Tag Archives: Sci-fi

Arrival (2016)

16 Nov

Arrivalthe latest from director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Enemy), adds to a recent tradition of what has been termed “the science-conscious sci-fi film.” Following in the steps of films like Interstellar and The Martian , Arrival presents us with a problem that lands squarely on the shoulders of scientists for figuring out.

Here, we have Louise (Amy Adams) a linguists university professor who has been called in by a secret military faction led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), because of her optimal translation skills and her previous clearance with handling government-classified areas. The reason is simple: mysterious extraterrestrial ships have been found across the globe and the US government is desperate to make some sort of contact with whoever is inside these ships in an effort to get answers before public panic sets in. Of course, communication with alien beings proves to be easier said than done, and increasing tensions between world governments escalate while the probability of finding a peaceful Q&A session fades to violence.

Villeneuve is no doubt one of the most talented directors working today and he brings a singular film adapted from a short story written by Ted Chiang. As a director who prefers subtlety over boldness, Villeneuve’s take on the alien invasion drama draws tension from the moments that aren’t shown on screen rather than those that are given to us. Most of the events are presented in minimalistic fashion (a stylistic choice that hasn’t been seen in the genre since maybe Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin?) with an emphasis on the physiological versus physical conflict within the characters. A chopped-up narrative featuring flashbacks and flashforwards adds confusion early in the film but makes its place known in the narrative later on.

Supporting Amy Adams is Jeremy Renner playing Ian, a theoretical physicist who teams with Louise in an effort to reach understanding of the extra-planetary visitors. Though both are fine actors, and give much to the film individually, the pseudo love-interest stuff between the couple feels fake and forced. Standard, sure-fire dialogue is everywhere in Arrival, where many characters’ lines feel like either direct exposition or a statement of the blatantly obvious settings. But like most Villeneuve’s work, it’s the sentiments in between the lines that becomes the most compelling. Here, we have vast thematic inklings of philosophy, language, and the nature of violence sprinkled around the obvious “don’t shoot, they are peaceful” lines that place Arrival neatly into blockbuster territory. The result is a typical story wrapped in an artful, minimized, and ideologically-heavy package.

Bottom Line: Denis Villeneuve’s latest focuses more on big ideas than it does big explosions, which might be a bit trying for viewers expecting the traditional alien invasion. Though it dives into melodrama territory a bit too often, Arrival is a well-directed piece of sci-fi that feels paradoxically both intimate and ambitious. 

Rating: 7/10 

Film Recipie: Interstellar (2014) + Solaris (2002)

The Martian (2015)

9 Oct

So here’s the rub:

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stuck on Mars – left for dead by his crew members during a freak sandstorm – and he has no way of making contact with anybody back on Earth. Supplies for food, oxygen, and water are extremely limited, and the next scheduled Mars landing isn’t for another 4 years. Fortunately, Watney is a highly skilled botanist (and apparently, amatuer comedian), very capable of growing his own food and creating a somewhat habitable space on the red planet – if he can summon the willpower to do so.

Based off the novel by Andy Weir and Directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator), The Martian is an inter-planetary survival story overflowing science, humor, and heart.  Unfortunately, the disjointed plot wears a little thin in lieu of it’s feel good spirit.

Scott, like some of his contemporaries Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg, has always been a bit of populist, and here he carefully inserts his love of brainy science within a crowd-pleasing blockbuster format. It’s less ambitious than last year’s mind-melting Innerstellar, but it contains just as much optimism for the chemistry geeks who offer the most hope for humanity’s future.

While The Martian gives us enough hard science to make up an episode of Cosmos, it lacks much of the drama or narrative tension needed to sustain a film 140 minutes long. An ensemble cast that features Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Donald Glover, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, and Mackenzie Davis, give us little of actual characters and more of simple talking heads needed to relay technical information to each other.  Perhaps the most developed character is Matt Damon’s Mark “I’m going to science the shit out of mars” Watney. Damon has always been a likeable actor, but he is as charming as ever in The Martian with plenty of charisma and wittiness – even when he is facing death.

