Studios race to build cinematic universes


We’re all familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe which so far has given rise to several highly successful and mostly well-regarded movies, not just from Marvel’s parent company Disney but also from other studios like Fox and Sony which own the franchise rights for the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man respectively.

The interconnectedness of their titles allows Marvel to launch movies based on new and sometimes little-known characters with the knowledge that they can reduce the financial risk by introducing the character in a related (and already successful) movie series. Some members of the Avengers like Hawkeye and Black Widow were introduced in the Iron Man films and Black Panther was recently introduced in Captain America: Civil War.

Rival comic book powerhouse DC Comics (which is owned by Warner Bros.), actually has the more iconic superheroes by far and has successfully brought both Superman and Batman to the big screen, but had previously been unable to use either film series to launch other characters from their staple. They finally put a roadmap together a few years ago to build a series of films around the Justice League (DC’s version of the Avengers). This started off with Man of Steel in 2013 and followed up with this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, both directed by Zack Snyder and both somewhat disappointing. In the past few months, a senior task force has been assembled to sort out scripting and creative issues. Today’s release of the first trailers for Wonder Woman and Justice League (both due in 2017) indicate that they may have got their act together. As a bonus, Suicide Squad, an R-rated anti-hero movie which was once considered a ‘side-show’ in the DC Cinematic Universe is now among the most anticipated releases of the year and may fuel public interest in the movies to come, possibly even forcing Warner Bros. to include Suicide Squad characters in the other films.

So it’s clear that studios are now looking not just to create franchises but cinematic universes. As per the Marvel formula, a universe can be created by starting with a series featuring one character (e.g. Iron Man) and then by launching new series featuring other lead characters, who were introduced in the original series. Another way to milk an established franchise is by creating spin-off films starring supporting characters or by going backwards or forwards in time within the franchise timeline to tell the story of an earlier or later generation of characters.

The latter approach is exactly what Warner Bros. is trying with the forthcoming release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is the first in a new trilogy set nearly a hundred years before the events of the Harry Potter films. It narrates the adventures of ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander whose book on magical beasts was one of the required school textbooks at Hogwarts. Talk about inventive thinking! I’m sure the folks at Warner Bros. must be looking through all the Harry Potter stories to figure out how many other characters or references can be spun off to further expand the Potter Cinematic Universe.

Disney is employing a combination of both strategies to rejuvenate and extend the 40-year-old Star Wars franchise. Faced with the reality that the original cast are ageing, they introduced a new generation of  characters in last December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens to whom the torch is passed to continue the good fight against the evil empire. But that’s not all. Disney is also doing a ‘Newt Scamander’ by creating a series of spin-off ‘anthology’ films, which expand on characters and situations from the original trilogy. The first of these is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story releasing at the end of this year. This will be followed two years later by an origin story for Han Solo.

A new universe in the making that I am very excited about is the one coming from Universal Studios. This one will bring together the classic horror monsters which brought the studio great success from the 1930s to the early ’50s. If all goes according to plan, we will get to see Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Gill-man (from 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Dr. Jekyll all occupy the same cinematic space over the next few years. The first movie in the series was a bit of a misfire – Dracula Untold from 2014. Presumably the studio already knew they had a dud on their hands and therefore refrained from publicly marketing this film as part of a future franchise. Instead, they will launch the franchise with a far surer bet – a new remake of The Mummy set in modern times, starring Tom Cruise scheduled for release in 2017. Russell Crowe will appear in the movie as Dr. Jekyll, perhaps testing waters for a stand-alone Jekyll & Hyde feature. Earlier this year, it was announced that Johnny Depp would star in The Invisible Man for a 2018 release.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. with production partner Legendary Pictures is attempting to create a universe which brings together King Kong and Godzilla. The 2014 remake of Godzilla is being treated as the first film in the ‘giant super-species cinematic universe’ to be followed by Kong: Skull Island in 2017 and Godzilla 2 in 2018.The first trailer for the former was released yesterday and showcases the powerhouse cast of Tom Hiddleston, this year’s Oscar winner Brie Larson and veteran actors Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman. As can be expected, the trailer gives only brief and incomplete glimpses of King Kong. The Godzilla reboot cast the giant reptile as mankind’s savior against two other monsters. Fanboys refer to these monsters by their Japanese appellation kaiju, but in the film they are referred to as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Obviously, we will see more MUTOs in Godzilla 2 in 2019, possibly from original rights holder Toho’s collection of baddies such as King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. And so, when Godzilla and Kong meet on-screen in 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong, one can expect city-levelling mayhem that would put even Zack Snyder’s DC films to shame. An intriguing possibility is that Legendary Pictures may find a way to fuse this universe with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim series which it also produces. This seems highly unlikely though it would be the ultimate kaiju wet dream!

