Tag Archives: Science Fiction

The Endless

[3 stars]

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s follow-up to their surprising Spring is just as unique, if not quite as endearing. Where Spring was pretty much a horror/romance, Endless is more of a subtle science fiction piece with fewer direct answers, though with plenty of clues. In addition to writing and directing this one, they also decided to star in it as a pair of brothers working through their past and present together.

While there is a nice range in the cast, Callie Hernandez (Alien: Covenant) and Lew Temple (Walking Dead) are the two that stand-out alongside our dynamic duo. There are louder and brasher performances, but these two have more levels.

As writer/directors, Benson and Moorhead sensibility of character and the world is a bit like Kevin Smith, but their execution and intent is closer to Coppola or Kubrik. They’re not quite to that level yet, but their insistence on complex geometry in their plots, their liquidity of genre, and their economy of shots implies a great path for the future. The two really care about character and story. And while they’ll occasionally slip into the sophomoric, they don’t allow it to dominate their tales, only spice it.

If you liked Spring, you’ll like Endless. If you haven’t seen Spring, give this a shot for a sense of what goes on in the heads of a couple up and coming filmmakers. I can’t say I found it quite as satisfying as Spring, and it is more than a little male-heavy, but it left me thinking and intrigued on a story level, which is always a good sign.

The Endless

Sense8 (Finale)

[4.5 stars]

I originally wasn’t  going to bother writing up this late add-on to Sense8. In fact, I had avoided it fearing a huge let-down. The show was cancelled and this was a nod by Netflix to not totally tick off the fans. Who knew what it would manage to do in a single episode wrap-up?

BUT, I needn’t have worried. This was a fabulous and breathless finale that ran 2.5 hours without a moment’s hesitation or break, and ends with a complete wrap up and sense of release (literally). While I still preferred the first series’ approach to the multi-cultural and multi-language issues, this finale managed to find a balance in language and culture that the second series missed in moving to all English.

If you waited like me, I do recommend rewatching the final episode (You Want a War) in the regular series to retrench you on where things were. The finale picks up directly and carries on from there. Yes, it is a bit rushed and, yes, the final image could be debated, but overall it was an amazing effort. The result compacts a huge vision into a small space in order to explain and complete the story that was intended to stretch over seasons. Honestly, it is the best we could have hoped for given the circumstances, even as we mourn what might have been for the series had it continued.

Sense8 is one of the most audacious and amazing bits of television, let alone science fiction, to ever grace the screen. The Wachowski’s, Straczynski, and Netflix (not to mention Tykwer) all need to be thanked for their bravery and talent in creating it. Someday it will be recognized for the seminal event it is, but for now, for those of us who discovered and can enjoy it, we should celebrate it and its message of hope and love.

Missions

[3.5 stars]

Missions is a high concept, high production quality science fiction drama in a 30 minute format. It’s not going to win any genre awards for its writing (or most of its acting) but, as a suspense mystery, Missions is nicely constructed. It should be mentioned that is also in French and Russian with subtitles.

The frustrating aspects of the writing are mostly around the premise of who is on the crew and how some of the science works. There are many cliché and expedient choices over the 10 episodes…none of which would be made in real life, but which make for a more tense set of interactions. The show does run close to reality in terms of how space is currently on the edge of being exploited, however. And it plays just outside the margins of known facts to get us to a somewhat unexpected place with interesting possibilities. It is also an interesting contrast to Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which it echos in odd ways, even treading in some of its missteps in trying to build out its plot.

However, if you’re hoping for this first series to provide resolution or a sense of complete understanding, you’ll have to wait till the next season (at least). The first season sort of completes an arc, but then leaves you hanging with a pile of questions. I’d have liked a bit more buttoning up of ideas to feel incredibly enthused about the show. The characters aren’t quite compelling enough for me to have invested on that level, so it was up to the story to pull me in. I would certainly tune in to see where it goes from here, so that says something. Whether it will pay off or if the pulp-ish plot and dialogue will scuttle it on return, I don’t know. But it is a surprisingly well-produced piece and is clearly trying to hit it out of the park on ideas if not always in script.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

[3 stars]

50 years before The Martian, this piece of survival adventure was brought to screen by director and special effects great Byron Haskin (War of the Worlds). But where The Martian was all about sciencing the hell of out of stuff, Robinson Crusoe is more like Cast Away, surviving on luck, happenstance, and a serious dose of colonial mentality. OK, not all of that is Cast Away, I was referring mostly to the surviving parts.

