Movie review: Hotel Artemis

Hotel Artemis is a quirky little movie, which was sadly overlooked by audiences. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if it reached cult status in the future. The movie’s simple structure and amazing performances made it a joy to watch. Even though the science fiction elements are light and just serve as shortcuts for the story, Hotel Artemis has become one of my favorite sci-fi movies of 2018.

Set in the near-future Los Angeles, this movie is about a hotel that serves the criminal underground as a refuge and infirmary. If that sounds familiar, it should: the concept has been popularized by the John Wick franchise and its Continental Hotel. As a result, many viewers were put off when this setting was announced in the movie synopsis, expecting a rip-off of the Keanu Reeves driven franchise. They couldn’t be more wrong.

In this futuristic Los Angeles, we find a band of bank robbers who are cut off from their escape route by a riot. One of the robbers is injured in the ensuing shootout with the police, and his brother, the gang leader, takes him to Hotel Artemis, a sanctuary run by the Nurse, portrayed by Jodie Foster. She has the expertise and high-tech equipment to heal serious wounds, but she also has hotel rules, the first one of which is that the hotel serves only its member criminals. The brothers are admitted and given code names based on the rooms they are given.

The hotel already has a few characters present. There is a femme fatale assassin, a sleazy arms dealer, and an enforcer who works for the nurse and has a heart of gold. Over time, their stories start converging on a single point: The Wolf King, the crime boss who finances the hotel, and who is en route for treatment. The brothers stole from him and expect to be summarily executed if he finds out. The assassin has a contract to kill him. And the Nurse has lost her son to him. And all of them are threatened by the Wolf King’s son with a chip on his shoulder and a band of thugs ready to break bones.

One of the most impressive things about the script is the subtle addition of four side stories, which flesh out the four main characters, the Nurse, the bank robber, the assassin and the enforcer. While these side stories may feel like time fillers to cover for a very short plot, they are doing an amazing job of not only developing the characters of the protagonists, but also of making them likeable to the audience. The movie may be relatively barebones, but it made me care for all four of them.

However, the real strength lies in acting. Jodie Foster, who plays the Nurse, is amazing. She is a cranky old lady who’s eminently capable at her job, yet very vulnerable and trying to hide it behind a set of unbending rules. Until she must break one of the main rules and her entire character comes apart… Her performance would have dominated much bigger movies, both in scope and budget. Not here, though. She is pitted against others who give great performances. Dave Bautista, as the enforcer, is incredibly likeable. He gives his usual low-key, endearing act, that contrasts well with his job. He even pulls off the pretense of being mentally slow, even though he is very capable. Sofia Boutella is the assassin, and even though she is one of the more one-dimensional characters here, she pulls off a very believable hit woman. Not on the level of Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, but still above average. Jeff Goldblum is the Wolf King, and he is as quirky as he is deadly in his utter lack of morals and regard for anyone, including his borderline insane son, portrayed by Zachary Quinto. It’s too bad that the two of them didn’t get more screen time together; their interaction was hilarious and engrossing.

If there’s one thing I can complain about, it’s the set design. The movie feels cheap. The hotel is very dark, and even though it’s supposed to be rundown from the outside, there is no reason why criminals shouldn’t have every luxury afforded once they are inside. The few fake outdoor scenes offer an explanation for that: anything that is well-lit looks very cheap and inauthentic. I can imagine two different visual styles, which would have made the movie more immersive: either go with the gritty and dark theme and make it stylish like John Wick, or go with the quirkiness of the characters and dress the movie up like the Grand Budapest Hotel.

The poor set design isn’t jarring, though. The immersive script and superb acting overshadows all deficiencies the movie may show. Science fiction elements may be reduced to story shortcuts (miracle cures, smart bombs, etc), but at heart this is still a futuristic movie about several characters with flexible moral codes but a strong adherence to their principles. There are no twists or surprises in the story, the protagonists are all very likeable, and the pacing will keep you entertained. This is a very pleasant film to watch and, in my opinion, one of the best sci-fi movies of 2018.

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