Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Blade Runner 2049

[4 stars]

When making a sequel, the first question you really have to ask is: Why? And in this case, the writer of the original Blade Runner, Hampton Fancher, along with his new co-writer Michael Green, found an answer. And with Denis Villenuve (Arrival) at the helm, this new tale in the universe is gripping and inexorable as it moves along. In fact, while 2049 is almost three hours long, an hour longer than the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, it feels shorter due to its editing and tension.

Unlike the original bottomless noir that was Blade Runner, this story is more a compelling personal journey for its main character, Ryan Gosling (Song to Song). It has light and hope, despite being sunk in the same ruined Earth and financial disparity that was established with that world 35 years ago. And yet, the story and world still feel timeless. And that is the interesting part, it still feels like it could be our dystopian future; now more than ever. A world of overcrowding, rampant poor, and authoritarian over-reach doesn’t feel that outlandish.

Villenuve managed to pay homage to the original story but create his own world all at once. Yes, if you have recently watched the first film, you will pick up nods and winks throughout, but it isn’t a copy of the original. The nods and mentions aren’t distracting ones, simply enough to make it clear that you never really left that universe. It isn’t a perfect story, but it is solid and complex. It will keep you thinking and wondering. That trick is attained thanks to the directing and, of course, the acting.

Along with Gosling’s subtle portrayal of K, there a number of women who fill out his world. Interestingly, his world is dominated by women. Primarily, Robin Wright (Rememory) as his boss walks an interesting line with him while Ana de Armas (Hands of Stone) provides the most interesting companion since Her. In addition, Sylvia Hoeks does a nice riff and counterpoint to Sean Young’s Rachel. And then there are the additional building blocks for the rest of his story: Hiam Abbass, Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror) and Carla Juri (Morris From America). As I said, quite the list of influence.

This isn’t to dismiss the men. David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) actually gives us a bit of real emotion in his role. Only Jared Leto (Suicide Squad) came off to me as oddly empty. He has the presence and the story (particularly if you watch the 3 prequel shorts that bridge the original and sequel), but not a lot of it gets to the screen. It would have distracted from Gosling’s story, to be sure, so I understand the choice. However, Harrison Ford’s (The Age of Adaline) role manages to feel more complete without much more screen time, and not just because we know his backstory, there is just more there in Ford’s performance.

Be aware, this is not an action flick. It is a slow-burn and very personal mystery. It is beautifully filmed and expertly edited and directed to keep it all moving along. The story is one worth telling, and while it would lead to yet another story, it is complete as it is. I do suggest watching the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner before viewing this, much as I suggested rewatching Terminator 1 & 2 before viewing Terminator: Genisys. Though Terminator was all about what was changing, Blade Runner is more about providing a real sense of grounding and appreciation for what will unfold before you.

In case it wasn’t obvious, in prep for this late-conceived sequel, I rewatched the original Blade Runner. To be more specific, I watched the Director’s Cut, followed by the final 3 scenes of the original version and the Final Cut for comparison’s sake. It was an interesting exercise. I chose the Director’s Cut as that best dovetails to this new expansion of the story. I have to admit, the Director’s Cut is hampered by its slow pacing due to the removal of the voice-overs but no additional editing of the screen time where it was excised. However, it is the closest storywise to enter 2049.

As a side note, I think one of the things I’ve come to finally realize is that Ridley Scott has made only one brilliant film in his life: Alien. Blade Runner blazed new ground, but it isn’t a wonderfully directed film, it is just a fascinating world and a good story that he got lucky enough to have control over. Blade Runner remains a powerful influence on cinema from the Hunger Games to Ghost in the Shell; the claustrophobic, elite-class dominated hopelessness appears again and again in film since its release. The fact that he recut it multiple times trying to say what he “really wanted to” tells you that he isn’t a great director. And certainly his ouvre that followed Alien has never equaled that incredible piece of heart-pounding terror and rich world.

But Scott isn’t part of this outing. This is all Villenuve and his ability continues to impress me. I can only hope that this film will find its audience as the original tale did. It is worth the time spent, especially on the large screen.

Blade Runner 2049

The Orville vs. Star Trek: Discovery

Star Trek is a cultural institution, pretty much world-wide. Now, after a multiple year gap of all things Trek on the small and large screens, we are suddenly being handed two very different options in what has grown from a property to a genre in itself.