While Crusoe won’t win any science, or even acting awards, there is something compelling in its portrayal, especially given when it was made. Paul Mantee must solve challenge after challenge to survive on Mars after being stranded. You’d be forgiven thinking the lead for this tale was going to be Adam West as he is much more recognizable in the current times thanks to Batman and Family Guy. In addition to being a familiar face, for some reason he also dominates the opening of the film which is weird structurally.

Given the title, it should be no surprise that Friday shows up in the guise of Victor Lundin. He, along with the surviving monkey who, for some reason got to take a trip to Mars with Mantee and West for experiments, fight the elements and unseen enemies to make it to a rather abrupt and unlikely conclusion. Friday’s role is subtle, pushing back against some of the colonialism in Mantee and the audience in quiet ways, but never really rising above the noble savage in the script.

So why spend time with this you ask? Well first, the Criterion restoration is pretty incredible; the visuals are crisp and clean, though, admittedly, some of the sound levels are a bit loud. The story itself is universal, in terms of survival against the elements and the unknown. And, perhaps because of the highly clinical response to the dangers, the result is less melodramatic and more a fascinating puzzle. Certainly to modern audiences aspects of the discoveries and solutions are laughable, but this film was made after we’d barely gotten into orbit and not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis. We really didn’t know much about Mars at the time, though more than the script might suggest, and we were deep into the Cold War. While it is admittedly more a curio than a great film, the experience is a fascinating look back to a time not all that long ago and, honestly, not a bad evening for popcorn.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Upgrade

[3 stars]

There is more to Upgrade than you expect. Not a lot more, but it has a better story and script than a good portion of the films that have come out so far this year. On the artistic and intellectual side there are clearly intentional nods to Da Vinci, Frankenstein, Robocop, even a bit of Hitler in the visuals. This isn’t so much a dystopic future as it is an apathetic one with economic divisions just a bit more obvious than the present.

But while it starts off with a sense of Ex Machina, it loses that higher ground to drift closer to the sensibility of Automata. Both good recommendations, but very different movies. Upgrade is certainly willing to dive into ideas, like the potential amorality (or different-morality) of AI and what evolution means. And it is equally unafraid of emotions or taking its time to set up and execute on story. But they say “write what you know,” and writer/director Leigh Whannell just couldn’t quite shake his roots in Saw and Insidious. The ultimate result here isn’t very surprising–a good action and horror piece done with some talent. As a sophomore delivery from behind the camera, Whannell delivered a fairly solid bit of splatter punk. If there is any weakness, it is that despite some truly nice vistas and sets, the piece feels claustrophobic on a world level.

That smallness to the world may be due to its small cast, but Blade Runner 2049 had a similarly small cast without that sense, so I think it has more to do with Whannell’s framing choices. The cast are fairly solid and led by Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), who gives us an Everyman we can definitely sympathize and empathize with. He is a Luddite in a world of tech, but a person with deep passions and a sense of self and love of his wife and muscle cars (in that order). Betty Gabriel (Get Out) delivers to us a committed, if exhausted cop. Her role is challenging because we only see her decisions from the outside, which makes her seem disinterested or lazy, but I found myself enjoying the removed perspective and trying to piece together her off-screen and unspoken efforts. Harrison Gilbertson (Picnic at Hanging Rock) has an interesting challenge as well. Playing the distracted genius can be tiresome, but Gilbertson manages, by the end, to give us a shade of something new.

As purely a voice, Simon Maiden (The Dressmaker) imbues our nascent AI with a subtle personality. Stem is neither human nor too removed to keep it from becoming a character. There is a sense of HAL, but Maiden makes Stem very much his own. And, finally, there is Benedict Hardie’s (Hacksaw Ridge) neo-Nazi-ish villain. Here is where Whannell could have done a bit more. Hardie’s performance is well directed, keeping him from going to extreme, though his first scene is somewhat misleading on that point. But the character’s motivations and drive, though stated, never feel quite true. Some of that is on the script and some on the direction, but a better set of choices could have elevated this unexpected low-budget flick a couple more notches.

You do have to like violent, splatter-filled moments (not many, but enough of them) to enjoy this ride. It has the feeling of a video-game at times, but not so much that it breaks the story or the sense of the film. The story is actually engaging and the pace swift, even humorous at times, without short-changing the experience of the plot. Yes, there are some shortcuts, but most are given reasons not just shrugged off, and very little is too easy for our main character. And, yes, this one is dark, so keep that in mind as well.

