After a long time spent in the tight confines of the ship’s interior, the pirates take Phillips hostage amid a lot of shouting and confusion, and then there’s an instant of dread-filled silence as the lifeboat detaches from its cradle and plunges at least fifteen feet into the water, signaling that things have deteriorated to a new level of uncertainty and desperation, for the pirates as well as Phillips.

And when the Navy arrives on the scene, the wild disparity between the tiny, pod-like lifeboat and the huge warships allows Greengrass to create some memorably unusual images, underscoring not just how dangerous, but how bizarre the situation has become. With no other points of reference, the first destroyer grows alarmingly quickly out of the darkness; the pirates open the hatch and find the view entirely filled by the bulk of the nearby ship. Later, the camera swoops over the lifeboat, relatively prominent in the foreground, to reveal the (now three) warships, their colossal size becoming more apparent as we get closer. Shots like these, while brief, are crucial in creating the distinctive tone that Greengrass maintains throughout the movie. We hope for the mission to succeed, but when we pull back, the scope of it starts to look slightly absurd: the most advanced navy in the world deploying thousands of personnel, the latest technological wizardry, and untold millions of dollars against a single lifeboat with four enemies, all to rescue one hostage.

It’s never suggested that all this isn’t justified; indeed, the movie shows that as a military operation, it’s brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. In one of my favorite slow-down moments, when the destroyer has the lifeboat under tow, the camera travels the full length of the rope linking the two vessels, underscoring the difficulty of what the SEALs are about to do. Think about it: snipers simultaneously hit three moving targets through the tiny windows of a vessel that’s pitching and rolling on the ocean—without hurting a hostage in the same confined space. It’s as straightforward a case of heroic military rescue as we’re ever likely to see, but Greengrass portrays it without the usual sense of triumph. All the action-thriller elements are there—powerful ships and heavy machinery, special forces parachuting out of planes, even a neat little gadget that lets the SEALs hear what’s going on in the lifeboat—but Greengrass doesn’t celebrate them in the way other filmmakers might. The mission is exciting to watch, but Greengrass still treats the violent results with appropriate gravity. When it’s over, there are no cheers or sighs of relief—just the blindfolded Phillips freaking out and the SEALs calmly packing up their gear, having completed their work. The U.S. military comes across as a terrifically effective but largely impersonal organization, a manifestation of the powerful forces that Phillips, along with everyone else lucky enough to live in a country like the United States, have arrayed to protect them at all times, wherever they are in the world.

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The pirates, coming from a small and impoverished nation, have no such forces protecting them; indeed, their only backup flees when confronted with the armada deployed to protect Phillips. Yet the attention paid to them by Ray’s screenplay and Greengrass’s direction ensures that they don’t come across as straightforward villains. They remain dangerous and unpredictable, and we always fear for Phillips’ safety, but we also understand their mounting panic and confusion as the situation spirals out of their control.[v] And one of the tragic ironies of the story is that the big impersonal military arrives just as Phillips and his captors are starting to reach a place of greater understanding. He sympathizes with Muse’s predicament: injured, exhausted, and desperately trying to keep control over a deteriorating situation while maintaining the composure of someone firmly in command. He appeals to their common experience in trying to convince Muse to surrender, and registers a flicker of grudging respect for his refusal to give up. Hanks and Abdi masterfully convey the nuances of this dynamic, especially in their remarkable last scene together. Muse has a gun to Phillips’s head, but at this point more than any other, they seem to be facing each other down as equally complex, evenly matched adversaries. Over the course of the movie, Muse has shown himself to be dangerous but not cruel, shrewdly diffusing multiple situations that threaten to get someone killed. Yet as he holds the gun to Phillips’s head, we believe that he’s capable of pulling the trigger, and Phillips calls him out accordingly, rejecting the idea that he’s simply a fisherman forced into a life of crime. At the same time, it’s clear that Phillips is not simply a decent, pacific captive. He’s a canny opponent when still in command of the Alabama, and once captured, he makes every possible attempt to escape. It’s never explicitly stated, but we get the sense that Phillips and Muse each recognize a bit of their own tenacity and fierce determination in the other—that maybe, had history played out differently, they could have found themselves in a similar situation with their roles reversed. They’ve ended up where they are mostly because of their origins. It’s a subtle but compelling illustration of the kind of privilege that has been much discussed recently; the difference between Phillips and Muse is the difference between a well-off kid whose parents have the resources to help him out in an emergency, and a poor kid without that security.

