Tag: science fiction

Man Vs.

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.


Elysium (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

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.

The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain (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

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

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

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.


Arrival (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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.


Disconnect (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Three months after her mother’s burial, Haley (Steffany Huckaby) finds a toy phone that she used to play with when she was a kid. Wanting to feel the good times of childhood once more, she picks up the phone and dials a number. It rings. To her surprise, a woman from 1960 answers. Haley tells her friend, Cathy (Amanda Troop), about her discovery. They wish to make sure it is real so they make a handful of prank calls. Cathy tells Haley that if they can communicate with the past, then perhaps they can change the present.

Written and directed by Robin Christian, “Disconnect” has a premise that brims with potential. Not only does the phone have the capability to call any number, whether it be from the past or the future, it gives the opportunity for the caller to reconnect with loved ones, dead or alive. Many of us can relate to that need to have a second chance, to reset and wipe the slate clean. So it is most frustrating that the film is a big disappointment.

While the acting is wooden across the board, it is worsened by the omnipresent score and soundtrack. When a person is expressing grief, the violin cranks up the elegy. When someone is expressing surprise or joy, a corny pop song is employed. It is often that the music serves as a distraction, blasting away when a scene ought to be shrouded in silence. The sound of grieving over a death of a loved one is silence, not sad chords or keys.

The protagonist is not written smart. Never mind that she is always crying and constantly tells everyone around her how she feels. The holes in her logic—what should be done in order to trigger or fix a course of action using the magical telephone—are big enough for us to question. So instead of being behind her every step of the way, we hope that she recognizes a mistake and really think things through before a situation gets worse. Of course, it is convenient that the mistakes pile up until the final act.

Perhaps it might have worked better as a dark comedy instead of a thriller. Although the telephone is a mysterious artifact, there is nothing thrilling about the events that revolve around it. The occurrences in the second half are funny, but I am not sure they are meant to be. People die but the deaths do not hold much weight if by the next scene there is hope that their fates can be undone. Also, I laughed because it sounds like every line of dialogue is shouted. When more things go wrong—and they do—the decibels increase. We can feel the actors trying to remember their lines. It is like watching a rehearsal for a play that will take about two more months before it is ready to be shown to the public.

The movie is not unbearable and I liked how the so-called time telephone looks. But the negatives significantly outweigh the positives. Somewhere in the middle, I wondered how much more imaginative it might have been if a child had discovered the phone. I would be interested in seeing that movie.

Upside Down

Upside Down (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

A decade since they last saw each other, Adam (Jim Sturgess) learns that Eden (Kirsten Dunst) is an employee of Transworld, a company that specializes in research and development and serves as a hub for the twin planets of opposing gravities. Adam lives on a planet called Down Below, widely known as home of the poor and the hopeless, while Eden resides Up Top where skyscrapers glisten and the future is bright.

It is considered illegal for anyone to cross between worlds. However, Adam cannot help how he feels so he goes through seemingly insurmountable roadblocks just to get to Eden. His love for her is so strong that, when they do meet, he does not appear at all fazed by the fact that she has no memory of him.

Visually arresting and its unique universe filled with possible surprising complications, it is most frustrating that “Upside Down,” written and directed by Juan Diego Solanas, does not strive to be a great movie—one that will be remembered by future generations. It seems content in telling a sappy romance picture with enveloping science fiction elements. In some ways, it delivers and yet in many ways, it is excruciatingly short-sighted.

Watching the film is like looking inside a gigantic snow globe with multiple kaleidoscopes dancing in unsteady rhythm; there is always something to look at. For instance, it is fascinating and creepy that in their worlds, since the planets are right next to one another, there is no open sky. A character looks up and what he sees is a metropolis; it might very well be that someone is looking back in his direction at that precise moment. I wondered if they knew what a star was or if they ever wondered about foreign worlds outside their own geographically-dependent class system.

While the screenplay does a solid job contrasting Up Top and Down Below, their disparities are only painted on a superficial level. Up Top has spacious environs and its denizens are professionally clothed. Meanwhile, Down Below is covered in trash, the buildings appear dilapidated, and people’s clothing seem secondhand. When it comes to feelings, there is a lack of complexity. Surely there are people Down Below who are happy and content. Likewise, certainly not everyone Up Top are well-to-do. The two worlds are established visually but they do not feel or come across realistic within the context of a futuristic science-fiction feature. There is a disconnect.

