Category Archives: Sci-Fi

Blu-ray reissue: THX-1138 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 11, 2010)

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THX-1138 (The George Lucas Director’s Cut) – Warner Blu-ray

Is it just me, or is it a fact that the farther back you go in George Lucas’ catalog, the more “mature” his films become? At any rate, I still like to revisit his 1971 debut now and then, and marvel at how prophetic it was in many ways; although its unifying theme, if it has one, remains elusive. Lucas gives his own imaginative take on an Orwellian “future”, where people have become dehumanized “product”, barely distinguishable from each other or from the stark technology that coddles and enslaves them (been to the mall lately?).

And, just like in 1984, or the cult TV series The Prisoner, the biggest crime one can commit in this strictly regimented society is to be a non-conformist. Robert Duvall (as the eponymous character) gives an interesting physical performance that at times borders on mime (think Chaplin’s Modern Times-except without the laughs).

Oddly, Lucas’ predominately white on white color scheme is even more striking in high-def. There are tons of extras to plow through on this Warner Blu-ray, including Lucas’ original student film version.

Blu-ray reissue: Metropolis (1927) ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 11, 2010)

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The Complete Metropolis – Kino Lorber Blu-ray

For film buffs, the news that a “complete” print of Fritz Lang’s visionary expressionist 1927 sci-fi masterpiece had been discovered languishing on a dusty shelf in a film historian’s personal collection in Argentina in 2008 was akin to hearing that the Holy Grail had turned up at a church rummage sale. A box-office flop upon its first run, it was famously butchered for time by its original U.S. distributor, and censored for content by German authorities. Happily for fans, the film is now likely as close as it is ever going to get to its original presentation as intended by Lang.

Kino has one-upped their previous “definitive” DVD version with this new Blu-ray transfer of the Murnau Foundation’s latest re-tweaking, which now shores up previously choppy scenes by incorporating 20+ minutes of the Argentine footage. A recently discovered copy of the censor’s notes (containing all of the original inter-titles) was an equally valuable tool for the restoration team (especially for syncing up the original music score, which has been beautifully re-recorded). This all adds up to a new total running time of 147 minutes (compared to the tacky 90-minute Georgio Moroder-scored version that floated around for years, this is a godsend).

There is one  caveat you should be aware of.  The recovered Argentine footage was a 16mm copy of a tattered 35mm print. They cleaned it up as best they could without compromising image; be warned that these new inserts are relatively “gauzy”, albeit essential. Still, this (nearly) complete version, with its absorbing companion documentary, makes it a worthwhile investment for collectors.

This film is rated NCC-1701: Star Trek ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullbaloo on May 16, 2009)

Wait a sec…these guys look familiar. Where have I…

Ah! Sie sind von die Zukunft!

OK, so now I have an excuse to tell you my Star Trek story. Actually, it’s not really that much of a story, but hey, I have some (virtual) column inches to fill-so here goes.

First off, I am not a diehard Trekker (more of a Dwarfer-if you must pry). I enjoyed the 60s TV series, and if I’m channel surfing and happen upon, say, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, or “Space Seed”…They Pull Me Back In (sorry, Mr. Pacino). I never bothered with  the spinoff series, but have seen the theatrical films. I tend to agree with the “even-numbered Trek films are the best” theory.

I’ve never felt the urge to buy collectibles, attend a convention, or don a pair of Spock ears for a Halloween party. However, as fate would have it, in my life I have had close encounters (of the 3rd kind) with two cast members from the original show; encounters that (I imagine) would make a hardcore fan wet themselves and act like the  star-struck celebrity interviewer Chris Farley used to play on SNL.

In the mid 80s, I was working as a morning personality at an FM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. Our station co-promoted a personal appearance by Walter Koenig at (wait for it) the Tanana Valley State Fair, so I had a chance to meet him. The thing that has always stuck with me, however, was not any particular thrill in meeting “Chekov”, but rather his 1000-yard stare.

It was a look that spoke volumes; a look that said, “I can’t believe I’m onstage in a drafty barn in Fairbanks Alaska, fielding the same geeky questions yet again about the goddamn Russian accent. This is why I got into show business?!” To me, it was like watching a sad, real-life version of Laurence Olivier’s Archie in The Entertainer. And as a radio personality (lowest rung of the show biz ladder) and fledgling stand-up comic (next rung up), I wondered if this was A Warning.

