Last Night in Soho focuses on style over substance

Hey kings and kweens! Today we’re going to talk about a new film — Last Night in Soho. This movie is directed by Edgar Wright — who became well-known after directing popular comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. He began to venture outside of comedy with movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World which had a lot of action genre elements, and most recently Baby Driver which was a straight-up action movie. Last Night in Soho is Edgar Wright’s entry into the horror genre.

I hated this movie. I think it is a total failure on many levels and showcases how a director can’t take the same style and copy/paste it to a new genre assuming everything will work. There are three things I’ll talk about with this movie:

  1. Central drama is incoherent
  2. No tension anywhere in the movie
  3. Overreliance on style

Background

Let’s start this review by saying I’ve had a very hot/cold relationship with Edgar Wright. I am one of the many people who fell in love with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in 2010. I was an 18-year-old college student with a lot of nerdy interests and that movie seemed really ahead of its time. It had very fast-paced comedic style similar to Zoomer Tik Tok which was very refreshing for comedies at the time. It seamlessly wove in retro style and gaming influences without being cringe. And it had an excellent framing mechanic with the seven evil exs that made the movie’s pacing very tight and fun. A lot of that was thanks to the source material, but that movie made me a hypothetical Edgar Wright fan — though I never saw Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz because I generally don’t like comedies.

By comparison, I thought Baby Driver was a very lifeless action movie that was the epitome of the phrase style over substance. Last Night in Soho is basically a second rendition of Baby Driver. I dislike it for all the same reasons. So if you liked Baby Driver, you can safely discard my opinion.

Premise

Last Night in Soho focuses on the story of Eloise Turner, a student who moves to London to study fashion. She doesn’t get along with her assigned roommate so she chooses to live in her own housing. She gets an apartment which has the mystical quality of transporting her back to the 1960s — an era she adores for the fashion trends. Eloise spends more and more time in this time period and begins to discover her worlds collide in different ways. She sees phantoms from the past in the real world and what happens to her in the past begins to affect her in the present day.

It’s really difficult to criticize this movie without spoiling anything about it. If you’re very adverse to spoilers, then don’t watch this review. I don’t think this movie is orientated around mysteries or reveals, so I don’t think knowing more about what’s going on will ruin your experience, but that’s me. It’s also worth reiterating I think this movie is bad so you shouldn’t see it at all and therefore who cares if it gets spoiled. With all that said, my problems with this movie are immediate in its premise.

Central drama is incoherent

The first time Eloise is transported from the modern day to the 1960s, there is a match cut that implies the character Eloise will be represented in the past by a different actor. The modern day Eloise is played by Thomasin McKenzie but in the 1960s we see a character played by Anya Taylor-Joy. They look similar enough and Eloise quickly dyes her hair to replicate the look of this 1960s character, so there’s a lot of reasons to assume they are the same person. This is a core failure of the movie of its dynamic between the two time periods. The movie introduces you to Anya Taylor-Joy’s character as if it is Eloise in the past, but it’s not. Anya Taylor-Joy plays a completely different character named Sandie. Sandie has her own problems and personality and isn’t very similar to Eloise at all. But for the first act of this movie, it is implied they are the same person. When we’re given the impression this is Eloise having these past experiences, it becomes very frustrating to see her character in the past deviate so greatly from her problems in the modern day.

Eloise’s modern day problems are focusing on school, designing a dress inspired by the 1960s, and making herself in the image of characters like Sandie but in the modern day. Sandie’s problems are about her wanting to become a singer and entertainer but she gets pushed into the seedy side of the industry with really degrading work focused on sex. Most of this movie conflates the two characters as the same person and I found the drama to be incoherent. Nothing about Sandie’s struggles related to Eloise and vice versa. Both characters seems to be working toward a goal completely separated from the other. Like you can’t even say they would relate to each other’s struggles if they met in real life because it’s so different.

What’s so frustrating about this is the movie would have been better if it didn’t imply they were the same character for so long. I hate it when a movie gives the same role to multiple actors. It has never worked for me. I associate my feelings with a specific person and if it is so obviously not the same person, then all those attachments are gone. I would have gladly accepted if this movie was about Eloise viewing Sandie’s story as a subjective observer, but they didn’t do that.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what is the consistency of Eloise’s character. What is this movie supposed to be about? It’s not anything you can guess. It’s not how a fiery personality from the 60s gives her confidence in the modern day. It’s not how Eloise becomes disillusioned with the era she thinks she loves because she sees what it was really like. I’d say, this movie is not really about anything. As a result, watching this movie is really boring.

