Archive for the ‘science fiction’ category

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

November 19, 2017

Valerian-and-the-City-of-a-Thousand-Planets-(France)-1-FullI can’t quite bring myself to convince you that the entire two hours and seventeen minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are worth sitting through for Rihanna’s appearance some eighty minutes in. Soon enough, she becomes a blue blob and later turns to dust. But she’s fun while she lasts, as a shape-shifting performer named Bubble who helps the titular hero, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), rescue his captured partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). For twenty minutes or so, Rihanna is a suavely fierce nonactress adding some welcome grit and personality to a mix that includes far too many aliens and special effects, far too little humanity.

Valerian is great-looking but awful, a combination that has sadly become the stock in trade of the once-impressive Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element, Lucy). Those who found The Fifth Element a jocular piece of futuristic excess but a bit on the empty-calorie side won’t find much to plug into here; the meaning of the movie is simply to get Valerian and Laureline from one hectic, shiny set piece to the next, barely stopping for a breath or even a scenery-chewing villain performance from the likes of Gary Oldman (who brightened Leon and Fifth Element). Here we get only the grouchy Clive Owen as our heroes’ commander, who gives orders to wipe out an entire species of alien pearl farmers, one of whom stows away in Valerian’s body after dying.

Look, I could go on discussing plot points to prove I saw the film, but you’ll just have to trust me. Valerian has tons of plot but no real story to speak of; our heroes hurtle to and fro to get justice for the aliens, and that’s all there is to it. The movie is so pointlessly eventful and convoluted, though, that it feels more complicated than it is. It doesn’t help than DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry or presence; DeHaan has a gruff dudebro voice like Keanu Reeves’, only without Keanu’s soulfulness, and Delevingne often just seems vaguely inconvenienced, glassy-eyed with indifference for the material. (The two have matching hollow pouts, and they both have arrogantly unmusical voices.) DeHaan does bestir himself when trading lines with Rihanna, though that just serves to prove he has a pulse. Her boss, called Jolly the Pimp, is given a naughty twinkle by Ethan Hawke, but he’s not around for long, either. (I tend to think Hawke opened the script, saw his character’s name, and signed on just on the strength of being able to play a character called Jolly the Pimp.)

What we get here instead of interesting humans is a flock of CGI aliens (the one voiced by John Goodman is amusingly stern) and various scenes of the heroes’ spaceship streaking heedlessly through space, or through trippy environments, and for minutes at a time we might as well be watching animation demo footage unconnected to any context of any interest. Valerian may be welcomed as eye candy by kids and by aficionados of controlled substances, but it offers nothing for someone who merely buckles in for a good time at the movies. Besson also no longer knows what to do with interesting humans when he has them. Rutger Hauer is tossed aside after punching his time card for what our British actor friends call a cough and a spit role; Herbie Hancock is in it, mostly seen as a hologram scolding the heroes. An international cast mumbles stale dialogue in person or as the voices of aliens.

The overstuffed yet empty Valerian is nothing new, of course; we’ve been getting this sort of flatulent, pricey “entertainment” for decades, and it’s not going to end any time soon. Every so often a Get Out or a Wonder breaks out, because it scratches a previously neglected itch, or it speaks to people. Valerian and its ilk speak to no one, although they are engineered to appeal across continents, languages, cultures. Everyone understands things blowing up. Yet you have to drive out of your way for an hour to see, say, a French film for grown-ups (Valerian is based on French comics), while plastic junk like this blurts onto 3,500 screens in America — then slinks off after nine weeks having made back a fraction of its cost. Its failure in America (and in general, worldwide) would be encouraging if we didn’t still get a hundred movies like it every year.