Stem is not for everyone, but I have to admit I’m glad I got to see it and I’m glad it got a wider release than a non-traditional film like this normally would; definitely alternative popcorn fare for the right audience. And, perhaps most importantly, it is something new, not a sequel or prequel or reboot…and how many of those are we getting this year?

Upgrade

Deadpool 2

[4.5 stars]

Despite having one of the best posters and some of the worst cover art (see below) Deadpool 2 is as funny as the first, if not quite as surprising now that we know the shtick. In fact, it might have the highest ratio of referential jokes per minute ever (I’d love to see a counter on the disc when it is released akin to the original Taken’s body count meter).

Ryan Reynolds (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) continues to rip up the screen and unequivocally supply the energy for the film. His returning cast from the original Deadpool have fun as well, though there was far too little of Morena Baccarin  and Leslie Uggams for me. I will say that T.J. Miller lost some of his game this round, though Karan Soni got to up his in some ways. On the other hand, Brianna Hildebrand had a similarly minor role but made more of it this time. And Stefan Kapicic’s Collosus got to have a bit more fun than his last outing.

As much fun as it was to see the old gang strutting their stuff, Zazie Beetz (Geostorm), Shioli Kutsuna (The Outsider), Eddie Marsan (The Limehouse Golem) and a smattering of fun surprise guests provide the real zazz to the remix. And Josh Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War) not only delivers, but gets to be part of another of the biggest films this summer; talk about great career choices. And speaking of great choices, perhaps the most surprising addition was Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), who is probably very new to most audiences but who proved he could handle a major motion picture leap without blinking.

Reynolds joined Reese and Wernick in writing this sequel, which may explain the extreme density of the jokes, and director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) took the franchise reigns well in this sequel. The overall effect isn’t quite as polished or paced as the original, but it acquits itself well by the end; it just has a rather long setup. And, it should be noted, in Marvel tradition, it has little gifts up through the end of the final credits. They also are continuing another more recent Marvel tradition of wickedly funny (and at times astute) music queues. If I have any real gripe with the script and character it is that Deadpool is still a bit more homophobic than the pansexual, which has more to do with current society than the original material.

So is it all you hoped for? Yes. Is it a worthy sequel? Yes. Does it set up yet more stories? Of course it does. Should you see it on big screen? You bet your red-clad ass. In fact, you may have to see it more than once to catch all the references. Deadpool is the perfect pallet cleanser for the avalanche of serious super hero stories. It reminds us you can have fun and carnage and even a certain amount of intelligence while it is all going on.

 Deadpool 2

Mute

[3 stars]

Mute is not a feel-good romp nor even what could be termed a fun distraction. Its roots are in films like Blade Runner, but without the history to support it. However, it has its own sort of magnetic pull thanks to director and co-writer Duncan Jones’s (Warcraft) efforts in this noirish confection.

The film unfolds at Jones’s typical laconic, but compelling, pace. The story and genre aspects aren’t entirely right, but it is consistent in its approach which allows it to work. And Jones’s nod to his previous release, Moon, is both subtle and amusing… it took me a few minutes to even realize what I’d just seen. Nods like that, which also fit into the world that has been built, you have to respect.

Most dystopian stories are about overthrowing the status quo so that sanity and justice can reign. Not this tale. This dark story is small and intimate against the background of the greater darkness of a totally screwed-up world that looks all-to-familiar. Mute also takes time weaving its its multi-threaded story into whole cloth. And then it heads down a corridor that almost ends on one of the darkest moments I’ve witnessed (we’re talking Oldboy dark). Fortunately it goes beyond that to get to someplace more palatable, but still not what one would really call happy.

The main dance is between a near silent Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend of Tarzan) and a hyper-juiced Paul Rudd (The Fundamentals of Caring). Their paths intersect over and over, eventually pulling them into the same story. Around these two are a bevy of odd characters. Justin Theroux (The Girl on the Train) as Rudd’s sidekick is creepy if not entirely believable. And Robert Sheehan (Geostorm) gets to totally tear it up with his outlandish character, but still manages to give him a bit of heart. Just a bit. I was also surprised to spot Dominic Monaghan (The Day) and Noel Clarke (Star Trek Into Darkness) in a couple of smaller and nastier roles.

