First thing’s first: the less that you know about this film going in the better. The Similars is a pastiche of existing horror and sci-fi ideas, yet it somehow manages to feel original. Mexican director, Isaac Ezban, takes strong cues from The Twilight Zone, Hitchcock, Stephen King, and other classic sci-fi and horror, and the film ends up a campy, oddball homage to those works. Lovers of old school sci-fi, horror, and all things weird are in for a treat.
The Similars is essentially a maniac’s extended episode of The Twilight Zone. It is a dark and rainy night in 1968 at a bus station on the outskirts of Mexico City. Martin (Fernando Becerril) is the elderly station manager, while Ulises (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) – an anxious man trying to get to the city before his wife gives birth – and a Native American woman (Maria Elena Olivares) are initially the only occupants of the station. It doesn’t take long for the cast to fill out, however, with your staple gallery of oddball characters falling into place: the hippie, the creepy kid, and his doting mother, to name a few. When they discover that they’re supernaturally trapped in the station and people start having seizures, insanity ensues.
Isaac Ezban does a great job of creating a sense of mystery with these characters and the stranger and stranger events which follow. The Similars certainly takes a while to get going, but when it does, the craziness really ramps up, and you’ll find yourself laughing at the film’s campy horror moments. The sense of drama and insanity is further intensified through dramatic close ups and unconventional camera angles, with moments of revelation and horror punctuated by pounding, orchestral notes à la Hitchcock. There are a few classic scenes that are just so bizarre and inventive that you won’t forget them anytime soon. The film climaxes too quickly, and there are moments bordering on overkill, but fans of outré cinema will love this tripped out Mexican homage to old school genre filmmaking.
Snowden sees veteran firebrand Oliver Stone return to form after a few years of cinematic misfires (Savages, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), and for fairly obvious reasons; after all, the story of Edward Snowden, the young patriot turned whistleblower who let the world know that the NSA was all up in their digital business has all the ingredients that Stone has previously used so successfully: a timely subject, a moral but controversial hero, and a sour view of the military-industrial complex.
Using Snowden’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) 2013 hotel room interview with journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Snowden shows us the arc of the titular character’s life from his time as a Special Forces candidate post-911 to his decision to smuggle damning evidence of the NSA’s Hawaii data centre. In many ways his arc mirrors that of Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison in Stone’s earlier JFK, moving from patriotic true believer to righteous accuser as his experiences expose him to more and more dirty dealings and constitutional breaches. An impressive cast crop up along the way, including Shailene Woodely as Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, Timothy Olyphant as a louche CIA field agent, and Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage as Snowden’s CIA patron and cryptography mentor, respectively (as long as we’re talking about echoes of earlier Stone works, these two are effectively Sergeants Barnes and Elias from Platoon).
Watching the proceedings unfold, you recognise that the subject matter is fascinating, important stuff; after all, what we’re dealing with here is the right to privacy, the right to security, the responsibilities of the nation state in procuring both of those, and the obligation of the individual to speak truth to power. Stone captures it all in his trademark restless, aggressive visual style (and his bombastic tendency to mythologise the political, if we’re being honest), throwing together drone footage and surveillance video, bouncing his images off of mirrors and windows, putting JGL’s Snowden in the centre of a world of false images and obfuscated meaning.
Yet, for all that, Snowden rarely feels urgent. Partly it’s because the threats the film is dealing with are largely abstract; it’s all very well to talk about “freedom” and “privacy” but attacking those concepts doesn’t have the same visceral impact as a loaded gun. Partly it’s because, well, we saw all this play out in the news media three years ago, and the number of band-aids stuck over laptop camera lenses didn’t really spike then, either.
In the end what we have here is a solid, engaging real-life drama that never quite crosses the line from “good” into “great”. Still, it’s nice to see Stone fully engaged with his material once more, and given the current state of the world, no doubt there’s another crisis out there for him to adapt that will resonate with the audience us much as it clearly does with the director.