Bliss (2021)


Skating through life.

(2021) Science Fiction (Amazon Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Landeborg Jr., Ronny Chieng, Steve Zissis, Josh Leonard, Madeline Zima, Bill Nye, Slavoj Zizek, DeRon Horton, Eugene Young, Dayne Catalano, Adam William Zastrow, Lora Lee, Darin Cooper, Roberto Montesinos, Kosah Rukavina, Tanya Alexander, Debbie Fan. Directed by Mike Cahill

In a speech in 1977, science fiction author Philip K. Dick posited the idea that the world we live in is not reality but a computer simulation, predating The Matrix by more than a decade. But what is reality, exactly? If our senses can be manipulated, who’s to say that what reality is may not necessarily be what we perceive it to be?

The reality that Greg Whittle (Wilson) lives in isn’t too appealing. He works in a phone bank whose drones endlessly apologize to callers for whatever technical difficulties they may be experiencing without offering any sort of solution to fix it. Greg is a professional apologist and he’s not even that good at it; much of his time is spent daydreaming, doodling a beautiful palatial mansion that he could never possibly afford to live in unless he had a rich trillionaire uncle that he didn’t know about.

His doodling hasn’t gone unnoticed and he is called into his boss’ office where his employment is terminated. However, when Greg accidentally kills his boss, he panics, hiding the body and running across the street to a bar for a cocktail to calm his nerves. There he meets Isabel (Hayek), an apparently  homeless woman with a fantastic story; the reality that Greg is in is a computer construct and most of the people, including Greg’s boss, aren’t real. Because Isabel is real, she can manipulate the computer program by ingesting yellow crystals through the nose, and to prove it to him, manipulates reality to make it appear as if what happened to Greg’s boss was a suicide.

At last, Isabel takes Greg into the real world, accessed by means of ingesting the much rarer blue crystals – so rare that they are unable to get the full dosage needed for both of them to remain in the real world. There, Greg finds a Utopia where poverty has been eradicated, labor is done mainly by mechanical means and most people live a life of leisure devoted to artistic and scientific pursuits. The home that Greg has been doodling turns out to be the place where he lives. But because they were unable to get the full dose of blue crystals, Isabel and Greg need to return into the computer-generated world to acquire a full dosage – plus there’s the matter of Greg’s daughter Emily (Cooper) who isn’t real, but whom Greg is devoted to nonetheless. In the end, Isabel and Greg are only able to gather enough blue crystals to send one of them back to Utopia. Which one will stay?

Bliss is meant to be a 103 minute mindfuck, meant to make you try to figure out which reality was real and which was the simulation – or maybe both of them are simulations. Or maybe both of them are real. You can get a real headache trying to keep it straight.

It’s a great premise, but unfortunately the execution is weak. For one thing, there seems to have been some fudging on the science and the economics; for example, one of the reasons poverty has been eliminated was that asteroid mining brought an influx of new wealth into the global economy, but if you study economic history (as in 17th century Spain, for example) you will realize that kind of influx of wealth tends to bring ruinous inflation that actually wrecks the economy. And the likelihood that those who made trillions of dollars from the ining enterprise would then donate an annual salary of half a million dollars a year to every living adult is so unlikely to occur as to be virtually impossible.

Also, while Wilson and Hayek are both talented individually, they don’t mesh well together here. Wilson’s laid-back persona almost necessitates some kind of balancing counter-performance and so Hayek seems compelled to get almost shrill in order to bring some energy to the proceedings. And considering that they are supposed to be soulmates, you never feel any sort of attraction between the two of them. I give points for Wilson doing the type of role he doesn’t take on very often, but unfortunately it isn’t enough here.

The ending, which I won’t reveal here, also feels largely unearned and unsatisfying. This is a movie with plenty of good ideas, but they don’t seem to have been thought out very well. Cahill has a tendency to overexplain (we spend an inordinate amount of time hearing about the various efficacies of the crystals and why they need to be snorted and not eaten) and at times it gets in the way of the story. Sometimes, it’s better to just say “this is the way things are in this world” and let the audience fill in the blanks.

REASONS TO SEE: Wilson tackles a role outside his comfort zone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science doesn’t appear to have been very well thought-out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence and some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cahill studied economics at Georgetown; while a student there he struck up a friendship with future actress Brit Marling.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews; Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Cowboys

The Midnight Sky


George Clooney confirms that Santa Clause has left the pole.

