Portals


I always thought the end of the world would come with giant floating cell phones.

(2019) Sci-Fi Horror (Screen MediaNeil Hopkins, Ptolemy Slocum, Deanna Russo, Ruby O’Donnell, Phet Mahathongdy, Paul McCarthy-Boyington, Gretchen Lodge, Georgina Blackledge, Keith Hudson, Sergio Martinez, Shellye Broughton, Michele Weaver, Reina Guthrie, Albert A. Vega, Clint Jung, Dare Emmanuel, Natasha Gott, Salvita Decorte. Directed by Gregg Hale, Liam O’Donnell, Eduardo Sanchez and Timo Tjahjanto

How will the world end? Will it be due to an outside agency, a passing meteor perhaps or a solar event? Or will we do it to ourselves, through our own hubris or in some misguided although earnest attempt to make things better? Portals posits that it will be both.

This anthology film has three segments, along with a prologue/epilogue sequence that initially begins as an interview segment with two of the scientists involved in an attempt to create a black hold here on earth, an incredibly dangerous idea that turns out to have unanticipated but bizarre consequences; it creates a worldwide blackout as the power grid is overloaded, followed by the appearance of mysterious monoliths that look like a combination of the rectangular objects from 2001: A Space Odyssey and giant cell phones.

These cell phones (complete with trippy light effects) turn out to be doorways that people can walk through, although not all people and with varying results for those who do. While most are terrified of these buzzing, humming portals, some are able to communicate with them telepathically and insist that their purpose is benign. Of course, that turns out to be not the case.

The three main segments involve a family fleeing during a mandatory evacuation; father Adam (Hopkins) drives his wife (Russo) and daughter (R. O’Donnell) to grandmother’s house, only to literally run into one of these portals on a lonely desert highway. This segment – which is interspersed throughout the film as a kind of linking narrative – then adjourns to a hospital where Adam is constantly told by a pair of doctors that he’s “lucky to be alive” and his repeated attempts to see his family go unheeded. He also has had one of his eyes replaced by a black orb similar to the material in the portals.

The second segment – co-directed by The Blair Witch Project’s Eduardo Sanchez – involves an overwhelmed call center during the height of the blackout. The various 911 operators cope in different ways, some terrified about their inability to reach their own families, others citing some sort of grand global conspiracy theory. When one of the portals appears in the call center, the conspiracy theorist (McCarthy-Boyington) gets it into his head that the people of the call center have to pass through the portal. Since they are reluctant to do it on their own, he pulls a gun (one wonders how he managed to get a gun into a call center that has an electronic locking system that keeps them trapped inside the center during the ordeal) and forces them to do it with, again, varying results.

The third segment begins a few minutes before the blackout begins in an underground parking garage in Djakarta where two sisters (Gott, Decorte) argue about each other’s life choices but once the blackout begins have a lot worse things to worry about – the sudden appearance of a portal and the attack of zombie-like Malaysians who insist on putting one of the sisters through the portal.

What are these portals? Where do they lead to? What is their purpose? Why are they here? What does it really matter anyway?

The film is pretty light on explanation, heavy on exposition and liberally laced with some fairly graphic bloody violence. Unlike most horror anthologies, the individual sequences are part of a larger story and while told out of chronological order, are about as well-linked as any anthology you’re ever likely to see. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that like most anthologies, the quality is fairly uneven. The garage-set sequence is pretty poorly acted and feels like it came from another film entirely; it is so out of step from the other sequences that it is almost jarring. For an anthology like this one to work, the stories have to integrate and that sequence does not. The call center and fleeing family sequences mesh much better together.

Gorehounds will be happy with exploding heads, face melting and eye gouging effects. The portals themselves are nicely done, even if they do look like giant cell phones. They convey an overt sense of menace, although I think the movie might have worked better if the intentions of the portals had been less discernible. The fact that the portals are malevolent works against the movie overall and if there was more of a vagueness as to whether the portals were benign or not (as happened with the call center sequence) it would have heightened the tension of the film, although I suppose that it would have made the zombies of the garage sequence a bit superfluous.

I liked the concept of the film, even if it didn’t make a whole lot of logical sense the way it was described. Also, the idea of forming artificial black holes is nonsensical; black holes are incredibly dangerous and would likely crush the planet the instant one formed. Why would a scientist deliberately try to create one, let alone a team of scientists? With all those people involved who understand physics at least to a certain extent, wouldn’t someone have objected?

Then again, it’s never a wise idea to look too deeply into logic when it comes to genre films. Your best bet is to just go with it and enjoy the film for what it is. While I don’t think this is going to go down as a perennial Halloween classic, it will at least give horror fans a little something different to consider.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is intriguing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The execution isn’t quite there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some gruesome images and some bloody violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was co-produced by the cinematic arm of the Bloody Disgusting website.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 26/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Devil’s Gate
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
From Shock to Awe

Event Horizon


You know only bad things can happen in a place like this.

