Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

Lockout (***, 2012)

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The finally got around to making Escape from Outer Space, except that Kurt Russell is nowhere to be found and they decided to call it Lockout. Guy Pearce (Memento, L.A. Confidential) stars as the retro-styled wiseass action hero surnamed Snow, a tough guy with no easy respect for authority. It’s the future, and now Earth’s best maximum security prison is MS One, a high tech facility in orbit above the planet. The inmates are now loose and have taken the president’s daughter hostage. The government gives Snow an ultimatum: go up there and bring her back, or forfeit your freedom and your life. Of course, the tough guy takes the mission.

Lockout has every opportunity to be horrible, and it kind of is. Everything in the film is borrowed, from its absurd premise to its aggressively mundane cinematography (EVERYTHING is teal and orange). In spite of these drawbacks, however, it manages to be stupidly entertaining. The key is that none of the actors seem to know they’re in a bad movie. For a space prison rescue movie the performances are really strong and mostly believable. Pearce really seems to be enjoying himself in the lead, inflecting his voice with gravel and cracking wise, and Maggie Grace (the blonde from Lost’s early seasons) holds her own next to him.

The most surprising thing about this film is how it manages to capture, however imperfectly, the retro-action vibe it so clearly tries to borrow on. So many remakes and reboots and comebacks these days draw on their source material in name only, lacking whatever wit and verve energized the better action flicks of twenty years ago. I don’t want to overpraise Lockout, as though it’s a fantastic return to form that reinvigorates a tired genre, but it’s a lot better than anyone should expect it to be.

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Who Should Direct Star Wars 7?

I’m cautiously optimistic about the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm. Apparently there’s plenty of nerd rage circulating the interwebs about it right now, with cries of, “NO! That’s not true! That’s impossible!!” and whatnot.

But, as with most Jedi devotees, the purity of my love for the series was forever ruined by The Phantom Menace and its follow ups. I’ll never forget the series of disappointments that film piled on, the slow realization as it went on that it wasn’t going to fundamentally redeem itself. Lucas et al did not seem to have considered what made the original trilogy work, but rather treated the material as an intellectual property that could be strip mined for flimsy stories sold on their special effects.

Lucas knew that people would go see the movie, and did not waste time with things like mystery or working to get us invested in the characters. Lucas, legal and creative despot of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties*, had free reign to make whatever the heck he wanted. The prequels have the feeling of half-baked ideas run amok, ultimately flashy, hollow products lacking any compelling aesthetic or narrative sensibilities. I’m overstating my case somewhat, but it fuels how I feel about the Disney takeover of the intellectual property (from here on, IP).

Because Lucasfilm has already reduced the Star Wars brand to an IP to be mined for corporate entertainment, it makes sense for it to be taken over by a company who often succeeds at doing that to great effect. Not that Disney hasn’t churned out its fair share of crappy movies, but, like many others this past week, I would point to the Disney takeover of the Marvel and Pixar brands of positive examples of what the Mouse House can do with pre-existing IPs or studios. This is the framework (effective corporate takeover of an entertainment IP) that should shape how think about which directors are best suited to the task of helming Star Wars 7.

First off, there are some big name directors who are just not viable options. Industry moguls like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are invested in their own projects and studios and would surely never deign to be squeezed into the Disney’s re-energizing of the Star Wars franchise. Two other fan favorites, Chris Nolan and Joss Whedon, are less impossibly unlikely yet ill-fitting for various other reasons. God spare us gritty or post-modern turns in the Star Wars film canon.

There are other highly talented directors who haven’t been as widely proposed but might at first seem like good fits. Guillermo del Toro, master of the truly alien, is too infested in his brand of subversive fantasy-horror to come to a gee-whiz IP like Star Wars. Brad Bird, who gave us The Incredibles and Mission Impossible 4, is too witty and kinetic–I don’t see him thriving in broadly epic adventure mode. Insanely talented stylists like Alfonso Cuaron and Ridley Scott don’t fit, precisely because Star Wars has never really been about style.

The worst case scenario is that we get some awfully pedantic director hired for bringing effects heavy tent-pole films to the screen on time and under budget. Chris Columbus, of the first two Harry Potter‘s, would be one, Jon Turteltaub of the National Treasure films would be another. Stephen Sommers helmed the first two Mummy films and was entrusted with the second installment of G.I. Joe. Shawn Levy gave us the Night at the Museums, the three-letter nick-named McG both Charlie’s Angels as well as Terminator 4. And then there’s Brett Ratner–*shudder*. Anyone who fits this bill would count as a loss to me.

Here are some guys I think could make it work–and seem like realistic possibilities given that it’s Disney doing the hiring.

