Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

MOVIE: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

January 30, 2015

guardiansThis movie was terrible. Terrible!  Terrible. Forced, trite, strangely lacking in any heart whatsoever, and featuring dialogue clearly written by a 13 year old boy (a precocious one, to be sure. Nevertheless).

THAT SAID, if LEGO Baby Groot ever comes to fruition, I will be first in line for purchase.

(p.s. TERRIBLE!)

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Sci-fi, Crap
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, yer mom.


Double Feature: “Rise” and “Dawn” of the Planet of the Apes (2011/2014)

August 23, 2014

rise_apesI had plans last Saturday to go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in the afternoon with my bad-movie-watching buddies.  Since they’d both seen the first one in this series and I hadn’t, I spent the morning before our date watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes to prep.

I’d seen the original Charlton Heston film as a kid and hadn’t been that into it, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from either of these.  While I’ve got a few bones to pick with both of them, though, I found them pretty entertaining on the whole.  Definitely Mom-watching material (hi, Mom!), and also way, way more fun to watch with my bad-movie-watching buddies than our last pick had been (the near-unbearable Godzilla).

These two films serve as prequels to the Heston one (and also the abominable 2001 remake by Tim Burton, which I also tried to watch last weekend — I didn’t last 20 minutes). In that one, Heston plays an astronaut whose ship crashes onto a strange planet populated by a bunch of talking apes, only to find out at the end (spoiler alert!) that he’s actually landed on Earth 2000 years in the future.  (In related news: soylent green is people!)

Rise and Dawn tell the story of how the talking apes came to be in the first place.  And, as you might expect, they came to be because of human hubris.  Oh, you humans. And your hubris, my god!

In Rise, scientist Will Rodman, wholly unbelievably played by a very sleepy-seeming James Franco, is working for a private biotech corporation in San Francisco, developing a virus he hopes will cure Alzheimer’s.  When one of the chimps he’s tested the virus on becomes outrageously smart, Will can’t wait to tell the board his work is a success.  Unfortunately, while he’s sharing the good news, that same ape goes berserk and ends up being shot and killed on the board room table.  Not exactly the intended ending to Will’s PowerPoint presentation [insert bad joke about bullet points here] [sorry].

The president of the company demands the other apes all be put down, but as the chimp handler is doing the terrible deed, he discovers the ape that had gone bananas (pun intended) had just given birth to a baby — that, rather than the virus, could have been the explanation for her sudden aggression.

Will sneaks the baby chimp home, intending to secret it away to a sanctuary.  But, of course, it has also been infected with the virus, and when Will realizes it too is incredibly intelligent, he ends up keeping the little guy instead.  His father, in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s himself, names the baby Caesar, and after Will sees the power the virus has had on Caesar, he begins to inject it into his dad as well — curing him almost immediately.

Of course, anyone who’s seen Project Nim knows this whole “raise a chimp like it’s a baby human” thing is not going to work out well for any of the parties involved, especially the chimp.  And, indeed, when Caesar hurts a neighbor trying to protect Will’s father during an altercation, he’s taken away by the courts and sent to an (abusive) primate center.  Bitter, Caesar turns his back on Will and his family — just as Will’s father’s immune system begins to reject the virus and his Alzheimer’s returns.

Will begins work on a new version of the virus — stronger, better, faster — and treats a second chimp with it. In the process, the human chimp handler dude is exposed as well. One night, Caesar manages to bust out of the primate center and breaks into Will’s house, stealing several canisters of the new improved virus, which he then uses to brainify all his new ape buddies.  Soon, a huge pack of infected, super-smart chimps, orangutans, and gorillas are racing through town, finally making their way to the redwood forest across the bridge, where they hide from humans and are not seen again.

Meanwhile, the chimp handler coughs on an airline pilot, and the first movie ends with the clear suggestion an epidemic is coming.

dawn_apesDawn of the Planet of the Apes starts out about ten years later, with the apes now in a fully-formed civilization and the humans utterly extinct. Or so they think.  That assumption is corrected when two chimps cross paths with a small party of men and women headed into the woods on a quest to reactivate the local dam and restore power to their settlement in the city. One of the humans, terrified of what he’s seeing (talking chimps will do that to a guy, especially if that guy is also an armed jackass), shoots and kills one of the chimps.

Though Caesar, the leader of the ape group, wants to try to maintain peace with the humans, and one of the humans feels similarly, a series of misunderstandings and lies inevitably leads to all-out war. Ain’t that always the way?

