‘No One Will Save You’
I watch a lot of films for this column, and it’s the rare one that worms its way into my head the way Brian Duffield’s alien-invasion thriller did. The writer-director pulls off a double challenge: He tells the story almost wordlessly (making you realize just how many movies lazily rely on people speaking to themselves out loud) and creates a dreamlike world in which memories and monsters jostle for power.
The camera almost never leaves Brynn (a fantastic Kaitlyn Dever, of “Dopesick” and “Booksmart”), a young woman living alone in a nice big house. She does not appear to have any family or friends, and aside from the fact that she drives a Subaru, you might think the movie is set in the 1950s or ’60s: Brynn uses a clunky landline, for example, and electronics don’t really figure. Even the extraterrestrials look as if they’d been imagined during that time — they have a prominent forehead and opaque eyes, and arrive in saucer-shaped ships. It is clearly a deliberate choice from Duffield but unfortunately I can’t offer my theory about its meaning without spoiling a key reveal. Suffice it to say that appearances can’t be trusted, starting with the fact that the reserved Brynn turns out to be a tough survivor when she is under attack, and concluding with a resolution simultaneously satisfying and unsettling.
‘The Wandering Earth II’
In Frant Gwo’s “The Wandering Earth” (2019), our planet, propelled by thousands of thrusters, is roaming the universe to escape the sun’s impending explosion and the destruction of the solar system. Oh, and the now-frozen Earth, its remaining population hunkered underground, is linked to a space station guided by a supercomputer named MOSS. How we got to that nutty situation is the subject of this prequel, also directed by Gwo. And there’s a lot to cover because as you might have guessed, turning Earth into a gigantic spaceship is quite the endeavor. (These being productions from China, that country is the force driving the so-called Moving Mountain Project; the movie is no more or less jingoistic than an American equivalent would be.)
“The Wandering Earth II” does not skimp on spectacle and awe-inspiring shots, and Andy Lau (“Infernal Affairs”) makes for a welcome addition as a scientist. Most interesting is the rivalry between competing initiatives to save Earth: physically move the planet out of harm’s way or bank on a digital solution by transferring human consciousness onto digital files. We know which one eventually wins out (or does it?) because this is a prequel, yet the process remains absorbing. And MOSS figures in, too.
Narratives involving messed-up timelines are so frequent in contemporary science-fiction movies that you have to wonder what this popularity says about us: that we live in constant fear of missing out and need as many options and parallel universes as possible? That we are obsessed with the idea of regret and crave second, third or 10th chances? This month’s entry in the thriving subgenre is Andreas Z Simon’s low-budget movie, from Germany, that is both cryptic and playful.
When we meet Merlin (Mario Ganss, an appealing everyman), he is at a computer, editing a scene in which a talking head expounds on the questionable linearity of time and space — elements that, in a way, Merlin can rearrange at a click of his mouse. Out of nowhere, he receives a vinyl LP (and the antique turntable to play it) containing a message that identifies Merlin as a time traveler and gives him instructions: “Kill the clown and rescue the mermaid.” The film has the type of puzzle-box construction that maddens some viewers and energizes others, but there is something compelling about its indie aesthetic — Merlin’s romantic life, in particular, feels lifted from a mumblecore movie.
Watching A-list stars in B movies tends to be great fun. Perhaps because they are free from the pressure of having to earn awards or deliver box-office results — or loosened up by preposterous scripts — they often give unbound, enjoyable performances. Think Adam Driver in “65,” for example, or Ben Affleck in this sci-fi thriller from the excellent craftsman Robert Rodriguez.
Affleck plays Danny, a Texas cop with a heavy past and a present complicated by the murderous machinations of one Dellrayne (William Fichtner), a so-called hypnotic who can mesmerize anybody to do his bidding and creates hallucinatory mindscapes of the kind familiar to viewers of “Inception.” Why Danny appears impervious to Dellrayne’s paranormal power is key to a complicated story involving Alice Braga as a mysteriously helpful psychic and a secret government program called the Division that’s working on a nefarious Project Domino.
The dense plot is a lot to absorb and the execution is often goofy — members of the Division wear red blazers, like Avis employees with even greater powers than dispensing free upgrades. But Rodriguez keeps the action moving, and the denouement might just make you rewatch the movie from a different perspective.
This film gains if you look at it as being not as much about a dystopian future as about a dystopian past, more specifically one set behind the Iron Curtain of the mid-20th century. (Uncoincidentally, perhaps, the director, Orsi Nagypal, is Hungarian). Callbacks to communist societies abound, starting with the locale: a drab city of brutalist gray high-rises, protected from the outside world — which has been wrecked by a global pandemic — by a forbidding wall. There, Tala (Sumalee Montano) paints propaganda posters in a classic Socialist-Realist style for the authoritarian government. She has taken “the deal,” which gives privileged access to resources in exchange for the recipient being terminated after 20 years.
This is a good way to control population when necessities are scarce and there seems to be waiting lists for everything, including lifesaving operations. That last issue becomes a critical problem when Tala’s daughter, Analyn (Emma Fischer), needs to get a kidney transplant. The two women embark on a journey in which they discover, among other things, black-market doctors and how the one percent lives. But the plot is almost besides the point: “The Deal” works best as an accretion of quotidian details about life under an oppressive regime.