Tag: sci-fi

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.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Somewhere in the middle of the film’s unjustifiably hefty running time of one hundred forty minutes, I decided to turn my brain off and simply try to enjoy the pavonine display of visual feasts. But considering today’s pedigree of top science fiction pictures, the approach of style over substance does not and should not cut it any longer, a fact that writer-director Luc Besson either is not aware of or chooses to overlook. One takes a serious look at “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” and realizes that it is a piece of work that falls just short of greatness.

Had Besson taken more time to revise the screenplay, he might have realized that he needed to dig deeper into the idea of various futuristic cultures coming together, humanoid or otherwise, to form a synergistic society and connect this concept to our current reality that is the increasing interconnectedness of a global community. After all, the sci-fi genre is classically used to hold up a mirror to society which paves the way for self-criticism and introspection. It is such a disappointment then that the film has nothing more on its mind other than to entertain superficially. Had its ideas been more muscular and layered, its flaws on the level of popcorn entertainment could have been far away easily overlooked.

Take a look at the casting, for example. While Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, United Human Federation soldiers and each other’s love interest, do a capable job in playing their respective roles, there are occasions when they look bored with their roles, hungry for a challenge. Instead of being provided a believable and relatable character development, at times the duo are reduced to saying cheesy one-liners that are supposed to be fun, completely contrasting against the look on their unchallenged faces.

The would-be romance between Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline is forced and completely unconvincing. DeHaan and Delevingne have such specific appeal on their own but when they are less than half a foot apart and must lean in for some sort of romantic affection, it is awkward and strange, to say the least. It goes without saying that the co-stars lack a spark, a strong chemistry required to establish a satisfying budding romance. Perhaps the fact that we learn close to nothing about these characters, with the exception of what they do and how good they are at it, contributes to the absence of romantic credibility.

Still, there are details to be enjoyed such as the look of the extraterrestrial life forms we come across, from lizard-like creatures that can only utter garbled noises to amorphous beings with excellent command of language. Particularly beautiful are the Pearls whose sun-drenched tropical planet is destroyed during a dramatic opening sequence. One cannot help but stare at their skin, how it is decorated by cosmetics and jewelry depending on their rank, the distance between their eyes, their androgynous features.

A lot of effort is put into the look and form the aliens, even various places where action sequences unfold, a handful of them quite stunning on top of commanding original ideas, but what the picture needed most is a heart and brain that at least match every unique peculiarity we encounter. Style over substance may work on a pure action picture but rarely is it overlooked in science fiction where ideas are worth their weight in gold.