science fiction

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s magnum opus was the subject of discussion in our most recent book club, so I thought I’d watch the 2012 film adaptation by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. As far as unfilmable novels go, Cloud Atlas is a doozy: six separate stories set in six different timelines, each written in a different prose style and covering a different genre, from 19th-century pastiche to science fiction. Moreover, how do you visually translate a book whose chief attraction is Mitchell’s virtuoso use of language? This would have been enough to make most filmmakers run away screaming, so kudos to Wachowskis and Tykwer for even attempting something this ambitious and daunting. While I didn’t think that the movie succeeded overall, it’s a kind of high-aiming failure you can’t help but admire.

The epic storyline of Cloud Atlas takes place between the years 1849 and 2346. In the 19th century, a young attorney befriends a runaway slave on a sea voyage. In pre-WWII England, a young poor composer is struggling to write his masterwork. In 1975, a journalist investigates a shady nuclear plant. In the present day, an old publisher finds himself imprisoned in a nursing home. In 2144, a fabricated clone in the dystopian Korea gains self-awareness. In even more distant future, one of the few tribes remaining after the collapse of human civilization are visited by a woman from a more advanced society. Phewww… Is it any wonder this film runs for almost three hours?

One of the biggest changes made during the film adaptation is structure: Mitchell’s novel is something like a nesting Russian doll, where all but one central story are split in half, and once you read the middle story you’d go on to finish the rest in the reverse order. The movie dispenses with this symmetry, and instead chooses to constantly crosscut between the narratives, often pairing up the story beats, emotional moments and situations from different time periods. It also drives the central themes of freedom and oppression rather more forcefully than the book, where the thematic connections between disparate stories would dawn gradually. The crosscutting approach yields mixed results; even though I was already familiar with them, the rushed and shallow introduction of settings and characters was frustrating. Throughout the film, I kept wishing it would just stop and let each story breathe for a while, instead of taking short sharp gasps before whoosh, it’s on to another storyline.

Another questionable artistic choice is the decision to cast the same actors across the stories, blurring the boundaries of age, race and gender. In theory, this emphasises the theme of interconnectedness, but in practice it’s often distracting and some actors fare better than others. Tom Hanks is a great talent but his range is not limitless, and among the unconvincing characters he’s saddled with a hard-boiled Irish gangster/author is the chief offender. Poor Hugh Grant is disguised by the dreadfully fake aging make-up in one story, and I’m sorry, but Hugh Grant made up to look like a savage cannibal warrior can only be hilarious. In the future segment, the movie tries to pass a few non-Asian actors as Koreans, but their heavy make-up and prosthetics only make them look like Star Trek aliens. Likewise, turning a young Asian actress into a middle-aged Hispanic lady and then into a freckled white European girl took me out of the movie.

Yet when the actors simply portray the film’s main characters sans heavy make-up, the casting is bang on, particularly Ben Whishaw as witty, bohemian, bisexual composer Robert Frobisher. He really could have stepped off the pages of the book. Halle Berry (a sporadic performer to say the least) is effective in her two main roles. Doona Bae is touching as the doomed clone Sonmi, though she’s a tad unbelievable as a speechifying revolutionary whose incredibly monotone broadcast is supposed to have transformed the society (in the book, Sonmi’s call to rebellion is done in writing). But then, this is from the filmmakers who gave us the equally robotic Architect speech from The Matrix Reloaded.

Some changes from the source material I didn’t mind, such as more romance and action, and the revised ending to the far-future story. The book found a way to end on an optimistic note, so it’s fine if the filmmakers choose to do likewise. While ultimately I don’t think that the movie quite works, it’s daring and imaginative and there are moments of genuine emotion and magic to be found. I’ve no idea how I would have reacted had I not read the book, but I’m glad that someone attempted to put Mitchell’s incredible vision on screen.

Passengers

This movie copped a massive backlash upon its release last year, and in all honesty it was practically asking for it, with its grossly misleading trailers and advertising which treated its premise as a twist and in the end made some viewers feel like they received a pretty glittery gift box with a dead puppy inside.

Here’s what the bullshit summary on my DVD rental reads like:

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are two passengers onboard a spaceship transporting them to a new life on another planet. The trip takes a deadly turn when their hibernation pods mysteriously wake them 90 years before they reach their destination. As Jim and Aurora try to unravel the mystery behind the malfunction, they begin to fall for each other, unable to deny their intense attraction… only to be threatened by the imminent collapse of the ship and the discovery of the truth behind why they woke up.

Here’s what actually happens in the film (spoilers ahead):

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Alien Vs. Predator

Maybe it’s just the power of lowered (and I mean lowered) expectations, but to my surprise I didn’t hate this much-maligned crossover, and, from a certain perspective, found it a more enjoyable experience than the recent Alien: Covenant. Or perhaps I was simply able to disassociate it from the Alien franchise altogether, and watch it on its own terms as a trashy B-movie. Which yes is filled with cardboard-thin characters, laughable plot and much stupidity, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have fun watching it.

The story is as basic as it comes and there’s absolutely no point trying to make it fit into the continuity of the Alien franchise, unless you want your brains to curdle. In the year 2004, Weyland Corporation, headed by Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen of the Aliens‘ Bishop fame, whose casting here makes no sense, but nothing else does either), finds a mysterious ancient pyramid resting deep under Antarctica. He assembles a crack team of scientists, drillers and explorers, led by Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan). Her badassery is established in the most cliche way possible: she climbs a dangerous ice wall and simultaneously discusses the job offer on the phone. What the clueless humans don’t know is that the pyramid complex is a hunting ground designed by the Predators, where they could hunt specially bred xenomorphs to prove their manhood… Predatorhood… whatever, while the ancient humans worshipped Predators as gods and served as breeding vessels. Very soon, Weyland’s team ends up being caught in the middle of epic smackdowns between the two warring species. But you know Alexa’s companions are going to be toast anyway, because no one can hope to survive after showing a happy snap of their kids in a horror film.

All of this is extremely silly, and my internal running commentary for the first half of the movie ran something like, Huh? What? Why are they doing this? But once the Team Stupid gets inside the pyramid and things go from bad to worse, the movie is an entertaining action/horror romp to watch. I’ve watched enough movies which are bad in a drab and humourless way, to appreciate the fun bad movies; I really can’t hate a film that has something as hilarious as a shot of a facehugger jumping in bullet time.

The production design looks pretty damn good and the pyramid interiors are suitably lavish and creepy. The effects for the Aliens and Predators hold up well, and the movie gets props for bringing back the Alien Queen. The R-rated human bloodshed is noticeably missing, but the movie at least doesn’t hold back where the monster-on-monster damage is concerned. A completely unexpected bonus was Sanaa Lathan as the chief protagonist; there’s really nothing much to her character as written, but she makes her appealing and easy to root for. Alexa is no Ripley maybe but she’s also not the forgettable what’s-her-name from Alien: Covenant.

Brazil

A bonkers trip into the warped and wonderful mind of Terry Gilliam that has nothing to do with a soccer-loving country in South America, and more to do with 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece. It’s also set at around Christmas, so I think I’ll be happy to think of it as an alternative Christmas movie a la Die Hard.

It’s always fun to watch movies set in the future that got made in the pre-internet, pre-iPad times (in this case, 1985). Visually, you could describe Brazil as grimy steampunk via mid-twentieth-century technology, where everybody dresses in 1940s fashions and lives in an ugly, soulless jumble of steel and concrete. It’s not clear how much of the world still exists beyond its borders, but this particular society is ruled over by a ruthless organization called Ministry of Information, which employs a giant army of clerks to manage the never-ending stream of paperwork on everything and everyone – bureaucracy on steroids if you like. The most prominent feature of this world, apart from paper, is the convoluted system of ducts that invades every living and professional space. The Ministry also has a military arm, and a more sinister branch of bureaucrats whose job is to extract confessions and information from those considered to be deviants (and then bill them for their own interrogation). The resistance to the Ministry comes in the form of persistent terrorist attacks, which are not terribly concerned about the bystanders killed in the process. It’s a thoroughly dehumanised society in every way.

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a lowly clerk in Records, the least important department in the Ministry, who is happy with his dead-end job much to the dismay of his glamorous, well-connected mother. The only indication that he craves for more than he has is a recurring dream in which Sam is a fantastical winged superhero, kinda like an angel mashed with a 70s glam rock star, soaring in the clouds and battling demonic creatures to free a beautiful blond woman imprisoned in a cage. But then, Sam’s grey life is shaken up by a series of events: the heating system in his apartment breaks down, at work he gets involved into the case of a wrong man getting arrested and tortured to death because of a spelling error, and most importantly, he gets a fleeting glimpse of a woman from his dream, in real life, who he immediately wants to pursue. Except that, unlike the quivering damsel-in-distress of his fantasy, she’s a tough and no-nonsense young woman.

