Settlers


Is this what a Martian will look like?

(2021) Science Fiction (IFC Midnight) Sofia Boutella, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brooklynn Prince, Nell Tiger Free, Jonny Lee Miller, Matthew Van Leeve, Natalie Walsh. Directed by Wyatt Rockefeller

 

The pioneers of the American west learned brutal self-sufficiency out of necessity. There was nobody close by to help if they got into trouble; they had to learn to do for themselves. So it was then; so it will be when the time comes to colonize Mars.

Reza (Miller) and Ilsa (Boutella) are eking out a life on a desolate Martian plane. Earth, as Reza explains to their young daughter Remmy (Prince), is not what it used to be. In the meantime, they go on feeding their pigs, raising what vegetables they can in a small hydroponic garden. They entertain themselves with word games and singalongs. It isn’t much of a life, but it’s a life.

Then one morning they awake to the pigs squealing in terror. On one of their windows the word “LEAVE” is written in bold red paint. Remmy’s reports that there were strangers nearby, which her mom and dad had discounted, suddenly seems much more likely. Then comes Jerry (Cordova), a soldier who claims that the land was his and that Reza and Ilsa are squatters living in the home that is rightfully his. The couple are ready to defend their home with knives and guns; it doesn’t end well for them as Jerry kills Reza in a shoot-out.

Reza moves in, allowing Ilsa and Remmy to stay and at first it seems that he is trying to make a better life for them, much to Remmy’s anger. Ilsa seems more inclined to accept the presence of Jerry than her daughter, although at first, she is just as wary. But as Remmy grows into becoming a young woman (Free), Jerry begins to look at her much differently.

This is a different kind of sci-fi movies. There is an elegiac feel here, a feeling that humanity is on its last legs, but there is also a sense of realism; these are the obstacles that colonists on the Red Planet would face; this is what a Martian farm would look like. The production design, Noam Piper, does a bang-up job here.

Rockefeller does a credible job here, but the story is a bit long-winded and the movie a touch too long. One gets the sense that Rockefeller is trying to make a point about colonialism, but I’m not sure if he’s successful on that front. Mostly, this is a movie about relationships, about loneliness, about doing what one has to in order to survive. Jerry seems to genuinely trying his best to be fair and kind, but he’s no saint and towards the end of the movie a darker side is revealed.

The problem here is that the pacing is very turgid, to the point where it seems like nothing of note goes on for ten, fifteen minutes at a time. Living on a Martian colony is, no doubt, hard. Watching a movie about it shouldn’t be. However, Rockefeller gets points for trying to do something a little bit different, and while we watch billionaires like Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos heading off into space to promote their own commercial ventures there, it reminds us that when actual colonization comes, it won’t be the wealthy feeding their own egos that will accomplish the feat; it will be ordinary men and women who will give everything, to struggle and die far away from out ancestral home, who will make our first footholds on other planets actually stick.

REASONS TO SEE: Impressive production values.
REASONS TO AVOID: Well-intentioned, but ultimately dull.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in South Africa’s Namaqualand desert, subbing for Mars.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews; Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Martian
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Joe Bell

Chimera Strain


Shades of sci-fi.

(2018) Science Fiction (Vertical) Henry Ian Cusick, Kathleen Quinlan, Erika Ervin, Jenna Harrison, Karishma Ahluwalia, Jennifer Giulameti, Raviv Haeems, Kaavya Jayarm, Lawrence Sampson. Directed by Maurice Haeems

 

There exists a jellyfish (Turritopsis) in nature that is virtually immortal. Poor scientist Quint (Cusick) is desperately trying to harvest the secret of the creature’s immortality in order to save his wife (Ahluwalia) and children from dying of a rare genetic disorder in a hard science sci-fi film (which went under the title Chimera during its initial festival run) from first-time writer-director Haeems.

He allies himself with Masterson (Quinlan), a billionaire who wants to save her own dying husband and is willing to see that Quint finishes his research, despite the fact that some of the research he needs – into stem cells – is forbidden by law. As Quint becomes more desperate, he begins to descend into madness, having long conversations with his comatose wife while his patient colleague Charlie (Harrison) looks on. Can Quint save his family and find the secret to immortality? And what price will he pay to find it? How far is he willing to go to save his wife and kids?