The Orville, brainchild of Seth McFarlane (Ted, Million Ways to Die in the West, Family Guy), takes the formula we’ve known for decades and gives it a hard look with both a jaundiced eye and a big hug. It is neither fish nor fowl, approaching the world it has created as satire, but tackling real storylines at the same time.

If I had any doubts about whether Orville could find its footing, its third episode, “About a Girl,” proved they were serious about their television mission. Bringing Brannon Braga, main helmer (and some think destroyer) of Trek since Next Generation, on to direct indicated that as well. The melding of the two men’s sensibilities brings an uncomfortable detente to the series, but one that somehow works. It allows us to laugh at the absurd seriousness of the situations and still enjoy and invest in them.

Discovery, on the other hand, takes a different approach. When it was original conceived with Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, American Gods, Pushing Daisies, WonderfallsDead Like Me) at the helm, I was excited (despite the CBS All Access plan). Fuller had the potential to bring a level of dark reality to a franchise he had written for in the past, but which had drifted to become a bit too mainstream, too predictable, and without a  lot of teeth.

But somewhere along the development process, Fuller exited and the studio took over. Honestly, I’ve not dug into the what and whys, I just didn’t care enough. When Fuller left I was pretty sure the series would devolve back into its rut. Fuller likes living on a knife edge of sensibility. He has created, wrote, and run some of the best television out there, all of which got cancelled before their time but which became instant cult favorites. And Hannibal may even be resurrected.

Discovery is burdened by the very fabric in inhabits. 50+ years of history drape and inform it. But what has always made Trek work wasn’t the stories, it was the characters. Discovery doesn’t really have that chemistry at its outset. I don’t see or feel it either from the main individuals (except for the blue guy) or between these people who have supposedly served together for years. The first double-episode should have felt solid and shocking. Instead it had me in a wait-and-see sensibility.

To be fair, not all shows can be hits out of the gate. But I am more impressed with The Orville for feeling like it has its act together with no history to back it than I am with Discovery, who has a known property and a solid universe to build from. Discovery, especially because of its subscription wall, has to hit it out of the park to keep me around. I don’t see that happening at the moment… and I have suffered through every other Trek series to the bitter end on both principle and doggedness. We’ll see if my sense of completeness insists on my attendance going forward.

The Orville 

Cleverman (Series 1 & 2)

[3 stars]

If it weren’t for the politics and events of the last 8 months or so, Cleverman would just be a middling science fiction series discussing the endemic social schisms that exist today. Despite some good, as well as internationally recognizable talent such as Iain Glenn (Game of Thrones) and Frances O’Conner (The Missing), it is often ham-handed and rushed.

The first series was intriguing on a purely cultural level for me. Out of Australia, this show uses the aboriginal myths and template to posit a recently discovered race of long-lived, powerful hominids that have co-existed with humans. All manner of racism and fear ensue (and a lot of really, really bad wigs). But by crossing the idea with aspects of The Dreaming, other metaphysical concepts, and some truly screwed up families, you got enough to keep you watching the journey of the main character played by Hunter Page-Lochard (The Sapphires). It built to an inevitable crescendo of violence that ensured you’d watch the next series.

Series 2 improved a little in its subtleties and information. We get to understand more…and cringe more. The family drama continues to compound and the relatively unknown Rob Collins tries to bring credibility to a ridiculously overwrought story-line. With only six episodes again this series, the writers were forced to rush their ending and left us hanging in rather frustrating, if again intriguing, ways. I (think) I know how they write themselves out of the final moments, but I’ve no clue where they are going to take it from there that won’t make the series more Planet of the Apes than, say, Gattaca.

Generally, Cleverman isn’t a great series, but it is probably different enough, and short enough in episodes, to keep you hooked. Given the improvements from the first series to the second, I’m hoping that a final or continuing series will continue to build on lessons learned.

Cleverman

Mindgamers

[2 stars]

I have to admit, thanks to the inclusion of Sam Neill (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) in this cast, not to mention the design of Enoch, I couldn’t get Event Horizon out of my head. There are aspects that make the two somewhat brethren, though they are movies with very very different intentions. Mindgamers is much more sf/horror while Event Horizon was really just horror with sf trappings.

