Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Stargate Origins: Catherine

[2 stars]

Stargate was a fun and long-running show. Even its spin-offs managed to be entertaining, if not long-lasting. They never quite found the chemistry of the first show again, try as they might. So, when it ended, there was a sense of relief (much like when Enterprise finally died).

But studios are loathe to give up properties they think they can milk, and so Origins was born as a way to sell one of the first digital streaming services. This movie is a compilation of the that one-season attempt of 10-ish minute episodes. It is…well, not very good.

The story picks up a well known storyline from the original series and movie, and shoe-horns in a tale that, by the skin of their teeth and with obvious tricks, manages not to entirely blow up canon. But the acting is cardboard at best. The story is forced and retreads a lot of different aspects of the shows that came before. It is far from satisfying on its own, and leaves little sense of how they could build on the story. Especially true given how many of the holes have already been filled through our time-travelling and flashback buddies over the years in the previous series.

What is clear is that the brains and abilities that provided over a decade and three series of shows were nowhere to be seen. The look is similar and the background established, but the talent is a gaping void. In other words, the only reason to torture yourself with this movie is a sense of complete-ism. Expect to grit your teeth a lot and to feel you haven’t learned much of anything new or, for that matter, of value to the original series.

Stargate Origins: Catherine

Star Trek: Discovery vs Orville (Round 2)

[3 stars]

It is really impossible to talk about either of these shows without referencing the other. They are both reactions to the previous decades of Trek and are being run by competing ex-Trek production staff with (clearly) different visions. Their first seasons established unique directions and sensibilities from what we knew as Trek and from each other. However, both Discovery and Orville somewhat lost their way in their second series. Oddly, while at opposite ends of the spectrum (dark action vs satire), they both moved more centrist. In doing so, they both lost their edge and uniqueness but never quite gained the chops to carry off their more standard action/adventure sf intentions. And what makes them even more comparable again is that they tackled similar uber-arcs to their seasons, which I won’t discuss, but certainly stood out for me.

Let’s start with the official franchise. Discovery has drifted slowly and deliberately from its very bleak prequel universe. That darkness had really set it apart from previous series and allowed for some good characters, all of whom have now become somewhat bland. Worse, the move for the series was from a female dominated to a male dominated one; very disappointing. Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) is still the focus of stories, but she has taken a backseat to new arrival Anson Mount’s (Inhumans) Pike and other men on board rather than being the main driver of the action and plots. Her Vulcan-ness has likewise diminished, though I can see an argument for that choice. There was a drive for the first several episodes to inject wry humor to balance the sturm und drang, but it was often tossed off and felt forced, or simply got lost amidst more important information. Eventually, they just gave up. Basically, it has become more standard Trek and less something unique. In fact, in some ways this season as a whole could simply be titled The Search for Spock.

I have to admit, I had trouble letting go of the dark roots of Discovery’s first season’s going into the next iteration. And make no mistake, season two  is a whole different animal. In some ways I love the tight banter and wry humor, even if the audio mix often made it challenging to hear clearly. I like that they didn’t just forget season one, but grew on it, even though they remade the show entirely and left a lot of what made it something new, something not standard Trek, behind. Bryan Fuller’s vision for Discovery was refreshing for me. Even if he didn’t get to see it through, you could feel him in the bones of season one.

And then there was the season finale, which was unforgivable. Loaded with, and led to by, stupid choices and bad writing. It also had a critical element only from the Short Treks, which I’d not seen. The frustration is that if you’re going to make something an integral element of the season, it should be part of the season. Otherwise, it is fine to have nods and gifts from the other material (SHEILD and others have done this), but nothing core as not everyone would have the information necessary.

I will grant that the scope of the season, in terms of the overall plot and ongoing arcs, was impressive and gripping. It managed to be somewhat episodic and still have a much larger story pulling it along. But as a rehash of Enterprise’s failed attempt at the same idea it is full of the same kinds of plot holes and issues. It also took a stab at the now standard trope of revisiting the original series that began with the Tribbles episode in DS9; but they didn’t manage it effectively or with any real emotional weight.

