Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Review: ‘Chappie’


Based on his first three feature-length efforts, filmmaker Neill Blomkamp seems inherently drawn to the paradox of technology’s advancement colliding with man’s inability to reconcile his increasing minimization within that world. At times more successful than others (such as in District 9 and the terrific Elysium) it’s an important rhetoric as the world becomes more plugged in and downloadable every single day. But Chappie, his most direct exploration of this theme yet, falls maddeningly short of anything but derivative and empty spectacle.

Set in the near future of Johannesburg, South Africa in 2016 (and does that even count as “futuristic”?), Chappie is one of several hundred robot police officers designed by whip-smart engineer Deon (Dev Patel) and employed by the local police to help curb the spiraling crime rate.

Part of that spiraling problem involves Ninja and Yolandi (both played by actors with those real names apparently) and their quest for quick cash to pay back the local crime boss, Hippo (Brandon Auret), whose ‘badness’ is assured since he’s covered in tattoos and speaks a South African dialect so broken and unintelligible that he’s subtitled throughout the movie. He also uses a gold-plated gun, which any action fan understands always belongs to the villain. Ninja and Yolandi concoct a scenario where they steal the controls to a random police robot and utilize its superhuman strength for their own devious motives and exact their debt to Hippo.

At the same time, Deon is mired in bureaucratic indifference by his boss (Sigourney Weaver) at not wanting to test a new consciousness simulation on the robots as well as friction with competitive designer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a man just chomping at the bit to invent any excuse for his own brand of robotic killing machine to become the new police frontline over Deon’s invention. And did I mention his version happens to look just like that marvelous Ed 209 machine in Robocop?

From these varying factions, Chappie is born, figuratively, from the scrap heap and manipulated in a number of ways. Once kidnapped by Ninja and Yolandi, Chappie resembles an orphan adopted by a very bad set of parents while the film desperately tries to equate the travails of puberty and adolescence onto this conscious hunk of metal. Ninja and Yolandi teach it to walk, talk, strut and hold a gun. Chappie develops intelligence and begins to have internal moral conflicts when it comes to committing crimes with his “father” Ninja. Some of the best moments with Yolandi, who forms a maternal bond with the machine, are too few and far between until the film shifts its focus back to the muttering, macho Ninja or the pouting Hugh Jackman, maneuvering computer viruses and late night download sessions to create his own robotic apocalypse.

Despite all this tech affluence and seamless CGI interaction of Chappie himslf (embodied by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley), it’s an especially bone-headed film and the type that defies common logic. Just why is such an ultra secure, top-secret hangar so easy for everyone to whisk materials and weapons in and out of? Why does Sigourney Weaver, when faced with the situation of a robot pounding a man to death in front of her, grab her jacket and purse before fleeing the room? How does anyone expect any sympathy for such an annoying, nihilistic group of thieves and murderers? Why does a film hinge its power on the affection for a robot (call it the lost puppy syndrome) then utterly fail to create any indelible characteristics of said robot?

Like an adrenalized update of Short Circuit, Blomkamp and partner writer Terri Tatchell yearn for the film to hurdle through emotions of compassion and sentiment for this little robot trying to find his way in a violent, chaotic world. It doesn’t work, and I wager that there’s more depth and heart in just a few minutes of Short Circuit than this film’s entire looong running time of two hours. I honestly never thought I’d type that.

Chappie opens in wide release across all of North Texas on Friday, March 6.

Review: ‘Jupiter Ascending’

Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum in 'Jupiter Ascending'
Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum in ‘Jupiter Ascending’
Gloriously goofy and spectacularly silly, Jupiter Ascending features eye-popping visuals and a storyline cobbled together from any number of operatic, science-fiction juveniles, the sort of fiction that has whiled away many a pleasant, indoor winter day for young men of a certain age.

Flipping the usual sex of the protagonist and making the character royalty in hiding also allows the movie to indulge in additional sets of stereotypical fantasy. This is, then, a richly derivative and old-fashioned Young Adult blockbuster that is more obsessed with gee-whiz special effects, presented in 3D, than character development or original storytelling. But, oh, what a ride!

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a young woman in her twenties who still lives at home with her boisterous, cantankerous, extended Russian family in Chicago. She goes to work with her mother and another older female relative every day, cleaning the homes and offices of the wealthy, returning home each night and dreaming of the stars. She is unhappy with the drudgery of her life and cannot even imagine the possibility of romance, much less love.

