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Entries in Science Fiction (11)

Monday
May082017

ALIEN: COVENANT

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Damien Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollet, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich and Guy Pearce.
Writers: John Logan and Dante Harper

Director: Ridley Scott 

Reviewed at the Sydney cast and crew screening, Hoyts Entertainment Quarter, on Sunday, May 7.

Rating: 3.5/5

Creation and identity, the duality of man and science vs spirituality are some of the high falutin’ themes that Ridley Scott wants you to consider in Alien: Covenant, his latest expansion of the ‘where did they come from?’ narrative through-line introduced in 2012’s plodding and regrettable Prometheus. However, like all the franchise instalments that have emerged in the 38 years since Scott’s lean and brilliant Alien, the oh-so-serious intellectualising of B-movie tropes only serves to get in the way of the what we pay to see – screeching monsters rip people apart.

Which is not to say that the vast reams of text afforded the sexual and maternal nightmare that is his 1979 masterpiece are not valid, but rather to acknowledge that the dissection of the nightmare came after it had been dreamt, not while the dreaming was happening. When the great craftsman Scott focuses in on why the film series has proved so enduring – the visceral, primal terror of associating with the prey, facing off against an alpha predator – his latest delivers bloody and bracing thrills and chills. When it waxes on (and on) about such lofty pretensions as the origin of the species and the identity of ‘The Creator’, there develops a sense of desperation, as if Alien: Covenant yearns for justification as more than the outer space splatter epic it just needs to be.

The opening credit sequence, in which aging scientist Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce) discusses origin mythology, art and classical music with his creation, ‘Walter’ (Michael Fassbender) in a sterile setting which may or may not be a memory implant of the android, establishes what most engages the director. The film finds a more familiar and pleasing groove when on-screen graphics introduce the crew of the settlement craft Covenant, spearheading the 2104 colonization of 2000 cryo-slumbering settlers on a new home on planet Origae-6.

Following a tragic (and spectacularly staged) mishap that demands the crew are awakened, they are sidetracked by a garbled signal that suggest life may exist on an uncharted planet just a few galactic clicks that way. These developments clearly harken back to the opening moments of Alien, although the cast’s game effort to recapture the chemistry of Scott’s original players is in vain; one must assume that camaraderie exists between the paired-off space travellers, rather than it being earned by good writing and great performances.

Leading the ground mission is newly appointed captain Oram (Billy Crudup), a man of waivering self-confidence but strong religious faith, an aspect of his personality which one expects to have resonance but never does. Standing out from the crew is the recently widowed Daniels (Katherine Waterston; pictured, above), a level headed ecologist who sees no value in putting the colonists at risk to explore a random radio single (she makes a good point), security tech Lope (Damian Bichir) and cowboy stereotype Tennessee (Danny McBride), left on board to pilot the Covenant.

Once the advance party set foot on the habitable planet (New Zealand exteriors doubling for lush interstellar greenery), they set forth into the unknown in a passage that recalls the marine’s first moments on LV-426 in James Cameron’s masterful sequel Aliens. To Scott’s credit, it is one of several nods to Cameron’s contribution to Alien lore and the role his skill and imagination played in establishing the franchise; would that Scott have also adopted some of Cameron’s brisk storytelling skill and aversion to pretence.

Soon, as is to be expected, the planet reveals its dangerous secrets, crew members are brought back on board in clear defiance of quarantine regulations and all hell breaks loose. The first alien reveal, the climax to a rivetting and truly terrifying sequence of events, reaffirms that Scott, for all his high-mindedness, is going to deliver the horror for which his series is known. By mid Act 2, however, plotting grinds to crawl with the re-emergence of Prometheus’ synthetic human ‘David’ (also Fassbender, in a performance edging dangerously close to camp) and the mystery behind the integral role he has played in the last decade of the planet’s lifecycle. True Scott fans will go weak-kneed at ‘easter egg’ moments, including a close-up of an eye and a verbal clue, that hint at the Alien saga's lineage between it's own synthetic humans and Scott’s other robo-villains, Blade Runner’s replicants.  

Working with A-list penman John Logan (Gladiator; The Aviator; Skyfall) and first-timer Dante Harper and a visionary tech team that craft some flawless deep space imagery, Ridley Scott essentially offers up the big-screen equivalent of an aging rock band’s mega-concert - a repackaged mix of the ‘Greatest Hits’ moments the fans came for intermingled with new stuff of interest to the band, but no one else. This leaves Alien: Covenant a frustratingly flawed, uneven work that rolls and pitches like a commercial space vessel navigating a solar storm. It is at times a thrilling, stomach-churning journey, but one that leaves those on board wondering if the disorientation and down time was worth the investment.

