Tag Archives: dystopian adventures

The Maze Runner Trilogy

Like many of you, Sean and I are experiencing ‘weather’. We’re iced in rather than snowed in, which is just as annoying, and harder on hydro lines. When we do have power, we’re watching a trilogy we don’t give a damn about, which I think is a good strategy. As ice storms go, this one’s fairly benign. When I was in high school, we had a massive ice storm that meant weeks without classes, electricity, flushing toilets, or accessible roads. This one’s only distinguishing feature is that it’s arriving mid-April just to annoy the fuck out of us. Hope you’re all staying warm! What’s it like where you are?

The Maze Runner: Every week for the past 3 years, a teenage boy has been dropped in the middle of a very large, very deadly maze. Those who have ventured in have not returned. Those who remain do so by eking out survival in the middle, where it’s safe if not entirely comfortable. They hold on to hope by telling each other the maze must be solvable, but after 3 years, there have been no breakthroughs. Truthfully, it’s very Lord of the Flies. There are also no girls, which means either all the girls solve the maze easily and disappear, or they’re smart enough not to get sent in in the first place. Then one day, Thomas arrives in the maze, and his presence seems to wreak havoc. He engages with the maze in new and startling ways – ways that may lead to their ultimate escape but in the short term stirs up a lot of life-threatening stuff, of which not everyone is a fan. So of course the camp is splitting into two factions when something even worse shows up: a girl. So you know the maze is about to be solved, because finally there’s some female brain power involved. And it is….but it turns out the maze was only the beginning.

This movie is by-the-book YA programming. There’s very little to the characters since they’ve all had their memories wiped, but the actors are pretty decent. You’ll recognize a Thomas-gif-the-maze-runner-thomas-39099571-500-250few faces – Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf, American Assassin, Deepwater Horizon) in the lead role, Thomas Brodie-Sangster (the little guy from Love Actually, partially grown up!), and Will Poulter (with a face destined to play villain after villain, poor guy). The movie is dark, and keeps kids in mortal danger. The world is underexplained and the ending is underwhelming. There’s a strong, interesting premise with a pretty standard execution that adds up to me feeling like I’ve somehow seen it all before.

The Scorch Trials: The kids are helicoptered away from the maze and into a safe house run by Janson  (Aiden Gillen). Turns out, the kids were being experimented upon because they have survived the apocalyptic virus that kills nearly everyone else and possibly the cure is in their blood, but it can only be ‘harvested’, not taken. An organization called WCKD (previously run by Patricia Clarkson) was testing them in the maze and you can understand why the kids are feeling wary of them. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know who to trust out here (and these starry-eyed kids keep on trusting everyone despite constant reminders they shouldn’t). While the first Maze Runner had them running an actual maze, in this one they’re just basically imperiling themselves only to escape and eventually to be caught up in even more preposterous circumstances. They’re basically being chased through the desert by Murphy’s Law.

The Scorch Trials are not as interesting. Oh, it’s action-packed, but the sac is so packed with action that it’s sprung a leak where all the good stuff like plot and plausibility have spilled out.

The Death Cure: We know the kids are the key to the cure and that WCKD will do anything to keep them as research subjects – in fact, WCKD has recaptured some of the group, and now, instead of escaping the walls of a maze, they’ll have to penetrate the walls of the city where they’re holding their friends. It’s more dangerous! More action-packed! With higher stakes! I mean, not really. I don’t think any of this was half as interesting as the maze itself, although this movie does pose one interesting question: should we torture a few in order to extract a cure that would save many?

The Death Cure takes some pretty big logic leaps but it means business: zombies, explosions, action by air, land, and sea. Old friends, new friends. Tragic deaths and new beginnings. And maybe even hope for the future. It’s an adequate goodbye, and a more dignified end to the series than most others in the YA genre, but if you weren’t a maze fan before, this one isn’t going to convert you. It’s bloated and ridiculous, but what else did you expect?


Blade Runner 2049

blade4Has there ever been a more beautiful vision of a dystopian society than what Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins serve up in Blade Runner 2049?  Even a photo of a dead tree will be captivating to those around you.  Nuclear wastelands, city-sized garbage dumps, and coastal dams will all amaze.  Visually, this is exactly the sequel that Blade Runner deserved.

Story-wise, Blade Runner 2049 is probably the sequel that Blade Runner deserved as well, though that’s not necessarily a compliment.  The story is muddled right from the hard-to-read title cards that try to bring us up to date on what’s happened in that world’s last 30 years.

