Hummingbird Project flutters around good ideas, but fails to land

Movie Review: The Hummingbird Project

Kim Nguyen’s ambitious attempt at an artsy thriller headlined by Hollywood talent drills itself into the ground by betting on big equipment, instead of empathetic characters, to do the heavy lifting.

The Hummingbird Project

2.5/5

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard, Salma Hayek, Sarah Goldberg, Michael Mando

Directed by: Kim Nguyen

Running time: 1 hr 51 minutes

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

The Hummingbird Project is a movie about a brave, new idea getting bogged down by reality. Specifically, a man wants to build a fibre optic cable across half a continent to make millions on Wall Street, only to discover Mother Nature has thrown a few mountain-sized obstacles in his path.

You could say the same thing about The Hummingbird Project itself. It’s a brave idea for a screenplay from celebrated Canadian director Kim Nguyen, but it slowly sinks into the bog of its own ambitions.

As his first English-language film to feature big American actors such as Salma Hayek, Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard, The Hummingbird Project came into the world with something to prove. Nguyen has been embraced for such films as Le Marais and La Cite, and received an Oscar nomination for Rebelle (War Witch) in 2013. Yet, Two Lovers and a Bear (2016) and Eye on Juliet (2017), his first two English-Language films, didn’t radiate raves.

As his first English-language film to feature big American actors such as Salma Hayek, Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard, The Hummingbird Project came into the world with something to prove.

They barely made a ripple in theatres before making it to the in-flight movie menu on Air Canada, which, by the way, is where I saw Eye On Juliet — a love story about a remote pipeline worker, the robot he operates overseas, and the woman he watches through his monitor.

That was a good idea, too. For a book. It didn’t work so well on screen because the possibility for genuine drama was deconstructed at the root. The central device was a spider-like robot in the desert. And the central character sat at a work station, staring at a computer, wearing a headset. Hardly the stuff of epic romance.

The Hummingbird Project suffers from a different set of inherent problems. Prime among them is the protagonist, Vincent, a selfish hustler with an itch to be somebody. He finds a natural home in the body of Jesse Eisenberg, because few actors project the same degree of internal discomfort — as though the skin he wears has a thistle lining, and every word he utters comes from a need to scratch.

Eisenberg isn’t the easiest person to watch, so he doesn’t inspire much empathy on a subconscious level, even when the director-writer is looking to get some hooks in with a father-son backstory. Couple in a greedy quest for trading dominance, and the character becomes a symbol for an entirely corrupt system, maintained by market-driven amorality.

Nguyen knows Vincent is a little loathsome, so this is really a redemption story. All you have to do is sit back and wait for the increments of enlightenment.

The Hummingbird Project suffers from a different set of inherent problems. Prime among them is the protagonist, Vincent, a selfish hustler with an itch to be somebody. He finds a natural home in the body of Jesse Eisenberg, because few actors project the same degree of internal discomfort — as though the skin he wears has a thistle lining, and every word he utters comes from a need to scratch.

Using imagery that pits hydraulic drilling equipment against pristine mother nature means there’s little room for ambiguity. But in case you’re not getting the symbolism, Nguyen makes sure you get it by slowing down the camera — capturing the elegance of some natural phenomenon frame by frame.

Yes. It’s the fast world of man vs. the slow world of nature. The monocular obsession vs. the big picture. The quest for unconditional love vs. the realization love is a natural condition. Don’t get it yet? Not to worry, we eventually meet an Amish elder who delivers it all in archaically constructed English sentences.

The intellectual framework is solid enough, but it feels obvious and intrusive because it has no emotional flesh. It’s always visible because we’re not on Vincent’s side. The only reason we empathize with him at all is because he’s responsible for his cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgard), Anton’s family, and the crew boss Michael (Marc Vega) — all of whom are kind, smart and eager to help Vincent.

If there’s any joy at all in watching this rather bleak trek through the trees, it’s thanks to Skarsgard. The typically ‘hunky’ actor geeks out, wearing wire-rimmed frames and male-pattern baldness. He changes his gait from fluid stallion to a tighty-whitey trot, and he makes us care about the nanoseconds he’s trying to shave off the transmission times — which equals the single flap of a hummingbird’s wing.

In addition to Skarsgard, there’s Vega — the ‘bad’ guy, Nacho, from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul — who brings a manly empathy as well as drilling lingo to the equation. We’re also treated to a few scenes with Sarah Goldberg, who makes Bill Hader’s Barry the best comedy on HBO.

The downer is Eisenberg, and we’re with him in practically every scene. Whether it’s a question of an unlikable character — or an unlikable actor — is hard to distinguish. Either way, Eisenberg should take it as a compliment because we’re not supposed to like the selfish Vincent. At least not until he’s seen the errors of his ways.

The denouement isn’t all that elegant. The movie feels like it drained its budget renting helicopters and drills, but the investment doesn’t really pay off with any screen pyrotechnics. Even people who enjoy scenes of heavy equipment will feel a little let-down by the scenes of a single drill and a big helicopter.

Combined with a colour palette of winter blues and autumnal ochers, the movie has a dead feeling — which again, affirms the underlying ideas and proves intellectual integrity — but doesn’t make it any more fun to watch.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, March 22, 2019

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Review: The Hummingbird Project

User Rating

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Summary

2.5Score

Kim Nguyen’s ambitious attempt at an artsy thriller headlined by Hollywood talent drills itself into the ground by betting on big equipment, instead of empathetic characters, to do the heavy lifting. -- Katherine Monk

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