A Wrinkle in Time (2018)


Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid try to bring balance to the Force.

(2018) Science Fiction (Disney) Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, André Holland, Rowan Blanchard, Bellamy Young, David Oyelowo (voice), Conrad Roberts, Yvette Cason, Will McCormack, David MacPherson, Akemi Look, Tim Kang, Jessica Rockwell. Directed by Ava DuVernay

 

As a boy I read – eagerly, I might add – Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. I was fascinated by the amazing worlds she created and thrilled to the adventures of the intrepid Murry children. It was a favorite of mine but I haven’t read it in almost since I was 11 or 12 and the details have become lost to me.

Ava DuVernay has created a nine figure-budgeted version – much has been made that she’s the first African-American female director to be at the helm for a movie with a budget more than $100 million – which is not all sizzle and no steak precisely; it’s more accurately that the steak has been overwhelmed by the sizzle.

Meg Murry (Reid) is depressed and acting out to a large degree. Her physicist father Alex (Pine) disappeared four years earlier and her principal (Holland) as well as her mother (Raw) are both beginning to gently push her into letting him go and come to the realization that he’s gone for good. Then into their lives – including her precocious adopted brother Charles Wallace (McCabe) who might be more brilliant than her and her father put together – comes Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), a kind of kooky and eccentric woman who tells her that her father is alive in another part of the universe where he had traveled by the sheer force of his mind and he needs her help in returning home.

Through Mrs. Whatsit she meets Mrs. Who (Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Winfrey), equally eccentric and just as powerful. The two Murry kids along with Calvin (Miller) who’s kind of sweet on Meg, accompany the three Missus to rescue Alex. But he’s being held captive by an evil force of energy called The It (having nothing to do with Pennywise the Clown) and it is growing rapidly to the point that if her father can’t be rescued the Universe will be overrun by the It.

The movie is a massive misstep by one of the most talented directors working today. The story gets lost in a turgid script that emphasizes the visuals (which to be fair are incredibly imaginative and a literal joy to behold) over the story. Worse yet, the dialogue is wretched; people in this film don’t talk like real people. At least Mrs. Who has an excuse; she’s programmed (essentially) to talk in affirmations, but everyone else seems to mouth platitudes that after awhile grow wearisome.

Winfrey, Kaling, Raw, Pine and Witherspoon are all fine actors and they do very well here. Reid can sometimes be a bit smarmy but for the most part she is asked to carry the film on her young shoulders and she doesn’t disgrace herself. McCabe however is Hella annoying and he brings to mind poor Jake Lloyd from Star Wars Episode One as a candidate for worst juvenile performance of all time.

The movie failed to find an audience during its theatrical release in March. Some blame it on the fact that the Murry family was interracial, although the African-ness of Black Panther didn’t seem to hurt it any. I’m sure the success of the Marvel film had an impact on the audience for A Wrinkle in Time but I also think poor reviews and bad word-of-mouth doomed it. In all honesty, I don’t think A Wrinkle in Time is a bad film but it’s not a very good one either. It’s kind of bloated and the message of family, hope and tolerance gets completely lost. I have no doubt DuVernay is going to be making important films for decades to come; this one though likely won’t be on her highlight reel years from now.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are insanely imaginative. Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon are perfectly cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue torpedoes the film. McCabe’s performance is overbearing most of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Although suitable for most children, the film contains scenes of peril as well as some themes that may go over the heads of some of the less socially developed kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two more Murry children (twins Sandy and Dennys) who appeared in the novel were cut from the film version.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holy Mountain
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Bright

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Star Trek Beyond


"Someone's sitting in my chair."

“Someone’s sitting in my chair.”

(2016) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Joe Taslim, Lydia Wilson, Deep Roy, Melissa Roxburgh, Anita Brown, Doug Jung, Danny Pudi, Kim Kold, Fraser Aitcheson, Matthew MacCaull, Emy Aneke, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Greg Grunberg, Fiona Vroom. Directed by Justin Lin

 

The Star Trek franchise turns 50 this year as next month marks the anniversary of the first appearance of Captain James T. Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise on the NBC network way back in 1966. The franchise has gone through six different television series including one animated version and a seventh set to debut in January, thirteen movies, dozens of fan-made videos and innumerable novels and fan-fic entries.