Andrew Stanton (Finding NemoJohn Carter)

Despite the colossal mess that was John Carter, a lot of its problems seem inherent to the unlimited freedom the studio gave to Stanton to make a convoluted fanboy indulgence rather than a streamlined and effective pop thrill ride. Stanton is a talented director, and Carter shows the promise of a large-scale, effects-driven adventure that could have been.

Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the CaribbeanRango)

Verbinski oversaw Disney’s most lucrative franchise of the past decade, and while the Pirates sequels weren’t as fun as the first, they remain agreeable effects-driven tentpole films. Additionally, Verbinski’s penchant for weirdness and art design could really serve the Star Wars universe well. He could bring back some of the strange textures that the Jim Henson workshop imbued Empire and Jedi with.

Robert Zemeckis (Back to the FutureThe Polar Express)

Zemeckis has finally broken his decade long absence from live action film with the highly acclaimed Flight, and could follow that up by taking over SW7 for Disney. He made Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with them in the late 80’s, and has been obsessed with effects-driven films for virtually his entire career. He’s made some highly popular classics like Spielberg and Cameron, but he doesn’t seem to be tied up in future projects in the same way that they are.

Joe Johnston (The RocketeerJurassic Park 3Captain America)

Johnston is a serviceable director who tends to work with effects, and his pop-classicism would be a great fit for the Star Wars universe. Captain America was an especially great showing for him, and the Marvel-Disney connection might get him on the list.

Jon Favreau (ElfIron ManCowboys & Aliens)

The same goes for Favreau. He has a both a great eye for action and snappy dialogue timing. If the next Star Wars has any of the verve of the Iron Man films it will be better for it.

Pete Docter, Andrew Adamson, John Lasseter (various)

These guys, like Andrew Stanton, are all talented directors working in animation. Adamson has already made the transition to live action (from Shrek to The Chronicles of Narnia) but Docter (Up) and Lasseter (Toy StoryCars) could both reasonably break out of Pixar and make a fantastic Star Wars film. Although Lasseter certainly knows how to make an entertaining film, as current head of Disney Animation Studios he is the least likely of the three to take or be offered the job.

In My Dreams: Hayao Miyazaki

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Chronicle (*** 1/2)

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Chronicle, the most recent entry into the “found footage” canon, slickly updates the superpowers-plus-adolescence-equals-chaos template of Carrie and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Three teenage boys discover a strange glowing rock which endues them with telekinetic powers that grow stronger with use. What could easily be the fodder for any generic cash-in on the supernatural teen genre wildly popular with Potter and Twilight fans has been cleverly reshaped as a quasi-naturalistic what-if-this-actually-happened story. That is, when teenagers are given superpowers, they’re much more likely to treat them with the childish fascination usually reserved for the latest Apple product than use them to stop armed robberies. Like last year’s excellent Attack the BlockChronicle expertly delivers an otherwise ho-hum premise through a wealth of character-driven and true to life details.

The story focuses primarily on Andrew, a troubled young teen with a difficult home life. The movie begins with scenes that primarily exist to root the story’s final events in the everyday tragedies of his life, both large and small. Actor Dane DeHaan does an excellent job of fleshing out the wounded boy torn between the fear of further wounding and the irrepressible desire for community. His cousin Matt tries to be helpful, but the prickly Andrew does not readily yield to his friendly overtures. He does, however, follow Matt and his friend Steve down a strange hole at the edge of the woods where the mysterious empowerment occurs.

As in other super-powers and hormones stories, the new-found abilities amplify the characters’ pre-existing traits. While Matt and Steve are relatively normal and approach their powers with a measure of respect, Andrew is slowly discovering a new weapon with which to lash out at the world. It begs the question of Hollow Man: if society’s constraints no longer bind you, what motivation do you have to be a moral being? What if you didn’t like society in the first place?

To the film’s credit, this inevitable march towards madness occurs with a sense of pace and purpose punctuated by emotionally explosive moments (sexual humiliation, paternal abuse) that serve as catalysts to his simmering rage and confusion. He remains a tragic figure throughout, giving the film a soul that another like it might lack; giving its wildly entertaining conclusion just the right amount of emotional freight.

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My only real problem with the film was its slavish commitment to the found-footage format, occasionally requiring it to awkwardly invent reasons for people to be holding cameras at different times. For the most part, it works as part of Andrew’s deeply disturbed detachment from others. Also, the introduction of a free-floating camcorder via telekinesis means the sickly shaky-cam of Cloverfield is nowhere to be found in the film’s busiest scenes. Still I think the mixed media format of District 9 might have served it better, switching between camera formats as it served the story while retaining the emphasis on casual naturalism. In the end, it’s that down-to-earth sensibility that makes the film work irrespective of its primary cinematic conceit. The recognizable pieces of normal life provide the needed contrast to let its flights of fancy really soar.

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Prometheus (***1/2)

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Oh, it’s that alien from that one movie.

