Review – Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto
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
Review – Passengers (2016)
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen
Jon 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
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
In 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
When 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
And 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.
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.
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
It 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.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Lucy? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Review – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Nick Thurston
The decision to reboot the Planet of the Apes franchise in 2011 raised a few eyebrows. It felt like a slightly dated concept, and the previous attempt, Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake, had been a terrible flop. But Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved to be one of the pleasant surprises of 2011, well received both critically and at the box office. But while a successful reboot is one thing, a successful sequel is an entirely different beast. However, expectations have been surpassed again, as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an intelligent, thrilling blockbuster which succeeds in taking this franchise to the next level.
Ten years after Caesar led his clan of genetically modified apes out of captivity and into the woods outside San Francisco the world looks very different. The ALZ113 virus which was being tested on the apes has become an epidemic, known as simian flu, and has wiped out most of the earth’s human population. Only those lucky enough to have a genetic immunity to the virus survive. A few hundred of these survivors have settled in San Francisco under the leadership of ex-military man Dreyfus and former architect Malcolm. With their fuel running low, their only hope is to get the hydro-electric system at O’Shaughnessy Dam up and running. Doing this means heading into the woods which the apes have made their home. While diplomacy between Malcolm and Caesar allows for initial cooperation, the hot-heads of Dreyfuss and Caesar’s second in command, Koba, mean that tension is never far from boiling over.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes succeeds in going beyond what Rise of the Planet of the Apes gave us. The ambitious film gives us an expansion of scale. Where the first film was mainly shot in interiors, this sequel is shot entirely on location and primarily outside. This gives the picture a grander scope and a more epic quality. It also marks the first time that motion capture technology has been extensively used on location rather than in the controlled environment of a studio, and the results are stunning.
While upping the scale, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes returns to the heart of what science fiction is supposed to be. Rather than the simplistic spectacle it so often becomes these days, when done well science fiction uses its fantastical narratives to offer social commentary or insight into the human condition. The screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, wears its political heart on its sleeve, exploring themes of empathy and fundamentalism, tolerance and prejudice.
In this war between humans and apes, we are not encouraged to take sides. This is a great strength of the movie. Instead it wants us to see the similarities between the two species. There are good humans and good apes, and there are bad humans and bad apes. Neither species can claim moral superiority. As tensions rise we see that peace requires us to see those things which we have in common, while conflict comes from an inability to see past those things that make us different.
Visually, this film is very impressive. The visual effects, supervised by Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon, are tremendous in both the large scale action sequences, and the minute detail of the motion capture which brings the apes to life. But motion capture, or performance capture, is not just a technical achievement. The film’s strongest characters are simian, not human. The ape characters are both well-conceived and well written. The majority of the communication between them is in the form of a simple sign language, yet the actors use this primitive communication to effectively display complex emotions. Similarly, the film’s strongest performances come from the motion capture actors. Andy Serkis, with his iconic work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, has established himself as the world’s premier motion capture actor. But his performance as Caesar is something to behold. Serkis gives the weary leader of the apes a real gravitas. Caesar shows arguably the most complex, subtle emotional depth the cinema has ever seen in a non-human character. While I’m not sure that the Hollywood establishment is yet ready to recognise a motion capture performance with an award nomination, Serkis would not be out of place in that discussion.
In an era where the science fiction genre is often merely an excuse for special effects and spectacle, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes aspires for something more. Refreshingly intelligent for a big budget sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is easily the best blockbuster of the year so far.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Review – Godzilla (2014)
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche
For sixty years now Godzilla has been the undisputed king of movie monsters. Debuting in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film, Godzilla, the legendary creature has appeared in 28 films for Japan’s Toho Company. Despite that legacy, only once, in Roland Emmerich’s much maligned 1998 effort, also called Godzilla, has he received the Hollywood blockbuster treatment. But sixteen years later, Hollywood is ready to give it another go: different studio, different director, same title – Godzilla.
Scientist Joe Brody is certain that the Japanese government is covering up the true nature of a nuclear power plant disaster which took his wife’s life fifteen years earlier. With his son, Ford, a Navy explosives expert, he discovers that rather than being the result of a natural disaster, it was an attack from a MUTO, a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object. That MUTO, and its mating pair, are now heading across the Pacific Ocean towards the west coast of the USA and their only hope appears to be an equally large and mysterious creature which is tracking them.
Godzilla is only Gareth Edwards’ second feature film, after the 2010 independent film Monsters. He does, however, have a background in visual effects and that really comes through in this movie. Clearly taking his lead from Spielberg in Jaws, Edwards is careful not to overexpose us to the monster – in fact with Godzilla not featuring prominently until the third act there is a fair argument to be made that we don’t see enough him. But when he does show us the star of the film, he makes it count. Godzilla looks fantastic. The combination of immense scale and intricate detail makes for a very impressive visual presence. Edwards avoids the quick-cutting, shaky-camera style that makes some of the action sequences in the Transformers films such a headache inducing mess, allowing us a really good look at creatures as they battle it out. The film retains the traditional shape and lumbering movement of Godzilla, so even with these brilliant effects there are still moments when you get that nostalgic feel of a man in a costume, which is fun.
One of the other things this movie does really well is give a classic film figure contemporary relevance. This is achieved through the clever way that the film’s narrative ties in with contemporary fears. The catalyst that gets everything rolling is a nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. There is a tsunami. We see crowded city streets enveloped by a cloud of dust as skyscrapers crumble, which feel very familiar to 9/11 footage. All of these moments engage our memories of real world events. Effectively pressing the emotional buttons of relatable, real world experiences serves to ground what is otherwise a fantastical story.
Unfortunately though, as much as there are some great things about Godzilla, the film also has some pretty glaring problems. Primary among them are the film’s human characters. They simply aren’t engaging. Bryan Cranston’s nuclear scientist, the film’s most compelling character, does not feature as prominently as the trailers would have you believe. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a pretty bland, cookie-cutter protagonist, serving his role adequately but failing to take us on any sort of emotional journey. Elizabeth Olsen, who is a really good young actress, is the most underutilised, getting little more to do than wait by the phone and worry about her husband. The blockbusters of the last few years have made audiences largely immune to watching cities being leveled. We need individual characters to care about, and this film doesn’t adequately give them to us.
These characters are also not helped by the fact that there is an unavoidable disconnect between the characters and the central narrative of the film. Classical film narrative uses characters as the primary causal agents which propel a cause-and-effect narrative towards its resolution. The actions of the protagonist are supposed to make things happen, to ultimately determine the outcome of the film. In Godzilla, the human characters have very little dramatic importance. The message of the film is that nature will find a way to correct imbalance. Thus, the events that the human characters are involved in are only side stories, having little bearing on the outcome of the film which is to be determined by the battle between Godzilla and the MOTUs.
Godzilla is a film that gets some things very right and some things quite wrong. It possibly takes itself more seriously than a film about a 350ft sea-lizard should, but as a piece of pure spectacle cinema it does the trick.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Godzilla? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Review – Stranded (2013)
Director: Roger Christian
Starring: Christian Slater, Brendan Fehr, Amy Matysio, Michael Therriault
Is a thriller still a thriller if it doesn’t thrill? That is ultimately the question you are left with if you make it through Roger Christian’s sci-fi thriller Stranded.
When a lunar space station is severely damaged by a meteor shower its four staff must prepare to return to Earth. But one of the astronauts becomes infected by some spores found on one of the meteors. The result is a rapid pregnancy shortly followed by the birth of a healthy baby alien. The creature continues to develop rapidly, taking the form of one of their fellow astronauts, and starts to wreak havoc on their station while they wait for help.
Director Roger Christian has a strong science fiction pedigree. He won an Oscar as a set decorator on Star Wars and was art director for Ridley Scott’s Alien. Unfortunately when it comes to his work as a director his calling card is Battlefield Earth, a film renowned for its awfulness. Stranded is a scrapbook of ideas snipped from other films. Primarily, it is a pale imitation of Alien – we even get the alien spawning in the uterus of a female crewmember – that fails to create the intense, claustrophobic mood which was so central to that film’s success. The simple narrative is entirely uninteresting and devoid of logic and the characters don’t engage you. The film simply doesn’t make you care.
Christian Slater is the ‘name’ that leads this small cast of unknowns (Doesn’t that say something? When was the last time you chose to see a movie because Christian Slater was in it?) but he clearly isn’t overly invested in what he is doing here.
If Stranded has one saving grace it is that the film is almost completely devoid of CGI. One can only imagine how terrible the effects would have been if the rest of the production is anything to go by. That the alien conveniently takes on human form also means there is no need to design a convincing looking alien.
The movie finishes with a lame excuse for an open ending. Ordinarily you’d interpret that as leaving things open for a sequel, but surely the filmmakers here cannot seriously believe that is on the cards. Stranded falls into the awkward middle ground for genre films where it is not good enough to be enjoyed seriously, but not tacky enough to be enjoyed ironically.
Rating – ★
Review by Duncan McLean
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