The latest film (and the first of the rebooted “alternate universe” Trek without J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair) finds the Enterprise in the middle of its five year mission and a bit of a malaise has set in among the crew, not the least of which is Captain Kirk (Pine) who is contemplating taking a promotion and a desk job. After a botched diplomatic mission left an ancient yet apparently unimportant artifact in the possession of the Federation starship, Kirk and crew pull into the gigantic Starbase Yorktown for some desperately needed R&R.

While the Enterprise is docked at the impressive space station, an unidentified ship comes from a nearby largely unexplored nebula. Its lone occupant, Kalara (Wilson) pleads for assistance, saying that her crew has been marooned on a planet inside the nebula after the ship was damaged. Kirk takes his ship into the Nebula, only to meet a foe that the pride of the Federation fleet has absolutely no defense again.

Separated on a hostile planet with much of the crew captured, the officers of the Enterprise have to figure out a way to warn the Starbase that Krall (Elba) a maniac with a serious mad on for the Federation is coming and has the might to bring the Yorktown to its knees. With the help of Jaylah (Boutella), an alien whose family was murdered by Krall, Chief Engineer Scott (Pegg), a badly wounded Spock (Quinto), his ex-girlfriend Uhura (Saldana), the irascible Dr. McCoy (Urban), plucky navigator Chekhov (Yelchin) and reliable Sulu (Cho) must utilize an ancient, outdated vessel and find a way to take down Krall before he takes down the Federation.

Justin Lin, who has directed several films in the Fast and Furious franchise, brings an action pedigree to the science fiction franchise and as you might expect, the emphasis here is more on the action. Surprisingly, however, there is a great deal of focus put on the various interpersonal relationships of the crew, particularly on the Spock-McCoy bromance which was a centerpiece of the original series but got little play in the reboot until now. Some of the best moments in the film involve the bickering between the two of them.

This is a fine-looking film and great care has been put into the sets and special effects. The Yorktown is particularly amazing, a space station that has a bit of an Escher vibe to it with amazing maglev trains and soaring skyscrapers. It’s what you’d expect from a cityscape four centuries from now. The question becomes why would something like that be built in space when there’s a perfectly good planet below it? It looks nifty as a space dock but would an entire city the size of Chicago be needed to support starships docking for repairs and resupplies?

But of course, the future is whatever you make of it and conventional logic can disappear in a flash of new technology. Speaking of technology, it’s put to good use here as the special effects are state of the art. There’s no doubt that you’ll dig that aspect of the film even if you enjoy nothing else. Quite frankly, there’s a lot more to enjoy too; the cast here is strong and getting Idris Elba as your lead villain is absolutely a coup. Elba is climbing up the ladder to what no doubt will be eventual A-list status and a slew of awards. Even unrecognizable under prosthetics and make-up, he still has the ability to command the screen in almost a Shakespearean turn here.

This isn’t the best movie in the Star Trek canon but it’s right up there. It’s good to see that someone besides J.J. Abrams and Nicholas Meyer can make a great Trek movie. Some blue blood Trekkers may grouse at the surfeit of action sequences (which has been true throughout the reboot) and even that it isn’t true Trek. I disagree. Much of the movie revolves around the concept of working together for a common goal versus waging war for the betterment of the species. It is a question we continue to struggle with even now. While this isn’t as thought-provoking as hardcore Trekkers may like, it is an extremely entertaining summer entertainment. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into box office dollars so it is likely that the franchise – with the next installment already greenlit and featuring the return of Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk – will take a different turn. And perhaps that’s for the best.

REASONS TO GO: The film emphasizes the interpersonal relationships of the crew. Some very cool special effects here. Idris Elba even under layers of make-up is one of the best actors today.
REASONS TO STAY: A couple of holes in logic appear here and there.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and action, some a little bit gruesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Star Trek film or television show to be shot primarily outside of Hollywood. It was mainly shot in Vancouver and all of the interior sets were built from scratch.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Little Prince

Into the Grizzly Maze (Red Machine)


There's nothing worse than bear breath.

There’s nothing worse than bear breath.

(2014) Action (Vertical) James Marsden, Thomas Jane, Piper Perabo, Billy Bob Thornton, Scott Glenn, Michaela McManus, Adam Beach, Sarah Desjardins, Luisa D’Oliveira, Bart the Bear, Patrick Sabongui, Kelly Curran, Seth Isaac Johnson, Sean O. Roberts, Reese Alexander, Carson Reaume, Michael Jonsson, Mariel Belanger. Directed by David Hackl

Recently, I did a review of a 1981 movie called Roar in which live actors and crew mingled with untamed wild lions and tigers which led to somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 injuries to cast and crew. This movie would be the anti-Roar.