But worse, depending on how they resolve the finale in the next season, the reset of the universe was more than a little cheap and frustrating (both in choice and method). I don’t quite know how they follow up this season in a satisfying way…but they have succeeded in bringing what was a brave new show back to the well-trod Trek center, and making it a lot less interesting.

The Orville has swung in from the opposite direction, trying to become more Trek and less satire of that genre. It essentially gave up what made it unique and left us with middling writing and lackluster plots for most of the season. However, a lot of that middling slog was worth it to get to Menosky’s Sanctuary, which picks up the Moclan tale from season one (Ja’loja) in earnest. It is loaded with guest stars and great moments and hits the exact balance of honest and satire that made the first season so much fun. It is also one of the few MacFarlane didn’t write this Sophomore season.

The final few episodes of the Orville season redeem it…right up through the finale. I am hoping that it indicates a recognition of where they drifted from their mission and that they will return renewed and refocused. Orville may never have been great, but it was entertaining and a good escape. Sure it catered to the geek crowd, especially in its humor, but it had potential. Making the Trek-like universe something a bit more realistic instead of aspirational in its society is not only a rising trend in the written genre, but a hunger in the audience who are tired of the sanitized worlds that had been on offer for decades.

Yes, I will be back for both of these shows, assuming both are back. Only Discovery is officially renewed as of this writing. There is potential in both and both shows have a willingness to take chances and change. I just hope they learned the right lessons from this past year.

Avengers: Endgame

[5 stars]

Who would have thought, watching that first tag at the end of Iron Man 11 years and 22 films ago, that today we’d be here? Talk about delayed gratification.

I didn’t rewatch all the films again, but I did rewatch all of Phase 3 in prep. Still an amazing trip. Thor is certainly the odd one out in flavor and Black Panther is still not my favorite (though its resonance has changed for me again in the last year with our own political mess), but as a whole the sequence continues the huge landscape and story. It has to be said, though he left after Age of Ultron, the success and structure of this audacious and incredible ride owes a huge amount to Joss Whedon’s grand vision of architecture.

And that is where this movie shines. Christopher Markus
and Stephen McFeely, writers of the entire Captain America sequence and Infinity War, landed this saga beautifully. It is a tight three acts loaded with humor and drama, and the biggest sequences since The Hobbit or Dunkirk in terms of battles. The Russos did a great job directing it all, never losing the pacing nor the sensibility of the characters. I can’t recall the last time an audience had so much spontaneous applause and tears.

Despite being over three hours, the movie doesn’t feel long at all. Every character gets their moments and resolutions and nothing is easy. And even the forced moments work because you want them to be there. Markus and McFeely also, almost, manage to get out of it all without a paradox, gap, or gaff. Just don’t pick at it too much, there was no way to avoid some of the issues they ran into. If there is any real ding on Endgame as a film, it is that it doesn’t and can’t stand on its own. Without the lead up (forgetting even the Infinity War cliffhanger) it would be obvious something is going on, but not what. That isn’t a bad thing for a finale, it just is being honest.

Anticipation couldn’t have been much higher for this movie, which concludes the emotional and character arc of Phase 3 of the MCU for so many characters and marks a change in direction for the stories. What that change will be remains to be seen in the official end to the Phase in Spider-Man: Far From Home. It has been floated that the overarching stories aren’t going to continue, though some characters are getting series on Disney+. I have to say, I am worried that they cannot sustain the franchise with that approach and thinking. It shows a lack of comprehension of what made the last 11 years one of the grandest adventures and experiments in movies.

I did see Endgame in IMAX 3D for this first go-round. It was worth it. The story is huge and gorgeously shot. The 3D is subtle rather than cheap most of the time. Most of the f/x are seamless, though some of the Hulk’s moments are a little threadbare. But definitely the way to go with this movie, at least once. Now, get yourself out there and see it before you get the story spoiled. You’ll only get to experience it once without knowledge, enjoy the surprises. And while there are video tags during the credits, there is an audio tag that is causing much discussion and little confirmation as to the meaning.

