12 Years a Slave

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If 12 Years a Slave weren’t based on a true story I would find it hard to believe that the events depicted had not been exaggerated for the sake of melodrama. I found it so brutal, so shocking and so uncomfortable that it would have been preferable to believe that it had been embellished. But this is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York in 1841 who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana where he endures for 12 years before finally managing to secure his release.

This is pre-Civil War, pre-abolition America and director Steve McQueen’s portrait of slavery is a million miles away from the romantic Gone with the Wind depiction of avuncular plantation owners, kind mistresses and contented slaves. It’s relentless in its portrayal of the casual cruelty and violence experienced by Solomon and his fellow slaves – I’ve heard it criticized for being gratuitous and unnecessary but apparently the book on which it’s based contains far worse atrocities.
While there’s little let-up in the misery there are unexpected moments of kindness and beauty. The cinematography is sublime washing the landscapes with a peachy glow – sunrise over a Southern swamp, glassy water, flowing Spanish moss and overhanging trees – I found these scenes so evocative that they completely drew me into Solomon’s world. McQueen is not afraid to let the camera linger and often leaves the horror on the screen to be absorbed in total silence (I’m thinking of one scene in particular, part-way through the movie that’s almost impossible to watch for that reason, like trying not to look at a car crash). And because the score (by Hans Zimmer) is so sparing, the space only enhances the power of what is being witnessed.

The cast is uniformly superb but the following performances stood out for me: Lupita Nyong’o as the young slave-girl Patsey who steadily has her spirit broken through relentless abuse; Paul Dano (condemned I fear to a career playing greasy and spineless losers) as racist overseer’s mate John Tibeats; Michael Fassbender chillingly disturbing as the monstrous and sadistic plantation owner Epps and Sarah Paulson as his vicious, jealous wife (hard to decide who’s more repellant). And, of course, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is mesmerizing as Solomon – his face so expressive that there’s often no need for him to speak. The only vaguely weak link was Brad Pitt,  his character is arguably the most pivotal but I found him the least convincing.

At the risk of joining the hyperbolic chorus I found watching this movie a profound experience – I truly don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it. It’s an exquisitely made film; beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, horrifying and compelling in equal measure.




I was bitterly disappointed with Prometheus and my previous enthusiastic blog about Blade Runner only served as a reminder of how great Ridley Scott can be when he’s on form. He wasn’t on form with this film. His form had left the building. His form had packed a suitcase, got on a plane and left the country.

Plot: Archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) decide to go in search of humanity’s alien ancestors after looking at some cave paintings (as you do). The Weyland Corporation fund the scientific mission that includes camp android David (Michael Fassbender), pointlessly menacing Mission director Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and a bunch of faceless and grumbling crew members destined to become Alien-fodder. They land, they go poking about where they shouldn’t, everything goes tits-up.

In its favour the film looked great. The sweeping shots of dramatic landscapes, waterfalls and gliding spacecraft were awe-inspiring. The human-like aliens (Engineers) were well-conceived, although they did put me in mind of Duran Duran’s Wild Boys. But you know you’re in trouble when all you can find to praise about a film is the cinematography and the special effects. What atmosphere these scenes managed to create unfortunately dissipated the moment anyone spoke or appeared on screen.

The characters were stereotypes at best and one-dimensional cardboard cutouts at worst. While its not necessary to provide copious backstory there does need to be enough substance in the characters to make them believable and their behaviour and reactions credible.  A decent script might have helped with that.

The story was flimsy and predictable but it wouldn’t have mattered if it had made any sense and if the random and pointless plot twists and character inconsistencies hadn’t robbed it of any dramatic tension.

The Alien itself appeared to take at least 3 different forms, as if no one could decide which was more scary so they threw them all in. Was it a liquid? Was it an infection? Was it a big snake that ate you? Did it mutate you into an alien? Did it make you give birth to snake aliens? Did it burst out of you like the Alien from the original franchise?

Plus, I must have been missing something cos I found Fassbender’s swishing about in flip flops trying to be like Lawrence of Arabia just comedic after a while.

Also, if you’re making a prequel then surely the tech and the styling shouldn’t be more slick and sophisticated than whatever it’s preceding? I know that this is meant to be depicting a well-financed scientific mission and the ship in Alien was a commercial towing ship but still…

And what was with the lame Star Trek: TNG-style music?


The point is, this film could have been amazing and it wasn’t. What it did was reinforce the utter genius of Alien. But that’s a whole other blog…

Originally posted 23 June 2012