29 posts categorized "Sci-Fi"

May 25, 2017

ALIEN: COVENANT

Aliencovenant-colesmitheyRidley Scott, the director responsible for one of the most iconic and terrifying sci-fi films in history, flops with a prequel/sequel that might be pretty to look at but leaves much to be desired. If you can’t make a franchise picture that serves as a stand-alone film, why bother?

Among its multitude of conceptual and practical errors is this film’s casting of actors whose performances fail to hold a candle to that of the original film’s impeccable cast. Katherine Waterston is no Sigourney Weaver, not even close. She doesn’t have the steel or the physical statue for her role as Daniels, an astronaut who seems better suited for melodrama than sci-fi suspense. Waterston doesn’t have Weaver’s since of determination and reflexive instincts.

Katherine Waterston

If you’ve recently watched Scott’s original film, you can’t help but be struck by the lack of cohesion between characters in “Alien: Covenant” compared to those on display in “Alien.” Each actor in “Covenant” seems to be off doing their own thing. For all of the critical praised constantly being poured on Michael Fassbender (he plays twin androids in “Covenant”), he’s no match for “Alien’s” Ian Holm, an actor of towering gravitas whose gruesome revelation as an android gave audiences a jolt. As well, Danny McBride’s ham-sandwich performance as flight captain Tennessee is a far cry from Tom Skerritt’s Dallas. And the list goes on. There is a case to be made that today’s acting pool simply aren’t as skilled as actors of the ‘70s. Billy Crudup or Yaphet Kotto? Let’s just say that Crudup is boxing way outside his weight class.

“Alien: Covenant’s” lightweight performances eventually take second place to the film’s cobbled-together storyline that feels obligated to force gratuitous violence (with sex) whenever screenwriters John Logan (co-screenwriter on “Skyfall”) and script newbie Dante Harper feel the story lagging, something this film does plenty of regardless of their attempts to distract that there isn’t much of a story here to begin with.  

Fassbender

Where “Alien” had a determinedly anti-corporate subtext running through the film, “Covenant” bends a knee to imperialist overreach under the guise of searching for mankind’s creator. Barf. “Covenant’s” opening scene is an overwrought attempt to steal a glimmer of magic from the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In the scene, an uncredited Guy Pierce reprises his role as Peter Weyland from Ridley Scott’s even more disappointing “Alien” franchise installment “Prometheus.” Screenwriting instructors looking for an abysmal example of exposition, will gravitate to this train wreck opener wherein Pierce’s egomaniac order his android to bring him a cup of tea. I’m sure you could open a sci-fi movie on a weaker leg, but I can’t imagine how.

Once you make it past this film’s disappointing set-up, you will only feel yourself sinking into more discontent after the Covenant spaceship’s crew decide to neglect the 2000 colonists and 1000 embryos onboard the ship in order to follow a signal coming from an unknown planet. Couldn't the screenwriters find a new trope to push the action? Reusing the same one from the first "Alien" movie just feels cheap and lazy. 

A baloney script, poor casting, lame performances, and an unfocused production design make for a second-rate sci-fi movie that is nothing more than a pathetic knock-off of the original. Go back and watch “Alien” (1978) or James Cameron’s “Aliens” (1986), or even David Fincher’s “Alien 3” (1992). Each one is a dozen times better than this waste of time.

Covenant

Rated R. 122 mins. (C-) (One star — out of five / no halves)


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October 04, 2015

THE MARTIAN — NYFF53

The_martian_poster_by_mrsteiners

PHONING IN:  MATT DAMON HAS A PICNIC ON MARS

Matt Damon manages to carry off a movie based on selfie-style video narration, in which he cracks wise about his job as an astronaut botanist, a gig that trains him to grow potatoes on Mars in time of need. Good to know. You probably knew that already, just as you’ll find every blatantly announced plot point as predictable as a pimple roasting under Mars’ red-orange sun. “The Martian” is visually stunning for its realistic-seeming depiction of Mars’ rugged landscape, but its stock script calls for every cliché in the book to be carried out with the possible exception of the chase scene that culminates in a knocked-over fruit cart. You’d think they could flip at least one cliché, but no. This narrative is gooey smooth like an oyster, without a grain of sand with which to make a pearl.