Admittedly, though Neill is at the core of this story, the movie is driven by Tom Payne (Luck) and his group of hapless geeks. That group is completed with some competent and committed actors: Dominique Tipper (Girl with All the Gifts), Antonia Campbell-Hughes (Split), Oliver Stark (Into the Badlands), Turlough Convery (Poldark). It isn’t really entirely their fault that the script is oblique and over-written.

Working against or with them (depending on the scene and your interpretation) is Melia Kreiling (Last Tycoon). She brings a cool creepiness to her character, though very little depth. 

Director Andrew Goth and writer Joanne Reay  are frequent collaborators. You can sense the simpatico from script and vision to screen. The trip, for there is no better way to describe the result, is fluid and done without apology and with little explanation. It is clear that reality is something that isn’t defined crisply from very near the beginning. I actually applaud the guts of that approach, but the result wasn’t particularly great. A Cure for Wellness, for all its faults, tackled the psychological part of that much more effectively.

Basically, no, I can’t recommend this flick. Despite its amusing launch in theaters (a la William Castle) offering a mind-linked experience, the story just isn’t there for all the visual and choreography cleverness. Their locations also became a distraction for me as they were more interesting than the movie and and some were recognizable from other films (in particular, Spectral). So, my recommendation is either watch this highly altered or simply pass it by. Someone will do the theme better justice at some point.

MindGamers

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

[3 stars]

This is a tough one. Any time you tackle a classic you risk annoying people or messing it up. Ghost in the Shell has close to biblical import in the manga and anime worlds, so it was even more fraught with peril.

But let’s tackle the story problem first. How do you make an exciting story about an emotionless cyborg looking for its humanity? It ain’t easy. We have lots of eye candy, enough to rival Blade Runner or even the more recent Valerian. The world is rich, incredibly designed to the smallest detail, and evocative of the roots of the material.

Scarlett Johansson (The Jungle Book) is solid as the female mercenary lead. Believable in action and cold in execution. But it is not much different from her turns in Lucy, Under the Skin, Her, or even as Black Widow, in many ways. It is a solid go-to for her and she shades each differently, but it is all getting a bit the same. Sometimes, that can be enough, but this is a complex tale of identity and horror…and the script leaves both her and us hanging on resolving and dealing with those aspects.

To get around her character’s lack of emtion, we do have some of her team to reflect on. Pilou Asbæk (Great Wall, or even better as Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) in particular and Juliet Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria) as well. Both have connections to Major that provide emotion by proxy.

But then there is the white washing problem. Why are all the cyborgs Western? And, while that could be a choice in order to distance the new entity from its past, it is something that could have been covered by commenting on it. We know she has a Japanese mother and was at least half-Japanese herself from this film. I’m not trying to be overly PC, but it can be as jarring as watching a cast of Englishmen playing Frenchmen without even bothering to try and change the accent (let alone language). Culture and race (even if only from a morphological point of view) are even more core and affect credibility.

Given this was director Rupert Sanders’s (Snow White and the Huntsman) second feature, it was at an impressive scale. But, ultimately, like Valerian, this is mostly an empty ride. Even the climax ends up missing the mark as the relationships aren’t really established to make it believable nor is the key phrase used to set it off quite how its been set up through the script (though I liked the idea). Truly a shame as it was almost a powerful finale.

Do you want to spend some time in this universe? If you want the eye candy (both CGI and the skin-tight clad Ms. Johansson), sure. It isn’t a brilliant script. It isn’t mindblowing acting. It isn’t more than a middling adaptation. Sometimes, that can all be enough for a bit of distraction. Can’t it?

Ghost in the Shell

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Series 3)

[3 stars]

OK, I honestly didn’t see myself writing about this reboot again. The first series was wonderfully surprising, but still aimed a bit young for my taste. The second series was middling and felt like it was simply pushed out too quickly.

This third installment, however, has a bit more subtlety to it. Lotor, the new evil, is actually a bit more real, a bit smarter, and a lot more intriguing…especially given our world today. He conquers with kindness, stealth, and power. It is a great evolution in how cartoon enemies are drawn for this kind of story and this audience. Shades of grey are always more interesting than simple black & white.

Frustratingly, despite the interesting start, the end of this series was rushed. The final episode is just a huge flashback explanation on the origins of the war and, as it happens, Voltron. The explanations are clever and made me appreciate the writers. But then, well, let’s just say they fell back on what they knew rather than continuing to go someplace more interesting. I have a sense where series 4 will go, but I do hate missed chances.