Flash-forward to the mid 1990s. I had moved to Seattle, and found myself “between” radio jobs, supporting myself with sporadic stand-up comedy gigs and working through a temp agency. Through the temp agency, I ended up working for a spell at…at…I’ll just blurt it out: a Honeybaked Ham store in Redmond (I’m sure that there is a special place in Hell for Jews who sell pork; on the other hand, one of my co-workers was a Muslim woman from Kenya, so at least there will be someone there that I already know).

So I’m wiping down the counter one slow day, thinking to myself “After 20 years in radio, and 10 in stand-up comedy, I can’t believe I’m working at a Honeybaked Ham in Redmond, Washington. This is why I got into show business?!” Suddenly, a limo pulls up, and in strolls a casually dressed, ruddy-faced, mustachioed gentleman, getting on in years (hearing aids in both ears). If you’ve ever worked retail, you know that after a while, all the customers sort of look the same; you look at them, but you don’t really SEE them.

As I was fetching the gentleman his ham and exchanging pleasantries, I caught a couple co-workers in my peripheral, quietly buzzing. I put two and two together with the limo and began to surreptitiously scrutinize the customer’s face a little more closely.

Wait…is that…? Nah! Twice in one lifetime? What are the odds? He paid with a check. Name on the check? James Doohan. I kept my cool and closed the sale. As I watched him walk out the door, with a delicious, honey-glazed ham tucked under his arm, an old Moody Blues song began to play in my head: “Isn’t life stray-ay-ay-hange?”

You can only recycle a movie brand so many times before there is no where left to go but back to the beginning. The James Bond series reached that point with Casino Royale in 2006, 44 years after Dr. No. It now appears that the Star Trek franchise (blowing out 43 candles this year) has taken a cue from 007, and gone back to unearth its “first” mission.

Gene Roddenberry’s universally beloved creation has become so ingrained into our pop culture and the collective subconscious of Boomers (as well as the, um, next generation) that the producers of the latest installment didn’t have to entitle it with a qualifier. It’s not Star Trek: Origins, or Star Trek: 2009. It’s just Star Trek. They could have just as well called it Free Beer, judging from the $80,000,000 it has rung up at the box office already.

The filmmakers seem shrewd enough to realize that while it may not matter to casual moviegoers that the principal characters are being somewhat “re-imagined”, they still have to take steps to ensure that they do not provoke a fanboy jihad. And the best way to tap dance your way into obsessive Trekkers’ little pointy-eared hearts? Incorporate the original Roddenberry ethos. As box office numbers indicate, they have the “live long and prosper” part down, but-how does the film hold up in the “ethos” department, you may ask?

Rather nicely, actually. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is suitably bold, charismatic, and cocky. And he is younger than usual. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is suitably hyper-intelligent, stalwart and coolly logical. He’s also younger than usual. And he is older than usual; but I won’t go into that (it’s no secret that Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance-so you can figure it out from there).

Not that the plot really matters. Suffice it to say that it involves a time-traveling Romulan (Eric Bana, heavily disguised by the prosthetic face and oddly resembling Anthony Zerbe in The Omega Man) who is stalking Spock throughout the continuum for his own nefarious reasons.

The reason  plot doesn’t matter is because the best Star Trek stories are character-driven; specifically concerning the interplay between the principal crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise. And it is here that director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have delivered in spades.

The actors are given just enough signature lines to establish a reassuring nod and a wink to those in the audience who are familiar with the original characterizations; yet thankfully they have been directed to make the roles very much their own, never sinking into a self-conscious parody or merely “doing an impression” of their respective original cast member.

Pine and Quinto are quite adept at capturing the core dynamic of the relationship between Kirk and Spock as it was originally (and so indelibly) established by Shatner and Nimoy. Karl Urban steals all his scenes as Dr. McCoy, and in the film’s most inspired bit of casting, Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) proves a perfect choice as Chief Engineer Scott. Zoe Saldana, John Cho and Anton Yelchin (as Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, respectively) round off the principal crew members, all players tackling their roles with much aplomb.

