Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sci-fi, it’s not just for geeks anymore.

Science fiction as a genre has given audiences different views of the past that never existed, presents that are warped, and futures that can either give us hope or terrify us.    While much of the genre takes a look at where we are going others seem be reflections of the time.  The genre also mixes well with others.  Just about every variation of the formula has been tried with waves of success.

The several sci-fi movies that represent the past are usually put into the category of steampunk.  Some great examples of this are “The Golden Compass,” “The Prestige” and the anime “Howl’s Moving Castle.”  They give us a past where the technology is more advanced for the time period.  Some of these movies work well and others are incredibly weak like “Wild, Wild West,” and “Sucker Punch.”  

Movies that take a present look at the genre.  “Cloverfield” made a modern monster movie utilizing the P.O.V. camera craze.  Movies like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial,” and “Back to the Future” while not modern by todays standards capture their time period like a snapshot of the time period.  Of course there are exceptions to the steampunk genre.  “Super 8” and “Cowboys and Aliens” are recent examples of sci-fi movies that take place in the past that are not steampunk.

Modern sci-fi has expanded by developing themes that are identifiable to a wider audience.  Take movies like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” for example. It’s a story almost anyone can identify with in the way that almost all people have had that type of heartbreak where they wish they could forget the other person.  “Chronicle” is relatable to audiences because it takes a look at teenage angst through kids who have developed telekinetic powers.  

Futuristic sci-fi is now and has always been incredibly common.  It more often takes a look at where society is headed. Futuristic sci-fi uses a variety of themes, be it a dark Orwellian way like in movie “Brazil,” or a more upbeat fantastic universe like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The views of this genre have given us fun new visions and hope of technology that is both promising and helpful.  Often these tales use stories that have been long told such as “Star Wars,” which is much like the Akira Kurosawa film “The Hidden Fortress.”  

Sci-fi movies play to our weakness as a species or our fears.  In the “Terminator” movies it was a fear of reliance on machines.  In “They Live” it becomes a fear of an over consuming society that is blind to the woes of the lower class.  In another John Carpenter movie, “The Thing,” the fear is created as the paranoia and isolation of the alien creature takes over human beings at the molecular level.

Sometimes writers use sci-fi to examine themes that are otherwise too deep for most audiences.  “Blade Runner,” for example, is at its core a story about the very nature of the human soul.  “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn” has a basic story with a wildly two-dimensional villain, yet what makes this movie poignant is the way the audience can relate to Captain Kirk’s aging. “District 9” is a more recent film that strongly uses the theme of apartheid.  Sci-fi has the ability to take taboo topics and make them more palatable and entertaining. 

Science fiction has mixed with many other genres as well.  These collaborations have made it so viewers who wouldn’t normally be a fan of the genre can now enjoy it.  Take children’s movies for example.  Movies like “The Iron Giant,” “Secret of Nimh,” and “Wall-E,” have allowed young children (as well as adults) to be exposed to themes that are both entertaining and advanced, while keeping in the genre of science fiction. 

The rise of comic book inspired movies has created many sci-fi superhero movies.  Movies like “X-Men,” “Iron Man,” and “Batman Begins” introduce people to worlds were mutants exist or where a person can create suits and weapons to defeat colorful villains.  This surge in popularity is bridging the gap between comic book fans and sci-fi fans. 

Of course sci-fi has worked well with horror as both of them look into a realm of the unknown.  This is seen as early back as the 1930s with “Frankenstein,” where Boris Karloff terrified audiences clumping about in pounds of makeup as a corpse brought to life by mad science. More recently, sci-fi and horror teamed up to create “Cloverfield.” The special effects of monsters have grown significantly since the days of the “Frankenstein.” 

Later came movies like “Alien” and “Predator” where the humans are no longer the apex animals compared to the creatures that hunt them.  Both versions of “The Blob” show a lot of interesting themes from the era they took place. In the 50s the theme is the boy who cried wolf, while in the 80s the theme is that humans shouldn’t trifle with things they don’t understand.    

