Tag: science fiction

Jupiter Ascending


Jupiter Ascending (2015)
★ / ★★★★

There is very little to recommend in “Jupiter Ascending” which is all the more disappointing because it is written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski. The story is as ordinary as any cliché-ridden sci-fi action dud to come out of Hollywood in the past two decades, the special and visual effects are so overdone that the images end up looking cheap, and the performances barely have any pulse.

The plot is irrelevant but here it is: Although Jupiter (Mila Kunis) cleans houses for living, three siblings from one of the most powerful dynasties in the universe wish to get their hands on her. This is because Jupiter is the rightful owner of Earth; if she ends up dead or married off, she, by default, will lose her claim. A genetically engineered human named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) rescues her from an attack and the two eventually develop romantic feelings for one another.

It pains me to write the former paragraph because it sounds like fluff from a D-grade romance novel. Most surprising to me is the fact that great performers like Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean signed up to appear in this. Did they even bother to read the script? The dialogue is atrocious—often hyperbolic when unnecessary, the futuristic lingo and alien terms sound forced and cheesy, and none of the characters gets a glimmer of complexity. I can imagine a smart and creative high school student being able to write better material than this two-hour dross.

The action scenes, which are supposed to be the highlight of the picture, do not work on any level. Take, for example, shots of a craft moving at incredibly high speed crashing onto another object or building. The impact looks soft as butter because the images, including the background, are plagued with CGI. The artificiality is so overwhelming that we never believe we are watching a real conflict unfold—just a series of pixels designed to look or emulate something that is exciting. It is an empty, disappointing experience. Frankly, I found the images to be ugly, painful to look at.

The romance between Jupiter and Caine begs to be criticized. Kunis and Tatum share no chemistry. The so-called acting is so forced and awkward, watching them is like dropping in during rehearsals. Some scenes entertained me not because of what is happening but due to the fact that I kept noticing Tatum wearing more makeup than Kunis. Moreover, the exchanges between the leads should inspire anger because we know that The Wachowskis can write on a higher level than what is presented. Here, it appears as though they gave up halfway through because the material makes no sense whatsoever or they did not even try in the first place but figured they could use the paycheck.

Sitting through “Jupiter Ascending” is an act of self-punishment. Use your two hours into doing something more worthwhile like reading a good novel, spending time with your family, or engaging in a hobby. It is a mystery to me how this film received the green light from the studio. Right off the top of my head, it is because the Wachowskis hit commercial gold before with “The Matrix” and lightning could very well hit again. While this may sound pessimistic, the final product itself does not give us any reason to react under a more positive light.

Oblivion


Oblivion (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are stationed on war-ravaged Earth to repair drones and they have two more weeks until they can return to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons where the rest of the humans reside. But when Jack investigates a crash site, he opens a hibernation pod containing the body of a woman (Olga Kurylenko) that has somehow made it into his dreams and memories. It has been five years since the mandatory memory wipe.

For a movie set in the future with a lot of history involving a war between humans and an alien race called Scavs (short for “scavengers”), “Oblivion,” based on the screenplay by Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek, and Michael Arndt, is surprisingly thin in story—not at all one that we can get into and get our hands dirty. Instead, it is taped up with amazing visuals and wacko twists. Neither is good enough to pull off an enveloping experience.

The look of the picture is worth admiring. Seeing American landmarks demolished, surrounded by water, or almost completely covered in sand urged me to look closer at the screen. Because the images are seemingly without fault, it is easy to buy into the reality that there really was a nuclear war many years ago, along with catastrophic events incited by the destruction of the moon, and the repercussions of the attempted invasion linger.

Cruise’s performance stands out each time the camera is on him while he is surrounded by a vast nothingness. During those scenes, even though his character is not interacting with someone face-to-face, Cruise puts a story in his eyes. I believed the yearning and confusion in Jack’s fragmented memories. When the action scenes arrive, we care about what happens to him even though we do not completely forget that we are watching Cruise the movie star. Later, we are asked to evaluate who Jack really is.

This is where the problem lies. While the surprises remain connected to the story, there is a lack of a believable weight behind the revelations. Without revealing too much, I was not convinced that the writers thought about them completely especially how such information would impact the psychology of the characters. Not enough time is given to them—and us—to absorb what is really going on and what they might imply. Yes, the twists took me by surprise but I was not emotionally invested. On the contrary, I found them laughable at times. To me, the final scene is a complete misfire, straddling the line between convenience and manipulation.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski, there is no denying that “Oblivion” is easy on the eyes, but it is not written with enough intelligent and subversive layers, qualities that separate merely passable and truly memorable science fiction films, so that we are entertained on a sensory level and are inspired to really think about the emotional and psychological challenges the protagonist must go through after his discoveries. It is unremarkable.

