Film Review – Zootropolis – Disney’s first conspiracy thriller

Warning: this review contains spoilers the size of elephants.

2016’s Zootropolis is the first animated conspiracy thriller to come out of the Mouse House. It’s been called a “conspiracy thriller for children”, but as we all know, most Disney films hold just as much appeal for adults as they do little’uns, if not more.

What makes this film a conspiracy thriller? The most obvious element is the fact that, unusually for a Disney movie, the villain is a “them”, not a “him” or “her”. And the story itself is a conspiracy trope—the old ‘minor crime reveals major plot’ number, where an insignificant incident leads to the discovery of something much larger going on behind it.

To say that the trope receives a bold, fresh and genuinely inspired coat of paint in Zootropolis is an understatement. The setting and characters are the first indication of that.

Zootropolis is a fully functioning city designed by and made for animals, where predators and prey have advanced beyond their instincts and live in harmony. Viewers are treated to some ingeniously designed places, such as the 21-inches-tall Little Rodentia and the icy Tundratown, and there are some fantastic moments of animal-related humour, most notably the sloths at the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles). Judy Hopps arrives in Zootropolis, full of drive and enthusiasm and ready to start busting criminals as the ZPD’s first bunny cop. She’s tasked with investigating a seemingly unimportant missing persons case—the disappearance of Mr Otterton—and soon stumbles onto a much bigger and higher-stakes mystery.

Teaming up with con artist fox Nick Wilde, Judy discovers that Mr Otterton went “savage” right before his disappearance. He also yelled something about “night howlers” before attacking the chauffeur of fearsome crime boss Mr Big (revealed in a clever and funny scene to be a tiny Arctic shrew). Then the chauffeur himself, Manchas, turns “savage” and goes missing. Judy and Nick learn that Manchas was abducted by wolves, who Judy surmises are the “night howlers”. They end up at Cliffside Asylum, finding Manchas, Mr Otterton, and thirteen other missing predators—all of whom have returned to a feral state.

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Movie Review – Capricorn One (1978)

Capricorn_one

My extra blog for this week looks at the 1978 film by director Peter Hyams and starring Elliott Gould, Capricorn One. Spoilers ahead!

Capricorn One is a government conspiracy thriller based on an idea that the Apollo moon landings were faked, which I explored in a blog a couple of weeks ago. In this case, three astronauts are supposed to be part of the first manned mission to Mars. When NASA realises too late that the mission will fail, the astronauts are shipped off in secret to a film set and forced to fake the landing. However, reporter Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) senses that something is afoot and sets out to expose the conspiracy, thereby becoming the target of the conspirators.

For a movie from 1978, I was impressed. I was expecting this kind of big production to be really dated, but it holds up well. The concept is great, and this film is credited with popularising the moon landing hoax theories, which continue to this day. Caulfield is a well-drawn character and there’s a ton of great dialogue, particularly Caulfield’s scenes with his boss, and his reporter friend, played by Karen Black. There’s a very suspenseful scene where the brakes on Caulfield’s car fail and it flies through busy streets at increasing speeds. There’s a POV of the car itself, unusual in scenes like this, and it’s hugely effective because it’s like you’re right there with him.

capricornone01

It wasn’t perfect. A few scenes felt a bit truncated, like Caulfield being shot at in Flat Rock, while others were far too long. Several minutes could have been cut off the long scene of astronaut Willis wearily climbing a mountain in the desert and talking to himself, only to be captured at the top.

What I can’t help feeling is that Capricorn One would have been better as a TV miniseries. It was a two hour film, but that didn’t seem enough. Caulfield’s piecing together the conspiracy was good, but I wanted more focus on the faked footage itself. I presumed he might find some oddities and clues in the footage, which would lead him to the conclusion that it was faked.

As it happened, it was a secret message in one of the astronauts’ conversations with his wife, and the disappearance of Caulfield’s friend, a NASA employee who was onto something, that sparked Caulfield’s investigation. Both good angles to take in this kind of conspiracy film, and the complete erasure of the NASA employee’s existence was eerie.

But Hyams’ concept for the film came from the idea that “the only verification we have [for the Apollo moon missions] came from a TV camera”. My feeling is that to not have any focus on what the TV cameras showed was a bit of a squandered opportunity.