Wednesday
Nov162016

MORGAN

Stars: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Vinette Robinson, Chris Sullivan, Brian Cox and Paul Giamatti.
Writer: Seth W. Owen
Director: Luke Scott

Rating: 4/5

Picture raising an id-fuelled, temperamental five-year old, wrapped in the skin and attitude of a wilful teenager, with every associated mood swing potentially resulting in carnage only an adult psychopath can deliver.  Herein lies the essence of Morgan, debutant director Luke Scott’s slick, slow-burn sci-fi thriller starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular synthetic humanoid struggling to reconcile her robotic roots with some very human existential angst.

The by-product of a corporate R&D program run rampant, Morgan is holed up in a wildly over production-designed country estate that looks like the Addams Family mansion from the outside but which hides an intricate network of underground scientific research chambers. These serve to both study and contain Morgan, her skin exhibiting a vaguely metallic pallor (likely the result of having spent her formative years sans sunlight) and her only form of clothing, a grey hoody, hiding a fierce musculature well beyond her years.

The breakout star of Robert Eggers’ 2015 shocker The Witch, the diminutive Taylor-Joy summons the kind of onscreen physicality and ominous presence that makes the anxiety felt by her captors entirely believable. Following an ‘incident’ that leaves Jennifer Jason Leigh’s researcher in a terrible state (another descent into brutal victimisation for the actress, though far less well formulated than her Hateful 8 turn), company ‘fixer’ Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent in to reassess and potentially terminate the Morgan model. The droid’s fate seems sealed when an encounter with Paul Giamatti’s psych evaluator goes bad; the rat-a-tat dialogue and punchy editing of the encounter makes for the film’s most riveting scene.

Despite their charge’s unpredictable cyber-nature, none of the scientists want to see the increasingly human Morgan shut down, their objectivity clouded by eight years spent formulating, constructing and caring for ‘it’. Behaviourist Rose Leslie, chief scientist Toby Jones, administrator Michael Yare, overseer Michelle Yeoh and hunky cook Boyd Holbrook have all developed strong ties to both the project goals and Morgan her/itself, putting them at odds with the chilly, objective-driven risk manager. Mara is a tightly coiled spring as Weathers, her striking angular features and tiny frame concealing its own innate strength and potential for killer force; imagine Audrey Hepburn in Luc Besson’s Le Femme Nikita.

Fast-tracked into the role of feature director, Scott does a fine job manoeuvring his actors around some familiar territory. Alex Garland’s 2015 cult hit Ex Machina, with Alicia Vikander as the robo-girl, trod similar ground; it proved more intellectually ambitious, though Morgan is a dash more fun. Structurally, a group of stranded archetypes facing off against a relentless non-human foe feels a lot like Alien; said non-human protagonist leaving a bloody trail its wake in a quest to define its own mortality sounds quite a bit like Blade Runner. No surprise to learn that Luke Scott is Ridley’s son and that Morgan is produced by Dad’s production outfit, Scott Free.

If the echoes of too many other films negate his own distinctive voice, the slick visuals and strong characterisations suggest Luke Scott has much to offer beyond the shadow of his father. Morgan isn’t the smartest sci-fi thriller you’re likely to see (the ‘twist ending’ was picked very early on by your critic), but it is a terrific piece of A-list B-movie entertainment nonetheless.

Tuesday
Nov082016

OCCUPANTS

Stars: Briana White, Michael Pugliese and Robert Picardo.
Writer: Julia Camara
Director: Russell Emanuel

Rating: 4/5

Two engaging central performances and a director determined to maximise the potential of his premise ensures Occupants emerges as one of the most effective and satisfying low-budget genre works of 2016.

A low-key alt-universe/time-portal two-hander, director Russell Emmanuel’s crowd-pleaser exhibits all the character-driven drama and high-concept smarts of the best Twilight Zone episodes. He’s probably scratching his head at the protagonist’s home-tech set-up, but somewhere Rod Serling is also smiling warmly that his legacy is embraced with such skill and affection.

Annie Curtis (Briana White) is a LA-based documentary maker who makes herself and good-guy husband Neil (Michael Pugliese) the focus of her latest project, in which she subjects the household to a diet cleansing regime and captures its impact upon their dynamic. Scripter Julia Camara’s narrative kicker is not especially sturdy (what exactly does Annie expect to capture via her multi-camera set-up apart from inevitable mood swings and weight loss?), but there is some sly social satire in the notion that only Californian millennials would assume there is an audience interested in watching them turn vegan.

Showing a sure touch with a series of slow-burn reveals, Emmanuel (a journeyman talent credited with solid home-vid titles like P.J., with John Heard, and Chasing the Green, with William Devane) amps up the tension when Annie’s footage reveals a window into a parallel plane of existence in which two far less happy versions of her and Neil struggle with a miserable life. Presented with undeniable evidence this extraordinary event is in fact real, Annie and Neil take on the roles of voyeurs, peering intently at and slowly identifying with their darker selves living another life.

