34 posts categorized "Sci-Fi"

October 04, 2015

THE MARTIAN — NYFF53

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PHONING IT 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 food 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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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. 

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Rated PG-13. 141 mins. 

3 Stars

COLE SMITHEY

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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.”

However, 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.

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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.

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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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