Tag Archives: Science Fiction

The Darkest Minds

[3 stars]

I have to admit, this movie was a good deal better than I expected given how badly it bombed at the box office. That doesn’t mean it’s great, but it was watchable…with occasional moments of yelling at the screen for dumb story choices. I’ll get back to the writing, but better first to compliment the cast who shouldn’t be overlooked for the weaknesses in the production.

Amandla Stenberg, who got her first big break as Rue in The Hunger Games, leads the cast of young actors through this latest hellish landscape of a dystopian future. She does so with a good deal of charisma and a nice emotional journey. Along with her companions, Harris Dickinson (Trust), Skylan Brooks (The Get Down), and Miya Cech, they battle their way to a potential future. And, of course, there’s the only slightly veiled, slightly creepy (and much toned down from book) Patrick Gibson (The OA) who joins them along the way.

The young cast hang onto control of the movie well, even when there are much more practiced adult actors sharing the stage with them. Among those, Mandy Moore (47 Meters Down), Gwendoline Christie (Top of the Lake: China Girl), and Wade Williams are the ones that pop. And then, of course, there is the amusing West Wing revenge of Bradley Whitford (The Post) who finally gets to sit in the President’s chair for this one.

Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda) managed her cast and the material she had well. But that is the problem, the material, which is solidly tween/teen in its maturity.

So, now back to the story itself.

Writer Chad Hodge (Wayward Pines) delivered a very un-adult script. Why things happen and how the world deals with them are lensed through the mind of a teen, with a teen’s understanding of how the world works. I’m not talking about perspective of the film, I’m talking about the writer and the amount of thought and research he put into their plot. If I’d known it was Hodge behind the keyboard going in I’d have been less surprised.

Dystopian stories are currently all the rage, but they are all riding the coattails of The Hunger Games. Hunger Games didn’t create YA dystopias, but it certainly set the expectation bar for how much money could be made by turning them into movies. The problem is, the studios have never understood why that movie took off and others (The Host, Divergent, Maze Runner, etc.) never really did.

Certainly there was a difference in the quality of the writing and, in some cases, the quality of the casting and/or directing. But really the answer is much simpler. Hunger Games, for all its futuristic framework, looks like this world and acts (mostly) like this world, and included adult thinking in its plot choices. It also took an important lesson from the Harry Potter series.

People who don’t read a great deal of science fiction or fantasy are not comfortable in thoroughly made-up worlds they are unfamiliar with. Hunger Games, like Potter, slowly acclimated a generation of readers into its world. Potter spent more than the first half of the first book in an English town and then only slowly opened the world around Hogwarts over the next 2 books. By the time they got there, most readers were completely unaware of the journey they’d taken and were willing to accept all amount of strangeness, because now it was familiar. Hunger Games managed a similar, if a bit more rapid, immersion.

Darkest Minds is a familiar world, but almost immediately has people with powers, which jumps the credibility line for a good deal of the viewing public. They’ll buy into it, but in fewer numbers and with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek nodding. It’s a shame, really, as almost all fiction these days is really genre based…Michael Crichton started that trend in spades decades back. But if the world is familiar enough to start, you can get an audience to go with you. This movie leaps too quickly into the weird and different to bring a large audience with it.

If you’re looking for distraction and some reasonable performances from up and coming young adults, it isn’t a bad afternoon. Certainly it is no more than a popcorn flick with grand intentions that are never achieved. Reaching for franchise had it stumbling. They should have gone for a standalone and hoped for the chance to take it further. The meat of a story was in there. The script let it down.

The Darkest Minds

The Titan

[3 stars]

Back in 1976 Frederik Pohl wrote the classic Man Plus.  Though unacknowledged (perhaps even unaware), The Titan leans heavily on this earlier tale. But while the film is engaging for the majority of the story, it ultimately loses its thread. So, if you like the idea, read Man Plus for a better sense of follow-through and completeness. But that is the fault of the script, not the cast who try to elevate the results admirably.

