Tag Archives: sci-fi

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?

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Rampage

dimsI didn’t know what to make of this movie after seeing the trailer but I had a bad feeling this would be one of those movies that Jay uses as leverage against me. But I knew I would drag her to anyway. You see, when I was a kid one of my favourite quarter-munching arcade games was Rampage, because it let me be Godzilla, smashing buildings, eating army guys, and grabbing helicopters out of the air. So when I did not realize this movie was based on that videogame until the title popped up at the very end of the trailer, I was more than a little skeptical.

After seeing the movie, I can confim my skepticism was totally warranted. Rampage is just another middling entry in the Rock’s mindless action movie portfolio. It’s not a standout as an action film generally, and not even noteworthy when compared to the Rock’s other action films. At least Rampage knows it’s dumb and has some fun at its own expense (a Rock specialty), and it actually feels quite a lot like the videogame once the action starts.

images (1)Where Rampage fails is that it takes FOREVER for the action to start, which is the worst thing a dumb action movie can do. That plodding pace is particularly egregious when the video game version is as light on exposition as anything ever made, while the movie wants to include a lentghy origin story for the monsters. I didn’t care how the monsters came to be (“radiation” has always been a good enough reason) and I definitely didn’t care to spend time with a sociopathic brother-sister team who made this DNA modifying thingamajig that fell from the sky. Three city-destroying monsters fighting the Rock would have been enough. No more was needed.

So Rampage manages to be too dumb for someone like Jay, who doesn’t like dumb action movies, and not dumb enough for someone like me, who just wanted to see an old mindless videogame become a new mindless blockbuster. If you liked the game you could do worse when Rampage is available on Netflix (but probably also do better), and if you didn’t know Rampage was a game until reading this review then you should probably skip this one altogether.

The Titan

30 years from now, the earth and its population are collapsing because we’ve used up all the resources and the habitable areas are diminishing because of the effects of global warming. As humans so often do in science fiction, and in true life non fiction, instead of fixing it, we’ve left it too late and aim to abandon it, looking to the stars for relief.

In this case, we’ve got our sights set on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Only instead of terraforming it, we’re terraforming ourselves. Or rather: an ambitious doctor is leading a military experiment to genetically enhance humans to make them more suitable for Titan’s harsh living.

Joel (Sam Worthington) is one of the chosen few, so he and his family, including wife Abi MV5BYmZlMGExOTgtNDg0Yy00ZjY0LThiY2YtZjhjM2Y3NzMyZGE2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI1NzMxNzM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_(Taylor Schilling) and son Lucas (Noah Jupe), move to the military base where he and his fellow soon-to-be-super-humans will undergo the medical procedures and training necessary to get them into Titan shape. Professor Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson) fearlessly leads them into battle, but you can probably guess that this review doesn’t end with “and then they all lived happily ever after…on Saturn.”

Of course not. Because messing around with the human genome, with evolution itself, is always, always, ALWAYS a cautionary tale. What normally takes millions of years should never be rushed through in a couple of days. It’s weird that scientists, the very people who patiently explained evolution to us, seem not to have internalized that lesson. So poor Joel is subjected to way more than he bargained for, and yeah it has some pretty scary repercussions for his family, but if you think about it, also for the whole of humanity.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really seem as though anyone in the film has really thought about it. There’s a really interesting premise but the film fails in its identity. It doesn’t take enough risks, or ask the brave questions. And Sam Worthington is the blandest, most unremarkable actor ever – so much so that Sean wondered if he was possibly watching Joel Edgerton, who is the guy Sean is specifically blind to. But neither Worthington nor Schilling (dyed brunette, so she’s more believable as a doctor) are charming enough make us give a damn. Just about the only worthy thing in the whole movie is its location – beautiful Gran Canaria, Spain, which will make for a lovely holiday destination, and deserves to host nervier speculation on its picturesque island.

A Wrinkle in Time

This movie came out when I was in Austin, Texas seeing a billion movies at SXSW, and even so, I still considered taking a time out just to see another movie, one that was just hitting theatres. I never made it to A Wrinkle In Time then, but I finally got around to it this weekend, and I wasn’t the only one: our cinema was packed on Easter Monday, and I was pleased to note how many families were in attendance.

