Category Archives: Dystopian

Stealing the sun from the day: Top 10 Eco-Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 21, 2018)

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Come on you world, won’t you give a damn?

Turn on some lights and see this garbage can

Time is the essence if we plan to stay

Death is in stride when filth is the pride of our home

-from “Powerful People” by Gino Vanelli

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first collective selfie…the “Earthrise” photo from the Apollo 8 mission. It may seem “ho-hum” now, but it provided a profound moment of “cosmic perspective” (if I borrow one of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s favorite phrases) for anyone in the world who gave a damn.

The iconic portrait was taken on Christmas Eve, 1968 by Apollo 8 crew member Major William A. Anders. The story behind the photo is recounted on NASA’s official website:

Anders said their job was not to look at the Earth, but to simulate a lunar mission. It was not until things had calmed down and they were on their way to the moon that they actually got to look back and take a picture of the Earth as they had left it.

“That’s when I was thinking ‘that’s a pretty place down there,'” Anders said. “It hadn’t quite sunk in like the Earthrise picture did, because the Earthrise had the Earth contrasted with this ugly lunar surface.”

Anders described the view of Earth before Earthrise “kind of like the classroom globe sitting on a teacher’s desk, but no country divisions. It was about 25,000 miles away where you could still recognize continents.”

Yes, that is a “pretty place down there.” Be a shame if anything happened to it:

The Trump administration’s tumultuous first year has brought a flurry of changes—both realized and anticipated—to U.S. environmental policy. Many of the actions roll back Obama-era policies that aimed to curb climate change and limit environmental pollution, while others threaten to limit federal funding for science and the environment.

It’s a lot to keep track of, so National Geographic will be maintaining an abbreviated timeline of the Trump administration’s environmental actions and policy changes, as well as reactions to them. We will update this article periodically as news develops.

Needless to say, many “updates” follow that intro (the most recent one is from April 6, and there will be more to come). Bookmark the link, if you dare (sick bag on standby).

So…are you doing anything special for Earth Day (April 22)? It almost seems counter-productive to have a once-a-year Earth “day”, because when you stop to think about it for about 5 seconds, shouldn’t every day be “earth day”? It sort of devalues the importance of taking care of our planet (since we appear to have only been issued the one “pretty place”, best to my knowledge).

At any rate, in honor of Earth Day, here are my picks for the Top 10 “eco-flicks”. Per usual, my list is alphabetical; no ranking order. As long as you don’t print out a hardcopy, this week’s post is 100% biodegradable (it’s a com-post!).

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Chasing Ice– Jeff Orlowski’s film is glacially paced; meaning: these days, “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. Glaciers are moving along (”retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. This does not portend well for the planet. To put it in a less flowery way…we’re fucked. After all, according to renowned nature photographer (and subject of Orlowski’s film) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”

Balog’s fascinating journey began in 2005, while he was on an assignment in the Arctic for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change. Up until that fateful trip, he candidly admits he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of having an effect on weather patterns in such a profound manner. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project utilizing specially modified time-lapse cameras to capture irrefutable proof that the tangible effects of global warming had transcended academic speculation.

The resulting images are beautiful and mesmerizing, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film itself mirrors the dichotomy, being in equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. The images handily trump the squawking that emits from bloviating global climate deniers in the opening montage, and proves a picture is worth 1000 words.

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The Emerald Forest– Although it may give an initial impression as a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.

Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting him at his job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his barely recognizable, now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his heartbroken wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the reluctant young man back into “civilization”. Tautly directed, lushly photographed and well-acted.

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Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster-I know what you’re thinking: there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes. But who ever said an environmental “message” movie couldn’t also provide mindless, guilty fun? Let’s have a little action. Knock over a few buildings. Wreak havoc. Crash a wild party on the rim of a volcano with some Japanese flower children. Besides, Godzilla is on our side for a change. Watch him valiantly battle Hedora, a sludge-oozing toxic avenger out to make mankind collectively suck on his grody tailpipe. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Save the Earth”-my vote for “best worst” song ever from a film (much less a monster movie!).

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An Inconvenient Truth– I re-watched this recently; I hadn’t seen it since it opened in 2006, and it struck me how it now plays less like a warning bell and more like the nightly news.  It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi is now scientific fact. Former VP/Nobel winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that Gore and director Davis Guggenheim’s chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming only reveals the tip of the iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Koyannisqatsi– In 1982, this innovative, genre-defying film quietly made its way around the art houses; it’s now a cult favorite. Directed by activist/ex-Christian monk Godfrey Reggio, with beautiful cinematography by Ron Fricke (who later directed Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara) and music by Philip Glass (who also scored Reggio’s sequels), it was considered a transcendent experience by some; New Age hokum by others (count me as a fan).

