Tagged: sci-fi

Review – Total Recall (2012)

Director: Len Wiseman

Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston, Bill Nighy

Total RecallTotal Recall is a remake of the Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger cult classic from 1990, which begs the question, why? Why did this film need to be remade? Director Len Wiseman, best known for the Underworld series, doesn’t take the story anywhere new, but he does lose the satire, the existential questions and sense of fun which made Verhoeven’s film work.

Total Recall takes us to a futuristic dystopia, where disenchanted factory worker Douglas Quaid decides to visit a Rekall centre, a company that implants clients with fake memories of the life they would like to have led. He chooses the life of a secret agent but as the procedure commences the technicians discover that he has had his memory erased and was previously, in fact, a secret agent. Quaid then finds himself on the run from those who had previously engineered his disappearance.

Colin Farrell takes on the role that Schwarzenegger made his own 22 years ago. Farrell is obviously a better actor than Schwarzenegger and does a passable job of getting you to empathise with his character’s confusion, but whether that is enough to make you accept him in Arnie’s place is uncertain. Arnie’s ownership of a role rarely has anything to do with his acting skill. What Farrell’s presence does do is demonstrate how, twenty years on, audiences demand a different style of action hero, with him being a far cry from the 1980s beefcakes like Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Van Damme.

Wiseman’s film is very visual effects heavy and while these effects are sound they are nothing we haven’t seen before. The look of the film is clearly based on Ridley Scott’s neo-noir masterpiece Blade Runner. If only it could have managed just a fraction of Blade Runner’s nuance.

Drawing on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (Dick also wrote “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” which was the basis for Blade Runner), the intrigue of Total Recall is supposed to come from an uncertainty as to whether what we are watching is real life or whether Doug is simply experiencing his Rekall fantasy. Unfortunately this existential element is almost completely lost in this remake, with the film never quite doing enough to genuinely make you wonder about the reality of what is being experienced. What you are left with is a largely unengaging film which feels like one extended, two-hour chase sequence.

Rating – ★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Review – Gravity (2013)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

GravityMexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men stands alongside Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and Duncan Jones’s Moon as one of the most interesting science fiction offerings since the turn of the century. Soon after the release of that film he went into pre-production on an even more ambitious science fiction project, Gravity. After a long wait, and going through a couple of studios and numerous casting changes, that film has finally hit the screen and with it Cuarón has stepped into the realm of the truly visionary. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has been thrown around by a number of critics as a point of comparison and rightly so. As was the case with Kubrick’s film in the late 1960s, Gravity a massive step forward in terms of creating an experience for the viewer and giving us some idea of what it must be like to be in space.

The simple narrative follows two astronauts, the rookie Ryan Stone (Bullock) and the experienced Matt Kowalski (Clooney), who are doing maintenance work on the Hubble Telescope when a field of debris from an exploded Russian satellite comes their way. Travelling so fast that it orbits the world every ninety minutes, the debris tears through everything in its path, destroying the Hubble, their shuttle and killing their crew. Stone and Kowalski are left floating in orbit, without radio contact with Earth, to try and get themselves back home. A classic survival tale, peculiarly the film is as much about being willing to let go as it is about fighting to hold on.

While the screenplay and the performances from Bullock and Clooney are solid, it is the visuals; the cinematography and digital effects, that make Gravity something special. Together with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón manages to make space simultaneously terrifying and mesmerizingly beautiful. Lubezki, who was also responsible for the stunning photography of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, gives Gravity a number of moments where the power of the image alone will make you say “Wow.” The film starts with one continuous, 13 minute shot in which the scenario for the film is set up, and this sets the stylistic tone. Gravity employs a number of long shots to great effect, drifting with the characters, giving the camera the same sense of weightless movement as the protagonists. The film also seamlessly moves between points-of-view. A shot may start from within the helmet of one of our characters, looking out, but then move out, turning to catch their reaction to what we’ve just seen.

To get the full experience, Gravity is a film you need to see at the cinema and you need to see it in 3D. I’m not generally a huge fan of the 3D medium. Nine times out of ten it is an unnecessary gimmick used as an excuse to add a couple of dollars to ticket prices and inflate box office revenue. But there are some films, that remaining one out of ten, for which the 3D medium really works and Gravity is such a film. Cuarón’s film is experiential, it is about feeling the experience of being adrift in space, and the 3D helps to immerse you in that.

Gravity is a glorious, profound piece of cinema, and while it is not perfect – there are one or two points at which the spell is momentarily broken – it is unlike any experience you will have at the movies this year.