You know only bad things can happen in a place like this.

(1997) Sci-Fi Horror (Paramount) Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee, Peter Marinker, Holley Chant, Barclay Wright, Noah Huntley, Robert Jezek, Emily Booth, Teresa May. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Sci-Fi Spectacle

The trouble with exploration is the unknown. We don’t always know what’s out there. We may have a good idea, sure but when you go out into the real unknown, it’s just that. Anything could be lurking out there. And it might just hitch a ride back.

In 2040, mankind makes the first great push beyond our solar system. The great ship Event Horizon, powered by the gravity drive, makes its way out to Neptune to truly begin its journey. The gravity drive manufactures a black hole and slips the ship through, allowing it to travel great distances – to any star in any galaxy. The Event Horizon powers up the gravity drive, hits the go switch – and disappears. Nobody hears a peep and the ship is presumed lost.

Seven years later it reappears as suddenly as it disappeared. Attempts to hail her yield nothing. A rescue ship, the Lewis and Clark is sent, commanded by the redoubtable Captain Miller (Fishburne). Along for the ride is Dr. Weir (Neill), the man who invented the gravity drive and has the best shot at figuring out what went wrong.

Once they arrive in the outer atmosphere of Neptune the mile-long vessel is as silent as the grave and unutterably cold inside. There is still power – it’s just not turned on. When Miller and his crew come aboard to see what’s happened, they find the video log mostly intact although it cuts off an instant after the drive engages. There are also disquieting signs of a violent end for the crew – bloodstains indicating that crew members sustained fatal and horrifying wounds – but no bodies.

As the rescue ship crew attempts to restore power so that the ship may be towed home for further examination, the crew begins to see strange things – hallucinations of people and places they know. It becomes clear to Captain Miller that wherever the Event Horizon went to, it has brought something back with it. And that something may be more deadly than outer space itself.

This is one of those movies that didn’t do well during its theatrical run and then acquired its audience through cable and home video. Savaged by critics when it was released, who compared it unfavorably with the classic Solaris – as unfair as it is inaccurate – the movie has become something of a cult favorite. One of the big issues that fans have with it is that it isn’t the movie that Anderson wanted to make. Rushed during the post-production process, the studio put immense pressure on Anderson –  who was making just his third feature film – to make its August 15, 1997 release date. Anderson did get the film ready for its release date but had to make a lot of studio-insisted cuts and felt that had he been given enough time to finish the movie properly would have come up with something superior. Fans have been clamoring for some time for a director’s cut version which Anderson doesn’t seem disposed to doing.

The truth is, this is actually a superior sci-fi horror flick that may be the best thing Anderson has directed to date (he’s also done four movies in the Resident Evil series as well as Death Race). Moody, atmospheric and grim, he has created a movie every bit as scary as the original Alien and even surpasses that film in some ways. Initially the audience is led towards thinking that the carnage aboard the Event Horizon is the work of some interstellar beastie but as the film wears on we discover that the destination can be a killer.

Fishburne, a couple of years before his signature role as Morpheus in The Matrix, is magnificent here as the taciturn and square-jawed Miller. As no-nonsense a commander as you’re likely to find on any space opera, he inspires confidence and despite some inner demons of his own is the kind of guy you’d follow to hell and back.

Neill recalls his villainy as Damien in The Omen: The Final Chapter which established the Australian actor in the United States to a great extent. Weir is tightly wound and maybe a few bricks shy of a load in the sanity department. The minute he gets aboard his baby, things begin to spiral out of control. Neill takes the character from cool, calm scientist to baleful madman in a believable way.

The ship is a character all its own with its silent corridors and empty rooms to the engine room with the gravity drive itself which looks a little bit of a cross between the Contact craft and a mechanical nightmare dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft – that’s it in the photo accompanying this review. It looks suitably futuristic and scary as hell at the same time.

While the dialogue is somewhat stilted and there is a derivative quality to the film that is what set critics and some fans off during its initial run (Alien anybody?) the movie is nonetheless one of the finest sci-fi horror films ever made and a truly underrated classic. If you saw it and didn’t like it, it is worth coming back to and if you haven’t seen it, it is worth a look. As we enter the Halloween season, this is one of those movies that can get you right in the mood to have the heebie jeebies scared out of you – or into you. Like the great ship itself, the scares you get out of this movie are very well the same ones that are already in you – just waiting for the right vessel to release them.

