Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Voyagers

[2 stars]

Short version: it’s Lord of the Flies in space but without any of the weight of the original allegory.

Longer version: The world is dying so a group of scientists send a bunch of teenagers into space without much personal or automated supervision for 86 years. What could go wrong?

Honestly, the premise of a generation ship could have worked had they not already admitted they had both invitro fertilization and extra-utero gestation solved. Why the heck did they need more than a few adults to get the ship where it needed to be? Bring a seed bank of humans; the rest could have been made later either in waves or all at once near the end so they were useful. Would have saved a ton of supplies and space.

But that wasn’t the story Neil Burger (The Upside) wanted to tell. He wanted to show the horror of mankind unbound. Except he didn’t. He showed what a couple of psychopathic teens could accomplish when adults were too stupid to take precautions like monitoring their charges physically, chemically, or some other way. The pitfalls of the plan are obvious to anyone and the results inevitable. So the movie is really about the spectacle.

Unfortunately, while there are some nice design an visual effects, there isn’t a lot of good spectacle on display either. Not in terms of fights, skin, or anything else that might qualify. Burger couldn’t really commit to his vision, or the studio kept scaling it back. Frankly High Life or even the nearly unwatchable Climax took on these themes better. And Passengers, for any flaws it may have or others thought of it, looked at long space flight better as well.

What is a shame is that he had some talent there waiting to tackle the problems. Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Dark Phoenix), Fionn Whitehead (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), Lily-Rose Depp, not to mention Colin Farrell (Ava) all have chops. But Burger’s script and direction did them no favors. While they all start at a good place and are good at the understated base from which it all launches, none of them really have an arc we care about emotionally.

So, yes, skip this. My pain should not be yours. Burger is a capable filmmaker, but this was not one he will be remembered for. And none of the actors will admit to this down the road unless under duress.

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Fall In-comers

A few of the new shows have dropped. It feels rather thin for this Fall, but then again, the pandemic hobbled production more than a little.

Ordinary Joe
If you love This is Us, this may be for you. Riffing on some of the same ideas, but in a very different format, Ordinary Joe follows three potential futures for a man from an inflection point back in his college days. Suffice to say that once you grit your teeth through the opening scenes which has the 30-something James Wolk (Watchmen) pretending to be in his early 20s, the story is mildly intriguing. And he definitely has some talent and charisma to pull off the role. It is also particularly clever how the timelines intersect in unexpected ways and how the production keeps them all crisply defined. But is it gripping enough to survive? I’ve no doubt it will find its audience and, if the writing can sustain the story, it will last at least the season. For me, however, it’s a bit too, well Lifetime movie. I enjoyed the unexpected aspects of the tales, but the core piece of it just tries too hard.

La Brea
If you’ve never seen either iteration of Primeval/Primeval: New World you’re missing out on a better version of this idea. OK, the earlier shows were aimed younger, but the writing wasn’t nearly as annoying as this supposedly adult, current-world attempt. Logic holes and character stupidity are on high display through the first episodes, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the series. That was the best they could do? There is potential in the setup and the idea, so perhaps they can pull it together, but I have to say I’m less than convinced given that they’re going to get much better.

Wonder Years
While this reboot hadn’t quite found its voice in its first ep, it is wickedly funny and poignant in a non-sugary way. Don Cheadle (Space Jam: A New Legacy) manages to amp up his vocal engagement in the voice-overs as the series continues to help sell it a little more. But the cast, the setting, and the broad historical honesty (at least so far) are very, very compelling. And as a mirror to its earlier namesake, it’s a pretty important show. If the quality continues, it has real potential for a long run.

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Babylon 5 (rewatch n)

[5 stars]

TL;DR: If you’ve not rewatched Babylon 5 recently, you should. If you’ve never seen it, make the time. Forgive its faults and revel in its incredibly intricate and intentional plotting that no one other than Dark has even come close to in the intervening years since its release. And gawk at its unexpected relevance 30 years after its original airing.

