A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: September, 2016

“These Final Hours” (2013)

"These Final Hours" poster


The majority of apocalypse-centric cinema contains at least some element of hope. The leather-clad bikers and rampant lawlessness depicted therein might signify otherwise, but the world — no matter how battered its condition may be — is usually still there, with the potential to rebuild on the table in one way or another. But there’s that rare sub-section of flicks whose circumstances are decidedly more concrete, wherein our planet is thoroughly doomed, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Writer/director Zak Hilditch took this mindset to heart in crafting his 2013 Aussie thriller These Final Hours, and considering how risky it is to hold a viewer’s interest with such an oppressive narrative, that he even attempted it at all is commendable to a degree. But while he arranges many a bleak tableau in the picture’s eighty-something minutes, his storytelling skills aren’t the most consistent, leaving us with a film that’s stirring in spots but whose emotional resonance never quite catches up to its own stakes.

The end of the world as we know it is less than a day away. The crashing of some unknown object in the North Atlantic has resulted in a wave of fire decimating the globe bit by bit — and Perth’s number is coming up next. Some lose their minds in the face of such a fate, and others turn to faith to give them comfort, but Jimmy (Nathan Phillips) doesn’t want to feel a thing. Before everything he knows turns into ash, he resolves to drink himself numb and drown in pure debauchery at the mother of all parties. But the road to these final festivities leads Jimmy to Rose (Angourie Rice), a young girl whom he saves from an unspeakable assault. Reluctantly agreeing to reunite the kid with her folks in time for the end, our man hits the road, fighting the urge to give up and spend Armageddon curled up at the bottom of a bottle. But as he shields Rose from sight after ghastly sight throughout their journey, Jimmy finds his sense of purpose gradually returning, inspiring him to change his ways even as Doomsday waits just hours around the corner.

Visually, These Final Hours trades in familiar apocalypse motifs, but its own ideas are incorporated effectively enough to enthrall audiences regardless. We see the abandoned streets, burning buildings, and errant corpses that one is wont to stumble across in stories like this, yet Hilditch opts to bathe this haunting imagery in a searing brightness. Even as ominous clouds roll in and signal the inferno’s forthcoming arrival, a hazy, near-blinding light permeates nearly every frame, virtually making us sweat bullets in the comfort of our La-Z-Boys. It’s a great way to get us in an uncomfortable frame of mind very fast, and Hilditch further instills dread within our guts by keeping the action on a personal level. Given the film’s low budget, there’s only so much he could’ve gotten away with in the first place, but sparing viewers from any bombastic outbursts of mass chaos to artificially create tension is a big help in getting the story across in a more genuine light. That said, Hilditch does kneecap himself a little in the movie’s first and third acts, both of which include lengthy stretches that feel as though they were cut like a trailer, with fast-paced editing and swelling music that mostly keeps out of sight otherwise. These sections have a bit of a cloying quality to them, driven not by the desire to foster an intimate narrative but to swing for emotional high notes that they haven’t properly prepared to reach.

For the lion’s share of its midsection, however, These Final Hours can be some well-crafted — if a touch by-the-numbers — doomsday fare. Phillips (Snakes on a Plane) doesn’t strain too many acting muscles, but one can imagine his role as a party bro type reconciling with the possibility of redemption easily being more insufferable. Even if there isn’t much weight to his character’s transformation (which is more of the script’s fault than the actor’s), he does his job just fine, adopting a lost, boozy visage and getting you to sympathize enough with Jimmy to want to see him make the most of what time is left. Rice, on the other hand, delivers an almost completely authentic performance from beginning to end, wholly convincing in the bulk of her scenes and effortlessly transcending the sort of contrived dialogue that would sink other, less committed child performers. She holds her own against Phillips pretty easily, and the two complement one another nicely, with each character having to step up and offer encouragement to the other at crucial points in the plot. They’re people you don’t mind spending a lot of time with, which is exactly what happens, as the rest of the cast is essentially divided amongst random crazies, strung-out partygoers, and ancillary loved ones who don’t stick around for very long.

Though impressive in presentation considering its limited resources, These Final Hours is only passable when weighing its narrative accomplishments as a whole. It’s suspenseful, it’s dramatic, and it’s even darkly funny on occasion, but the simplicity of its “no need to abandon emotions in the face of futility” message receives only a partially profound payoff. All in all, These Final Hours won’t relieve you of your socks, though enough of its potential is realized to make it a mostly engaging watch.

