Tag: science fiction

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
★★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) had been out of town for quite some time but his nurse (Jean Willes) advised he returned early because something strange was going on in their town. Patients insisted that there was something wrong with their health only to be perfectly fine the next day. When Dr. Bennell returned, he was approached by various individuals who claimed that their loved ones were not really their loved ones. They believed that a family member had been replaced by some thing: a perfect look-alike with memories intact but devoid of complex emotions. Based on Jack Finney’s magazine serial, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” directed by Don Siegel, was an expert hybrid of science fiction and horror. The science was rooted in the concept of people who suffered from Capgras Syndrome, the fiction stemmed from the strange alien pods, and the horror seeped from the characters’ (and well as our) realization that no one could, or should, be trusted. The film wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that it was a product of its time. There was mention of the effects of radiation due to atomic bomb testing, suspicions of communism, and even spies hidden in shadows. But such elements were not the only source of entertainment. Dr. Bennell was one of the most amusing doctors I’ve seen on screen because he didn’t behave like a typical man in his profession. While people came up to him for help and he did the best he could to ameliorate their anxieties, he seemed surprised most of the time. When something shocking happened, I found it interesting that he wasn’t able to maintain his composure. His open-mouthed expression gave everything away. However, I didn’t consider McCarthy’s interpretation of his character as a negative. It was cheeky and with all the weird happenings in the picture, having a rather obvious but root-worthy character worked. What didn’t work for me was the narration by Dr. Bennell after he had escaped Santa Mira. He was held by the authorities and a psychiatrist wished to evaluate his psychological state. The narration occasionally took me out of the moment especially during the most critical rising actions. It told us what was going to happen instead of just showing and surprising us. If the narration was completely excised from the picture, the final product would have been a bit stronger in terms of establishing its pace and maintaining its texture. The movie wasn’t free of plot holes. For instance, the goo in the alien pods had the capacity to become whatever life form was near as long as the target was asleep. What triggered the goo to start reconstructing itself? More importantly, what happened to the body after the person had been replaced? Were they obliterated by a laser beam? Kept in a closet? I kept waiting for answers but those issues were never acknowledged. The aliens’ end game was irrelevant and I was glad the material left that out of the equation. Sometimes not knowing the “why” could add to the story’s creepiness as it did here.

The Sender

The Sender (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★

A young man languidly walked along a densely wooded highway and made his way through a public park. With rocks in his pocket, he stepped in the lake and tried to drown himself. Parents and children watched in horror as the young man didn’t even blink before ending his life. Resuscitated and taken to the mental hospital, he was named John Doe #83 (Zeljko Ivanek) since no identification was found on him and he couldn’t remember who he was. Under the care of Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold), the hospital staff hoped to relieve John of his amnesia and major depression. None of them were aware that John actually had the ability to transmit his visions and nightmares into people’s minds. Written by Thomas Baum, “The Sender” injected a creative spin on telepathy and made it a fascinating experience through intense projections of imagery most often found in carnivalesque house of horrors. I enjoyed that the fears it featured were common in order to shock and appeal to the greatest number of viewers but they always felt relevant to the bizarre happenings. For instance, the camera zoomed in on creepy-crawly bugs and chattering rodents to the point where we could almost inhale their revolting smells and feel their alien bodies on our limbs and down our spine. It also showed us every day fears like someone breaking into our homes in the middle of the night and being followed in a secluded area. Each time the material focused on fear, Thomas Baum, the director, exhibited such control over the events that were unfolding. Although close-ups were common so that we could really absorb the terror that the characters were going through, he adopted a rhythm in terms of when to pull back the camera–as if forcing us to take a deep breath–and ready us for another round of slow curiosity and sudden jolts. Furthermore, the use of music by Trevor Jones laid a dark aura on an already sinister storyline. Underneath its techniques were supported by very good performances. Harrold as the psychologist was not only well-meaning, she had a balance of toughness and sensitivity. I enjoyed Dr. Farmer’s interactions with Dr. Denman (Paul Freeman) because they stood on the opposite sides of the spectrum when it came to dealing with the unusual case of John Doe #83. Dr. Farmer believed in talking things through with the young man and slowly urging him to try and remember his past. But Dr. Denman believed there was no time and he was convinced that sooner or later the patient was going to kill himself. Dr. Denman’s solution was electroconvulsive therapy. I liked that although I didn’t agree with Dr. Denman, given that it seemed there were other options before his final solution was justified, there was no denying that both doctors cared for the patient. Ivanek, too, was quite interesting. There were times when he allowed his character to come off rather innocuous, but there were also moments when we couldn’t help but consider that perhaps his innocence was not only a façade but a tool utilized in order to continue to exercise his abilities. “The Sender” needed a stronger final act. While it made sense where it took place and why certain events had to happen, I didn’t feel anything while watching the commotion unravel. It could have been more imaginative and thrilling. Nevertheless, the film, clever in having no subplot so that we could hone in on the mystery, clearly had an ambition and the goods to achieve it.

