Category Archives: science fiction

‘Alien: Covenant’ a rather forgettable film

Say what you will about “Prometheus” (and there’s a lot that can be said), but it at least tried to be something different. “Alien: Covenant” on the other hand is trying to balance the headiness of director Ridley Scott’s Biblical allegory with the blockbuster need for gore and old-fashioned scares. It is not a smooth melding.

“Alien: Covenant” starts with the crew of the spaceship Covenant dealing with a technical failure and losing its captain. The remaining crew, led by Oram (Billy Crudup) and Daniels (Katherine Waterston), investigate a nearby planet to see if it is sustainable for a human colony. They meet David (Michael Fassbender), an android left over from the previous Prometheus mission, who is identical to Covenant’s own android, Walter. Things grow dire as the situation surrounding David reveals itself.

The film is nearly a direct copy of every Alien film up to this point: people wake up from hypersleep, discover an alien world, investigate it, discover an alien creature that picks them off one by one until the lone female with short hair uses her ingenuity (and an air lock) to vanquish it. This being the fifth film in the Alien franchise, the stories feel incredibly stale. Audiences need something truly original to care about.

Perhaps the xenomorphs are released on the creator’s homeworld and they need to band together with the humans they tried to exterminate to stop them. Or we witness the creation of the Queen Alien and have a film based off her. Or we focus on a world where the xenomorphs have totally taken control and a small rebellion must discover a way to take the planet back.

Or we continue to focus on the idea of creation and the robots who become obsessed about it. The best parts of “Alien: Covenant” are the conversations between David and Walter, two androids discussing their purpose and the human condition. David’s experiments are a great basis for an entire film and his narrative could carry the whole story. Instead, we have more space explorers, a forgettable cast whose sole purpose is to die and the same old story we’ve seen again and again.

“Prometheus” was a mess of a film that nevertheless introduced some interesting ideas and dynamics to the horror-sci-fi genre. It’s sequel plays it a little too safe while at the same time trying to have it both ways and the result is a rather unmemorable film. There are some good elements, but the whole is underwhelming.

 

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‘The Martian’ a refreshing science tale

Directed by Ridley Scott, “The Martian” tells the tale of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut presumed dead and left behind by his crew on the planet Mars after a sudden storm. Only Mark is still very much alive. Tasked with surviving the harsh Martian climate while trying to contact Earth for a rescue mission, Mark uses every scientific tool at his disposal, from creating fertile soil to digging up an old rover to connect with NASA.

“The Martian” feels like the third of a series of resurgent films on space, with “Gravity” (2013) and “Interstellar” (2014) coming before it. In comparison to those earlier films, “The Martian” is the lightest, filled more with the hope of success and scientific wonder than with pontificating on etherealism. So in that way, “The Martian” is more of a good-old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, enjoyable but somewhat more forgettable than “Gravity” or “Interstellar”.

Damon is very good in the title role, narrating what he is doing to a computer screen for record keeping and the rest of cast, including Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara and Michael Peña, are also solid.

What the film does have going for it is a contagious adoration of science. As Mark uses every single item at his disposal to make himself food, transportation and communication, the viewer is tickled to see so many science experiments come to life. In a way, it is the most exciting science fair put to screen, a film Bill Nye himself would stamp with approval.

What’s missing is a personal tug of emotion with Damon’s character. There’s no lover awaiting him on Earth or daughter without a father. His background is not examined and that is a missed opportunity to establish an audience connection, something that really makes you pull for him to get off Mars.

While some will consider the film just a version of “Cast Away” (1999) in space, there is a lot of technique and charm in Scott’s direction of the film. It is a thrilling, if light, ride.

“Arrival” a poignant sci-fi experience

There’s something to be said for a good sci-fi film. Many people confuse fantasy and horror with sci-fi. “Star Wars” is fantasy. “The Thing” is horror. “Alien” is horror. Science fiction examines the unknown, tying our natural world and technology to the human condition. It usually asks more questions than it answers. It engages us in the way it views mystery and the cosmos. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is science fiction. “Interstellar” is science fiction. “Ex Machina” is science fiction. And “Arrival” is science fiction, and darn good science fiction at that.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer off a story (Story of Your Life) by Ted Chiang, “Arrival” stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is called by the United States government when several alien spaceships descend across the world. Banks must find a way to establish communication with them before the rest of the world goes haywire and carnage ensues.

Language and communication are the foundation for how Adams investigates these creatures and it is thrilling as we view her trying to establish contact. As countries such as Russia and China escalate their paranoia about why the aliens have arrived, the pressure mounts on Adams to figure out what exactly it is the aliens want. To help us? To harm us? One wrong symbol can change the entire course of mankind.

It is especially refreshing to see a film with aliens that is not preoccupied with leveling cities and giving us explosions and battles. “Arrival” examines real-world reality in its science fiction setting. What would China, Russia and the United States do in the event of alien landing? What would the common masses do? How would the pressures build? To see such thought put into a motion picture is nearly a miracle nowadays.

Jeremy Renner as Ian and Forrest Whitaker as Colonel Weber give strong performances, but it is Adams who steals the show. She is able to convey so much with just her eyes, finding the perfect balance between awe, fear and determination.

The ending is near pure cinematic bliss as all the different pieces come together; Louise’s personal journey, what the aliens want, her visions, Ian’s journey, the paranoia of China, whether Louise’s risk-taking was the right move. Without giving anything away, it is the perfect ending of answering some questions, asking a few more and giving us the emotional impact we deserve from a good science fiction film.

 

‘Doctor Strange’ a worthy addition to MCU

Another origin story. Another weak villain. Another redemptive hero. Another shallow love interest. Another Stan Lee cameo. Another post-credits scene. More CGI action. In spite of the continuing weaknesses of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, “Doctor Strange” still manages to be a fun and enjoyable ride.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a cocky surgeon who crashes his car and irreparably damages bones in his hands. Searching for the ability to cure his ailment, he travels to a remote village across the world and meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who teaches him about the mystic arts and prepares him for a confrontation with a fallen student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to bring an evil demon to Earth.

Cumberbatch is strong as Doctor Strange, blending a good mix of pompousness with vulnerability. Tilda Swinton is also a very good Ancient One. Rachel McAdams has a needless role as a trophy girlfriend for the doctor, but she isn’t as grating as Natalie Portman or Gwenyth Paltrow in similar roles. And Mads Mikkelsen is pretty pedestrian as another bad guy who wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.

The true star of the film are its special effects, with its bending buildings and parallel dimensions and magic and demons. It makes the film a visual feast and helps smooth over the fact that the story itself is pretty bland.

But at least the environment is different. The MCU now has wizards and magic and some pretty crazy science behind its latest hero. While Captain America’s films are espionage dramas and “Iron Man” is modern action and “Guardians” is 1980s sci-fi, “Doctor Strange” is psychadelic new age fantasy. So while its story is familiar, at least Marvel puts that story into different genres.