Captain Phillips has a clear protagonist whom we can’t help but root for (he’s played by Tom Hanks, after all), but Greengrass presents the pirates who attack him and the military that helps him in such a way that the movie doesn’t feel like a story of good vs. evil. All of the characters have understandable motivations, and everyone makes reasonable arguments. An indignant Alabama crewman is right that they have neither the training nor the financial incentive to confront the pirates, and Phillips is right that they don’t have much choice—running won’t make them any safer. Muse is right that chaos and lawlessness have left his crew with no other options, and Phillips is right that he’s “not just a fisherman.” Phillips is right that the pirates could’ve taken the $30,000 and avoided confrontation with the Navy, and Muse is right that it wouldn’t have been enough for his bosses. Even the borderline-psychotic Najee, at the end, is right that no tribal elders are coming to negotiate a deal, and although the military’s response is brutal, it’s hard to think of what else they could’ve done in that moment.

By emphasizing these ambiguities, Greengrass presents the incident instead as a tragedy, enacted by the individual players but beyond the control of any one person. Highlighting the danger and unnatural remoteness of the open ocean setting, he implies that this is being driven just as much by the powerful and obscure forces that make our deeply interconnected world turn—the global economy that leaves some people secure while others starve, and the attendant power dynamics that result in some lives being valued more highly than others. Meanwhile, the shaky-cam ends up having a democratizing effect; by filming everyone in the same nervous style, it implies that everyone, even the coolly competent military, is being swept up and co-opted by these obscure forces. No reasonable person would accuse Phillips and his working-class crew of having too much or admonish the military for doing everything they can to save them, but nor would one claim that the Somalis don’t deserve the same comfort and security. The tragedy is that they wind up pitted against each other, with predictably violent results.

Which is not to say that this isn’t still a fantastically exciting and entertaining movie. With Greengrass’s shaky camerawork and frenetic editing, the story unfolds with the natural urgency of water racing downhill, flowing so easily that it feels like it couldn’t have been filmed any other way—which isn’t the case all. In a movie so tightly focused and relentlessly intense, it can be easy to miss the underlying complexities, but Greengrass manages to explore them with a great deal of depth, making Captain Phillips into a quietly extraordinary piece of work.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] He also directed the series sort-of reboot Jason Bourne a few years ago, with odd results. All the reliable pieces seemed to be in place—Bourne tearing around the world, improvising unlikely weapons and escapes in exotic locales; CIA spooks in a darkened office, tracking him with a dizzying array of high-tech gadgets, with a bit of intra-agency intrigue to spice things up; the discovery of new tidbits about Bourne’s dark past—and yet the result somehow wasn’t nearly as compelling as those earlier entries. Greengrass’s actions sequences remain as jaw-dropping as ever, though—a potent reminder of what the shaky-cam technique is capable of in the right hands.

[ii] To be fair, very few actors can successfully pull that off, and in any case, it quickly becomes much less pronounced—subtle regional accents have a way of receding when you’re stressed out and/or terrified, as Hanks’ character is for most of the movie.

[iii] In a small but significant departure from the true story, Ray’s screenplay and Greengrass’s direction choose to omit the fact that Phillips’ competence could sometimes slide into bravado—in real life, he took the Alabama within 300 miles of the Somali coast despite an advisory to stay at least 600 miles offshore. It’s too bad this wasn’t included in some way, because showing more of that side of him would have made Phillips a more interesting character, and because Phillips’s stated reason for doing so (that there was no guarantee that they’d be any safer at 600 miles out, and that he simply wanted to get through the area as fast as he could) strikes me as pretty reasonable.

[iv] In a clever bit of directorial manipulation, Greengrass didn’t allow the two groups of actors to meet until they shot that scene, lending an extra jolt of realism to the shock, fear, and uncertainty on the faces of Hanks and the other Western actors when the pirates barge in.

[v] Significantly, they’ve also run out of khat, the plant that many people in that part of the world chew for its amphetamine-like effects: increased energy and (crucially, in an impoverished place) suppressed appetite. On top of the inherent stress of the situation, they’re basically in mild withdrawal—no wonder their nerves are frayed to the breaking point.

