Tag: science fiction

The Vast of Night


The Vast of Night (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

The supremely confident directorial debut of Andrew Patterson tells the story of two teenagers in Cayuga, New Mexico who come across strange sounds through the radio while most of the town residents attend the first basketball game of the season. It is without compromise: dialogue-heavy, unfolding in real time, penchant for long takes, ostentatious (but accurate) in terms of embracing the 1950s milieu, and demanding viewers to adapt to its offbeat rhythm—there is no typical three-arc structure of storytelling to be had here. What results is a work that coaxes those looking in to catch up to it despite the fact that UFO stories have been done to death. It is anchored by two strong central performances by Jake Horowitz as the smooth cool local DJ Everett Sloan and Sierra McCormick as the plucky sixteen-year-old Fay Crocker. Fifteen minutes into the picture, I was reminded of films in the 1940s and 1950s where characters have real drive and personality; I wished to know more about this duo as young people with potential bright futures outside of the UFO plot. Even the supporting characters—an old lady (Gail Cronauer) and a voice via telephone (Bruce Davis)—command attention. This is a film in which words, sounds, and timing—together—is paramount; tension depends on the synergy among them. I look forward to Patterson’s follow-up.

Singularity


Singularity (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another movie brazen enough to end without a third act, but that is the least of its problems. Robert Kouba’s “Singularity” tells a story that involves machines directly causing the eradication of humans with the help of an inventor (John Cusack) who wished “to solve all the world’s problems” using advanced artificial intelligence, but it is far from an engaging morality tale with the necessary highs and lows, twists and turns, and bitter ironies. Instead, we experience the once populated planet through the eyes of a bland young man named Andrew (Julian Schaffner) who miraculously wakes up 97 years after the A.I. takeover. In the middle is a deadly dull the romance between Andrew and Calia (Jeannine Michèle Wacker), a survivor in search of the last human outpost, but the couple is not at all interesting together or apart. We are introduced to the strong and independent Calia, only to soften and wilt once in the arms of Andrew. Prepare to roll your eyes and to check your watch constantly. The painfully slow pacing of their so-called courtship brings to mind movies designed for tweens which contrasts greatly against what should be an intelligent and urgent parable. Its emotions are as fake as the laughable computer generated explosions we encounter during the picture’s generic opening minutes. Written for the screen by Robert Kouba and Sebastian Cepeda.

Time Trap


Time Trap (2017)
★ / ★★★★

To claim that “Time Trap” plays like a Syfy movie would be an insult to Syfy movies because a good number of those made-for-television projects actually try to deliver a payoff. This film, written and directed by Mark Dennis (Ben Foster co-directs), simply ends in a most rushed fashion, one might claim the filmmakers ran out of budget. But I push it a bit further: I believe those who made the picture simply do not possess a big enough imagination to be able to cap off their story in a satisfying way. So, end credits are dropped so abruptly in order to save face. To claim that “Time Trap” is a waste of time would be an insult to the phrase. Avoid this at all costs. I beg you.

The plot: An archeology professor (Andrew Wilson) discovers a mysterious hole in a desert. He goes inside and has not surfaced for two days. His students (Reiley McClendon, Brianne Howey) suspect something bad must have happened so they decide to follow suit—taking three others in their doomed rescue mission (Cassidy Gifford, Olivia Draguicevich, Max Wright). Although numerous major hints point to the idea that time is likely to work differently inside the cave, these braindead characters deny every opportunity to accept their situation. The screenplay seems stuck in its own time loop; with every repetitious scene boredom increases exponentially.

Pay close attention to the awful dialogue. There is no sense of economy. When one word is enough to express a feeling or thought, three sentences are employed instead. It does not help that the delivery is almost always flat. Maybe it would have helped if the actors were actually in a cave rather than a studio. Perhaps then they could have felt genuine emotions like fear of being lost or trapped and confusion upon the discovery that time stamps of video cameras do not match when two people get separated only for a few minutes. More than half of the scenes needed to be reshot due to an overall lack of conviction. Better yet—rewrite the screenplay completely; the expository dialogue feels like a hyperactive pugilist beating the eardrums.

