Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Terminator: Dark Fate

[4 stars]

I find myself having a complex reaction to this sequel/reboot, so stick with me here. Dark Fate is the sequel we deserved…15 years ago. But after three interceding sequels, I find it disingenous, and not a little petty, that they are to be swept aside and utterly forgotten (other than T3, which was so far outside the story line it is rarely acknowledged as existing anyway).

I know I’m in the minority, but I thought Terminator: Genisys was both clever and enjoyable (even if imperfect at times). It was a smart way to reset the universe and get it back on track after couple of weak sequels (Terminator 3 and Terminator: Salvation).  In fact, if you had rewatched the first two movies and then Genisys, it was even more impressive.

It could be argued that with time travel as a central aspect, that it’s a perfectly legitimate choice to bail on the previous storylines. In a fluid timeline, why not just pick up threads where you want them? Well, I’d argue that you don’t because of the fans…even if you think you’re serving them, you need to respect them and what’s come before. This installment was entirely an ego thing for James Cameron (Alita: Battle Angel), who can’t write to save his skin. Honestly, T1 and T2, for all their fun are just painful at times on screen (I rewatched them again before seeing Dark Fate). Some of that is writing and a lot of it is directing on his part–together you just want to look away at moments in embarrassment.

Fortunately, in this case, Cameron’s clunky style was taken to screen by Tim Miller (Deadpool, Love, Death, + Robots), which saved it. Miller pulled good performances from his cast even while hitting the big moments and chases well.

But, the truth is that it’s the inclusion of only two actors that created the buzz and main draw for this movie: Linda Hamilton (Defiance), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Maggie). The return of these iconic actors in the roles they originated and cemented into film history was great fun and got butts in the seats. Joyfully, Mackenzie Davis (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town), Diego Boneta (The Titan) and Natalia Reyes also not only held their own, but brought depth and interest to their new characters. Are they as iconic as the originals? Not really, though Reyes and Mackenzie were certainly interesting to watch as they developed before our eyes.

The upshot is that this is a great ride and clears the decks for a whole new direction in the Terminator universe. We’ll probably never see those other possible stories as the film just isn’t doing as well as the studio hoped so far. But you never know, and with streaming services available now, perhaps we’ll see the world expanded on smaller screen. In the meantime, if you want to see a fairly solid action film and an interesting possibility for the timelines, Dark Fate is certainly a feast of visual fun and quipy dialogue.  And, unlike any of the other movies that came before, some real character work and respect for their situations.

Like I said, I’m having a complex reaction to this one.

Aniara

[3.5 stars]

I’m not often surprised by a movie, let alone a science fiction movie, but Aniara managed to. It may be based on an old trope, but co-directors and co-writers Pella Kågerman and Hugo Liljait managed to lay out their story thoughtfully and completely. It was also their first feature, making it even more impressive.

That it is an adaptation (from a nobel prize winning writer’s 1956 epic science fiction poem made of 103 cantos) rather than wholly original doesn’t diminish their result. Most science fiction gets over-simplified for screen, or leaves science behind for fantasy to create better visual or metaphyscial effects. What Ad Astra failed to get close to, where High Life just simply lost its way, and while Gravity (and even The Martian) over-simplified the situation, Aniara found a path and a statement to make by respecting the genre and the story. In fact, as an adaptation, I am even more impressed by the result. [You can read more about Harry Martinson’s work, but I’d highly suggest staying ignorant of the source material until after you see the film.]

Emelie Jonsson is the core of this story. Along with Bianca Cruzeiro the two hold together the narrative through its evolutions. In addition, Anneli Martini delivers a wonderfully dry and caustic performance that is at once funny and sobering. There are men in this cast and crew, but it is a decidedly female driven tale.

The result is solid science fiction, even with one or two winks at how things might work. And it is entertaining and nicely styled, even if it isn’t about the visual effects or action. The film is about the story and the impact of the situation. If you read Cixin Liu (Three Body Problem), you have a sense of this film’s vibe in both emotion and scope. It is definitely worth your time if you like the genre and, honestly, even if you don’t and have the flexibility to watch stories that take place outside your normal boundaries.

Time for Two and Two For Time

Without planning, there were two time travel/paradox stories that hit my plate this week. One was quite good. The other was interesting, but more as a logic experiment than as a quality entertainment.

Let’s face it, a good time travel story is hard to find. So often it is simply a trope to tell another story. But stories that really think it all through…or as much as possible as paradoxes inevitably create challenges…are rare and fun to find. Predestination, Timecrimes, or even Terminator: Genisys were the last movie attempts to do this well that I’ve seen. And no one has managed to top Looper yet on screen (or Blink on the small screen). Still, at least both of these new offerings make time travel integral to the plot.

I’ll Follow You Down [3 stars]

This movie has its issues, but it definitely has some solid thinking in it that allows me to recommend it.

In addition to the good story, it also has a good cast. Rufus Sewell (Dangerous Beauty, The Man in the High Castle) and Gillian Anderson (Crooked House) catch attention as the parents to Haley Joel Osment (Tusk). Osment is the real lead in this tale, with some nice support by Victor Garber (Sicario) and Susanna Fournier (Being Human (US)). Osment has some great moments, but his performance is uneven and, at times, forced or false. There are plot moments that just clunk like a tin can rolling down stairs. But they are just moments in the midst of some solid acting and well considered issues.

Absent that roller-coaster of belief, I’ll Follow You Down would have been great instead of just good. Director/writer Richie Mehta (Delhli Crime) has certainly peaked my curiosity to see what may come next in his opus. And if you like movies with a bit of intellect behind them, this one pays off nicely.

Excursion [2.5 stars]

Martin Grof’s first feature as writer and director is loaded with ideas. Unfortunately these ideas are often discussed at length by the characters rather than showing us or just trusting the audience. It is primarily a political diatribe blended with a bit of black humor and clever historical revisionism.

To make this kind of script and story work, though, you need a very talented cast. This cast isn’t really up to the task. Other than Johnny Mindlin and Jeryl Burgess, they are often stiff and completely without credibility. And even these two bright spots for naturalism are a little forced at times.

As a curio, this is interesting. Not brilliant, but interesting. However, save it for a time when you’ve nothing else and about 80 minutes to spare. You may find the approach more engaging than I did.

The Cured

[3 stars]

What would happen if most (metaphorical) zombies could be cured? David Freyne tackles this question in his first feature. While admittedly re-treading some ground that In The Flesh took on wonderfully, The Cured has its own focus and apropos political points for our times. Its many secrets aren’t surprising, but neither does Freyne hold them back for very long.

Ellen Page (Umbrella Academy) manages to dominate the movie, despite being a supporting player. Her story is the most accessible and complex and, frankly, she has the best chops in the flick. The real focus of the tale is on Sam Keeley (Burnt), one of the cured who tries to reassimilate into a world that mostly doesn’t want that to happen. Keeley follows his path admirably, but the script and editing prevent him from ever really gaining steam. It’s Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, somewhat reprising his Ebony Maw (Avengers: Endgame) character, who tends to steal screen. Unfortunately, neither the writing nor directing help him feel completely real.

Zombies (and again, this isn’t a zombie movie other than as shorthand) have long been used as metaphors for differing fears and social concepts. From the fear of science and communism to the more recent terror of AIDS and ongoing homophobia. Most are movies about finding the cure or just simply surviving. Few stories tackle the guilt of those that survive and can remember.

Unfortunately, Freyne, while making some nods toward the central question of guilt and forgiveness, ended up getting lost in the slaughter and the intrigue. In effect, no one aspect of his story managed to come through as the main point, other than the stupidity of human-kind. You can see the potential in this movie bubbling under the surface, which is what keeps it interesting. Had it committed to the more unique paths of its tale, it could have really stood out in a crowded space.

However, even though the story fails to become something spectacular, it does provide a generally different take on the genre. It also does so with some solid talent and an impressive delivery for a low-budget indie. It isn’t a brilliant film, but it is a good one that shows off a new talent in Freyne. If he can continue to attract such good casts and believe more in his vision, his subsequent releases will be worth watching for.

Another Life

[3 stars]

Imagine Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Nightflyers all melded into one. In many ways, this is what Nighflyers wanted to be, but missed on so many levels. But Another Life is much more space opera than it is science fiction. Science is, at best, a convenient idea to be used or changed as needed (yes, even worse than Star Trek because it feels more like science fiction). Knowing that going in, despite the trappings of the show, will keep you from getting agitated later (assuming you care about such things).

Katee Sackhoff  (2036: Origin Unknown) delivers a complex and strong female leader. Admittedly, the script has her doing some stupid things at times, but her emotional core is solid. The rest of the shipboard cast, with two exceptions, do well too. Samuel Anderson (Doctor Who, DCI Banks) navigates a difficult road to sentience…your mileage may vary on the results, but it is still a complicated performance. Likewise Blu Hunt, A.J. Rivera, Alex Ozerov (Cardinal), and JayR Tinaco created shipboard life that is at once interesting and, in some ways, ridiculous. But that is more a problem of the Space Opera approach than it is the actors.

Unfortunately, there were also some weaker, or at least uneven performances as well. Top among those were Jake Abel (Love & Mercy) and Jessica Camacho (The Flash). Neither had a subtle bone in their body and, in the case of Abel especially, no presence whatsoever. Back on Earth, Selma Blair (Anger Management), who I normally enjoy, was just as imprecise and unreal in her pivotal role, which was a shame.

The other main Earth-locked cast was fairly solid. Justin Chatwin (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and the young Lina Renna make a great anchor for Sackhoff’s character.

Creator Aaron Martin has a diverse writing background on shows from Degrassi: The Next Generation, to Being Erica, and SyFy romp Killjoys. He isn’t afraid to push limits or relationships and it shows. This series takes a very matter-of-fact approach to the broad spectrum of sexuality that only Sense8 has really challenged in the genre so far. This isn’t the driver for the action, but it certainly adds some nice aspects to the characters and story.

The story also attempts, rather ham-handedly to be honest, to raise the challenge of understanding an alien mind. How much human psychology can you assign to actions and questions an alien raises? How closely will AI evolve to be like or dislike its creators?

I can’t say I ever was sure of the title: Another Life. It has interesting resonance throughout the story, changing as it goes. By the end of this first series I was still unsure of the intention, but had flipped through various options. Perhaps that was the point, but it never felt reflected in the characters.

This show is also a great example of being better streaming than it would have been on broadcast. The story is relentless, ending episodes on intriguing points or cliffhangers and starting off, often, with new situations. In other words, it pulls you along nicely for a binge. If, however, it had been released on a 1-a-week schedule, it would never have hooked in a audience because of that rhythm.

For some interesting distraction, this is a fun series. I’m hoping that it not only gets a second round, but that they learn from this first and take the scripts up a notch. It wouldn’t take much to take it to a higher level and really build out a franchise.

Captive State

[3 stars]

There is nothing particularly bad about this Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) alien invasion/human insurgency story, but there is also nothing particularly special either. Well, I’ll modify that, there is one thing from Wyatt’s and Beeney’s co-written script that is so right, and so real, it had me seeking a reference that didn’t exist…and it’s the opening to the flick: Light a match. Ignite a war. It sounds so familiar, even comfortable in association with a host of figures from the 60s, I was sure I recognized it. But if it is attributable, I couldn’t find it. That’s a rather impressive invention.

As to the rest of the movie, it is nicely understated with low amounts of pure exposition, allowing images and videos to explain the world and the situation. And the story doesn’t insult us by trying to explain everything. Some information is just never provided, and that’s OK. And the cast is certainly talented.

John Goodman (Black Earth Rising) and Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) topline the story from different sides of the tale. They are relatively interesting, but not overly compelling characters, which is part of the weakness in the movie. We don’t entirely care about either of them. Some nice support from Vera Farmiga (Godzilla: King of Monsters), James Ransone (Bosch), Ben Daniels (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and Alan Ruck (Goats) helps sell the situation and add some depth but they are all bit players in the larger scheme.

Basically, there is little surprising in the plot and there isn’t quite enough suspense to sell it on suspense alone. There are certainly some nice effects (and a couple really bad ones). I didn’t feel bored nor that my time was wasted, but I wanted more than just a setup for a franchise. I wanted a sense of triumph or disaster. I wanted more than an obvious metaphor for our times. I wanted to invest emotionally rather than just with my eyes. And, sadly, I never really did, and I suspect you won’t either. For a popcorn evening, there is some craftsmanship here…just not a great movie.

Breaking the Rule of Binge

I don’t, as a rule, binge watch programs. I like the episodic nature of stories. I like time to reflect and think on what has happened in a story and what may happen in the next installment. It’s an art to do it well and it’s satisfying as an experience for me. I know…I’m in the minority at this point.

Recently, however, I’ve been breaking my rule of no more than two episodes of a show per day due to some truly engaging writing. The first slip was for Jessica Jones‘s final series, and then shortly after for Stranger Things. The first because I had time, more than the structure, and the latter because of the cliff-hanger endings. But then came Russian Doll and Dark. Both seriously binge-worthy shows, though each for different reasons.

