Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Brave New World

[4 stars]

In a year with Watchmen, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, and Lovecraft Country, or even the competing War of the Worlds series (classic and reconceived), it’s easy to understand how this adaptation has been utterly missed. The fact that it’s buried on Peacock (literally, as it’s already been cancelled) probably hasn’t helped either.

The reality is that this story was always a dark mirror for society and, given how dark reality currently is, it was going to struggle this season. I give the creators and Peacock credit for cleaving to the book so closely in feel and intent, even when it veers off widely from the original. But its timing was probably way off for most people. Even though the story is ultimately a triumph for individualism and freedom, it’s a view of the world that isn’t fun to live through.

The cast, however, keep it all engaging. Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) plays a solid John the Savage to Jessica Brown Findlay (Victor Frankenstein) and Harry Lloyd’s (The Hollow Crown) privileged, if fraught, existence. And Demi Moore provides some nice flourishes as John’s mother.

Along with the main cast, Hannah John-Kamen (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Nina Sosanya (Staged) add some nice strong rolls. And Joseph Morgan (Immortals) has a quiet but intense hand in the plot evolution. But, while there are many male roles, this series is really dominated by the female performances.

Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World was published in 1932, pre-dating Orwell’s better remembered 1984. Both tackle many of the same issues even if orthogonally from each other. Which only tells you how little changes in politics and society. It’s an interesting mirror for the story’s resurrection that we are in the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression and drowning in both information and electronic oversight. But I will say that that the story was nicely tweaked to better match the trajectory of society and technology without abandoning the book and its intention.

It may be a dark road to ramble, but this incarnation of Brave New World is fascinating and well-done. And even though it is set up for a never-to-appear second season, it manages to stand on its own as is. Timing could have been better, but they delivered a solid mini-series, and certainly the best adaptation of the book to date.

Sputnik

[3.5 stars]

Titles are important. They can illuminate, entertain, or confuse. It’s important that, in this case, you go in knowing that Sputnik doesn’t refer to the infamous satellite, but to its translation: travelling companion.  It’s especially important as the story is set in 1983, suggesting an historical context, and because it starts in space, further confusing things. So dump all that baggage and go with the movie as it is, which is really quite good.

The movie is the solid expansion of an award winning short (The Passenger) by the triumvirate of director Egor Abramenko, and writers Oleg Malovichko, and Andrey Zolotarev. The three have all worked together for years.

The cast is quite small and is dominated by just a few performances. It’s primarily driven by Oksana Akinshina, who packs multiple layers underneath an adamantine exterior. Her performance bounces off the solid deliveries and reflections of Fedor Bondarchuk and Pyotr Fyodorov to create a movie that rises above its genre.

At its core, this is really just another space creature feature. But it is adorned with more than the typical human elements and clever consideration of the science. It isn’t perfect, but this one is definitely a step above similar tales. If you like suspense/horror/scifi offerings at all, make the time for this one. It will surprise you and is even worthy of rewatch.

Keep an eye on what comes next from the creative team. They work well together and clearly put the effort into their films to make them something special.

Sputnik Poster

Raised by Wolves

[3 stars]

Real science fiction is hard to come by. And, frustratingly, for all the solid bits and excellent start to this series, the writing ultimately makes some cheap choices and unforgivable mistakes in logic that takes this challenging bit of story and diminishes it.

So let me slap this around for a  couple moments before I move on to the faint praises. For instance, would a high tech world, which shows a propensity for complete body scans, rely only on ID cards and visual confirmations rather than DNA for their approvals? Or, how does a kid raised away from Earth acquire an accent. Any accent? Silly stuff like that could have been easily avoided, but they’re typical mistakes made by lesser writing in the genre. And then there’s the overall arc, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Now on to what’s good. The opening two episodes of this story are jaw-dropping. While riffing on several known plots like Battlestar Galactica, Brave New World, and any apocalyptic tale of Earth, it manages to build out some unique aspects. And it is quickly obvious there is a much larger story that may not take the path you think. All great things. In fact, it sets up some truly unique approaches to some standard problems… and then sacrifices them all for all the obvious paths. I picked out every major plot point early on and, while there were some misdirects, ultimately had them prove out. I don’t say this as a brag…but as a lambast. I shouldn’t have been right. At least not on all of it.

If creator Aaron Guzikowski (Papillon) was going to create a tale of restarting civilization, why riff on and recreate or make manifest everything in Western society again? Especially when he’s so brilliantly wiped the slate clean? How much of the paths taken were at the urging of Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant), who directed the opening episodes and produced the series along with his son, Luke Scott (Morgan), I can’t say. But the issues I have are echos of many of Ridley’s stories of the past decade.

OK, that said, there is some strong acting to prop it all up. Amanda Collin as Mother and Abubakar Salim (Strike) as Father take on difficult challenges well. Even Winta McGrath, playing young Campion, brings some nice credibility (if also his improbable accent). So too do Felix Jamieson’s (Summer of Rockets) Paul and the complicated Jordan Loughran’s (Emerald City) Tempest.

However, Paul’s “parents” don’t fare as well. Niamh Algar is written with very confusing choices and slippery, plot-necessitated motives. And Travis Fimmel (Warcraft) is just completely miscast. He’s so over-the-top as to be distracting and not particularly credible for his path. Someone more like Jason Isaacs would have been better. What was needed was a strong, but damaged, intellect with the capacity for unexpected violence. A crazy man, however he gets there, just gets boring.

But what burns me the most about this opening season is the lack of answers and the number of cliff-hangers after 10 episodes. Frankly, it’s unforgivable to pay off nothing. It’s a desperate plea to get a series two, which I’m sure it will get, but I’d think twice about committing to the next round given the finale of this first. Basically, the series takes an interesting idea, chickens out in almost every respect, and refocuses on a more palatable, standard direction…and then doesn’t even have the balls to admit it with at least some resolutions.

Yes, I’m a bit conflicted. The production design and values are top notch. Some of the ideas are wonderful. Even some of the moments and writing are solid. But, in my opinion, the overall impact was so much less than it could have been with braver choices. Your mileage may vary.

Raised by Wolves Poster

The new (early) Fall batch

A smattering of new shows kicked off the Fall season, or bridged the late Summer into Fall. It was a mixed bag, as you’d expect. There are more to come, but these led the pack and have, in at least one case, already met their fate.

Transplant
Surprisingly, even with a glut of medical dramas, this Toronto based tale has found a new formula and a set of timely subjects. By focusing the story on a Syrian doctor trying to get recertified in Canada while supporting his family and getting over PTSD, we have a new kind of perspective. It also allows for a number of layered tales of discrimination and issues for immigrants and the poor. Of course, because it is based in Canada, the hospital workings feel a little odd. And, to be honest, the writing isn’t always great when it comes to the medical emergencies, but they manage to pull it off. And the opening of the show is definitely hell of a kick-off.

Next
This one keeps barely holding on to me, though I’m pretty sure I’ll be dropping it soon. For every aspect of AI they get right, they get others wrong or make the characters do something stupid to allow the plot to work they way they want it to happen rather than finding a more elegant, natural solution. Frustrating. The story is a riff on Person of Interest combined with Emergence. Despite some of the writing challenges, the acting is actually pretty good. However, it has been cancelled at the end of its freshman run, so we may never know what it might have become.

Pandora (series 2)
Talk about a complete retcon. The first season of Pandora was a poor-man’s Trek substitute. But as a summer filler it was watchable in a kitschy sort of way…barely. But the end of the first round was so bad I almost didn’t come back. However, I decided to see how they’d write themselves out of their bad choices. The answer: completely rewrite and reconceiving of the show. The writing is still weak and the acting marginal, though a tad improved. I may give it a bit more time given the dearth of new shows this pandemic year, but so far I can’t see a reason to stick with it.

Transplant Poster NEXT Poster Pandora Poster

Save Yourselves!