The little drama that exists lies with a Sean Bean/Jeff Daniels/Chiwetel Ejiofor corporate triangle, where NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is faced with the moral dilemma of whether or not it’s justified to risk other astronauts lives at the expense of saving one. It’s a theme that’s never gets fully developed, with Scott instead opting for a style-over-substance epic that’s high on details but low on thematic material. The Martian does a good job at keeping things visually interesting, showcasing both Scott’s technical experience with tentpole films and the dynamics of (visual and interplanetary) space.

Bottom Line: With a story too simple for its lengthy running time, The Martian is a light hearted and extremely accessible crowdpleaser.

Bourne in space.

Rating: 7/10

Film Recipe: Interstellar + 127 Hours + All Is Lost

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

3 Jun

 

I’m sure we all have experienced that sense of cinematic deja vu when we watch a movie and think to ourselves “I have seen this all before”.  Edge of Tomorrow, the filmic adaptation of the popular manga All You Need Is Killis based around this very premise. A man, stuck in a time loop, repeats the last 24 hours to himself everytime he dies. He sees the same people, fights the same battles, and dies the same deaths over and over. Our lead in the film, General Cage (Tom Cruise) is a military media specialist who gets cast in the front line of battle after an unfortunate mix up.  The earth is at war with a mysterious alien species, who through some unexplained phenomena, have the ability to rewind the clocks. When this ability is transferred to Cage, he inherits the potential to learn – via trial and error – how to essentially be the best super-soldier and kick some serious alien butt with a new cyberkinetic military suit. Of course part of this learning experience means he must team up with another super-soldier named Rita (Emily Blunt in her most bad-ass role to date) who has her own mysterious past and motivations.

Edge of Tomorrow then essentially becomes a visual videogame. Our characters are placed in the futuristic battlefield and are only allowed to progress up to a certain point before the plug is pulled and everyone starts over on square one again. The film has so much fun with this time-looping concept it becomes impossible not to get sucked in.  Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Jumper) controls the action so fluidly and the visuals are top-notch. In a film like this, it is nearly impossible not to advance the plot through expository dialogue, but the script by Christopher McQuarry (The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie) and Jez Butterworth (Fair Game) feels lively and energetic enough that you barely notice the majority of the plot is being explained directly to audience through Cruise’s character (to give him a break, he has seen this all before).

Things do get a little messy in the final act, and the climax feels a bit rushed and comes on too soon. However, Edge of Tomorrow really shows off what Cruise does best: shooting up stuff with style (watching him go from PR boy to mad killing machine is an absolute blast) and Blunt is impressively cool throughout. Overall, the movie is a fresh and fun edition to the summer blockbuster with guts, action, and intellect.

Rating: 7/10 

Similar to: Source Code (2011),  Pacific Rim (2013),  Avatar (2009), 
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Under The Skin (2014)

27 Apr

Under The Skin is the new thriller/sci-fi/horror from Jonathan Glazer, a director known mostly for his work in music videos though he did direct the feature films Sexy Beast and Birth. Voluptuous leading lady Scarlett Johanson stars in this trippy, abstract, and provocative story about a space creature who roams the Scottish countryside preying upon innocent male victims.

The film starts out with a very impressive montage of bizarre imagery set to a screeching musical piece as Scarlett’s character soon makes her entrance unto the earth, and into the lives of those unfortunate enough to cross her path.  The rest of the movie is a slow-burning and often dark examination into the nature of love, loneliness, sexuality and the value of connectedness.  While some sequences Glazer directs with a pin-point meticulousness, others seem entirely spontaneous and impulsive resulting in a film rich with a variety of atmospheric tones.  Boasting a wonderful score from Mica Levi, and featuring some of the best visuals of the year, Under The Skin makes for a sublime and rewarding cinematic experience.

