The Darkest Hour (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), Americans in their mid-twenties, took a trip to Moscow excited that their computer program connecting tourism and social networking would be picked up for millions of dollars. But when a Swedish competitor, Skyler (Joel Kinnaman), presented their idea as his own to the Russians, Sean and Ben decided to go to a club and drink their disappointment away. While in the club, they met fellow young Americans, Anne (Rachael Taylor) and Natalie (Olivia Thirlby), wanting to have a good time. Their four-way flirtation, however, was interrupted by yellow-orange lights capable of turning humans and animals into ashes. “The Darkest Hour,” based on the screenplay by Jon Spaihts, lacked the menacing atmosphere and dark energy in order to be a successful alien invasion film. Since it didn’t aim for campiness either, I wasn’t sure what it was attempting to be. In any case, the action sequences it offered felt uninspired. Consider the club scene when the invisible alien went on a killing spree. A lot of people screamed and ran around like panicked sheep yet there I was wondering why the alien wouldn’t just keep eradicating whatever got in its way. The scene was supposed to convince us that the alien was seemingly indestructible. It was almost a requirement so that the later scenes in which the characters discovered its weaknesses would have an impact. Instead, I got the impression that the alien was slow and as confused as the humans it had to destroy. The forthcoming scene was just as egregious. Sean, Ben, Anne, Natalie, and Skyler spent several days hiding in the club’s storeroom. If it weren’t for the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, I could swear we wouldn’t have any idea that they spent days in there. They didn’t look like they haven’t showered for days, the girls’ make-up remained perfect, and not a smudge of dirt could be found on their clothes. And there I was wondering how they used the toilet. One of the characters said something about urinating in a can. If none of them had to go number two for days, I’d say they had a bigger problem at hand. Forget looking for U.S. Embassy for extraction, go see a doctor as soon as possible. Fortunately, when they did decide to finally explore outside, there were some effective shots. Daytime was creepy because of the empty metropolitan. Nighttime was dangerous because whenever an alien was near, disabled lights would suddenly turn on. I liked the irony involving characters running away from the light. In horror movies or sci-fi pictures with horror elements in them, characters tend to run away from darkness, usually while in a tunnel, as it tried to engulf them. However, good, isolated shots do not make an entertaining movie. If “The Darkest Hour,” directed by Chris Gorak, had more fun with the material, it would have been a more bearable experience. Sean and his friends eventually made it to the mall. He suggested that they needed new clothes considering they hadn’t changed for days. I was so excited for them to go shopping since everything was for free. Instead, they glumly walked to different stores and tried on whatever looked the plainest. If I were in their shoes knowing that there was a big possibility that I might die, I would live to the fullest. If that meant taking my time to go shopping and leaving everyone annoyed, then so be it.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When a group of spacecrafts were seen by residents of a small Indiana town, a few of them were given an obsession involving an image where something great was about to happen. One of them was Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a family man with an ordinary job. The night in question left half of his face sunburnt, a symbol of his broken psyche. His scary obsession eventually drove his family away. And then there was Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a single mother whose son, Barry (Cary Guffey), was taken by the unidentified flying objects. She, too, although to a lesser extent, obsessed with the image of a flat mountain. Written and directed by Steven Spielberg, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was a collection of wonderful sights and sounds. It focused on these two elements because if extra-terrestrial life were to make contact with us, it was most likely that we would communicate via images and sounds, not words. The film captured a dynamic intensity from beginning to end because Spielberg was consistent in allowing his audiences to feel an array of emotions in just one scene. Take Barry waking up in the middle of the night when his toys started to move on their own. There were strange noises. Lights were flickering on and off without someone touching the switch. We felt fear but the child felt curiosity. In his attempt to explore his