For those of you who haven’t read the book (by Madeleine L’Engle), A Wrinkle In Time is about a young girl named Meg – troubled at school, grieving at home. Her parents are both brilliant scientists, or were – her father disappeared years ago while MV5BNzhkYzRlNzUtNzFhNy00MzllLWFkZGEtNDg0ZTE0YTYzOWNjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjk3NTUyOTc@._V1_working on a theory about a tesseract, which would involve “wrinkling” time and space in order to travel through it. One dark and stormy night, a mysterious woman named Mrs. Whatsit appears to tell Meg, her friend Calvin, and Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace, the child genius, that she has heard her father calling out to them through the universe. Turns out, Mrs. Whatsit and her friends Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which are supernatural beings prepared to engage in a rescue mission.

The book was repeatedly rejected – possibly because it was a work of science fiction with a young, female protagonist, and possibly because it asked a lot from its young readers. Not only does it use physics and philosophy as basic concepts, it directly tackles the nature of evil, and pits children against it. The movie, too, follows in its footsteps, embracing what made the novel so special and unique, proudly displaying the magic AND the science, and trusting a young audience to appreciate them both. If anything the movie is a little too ambitious – though I quite enjoyed it, I did, in the end, have the sense that parts of it were quite condensed.

Director Ava du Vernay gets the casting exactly right: Storm Reid as Meg is what we want every 13 year old girl to be – smart and strong and curious and cautious. Her determination in the face of her fear and vulnerability make her an exceedingly compelling character. She may at times be insecure but her love and loyalty toward family see her through difficult times. But of course it’s the larger than life characters that Meg meets that give the story so much colour. The Mrs. Ws are particularly enchanting, and I cannot imagine a more satisfying trio than Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah, large and in charge.

At just under 2 hours, the movie does unfortunately lose some of the detail that MV5BMTU5Njg0NTA0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTgwNDU4NDM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,929_AL_make the book wonderful, but it also paints a fantastic picture that I cannot stop myself from going back to in my mind. The visuals are exotic and beautiful and the world-building just divine. I can only guess at the kind of impression it makes on young imaginations.

Though the movie has some flaws, its themes are just as courageous and necessary today as they were when the book was first published in 1962. Light vs darkness, good triumphing over evil, and the only real weapon used is love. It’s also got a (somewhat diluted) message against conformity; Meg has to embrace her flaws in order to win the day.

See this movie with a child’s wonder and you will be delighted. Adapting this book was always going to be difficult, and the worst thing it does, necessarily, is rob us of the opportunity to do some of the imagining for ourselves. But in committing to the visuals, Ava du Vernay does the source material more than justice. She gives us a film full of hope and bravery, and shows little girls everywhere that they too can be the heroes of their own stories.

SXSW: Prospect

prospect-126347Hard science fiction is a tough sell, especially cinematically. Soft sci-fi is far more exciting and eye-pleasing. It lets us hop around the galaxy at faster-than-light speed, meet aliens at every space station, and have luxury accommodations in the starships on which we’re travelling. Conversely, hard sci-fi travel is slow and cramped and space is largely empty. Prospect is a hard sci-fi movie that remains resolute in the face of the obstacles posed by its chosen genre, and by and large overcomes them.

Prospect’s aesthetic is reminicent of Alien and I’m sure that was intentional. Like in Alien, Prospect’s version of space travel is analogue, with lots of switches and dials and flashing lights. It’s also utilitarian with a wild-west feel, as space travelling prospectors hitch their “wagons” to a large transport on its last run to a forest moon, the site of a gold rush that seems to be coming to an end. We follow a father-daughter duo in search of one last score, with only a short window of time to get in and out before the transport leaves, as if they miss that ride they will be left to die on the poisonous moon.

Prospect does a great job at dropping clues about the way this world works, showing us the desperation and pressure felt by this working class family from nowhere, hinting at the boom and bust that has hit this moon and those who work it, and suggesting that the colonization of the universe has made humanity revert to a savage, lawless existence on the frontiers. If set in another era, this story would work perfectly as a western, and that seems fitting when our protagonists are travelling to the edge of the known universe to stake resource claims, hoping to strike it rich.

Despite its indie-movie budget constraints, Prospect manages to convincingly portray space travel and an alien world on the big screen. The special effects are not spectacular but they are effective. Prospect succeeds due to its excellence in world-building, both visually and narratively. While Prospect is definitely a niche film, it is one that science fiction fans will enjoy.

SXSW: Fast Color

fast-color-116514Julia Hart, the director and co-writer of Fast Color, almost had me fooled.  She introduced Fast Color to the SXSW crowd as a story about motherhood, and in a way that’s true.  Of course, in a way it is also true that the original Superman comics are about the experiences of Jewish immigrants.  I mention Superman because both Fast Color and Superman use superheroes to tell their stories, although the movies’ respective approaches to the genre are worlds apart.