“And Yahweh was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So Yahweh said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” ~ Genesis 6:6-7

Primordial terror. That’s what Ridley Scott’s Alien did for space travel in 1979, just as Jaws had done for the beach four years before. The idea of implacable, efficacious, and simple death embodied in a creature put in a room (or a boat) with human beings. Scott brought in Swiss painter H.R. Giger’s haunted Freudian imagery for the alien’s design, sadomasochistic fusions of flesh and metal imbuing the film with a palpable sense of disconcerting otherness (i.e., alien). This move, along with Scott’s laconic evocation of dread, elevated a boilerplate slasher flick set in space into something more aesthetically substantial. Much has been written about the themes at work in the film, but I trust Scott when he says (as I have read) that it was simply about scaring the crap out of people. He simply found some ideas (male impregnation, evolved biological killers, chest-bursting, all that unctuous seminal slime) that would set people’s nerves on edge so that their defenses were worn down by the time the beast started killing off those helpless crew members in the dark.

Prometheus, functionally Alien‘s prequel, reads like a somewhat bookish attempt to identify the original film’s distilled essence (primordial terror) and plumb that thematic well for its roots. If senseless, implacable death freaks us out like nothing else–what’s going on there? What’s the reductio ad absurdum of our deepest fears?

You have to admire the film for its ambition: if Alien skewed towards the slasher end of the Texas-Chainsaw-Massacre-meets-2001 spectrum, Prometheus skews towards the grand cosmic mystery end. Eighty years from now the Weyland Corporation sends a manned spacecraft somewhere far away to investigate clues about the origins of life on earth. On board are scientists, engineers, flight crew, corporate reps and an android. The planet they land on contains some answers, more questions and a primordial soup’s worth of squirmy dangers. How they got there, who they were intended for and who they might yet harm are points of interest in the film. Scott twists thrills and ideas together unapologetically, aware of the need to entertain enough audience members to justify the budget needed to craft visually bold science fiction in a post-Avatar world.

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Come on science: keep on mapping the unknown until there’s nothing left to discover. Floaty-y scanner device (c) Google, 2014.

As befitting the best Ridley Scott films, it’s visually marvelous. I usually feel as though CG somewhat cheapens a film’s visual effect, but it would seem that technology has caught up with the director’s vivid imagination. We’re caught up with the explorers within this intricate biological desolation, one alive with texture, dust and rough edges. And rather than the kitschy synthetics of so much effects work, there’s plenty of viscous bodily fluids (and other bodily things) sloshing around to remind us that human flesh is on the line. I know I’ll never think of a Cesarean section the same way again.

I am sad the same can’t be said for the music. Scott’s other science fiction works established their emotional tones early on, both Alien‘s scraping industrial strings and Blade Runner‘s moody synth laments contributing to senses of screamy portentousness and angsty android dread, respectively. But Prometheus doesn’t begin to find its aural tone until well into the first act, and throughout the score is a so-so generic pastiche of epic spaciness. That the film remains strong despite such a huge oversight speaks to its finely crafted nature, its near-masterpiece degree of genre proficiency.

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$5 Bin

Hey everyone, trying something new here. I’d like this to maybe become a weekly entry where I can share some of the interesting film-related things I found on the web and look ahead to what I expect to show up on the blog in the next week. This will include brief comments on what’s hitting theaters.

On the Web

-The very well-received Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson’s latest) has yet to see wide release, but a related animated short has surfaced on EW.com.

-Slate.com offered this head-spinning summary of the formal academic responses to the original Alien movie.

-Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, has a teaser trailer (embedded below). It’s his second tale of minority revenge against white oppressors in a row.

-Somebody placed the Vertigo score over the beginning of The Dark Knight, greatly improving it (imho).

-Somebody else (The Film Sufi) recently wrote-up the best piece I’ve read so far chronicling the problems with that film (TDK). I was never able to enjoy it the way everybody else seemed to, and am therefore always intrigued by attempts to work out just what was wrong with this critically beloved and commercially successful film.

In Theaters

Prometheus (75%) – Less than perfect reviews have muted my expectations some, but director Ridley Scott made two of the hands-down best sci-fi films with 1979’s Alien and 1982’s Blade Runner and then abandoned the genre for thirty years. It should prove to be one of the better science fiction movies in recent memory.

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (76%) – What one would expect to be a crappy cash-in on a worn out kid’s franchise is getting positive buzz as a decidedly unnecessary movie that’s nevertheless full of energy, color and fun.

Safety Not Guaranteed (93%) – Despite a plot that sounds unbearably twee, this indie flick about young journalists and an “eccentric” guy who believes in time travel is apparently really good. Have to say I’m intrigued. Also, Aubrey Plaza.

I hope to see both Prometheus and Madagascar in the coming week, so reviews should be forthcoming. It’s real encouraging to know I have at least a small set of regular readers. I love your feedback and always want to hear suggestions, responses and requests. Thanks for indulging my little obsession!

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