Explorers


Explorers (1985)
★★ / ★★★★

Constantly wondering of the kind of places and lifeforms outside of Earth, Ben (Ethan Hawke) dreams about a circuit board one night and draws it out the moment he wakes up. On the way to school, he shows the image to his best friend, Wolfgang (River Phoenix), who reckons himself as a scientist. Soon enough Wolfgang is able to built it and discovers that the chip creates a force field capable of traveling long distances at high speed.

“Explorers,” written by Eric Luke and directed by Joe Dante, generates a sense of wonder during the first half but offers a disappointing final thirty minutes when the junior high students actually meet the long-awaited extraterrestrials. It works best when Ben, Wolfgang, and Darren (Jason Presson) are interacting—trying to figure out what to do with their discovery—because the characters have different and colorful personalities that children and pre-teens can relate with.

Ben is the dreamer, Wolfgang is the pragmatist, and Darren lives in the moment. Sometimes these personalities clash but not in a way that it creates big drama and impedes the story’s forward momentum. The clash is often dealt with humor and so we get a chance to appreciate their friendship despite their disagreements. The script is written in such a way that we believe there is a good reason why the boys are friends.

There is a misplaced romantic subplot between Ben and a girl classmate. I found it to be forced, silly, and cheesy. Although I believed that the dreamer is at an age when he is beginning to notice the allure of the opposite sex, not once is the girl given anything interesting to do or say. As a result, she comes across more than an object than an actual person with real thoughts or ideology. It is most amusing when Wolfgang rolls his eyes every time his friend goes girl-crazy.

The special and visual effects are dated based on today’s standards but they retain a level of charm nonetheless. One can argue that such a quality works for the film as it ages because the story is more about imagination than showcasing the most crisp, first-rate images. When I was a kid, I did not care whether a movie or television show looked old; what mattered was the energy, the story, whether the characters encountered a lot of surprising dangers and last-minute saves.

The aliens ought to have been more interesting. Although there is irony in the eventual crossing of paths between extraterrestrials and human children, the tone is far too comedic. Gone is the sense of wonder and curiosity established in the former half. The personalities of the trio feel diluted instead of more concentrated. They are overshadowed by the creatures instead of them getting a chance to ask questions and to explain how humans are like divorced from what the aliens expect.

Still, the picture is imaginative enough to be worthy of seeing at least once. Children, especially boys, who are interested in spaceships and aliens are likely to enjoy the little adventure that the main characters go through.

Ex Machina


Ex Machina (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer, gets an opportunity of a lifetime when he is informed that he has been chosen to visit his employer’s massive and isolated estate. Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a programming prodigy, has a project so secret that Caleb is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before he is told a thing. Soon it is revealed to the lucky winner that he has been invited to evaluate whether the artificial intelligence that his boss created is truly conscious. Ava (Alivia Vikander) is the latest and most impressive design yet.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Ex Machina” is an impressive work because, like the great ruminative science fiction pictures that came before, it understands the art of patience. It takes its time to dazzle us with its imagery—particularly the special and visual effects involving the android—to make us think about where the story is going, and to instill a sense of wonder in us despite its limited universe.

The three central characters do not feel like one-dimensional sticks struggling to come out of the page. Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander all have a je ne sais quoi, a presence, that when he or she utters a line, a thoughtful viewer might pick up on certain intonations and wonder if their characters mean something else entirely. The enigma is heightened by Garland’s direction. There are very few sudden camera movements. They simply flow as if it intended to protect us from being pushed out of the film’s mesmerizing, zen-like rhythm.

There are philosophical discussions about what makes a being human but they are never overbearing nor so didactic that it comes across like we are dropping into the middle of a lecture. Instead, certain lines and points come up naturally that feel precisely relevant to a character’s perspective. Particularly engaging are the exchanges between Nathan and Caleb. Both are intelligent young men, but we get to determine exactly which is more clever or more astute when it comes to certain subjects. That is exciting because there are not enough screenplays, within and outside of this genre, where differences among characters are communicated with such vibrancy.

