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Entries in Science Fiction (18)

Thursday
Oct032013

Gravity

Space is a beautiful thing. It’s quiet, serene and you simply can’t beat the view. But it’s also a dangerous place, where the slightest mistake could mean the end of a life. The smallest tear in a suit, a forgotten about harness or even the sudden appearance of unexpected space debris could be catastrophic. It’s the latter situation our characters find themselves dealing with in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” While out on an otherwise calm spacewalk, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) receive news from Houston that debris from a destroyed satellite is heading their way. They’re ordered to abandon the mission, but it’s too late. The debris crashes into their ship, destroying it and leaving them floating out in space, with virtually zero hope of survival.

That’s the grim set-up of “Gravity,” a movie so intense you’re likely to have heart palpitations. As I watched them float around helplessly, with nothing surrounding them but the dark vacuum of space and spacesuits that were quickly running out of air, I realized I had been taking my wonderful inhalations of oxygen for granted my entire life. Never before had I been so happy to have my feet planted squarely on the ground. For the first time ever while sitting in a dark theater, I realized how lucky I was to be alive, to be sitting in a safe, comfortable area surrounded by friends and not dealing with the nightmare onscreen. Forget monsters and boogeymen. Space is more terrifying than them all.

The things you’ll see in this movie, from the soundless explosions to the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet debris to the harrowing space leaps where the odds of survival are about one in a million, are a sight to behold. As things get more stressful and increasingly hopeless, your heart will be pounding so fast, you’ll question the strength of your bosom and hope it can contain it from escaping like a chestburster from “Alien.” These moments are flawless and offer up some of the most frightening beauty you’re likely to ever see.

The problem is that it doesn’t follow through on its bleak premise. While I certainly won’t give it away, it takes a single plot device, one used by countless other movies that have no clue how to give their protagonist the motivation to go on, and manages to turn itself from a wholly gripping movie into something that is, quite frankly, kind of silly. You could argue that the circumstances that are playing out add validity to what finally occurs, but such an argument is grasping at straws. It’s understandable to want to defend a movie this incredible, but that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of stumbling. If “Gravity” proves anything, it’s that even the most calculated, well thought out movies can make stupid decisions. Luckily, one stupid decision doesn’t equate to a bad movie. Quite the contrary, “Gravity” is spectacular, a thoughtful and well-rounded action-esque movie that separates itself from a sea of vapid, nonsensical explosion-fests.

Where it lacks the thematic intricacies of other science fiction films like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it makes up for with pure visual terror. And that terror, that feeling of utter despair, is brought forth beautifully by the talented duo onscreen. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar in 2010 for her portrayal of the no-nonsense protagonist in the based-on-a-true-story hit, “The Blind Side,” despite being the weakest of all contenders in the Best Actress category. It was a stupefying decision to even give her a nomination, much less a win. She may not have deserved it there, but she certainly does here. Unlike the other popular disaster-in-space movie, “Apollo 13,” this doesn’t flash back and forth from the characters in danger to the workers on the ground trying to help them out. It never leaves the black emptiness that is space, which gives the film a focus and allows Bullock to flex her acting muscle like she never has before. She is absolutely fantastic here. This time, the buzz is warranted.

“Gravity” had the potential to be the absolute best movie of the year and, just perhaps, one of the most visually stunning and intense science fiction films of all time. It truly is that good, but that lazy cinematic plot ploy reared its ugly head to bump it down a notch or two. But dropping from a “best of the year” or “best of all time” movie to one that can still be classified as jaw-dropping and emotionally draining (in a good way) is hardly a bad thing. Even if you too have similar issues with the plot turn in question, it will hardly cross your mind when you medidate on the film  later. You’ll instead think about the gorgeous visuals, the many, many sequences of utter fright and the career defining performances. “Gravity” may have failed to be the absolute best movie of the year, but it’s still one of.

Gravity receives 4.5/5

Friday
Apr192013

Oblivion

If you’ll take a moment to travel back to 2010 with me, you may remember a movie called “Tron: Legacy,” the highly anticipated sequel to the beloved 1982 classic, “Tron.” Undoubtedly, you remember the gorgeous visuals, eye-popping 3D and perfect score by electronic synthpop duo, Daft Punk. Surely, if you’re a fan of the original at least, you remember the fuzzy feeling you got when you saw Jeff Bridges back in his iconic role. What you may also remember, if you’re a more discerning viewer, is that the film was hollow. With all its flash and technical expertise, it was missing a worthwhile script to complement them. Director Joseph Kosinski was hardly to blame because he did everything he could with a film that, by and large, was narratively empty. His new movie, “Oblivion,” likewise has a wonderful score and stunning visuals, but there’s so much more to it than “Tron: Legacy.” Having written this one himself, the movie is filled to the brim with interesting themes and ideas that were all but missing from his previous directorial effort. It’s a movie that excites you and pleases your senses, but it also works your brain and gives you something to ponder over long after it’s done.

The year is 2077, five years after a mandatory memory wipe, and the Earth has been ravaged. Years ago, a mysterious enemy called the Scavengers destroyed the moon and attacked Earth and mankind did the only thing it could to win the war: it nuked itself. This, along with the changing weather patterns from the now destroyed moon, made the planet practically unlivable. Now, all remaining humans have evacuated to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Only a couple people remain back on Earth, Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), and their job is to extract whatever remaining resources it has left. However, after a shuttle crash lands on the planet with a beautiful woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) in it, the very same woman Jack keeps having flashbacks of, they discover things aren’t as they seem.

To go further would be ill advised, as doing so would constitute spoilers, but not in the narrative sense that most would consider a spoiler. Sure, I could go into the mid-movie twist about the Scavengers or the revelation Jack has after traveling into the previously forbidden zone or even the big finale about what’s really been going on (though, of course, I won’t), but it would hardly matter because they aren’t the least bit surprising. Each twist is taken directly out of the big book of science fiction plot conventions, each of which we’ve seen so many times, you’d have to be a complete newcomer to the genre to not see them coming. However, doing so would give away the sense of discovery and the careful thematic unraveling the film so beautifully explores. What makes “Oblivion” feel so fresh even in the face of these sci-fi clichés is the way they’re used, not because they simply fit the conventions of a science fiction story, but rather because they’re necessary to flesh out the meaning behind the picture’s glossy veneer.

And glossy it is, an adjective used in the kindest way possible. “Oblivion,” much like “Tron: Legacy,” is a visual wonder. Director Joseph Kosinski has a keen eye and manages to capture the beauty of this ruined world in a way that makes it feel alive. The majority of the world’s oceans are now dried up, the rusted ships strewn throughout being the only hint that there was water there at all. The moon off in the background, broken apart, unlike the sight we’re used to seeing in the night sky, is a sight to behold as well. This post-apocalyptic landscape is simultaneously beautiful, scary, lonely and full of wonderment. Even if the story and themes don’t hook you, the visuals absolutely will.

“Oblivion” is one of the best science fiction movies in recent memory because it, like many of the most beloved sci-fi classics, is about the human condition, not about dumbed down destruction and chaos. It explores the beauty of existence and the necessity to preserve it. It explores the importance of identity and the need to hold onto the memories that define us. It explores the meaning of life and death, intertwining them in a beautiful finale that gives purpose to both. Despite a few minor stumbles, including an uncharacteristically sappy final shot that doesn’t necessarily fit with the sadness and desperation that came before it, “Oblivion” is a wonderful and thought provoking movie.

Oblivion receives 4.5/5

Friday
Aug032012

Total Recall

The Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Total Recall, from 1990 didn’t have high aspirations. It was a campy movie full of hilarious one-liners, explosive, gory action and oddly intriguing sexuality, like the now infamous mutant woman with three breasts and a midget hooker. It was off-the-wall fun and it knew it, fully embracing its silliness from beginning to end. This week’s high octane remake, also titled Total Recall, follows a similar narrative path as the original, but somehow manages to be its exact opposite. Camp is replaced with seriousness, gore is replaced with PG-13 scuffles and the three breasted woman is…well, she’s still there (even if they do cut away before you’re allowed a good look).

By the end of the 21st century, chemical warfare brought on by a third World War has made our planet practically uninhabitable. Earth has been divided into two superpowers, the Resistance and the oppressive Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), which are in a battle for supremacy in a world gone awry. Most citizens are lowly factory workers who spend their days building police robots for the Chancellor in his efforts to stop the Resistance. One of those citizens is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell). He’s married to the beautiful Lori (Kate Beckinsale), but he nevertheless needs some excitement. One day, he decides to go to Rekall, a company that implants artificial memories into the heads of their customers, essentially allowing them to live out any type of fantasy they wish. While there, something goes wrong and the police force busts in. Next thing he knows, Quaid’s wife is trying to kill him and he’s on the run from the very machines he helped build. The strange thing is now he’s now being told he’s actually a secret agent; he just doesn’t remember it.

Those familiar with the 1990 original will both be in for a treat and a disappointment when watching this update. With plenty of sly references to the original, including a redheaded woman passing through a security gate (“Two weeks” she says when asked how long her trip will be), there is no shortage of little Easter eggs to be found. But sometimes those finds aren’t for the betterment of the film itself. Many of the lines (or at least variations of them) from the original are spoken here as well, but their tone is significantly different. While lines like “If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?” were played as humorous before, they’re played depressingly straight here. All the fun has been sucked out in favor of telling a darker story, but one that lacks substance.

That’s not to say the original had much substance to it, but it then again it never claimed it did. Both are so packed full of action that they hardly have time to tell a particularly engaging story. The difference, however, is that the original was knowingly silly, so it was easy to forgive. This Total Recall, on the other hand, tries to make you care. It wants the conclusion to be something you cheer for, but most cheers will be coming simply from the fact that it’s over rather than because the story has grabbed hold of you. With its over-stylized action scenes and constant forward motion, the characters hardly get breathers and their relationships are never built like they need to be. It’s not necessarily that I didn’t care about what happened to them that bugged me, but that the movie wanted me to, but provided no justification as to why I should.

Much like the original, the big question at the end is whether or not what we saw actually happened or if it’s just a byproduct of the Rekall implant. The question isn’t necessarily a hard one to answer in either movie when you consider certain things (that I’ll leave for you to figure out), but at least the answer had some slight ambiguity in the original. In the remake, it’s more or less cut and dry, despite trying to force that ambiguity in right at the end. The larger question outside the context of the films is: does it even matter? The answer in regards to this remake is a resounding no. This weekend, when you’re thinking about heading to the theater to see it, don’t and watch the original instead.

Total Recall receives 2/5

Friday
Jul272012

The Watch

The idea of a comedy centered on a neighborhood watch group isn’t a bad one. Some wild and unpredictable things can happen in a small town on a quiet night, but a premise alone is not enough to sustain a film. Despite a mostly likable cast of actors, this week’s newest film, The Watch, is hopelessly unfunny. It struggles to gain even the slightest bit of momentum, a strange problem in a movie that amps up the unpredictability by throwing invading aliens hell bent on destroying Earth into the mix. The film is only 98 minutes long, but it feels at least double that. It’s a waste of time and talent, both in front of and behind the camera (at least in terms of writing) and it’s sure to be one of the lamest and flattest comedies of the year.

Evan (Ben Stiller) is a nice guy. He’s active in his community and forms a number of groups to better it. He’s also the general manager of the local Costco, a job not many people would find fulfilling, but one that he adores with all his heart. He’s ever the optimist and loves those around him, but one night, his overnight security guard is murdered. Determined to get to the bottom of it, he forms a neighborhood watch with local thrill seekers Bob (Vince Vaughn), Franklin (Jonah Hill) and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade). They quickly discover that the murderer isn’t human, however, and that an alien race has landed on their planet that intends to wipe them out. Despite the danger, the men vow to stop that from happening.

The Watch does some things you expect and some things you don’t, but it does nearly all of them wrong. For example, in the film, Jonah Hill plays a toughened wanna-be cop, one that has no problem eyeing people down and whipping out his switchblade. He charges headfirst into battle unafraid of the consequences. This goes against our created perception of who this person is as an actor, but the problem is Hill can’t pull this type of roll off. He’s at his best when he’s vulnerable, nerdy and outspoken, not acting like he’s tougher than tough. Vaughn, on the other hand, essentially plays himself. He’s still obnoxious, crude and loud (does he really need to yell every line?) and he overpowers everyone else in the film, especially poor Richard Ayoade, who is given hardly a line to speak at all for the first half of the film and is mostly relegated to sitting their prettily while the rest of the cast plays off each other. Vaughn’s shtick has become tiresome, wearing out its welcome sometime around when the credits for Wedding Crashers ended. He hasn’t had a hit (or even a decent movie) in at least six years and there’s a reason for that. The man needs to switch things up a bit.

Vaughn needed to go against typecast and Hill needed to remain the same. This is just one example of the film having the right idea, but then ignoring it and doing the exact opposite. It correctly puts the group into some precarious situations, but it telegraphs them so far in advance that they’re hardly a surprise when they finally roll around. One of these scenes revolves around a new neighbor who acts suspiciously and may or may not be an alien, but his mannerisms are so sexual that what’s really going on in his basement is obvious. The late movie twist is similarly transparent, but it’s not its predictability that’s the problem; it’s that a certain character’s actions and motivations are called into question once it happens. There’s no real reason behind any of what happens. It just coasts along straining for jokes, never really grabbing any, and then it ends.

But it doesn’t end before a giant action scene so reminiscent of James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens that I’m a little surprised it didn’t reference it. The only thing that separates this alien action scene from others is where the aliens’ weak spot is (I’ll give you one guess), but such immaturity is not inherently funny. After watching this dreck, you’d be surprised if anyone involved in its making has even heard the word “funny.” I’m so vehemently against this brain killing film that I have no qualms telling you to skip it, though the product placement is so egregious, it probably won’t matter. In what amounts to essentially a cinematic fellation of the wholesale store, Costco could have conceivably covered the film’s entire budget. It will most likely be a success, but nevertheless, comedies like this are not okay. Lazy, dull and stupid only begin to describe it. Most real life neighborhood watches are uneventful and boring, but it’s hard to imagine any are more boring than sitting through The Watch.

The Watch receives 0.5/5

Friday
Jun082012

Prometheus

Early word on Prometheus was that it was going to be a prequel to Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi terror, Alien. Later, word came out that it had blossomed into an entirely different story completely separate from the Alien world. Finally, we were told it would exist within the same world of Alien and maybe cross paths, but still have its own mythology that won’t interfere with what Alien established. I hesitate to divulge how integral it is to the Alien movies, but whatever it is, it’s solid. It’s not the scariest movie in the world, nor the most exciting, but it has ideas and explores a question that has plagued mankind since its creation: how did we get here?

The movie begins in Scotland in 2089. Two researchers, Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan-Marshall Green), have just stumbled upon a cave painting that dates back at least 35,000 years. It predates any similar discovery they’ve ever made, but it shares a common characteristic: it depicts humans pointing towards the stars. In each painting, the stars were shaped in the same manner, exactly like a galaxy that those primitive cultures never should have (or could have) known about, given that it was too far away to be seen with the naked eye. This leads the researchers to believe that there may be life out there and that maybe that life created us. A few years later, after sleeping in stasis aboard the spaceship Prometheus, they, along with 15 other crewmen and women, arrive to explore a planet that they hope will give them meaning to their existence.

If you’re alive today (and if you’re reading this, I have to assume you are), chances are you’ve thought about the meaning of life. You’ve wondered how we got here, what the purpose of our existence is and who, if anybody, created us. Prometheus wonders that too. The screenplay (and therefore, the characters) taps into our natural human curiosity, our intellectual need for answers. It has a natural wonder of how life began and how important (or, just maybe, unimportant) it is. Their search is what keeps you drawn in because their curiosity is our curiosity. Although obviously fictional, what they discover is mind-blowing and only those without a similar intellectual desire for answers will find their revelations uninteresting.

Greater emphasis could have been put into the validity (or lack thereof) of religion in regards to their findings, which would have made a powerful real world statement on an important modern issue, especially given that one of the characters carries her faith with her regardless of the contradictions she discovers along the way, but religious observation is not the movie’s goal. Its ambitions go much higher than that—besides, human existence probably isn’t as simple as many religions make it out to be—but that ambition is its primary problem. Aiming high and hitting the target is a hard thing to do and Prometheus doesn’t quite reach the standards it, and its eagerly awaiting fans, have set for it.

Ridley Scott tries to convey the same sense of terror portrayed in his quintessential 1979 science fiction landmark, perhaps in an effort to make some type of tonal connection between the two, but his ambition requires a broader scope that contradicts Alien’s more focused nature. Alien took place all on one ship where there was nowhere to hide, giving it an unsettling, claustrophobic feeling while Prometheus takes place across multiple locales, both land and ship. The characters travel all the way through space and explore a previously unexplored planet and what appears to be an elongated cave with its own breathable atmosphere. It also introduces far too many characters, 17 in total, most of whom get only a minute or two of dedicated screen time before essentially disappearing. It focuses on a select few people, including the captain (Idris Elba), Meredith (Charlize Theron) and the ship’s android, David (Michael Fassbender), as it should, but it only brings forth the question, why even have the other characters?

Regardless of its sci-fi content, Prometheus is a human story. Its grandeur may not match its ambition like Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the fact that it has ambition at all is worthy of praise. Those looking for another Alien movie will walk away disappointed—in nearly every regard, Prometheus is quite different—but those who have a natural wonder about where we came from and what our purpose is will find Prometheus both profound and awe inspiring.

Prometheus receives 4/5