The Running Man

The Running Man (1987)
★★ / ★★★★

Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), member of the military, was sent to prison because he wouldn’t follow orders to kill a group of women and children protesting for food. But when he broke out of prison, an edited video was released to the public in which Ben was portrayed to have killed the innocent civilians. Out of desperation, he took Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso) hostage to seek refuge in Hawaii. Ben’s escape was unsuccessful, but his story caught the attention of Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), a host of the most popular game on television. In order to restore his reputation, Ben must compete in the gladiator-style show and defeat assassins collectively known as The Stalkers (Professor Toru Tanaka, Gus Rethwisch, Erland van Lidth, Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura). Based on a short story by Stephen King, “The Running Man” had a fascinating prediction involving the future of American culture reflected by what was shown on television but the execution did not match the story’s ambition. Although Schwarzenegger had the body for the role, I wasn’t convinced he had the talent, acting-wise, to deliver the depth and complexity in his character. If Schwarzenegger was only allowed to stand and look tough, it might have worked out. Unfortunately, he was required to speak such as giving orders to his teammates, expressing anger, balancing incredulousness and frustration. I felt like his one-liners cheapened the material. The “I’ll be back” line was obviously a reference to James Cameron’s “The Terminator.” It was unnecessary. Others were supposed to serve as comic relief, but there were far too many of them. I was completely taken out of the experience of being in their world. What I liked, however, was the way the camera switched between the battle scenes and the audiences’ reactions. The audiences were supposed to reflect us: rich, poor, black, white, young, and old. The point was all groups craved some sort of violence. I interpreted the game show audiences as individuals who supported capital punishment and thereby accepting the innate hypocrisy within the system. I found the audiences’ reactions interesting and disturbing. It was acceptable for The Running Man, people who had to battle their way through obstacles, to die because they supposedly have committed crimes, mostly murder, despite the lack of concrete evidence. Images on television were enough to persuade everyone. However, it was considered a tragedy for a Stalker, also committing murder, to perish. There was an interesting mix of tongue-and-cheek and cynicism in the way the audiences’ loyalty shifted from one end to another when certain lies were exposed. It highlighted the power of television and most people’s inability (or laziness) to think critically. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s third act was frustratingly, maddeningly weak. The film’s message turned into something it was supposed to be fighting against. That is, the answer to violence is more violence. Instead of leaving us with real insight regarding the role of television in our lives, “The Running Man,” directed by Paul Michael Glaser, took the easily digestible path. I felt like what I put into the film was significantly more than what I had gotten back.