The look of the picture is inviting. Shades of soft lighting and well-lit corners draw us in. Given that Nathan’s estate is both an elegant living space and a research facility, I found myself wanting to control the camera and focus on the little trinkets in various corners. This is why my favorite scene involves Nathan showing Caleb the parts of his AI, particularly the so-called wetware that is homologous to a brain. When the camera is focused on particular objects, I felt like I was in a museum, wishing to know every detail of foreign objects like how they work, what they are made out of, and what could happen to a system if a certain piece were missing.

“Ex Machina” is the kind of film where it is best that one decides to go into it blind. Part of the fun is to discover the little twists and turns as the tension mounts. Although the third act could have used a little bit of rewrite and polish, which makes it a bit less exemplary, I admired that it remained true to itself by taking its time as well as risks.

The Happening


The Happening (2008)
★ / ★★★★

There are many things wrong in “The Happening,” written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, but the casting of the leads, Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, is perhaps the most salient misstep. The story being a hybrid of science fiction and mystery, it is a basic requirement that the performers be able to emote the deepest and most sincere emotions. Wahlberg and Deschanel are far from the most versatile actors. For instance, Wahlberg has this annoying habit of sounding disingenuous when trying to make others interested in what his character is talking about. Take note of the classroom scene during the first fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, Deschanel’s facial expression does not change. She always looks wide-eyed and innocent even when the occasion does not call for it.

A strange event begins in Central Park, New York City. It appears to be just another morning at the park: Health-conscious people are jogging, pets are being taken for a walk, men and women in professional attires are headed to work, others are sitting on benches chatting with friends. There is a gust of wind. Everything stops. A select few start walking backwards. Then they start to hurt themselves. At a nearby construction site, workers jump off buildings. The news claim it must be some sort of a terrorist attack.

The central character is Elliot (Wahlberg), a science teacher whose wife, Alma (Deschanel), is currently wrestling with her conscience. She had went on a date with another man. This could have been a potent human conflict amidst a most bizarre phenomenon if the screenplay had been more probing into its subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. Instead, an attempt at comedy is utilized time and again for the sake of “entertainment”—in quotations because the so-called jokes and funny bits do not work at all. These scenes come across as though they were from a completely different picture.

The material asks the viewers to use their imagination. This is a good thing. The problem is that the film does not provide anything of value that inevitably engages us. There are shots of the wind caressing leaves of trees, tall grass, and bushes. This is almost always accompanied by a mysterious or creepy score. But what is the point when there is no payoff? By the end, the explanation is that there is no explanation because we do not yet understand nature completely. This is lazy and insulting.

There is no third act. The first act, which takes place in NYC, sets up the story. The second act involves a migration, running away from the reported terrorist attacks. And then it just ends with a subtitle claiming that three months had passed. This is most curious because Shyamalan is highly attuned to having three well-defined arcs. This is why “Unbreakable,” “The Sixth Sense,” and “Signs” feel like complete, well-told stories. By the end of these aforementioned movies, we want to know more about what would happen to the characters even though there is nothing more to say.

One walks away from “The Happening” feeling cheated because the mystery offers to intrigue or depth, the characters are one-dimensional, and it fails to offer anything new or exciting to the various sub-genres it embodies. Its level of creativity is bone dry.

Mad Max


Mad Max (1979)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the screenplay by James McCausland and George Miller, “Mad Max” starts off weak—a confusing, unexciting exercise in stunts while showcasing awkward, barely comprehensible dialogue. But something happens during the final third. Suddenly, it begins to gather focus, tension escalates to near unbearable levels, and there is creativity in how action scenes unfold. There is a reason why it is remembered decades after its release.

Max (Mel Gibson) is one of the many patrol cops in the Outback who is constantly on the lookout for the troubles motorcycle gangs create. A man named Nightrider (Vincent Gil), the leader of the gang, has escaped prison, leaving all sorts of raucous in his wake. When Nightrider is eventually indisposed, his followers, led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), end up terrorizing everyone they come across.

The story is replete with colorful performances. Although none of the characters are well-developed, once in a while they are given a line or a shot that ends up being milked to perfection. Keays-Byrne, for example, clearly has fun with the role. Although his presence is not especially intimidating, there is a quality in his performance that reminds me of a dog in the process of becoming fully rabid. Toecutter is unpredictable and it makes him quite entertaining. Toecutter’s right-hand man, Bubba (Geoff Parry), is also interesting, but I was at a loss as to why he wasn’t given more to do or say.

