Slowdowns and some graphical glitches aside, XCOM 2‘s transition to eighth gen consoles is as smooth as Firaxis’ last couple goes at the franchise. The control scheme for squad movement, tactical setup, lobbing grenades, overwatch, et al. doesn’t stray from the Enemy Unknown/Within cycle. As with any halfway decent sequel (see: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided), the familiarity allows returning players an ease at picking up the handful of new ideas lobbed their way. XCOM 2‘s biggest is a script flip retread of the first game’s plot: the aliens and their plethora of scientific horrors are no longer invaders, but rulers. Erecting shiny cities and speaking of unity, their pseudo-benevolence barely masked by a media one shade removed from Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Earth’s globalist counter-insurgency is now the threat to the status quo, scrounging supplies on the edge of the world and happy to bushwack the occupying forces.
While the variety of guerilla missions is lacking (Enemy Within‘s Covert Operations, allowing players to send a soldier undercover, are a conspicuous absence. A missed opportunity for both world-building and tension), there is a satisfying emphasis on mobility. Ops often begin with a concealed squad, sneaking around to ambush patrolling ETs. Knowing when and how to break from stealth becomes key to success. This new tactical wrinkle is at its most interesting for missions which have a countdown. The potential loss of an objective (or even their ride out) forces players to move further and more quickly, potentially losing that element of surprise by crossing into an enemy’s (or even civilian snitch’s) line of sight. Off time also requires globe-trotting, with XCOM using a hijacked alien ship to establish resistance cells across the world, occasionally fending off retaliation strikes and UFOs. The aliens, themselves, make moves towards a full-scale genocide, tracked along by an ever-increasing counter over the world map. Sabotaging facilities or achieving story goals temporarily buys time, but the counter never stops. We aren’t settled for a long war, but sprinting against annihilation. The coup for XCOM 2 is putting players in the mindset of scrambling fundamentalists.
Early on in Arrival, linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is having a phone conversation with her mother. Discussing the appearance of 12 oblong alien ships on Earth, the subject of media coverage comes up, with Louise scolding her mother for watching “that channel, [because] they’re full of idiots.” It’s a throwaway moment, since we never see “that channel.” In fact, media coverage of first contact is staid, never more than a convenient infodump. None of the embellishments, half-truths, or manipulation of the 24/7 cable news cycle are on display.
This portrayal undercuts Arrival‘s central tension: Louise–flown out to a Montana landing site to help the army translate the cephalopodic aliens’ language (rendered as a series of inky, circular alphabet sentences, where the beginning and end unfold simultaneously)–has to function as the sane intermediary between unknowable things and a trigger-happy military-industrial complex ready for Independence Day 3. Her only trustworthy ally a socially-graceless physicist (Jeremy Renner), who nonetheless slots himself in as a useful extension of her efforts at understanding the visitors (he’s also key to a side-story involving flashes of Louise’s deceased daughter, interspersed with the narrative in ways which question causality).
While the conflict is ever-present in the faces of a pragmatic colonel (Forrest Whitaker), a grubby CIA spook, and a paranoid grunt leading an insurgency, it never becomes all-consuming. Much of it isn’t even driven by Louise’s handlers, but rather a Chinese general who exists (up until the last half-hour) as a television apparition. Our media and military simply observe and react to foreign aggression. In adapting Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life,” Denis Villeneuve takes an about face from his previous films (Prisoners and Enemy were parables of the modern condition, while Sicario illustrates the meat-grinder of the War on Drugs), suggesting the empire works as advertised. This isn’t to say there aren’t problems–Villeneuve builds many of his scenes either on slow-burning tension over stark landscapes (the reveal of the ship in a swooping helicopter shot, drinking in mist rolling off the mountains well before any visual effects are shown) or Louise’s uncertainty (Adams balances between reflective pauses and rock-steady poise when dealing with the aliens or the army)–merely the threat they pose aren’t structural. America is already great, and will only get greater so long as we ignore the idiots. This false note mars an otherwise excellent meditation on humanity’s limitations when perceiving time, the universe, and alien intelligence.
