Tag Archives: sci-fi

Chicken Of The Mound

Imagine a somewhere that is not here. Imagine there are crab robots (with pinchers, naturally), and hard-edge robots, and both think they are the ‘humans’ by which I can only assume they believe themselves to be the dominant species, the apex predators, so of course the only solution is to continually invade each other’s planets and try to kill each other off. But in a war of robot versus robot, there are no quick winners, and the robots are eventually exhausted. The hard-edge robots form weird jellyfish cocoons that ultimately destroy the crab robots’ planet.

I can’t logically or lucidly explain why, but this is somehow the precipitating factor in a chicken larva not reaching adulthood and instead of hiding away in a cave, he wanders the planet wearing robot armour. He’s a mystery and a marvel, but he’s the least of your worries. There are robot ladies, big eyes, doll heads, chicken heads, creepy-crawlies, and things that look vaguely Star Wars-like. Robots continue to fight, so I can only assume they continue to battle for supremacy.

I understand how this sounds. You can’t make sense of this because I can’t make sense of it because, I suspect, it doesn’t wholly make sense. It’s like my 5 year old niece Ella, distracted by someone having fun on the trampoline without her, is relating a story to her 7 year old cousin, Jack. Jack is hopped up on sugar and has to pee, but does his best to understand, and then to recount the story to Xi Chen over a Zoom call during which Jack’s first priority is showing off all his trophies and medals. And then Xi Chen, whose first language is not English, animates the thing to the best of his ability but without asking a single clarifying question. It’s delirious stuff. A lot of the robots look like weird hybrids that a child’s imagination might produce given a box of crayons and enough blank paper – a mix of their limited but enthusiastic understanding of robots, and limited by their artistic abilities.

Xi Chen’s minimalist narration, an imperfect translation, is like toneless poetry (perhaps the kind of poetry written and recited by a robot?). They are rare interjections between dialogue-free scenes scored by the kind of beep-boops kids imagine robots voice, and the phaser sounds they make with their sticky mouths while play-shooting each other in the backyard.

Chicken of the Mound is undoubtedly odd and a little austere, but it’s like taking a ride on the magic school bus into a child’s imagination, where all things are possible, few things make sense, and everything can be turned into either a gun or a robot, or better yet, can transform between the two.

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes

You’ve seen time loop movies before, but you haven’t seen one like this. An official selection of the Fantasia Film Festival 2021.

The Premise: Cafe owner Kato (Kazunori Tosa) returns home after a long day at work via a very short commute as he lives just above it. His apartment is just as he left it but contains a surprise: a message from himself, delivered “live” from the cafe downstairs. Weird, right? Turns out the monitors in his home and his cafe are linked, and the one in the cafe is suddenly broadcasting from two minutes in the future. By racing up and down the stairs, Kato can leave a message and then hear it, or deliver a message he knows he’s already heard. Things get interesting when his friends get involved, tinkering with the system in order to see deeper into the future, and using it to procure money, money that actually belongs to some gangsters because of course it does. Too bad they didn’t see that coming.

The Verdict: The film has an immediacy that distinguishes it from other movies in the genre. Kato’s ability to tamper with it and interact with it directly is also a refreshing addition to genre rules that are perhaps growing stale. But best of all, not to mention rather daringly, director Junta Yamaguchi pulls this off in a single 70 minute long take. One single take! It’s seamless, never gimmicky, infusing energy and urgency in a movie that’s surprisingly full of fun and a bubbling levity despite growing threats and intensity. It’s high-concept without being alienating, an inventive twist inspiring real creativity within the cast and crew. They keep things simple, the film bare bones in order to emphasize its moving parts. The characters are uncomplicated but surprisingly fully-formed, which adds to the intimacy of a time loop with such limited scope. Haunted by potential paradoxes, this madcap mini adventure shows us how anxiety drives us to recreate the past rather than pursuing the future. This movie is a testament to hard work both behind and in front of the screen; the crew pulls it off with an ease that only comes from serious rehearsal. I’m not sure when it happened exactly, but Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes quietly became my favourite film at the festival.

Glasshouse

I am a fan of a post-apocalyptic/dystopian nightmare done well, and I wasn’t sure that’s what Glasshouse promised, but boy did it deliver. Glasshouse is an official selection of the Fantasia Film Festival 2021.