surroundings, we slowly realized that perhaps there was nothing to fear but we were still wary. There was one shot I particularly loved. After finding out that the refrigerator had been ransacked, the boy saw the aliens from a corner and smiled. He saw the aliens because he wasn’t afraid. We felt fear, or at least initially, and so we didn’t get a chance to see the aliens. Seeing the boy’s expression was enough because we weren’t ready. In a way, watching Roy and Jillian’s journey wasn’t just about how far they would go to find out the truth. It was also about us and our willingness to look through the other side without fear, which I thought was expertly symbolized by one of the scenes when Barry opened the front door, saw something very strange on the other side, and his mother taking him away for safety. Another strand involved a French scientist (François Truffaut) who led the government to communicate with the aliens. He, too, had his own share of obsession. I was immersed in the film because the varying stories were in a collision course. But unlike movies about strangers finding their way so that all of them would meet in the end, this picture had a natural flow yet the events always felt bigger than the individuals we had a chance to observe. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a movie that had aliens in it, was ultimately about humanity and the fact that we will always have something more to learn, whether from each other or something far away. It had a beautiful and humbling message aided by unwavering and fully realized vision.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) woke up in the middle of the desert unable to remember anything prior to his collapse, not even his name. In a state of confusion, he looked at his left arm and there was a bulky bracelet around it. Despite its imposing appearance, it seemed harmless enough. So, he made his way to Absolution, a mining town, its economy depended on Woodrow Dolarhyde’s cattle business (Harrison Ford). The residents feared him greatly so they allowed his son, Percy (Paul Dano), to act like a fool and bully others. But not Jake. When Percy pulled a gun on the amnesiac, the young man was greeted with a knee in the groin. Later, when Jake and Woodrow met to settle an old score, spaceships flew over Absolution, fired destructive laser beams, and kidnapped select citizens. Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, “Cowboys & Aliens,” was a somnolent lullaby despite the staccato of horses’ hooves, swooshing Indian arrows, and thundering explosions followed by beautiful hovering dust. When certain characters met their demise, usually induced by the aliens’ sharp claws, I felt no emotion toward the person struggling for his last breath. This was because the characters were not given enough depth. More time was dedicated to the characters riding horses, squinting at something from a distance, and arguing which was the best course of action in order to track down the extraterrestrial base. The script didn’t help the otherwise good actors who were very capable of embodying heroes we could root for despite forcefully convenient plot devices. Jake and Woodrow were motivated by very different things which was appropriate considering that each figure symbolized a different type of hero in the American Old West. The former wanted to know the truth about who he was while the latter hoped to rescue his only son, internal and external motivations. Yet when the two interacted, the dialogue was so egregious, it sounded like Jake and Woodrow were not really speaking to each other but through one another. Jake’s stoicism and Woodrow’s irascibility became exasperating. I wondered what else the material had to offer, if any, and when, or if, the sluggish pacing would eventually pick up and get the adventure going (or started). Furthermore, the aliens were not very interesting villains. They landed on Earth to look for gold and extract them. Did they need the metal for food, as fertilizer to sustain their dying planet, or was it some kind of a panacea for their diseased or dying comrades? We weren’t given the exact details. But why not? I don’t know if the original material offered a reason, but even if it did not, that was no excuse. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Jake began to have feelings for Ella (Olivia Wilde), a woman who seemed to know Jake’s history. Their feelings for each other poisoned the movie. Not only did their relationship not make any sense, their scenes together took away time from possible explanations about the aliens. This was another example of using romance to band-aid holes in the story that ought to be dealt with directly and astutely. “Cowboys and Aliens,” directed by Jon Favreau, was a failed mash-up of the western and science-fiction genres. It offered no magic nor a sense of adventure.
Apollo 18 (2011)
★ / ★★★★
According to the urban legend, Apollo 17 was not NASA’s final lunar landing. In 2011, a website, LunaTruth.com, claimed that it obtained videos of an Apollo 18 mission. In the film, the Department of Defense sent Lt. Col. John Grey (Ryan Robbins), Cdr. Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen), and Capt. Benjamin Anderson (Warren Christie) to install cameras and listening devices on the moon. But there was a catch. Their mission was to be accomplished in complete secrecy. Even the cosmonauts couldn’t tell their families about it. Written by Brian Miller and directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego, “Apollo 18” originated with an interesting idea but lift-off to the climax lacked excitement. As Anderson and Walker landed on the moon and collected rock samples, they began to experience strange occurrences. When outside, they felt as though something was watching their every move. Once or twice, they believed they saw something from the corner of their eyes. They weren’t safe inside the ship either. When they slept, objects moved from their original positions. As the movie tried to build tension, I began to notice its tricks quickly becoming redundant. For example, when the filmmakers dared us to look for something odd in a particular frozen frame, sometimes conveniently highlighting a certain section for us, the camera would suddenly shake relentlessly. Cue in the loud music and dissonant electronic screeching. The problem with this technique was, when executed, I was almost always still in the middle of looking for something I was supposed to see. It didn’t help that the frames were dark and grainy. Everything looked like dirt and rocks. Shaking the camera did not induce horror. It induced headaches. Furthermore, with so many signs of danger, I didn’t understand why the astronauts didn’t consider aborting their mission early on. The two asked Grey to contact the Department of Defense to inform them of a possible extraterrestrial entity, but never did we hear the option of canceling the mission. Perhaps the American thing to do was to go outside more often and investigate dark craters. Aren’t astronauts supposed to be smart? However, there were some scenes that stood out. When one of the astronauts was injured, the other suspected that a creature managed to crawl inside the wound. It had to be taken out without anesthesia or sterilized tools. There was a real sense of terror for two reasons: The creature was either a product of paranoia and there was a real possibility of infection or, if it was indeed a genuine alien entity, its biology and capability were unknown. Even then, given that it was successfully taken out, what would happen next? Some creatures, even terrestrial ones, don’t die when cut up into pieces. Many more scenes in which the horror was front and center could have drastically elevated “Apollo 18.” While moon dust and rocks looked very believable, I wasn’t convinced that there was enough creativity to keep the project in orbit.
The Thing (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
In John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” the opening shot featured two men in a helicopter shooting at a dog in order to prevent it from reaching an American research facility. “The Thing,” written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., consisted of the events that led up to aforementioned curious scene. When a group of Norwegian researchers, led by Edvard Wolver (Trond Espen Seim), stumbled upon an alien space craft in the Antarctic ice, Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) was immediately alerted. But before the scientist and his assistant, Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), could get there, Dr. Halvorson recruited an American paleontologist, Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), for her expertise. Upon their arrival, they learned that not only was there a craft, there was also an alien trapped in ice a couple of meters from the wreckage. What I enjoyed most about the film was it successfully emulated Carpenter’s paranoid tone. Although I knew what the alien was capable of, there was a sense of excitement in the way Kate and the Norwegian crew opened up the alien’s body and explored the grim and disgusting details inside. When the camera showed the guts and the organs, I felt like I was in that room and I wanted to participate in touching the viscera and the accompanying slime. If anything, the picture proved that even though most of the audience knew what was about to transpire, as long as the journey that led up to the characters’ discoveries was interesting, the project could still stand strong. The prequel shared the same main weakness as Carpenter’s movie. There more than ten characters but we only somewhat got to know Kate. There were at least two other characters worth knowing more about. For instance, how well did Adam and Kate know each other prior to their mission? It seemed like they had some history. If their relationship was more defined, the latter scenes in which Kate suspected that Adam was possibly infected by the alien virus would have had more impact. After all, if you think that someone you’ve known all your life is no longer that person you’ve grown to love and care about, that he or she is simply a replica of an extraterrestrial, and it is necessary to kill that certain someone, wouldn’t you feel rotten before and after deciding to eliminate that person/being? To some extent, I would. Even though, in truth, that friend is an alien, it has the face, the voice, the mannerisms of a human being. I also wanted to know more about Sam (Joel Edgerton), the helicopter pilot. There were a few scenes which suggested that there was an attraction between Sam and Kate. Again, another possible human connection that could have been milked more with the regards to the bizarre happenings. “The Thing,” based on the short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr., while suspenseful most of the time, it was ultimately let down by having too much CGI. I didn’t need to see the craft being activated when it didn’t even get to fly for even a few inches. What I wanted to see more was the creature, hiding inside a human, just biding its time till its prey inevitably lets his guard down.