Stalker (1979)
★ / ★★★★

Rumor went around that there was a place called the Zone which had the power to make anyone’s deepest desires to become reality. Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) was a chosen man. It was his job to escort those interested in making a wish to the mysterious location. Despite his wife’s (Alisa Frejndlikh) disapproval, Stalker accepted to take Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Scientist (Nikolai Grinko) past the guards. If caught, they were to be shot because the Zone was a forbidden place for the unimportant. Based on the novel by Arkadiy Strugatskiy, I found “Stalker” pretentious because it dared to bring up big questions about life, like man’s connection to his occupation, our place in an increasingly complex and desperate world, and whether selflessness truly existed, but it shied away from attempting to answer its questions. We were subjected to watching the unexciting adventure of three men who supposedly symbolized mankind’s wish of finding the elusive truth. Of what? We never knew because the screenplay did not bother with specificity. I don’t mind abstraction but there comes a point where I have to feel like what I’m seeing is worth my time. There was no reason for the movie to run for about two hours and forty minutes. There were many interminable scenes, supposedly meditative, which took me out of the experience instead of welcoming me to dive in. For example, when the three men (barely) successfully escaped the guards and were about to enter the Zone by means of a dilapidated mini-tram, the camera lingered on the men’s faces. If Andrey Tarkovskiy, the director, expected us to sympathize with the characters or try to guess what they were thinking, it was a significant miscalculation. We knew nothing of the characters’ respective backgrounds that would warrant such a meaningful introspection. However, I enjoyed the way the filmmakers used colors to convey contradiction. The picture started off with a dark sepia-like shade. The depressing look reflected the unhappy people controlled by, from what it seemed like, an unjust government. When the trio reached the Zone, the color green was prevalent. The colors were sharper, more noticeable, and alive. But there was a catch. Other than the chirping birds, buzzing bugs, and fish splashing about, there was no human in sight. The contradiction worked because it showed instead of using words. Unfortunately, the philosophical pandering eventually took center stage. I felt like I was being lectured by intellectuals who wanted to show off how smart they were. I was so detached, I caught myself thinking what I wanted to add to my grocery list and what to do after the movie finished. I can sit through movies that last for four hours or longer. Length is not a problem if there’s meat in the screenplay. I liked that “Stalker” challenged me, but there’s a problem (and a slap of irony) when even the characters decided to take a nap. I was jealous. I didn’t take a nap through the entire ordeal.


Tron (1982)
★★ / ★★★★

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a software programmer and an arcade owner, wished to hack into his own program which was currently held by a company led by Ed Dillinger (David Warner). But Flynn’s attempts failed because Master Control Program (MCP voiced by Warner) ran a dictorship-like existence inside the program. With the help of Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), a fellow programmer, and Lora (Cindy Morgan), Flynn was able to sneak inside the company. However, MCP had eyes everywhere and, to Flynn’s surprise, it actually had the power to take him inside the game. Written and directed by Steven Lisberger, “Tron” had outdated special and visual effects, but what I enjoyed most about it was the fact that it had an idea and it committed to exploring that idea. The questions that were brought up, such as man’s relationship and increasing dependence with technology, wasn’t very deep but they were satisfactory to get me to care about what happened once Flynn was inside the program. The characters were forced to participate in gladiatorial games in which the loser would cease to exist. When Clu/Flynn, Tron/Alan, and Ram (Dan Shor) took it upon themselves to actively rebel against MCP, I didn’t see the colorful cars as just models for cars but a symbol for a particular character. Although the three were essentially a part of a video game, I cared about them because their challenges, created by Sark (also played by Warner), became increasingly difficult. However, as a whole, I felt like the material was too dependent on its special and visual effects. What the picture needed, especially when the audience had gotten used to the visuals, was more human qualities. I didn’t know who Flynn was outside of his job. He liked to play video games but even that was superficial. In the beginning, there seemed to be a friendship between Flynn and Lora. The friendship was mentioned but the friendship wasn’t shown in a meaningful way. Furthermore, there were a handful of questions that left us hanging. When Flynn was abducted by MCP, what did Lora and Alan do prior to appearing in the game? Was there even a passage of time from the moment Flynn was kidnapped until he returned? I felt as though there were several missing scenes toward the end that could potentially help to wrap up the story. The screenplay wasn’t as tight as it should have been, therefore its story, not just its influential effects, felt dated as well. And why was the film titled “Tron” when he wasn’t, arguably, the hero of the story? Tron felt like a sidekick because Flynn had the strong personality, the playful energy, and, lest we forget, he created the program. But I digress. “Tron” requires some effort to watch which might be attributed to some of the tech talk. Still, I’m giving it a slight recommendation because, image-wise, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.


Chronicle (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

With a terminally ill mother (Bo Petersen) and a drunkard of a father (Michael Kelly), Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is far from a happy teenager. To everyone’s surprise, Andrew decides to buy a video camera and begins to film the ordinariness of his life, from the bullying he endures in and out of school to the moments when he feels open enough to reveal his secret insecurities to his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell). From looking at his bright eyes, weighed down by darkening eye bags, we can surmise that maybe he decides to record so that he can later watch the footages and find some sort of reassurance that his life is worth living. While at a rave, Matt and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), a popular jock, invite Andrew to an underground cave. Inside houses a structure that emanates strange lights and sounds. The next couple of weeks, they begin to exhibit powers starting with psychokinesis.

“Chronicle,” based on the screenplay by Max Landis, takes advantage of the found footage sub-genre, so often used as a disappointing gimmick, by telling a rather surprisingly moving story of a young man who has grown so tired of being pushed around. What if one day that person gets enough power to fight back?

One of the reasons why I enjoyed the picture so much is, especially during its early scenes, its consistency in quickly turning events from somewhat harmless fun to life-threatening. For instance, eventually discovering that they are able to will their body to levitate, the trio decide to play catch amongst the clouds. Suddenly, the peaceful game turns deadly when a plane in full speed reveals itself from an awkward angle. The initially relatively stable camera, controlled by Andrew’s mind as it hovers over and around them, goes through appropriate convulsions once panic sets in.

As much as it is very amusing to watch the guys discover and experiment their newfangled abilities, the more interesting moments involve Andrew talking about how he feels so lonely sometimes. I must admit that I began to get a bit teary-eyed because I found myself able to relate to the essence of his loneliness. As hard as he tries to fit in during social gatherings, he just has a sensitive personality which often leads to disappointments and other emotional disasters. It is obvious that he is grateful of the powers because the experiences bind them as soldiers do when in battle.

Prior to their trip to the cave, Andrew is not really close to Matt even though they are cousins. And Andrew certainly is not a part of Steve’s social circle. Steve’s friends–including himself, at least initially–mostly see Andrew as that loser who wears the same grey sweater every day to school. At one point, when Andrew confesses to Steve and Matt that he has just had the best day of his life, it does not feel like some cheap cliché. The line holds meaning to us because the camera captures the essence of their bond and it shows us the value of Andrew deciding to come out of his shell a little. I think that emotional honesty moved me so much because when he does terrible things later on, I was still able to root for and empathize with him.

Despite its very short running time, Andrew’s character arc feels complete and the denouements feel just right. Directed by Josh Trank, “Chronicle” could have used less scenes of Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) the blogger, Matt’s romantic interest, in order to make the final product even leaner. The romance brings nothing special to the film and I felt the momentum slow down each time they flirt in such a boring way. They are so cutesy around one another, I was just thankful there is not a “No, you hang up first!” scene. Still, the pathos of Andrew’s suffering is so strong, brilliantly played by DeHaan, everything else feels secondary.


Rubber (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

A tire suddenly came to life in the desert. Like a toddler’s uncertainty in taking its first steps, we observed Robert the tire rolling around and falling over. It learned that it liked to put its weight on things like plastic water bottles and small animals. When Robert couldn’t physically destroy something, it used its psychic powers in order to force its target to explode. Written and directed by Quentin Dupieux, I had fun with “Rubber” because it took a ridiculous idea and kept its head high like it wasn’t anybody’s business. The bad acting, thin dialogue, and lack of sensical narrative worked because our expectations were turned inside out before we even had time to form them. I was consistently interested in the murderous tire and what it was going to do next. There was a subplot involving Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) and an accountant (Jack Plotnick) wanting to kill the audiences, literally the people with binoculars watching the tire murder people from a distance. Sometimes it worked. I saw the subplot as the director’s frustration of Hollywood unabashedly rehashing the same old formula in terms of which movies would receive the green light and the audiences’ willingness in swallowing it all up. I saw the turkey, poisoned food given to the onlookers, as a symbol of most of the garbage in the film business. The garbage is killing our culture. I share that frustration. In every ten movies I watch, only one (or two if I’m lucky) is truly original and refreshing. Another scene I enjoyed was when the lieutenant tried to convince his men that they should stop doing their jobs (they were at a crime scene) because it was all a movie. Just so his colleagues would believe him, he ordered one of them to shoot him. If he didn’t die, it was proof that everything was fake. Lastly, I was amused when Lieutenant Chad, whose goal was to destroy Robert, looked into the camera during the opening scene and explained to us the lack of reason for the things we were about to see. It prepared us for what was coming. However, there were times when the picture didn’t quite work. We were not made aware of Lieutenant Chad and the accountant’s endgame. Were they aware of the tire’s true potential? We they fully invested in supposedly saving mankind from tired ideas? Was the universe that the characters inhabited a part of some sick joke? We never found out. I had some questions for Robert as well. The tire was interested in a woman (Roxane Mesquida) but was it aware of its own lack of body structures like limbs, torso, and a head? There was one shot in which the tire saw its own reflection and, despite being an inanimate object, it seemed a bit sad. I imagined it thinking, “Why do I look like this?” That moment made me realize that, despite its wild premise, I was enjoying the picture for what it was. “Rubber” was absurd, some would say unnecessary, but the director used such qualities to make a statement and create something quite original. If anything, it had to be given credit for its sheer audacity.

The Avengers

The Avengers (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The Tesseract, a cube with the potential energy to destroy the planet, was obtained by the egomaniacal Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from S.H.I.E.L.D., Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistic Division, led by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Overpowered by Loki’s strength and otherworldly powers, Fury sought help from Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) eventually joining the party. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, comprehensive character development in “The Avengers” was simply out of the question because each superhero contained an interesting personality filled with quirks and unique sense of humor. The main question was how to keep the story interesting apart from massively entertaining explosions and jaw-dropping action sequences. I found that the film was similar to a great swimmer. Because of Whedon’s direction, the film knew how to pace itself so it didn’t drown in its own ambitions. When the movie kept its head underwater by delivering the intense and often breathtaking battle scenes, they were allowed to play out to our satisfaction without overstaying their welcome. For example, the duel between Iron Man and Thor was simply wonderful to watch. Out of the six, not only did the two of them have the biggest egos, they were my least favorite characters compared to the rest. (Personally, listening to Thor speak is as boring as reading about the history of differential equations hybridized with Shakespearean lingo.) Yet it didn’t matter because I was so involved in what was happening. Their brawl, and of those to come, was within the story’s context. Thor, prior to joining the group, wanted to convince his adopted brother against enslaving Earth while Iron Man worked for a cause and had to deliver Loki to the proper authorities. When the movie gasped for air, they were quick and memorable. The sense of humor stood out because the script played upon the elementary personalities of each hero or heroine. For instance, the material had fun with what the audience expect of Black Widow and her sex. The script was balanced in subverting the typicalities of women’s roles in superhero movies, given that they’re usually the romantic interest or object of desire, and remaining loyal to her character as a woman on a global and personal mission. Since she, along with Hawkeye, did not have a stand-alone movie, having not read the comics, I appreciated that her character was given a little bit more depth than her counterparts. While there were still unanswered questions about her history and the intricacies of what she hoped to gain by joining S.H.I.E.L.D., by the end, I felt like I knew her as well as the other guys. I felt like she had her own stamp in the dynamics of the group, that they wouldn’t be complete without her. Naturally, the film’s climax involved a lot of extirpation of expensive skyscrapers. But the main difference between the destruction seen here as opposed to, say, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was the action didn’t feel incomprehensible. Things blew up but the quick cuts weren’t injected with multiple shots of epinephrine. Each jump of perspective had something enjoyable to offer instead of relying on a false sense of excitement. In other words, the destruction was actively made interesting instead of allowing it on autopilot. “The Avengers” could have used more Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), less speeches between Loki and Thor, and an explanation on how The Hulk became more manageable toward the end. Nevertheless, such negatives are so small compared to the cyclopean roller coaster ride that the filmmakers had given us. When I was a kid, I played with a lot of action figures. Some even revolved around crazy narratives I made up, one of which involved a live caterpillar and beetle destroying Legos that stood for Gotham City. I must say, the sight of The Hulk tossing Loki around like a piece of spaghetti made me feel like a kid again.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The Death Star was destroyed but the war between the Empire and the rebels was far from over. The rebels aggregated in Hoth, a planet covered in ice, and Darth Vader (David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) had just found them. There was a full-on attack on our heroes and they lost. Upon their retreat, they were divided into two groups. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) traveled to Dagobah to find a master Jedi called Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) upon the request the ghostly Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Meanwhile, their ship unable to go into hyperdrive, with some amusing consequences, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) attempted navigate their way through an asteroid field in order to evade Vader and his pesky minions. “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” directed by Irvin Kershner and from the original mind of George Lucas, was a quintessential sequel: it proved that just because the special and visual effects were grander and the action-sequences were more heart-pounding, the story and character need not be sacrificed. Although the picture didn’t mention how many months or years had passed since we last saw our beloved characters, we didn’t need to. Luke was more mature and more confident in the way he approached problems, the robots were more useful and wise-cracking, Chewbacca was more lovable, and the arguments between Han Solo and Princess Leia felt more like necessary friendly bantering/flirtation instead a hindrance to the story’s mood and momentum. The sequel challenged itself by constantly offering us something new. Let’s take the environment. In its predecessor, the characters spent a third of its time navigating their way through a barren desert. In here, we were immersed in a chilly tundra. Instead of going straight to the action of Vader’s troops demolishing the rebel base, it wasn’t afraid to take some risks like Luke being kidnapped by the Abominable Snowman-looking creature. It had a sense of fun. We never truly believed that Luke was in real danger. However, it was a necessary scene because it reminded us of Luke’s increasing connection to The Force, a key element in eventually defeating the evil Empire, and that he was no longer just a farmer trying too hard to be a Jedi. There was also an interesting contrast between scenes of the swampy Dagobah where Luke trained and the futuristic floating city where Han Solo and company took refuge. Despite the differences in images, the alternating scenes didn’t feel forced because the characters were consistently working toward a common goal. “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” unafraid to explore its darker themes regarding loyalty and betrayal, unexpectedly romantic and chock full of surprises, was an adventure in the highest order.

The Darkest Hour

The Darkest Hour (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), Americans in their mid-twenties, took a trip to Moscow excited that their computer program connecting tourism and social networking would be picked up for millions of dollars. But when a Swedish competitor, Skyler (Joel Kinnaman), presented their idea as his own to the Russians, Sean and Ben decided to go to a club and drink their disappointment away. While in the club, they met fellow young Americans, Anne (Rachael Taylor) and Natalie (Olivia Thirlby), wanting to have a good time. Their four-way flirtation, however, was interrupted by yellow-orange lights capable of turning humans and animals into ashes. “The Darkest Hour,” based on the screenplay by Jon Spaihts, lacked the menacing atmosphere and dark energy in order to be a successful alien invasion film. Since it didn’t aim for campiness either, I wasn’t sure what it was attempting to be. In any case, the action sequences it offered felt uninspired. Consider the club scene when the invisible alien went on a killing spree. A lot of people screamed and ran around like panicked sheep yet there I was wondering why the alien wouldn’t just keep eradicating whatever got in its way. The scene was supposed to convince us that the alien was seemingly indestructible. It was almost a requirement so that the later scenes in which the characters discovered its weaknesses would have an impact. Instead, I got the impression that the alien was slow and as confused as the humans it had to destroy. The forthcoming scene was just as egregious. Sean, Ben, Anne, Natalie, and Skyler spent several days hiding in the club’s storeroom. If it weren’t for the subtitles at the bottom of the screen, I could swear we wouldn’t have any idea that they spent days in there. They didn’t look like they haven’t showered for days, the girls’ make-up remained perfect, and not a smudge of dirt could be found on their clothes. And there I was wondering how they used the toilet. One of the characters said something about urinating in a can. If none of them had to go number two for days, I’d say they had a bigger problem at hand. Forget looking for U.S. Embassy for extraction, go see a doctor as soon as possible. Fortunately, when they did decide to finally explore outside, there were some effective shots. Daytime was creepy because of the empty metropolitan. Nighttime was dangerous because whenever an alien was near, disabled lights would suddenly turn on. I liked the irony involving characters running away from the light. In horror movies or sci-fi pictures with horror elements in them, characters tend to run away from darkness, usually while in a tunnel, as it tried to engulf them. However, good, isolated shots do not make an entertaining movie. If “The Darkest Hour,” directed by Chris Gorak, had more fun with the material, it would have been a more bearable experience. Sean and his friends eventually made it to the mall. He suggested that they needed new clothes considering they hadn’t changed for days. I was so excited for them to go shopping since everything was for free. Instead, they glumly walked to different stores and tried on whatever looked the plainest. If I were in their shoes knowing that there was a big possibility that I might die, I would live to the fullest. If that meant taking my time to go shopping and leaving everyone annoyed, then so be it.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A young farmer named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found out that one of the two robots, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), his uncle purchased contained a message from Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), one of the rebels who wanted to bring down the evil Empire, seeking help from a former Jedi knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness). She was captured by Darth Vader (David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) and was ordered to reveal the location of other rebels. Failure to do so on her part meant termination. Luke, Obi-Wan, and the two robots hired a mercenary named Han Solo (Harrison Ford), along with his friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), to infiltrate the Death Star, capable of destroying an entire planet, and save the princess. Written by directed by George Lucas, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” was an ambitious and exciting picture, worthy of the reputation of being one of the most influential films ever made. I was impressed with the risks it took right from the beginning. For the first ten to fifteen minutes, we were asked to pay attention to the two robots. One