Tag: science fiction

Mr. Nobody

Mr. Nobody (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

“Mr. Nobody,” written and directed by Jaco Van Dormael, is one of those movies with a plot so vast and far-reaching that one can only attempt to describe its surface.

Telomerization, which prevents chromosomes from reaching a state of senescence, is a science that has been conquered. Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is the last of his kind: a 117-year-old man capable of dying due to old age. Naturally, this makes him a celebrity. A journalist (Daniel Mays) assigned to interview him is perplexed because Nemo admits on tape that he has lived several lives: a choice not made at the time is later made once the former choice—and the life thereafter—has run its course.

I admire movies with a whole lot of ambition instead of simply relying on same old thing. But movies that dare to dream and push the envelope should be supported by a screenplay that is consistently intelligent or insightful and commanding a certain level of clarity. Since the script lacks such qualities in certain sections, I am afraid that many will be lost somewhere in the folds of its alternate realities. Though it is two-and-half hours long, it does not come off successful in conveying everything it hopes to accomplish.

The movie is beautifully shot. In a way, it needs to be visually appealing because it invites us to look into a possible future that is filled with uncertainty. I enjoyed that even though science has made immortality possible, sometimes it feels almost like an afterthought. The future people continue to live their lives and we get only glimpses of their reality. At one point, the journalist asks the old man how it was like to have sex in the past. In the present, sex is obsolete.

There are three women in Nemo’s life—or lives—and they are given appropriate time on screen. As the film goes on, it becomes clear why Anna (Diane Kruger as an adult, Juno Temple as a teenager), Elise (Sarah Polley, Clare Stone), and Jean (Linh Dan Pham, Audrey Giacomini) end up making a lasting impression on our protagonist. Each woman offers Nemo a different dimension of love. Conversely, he is required, depending on the woman, to love in a specific way. We watch Nemo receiving and providing love. Therefore, it is necessarily that Leto give at least three different performances.

The way the screenplay sets up its alternate realities comes with a cost. Because it jumps from one life to another without a defined pattern, the material fails to build continuously. Though I realize it is not the movie that was made, perhaps it might have worked better if we were allowed to start with a life and then seeing it all the way through before moving onto a new one. This way, philosophical musings clearly designed to get the audience to think or consider might not have been lost in the shuffle.

A subplot that ought to have been front and center is criminally ignored at times. What triggers young Nemo’s ability (Thomas Byrne) to live multiple lives is his parents’ separation (Rhys Ifans, Natasha Little): he must decide whether to stay with his father in England or move to America with his mother. Why is it that we do not get more scenes of teenage Nemo (Toby Regbo, providing a wonderful layer angst and verve) interacting with his parents? At times it is almost like the movie is dealing with a disease in a nonsensical way: only dealing with the symptoms but rarely the root of the problem.

“Mr. Nobody” is an experience but it fails to make a lasting impression because select critical pieces are either not dealt with or merely pushed to the side. Just about halfway through I wondered how more effective it would have been given that it had embraced a more cerebral rather than a sentimentalized approach.

Logan’s Run

Logan’s Run (1976)
★★★ / ★★★★

In a domed city of year 2274, humans are not allowed to do two things: set foot outside the confines of their borders and live past the age of thirty. Thirty-year-old residents are led to believe that by volunteering to take part in Carrousel, a type of a gladiatorial game, their lives will be renewed. Only a select few are aware that life is unable to be reset like a light switch. Instead, they choose to run away and find Sanctuary, a place where people can live for however long their bodies can endure.

Logan (Michael York) is a Sandman whose job is to hunt down Runners. But when the city’s main computer takes four years off his life, triggering the light on his palm to blink red, a signal for an impending execution in the Carrousel, Logan teams up with Jessica (Jenny Agutter), a member of an underground group who helps Runners get away.

Based on the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, the film offers very dated special and visual effects but the concepts it tackles are so strong, from dealing with mortality to exercising free will, I found it quite effortless to identify with the protagonists in their quest to capture and possibly expose an elusive truth.

With every obstacle that Logan and Jessica encounter on the way out of the oppressive city, the camera has a way of staying with them like someone is always watching. Even if there is a chaotic explosion, the camera remains still like an unbothered observer. In addition, government cameras are seemingly installed everywhere and a fellow Sandman, Francis (Richard Jordan), is effective in doing his job. It is entertaining because we feel that being captured and killed are always very real possibilities for Logan and Jessica.

Although some action sequences come off as silly, like Logan’s incapability to accurately hit a moving target, especially when he is supposed to be an experienced agent, when deaths are shown, we become that much more eager to watch the tyrannical regime be overthrown.

