Morgan (2016)


Mirror images.

Mirror images.

(2016) Sci-Fi Thriller (20th Century Fox) Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Sullivan, Boyd Holbrook, Vinette Robinson, Brian Cox, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Crispian Belfrage, Amybeth McNulty, Jonathan Aris, Charlotte Asprey, Frank Cannon, Bobby Marrio, Martin O’Sullivan, Chrissie Harris. Directed by Luke Scott

 

As our technology and scientific understanding progress, we will be confronted by questions having to do with what it means to be human – and whether or not that definition is broad enough to cover the wonders that are sure to follow. Will artificial life forms have the same compunctions we do? Can we ever truly trust them?

Morgan (Taylor-Joy) is the results of a bio-engineering experiment using artificial DNA. She is brilliant, strong and yet emotionally immature; she’s only five years old chronologically speaking although she is in her teens in terms of physical development. When she suddenly and without warning attacks a psychologist (Leigh) in the compound, the corporation funding the experiments sends risk analyst Lee Weathers (Mara) to make the determination if the plug should be pulled on the experiment.

When she reaches the secluded Pacific Northwest compound where the scientists studying Morgan are housed, she is met with wariness. Lee is surprised to find the personal attachment many of the scientists have with Morgan with the exception of nutritionist Skip Vronsky (Holbrook) who still refers to Morgan as “it.” The rest of the team has bonded with the girl in spite of the attack on one of their number; they show affection towards her, even though they keep her in what amounts to a cage.

After an examination by another psychologist (Giamatti) ends in disaster, the lead scientist on the Morgan project (Yeoh) reluctantly decides to terminate Morgan which meets with resistance from the team, but Lee is adamant that the directive be carried out. However, like all living beings, Morgan is possessed with a strong survival instinct. She also has not only the ability to use it, but deadly abilities not even her handlers were aware she had.

Artificial life forms gone amuck have long been a staple of Hollywood sci-fi horror films. This isn’t really a horror movie per se, although there are some pieces of shocking violence here (particularly the initial sequence). Mostly this is a thriller with philosophical overtones as the cold, calculating Lee is put up against the occasionally sympathetic Morgan, although at the end of the film all our sympathies are confused.

Most will see the twist coming, although that isn’t the fault of the actors involved. Mara and Taylor-Joy both play polar opposites for much of the movie and both do credible jobs, with Mara getting a slight edge in terms of performance. The supporting cast, including Leigh, Yeoh and Giamatti, are stellar and are sadly underused here; their combined screen time is probably less than ten minutes all told and we end up wishing to have seen more of them by the time the movie ends.

There are some beautiful images here as well, with Ireland subbing for the Pacific Northwest. Then again, this is a micro-budgeted film and that unfortunately shows in some of the production design; for whatever reason the housing compound for the supposedly high tech facility is ramshackle and looks pointedly like the Psycho house. If they had just gotten ordinary dormitories it would have looked more realistic and I can’t believe it would have cost them any more to use, particularly in the exterior shots.

Mostly this is a credible thriller that goes off the rails near the end of the movie when it becomes a standard action film and quite frankly, the action portions aren’t particularly noteworthy. That spoils some of the nifty mood making that Scott engaged in during the bulk of the movie, in which viewers are given a disturbing feeling that things Aren’t Quite Right Here, which of course most would know anyway from seeing the trailer.

Scott has some good techniques and when he gets something in his wheelhouse, he knows what to do with it. I can’t say if he’ll end up being as good or better a director as his dad but for my money he has the potential to do so. Let’s hope he finds the right material to enable him to do just that.

REASONS TO GO: Mara is cold and remorseless. The film raises some interesting philosophical questions.
REASONS TO STAY:
Another film peopled with characters who don’t behave like real people. Several terrific actors in the cast are wasted in roles that go nowhere.
FAMILY VALUES: The violence in the film is pretty brutal; there’s also a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scott is the son of director Ridley Scott.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ex-Machina
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Train to Busan

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Europa Report


One of the many stunning visuals from Europa Report.

One of the many stunning visuals from Europa Report.

(2013) Sci-Fi Thriller (Magnet) Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Daniel Wu, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Anamaria Marinca, Dan Fogler, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Neil deGrasse Tyson. Directed by Sebastian Cordero

The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t come without cost and sacrifice. Marie Curie, dying of radiation poisoning but her pioneering research led to such breakthroughs as x-rays and the understanding of isotopes. The crews of the Challenger and Columbia, part of our efforts to colonize and explore space. Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe although he didn’t quite get there – dying short of his goal (which his ship and crew completed). But is the knowledge worth the cost?

The Europa Project and the spacecraft Europa One are a privately-funded exploration project to send a manned expedition to Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons, to discover if life exists there. Recent probes have discovered the possibility of liquid water below the ice-covered surface and of all the places in our solar system, may harbor the best potential for the existence of life.

The mission consists of six crew members – Pilot and Mission Commander William Xu (Wu), navigator Rosa Dasque (Marinca), Chief Science Officer Daniel Luxembourg (Camargo), Marine Biologist Katya Petrovna (Wydra), Junior Engineer James Corrigan (Copley) and Chief Engineer Andrei Blok (Nyqvist). A solar storm knocks out their communications equipment about a year into the mission.

While Dr. Unger (Davidtz), CEO of Europa Ventures – the parent company of the mission – frets back on Earth, the team determine to make an extravehicular walk to the exterior of the spacecraft to try and repair the communications array. The attempt is unsuccessful and leads to an unsettling catastrophe that puts the crew into a kind of funk.

They decide to carry on with the mission and eventually land on the surface of Europa, although an unexpected thermal vent knocks them slightly off-course so that they land several hundred yards away from their intended landing site. Their remote probes find nothing but strange occurrences lead them to doubt their sanity and hint at something miraculous on Europa.

This is ostensibly a found footage film, taken from the supposedly declassified documents and videos sent back by the mission, with Unger providing narration. There are a lot of reasons to be wary of found footage films but thankfully, not this one. It is one of the best to come out of the genre yet. The visuals can be absolutely stunning, and the set design is truly outstanding, and cinematographer Enrique Chediak makes it all look good.

Cordero, who previously helmed the fine mystery film Cronicas, outdoes himself here. He shot this entirely on a Brooklyn sound stage over a course of 18 days. The budget was pretty miniscule as sci-fi films go, but every nickel is onscreen.

The cast is fairly impressive and while none really distinguish themselves particularly, they are all capable actors acting capably here. Copley is probably the best-known of the group with appearances in District 9 and more recently, Elysium but Nyqvist, from the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might be more familiar to European audiences.

While there have been a fair amount of movies with similar themes over the years, not many have been as taut and well-constructed as this one. One quibble – they begin the film shortly after the failed attempt to repair the communications array and refer to events that haven’t happened yet, then tell much of the rest in flashbacks. Coupled with Unger’s narration from well past the mission’s completion, it can get somewhat confusing to the average viewer not paying close attention.

However, overall this is a very solid and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that makes use of the virtues of the found footage genre as well as any movie has of late. That in itself is reason to laud the heck out of the film.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific visuals. Realistic depictions of character and situation.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat confusing at the beginning. Acting is serviceable but not really outstanding.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of action and a few scary images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hydrazine, the substance that gets on James’ spacesuit during the repair mission, has been used in reality for decades as thruster propellant and auxiliary power unit fuel in spacecraft.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

The Purge


This isn't Avon calling.

This isn’t Avon calling.

(2013) Sci-Fi Thriller (Universal) Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Adelaide Kane, Max Burkholder, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis, Tom Yi, Chris Mulkey, Tisha French, Dana Bunch, Peter Gvozdas, John Weselcouch, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Karen Strassman, David Basila, Boima Blake, Nathan Clarkson, Chester Lockhart. Directed by James DeMonaco 

We all need to blow off steam. Think of human beings as walking pressure cookers. The stress inside us just builds and builds and builds until we need to let it out one way or another. The more complicated and stressful our world, the more extreme the release is needed.

In 2022, America has been taken over by the New Founding Fathers which seems to be a crypto-fascist regime with evangelical Christian overtones – in short, a kind of paranoid Hollywood liberal version of the Tea Party. They’ve managed to reverse some of our modern society’s most pressing problems; unemployment is down to 1% and crime is down to near-zero.

That’s because of the Purge. One night a year, for 12 hours, anything goes – including murder. You can go out and burn down a bodega because you don’t like the owner or better still, burn it down with him in it. Got an issue with your boss? Go down to his house and gun him down. It’s all legal. Think of a night of wilding with a Get Out of Jail Free card attached.

Of course, the wealthy can afford state of the art home security systems, turning their homes into steel-reinforced fortresses. James Sandin (Hawke) has made a fortune selling these home security systems – most of his neighbors have one. In fact, James himself has one. As Purge night approaches, James drives through the neighborhood with the air of an ancient lord who’s provided shelter for his kin and his vassals.

