Hoping for Unicorns

Zone 414

by Hope Madden

“Do you know what rich people want? Everything.”

True enough. And in lesser hands, that line might feel trite, but Andrew Baird’s SciFi neo-noir Zone 414 boasts a very solid ensemble. Mostly.

The actor delivering that line, the always formidable Olwen Fouéré (The Survivalist), joins reliable character actors including Jonathan Aris, Ned Dennehy, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Fionnula Flanagan (The Others) to populate this low-rent Blade Runner.

Which Blade Runner? Either one — although the beauty in a wig with blue bangs suggests Baird leans more recent. She’s Jane (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Revenge), a sexual synthetic living in the upscale seedy utopia Zone 414, where meat (humans) pay lots of money to spend time doing whatever they want with the likes of Jane.

But that’s not why David Carmichael (Guy Pearce) is in the zone. The super-wealthy mad hatter who designs these high-end toys, Marlon Veidt (Travis Fimmel), hired Carmichael to find his runaway teenager. Veidt’s daughter wishes to be synthetic so she doesn’t have to feel anything.

Yes, all the neo-noir tropes. None missing.

What Bryan Edward Hill’s script lacks in originality, Baird tries to make up for with world-building. It works to a degree and is aided immeasurably by the committed turns from his supporting players. Pearce is as reliable as always, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. He turns down about as many roles as Bruce Willis or Nicolas Cage. Zone 414 is not one of his best.

It’s not one of his worst, either, but he does have a couple of problems. One is that his big, dramatic scenes tend to pair him not with the exceptional supporting talent, but the weaker leads. Lutz carries off the superficial damsel in distress well enough, but when the film asks her to get a little Ex Machina on us, she flails.

Worse still is Fimmel’s mad genius. That make-up and fat suit don’t help. I’m sure he’s not meant to be comic relief, but it’s hard to see him any other way.

Much of this is redeemed by a few intriguing scenes, but the writing fails Baird a few times too often.

Zone 414 tries really hard. It often fails. But not always.

Final Frontier

Settlers

by George Wolf

The settlement in writer/director Wyatt Rockefeller’s feature debut may be on Mars, but it’s his measured treatment of the colony’s constant dangers that allow the story to transcend any specific time and place.

Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and young Remmy (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince) appear to be the only family on a barren Martian settlement, but then they wake to a giant “LEAVE” written on their front window and the questions begin to stack up.

Why is Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova) staking a claim to their place? What happened to all the other colonists, and how many others are out there lurking, maybe plotting to attack?

And what caused them all to leave Earth in the first place?

Rockefeller is not at all interested in easy answers, instead employing some first-rate performances and stellar production design to evoke a more universal statement on human nature, and more specifically, the often desperate and consistently overlooked role of women in nation building.

It’s a theme given an effective horror treatment in The Wind three years ago, and while the science fiction elements in Settlers are well-played, they’re also subtle enough to never upstage the character studies at work.

We see the first two acts of the film through young Remmy’s eyes, carefully observing the adults around her and making friends with a dog-like robot she calls “Steve.” Prince delivers a wonderfully tender performance, enabling us to feel Remmy sizing up her future choices with each passing day.

The film’s final act jumps ahead ten years, when a now teenage Remmy (the awesomely named Nell Tiger Free from GoT) is nearing the day she’ll be forced to make those hard choices. Jerry has become an even bigger presence in her life, and Cordova flexes an impressive ability to keep you guessing about Jerry’s true nature until late in the game.

If you lean toward tidy endings wrapped in unmistakable red bows, you’ll find none of those in Settlers. You will find an engrossing tale careful to leave plenty of opportunities for filling in the blank spaces.

Follow where it leads, and you’ll glimpse a future that’s inviting you to rethink the past. And the present.

Fighting for the Future

The Tomorrow War

by Hope Madden

With a prelude this reminiscent of Edge of Tomorrow and a catalyst that recalls Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, The Tomorrow War makes itself clear early. This is not going to be a terribly original movie.

Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) is a high school science teacher who believes he was destined for more important things. His opportunity arrives when future earthlings show up to recruit present-day earthlings to fight a battle against the end of the human race.

Some important questions to answer. What is going to be the end of us?

Aliens.

Do we get to see them?

Yes! Early and often.

How do they look?

Nasty as hell! Dude, the teeth and these tentacle things—nice!

And finally, why is this movie so long?

