In-flight movies

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios

 

I’ve done a lot of flying recently, mostly with Qatar Airways.  And when I’m on a long-haul flight with an airline that’s sufficiently in-the-money to have a big entertainment system embedded in the seat-back a few inches from my nose, there’s only one thing I can do.  I can only dig into that system’s movie-selection and find a few big-budget summer blockbusters – movies I’d never proactively go and seek out at a cinema, but which are sufficiently easy on the brain for me to watch when I’m knackered and strapped into a cramped airplane seat for seven or eight hours.

 

The first thing I watched was the Marvel Comics superhero adaptation Avengers: Age of Ultron, which was released six months ago.

 

Being old, I can remember a time when the Avengers really were comic-book characters and the prospects of them ever appearing in a movie seemed remote.  But my experiences reading the Avengers comic as a kid in the 1970s were frustrating, because the newsagents closest to where I lived in Northern Ireland didn’t stock anything by Marvel.  I had to wait till my family made one of their occasional visits to the nearest town, Enniskillen, where I could buy such comics at Veitch’s newspaper shop.  The infrequency with which I read the Avengers meant that each time I did so, disconcertingly, the team of superheroes featured in the comic had changed their line-up. There were always newcomers who’d seemingly popped up out of nowhere, while previous members I’d become used to had disappeared.

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

However, the team’s core was fairly solid: Captain America, Thor and Iron Man.  All three appear in Age of Ultron, respectively played by Chris Evans, Chris Helmsdale and Robert Downey Jr.  Also in the movie are the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  And we get War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany) too.  And halfway through the movie, in struts Samuel L. Jackson playing the one-eyed Nick Fury, director of the espionage, law-enforcement and counter-terrorism organisation S.H.I.E.L.D.

 

Phew.  That’s a lot of Marvel characters in one movie.  I found it hard to keep up with them all.  I was particularly puzzled by the presence of the brother-and-sister superheroes Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, because I remember them from a different comic, the X-Men – in which they worked for the bad guy, Magneto.  (Indeed, Quicksilver also appeared in the last X-Men movie, Days of Future Past.  There, however, he was an easy-going dude played by Evan Peters, whereas in Age of Ultron Taylor-Johnson portrays him as an altogether more intense and serious character.)

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

Incidentally, I was pleased to see Iron Man take centre-stage in this film.  I always felt sorry for him in the comics because frankly, compared to the more dramatically attired Captain America and Thor, he seemed like a dork in a boring tin suit.  But played by Robert Downey Jr, he’s more interesting and glamorous.  Mind you, the fact that his human alter-ego, Tony Stark, is a billionaire playboy who’s built his business empire on selling weapons – he’s basically Donald Trump without the crap wig but with a dossier of dodgy arms deals with the Saudis – has made him the subject of some disapproval, including in this recent article in the New Statesman:

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/04/politics-iron-man-how-marvel-sold-arms-dealing-billionaire-liberal-america.

 

Actually, Iron Man’s moral ambiguity is what gives him depth – depth that’s lacking in some of the other characters.  And it’s Stark’s overconfident meddling with forces he doesn’t understand that creates and unleashes the movie’s big baddie, Ultron, a global computer system powered by a gemstone from Loki’s sceptre – you need to have watched the previous Avengers movie to know what I’m talking about – that becomes sentient and later incarnates itself in a robot body.

 

Among the other characters I remember from the 1970s is the Vision, the ghostly green-skinned synthesised android who was one of my favourite Avengers.   I’m glad that he’s played here by an actor as good as Paul Bettany.  I also recall Nick Fury, whom I thought was a dullard in his comic-book days.  He seemed a slab-headed, gung-ho, ex-marine type who really belonged in a war comic like Sergeant Rock.  But casting Samuel L. Jackson in the role hasn’t only given Fury a change of skin-colour – personality-wise he’s more appealing now.

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

By the way, Fury has been played in the past by a white actor, in the 1998 TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.  In that, he was played by, ahem, David Hasselhoff.

 

With multiple characters, multiple sub-plots, multiple incidents and multiple back-story references, I should have liked Age of Ultron more than I did.  After all, this was how the superheroes’ stories were told in the comics.  And over the years, comic fans have complained about how these superheroes have been treated by filmmakers, with the complex comics storylines – developed over scores and finally hundreds of issues – simplified and pared to the bone to suit the demands of a stand-alone film, with a linear narrative, little room for back-story and a running time of two or so hours.

 

Age of Ultron should have been a happy reminder to me of how the comics were, but I found it too distractingly busy.  It even made me nostalgic for the best superhero movies of old – Sam Raimi’s first two Spiderman films, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Zack Snyder’s underrated take on Superman, 2013’s Man of Steel – where the superhero and supervillains were confined to two or three characters and the stories were reasonably self-contained.  Yes, I love the old comic-book approach to story-telling, but I don’t think it works in the medium of film.

 

Age of Ultron would probably have been more palatable as a TV series, where its twists and turns could have been spun out over a number of episodes.  The irony is that the movie was masterminded by Joss Whedon, whose best-known work is a TV series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ran from 1997 to 2003.

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios

 

I thought I’d enjoy another Marvel adaptation, one of the sci-fi / space-opera comic Guardians of the Galaxy, which was released last year.  This was because it got many good reviews that praised its irreverent tone and described it as unpretentious fun.  Also, science fiction fans saw fit to give it this year’s Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation (long form).

 

It’s about a group of buccaneering, spacefaring misfits who get caught up in a feud between two intergalactic factions, the Nova Empire and the Kree.  The group consists of a human (Chris Pratt) whom aliens abducted from Earth in the 1980s, when he was eight years old; a hard-assed extra-terrestrial lady with a green skin played by Zoe Saldana, who’s best known for her performance as an extra-terrestrial and blue-skinned lady in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009); a hulking warrior whose body is a circuit-board-like mass of scar patterns (David Bautista); a genetically engineered, talking space raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and a walking alien tree called Groot, who only communicates with the words “I am Groot” (voiced by Vin Diesel).

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t much enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy because I didn’t think the film was as smart, funny or cool as it thought it was.  A particular annoyance was Rocket, the talking space raccoon, who’s meant to be its main source of humour but whose incessant, cynical wisecracking just bugged me.  After a few minutes in his company, I was longing for a giant spaceship to run over the top of him and reduce him to a smear of interstellar roadkill.

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios 

 

The film has a smug knowingness that’s embodied in the fact that it has Vin Diesel playing a tree.  Yes, that’s Vin Diesel, who’s often mocked for his wooden acting style, playing a mass of wood.  Get it?  Come to think of it, the joke would have been funnier if they’d hired Roger Moore.

 

I found the film’s soundtrack problematic too.  It features a host of songs that were supposedly on a cassette tape in Pratt’s Walkman when he was abducted and now constitute his only link with Earth.  The issue is that Pratt was supposedly abducted in the late 1980s and all these songs – which get played out over the movie’s swashbuckling space action – come from the 1970s or late 1960s: I’m not in Love by 10cc, Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum, Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Swede (which also saw movie-soundtrack duty in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs), etc.  You’d expect something from the late 1980s to be on that cassette tape, although it’d probably be a shit song like Faith by George Michael or Wishing Well by Terence Trent D’Arby.

 

A properly cool late-1980s kid, of course, would have had the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Killing Joke, the Cramps, the Pixies, the Sisters of Mercy and the Stone Roses on his or her Walkman.  Wow – imagine that lot being played out over scenes of epic space battles!

 

One compensation is the supporting cast.  Keep your eyes and ears open during Guardians of the Galaxy and you’ll spot Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Peter Serafinowicz and Christopher Fairbank, who once upon a time played Moxey, the Scouse plasterer in the much-loved British TV comedy-drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.  And playing a shaven-headed, blue-skinned villainess is the Scottish actress Karen Gillan, who occupies a fond place in my heart for essaying the no-nonsense Amy Pond in Doctor Who.

 

(c) Skydance Productions / Paramount Pictures

 

Matt Smith, the actor who played the Doctor to Gillan’s Amy Pond, turned up in another blockbuster I watched during my Qatar Airways flights: this summer’s Terminator Genisys, the fifth in the franchise of sci-fi movies that began with James Cameron’s The Terminator back in 1984.  I can imagine Smith’s excitement at being offered a role in a big-budget Hollywood movie turning to disappointment when he saw its final cut and realised he was barely in it.  Mind you, he should be relieved that he’s barely onscreen because the finished film isn’t very good.

 

It begins with a reworking of events at the start of the 1984 Terminator.  John Connor (Jason Clarke), human resistance leader in a dystopian future where the machines have taken over and nearly extirpated mankind, discovers that the machines have sent a terminator – i.e. a hulking but human-like killer robot – back in time to the early 1980s to execute his mother, prevent him from being born and prevent the human resistance from ever existing too.  So he sends his friend Kyle Reece (Jai Courtney) back in time to the 1980s to stop the terminator and save his mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke).

 

The twist is that Reece arrives in a different version of the past.  This is because someone, mysteriously, has sent another terminator – a reprogrammed, nice terminator, similar to the ones Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the second and third Terminator movies in 1991 and 2003 and also played by Schwarzenegger here – to the 1970s to protect Sarah Connor as a girl.  And this has changed the timeline since then.  Therefore, you get incidents similar to ones in the first two Terminator movies happening again, but differently – mainly because nice-Arnold-from-the-1970s and a now-weaponised Sarah Connor keep turning up to kick the asses of various bad-guys-from-the-future.  These bad-guys-from-the-future include the creepy, cat-like, shape-shifting T-1000, who in Terminator II was played by Robert Patrick but is played here by the Korean actor Lee Byun-hun.

 

Meanwhile, Sarah and Arnold have somehow managed to build a time machine similar to the one used by the machines.  With this, Sarah and Reece travel forward in time to 2017, by which time the takeover by the machines hasn’t yet happened – it’s been delayed, apparently – but it will happen soon unless the sneakily-becoming-sentient machines are stopped.  If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry.  By this point it’d stopped making sense to me too.  And thereafter the film flails around with an increasing number of chases, explosions and bursts of illogical plot exposition.  There’s one plot-twist that would have been chilling if it hadn’t, unfortunately, been given away in the movie’s promotional trailers.

 

Just as the plot gets lost in a mess of time-travelling inconsistencies, so the audience’s appreciation of Terminator Genisys gets stuck in its own self-defeating loop.  To understand what’s going on, you need to have seen Cameron’s original two movies.  But if you’ve seen those, you’ll probably be annoyed to watch their best ideas and scenes pilfered by this brasher and shallower re-tread.

 

Any entertainment value in the film comes from a couple of the performances: namely, the great character actor J.K. Simmons in a supporting role and the now-pushing-seventy Schwarzenegger as yours truly.  To explain Arnold’s decrepitude – I use the word ‘decrepitude’ in a relative sense: it’s not like I’d fancy my chances in a fight with him or anything – we learn that the synthetic flesh coating the terminators’ robotic skeletons grows old, just as real flesh does on real humans.  Thus, by 2017, Arnold (who hasn’t travelled forward in time with Sarah and Reece, but has just hung around since 1984 waiting for them to show up) is looking quite pensionable.  The filmmakers have even given him a catchphrase to reflect his aging: “Old, not obsolete.”

 

(c) Skydance Productions / Paramount Pictures

 

This is nowhere near as memorable as “I’ll be back” or “Hasta la vista, baby”, but it does sound poignant when he utters it in 2017, while we see his hand trembling uncontrollably and we realise the circuitry inside it soon will be obsolete.

 

Sadly, a modified version of that catchphrase sums up Terminator Genisys itself.  Old and obsolete.

 

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