Tag: sci-fi

Extraterrestrial


Extraterrestrial (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

It begins with a group of friends driving to a cabin in the woods. I can feel you rolling your eyes. Another one of those movies? Yes… and no. Colin Minihan’s sci-fi horror “Extraterrestrial” may not introduce new elements to the (not so little) green men terrorizing humans sub-genre, but it is apparent right from the first act that its goal is to entertain the viewers helpless. It is not one of those alien movies in which the only source of entertainment is flashing lights and visual effects. In fact, there are great stretches here that inspires the audience to glue their eyes to screen. It is ambitious, energetic, and respectful toward the horror and science fiction genres. On this level, the movie works.

Here is a story in which characters have an awareness of unidentified flying objects, aliens, and government cover-ups. Because they are young and have probably seen a lot of movies and television shows about extraterrestrials, they do not act dumb when faced with a spacecraft that crash landed. They approach the ship out of morbid curiosity but do not try to open it because they know what tends to happen when creatures inside there are not friendly. And since these characters are given at least minimal knowledge of the situation they’re in, they’re all the more enjoyable to watch. This group, led by April (Brittany Allen), is leagues ahead of similar packs in less intelligent killer alien movies.

Small decisions are made that go a long way. For example, in this picture, an alien abduction can be recorded using a cell phone or CCTV and footages do not malfunction or disappear suddenly the second it is shown to another person who doubts that there really are aliens running around the forest. Another example, which put a smile on my face, is in the matter-of-fact way the filmmakers choose to portray flying saucers and ETs. All of us have a general expectation of how they look based on popular culture and this movie delivers exactly that. They don’t bother to change the color of the aliens or the shape of their heads, nor do they alter the cliché look of the craft. They just… are and there’s something incredibly freeing about it. I felt as though Minihan and his team had more important things to accomplish—like how to make a hunt between predator and prey feel full of tension or how to achieve creative payoffs.

Alien attacks are executed with panache. Its practical effects are impressive and yet so much is hidden within or just outside shadows. Rain and lightning storms are used not just to create a creepy environment, but to make it a harder to see what’s beyond several feet away. This approach can also be used to highlight a figure standing right behind somebody—especially in regards to the timing of the lightning. There are jump scares, certainly. But there are other types of scares, too. It seems to enjoy showing us how terrified characters feel when they know with absolute certainty that no matter what they do, they will be abducted. Scream as they might, quite often there is a sense of surrender in their eyes.

The work follows a defined three-arc structure. What I liked most is that the third arc takes risks, especially now that so many horror movies these days do not even bother to offer a resolution. I hate it when the climax is reached and then the screen simply fades to black. Not here. I know, for instance, that the director is a fan of “The X-Files” because so many episodes of that wonderful show ends just like this movie: all at once it can be sad, funny, satirical, and ironic. There is a punchline; it gives us clear reasons why the writer-director (Stuart Ortiz co-writes) felt the need to tell this story. Fans of the genre will get a kick out of this independent gem.

Splice


Splice (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Most disappointing is the fact that Vincenzo Natali’s “Splice” really could have been about something. A few examples: the ethical and moral quandaries in regards to genetic engineering, the role of nature versus nurture in a controlled setting, what it means to be a biological versus adoptive parents, the clash when it comes to being a researcher holding a specific set of noble ideals while working for a corporation designed to rake in profits. Instead, the picture, by the third act, is reduced to a monster-of-the-week episode where our protagonists end up running in the woods and fighting for their lives. What a boring and tedious way to close a movie with potential.

It starts off with strong footing. Right away we have an appreciation of what biochemists Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) hope to achieve: create a specimen made up of various animal DNA so that specific proteins from this organism can be extracted and be made into commercial drugs for livestocks. Brody and Polley being performers who excel at communicating plenty using only their eyes, we look at their characters and feel a strong drive to succeed, to push science to the precipice for the betterment of mankind. They don’t care much for money or fame or special treatment; priority is in making discoveries. These are curious characters—the desire to know being a strength and a weakness.

I enjoyed the look of the interiors, particularly of the state-of-the-art laboratories. Usually labs are shown as neat, tidy, spacious. Bright fluorescent lights erase all shadows. Here, spaces can be quite tight. Colleagues are within five feet of one another, people can wear a t-shirt to work, music can be blasted on the radio. Boxes tend to pile on top of another. There is a rush to get things done. There are some manual labor involved. As a person who works in a lab, I appreciated some level of realism; I caught myself smiling at times.

