Sci-Fi Spectacle 2014


Sci-Fi SpectacleIt is no secret, particularly to those who have known me awhile, that I’m a science fiction junkie. My late father turned me on to the genre when I was a boy with the works of Robert A. Heinlein, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Larry Niven and I never looked back. I read everything I could get my hands on, from classics by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury to novelizations of Star Trek movies.

I was pretty young when I discovered science fiction in the movie theater and was blown away by the movies of the time – Marooned and Silent Running among them. Later, as I got older, I was delighted by Star Wars and its antecedents and stand-alone movies like Blade Runner and E.T. to name just a few.

So when thinking of a mini-festival to run in September, science fiction seemed a natural fit. I tend to look forward to films in that genre all year long and even if the movies rarely turn out to be really good, I still love them just the same, even the bad ones.

However I do take my role as critic seriously and so my reviews will be as balanced as I can make them and the excessive affection I may feel for a movie that I know deep down is mediocre will hopefully not show through. In any case, this new festival begins today and will cover three movies that may be universally admired or barely heard of but all will hopefully tap into your sense of wonder as much as they did mine. Enjoy!

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I, Robot


Ever feel alone in a crowd?

Ever feel alone in a crowd?

(2004) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, James Cromwell, Bruce Greenwood, Adrian L. Ricard, Chi McBride, Jerry Wasserman, Fiona Hogan, Peter Shinkoda, Terry Chen, David Haysom, Scott Heindl, Sharon Wilkins, Craig March, Shia LaBeouf, Simon R. Baker, Kyanna Cox, Emily Tennant, Tiffany Knight. Directed by Alex Proyas

Isaac Asimov was one of the giants of science fiction. Like many of the sci-fi writers of the golden age (and on into today), he had a scientific background. He also had an interest in robotics and wrote many stories on the subject.

Detective Del Spooner (Smith) of the Chicago PD lives in a world that’s a lot different than ours. For one thing, it’s 2035 and robots have become ubiquitous particularly in doing the kind of jobs humans don’t like doing – waste disposal, household work, drudgery. Spooner has a thing about robots – he doesn’t trust them. He’s a bit of a technophobe, preferring the world of the early 21st century which he considers to be the good ol’ days.

When kindly scientist Dr. Alfred Lanning (Cromwell) takes a header from the top of his company’s skyscraper, it looks like suicide at first but Spooner ain’t buying it. Lanning was responsible for most of the advances in robotics that have allowed robots to be so prevalent and his company was about to release their latest model. Their CEO (Greenwood) is keen that there is no hint of trouble on the eve of the release that will put one of their new models in every U.S. home.

Spooner doesn’t like that idea much, particularly since he has a nasty hunch that a robot had something to do with Dr. Lanning’s death. The robot, a twitchy sort named Sonny (Tudyk) may be the key to unlocking a nasty little conspiracy. Disbelieved by his superiors, on the run from homicidal robots and with only a comely robot psychologist (Moynahan) on his side, Spooner will have to save the day – or see humanity become slaves to robots.

It’s hard to believe it but this movie is ten years old now. Doesn’t seem that long since I saw it in the theater but thus is the passage of time. While the CGI  was groundbreaking in its time, these days it looks a little bit dated which is the big trouble with CGI – someone’s always inventing a better mouse trap in the field.

The filmmakers brought in Akiva Goldsman to make the film Will Smith-centric and this is definitely a Will Smith film. He’s onscreen nearly the entire time, and to be honest Spooner isn’t much of a deviation from the typical formula of Will Smith characters. Agent J and Spooner would get along fine.

The character of Sonny is largely shot in motion capture with Tudyk providing both the movement and the voice of the robot and it’s right on, a cross between HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Niles from Frazier. Sonny of all the robots has personality, showing more than the colorless emotionless mechanical voice that we normally get for robots. Sonny can get frustrated and angry but also expresses compassion born of his adherence to the three laws of robotics (an Asimov invention that plays an important role here). Sonny in many ways is more real a character than many flesh and blood characters in the movie.

What irritated me here is that the movie has the opportunity to talk about the relationship between humans and technology and how technology is affecting us as humans. The writers take stabs at it from time to time but almost in a half-hearted manner and without much consequence. There seems to be more of a reliance on car chases and fight scenes than on any real thought. On that aspect, Asimov would have been rolling in his grave had he seen what had become of his work although in all honesty there really isn’t enough of it in there to justify labeling this with Asimov’s name. This turns out to be sheer popcorn entertainment – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that it could have been so much more. And should have been.