(2020) Science Fiction (Netflix) George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Caoilinn Springall, Kyle Chandler, Demiån Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Sophie Rundle, Ethan Peck, Tim Russ, Miriam Shor, Lilja Nott Karlsdottir, Ątli Oskar Fjalarsson, Eden Hayhurst, Jamie Schneider, Eysis Clarken, Sam Bond, Tia Bannon, Olivia Noyce, Kishore Bhatt, Natasha Jenssen, Sarah Guerin. Directed by George Clooney

 

Hope is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it’s all that keeps us going in the face of terrible odds; but as it can motivate us to greater things, it can destroy us when it is crushed inside us.

Augustine (Clooney) is an astronomer who is the last remaining researcher at a polar observatory. The rest of the crew were evacuated back home, where an unspecified disaster overtook them and the rest of the human race. Augustine himself didn’t leave because he essentially has nowhere else to go, and besides, he has a serious illness which he is self-treating with periodic transfusions which he administers himself.

He makes a couple of discoveries; one, a NASA spaceship – the Aether – is returning from an exploratory mission to Jupiter’s moons to see if a newly discovered Jovian moon is potentially habitable by humans. Thee good news is that the answer is YES) but the bad news is that they have no idea what has happened back home and should they attempt to land, the crew will all fall victim to the same thing that decimated the population of their home.

The other thing Augustine discovers is that a little girl, whom he names Iris (Springall) – after a drawing of the selfsame flower that she gives him – has apparently been left behind after the evacuation. She seems to be mute, but perhaps that’s just as well. Augustine knows that she is now his responsibility, as he can’t very well send her into the death zone and there’s nobody else there. However, he has to warn off the Aether and in order to do that, he has to get a bigger antenna (oh, save your jokes people – this is a family site) and in order to do that, he has to hike to a different site through a winter storm. Meanwhile, the Aether has problems of its own; the Commander’s (Oyelowo) girlfriend (Jones) is pregnant, and they are about to head through an uncharted meteor debris field with their communications array and radar equipment in need of repair which will require a dangerous spacewalk.

Clooney, who up to now has steered clear of effects-heavy films, actually proves to have a pretty good eye for them. The asteroid sequence is pretty thrilling and while the Aether has been accurately described elsewhere as a “baroque Christmas ornament filmed by Stanley Kubrick” (thanks, Variety) the space sequences are fairly realistic.

One of the problems with the film is that there are some holes in logic; for example, we have developed the technology to send a manned mission to Jupiter and equip it with an impressive VR technology, but back on good ol’ earth the technology doesn’t look much evolved beyond what we already have. Does. Not. Compute.

Still, Clooney tackles a role that he doesn’t often take on and he does a great job with it, particularly in the pathos-filled climax. There are three ongoing stories being told here; what’s going on with Augustine, what’s going on aboard the Aether and flashbacks to the past. Clooney as a director has the skill to weave them all together and tie everything up in a neat little bow by movie’s end.

The problem is that there aren’t any really fresh ideas here in terms of the story. It feels like the movie was assembled Frankenstein-style from the parts of a lot of other movies – some better than this one, some not so much. The movie lacks something fresh to it that sci-fi fans tend to crave, although an interesting watch party game could be concocted with a bingo card made up of different sci-fi movies that one checks off when something from that movie shows up onscreen in this one. Make sure you have Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar all on your game card if you decide to play.

Although this was always meant to be a Netflix film, this might well have been a Holiday tentpole in gentler times. It’s a shame some of the effects won’t have the advantage of being shown on a theater screen, maybe even a premium IMAX or equivalent screen (worth the admission alone for the asteroid sequence). For home entertainment purposes, it is a bit slow-moving and has some Deep Ideas to its credit, but still makes for interesting viewing if you’re of a mind to Netflix and chill and you are into some cerebral science fiction.

REASONS TO SEE: Clooney gives a strong performance. The special effects are pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels cobbled together from a lot of other sci-fi films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie that Augustine is watching is On the Beach, which stars Gregory Peck whose grandson Ethan plays a younger Augustine.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: IO
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Some Kind of Heaven

Max Cloud


A Max Cloud family Christmas portrait.

