Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Hard Sun

[3 stars]

Assumption: The only thing that holds society generally, and people specifically, in check is the expectation of a future.

Experiment: Take away that future…what happens?

It isn’t a new idea, nor is it even the best tackle of that idea (Children of Men, probably tops that list). However, when the creator and writer of Luther, Neil Cross, wanted to tackle this idea and deliver something a bit more speculative in genre, it was something I wanted to check out. The dark, violent sensibilities of Luther are put into a new frame where the world itself could be ending. The concept and effects are an interesting study, and sad admission, about human nature.

The two detectives who lead the 6-part serial, Jim Sturgess (Geostorm) and Agyness Deyn (Clash of the Titans), are an uncomfortable  pair with complex lives. Splitting the focus between two leads challenges the show at times, but watching them work through their relationship and through the chaos of the world is instantly intriguing. The give and take doesn’t always feel quite real, but Deyn is a kick-ass fighter while Sturgess is an onion of strange psychology that never really comes completely into focus.

Nikki Amuka-Bird (Luther), a wonderful and prolific actor, adds an element of menace, but without a great deal of character. Perhaps that is fair in what is clearly intended to be a 5 series story. However, it doesn’t do her any favors in believability in this first installment. Derek Riddell (Happy Valley), another well-known face from many British series, is likewise incomplete in his character, but with the talent to make the thin meat on his bones work and leave it open to build on if it continues.

Also not helping the credibility of the show are some really, really dumb choices around mental health treatment and police procedure. More than once I found myself gritting my teeth through short-cuts and outright ridiculous choices. All very surprising given Cross’s ability and background.

Overall, there is enough here to keep you intrigued and wondering what will come next. It combines apocalyptic fiction with the standard British police procedural in an interesting, if sometimes clumsy, way.  What is most interesting is the final moments that are visually stunning, but probably lost and confusing to a general audience. Hopefully, though, it is enough to get the rest of the series made, because it definitely leaves you hanging and with a whole lot of potential going forward. Seek it out on Hulu in the States.


A Wrinkle in Time

[3 stars]

Some books stick with you from childhood. When I discovered tesseracts at age 9 or 10, the world opened up for me and I was sold on science fiction for the rest of my life. And it is still one of the first books I give to young kids when they move up a level in their reading. What makes the book so special is that it doesn’t talk down to children. Children are, in fact, the heroes in a very real way. While there are more books like that now, there definitely weren’t when it came out in 1962. And it still has the power to enthrall today, despite any competition because it is so accessible and understandable to children on an emotional level. As the trailers were released for this movie, everyone in the audience was murmuring how they wanted to see it and how much they loved the book, to a time.

Well, first let me warn you, let go of the book. In focusing the story so it would fit into a feature-length tale, Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terebithia) decided on some large changes right off the top, especially around Charles Wallace. Most of those are acceptable, but dropping the other siblings and shortening the trials of the children (and a significant change to the ending) left me wondering about their choices.

Ava DuVernay (13th) directed the script she had well. The pace is measured, but matches the book. Despite its impact, the book is very surfacey in its way, and full of huge leaps of place and understanding, but it is true in its emotional core, which DuVernay completely understood. She also walked the line of young love beautifully. But the film is aimed purposefully at 8-15 year olds by design. That is a fair choice, but it makes it less interesting for the returning adult or the more world-aware tween.

Of course, a lot has been made of the three Misses: Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Mindy Kaling (Inside Out), and Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler). But this is primarily Storm Reid’s (12 Years a Slave) movie, and she carries it well. She also bounces off her screen brother Deric McCabe nicely. McCabe has his own burdens to carry in this film and is generally good. Because of the changes to his character, though, I did find accepting him a little harder to do. On the other hand, Levi Miller’s (Pan) Calvin is spot on. He too works well with Reid.

Chris Pine (Wonder Woman), does an amazing amount with very few lines and little screen time. Similarly, though with less range, does Gugu Mbatha-Raw (The Cloverfield Paradox). They make great parents in need of rescue. Sadly, Zach Galifianakis (Tulip Fever) was given one of the best roles in the film, but it was so dampened in the adaptation that he is just forgettable.

