Tag Archives: Sci Fi

Upgrade

5 Jun

‘Upgrade’: Victim of attack has a question: ‘Siri, how do I get my gruesome revenge?’

 

The name Logan Marshall-Green might not ring a bell immediately; he played the first scientist in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” reboot, “Prometheus” (2013) affected by the alien, his eyes going black and turning into something of a berserker before getting torched by a flamethrower and run over by a bus. Seeing “Upgrade,” a sci-fi take by longtime “Saw” collaborator Leigh Whannell (working with James Wan), it seems these are desirable acting skills, as rough, good-looking Marshall-Green plays another intrepid protagonist similarly subjected to violent torment and put through a nasty physical transformation. The good news for his Grey Trace is that the brutal smackdown happens upfront in this film; then it’s time for the upgraded Grey to lay down his own brand of ass-kicking.

Set in the near future where driverless cars are the norm and criminals and vagrants roam the littered cityscape, Grey and his wife are beset upon in a vehicle that goes way off course. It doesn’t end well – she’s dead; he might as well be. A few days later Grey’s up, learning to walk again, a super computer chip implanted in his head to help make all connections to the nerves that make him go. He also hears voices in his head: his own personal Siri, that, if Grey grants permission to take control, can use his body in lightning-fast ways. In short, he becomes his own personal “Terminator” on the trail of getting revenge on the posse of vermin who offed his wife. 

Natch, there’s a fly in the ointment – corporate espionage, bottom lines and more that drive the bigger picture, and themes right out of “Frankenstein” or “Blade Runner” (1982) – but it’s all a device for Grey to tap into his inner HAL and hack up henchmen, some of whom have guns implanted in their arms; one who can sneeze deadly spores.

In the end, the clear borrowing from the great, snarky original 1987 “RoboCop” (near-future cityscape and all) almost overpowers “Upgrade.” It’s not nearly as sharp or socially biting, but does have a fresh, whimsical take on tomorrow – “Her” (2013) on crack and very angry. Whannell could have played the camp angle for more; as is, the dark and violent approach works largely thanks to Marshall-Green selling his wonder and horror so effectively. Besides genre fans, “Upgrade” is likely to prove a fun, forgettable watch, more a reboot than the next version.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

26 May

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’: Lively origin tale, but young Lando beats the Han we’re dealt

 

“Solo,” the new “Star Wars Story,” is a fun galactic go, breezy and lithe with just the right amount of darkness. That said, it doesn’t do much to deepen the whole Star Wars mythos the way “Rogue One” so ingeniously did back in 2016. That first “story” implied a series of one-off backstories that would embrace and extenuate the goings-on in the three “Star Wars” trilogies (we’ve gotten eight to date, with one more to go). “Solo” does the former, giving us an intimate look at the young Han Solo pining away for a woman who isn’t Leia, but two and a half hours later, I was wondering: To what end? After all, the mature Han, as played so iconically by Harrison Ford, perished in “Episode VII: the Force Awakens” (of course, we know a return is not out of the realm of possibility) and the big reveals that made “Rogue One” such an inviting companion piece are scant here by comparison. “Solo” does answer the long lingering questions of how Han got his name, how he and Chewbacca met and how they got their mitts on their Millennium Falcon. But it also raises a few.

At one point in the movie, someone says, “It’s not about you.” It’s an astute observation, as the film is at its thriving best when the screen is filled by the potpourri of personality that orbits the pivotal pilot of the title. The problem with Han (played by Alden Ehrenreich) as a character here is that he’s just not all that interesting of a dude, or in the least close to what was hinted at by Ford’s wisecracking incarnation. Also too, and I hate to say it, Ehrenreich is no Ford – not even a shadow. He tries, but you spend more time searching for vestiges and mannerisms of the Han you know than you are transported to the then and there. Continue reading

7 Apr

 

John Krasinski, that local (Newton) guy from “The Office” whose forays behind the camera have been something of a mixed bag – tackling material from David Foster Wallace in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and the quirks of returning home to small-town America in “The Hollars” – goes for a total change-up here in genre, style and the whole shebang. He’s also grown demonstrably in confidence as a filmmaker, bringing his A-game for an impressive wallop and gets a chance to work with his wife, Emily Blunt, who’s nothing short of fantastic.

“A Quiet Place” drops you into a post-calamity spot that feels all too close, given the current state of division and fear in the country and creeping need to think about how to survive a civilization-crumbling war or sweeping, sudden natural disaster. We catch up with a family out on a scavenging mission to get medicine and supplies. Inside a ransacked pharmacy, they’re all barefoot and don’t speak to each other as they go about their task. Mom (Blunt) picks up and puts down pill vial after vial with all the deliberate care of one of the silent thieves in Jules Dassin’s great heist film, “Rififi” (1955). The lack of spoken communication and the worry etched on the faces of the nuclear-plus family ratchets to a nerve-racking tic. Wandering about on his own, the youngest boy reaches for a toy space shuttle that lights up and beeps, but dad (Krasinski) is fast on the take and in sign language sternly tells him “No.” Outside, they remain silent and walk single file, never veering from the painted white center line of the road. Along their amble through a rural country-scape we see no other humans and soon learn why – after a noise emitted unwittingly by one of the party draws something formidable and fast out from the woods, and the family is suddenly one less. Continue reading

Ready Player One

30 Mar

‘Ready Player One’: A pop culture pastiche lacking the power-ups it needs to be iconic

 

Geek references and 1980s pop culture abound in “Ready Player One,” an energetic yet hollow outing from the architect of the blockbuster himself, Steven Spielberg. It’s not all for naught, as the adaptation of Ernest Cline’s YA novel set in the dystopian future bears most of the director’s family-friendly fingerprints: a sentimental score (by Alan Silvestri), misunderstood youth, enigmatic happenings and the fantastical infusing the realm of the real – think “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” And then promptly forget them.

In the year 2045, gaming has become the opium of the masses. Everyone suits up, dons virtual-reality goggles and enters a place in the cloud known as the Oasis, a platform breathed to life by a master game creator named James Halliday (Academy Award winner Mark Rylance), who’s recently passed but has left an Easter egg (apt that it’s being released on the eve of the Paas egg-dyeing holiday) tucked away somewhere in his worldwide video game. The lucky one who finds it takes over Halliday’s Amazon-like empire. Continue reading

Annihilation

23 Feb

 

Thrumming, enigmatic strokes drive this riveting followup from Alex Garland, whose 2014 directorial debut, “Ex Machina” put sci-fi fans and cineastes alike on their toes. As a scribe, Garland’s penned such near-future nightmares as “28 Days Later” (2002) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010), and in all has demonstrated a keen eye for character, even as the world disintegrates around those characters. “Annihilation” is more of the same, and pulls in shards from such classic sci-fi staples as “The Thing,” “Alien,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and one or two others that shall remain nameless, because to mention them might just be a spoiler.

In “Ex Machina,” the ladies get the last laugh on the guys; here too the tale’s more about female resolve than male bravado. The five women who venture into Garland’s void exhibit plenty of steel under fire, until they start losing their minds – literally. After a brief glimmer of a meteor striking a coastal lighthouse, the film dotes on the emotional throes of a widow (Natalie Portman) struggling with accepting that her husband (Oscar Isaac), a special forces officer missing in action for a year, is likely dead, as well as the guilt of the affair he unearthed on the eve of his departure. Things feel like a dramatic downer, but one night he shows up, something of a zombie, a bit washed-out, disoriented and unable to give answers other than “I don’t know.” We’re hooked. Continue reading

Downsizing

24 Dec

 

You know that viral tiny house movement where folk show off cozy, cute mini abodes with all the home amenities amazingly in just 250 square feet? You may even have romanticized about trading your palatial digs for the micro version and living more simply. Nice idea, but not many of us would actually do it – we’re too attached to our big, consumptive lives measuring our worth in square feet and wallet size. But what if you could cut down on the consumptive part, stretch your dollar tenfold and live larger than if you won the Powerball jackpot? That’s somewhat the idea behind Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” where, in the near future, dwindling resources reaching “Soylent Green” critical levels has triggered a worldwide movement to conserve and cut back without sacrificing the lush life.

If that sounds like a win-win, it is – except that to do so you must get shrunk down to five inches and live in domed enclaves full of mini mansions, rolling green golf courses and swank nightclubs and eateries. Once done, your $50-a-week food budget can cover you for half a year. It’s a choice, and the world is roughly split down the middle between bigs and littles. Occupational therapist Paul Safrenek (local boy Matt Damon, more in the news these days for his backfiring #MeToo opines) and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig, in the film far too little) decide the only way to achieve the house of their dreams is to go small. The medical process isn’t so easy either, and god forbid you leave dental implants in during the process. The matter for Paul becomes a quest for self-discovery in a new land after his wife (genders separate as they do the process en masse and in the bare) balks in the eleventh hour before shrinkage and hops a jet elsewhere. Continue reading

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

15 Dec

 

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” picks up right where “The Force Awakens” left off, and smartly so with Rey (Daisy Ridley, amping up the grit factor favorably) on a remote, bucolic planet trying to press Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) into a few rounds of Jedi training while Luke’s sister, Princess/Gen. Leia (a fitting final performance from Carrie Fisher, who passed away after principal photography completed) tries to steer the remaining Resistance forces to a new base with the evil Empire’s First Order in hot pursuit. How it all sorts out isn’t a straightforward affair, and that plays to its advantage with plenty of twists, turns and pleasant surprises to hold an audience rapt over the two-and-a-half-hour running time.

Given all that, it’s still an unenviable task to have to take over the reins from J.J. Abrams, the creative wunderkind who helmed “The Force Awakens” and has a reputation for making what’s old trendy and hip again – i.e., the “Star Trek” reboot – but Rian Johnson, who also scripted, proves more than game to go where Abrams has taken the next franchise trilogy, and beyond. To be sure, there’s a lot going on in “Last Jedi”; the gaping absence of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the elevation of Skywalker back to the fore (Hamill well up to the task), the deeper darkening of Darth Vader successor Kylo Ren (a palpably conflicted Adam Driver) and the Trump-like megalomania of the craggy supreme leader with the silly moniker of Snoke (Andy Serkis doing what he does best: seamless live-action capture) and even Yoda – yes, Yoda. But Johnson, who had so effectively juggled time travel threads folding back in on themselves in the satisfying sci-fi thriller “Looper” (2012), orchestrates it all masterfully, jumping from one far-flung point in the galaxy to the next without disconnect, and with plenty of humor and wit to fill any dead space. Continue reading