Captain Marvel

[4.5 stars]

Here we are at the penultimate breath bridging Infinity War and Endgame. A pause and some historical background to fill in missing pieces and characters before the final battle. And it is also our first peek at what a post Phase 3 MCU might be like with a whole new feel and rhythm, even if the journey is the same iconic trail. Collaborating directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) built on the sense and structure of Guardians of the Galaxy, but made it their own giving us an action-packed and humor-filled romp.

DC may have beat the mouse house to the screen with Wonder Woman, but Marvel built a better character and story, not to mention put women in almost every major power role of consequence. Brie Larson (The Glass Castle) tops that bill, landing a solid super hero out of what comes perilously close to not working. But a little trust, earned by the directors, lets you ride any concerns to understanding and support for the choices.

Larson carries the story and film, but is joined by several other women in key roles. A staid and smart Annette Bening (The Seagull) has a wonderful dual role. Lashana Lynch (Still Star-Crossed) adds some heart and grit as her fighter-pilot buddy. Even Lynch’s on-screen daughter, Akira Akbar, is a female of consequence in the story. All of these women stand on their own and drive as well as participate in the tale.

The men in this film are pretty much all sidekicks for Larson. On Earth, that is Samuel L. Jackson (Glass), who gives a good look at the early days of Fury. There are also a few moments of Clark Gregg’s (Spinning Man) as a newbie Agent Coulson.  And, of course, there is Jude Law (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) in a mentor role guiding, but never quite controlling Larson’s actions.

Larson’s initial team also includes some fun performances by Rune Temte (Eddie the Eagle), Djimon Hounsou (Same Kind of Different as Me) and, in one of the surprise performances in the movie for me, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians). Chan really stood out for me as trying on and delivering something new. We’re so used to seeing her quiet and controlled rather than as a kick-ass, warrior. I barely  recognized her even though I knew she was in the cast.

The movie isn’t perfect. Some of the plotting and character choices seemed convenient rather than real, though others really did work…eventually. But there were things that threw me. The beauty work on Jackson and Gregg was very disturbing at first. It got better as the movie went on, but it was a heck of a distraction initially. Ben Mendelsohn’s (Robin Hood) accent was a weird choice and felt a tad forced. And the inevitable return of Lee Pace (The Book of Henry) was interesting, but somehow felt a little off from the character we know, even though he appears on the same path. And the humor occasionally clunks or is too predictable to be as funny as they’d hoped. And the hand-to-hand fights aren’t filmed as cleanly as I’d have liked.

Like I said, it isn’t perfect, but overall it is damned fun and it holds together even when you think it won’t. It answers a lot of questions, raises more, and sets us up for the end of an historic 11-year cycle of movies. It even plays homage to Stan Lee in a couple of nice ways (starting with the opening). And for a couple of somewhat newish directors/writers, it is proof again that Marvel can find lesser known talent for those roles and give them the opportunity to run a successful blockbuster while giving us an new voice to enjoy.

Most importantly, Captain Marvel begins to build a path beyond the end of that huge arc, showing there are possibilities and stories still to go after some of our favorites have been primarily retired. And, of course, there are extra scenes, so stay till the very end.

Tau

[2.5 stars]

Another bit of marginal science fiction that is more horror and misogynistic tripe than it is a good movie. A surprising result given the strong female lead in Maika Monroe (Independence Day: Resurgence). Ed Skrein (Alita: Battle Angel), as her nemesis, is cardboard at best and a mustachio twirling black hat at worst. Even Gary Oldman (The Darkest Hour) as the recently generated AI is without a lot of impact, though he gets a moment or two.

For a first feature as director, Federico D’Alessandro does a reasonable job with what he had, and got a very nice look for the movie. Not a surprise as he has a long history in storyboards and animatics. It is really Noga Landau’s (The Magicians) script that is the big problem. There are moments of thoughtfulness in the action and issues, but mainly it is an excuse to raise mayhem, torture, and revenge. If you’re in that kind of mood, I suppose you could do worse, though you’re better off with something more like Assassination Nation which has all of that and better writing.

