Sci-Fi Do or Die

Wow!  It is mind-boggling how many great films are out there, so many that deserve a mention.  I’ve been wanting to write about science fiction movies for some time.  When I was a child, I would look in the TV Guide and see “Sci-Fi” as the genre type of a movie.  Somehow that didn’t translate to science fiction, but to “extra scary”, like scary in hi-fi or something, scary semper fi.

Splice (2009) is a character development story which uses sci-fi to amplify the development.  A couple of romantically linked genetic scientists, Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley), are performing cutting-edge DNA-splicing research funded by a pharmaceutical company.  They create hybrid animals in the lab for possible medical use.  At one point, they decide to kick it up a notch and mix in human DNA, and the result is astounding.

Splice has one of the best developed plot lines you will ever see — a racecar engine is at work here.  As the creature they have conceived constantly evolves so does the story, in fascinating and frightening ways.  Rather than stick to the standard Hollywood line of mutant-alien on the rampage, the characters here act in real, human (or semi-human) ways.  There is nuance here.

Clive and Elsa name their creation Dren (a deliberately androgynous Delphine Chanéac), and so begins an intimate family story of mother, father and daughter — but with that raciness of Alien just below the surface.    A strong bond is formed among the trio, and that bond carries over to the audience.  You feel connected to all three, and as such the quickly paced developments keep you hanging from start to finish.  At times the family is quite happy, but like keeping a lion for a pet, the wild side of Dren is bound to break free.  8/10.

While on the subject of genetic engineering, I should now recommend the masterpiece Gattaca (1997, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law).  Yes, masterpiece with a rating 10/10.  The story here is set in the “not too-distant future” where how hard you work, how smart you are, or how well you execute your talents doesn’t matter — all that matters is your genetic makeup.  You were either naturally-born or a product of genetic manipulation.  Now the DNA science here is not so otherworldly as that presented in Splice.  Here it is a matter of choosing the single, optimal fertilized egg from mother and father to go on and become your offspring — why leave it up to the chance of nature?

Ethan Hawke and Ernest Borgnine in Gattaca

What is more scary is the Big Brother-inspired world that the ostensibly beneficial science has manifested.  Quick, automated genetic screenings occur frequently — at a work entryplace finger-prick turnstile, with a spot check of urine, or the collection of a small bit of hair or skin that might have been left at one’s desk.  For our hero Vincent (Hawke), if any of these checks show him to be what he really is — naturally-born and thus “in-valid” or “degeenerate”, he will be immediately jettisoned into that other class, subjugated to work as nothing better than a custodian.

But Vincent truly is a hero.  He has the highest aspiration: to be an elite astronaut and fly to the far reaches of space.  He is smart and tenacious, so he enlists the help of a liason to assume the identity of a man with first-class genetic credentials, a former swimming star named Jerome (Law).  But this is no identity theft, rather, a mutually beneficial arrangement.

A sweeping and spirited film, Gattaca centers on the will and determination of Vincent overcoming his handicapped birth.  The absorbing tale is further enhanced by a beautiful, clean, cinematic look, which accentuates the purity of the story.  What else?  Excellent performances by an all-star cast including Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine, Alan Arkin and the always charming Tony Shalhoub, and to cap it off a beautiful, haunting, perfectly suited original score.

All of that might not catapult Gattaca to masterpiece level and a 10 rating.  The plus factor here is the elevation of the human spirit at the edge of an important and daunting new frontier.  In capturing our imagination with its universal themes, Gattaca earns my highest recommendation.

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Now onto what I call “pure” science fiction: Moon (2009).  I think of it as pure science fiction I suppose in the sense that it is a more traditional type, not dealing with genetic manipulation at all.  Gattaca has not so much to do with a pure science fiction backdrop as it does with a dedicated individual overcoming the odds against him.  On the other hand,  Moon from the outset puts you right in that sci-fi state of mind.

Moon

The story is that of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a solitary mine worker manning a station on the moon.  His job is to venture out from his base to collect product from large mining vehicles which dig up and convert ore, fairly automatically, then return to base.  At the base he is most occupied not with a lot of particular tasks, as again things seem fairly automated, but with simply making time go by — for which he has invented a number of diversions.  The automation is greatly assisted by GERTY, an artificially intelligent robot extension of the base’s interior voiced with a mild sinister undertone by Kevin Spacey.

There is no evidence of any ill intent that GERTY may have toward Sam; it seems he is there very much to help.  But because GERTY, and the film’s atmosphere both within the base and out on the moon very much evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey (prior post), especially that sense of desolation and loneliness in outer space, we feel as the story progresses that at any moment GERTY will turn on Sam.