I grew tired of the so-called romantic exchanges between Max and his wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel). Not once did I believe they are a believable couple. However, the actress is wonderful in portraying a woman who is scared for her life and her baby’s. She is front and center during the film’s most tension-filled scenes. The trick she manages to pull off is feeling scared and coupling that fear with a whiff of surprising toughness. As she runs in a forest suspecting that the men she came across the day before has found her, we anticipate what will happen to her. I enjoyed that women in this picture do more than cower and squeal.

Although the material offers violence, it knows when to pull back. Notice it does not show gruesome details—like a hand being cut off, a body being run over by a motorcycle, a driver hitting the dashboard as one vehicle collides with another. It gives us a chance to imagine the brutality, in parts, which makes it more engaging. Instead, effort is put into how to frame tragedies, like where the camera should be placed when a character we have grown to like meets an untimely demise.

It is a lot to ask of someone to sit through about forty minutes of rather uninspired scenes, but I believe that the final thirty minutes is very strong, it makes the film worth seeing. Even though it is unpolished (I think that quality is a part of the work’s appeal), “Mad Max,” directed by George Miller, is directed with enthusiasm and vision not only when it comes to the action but also of the lonely scenes of endless roads in the Outback. It is set in the future but it has the soul of a western.

The Hidden


The Hidden (1987)
★★ / ★★★★

Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) robs a bank which leads to a car chase with the police. After killing some innocent people and leaving many wounded, DeVries is sent to the hospital due to life-threatening injuries. Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) is convinced that the case is closed now that the perpetrator is captured but it proves to be just the beginning when an FBI agent, Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan), shows up at the station. Gallagher has been looking for DeVries and that although he learns that his suspect is in the hospital, he still considers DeVries extremely dangerous. And he’s right.

Although “The Hidden,” written by Jim Kouf and directed by Jack Sholder, proves that it has the capacity to create great special and visual effects, it is actually more interested in telling a story even if its strands are eventually stretched too thin. The formula is simple: Beck and Gallagher join forces to hunt down a person of interest, a chase scene with a shoot-out occurs, the person of interest gets away, the FBI agent mutes his disappointment while his partner begins to grow suspect, and the cycle continues. It isn’t particularly exciting except the person that they wish to capture is not at all human but an extraterrestrial. It uses a human body as its host and when the body is either too weak or damaged, it evacuates and crawls into the closest organism that can sustain its needs.

The alien looks slimy and gross, but equally interesting to observe is MacLachlan as the quiet, almost eerie, FBI agent. There is a creepy calm that rests on his face as violence and murder unfold before him. Is it because he’s seen and experienced many bizarre happenings during his specialized career? Has he been hunting this life form for too long that he’s no longer surprised by its pattern of behavior? Unfortunately, I found the character quite easy to figure out. Because the picture lacks enough layers to keep us occupied, it is possible for the eventual revelations to be accurately predicted halfway through.

I enjoyed the partnership between Beck and Gallagher because they are never allowed to feel close to one another. Despite the extraterrestrial angle, this collaboration is anchored in reality. One of the best scenes is when Beck invites over his temporary partner for dinner. In a way, it subverts the audience’s expectations because we expect them to like each other more after conversing and sharing a good meal. By the end of the night, the screenplay makes a point that their relationship has not gone through some sort of change. After all, they’ve known each other for only a couple of hours. The point is we want them to warm up to each other and we look forward to the moment if or when they finally do.

Despite its in-your-face violence run amok, “The Hidden” can be appreciated for the small things. For instance, the scene involving the alien, while inside a host, wishing to get its hands on a Ferrari Mondial has an undercurrent of humor. The alien works as a metaphor because when we really want to have something in our possession, even if we know we shouldn’t buy it, most of us give in to that gnawing need—as if something had taken over our bodies for some time.

I Origins


I Origins (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Mike Cahill creates a love letter to the spiritual but scientifically-inclined.

Ian (Michael Pitt) is a twenty-six-year-old Ph.D. student who works in a molecular biology lab. His project involves finding a way for colorblind mice to see color. Karen (Brit Marling) is a new rotation student in the lab but she proves to offer great ideas that can potentially move Ian’s project forward. Meanwhile, Ian, outside of the lab, obsesses over a stranger’s pair of eyes—eyes of a woman he met at a party but never had a chance to get to know further. When he starts to encounter the number eleven seemingly everywhere, he is convinced these are signs that will eventually lead him to those eyes.

