I like the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition for hologram: “a special kind of picture that is produced by a laser and that looks three-dimensional”. Alas Hologram For a King remains resolutely two dimensional. It is though a special kind of picture with a surreal opening dream sequence featuring Talking Heads “Once In A Lifetime” song and a refreshingly accurate portrayal of expatriate life in Saudi Arabia.
The story is Alan Clay (Tom Hanks), a once prized salesman who sold an American company to China is now trying to sell holographic technology to the King of Saudi Arabia. He’s lost. Not only that: he’s lost it all to his ex wife, can’t pay for his child’s college education and ends up trying to cut out a lump after drinking some dodgy home brewed whisky with a unsterilsed knife. Then he finds himself plus a little extra, what we’re all searching for, LOVE. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. Yes, possibly but what is different about Hologram for a King is the observations of Saudi Arabia life for the expatriate community below the glossy veneer.
A Hologram For A King is both adapted for screen and directed by Tom Tykwer. It based on the book by Dave Eggers and really captures the disaffection and disconnection many of the expats have in Saudi Arabia and the observations on the absurdity of the place – included is a scene of someone sweeping sand. The first part of the film is really not one that you could ever envisage Hollywood making and it works really well. There’s critical thought abound – businesses just wanting to make a quick buck and so selling industry off to China in order to make more profit for their shareholders but the loss at home and devastation to American communities. Then there is the commentary on class shown sublimely by the driver Yousef (Alexander Black) plus the boredom of expat life that leads to debauchery shown in scenes at an embassy party.
This is the type of film that Hollywood would not make and counting the number of production company logos that flash up at the beginning investment was difficult to obtain. However, there is a cognitive dissonance between what the film is saying and what is shown clearly in the last third of the film when Alan Clay starts to fall in love with the female doctor (Sarita Choudhury). At that point I found myself humming silently “Once In A Lifetime” song that opens the film “how did I get here?” except I changed the ‘I’ pronoun ‘it’. Just how did it, the film, get here?
Hologram for a King starts off looking like it will be a great movie and then doesn’t know what it is. Is it a film on social commentary, a story of a stranger in a strange place or the archetypal hero story? It is hard to engage when the film itself doesn’t know what it is.
Hologram For A King is released in cinemas across the UK on Friday 20 May.
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