And, yes, I started this effort before the recent reboot announcement: https://deadline.com/2021/09/babylon-5-series-reboot-j-michael-straczynski-development-cw-1234845022/

There are some genre shows I come back to on a regular basis. No matter how many times I rewatch them, I find new moments or surprises…or simply enjoy certain stories so much I never get bored with them. Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Stargate SG-1, Star Trek (OS, TNG, DS9)…and Babylon 5 which is probably the least widely appreciated of that list, but which had a most outsized influence on the genre and all that followed.

I am more than willing to admit that some of the writing and directing of B5 is painful at times. But the fact that it remains rewatchable despite that and, more importantly, still relevant and impressive all these years later is a testament to what it was. B5 changed the landscape of genre TV. By creating a pre-planned 5-year arc J. Michael Straczynski (Sense8) was able to thread through clues and foreshadowing with intent rather than retconning them into plots conceived down the road. Not that the latter can’t be done well; Buffy and Angel did it all the time, as did Game of Thrones. But no one has come close to the beautiful construction of B5 through its first four seasons. And no show has purposely evolved in style, focus, and design from season to season the way B5 did. Only The Expanse comes close, and possible Farscape before it.

The simple truth is that if B5 had been birthed in the streaming world it would have been a smash. Its huge gamble was to have an ongoing tale rather than reset, episodic adventures. They kept losing audience and weren’t able to easily pick up new viewers since the earlier shows weren’t available. Joe was ahead of his time…but his influence reshaped entertainment and set a high bar.

But what is amazing to me is how relevant the story remains. Presented in the early 90s, I was glued to the TV every week watching the story reflect the world of politics and society…with a lot of grand adventure, humor, and action to boot. Decades later I was somewhat worried it would have gone threadbare. But no, the mirror still works for today, even with its faults (let’s face it, Joe really didn’t write women well, though he tried).

In fact, the first season or two are disturbingly accurate for today. Politics, in the era of 45, are even closer to the horror story B5 lays out. There are pandemics, which once reflected the AIDS crisis but today are a perfect extrapolation of COVID. Stories of media suppression and control in the age of Fox news and Murdoch. Endless wars and generational hate have moved from the Soviet Union to the Middle and Far East, but still echo in our reality. Honestly, you’d think it was written recently.

Up through most of season 3 and into the start of 4, Babylon is one of the most beautifully, tightly constructed shows ever put to screen. It would have been even better if they weren’t forced into 21 episode seasons; some of the pointless stand-alones could have been dropped. But if you’ve seen it more than once, you start noticing phrases and moments that wouldn’t originally pay off for, literally, years in air-time. The level of conviction and trust involved in that is breathtaking. Because of the history of the show (it wasn’t going to be renewed for broadcast and then had a last minute save for its final season on cable) the fourth season is a bit rushed at the end. And then the fifth season had its own struggles with budget and cast changes…and the fact that Joe did his fans a favor and gave us finale ahead of what he’d planned in case the fifth season never came.

The result is that the fourth season becomes more about falling dominos as the intricate clockwork of the plots spins down. Which isn’t to say that the fourth and fifth season don’t have their moments, but it is more about action and result and less interesting as a modern mirror. But it is still a great ride to the multiple conclusions of threads, revelations about moments we’d been promised and had misinterpreted for years, and harsh and honest commentary on world politics, religion, war, but most of all: humanity.

The real question now, after a recent announcement, is whether the story can be retold better than the original? I wasn’t expecting this when I started my rewatch. Will Joe and the studio allow more writers to be involved and more up-to-date world views (particularly around gender) to have traction? Is the CW really the best home for a show that is this adult? Frankly, I would have looked at streamer like Amazon, HBO Max, or Netflix where the grittier aspects would have been welcome, and where people could have jumped in at any time and started from the beginning. And I’d have pitched it more as an update and rethink than a reboot. But, regardless, I’ll certainly be there to find out if it can fly. If nothing else, perhaps we’ll finally get an HD version of this story since some idiot at Fox deleted all the digital originals to save disk space (no, I’m not kidding).

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Level 16

[3 stars]

Danishka Esterhazy (SurrealEstate) imparts a nicely dark sensibility into this suspense/horror with her directing and writing. It isn’t a story that really pays off believably by the end, but the trip to the end is taut and suitably creepy.

