Category Archives: Sci-Fi

Review: The Avengers

Every now and then a big budget special effect extravaganza gets the formula right and delivers genuine fun action filled entertainment. The Avengers is one of these movies. It’s the perfect blend of a clever script, great dialogue, and classy actors with great delivery and timing. It’s not Shakespeare and it’s plot doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny, but you won’t care about that by the time the credits start rolling.

Marvel have been building to this movie for some time, laying the groundwork in the films Ironman, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America. It’s not just the characters that come across into The Avengers but some elements of the plot too. The strange glowing cube from Captain America called the “Tesseract” is the target of Thor’s bad guy Loki who seeks to use it to open a portal to Earth allowing aliens to invade and enslave us all. Loki also wants revenge for the events in Thor by attacking the planet his Brother loves so dear. It’s nothing special, in fact it’s the exact same plot (save for minor differences) with the absolutely terrible Green Lantern of 2011.It just goes to show that plot is not really what these kinds of blockbusters are all about.

Director Joss Whedon manages to bring all these superheros and weave them all into a very clever character-centric popcorn action flick. It’s really quite refreshing and surprising to have the major players in a special effects extravaganza base their digital beatings on meaningful character development. The movie doesn’t get carried away with itself and manages to build clever scenes together based on the strengths and weaknesses of each comic book hero. It really is a bit of a comic book nerds dream, but it’s done in such a way that anyway can really enjoy it.

The script however, and the sheer number of players, makes it very difficult for anyone to really shine and frankly no one is bringing their A-game here. There is enough passion in the delivery to be proud of the performances, but sadly you won’t remember any of them after the credits roll. Speaking of which, stay until the end of the credits for a sneak peek at the bad guy for the sequel. Yup! That’s right, Marvel clearly have a second movie in mind even before screening the first.

That should indicate to you this movie is really about getting you to part with your hard earned cash, rather than any artisitic merit. At least this time, unlike many Hollywood blockbusters, it’s really worth it.

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Review: The Hunger Games

The first thing you should know is that while this film is billed as next Harry Potter or Twilight in the teen movie market, and it will be very successful in that sense, it offers so much more to a much wider audience. It’s the kind of movie that almost everyone will find something to enjoy and something to think about. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Suzzane Collins, it has the potential for sequels and I think it deserves them.

Set in a dystopian future, The Hunger Games brings ancient Rome into a modern Science Fiction setting. Every year the districts of Panem offer up in tribute one male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight to the death in a reality television show. It serves as entertainment for the upper class inhabitants of the Capitol and a reminder of the cost of rebellion to the countries twelve Districts.

Explaining the plot can come across as absurd, and it’s really not original with several older films covering similar subject matter. But this film manages to weave our modern and very real obsession with celebrity and reality TV with a dash of teen romance and social commentary to make it very relevant, and very appealing. It’s quite a triumph on behalf of story that it manages to make you forget the premise is really a quite out there.

Katniss Everdine (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteer’s herself for the Games at a public Reaping when her 12 year old sister is chosen by random draw. It’s quite a disturbing opening sequence, the simple idea that a 12 year old girl will be pitted against 18 year old boys in a fight to the death is unsettling let alone the manner in which that face is ignored. Katniss is sent to the Capitol with fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) where they are groomed and trained for the Games.

The coldness of the reality of being sexed up, sold, and paraded as a piece of meat for slaughter is what makes most of this film gripping to watch. The tributes must sell themselves to get sponsors who can provide them with life saving food and medicine while inside the arena, failure to gather such sponsors means almost certain death. It’s unsettling because it mirrors the way in which our own celebrities and politicians appear to sell themselves to us.

Unfortunately when the tributes make it into the arena the slick social commentary and thoughtful film making make way for something a little too Hollywood, a little too immature. It feels a bit rushed, unfocused, and at times contrived. The ultimate ending of the Games isn’t as strong as the rest of the film which is a bit of a disappointment. I can’t help but wish that the film spent more time paying respect to its violence and deeper implications than what is really a shallow love plot.

Lawrence as Katniss is very impressive, she brings depth to what could have been a shallow character. She’s has the right build for the role too, she’s very attractive but she’s not a wafer thin supermodel. I might be walking a delicate line here but I think the body image on display here is far more positive than if they had cast someone else. Unfortunately the rest of the cast either don’t get enough screen time to shine, or are actually quite weak. Elizabeth Banks as Effie deserves special mention, but the likes of Donal Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, and even Lenny Kravitz really only bring credibility to their roles.