The film is not wholly without flaws (a lackluster villain, so-so special effects) but the tight direction, sharply written dialog and energetic young cast outweigh negatives. Hell, this one might even shatter my “even numbers rule” (it’s the eleventh film, if you’re counting). I know this isn’t 100% kosher, but I’m rating Star Trek 4 out of 5 possible Honeybaked Hams. And it was a pleasure serving you, Mr. Doohan. Wherever you are.

Tales from topographic oceans: Avatar **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2009)

If I was restricted to writing one-line movie reviews (which would undoubtedly make many readers rejoice) I would summarize James Cameron’s super-hyped, epic fantasy-adventure Avatar as: “A three-dimensional masterpiece with a one-dimensional script.”

Then again, Cameron has never lost any money underestimating the attention span of your average  film goer. Sure, his movies tend to go on longer than the Old Testament, but there’s usually an easy-to-follow 90 minute narrative buried somewhere within those 2 ½ to 3 hour running times (padded out by the protracted action set-pieces).

If you do  go for it, you might as well go all the way (you know-get your $300 million worth). This film is like the Baskin-Robbins of movie events-you may be confronted with 31 different choices of viewing experiences. At the multiplex I went to, it was offered  in three auditoriums and in as many formats: 2-D, 3-D and 3-D IMAX.

No one warned me that there would be a pop quiz, so I suffered a few moments of embarrassment. I visualized the people in line behind me rolling their eyes and miming a garroting to amuse their friends as I was vacillating. To save face, I muttered “IMAX” and sheepishly pushed my check card under the window. I suppressed the urge to exclaim “Fifteen fucking fifty? For a matinee?!?!

I hear you. “There IS a 90-word movie review, buried somewhere within this 2000 word rant about the cost of an IMAX screening, right, Dennis?” I just wanted to clarify that prior to this, I was a 3-D virgin. It always seemed gimmicky to me; if I’m really itching to experience the sensation that the actors and I are in the same room , I could attend one  of those oh, what are they called…“stage plays”?

Cameron’s story is simple enough; thematically it is an inverse re-imagining of his 1986 sci-fi adventure Aliens (with more than a few suspicious similarities to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest). Set sometime in the future, the story centers on a lush, verdant planet called Pandora, which has been targeted for deforestation and mining by an Earth-based corporation. This doesn’t set well with the planet’s inhabitants, a relatively peaceful race of aboriginal forest dwellers called the Na’vi.

A contingent of Marines has been deployed to help “convince” the locals that it would be in their best interest to cooperate. This doesn’t set well with a small team of research scientists who have been studying and interacting with the Na’vi  via an experimental assimilation method using avatars, which take on the physiology of the aliens. Deadlines have been set, and tensions mount.

Faster than you can say Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, we are presented with The One Human who could save the day, in the person of a brave young wheelchair-bound Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Sully is assigned by the gung-ho Marine commander  to be the military liaison with the tribe (played by a hammy Stephen Lang, getting his Col. Kilgore on).

Sully soon becomes the political football between his C.O., the head researcher (Sigourney Weaver) and the corporate weasel from the mining company (Giovanni Ribisi). Yes, I was thinking “Halliburton reference”, too. Oops-we can’t forget the rote love story-Sully hooks up with a Na’vi babe (a 10 ft. tall and very blue Zoe Saldana).

This is all academic. How many people are flocking to see this for the “plot”? Don’t get me wrong, there were elements that did appeal to me. I liked the idea of a paraplegic hero; the scene where Sully first “finds his legs” in his avatar body is quite moving. Aside from that brief moment, I didn’t find myself getting emotionally invested in the film or its characters. The “save the forest” theme performed its requisite tug at my big ol’ softie lib’rul tree-hugging lefty heart and all, but it’s become such a hoary movie cliché anymore. By the time the final third dissolved into interminable mayhem, they lost me.

In pure visual terms, the film does live up to its hype, and then some. There are some real knockout scenes, particularly in the film’s first half (before the novelty starts to wear off a bit and it just becomes shit blowing up). Cameron’s inventiveness and flair for mind-blowing production design is the real star here. Pandora’s otherworldly creatures, topography, and stridently colorful flora and fauna recall Disney’s Fantasia or Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet at times. In the film’s best “through the looking glass” moments, I felt like I had been transported inside the world of a Roger Dean album cover.