Annie can’t help but get involved with the ethereal doppelgangers when her cameras reveal hot-button topics like pregnancy and potential homicide; what neither Annie or Neil count on are the consequences when their other selves take a vengeful ‘Mind your own business!’ stance. Events become worrisome, then menacing, the stresses of a life without beer and pizza amplified by nocturnal visitations from beyond this world.

Kudos to Emmanuel and his casting team for pairing White and Pugliese, who have a endearing, convincing chemistry, whether as the buoyant, sweet-natured ‘Annie and Neil’ or as the sad, increasingly tormented ‘Others’. In a bit part played directly to camera, veteran character actor Robert Picardo (The Howling; Star Trek Voyager; Inner Space) plays Annie’s mentor Dr Alan Peterson, a role that adds much-needed weight to some of the plot’s loopier developments.

A ‘found footage’ film by defintion, DOP/editor Emile Harris eschews the familiar shaky-cam, instead applying split-screen technique and believable graphics to convincing affect. The usual illogical elements continue to undermine the genre; why would Annie’s hours of footage be edited into this thriller-like construct? why not go public with such sensational evidence of supernatural phenomenon? But Occupants so convincingly plays to its strengths, such griping seems petty; Emmanuel and his leads provide a giddy sense of thrilling discovery and palpable tension that proves entirely winning.

 

Wednesday
Oct052016

NILALANG

Stars: Cesar Montano, Maria Ozawa, Meg Imperial, Yam Concepcion, Cholo Barretto, Dido De La Paz, Kiko Matos, Sonny Sison, Alexandre Charlet and Aubrey Miles.
Writers: Pedring Lopez and Dennis Empalmado.
Director: Pedring Lopez.

Rating: 3.5/5

Pedring Lopez’s blood-soaked romp Nilalang is a wildly enjoyable exercise in mash-up expertise. In equal measure a pulpy Pinoy crime meller and spooky Japanese samurai lark, the Filipino auteur brushes aside some illogical plotting with stunning action set pieces, grim bloodletting and gorgeous animation. Throw in the entirely appropriate casting of a J-porn actress and span 400 years from the pre-credit sequence to end scroll…well, let’s say Lopez leaves nothing on the table in crafting his cult hit in-the-making.

With co-scripter Dennis Empalmado, Lopez uses a dazzling animated sequence that posits his backstory in feudal Japan, 1602. Samurai warriors must protect The Book of Darkness, a tome of Ishi scriptures that capture and carry the slain demon spirits, written in the blood of the legendary ‘Ronin’ soldiers. When the demon Zahagur escapes, leaving a trail of tortured and dismembered victims in its wake, centuries of bloodshed lay before him (the credit sequence, which montages 400 years of man’s inhumanity to man set to a thrash-metal track, coolly suggests Zahagur has chartered the course of mankind’s uglier moments).   

The action transplants first to the port district of Manila, circa 2013, and the take-down of a possessed Japanese criminal Nakazumi (Art Acuna), before settling into the murky, crime-ridden milieu of the present day Filipino capital. A crime scene recalls the brutal methods of the deceased Nakazumi, a coincidence that baffles the NBI Special Crimes Division and its tough-guy anti-hero, Tony (Cesar Montano), who pulled the trigger on the bad guy back in ‘13. With spunky, tough-girl offsider Jane (a terrific Meg Imperial) up for anything, Tony begins to believe that spirits once held captive by The Book of Darkness are out for vengeance and soon those associated with the cop are dropping like flies (or, more accurately, beheaded, disembowelled and face-scalped flies).

Veteran leading man Montano carries himself with a square-jawed, action hero machismo; barring one explosion of emotion in a driving rainstorm, his stoicism in the face of brutal crime scenes, reanimated bad guys and hot women wanting to bed him recalls a granite-like Jean-Claude van Damme in his prime. Said ‘hot woman’ is Maria Ozawa, the former Japanese X-rated star (she retired her AV persona in 2010) making a play at legit drama in the role of Miyuki, an S&M nightclub hostess and descendant of those who wronged Zahagur, who must face-off against the supernatural forces gaining strength.

Or something like that. The convoluted plotting gets a little blurry at times, opening up holes that are never fully closed. The evil spirit is able to possess at will (not unlike the villain in the 1998 Denzel Washington vehicle, Fallen); its vaporous form commands such bit players as an old lady housekeeper, a grave digger and several well-armed bodyguards. Why it doesn’t just take command of Jane or Tony or Miyuki is not clearly addressed.

