★★ / ★★★★
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 (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 (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.
I Origins (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Mike Cahill creates a love letter to the spiritual but scientifically-inclined.
Ian (Michael Pitt) is a twenty-six-year-old Ph.D. student who works in a molecular biology lab. His project involves finding a way for colorblind mice to see color. Karen (Brit Marling) is a new rotation student in the lab but she proves to offer great ideas that can potentially move Ian’s project forward. Meanwhile, Ian, outside of the lab, obsesses over a stranger’s pair of eyes—eyes of a woman he met at a party but never had a chance to get to know further. When he starts to encounter the number eleven seemingly everywhere, he is convinced these are signs that will eventually lead him to those eyes.
Although the picture begins with the feel and tone of an independent romantic comedy-drama in that the characters are not paper-thin in substance, situations are realistic and at times challenging, while audiences are slowly coaxed into thinking more optimistically toward rather impossible odds, it is able to change gears seemingly without effort, particularly halfway through when the material crosses from the sphere of science to the realm of the spiritual. As the material unfolds, it is difficult to guess what will happen next because it is constantly evolving. There is excitement because, like the characters, we feel as though we are on the verge of a great discovery.
Pitt plays a scientist-in-training in a way that is believable. Ian is not depicted as a hyperbolic intellectual who is socially inept, ridiculed for being smart and constantly having his nose buried in a book, or one who lives as a hermit. However, we do get the impression that he is curious of the world around him. It is in the way the performer looks at objects with his eyes, how engaged he is with someone who is speaking to him, and the way we can feel him thinking even when his eyes are not looking at something in particular.
Since he is written and played with humanity rather than comically or an exaggeration, there is a fluidity in the character that we wish to explore. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey plays the woman with the curious eyes and she is exotic, attractive, and has a strong sense of self. We are drawn to her and so it makes perfect sense that Ian will be drawn to her, too. Not only is Sofi utilized as a tool by which we can get to know the scientist further, but the character creates the foundation of mysterious things to come.
To reveal more is to cheat the audience of an experience. And so I will leave with this:
You know, a scientist once asked the Dalai Lama, “What would you do if something scientific disproved your religious beliefs?” And he said, after much thought, “I would look at all the papers. I’d take a look at all the research and really try to understand things. And in the end, if it was clear that the scientific evidence disproved my spiritual beliefs, I would change my beliefs.”
Avengers, The (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Tesseract, a cube with the potential energy to destroy the planet, was obtained by the egomaniacal Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from S.H.I.E.L.D., Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistic Division, led by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Overpowered by Loki’s strength and otherworldly powers, Fury sought help from Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) eventually joining the party. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, comprehensive character development in “The Avengers” was simply out of the question because each superhero contained an interesting personality filled with quirks and unique sense of humor. The main question was how to keep the story interesting apart from massively entertaining explosions and jaw-dropping action sequences. I found that the film was similar to a great swimmer. Because of Whedon’s direction, the film knew how to pace itself so it didn’t drown in its own ambitions. When the movie kept its head underwater by delivering the intense and often breathtaking battle scenes, they were allowed to play out to our satisfaction without overstaying their welcome. For example, the duel between Iron Man and Thor was simply wonderful to watch. Out of the six, not only did the two of them have the biggest egos, they were my least favorite characters compared to the rest. (Personally, listening to Thor speak is as boring as reading about the history of differential equations hybridized with Shakespearean lingo.) Yet it didn’t matter because I was so involved in what was happening. Their brawl, and of those to come, was within the story’s context. Thor, prior to joining the group, wanted to convince his adopted brother against enslaving Earth while Iron Man worked for a cause and had to deliver Loki to the proper authorities. When the movie gasped for air, they were quick and memorable. The sense of humor stood out because the script played upon the elementary personalities of each hero or heroine. For instance, the material had fun with what the audience expect of Black Widow and her sex. The script was balanced in subverting the typicalities of women’s roles in superhero movies, given that they’re usually the romantic interest or object of desire, and remaining loyal to her character as a woman on a global and personal mission. Since she, along with Hawkeye, did not have a stand-alone movie, having not read the comics, I appreciated that her character was given a little bit more depth than her counterparts. While there were still unanswered questions about her history and the intricacies of what she hoped to gain by joining S.H.I.E.L.D., by the end, I felt like I knew her as well as the other guys. I felt like she had her own stamp in the dynamics of the group, that they wouldn’t be complete without her. Naturally, the film’s climax involved a lot of extirpation of expensive skyscrapers. But the main difference between the destruction seen here as opposed to, say, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was the action didn’t feel incomprehensible. Things blew up but the quick cuts weren’t injected with multiple shots of epinephrine. Each jump of perspective had something enjoyable to offer instead of relying on a false sense of excitement. In other words, the destruction was actively made interesting instead of allowing it on autopilot. “The Avengers” could have used more Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), less speeches between Loki and Thor, and an explanation on how The Hulk became more manageable toward the end. Nevertheless, such negatives are so small compared to the cyclopean roller coaster ride that the filmmakers had given us. When I was a kid, I played with a lot of action figures. Some even revolved around crazy narratives I made up, one of which involved a live caterpillar and beetle destroying Legos that stood for Gotham City. I must say, the sight of The Hulk tossing Loki around like a piece of spaghetti made me feel like a kid again.