The Premise: Living in a glasshouse in total isolation, a matriarch helps her family survive The Shred, a dementia-like virus that steals memory. They take turns standing guard, growing food, maintaining the home, educating each other, and comforting themselves with ritual. It’s survival and subsistence, but with a certain peace that very few others would have encountered in this new world. The tenuous peace is inevitably shattered by the arrival of a Stranger, the first in a long time that they haven’t immediately dispatched. His presence stirs up an uncomfortable past, and it seems perhaps there are worse fates than forgetting.

The Verdict: Director Kelsey Egan takes her time introducing us to the unique social ecosystem of the glasshouse in which our family lives. A dangerous toxin in the air means there are no live animals and edible plants need to be treated with the same care and attention as human lungs. It’s a precarious way to live yet we are given to understand that they are the lucky ones, and have stayed that way thanks to vigilance, ritual, and an armed guard. Yet they allow a stranger to enter, and to stay. True, two of the sisters are young women, and quickly seduced by the only man who isn’t their brother. But it turns out their relative peace was a carefully balanced construct and the Stranger has shifted the dynamic simply by infiltrating it. It’s always juicy and fascinating to imagine how someone would survive the end of the world, and this particular family makes great a host for the apocalypse. Writers Egan and Emma Lungiswa De Wet make a convincing and absorbing case for their take, creating a world that’s innately creepy and inspires suspicion. Families are of course always a bounty for a story-teller; they are unique partnerships built upon jealousies, secrets, and competition, yet they are bound to each other with ties only they, and sometimes not even they, can understand. A fantastic young cast including Jessica Alexander, Anja Taljaard, and Hilton Pelser make us believe in the frailty of their survival, and warn us that the last one to succumb isn’t exactly the winner. While oblivion is bliss, remembering is a burden.

Berlinale 2021: Ich bin dein Mensch / I Am Your Man

She’s doing it for science, guys. In order to get funds for her research, Alma (Maren Eggert) agrees to do a solid for the ethics board, testing out a controversial new product for three weeks, something designed with only her happiness in mind. Sounds easy, right?

The product is a humanoid robot with extraordinary artificial intelligence. ‘Tom’ is made from Alma’s brain scans with a specific algorithm that guarantees he’s her perfect made, a soul mate in (almost) every sense, designed to meet her every need and her every desire, even the unconscious ones. Alma, remember, is not a customer but a beta tester, performing an experiment to make a report to the ethics committee in three weeks’ time, who will then decide whether robots like Tom should be allowed to marry, hold passports, or be accorded rights like a human. Alma is not looking for love, but Tom is made to suit her perfectly. Can she really resist?

This is absolutely not some romantic comedy, despite the fact that ‘Tom’ looks an awful lot like dreamy Dan Stevens (and is in fact played by him). This movie puts Alma into an incredible and fascinating situation. We use the term ‘soul mate’ rather loosely, but even the love of your life is likely not 100% your ideal mate. Humans are flawed. Tom is not. Not human, and not flawed, or flawed only in the ways Alma finds endearing. Will this revolutionary new invention eradicate the scourge of human loneliness, or will so much perfection and devotion ultimately feel oppressive?

These are interesting questions that aren’t so much asked and answered as lived and experienced. Eggert is really good, expanding and contracting as she examines her own (human) responses to this experiment. A complete stranger who knows her intimately is living in her home. He is utterly devoted to her and knows her better than she knows herself. But Alma is a woman of science. It is difficult for her to see beyond the clever algorithm, to see his dedication as anything other than simulated human emotion, simulated being the operative word.

What is to become of Tom? Director Maria Schrader tackles this theme at new and interesting angles, probing tentatively at our most vulnerable spots just to see what’s there. I loved her style, I loved how bravely and honestly and unflatteringly the introspection was conducted, I thought both Stevens and Eggert were wonderful – all in all, this was quite a nice surprise at the Berlin Film Festival, exactly the kind of film you hope to accidentally encounter when you reach beyond your comfort zone at the mercy of festival programming.

Berlinale 2021: Tides

In the not too distant future, humanity will have completely decimated the Earth and fled 500 light years away, to a distant, alternate planet in the Keplar star system. But this planet isn’t the utopia they’d hoped; within just a couple of generations, they’ve lost the ability to reproduce. The first envoy they send back to Earth to check things out disappears completely. The second fares only a little bit better.