More time would have been needed for this, and there wasn’t any. Arguably we could have done with less of the astronauts running around the desert and combating snakes, and more of Caulfield’s investigation. Or, like I say, perhaps it would’ve been better as a TV series.

More time would also have allowed for a much more satisfying ending. The end scenes with Caulfield rescuing the only astronaut who hadn’t been captured by the ‘black helicopters’ were good. But it ends the moment the astronaut turns up at the memorial service, revealing the lie. We don’t get to see what happens next. Are all the conspirators rounded up? Does Caulfield find out what they did to his friend? Is NASA shut down?

Overall, Capricorn One is a decent film with some well-developed characters, well-written dialogue, a great concept and a mostly good plot.

Click here to read my analysis of the Apollo moon landing conspiracy theories.

This Wednesday: Roswell, Part 4. In the meantime, take a look at Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of my investigation into the world’s most famous conspiracy theory.

Why is 2011 Princess Diana documentary ‘Unlawful Killing’ still banned?

In 2011, Keith Allen made a documentary supporting the conspiracy theories that surround the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed. This film continues to be banned in the UK and the US in an astonishing victory of censorship over freedom of expression. But why?

Anyone who knows me will know that I am staunchly anti-censorship. I don’t like to see any film banned or edited. It tramples all over the filmmaker’s freedom of expression, and our freedom to enjoy or learn from what they produce – and I’m yet to see any worthwhile justification for doing it. More often than not, it’s the censors stepping in to impose subjective moral judgements about sex, violence and religion on us all.

What’s different about Unlawful Killing – the 2011 documentary made by Keith Allen – is that apparently the BBFC refused the film a certificate on the grounds of ‘defamation’.

But let’s start with what the film’s actually about…

The film’s main claim – Princess Diana was murdered by the Royals

Unlawful Killing hones in on the conspiracy theories surrounding the 1997 car crash in Paris, which tragically killed Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed. Its focus is on the 2007 inquest and its failure to properly address the arguments and the unanswered questions that have led people to formulate conspiracy theories in the first place.

The continuing mystery of the white Fiat Uno. The “biologically inexplicable” blood test results from the autopsy of Diana’s driver, Henri Paul. The lack of any working CCTV cameras in the tunnel where the crash happened. Diana’s handwritten letter, predicting her death in a car crash, which was concealed by the authorities.

A rare, controversial and tragic photo included in the film - Diana post-crash

A rare, controversial and tragic photo included in the film – Diana post-crash

It’s a good film. Not a great one, but a good one. It makes some intriguing points, raises valid questions and interviews a few interesting people, including friends of Diana and a lawyer from the inquest. But as the same time as it accuses the 2007 inquest of being one-sided and biased, Unlawful Killing could be accused of the very same thing.

In one drawn-out section, Allen and various others bang on about how the monarchy is a terrible thing for the country and an inordinate waste of money. The film also spends its time on several interviews that were probably unnecessary to the point of the film. These include a clinical psychologist called Oliver James, who gives a rather ludicrous “professional diagnosis” of Prince Philip and calls him a psychopath.

It’s this interview which is at the very centre of the film’s troubles.

Defamation? Really?

Reportedly the BBFC were insisting on 87 cuts before they could give Unlawful Killing a certificate, to stay within the UK’s libel laws. Defamation is all about saying things which damage a person’s reputation without proper cause or proof of wrongdoing. I’m no expert in defamation law, but if this is the true reason we still can’t buy a legal copy of Unlawful Killing in this country, it highlights some major problems with the law.

Yes, the film says some outrageous things. It calls the Royal Family “bloody racists” and “gangsters in tiaras”, and Oliver James compares Prince Philip to Fred West. But defamation should be about whether untrue statements actually harm a person in some way. I don’t really think Prince Philip’s life is going to be turned upside down by some psychologist he’s never met calling him a psychopath.

And the funny thing is, new defamation laws came into force in 2014. These laws raise the threshold for causing harm with defaming statements, and expand the public interest defence. Surely Unlawful Killing will sail past the censors now?

Well, it’s still banned. In the UK because of the BBFC. In the US because film companies might face lawsuits through their UK offices. We still can’t watch (legally anyway) a documentary that, for the most part, gives an insightful look into the Princess Diana conspiracy theories.

Here’s a conspiracy theory for you: the defamation excuses are just a cover. It’s the Establishment – the British Royal Family – who are blocking this film. After all, are there not many, many examples of perfectly legal and available films which say defaming and potentially untrue things about real people? What’s so different about Unlawful Killing?

Perhaps it’s that Keith Allen is publicly highlighting a conspiracy theory the Royals desperately want to go away…

Next week: a monster washed up on the beach?

10 Great Conspiracy Movies and TV Series

Being a fan of conspiracy theories also makes me a fan of conspiracy movies and TV shows. Those which dramatise famous theories, or centre on government agencies and fictional organisations trying to screw with people’s lives or cover up heinous crimes. Here’s a list of ten conspiracy movies and TV series that are totally worth a watch. Moderate spoilers ahead!

10. Prison Break

The cast of 'Prison Break'

The cast of ‘Prison Break’

The first two seasons of Prison Break are excellent. While half the focus is on Michael Schofield trying to break his brother Lincoln out of jail, the other half is on the conspiracy that landed Lincoln there in the first place. As the series goes on, you learn more and more about how high-up this conspiracy goes. Early scenes show an unknown blonde woman cutting vegetables, her face partly hidden, pulling the strings of two evil Secret Service agents going around killing people. In a stunning cliff-hanger halfway through the season, it’s revealed that this woman is the Vice President. After that, we begin to learn that a clandestine organisation called ‘The Company’ is actually pulling her strings, and this powerful, government-manipulating group becomes the series’ driving force. Meanwhile the protagonists are struggling to piece together who’s behind Lincoln being set up for murder and why. Classic conspiracy thriller stuff.

This would’ve appeared higher in the list had it not gone spinning off the rails at the end of Season 2. This was due to the producers having no clear agenda for continuing the series, and their failure to secure Sarah Wayne Callies as fan favourite Sara Tancredi for Season 3. The latter problem led to some horrifically awkward scenes with stand-in actresses, some very ill-thought-out plot developments and one of the worst pieces of retconning ever committed to film.

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation – Conspiracy (Season 1, Episode 25)

From TNG's 'Conspiracy' - the gory scene that was censored

From TNG’s ‘Conspiracy’ – the gory scene that was censored

In one of the best episodes from TNG’s somewhat shaky first season, Picard and crew uncover a conspiracy at the heart of Starfleet. The episode has all the tropes of a good conspiracy story. Mystery, paranoia, suspicion, and a whistleblower who reveals all to Picard and ends up dead shortly afterwards, his ship inexplicably destroyed. Eventually the conspirators are revealed: a race of alien parasites (very similar to the Hive creatures in UFO series Dark Skies) that have infiltrated Starfleet Command’s highest levels. After some (admittedly dated) fight scenes, the aliens are dispatched in a surprisingly gory scene that was censored when it aired on TV. It involves a Starfleet officer’s head exploding and a hideous alien mother creature emerging from his remains.

8. Enemy of the State

Will Smith and Gene Hackman

Will Smith and Gene Hackman

This 1998 movie takes a standard conspiracy plotline and spruces it up with some great dialogue, a wonderfully played central character and a clever trick at the end. The story’s about the government’s mass surveillance of individuals, which feels familiar, but is realistic and relevant. More so today, in light of Edward Snowden’s 2013 global surveillance disclosures. A congressman is assassinated by NSA agents for refusing to support a law that will radically expand the government’s surveillance powers, and a nature photographer inadvertently video-records the killing. The photographer passes the tape to lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), whose life is turned upside down when NSA agents are on his tail, trying to get the tape back.

It’s fast-paced, action-oriented stuff in the vein of government conspiracy thrillers like 24. But it’s the snappy dialogue and Will Smith’s awesome performance as Dean that set this movie apart. Smith provides some very welcome laughs along the way – unusual in this kind of movie.

7. The Whistleblower

Amanda Burton

Amanda Burton

No, I’m not talking about the Rachel Weisz movie (though that’s also good). I’m talking about a 2001 BBC drama starring Amanda Burton and Penelope Wilton. Despite how good it was, it appears to have been erased from the BBC’s history and is virtually impossible to find on DVD. (If anyone has it, please let me know!)

Burton plays a clerk at a London bank called Laura, who’s discovered that her employers are involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. She photocopies key documents for the authorities and her involvement lands her and her family in witness protection. There are some tense action scenes as they become the targets of assassins. As the story develops, we learn more about Laura’s motives for exposing the conspiracy, which leads to some surprising revelations. The character of Laura, plus Burton’s subtle performance, is what makes The Whistleblower. Despite being the protagonist, she’s not entirely likeable. She’s complex, cold, even towards her family, and harbours a ton of secrets. That’s what makes her interesting. What also makes The Whistleblower is the truly startling ending, which is partly the reason the drama has stayed with me all these years.

6. The Adjustment Bureau

Matt Damon with the Men in, urm, Grey

Matt Damon with the Men in, urm, Grey

This great film blends romance, action and fantasy/sci-fi in an original way by pitting would-be lovers Matt Damon and Emily Blunt against a secret organisation of ‘Adjusters’ who are determined to keep them apart. The Adjusters are clearly inspired by the Men in Black conspiracy theories (though their suits and hats are actually grey in this movie). The concept is that all of us are being secretly controlled and manipulated by the Adjustment Bureau. The Bureau has all kinds of supernatural powers, including the power to travel across great distances via magic doorways, freeze us in time and make us spill coffee on ourselves. It’s all to make sure our lives follow ‘The Plan’, a document composed by the Adjusters’ leader, the ‘Chairman’ (i.e. God).

Fascinating concept, very entertainingly played. Matt Damon isn’t one of my favourite actors, but he’s good here, and Emily Blunt is better. Romance in movies can be cheesily written, unsubtly acted schmaltz, but the blossoming romance between these two is well-written, never forced and never sentimental. The film also has some interesting things to say about free will, and I found the Bureau’s reasons for suspending free will very interesting.

5. Damages

Glenn Close as Patty Hewes

Glenn Close as Patty Hewes

This fabulous five-season-long TV series never found a big audience. However, the critics loved it and it consistently attracted big-name film actors, from Glenn Close and Ted Danson to John Goodman and Ryan Phillippe. It follows Glenn Close’s multi-faceted Patty Hewes, a tough-as-nails lawyer who sets out to expose conspiracy and corruption in major corporations. In the first season, she tries to bring down Ted Danson’s Arthur Frobisher by exposing his fraudulent practices and insider trading. In later seasons, she deals with an energy corporation that’s poisoning people and fiddling the stock market, a family of fraudsters allegedly hiding money, and a corrupt private military contractor conducting illegal missions.

What’s interesting about the show, apart from Glenn Close’s mesmerizing anti-hero, Patty Hewes, is its non-linear structure. Flashforwards depict major events due to happen near the end of each season, and each season becomes a jigsaw puzzle for the viewer. With each episode, you get a few more pieces of the puzzle, and a better idea of the picture at the end of the season. This allows the show to do something unique and reveal the murder of a main character in the pilot episode; this character appears all the way through the first season, and you get to piece together who perpetrated the crime and why. Damages’ structure is one of the inspirations for the Million Eyes trilogy.

Admittedly, the quality of the show declines as it goes on. The first two seasons are the best, but after that, the flashforwards and plot twists are never quite as effective. That being said, while Season 5 as a whole is a bit slow, its final plot twist is – I think – one of the cleverest of the lot.

4. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

This was always my favourite of the movies featuring the cast of Star Trek: The Original Series. The Undiscovered Country is a conspiracy movie with a more complex, more intriguing storyline than the previous films. After the Federation and the Klingons begin a peace process, the Enterprise appears to fire inadvertently on a Klingon ship. In some gripping scenes, two mysterious intruders beam aboard the Klingon ship and assassinate the Klingon Chancellor, while the Enterprise crew are still working out what’s going on. Kirk and McCoy are put on trial for the Chancellor’s assassination, and Spock plays detective aboard the Enterprise, searching for the truth. Players in a conspiracy to thwart the peace process are revealed, leading to some nice twists and a riveting climax, featuring a space battle and an assassination attempt on the Federation president.

Oh, and did I mention that this movie has Kim Cattrall – yes, Kim Cattrall – playing a Vulcan called Valeris? It’s a role that could not be further from Sex and the City’s Samantha if it tried!

It's Samantha Jones - as a Vulcan!

It’s Samantha Jones – as a Vulcan!

3. The Truman Show

This is less a ‘thriller’ than the other entries in this list, more a satire of reality television. It features the most devastating conspiracy imaginable – that nothing about your life is real, and every single person you know is co-conspiring to keep up the illusion. Truman Burbank (Jim Carey) lives his life on the set of an elaborate reality TV show, and everyone he knows, including his wife, is an actor.

The edge of the world...

The edge of the world…

As the film progresses, Truman starts to suspect that he is at the heart of a huge conspiracy, thanks to a series of inadvertent ‘clues’. A studio light accidentally falls out of the ‘sky’, his radio picks up crew members talking about his movements, and he starts noticing how his wife has a tendency to advertise products mid-conversation. When he tries to escape the town in his car, he encounters traffic and emergency situations in every direction, blocking him. My favourite scene is at the end, when Truman escapes in a boat and finds the edge of the TV set: a great wall with a painted sky, where the ‘sea’ just stops. Great concept, great imagery and a very thought-provoking story.

2. 24

The cast of '24 - Live Another Day'

The cast of ’24 – Live Another Day’

24 has enjoyed nine seasons of action, conspiracy drama and political intrigue and scandal. When it began in 2001, it was one of the most original things on TV, and it ushered in a new era of serialised rather than episodic TV shows. Before 24, TV bosses feared losing their audience if episodes were not self-contained. But a whole slew of popular serialised TV shows followed in the wake of 24, including Prison Break, Lost, Damages and Breaking Bad.

Another original element of 24 was its real-time nature, which caused the show some credibility problems (it apparently takes ten minutes to get anywhere in Los Angeles). But as long as you learned to ignore the occasional believability-stretching, 24 was one hell of a good ride. Each season followed a bunch of terrorists plotting to attack the US, with government agent Jack Bauer going to any and all lengths to stop them. Some of the conspiracies and cover ups, particularly in Seasons 2, 5 and 7, involved conspirators from inside the US government. For me, this was when the show was at its most intriguing and compelling. Over time, the plot twists, shock deaths of main characters and revelations of secret moles duping the protagonists started to become a little repetitive. This was most obvious in Season 6, which was just a re-tread of the previous seasons. Having said that, it wasn’t bad enough to make me stop watching, and Seasons 7 and 8 (well, the second half of Season 8 anyway) were particularly strong.

For my review of 24’s latest season, Live Another Day, click here.

1. The Da Vinci Code

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou)

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou)

For me, this has to sit at Number 1. Bizarrely, critics savaged this movie and people are always making disparaging comments about Dan Brown’s writing. While I never read The Da Vinci Code, the story is great, and I’m reading an earlier Dan Brown novel at the moment – Deception Point. So far I’ve got no issues with his writing. Like The Da Vinci Code, Deception Point is proving to be a pretty gripping conspiracy thriller.

The Da Vinci Code is 100% my favourite conspiracy movie. Tom Hanks’ Robert Langdon is not the most compelling character I’ve ever encountered, but the story more than makes up for that. What could be more fascinating than the idea that the Catholic Church, one of the powerful institutions in history, is founded on a lie? Hunted by a frightening assassin in the form of Paul Bettany, Langdon and French cryptologist Sophie Neveu set out to uncover the truth about the Church’s biggest secret: did Jesus have a baby with Mary Magdalene? One of the best scenes in the film has Ian McKellen explaining it all to Langdon and Neveu, and we get to see Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper painting – is that actually a woman sitting next to Jesus at the table?

The film is a great blend of mystery, history and suspense, with a few neat plot twists at the end. I genuinely have no idea what the critics are talking about. (Having said that, critics positively reviewed the worst film I have ever, ever seen – Bug with Ashley Judd – so perhaps they’re all insane.)

Next week: I’m taking a look at controversial 2011 documentary Unlawful Killing, which is all about the Princess Diana conspiracy theories…

Merry Christmas to all!