★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★ / ★★★★
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.
Endless, The (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.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Every once in a while I come across a work that makes such a terrific impression that I become thoroughly convinced right in the middle of it that the movie will be remembered fondly ten to twenty years from the time of its release. “Upgrade,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell, is such a film for it takes a familiar template regarding our relationship with technology, specifically artificial intelligence, and wrinkles the blueprint just enough to create an ambitious, amusing, suspenseful, and highly entertaining project.
The writer-director understands that special and visual effects tend to show their age over time but ideas rarely so—not if it is taken seriously and treated with intelligence in order to match the skill or craft behind the filmmaking. And so Whannell invests on the ideas. Well-paced, atmospheric, and driven by an unrelenting forward momentum, we observe the screen as a giddy feeling takes over from the toes upward. We wonder what it is going to do next in order to surprise us.
Equipped with a specific near-future look that reminds one of the “John Wick” pictures, particularly when it plays with lighting, we appreciate the lived-in quality of nearly every space, from the trashy interiors of a sketchy apartment building to seedy restrooms of off-grid bars. Even in places where curious technology can be found in every corner, including those of rooms flooded with near-blinding white, these images are not so inaccessible or unbelievable that they come across looking like mere set pieces.
Because the different types of environment command an air of realism, it becomes easier to buy into not only its premise involving a quadriplegic man who gets a second chance to use his limbs again after he undergoes an operation to put a chip, called STEM, developed by a renowned innovator (Harrison Gilbertson), along his spinal cord but also in terms of the events that must take place after he learns that the biomechanical fusion comes with great advantages in addition to regaining movement.
The subject who gets the implant is named Grey, a mechanic, a man whose passion is to create using his hands, and he is played by Logan Marshall-Green. Obviously capable of delivering the necessary gravity and drama at a drop of a hat, especially when his character, nearly completely paralyzed on a bed or while sitting on a wheelchair, he is equally adept at providing wit and humor even right in the middle of an action sequence that requires jaw dropping acrobatics. Although Grey is driven by vengeance against those responsible for paralyzing him and killing his wife, there is a humanity to the character. In less capable hands, it is highly likely that the character might have ended up mechanical, standard, or boring especially in a revenge film where we already know that the bad guys are required to get their comeuppance.
The villains are quite formidable. A criticism can be made that not one of them is fleshed out, but I argue they do not need to be because they, in a way, function as symbols or ideas. They are not standard gun-toting enemies who drop dead after getting hit by a bullet. On the contrary, they are inspired because they, too, have enhanced abilities. For instance, the apparent ringleader (Benedict Hardie) can kill a person by simply breathing a certain way.
“Upgrade” offers great entertainment from the second it begins up until its devilishly delicious ending. If a sequel were to be made, I hope that its ideas will be grander and that that they are executed with at least the same high energy as its predecessor. I admired that the film embraces the fact that genre pieces can be enjoyable and smart. Here, it examines a new technology and its unexpected consequences.
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is an independent sci-fi drama that oozes ambition with imagination to back it up. Written by J.D. Dillard and Alex Theurer, “Sleight” is the kind of picture that sneaks up on the viewer, knowingly employing a familiar plot as template and then subverting expectations in small but noticeable ways—without coming across as though it is pushing too hard to make a statement about something. It is entertaining in all the right ways, mesmerizing and optimistic, like a flickering candle in the darkness.
Jacob Latimore plays Bo, a street magician who has decided to decline a scholarship after the death of his mother. Choosing to take care of Tina (Storm Reid), his younger sister and only family left, Bo moonlights as a drug dealer in order to have another source of income. This is a plot we have seen many times before. The unexpected treat is the fact that Bo is not a typical character living in Los Angeles who has money problems. The writing does a great job in making us forget how smart Bo really is by constantly pointing to his resilience.
Because of this, the screenplay likens that of a neat magic trick: finding a way so that we pay attention to other elements other than the most important piece. Notice how the material spends ample of time with dramatic elements. By doing so, it grounds the story in such a way that nearly every event is believable, convincing, and engaging. When the more fantastic pieces are thrown on our laps, it is surprising and exciting—we get the feeling that the story could go in any direction and we would buy it because its core is tethered to something real and relatable.
