Tag Archives: Sci Fi

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

29 May

‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’: Reunion time for earth-shaking titans, humans underfoot

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Who knew that “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” was a Boston movie? I won’t say how much it is, but I will say that the oldest ballpark in the country (RIP Bill Buckner) and that iconic high-rise so eloquently framed in a semi-famous short story by John Updike make it in there – and then some. The Japanese-launched franchise has matured to full CGI fury, improving on the effects in versions from 1998 and 2014 and certainly from its 1950s beginnings, when miniature models of Tokyo were stomped by a man in a rubber suit. (Let’s call those the MIRS years.)

The tagline is the same as in 1956, when American actor Raymond Burr (“Ironside”) lent his American mug to an early Japanese MIRS entry. Here, the film picks up five years from when “Godzilla” (2014) left off, namely the leveling of San Francisco, with all “titans” now neatly in hibernation. Some players from that chapter (Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe) reprise their roles as scientists, appearing before congress to try to derail plans to exterminate Godzilla and the other titans – while in hibernation, a cryptozoological agency known as Monarch has pretty much put all the beasts in an electronic lockdown. We also meet the Russells, a family of Monarch scientists fractured by the loss of their son in the stomping of San Fran. The father, Mark (Kyle Chandler, so good in “Manchester by the Sea” and “Zero Dark Thirty”), unable to cope with the grief, has gone off to film wolves in the wilds, while wife Emma (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, from “Stranger Things”) are nestled in a forest abode near one such titan bunker where they witness the larval birth of Mothra.

Before the flaming pterodactyl Rodan and three-header King Ghidorah – aka Monster Zero – make it into the mix, of course we need some zany zealot to bring down the boom. In this case that’s a former British special ops officer played with charm and menace by Charles Dance, who has had an awakening of his own and sees the only way to right humankind’s environmental wrongs being to raise the titans and let them cull the population. Much philosophical talk is made early on about man being an infection, and the titans something like white blood cells to take care of it. Sure, okay, nothing new: The original Godzilla was an incarnation raised by man’s use of nukes and nuclear energy, so the themes imbued here by writer/director Michael Dougherty seem in line. And a little biorhythm device Emma has made (the thing everybody wants) has the monster-whispering effect that the two thumb-sized Japanese twins had in the old MIRS flicks.

But this is a big CGI flick, seen to good effect as Brazil gets bowled over by Rodan and Ghidorah (which, given all the talk of infections and viruses, sounds even more like an STD) gets awakened from his icy crib. Boston, home of the Russells, hosts a Godzilla-Ghidorah smackdown – and if some of those new high rises in the Seaport irk your aesthetic eye, here’s a shot at some virtual schadenfreude.

The film does what it needs to. The trio of lead actors manage to elicit enough emotion and Godzilla, a hero whose mission and morals are as straightforward as Clint Eastwood’s indelible “Man with No Name,” gets to don the superhero cape, if just for a small while. It’s bang-bang fun that clicks by with smart, rapid pacing, all the while reminding us of just how much a mess we’ve made of this planet.

Aniara

18 May

‘Aniara’: Another trip to deep space goes awry, a getting away from it all that demands escape

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Much of this sleek Swedish sci-fi flick may feel borrowed from the recent, grim “High Life” from the unlikely source of Claire Denis, but its roots go back to the similarly named 1956 poem by Nobel laureate Harry Martinson. Like Denis’ contemplation on loneliness, lust and what constitutes law and righteousness beyond the outer limits, “Aniara” dumps us aboard an outer space cruise ship occupied by souls from wildly varying social strata. The vast voyager comes replete with discos and gourmet eateries, but it is not a vacation, not by any means. Those aboard are en route to a Martian colony because Earth has become uninhabitable.

Not long into the journey something goes bump, and The Aniara gets knocked off course and on a trajectory out of the solar system and into deep space. The initial projection of two years to get the engines back to full capacity and get back on course comes as a bit of a bummer – it was supposed to take three weeks to get to Mars – but hey, they have unlimited algae, so all’s good, right? No. Plans don’t go accordingly, timelines shift, cults form and society devolves into chaotic semi-lawfulness. Think Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel “High-Rise” (2016) and you’d have the right idea.

It’s a piquant setup and something of an existential exercise, pitting hope against the torturous throes of not knowing. As adapted by first-time feature filmmakers Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, the time-hopping narrative orbits around a strawberry-haired woman blessed with the gender opposite moniker of MR (Emelie Jonsson). MR proves quite the gravitational point; she’s the tech who runs the mental relaxation room known as Mima. The small, seatless amphitheater’s something like your favorite bar and bartender without the hangover – kind of: While resting in an inverted yogi Savasana pose, waves of flame shoot across the ceiling of Mima while visitors in their hyper-relaxed state take walks along the beach or a stroll through a verdant forest. In short, they get to go to their happy place. As the reality of return becomes increasingly glum, the demand for Mima spikes. And even there, the prospect for virtual escapism begins to become something of a shop of horrors.