Not that it really matters, frankly. Lopez is a thrilling visual stylist, filling every corner of his widescreen frame with lush colours and rich detail; DOP Pao Orendain's lensing is world class. Some brutal deaths are etched in the graphic-novel style animation, which proves no less stomach churning; scenes of bare skin torture and gruesome blade work will sate horror buffs (the fate of Yam Concepcion’s pretty young thing Akane is not easily forgotten). Some dialogue is ripe, though it plays well within the 80’s era construct with which Lopez is clearly enamoured. Positively pulsating with ballsy energy, Nilalang carries off a posturing swagger rarely glimpsed in the anaemic mainstream action cinema of today.

Sunday
Sep112016

THIS PAPIER MACHE BOULDER IS ACTUALLY REALLY HEAVY

Stars: Christian Nicolson, Sez Niederer, Daniel Pujol, Lewis Roscoe, Joseph Wycoff, Tansy Hayden and Jarred Tito.
Writers: Andrew Beszant and Christian Nicolson.
Director: Christian Nicolson.

Rating: 3/5

Playing sweet and silly while keeping irony in check is one of the many endearing traits of multi-hyphenate Christian Nicolson’s fan-boy movie-gasm, This Giant Papier Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy. The Auckland-based writer-director’s passion project is roughhewn but undeniably crowdpleasing, deriving some big laughs from a barrage of references that draw upon the two great periods of popular science fiction entertainment –the B-movie cheapies of the 1950s and the post-Star Wars boom of the 1980s.

Working with co-scripter Andrew Beszant and exhibiting an unwavering commitment to improvised energy, the premise stems from Nicolson’s deep understanding and clear affection for such properties as Blakes 7, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Red Dwarf and Star Trek (whose fan base are already nodding knowingly at the title); large dollops of comedic inspiration come from the likes of Monty Python, the Simon Pegg series Spaced and, in one nutty nod, The Benny Hill Show. Low- to no-budget constraints clearly posed zero concern for the cast and crew, who commit to their director’s enthusiastically loopy vision regardless of wobbly sets, home-stitched costuming and paddocks-as-planets location shoots.

Nicholson stars as Tom, the almost-cool one in a mismatched trio alongside schlubby eye-roller Gavin (Lewis Roscoe) and sci-fi geek Jeffery (Daniel Pujol). Reluctantly roped into a day at the mini-con ‘Quest Fest’, they are drawn to a screening of the schlocky space-opera, Space Warriors in Space. With barely a paragraph of cumbersome exposition, the three are zapped into the film, where Jeffery morphs into the fictitious Captain Kasimir, the trio put offside the evil galactic battle lord Froth (Joseph Wycoff, very funny) and Tom fosters affections for the feisty heroine Emmanor (Sez Niederer). Developments involving giant lizards, leery bikini-clad Amazons, a muppet and tribesmen with a Groot-like economy for words add to the overall air of free-for-all lunacy.

The meta-friendly ‘trapped-in-a-movie’ device allows for lots of knowing satire, utilisation of well-worn tropes and examination of the fan-to-film dynamic. Unlike the melancholy romanticism of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo or smart social commentary of Gary Ross’ Pleasantville, Nicolson uses the structure to play for broad laughs, as Peter Hyams did in the 1992 cult item Stay Tuned, which saw John Ritter and Pam Dawber cast into a cable TV nightmare. The other clear inspiration is Dean Parisot’s 1999 hit Galaxy Quest; less obviously, due to it barely having seen a release outside of the UK, is Alan Donohoe’s Star Wars fan-pic, I Have a Bad Feeling About This, which recounts the odyssey of two Lucas-obsessed lads determined to catch a screening of the original trilogy.

In hindsight, Nicolson may have handed his post-production hyphen over to a fresh pair of eyes; at 112 minutes, the whimsy is not always maintained and the film could do with a tight trim. But one can’t begrudge Nicolson and his cast and crew the urge to put all they shot on-screen for all to see; the sense that every set-up was forged with passion and persistence imbues this giggly, goofy and genuinely likable genre farce.

This Giant Papier Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy begins an exclusive New Zealand screening season on September 14 in Auckland. Full screening and ticketing information on the film’s official website.

 

Wednesday
Jun222016

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, William Fichtner, Sela Ward, Judd Hirsch, Brett Spiner, Vivica A. Fox, Angelababy, Deobia Oparei, Nicholas Wright, Travis Tope and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Writers: Nicholas Wright, Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, James A. Woods and James Vanderbilt.
Director: Roland Emmerich.

Rating: 3/5

Once again, Earth is the battlefield in Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich’s gleeful, cheese-whiz sequel to his 1996 blockbuster. Reuniting many of the original players for a '50's comic-book plot’ that manages to be both preposterously convoluted and gossamer thin, critics the world over are likely to use those words, ‘Earth’ and ‘battlefield,’ with wild abandon when shredding this latest alien invasion spectacle.