This movie had a long road to screen. That it landed on the little screen rather than the large is probably for the best. While it has visual scope, it definitely would have had a narrow audience appeal. However, the restrictions of theatrical release may have also forced Jones to tighten up his final cut a bit as well; sort of a dual sword. The story-telling and conceits of the result, particularly the unique blending of cultures he works with, make this an interesting couple hours. Just don’t go in depressed or angry as this will only feed that spiral.

I enjoy Jones’s willingness to try new things and difficult story lines, and to tell them at his own pace. His opus definitely isn’t for everyone, but there is a talent there that is still developing and one worth watching. He got great a great performance out of Skarsgård and took Rudd some places I’ve not seen him do…and even managed to guide him to just enough humanity to pay off the plot. If you like Jones’s previous work, you should give this your time. If you haven’t yet discovered Jones, you can try this, but you might want to start with Moon and decide if his style jibes with yours first.

Mute

Avengers: Infinity War

[4 stars]

Just: Holy S*%#!

If you were ever worried that Marvel was over taking risks or didn’t have a game plan, this should settle it for you. But avoid all information before you go, if you can. The chance for spoilers is just too high.

We’ve seen all these folks before (me, very recently having rewatched it all)  so I’m not going to take up 1000s of pixels to list the actors and characters.

However, Josh Brolin’s (No Country for Old Men) Thanos does deserve to be mentioned. He, with the help of Makus and McFeely’s script, created a complex villain who, believably, doesn’t think of himself that way. He’s still totally nuts, but what a nice surprise in a world where things are too often black and white to help make it easy on audiences.

I have no idea if this is the film that was planned 10 years ago, but it certainly brings it all together. And in the first five minutes you’ll know you’re into something different. I also have to admit, some of the CG is really subpar (at least on IMAX), which was surprising.

What comes next as Phase Three heads to its final conclusion? Well, I have my guesses…and I’m sure you will too. Thankfully it is only year off till we find out if we’re right (and with a couple films to fill that gap in between).

Avengers: Infinity War

A Quiet Place

[3.5 stars]

A tight, post-apocalyptic family drama, told with real skill. From the beginning, you are made aware that while the story is familiar, the rules you know may not apply. It is also a beautifully appointed tale of deaf child coming into her own in a world of imposed silence, which makes for some great, if never spoken, contrasts.

The danger of this film was really with writer, director, and one of the three main actors, John Krasinski (The Hollars). That is a lot of hats to wear and not screw something up. As you might have guessed, he didn’t. He builds a level of tension through scenes that few other directors have pulled off without cheap tricks. This is very important as some of the key moments you’ll see coming, but the editing and performances will keep you gripping your armrest. And, sure, you’ll recognize some of the moments and where he learned them from, but this world is very much his own. I was so involved with the story on screen that it was only afterwards that the echos came to the surface for me.

The story is entirely about Krasinski’s small family trying to survive together in a near-impossible situation. With Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) as his wife, she again proves her mettle on screen. It may not be her kick-ass warrior from Edge of Tomorrow, but she brings the energy and determination. Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck), on the other hand, brings the tragedy and strength that you would have normally expected one of the adult actors to take on. It is a complicated role that succeeds enough for its purpose. It will be interesting to see how her career progresses. The last main cast member I expected a bit more subtlety from given his turn in Wonder, but Noah Jupe’s tackling of the family’s son was a bit ham-handed for me at times. Honestly, that was Krasinski’s mistake more than Jupe’s, but it stood out for me amidst the other more contained performances.

All that said, this taut, 90 minute science-fictionesque/family/horror/drama is really fun and worth your time to see with an audience. When the whole room gets tense and groans and jumps with you, the experience is heightened even more. And while there are certainly brief moments of contained gore, it is really more all about the tension and release.

Ready Player One

[3 stars]

While Ready Player One is a fun romp while you watch it, it isn’t a great movie; it missed being the brilliant classic it should have been.

Like many of the gamers in the Oasis, it hovers at the edges of greatness, but never manages to cross the finish line. There are certainly casting and script reasons for this, but primarily the fault lies with Spielberg’s (The Post) direction. What he delivered feels something like The Wizard of Oz meets Tron (with a bit of Zardoz thrown in) for High Schoolers. But let’s start with the good.

Production-wise, the creative team really got it. Even forgetting the lack of tech advancement they envisioned at points, they created wonderful interfaces and a good sense of an immersive game world. The VR sequences are imaginative and absorbing. See it on a big screen to really get the full effect and appreciate the richness and complexity of the view.

