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Watching the Future: From Other Shores

Movies treated science fiction well this summer, in terms of quality and popularity. The period between the middle of April and the Labor Day weekend saw the release of four major motion pictures—Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Guardians of the Galaxy—that not only fit comfortably within any reasonable definition of the genre (which often stretches to include superhero movies and the kinds of action fantasies that seem a cross between Three Days of the Condor and The Andromeda Strain mixed with the pace of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to the point that the defining material becomes so thin that it resembles Silly Putty pulled so tightly across a newspaper’s surface that one can read the headline through the dermis-colored, taffy-like material) but also allowed one the pleasure of watching without feeling the need to scour one’s brain beneath a chemical shower after the end credits rolled. Yes, studios served some unpalatable cinematic dishes—both Transformers 4: Age of Extinction and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles passed through multiplexes quickly, leaving unsuspecting viewers with only the mildest cases of cultural indigestion, while The Purge: Anarchy and The Giver made one leave the theater feeling as if having snacked on two five-pound bags of Haribo sugar-free gummy bears—but for the most part, the summer served genre fans with reasonably entertaining, if modestly satisfying, offerings.
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REVIEW SYNOPSIS: The newest entry of in the Marvel umbrella is a breezy and deliberately cheesy space opera that uses its cast and soundtrack music to exceptional effect despite being perhaps too slight and uneven in its pacing during the final third.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: A group of outlaws and ne’er-do-wells, led by earthling Peter Quill, become the targets of a manhunt by both the Nova Corps and Ronan the Accuser after stealing a powerful artifact.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Strong characters and well-constructed action; clever script; knowing direction; exceptional soundtrack.
CONS: Occasionally too glib, which hampers potential depth; muddled pacing between the second and third acts; one or two elements that strain credulity even for comic book movies.

It’s hard to know when exactly Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest entry in Marvel’s infinite pantheon of comic book properties coming soon to a theater near you, wins over its audience fairly early—the precredit sequence, in which a spaceship abducts a young Peter Quill shortly after his mother’s death, perhaps jars when considered with the rest of the movie—but, for this particular critic, comes when the Kree bounty hunter Korath (Djimon Hounson) confronts the 30-year-old Quill (Chris Pratt) as he attempts to steal an artifact from ruins on the planet Morag. When Quill identifies himself as “Star-Lord,” Korath stares in puzzlement. “Star-Lord, man,” Quill says, his voice filled with petulance. “Legendary outlaw? Ah, forget it.” Then he attempts an escape that, as the movie progresses, makes him the most wanted legendary outlaw in the galaxy.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: A worthy sequel to 2011’s reboot of the classic franchise that often surprises with strong characters and a certain amount of insight even as its climax underwhelms.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: After a virus has wiped out much of humanity, a surviving population of humans attempts to seek a truce with intelligent apes to help rebuild civilization.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Often engaging script; well-crafted action sequences; beautifully realized post-apocalyptic landscape, and of course the apes.
CONS: Competent direction from Matt Reeves that takes too few chances after its powerful opening; social commentary on occasion feels forced; bland human characters.
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Watching the Future: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Fourteen years ago, Robert Zemeckis defended his decision to divulge major spoilers in the trailer of What Lies Beneath, arguing that audiences prefer attending a movie when they know going in precisely what they will see. “It’s just one of those things,” he told David Poland, an excuse of such disingenuousness that one might presume his statement belied a possible run for political office. (Indeed, when I first read that line several years ago, I envisioned Zemeckis cowering behind it with the same hunch of a candidate waving his hands to a dissenting crowd during a stump speech after letting slip a flog of lore and shouting, “Statistics don’t lie!” over its incredulous din. No, statistics don’t lie, but statisticians often do.) Regardless of his claim’s dubious veracity, the resulting mindset permeated a medium already denigrated by inept craftsmen and second-rate artisans to the point where its most readily available trifles resembled the ramshackle cuisine rolling from the never-ending assembly line between McDonald’s golden arches. Even those celluloid confections crafted with the utmost care by auteurs demonstrating a love of both form and content nonetheless face audiences fully aware of both text and subtext before the theater lights dim. Gone forever are the days of arriving at a theater on a whim and casually perusing the posters before asking the pimply adolescent working in the box office for a summary of one or two features. We can blame Internet culture for their demise—it certainly didn’t help—but the rise of focus groups placed them in the crosshairs long before.
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REVIEW SYNOPSIS: With well-drawn characters, fine performances, and several exceptional set pieces (to say nothing of the return of director Bryan Singer), the newest installment in the X-Men franchise stands as the most enjoyable entry in years, even if it never breaks new ground.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: The X-Men send Wolverine back in time to prevent the events that result in sentient robots devastating the earth and hunting both humans and mutants.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: A very good cast, with Jackman at his best as Wolverine and Peters stealing virtually every scene he is in; good character elements; often well-paced and with several outstanding set pieces.
CONS: Sequences that indulge in cinematic overkill; too much convoluted exposition at the movie’s beginning; Magneto, whose motivations never waver from the very first movie; sometimes crowded dramatis personae.