What really sells the story, such as it is, is a couple of the performances. Katie Douglas (Defiance) is the undisputed center of the story, along with Celina Martin helping to move it along. The two young women have great presence and nicely leveled deliveries. Peter Outerbridge (Code 8) also helps ground the pervading weight of the situation, even if his placement is predictable and self-conscious.

But some of the production is also over-the-top. For instance Sara Canning’s (Nancy Drew) Jackboot fetish styling is a bit much. And the mixed culture of the real bosses feels unlikely.

Ultimately, this is a silly sort of fun…if one can look at a story like this and the abuse of young women in that light; it is a horror film after all. Unlike many others of the genre, it doesn’t really deliver a message, only a creepy disgust of the situation. Part of that is that the science and logic are a little ridiculous. But part of it is also the intentional distancing of the characters and locality from its primary audience geographically. It makes it hard to connect with the situation.

Suffice to say this is a rainy afternoon flick, not one that fills a night in a satisfying way. And that’s OK. It was certainly interesting to see Douglas’ and Martin’s turns; I’d like to see what more than can do. Even Esterhazy impressed me with her ability to set a mood both in this and her television work. So not a total loss. Your call on whether you spend time with it.

Infinitium: Subject Unknown

[3 stars]

Infinitum is an impressively delivered indie on the verge of greatness. I don’t even have to handicap it for how it was filmed nor the cameos by Ian McKellen (Animal Crackers, Good Liar) and Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones, Herself). The delivered result is a surprisingly polished, one-woman bravura performance by the relatively unknown Tori Butler-Hart. And that was an unexpected gift as, I will fully admit, I rented this movie because of McKellen and Hill, not realizing they were such a small part of it.

Butler-Hart and her husband, Matthew Butler-Hart, wrote and directed this 90 minute, trippy tale of parallel worlds. Taking advantage of the empty streets of the pandemic and the improved technology of iPhones, they and their family delivered a tense story of woman lost in a world and circumstances she doesn’t understand. McKellen and Hill provide a small amount of framework explaining it to us, but we have to discover it along with her…well, until near the very end when we’re spoon-fed an answer.

I imagine that those that care about the science, if not the specifics, underpinning the plot could debate the ending for quite some time. But this story provides a view not often shown in this sub-genre. And it works, or did for me, because it is delivered with complete conviction. And, more importantly, the two main talents of the Butler-Hart clan have intrigued me enough to seek out their previous and forthcoming projects.

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Lapsis

[3 stars]

Science fiction, at its best, reflects on the world to deliver both entertainment and a message (usually a warning about where we’re are now or are headed). Noah Hutton, using an absurdist, near-term sci-fi world, has delivered on both aspects of that declaration. More disturbing still is how possible it feels, despite the unlikely way the world itself works.

Through the desperate efforts of Dean Imperial to provide for himself and his brother, we learn about the new economy and how it abuses the growing underclass it’s leaving behind. Along with Madeline Wise, the two navigate the situation trying to find solutions to problems both very personal and very large. And a surprise cameo by Arliss Howard (Mank) added a nice dimension.

Lapsis isn’t perfect, but it overcomes its humble underpinnings to make you listen. It isn’t as complex as Primer, nor as slow, but in some ways it reminded me of that wonderfully surprising indie. The ending of Lapsis may well leave you scratching your head; it certainly did me. The message, however, is probably as simple as it seems to be. I wish Hutton had been a little more explicit, but he certainly made me care enough to ponder and discuss it, so he did something right.

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Godzilla: Singular Point

[3 stars]

Who would have thought they could find a new Godzilla tale to tell rather than remake after remake (however clever)? Singular Point is an amusingly complex tale of hyperspace, quantum physics, cryptology…and Kaiju. What more can you want in an entertaining anime? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it does have fun getting there and trying to explain it. And it has the one of the best weapon names every put forth in this genre.

I will admit that I watched the first episode and walked away for several weeks. There was something intriguing there, but I was worried it was going to just devolve into silly, overdone tropes. After I came back, they proved those assumptions very wrong. This is a very different tale of Godzilla, and a very different sort of battle for the planet.

This first series is fairly self-contained. If you watch through the final credits, there is a coda that opens it up for a follow-on story. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but given this last round, I’d give them a chance to pull me back in again.