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Blade Runner 2049

October 8, 2017

br2049There’s a lot to say about Blade Runner 2049, the long-gestating sequel to the 1982 cult classic, but here’s my initial thought: see it, don’t see it, but know that something like this — a downbeat, two-hour-and-forty-four-minute, expensive (anywhere from $150 to $185 million), R-rated work of art — will not come along again any time soon. (Especially because its opening-weekend take was “only” $31 million, which is thought to be disastrous.) Eccentricities like this will be lost in time, as someone once said, like tears in rain. More than once, I was stirred by an image or a subtly broken line reading or the thunderous, doomy soundtrack. It’s a little baffling, though, how little of it has stayed with me — except in isolated shards of sound or picture.

That’s because Blade Runner 2049, like its dour predecessor, is a bitter tone poem about humanity’s pros and cons rather than an adventure or a mystery. It continues the vision of the hellish dystopian city that the first film practically invented, and expands on it somewhat, taking us further out from the slums of L.A. (Master cinematographer Roger Deakins nurtures beauty where the first film found mostly ugliness.) In both cases the plot doesn’t matter as much as the thematic and visual heaviosity the plot makes possible. The mission of the protagonist — K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant whose job is to find and retire previous iterations of replicants — is defined mainly by where the plot needs him to be. A buried skeleton has been found, and markings on the bones determine that the owner of the skeleton was (A) a replicant and (B) pregnant. K must wipe out all evidence of this birth, including whoever the child is.

If you’re paying all that much attention to the plot, you may sit there getting annoyed at the movie for making you pretend not to have guessed the film’s big twist long before the movie pulls a mild fake-out by saying “Nope, that twist isn’t true,” but then it turns out to be true anyway. (I think.) That sound you hear is Blade Runner 2049 brutally dismantling about half of the Blade Runner fandom’s most earnest theories, but it slyly leaves intact the biggest one of all — that the first film’s anti-hero, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a killer of replicants, was himself a replicant. Deckard was never a source of laughs (except when he posed as a dweeby inspector to gain backstage access to a replicant he was hunting), but when Ford appears well into the second hour, he brings some dry levity with him. Before that it’s mostly the po-faced adventures of Ryan, the Boy Who Isn’t a Real Boy. Gosling holds the screen capably, occasionally giving it up to livelier, usually female presences like Robin Wright as K’s hard-bitten superior officer and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, a fearsome replicant who seems to have stepped out of a Frank Miller comic — Ronin, maybe.

Ronin, of course, like about five million other things, was heavily influenced by the original Blade Runner. The sequel wisely gets the first film’s iconic visuals out of the way quickly, and it doesn’t feel like a fan film but like a legitimate addition to canon. Like other films directed by Denis Villeneuve, it’s hushed and long and will put considerable pressure on some viewers’ patience. But I enjoyed its meditative tempo, and the way it uses violence is as upsetting as in the first Blade Runner but not as freaky and mean-spirited. The general tone of the original was fear and rage blended into a melange of futuristic noir; the tone of 2049 is sadness, loneliness, largely due to living in a society ruled by privilege and hubris. Everyone is walled off from everyone else, one person literally; the movie ends up saying that humanity isn’t all that important if artificial intelligence can create a better humanity. Cool story, bro! But as an experience of severe imagery and soundscape, 2049 delivers. Someday on Blu-ray it will be the go-to movie for the attuned to float around in for almost three hours, getting stoned on the bitter and doom-laden toxic mood.

Inhumanwich!

October 1, 2017

inhumanwich“In Soviet Russia, sandwich eats you!” is not a joke featured in the retro sci-fi/horror tribute Inhumanwich! (pronounced IN-hyoo-MAN-wich), but there are plenty of other jokes. The movie, shot in golden-oldie black and white, concerns an astronaut whose sloppy joe sandwich combines with radiation to turn him into a rapidly growing monster made of meat. This is the kind of knowingly daffy premise that can go south — and sour — but writer/director David Cornelius strikes a light tone early on and delivers, as I said, a tribute to schlock of the ‘50s, not a callow put-down. If you’re too hip for ridiculous big-monster movies, why put in the years of work to make one? To show the world you’re better than the movie you just made? Cornelius, in contrast, is not too hip for those movies or for his own movie. He loves them as I do, and his affection is infectious.

I don’t know for sure (but he’ll probably tell me) exactly which creature-double-features Cornelius is referencing, but I’ll take a stab and say Inhumanwich! is The Blob by way of The Incredible Melting Man (or, if you want to be fancy, First Man into Space), with elements and tropes from however many hours of snowy TV young Cornelius sat in front of. (There also seem to be fun nudges in the ribs of John Carpenter’s The Thing and the infamous Arch Oboler radio play “Chicken Heart.”) Astronaut Joe Neumann (amiably played by Jacque “Jake” Ransom before he turns into a blob of beef) terrorizes the Cincinnati countryside after his rocket crash-lands, and it’s up to the usual team of soldiers and scientists to stop it before it engulfs the planet.

Cornelius and editor Matt Gray keep Inhumanwich! sprinting (and short — the film crosses the finish line at an hour thirteen, including credits). As the old-timers who made stuff like Them! and Tarantula knew, you don’t want to give the audience a lot of time to think during your movie about killer turnips or whatever, and Cornelius also knows what the soul of wit is. (Look for his uncredited cameo as a Jordy Verrill-type gentleman who encounters the monster in the woods.) The scenes are clipped to punch up the punchlines; this good-hearted comedy boasts a good deal of technical savvy, of the sort that’s invisible when it’s working. There’s a bit about a character who repeats everything she hears during a phone chat, which would make a goofy sort of sense if we were just hearing her side of the conversation and we were getting exposition from it; but we also see the other side of the talk via split screen, so the redundancy becomes a surreal joke. It’s one of several gags in Inhumanwich! that you just know started with Cornelius watching some forlorn excuse for a movie with buddies and saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if…”

The performers are mostly encouraged to mimic the unhip flatness of ‘50s sci-fi actors. The movie doesn’t confine itself to any one era, though; some of the signifiers announce themselves as from the ‘50s, some from modern times. To that end, Jake Robinson’s stogie-chewing, growling General Graham seems to channel John Belushi’s Wild Bill Kelso and the uncouth soldiers of Day of the Dead, moreso than the rigid military men you’d find in antique schlock. He seems to be of the ‘70s and ‘80s, whereas a later character (Brad Nicholas), whose competitive abilities might be of some use against the monster, seems of more recent vintage. Cornelius mashes up the decades as if to say that some things in the universe remain constant, such as humanity’s response to a killer pile of ground beef. Inhumanwich! is just the brand of inspired nonsense we need at the moment.

Alien: Covenant

August 14, 2017

aliencovenantClosing in on eighty years old, Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to be able to leave his legacy alone. October will bring a sequel to his Blade Runner, which he’s executive-producing but not directing, and he has now directed two prequels to the Alien saga, which he started in 1979. The first of them, 2012’s Prometheus, was a ponderous though gorgeous slog through questions of life’s origins — did he who made the xenomorph make thee? Now we have Alien: Covenant, a direct follow-up to Prometheus that bows to commercial demands and actually calls itself an Alien film. Which it is, more or less. Prometheus was dull but at least attempted something larger; Covenant (named after the spacecraft in the film) is a regression to the original Alien’s set-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down schematic.

Michael Fassbender, at least, is back, this time in two roles: as David, the android from Prometheus, and Walter, a later, upgraded version of David. Walter serves on the crew of the Covenant, which seeks to colonize a remote planet. Two Fassbenders is even better news than one, and the actor plays the duty-bound Walter and the somewhat more emotional David with a variety of gradations. The rest of the crew are either non-entities or played with one or two notes, with the exception of Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, whose close-cropped hair and general aura of torment (Daniels is widowed early in the film) reminded me of Falconetti’s Joan of Arc.

Daniels is clearly being groomed as the new Ripley (the hero of the original four films, played by Sigourney Weaver), and as long as Waterston plays her, I’ll need to come back for more. She’s about the only dab of humanity in this aggressively designed, biomechanical movie, which like Prometheus has the best technical bona fides money can buy (returning editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski) but labors under a convoluted plot overlaying the slasher-flick structure. The aliens, it seems, were deliberately created and have been maintained on some ghastly planet where they killed all the Engineers (the weird-looking folks who apparently created life). These critters keep being called “the perfect organisms,” but all they do is shriek and hiss and drool acid and reproduce. They were never the interesting aspect of the Alien series; that was Ripley.

