Tag: science fiction

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.

The Endless


The Endless (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s sci-fi horror picture “The Endless” offers a spellbinding experience, filled to the brim with wonderful ideas and more than a handful of them are quite well-executed to the point where certain images and situations linger in the mind. It creates subtle ways to ask us what we would do if we were placed in the same challenges as its characters. Clearly shot with a limited budget, I admired that the filmmakers are not afraid to play the ambitious story quite small, thereby amping up the believability of increasingly bizarre situations. Here is a picture that does not rely on sudden left turns to tell a good story. There just so happens to be twists and turns in this head-scratcher.

Brothers Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead) receive a videotape from a UFO death cult that they escaped from nearly ten years ago. Aaron, having a spotty memory of what had occurred there, informs his elder sibling that he wishes to visit their former community. From what he remembers, the life they had was good: they had food on the table, people were friendly, and they had all the time in the world to engage their own interests. Recognizing that his baby brother is deeply unhappy with their current lives as cleaners who are constantly short on money, Justin agrees to go with him. Perhaps closure might be good for Aaron. It was agreed that would only spend one night there.

The film is highly watchable because it appears to be aware of horror conventions regarding cults and people who decide to join or infiltrate it. Expecting that we will always be on our toes, great tension is established during the former half by showing that the cult members are, in general, quite normal despite a few people having highly noticeable personality quirks. Nearly everything is so ordinary when it comes to the residents that we wonder if Camp Arcadia really is or was a UFO death cult in the first place. Naturally, what we see is a veneer of something more sinister just brewing underneath… or is it above?

To reveal more is to perform a disservice for those who are even slightly curious about seeing the film. I believe that those who find great pleasure in observing human behavior and looking for their tells will be right at home here. There is a man who always has a grin on his face—it looks so unnatural that one gets the impression the corners of his mouth have been stapled into place. There is another man who power walks and does not say a word. He seems to be on mission or that something requires his full attention. And then there is a woman who cries while everyone else is partying around the campfire. Maybe the place isn’t as happy as it appears. One looks at the night sky and sees two moons. Residents attempt to rationalize it.

The plot of “The Endless” does not point toward a cerebral experience—nor does it need to be one. It provides entertainment without the viewers being required to overanalyze every single plot point, left turn, or metaphor. It simply asks us to invest in the siblings’ strange, sometimes horrifying, journey and their need to reconnect with their past in order to get an appreciation of their present—despite the financial hardships and lack of self-fulfillment. The film works because its core is fundamentally human.

1984


1984 (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Despite living in a totalitarian state where independent thought is considered a crime, Winston Smith (John Hurt), whose job is to edit newspaper articles in accordance to what the Party tells him to alter, thereby rewriting history, keeps a journal, most of the time hidden behind a wall of his sleeping area, of his supposed transgressions. He is fully aware that if he were to get caught by the Thought Police, punishment would be severe.

Written and directed by Michael Radford, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is an enveloping shroud of misery, a vision of a future so hopeless and fully realized that it is almost like we are Smith, hovering from above during his every day yearning to break out of the passionless routine.

It is appropriate that the color scheme of the picture looks denatured. Although we see colors that pop out against the boring gray, such as tranquil blue and celebratory red, they are more or less suppressed, muted as if even a color standing out can be considered by the state as a crime. When we are allowed to look inside Smith’s dreams and fantasies, we feast our eyes on verdant green but is almost always interrupted by an unpleasant thing—almost as if we were a part of a behavior modification program.

The dialogue is minimal but it is used in great effect. Since Oceania’s citizens are expected to behave like toy robots, the way they move collectively communicates more than lines being uttered. In the first scene, for instance, although people yell various proclamations and profanities at the screen, more attention is paid to the fact that they are in rage as a group. The anger is communicated not only in the sounds produced by their larynx but in the fire smoldering in their eyes and their potential to perform mass violence.

Conversely, when the picture does turn to one-on-one conversations between Smith and Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), his lover; Smith and O’Brien (Richard Burton), a member of the Inner Party who takes an interest in Smith’s work; and Smith and Mr. Charrington (Cyril Cusack), owner of the pawnshop Smith visits frequently in search for remnants of the past that provides him evanescent hope, the interactions are filled to the brim with paranoia of getting caught. Hearing them speak at times feels like deciphering code. Although they use words we can easily understand, the intentions behind them are often obfuscated. It makes creates a taut and compelling experience because not only do we wonder how much the other really knows, we also cannot help but wish for Smith to be smart enough not to assume.

Based on the novel by George Orwell, “1984” may have messages about love but they are not lessons we come to expect. Love is used as an act of rebellion and to serve as reminder of one’s fading humanity, not for the sake of making us feel good. Although some may spit at the film’s several full-frontal nudity, it is never exploitative. In fact, it is very appropriate given that choosing to be naked in front of someone—and in front us an audience—accomplishes two things: a message of self-empowerment within the film’s context as well as a critique against groups nowadays that are too quick to jump into the idea that all nudity is some sort of a moral crime without putting into consideration a work’s artistic intent or merit.