Rating – ★★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Review – Riddick (2013)

Director: David Twohy

Starring: Vin Diesel, Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, Katee Sackhoff, Dave Bautista

RiddickFor all the limitations Vin Diesel may possess as an actor, he definitely has a talent for getting sequels made. In the same year that saw the sixth instalment in the Fast & Furious franchise we also get Riddick, the third in the sci-fi thriller series that started back in 2000 with Pitch Black.

After an unpopular detour into the fantasy genre with 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick attempts a return to the simple formula which made Pitch Black a hit. Once again, the Furyan killing machine Richard B. Riddick is fighting for survival on an unknown hostile planet. In the films overly long opening passage, we watch a lone Riddick employing his survival skills in dangerous desert terrain. We see him fight off aggressive aliens, treat his own injuries, and adopt an alien dog as his companion. This dull opening passage is accompanied by awful narration. This narration is absent from the films later passages where things are actually happening, and seems clearly to be the director’s acknowledgement that what we are seeing is not sufficient to maintain our interest.

Eventually Riddick stumbles across an abandoned supply station and activates a distress beacon. The signal, identifying the wanted Riddick as its source, draws two groups of respondents. One is a group of bounty hunters after his head, the other is a military squad after information. At this point the film undergoes a change in point of view. Our primary focus now becomes these respondents. After being the central focus of the first section of the film, Riddick becomes an ever present yet unseen menace who torments – and in some cases slightly more than torments – these new arrivals, in his efforts to commandeer one of their ships to escape. It is this passage of the film, where Riddick is the hunter seen only in glimpses, that is most engaging.

But time is not on Riddick’s side. A storm is coming and bringing with it a plague of giant scorpion-like aliens. So Riddick and his would-be captors have no choice but to join forces. As the plague of aliens descend on the characters cooped up in the small supply station, Riddick becomes very derivative of Aliens. Note that I specified Aliens, James Cameron’s gun-heavy, subtlety free sequel, rather than Ridley Scott’s suspense fuelled masterpiece Alien. Transitioning from the middle passage in which the danger, Riddick, could be anywhere, to this finale where the danger, aliens, is everywhere takes all of the tension out of the film. Your only reason to engage is if you care about the characters, and unfortunately even this late into the film you have been given no reason to.

Riddick is a film almost devoid of any likeable characters. There is no one you can comfortably side with. It is an action movie without a hero. Riddick himself is so violent in both his actions and his manner, and seems to take such joy from that violence, that it would be overly generous to suggest that he even qualifies for the status of an antihero. Even the decision to give him a dog, usually a sure fire way of humanising a character, can only do so much.

Not one for those with delicate sensibilities, Riddick is graphically violent and at times is downright offensive, particularly in the way it treats its only female character of substance, the military officer Dahl (played by Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff), who despite being one of the most capable soldiers there is constantly subject to sexual baiting from all sides. This seems to be a movie to appease the fans who felt let down nine years ago by The Chronicles of Riddick, but won’t hold much interest for anyone else.

Rating – ★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Review – Elysium (2013)

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner

ElysiumWriter/director Neill Blomkamp made the world sit up and take notice in 2009 with District 9, a powerful allegory for apartheid era South Africa and one of the most original science fiction films in recent memory. The success of that film – it took $210 million worldwide off a $30 million budget – has afforded him a larger canvas for his second film, Elysium.

The year is 2154 and Earth is in ruins. Those who can afford it have moved off-planet, taking residence on a man-made habitat in Earth’s orbit called Elysium, where they protect their standard of living by using what’s left of Earth’s resources and protecting their borders from undesirables. On Earth we meet Max, a career criminal trying to live straight. A work accident sees him exposed to a severe dose of radiation, the result of which is he only has five days left to live. His only chance at making it is to get to Elysium.

Despite being a genuine Hollywood movie this time around (the budget is estimated at $115 million) with an A-list cast, Elysium maintains a similar feel to District 9. Again, Blomkamp is engaging in socially conscious science fiction. While Elysium is not as specific and allegorical in its focus as District 9, the film seeks to engage with a number of prominent social issues including the gap between the haves and have-nots, illegal immigration and the seeking of asylum, and the necessity of universal healthcare. It is difficult to imagine that a more overtly socialist Hollywood blockbuster has ever been made.

The film looks amazing. While Blomkamp mainly gets praised for his narrative and broader aesthetic, he is an adept user of CGI. Naturally, as a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster, Elysium contains its share of spectacle, but it is the subtle, unobtrusive way that the film employs CGI which is most impressive. One of the most effective uses of CGI is in the simple way that in the scenes on Earth we can see the distant figure of Elysium hanging in the sky. It has a strange beauty and you can imagine how its constant presence could serve as a torturous reminder to Earth’s impoverished inhabitants of the good life that is just out of reach.

This time around the story is set in America but Blomkamp retains the international flavour which was such a point of difference in District 9. The rundown Los Angeles setting, actually shot in Mexico City, possesses a similar dustbowl aesthetic to the Johannesburg shantytowns of District 9, and stands in stark contrast to the lush greenness of life on Elysium. Both on Earth and Elysium we hear multiple languages spoken. Sharlto Coply, the star of District 9 who is back as the vicious agent Kruger, is even allowed to speak in his natural South African accent.

Blomkamp had a hard act to follow after the success of District 9. Not only was that film so clever and brilliantly executed, it also had the advantage of being a complete surprise. Elysium, as one of the year’s most anticipated blockbusters, has no such luxury. Blomkamp’s offering doesn’t exceed expectations, but it does enough to satisfy them and is definitely the most original and interesting of the big-budget event movies we’ve seen this year.

Rating – ★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Review – Man of Steel (2013)

Director: Zack Snyder

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne

Man of SteelAfter successfully resurrecting the dormant Batman franchise with his Dark Knight Trilogy, DC Comics and Warner Brothers turned to Christopher Nolan with a far greater challenge: Superman. At a time when audiences seem to prefer their heroes flawed, either with a sense of damage and menace (Batman) or an overly well-developed ego (Iron Man), was there still a market for an idealistic boy scout in a blue suit who fights for truth, justice and the American way?

Whereas the last attempt to resurrect the franchise, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, tried to follow on from the Christopher Reeve series, Man of Steel takes us back to the beginning. Rather than working chronologically, the film jumps back and forth, relying heavily on flashbacks to fill in the story of how Kal-El became Clark Kent and then Superman – a handy device to avoid the usual origin story problem of requiring the audience to wait too long before Superman starts being super. No sooner has Clark learned the truth about his heritage, he is called upon to protect his adopted home from invaders from his ancestral home, with the banished Kryptonian military leader General Zod mounting an invasion of Earth, with the intention of establishing it as a new Krypton.

The “invaders from outer space” nature of the threat in Man of Steel makes it feel more akin to Transformers or Independence Day than other spandex-clad superhero movies. That is the biggest difference between this and previous screen adaptations: Man of Steel is a science-fiction movie rather than a fantasy. It looks like a science fiction movie, with the ice-crystal set designs of the Christopher Reeve films abandoned for a design seemingly more inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien, and it sounds like a science-fiction movie, complete with terrible dialogue about world engines, codexes and Phantom drives.

Like many a Superman adaptation before it, Man of Steel flirts with the allusion of Superman as a Christ figure – an ironic tradition given the hero was the product of Jewish creators Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster. Our hero’s father, Jor-El, tells his son, “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time they will join you in the sun. In time you will help them accomplish wonders.” The Christ allusions in Man of Steel aren’t as overt as they have been in the past – in Superman Returns he was “the light to show them the way,” literally sacrificing himself for the sake of humanity only to be resurrected a couple of days later – instead preferring to focus on the idea of Superman being a symbol of hope.

With Nolan acting as producer, directorial duties were given to Zack Snyder, who is known for his highly stylised use of digital effects in films like 300, Sucker Punch and Watchmen. While he sticks to a pretty simple aesthetic here, his experience with digital effects results in the most visually impressive Superman film yet made, with the little touches – like the way you see the sound barrier being cracked when Superman flies away – being more impressive than the huge effects we are used to seeing in this kind of movie.

A big movie like this one presented as an epic story needs a big-time cast to carry it. British actor Henry Cavill makes for a good Superman, with the appropriate combination of broad chest, chiselled jaw and trustworthy eyes. Amy Adams gets more to work with than past Lois Lanes, with her incarnation of the plucky journalist being courageous, resourceful, and finally intelligent enough to be able to recognise the object of her affection even when he puts on glasses. But it is the depth and quality of the supporting cast which really helps to give the film an epic quality, with the likes of Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner and Lawrence Fishburne all putting in solid supporting turns.