Sam Worthington (Hacksaw Ridge) is certainly the focus of a lot of the movie, but this is really more Taylor Schilling’s (Orange is the New Black) story. Add in Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) and you have a nice atomic family from which to fission. The family also get some solid time to set up their relationships before the inevitable.

A couple of other performances worth calling out are Nathalie Emmanuel (Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials) and Diego Boneta (Before I Fall) as additional volunteers for the experiments. Neither gets to fully realize their stories, but each tries to fill out their characters with more than your usual depth for this kind of film.

Running the program are Tom Wilkinson (Denial) and Agyness Deyn (Hard Sun).Both try to overcome their weak scripts, but only so much could be done. Wilkinson especially gets short-shrift thanks to the clumsy final third of the story. Up till then he was a driven man, trying to do well by humanity against horrible odds and near-despicable means. But he ends up being devolved into a pointless villain.

For a first feature, Lennart Ruff does a good job focusing the story on his initial intent: what do these changes mean to Worthington and his family. There are some clever visuals and nice moments to establish the story and the relationships, even if the production design feels off for the world he created and the science is, at best, wishful and often absurd. However, despite the nice emotional arc that Ruff builds, the last third of the film devolves into truly bad sf and action/horror. Also, the ending is forced, confusing, and unsatisfying thanks to losing track of their original point for the plot.

However, more important to recognize is that the film feels more like a book than a movie, especially in its pacing. I can enjoy that when it is done well, but this just felt like a clumsy but true adaptation, though again no acknowledgement of a prior work was made. This flick really did need to be more of a movie.

I will admit that I thought I knew where they would go, which may have been a bit derivative as well, but would have been more satisfying and more on point for the purpose of the Titan project. But I was wrong, for better or worse.

If you like near-term science fiction (even though this defies the likely possibilities) give this a shot. The effort is there even if the control isn’t. How you react to the finale will depend a lot on your own likes and dislikes. It certainly isn’t off from a lot out there, but it had real potential to exceed the common drivel and squandered it.

Venom

[3 stars]

Bottom line: It’s not bad, but it’s so not Marvel Studios.

When Sony last attempted to bring Venom to screen it was one of Sam Rami’s misfires: Spider-Man 3.  Their record hasn’t been the best with this universe from there forward (Spider-Man: Homecoming is really a Marvel film, so that doesn’t count). So, needless to say, I went into this movie with concerns but with an open mind and hope. There are some good aspects to what they delivered, but overall it is full of short cuts, almost unwatchable fight scenes (especially on IMAX), and comic-book logic full of science and plot holes, not to mention bad character choices. At only about 90 minutes of story (and 18 of credits) they didn’t take the time the story deserved. Entertaining? Sure, but not brilliant.

Despite this being a tent-pole flick, the entire movie spins around only three characters. Tom Hardy (The Revenant) toplines. He brings an interesting aspect to Eddie, but he isn’t very credible as a star investigative reporter. There is something just a bit dim about Hardy’s portrayal and the story has him just a bit too reckless to have gotten to such a height in his career.

Michelle Williams (I Feel Pretty) character holds her own better and has a bit more built in to make us respect her. Is she tough and judgmental? Yes, but with cause and she is anything but dumb.

On the other side of the coin is Riz Ahmed (Una), who presents a particular kind of sociopath impressively. He is a chameleon at the edge of social norms and, at this point in his life, often unconcerned about wearing his mask of normality. It isn’t a mustache twirling lord of evil, but he does borderline the geography. And, of course, it becomes a heavy-handed metaphor for the story.

A few smaller roles add to the mix, in particular Jenny Slate (Gifted). And, of course, there is the small cameo of Wood Harrelson (Shock and Awe) to hint at things to come. For the sharp eye, there is also Michelle Lee (Altered Carbon) floating around for a while.

Primarily used to TV, director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) has had mixed success on the big screen. Despite its record opening, I don’t think this is setting him apart. The script, though co-written by the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle team, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, along with Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), doesn’t really capitalize on any of their talents fully and devolves into easy things from the genre rather than breaking new ground or showing us something new. In fact, Venom doesn’t even acknowledge the rest of the MCU…no Spider-man, no Avengers, no aliens and alien tech. It is completely stand-alone and isolated, which just feels weird given Homecoming and the other 17 films that have built out that world.