Fast Color might be best described as a near-future quest for redemption, as Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) tries to stay one step ahead of her pursuers in the harsh wasteland that the midwestern United States has become due to a prolonged drought. Plot-wise, that’s all you’re getting from me, so you’ll have to watch the film to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

I hope one day we won’t need to make the case for inclusion, but since we’re not there yet, Fast Color is more proof that diversity in film generates powerful, original, thought-provoking movies. Fast Color possesses all those qualities and a big reason why is because it is a story about women told by women. It is the kind of movie that we need (and deserve) more of. It is the kind of movie that helps us see things from a different perspective and realize that we are made stronger, not weaker, by our differences.

Fast Color is yet another SXSW surprise, a movie that we lucked into by virtue of scheduling and one that I urge you to keep an eye out for. It does not currently have a release date but hopefully a strong SXSW showing will change that, as this is a movie that deserves to be seen.

SXSW: The Director and The Jedi

the-director-and-the-jedi-sxswWhen I was a kid, I had a behind-the-scenes book detailing how they filmed the space combat in Star Wars, and I loved it. I could think of nothing better than to get to play with the spaceship models and the huge Death Star set used for the climactic scene. I found it fascinating to see how the movie was made.

And though my book did not inspire me sufficiently to pursue a career in film, my story is not much different than one that Rian Johnson tells in The Director and The Jedi, or for that matter one that Barry Jenkins told in his amazing keynote speech here at SXSW a couple of days ago about filming Moonlight in the same projects where Jenkins grew up.  Peeks behind the scenes can inspire the next generation of filmmakers, and give birth to a dream that a kid might not otherwise know to have, because it’s not immediately obvious that for every actor there are ten creative people behind the scenes, designing sets, making costumes, and on and on. But beyond that, even for someone like me who’s made a career choice that is not film, it’s just really cool to see how a huge film like Star Wars: The Last Jedi gets made.

The Director and The Jedi spans the course of The Last Jedi’s creation and documentarian Anthony Wonke was clearly given full access to the production. In granting unfettered access to Wonke and his crew, Johnson seems to have been trying to pay it forward, and in doing so he’s given a huge gift to all Star Wars fans.

There are some really amazing moments captured in The Director and The Jedi, with a particular favourite of mine being the destruction of the Jedi library, especially seeing the creature designers lose their shit over meeting Frank Oz.  And really, who can blame them? After all, he’s probably the reason they got into that career, and maybe even the reason their jobs even exist!

Maybe, just maybe, one young Star Wars fan will be inspired by this film to become the next Rian Johnson or Barry Jenkins. But even if not, there will be something of interest in The Director and The Jedi for every kid who ever wanted to fly his or her own model X-Wing through the trench run.

Ready Player One

ready-player-oneThere are very few immutable truths in this world, but here’s one: if you don’t like Steven Spielberg’s movies, then you don’t like movies. The brilliance of Ready Player One (and it is brilliant) is that it’s a Spielberg movie through and through, only because its source material references Spielberg repeatedly, the result is something exponentially more Spielberg than you could ever have though possible.  Ready Player One is a true blockbuster and a worthy addition to Spielberg’s list of classics.

All the references contained here, not just to Spielberg’s past work but to every pop culture thing ever, are essential for this movie to work, and Spielberg clearly knows it. Moreover, he embraces it without reservation. After all, the book (which should be read immediately by anyone between ages 30 and 50 who grew up playing videogames) is the perfect vessel for 80s nostalgia. The movie clearly is trying to top the book’s reference count, and it may have succeeded (the totals are way too high to accurately count).

What is great about the book remains great in the movie. And yet, the movie and book tell significantly different stories, which is greater still because there are all sorts of some amazing surprises to be found in the film even if you’ve read the book repeatedly. At tonight’s SXSW world premiere, Spielberg introduced the film by stating he approached it as pure fan service and his mission was to give the people in the seats exactly what they wanted, and I can confirm he accomplished exactly that. Oh, yes, that’s right, WE GOT TO WATCH READY PLAYER ONE WITH STEVEN SPIELBERG. It was every bit as mindblowing as it sounds.

Also mindblowing: one particular sequence in the movie that pays homage to a classic film (incidentally, it’s not an homage to a Spielberg film; rather, it’s to a film directed by someone who influenced Spielberg – and it’s not something that was in the book).  I do not think I am exaggerating to say it is one of the finest sequences that Spielberg has given us, which obviously is a big deal because we are talking about STEVEN FUCKING SPIELBERG. You will know this sequence when you see it, and as soon as you do you will want to immediately see it again. And again. And again.