(2020) Science Fiction (Well Go USAIsabelle Allen, Scott Adkins, John Hannah, Lashana Lynch, Eliot James Langridge, Franz Drameh, Sally Collett, Jason Maza, Tommy Flanagan, Sam Hazeldine, Andi Osho, Shirin Daryale, Martyn Ford, Finley Pearson, Geraldine Sharrock, Craig Lambert, Nigel Black, Ruth Horrocks, Lois-Amber Toole.  Directed by Martin Owen

 

There is something innocent about old-time 16-bit videogames. Maybe because we were so much younger when we played them; or perhaps it was because the games themselves were simple, good versus evil types of things, uncomplicated and perfect escape from whatever was troubling us, be it school, parents, girlfriends, jobs, or lack thereof.

Sarah (Allen) is an obsessive gamer. Her favorite game du jour is The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud, featuring the titular character (Adkins), a cocky lantern-jawed space hero saving the galaxy from nefarious master criminals with his trusty sidekick Jake (Langridge), the ship’s cook. However, Sarah’s dad (Hazeldine) thinks Sarah shouldn’t be playing videogames quite so much and it is a source of conflict between them.

As Sarah plays the game, she finds a hidden character, the Space Witch (Maza) – who is more accurately a space wizard, but to each his own – who somehow zaps Sarah from the real world into the game – into the body of Jake. Sarah’s best friend Cowboy (Drameh) – who is most assuredly not a competent gamer – stumbles onto the girl-within-a-game scenario and the two of them figure that the way to get Sarah back into reality is to win the game. That’s not as easy as it sounds, since Cowboy pretty much sucks at gaming and has to take frequent pee breaks. Coming after Max and Jake/Sarah is the Revenger (Hannah), a ruthless villain trying to escape from the prison world that Max crash landed on, and his right-hand flunky Shee (Lynch) who has plans of her own. Together, the two of them could end Sarah’s game permanently if she’s not careful – and if Cowboy doesn’t come through.

\There is just enough chutzpah here to carry the movie through, for the most part. Adkins has been a talented, underrated action star for the latter half of the last decade, and he proves to have some pretty solid comedy chops. Overall, with it’s primary color palette and sly shout-outs to the games of our misspent youths (or those of our parents), the movie retains a kind of goofy charm that is truly insidious. You might find yourself liking the movie in spite of its flaws.

The production values aren’t too bad when you consider that they are deliberately going for a certain retro-videogame look. The cast is strong and I’m not just talking about Adkins; Drameh and Hannah both have solid genre pedigrees and many of the rest of the cast cut their teeth on some impressive projects. There is a good deal of scenery chewing going on here, but the situation kind of calls for it, you know?

And there are flaws galore. The movie is overburdened with subplots, and underutilizes Adkins who has a physical presence that the movie could have used. There are also a few too many cliches and the cheese factor here is off-the-scale. Still in all, the movie is mindless, harmless good fun, just like the video games of yore – you Millennial whippersnappers have no idea what you missed.

REASONS TO SEE: Possessed of its own offbeat charm.
REASONS TO AVOID: You may end up overdosing on the cheese.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ike White’s father played keyboards for Ella Fitzgerald.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sci-fi video game violence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Girl Lost: A Hollywood Story

Wetware


Never grab a woman by the elbow; she might be a genetically-enhanced killer.

(2020) Science Fiction  (GravitasCameron Scoggins, Morgan Wolk, Jerry O’Connell, Bret Lada, Aurélia Thiérrée, Susan S. McGinnis, Labhaoise Magee, Lauren Carole Ritter, Matt Salinger, Nicole Shalhoub, Brandon Alan Smith, Ariel Zevon, Jessica Blank, Jeff Zinn, Bianca Ilich, Dallas Mahan, Hunter Hard, Kristan Lyon, Kimberly Arthurs. Directed by Jay Craven

 

The world is changing before our very eyes, and not necessarily in a good way. Climate change is leading to some hard decisions that are, for the most part, being ignored. Overpopulation and automation is leading to a shortage of jobs. Something has got to give.

In this dystopian future, climate change has decimated the world. Most people are chronically unemployed; the jobs that are available are largely menial jobs people are unwilling to perform. In fact, most of them are performed by Mungos, genetically engineered folks who have had their memories purged and given the abilities to do whatever job it is they are assigned to do without complaint.

But there is a worldwide economic crisis in the offing and Galapagos Bioengineering, the company that markets Mungos, is looking to market a new product; genetically engineered super-soldiers that can do just about anything a superspy can do, as well as have the skillsets of an elite soldier. The company desperately needs funds from financier Wendell Blaine (O’Connell) to fund their new project and it is up to genetic engineer Hal Briggs (Scoggins) to create these new superhumans.