Sony may have been mostly responsible for the comic-book Renaissance on screen thanks to the Rami trilogy they had the guts and vision to produce, but they’ve yet to learn how to do it well. The fear is that they will drive the Spidey universe into the ground yet again. And, given what they have planned on slate for the next several years, it is almost a guarantee. They are rushing to monetize the success of their partnership with Marvel without understanding why and how what they did with them worked. I will grant them the acting talent in the popcorner, they just have to get better scripts and someone solid to run the franchise with a longer vision.

All that said, this is a 90 minute romp with some good moments and some nice humor. It is far too short for an origin film of this complexity, but if you don’t care about the longevity of the series, it will probably do. I don’t suggest IMAX as it didn’t add much and some of the filming is too tight for the format.

Venom

Singularity

[2 stars]

Just run away. How and why John Cusack (Maps to the Stars) and Carmen  Argenziano (Future World) ended up in this mess is beyond me. The logic and story of Robert Kouba’s first feature film is broken beyond explaining. Even the production design is wrong, though the effects are relatively well executed. The result is a bad Saturday morning movie, not even worth the popcorn you might want to make to carry you through it. Singularity was obviously meant as either a series or pilot, but I can’t say there was anything that would get me back to see what happens next.

Despite the two larger names, Julian Schaffner and Jeannine Wacker are the main focus of this story. They were not well served by Kouba’s script or direction. They also have no chemistry between them at all, which is necessary to pull off the motivations. But on an even larger level, Kouba shows a complete lack of understanding of what the “singularity” is and how it would fall out, turning it instead into a Terminator wannabe rather than a real examination of how it would manifest. Even 2036: Origin Unknown, for all its faults, gets it way better.

And that is enough time spent on this sadly missable attempt at high-concept science fiction/love story/apocalypse. If you venture into it, it isn’t because I didn’t warn you.

The Beyond

[3 stars]

The Beyond is Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull’s  first film. It actually has a bit more going for it than his second outing, 2036: Origin Unknown, but also some particular issues. However, on a craft level it is a fascinating little trip.

So let’s talk a bit about how the story was told first, because that is where this movie is the most intriguing. While the pseudo-documentary approach is a little tired generally, this is the best execution of the idea in the genre I’ve seen since Europa Report. The result is down to two aspects. The first is editing and effects which are both done well. Scenes are presented in short bursts to keep you pulled along, even past some of the weaker moments, while the effects are impressive (unsurprising given his f/x background). The second aspect was the delivery. The actors really hit the right tone, especially Jane Perry (A Hologram for the King) who sold it perfectly.

The main story is reasonably good, if a standard trope in many ways. But the script is full of issues, errors, and contradictions, which was a bit frustrating. There are a number of facts that change from scene to scene as well as leaps of logic. A bit of squinting gets you past it all, but not without some gritted teeth and frustration. Still, it manages to work and go some interesting places. The ending, much like 2036, will either resonate, annoy, or anger depending on your particular mood, patience, and beliefs.

I like that Dulull wants to tackle big ideas and issues. I’m not sure he’s found the best ways to translate those to screen, but the results aren’t unwatchable, just abrupt and rushed. For the execution of the film alone, The Beyond is an interesting presentation. As a first film, it is highly polished and executed; Dulull clearly has ability. But, right now, his plots feel more like written stories put on screen than stories written for the media he’s using. He needs a writing collaborator and some extra eyes to help his talent reach its best delivery, but the talent is definitely there.

Cargo Space is Cold

[2.5 stars]

I wanted so much more than I got out of this movie. There are some interesting ideas in here, but none are entirely new, even in the combination they are put together. There are riffs and nods to all manner of other films from Alien to Event Horizon, not to mention The Matrix and so many others. Which isn’t to say the plots were copied, but the production design and some sequences echo very loudly.