The romance between Eden and Adam, though not sharply written, is tolerable mainly because of the performances. Sturgess—with his perfectly disheveled hair—is charming as usual, but Dunst surprised me. Usually, even though she is very beautiful, I find her so cold on the outside that whenever her character is supposed to be feeling sad or tormented, I often detect a fit of forced histrionics as opposed to her acting natural. Here, playing an amnesiac works for her. Those eyes look like they are constantly searching for something. She portrays a softness here that I would like to see more.

If I were evaluating strictly on style, “Upside Down” would pass with flying colors. But substance is and made relevant by the writer-director’s decision to introduce the idea of love and soul mates. There is not enough depth in Adam and Eden to create a love story worthy of critical thinking and emotional investment.

Midnight Special

Midnight Special (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Midnight Special,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, shares one important similarity with great science-fiction feature films of the past: treating its characters as people with specific motivations—eschewing the black-and-white concept of good versus evil altogether—and allowing the conflict to churn and rise from decisions made by flawed but determined men and women. Such is one of the main anchors of this most mysterious and curious picture, carefully modulated in feeling, thought, and action every step of the way.

The government is convinced an eight-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher—excellent here as he was in Bob Nelson’s effective comedy-drama “The Confirmation”) is a dangerous weapon while a religious group, possibly a cult, believes he is their savior. Both groups are in pursuit of the boy while his father (Michael Shannon) and a state trooper (Joel Edgerton) do whatever is necessary—even murder whomever gets in the way—to get him to a specific location and time so that he can be safe. Meanwhile, an NSA agent named Sevier (Adam Driver) starts to piece together information that points to where Alton is heading.

The picture practices restraint in execution and performance. We discover Alton’s abilities in small doses. Initially, we start to wonder what he is. Over time, however, we consider what he is ultimately capable of. Because Nichols’ screenplay avoids demonizing government officials, there is a small part of us that wonders perhaps their fears are not mere trivialities. It plays upon the idea that we tend to default fearing what we don’t know.

In addition, as we learn about the boy’s powers, special and visual effects never become the point. When they are utilized, they usually inspire horror or a sense of wonder. It is often unpredictable which side of the coin we might encounter next. Oftentimes it is a mix of both—which is exciting.

Shannon plays the father as a man who is afraid to lose his son but at the same time one who must exude a type of strength, a constant awareness what must be done ultimately in order to spare the boy from harm. Roy is a man of few words and Shannon has a great talent of communicating plenty with silence by using only his eyes and the tightness of his jaw and mouth. One of the most touching scenes involves Alton assuring his father that there is no need to worry about him any longer. It emits special resonance because it is the son’s way of recognizing his father’s sacrifice without relying on an obvious or expected exchange.

To reveal more about the film is to perform a disservice. “Midnight Special” is a chase picture but one that feels personal despite the magic we encounter in its universe. Too many movies tend to want the audience to sit back and enjoy the ride. This film is quite proud to do the opposite: it dares us to lean in, to question, to consider motivations of the characters depending on which party they represent, and to wonder how we might respond if our ordinary lives crossed paths with magnificence. Would we wish to keep it for ourselves, share it, or set it free?


Honeymoon (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Honeymoon,” written by Phil Graziadei and Leigh Janiak, is horror-thriller that creeps rather than terrifies, but it is an effective piece of work because it is patient, increasingly strange, and is spearheaded by two lead performers with exciting chemistry.

The setup sounds awfully familiar: a recently married couple rents a lakeside cottage in a rather secluded area and things go horribly awry. The first twenty minutes is underwhelming. Sugary-sweet scenes where Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) express their happiness for having been married are abound. Each of these scenes are punctuated by almost laughable PG-13-level love scenes.

Eventually, however, the material aspires to be more than that. I found myself so engaged, I began to come up with scientific explanations as to why Bea, after a sleepwalking incident, starts to exhibit increasingly bizarre behaviors like making seemingly harmless errors with common language.

For instance, at one point, she claims to want to “take a sleep” instead of “take a nap.” In another incident, it appears as though she has completely forgotten how to make coffee or any breakfast item. My hypotheses ranged from a classic physical and sexual trauma, then onto specific brain injuries (aphasias), to bacterial or viral exposure out there in the woods.