One day, she caves in to her cousin’s constant pestering and consents to a scheme whereby he will sell her fertilized eggs. (She wants a telescope.) Things go wrong at the clinic and she is saved by a mystery man who wears rocket-powered boots. Her very able savior is Caine (Channing Tatum), a genetically-engineered warrior from another planet. It turns out that Jupiter is of royal blood, a Queen, and soon she is caught up in an extraterrestrial power struggle between the apparently nice Titus (Douglas Booth) and his older, obviously evil brother Balem (Eddie Redmayne), with their sister Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) around to explain things.

There is talk of planets — owned by immortals and developed until they are ripe for “harvesting” — but mostly there is much swooshing and blasting, without much concern for the laws of physics or narrative logic. Mostly there are insanely intricate and very pretty visuals, presented for graphic bedazzlement before being destroyed in very pretty explosions and extremely slow-motion splendor.

The overall effect is much like a ride at a high-tech amusement park, with tour guides talking yet not making much sense, all while sliding by a delightful display of lights and colors of all shapes and sizes. It’s a long ride, clocking in at more than two hours, and almost entirely borrowed from other sources, but if the seats are comfortable, it’s quite pleasant, even if it’s sure to be almost entirely forgettable.

In addition to those cited above, the cast includes Sean Bean as a grizzled warrior named Stinger, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Titus’ eye-catching assistant, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Jupiter’s earthbound mother, and James D’Arcy as, I believe, Jupiter’s father. But the real stars are production designer Hugh Bateup, costume designer Kym Barrett, cinematographer John Toll, and their teams, who created and captured the splendid visuals, as well as the hundreds of graphic artists who labored behind the scenes.

The Wachowskis, as Andy and Lana Wachowski take on-screen credit, have once again cooked up an intriguing premise, yet then served it half-baked, as with the two sequels to The Matrix and Cloud Atlas. Still, their sense of visual dramatics and snappy pacing ensure that Jupiter Ascending always pops on the big screen.

The film opens wide in theaters across North Texas on Friday, February 6, with early shows the night before at select locations. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.

Review: ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ Loses Its Edge

Tom Cruise in 'Edge of Tomorrow' (Warner Bros.)
Tom Cruise in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (Warner Bros.)
The newest action picture from director Doug Liman threatens to be completely fresh and irreverent, until it realizes Tom Cruise is the star and that its premise is borrowed from Groundhog Dog with a science-fiction twist.

Based on All You Need is Kill, a novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka published in 2004, and a screenplay credited to Christopher McQuarrie (Cruise’s Jack Reacher), Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, Edge of Tomorrow posits that in the near future Earth has been invaded by aliens from space known as Mimics, who resemble giant, speedy circular mops yet are soundly defeating mankind’s military forces, combined into the United Defense Force. Military spokesperson Cage (Cruise) sounds good on television, but his cowardly, selfish nature is revealed in a conversation with General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), who orders him to “sell the military” as they make a last-ditch effort to repel the invaders on a beach in France. It’s a battle that is sure to cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and Cage firmly resists the possibility of being one of them.

He ends up in the battle anyway, and — no spoiler — is killed within the first five minutes. Then he wakes up and repeats the previous 12 hours. Then he wakes up and repeats the previous 12 hours. Then he wakes up and repeats the previous 12 hours. Then he —

You get the idea. As Cage desperately tries to figure out what’s going on, he comes into contact with Rita (Emily Blunt), a war hero, and she provides the key to the rest of the story.

The early sequences zig and zag with vim and vigor. Placing Cruise into the body of an uncertain and unlikable character who is only looking out for himself infuses the story with energy stolen from his younger years, when he could embody selfish jerks with elan and a measure of callow soulfulness. (I’m thinking especially of Risky Business, Top Gun, and The Color of Money.) Listening as he endeavors to talk his way out of the clutches of the single-minded Master Sergeant Farell (a delightfully bluff and Southern-twangy Bill Paxton) unearths the actor’s most patently insincere sincerity; it’s easy to see why he would be an effective spokesperson for the military.

All too quickly, the zippy dialogue recedes into the background (resurfacing only occasionally), and the lumbering mechanics of the plot take center stage, calling for multiple extended action sequences that are staged and filmed in an anonymous fashion by director Liman and cinematographer Dion Beebe. A dozen years ago, Beebe collaborated with director Kurt Wimmer to make the stylish and fluid Equilibrium; that same year, Liman made his first action flick, The Bourne Identity, which prized camera movement above visual clarity. Liman’s vision prevails here, of course, and so the result is a series of action scenes that are well-nigh incomprehensible.