The film does tackle some of its ideas head-on, however, rather than leaving them as a surprise ending. For that I do give it credit. But the writing is very hit and miss. Some aspects of physics and space they nail and then follow it up with a scene or interaction that is a short-cut or blatantly stupid choice. Frustrating.

On the up side, at least this story does try to make a point and make you think. Admittedly not too hard, but at least there is an intention to use science fiction at its best rather than as just trappings for special effects and scares alone. It is just enough to get you through to the end, if you have a mind. But, to be brutally honest, you wouldn’t have lost much never having seen it either.

Cargo

Kin

[2 stars]

Sometimes bad films happen to good casts. This is one of them.

Myles Truitt (Queen Sugar) does an admirable job carrying the film. Jack Reynor (Free Fire) and Zoë Kravitz (Gemini) support him nicely. Dennis Quaid (A Dog’s Purpose ) does well with what he has to work with. Though, honestly, I couldn’t get James Franco’s Future World performance out of my head while watching this variation on his  damaged (and stupid) bad guy. They all try hard to make what is a weak script with lousy plot choices better, but none of them can overcome its inherent weakness.

There are so many ways this movie goes wrong. Some of them are not its fault. There are intentional choices, that I respect, but which were executed poorly. The intent was to make a small, intimate and personal film about family and a kid coming of age in extraordinary circumstances. That shouldn’t have precluded making it more dynamic and interesting, but in this case it did. The pacing is slow and while the stakes are high, the emotions just aren’t there. The other problems were just bad choices and bad writing. And there is lots of both.

To be fair, I really was hoping for something a bit more Attack the Block than Sleight. In the end it was really just a weak prequel to a story we’ll never see. It comes off more as a bad TV pilot rather than a franchise launch. All of that is at the feet of Jonathan and Josh Baker and their writer, Casey, who penned the adaptation of their previous short film, Bag Man. In expanding that small idea into something new, the group made the fatal error of holding back all the interesting ideas till near the end. In trying to make a film about family, despite its trappings, they completely misjudged their opportunities when it came to the story. You aren’t left at the end looking forward to seeing what comes next, you’re wondering why the heck you had to slog through what came before to get left hanging just as it got interesting.

There are moments and short sequences that really show some directing promise from the Bakers; I would definitely give them another chance. Certainly their judgement to take the script they did is suspect, but there is ability there. However, I wouldn’t waste your time on this first outing in theater. If you want to check it out on disc or stream at some point where you can yell to your heart’s content at the characters or simply walk away without guilt, do that instead.

Kin

Quatermass and the Pit

[3.5 stars]

I would have sworn to you that I’d seen this before. But when I got the opportunity to “re-watch” it recently, I discovered I was very wrong. What I had seen was 5 Million Years to Earth. That flick is a condensed, movie-version of this 6-part serial by the same writer, Nigel Kneale. Confusing matters is that 5 Million Years to Earth is also a title that has been used for the series at times through the years.

[As a side note if these titles sound familiar, don’t confuse it with their contemporary, 20 Million Years to Earth, which is a whole different thing and a classic in its own right.]

Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, the show is a victim of its era, but it is also decidedly ahead of it in some ways. In fact, it is rather on point for today’s rise in xenophobia. It’s even brave enough to reuse film from the Blitz as part of its action and message barely ten years after the events. Also, the female assistant,  Christine Finn, who’s voice you might recognize from the original Thunderbirdsis about the most competent of the adults in the room.

Now, it also depicts government types as bullheaded and uneducated… OK perhaps that’s on point for our times as well more than we’d like to admit. However, generally, it was just an easy way out to write the plot, which is more complex and deeper than you’d expect for a 1958 genre classic. And, of course, there are the buckets of tea made by characters when things get dicey.

Adding to the fun and the history of it all is that Quatermass is also a direct pre-cursor to Doctor Who, which would launch 5 years later. Whether in the air or as an influencer, it is an unavoidable comparison. Seeing the bones of what inspired Who was really quite eye opening. The first Doctor even has a lot of the same mannerisms and demeanor as André Morell’s Quatermass, particularly in this sequence of the on-again, off-again show. By the way, his colleague in the plot, Cec Linder, and he both worked in TV and film until they died…these were two solid actors who gave it their all, even in this off-beat BBC offering. 

