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Entries in Science Fiction (19)

Friday
Nov052010

Monsters

Monsters is an extraordinary accomplishment for one reason. It showcases effects that would be astonishing in a multi-million dollar budgeted film, but does it with much less, hovering somewhere around the $100,000 range, well above the reported $15,000 (a number debunked by a recent interview I participated in with the director of the film, Gareth Edwards). But regardless of its cost, Monsters is a tremendous cinematic achievement, at least on a technical level.

Years ago, NASA sent a probe into space to study what they thought may be alien life. Upon reentry, it broke apart and scattered over Mexico. Soon after, new forms of life began to appear. The creatures, seemingly hostile to humans, were quarantined off in what was dubbed “The Infected Zone,” which is roughly half the country. Photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is one of the unlucky few in the area. He has been sent there to escort his boss’s daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able) back to America, but after some chance occurrences strip them of their ticket home, they are forced to trek their way through “The Infected Zone” where the creatures dwell.

While that synopsis (and its ominous title) may make Monsters sound like a horror movie, it’s not. Like the best George Romero films, Monsters isn’t about the creatures. They merely exist as an outside factor in a story that is largely centered around humans. This is a tale of survival and connection. In fact, it’s more a love story than anything else and you’ll watch intently as Andrew and Samantha grow closer and closer throughout their journey. The bond they form as they wander through a ruined land covered with corpses, both human and otherwise, is touching to watch.

But despite all this talk of monsters, very few actually exist within the film, at least visually. This works much in the same way as Jaws, in that it keeps the monsters hidden as much as possible. It builds the mystery and suspense with only brief glimpses before completely unveiling them towards the climax. However, it works differently here. The feeling of awe and fright you’ll feel initially will be overcome by another emotion, one I hesitate to mention for fear of ruining anything. It’s this smart reversal of the expected that makes Monsters so fresh.

In fact, the most powerful moments in the movie don’t include the monsters at all. It’s the quiet moments that hit the hardest, like a scene over halfway through where the two protagonists, after going through some horrific experiences, climb an old Aztec structure and peer across the landscape where they can see the American border. Emotionally, Monsters works on every level and much of that credit is due to the two leads, who are quite convincing in their roles. While not exactly newcomers (both have had experience in other movies and television shows), they work well together and show considerable talent and chemistry together.

If it must be boiled down to one thing, Monsters is about the struggle of living. That struggle means dealing and coping with things beyond your control. This ideology exists with all living things and, filmically, does not limit itself only to the human characters. As Andrew and Samantha roam the wasteland on their way back to America, they learn new things about themselves as well as the creatures oozing around them. You’ll learn right along with them and by the end, you may be asking yourself who the true monsters really are.

Monsters receives 4/5

Thursday
Jul152010

Inception

It would be underselling it to call The Dark Knight a success. This time two years ago, the world was readying itself for the return of Batman and chomping at the bits. Expectations were high, yet, somehow, they were met. Destined to go down as one of the greatest cinematic experiences of all time, The Dark Knight changed the way we look at movies. Well, prepare to have that view altered again, this time by Inception, director Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, mind-bending experiment that ranks among the best of the year.

However, explaining why may prove difficult. Having just finished it, with its story behind me and an analysis before me, I think it may be better to just skip the plot synopsis altogether because discovery is better left up to the viewer and, well, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Still, these key things must be understood. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are extractors, men who dive into the minds of their targets and steal information while they sleep. To do so, they need an architect, found in the form of Ariadne (Ellen Page), a person who can construct the dream to make it seem real to the target. Their latest job takes them into the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), but this one is different from the rest. Instead of stealing a memory, they will be implanting one through a process called inception.

In my excitement for this movie, I had a dream. I dreamt I was sitting in a theater and the lights were dimming. The title card appeared and I was ready. I was about to watch Inception. I had been waiting months for it and could hardly contain myself. As it began, however, the crowd became angrily loud. Babies were crying, illiterate kids were asking parents what the subtitles were saying and moviegoers with no etiquette spoke loudly so as to disrupt my enjoyment. I soon awoke and realized how bizarre my dream world had been. The theater was misshapen and it contained no walls, with hallways stretching to the left and right as far as I could see. But it felt so real.