On another level, the picture works as a critique on our tendency to look more to the future for answers than the past. There is sense of humor in the way Logan and Jessica lack the knowledge about major historical figures like Abraham Lincoln or simple things like the concept of old age. For instance, when they meet an old man (Peter Ustinov) whose sole companions are cats, they wish to touch the wrinkles on his face and ask questions about how it is like to be raised by a mother and father.

However, I felt that the screenplay by David Zelag Goodman is lacking a critical psychological and emotional character arc for Logan. While the pacing is consistent because there is a chase every other scene, Logan’s intentions are sometimes confusing. For instance, after the main computer takes four years off his life, making it clear that he is never going to get it back, why does he decide to push a button on his belt to alert his co-workers of the location of the rebels? It does not quite compute.

Directed by Michael Anderson, “Logan’s Run” is splattered with vivid colors inside the domed metropolis and even more pavonine ideas about what it means to be a human in a mechanized and highly controlled future. Many of its images, despite being set in the future, may now be products of the past but its ideas continue to hold relevance.

Battle Beyond the Stars

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having conquered more than a handful of planets in different galaxies is not enough for overly ambitious Sador (John Saxon) so he warns the citizens of Akir, a peace-loving planet, that he and his troops will return in seven risings to colonize. If the residents do not surrender upon their return, their planet will be space dust. Akir’s leaders send Shad (Richard Thomas), inexperienced but willing to prove himself, on an intergalactic mission to hire mercenaries and form a resistance. Can he gather them in time to save his planet?

What is most admirable about “Battle Beyond the Stars,” written by John Sayles, is a forward trajectory devoid of philosophical furnishings like a man being forced to ruminate his destiny while facing a crucial undertaking. Right when Shad gets into the ship, managed by a sharp-tongued and at times foul-mouthed–computer named Nell (voiced by Lynn Carlin), we get the impression that the picture’s priority mostly shallow entertainment: shooting at targets and blowing things up. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Its special and visual effects, although dated, command a special charm. It reminded me of those badly dubbed science fiction television shows imported from Japan that I used to watch (and love) when I was a kid every Saturday and Sunday mornings. When lasers rain on the characters, I felt transported to a simpler time.

Shad’s expedition holds a consistent level of excitement. Each place he visits contains a certain level of curiosity and danger. More importantly, the screenplay knows when to slow things down in order to focus on the characters and communicate to us why they decide partake in Shad’s request.

Two of my favorite encounters include clones with psychic powers and a man with great riches but happens to have a bounty on his head. The clones, collectively known as Nestor (Earl Boen, John Gowans, among others), are chalk-white creatures with egg-shaped heads and a third eye on their foreheads. I enjoyed the contradiction between their otherworldly appearance and good intentions. Their strange abilities are not only useful in battle, they are executed in an entertaining fashion.

As for Gelt (Robert Vaughn), labelled as a criminal in nearby systems, there is a certain sadness to his reasons for joining the resistance. Though he is surrounded by great riches, the precious metals and jewels around him prove worthless because he is alone: a king in an uninhabited island is no king at all.

However, I wished that Shad’s romantic interest, Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) is given more to do aside from looking good when faced with a dilemma, looking good despite the panic happening on Akir, and looking good while Shad attempts to navigate them out of a predicament. Surely there is more to her than physicality. Shad is not shallow, just slightly curious of the opposite sex. Inevitably, it leads to some awkward and amusing situations. It would have been more than welcome if the screenplay had allowed us to see what our hero sees in her.

Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami and Roger Corman, “Battle Beyond the Stars” may have been an imitation of other epic space adventures but it has its own treasures. Its lack of self-importance is endearing.


Antiviral (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The Lucas Celebrity Services Clinic provides a rather… special treatment. Their latest customer is Mr. Porris (Douglas Smith) and he wants to be infected with the herpes simplex virus that was taken directly from a celebrity he admires. One of the clinic’s specialists, Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), advises that he inject the virus on the left side of Mr. Porris’ upper lip because it would appear as though he had been kissed by the celebrity herself. (She has herpes on the upper-right side of her mouth.) Mr. Porris thinks it is a most excellent idea.

“Antiviral,” written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, coruscates with originality so vivid that although its images and concepts are downright disturbing, I found myself unable to stop staring at it. It is science fiction on the surface, horrific just underneath, and darkly comic in its core. It is a most relevant satire of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Here, “following” one’s favorite stars on Twitter or Instagram is not enough to quench the thirst. No, fans must feel a connection—a molecular connection—by housing viruses their idols have or had.

The film is flooded with the color white and geometric patterns. This is especially applicable to interior shots of the clinic which communicates a level of irony. Illusions of cleanliness and control are created but dealing with viruses is never a clean affair and controlling them is possible only to a point. But customers buy them—just as much as they (we) are willing to dive head-first into idolizing a person based solely on their looks, how they perform on stage, television, and movies, or their on-screen personalities.