But Briggs has a problem. One of those volunteering for the project, Kay (Wolk), has caught his eye and so he engineers her to fall in love with him. As she and the other prototype Jack (Lada) undergo testing under the watchful eye of Carr (Shalhoub), the project manager who has an agenda of her own, Briggs is left to contend with the ethical ramifications of what he’s done and with a hidden conspiracy that threatens everything, not the least of which is his continued existence.

Based on a novel by Craig Nova, Jay Craven – noted for Vermont-set adaptations of novels by Howard Frank Mosher – is a bit of a departure for the New England-based filmmaker. He has given us a remarkably self-assured and thoughtful sci-fi slice with elements of noir. His cast of mostly local Vermont actors are surprisingly strong, with Wolk as the haunted woman who agrees to have her memory wiped and become something new being a particular standout but buttressed by strong performances by Thiérrée and Salinger. The production values are also pretty impressive for a low-budget production.

The movie has a few ideas to kick around, some of which have been recycled from other places – what makes us human, which I thought was better-explored by Ridley Scott’s Philip K. Dick adaptation of Blade Runner and of how central memory is to our identity, also explored in the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry. Still, there are also ideas that are a bit more timely, such as the lengths we will go to for employment – particularly relevant during the economic crash brought on by the pandemic – and the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots and the shrinking space in the middle class.

Craven’s attempts to add a noir edge to the movie falls mainly in the dark neon-lit spaces and in particular, the dialogue which at times feels a bit pretentious and is the weakest part of the movie. However, Craven wisely doesn’t fill in all the blanks here and leaves viewers to do some thinking, which I think an increasing number of sci-fi cinephiles are learning to appreciate.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly strong performances and production values.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is trying too hard to be noir-ish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Craven’s day job is as a professor of film studies at Marlboro College in Vermont.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sister of the Groom

Synchronic


Two EMTs shooting the breeze.

(2020) Science Fiction (Well Go USAAnthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton, Ally Ionnides, Bill Oberst Jr., Natasha Tina Liu, Martin Bats Bradford, Devyn A. Tyler, Betsy Holt, Lawrence Turner, Shane Brody, Walker Babington, Sam Malone, Hawn Tran, Carl Palmer, Rhonda Johnson Dents, Adam J. Yeend, Ramiz Monsef, Matthew Underwood, J. Lamb, Sophie Howell. Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

 

One of the advantages of being a mainstay in the MCU movies as Anthony Mackie is, is that he has the option to fill his down time between MCU epics with movies of his choosing. The downside is that people might see him more as a second banana instead of a lead, so when he does spectacular work as a lead, people might be surprised.

They shouldn’t be. Mackie has been a terrific actor for years now, and he shines in just about every role he takes on. Here he plays Steve, a New Orleans EMT, working the night shift with his partner Dennis (Dornan). Steve is a bit of a party animal, never forging any kind of relationship save with Dennis; Dennis, on the other hand, is a family man with a wife (Aselton) who is becoming exasperated with Steve, and teenage daughter Brianna (Ionnides) who is growing more difficult by the day.

The two have been seeing an increase in gruesome deaths which are connected with the designer drug Synchronic. At the same time, Steve receives some bad news and is forced to face his own mortality. And when he discovers that Synchronic has an unexpected quality that has to do with the disappearance of Brianna, Steve realizes he is the only one to get his partner’s daughter back home.

I’m being deliberately vague here about the nature of what Synchronic does and how it shapes the plot because, quite frankly, the less you know going in the better. I will say that a healthy suspension of disbelief is absolutely necessary, and a willingness to accept some lapses in logic. That said, the plot is a doozy and the concept a thoughtful one.  Mackie shines here in a bit of an anti-hero role; Steve is a bit of a curmudgeon and an equal bit of a jerk, but when the chips are down he’s as loyal as they come, so there’s that.

The cast is rock solid and the special effects are, considering the low budget, pretty impressive, but it is Mackie that is the reason you’ll want to see this. It’s fairly thought-provoking sci-fi but as I said there are some “huh?” moments which do bring the movie down some. Benson and Moorhead excel at creating an atmosphere and there is a definitely desperate vibe here, but the movie does take it’s sweet time getting going and the ending is a bit of a groaner. That said, though, this is a pretty solid mid-fall film that is likely to get traction once word gets out about it.