My biggest issue with the film is that it puts too much style over substance, and unfortunately borders on the fine line between being artful and being pretentious. A forty-second shot of a mountain – though gorgeously shot – is still just a forty-second shot of a mountain, and adds little to the film’s rhythm or narrative. If you are looking for an artsy and experimental take on the genre, Under The Skin is bound to satisfy, while those looking for something a bit less cryptic are best left to check out Scarlett in Captain America 2. I was completely spellbound.

Rating: 9/10 

Similar to: Enemy (2014), The Master (2012), Upstream Color (2013) 

Elysium (2013)

9 Aug

 

If you haven’t seen Niell Blomkamp’s directorial debut District 9, then Elysium will probably come off as one of the best sci-fi films to hit theaters recently.  But for those of us who saw (and loved) District 9, it’s impossible not to compare the two pictures, and unfortunately, the former proves Niel Blomkamp is capable of far better work.

Elysium follows Max (Matt Damon), who is living in Los Angeles over a hundred years from now.  Most of Earth as we know it has become degenerated to an overpopulated ghetto and the few richest citizens have moved up into space in this new-age living station thing called Elysium. Of course, its the earthlings who provide the manual labor and resources while the rich up above apparently spend their days tending the garden, speaking French and drinking white wine.

Things get complicated when Max undergoes an accident at work and receives harmful radiation which gives him a mere 5 days to live. Knowing he can be healed on Elysium, he plans some sort of espionage/hacking/hijacking scenario so he can get up there with the top. There is also this sub-plot involving his childhood crush and something about a South African man’s plot to take over Elysium by force, but we won’t get bother getting into that.

Anyway, while Blomkamp has some great ideas going, they never really go anywhere. While the film is fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining, the last 30 minutes are a cluttered mess that ends with a resolution that feels forced and uninteresting. Blomkamp makes up for his lack of story development by giving us some of the best visuals we have seen all year.  The man got his start in the industry from creating special effects, and (with the help of some of the guys from WETA) he shows off his expertise wonderfully.

The cast includes acting heavyweights Damon and Jodie Foster (who is tragically misused), and supporting work by Sharlto Copely, Alice Braga, William Fichtner, and Diego Luna. For the most part, everything works as it should, but there are times when the dialogue is thin and characters feel artificial.

District 9 was one of those rare films that finds the perfect balance of action, character, story, genre, and social commentary, all the while remaining true to its blockbuster form (without a leading star!) and refusing to be watered down to the family-friendly PG-13 film we have seen a zillion times over.  District 9 tries to follow in the same footsteps, but falls just a bit short. I give props to Bloomkamp for taking his big ideas about the Occupy/ “Us vs. Them” movement and bringing them to life, despite the fact that he might have bitten off more than he could chew in the process.

 

 

Rating 6/10

Similar to: Equilibrium, I Am Legend, Gattaca

 

 

Oblivion (2013)

8 May

Oblivion has some of the best visuals I have seen recently, and the music and sound design are amazing – especially in IMAX. Unfortunately, what starts out as an interesting story gets muddled up with attempted social commentary and a painfully slow and confusing third act. Tom Cruise, at 50 years old, is still a very accomplished actor, but there is no chemistry with any of his co-stars (something a character even admits halfway through the film). It’s worth seeing in IMAX just because the visuals really are impressive, but If you are looking for a Mission Impossible-type action movie, look elsewhere.

6/10 stars

Similar to (but worse than): Gattica, Moon, Dark City, Minority Report

Cloud Atlas (2012)

26 Oct

Everything about Cloud Atlas felt epic.

Production, cast, special effects, but most importantly – the interwoven stories. We see six throughout the 3 hour spectacle, but I felt that everyone of the six adventures were strong enough to be its own feature film.

It took about 50 minutes into the movie for the confusion to wear off, and its around this time that you can finally start to keep track of who is who and what exactly is going on. A collaboration from the Wachoski’s and Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas is a fantastic visual and character-driven escapade from start to finish.

Though it started out being a confusing tossed salad of sic-fi, romance, action and politics, the last hour the film connects all loose ends and comes together nicely considering the overbearingly large amount of plot and characters.

Rating: 8/10