[3 stars]

Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson’s first feature is a silly romp that, till the end, manages to stay surprising and fresh. It isn’t a new story, nor even a new way to tell the story, but their cast’s slightly abrasive-but-loving relationship makes it work. And their down-to-earth humor keeps it all rolling along.

The oddly matched Sunita Mani (Mr. Robot) and John Reynolds (Stranger Things) work well together, keeping a delightful and playful tension alive through the story. It’s thanks to them, and the light touch of the directors keeping the humor constrained, that movie works at all.

What  Fischer and Wilson didn’t manage to do, however, was provide a complete story. Instead, we have a delightfully long skit that falls apart as it rushes to an end in the final moments. And then…well, there is a pseudo-intellectual wrap-up that explains nothing, comments on little, and leaves our main characters hanging. It borders on a commentary, but because it is so literal and with no clear intent it doesn’t feel like we even got to the punchline of a long joke.

The ride is still fun. And perhaps you’ll glean more from that ending than I did. It’s still an impressive showing in a challenging and overdone genre. Enough so that I’ll be watching to see what any of the four are part of next to see what more they can do.

Utopia (2020)

[3.5 stars]

When Gillian Flynn (Widows) announced she was going to tackle the remake of this UK, well if not classic, certainly watershed, I was dubious. Even more so when she asserted she was going to focus more on the dark emotions and avoid the pervasive violence of it all. To be clear, what she has done, and done well, is not toned down the violence so much as gotten creative with its portrayal; there is less in-your-face splatter and more moments of unseen or cleverly filmed action. In other words, this is still exceedingly dark and violent, which it needs to be. But there is also some nice, if not complete, character work.

This remake starts off very much along the same thread as its inspiration. So much so that I was frankly getting a little impatient, even with the different approach. And then it took a hard left turn at the end of the second episode and I was hooked.

Certainly the cast is a good one. Sasha Lane (Hellboy) builds on her varied career as a borderline sociopath in search of her father. And Christopher Denham (Fast Color) expands as an actual sociopath on her heels. But around them are a slew of recognizable faces and performances. From John Cusack (Singularity) and Rainn Wilson (The Boy) at one end of the experience spectrum to Desmin Borges, Dan Byrd (Cougar Town), Ashleigh LaThrop, and Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton at the other. And plenty of other faces show up as well, like Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day 2U) and Camryn Manheim (Cop Car).

But Flynn is a dispassionate writer, willing to go very dark places without compunction, but not very good at building sympathy. I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters beyond sympathizing with their shock. Only Denham and the two youngest characters, Farrah Mackenzie and Walton, really had me in sync with them. I didn’t have a similar challenge with the UK version. I think this is something to do with the scripts and assumptions made by Flynn about how deeply or demonstrative the characters needed to be to bring us on board. It probably wasn’t helped by American-style casting, which tends toward less real looking people in favor of pretty.

All that said, the show has some interesting reconceptions and some odd accelerations as compared to the UK plot. The ending is rather rushed and, frustratingly, rather wide open (not to mention a bit absurd in many ways). But I was left curious…which is what they wanted to do. I’d go back to see if they can actually build on the first series. But, it’s also worth noting that for a lot of the viewing public, this is either a show dead-on for the times or far too close to the bone for many people to watch. Also some of the messaging is a bit off for what we need now…so there’s that.

Here’s the thing: If you’ve never seen the original UK version of this story, I still highly recommend it. Like Misfits and other dark and unexpected tales of their times, they were blazing new trails in storytelling for television. They were doing it in style and with a clear sense of violating norms (that have admittedly become more the norm due to their success). Give this version a shot as well, but be prepared for some very un-American plot choices and a story that may ultimately infuriate rather than entertain, despite a few amazing performances (or perhaps because of them). I’m definitely curious to see if they can fully win me over in a second series by building on what they did in the first, and taking into account the world now as it has changed (our real world, that is).