Pacific Rim (2013)

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A lot of good movies came out back in 2013. American Hustle was a glorious whirlwind of unhinged, light-speed dialogue; Gravity was one of the great technical achievements in cinema history; and 12 Years A Slave blasted into new dramatic territory with the force of an emotional battering ram.

But my favorite movie of the year wasn’t any of those. It wasn’t even Spike Jonze’s Her, with its beautiful, heart-melting weirdness—and which I would have chosen as the Best Picture of that year, if such things were up to me. Instead, my favorite was Pacific Rim, a loud, dumb action movie that was, by almost any critical standard, not nearly as good as any of those listed above.

I saw it the way such movies should be seen: spontaneously, with friends, not completely sober. And in terms of pure enjoyment, it was one of the best moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had, in any year. I walked out of the theater wearing a stupid ear-to-ear grin that stayed with me for the rest of the day—entertained in the purest sense of the word.

And yet afterwards, even as I watched and appreciated many better movies, I found myself thinking about Pacific Rim far more that I would have expected. In the six months after that first viewing, I saw it two more times, and it never felt like too much. I still return to the action scenes again and again. It’s a feeling I’ve grown to recognize: love for a favorite movie. So what’s going on?

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First, Pacific Rim belongs to a category of movies for which I’ve recently gained a special appreciation: those that aspire to work within the conventions of their given genre as well as they can. In too many such movies nowadays, there is a tendency to pretend to some higher level of sophistication—that is, to give us not only the entertainment we expect but also a profound meditation on some fundamental aspect of life itself. This is especially prevalent in the most popular genres, such as action/adventure movies or romantic comedies—in other words, expensive big-studio releases looking to make a lot of money. One can imagine that these days, a movie wouldn’t have much chance of making past the initial pitch without at least claiming to go beyond genre conventions. (“It’s not just an action movie…”). But it very often feels awkward and heavy-handed, since such serious themes are in many ways at odds with the movie’s primary goal: fun, diverting escapist entertainment.

So I have great respect for movies that embrace their genre roots without a lot of thematic and emotional frills. Any genre—no matter how worn-out it may seem—can be done well, and one can find many examples even only in recent years. Comedies like Superbad and Clueless; escapist thrillers like The Ghost Writer and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies[i], as well as darker ones like David Cronenberg’s back-to-back masterpieces A History of Violence and Eastern Promises; adrenaline-pumping sports stories like Rush and Miracle; revival westerns like True Grit or 3:10 to Yuma, uplifting family movies like Frozen and Ratatouille; and, of course, straightforward action flicks like Skyfall, all three Bourne movies, or if you want to be truly stunned, the Indonesian martial arts blowout The Raid.

And so on and so forth. The question is: what do all these movies have in common? And the answer is relatively simple: an engaging story, a good script translated concisely and competently to the screen, and, most importantly, a certain level of self-awareness. It’s not that serious themes are absent, but any sentiments about honor, love, believing in oneself, etc., are limited to whatever grows organically out of the story. Nobody involved in these movies was trying to make the most profound film since The Godfather. That wasn’t the kind of story they were telling.

Pacific Rim is a paradigm of this sort of narrative self-awareness, and the genre to which it belongs is even more narrowly defined: the big-budget action blockbuster. The story pretty much demands that sort of movie: Earth is attacked by enormous alien sea monsters (called Kaiju), and mankind’s collective response is to build equally enormous human-controlled robots (Jaegers) to fight them in hand-to-hand combat. Unsurprisingly for those familiar with his work, the main creative force behind the movie is Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican director who has made a career out of creating such comic-book-style fantasy words. He has made relatively serious and intimate movies before (Pan’s Labyrinth and the recent Shape of Water), but he is equally famous for his large-scale action movies (both Hellboy pictures) that both amaze and exude a sense of fun that their counterparts often lack. With Pacific Rim, del Toro knew exactly what he was making—a loud, CGI-drenched action extravaganza—and his goal was nothing more or less than to make that kind of movie as well as it could be done.

All the expected genre tropes are there. The protagonist is a skilled but cocky Jaeger pilot who suffers a great loss in the beginning and finds himself reluctantly pulled back into the fight. He is surrounded by the usual supporting characters: a love interest, a rigid but ultimately sympathetic commanding officer, an obnoxious rival pilot who will eventually be redeemed. There is a comic relief subplot involving a pair of geeky, bickering scientists. And, of course, lots of 25-story-tall monsters and robots—stunningly brought to life by special effects—beating the crap out of each other with maximum collateral property damage.