“La Jetée” (1962)

"La Jetée" poster


Our minds can be both our greatest allies and fiercest foes. They house those treasured snippets of days past, yet they’re oftentimes easily clouded, and without our knowledge to boot. Many are the souls who’ve become lost within the annals of their own memories, leading themselves to ruin in pursuit of resurrecting “the way things used to be,” without stopping to consider just how closely their recollections reflect the truth. Perhaps no cinematic work has better captured the maddeningly enigmatic nature of memory than La Jetée, a 1962 short from experimental director Chris Marker. At its simplest definition a cautionary time travel story (think something more in sync with Primer than Back to the Future), this half-hour film nails the viciousness of the circle we trap ourselves in once we start chasing the past and realize too late that doing so can have perilous consequences. La Jetée may spend only a fleeting chunk of time before our eyes, but its frames and the tale they tell can be more hypnotic and jarring than those of many a feature-length production.

The Man (Davos Hanich) was there when everything fell to pieces. He had front-row seats to the start of World War III, bearing witness to the bombs and bloodshed that would very soon turn the globe into a radioactive wasteland. Sequestered underground, scientists have been since been toiling over how to alleviate society’s collective sorrows, having made time travel the focus of their latest experiments. Due to his strong memories of that fateful first day — particularly those of a beautiful woman (Hélène Chatelain) — the Man is selected as a guinea pig, and after some trial and error, contact with the past is at long last made. But the longer he treks about the peaceful days of yore and forges a relationship with the mystery woman, the more the Man allows his mission to be steered off course, coming ever closer to proving a certain adage about history repeating right in the worst of ways.

La Jetée owes a good deal of its power to its presentation. With the exception of one brief instance, the film plays out through a series of still images, representing not only the Man’s fractured memories but those of essentially everyone around him, as well. One can imagine anyone surviving in a dirty, claustrophobic, dystopian hellscape such as this short’s barely being able to think straight, racing through their minds one disjointed fragment at a time and grasping for any hint of what might help ease their ails. Such power is conveyed through what at first sounds like an insufferable storytelling device (just imagine Mad Max as a two-hour PowerPoint presentation), yet Marker displays his total mastery of it early on. What with mere pictures of bombed-out buildings and crude scientific paraphernalia so effectively communicating just how nightmarish the film’s post-apocalyptic world truly is, one soon abandons any potential desires for more elaborate and bombastic visual flourishes they might have brought with them. Because he succeeds so well in establishing a harrowing vision of the future, Marker makes why the Man would feel so overwhelmed and intoxicated by such simple pre-war sights as sunny days and laughing children during his journeys into the past all the more understandable.

It’s easy to watch a character’s mistakes gradually blow up in their face over the course of a story and assure ourselves that we’d have taken better precautions, but La Jetée ensures us viewers always empathize with the Man’s actions, even if it’s a dumb move. After being poked, prodded, and coldly studied in filthy underground bunkers for who knows how long, it’s no wonder that his first trip back to yesteryear floors him like it does and inspires him to grab onto that feeling for as long as he can. But as William Klein’s melancholy narration (the English version, that is) is quick to remind us, such a choice could be what condemns the human race to a tragically ironic fate. However, for as stirringly as Marker relates the events of La Jetée from this perspective, it can be limiting in certain respects. Chatelain’s function in the narrative begins and ends with serving as the Man’s object of obsession and tether to the past, and save for some minor rumblings of Big Brother-esque shenanigans afoot, there’s a vagueness to the scientists who recruited him that results in some confusion once they decide to turn on him at a certain juncture. Perhaps a few minor details could’ve used some clearing-up, but quibbles like these are nigh-insignificant when the picture’s mood strikes what haunting chords it does in spite of them.

Having gone on to inspire Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys over thirty years later, evidence that La Jetée made the most of its thirty minutes is pretty obvious. It’s abstract without feeling impenetrable to those eyes more accustomed to escapist time travel adventures, yet it isn’t so linear that you aren’t left contemplating each turn the story takes in one way or another. Declared by Time magazine years ago as the greatest film to ever traverse the hourglass and the sands contained therein, the chilling, profound, and strangely beautiful La Jetée earns every bit of that distinction.