White Plastic Sky (2023)
Type of movie: Animated, carefully written climate fiction feature that makes extensive use of long, meaningful silences.
The pitch: In a bleak mid-future, nothing grows on Earth anymore; to survive, people (in the domed city of Budapest) are permitted to live for 50 years before they are converted into trees that feed the population.
The vibe: Sad. The protagonists are sad and you will be sad, too. (Potentially moved, potentially fired up intellectually, but also sad.)
When your wife elects to become food 18 years before the government will force her to, you would do anything to reverse her decision--or at least the process whereby she turns into a leafy agricultural product--right? Our protagonist certainly would, a psychologist whose daily chore is to preach acceptance of this apocalyptic trade: an early personal death for sustained community life. It’s 2123, by the way, and outside the dome that covers Budapest is a landscape shredded of all life and greenery, where (quips a minor character) you wouldn’t survive two days.
Native to this premise is a deeply interesting quagmire of climate politics: can a government justify killing its 50-year-olds in exchange for the collective survival of the city? Like any good science fiction, White Plastic Sky promises to take relevant issues--the ethics of self-sacrifice, the fight for resources, the reach of government during emergency conditions--and refract them through a prism of worldbuilding whereby we can examine them like brand new artworks. The film starts off more or less perfectly, adding to its compelling premise an exciting atmosphere: the claustrophobia of being trapped under a dome with an authoritarian government.
But the screenwriters surprise us by, already at the close of act one, abandoning these promising tensions. The “anything” that the psychologist would do amounts, really, to not that much. True, he deserts his job, recruits an accomplice, steals a van and strikes out across the wilderness, which sounds momentous except on screen it somehow doesn’t carry high stakes: faking the necessary ID cards appears simple and the government doesn’t (really) give chase or seem threatened by him. And it all happens rapidly, leaving us to begin act two wondering if we’re taking the long route back to that premise or if another source of tension is going to emerge.
Mostly, it’s the latter: the film slowly reveals itself to be about grief. I will avoid further spoilers, observing only that the personal grief of the protagonists is deployed effectively (if depressingly) against the grander macro-grief of climate catastrophe; it’s teased out via an unlikely antagonist and leads us into an endgame that--and you might consider this a positive or a negative--was hard to foresee at the outset.
Letting your brain contemplate the politics of this endgame is, ultimately, what the film offers. By this point, the question of self-sacrifice has evolved radically to concern not the community but the planet itself, possibly at the (mere) cost of all humankind. The rawness of this betrayal--people inaugurating a people-rejecting world--might frustrate as a potentially myopic point-making exercise (it’s all very good for your character to sacrifice themselves in poetic allegiance to some inhuman future, but pardon me if I, a human, am not on board), but the needle-to-aorta injection of grief stops it from becoming a wholly didactic exercise: the characters have compelling personal reasons to “give up,” locating their motivation in their own world rather than, strictly, in ours. Still, the film luxuriates in the profound guilt that we feel as a species that survives while decimating others, which feels like a very important but ten-years-ago message. (We get it, humans are monsters: what about going solarpunk next time?)
Type of show: Time-travelling action miniseries treading water in paradox soup. Cults, police detectives, mysterious murders and authoritarian dystopias.
The hook: Copies of same murder victim--literally the same body, identical gunshot wound, tattoo, etc.--turn up in 1890, 1941, 2023 and 2053. Just how the hell did that happen?
The nasty in the pasty: Beware! Somebody in this show is his own great-great-whatever-grandfather.
Sometimes a case is blown wide open. Sometimes a case is blown wide open and it simultaneously blows the detective’s mind: imagine discovering, in the precinct archives, newspaper clippings detailing a murder identical to the one you’re presently investigating, except (cue mind explosion) the newspaper is from 133 years ago.
Granted, by the time this scene occurs, viewers are aware of Bodies’s conceit to Wellsian chrono-slipping technology, but it nevertheless characterises the show’s source of tension: incredible disharmonies of logic that promise incredible resolutions. Still, putting predestiny into a plot-driven series inevitably means that a bunch of questions are answered prematurely, removing tension from certain scenes (we know he’s going to push the button; get on with it!), but whereas other shows might consequently pivot to the subtleties of the how--rather than the what--Bodies doubles down on the action by introducing a brain-splitting concept of macro-time (time may be looped but the loops are sequential), all in the name, by the way, of giving our heroes a dizzyingly-but-dazzlingly overengineered chance to thwart some very bad people keen on one very bad deed in London.
All of this plays out more or less correctly, as long as viewers keep up our end of the time-travelling-story bargain: don’t examine the pertinent metaphysics too closely, lest your mind drown in the paradoxes. A swiftness of pace helps us in this task, though that coin’s other side is a reluctance to dwell on anything besides the plot. Indeed--and perhaps befitting of IP owned by DC, a company known for moron-proof superhero movies--not much time is allocated to individual character growth, even less when you remember that each protagonist must share screentime with three counterparts operating in their respective eras. The screenwriters approach this by deploying backstories that are potent in their implications but otherwise minimal, seeking depth via the power of suggestion (à la the Wachowski siblings’ 2012 Cloud Atlas, albeit far less poetically): the 1890 detective is homosexual and finds himself a lover he wasn’t expecting; the 1941 detective surprises himself with fatherly feelings towards a would-be victim; etc.