It’s a problem with the film overall, that it doesn’t give us time to come to terms with many if it’s characters which are too many to mention. It also doesn’t give us time to dwell on many of the implications of the story, instead favouring a bit of shallow teen romance or the like. In one scene where the tributes train for the Games you lose all sense of the depth of the story and it is instead replaced with action movie cliché’s complete with motivational music and Rocky like montages.

The Hunger Games is far from a perfect movie, but it has a lot to offer. It can be enjoyed for what it is, or its greater meaning and implications can be discussed at length. A trip to the cinema for this film would be most rewarding.

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Classic: Blade Runner

Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece was released in 1982 to a very poor reception. It flopped at the box office and polarised critics who felt the movie was painfully slow, and the story had taken a back seat to special effects. Over time however these criticisms have largely faded and the film has become one of the biggest cult classics with great praise for it’s complexity and it’s ability to remain relevant even thirty years on. The film continues to attract more fans and increase it’s reputation as the greatest science fiction movie of all time.

Based on the based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the story revolves around Deckard (Harrison Ford), a furturistic cop called a Blade Runner who tracks down and “retires” bioengineered humans called replicants. He has been forced out of retirement to track down several advanced models known as Nexus 6, who have come to Earth in what appears to be an attempt to find a way to extend their limited four year lifespans.

Deckard is called in after the previous Blade Runner was executed while performing a test that measures a persons emphatic responses to emotionally provactive questions, the idea being that replicant will struggle with the responses. Unsure if the test works on the new models Deckard is sent to the Tyrell Corporation, the makers of these bioengineered humans, to test it on a known model. Instead Deckard discovers that Tyrell’s (Joe Turkel) assistance Rachael (Sean Young) is a replicant who believes she is human. Thus the story begins.

As Deckard hunts down the replicants he becomes increasingly conflicted by the nature of his assignment. He begins to feel for Racheal who believes she is human and is quite upset when she discovers she is not, but he also struggles with his own humanity drowining in the bottom of a bottle struggling to free himself of a depressive state of mind. To live in fear, fear of death, fear of the unknown is the ultimate theme at play in this story as both the Replicants and Deckard struggle to find a sense of meaning in their lives.

In one of the more poignant scenes in the film Deckard guns down a running replicant as she spirals through the glass windows of street shops in a vain attempt to escape. In any other context it’s cold blodded murder and the viewer should be outraged, but the cleverness of the direction leaves you conflicted. Are these Replicants human? Do they deserve my empathy? This is Deckard’s job, to kill off these abominations, so why do I feel so uneasy? It’s these themes and the way they are explored that make this film more than just a cool Science Fiction story, it’s something that will stay with you after it’s over if you’ve bought into the premise.

Blade Runner is also Director Ridley Scott’s best movie, with the original Alien as a close second. He claims that artistically it’s his most complete film, something which I didn’t really appreciate without multiple viewings. It’s that complex in it’s structure that you really can’t take it all in, in one single viewing, which may explain it’s poor reception when originally released.

Regardless, if you haven’t seen Blade Runner then you’re missing the finest that Science Fiction has to offer. There is also confirmation that a sequal is underway, so at the very least you’ll be getting the background on what will be a very anticipated film.

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Review: Cowboys & Aliens

When I first heard of Cowboys & Aliens I have to admit I was a tad excited, I have a soft spot for uniquely far-fetched entertainment. Daniel Craig & Harrison Ford as Cowboys? Oh yeah! Olivia Wilde? Awesome. Aliens? Hot Damn! However it’s important to approach any film with an open mind, no expectations, let the story unfold before you and enjoy it. Unfortunately I’d seen this film before, it’s just another standard Hollywood Western albeit with Aliens. That’s right, it’s a serious movie.

A cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the wilderness, shoeless, hatless, weaponless, nameless, and with a strange metal bracelet attached to his arm. It’s a clever start, intriguing, and Craig is perfect as the brooding hero in search of his name and purpose. He comes across a small town where the promise of mining riches failed to come true and where the local sherif put his face to a wanted poster. He’s fingered as an outlaw named Jake Lonergan who stole from the town’s wealthiest citizen Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). But before anything can happen the town is attacked by Aliens and much of the townsfolk are kidnapped.

It’s here that Jake’s bracelet comes to life, it’s actually a futuristic weapon, and it allows him to shoot down one of the UFO’s. He’s then roped into helping Ella Swanson (Olivia Wilde) and the remaining townspeople lead by Dolarhyde to track down their friends and family. It’s a good start, there’s mystery, things to discover and learn, and the beginnings of some decent characters and conflicts. Unfortunately, that’s it, I really felt like the movie never moved past this beginning no matter what developed.

