Different Kinds of Big
Ridley Scott has been such a consistently successful producer of polished crowd-pleasing entertainment for so long that it comes as a surprise when one of his films doesn't perform quite as well as expected, especially when that film is a lavish production in a genre he has form with, written by and starring Hollywood A-listers. But such is the case with his The Last Duel, a movie which has 'aspiring Oscar contender' written all over it, but which has taken a pasting at the box office.
Initially it's hard to see why. Matt Damon plays Jean de Carrouges, a 14th century French knight – a fearsome warrior but stubborn and prickly man. De Carrouges is initially friends with Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver); the two fight together in the wars, one saves the other's life (they can never decide who, though), and so on. But the clever and astute le Gris quickly gains preferment at the court of their liege lord, the Count of Alençon (Ben Affleck), and receives land and honours that de Carrouges thinks are his by right. Things come to a head when an encounter takes place between le Gris and de Carrouges' much younger wife (Jodie Comer) – he claims what transpired was consensual, but she is insistent that it was an assault.
With both sides sticking to their stories, and de Carrouges intent on revenge, the King authorises the last legal duel to the death in French history (this has a sort of factual basis). Unfortunately, no-one has told Madame de Carrouges that if her husband loses, this will be proof she is a liar, the punishment for which is to be burnt at the stake…
So, big cast, big production values, and some big ideas in the script (which Damon and Affleck co-wrote with Nicole Holofcener). Needless to say Scott evokes an utterly convincing mediaeval world, with some tremendous action sequences. So why's the film struggling?
Well, putting it out opposite a couple of other really big films from popular franchises wasn't a great idea, and there is the inescapable fact that this is a drama aimed at adults, centrally concerned with challenging issues surrounding the treatment of sexual assault. The setting may be 14th century France, but the film is clear to stress that not all that much has changed. Possibly also off-putting to casual audiences is the fact that the film is structured so we see the narrative three times – from the point of view of Damon, Driver and Comer.
The obvious reference point is Kurosawa's Rashomon, but this is a little different in that the story is essentially the same; the scenes are not reshot or substantially different, just framed and presented differently. This is skilfully done, but the film rather confuses its own subtext by giving privileged status to one character's account over the other two – the implication is that they are actually the one telling the truth. It's a bit hard to see how this is justifiable given the film is also suggesting that objective truth is impossible to be sure of. Nevertheless, some clumsy attempts at social commentary aside, this is a strong and very watchable film, and it deserves to do better than is currently the case.
Forty years ago, Ridley Scott was also attached to one of the early attempts to bring Frank Herbert's novel Dune to the big screen: he failed, but then Dune has defeated many fine directors, one way or another, most obviously David Lynch – Lynch's 1984 version of the book is garish and impenetrable, collapsing in slow-motion under the immense weight of its own exposition.
Now Denis Villeneuve is having a go at taming this colossus of SF, a daunting task given the reputation of the book and its vast influence upon the genre (Frank Herbert himself said he thought this tale of a young man discovering his mystical inheritance on a remote desert planet and waging war upon the emperor of a corrupt galaxy had 14 points of clear identity with George Lucas' own somewhat celebrated first SF movie).
In the distant future, the known universe has reverted to a form of techno-feudalism, or so it seems: the Duke of House Atreides (Oscar Isaac) is assigned the mission of administrating the planet Arrakis (aka Dune) by the Emperor of the Known Universe (off-screen in this film). As Dune is the source of the most valuable substance in existence, there is great power to be gained here. But is it a plum job or a poisoned chalice? Are the Atreides being set up for a counterstrike by their old enemies, the Harkonnen family?
Naturally this worries the Atreides heir, Paul (Timothee Chalamet), but also on his mind are the strange, precognitive dreams he is having, courtesy of generations of selective breeding to produce a psionic superhuman. Is he really being groomed to become the Messiah long awaited by the natives of Arrakis? Can he accept this destiny?
There's a lot more going on here, too: huge battles, giant sandworms, mystic visions, and unearthly vistas. (There's also a scene where someone plays the bagpipes, which may be a first for this franchise.) It's an utterly convincing, almost overwhelming vision of a futuristic otherworld, and the decision to chop the book in half (this film is technically just Du) means the story and its world can breathe a little, retaining texture without strangling the narrative.
This is one of those films which is immensely impressive rather than something you can easily relate to on a human, emotional level: the majority of the large cast are excellent, but most of them get so little individual screen-time they don't make much impression (with the odd exception, such as Jason Momoa). And the script takes such pains to stay focused and retain clarity, with Villeneuve's direction likewise very naturalistic and understated, that some of the sense of wonder which is really essential to proper SF seems to get lost in the process. Don't get me wrong: this is a remarkable achievement and a beautiful piece of art, but it rarely provokes genuine thrills or delight.
Likely to outperform both these films in terms of the brutal budget-to-box-office-take ratio is Andy Serkis' Venom: Let There Be Carnage, one of those 'in association with Marvel' films they release on those odd weeks when Marvel Studios themselves don't have a new film out. This is the sequel to 2018's Venom, which, you may recall, concerned a low-life journalist forced into a symbiotic relationship with a man-eating pool of alien slime. (Tom Hardy plays both lead roles.)
This time around, journalist Brock is having a hard time getting on with symbiote Venom, their relationship having a dynamic not entirely unlike that of Rod Hull and Emu (ask your parents, or Google it). Perhaps they should just split up? Or perhaps they have bigger concerns: a convicted serial killer (Woody Harrelson) with a grudge against them has managed to become host to an even nastier alien symbiote calling itself Carnage, and is out for revenge…
When you stop to think about it, the story is quite dull, with boring villains and too much CGI – which may be why the movie is paced like a bullet, so you won't have a chance to think. There are many things wrong with this film, in fact, but what keeps it annoyingly watchable is a really good pair of performances from Tom Hardy, and the script's willingness to engage with the silliness of its own premise. The incidental comedy and character scenes in this film are really good and very funny, and just about make up for the shortfalls in many other departments. Still the kind of film that a mature human being should feel slightly guilty about enjoying, though; the end of the movie clearly signposts that Venom is heading for the larger world of the Marvel meta-franchise, so we can only hope that the scripts improve before he arrives there.