When the action pauses, Cruise morphs quickly back into the conventional action hero he was born to play, adapting to his circumstances in rapid order and becoming a supremely efficient and selfless soldier. Naturally, that can be attributed to the nature of the time-travel loop in which he’s trapped, but it’s also a symptom of the Traditional Hollywood Protagonist Trope, his flaws erased from memory as he is transformed long before the climactic third act.

As long as Cruise’s character is imperfect and weak, the movie sings true. Once he becomes ‘all that he can be,’ to paraphrase a one-time slogan of the U.S. Army, the inevitability of the plot twists and turns become all too obvious and predictable. Without a recognizable and relatable character at the center, the movie sags, only perking up at odd times that are unable to halt the slide into mediocrity.

Edge of Tomorrow is a thriller that starts strong and loses its potency throughout its running time, like a carbonated beverage left open in the summer heat and gone flat.

The film opens in theaters wide across Dallas on Friday, June 6.

Review: ‘Pacific Rim’ Seeks to Satisfy the Boy Inside the Giant Robot

Guillermo del Toro's 'Pacific Rim' (Warner Bros.)
Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pacific Rim’ (Warner Bros.)

Giant robots vs. giant monsters should equal blockbuster entertainment in Guillermo del Toro’s science-fiction epic Pacific Rim, but the movie shoots itself too often in its giant foot to ignore its old-fashioned ideas.

Set in a near future in which kaiju (giant monsters of mysterious origin) arise from under the sea to terrorize mankind, the development of jaegers (giant robots controlled by pilots whose minds are linked by neural bridges) stems the destruction until the monstrous beasts develop their own defensive measures that neutralize the capabilities of the mechanical creatures. The world’s governments, who came together to build the jaegers, decide that the best hope for survival rests with the construction of giant walls to protect the last bastions of civilization; when those are completed, the last few remaining jaegers will be retired from service.

This sets the stage for del Toro and his army of cohorts to create what should be tremendously exciting action sequences. Alas, the choreography is so choppy that it’s difficult to tell kaiju from jaegers, much less being able to differentiate the multiple varieties of kaijus and jaegers. We’re told that these differences matter, but what we’re shown is too confusingly presented to matter much. Sometimes a certain kaiju wins, sometimes a certain jaeger loses, but we must always wait for the champion to be declared in the post-mortem to know whether to cheer in victory or wail in defeat.

Pacific Rim appears eager to stir strong emotions without daring to plunge beyond all-too-familiar riffs on apocalyptic futures and the characters who live there. The trio of leads all have carefully delineated back stories that provide easy to understand motivations for their actions: the ex-pilot whose brother and fellow jaeger pilot was killed in action (Charlie Hunnam); the wannabe pilot whose family was killed by a kaiju (Rinko Kikuchi); the military leader whose suspicious nosebleeds are a none-too-subtle indicatator of serious health problems (Idris Elba).

The same applies to supporting characters, such as Kooky Scientists (Charlie Day, Burn Gorman), Angry Australian (Robert Kazinsky), Competent Guy Who Provides Computer Updates (Clifton Collins Jr.), and Merciless Mercenary (Ron Perlman). In some of these characterizations, it feels like they are disguised refugees from comic books, waiting to unmask, reveal their true colors, and run amuck like the supporting crew in del Toro’s Hellboy movies. But then they get stuffed back into more ordinary suits of clothing and act like minor plays in a blockbuster movie.

The visual storytelling talent that del Toro has displayed in past films is largely absent here, turned over to computer-generated imagery that overcrowds the screen with gigantism. It’s satisfying in small doses, yet the smashing continues unabated far longer than warranted, to diminishing returns.

Without dynamic fight scenes, we turn to the characters, and they are equally wanting, which leaves the story, which is derivative in unflattering ways, and that doesn’t leave much more than occasional moments of superlative quality that almost seems accidental in their nature.

And that’s very disappointing, because the 12-year-old boy inside of me really wanted to enjoy himself watching giant robots fight giant monsters.

Pacific Rim opens wide across the Metroplex today.

Review: ‘In Time’

'In Time'
Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried in Andrew Niccol's 'In Time'

A thinly-veiled allegory about the eternal struggle between the rich and the poor, Andrew Niccol’s ‘In Time’ is like a beautiful yet empty-headed woman wearing a see-through nightgown: All of its charms are apparent immediately, but that’s all there is.

Set in a world where genetic engineering has been perfected, making it possible for humans to live forever, the film proposes that life spans have been capped; at 25 years of age, a clock embedded in one’s arm begins counting down the final year of life until it reaches zero, at which point the body simply stops working and the individual drops dead.