Although the picture begins with the feel and tone of an independent romantic comedy-drama in that the characters are not paper-thin in substance, situations are realistic and at times challenging, while audiences are slowly coaxed into thinking more optimistically toward rather impossible odds, it is able to change gears seemingly without effort, particularly halfway through when the material crosses from the sphere of science to the realm of the spiritual. As the material unfolds, it is difficult to guess what will happen next because it is constantly evolving. There is excitement because, like the characters, we feel as though we are on the verge of a great discovery.

Pitt plays a scientist-in-training in a way that is believable. Ian is not depicted as a hyperbolic intellectual who is socially inept, ridiculed for being smart and constantly having his nose buried in a book, or one who lives as a hermit. However, we do get the impression that he is curious of the world around him. It is in the way the performer looks at objects with his eyes, how engaged he is with someone who is speaking to him, and the way we can feel him thinking even when his eyes are not looking at something in particular.

Since he is written and played with humanity rather than comically or an exaggeration, there is a fluidity in the character that we wish to explore. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey plays the woman with the curious eyes and she is exotic, attractive, and has a strong sense of self. We are drawn to her and so it makes perfect sense that Ian will be drawn to her, too. Not only is Sofi utilized as a tool by which we can get to know the scientist further, but the character creates the foundation of mysterious things to come.

To reveal more is to cheat the audience of an experience. And so I will leave with this:

You know, a scientist once asked the Dalai Lama, “What would you do if something scientific disproved your religious beliefs?” And he said, after much thought, “I would look at all the papers. I’d take a look at all the research and really try to understand things. And in the end, if it was clear that the scientific evidence disproved my spiritual beliefs, I would change my beliefs.”

Under the Skin


Under the Skin (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Some movies are so defiantly opaque that one cannot help but marvel at the brazen display of pretension oozing through the screen. Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is that type of picture. There is absolutely an audience for movies like this, but I was not impressed.

Scarlett Johansson signs up to be objectified. The first half involves her character seducing men in Scotland and luring them into a house where, once inside, it is pitch black and the unsuspecting prey is eventually swallowed by a calm liquid. We watch Johansson stripping off her clothes until she is down to her bra and panties, all the while retaining a blank look on her face. The second half is somewhat similar although the performer soon reveals her breasts and crotch. It is all supposed to be “artistic,” I guess.

The screenplay is insistent on not answering any nagging questions and so it fails to connect to the audience beyond sensory level. Why is Johansson’s character, who seems to be an extraterrestrial being, only targeting young white men? Who is “she” exactly and what is her purpose? What are the men used for? Food? Energy? Eventually, we are allowed to observe what happens underneath that mysterious liquid. However, it serves only to showcase visual effects that is not even all that striking.

There are three good scenes surrounded by close to worthless, deathly boring, lifeless expositions. The event that unfolds at a rocky beach, for instance, commands true suspense. The raw image of people being swallowed by increasingly strong and violent waves makes us wonder at which moment we will no longer see a person struggling. Second, the young man with a deformity offers a glimmer of true emotions in an otherwise emotionally static script. Lastly, the final scene in the woods shows how good the movie could have been if the writers, Walter Campbell and Glazer, had allowed us to empathize with the protagonist more often.

It takes great talent to turn style into substance. This is why names like Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick hold value to me and the name Glazer does not. In Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” while the ending sequence boggles the mind, at that point it requires that we be confused or not know how to respond exactly because the story takes a leap into the unknown. In “The Tree of Life,” the lyricism is welcoming and consistent. Although a sensory experience for the most part, we understand the core of its subjects.

“Under the Skin” is an art-house film with a small brain and even smaller ambitions. If Glazer’s intention were to create a picture for the sake of it existing, then congratulations. But let us not pretend that this is anything remotely original or, worse, attempting to set the standard for anything. It will not be remembered fondly twenty or thirty years from now. This I guarantee.

They Live


They Live (1988)
★★ / ★★★★

Nada (Roddy Piper) arrives in Los Angeles with nothing but a backpack and a belief that the American system will be on his side as long as he is driven and works hard enough. He is able to snag a job at a construction site and meets Frank (Keith David), a hardworking man with a wife and two kids that he has not seen in six months.

Although they are not exactly buddies, Frank nevertheless invites Nada to a homeless encampment in front of an Episcopal church for some food, shelter, and companionship. Suspecting that there is something very strange going on inside the church, Nada snoops around. Eventually, he ends up in a room full of boxes that contain hundreds of sunglasses which have the special ability to reveal subliminal messages in pop culture.

