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Science Fiction

Blu-ray: ‘E.T.’ at 35 from Universal

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Steven Spielberg’s suburban fairy tale for kids who think they are too hip to believe in fairies, turns 35 with a new E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 35th Anniversary Limited Edition (Universal) plus additional Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K Ultra HD editions.

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Henry Thomas is Elliot, an emotionally bruised kid suffering under his parents’ separation who finds and bonds with another lonely, lost soul, a benevolent alien left behind when his spaceship leaves. “I’m keeping him,” says Elliot, but meanwhile an army of government men search for him. As E.T. grows homesick and just plain sick. Elliot and friends need to help get E.T. home.

It’s a fantastical adventure with a grounding in the modern suburbia of divorce and adolescent anxiety, and E.T. is the ultimate imaginary playmate come to life. Part pet, part best friend, part guardian angel with an emotionally symbiotic connection to Elliot, this funny looking stranger in a strange land (think of a squat, mutant teddy bear with lizard skin and monkey fingers and voice between a growl and a purr) is a wizened old grandfatherly being with the trust and playfulness of a child.

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Blu-ray: ‘Alien: Covenant’

You may recall Prometheus with both awe and astonishment, a film with astounding moments of beauty and horror and brilliance bumping up against stupidity and sloppiness and half-baked ideas. Alien: Covenant (2017), the second film in the Alien prequel series, takes place a decade after the events of Prometheus (2012) and continues writing the xenomorph origin story with a new cast of potential hosts (a colony ship with a population on ice waiting to wake on a new world) put through a plot that borrows elements from both Prometheus and the original films. It’s a smarter film, and if it never quite matches the conceptual and visual genius of Prometheus at its best, neither does it slip into the foolishness of its worst moments.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

This is the sixth official film (we’re ignoring the Alien vs. Predator films) in what is becoming a galaxy-spanning franchise, the second film in the prequel story, and the third directed by Ridley Scott, director of the original film. It opens with the skeleton crew awakening early, just as it did in Scott’s original Alien, and sending a search party down to a nearby planet sending out a distress signal, which this time is a verdant world teaming with plant life but, eerily, no animals or insects or birds. What it does have are the insidious spores of Prometheus (also directed by Scott) which colonize the unlikely humans as hosts for this alien life form, and a lone humanoid living in the ruins of a dead civilization: David (Michael Fassbender), the android of Prometheus who walks the wasteland like a rogue prophet and makes contact with the human team.

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Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), December 14, 1977]

It’s getting harder and harder for a movie to just happen anymore. I’m not talking about the ways movies get made (although, to be sure, that’s become an extremely messy business), but the ways movies and audiences get together. In the absence of a vast public that simply “goes to the movies,” film-selling has become a matter of creating Events—Events that may or may not live up to the induced expectations but which in any, er, event have an uphill fight to stay alive and spontaneous. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is having a harder time than most. It’s a $20 million film that a lot of people are anxious to recover their money on. It’s a film in a genre, sci-fi, variously blessed and burdened with an enthusiastic/rabid following whose specialized requirements for satisfaction do not necessarily have much to do with a film’s being good as a film. It’s a film in a genre, moreover, that has recently given the cinema its Number One Box-Office Champ, Star Wars, and hence become newly embattled among critics and commentators who deplore the preeminence of “mindless,” two-dimensional, feel-good flicks on the top-grossing charts.

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Blu-ray: Colossal

Colossal (2017) is the oddest and most inventive film to come out of the new wave of giant monster movies. It stars Anne Hathaway as Gloria, an out-of-work writer turned reckless party girl and black-out drunk who is kicked out of the Manhattan apartment she shares with her exasperated boyfriend (Dan Stevens) and returns to her dreary hometown and moves into her empty, abandoned family home. She runs into her childhood best friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), pretty much the only pal from her generation left in town, and gets a job waitressing in the sleepy bar he inherited. Unanchored and lacking any plan, goal, or motivation of any kind, she continues drinking her nights away with this new crew until she wakes up one morning (after another alcohol-fueled blackout) to find out that a towering Godzilla cousin has stormed Seoul, South Korea. As it continues to appear every morning (American time) at the same time, she discovers that she has a connection to the creature, one that goes back decades.

