Tag Archives: Sci Fi

Alien: Covenant

19 May

Almost 40 Years Since ‘Alien’ Brought Sci-Fi To Pop Culture, ‘Covenant’ Goes Back To Basics

"Alien: Covenant." (Courtesy Mark Rogers/Twentieth Century Fox)

It’s hard to believe it has been nearly 40 years since that little wiggle of a vorpal worm ripped its way out of John Hurt’s abdomen in “Alien,” the sci-fi movie experience that took the fun and fantasy of “Star Wars” and flipped it on its head.

That film’s helmer Ridley Scott, a genius by some accounts, a hack by others and now almost 80 years of age, has shown great commitment to the franchise returning again for “Alien: Covenant.” The film is the sequel to “Prometheus” (2012), which is the first chapter of a prequel series to Scott’s 1979 space chiller that kept audiences up at night, fearful of mutant xenomorph with cascading sets of jaws.

“Alien: Covenant” takes place 10 years after “Prometheus” and approximately two decades before Ripley and her salvage crew discover that wrecked ship loaded with leathery undulating egg casings that we now know better than to peer down into. Bolstered by an impressively eclectic cast, “Prometheus” was a quirky reboot and something of a meta contemplation on creationism and origins that didn’t resonate with a wide fan base — not enough aliens and too many hidden agendas.

The good news with “Alien: Covenant,” especially for loyalists, is that Scott goes back to the basics. But because he has to build off the groundwork laid by his 2012 effort, there’s also plenty of ideologue about man, his creations superseding him and his viability in the universe over time. Scott and his screenwriters — John Logan and Dante Harper — do a nice job getting the plot points to line up seamlessly, though pacing and character development are sacrificed as a result.  Continue reading

Ghost in the Shell

1 Apr

Put a pretty girl in some Lycra and, poof, you got a movie, right? Well, yes and no. It worked with Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich in the “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” series respectively, but not so much for Charlize Theron in “Aeon Flux” or Halle Berry in “Catwoman.” You can add Scarlett Johansson to that “not” list with this live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga “Ghost in the Shell,” done more righteously in the 1995 animation feature directed by Mamoru Oshii. Sure, Scar-Jo looks fetching, much as she does as the Black Widow in the “Avengers” series, and the film, helmed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) with lush cinematography by Jess Hall, might even be more optically alluring. The “Blade Runner”-esque reimagining of a near-future Shanghai is a wonderment in its own right and perhaps worth the price of entry, but not enough to atone for an inert script and robotic acting.

Things begin promisingly enough when Scar-Jo’s Major rises elegantly out of a synthetic pool, the first cybernetic organism manufactured by the Hanka Robotics corporation. Major’s a leap forward in human and technology fusion (the flesh and steel body being the “shell,” with her computer-infused brain the “ghost”), yanked from her scientific incubators (a matronly Juliette Binoche among them) and appropriated as a weapon to fight cyberterrorists. The target du jour is an elusive entity known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), who’s out to hack Hanka and the government to pieces. Major’s barely out of the lab when we get a glimmer of her prowess, leaping from a tall building and taking out a room full of assassins with barely a hair out of place. It’s a fiery, kinetic jolt that perhaps comes too early for its own good. The shell in which the film operates becomes quickly inconsistent in tenor and tone, bouncing from somber, semi-serious oppressive future vision (back to “Blade Runner”) to hyperbolic free-for-all and, in the process, uproots the prospect of suspension of disbelief.

Sadly too, Scar-Jo, so fantastic in “Under the Skin” (2013) and normally quite capable, comes off Ben Affleck-wooden here and is further undermined by the film’s lack of an emotional core. The device of Major struggling to tap into her “ghost” to discover her true identity, much akin to Peter Weller’s cyborg in “RoboCop” (1987), piques interest at turns, but ultimately feels tacked on and beholden to the larger sheen. The corporate and governmental double dealings, which strangely seem apt as metaphor for the Trump presidency and its shadowy ties to Russia, also could have been played for greater satire and bite but also become lazy and lackluster plot points. By the end of the film, everything’s empty and contrived. Then the “spider tank” shows up and hyperbole takes off her gown to reveal a not-so-appealing figure.