Dawn is a bit too rife with shooting and yelling for my tastes — though Caesar can speak English very well, he almost never uses his “inside voice,” and I started to get a little tired of all the shouting.  Additionally, of course, it makes no sense that any of the apes can speak English at all — the ability to speak isn’t related to intelligence in primates, it’s related to the structure of their mouths and throats. The talking ape thing makes way more in the original film because the apes in that one had had hundreds of generations to evolve.

There were some other aspects of both movies that didn’t make a whole lot of sense either, and neither movie had all that much to offer in terms of original ideas.  However, I was impressed by the special effects (the apes, barring a few situations in which they seemed to move a little weirdly, really looked like apes and not like the CGI creations they were — credit the great Andy Serkis (as Caesar) for a lot of that work).

Plus, the moral of the story sure seems timely.  I’d say it goes a little something like this: the smarter we get, the more like big dumb animals we become. (No offense to animals intended.)

Definitely a great choice for a summer popcorn flick.  Entertaining story, decent characters, and a whole lotta cute apes to boot (oh, Maurice! I have such a crush on you, you sweet orange thing!).


Genre: Science fiction
Cast: Rise: James Franco, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, Brian Cox
Dawn: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell

[Netflix Rise | Amazon Rent/Buy Rise | Trailer for Dawn]

MOVIE: Snowpiercer (2013)

July 15, 2014

snowpiercerIn 2014, we’re told during the opening frames of this post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, mankind finally figured out a way to stop the progression of global warming. A chemical, found to lower the temperature of the atmosphere by a few degrees, was released into the sky by dozens of countries at the same time, then everybody sat back and relaxed, anticipating the glorious need for socks and sweaters once again at last.

Great idea; one small problem:  Mother Nature rarely appreciates being monkeyed with, and instead of cooperating by chilling out ever so gently slightly, she opened up a can of Ice Age on their ass.

Cut to 17 years later and a train.  It’s called the Snowpiercer, and it’s the largest train ever built.  On board are the last survivors of the planet Earth. The train uses a perpetual motion engine, we’re told in an educational video, and travels along a huge, globe-spanning track, cycling once around the planet every year (try not to wonder how this magical track never needs repairs; it won’t do you any good).

When the Snowpiercer was first unveiled as the last stop for man, it was boarded using a class system — essentially to establish a class system, really, since the money was immediately useless the second it was spent. You either paid for a first- or second-class ticket, or you ended up jammed in the tail of the train with 1000 other poor people, where there was no food, no water, no windows, and no hope.  For 17 years, the tailies have struggled to survive, and while eventually, the owner/conductor of the train, “Wilford the Benevolent,” stepped in to provide them with just enough water and gelatinous “protein bars” to survive, the conditions began horrific and pretty much stayed that way.

As the story opens, a young tailie named Curtis (played by Captain America) and the tail’s elderly leader Gilliam (John Hurt) are planning a rebellion, the first in years. The conditions they’ve been forced to endure and the terrible abuses they’ve been increasingly subjected to have finally become intolerable, and the group intends to turn this train around once and for all, so to speak.

The plan?  To bust through the length of the Snowpiercer and get to the engine — the ultimate seat of control. Though they have almost no weapons whatsoever, and face a force of guards armed to the teeth (or are they? rumor has it they actually ran out of bullets years ago. . .), the proletariat is, as always, a class to be reckoned with, because the “have-nots” are fueled by something the “haves” simply ceased to  possess: the ardor of want.

As they make their way from car to car, through battle after battle, Curtis and his team (including the ever-wonderful Octavia Spencer) encounter one astonishing sight after the next, beginning with their first look out a window in 17 years, and followed quickly by cars filled with living, growing fruits and vegetables; frozen slabs of beef and whole chickens (try not to wonder where this magical meat comes from; it won’t do you any good); and a tunnel through a car surrounded on all sides by a glassed-in aquarium loaded to the gills (pun) with fish.

While the poor have been barely subsisting on those disgusting “protein bars,” the rich have been feasting on what appears to be an endless supply of sushi and steak. Every injustice fuels the tailies’ fervor further until, finally, the last survivors of the team break their way into the engine, finding there the biggest shock of all.

Now, there are a WHOLE HOST of things that make absolutely no sense whatsoever in this film, which is typically something that drives me pretty bananas.  Here, though, while I noted each one in turn, and rolled my eyes at more than a few (including everybody’s horror at finding out what the protein bars are made of, which: who cares? Plenty of people eat that right now by choice all over the world already, you wimps), the movie is so damned entertaining, being annoyed seemed like a waste of a perfectly good time. This is pure summer popcorn fun, with some extra-delightful elements on board as well, including and especially the magnificent Tilda Swinton, virtually unrecognizable as the cruel, bug-eyed, buck-toothed spokesperson for the Wilford of Oz, coincidentally wearing not only my haircut from the 3rd grade, but my glasses as well.