The facts in the title cards turn out to be quite important to keep up in Blade Runner 2049’s world as we follow an LAPD officer (Ryan Gosling) trying to solve a 30-year-old mystery involving our old friend Deckard (Harrison Ford).  Though it is unfortunate that the title cards are as dense as they are, I would not have wanted the movie to try to retell its background story, as the 163 minute run time is plenty long enough already!

Refreshingly, Blade Runner’s world is not our world.  It is an alternative future, so there is no attempt to revise the original’s timeline (as you may recall, Blade Runner is set in 2019 in a world where robot slaves are fighting space battles and colonizing other planets for humans, so things did not exactly turn out in our world as the first film predicted).  Interestingly, those differences make it easier for the view to focus on the similarities between their world and ours.  Villeneuve has delivered another very thoughtful, deliberate and satisfying sci-fi film, and it’s easy to analogize to our world every time a replicant is treated as disposable property (which happens a lot).  The film also offers a lot to chew on regarding memory and the nature of reality.  Honestly, I’m still digesting it all as a I write, while also trying to sort out a few of the story’s finer points, and this film is one that I’m going to have to watch again to get everything sorted.

It’s remarkable how closely this sequel resembles the first movie,  in style and substance, despite being released 35 years later.  More remarkably, at the same time it is paying tribute to the original, Blade Runner 2049 is telling a fresh story set in this familiar world, and manages to leave the original movie’s largest question unanswered in a surprisingly satisfying way.  So while Blade Runner 2049 is not the best movie of 2017, it is a good movie made great by its technical excellence, which naturally makes it the perfect sequel to Blade Runner.

Ghost in the Shell

ghost-in-the-shell-scarlett-johansson.jpgFor a movie whose very title references souls and finding meaning within glossy shells, Ghost in the Shell is unbearably hollow.  The packaging is nice but there is nothing underneath. At all.  It will leave you with a number of questions but none of them will be existential.

The first question is how uncomfortable should you be that in what I’m guessing is future Japan (judging from the robot geishas and the right-hand drive cars), basically everyone is white and speaks English. The answer, as always with Hollywood, is VERY.

The next question is how much are you allowed to take inspiration from classic sci-fi (and also shitty sci-fi) before you’re ripping people off. The answer is NOT THIS MUCH OBVIOUSLY YOU LAZY BASTARDS. Ghost in the Shell drops us into a grimy, dark, rainy future full of 3D billboards. To describe it as drawing from Blade Runner is too generous. There are elements of other fictional futures as well, like the Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, and even Tron (lightcycles!). While this movie looks great at every turn, the total lack of originality left me cold.

Next question: does it count as good acting when Scarlett Johansson convincingly plays a Ghost_in_the_Shell_Scarlett_Johansson_2_aeac805303d6c795b51ea920f763a012.pngbeautiful but emotionless robot? As always, the answer is DEFINITELY YES AS LONG AS SHE RSVPS from the Hollywood Foreign Press and PROBABLY SINCE WE NOMINATED ENOUGH BLACK PEOPLE LAST YEAR WE HAVE A 5TH SLOT FOR A WHITE IN 2018 from the Academy.

Bonus question: does it count as nudity when a nipple-less female robot fights while basically naked? That’s a tough one but after much thought, the answer is SHOWING NIPPLES MAY AT LEAST HAVE DISTRACTED THE AUDIENCE SO THEY DIDN’T WONDER WHY THE ROBOT THAT CAN TURN INVISIBLE DOESN’T JUST STAY INVISIBLE ALL THE TIME DURING FIGHTS.

Obviously, lots of questions were raised by Ghost in the Shell, but none of them engage in anything interesting. Instead of the mundane, the film could have delved into questions like what are the attributes that make us human, whether memory is vital to identity, or why are we as a society unable to ascribe value to function in the same way we do to beauty.  Elements of those interesting questions are present in Ghost in the Shell but the film seems incapable of dealing with them. That is Ghost in the Shell’s biggest failing and the reason it gets a score of four glitches in the Matrix out of ten.




Shane Acker made a short, 10 minute film called 9 while he was still a student at UCLA. One wild ride later, it was nominated for Best Animated Short at the Oscars. It didn’t win, but it sure didn’t lose: Acker was offered the opportunity to expand his beloved short into a feature film, and this is it.

Although 9 is an animated film, it may not be appropriate for kids. It’s got a PG-13 rating and it is, frankly, dark. It’s set in a dystopian future in which man and machine have gone 9_movie-hdto war and likely both have lost. Only dust and destruction are left. And these dolls. They’re clearly sewed together with scraps of material and inexpert stitches, made from whatever parts are lying around but somehow injected with pieces of human souls; they’re all that’s left of humanity.