Jones kills the challenging role as an ace specialist with an extracurricular activity. The magic in the actor’s performance is a go for broke intensity to the point where we feel uncomfortable watching his character’s body writhe in pain and suffering. He does not play Syd to be likable or sympathetic. Instead, he makes it difficult for us to figure out what Syd is thinking exactly. Syd is cunning. His cold gaze is reminiscent of Patrick Bateman’s, after his mask has slipped, in Mary Harron’s “American Psycho.”

A minor problem occurs during the last third. There are too many third parties that crave a piece of the action involving the death of a celebrity named Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). It is difficult to keep track of them because they appear and disappear without the necessary bridges. The screenplay assumes we already know who they are and their precise endgames. At one point, I was terribly confused as to whether two of the opposing parties were really working together. I had to stop and think it through which disrupted the way I experienced the story’s momentum.

Despite such a limitation, “Antiviral” remains to be a wild and imaginative vision. Technical details concerning in its universe are best left to be discovered. One thing is certain: the material dares us to respond to it. A standout scene involves Syd going to a local meat shop and asking the manager (Joe Pingue) how people consuming the products he serves is not considered cannibalism. After all, the meat being sold from behind the glass is homegrown celebrity muscle cells.


Gravity (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

During a space shuttle mission, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), an astronaut, receive an order from Mission Control: abort the task because space debris triggered by a Russian missile strike is on its way. The warning proves too late—significant portions of the space shuttle are suddenly in pieces and the pair come flying about in separate directions without a tether to keep them within distance of their assigned worked area. Since it is Dr. Stone’s first mission, she panics and we observe Newton’s first law of motion in terrifying action.

“Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is an exhausting experience in the best way possible. Clocking in at just about an hour and a half, the picture shows that one does not need a bulky running time to appear significant and fulfilling. It values our time, chooses to go straight to the point, and it gets the job done. The first scene sets the pace and the director is keenly aware of this. As a result, the first ten minutes is highly accomplished, allowing us to marvel at the sight of Earth and then thrusting us into horror as the shuttle—without sound—breaks like glass. It is a sight to behold.

The story could have just been about two people in spacesuits as they attempt to survive in the blackness of space. I had my doubts. What is so interesting about someone floating about and breathing heavily? Instead, the screenplay by Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón plays with the audience. The medical engineer and the cosmonaut are written smart. General plans are drawn but plenty of unexpected errors and chance happenings occur. So many turns unravel that we learn to expect the unexpected. That does not necessarily mean we are ready for them. I like it best when movies are consistently one step ahead, those that demand to look us in the eye and dare us to tangle with it.

It is masterful and elegant in conveying a sense of danger. The way the camera glides so calmly as characters attempt to grab a hold of something—anything—to avoid getting sucked into a vacuum with little to no hope of rescue jolts us into leaning closer at the screen while simultaneously flinching at the possible worst case scenario. The juxtaposition between images captured and execution are melded just right.

Half of the casting works. Choosing Bullock to play a medical engineer whose first time in space quickly escalates into an unimaginable tragedy is unexpected because I am used to seeing her in comedies and comedy-dramas. Here, she shows a more serious and somber dimension to her talent. My favorite scene involves Dr. Stone howling and barking like a dog. A lesser performer who does not completely understand the character might have refused to perform the scene. After all, it probably looks stupid on paper or it might look plain silly on screen. I loved that Bullock did it and committed to it completely. To me, it is the character’s defining moment—forget the sad revelation about her past, how much she values her solitude, and how no one is waiting for her at home. Give us an alternative to convey a character’s mindset—something fresh we can chew on.

The casting that works less effectively is Clooney. While understandable that his character is supposed to be a very charming guy, one who has experienced life and always has stories to tell, I was never lost in Kowalski or felt connected to him. Instead, I saw and was constantly reminded of Clooney the big movie star. Perhaps it might have worked better if, like Bullock to Dr. Stone, Kowalski is played by someone who is either playing against-type or someone we do not recognize.

“Gravity” is cited by some alongside Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” These are two completely different movies. Both are ambitious visually. Both are willing to engage. The former is a story about survival. It takes place within the Earth’s circumference. Though some may disagree, I think it is meant purely to entertain—and there is nothing wrong with that. The latter is a story about not only our relationship with technology but also the limitations of what we can comprehend as a species. It takes place en route to Jupiter and beyond. It inspires us to ruminate.

Despite their differences, the two, in some ways, are spiritually connected.

