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Tag: sci-fi

‘Upgrade’ is B Movie Bliss

UpgradeUpgrade is rousing, low-brow, sci-fi trash. It plays dumb, dazzles the viewer with gruesome violence, but delivers the goods in the end. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good cyborg film. This is a cheaply made release from Blumhouse, but the lack of funds has lead to structural ingenuity in the writing. Here the upgrade is just a computer chip. It interfaces between hero, Grey Trace’s brain stem, and broken back. He can talk to it. Conversation between man and machine is the hook.

It takes you on a ride.

The fresh approach in this film is the way the upgrade supplements Grey Trace’s confidence and ambitions. It allows us to sympathize with a thinly drawn character because the protagonist himself is only a passenger in his body. The machine, known as STEM is a physical middleman and assistant to his host, played by Logan Marshall-Green. This concept makes for some wildly original action scenes that are motivated purely by STEM’s character. A word of warning – this is a hard edged action film with intense violence. It is not whimiscal, it is not for kids. It will make grown-men gasp.

Get ready for Déjá Vu Again.

You may know Marshall-Green as that asshole from Prometheus who looks like Tom Hardy. Strangely, Hardy will be in Venom later this year giving a similar “action-hero-passenger” performance. From the look of the trailers we have a fantasy/sci-fi theme-battle shaping up. I haven’t seen the likes of this since Dark City and The Matrix told the same story in two different genres. I’m willing to place my bet on Upgrade being the better film. For fans of b-movies and cyborgs – this one is a MUST WATCH.

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‘Annihilation’ is a Haunting Sci-Fi Journey

annihilation-posterAnnihilation is the latest flick starring Natalie Portman. She took off her self-importance cap and made something worth watching again. Yay! Alex Garland (Dredd, Ex Machina) wrote and directed the film based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. This director is shaping up to be a real talent in the sci-fi genre. His movie strikes a dreamy, pensive tone as four scientists are sent to explore a mysterious bubble that has popped up around a lighthouse. Is it aliens?

The film has a female lead cast as does the book, and surprisingly does not try to make a point about it. Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh all do good work here. One imagines male casting might have brought a little more intensity and conflict to the proceedings, but that’s not what this film is about. There are moments of action and terror, but it’s primarily an emotional/spiritual journey into an abstract reality. Everything inside the bubble – woman, beast or tree is being altered. It’s a mysterious film that like 2001: A Space Odyssey, refuses to give up all its secrets.

I found it reminiscent of the recent release Arrival (Amy Adams, Dir. by Denis Villeneuve). The fault in that film was in adapting an intellectual topic and trying to explain it visually. I found it to be an interesting failure. This film is similarly quiet and pensive, but it’s got an emotional core and it doesn’t try to answer everything. Annihilation succeeds at adding action and horror to the mix and it skips the neat bow at the end. So far it’s the best sci-fi film I’ve seen in 2018. If you’ve got a love for literary sci-fi or just a hankering for something without explosions check it out.

Year – 2018 | TRT – 1:55 | Directed by – Alex Garland | Written by – Alex Garland (written for the screen by), Jeff VanderMeer (based on the novel by) | Cast – Natalie Portman, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno, David Gyasi

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‘Thor Ragnarok’ is Good Stupid Fun

thor_ragnarok_posterI got a MoviePass so I finally took in a showing of Thor: Ragnarok. I dug it. It was a far better ride than the last two Marvel Studios outings  (Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange). I thought it was fun with a retro visual style reminiscent of recent low budget genre mashups like Turbo Kid or Kung Fury. Of course, the big budget here allows every frame to be stuffed to the gills with world building visuals. I’m not sure it’s possible for a film to feel more like a comic book. The action is crisp and fun and the film never bores, but I’ve got an unusual critique to make. It’s too funny.

The Humor is Relentless.

Each one of Ragnarok’s cast of characters is both the butt of jokes and a teller of jokes. I can laugh at Thor’s love of beer over tea, but don’t expect me to buy in when he speaks in snarky millennial phraseology. There is a lot of self-consciously clever dialogue that disappointed me. Thor, Hulk, Banner, Valkyrie – all of them are at times played for humor at the expense of character. I would have preferred something with more restraint. There are pratfalls that are out of left field including one where Bruce Banner jumps from a plane. That moment was a low point for this Hulk fan. The humor has another effect – Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Loki is greatly diminished as he is no longer the one injecting levity. That’s my main gripe with the film. Some moments were so silly they betrayed the characters.

It’s Brazenly Kitschy and Absurd.

Overall, this was a good outing for Marvel. It’s got the same kind of bite sized enjoyment that an issue of the comic might have and it removes the ponderousness of the previous Thor outings. There are big knock-around battles that have the kind of silly gusto you want out of tales of the super-strong. Ragnarok also marries sci-fi with the fantasy stylings of the prior films. This kind of genre bending works for an informed geek, but it can be hit or miss for a general audience. It’s a strength here. This is a sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, gladiator, super-hero comedy that works.

Marvel’s Source Material is Nearly Endless.

Ragnarok manages to adapt several comic titles. The film incorporates Hela (Cate Blanchett) and Skurge (Karl Urban) from the Thor books. Neither character gets much time for development, but both have the acting chops to make their scenes work. There are elements borrowed from the late 90’s “Ragnarok” storyline (Thor #80-85) that feature prominently near the end. However, the middle act of the film is not from Thor at all, but a storyline called “Planet Hulk”. The gladiator backdrop as well as Hulk and a few of the secondary characters are culled from this run. It was previously adapted as a mediocre animated film. Finally, the name of the gladiatorial competition is taken from a limited series called Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions. The only other element borrowed from that series is a single character – Grandmaster – played with electric enthusiasm by Jeff Goldblum.

I’m Excited for More.

Thor ends this entry in a place he has never really been in the comics. The changes to his stats quo have been toyed with in print, but never put forth as a permanent arc. These new elements move the character forward in a way that’s needed to sustain interest. While I think the movie veered off road when Thor was delivering punchlines, the ending was great for him. This third outing is certainly a fresh take on the character. I recommend it heartily to Marvel fans and anyone who enjoys Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Thor: Ragnarok is a fun cornball movie that your inner five year old will love.

Year – 2017  | TRT – 2:10 | Directed by  – Taika Waititi  | Written by – Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost, Stan Lee (based on the comics by), Larry Lieber (based on the comics by), Jack Kirby (based on the comics by)  | Cast – Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba

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‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a Motion Painting

Blade Runner 2049 PosterConsider me underwhelmed by Blade Runner 2049. I suspected a cash grab by aging Harrison Ford, so I waited to see it on home video. It’s certainly not trash, but it’s tedious. The focus is on Ryan Gosling as a synthetic man-cop. It’s a perfect fit for him as an actor, but his performance is so calm that it sucks the drama out of every obstacle. The visuals are subtle as well. Dialogue is needed to clarify what is being shown to us in most scenes. The director, Denis Villenueve, has trouble getting plot details into the images and instead retreats to expositional monologues. It might as well be a book for all it’s visual might.

The Think of It.

I expected more from Gosling, but I believe he’s delivering what was requested of him – “Don’t react to anything.” It get’s old. I had to wait for Harrison Ford’s arrival to see a performance resembling human emotion. Unfortunately, his share of the story is small by comparison. The rest of the cast is serviceable. Robin Wright manages to elevate her exposition heavy dialogue and Jared Leto is magnetic as usual. He gets the cerebral monologues. His speeches made me think, but they didn’t make me feel. I had to focus on this film. Villenueve stretches the dramatic beats to lend weight, but it creates a monotonous tone and pace.

While the plot is tied to the original film in a reasonable fashion, it’s a more intellectual sequel. It’s less about whether replicants are really alive and more about whether replicants are really slaves. In the original, Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty wanted “…more life, fucker.” In the sequel, the replicant wants to have real memories. Hauer’s performance had more passion than this whole movie. The original film felt grounded. That was the strength of Blade Runner. It was the future we knew was coming. This one imagines a further extrapolation of that world, but perhaps travels too far. It reminded me of THX-1138 or 2001: A Space Odyssey for it’s unforgiving desire to focus on emotionally cryptic characters.

Pretty as a Picture?

It’s nominated for Oscars in production design and cinematography. The work is skilled, but I found the aesthetic to be at odds with itself. It mixes minimalist Ikea interiors with the original’s dark neo-noir cityscapes. The smoke and light reflections that wow are inspired by the 1982 film. The new design elements are stark, barren and digital. It’s a strange mesh of used machinery and crisp, tidy photoshop graphics. The film favors slow moving wide shots with everything reduced in scale. The actors are photographed as though they’re part of the set. The movie felt designed rather than photographed. It’s cold.

It’s also nominated for sound mixing & sound editing. I think it’ll win those. The sound design is excellent. It’s rare to hear truly original effects. Think of Star Wars’ lightsabers and the Millenium Falcon’s hyperdrive. These are unique auditory queues that make the world believable. Blade Runner 2049 has that going for it. Even the gunshots sound cool and different. It helps make the film immersive despite the subdued mood and performances.

It’s For Super-Dorks.

Blade Runner 2049 is strictly for curious cinephiles and science-fiction fans. Villenueve made the same kind of understated intellectual film with Arrival (review). This guy likes to slowly put it all together. I’m OK with that if the final result is stunning. I can’t say I felt that way here. The movie is like a high quality cinemagraph with really good sound design. I’ve embedded one below for reference. Click play and watch it for two hours and forty minutes and you’ll understand the experience.

Let’s Spoil Star Wars – The Last Jedi Review



WARNING – This review will NOT be spoiler free.