of them could speak but other could only utter beeps and whistles. Somehow, the material was able to get away with it because, despite the two being non-living objects, they had chemistry. I’m doubtful if such a risk could be taken today and be as successful. I enjoyed that we were immediately taken in the middle of the warring members of the Empire and rebel groups. Background information were mostly revealed through conversations. Not only did it feel organic, it was efficient with its time. Although there was weakness in the dialogue at times like when Han Solo and Princess Leia would get into cheesy and sometimes cringe-inducing arguments, the tirades happened in the middle of action-packed sequences so it almost felt negligible. I especially liked the scene when the protagonists plunged into a garbage chute. We were led to believe that the threat was the creature that lived in there. It turned out that it was the least of their worries because the walls eventually started closing in. Lucas’ signature direction was always present. Every room revealed new surprises that ranged from soldiers of the Empire just waiting for a target to interesting- and tired-looking aliens just having a drink in the middle of the day in a hot desert town. The energy was palpable as if The Force, the spiritual energy in which the Jedi believed to bind everything in universe, compelled us to fixate our eyes on the screen. The first entry of the “Star Wars” saga was a prime example of the level of success a film could have when there was synergy among special and visual effects, an absorbing story, and adrenaline-fueled adventure of epic proportions.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When a group of spacecrafts were seen by residents of a small Indiana town, a few of them were given an obsession involving an image where something great was about to happen. One of them was Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a family man with an ordinary job. The night in question left half of his face sunburnt, a symbol of his broken psyche. His scary obsession eventually drove his family away. And then there was Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a single mother whose son, Barry (Cary Guffey), was taken by the unidentified flying objects. She, too, although to a lesser extent, obsessed with the image of a flat mountain. Written and directed by Steven Spielberg, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was a collection of wonderful sights and sounds. It focused on these two elements because if extra-terrestrial life were to make contact with us, it was most likely that we would communicate via images and sounds, not words. The film captured a dynamic intensity from beginning to end because Spielberg was consistent in allowing his audiences to feel an array of emotions in just one scene. Take Barry waking up in the middle of the night when his toys started to move on their own. There were strange noises. Lights were flickering on and off without someone touching the switch. We felt fear but the child felt curiosity. In his attempt to explore his surroundings, we slowly realized that perhaps there was nothing to fear but we were still wary. There was one shot I particularly loved. After finding out that the refrigerator had been ransacked, the boy saw the aliens from a corner and smiled. He saw the aliens because he wasn’t afraid. We felt fear, or at least initially, and so we didn’t get a chance to see the aliens. Seeing the boy’s expression was enough because we weren’t ready. In a way, watching Roy and Jillian’s journey wasn’t just about how far they would go to find out the truth. It was also about us and our willingness to look through the other side without fear, which I thought was expertly symbolized by one of the scenes when Barry opened the front door, saw something very strange on the other side, and his mother taking him away for safety. Another strand involved a French scientist (François Truffaut) who led the government to communicate with the aliens. He, too, had his own share of obsession. I was immersed in the film because the varying stories were in a collision course. But unlike movies about strangers finding their way so that all of them would meet in the end, this picture had a natural flow yet the events always felt bigger than the individuals we had a chance to observe. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a movie that had aliens in it, was ultimately about humanity and the fact that we will always have something more to learn, whether from each other or something far away. It had a beautiful and humbling message aided by unwavering and fully realized vision.

The Prestige

The Prestige (2006)
★★ / ★★★★

Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale) were gifted magicians. They used to work together up until Alfred accidentally caused the death of Robert’s wife during a performance. Her death triggered Robert’s obsession to have a better career than Alfred, a difficult feat because his rival could effortlessly think outside the box, a natural magician, although he lacked a bit of drama in order to establish a solid rising action and truly engage the audience during his performances. As the two attempted to create more complex tricks, everything else in their lives began to fall apart. Alfred’s wife (Rebecca Hall) became unhappy with their marriage and Robert’s lover (Scarlett Johansson) began to feel used when Robert asked her to spy on his former colleague. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” was a curious film for me because no matter how many times I watched it, I failed to see why it’s loved by practically everyone I know. I admired the performances. Bale was wonderful as a family man who was completely invested in his craft. Every time he spoke about magic and being on stage, I felt passion in his eyes and the subtle intensity of the varying intonations in his voice. Jackman was equally great as a man who was never satisfied. I felt sad for his character because despite his many achievements, what he truly wanted was an impossibility–for his wife to live again. The dark hunger consumed him and he became unable to question his motives or if vengeance was even worth it. The story was interesting because its core was about how being a magician defined a soul. Its labyrinthine storytelling, jumping between past and present, kept my attention because it was like solving a puzzle. However, the picture committed something I found very distasteful. That is, when Robert’s greatest trick, with the help of a scientist named Tesla (David Bowie), was finally revealed, it was borderline science fiction. Imagine a magician who, using a white cloth, made a pigeon disappear right before our eyes. We wait in heavy anticipation for him to bring back the pigeon. Once the “Tada!” moment came, what laid before us was not a pigeon. What appeared was a blue mouse or something not similar to a pigeon at all. The magic trick had turned into a joke. That was how I felt when all cards were laid on the table. Some critical pieces made no sense. I felt cheated because I had the impression that the magic trick was supposed to be grounded in reality. It wasn’t and, I must admit, I felt angry for spending the time in trying to figure out the secret. “The Prestige” wore out its welcome but was kept afloat by its morally complex characters and their willingness to destroy each other for the sake of nothing.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) was declared by fashionably ostentatious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) as one of District 12’s two contestants to participate in a televised tournament to the death, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Primrose’s older sister, bravely stepped forward and volunteered to be in her place. The next name randomly chosen from a fishbowl was Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) with whom Katniss shared a complicated history. The brutal tournament, officially coined as The Hunger Games, served as a yearly reminder of the repercussions of the twelve Districts’ failed uprising against the Capitol. Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, although one could argue that the most jaw-dropping scenes in the film consisted of teenagers (Alexander Ludwig, Amandla Stenberg, Dayo Okeniyi, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid, Isabelle Fuhrman) taking various weapons and using them to murder for their own survival, I was most fascinated with the rituals that the Tributes had to go through before they entered the domed battlefield. During the silences between dialogues, a great sadness percolated in my gut because it was similar to watching prisoners taking calculated steps before capital punishment was imposed upon them. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that a metropolis called The Capitol was the heart of the post-apocalyptic North America. The most obvious sign that supports this hypothesis was the amount and quality of food Katniss and Peeta were offered just because they were now considered special. Having grown up in District 12, the poorest among the Districts and most of its residents being coalminers, the actors did a wonderful job in masking their characters’ disgust of the system. If I were in their shoes, I’m not so sure if I would be able to eat. I’d be too aware that each chew was a countdown to my very public demise. The chosen ones also had to lobby for support via a parade, a graded demonstration of their skills, and a televised interview. If the audiences liked a contestant, they could send food, medicine, and other supplies when their favorite was in danger. Although Peeta had no trouble appealing to the masses, Katniss found it difficult to be ecstatic in being a part of something that she didn’t believe in. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a clothing designer and the winner of the fiftieth Hunger Games, respectively, provided much needed moral support. They were veterans to the game and Katniss was smart enough to listen to and follow what they had to say. As Tributes dwindled in number, the picture touched upon Peeta and Katniss’ potential romantic feelings toward each other yet it didn’t feel hackneyed. Considering their circumstances and what they had to endure to remain alive, it was logical that they yearned for something that reminded them of home. We were then forced to ask ourselves whether what they felt for each other was simply a matter of an illusory convenience or, in a fact, a truth in which they were just too young or too inexperienced to acknowledge. Fast-paced yet insightful, violent but never exploitative, “The Hunger Games,” directed by Gary Ross, kept my stomach grumbling for another serving of delectable bloody treats. Although we rooted for Katniss to survive every time she or a friend was attacked, almost immediately after a life was taken, a sadness washed over the reptilian part of our brains and we were reminded that they were all disposable pawns.