The catch with “Aniara” becomes its overly ambitious scope, which begs for the razor eye of a master (say Kubrick or Tarkovsky); Kågerman and Lilja get the grandness and wonderment of the universe beyond right, but their chapter-esque jumps in time tend to break apart what came before. MR ultimately pairs up with fellow female crew member Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), so there’s something at risk emotionally and we’re reassured that true human companionship bears more value than a visit to Mima – phew. Years out, as prospects gray and the suicide rate skyrockets, folk still party like its 1999, engage in ritualistic orgies and even bear babies. Is it sustainable? It turns out space is a very cold place to contemplate time.

High Life

15 Apr

‘High Life’: Sending convicts to a black hole, occupied by pursuits only sometimes solitary

 

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Way up high, what’s that in the sky? Looks like a metal shipping container with rocket boosters glued on. A bit hokey indeed, but would you believe me if I told you “High Life” was the first English-language film from French auteur Claire Denis, and it’s a sci-fi adventure? Strange but true, though in fact there’s very little sci-fi-ish about the death-row deep-space mission that’s more about colliding personalities and strange sexual dances in dark places. Yes, in outer space no one can hear your orgasmic cries of ecstasy, but that’s mostly because they happen in a sealed box. (More on that later.)

The crew of that shipping container – the “7” – are all criminals (“scum, trash and refuse”), rocketing toward a black hole while radioing back to command their findings. Kind of. The one thing they do seem tasked with is the prospect of reproduction in outer space. The men must fill cups in a booth (it looks like a photo booth in a mall, but is not to be confused with the formerly mentioned “box”) and are given precious sleeping pills for their effort. The women are impregnated occasionally, but the birth of a child usually proves fatal for mother and infant. All this is orchestrated under the watchful and controlling eye of Dr. Dibs (the eternally eternal Juliette Binoche), who, in her tight nursing uniform, seems to be the closest thing to a commanding force aboard a ship with the feel of a basement boiler room or padded-cell dormitory. One crew member won’t share his seed, Monte (Robert Pattinson, who pleasingly keeps getting further away from his “Twilight” origins), and seems more in control of his own fate than others on the 7.

Given the lethality of childbirth and the fact that this is a crew of social marauders and murderers relegated to the deep, lawless abyss of space, what could go wrong? A primal carnage works its way through the 7 about midway through the film (as well as a realization that the narrative has been moving in time hops), with much of the violence meted out being raw retaliation, or the culmination of adamant disagreement. Folks aboard seem more interested in their two pounds of flesh and sleeping pills than any destination or technical issues that could imperil them. Of all the wacky internal violence, only one of the acts is sexual in nature – mostly because the 7 is equipped with a “fuck box,” a high-tech Shaker booth of sorts. We visit the Orgasmatron device only once, as our fair Dr. Dibs takes her turn. Inside there’s a well-endowed Sybian device, with trapeze handles to add you your bucking pleasure. Binoche, with a flowing, glorious mane of dark hair, is framed from her bare milky back, an image of Lady Godiva riding off into the dark night of endless pleasure.

Clearly Denis is operating under the creative influence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1970s sci-fi classics, “Solaris” and “Stalker,” potent blends of psychological thriller and adventure into the unknown. There’s even the unmistakable image of a body floating in space eerily similar to Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) suspended in the cold dark outside the hull of a rebel cruiser in “The Last Jedi.”  It’s hard to imagine Denis borrowing from such commercial fare, but there it is. Overall, the unthinkable mix is a jumbled delight. Like Gaspar Noe’s “Climax,” this could have been set in any confined locale – a sealed tier in a parking garage, a cabin atop a snowbound mountain, an ocean liner stranded at sea or even a ginormous freight elevator during a power outage – and the result would be the same. Denis is one of the most maverick female filmmakers out there, in good company with Kathryn Bigelow, Lynn Ramsey and Debra Granik, and adds her hard feminist fingerprint to “High Life” as she has in great films such as “Trouble Every Day,” “Beau Travail” and “White Noise.” Her latest adventure  isn’t quite on par with those films (you can still catch several at the Brattle Theater as part of “The Good Works of Claire Denis” series) but it is a riveting psychological odyssey from launch to climatic nadir.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then Bigfoot

10 Feb

‘The Man Who Killed Hitler, Then Bigfoot’: FBI has work for a senior with experience

 

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As far as freaky, gonzo film titles go, it’s pretty tough to top “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot.” The film lands on streaming platforms Friday and was shot in part locally – out in Turners Falls, where the emerging director behind this era-hopping fantasy hails from.

Does it live up to the audaciousness of the title?

