Tag: sci-fi

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.

I Origins


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.”

Rubber


Rubber (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

A tire suddenly came to life in the desert. Like a toddler’s uncertainty in taking its first steps, we observed Robert the tire rolling around and falling over. It learned that it liked to put its weight on things like plastic water bottles and small animals. When Robert couldn’t physically destroy something, it used its psychic powers in order to force its target to explode. Written and directed by Quentin Dupieux, I had fun with “Rubber” because it took a ridiculous idea and kept its head high like it wasn’t anybody’s business. The bad acting, thin dialogue, and lack of sensical narrative worked because our expectations were turned inside out before we even had time to form them. I was consistently interested in the murderous tire and what it was going to do next. There was a subplot involving Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) and an accountant (Jack Plotnick) wanting to kill the audiences, literally the people with binoculars watching the tire murder people from a distance. Sometimes it worked. I saw the subplot as the director’s frustration of Hollywood unabashedly rehashing the same old formula in terms of which movies would receive the green light and the audiences’ willingness in swallowing it all up. I saw the turkey, poisoned food given to the onlookers, as a symbol of most of the garbage in the film business. The garbage is killing our culture. I share that frustration. In every ten movies I watch, only one (or two if I’m lucky) is truly original and refreshing. Another scene I enjoyed was when the lieutenant tried to convince his men that they should stop doing their jobs (they were at a crime scene) because it was all a movie. Just so his colleagues would believe him, he ordered one of them to shoot him. If he didn’t die, it was proof that everything was fake. Lastly, I was amused when Lieutenant Chad, whose goal was to destroy Robert, looked into the camera during the opening scene and explained to us the lack of reason for the things we were about to see. It prepared us for what was coming. However, there were times when the picture didn’t quite work. We were not made aware of Lieutenant Chad and the accountant’s endgame. Were they aware of the tire’s true potential? We they fully invested in supposedly saving mankind from tired ideas? Was the universe that the characters inhabited a part of some sick joke? We never found out. I had some questions for Robert as well. The tire was interested in a woman (Roxane Mesquida) but was it aware of its own lack of body structures like limbs, torso, and a head? There was one shot in which the tire saw its own reflection and, despite being an inanimate object, it seemed a bit sad. I imagined it thinking, “Why do I look like this?” That moment made me realize that, despite its wild premise, I was enjoying the picture for what it was. “Rubber” was absurd, some would say unnecessary, but the director used such qualities to make a statement and create something quite original. If anything, it had to be given credit for its sheer audacity.