Even the creatures look terrific. The dog-sized, wormlike organisms are… cute in their own way even though they look slimy and gross. The way they move and the sounds they make command attention. We learn about how they are made and why; we observe some behavior and what males and females do when they meet for the first time.

More impressive is Dren (Delphine Chanéac)—a special case because not only is her DNA composed of various animals, she is also given human DNA. It is near impossible to look away, especially when Dren takes on a humanoid form. We gawk at her eyes and how far apart they are, her bald head and tail, her skin and how it resembles a mole rat, her bony legs. Clearly, a lot of thought and effort are put into how things should look.

But then there is the content of the picture. It doesn’t drill deeply enough. For instance, it touches upon the idea of Elsa being a mother figure but halfway through the picture, this curiosity is abandoned—then picked up again—whenever convenient. Then it jumps to Clive, once a figure to be feared by Dren because he believes that such an abomination should not have been created, becoming the synthetic creature’s object of desire. The screenplay by Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, and Doug Taylor presents an idea but doesn’t answer the question, “So what?” Consistently failing to take a concept to the next level breeds frustration because the plot is reduced to a series of events without rewarding payoffs.

“Splice” forgets what defines cautionary tales: the payoff. A movie that strives to make a statement can put all the pieces in the most precise positions for the sake of creating the greatest impact… but without the spark that tips the tile, the all-important payoff, the most elegant configurations are all for nothing. It cannot be denied that the movie’s third act is in desperate need of rewrite.

Escape from New York


Escape from New York (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★

On the surface, John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” is an action film. It does, after all, involve a plot to rescue the president (Donald Pleasance) after Air Force One crashed in Manhattan, now a maximum security prison following a 400% increase of crime in the country. But as one experiences it, it is not so much an action picture—at least not a typical one. I found it to be a mood piece, an exercise of creativity by a filmmaker given a very limited budget whose goal is to entertain by inspiring us to look inside the world he and his team created instead of simply accepting busy movements and loud noises.

The solemn and desolate skylines and landscapes of Manhattan puts us into a headspace that this version of the future, set in 1997, is cruel and militaristic. For a dystopian film released in 1981, it looks terrific. Every location we visit, whether it be atop the World Trade Center or in the streets where starved denizens—starved of food, human interaction, freedom—crawl out of the sewers with rats, there is something special to be seen and appreciated. Couple these intoxicating images with well-placed and well-made synth music, we become increasingly excited for the mission to evolve. We look forward to the next scene’s surprises, the next batch of colorful personalities our central protagonist may clash against.

Our eye-patched hero—some might say anti-hero—is Snake Plissken and he is played with suave by Kurt Russell. Less capable performers may have relied on the eye patch to create a personality, but Russell portrays the character as though the accessory isn’t even there. Snake is confident and knows what he wants and so from the moment we come across this memorable character, we have a feeling about his history outside of his reputation among lawmen and criminals. I enjoyed that Snake taking on the task of rescuing the president is not driven by a sense of duty for his country but self-preservation. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), in charge of the rescue mission, offers a deal: Should Snake succeed at rescuing the president, all of his crime records would be wiped clean.

But to ensure that Hauk would get his way: Snake is injected with particles that would rupture his arteries should he fail to deliver the man within a time limit. Carpenter and Nick Castle’s screenplay often works like this. Even the criminals we meet in Manhattan, particularly the ones who end up helping Snake for reasons of their own, are given dimension. Everybody is out for themselves and yet they are willing to bend rules—at times their personal codes—in order to get that much further in attaining their goals. This is far more interesting than presenting yet another ballet of bullets in which the straight-faced hero triumphs with ease or barely escapes.

Nuance is what separates “Escape from New York” from other sci-fi action pictures. We may not have the strongest, smartest, or most heroic protagonist but we get a real sense of his place in this particular dystopian universe. Should he succeed or fail in his mission, notice it doesn’t really matter. Or at least it didn’t matter to me. It was enough that I got to see and experience Carpenter’s vision of world where criminals are hidden away to rot instead of rehabilitated. (Perhaps we are at that point now?) There is one line early in the film that stuck with me. Prisoners about to be sent to Manhattan are given a choice to self-terminate and be cremated should they not want to be confined for life. I caught myself thinking I probably would have taken on the offer. Happily. Because what is life without freedom?