But that does not exactly happen, certainly not in the way of 2001Moon‘s similarity with 2001 goes no further than the ambiance it creates.  Moon is it’s own quite brilliant story.  That story is of Sam attempting to get by on his own with no more companionship than GERTY and occasional broken communication with Earth, most notably his wife.  Or is she his wife?  Is he really Sam?  For this little surprising gem takes us down that Film as Soufflé path best represented by Mulholland Dr.  And that’s all I am going to say about the story, for the more you are surprised by this movie, the more will you be delighted.

Again, Moon is its own quite brilliant story.  It’s not David Lynch and it’s not Stanley Kubrick.  It fills a unique niche in the chronology of science fiction film; 9/10 verging on a perfect 10.

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I’ve written more about these three movies than I planned.  My general intent is to merely utter a recommendation, but in so doing I remember more and more how great some of these movies are, and so I carry on a bit longer.  So, it seems I have space for just one more movie.  A part two on Sci-Fi will be forthcoming.

The Box (2009) was another surprisingly great movie.  I know I am using the word ‘surprise’ too much, but so often I go in expecting some small variation of rote pablum that I become overtaken when instead I experience talent and craftsmanship.

The Box is about a married couple and their son, who are beginning to struggle financially.  The husband (James Marsden) works in the space industry, and his wife (Cameron Diaz) is a teacher.  Now a note about her.  Cameron Diaz is probably the best actress of her generation, demonstrated once again by a telling scene early on in the movie: In her classroom, she is challenged by a student to show her feet.  When she does, she reveals webbed toes.  The Box not being Splash, the result is nothing but dead melancholy.  Diaz handles that scene, as with all her work, on the highest order.

The Box

So onto the story!  A mysterious package arrives in the mail, containing a locked wooden box.  Later, an equally mysterious man with a sort of disfigured half-face (a perfectly cast Frank Langella) arrives at the home, to explain that if the button on the box is pushed, two things will happen.  One, they will receive one million dollars.  And two, someone they do not know, somewhere in the world, will die.

Now if that’s not a great premise for a movie I don’t know what is.  I shall not be giving away too much to say that the button is pushed; if not, the movie might well reach a premature conclusion.  The million dollars is delivered right away, but this couple discovers equally quickly that Pandora’s Box has been opened.  Odd things begin to happen, and soon enough the sympathetic couple are on a path to restore normalcy to their lives.

I hate giving away details about movies which so expertly yield a wonderful story, so I will not do so here.  I will say that though the story here is quite immersive, the ultimate explanation of the odd events left me a tad wanting, but that may just be a personal preference issue.  Because of this, I had thought this movie an “8”, but now as I think about it, The Box is such a fresh vision, a great odyssey, and prevails so clearly in my mind, that I render it a 9/10.

Enough for now.  Next post, expect a little comedy to lighten things up.

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Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild [Updated]

220px-Beats-of-the-southern-wild-movie-posterHaving seen the preview for Beasts of the Southern Wild (now in theaters) a while back, I was not particularly drawn to go see it.  However, I was in the mood for a little different flavor tonight, so I opted to.  This movie is about a young impoverished black girl living with her father in a swampy community cut off from mainland Louisiana by a levee.  As such, they live in their own independent nation of sorts.  A great premise for a movie, I think.

Unfortunately, unless you want to see people living in ultimate rural squalor, I’d say skip this one.  The first big problem of this movie is that there is no compelling dramatic storyline.  These folks live in squalor, but they relish it.  They are quite content to live in filth and eat giant mounds of raw shellfish, and there is nothing to stop them from doing so.  Well — this is where the movie attempts some drama — there are threats from nature and outside to interfere with their lifestyle, but it’s all a bit hum-drum.  I’ll contrast this movie with The Visitor (2007), a wonderful little drama where the threat of deportation hangs over the head of a sympathetic main character.  Here, a sense of heart-rending upheaval, that feeling of tension which runs through any good drama, went missing for me, despite the filmmakers’ attempts to the contrary.

The second major problem was the little six-year-old girl Hushpuppy at the center of the story — supposedly, they could have made more or less exactly the same movie but with a more compelling central character, and produced a better end result.  Hushpuppy was fine, but did not captivate.  I’d say she half-captivated, as did the movie.

I think Beasts had the opportunity to be something truly great — a post-apocalyptic, grittily realistic tale set on an island of humanity where survival of the fittest is the rule, à la Mad Max — as one possible example.  But the story lacked.  A theme of the film, I think in lieu of actual plot, was that humans are surrounded by wild creatures, and that people take their place in this wild world, and that Hushpuppy should be the heroic figure to conquer her universe.  The film, and Hushpuppy, preach a little self-importance at you to drive home the wild-creature theme.  But this effort too falls short and feels like a band-aid on the story.

Beasts is not without merit.  Performances are fine, even spirited and occasionally humorous.  And the movie does give an unprecedented look into this unique community and its denizens.  But a good documentary on real people who live in such places would have been more interesting.

With a heroic little girl taming the wildness around her, Beasts of the Southern Wild came off to me like a failed Whale Rider.  5/10.