While Snowpiercer thinks itself more clever than it actually is (for all its earnest “analysis” of the ramifications of a class system where the rich have so MUCH more than the poor, it actually has nothing new or interesting to add), this is easily the most thoroughly entertaining sci-fi flick I’ve seen all year. Great production values, good storytelling, engaging character dynamics. Plus, if you’re in the middle of a heat wave like we are in Seattle right now, spending two hours with a movie set in a world where your arm can freeze solid in 7 minutes makes for some pretty nice daydreaming.

Not that I’m complaining about the heat, Mother Nature. NOT ONE TINY BIT (please don’t hurt me).


[Rent on Amazon streaming | Prequeue at Netflix]

Genre: Science Fiction, Disaster
Cast: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Alison Pill, Ed Harris, Kang-ho Song, Ewen Bremner

MOVIE: Europa Report (2013)

April 15, 2014

europareportIn last week’s review of the sci-fi flick Apollo 18, I mentioned that I’d recently been down to visit my mother, and thus had a couple of good-bad movie reviews to send your way.  This is the second from that series, and, as with Apollo 18, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing, acting, and production here too.  I can’t actually explain that stroke of luck; it’s very unlike us. (Though one of you guys recommended this one to me a while back — was that you, RogerBW? If so, thank you!)

The movie begins with the CEO of Europa Ventures telling the story, documentary-style, of the Europa One mission.  When it was discovered that Jupiter’s moon (Europa, dig?) was covered in liquid water deep under its frozen crust, the desire to become the first to discover evidence of life elsewhere in the universe was too hard to resist.  The corporation hired six astronauts, who set out about 2 years ago planning to land on the moon, take samples from that liquid water, and see if it had anything interesting swimming around in it.  Six months into the flight, comms were lost in a solar storm, and Europa Ventures heard nary a thing until nearly 14 months later (present day), when suddenly they received a huge stream of video footage and evidence the entire crew was dead.


As we learn from the “found footage” that follows, the solar storm not only knocked out communications, but cost the mission the life of a crew member, who went out on a space walk to try to fix the problem and became contaminated with a deadly chemical. Realizing he couldn’t go back on board without killing everybody else, he cut himself loose, a gut-punching scene for all parties (especially me, because that was Sharlto Copley’s character and I love him).  Despite the death of both their comms and their friend, however, the team decided to press on with the mission.

Fourteen months later, Europa One finally landed on the moon’s surface, their bad luck continuing when they completely missed their targeted landing zone.  The crew managed to drill through the ice below the ship anyway and sent a probe down to collect samples, but they were in the wrong spot and the samples sucked.  Desperate to make the mission a success, if only for the sake of their fallen comrade, one of the astronauts insisted on going outside the ship to collect samples by hand, where she miraculously managed to find what looked exactly like a single-celled organism noodling around in one of her vials.  Everyone on board cheers!  Victory! And then: Oh, hey, what’s that bright light over there?  Let me go take a closer look. . . Wow, this is weird. . . AHHHHHHHHH!

See, because while in the real world, finding evidence of life elsewhere in the universe would be super cool, in sci-fi movies that’s the kind of thing that almost always ends in tears.  And so it goes with Europa Report.

While I confess I was a little disappointed in the ending of this movie (we finally see a creature, for one thing, and this is a low-budget sci-fi movie which means that creature was pretty lame), overall, I was really impressed by the quality of the writing, acting, and special effects. The (mostly computer-generated) sets looked pretty amazing — as it turns out, the filmmakers used NASA and JPL maps to design the movie’s Europa in the film, which is cool, and also used real footage from the International Space Station as inspiration for a lot of scenes on board the ship.  Their research work shows.

Overall, I think both Mom and I would say this is another good choice for fans of space sci-fi.   And there you go, guys: Apollo 18 and Europa Report — I just mapped out your next movie night double-feature (apologies in advance to your friends and family.)


[Netflix it (on streaming) | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Science Fiction, Space Disaster
Cast: Christian Camargo, Embeth Davidtz, Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu, Karolina Wydra, Sharlto Copley

MOVIE: Apollo 18 (2011)

April 7, 2014

apollo18I was recently down for a long weekend at my parents’ house, which is all the explanation I need to provide, I assume, for the fact I’m about to post a couple of reviews of cheesy sci-fi movies.  My mom and I are big fans of the craptastic genre; the worse the movie, the happier we are about it (to a certain point, mind you — even dedicated garbage-lovers like us occasionally turn a movie off after ten minutes of insufferable dumb-dom).

This one ended up surprising us, though.  We went into it expecting good-bad trashy sci-fi, and instead were rewarded with good-good trashy sci-fi.  I love it when that happens!

