The broken lift leading to the press centre was an initial augury that something was amiss. Moving for the first time from the comfy environs of the National Film Theatre to the cavernous interiors of London Docklands O2 centre, Empire magazines weekend celebration of all things movie initially got off to a rocky start. My first event was supposed to be a Q&A with writer and actor Mark Gatiss during a live recreation of the magazine’s well liked ‘How Much Is A Pint of Milk’ Q&A feature, but as we impatiently awaited his appearance in one of the centre’s screening spaces, we were eventually informed that he was appearing in another location. Upon arrival at the second screening room, his interview was just wrapping up, not the most auspicious start to the proceedings, which provoked some grumbling from the disaffected crowd. Next up was a significantly delayed discussion with UK comic book artist par excellence Dave Gibbons (one of the events screens was devoted to comic movies and discussions), a consultation which I ducked out of just as it was getting interesting, with Gibbons taking us through a whirlwind tour of his career and the genesis of both Watchmen and the beloved Superman 1985 annual story For The Man Who Has Everything. It was then that the Universal preview was calling, siren-like, in the main auditorium (or ‘Superscreen’), the centrepiece of the weekend, an immense space that must be the largest non IMAX screen in the UK – finally things started to get interesting.
The most promising of the first days events was the clandestine introduction of a trio of sequences from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the long awaited adaption of John Le Carré’s celebrated spy novel, and I think I’m safe in assuming that everyone in the audience was blown away as this looks stunning. Director Tomas Alfredson continues in form after Let The Right One In, and from the very first frames we were all seduced by a striking piece of work, with its Seventies vibe and the cold war backdrop intact it was a pleasure to see the most promising UK cast of recent memory (Toby Jones, John Hurt, Colin Firth, David Dencik, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy and Irishman Ciaran Hinds) sparking off each other in an apprehensive, paranoid fashion. Introduced by screenwriter Peter Straughan and producer Robyn Slovo (prefaced by a special video message from Oldman himself, who’s making some caped crusader movie in the states or something), the production bigwigs explained how Alfredson designed the film to be reconnaissanced in primarily long lenses, a disconnecting effect that isolates the characters from their environment in a very arresting manner. Gliding camera moves and a quizzical score (from Almodovar co-conspirator Alberto Iglesias) confirms the talent on display, one sequence detailing Tom Hardy’s surveillance of a Russian agent brought to mind Hitchcock’s Rear Window at its voyeuristic best. Most striking for me was Oldman himself, who faces quite a task in equaling the triumph of Alec Guinness’s turn in the beloved BBC translation of the late 1970’s, and on the strength of this teaser he has conducted a quietly phenomenal performance – a touchstone piece is clearly Coppola’s The Conversation (as confirmed by Slovo) and one guesses that Hackman’s closed, internal performance was a major influence. Less successful was a screening of the trailer for the doomed assimilation The Thing, which admittedly looked more intriguing on the big screen, but the quiet response from the crowd spoke volumes. Finally, we were assaulted by a trailer and scene from Tarsem Singh’s Immortals which looks like a hybrid of Snyder’s 300 and Peterson’s Troy , the incredibly bloodthirsty combat scenes (in de rigueur sssllllooowww mmmoootttiiiooonnn) and sweeping CGI populated vistas are handsomely mounted but it could be an overblown chore.
Finally for me was a sold out screening of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, a film which has just opened here in after garnering some impressive reviews from other territories. Not even a week after the UK experienced its worst riots in a quarter century it was impossible not to witness the on-screen revolution of a suppressed, feral underclass looting and pillaging an urban metropolis without a wry smile stitched across one’s face. It’s a solid, well made blockbuster with some contemplative undercurrents beneath the Hollywood canopy, all the leads are adequate (despite David Oyelowo as a cliched evil corporate executive, although it’s the writer’s fault, not his) and Andy Serkis crafts a tangible, empathic performance under a polygon generated carapace, his quick video introduction to the movie provoked a cheer from the amassed audience. The film saunters along at a terrific pace, some sensational montages swiftly take us through revolutionary Caesar’s early primate childhood and adolescence before the genetically enhanced chimpanzee begins to plot his species liberty. The motion capture of the apes, for the first time unshackled from a studio environment (some exterior filming was conducted on the streets of San Francisco, not a digital facsimile), is incredible, not quite 100% convincing but not far off, the interactions with real world ingredients are assured, and it’s certainly a step change forward after the likes of Avatar. For the genre fans a few sly nods to the franchise are inserted, including one moment that induced an audible gasp in the audience that I won’t spoil here, suffice to say if you’re a fan of a certain classic moment of the 1968 original then you’re in for a treat. Concluding with a deftly designed promise of further apocalyptic franchise installments, ROTPOTA is the most rewarding stealthy simian simulacrum of the summer.
Despite a creaky start this event looks like a success, the O2’s sterile, corporate environment won’t be to everyone’s taste but the events and screenings are clustered around the nine screens which makes hopping from one event to the next an easy proposition, plus the cinema infrastructure is sound (decent screens and audio systems, comfortable seating, plenty of bars and restaurants on hand for refreshment), I’ll take a look round some of the exterior attractions tomorrow.