Tom Tykwer is a German-born auteur who has made serious inroads into the US — though a previous film, Cloud Atlas, defeated many critics who shrugged and moved on. This foreshortened version of a 2012 novel by Dave Eggers tells as simple a tale as any folk story, moving from failure and gloom to what may even be a happy ending. It’s middle-of-the-road, yet not without satirical side-barbs at how America is being outpaced by world rivals, particularly China.
A Hologram for the King is set in the world of 2010 — with the US still grappling with its Great Recession, and Alan Clay (Hanks, playing a worn, middle-aged businessman), sent to Saudi Arabia to help launch an IT centre in a proposed modernist city that the king wants to build in the desert. Clay finds the fantasy city little more than a tabletop model surrounded by windswept rubbish where a magnificent Dubai is expected to rise. Can he do it?
He finds his computer team abandoned, bedraggled, exhausted, hot and lacking Wi-Fi and airconditioning in a ghastly black tent. This recalls his disgrace in the US, where he had to lay off an entire workforce because his company decided to move production to China, where their bicycles can be put together at a fraction of the price. Now his assertive father (Skerritt) rages with pro-American Trumpism because Clay will work for the Saudis.
All this is a prequel to the Arab Spring (and Isis), so the Saudi Arabia Clay encounters is really two countries: one featuring the harsh official ban on alcohol and (essentially) women, the coming oil glut — and below all that, a drunken nonstop rave. The defeated Clay can’t make love to a covert sensualist (Babett Knudsen), but is attracted to a female doctor (unusual even then) called Zahra (Choudhury), as she is to him. Both are en route to divorce; and back home Clay has a lovely, street-smart daughter (Fairaway) who spurs him on to get a life.
Hanks is a mainstay of the American cinematic universe — think Philadelphia, Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan, among others. His portrait of Clay is subtle. At first this beaten-down loser appears little more than a suburbanite down on his luck. But those around him — and the vastness of the new territory — gradually alter his outlook. The actor registers these changes in small facial movements that say a great deal about his professional ability.
At first this is a happy confluence of events and his responses to them. It’s only (ironically) when all seems to be well that the audience is compelled to think a little ahead. The point is made, or surmised, that the Great Recession is far from over — look at all those people losing their houses and their jobs. By analogy, the Arab world appears to be about to burst the chains of ultra-religious conformity and embrace openness. Alas, not.
For those who cannot stand violence and superfluous sex in cinema, there is very little of either. The casting of an Arab woman as an object of desire may well seem somewhat premature, and in a just a few years she would probably be stoned to death. However, such misadventures lie ahead — if at all.
The director has, for the moment, shuttered his boiling imagination and given us a straightforward alternative to the rolling lava of superhero films or narratives that, in the end, do little more than puff the media.
Clay’s rebirth is wonderful — and yet deep Islamic autocracy, waiting to pounce, underlies Hologram.
A Hologram for the King
Written and directed by Tom Tykwer
Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Tracey Fairaway, Ben Whishaw, Tom Skerritt