The title (from ancient Hopi) translates as “life out of balance” The narrative-free imagery, running the gamut from natural vistas to scenes of First World urban decay, is open for interpretation. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (“parasitic way of life”), focusing on the First World’s drain on Third World resources, then book-ended his trilogy with Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”).

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Manufactured Landscapes-A unique eco-documentary from Jennifer Baichwal about photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is an “earth diarist” of sorts. While his photographs are striking, they don’t paint a pretty picture of our fragile planet. Burtynsky’s eye discerns a terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated modernization. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on an almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs play like a scroll through Google Earth images, as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock. An eye-opener.

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Princess Mononoke– Anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have raised the bar on the art form over the past several decades. This 1997 Ghibli production is one of their most visually resplendent. Perhaps not as “kid-friendly” as per usual, but many of the usual Miyazaki themes are present: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and pacifist angst in a violent world. The lovely score is by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. For another Miyazaki film with an environmental message, check out Nausicaa Valley of the Wind.

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Queen of the Sun- I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film did just that. Appearing at first to be a distressing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its increasing frequency over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these tiny yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. Humans may harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these busy little creatures are, in fact, the boss of us.

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Silent Running– In space, no one can hear you trimming the verge! Bruce Dern is an agrarian antihero in this 1972 sci-fi adventure, directed by legendary special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Produced around the time “ecology” was a buzzword, its message may seem a little heavy-handed today, but the film remains a cult favorite.

Dern is the gardener on a commercial space freighter that houses several bio-domes, each dedicated to preserving a species of vegetation (in this bleak future, the Earth is barren of organic growth). While it’s a 9 to 5 drudge gig to his blue collar shipmates, Dern sees his cultivating duties as a sacred mission. When the interests of commerce demand the crew jettison the domes to make room for more lucrative cargo, Dern goes off his nut, eventually ending up alone with two salvaged bio-domes and a trio of droids (Huey, Dewey and Louie!) who play Man Friday to his Robinson Crusoe. Joan Baez contributes two songs on the soundtrack.

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Soylent Green– Based on a Harry Harrison novel, Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film is set in 2022, when traditional culinary fare is but a dim memory, due to overpopulation and environmental depletion. Only the wealthy can afford the odd tomato or stalk of celery; most of the U.S. population lives on processed “Soylent Corporation” product. The government encourages the sick and the elderly to politely move out of the way by providing handy suicide assistance centers (considering the current state of our Social Security system, that doesn’t sound like much of a stretch anymore, does it?).

Oh-there is some ham served up onscreen, courtesy of Charlton Heston’s scenery-chewing turn as a NYC cop who is investigating the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive. Edward G. Robinson’s moving death scene has added poignancy; as it preceded his passing (from cancer) by less than two weeks after the production wrapped.

…and singing us out, Gino Vanelli:

 

But not to last: Blade Runner 2049 ***½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 14, 2017)

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Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found in every phylum and order including the arachnida.

—from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

What truly defines “being human”? Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “existence precedes and rules essence”. One must assume that he was talking about human beings, because after all, he was one, offering his (“its”?) definition as to what “being human” is.

Which begs this question: what sparks “existence”? To which people usually answer some “thing” or some “one”. I opened my 2015 review of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie with this quote from mathematician and cryptologist I.J. Good (an associate of Alan Turing):

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Such questions and suppositions form the core of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir about a dystopian near-future where the presence of commercially manufactured “replicants” (near-humans with specialized functions and a built-in 4-year life span) has become routine.

Should there ever be a need to ascertain whether “someone” is a human or a replicant, a procedure called the Voight-Kampf Test is administered. In essence, this series of questions (in conjunction with careful monitoring of autonomic physical responses like heart rate) determines whether or not the subject has empathy for others.

In one scene, “blade runner” Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job is to hunt down and “retire” aberrant replicants, reluctantly indulges the creator/CEO of the company that manufactures them by giving the test to the CEO’s assistant (a woman Deckard has no reason to suspect as being anything but human).