But if the clunky dialogue, square-jawed heroics and plethora of ‘puh-leeze!’ moments occasionally recall that Travolta travesty, Emmerich and his army of five(!) writers and tech wizards nevertheless deliver grand-scale sci-fi spectacle and old-school human heroics the likes of which Hollywood has neglected in this era of the Marvel/DC tentpole. As reflected in the re-casting of ageing stars Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch and Bill Pullman and a tagline that sends shivers down the spine of the original film’s then-young key demo, Emmerich’s own resurgence as a director is a 20-year throwback to those glory days of 1996 when large-scale destruction did not recall 9/11 imagery and the scourge of cyber-cynicism was still a ways off.

An attention-grabbing set-up posits the sequel in a vividly imagined alternate 2016, in which the alien technology captured when the Earth armies defeated the space invaders in 1996 has reshaped everyday life. In this world, the President is already a woman (Sela Ward, burdened with some of the script’s most on-the-nose dialogue) and the global community is one, still basking in the US-led glory of borderless comradeship. How a female commander-in-chief and a unified planet will play in the real-2016 climate of fervent fundamental ideologies and rife Trump/Brexit-style nationalism, is perhaps the sequel’s most daring gamble. But, hey, it’s only a movie…

To delve too deeply into the machinations of the plot would be to do Resurgence a disservice and entirely overstate its importance. In B-movie terms, the re-emergence of the aliens and the means by which the human race combat them is conveyed in a handful of scenes where good actors use words like “fusion” and “override” and “window of opportunity,” then repeat those sentences to a room full of gathered extras who nod and look worried.

Similarly, personal subplots that are easily defined and resolved with instantly accessible sentiment are all these cast-heavy disaster spectacles require. Jeff Goldblum, a bespectacled silver-fox cut from the ‘Indiana Jones’ school of heroic academic, returns as tech whiz David Levinson, whose role in the 1996 victory has seen him elevated to valued government advisor. The years have not been so good to President Whitmore (a terrific Bill Pullman), who is cursed with nightmares and mental fatigue that begin to take on prescient qualities (and which also afflict the not-dead-after-all Brent Spiner as Dr Okun and Deobai Operai’s African warlord, Umbutu).

A trio of new faces provide the bulk of the derring-do, including Liam Hemsworth as the roguish fighter pilot-turned-moon tug captain Jake Morrison; It Follows' Maika Monroe as Whitmore’s daughter Patricia, a Presidential aide and Morrison’s gal pal; and, Jessie T. Usher as Dylan Hiller, an academy ace and son of the late Steven Hiller, thereby providing the only connection (aside from a fleetingly glimpsed portrait in the rebuilt White House) to the original’s action lead, Will Smith. Sidekick duties are performed by Travis Tope as Jake’s co-pilot Charlie, bringing the ‘Anthony Edwards/Goose’ vibe; Chinese starlet Angelababy as the best of the East’s pilots (and a none-too-subtle nod to the current importance of global distribution); and Judd Hirsch, still nailing ‘grizzly Jewish father’ with bravado as Julius Levinson. And, providing that unexpected first degree of separation to Euro-badboy Lars von Trier, an occasionally bewildered Charlotte Gainsbourg (yes, that Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a French/UK psychiatrist.

Upping their profile this time around are the invading hordes, whose physicality resembles a mash-up of great space visitors from the 20th Century Fox back catalogue, primarily James Cameron’s Aliens and John McTiernan’s Predator (as well Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield and the little-seen 2012 Italian sci-fier, The Arrival of Wang). Their CGI rendering is detailed and impressive, yet remains just this side of over-polished; there is an overall retro-vibe to the effects work and a faded palette to the visuals that thankfully denies the epic the shimmering, fake textures of most modern blockbusters.

Roland Emmerich’s career has been peppered with fine ‘half-movies’, films that build to a second-act climax then have nowhere interesting to go for an hour. Think of the wave hitting New York in The Day After Tomorrow; the big lizard hitting New York in Godzilla; the destruction of America’s west coat in Independence Day. All awe-inspiring sequences, some even achieving a high emotional element, yet robing their respective narratives of momentum, leaving a third act that hobbles to the finish film.

He overcomes this narrative failing in Resurgence. The mid-section arrival of the alien spacecraft delivers immense scope and scale, but the film kicks on to a denouement that, like the enormous intergalactic vessel of war, can be seen coming from miles away but provides bang for buck. He also manages to temper the jingoism of the 1996 film, a time when America’s role as the world’s do-gooders did not cast its own immense shadow like it does today.

Independence Day: Resurgence entertains like few Hollywood blockbusters have of late, largely by foregoing pretension on every level and drilling down on the basic tenets of popcorn moviemaking. Haters going to hate, but those looking for old Hollywood (i.e., 1996) thrills will be over the moon.

Thursday
Dec172015

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Gwendoline Christie, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Warwick Davis, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker.
Writers:  Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt.
Director: J.J. Abrams.