Alien Trespass

Alien Trespass (2009)
★ / ★★★★

A spaceship crashes in the mountainous desert next to a small town where most of the residents have mistaken it for a meteor shower. But Dr. Ted Lewis (Eric McCormack), an astronomer, knows better. Out in the middle of the night to investigate, something in the ship takes over his body. The alien is called Urp, a sort-of federal marshall in the universe, and it is his mission to hunt Ghotas, unicellular organisms capable of thinking and dividing in an extremely rapid rate while consuming vast amounts of resources. When humans make physical contact with the extraterrestrials, the former are reduced to colorless goop.

“Alien Trespass,” written by Steven P. Fisher and James Swift, commences with a contagious joviality from its black and white fake news reels to deliberately bad special effects. I get it: it wants to duplicate the gut reaction we experience when we sit down and watch science fiction B-movies that dominated the ‘50s. However, as the film goes on, I began to wonder if it had anything else to offer.

The cutesy bad acting from the supporting players eventually begin to get under my skin because the joke is milked for all its worth. It does not help that the characters consistently make very bad decisions like in most slasher movies where teenagers end up dead. For example, when Penny (Sarah Smyth) and her boyfriend (Andrew Dunbar) are in a car and see a one-eyed pillar of a monster that can turn invisible at will, they simply squirm and squeal in their seats. A normal person might consider driving away or, if he or she is less smart, escaping on foot. Remaining in the same spot and asking, “What is it?” in different forms does not help anybody. Instead, it challenges us to endure the stupidity.

I did not care about the bad special and visual effects. There are scenes where it is so obvious that the actors are in front of a green screen. I chuckled once or twice because it is confident enough to stand by its limitations, purposefully done or otherwise. What I cared most about, however, is the execution of its story. I wondered why the writers did not give their project more ambition. The monster is relatively slow-moving. Urp knows that the creature wants to be around a lot of people so it can simply grab, eat, and multiply. So why does it have to take so much time for Urp to realize that he needs to find the closest town? The character’s lack of common sense—unbelievable because the possessor is supposed to be an authority in the cosmos—is used as an excuse to drag out a problem that should have been solved in twenty minutes—at most.

Lastly, perhaps after the Ghota has been captured, there is a surprise about its relatively unknown biology that challenges the characters even further. Why not force the characters to be smart and readily able to think outside the box? That way, we end up rooting for instead of yelling at them for doing something idiotic in every other scene. Capturing a pod with tentacles could and should have been more fun, like the brilliant sequence in the movie theater which just so happens to show “The Blob,” but the picture loses its creativity only fifteen minutes in.

I expected more from R.W. Goodwin, who directed some of the most ambitious episodes of “The X-Files.” It has some good jokes but the characters need to be a lot sharper and the story needs more urgency so we do not end up just wishing for it all to end.

Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Fifty years since a bug-like alien race called Formics failed to colonize Earth, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) is desperate to find a child who has the potential to lead against a second wave of invasion—one that he is convinced will happen soon. His search seems to be over when he comes across Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a cadet who fought back against a school bully. Eventually, Ender is informed by Col. Graff about his admission in Battle School, an elite training facility in outer space where gifted teenagers learn advanced military tactics.

There is a surplus of movies that run over two hours for absolutely no reason other than to create a semblance of importance, so when a picture that actually deserves to have its story told over a span of two-and-a-half hours, maybe even three, but gets a final cut of just under two, a part of me cannot help but get irritated. This is because “Ender’s Game,” based on Orson Scott Card’s novel and adapted to the screen by Gavin Hood, is high level entertainment as well as an intelligent commentary about the qualities one must possess in order to be considered an effective leader.

The hurried pacing dilutes what could have been a compelling psychological portrait of a character who is continually told, in subtle and overt ways, that he is gifted and special. While still interesting, we are only given snippets of the doubts that cross his mind when these are the elements that should have been expounded upon so that the material can stand above increasingly familiar “chosen one” franchises. Instead, the middle section almost relies on a formula between battle simulations and Ender’s troubles with figures of authority.

The action sequences look stunning. The zero gravity scenes where recruits must work as a team in order to take out members of the opposing team, a game similar to laser tag, command a level of excitement that is unexpected because we know that the weapons are designed only to disable via temporary paralysis—with zero level of pain. The various effects and acrobatics had to be done with CGI but as hard as I tried to pinpoint which exact elements are obviously done on the computer, my efforts were to no avail. The fluidity and seamlessness of every action and reaction—without the camera resulting to the increasingly annoying shaking tactic in order to induce thrills—allow the images look very polished, professional, and appropriately futuristic.

I also enjoyed the acting, especially by Butterfield and Ford. Ford has mastered the low, menacing growl and I believed him as a man of authority who thinks that his way of thinking and doing is the only right path and proposed alternative routes leave too much room for risk and therefore failure. Viola Davis, who plays Major Anderson, does a good job as a sounding board against Col. Graff’s domineering personality and ideas. We can detect that her character is also strong but on a different level. However, because of the aforementioned time constraint, it appears as though Major Anderson’s role in Ender’s extensive character arc is a bit unripe.

As with Butterfield, he has a knack for crossing the thin membrane between someone who can easily be pushed around one minute and then the next someone who has gotten control of a situation who may or may not push things a bit too far. He gives Ender a bit of edge by allowing him to be slightly dangerous. In addition, it is important that we believe that the protagonist is a highly intelligent tactician—on and off the simulations. Butterfield is able to embody this quality. He looks lanky, awkward, determined, and smart—and these contradictions work for him. I felt there was a soul in the character I was watching. I wished, however, that Bufferfield avoided tears in order convey sadness or heartbreak. Sometimes holding it all in thereby allowing only the audience to go through the catharsis is a more effective avenue.

I demand a sequel—one that is longer but equally ambitious. For instance, I wish to know more about Ender’s crew (Hailee Steinfeld, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Khylin Rhambo)—the friends he made while in Battle School—and the specific qualities they put on the table to make a great team. Though director Gavin Hood’s “Ender’s Game” has weaknesses that are recognizable, they can just as easily be overlooked when it is able to deliver on the material’s inherent potential and you find yourself invested in what is going on, what is going to happen, and what certain decisions might entail given it has a chance to continue.

Europa Report

Europa Report (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Six cosmonauts are sent on a once-in-a-lifetime mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, to gather evidence of a possible extraterrestrial life form(s). After months of traveling through space, William (Daniel Wu) and his crew have landed safely on the icy terrain. Everyone is excited to explore and discover what Europa has to offer. However, strange interferences in technology and a sighting suggest that they may not be alone.

Small in scope but large in ambition, “Europa Report,” directed by Sebastián Cordero, is a tense experience because the material manages to combine wonder, curiosity, and horror in a flask. No, it does not offer aliens running about and killing people–nor does it have to. Its confidence behind a subtler approach shows that the found footage sub-genre has a place in the movies when done exactly right.

I often complain about statics and glitches coming off too gimmicky in found footage flicks, but it works here. It becomes a part of the characters’ frustrations: not hearing a fellow astronaut over the mic, cameras tuning in and out due to solar flares, among others. Most notably, the camera does not shake vigorously when absolutely nothing is happening. Though a seemingly elementary concept, too many pictures that might have been good–but ending up nauseating–make such a critical misstep so consistently.

I enjoyed that small moments made a lasting impact on me. James (Sharlto Copley) has a little boy back home and at one point he says that the next time they will see each other is when his son is six. The journey to Jupiter and back is about two years. That may not sound too long but I think that if one is a parent, two years of not seeing your child is a long time. James may not have been given a proper character arc but, like the others, he is given one or two scenes that gives us important information which may inspire us to imagine how his or her life might be like on Earth.

The special and visual effects are a marvel at times but never ostentatious. We see plenty, like the surface of the moon and what is underneath the ice, but there is no constant reminder that what we are seeing should be noticed. It is all a part of the experience; it feels like we are in the middle of what the explorers are going through.

Based on the screenplay by Philip Gelatt, “Europa Report” may have benefitted from tighter editing and excision of certain scenes, especially toward to end, but its deficiencies do not get in the way of us wanting to know what is going to happen or how will things play out given that Routes X, Y, and Z have been exhausted. I was so into it that it really made me think about whether a scientific advancement, big or small, is worth a person’s life.

After Earth

After Earth (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Having sensed that he and his son are drifting apart, Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a renowned general who is often away on intergalactic missions, invites Kitai (Jaden Smith) to come with him to work so that they can spend more time together. What should have been a relatively safe trip goes horribly awry when their ship encounters a field of asteroids. Their ship heavily damaged, they have no choice but to crash land on Earth, once the home of mankind but is now a haven for creatures that have evolved to kill humans.

A part of me feels bad for M. Night Shyamalan because it seems as though each time his name is associated with a movie, the majority expect or wish for the project to fail. With work like “Lady in the Water” and, to some degree, “The Happening” (I liked parts of it), casual moviegoers have reason to think this way. But “After Earth” is not as bad as the aforementioned pictures; it is mediocre, certainly, but some sections of the film are entertaining.

The script might have benefited from a bit of polishing. While understandable that the heart of the story touches upon a strained relationship between father and son, and to some degree we know exactly where it is going, it need not have been so corny. Some lines sound too forced that at times we are reminded that we are watching a movie rather than being a part of an adventure.

For example, as Raige and Kitai get into a disagreement about the criteria of aborting a mission, out of the blue one of them begins to talk about something else entirely–a recollection of an event that is supposed to be sad or tragic. Instead, I found myself detached and noticing the strings of the puppet show. This approach would have worked only if the screenplay had a tight grip on the human drama of the story. It fails to move us because the moment is not earned.