Based on a short story by Ray Nelson, “They Live” has a fantastic premise but the screenplay and direction by John Carpenter take what could have been a pointed satire about consumerism and make it more about fighting with fists and shooting guns.

Its best moments stem from Nada rediscovering the world as it truly is when he puts on the seemingly ordinary sunglasses. We see the world through his eyes and we discover with him that the colorful and detailed posters, magazines, newspapers, and books actually feature commands in black and bold Helvetica: “Sleep,” “Obey,” and “Marry and Reproduce.” Certain people walking around the city turn out not to be humans at all. Some, mostly the rich and those in power, have skeletal or reptilian visages, all part of a mysterious alien force that has big plans for humans.

Instead of propagating the tension from the discovery, the picture eventually focuses on Nada attempting to convince Frank to put on the sunglasses. Frank does not want to because he reckons himself a man who minds his own business, and so there is an approximate ten-minute hand-to-hand combat that takes place in a back alley, mildly amusing within the first minute or so but quickly wears out its welcome. While I had no problem believing that the two can defend themselves, I had trouble buying into the fact that they are still able to get up and walk away after beating each other to a pulp for such an extended amount of time. It comes across as silly but in an off-putting way. It felt like I had just watched a schtick by The Three Stooges for an hour.

Instead of watching the kind of violence that holds no value, I wanted to learn more details concerning a world that is no longer under humans’ control. Who is the main being in charge of the mind control? How will the aliens benefit from living with humans who are unable to think for themselves? While such questions are hinted at, no actual answer is given even though the audience, after investing the time to figure out what is going on, deserve to know.

The action sequence in the alien base is poorly executed and unbelievable. It is difficult to buy into the idea that two men with no military training can potentially singlehandedly overpower a well-established regime. Instead of taking the time to explore its great ideas, its attention and efforts shift to the look of, for example, the tip of the gun every time a bullet flies from it. It becomes depressing and uninspired—a generic action picture.

“They Live” offers some amusing one-liners but I could not help but feel gravely disappointed due to its proclivity to consistently underachieve. When the mood turns serious and dealing with the material’s gravity feels exactly right, the immediate answer is just another joke. Its lack of variation when it comes to dealing with the sharp satire of its template inspires somnolence.

Edge of Tomorrow


Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Five years since the invasion of extraterrestrial beings called Mimics comes hope that these formidable creatures can be eradicated once and for all. To claim surefire victory, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) spearheads Operation Downfall which involves troops being airdropped on a beach in France, closing out the west side of Europe as the Chinese and Russians do the same from the east.

Brigham assigns Major Cage (Tom Cruise) to be with the troops, as a symbol of support and as additional hand in the defining battle, but Cage insists that he is not at all combat-ready. He urges that he remains only as a spokesman for the United Defense Forces. The next day, Cage wakes up at Heathrow Airport, stripped off his title, while final preparations for the crucial attack are made.

Confident in execution and proudly wearing its inspirations on its sleeve, “Edge of Tomorrow,” based on the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, is a rousing, funny, entertaining sci-fi action with enough brains and visual spectacles to satisfy a spectrum of audiences. Note, however, that it is neither the most thoughtful movie about mortality nor an allegory of facing the so-called Other, but it impresses on multiple facets, mainly on the level of a summer blockbuster flick—and that is not a backhanded compliment.

Cruise shows that he is a seasoned actor not because he does his own stunts and capable of delivering lines in a very intense way when absolutely necessary—although these are impressive on their own—but because he is aware that in order for his character come across as a believable protagonist, he must act as he if he were in a dramatic picture even though the genre is clearly science fiction. Notice the subtle transition of cowardly Cage to someone who commands a fiery will to protect a woman he has fallen in love with (Emily Blunt) and win against the alien invaders. Subtlety in acting is uncommon when it comes to movies that, in Roger Ebert’s immortal words, blow stuff up real good.

The plot is a mixture of the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s excellent “Saving Private Ryan” and Harold Ramis’ highly amusing “Groundhog Day.” Cage gains the ability to reset the dreaded day over and over as long as he dies—by accident, by being killed, or by his own hand. He is a smart character and able to learn quickly from his mistakes. The drawback is that he is stubborn and he tends to lose track of the bigger picture when his love interest is involved. I enjoyed that the screenplay is aware that believable heroes have both internal and external flaws. Imperfections keep the audience watching.