Utopia Poster Utopia Poster

A few misses…

Like many, I’m finding myself casting about for things to watch. And now, more than ever, I’m seeking out things at the fringes looking for something new and unique. In some cases I’ve been lucky: Palm Springs, Precarious, See You Yesterday, The Vast of Night.

But to find those, I had to watch many others, and not all measured up. Here are a few of my recent misses. I want to be clear, I respect all of their creators and efforts, but they each failed for me for different reasons.

Making Time
This is another in the many tales of time looping relationship tales. It was the first film I tried the night I found the much superior Time Freak. I made it about 25 minutes into this very low-budget indie before bailing. It was clearly tongue-in-cheek, but it also failed to find solid footing that I could believe in. After 20 minutes, I still didn’t care a whit about the main character or his predicament. The main government characters were being played to be absurd rather than at all threatening or supportive. The romance at the crux of it all just wasn’t believable. There is some talent in the film making, but I wasn’t about to make any more time for it myself. 

Space Captain: Captain of Space!
This is a great joke of a film…for about 15 – 20 minutes. Honestly, it is. But a whole feature of low-budget, Flash Gordon satire? No, sorry, it just doesn’t sustain. At least not for me. Definitely give it a go if you enjoy the silly. They knew what they had, they did a fabulous job of picking up the sense and sensibility of the era, and found a look and feel that was just perfect. But, like many an SNL skit, it just had nowhere to go, but insists on continuing regardless. I bailed out, but I wasn’t sorry I tuned in for at least a chunk of it.

The Barrier
There are some good ideas in The Barrier. Not great ones as they’re all pretty tired now, but some good ones. And Netflix, who premiered it, is smartly doling out this post-pandemic, grim dystopia weekly. I think binging it would cause mental harm with today’s situation. But the real challenge for me is that it’s really a telenovela at heart. It starts more subtle, but by the end of the first episode it is so arch and obvious I just couldn’t return. This is really a matter of taste and need rather than a comment on quality. So if you like that kind of serial, give it a shot. I just had to run away.

 

Time Freak

[4 stars]

Romance, comedy, and time travel, especially when wrapped in honesty and told with some intelligence, is a triumverate always guaranteed to grab my attention. Unlike the recent Palm Springs, the character intent here is deliberate, but they both deliver the story in a similar way that let’s you connect with it immediately and get on board for the ride.

The story, despite its scope, is really driven by just three characters. Asa Butterfield (Slaughterhouse Rulez) and Sophie Turner (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) are the romantic crux of the story. And while that may sound like an odd combo, it’s supposed to be. And yet the two have a believable chemistry between them. More surprisingly, it comes mostly from Turner’s performance, which is the best I’ve seen her do. I actually believed her completely, something all of her previous performances have lacked for me. Butterfield is playing into his strengths in this film, but does so with heartfelt earnestness that wins you over.

While the main couple certainly carries the story forward and keeps it focused, Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet) adds the final element that makes it all work: comic relief and, often, common sense. This is especially amusing as he’s a complete screw-up. This isn’t the basis for comedy I usually enjoy, but it works here due to its restraint and evolution. Even Will Peltz’s (In Time) side character, as extreme as he takes it, manages to find ground often enough to add to the depth of the tale rather than distract from it.

Writer/director Andrew Bowler expanded his Oscar nominated short into this truly delightful and funny exploration of life, love, and relationships. The cleverly written script spends the first third in familiar territory. And, honestly, even if it hadn’t expanded on that, I would have enjoyed the movie thanks to his control of the performances and pace. But it is Bowler’s willingness to try to explore the characters and plot more deeply that makes this particular run at the sub-genre something worth seeing.

When you need something enjoyable and not entirely devoid of logic and intelligence, queue this one up. You won’t be sorry.

Underwater

[2.75 stars]

From three minutes into this movie it’s just a suspense run. Not a particularly surprising one, but fairly well engineered to keep you on the edge. Of course, that’s often mucked up by the challenge of figuring out who’s in trouble when and where since so much of the time they’re in heavy gear, but that’s a different aspect to discuss.