Rogue One

21 Dec
Diego Luna and Felicity Jones go rogue in this stand-alone entry in the Star Wars franchise

Walt Disney Pictures

Diego Luna and Felicity Jones go rogue in this stand-alone entry in the Star Wars franchise

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story postures itself as a one-off stand alone, the first (and only?) entry in the “anthology” series versus the “saga” series where the other seven franchise films fall. Just to set the table right, Rogue One does slide into the deck seamlessly in terms of chronology, just where exactly shall remain a mystery as one of the things Disney has done with this change-up is to pack it with nuggets of surprise — so much so that they pleaded with the critical masses to not burst their bubble in their reviews, “that you as press continue to be our partners on this journey.” Such requests generally go unheard as most critics are aware of their responsibility to audiences and art, but having seen the film I get it, and you will too. Though I am sure there are those out there who will spoil, I will not.

The big win for the series and fans overall when Disney took over the franchise from LucasFilms back in 2012, was the infusion of new blood and reined-in filmmaking. No disrespect to creator George Lucas, but Return of the Jedi (1983) couldn’t hold a torch to the darker and meatier The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the three films in the prequel trilogy (1998-2005) were wooden and so overpacked with CGI magic, that all the character and mythos that cemented the original series got lost in a vortex of filmmaking overindulgence. The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams’ 2015 initial go at the sequel series, was an admirable reboot, leveraging its ancestral roots while setting the stage for the next new adventure, even if it was too much a plot redux of A New Hope (the 1977 original that anointed and defined the blockbuster). Now comes Rogue One charging out of the gate, a breath of fresh air and more restrained in all the right places, but primarily in that it saves its best for last and is orchestrated in a way that every laser blast and saber slash bears profound impact. There’s nothing indiscriminate about what’s placed on screen. Continue reading

Midnight Special

28 Apr
We're pretty sure this kid has the power to kill a yak from 200 yards away ... with mind bullets

Jeff Nichols, the budding auteur from Arkansas behind Take Shelter and Mud, gets a tad heavy-footed in his latest Midnight Special, a further contemplation on the Rapture, sanity, and the supernatural. Like his prior efforts, Nichols employs a fly-on-the-wall POV that offers an intimate look into the lives of his protagonists. In Shelter and Mud that technique allowed viewers inside the complex internal struggle of his characters, but in the plot-driven Midnight Special, the conflict is nearly all external. Although Nichols’ latest is more ambitious than his previous efforts, he very nearly hits the mark.

The film begins in a boarded-up hotel room. Inside, there are two armed men and a boy who sits under a blanket reading a comic book with a flashlight. The men are edgy — this is clearly some sort of last stand event, or is it? Without resistance they flee the room and climb into a classic muscle car in the lot and take off under cover of the night; the man behind the wheel even dons night-vision goggles so he can drive without headlights. As the viewers soon learn, these men have a higher calling: trying to save mankind. Unfortunately for them, the rest of the world hasn’t gotten the memo.

In small, teasing strokes, including news clips and an immersion into a doomsday cult, Nichols slowly reveals the bigger picture. Roy Tomlin (played by Nichols’ onscreen alter-ego Michael Shannon) and his able driver, Lucas (Joel Edgerton) have abducted an 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent) from the aforementioned cult. The authorities are after the two men for kidnapping the boy, and the cult, led by the venerable Sam Shepard, sporting a too small sports coat and a bad Flowbee cut, has dispatched a goon squad as well. Alton happens to be Roy’s biological progeny, but Shepard’s cult leader is the child’s legal guardian. Their differences aren’t so much about Alton’s theological upbringing so much as the kid has certainly super-human talents, one of which is the ability to shoot beams of light out of his eye. As a result, the Feds (led by Adam Driver’s nerdy greenhorn) want him too. Alton’s clearly a gifted kid, but is he even human? Continue reading

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

20 Dec

The resurrection of the cherished franchise that defined blockbuster and captured the imagination of generations owes much to Michael J. Fox – tags more apt than “The Force Awakens” could be “Family Ties” or “Back to the Future.” It’s a game go by J.J. Abrams, who rebooted the “Star Trek” franchise with aplomb, and here systematically atones for the missteps creator George Lucas made with his prequel trilogy. Gone are the mass millions of digitized droid warriors and CGI-rendered spectacles such as Jar Jar Binks. Thanks to some tireless plot weaving by Abrams and cowriters Lawrence Kasdan (who penned the best of all the “Star Wars” to date, “The Empire Strikes Back”) and Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”), the old-school magic and wonderment is back in the galaxy, because they’ve worked in Han Solo (a refreshed Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), now General Leia. Even the notion of Luke Skywalker floats out there, but all that comes in pieces carefully littered throughout, and pleasingly so.