When “Rachel” (Sean Young) does turn out to be a replicant, the usually unflappable Deckard is agog; once he’s informed “she” (an advanced prototype) is completely unaware she’s not an employee of the company but rather its “product”, he’s perplexed. “How could it not know what it is?” he demands.

In The Philosophy of Neo-Noir (edited by Mark T. Conard), there is an essay with a unique angle on the film by Judith Barad, called “Blade Runner and Sartre”. She writes:

Although the replicants of Blade Runner are engineered to act and reason as humans, they can’t choose their own essence. This inability is, in Sartre’s view, what differentiates any manufactured being from humans. The replicants fulfill a certain function; as members of a series, they didn’t choose their essence. […]

To be human means to create oneself–the emotions one chooses to feel, the beliefs one chooses to retain, and the actions one chooses to perform. […]

In Sartre’s terms, Deckard thinks of replicants as things that exist only to fulfill the essence, the purpose created for them by human beings. At the same time, he is unaware that he has allowed his society to program this belief, a prejudice, into his mind. […]

Blade Runner and Sartre urge us to escape this programming and become authentically human.

If you are a fan of the film, you are likely aware that the two biggest unanswered questions left hanging in 1982 were 1) Was Rachel’s “authentically human” sense of empathy programmed…or was she truly the breakthrough that her “creator” seemed to infer by his cryptic comment that she was “special”? and 2) the biggie I’ve seen people nearly come to blows over: Was Deckard himself a replicant?

Questions…

I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is: “Are the ‘big’ questions answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. Which is to say, this is a difficult film to review without risking spoilers, so I am not going into any great detail on plot points (the least I can do for those of you who have made it this far into my “review” and are starting to worry you’ve stumbled into a Philosophy 101 class).

I can assure you that I am not a replicant, because when I heard someone was going to tackle a sequel to an idiosyncratic sci-fi  classic with a rabid cult following like Blade Runner, I was fully prepared to have empathy for whoever ended up at the helm. Ridley Scott was originally slated to do it himself, but for whatever reason or circumstance ended up as producer, with Villeneuve directing. I can’t help but speculate that he felt the same pressure that Peter Hyams surely experienced making 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

As implied in the title, the story is set 30 years after the events in the original film. The protagonist is a blade runner named “K” (Ryan Gosling) who, like Deckard, works for the LAPD. Newer-model replicants are more docile (like electric sheep?). However, there are still enough of the older, buggier models lurking out there in the ether to warrant keeping the blade runners on active duty. This is evidenced right out of the gate, as we watch K being left with no choice but to “retire” a truculent gentleman out in the boonies.

When K detects skeletal remains on the recently retired replicant’s property, it sets off an investigation that catches the keen interest of many parties, from K’s commanding officer at the Department (Robin Wright) to the powerful CEO of the monopolistic android-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation (Jared Leto). And yes, one Rick Deckard as well (Harrison Ford). What ensues actually has less in common with the original Blade Runner…as it does with Children of Men, Logan’s Run, and Angel Heart.

Bad news first? The story line is not as deep or complex as the film makers undoubtedly want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90 minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time.

However, the “language” of film being two-fold (aural and visual), I must say the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing. This is due in no small part to the artful eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Sid and Nancy, Stormy Monday, Fargo, A Beautiful Mind, Skyfall, et.al), who really knocks it out of the park.

While I alluded to the lengthiness of the film (and you will need to clear some time), I was never bored. In fact, I savored the leisurely pace and immersive visuals; so many sci-fi films these days needlessly assault the eardrums and are so jarringly flash-cut as to induce vertigo (keep in mind that cerebral sci-fi films like Kubrick’s 2001 and Tartovsky’s Solaris were panned upon initial release as being slow-moving or overlong…like this 1000+ word review).

Gosling delivers another one of his Steve McQueen-ish performances (which some might call deadpan…but it works). In addition to Ford (who has 15 minutes or so of screen time), there is a cameo that should delight fans of the original (and his origami skills have not waned). Leto’s choices are…interesting; they may have better served him as a Bond villain; ditto for his “henchwoman” (played with aplomb by Sylvia Hoeks), recalling Famke Janssen’s “Xenia Onatopp” in Goldeneye. Ana de Armas does the best she can as a holographic companion that feels lifted from Steve De Jarnatt’s 1988 film Cherry 2000.

All in all, Villeneuve has made a sequel that faithfully adheres to the ethos and the physical universe of the original film. It doesn’t necessarily add anything to the original; nor on the other hand does it diminish its “stand-alone” status. You may not find answers to all of those questions I discussed earlier, but you could find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credits roll.