WHY RENT THIS: Great atmosphere! Fishburne at his best, Neill at his creepiest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dialogue is a bit weak and some of the movie feels like we’ve seen it before.
FAMILY MATTERS:  Lots of gore and violence, a fair amount of cursing and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script went through 65 drafts, which is a highly unusual number. Most feature films go from anywhere from two or three drafts to a dozen.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD has some amazing storyboards for scenes not shot, as well as plenty of making-of footage. The Blu-Ray edition has all this but adds a section on the post-production difficulties that resulted in the filmmakers having to release a movie that wasn’t quite up to their expectations.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.1M on a $60M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Stream), Amazon (rent/buy – free to stream for Prime members), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pandorum
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

The Zero Theorem


Qohen Leth parties like it's 2099.

Qohen Leth parties like it’s 2099.

(2014) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon, David Thewlis, Ben Whishaw, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rupert Friend, Peter Stormare, Dana Rogoz, Madison Lygo, Ingrid Bisu, Naomi Everson, Radu Andrei Micu, Tudor Istodor, Olivia Nita, George Remes, Iulia Verdes, Alin Olteanu, Margarita Doyle. Directed by Terry Gilliam

The more complicated life gets – and make no mistake, it grows more complex with each passing day – the more we struggle to make sense of it. If you think it’s bad now, just imagine with those living in the future are going to have to contend with.

Qohen Leth (Waltz) is an office drone who has all sorts of issues. He’s a bit of a hypochondriac, sure that he is dying. He refers to himself in the second person – we instead of I, us instead of me. He works for Mancom, a company that makes some kind of software that brings convenience – or nothing at all. He is a data cruncher which in the future involves a Tetris-like placing of data squares into geometric city-like constructions, while furiously pedaling a flywheel. Data is transferred in vials of liquid. Being an office worker in the future sucks.

Qohen lives in an abandoned church infested with rats and pigeons, leaking from the roof and looking inside like a bomb hit it. He sleeps in the pipe organ and really would prefer to work at home, having no love for his fellow man. He’s also obsessed with a phone call he is sure is coming – one which will explain to him What It All Means and what his place in the grand scheme of things is. He’s twitchy, neurotic and in short, the very model of a modern Major General.

He asks his boss Joby (Thewlis) to get him permission to telecommute which doesn’t seem likely; the company likes keeping track of its workers. Qohen also meets Bainsley (Thierry) at a party thrown by Joby that Qohen goes to reluctantly, mainly to try and get a one-on-one audience with Management (Damon), the reclusive CEO of Mancom. He doesn’t know how to handle the forward Bainsley and although she gives him her card, there doesn’t seem to be any future for a relationship there. However, he is successful in getting time with Management (who wears clothing to blend into the decor) and at last is given a project he can work on at home.

New equipment is installed in his cluttered cathedral, mainly by the genius level Bob (Hedges) who turns out to be the son of Management (now doesn’t that sound like an office-based horror flick?) who addresses everyone as Bob because he doesn’t have time to learn their names. But he really isn’t a bad sort.

In the meantime Qohen is doing strikingly well with the project and getting close to making it work and things with Bainsley are turning out superbly, particularly when they meet on a digital beach where the sun is eternally setting. Life is good online at least.

But the closer Qohen gets to completing his project, the more frustrated he gets and the more he begins to retreat back into his shell. As it turns out, the project is about mathematically proving that everything equals nothing, which proves that there’s no point to life. The chaos this will create Mancom will profit from. And so it goes.

This has director Terry Gilliam’s thumbprint all over it, from the details, the somewhat wacky atmosphere that has marked all his work from his time as the only American member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus through his visionary career. Gilliam is certainly an acquired taste; not everyone gets his sense of humor and clearly his films don’t make a lot of money with few exceptions (Time Bandits being one). However, his work can be startlingly good and when it works he is one of the best directors living today. Even throwaway lines – an advertisement for the Church of Batman the Redeemer – can bust me up laughing.

Waltz, head shaved and twitchy, is terrific here. You get the sense that this is an individual who is in deep pain and takes great pains to make sure he remains so. There are some hints that give background into his psyche  but clearly this is a man who in our society would be undergoing all sorts of therapy and might well be committed. He seems to fit in real well in the future.

He gets some fine support, particularly from Hedges whose Bob becomes good friends with Qohen in an oddball way, and Thierry who is beautiful and charismatic as the love interest. All of the characters show some sort of vulnerability at some point, wearing masks to hide their pain. Qohen is a little more up-front about it. Management, being management, shows no weakness.

Visually this is an amazing movie, from majestic scenes of a black hole to the rotting interior of Leth’s home and the clever scenes of what is supposed to be London (maybe) in the near future but is more than likely Bucharest. There is a definite steampunk look to the film which is kind of a thing this year in indie films.