The Thing (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★
In the icy landscape of Antarctica, a Siberian Husky attempted to outrun a helicopter because one of the people inside was shooting at it. When the dog arrived in an American research facility, the helicopter landed and came out a man speaking Norwegian. Nobody understood the dialect. He started shooting; Americans shot back. Everyone was baffled with how quickly everything happened and without an apparent reason. When the researchers took the dog to be with its own kind, in the dark, it revealed its true nature: inside it was an alien organism. Based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. and written by Bill Lancaster, “The Thing” deservingly gained a strong cult following over the years. It took its time in showing us the alien’s abilities and how it was able to survive for so long. It was dangerous because it seemed to have both intelligence and great survival instincts. It was capable of copying an animal in exact detail but in order to do so, it had to absorb its victims’ cells. Although the picture didn’t quite delve into specifics, it made sense because cells house DNA. Humans in a contained area were right for the picking. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) was the helicopter pilot and the eventual leader of the group. Along with Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), they had to figure out a way to find which of their colleagues were imitations. One of the best scenes involved MacReady and Dr. Cooper visiting the nearby Norwegian facility and finding the place in utter ruins. They saw deformed and charred human bodies as well as a hunk of ice which, from the looks of it, formerly preserved something. The grotesque and mysterious images allowed us to construct a narrative in our minds about what possibly happened. The film successfully captured a paranoid atmosphere. For instance, the camera’s attention shifted from one person to another. Characters were often in different rooms because they had jobs to do, some were on shifts depending on time of day, while others kept to themselves because certain personalities clashed. What happened to Person A when the camera was on Person B? Another element that added to the paranoia was its calculated use of score. It was able to generate so much tension by simply allowing us to hear heartbeat-like notes during key scenes. And it wasn’t only implemented when a person would walk into a dark room in an attempt to investigate something. It was used in broad daylight when danger was right around the corner. Unfortunately, I had serious issues with the film’s pacing, notably with its final thirty minutes. While it managed to maintain a certain level of creativity in terms of the build-up of who was possibly infected, once we knew, the point-and-shoot-the-flamethrower tactic became repetitive. There was nothing inspiring or surprising during the last fifteen minutes. Despite its shortcomings, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. The special, visual effects, and make-up teams should be applauded for creating images found in nightmares. Directed by John Carpenter, “The Thing” is one of the few movies I feel I must watch every year. I’m hypnotized by it each time.
Green Lantern (2011)
★ / ★★★★
When Hal was young, he witnessed the death of his father due to an aviation accident. Almost twenty years later, we came to discover that Hal (Ryan Reynolds) followed his father’s footsteps and became a successful test pilot. Meanwhile, two entities had been in war for a millennia: a group of warriors known as Green Lantern Corps, powered by will, and Parallax, powered by fear. The latter was quickly gaining the upper hand by literally eating the souls of its enemies. When one of the leaders of the corps, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), made an emergency landing on Earth after being attacked by the evil Parallax, he managed to pass his powers onto unsuspecting Hal. “Green Lantern,” directed by Martin Campbell, was sloppily put together. A myriad strands were introduced but not one achieved an above average level of thought nor a minutiae of common sense, so the film ultimately felt flat. Let’s take the romance between Hal and Carol (Blake Lively) as an example. Supposedly, the two of them had known each other for more than half their lives. I found that very hard to believe. While the two obviously cared for each other, perhaps even on a romantic level, I found it frustrating that they didn’t know how to communicate as adults and as close friends. If you’ve been friends with someone for a very long time, that certain connection, which often defies explanation, should be palpable to a third party. But I never felt that special connection when Hal and Carol were on screen. In fact, the whole thing felt forced. There were a lot of puppy dog eyes and polite smiles, like I was watching some teenage soap opera where characters pretend to be dumb yet they have the nerve to complain about the fact that no one is getting what they want. The screenplay, by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg, came off as rather desperate in injecting a human element into the story. I actually would have enjoyed the movie more if Hal and Carol were given the time to sit and talk about their feelings for up to three key scenes and defined their relationship once and for all. Then focus on the action, without the hammy and frivolous will-he-or-won’t-she interruptions, because 1) I wanted to see the war between good and evil and 2) watch things blow up in the city. The decision to put petty romances between action sequences made the project disjointed. As a result, the momentum failed to build and I ended up not caring. Another one of Hal and Carol’s childhood friend was Hector (Peter Sarsgaard), a formerly corpulent boy who preferred to stay indoors and read books rather than to play outside. Eventually, Hector became an agent of evil after being infected by an alien life form. But why was his transformation necessary? Since the writers offered no answer to that question, it was pretty much implied that brainiacs were less than so they deserved to be punished. That wouldn’t have been the case if we had a chance to observe Hector being black-hearted as a child in the first place. “Green Lantern” need not have been too serious nor abound with grand special effects to qualify as a decent superhero movie. It just needed to tell its story with clarity.