Latimore excels in exuding a certain level of magnetism. His character does not speak very often and yet his silence communicates plenty. Latimore shows the tender side of his character by way of interacting with his sister as a guardian and a brother, how he hugs her before she heads off to school, the way he looks at her when she makes clever jokes. On top of this, there is even humanity in the way Bo socializes with his customers—both as a magician and a drug dealer. Although the two worlds are vastly different, notice how the people he encounters genuinely like him. It would be interesting to see the kind of roles Latimore would decide to take on in the future. I sense there is versatility to his talent.
To reveal more about “Sleight” is to do it a disservice. Director J.D. Dillard should be proud of his first feature film because it offers intelligence, empathy, and wonder nearly every step of the way. But what I admired most is its restraint. In less capable hands, it probably would have turned out to be yet another action-fantasy extravaganza. But because it commands such control, our experience aligns exactly with the writer-director’s vision. And like Latimore, the picture’s charismatic lead, Dillard’s future is full of potential.
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Rupert Sanders’ “Ghost in the Shell” offers the kind of entertainment that one can dive in and out of while doing laundry or some other chore around the house. This is a testament to the lack of depth in the writing—problematic because the material brings up questions about what makes us human, what it means to be alive, what it means to have an identity of our own, what we are in charge of in an increasingly automated world.
These are philosophical questions and yet, for some bizarre reason, the writing avoids rumination, as if the persons who helmed the screenplay—Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger—were afraid of or did not know how to build intrigue. This is a picture more interested in external stimuli rather than what it could potentially make the audiences feel or think about long after the film is over.
Its special and visual effects look expensive, occasionally impressive but at times distracting. I enjoyed that every time a scene takes place outside, roads and skyscrapers are overcome by advertisements, overwhelming people to buy products or to upgrade themselves through “enhancements,” cosmetic surgeries, to become a better, stronger, faster, more intelligent version of themselves. In a way, this is a hyperbolic version of our society—which would have been an effective critique had the writing been more willing to delve into the rules and ethos of its universe.
Less effective are beautiful but boring action sequences. While it offers a certain moody look reminiscent of pictures like the classic but, in my eyes, overrated “Blade Runner,” the stylized shootouts and hand-to-hand combat do not come across gritty enough to be believable even within the context of a futuristic world where the line between man and machine is blurred. We are simply not immersed into the action. Rather, we stand right outside it as we struggle to feel for the characters, to care whether they lived or died, whether they walked away hurt or unscathed. For instance, certainly we are supposed to feel connected to Mira (Scarlett Johansson), a creation who has a brain of a human being but the body of a machine. And yet we do not until she begins to ask questions about who she is, where she came from, who she is working for.
The “ghost” in the title refers to the human soul, but there is nothing soulful about the film. Somewhat interesting is the friendship between Mira and Batou (Pilou Asbæk), both working for the government as anti-terrorist agents, but the screenplay actively avoids meaningful conversations that reveal about how they perceive and process the world, their goals as to how they could try to change it for the better. Isn’t a part of what makes us human the ability to relate with others in meaningful, messy, complicated ways?
“Ghost in the Shell” is a product of the desire to make a quick buck rather than to create a work that can potentially stand the test of time. A commonality among great science fiction pictures is that they strive to say something about the world of today and exploring that thesis like an excellent research paper. There is a balance between technical details and information that can be understood easily, a certain universal factor. Here, there is only pretty visuals and fast-paced action, pedestrian from flesh to wiring.
Man Vs. (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
An occasionally intriguing creature-feature, “Man Vs.” appears to be about one thing but it turns out to be something completely different when the third act finally rolls around. Clearly, writers Adam Massey and Thomas Michael, the former also serving as director, have put enough thought into the material to be able to pull off a rather clever misdirect. But the picture is ultimately a disappointment because it fails to dig deeper upon its twist. By the end, I felt as though the real story is just beginning.
Doug (Chris Diamantopoulos) is a professional survivalist who appears on television. With two seasons already behind him and his crew (Drew Nelson, Michael Cram, Kelly Fanson), a third season on a new network means a possibility for their show to reach a wider audience. This time, Doug is dropped off in a forest somewhere in northern Canada where the nearest civilization is hundreds of miles away. By the end of his fifth day in the wilderness, he is to be picked up by the crew and they’ll head back home. That is the plan anyway. We already know something is about to go terribly wrong.