Life spans must be limited, the story goes, or else precious global resources will be used up. Ah, but the caveat is that individuals may receive more time in exchange for their labor or goods, and so time has become the new currency. The truly wealthy may live forever, while the underclass scrapes by for a precious few more hours.

With everyone’s aging process stopped at 25, and genetic engineering being what it is, that means the streets are filled with good-looking people with doom in their eyes, knowing not only that their days are numbered, but precisely how many days, hours, minutes, and seconds remain. And with everyone looking the same age, and all looking pretty good, traditional notions about aging, and judging people by their appearance, are thrown out. What would life be like in such a world? How would people react to knowing from birth that they’ve been diagnosed with a fatal disease?

After introducing a slew of interesting ideas, writer/director Niccol doesn’t know what to do with them, other than to make them look pretty.

The film does indeed look gorgeous, courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins, working with a restrained palette that is cool, dark and foreboding, even in broad daylight. Similarly, the production design by Alex McDowell is splendid within very narrow confines, suggesting that the wealthy have quite limited taste.

Good as they are, the cinematography and production design hint at the core of the problems that beset ‘In Time,’ namely, why? Why is this world so limited in imagination? Why are the wealthy so lazy and apathetic? Why do they all act the same? Why are they so conformist?

Turning the perspective around to the underclass, similar questions abound. Why does no one rebel? Why are they so limited in imagination? Why are the poor so timid and fearful? Why do they all act the same? Why are they so conformist?

The film would have us believe that the tyranny of time has buckled everyone into the same seat, although some get fine-grade leather and others are stuck in cheap plastic. But look around the world today! Some wealthy people are, indeed, lazy and apathetic, as are poor people. Yet among the wealthy, some people are charitable, some are not; some are industrious, some are not; some patronize the arts, some do not; and so forth and so on. Among the poor, the exact same things could be said to describe the differences among people.

Yet, somehow, in Niccol’s world, that’s all been wiped out — along with cell phones and PINs, by the way, two of the numerous idiotic plot contrivances on display. But there is no hint of what happened to cause such conformity. Was it a world disaster? Are these not human beings at all, but a race of aliens who just happen to look like us, with a completely different history and culture?

Niccol makes huge assumptions without ever exploring the implications. The main theme, the moral of the story, is that “no one should be immortal if others die.” Translated from allegory, that means “no one should be wealthy if others are poor.” A noble sentiment? Yes. But ‘In Time’ suggests that the only way to make things equitable is to steal from the rich to give to the poor, until everyone’s in the same boat.

But then what, exactly, in that scenario will prompt people to change their personality traits? The mere extension of life? ‘In Time’ doesn’t know.

Focusing on the film’s merits as an action thriller are similarly frustrating. One chase sequence is interchangeable with the next, as the stars look sleek and glamorous as they clamber out windows, across the roofs of buildings, and into speeding cars, all chopped up into such tiny visual bites that their meaning and fluidity are lost. Intellectually, we can assume that it’s because stunt doubles were required for a large percentage of the shots, but emotionally, the sequences never build tension or create suspense; we might as well be watching crash test dummies.

The rote performances are scarcely worth mentioning. Justin Timberlake plays a time-poor young man gifted with a century of time by a wealthy man who wanted to die; Amanda Seyfried is a rich, spoiled girl who inevitably becomes his love interest; Vincent Kartheiser is her father, a very wealthy industrialist; Cillian Murphy represents law and order, such as it is, as a Timekeeper; and Olivia Wilde is a warm and loving mother.

‘In Time’ lacks the imagination to create a fully-fleshed out alternative world or future Earth, and has nothing but vague assumptions to make about our lives in the present. Either way, it’s an empty-headed, if gorgeous, faux-thriller.

‘In Time’ opens wide tomorrow across the Metroplex. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.

‘The Adjustment Bureau’ Romantically Tackles Fate

The Adjustment Bureau
Matt Damon romances Emily Blunt in 'The Adjustment Bureau.' (Universal Pictures)

Matt Damon capably steps into the romantic spotlight, paired with Emily Blunt in the very romantic ‘The Adjustment Bureau.’ Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, the film was adapted for the screen and directed by George Nolfi. The result is very pleasing to the mind and very easy on the eyes.

“Moves quickly and lightly, even as it explores the boundaries of love and romance and asks fundamental questions about the meaning of existence. All that is packed neatly into an attractive, glossy thriller.”

You can read my entire review at Red Carpet Crash.

The film opens wide across the Metroplex; check showtimes via Google.