After seven years in prison, Rowan (Marsden) returns home to a small Alaskan town (actually British Columbia) on a mysterious mission which involves a map. Treasure, maybe? When he gets into an altercation with a pimp (Jonsson) who was in the process of beating up a hooker (Curran), he is arrested – by none other than his own brother Beckett (Jane) who turned his back on him after Rowan was convicted of shooting a guy. The two brothers obviously have little love for each other and so when Rowan heads off into the wilderness, Beckett isn’t particularly sorry to see him go.

But what Rowan is really up to is a rescue mission; a friend with the unlikely name of Johnny Cadillac (Beach) is missing after having guided a pair of poachers into the woods (no singing though) and his wife (Belanger) is concerned enough to ask Rowan to go find him. The three of them, however, have met up with a rogue rampaging grizzly (Bart) who with his food supplies dwindling is turning to a human protein supplement to his diet.

Once Beckett and his boss, Sheriff Sullivan (Glenn) realize what’s happening Beckett decides to head into the woods to find the bear and tranquilize it. Sullivan would rather hire bear whisperer Douglass (Thornton) to track down the mutha and kill it, but Beckett puts up a stink so Sullivan caves. Or at least appears to; once Beckett is gone, he sends Douglass out anyway.

Beckett has another reason to head out into the woods – his deaf conservationist wife Michelle (Perabo) is out there and with a crazed killer bear stalking anything on two legs, the town medical examiner Kaley (McManus) tags along just in case someone needs medical attention or an autopsy. And of course all of them meet up and the Grizzly comes after them. Getting back to civilization is going to be no easy task, even with a pair of experienced woodsmen and crack shots in the group.

This is a throwback to deranged animal movies from the ’70s like Jaws and Day of the Animals which generally took an all-star cast of the level that you’d find on a typical episode of The Love Boat and put them squarely in the path of an animal (or animals) that had gone loco and were hungry for the taste of human flesh. This one relies on CGI a great deal as we rarely see humans in the same frame as the evil bear here and quite frankly, the CGI work is sloppy and weak. There is a sequence where the grizzly is surrounded by CGI flames that are so fake as to be almost laughable and then breaks through the ring of fire with a mighty roar and scarcely a single hair singed. There is another scene where the grizzly looks up from his lunch of a hapless human with blood on his mouth and snout that is so patently CGI (the color is bright cherry lipstick red rather than the typical crimson of actual blood) as to look more like the bear had gotten into a strumpet’s lipstick. Godawful.

The cast here is pretty decent and to their credit none of them phone it in although Perabo, who really has nothing much to do, might as well have. Jane is actually a pretty decent action hero who did some good work in Deep Blue Sea and The Punisher but is generally relegated to supporting roles these days and leads in Direct-to-VOD films like this one. Marsden is versatile, doing comedy and action equally well but he’s all business here. Thornton, who always seems to enjoy himself no matter what level of film he’s doing, from excellent (the Fargo series) to sheer paycheck (this).

The British Columbia forests, substituting for Alaska, are unutterably beautiful and while I wouldn’t say they’re a piece of cake to photograph, it’s hard to go wrong with that kind of backdrop  One of the big problems with the film is that it’s completely non-credible. Bears don’t act like this, not even rogues and for the most part people don’t either. While Hackl does a good job building suspense, there are too many instances of a gigantic bear sneaking up on hapless humans which is damn near impossible; bears are not stealth creatures. They’re far too massive. At the end of the day this is a subpar potboiler with a good cast and bad CGI that might be worth a rainy day or evening’s rental on VOD if your standards aren’t particularly high.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful setting. Good cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Unrealistic. Terrible CGI. Throwback to films that weren’t very good in the first place.
FAMILY VALUES: There are animal attack images as well as disturbing gore images, violence, some brief sexuality and a little bit of foul language
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the film was Red Machine which is the name given the bear in the credits. This is in reference to the late Timothy Treadwell of the film Grizzly Man who said that one bear, which he had named The Big Red Machine, was the only one that actually terrified him. It is reputed that this was the bear that actually killed him and his girlfriend, although that is unconfirmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Magic Mike XXL

Infini


Not the peep show Daniel MacPherson was looking for.

Not the peep show Daniel MacPherson was looking for.

(2015) Science Fiction (Vertical) Daniel MacPherson, Grace Huang, Luke Hemsworth, Bren Foster, Luke Ford, Dwaine Stevenson, Louisa Mignone, Tess Haubrich, Harry Pavildis, Kevin Copeland, Andy Rodoreda, Paul Winchester, Brendan Clearkin, Matt Minto, Belinda Gosbee, Goran D. Kleut, Aileen Beale, Laura Beverley, Louise Dodge. Directed by Shane Abbess

In space, no-one can hear you scream. On a mining station in deep space, everybody can hear you scream. Sometimes, the vacuum of space is preferable to the atmosphere of a mining installation.

By the turn of the 23rd century, Earth’s resources are pretty much gone. Unemployment is rampant and most of the jobs available are service jobs that pay very little. What does pay are the highly dangerous off-planet jobs. Fortunately, a technology has been developed called the Slipstream in which human beings are essentially digitized and sent instantaneously through space to locations all over the galaxy (the science here is a little bit wonky as even if the digital stream traveled at the speed of light, it would still take years and even centuries for the data to arrive). Unfortunately, the fatality rate by using this method of travel is high as the data stream can easily be corrupted.

Whit Carmichael (MacPherson) wants very much to support his wife Lisa (Haubrich) and the child that she is pregnant with. His first day on the job though goes horribly wrong; an infected subject comes through the Slipstream in the West Coast Command Center. In order to escape, Whit is forced to go to Infini, the location of an abandoned mining company which remains the worst deep space disaster in history where over 1,600 miners died while mining a volatile substance.

An elite rescue team is sent to retrieve him (there’s another subplot here but it’s baffling and not really germane and doesn’t get explored much so I’ll abstain from describing it). What they find on Infini is terrible, much worse than they could have ever expected. It appears that the miners all went berserk and killed each other off, brutally and sadistically. Worse yet, there may be an alien presence involved.

This is Aussie director Abbess’ second feature film. He’s been on Hollywood’s radar for seven years and has been attached to some fairly high profile projects in one form or another, few of which actually came to pass (and none with Abbess on board). He proves adept at doing a lot with a little, creating an industrial-looking aesthetic that reminds strongly of the Nostromo from Alien – lots of ducts, pipes and vents. Like that ill-fated vessel, this future looks lived-in.

Although the plot sounds like a standard “bug hunt” sci-fi action feature, there is a little bit more thought put behind it, musing about the human survival instinct and what elements of human behavior would make an impression on alien beings. Whit Carmichael is also not the action hero you might expect; he chooses flight over fight and while discretion is generally the better part of valor, Whit spends a lot of this movie hiding from everyone else.

There is a flood of testosterone coloring this movie; most of the dialogue is shouted or yelled, and often it is some cast member yelling “WHITTTTT!!!!” into the empty hallways of the mining facility. This is a noisy, often abrasive film. Abbess also uses quick cuts to distraction; we are constantly jumping around in point of view. This is the kind of camera move that is best used sparingly and it gets mighty annoying after awhile.

More importantly, Abbess is all over the place with his story. Much of what happens early in the movie (which starts out as a flash forward and then without any sort of explanation the movie shifts to a flash back) is without explanation of any sort until later on in the film and quite frankly you’re often left scratching your head as a viewer and wondering what the heck is going on. You don’t always get answers on that score, either.

Despite all that, the movie has some strong points. It is a good-looking movie and well-lit; often movies of this sort go the underlit route in order to increase the suspense of things jumping out of shadows. Most of the time, we see whatever is attacking coming. That’s actually kind of refreshing.

So what we have here is a movie that has good intentions but not quite the execution. It starts out as thoughtful science fiction but eventually degenerates into horror action sci-fi that blends Aliens with The Thing – not too shabby to be compared to those movies I grant you, but it fails to live up to either of them…or its own promise.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful premise. Nice cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Often confusing and incomprehensible story. Way too much shouting and testosterone.
FAMILY VALUES: Extreme, bloody violence and plenty of rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: MacPherson is the host of Australia’s version of Dancing With the Stars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pandorum
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Lambert and Stamp

Monsters: Dark Continent


Doing the monster mash.

Doing the monster mash.

(2015) Action Horror (Radius) Johnny Harris, Sam Keeley, Joe Dempsie, Kyle Soller, Nicholas Pinnock, Parker Sawyers, Philip Arditti, Sofia Boutella, Michaela Coel, Hassan Sha’er, Uriel Emill Pollack, Jessie Nagy, Wael Baghdadi, Jacqueline Hicks, Amanda Kaspar, Donna-Marie Foster, Orlando Ebanks, Tonya Moss-Roberts, Billy Roberts, Lulu Dahl. Directed by Tom Green

It’s often hard to tell the monsters from the non-monsters. Sure, there may be some dead giveaways – fangs and claws dripping blood, for example but often the greatest monsters hide in the skins that blend in with everyone else.

Those who remember the predecessor to this film will know that a NASA probe had crash-landed in Northern Mexico, releasing alien spores that grew into life forms large and small (mostly large). The whole portion of the country had been cordoned off by both governments, designated an infected zone and few beyond the military were allowed to enter.

Ten years after, it’s discovered that a fragment of the probe had also landed in the Middle East and that part of the country had been infected as well. The United States military were conducting bombing raids on the gigantic creatures. The collateral damage of homes destroyed, lives lost and lives altered had infuriated the local populace who want the Americans to go away post-haste. Insurgent groups were now proving to be as deadly to American troops as the monsters themselves.

Four guys from Detroit who’d grown up together – Michael Parkes (Keeley), Frankie Maguire (Dempsie), Karl Inkelaar (Soller) and Shaun Williams (Sawyers) – and are marching off to war together. One last night of drug-fueled debauchery with strippers and they’re in-country. Heading their unit is Sgt. Noah Frater (Harris), a tough as nails sort who has no compunction shooting an insurgent leader from hiding while in disguise or leading his team in full uniform.

They have a mission to head into the boondocks to find an American squad who is missing. Frater and his right hand man Forrest (Pinnock) don’t have much faith that these still wet-behind-the-ears recruits will be of much use but they will have to make due. Of course, things go sideways and the group is under attack from insurgents who are as well-armed as they are, and who have a good deal of military savvy too. Soon the mission is put aside for survival as Parkes watches his friends die, and begins to suspect that Frater may not be altogether stable.

The first movie was something of a romance road movie hybrid with the monsters thrown in for good measure. Here, this is like a mash-up of Full Metal Jacket, American Sniper and Cloverfield.

The first film’s director Gareth Edwards rode the critical success of it straight into the recent reboot of Godzilla and so he was unavailable for the most part for this film, although he does carry a producer credit; his input was fairly limited. His absence is notable; the movie here has some elements of his style but it’s certainly completely different in tone. I have to say that in many ways this doesn’t measure up to the first film very well.

The monsters are more numerous in the sequel, with the gigantic skyscraper behemoths, herds of tentacle-covered gazelles (why do alien life forms always have tentacles in the movies?) and tiny little things that fit in a jewel box. The creature effects here are outstanding and the movie is better when the monsters are around.

The humans don’t fare as well. The soldiers are chest-thumping, gung ho hoo-rah sorts that have populated American films depicting the military to the point where you would wish for a behemoth to come and crush the lot of them just to get the stink of testosterone out of the air. I get it, this is a band of brothers. Now get on with the movie. This tendency is particularly ironic as the actors are all British and this is a British film.

There are some beautiful images here; the monsters themselves can be majestic and have a curious dignity; when mating, they create a light show that is absolutely thrilling. The Jordanian desert (where this was filmed) is stark and beautiful in its desolation. For the soldiers it must have seemed an alien landscape indeed, particularly for those used to the urban decay of the Motor City.

However, the beauty is marred by occasional confusion, at least on my part. The soldiers are kind of interchangeable and one can mix one up with another, other than the officers and of course Parkes. The plot occasionally meanders into “doesn’t-make-sense” territory as the soldiers go deeper into the desert, not unlike Benjamin Willard getting deeper into the jungle in Apocalypse Now. Maybe this is meant to be something of a tip of the hat to that film.

The point here is that the monsters are not the insurgents and they aren’t the aliens either. The Americans insist on seeing the things that are different from them culturally and biologically as threats and react to them with fear and violence. While Parkes, as the main character in many ways, grows into learning not to fear, Frater certainly doesn’t get it and is determined to complete his mission even if he’s the last survivor to do it.

I appreciate the parallels to our mis-adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq and am willing to take responsibility for my country’s often ill-advised forays into the Middle East. I don’t appreciate our the military bro-hood being emphasized to the point that I kind of got sick of it. I know the military can sometimes be a little too….enthusiastically military shall we say? Those of us who haven’t served likely don’t understand the culture and the intensity of their feelings. Life and death situations will do that to you. However, I can’t help if this is how the world sees us…and how much truth there might be to their viewpoint.

REASONS TO GO: Creature effects are striking. Captures chaos of war nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too gung-ho American in places. Detroit prologue a bit too long. Too many interchangeable characters.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic war violence, disturbing images, plenty of salty language, nudity and sexual content, drug use and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scoot McNairy, the lead actor in the original Monsters doesn’t appear in this movie but he is an executive producer on the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Objective
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring commences!

Mission to Mars


Mission to Mars

A little romantic skydancing never hurts a relationship.

(2000) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Gary Sinese, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O’Connell, Peter Outerbridge Kavan Smith, Jill Teed, Elise Neal, Kim Delaney, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Robert Bailey Jr., Patricia Harras, Lynda Boyd, Jody Thompson, Lucia Walters Pamela Diaz. Directed by Brian De Palma

The human nature is to explore, to find out what lies beyond where we have already been; to ask questions and then find answers. We explore without; the world around us, and someday, the worlds beyond our own. We also explore within; who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Hey, it keeps us busy.

Mission to Mars looks at that aspect of ourselves. Set in 2020, it posits the first manned mission to the Red Planet. Tragedy dogs the mission even before it leaves; its commander, Jim McConnell (Sinese), withdraws following the death of his wife and co-commander of the mission.

At first, the mission seems fairly routine; to discover the feasibility of colonization. However, the new mission commander, Luke Graham (Cheadle) discovers an anomaly, one which quickly turns deadly. When it becomes clear to mission control that something has gone wrong at Mars Base, a rescue mission is mounted, led by Woody Blake (Robbins), his wife Terri (Nielsen) and mission specialist Phil Ohlmyer (O’Connell). Blake insists that McConnell accompany the team, as he is the one who wrote the mission plan for the original expedition, including a possible rescue situation, and knows more about Mars than any other astronaut. It takes some convincing of the still-grieving McConnell but he eventually realizes that he could save lives so he assents.

The rescue mission also meets with unexpected tragedy after a micrometeorite shower holes the ship. The rescue party has to use all their resourcefulness in order to make it to the planet. There, they find the object of their mission … and a puzzle for them to solve. It explains why the first mission had to die … and a whole lot more. Think of this as a junior 2001: A Space Odyssey with better special effects and a director who is more of a storyteller. That, perhaps, is the biggest problem with M2M; rather than leave the mystery pretty much unsolved, letting the audience come to its own conclusions as Stanley Kubrick did with his film, director Brian de Palma makes sure that everything is explained in nice, neat little packages. That takes away from the grandeur of the mystery, and leaves us feeling like Peggy Lee; is that all there is?

Visually, there are some stunning moments, particularly late in the movie during the Martian Head scene, and during a cataclysmic accident. Sinese and Robbins are solid actors who never disappoint; Sinese is particularly excellent, playing an astronaut for the first time since Apollo 13 and comporting himself as a complex man, switching between mourning his wife and achieving the dream they both shared. Cheadle is an actor whose stock in Hollywood was on the rise when this was made; for me it cemented his standing as an actor whose every role was worth seeking out, a place he occupies to this day.

It makes for an odd switch; I’m usually more forgiving of the excesses of sci-fi flicks than Da Queen, but she liked this movie better than I did. That it got a one-hanky recommendation from Da Queen is telling enough; that she found it thought-provoking should be recommendation enough for anyone. For my part, I give it a mild recommendation; certainly, it’s worth seeing for the scope of its vision as well as the performances of its solid cast. I also give the writers props for avoiding cliché characterization and action for its own sake.

Still, I’ve seen 2001, I’ve enjoyed 2001 (although I didn’t love 2001), but this ain’t 2001.

WHY RENT THIS: Some spectacular effects sequences. Solid performances from Sinese, Cheadle and Robbins.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Explains too much – a little more mystery would have gone a long way. Could have used more depth in characterization.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a bit of violence, some bad language and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There is a “hidden Mickey,” seen here when the Mars Explorer lines up with Mars, the rotating circular hub of the spacecraft and antenna dish form the iconic image of Mickey Mouse. Of course, Touchstone is a division of Disney, and “hidden Mickeys” are notoriously placed throughout all of the Disney theme parks as easter eggs for their guests.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an animatics to finished scene comparison that is fairly interesting. The making of featurette also shows the input of NASA into the finished film making it a little more interesting than most.

BOX OFICE PERFORMANCE: $111.0M on a $100M production budget; the movie’s ambitious budget outpaced it’s decent box office and so it was unprofitable during its theatrical release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey (in case I didn’t make it clear in the review)

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Skyfall

Sunshine


Sunshine

Ain't no sunshine when she's gone...

(Fox Searchlight) Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada, Mark Strong. Directed by Danny Boyle

Boyle is the director of such impressive films as 28 Days Later, Trainspotting and Millions, all of which I would highly recommend (his next movie after this one was Slumdog Millionaire, previously reviewed in this blog). A couple of years ago, I was in puppy heaven when I discovered that he was doing a science fiction film.

It is about 50 years in the future and the sun is dying – take that, you global warming alarmists! A mission was sent to re-ignite the sun with a kind of stellar bomb, but that mission failed and the astronauts aboard the Icarus were presumed lost. The situation on Earth growing more desperate, a second mission – Icarus II – is launched and with it goes the hopes of humanity.

Things seem to be going pretty well, but as they approach Mercury, they pick up the distress signal of the first mission. Logic dictates that the crew continues on their way, explode their bomb and then see about the other Icarus but no, they have to go there first. Hey, what’s logic when you have science fiction? Anyway, predictably, bad things happen when they try to change course, an EVA repair mission goes the way of most EVA repair missions in science fiction movies these days and things burn up, flash freeze, explode and so on. What’s an astronaut to do?

Where to begin? This is a wildly uneven movie. There are a lot of great visuals, some wonderful dramatic tension and Chris Evans darn near steals the show – yeah, I know, Chris Evans – and the soundtrack kicks bootie. To the bad, you’ll notice at no point in my synopsis did I mention a specific human character. That’s because they are so interchangeable and unmemorable. Not all of it is the fault of the generally solid cast – it’s just that they play mostly subdued, as you would expect highly trained astronaut/scientists to be in that situation. In going for realism, Boyle winds up giving his dramatic tension short shrift. With a cast that includes some very good actors like Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy and Cliff Curtis, that’s a bit of a crime.

Surprisingly enough, I found the direction of Danny Boyle to be one of the movie’s weaker points. Boyle is a genuine talent – his resume is nothing if not impressive – but he falls prey to the “Look, Ma, I’m directing” syndrome, taking himself far too seriously, sacrificing story for overly-clever directing moves. For example, the villain – who is apparently fully human – is rarely glimpsed as anything more than an impressionistic figure. When the heroes engage in hand-to-hand combat with him, the results are nearly unwatchable and actually gave me a headache. One of the more interesting moves is that as the crew of the Icarus II board the Icarus I, faces (I assume of the first crew) flash onto the screen like some terrible subliminal ad gone awry. I’m not sure what Boyle is trying to accomplish here, but if a director needs to explain what you’re trying to get across, then he/she didn’t do a very good job in the first place. In the end, the movie breaks down in the third act, just when it should be picking up steam. You get the feeling that they were rushing things more than a bit – in any case, I think if Boyle had paid more attention to storytelling and less to style, he might have made a really super film.

While I complain a great deal here, there are some compelling reasons to see this. For one thing, it’s a “smart” science fiction movie – think Solaris and Event Horizon and those are rare enough as to be very precious. And yes, I listed a number of failings of the director, but in all fairness, he got more right than he didn’t, and that’s a plus too. This is not what you would call a popcorn movie, but at the same time the gorgeous visuals – the screen is constantly bathed in warm golds and yellows of the solar winds – beg to be seen on a big screen or at least an HD plasma home theater.

This is quite the disappointment; I was hoping this could be a sleeper hit, but the box office here in the States was dismal. That’s too bad – but I can understand why people aren’t warming to this movie, and considering how close it comes to the sun, that’s unacceptable.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific visuals. Chris Evans gives an unexpectedly strong performance. Astronaut-cicle; need I say more?

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Look Ma, I’m directing. Messy third act. Style over storytelling.

FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some icky visuals. A little bit of language too.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The helmet design for the space suits were based on the character Kenny from “South Park.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The scientific advisor, Dr. Brian Cox of the University of Manchester and the CERN project provides a commentary track. There are also two unrelated short films that director Boyle included simply so that the filmmakers could be seen by a wider audience.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Noise