In Review: 'After Yang,' 'The Batman'
A great week for Colin Farrell, who seeks to repair his daughter's android companion in Kogonada's heartrending science-fiction drama and taunt a revitalized Batman as The Penguin.
A robot named Yang dies at the beginning of Kogonada’s After Yang. Or to be more specific, a “Techno sapien” named Yang suffers a catastrophic malfunction at the beginning of After Yang. Yang was purchased by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) as a companion android to their adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), who knew Yang was an “it,” but understood him as the big brother she would never have. We’ve seen his type before in several science-fiction films like A.I.: Artificial Intelligence or Ex Machina. In flashbacks, he’s a curious and empathetic being, more human than human. And only the subtle gloss of his skin gives away Yang’s uncanniness.
After Yang is about Jake’s efforts to repair this broken machine, because he made a foolish promise to his daughter that he would, mainly out of a sense of guilt, shared by his wife, that too much of their parental attention had been shifted from Mika to Yang. Only Jake cannot just take the android to the Genius Bar—or whatever the Genius Bar might be in this unspecified future world—because he bought a refurbished model from an outfit in Chinatown that no longer exists. (In a film absolutely swimming in cinematic influences, perhaps this is Kogonada’s hat-tip to Gremlins.) At a repair shop, he’s shown a chart of 12 different parts technicians are authorized to fix, but the malfunction happened in the unit’s core, which can’t be legally accessed. That might sound nefarious, like some diabolical piece of proprietary hardware suited for a thriller, but After Yang isn’t that kind of movie. The core is more of a philosophical mystery.
Kogonada doesn’t care to solve the mysteries of how the robot works, either, but he does break it down to its component parts. To call After Yang a film about grief is accurate but limited, because it’s a truly prismatic work, reflecting on new themes as the story unfolds and the discoveries made about Yang’s interiority open up other thematic dimensions. Arriving in our own lives after a period of so much loss and estrangement, where everyday life often felt like melancholy science fiction, After Yang is emotionally overwhelming, even though it often seems, on the surface, pristine and cool-to-the-touch. The same might be said of Kogonada’s 2017 debut feature Columbus, which adopted the formalist architecture of a Michelangelo Antonioni film to serve the modern architecture of Columbus, Indiana, but masked a genuine warmth, even a little sentimentality. Kogonada just doesn’t dole it out cheaply.
The unifying sentiment here is hopefulness and optimism, even though the unifying tone is fittingly mournful. At first blush, After Yang is about family and identity, because it cannot be missed that Jake and Kyra are a mixed-race couple and their daughter, who’s Asian, is not theirs by birth. (A pair of scenes, in flashback, where Yang comforts Mika and offers an elegant analogy in nature is the first of several attacks on the tear ducts.) But once Yang is deconstructed and moments from the past are drawn from his consciousness like pieces to an endless puzzle, After Yang is more akin to a live-action Inside Out or an early Atom Egoyan film like Speaking Parts, a study of how memory constructs the soul, even in an artificial being.
It also contemplates the end. Yang is not human, so the one difference between this “Techno sapien” and a Homo sapien is that only one can entertain the idea of an afterlife. The other simply shuts down. Whether Kogonada intended it or not, After Yang plays like a profound film for the glass-half-full atheist, suggesting not only the preciousness and importance of life, but the ways in which it continues after our systems crash. The death of an android isn’t quite like the death of a human, even though it feels that way for Mika and her parents, so the grieving process becomes a strange process of discovery, one where Jake can literally access a being from the inside. It turns out the meaning of life is downloadable.
Dir. Matt Reeves
One of the most arresting images in The Batman is also one of the simplest. Early on, Batman (or, if you prefer, The Batman), arrives at a crime scene at the invitation of the sympathetic Gotham City police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright). Getting there means navigating a crowd of Gotham cops, most of whom appear confused by, if not outright hostile to, a masked vigilante. The last two decades have produced an abundance (perhaps an overabundance) of Batman movies and offshoots, where he’s largely kept to the shadows. Directed by Matt Reeves, from a script co-written by Reeves and Peter Craig, The Batman is filled with gripping action scenes, and performances that breathe new life into old characters. But the film’s defining quality is the way it brings Batman down to earth. “I am vengeance,” he growls at some thugs in an early scene. The moment plays at first, to paraphrase Jules in Pulp Fiction, like just a cool thing to say before beating someone senseless. But the rest of the movie finds him considering how the effort to embody righteous wrath has come at the cost of his humanity.