No tension

That boredom is because — despite claiming to be a horror film — there is no tension anywhere in this movie. Eloise doesn’t have any goals to strive for. She isn’t given a school requirement to fulfill like a project or test or something. She doesn’t have any attachments she cares about. There’s a romance subplot because of course there is but it is so dull. There’s a mother character who’s barely referenced. There’s a grandmother that exits the film almost immediately. There are no stakes for Eloise’s character. You’re watching her do stuff to see what happens.

Sandie’s character has a goal. She wants to be a famous entertainer, but we see quickly that’s not going to happen and much of the movie is Eloise viewing the misery of Sandie’s life.

As Eloise’s visions of the past begin to merge with the modern day, we are introduced to the only attempt at tension through the only traditional “horror” element in the movie. Eloise sees various phantoms of individuals who terrorized Sandie. These ghostly figures haunt her modern day life but not in any novel way. There are some jump scares in this movie and they all amount to a darkened figure screaming loudly in the protagonist’s face and then she runs away. She’s never in any actual danger. She doesn’t even suffer any social repercussions for freaking out in class because as I said, she’s already disconnected from her peers and there’s no goal in her school life at risk.

The tension of these scenes is ineffective, but the movie does spend a lot of time crafting its moments. The story and how its told seem like a contrivance for specific scenes with distinct visuals, but none of this is in service to the storytelling. There is no tension, or scares, or drama, or anything really. It’s in service of something else. Which I would describe as style over substance.

Overreliance on style

Edgar Wright has shifted genres a few times, but he has an unmistakable style. I mean that in a literal sense. His work is obsessed with style for style’s sake. It’s strange because I think this approach actually served him really well in the comedy genre. I don’t typically like comedies because they have no long-term appeal. They’re written as a series of jokes and more-often-than-not the story elements are thrown in there out of obligation rather than intent. I also don’t find most people’s sense of humor to be funny so I don’t bother with the genre.

Wright’s approach to comedy was so effective because he embraced the primacy of jokes in his comedies. His comedies were not only focused on the jokes, but he imbued these scenes with stylistic flourishes that the genre typically never touches. You don’t see a lot of comedies with a visual effects budget. You don’t see anyone commenting on the editing techniques of Judd Apatow. Wright was doing something more. His movies were more than just funny, they were creating real artistry.

The crucial distinction here is comedy shares in common the short-term appeal of a visual effect. If joke is funny you laugh. If a visual is interesting you’re engaged by it. But neither of these things last. You don’t keep laughing until there’s another joke. You grow tired of a visual if it stays the same. These are short-term payoffs and you need a lot of them to keep things interesting. If you make a movie stringing together a bunch of jokes and if that’s all it does, it will be considered a successful comedy. Last Night in Soho — and for what it’s worth, Baby Driver — are not comedies. Yet, they have the same approach to their storytelling as Wright’s other work. This movie takes for granted its story will be engaging and focuses on stylizing it. But the story is not good. It has some mechanical problems, and even if you addressed those problems it’s still not terribly interesting. I thought the story of this movie was weak and I found the style began to grate on me.

Last Night in Soho has a plethora of visual effects. The sequence introducing Eloise to Sandie’s character is overloaded with gimmicks like showing Sandie looking at a mirror but its Eloise in the glass. They do this trick upwards of a dozen times. There are many flourishes like that littered throughout the movie. The problem is at no point do these flourishes add any substance to the movie. None of it conveys any visual storytelling about Eloise or Sandie, or what the movie is about. None of it establishes any tension in the movie. None of it conveys anything other than — hey look at this cool effect we did. The movie doesn’t even pretend to care about core fundamentals of filmic storytelling. It is very focused on crafting these visual effects that have worked so well for Wright in the past, but here they feel hollow. It is style for the sake of style.

Closing Thoughts

I don’t intend to disrespect the creative aptitude it requires to envision these effects. Once I understood what the movie was best at, I did come to appreciate the execution of some of the sequences. But that’s not why I watch movies. A movie can be technically impressive, but it doesn’t make it good. If that were true, we’d all be listening to Yngwie Malmsteen (this joke is stolen from House).

You need something beyond technical ability and style to be worth anything. Edgar Wright’s greatest work was his comedies because it was really the humor that sold the films and his execution made it a little bit better. Last Night in Soho is a horror film without tension. It is like a comedy without any jokes. It is a film with no substance and stylizing it won’t make it worth your time.

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