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The Snowman

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Everything interesting about The Snowman happens around the main thrust of the plot. Alcoholic detective Harry Hole’s (Michael Fassbender) search for the titular serial killer is pretty old hat in Nordic Noir subgenre. Much more interesting is Harry himself, a willfully old school genius-level investigator who eschews newfangled devices like cars and phones and drinks to dull the incredible surfeit of empathy that lets him operate as Norway’s top murder cop. The film lives when we’re seeing how Harry relates to the people around him, be it his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her teenage son, to whom he still feels paternal affection; his freshly-minted partner, Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson); his long-suffering boss (Ronan Vibert); or anyone else in the quite impressive cast (JK Simmons, Toby Jones, Chloe Sevigny and Val Kilmer all crop up).

Unfortunately, this is a murder mystery, culled from the lengthy series of novels by Jo Nesbo (The Snowman is #7 of 11), and plot is paramount, and that’s where Tomas Alfredson’s film falls down. The script, which involved the  normally reliable Hossein Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove) and Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) manages the neat trick of being simultaneously unoriginal and murky, obfuscating familiar narrative and thematic elements in an overly complicated, structurally messy storyline.

It all centres, more or less, on the titular serial killer, who targets single mothers throughout Norway, striking only when the snow is falling and leaving a crude snowman as his calling card. It might have something to do with a similar series of murders that took place years ago, the investigation of which apparently drove investigator Gert Rafto (Kilmer in a fun cameo) to suicide. It might have something to do with predatory industrialist Arve Stop (Simmons), the public face of Norway’s bid for the Winter Games, who harbours private sexual obsessions.

It might be all manner of things, but what it really is, is an excuse to have soulful, damaged Fassbender stalk the wintry environs (rather beautifully shot by Dion Beebe) in search of his prey – someone whose identity, by the way, can be can be augured by simple subtraction rather than investigation, once you get a handle on who’s a name character and who’s just ambulatory set dressing. To be fair, that’s a pretty good time; Fassbender is as watchable as ever, even if The Snowman does little for his obvious franchise ambitions (with this and Assassin’s Creed under his belt, he’s two-for-two when it comes to unfulfilled sequels).

It’s almost impossible not to wonder what might have been if The Snowman had come out much earlier in the Nordic Noir period, when all this snow and blood and hidden horror was a much less familiar set of signifiers. This late in the game, there’s not much novelty to be found, especially if you know your Dragon Tattoos from your Midnight Suns. Alfredson, actually in a much more playful mood here than either his back catalogue or the material might suggest, does what he can, but the problems run deeper than anything on-camera execution (or, indeed, executions) can address. If you’re a tragic for the genre, The Snowman will scratch your itch, but don’t expect anything spectacular – and don’t expect to be seeing the further adventures of Harry Hole any time soon.

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In the new science fiction thriller, Life, a team of scientists on board the International Space Station must weigh their own lives against that of everyone on earth when a single-celled organism recovered from the surface of Mars proves to be more formidable and more voracious than anticipated.

There’s an elephant in the room whenever someone attempts to do this kind of first contact narrative, and it rhymes with “balien”. Well, let’s get that out of the way now: Life ain’t no Alien, and journeyman director Daniel Espinosa is no Ridley Scott. Life, is however, better than any number of films that mine the same vein, although the bar is pretty low: Supernova, Species, Event Horizon, and so on. Perhaps the best adjective to deploy here would be “functional” – the film sets up its scenario quickly and effectively, establishes rules that it continues to play by throughout the running time, and only occasionally withholds information for the sake of surprise.

Really, it’s a procedural science fiction story, harking back to Golden Age literary works by the likes of Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, in which a team of competent heroes struggle against some kind of exotic threat with only their intelligence and their slide rules standing between them and oblivion. The slide rules have been updated here, but the basic concept is the same.

Unfortunately, the characters here are as thin as those of the jut-jawed scientists that populate those pulp classics, too; certainly none are as indelible as the crew of the Nostromo (look, it casts a long shadow, okay?). Gyllenhaal’s long-serving astronaut doesn’t like people much, Ferguson’s CDC liaison is by-the-books, Hiroyuki Sanada’s guy has a pregnant wife back on Earth, and Ryan Reynolds’ engineer is played by Ryan Reynolds. It’s hard to actually care for any of these cardboard cut-outs, which is surprising considering the calibre of the cast, and that is the film’s biggest failure.

We do get a pretty cool Martian monster, though, albeit one lacking somewhat in personality. The squidlike thing is a truly alien creation, acting not out of malice but running on a strong survival instinct that makes sense in the context of the film. It’s nowhere near as iconic as some of the truly memorable antagonists of yore -expect no tee shirts or action figures here – but it does a serviceable job.

Really, your reaction to Life is probably down to where this kind of genre effort sits with you. It’s a solid SF thriller that never manages to elevate itself into the realms of the truly memorable. Genre fans will probably be entertained, but don’t go expecting to have your hair blown back.