Admittedly, the conceit of resetting the day began to wear me down eventually. Although I knew it was necessary to the plot and the story, I wished that the writers had found a way to change the rules of the game halfway through instead of pushing it until the final quarter. Yes, the picture changes gears eventually.

I wanted to know details about the invaders. For example, what do the aliens want from Earth exactly? We never learn for sure. There is one line of speculation during the first ten minutes of the film and the rest is thrown out the window. Are there many others out there with Cage’s ability? There is talk of the person with the reset ability being psychically linked to the aliens, but given that there are other humans out there with the same or similar ability, can they connect with each other’s thoughts?

Perhaps these are not questions I should be asking. But my point is this: It would not have hurt the film if it had been more ambitious. It gets the look exactly right, from the so-called strength-amplifying jackets that soldiers must wear to fight against Mimics to the bare ruins of once beautiful cities that tourists from all over the world once relished, but the scope of its universe feels very limited. Great science fiction films are unafraid to take risks and go beyond what the audience expects.

Directed by Doug Liman, “Edge of Tomorrow” is nonetheless a movie worth seeing because it is fun, energetic, visually striking, and has a sense of humor. One word of warning: If one goes into this looking for plot holes (it must be terrible being a cynic), one would likely see them and inevitably be disappointed. But if one goes into it just hoping to be entertained, one would likely get exactly what he or she wants. Sometimes that is more than enough.

Total Recall


Total Recall (2012)
★ / ★★★★

A recurring dream involving being chased by the authorities alongside a woman he believes he never met has prevented Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a factory worker, from getting proper sleep over the past couple of weeks. Feeling depressed, he thinks that a treatment at Rekall, a company that can program memories into a person’s brain, can help him get over the nightmares if he is given an exciting or happy memory. A routine procedure prior to the treatment, however, triggers a repressed memory in unsuspecting Douglas. It turns out that he is a spy so specialized and dangerous that he is able to take down ten armed men, assigned to capture him alive, in under thirty seconds.

Inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” credit must be given to “Total Recall,” directed by Len Wiseman, for deciding not to make a carbon copy of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film. Instead, it opts for a more straightforward approach by focusing on delivering the action and spending less time on philosophical musings about which reality is real and which is constructed by machines. However, despite this, the film lacks drama, suspense, and memorable characters in order for the material to rise above the standard and have its own identity.

The dialogue is so flat that each time it takes a breather from the action sequences, I felt like I was watching the actors rehearsing a scene. There are moments when the performers try to compensate by overacting to little or no avail. Since there is no dimension to what they are saying, not once did I believe that there is something critical at stake. There are talks about terrorist organizations, struggle for equality, and worldwide domination–rather, what is left of it considering an international chemical warfare rendered most of the planet uninhabitable. But the screenplay by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback fails to incorporate these struggles in a thought-provoking, insightful, or entertaining way.

I enjoyed the special and visual effects. The futuristic cities are inspired by Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” in that there is a menudo of cultures plastered on neon-colored billboards as well as ethnically diverse crowds going about their businesses. I was at awe on how select buildings can possibly stand because they seem to lack support from the ground up. The best chase scenes involve Douglas running on rooftops, through skyscrapers, and inside houses. The editing matches the character’s desperation to survive so it is exciting to watch unfold, at least initially. Eventually, the chases suffer from diminishing returns because the same formula is adopted and the results are more or less the same.

“Total Recall” feels twice as long than it actually is. Although, as a remake, it takes some liberties to detach from the expected, it seems reluctant to really experiment and go wild. I enjoyed watching Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, as Douglas’ wife and partner in crime, respectively, for their physicality. I believed that their characters are not women to be messed with because they are capable of handling themselves. Their fight scene stands out but I wished there had been more chances for the two of them to release their anger onto one another. Such would not have boosted the film’s quality per se but it might have been more fun.

The Last Days on Mars


The Last Days on Mars (2013)
★ / ★★★★

With only nineteen hours left of their mission on Mars, a research crew of eight, led by Brunel (Elias Koteas), are supposed to be wrapping things up by checking that everything is working properly for the crew planned to take their place. But Marko (Goran Kostic) notices something under a microscope: evidence of bacterial cell division. Along with Harrington (Tom Cullen), they go to the site where the samples were acquired. But these are no ordinary bacteria. They have the capability to infect a host, take over completely, and attempt to kill and infect the next living being.