The first act, while hindered at times by slow pacing, is tolerable because we get a chance to measure the protagonist’s knowledge in terms of his occupation. While he knows he needs to be charming on camera, which his crew finds hints they find to be intolerable at times, the writing and the performer ensures that the character is not unbearable. After all, we must stay with him over the course of five days. While not much happens in terms of pushing the plot forward, we get the impression Doug actually knows what he’s doing as looks into the camera and explains how to set up shelter, make traps, and skin animals. I found it to be surprisingly educational.
It is a good decision to minimize jump scares. This way of scaring the audience is expected given that the story takes place in a remote forest and the protagonist does not interact with another human being. By allowing scenes to unfold naturally, sometimes in drawn out ways, we get the opportunity to focus on the surroundings. For instance, Doug begins to suspect eventually that someone, possibly a crazed fan, is following him. In daylight, we look a little closer at the greenery in the background. When there is a lake, our eyes dart to the land on the other side to check if anybody is watching. When it is dark and strange noises are heard, we squint a little bit to be able to make out what’s hidden in the shadows.
I wished, however, that its restraint when it comes to employing jump scares seeped into the visual effects department. CGI in horror pictures that are supposed to be grounded in reality is almost never a good idea even though the CGI is first-rate. (It isn’t in this case.) The jarring mix between real surroundings and heightened effects takes us out of the experience. The type of horror changes from one that is mixed with curiosity to one mixed with disbelief. The final five minutes is superfluous, unnecessary. I wished the writers had come up with a much more thoughtful way to finish the job.
★★★ / ★★★★
Exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while at work, Max (Matt Damon) is informed that he has about five days to live. Although his condition can be cured, it is available only to the wealthiest and they reside not on Earth—since it has become overpopulated, polluted, and diseased—but on a space station called Elysium led by President Patel (Faran Tahir) and run by Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster). People on Earth know that the panacea comes in a form of a med bay and it is available to every home in Elysium. However, every time non-Elysium citizens try to breach the space station, they are killed without a moment’s hesitation.
I am not convinced that the concepts tackled by “Elysium”—the division between developed and developing countries, illegal immigration, the gap when it comes to healthcare between the rich and the poor—are fully developed. However, writer-director Neill Blomkamp sure knows how to construct a thrilling action sequence. As a social critique, it did not inspire me to think much but as a sci-fi action, I was entertained.
The look of the picture is quite beautiful. The slums of Los Angeles in 2154 look very lived-in but not so much that they look like an utter wasteland. Though Damon’s physicality, especially when his character is eventually fused with an exo-suit designed to enhance Max’ strength, dominates just about every frame, there is always something worth noticing in the background: children playing, vendors selling fruit, the way the heat rests on men hanging out under the sun. We can almost feel the dust being inhaled and tasted.
Conversely, the interiors and exteriors of Elysium look very polished. The trees look almost like plastic or genetically engineered to perfection. The floors are so white, one wonders if there is such a thing as mud or grime in the sheltered world. The extras are mostly white, happy, and wearing clothing that seem to come right off Ralph Lauren ads. The availability of space between them are also noticeable. There is room to move around and breathe air without dust. On Earth, just about everyone is only an arm’s length away.
The film excels in showcasing adrenaline-fueled action. I liked the build-up between characters using mostly guns initially and then eventually utilizing knives, swords, and fists to render or pummel an opponent into submission. Sharlto Copley, playing a psychopathic sleeper agent named Kruger who takes orders from the cold and calculating Delacourt, exudes a gruff menace so potent, I believed him as a formidable villain seconds after he first appears on screen. Kruger and Max are well-matched. Though the former has more experience and considers the hunt as a game, the other is fueled by desperation.
Perhaps the greatest limitation of “Elysium” is its less than subtle commentary on what is wrong with America today. Images involving the system imposing its power on those with little or without means made me look back on real-life footages shown in the news or documentaries. By comparison, it is a level of irony because even though what is shown here is more dramatized, it is less powerful than actuality. If the approach has been less forceful, maybe a challenge for comparison would not have been as recurrent.
Andromeda Strain, The (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“The Andromeda Strain,” based on the novel by Michael Crichton and adapted to the screen by Nelson Gidding, is especially, but not exclusively, for a niche audience: those who love to watch characters with specific jobs simply doing what they do best. In this case, four scientists (Arthur Hill, Kate Reid, David Wayne, James Olson) are contacted by the government to investigate a small town in New Mexico after a satellite crash. Since then, Piedmont residents have perished with the exception of a sixty-nine-year-old man and a six-month-old male infant. Suspecting that the satellite may contain an organism of extraterrestrial origin, the scientists perform numerous tests in a government-funded underground laboratory.
Its eye for and level of detail is astounding, from the isolated, bare-brown desert town to the polished and expensive, state-of-the-art equipments utilized in the lab. Notice how the camera is unafraid to look closely at a person or an object so the audience can have a complete mental picture of what is possibly going on. For instance, the first third of the picture is dedicated to examining the town that is filled with corpses. We look inside homes and small businesses, at yards and the yellow-brown streets. From a bird’s-eye view, it were as if the residents were going about their day and simply dropped dead.
Buzzards have begun to eat the flesh and these birds, too, have died either on or a few inches away from their meal. The camera employs closeups of the faces of the dead. It wants us to notice the cuts or wounds of the bodies. The material pushes us to ask questions. Why is it that, despite deep enough breakages on the skin, there is no sign of blood? We hold our breaths as the scientists purposely make new cuts or make bigger cuts from existing ones out of fear that some thing might come out of there. But this is not some cheap sci-fi horror in which the goal is make us jump out of our seats.
Its choice to engage by observing rather than consistently showing action is likely to bore some… yet captivate others. I belong to the latter group, especially because the subject matter itself is fascinating. The approach is clinical rather than emotional. It is purposeful in its steady pacing and tone. Many of us have wondered what a government might do when confronted with an alien organism with the potential to infect the human population. The movie provides possible answers, from identifying and isolating the organism to determining how it grows and how it could be destroyed. One gets the impression the material is well-researched not necessarily for its accuracy but rather due to the level of detail of the images as well as the firecracker dialogue. As someone who works in science, I believed in these personalities; they may clash at times but they ultimately must work together to attain a common goal.
Confidently and astutely directed by Robert Wise, “The Andromeda Strain” can teach modern movies a thing or two about how to approach a scientific dilemma and make it dramatic in unexpected ways. There is more to science fiction than jump scares, chases, and flashy special and visual effects. This movie understands the value of making the audience deeply curious by striving to make the environment as real and convincing as possible. There are moments captured here that evokes the feeling of a science documentary.
Dark Skies (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Something strange is happening at the home of a suburban family. The first occurrence involves Lacy (Keri Russell) getting up in the middle of the night and discovering the refrigerator completely ransacked. It would have been easy to chalk it up to a hungry animal somehow having made its way inside the house, but when canned food and the like are stacked up to the ceiling, this theory seems unlikely. The second bizarre event involves the house alarm being tripped… on all eight trigger points. Daniel (Josh Hamilton) calls he company in charge and they claim it is likely due to a glitch. And then all of the family pictures go missing, leaving the frames completely intact and unmoved.
“Dark Skies,” written and directed by Scott Stewart, is the kind of movie you will not want to see if you are living alone or if you happen to be alone at night. Unless you are into that sort of thing, as in my case. Then it is a good time. It is creepy and curious, preferring to the take a route of a small accumulation of tension rather than in-your-face gruesome slashing and dicing.
While the film does not tread any new ground, it combines familiar tropes with good timing. The incidences almost always unfold during the night when everyone ought to be asleep. There is no score that hints at what might be coming around the corner. To establish an atmosphere of unpredictability, there is no pattern between the number of beats and scares. Furthermore, it is wise to change things up. It is not always one person waking up in the middle of the night and eventually encountering a hair-raising discovery. There are instances when the entire family is jolted from their dreams only to wake up in a living nightmare. It is an experience they are forced to go through together.
It is not without amusing moments. Out of sheer desperation, a character eventually turns to Google and self-diagnoses. Since the police are of no use, who do you turn to—really? Your neighbors? Your friends? The suburbs can be full of judgment. Any little thing, like gossip, to break the ennui is entertained to hyperbolic proportions.
The subplot involving Lacy and Daniel’s sons, Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett), are underdeveloped and melodramatic. Instead of misunderstood, Jesse only comes off as moody each time he is questioned about his choice of friends. Why not allow him to be more articulate with his thoughts and feelings? On the other hand, when Sam talks about The Sandman coming to get his eyes, we can feel the machinations of the plot turning, drawing obvious lines as if to construct an illusion that we were connecting the dots. In that way, it takes a shortcut. For a film that proves patient with its unveilings, we expect for it to be as patient with its characterizations.
The last quarter of the picture almost goes off the rails. I am not sure I liked the fact that one person seems to hold all of the answers. Even so, it feels more appropriate to have this character introduced earlier and have him be an active part of the mystery. Cutting to him sitting around and looking serious contributes nothing.
Despite its blemishes, “Dark Skies” demands that we remain curious with each peculiar phenomenon. The question is not so much as what is behind the happenings. Rather, is everything occurring as they should be?
After the Dark (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Twenty-one select students, all high achievers, attend school in Jakarta to study philosophy led by Mr. Zimit (James D’Arcy). It is the final session until everyone must return to their respective countries and so Mr. Zimit poses a thought experiment: a nuclear holocaust has occurred on a global level and there is a bunker nearby. However, the bunker can accommodate only ten people for a year. If more than ten were to live in the bunker, everyone would be sure to die of hypoxia. The students must decide which ten must live in order to repopulate the planet and reestablish civilization.
“After the Dark,” written and directed by John Huddles, has a whole lot of characters but fails to pose enough thought-provoking or challenging questions. I took only one philosophy course as an undergraduate student in biological sciences and even that class—though focusing mainly on elementary concepts, ideas, important figures of the discipline, and how to ask or phrase questions—is more entertaining than having to sit through a hundred minutes of what comes off as an expensive rehearsal.
One of the main problems is the screenplay coming alive too late in the game. The first three-quarters is so self-serious and self-important at times that it does not give enough room to welcome those who may not be interested in philosophy. This is why Chips (Daryl Sabara), a supporting character, earns the title for being the most memorable of the bunch. There is only one sequence that features a character really having fun with what is being discussed or tackled. The less is said about it, the better. I found it to be imaginative, full of energy, and very amusing. Why doesn’t the rest of the picture function on that level?
A sort of romance lies in the center. I guess James (Rhys Wakefield) and Petra (Sophie Lowe) are supposed to be interesting as a couple since each attempt at solving the thought experiment involves the two of them wanting to be together. While Wakefield and Lowe do look good physically as a couple, their characters—when apart—are quite blank. Mr. Zimit considers James to be unworthy of his seat in the classroom while he considers Petra as his brightest student. And yet I was neither convinced that James was less smart compared to the rest of the class nor Petra the most intelligent.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the film never bothers to show the students being really engaged in intense debates with regards to who should make it in the bunker. Scenes where they are supposed to be showing how they reason are edited so quickly that we never get a chance to take the time and appreciate the complexities or implications of their arguments. Thus, the students often come off immature and emotional. Why are some of them (Bonnie Wright) taking the thought experiment so personally as if the whole thing weren’t hypothetical?
The visual effects with respect to the nuclear holocaust look cheap. I would rather have not seen atomic bombs exploding or fire devouring the land. Why not adopt a simpler and more elegant approach: letting the audience imagine a nuclear apocalypse instead of having to spell everything out as if we had not seen nuclear destruction in other movies prior. Therefore, not only do ideas come across shallow but so do the images. The writer-director’s execution is so poor that the film cripples the brain and shuts the eyelids.
Approaching the Unknown (2016)
★ / ★★★★
Performers like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” and Tom Hardy in “Locke” make one-man exercises appear easy to pull off, but the reality is contrary to the common belief that one merely has to place the camera in front of the actor and magic automatically happens. While talent is very necessary to the success of the picture, the writing and the direction must equally be on point in order to create a believable, highly watchable situation.
“Approaching the Unknown” is an example of having a strong actor in front of the camera but the writing and direction leave a lot to be desired. While these two ingredients are competent at times, that is exactly the problem: these elements are not strong from beginning right to the very end and so our attention vacillates from curiosity to boredom. For a story involving a one-man, one-way trip to Mars in order for humanity to start a colony there, it is most disappointing the the film fails to compel. Little energy is felt during this history-defining mission.
Mark Strong plays Captain William Stanaforth, a man with a sharp mind and ability to solve problems creatively. It is interesting how Strong chooses to play the character in a non-charismatic way, almost the complete opposite of how Matt Damon chose to play Mark Watney in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” Here, victories do not result to big celebrations or exclamations. There is only silent satisfaction or a sigh of relief. Failures, on the other hand, are often grim, near hopeless. What results is not a celebratory film but one that makes the viewer wonder about the many elements that can go wrong in a once in lifetime but terrifying journey that Stanaforth partakes in.