Despite being set in an oppressive tyrannical regime, Brazil is hilarious and comically absurd, as well as visually inventive; I watched the short behind-the-scenes documentary that came with the DVD, and the amount of work and ingenuity put into the practical effects before the era of CGI is really impressive. While the story itself is fairly simple, the real delight is the scalding social commentary and the amount of small clever details that flesh out this bizarre world – like the fact that almost every Christmas present seen in the film is wrapped into an identical package, or the propaganda posters seen briefly in the background that say stuff like Loose Talk is Noose Talk.

My only previous cinematic memory of Jonathan Pryce is the bland villain he played in Tomorrow Never Dies, a forgettable Pierce Brosnan entry in the Bond franchise, but this movie utilises him much better and he plays Sam with a perfect mix of comedy and pathos. Robert De Niro has a brief but very memorable appearance as Harry Tuttle, the fearless guerilla repairman who delights in giving the finger to the Central Services and shows up to fix Sam’s broken heating system before the official repairmen do. Michael Palin is both funny and ominous as Sam’s friend who is employed by the Information Retrieval department, and I spotted the much younger Jim Broadbent in the role of Sam’s mother’s plastic surgeon.

Apparently, at one point the movie was cut to include a more upbeat and “audience-friendly” ending, which Terry Gilliam fought bitterly, and thank god he won because the film otherwise would be ruined and its message completely lost. Can somebody edit Source Code too? There’s a movie that could do with a bleak ending.

Alien: Covenant

I was on the fence about this one, but in the end I decided to catch it before it disappeared from the cinemas. I can’t say I regret the decision and I’m glad I’ve watched the film, because no one shoots sci-fi like Ridley Scott, but the most damning thing I can say about Alien: Covenant is that it’s the first entry in the series that doesn’t offer anything new, and instead plays like the Alien: Greatest Hits. Even the runts of the franchise had some individuality about them, whether it was the director’s unique visual style or some new ideas, and even when these ideas were terrible, *cough* human/alien hybrid from Alien: Resurrection *cough*, at least they were still memorable. My biggest complaint about Alien: Covenant is how little of this adequate movie was truly memorable.

I liked the divisive Prometheus way more than many people did, and the ending of that film teased some intriguing possibilities, as its heroine Elizabeth Shaw packed the head of David the android in a duffel bag and set off towards the home planet of Engineers. While Covenant still acts as a direct sequel to Prometheus, it jumps ten years ahead and opens with the scenes aboard Covenant, a colony ship with thousands of passengers in cryogenic sleep, plus preserved embryos. When the ship is hit by a massive solar flare and suffers casualties, the crew pick up a strange transmission, human in origin, while doing repairs. The signal comes from a planet that’s much closer than their original destination and appears to be a perfect choice for human colonization. Ignoring the lessons of dozens of sci-fi movies where veering off course spells certain doom and death, the crew decide to stop by and investigate. If you thought that the scientists in Prometheus made some inexplicably dumb choices, this lot decide to explore an alien planet while not wearing any protective helmets whatsoever, presumably because they decided that hey, since this place looks a lot like Norway, it must be safe.

Visually, Covenant may not be as beautiful and striking as Prometheus, but it still delivers, with the majestic landscape shots and lived-in sets typical of Scott movies. It’s a pity then that the human characters don’t receive anywhere as much love and attention: this bunch is as nondescript and generic as they come, including the new Ripley-esque heroine Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Other characters’ personalities, when they do have hints of any, can be summed up in a couple of words – this guy is quirky and wears a cowboy hat! This guy believes in God! The only two interesting characters are synthetic: David (Michael Fassbender), the inquisitive and amoral android who was the highlight of Prometheus, returns here as the sole inhabitant of the planet, and is rather more unhinged than the last time we’ve seen him. Then there’s Walter, the android crew member of Covenant, also played by Fassbender. Unlike the creative David, Walter’s generation of androids were made to be more machine-like and less creepily human, an upgrade David finds disappointing. The interactions between the two, with David teaching Walter to play the flute among other things, are weird, funny, philosophical, and make for the film’s best scenes.

Rather than answering the question posed by Prometheus – why did the Engineers wish to destroy the humankind? – Covenant instead chooses to focus on edging closer to the original Alien film and exploring the origins of the xenomorph. Which means that, at some point in the movie, it’s time for the usual: running down corridors, dark and drippy interiors, eggs, facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs. While Covenant ramps up the gore and body horror, the problem is that a) it can’t muster the same level of tension as Alien, or the breakneck excitement of Aliens, and b) I can’t say I ever wondered about where the xenomorph came from. There’s no real point explaining something that was always effective simply as a horrifying, mysterious thing from outer space. So while Covenant is by no means a disaster and makes for a watchable, well-shot sci-fi thriller/horror, it’s short on new ideas and, unlike Prometheus, does nothing to stoke my excitement for a hinted-on sequel. Maybe it’s finally time to blow this franchise out of the airlock.

Galaxy Quest

I’ve rewatched this 1999 gem which I haven’t seen in ages, and by Grabthar’s Hammer this affectionate parody/love letter to Star Trek and its fandom is still so wonderful and hilarious. It works fine as a regular comedy and is perfectly accessible even to people who don’t care about Star Trek, but it’s funnier if you’re familiar with the tropes the movie lampoons, like a redshirt who always dies in the first five minutes of the mission just before the commercial break.

The story is about a group of washed-up actors from a once-popular sci-fi TV series which doesn’t in any way resemble Star Trek at all, not with its cheesy rousing musical theme, alien make-up, technobabble and shaking the camera when the spaceship is “hit”. Almost 20 years later, its cast is stuck in professional limbo and make a living attending fan conventions and corporate events. Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who played the Captain Kirk-like commander of the NSEA Protector, is the only one who laps up the fans’ adoration like a rock star. He is much resented by the rest of the cast, especially Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), a frustrated classically trained British actor who would rather jump off the bridge than say his alien character’s trademark catchphrase again. There’s also Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver), the sole female cast member whose job on the show was to mindlessly repeat the ship’s computer, Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) as the chief engineer, and Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell) who was the show’s precocious and probably very annoying child pilot.

At one of the conventions, however, they’re approached by Thermians, who look like a bunch of cosplayers dressed as a fictional Star Trek race, but are in fact real aliens who mistook Galaxy Quest series for a genuine historical record since their kind has no concept of lies or fiction. They’ve come to beg the crew for assistance in their dealings with Sarris, a malevolent reptilian humanoid who looks like a Star Trek villain-of-the-week and is intent on wiping the Thermians out. The poor naive aliens have no clue that Nesmith and Co. are just actors who have no idea how to really fly a spaceship, transport matter or fight an evil space overlord. Along the way, they’re joined by Guy (Sam Rockwell), an actor whose sole brief appearance on the show was as the unnamed crew member that gets killed off, and who’s convinced that he’s a goner too now that the shit got real.

The cast here is an unexpected combo (Sigourney Weaver and Tim Allen in the same movie?), but everyone, down to the smallest part, is simply pitch-perfect. I’ve never been a big fan of Tim Allen outside of his voice work for Pixar, but he’s an inspired choice to play the charismatic and egotistical character with a vulnerable side. Nesmith’s got a great redemptive arc as his character eventually rises to the level of heroism that his fictional counterpart had displayed on the show. Alan Rickman’s passing feels even sadder with this reminder of his magnificent onscreen voice and how much feeling and nuance he could inject into every line. No one portrayed withering contempt and dismay quite so hilariously. Sigourney Weaver is cleverly cast against the type, with a blond wig and the generous cleavage which, in one of the film’s in-jokes, gets uncovered more as the movie goes on. I don’t think she could ever play a total ditz, but it’s definitely a very different side revealed in this film. I could honestly just go on gushing forever about everyone in this movie, the cast is just that good.

The most endearing aspect of the film is the way it both sends up and celebrates the geek culture with tremendous affection, without condescending or pandering. I had to laugh that even the shipping phenomenon made it into the movie, with a flustered female fan at the convention asking Nesmith if there was “something” going on between the captain and Lt. Tawny Madison. There is a touch of the ridiculous about the grown men and women parading in silly costumes and obsessing over the tiniest bits of trivia, but in the end their love for this fictional world is vindicated and embraced. There’s also the idea that, no matter how cheesy the Galaxy Quest TV show was, its core ideals inspired an entire species to improve their lives. It’s a fantastic tribute to the optimism of Star Trek.