Before Spider-Man (amazing or not), the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, or the rest of the Avengers, movie audiences marveled at the adventures of the X-Men, who, in two efforts, completely rewrote the rules for the superhero movie.  The practically had to; the released of Batman and Robin in 1997 so tarnished big-screen comic book characters that, a few cult favorites like Blade aside, nobody expected four-color heroes to save the world from larger-than-life villains again.
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MOVIE REVIEW: Godzilla(2014)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Occasionally impressive special effects, standout and often suspenseful sequences, and outstanding imaginings of the classic kaiju don’t manage to save Gareth Edwards from a big budget sophomore slump.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: Decades after an atomic blast creates a monster, two ancient creatures threaten civilization, with only a giant being to stop them.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Impressive sequences of destruction, especially on the island of Oahu and in San Francisco; several suspenseful sequences…
CONS: …that seem heavily borrowed from Steven Spielberg; sluggish screenplay that never finds proper pacing; lack of any emotional center; routine and ultimately generic directorial entry from Gareth Edwards.
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Recently the esteemed editor of this weblog asked if I wanted to contribute on behalf of SF Signal to Time Out London’s list of the 100 greatest science fiction movies ever made. Of course I said yes. As a chronic list maker, I always enjoy putting together what I consider among the best the genre has to offer, be it in print or on celluloid. (Or perhaps I should say in visual media, as few movies today actually use film today, either during production or in distribution.)
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MOVIE REVIEW: Under the Skin (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Haunting, disturbing, and often incredibly challenging, director Jonathan Glazer adapts Michael Faber’s cult horror novel to the screen, with Scarlett Johansson delivering an amazing performance as an alien preying on unsuspecting males.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: An alien takes the body of a beautiful woman and travels Scotland to pick up strange men.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Scarlett Johansson, almost perfectly inhabiting the role of a predatory alien; Jonathan Glazer’s atmospheric, surreal direction, especially in the use of guerilla filmmaking techniques; screenplay by Glazer and William Campbell that invites the audience to fill in the gaps.
CONS: Perhaps too obscure and confounding for some audiences.

How strange the world must actually look to alien eyes: the planes that stretch into landscape and horizon; the contrast of light and shadow that finally settle into color; the shapes that cohere into flora and fauna; the right angles that shape themselves into buildings. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin opens with abstract geometries on tableaus of whites and blacks, culminating in a view of a woman’s (Scarlett Johansson) silhouette in a completely white field undressing the corpse of a streetwalker found somewhere on the shoulders of a Scottish road by a biker (or what we believe to be a biker). She stops to watch an ant crawl along her finger, studying its head and compound eye. The close-up provides the only real suggestion of these beings’ nature.

