Tagged: sci-fi

Review – Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto

Blade Runner 2049

The last few years have seen a number of sequels to long dormant film series: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed, Jurassic World. Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is something quite different. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, was not a franchise movie. It was not even a box office success. Blade Runner is a cult classic which earned more mainstream recognition over a period of decades, thanks to various re-cuts and re-releases in the ancillary market (specifically the 1992 Director’s Cut and the 2004 Final Cut). While the film had a very cool neo-noir aesthetic and unique sound thanks to Vangelis’ score, the appeal of Blade Runner is largely the ideas it explores. All of this makes returning to the property 35 years down the track a far more interesting challenge than simply rebooting or reviving a proven franchise. Continue reading

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Review – Passengers (2016)

Director: Morten Tyldum

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen

passengers_ver2Jon Spaiht’s screenplay Passengers, a science fiction romance about two people alone on a long space journey, had been around the traps for a decade having appeared on the Black List (an industry survey of the top unproduced screenplays) way back in 2007. But once they added two of the hottest stars on the planet in Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, and an Oscar nominated director in Morten Tyldum, coming off his success with The Imitation Game, it wasn’t going to stay unproduced for much longer.

The Starship Avalon is 30 years into its 120 year journey transporting 5,000 hibernating migrants to the colony world of Homestead II when a technical glitch causes passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) to wake way too early. With all the other passengers and crew asleep, and no way of putting himself back into hibernation, Jim is faced with the prospect of spending the rest of his life on this intergalactic cruise ship with only Arthur the android bartender (Michael Sheen) as company. Continue reading

Review – Arrival (2016)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg

arrival

While the sci-fi films that dominate the box office and attract the most attention tend to be rollicking space adventures like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy, at its heart science fiction is a genre about ideas. At its best, science fiction uses fantastic, unfamiliar scenarios to discuss relevant issues and relatable ideas. Up and coming Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, Arrival – based on Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” – uses the story of aliens arriving on Earth to explore notions of communication, memory and time.

Twelve 1,500 foot tall spacecrafts shaped like giant coffee beans have settled at seemingly random locations around the globe. Every 18 hours a door at the bottom opens enabling us to go in and make contact. Continue reading

Review – The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Kristin Wiig, Aksel Hennie

MartianIn a long career that has had its share of hits and misses, Ridley Scott has managed to consistently make one great film per decade. In the 1970s it was Alien. In the 1980s it was Blade Runner. He showed he was more than just a great science fiction director with Thelma & Louise in the 1990s and the swords and sandals epic Gladiator in the 2000s. After a bit of a recent dry patch (Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counsellor, Prometheus, Robin Hood), Scott has returned to form with a film which could well be his great offering of the 2010s, an adaptation of the Andy Weir novel, The Martian.

The Martian gets straight into it, establishing its scenario instantly. Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is 18 sols, Mars days, into the Ares III research mission on Mars when an enormous storm hits, forcing his team’s immediate evacuation. Struck by debris and assumed dead, Watney is left behind. But he is not dead. And despite being stranded 55 million kilometres from home, he has no intention of dying. Continue reading

Review – Ex Machina (2015)

Director: Alex Garland

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Ex MachinaWhen we think science fiction films we tend to think big – space travel to distant worlds, scope and spectacle. But quite often the best science fiction films are small. Ex Machina, from the Latin phrase meaning “from the machine,” is such a film and marks the directorial debut of British screenwriter Alex Garland, best known for his screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and his novel The Beach.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a low level programmer working for tech giant, Blue Book. Through an in-company lottery he wins the chance to spend a week with the company’s enigmatic CEO and programming legend, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at his remote Alaskan mansion and research facility. Upon arrival Caleb discovers that he is not there for a week of hanging out with the boss but to assist Nathan in his latest research endeavour, artificial intelligence. Nathan has produced a humanoid robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants Caleb to put her through a Turing test. The Turing test (named for the British computer scientist Alan Turing, subject of Oscar winner The Imitation Game) tests a machine’s ability to exhibit human behaviour. Continue reading