After getting abandoned on Mars because his storm-escaping crew left him for dead, Damon’s ever-resilient Mark Watney pulls himself up by his bootstraps. Some self-surgery is called for in a scene that gives “Alien” director (Ridley Scott) license to make his audience groan in mock pain at the not-so-bloody mess of a gaping hole Matt Damon’s belly. Mark gets to work amending his limited stock of food with the potatoes he grows inside an clever makeshift greenhouse using his own feces. His plan is to survive long enough for a rescue mission to come get him, or at least for a provisions delivery to arrive. 

Martian

Since this movie is scripted by “Cabin in the Woods” screenwriter Drew Goddard, there must be dry humor, but alas, not in a good way. Poor Mark is stuck listening to the disco music that his captain, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), left behind. This pop culture distraction allows Ridley Scott to go slumming with music montage sequences that torpedo the movie each time one pops up. Watching Watney audibly refuse to “turn the beat around” is an awful deployment of hack irony. It would have been better if the Captain’s favorite music had been Punk, so the audience could at least have something cool to listen to while judging Mark Watney’s taste as less than admirable. But that would require contrast or resonance, elements this bloated sci-fi picture lacks. David Bowie’s “Starman” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” arrive as inevitable musical statements that overshadow the ostensibly suspenseful action of NASA trying to figure out how to save their favorite little Martian so very far away.

For a sci-fi escape movie, Mark Watney barely breaks a sweat as he whiles away hundreds of “Sols” (the Mars version of a day which is, well, the same as ours). He’s never anything less than confident in his ability to “science the shit out of" his predicament. It reflects an attitude that politicians express toward Global Warming. When things get really bad, “we can science the shit out of it,” and spend lots of cash on Government contracts for bogus companies to cash checks rather than do anything to address the causes of the crisis.

Other than its enslavement to formula, the other stab to the film’s spine is Jeff Daniels jaw-dropping miscasting as the Head of NASA. Even Russell Crowe or Woody Harrelson would have been better cast in the part. Daniels seems to be running on the fumes of an Aaron Sorkin hangover (see television’s “The Newsroom”). Other ensemble casting choices work better; Kristen Wiig is great playing against type; Michael Pena and Chiwetel Ejiofor turn in enjoyable performances, as does Donald Glover as a NASA nerd with a gift for numbers. Supporting actors Kate Mara, Sean Bean, and Mackenzie Davis each give laudable performances.  

Martian2

The film’s 3D effects are good but not great. Hitting theaters around the same time as Robert Zemeckis’s 3D eye-popper “The Walk” does not deliver a favorable comparison.

When you think of Ridley Scott, you think of “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” two bar-setting sci-fi classics. Sadly, “The Martian” shares little of those superior films’ complexity or dark undertow. “The Martian” is a popcorn movie that should have been pastrami sandwich on burnt rye toast. 

Martain3

Rated PG-13. 141 mins. (C+) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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April 07, 2015

EX MACHINA

Ex-machinaScience fiction has been a dying film genre in recent years. Largely this is because there are too few screenwriters or filmmakers with the imaginations to create compelling futuristic stories. Alex Garland has been an exception to the rule. The screenwriter behind “28 Days Later” (the best recent zombie movie) and “Sunshine” (the finest sci-fi film of the 21st century) crosses over to directing duties for Ex Machina, a film he also wrote.

Smart, sexy, and back-loaded with a terrific twist ending, “Ex Machina” is an elegant sci-fi movie that considers the possibilities of artificial intelligence in thought-provoking ways. The stark narrative is essentially a three-hander for actors Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander to play out their diametrically opposed characters in an isolated “No Exit” game of winner-take-all.

Lottery winner Caleb (Gleeson) is a computer programmer nerd brought in by helicopter to spend a week at a remote bunker-styled research facility with his reclusive employer Nathan Garrick (Isaac), the CEO of the world’s largest Internet provider. All concrete walls and bulletproof floor-to-ceiling glass, Nathan’s modern pad looks like a Frank Lloyd Wright design on steroids. The picture’s production designs are stunning in their simplicity. This is a movie to be savored.

ExmachinaNathan has been busy working on a svelte semi-transparent robot he names Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb’s assignment is to evaluate Ava’s artificial intelligence using the classic Turing test to determine her ability to act as a convincing human being. Ava’s wiring and mechanics are visible, especially in her midriff. Only Ava’s face and hands have a flesh-like quality. Still, the suggestible Nathan can hardly resist her charms, which come through Ava's seductively modulated voice. Alicia Vikander has the savvy to adjust her character’s nth degrees of emotional and intellectual expressiveness. Ava may never go beyond lukewarm, but oh the joys of that barely alive state when it comes in such a fascinating context as a full-featured female robot. Nathan is quick to inform Caleb that he can indeed make penetrable love to Ava, if he so chooses. You can sense Ava becoming exponentially more human with every encounter she has with Caleb. How human she can become is the film’s burning question.

Oscar Isaac has a field day playing Nathan, a mad scientist whose hot-and-cold personality veers to the Machiavellian. Regardless of how much Caleb knows that he is light years out of his league, he can’t help but fall deeper into a trap that comes to resemble mankind’s not too distant future.

Rated R. 108 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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September 15, 2014

THE ZERO THEOREM

Less Than Zero
Terry Gilliam Slips On a Virtual Banana Peel

The Zero TheoremTerry Gilliam’s further slide down the stairs of filmic entropy is best summed up by an oft-repeated phrase by his latest film’s hypochondriac protagonist Qohen Leth, “Q” for short. “We are dying.” But the editorial expression of Q’s imminent doom, as spoken by a bald-headed Christoph Waltz, takes on little meaning as the film’s wafer-thin dystopian storyline moves from point A to point B, and barely that. Indeed, “We are dying, us, ourselves,” while watching this movie.

Q is a frail scientist working in stay-at-home conditions for an emblematic “management” (played by Matt Damon wearing a receding white hair piece) of a corporation known as Mancom. Q’s hyper stressful assignment involves “crunching entities” to prove whether or not human existence holds any meaning. Gilliam’s use of near 3D graphics to represent the computer program that Q uses to maneuver around bricks of formula into gigantic walls containing billions of other such bricks is about as visually compelling as counting cracks in a sidewalk.

Waltz’s hairless “worker-bee” character holes up in a converted church in a future version of London where crossing busy streets filled with tiny eco-cars presents a dangerous proposition for pedestrians. Electronic advertising taunts the public at every step. “Everyone’s getting rich except you.” A giant billboard entreats the public to join the church of “Batman the Redeemer.” Think “Blade Runner” or “Starship Troopers.”

The offices for Mancom Corp. resemble a gaudy, smaller, steampunk version of the bureaucratic maze that Gilliam created for “Brazil,” via Michael Radford’s film version of “1984.” Much like the NSA, Mancom sees and records all human activity. Day-Glo colors plastered on cheap set designs do little to distract from the film’s all-too-obvious budgetary limitations.

Management’s “Zero Theorem” posits what our collective subconscious already knows, that humanity’s precarious place in the universe is predicated on an unstable quantum chaos that can and will come crashing down at any moment, just as surly as it sprang into being. “Zero must equal 100%.” “All is for nothing.” It’s a thematic punch line that arrives like a big wet fart.

Melanie ThierrySome people — like American politicians and CEOs for its Industrial Military Complex, for example — have figured out how to make vast quantities of cash by instilling fear and causing chaos on nearly every spot of land on the planet. Q isn’t one of these people. He is afraid of everything, but he fears “nothing” most of all. Q has waited all of his life for a phone call informing him of his life’s calling. The closest he comes to receiving such a message occurs when he meets Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a sexy trollop sent by management to seduce him into wanting her before committing a clever act of bait-and-switch. Not one to be penetrated, Bainsley gives Q an all-body tantric sex suit with which he can sensuously interact with her through her website.

Q’s liberation of spirit and body lies only in his imagination. The movie seems to posit that the end of humanity, as part and parcel to the intrinsic nature of our chaotic universe, will most likely be achieved by technologically-produced illusions. 

Management sends its teenage son Bob (Lucas Hedges) to order pizzas and give youthful pep talks to the old man in case Bainsley’s naughty provocations aren’t enough to speed up Q’s formula solving. Management needs an answer, chop chop.

Newbie screenwriter Pat Rushin doesn’t know a plot point from a plot twist. Why Terry Gilliam chose to direct Rushin’s idiotic script is a mystery more puzzling than the zero theorem itself. Perhaps the director of such cinematic milestones as “Brazil,” and “12 Monkeys” thought he could elevate “The Zero Theorem” into some kind of resolution to his “Orwellian” trilogy. However, there is no comparison between “Zero Theorem” and those two far more convincing films. Gilliam completionists will need to see for themselves — too bad for them. The genius that made “Time Bandits” and “The Fisher King” hasn’t made a good film since 1998, when he adapted Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It may not be too soon to announce that “we” are finished.

Rated R. 107 mins. (C-) (One Star - out of five/no halves)

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June 02, 2014

EDGE OF TOMORROW

Time-Warped Nightmare Profusion
Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt Get Stuck

Edge_of_tomorrowHigh-concept, but offering only minimal entertainment value by way of its stale ghost-in-the-machine storyline, “Edge of Tomorrow” is the “Groundhog Day” of sci-fi movies. Based on a Japanese novel (“All You Need is Kill”), the film’s main gimmick is a time-looping narrative that encourages a good deal of laziness by its three screenwriters. You guessed it; the film’s two warrior protagonists keep getting killed before returning to live out the same ill-fated day. The trick is, they get to warm up for each big day in between. Director Doug Liman (famous for his work on the Matt Damon-“Bourne” franchise) whips up an underwhelming ride at which young moviegoers are expected to goggle.

Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a scaredy-cat public relations flack for the U.S. military who can’t stand the sight of blood. An alien space invasion of multi-tentacled warriors — known as Mimics — prompts the sending of Cage to the European frontline where America’s United Defense Force is fighting a losing battle against a mighty army of fast-twitch metal monsters. For the first ten minutes, Tom Cruise has fun playing Cage as a spineless tool. Cruise isn’t above poking fun at himself, and it works well for the movie – though only briefly. It only takes a few more minutes for Cage to transform from sissy-nerd to badass.

Major Cage might have avoided his excruciating wartime fate had he not tried to blackmail the four-star general (Brendan Gleeson) calling the shots. It defies logic, however, that a 51-year-old man — even of Tom Cruise’s physique — would be called up to fight as a soldier in a hyper-fast version of D-Day where no humans survive, though two humans reincarnate on a daily basis.

Emily Blunt’s Special Forces ass-kicker Sgt. Rita Vrataski is a commando with her own tagline; it reads, “Full Metal Bitch” on billboard ads. Here is Jean d’Arc for the 21st century. Emily Blunt’s sexy tomboy incarnation of a modern day Warrior Queen is one hot baby. Her signature weapon is a gigantic machete-like sword that speaks truth to power. Rita beats Cage to the punch of some transmogrifying alien goop, which allows them each to reincarnate on a daily basis for the purpose of saving the planet. The aliens are playing God on a couple of personal levels; alas, the filmmakers don’t bother to explore the implications. For all of the threat the aliens pose to humanity, the creatures get no editorial voice. It’s like having mute Klingons. What would be the point?

The just-a-wee-bit-sexist screenwriters insist upon a bait and switch that allows Cage to quietly steal Rita’s conqueror-champion thunder. Sgt. Rita Vrataski needs a better publicist. The filmmakers hardly bother to deliver on the narrative offer promised by the billboards that only seem to foreshadow significant story development for Sgt. Vrataski beyond the tacit love bond she finds with Cage.

Even with the aid of a tricked-out mechanized weapons suit, Private Cage dies on his first mission, after getting a look at Sgt. Vrataski’s imposing battlefield skills. Shockingly, Cage snaps right back to life after having his face melted off by alien blood goop. Rita trains Cage in defense and offense techniques in order to help them escape from a battle that they soon come to know like the backs of their hands. Rita and Cage keep dying and returning to their first day of battle, until they can survive long enough to locate and destroy the much-discussed “Omega” — the aliens’ hidden power-mind, which must be annihilated for humanity to survive. Cue the sad trombone.

The first few times Cage returns to meeting and greeting his troop, and going out on their doomed mission, it’s fun for the audience. But the sequence gets old quick. Cage alters his behavior in slight ways as he evolves into a super-soldier male version of Rita. The repeated set-ups and dialogue are humorous in a bland way, one that makes you wish for a better story.

“Edge of Tomorrow” has no sense of the potential political satire it squanders, yet it does manage to tease up some much-needed brisk romance between the ever-reliable Blunt and actor-machine Tom Cruise. The filmmakers busily mask plot holes by selectively — but implausibly — withholding knowledge that Cage inexplicably retains, but Rita does not, regarding their many shared reborn days together. Their overlapping time-loop vignettes don’t coalesce or gain momentum. Everything gets sloppy. The screenwriters snooze, failing to develop the most important thread of the movie. The film’s permutating storyline is hardly worth the trouble as it grudgingly leads up to an insignificant climax that leaves you glad Emily Blunt was in the movie, but not much else.

Rated PG-13. 113 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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April 16, 2014

TRANSCENDENCE

TranscendenceIn spite of its many assorted plot-holes, “Transcendence” is a captivating sci-fi movie, thanks to strong performances by a stable of reliable actors. Another key to the experience is a romantic hook at the heart of its high-concept trappings. This visually stunning movie is the work of cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister, whose estimable efforts on such big spectacle action movies as Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” firmed up his credentials.

Artificial intelligence is the name of this game. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is an unrivaled genius at the science of creating thinking-computers. He’s trying to create a complex computer system that possesses “sentience and collective intelligence.” Will dreams of uploading a machine with “a full range of human emotion,” and an “analytical power greater than the collected intelligence of every person born in the history of the world.” What could go wrong?

Will’s romantically loyal wife and A.I. researcher partner, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is even more ambitious than her husband in their controversial attempt to put God in the machine. Doesn’t man always play God? Their co-researcher Max (Paul Bettany) has ethical doubts, but goes along for the ride, though only to a point. Max has smallish ambitions for the project. He wants to cure cancer, and save lives. Yawn.

An assassination attempt by a Luddite activist/terrorist group known as “RIFT” (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), at a conference where Will is the keynote speaker, puts him at death’s doorstep. The suicidal assassin goes so far as to spike his bullets with polonium, the same radioactive element used to kill KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko and possibly Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Spoiler alert: the only way to “save” Will is to upload his brain to a mammoth computer system ostensibly capable of controlling, well, everything on the planet and beyond.

Voilà, Will’s “transcendence” occurs. The all-seeing and all-knowing machine-man inhabits a universe of nanotechnology-assisted existence that breeds exponentially though the Earth’s molecules. Air and dust particles belong to Will. The Will-machine has the ability to restore sight to the blind and heal the critically injured. Amass enormous wealth overnight — check. End all war — probably. Cure global warming — possible. Again: what could go wrong?

At Will’s behest, Evelyn sets up shop for the mammoth computer in a remote and impoverished California town. In an echo of the NSA's massive data farm in Utah, she hires Martin (Clifton Collins Jr.), a local contractor, to manage the building of a massive solar-power farm to run the mega-computer system kept five stories underground.

Sadly, the story runs aground in every direction it turns. Cillian Murphy has the thankless role of Federal Agent Buchanan, who is in charge of destroying Will’s fast-evolving machine that would — based on the information provided — already be able to defeat any army of any size before it began to mobilize. The skeleton crew military troop that Buchanan assembles to bring down the machine is laughable for its tiny scale.

“Transcendence” nonetheless keeps you intrigued for its misleading plotline, which wins the audience over to the machine’s side before reneging on the gambit. It provokes the audience to hypothesize on questions such as the potential power of the NSA to transmogrify into an A.I. machine capable of untold deeds, good, bad and ugly. Here is one of the first sci-fi movies in a long time to get out in front of where modern technology already stands. It sets the stage for other forward-thinking films to come (see the forthcoming “Lucy” in which Scarlett Johansson’s character becomes an omni-intelligent human being). Artificial intelligence is imminent. The question is, whose or what's ends will it serve?

Rated PG-13. 119 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

 



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March 31, 2014

UNDER THE SKIN


The Vampire-Alien Who Fell to Earth
Scarlett Johansson Goes Undercover

Under-the-skinMore visually accomplished than its malnourished narrative deserves, “Under the Skin” works well as a foxy sci-fi movie for stoners. It would look great projected on a giant screen at a rave for drugged-up youth to have something to glance up at while dancing to monotonous drum-machine rhythms provided by a robotic DJ — preferably female. Between Scarlet Johansson’s vampire-alien character Laura and truly impressive production design, the movie is gorgeous to look at even though it doesn’t hold up under any degree of thematic scrutiny. This movie is all aesthetics, but not much else.

Based loosely on Michael Faber’s 2001 novel, this specious work is director Jonathan Glazer’s attempt to make good on a once-promising career that began with such critically vaunted pictures as “Sexy Beast” (2000) and “Birth” (2004). Sadly, Glazer has no such luck here.

Cribbing copiously from such directors as Hitchcock, Roeg, and Kubrick, cinematographer Daniel Landin (“44 Inch Chest”) has a field day exploring dark shimmering surfaces in contrasting color schemes. Landin is the film’s greatest revelation. If there is any justice in this world, his work here ought to lead to higher budget sci-fi films.

Landin’s film-opening alien-eyeball sequence dandles with ocular imagery to introduce Laura as an artificial humanoid coming to life. Where Hitchcock showed a bathtub drain morphing into a pupil to unveil Marion Crane’s dark passage to extinction, Landin reverses the process.

Laura’s soulless oil-black figure slips into the skin of a human female like a ballerina putting on a leotard. She practices a British accent that will allow her entree into the human world via Scotland, where her sensual beauty serves as a honey trap for unwitting males who tumble like lemmings into the sea. Ignoring the “too-good-to-be-true” adage proves fatal to Laura’s rough-and-randy suitors whom she entices into a bizarre dimension. Here, they drown one by one in an inky black sea of acquiescent lust-crazed ambition. If the filmmakers are attempting to make a thematic analogy regarding man’s greedy quest to profit from oil, the effort is too undefined to achieve the desired effect.

Where David Bowie’s alien character in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” had a clear agenda of creating and financing a system for transporting water back to his dying planet, Laura is seemingly in it for the experience of seducing easy-target males whose BS-detectors are broken; not much challenge there. What we end up with is a movie with no super-objective, but plenty of abstraction for its own sake.

For Laura’s streetwalker conquests, the filmmakers used a system of tiny hidden-cameras to surreptitiously capture the action without the knowledge of the non-actors who were later asked to sign releases for their sequences to be used in the film. The gimmick works better if the audience knows about the deception going in. Even then, the fly-on-the-wall conceit adds up to little more than a guilty-pleasure for in-the-know filmgoers to have some subtext, however minimal, to hang their viewing experience on.

“Under the Skin’s” failure rests as much on its lack of an empathetic protagonist, as it does on its absence of meaning. Scarlett Johansson makes for one attractive hot-and-cold alien ice queen, but seduction and murder is all the scriptwriter allows her to have on her mind.

Rated R. 106 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

 



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