Sometimes you miss the memo on what makes a film so bad, and so I felt when I finally saw this film. I can actually see why Nolan himself eyed this as a project – in some ways it’s more suited to his sensibilities than Interstellar (which has a few strong legacies of Spielberg’s involvement). It’s true there’s a lot that doesn’t quite work here. What I think works about it is that it’s a love story at heart, with shades of Orpheus (Rebecca Hall) and Eurydice (Johnny Depp). Rebecca Hall’s character wilfully commits the error of denying death its prize (or does she fall for the impression of life?), and because of it, much more will be lost. She’s also Mina Harker by the end, joining her lover in both death and what might lie beyond it. Paul Bettany makes a good Jonathan Harker, although I can’t say the same for Morgan Freeman as Van Helsing.
In between, the scenes of Hall in the love nests built by Caster’s digital avatar (Johnny Depp) have a beautiful ambivalence about them. (It says everything about this film that it spends more time dramatizing her bedtime manner than it does showing the FBI’s late film machinations.) Perhaps I’m the rare romantic soul that can survive the high concept conditions and find something to like here. For everyone else, perhaps the year’s other singularity romance – Her – is more your cup of tea.
Working the death of Alexander Litvinenko into the scenario was a nice touch. It’s probably the closest we’ll see to the Michael Mann project on that assassination that Depp was intended to star in. (Although possession of polonium bullets renders the film’s neo-Luddite terrorists even more incongruous.) The position of the FBI by the end is interesting dramatic territory – shades of the Waco siege – although the filmmakers play the authorities as more heroic than makes sense. By the end of the film the whole scenario feels more like a war of religious factions, also an interesting choice.
On the decorative side, the screenplay (as edited) seemed to get the balance right between verbal and visual exposition, and for most of its length, moved quickly past places I expected it to settle into others. The plot unfolds with visual economy, and a strong sense of what an image can say. Fades to white, planar layers, and strong vanishing points within imagery repeatedly feature in its arsenal. I can’t entirely disapprove of a film so committed to montage editing (consider the climactic choice of Depp’s character). And I like the circularity brought about by the prologue – I doubt the closing images would be as resonant without it.
By no means am I suggesting the film was without flaw, and I’m probably projecting more into it than was there (a common weakness for sci-fi viewers), but this is ‘everything nice’ after all.