What you’ve got here is a rainy night flick that is way better than most of the SyFy offerings, but still not a great movie in and of itself. Enough to distract and, perhaps, maybe consider some ideas (stress on maybe). But this movie isn’t going to win awards or get massively recommended other than for Monroe in skimpy outfits and Skrein in tight clothing. Some nights that may just be enough. Your call.

Maniac

[4 stars]

Yeah, I’m a bit late on this one. I started to watch it early and, frankly, while it had caught me, I wasn’t driven to get back to it too quickly. I am, however, glad I went back.

With Emma Stone (The Favourite) and Jonah Hill (True Story) driving the tale, and Justin Theroux (On the Basis of Sex), Sally Field (Hello, My Name is Doris), and Sonoya Mizuno (Crazy Rich Asians) supporting it, there is some serious talent brought to bear. That talent saves the series, selling the odd and weird with commitment and nuance. Because despite all the clever aspects to the story and presentation, it really is a tortured and overly drawn-out metaphor, however entertaining.

Ultimately Maniac is an intriguing look at love, life, and schizophrenia, helping to make it one of the oddest love stories ever devised. Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) and Patrick Somerville delivered a series that is, at turns, intriguing and amusing…and ultimately affecting.

Umbrella Academy

[4 stars]

What a wonderfully weird and dark world. There are enough twists and turns amid the obvious and predictable to keep the inaugural 10 episodes of this series gripping. The production rides the line of comic book and real life beautifully, crossing back and forth between the natural and the absurd.

The ensemble is varied and impressive, much like the Academy was meant to be. And they all commit and deliver at every step, with their (eventually revealed) back-stories supporting their choices nicely. The core group is primarily lesser known talent with Tom Hopper (I Feel Pretty), David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, and Robert Sheehan (Mortal Engines) each having some great stories to tell. And then there’s Ellen Page (Flatliners) in a truly challenging role, who does well, but she is the least credible for me. Page delivers, but a lot will depend on the anticipated second season as to whether I fully buy into her choices. However, if there is anyone who really gets to dominate this series it is Aidan Gallagher as Number 5, who graduates from Nickelodeon to adult fare. Coming across believably as a 50-something year old man in a 15 year old’s body isn’t easy at the best of times, but Gallagher has an amazing energy and ability to pull it off.

The world of Umbrella Academy is much larger than its homebase. Kate Walsh (13 Reasons Why), Mary J. Blige (Sherlock Gnomes), Cameron Britton (The Girl in the Spider’s Web), Adam Godley (A Young Doctor’s Notebook), Colm Feore (Anon), John Magaro (Overlord), and stalwart Sheila McCarthy fill out the story and world with a mountain of award-winning talent, giving the show many levels and perspectives to latch onto.

Umbrella is first and foremost a comic adventure. Expect extremes and complexities. Expect the unexpected and the genuinely obvious. But mostly expect to be entertained and to have a rollicking good adventure that will have you trying to put the pieces together till the end. This sits in temperament somewhere between the Marvel and DC universes, delivering humor but also the gravitas and the dark. Think of it as a twisted, dark X-Men sequence by way of St. Trinian’s. It even echos a lot of the sensibility of Utopia (which is also being remade for US television). I had a great time with the result and, if you like these kinds of stories, you will too.

[And then there was this clever bit of launch event on Netflix’s part: https://deadline.com/2019/02/umbrella-academy-reigns-over-nyc-fans-wedding-with-times-square-parade-1202562593/]

Alita: Battle Angel

[3 stars]

There is a lot to like and a lot to hate in this epic adventure. It is packed with incredible visuals, a strong female lead, amazing fights, and some great moments. To dislike, with prejudice, are several chunks of the script and the non-ending (again, thanks to the script). Did I mention the script?

There was so much anticipation around this first big offering of 2019. The pedigree was solid with Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), king of the low-budget high-impact green screen, at the helm. It even had James Cameron behind it as producer and co-writer along with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon) with solid source material in a well-loved manga (Gunnm).