At least we don’t have long to wait to see what happens next. Series 4 arrives in October.

votron

Alien: Covenant

[3 stars] The main question that was raised when this latest installment of the Alien universe was announced was, “Why?” The previous film, Blow-metheus, as it is lovingly referred to in my circles, had a horrible script, confused expectations, and answered next to nothing about the Xenomorph and the moments that led to the original Alien, even though we’d been promised that. In fact, Ridley Scott (The Martian) confused matters further by denying what little seemed obvious in the film (whether it was Earth at the beginning or not) and obfuscated the overall plan.

Now comes Covenant, which takes place 10 years after the end of the previous movie (though there are problems with that timeline based on Fassbender’s statements as David). But this time we’ve a crew that is, generally, more believable with some exceptions I’ll get to. As colonists I gave them some latitude as to their space worthiness. However it is a science fiction movie as well as horror, and there are some gaffs that really pulled me out of the tale on that aspect.

There will be some minor spoilers in this discussion, but nothing that really matters.

Let’s start near the top with the neutrino burst that sets it all in motion. Do suns have these? Yes. However, neutrinos also have little to no mass and so you wouldn’t be blasted by such an event. A gamma ray burst, maybe, but not neutrinos. And why would a multiyear, sleeper ship be so fragile as to lose all power when one sail is out of alignment? There were better ways to set up these events to get to the same ends.

Then we get to the Star Trek silliness of the entire senior staff of the crew going down to explore the new planet. They are responsible for four thousand colonists (so we’re told, though who lived and died there changes from beginning to end of the movie), but are willing to just take off and leave almost no one awake aboard. Now we get to signs of civilization, which are apparently surprising despite the following of a signal (a signal in English, mind you).

These folks may not be hardened space farers, but they are supposed to be scientists…and yet they go mucking about, touching things and being generally stupid on their arrival, and not taking objects that would make sense (like the photo they find).

And then, with the players positioned on the board, the fun begins…the second of three parts that is supposed to, eventually, close the loop with the original Alien. (Notice I’m not even calling out the scene replications from Alien, Aliens, and the rest of the series that you could take as either homage or laziness.)

Right off the bat we have familiar Alien-like attacks and expectations. Though there is a minimal, core group of actors for the story, there are really just two main crew members who drive the tensions. Billy Crudup (20th Century Women), as acting captain is ineffectual and weak…which was disappointing. Crudup is a good actor, but he was directed by Scott to be unsteady from the start and we never respect him nor believe his religious fervor. His deterioration should have been gradual. On the other hand, Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) starts off tough. She, alone in the crew, appears to understand how things should be done despite any personal pain and sacrifice that is going on. She is our Ripley analog and overcomes a lot of the script to show us a solid leader and warrior…if not an intelligent one at times.

The rest of our characters, though set up in the opening scenes as competent individuals, suddenly change. For instance, the pilot, Carmen Ejogo (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), who had nerves of steel through the storm is suddenly a panicked, screaming mess causing mayhem. Callie Hernandez (La La Land) becomes a preening fool. The men fare no better, and the somewhat groundbreaking relationship of Demian Bichir (The Hateful Eight) and his lover is nice, but so glossed over as to be lost in the confused mess of the story and served no real purpose nor had any impact. In fact, if there is any constant in this film it is that the only lives that matter are the ones you, personally, care about. Everyone else’s lives are cheap…so, of course, it all falls apart.

The one steady element of all the Alien films has been the synthetics. Michael Fassbender (Song to Song) does a wonderful job as the semi-psychotic David and the even tempered Walter in this newest sequence. He also gets a great reference to Ozymandias, which is both amusing given Crudup’s turn in Watchmen, and probably far too arch for the type of film this really is.

But the reality is that, while there are the bones of an interesting story, the movie just isn’t that good. It is predictable, recognizable, thin on character and thinner on scares. The plot, the only reason to watch this prequel sequence, is getting stretched out over three films (assuming the next is ever made) and it will have to do backflips to get us to the ship with the Pilot in the original Alien. A place we already were in Prometheus, had Scott had the balls to just do one, simple film to close the series.

So why watch this uninspired, unsurprising sequel? Well, there are a couple reasons. It doesn’t really break new ground, but neither does it do it poorly. It just doesn’t entertain as much as it should because we’ve seen it all before and because we’re well ahead of the story regarding the “surprises.” There is also the dueling Fassbenders, which is great fun; watching him act is always a joy.