Will Daniels be allowed to take on the metaphorical, #YesAllWomen struggles of Ripley, with the soulful Waterston stepping into Weaver’s boots? I hope so, because Alien: Covenant doesn’t otherwise point to a promising future for the franchise. The movie is sleek and morbid, with the usual ugly undercurrent of gnashing teeth, shredded flesh, misting blood. More than once, I heard myself sighing at the predictability not only of the film’s and-then-there-were-none structure but of the supposed twists. I called the big twist a mile off, and anyone who’s seen a movie before will, too; the reveal is delayed a bit, so that the real twist is that, oh yeah, there is a twist after all. It still does away with a character with no explanation and lazily expects us to accept and overlook that.

Alien: Covenant isn’t all bad. Some of the images have a dour beauty; the various alien landscapes glow like a sunrise in Hell. I was happy to hear Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous, minimalist theme for the first Alien, an echoing strain that has always sounded to me almost prophetic, prefiguring the newly remorseless sci-fi/horror blockbusters of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It turns up in Covenant now and again, reminding us of the Ridley Scott who scared the crap out of us in 1979 without having to yoke the movie to some half-assed creation myth involving bodybuilders with Easter Island heads making life out of black liquid. I suspect that Scott, looking his eighth decade in the face, wanted to make his what’s-it-all-about saga with Prometheus but couldn’t get the budget unless it could be marketed as Ridley Scott’s return to the series that made his name. Alien: Covenant shows, rather dispiritingly, that Scott is not resentful about regressing; on the contrary, he has gotten comfortable in this old pair of slippers. And despite the blood and teeth, that’s what the movie feels like.

War for the Planet of the Apes

July 17, 2017

apes-1_1And so the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy comes to an end. I hope it’s the end, anyway — not that I haven’t immensely enjoyed and admired all three of these films, but this one just puts such a perfect period on the saga, not an ellipsis. The ending also, if you want it to, neatly feeds into the previous Apes pentalogy. Part war flick, part western, part prison escape picture, and all high-powered blockbuster, War for the Planet of the Apes borrows from a lot of sources but shuffles them into its own wounded deck of complex and subtle emotions. It runs on the melancholy power of its co-writer/director, Matt Reeves (who also helmed the previous installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). If you forget the metaphorically robust but somewhat campy original Apes movies and let War take you where it’s going, it’s quietly devastating.

Most of the movie, indeed, is quiet, and the grand finale of explosions nevertheless has a layer of sadness underneath it. War picks up a few years after the last one left off. Caesar (voice and digitalized physical performance by Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes against the brute forces of humanity, finds his (figurative) crown growing heavier by the day. A rogue faction of soldiers, led by a bald crackpot known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), lays down some hot death and claims the lives of Caesar’s wife and elder son. Caesar permits himself little time to mourn before taking off in pursuit of the Colonel, accompanied by a few die-hard friends/soldiers who insist on going with him.

The film isn’t very “plotty.” The script by Reeves and Mark Bomback leaves room for character moments. It’s much more important that we discern exactly how Caesar fears becoming like his former, bitter right-hand ape Koba, and how he might actually resemble Koba, in terms of unquenchable rage. There’s also room for various characters, good and bad, painted in tones of gray; even the Colonel is given a backstory that explains, though doesn’t justify, his bullet-headed ruthlessness. These new Apes films have never fallen into a facile “apes good, humans bad” formula. Some apes are not good (some of them have defected to the human army, where they’re derisively called “donkeys” and commanded to help out in combat against the apes), and some humans are not bad (there’s a mute little girl who’s both a callback to and a bridge to the first two original Apes films).