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So far so good. But Pacific Rim starts to get interesting when we examine how these familiar elements are deployed. Because even as he skillfully adheres to the conventions of the action blockbuster, del Toro also finds numerous subtle ways to poke fun at the genre. One example is the amusingly offbeat names of the characters, which tend to provide a perfect indication of their owner’s personality. Who else could a name like Raleigh Becket belong to, if not a cocky, wisecracking action hero? How could a guy named Stacker Pentecost be anything but a rigidly straight-laced military commander? Who could Hermann Gottlieb be, if not a brilliant, wildly eccentric Kaiju expert? Or my personal favorite: Hercules Hansen, who was destined from birth to be a hard-boiled veteran Australian Jaeger pilot.

The same sense of levity can be found in the dialogue, which is basic and unsophisticated, with an often-amusing dose of camp, and yet somehow perfectly suited to the story. Similarly, it’s hard initially to know what to make of Charlie Hunnam’s lead performance as Raleigh; when I first heard him in the opening voiceover, I stifled a laugh, as did many other people in the theater. It sounded like a textbook bad performance, a British actor trying too hard to project classic American movie machismo. But the more time we spend with the character, the more the apt the performance seems, and one imagines that del Toro instructed Hunnam to ham it up a bit, the better to fit the archetype of the badass, slightly meatheaded action hero. We have the subplot with the brilliant scientists who make a crucial discovery, just to prove that the solution isn’t all about punching things. But we have one of them, Newton Geizsler, being played by Charlie Day, with pretty much the same persona as his character in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, suggesting a lack of seriousness that many other action movies would avoid. Everywhere we look, del Toro seems to be intentionally dialing up the blockbuster tropes, pitching the tone of the movie close to (but not quite over) the line between sincerity and parody. He’s not cynically critiquing the conventions of the genre so much as winking at us behind the movie’s back, giving us an engaging story while acknowledging that it’s all rather silly. By not taking it too seriously himself, he encourages us to adopt the same attitude.

But del Toro’s engagement with the genre doesn’t end with simple teasing. Even in a movie as ostensibly conformist as Pacific Rim, he actually manages to subvert a few blockbuster conventions in interesting, even progressive ways. Raleigh is the standard white American male protagonist, but the rest of the cast relatively international: Stacker Pentecost is black and British; Dr. Gottlieb is presumably German; Raleigh’s co-pilot and love interest, Mako Mori, is Japanese. Raleigh’s is the only American Jaeger—the others are Australian, Chinese, and Russian. Much of the film takes place in Hong Kong, and there’s a distinctly East Asian vibe (albeit a rather half-baked one) in the film’s sentiments about combat and honor. In fact, Pacific Rim’s closest cinematic ancestors are not American action movies, but two subgenres of Japanese film: the kaiju (in English: ‘monster’) genre, of which the original Godzilla is probably the best known example, and the mecha genre, which focuses on humanoid robots controlled by people and has occasionally made it to American shores, usually in animated shows such like Gundam Wing. I’m not familiar enough with these genres to catch most of the references that del Toro makes, but he’s clearly tipping his hat to his movie’s lineage, and positing that what will save humanity is not star-spangled American badassery, but international cooperation. It’s the only reason I can think of why everyone in the movie (even the flyboy-jock Raleigh) can speak Japanese.

The movie is at its most subversive, however, in the characterization of Mako Mori, a protégé of Stacker Pentecost who becomes Releigh’s co-pilot, and who poses subtle challenges to the blockbuster trope of the female love interest. She is not the protagonist, but she is arguably the movie’s most interesting character; having lost her family to a Kaiju attack as a young girl, she is torn between her desire for revenge against the Kaijus and her respect for Stacker Pentecost, who raised her after her parents’ death and is reluctant to let her put herself in harm’s way. Not Shakespeare, but certainly more interesting than Raleigh’s conventional suffer-a-loss/mope/find-the-strength-to-become-a-great-warrior-again character arc, and it’s not giving anything away to say that Mako eventually gets her chance and finds the strength to prevail. When she yells out, “For my family!” before striking a killing blow, it’s both funny and exhilarating—a perfect example of the sincere yet lighthearted tone that makes the movie work. Del Toro also finds a clever way to treat her and Raleigh as fighting equals. In an inspired touch, the Jaegers are too big to be operated by a single pilot; instead, two pilots, each controlling one side of the machine, are joined in a sort of mind-meld called the ‘neural drift.’ Mako is a less experienced fighter than Raleigh, but he cannot operate the Jaeger without her. (As if to underscore that point, their Jaeger spends most of the final battle having lost the arm on Raleigh’s side, moving Mako to the forefront of their joint fight).