When all was said and done, the question I was left pondering was this: At what point does a film cease being a “film” and transmogrify into an “event”-or (if I may turn the cynicism up to “11”) a glorified 2 ½ hour infomercial for a video game? Yes, Cameron has perhaps “changed the game”, regarding the purely technical aspects of film making and movie presentation. But is this ultimately for the good of the art form? When I think of my all-time favorite films, there are two things that they all seem to have in common: heart and soul. And you do not a need a pair of 3-D glasses and IMAX to experience that.

Zippy little number: 9 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 12, 2009)

A stitch in time saves…oh, never mind.

I haven’t been shy about relaying my general aversion to the Pixar school of animation. It leaves me cold; it doesn’t feel “lived in” and lacks the relative warmth of hand-drawn cel animation. It’s too…digital (I liken it to the “vinyl vs. CD” argument). Perhaps I have an innate fear of technology that I have yet to come to grips with.

How ironic that one of the first such animated films to catch my fancy is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale about a world where the warmth of the human imprint has been eradicated by cold, detached machines. That is the premise of 9, an imaginative variation on a well-worn genre, directed by Shane Acker and produced by Tim Burton.

The story centers on a diminutive, sentient, semi-organic laboratory creation named “9”, a cross between Frankenstein and Pinocchio who looks like a voodoo doll stitched together with recycled burlap and held intact by a handy zip-up front. He awakens one day on the floor of a lab, Rip van Winkle style, to a decimated, desolate and very strange world, alongside the scientist who created him (long dead).

As he wanders about getting his bearings, it becomes apparent  the machines have “taken over”. Very nasty machines, like a frightful predatory contraption resembling a T. Rex that might be constructed in a fever dream by a demented Erector Set enthusiast. When a chance encounter throws “9” in with a tribe of similar beings who have also survived the apocalypse, a possibility arises that some spark of hope and humanity might still remain-somewhere.

The “fear of technology” theme has been a sci-fi film staple, from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, to The Terminator and beyond. In fact, while I was watching 9, I was thinking that if Fritz Lang were alive today and were to work with computer animation, he would probably cook something up that “looked” very similar to this film.

At times I was also reminded of the otherworldly films by the Brothers Quay (Street of Crocodiles), all set to a moody soundtrack by Danny Elfman. The film is so wonderfully atmospheric and visually stunning that I was willing to overlook its (inevitable?) disintegration into loud, repetitive action sequences and an abrupt denouement.

I’d be curious to know if the director (who created the original story from which Pamela Pettler adapted her screenplay) was inspired by The Lord of the Rings. His film is, after all about a “fellowship” of nine who set about  on a quest to save their world from the dark forces which are bent on destroying it (and the fact that our little Frodo-like animated hero is voiced by Elijah Wood adds fuel to that fire). Other familiar voices: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, and the ever-loopy Crispin Glover.

So what’s with all the “nines” at the box office? Numerologists must be having a field day with the convergence of District 9, Acker’s 9, and the imminent Nine (the film adaptation of the Broadway musical based on Fellini’s 8½). Hmm…maybe the machines should take over soon. It might be time to hit the “reset” button for Hollywood.

Oops! Wrong planet: District 9 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2009)

It’s hip on the mothership.

The alien invaders have come knock knock knockin’ on the box office door to signal their seasonal pilgrimage to the local multiplex. Okay, technically, in the case of District 9, the aliens aren’t necessarily “invaders” so much as…refugees, who have the misfortune of running out of gas (in a matter of speaking) while hovering over South Africa. Boy, did they make a wrong turn.

We learn from a montage that 20-odd years have passed since the aliens first made contact; in the interim the South African government has evacuated the malnourished populace from their gargantuan mothership and introduced them to the joys of township living. The aliens, referred to derogatorily as “prawns” due to their crustacean-like physiology, develop a proclivity for tinned cat food, and resign themselves to living the slum life whilst the global debate about what ultimately should be done about them drags on.