But the Who link isn’t the reason to make time for the series. Quatermass tackles questions that are still debated today and, unabashedly, suggests some answers. Given the recent discovery of a liquid lake on Mars, perhaps not entirely nutty answers. Yes, it is low-fi in its presentation, but it dose a lot with what it has, often by only inferring what you see. Yes, the plot is pushed along by less than delicate means at times. But it is just as often surprising and is undeniably captivating if you enjoy the genre at all. Make sure you see this rather than being sure you have. It wouldn’t be a waste to rewatch it, but it would certainly be a shame to never have.

Quatermass and the Pit

A-X-L

[2.5 stars]

A dirtbike riding teen with a robot dog, how could this go wrong? Well, many ways. There are some things that go right, but this is a generally forgettable movie with a standard plot aimed at a pre-teen/tween audience.

What they did well was Becky G (Power Rangers), who was actually the sharpest pencil in the box. And, despite how they dressed her, well in control of herself and the situations around her. And the movements of the CGI dog were pretty spot on. Thomas Jane (The Expanse) was also nicely nuanced in a small role, but one with impact. As the capable, but slightly dim and rash lead, Alex Neustaedter (Colony) is OK, but the script did him no favors.

On the other hand, Alex MacNicoll (13 Reasons Why) was just such a stock character it was disappointing. MacNicoll didn’t do poorly with what he had, again the script just didn’t allow him much quarter. Dominic Rains (A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightAgents of SHEILD) didn’t even manage to rise above the script to credibility.

For a first film, Oliver Day held together the pacing and heavy effects issues well. Unfortunately, he also tried to write the script, which he didn’t execute as cleanly. He aimed at too young an audience for the subject matter and situations he wanted to address. Because of that, he glossed how some things work (the military, high security research bases, relationships, etc.). The result feels like an old TV show with a bit more budget and scope, but not much.

It isn’t that I didn’t feel entertained by Day’s result, but you could see the better movie hiding within its skin. Certainly it showed some ability, and for a younger crowd it may suffice for some distraction. Worth it in the theater? Not really…queue it up for a rental down the road.

As a sidenote, this flick will also go down as the movie that broke Global Road’s back. After the failure of Hotel Artemis and and AXL, bankruptcy seems the final destination for the recently formed studio collaboration.

AXL

Anon

[3.5 stars]

Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Good Kill) loves to look at technology and see how it will affect society and the human condition. He has looked at near-term and long-term impacts across his opus. This addition is more along the lines of his earlier Gattaca in sensibility and pacing, though not as well written. Anon ends up more thought experiment than complete world, though it is still quite worth watching.

Clive Owen (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) does a great job internalizing the tech and making it part of his portrayal. Amanda Seyfreid (While We’re Young, Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) plays the femme fatale well, but it isn’t a huge leap from her creepy turn as Chloe. The two have an interesting dance, but one of the intriguing ideas of the movie is that no one really connects, despite the complete transparency of their lives.

Even without deep emotional entanglements, the movie keeps you engaged, and the world and inside view of it are thought through nicely. The plot, however, has some holes in logic and action that did give me pause. And the full impact upon the human ability to remember and interrogate information wasn’t fully explored. It does brush up against questions of memory, evoking other recent movies like Nostalgia or Marjorie Prime.

Anon was another of the films that Netflix swept in and took shortly before its intended release window. Like Extinction, I think it worked out for the best. This film was never going to be a major hit, despite its pedigree. Netflix gives it a chance to find its audience, and probably a few more folks as well. This is a great piece of science fiction, if not a brilliant movie. It is like a good Black Mirror episode that’s been given time to breathe and grow; I mean that in a good way.

If you like intelligent science fiction or noir mysteries (or both), this is definitely worth your time to check out. Niccol is a solid director and he will leave you with something to think about as well as entertain you.