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The movie also makes a noticeable effort to avoid sexualizing Mako in the way that women in action movies so often are. She is gorgeous—no one played by Rinko Kikuchi could be otherwise—but her primary role in the story is as Raleigh’s co-pilot, not as his love interest. The romance that develops between them feels almost like a narrative afterthought, an inevitable result of the deep psychological compatibility that is apparently required between the Jaeger pilots for the neural drift to be successful. Del Toro drives this point home in the movie’s final shot, with Raleigh and Mako on a floating escape pod in the middle of the ocean, having finally triumphed over the Kaijus. In any other action movie, this is the point where they would kiss, but they don’t; instead they sit facing each other, arms at one anther’s sides, foreheads resting against each other—a gesture of affection between comrades-in-arms as much as lovers. And del Toro also has a squadron of fighter jets fly over them, just because.

But to read too deeply into a movie like Pacific Rim risks losing sight of what makes it great. Whatever subtle critiques del Toro may make about the modern action blockbuster, he understands the simple principle that truly makes the genre work. It has to do with the above phrase: “just because.” As I mentioned, studios today seem to need their blockbusters to mean something (or at least, pretend to mean something, which is usually as far as they get), but a fundamental part of the appeal of the film medium has always been its ability to show us sights or feats that are impossible in the real world, for no other reason than to provoke in us that wonderful reaction of gleeful amazement. Practically as soon as film was invented, a French stage magician named Georges Méliès was using rudimentary special effects and editing tricks to wow his viewers. His films had plots, but as in a magic show, the primary goal was to astound. Similarly, the great silent-era comedian Buster Keaton became famous for his remarkable stunts, many of which would have killed him had he screwed them up. His film The General was already hilarious; was that death-defying stunt with the railroad ties[ii] really necessary? No, it wasn’t, but he did it anyway, because it’s awesome.

In The Dark Knight, the Joker rampages through Gotham in a tractor-trailer, until Batman finally stops the vehicle dead in its tracks, flipping it over lengthwise. How did that work, exactly? He shot some cables into the front bumper and then wove them through some lampposts and stuck them into the pavement? Would that really have been enough to flip an entire semi truck? It doesn’t really make much sense, but when I watch the scene, that’s the last thing on my mind. I’m too busy marveling at the slow, spectacular arc of that truck as it flies through the air and crashes to the ground. In her review of The Dark Knight in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wondered how a movie so ostensibly bleak could be so much fun to watch. Her answer was simple: “no work filled with such thrilling moments of pure cinema can rightly be branded pessimistic.” Guillermo del Toro understands this well, and the sense of fun that pervades Pacific Rim, the thing that finally makes it work, is his commitment to creating as many of these moments as possible. He understands that one of cinema’s greatest gifts to its audience—not the only one, certainly, but an important one nonetheless—is amazement for its own sake, without worrying about what it all means or whether or not it makes sense. The Jaeger’s hand turns into a giant plasma cannon? Why not just have that out from the beginning, and shoot the Kaijus from a distance? Because then we wouldn’t get to see Jaegers punching Kaijus in the face, or at one point, smashing a Kaiju’s head between two handfuls of shipping containers. At a critical point in a battle, Mako presses a button revealing that their Jaeger has a retractable sword. Why didn’t they take that out before they almost got killed? Because taking it out now yields the coolest shot in the movie, that’s why. (In another sly wink to the audience, the Jaeger has the sword out for the rest of the movie—no reason to hide it anymore.) And that part with the container ship… there really aren’t words for it, but you know what I mean.

How can you not love a movie that will give you moments of such awesomeness?

 

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] Throughout his career, Soderbergh has been one of the best in the business at making genre films very well, and he’s managed to cover a great many genres, too: topical thriller (Traffic), ruminative sci-fi (Solaris), stirring biopic (Che), satire (The Informant!), labyrinthine mystery (Side Effects), straight action (Haywire), and disaster horror (Contagion), to name just a few.

[ii] Seriously, check out this stunt, performed without any special effects whatsoever: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEDMO8iwLsM