While it is certain to perform strongly at the box office, ultimately Man of Steel runs into the same issues that Superman stories always seem to: that the build-up is more interesting than the climax. In this case the interest is in the existential journey of a young Clark Kent who is trying to work out who he is, why he is here and what he should do with his abilities, and in the way people respond to him and what he represents. But an adventure story climax requires a level of threat that is hard to muster when your hero is practically invincible. In this case he has an adversary who is equally invincible, and watching two of them hitting each other starts to get a bit tedious after a while.

Rating – ★★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Review – Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Director: J. J. Abrams

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Peter Weller, Bruce Greenwood

Star Trek Into DarknessIn 2009, J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise wildly exceeded everyone’s expectations, taking almost $400m at the worldwide box office, and establishing Abrams as the next big thing in blockbuster moviemaking. Almost immediately talk started about a sequel, and four years later we get Star Trek Into Darkness, a title seemingly in dire need of some punctuation (Seriously, doesn’t Star Trek: Into Darkness just look more right).

This second instalment continues on from where the 2009 film left off, again acting as a sort of prequel to the original television series and subsequent films. After Star Fleet headquarters are attacked by terrorist John Harrison, Kirk and his crew are sent on a revenge mission to blast Harrison the smithereens. However Harrison is hiding out on Kronos, and their mission risks sparking an all-out war with the volatile Klingons, so Spock persuades Kirk instead to attempt to take Harrison prisoner and make him stand trial. They capture Harrison and bring him aboard the Enterprise unaware that there is more to him than they knew and that aboard the Enterprise is exactly where Harrison wanted to be (If only Kirk, Spock and the gang had seen The Dark Knight… or The Avengers… or Skyfall).

At the heart of Star Trek Into Darkness, as with the previous film, is the symbiotic relationship between Captain Kirk and Commander Spock. They are completely different from one another. One is impulsive and instinctual. The other is logical and calculated. Both frustrate the hell out of the other, but both are also dependent on the strengths of the other to make up for their own deficiencies. They are mutually dependent. While the first film told the story of how these two met each other and came to be a team, this film deals with how they came to truly respect one another and see the value of each other. Both Kirk and Spock at key moments in the film must force themselves to think and act like the other in order to tackle a situation. That Abrams is able to effectively keep human relationships at the centre of such a large scale sci-fi blockbuster is what separates him from contemporary blockbuster makers like Michael Bay (Really, did anyone care about the human characters in Transformers?) and leads to the inevitable comparisons with Spielberg.

Abrams strikes the perfect balance, respecting the established lore of the Star Trek universe without being constrained by it. He homages classic characters and story elements, but isn’t afraid to take some creative liberties to freshen up the story. This may frustrate a hardcore Trekkie, but for the rest of us it gives the film a sense of newness and freshness. This combination of respect for existing lore with a willingness to take ownership bodes well for his next project, the seventh instalment in the Star Wars series.

In the Trekkie community the Star Trek franchise has one of the most devoted followings you will find. But rather than merely seeking to cater to the existing fan base, when Abrams set out to reboot the Star Trek franchise he looked to broaden its appeal and introduce these classic characters to a new audience. And again, Star Trek Into Darkness is big budget blockbuster filmmaking that will appeal to more than just the devoted Trekkies. It is a big movie, containing some top notch action sequences and terrific special effects, on par with anything you will find in blockbuster sci-fi cinema. Add to that a healthy smattering of humour, mostly courtesy of Simon Pegg who has a slightly larger role as Scotty, and you end up with a film that really is everything a great popcorn movie should be.

Rating – ★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Great Movies – Le voyage dans la lune (1902)

Le voyage dans la lune

Director: Georges Méliès

Starring: Georges Méliès, Victor André, Bleuette Bernon, Brunnet, Jeanne d’Alcy, Henry Delannoy, Depierre, Farjaut, Kelm

Le voyage dans la luneThe image of a rocket stuck into the eye of the anthropomorphic-faced moon in Georges Méliès’ 1902 film Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) is among the most famous and enduring in cinematic history. The film itself, which tells the story of a scientific expedition to the moon, the resulting encounters with aliens, and the return journey via the bottom of the ocean, is undoubtedly the first great movie.