For fans of epic/ big effects films, the next few years promises to be very exciting with superheroes, monsters, aliens and giant creatures invading our theaters. Just make sure you can keep track of how they are all related to each other!

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Tom Cruise makes every Mission possible


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In 1996, Tom Cruise got his first ever credit as producer of a movie. This was for Mission: Impossible, the big screen adaptation of the famous TV show which ran from 1966-73. Interestingly, the original series was produced by Desilu Productions, which was co-owned by comedienne Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy fame.

I doubt even Cruise could have predicted in ’96 that nearly two decades later he would be acting in the fifth release in the franchise and announcing the beginning of production on the sixth!

What an amazing run it’s been for the franchise with the iconic opening title track, composed by Lalo Schifrin (almost as famous as the Bond theme, I think). As producer of the film series, Cruise has tapped into a who’s who list of directors to bring the stories to life.

Each of these directors came on board on the rising curve of their respective career trajectories and in several cases the M:I film they directed became their highest grossing or best known work.

The first film in 1996 was directed by Brian De Palma who by then was already famous for Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables. Mission: Impossible was his biggest hit and after a couple of big budget films his output diminished as he entered his 60s. The two action set-pieces – the CIA heist and the fight on top of the speeding TGV – particularly the former, have become part of movie lore.

Four years later, Cruise tapped John Woo to direct the follow-up. After a decade of stylish Hong Kong action-dramas, Woo had already directed two Hollywood films including the high-concept Face/Off (starring John Travolta and Nic Cage). Tonally, this sequel was more John Woo than M:I, replete with his flying doves and dual pistols. It made a ton of money globally, but is generally disliked by M:I fans. It was too melodramatic for an M:I film, I think. It was also the beginning of the end for John Woo in Hollywood and he made a couple of smaller films before returning to China for good.

Fast-forward six years and a writer-director-producer who had made his name in TV was picked to direct his first ever feature film, Mission: Impossible III. This was J.J. Abrams of course, who at that time was perhaps the biggest name in dramatic television with hits like Felicity, Alias and Lost. This third entry was darker, had a truly disturbing villain played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but the smallest ‘scale’ of any entry in the franchise (the director still thinking in terms of TV probably). It also was the lowest grossing entry in the franchise. For Mr. Abrams it was only the beginning and he has now become the only director in history to have directed a movie in both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises.

Another five years passed before Ethan Hunt returned. This time the director was Brad Bird, making his first ever live-action film after gaining fame and respect with perhaps three of the best animation movies of the modern era – The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. How would Mr. Bird handle the transition from pixels to people? Like a dream. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was a return to the non-stop pace and breathtaking stunts of the original film, the Kremlin attack and the Burj Khalifa scene easily in the same league as the CIA heist scene for audaciousness and heart-stopping thrills.

Now, we have the release of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, perhaps the least celebrated or well-known director in the history of the franchise. Make no mistake, Mr. McQuarrie is a top-notch screenwriter, having won an Oscar in 1996 for The Usual Suspects. He has been closely associated with Cruise in recent years, writing the screenplay for three Cruise starrers – Valkyrie, Jack Reacher (which he also directed) and Edge of Tomorrow – all excellent scripts, turned into taut, engaging thrillers.

Critics have been heaping praise on the latest entry and the trailers seemed to indicate that this film would pick up where Ghost Protocol left off, especially with the scene of Cruise hanging onto the door of a giant cargo plane as it takes off! This scene is also featured in the movie poster. However, I was a bit disappointed when the film actually began with the set-up for this scene; I had really expected to build up to it later in the film, just like the CIA heist or the Burj Khalifa climb. Almost before I had settled into my seat, the thrill was over and done with!

Even though there are plenty of other action scenes, including a tense under-water mission and a satisfying finale, this is actually the most character driven entry in the series since Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III. Certainly, the villain Solomon Lane, played by Sean Harris is as frightening as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian. And with British spy Ilsa Faust (played by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson and somehow reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman), we have a worthy female foil to Ethan Hunt. Faust is a stronger female character than Paula Patton’s Jane from Ghost Protocol and eventually develops a close bond with Hunt (it’s clearly platonic and I guess the assumption is that Hunt is still with his fiancée Julia from the previous two films).

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This is interesting, because one of the edicts of the original TV series was that there was to be no character development whatsoever, and each episode was to focus purely on the mission in as minimalist a fashion as possible. Of course, 2 hour movies are a different kettle of fish from half hour TV shows and the tone of the film series has developed well beyond the original TV shows. This constant change shows how much Cruise as a producer has allowed the different directors to bring their own unique stamp to each entry in the series. In comparison, I feel the Bond franchise has been much more consistent in tone over the years (taking into account, evolving tastes and social mores of course).

In this age of digital cinematography that makes everything look like home made video, I very much enjoyed the grainy old world look of the film. All thanks to Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), who also lensed Ghost Protocol.

I would like to see where they go with Mission: Impossible 6 (targeting a summer 2017 release). Commercial realities dictate that there should be bigger and more audacious stunts, performed in far flung corners of the world to bring the global box office dollars in. On the other hand, with so many global spy franchises doing the same thing (the James Bond series, the Jason Bourne series and even the Fast and Furious movies), it’s going to be awfully difficult to bring in the crowds just on the basis of stunts. Cruise will be 55 by the time that film is released and although he still looks youthful, one wonders how long he can pull off the suspension of disbelief of a man his age hanging from trains, planes and skyscrapers. If McQuarrie writes the next film, it’s likely to skew a bit more towards character development and who knows, they may even introduce a new (younger) agent with Hunt taking on the role of mentor.

Summer 2015 movies to watch: 1 down, 10 to go!


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We kicked off the summer movie circus yesterday with Avengers: Age of Ultron which was everything the trailers promised it would be – more superheroes and more action, but also more layered, with some characters taking personal journeys down dark pathways. Bond-style, the action kicks off from the get-go with an exhilarating prologue set-piece and there were plenty of memorable moments right through the movie.

It’s a great start to the summer and there are another 10 movies in my must-watch list from now till mid-August:-

Furious 7 – Well the movie’s been out for a few weeks and is already a worldwide hit. What’s more, the reviews are pretty decent too (Metacritic average score of 67). Will have to catch this soon before it exits theatres. Hats off to horror maestro James Wan, who has directed this ‘emotional’ instalment of the long-running franchise. Eleven years ago, the Malaysian-born director created the micro-budget horror phenomenon Saw, then went on to direct one of the best-reviewed horror films in recent years, The Conjuring. Now, he has succeeded with a completely different genre and is currently rumored to be in the running to direct Warner Bros./DC Comics Aquaman!

Mad Max: Fury Road – This intense R-rated restart of the beloved post-apocalyptic franchise is at the top of my list. The first trailer was epic/ operatic and the final trailer which I caught a glimpse of as I entered the theatre today, tops the first one. From what I’ve seen, the star of this movie is director George Miller. Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult are all but unrecognizable. In terms of plot, it will be more of the same – brooding loner roams a blasted landscape and crosses paths with a bunch of loonies (see picture at the top of the article) who pay the price for not getting out of his way. Plenty of violence follows. This will not be for the weak-hearted. This is officially my most anticipated movie of the summer.

Tomorrowland – This PG-rated scifi entertainer from Disney is directed by one of my favorite directors, Brad Bird. The 58-year-old has made just 4 films before this – 3 animation classics (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille) and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the movie that gave the franchise a new lease of life and provided Tom Cruise with a rare hit in the past 10 years. The movie’s plot is a bit of a mystery, but the trailers are intriguing as is the casting combination of George Clooney and Britt Robertson (Angie McAlister from Under the Dome).

Entourage – I was a big fan of the TV series and although I skipped out after the 5th season, I remain invested in the lives and loves of the 4 friends who rose up from humble beginnings in Queens to the razzle and dazzle of Hollywood. The movie is directed by creator Doug Ellin and will see the return of all the familiar faces plus a revolving door of celebrities who will be playing themselves. It promises to be good fun and should make a nice little killing at the box office much like the Sex and the City film; I’m not so sure that this will play as well overseas as SATC though.

Jurassic World – The Mad Max franchise gets resurrected after a gap of 30 years and the same summer, the Jurassic Park franchise gets restarted after 14 years, this time helmed 29-year-old whiz kid director Colin Trevorrow. Back in 2001, Jurassic Park III suffered due to weak characters (William H. Macy, Tea Leoni and Alessandro Nivola…really?), but this time around we have Chris Pratt coming in hot off the success of Guardians of the Galaxy and Bryce Dallas Howard playing the greedy corporate maven. But the stars of the movie as usual, will be the dinosaurs – since T.Rex is now passé, we have the new genetically created Indominus Rex and a pack of Velociraptors that appear to be loyal to Chris Pratt! I am also expecting this movie to deliver the goods because the story comes from Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver who scripted the two highly acclaimed Planet of the Apes reboot movies and are currently working on James Cameron’s Avatar sequels.

Terminator: Genisys – This is clearly the summer for reviving dormant franchises. The last film in the series, Terminator Salvation was a critical and commercial disappointment (in my view, not much more could have been expected from a director like McG), in spite of having Christian Bale and then red-hot hunk Sam Worthington playing the leads. This time around, there’s a completely new team and the trailers indicate that the story is going to feature a time-travel story retcon, much in the way Star Trek Into Darkness rewrote the story of Khan. This is a risky approach, dangerously close to being a gimmick. Having said that, the trailers and the Entertainment Weekly cover story from January look very cool. I have a lot of respect for the actors – Jason Clark, Emilia Clarke (the dragon queen from Game of Thrones), Jai Courtney and of course, ‘Ahnuld’ is back! This version is directed by TV director Alan Taylor, who has previously done episodes of Game of Thrones.

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Ant-Man – Ah, what might have been if Edgar Wright had stayed on to direct this movie. No less than ‘His Marvelness’ Joss Whedon has said in a recent interview that “Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man was the best script that Marvel ever had’. But it was not meant to be. And now we have this version being released, directed by comedy helmer Peyton Reed, with a script co-written by lead actor and perpetual ‘on-screen loser’ Paul Rudd. I can only hope that Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige is the real man in the driver’s seat of this movie, as we all know how well he has shepherded the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) for the past few years. We’ve all been wondering when the big Marvel machine will fail. Let’s hope this isn’t the one. I actually like the trailer.

Fantastic Four – Here’s another iffy Marvel product, although this one comes from rival studio Fox, which continues to hold on to the rights to this Marvel property. I was excited that this reboot is being directed by 30-year-old Josh Trank who made the found-footage superhero film Chronicle a few years ago.  But then the cast was announced and I was felt they were either unappealing or miscast, particularly Miles Teller (one of my favourite young actors) in the role of Reed Richards. Then the trailer came out and my hopes fell further, because it doesn’t really show anything new that we have not seen in the 2005 origin story. Is Josh Trank the real thing or a flash-in-the-pan? Rival studio Disney (which owns Marvel) wants to know because Trank has been signed on to direct their 2nd Star Wars Anthology film due out in 2018.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – With writer-director Christopher McQuarrie in the hot seat this time, the M:I franchise keeps rolling on, nearly 20 years after it hit the big screen. The real driver is producer Tom Cruise, I think. McQuarrie directed Cruise in Jack Reacher which I very much enjoyed, but he is better known as the man who won an Oscar for the screenplay of The Usual Suspects. I also liked his writing on two other Tom Cruise films – Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow, although he has also written his share of flops, i.e. The Tourist and Jack the Giant Slayer. The trailer has Cruise doing his usual death-defying stunts – we’ve seen him hanging from trains and skyscrapers, now he’s holding on to a military transport plane for dear life. It certainly looks like this latest outing will continue to deliver a good mix of intrigue and thrills.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – British director Guy Ritchie went from being the darling of indie crime cinema with his debut film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at the age of 30, to nearly becoming an also-ran who also happened to be the latest husband of Madonna, before redeeming himself with two sparkling large-screen interpretations of Sherlock Holmes, featuring that other comeback artist, Robert Downey Jr. He now turns his attention to a spy series from the ‘60s and hopes to do for it what Brian De Palma did for Mission: Impossible in 1996. On paper, the combination of Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer in suave 60’s duds sounds appealing; unfortunately, the trailer looks rather boring and the banter seems very forced. It will have been a long hot summer by the time this one rolls in and the buzz will have to be very strong to get paying audiences into the theatres.

Three summer movie trailers


Three big summer 2014 movies had their first trailers released this week – Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow and Jupiter Ascending.

In 1998, the hype going into the summer was around two action tentpoles – Michael Bay’s Armageddon and the English language remake of the beloved Japanese monster franchise Godzilla. Godzilla was being made by Roland Emmerich, who 3 summers earlier had clobbered the box office with Independence Day. Given the pedigree of the source material, and Emmerich’s track record, Godzilla was widely expected to become the box office champ of 1998. Instead, the film crashed and burned after its big Memorial Weekend debut, let down by high expectations, poor casting, unlikeable characters and a thin plot. Although its final global box office take was actually pretty decent, it could not escape the stigma of the fan-bashing. Sony Pictures canned the planned sequels and the rights reverted to Japan’s Toho studios.

Now, Warner Bros. is going to give it another shot. If 1998’s Godzilla was entrusted to one of the biggest directors of the time, the 2014 version is being directed by a virtual unknown; Gareth Edwards is a British filmmaker whose only feature film – 2010’s Monsters – cost less than half a million dollars to make and grossed just USD 4 mn in limited release around the world. Edwards has a background in visual effects and he created the effects for Monsters on his computer using off the shelf software! But he won critics over with his focus on the relationship between the two lead characters as well as his spare and lyrical visual style.

These skills were apparent in the first teaser trailer which came out this week. It opens with paratroopers jumping off a plane; the lyrical touch is very much in evidence as we see long shots of the troopers falling with red tracer flares marking the paths of their descent through the dark skies. As they fall, the camera cuts to show their point of view – they are falling into a city in flames and through the smoke they get their first sight of the jagged spikes on the monster’s back. The trailer then cuts to several random scenes from the film, some of the key supporting characters (Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) and the two young leads, Kick-Ass’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of the famous Olsen twin child actresses Mary-Kate and Ashley).

Godzilla arrives next summer on 16th May, sandwiched by the superhero films Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past. It may not make much more than 1998’s Godzilla when adjusted for inflation, but with lower expectations and hopefully better critical acclaim, it will fare better in the public’s memory than the 1998 version.

Tom Cruise’s Oblivion kicked off this year’s summer with decent reviews and a reasonably profitable take at the global box office. Next summer he appears in his second consecutive scifi film, Edge of Tomorrow. The film is an adaptation of the Japanese young adult novel All You Need Is Kill, with screenplay polishes done by power-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (close associates of J. J. Abrams). The director is Doug Liman, who was very hot ten years ago when he kicked off the Bourne franchise with The Bourne Identity and followed it up with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He hasn’t done anything of note since then, so this is a sort of comeback for him.

The movie is being described as Groundhog Day meets Oblivion – Tom Cruise plays an inexperienced soldier who is killed in battle (against an alien force) and is forced to relive the same day again and again, until he becomes good enough to break the loop. The film also features Emily Blunt who acts in her 3rd scifi film as the intelligent woman who helps the hero (JGL in Looper and Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau) overcome impossible odds.

The trailer sets up the premise clearly, which is very important for this sort of film if it wants to appeal to an audience beyond the scifi fanboys. Tom Cruise, starting show his age a bit and looking haggard (as he should be, considering what his character has gone through), talks to someone off-screen about his ‘recurring problem’. We then see the story unroll, the battle scenes and Emily Blunt’s character as a very appropriate song ‘This is Not the End’ plays in the background. The trailer ends with a short but impressive clip of Tom Cruise’s character in action after presumably going through several iterations of battle training. The tone of the film is remarkably similar to that of Oblivion. The two movies are produced by different studios and different production companies, so this is either coincidence, or Tom Cruise himself has played a role in influencing a certain look and feel for both films…very much a possibility. Since 2005’s War of the Worlds, Mr. Cruise has had only two movies gross more than USD 100 mn in the US…and they were both Mission: Impossible films. I have a feeling that Edge of Tomorrow will not help him break that jinx; scifi action films have a very specific male-skewed audience and in spite of Emily Blunt’s strong role, I don’t think this trailer does enough to expand the appeal to women. However, as with a lot of action movies these days, it is the international markets which really hold the key and it is entirely likely that the film will make a profit through its global box office gross.

The Wachowski siblings’ Cloud Atlas was one of the big bombs of 2012. Based on the ‘unfilmable’ award winning novel by David Mitchell, it was perhaps too much hard work for audiences to keep track of the multiple nested/ intertwined storylines. That was their second big box office failure following on from the disastrous Speed Racer in 2008. So it’s nice to see that Warner Bros. is still standing by the filmmakers who created the seminal Matrix trilogy for them; their new film with the studio is Jupiter Ascending which releases at the end of July 2014. This original scifi story (written by the siblings) stars Mila Kunis as the titular Jupiter and Channing Tatum as her protector Caine. Like Keanu Reeves’ Neo in The Matrix, Jupiter has some sort of power/ ability/ background which she is not aware of, but for which others want her to die. And of course, like Neo, she is perhaps the key to the fate of our world. I also saw glimpses of a couple of young upcoming actors – Eddie Redmayne (who played Marius in Les Miserables) and James D’Arcy (who was in Cloud Atlas and also played Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock).