Inception uses this as the foundation for its story. At one point, Cobb tells Ariadne, “It’s only when we wake up that something seems strange.” He explains that in our slumber, our minds play tricks on us and we are unable to distinguish between real and imaginary. This idea is so infused in the movie that the questions it raises linger on well after the credits roll. Cobb has demons of his own and goes into his own dreamlike state to visit a lost love. But is it real? Are those feelings we feel when we’re dreaming—fear, anxiety, happiness, sadness—authentic? If they feel real, who’s to say they aren’t?

While those are important thematic questions, I don’t want to get too philosophical. Inception is an action picture through and through. From a rotating room to a zero gravity battle to a James Bond like ski slope shootout, this film has it all. You’ll see things you never thought were possible, or even thought of at all. You’ll follow the characters through multiple layers of dreams, each stacked on another like a poker chip, but it never gets too confusing. It’s a thinking man’s action picture, which is a breath of fresh air in a summer diluted with idiotic action fare.

If there’s one problem with the film, it would be the lack of emotional connection to what’s unfolding onscreen. So much time is spent on the twisting story that it forgets to provide us with a reason to care. But when your movie is as smart, exciting and unique as this, it’s easy to look past it. Nolan directs with a careful eye, always shooting for practical effects over digital when possible, and masterfully juggles the overlapping dream worlds while the more than capable cast give outstanding performances. All of this adds up to a fantastic, bizarre, imaginative masterpiece of cinema. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like Inception.

Inception receives 5/5

Friday
Jul092010

Predators

The Predator is one of the most iconic creatures in science fiction history. Show a picture of it and even those who haven’t yet met it call it by name. On the page, the Predator has battled with Batman, Superman, the Terminator and even Judge Dredd. It has starred in two full length video games facing off against the beasts from Ridley Scott’s Alien. But it began its killing spree on film in 1987 with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite a bad sequel (Predator 2) and two abysmal crossover films (Alien vs. Predator, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem), the Predator has stuck around based solely off the strength of the original film. The creature’s lasting ability is telling. Now, finally, after 23 years we have a sequel fit to carry on the legacy in Predators.

At the beginning of the film, we meet Royce (Adrien Brody) who is free-falling in mid-sleep. Luckily, he wakes up and is able to open his parachute, though he does so a little too late and lands with a thud in the middle of a jungle. On the ground he runs into seven other survivors, including Edwin (Topher Grace), Isabelle (Alice Braga), Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), Stans (Walter Goggins), Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). None of them know how or why they got there and only remember seeing a light before passing out. Forced to work together, they head off to seek answers, but realize none are to be found when they run into the Predators.

Much like the transition from Alien to Aliens, Predators is less a cold, calculated study on terror and more an action movie extravaganza. While Predator wasn’t exactly a horror show, it nevertheless took its time to build suspense and flesh out its characters. This time around it's run and gun. Plus, there was only one creature. Here, there are many. Rather than the scary thought that they could be lurking anywhere, you know from the get-go that they are everywhere.

It doesn’t quite have the same effect as the original, but it doesn’t intend to. Director Nimród Antal seems to be having quite a deal of fun delivering mindless action and the inherent cheesiness of classic action hero one-liners. The only two previous films of note to Antal’s name are the thriller Vacancy and the action picture Armored, both of which lacked the thrills and excitement required from their respective genres. However, he seems to have refined his craft and delivers well staged action scenes complete with both aforementioned traits, even if they do come off as a bit derivative.