War is pure megabudget cinema done right; Michael Seresin’s lush photography and Michael Giacchino’s epic, emotive score make the case for this being the kind of emotionally gratifying summer blockbuster Steven Spielberg no longer makes. Serkis can rest assured he’s added a great, conflicted hero to the pantheon, and there’s a terrific comic-relief performance from Steve Zahn (of course) as an easily frightened ape who calls himself Bad Ape — am I crazy or is Zahn channeling Elisha Cook Jr.? The movie has taken some flak for being predominantly male, which it is, except for its Newt-like orphan girl and the fact that Caesar’s orangutan adviser Maurice is voiced/performed by a woman, Karin Konoval. That seems backward in the summer of Wonder Woman, but one movie can’t address all inequities.

It’s probably enough that the paranoid Colonel wants to build a wall — not to keep out apes but to keep out other humans. Caesar may be Willard to the Colonel’s Kurtz (a line of graffiti just comes right out and name-checks Apocalypse Now) — and at least the Colonel doesn’t scrawl anything as obvious as “Exterminate all the brutes” — but he’s not a numb killer like Willard. He feels himself sliding into that territory, but when the moment of truth comes, he does not kill. “It’s a hard heart that kills,” shouts the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket (another of this film’s influences), but despite everything that the world has thrown at it, Caesar’s heart has not hardened. War is about mercy and empathy, which makes it a nicely organic anti-war film.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

May 14, 2017

resident-evil-the-final-chapter-clipOne thing horror fans remember well from the fourth Friday the 13th film: never trust a horror sequel that calls itself “The Final Chapter.” There may, however, be a reason to take Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’s word for it. For one thing, franchise star Milla Jovovich isn’t getting any younger. Sure, she can leap and shoot and fight with as much éclat as ever at age 41, but for how much longer? And did she really intend to do six of these things in the first place? As of now, Jovovich has led the longest-running female-fronted action franchise in Hollywood history (the all-time record probably belongs to Lupe Vélez and her eight-film Mexican Spitfire comedy series from the ‘40s). She can safely rest now, and perhaps focus on other projects that don’t involve throngs of ravenous undead.

You probably don’t need to have seen the previous five movies to follow this one; the story (by director Paul W.S. Anderson, who is also Mr. Jovovich) is as violently incomprehensible as the others, anyway. The gist is that the cure for the T-virus (which created the zombie outbreak) exists in “the Hive” in the ruined Raccoon City, and Jovovich’s Alice must find it (within 48 hours, of course) and release it to save what’s left of humanity. Zombies and various other critters get in her way, as well as the nefarious Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen), who pursues Alice and her cadre of fellow warriors. Or it could be his clone. I’m still not sure. Along for the ride is returning comrade-in-arms Claire (Ali Larter), from two of the earlier movies.

Anderson has directed four of the six Resident Evil films (including the first one), and though editor Doobie White has been encouraged to make unreadable hash out of most of the action sequences, there actually is some apocalyptic-aesthetic beauty here and there. Often, the camera pulls back and back until it surveys the wreckage of a city from a great distance or height. The rubble contrasts sharply with the antiseptic white-on-white glossy surfaces of the villain’s lair. There’s poetry, too, in Jovovich’s husky snarl of a voice — this heroine may or may not be recognizably human after facing so much horror. I think after six films and fifteen years of this, both Jovovich and Alice have earned a respite.

The movie and the franchise in general sit largely humorlessly at the action-flick table, glowering with the higher purpose of saving humankind from the rotten Umbrella corporation. The films are more “badass” than fun, really. This could be why the series has never been especially lucrative in America — even the most domestically successful, 2010’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, only made $60 million against a $60 million cost — but has blown up overseas; this last segment cleared a mere $27 million here, but pocketed $312 million globally, becoming by far the franchise’s top breadwinner. So … maybe there will be post-final chapters? The ending does leave the door open for more adventures.

