Category Archives: Sci-Fi

SIFF 2017: Time Trap *

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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The discovery of a rusted-out VW van near the entrance of an underground cavern prompts a Texas professor/spelunker to investigate what happened to his parents, who mysteriously vanished decades before. Concerned that the professor himself may have now disappeared, two of his students organize a search party, dragging several other friends and young siblings along. From that point forward, it’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink miss-mash of time portals, Spanish conquistadors, Neanderthals, aliens, The Fountain of Youth, a magic ring and the end of the world. The only thing missing is a cohesive narrative (and perhaps a MST3K riff track?). Co-directors Mark Dennis and Ben Foster desperately want us to connect the dots with 1980s films like The Goonies. So I’ll play along: this is the most indecipherable sci-fi mess since Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce.

SIFF 2017: Rocketmen **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Well, if you (like me) have completely missed out on the web series concerning “…the deranged comedic adventures of Seattle’s little-known protectors, The Department of Municipal Rocketry”, have I got news for you. It’s now been distilled into a handy feature film. The result? A feature film that looks like a web series. On film. As someone who loves cheesy 50s sci-fi and the old Republic serials, I “get” what writer-director-animator Webster Crowell was going for here; his cast is obviously having fun, and his self-animated special effects are cleverly interwoven, but-it never quite takes off.

Blu-ray reissue: The Quiet Earth ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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The Quiet Earth Film Movement Classics Blu-ray

In the realm of “end of the world” movies, there are two genre entries in particular, both from the mid-80s, that I have become emotionally attached to (for whatever reason). One of them is Miracle Mile (my review), and the other is this 1985 New Zealand import, which has garnered a huge cult following.

Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a tour de force performance, playing a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman. The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris).

Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek. Film Movement’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous 2k transfer, and a commentary track by critic Odie Henderson and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (although-even Tyson can’t explain that ending!).

Blu-ray reissue: The Man Who Fell to Earth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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The Man Who Fell to Earth: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition                  Studio Canal Region “B” Blu-ray*

 If there was ever a film and a star that were made for each other, it was director Nicolas Roeg’s mind-blowing 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the late great David Bowie. Several years after retiring his “Ziggy Stardust” stage persona, Bowie was coaxed back to the outer limits to inhabit Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a drought-stricken planet who crash-lands on Earth. Gleaning our planet as a water source, Newton formulates a long-range plan for transporting the precious resource back to his home world. In the interim, he becomes an enigmatic hi-tech magnate (kind of makes you wonder where Bill Gates really came from).

A one-of-a-kind film, with excellent supporting performances from Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry. The Studio Canal Edition has a gorgeous new 4K transfer, a second disc packed with extras, and a bonus CD of “Papa” John Phillips’ soundtrack.  Lionsgate will be releasing the domestic version of this set in January 2017.

*Note: Region “B” requires a region-free player (they’re getting cheaper!).

SIFF 2016: Vintage Tomorrows **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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I’m not going to liken Byrd McDonald’s doc about hardcore steam punks to an extended Portlandia vignette, and I’ve nothing against a little harmless role-playing fun amongst consenting adults. That said-the more out of their way interviewees go to defensively insist they are not just privileged, white Victorian Era nostalgia junkies who dig Jules Verne and love wearing goggles and pith helmets…the more so they seem. Or perhaps I’m just the stick in the mud that can’t see the ball players but for all the corn.

SIFF 2015: Beti and Amare ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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It’s an old story: In the midst of the Italo-Abyssinian War, teenage Ethiopian girl meets mute alien boy, who has hatched from an egg that has appeared out of nowhere next to a desert well. Girl brings boy to her uncle’s isolated home, where she is hiding out from Mussolini’s invading forces and marauding members of the local militia while her uncle is traveling. Romance ensues (how many times have we seen that tale on the silver screen?). German writer-director-DP-editor-producer Andy Siege has crafted a fairly impressive debut feature that is equal parts harrowing war drama, psychological thriller and sci-fi fantasy. I don’t know if these were conscious influences, but Siege’s film strongly recalls Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychodrama Repulsion, and 1970s-era Nicolas Roeg (more specifically, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout).

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’ .

Move over, Smaug: Ragnarok **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2014)

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According to my exhaustive research on Norse mythology (OK…one-clicking to Wikipedia), “Ragnarok” was the Viking version of Armageddon; warning of an apocalypse that culminates in a worldwide flood, after which all begins anew (not to be confused with “Raga-rock”, which was a sub-genre of wild, far-out hippie music that Grandpa used to zone out to after a hit of Windowpane).

In the context of Norwegian director Mikkel Braenne Sandemose’s eponymous new film, it’s a major concern to a harried, recently defunded archaeologist widower (Pal Sverre Hagen) who specializes in Viking artifacts. He’s been attempting to translate mysterious runes found amongst remains of an ancient shipwreck.

When he and a fellow researcher (Nicolai Cleve Broch) become convinced that Ragnarok may 1) not in fact be a myth, and 2) be imminent, he grabs his teen daughter and young son and heads north to an uninhabited part of Finnmark, where he and his colleague hope to find the missing pieces of the puzzle. After adding a sexy-tough love interest…I mean, assistant researcher (Sofia Helin) and a crusty yet benign guide to the team, the expedition is afoot.

While what ensues in Sandemose’s film can be called out as a shamelessly derivative mash-up of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, it’s still kind of fun, in a contentedly mindless way. Actually, amid all of the typically big, dumb, loud and over-produced action-adventure summer fare currently flooding the multiplexes, it stands out as a refreshingly old-fashioned yarn. The story clips along without unnecessary padding, most of the violence is (thankfully) off-screen, and it says everything it needs to say in 94 minutes.

Blu-ray reissue: The Day the Earth Caught Fire ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire – BFI Blu-ray (Region “B” )

Written and directed by Val Guest, this cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi (from 1961) has always been a personal favorite of mine. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possible fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but still delivers a compelling narrative. Co-starring the great Leo McKern (who steals every scene he’s in). The releasing studio is BFI, a UK-based reissue outfit that employs the same grade of high standards that Criterion has become known for here in the U.S., with meticulously restored prints and extras geared toward the film buff. Please note that this review is based on the region “B” release, so it requires a region-free Blu-ray player.

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.