While I will be lining up on opening weekend to catch all three movies, I think only Godzilla has a realistic chance to become a genuine blockbuster. For the other two, the best one can hope for is that they will be well made films that will at least not make a loss for their respective studios and financiers.

Oblivion – 70’s scifi revisited


While watching Oblivion yesterday, I was struck by how Joseph Kosinski chose the look of his post-apocalyptic world, both the landscape of Earth as well as the interiors of Tower 49 where the two drone supervisors – played by Tom Cruise (Jack Harper) and Andrea Riseborough (Victoria) – work .

Let’s start with Earth; this is a world which has supposedly been rendered unlivable after a period of conflict between the armies of Earth and alien attackers (called Scavengers or ‘scavs’). The scavs broke up the Moon (which is still visible in the night sky in the years-long process of breaking up and distributing itself into an orbital ring), which resulted in out-of-control tidal waves, earthquakes and other mayhem. The remaining population of Earth has apparently been moved to Saturn’s moon, Titan and all that remains is a collection of giant automated machines (controlled by an orbiting station called the Tet) spread across the planet to extract whatever resources are still usable, including water. But for all that, Earth appears beautiful, even pristine, and only occasionally do we see remnants of buildings, much of them conveniently underground so as to not spoil the look of the film!

Then we come to Tower #49, where Jack and Victoria live and which provides communications and navigation support to Jack as he flies around in his cool Bubbleship, locating and repairing the automated drones which fly around mopping up scav resistance. The interiors of Tower #49 would not be out of place in the catalogs of European minimalist designers (Kosinski is after all an architecture graduate). Vika’s communications center is straight out of those ‘houses of the future’ videos from Living Tomorrow and Corning doing the rounds on Youtube. So, instead of the grungy ‘used future’ look made popular Star Wars and Blade Runner, the interiors have a clean antiseptic look…the film that came to my mind was Logan’s Run (1976), although Mr. Kosinski himself refers specifically to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running as his influences. The other link with ‘70s scifi films that he mentions is the ‘lonely man’ theme, which was very apparent in films like Silent Running, Solaris, and Omega Man. I can imagine that this look in the ‘70s was necessitated by budgetary constraints – scifi films were never big money makers in the days before Star Wars – and the studios would have tried to avoid having to cast hundreds of extras. But for a modern day scifi film like Oblivion, it is a very deliberate decision to adopt that look.

And I think Joseph Kosinski has used this ‘filmic anachronism’ to plant the thought of “this doesn’t feel right” in the mind of the viewer. After the first ten minutes, one starts wondering how it is that in this age of logical storytelling where novelists and filmmakers meticulously research the science behind their stories, a film maker could design a post-apocalyptic world that looks so beautiful. And sure enough, in due course, we find out that all is not as it appears with the big reveal in the last one-third of the movie.

Overall, Oblivion is an aggregated homage to a number of influential scifi films of the ‘70s. This doesn’t diminish the quality of the movie in my opinion; in fact, this is the fun part of having more than a century of cinema behind us – being able to spot influences and styles in a filmmakers work. When I watched Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy in early 2011, I had titled my blog post as “Tron: Legacy – A Neon Star Wars?”. This was particularly evident during the dogfight sequence involving Light Jets and the shuttle. I got the same sense of déjà vu watching Oblivion during the canyon dogfight involving 3 drones and Jack’s Bubbleship. One could almost imagine that we were watching Darth Vader and his two wingmen closing in on Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing as he flew through the metal canyons of Death Star.

Coming back to Oblivion – the acting, special effects and production design are all top notch. The story has genuine depth – it could have been called “the tragedy of Jack and Julia”, no matter that the movie itself ends on a positive note. I found myself genuinely curious to know more about this world. What happened between 2017 and 2077? What about the other technicians #1-48, 50, 51 and beyond 53? What actually lies in the radiation zone? What happened to Jack Harper? Mr. Kosinski has indicated that he may revisit this world, after all it is his original creation, based on his unpublished graphic novel. Meanwhile, he is waiting for 2 scripts to be completed at his home studio Disney – a remake of the 1979 scifi film The Black Hole and another sequel to Tron – to decide what will be his follow-up film. Whatever it is, I assume there will be a dogfight sequence in it!

