Tagged: science fiction

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.

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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

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesThe 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.

Rating: ★★★★

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

GodzillaFor 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.

Rating: ★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

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

Review – Her (2013)

Director: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde

HerSpike Jonze has demonstrated a knack for left-of-centre, surreal storytelling with films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. His latest and it should be said finest film, Her, is no exception. In the near future – and a surprisingly utopian one given the cinemas penchant for dystopian visions of the future – we meet Theodore Twombly who works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com where he puts his skills as a writer to work penning letters for people to send to lovers, friends or grandchildren. A lonely and anti-social man still recovering from a marriage breakup, Theodore becomes intrigued by an advertisement for the newest computer operating system, or OS – the first to feature artificial intelligence. “It’s not an OS – it’s a consciousness.” He buys himself a copy and after asking him a couple of questions to calibrate itself to his needs the OS introduces itself, or rather herself, as Samantha. Her cheerful, friendly demeanour instantly brings some light to Theodore’s life and the two become friends. Samantha organises Theodore’s life and Theodore helps Samantha unpack and understand the world. Before long their relationship becomes romantic.

The central premise of Her – a man falling in love with his computer – sounds like that of an absurd comedy but Jonze chooses to treat it with great sincerity. As such, what we end up with is a surreal, existential exploration of the nature of love, what it is to be human and our relationship with technology. The beauty of this film is how not far-fetched it manages to make this premise feel. We are already hopelessly dependent on technology. Anyone who has ever been forced to go even a short period of time without their smart phone or an internet connection can attest to that. Jonze simply takes that dependence to the next step, asking whether as technology becomes more sophisticated it is possible that dependence could become an emotional one. Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is treated with a surprising normalcy. Theodore’s friends hardly flinch at the idea that he is having a relationship with an OS. In fact, we are told that he is far from the only person out there in such a relationship. There is even talk of a woman who is having an affair with someone else’s OS.

Jonze’s screenplay is remarkable, but it falls on the film’s two leads, Phoenix and Johannson, to sell the authenticity of the relationship and make it all believable. Both actors rise to the challenge, delivering brilliant, unconventional performances. Phoenix is typically chameleon-like as Theodore, this insecure, isolated but deeply thoughtful man. So much of this film is dependent on his face as the nature of the story requires him to deliver the majority of his performance in isolation, relating to a character that isn’t physically present. Johansson’s performance is quite special. Completely disembodied, allowing her no physicality to employ, she nonetheless manages to create a full and empathetic character in Samantha. While it is the screenplay that makes Samantha think and feel, it is Johansson that give her the spark of humanity and enables us to understand how Theodore could fall in love with her. It isn’t objectophilia. It is a genuine two-way relationship.

As the film progresses the story becomes just as much Samantha’s story as it is Theodore’s. Artificial intelligence has usually been treated with suspicion in film. It is seen as dangerous and threatening – think of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Her, we empathise with Samantha. In a variation of the Pinocchio story, Samantha struggles to reconcile the fact that while she thinks, feels and experiences emotions like a human, she is not one. The latter half of the film poses some quite interesting psychological questions about the limitations, or lack thereof, of artificial intelligence.

Her is one of the most touching, thought provoking and unique films of the year.

Rating – ★★★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Review – Stranded (2013)

Director: Roger Christian

Starring: Christian Slater, Brendan Fehr, Amy Matysio, Michael Therriault

StrandedIs 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

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