Tag Archives: science fiction films

Master and Servant

Mother/Android

by George Wolf

You think you’ve got a good handle on Hulu’s Mother/Android pretty quickly. Take some zombie basics that we’ve seen from Romero through The Walking Dead, replace the undead with some renegade robots, and away we go.

But while there is plenty here that’s familiar, give writer/director Mattson Tomlin credit for finding sly ways to surprise you, and ultimately subvert your expectations with an nifty metaphorical finale.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars as Georgia aka “G,” a young woman struggling to enjoy a party after the shock of finding out she’s pregnant. Her boyfriend Sam (Algee Smith) is saying all the right things, but she’s unsure about their future.

As A.I. servants dutifully attend to the party guests, G and a friend head to the bathroom for a private chat. But in an instant, a painful sonic blast drops the humans to their knees while rebooting the bots to a default “kill” setting.

Fast forward nine months, and Tomlin’s got a standard setup (survivors running toward a rumored safe haven while being pursued by a relentless menace) with the always convenient “savior” trump card (very pregnant woman).

Tomlin’s storytelling appears workmanlike but uninspired, often rehashing ideas and set pieces you’ll remember from Terminator, The Descent, A Quiet Place, and even The Empire Strikes Back. But when G and Sam get separated, and G meets up with a fellow survivor (Raúl Castillo) who once helped create the Android serving class, Tomlin finally gets around to rewarding all who stick it out for Act 3.

With foreshadowing that is effectively subtle and an affecting turn from Moretz that crafts G as both tortured and courageous, the film reveals its first twist in finely organic fashion while keeping you distracted from the true motive ahead. Once revealed, it arrives as a plea for global empathy that lands with some unexpected emotional pull.

The best science fiction tales succeed when their glimpses of the future help us reassess the present. Mother/Android gets there, eventually, with a measured pace that seems much more confident when the party’s over.

Waiting for the Worms

Dune

by Hope Madden

Denis Villeneuve’s vision for Frank Herbert’s Dune is as gorgeous and cinematic as you might expect from the filmmaker behind Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. The worlds, the interiors, the exteriors, the space crafts, the spice, the worm — each articulated with a sense of wonder, as if the director himself was awestruck by what he saw.

That vision is hampered by a number of things, but the cast is not among its faults. Though Part One contains too many glorified cameos, even those are handled with care.

But let’s start at the top. Timothee Chalamet, whose genuine vulnerability makes him the perfect emo savior, is a natural for Paul. There is depth and almost humor to the performance. Even with only the first part of his journey completed by the end of the 2 hour and 35 minute film, his arc is clearly underway.

Oscar Isaac is so wonderfully Oscar Isaac as Paul’s noble but human father, and Rebecca Ferguson is exquisitely tortured as Paul’s mother. Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa and especially Javier Bardem all leave impressions with minimal screen time.

But the film has two problems, they are both pretty substantial, and they are both the story.

Problem #1 is that Dune Part 1 is half a film. You can make a multi-part story and still have several lovely, complete, standalone films. Kill Bill did it. Dune did not. It ends at the halfway point and that is exactly how it feels: 2 and a half hours to halfway there.

The second concern is that the source material is a white savior film. By casting almost exclusively people of color as the indigenous Fremen people of the conquered planet Arrakis, Villeneuve was at least facing the issue directly. That same laudable decision also exacerbated the situation, however, by turning Dune from a metaphorical white savior story into a literal white savior film, as the very white Chalamet takes on the mantle of messiah to lead the Fremen toward salvation.

He’s a dreamy messiah whose hair is forever mussed and hanging in his big, brown (for the moment) eyes, sure. But we know where this is going, even if we have no idea when we’ll get to see it arrive as Dune Part 2 is not yet filming.

It’s a lot of very attractive waiting for something to happen, which is maybe the best Dune synopsis I can think of.

O Brave New World

The Colony

by Christie Robb

Director/co-writer Tim Fehlbaum’s The Colony (originally titled Tides) is a new entry into science fiction’s grand tradition of working out issues of the past and present in imagined future contexts.