Universal Home Video

Let’s leave it at that; discovering the twists is part of the fun of the film. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen one already, but that only scratches the surface. What first seems to be a cosmic comic lark, a goofy twist on the monster movie, gets dark in a very human way without losing the film’s creative charge or director Nacho Vigalondo’s sense of humor and poetic justice. Spanish filmmaker Vigalondo has a talent for genre mash-ups, creating fresh takes on familiar science-fiction tropes, and this film (his English language debut) is his smartest, edgiest, and most accomplished to date. Hathaway plays against her image as the likable but unreliable and unraveled Gloria, as does Sudeikis, whose easygoing manner and generosity covers up a damaged soul. She’s a mess but he’s an even bigger one and there’s nothing cute about. Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell co-star Oscar’s reliable barflies and after-hours drinking buddies.

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Blu-ray: Ghost in the Shell 2017

The live-action Ghost in the Shell (2017) is both a big-screen adaptation of the long-running Japanese manga (comic book) by Shirow Masume and a remake of the landmark animated 1995 feature from Mamoru Oshii. No matter how you split the difference, the film had a high bar to clear even before the controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is simply Major in this adaptation. A veritable weapon—her body is almost entirely artificial, a sophisticated cyborg with a human brain who isn’t sure where the person ends and the technology begins—Major is the leader of the Section 9 strike team, an anti-terrorist division of the government that, at times, battles rival sections as well as external threats. Their biggest nemesis, however, is a cybercriminal named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who hacks into human minds and turns ordinary people into terrorist weapons.

Paramount Home Video

Johansson is remarkably effective in the role, impassive but not blank, both physically fierce and ethereal, morphing in action as the technology flickers into chameleon mode or sends her senses into 360 degree awareness. She is graceful and powerful, still and sudden, woman and machine, and her sense of identity is wrapped up in this alien physicality. Her relationship with Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), the scientist who created her cybernetic shell and ostensibly saved her life after a terrorist bombing, is somewhere between filial respect and professional collaboration, and for all the maternal care that Ouelet tries to push down, there’s something else creating the emotional distance between them. Major is most at ease with Batou (Pilou Asbæk), her trusted and fiercely loyal number two, and she is completely loyal to their section head Aramaki (‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), whose impassive expressions (Takeshi’s eternal hint of a smile makes him all the more enigmatic) covers his protective nature. As she has no memory of her past before the accident, they are the closest thing she has to family. At least until Kuze starts dropping hints about her origins and questions the identity she has taken for granted since her cybernetic rebirth.

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Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Funny without being tongue-in-cheek and epic without being ponderous, Spider-Man: Homecoming is what a summer movie should be. This latest installment in the Marvel comics blockbuster-verse is as bouncy as its web-spinning hero. Instead of numbly moving the plot forward for the sake of the Marvel corporate plan (I mean “storytelling initiative”), it seamlessly tucks itself into the ongoing Marvel thing without feeling obligatory. This is the way you do it.

We’ve seen a lot of Spider-Man in recent years, including Sam Raimi’s trilogy with Tobey Maguire and two installments with Andrew Garfield. Our current incarnation, played by Tom Holland, debuted last year in Captain America: Civil War, of which teenager Peter Parker’s mentorship under Tony Stark, aka Iron Man’s superhero-mentoring program, was the most engaging part. Teen angst loomed large in previous tellings of Peter’s story, but Homecoming makes the radical suggestion that high-school years might also be fun—even if you’re struggling with the newfound powers of being Spider-Man.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray: Logan

Can a comic book superhero movie tell a human story? Logan (2017) makes the case that the genre is not limited to spectacle (though this film does offer some accomplished—and violent—action scenes), end of the world stakes, or world-building chapters in a massive franchise.

Fox Home Video

Set in the near future of 2029, which is a lot like today but a little more automated and a little more depressed, a world worn out and run down with a population to match, it presents Logan (Hugh Jackman), the former X-man also known as Wolverine, in hiding. He works as a chauffeur for hire under the radar while looking after an ailing Xavier (Patrick Stewart in a fearlessly vulnerable performance). Once immortal, thanks to healing powers that have kept him young for years, Logan is now breaking down and wearing out, his body ravaged by disease he can no longer combat, while Xavier is slipping into dementia and losing control of his once-finely focused mind. A dangerous thing for a telepath of his power, even more dangerous in a culture where mutantkind has been hunted to near extinction. And while Logan saves money for an escape from their Mexican compound, a kind of fantasy involving a boat and a life on the high seas, the government is on the hunt for them and for a silent young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), who is a pint-sized Wolverine in her own right. It’s no spoiler to say that Logan, nudged by crotchety old man Xavier, becomes a reluctant protector to the girl who, at least on a genetic level, could be his daughter.