Aside from an intriguing story, which I’ll get to in a minute, this movie stood out to me as a primo example of how smart filmmakers can turn a low budget flick into a film as effective as its high-budget genre-mates.  We had just watched Gravity right before watching this (Mom hadn’t seen it yet), and while I was expecting that to make all sub-par special effects stand out as extra sub-par, I ended up being incredibly impressed by the scenes of weightlessness in Apollo 18.  They were just as believable as comparable scenes in Gravity (though obviously not done to the same extent/degree), and were done simply, primarily using camera angles and careful choreography of the actors’ body movements (plus one spinning pen trick).  Pretty cool.

The movie’s story begins with the publicly-announced cancellation of the Apollo 18 moon mission, due to budgetary concerns.  But on the sly, the crew is quickly informed the cancellation is a ruse — the mission is still happening, it’s just going to be disguised as a satellite launch to avoid arousing suspicion from the rest of the world.  The mission’s purpose is being kept quiet, the men are told, because it involves the installation of a series of sensors on the moon’s surface engineered to alert the U.S. government in case of an ICBM missile launch by one of its enemies.

At first, everything seems to be going as planned — two of the astronauts head down to the surface, the third remaining on the mothership in orbit, and begin setting up the sensors.  As they work, they also collect the usual rock samples, bringing them back aboard the LEM with them (obviously, they don’t realize they’re in a sci-fi movie, where even moon rocks cannot be trusted).

Day one goes great, they sleep well despite the cramped quarters, and the next day they head back outside for more work where they are startled to discover. . .


Hey, did you leave these groovy prints, man?  No, man, did you?  No, man.  Well, who left ’em, then? I don’t know, man! Why you askin’ me? This ain’t groovy, man!  These prints are trippy!  (I’m paraphrasing, based on the fact this is set in the 70s, when, for all you young’uns out there, people use to say “man” and “groovy” and “trippy” a lot.)

Because they don’t know any better (see above re: unaware they’re in a sci-fi movie), the astronauts decide to follow the prints, and manage to track them back to an abandoned Soviet LK lander.  Nearby, they also find the body of a dead cosmonaut.  Clearly, the Soviets know this lander is on the moon along with the cosmonaut(s) who flew it — so wait, did the U.S. know about this?  Was this a secret Soviet mission?  Is OUR secret mission actually about THIS secret mission?  This is totally harshing my mellow!

When the next morning our intrepid heroes arise to discover the flag they’d planted outside has vanished, they decide they’ve had enough and start packing their stuff up.  “Man, this is OUTTA SIGHT, and WE ARE OUTTA HERE.”

Only, naturally, this is a sci-fi movie (see above re: this is a sci-fi movie), so, of course, when they try to take off, the ship shakes so violently they’re forced to abort.  One of the dudes dons his space suit and ventures outside to try to figure out what’s wrong, but minutes later returns into view, screaming that something in his suit is attacking him.  Back on board, the men discover the only thing in the suit other than the guy and his brand new gaping chest wound is a moon rock.  The moon rock attacked him?  Can you dig it?  FAR OUT!  (I am so sorry — for the record, nobody in the movie actually talks like this; I just can’t help myself.)

From there, things go from “that’s not good” to “holy crap,” culminating in “daaaaang!”

In other words, we totally dug it.

I noticed Rotten Tomatoes gave Apollo 18 a score of only 24%, based on 60 or so critic reviews and that a lot of the complaints were about the movie’s slow start.  I attribute this to the fact this movie is erroneously classified as a horror flick instead of a science fiction one.  If you go into it expecting horror, you’re definitely going to find the lack of action in the first 45 minutes kind of frustrating.

On the other hand, if you go into it expecting science fiction, the first 45 minutes are all about a mission to the moon in 1974, complete with scenes of giddy weightlessness, a cool lunar module, and a group of astronauts embarking on their dream mission into the final frontier.  Nothing boring about that to us cool cats, that’s for sure! To us, the moon rocks that come to life and eat people at the end were just a bonus.

Anyway, definitely two thumbs up from us, and recommended if this is your kind of thing. Catch you on the flip side, man!

[Stream at Netflix | Buy/Rent at Amazon]

Genre: Science Fiction, Space Disaster
Cast: Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins, Ali Liebert, Andrew Airlie, Michael Kopsa , Erica Carroll

BOOK: The Martian by Andy Weir (2011/2013)

April 1, 2014

martianAttention all fans of space-based science fiction: this book is a must-read!  It’s a must-not-miss!  It’s a must-buy!  It’s a must-call-in-sick-to-work-and-spend-all-day-reading!  It’s a must-everything!  IT IS A MUST!