In the meantime, the government has contracted a private company to micro-manage the residents of “District 9” (official speak for the area where the aliens are interred). The company, Multi-National United, has taken a keen interest in unlocking the secret to operating the alien weaponry that was confiscated; much to their chagrin, the hardware does not respond to human touch.

While one of the company’s officials (Sharlto Copley, as the type of officious, soullessly cheerful bureaucrat you love to hate) is serving eviction notices in one of the slums, he stumbles into a situation that soon turns him into a political football in the brewing conflict between the disgruntled aliens and their human oppressors.

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp is a “discovery” by producer Peter Jackson, who originally enlisted the up-and-comer to help develop a feature film adaptation of the Halo video game (a project which looks  to be on permanent hold). As you watch District 9, you glean why Jackson has banked on this previously unknown filmmaker; he certainly has an imaginative style and a flair for kinetic action sequences.

Although the film eventually descends into a somewhat predicable flurry of loud explosions and splattering viscera, it does sport a rousing first half, thanks to the terrific production design, outstanding alien creature effects and the gripping docu-realism. It’s not for the squeamish; if you are, you might want to take a pass.

As for the political allegory, while it can safely be assumed and is definitely implied (especially considering South Africa’s history) it is not necessarily ladled on with a trowel. I didn’t get the impression that the filmmakers were trying to make it the central theme; sometimes, a sci-fi story…is just a sci-fi story.

There is some controversy regarding the film’s depiction of Nigerian nationals who live among the aliens. The characters in question are a Nigerian crime lord and his evil henchmen, who profit off the refugees via prostitution, extortion and black marketeering. In the context of the narrative, I thought those characters served the story (perhaps we could have done without the anachronistic witch doctor). This is not the first movie of its kind (nor will it be the last), but it is one of the more original genre entries in recent memory.

Love is blue: Watchmen **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 21, 2009)

I was a weird kid. I never went for the superhero comic books in a big way. I do vaguely recall going through a Classics Illustrated period (Journey to the Center of the Earth kicked major ass, and I think I wore out my copy of Treasure Island). Then, when I was around 9 or 10, I discovered MAD magazine…and all bets were off. I made an exception when I discovered the Adventures of Tin Tin books in my early 20s, but steered clear of  the Marvel/DC stable of caped crusaders, endowed with Special Powers and clad in skin tight suits.

So, I knew going in that I was not in the target audience for Watchmen, the latest graphic novel-to-film adaptation from the DC Comics stable. For those unacquainted with graphic novels, just think Classics Illustrated with sex, ultra-violence and just enough substantive exposition to help you convince yourself you’re reading something akin to literature (sounds like a great pitch for an HBO series). Despite my misgivings about the genre, I was unexpectedly dazzled by Sin City a few years back; so I tried to keep an open mind.

Director Zack Snyder (300) had a formidable task; not only did he have to condense a 12 volume series of graphic novels into feature film length, but he had to deliver a product that would both placate detail-obsessed fan boys and entertain the rest of us without leaving us confounded (or dozing) when the auditorium lights come up.

I can’t speak for the fan boys, but I found the establishing premise of the film intriguing. The story is set in a sort of parallel universe version of mid-1980s America, where an altered course of history has radically changed the sociopolitical fabric of the country from WW 2 onward. The ‘x’ factor lays in an assortment of free-agent superheroes and heroines who have lent their talents to the U.S. armed forces since the 1940s. Actually, super-‘spooks’ might be a more accurate descriptive, as an Oliver Stone style back-story montage behind the opening credits appears to indicate.

In this version of history, thanks to these caped crusaders, America “wins” the Vietnam War. And disturbingly, President Richard M. Nixon has been elected for a fifth term (in this reality, Woodward and Bernstein have been “neutralized”). The Cold War is still in full swing, with a possible nuke-out with the Soviets looming on the horizon. In our post 9-11 world, with the economy on the brink of collapse, this actually plays like a quaint scenario, n’est-ce pas?

With one exception, these superheroes are not blessed with invulnerability; they are just as fragile and flawed as any schmuck on the street; the moral compass doesn’t always exactly point to Truth, Justice and the American Way, either. By 1985, the vigilantes have fallen out of favor with the fickle public; masked avenging has been subsequently outlawed and most have been driven into retirement, or gone underground. When one of the retirees is murdered, it’s time to get the band back together, spearheaded by Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). The mystery, as they say, is afoot.