WHY RENT THIS: Sonny is as fully-realized a character as CGI will allow. Will Smith just being Will Smith.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Storyline weak and full of missed opportunities.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly intense but stylized action sequences and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie claims to be “inspired by Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot,” there is no story under that name written by Asimov. It is a collection of short stories thematically linked to the Three Laws of Robotics. The movie was originally written separately with no link to Asimov but when Fox optioned the Asimov stories it was decided to adapt the existing screenplay to include the Three Laws and add a character from Asimov’s stories.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While the original DVD release had no additional features of consequence, the All-Access Collector’s Edition has a Director’s toolbox looking at the three main special effects houses that worked on the film and followed their specific assignments for the film. There are also interviews with Asimov’s daughter and editor discussing the late author’s views on how robots would impact the future. The toolbox feature is also available on the Blu-Ray edition in a truncated from.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $347.2M on a $120M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Rid of Me

Bicentennial Man


Bicentennial Man

I wouldn't say that Robin WIlliams is a bit stiff in this role but...

(1999) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt, Kiersten Warren, Wendy Crewson, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Lindze Letherman, Angela Landis, John Michael Higgins, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root. Directed by Chris Columbus

One of the most wonderful things about Isaac Asimov’s robotics stories is that while cloaked in science-fiction terms, what he was really writing about was the nature of humanity. Then again, all the great science-fiction writers always did.

Bicentennial Man opens in 2005 when the Martin family, led by proud daddy Richard (Neill) uncrate their first domestic robot (Williams). Their youngest daughter (Eisenberg, a moppet best known for a series of Pepsi ads at the time) inadvertently names the automaton when she mispronounces “android.” Andrew’s arrival is greeted with suspicion and even outright hostility, in the form of the eldest daughter (Lindze), but he gradually works his way into the family’s heart.

After the eldest’s attempt to do away with Andrew, Richard informs his family that henceforth they will treat Andrew as a person, and his compassion leads to a miracle of sorts: Andrew begins to develop his own personality, one of gentle curiosity, quiet humor and yes, even love. Andrew chooses to explore the man in the machine, and his journey takes him 200 years (hence the movie’s title) into the future, and through several generations of the Martin family. His creators at NorthAm Robotics take a skeptical approach but eventually the uniqueness of Andrew leads to a whole different relationship between creators and creation.

Not unlike a latter-day Pinocchio, the search is not without pain and joy, but in the end it is a very human tale. Williams is more restrained than usual, but magnificent as always – what inspired casting! Of all the actors in Hollywood, he wears his humanity most expressively on his face. Although he spends much of the movie wearing what must have been an uncomfortable suit and make-up, his performance is greatly nuanced. It would have surprised me if Williams had gotten an Oscar nod given the Academy’s feelings about science-fiction in general, but one would have been richly deserved here – in my humble opinion, his work in this movie was at least as good if not better than the role he did win the statuette for in Good Morning, Vietnam.

There is much to laugh at here as Andrew looks at the world not unlike a newborn baby with his acquired feelings and sensations. He makes mistakes and sometimes misunderstands cliches (a cliche about mechanical men in the movies in itself) but there is also much to cry about as well. A scene near the end when the nearly immortal Andrew chooses humanity and love over eternity is a heartstring puller. Da Queen rated this a four-hankie sniffer, high praise from my wife indeed, who loves nothing more than a good sob in her popcorn.

The ever-dependable Neill gives a solid performance as the family patriarch and conscience and Embeth Davidtz who plays Andrew’s love interests in two separate generations does a good job. Oliver Platt shines as an eccentric roboticist as well but as noted earlier, this is Robin Williams’ show and he shines. Director Chris Columbus also has a fine visual flair as he displays the future in breathtaking cityscapes that are not so farfetched, combining the familiar with the fantastic, and placing the characters in homes that look authentic. This visual flair would serve him well shortly after this was made as he launched the Harry Potter series, his hiring for that job largely based on his work here.

Bicentennial Man is, at heart, a humanist fable, one which appeals to the heart and to the eyes. It asks a tough question – What does it mean to be human? – and the answers are not simple. Because the robots in the story do not exist yet, some might complain that this is a moot point for now, but it is only when we explore ourselves and ask questions like those asked by Bicentennial Man that the real beginning of wisdom manifests itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar calibre performance by Williams and solid support by Platt, Neill and Davidtz. Wonderful cityscapes and believable futuristic homes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film’s reach exceeds it’s grasp just a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The headquarters of NorthAm Robotics is actually the world headquarters of Oracle Systems in Redwood Shores.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87.4M on a $100M production budget; the film was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes