Tag Archives: Science Fiction

After We Leave

[3 stars]

Yes, the millionth-and-first end of the world movie. But, much like the recently viewed Last Night, this one is more contemplative although with a bit more action and violence thrown in. And while it’s a little predictable, there are some nice variations and sense of motivation helping lift the story.

For a first feature, Aleem Hossain wrote and directed his story with a sure and clever hand. The world and story aren’t over-explained, some things are just inferred or hinted at. And the resolution is both hopeful and weird but still manages to be romantic and obvious.

Brian Silverman does a nice job carrying the movie as a n’ere-do-well who’s turned the page on his life. And Anita Leeman Torres adds a subtle sub-plot to it all that allows for a lot of satisfying interpolation. The rest of the cast is, frankly, a bit over-wired, particularly Clay Wilcox. The choices can all work, but they felt too much like stock bad-guy decisions rather than organic decisions.

There is enough world-building in this story, even with the inconsistencies, to make it stand out. And there is enough tension and action to keep you connected even with the slower pace thanks to the story and the editing. I appreciated the movie and my time spent with it. Houssain has an interesting eye and an opportunity to build on a solid foundation with this first film. I’d definitely be curious to see what comes next.

After We Leave

Little Joe

[3 stars]

I’m always a sucker for intelligent science fiction, whether it is near-term like Arrival or far-future philosophical like Blade Runner 2049 (and it says something that both of those are by the same director) or even total gonzo pieces like Aniara or 28 Days Later. The point isn’t the presentation, it is the amount of thought behind the world and characters that snags me.

Little Joe walks some very well-trod ground, but approaches it with care and at an oblique angle. It even picked up several awards, including a Cannes Palme d’Or nomination and a Cannes win for Emily Beacham (Hail, Caesar!, Into the Badlands) as best actress. Honestly, I don’t really quite understand either recognition, though director and co-writer Jessica Hausner certainly maintained control and vision throughout the piece. And her script, written with Géraldine Bajard, is an interesting riff on a subject that will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the genre.

Supporting Beacham are Ben Whishaw (Mary Poppins Returns), Kerry Fox (The Dressmaker), Kit Connor (His Dark Materials) and Sebastian Hülk (Dark). Each brings a different level of creepy or concern to the story. None of the performances are particularly brilliant, but the quiet, understated approach to the tale is consistent and, often, subtle.

The film is just a little long for its inevitable payoff for my taste (both in metaphor and reality), but it does manage to pull you along and the production design is striking. Little Joe is a worthwhile time investment if you like genre. It isn’t a perfect little gem, but it is a surprising ride, being dealt with intelligently and as adult fare.

Little Joe

Last Night

[3 stars]

There are untold numbers of end of the world stories and movies. It’s such fertile ground for human stories that writers, readers, and viewers just can’t resist the temptation to create or experience the situations. It’s the ultimate stakes.

Often this takes the form of action and mayhem. It makes sense as the tensions run high at such moments and people are, well, people. But more and more movies are tackling it on the micro and personal level, giving us classics like Melancholia, Aniara, or series like Hard Sun. Last Night is definitely more like Melancholia than, say, Deep Impact, or Armageddon.

Through several interconnected small stories, we get a view of Toronto during the final hours of the planet. The stories are affecting, though nothing particularly revelatory. But the cast manages to make you care. With Sandra Oh (Killing Eve) and Callum Keith Rennie (The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet) helping to drive the overall story, there is a wide range of approaches and emotions.

Geneviève Bujold delivers an understated, but nice turn and even David Cronenberg (Maps to the Stars) makes an appearance, which is a nice and appropriate gift for such a subject.

Behind this odd little film is Don McKellar, who wrote, directed, and takes one of the starring roles in the final cut…which explains some of the weaknesses in the result. McKellar is only mildly believable as compared to his fellow cast… which given his distraction managing all his responsibilities isn’t unusual. It was also his first feature as director, so the pile of awards and notice the film achieved is notable. But as the core character, it put the entire house of cards at significant risk.

Last Night isn’t a fast film, but it is one that will make you think. It sparks thoughts and questions that are as applicable to everyday life as they are to a world-ending event.

Last Night

Dotor Who (series 12)

[3.5 stars]

Honestly, I don’t know whether to be excited or infuriated by this latest series. There are so many possibilities and answers and openings, and yet it was executed a bit ham-handedly and, ultimately, rushed.

Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch) continues to grow her sense of the Doctor…and does so with aplomb. Our intrepid companions are evolving, though they have been pushed more to the side as the Doctor has gained confidence and energy. The dynamic of the foursome isn’t always smooth from a story point of view, but they all work well together. I think when Chibnall really gets a feeling of the reins, he could equal Davies first few seasons. But first he really has to get some guidance on what building an arc really means.

This season is very reminiscent of Moffat’s disastrous series 8 as show-runner; fractured and confused. Though I think Chibnall’s overall quality is significantly better than Moffat’s awful season. But Chibnall has struggled with the overall arc and flow. He also allowed the series to get “in your face” preachy about too many issues. The ideas, and even presentations, were fine, but the expositions were painful. The same ideas could have been imparted without stating it all out in detail. In other words, he didn’t trust his audience enough. Even kids would have understood the implications without the pulpit speeches. At least, I do think Chibnall has the sensibility of Dr. Who correct (unlike Moffat much of the time). I just wish he’d be a bit more Torchwood and a bit less Saturday morning kid’s show.

Overall, it wasn’t an unengaging season, and it has some things to chew on, but I’m hoping next round will have more control and shape.

And now, the play by play as the series aired, if you want to understand how I came to these statements.

By the episode (with spoilers): 

Spyfall (parts 1 & 2)
As a sendup of Skyfall, this Bond-like episode has a lot of fun and opens up some new avenues. However, I missed not having a stand-alone holiday special rather than just launching into the 12th series. In part I was also very, very frustrated with the revelation of the big bad. Not that Sacha Dhawan (Iron Fist) isn’t entertaining (if not exactly a Master I can get behind quite yet), but I really felt like that thread had been tied up ever so nicely during the Capaldi years. I suppose, however, that Chibnall just couldn’t resist trying to tackle one of the primary enemies and put his own stamp on it. What these episodes brought us, however, was the shape of the upcoming season with the reveals at the end. Was it worth it? I guess we’ll see.

Orphan 55
This episode starts off interestingly, but devolves into the worst kind of preachy science fiction that just doesn’t work well. Surprising as Ed Hime wrote one of the more challenging episodes from the previous season, It Takes You Away. It’s a shame as there were missed opportunities and, certainly, some fun riffs on Damnation Alley that could have taken the story in different directions. For instance, what if the Dregs were the results of virus infected terraforming tech that Kane was using. But, as it is, it’s one of the weakest episodes they’ve had a in long while. At least it was well directed and acted. And it was fun to see Laura Lane (The Loch) and Lewin Lloyd (Judy) in some different roles. Perhaps this is the one really weak episode this season (there’s always one)…and we’re getting it out of the early rather than late.

Nicola Tesla’s Night of Horrors
Well, I’ll give them this, Edison was portrayed at least a bit like the ass he was. The episode as a whole was OK. It’s another high octane, hand-wavy adventure in history, though this time on American soil with Goran Visnjic (Beginners) and Robert Glenister guesting as Tesla and Edison respectively. Fun, sure, and nice to see Tesla sort of get his due. it was also somewhat clever (and perhaps disingenuous) that Who elevates his ideas, even if the tragic aspects of his life remain.

I do have to wonder, after setting up the larger arc in the first episodes, why have we not even touched on it again yet? There aren’t that many eps to play with so waiting seems like a bad idea to me.

Renegade of the Judoon
Now this is what I’m talking about! This was the best and most complex episode of the season so far. It picks up the opening mystery and explodes it with two major reveals of multiple time lines and the delightful return of John Barrowman’s Capt. Jack Harkness. As a mid-season pivot, it’s wonderful. Why they dropped the thread for a couple eps escapes me as there is clearly a lot of material to work with. The mysteries should have at least been tagged into the intervening episodes to keep it more alive. But we’re here now…hoping the momentum continues and it’s a sprint to the finale.

Praxeus
Really? They couldn’t just keep focusing on the main thread? We had to have yet another “we’re destroying the planet” PSA? And, by the way, they’re getting a bit much and far too preachy in the writing. I know this is aimed at kids, but they’re smarter than the script allows for as well.

