Somewhere in Los Angeles, as a riot grips the city in the background, a bank robbery is going bust. A thief makes a sudden decision: ignore the safe and focus on the intersection of the bank’s customers and social class.
The opening sequence of this 2018 dystopian sci-fi thriller, which matches any Christopher Nolan film in terms of surprise and efficiency, shows an action movie punching distinctly above its weight class — and you can watch that punch right now on Amazon Prime.
Following the aforementioned opening of director Drew Pearce’s Hotel Artemis, featuring Sterling K. Brown as Waikiki, the action moves on to another hot-button social issue: health care, and the titular hotel, a hospital only for criminals.
The building at the core of Pearce’s movie feels stuck between the 1920s and a digital future. Characters in the movie are mostly named after their rooms, the rooms named after various vacation destinations. (Hence: Sterling K. Brown as Waikiki. Charlie Day is Acalpulco, and so on.) These rooms are accompanied by gorgeous murals which can make their occupants look like they’re living in vintage postcards.
And then the movies busts out the lasers and naninites.
Set in 2028, the Nurse (played by Jodie Foster in a wonderful turn that gives the movie untold depth) takes ample advantage of robotics and future-tech that probably won’t be around in 7 years. In fact, the only other person Nurse needs to run this hospital is Dave Bautista’s Everest — a sturdy mountain of a character who helps give this movie its heart.
Foster and Bautista have wonderful chemistry, deeply respectful of each other’s various styles and secrets. Both share pride in the Artemis as an institution, which imposes rules on a lawless world. While there’s some mythos building in the movie, it can best be seen in Foster and Bautista. When Nurse continually tells people that the Artemis has been around for 22 years, or when Everest tells a surly customer that he is a “health care professional,” you can feel Foster and Bautista share a deep bond of care.
The criminals staying inside the Artemis include Brown’s Waikiki, who is just pulling for his brother Honolulu (an under-used Brian Tyree Henry) to make it out, Day’s abrasive Acalpulco, and Sofia Boutella’s femme fatale assassin Nice, as in the French city. The three of them work well enough on their own, before the film trots out two other next-level characters: Jenny Slate as a police officer with a past, and Jeff Goldblum as the crime boss who runs L.A.
Each of these characters works on their own and their intersections start to pile on top of each other. Getting lost in the plot is no sin, but at times these intersections feel forced, without the time to develop. It’s high-paced with a lot of action, of course, but the movie works best when it gives characters a moment to breathe, like a stunning sequence from Foster working through personal trauma set to Buffy St. Marie’s cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless.”
Hotel Artemis is Drew Pearce’s first feature-length film after what appears to have been a short tenure with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He co-wrote Iron Man 3, a strong contender for Phase Two’s best film, and directed the short All Hail The King, starring Iron Man 3’s semi-antagonist Ben Kingsley.
Pearce described some hesitation in the Marvel method in interviews around Artemis: “The act of making those movies means that some of the bumps, some of the nicks, some of the eccentricities have to get kind of filed off in order that it doesn’t bump for too many people, because ... the whole world has to like it.”
Pearce’s eccentricities shine in all their bumpy glory in Artemis, which feels destined to become a cult classic because it just refuses to be anything other than itself. When the cast of characters are given their spotlight moments, they thrive. The movie jumps from one idea to another with abandon, true to Pearce’s desire to make a “melting pot” of a movie. Pearce pays homage to the spectacle-heavy French movies of the 1980s and 90s (like Luc Besson of The Fifth Element) and the rebellious streak of directors like John Carpenter and Alex Cox, while doing his best to keep the action flowing like James Cameron directing The Terminator.
There are a lot of action movies about revenge, there are fewer about healing. Pearce exploits every aspect of his hospital setting—a place where inequality comes part and parcel with recuperation. No melting pot is perfectly seamless, but watching Foster’s Nurse confront the trappings of her hotel, it’s hard to help but root for her, and the movie in which both reside.
Hotel Artemis is streaming now on Amazon Prime.