Well, yes and no. Checkboxes are checked and the film is bolstered quite vividly by the gorgeous cinematography of Alex Vendler with visual effects help from Douglas Trumbull, whose credits include “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “Blade Runner” (1982). Of course, the big draw is current Academy Award nominee Sam Elliott (for “A Star Is Born”) as the legendary man of the title, Calvin Barr, who gets it done during WWII. When things kick off we’re somewhere in the late ’70s in a podunk town, with Barr driving a classic boxy Ford LTD or the like that a band of punks want to take from him. Good luck. They get the drop on Barr initially, but this grizzled old vet with can-do valor and battle-tested brawn isn’t quite over the hill. In teasers we flash back to the younger Barr (a handsome Aidan Turner) as a multilingual infiltrator dressed up as an SS officer crisscrossing Germany on a quest to take out der Führer. We go back and forth until midway in, in the ’70s now, an FBI agent (Ron Livingston from “Office Space”) comes a-begging for Barr to saddle up and take out Sasquatch. Steve Austin must have been tied up.

The why’s a wispy WTF, something about being infected with the mother of all plagues with the creature isolated in a 50-mile dead zone north of the border (no life left but plants, we’re told, even though we see a stag once in); Barr’s the only one immune to the virus, and the only hope to take down the mangy beast. 

I’m not sure which quest is the more improbable onscreen, but writer-director Robert D. Krzykowski embraces them wholeheartedly, splicing the timelines together in nearly cohesive fashion. This first-time film is clearly a passion project, and you can bet Krzykowski is a massive Sam fan. (But then again, who isn’t?) 

Elliot and Turner, good individually, don’t seem to be the same human – the connection between icy wartime assassin and affable backwoods gent just happy to spend time with his pooch is more than decades and worlds apart. No matter. “The Man Who Shot Hitler” is a high-quality spectacle though, if it weren’t such a mashup of history, myth and a revered, drawling thespian, it might not draw our eye. A definite curio for the curious.

Bird Box

22 Dec

‘Bird Box’: Talent stumbles down blind path with thriller that leaves bit too much unseen

 

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Much will be made about the similarities between “Bird Box” and a “A Quiet Place,” which at once is understandable and also a complete crime. Sure, both take place in the wake of a near-future apocalyptic event – in “A Quiet Place,” sightless aliens who look like “Venom” extras are snapping up the last of humankind; in “Bird Box” it’s … well, you never really know what it is, and that’s the bulk of why the film never really takes hold, feeling ultimately like a cheap parlor trick. How can you have something wiping out humanity and not know what it is? An airborne virus, radioactive fallout or the sudden lack of oxygen – things we’re aware of, operating outside the purview of the eye, sure, but something that rattles forest shrubbery like a Bengal tiger, causing leaves to whip up, but is never seen? That’s not going to fly.

It’s actually floating that proves to be the final desperate measure as a mother and two children drift haplessly down a river, hoping for a new beginning yet never able to see around the bend. The other big surprise to “Bird Box” is the impressive throng of talent involved – and their inability to lift the project. The unexceptional script written by Eric Heisserer, a scribe who not too long ago adapted another slack sci-fi story (“Arrival”) into a sharp, thinking person’s flick, adheres hard to the flat source material by rocker-turned-novelist Josh Malerman. There’s plenty of gold in the mix too: Lead actress Sandra Bullock has an Academy Award to her credit, and director Susanne Bier also has Oscar pedigree from her 2010 Danish film “In a Better World.” What gives? For one, the producers probably held Heisserer to the best-selling book for fear they might disenfranchise their ready-made target audience. It doesn’t help that Bier shoots this in a way that feels more like a TV miniseries than a big-budget, two-hour, end-of-the-world burn. Continue reading

Prospect

30 Nov

 

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A deep space mission to harvest something called Aurelacs – a highly valued gem that grows in slimy organic sacs that would make David Cronenberg proud – goes horribly wrong in “Prospect,” stranding a father-daughter team in a future where space travel across galaxies is relatively common. Made arty and moody by rising filmmaking duo Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl, expanding on their 2014 short of the same name, the themes and atmosphere echo that of “The Martian” (2016), “Interstellar” (2014) and even “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) – if not for the retro space suits, then at least all the heavy breathing.

Pulling from familiar tropes, the landing party (descending in a neat little capsule that looks something like a lunar module or whatever it was Matt Damon cruised in on in “The Martian”) hope to make one big “prospecting” score and move on to a better, less perilous lifestyle. Dad (Jay Duplass, co-director of the 2006 indie surprise, “The Puffy Chair”) and his teenage daughter, Cee (Sophie Thatcher, the film’s revelation) descend on a bucolic planet that’s as verdant, dank and lush as the Pacific Northwest forests were in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” this year – still, as gorgeous and inviting as it is, you need to be suited and with a full tank of oxygen. 

Funny, as far out as they are and in the middle of nowhere, they barely get started on their quest when they bump into two malcontents who prove none too welcoming. Shortly enough, Cee and the one named Ezra (“Game of Thrones” actor Pedro Pascal) set out to find the the Aurelacs  mother lode (aka the “Queen’s Lair”), despite the nagging matter that Cee’s lander has malfunctioned and Ezra and his cohort have no means off the planet either. For all the riches to be had, folk seem too intently focused on it despite the looming dilemma that there’s no way to realize the spoils. 

You could think of “Prospect” as something akin to this year’s unheralded “The Sisters Brothers,” in which the gold at the center of the quest is little more than a MacGuffin and the characters sail through a lawless terrain with nothing but themselves to rely on for salvation or justice. There’s other beings, mostly human we assume, that Cee and Ezra encounter along the way, including a dominatrix who gets her charges on their knees by blasting distorted disco rhythms into their helmets. It’s a weird world to wind up not-so alone in, and given greater impact by tight, intimate camera work. 

Beyond Thatcher, who pulls the film along the way Anya Taylor-Joy did “The Witch” in 2015, the best part of Caldwell and Earl’s collaboration becomes the hellbent “Godot”-esque mission to nowhere. If you caught “Annihilation” earlier this year, you’d have a pretty good idea of the psychological fabric as the normal plunges headlong into chaos. “Prospect” also moves in bends and inflections that are largely – and pleasantly – unpredictable. Sure, it’s odd that folks amid an evergreen paradise can’t breath the air except in unseemly yurts, but “Prospect” rises on character, mood and a derivative tang that glances just off the penumbra of homage and avoids shameless lifting.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

28 Jun

 

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” arrives in theaters this week with plenty of dino-wow, as one might hope, but with a bronto-sized side of mommy issues and some sustainability woes to boot. Which to tackle first? Hopefully you’re up on what went down in “Jurassic World,” the 2015 relaunch of the “Jurassic Park” franchise made so indelibly by Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton back in the 1990s. Those first three “Parks” dug deep into our imaginations, with their all-too realistic renderings of T-Rex and lethally heeled velociraptors, and they slew at the box office. “World” marked a respectable redux, but “Fallen Kingdom,” gets weighed down with a fossil-heavy backstory and never quite achieves the amusement ride thrill that made its ancestors such scary good fun.

As with all the “Jurassic” flicks, the action begins down in Costa Rica, at the theme park from the last chapter that’s been abandoned and overrun by rampaging dinos. The crisis du jour becomes increasing volcanic activity that threatens to “re-extinct” the “de-extinct” lizards (okay, birds). Congressional debate rages about saving them or not and, blessedly, Jeff Goldblum looms at the epicenter with rapturous logician metababble; then, just like that, the crew from the last “World” – the park overseer (Bryce Dallas Howard) and raptor wrangler (Chris Pratt) – are back as part of a conservation effort to get as many of the dinos as possible off the island and to a “sanctuary.”

The pair go in at the behest of a benevolent billionaire (James Cromwell, in a requisite but wispy role) who partners them with a team of big game hunters that feel a lot like the bunch from the second film, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” (1997) and are led by Ted Levine, surprisingly not too far from his Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs.” There’s a lot of Spielberg DNA to be found in “Fallen Kingdom” – Pratt’s smug, everyman posturing and action sequences feel right out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but just because you clone something doesn’t mean you get exactly what came before. That brings us back to those mommy issues: There’s a precocious little girl by the name of Maisie (Isabella Sermon), who may or may not be the billionaire’s granddaughter, and there’s Blue, the empathetic raptor from the last “World” raised by Pratt’s Owen, who holds the key to controlling the new line of mega-raptors being weaponized for trade and profit. Yes, sadly it all comes down to military-industrial complex shenanigans, avarice and hidden agendas.

Given the one-percenter station of many of the players in the film with their fingers on the stings, I kept asking myself, how much is too much? Why do billionaires need a lousy 20 million for ankylosaurs? The answer to which can only be power and control. The pomp and arrogance through which it’s executed feels far too profound a metaphor for the carnivorous control that’s taking hold across the country these days. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but given the big, bloody slab being dangled, one has to bite.

The film’s natural subtext of “don’t mess with Mother Nature” – because payback’s a tooth and claw feng shui session – gets executed with perfunctory perfection at the apt hour. The wrap-up of the film, directed by Spanish director J. A. Bayona, best known for the arthouse horror film “The Orphanage” (2007), becomes its most provocative and resonant moment. Much of what precedes it is dull despite all the thrashing, and it doesn’t help that all the combative-romantic chemistry between Pratt and Howard in the last “World” has seemingly gone the way of the dodo (no, they have not been brought back yet). Overall, “Fallen Kingdom” makes it feel like the series might be done for, even though where we end feels like a launching pad – a place of opportunity, laden with possibility.