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Force Awakens is to A New Hope, as A New Hope was to the Flash Gordon matinee serials of yesteryear. Just as those creaky two-reelers inspired a young George Lucas to rework sci-fi adventure tropes for a new generation, so to does director J.J. Abrams now imprint his own frantic filmmaking flourish on Lucas’ source material for the millennial mindset.

Whatever factors rob The Force Awakens of the soulful essence of Lucas’ 1977 blockbuster are, frankly, impossible to define; it will be something as intangible as timing or fate or some such thing. Unlike Lucas’ work, which bowed at the birth of the blockbuster era and spoke with a clear and classic heroic voice, the likes of which young audiences had not encountered previously, Abrams’ vision is very much of its time – busy, self-aware, giddy in the thrall of its own energy and aesthetic. Just as he did so successfully with the Mission Impossible and Star Trek brands, Abrams has breathed new life into Star Wars; why it should then feel lacking in a strong pulse at times is worth pondering.

On the record as a die-hard Star Wars fanatic, Abrams' fan cred comes through in his reverential treatment of thematic and narrative elements synonymous with the series. This honouring of lore may represent his geek-boy spiritual bond or may be in answer to Disney’s demands to not mess with the formula, or both. The blueprint to which Abrams adheres is a strength and a weakness; the warm glow of nostalgia is all over The Force Awakens and imbues immediate goodwill, but Abrams does little to earn his own stripes as a conveyor of franchise mythology (unlike Irvin Kershner achieved with The Empire Strikes Back or, to a lesser extent, Richard Marquand on Return of The Jedi).

The heroic characters are strong in this one, with Daisy Ridley’s desert scavenger Rey firmly establishing a spunky, resourceful central figure and strong bond with the plucky droid, BB-8; John Boyega’s defecting Stormtrooper ‘Finn’ is slightly less well defined, but the actor is a strong presence and establishes an honest chemistry with Ridley. Oscar Isaac’s X-wing hero Poe Dameron is all square-jawed gusto; Lupita Nyong’o’s CGI-rendered cantina owner, the wizened Maz Kanata (looking too much like The Incredibles’ Edna Mode) seems poised to become Yoda 2.0. The impact of Harrison Ford as aged scoundrel Han Solo is invaluable, his superstar charisma and weathered ‘grey fox’ appeal the pic’s greatest asset. His scenes opposite Carrie Fisher’s Leia (no longer a ‘princess’, now settled into a strategic role with the Rebellion) are melancholy and warm.

Abram’s villains are less compelling, none matching the malevolence of Eric Bana’s Romulan Nero in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren casts a meagre shadow over the proceedings, his merciless mean-streak seeming no more ominous than that of schoolyard bully when faced with Rey’s resistance. Some convoluted plotting that ties Ren to our heroes does not convince, leading to a development that should be a series-defining moment but which instead plays as a throwaway contrivance. Andy Serkis lends his mo-cap skills to the CGI-generated Supreme Leader Snoke; solid actors such as Domhnall Gleeson and Gwendoline Christie adopt the stuffy Brit baddie archetype in the dark-suited military roles (then it was ‘The Empire’; now, it is ‘The First Order’).

When the film does soar it is on the back of the production design and effects crews. A sequence that re-introduces the Millenium Falcon leads to a thrilling chase sequence on the desert planet Jakku; majestically staged dogfights between screeching Tie Fighters and beautiful X-wing crafts are truly breathtaking.

To put it in ‘old franchise’ perspective, The Force Awakens is immeasurably better than the dire Lucas-directed prequels and probably as good as Return of The Jedi. But it lacks the free-wheeling bravado and pure thrill of A New Hope and the smart scripting and artistry of The Empire Strikes Back. As a kicker for a new raft of sequels, spin-offs and merchandising, it is serviceable and entirely enjoyable. The bitter irony is that the very thing that inspired its existence also created the frenzied, blockbuster-hungry studio system that reins in its potential.

Friday
Nov062015

ARROWHEAD

Stars: Dan Mor, Aleisha Rose, Christopher Kirby and Mark Redpath; featuring the voice of Shaun Micallef.
Writer/director: Jesse O’Brien.

WINNER: Best Feature Film at 2015 SciFi Film Festival (Sydney, Australia).

Rating: 4.5/5

Driven by the DNA of a dozen sci-fi classics while pulsating with its own original life force, Arrowhead is both a love-letter to the adventurous space visions of yore and one giant leap into the genre’s future.

Australian writer-director Jesse O’Brien has crafted a thematically complex, occasionally confounding but never less than riveting character study, centred by the terrific Dan Mor’s compelling, bracingly physical lead performance. Should anyone be concerned that Arrowhead comes in the wake of 2015’s other castaway-on-a-desert-planet film, they can rest assured that O’Brien’s debut feature is immeasurably more cerebral, exciting and satisfying.

