Both films are showing in our cinema until Wednesday 12 June.
Bedtime stories of dragons and glory told enthusiastically by his mother fire J.R.R. Tolkien’s young imagination, and he plays out these glorious adventures in the rolling countryside with his brother. It is not long before reality bites and they are moved to the fire-breathing squalor of pre-WWI Birmingham.
Tolkien is played by Nicholas Hoult who like a knight of old faces many challenges to cope with life in a strange and alienating city. Fortunately, despite all the obstacles, he is embraced by the friendship of three fellow school pupils who help shape his dreams and ambitions under the umbrella of their exclusive ‘Tea Club and Barrovian Society.’
As a young man his relationship with Edith Bratt played by Lily Collins helps him understand that words are fascinating because of their context and relationship with our experiences rather than being isolated entities. At university he equally comes under the spell of mercurial Professor Wright played by Derek Jacobi, who underlines the historical significance of language and how it is shaped over time.
Like most of his generation Tolkien ends up fighting in the First World War, where the dragons of his bedtime stories are now transformed into flame throwers making it a hell on Earth where survival is a lottery. He is shown wandering through no-man’s land before huddling amongst the dead surrounding a blood-filled crater. It is a shocking awakening to the horrors of war, that kills off two members of the’ Barrovian Society’ and puts him out-of-touch with his fellow survivor.
Dome Karukoki’s direction gives us a powerful insight into the influences that brought about Tolkien’s creation of the ‘Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Even if you have never read ‘Lord of the Rings’ or never got round to reading all of it, or never seen Peter Jackson’s films of these books, you can appreciate this as a touching biopic about the highs and lows of a fiercely intelligent and creative person who has to fight a good number of demons before he can commit his vision to paper.
It starts promisingly with a beautiful, well-tended, fruit and vegetable garden onboard spaceship 7, heading at the speed of light far beyond our Solar System to goodness knows where. The sole occupants are Monte played by Robert Pattison and Willow (Scarlett Lindsey), a very noisy 14-month-old baby. It does not bode well that as Monte is conducting repairs outside the spacecraft her crying over his helmet’s headset momentary distracts his attention causing him to lose a spanner to the cosmos. And, there’s the rub when you are living this ‘high’ things have a long way to ‘fall.’
The life support system on the craft is just about keeping them alive, and a rack of empty spacesuits reveals that at some stage this was home to several other people who are now absent. Through flashbacks we discover the fate of Mante’s fellow crew and it is not a pretty story.
It seems they are former prisoners whose mission is to investigate a black hole as a potential source of energy. This enterprise has nothing of the glossy heroics depicted in the likes of ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek’, indeed the crew are a motley bunch who are more likely to punch each other and each is locked into their own personal prison with little hope of escape either physically or psychologically.
The sparse, industrial interior of the ship reflects their soulless situation, and even the computer graphics on the control deck are more ‘Minecraft’ than ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ There are no laser-zapping pyrotechnics or flashy sound-effects either – at best the odd bleep of a doorway opening and some nice views of outer space.
In this Soviet-era housing project ambiance the Captain is first to die. This leaves white-coated Dibs played by Juliette Binoche to look after the physical well-being of the crew with fitness exercises supplemented by plenty of pills. She throws herself into her self-imposed project to collect semen from the men to use to impregnate the female crew members, but due to exposure to high levels of cosmic radiation her project falls on stony ground.
In a violent and shocking scene one of the men tries to rape a woman sleeping in her bunk and there is a sustained and bloody fight to fend him off. In contrast, Dibs carries out her rape of a male astronaut who she has put into a drug induced state so she can impregnate a fellow crew member with his ‘strong genes.’
The story unfolds slowly and gives us glimpses of the past lives of the characters and how they meet their fate, but it does make you work to find out what is going on. Is it all a metaphor for human existence and the need to reproduce and thrive in a hostile universe? Certainly, this extraterrestrial journey makes the horror of ‘Alien’ seem like a light-hearted jaunt to the seaside.
There is no magic technology that will beam the characters out of danger and as viewers the film acts like a black hole sucking us mercilessly into its murky storyline.