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A young farmer named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found out that one of the two robots, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), his uncle purchased contained a message from Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), one of the rebels who wanted to bring down the evil Empire, seeking help from a former Jedi knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness). She was captured by Darth Vader (David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) and was ordered to reveal the location of other rebels. Failure to do so on her part meant termination. Luke, Obi-Wan, and the two robots hired a mercenary named Han Solo (Harrison Ford), along with his friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), to infiltrate the Death Star, capable of destroying an entire planet, and save the princess. Written by directed by George Lucas, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” was an ambitious and exciting picture, worthy of the reputation of being one of the most influential films ever made. I was impressed with the risks it took right from the beginning. For the first ten to fifteen minutes, we were asked to pay attention to the two robots. One of them could speak but other could only utter beeps and whistles. Somehow, the material was able to get away with it because, despite the two being non-living objects, they had chemistry. I’m doubtful if such a risk could be taken today and be as successful. I enjoyed that we were immediately taken in the middle of the warring members of the Empire and rebel groups. Background information were mostly revealed through conversations. Not only did it feel organic, it was efficient with its time. Although there was weakness in the dialogue at times like when Han Solo and Princess Leia would get into cheesy and sometimes cringe-inducing arguments, the tirades happened in the middle of action-packed sequences so it almost felt negligible. I especially liked the scene when the protagonists plunged into a garbage chute. We were led to believe that the threat was the creature that lived in there. It turned out that it was the least of their worries because the walls eventually started closing in. Lucas’ signature direction was always present. Every room revealed new surprises that ranged from soldiers of the Empire just waiting for a target to interesting- and tired-looking aliens just having a drink in the middle of the day in a hot desert town. The energy was palpable as if The Force, the spiritual energy in which the Jedi believed to bind everything in universe, compelled us to fixate our eyes on the screen. The first entry of the “Star Wars” saga was a prime example of the level of success a film could have when there was synergy among special and visual effects, an absorbing story, and adrenaline-fueled adventure of epic proportions.
Hunger Games, The (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) was declared by fashionably ostentatious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) as one of District 12’s two contestants to participate in a televised tournament to the death, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Primrose’s older sister, bravely stepped forward and volunteered to be in her place. The next name randomly chosen from a fishbowl was Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) with whom Katniss shared a complicated history. The brutal tournament, officially coined as The Hunger Games, served as a yearly reminder of the repercussions of the twelve Districts’ failed uprising against the Capitol. Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, although one could argue that the most jaw-dropping scenes in the film consisted of teenagers (Alexander Ludwig, Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Isabelle Fuhrman) taking various weapons and using them to murder for their own survival, I was most fascinated with the rituals that the Tributes had to go through before they entered the domed battlefield. During the silences between dialogues, a great sadness percolated in my gut because it was similar to watching prisoners taking calculated steps before capital punishment was imposed upon them. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that a metropolis called The Capitol was the heart of the post-apocalyptic North America. The most obvious sign that supports this hypothesis was the amount and quality of food Katniss and Peeta were offered just because they were now considered special. Having grown up in District 12, the poorest among the Districts and most of its residents being coalminers, the actors did a wonderful job in masking their characters’ disgust of the system. If I were in their shoes, I’m not so sure if I would be able to eat. I’d be too aware that each chew was a countdown to my very public demise. The chosen ones also had to lobby for support via a parade, a graded demonstration of their skills, and a televised interview. If the audiences liked a contestant, they could send food, medicine, and other supplies when their favorite was in danger. Although Peeta had no trouble appealing to the masses, Katniss found it difficult to be ecstatic in being a part of something that she didn’t believe in. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a clothing designer and the winner of the fiftieth Hunger Games, respectively, provided much needed moral support. They were veterans to the game and Katniss was smart enough to listen to and follow what they had to say. As Tributes dwindled in number, the picture touched upon Peeta and Katniss’ potential romantic feelings toward each other yet it didn’t feel hackneyed. Considering their circumstances and what they had to endure to remain alive, it was logical that they yearned for something that reminded them of home. We were then forced to ask ourselves whether what they felt for each other was simply a matter of an illusory convenience or, in a fact, a truth in which they were just too young or too inexperienced to acknowledge. Fast-paced yet insightful, violent but never exploitative, “The Hunger Games,” directed by Gary Ross, kept my stomach grumbling for another serving of delectable bloody treats. Although we rooted for Katniss to survive every time she or a friend was attacked, almost immediately after a life was taken, a sadness washed over the reptilian part of our brains and we were reminded that they were all disposable pawns.