The big stars come out to play this summer


It’s not often that we get all the stars to appear in the box office sky during the same summer, but 2013 looks like it’s going to be one to remember.

Tom Cruise, Robert Downey Jr., Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Channing Tatum (twice), Hugh Jackman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, Bruce Willis and Matt Damon will all grace the silver screen during the 5 month period beginning April.

Even more exciting for me is that so many of them are appearing in science fiction or superhero genres.

Technically, I don’t yet consider Channing Tatum to be an A-list box office star, but who am I to argue against a guy who had three 100 million dollar hits last year? I don’t know if the man can anchor an action movie all by himself, but he won’t have to worry about that in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, releasing at the end of March. He’s going to have Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson for company. This film was delayed by a year for conversion to 3D. I guess it will be a modest box office hit…at least, the fight scene on the cliff looks really cool.

A week later, in April Tom Cruise returns to the scifi genre in Joseph Kosinski’s follow up to TRON:Legacy, called Oblivion. The trailers look good (in fact, each new one has been better than the last), the poster looks good, there’s a supporting cast of solid character actors and the screenplay has been co-written by Oscar winner Michael Arndt…yes, the man who has been hired to write the new Star Wars movie.

In the first week of May, Robert Downey Jr. puts the red and gold suit on again for Iron Man 3. This time, action screenwriting god Shane Black is in the director’s chair and one of my all time favorite cinematographers John Toll (Oscar winner for Braveheart and Legends of the Fall) is the DP…Mr. Toll is primarily an outdoor scenery specialist, so I was initially surprised to see him in the hi-tech metal world of Iron Man. But the trailers indicate that Tony Stark is going to be stripped down to the essentials and on the run, so that probably explains the choice. By all accounts, this promises to be yet another hit for Marvel.

A week later, Leo DiCaprio is back on screen as Jay Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the 1920’s set literary classic The Great Gatsby. Mr. Luhrmann is a bit of a hit or miss director, but always a good bet for visual spectacle, so this will be a closely watched effort. If he gets it right, then it will be one of the few summer releases that will still be talked during Oscar nominations season at the end of the year.

In June, we get to see Will Smith and Jaden Smith reunite on screen; the last time was 7 years ago in The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith junior is all grown up now and will probably get as much screen time, if not more, than papa. This is Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s first venture into the world of science fiction, and since most of the world still seems to hate director M. Night Shyamalan, I think this is another hit-or-miss star vehicle this summer.

A couple of weeks later, Mr. Brad Pitt tries to save the world from a zombie apocalypse in World War Z, the movie (non-)adaptation of the Max Brooks’ breakthrough book. Although the movie is a big departure from the book, the direction in which scriptwriter Matthew Carnahan (brother of director Joe) has taken the film actually bodes quite well for its box office prospects. It looks like out and out action, with some pretty hard hitting zombie attack scenes. This is director Marc Forster’s big chance to redeem himself after the Bond misfire Quantum of Solace.

Channing Tatum is back in the 3rd week of June with White House Down…another case of 2 similarly themed movies hitting the theatres in the same year (Olympus Has Fallen releases in mid-April with Aaron Eckhart as President and Gerard Butler as his saviour). In White House Down, the prez is played by Jamie Foxx…somehow with both the White House action films, I feel that the actor playing the President is cooler than the Secret Service guy trying to save his life.

The July 4th weekend brings in a very high risk blockbuster – Gore Verbinski’s Lone Ranger, where the big star Johnny Depp doesn’t play the lead character but his sidekick Tonto instead. The trailer looks like fun, but Westerns have been box office poison for many decades and it will be interesting to see if Mr. Depp’s charisma is good enough to keep this expensive film afloat. The director and the star have a great working relationship from the 3 Pirates of the Caribbean movies they worked on together. Mr. Verbinski also brought a very edgy sensibility into a Wild West setting in the Oscar-winning animation film Rango a couple of years ago. So, perhaps this will indeed be the Western that bucks the trend.

In the last week of July, we get to see our 2nd Marvel hero of the summer with Hugh Jackman returning to the screen for the 5th time (not including his cameo in X-Men: First Class) as Wolverine. Director James Mangold has directed some great movies in the past like CopLand, 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line; when the script is good, he is great at portraying strong silent lead characters. That’s just what The Wolverine needs after the horrible mess left by its predecessor X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. The source material for the new movie is the much beloved 1980’s mini-series from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, set in Japan. As in the case of Iron Man 3, it appears that there will be a ‘back to basics’ approach to this film, which can only bode well for the outcome.

In early August, Denzel Washington appears in a rather low key film called 2 Guns alongside Mark Wahlberg. Denzel’s most successful films have usually had him share on-screen time with a strong partner or adversary, so the formula is at work here again. Icelandic actor turned director Baltazar Kormakur is still new to the Hollywood game, so I don’t expect too much interest in this Action-drama entry at the tail end of the summer.

And finally, to round off the summer, Matt Damon appears as a shaven-headed buffed up mercenary in Neill Blomkamp’s Elyisum, alongside Jodie Foster. I am really waiting to see this film, as it’s a follow-up to the outstanding District 9 and is sure to have a strong undercurrent of socio-political commentary, besides some kick-ass special effects from Peter Jackson’s WETA.

So there you have it…the most star-struck summer in many years. There are too many variables at this stage to say who is going to come out on top of the heap. Of course, on top of all that, we will also have to keep an eye out for Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim which are guaranteed blockbusters in spite of not having any A-list stars on board. The only big name missing from the list above is George Clooney, who is busy directing and starring in The Monuments Men and acting in the risky scifi space thriller Gravity, both of which will come out at the end of the year.

Jack’s all right…thanks to Tom


I’d been following the online firestorm around the casting of 5-foot-something Tom Cruise in the role of the 6 foot 5 inch tall ex-military loner, but nevertheless had put down Jack Reacher in my list of must-see year-end movies of 2012. In fact, I had listed it along with Taken 2 as a ‘guilty pleasure’, because I didn’t really care too much if the casting worked or not, but was determined to fulfill my obligation as a long-time fan of Tom Cruise films (except for Knight and Day, but that was Cameron Diaz’s fault!).

I watched the first of my two guilty pleasures – Taken 2 last month and it certainly wasn’t as good as the original, but after watching Jack Reacher earlier this evening, I can confidently take it off that list and say that it stands on its own feet as a genuinely good, well-scripted, well-acted crime thriller, excelling in almost every aspect of genre film-making.

I haven’t read the Lee Child novel ‘One Shot’ on which the film is based, so I can’t comment on whether the sequencing of the screenplay mirrors the novel, or if some of that credit should be given to director-screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. Mr. McQuarrie is no slouch; he broke through with the script for The Usual Suspects back in 1995 and then after a hiatus of nearly a decade from filmmaking came back with the excellent real life story Valkyrie in 2008. He seems to be on a roll now with screenplays to Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), The Wolverine (2013) and All You Need is Kill (2014).

The film opens with a sequence depicting just the sort of crime that gun-control advocates are crusading against in the US at the moment. In fact, I wasn’t surprised that such an excellent crime thriller has only grossed USD 77 mn at the American box office so far; I can’t imagine that the American people have the stomach to watch something that rings so close to the truth…it’s much easier to gorge on improbable fantasies like aliens, monsters or super-villains attacking New York City, isn’t it?

Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher character is introduced just as you would imagine the introduction of a superstar who also happens to be the producer of the movie…with a number of clichéd shots that show everything about the man, except for his face, knowing fully well that the audience is waiting impatiently for the moment when the camera finally settles on those familiar features.

There is some real chemistry between Tom Cruise and ex-Bond girl Rosamund Pike who plays lawyer (and Jack Reacher’s temporary ‘employer’) Helen Rodin, although the rootless nature of Reacher’s character means that there is never going to be a relationship between them.  Aussie hunk Jai Courtney is compelling as one of Reacher’s key adversaries; Mr. Courtney will be seen again in a few months playing John McClane’s son in the latest DieHard movie. But the biggest impact was surely made by 70-year-old award-winning German director Werner Herzog playing the mysterious villain Zec. The combination of the German accent and the expression-less face was chilling.

Five-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel does an outstanding job behind the camera, especially with the car chase through the streets of Pittsburgh, the opening sequence and of course, the climax at the end.

I also enjoyed the occasional moments of humor (something rather rare in Tom Cruise films), such as the attack on Reacher’s character by a pair of bumbling tough guys inside a suspect’s house and the scene when some regular folks on the street help Reacher evade the cops.

Overall, I would be ready to sign up for more Jack Reacher adventures featuring Tom Cruise (there are 17 novels and some short stories) and if they can keep the production cost at USD 60 mn as they did in this case, then the movies are likely to turn out a decent profit.