In this one, Earth’s elites packed into spacecrafts and blasted away from a planet wrecked by climate change, pandemics and war. (Imagine!)

They settled on a planet called Kepler 209, which provided a temporary refuge. While they could survive there, radiation had an impact on fertility and, two generations in, no children were being conceived by a now-aging population.

So, once the Keplerians got some data from beacons they’d left back on Earth that their home planet may have healed somewhat, they sent a reconnaissance party called Ulysses 1 to scout out the situation and see if Earth was safe to return to and, hopefully, procreate on.

They never heard from U1.

Some years later, they scraped together the resources and sent U2 with a small crew including Louise Blake (Nora Arnezeder), the now-grown daughter of a missing astronaut from U1. Blake’s crash to Earth is where the Colony begins.

From the moment she impacts the surface, things are grim. Crewmembers are inured. Some die.

There’s a perpetual and inhospitable fog that obscures the landscape rendering Blake unable to get a clear picture of her surroundings. And this thematically fits, as this initial slow-burn of a movie is all about Blake charting the lay of the land on this new Earth.

She’s not alone.

But exactly who she is sharing space with and whether their interests are aligned is something that Blake has to explore and uncover. As the movie progresses, the pace increases incrementally and the stakes get higher as Blake needs to decide what she stands for and whose side she is on.

It’s interesting how it works with the themes of colonization in a tweaked context.

The Colony is a good offering. It’s not perfect. Communication between different groups is managed with way too much ease. The plot is somewhat predictable. One character is so much without agency that he may as well be a Force ghost urging Blake to heroic action. And, for a movie that mentions pandemics in the intro, it really missed an opportunity to add a novel disease transmission subplot.

But the cinematography, particularly the play between extreme wide shots emphasizing the characters’ vulnerability in the forbidding landscape and the close-up point of view shots giving us Blake’s limited access to snippets of the action, is wonderful. As is Arnezeder’s portrayal of Blake’s full emotional range.

Of special note is Iain Glen (as Jorah Mormont), who manages to effortlessly show the violence lurking just beneath the veneer of civilization.

Choosing Wisely

Nine Days

by George Wolf

Will (Winston Duke) is a selector. Inside a modest home situated in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by nothing but flatland, he monitors the progress of his past selections while he carefully prepares to fill a new vacancy.

At the end of nine days, Will must choose wisely. His one selection among a new group of unborn souls will move on the “real world” and experience human life. The rest will not.

In his feature debut, writer/director Edson Oda presents an impressively assured vision of transfixing beauty and gentle poignancy. While the current run on “appreciate every day” films is hardly surprising in today’s climate, Oda brings an organic originality to the mantra of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.

Will does exactly that, via the television monitors (and VHS tapes) that allow him to view the world as his past selections are living it. The monitors also play a role in the selection process, as Will gives his candidates (including Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale and Bill Skarsgård) daily assignments to write down their reactions to the world views they see.

Duke (Us, Black Panther) is phenomenal as a “cog in the wheel” who becomes caught between the clinical completion of his duties and the emotional weight of his responsibilities.

Unlike many in this otherworld – including his assistant Kyo (Benedict Wong) – Will actually spent time living in the real one. And while he won’t discuss details of his life experience, his charming reliance on VCRs and Polaroid cameras gives us a clue about the timeframe. Duke brings touching authenticity to the barrier Will has put up around his past, while also letting us glimpse how Will is haunted by the fate of a past selection, and by the chance he may have chosen poorly.

Oda’s writing and direction exhibit solid craftsmanship. His framing and use of light often work wonders together, conjuring an existential outpost full of strangely comfortable trappings.

The screenplay is finely tuned for each distinct applicant in the process, allowing a standout Beetz and the terrific ensemble to find intimate resonance in the alternately joyous and heartbreaking moments of a life.

Yes, Nine Days often has a lilting air of pretension, but with such a philosophical anchor, it would be more surprising if it did not. Give Oda credit for being unafraid of the moment. He’s taking some big swings at mighty heavy concepts here, with an originality of voice and attention to craft that is welcome any day.

Love Letter to a Genre

Sensation

by Phil Garrett

Martin Grof’s Sensation is a low-tech science fiction mystery/thriller that pulls together familiar plotlines and devices including a protagonist with a mysterious family history, people with superhuman abilities, research facilities, unknown threats, and the dynamic of the real world vs. the dream world. The film feels more than inspired by films such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Tenet, along with the superhuman sub-sub-genre.

The plot centers around Andrew (Eugene Simons, Game of Thrones), a young man with no knowledge of his family history, including his father’s identity. Andrew is drawn into a patchwork mystery after a strange and confrontational meeting with Dr. Marinus (Alastair G. Cumming), who delivers Andrew’s DNA test results. He is then followed by mysterious men in matching gray hats who disappear from the film as quickly as they appear. Marinus confronts him and explains that Andrew’s life is in danger and only by joining a secret research program to explore his superhuman sensory powers will he be safe.

Safe from whom? Good question. The veil of vagueness seems to be part of Grof’s attempt to build tension, but it plays as a trope in the boldest of terms, whether through familiar scenarios or bald dialogue that could be delivered by characters in any similar movie. 

Andrew heads off to a secret research facility in the remote English countryside at an appropriately gothic manor estate. There he meets the “enigmatic” Nadia (Emily Wyatt, the Rise of the Footsoldier franchise) who runs the program. We’re introduced to the research group, all of whom have different super-senses like Andrew, all drawn together for special training to learn, focus and sharpen their abilities, and all in danger from unknown forces.

Sound familiar? The double-secret secret of their powers? They can “receive information” via their senses, which is highly valued by, you guessed it, that vaguely defined threat.

The film weaves its way through scenes and sequences that, again, seem more than inspired by other films, delivered with that mix of vagueness and baldness we’ve become familiar with. The dramatic action plays out fairly flatly with huge exposition dumps dropped in at just the right time. The story heads down a spiral of interwoven plots and subplots that are not fully baked, culminating in a protracted final act that tries hard to be inventive but feels like a different movie altogether.

Story aside, the cinematography visual style – ranging from foreboding interiors of the manor house to the sharp, vibrant streets of London – is well put together and effective for the low-tech nature of the film, often elevating the storytelling. The score is impressive but sometimes used as a crutch for dramatic tension. Eugene Simons and the ensemble should be given credit for their work in trying to bring some emotional truth to the film.

Hard-core genre fans may be interested in this exploration of familiar territory, but overall, Sensation plays like a love letter to a genre, and ends up a fractured, amalgamated narrative that works hard to be entertaining and intriguing but doesn’t quite get there.

The Not-So-Friendly Skies

Embryo

by Brandon Thomas

Good old alien horror doesn’t come around as much as I’d like. Outside of the occasional Alien or Predator sequel, this subgenre is pretty much stagnant or banished to the realm of mico-budget dreck. Embryo might skirt the line of microbudget, but this eerie alien tale is anything but dreck. 

The bulk of Embryo follows campers Kevin (Domingo Guzman) and Evelyn (Romina Perazzo) as they venture into the woods of southern Chile. Their camping getaway turns into a nightmare after Evelyn is abducted by extraterrestrials, leaving her in a state of shock. As the effects of her alien abductors take hold, Evelyn becomes increasingly more bloodthirsty, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake.

Director Patricio Valladares approaches alien abduction as a blend between Fire in the Sky’s creeping dread and Cronenberg body horror. Evelyn’s descent into other-worldly terror reveals itself in visceral, extreme violence. We’re talking lots of blood and guts here. However, the explanation of her metamorphosis is kept an enigma. The guessing game surrounding the aliens themselves is left to the deepest levels of the audience’s subconsciousness. It’s an act of omission probably born out of budgetary concerns, yet it ends up aiding the film more than the filmmakers could have foreseen. 

Valladares throws a curveball when constructing the film’s narrative. There’s an occasional break in Kevin and Evelyn’s story where Embryo attempts to open up the world a bit more. This allows the filmmakers to weave together other tales of close encounters in this small Chilean town. Not only are the stories different, but so is the style of filmmaking. By switching to found footage, Valladares is able to emphasize suspense and dread over the fantastical gore that oozes through the main segment.

Despite telling three individual tales, Embryo clocks in at a scant 72 minutes. Even with the different stories, the film threatens to run out of steam on multiple occasions. There’s a repetitiveness to the Kevin and Evelyn segment especially that starts to detract from its overall effectiveness. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there are only so many times Kevin can lose Evelyn only to find her feasting on a biker, doctor, or other camper. 

Embryo doesn’t quite cross the finish line at full speed, but through deft tone management and a willingness to get gross, the film leaves an overall positive impression.

Watchu Talkin’ Bout, Grillis?

Cosmic Sin

By George Wolf

Knowing that Cosmic Sin comes from the writers behind last year’s Breach probably won’t fill you with confidence about their latest sci-fi adventure.

But the good news is Edward Drake and Corey Large are improving. Very, very slowly.

Drake also takes the director’s chair this time, and coaxes a mildly interested performance out of returning star Bruce Willis (which Breach could never manage).

The year is 2524 (remember that) and Earth’s forces have formed the Alliance of colonies throughout the universe. Willis is General James Ford, renamed the “Blood General” after he wiped out one of the colonies with a “Q-bomb” and was stripped of rank and pension (ouch!).

But minutes after learning of first contact with an alien life form, General Ryle (Frank Grillo) calls Ford back to duty, where he’ll join a rag tag group of you know who to make a heroic you know what and save you know where.

Drake and Large (who also plays Ford’s sidekick) clearly blew the budget on Grillo and Willis (Grillis!), with a side of Costas Mandylor. 500 years from now looks a lot like next Tuesday, while planets light years away look like next Tuesday in Michigan.

And still, cinematographer Brandon Cox manages some slick deep space panoramas…that are often ruined by Saturday morning-worthy effects of our heroes flying through the stars and “pew pew pew”-ing in battle with the aliens.

Likewise, Drake and Large’s script toys with the meaty issues of war, sacrifice, and colonialism, only to abandon them in the name of heroic grandstanding. Potential threads (and Grillo’s entire character) grab our attention and then vanish at random, rendering much of the 88 minute running time a meandering mess.

Still better than Breach, though.

Contact Tracing

The Midnight Sky

by George Wolf

Between sci-fi and horror, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of which genre relies more heavily on recycled ideas. Since I see more horror than anything else, I’m inclined to lean in that direction, but The Midnight Sky adds one to the science fiction tally, building its very respectable tale on some very recognizable building blocks.

Director George Clooney also turns in a gritty and understated performance as Dr. Augustine Lofthouse (nice!), a revered scientist in the year 2049. Three weeks after a cataclysmic event on Earth forces survivors underground, Augustine chooses to remain at his Arctic Circle observatory. His hope is to make contact with Aether K-23, and warn the five crew members finishing a two year mission that there is no home worth returning to.

Augustine’s simple goal gets complicated by his discovery of Iris (Caoilinn Springall), an eight year-old girl missed during the outpost’s evacuation, and by the realization that he’ll have to take her along on a treacherous journey to the only satellite antenna capable of making contact with Aether.

Clooney and writer Mark L. Smith (The Revenant, Overlord) adapt Lily Brooks-Dalton’s source novel through three rotating narratives that offer mixed results.

On board with the Aether crew, we learn Sully (Felicity Jones) and Ade (David Oyelowo) are close, Sanchez (Demián Bichir) is the quietly wise vet, Maya (Tiffany Boone) the baby-faced youngster and Mitchell is the stoic manly man we’re not surprised is played by Kyle Chandler.

There are some effectively human moments with the crew, but too much of this thread feels strangely overwritten by Smith, a tendency that only becomes more weighty during the flashbacks to a younger Augustine (Ethan Peck).

Though we learn what drives the Dr.’s frigid quest for redemption, the backstory lessons are more spoon-fed than well-earned, standing in sharp contrast to the gentler hand played between Augustine and Iris.

Remember, Clooney has a deserved Oscar nom for directing, and his latest course is steady as she goes. Many of the deep space segments, buoyed by another wonderful score from Alexandre Desplat, will make you long for a return to big screens, while two tension filled set pieces – one with a snowmobile and another sporting zero gravity blood loss – find Clooney flexing some thrill muscles to fine effect.