The movie is currently available in select theaters around the country. A VOD release will be coming soon.

REASONS TO SEE: Mackie channels Will Smith in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit slow in developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth directorial collaboration between Benson and Moorhead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jacob’s Ladder
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

LX 2048


Driving with the top down in a hazmat suit – how very 2020!

(2020) Science Fiction (QuiverJames D’Arcy, Anna Brewster, Delroy Lindo, Gabrielle Cassi, Juliet Aubrey, Gina McKee, Jay Hayden, Linc Hand, Ronin Zaki Moshe, Majus Motiejus Prokopas. Directed by Guy Moshe

 

You can tell the state of a society by how it perceives the way the world will end. Our society, chronically depressed and stressed, turns out apocalyptic movies that have no explosions, no meteors, no heroic astronauts…just a world where everyone plays on a virtual Realm waiting for things to come to a close.

Adam Bird (D’Arcy) sees the end coming sooner. He works for a virtual reality hardware firm that supplies the hardware necessary to enter The Realm, the virtual reality utopia that everyone is plugged into. He can see the company’s future and it is grim – the hardware will soon be rendered obsolete by an implanted chip that will do the same thing faster, more efficiently, and less expensively. Adam is a voice crying in the wilderness – quite literally. He’s the only one to actually go into the office. Most people work from home and attend meetings via The Realm (sound familiar?)

But that isn’t even the worst news in Adam’s day. His doctor (McKee) has informed him that his heart is failing, and soon. But no worries – he has three kids and because he and his wife Reena (Brewster) bothered to procreate (most people don’t) he is eligible for Premium 3 insurance, which in the event of the death of either him or his spouse provides for a clone replacement, with all their memories intact. The two spouses even get to tweak their genetically enhanced replacement mates with characteristics that are more in tune with what they want – more attentive, sexier, less annoying and so on.

It’s a pretty bleak world – one of the reasons nobody goes out to work is because sunlight has become toxic, likely due to the erosion of the ozone. The population copes by taking state-mandated tranquilizers – LithiumX – which numbs them to the fact that life has become an absolute cluster muck. And Adam being something of a rebel, refuses to take his medication. So when Reena catches him having a go at a virtual sex doll, she blows a gasket and tosses him out on his tush. But with the company in danger of failing, Adam knows he has to figure out a way to keep it afloat long enough for the insurance to cash in and support his estranged wife and children.

There’s an awful lot of concepts thrown into the mix here, and one has to give the filmmakers credit for trying to tackle them all. There’s an intelligence to the movie that is more often than not missing from science fiction movies, and that’s refreshing. That doesn’t mean the movie is always successful in what it’s trying to do.

D’Arcy actually does a pretty bang-up job as Adam, and the movie totally rests on his shoulders so that’s a good thing. Often, he is having conversations with people who are online; we aren’t invited to The Realm so mostly what we see is Adam shouting in an empty conference room. It is a bit disconcerting, but I suspect that given the situation we’ve all been in the past several months we all feel a little bit like that’s exactly what we’re doing.

The problem here is that Adam is not really a pleasant guy. There’s a reason everyone’s on Lithium; it’s just too much for the psyche to handle, and Adam with everything going on – his marriage failing, his health failing, his business failing, the world failing – is losing it and not just a little bit. He’s desperately trying to have a conversation with Reena trying to express his fears but she isn’t having it, and so his attempts to reach out degenerate into shouting matches and vicious put-downs. “I can’t believe I ever loved you,” he cries out during one such exchange.

The movie tries to take a sharp left turn late in the movie but this is ill-advised. There really is enough going on to keep the discussion group going for ages without throwing in a final twist. The last 20 minutes virtually (no pun intended) undoes all the goodwill that the first eighty minutes generated. That’s a shame because despite being a low-budget affair, the production design is pretty aces – it looks like it has a budget probably 10 to 20 times what it actually had, and the ideas that it’s grappling with are very relevant right now, with climate change, online addiction, drug addiction, the deterioration of relationships in an increasingly plugged-in world and the ethics of medical technology exceeding our maturity to handle them.

I almost forgot to mention Delroy Lindo who has a small but crucial role as a reclusive scientist, and all I can say is that even his less visible roles are intriguing. Delroy Lindo is undeniably a cool mofo, and we are reminded of that every time he pops up onscreen.