Science fiction comedy is fairly common as well.  In the campy movie “Earth Girls are Easy,” three aliens crash land on Earth and hook up with women on Earth. It’s as silly as it sounds.  In “Ghostbusters,” a group of out-of-work parapsychologists find they have a knack for catching ghosts using proton packs they invent.  It’s a funny and inventive movie with a lot of great special effects for the time. 

One of the best combinations of movies I’ve seen with sci-fi comes from one of my favorite movies.  “Back to the Future” is a sci-fi, a comedy, a teen movie, and a romance; eventually its sequels even became a western.  This movie took the science of time travel and causality, and creates a plot that makes your head spin.  Marty McFly has to juggle getting back to 1985 along with getting his parents back together, all while avoiding the king of assholes Biff Tannen and warning Doc Brown of his imminent death by Libyans in the future. It’s a really smart movie that I enjoy every time I watch it. 

Two classics of the genre are famous Stanley Kubrick movies.  “A Clockwork Orange” is one of his best movies.   In it a young sadist, Alex, goes to prison for his horrendous crimes but finds a way to get paroled.  He signs up for a treatment that will supposedly cure him of his desire to kill and do violence on others.  The question is: Is it better to program a person to make a decision or for them to do it willingly?    “2001 A Space Odyssey” is one that confuses me to a great degree.  Some aspects are good and creepy such as H.A.L. the robot who decides that the humans are jeopardizing the mission and begins killing people off.  Then we get monoliths and star children, and frankly it’s too strange for me at times.  It’s made a lot like an art film.

On the topic of art house style movies I normally have never been a fan of David Lynch movies.  There are two exceptions: “The Elephant Man” and “Dune.”  “Dune” is a sci-fi movie that has a grand cast and an almost Shakespearean feel to it.  The story of households in a battle over the goods that make space travel possible becomes fascinating when it all comes together.  

Speaking of Shakespearean themes, one of the classics that takes it’s inspirations right from “The Tempest” is “Forbidden Planet.” It’s a wild and outlandish adventure that involves monsters and robots and yet it works.  It’s considered by many to be one of the best sci-fi movies of all time.  “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is better in my opinion.   It’s a plea for world peace brought from a man from beyond the stars.  Oddly enough, this story has been used as an allegory for Jesus Christ but still has a decent following.

I am a big fan of science fiction.  Some of my favorites of the genre are the movies “Blade Runner,” “Brazil,” “The Thing” and “Back to the Future.”  Many are very thought provoking and a lot of fun.  Luckily, like some of the worst horror movies the cheesiest sci-fi can be fun with the right group of friends.  Great shows like “Mystery Science Theater 3000” still continues to make many laugh watching some of the worst of this classic genre.

I brought up “Blade Runner” earlier, which is an amazing movie.  In it the villains are replicants, which are human-like robots that have a short lifespan. Deckard, the Blade Runner, is a cop whose purpose is to kill replicants after finding them.  Roy Batty is a replicant soldier who is killing people to find a way to prolong his life.  He questions the very nature of the human soul since the company that made him was able to create him with implanted memories.  Is it possible for any thing sentient to have a soul even if it is not human?

Another movie I brought up earlier was “Brazil”. It’s a dark, comedic, romantic movie that takes place in a dark Orwellian version of the world.  It involves a world full of inept bureaucrats, endless flawed paperwork, and police that arrest you for the stupidest crimes.  The fun thing is the hero is an imaginative romantic that sees the girl of his dream and fights the system to get to her.

Science fiction is a genre that truly is for everyone.  It is insightful and has crossed into so many other genres that it is hard to imagine that anyone could not appreciate that it has done so much for film.  It has influenced a great deal of moviemakers and it continues to get more and more interesting as long as the imaginations of folks are allowed to thrive. We are already looking forward to the remake of “Total Recall”, “Looper” and “Branded”. As long as there is fiction, there will be science fiction. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises-review

“The Dark Knight” is one of the best superhero movies I have ever seen.  It set the bar high with a bolder story and a more character driven arc.  When the news of the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe came out it excited many.  While it brings some fun new things to the table with new villains and some well shot action sequences, there are still aspects that make this the weakest in the Nolan Batman trilogy.  