Is that enough to spend your time? Maybe. It is pure popcorn with a familiar refrain. It has good production values and some answers to burning questions. Fans of Alien wanted this to be so much more than it was, but it is what we’ve got to work with. The jury is still out as to whether any of it will ever make sense or be worth all the years of effort that have been pored into the endeavor.

Alien: Covenant

Rememory

[3 stars] Rememory is an interesting, true classic science fiction tale. By that I mean it tackles the human condition with the technology and tale as metaphor. It isn’t brilliant; there are a number of glossed aspects to the plot in order to keep the story small and the budget low. However, the main thrust of the story is intriguing and the layered mystery is enough to keep it driving forward. Even when you get ahead of it, the point isn’t the mystery but the effect of the resolution, so it continues to work through to the end.

As an early film by director and co-writer (along with playwright Mike VukadinovichMark Palansky, it shows interesting promise for the future. While remaining genre, the focus was on the characters and their struggles.

Peter Dinklage (The Boss) drives the story well. He navigates a complex personal story while acting as amateur detective. The latter aspect is a bit forced, particularly in his ability to succeed, but the motivation and raw emotional energy he uses to drive it cover the gaps nicely. 

Dinklage has a broad cast of characters to contend with. Evelyne Brochu (Orphan Black) and Julia Ormond (Witches of East End) probably have the most nuanced roles. Henry Ian Cusick (The 100) and Martin Donovan (Ant-Man) are a bit more cardboard in their depictions, likely for plot reasons, though I think they could have done better. But the odd specter hanging over this film is Anton Yelchin (Star Trek Beyond). This, near as I can tell, will be his last film to be released. It again reminds us what a senseless loss his death was. Yelchin’s ability to expose a raw personal landscape, even in the smallest of roles, is impressive.

Rememory isn’t going to land on your top 10 list. It is a good, solid indie film that is a bit shy of big-screen worthy (which would explain why it is premiering on Google Play in advance of a small theatrical release). But the ideas, story, and the acting make it worth the time investment. Certainly the chance to see the start of some careers alone makes it interesting.

Rememory

Identicals

[2 stars] I don’t mind weird, but I need a little bit of conclusion with my weird to make it pay off. This really didn’t have that.

Simon Pummell’s first fiction feature has the makings of something intriguing and the trappings of a solid, hard science fiction tale, but lacks answers as it spins out the story. It certainly was visually interesting, though his accompanying script was either cleverly minimal or purposely obtuse. The overall result was…head-scratching.

The film is driven by three main actors, of which Nora-Jane Noone (Brooklyn) is the only one who turns in any kind of performance. It isn’t a brilliant performance, but it has levels and change to it. The two main men, Nick Blood (Bletchley Circle, Agents of SHIELD) and Lachlan Nieboer (Charlie Countryman) are wooden at best and never particularly sympathetic. On the other hand, Tony Way (Edge of Tomorrow) turns in a bit performance that lights up the screen briefly.

Ultimately, this story is either hard sf or purely an allegory about inner struggles. It could be both in better hands, but neither manages to come together. Honestly, save yourself the time unless you really like experimental film that leaves you hanging. Mind you, I don’t think this was intended as experimental. I think Pumell over-cut or under-shot to make his point and got left with a movie without meaning.

Identicals

Alien Arrival (aka Arrowhead)

There is an interesting story somewhere in this script (and probably on the cutting room floor), but it doesn’t really come together on screen. The largely unknown cast is led by Dan Mor as a brooding rebel with mixed and muddled motivations. Pretty to look at, he doesn’t create a character we can invest in or root for because we never understand him or what he wants and needs to do.

Writer/director Jesse O’Brien really attempts to tackle the difficulty of bringing hard science fiction to the screen…with a healthy dose of science fantasy on many points. I applaud him for not treating the audience like idiots, and for some interesting moments and storytelling. But, he needed a few more “connect the dots” revelations to help us put together the story he intended to tell. What we end up with is a nihilistic opening chapter in a larger tale about some kind of galactic war that never quite makes any sense. 

I did watch the whole film, because there was just enough to keep teasing me along that there would be answers. Frankly, I’d skip this. But if you are a real fan of Australian science fiction or want to sample a new director and see what he may be capable of down the road, it isn’t entirely unwatchable, just not particularly satisfying.

Alien Arrival