These backstories succeed in generating stakes for the protagonists: you care about them and understand their motivations. But nothing like a metanarrative on the human condition--or anything else particularly original--emerges. For instance, DC Whiteman navigates the delicacy of being a Jew during the blitz, suffering colleagues who taunt him with his non-Anglicised name “Weissman,” which informs his subsequent feelings towards a Jewish girl targeted by the cult that forms our wider band of antagonists; but while all this, enticingly, potentiates a larger-than-the-show complexity in his character, it isn’t knowingly activated against any larger theme. (What’s it got to do with the main event: kicking terrorist ass?) As such, the characters are nice, but I fear I’ll soon forget everything about them and their universe.
Anyway, ignoring my miserable wish that everything be as magnificent as Cloud Atlas, I can’t find much fault with Bodies… except that one feels, with dread, the inevitability of a season two: there is a sort of twist (manifesting as an infuriating confusion) foisted upon us in the show’s closing frame, and directly succeeding another anomaly, and the online chatter seems to be that these things portend a follow-up. But the resolution was otherwise full-bodied (hey!) and seeking to generate capital from Netflix stats--currently the rumour--is never the right reason to tell a story.
Type of movie: Simplistic, big-budget, beautifully shot science fiction blockbuster with two protagonists whom you can root for like a sports team.
Quality Driver: Adam Driver is a good actor. Driving Adam is (one assumes) a career of good movies. Find out how these statements interrelate in 65.
Reason to watch: You’re very drunk and want to see some disgusting bugs.
In science fiction thriller 65 viewers are transported back in time to the Cretaceous period, i.e. 65 million years ago (hence the title), but they wind up getting two types of time travel for their dime: a jungle thick with monstrous dinosaurs and, simultaneously, a story released in 2023 but for some reason filthy with George-W-Bush-era American world-policing cringe-politics. Before we decide which of the foregoing is more sublimely depicted, let’s set the stage: human beings who--we are asked to believe--originated on a faraway planet are cruising through outer space when their ship hits an asteroid field and, by pure no-reckoning coincidence, crash-lands in Yellowstone National Park,1 an event rivalled in its get-the-fuck-outta-here statistical impossibility only by the fact that these human beings, it turns out, actually have no biological relation to the homo sapiens that will eventually succeed the gigantic dino-smashing meteor that looms over the movie like my finger over the TV remote.
From that point onward, the plot is linear. Literally, our two heroes must travel in a line from their crash site to the place, tens of kilometres away, where their escape vessel landed. Like in a video game, antagonists and obstacles await them along the way, from collapsing caves and quickmud to really (really) gross bugs and, above all, a landscape that is absolutely lousy with dinosaurs who are all experiencing a surging and fanatical bloodlust.
For depth, the writers have given our tall, American-accented protagonist (Adam Driver) a dying daughter whom we meet in the opening scene and who stays with us via video messages and holograms. For his foil, i.e. the other soul to survive the crash, they have penned us a girl (Ariana Greenblatt) slightly older than the dying daughter.
All of that is clichéd enough without being bottom-feedingly bad, until it comes into focus that the foil is additionally a foreigner whom Driver must, besides saving and protecting, also (for some reason) teach English to. Deprived of fluency, the girl’s role is reduced to existing at approximately the size of the dying daughter, whereby the filmmakers reap small amounts of predictable emotive scarring from their star in exchange for the conversion of 50% of the cast into furniture. Sadly, because Greenblatt also looks less “white” than Driver--and is only permitted to mumble alien syllables and hand-gesture her meanings, much in the style of 2000s news coverage of Middle Eastern villagers oh-so-craving democratisation--the movie forces us to write her off as supplicant to the agential, complex and language-empowered American man, which is fundamentally discomfiting and, quite possibly, enraging.
At this point, the movie’s last hope is that its graphics team and storyboarders manage to build, at least, a coherent narrative line based on physical humour. (Remember in Jurassic Park when the lawyer runs into a bathroom whose walls, for some exciting reason, implode, leaving the man sitting on his porcelain deathseat in the middle of a stormy jungle? The humour even survives in the title of the YouTube clip: T REX EATS LAWYER ON TOILET.) But while 65 is beautiful to look at, no such winks or nods to the audience emerge, despite its raw material being as inescapably camp as that of any B-movie. I believe it was when famed Wyomingite geyser Old Faithful boils the skin off a rabid tyrannosaurus rex as it pursues an ancient alien that I thought: this should be absolutely goddamn hilarious. But it wasn’t! Visually, the tone also invests itself unironically in someone’s perception of depth in the story, which is why it--too--remains as flat as the electrocardiogram of somebody lately eaten by a Jurassic-era theropod.
1 The movie was actually shot in Ireland, but between Driver’s accent and a long history of Manhattan-centric disaster movies the patriotism nevertheless tinges with a particular hue.