While there is no clear answer to that, it appears that director Chris McKay is a big fan of Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay, maybe Stephen Sommers. The film emits a throwback vibe, conjuring popcorn munchers of the late 90s—which is about the era when self-indulgent directors started making 2 ½ hour mindless Sci-Fi.

That’s not all bad, right? The film’s logic may be a bit sketchy, but its professed love of science makes up for a lot of that. Naturally, there are also syrupy family dramatics to drive the narrative, because we all remember Emmerich’s 1996 epic Independence Day.

Also, while many of the internal action sequences feel theme-park stagey, the outdoor set pieces are a blast.

Films like this don’t call for master thespians. Good thing, because Pratt, who also executive produces, doesn’t bring any real depth of emotion to the role. Luckily, J.K. Simmons cannot give a weak performance, so the bruised masculinity and daddy issues have somewhere to take root.   

Lose an hour and The Tomorrow War is a pretty fun time-waster, but nothing more. Writer Zach Dean doesn’t say anything new and McKay certainly doesn’t find any fresh ways to say it. But if you miss the bloated, 2+hour action/adventure flicks of the late 1990s, The Tomorrow War is your movie.

Floating in a Most Peculiar Way

I Like Tomorrow

by Hope Madden

Need one more reason to be thrilled that the Wexner Center for the Arts is reopening to the public? A new collaboration between filmmakers Jennifer Reeder and Nancy Andrews—the delightfully spacy I Like Tomorrow—plays through July and August in The Box.

The 11-minute short showcases Andrews’s animation prowess, as well as the versatility of performer Michole Briana White, who delivers three roles in one.

White plays Captain Regina Lamb, a lone astronaut who’s been in orbit a while. Maybe a really long while. And at the moment, she’s working through some relationship issues. With herself. Specifically, she’s navigating her commitments to her past self (White again, as Reggie) and her future self (White as Rae).

The I Like Tomorrow aesthetic is MST3K meets Bowie, and who wouldn’t be wild about that? White’s performance is lonesome, slyly insightful and very funny. She makes excellent use of Reeder and Andrews’s nimble dialog, using space exploration to mirror relationship communication, then focusing everything inward.

Captain Lamb’s journey toward appreciating who she is today, this moment, is as charming as it can be. White gives each of the three versions of Lamb age-appropriate personalities and the interplay among the three is priceless.

As layered and insightful as the film is, Andrews and Reeder never abandon their playful attitude. In fact, the comic in this cosmic episode only increases as Captain Lamb’s journey wears on.

Musical interludes and animation, set design and costumes all work together to create a mood that’s simultaneously lonely, hopeful, and weirdly funny.

Don’t Text and Shoot

Doors

by George Wolf

How much better would 2001 have been if there were helpful onscreen text explaining the motives of the monolith?

Use that bone as a weapon and you won’t starve.

None. The answer is none better.

A habit of over-explanation is just one of the weights pulling down Doors, a science fiction drama presented in three separate acts by three different writer/directors.

Jeff Desom fares best with the opening segment entitled “Lockdown.” As high schoolers in a classroom hear their locked-up cellphones buzzing, planes overhead and vaguely ominous announcements, some nice tension is built via mystery and subtlety.

And then both are gone.

A late night podcaster quickly sets the stage. Imposing, sentient “doors” have appeared around the world, and in the rush for answers, volunteers called (what else?) knockers are answering the invitation. The “Knockers” segment, from Saman Kesh, features Josh Peck and Lina Esco as a couple who find a greatly distorted reality awaits them on the other side.

Dugen O’Neal’s final segment, “Jamal,” carries a fine performance from Kyp Malone as a reclusive man successfully communicating with a door in secret. When an unexpected betrayal brings outsiders, the onscreen text brings mood – spoiling clarity to what the door requests.

Extended exposition via a podcaster is at least an organic device, but text? Since none of the characters can see these messages, they are only for our benefit as viewers, and land as the most inexplicable aspect of this entire cosmic trip.

This film starts with an intriguing setup to a decent sci-fi premise, but can never find resonant avenues for development. Some confidence in its audience, better performances, a more compelling score and crisper sound mix would be steps forward, but the most gaping hole is the absence of one clear storytelling vision.

Without it, Doors is an awkward anthology in search of an anchor, as well as a satisfying reward for opening it.

Good Night and Good Luck

Come True

by Hope Madden

There are elements of Anthony Scott Burns’s sci fi horror Come True that put you in mind of early David Cronenberg, although what Canadian filmmaker hasn’t been inspired by the master?

Like Cronenberg, Burns sets his unnerving tale amid the humming florescents, beeping machines and grainy medical equipment displays of an institution—someplace hospital-like, if not quite hospital-proper.

But where Cronenberg usually populated these dreary medtech landscapes with the most disturbing body horror, Burns has other, slower terror in mind.

This is where 18-year-old runaway Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) finds herself. Nights spent on friends’ couches or at the local playground have Sarah strung out enough that a two-month sleep study sounds exactly like the safe, sound rest she needs.

Unfortunately, Sarah suffers from nightmares.

This is where Burns develops a marvelous sense of universal dread. As his camera (he also acted as cinematographer) weaves through hallways and caverns too dark to truly make out, human shapes or something like them hang, drape, congeal and otherwise loom in shadows. They are at unnatural angles and heights. Some seem to be looking at you.

What Burns sets in the corridors of Sarah’s mind abandons the Cronenberg universe in favor of a terror more reminiscent of Rodney Ascher’s documentary, The Nightmare.

Whew—heady stuff, and big shoes to fill. Burns follows through with the tone and look of the film, creating a dreamy, retro vibe that he amplifies with a score by Anthony Scott Burns, Pilotpriest and Electric Youth.

He also has quite a find in Stone, whose elfen look perfectly suits the project. She projects something scrappy, vulnerable and otherworldly and she carries this film on her narrow shoulders.

The cast around her does wonders to suggest a backstory that isn’t shared, each pair or group with its own lingo and worn in rapport.

Where Come True falls short is in its story. The slow pace eventually works against the film. Worse still, it’s hard to see the climax as anything other than a cheat. Come True leaves you feeling massively let down, which is truly unfortunate after so much investment in a world this well built.

Light the Corners of My Mind

Minor Premise

by George Wolf

“Don’t make me psychotic. You wouldn’t like me when I’m psychotic.”

Okay, that’s not the exact quote, but science fiction and horror stories have been mining the conflicting personality premise since well before Bill Bixby on 1970s TV. Minor Premise ups the ante in stellar fashion, with no less than 10 identities competing for one man’s consciousness.

Dr. Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan) is a scientist living in the shadow of his late father, but Ethan’s on the verge of a breakthrough that would make his spotlight quite a bit brighter.

His work is centered on mapping memories as physical imprints on neural pathways. If Ethan can isolate sections of the brain, he foresees amazing possibilities such as boosting intellect, erasing Alzheimers and PTSD, maybe even constructing consciousness.

But when Ethan goes full Brundlefly and experiments on himself, his identity is fractured into 10 different emotions – ranging from euphoric to psychotic – each operating at 6 minute increments.

Anyone familiar with 2004’s wonderful Primer will feel right at home, especially after Ethan’s colleague and former flame Allie (Paton Ashbrook) drops by to help him put the pieces of his mind back together. From there, the film becomes a one setting two-hander, as director/co-writer Eric Schultz unveils a feature debut of clever intellect, stylish pacing and claustrophobic, beat-the-clock tension.

Sridharan and Ashbrook make a formidable team, anchoring their wary chemistry and heady dialogue with a “try to keep up” attitude that’s organically right for their characters. They’re brilliant scientists (Schultz, by the way, studied psychology at Harvard) and we’re not, so if you pay enough attention and suspend a little disbelief, Minor Premise crackles with some major sci-fi thrills.

Beneath Was Taken

What Lies Below

by George Wolf

Eeewww – no 16 year-old girl wants to hear about her Mom’s sexcapades with the new boyfriend!

John (Trey Tucker) is kinda hot, though, and young Liberty (Ema Horvath) has caught herself staring when he traipses around the Adirondacks lake house with his shirt off – which is often.

Mom Michelle (Mena Suvari) is 42 but has told John she’s 35 – and she’s desperate for “Libs” to keep her secret so he doesn’t run off. But John seems like he’s strangely attached to Michelle – or at least to the lake. In fact, as Libs looks closer, there’s plenty about John that’s strange.

He says he’s an “aquatic geneticist” working to preserve fresh water supplies. But man, he’s really interested in parasites, especially ones that can adapt to any host available.