Truth be told, this is another one of those “dumb fun” action pictures that have been flooding our screens lately. It isn’t nearly as refined as the original and fails to live up to the quality expected of a summer tent-pole release. In this instance, it’s because of the mediocre writing and some questionable casting. Topher Grace as the comic relief aside, Adrien Brody doesn’t fit comfortably in the role of the tough guy archetype. He spouts tough guy phrases, stands in tough guy positions and talks in a tough guy whisper, but the tough guy persona still seems missing, especially considering he’s working opposite renowned tough guy Danny Trejo.

It's a problem because Predators hinges on its actors and action due to a lackluster story. Outside of the kills, it’s impossible to spoil this movie because nothing really happens. The characters run around the jungle and come into contact with some Predators, some from both factions are killed and then it ends. Somewhere within all of that, the film fits in an assortment of clichés that really drag down the experience, like when one character pulls out a picture of his children to show the group, thus sealing his fate, and a silly, random swordfight between a human and a Predator that, for all intents and purposes, ends in a draw.

Predators isn’t going to change the way we look at action movies, nor is it going to bring a choir of praise as the original did, but it provides a fun, swift adrenaline kick that will surely be appreciated by moviegoers. It may not match the 1987 classic, but it’s certainly the best since.

Predators receives 3/5

Friday
Jun042010

Splice

When one thinks of the science fiction genre, many greats come to mind—2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Moon—but only a select few can truly call themselves scary. While not necessary to be effective, science fiction films are able to deliver more chills and thrills than the typical horror movie when done correctly, yet that breed of sci-fi is hard to come by. Not since 1979’s Alien has a genre film shown as much promise as Splice, the newest picture from Vincenzo Natali, the director of the cult hit Cube, but whereas Alien began with a sense of dread and carried it through to the end, Splice starts strong and then goes berserk from a number of insane plot turns that strip it of the tension it would have had otherwise.

The film stars Adrien Brody as Clive and Sarah Polley as Elsa, a pair of biochemists who are also in a romantic relationship. They’ve recently created a new organism by splicing together a number of different animal genes. The creature resembles more a gelatinous blob than an actual living thing, but nevertheless it is a scientific breakthrough. However, as any good scientist would do, they start to look towards the future in an attempt to take the next step, splicing those animal genes with human genes. Shockingly, the experiment works and the next thing they know they have a living, breathing animal/human hybrid that feels and thinks and learns.

But as anybody who has seen a similar movie will tell you, playing God never works out. As is expected, Splice is heavy on message, exploring the dangers of scientific gene splicing and creating life that was never intended to be. All creatures on this planet are here because they can forge for themselves and have adapted to their environments, so naturally creating an entirely new species has its drawbacks. Despite its familiarity, the theme was interesting, but as it went on, it wandered off course.

This downfall is characteristic of the entire movie, in fact. As the lights dimmed and Splice began, I found myself in awe. Was I finally seeing the creepy, intelligent science fiction film I had been waiting for? It appeared so. It was subtle. It was moody. It was spooky without resorting to cheap jump scares. The creature was unpredictable. The relationship between the two leads was believable and the quarrels they had due to differing opinions rang true. This was a masterpiece of science fiction filmmaking.

But about halfway through, something strange happened. That feeling disappeared and the inanity of the plot took over. Instead of sitting on the edge of my seat, I was slumping over it laughing at the stupidity of it all.

In all fairness, the second half isn’t bad, but it doesn’t fit the brooding beginning. Both parts work on their own terms, but don’t work together so my amazement and excitement quickly turned to disappointment and loathing. I began to hate Splice if only for not realizing its own potential.

I hesitate to go on because I fear I may ruin the surprises in store for anybody who happens to see this film. They’re real howlers and must be seen to be believed. When you don’t think it can get any crazier, the filmmaker throws a curveball resetting the rules of what you can expect to happen. Equal parts creepy sci-fi and campy B-movie, Splice is a mixed bag. My feelings are still battling it out in an attempt to decide whether or not I even like the movie, but when all is said and done, the fact remains that it’s a hodgepodge of blunders and missteps. It's worth a viewing, but once the shock wears off, you'll realize there's no reason to ever view it again.

Splice receives 2.5/5

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