One last thing, the special effects look a tad dated in places, especially where space critters are concerned, but it’s really amazing how great the practical make-up effects still look.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-upCome back, Star Wars prequels, all is forgi…

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Ok maybe not. But given the choice, I think I’d still prefer to re-watch George Lucas’ misguided trilogy rather than this latest soulless snorefest from Disney. As terrible and stilted the prequels are, they’re at least terrible in a zany, colourful and unique way and whatever else they made me feel it wasn’t boredom.

Rogue One is the first entry in the probably never-ending stream of stand-alone Star Wars films, unconnected to the main Skywalker saga but also acting as a prequel to A New Hope. It tells the story of how the Rebels managed to get their hands on the plans for the Death Star… which to be honest didn’t really set my interest alight when I first heard it, because honestly who cares how they got them? Still, there was no reason why they couldn’t have made an entertaining flick about it, and the largely positive reviews persuaded me to watch it.

I guess I should mention some positives before I tear this movie apart. Gareth Edwards, the director, has an eye for visuals, composition and sense of scale, and the movie has some beautiful locations and elegant images. The opening scenes, shot in Iceland, were especially striking. Darth Vader’s screentime is pure unadulterated fanservice, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the appearance of one of the cinema’s greatest villains thrilling. The Star Wars action porn in the third act, involving just about everything fans loved about the action in the original trilogy (X-Wings! TIE fighters! Walkers!) is undoubtedly well-shot and is probably the main source of goodwill this movie seems to have.

Unfortunately, while Edwards has a way with effects and action, he’s got no clue how to handle human characters and drama. Say what you will about J.J. Abrams’ shortcomings as a storyteller and the underwritten, inconsistent characterisation that plagued The Force Awakens, he’s phenomenal at getting lively, natural performances and squeezing the last drop of charisma and chemistry from his cast. In Rogue One, flat line deliveries rule the day and no one is allowed charisma. You can see some actors try and inject individuality into their characters, but because the director has no clue about who these people are they’re getting no help from him and just end up flailing. Everyone is dull and drab as dishwater, including the main character of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen, just as wasted here as he was in Doctor Strange), an engineer who plays a key role in the creation of the Death Star. Jyn’s relationship with her father is supposed to be at the heart of the film, but it spends no time on the father/daughter bond before the Erso family’s peace is broken by the arrival of Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, need I say he’s wasted as well?), director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial military. Galen is taken, his wife is killed, and Jyn escapes, and before you know it boom she’s a sullen grown-up miscreant who gets recruited for a mission by the Rebellion. Because we never get to know Jyn as a person, all the father/daughter emotional beats land with an indifferent thud and her later transformation into the leader for the Rebel cause is completely unconvincing.

The multiple supporting characters are even flatter than Jyn if it’s possible, and are introduced in a rushed manner as the first act hops manically from planet to planet, hastily throwing in a bunch of ciphers I never got to care about. Donnie Yen’s blind warrior monk comes closest to being a distinct personality and cracks the film’s only joke to get a chuckle out of me. The official comic relief is the former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), but his brand of humour is so at odds with the film’s overall vibe it feels out of place. The absolute nadir however is the ghastly CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing as the Grand Moff Tarkin, which made me feel like I was suddenly dropped into one of my brother’s video games. Sorry but the technology is not anywhere near good enough yet to simulate a real living human being, and this distracting uncanny valley creation gave me the creeps.

The idea behind Rogue One would naturally lend itself to a classic heist film, but the movie wastes the entire first two acts on detours and boring Erso family drama before it finally gets to the all-important mission and the big action scenes. But because my emotional involvement by that time was nil, the action simply feels exhausting and the tragic loss of life doesn’t move. There’s an attempt there by the filmmakers to try a more nuanced, morally grey approach, but in the end it all feels like mere lip service. It’s still about the good guys mowing down the bad guys without any qualms, and no real humanity given to the Imperials. Which is not really a problem in a Star Wars universe with its black-and-white, fairytale-like morality, but it really doesn’t work in a “serious”, supposedly gritty movie that sets out to be the Saving Private Ryan of Star Wars.

I’m still interested in Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII, but the Star Wars stand-alone movies are off to a dismal start and may be showing up the limitations of this universe.