Star Wars – Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is the kind of movie you’ve already decided on seeing. This will not be my standard spoiler-free analysis, but rather a personal reaction. It’s been almost a month since I saw the film. It wasn’t the experience I was hoping for. A few years back when I heard that there would be a new trilogy I was very excited to see my childhood hero Luke Skywalker again. In The Force Awakens he only received a silent 15 second cameo. In The Last Jedi he was revealed to be a hermit living in shame. He self terminates at the end of the movie (but there’s no forewarning, so when it happens I just sat there and thought, wait…did that just happen. Did he just die?) The credits rolled and I quickly made the universal gesture for wanking-off to my girlfriend.

God and Lucasfilm have cleared the bench of characters I love and they have not coordinated efforts. The new characters fail to keep me interested in what’s to come. Rey is dull, Poe is dumb and while I enjoyed John Boyega the last time, they took his character Finn nowhere in TLJ. He was a prop for someone named Rose who taught us about love, animal cruelty, the military-industrial complex and necklaces. Kylo is the most interesting because Adam Driver can act, but he was already defeated in the first film so there’s no tension there. He’ll lose again.

I could say a lot about what is good about the film, but I’d rather just talk about Luke because it overshadows everything for me. It’s personal. I remember watching ROTJ and wondering how he would escape Jabba, then cheering when he took that flip off the gangplank to save the day. It thrilled me like no other movie ever has. I remember hoping that Vader would save his son and being sublimely satisfied when he did. That single moment is my favorite experience while watching a movie. I can still feel my reaction like it was yesterday. I was six years old. These were the cinema experiences that cemented my love of storytelling and heroism. The Last Jedi made me wanna leave Luke back where I last saw him in 1983. Then he was my hero. Now he’s kind of depressing to think about.

I gather that people who are over fifty are just not marketable heroes to Disney. I gather that they really want these movies to be about young people like Rey. OK.

Luke’s essential purpose in the film is to be convinced by Rey to save the “resistance” by using some force powers. There’s some clever themes in there – like him performing legendary deeds through the use of illusion. He saves the day without attacking. Sounds like Luke. I can dig it.

He gets really tired from his last big force trick though and he dies and disappears into the force. OK, I knew it would happen some time.

So why is he filled with shame in this film? The Last Jedi relies on our childhood adoration of this mythical character to make a point about human frailty and the way we foolishly idolize “heroes”. Heroes are only human. The film illustrates this by portraying Luke as grumpy and fearful of Rey. He doesn’t want to train her. He wants to be left alone to die. He’s filled with shame and regret after a conflict with his nephew Ben. Luke has gone off to hide while all his dark premonitions about Ben actually happen. So Luke Skywalker is kinda the reason everything is bad again. During the film, he learns to accept his failure so he can go back to helping everyone.

Here’s the rub. There’s a flashback where Luke ignites his lightsaber and considers killing his sleeping nephew before he has gone bad. All suspension of disbelief ended for me at that moment. I disconnected from the film. It was like when Superman won’t save his father in Man of Steel. It was another example of the rejection of virtue in modern culture. Star Wars was never intended to be realistic or nuanced – it was intended to be a mythological tale about heroes that would help the young learn virtuous lessons.

No longer my Star Wars.

Failure is a lesson that Luke was already taught in The Empire Strikes Back when his father whupped him and cut his hand off.  If this is part VIII and the story is about Rey, then maybe she should learn about failure. She’s not a mythical character at this point. She’s a socio-political one. She has no faults, no failings, no bruises and no trials. She’s there for the little girls. You know what I say to that? Go play in the pink isle.

Luke is gone now. So how do I feel? Not very interested in Star Wars. And to be clear – it’s not because he’s dead. It’s because he was transformed into a miserable failure masquerading as a legend.

I expected a mythological tale wrapped in space opera and filmed like a matinee serial. That’s Star Wars. The Last Jedi was something else. It’s as influenced by Game of Thrones’ shocking deaths and reversals as anything else. Thematically the writing is strong, but it shows no appreciation for the greater arc of the trilogy or the saga. The movie played like a bunch of made up bullshit to make me go “ooh” and “huh” and “oh, neat Taoism”. Rian Johnson wanted to “kill the past” as Kylo says and he did. He made me sad when I look at a picture of my childhood hero Luke Skywalker.

Here’s a quote from Arthur Conan Doyle that was included in the press materials for the original Star Wars. I imagine that today it would be considered a micro-agression.

“I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.”

I’m all grown up now. So thank you, Rian Johnson for freeing me from my past. Good luck with your new trilogy. I’m sure it’ll make lots of money!

Beautiful on the Outside – ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ Review

posterI was the only one in the theater. Sheesh.

If you liked The Fifth Element you’ll probably enjoy Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

The visuals are stunningly original. It has fantastic effect and production design in service to the world building. Unfortunately, the story is simplistic and the characters are lightly drawn. It sags a bit in the middle, but then picks up to finish off as a light adventure story. It all adds up to a decent time at the movies if you’re into French comic book adaptations. For what it’s worth, I found it more visually engaging than the comic book source material. If you enjoy science fiction tropes and seeing the boundaries of visual effects pushed, then this film should be a forgettable, but enjoyable ride.

© 2024 by Maximilian Gray