“The Last Days on Mars,” based on the screenplay by Clive Dawson and directed by Ruairi Robinson, is a big disappointment because by the end it is reduced to a standard slasher picture with no brain and little ambition. Despite a premise that I have weakness towards—people discovering something bizarre and horrific in a foreign environment—I found myself incredibly bored. It should have ended around the forty-five minute mark.

The latter half is junk because there is no mystery or real emotion. It is simply all about who will get infected next. Why is that interesting? When someone eventually does get exposed to the bacteria, it is neither executed nor accomplished in a manner that is willing to surprise us, move us, or scare us. What is the point?

At times the images are too dark so it is difficult to appreciate what is supposed to be curious or terrifying. The story takes place on another planet. It is science fiction on the surface but we rarely experience the feeling of wonder, its core is a horror film but the visuals are so unexciting and shot in a painfully ordinary way that we feel nothing for the events that are unraveling. The trek to the final scene is most interminable.

I guess the heart of the picture is supposed to be the friendship between Campbell (Liev Schreiber) and Lane (Romola Garai). What they share has a romantic undercurrent but since we are not given sufficient information about their connection prior to the discovery of the bacteria, I could care less about what would become of them. Are they worthy rooting for because they are “nice” and always willing to save the crew even those who have become infected? I found them boring. I liked Kim (Olivia Williams) precisely because she is the opposite. She is direct, smart, and often comes off as uncaring. Many of the characters require more friction, a bit of sauciness to create a semblance of intrigue.

Based on the final product, I guess the film’s goal is to appeal to people who just want to be entertained by watching characters on screen get killed. But I say we deserve a little more than a pessimism. The research crew has come across one of the greatest discoveries of mankind. Why play the story small and safe?

Cocoon


Cocoon (1985)
★★ / ★★★★

Ben (Wilford Brimley), Art (Don Ameche), and Joe (Hume Cronyn) live in a seaside retirement community. Once in a while they break into a pool house next door for some fun and relaxation. During one of their visits, they see four rock-looking figures settled at the bottom. Although curious as to what they are, the zestful gentlemen are not entirely bothered by them so they decide to swim anyway.

Meanwhile, Jack (Steve Guttenberg) is hired by Walter (Brian Dennehy) so that he and his crew can use Jack’s boat for twenty-seven days. Out in the middle of the ocean, they obtain cocoons that house extra-terrestrials and place them in the swimming pool that the older folks so enjoy spending time in.

“Cocoon,” based on the screenplay by Tom Benedek and David Saperstein, is highly enjoyable at times because, having volunteered in a retirement home during my years as an undergraduate, I found it honest in its portrayal of the aging. While there is a sadness in watching the geriatric characters struggle in doing the simplest things like getting from one point of the room to another or picking up a spoon to feed themselves, these images are contrasted with sequences where the men and women are energetic enough to partake in social activities like dancing and playing mahjong. This is before we learn that the cocoons in the pool have the magical ability to make the old feel very young again.

Comedic scenes come in various forms like the men freely talking about their erections and seducing their wives or lady friends to bed. I appreciated that the movie shows that even old people can still talk about sexual things without reservation.

The most awkward aspect of the picture, however, is the romance between Jack and Kitty (Tahnee Welch), one of Walter’s crew members. After being a Peeping Tom and discovering that Kitty is an alien, he is still so very willing to get into her pants. And he is far from subtle about it. It is probably funny on paper because Jack comes off as a silly kid stuck in a man’s body, but I found it weird and the possibility of a human and an alien sharing a love scene made me feel uncomfortable.

Whenever the romantic angle is front and center, I wondered if the yearning between the human and the alien could have been more convincing and actually romantic if the script had been more subtle about their feelings for one another. Because their interactions consistently border on triteness, I did not believe the sentiments. I was bored. It is similar to watching a puppet show with no jokes.

Eventually, the old folks are given a choice between living the rest of their lives until their bodies are ready to die and a chance to live forever. Bernie (Jack Gilford) supports the former idea despite his ailing wife while the rest are, understandably, so quickly willing to embrace such a magical possibility. Instead of going for the easy chase scene, I wished the picture had taken more time in exploring which really is the right thing to do for each major character. In the end, we get the impression that some of them will not be happy with their decisions somewhere down the line.

Directed by Ron Howard, “Cocoon” is a mixed bag. When the camera turns its attention to the residents of the retirement community, the material coruscates a certain contagious energy. If only the subplots were constructed and executed as freshly and as youthful as the spirits of the senior citizens.