Writer/director Braden R. Duemmler’s feature debut unfolds like a minor league Under the Skin. There’s simmering sexual tension here – some of it metaphorical – amid dreamlike atmospherics and a few glimpses of a creature on the hunt.

Horvath (The Mortuary Collection) is great. Her mix of teenage disgust, confusion and curiosity hits just the right pitch, as does her panicked courage when Lib has to fight for her life (and her Mom’s).

Not every logical building block is water tight, and the sci-fi/horror combo sometimes feels desperately earnest. But the creep factor in What Lies Below holds steady, with Duemmler earning some water-logged points for not copping out at the finish.

And I Feel Fine

Save Yourselves!

by Hope Madden

“The world is f*cked and we should stop pretending it’s not.”

True enough.

This piece of insight comes from Su (Sunita Mani), one half of the Brooklyn couple who’s disconnected to enjoy a week in nature, away from the distractions of a life spent too much online. Yes, Su has brought an internet list of ways to improve as a couple, but she handwrote the list into her notebook, so it’s OK.

Meanwhile, longtime (maybe too long?) boyfriend Jack (John Reynolds, Stranger Things) is jonesing to YouTube his tips for humanely trapping a rabbit. But he will not give in!

No, the two are committed to staying off the grid and offline this week, no matter the cost.

Naturally, this is the week the world ends.

Writers/directors Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson, a couple themselves, create a comfortable, hipster vibe. Su and Jack’s relationship is funny in a way that feels less like cynicism and more like compassionately self-referential mockery.

Both performances are charmingly irritating, if that’s a thing. It is here, which could be hard to sell but it’s imperative in this film. The couple is lightly self-obsessed and overly sensitive—an affectionate rip on millennials—but they are sincerely fond of each other, and we are, in turn, fond of them.

Things get sillier once the threat exposes itself. The earth has been overrun by fuzzy little puff balls the couple refers to as pouffes. Yes, the harmless looking—adorable, even—mayhem does feel remarkably similar to those tribbles that caused the Star Trek crew such trouble back in the day.

That’s not the only part of the filmmakers’ feature debut that feels somewhat borrowed, but don’t let them fool you. Just when you think the film itself is selling out, promoting a status quo, nuclear family vibe that would sink the entire production, nope.

The lighthearted cynicism and dystopian dread that marks a generation rears its pessimistic but nonetheless delightful head for an end that’s an unsettling mix of optimism and desperation.

Amy and the Apocalypse

She Dies Tomorrow

by Hope Madden

I smell an intriguing trend in indie horror: embracing the apocalypse.

She Dies Tomorrow is a horror film that’s one part Coherence, one part The Beach House, one part The Signal (2007, not 2014) and yet somehow entirely its own. It helps that so few people have seen any of those other movies, but the truth is that writer/director Amy Seimetz (creator of The Girlfriend Experience) is simply braiding together themes that have quietly influenced SciFi horror hybrids of late. What she does with these themes is pretty remarkable.

Her film weaves in and out of the current moment, delivering a dreamlike structure that suits its trippy premise. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) believes she is going to die tomorrow. She knows it. She’s sure.

She calls her friend Jane (the always amazing Jane Adams), who senses that Amy is not OK but has this obligation to go to her sister-in-law’s party…whatever, she’ll stop over on her way.

By the time Jane gets to the party, she’s also quite certain she will die tomorrow. It isn’t long before the partygoers sense their own imminent deaths; meanwhile, Amy is spreading her perception contagion elsewhere.

Seimetz’s horror is really only existential, although like The Signal (and The Crazies before it), She Dies Tomorrow is more than slightly interested in what individuals do with this disheartening information. What a superb way to cut directly to character development.

This gives the film an episodic quality, allowing even characters in minor roles to express their individuality. Adams is characteristically wonderful, both logical and a bit batty, lonely and strangely optimistic. Chris Messina and Katie Aselton impress with a lived-in couplehood, and both Josh Lucas and Adam Wingard are used deftly to bring an almost melancholy comic relief to a couple scenes.

Sheil anchors the film. With the most time to get comfortable with her lot, Amy drifts through the stages of grief and fear, ending on a resigned kind of anticipation that feels comfortable with the tone Seimetz creates.

From beginning to end, the film transmits a quiet, creeping dread. Seimetz can’t entirely capitalize on the intoxicating world she’s created, but hers is a unique voice and beguiling vision.