The Vast of Night


The Vast of Night (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

The supremely confident directorial debut of Andrew Patterson tells the story of two teenagers in Cayuga, New Mexico who come across strange sounds through the radio while most of the town residents attend the first basketball game of the season. It is without compromise: dialogue-heavy, unfolding in real time, penchant for long takes, ostentatious (but accurate) in terms of embracing the 1950s milieu, and demanding viewers to adapt to its offbeat rhythm—there is no typical three-arc structure of storytelling to be had here. What results is a work that coaxes those looking in to catch up to it despite the fact that UFO stories have been done to death. It is anchored by two strong central performances by Jake Horowitz as the smooth cool local DJ Everett Sloan and Sierra McCormick as the plucky sixteen-year-old Fay Crocker. Fifteen minutes into the picture, I was reminded of films in the 1940s and 1950s where characters have real drive and personality; I wished to know more about this duo as young people with potential bright futures outside of the UFO plot. Even the supporting characters—an old lady (Gail Cronauer) and a voice via telephone (Bruce Davis)—command attention. This is a film in which words, sounds, and timing—together—is paramount; tension depends on the synergy among them. I look forward to Patterson’s follow-up.

Time Trap


Time Trap (2017)
★ / ★★★★

To claim that “Time Trap” plays like a Syfy movie would be an insult to Syfy movies because a good number of those made-for-television projects actually try to deliver a payoff. This film, written and directed by Mark Dennis (Ben Foster co-directs), simply ends in a most rushed fashion, one might claim the filmmakers ran out of budget. But I push it a bit further: I believe those who made the picture simply do not possess a big enough imagination to be able to cap off their story in a satisfying way. So, end credits are dropped so abruptly in order to save face. To claim that “Time Trap” is a waste of time would be an insult to the phrase. Avoid this at all costs. I beg you.

The plot: An archeology professor (Andrew Wilson) discovers a mysterious hole in a desert. He goes inside and has not surfaced for two days. His students (Reiley McClendon, Brianne Howey) suspect something bad must have happened so they decide to follow suit—taking three others in their doomed rescue mission (Cassidy Gifford, Olivia Draguicevich, Max Wright). Although numerous major hints point to the idea that time is likely to work differently inside the cave, these braindead characters deny every opportunity to accept their situation. The screenplay seems stuck in its own time loop; with every repetitious scene boredom increases exponentially.

Pay close attention to the awful dialogue. There is no sense of economy. When one word is enough to express a feeling or thought, three sentences are employed instead. It does not help that the delivery is almost always flat. Maybe it would have helped if the actors were actually in a cave rather than a studio. Perhaps then they could have felt genuine emotions like fear of being lost or trapped and confusion upon the discovery that time stamps of video cameras do not match when two people get separated only for a few minutes. More than half of the scenes needed to be reshot due to an overall lack of conviction. Better yet—rewrite the screenplay completely; the expository dialogue feels like a hyperactive pugilist beating the eardrums.

Another major problem is the failure to establish rules. Just because the story is meant to be mysterious does not mean that anything can happen. If so, then why bother telling a specific story from a defined perspective? A sensible sci-fi picture that deals with the passage of time should have an anchor. In this case, for example, it should be the cave. How many minutes, hours, days, months, or years would pass if a person were to spend in a cave for one minute? The movie does not answer. It certainly would have added much-needed suspense. Assuming that we are watching the characters in real time, and we have a complete idea of the time that passes on the surface relative to the cave, tension increases the more they make mistakes, argue, or dither about.

But no. The filmmakers assume we are too stupid to be able to make the most basic mathematical conversions. Instead, we are inundated with visual effects that mean nothing, especially during its most bewildering final fifteen to twenty minutes. Here is a movie so confident with its incompetence, it sets up a possible sequel head held high. If it does happen, I hope it is released a thousand years from now because 1) I’ll be dead and would have no choice but to miss it and 2) by then absolutely no one would care.

The Core


The Core (2003)
★ / ★★★★

Science fiction films need not be both fiercely intelligent and savagely entertaining, but director Jon Amiel’s “The Core” is neither. It boasts a running time of one hundred thirty minutes, but the experience feels at least twice that. The reason is because the movie appears to be content in being a flat, soporific exercise in visual pageantry. It has aged like milk—a good example of why strong ideas and execution must take precedence over flashy special and visual effects. Consider: the story involves an apocalyptic situation—the Earth’s core has stopped spinning which has led to bizarre occurrences such as 32 people dropping dead at the same time, sudden violent swarm of birds enveloping London, superstorms causing unimaginable devastation in Rome. And yet despite all the razzle-dazzle, the movie lacks genuine excitement, tension, or horror. We are supposed to be seeing the end of the world, but our expressions do not change. An exception is when we cringe at the terribly cliché dialogue between scientists and astronauts. Surely it takes considerable effort to make smart people sound dead dull and stupid. There are at least three instances in which I guessed the next line to be uttered word-by-word. (Even the jokes fall flat.) Words shared among the characters are meant to be forgotten the moment the next scene begins. And so when they meet gruesome fates during their journey to the center of the planet, we cannot be bothered to care. Starring Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, and Stanley Tucci. Based on the screenplay by Cooper Layne and John Rogers.