His wife Mary (Headey, the villainous and incestuous Cersei from Game of Thrones) prepares the house for the night’s activities. As a show of support for the Purge, she places a vase of blue flowers out in front of the house. Tightly wound neighbor Grace Ferrin (Bareikis) delivers cookies; her annual Purge party is on hold tonight.

The sun goes down and the hour draws near. James gathers his family – sensitive son Charlie (Burkholder) – you can tell he’s sensitive because he has long hair and an unspecified medical condition that requires his vital signs be constantly monitored – and rebellious teen daughter Zoey (Kane) who is sulking because her parents have forbidden her to see Henry (Oller), an 18-year-old who she is head over heels for but is too old for their 15-year-old princess. Not to worry however – he’s snuck into her bedroom and is there for the duration, promising to plead his case man to man with Dad. Sirens wail. The Purge is on and the police, fire department and rescue services are all closed for business until the morning. The father settles in for an evening of watching security cameras and maybe a movie, complete with microwave popcorn. It’s evening in America.

Of course, things go terribly wrong as they surely must in a movie like this. Sensitive son Charlie sees a bloody stranger (Hodge) outside pleading for help. He inputs the code sequence to disarm the security system, giving the stranger time to come into the house. James, having a mini-arsenal as part of his home security system, draws a gun on the new arrival in a tense standoff in the foyer. Then Henry shows up and opens fire on dear old dad. James, being the hero, returns fire and Zoey is abruptly back on the boyfriend market again.

To make matters worse, the group of mask-wearing freaks that were chasing the stranger arrive and demand that the Sandins give up their rightful prey. The leader (Wakefield) of the group, mostly dressed in prep school uniforms, is creepy-polite and warns of dire consequences if the homeless pig isn’t given up. In the confusion, said homeless pig makes himself understandably scarce. With the power cut off and James admitting ruefully that the system is more for looks than an actual deterrent in case of a frontal assault (God bless capitalism), the Sandins are in for a very long night (in a very short movie).

I think DeMonaco, who also wrote The Purge, was going for a bit of political symbolism here disguised as a home invasion thriller that is supposed to be a commentary on our society’s fascination with violence as well as a dig at conservative values (nearly all those who Purge are what you would consider wealthy white conservatives; nearly all the victims are minorities except for the Sandins themselves) and liberal paranoia. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite pull it off.

Hawke and Headey are capable actors but like most of the characters in the movie, the parts they play are largely caricatures broadly drawn with little or no depth and none of the people we see onscreen act like real people you’d meet offscreen. The lead family may be the most unintentionally dumb heroes in the history of cinema.

And therein lies the main fault with the movie, the lapses in logic that are so blatant and major that you can’t believe that someone at some point before approving this script didn’t ask a few questions. For one thing, if you were a wealthy family, wouldn’t you arrange for a weekend trip to, say, Canada? Or Mexico? Or anywhere but here? That’s a plot hole that could have been fixed quite simply – during the scene when the rules for the Purge are delineated, add another one – all citizens must be home for the Purge unless on government or military business. However, the filmmakers don’t do that so Da Queen, logical moviegoer that she is, spent the whole of the film obsessing over it.

And why would anyone give their kids the codes to disarm the home security system on a night where murder and mayhem are roaming the streets? What parent would trust the judgment of a hormonal teenager or a sensitive young kid when the stakes are life and death?

I could go on and on but you get my point and this isn’t a movie that deserves that much attention. I’m a card-carrying liberal and even I felt a little uncomfortable with the characterization of Tea Party conservatives as homicidal Stepford Wives (and Husband and Kids) who place personal security and economic stability over the lives of people, or of Young Republican preppies as viewing the homeless as sub-human scum who exist to give them a buzz and for no other reason. I have my issues with Tea Party policies but I do draw the line there.

The entertainment value here is reasonable, mainly because Hawke and Headey are so likable, but as social experiment this is just short of an epic failure, although I have to admit that the cathartic moments when the bad guys get theirs was somewhat disturbing within the context of the movie and maybe the lone success the movie has was prying that uncomfortable feeling that violence was being used to wring out that reaction out of me. Maybe we aren’t that far from our caveman ancestors as we like to think we are.

REASONS TO GO: Decent enough concept..

REASONS TO STAY: Horrible execution. Too many plot holes, some of them major.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of swearing and plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this past weekend the movie had made back more than 20 times its original budget and a sequel has already been greenlit.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; not a whole lot of love from the critic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: A Lonely Place to Die