This is the kind of movie that wants to be a thinking person’s sci-fi film, but forgets that you need to have a viable story. Characters act against type and engage in tangential conversations that are ultimately meaningless to the plot other than to deliver philosophical broadsides to the audience. The movie looks nifty enough with a kind of world-going-to-the-dogs look to it, and lord knows the actors are doing their very best but they often look puzzled, as if they can’t figure out the dialogue they’ve been given to speak.

There are a lot of really deep concepts here (some cribbed from sources as diverse as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Modern Science), but sadly Haeems only gives them lip service rather than a deep dive. With a more experienced writer this might have been a really compelling science fiction opus.

REASONS TO SEE: Ideal for those who love esoteric science fiction.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many platitudes, not enough character development.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The names of the characters were all taken from the classic Henry James story Turn of the Screw
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Redbox, Roku Channel, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Replicas
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin

Stowaway


Space is a very lonely place.

(2021) Science Fiction (Netflix) Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson, Toni Collette, Dan Berry, Scott Manley. Directed by Joe Penna

 

Space is like the ocean. It is vast and uncaring, a dangerous environment that humans can’t survive in for very long. It is nonetheless necessary for humanity to travel in it if it is to leave our shores for other places, to expand our footprint and learn more about who we are and the universe we live in.

A spaceship is launched, bound for a new colony on Mars. The three-person crew is Marina Barnett (Collette), commander of the mission; Dr. David Kim (Kim), a biologist, and Dr. Zoe Levenson (Kendrick), the ship’s medic. There’s a bit of a glitch on liftoff, but otherwise things go smoothly and the trio find themselves on a two-year journey to Mars.

Except that there isn’t just three of them. Barnett discovers, in a crawlspace, Michael Adams (Anderson), a low-level engineer who had been making a final inspection before getting knocked unconscious. Because of the nature of the ship (it relies on slingshots from gravity wells and has little fuel aboard other than to make course corrections), returning to Earth is not an option. They might have to ration tings a bit, but they should be able to make it to Mars okay, and Adams manages to make himself a part of the crew, despite his initial panic and the awful realization that his developmentally disabled sister will be without him for an extended period of time.

But the accident that knocked him out also damaged the life support system and it becomes clear that the ship doesn’t have enough oxygen to sustain the four of them all the way to Mars. There’s only enough for three. And it will fall on Barnett to make the decision that will ultimately haunt them all, unless someone can figure out a way to delive additional oxygen to the crippled ship.

The hard science here is actually very believable; the type of ship that the crew are using is one that is actually being developed for manned missions to Mars. In that sense, the movie is more like The Martian and Gravity than the average space opera. The spaceship looks believably fragile and the production design is spot on.

There is also an impressive cast and they respond impressively. Kendrick is a bit of a revelation; this isn’t the kind of role she is normally cast in, but she turns out to be perfect for it. Her bubbly effervescence that has made her a star is coupled with a warm compassion and scientific competence that makes her character the most fully rounded of any in the movie. She serves as the film’s conscience and while Collette lends gravitas to the part (and is as always, excellent), Kendrick lends humanity. Kim, a marvelous actor who should be getting cast in lead roles at this point, continues to do wonderful work in supporting roles. Somebody give this guy a movie of his own!

One has to really suspend disbelief to accept that someone could even accidentally be left on board a spaceship that was being launched for Mars; it just doesn’t seem likely, not even in a commercial enterprise as depicted here. The ending, which follows a set piece that is as exciting and as nerve-wracking as any you’ll see in any major movie this year, is a bit maudlin and does dampen my enthusiasm for the film somewhat, but it shows the kind of movie that Netflix excels at releasing, and while I might wish this could be seen on a big screen (especially for the set piece I referred to earlier which would be absolutely spectacular), it nonetheless should be one that all Netflix subscribers should be checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong cast giving strong performances. Realistic in scope and feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: Preposterous plot and maudlin ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity and plenty of peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The spaceship set can now be experienced as part of the studio tour at Bavaria Filmstadt just south of Munich.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission to Mars
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Penny Black

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