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Entries in Science Fiction (19)

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

Friday
May252012

Men in Black 3

Men in Black 3 is an oddity. Nobody was really asking for it, but at the same time, it’s easy to understand why it’s here. It comes from a popular franchise with a likable, funny star that has always churned out impressive box office numbers and this new installment is likely to do the same. Still, Men in Black 3 shows its age and while it’s not the funniest movie in the world (especially when compared to the previous installments), it makes up for it with a surprisingly affecting story and an ending that makes you completely reevaluate the relationship between the two main characters.

The film begins with a sultry vixen who is about to break the last Boglodite in the universe, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), out from a top secret prison located on the moon. He has been locked up for over 40 years thanks to Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), who shot off his arm in the apprehension, and his first order of business is to take him out before that fateful day. He succeeds in doing so, but only after going back in time, all the way back to 1969. K’s partner, Agent J (Will Smith) is the only person who isn’t affected by the altered history (for nebulous reasons), so he also heads back in time to save the young K (Josh Brolin) from an untimely demise.

The first thing one notices when watching Men in Black 3 is how much its stars have aged. In the other films, Jones played the hardened older man who had to put up with the uncouth style of a young Will Smith. Now, Jones isn’t playing the hardened older man. He has actually become one and his lack of caring shows. He coasts by in this role, almost as if he’s wondering why he’s there dressed up once again in a black suit, shooting CGI creations with silly looking plastic guns. The filmmakers try to recreate the magic from the other films, but the original film came out 15 years ago and Smith doesn’t fit the young, quick witted role anymore. He’s old enough where he could play the hardened older K from the original film and a younger face could play him.

In their attempt to recapture the olden days, the humor comes off as outdated as well. This futuristic, science fiction, alien invasion movie, which should be able to come up with better jokes than the typical “look how old this stuff is” material so many time travel movies rely on, succumbs to just that. The neuralyzer, the spiffy device used to wipe the memories of those who witness the actions of the Men in Black, takes time to charge and is attached to a battery pack, for example. It’s this type of laziness that keeps the movie from matching its predecessors in laughs. If you’re going for the comedy, you might as well not go at all.

However, what Men in Black 3 misses in that area, it makes up for with its solid story and emotional ending. It may have an uninteresting and barely menacing villain played by a miscast actor who isn’t all that compelling to begin with, but viewers aren’t going for him. They’re going for the connection between K and J, to watch their relationship grow, and boy does it ever. The final scene, a twist that is satisfying without being obvious, works incredibly well and makes you appreciate their characters that much more. It adds a new, more personal, layer to their relationship that works in the moment, even if it may not necessarily work in conjunction with previous films.

Only repeat viewings of the other two movies will be able to tell if it does or not, sans for a few unmissable plot holes like the supposedly long history Agent K has with Agent O (played in the present day by Emma Thompson and in the past by Alice Eve), despite her exclusion in the series up until this point. The character is connected very loosely to what’s going on, serving only as an expositional narrative device, and fails on multiple levels of poor screenwriting because of it. But the movie as a whole, as cliché as it is to say, is greater than the sum of its parts. Men in Black 3 isn’t a reinvigoration of the franchise or particularly interesting as a standalone film, but as the emotional bookend to two memorable and lovable characters, it works.

Men in Black 3 receives 3/5

Friday
Apr132012

Lockout

Movies that aim low are hard to review. Critics criticize films that are loud, overblown and silly, but if that’s its intention, does it become something we should praise? It’s all about perspective when it comes to movies like this week’s Lockout. Some will destroy it for its clichés and unoriginality while others will check their brains at the door and just have fun with it. Although I certainly recognize its problems and all around derivativeness, I’m in the latter group of critics. Lockout is good dumb fun, plain and simple.

The movie is set in 2079 and stars Guy Pearce as Snow, an ex-CIA operative who is finding himself in trouble with the law, accused of conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States. He knows such is not the case, but all evidence points to the contrary. The only thing that can save him is a briefcase that was left with his partner, Mace, played by Tim Plester. Unfortunately, Mace is now locked up in a new maximum security prison floating in space called M.S. One where he is kept in a state of stasis, just like all prisoners imprisoned there. However, all hell is about to break loose. It turns out that the President’s daughter, Emilie Warnock, played by Maggie Grace, is onboard to ensure that no corruption is taking place. When she pulls a prisoner out of stasis to interview him, he grabs a guard’s gun and escapes, freeing all of the other prisoners in the process, including his brother and ringleader, Alex, played by Vincent Regan. Due to the situation, the government makes Snow an offer. Get in there and rescue Emilie and he can go free. Seeing it also as an opportunity to find Mace, locate the briefcase and prove his innocence, he accepts.

The film, as so many have described it, is basically Escape from New York in space. In that movie, the main character was tasked with finding the President in a futuristic prison setting. Here it’s the President’s daughter. The protagonists in both films are strong, skilled in combat and have smart mouths. They’re more interested in cracking quips than cracking skulls. Fans who rejoiced over the stalled plans to remake Escape from New York may let out an exhaustive grown over Lockout because the two are so similar, it may as well come out from behind is poorly veiled “original concept” cover and own up to ripping off that beloved cult classic.

But those semantics should be left to the studios to fight out. For moviegoers, all that matters is if it’s any good or not. Luckily, it is. This is exactly what one should expect from a movie at this time of year, about a month before the summer movie season kicks off with The Avengers. It doesn’t do anything to blow you away, but it works as a serviceable time killer until the heavy hitters arrive. It’s a ridiculous movie to be sure—I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure it broke about a dozen unbreakable laws of science—but that’s part of its charm. It never takes itself too seriously and embraces its silliness.

This leads to some welcome comedy in a film that could have otherwise been a grim, violent tale. Guy Pearce, one of our most underappreciated and talented actors, is wonderful here, striking the perfect balance between machismo and playful shenanigans. He takes a role that could have been capably filled by any moderately talented actor and makes it his own, obviously having fun playing a man who knows he’s unstoppable. His evil counterparts are just as fantastic as they spout off intimidating, yet humorous one-liners while they terrorize the workers on the floating spacecraft. As one might expect, a romance between Snow and Emilie is tacked onto the film, but it’s so lazily thrown in there that it barely exists at all and does little to detract from the fun of what you’re watching.

It’s easy to criticize a movie for being dumb, but it’s far more fulfilling to embrace its absurdity and go with it, especially if the film itself is aware of what it’s doing. I was able to do that with Lockout. Sure, its stupidity sometimes borders on condescending, like through its onscreen textual introductions of every character and location (including some that are introduced multiple times, just in case someone forgot that the giant floating complex in space was the prison), but it would be hypocritical of me to praise the film for its unabashed idiocy while simultaneously criticizing it for the very same thing. Lockout is pure escapist entertainment and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most who watch about it will probably forget about it in another month or so, but in the moment, it’s a fun ride.

Lockout receives 3.5/5

Friday
Mar092012

John Carter

Money doesn’t make a movie. A big budget film can still be hackneyed and derivative (see Avatar for that) and a movie with a low budget can be wonderfully imaginative with richly drawn characters and thought provoking subject matter (like Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, which was made on a budget of well under one million dollars). This week’s John Carter, with its purported budget of around $250 million, is a clear example of the former. No amount of money could save its abysmal script, uninteresting and hopelessly convoluted story, bad acting and generic action. If early predictions are correct, John Carter could end up being one of the biggest flops of the year, perhaps of all time. Based on what I’ve seen, such failure wouldn’t only be justified. It would be worth cheering over.

The story revolves around the titular John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) a Civil War veteran who one day stumbles upon a fabled cave. There he finds a medallion which transports him to Mars. Upon arriving, he is greeted by a species of tall green creatures led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), who is initially interested in John’s ability to jump vast distances (due to the different gravitational pull of the planet), but soon finds his rebellion untrustworthy. John becomes their prisoner, but soon a war breaks out between the planet’s different factions and he is called upon by Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to help stop Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the leader of a race called the Therns, who, I don’t know, control the planet’s destiny or something.

As with most movies that are too complicated for their own good, it’s not difficult to get the gist of what is happening in John Carter—an ordinary man is placed in an extraordinary situation and must help defend Mars’ inhabitants from an approaching evil—but specifics are difficult to decipher. Much of this is due to the fact that it’s far too hard to even distinguish between characters, much less figure out their motivations. The aforementioned tall green species, for example, all have four arms, tusks growing out of their heads and nearly identical skin tones. I’m sure you could spot tiny differences from alien to alien, but the baffling story will most likely keep you from caring enough to do so.

Such a lack of imagination permeates not just in those creatures’ design, but through the entire film. Although Mars is indeed nothing more than surface rocks in the real world, such bleak, dreary visuals are unbecoming for a science fiction film. When Carter first arrives, his surrounding environment looks more like a Western than anything else, only without trees and with a redder hue. There are aliens other than those generic green people on the planet too, but they’re nothing more than humans with tattoos on their faces and silly costumes that look like they were made out of plastic. In a sci-fi world set on Mars, there needs to be more. It’s too simple to make half of the creatures human and the other half humanlike, only with two more arms and green skin.

Such blandness begs the question: where did that $250 million go? The effects are good, though not always effective, and most of the actors aren’t recognized enough to demand too high of paychecks. It shows too. Taylor Kitsch doesn’t have the chops to carry a big action film such as this and he annoyingly speaks in a whispered monotone, similar to Jack Bauer in TV’s 24, which South Park so brilliantly lampooned in Season 11’s “The Snuke.” His love interest, played by Collins, is similarly poor. If you look through her filmography, you’ll see that she’s been in well known films like Bug, The Number 23 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but chances are you won’t remember her in any of them. Something tells me there’s a reason for that.

Twenty minutes into John Carter, I was ready for it to end, but then it went on for another two hours. That’s a long time to sit through a movie with almost nothing going for it, including its shoddily up-converted 3D effects that remind us, even after Scorsese utilized the format so beautifully in Hugo, that it’s little more than a cash grabbing gimmick and rarely useful in the telling of a story. Simply put, John Carter lacks the vitality of the science fiction genres most beloved films. It’s a waste of time of money.

John Carter receives 1/5

Friday
Oct282011

In Time

Now here’s something the cinema world is lacking: an exciting science fiction movie with an original premise, an emotional story and a point to make. For what it’s worth, In Time is simply phenomenal. Its trailers make it out to be a simple story full of the same mindless action we’ve come to expect, but it turns out to be so much more. It’s an allegorical statement on modern times. It’s a political calling. It’s about a corrupt system that feeds off the misery of the poor while the rich reap the benefits. It’s about challenging that system and doing what’s right even if what’s right goes against the established way of living. This movie, though presumably set in the future, is timely and relevant to today. It questions the way things are run and feeds off the anger many are feeling towards those who caused the current recession. In Time is not simply sci-fi fodder. It’s as intelligent and thought provoking a movie that has come out all year.

In the film’s universe, people have been genetically engineered to stop aging at the age of 25, but once they reach that age, they are given one more year to live. A clock that is wired in their arm begins to count down and once it reaches zero, they’re dead. Because of this, time is the new currency. To buy a coffee, you don’t pay with cash. You pay with minutes. Through this system, the rich are able to live forever while the poor struggle day by day to get by. Will (Justin Timberlake) is one of those poor people. Every day he wakes up and has mere hours to live, so he toils at his job at the factory and is given more time. One day, however, he is given over 100 years by a rich man who has had it with life and is ready to die. Unfortunately, the police force, called Timekeepers, led by Raymond (Cillian Murphy), thinks he stole the time and killed the man. So the chase is on, but not before he enlists the help of wealthy socialite, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried).

The rich prosper while the poor struggle day by day to get by. Sound familiar? If there’s one movie this year that nails the financial crisis we are currently in, it’s this one. It expresses its disgust by the greed of a select few while millions suffer daily. It asks why, when there are more than enough resources for all to live on, we allow such suffering to take place. It takes the notion of social Darwinism (called “Darwinian capitalism” in the movie) and explores it thoroughly, applying the phrase “survival of the fittest” not simply to physical strength or evolutionary superiority, but to riches and status. And it does it all within its own futuristic world; it never sacrifices its story to make a point. Instead, it coalesces the two, creating something that works by itself, but has significance to the real world.

Even if you took away all of that commentary, In Time would still be something worth watching. It takes a downright brilliant concept and runs with it, tapping into a fear we all have: our impending deaths. We all know that one day, we’re going to die, but it’s the not knowing when that makes it easy to live. If we knew precisely how much time we had left, everything would be different, but that’s something these characters have to deal with and you fear for them just as they fear for themselves. Every tick of the clock weighs heavy on your emotions and that combined with the mesmerizingly beautiful score manage to create feeling in a movie that would be easy to assume had none.

Is In Time perfect? No, of course not. No movie is. Some of the cutesy humor doesn’t work and feels out of place in a story where the characters face such dire situations, some of the dialogue is taken out of the handbook of action movie clichés and certain motivations don’t necessarily make sense (“No one should be immortal if even one person has to die” is flawed logic), but otherwise, In Time is tight, well crafted, poignant, refined and uncommonly intelligent. It couldn’t come at a better time, when Americans are lining up to protest Wall Street for screwing them over with corrupt business practices, and it dares to say something about the unfairness of the system we live in. This may be a work of fiction, but take away the futuristic element and it’s a based-on-a-true-story drama of modern times.

In Time receives 4.5/5