There’s nothing really wrong with the themes and devices here, that’s why they’re used so often. The failures of humankind and the promise of the next generation are ideas that sit comfortably in the wonders explored by science fiction. But though our current global crisis gives The Midnight Sky’s iteration some added urgency, it can’t shake the feeling we’ve boldly gone here pretty often.

The Midnight Sky premieres on Netflix December 23.

Home A Clone

LX 2048

by George Wolf

Well, you’ll save money on sunscreen.

Because in the near future world of LX 2048, the only way you can venture out in the daylight is by going full hazmat. In fact, the sun has become so lethal that clone technology is needed to meet the demand for augmented dayworkers.

Once the clones arrive, the unintended consequences are sure to follow. And Adam Bird is getting an up close look at some of them.

Things are not going well for Adam (James D’Arcy). His tech company is on shaky ground, and he hasn’t been taking his LX “mood stabilizers” which could help with the really bad news: his heart is failing and he doesn’t have long to live. Though his relationship with wife Reena (Anna Brewster) and the kids was already on the rocks, Adam is worried about securing their future.

Then, through frequent flashbacks, writer/director/producer/editor Guy Moshe fills in the backstory. Though virtual reality has taken over by 2048, “the chip” is the next big thing. There’s been a massive decline in population. And the Premium 3 insurance plan allows you to “tailor” your spousal replacement clone in the event of death.

What luck for Reena! The Birds are Premium 3 plan holders.

Moshe’s overly cheesy opening credits lower the expectations of what’s to come, but there are engaging visuals and some solid sci-fi ideas here, albeit ones fighting to overcome stilted dialog and tonal swings.

Adam’s conversations with unseen VR avatars are overly explanatory only for our benefit, sometimes bringing a wince-worthy phoniness to D’Arcy’s performance. And yet, when Moshe suddenly introduces moments of absurdist humor, you wonder if either tract was intended.

Delroy Lindo’s cameo as cloning tech legend Donald Stein instantly raises the stakes. Lindo’s natural gravitas make Stein’s musings about what it means to be human and the wages of playing God land a tick higher on the scale of standard sci-fi existential crises.

This is a film that often feels adrift and in need of an anchor. It’s neither as smart as it wants to be, nor as dumb as you fear early on. Much like its main character, LX 2048 has heart, but you’re never sure how long it can hold out.

Star Child

High Life

by George Wolf

In tackling the final frontier, it’s not surprising that unconventional filmmaker Claire Denis shows little interest in the usual themes that dominate the sci-fi genre. High Life floats very deliberately in its own headspace, touching down somewhere between enlightened consciousness and acid-blooded killing machines.

Monte (Robert Pattinson) appears to be the last survivor of a spacecraft’s crew, but he’s not alone in deep space. He has baby Willow to care for, tending to her needs while he performs his duties and files the regular progress reports that feel increasingly futile.

The infant is one of many general questions director/co-writer Denis casually raises before playing with the film’s timeline to address them, all the while picking at the scabs of deeper insights into the primal desires and self-destructive instincts we cannot escape.

Denis is more than aware of her genre playground (there is a character named Chandra, after all), and while you may be reminded of other sci-fi institutions, High Life lives in the uncomfortable places even the best of these films gloss over. It is bleak and often surreal, draped in the stifling desperation of a crew seemingly controlled by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche – a terrific model of subtle menace).

There is sex (Binoche’s solo sequence is damn near unforgettable) but no affection, reproduction reduced to its most clinical nature and an element of body horror that Denis’s close-up camerawork demands you acknowledge. Though the deep space effects may not be big-budget worthy, succinct visual storytelling is always in play.

In the latest of many challenging indie roles he’s been choosing post-Twilight, Pattinson is again impressive. In a succession of unlikable characters, he gives Monte a gradually sympathetic layer, an element that becomes critical to making the film’s third act as effective, and ultimately hopeful, as it is.

To her credit, Denis has always shown little regard for standard convention. While there is much to be gleaned from the opening and closing shots of her latest, it is the ride in between that makes High Life such a different animal.