Batman, played by Christian Bale, has retired the costume and is now a recluse in his mansion.  An encounter with a cat burglar, played by Anne Hathaway, gets Bruce Wayne back into his costume.  A new threat has emerged in the form of Bane, played by Tom Hardy.  He seems bent on destroying Gotham.  Can Batman stop this powerful new force?

The good thing is that the casting is still damn good. With the regulars from the past movies and the additions of Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy, give the movie class.  The action scenes seem to be filmed a lot better in this film then they were in the others- you can actually tell what is happening for a change.  

The movie recalls events from the past movies, which is interesting to watch.  Even characters like Dr. Crane/Scarecrow is back for the third movie.  It comes off like fan service a bit but it’s also sort of fun to see more of the characters that we have seen in all the movies so far.  Tom Hardy does a good job at playing Bane but his voice is sort of bizarre.  It goes from an almost hard to hear, electronic voice to an English sounding dub at times.

On the other hand, if you are a comic fan the “twists” will be somewhat predictable.  The thing that really is irritating is that the twists don’t do much for the movie except weaken the character of Bane.  Nolan can at least be credited with making the characters in the Batman universe more realistic.  Catwoman is at lot more believable in this version. 

If anything, the problems with the movie are that it takes characters that in the comics are bold and have stories that are much more risqué and plays them too safe.  To end this trilogy I expected something new brought to the table.  The Joker was something new.  This movie rehashes a lot of the themes of the first movie.  While not the worst thing it was hard not to think that the end should try something bigger and bolder.

While not living up to the hype for me, “The Dark Knight Rises” is still a good movie.  It’s damn long though.  They could have helped things by cutting some of the time during the prison scenes.  There is a lot going for it and it’s certainly worth seeing especially if you liked the other movies.  If you are comic geek you’ll need to remember that the Nolan universe is a different from the one that you are used to reading about.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Amazing Spider-man-Review

“The Amazing Spider-man” takes a refreshing new look at the friendly neighborhood Spider-man.  This reboot of the franchise adds a new cast, new effects, and a new origin story.   It is an okay movie and in many ways it’s better than the Sam Raimi version, but it’s not without it’s faults. 

Peter Parker, played by Andrew Garfield, is the geeky kid at school whose life is changed when bitten by a radioactive spider.  He gains the abilities of a spider and becomes the masked hero Spiderman.  His girlfriend Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone, gives him support while he goes off to face Doctor Connors, played by Rhys Ifans, who is half man half lizard.

The cast change is very welcome.  Andrew Garfield does a fine job as a Peter Parker.  Emma Stone is cute as a button and does a great job being a lovable Gwen Stacy.  The biggest change that I must note is the use of Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May. They both add a lot of class to the roles and seem much more believable as characters. The villain, Rhys Ifans, is over the top and really not that threatening.  As a whole he just seems like a CGI thug. I really would have loved if they chose a different antagonist than the Lizard. 

The two most distracting things go hand in hand.  For one, the movie is very long.  When I am watching a reboot movie and it’s 136 minutes long, is it really needed to tell the entire origin story over again? I am pretty sure that Americans are fully aware of the origins of Superman, Batman and Spiderman.  It seems really redundant to keep going over it again and again. It might save a lot more time to just start with him already having his powers or making it a narrated montage if they felt it was so important to re-cap it.

This brings me to the second issue.  The age of the main cast is way off for a re-boot.  If they want to make it more like the comics then they should pick younger actors.  While the actors are really good, they are clearly not in high school.  Finally (and this is a nitpick) why in the hell did they need a character named Flash?  I know that it’s in the comics but that character was a jock bully in the 1960s.  Who goes around with the nickname Flash? Couldn’t they update that a bit for a modern audience?

As a whole the movie is good. I’d say that it might even be better than the Sam Raimi version.  A lot of critics are saying that it’s much more dark but that is not entirely accurate.  Maybe if he turned into something like Brundlefly when he was bitten, that would have been a lot darker.  Effects are better and the actors seem to handle their dialogue more professionally.  It’s certainly worth a rental or a matinee if you like Spider-man.