Often referred to as the father of narrative filmmaking, Georges Méliès is arguably the first cinematic master. Directing more than 500 films between 1896 and 1913, the majority of which he also wrote, produced and starred in, Méliès can be credited with establishing many of the elements which would become the foundations of what we know as the cinema. The moving picture medium was invented by the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, in the late 19th century. They toured their short, fifty second films around the world and were wildly popular, but at this point, the attraction was the medium itself, moving pictures, rather than the specific content of their films. The Lumières’ films were all actuality films – a primitive form of documentary simply concerned with the capturing of real events – the most famous of which was 1896’s L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat), which featured a train pulling into a platform and caused audiences to scream and duck for cover as the train approached the screen. It was Méliès who, having become fascinated with the Lumières’ invention, saw the potential of this new medium for imagination and fictional storytelling. Nowhere is this imagination more apparent than in the fantastic narrative of La voyage dans la lune. As Martin Scoresese put it, “the Lumières gave us the world as we knew it, and Méliès gave it to us as we imagined and extended it.”

Georges melies

Georges Méliès

Before becoming a filmmaker, Méliès had been a magician, and that background in theatricality and illusion would be incredibly influential on his filmmaking. While his earliest films were simply recreations of his stage shows, he soon began to experiment with the technology and as a result became responsible for the development of many of the earliest forms of special effects including stop motion, time-lapse photography, multiple exposures and dissolves. For a film made only seven years after the Lumières first introduced the medium to the world, Le voyage dans la lune features a staggeringly sophisticated use of both staged visual effects and more complicated editing effects. With each scene being a single shot from a stationary camera, the sets are able to function much like traditional theatre sets, with openings and trapdoors which characters can come in and out of. The iconic image of the face on the moon was achieved through superimposing one image shot over another. We have characters appearing and disappearing into puffs of smoke through the use of jump cutting, the very same principle I Dream of Jeannie would employ 65 years later. The picture was released in both black-and-white and colour prints, with the colour prints having been hand coloured, frame-by-frame. This magician really put the wonder and magic into moviemaking.

Not only did Le voyage dans la lune feature a fantastical story – the first ever sci-fi movie – and innovative use of the medium, at a time when the average film only ran for one or two minutes, La voyage dans la lune’s fifteen minute runtime (at the then standard 16 frames per second) made it positively epic by comparison.

Le voyage dans la lune - Colour

A hand-coloured frame

In 1993, the Filmoteca de Catalunya in Barcelona discovered a hand-coloured print of the film, the only one known to have survived, that had almost completely decomposed. In 1999 the Technicolor Lab of Los Angeles launched a frame-by-frame restoration project which would take over a decade. The completed restoration, with a new soundtrack by the French band, Air, was screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival almost 110 years after its initial release, and has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray.

By Duncan McLean

Review – Lockout (2012)

Directors: James Mather, Stephen St. Leger

Starring: Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Vincent Regan, Joseph Gilgun, Peter Stormare

LockoutIt is the year 2079 and the President’s daughter has been sent on a goodwill mission to inspect a maximum security prison on a space station orbiting Earth when something goes horribly wrong. All the prisoners, the worst of the worst, are awoken from stasis and overtake the prison. With an all-out attack on the prison far too risky, the only way to save the First-Daughter is to send in one man, disgraced agent Snow, to get her out.

There is nothing new about the central premise to Lockout (it is effectively Escape from New York in space). There are a couple of thinly written subplots – one about the prisoners having brain experiments done on them, the other about the location of a mysterious briefcase which may be able to prove Snow’s innocence – but neither really grab your attention. It is really just that classic story of lone hero rescuing damsel in distress from maximum security space prison.

In this case our lone hero, Agent Snow, is played by Guy Pearce who tries his heart out but still doesn’t quite convince as an action hero. Unfortunately, the character is victim to some of the worst over-writing you will ever see. The tough guy wise crack is a staple of the genre, for sure, but in Lockout the writers seem to have set themselves a challenge to come up with a Snow wise crack reply for every single line of dialogue in the movie. After about 10 minutes he has smashed through loveable rogue and is just getting a bit ridiculous. It must have been particularly difficult for Pearce as he has been in some really well written films over the years (Memento, L.A. Confidential) so would have been only too aware how bad the material he was working with was.

I feel like I’ve seen Lockout many times before, but that not really a problem. Familiarity in films can sometimes be a good thing, particularly in this type of genre movie. The fun is in knowing the formula and seeing how the adhere to it or break from it. The problem with Lockout is that all the movies it reminds you of are better movies than Lockout (I’m thinking about Escape from New York, Die Hard, Alien). If Lockout was a just a bit worse it could have the potential of becoming a cult hit. As it is I think it will just be a below average film which will slip into obscurity.

Rating – ★☆

Review by Duncan McLean