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Chaos Walking

[3 stars]

Doug Liman (Locked Down) loves challenging subjects for his actioners. And Chaos Walking definitely provides both an interesting challenge to depict and a fun premise to play with. Unfortunately, the script, while cleverly staged and managed, ultimately doesn’t quite pay off. This doesn’t mean getting to the end isn’t a fun ride, but it feels like too small a story for such a big idea and presentation.

Add to this a few big talents and expectations are even higher. Tom Holland (Onward, The Impossible) and Daisy Ridley (Ophelia) provide suitable foils for one another and a fun tension. Though, it should be noted that Ridley’s maturity, despite their similar age, dominates their relationship. And while Mads Mikkleson (Another Round) is his typical creepy self in this role (something he does quite well) there isn’t much more to him. Not to mention a hollowly tortured David Oyelowo (The Water Man) whose climactic moments are empty of meaning and impact.

And that is the saddest part of the gap in this film. There is a lot of potential and a lot of suggestion but very little meat and character complexity. Based on and adapted by the author of the original YA novel, the story either lost its depth in translation to film or it was never there. Liman found the talent to milk everything out of the script they could, but it didn’t make up for those lacks.

While this sounds like I’m suggesting you skip this movie, I’m not. The way Liman presents the world and the tight editing to keep it all flowing are really intriguing (even if he did sort of reuse some of his old Jumper f/x). I’m certainly disappointed that it isn’t all it could have been, but still was entertained watching it unfold. Just know it won’t answer all your questions or fulfill all your wishes for such a rich idea.

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Missions (series 2)

[3 stars]

After the first round of this French sci-fi, my teeth were gnashing. Not because it wasn’t intriguing or even good, but because it was so incomplete and left on such a cliffhanger that it was frustrating. However, it also laid out several mysteries that even 3 years later were still fresh in my head and still demanded to be solved.

Fortunately, this second series of the high-concept show answers most of the open questions. It certainly does so while exposing some more, but it is definitely more complete. There are also no truly standout performances. Everyone is fine and no one is uncredible, unlike the first series. But the newest face in the saga, Barbara Probst, comes close to delivering something a cut above the others.

The third, and final, season of 5 episodes has wrapped filming and may (I stress may) show up before the end of the year. So this particular tale shouldn’t be left hanging like so many other stories of its ilk. It is definitely worth your time if you want something with a bit more meta to it and with some serious philosophical questions.

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Intergalactic (series 1)

[3 stars]

You might have missed this bit of British scifi that dropped recently. It would have been easy to as it only appears to be on Peacock at the moment. And having seen it I can say that I so wanted to like this more than I did. There are some great ideas in Intergalactic, but it is also more than a little forced and generic and just a bit cliché. Though, honestly, it got better as it went along. You really just have to grit your teeth through the first episode and go along for the ride.

What helps is that the actors really give it their all, committing to the world and the relationships, which helps carry it through. There is no sense of a nod-and-a-wink about the genre. Savannah Steyn (The Tunnel) is our connection into the story, and while everyone has a plot to follow, hers is the core. Among the motely crew, Eleanor Tomlinson (War of the Worlds, The Nevers) is the real standout. However, the brutal and brutalized Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Years and Years, Sex Education) certainly throws down and has an unexpected arc. New comers Diany Samba-Bandza and Imogen Daines add in quite a bit as well, especially as they bounce Thomas Turgoose (Terminal). Wild cards in the crew are Natasha O’Keeffe (Misfits) and Oliver Coopersmith who are both tacked onto the gang in uncomfortable ways.

Running things from the home planet are Parminder Nagra (Five Feet Apart) and Craig Parkinson (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch). Both recognizable and capable, but not really with much to do here beyond gnawing furniture. I will say that Nagra gets to play a rather deeply cold security head, however.

The production, sadly, is so intensely claustrophobic and Doctor Who-quarry level design at times that it gets a bit wearying. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some nice effects as well. But everywhere other than the ruling class is filthy to the point of absurdity in a high tech universe. And the elements driving the plot are just a little too buried and take a while to come into focus. All that said, should they get another round I’d like to see where they could take it now that they’ve laid the foundation and the bigger tensions bare. However, that doesn’t appear likely anymore. A shame they didn’t have better writers to help launch this potentially rich universe.

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