After a promising start, the story bogs down. The screenplay (adapted by David Hayter and Alex Tse) while complex and cerebral for what is essentially an action film, is a bit too complex and cerebral for its own good. Pains are taken to flesh out  the back story of each character; this is a good thing, but can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, it raises the bar on the cardboard  characterizations you usually get in a superhero movie. Unfortunately, it also accounts for most of the 162 minute running time. By the time  credits rolled, I had completely forgotten  that there was a mystery afoot.

Still, there was a lot I liked about the film. It has a  “dark city” noir atmosphere that I’m a sucker for, as well as great costume and set design. The performances are  uneven,  possibly attributable to the sometimes overreaching script. Jackie Earle Haley is a standout as Rorschach; I enjoyed his Chandleresque voice-over performance, which vacillates somewhere between Clint Eastwood’s menacing whisper and Lawrence Tierney’s caustic growl.

Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Carla Gugino are all quite good. I didn’t recognize Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer as “Moloch the Mystic” until the credits rolled. The film has an interesting soundtrack; although I had mixed feelings about hearing a somewhat lengthy lift from Philip Glass’ symphonic score for Koyaanasqatsi (a film I’ve seen many  times).

Still, the sci-fi geek/film noir enthusiast inside of me was hooked by the Blade Runner-like mash-up of those two genres (not that I’m suggesting that this is in the same league as Ridley Scott’s cult classic). You can take that as a guarded recommendation.

Brother sun, sister moon: In the Shadow of the Moon (****) & Sunshine (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 29, 2007)

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I thought we’d take a spin around the solar system tonight, via two new films; one that gets my vote for the best documentary of 2007, and the other…well, we’ll get to that.

Normally, I make a conscious effort to not shamelessly gush about films in this column (it’s so unseemly) but pardon me while I gush over a documentary about the Apollo space program, In The Shadow of the Moon. Admittedly, I walked into the theater with trepidation; it would seem that the NASA legacy has already been milked for all its worth, from feature films (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13) and IMAX documentaries, to lauded TV fare (From the Earth to the Moon).

But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this very familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days-a reason to take pride in being an American.

The premise is simple enough; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by astounding mission footage (some previously unseen). There are a few of the “tumultuous 60s” clichés tossed in (clips of student demonstrations, political assassinations, etc) but they remain onscreen just long enough to provide brief expository reference. The film is beautifully scored (Philip Sheppard) and edited (David Fairhead).

The term “hero” is carelessly tossed about with reflexively wild abandon in our post 9-11 world; but as you listen to these astronauts recount their extraordinary experiences with such eloquence, fierce intelligence and self-effacing candor, you realize that these people truly do represent our best and our brightest, they are “heroes” in every sense of the word.

It’s interesting to hear the astronauts expound on the pragmatic geopolitical perspective that results from being in a position to “blot the entire earth out with (your) thumb”, as one gentleman puts it. Several marvel at how truly fragile the Earth looks hanging “like a jewel” in the vast blackness of space; one interviewee ponders incredulously as to “how we can worry more about paying three dollars for a gallon of gas” than we do about attending to the health of the planet. I lost count of my “amens” halfway through the film.

This is also the first time (to my knowledge) that these men have been given a public forum to extrapolate on the profound spiritual, metaphysical and philosophical questions that arise following such literally out of this world experiences as walking on the surface of another planet; it’s fascinating and extremely moving at times.

As your fake physician I am prescribing that you run out and see it immediately, as In the Shadow of the Moon is a perfect tonic for the Bush-Cheney blues. It reminds us that there was a time when the rest of the world looked to this country for inspiration; a time when people were not ashamed of hailing from the great state of Texas, because it was then better known as the home of Mission Control.

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We move now from science fact, to science fiction. For his new  thriller Sunshine, director Danny Boyle teams up again with writer Alex Garland, who provided the screenplays for both 28 Days Later and its sequel. Ostensibly about a team of astronauts on a mission to salvage the dying Sun and save the Earth, Sunshine aims to take its protagonists on a Homeric journey, by way of Tartovsky and Kubrick. Unfortunately, after a fairly successful liftoff, the film quickly veers off course and loses its trajectory.

The story is set in 2057, when the Sun is suffering from a condition that, as near as I was able to tell from the rather sketchy scientific exposition, is akin to some type of solar constipation. There’s something blocking the star’s ability to generate its own nuclear fusion…uh, I think. Well, whatever “it” is, there ain’t no sunshine when it’s gone…okay?

Anyway, the highly specialized 8-member crew of Icarus II is mankind’s last hope (the crew of Icarus I apparently stopped sending postcards some months back). It is up to them to launch and detonate a powerful bomb that will presumably jump-start the Sun back into its preferred central heating mode for our solar system.

I know what you’re thinking-sounds familiar? Yes, it is pretty much a glorified rehash of Armageddon. Well, Armageddon for philosophy majors. Because, you see, things get “deep” between the requisite scenes of stuff blowing up real good. There’s an awful lot of brooding and gnashing of teeth among the crew once they set the controls for the heart of the sun. It is also implied  there are metaphysical conundrums afoot, but the screenplay fails to extrapolate on the significance. By the time the third act disintegrates into a cheesy Alien rip-off, you’ll be likely to  have stopped caring anyway.

Boyle regular Cillian Murphy stars as the brooder-in-chief, the crew’s egghead physicist, ‘Robert Capa’ (I’ve racked my mind over that one…why is a fictional nuclear physicist named after a famous war photographer? I invite your speculation. These are the types of things that keep me awake at night, folks.) To his credit, Murphy maintains a compelling presence, even though you suspect that he doesn’t have much more of a clue about what is going on in this film than the viewer does. Michelle Yeoh does an earnest turn as ‘Corazon’, a biologist who nurtures the ship’s on-board green houses, quite reminiscent of Bruce Dern in Silent Running (hmm…if Capa is the ship’s Brain, then I assume she is the Heart?)

Some have hailed this as a masterpiece. I am not one of them. Granted, it is handsomely mounted, with some nice set designs and impressive special effect work; but it lacks a cohesive story. It’s like someone reached into a hat full of interesting ideas, threw the scraps of paper up in the air, and just let them blow about the room while trying to follow them with a camera. For a story that flies so close to the Sun, Sunshine left me pretty damn cold.

In dreams: Paprika (****) & The Lathe of Heaven (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 21, 2007)

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It’s no secret among fans of intelligent, adult sci-fi that some of the best genre films these days aren’t originating from Hollywood, but rather from the masters of Japanese anime. Films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell display a quality of writing and visual imagination that few live action productions  can touch (well, post-Blade Runner).

One of the more adventurous anime directors is Satoshi Kon. In previous work like his TV miniseries Paranoia Agent, and in several feature films, Kon has displayed a flair for coupling complex characterization with photo-realistic visual style;  making me forget that I’m watching an anime. Most of Kon’s work has drawn on genres that one does not typically associate with anime: adult drama (Tokyo Godfathers), film noir (Perfect Blue), psychological thriller (Paranoia Agent) and character study (Millennium Actress). Kon’s latest, Paprika, is the first of his films that I would call “sci-fi”… and it’s a doozy.

A team of scientists develops an interface device called the “DC mini” that facilitates the transference of dreams from one person to another. This dream machine is designed primarily for use by psychotherapists; it allows them to literally experience a patient’s dreams and take a closer look under the hood. In the wrong hands, however, this could become a very dangerous tool.

As you have likely guessed, “someone” has hacked into a DC mini and begun to wreak havoc with people’s minds. One by one, members of the research team are driven to suicidal behavior after the dreams of patients are fed into their subconscious without their knowledge (akin to someone slipping acid into the punch).

Things get more complicated when these waking dreams begin taking sentient form and spread like a virus, forming a pervasive matrix that threatens to supplant “reality”. A homicide detective joins forces with one of the researchers, whose alter-ego, Paprika, is literally a “dream girl”, a sort of super-heroine of the subconscious.