Dark Light


Dark Light (2019)
★ / ★★★★

For a movie that offers plenty of strange noises in a farmhouse in the middle of the night and investigations in the dark using only a flashlight, Padraig Reynolds’ “Dark Light” commands no tension, suspense, or horror. It is strange and highly disappointing because the work is written and directed by the same filmmaker who helmed the little-seen gem “Rites of Spring,” a hybrid between crime thriller and horror, so confident in what it is and what it wishes to accomplish. This picture, however, is an obvious giant step backward, serving the audience a minefield of boredom and clichés on top of characters more uninteresting than tap water.

The plot is standard but not without potential to genuinely entertain. Annie (Jessica Madsen) and her daughter, Emily (Opal Littleton), recently move into Annie’s childhood home following a divorce (Ed Brody), a death in the family, and a mental breakdown. To Annie, the relocation from the city is a chance to start anew with her young child. But it seems that the mother’s once happy home is no longer. Doors open on their own. There is scratching and scraping noises in the walls. There are lights that turn on and off out in the cornfield. Emily begins to suffer memory problems. The mystery is laid thick and heavy, but not one of its elements manages to bleed into other territories—surprise, terror, a sense of impending doom—other than mild curiosity.

I became convinced that even the writer-director is aware of this. For a while, the story unfolds in flashbacks and flash forwards in order create a semblance of urgency. Instead, what we get is distraction and, eventually, annoyance because high-priority questions go unanswered for so long to the point where we no longer care. And when questions do get answers or solutions, notice it is almost always action-driven and noisy rather than thought-driven and silent. A more equal mixture might have been more appropriate given the story’s setting. Clearly, this is a sci-fi horror hybrid that wishes to impress ostentatiously when playing it simple is more effective.

Further, observe closely when Annie inspects areas she suspects an intruder to be hiding in. She is written to move like a soldier rather than as a mother who is afraid for her and her child’s safety. (She has no military background whatsoever.) The intent, I suppose, is to create a heroine who is worth rooting for. But it seems Reynolds did not get the memo that it makes for a far more interesting watch to create a protagonist who is tough on the inside rather than outside—and then allowing that inner strength to shine through. It certainly would have challenged Madsen more—who seems game at whatever the script wishes to throw at her.

“Dark Light” lacks a more elegant, light-handed screenplay. Because it fails to introduce enough wrinkles to an already familiar template, the result is boring, uninspired, and forgettable. Even the relationship between former spouses rings false. Feel the impersonality of their conversations surrounding their child. You get a sense that the actors have got their lines pat but not the emotions and the history of having lived and loved together once. This relationship is robotic and so is the movie. It’s a waste of time.

Aniara


Aniara (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Due to severe climate change, Earth has been rendered uninhabitable; it is time to colonize somewhere else. It is supposed to be a routine travel to Mars as a new batch of Earth citizens look forward to their new home on the Red Planet. The trip is supposed to take just over three weeks, but in an attempt to avoid space debris, the spacecraft Aniara is damaged and its fuel tanks ejected into the void of outer space. Off-course and without the means to set itself on the correct track, the captain (Arvin Kananian) informs his passengers it could take years for them to encounter the nearest celestial body so its gravity could be used to alter their current course.

Most admirable about “Aniara,” based on the Swedish poem of the same name by Harry Martinson, is that it offers a future so bleak, one cannot help but feel fascinated with where the story might lead. Right from its opening minutes it is implied that the work will be a study of behavior: a cause (a story development) leading to an effect (passengers’ responses). There is even commentary that although humans can be taken out of their planet, they cannot help but take with them the very characteristics that destroyed their planet in the first place. It offers no apology, no forgiveness. I found its bitter perspective refreshing. The work is not without ambition. However, the film is not for everyone.