This hasn’t received any sort of release yet, although the movie’s website is promising a summer release. I hope that the distributors deliver on this; this is a movie that should be seen, by Gilliam’s fanbase if by nobody else. This is among his very best films which makes it a classic in the making, so serious film buffs should check this out even if they aren’t especially fond of Gilliam’s work.

REASONS TO GO: When it hits the mark, it’s mind-blowing. Terrific set design and Waltz is terrific in a very different role than you’re used to seeing for him.

REASONS TO STAY: As Gilliam films are prone to do, they can meander sometimes. If you don’t like Gilliam’s films, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some expletives here and there as well as some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the park scene, screenwriter Pat Rushin (who also teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida) can be seen on a bench writing on his briefcase; he’s actually writing motivational lines that scroll across the computer screen in the cubicles during a different part of the film. His wife can also be glimpsed reading a newspaper.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Railway Man

Galaxy Quest


GalaxyQuest

Whatever you do, just don't order the lobster!

(1999) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Sam Rockwell, Tony Shalhoub, Daryl Mitchell, Enrico Colantoni, Robin Sachs, Patrick Breen, Missi Pyle, Jed Rees, Justin Long, Jeremy Howard, Caitlin Cullum, Corbin Bleu, Rainn Wilson. Directed by Dean Parisot

 

Heroes aren’t what they used to be. These days they shoot first and ask questions later (assuming they ask any questions at all) and would kick your patootie just as soon as look at you. As a matter of fact, they’ll kick you in the rear before they even look at you – anti-social is the new sociable. The people we admire are, for the most part, thugs with attitudes. They just don’t make ’em like Commander Peter Quincy Taggert (Jason Nesmith) anymore.

OK, “Galaxy Quest” wasn’t the best-made TV show ever. And yes, the writing was frequently downright ludicrous, substituting jargon and technobabble in place of actual dialogue. And yes, for the most part, the fans are pimply dweebs who substitute endless discussions of minutiae from the canceled TV series in place of appreciable lives.

And it’s true that the new age mantras uttered by Dr. Lazarus (Sir Alexander Dane) tend to inspire hysterical laughter rather than rational self-examination. But for my part, Lt. Tawny Madison (Gwen DeMarco) can burn my thrusters anytime.

It must be said that historical documents never lie; when actual aliens recruit the long-in-the-tooth and out-of-work actors to get them out of a jam, it’s quite a hoot. That this alien race had built their ENTIRE CULTURE on broadcast transmissions of a mostly-forgotten TV show is mind-boggling. You’d think they’d have had the sense to use “Babylon 5” instead; all I can say is, it’s good they didn’t use “The Brady Bunch.”

I will grant you that the true-life video of the cast’s adventures on far-off planets is far niftier than the low-tech five-and-dime special effects of the TV show. However, it’s a negative that the events somewhat suspiciously parallel the plot of episode 28, “The Conquering Lobster.” That’s the one where Taggart is kidnapped by Tyrosians to command their Battle Cruiser against Sartog, the Crustacean-like alien general. How life imitates art.

Okay okay, I know that the whole “TV show” thing was part of the movie and that Nesmith (Allen), Dane (Lazarus) and Madison (Weaver) don’t exist, but oh man they should have. This is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, a movie I have watched over and over again over the past decade. While it parallels a Star Trek fan fiction story I read ages ago (in which the actors playing the crew of the Enterprise were in a freak accident beamed aboard the actual starship and had to figure out how to get home), the movie is Saturday Afternoon matinee fun. The cast seems to be having an enormously good time (particularly Rickman who gets to lampoon some of his more serious colleagues) and Allen makes for a likably heroic captain…and I would watch Sigourney Weaver standing at a bus stop for two hours, let alone a movie like this.

This was also one of Rockwell’s early rolls and shows his comic versatility which has served him well since. The world of GalaxyQuest is a simple one and a sweet one, a world of geeky kids who have to interrupt their mission to save the valiant crew from certain death to take out the trash, a world of comic book conventions, store openings and personal appearances.  I like this world and return to it whenever I can.

WHY RENT THIS: Fun in a Saturday Afternoon vein. Spoofs 80s sci-fi TV with respect and love. Cast seems to be having a great time.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be a bit too geeky for you.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence (mostly of a cartoon variety), a few bad words here and there and a bit of sexuality, some of it interspecies.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: General Sarris is named for film critic Andrew Sarris who once savaged one of producer Mark Johnson’s films; the NSEA Protector‘s serial number is NTE 3120 – the NTE standing for “Not the Enterprise.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There was a second DVD release in 2009; missing from it is the Omega-13 DVD feature and the Thermian language track (which you won’t be able to listen to for very long). However, there is a rap video Sigourney Weaver did that is hysterical and the video is considerably cleaned up from the 2009 release.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90.7M on a $45M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Vincere