Russian Doll

I devoured this show in two sittings…and would have done it in one if I could have seen straight enough that first night. While the first episode wasn’t exactly giving me hope, there was something intriguing about it that brought me back. By the end of the second episode, I just couldn’t stop.

Groundhog Day, though not the first of its kind, is the de facto term for all repeating day stories. It is even a trope that has come back into vogue again with fun jaunts in many genre, like Happy Death Day. Russian Doll is yet another riff on this idea…and explained about as much any of them do, employing multiple references, including Felini. But who cares…that isn’t what the story is about. Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) knocks it out of the park with her gravelly-voiced, prickly NYC software designer.

Unsurprisingly, Russian Doll is already renewed (especially given its 11 Emmy nominations which were recently announced). My hope is that they don’t rush it, because even if they manage to expand on the story, like Happy Death Day 2U, I’d really like for them to do something as new and wonderful as their first round of this addictive and inventive tale.

Dark

Dark is wonderfully intriguing with interesting ideas and characters, and some great mysteries and events. But that isn’t why I ended up having to binge. It is simply one of the most brain hemorrhagingly complex stories I’ve every encountered…holding it all in your head requires watching it all close together. If you go more than a day without watching an episode, you’re going to need one of the many write-ups on the web (organized by family grouping or chronology).

Series one hooked me with it complexity and ended on a cliff-hanger where series two picks up.  This second chunk comes to a sort of conclusion, but opens up for the third series scheduled for next June (to coincide with the dates of the story). But my suggestion is that you watch the first two series back-to-back at a one or two a night clip…frankly, I don’t think the human brain can take more than that. If you can, power to you. Then, before watching the new stories, rewatch the series again so it’s fresh in your mind. Honestly, this thing needs visual aids, but it is delightfully and intricately structured…a true thing of beauty even if the story and characters aren’t.

Some Stranger, Mother, Mystery, Things

After a bit of a bingery weekend, I decided to collect up a few Netflix streaming offerings into this single write-up.

Stranger Things (series 3)  (4 stars)
ST has always lived in the gray area between satire and homage, and this series is no different. This latest go-round is more horror than the previous seasons, which lean more into fantasy and science fiction. It is also a bit more in-your-face with the product placement. But the show is done with a great nod and wink to handle all of those aspects and continues to be worthy of our expectations. Unlike earlier series, though, this one took three or four episodes to really get rolling, though it remains interesting throughout. The series is also purposefully structured to pull you along; every episode ends in crisis, thus the binging. The story has a lot of setup that ultimately gets paid off in the rush to the finale. However, up till the halfway point I was getting concerned. But the Duffer Brothers proved again they can riff on nostalgia and not only create something new out of it, but provide great entertainment while doing so. And, of course, despite feeling almost like it was wrapped up, they’ve left a door open to continue into the already announced fourth series.

Murder Mystery (3 stars)
I realize I’m behind the trend on this one, but I have to admit that this silly Gosford Park meets Murder By Death mystery had me chuckling quite a bit. It also had me cringing an equal amount, but that’s no surprise with Adam Sandler (Men, Women, Children) in one of the main leads. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) played heavily into Sandler’s silliness opposite him, but the two never really find a rhythm together…you feel like they could, but every roll comes to a grinding halt and there is no romantic connection between them which leaves the movie sort of empty as a comdey. Even the additions of Luke Evans (Anna) and Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), not to mention Terence Stamp (Crooked House), seriously over-the-top Adeel Akhtar (Victoria & Abdul) and under-played Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) couldn’t provide a consistent enough background to make it really good. However, it’s a solidly fun distraction, though not much more, for all the efforts in front of and behind the scenes.

I Am Mother (3 stars)
While there are some interesting points made in this story, , it feels like it would have made a better short story than a movie. On the upside, it isn’t overly insulting to its audience, providing open clues from the very top without ever explaining all of it directly. Clara Rugaard is solid in her lead role, even against Hilary Swank’s (What They Had) somewhat odd and explosive survivor. For a first feature effort, Grant Sputore does a credible job with pacing and emotion, but the material would have been better suited to a single hour format in an anthology series like Electric Dreams or Black Mirror rather than its expanded 90 or so minutes. It isn’t a waste of time, by any stretch, but it is somewhat well-worn territory, even with its own twists taken into account.