The film is visually arresting at times. I marveled at the appearance of the abandoned Earth. Admittedly, it is not at all a challenge to discern which parts are CGI (most of them are) but I am somewhat forgiving when it comes to the visuals as long as they are not too showy as to overpower the material. I liked that the dangers on Earth involve animals that many of us are likely to be familiar with but are given slight alteration in size or function.

A standout sequence involves Kitai having to skydive and as a giant eagle-looking creature pursuits him. Shyamalan makes good decisions when it comes to balancing wide shots and close-ups in order to highlight the urgency of the action. The director is not without talent and I wish that more people were more open to giving credit when it is deserved–even if they think that the movie does not work as a whole.

Based on the story by Will Smith and screenplay by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan, “After Earth” is one that I consider to be a “background movie,” appropriate to play in the background during a party or gathering. The slower, less exciting parts give people a chance to catch up and trade gossip. When the action reaches a peak, however, people’s attention is captured until the thrills die down again.

Attack the Block

Attack the Block (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

When Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is on her way home from work, a group of teenage miscreants, led by Moses (John Boyega), stops her and demands for her phone, purse, and jewelry. As she fearfully hands over her belongings, something from the sky crashes onto a car just a few feet away. At first, they think that what has fallen is a firework considering it is Guy Fawkes Night. Moses looks inside the car.

There is nothing but a big hole on the roof and smoke coming from the vehicle. From a few feet away, though, Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones), and Biggz (Simon Howard) notice a creature hiding in the dark.

Written and directed by Joe Cornish, “Attack the Block,” energetic and entertaining, finds a way for us to care for the young thugs during the backdrop of a possible alien invasion. Each member of the group is given a chance to shine.

Interestingly, Moses, while the most daring, is not the most likable. He hides behind the veneer of toughness as a substitute for the frustration and anger of a barely existing home life. Later, when the muggers and the mugged team up for the sake of survival, Sam is granted a chance to enter Moses’ home. The scene stands out because it provides a possible reason why Moses is always in the streets and committing felonies.

Their neighborhood, or block, is not exactly affluent, but there is no shortage of kind people. The writer-director provides several instances which suggest that being poor does not necessarily equate to one having a propensity to do bad things. When Sam, traumatized by an attack, is seen by an older lady as she walks toward the elevators, Sam is invited to come in, have some tea, and talk about what had happened. I don’t think I have it in me to invite a complete stranger in my home.

The aliens are interesting. There are two types: the first is barely a size of a chair, non-hairy, and almost translucent, while the other is covered with thick black hair, its ravenous teeth glow-in-the-dark, and exhibits gorilla-like bearing. We mostly see the latter and it is creepy that they like to hide behind cars and shadows. Their agility is a threat. Chase sequences almost always involve the teenagers only about two to three feet away from their predators. Combined with its smart use of slow motion, there are times when I felt suspended in the air out of extreme anticipation.

Further, I admired the film’s bravado to actually allow some of the characters to meet their demise–often in a gruesome, bloody ways. It adds to the unpredictability and chaos of what is unfolding before our eyes.

What I was not as impressed with, however, is the way it portrays cops. They are as useless as wet gunpowder. I had a difficult time believing that despite more than a dozen gorilla-like aliens on the loose, not a policeman encounters one.

Moreover, Ron (Nick Frost) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway), devoted fans of cannabis, are greatly underused. They spend most of their time in one room and only conjuring about three barely amusing jokes. What is the harm of making them join the fight?

Although “Attack the Block” has the potential to be much edgier and grittier, it pulsates enough creativity to warrant approbation. Using ice skating shoes to kill an alien was something I had never seen before.

The Host

The Host (2013)
★ / ★★★★

A perfect world now exists because of extraterrestrial beings who have taken over the planet via controlling people’s bodies. Meanwhile, humans who managed to escape the main invasion are continually on the run. When Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) plunges to her death, her body is taken to the infirmary. An alien called Wanderer, just about the size of one’s palm, is put inside her. But Melanie is an anomaly. Instead of her mind and body being completely taken over by the parasite, she remains to have some control. Wanderer cannot help but be fascinated by the human experience despite the fact that it is assigned to go through her host’s memory in order to discover the rebels’ hideout.

“The Host,” based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer, falls into the trappings of syrupy romance despite the fact that its universe offers a whole lot more than dealing with trivial problems like being torn between two boys. Since its approach is small when the bigger picture demands to be explored, the majority of the picture ends up being a bore, mostly taking place in a cave where there is in-fighting. It does not warrant two hours of our time.

The protagonist lacks depth. The screenplay has not found a way to circumvent the fact that since Melanie’s body is split into having two minds, every thought she has is expressed–whether it be the original Melanie or the alien’s. As a result, the lack of subtlety makes the character one-dimensional when she really should be the most complex. Ronan tries to make the most out of the role, but she really cannot do much other than look sad or robotic depending on the situation.

