Category Archives: science fiction

“Annihilation” is bizarre, challenging and awe-inspiring

Writer and director Alex Garland made a name for himself with his brilliant film “Ex Machina” (2015). As one of the bright new names in science fiction, expectations were sky-high for his follow-up film. Even if no one really went to see it, “Annihilation” is something you’ve never seen before in a big Hollywood production: a sci-fi film with brains, macho feminism and big ideas that challenge the viewer long after the experience.

After her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns from a combat mission and proceeds to convulse after behaving strangely, Lena (Natalie Portman) learns the backstory to where he’s been for the past year. A strange area of land in the Northeast United States has been enveloped by a strange entity called the Shimmer. Her husband is the only survivor of an expedition that went in, sent in by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), head of an organization called the Southern Ranch. With the area growing, the concern is that the Shimmer will overtake the world before they can stop it. A new team, led by Ventress herself, is set to take the next mission inside and reach the lighthouse, the hub of the Shimmer. Lena, looking to learn what happened to her husband, joins the team with Josie (Tessa Thompson), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Anya (Gina Rodriguez).

Based off a book by Jeff VanderMeer, the film is a mix of science fiction and horror, and the audience is never really sure what is going to happen next and what to believe. The result is a nerve-wracking mind melt that challenges you throughout the story. For audiences who like everything explained to them and a plot that goes from point A to B to C, it’s a difficult experience, but for those willing to think through the film as they watch it, it’s a rewarding science fiction journey. It’d be interesting what a repeat viewing would reveal and whether it would reinforce your first notions of what the film represents or contradict them.

The film is set apart by its visuals which, considering it’s $40 million budget, are spectacular. Whether it’s the shimmer, the lush foliage or the exotic, horrific creatures, the film is a beautiful, terrifying work of art.

Dealing mostly with the abstract, the story is meant to be absorbed and analyzed more than related through with a standard protagonist. Does it represent the duality of nature? Our interconnectedness with the universe? The perverseness of time and space? It might be different for every person.

 

Not for the faint of heart, “Annihilation” is an exhilarating tour-de-force, a sci-fi epic that’s imbued with more terror than most horror films.

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“The Shape of Water” a strange but touching romance

Those who abhor bestiality may do well to avoid “The Shape of Water.” An homage to monster and Hollywood love films as well as a rebuke of male-centric hegemony, “The Shape of Water” is a deft tale of love, passion and intrigue.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is mute, working as a cleaner in a secret government facility, her only friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer), another member of the help, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), her eccentric painter neighbor. When a strange creature from the Amazon is brought in to the lab by supposedly tough-as-nails army man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa forms a special bond with him and a romance starts to brew, one that will change her life forever.

Featuring the gorgeous cinematography that director Guillermo del Toro’s films are known for (provided here by Dan Laustsen), the film is a textbook example of filmmaking wizardry, utilizing framing, composition, color and depth to tell its story.

It is at heart a story about the dreams that fester in our minds, dreams amplified by Hollywood glamour and the movies, dreams of finding love, dancing and feeling absolute happiness, and how those dreams clash with daily reality, where governments try to one up each other and would rather kill an innocent creature rather than let it fall into their competitor’s hands. To Elisa, someone who has never been able to speak and works a menial job, those dreams keep her spirit alive and finding love, even a love with something beyond imagination, is a remarkable experience. Fighting for her dream against the cruelty of man’s world tests her resolve in a dramatic way. Another interesting note are the pressures put on the villain of Richard Strickland. Rather than a one-dimensional stereotype, we see how the stress of being a man’s man gets to him, to provide for his family, to be a winner, to be a man of the future. At one point, he even asks, when is what I do enough to qualify me as a good man? This humanizes him in a strong way that develops greater appreciation for the story’s themes.

Strange, beautiful, stylistic and above all, heartfelt, del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a moving love letter to all movies: monster, science fiction, drama, spy thriller and romance.

 

Movie Essentials: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

A rumor surrounding the initial studio screening of the film follows that one of the producers of the film, having worked hard to pump millions of dollars into the budget over an enterprise that lasted years, stood up at the film’s conclusion and promptly had a heart attack. Whether the rumor is true or not, the film has been giving viewers similar moments of shock, awe and bewilderment since.

2001: A Space Odyssey starts with a group of early humans, scrounging for food, competing with each other. They discover a strange, tall, black monolith which somehow instinctively draws them to it and soon they learn the concept of tools, the creatures taking the bones of a deceased tapir and using them to kill prey and rivals. Next, the audience is transported millions of years into the future, mankind now roaming space at ease, having discovered that same monolith on the moon, unsure what to make of it. A space mission to Jupiter finds a trio of characters, Drs. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) along with the artificial intelligence program HAL 9000 trekking to the far corners of the solar system. After HAL mistakenly reports that a part of the ship is malfunctioning, Bowman and Poole talk of shutting HAL down. HAL responds by killing Poole, cutting off his air tube in space and then disabling the life support systems of the other crewmembers in suspended animation. Bowman is able to unprogram HAL as the ship comes to Jupiter, finding another floating monolith in space that transports him through the cosmos. In a desolate room by himself, Bowman watches himself quickly grow old until he is on his deathbed. He stares up at the monolith above him once more, reaching out towards it before he is suddenly transformed into the Star Child, a fetus-looking organism that overlooks Earth.