Another great part of the fun in this popcorn flick is that Spielberg manages to make more bald references to other movies than any other film I can remember (barring satires like Scary Movie that do it to make fun of the source). There were constant groans and laughs of joy at recognizing the references. I won’t spoil any here as, honestly, they are about the best part of the film. Now, whether those references were appropriate for a story that takes place in 2045 is a different question.

Despite these pluses, action, and visual candy, the movie just ends up sitting there on screen.

Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse) is a large part of the reason for that lack of life. He just isn’t up to the task of carrying a major motion picture, though Olivia Cooke (The Limehouse Golem) does her level-best to help him through it and support him. She sparkles on screen. But you just can’t connect to the characters or story. Sure, we want the crazy kids to recognize their totally obvious and middle-America attraction to one another as two healthy, white, young folk (talk about unbrave choices given the possibilities that are even discussed at several points). There are also some great one liners and moments by T.J. Miller (Deadpool) and Lena Waithe (Master of None) but neither gets a plotline or payoff. Ultimately, we don’t really care all that much who lives or dies or who gets together or not. Heck, even Sheridan doesn’t seem to care who lives or dies; he doesn’t carry the weight of any action that occurs to or around him in the tale as it progresses.

Even the bad guys, Ben Mendelsohn (Una) and Hannah John-Kamen (The Tunnel), don’t raise a burning need in the audience to wipe them out. Why? First, because we’re always sure who will win, but second because there is no gray. Our bad guys are just bad and their storylines are just absurd. C’mon, John-Kamen’s character is named F’Nale. Seriously? Only Cameron’s unobtanium was sillier. If you’re going to go for that kind of tongue-in-cheek, then you have to do it across the board, not just in spots.

The truth is that most of these gaps in acting are really more how they were directed. In trying to make a 4-quadrant film, Spielberg blew it, however sacrilegious that may be to say. The result was something that aimed broadly intellectually, but was emotionally targeted squarely at the 12-17 year old bracket. The real-world sequences are as distant and unbelievable as the VR sequences are wonderfully fantastic. It is an issue Spielberg often has (A.I. comes to mind as a comparable tale in scope and maturity). Spielberg, when aiming at a younger audience, never quite lets you in to connect with anyone. He likes to keep it all “safe.” And the ending sequences in the real world of Ready Player One just fall apart, being both unbelievable, too easy, and just plain, well, stupid.

Part of the problem was the script by Penn (Alphas) and source book author Cline. It shortcuts a lot of the plot and forces relationships and situations in very unnuanced ways. That approach played into Spielberg’s hands and weaknesses. He loves evoking that sense of the 50s in modern garb, trying for a storybook feel that offends no one but, at this point, also illuminates nothing. We’re past the days of E.T. and Close Encounters feeling real; show us less than truth and reality and our bullshit meters goes off. Life is messier and we know that. We may crave simplicity, but it needs to be a believable simplicity.

Spielberg, even misdirected the brilliant Mark Rylance (The BFG) and Simon Pegg (Ice Age: Collision Course), allowing them to be put in makeup and costumes that made them look ridiculous. The intent was to bring out the nerd in the nostalgia, but they just never came across a bit as believable or natural. They felt like clowns, neither smart enough nor adept enough to have built the empire that included the Oasis.

Ready Player One is a reasonable distraction. There have been many adaptations of video games to screen, most of which have been middling at best. The recent Tomb Raider was only the latest in a long line. We’ve also been assaulted by adaptations of books since the beginning of film to varying degrees of success; for me, that was most recently Love, Simon. This is, however, one of the few times I can remember an adaptation of a book about a fictitious video game. Talk about going completely meta. Only Jumanji (which was a way better movie) comes to mind, but that was a picture book, not an adult novel.

Ready Player One is certainly a big screen film, so if you do want to see it, you really do have to see it at the theater. But, as a story, it will not stand the test of time. For many, I suspect it will not stand the test of its 2.5 hours as anything other than as a short-lived amusement. You can see the possibilities in the result and you’ll enjoy the cultural insider jokes that glue it all together, but you’ll leave it empty and unfulfilled, or perhaps filling in the missing aspects mentally for yourself to prop it up. The more I thought about the film as I walked away, the more disappointed I became with it. That was not the experience I had hoped for, nor the experience I had expected from such a master filmmaker. At one point, all I could think was that I wished Spielberg’s good friend Kubrik had still been alive to take this one on. He would have the balls to keep it real and dark while still entertaining. As it is, Ready Player One needs some Extra Life of its own to succeed.

Ready Player One