Tag Archives: sci-fi

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.

Alien Addiction

Riko (Jimi Jackson) is what you might generously call a man-child. He’s fully grown but lives with his Auntie (Veronica Edwards), plays role playing game Galaxy Gods with his friends in her basement, gets high and generally fucks about.

Throughout the history of science fiction, we have sent many fictional scientists and doctors to make first contact with aliens, but writer-director Shae Sterling tries a different approach with good-for-nothing stoner, Riko. That turns out to be quite fortuitous as the aliens, Jeff (Steven Samuel Johnston) and Gurgus (Mel Price), are just here to party. Meanwhile, alien blogger Pete (Thomas Sainsbury) thinks he’s finally hit pay dirt. Aliens have touched down in New Zealand and he’s going to be the one to introduce them to the world. Huzzah!

Will you like this film? Not everyone will. It serves a niche market at the intersection of crude humour and science fiction. I was totally up for the stoner humour, and didn’t flinch too much at the scatological stuff although that’s largely not my bag, and I allowed for more “probing” comments than I normally tolerate. I draw the line, however, at the fat jokes, and this movie doesn’t just make fat jokes, it makes Jacinta (JoJo Waaka) the joke, and I felt bad being complicit as au audience member.

It’s too bad because this film truly does have its moments, not to mention a certain New Zealand charm. But in 2020, such mean-spirited pot shots just feel unfair and out of place. Alien Addiction was doing fine without them.

Jimi Jackson is…well, he’s exactly what the character demands. He’s loose, he’s chuckle-heavy, he is surprisingly cool with his new alien friends. This movie was never going to win any awards, it’s here to make you laugh, and to subvert some of the common sci-fi tropes. If it had done that without needing to fat-shame anyone, I could have endorsed that.

LX 2048

Thank god for Lithium X.

Adam (James D’Arcy) is one of the few humans who still risk going outdoors during the day. He has to wear a HAZMAT suit to do so as the sun has grown toxic; most are content to live inside and stay online, which is bearable thanks to large daily doses of Lithium X.

Also available in Guy Moshe’s vision of our very near future? Premium 3, an insurance policy that, in the event of a family member’s death, can clone them back to life, cell for cell, with just a little room for tweaking – little improvements that your spouse can make to your clone for a more perfect you.

Adam is, in fact, dying. He’s sure his wife (Anna Brewster) and kids will hardly notice the difference, as long as his company still exists so his clone to keep providing for them. Like most humans, his family remain indoors, connected to a virtual reality realm that they rarely if ever leave. They are increasingly disconnected from Adam and his “outside bullshit” and ironically, Adam works in tech but he’s growing disillusioned. He doesn’t trust clones, he insists on waking during daylight, he still goes in to a physical office, he has 3 kids in a world where people rarely breed at all anymore, he’s wary of engineered enhancements, but he’s not adverse to hypocrisy because he definitely designed himself a sex robot. Boys will be boys!

I love science fiction that challenges us about the way we see ourselves. And this one’s about humanity at its very core. Which parts of us are essential to our identity? Which can be replaced, and which can be replicated flawlessly?

The script is possibly biting off more than it can chew but if you’re willing to do some masticating for yourself, you’ll find a thoughtful film and a sturdy little family drama with a unique setting.

Tenet

No worries, no spoilers.