Another major problem is the failure to establish rules. Just because the story is meant to be mysterious does not mean that anything can happen. If so, then why bother telling a specific story from a defined perspective? A sensible sci-fi picture that deals with the passage of time should have an anchor. In this case, for example, it should be the cave. How many minutes, hours, days, months, or years would pass if a person were to spend in a cave for one minute? The movie does not answer. It certainly would have added much-needed suspense. Assuming that we are watching the characters in real time, and we have a complete idea of the time that passes on the surface relative to the cave, tension increases the more they make mistakes, argue, or dither about.

But no. The filmmakers assume we are too stupid to be able to make the most basic mathematical conversions. Instead, we are inundated with visual effects that mean nothing, especially during its most bewildering final fifteen to twenty minutes. Here is a movie so confident with its incompetence, it sets up a possible sequel head held high. If it does happen, I hope it is released a thousand years from now because 1) I’ll be dead and would have no choice but to miss it and 2) by then absolutely no one would care.

Aniara


Aniara (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Due to severe climate change, Earth has been rendered uninhabitable; it is time to colonize somewhere else. It is supposed to be a routine travel to Mars as a new batch of Earth citizens look forward to their new home on the Red Planet. The trip is supposed to take just over three weeks, but in an attempt to avoid space debris, the spacecraft Aniara is damaged and its fuel tanks ejected into the void of outer space. Off-course and without the means to set itself on the correct track, the captain (Arvin Kananian) informs his passengers it could take years for them to encounter the nearest celestial body so its gravity could be used to alter their current course.

Most admirable about “Aniara,” based on the Swedish poem of the same name by Harry Martinson, is that it offers a future so bleak, one cannot help but feel fascinated with where the story might lead. Right from its opening minutes it is implied that the work will be a study of behavior: a cause (a story development) leading to an effect (passengers’ responses). There is even commentary that although humans can be taken out of their planet, they cannot help but take with them the very characteristics that destroyed their planet in the first place. It offers no apology, no forgiveness. I found its bitter perspective refreshing. The work is not without ambition. However, the film is not for everyone.

Our protagonist is Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) but that is not actually her name. It is a title held by person in charge of a hall where a machine, Mima, is capable of showing, or reflecting, a participant’s memories of Earth. It helps with the anxiety of space travel. But notice that although we have a main character and that we follow her throughout the picture, the focus is actually on the collective. This is certain to alienate viewers because we do not get to know Mimaroben in a deeply personal way even though we spend ample time with her.

In fact, notice that her responses to the story’s events do not consistently reflect the majority of the passengers’ fears, depression, and anguish. Early in the film, she confesses to her roommate, an astronomer who is always scribbling on her journal (Anneli Martini), that there is nothing waiting for her on Mars anyway and so floating in space indefinitely does not really bother her. As expected, changes occur in our protagonist but these are subtle. And the script certainly does not follow a typical parabola of character development. In fact, people tend to speak in expository dialogue. I appreciated this approach; it contributes to the impression of an impressive but impersonal future.

Less effective is in how the picture is shot. Almost immediately noticeable is how characters are almost always framed from the waist up. The filmmakers are also fond of extreme close-ups. While it can be effective during the more dramatic moments, especially when characters begin to despair regarding their fates, it is distracting for the most part. The story is unfolding in a massive spacecraft where hundreds, possibly thousands, of passengers can survive for years. Why do we not see more of it? I would have loved a small tour of the place.

By not employing the occasional wide shot, it fails to capture the splendor of the living space… or even to provide contrast between the inside and the outside of the ship. One cannot help but consider that directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja are ashamed of the set or set decorations—which are not first-rate but at the same time not terrible by any means. There is an irony to the whole charade because the forced framing actually garners attention—negative attention.

Most maddening is the rushed final ten minutes. Instead of offering answers or bringing up even more questions, it dares to throw away everything it has worked toward for the sake of delivering confusion or shock. Without giving anything away, the ending is supposed to be bleak and haunting but it comes across as a sick joke. I found myself chuckling not because the ending is clever but because I felt tricked for having invested my time and mental capacity only to be handed something nearly without value.

Should you choose to see this curious film anyway, proceed with caution.

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.

Upgrade


Upgrade (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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.

Sleight


Sleight (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

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


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.