The episode is definitely an energetic and entertaining one. It even brings in Warren Brown (Good Cop), who gets to recap a lot of his characters in this one, but with some nice twists with the help of Matthew McNulty (The Paradise). But we just left off a huge revelation and there isn’t even a hint of that in this story.  There are only four episodes left and a hell of a lot to wrap up. Chibnall needs to get a better grip of his seasonal arcs and learn how to weave a whole cloth.

Can You Hear Me?
This fast-paced and energized adventure is great fun and sets up…something. Not sure what yet, but I don’t think this will be the last we know and see of these newest “monsters.” But the story is almost entirely off thread from the main series arc. At least it certainly appears to be stand-alone. What is clear from this episode is that we’re headed to some sort of change-over in, at least, the companions.

The Haunting of Villa Diodati
OK, here we are again with another view of the night Frankenstein was created (the most recent being Mary Shelley). Admittedly, this is a fun and unique use of that infamous (though more likely apocryphal) night. And it gets us back on the main arc…though with more questions than answers by the end.

With only two episodes left in the series, and the stakes and issues all finally at the forefront (although a continued aversion to discussing Jack or the other Doctor), I certainly hope they are both about wrapping all this up. This particularly story is fine, but because of the many recreations of this night, the trappings frankly felt a bit tired to me despite the creative concepts.

Ascension of the Cybermen
Talk about a long lead. Finally we are closing the loop begun in the first episode. This is an action packed story that raises the horror of the Cybermen another notch. While not an official two-parter, the resolution won’t come till next week’s finale. Frankly, not much really happens in this episode other than some adrenaline-based setup and the pulling in of at least some of the open threads. Mind you, there are still far too many left untouched, but I suspect that will change. I just hope the final episode of the series is super-sized so they don’t have to rush the resolution or, worse, leave it unresolved until the holiday special or next season. In other words, this was a fun and exciting episode, but not a complete or satisfying one on its own.

The Timeless Children
As I feared, this episode ended up rushed and, ultimately, open-ended. That said, at least we finally have an answer to Matt Smith’s regeneration from a few seasons back (that infamous number 13) which was never explained. You can buy into that or not, but at least Chibnall has attempted to provide an answer without shattering the canon. However, the depiction of The Master here, both by Sacha Dhawan and as written, is just over the top and weakly supported…and it flies in the face of the most recent incarnations. Sure The Master was always a bit off his nut, and a lot of that was due to his personal competition with The Doctor, but it needed more foundation and explanation throughout the series to get him onto a new path. And the one thing this episode never explained is how The Master survived the end of last season.

And, finally, the tag was more than a little angering. While it pulled back in aspects of the opening episode nicely, it leaves us utterly hanging at least until much later this year (with a possible special). I would have much preferred a conclusion and then a bridging special with tag into the 13th. It felt like a desperate attempt to get folks back after a mixed-result series.

Doctor Who

Mysterious Witchers Lost in Space

Each of these streamers deserves to be seen and to have their own write up. But that felt like overkill and, I suspect, many folks will have been ahead of me already. However, all are enjoyable, intelligent, and all are very different.

Witcher

Henry Cavill (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) was a perfect choice for the lead in this entertaining, if not brilliant, series. He captures the sarcasm and dry wit of the game character, not to mention he is the physical emodiment of Geralt of Rivia. He’s backed up nicely by Joey Batey and Anya Chalotra. There are other, more recognizable faces, such as MyAnna Buring (In the Dark) and Anna-Louise Plowman, but it is generally a lot of semi-familiar and unknown faces.

The series is challenging thanks to its narrative form (which is part of the secret of the first season, so I really can’t discuss it here). I think it could have been handled more clearly, but it ultimatley comes together in interesting ways and I appreciate that they didn’t treat their audience like idiots. Much like Watchmen, it lends itself to rewatching once you understand it all. I’m definitely on board for the next season, but that isn’t coming till 2021, so you’ve plenty of time to watch the series and/or play the games if you want beforehand.

Lost in Space 2

The first season reboot of this show surprised me completely. Netflix transformed the silly Saturday morning show into something richer and darker, if still with a child’s sensibility of adventure. And if you thought Dr. Smith was complex and dark in the first series, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Parker Posey (Cafe Society) has definitely found a role she’ll be remembered for.