If you’re going to call a movie Cowboys & Aliens and advertise it as a fun action movie you really need to deliver on your promise. Perhaps I am victim of good advertising, but on reflection there really isn’t an excuse for the miscalculation here. I know the truth of it, they just want to motivate people to part with their cash, but making money isn’t as simple as that and audiences usually punish deception. It’s not entirely lost as there is plenty here to enjoy, it’s just there is a list of faults longer than Harrison Ford’s career.

I can’t really write about the great acting, it’s merely competent. I can’t write about the great script, it’s just a regurgitation of previous Westerns with Aliens replacing the traditional enemy. I can’t write about the wonderful screenplay, although it’s the films strongest component it’s doesn’t match the awe the film should impose. I suspect the likes of Ford, Craig, and Wilde know what’s going on because they merely go through the motions, it’s only the ever impressive Sam Rockwell as the Doc who brings any life to the story.

Director Jon Favreau is no stranger to the lighter side of action films directing the very successful Ironman, but perhaps he merely lucked on a good script and Robert Downey Junior because the flair of the film is noticeably missing here. He’s certainly competent as a Director, but he’s really missed the mark with the tone of this production.

In the end, this is a wait for DVD kind of film. It’s more about scares than humour and while you receive the promised showdown between the Cowboys and Aliens, it’s really nothing worth noting. There are things to enjoy here true, but I doubt you couldn’t get more enjoyment from another film.

 

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Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The third Transformers film has some of the best action you will ever see on the big screen, its a shame then that it’s plot is weak, it’s characters lifeless, and it’s dialogue terrible. Strangely however, I still enjoyed it. It’s not as bad as the second film, but it lacks the mystery and awe of the first.

Shia Labouf returns as Sam Witwicky, out of university, shacked up with his new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whitely), and looking for a job. Meanwhile his Autobot friends discover Autobot technology here on earth while hunting Decepticons in Chernobyl. It turns out an old Auotbot ship named the Arc crashed into the Moon in 1961, and the space race was nothing more than a race to get to that ship first. This ship contained the original leader of the Autobots, Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leneoard Nemoy) and a weapon that was supposed to end the war with the Decepticons.

Perhaps it’s because the film spells everything out in an excessively lengthy prologue, leaving nothing to discover in it’s overly long two and half hour running time, but it all felt a little underwhelming. Most action films have thin plots, it’s a given, and the first Transformers was no exception. However the way you tell the story, the way you drip feed essential information, and the way you develop the characters often make something seemingly shallow feel terribly entertaining. Think of the first Die Hard movie, a film about a simple robbery, certainly it’s not the plot that makes it great.

Plot concerns aside, Transformers is largely about robots beating the hell out of each other, and in that department Dark of the Moon delivers! Director Michael Bay is certainly a master of cutting edge action, even if he has yet to master the art of story telling. His work is exceptional, he creates the feeling of an Alien invasion film without falling into the many traps that many have done so in the past. There is a clever sense of realism in the designs of the various alien machines involved, and the camera work is exquisite. One of the more memorable sequences involves a giant worm like robot toppling a building with our human heroes inside. It’s bold, epic, and good enough to suspend our disbelief. The movie also looks crisp and exciting in 3D, there is a genuine effort here to make the 3D component a spectacle and it works. It’s just a shame that kind of effort doesn’t extend to the character work.

Bay has a strong tendency to make all of his characters limited stereotypes with almost no depth and no emotion. That makes discussing the acting in the film a moot point, and while Labouf puts in his strongest performance of the three films, the truth is no one here gets any material to work with. Even the presence of Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and Patrick Dempsey, really does nothing, and you can blame the Director because everyone is doing their job, they’re just not being asked to do much.

Even the machines themselves who had some genuine personality in the first films are left spouting clichéd lines, devoid of any feeling. Fan favourites such as Soundwave get almost no screen time, and newcomers like Shockwave are given almost nothing to do outside of being a means to an end in some epic action sequence. It’s a real shame to say that the cartoon has more character development than this multi-million dollar production.

But my harshest criticism is reserved for the film’s staging and editing, which are woeful and border line amateur. There is no pacing in this film, constantly slowing down for redundant scenes that add almost nothing, and sometimes skipping around as if sections of the film had been cut. The action toward the end of the film might be fantastic, but you have no sense of where things are, how things are coming together, and frankly how some scenarios manifested. There is one scene that had me feeling like I must have fallen asleep or something, I honestly have no idea how some events came to pass.

In the end however, what you cannot fault is that you will get exactly what this film has promised you. This is a film many critics will pan, and they’re missing the point to some degree. A lot of people want to go and see some good action, good special effects, and a spectacle worth the price of admission. If you’re a Transformers fan, or an action junkie, you will not want to miss this on the big screen.

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Review: Super 8

If there’s one movie you shouldn’t miss this year, it’s Super 8. There’s more heart and soul in it’s two hour running time than most mainstream movies could ever hope to conjure. It’s the kind of film that reminds you of why you go to the movies.

Reviewing a film like Super 8 isn’t easy, there’s simply too much material to cover and there is the delicate problem of giving too much away. Director JJ Abrams has gone to great lengths to keep the plot of his movie a secret, so much so that the film’s resulting low profile may hurt it’s box office take. He’s the master of what he calls the “Mystery Box”, he doesn’t want to tell you what’s in it, but he sure as hell wants you to enjoy opening it.

The film is set in a small Ohio town in 1979, complete with bad fashion, hairstyles, and fantastic cars. It centres on Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), son of Deputy Sherriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), and the tragic events of that winter and how it changed his life. The film opens with one of the most chilling shots that will stay with you for a long time after the film, it’s the kind of story telling you wish you could feel everytime you went to the cinema.

Four months later and Joe is helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish a super 8 movie for an upcoming film competition, much to the displeasure of his disconnected father Jackson. Charles has managed to convince Alice (Elle Fanning), an older girl whom Joe likes to play a part in his movie. All chuffed and excited they sneak out at night with their firiends Carey (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach MIllso), and Martin (Gabriel Basso) to film a scene.

While filming they witness a shocking crash, their high school science teacher driving his pickup truck onto the train tracks and smashing directly into an oncoming train. The heavily injured teacher, gun in hand, tells them to go and tell no one or they and their parents will die. It’s a bit dramatic, but the swarming men in military uniforms convince the children to make a run for it and vow never to tell anyone that they were there.

What follows is like a cross between The Goonies and E.T., and it doesn’t fail to deliver. It’s on the one hand a coming age story and on the other it’s about dealing with grief. It’s funny, scary, cheesey, and delightful all at the same time. The young and unknown cast are fantastic, they look comfortable and completely natural, with special mention to Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota Fanning). Those two are mesmerizing sharing much of the more touching moments of the film, especially Fanning who has a very commanding presence for her age.

It’s not without it’s problems true, Abrams must suffer from ADHD because he seems to love to blow things up even when it doesn’t really make sense to. He’s also a bit clumsy with some of the dialogue, but it’s excusable because the rest of the film exudes a charisma I wish other Directors could master. I also think he’s yet to master the elusive art of timing, particularly during the film’s climax. He lacks a sense of pace when the plot demands it, and he under plays some action while overplaying others.

There has also been some debate over the ending, but I think it’s perfect, I think it’s easy to forget what this film is really about, which might be the fault of the film itself. But you only need to listen to Abrams tell you that “Jaws isn’t about a shark” or “E.T. isn’t about an Alien” (here) to see that he wants to tell a story that’s very human and with a lot of heart.

Super 8 is an Abrams “Mystery Box” complete with a satisfying unveiling of the goodies inside. It’s the best movie so far of 2011, and it’s a real treat. You do not want to miss it!

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Review: Source Code

For those who haven’t seen Moon, do yourself a favour! It’s not brilliant, but it’s refreshing and enjoyable, and it’s almost the same movie as Source Code. It’s not surprising seeing Director Duncan Jones is behind both films, but it’s nice to see a different approach to the sci-fi genre.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Captain Colter Stevens and one day he wakes up on board a train sitting across from an attractive woman (Michelle Monaghan). His last memory is of fighting in Afghanistan and he has no idea how he got here. It becomes clear very quickly that Steven’s isn’t Stevens, in fact he’s someone else entirely – and then the train explodes killing everyone on board.

Interested yet? The film’s hook intrigues you from the first minute and doesn’t let you go until the very end. I won’t go further into the plot because I believe this is one film where going in cold will make it more of a treat.

As with Moon the film puts an emphasis on character, especially a naturalistic style of acting. You find yourself believing every word of every character, even some of the more outlandish, because the dialogue is a step above your standard action thriller.

It also wouldn’t be a sci-fi flick if not for some futuristic technology, and without spoiling anything I would have liked to have heard a better explanation for the film’s primary plot device. It is in fact based on real scientific theory, but it’s washed over in the film and can leave you feeling like the premise is absolutely preposterous.

In the end however, it really doesn’t matter.

At 93 minutes Source Code leaves you wanting more. Jeffery Wright and Vera Farmiga add a great deal to the film in their supporting roles, and everything seems to just fit right. There aren’t a lot of great sci-fi films around these days, so keep an eye out for any future Duncan Jones movies.

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