After all, as the acrobatic “Pris” declared in the 1982 film (by way of quoting Descartes), “I think, therefore I am.” Isn’t that what makes us human? OK, that character was a replicant, but that’s beside the point. At least she “lived”, right?

But then again, who does?

Blu-ray reissue: Metropolis (2001) ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Metropolis – Eureka Blu-ray (Region “B”)

Japanese director Rintaro’s visually resplendent 2001 anime is based on Osama Tezuka’s manga re-imagining of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film classic. The narrative (adapted by Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo) is framed as a detective story (not unlike Blade Runner), with a PI and his nephew attempting to unravel the mystery of Tima, a fugitive robot girl who has become a pawn in a byzantine conspiracy involving a powerful and corrupt family that rules Metropolis. Intelligent writing, imaginative production design and beautifully realized animation make this a must-see. Extras include interviews with cast and crew, and a “making of” documentary.

[Note: Region “B” edition; a multi-region Blu-ray player is required]

SIFF 2017: Infinity Baby **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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Merely posing as a “near-future” dystopia tale, Austin-based director Bob Byington’s film is really an examination of modern romance. In other words, it’s only “sci-fi” in the sense that Woody Allen’s Sleeper was “sci-fi” (if you catch my drift). A douchey hipster (Kieran Culkin) with a fear of commitment works for a company that holds a patent on a genetic modification that creates “infinity babies”…human infants forever frozen at 3 months old who never cry and require only weekly feedings and diaper changes (which makes it a fantasy for a lot of first-time parents, I’m guessing?). Onur Tukel’s fitful screenplay works best whenever it steers away from the sci-fi elements and focuses instead on wry observation and passive-aggressive verbal jousting.

I bling the body electric: Chappie ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 7, 2015)

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The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

While the “A-I gone awry” prototype dates as far back as the metallic “Maria” in the 1927 silent Metropolis, it was “HAL 9000” that took techno-phobia to a new level, spawning a sci-fi film sub-genre that includes The Demon Seed, Colossus: The Forbin Project, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Robocop, I, Robot, and (of course) A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

There are echoes of all the aforementioned (plus a large orange soda) in Chappie, the third feature film from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp. In this outing, Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg (which provided the backdrop for his 2009 debut, District 9). And for the third time in a row, his story takes place in a near-future dystopia  (call me Sherlock, but I’m sensing a theme).

Johannesburg is a crime-riddled hellhole, ruled by ultra-violent drug lords and roving gangs of thugs. The streets are so dangerous that the police department is reticent to put officers on the front lines. So they do what any self-respecting police department of a near-future dystopia does…they send droids out to apprehend criminals.

The popularity of these programmable robocops has created lucrative contracts for Tetravaal, the company which employs mild-mannered designer Deon (Dev Patel). In his spare time, Deon has been working on an A.I. chip that approximates “consciousness”.

Jacked on Red Bull, Deon pulls an all-niter and makes his breakthrough. Excited, Deon approaches Tetravaal’s CEO (Sigourney Weaver) with a proposal to work up a prototype. Unfortunately, she doesn’t share his vision, and Deon is laughed out of her office. Who needs a police droid with “feelings”, right?

Determined to carry out his experiment, he re-appropriates a damaged droid scheduled for destruction. Before he can make it safely home,  he is carjacked and abducted by a trio of inept gang bangers (Ninja, Yolandi Visser, and Jose Pablo Cantillo) who figure they can coerce Deon into securing them a remote control that shuts down police droids (they are only speculating such a device exists).

What they do end up with is a droid with self-awareness, and the ability to absorb and mimic human behavior. Will he “grow up” as the enlightened being that his Gepetto-like creator intended, or will he turn into the “gangsta” that his thug “Daddy” wants him to be?

Through their creation of the character “Chappie”, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell have managed to put a fresh spin on a well-worn trope. When you cut through all the obligatory action tropes, “his” story resonates at its core with a universal, timeless appeal. The film has more in common with Oliver Twist than with Robocop.  Chappie is, by definition of his inception, an “orphan”; innocent and pure of heart. The child-like droid is shuffled by fate into the thug life, where he is tutored in street smarts and criminal behavior by “Ninja”, who plays Fagin to his Oliver (on one level, Blomkamp and Tatchell are exploring the “nature vs nurture” theme).