Dressed and roaming the streets in a white van, the woman — the movie never names her — scans the sidewalks in search of…what, exactly? Prey? Seen from her ominous point of view, that seems the obvious answer. The sounds of the engine, of crowds, of rain, all at times overpower. Glazer foregrounds the background noise, giving us the experience of a being with fresh ears.
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MOVIE REVIEW: Transcendence (2014)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Director Wally Pfister’s first feature film tries to tackle themes of transhumanism and the singularity, but gets knocked aside by the inelegant thriller plot tacked onto them.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: When artificial intelligence research Will Caster faces death at the hands of anti-technology extremists, his wife attempts to save his life by scanning his brain into a computer, which sends him on a journey to transcend to a new state of being.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: A breathtaking vision of an uploaded mind entering cyberspace; intriguing moral questions raised by the actions of a hive mind.
CONS: Mediocre thriller plot that drowns ideas; sluggish pace; clichéd plot and characters; uninspired direction.

It was only a matter of time. It only took 20 years for Hollywood to read Vernor Vinge’s essay “The Coming Technological Singularity,” and now, with Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, it seems to have…well, “getting its head around it” might imply that the great studio machine actually possesses something resembling consciousness or thought. Perhaps Hollywood realizes it can now read these daring if daft speculations as source code for contemporary blockbusters, allowing the estate of Philip K. Dick a reprieve from handwringing over the next ill-fated adaptation of his work. After all, how many times can you twist reality until you begin popping off the heads of audiences like a toddler with a grudge decapitating her older sister’s Ken doll?
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Thanks to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (and its follow-up trilogy The Hobbit), the Harry Potter series, and HBO’s own A Game of Thrones, audiences think they have a good understanding of fantasy, or what they think of as fantasy: a setting with a medieval or quasi-medieval feel, with feudal systems and fiefdoms dotting lands plucked from European storybooks; epic battles waged amid the thunder of hoofbeats, the wail of battle cries, and the clang of swords; magics, both subtle and overt, cast by white-haired, robed old men or children brandishing wands (at times with uncomfortable Freudian overtones); and of course a dragon or two—indeed, seldom does an audience member find a fantasy movie lacking enchanted animals.
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REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Enjoyable if uninspired, Captain America’s second solo adventure proves a solid entry in the Marvel filmic universe despite an overlong running time and too few new ideas.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: When S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury is attacked by a strike team, Captain America finds himself enmeshed in a conspiracy that could test his very loyalties.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: The cast, especially Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson; quieter, character-driven elements in the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, efficient action sequences filmed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo; a couple of strong reveals.
CONS: Routine thriller script, including a bland conspiracy plot.
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A few days ago, like most Internet denizens, I brought up YouTube to watch the brand-new trailer for Gareth Edwards’s film version of Godzilla, coming this summer.  And, like most who reloaded it multiple times, goggling at the waves flooding a small coastal town and Bryan Cranston’s desperate shouting to others about the impending danger of the Big Green One, the trailer caused me to embrace my inner ten-year-old, who spent far too many Saturday mornings and afternoons glued to the television resting in the corner of his apartment as it took him to Monster Island, where Mothra, Mecha-Godzilla, Rodan, and other oversized monsters did battle among scientists who knew almost nothing of real science, screaming mobs, and military men growing more and more desperate to save Japan from more destruction.  Add to this elements of Ligeti’s “Requiem” and I was able to feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  I even forgave the loud BWAARRP of horns that seems a permanent fixture of the modern American movie trailer.  I was excited.

And then held myself in check.  Yes, it looked good. Yes, Edwards, with his landmark Monsters, seemed knowledgeable enough about genre and genre tropes to make an interesting movie.  It looked impressive, and even somewhat scary, much in the manner of Ishirô Honda’s 1954 classic…

And therein lay my problem.

