Tag Archives: sci-fi

I, Robot

Detective Spooner (Will Smith) hates technology generally and robots specifically. In 2035, he immerses himself in vintage clothes, “antique” furnishings, and “oldies” music (most of which is from the 80s). When a brilliant robotics scientist (James Cromwell) is killed, and a robot is the apparent suspect, Spooner is either the worst man for the job, or the best.

Sonny (Alan Tudyk) is the homicidal robot in question, and this murder investigation is immediately making waves. Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) is particularly motivated to cover up the crime. Robots are subject to 3 ironclad laws that should make harming a human impossible. Robertson’s company is about to inundate the market with robots for personal use. If the public gets whiff of this, it would destroy their appetite for keeping robots in their homes (understandably). So Robertson’s trying to put a lid on this thing, Spooner’s trying to blow the lid off it, and the hordes of robots are starting to feel more and more sinister.

I, Robot is inspired by the work of Isaac Asimov, a sci-fi writer with a curious and probing mind. He teases out the possibilities and then follows them to their logical, if uncomfortable conclusion. The movie is full of flashy embellishments that of course already look dated. 2004’s vision of 2035 already looks pretty shitty to us folk in 2019. Its original script (then called Hardwired) was a lot more Asimov, but once Will Smith came on board, it was quickly converted into yet another summer blockbuster in which Smith saves the world – with jokes inserted that even Will Smith found dubious. Anyway, it’s been robbed of the subversive Asimov element and turned into 96% action and 4% sci-fi, which, for the record, is officially the saddest ratio in the world. It’s like director Alex Proyas shoved in so many self-driving cars and futuristic guns that the brain just fell out. No room at the inn for critical thought or Important Questions or lingering doubt. Just expensive destruction and robots with unnerving eyes.

It’s not just the role Will Smith was born to play, it’s the role Will Smith has already played literally half a dozen times. He’s quite good at it – the chip on the shoulder, the slow-motion last minute saves. It’s rote, but it has a nice gloss on it. Nobody’s bothering to dig underneath the surface in this film, but it’s decent entertainment if you’re just looking for an excuse to shovel popcorn into face.

Fun Facts

The motorcycle that Smith rides in the movie is a 2004 MV Agusta F4-SPR, one of only 300 produced worldwide, capable of reaching in excess of 175 mph. He wrecked it during filming.

Will Wheaton and Emilion Estevez both tried out to play Sonny (the robot).

The most expensive CGI shot in the whole movie is when they digitally removed Will Smith’s penis from the shower scenes when producers suddenly got cold feet.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

In Canada we have only two seasons: winter, and construction. We are right in the middle of steaming, stinking construction season here in Ottawa, and we’re facing a weekend where the 417, a major highway and our main east-west artery, will shut down entirely. This after a flood season has left our infrastructure crippled and our commutes doubled. Which sort of makes the opening scene of Hitchhiker’s seem a little more likely. In order to make way for an intergalactic superhighway, a little lowly planet called Earth has to be demolished. We meet our hero Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) just minutes before the Earth’s destruction. He learns that his good pal and towel enthusiast Ford Prefect (Yasiin Bey, then billed as Mos Def) is in fact an alien who can call in a favour to save his friend, but erm, nothing else of human history (don’t worry, the dolphins have already defected – so long, and thanks for all the fish).

They meet up with a clinically depressed robot, Marvin (Alan Rickman), an egomaniacal president, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), and most improbably, Arthur’s Earthling crush, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel). Together they’re going to zing around the universe, searching for the Ultimate Question, the meaning of life, a single solitary spot of tea, new chapters for an ambitious encyclopedia, and any remaining shreds of life as they knew it.

Director Garth Jennings bit off more than he could chew trying to adapt Douglas Adams’ influential and beloved work, but you can hardly blame him for trying. Is the movie always coherent? Of course not. If you aren’t familiar with the book, you might find it hard to keep up. If you are familiar with it, there are no doubt bits and bobs that you’ll miss. It is not so much a faithful adaptation as an ode to it, with Adams’ blessing, and mostly by his own invention (such as the sneeze religion helmed by John Malkovich – achoo!). But if it’s a little sloppy, well, what else can you expect from a movie with an improbability drive?

Ivan Reitman and friends actually optioned the film as far back as 1982, thinking it might make an interesting vehicle for Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray (this is no doubt true). But then Ghostbusters came calling and they were off on a tagent, and Hitchhiker’s languished in development hell, at one point with Hugh Laurie and Jim Carrey slated to appear (I’m less thrilled with that pairing, personally). Douglas Adams wanted Hugh Grant for Dent but I’m so, so glad it went to Freeman instead, who plays the everyman so perfectly he is often overlooked.

In 2005’s finished product, Sam Rockwell steals the show as Zaphod Beeblebrox, basing the character on likely unequal dashes of Bill Clinton, Elvis, and Vince Vaughn. Personally, watching it in 2019, I saw all kinds of his George W. Bush in the role and it gave me a whole new appreciation for a performance I already loved.

Anyway, it’s inevitable that a film adapted from such a great book would fail to live up to it, but I actually give it a lot of credit and find it highly watchable and highly entertaining. So many of the little jokes really do work on the screen, and everyone involved is clearly relishing the opportunity to be involved. It’s hard not to find joy where so much exists.

 

Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel has robots, cyborgs, martians, floating cities, subterranean caves, hyperviolent arena sports, space battles, and an all-seeing immortal dictator pulling the strings behind the scenes.  And somehow, it manages to make all that stuff boring.  Like a three-handed guitar player (and make no mistake, Alita includes a three handed guitar player), Alita: Battle Angel is far less than the sum of its parts.

MV5BODMzMjlmZTYtOGU2NS00NGM2LWI4ZDItNzQzYTYwNDA2ZmU4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXRzdGFzaWVr._V1_CR21,0,939,528_AL_UY268_CR10,0,477,268_AL_The titular Alita (the Battle Angel, as it were) is found by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) in an Iron City garbage heap. Well, Alita’s head and shoulders are, but the rest of her body is missing. Turns out, Alita is a 300 year old cyborg from before the “Fall” and Dr. Ido really easily brings her back to “life”. Like, it’s no trouble whatsoever for him to reboot her, and you might wonder why no one else has tried for the last 300 years.  But don’t, because if you start asking questions like that about this movie, you will never be able to stop.  Trust me.

We come to learn that in Alita the “Fall”  was a war between martians and Earth’s floating cities, rather than a name for the second worst season (anyone who thinks fall is worse than winter has never lived through a real winter), or an elevator between Australia and post-Brexit London (doesn’t it seem like Boris Johnson’s plan for Brexit might be to build that stupid elevator from the worse Total Recall? But I guess that makes sense when Donald Trump seems to have already ripped off the Mars colony part from the also-not-great original).

The only floating city that didn’t fall happens to be the one directly over Iron City, and oh yeah, Alita was found in the garbage falling from that floating city, and oh yeah, somehow after 300 years she still is in great condition without her body even though if any other cyborgs in this movie lose a finger they instantly die (except where screaming would add dramatic effect). Also, the only way to get to the floating city, obviously the home of the immortal dictator guy (Edward Norton!?! I had no idea he was even in this but of course Jay spotted him right away), is to win the Motorball championship (like a White House visit, I guess), but there is infinitely more political commentary in the previous two paragraphs of this review than in the whole of Alita. That’s probably for the better, considering how brainless this James Cameron script is. This was the best he could do after working on it for TWO DECADES?

There’s more back story and then some Matrix-lite fight scenes with a lot of cyborg spines and blue goo, but at this point I hope you are realizing that it doesn’t matter because it is all really stupid and you should avoid this movie at all costs. Some of the cyborgs might be kind of cool I guess but when Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali and Edward Norton clearly can’t be bothered with this movie, why should you?

Astronaut

Becoming an astronaut was always a dream of mine.  As early as I can remember, I was fascinated by the idea that there were other planets and stars surrounding us, and the idea that I could float around in outer space and jump so much higher and further on the moon than on Earth.  At the time I lived in Kentucky and learned at school that I could write to NASA and they would send back random photos of space shuttles, planets, satellites, and so much more.  So write I did.  I wrote almost as many letters then as Jay does now (she is singlehandedly keeping Canada Post’s lettercarriers employed), and ended up with stacks of photos that I treasured throughout my childhood.

AstronautObviously, I am not the only one who dreamed of becoming an astronaut.  Space travel is clearly on a lot of people’s bucket lists, as shown by the proposed reality show cataloguing a one-way mission to Mars (which went belly-up earlier this year), the numerous space flights available for purchase (Virgin Galactic has collected $80 million in deposits for 90 minute voyages costing $250,000 each), and NSYNC’s Lance Bass attempting to buy his way onto a Russian rocket (he couldn’t afford it after Justin Timberlake left the band), among other examples.

In Astronaut, Angus (Richard Dreyfuss) definitely has space travel on his bucket list.  He’s always looking to the stars and, as a retired civil engineer, possesses the type of scientific knowledge that might grant a seat on a NASA mission.  Unfortunately, he never secured a NASA spot during his career and his dreams of space travel seem more and more distant as his health begins to fail.   But the stars align when a billionaire (Colm Feore) announces a contest that will give the winner a seat on the first commercial flight to space, which otherwise would be too expensive for Angus (and the rest of the 99%) to afford.  You can probably guess who becomes one of the twelve finalists in that lottery, but even with that stroke of luck things don’t come easy to Angus, not only because of the health issues I mentioned, but also because he’s trying to settle his wife’s estate and he’s struggling with an impending move to a retirement home.

Astronaut asks us to suspend our disbelief on more than one occasion, and in exchange rewards us with a sweet and engaging fairy tale.  The pieces fit together so neatly and conveniently that there is never any real tension or possibility of failure, but the movie works even with relatively low stakes because of Dreyfuss’ stellar performance.  Angus is a great combination of gruff and personable, and Astronaut is elevated by Dreyfuss’ wonderful chemistry with Angus’ family and friends, particularly his daughter (Krista Bridges), his son-in-law (Lyriq Bent), and his grandson (Richie Lawrence).

Writer-director Shelagh McLeod wisely focuses on Angus’ personal relationships rather than the space flight itself and Astronaut is better for it, because the fantastical (and potentially unbelievable) elements of the film are just minor details.  What matters is watching Angus reach for the stars, and I happily cheered him on from start to finish.

Advantageous

Gwen and her daughter Jules live in a near-future metropolis where economic disparity is increasing. There’s incredible wealth and progress but also increasing instability and hardship, and more and more, women are being pushed out of the workplace complete. Up until recently, Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) has been the face of a biotech company, but she’s been released from her contract for daring to approach middle age, and she’s finding that prospects have dried up considerably since she was last in the job market.

A single mother with not a lot of help or resources, Gwen’s primary concern is for daughter Jules (Samantha Kim). It feels vitally important, now more than ever, to set Jules up with the absolute best start in life, and a prep school will go a long way to getting things right. A school that Gwen can’t necessarily afford, even when she had a salary. But how will Jules fare in a world increasingly hostile toward her gender without a head start? Gwen casts about for options but finds only one – ironically from the company that’s just fired her. Their particular brand of bio technology is a procedure that would lift your consciousness into a young, beautiful host body. They’re still in the beginning stages and could use a “volunteer” to be the first civilian subject. If Gwen accepts, she’ll be young and beautiful enough to get her old job back. Two scoops with one cone?

Imagine explaining this to your kid. Mommy’s going to the hospital, and when she comes home, she’ll be a MILF. These arms that hold you, these lips that kiss you, these hands that soothe you will be no more. It’s nearly impossible for a small child to comprehend this, but it turns out that Jules won’t have the hardest time with this. Gwen suffers a huge mental hurdle trying to reconcile her past memories with her current body. And the surgery has left her different emotionally, too. Even her personality seems different. What will life be like for her now?

I LOVE when female directors get behind science fiction. Advantageous is character-driven, and the details of the world they inhabit are cleverly dispersed. It’s low budget, so the effects aren’t what will keep you interested. But there are so many questions that will poke little holes in your soul. Gwen’s choice is a little extreme but the commodification of women’s bodies is apparently something we’ll never be able to stop talking about, and this film makes us confront the line that is so easily overstepped along the way. If this were merely about our obsession with youth culture it would be one thing, but this is also about a mother’s love, and the depths she’ll go to to ensure her daughter’s health and happiness.

I Am Mother

All that remains of humanity is a maternal droid and 63 000 human embryos. Following her directive, the Mother robot grows a baby and raises it, alone in some sort of bunker. Mother (Rose Byrne) seems programmed to repopulate the earth but is in no hurry to do it, so far working just one at a time, and in fact, stopping at just the one. Their bond is unique but not without warmth and nurturing (though it did make me think of those experiments of rhesus monkeys raised by wire “mothers” who would cling to and love them as long as they had literally any kind of padding).

I watch countless sci-fi movies and read many books more in the genre, but I never understand how or why humans think they deserve to save themselves – or rather, why, when failing to save themselves personally, they still feel so strongly about saving ‘humanity’ in general. It’s conceit, obviously, to think we can and should thwart the natural order of things. To defy our own extinction when the time comes. To watch countless plant and animal species become endangered and then disappear but continue to place ourselves above them. We’ve had a good long run at the top of the food chain and of course we’d like to extend that indefinitely, but everything must end, and we seem to be doing our best to hasten ours. But when actually faced with the consequences of our footprint on the earth, our best fictional accounts continue to depict our self-importance.

When daughter (Clara Rugaard) reaches early adulthood, she’s been reading a lot about our kind, and even though Mother warns her of the toxicity outside the bunker’s doors, she can’t help but be curious as to what’s out there. It must be hard to imagine living among other people when you’ve never laid eyes on another. But it also seems part of our genetic makeup to want to be part of a pack, and a robot Mother will only cut it for as long as there’s no choice.

And then one day, choice comes knocking. A woman (Hilary Swank) bangs on an outer door. She’s wounded, shot, and is begging for access. Daughter lets her in, but there’s immediate tension between the Woman and the robot Mother. They’re telling VERY different stories about what’s going on in the outside world, and the droids’ role in everything. What motivation could Mother have for lying? But then again, we could say the same of Woman.

I Am Mother develops a striking sense of the creepy. There is lots of room for doubt, which fills the holes in our imagination. Which is good, because the setting is sparse. We’ve got one cold bunker, a constant interior shot that’s not going to vary. And Daughter’s interactions are against an imposing hunk of metal named Mother. It’s hard to act against a robot, and it’s hard for a robot to act. So it’s got a couple of strikes against it cinematically but much more going for it thematically, combining heaping helpings of Passengers and Ex Machina, with liberal sprinklings of Isaac Asimov for kick.

See You Yesterday

CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Chrichlow) are the smartest kids in their Bronx high school, and they’ve got the perfect experiment to win a pair of scholarships to M.I.T.: a time machine.

Any time travel movie that makes a bold reference to Back To The Future is all right in my book, but this one’s got an even twistier twist. It’s a time travel movie with a social conscience.

CJ’s brother Calvin (Astro) is one of the dozens of unarmed young black men who get murdered by the police every year. If you were a teenage girl with both a dead brother and the ability to move through time and space, wouldn’t you go back to save him?

But like their high school teacher tries to warn them, time travel has moral and ethical MV5BMmU4ZDYxZTUtMmI0My00MGVmLWE2NGYtZDQ2NmE5ZjQ0ZWE0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDM2NDM2MQ@@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_implications that are not just beyond their understanding, but beyond ours. Even the tiniest unintentional change can have unpredictable consequences.

Despite its science fiction premise, See You Yesterday feels very grounded thanks to its social relevance, its community in mourning, and the anger that simmers just below the surface. I really enjoyed this genre mashup, the in-your-faceness of reality interfacing with the fantasy. The world feels believable too – sure there are a surprising number of nawt nerds in one high school, but CJ and Sebastian are experimenting in grandpa’s garage, with grandma’s cheese and cracker snacks. The cast is uniformly strong, but Duncan-Smith is the inevitable stand-out.

It’s the grieving, though, that makes this film exceptional. I had no idea what I was in for when I put this movie on. I didn’t expect to be moved. I didn’t expect such powerful imagery. Plenty of sci-fi has a social agenda, but most have to be set in the dystopian future to make their point. This one is set today. Without ever saying it, the message is clear: if you’re poor, if you’re a minority, today IS your dystopia. But director Stefon Bristol leaves us with a shard of hope: the future is female. The future is black. The future may be a young kid working away in the garage next door. Please don’t shoot her.