This is a return to form for the director, especially after his slightly disappointing sophomore effort Elysium. I really got a kick out of the performances, especially the scene-stealing Ninja and Visser, who are slumming from their day job as rap outfit Die Antwoord (apparently popular with the “zef” crowd…I’ll let you look that up, like grandpa had to prepping this review). Hugh Jackman hams it up as a heavy, and Blomkamp’s favorite leading man Sharlto Copley does a marvelous job breathing “life” and personality into Chappie (move over, Andy Serkis). BTW, despite my references to Pinocchio and David Copperfield, this one is definitely not for the kids; it’s rated ‘R’ .

Stop the world, I want to get off: Elysium *** & Europa Report **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 10, 2013)

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It’s tempting to take the political allegory in Neill Blomkamp’s new sci-fi action adventure Elysium and run with it. But I am going to take the high road. I’m not going to shoot you a Palin-esque wink as I tell you the year is 2154, and the human race is reduced to two classes: the super-rich, who have ensconced themselves in a glorified gated community called Elysium (a gargantuan bio-domed space station in Earth’s orbit) and the rest of humanity, who have been ghettoized back on Earth, which has fallen into ecological and economic ruin.

The Earth rabble try to infiltrate the 1 per-centers’ big wheel in the sky via “illegal” shuttle crafts,  but those lucky enough make it past Elysium’s formidable Star Wars missile defense system and land are captured by police droids and deported back to Earth (note I’m still keeping a straight face). Screw it. I reveled in the political allegory.

I especially reveled in Jodie Foster’s turn as Elysium’s icy Secretary Delacourt, who usurps the President’s ineffectual requests to take it down a notch on these strident Homeland Security measures (and if she didn’t base her characterization on Governor Jan Brewer, then Stephen Colbert actually is a conservative pundit).

Meanwhile, back in the States, we meet Max (Matt Damon), an ex-con who works at a dreary droid manufacturing plant in L.A. The Los Angeles of 2154 resembles a giant favela (it makes the Blade Runner rendition of the City of Angels seem Utopian). Nearly everyone speaks Spanish (now…settle). Those lucky enough to have a job are mercilessly exploited by their employers (I said: settle!). While there are hospitals, they are understaffed and ill-equipped to treat catastrophic illnesses; whereas on Elysium, every mansion come equipped with a miracle medical appliance that seems to cure everything from paper cuts to cancer via cellular regeneration.

All of these mitigating factors are about to converge into a perfect shit storm for our protagonist. A work accident exposes Max to a lethal amount of radiation. He’s told he has 5 days to live and given a bottle of painkillers. His only chance for a cure is on Elysium.

Desperate, he reaches out to an old acquaintance (Wagner Moura), now a successful smuggler, to see if he can arrange passage. As Max is somewhat short on funds, the smuggler offers a trade deal. If Max does a special “job” for him, he’ll get him on a shuttle. Max agrees, but the gig goes south, and he’s on the run from an odious mercenary (Sharlto Copley) who does covert operations for Secretary Delacourt.

What ensues is a mashup of Escape from New York with Seven Days in May (granted, Max is no Snake Plissken, but he’s in the same ball park). As he did in his 2009 feature film debut District 9, Blomkamp deftly delivers a strong political message and slam-bang sci-fi action entertainment all in one package. While Damon is unquestionably the star, I think Copley (who seems to be establishing a Scorcese-De Niro/Herzog-Kinski type partnership with the director) nearly steals the movie with his deliriously over-the-top performance (his character is the best scene-stealing sci-fi heavy since Dennis Hopper and his eye patch played to the back of the house in Waterworld).

Oh, by the way…the best part about this film is that the real show hasn’t even started yet. There is an unmistakable, marvelously unapologetic pro-Obamacare message in the denouement that is surely going to leave the “Aha! It’s another piece of Hollywood lefty socialist propaganda!” crowd apoplectic and sputtering with impotent rage. They are going to go absolutely spare (if they haven’t gone so already). Personally, I can’t wait. Pass the popcorn…

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Film makers who aim to create “realistic” sci-fi dramas are faced with a conundrum: While it may be true that “It’s not about  ‘destination’,  but rather the journey”, an inconvenient truth remains…real life space journeys are tedious (Apollo 13 aside). Even our nearest interstellar travel destination (the Moon) takes 4 days (I don’t know about you, but I get antsy after 4 hours on a plane). So if you want to do a realistic film about a Jupiter mission, how do you add drama? OK, Kubrick  did it  in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that set a high bar.