Astronaut Blake (Nora Arnezeder) barely survives the splashdown landing and immediately has some real problems; there are survivors, and they’re none too trusting. ¬†Earth is a barren wasteland ruled by extreme tides and split into two warring, violent factions. But they are able to reproduce – Blake sees plenty of children and babies before she’s taken prisoner. Her jailers turn out to be surprisingly friendly – leader Gibson (Iain Glen) knew her as a child, was a friend of her father, who disappeared with the first envoy. He’s been working very hard to make things tenable for the Keplar community to return to Earth but lacks the means to communicate. Only Blake has that, but the longer she’s there, the more sinister everything seems, and she’s no longer convinced it’s the best course. But Gibson and his gang aren’t about to let go of their plans without a fight.

Tides doesn’t have a great script. Its details are frustratingly vague, and if you care about strict logic, I’m pretty sure the math here doesn’t remotely add up. But if you’re simply in the mood for an unabashed sci-fi genre film, you’ve got yourself a sure bet. So sure, in fact, you might find it looking familiar. It actually feels like, rather than telling its own story, director Tim Fehlbaum is setting up some sort of dystopian hub where more successful films in the genre might convene. It wouldn’t feel strange to see Tom Hardy drive by with someone strapped to the front of his doon buggy, or Kevin Costner sail by on a really big boat. But aside from building a world that feels and looks familiar, Tides fails to establish its own story. Despite a committed performance by Arnezeder and some interesting nuggets of premise, Tides is ultimately too weak to stand on its own legs.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things

Mark (Kyle Allen) is either the most intuitive human being I’ve ever seen, or he’s done this before. In fact, he’s done this many times before. He’s trapped in a day that won’t stop repeating.

I know, I know. Enough with the Groundhog Day remakes. Almost none of them are good. I do have to give this one a chance, though, because last year Palm Springs made me put in the ‘almost’ before ‘none of them are good.’ Palm Springs was good. It was great. Now that we know it can be done, we have to at least go through the motions of pretending it can be done again.

No one’s more surprised than me that it has indeed been done again. It’s not as good as Groundhog Day of course, or even Palm Springs, but it does justify its existence, which is more than I was expecting.

You see, at some point as Mark is living and reliving his day, showing up with precision timing to making tiny, necessary improvements so that person A doesn’t get pooped on by a bird and person B doesn’t get smacked in the face by a beach ball, he meets a girl, Margaret (Kathryn Newton). And Margaret is the kind of girl who inspires him to use the pick up line ‘Are you by any chance experiencing a temporal anomaly?’ Which is to say that Margaret is also reliving this same exact day over and over, and now they’ve found each other. That’s not what makes this movie worthwhile, though Newton and Allen do have interesting chemistry together. No, what makes this movie worth your time is that they’ve put a new and interesting kink into the genre. Mark has of course been going through the day, obsessively trying to find the key that allows him to escape from this time loop. His current project involves a map of the eponymous tiny, perfect things – those small moments of utter perfection. But Margaret isn’t so keen on helping him. Margaret is actually invested in maintaining the time loop.

Cinematic history has taught me there are two kinds of people stuck in a temporal anomaly: those desperately trying to find a way out, and those who are hopelessly resigned to never escaping. Never have I encountered, nor indeed imagined, what kind of person would actually prefer to remain inside. This unique point of view brings a vitality to the genre that is most welcome. And The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is of course also operating under the ‘young adult romance’ subgenre, using a time loop to really emphasize that adolescent angst. The movie works because it uses these familiar trappings as a backdrop against some charming leads and a sweet story. It’s not essential viewing but if you’re looking for a small delight, Amazon Prime is serving this one up right now.

Bliss

Greg (Owen Wilson) is having a very bad day: he’s getting divorced, estranged from his kids, living in a motel, and now he’s getting fired. And now he’s accidentally killing his boss while getting fired! And how he’s hiding the body and fleeing the building! A very bad day indeed. In the bar across the street (note: not the wisest place to hide out), he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), who tells him not to sweat it. Why? Good question. Because this whole world is fake, she tells him, a mere simulation of her own creation. She and Greg are real (in fact they’re “together”) but nearly everyone else is essentially an NPC, just a simulated person able to walk around and interact, but nothing more than a character in a very sleek video game. And there’s proof: Greg and Isabel have powers! They can make the fake characters do things with their minds. How about that?