“Mind-blowing” doesn’t begin to describe this Disney-on-acid/ sci-fi murder mystery, featuring  Kon’s most stunning use of color and imagery to date.  Kon raises some philosophical points (aside from the hoary “what is reality?” debate). At one point, Paprika ponders: “Don’t you think dreams and the internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious vents.” Perhaps Kon is positing that the dream state is the last “sacred place” left for humans; if technology encroaches (any more than it already has) we will lose our last true refuge. A must-see for anime and sci-fi fans.

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While watching Paprika, I was reminded of one of my favorite sci-fi “mind trip” films, The Lathe of Heaven. Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel, the film was produced by Thirteen/WNET-TV in New York and originally aired on PBS stations in 1979. A coveted cult favorite for years, it was reissued on DVD by Newvideo in 2000.

The story takes place in “near future” Portland, at a time when the Earth is suffering  profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient, eh?) The film stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a chronic insomniac who has become convinced that his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is forced by legal authorities to seek psychiatric help from Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who specializes in experimental dream research.

When Dr. Haber realizes to his amazement that George is not delusional, and does in fact have the ability to literally change the world with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest reality-altering scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Dr. Haber attempts to make his Utopian visions a reality, George finds a way to subvert the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly begins to develop a technology that would make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two that could potentially rearrange the very fabric of reality.

This is an intelligent and compelling fable with thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV”  sci-fi films ever produced. I should warn you that  picture quality and sound on the DVD is not quite up to today’s exacting A/V equipment specs; apparently the master no longer exists, so the transfer was made from a 2” tape copy. Don’t let the low-tech special effects throw you, either (remember, this was made for public TV in 1979 on a shoestring). Substantively speaking, however, I’d wager that The Lathe of Heaven has much more to offer than any $200 million dollar special effects-laden George Lucas “prequel” one would care to name.

Two bongs up! Six degrees of Woody Harrelson: Scanners (***) & Grass (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2007)

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Richard Linklater entered the sci-fi arena in 2006 with his adaptation of the late Phillip K. Dick’s semi-autobiographical novel A Scanner Darkly (now on DVD). Set in a not-so-distant future L.A., the story injects themes of existential dilemma, drug-fueled paranoia and Orwellian government surveillance  into what is otherwise a fairly standard “undercover-cop-who’s-gone-too-deep” yarn.

Keanu Reeves stars as a dazed and confused narc that has become helplessly addicted to the mind-altering drug that he has been assigned to help eradicate (“substance D”). Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Linklater alumni Rory Cochrane are his fellow D-heads who may not exactly be whom they appear to be on the surface. Adding to the mood of hallucinatory psychosis is Linklater’s use of rotoscoping (as per his underrated Waking Life). The rotoscoping technique does present challenges to the actors; Downey, with his Chaplinesque knack for physical expression, pulls it off best, while the more inert performers like Reeves and Ryder are quite literally akin to oil paintings.

Linklater’s script keeps fairly close to its source material-particularly in relation to the more cerebral elements (Linklater’s propensity for lots of talk and little action may be a turn-off for those expecting another Minority Report). Depending on what you bring with you, the film is a) a cautionary tale about addiction, b) a warning about encroaching technocracy, c) an indictment on the government’s “war” on drugs, d) a really cool flick to watch while stoned, e) the longest 99 minutes of your life or f) all of the above.

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Speaking of the “war” on drugs-here’s a sleeper you may have missed. Grass is a unique, well-produced documentary dealing (er, pun intended) with the history of anti-marijuana legislation  in the United States. Far from a dry history lesson, the film builds its own “counter-myth” of sorts, by exposing the hypocrisy of the government’s anti-marijuana propaganda machine over the years; from the  histrionics of the 1930’s howler Reefer Madness to the Reagan administration’s “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980’s.

There is also an eye-opening  tally of all the tax money the various law-enforcement agencies have spent (thrown away?) attempting to eradicate marijuana usage…from the days of Elliot Ness to the present. The filmmakers ladle some well-chosen period music over a wealth of archive footage (maximized for full ironic effect). Woody Harrelson, who has famously lived through a series of herb-related legal problems, off-screen, narrates with winking bemusement. Whether you are for or against legalization, you should find this one quite informative and highly (sorry!) entertaining.