This was a remake.
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More than two decades ago, when I was banging my head against a keyboard in desperation trying to write fiction, I somehow became convinced that I should abandon prose and begin writing screenplays.  I read several books, some of them concentrating on formatting (useful because I had, at that point, never considered that writing a screenplay required different textual semiotics from prose), but learned the most from those focusing on structure, such as Robert McKee’s Story and Syd Field’s Screenplay, among others.  Although they never quite get me to the point of actually writing more than a few pages of half-baked ideas (though I did collaborate with one friend on a spy story made obsolete by the abrupt conclusion of the Cold War), they taught me enough about what made stories work to allow me to begin finishing prose fiction at a regular pace.

Had Dan O’Bannon’s and Matt Lohr’s Dan Obannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure: Inside Tips from the Writer of Alien, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead been published at that time, it easily would have been one of the books I absorbed.  It certainly would have been something I studied carefully.  McKee’s Story offered a wealth of dos and don’ts, Syd Field’s Screenplay broke down three-act structure in a way that made sense, but this particular manual came from the same mind that produced one of the greatest science-fiction horror movies of all time, one of the best-known zombie movies (made before zombies shambled into the cultural zeitgeist), and one of science fiction’s best known indie movies.  He also worked on one of the greatest movies never made, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, so what he said would have carried a great deal of weight for this budding science fiction writer.  In fact, his work views drama in a manner that seems self-evident but that other writers seldom explore.  It’s a work I’d recommend not only to screenwriters, but also to those who want to write fiction.

Dan O’Bannon died in 2009, before he and Matt Lohr could finish their collaboration.  I got the chance to talk to Matt about the book, and about what makes his approach to writing different from others.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: Spike Jonze turns his eye toward science fiction with a touching, ultimately human love story between a man and an operating system that easily stands as one of the best genre movies of the past decade.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: Introvert Theodore Twombly purchases an artificially intelligent operating system, which he names “Samantha,” and begins falling in love with it.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Winning performances by all major and minor actors, particularly Joaquin Phoenix and a disembodied Scarlett Johansson; often understated screenplay and direction from Spike Jonze, especially in its handling of futuristic romance; limited intrusion of technology into story; plausible, likely vision of the future…
CONS: …that occasionally feels underpopulated; not quite enough time devoted to the OS’s own burgeoning culture.

Her is not the movie I expected.  Most would not expect it from Spike Jonze, the director of the surrealistic Being John Malkovich and the brilliant Adaptation.  It’s not that Her lacks the vision and insight of those two groundbreaking movies—it does not—but that it proves a vastly different experience from either, not least of which in its approach.  Instead of a visit to the strange headspaces of celebrities or trekking through the ennui of writer’s block, Jonze’s new, breathtaking picture offers something both surprisingly familiar and far stranger than anything he has made before.  Familiar, in that he once again visits areas of the heart most humans never knew existed.  Strange, in that he has made a true quill science fiction movie, something those who know his work would never have expected, and done so incredibly well.
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REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Despite a relentless pace and impressive effects, most notably bringing to life the impressive dragon at the heart of the tale, part two of Peter Jackson’s adaptation seldom engages and often bores.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: The hobbit Bilbo Baggins and a pack of dwarves continue their quest to liberate dwarvish treasure hoarded in the Lonely Mountain by the dragon Smaug.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: The dragon Smaug, arrestingly realized by CGI and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch; well-realized renditions of the Elf Kingdom and Lake-town; winning if hammy performance by Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town; impressively staged action sequences…
CONS: …that go nowhere for most of the movie; needless chases that serve little purpose; blending of elements from both Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Silmarillion that fit together too unevenly; forced love story between elf Tauriel and the dwarf Kili; dialogue and character development that sit poorly with the action sequences.