What it all means has been debated for years. Some have likened it to the journey of evolution, the growth from primitive animal to man to machine to eternal being. Others note the similarity in the storyline to that of The Odyssey (Bowman using a key to unhinge HAL similar to Odysseus knocking the eye out of the Cyclops). Some even see technology being the true center of the story, HAL at times much more human than either Bowman or Poole, who often appear robotic and unemotional.

Kubrick refused to reveal his original intentions as to what the film meant. Wisely, he did not want to sway anyone’s opinion. Screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke once said, “If you understand ‘2001‘ completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” However, if you read the subsequent book that he wrote of the same name, it explains that the monolith is a creation of alien life that imbues other species with intelligent life. There are no aliens in the film however, giving the monolith a far more God-like feel, an omnipotent object that is unidentifiable.

Personally, in the mind of this reviewer, the monolith has always seemed a symbol of knowledge and power beyond human understanding, a metaphor for the eternal nature of the universe that we as human beings can only ponder but not understand. HAL, our attempt to create life, goes horribly wrong because of our inability to replicate consciousness as the universe does. What Bowman undergoes at the film’s conclusion is the metamorphosis into a being of sublime eternalness, the wisdom that comes from our souls joining the universe.

This process of understanding life is illuminated throughout the film itself, our birth represented as primeval man just learning to adapt (to walk for a child), the journey of adolescence symbolized by the voyage into space and the acceptance of inevitable death as Bowman is transported to a location beyond space and time, where such material aspects are inconsequential, and where he is joined with the universe, reaching a state of Utopian existence.

Now, that is only my interpretation. There are literally hundreds of others from all over. Different religions identify with the themes of the film and their own notions of the afterlife. Scientists debate its views on evolution and the progression of life on Earth and throughout the universe. Even hippies, those primarily responsible for making sure the film has the stature it does today, see psychedelic importance in the journey away from civilization into pure bliss. There is no right or wrong interpretation, creating a legacy for the film that will never end.

Kubrick stated that he wanted to change the medium of cinema with his work. He wanted to investigate new ways of experiencing film beyond the conformity that had set into the industry. With 2001, he has given audiences a film that continues to elicit questions and tickle our minds long after viewing. Boasting special effects that still appear seamless today and having influenced a generation of filmmakers, 2001 makes the wonder of the possibility of cinema seem infinite.

“Blade Runner 2049” a Great Sci-Fi Flick

Director Dennis Villeneuve has been steadily rising over the past few years. His films “Prisoners”, “Sicario” and “Arrival” are all solid works that hint at a filmmaker with vision and conviction. With “Blade Runner 2049”, Villeneuve practically blows the door off the cinema world and announces himself as one of the premiere filmmakers working today.

“Blade Runner 2049” features Agent K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant, hunting down the previous generation of replicants who have broken free of society’s restraints and gone rogue. The world hates what he is, seeing him not as a person, but a sick creature pretending to be part of the human race. A mystery begins to unfold however as the bones of a dead replicant reveal a hidden secret. As ‘K’ delves deeper and deeper into the case, heroes and villains emerge and the possibility of a more pertinent life presents itself to him.

Gosling is solid in the lead role of the film, balancing the right amount of human tendencies with robotic insecurities. Side players Sappa (Dave Bautista), Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), Niander (Jared Leto) and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) complete a diverse and interesting cast, but it is the characters of Joi (Ana de Armas) and Deckard (Harrison Ford) and their relationship with ‘K’ that really create the emotional core of the film. Joi and ‘K’ in particular share a very interesting arc of wondering whether or not their emotions are real.

The film tackles several absorbing existential questions regarding artificial intelligence and the ideas of living, building off the previous film’s themes in a great way. Do robotic beings have souls? Can they love? Can artificial intelligence in fact know more about life than the living? At what point do robots cease to be subordinate to man and become their own sentient race? This is a thinking man’s sci-fi film.

Special credit has to be given to cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner for creating a world so rich and real. It is truly breathtaking especially combined with Hans Zimmer’s haunting score.

The original “Blade Runner” was able to build a world full of intricacies, but lacked great storytelling to cement it as anything more than a visual epic. This sequel builds a heart underneath that facade and give birth to something new, both paying homage to its predecessor and creating something far superior. It is one of the best films of the year, a haunting and soulful journey of consciousness that takes you into an unforgettable world so close and far from us.

‘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.

 

‘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.