Treadaway and Leslie make convincing newlyweds. They seem into each other and they are attractive together. And so when Paul becomes convinced that Bea needs serious help, a natural tension builds. I enjoyed—and the script makes a point—that Paul is not an alpha male. Instead, he is intelligent, curious, and sensitive even when it comes to a slight disequilibrium in the relationship. Because Paul is not a stock or standard macho character who carelessly chases rustling in the woods and yells, “Who’s there?!”, we relate to him that much more. Treadaway ensures that we feel his character’s fear in just about every decision. We understand that Paul is pushed into action because of his love for his wife.

In a lot of ways, “Honeymoon,” under Leigh Janice’s direction, is a minimalist horror film. The creepiness and tension is mostly derived from the performances supported by a solid script. Sudden pauses between lines can be alarming. Light and lighting are played with instead of employing CGI. When a creepy thing appears, it horrifies because it is real—it has real texture, real color, real appearance. There is little to no score when a character makes brisk action—which works because there is no guide that allows us to anticipate a reaction. It is the kind of film that is best approached knowing next to nothing about it.

10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

“10 Cloverfield Lane,” directed by Dan Trachtenberg, is an inspired spiritual sequel to an alien invasion film that was released almost a decade prior. Instead of telling a story that is bigger, louder, and with more visual effects, the focus is on three people hiding in a bunker right next to a farmhouse as a possible extraterrestrial invasion unfolds outside. It is an intimate sci-fi horror-thriller and ultimately one that works.

The picture is tethered by strong performances, particularly by John Goodman who plays a good samaritan named Howard. Goodman’s performance is at times very reminiscent of Kathy Bates in the classic horror-thriller “Misery.” Howard is a highly watchable character because in just about every scene, Goodman gives him a different body language, a strange manner of expressing his emotions, a questionable look. We constantly ask ourselves what he is up to, what he is thinking, what he is he willing to do to maintain his power and control in an impossible situation.

This makes the character difficult to decipher. There are times when we want him to be good but there are signs that he isn’t, yet there are also instances when we are convinced he is a villain but perhaps our imagination is simply playing tricks on us. We want to understand Howard and wrap our minds around his motivations. Goodman is more than up to the task of creating a curious and highly volatile character.

Credit goes to the writers, Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle, for consistently coming up with ways to engage the audience—a challenge because the majority of the film takes place in a confined living space. There is not one moment of boredom because the screenplay takes advantage of the setting to induce an increasingly paranoid feeling. One of the most shocking revelations involves our heroine taking a trip through the air ducts to reset the air filtration system.

Although the look of the film is nothing special, there is a confidence in Trachtenberg’s direction. For example, during the quieter moments, there is fluidity between the framing of a character’s face and body language. That smoothness is necessary so that we can absorb what is being expressed and confessed. During the action scenes, on the other hand, the camera moves quickly and efficiently—but never incomprehensible or headache-inducing—not so much concerned about flow or rhythm between shots but the urgency between survival and death. One gets a sense that the director has a lot of fresh ideas and energy.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” has the desire to genuinely entertain and make us feel uneasy rather than simply rehashing action sequences that do not deliver an iota of thought, creativity, or intelligence. Although some may be put off by the more overt answers during the last fifteen minutes, others, like myself, may consider it to be a moment to showcase the filmmakers’ versatility.


Coherence (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A group of friends gather for a dinner party that happens to coincide with a passing of Miller’s Comet—an event that last occurred about a century ago. During the passing, scientists warned the possibility of cell phone receptions being unavailable for a time. Most unexpected, however, is a blackout which sends eight friends into a panic. Their senses are further heightened when they suspect that there might be an ominous force at play, starting with a house located two blocks away. The men wish to investigate.

The joy of “Coherence,” written and directed by James Ward Byrkit, is in knowing very little about the plot and not being able to guess where it is going. It offers an unpredictable ride despite a standard but engaging dialogue among characters with big personalities. I was pleasantly surprised that it takes a concept and is willing to stretch it to such an extent but not result to easy and convenient splatter-fest during the third act.

