Futureworld


The future is phallic.

The future is phallic.

(1976) Science Fiction (American Independent) Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner, Arthur Hill, John Ryan, Stuart Margolin, Yul Brynner, Alan Ludden, John Fujioka, Dana Lee, Burt Conroy, Darrell Larson, Nancy Bell, Judson Pratt, Jim Antonio, Mike Scott, Ed Geldard, Charles Krohn, Jim Everhart, Jan Cobbler, James Connor, Catherine McClenny. Directed by Richard T. Heffron

sci-fi-spectacle

This was a sequel to the popular hit film Westworld which on the day this is being published is making its debut as an HBO miniseries. Rather than a major studio behind the wheel however, AIP was funding this and of course as was typical for AIP films there was a kind of TV movie-of-the-week quality to the proceedings.

Following the disaster at Westworld the Delos resort is trying to regroup. They are so confident that they can resume their resort life of allowing guests to live their fantasies, no matter how illegal or immoral they are, with robots bearing the brunt of sexual congress and murder. Their publicity shill, Duffy (Hill) is so sure that the bugs have been worked out and that the guests are completely safe that he has invited a pair of reporters – print columnist Chuck Browning (Fonda) who helped expose the disaster at Westworld – and Tracy Ballard (Danner), a once-upon-a-time journalist who was fired by Browning but became a famous TV news personality. The two couldn’t be more opposite if they could try, which in movie-speak means they’re going to fall in love.

Westworld has closed (although we get to visit the ruins and get a hand job for doing it), but Delos has retained Romanworld and Medievalworld as well as adding two new resorts – Spaworld which gives the illusion of eternal life and youth, and Futureworld, which allows the wonders of the solar system to be experienced from the comfort of a cruise ship-like spaceship.

Browning is a cynical, suspicious sort – particularly after a tipster named Frenchy (Geldard) shows up dead with an envelope full of newspaper clippings. Browning means to do some investigatin’ and Woodward and Bernstein ain’t got nuthin on him. In the meantime he flirts with Ballard, calling her by the pet name “Socks” which isn’t as endearing as he thinks. And with the aid of disgruntled maintenance worker Harry (Margolin), Browning begins to uncover a horrific plot going on at Delos with the sinister Dr. Schneider (Ryan) at its very center.

All this was supposed to take place in 1985 and while some of the technology isn’t there yet (human-looking and acting robots) the computers and electronics looked positively archaic by the time 1985 actually arrived. AIP was hoping to cash in on a hit movie which the original studio, MGM, had tried to develop but couldn’t get a script and a budget they wanted. AIP didn’t really care about the script and as for budget, well, let’s just say that they didn’t scrimp but they didn’t break the bank either.

Fonda was at the time still trying to kick his counterculture image of Easy Rider and so his “stick it to the man” mentality that Browning possesses struck a chord with his fans. Part of the dated element of this film is that I don’t think that reporters are as considered heroic and anti-establishment now as they were in the wake of the Watergate investigation of the Washington Post which had just taken place a few years earlier. These days we mostly look as reporters as part of the corporate media machine. They essentially do little to report the news and more to sell advertising and for certain don’t look out for the little guy.

Danner was a hottie back in the day; we sometimes forget that Gwynneth’s beauty came from somewhere. However, AIP wanted this to be more or less compatible with network television standards, so there is virtually no sex, hardly any violence and no swearing. It was a different time.

Brynner, making his last screen appearance, reprises his role as the Gunslinger from the first film (the only actor who appears here from Westworld) and his menacing glare is one of the highlights of the film. Most of the rest of the performances were fairly pedestrian although Ryan did do some mustache-twirling scene chewery as the true big bad, in a generic 70s TV movie kind of way.

Most of the movie seems to have the actors running around the bowels of Delos with a lot of pipes, catwalks and wires which I suppose is better than having to construct futuristic-looking sets. None of it makes a lot of sense but overall, it’s surprisingly entertaining. I first saw it as a teen boy and I carry with me the fond memories of seeing it in a theater which may color my appreciation of it now. Still, while this isn’t the kind of movie that attracts a cult following, it’s still got enough going to make it kind of fun and quite frankly that’s far more than a lot of contemporary films can say.

WHY RENT THIS: There is some fun robot action. Yul Brynner makes a menacing but silent villain. Surprisingly entertaining throughout in a guilty pleasure kind of way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dated. Doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense. The performances seem mailed in.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and mild profanity and a few disturbing images as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to utilize 3D imagery, as well as being Brynner’s final film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Westworld
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

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Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace


The Jedi are more badass than you can imagine.

The Jedi are more badass than you can imagine.

(1999) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Oliver Ford Davies, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp, Ray Park, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Blessed (voice), Lewis Macleod (voice), Sofia Coppola, Keira Knightley. Directed by George Lucas

 

sci-fi-spectacle

The Star Wars franchise has been a cultural touchstone for many since the film series debuted in 1977 and remains a beloved cinematic collection for most. However, none of the films in the series has been reviled by its fanbase as much as this one.

It starts with a breakdown in negotiations between the Republic and the Trade Federation (think Ferengi) to end a blockade around the planet Naboo, resulting in an assassination attempt on Jedi Knight negotiators Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor). The Trade Federation ends up invading Naboo and the two Jedi, aided by a Gungan (one of two sentient species on the planet) named Jar-Jar Binks (Best) rescue Queen Amidala (Portman) and flee the planet in her starship, sustaining damage and forcing them to land on a faraway desert planet with their hyper drive out of commission.

The desert planet they are stranded on ends up being Tatooine where they meet Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd), a young boy who was born a slave and lives with his mother (August). Jinn notices that the boy is incredibly strong in the force; so much so that he has the potential to become the most powerful Jedi in history. As most fans know, what he actually ends up being is Darth Vader. They enter the precocious boy in a violent and dangerous pod race to not only get the parts they need to repair their ship but to win the boy’s freedom as well.

The Jedi bring back their findings to the Jedi counsel, led by Master Yoda (Oz) and Master Mace Windu (Jackson), along with the boy whom Qui-Gon puts forward for training. Yoda and Windu, both concerned about the boy’s susceptibility to the dark side, turn down the request so of course Qui-Gon decides to train Anakin himself. In the meantime, things on Naboo are coming to a crucial point and Amidala, frustrated that the Galactic Senate is too corrupt to act, returns to Naboo to lead her people in a struggle against their oppressors. That corruption is being fanned by Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord who is orchestrating these events with an eye to eventually cause the Republic to crumble and install an empire with a Sith Lord at its head.

The effects for the film were in 1999 absolutely breathtaking. Lucas and his technical crew created a number of wildly different environments, from the undersea world of the Gungan people to the Venice-like capital city of Naboo to the desert world of Tatooine to the massive skyscrapers of Coruscant, the capital of the Republic. Each of the environments is distinct and realistic and paved the way for the computer generated worlds that we take for granted today in modern blockbusters.

The Star Wars series has never been noted for its character development and for the most part there is almost none here. Yes, familiar faces are around in the film which takes place more than 30 years before the original, including Yoda and droids R2D2 (Baker) and C-3PO (Daniels) the latter of which is essentially a skeletal frame of a droid that Anakin is building. We kind of know who they are because we’ve grown up with them and it is pleasing to see some of their backstory.

Unfortunately, Lucas wanted to make the movie more family-friendly which was a wild misstep. Binks has become something of a symbol and for all the wrong reasons; he is so hated by the fanbase of the films that his role was greatly reduced in the following two films of the trilogy – who can forget the rap parody starring Binks “Me-ssa So Horny”? The character was meant to be comic relief but ended up being a tremendous irritant.

I don’t like criticizing child actors because they aren’t equipped to deal with the criticism as well as their adult counterparts so I’ll criticize Lucas instead – putting Jake Lloyd in the role of Anakin, a role that was so super critical to the film was absolutely irresponsible. Not only does Lloyd not have the acting ability to handle it, his flat line reading and irritating demeanor stop the film dead in its tracks. Lucas should never have put a kid – any kid – under so much pressure. Lloyd did the best he could under the circumstances but I’m not sure anyone could have handled the scrutiny that Lloyd was under. As much as I sympathize with the youngster, there is no getting away that his performance is detrimental to the film overall.

There are a lot of good things about the film – the duel between Qui-Gon and Sith warrior Darth Maul (Park) is absolutely spectacular, one of the best in cinematic history. Still, this has to rank among the most disappointing films ever. The anticipation for a new Star Wars film was so great that almost nothing could have lived up to the expectations of the fans, but this was so far below the bar that the series had nowhere to go but up, but it would take 16 years before fans got the satisfying sequel they were looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Seeing Yoda fight is a completely badass experience. Neeson lends some much-needed gravitas. Park very nearly steals the movie.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jake Lloyd is absolutely wooden. Jar Jar Binks is an abomination. The whole thing is entirely too dumbed down.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of action and violence of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Keira Knightley’s first name was misspelled as “Kiera” in the credits.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a series of a dozen documentaries produced for the film’s website; some of the footage from these docs appear in the main “making-of” featurette. There are also plenty of stills and animatics from the pre-production as well as a featurette on the making of the videogame based on the movie.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD only), Amazon (purchase only), iTunes, Google Play (purchase only), Fandango Now (purchase only)
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.027B on a $115M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix Revolutions
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

Moonraker


In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

(1979) Sci-Fi Spy Action (United Artists) Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corinne Cléry, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell, Toshiro Suga, Emily Bolton, Blanche Ravalec, Walter Gotell, Arthur Howard, Michael Marshall, Brian Keith, Chichinou Kaeppler, Claude Carliez, Catherine Serre, Beatrice Libert.  Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Among James Bond fans, Moonraker remains even today a divisive subject. Some hail it as being among the best of the entire franchise (New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought it was even better than Goldfinger) while others look upon it as campy schlock with little redeeming value.

The plot is pure balderdash. A space shuttle, on loan to Britain from the U.S., is hijacked from a 747 on the way back to America. James Bond (Moore), MI-6 agent 007 is assigned the case by M (Lee, his last appearance in the franchise) and is sent to interview Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), the billionaire owner of Drax Industries who manufactured the shuttle. While on the French estate which the industrialist had moved stone by stone to the California desert, Bond meets Dr. Holly Goodhead (Chiles), an astronaut assigned to Drax and is nearly murdered by Chang (Suga), Drax’ bodyguard. With the assistance of Corinne Dufour (Cléry), Drax’ personal pilot, Bond discovers some blueprints to an unusual glass container.

Bond goes to Venice to find out the secret of the container and discovers that it is a vessel for a highly toxic nerve gas, accidentally killing several lab technicians in the process. Chang, however, he kills on purpose. He calls in the cavalry only to find the entire operation has disappeared. However, Bond kept a vial of the gas as proof and M keeps Bond on the case despite calls to take him off it. Under the guise of sending Bond on holiday, M sends him to Rio de Janeiro where Bond has discovered that Drax has moved his operations. There, with helpful contact Manuela (Bolton) he eventually learns that Drax has a secret base near Iguazu Falls on the Amazon.

Drax also has a new bodyguard, by the name of Jaws (Kiel) and a plan – to render Earth uninhabitable by humankind (the gas is harmless to animals and plants) and take the most beautiful specimens of humans onto a space station orbiting the Earth, kept hidden by a massive radar jamming device. Bond and Goodhead, who  turns out to be an ally, must stop Drax from wiping out all of humanity and beginning a new master race, one which he and his descendants will rule.

As Bond movies go this one is pretty ambitious. It had for its time an eyebrow-raising budget. In fact, For Your Eyes Only was supposed to follow The Spy Who Loved Me but as Star Wars had rendered the moviegoing public sci-fi crazy, producer Albert Broccoli decided to capitalize on the craze and send Bond into space. Utilizing series regular Derek Meddings on special effects (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Ken Adam for set design, this became one of the more visually spectacular of the Bond films, right up there with the volcano lair of You Only Live Twice.

Moore as Bond relied on witticisms more than Sean Connery ever did; here he approaches self-parody. By this time he was beginning to show his age (he was older than Connery was when he made Never Say Never Again) and becoming less believable in the role, although he would go on to make three more Bond films. This wasn’t his finest moment as Bond but he continued to make it through on charm and comic timing.

His main Bond mate, Chiles, was decidedly less successful. Many consider her the coldest Bond girl ever; she is decidedly unconvincing as a scientist and less so as a spy. She has almost no chemistry with Moore; Carole Bouquet would turn out to be a much better fit for Moore in For Your Eyes Only which wisely brought Bond back to basics when it came out in 1981.

Kiel, as Jaws, was already one of the most popular Bond villains of all time. Rather than being menacing, he became almost comic relief; his indestructibility becomes a running joke which might have been a tactical mistake by the writers. The movie desperately needed a sense of peril to Bond and you never get a sense he’s in any real danger other than a single sequence when Chang attempts to murder him in a G-force testing machine. Nonetheless Kiel is game and is one of the better elements in the film.

By this point in the series Bond films essentially wrote themselves and had become a little bit formulaic. Despite the popularity of this film, Broccoli knew that he had to break the franchise out of its rut and he would do so with the following film which would become one of the best of the Moore era; this one, while some loved it and audiences flocked to it, remains less highly thought of today. It is still impressive for its space battle sequence, it’s amazing sets and zero gravity sequences, even despite being somewhat dated. It, like nearly every Bond film, is solid entertainment by any scale.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects were nifty for their time. Moore remains the most witty of the Bonds. Jaws.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chilly Chiles. Lacks any sense of peril. Occasionally dull.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some sexual innuendo
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Would be the highest-grossing film of the series until Goldeneye broke the record in 1995.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Special Edition DVD includes a still gallery and a featurette on the Oscar-nominated special effects. The Blu-Ray edition includes these as well as some storyboards and test footage.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $210.3M on a $34M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015


 

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

It is time for our second annual Sci-Fi Spectacle mini-festival, celebrating science fiction and the movies that make our jaws drop in wonder. This year we have three classics of the genre…well, two classics of the genre and a third that isn’t strictly speaking science fiction but has enough elements of it that we’re willing to fudge a little bit.

Science Fiction is all about the question “What if…” and that’s a question that has always fascinated me. Gleaming starships, futuristic cities, alien worlds…all of them have whetted my appetite for more ever since I was a boy. With a new Star Wars movie on the horizon, so close we can nearly touch it, and with the advanced computer effects now available to movie makers, there are more sci-fi films than ever and even the independents are getting in on the action with some pretty impressive effects on their limited budget efforts.

Television has also benefitted, and while SyFy has chosen to go the low-budget high-camp route for many of their films, they have two eagerly awaited series’ opening this fall, including a sci-fi set mystery The Expanse and a mini-series adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel Childhood’s End. All in all, it’s a good time to be a sci-fi fan.

So whether your tastes run from space operas to thought-provoking to pure camp, there is something for everyone in the sci-fi genre. Hope the three movies we have chosen this year will fire up your sense of amazement and if you haven’t watched them yet, give you the opportunity to experience the wonder that many of us experienced back when these films were first released. Enjoy!

2001: A Space Odyssey


The corridors of genius.

The corridors of genius.

(1968) Science Fiction (MGM) Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Robert Beatty, Sean Sullivan, Douglas Rain (voice), Frank Miller (voice), Bill Weston, Edward Bishop, Glenn Beck, Alan Gifford, Ann Gillis, Edwina Carroll, Penny Brahms, Heather Downham, Mike Lovell. Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Sci-Fi Spectacle

There are those who insist that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest science fiction film ever made. I suppose that will depend on how you define greatness; to my mind it is certainly one of the greatest and arguably the most artistic.

It is without a doubt one of the most influential movies of the last half of the 20th century, celebrated by film critics, filmmakers, scientists and movie buffs alike. Kubrick had wanted to make a science fiction film that was smart. Up until that time with the notable exceptions of Metropolis, Forbidden Planet and Things to Come most sci-fi films were absolutely horrible and rarely did much business at the box office.

Kubrick changed all that. He enlisted noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke to write the screenplay which he based partially on his short story “The Sentinel” (as well as five others to a lesser degree). Kubrick filmed the movie in three distinct parts: The Dawn of Man which depicted a group of proto-humans who encounter a mysterious black monolith which somehow inspires the apes to begin using tools. One of them, being an ancestor of humans, uses a tapir bone to smash in the skull of a rival. Our first tools are used to kill. Just perfect.

The second part, untitled, takes place on a wheel-like space station orbiting the Earth in the year 2000. Dr. Heywood Floyd (Sylvester) is on his way to Clavius base on the moon. At the station he encounters Russian scientists Dr. Smyslov (Rossiter) and his colleague Elena (Tyzack) who are concerned about rumors of a plague at Clavius. Dr. Floyd tells them he’s not at liberty to discuss it but we find out later that the plague is a cover story to keep the Soviets away from the base. In fact, something has been discovered buried in the Tycho crater near the base.

When Dr. Floyd arrives at the moon he goes out to the crater to see the artifact and we see that it is a monolith similar to the one we saw in the previous portion. When they pose for a photo in front of the artifact, the monolith emits a high-pitched noise which turns out to be a radio transmission aimed at Jupiter.

Eighteen months later begins the third portion, entitled Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. A giant space ship, the Discovery has been sent to Jupiter to find out what the signal was broadcast to and what, if anything, did the broadcast accomplish. On board are three scientists in cryogenic sleep and two astronaut/scientists, Dr. David Bowman (Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Lockwood). Overseeing the day to day running of the ship is HAL (Rain), a heuristically programmed algorithmic computer.

During the voyage, HAL grows paranoid and murders the sleeping scientists. He also manages to kill Poole but Bowman disconnects the supercomputer before it can kill him. Thus Bowman is alone when the Discovery reaches Jupiter. He finds there another monolith, floating in space near Jupiter. Bowman takes an EVA pod out to investigate and there he will find a great mystery, one that will transform him.

The movie has remained a favorite not just of the aforementioned film buffs, filmmakers and scientists but also of the 60s drug culture who saw the movie in record numbers, often on perception-altering drugs. The sequence in which Bowman examines the monolith, leading him into a vortex of light, color and strange images has been described as “an acid trip without using drugs” and one can only imagine what the sequence would be like on drugs.

The plot is a bit threadbare and much of it leaves a great deal to the viewer’s imagination, particularly the ending which was mind-blowing at the time but even Kubrick wasn’t quite sure what it meant. The film tackles a lot of interesting subjects, including the dehumanization of technology, the question of man’s continuing evolution and what our place is in the cosmos. Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer, was a big fan of the film and felt that it realistically depicted certain scientific realities although obviously the monoliths are fictitious – so far as we know.

Even today the effects remain impressive. It was one of the first films to allow product placement although it garnered no financial gain from it – the move was simply to depict the future as realistically as Kubrick thought was possible although in an unexpected way that ends up dating the movie somewhat. For example, the spacecraft Dr. Floyd uses to arrive at the space station is depicted to be a Pan-Am flight. Pan-Am ceased operations long before the film. The videophone conversation takes place on a Bell System phone but Ma Bell was broken up into AT&T and her many baby bells long before 2001. Of course, the Soviet Union was gone by 2001 as well.

Dullea and Lockwood mostly speak in calm, emotionless voices and seem to be so rational that any emotional response has been trained out of them. HAL speaks in a pleasant monotone that is meant to be reassuring but has come to represent the dangers of technology. One can see echoes of HAL in Siri.

I saw the movie during its initial release at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, one of the grand old cinemas constructed during the 1920s. At the time I found the movie to be somewhat boring and way over my eight-year-old head. My father, though, a science fiction fan, was upset by its trippy nature and disappointed overall, although he like millions of others was entranced by the vision of life in 2001. Although he didn’t live long enough to see what life in 2001 really turned out to be, I think he would have been impressed by some of the things that Kubrick got right.

2001: A Space Odyssey spawned three sequel novels by Clarke, the first of which was also made into a movie which was much more of a traditional type of movie. However, the original stands alone as a cinematic achievement. People love it or hate it; certainly it will evoke some sort of response. While I still find the stargate sequence to be self-indulgent and unnecessarily long, I can’t deny the movie’s continued power and impact. I suggest for those who haven’t done so yet to see this on a big movie screen the next time it appears at your local revival theater. This is one of those movies that benefit from the large screen, the theatrical sound and the overall overwhelming experience. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece, flawed in my opinion but a recognizable masterpiece nonetheless.

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 VALUES:  Some ape violence and human smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are 88 minutes without dialogue on the film including the Dawn of Man sequence and the Star Gate sequence; it was also the last movie that depicted human presence on the moon released before Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The two-disc Special Edition DVD contains an audio interview with the late Stanley Kubrick, conceptual artwork of the special effects, Dullea reading varied interpretations of what the film means including one by Kubrick himself and a video interview with author Arthur C. Clarke from his home in Sri Lanka, who had a full-sized monolith in his garden – which monkeys play on!
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $57M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission to Mars
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: November Man

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!

Upside Down


Beyond topsy turvy.

Beyond topsy turvy.

(2012) Science Fiction (Millennium) Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall, Blu Mankuma, Nicholas Rose, James Kidnie, Vlasta Vrana, Kate Trotter, Holly O’Brien, Elliott Larson, Maurane Arcand, Janine Theriault, Vincent Messina, Cole K. Mickenzie, Paul Ahmarani, Carolyn Guillet, Pablo Veron, Don Jordan, Edward Langham, Holden Wong, Jayne Heitmeier. Directed by Juan Solanas

Sci-Fi Spectacle

Most science fiction stories begin with the idea of “what if?” while the best ones end with the viewer shrugging their shoulders and accepting “why not?!”

For example, consider this; two planets that orbit one another and have dual gravity; on one world, gravity works normally but on the other it repels rather than attracts. The two worlds nearly touch on their highest mountain peaks and one corporation, Transworld, has built a skyscraper that connects the two planets permanently.

Both worlds are inhabited and are essentially products of their gravities. Those who live on one world will be untethered to the ground on the other and vice versa. On the middle floor of the skyscraper, there is one group of cubicles on the floor and another on the ceiling. There are a few other buildings with similar situations.

Adam lives on the lower world which some call Down Below. This is a world that has been ruthlessly exploited by the people of Up Above, who live in luxury and comfort. Down Below seems to exist in perpetual rainfall and gloom and its inhabitants eke out meager existences on the scraps of what they can acquire from up above.

As a child (Larson), Adam had met Eden (Arcand), a young girl from Up Above. The two click immediately but police from Up Above are not allowing any sort of interplanetary romance. In trying to return Eden to her home world, Adam watches in horror as she falls, apparently to her death.

Years later, Adam sees an adult woman (Dunst) from Up Above on TV and realizes that it’s Eden and she’s still alive. His love for her hasn’t undimmed over the years so he figures out a plan to use a beauty cream he’s invented to get him into Transworld, then pursue her and make her his. The problem is that Eden has a rather inconvenient amnesia and can’t remember anything before the fall. Secondly, in order to stay “grounded” as it were on Up Above Adam has to use a rare metal that tends to burst into flame after an hour’s use. Thirdly the authorities on both worlds are none too keen about having the interplanetary romance referred to earlier. It seems that Adam’s love is destined to be on another planet.

The concept here is truly interesting which is one of the movie’s grand advantages. It also is one of its biggest obstacles; the concept itself tends to paint the filmmaker into a corner. Solanas, an Argentinean filmmaker currently living and working in France, sets up the movie in an extended voice-over at the beginning of the film but I think he essentially tries to explain too much rather than just letting the audience go with it. That sets up the expectation that the movie is going to have a kind of rulebook that it will follow.

In fact, there are lots of holes in the theoretical aspects; for example, why don’t the people themselves combust when on opposing planets instead of just the metal? Wouldn’t the upward falls kill you just as dead as a regular downward fall? How can there be a sunrise or sunset when the two planets are both perpetually in each other’s shadow?

Truthfully, I’d be fine not requiring an explanation for any of those things but Solanas himself creates the expectation you’re going to receive one with the over-technical voice-over. A simple line could have done it – “I don’t know all the physics. It just works.” End of explanation and the show can go on, plot holes and all. Michel Gondry never bothers to explain himself; neither should Solanas.

Still even given that this is one of the most jaw-dropping imaginative visual stories you’re likely to find. The visuals of one group of Up Abovers dancing the graceful tango in a ballroom while on the ground Down Belowers dance in a seedy nightclub is striking, and much of the visual look recalls the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.

Certainly the have and have-not societies seem to be a nod towards the original Metropolis, one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, but Solanas doesn’t really pursue that aspect of the story. Instead, he’s looking to make a love story and this is indeed more of a romance than it is a science fiction film although the visuals are probably what you’re going to remember.

I don’t know if I would have used an idea for this kind of society to illustrate a kind of West Side Story thing; it’s a story that’s been done a lot of different times in a lot of different ways. Why create this amazing environment and then tell a story you could tell anywhere? However, that environment makes this movie worth seeking out. With attractive actors like Sturgess and Dunst delivering decent performances (and Spall in a supporting role actually standing out) this makes for a really good movie. I think it could have been a great one though.

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty concept. Nice performances by the leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: More of a romance with sci-fi overtones. Too many plot holes. Somewhat oversaturated cinematography.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence but not enough to be troublesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Floor Zero scenes were two sets constructed side-by-side as if the screen had been sliced down the middle and folded open. When characters interact from both worlds, the scenes were shot on both sides of the set simultaneously and then inserted into the frame digitally.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a surfeit of storyboards and how-they-did-it featurettes.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.1M on a $50M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD), Amazon (rent/buy/DVD), iTunes (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!