Our protagonist is Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) but that is not actually her name. It is a title held by person in charge of a hall where a machine, Mima, is capable of showing, or reflecting, a participant’s memories of Earth. It helps with the anxiety of space travel. But notice that although we have a main character and that we follow her throughout the picture, the focus is actually on the collective. This is certain to alienate viewers because we do not get to know Mimaroben in a deeply personal way even though we spend ample time with her.

In fact, notice that her responses to the story’s events do not consistently reflect the majority of the passengers’ fears, depression, and anguish. Early in the film, she confesses to her roommate, an astronomer who is always scribbling on her journal (Anneli Martini), that there is nothing waiting for her on Mars anyway and so floating in space indefinitely does not really bother her. As expected, changes occur in our protagonist but these are subtle. And the script certainly does not follow a typical parabola of character development. In fact, people tend to speak in expository dialogue. I appreciated this approach; it contributes to the impression of an impressive but impersonal future.

Less effective is in how the picture is shot. Almost immediately noticeable is how characters are almost always framed from the waist up. The filmmakers are also fond of extreme close-ups. While it can be effective during the more dramatic moments, especially when characters begin to despair regarding their fates, it is distracting for the most part. The story is unfolding in a massive spacecraft where hundreds, possibly thousands, of passengers can survive for years. Why do we not see more of it? I would have loved a small tour of the place.

By not employing the occasional wide shot, it fails to capture the splendor of the living space… or even to provide contrast between the inside and the outside of the ship. One cannot help but consider that directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja are ashamed of the set or set decorations—which are not first-rate but at the same time not terrible by any means. There is an irony to the whole charade because the forced framing actually garners attention—negative attention.

Most maddening is the rushed final ten minutes. Instead of offering answers or bringing up even more questions, it dares to throw away everything it has worked toward for the sake of delivering confusion or shock. Without giving anything away, the ending is supposed to be bleak and haunting but it comes across as a sick joke. I found myself chuckling not because the ending is clever but because I felt tricked for having invested my time and mental capacity only to be handed something nearly without value.

Should you choose to see this curious film anyway, proceed with caution.

Radius


Radius (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A man wakes up next to an overturned vehicle, head bloody, with no memory of who he is. It is dark, raining, and it appears no one is around given the accident occurred in a rural area. Later he comes to learn his name is Liam (Diego Klattenhoff) and whenever a living creature, human or animal, gets within a certain distance of him, it drops dead. This is the curious premise of “Radius,” written and directed by Caroline Labrèche and Steeve Léonard, a captivating sci-fi mystery-thriller that poses many questions and takes the time to answer every single one of them. Do not miss it.

The story brings to mind Stephen King novels, not because of the genre but its ability to grab those looking in by the throat and never lets go. The curiosity surrounding Liam and his strange unwanted ability is dealt with patience, creativity, urgency, and even a sense of humor. The screenwriters understand that the terrifying situation must have moments of exhalation and so the material is peppered with amusing moments without the tension ever decreasing. Most Hollywood thrillers with big budget, recognizable stars, and experienced writers do not possess this wisdom. Here, it is exercised with confidence, nearly every scene modulated with a clear purpose and feeling.

It bothers to detail specifics such as the maximum distance between Liam and the living in order for the latter to remain alive, what is said in the media when groups of corpses are discovered in a diner, and how the main character attempts to wriggle himself out of tricky situations. Although there is a central mystery that commands high level of intrigue, notice there is constant world building. And so when Liam inevitably comes face-to-face with cops and bystanders, we have a clear understanding of what is at stake for everyone involved. We believe in the reality of the conflict and there is convincing drama in every beat.

The equation is constantly changed and so the viewers are always challenged. There is not a slow or boring moment here. For instance, eventually a woman named Jane (Charlotte Sullivan) and she, too, suffers from amnesia. She claims that she woke up in the scene of Liam’s accident. However, when Liam woke up, we do not see anyone nearby during the opening sequence. It inspires the audience to ask questions and to reevaluate what we see, hear, and process. In order words, it inspires us to become active participants in the story. It is not simply a question of what you may do when a similar situation happens to you. The questions are more specific, layered, painted with moral quandaries. It is so refreshing because too many modern films cater to passive viewers.

“Radius” is one of those rare pictures with high concepts and energetic execution that never runs out of steam. Metaphors—never ostentatious—should inspire conversations. And the ending feels exactly right—it is given to us at right moment. Fans of old school “Twilight Zone” are likely to have a great time with this gem, filled to the brim with surprises big and small.