I’m an insomniac, emphasis on the niac. As in: not sleeping turns you into a complete and utter maniac. As in: not many good words end in niac. Egomaniac. Pyromaniac. Kleptomaniac. Megalomaniac, for maniacs with positive self regard. But while the word insomniac focuses on that which I do not have (ie, sleep), it fails to account for the many things I’ve gained, (ie, time). Time to stew on thoughts and do deep dives probing insecurities and trying new anxieties on for size, sure, of course, but also time to read. There is a special kind of reading that takes place in the middle of the night, when everyone else is sleeping. Once you’ve reached at least the 36th hour of nonstop awakeness, your brain unveils a secret capacity, a wormhole of clarity, almost, wherein all things are possible. I do read a fair amount of trash, but every now and again I like to throw in a hefty tome or two, just in case I’m secretly a genius with untapped potential, should I ever come across it. And it was on one such night, June 6, 2018 in fact, in a feverish sleepless state, that I was reading a book about string theory and understanding it. By morning, the ghost of string theory was still with me, and as long as I didn’t attempt to look at it straight in the face, it was there, a light dusting of dew on my brain that I worried would evaporate with the sun. Or rather, with sleep. Anyway, I am to this day not a world-renowned particle physicist, so it wasn’t permanent or complete enlightenment. But this wasn’t the first time I’d experienced such insight. In March of 2003, I was making my way through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Ugh. That Joyce is a straight up dick. Finnegans Wake is the single most obtuse piece of literature to ever darken the Dewey decimal system. If you hate readers so much, why on earth did you become a writer? Idioglossia my ass, this man’s just straight up making shit up as he goes along all stream of consciousness like he’s never met a piece of punctuation he didn’t want to flick to the ground and grind it like it’s the stub of a cigarette and we’re the ones getting smoked. But for a minute there, a glorious minute, I was getting it. I was getting it! I was lost in the rhythm of Joyce’s unique syntax, I was beyond comprehension, I was feeling the meaning, and the subtext. I was absorbing it into my skin like Joyce and his opaque one-hundred-letter-words were nothing but aloe.

This might feel like kind of a digression, but first let me remind you that in order to digress, you have to have first introduced the topic from which to digress, and I haven’t done that, so consider the above paragraph bonus content. Now I will tell you that I am writing a review of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the saviour of the summer blockbuster. Except it’s now been released at the very end of August, and even as desperate as people are for a good movie and a return to some normalcy, Tenet is not some trashy beach read, accessible and easily digested. It is most definitely a Finnegans Wake, and it’s unlikely to save cinema no matter what the hype may have you believe.

After a brush with insomnia over the weekend, I got some medically-induced sleep earlier this week and am feeling fresh of brain and body. But Christopher Nolan knows how to hypnotize his audience. We feel, if not incapacitated, then intoxicated. Nolan builds the kinds of worlds we might encounter in dreams. Inception taught us to challenge everything. Interstellar taught us to think outside the box. Tenet merely kicks us in the teeth.

The good thing about not understanding a movie is that you can’t possibly spoil it. And yes, yes there were times when I thought I was getting it. I was a smug little shit, untangling the plot like it’s a delicate, thoroughly knotted rose gold pendant that I’m desperate to dangle above my cleavage at dinner, the diamond shining just a little brighter for having worked for it. But no. No.

John David Washington is simply The Protagonist, an operative with a global assignment to stop a renegade Russian oligarch from destroying the world. To do so, he’ll have to master time inversion because sometimes the only way out is through.

Parallel universes are for pussies. Christopher Nolan’s played with time and space before. This time he’s fucking with it, and with us.

In the deepest, deepest layers of Inception, it was difficult to judge just how many layers down we’d gone, and therefore it was easy to lose track of which reality was actual reality. When Leo spins that top and the screen goes black before we know whether it will topple over, that’s basic math. Like, ultra basic. Not even addition, just straight counting. Tenet is like abstract algebra, necessitating the contemplation of infinite dimensions. Plus number theory, the properties of and relationships between integers and integer-valued functions. Nolan may be one heck of a professor and Tenet the most sublime power point presentation, but this shit is hard and for most of us, a little out of reach. Way too many times during the film I could smell the smoke coming from my brain as it attempted to calculate and process too many things at once. I am way too linear a thinker to feel comfortable when Tenet hits its stride, which is frustrating because those are objectively the very most interesting bits!

You know those pricks who back into a parking spot just because they can? Like it was totally unnecessary so they’re basically just showing off? Nolan is that prick. Tenet is his oversized pickup truck. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS HARD! But since it is, a few tricks:

  1. Pay attention to everything. Because everything is something, nothing is nothing, the more nothing it seems, the more something it is.
  2. You’re going to want to watch it again. Even if you hate the movie and how it makes you feel (cough*inadequate*cough), you’ll want to see it again. You need to watch it with the knowledge you can only gain by watching it hopelessly and helplessly the first time. And you’re definitely going to want to discuss it.
  3. The title is a clue.
  4. The movie poster is a clue.
  5. Even my goddamned digression is an accidental clue.
  6. Everything is important, okay? And it’s all happening all the time, and especially when it’s not. So don’t let your guard down.