★ / ★★★★
A planet named Melancholia, about twice or thrice the size of Earth, was discovered to have been hiding behind the sun and was on its way toward us. Meanwhile, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) were newly married, left the church, and encountered limousine problems. Consequently, they were very late to their own party which reduced Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s sister, and John (Keifer Sutherland), Claire’s husband, barely containing their frustration. The guests had been waiting for the couple to arrive for over two hours. Although Justine had a smile on her face throughout the party, much of her energy was spent trying to keep her major depression hidden. “Melancholia” astounded me in the worst ways possible. Did the end of the world montage prior to the title card needed to be so pretentious? For what felt like eternity, several characters, one curiously observing electricity coming out of her fingers, consistently occupied gorgeous backdrops but everything was in painful slow motion as the orchestra bombarded our eardrums, urging us that we were watching something epic. On the contrary, I found the sequence completely unnecessary not only because it was trying too hard to impress, but because it extirpated our feelings of anticipation. By confirming that Melancholia would eventually hit our beloved planet, I didn’t feel horror or suspense with or for the characters as they eventually faced the reality that they’d been given. Regardless, I enjoyed select scenes during the wedding party. Justine and Claire’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) was fascinating as an aging woman who despised marriage, its rituals, and the confines it set for its participants. As she moped about in the restroom–darkly amusing because it gave John, only caring about how much he’d spent in order to throw a lavish party for the bride, intense rage–and stood bitterly in the corner while everyone celebrated, I was desperate to know more about her. Meanwhile, as Justine’s depression became more unbearable for her, nearly everyone treated her even worse, somehow convinced that she was just being selfish. Justine’s family knew about her condition. It didn’t make sense why they weren’t more understanding especially since it was one of the most important days of her life. If the writer-director, Lars von Trier, had given us more background information about Justine’s relationship with her family, their cold disregard for her could have made sense. Since the screenplay didn’t allow us to understand in which angle each important family member was coming from, whether the sentiment was good or bad, I wondered why they even bothered to show up for the wedding. Halfway through, the film changed perspective. Instead of Justine’s crippling depression, it focused more on Claire’s increasing trepidation of dying. She obsessively checked the telescope and I cared less each time. I began to think about how other people from different cultures and different classes, maybe those who lived in the flavelas of Rio de Janeiro, saw the apocalypse. “Melancholia” was plagued with symbols of depression and doom but they had very little impact. I found myself needing to take Prozac because I began to feel depressed, not because of its subject matter but because I started to suspect that von Trier was eventually blasé with his work. For a movie that contained two planets–and sisters–colliding, it was insipid and, ironically, prosaic.
Underworld: Awakening (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
After humans discovered that vampires and werewolves walked the planet, they performed a mass cleansing of the abnormal. Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire, was eventually captured by a drug company called Antigen, led by Dr. Lane (Stephen Rea), and experimented on her, while frozen, for twelve years. Their goal was to create a drug that could help authorities recognize the so-called infected. When she woke up, vampires and werewolves, though still at war with each other, were forced underground and had depleted in number. Directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, the way in which “Underworld: Awakening” began felt cheap. The narration and synopsis of what happened in its predecessors felt completely unnecessary. Instead of a movie, I felt like I was watching an introduction to a video game: you want to fast forward but it’s part of the whole package so you sit there and take it. My problem was it didn’t really try to make me care about the war among humans, lycans, and vampires. However, I found the action sequences very entertaining because they had a sense of humor. When Selene tried to escape from Antigen, she had complete disregard for the humans. She shot limbs, sliced throats, and cracked bones like it was nobody’s business. She didn’t crack a smile. I didn’t even notice her blink. What mattered was getting out and finding her boyfriend, Michael (Scott Speedman), the only vampire-werewolf hybrid in existence. Or so she thought. Eventually, Selene found a girl named Eve (India Eisley) who was supposedly her daughter. I began to have more questions and not all of them were answered or even addressed. For instance, though it was obvious, through snarling and looking morose, that the vampire and werewolf communities were against commingling of race, if Selene finally found Michael, what would it mean for the two camps? Did the plan involve Selene and Michael making a lot of babies so that, when the time came, werewolves and vampires would have no choice but to accept one another? Or did the plan simply involve the couple and their daughter, once reunited, hiding from the world and living happily ever after? Admittedly, I gave up trying to figure out motivations which wasn’t difficult to do when action scenes were thrown at the audience’s faces every ten minutes or so. I was very entertained by the scene where Selene, David (Theo James), a vampire with great bone structure, and Eve drove a van in the middle of a city while trying to escape from three lower-level–but still scary–werewolves. I found it amusing that although the werewolves jumped on top of one vehicle to another, the human drivers didn’t seem at all perturbed that a hairy beast was on the roof and, at times, blocked their vision. One would expect more car crashes considering how stupid people really are while behind the wheel. I was also tickled by watching Selene being thrown like a rag doll by a giant werewolf (Kris Holden-Reid). “Underworld: Awakening” was like eating popcorn: it’s salty, buttery goodness on the outside but the inside is all air. That doesn’t make it any less delicious.