Certainly, at least, Kristen Stewart (Charlie’s Angels) provides a relatively strong lead. She’s even somewhat believable as the mechanical engineer “sciencing the shit” out of stuff to survive. OK, really more Macgivering it, but you get the idea. The others… well, you do have to wonder why the hell the company even allowed them on their multi-billion dollar rig in the first place. I couldn’t figure out their value-add or purpose even by the end of the movie.

Her colleagues are a diversity panel’s dream, for no particular reason. They all do fine with what they have, but what they have isn’t a lot. Vincent Cassel (Jason Bourne), Mamoudou Athie (The Front Runner), Jessica Henwick (Iron Fist), and even the cypherish John Gallagher Jr. (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) create characters with some depth and sympathy, if not credibility. Only TJ Miller (Deadpool) is less than a complete person, serving entirely for comic relief that feels very out of place and makes him seem a fool.

Basically, this is a bit of Abyss meets Cloverfield meets Alien meets, oh, figure it out for yourself if you dare. It’s a 90 minute romp with a  lot of fun effects, some good scares, and an absurdly thin plot. Director William Eubank (The Signal) didn’t really bring what talent of his I’ve seen before, other than the pacing. And the script by Brian Duffield (Insurgent) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) just didn’t hold together well. But it may be enough to get you through.

And, yes, my rating is splitting a lot of hairs, but I just couldn’t live with giving it three stars given all the plot and other issues. What I will say, however, is that it’s certainly a story of heroism and drive; for that it got to survive. And the “Live Bunny Montage” on the extras is definitely worth the viewing after the flick.

Away

[3.5 stars]

Movies of all types have been trying to capture the challenge of space travel for years… and, for some reason, even moreso in the last few years. From Passengers, to First Man, to Ad Astra, or even Aniara, they all run into the same challenge: being in space may be pretty, but it’s boring. This is what Dark Star tackled decades ago, though with a great deal more tongue-in-cheek. This isn’t to say that these movies were bad or boring, but that they manufactured tension to embrace and carry that basic reality. And only Aniara comes at all close to the truth, though aspects of the others include it.

With that as prologue, consider Away. There is a lot about its science that is, let’s just say creative, but they try to capture that trapped sensibility and the challenge of the time of flight. The result is mixed and just a tad soapy. Even with some really good performances carrying it along, and some nicely mirrored plots Earth-side and on board the ship, it all feels forced and improbable in the results. Which doesn’t make it bad, just not particularly accurate much of the time. For instance, even an international coalition is going to be sure that the crew all get along and are solidly stable, because they want it to succeed.

In between tense, potential disasters that are manufactured each week, the story revolves around several relationships. Primarily  it is around Hilary Swank (I Am Mother) and her husband, played nicely by Josh Charles (Freeheld). In a world of entertainment where married couple stories are about marriages at odds, this is a supportive relationship that is strained by their very concerns for each other. Their daughter provides a young-love perspective as well, which Talitha Eliana Bateman (Geostorm) and Adam Irigoyen (The Last Ship) navigate to varying degrees of credibility.

The rest of the crew have both inter-personal challenges and revelations of their past. Vivian Wu, Ray Panthaki (Colette), Ato Essandoh (Tales from the Loop), and Mark Ivanir each get their moments and without whom the rest would have been boring.

But ultimately the real question is: Is it worth taking the journey with Away? And, generally, I’m going to say, yes. Even with the “adjusted” science and forced events, it’s a tense, but entertaining 10 episodes delivered by a talented cast and some unexpected maturity in the relationships. And it is a rare, solid example of near-term science fiction. It also definitely feels like something new and different, and it can stand on its own or go forward. Frankly, I kinda hope they will leave it as a stand-alone event series and not try carry the story any further. It made its point and can only get repetitive or become pale reflections of other shows and movies that have come before. If they chose to leap forward a number of years, there are possibilities, but I’m not sure what it planned.