In a niche in world letters there lived The Hobbit.  Not an unknown, unobserved niche filled with the trite borrowings of second-rate hacks and uninspired tales palely reflecting J. R. R. Tolkien’s much-loved children’s book, nor yet a dry, bare, desiccated niche where fantasy fans sucked dry the marrow of their favorite genre: it was The Hobbit, a groundbreaking work that, despite countless imitators (and outright theft), still holds the power to enthrall readers of all ages today.
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REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Sluggishly paced, taking few chances and not nearly as engaging as it should be, the second installment of the popular trilogy still maintains enough interest to be enjoyable, thanks in large part to interesting supporting characters and a more in-depth look at the world that can host such sport.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: Hunger Games survivors Katniss and Peeta find themselves once again in a battle to the death, this time with other Hunger Games winners.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Mostly good performances from leads Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, with solid secondary performances by Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer; interesting glimpses of the world outside of District 12 and the Capitol.
CONS: Bland and uninteresting turns by many of the recurring characters, including hammy performances by villains Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman; sluggish, faltering beginning that never fully allows the movie to gain its footing; only fitfully suspenseful; routine screenplay and obvious direction; heavy-handed treatment of themes and ideas.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Ender’s Game (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Stiff, surprisingly bloodless adaptation of a classic science fiction novel, maintaining a certain fidelity to details but neutering much of the source material’s key thematic materials.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: After aliens have attacked earth, Earth’s International Fleet recruits young Ender Wiggin to train for, and ultimately fight, the next battle.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Good supporting young cast….
CONS: …wasted by given absolutely nothing to do; surprisingly bland performances from the leads; hammy performances from the supporting cast members, especially seasoned veterans like Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley; routine screenplay that never fully engages; unremarkable direction.
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FILM REVIEW: Gravity (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: More technically adept and visually breathtaking than emotionally compelling, Alfonso Cuarón’s follow-up to Children of Men immerses without ever fully engaging.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: Two astronauts in near-earth orbit find themselves stranded and in need of a way back home when debris from a destroyed satellite collides with their space shuttle.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Impressive concept; well-executed suspense and genuine sense of danger; outstanding special effects; striking visuals.
CONS: Unnecessary introduction; clichéd approach to character and theme, hampered by undemanding performances from its leads; heavy-handed (yet still effective) symbolism and philosophy.

“Life in space is impossible,” a caption reads at the opening of director Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, something, perhaps, the audience should know but that Cuarón and his brother Jonás (who co-wrote the screenplay), perhaps, do not trust his audience to fully comprehend.  Forget what they should, by now, have learned in seventh-grade science class, or though common sense and logic, or even through fifty-plus years of space programs since the Soviet Union lobbed Yuri Gagarin around our pale blue dot.  Surely moviegoers, many of whom have spent countless hours watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, Marooned, or even Apollo 13, understand a setting like near-earth orbit enough to know that space has no air (and therefore no sound), that temperatures bounce between too cold and too hot, and that lack of friction turns even the smallest piece of debris into a high-powered bullet.  Regardless of intent, this simple setup seems like a misstep.
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MOVIE REVIEW: The World’s End (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Director Edgar Wright concludes the Cornetto Trilogy with the tastiest morsel of all, a lean yet loving tribute to John Wyndham, Jack Finney, and Ira Levin that never skimps on inspired comedy or genuine emotion.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: More than 20 years after they attempted to complete the infamous Golden Mile, Gary King invites his old school friends to return to the town of Newton Haven to make it to the World’s End, the final pub along the Mile, only to discover that the town has been taken over by robots.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Insightful screenplay; interesting characters portrayed by compelling actors; very funny; good blend of action, acting, and ideas.
CONS: At times feels overstuffed.
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MOVIE REVIEW: Elysium (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Despite an interesting heist element, above average action, and glimpses of an intriguing future, Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his surprise hit District 9 lacks subtlety, genuine social conscience, and intelligence.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: After an accident that exposes him to lethal doses of radiation, Max DeCosta agrees to pull a heist that ultimately will take him to the space station Elysium, where he can be cured.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Alice Braga, somewhat sympathetic as a mother who wants to bring her daughter to Elysium to cure her illness; good sequence involving an information heist; intriguing vision of a Los Angeles slum.
CONS: Mindless screenplay and direction lacking subtlety; flat characters that never develop; world makes very little sense.
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