This season is incredibly well constructed, even if some of the writing still takes too many character and plot short-cuts. Still, I admire the risks they were willing to take even if getting there has some flaws. And every major character gets their moment to grow and expand in some very nice ways. The new season pulls you along with barely a chance to breathe, making it a great binge show, but also means it is over too soon. Series 3 isn’t officially confirmed, but expect it to take another year, if for no other reason to complete all the f/x needed for the show.

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated

This wonderfully self-aware reconception of the cartoon classic is more Buffy than kid’s show. Conceived as a complete 2-season arc, and loaded with adult nods and layers of mystery, it is both wonderful nostaligia and entertaining distraction in 20-minute bites. It’s also loaded with surprise voice talent in major roles and guest roles. Give it a shot, you’ll know in a few minutes if it is for you or not.

Watchmen

[4.5 stars]

I know others have gotten out there before me, but I really hate writing up a show before a season is complete. There are just too many chances for a series to go off the rails after a great start. And with Watchmen, I was holding my breath as it started strong and just kept improving as it went…at least until the very end where it, perhaps, lost just a tad bit of steam wrapping it all up and prepping for what’s to come.

This series grows naturally out of its birthing material, without leaving behind the graphic novel or the movie. It does it without forgetting or forgiving what came before, which is a real gift. Those who love the original find all kinds of touchstones while those that are new to it sense the depth of the world and its underpinnings.

Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) is a powerhouse and full of complications. Her story and journey hold together the entire series. But she isn’t alone in the tale.

Some of the most interesting characters arrive later in the sequence. Jean Smart (Legion) and Hong Chau  (Downsizing), for instance. And Jovan Adepo  (Overlord) as the younger version of Louis Gossett Jr. navigates a world of levels.

Jeremy Irons (Red Sparrow) gets to play alongside the main plot for more than half the sequence before having direct impact. And with Sara Vickers (Endeavour) and Tom Mison (Parade’s End) supporting him, the trio have a wonderful plot of their own that is loaded with humor and horror.

This is a wonderfully constructed world, unafraid to go where it must. The story is both familiar and topical without having to be completely obvious. Well, not always anyway. And it manages to treat time and flow in a way that will surprise and even insist you go back and rewatch to catch everything; taking on some of the same challenges as Legion, but in a more grounded way.

I am not a huge fan of Damon Lindelof as a writer. But in this case, he took his time to craft something wonderful. It is full of ideas, adult humor, bleak forcasts, and complex characters. I can’t wait to see where he goes with it next. But even if there isn’t more to come (and Lindelof is admitting he has nothing in the pipe to do so), this works as a cycle on its own, with a few open questions to tickle your brain as you consider implications.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

[3 stars]

Thank god it’s finally over.

 

Seriously, there is no point in discussing the issues…like lousy editing, weak story, empy music, or the lack of an emotional release after a 42 year committment. You’re either on board for this or you’re not. Nothing I say is going to matter.

War of the Worlds (2019)

[3.5 stars]

When HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds, he didn’t just see it as a good yarn. It was intentionally an allegory, as were many of his stories. They were warnings to the world of where we were headed if things didn’t change. In other words, it was also what science fiction (then called scientific romance) was in a position to portray like no other form of literature. And this story has clearly stood the test of time. Heck, it is even more relevant today than it has been in a long while as we watch good decisions regress into greed and plays for power around the world.

But a good message doesn’t necessarily make a good story. Fortunately, the BBC have produced a wonderful presentation and story as well. One that cleaves more closely to Wells’s original than has been done in the past.

Sure it’s a great invasion story, but it is also unabashedly a story of empire building where previous opressors are crushed in turn by someone else. It is also about the runaway industrial revolution that was decimating landsides and the health of a population. Director Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None) and writer Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) tackled the material with a clear intention to keep the original while updating it subtly to keep it relevant. Primarily, the updates are in the relationships and structure which give the whole story a slight steam-punk feel even though it remains purely Victorian in its presentation and trappings.

There are four main characters of note in this three-part tale. Eleanor Tomlinson (Colette) and Rafe Spall (Men in Black: International) are the core of the story. Their love and struggles provide our way through the challenges. Robert Carlyle  (Yesterday) and Rupert Graves (Sherlock) add additional complications and perspectives. These four raise the story above the message to a very personal struggle that is easy to invest in.

This latest adapataion of Wells’s classic is definitely worth your time, and the most true to the original material of the adaptations out there. But even if you’re not familiar, perhaps especially if you’re not, it is engaging and effective.

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.