In many ways, SXSW is the anti-film festival. The annual Austin, Texas event is the only film fest in the world where you'll find A-list movie directors rubbing shoulders with the likes of 2Chainz, Vince Staples and A$AP FERG and a crowd of spring-breaking hipsters. Nobody's a snob here.
That makes it a lot more fun than Venice or Cannes, and the fact that films premiere to an audience of real people makes #SXSW a great litmus test for what will sink and what will swim. Even by its own wild standards, though, this year's event has been a rollercoaster — Hollywood has a new go-to action heroine, the ultimate sci-fi series is back on track, and a once-beloved director's reputation is in the mud.
Let's take a look at five of the big talking points of SXSW 2017 so far.
1. 'Alien: Covenant' Is A Total Scream
By all accounts, the new Alien: Covenant footage screened by Ridley Scott at SXSW is a blast. Described variously as a return to the pure horror of Alien and as the most terrifying movie in the series by some distance, Covenant's buzz is explosive.
Ridley revealed one disturbing, spoiler-heavy scene in particular which changes the entire dynamic of the entire Alien series (click the link below for more on that). The 79-year-old director is not playing this time.
Of course, Prometheus also had sci-fi fans pitching a tent, before it was actually released and we all realized how brutally we'd been trolled, but something feels different this time. The Austin crowd can be a good litmus test for how a movie will go down with audiences in theaters, and right now it looks as if #AlienCovenant will be one of the biggest hits of a very crammed summer blockbuster schedule.
2. Terrence Malick Is Stuck On Repeat
Alien: Covenant may be a return to pure horror thrills, but the true horror story of SXSW this year belongs squarely to Terrence Malick, the once-revered auteur whose recent run of movies have threatened to completely overshadow his earlier work.
Song To Song, starring Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman (plus a slew of cameos from Iggy Pop to Patti Smith, Lykke Li to Florence Welch), sounded like it had all the makings of a return to form for Malick, and the trailer is pretty seductive in a narratively-loose sort of way.
Perhaps that heightened expectation was a curse, because the critics have given Song To Song (shot, mysteriously, in 2012) an absolute mauling. The general consensus seems to be that he has nothing to say, and no particularly interesting ways of saying nothing. Variety describes the movie as "borderline-awful," with the director "stuck in broken-record mode." To add insult to injury, SXSW is the reclusive Malick's home turf — he lives in Austin.
Still, there have been a handful of more positive reviews, so it'll be interesting to see what audiences make of Song To Song when it lands in theaters this Friday — will they be humming classic rock when the credits roll, or a funeral march?
3. James Franco's Tommy Wiseau Is No Joke
Comedy and SXSW go together like film execs and cocaine, but that doesn't mean the audience in Austin will laugh at anything. If you launch your comedy here, it had better be great. Fortunately for James Franco, writer-director of The Disaster Artist, all the noise for his movie-about-a-movie has been wildly positive. Variety predicts that Tommy Wiseau could become Franco's most iconic role.
For those unfamiliar, #TheDisasterArtist tells the story of how Tommy Wiseau, a social outsider who looks like a gothic rockstar and speaks with a vague Eastern European cadence (despite claiming to hail from New Orleans), self-financed his passion project The Room, now a cult classic. It cost $6m, made $1,200, and is frequently considered the apex of so-bad-it's-good cinema.
Everything about Wiseau is an enigma, and it would be easy to portray him as a joke, but an almost-unrecognizable Franco digs deep to find extra pathos and tell the story of a man who operates on a different plane of reality, while avoiding making Wiseau the butt of the joke. Dave Franco and Seth Rogen co-star, and the list of A-list cameos is long — Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Zac Efron, Bryan Cranston, Zach Braff, Judd Apatow, Josh Hutcherson and Alison Brie, to name just a few.
There's no trailer for The Disaster Artist yet (Warner Bros. will release it at some point during 2017), so in the meantime content yourself with #TheRoom's infamous sex scene. If this movie makes the wider audience laugh as hard as the crowd at SXSW, it could be the best comedy of the year.
4. Charlize Theron Can Kick Ass, But What's Fuelling Her Spy?
John Wick helmer David Leitch (who's on a roll, shooting Deadpool 2 next) knows a thing or two about creating low-budget, high-appeal action franchises, and having made Keanu Reeves into a mainstream action hero once again, he's now turning his neon-filtered lens on Charlize Theron.
Set at the tail end of the Cold War, Atomic Blonde finds Theron in ass-kicking, English-accented mode as an MI6 agent dispatched to Berlin to recover a list of names (the spy genre's banal plot mechanism de rigueur being stolen lists/hard drives these days). She swears a lot, has sex with hot female French agents, and serves exquisite resting bitch face while executing fairly intense fight choreo (an intense five-minute, one-shot fight in a stairwell wowed the critics at SXSW).
But the common theme of the (largely positive) reviews is that Theron's heroine is too frosty, a believable badass but not a very believable human being. And perhaps that's fine. John Wick is not exactly deeply-layered either — he has a dead wife and he likes dogs. But there's at least a scratch of humanity there, a few hints that he'd rather be sat at home with his feet up watching The Bachelor than killing in cold blood.
Only the vision-impaired could deny that Charlize looks incredible emerging from an ice bath, but for #AtomicBlonde to birth a franchise, its heroine might need to find room in her veins for a little warm blood.
5. 'American Gods' Is More Than "Gods & Tits"
When Game Of Thrones guest star Ian McShane described HBO's fantasy behemoth as "just dragons and tits," the internet basically imploded. It was an audacious move from a man who takes the lead in Starz's new, much-hyped fantasy series American Gods (adapted from author Neil Gaiman's brilliant novel), but thankfully for McShane, it seems his show is most definitely more than just "gods and tits."
That said, there are a lot of gods here and a lot of tits, not to mention a woman ingesting a man whole into her vagina.
The first episode was shown at SXSW and went down rapturously well, Vanity Fair describing Bryan Fuller's series as being a timely arrival in the fractured political landscape of today's America. Just as the show questions what it really means to be a god in a world where nobody's listening, it's a road trip adventure which shines a light on what is it to be an immigrant travelling through America.
Perhaps purely by coincidence, and surprisingly for a fantasy series, American Gods could be the most important addition to 2017's television landscape.
What's been your personal highlight of SXSW 2017?