34 posts categorized "Sci-Fi"

June 02, 2014


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


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


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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