I knew from the opening moments that I loved ‘Little Joe’, that it had its hooks in me. We see these strange blue plants through this kaleidoscopically moving observation camera that calls to mind Gaspar Noe on Xanax. That kind of bold but restrained filmmaking will go on to define what works quite so exceptionally well about ‘Little Joe’. Despite this restrained filmmaking style though the film is absolutely relentless. The film will suck you in with a vice-like grip that starts from the first moments and continues right up until the final shot.
The titles come in in such a beautiful way that evokes films like ‘The Andromeda Strain’, ‘The China Syndrome’, or even ‘Alphaville’. The 60s/70s sci-fi creep-fest that defines it best though is probably ‘The Village of the Damned’, despite more superficial resemblances to the other great 60s John Wyndham adaptation, ‘The Day of the Triffids’. The film is a massive throwback to that kind of slow, very brainy, high concept but low action, 70s sci-fi chillers. The big reference a lot of people will be reaching for specifically is the 70s version of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ because of exactly what the plot is. Emily Beecham plays Alice, who has to some degree accidentally constructed a wonderland not only of her own making but possibly her own entrapment. She, along with Ben Wishaw’s Chris have invented a plant designed to make you happy, designed to make you care for it like you would your own child by activating what they call the “mother hormone”. Soon, a possibly unstable member of the scientific team thinks that her dog is no longer her dog, and that the plant maybe has contaminated the dog, or possessed him even. What then unfolds is one of the most uncomfortable cinematic watches I’ve had for years and years and years. Seat of your pants, heart in your mouth, between the gaps of your fingers tense. Like you can’t shit your pants from fear because the film has you so tightly clenching everything that nothing could possibly escape you.
The secret to why it’s so tense is just how impossible it is to tell exactly what’s really happening, and it’s not like ‘The Witch’ where you could just read it as a movie where there is no witch. In ‘Little Joe’, the central enigma is that the conspiracy is that the plant is hijacking your nervous system to keep it alive once you breathe in its pollen, but wouldn’t that just be true anyway if the scientists had succeeded at their job? So we are in a position here where the truth could lie anywhere on a spectrum from; we have accidentally created a murderous plant through man’s hubris, or humans just did their job of filling the capitalist market too well, and neither option is particularly comforting. The film keeps it ambiguous right up until its final frame where a lot of the hanging questions are tied up with a single line and, goodness it’s perfect. At the same time, it is virtually impossible to know who has been changed, if anyone, and in every scene, we learn a little bit more about who might be taken or what exactly might be happening and what exactly can be done about it. There is barely a scene that isn’t horribly tense and scary because like every scene has something incredibly weird happening in it. There were more than a few moments where I nearly went “what the fuck” out loud in the middle of the cinema.
The other really big comparison that’s been made is that of Yorgos Lanthimos because the dialogue is similarly stilted, like all the emotion is stripped out, narrative climaxes are similarly anticlimactic and the speech style is just similarly weird. It’s in the way the inflexions are wrong, it’s in the way someone will say a whole sentence without pausing for breath and it totally ruins the cadence of the phrase, and the thing is that it makes the whole affair really, really funny but in a really dark way. Very frank, drawn-out misery and frank blatant horror with a straight face is both horrifying and funny. It’s what we call the ‘The Killing of A Sacred Deer’ effect, it’s the effect that I wanted to get from ‘The Killing of A Sacred Deer’ that apparently everyone else got, whereas I was just sitting in the middle of the cinema feeling like my brain was being slowly squeezed for juices. What this dialogue affectation does really well though is that it basically means that people who are no longer human and humans all behave equally alien, it’s weird. That being said the Lanthimos comparison only goes so far, as we’ve established, it’s a much more firm genre piece than anything Lanthimos has done bar maybe ‘The Favourite’ which is the only Lanthimos film that he didn’t write. ‘The Lobster’ is the closest he gets to sci-fi but that’s still very dirty sci-fi whereas ‘Little Joe’ is definitely hard sci-fi. ‘Little Joe’ also has a much stronger attention to colour and bold design than Lanthimos has so far shown. The film is strewn with pastel hues wherever there’s a chance, the lime green of the coats, the bold purple lights and the beautiful variety of foliage all go towards a towering technical achievement from the design and camera teams.
This is all not to say that the film is perfect though. It does sag a bit in the second act and we lose some of that amazingly taut atmosphere that just makes the film rip along even at its sedate pace. The film has this idea that the reason the plant has decided to infect people is as a reaction to being made sterile, which just came across as contrived and nonsensical to me, and I think the film worked fine without that idea there. I also think the film maybe does too obviously homage works like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ or even ‘Jurassic Park’ at points and it feels very heavy-handed and the film is really good enough to stand on its own two feet.
That being said the film is a strongly acted, beautifully shot, gorgeously designed film full of rich world-building, killer lines and big, BIG ideas that will leave you unable to relax or stop thinking for weeks. Emily Beecham is knock out in it. It’s a very pertinent film for our times as a kind of satire of regulation stripping and the wreckage companies leave when corners are cut, especially when it comes to boutique medication. The exaggerated metaphor this film is pushing isn’t actually a huge leap and a jump away from reality especially when you look at America, which is the most terrifying thing about it.