Ad Astra


Ad Astra (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

During the first hour of James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” the picture has the makings of a space epic so engaging, it does not need to show a single flying car to inspire the audience to keep paying attention. Advanced technologies are simply there to be used rather than to be gawked at and so we are forced to adapt—quickly—in the story’s universe. By making futuristic images barely visible and putting the protagonist’s inner turmoil front and center, it is without question that the work will be a ruminative sci-fi film instead of action-adventure oriented. However, once the second hour crawls along, the slow, calculated, informative pacing is no longer utilized to build mystery or raise questions—about ourselves, our connections with others, our place on our planet and in the universe—scenes simply drag. The absence of a meaningful payoff is maddening.

We follow Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), son of renowned astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), when he is assigned to travel to Mars to send a communiqué to his father, once believed to have perished on assignment while leading a project in Neptune. By hearing his own son’s voice perhaps the old man would finally respond to SpaceCom’s messages: for senior McBride to put a stop to electrical surges that plague the rest of the solar system. You see, his ship contains anti-matter that works as a catalyst to these fatal surges.

The irony is that despite Roy and Clifford sharing the same bloodline, the two are not at all close. (Yes, outer space is employed as a symbol of how distant the father and son are emotionally—neither new nor fresh.) Pitt is highly watchable as a man who has not found a way to deal with his father’s brazen abandonment. I looked closely at Roy and recognized a person who built himself to be something that his father would be proud of… but he is not his own person. This lack of self permeates through his personal life, specifically when it comes his relationship with his wife (Liv Tyler—outrageously underused). It is without question that Roy’s father loved his job—finding proof of extraterrestrial life—more than his own son. And so Roy must come to terms with this reality. The story is not about a space mission. It is about finding a way to live and not simply exist based on somebody else’s expectations.

Although this universal message can appeal to most viewers, I’m afraid it will be lost in translation because the second half does not possess enough energy and vitality in order to underline its humanistic themes. Instead, the movie is plagued with prolonged takes of Roy moving from one place to other or Roy sitting at one spot looking hopelessly morose. (On occasion a well-placed and well-timed tear rolls down Roy’d right eye just in case we don’t get the picture of his struggles.) It leaves the viewers cold. Notice that even moments of thrill—shoot-outs on the moon’s surface, confronting a wild animal in an enclosed space—end up with a whimper.

These images can work. But there must be something behind them—consistently—in order for us to feel and appreciate their value. Otherwise these pretty images function merely as decoration; we might as well be staring at a screensaver for two hours.

Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, “Ad Astra” does not hold a candle against movies from which it is inspired by, whether it be thematically or visually—Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” are most obvious. A key difference: “Odyssey” and “Solaris” consistently build—or break down—their worlds and the characters within them up until their curious, perplexing, unforgettable climaxes. Here, there is mostly hollowness and soulful staring into the void.

High Life


High Life (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The obtuse but consistently fascinating “High Life” tells the story of a group of criminals, each one either sentenced to life in prison or on death row, who are given the chance to serve science by going to space, approaching the nearest black hole, and collecting its rotation energy. On the way there, most of them participate in an experiment involving artificial insemination led by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a doctor who murdered her family. The work offers a tight and slow pacing but never boring, supported by numerous ideas like the value of a life within a microcosm, freedom in an enclosed space, and what it means to have purpose during what is essentially a suicide mission.

There is a strong possibility that most may sit through the film and find little to no value in it. The closing chapter, after all, is anticlimactic, tinged with sadness, and open-ended. One cannot be blamed for asking, “What’s the point?” But I believe the aim of the screenwriters, Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, the former directing the picture, is not to tell a work with a defined shape through precise plotting. This is supported by a non-linear storytelling followed by some vague build-up surrounding fates of particular characters—some die in the hands of one another, others choose to kill themselves, one or two entirely by accident. It is a prime example of a story in which the value lies upon the journey more than the destination.

The work is shot with a keen eye. Never mind the neon lights. Beauty lies in actual details, like the many routines the criminals must partake in, especially when inside Dr. Dibs’ highly impersonal clinic. For example, because she rules over that space, and knowing her obsessive approach to create a life in space, bodies are treated like cattle. She does not ask questions unless answers may be relevant to her work. When she herself is asked questions, she is often dismissive. When a participant expresses distaste for her project, concerns are not addressed directly or elaborated upon. She values her samples over the people who provide the samples. A case can be made that the character symbolizes the oppressive system back on Earth. And yet Dr. Dibs is not portrayed as a villain.