The narrative’s central conflict (adapted and expanded from O’Brien’s 2012 short) is a large-scale ideological feud between warring factions, although the obligatory interstitials detailing the future setting prove a bit of a MacGuffin; the director quickly focuses his lean, central story on a prisoner named Kye Cortland. The opening action sequence, depicting a bloody prison break, suggests that this particular dystopian future may not be unlike the brutal killing grounds of Brian Trenchard-Smith’s 1982 cult shocker Turkey Shoot (or, perhaps more precisely, the locally-shot international productions Salute of The Jugger and Escape from Absolom).

Maimed and unconscious, Kye awakens in the presence of enigmatic rebel leader Tobias Hatch (Mark Redpath), who promises safe passage for Kye’s imprisoned father if our hero flies one last op for the cause as pilot of the Arrowhead space craft. Cue one beautifully rendered dissolve from the launchpad to deep space and Kye is on-mission, until forced to crash-land on a remote, rocky landscape. O’Brien blasts through this first act with precise beats, making every frame count in his commitment to slick storytelling, mounting tension and human drama.

Marooned, Kye engages with the downed ship’s advanced operating system, known as REEF (the distinctive tones of popular local actor/comedian Shaun Micallef providing the vocal interface) and begins to recce the alien landscape. O’Brien is now in his element, disorienting his audience with ambiguous visual and aural cues that indicate the planet is not the lifeless rock it initially seemed. Kye instantly adapts to the atmosphere; time and space defy scientific notions; the presence of a potentially dangerous alpha life form becomes apparent.

Kye is joined by fellow displaced astronaut Tarren, played by the wonderful Aleisha Rose who shares a rich on-screen chemistry with her leading man (and sports a superbly retro figure-hugging flight-suit, straight off the covers of a 50’s comic book). Also materialising in one of the plot’s more ‘out-there’ moments is the mysteriously resurrected Norman Oleander (Christopher Kirby). But Kye shares the closest affinity with the symbiotic essence of his new home; as time becomes increasingly fractured, so to does Kye’s grip on his human state-of-mind and tissue integrity.

It is this gripping psychological component, combined with some lavish ‘Jekyll-&-Hyde’ moments of transformative change, that ensures Arrowhead transcends its genre trappings and emerges as something particularly enthralling. Mor’s physical manifestation of his twisted psyche represents truly great body acting; both the technical prowess and emotional insight he plumbs in conveying O’Brien’s superbly written script is great to watch.

All tech contributors, from the lensing and VFX contributions of Samuel Baulch to Stephanie D’Alessi’s art direction and Ryan Stevens’ production design, reflect innovation and vision of an international standard. Detractors might gripe that the influences are too prominent; Duncan Jones’ Moon is an obvious touchstone, as are, to varying degrees, the likes of Silent Running, Pitch Black, Starship Troopers, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Total Recall. But, just as those genre standard bearers found there own voice, Arrowhead grasps the tropes and reworks, re-energises and redefines them with a bold ambition and crackling originality.

 

Tuesday
Oct272015

JACKRABBIT

Stars: Josh Caras, Ian Christopher Noel, Joslyn Jensen and Reed Birney.
Writers: Destin Douglas and Carleton Ranney.
Director: Carleton Ranney.

Rating: 3.5/5

Had Carleton Ranney’s cyber-noir thriller Jackrabbit been shepherded through the studio mill, it may have emerged as a kind of dystopic-worldview version of Sneakers, Phil Alden Robinson’s 1992 crowdpleaser that the hacker community still bows before.

Instead, Ranney and co-writer Destin Douglas have honoured the non-conformist stance of their protagonists and delivered a dark, thoughtful take on small-scale insurgent destabilisation. The young Texan’s feature directing debut is more ‘headscratcher’ than ‘crowdpleaser’, but it will be the deliberately oblique narrative that the festival crowds should find most engaging. To his credit, he also keeps to a minimum those ‘typing’ and ‘staring at monitors’ moments that burden most tech-themed thrillers.

Ranney and his talented production design team envision the near future as City Sector VI, a metropolis overseen by the all-seeing VOPO Corporation. An event known only as ‘The Reset’ has made state-of-the-art computer tech redundant, the population reverting to 80’s era circuitry that offers a meagre upside while allowing VOPO to spy on the population via a CCTV network; drone networks and ‘men in black’ operatives enforce border checkpoints and night-time curfews.

From an opening sequence that recalls the sad death of real-world hacker-hero Aaron Schwartz, an angry-young-man tech-outlaw, Max (a compelling Ian Christopher Noel) and VOPO-bound, short-sleeves-&-tie type Simon (Josh Caras) are drawn together as mutual friends of the deceased. With Joslyn Jensen’s Grace providing some much needed feminine guile (and presence) in the second act, the mismatched pair uncover an encrypted hard drive left behind by their late friend that may have far reaching consequences for the very structure of the Orwellian society.