To their credit, for about two-thirds of their hyper-realistic sci-fi drama Europa Report, director Sebastian Cordero and screenwriter Philip Gelatt seem headed for that bar. Framing the narrative with the “found footage” gimmick, the film is a faux-documentary that “reconstructs” a privately-funded mission to Jupiter’s moon of Europa to probe for signs of aquatic alien life beneath its ice pack. The six crew members have each been chosen for expertise in their respective fields. Shipboard footage capturing the workaday mission minutiae is interspersed with somber “present day” interviews telegraphing that it all ends in tears (don’t worry…not a spoiler).

Most of the filmmaker’s effort focuses on making us believe that this is all really happening, and indeed the overall “look” is right. Special effects are seamless; all the hardware, the radio chatter, EVA procedures etc. etc. suitably authentic and convincing, but there’s one thing missing…an interesting story. There’s simply no “there” there, and the sudden 180 into The Blair Witch Project territory in the third act cheapens the film and destroys all credibility.

The cast (which includes Michael Nykvist and the ubiquitous Sharlto Copley) do the best they can with woefully underwritten parts, but the resultant lack of emotional investment on my part as a viewer made it hard for me to care about what happened to whom once the mission (and the film itself) began to go horribly, horribly awry.

SIFF 2013: Die Wand **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2013)

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Adapting first-person narratives like Marlen Haushofer’s dystopian novel Die Wand (The Wall) for the screen can be a tricky affair. Consider Julian Roman Polsler’s film, wherein our heroine (Martina Gedeck) wakes up one morning and finds that an invisible, encircling “wall” has confined her within the perimeter of an Alpine lodge, with only a dog, a cow and woodland animals for company. As she adapts to her Robinson Crusoe lifestyle, she begins keeping a journal. Since she has no one to converse with, we get voice over narration. A lot of voice over narration. Gedeck (a skilled actress) is left with little to do but stare into space. There’s a lot of staring into space. Atmospheric, nicely shot, but ultimately it is little more than a picture postcard-festooned exercise in tedium.

Will it go round in circles? – Looper ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2012)

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My dinner with me: Willis and Gordon-Levitt talking to themselves.

If there’s a cardinal rule of time-travel I’ve gleaned from watching sci-fi movies over the years, it’s this: make sure that you never, ever “meet” yourself. Why? Dunno, really, just that you’re not supposed to. I imagine it could be quite unnerving, in either direction. I mean, it’s traumatic enough looking at that dorky version of my younger self in that yearbook photo, and who in their right mind is chomping at the bit to get a sneak preview of themselves in drooling dotage?

In his stylish and ultra-violent sci-fi thriller Looper, writer-director Rian Johnson not only breaks the cardinal rule, but manages to violate a few that haven’t been invented yet (see what I did there?). Johnson has himself a jolly old time exploring the potential fluidity of the time-space continuum, toying with causality and paradox like a kitten batting a ball of yarn all about the room with gleeful abandon.

The year is 2044, and America is a dystopia (it took that long?). The economy has gone 2008 for good, crime is rampant and 1 out of every 10 people has a mutation that gives them the power to levitate objects at will (although for a majority of the afflicted, their abilities are limited to the occasional Uri Geller parlor trick). Jobs are scarce; the biggest “job creator” is organized crime (again…it took that long?).

And yes, they still have plenty of gigs for hit men in the future; especially for  “loopers”.  Loopers have a relatively easy time of it; unlike your standard assassin, who has to meticulously plan the right time and the right place to do a hit, the looper simply shows up for “work” at a designated spot, where the target-bound, hooded and festooned with a set of silver bars, is delivered to him like an overnight FedEx package…from 30 years in the future (don’t ask…just enjoy your delicious buttered popcorn and accept it).

Pretty easy job, wouldn’t you say? The hours are good, the wages are decent, and loopers party like rock stars when they go out on the town. However, there is a calculated risk every looper takes by choosing this career path. “Retirement” (at least in the traditional sense) isn’t necessarily part of the equation. Should your bosses (who can be a fickle lot) determine that for whatever reason your services will no longer be required, they send the older version of yourself back to the present so that your younger self can take you out. This is referred to by the higher-ups as “closing the loop”.