This hilariously funny and absolutely fascinating story is about a botanist/engineer on a mission to Mars who gets separated from his crew in a disaster and ends up stranded alone. Mark Watney and his crewmates were on the planet’s surface when a dust/windstorm suddenly kicked up, with gusts so powerful they began to tip the MAV over (Mars Ascent Vehicle — how they get back to the mothership).  While racing to the MAV to evacuate before it got trashed by the storm, Watney was struck by a piece of debris that punctured his abdomen.  The force of the blow, combined with the minimal gravity of Mars, sent him flying into the swirling dust, and the damage to his suit knocked out his life support computer, sending faulty readings to the rest of the crew — to them, Mark looked dead; there was nothing they could do but leave him behind and get to safety themselves.

To Mark, on the other hand, Mark was very much alive — and now he was also stuck alone on the surface of Mars with no way to send an SOS to Earth.

After an initial round of losing his cool, Mark, an extremely sensible dude, pulls himself up and heads into the hab (a huge inflated tent where the crew lived and worked) to assess his situation.  He’s got about 9 months of rations, a gadget that recycles water from the air and his urine and makes it potable again, several bottles of emergency water, about 10 potatoes they were saving for a holiday dinner, plenty of air to breathe, and a reliable shelter.  He’s got tools.  He’s got a bag of dirt from Earth he was going to use in his botany experiments.  He’s got one HELL of a sense of humor.  And, most importantly, Mark’s got moxie.  As it turns out, moxie really comes in handy when you’re stranded on Mars.  It’s a life saver, in fact.

Figuring he’s now stuck there for somewhere around four years, when the next planned mission to Mars is scheduled to land, Mark begins putting his noggin to work to figure out how to make 9 months of rations last 48.  The novel is told primarily through entries in his journal, which detail his work (along with his random thoughts about Aquaman) as he begins working out how to convert Martian sand into soil he can grow Earth potatoes in, and then make enough water out of hydrogen, oxygen, and science (!) to water those crops indefinitely (without simultaneously blowing himself up <– the true trick to making water).

Meanwhile, alternating chapters come to us from Mission Control on Earth, where a satellite specialist has just taken a look at the latest pictures of the Mars hab, expecting to see it destroyed by the storm, and instead sees things that can’t possibly be right.  How did the rover end up connected to the hab’s air lock?  It wasn’t like that when the crew evacuat. . . holy shit, IS THAT MARK WATNEY?!

Eventually, Mark is able to rig up a way to communicate with Mission Control, and the various players, including his old crew, start working out a daring rescue plan.  Meanwhile, we get treated to what is easily the most thoroughly entertaining — funny, smart, sharp, fascinating, impossible to put down — novels I have read in a really long time.

Oh man.  Honestly.  I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a novel as much as I enjoyed this novel.  It’s THAT GOOD, people.

Inspirational story: The Martian started out in 2011 as a self-published e-book Weir sold on Amazon for about a buck.  As word of mouth spread, more and more copies sold, piquing the interest of Random House who finally offered Weir a book deal last year.  That was quickly followed by a movie deal, no doubt partly inspired by the success of the film Gravity. In other words, the novel this computer nerd guy thought only his mom and best friends would buy has just exploded all the way to Hollywood — pretty darn great.  Now, here’s hoping he’s already hard at work on the sequel (I’m totally game for a sequel, Andy!).



[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

MOVIE: Gravity (2013)

December 10, 2013

gravityRemember way back in 2006, when Les Stroud and Bear Grylls were co-Boyfriends in Chief, and I shared with you guys the list I keep of places I never, ever want to go to due to the fact: gruesome, terrifying death?

Yeah, well, you can now add “OUTER SPACE” to the top of that list. Yes, put it in all caps. In fact, do it like this — huge and insanely, blindingly red:


I always thought I wanted to try space walking one day. Now I’m pretty sure I can never watch NASA TV ever again.


Highly recommended, just like everybody else has told you it was.  Don’t forget to breathe.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: HOLY SHIT, Science Fiction, Drama
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, that other astronaut guy whom: alas, we hardly knew ye.

(p.s. WordPress, why you gotta be so weird with the formatting?)

MOVIE: Stranded (2013)

November 12, 2013

strandedYou know it’s a bad sign when Christian Slater is the best actor in a film, god bless him. Especially if, as in this movie, pretty much all he does is arch his brows in perpetually confused disbelief and rattle off a bunch of lines in a language I like to call “Galumphing Exposition.”