In any case, this is a movie with lofty aspirations that occasionally achieves them, but ultimately shoots itself in the foot when it tries to insert a twist that wasn’t really needed. Fans of thoughtful science fiction will find much to chew on here. Those who prefer their movies a little bit less crammed with ideas might find it indigestible.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of great ideas – almost too many.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characters are all so contemptible it’s hard to root for any of them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual content..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: D’Arcy is best known for his work in the MCU playing the human Jarvis in the Agent Carter miniseries.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gattaca
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Artist’s Wife

Attack of the Unknown


Don’t look behind you.

(2020) Science Fiction (Gravitas) Richard Grieco, Tara Reid, Robert LoSardo, Jolene Andersen, Tania Fox, Douglas Tait, Robert Donavan, Ben Stobber, Scott Butler, Margo Quinn, Gerardo de Pablos, Dee Cutrone, Tamara Solomson, Mia ScozzaFave, Paul Gunn, Navin P. Kumar, Johnny Huang, Elizabeth Noelle Japhet, Al Burke, Rachel Christenson. Directed by Brandon Slagle

 

I’m not sure when H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds or when Orson Welles broadcast a version of it on the radio that they realized that someday there would be several alien invasion movies every year of varying production values and quality. I sort of doubt it. And had they known, they might well have had a good laugh.

Vernon (Grieco) is the taciturn, tough-as-nails leader of an elite SWAT team of the LAPD. They have staked out cartel leader Miguel “Hades” Aguirre (LoSardo) and after a bloody gunfight, capture the drug lord. Their triumph is tempered by the loss of one of their members and the sudden intrusion of the Feds who insist on taking over the case.

The day gets worse for Vernon as his wife serves him with divorce papers and to make matters even worse, he receives word that he has terminal myeloma. What’s next, an invasion of bloodthirsty aliens hellbent on sucking the blood of every last human being in Los Angeles?

Funny you should mention that. It’s exactly what happens, to everyone’s surprise except for maybe Vernon. He holes up with the remains of his team and a few civilians, including Hades in the detention center which is not as well-stocked with guns and ammo as you might think. They know that they can’t stay there but there’s a possibility of getting to a nearby high rise for a helicopter rescue, but first they’re going to have to fight their way through a swarm of seemingly indestructible aliens.

On paper, it sounds like the genesis of what could be a wild and fun ride, and certainly that was what director Brendan Slagle was after – at least, he has a lot of elements that are working in that direction, from a frenetic, breathless pace to a marvelous Clint Eastwood on Zen-like performance by Grieco, who is grizzled enough now that the one-time 21 Jump Street babyface has a shot at a new career doing gritty action films like this one.

Like most B-movies, this one has a budget that would cause Kevin Feige (the producer of Marvel movies, for those wondering who he is) hysterics. The best-known actors are Grieco and Tara Reid, who is in a blink-and-you-missed-it flashback of a previous alien invasion – apparently there were no Sharknado movies in production at the time. The CGI is okay, not great but the aliens are actually laughable; guys in felt suits with headpieces left over from This Island Earth that Ed Wood would have loved.

There are a few needless subplots that probably should have been jettisoned to streamline this a bit more, but as they say, it’s all in good fun and it’s mostly harmless, unless you object to seeing bad things happen to good cops. This isn’t going to make anybody forget Independence Day but if you like your sci-fi cheesy, gritty and violent, this might just be for you.

REASONS TO SEE: Cheesy in kind of a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The aliens are really unconvincing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of violence, some nudity and sex, as well as a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Slagle took several concepts in the film from a short story he wrote in middle school called “Blood is the Cure.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Psychomagic: A Healing Art

The Wandering Earth (Liu dang di qiu)


I wann go to cool places with you.

(2018) Science Fiction (CMC/NetflixJing Wu, Chuxiao Qu, Guangjie Li, Man-Tat Ng, Jin Mai Jaho, Mike Kai Sui, Hongchen Li, Jingjing Qu, Yichi Zhang, Haoyu Yang, Zhigang Jiang, Huan Zhang, Jiayin Lei, Arkadiy Sharogradskiy, Hao Ning, Yi Yang, Hexuan Guo, Zhonzhao Li, Zixian Zhang, Zachary Alexander Rice, Marvin Bouvet, Luoyi Tao. Directed by Frant Gwo

 

It is not a matter of much debate that the greatest cinematic epics come from Hollywood. However, it is also true that Hollywood isn’t the only game in town any longer, and bustling film industries in India, China, Japan and Thailand are showing signs of giving the U.S. of A. a run for its money.