As the plot thickens, so to does Ranney’s tendency towards understated ambiguity and minimalism. There are moments in the unravelling of the mystery that seem arbitrary, yet the momentum never fully subsides. For some, 101 stealthy minutes may prove grating but there is no denying the filmmakers have adhered to a well-defined indie-film aesthetic that ultimately rewards. One of the key thematic strands is the value of information as currency; Ranney, too, utilises and honours the details in minutiae.

One of the great pleasures of Ranney’s world is the disorienting retro-vibe the setting exudes. In addition to the box monitors and dinner-plate circuit boards, the fashions tend towards skinny ties and sleeveless vests, harkening back to the decade in which computers and the nefarious networks they foot-soldier for was born (check out the pic’s fun website for further 80s influence). Also superbly of the period is the pulsating synth-score from MGMT’s Will Berman, borrowing freely from the musical stylings of genre giant John Carpenter.

Jackrabbit screens as part of the SciFi Film Festival in Sydney on October 31. Session and ticketing information can be found at the events website.

Friday
May082015

INFINI

Stars: Daniel MacPherson, Grace Huang, Luke Hemsworth, Bren Foster, Luke Ford, Dwaine Stevenson, Louisa Mignone, Tess Haubrich and Kevin Copeland.
Writers: Shane Abbess and Brian Cachia.
Director: Shane Abbess.

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 2.5/5

When a director draws upon so many genre reference points as Shane Abbess does in his coarse, shrill sci-fi shocker Infini, there needs to be somewhere in the mix a bolt of blazing originality that sets his work apart from its inspirations.

Set ostensibly on an ‘off-world mining colony’, Abbess’ story (from an idea hatched with his music composer, Brian Cachia) focuses on an elite military unite sent on a search-and-rescue mission when all contact is lost with a deep-space outpost. Title-cards spend unnecessary time explaining ‘slipstreaming’, the process of data-encrypting living tissue so that long-distance interstellar travel becomes possible. It is how tough-talking grunts of the future undertake deployment, foregoing hyper-sleep (and providing a meagre point of difference from James Cameron’s Aliens).

Finding a corpse-strewn maze of steely corridors and abandoned workstations (echoing John Carpenter’s The Thing, both narratively and visually), the unit stumble upon lone survivor Whit Carmichael (Oz TV staple Daniel MacPherson), only to realise that whatever caused the population to off themselves in horrible ways still infects the site. Systematically, each soldier descends into an infectious delirium that manifest in bouts of loud, rage-filled histrionics followed by gruesome expiration (in effect, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon with a little Resident Evil flavour when required).

Abbess rocked the local film world in 2007 with his warrior-angel thriller, Gabriel. A lean genre work shot on a shoestring (nabbed by Sony Pictures for the world market), it was a vision that nodded a lot to such films as Gregory Widen’s Prophecy and Alex Proyos’ The Crow but brought with it a compelling style, cool leading man in the late Andy Whitfield and slick narrative that lifted it beyond its conventions.

His return to the local low-end budget/high-end production milieu he previously tapped so well is a frustrating disappointment. While his intention may have been to construct a psychological thriller that thematically employs the lonely, disassociated setting and his characters’ yearning for human connection, the overuse of long, talky scenes that call upon one-dimensional military stereotypes to wallow in pop-psych emoting never hits a convincing note. An ok MacPherson is drawn into a series of interminable yelling matches with his co-stars as they succumb to the airborne alien madness; one such encounter, with two-time AACTA Award winner Luke Ford no less, plays like an improv acting class exercise.

Script and storytelling shortcomings aside, it is the overarching familiarity of Abbess’ visual cues that derails his ambition. As our hero contemplates his lot in life while taking in the future world cityscape from his apartment balcony, the savvy sci-fi viewer will recall it is a near-exact rendering of the same scene from Len Wiseman’s recent Total Recall remake. The cooling vents and steam jets of the mining colony are pure Ridley Scott/James Cameron; the planetary surface and external structures of the mining outpost resoundingly echo LV426. So reminiscent of and reliant upon Aliens is Infini, the very definition of ‘homage’ is put to the test.

Some narrative freshness emerges in a third act that posits Infini as a type of ‘…Body Snatchers’ clone; the same developments, however, also recall (one assumes unintentionally) Ghostbusters 2. But, at an unforgivably lengthy 110 minutes, patience and tolerance for the director’s indulgences have worn thin. Abbess is clearly a technically gifted filmmaker, able to conjure impressive visuals, but Infini suggests the services of an experienced script editor and a purging of his DVD collection should be high priorities.