The Slamdance Film Festival runs concurrently with Sundance and is committed to unearthing new filmmaking talent. This was very much the case with Andrew Patterson, 37, who has emerged as a filmmaker to watch with his debut feature, the moody sci-fi drama The Vast of Night.
We are living through the plot of every plague-themed film ever made. They all start out this way; news reports of a strange new virus, thousands dying, people locked down, a revolt against being locked down, they go outside, they die. The hero (usually a man) stumbles upon a survivor (usually a woman) and they take it from there. None of those films are on this list…
On May The Fourth – official Star Wars Day – we revisit our 2005 chat with Kiwi legend Temuera Morrison, who was hilariously non-committal about his role as Jango Fett in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
A group of people are stuck in a confined space, suspended in an environment that they can’t survive, while some manner of mysterious force lays in wait outside. Bread-and-butter isolation thrills, the kind that is bare minimum for genre filmmaking and a framework that really needs all the spice it can get to stand out amongst its crowded competition. And to the credit of director William Eubank (Love, The Signal), all the right ingredients seem to be on-hand to make for a cool film.
For sheer atmosphere, Underwater looks and sounds pretty damn good. The production design hits a weird sci-fi middle-ground where it feels appropriate techy, but without tying it down to a specific timeframe, be it contemporary or that of a theoretical future. The overwhelmingly murky visuals courtesy of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (6 Underground, A Cure For Wellness) combine with the effective sound design, giving the ocean depths a suitably otherworldly vibe, adding to the occasional musings on how humanity may have dug too deep and awoken something dangerous.
Screenwriters Brian Duffield (Jane Got A Gun, The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) bring a reasonable amount of thematic chew to the narrative. Allusions to Alice In Wonderland, a reiteration of the need to work together that itself lives deep down in the genre’s DNA, a sideways justification for its comic relief where even the cheesiest shit is palatable in the face of unrelenting fear; it’s alright on paper, but something got lost in translation from paper to actors’ mouths.
Pretty much everyone here has a healthy pedigree for being watchable through sheer personality, but the director seems to have taken that for granted because they aren’t given much to do. All that emphasis on atmosphere means that characterisation ends up falling by the wayside, as the bulk of the cast feel like throwaways. The only exceptions to that are K-Stew in the lead, who is basically coasting on her brewing resurgence in the popular consciousness, Vincent Cassel as every captain of a sinking ship you’ve ever seen before, and T.J. Miller as one of the more tone-deaf embodiments of comic relief in recent memory. Even with the film’s own admissions of the quality of his quips, they still don’t register as intended.
So, everyone on-board is in the right place, and there’s a vein of originality that could give this seemingly-tired narrative a fresh twist. Then why is this so bloody boring? It should not be possible to make K-Stew v. Cthulhu dull to sit through, but these guys seem to have managed it. Not that it’s completely Dude-awful or anything, but it still feels like a selection of the best ingredients getting warmed-over in the microwave. Not even mixed or arranged in any particular way; just thrown in haphazardly. This can only be recommended if your affinity for any of the actors is that strong that you’ll watch them in anything.
The Star Wars sequel trilogy, comprising The Force Awakens (2015), The Last Jedi (2017) and Rise of Skywalker (2019) has been a weird, disjointed game of push me, pull you. The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams, arrived on a frothy wave of nostalgia that was almost enough to make you ignore the fact that the story was essentially a soft reboot of A New Hope (1977), complete with a ‘what if Death Star but more?’ central conflict and an antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who was a Sith stan, essentially lobbing about in Darth Vader cosplay!
Rian Johnson’s divisive The Last Jedi followed, and remains one of the most beautifully shot blockbusters in recent memory. It’s also saddled with a spectacularly cack-handed script that includes highlights such as: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – a bloke who was once willing to lay down his own life to save his dad – attempting to murder his best mate’s kid in his sleep, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) fanging around the cold vacuum of space like Mary Poppins after a fat line of bathtub goey and the longest, dullest second act “chase” between two incredibly slow ships that defies even the low standard of logic and pacing set by previous Star Wars entries.
Which brings us to The Rise of Skywalker, a film that was handed back to J.J. Abrams after originally slated director Colin Treverrow got shitcanned for reasons that will no doubt become clear at some point in the future. And the result is… messy but okay? See, this is where the push me, pull you thing comes in. J.J. Abrams had his own plan, which Rian Johnson subverted and then J.J. had to come back and retcon a bunch of things to make his story fit, and the end result is a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster of a story that feels so micromanaged and inconsistent it’s almost avant garde.
The story revolves around our returning heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and a mostly-CGI Leia on their quest to find several McGuffins that are littered about in various expensive-looking locations. They’re doing this to help combat the return of Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Oh yeah, Palpatine’s back. This is revealed in a blunt, tension-free fashion in the opening minutes and never explained to any degree of satisfaction. In fact, that describes the film as a whole, full of action and call-backs and stuff occurring, but very little downtime to reflect on anything. That said, if you can channel your inner twelve-year-old there is enjoyment to be had. The design of Star Wars is, as usual, peerless. Iconic ships, soldiers, monsters and locations fill the screen with cheerful frequency, doing their best to mask the deep deficiencies of the script.
And by the way, despite sticking the boot into The Last Jedi (deservedly so, in all honesty), we’re genuinely not here to slag off Rian Johnson or even J.J. Abrams. No, the biggest problem with this Star Wars sequel trilogy is that they seem to be making it up as they go along; reactive writing is rarely good writing, which these movies illustrate all too clearly. The plan for this trilogy should have started with a killer premise, followed by three rock solid treatments, followed by three finished, polished and ready-to-shoot screenplays that were then adhered to. Writing is the cheapest part of the process and yet for some reason the powers that be spent the least amount of time on it. Well, this is what you hath wrought. A thin, inconsistent, occasionally baffling trilogy that captured nary but a fraction of the soul of the original films.
Star Wars is a hugely important cultural touchstone to many, but in all honesty this sequel trilogy is a bit of a mess. The Rise of Skywalker is just the latest example of the same, and while it has some fun moments, solid performances and striking imagery, it’s simply too procedural and soulless to be anything more than adequate. Kids, the actual intended audience for this, will likely have a decent time, but for the rest of us, maybe it’s time to accept that Star Wars’ time in the sun is over. At least until they hire some writers and belt out a decent script.