Review – Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Bill Irwin, Matt Damon, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Topher Grace, Casey Affleck

InterstellarAnd so it has arrived. Arguably the year’s most anticipated film, the film which had blockbuster lovers and serious cinephiles alike impatiently counting down: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. As the first step in Nolan’s post-Dark Knight Trilogy career Interstellar delivers exactly the sort of bold, ambitious and audacious filmmaking we have come to expect from this British director who has established himself as today’s premier large-canvas filmmaker.

In the not too distant future a still very recognisable Earth is on the verge of being uninhabitable. Ravaged by dust storms and a major blight that has caused the death of most crops – the only thing that still grows is corn – making sure that there is enough food to keep people alive has become humanity’s first and only priority. Once a NASA pilot, Cooper is now a frustrated farmer, living in the Midwest with his son Tom and daughter Murph, but still maintaining the heart of an explorer. By this time NASA has become an underground organisation; at times like these the government cannot be seen to pour money into something as frivolous as space exploration. There Professor Brand is working on a plan to ensure the long term viability of humanity. While there are no other inhabitable planets in our galaxy, a wormhole has opened up near Saturn which has given them access to other stars and galaxies and twelve planets with potential have been identified. When an unusual occurrence lands Cooper on NASA’s doorstep, Brand invites him to pilot the exploratory mission. So, motivated by the chance of ensuring the survival of his children, Cooper joins the crew and sets off on a mission to save humanity.

Interstellar takes us into the world of theoretical physics. The narrative is built around concepts of time and relativity. As the crew explore different planets of different masses, it impacts the relationship between their time and Earth time. In one instance, a three hour stopover to investigate a water covered planet ends up equating to 23 years on Earth, an occurrence which is emotively captured through the lifetime’s worth of video messages from home that await the team when they return to their ship. The film attempts to explain relativity in simple, visual terms in order to keep the audience on board, so you don’t have to be a physicist to understand what is going on. That said, Nolan has always been a filmmaker who prefers to trust his audience to keep up rather than over-explain things. Consider the reverse chronology of Memento or the multi-layered narrative of Inception. Likewise, here he trusts his audience to glean enough from the film’s many discussions of theoretical physics that they will be able to follow what is happening even if they don’t completely understand the concepts.

California Institute of Technology physicist Kip Thorne, known for his work on traversable wormholes, was a script consultant for the Nolan brothers (Christopher’s brother Jonathan was co-writer) and receives an executive producer credit on the film. As such, Interstellar has been praised for the unprecedented accuracy of its depictions of black holes and wormholes. But even for those of us who are none the wiser on such matters, the visuals of these phenomena are still very striking. These impressive visual effects are complemented by the use of stunning location shooting for those scenes which take place on foreign planets. The result is that Interstellar is very much a big screen movie.

Cooper (McConaughey) explores a potential colony site.

Cooper (McConaughey) explores a potential colony site.

Science fiction, particularly when you move away from the action-adventure end of the spectrum towards the more ideas-based narratives, is often accused of being cold and emotionless. Nolan has faced similar criticisms of his own filmmaking, that for all the spectacle and grandeur, the scope and scale, his films lack a beating human heart. In Interstellar the filmmaker seems to be searching for that balance, accompanying the theoretical physics which inform the story with an exploration of human themes of hope and sacrifice. Interstellar sets itself up as a very scientific film, in which people act pragmatically, but it then introduces emotion, love and the bonds between people as motivating forces which must be factored into this scientific equation. The film also contains more humour than we have previously seen in Nolan’s work, mostly courtesy of TARS, the artificial intelligence robot which accompanies the crew. However, in seeking to bring a human warmth to his film, Nolan arguably overcorrects and in the third act takes the film in an overly sentimental and fantastical direction.

With a runtime of 169 minutes, Interstellar is a long movie. Christopher Nolan hasn’t made a film under two hours since Insomnia in 2002 – most have been around the 150 minute mark – so the length here shouldn’t be a surprise. Of course, length is not, in itself, a problem if a film can maintain your interest for that period of time. But while Interstellar is never slow and crams a lot into its runtime it still feels long and the multiple codas that make up the film’s last twenty minutes drag.

At its best, Interstellar is very impressive indeed. It is hard to watch this film without thinking of Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Given that film is one of Nolan’s favourites, the similarities are likely no accident. Unfortunately, Interstellar does not maintain that high standard for the entirety of its runtime. It is not always engrossing, despite an impressively deep cast some of the characters are thinly drawn, Hans Zimmer’s score (which has shades of Vangelis) at times overpowers the dialogue, and the film’s third act and coda will frustrate a lot of people. Interstellar contains some major cinematic achievements, but does not deserve to take its place in the science fiction pantheon.

Rating: ★★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen Interstellar? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

Review – Lucy (2014)

Director: Luc Besson

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked

LucyIt is a commonly believed myth that humans only engage 10% of their brain’s capacity. It is a favourite of science fiction speculation; just imagine what could be achieved if we could tap into that dormant 90%. The latest and most outrageous film to ponder this question is Luc Besson’s Lucy.

Lucy is an American student living in Taiwan who, thanks to her new loser boyfriend, falls in with the wrong crowd. Abducted by a Korean drug cartel, they surgically implant a pouch of their new super-drug CPH4 into her stomach for her to smuggle into America. But the pouch springs a leak, and as the synthetic drug floods into her body it starts to unlock the full potential of her mind.

While a number of films have previously toyed with the 10% idea, Lucy must be the most far-fetched exploration we have seen. As Lucy’s brain function increases, rather than becoming an ultra-high functioning human, she becomes almost godlike. She can read minds, manipulate time and space, and defy gravity. This is quite a leap to take, and the film does not offer adequate justification for what we are seeing. Usually a movie like this would engage some sort of pseudo-science (i.e. the DeLorean can travel through time because it has a ‘flux-capacitor’), but even Morgan Freeman’s character Prof. Norman, whose lecture on the potential of a fully functioning human brain is intercut with Lucy’s experiences, admits his theories are just hypotheses with no actual scientific proof supporting them.

The silliness of this premise wouldn’t be such a problem if the film didn’t take itself so seriously. Lucy seems to believe it is making profound philosophical points about the very nature of existence, but it is not. There are moments of humour in Lucy, and it is surprisingly simple humour. Were the rest of the film delivered in the same tone, embracing its silliness, it could be quite a fun movie. But because the majority of the time it takes its premise so seriously, it is hard to enjoy.

The other problem Lucy’s godlike powers create is that with every action sequence there is less at stake. The more powerful she becomes the less legitimate tension can be created by the illusion that she is in danger.

Despite all this, one cannot deny that Besson certainly had a clear vision. For all its faults, Lucy is a bold and interestingly executed film. Besson employs an almost impressionist montage style to bring his themes to the fore. When we first meet Lucy, as her boyfriend is trying to convince her to deliver a suitcase to the mysterious Mr. Jang for him, we momentarily cut away to an image of a mouse carefully approaching a sprung trap. As Lucy enters the hotel with the case, the scene is intercut with footage of a gazelle on the savannah being circled by cheetahs. This stylistic approach – far and away the most interesting thing about the film – continues throughout, being used to illustrate Prof. Norman’s theories, and results in film which feels like Tree of Life spliced with Salt.

Misrepresented in advertising so as to look like an all-out action movie with a butt-kicking heroine, this will undoubtedly help its box office takings but result in a number of miffed customers. Part science fiction, part action movie, part philosophical rumination, Lucy does not really satisfy as any of them, and for a film about unlocking the potential of the human brain, it manages to be quite dumb.

Rating: ★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen Lucy? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.