Tag: science fiction


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 (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.

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?