And I mean that in a literal sense. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Hugo-winning author Cixin Liu, posits a near-future when the sun is discovered to be changing into a Red Giant much sooner than anyone expected. In less than a century, the solar system is going to be vaporized by the expanding star that once gave us life. A hastily convened consortium of world governments decide that rather than leaving the planet behind and finding a new one, we would attach ginormous engines to the equator to stop the spin and then blast us away from our current place in the universe and using Jupiter as a slingshot, head us out towards Alpha Centauri and a new life…arriving in about 2,500 years.

The problem with this scenario is that without the sun’s warming rays, which we would lose the further out towards deep space we got, things are going to get mighty cold. What’s left of humanity is going to be sheltered deep underground; the surface has become a frozen wasteland a la The Day After Tomorrow and lantern-jawed heroes crew a multi-national space station that acts as kind of a tugboat for the planet. I’m not really sure on that point; a lot of the plot is a bit murky and difficult to follow. Im not sure if it was a translation issue, or if crucial scenes got left on the cutting room floor.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Alpha Centauri – we got caught by Jupiter’s gravitational well and are headed for a not-so-pleasant Jovian encounter. It looks like even after all the careful planning the human race is going to die after all – unless someone saves the day.

The film, if you haven’t already guessed, is a product of the People’s Republic of China and so it is the Chinese who are the heroes in the movie. That’s okay by me – after all, when Hollywood makes global catastrophe films the heroes are generally American, right? However, the characters are either bland and unmemorable, or are archetypes rather than characters; the badass military hero, the brilliant computer nerd, the obnoxious little sister, the bitter and rebellious son – all are given almost no background here. It’s hard to be invested in anyone that comes on the screen.

Also being a Chinese film, the movie espouses Chinese values – that it is required of the individual to sacrifice for the good of the State – which will run counter to a lot of American individualist types. Also, it is true at this moment of time the Chinese aren’t in favor particularly with the conservative side of the aisle, so American audiences have not flocked to stream this puppy on Netflix, which is the only place you can see it currently in the States.

The special effects dominate everything here and some of them are spectacular – and why wouldn’t they be when a consortium of effects houses including WETA of New Zealand are pitching in to help – but it gets to the point that all the visual eye candy begins to overwhelm the senses.

My main gripe here is the logic and the science. Supposedly vetted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I kept going back to the amount of power it would take for the Earth to escape the gravitational pull of the Sun and what that kind of force would do to the Earth’s crust. Not to mention that the atmosphere would eventually freeze solid once it passes a certain point in the solar system, and what that might due to underground cities in terms of pressures on the crust. A lot of the plot hinges around things happening because the script said so. I felt that the suspension of disbelief became too much to handle.

But if you’re in the mood for a special effects-laden sci-fi extravaganza that you haven’t seen yet, there is something to recommend it in that regard. After all, this is the second-highest grossing Chinese film of all time (as of publication) and that’s saying something. Also to be fair, the plot is no dumber than any you’ll find in a typical Hollywood sci-fi epic, but the too-large ensemble cast and the humongous amount of sci-fi tropes that appear here makes this the kind of movie that might have been better-suited to SyFy than Netflix.

REASONS TO SEE: Big dumb fun with some occasionally breathtaking effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, sci-fi action and kids in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space: 1999
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Easy Does It

Alita: Battle Angel


Angels in battle.

(2019) Science Fiction (20th Century) Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Lana Condor, Idara Victor, Jeff Fahey, Elza Gonzalez, Derek Mears, Leonard Wu, Racer Maximilliano Rodriguez-Avellán, Marko Zador, Rick Yune, Hugo Perez, Casper Van Dien, Elle LaMont. Directed by Robert Rodriguez

 

Alita: Battle Angel has been a passion project for director James Cameron for nearly two decades; unfortunately, his ambitious projects were time-consuming and it has only been recently when the technology caught up to Cameron’s vision for the legendary Japanese manga this is based on.

Scientist-by-day, bounty-hunter-by-night Dr. Edo (Waltz) discovers a deactivated cyborg in a garbage dump. Realizing what she is, he reactivates her, leaving her without memory of her past. Alita (Salazar) is eager to discover who she is, how she knows virtually every fighting style known to man and what’s to become of her. Dr. Edo wants to keep her hidden and safe, but there are forces who are aware they can make a fortune off of Alita, led by the nefarious Vector (Ali). Complicating things is Hugo (Johnson), who becomes the main squeeze of Alita, who dreams of leaving the poverty of Iron City for the paradise of Zalem, the cloud city where the well-heeled hang their hats.