This incredibly bad sci-fi “thriller” (wait, did I say “incredibly”? I meant INCREDIBLY)  is a flick I picked out to watch with my mom a few weeks ago. We have taken risks on such dubious pictures before, and have gotten lucky more than once; stumbling across a good-bad “trapped in space” movie can make for a truly excellent time.  Unfortunately, Stranded (not to be confused with its other brother Darryl, Stranded, though it would be easy to mix them up since that movie sucked too) is so badly written, poorly plotted, and laughably designed it wasn’t even fun to pick on.

Well, while we were watching it, anyway.  It’ll be fun to pick on NOW.

Let’s start with the story, such as it is — it’s about a group of scientists (ha!) who get trapped inside their moon base when an asteroid storm knocks out all their communications equipment (not hard to do, as it appeared from the opening shot that the moon base was built out of Legos).  Because they’re scientists (ha!), they decide to take the opportunity to go outside and grab a chunk of asteroid to study.  Might as well learn something, right?

Here’s where it starts to get ridiculous. The scientists (ha!), picking up a chunk of the rock, remark that it appears to be covered in “spores.” Then they take it inside the moon station completely as-is.  No containment or anything — not even a plastic sandwich baggie.  Heck, not even a vegetable-based compostable sandwich baggie. Just right in the front door and over to the lab, where they proceed to knock it into pieces, which, wonder of wonders, sends all the spores floating off into the air and up their noses.

Now, let’s pause here for a moment to remind ourselves of the definition of the word “spore.”  A spore is a “minute, typically one-celled, reproductive unit capable of giving rise to a new individual without sexual fusion, characteristic of lower plants, fungi, and protozoans.”   Most regular folk on the planet Earth think of mold spores when they think of spores, and then after they think “mold spores,” they think, “don’t breathe ’em, ya idiots!”

Apparently, the crack team of scientists (ha!) we’re sending up to our moon stations in the future failed to learn even the most conventional wisdom about spores (“Spores bad!”), and, well, if you reread that definition up there, especially the “giving rise to a new individual” part, you can pretty much figure out the rest of the plot yourselves.

As if that weren’t dumb enough, after one of the scientists (ha!), a woman, becomes mysteriously pregnant with something that is growing crazy-fast,  Slater’s character (the boss) locks her up in quarantine, and then proceeds to run in and out of her room like a bajillion times, for no good reason and without any protective gear on whatsoever. Oh, good god.  I’m pretty sure that’s not what the CDC says you’re supposed to do when one of your scientists (ha!) is impregnated by an asteroid spore.

This movie’s tagline is “Fear is the infection!” which is kind of funny because, in reality, idiocy appeared to have been a much greater infection than fear for Team  Strandeds.  Unless what they meant was “fear of idiot scientists,” in which case, this film definitely effectively terrified me.

The truly sad thing about this movie, which I didn’t know until later, is that it was directed by Roger Christian, who won an Academy Award for set design on Star Wars.  I can forgive the man his Lego exteriors, but I had to roll my eyes at his “spore creatures,” which weren’t creatures at all but instead simply the same cast, only scowling menacingly instead of gaping idiotically.  Now, shape-shifting monsters that look like people can be very effective — think The Thing.  Only, for that to work, it has to be plot point that feels like it was part of the plan all along — here it felt like something the filmmakers had to come up with on the fly when they realized their set designer had blown the whole FX budget on colorful interlocking plastic bricks from Denmark.

ANYWAY.  It’s dumb.  Is what I’m saying.

[Netflix it if you must | Rent from Amazon]

Genre: Science Fiction, Crap
Cast: Christian Slater, Brendan Fehr

MOVIE: Elysium (2013)

September 17, 2013

elysiumAfter watching this movie and pondering it for a few weeks (what, I’ve been busy!), the best word I can come up with to describe it is the word COOL.

This sci-fi fable about the haves and the have-nots in the year 2154 is cool-looking and it’s packed with some very cool ideas.  The main character is even a little Fonz.  But it’s also cool as in “more or less unemotional.”  And I have a few theories as to why.

Matt Damon plays ex-con Max, living on a dusty, desperate Earth and struggling to put his life right after getting out of the slammer, when he gets a toxic dose of radiation and is given 5 days to live.  DANG!

As a kid, he’d stared up at Elysium, a spinning space station just above Earth where all the rich people live, and longed to go there and be rich too.  Since, in addition to buckets of money, they also have these machines that cure every medical problem, Max decides there’s no time like the present, it’s just a question of HOW.  The government of Elysium certainly isn’t going to let some random, scuzzy foreigner aboard.  God, he might breathe on them or something!

The “how” part turns out to be a shady partnership with a criminal named Spider, who outfits Max with a brutally installed robotic exoskeleton (Blomkamp loves robotic exoskeletons), the logistics of which made very little sense to me (it’s installed over his clothes, which is going to make showering AND pooping kind of tricky, though maybe we don’t have to poop anymore in 2154?).  This will keep Max moving (and give him crazy robot strength) long enough for him to catch a nasty CEO from Elysium they know is coming to Earth, stick a metal doo-dad in his head, and download all the Elysium systems info from his brain. That’s a config.sys file worth its weight in gold — they can use it to hack the Elysium computers, make every Earthling an official Elysium citizen, move everybody up there, and let somebody else mow their damn lawns for a change.

The problem with the plan is, well, you know, the plan. For one thing, you should never count on computers when death is on the line (also: don’t go up against Sicilians).  And also, I just really feel like installing a data port with direct access to your brain is a bad idea in general.  Especially if the operation panel for that data port is located on the BACK of your head.  This didn’t really become an issue, but it probably should have.

Anyway.  Everything goes wrong, natch, and Max ends up needing medical attention, which, wonder of wonders!, he receives from his childhood girlfriend, who, wonder of wonders some more!, has a young daughter dying of cancer.  IF ONLY THERE WERE A WAY SHE COULD BE CURED!  You can see where this is headed.

And that’s the problem with this movie.  It is a spectacle, for sure — visually stunning, fast-paced, and very entertaining.  But man, was it ever predictable, not to mention obnoxiously heavy on the “assuming the audience is too dumb to understand metaphors” thing.  Yes, yes, we get it:  class struggle, the immigration situation, hippos need friends too,  CHECK.   We’re not morons, man.

Even worse, though, is the fact that while I was thoroughly entertained until the final moments, when those final moments finally hit, the first  thing I thought to myself was, “Wow, that was fun. . . and I feel nothing.”  Which is pretty weird, really, because not everybody who starts the movie gets to end it, and that ought to have triggered some kind of emotion, right?  It usually does, anyway.  But it didn’t here, and, for me anyway, Max’s old girlfriend is to blame for it.  That character, her daughter, and that entire storyline got in the way of the movie more than they contributed to it. There wasn’t enough time to strongly establish an authentic emotional bond — all the flashbacks to childhood in the world aren’t going to result in instant believable chemistry between two people in the present, and not only did I not care about their relationship, I didn’t care about her or her daughter either.  Or Max, really, for that matter.  I mean, he’s a nice guy, but his character is kind of a dime a dozen in sci-fi action movies, know what I mean?

Also, for the record: Jodie Foster WTF?  The only good thing about her in this film is her butt (which, incidentally, looked truly amazing in that suit).

Lastly, there were a lot of things in this movie that didn’t make much sense.   I don’t want to get too nitpicky here because, after all, it’s sci-fi, not sci-fact.  But let’s take, for example, those all-healing medical pods.  They can put a guy back together whose head was literally blown to smithereens, but they can’t help the guy whose brain gets damaged by a data download?  Why is that?  <– Rhetorical question, because we already know the answer is  “The first guy needed to come back to life for the plot to work, and the second guy needed to die for the same reason.”  Man, I hate it when that happens.

Additionally, the rebel plan appears to be shipping everyone from Earth to Elysium — equality at last!  But if we send everybody up to Elysium, doesn’t Elysium just turn into Earth?  I mean, you can’t magically fix dystopia with a change of scenery, even if that scenery features perfectly cut grass.  Speaking of which, I also found it  hard to imagine why anybody would want to live on Elysium in the first place.  It’s like Stepford Circle up there, first of all, and immortality in a land of perfection sounds like the boringest thing of all time.  I mean, I’m impatient with life already, and I’m only 39!  Just imagine if you had to go live on a space station with a few hundred thousand Kevin Costners and Nicole Kidmans.  Would YOU want to get in that medical pod?  Me neither.

Anyway, my point is that this movie is really, really entertaining.  It is!  I swear!  But that’s about all there is to it. It’s big and blasty and exciting and ROBOT EXOSKELETONS!, but there’s no meat to it at all, and the meat substitute Blomkamp tries to shove down our throats in lieu of actual meat is just. . . blech.  As meat substitutes tend to be.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Sci-fi (not Sci-FACT!)
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, William Fichtner, Alice Braga, Sharlto Copley, Diego Luna, Michael Shanks

Summer Reading 2013

August 30, 2013

As I mentioned in my recent review of the book Bold Spirit, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading this summer but haven’t gotten around to writing many reviews.  Figured I’d just hit them all in brief in a little round-up.  Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Controversial Religious Shelf

goingclearzealotGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (2012)

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (2013)

Both these books are absolutely fascinating.  And that’s all I have to say about THAT, aside from the fact I was a little disappointed that despite spending half his book talking about Paul Haggis, Lawrence Wright did not once mention Due South, Haggis’s greatest achievement.  Whatever, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist.

Craptacular Shelf (You knew there would be one)

deep stormDeep Storm by Lincoln Child (2007) – Scientists discover a stash of powerful alien weapons in the Mohorovičić discontinuity under the ocean!  In trying to get to it, lots of people die!

Utopia by Lincoln Child (2002) – Scientists discover that hackers getting into into the robot-programming system at a robot-controlled futuristic theme park can wreak a lot havoc!  In trying to stop it, lots of people die!

riptideRiptide by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston (1998) – Dudes, pirate treasure hidden in a deep pit that is perpetually filled with water AND there’s also a monster and the computers go all wonkeroo!  BAM!  Lots of people die!

Thunderhead by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston (1998) – AZTEC FUNGUS!  ET CETERA!

Look, I know it seems ridiculous. FOUR Lincoln Child/Douglas Preston novels in a row?  The thing is, I really enjoyed Deep Storm, which is essentially the book version of every good-bad disaster/sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen.  That got me started on the kick, and  once you’re reading super cheesy science fiction, it’s incredibly hard to stop.  Man, that was a fun book binge.  I might be through it now – but only for now.

Mystery Shelf

killroomsweetnessThe Kill Room by Jeffery Deaver (2013) – Lincoln Rhyme’s latest case.  A bit of a yawn, unless you are SUPER DUPER into bitching about how evil Obama’s drone program is.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (2009) – Nerd-girl solves a mystery.  A little too adorable for its own good.

Non-Fiction Other Stuff Shelf

cleanClean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy by David Sheff (2013) – Sheff’s first book, Beautiful Boy, is a book I still recommend to people (read my review) four years after reading it.  A memoir of his years  as the father of an addict, it not only laid out his personal agonies, but also delved deep into the science of addiction.  This book, his second, is less a memoir and more a handbook for parents.  It too covers some of the science of addiction, but it focuses predominantly on youth prevention, treatment, and recovery — how to talk to your kids about drugs, what to do if you think your kids are using drugs, how to help your kid after s/he’s been in treatment, etc.  Wise reading for all parents of youths, but not nearly as engaging for me as Beautiful Boy.

Sad, Party of Two Shelf

bookthiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2006) – You know what’s weird about this novel?  It was apparently written for adults, and marketed thusly in Zusak’s country (Australia).  And then when it jumped the pond, or whatever the Aussies call that, it was repackaged as a book for young adults.  After having read it, I can only assume that’s because the American distributor reacted to it the same way I did, which was to think, “Man, I would’ve loved this book when I was 13.  NOW, on the other hand. . .”

Having read a number of novels set in Nazi Germany in WWII, not to mention seen a lot of truly devastating films about the Holocaust, it was hard to get into the more cutesy elements of this novel, which is narrated by Death, to unaffecting effect.  It’s about a little German girl, Liesel, whose family is hiding a Jewish man in their basement (Max). She steals books from the local mayor’s wife, with the help of her best pal Rudy, which is why she’s called the Book Thief by the author and his narrator.  It’s sort of a way to take control of her own losses, which are numerous, I would say. The kids are sweet and confused about the world around them and their feelings for people and each other, and lots of people die in horrible ways.  It’s enough to make a grown woman cry, really.  Only, despite a few flashes of brilliance here and there, I was pretty underwhelmed by both the story and the writing.  It’s sluggish and clumsy in many places, and it’s also very predictable (though I suppose you could argue that any book set in Nazi Germany is bound to be predictable, but whatever).  I read the whole thing, and I got a little teary at the end.  But it’s not one I’ll revisit or that I particularly recommend.  No plan to watch the movie.  I’ve seen enough.

unvanquishedThe Unvanquished by William Faulkner (1938) – This is a novel I’d read before (I’m pretty sure I’ve read all his novels before by now), but not since early college days and I had forgotten how great it was.  It’s the rare Faulkner novel actually set during the Civil War instead of after it, and also the rare Faulkner novel loaded up with humor as well (to specific effect, of course — the man’s not jovial for kicks).  This is an incredibly brilliant, moving story about two boys, one white boy and one black, raised together on a plantation and forced to grow up REAL FAST when the war begins.  “Men have been pacifists for every reason under the sun except to avoid danger and fighting,” one of the characters remarks.  Ain’t it the truth.  Man, whew.  So good.  It’s not a happy story, but it’s a joy to read nonetheless.

There are two other books I read this summer, but I’m going to do full reviews on them later.  Until then, hie thee to the library, and let me know if you come across anything great you want to recommend!