48 posts categorized "Sci-Fi"

June 16, 2015


Solaris Auteur and gifted film theorist Andrei Tarkovsky, son of a celebrated Russian poet, Arseniy Tarkovsky, carried his father’s keen sense of elevated philosophical exploration into his films.

Inspired by filmmakers such as Buñuel, Eisenstein, and Bergman, Tarkovsky intuitively apprehends the flexible nature of the filmic medium to incorporate abstract ideas ranging from deeply held romantic values to metaphysical and political realities from a personal perspective. He allows provocative images (frequently drawn from nature) to editorialize and expand on the human condition that he studies from a plaintive viewpoint.  

Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel provided the basis for “Solaris,” a film that Tarkovsky considered the weakest of the seven features he made during his career. The dystopian psychological drama is set during the ‘70s-era Cold War in the context of ready-made science fiction.

Solaris2The burly Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis plays Kris Kelvin, a Russian psychologist mourning the death of his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). Kris visits his father at their solitary family home on the last day before Kris travels to a distant research space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The station’s three-man skeleton crew have fallen prey to a strange phenomenon that has rendered them useless. Discredited “pilot” Henri Berton visits with Kris and his father to show them a film of his testimony before a government review board, from years ago, of his own experiences on Solaris. Now an old man, Berton can barely stand to watch his former self describe a gigantic “four-meter-tall newborn” rising up from Solaris’s lava-like ocean as he hovered above the planet’s surface in a helicopter. Like the scientific review board, Kris doesn’t believe Berton’s “hallucinations.” During the sequence, Tarkovsky seamlessly switches between color to black-and-white to add dramatic depth to the wonderfully deployed exposition.

Upon his arrival to Solaris Kris discovers a space station in disarray. Tarkovsky’s ingenious production design of a modern space ship in decline provides the viewer with a wealth of details to contemplate.  

One of the cosmonauts has committed suicide. The other two are mentally unstable. Their attempts to probe Solaris’s ocean with X-rays has resulted in the planet attacking their brains. Almost immediately Kris falls prey to the same insidious force, one that sends a replica of his deceased wife to serve as an ever-regenerating distraction from his mission. Every new version of Hari is more convincing than the last. Kris’s sense of reality will be forever changed.  

After its release “Solaris” achieved a cult status among science fiction fans for the film’s effective set designs and strange sense of suspense. Seemingly opaque thematic elements contributed to the allure of seeing the picture more than once in order to decipher its hidden meanings. Andrei Tarkovsky’s prodigious ability to conceptualize grand-scale narrative structure with a fluid sense of cinematic time continues to influence filmmakers even if few rise to such dizzying heights.  


Rated PG. 169 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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August 05, 2014


Invasion of the Body SnnatchersPhilip Kaufman’s venerable revamping of Don Siegel’s 1956 black-and-white sci-fi horror classic delved deeper into nitty-gritty details of a pod-induced mass transformation of humans into emotionless doppelgangers. In so doing, Kaufman gave his movie the visual lift it needed to instill palpable dread and fear in an audience that didn’t know what hit them.      

The filmmakers use a recurring image system of spider-web similes, which act as a unifying filter of discord. San Francisco has been turned upside-down over night. Everything is different. Garbage collectors are busy on every street collecting the grey fuzzy waste from swapped-out bodies.

Donald Sutherland plays San Francisco health inspector Matthew Bennell with a cozy sense of paternal confidence that makes him seem immune to anything that could possibly usurp his empathetic soul. Civilization’s sudden loss of compassion to a population of cold conspiratorial aliens, incapable of something as simple as laughter, proves a terrifying idea when played out to its logical extreme.

Casting Donald Sutherland in the lead role proved to be a coup for Kaufman. Strains of Sutherland’s iconic performance in Nicholas Roeg’s deeply disturbing psychological thriller “Don’t Look Now” (1973) carried over into “Body Snatchers.”

InvasionThematically, the film’s allegory regarding viral-groupthink has plenty of wiggle-room for interpretation because it is so profoundly vague yet universal. It’s easy to imagine authority figures such as police and politicians inhabited by aliens, because they so frequently express an utter disregard for the value of human life in favor of corporate profits for the one-percent.

A significant genre-imposed rule of the movie is that its characters can’t fall sleep lest they succumb to possession. Doing so enables one of the recently arrived pods-from-space to produce an exact physical replica that will come to life after sucking the subject’s body dry of its meat, bones, and brains.

Matthew Bennell’s health department co-worker Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) notices a change in her husband. She alerts Matthew to her concerns just as it seems society has begun to flip. A man in a business suit inexplicably sprints through traffic.

Kaufman sets his audience’s teeth on edge with an inventive soundscape, involving things like heartbeats. Sounds move between the film’s Dolby Stereo format, making the audience feel as if the action is taking place around them.

Invasion Body Snatchers
Kaufman’s remake gets cameo endorsements from Don Siegel, and from Kevin McCarthy, the lead actor from the original. Siegel plays a pod-changed cab driver taking Matthew and Elizabeth for a little ride. Kevin McCarthy’s character is the same as in Segel’s movie except that seems even more desperate now.

“Body Snatchers” is famous for a couple of offbeat scenes that you can hardly believe when you’re seeing them. I won’t spoil the fun. You’ll see. 


Rated PG. 115 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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April 16, 2014


METROPOLISThe original three-and-a-half hour version of “Metropolis” was shown to an audience of 2500 guests during the Weimar Republic in Berlin in 1927. It was the most expensive film ever made up at the time. Cited as the first feature-length science fiction film, Fritz Lang’s expressionist silent movie is a dystopian vision of a futruistic Germany in the year 2000. Impoverished downtrodden masses suffer under an autocratic corporate capitalist system that favors an elite few. Sound prescient?

Sadly much of “Metropolis’s” fragile film stock was lost over time. It wasn’t until 2008 that a 16 mm reduction negative of the original movie was discovered in the archives of Argentina’s Museo del Cine. Another print, discovered in New Zealand’s National Film Archive in 2005, contributed to an extensive restoration process that replaced 25 minutes of missing footage. Although it is still missing nearly an hour from its original, the restored version functions as a complete narrative.


Joh Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel) is the oligarch who oversees his monolithic empire from high above the city of Metropolis in his skyscraper office. Joh’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) wears the sporty white clothes of a tennis player. He spends his days in an idyllic “pleasure garden” where the rich frolic around a large fountain and exotic birds play. Women of high class wear outlandish dresses that look like something from a fairy tale. The arrival of a beautiful working class teacher named Maria (Brigitte Helm) — on a field trip with a large group of destitute children — awakens Freder to the disparity of wealth around him even as he falls instantly in love with Maria.

Freder goes searching for Maria only to discover the inhuman working conditions in the city’s giant underground boiler room. He witnesses an explosion that kills many workers and watches as many more are systematically murdered. Freder reports back to his father, who in turn questions Rotwang, the mad inventor responsible for creating the city’s colossal power-driving machine. In a crucial subplot, Rotwang is busy creating a machine-human incarnation of Freder’s mother who, coincidentally looks exactly like Maria.


Although it ends with an overwrought climax, topped off with a laughably banal cliché that unites the workers with their greedy overlord, “Metropolis” is filled with stunning archetypal imagery and grand-scale spectacle. Its production designers drew heavily from the Art Deco movement for their designs. Cameraman Eugen Schüfftan’s groundbreaking methods — utilizing miniature sets in conjunction with specialized camera techniques involving mirrors — contributes to the film’s lasting effect. Significant too is the design for Rotwang’s female robot that serves as the ultimate vision of a mechanized femme fatale.


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