That amazing sequence is a standout but it’s not alone. There are several other incredible set pieces in Ready Player One, containing some of the best visual effects we’ve ever seen. Of course, the effects are only window dressing. What makes the scenes so great is Spielberg. As the camera swerves and dodges, and as avatars fight monsters, drive cars through obstacle courses, and traverse epic battlefields by leaps and bounds, the viewer is never lost for a second, because we are being guided through the chaos by a master. I loved this movie and I bet you will too. I’m just sorry to have to wait two weeks before I can watch it again.

 

Mute

mute.jpgFor me, the most memorable scene in Mute was a few-second long callback to director Duncan Jones’ debut, a marvelous little movie called Moon, starring Sam Rockwell, that you should track down immediately if you haven’t seen it yet.  Apparently, Mute is intended to be the second entry in a very loose trilogy, an approach that Netflix seems to be very keen on at the moment (as evidenced by The Cloverfield Paradox along with Mute).  Come to think of it, we saw this same thing happen with Split not so long ago, where two movies really have nothing to do with one another except that they happen in the same “shared universe”, with that link often seeming to constitute a big reveal.

I have asked before and, thanks to Mute, have to ask again: why is it becoming a thing to tie movies together in this way?  What is the point, when Mute is a totally separate story not at all influenced by the events in Moon (and vice versa)?  Why does it matter that these movies occur in the same world at the same time if the events of one film do not impact the other in any way?  Why are we even mentioning this link and including a scene with Rockwell in Mute (other than the fact that he is so hot right now)? sohotrightnow Are people being drawn to Mute because it’s related to Moon?  Did anyone choose to watch Mute because of that link who otherwise would not have?  Is Rockwell such a big box office draw that his inclusion got Mute off the ground?  I have a hard time believing this one little throwaway scene helped Mute and yet, why else even bother?

Really, the only benefit of Rockwell’s inclusion was that it made this review easier to write, because Mute is otherwise forgettable even as you are watching it.  Visually, it is for the most part a shameless ripoff of Blade Runner only it’s bereft of any philosophical discussions about anything meaningful, with the only takeway being that parents should not make friends with pedophiles, a point which, much like the movie itself, did not really need to be made.

Annihilation

Kane’s been missing for a year when he suddenly turns up at the home he shares with his wife, Lena, hemorrhaging blood. He’s been deployed on a top-secret mission that Lena can’t fully understand even as she’s recruited to join the next one. Of the dozens of men deployed, Kane is the only one to return, and he’s just waiting to die of organ failure.

Three years ago, something mysterious happened to a nearby lighthouse, which has been enveloped in a “shimmer”, a danger zone inside which terrible things are happening and from which no one returns. The zone is growing daily, and their own city will be overtaken if they don’t figure it out soon. So Lena (Natalie Portman) joins the next mission, the first one to be all-female, an expert biologist but also just a wife wondering why her husband would sign up for a suicide mission. She joins a group of women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) highly trained but with nothing to lose as they enter what is likely to be their last mission.

63a7237ca43826d1507503b739fc4d55Inside, every living thing has been transformed. Mutations have made some things astonishingly beautiful, and other things the stuff of nightmares (imagine an alligator-shark hybrid). And now those things are also taking on human DNA.

Director Alex Garland took on human uniqueness in Ex Machina and further explores the subject here. When they are reflected back on us in other living things, which of our traits make us truly special, truly human? It’s a scary question. Garland continues to excel in the creepy, quiet moments between the splashier, gorier stuff. His style throws us off-kilter even as the visuals delight. The audience is continuously confronted with questions to chew on while scary monsters breathe down our goose-pimpled necks. Alex Garland is clearly a talented sci-fi film maker, and even if you leave the theatre confused, you won’t be able to let it go.

For fans of the novel, by Jeff VanderMeer, don’t go in too attached. Garland chose not to re-read the book before embarking upon the script, so the movie turns out more a distant cousin of the book rather than a faithful adaptation. In fact, the details I remembered most from the book were absent; clearly Garland and I latched on to different themes. But the essence remains, the terror remains, the curiosity remains. Annihilation doesn’t exist just to scare you, it wants to challenge you. This is a bold film that doesn’t fit inside any comfortable Hollywood mold. The studio is crapping its pants because it think the movie’s too “cerebral” for us folk. But you know what? Embracing the unknown can be freeing. And exploring these concepts with women as our protagonists, free from macho bullshit, allow us to also experience these things for their beauty and their terror at the same time. Portman’s character is remote, unreachable. Rather, Thompson and Rodriguez provide the most emotional heft as their characters contemplate the most gorgeous and familiar of mysteries.

I left this movie shaken.