The machines that are still terrorizing them were born of the same scientist who sewed the dolls. They were made with good intentions but an evil chancellor corrupted them. This chancellor has shades of Hitler to him, and there are Nazi references throughout the film.

9 (Elijah Wood), the 9th doll sewn by the scientist, is prepared to die for humanity’s salvation, but he has to convince the 8 others (Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Connelly, and John C. Reilly among them) to join him.

The film definitely has an edge to it, criticizing our blind pursuit of progress. The film’s pitting of the simplest toy against complex machinery is pointed. That said, haven’t we seen this before? Like a million billion times? Perhaps something else could threaten us for a while? Technology is our undoing: we get it. And we’re not going to do a damn thing about it. Acker’s film is beautiful. His post-apocalyptic vision is too tempting to ignore, but I do wish there was a little more meat and a little more originality to go along with it. Maybe this one should have stayed a short.

The Girl With All The Gifts

I was really worried that this movie would be too scary for me, but its immediate familiarity reminded me that I’d read the book upon which it is based (by M.R. Carey), and knowing I’d survived the book meant I could surely handle the film as well.

Not for nothing: it’s about a “fungus” that’s extremely zombie-like in its presentation. Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) is a teacher at a military-run school at Hotel Echo. Her “hungry students” are all infected with the fungus. Under heavy restraints, they aren’t locarno-festival_the_girl_with_all_the_gifts_publicity_still_h_2016just taught, but tested. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is test subject #1. She’s a very sweet young girl until flesh is nearby, and then her jaws start chomping involuntarily.

When the base is suddenly overrun by hungries, Melanie escapes with the compassionate teacher as well as Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), the woman doing all the experiments, and just a few remaining soldiers. Because they’re low on blocker gel (the lotion that makes them less appetizing to hungries), they’re loathe to keep her so close by, but Dr. Caldwell is unwilling to let her best subject go. Melanie might be the key to an antidote.

Their small party need to make their way to the next safe spot, called Beacon, but getting there isn’t going to be easy. There’s some typical zombie movie gore, but this movie manages to be more by focusing on the relationship between student and teacher. And Melanie manages to be more than just a zombie, with her constant yearning to be fully girl-1474366013901_largehuman. Newcomer Sennia Nanua is very compelling in her role; Melanie is a monster, but Nanua gives her a sense of humanity that transforms this horror film into something more urgent, more terrifyingly relatable.

Director Colm McCarthy gives us some memorably startling images, even going so far as to shoot aerial footage over Chernobyl for an apocalyptic feel. The Girl With All The Gifts is not a traditional zombie movie, nor horror. It has a social conscience and some sound science, refreshing the genre with intelligence and dark humour. It’s not a perfect movie, it’s a little muddled, a little indefinite, but it’s a thought-provoking hybrid much like Melanie herself.


ARQ had its world premiere at TIFF and was sufficiently popular that Sean and I tried but failed to get tickets. It’s a damn good thing we didn’t get them because if I had paid money to see this piece of shit, I’d be in a REAL rage right now, the likes of yet we’ve yet to see on Assholes Watching Movies.

arq_01.jpgIt sounds promising on paper: a dystopian thriller meets sci-fi Groundhog Day. The protagonists, Renton and Hannah, keep waking up in bed when a bunch of bad guys burst in on them. Things don’t go well. But every time Renton gets shot in the face, they wake up in bed again, to do it all over, though not necessarily with better results.

The gimmick wore off cinematically long before it evaporated on screen. Even screwball Bill Murray cottoned on to the trick quicker than this guy. The bad guys are ostensibly there to steal scripts, but it’s soon evident that Renton’s invention, the ARQ, is much more valuable…and it’s inconveniently causing a time loop.

I mentioned before that we failed to get tickets. How then did we see it? It’s on Netflix. That’s right. Just a few days after making it’s $25-a-head, world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s airing on Netflix for free. Even at that low price, though, it arq_03isn’t worth it. The dialogue put me off immediately. It has the look and feel of the kind of television show I would never watch. Even worse, it ends like it’s the pilot of a TV show that hopes to continue this mystery in vague and infuriating terms for the next 6 years. It isn’t, though. It genuinely believes itself to be a whole movie. Don’t believe it, not for a second: ARQ is to be avoided at all costs. Keep swiping left.




Looking for something more satisfying on Netflix? Try

The Wave

The Fundamentals of Caring


Tribeca: High-Rise

High-Rise is the cinematic equivalent of a raisin muffin: it’s okay as long as you weren’t expecting chocolate chip.  But why not have chocolate chip to begin with?