He’s a man with issues. The Batman opens with an unsettling sequence in which an unseen killer surveils the home of Gotham’s mayor from across the street, shot in a first-person style reminiscent of the opening scene of Brian DePalma’s Blow Out. After some grisly business, the first-person perspective returns, accompanied by some narration about the hellishness of Gotham. It takes a moment to realize we’re no longer following the bad guy but our hero, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson), the orphaned son of two of Gotham’s most revered citizens who’s become, at least in the public’s mind, something of a recluse. He still gets out, however, just mostly at night. Now two years into what his notebook refers to as “Project Gotham,” he’s developed strategies for keeping the criminal element in check with fear and intimidation. And, when that fails, the occasional ass-kicking.
The bad guy, eventually revealed to be (spoiler warning for anyone who wants to know nothing about this movie going in) a vengeful enthusiast of codes and puzzles called the Riddler (Paul Dano), keeps notebooks too. Without putting too fine a point on it, The Batman keeps finding parallels between the hero and his adversary as Batman plunges deeper into a mystery that spans from Gotham’s lowest reaches to its rarefied heights. This involves navigating a world of shady characters like a gangster who calls himself the Penguin (Colin Farrell, having fun beneath the prosthetics playing the most cartoonishly stereotypical mobster since Al Pacino in Dick Tracy) and one morally dubious (if alluring) ally in the form of Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz), a skilled burglar who lives with a lot of cats.
The search also requires Batman to find his way through gloomy skies and buckets of rain. Reeves isn’t shy about tipping his hat toward two of the film's obvious influences, both directed by David Fincher. The Riddler taunts the police with a cipher that looks a lot like the one used by the Zodiac Killer, but the cat and mouse (bat and mouse?) game bears an even closer resemblance to Seven. So does Gotham, whose relentless gloom mirrors the troubled, unnamed city at the heart of that film. The echoes don’t stop there. The film’s concern with how corruption and inequality rot the lives of Gotham’s residents from within owes a lot to the themes of The Dark Knight.
All these familiar elements ultimately play like an act of creative recycling. But it’s an immersive one, a hypnotic and moody film when it’s not erupting into carefully dispensed action scenes, including a mid-film car chase that has few rivals this side of Mad Max: Fury Road. (Both the action scenes and the shadow-drenched atmosphere of a city seemingly made entirely from various shades of black, brown, and gray owe a lot to the work of ace cinematographer Greig Fraser.) Until hitting a final stretch the feels like it could have benefitted from thoughtful trimming, the film benefits from the decision to move at a stately pace that allows Reeves to linger on the dead-eyed exhaustion that overtakes Bruce’s face whenever he’s out of costume or his simmering chemistry with Selena (whom Kravitz plays with a confidence and determination that provides a striking contrast to Pattinson’s brooding). It’s not Batman as you’ve never seen him, but The Batman both builds on what’s come before, and leaves the character in a much different place at the end. Released on the heels of Ben Affleck’s tenure in Wayne Manor and less than a decade after The Dark Knight Rises (with everything from Gotham to The LEGO Batman Movie in between), a lesser film might have invited Bat-fatigue. Instead, The Batman plays like a fresh chapter likely to leave viewers wanting to know what happens next. —Keith Phipps
As someone who very often wrongly identified as "The" Cookie Monster, me not can help but be irked by title. Me also have definite Bat-fatigue, no matter how good this is.
And there also issue with Batman and Gotham City, in that character was born out of lawlessness of 1930s, have major revival during lawlessness of Reagan Era (peaking with Tim Burton film). But even taking into account post-Covid uptick in crime, we currently living in safest era in American history. And it completely fine to have fantasy of urban hellscape, and certainly healthier to have that fantasy play out as superhero movie than Fox News fearmongering. But it still reinforce "our cities are on fire" lies that large swaths of country still believe.
And from storytelling perspective it might be interesting to see how gentrified Gotham without much street crime could still need Caped Crusader to protect it. Me guess Nolan films came closest to that, as they more rooted in fears of terrorism than crime.
I know you’ve already written about it, but will you be reviewing Drive My Car now that it’s more widely available on HBO?