The writing lacks a convincing arc that reflects Stanaforth’s slow descent into possible madness. Sure, the crippling power of loneliness is nicely captured during one of the best scenes where our protagonists makes a stop in a space station and the people there (Charles Baker, Anders Danielsen Lie) look drained, hollow, not one hundred percent present. However, Stanaforth’s psychological debilitation lacks timing, rhythm, and identity that is specific to this character undergoing challenges that are specific to the mission. Imagine another man on Earth who is locked inside a room for months. Both men’s symptoms are highly likely to be similar.
It were as if writer-director Mark Elijah Rosenberg had read a psychology textbook for undergraduate students, written down symptoms of people who had undergone some kind of trauma due to extended isolation, and put such manifestations in the film. Sure, it is clinical but it also creates a predictable experience. The film offers not one surprising move in terms of Stanaforth’s survival. This is a grave mistake considering that, in its essence, the story is about a man who must rely on his intellect and personal experiences in order to survive and accomplish the mission no matter the cost.
Rosenberg fails to inject excitement into the film. I don’t mean “excitement” as in big explosions or last-second saves. What I mean is a thoroughly convincing insight into a man’s predicament that we feel excited to be engaged in whatever is happening—and what is yet to transpire in his adventure. Movies set in space must command a sense of wonder. This movie is like a fish flopping about, gasping for air during most of a lean, ninety-minute running time.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Clearly influenced by exceptional visual storytellers such as Kubrick, Malick, and Spielberg, “Arrival” is one of the most curious and profound science fiction films within the past ten years. It makes intelligent choices throughout, it is consistently grounded in realism, and it works both as entertainment and a statement piece about how humanity tends to respond when confronted with the unknown. Yet despite the fact that it is pointed in how fearing we are as a species, ultimately it offers an optimistic message. It is a work that highlights the importance of education and a willingness to pursue knowledge for these will define our future.
Under Denis Villeneuve’s confident and purposeful direction, the picture grabs us right from the opening minutes using a familiar template. Twelve black monoliths have arrived on Earth and the intentions of those inside are unclear. The world having just declared to be under a state of emergency, various countries where the extraterrestrial aircrafts appear decide to maintain open communication in order to try to figure out what the aliens want. In the US, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) seeks the help of a linguist and a physicist, Drs. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), respectively. They airlift to the farmlands of Montana to establish contact.
Notice how the performances are almost subdued, melancholy, despite incredible events happening all around. It is almost as if the characters are in a constant state of whispering, accompanied by often dim but tightly controlled lighting and shadows. It is an interesting tactic so that we look into the screen a little closer, listen a bit more, feel inner turmoils of those processing a history-defining, life-changing event. By making the characterizations quite small, the importance of the event is all the more amplified. The tension builds, it twists, and it is released at just the perfect moments.
I admired the honesty in the picture’s portrayal of academics. Here, there is no crazed scientist with messy hair who talks really fast and receives confused looks every time he or she spoke. Instead, it shows the linguist and physicist as regular people who are given specific jobs at the military site. They just so happen to be highly intelligent and great at what they do. Sometimes they are shown on the field and other times they simply must sit on their desks for hours in front of brightly lit computers and stacks of papers, trying to make sense or attempting to put the pieces of the puzzle to make a relatively coherent conclusion. In many scenes, they look rundown, exhausted, craving a good night’s rest.
The look of the otherworldly beings, called the Heptapods, are inspired. Even though they do not have a defined face—we see mostly tentacle-looking things functioning as legs—in just about every scene we feel personality emanating from them through the way limbs move, the sounds they make, the various symbols they create. Adams creates a most convincing rapport with them and the scenes where Dr. Banks makes an effort to figure out whether the aliens can truly understand specific aspects of language are so fascinating to see unfold. In a way, these scenes are an extension of Dr. Banks and her students in a lecture hall—which was interrupted upon the day of the monoliths’ arrival.
Based on the award-winning short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang and screenplay by Eric Heisserer, “Arrival” takes risks by touching upon philosophical musings during the latter third but digesting them in such a way that makes sense for the story and its themes. To say more about its brilliant twist would do this thought-provoking and skillfully made film a terrible injustice.