More adventures with whom, though? Separate from the live-action series, there have been animated, direct-to-video Resident Evil features; the third, Resident Evil: Vendetta, will soon menace theaters and digital streaming platforms near you. These animated movies follow other folks besides Alice, like Leon S. Kennedy, a hero familiar from the RE videogame series. (Leon also turned up in the previous live-action outing, 2012’s Retribution, alongside Michelle Rodriguez, whose sullen presence is missed here; slight lookalike Ruby Rose represents instead as a tomboy mechanic, but she isn’t around long.) As for future live-action entries, who knows? Jovovich deserves a break, but I hate to think of these movies not anchored by her agility and her growl. It’s bad enough we now face Alien movies without Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and my growing sad suspicion is that if Warner Bros. could get away with putting out a Wonder Woman movie without Wonder Woman, they would.

Rogue One

April 23, 2017

rogueoneBetween regular “saga” entries of the Star Wars franchise, we can now expect interstitial forays like Rogue One, which tells the story of how the Death Star came to have a weak spot into which Luke Skywalker so triumphantly squeezed laser blasts in the original Star Wars. This sort of “untold story” is symptomatic of the nerdish desire to explain everything, tie everything up neatly. After all, the question of why such a fortified super-weapon should have an Achilles’ heel has plagued the world for some forty years. Now we learn it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, put there by clever scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who has been pressed into service by the Empire to work on their big new Rebellion-crushing toy.

Rogue One follows Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), a hard-bitten young woman very much in the mold of Daisy Ridley’s Rey from The Force Awakens. Rarely smiling, much less showing affection for anyone other than her long-lost daddy, Jyn is apparently nouveau Star Wars’ idea of the deromanticized heroine, the brave and driven woman with no lovey-dovey distractions. This is fine with me, believe me, but the film’s screenwriters (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are credited) forget to humanize Jyn in any other sense. (Her preoccupation with running a mission to realize her father’s plan just defines her in terms of a man anyway.)

The story is simple — Jyn has to get the Death Star plans, which include where the thing’s weakness is, into the hands of Princess Leia — and the movie is much more consistently and consciously a war picture than any other Star Wars film. Things blow up, large objects plummet and fly apart, Stormtroopers and Rebel warriors kill and die by the dozens. After a while, the combat becomes numbing, monotonous, locked into the technology from the original trilogy (the lumbering AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back make an appearance). Despite all this, the plot is needlessly convoluted, involving a variety of ragged grayhats who come together in the common cause of defeating the Empire. If there’s a reason the extremist character Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) really needed to be in the movie, I’ve already forgotten it. Rogue One starts wearing out its welcome at about the hour mark, and there’s another 75 minutes to go; the movie, lumbering like those AT-ATs, feels like it stomps along forever.

Some humanity occasionally peeks over the rubble. Everyone enjoyed Alan Tudyk’s vocal performance as the reformed/reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, who tends towards brutal honesty at inopportune times, and I liked him too. The ethnic diversity of the cast is a merit, including the calming Zen presence of Donnie Yen as the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who feels one with the Force even if he’s not an official Jedi. Oddly, the Stormtroopers, reliably inept and fond of doofus small talk about the latest Imperial tech (someone on this production obviously remembered the goofball Stormtrooper exchange about the VT-16 in Star Wars), seem to be the most relatable characters despite being cannon fodder — but then, almost everyone in Rogue One is cannon fodder.

That’s a potentially interesting thing to do in a $200 million movie that’s part of a multibillion-dollar franchise — a nihilistic, die-with-honor war film. Here, though, it comes off as a little cold. Seeing all those Stormtroopers bite it, I was reminded again that at least a few of them could be like Finn in The Force Awakens, sickened by slaughter and in desperate need of flight and redemption. Rogue One couldn’t care less about that, and cares scarcely more about the Rebel Alliance heroes. The people we’re introduced to in Rogue One will never be seen again in the films (I suppose there might be spin-off comics or novels about them), their ultimate sacrifice known by few and remembered by fewer. Empire Strikes Back had its dark and dissonant moments (I still remember a post-torture Han Solo moaning “They didn’t even ask me any questions”), but at least it wasn’t depressing.