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

Perception (2019)


It doesn’t take a psychic to figure out what’s coming in Perception.

(2018) Thriller (Gravitas Ventures) Wes Ramsey, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Caitlin Mehner, Max Jenkins, Jro, Vee Kumari, J. Barrett Cooper, Adam & Ali Zoumzoum, Valerie Jane Parker, Matthew Davis, Apollo Bacala, Kelly Mengelkoch, Takayla Williams, Tshombi Basemore, Davis Aguila, Daniel H. Shoemaker, Shaleen Cholera, John French, Sarah East. Directed by Ilana Rein

 

When we lose someone we care about, their spirit stays with us in a sense; they are on our mind as we hold on to their presence for as long as we can. We see them wherever we go; in memories and sometimes as apparitions from better days. We have a tendency to forget the bad memories but they’re there as well.

Daniel (Ramsey) is a high-powered go-getter at a bank that is foreclosing on a suburban shopping strip in L.A. that has seen better days. One of the last tenants of the strip mall is a palmistry shop. When a silent little boy named Hugo (Zoumzoum) stows away in Daniel’s SUV, he figures out that the boy might have come from the shop which, indeed, he has. His mom Nina (Kumbhani) is shocked – “he’s never done this kind of thing before,” she explains once she gets over the shock of seeing her boy with a complete stranger.

Out of a sense of gratitude she gives Daniel a free reading and tells him that he has a spirit attached to him, following him, someone recently deceased. “Your wife?” she inquires. In doing so, she hits a raw nerve. Maggie (Mehner) indeed passed away recently and Daniel is desperate to contact her, willing to pay anything if Nina can do the job for him. Nina’s business partner Jro (Jro) congratulates her on hooking what is an apparently wealthy fish and urges her to reel him in. In the meantime, Hugo is acting out in school and his teacher (East) suggests an expensive private school who can better take care of Hugo’s needs.

And so, Nina starts doing “sessions” with Daniel, even though she is shocked to discover that the spirit of Maggie is angry. “She’s in control,” Nina tells Daniel forthrightly, “She decides what memories she wants you to see.” Indeed, the memories of Maggie are not always pleasant but Daniel wants more. Nina is reluctant but she needs the money so she allows the sessions to go deeper but deeper is dangerous – much more dangerous than even she knows.

This thriller harkens back to the sort of psychosexual thrillers that were popular in the 90s, often as direct-to-VHS or cable. The supernatural element is never overplayed and although we see Maggie as a ghostly apparition once, mostly we see her in flashback.

Sadly, the script veers from what was a promising thriller into fairly cliché territory. Ramsey is a veteran soap opera actor and in some ways the sudsy froth of this script is likely familiar territory for him. Most of the acting performances are pretty strong, although as the movie reaches its climax Ramsey indulges in some serious scenery chewing. However, both Mehner and Kumbhani deliver strong performances and Jro delightfully steals the scenes that he appears in.

The pacing is pretty slow for most of the film and the script gives away a bit too much to make the big twist really effective. That’s the real shame; a little more imagination could have taken this film a long way. As it is it’s fairly mundane but not entirely without entertainment value.

REASONS TO SEE: The performances are for the most part decent.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-paced until the plot goes off the rails near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film had its world premiere at the world-famous Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Again
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Mars Needs Moms


 

Mars Needs Moms

Ki, Gribble and Milo look at the box office bomb descending on their heads.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney) Seth Green, Dan Fogler, Joan Cusack, Elizabeth Harnois, Mindy Sterling, Kevin Cahoon, Tom Everett Scott, Adam Jennings, Amber Gainey Meade, Julene Renee, Seth Dusky, Jo McGinley, Daniel James O’Connor. Directed by Simon Wells

 

Director Simon Wells has also done The Land Before Time and The Time Machine. This is significant because he’s the great-grandson of the legendary writer H.G. Wells who not only wrote The Time Machine but also War of the Worlds which depicted an attempted invasion of Earth by Martians. Here, they’re only after one specific Earthling.

Milo (Green, voiced by Dusky) is a stubborn, self-centered 11-year-old boy. That is, typical. He hates doing homework, won’t eat broccoli, lies to his mother (Cusack)  and says particularly cruel things to her. Dad (Scott) travels a lot so he’s not around much to help. When Milo voices the wish that his mother would not be around so that his life would be easier, his wish is granted – not by a kooky angel trying to earn his wings but by the Martians.

You see, they have a litter of hatchlings come to term every 25 years. Their mothers are far too busy to take care of the kids so they are entrusted to nanny-bots. Unfortunately the programming needs rebooting every 25 years or so, so an Earthling mom who shows the right stuff (the Martian culture is a rigid disciplinarian one) is kidnapped to download her memories into the nanny-bots. Unfortunately, the process destroys the mother forever.

Milo sees his mom being kidnapped and manages to stow away on the Martian spacecraft. On Mars, he meets Gribble (Fogler) whose mom was also kidnapped 25 years previously. He lets Milo know that he has until sunrise to save his mom or else poof. Unfortunately, Gribble was too late to save his mom, so he had to grow up all by himself without mom, dad or family, hiding out from the Martian police in a trash dump.

Aided by Ki (Harnois), a rebellious Martian girl that Gribble is sweet on, Milo sets out to rescue his mom from the clutches of the Supervisor (Sterling) but that is much easier said than done. He must overcome his somewhat less-than-reliable new friend and the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Martian police if he is going to save his mom – and even then, getting her back home may take even more doing.

This was badly mismarketed as a science fiction spoof rather than as a family adventure as it should have been. There are some truly poignant moments that work far better than the humorous ones, even though the film was based on a graphic novel by Berkeley Breathed, the creator of “Bloom County” and other politically-oriented strips.

Part of the problem is the motion capture technology used to animate the film. While there have been some decent motion capture films, one of the problems is that they never really get facial expressions right, giving the humans a kind of robotic emotion-less look. The same holds true here; there is no sparkle of life in these characters so they look kind of like re-animated dolls. It’s a bit creepy and I’m not alone in thinking that.

Cusack holds her own but Fogler’s comic relief is a bit lame – he doesn’t have the personality to pull off the rather weak dialogue. This became a major bomb for Disney and in a lot of ways has killed the motion capture subgenre altogether (plans to make a motion capture remake of Yellow Submarine were quietly shelved by Disney after Mars Needs Moms tanked) which might be a good thing – I think the technology has to improve before it becomes a viable artform.

Critics were surprisingly easy on the film, given some of the wooden performances both onscreen and vocally. The movie certainly has its champions but I think the public got it right on this one. It really isn’t a very good movie.

WHY RENT THIS: At times very moving, a treatise on the importance of family.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Motion capture still doesn’t quite capture facial expressions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some minor sci-fi action and peril, nothing that’s too rough for most kids except for the very youngest.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Disney’s worst box office loss ever and the fifth biggest bomb of all time (unadjusted for inflation).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.0M on a $150M production budget; the movie was a major financial bomb.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW:Hannibal