High-Rise-1-Glamour-16Mar16-pr_bThe film’s biggest problem is that it took 40 years to convert J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name into a movie.  In the meantime, Snowpiercer happened and was a way more awesome movie than High-Rise, or really anything else ever.

It’s not just that Snowpiercer had better acting, writing or directing than High-Rise (though it did).  High-Rise looks good but has a structural problem.  Call me an optimist but I couldn’t accept High-Rise’s premise of an isolated lawless world developing inside a skyscraper, not when the outside world remained completely accessible to the building’s inhabitants.  There’s no apocalypse event in High-Rise.  The building’s main doors aren’t ever blocked.  Mid-movie, a cop even pokes his head in to check whether things in the building are okay.  But for reasons that aren’t at all clear, instead of calling 911 to report any of the murders, suicides or sanitation issues inside the building, the residents all choose to stay inside, ignore the dead bodies 2016_11_high_riseand garbage bags that line the halls, and scavenge for dog meat rather than drive to the nearest supermarket for hot dogs.  That’s something that was impossible for me to swallow.

It’s too bad that conceptual problem is baked into High-Rise.  I wanted to like the movie but I just couldn’t.  Am I naive in thinking that people would take a bit of time between drunken orgies to leave the building and restock their snacks?   I hope not, though the numerous food references in this review tell me I’m very hungry, yet instead of going upstairs to our kitchen I’m still here typing…

High-Rise is not a bad movie, but if you’ve seen Snowpiercer then High-Rise feels like a pale imitation.  And if you haven’t seen Snowpiercer, what are you waiting for?


Tribeca: Equals

In this version of the future, your feelings are genetically “turned off” in the womb. People are no longer subject to their moods, their intuitions, their base Collider_Equals-150729-bemotions. Everything is pleasantly flat. Nothing bothers them. But some are subject to a disorder in which those feelings are somehow switched back on. This disease is fatal – if you aren’t driven to suicide, you’ll be euthanatized, because being the only sensitive person in a void of flat affect is simply too much to bear.

Silas (Nicholas Hoult) contracts the disease. He’s given medication to try to suppress his feelings and is told to hope for a cure, but he knows that by stage 4, he’ll be given a painless death and that’s it. This world without emotion equals-moviefeels rather cold and lonely to us, the viewers, but the people living it don’t seem to notice until they come down with the disease, which sets them even further apart from their peers. But the one good thing is that Silas can see that his work mate Nia (Kristen Stewart) must also be infected. She hides her disease from others but cannot escape his awakened intuition. The two inevitably fall in love, though “coupling” is distinctly prohibited. The only way they can be together is to leave society and head for the outside world, where primitive humans still exist.

The film is well-realized and quite stylish. The best part is the acting. I hate to admit it, but this is Kristen Stewart’s least lip-biting role yet. She and Hoult have tangible chemistry, and for a couple of kids who are experiencing sexual urges for the first time, the film is surprisingly sexy. Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver lend a lot of credibility in their supporting roles, their performances add urgency and intensity to the proceedings.

equals-movie-kristen-stewart-nicolas-hoult-ksbr-2The problem, however, is with the story. The truth is, it just feels recycled. It feels like you’ve seen this before. It’s like every second Margaret Atwood novel and does little to distinguish itself from other movies in the genre. What it doesn’t borrow from Atwood it steals from Shakespeare and it never really does its own thing. Equals is a highly-polished piece from a second-hand store. It’s not trash but it could never compete with the real thing. If you’re the kind of person who’s comfortable buying a couch off Kijiji, then maybe this one’s for you.


Z For Zachariah

In a way, this is exactly the kind of end-of-the-world movie I’ve been keening for. No disaster porn here, it’s quiet, contemplative; a meditation on faith and hope. Margot Robbie plays a farmer’s daughter who’s beginning to think she might just be the last woman on earth when she comes 1280x720-36Vacross an exhausted scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who can’t believe he’s just found the last lungful of fresh air. The two start building a life together when a third person (Chris Pine) arrives, disrupting their equilibrium.

The movie tells very little and shows even less of whatever it was that brought upon the world’s end. All we know are these few survivors and the shadows behind their eyes. You already know that Ejiofor is a fine actor, but both Robbie and Pine bring their A game as well, and this becomes a character study in the garden of Eden.

If you need action in your apocalypse, this one’s not for you. But if you like a movie that raises more questions than it answers, then you’ve probably met your match. What becomes of people when their past is wiped out and their future uncertain? And what happens to morality when no one is screen_shot_2015-06-05_at_10.36.19looking? There’s just a touch of creepiness to all that quietness, all that wide-open space that you can’t quite trust. A concept like safety gets redefined when humanity has just been all but wiped out.