I enjoyed listening to the characters speak even though some of the personalities are a bit off-putting or trying a bit hard to come across as more polished than they are. In a way, each of them is grounded in reality—necessary because things are about to get very weird. Most of the exchanges are realistic because, for example, the memories they bring up are detailed and specific. When one speaks, others pay attention and feelings are usually reflected or reciprocated just like in a group of friends that have known each other for a long time. It is important we believe these people would want to hang out with each other for a couple of hours.

The mystery relies on the blackout and characters going in and out of the house. We try to determine what exactly is taking place as the characters find strange objects like a silver box containing photographs of themselves with numbers written underneath the pictures. The thing is, the box is found and taken from the house that is under suspicion. More bizarre is the fact that one of the photographs appears to be taken just a few minutes before. Is someone spying on them from outside?

Even though it involves (pseudo) theoretical and quantum physics, the ambitious screenplay is never frustrating. We never feel like it is trying to be too smart for the audience and that is the sole reason why it must be impressive. This is because the writer-director understands that the audience must be provided an answer before more questions are asked. Thus, although the material requires a bit of thinking to fully appreciate what is unfolding, it is accessible, entertaining, and fun. There is talk about aliens and even Schrödinger’s cat.

A critical weak point is the final ten minutes. The non-ending does not match the confident, energetic, daring preceding minutes. I found it to be a bit of a cheat and somewhat unsatisfying even though I understood that its aim is to provide a final surprise. There are numerous twists throughout the film already that perhaps a more defined ending could have made a stronger statement for this piece.

“Coherence” is evidence that creativity and budget are not positively correlated. Perhaps the only visual effect is seeing the comet glide through the sky. The rest of the magic is embedded in the realistic dialogue, solid performances, controlled camera movements capable of matching a sense of urgency, well-placed glances and pauses, and our very own thoughts about how we might react if we were in the twilight zone.

Another Earth

Another Earth (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

The day another planet, believed to be very similar to Earth, is discovered, Rhoda (Brit Marling), a high school student who recently received an offer to attend MIT, crashed onto another vehicle and killed three people: a little boy and a woman with child. The head of the family, a music composer and Yale professor named John (William Mapother), survives but has fallen into a coma. After four years in jail, Rhoda is released and must now try to continue a life that had been on pause.

“Another Earth,” directed by Mike Cahill, is a fascinating story about a woman in need of forgiveness—from herself as well as the man whose life she had inadvertently destroyed. The film offers a solid exposition and rising action, especially when it teases the audience about the possibilities that lie in the newly discovered planet, but when it is time to get into the marrow of the story, that is, the relationship between Rhoda and John, it comes across like a suffocating drama, composed of close-ups, depression, and repetitive behavior. The human drama is not as compelling as the symbolism that revolves around its two main characters.

The decision to minimize the science fiction elements feels exactly right. By keeping the visuals simple and ordinary, Rhoda’s inner turmoil is all the more relatable. Imagine if the story had taken place in a distant future with flying cars, metallic clothing, and wacky hairdos. These elements would have likely distracted from the depression that the protagonist is going through. Because the images are often without adornment, sometimes dirty and gray, her state of mind is consistently reflected. We get the feeling that she wants to escape from herself.

It is most critical that we understand this because eventually her ambition is to see what lies on Earth 2. On one hand, we, too, are curious what might be out there. On the other hand, reaching that goal is perhaps a way for her to be able to move on from the tragedy and start living. Yes, she killed people and was incarcerated. But this young woman, like anyone who has made a mistake, deserves a second chance. We sympathize with her because she doesn’t act as though she deserves forgiveness. She is focused on how to fix the broken, reflected by her decision to clean after high school students.

Rhoda and John are not interesting together—which is a problem because these are two bodies in orbit who have pasts that haunt them so severely, each passing day blends to the next. The script ought to have been razor-sharp, insightful, surprising, ironic—pretty much anything other than flat, dull, mumbling. The latter third is most disappointing because instead of really working through their inner-most thoughts and emotions once all the facts are laid out on the table, we get a “four months later” title card. I found it lazy and underwhelming. A smart final scene fails to make up for it.

Written by Mike Cahill and Brit Marling, “Another Earth” is elegant and beautiful at times but the final thirty minutes ought to have been stronger in order to make a lasting impression. One of the movie’s best scenes involves a woman on television trying to establish contact with beings on Earth 2. The voice that we hear from the transmission is quite unexpected. It is unfortunate that the final third has grown tired, has lost its ability to genuinely surprise.