Naturally, they don’t give you a heads up; it’s just another anonymous hooded victim who appears out of thin air in the middle of a cornfield somewhere in Kansas. Either way, you never see it coming. Ergo, as looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) confides with self-effacing irony in voice-over, this is not a profession that attracts “forward-thinkers”. Joe does have plans; he’s stashing all his silver bars and learning to speak French. Everything is going swimmingly for young Joe until that one fateful day in the cornfield, when his Victim du jour turns out to be… “old” Joe (Bruce Willis), who manages to flee. Uh-oh.

I’ll leave it there, and let you discover and enjoy the surprising twists and turns in your own time (in a manner of speaking). While there are some obvious touchstones here (primarily 12 Monkeys, The Terminator and Logan’s Run, with a few echoes of Groundhog Day) Johnson has fashioned a clever and original thriller that’s smarter than your average modern sci-fi action flick, yet not so self-consciously “meaningful” as to drown in its own self-importance (i.e., the director remembers to entertain the audience along the way).

Most notably, there’s an emphasis on character development (remember that?) and a palpable focus on the quality of the writing that is sorely lacking in most genre entries these days. The production design, special effects and atmospheric flourishes are “futuristic” without going over the top. It’s the little touches I especially enjoyed, like the fact that the time travel device is clearly modeled after George Pal’s design for his 1960 version of The Time Machine. Gordon-Levitt and Willis are terrific, and there are strong supporting performances from Jeff Daniels and Emily Blunt. See it now. See it later. It doesn’t really matter…time being relative and all.

I owe my soles to the company store: Repo Men **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 20, 2010)

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Inside scoopers: Jude Law and Forest Whitaker in Repo Men

You could say that the new sci-fi action thriller Repo Men is a film with heart-as well as kidneys, livers, lungs and the odd spleen. David Cronenberg meets John Woo at the corner of Brazil and Logan’s Run in this dystopian vision of a near-future in which life-extending high-tech advancements in organ replacement have become available to all.

Teabaggers needn’t panic-it isn’t a government-sponsored health care program; as long as you flash a credit card, make a down payment and sign up for an EZ installment plan, you too can be the happy recipient of a shiny new mechanical bladder (hopefully bereft of any “sudden acceleration” issues). There is one catch. If your account goes delinquent, a repo man is sent to retrieve it…with no regards as to anything else it might be attached to.

Organ repo is a messy job, but somebody has to do it; somebody who is stealthy, skilled with knives, impervious to pleas for mercy, has a good gag reflex and doesn’t mind paperwork. Remy (Jude Law) and his long time partner Jake (Forest Whitaker) are two such men. For example, Jake has no problem excusing himself from a backyard barbecue  to perform a quick “favor”-the unceremonious disembowelment of a deadbeat client in the driveway, then returning to the business of grilling hot dogs and shooting the shit with family and co-workers. As he reminds Remy, “A job… is a job.”

Remy has been suffering through a personal crisis . His wife (Carice van Houten) is at the end of her rope; she’s tired of him leapngi out of bed at 3am to go running off into the night so he can yank out some hapless debtor’s entrails in order to keep food on the table. Under threat of separation, she’s pressuring him to go into sales-but he’s a repo man, through and through, and knows he’s not, erm, cut out for sales (you could say he’s more of an “opener” than a “closer”). The weaselly head of sales (Liev Schreiber) knows that as well-Remy is his number one man in the field, and he’d prefer to keep him there.

Fate intervenes when Remy suffers a heart attack while out on a call. Awakening from a coma, he discovers that he’s being kept alive with a “Jarvik-39”. The bad news is that he can’t recall signing the sales contract that now makes him an indebted client of his own employer, which makes him subject to that fine print about overdue accounts. I’ll give you three guesses as to what happens next.

Although Repo Men borrows freely from the films I mentioned earlier, it is directed with a certain amount of verve by Miguel Sapochnik. The screenplay, adapted by Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner from Garcia’s own novel The Repossession Mambo, works best when it waxes satirical, which helps take the edge off the gruesome aspects.

Although I am quite squeamish when it comes to blood and guts, the “repossessions” didn’t bother me; perhaps because it was so over the top as to be cartoonish. The action scenes are stylish and well-choreographed, which moves things along. One kinky and visceral scene sure to have audiences buzzing involves Law and Alice Braga (as a character who is like the Bionic Woman-with bad credit). I wouldn’t exactly call it a “sex” scene, but it is consensual, and does involve penetration (that’s all I’m prepared to disclose at this time).

