Tag Archives: sci-fi

Replicas

Neither critics nor audiences seem to like this one much, but everyone’s game to give it a try because Keanu Reeves is in it. Should you?

Replicas is a sci-fi film, not unlike Altered Carbon in terms of the science, but very much different in terms of the fiction. In the future, a dying person’s “self” (the content of their minds) can be uploaded to a server, and then downloaded into another body. Keanu plays William Foster, a brilliant scientist trying to make that concept workable at a secret facility in Puerto Rico. The upload and the download both go well, but the robotic bodies always seem to reject the process, sometimes even destroying themselves in the process. He’s been working on this for a while, but if his breakthrough doesn’t come soon, they may lose their funding. Even so, William opts to take his family on vacation – after all, he has asked wife Mona (Alice Eve) and their three kids to uproot for him, but he hasn’t been around much. So of course he accidentally kills them all in a terrible traffic accident that very night. In a grief-crazed panic, he calls fellow researcher Ed (Thomas Middleditch), and forces him to quickly upload all 4 of the recently deceased. William knows that the download into robot bodies isn’t viable, so he guilts Ed into using his own area of research to help: human cloning. And as if having a whole family of secret clones isn’t difficult enough, they have to steal very expensive lab equipment to do the job, and then lie about their success to their boss.

This premise is loaded with potential, and the film contains lots of threads that justify anyone choosing this material. So why don’t we like it?

In part, something researchers call  “uncanny valley” which basically posits that as robots become more human-like, we go from admiration to revulsion. Anything that we know is unreal, but seems real, makes us feel a bit uneasy. And now William’s living in a whole house of them – very good copies of his family, but copies nonetheless, and not entirely perfect either. As humans, we have a natural revulsion to this. 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had ultra-realistic human animation, and suffered defeat at the box office. Steven Spielberg’s A.I. made some serious money, but the movie creeped out both audiences and critics, some of whom have since revised their originally ambivalent reviews. But still: this stuff makes us uncomfortable, and usually for good reason.

The uncanny valley isn’t Replicas’ only problem though. Ultimately, its own ambition topples it. The first half sometimes feels a bit silly, and William’s choices are consistently problematic. Of course we’d all like just a little more time with our lost loved ones, but William takes it to extremes, and drags his buddy into the mess with him, which is a lot to ask of a coworker who only ever consented to looking after a fish.

The uneasiness generated by a family that now consists mainly of the undead (not zombies, but kinda definitely zombies) would do better in a horror film, but instead director Jeffrey Nachmanoff commits to a family drama but can’t quite make it work. And there was plenty to work with: grief, survivor’s guilt, basic human existential questions of identity of self – but instead Nachmanoff gets bogged down explaining imaginary science as if this was a term paper and not a piece of entertainment. Keanu manages to stay serious even whilst wearing the silliest hat of the future AND waving his hands in the air like he just don’t care, but the script goes from suspicious to limp and I’m pretty sure the director was in the can for the entire back 9. Replicas does not work well as a movie, but it does star the internet’s boyfriend, and for his presence alone, I bet people will continue to watch.

The Vast of Night

Picture it: small town New Mexico, sometime in the late 1950s. On this particular evening, the whole town is crowded into the high school gym to watch a basketball game. It’s literally standing room only. The players’ shorts are very short; the cheerleaders’ skirts are very long. The town’s streets are all but deserted. The only two people who seem not to be at the game are a couple of intrepid teenagers – fast-talking Fay (Sierra McCormick) is the town’s telephone switchboard operator and charismatic Everett (Jake Horowitz) is hosting a live radio show. Fay is of course very faithfully tuned into the radio program and notices the broadcast is briefly interrupted by a strange audio frequency.

Few witness it of course, most people being at the game, but one man who does calls in with quite a story. He’s heard these tones before. And boy does he have some theories. From there, Fay and Everett get caught up in a night neither will ever forget.

The Vast of Night is a pretentious title for a film eager to live up to that insinuation. Stylistically it’s reminiscent of The Twilight Zone; a retro sci-fi throwback that strains the limits of its (low) budget but proves good ideas trump production value when it comes to building a watchable, suspenseful film. Most of all I enjoyed the dynamic between the two young actors. McCormick in particular has a massive job handling a demanding long take but handles it like a true professional. The two really convey a sense of immediacy that contributes richly to the film’s ominous atmosphere.

Despite some very strong elements, I never quite liked the film as much as I wanted to. I didn’t really enjoy the film’s conceits, or director Andrew Patterson’s self-conscious attempts to use all the tricks in his bag in one go. And some of his choices are just confounding: why the black screen, for example? During a long exchange with a caller during the live radio broadcast, we mostly focus on Everett’s face as he absorbs the story, but sometimes the camera cuts away to…nothing. A totally black, blank screen. And then back to Everett, who continues to listen intently, sitting perfectly still, hardly giving anything away on his face, and then back to black. I’ve thought a long time about this choice and though I’ve come up with a few plausible scenarios, I don’t like any of them. It feels more like a mistake than a choice. Later on in the film, when two people are running across a field, the camera spends multiple lengthy takes focusing on knees down. This is likely a budgetary concern, either the shot cost them enough that they had to use it a little too liberally in order to justify it, or they simply couldn’t afford to show anything that might have happening thighs and above. Either way, I don’t want the line item to be so glaringly apparent on the screen.

What I do want is another film from Patterson, who’s clearly got some potential if he hasn’t already burned all his bridges (one of the items in the film’s IMDB trivia section is a list of all the film festivals who rejected the movie – a particularly ungracious display of privilege from a first-time white, male director, and some pretty juvenile sour grapes), and some better material for McCormick, who deserves to showcase her talent.

James vs. His Future Self

James (Jonas Chernick) is a geeky science guy who has largely buried himself in work. His parents are dead, he avoids his sister, and he’s too afraid to explore the outer reaches of the friend zone with the beautiful and equally geeky Courtney (Cleopatra Coleman), so there’s really no one to pull his body out from the avalanche of data he’s buried under. But one day an older man appears from out of nowhere, spouting nonsense that James has absolutely no chill for whatsoever, until the man whips out his dick.

Which, to be fair, would probably stop many of us in our tracks. But James does a double take, which under other circumstances might be rude, but in this case convinces him to listen up. Why? Because their penises (peni?) are identical, guys. Ipso facto, the old guy dropping trou is actually also James, but from the future. He didn’t initially recognize him because Future James (FJ) is older of course, and oddly also taller; time travel stretches you out, apparently. But since the penis thing checks out, and is of course a foolproof system for identifying past and future Yous, Present James (PJ) is willing to listen. He just doesn’t like what he hears. Future James (Daniel Stern) has traveled back in time to convince Present James not to invent time travel. To just drop it. Future James is responsible for the biggest scientific breakthrough in the history of literally everything, and has accomplished all of his wildest professional goals. But he’s begging Present James to choose another path. Because in the pursuit of his dream, he sacrificed everything else. Future James is miserable, and wants more for little PJ.

For a movie about time travel, it’s really kind of not about time travel. We’re not going to worry about portals or paradoxes or ripping a new one in the universe. Instead we’re going to debate whether the personal sacrifice required of any ground-breaking innovation is really worth it. And even if we accept that the best and most fulfilling path for James is to abandon his time travel research, does he perhaps owe it to the rest of humanity?

The discovery of two new elements in the periodic table and their development and application for the good of humankind made Marie Curie one of just 4 people to win a Nobel Prize in two different disciplines (chemistry and physics). Radiation therapy has saved the lives of countless cancer patients over the years, and many more have benefited from the x-ray. But Marie Curie paid with her life, dying of radiation poisoning she acquired in her lab. Would a Future Marie Curie have begged her to stop? And should she have listened? If not for her own sake and lifespan, perhaps for her daughter?

The performances are good and the direction uncomplicated. I delight in any film that makes me think, and the script, by Chernick and director Jeremy LaLonde, did just that. It manages not to come off as heavy-handed and remains fairly impartial. We wouldn’t all make the same choice, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right choice for James. I do wonder, though, that if the Future version of You suddenly showed up in your home, how would you know them? Should we all devise a secret code right now, just in case? Not only do many of us not have penises at all, but even those who do might often find theirs to be relatively nondescript. Could you pick it out of a lineup? Whipping it out makes for an awkward first encounter, and is risky enough to make a second encounter a lot less likely. After all, if you’ve traveled all that way THROUGH TIME to deliver an important message, you probably want to get on your good side. But then again, a lot of other validation methods will also come off as creepy, and stalker-ish. There really aren’t a lot of good options for the time traveler. Usually a fair dose of skepticism must be overcome, and then there’s the challenge of authentication. Plus, time travelers always seem to be cutting things pretty close, don’t they? There’s always some urgent need, probably the very fate of the universe hangs in the balance. So go ahead. Work out your secret password now and save your Future Self a lot of trouble should the need arise.

 

Dear Denis Villeneuve,

I know that you are attempting to adapt the great unadaptable Dune. I know that you are a strong and capable director – in fact, among the very best. I trust you. Blade Runner 2049 was a sci-fi masterpiece, aloe to my burning worries. But having recently rewatched David Lynch’s 1984 Dune, I do have some thoughts:

  1. Do people really need to be so sweaty? It’s unclear whether this was an artistic choice or simply the result of filming in the Mexican desert, but either way, get some blotting papers and use them. Vigorously.

2. This story takes place in the year 10 000++ (I can’t remember exactly, but it’s far, far into the future). Why does the future look so much like the past? And I don’t mean the 1980s, when it was filmed, although obviously it does bear those marks as well. I mean the 18th century – many of the gowns look extras wandered in from the set Amadeus. I cannot imagine a version of the future where women embrace hoop skirts again. And the Duke uses a ring to make his wax seals, you know, for “security” because apparently we moved so far beyond digital fingerprints and retinal scans we’ve landed back at wax. And for that matter, how is it that they can travel through space but they can’t send an email?

3. And for that matter, on the 80s theme…I get that you were living in heady times, David Lynch. You had so many new effects at your fingertips. In just two years time, with every motherfucker with a Panasonic camcorder doing it, you may have relied less on those extravagant wipes. You might have held back on the layering of images if you watched just a little more MTV. Every time the image of a gently weeping man was super-imposed over the image of a barren desert, I expected a power ballad to chime in. And despite a soundtrack from Toto, none ever did. Sheesh.

4. The flying fat suit. I really, really just could not. It reminded me of a hybrid between Mad Max: Fury Road’s  Immortan Joe and Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory’s Violet when she blows up like a blueberry. It’s gross, it’s painful, at times just downright silly, and always, always incredibly unnecessary. Please omit.

5. Also: the eyebrows? Not feeling them. I mean, even if in the future we decide to take faces in a whole new direction, I’m not sure teased, bushy eyebrows would be the look, even if it were possible, which it is not. I can assure you that Sean has not even once in his life groomed his eyebrows, and though they are wiry, unkempt, and disastrous, they are not six inches long because there is just a limit on how long eyebrows will grow before they fall out. That’s just life. And frankly, I think any society should work harder at getting email back before it looks into eyebrow growth hormones.

6. That codpiece though? Yeah, Sting’s codpieces are perhaps the one thing that worked. If I were you, Denis, I’d even look at getting Sting back.

7. I’m not dogging on Lynch. He’s a man of vision and I admire the attempt. I’ve read the book. The story is vast, and very engrossing. But to squeeze it into a two-hour film is just impossible. Movie-goers were even given cheat sheets with backstory, but still it’s not enough. How to retain the book’s essence without overpowering the story with detail? It’s nearly impossible, as Lynch discovered. Villeneuve has promised to break it up into at least 2 films, though Lynch would have expected to do the same and never got the chance after the first one’s failure (it made $31M against a $40M budget, actually Lynch’s most successful film, but still considered a flop). One thing’s for sure: 80% of the dialogue in the 1984 version is attributed to a character’s thoughts, which we hear out loud (or actually, whispered, though I can’t imagine why someone would whisper to themselves inside their own head). This constant narrative device was a major failing of the film and I hope like heck that between Villeneuve and his screenwriting conspirators, Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, the problem with have found a solution. A workable one.

New vs Old cast:

Timothee Chalamet role: Paul Atreides Kyle McLachlan

Rebecca Ferguson Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica Francesca Annis

Zendaya Chani Sean Young

Jason Momoa Duncan Idaho Richard Jordan

Josh Brolin Gurney Halleck Patrick Stewart

Oscar Isaac Duke Leto Atreides, Paul’s dad Jürgen Prochnow

Javier Bardem Stilgar Everett McGill

Dave Bautista Glossu ‘Beast’ Rabban Paul Smith

Stellan Skarsgard Baron Harkonnen (flying fuck) Kenneth McMillan

Charlotte Rampling Reverend Mother Sian Phillips

??? Princess Irulan Virginia Madsen

??? Feyd Rautha Sting

Vivarium

Vivarium is the Humpty Dumpty of movies. It sits straddling a wall between sci-fi and horror. Every time Humpty leans toward one side or the other, our breath catches, waiting to see if he’ll finally take a definitive dumpty. But in all honesty, Vivarium also teeters on an even bigger, much more important wall between good movie and bad movie. The direction in which it ultimately falls will be entirely up to you, and you won’t be wrong either way. If you are willing to proceed, suspend your disbelief now and leave it here: ______________________. You won’t be needing it.

Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple in search of a perfect home. One day they follow a real estate agent out to the suburbs to check out a new development. The house in question, #9, is indistinguishable in a row of identical little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes all the same. Welcome to Yonder, the sign beckons. Both the agent and the model home feel a little off; something in the back of your head niggles. Even Gemma and Tom are aware that something’s not quite right, but it’s Gemma’s politeness that have gotten them into this mess, and she’s determined to see it through. Neither are prepared for the agent to suddenly disappear, and both are stressed to previously unimaginable levels when they find that they cannot escape the labyrinth of infinitely repeating suburban homes. No matter how long they drive or how many turns they make, they always wind up back at #9.

Over the next few days, despair and desperation mount as the development proves itself to be a prison. Provisions appear, seemingly out of nowhere, and one day, one of the crates contains a baby, with simple instructions: raise him and you will be released. Within 90 days the baby is a walking, talking boy, but that’s the least alarming thing about him. This kid will shoot automatically to whatever list of top 10 creepiest movie kids you’ve been keeping in your head.

Director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley have cooked up a scathing indictment of the myth of suburbia, indeed the myth of parenthood. There is a not very subtle allegory here indicating that the monotony of suburbia is meant to lull us into placidity so we fail to notice that parenthood is literally sucking the life out of us. Children are a black hole of needs and wants that parents fill, fill, fill and the kid just takes, takes, takes, until there’s nothing left to give and the parent is just an empty shell of its former self.

Vivarium is not scary in the traditional sense of horror. It means to cultivate a current of fear in the circuitry of your own life. Does the pursuit of happiness betray us? Is the American dream a lie? Is domesticity a trap?

Welcome to Yonder.

3022

In 2190, four American astronauts are taking their turn peopling a refueling station halfway between Earth and a moon of Jupiter where an outpost is being built. It’s a long shift: 10 whole years. Jackie (Kate Walsh) says goodbye to her daughter and joins captain John (Omar Epps), Richard (Angus Macfadyen), and Lisa (Miranda Cosgrove) aboard their space station, all of them in it for a very long haul.

The first year goes smoothly – the nobility of their calling, the novelty of outer space, yadda yadda yadda. The second one is fine: they dance, they play soccer, they hop beds. By the third year, the veneer has worn off and the mission is sprouting cavities. John in particular is having difficulty, experiencing night terrors that are increasingly violent and problematic. They don’t even make it halfway before the doctor on board, Richard, decides John is unfit for duty and they should pull the plug on the mission and return home. No one is happy with this decision, but in either case it gets taken out of their hands when something even more concerning happens. Experienced on board as a flash, Earth seems to have disappeared, had an extinction-level event, or at least that’s what happened to the best of their knowledge now that communication’s been cut. And if you thought they were going a little nutty before they were the last four humans in existence, guess what’s coming down the comet!

The movie takes places entirely aboard this refuelling station so we don’t get any outside knowledge, outside context, or any backstory on any of these characters. Their astronauts, that’s all you’re going to get, and the qualification for astronauting seems to have diminished quite a bit somewhere in the next 150 years. I wish we had known them better, known their grief, known their motivation, known how a mother could leave her daughter to be raised by someone else.

Although there are some plot holes (inevitable in sci-fi, probably), director John Suits does a good job of cultivating tension. And you can’t deny the premise is a good one. It’s just a little wasted in this movie. They start rationing food and life support, but for what? There’s no one to save, nowhere to go. At what point is life not worth preserving? To be fair, the film does take a stab or two at fear of death versus fear of dying alone, and that theme is its own black hole. Bobbing around out in space, rational decisions already on short supply, nothing retains the same value. And yet some will always struggle to live on.

This isn’t the worst thing on Netflix. It isn’t great, but it may satisfy a craving for science fiction. Just know that some details will niggle and learn to let go. Or bring a calculator and prepare to double check some math.

Check out our review on Youtube.

Freaks

This is the kind of movie that throws you into a world and a situation we know nothing about, and writer-directors Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein aren’t in a hurry to tell us.

Dad (Emile Hirsch) has sequestered himself and his 7 year old daughter Chloe (Lexy Kolker) in their home. The drapes are duct-taped closed, the door is quadruple-locked, and no one is allowed in or out. They are preparing for or hiding from some ominous event, and the blood dripping from Dad’s eyes make me think it’s not just all in his head, no matter how paranoid and controlling this all seems.

Still, Chloe is a 7 year old girl. She wants to make a friend, to play in the park, to eat an ice cream cone. So when Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern) repeatedly parks directly in front of their home, Chloe can’t resist, and all she has to do is wait for Dad to fall into one of his sleeps to make her escape.

But on the outside, it turns out not everything Dad told her is a lie. There ARE bad people – it’s just harder than she thought to identify them. In fact, Freaks is almost the flip side to The Incredibles. I know, I know, that sounds like weird comparison, but you may recall that as we meet the Incredible family, we learn that super heroes have basically been outlawed and this family has been relocated and have to hide their powers to fit in. Chloe’s family also have powers of some kind, and public fear has meant that all the special people are either hiding or relocated or dead, and the government prefers the latter to the former.

The story keeps us firmly within Chloe’s understanding of her own powers and the circumstances in which she lives. She’s understandably frustrated with her confinement and she makes impetuous, chocolate-driven decisions. The directors have crafted a horror-sci-fi hybrid that keeps us guessing, unfolding at Chloe’s pace, not mine or yours or theirs.

Freaks is perhaps a little inconsistent, but it’s boldly directed and surprisingly well-acted. There’s more character development than a dozen other horror films combined and its message is as strong as it is relevant.

Speed of Life

June (Ann Dowd) is nearly 60 but hasn’t yet filled out the obligatory paperwork for relocation after 60. So says her house. Not in a weird way. The year is 2040 and her house is wired with a bunch of monitors and an Alexa-like voice tells her when her bills are due or the pH in her urine is less than desirable. June rips out all the monitors and buries them in her garden but you can’t really keep Big Brother out.

June has a good reason for not wanting to leave her home. Well, depends who you ask. A good reason to June sounds perfectly crazy to everyone else. You see, back in 2016 she and her boyfriend were having a fight. She’d just found out that David Bowie was dead and Edward, as usual, wanted to crack jokes. His inability to take anything seriously was a pretty big sore point in their relationship and they were on the verge of a blow-out fight about it when Edward disappeared. Like, a rip in the universe opened up and he went through it and was gone. Gone forever. Gone for the past 24 years.

But guess what? One night, Edward (Ray Santiago) reappears. He hasn’t aged a day. He doesn’t know that he was missing, presumed dead, mourned. Doesn’t recognize this older woman as his girlfriend June.

Speed of Life, written and directed by Liz Manashil, is interesting on a few levels:

a) The wormhole: where did he go, where has he been?

b) The relationship: is everything still there 24 years later, when June has changed so much and Edward not at all?

c) What happens in a few days when June turns 60 and “The Program” takes over?

The Program is a very interesting aspect; seniors 60 and over are given mandatory government housing where they no longer go outside, or socialize with other age groups. They are medicated, zombie-like. It’s a little funny because the old people in 2040 are Millennials. Old Millennials. It’ll happen to all of us. And I realize that Baby Boomers are sort of ruining everything just by reaching retirement age in such voluminous numbers. It’s crushing to the generations underneath them. So I get why you would want to deal with the problem. And yet Baby Boomers are also proving that 60 is hardly old at all. It used to be. Now it’s practically the same as 40. I know lots of Baby Boomers who are fit and busy and contributing in many ways, even outside employment (in fact: perhaps particularly outside employment). They are redefining old age even as they seem to reach it. They are living longer, yes, but also, I think, better. There are many more healthy years after retirement than ever before. So think of June (again: Ann Dowd) as somehow so old that she is now irrelevant to society…it’s jarring. It feels very Atwood. God I love sci-fi/ speculative fiction when it’s written by women.

TIFF19: My Zoe

If you love Julie Delpy, as I do, you probably love her talky scripts, her hyper-verbal, over-analytical characters who leave no thought unspoken. She has a knack for combining drama and comedy and elevating both with intelligent commentary. My Zoe is quite a departure. Which isn’t to say that it’s not smart or insightful. But it is very, very different.

Isabelle (Delpy), loving mother to Zoe (Sophia Ally) is going through a divorce from her husband, James (Richard Armitage). Their daughter’s custody is their battleground. They both love and want her desperately, but they might also have the need to hurt and wound each other however they can. It hasn’t been easy. Zoe is a sweet little girl who is too young to understand the animosity. When James notices a bruise on Zoe’s arm, he is not un-accusing of Isabelle. When Isabelle hears Zoe sneeze, she is not un-accusing of James. They are suspicious of each other’s parenting, determined to be the Best and Most Devoted One. I wish I could say that all dissolves when it turns out Zoe is gravely ill.

A mystery illness strikes quickly, and severely, and the waiting room where the two parents wait is a literal tiny glass box where their tension just bounces off the walls and back into their bodies, ratcheting up the hostility with each allegation lobbed. Is it love gone sour that has them at each other’s throats, or just fear and frustration? Truly, to be the parent of a sick child is the most helpless one can feel. It’s no wonder they seek their scapegoats. Up until this point, the movie is riveting: emotional and raw, full of anger and spite. But then it makes a u-turn.

The next half is so materially different that you might wonder if you’d fallen asleep and woken up during an entirely different movie. It’s still Julie Delpy, still playing a devoted mother, obsessed, even. But everything else has changed: the characters, her surroundings, and most of all: the tone. It’s disorienting trying to get your bearings in this new reality.

Delpy is of course quite good – sometimes astonishing, sometimes vehement, often dangerous and despairing. Her performance is a wail heard by mothers everywhere. But if also reaches beyond the normal, natural borders of motherhood and asks: what else? The answers are not necessarily comfortable.

In The Shadow of The Moon

A series of victims, each with the same puncture wounds on the back of their necks. They bleed from their noses, their ears, their eyes. They bleed and they die. The only thing that connects them is a mysterious woman in a blue hoodie, who seems to have visited each before they died. When Locke (Boyd Holbrook) and his partner Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine) investigate, along with their Lieutenant Holt (Michael C. Hall), what they uncover makes little sense.

Turns out, thanks to a glitch in the moon, every 9 years this hoodie woman (Cleopatra Coleman) gets to visit from the future and assassinate a few select people who would eventually contribute to Earth’s destruction. It’s like going back in time to kill Hitler’s grandparents. It’s for the good of humanity, but try telling that to the beat cop on the case. Locke gets a sense of this but no one else believes him, which means that every 9 years he gets crazier, more obsessed, more fixated on a narrative that can’t possibly be true.

The plot’s a little bumbly so it’s better to focus on how isolating it would be to hold a tiny piece of history secret in your heart, to chase a serial killer who reincarnates every 9 years, even after you think you’ve killed her. There’s no scenario in which that makes you a better person. Which the voice-over narration tells you pretty bluntly. And the thing about voice-over narration is that it’s usually used to mask glaring holes in a story that the film isn’t up to showing in a less obtrusive, sermonizing way. It’s rarely a good thing. And as you might guess, as we gain understanding of these slayings, the movie’s tone shifts from detective whodunnit to preachy science fiction – not exactly my favourite.

Jim Mickle’s In The Shadow Of The Moon starts off with promise and then declines steadily from there, perhaps falling to its own ambition, which does not incline me toward forgiveness.