121615i The Force AwakensLike the first theatrically released chapter back in 1977, we begin on a dusty, barren planet – this one called Jakku, and more junkyard than outpost. Time-wise we’re about 30 years out from “Return of the Jedi,” and a Resistance fighter (Oscar Isaac, showing some comic flair) and his beeping beach ball of a droid (the adorable BB-8, who’s been getting all the prerelease press) possess a secret hologram map to deliver to Resistance HQ. The info will allegedly guide the holder to Skywalker so the object of the title can be achieved and the Evil Empire – now known as the First Order – can be weakened and its tyrannical chains cast off. But before any of that happens Jakku is assailed by Imperial Stormtroopers, and BB-8 and the map fall in with a scrappy scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley, showing the resolve of Katniss Everdeen) who’s pretty good at hand-to-hand and has a mysterious childhood that spills back to her in ghostly shards.  Continue reading

The Martian

1 Oct

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie portray the crew members of the fateful mission to Mars in

The much anticipated big screen adaptation of Andy Weir’s hot-read “The Martian” finally lands in theaters this week.

For local boy Matt Damon and director Ridley Scott, it’s a respectable go, but for science and NASA, it’s an unequivocal win. Following the film’s release those chem and bio books on high schoolers’ nightstands will get a little sexier.

For those not familiar with Weir’s self-published e-book that became a New York Times bestseller, it takes place in the short near future, when manned flights to Mars are doable and entails the ordeal of an astronaut left for dead on the Red Planet, who then must survive for four years until the next mission from Earth arrives. The major must haves, air and water (no, it’s not prescient of the findings) are relatively “easy” to ascertain.

The big gotcha is food, as the pup-tent bivouac is only stocked with enough rations to feed a crew of six for 60 days. If you’re doing the math and forecasting, that’s the joyful brain bait Weir imbued throughout his novel. The book has been hailed as one of the best pure science, science fiction books in a long while (Weir, a former programmer who worked on the Warcraft video games was reared on a steady diet of Arthur C. Clarke).

Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard (“World War Z” and “Cloverfield”) however don’t have reams of paper or time to stop and explain the not-so-basic math, chemistry and biology solutions that propel “The Martian,” but what they do have are digi-logs, so that Damon, playing left-behind spaceman Mark Watney, a biologist by trade, can speak directly into GoPro cams or any of the myriad of the recording devices sprinkled throughout the space tent known as a “hab” and the rover, an all-terrain SUV on steroids.

To explain how Watney gets marooned and rises from the dead would be doing the uninformed a disservice. It’s smart and sharply done in both mediums, as is how Watney is discovered alive on the far off planet by satellite wonks at NASA (there’s no comms that can reach that far to squawk real time). But all these golden plot nuggets come directly from from Weir’s blueprint. What’s missing is the looming sense of dread that so effectively filled other recent deep space conundrums like “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” let alone the imposing power of loneliness like Tom Hanks so convincingly evoked on a similarly remote and desolate body (an island on Earth occupied by a volleyball) in “Cast Away.”

Continue reading

Z for Zachariah

28 Aug
desk.jpg

Craig Zobel got under a lot of people’s skin with 2012’s taut thrillerCompliance about a fast-food employee’s horrific interrogation by her superior, and with Z for Zachariah, he continues to plumb the complex inner workings of human interaction in this post-apocalyptic drama propelled by issues of gender, race, and religion.

Set in the near future, the tomboyish Ann (the lovely Margot Robbie) lives in a rich fertile dell and forages for food with her dog. She lives a quiet, remote existence. Down the hill from the big farm house she encamps, there’s an abandoned gas station and a church and that’s about it.

While out on one such expedition to recover game from snares, Ann stumbles upon a stranger in a spacesuit-like encasing waiving a Geiger counter. It’s then that we know the world is no longer a friendly place and that these may in fact be the last two humans on the planet. The how and why isn’t exactly explained, just that radioactive contamination is definitively a part of it. Continue reading