I’ve gleaned some fan boy hysteria on the web concerning this film’s alleged similarities to the indie musical Repo: The Genetic Opera, which I have not seen, nor frankly had ever heard of until I was doing some background research for my review. So alas, I can only offer ambivalence regarding this particular issue. Then again, if I allowed myself to lose sleep over every Hollywood script that was cloned from another Hollywood script, I would suffer terminal insomnia.

It is kismet that the film is opening just as the health care bill debacle is coming to a head. I’m sure the filmmakers see that merely as happy coincidence, as I didn’t sense any purposeful political subtext (aside that one could interpret the film to represent the speculative extreme of an unregulated free market-health care system, just as Robocop did for the concept of corporate-run law enforcement). Aw, hell, I’m thinking too much. See it for the cool action scenes.

DVD Reissue: Max Headroom ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 7, 2010)

Video killed the radio star

And then committed suicide

Doug Powell, “Empty Vee”

The original maven of the matrix has returned. The belated release of ABC-TV’s late 80s one-season wonder, Max Headroom on DVD has given sci-fi geeks a nice little lift from the midsummer doldrums (hey-why is everybody looking at me like I’m some kind of a nerd?).

In case you spent the 80s in a coma, or you’re too young to remember, “Max Headroom” was a fictional, computer-generated TV personality who was created via a blend of live-action camera, prosthetics and old-school animation techniques. First appearing in 1985 on Channel 4 in the U.K. as the host for a weekly, MTV-style music video/variety show, the hip, irreverent and oh-so-sardonic Max was indelibly brought to “life” by the comic improvisations of square-jawed Canadian actor Matt Frewer, backed by a bevy of hip writers (it’s like Robin Williams mind-melded with HAL 9000).

The original one-hour pilot that kicked off the British variety series in 1985 provided a back story for the character, and was quite an impressive production. An imaginative mash-up of Brazil, Network and The Parallax View, it is set in a dystopian metropolis some “20 minutes into the future” and concerns an investigative journalist (Frewer) who works for a media conglomerate called Network 23.

He is hot on the trail of his own employers, who have developed a secretive video technology that can deliver a huge cache of subliminal advertising to unwitting TV viewers in a matter of seconds; such a huge amount of information, in fact, that some people have an adverse physical reaction (OK, they explode-don’t worry, not a spoiler). A shadowy conspiracy thriller ensues. While fleeing would-be assassins, he runs smack into a parking gate arm (emblazoned with the warning “Max Headroom”). Soon thereafter, his memory and persona is “saved” and downloaded into a hard drive, which then transmogrifies into the “Max” we all know and love.

I remember first seeing the British pilot here in the states on Cinemax, which kicked off the domestic version of the variety series (only a handful of installments, which aired back in 1986). Unfortunately (most likely due to legal snafus) that original pilot is not included in the DVD set; if you scrounge around secondhand stores and yard sales you may spot the odd VHS copy (I found mine for $3 at a Hollywood Video a couple years ago when they were liquidating VHS inventory). I recommend catching it, if you haven’t.

What is included is the 14 episode season that aired on ABC in 1987, a coveted cult item. The reworked U.S. pilot  follows the same basic story line (although not quite as gritty and technically accomplished as the original) and sets up the character dynamics for the series. Frewer reprises his dual role as investigative TV journalist Edison Carter and his alter-ego, Max. Also retained from the original pilot are the lovely Amanda Pays (as Edison’s controller) and the delightful William Morgan Sheppard as “Blank Reg”, a Mohawk-sporting pirate cable channel entrepreneur. The always dependable Jeffrey Tambor was recruited for the U.S. series to play Carter’s producer.

Something else retained for the U.S. series (and much to its benefit) was a good portion of the original British production and writing team. As I’ve been working my way through the episodes over the past week, it amazes me how subversive the show was for U.S. network TV; especially with its unapologetic leftist, anti-corporate, anti-consumer culture message. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s not surprising that it was yanked after one season. Sad as it is for me to say, you would never see a show like this on American television now that dared to challenge the status quo (the X-Files had its moments, but cloaked them in horror-show silliness, more often than not).

Some of the story lines are quite prescient, dealing with themes like the advent of social networking, cyber-crime, and the merging of the technocracy with the idiocracy (which any casual perusal of YouTube will confirm). Perhaps what resonates most significantly in hindsight is the show’s depiction of news as infotainment and an insidiously corporate-controlled media (dismissed by many as far-fetched paranoid fantasy 23 years ago). Worth ch-ch-ch-checking out.