Greg and Isabel go on a bit of a bender, Greg intoxicated by his newfound powers, happy to forget the woes of his other life and to reap the benefits of a new partner in crime. But there’s more. This world, remember, is a mere simulation. In the real world, Greg and Isabel are scientists, and this is Isabel’s research, and her creation. When they exit the simulation, Greg finds himself in a utopia, a world made perfect by science and technology. A little too perfect, actually; because you need bad in order to appreciate good, the utopia has become less and less satisfying, hence Isabel’s creation – a world in which you can live a rough life in order to better appreciate the perfection back home. Except Greg and Isabel have exited the simulation too abruptly and now both worlds are starting to bleed into each other and they’ll need to risk going back and getting stuck in order to correct it.

Or.

Or there’s another way to watch and interpret this movie. Perhaps Greg’s addiction to painkillers takes a turn for the worse when he loses his job and his home. Maybe Isabel is just a schizophrenic addict and they’re sharing a common hallucination in order to escape their life on the streets.

Bliss is purposely ambiguous and this movie is going to be very divisive because of it. Sean hated it because he made up his mind very early on and felt the whole exercise was pointless once he’d “figured it out.” I felt differently, having embraced the dichotomous possibilities. Writer-director Mike Cahill is careful to scrub the film of any telling language. No one says drugs. No one says addict. Yet there remains evidence for both sides of the coin. Greg has a grown daughter who never gives up looking for him. Isabel is adamant that Emily (Nesta Cooper) is just another fake character, but if that’s the case, why does the story sometimes get told from Emily’s point of view? That would seem to indicate that she’s real. Which goes double for Isabel, who might be just a figment of Greg’s imagination (or a side effect of his high), but she, too, is seen working independently in the movie. Sean insists that Greg is an addict, case closed, but this easy interpretation doesn’t account for the fact that we glitches in the matrix very early on. His wallet, for example, suffers a glitch, unobserved by Greg, seen only by us. Why would Cahill go out of his way to show us this if he wasn’t planting seeds of doubt? Of course there’s a third possibility here, that neither of these worlds is the “real” world and we haven’t seen the end of the simulations. Of course, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out where on the spectrum your belief lays. Some will see this in black and white and others will rejoice in the grays. But I believe there’s some hidden pink, and a very careful watch may uncover it still.

If you’re interested in taking on this puzzle, you can find it on Amazon Prime – but do promise to come back and let us know what you think, because Bliss is only 90% a movie. The other 10% depends on what you bring to the table.

Outside The Wire

Robot soldiers fight alongside human ones in the near future – and against them, robots on either side of this conflict, a storm of bullets raining down. Two men are hit, and their commanding officer makes plans to pull them to safety, but an ocean away, in the middle of the Nevada desert, a young drone pilot named Harp (Damson Idris) eats gummy bears and disobeys orders, launching a strike that kills the two in order to save the other 38. Harp is court-martialed and sent to the demilitarized zone for a reminder of the human cost of his lethal button pushing.

There he meets Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie), an A.I. enhanced cyborg soldier who’s selected him for a mission outside the wire. Leo’s biotech is extremely convincing (he can even feel pain) but make no mistake – he’s a military machine. A military weapon, in fact, a supersoldier who’s excellent in close combat and whose A.I. is so advanced it can follow the threads of these conflicts in ways that no human leaders ever have. Which is what he needs Harp for, a man he turns out to have hand-chosen because of his ability to think outside the box. They’re going to dodge robot soldiers and angry insurgents to chase a warlord hellbent on securing himself some neglected nukes. Leo can’t pursue this one his own; he’s got built-in fail-safes to prevent that, but where his investigation would constitute a flaw in his programming, Harp is free to do so based solely on a human hunch.

I enjoyed this movie for a couple of reasons. First among them is the Asimov angle, the king of sci-fi who wrote all those clever rules of robotics, and whose every thesis went something like: beware artificial intelligence, because it will inevitably figure out that humans need to be protected from themselves, and we won’t like the measures they take to do so. Except in Outside The Wire’s case, what Leo establishes fairly quickly is that the real enemy is the U.S. military, even though he’s technically meant to be fighting on its side.

Robots, it turns out, aren’t as blindly patriotic as we might like. Lee sees things from both points of view, and he comes to some conclusions that the American government might not appreciate. It’s a little sad that it takes a robot to consider the the socio-political aspect, to put himself in someone else’s shoes and examine other perspectives, but there you have it. It’s what we’ve come to. Asimov is always right. A.I. will always find us lacking. Is this the movie that’s going to help heal America after this most divisive period in its history? Highly doubtful. Most people will just be watching or the action sequences, and that’s fine too.