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Review: Colossal

The big concept within Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is clever enough that the movie might’ve rested on it alone. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I saw a film about a woman who steps into a kiddie park in her hometown and causes a giant reptilian monster to emerge in South Korea. So it’s got that going for it. But once Colossal sets its conceptual hook, it pushes its zany premise into authentically uncomfortable territory. It’s actually about something.

The woman in question is Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a frazzled millennial at loose ends. Scolded by her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) about her incorrigible partying, she moves out of their New York apartment and back to her parents’ house in a town upstate.

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Blu-ray: Deluge

Deluge (1933) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the original end-of-the-world thriller, is a curious and often fascinating artifact. Produced in 1933, before the production code came down on Hollywood, on a relatively modest budget, it imagines not just the destruction of civilization in (unexplained) earthquakes and cataclysmic storms but life after the flood, so to speak. It’s based on a popular 1920s science fiction novel by the now forgotten Sydney Fowler Wright and can claim the title as the first disaster movie.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Scientists are in a panic as barometers plunge and reports of cities flooded in tidal waves and hurricanes are breathlessly reported in radio broadcasts. In these opening scenes, however, the only destruction we witness is the lavish house in the woods of Martin and Helen (Sidney Blackmer and Lois Wilson), crushed under trees blown over by high winds while Martin carries them off to safety. Then the real spectacle begins: New York collapses in primitive yet evocative miniatures that are more expressionistic than realistic, like an avant-garde short dropped into a science fiction thriller. Crude travelling mattes put people amidst the destruction, fleeing collapsing buildings or getting crushed by the debris, and a magnificent miniature gives us a God’s eye view of New York City swamped in a tsunami. By modern standards it’s not all “realistic” but it’s mesmerizing in part because it’s a cinematic imagining of something no filmmaker had attempted on screen before. It’s a first pass at the kind of disaster spectacle we now take for granted and these technicians create it all from scratch, not just the technical matter of the physical special effects but the very visualization of the end of the world.

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Review: Soylent Green

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Richard Fleischer’s new film is a science-fiction-horror-mystery. The horrors are ecological: pollution, overpopulation, welfare as a national way of life, objectification of human beings. The mystery is the murder of Simonson (Joseph Cotten), head of the Soylent Corporation (from “soy” and “lentil”), producer of the world’s food supply: wafers that come in red, yellow and green. Charlton Heston is Thorn, police detective assigned to investigate the murder. Technically and dramatically much weaker than most slick science-fiction films, Soylent Green is still more realistic on one terrifying point: the ecology will deteriorate, through misuse and overuse of plant and animal life as well as overpopulation, much sooner than human technology and architecture will advance to accommodate it and create the oppressive-but-neat world of domes, interplanetary travel and multi-leveled cities that characterize most movies of the s.f. genre. The world of Soylent Green is a fetid, overcrowded, overheated mass of sweaty bodies, clothed in rags, living in abandoned cars and tenement stairwells, shuffled about by steam shovels when they become uncontrollable. Only the rich and those employed or owned by the rich have room to live in comfort, real food to eat, clean clothing and running water.

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Review: Logan

Listen, if your bones were fused with adamantium, if you’d already outlived a normal lifespan, and if your mutant healing factor had weakened lately, you’d be tired, too. Melancholy, even. Such is the state of the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as we meet him in the latest Marvel movie offering, Logan. Wolverine’s place in the comic-book universe had already been tapped for X-Men spinoffs, and frankly nothing could have sounded less enthralling then another turn with this particular hairy-handed gent. So, anyway: Logan turns out to be not only the best Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy, but a gratifying piece of movie storytelling in its own right.

I throw the word “storytelling” in there because so many comic-book films have followed a ramshackle outline of destruction and wisecracks, all squeezed through the straightjacket of fulfilling some larger canvas—pity the poor screenwriter who must make certain an Ant-Man quip doesn’t contradict a past Avengers film or a future Spider-Man installment. Logan is actual storytelling.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray/DVD: Roger Corman’s ‘Death Race 2050’

Death Race 2050 (2016) – After Paul W.S. Anderson’s humorless Death Race, his 2008 remake/reworking of the Roger Corman-produced cult movie Death Race 2000 (1975), there’s something oddly satisfying in getting a genuine remake produced by Corman himself in the impudent spirit of the original.

Death Race 2050 is a modern B movie, produced directly for the home video market (Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) on a minimal budget, and director / co-writer G.J. Echternkamp has no illusions of what he’s making. In the best Corman tradition, he delivers the grunge action movie goods and a little more. It’s not necessarily a “good” movie—it’s ragged and choppy and scattershot, with broad, cartoonish gags and easy jabs over pointed satire—but it’s also fun, unpretentious, cheeky, energetic, gleefully trashy, and filled with junky spectacle.

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Godzilla Evolution

Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla film in twelve years, stomped into the record books as Japan’s top moneymaking live-action film of 2016, and the highest grossing Godzilla film ever, but it practically snuck into American theaters last week, staking out one or two showings a day in urban multiplexes with practically no advertising and no advance screenings. American audiences sought it out and sold out showings nonetheless, inspiring stateside distributor Funimation to expand its release to more screens and showtimes.

What makes this all the more surprising is that it’s counter to everything we associate with a classic Godzilla movie. And I don’t mean the inevitable shift from suitmation (the man in a suit stomping through elaborate miniature cityscapes) to motion capture and CGI. The third Japanese reboot of the series opens with an echo of the original 1954 Godzilla, on the mystery of an abandoned boat in open water, but otherwise it wipes the slate clean and treats this as the first ever encounter with a giant creature on a tear through Tokyo. Not what you expect from a film whose title translates roughly to New Godzilla—according to the film’s executive producer Akihiro Yamauchi, “Shin” can stand for “new,” “true,” and “god”—and alternately has been called Godzilla Resurgence by Toho. As far as this film is concerned, it isn’t a return. This is first contact.

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Review: Westworld

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

Stanley Kubrick has staked out as his special territory the study of the diverse and frequently perverse liaisons between man and machine. In films like Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick obsessively examines all the accoutrements of a technological environment in which sophisticated hardware continually threatens to become autonomous, even humanized, while man is recreated in the image not of an anthropomorphic deity but of deus ex machina. Michael Crichton (author of The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, director of Extreme Closeup) is equally preoccupied with scientific paraphernalia and what it portends for the future of mankind. But whereas Kubrick is an artist who makes the machinery serve the myth, Crichton displays only a facile cleverness, a slick talent for coming up with a grabby idea upon which to hang the full weight of a novel or a film. The best contemporary sci-fi writers have turned true novelists in their concern with characterization and style, as well as the need to present in-depth analyses of the ethical, moral, even metaphysical fallout resulting from current technological advances. Crichton’s work has more in common with the oldfashioned sci-fi adventure/suspense thriller genre. For instance, The Terminal Man begins as potentially “modern” science fiction: a man given to extreme violence during epileptic seizures is “cured” by the implantation of a miniature computer in his brain; this cybernetic therapy is complicated by his increasingly psychotic belief that machines are taking control of humans. But Crichton dodges the rich possibilities of this material and ultimately settles for mere chase melodrama. Still, The Terminal Man is as close as he’s come to real achievement in the genre of serious sci-fi.

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Review: Morgan

Morgan
Morgan

As we slide into the late-summer multiplex doldrums, movies with neurons to spare are especially welcome. The clinical cautionary tale Morgan happily fits into the latter category, moving past some early familiarity to become a smart, sneakily ambitious thriller.

Set in the not too distant future, the story follows a no-nonsense corporate troubleshooter (Kate Mara) sent to a secluded forest compound to assess the status of a rapidly developing artificial humanoid (The Witch’s terrifically spooky Anya Taylor-Joy). As she and the swiftly dwindling team of scientists—including Toby Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a perfectly assholish Paul Giamatti—soon discover, the experiment has some significant gray areas.

Continue reading at The Stranger