Update: Now 6/10

INVASION

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

One of the great classic cinematic storylines is that of  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  Especially in light of all the recent invading-alien movies (wasteful Battleship and Skyline come to mind), and the related spate of superhero movies (the recent Avengers for example was a yawner), the body snatcher concept shines as a refreshing novelty.  The aliens here are much more clever — they don’t want to blow up the White House or generally kill all human beings; rather, they see fit to exploit our resources by taking over each person one by one.

As it turns out, and contrary to the Hollywood tradition, there are three tellings of this story which I have seen, and all three are excellent.  And watching one in no way should preclude watching the other two.  Each of the three are strong and unique enough to hold up on their own and be undiminished by a  prior viewing of the others.

A while back I had the pleasure of seeing the original 1956 black & white film.  This is such a strong thriller of its era that it could be mistaken for a Hitchcock production.  If you haven’t seen it, do so.  It’s not just the original take, but a great, even masterful film.  We would be so lucky if the average big-budget movie of our current era could hold a candle to this exciting classic.

Nicole Kidman starred in a remake called The Invasion (2007, also with Daniel Craig).  This telling of the story features something of a variant in that Nicole Kidman is the central character, as opposed to the duo-on-the run of 1956.  As such, she takes on a more heroic position than the woman in the original: she is a psychiatrist with a doctor friend (Craig) who together can use scientific methods to track down the invading species, all while dodging alien-invaded humanoids and protecting her young son.

There’s a certain something about Nicole Kidman in her movies of the past decade that can be off-putting.  I’m not sure why, because I love her earlier performances in Dead Calm and Eyes Wide Shut.  I think sometimes I sense an artifice about her.  Probably I’m just remembering the debacle Australia (2008), as she is a very good actress when called upon to be so.  In any case she’s great in this Invasion, a very good and sophisticated personal thriller.

The third take on this story is The Faculty (1998), where the invasion is centered at a high school.  In this case, a group of young and temperamental students including super-hot Jordana Brewster discover things are amiss with certain people around them, especially their teachers.  A highly entertaining take on the Invasion theme, with the added dynamic of growing distrust among the protaganist-group’s members, akin to The Mist (previous post).  Boosted by deliciously evil “faculty” and staff performances by Piper Laurie (Twin Peaks), Salma Hayek (who I like here, for a change), Jon Stewart (from the Daily Show and another ensemble piece of 1998, Playing By Heart), and Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers/Frasier) as the principal.  A lot of fun.

* * *

When I think of movies, I think of other movies.  That’s how my mind works and I can’t help it.  So what comes to mind now?  The Matrix, of course.  Just a brief plug here.  I think I’ll have a future post on the highlights of 1999, and a terrible atrocity called the 72nd Academy Awards.

If you haven’t seen The Matrix, I am a little surprised.  It’s constantly being shown on TV, but it deserves to be watched start-to-finish uninterrupted.  It is a great sci-fi tale and completely essential viewing for movies of the last 15 years.  More later on this one.  If you haven’t seen it, make sure you watch the original 1999 version.  I don’t know that the 2 sequels were poor; in fact they might be quite good.  But they cannot match the original ground-breaking Matrix.

And finally, some whimsy.

The farce Mars Attacks! (1996) by Tim Burton is an absolute delight.  Besides poking good fun at the alien-invasion concept (this time an overt invasion, not the subtle type of the Body Snatcher movies), this movie also succeeds on a dramatic level à la Men In Black I & II, that is, enough of a plot to keep it interesting without getting in the way of the comedy.  With a great, all-star cast headlined by Jack Nicholson playing the U.S. President.

Film Brief: Savages

Just got back from watching Oliver Stone’s latest picture, Savages.  A complete waste of time, extremely boring, and a giant disappointment.  I cannot believe Charlie Rose interviewed the principals on this unprincipled piece of trash.  Not only was it a completely uninteresting run on the standard guns, money and hostages story, but even the performances were terrible.  Yuck.  1/10.

We Are Spirits… in the Material World

The last post focused on some excellent personal thrillers that stay in the ‘real world’.  Now for some movies that cross over into the super-natural.

First, a reminder of previous posts that highlighted films in this category, most notably The Ring.  And a comment on these type of movies:  The Ring is probably the best, scariest haunted spirit movie I have ever seen.  This is a genre I’m not necessarily a fan of.  I have seen so many previews where — at the end of the trailer — someone stares into a void and then, suddenly, out comes some sort of screaming banshee – a big ‘BOO’ moment.  Those ‘BOO’ moments can get tiresome, if for example it’s The Grudge and that’s all the movie can muster.

Screeching humanoid forms suddenly twisting and screaming out of the darkness:  One of the most scary things can be someone walking through a house where a tension exists — the tension of some evil bad guy about to pop out and catch the protagonist by surprise, no matter how prepared he may be.  This has got to be about the most Continue reading