If you’re open to it, there’s a lot of religious symbolism hidden like Easter eggs in the narrative of this movie. I wrote narrative rather than plot because to be honest, not a lot happens in this movie. And as much as I loved the absence of mutated monsters, and actually appreciated the stillness, and the lush cinematography that made downloadit feel almost impossible that any ugliness could find their little corner of land, there was also a…dullness, something lackluster about it all, despite the finely tuned performances. I think it was a lack of commitment, as if the movie really didn’t want to make any choices at all, wasn’t confident enough to actually choose a position. I’m not usually unconformable with ambiguity, but this one tested me a bit, and it was only because the movie was quite good that I wanted for it to be great, and this weakness held it back.

City of Ember \ Stardust

Once upon a time it was movies based on Young Adult Fiction week, and I watched some stuff that I would normally never watch. Some of it was bad, some of it was not bad, and some of it was so bad it was almost good. In the end I was so glad to put it behind me I never got around to talking about the stuff that didn’t fit in either category – not good enough to endorse, but not bad enough to make fun of.  So here it is, the middle of the road:

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen or heard of City of Ember because I didn’t know there was a Billy Murray movie I hadn’t already smothered in love.  He plays the mayor of a town built deep City-Of-Ember-Movie-Review-Bill-Murrayunderground by a team of scientists just as the world was ending. They buried instructions on how to return to the surface after 200 years too, but stupidly entrusted them to politicians, who predictably bungled the thing and lost the instructions and now their city is crumbling, the power supply is failing and food is running out. Things are dire: teenagers to the rescue! Two “young adults” (Saoirse Ronan & Harry Treadaway) take it upon themselves to do the thing countless older, smarter, more intrepid people (including their parents) failed to do.

The visuals are stunning. I loved the sets of this underground world, everything just a little off-kilter, labyrinthine without being claustrophobic. But the story never quite lives up to what our eyes suggest. The plot is modest, maybe even thin. Writers of this young adult genre seem to 2601-3follow a pretty strict guide when it comes to their dystopian adventures: the founders, vague as they are, have decreed that people be assigned specific jobs and these jobs are ceremoniously given out and then life is spent labouring away at whatever “very important” job you’ve been given. There is little in the way of joy, but if you keep toiling away then your life is well-spent. BUT then there’s always some young upstart who questions the system. Sound familiar? City of Ember is basically Subterranean Divergent, although really I should say it the other way around since City of Ember came first.

The adventuring is pretty tame, the action mild, and the denouement predictable. This is post-apocalyptic-lite. Martin Landau gives a small performance worth seeing, and Tim Robbins isn’t half bad either. Bill Murray is, of course, always fun to watch, but otherwise this film is blander than you might think possible, though of course that was also Matt’s verdict on Insurgent.

Stardust came out in 2007, just a year before City of Ember, and it also passed me by. I haven’t been a “young adult” in at least a decade and haven’t been a typical consumer of this genre ever, so I guess it’s not so surprising.

I’m not remotely sure that I or alone else can really distill this story, but here’s my attempt:

Tristan is the young adult in question, a lad living in a quiet English village, madly in love with the town’s most beautiful girl who doesn’t give him the time of day because of course she’s way out stardustdeniroof his league. Throwing him a bone, she agrees to consider him if only he will catch her a star, and so of course he follows a fallen star over the breach in the wall surrounding his village and into a fantasy kingdom called Stormhold where the star turns out to be Claire Danes. Everyone following? Fallen stars that look remarkably like Claire Danes are quite popular – she’s also being pursued by a witch (Michelle Pfieffer) who wants to eat her heart to make her young, and a bunch of princes (let by Rupert Everett) who believe a ruby she carries will inherit them the throne. So now poor Tristan’s saddled with this star who’s pretty high maintenance, and the only help he gets is from his mother, who’s unfortunately bound by a spell, and a transvestite pirate (played with MUCH enthusiasm by Robert DeNiro- and no, I’m not kidding).

The story didn’t speak to me whatsoever (sorry Neil Gaiman, I’m still you’re girl!), but hello, with a great pop-up role by De Niro and another by Ricky Gervais, it’s pretty much worth watching onstarlamia3 that basis alone, and those moments felt more like the trademark oddball Gaiman humour I’m used to. The special effects are pretty awesome (Michelle Pfieffer uses a sword designed for but never used by Magneto in Matthew Vaughn’s 2006 X-Men movie) but the action-adventure really gets bogged down by a sluggish pace. This movie drags on. It’s a string of fun moments but didn’t quite work for me as a cohesive whole.