And, honestly, it starts off pretty well. Rosa Salazar (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) tackles Alita with a guileless honesty that manages to not feel stupid. Christoph Waltz (Tulip Fever) guides her journey with some actual depth and character. Even Jennifer Connelly (Stuck in Love), whose character is more than a little cliche, manages to broaden it out to something richer than what was provided on the page. Keean Johnson (Nashville) gives Salazar a reasonable foil and love interest, though he doesn’t quite have the experience to make the role much more than how it was written. Then, of course, there is Mehershala Ali (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), the man who’s everywhere this year. Ali gets to have some fun…if not blaze new ground or create a role of a lifetime. Jackie Earle Haley (Damnation Alley) and Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refueled) put together some fun, if unsurprising, villains as well. Even Ed Norton (Isle of Dogs) has a small and, unremarkable, appearance.

But the story is incomplete. It literally ends on an ellipsis without a sense of completion. That is entirely on the script. This film was clearly intended as a first installment in a franchise…one that will never get made (at least for the big screen). But rather than help it stand on its own with a possibility of a future, it simply gets through some stuff and ends without any feeling of resolution. Some slight edits at the end might have helped avoid that feeling by moving some of the final action into or after the credits, but that isn’t what Rodriguez did. After bringing the story to a rather nice climax emotionally, he drops the ball and speeds directly through to the final moments and images.

And then there are the eyes. Alita’s eyes, a weird homage to its anime roots and attempt to make her look different, are, well, distracting. I think there was some intent there to highlight her uniqueness. But in a world where cyborgs and body mods are common, no one there seems to notice them and, as viewers, we just keep getting put off. Salazar’s acting was more than enough to get across the point, the eyes were overkill. It doesn’t ruin the performances or film, but it was the one serious production mistake.

The truth is that if you have any interest in this story or movie, you should see it on the big screen (3D or not is up to you, I saw it in Dobly and was suitably impressed) because it really won’t translate to small screen. Like Valerian, this is a sprawling visual feast with a lot of story that feels pretty common since its release (almost 20 years ago in this case). It is worth supporting for its attempt to do something new, despite its weak script. On the other hand, if you aren’t living to see this or desire some visual acrobatics for a relaxing couple hours away from the world, there are plenty of other choices out there.

Io

[2.5 stars]

The best science fiction takes an aspect of science and uses it to illuminate human nature or present dangers. The trick is that the science has to be real, or at least believable… and you can get away with one really big lie (like faster-than-light travel or communication). Io has some truly human moments and struggles and it is nicely driven by Margaret Qualley (Death Note) and Anthony Mackie (Love the Coopers, Avengers) with a small assist from Danny Houston (Game Night).

The science, however, is truly, horribly wrong from the very opening moments of the film. I had hoped that by ignoring the opening monologue I could enjoy the rest of the movie more, but the writers doubled and even tripled down on their awful understanding of space travel and evolution making it difficult not to grimace. I will admit that director Jonathan Helpert managed to build the tension and keep the story going despite these issues. With only three characters that took some effort, even with the talent he had to work with.

This one is really your choice. Qualley continues to show her talent and Mackie gets to work with a new type of character. If you like these actors or want to see more of their work, you can make it through this flick. But as a story, it is the kind of science fiction I’d like to stamp out.

Golem

[4.5 stars]

Not long ago, the 1927 Theatre Company recorded and aired their brilliant new take on the Golem tale. It is an astounding piece of stage craft that incorporates live talent and animation with a bit of music and movement thrown in. The story, in this conception, is about the control of media and commerce over humanity. The troop tell the story in a closed loop, spinning around the story of Robert, played  engagingly, and with spare irony, by Philippa Hambly.

Along with four other on-stage performers (Dunne Genevieve, Nathan Gregory, Rowena Lennon, and Felicity Sparks), the troop begin a story that you think you know, but which turns on you even as it makes your eyes and brain dance. The duality of what is happening on stage and how they are keeping you entranced is no accident. It is mesmerizing and pointed.

I have no idea if this will ever stream again or if it will be available on disc, but make time for it if you get the opportunity. Honestly, there are few stage productions that can really blow me away. This one had my jaw dropping constantly at the illusion, the humor, and the message. It’s not perfect, but it is darned close, and it is worth every minute you get to spend with it…and sadly that is ephemeral.