The truth, however, is that Outside The Wire isn’t a terrific movie. It’s not the blockbuster stuff you’ve been craving. Leo can’t reveal his master plan to Harp all at once, so it’s hidden from us as well, making for an occasionally confusing and scattershot plot. It feels like it takes us through a series of switchbacks that aren’t entirely earned. What it’s really counting on is that you’ll be so pleased by the Transformer-like Gumps (the scary robot soldiers) that you’ll only be paying half attention to the story.

Still, the action is decent, and so is the relationship between Leo and Harp, like Training Day if Denzel was also the Terminator. That kind of thing. It’s kind of fun to watch Mackie play a cyborg soldier since we’ve seen him be a flesh and blood soldier in Hurt Locker, and an enhanced super hero in the Marvel universe. This character kind of melds those roles together, a robot pretending to be human with his own thoughts and feelings about this war and what its outcome should be. Of course, a global conflict is tough for a single robot to take on alone – though now that I think about it, I suppose we’ve seen A.I. do much more, and much worse, so I think it’s fair to say: fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

Alien Xmas

Holly (voiced by Kaliayh Rhambo) and her parents are elves in the North Pole. In fact, Holly and her mom are – brace yourselves for this – puppy elves! As far as I knew, elves just hammered wood into bulky toys on an assembly line. Manual labour? No thanks. But puppy elves! It makes sense: plenty of people get new pups for Christmas, and Holly and her mom make sure their fur is all fluffy and cute, and they’ve got bows around their necks, doggie essentials for the holidays. I’m making way too big a deal out of this considering it’s a throwaway detail in the movie, but I can’t believe I’d never thought of it, and that I’ve been wasting my life this whole time.

Anyway, Holly’s dad is an inventor elf and he’s been working overtime on a new sleigh that would cut Christmas Eve delivery time by 90%. Except it is Christmas Eve, or pretty near, and his prototype’s still not working. He can’t be with his family, so to appease his daughter he hands her what he thinks is a doll.

In fact, the doll is actually an alien named X. X comes from a race of dull, kleptomaniac aliens who steal everything – and he’s the first wave in attempt to steal earth’s gravity.

It’s a stop-motion sci-fi holiday offering from the Chiodo brothers and executive producer Jon Favreau. Many of us grew up watching iconic TV movies like Rudolph and Frosty, and this is Netflix’s attempt to bring that kind of nostalgic Christmas viewing into our living rooms once again, with a 21st century twist.

The Klepts are aliens who have no longer have any concept of joy, but they take inspiration from humans – humans on Black Friday, specifically, who rush into stores frantically at 4am to buy cheap TVs they don’t need.

The Chiodos worked on the stop-motion portion of Favreau’s Elf back in 2003 (in fact, you might recognize a couple of “cameos”) and they were eager to collaborate on this tribute to beloved family holiday viewing. Like those golden age episodes, Alien Xmas is a tight 40 minutes, but a fun watch that’ll put you in the giving spirit.

Black Box

Nolan (Black Box) just suffered a devastating car accident that took his memory and his wife’s life. Trying to piece his life back together after the trauma, Nolan’s amnesia would seem particularly problematic since he is now a single father to Ava (Amanda Christine), is far too little to have such an unreliable caregiver, never mind doing most of the caring herself.

Nolan is desperate, so he agrees to undergo an experimental treatment, the eponymous black box, which wears and looks like a VR helmet and seems to almost hypnotize patients back into their subconscious minds where Dr. Lillian (Phylicia Rashad) attempts to guide them into recovering their inaccessible memories. The process is agonizing, and while some progress is being made, it’s also further confusing Nolan, who finds that his memories aren’t quite matching up to what he’s come to expect. Thank goodness for Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) who not only provides priceless babysitting duty, but also serves as a touchstone, the only one who can confirm or deny the memories that Nolan seems to be recovering.

While I wouldn’t classify the film as a horror movie (though Amazon Prime sure does, including it in its “Welcome to the Blumhouse series), it is creepy in a way that’s hard to shake. Nolan’s memories remind me a bit of Inception in that sometimes they are hostile toward him, which doesn’t exactly do any favours to his healing. I’ve been a fan of Athie for many years now, and it’s always exciting to see Rashad pop up in things; the two together make for a well-acted and interesting film. I enjoyed the story, and the frantic search for identity, and I’ve appreciated how many of these Blumhouse films have considered parenthood from different aspects. Black Box doesn’t deliver my scares, but it’s chilling like an extended episode of Black Mirror, slightly sci-fi-ish, exploring the unintended consequences of new technologies.

See our other Blumhouse reviews here.