Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials and other sources, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
A high-minded entry in the post-apocalyptic teen genre, Kevin Macdonald's adaptation of Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now lowballs it on just about every aspect that makes these kinds of stories interesting. It's almost like a snobbish reaction to The Hunger Games. Kids can be killed in war, but only if the gravitas has the appropriate Oscar-like sheen. You will not be entertained!
Hanna's Saoirse Ronan stars in the film as Daisy, an American bad girl (read: snotty jerk) sent to live with her cousins in England because she can't get along with her father and his current wife. Daisy's mother is dead. She's got issues. She hears voices in her head. They manifest in our speakers. Forget the question of whether or not she's legitimately crazy or somehow a prophet or just a teenage girl with conflicting thoughts. I mean, seriously, forget it, because Macdonald and his team of writers do, as well.
Anyway, Daisy is an adolescent and thus thinks she's cursed, and as if any other proof were needed, about a half hour into How I Live Now, there is a big explosion somewhere in the distance. The power goes off, and the phones are cut, and wouldn't you know? Daisy's aunt (Anna Chancellor, The Hour), whose job it is to know disaster is impending--not just as a parent, but literally, that's her job--has left the country and her kids alone at just the wrong time. Daisy thinks she brought this nastiness with her, and I'll cut Rosoff some slack, I don't know, that might have been a major point in her book, that Daisy had to learn "sorry, kid, it didn't happen to you, it happened to the whole world!" (In other words, some kind of metaphor for growing up.)
Anyyyyyywayyyyy, Daisy and her cousins, including a hunky say-little-so-they-presume-you-think-much type (George MacKay, Defiance) try to carry on as if nothing has happened, avoiding evacuation and setting up an idyllic country life with no adults just long enough for strong-and-silent to deflower Daisy. Pretty much right after the army shows up--and, oh, okay, maybe you are cursed Daisy. No sex for you! Now you and your youngest cousin, Piper (Harley Bird), are going to be carted off to work in the English suburbs and the boys are presumably being conscripted into the army. The rest of the film is Daisy and Piper trying to get back to the farm just like she promised her boyfriend/cousin, because, well, incest is how the population is going to start again, amirite?
Macdonald, who is probably best known for the flaccid The Last King of Scotland (making him somewhat to blame for James McAvoy), goes out of his way to keep what actually happened to stop the world vague. It was a terrorist attack, but we are never told by whom. They poisoned the water supply, that's all we really know. There are fires and there is warfare, and we see the enemy but never up close. This makes sense in the first half of How I Live Now. The kid's are isolated and information is sparse, and those who know don't want to tell them. The fact that Macdonald tries to keep this mystery going through the second half just makes no sense. Daisy and Piper are part of the rebuilding effort, and the people they are with know, at some point the girls will figure it out. By keeping the other side undefined, Macdonald fails to create suspense and instead renders his movie generic. How I Live Now is just a string of familiar sequences cribbed from Children of Men, The Road, and other movies of a similar nature. It's boring and ineffective. Ronan makes a good Daisy, even if her character has an arc of very little height. She is only slightly more kind and human by the end of the movie than she was at the start. At least now she feels bad when she yells at people.
In the "if you can't say anything nice" department, How I Live Now, at the very least, is a beautiful movie. It was shot by Franz Lustig, a regular collaborator of Wim Wenders, and he knows how to make nature look beautiful. There are some images of the English countryside that are so breathtaking, you very nearly forget that they are being interrupted by cheesy dream sequences and Daisy's bad diary entries pining for her one true love. It's almost as if Lustig was as bored as I was and decided to ignore what was happening and make all his shots pretty just to amuse himself. Hopefully it was a better distraction for him that it was for me!
Terrible movie, one hell of a Blu-ray. The 1080p high-definition widescreen image (1.85:1) is a gorgeous piece of work. Colors are vivid, with remarkable clarity and detail. Darks look good, with depth to the black screens that allows for total darkness. There is a strong contrast between the different camera styles, to the bucolic countryside and the stark, dirty battlefields, that can be astonishing. How I Live Now is pretty much flawless in terms of presentation.
Because just as good is the sound mix. The main English track is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, and the sense of immersion here is wonderful. Sounds ping between the speakers, with subtle atmospherics being moved deep to the sides so if there is any activity outside your window, you will have cause to wonder what is in the movie and just what the hell is going on in your neighborhood. The sound effects are sharp and have punch, with a particularly nice dexterity evident when Daisy is having her "moments." The voices in her head zing around the room and double-up on each other, the madness is palpable.
There are subtitles in English and Spanish.
There are plenty of extras for the movie, though unsurprisingly, despite a good portion of them being about the "making of" How I Live Now, none offer an explanation of what went wrong. The obligatory behind-the-scenes is just over five minutes, and is about what you'd expect, with added interviews from the majority of the main cast, two producers, Macdonald, and author Rosoff. There are also comparisons from on-set and the final shots for four different scenes. Both the interviews and comparisons can be chosen one at a time or played as a program.
A trio of deleted scenes, a short promo piece from something called AXS TV, and a trailer round out the extras.
Skip It. How I Live Now is a movie about an apocalypse that strands a bunch of teenagers in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the rest of the world and all forms of communication, leaving them to fend for themselves without the modern conveniences. Though they find their own ways to entertain themselves, director Kevin Macdonald pretty much leaves his viewers to do the same. Stare at the floor, stare at the wall--it's gotta be more interesting than this. Saoirse Ronan delivers one of her predictably fine performances, and cinematographer Franz Lustig ensures that this end of the world is about the prettiest end of the world you've ever seen, but the cosmetics can't make up for a lack of suspense or deeper story.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.