Tag: science fiction

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.