The visuals are mostly impressive, though often they feel like flash over substance. The story, well, as I said if you can let go of the book and find your inner 9 year old, it will increase your enjoyment. For me, there were moments that were captured and others that were missed. It was like seeing part of a great painting, but not quite all of it. I do understand the point of the writers and director in their approach…but, the excisions and reconceptualizations should have been left to those with a better understanding of the story who could have also looped in the intent. For instance, despite the opening and closing frames trying to impart one of the great reveals and lessons (and it failed on that), they ignored core chunks of the tale. Giving us the simplest, bare emotional core of the story ultimately diminished rather than expanded its potential audience in my opinion. They should have trusted that the book remained so popular because of its detail, not just because of its message.

This isn’t the first attempt to adapt Wrinkle in Time to screen, nor is it the best, but it makes a game try and is a solid story for children trying to find their place in the world, even if it leaves out and changes great swaths of the original book. So, if you have a young person in your life, sure take them. Skip the IMAX… it just isn’t filmed for it on the whole. And, if they haven’t read the book before the movie, make sure they read it after so they truly understand the magic and possibilities. The remaining four books in the series are totally missable in my opinion. The second is interesting, but the rest… well, make up your own mind. As for the movie…I wanted it to be so much more than it was, but it wasn’t a total fail. I don’t see a franchise coming out of this, but perhaps a Disney Channel series.

Someday, I’d love to see the book tackled again as a mini-series, bringing in the best of this and the best of the 2003 version, which had its good points too (though no widescreen version was ever released). For now, we have this attempt to hold us till someone does it the right way.

A Wrinkle in Time


[3 stars]

Much like my comments about Altered Carbon, Annihilation is an actual piece of science fiction intended to inspire thought rather than just show off effects. Not a huge surprise given this is the follow-up feature for Alex Garland after his surprise hit Ex Machina. So strap in for a taught, but paced story that explores the definition of life, the waging of war, and the question of intention while still managing to have a highly intimate tale as its core. I’m not saying it is without flaws…there are definitely some gaps in logic and some forced choices, but it is generally rather well done. 

In addition to tackling large topics, it is also an almost all female driven tale. With Natalie Portman (Song to Song) at the helm as a credible ex-military/current-biologist, the motley collection of women head off into the unknown. Jennifer Jason Leigh (Morgan) is the next most impactful character, again both strong and intelligent, if a bit odd and lost at times. Rounding out the group are Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Tuva Novotny (ID: A) in two distinctly differing portrayals of what a troubled adulthood can look like. The last member, and surprisingly least credible, was Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin). To be fair, Rodriguez was given a tough task and, frankly, was left hanging more by the script than her own petard.

There are some men in the mix in integral roles as well, but they are side-characters. Despite the lack of lines and screen time, Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange) do well.

As this is adapted from a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer,  don’t expect complete closure nor complete answers. In fact, I don’t think Garland would have been happy if there were pat answers to it all. And while this is a major studio release, it has much more of a sense of an indie to it. Despite a budget almost 50 times that of his previous film, Garland clearly told the story his way. Sadly, that is also going to cost him and the flick at the box office, but hopefully it will eventually find its audience and its place. It is a gorgeously filmed piece and with enough meat to make multiple viewings both desirable and enjoyable; assuming, of course, you’re there for the story and not just looking for empty entertainment and action.

As a final sort of spoilerish (but not much) comment, the ending goes off into 2001 land by way of a particular puzzle in the first Tomb Raider game. Given the set up and explanations, the choices are all fair, but I have to admit the imagery rang in my brain a bit more than I’d have liked it to at the climax. Regardless, I still think it was worth my time and that Garland has an interesting career ahead of him.


Altered Carbon

[4 stars]

Altered Carbon is solid science fiction. This also means it has struggled to find an audience. If you want real science fiction set in worlds that have been thought through and, sure, with plenty of violence and skin, you need to see and support it, or we’ll lose another opportunity.

This series was ably adapted for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator: Genisys), based on Morgan’s award winning book. The world has some holes and gaps, but it is a believable society based on how the tech affected it. The show also has some incredibly complex plotlines going through it. In fact, probably a bit too complicated at times…the last couple of episodes have to rush to the end with a lot of rapid exposition to fill in the answers that are being revealed.

Driving the action, Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) puts in one of his better performances. Alongside him is a kickass detective played by Martha Higareda (Royal Pains). A slew of great minor characters are around them, but it is their show through and through. Worth calling out, though, are Chris Conner’s delightfully weird and fun Poe and Dichen Lachman’s (Dollhouse) powerful and complex Reileen.

Adult science fiction is rare off the big screen (and not particularly prevalent on the big screen either). Typically, what is offered is something between Star Trek and Game of Thrones. In other words, something that may tackle tough issues, but usually in watered down or palatable ways without actually working through the true implications of the world that was created or the consequences of actions. Flash and action often substitute for actual logic and plot.

There are some exceptions. Humans is a current show that tries to tackle and deal with the implications of AI. Sense8, as well, took on a world altered by the possibility of gestalt entities. Farscape tackled an empire structured society with significant biotech. But, more often than not, you end up with something more like Stargate, Orphan Black, or The Walking Dead, all highly entertaining, but not good science fiction.

So, if you want the real stuff (with a bit of HBOness to it, without the HBO) jump on Altered Carbon so we can get another season. Even if we don’t, this 10 ep run is self-contained enough to not leave you hanging, but there is so much more to explore if they’re given the time to do so.

Altered Carbon

The Cloverfield Paradox

[3 stars]

At the end of last year, Netflix stepped afield from original and purchased series programming and entered the big-budget feature game with Bright. It wasn’t an instant classic, but it was a shot across the bow of the current film distribution system and raised the bar in some ways for its pure streaming competitors.

This latest feature had a surprising trajectory that may remake the release landscape yet again. Bright was bought early in its inception  band guided by Netflix. In the case of Cloverfield, what was supposed to be a big theatrical release this April got picked up and near-instantly released by Netflix. Mind you, there are reasons it was available for such a purchase, but it speaks both to the power of the streaming giant and the new thinking of studios who are scared of losing money.

The movie itself, even with its flaws, is certainly on par with a lot of what hits the big screen; a low bar, I know. It parallels the Cloverfield universe, offering up (perhaps) some answers to where we left it off in 10 Cloverfield Lane.  And it tackles the story with the expected bad science fiction the series has embraced, and a great cast.

And the cast is probably one of the more surprising aspects of the story. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Miss Sloane) drives this tale with incredible and complex (and occasionally questionable) emotional and intellectual strength. David Oyelowo (Queen of Katwe), as well, brings a command and depth to his performance. Daniel Brühl (Burnt) is a bit forced, but commits to his part of the story. The same is true for Ziyi Zhang (The Grandmaster), Elizabeth Debicki (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), as well as the relatively unknown (in the US) Roger Davies. Chris O’Dowd (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) is the odd man out in the cast personality-wise. He works, but mostly as delightfully understated comic relief. He isn’t a particularly credible crew member, but then again, none of them are. The most abused by the bad aspects of the script was Aksel Hennie (The Martian), whose taciturn Russian was way too cookie-cutter.

As his second feature, director Julius Onah shows some solid promise controlling big stories. He built a good path in terms of energy and flow and elicited some real emotion in the middle of what is arguably just a horror film on the order of Event Horizon. The real weakness was Oren Uziel’s (Shimmer Lake) script, which had unrealistic characters as well as forced and unexplained plot trajectories and moments. Fun? Sure…and O’Dowd got to take the most advantage of that…but completely inconsistent in ways that just left too many questions rather than a sense of something happening. For all its absurdity, Life at least had their astronauts behave like astronauts and their creature obey some set of definable rules.

Netflix still doesn’t quite know how to produce a solid feature-length film, but they’re learning and getting to use some impressive name dropping to keep it going until they do. I’ve seen way (way) worse on the big screen over the last year, and this is a perfectly fun and distracting entertainment with a couple really good performances.

Ultimately, and not unsurprisingly, there are more Cloverfield stories to come. Overlord is due in October this year to continue the universe (or so it’s rumored). What dropping a critical installment of this sequence of films straight to streaming will do to the franchise will be an interesting story to follow.


[2 stars]

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I owe Maze Runner: The Death Cure an apology…at least as compared to this film. The only film at this scale that I’ve seen this past year that was worse than this was Life. I started compiling a list of bad science and stupid plot moments from the script, but gave up after about 5 minutes. Truly awful dialogue written by people who did almost no research on the science and none on the workings of the government.

And why do I owe Maze an apology after those statements? Well, because for all the bad science and silly plotting in Maze, at least the action sequences were good and there were some moments of value. Geostorm has neither. It is woodenly acted by actors who look so wrong for their parts the make-up artists and costumers should be shot.

Jim Sturgess (Cloud Atlas) , in particular, looked like a lost Millennial who didn’t know what a professional haircut was. Fine in business these days, but not as an Asst. Secretary in the White House (our current administration’s examples aside). His acting was equally hacked. Even Gerard Butler (London Has Fallen), while never the most impressive of actors, was decidedly phoning it in through much of this movie. Abbie Cornish (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), who has some reasonable cred, couldn’t even do much with the script and situations. And what was done to Robert Sheehan (Moonwalkers), Robert Schiff (Good Doctor), and Andy Garcia (Passengers) was near criminal. Only Ed Harris (Gravity, Westworld), Talitha Eliana Bateman (Nine Lives), and Zazie Beetz had anything approaching reasonable performances, but the bar was low in this flick.

Director and co-writer Dean Devlin (Independence Day: Resurgence) either rushed this or simply didn’t realize how clunky it all was. Though, perhaps, pairing up with his oft-time co-writer Paul Guyot (The Librarians) wasn’t the best choice, each reinforcing their small screen comfort zone onto what should have been a huge screen adventure in every sense, not just the special effects. They even tried to shoe-horn in a dog and a little girl to force you to feel emotions that just aren’t there in the story; cheap.

Yes, just skip this one. Even the thrills aren’t good enough to make it worth your time. You need something this silly and globe spanning? Rewatch 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow, both equally silly, but executed with better skill.


Maze Runner: The Death Cure

[2.5 stars]

With most of the stoopid science behind them, this finale is basically a lot of great action sequences, with a couple good moments, and some questionable script and acting. Enough for an evening’s entertainment? Well, that would be up to you. The ride, from the get go, is pretty unrelenting. As a story, this popcorner held together way better than the first two; motivations were mostly clear and mostly made sense. Satisfying? Eh. I never was able to read past the first book of the series myself (the science and plot were just so poorly thought through), so I’m clearly not the target audience.

You may have noticed I used “mostly” a good deal in my comments. There are still some truly horrendous moments of bad science, plotting, and dialogue. However, relative to its earlier installments, it is a huge leap forward.

What is sad is that these young actors, from Dylan O’Brien (The First Time), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones), Will Poulter (The Revenant), Rosa Salazar (The Scorch Trials), Ki Hong Lee (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), and Kaya Scodelario (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales),  to the adults Giancarlo Esposito (Money Monster), Patricia Clarkson (Learning to Drive), Barry Pepper (The Lone Ranger), Aidan Gillen (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), and Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight) are all capable. Of this rather packed list, only Salazar, Esposito and Goggins have any real moments in the final cut and they are minor characters. The rest are just going through their paces and getting through the script. They aren’t awful, but nothing pops out as emotionally effective, which is a crime at the end of a trilogy. You may have hated how Hunger Games finaled, but you can’t claim it didn’t have emotional punch.

There are also a few craft issues. First and foremost, directors have to learn that when you’re going to do an IMAX release, that any hand-held camera work you have should be cut by 30%-50% from what you think you want to do. The size of the screen amplifies movement and a shaky cam gets quickly unwatchable. Maze isn’t the first offender, or even the worst (which was Hunger Games), but somehow it still keeps happening. Then there were the costuming issues. Let’s just say that the lower class and the kids were way too clean and crisp for people living in the streets and that having female scientists in 4″ heels was, well, a bit out of touch these days (forgetting how absurd it was).

If you’re hooked or a mega-fan, you’ll probably enjoy this wind up. Frankly, as a film series, I’d have liked to see at least an attempt at a better script and more than a passing attempt to make a movie rather than a glorified and stitched together series of action sequences. If there is anything that films like Jumanji have taught the industry in the last year, you can have your cake and eat it too when it comes to silly action films. A good script pays massive dividends; pretty pictures alone only works some of the time (witness films like Avatar). While Death Cure didn’t make me wish for the big sleep, I can’t say I’d ever need to see this hobbled piece of trifle again.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Travelers (series 1 & 2)

[3 stars]

I didn’t write up the first series of Travelers because, well, it was just pretty typical Canadian science fiction. And, yes, that is an identifiable genre at this point. Think things like Continuum, Dark Matter, 4400, Lost GirlKilljoys, Orphan Black, Warehouse 13, Sanctuary. Some good some bad, but they all share some base sensibilities. Their stories tend to be rushed or shorthanded, the casting often shared among shows, the production qualities uneven, but often slick. The humor tends to be broad. The cinematography often feels overly polished (oh, and lots of smoke and alleyways). There is also a perceptible difference between BC and Ontario productions, but I won’t belabor this conversation. Almost all are entertaining enough to survive at least a few seasons, but don’t rise to classic status. And then there is the exception that proves the rule: Stargate SG-1 (the other spinoffs fall more in the main category). Most do, however, get a solid cult or fan-base dedicated to them. Certainly, I watch enough of them myself.

But back to Travelers. It has an intriguing, if not new, idea and some good complications for its characters. It does suffer from the uber-conspiracy approach, but it also tries to make it work in their favor without becoming “everyone is evil and can’t be trusted.”

They also pulled together a pretty solid cast, led by Eric McCormack (Will & Grace). A number of recurring characters are familiar faces such as Ian Tracey, Amanda Tapping, Teryl Rothery, and, probably the best of the bunch in terms of part, Patrick Gilmore (SGU Stargate Universe). Given the involvement of Tapping and Stargate creator Brad Wright, the sensibility of the show shouldn’t be surprising, but it still hasn’t quite found the magic of his biggest hit.

So why write this up at all now?  Travelers managed something most shows really can’t: it survived its first season and actually improved in it is second (at least until the very end). And it is that hiccup at the end that drove me to write it all up. The first series was a good setup with some nice individual tales and a crazy cliffhanger for a finale. Generally uneven, but interesting enough to keep me coming back. It thought through some of the science and issues (though not all) and tried to tackle some very tangled morals in the process. The second series adds some new explanations and complications. And while the season as a whole is true to its arc, I really disliked the conclusion. The finale choices aren’t well considered nor sustainable for the characters or the show.

I will be back for the next round, assuming they are renewed. The improvements from 1 to 2 give me hope. Hopefully they can break the mold and find a more sustainable path. If not, it remains a reasonable distraction as part of your Netflix subscription. I just always want a bit more when I can see potential.


Electric Dreams

[4 stars]

While it may not be fair, it is hard to view a science fiction anthology series these days without comparing it to Netflix’s Black Mirror. So, lack of fairness acknowledged, this steam punk take on Black Mirror, by Amazon and the BBC, is entirely fascinating and captures Philip K. Dick’s (PDK’s) sense of the surreal wonderfully. It is Twilight Zone on drugs… which is to say that each episode has some great stories and compelling characters, but exists in a world with its own set of rules rather than just trying to shock or spook you out.

While both are creating cautionary tales, there are interesting contrasts as well. Black Mirror builds a world from the path we’re on, and even interlinks the stories via technology and reference. Each episode of Electric Dreams, however, is about a different world on a path not taken by ours; not quite real even though all of its messages still apply. Even when reaching into the bizarre, Electric Dreams has solid writing and is stocked with recognizable names and faces, that keep it all intriguing.

PKD was known for challenging your mind and sensibilities (and, yes, recreational drugs). His work is prone to dystopia. However, there is humanity in every one of the tales I’ve seen so far. It is that spark, that base reality, that makes them compelling and effective. It has a little bit of everything in it, from politics to comedy, and each served up as a little gem of its own.

Product Details

The Recall

[2 stars]

Take the worst of UFO paranoia and blend it with the often hokey offerings of the CW and you still would get something better than The Recall. Whatever they thought they were trying to do, they didn’t succeed. There is no through-line, no comprehensive plan, no continuity.

The actors do their game best, but there is only so much you can do from that side of things when the plot doesn’t come together or make any sense. Wesley Snipes (Chi-Raq) plays his typical smart-ass, self-serving action hero. RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad), Jedidiah Goodarcre (Tomorrowland), and Laura Bilgeri put in what they can as well, but they seem to be there either for comic relief or to show their skin; nothing they do makes much sense in the end.

All in all, this feels like a failed pilot. It takes some potentially interesting, if overdone, ideas, and spins out a story that could easily continue. However, given some of what they do tell us, none of the actions by the aliens make much sense. Basically, skip this. You don’t need to waste the 90 minutes to see it.

The Recall