If anything is going to typify film in the Tens, it’s going to be mixed media. The found footage shift begun by Blair Witch Project gained steam in the Aughts, allowing (the illusion of) one continuous perspective on events that perhaps defied explanation. Increasingly, though (and perhaps due to a need, whether artistic or commercial, to incorporate newer technology and better angles), the focus is less on tracking a singular POV than capturing fragments of several–Chronicle or Unfriended springing instantly to mind. In Nerve, we open from the perspective of a computer screen, looking upon timid, waifish high schooler Vee (Emma Roberts). From there, viewpoint shreds as she’s drawn into “Nerve”, a social media game where players take on dares for money and to grow their audience (called “watchers”). The dares range from the relatively harmless (Vee’s friend Sydney mooning her schoolmates at a pep rally) to the insane (the film’s biggest setpiece is a blindfolded motorcycle ride through New York traffic). We increasingly look upon Vee, her friends, and Ian (Dave Franco), a mysterious fellow player who partners up with Vee, as multimedia art pieces, bathed in neon glow and dressed to the nines (after a forced streak though a bougie clothing store). Selfie sticks and drones intermingle with handheld and tracking shots of its subjects traversing the city and their dares. People gawp at them on computer and TV screens. Plot and character detail is doled out similarly, via text message and Youtube commentary, lives uploaded for all to see. Directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost take this as an opportunity for both teen comedy/drama and techno-thriller, where the watchers use their anonymity and connections to fuel an anarcho-consumerist subculture built on bloodlust, schadenfreude, misogyny, and psychological manipulation. Human beings rendered as objects of desire and amusement.
An early, key flashback in The Accountant shows future-Ben-Affleck Christian Wolff flailing, in search of a missing puzzle piece while his parents and younger brother struggle with a therapist’s explanations of autism. The feverish temper is settled when a girl reaches down to the dropped piece, plucks it up and hands it to the boy. This is Gavin O’Connor’s film in a single scene: a psychodrama more concerned with shuffling its players, mechanically, into blank “aha” moments than any situational tension. As an adult, Christian is a CPA, occasionally working for drug cartels in exchange for original paintings and rare comic books he can sell on the black market, becoming a mythical figure in the money laundering scene. He stabilizes his life through sensory therapy and target shooting melons with a Barrett M82A1M. More flashbacks reveal his military dad had him trained in Pencak Silat and set loose on bullies.
Christian’s life gets upended when a routine auditing job unveils an embezzlement scheme, and a hit is put on him and another accountant/budding love interest (Anna Kendrick). It’s here The Accountant attempts to maneuver into John Wick territory, Christian responding to this intrusion with neck-breaking brawls and cranium-ventilating gun violence. Affleck, all lean musculature and business, plays Christian as perpetually drab and clueless in social context–attempts at conversation, and later flirtation, with Kendrick’s Dana play on his inability to read cues, coming across as either glib dismissals or awkward contrarianism. Spurred into action, and his eyes cloud over; everything but the task at hand (protect Dana, headshot some motherfuckers) is a nonissue. Bodies become like numbers.
This missile approach suggests a film heading towards a collision course, even proposing two: a U.S. Treasury analyst (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) blackmailed into tracking down the elusive Christian and a hitman with a personal connection to him (Jon Bernthal). In these three, intersecting plots, The Accountant brims with the possibility of warring motivations drawing towards climactic brutality–something O’Connor showed a knack for in his MMA film Warrior. Here, no such luck. Every flashback-inspiring clue or mook encounter is grist for little more than exposition, Christian’s childhood and criminal past treated as a diced-up superhero origin instead of signposts for a pileup. Twists and revelations disperse tension right when it should be ratcheting up, audiences soothed by the puzzle pieces finally put together.
The Coen Brothers’ most disorganized movie comes at you with a series of vignettes about the intersection of labor and capital. Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix moves in and out of various dramas as he negotiates, cajoles, and eventually strong-arms a variety of dysfunctional personalities. The studio fixer is portrayed as a put-upon handyman, forever having to miss dinner with the family to do what’s necessary for the job–Brolin always stiff and mannered, his chiseled face only registering varying shades of glum. He invariably regards each of the stars he has to handle–pregnant, unwed, combative starlet DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson); out of place singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich); gay, Communist turncoat Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum); and abducted movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, who never changes from his Roman epic costume)–as chattel for his unseen, East Coast boss. Fit for stardom and little else, their desires and crises are merely PR obstacles to be intercepted before Tilda Swinton’s twin gossip columnists can print them. Their own lives micromanaged and spied upon. Any challenge to this system, whether it’s DeAnna’s flighty reluctance to a third marriage or Baird’s upfront rant against the status quo fronted by Mannix, is met with force (verbal if not physical) until compliance is assured. If there’s any reluctance on the fixer’s part in this, he keeps it coded and private, even in repentance (“I struck an actor in anger”). In this milieu, solutions are precarious, doomed to folly. One has to disappear, submit, or bury themselves under layers of metaphor.
Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is a little too good at the art of the buildup. While this is welcome, at a time when tentpoles seem to be shunting anything resembling storytelling, it retreads the basic template from its namesake (and, in turn, Seven Samurai), without allowing any breathing room for the ideas it peppers in. The film’s biggest is the outcast status of the seven mercenaries hired to protect a village: not simply gunslingers or ronin, the motley crew are led by a black man (Denzel Washington) and includes a Mexican bandit (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an exiled Comanche (Martin Sensmeier), and an Asian immigrant (Byung-hun Lee), all an inversion of Western tropes before them (John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven, for instance, has Mexican bandits as the antagonists). That they are partnered up with white men (Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke, the latter playing an ex-Confederate), or that it’s white, rural farmers they protect, comes up in passing. That it’s a woman (Haley Bennett) who hires them, to avenge her murdered husband, is the punchline to an offhand joke or an excuse for unexplored sexual tension (a few winks aside, the film is remarkably chaste). Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk’s script ignores any tension which might digress from the gather/plan/siege structure they rework to arrive at a happy ideal of frontier lower classes fighting back against a robber baron and his army of private goons.
Fuqua, a reliable (if unadventurous) director, never rises above the script’s strengths: conversations are chummy audience-pleasers, and stars framed with an eye for their profiles (Washington, especially, sporting that Yul Brynner black hat and occasionally slipping into the biblical vengeance mode he perfected in films like Man on Fire and The Equalizer, gets a few, mythic shots in silhouette). Showdowns even hum with intensity. Every player is shown moving into place: the James Horner music swelling, glances cast, hands hovering near pistols. Anticipation of explosive violence. It’s superb, but the payoff deflates. Lacking any of The Equalizer‘s slasher-film lunacy to power the action, Fuqua unfortunately jumbles gunfights after a few cuts. People and gunfire begin to have no geographic relation to one another. They simply spawn into existence, crashing through doors or windows to be gunned down, turkey shoot-style. The build, so efficiently done, blown apart because nothing progresses from there. It all simply happens.
A slack, graceless hodgepodge of nerd-signalling, Cap 3 wants you to believe it’s about some grand rift. When Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and a crew of true believers go rogue to track down a baddie, there’s even a moment where a line is drawn in the sand (or, rather, blasted into the concrete) by robot Avenger the Vision (Paul Bettany). It’s surface-level imagery, given as quick a pass in the edits as any of the typically weightless action (whether the close quarters brawling, meant to evoke the Bourne films, or the CG-assisted arena combat), summing up exactly how little Marvel cares–about story, about action, certainly about politics.
For starters, the conflict between Rogers and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.)/Iron Man is simultaneously overly-complicated and not even remotely thought out. On the one hand, marketing suggests it’s an adaptation of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Civil War crossover, where legislation designed to curb superheroes became a point of contention among the registered trademark set (a gun rights allegory unconvincingly sold as a commentary for the War on Terror). In actuality, this has little to do with the real conflict of the film, over the question of Rogers’ best friend, turned brainwashed assassin, Bucky (Sebastian Stan)–retreading Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s tale of one man torn between his past and present. Bucky wishes to be good, but is triggered by certain words into becoming a compliant killing machine. Captain America thinks he can be saved, Iron Man thinks he should be locked up.
Right there is a fine enough idea for a film. Stapling on Millar/McNiven’s already faulty work, but with less convincing trappings, diminishes the foundation of the film. (the inciting incident is literally “superheroes didn’t save all the people,” rather than “superheroes caused massive casualties,” a cowardly move intended to signal Cap’s righteousness, compared to the suddenly fussy Iron Man) You can tell it’s inessential by the way, after so much buildup, the “Civil War” portion of the movie is discarded after one distended, green-screen battle. Coupled with a joke-heavy script, where the only funny lines are uttered by cameo appearances Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), the result is a glorified TV movie version of Batman v. Superman.