Aside from Binoche’s single-minded “second chance” doctor, another standout character and performance is Monte, played by Robert Pattinson. In the opening sequence, we learn he is the only adult survivor aboard the ship. But he is not alone. There is an infant with him—a little girl that we assume to be the product of Dr. Dibs’ artificial insemination project. I found it strange but curious that although Monte and the baby is supposed to be the heart of the picture, given they are introduced prior to the rest of the characters, I did not find myself invested in their relationship or story. Or perhaps we are meant to feel this way, to prey on or capitalize upon our assumptions that a father figure and a helpless child must be the focal point not only within the vastness of space but also among criminals of varying degrees—from petty crimes, drug addicts, to rapists and murderers.

“High Life” offers an enveloping experience, filled to the brim with thick atmosphere and a sense of foreboding. In some ways, the core is a muted horror film surrounded by ideas closer to science-fiction. Like the Dr. Dibs character, it is, for the most part, impersonal. It is uninterested in making us like the characters. In fact, we are encouraged to dislike some of them. On the surface, viewers may sneer at all the artificiality—its use of light, the synth music. But I think that those who manage to see through the fog may find something worth examining.

Anon


Anon (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The high concept sci-fi thriller “Anon,” written and directed by Andrew Niccol, possesses a curious idea, but the execution is so dour and so slow that at times experiencing it feels more like a chore than entertainment. In the middle of it, one considers the possibility that the story might have been better off had it been shaped as a tight episode of “Black Mirror” instead of a feature film. At times the pacing is not at all appropriate for the type of technology or future it attempts to criticize.

Niccol presents a future without privacy in which the government has complete access to every single thing that nearly every single person does every second of every day—with the exception of a select few, most of them hackers, who have found rather creative ways to remain anonymous. Should investigators wish, they are able to review records of past events taken from people’s recollections. No warrant is required. Initially, this level of access appears to be highly beneficial because there is a killing spree in New York City.

Detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen), a man still mourning his young son’s death, is assigned to the case. The prime suspect: an anonymous hacker named only as The Girl (Amanda Seyfried) whose speciality is in removing or altering memories of her clients. The police force aims to capture her, but she is consistently one step ahead. Clearly, it requires more than ingenuity to take her in.

The picture is fond of detours when the story is best told straight: Frieland’s grief and alcoholism, pressure from high-ranking officials to protect the sanctity of a technology currently on the verge of being utilized nationally, a suspect possibly a misunderstood persona. With every left turn, which is meant to become an interesting subplot, notice how the pacing tends to slow down. The reason is because these elements are nothing new or compelling; they are simply plugged into this particular world and unnecessary plotting is written around them. Remove the futuristic world altogether and realize there is nothing worth seeing here. Therein lies the problem.

Owen and Seyfried are fine; they try to do what they can with the material. I am almost certain they have been instructed to speak in a low-key way in order to amplify the mystery of the setting. Normally, these are expressive and emotive performers. It feels like they hold back here. When their characters show more varied expressions, particularly during the final act, it comes across as false because they are quite muffled throughout the picture’s duration. The sudden disparity took me out of the supposed drama.

“Anon” wants to be taken seriously and the photography reflects this yearning. The images are drenched in neutral colors. Primary colors appear to be banned. Voices must be kept under a certain decibel. The sun’s rays are barely seen despite numerous shots of skyscrapers. I suppose this level of control should be applauded, but I wished the same effort was made to create an extremely efficient screenplay. There is more style than substance here.

Replicas


Replicas (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

At least Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s “Replicas” cannot be criticized for offering too few ideas. On the contrary, the problem is the opposite: it touches upon so many fascinating subjects—artificial intelligence, human cloning, copying a person’s memories onto a chip and then transferring them either into a machine or the human brain, the fragility of consciousness, not to mention the value (or lack thereof) of what we come to know as the soul—that the work has enough content fill a television show’s entire season. As expected, it comes with an important cost. In its attempt to cover so much ground, given that the medium is film and, typically, movies are between ninety to one hundred twenty minutes, not one topic is explored in a meaningful way. What results is shallow entertainment that fails to reach its potential.

About halfway through, I caught myself smiling at the ludicrous developments in plot. A part of me admired its bravado. Twists are delivered fast and hard to the point where, within a span of ten minutes (I kept track), it offers at least three surprises. I admired its enthusiasm to give even the wildest soap operas a run for their money. I found solace, too, in the fact that the performances are capable even though the characters are written in the most unbelievable ways at times.

For instance, Will (Keanu Reeves), a scientist who works in a cryptic biomedical company with a beautiful wife (Alice Eve) and three children (Emily Alyn Lind, Emjay Anthony, Aria Lyric Leabu) waiting at home, appears to have years of experience within his chosen field, obviously incredibly smart, but when there is great pressure on him to perform, he seems barely able to handle it like a professional. For the most part, inconsistencies as such are hidden by the relatively fast pacing—although the charade cannot keep up during the picture’s more sensitive and dramatic moments. There are a handful of them.

Therein lies the problem: despite the fancy tech talk, curious biological questions, and philosophical musings, the core is supposed to be a convincing human drama. After all, our protagonist is a man so desperate to save his family from death, in addition to his fear of being alone, he proves all too willing to cross numerous ethical and moral lines. Despite Reeves’ commitment to the role, the writing does not function on a high enough level. To do so would mean having to provide specificity nearly every step of the way and an expert control of presenting, exploring, and underlining themes. I wondered if a surgical approach to the character might have been a fresher avenue.

As a person who works in science, I do not require, for instance, that the details of human cloning be correct or even believable. Clearly, the work is not meant to be a documentary. But I do expect for the project to connect a scientific tool or technique to a specific character’s motivations in a way that is compelling, not just because it would be a neat idea to touch upon but not actually explore. Had the screenplay by Chad St. John been trimmed and focused, the film could have been a more potent and memorable sci-fi thriller.

Time Bandits


Time Bandits (1981)
★ / ★★★★

Fascinated by the contents of his books, it is most opportune that Kevin (Craig Warnock) crosses paths with a group of six dwarves on the run from “the supreme being” (Ralph Richardson), insisting that they return the map because they do not understand the full extent of its power. The artifact allows those who can read it properly to be able to visit different times by jumping inside so-called time holes. However, the dwarves, led by Randall (David Rappaport), use it simply to enter different eras and steal riches.

It easy to see why “Time Bandits,” based on the screenplay by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam, has ardent fans. It is silly, has a good amount of imagination, quite unpredictable at times, and the visual effects are so retro that I could not help but be reminded of dubbed Japanese television shows I used to watch as a kid. But the film is not very good. Its greatest limitation comes in small sizes and, boy, are they difficult to endure.

The dwarves function as mere decorations and they are allowed to talk too much without actually saying or doing anything of value. Aside from Randall, the one who keeps the map, we learn nothing about the dwarves other than they like their treasures. They think the same way, act the same way, and talk the same way. They are dispensable and when one’s life comes in contact with danger, I found myself rooting for him to stay dead. That way, perhaps there would be one less annoyance stumbling and bumbling about on screen.

The main character is supposed to be Kevin but he is drowned by many distractions. I enjoyed seeing his home life: when he has something to say about what he has just read, how his parents do nothing but comment on the latest gadget or appliance advertised on television. The story is supposed to have been the value of Kevin’s adventure, how a boy with no one to mirror his interests gets a first-hand experience on subjects that captivate him. He meets various figures like Robin Hood (John Cleese), Agamemnon (Sean Connery), Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm), among others and watching his reaction upon meeting the people he has read about is magical in itself. Instead, the babbling dwarves are often front and center and they water down his experience.

The sets are quite beautiful even if a lot of them are obviously shot in a studio. I admired the gothic look of the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness where Evil (David Warner), who wishes to claim the map from the dwarves to rule the universe, resides. By contrast, I liked the brightness of Mycenaean Greece. I could not help but notice the seemingly never-ending desert, how yellow the sand appears and how hot it must have been to be in that environment. It is important that the setting of that period appeals to the audience because Kevin himself wishes to stay there. I wished the screenplay had exploited a level of sadness underneath the child wanting to stay with a stranger, Agamemnon, in a foreign land and time rather than to be reunited with his parents again.

This is another crucial problem with the film: it is unwilling to break away from the expected and stale comedy. The best journeys cover a spectrum of emotions. Here, there is only a thin layer of wonder and attempts—mostly ineffective—to make us laugh. The material would have been much better if Kevin had been left to his own devices so we could measure how smart and resourceful he was. I wanted to see how he could apply the knowledge he had accumulated from books to get himself out of prickly situations.

Directed by Terry Gilliam, “Time Bandits” is appropriately titled in that I felt as though my time had been stolen. It is not all bad but a lot of it feels like a waste of time, recycled material from better, edgier, more thoughtful fantasy-adventures.