There is a lack of a detestable villain. The Seeker (Diane Kruger) is potentially interesting in the beginning. Kruger plays her to be very calculating and cold. However, once the hunt for Melanie’s body begins, we see her mostly driving a helicopter, a car, or shooting at people. Later in the film, she changes a little bit (prior to going under the knife) but I had a difficult time believing the charade due to the absence of a believable, smooth character arc. Many changes within the characters seem to occur on a whim which is at times confusing–or just very poorly written.

The flashbacks are corny and elementary. One of the things that bother me in the movies is when I sense that characters are being introduced as if we were watching a parade. The flashbacks employ this approach and so when events are supposed to be sweet or emotional, I caught myself snickering at the mawkishness of the scene.

Based on the screenplay and directed by Andrew Niccol, “The Host” offers some neat images like a field of wheat grown inside a massive cave, but pretty images do not save the material from a deficiency of ambition or even a sense of very energetic fun. For the most part, one will find himself waiting for something to happen. When it finally does, the rewards are few and unfulfilling.

Bad Taste

Bad Taste (1987)
★ / ★★★★

A small town in New Zealand has been invaded by extraterrestrials. Four people are sent to investigate the extent of the takeover: Barry (Pete O’Herne) and Derek (Peter Jackson) are already there while Frank (Mike Minett) and Ozzy (Terry Potter) are on their way. To their surprise, not only is the place completely overrun by the aliens, they have the capability of disguising themselves as humans. These aliens are interested in human meat, a low-calorie exotic dish. Their plan is to leave the next day and present samples to their planet before collecting the livestock wholesale.

Written by Peter Jackson, Tony Hiles, and Ken Hammon, “Bad Taste” is cheaply made and it shows. And yet, the fact that it has a low budget is not its downfall. It is a part of its charm because its premise is driven by ideas. What makes it an experience to endure is that its latter half is made up of mostly uninspired shoot-outs. It turns into a bore.

Prior to the halfway point, I found the conflict between the humans and the invaders to be interesting. Barry and Derek find themselves in a pinch eventually when five aliens recognize their presence. The confrontation shot by the side of the cliff that overlooks the beach shows that the director, Peter Jackson, has an eye for location. In addition, there is contrast between the calming beauty of nature and the dire threat of being captured by the aliens, killed, and served as a delicacy.

At times it is shot sloppily, many times easy to tell that the camera is hand-held. Also, it is rife with continuity errors that prove distracting. For instance, in one shot a character’s face is covered in blood while the next shot shows the face completely free of red goo. Despite this, applicable only to the first half, there is energy in the chases. I liked that neither the aliens nor the humans are very smart. It is almost like a slapstick comedy, increasingly clear that the survivor, or survivors, is the one that will end up making the least mistakes.

The gun battles make the film look like a most egregious action film. Once the firearms are out, the ideas become stagnant and there is no longer inspiration or aspiration to rise above pointing and shooting. I was very disappointed that the aliens are easily killed by bullets. They, too, use guns. Is it too much to have them wield weapons that originate from their own planet? Two groups evading flying bullets is just tedious.

And then there is the rock soundtrack that is designed to get us excited about the goings-on. Loud happenings paired with hard rock is a mismatch. A few carefully placed piano keys, for example, would have killed two birds with one stone: creating a mood of desolation and amping up the tension.

“Bad Taste,” directed by Peter Jackson, offers some humor that work. My favorite involves a character with the posterior of his skull opening at random intervals which causes a part of his brain to fall out. He picks up the chunk of brain meat and shoves it in his noggin as if that solves everything. We know it doesn’t really work that way so the running gag is funny–or at least amusing. It is the only shining moment amidst the bullet brawl.


Womb (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Tommy (Matt Smith) and Rebecca (Eva Green) met when they were children while the latter is temporarily staying at his grandfather’s house. Her family has plans of immigrating to Tokyo, Japan. Twelve years later, Rebecca visits Tommy with hopes of continuing their special friendship–one that might lead to romance. The reunion proves to be a breath of fresh air for both of them. On the way to cause mass hysteria in the city involving cockroaches, Rebecca tells Tommy she needs to urinate. Tommy pulls over next to a field. As Rebecca walks away, she hears Tommy getting out of the vehicle, the accompanying sudden halt of another vehicle, and a deafening thud of a lifeless body hitting the pavement.

Written and directed by Benedek Fliegauf, “Womb” is surprising in that it avoids hyperbole considering its subject matter. After Tommy’s funeral, Rebecca decides to clone her deceased lover, carry the child in her womb, and raise him as if she were his own. There is a pool of questions worth bringing up and answering, like how the cloned Tommy would be different given the disparities in the environment where original Tommy was raised, but it focuses on one issue: Can romantic love be turned into love for one’s “child”? And if so, as an audience, do we consider it acceptable or morally repugnant? How about when the child turns into an adult? Is it still distasteful? Let us not forget that Rebecca and the clone do not share the same DNA. Is it considered incest?

The film is shot in a way that inspires us to turn inwards. There are plenty of scenes that take place indoors and the howling of fierce winds can be heard from within. We get the impression that there is something ominous brewing outside. And perhaps there is. We get a taste of regular folks’ discrimination toward “copies.” As many of us know, discrimination can lead to hate and hate can lead to violence.

Colors are drained of their vibrancy. Rebecca’s world feels like a never-ending winter. The snow can symbolize her grief. Though she is able to, in a way, being her lover back to life, the clone is not the same person. The clone loves her… but as a mother, not a partner in life. Green is quite good in evoking the need to love the child emotionally while struggling to keep the physical aspect out of it. We watch closely as her character is enticed to cross that line. Through the quiet and slow unspooling of the screenplay, we are mesmerized and fascinated about what goes on in Rebecca’s mind. If she can clone her lover, carry him to term, and raiser her as her own, what line is she not willing to cross?

“Womb” gets some interesting critiques. More than a few have expressed feeling disturbed that the camera shows nakedness of children. (No private frontal part is shown, just one shot of buttocks, a boy who is shirtless and at times wearing nothing but underwear.) I did not feel wrong about it because I think it ties into the story.

For example, in the latter half, when Rebecca looks at her “son” who may or may not be wearing much, we wonder what she might be thinking. Is she thinking about her time as a girl when she and Tommy innocently slept in the same bed? Is she thinking about something that could put her in jail? With the former half, I chalk it up to the writer-director’s intention of creating a world that feels realistic despite the fact that human cloning is very possible. When I was a kid, I would just be in my underwear at home sometimes. It doesn’t feel exploitative. It certainly is not pornographic.

A better question is not whether the film leans toward pedophilia from a technical standpoint, but how come none of the residents around the small town recognizes that Rebecca’s “son” looks exactly like the original Tommy as a child? That bothered me a lot more, if you ask me.

Storage 24

Storage 24 (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Workers in a London storage facility hear a loud explosion and experience an accompanying tremor. Curious as to what is going on, they look outside and notice a building from a couple of yards away emitting black smoke. To one of the workers’ surprise and horror, a jet engine lay on top of his car. Television reports claim that a military cargo plane crash has just occurred. Being so close to the incident, the storage building has gone on automatic lockdown. Unbeknownst to the people still inside, there is a giant container with slime that is wide open. It is assumed to have fallen out of the plane and the creature that was once inside has made it through the vents.

Directed by Johannes Roberts, “Storage 24” feels like a twenty-fourth entry in a film series because pretty much everything about it emanates a dearth of inspiration. While it does have humor so it is not always one note, the scenes designed to build tension lack patience and creativity. The scares, too, leave a lot to be desired.

There is a glimmer of hope because the screenplay seems to welcome comedy amidst the characters attempting to survive against a creature that kills indiscriminately. I enjoyed some of the sarcastic dialogue between Charlie (Noel Clark) and Mark (Colin O’Donoghue), best friends, especially when the former feels the need to vent about his recent break-up with Shelley (Antonia Campbell-Hughes). It is easy to relate to Mark because many of us have been in a situation where we listen to someone else who keeps talking about the same topic because it is our obligation to be polite.

But as the minutes trickle away, it becomes increasingly noticeable that the monster is not given time to be interesting. Instead, the first half is essentially a relationship drama with Charlie asking and begging Shelley to give him a list of things that went wrong in their relationship. It turns into an utter bore despite the would-be twist. Clark has a charming presence but his character at times is such a drag.

When a story involves a monster on the loose, it should always be engaging. When it is not, it is a meteoric sign that something is very wrong. One of the biggest problems is that we learn nothing about the organism. In movies like John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” the creature is fascinating not because of its ability to slice open people. We are horrified of it because of its unthinkable ability to mimic the appearances of humans and animals. What we fear is not only the creature in its original form but also the possibility that it has killed and transformed into someone that is considered a friend. In here, the monster goes through ducts, grabs people, and kills them. What makes this creature worthy of our time? Substitute an unstoppable serial killer like Michael Myers in place of the monster and it does not make much of a difference.

Its formulaic nature began to get under my skin eventually. Must the lights turn off and on during and after, respectively, the supposed scares occur? It bleeds of suffocating typicality that the characters are shown walking or running into dark rooms asking, “Hello? Is someone in here?” One can count the number of beats like clockwork until the Boo! moment. When it arrives, we wonder why they even bother.