Cannes 2017: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish

On Film / The Daily — May 25, 2017

“Leave it to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, our favorite director of B movies that look like art films (or are they the other way around?), to upturn the nostalgia for American blockbusters of the 1980s,” begins Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. “Japan’s modern day Don Siegel or Robert Aldrich, who admires in equal parts Jean-Luc Godard and, based on his new film Before We Vanish, John Carpenter, does Super 8, Midnight Special, and Stranger Things one better by jumping off from 30-year-old conventions and making a damn good film.”

“The emotional toll of marriage is at the heart of nearly all of the director’s film, from such horror movies as Cure and Creepy to his dramas, including Tokyo Sonata and Journey to the Shore,” writes Maggie Lee for Variety. “In this case, the movie starts with and revolves around illustrator Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) and her estranged husband Shinji (Ryuhei Matsuda). One day, Shinji returns home after a long walk a changed person, with little recollection of the past and lacking basic social skills. To Narumi, this is a godsend, as it presents a chance for them to do over, so she even shrugs off a weird incident, when he gives her sister Asumi (Atsuko Maeda) a mini-breakdown just by poking her with his finger.”

So, as A. A. Dowd explains at the A.V. Club, the story “follows three aliens who come to Earth as scouts for an impending invasion, promptly taking human bodies as hosts and commandeering other civilians as ‘guides,’ walking them through the basics of our species. . . . One can’t help but imagine what the Kurosawa of a decade ago would do with this material; it might be as scary as his web ghost allegory Pulse. But if Before We Vanish is a little spotty in the story department and very spotty in the effects department . . . it’s still a fun and often amusing science-fiction riff.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Dalton has problems with Kurosawa’s “lackadaisical direction,” noting that he “belatedly cranks up the action dial for his grand finale, which includes a gunfight between aliens and government agents, a spectacular drone attack and a full-scale invasion with echoes of Independence Day. As a final twist, Before We Vanish floats the tentative take-home message that we puny humans might just save ourselves from extinction through acts of love and self-sacrifice. Which is either rousingly romantic, groaningly corny or knowingly ironic. With the tonally incontinent Kurosawa at the helm, it is hard to tell which.”

“As realized, this story is disappointingly sluggish, confusing and free of tension,” finds Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com. “There is much talking and not much doing, which is definitely alien territory for Kurosawa.”

“Technically, it’s a solid enough production,” grants Wendy Ide in Screen. “An atmospheric score, featuring lots of querulous woodwind, boosts tension. And the knowingly prosaic production design is a wry counterpoint to the film’s high concept. That said, the ropey special effects and platitude-heavy climax mean that the film goes out with a whimper rather than a bang.”

Update, 5/28: This is “an alien-invasion B-movie packed with A-grade ideas and craft,” finds Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage. “Indeed, anytime it feels that Before We Vanish is getting too caught up in its thought process, the director is always ready with a flash of ultra violence, slapstick humor, or a pithy line. ‘Is it the invasion?’ Narumi asks at one point. ‘No, it’s the sunset,’ Shinji replies. It’s the apocalypse met with a roll of the eyes.”

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