With Cameron busy directing the Avatar sequels, he handed the reins to veteran genre director Rodriguez, remaining with the project as a producer and mentor for Rodriguez. Rodriguez’ strengths lie in action sequences, making him a wise choice. Cameron, perhaps the best director of special effects extravaganzas in history, definitely had a hand in the vision here. There was some controversy regarding the eyes of the Alita character, which are CGI with the oversize that is typical of Japanese manga. Some found the digital effect distracting and creepy, while others found it to be a nice touch regarding the source material. You pretty much get used to it during the course of the film, so I found it to be a non-issue. In any case, the special effects are nonetheless spectacular, even overwhelming. There is definite vision when it comes to the visuals. The motorball sequences, a kind of cross between roller derby and jai alai (and not unlike the sci-fi staple of Rollerball), are easily the best in the film.

But this is where movie theaters are truly missed; without the complete immersion of 3D with Dolby sound, the movie loses something. It simply isn’t as impactful on the home screen. That makes the run time, close to two hours, a little more wearing. And while non-manga fans may be able to get into the film, it really helps to have at least a general knowledge of the artform and non-fans may find themselves turned off by it – and more knowledgeable fans may nit-pick the details.

This is definite eye candy and if you’re missing the summer blockbusters this year, it does make a decent substitution, but at the same time it might make you long for the theatrical experience as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Great visual effects, although they tend to get overwhelming after a while. The motorball sequences are like cinematic crack.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long. May not appeal to non-manga fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi action violence and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Waltz was recommended to Rodriguez by Quentin Tarantino, a close friend who worked with Rodriguez on the Grindhouse project.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Max, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost in the Shell
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Guest of Honour

IO


Not the bright future we were hoping for.

(2018) Science Fiction (NetflixMargaret Qualley, Anthony Mackie, Danny Huston, Tom Payne (voice), Justin Andrew Jamieson, Teagan Johnson, Emma Fitzgerald (voice). Directed by Jonathan Helpert

 

In times such as these it isn’t hard to imagine the world as we know it coming to an end. In this Netflix sci-fi ecological apocalypse flick, something has turned the Earth’s atmosphere toxic; millions are dying and there doesn’t appear to be a way to reverse the process. The human race is leaving in droves, for a space station circling the Jovian moon of Io.

One of the few people remaining on earth is Sam Walden (Qualley), daughter of scientist Henry Walden (Huston). She lives on a high plateau which still has a breathable atmosphere, although it doesn’t seem likely that it will stay that way for long. She tends to a colony of bees that she hopes – as her dad did before her – will pollinate plants and kickstart the eco-system. She relays the results of her work to Elon (Payne), her boyfriend on the orbiting Io station.

Then out of the sky drops Micah (Mackie), out of a makeshift dirigible. He’s there to see Henry – except Henry’s not available. And that’s just the beginning. Both Micah and Sam are keeping secrets from each other, secrets that can have major ramifications. Meanwhile, time is ticking down before the last shuttle leaves Earth, stranding whoever is left behind there forever.

This is what’s called a “high-concept” science fiction film. It’s not that an ecological apocalypse has never been done on film before – Roland Emmerich made a living at those sorts of films in the last decade – but this one seems to be taking a more sober, science-based approach. At least, so it seems on the surface. The closer you look, the more the science doesn’t really bear scrutiny.

But the production design is nice, which I’ve been saying a lot more often about films lately, but we’ve seen some impressive leaps in that arena of film over the past half-decade. Sadly, though, there is zero chemistry between Qualley and Mackey, and quite frankly, Qualley emotes here like she’s making a YouTube film rather than a fairly major production.

There are some worthwhile moments here, but the movie is its own worst enemy, with stupefying dialogue and bizarre character choices. I found my attention wandering during the last half of the film, never a good sign. Fortunately, as this is only available on Netflix, you can always pause it to take a nap. It’s up to you, however, if you want to continue watching after you wake up.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating concept.
REASONS TO AVOID: A less-than-scintillating execution.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elle Fanning and Diego Luna were originally cast in the lead roles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews; Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Interstellar
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek