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Entries in Science Fiction (19)

Friday
Oct142011

The Thing

The Thing is a franchise that continually defies expectations. The 1951 original, The Thing from Another World, escaped the usual silliness of man-from-space pictures of the time period with strong central characters and a couple of impressive horror set pieces. In 1982, John Carpenter released his take on the story, simply titled The Thing, that managed to be one of only a select few remakes in movie history that improved on the original in almost every way. What it may have lacked in characterization, it made up for with unrelenting terror. It was a masterful display of suspense and it still holds up today. Then in 2002, Carpenter’s film got a terrific video game sequel that surprised gamers everywhere by breaking the trend of poor licensed video games. Now in 2011, we get a prequel to Carpenter’s film, also titled The Thing, that any person would rightfully expect to be lousy, but it’s not. It’s not as good as its predecessor, but it works and does so in a different way, separating itself from Carpenter’s version while still retaining its style. This is a franchise that can do no wrong.

The film takes place days before the events of 1982’s The Thing at a nearby Norwegian camp in Antarctica where a team of scientists have just found an alien spacecraft and a specimen frozen in the ice. To help unearth and examine it, they enlist the help of American paleontologist, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who soon realizes that the cells of the creature aren’t dying and are able to fuse themselves with the cells of other living creatures, replicating them perfectly. After it escapes, it’s a game of wits as nobody in the compound can trust anybody else. Any of them could be the thing.

The idea of not knowing who is a person and who is a thing was the driving the force behind Carpenter’s movie and the same is true here, though to a lesser degree. Although technically a prequel, it feels like a remake of the remake, following in its footsteps to a tee, including the lock-up of suspicious characters in a cabin outside and a variation on the blood test scene to check who is a monster and who isn’t, but it’s done well, building a good amount of tension and excellently playing off the fears of paranoia and claustrophobia. These early moments are undoubtedly its high points.

Eventually, however, it succumbs to monster movie madness and becomes nothing more than a gross-out creature feature. It becomes more jumpy and more effects oriented and thus, less effective. The tension is replaced by loud, overblown spectacle and the characters spend less time worrying about who is a thing and more time running from them, but it never gets boring. Because the movie has spent its early moments focusing on the characters, the sense of peril remains. You’ve come to care about them and even though the mystery is gone and the suspense is fading, its outcome remains as emotionally important as ever, despite the fact that, thanks to its prequel status, it had already been decided.

Where The Thing falters the most is in its climactic moments where it gets a bit too Hollywood and shows us too much. To go further would be critically irresponsible, but it ends up raising more questions than it answers, which is baffling given that it won’t ever have the chance to answer them (short of shooting a sequel separate from the Carpenter movie). Still, as far as these things go, this is pretty good. Creature features are generally silly, redundant and ineffective. The Thing proves not all creature features are created equal.

The Thing receives 4/5

Friday
Aug192011

Attack the Block

It’s that time again: time to go against the grain. Resting at a comfortable 89% on Rotten Tomatoes as of the time of this writing, Attack the Block seems to be a critical darling, praised for its irreverence, wit and constant sci-fi thrills. To call those critics wrong is not something I’m willing to do (after all, movies can be interpreted and experienced in many different ways); perhaps I simply saw a different movie. As a couple colleagues of mine joked, there must be a non-suck version and that version must have eluded me.

Attack the Block comes from Britain and takes place in a small area of South London. An unruly gang of hoodlums are marching the streets and robbing those who venture into their neighborhood. After terrorizing one innocent pedestrian, an alien crash lands on their block. The boys kill it and think it’s over, but more are on their way. Considering the block their territory, they decide to defend it and take to the streets to exterminate as many creatures as they can.

A lot goes wrong in a lot of movies, but most problems can be overcome with strong characters. Unfortunately, Attack the Block hasn’t one, human or otherwise. The members of the gang, who I’ve neglected to name because, frankly, it doesn’t matter, are carbon copies of each other, lacking in distinct personalities. If not for their differing clothes, you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart. They all act the same, as members of gangs often do, and until the very end, none have real motivations for doing what they do; they just do because, well, the movie wouldn’t have been much of a movie if they hadn’t.

The script overlooks (or simply neglects) giving them separate personalities, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise because these characters don’t even act like real people. They’re missing the most basic of human behaviors, never properly or realistically reacting to the fact that they just found and killed an alien. As far as the audience can tell, this is a natural occurrence for them. Amazement and curiosity are nowhere to be found.

Even if they had been fleshed out, however, the simple fact remains that the characters are delinquents, a bane on society and the epitome of what’s wrong with much of the world. They’re so unlikable and devoid of most redeeming qualities, you quickly begin rooting for the aliens to take them out. But then you realize the aliens are just as uninteresting. Sporting one of the most bland and unimaginative creature designs in recent memory, the aliens in Attack the Block are essentially shadows with blue teeth. It’s one thing to keep your monsters deliberately hidden, but these are in plain sight, yet you can't really see them. It’s a lazy effort, a design that required little to no creativity.

Of course, this is a low budget film, which I’m sure explains why they look the way they do, but that’s hardly an excuse these days. Look at last year’s Monsters, for instance, which was made on a shoestring budget of, according to Box Office Mojo, only $500,000. The aliens in that film had a unique look (though they were, admittedly, shown much less), but what really stands the two films apart is that Monsters had real characters and emotional depth. Attack the Block is shallow and stupid. Its jump scares are cliché and predictable (if a character is looking through a peephole, crack, window, etc., you can be sure something’s going to pop up) and the direction, while not terrible, is noticeably amateurish; first time film director Joe Cornish leaves little or no headroom for his actors, a distracting oversight. Attack the Block is no doubt reveling in the praise its getting, but that praise is beyond me.

Attack the Block receives 1.5/5

Thursday
Jun092011

Super 8

For many people, Super 8 is one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, the same man behind 2009’s most exciting film, Star Trek, and produced by none other than cinema legend Steven Spielberg, Super 8 was bound for greatness. But, like most other movies this year, it hits some sour notes along the way. It’s incredibly entertaining, full of heart and whimsy, but when all is said and done, it’s not much different from any other sci-fi creature feature you’ve ever seen.

The film takes place in the 70’s and follows a group of kids as they set out to make their own little movie for an upcoming film festival. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is directing while one of his best friends, Joe (Joel Courtney) does make-up. It’s a zombie movie and they already have their lead and zombie(s) in the form of Martin (Gabriel Basso) and Cary (Ryan Lee). What they need now is a romantic interest, so they employ Joe’s crush, Alice (Elle Fanning) and set out to make their movie. While filming one night on a seemingly abandoned train station platform, an Air Force train passes by, derails and its cargo escapes. The problem is that the cargo is alive and is now wreaking havoc in their small Ohio town.

Super 8 is a filmmaker’s love letter to filmmaking. Because the central story involves a group of kids shooting their own movie, Abrams gives himself an opportunity to mock certain aspects of the filmmaking process. He pokes fun at rewrites, pushy directors, cost cutting and even distracting background extras. Throughout the film, the kids keep shooting, despite the creature running around, and even use the recent destruction as backgrounds for their shots. In a way, Abrams is giving a cinematic hug to film. He loves it and does his best to push that love onto us. When you finally get to see the kids’ final product during the credits, which include the scenes they shot within the scenes of the bigger movie you just finished watching, you’ll realize he succeeded.

Given the marketing of Super 8, which makes it out to be a serious tale, many will find the film to be more charming and funny than they expected. Unfortunately, also due to the marketing, which, like many movies Abrams is involved in, kept the plot details in a shroud of secrets, many will also find themselves disappointed by the time those credits roll around. To put it simply (and to avoid inadvertent spoilers), the set-up is better than the payoff. It begins with a bang (quite literally), setting up a mystery that begs to be solved, but once it is, it’s nearly impossible not to feel underwhelmed. You’ve seen this type of movie before, especially if you’re familiar with Spielberg’s body of work. It’s a shame because the film is so well done, but when a mystery is played up as much as it is in Super 8, the solution should be unique, not ripped from other films. Call it homage if you want; that doesn’t make it any less redundant.

Still, even with that massive problem, the film is endlessly enjoyable thanks to terrific performances from its mostly child cast (some of which have never acted before), Abrams fine eye for detail and his keen understanding of human emotion. You’ll laugh a lot during Super 8, but you might be surprised to find yourself tearing up too. Abrams begins the movie with the death of Joe’s mother and then milks it for the next hour and 45 minutes, but it’s never excessive or manipulative. He handles it delicately and you’ll never feel like you’re crying simply because you’re supposed to.

Abrams nails the comedy and the drama, but in his attempt to hit the emotional trifecta with fear, he fails. Super 8 is not scary, but it tries real hard with a large number of “Boo!” scares, which any filmgoer knows are merely startling (and that’s not the same as scary). It also goes a little overboard with its time period jokes. It’s cute for a while, but making fun of portable audio cassette players is a bit obvious and not particularly inspired.

Super 8 isn’t as frenetic as Star Trek and it’s not as novel as Cloverfield (which Abrams produced), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It exists separately from Abrams’ other cinematic endeavors, though not from other cinematic endeavors in general. Super 8 is a good movie, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s not the mind-blowing spectacle it wants to be and, perhaps pretentiously, thinks it is.

Super 8 receives 3.5/5

Friday
Dec172010

Tron: Legacy

The original Tron was a groundbreaking film. It wasn’t particularly good, but it did something no other film had done before. It created an entire living digital world. It was basically Avatar for 1982. It had great visuals (for its time), but it had no soul. Its sequel, Tron: Legacy, which sported one of the most promising trailers to be released this year, is much the same. It’s a beautiful piece of eye candy that is as hollow as films come.

The story begins in 1989. Kevin Flynn (a young digitized Jeff Bridges) is tucking his son, Sam (played at this age by Owen Best), into bed and telling him a story about Tron, the grid and the so called “miracle” that is about to occur. Afterwards, Flynn heads off to work, but never comes back. He has disappeared and nobody knows where he has gone. Twenty years later, Sam (now played by Garrett Hedlund) is all grown up and living alone. His father’s company, Encom, is being run by others because he refuses to head it himself (which is of little significance to the movie). When one of Flynn’s old friends, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), who still rocks a pager, receives a page from the number of Flynn’s old rundown arcade, which hasn’t been in operation for many years, Sam goes to check it out. There he stumbles on his dad’s old workspace and, after tinkering around with the controls, accidentally transports himself onto the grid, a digital space where an evil program called Clu (also played by Jeff Bridges) rules and forces programs to compete in a series of games.

At its best, Tron: Legacy is a visually arresting world of fancy and wonderment. At its worst, it’s a superficial piece of nonsense that lacks emotion and an engaging story. Unfortunately, visuals only get you so far. What this movie needed was a different script because the one it has is just awful. The entirety of the film is smothered in boring exposition that drags on for far too long and when it isn’t talking in technological psychobabble, it comes off like a really bad melodrama, taking the already ridiculous dialogue and littering it with over emotional gushiness. In a movie wishing to be fun, that's the wrong road to take.

Similarly, the action is boring and uninspired. Its visuals may be state-of-the-art, but its action certainly isn't. Most of what you see here was presented in the original movie. There’s a disk battle, a light cycle race and more, but the only thing separating it from its predecessor is its shinier coat of paint. And in close combat, it does nothing countless other films haven’t done, merely replacing swords with data disks.

There are some big problems with Tron: Legacy, but there are a myriad of smaller ones as well. As stated, the visuals are very impressive, but its digital recreation of a young Jeff Bridges comes at a price. Because his face is covered by computer effects as Clu, the physical emotion and facial expressions in his performance—which is underwhelming to begin with—are hidden. When he’s acting as the aged Flynn, the effect isn't much better. At times, the Dude from The Big Lebowski surfaces, which is funny if you’re familiar with that movie, but it’s contextually inappropriate and shatters the illusion that you’ve been transported to another world. Likewise, Michael Sheen pops up in a small role and at one point seems to channel the spirit of Charlie Chaplin, which is, again, unfitting in this universe.

Those small problems, which also include random, unnecessary interjections within certain scenes, add up to much more than a mild nuisance and contribute in breaking up the flow of the film. No matter how you cut it, Tron: Legacy just isn’t very good. It’s a shallow, heartless, empty movie with snazzy special effects and little else.

Tron: Legacy receives 1.5/5

Friday
Nov122010

Skyline

The equipment to create state-of-the-art visual effects must be getting cheaper. Last year’s District 9 and last week’s Monsters have proven that a low budget does not equate to poor visuals. But those superb effects were merely footnotes in otherwise grand movies rich with character and heart. Skyline, a similar low budget monster movie, nails the look, but is missing the substance.

The melodramatic story follows a group of C-list actors as they attempt to survive an alien invasion in Los Angeles. There’s Elaine (Scottie Thompson), who is pregnant with Jarrod’s (Eric Balfour) baby, but Jarrod just isn’t ready to be a father. They are visiting their friends Candice (Brittany Daniel) and her boyfriend Terry (Donald Faison), who is cheating on Candice with Denise (Crystal Reed). Joining them is an employee of the apartment complex they live in, Oliver (David Zayas).

If not already noticeable, the cast of Skyline is full of “that guys.” There’s “that guy from Scrubs,” “that guy from Dexter,” “that guy from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and a host of others that you’ll recognize, but won't be sure where from. It’s a group of actors and actresses that have only been interesting when working opposite someone with talent. Alone, they fizzle and when coupled together, it’s like watching a class of amateurs struggle through a simple acting exercise.

Given that they are forced to say and do some stupid things probably doesn’t help their case, however. When watching a movie like this, you expect the characters to make bad decisions, but there at least has to be a moderately reasonable path to those decisions. At one point, an alien peeks inside the windows to the apartment they are holed up in because they have foolishly left the blinds open. While they hide behind objects in the room, the alien takes off. They quickly establish that they can’t be seen or heard and all they need to do is close the blinds and be quiet. So, naturally, they decide to make a run for it. The writing is full of moments like this. To keep things fresh, the flimsiest reasons to go outside are given to the characters and they’re all head slappers.

The worst part of that, however, is that they end up back where they started minutes later. There’s nothing in the script that keeps them moving forward. The majority of the film is spent watching them watch the creatures outside. It plays like a movie that only wishes to showcase its special effects. With these one-dimensional characters, it was probably a smart decision.

Skyline is directed by the Brothers Strause, their sophomore effort after Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. What a resume. If these two movies are any indication, these guys are so focused on what their film looks like that they forget to do anything else. They get so excited by the idea of showing off disgusting creatures that their characters come off as an afterthought.

And an afterthought is pretty much what this movie is. It’s a case of too little, too late and it rips off other better monster movies, including Cloverfield and War of the Worlds. At times, there is a strange appeal to its flashy look, but there’s nothing to compliment it. Skyline works where it wants to, but if your movie is driven solely on the basis of the special effects, you have failed.

Skyline receives 2/5