Men in Black: International

[3 stars]

First you have to ask yourself: Did we really need another installment in this universe? We didn’t. The original trilogy, while never great writing, relied heavily on character over plot to make it work. And, more importantly, it wrapped up nicely. OK, moving on because they did make it…

This latest offering is entertaining, but feels more like a knock-off than a solid relaunch, despite some really good comic work by the Avengers duo Chris Hemsworth (Bad Times at the El Royale) and Tessa Thompson (Creed II). In fact, even with the addition of Emma Thompson (Lear), Liam Neeson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick), Rebecca Ferguson (The Kid Who Would Be King), and Rafe Spall (A Brilliant Young Mind) there is nothing really new or surprising here. That’s saying something with that kind of cast pile. And, again despite Thompson’s work, there is nothing like the characters that Smith and Jones created in the original material to draw us in both emotionally and plot-wise. I will admit that Larry and Laurent Bourgeois (aka Les Twins),  were done quite well, however. That high point was thanks to a combination of the actors with some excellent CG to make them both fascinating and menacing.

But the mediocre results aren’t just down to writing. There is also a major flaw in the structure of the movie…and I suspect it came down to a decision by director F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious) trying to find a way to kick the story into gear immediately rather than ease into it. It was a mistake. The opening starts 3 years in the past, then jumps 20 years in the past, and then comes to the present. The time shifts are not only mind bending to track but they also make it difficult to figure out what character is intended as the focus. It’s supposed to be Thompson, but the opening diminishes that. It could have been fixed by interleaving the two important plot points, but presented as two chunks from frame-open, it was a bad mistake.

That said, for some popcorn distraction this isn’t bad it just isn’t great. Compared to a lot of the sequels this summer, it’s actually a cut above. But I kinda wish they had just let the property die and done something new instead. Or at least found a new story to tell. If you like the universe, do catch this at some point. Sure it’s more of the same, but it will provide good distraction. It’s also certainly f/x heavy and will play better on the big screen if you have the time and desire. But if you’re not chomping to see it or don’t have the time, later on disc will probably do.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

[2.5 stars]

How often do you get a second bite at the apple? Even with all the time-travel in the X-Men universe, I never thought we’d get a chance to see Dark Phoenix after the horrible rendition of it in X-Men: The Last Stand. I mean, it was done, they’re not going to go back and pick it up again, right? Better to leave it buried and forgotten.

Well, nothing is ever really dead and gone in the MCU (or apparently Star Wars either). But why do you give this last of the pre-merger Marvel films to a basically untried director, Simon Kinberg? He may have a lot of producing and writing credits, including the previous two First Class films, but there was a lot to make up for after Apocalypse that no amount of Logan (or even Deadpool) was ever going to wash away.

So what we’ve been offered, as a wrap up to this cycle of X-Men, is a great idea with a talented cast, and some of the worst direction I’ve seen in a major in years. When Jennifer Lawrence (Red Sparrow), James McAvoy (Glass) and Michael Fassbender (The Snowman) can all come off as disingenuous, or worse: wooden, the director has failed them. (At least Lawrence managed to deliver the best line in the movie.) Even returning and proven up-and-comers Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), Alexandra Shipp (Spinning Man), Evan Peters (Pose), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (A Birder’s Guide to Everything) felt disconnected from their previously portrayed versions of these younger X-Men. Sheridan, in particular, just had no leadership qualities whatsoever, and no chemistry with Lawrence.

Only Jessica Chastain (Woman Walks Ahead) and Scott Shepherd (Bridge of Spies), who were integral but not amongst the major characters, gave us any kind of performance. Neither was a brilliant performance, but at least they felt real. Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), in the title character, was somewhere between the ineptitudes of her younger colleagues and these established two. In better directorial hands, she may have actually, fully delivered.

The story of the Dark Phoenix is legend, and Kinberg’s script had some really good ideas and structure…even some good dialogue. But the final delivery and handling of the material was amateurish, at best. The result isn’t quite as bad as Last Stand, which killed the franchise for years, but the damage is done. Should the X-Men be folded back into the Marvel Universe now that they’re all under the same banner again, they’ll have to wait for the disappointing taste of this movie to fade before they try again.

Ultimately, if you like this storyline and these characters, you do have to see this final installment (for now). It isn’t unwatchable, but it is lacking in the humor and emotion of the previous movies that made them work so well. It feels like they filmed a dress rehearsal rather than a full performance, with some characters just hitting their marks and saying their lines rather than acting. This all comes back to Kinberg who directed the takes and selected the edits. He just wasn’t ready for this kind of challenge, no matter how familiar he was with the story and involved with the earlier movies. I wish I could be more enthusiastic…I waited a long time only to be disappointed again. I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment.