Snowpiercer

I used to dress just like Chris Evans. Proud of those days, but not of my fashion sense.

Writing now, as the Internet’s dork and film-buff circles still tremble from the thundering impact of Mad Max: Fury Road, it can be easy to forget the slower-paced but far more transformative impact of its big brother, The Road Warrior.

In 1981, when the world was introduced to Max Rockatansky, his pet dog, and the post-civilized desert they wandered, it presented a view of the future exactly bleak enough to capture the popular consciousness. With the burgeoning environmentalist movement telling us that the world was doomed one way, the omnipresent threat of a mutual loss in the Cold War threatening another, and the (not actually very prescient) warnings of George Orwell and Ray Bradbury giving us an even more terrifying view of what what would happen if civilization did survive, the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction was just what the world needed.

Yes, civilization may be destroyed. Yea, the seven seals may be broken and the earth may be salted forever more, but people will persevere. Not everyone will survive (though I definitely will, each resident of the nascent “Me decade” said to themselves), but those that do will live out their dreams. They’ll live clean and free, making simple and happy lives for themselves despite the many obstacles in their way.
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Robocop (2014)

Let’s get one thing off the table here: Whatever I think of this movie I’m reviewing, there’s one completely objective issue I’m going to run into: It has the exact same title as the popular 1987 movie of which it is a remake. This makes discussion hard. So henceforth, I will call the original “RoboCop” – since, after all, it was made in the faraway mists of time when you were allowed to use CamelCase without leading your Wikipedia entry to ruin and misfortune. Conversely, the remake we’re talking about here will be “Robocop”. I’m sure that won’t create any problems.

A year later, there’s not a whole lot of love or hate for Robocop, passable little SF and action-tinged social commentary that it is. The consensus seems to be that remaking RoboCop was a bad idea in the first place since it was so good, but I think that’s not looking far enough into why that is.

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Her

It’s obvious I have a comfort zone – just look at what I do and don’t talk about. Don’t expect a review of The Wolf of Wall Street (which was great but too long), or American Hustle (a directionless romp) or Dallas Buyers Club (I’ve never liked Jared Leto) here.

But at the center of this comfort zone, probably my favorite single subgenre, is social science fiction. Started in the twenties with stuff like Metropolis and codified by only science fiction writer ever Isaac Asimov, social SF is such a rich genre because it can basically be summed up as “A more mainstream and conventional story, but with robots, or lasers, or aliens, or laser-wielding alien robots”. It makes for all sorts of good stories because it can appeal to both mainstream audiences with exaggerations of basic dramatic situations, and dorks like myself with supremely dorky analysis and extrapolation of classic SF concepts.

Whatever you think of Her, by child-at-heart and friend of the Beastie Boys Spike Jonze, it’s just about the gold standard for modern social SF – if you took out the future stuff it would be a weepy, Oscar-bait-laden romantic drama, but with it the movie becomes an Oscar winner, critically and popularly lauded, and my pick for best picture of the year for whatever it’s worth.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games was a good book, and a decent movie. It had one really good trick – teenagers being forced to fight and die in the wild for public amusement, reality show styles – and it did it beautifully. Combine that with an interesting future world and tons of opportunities for catharsis, empathy, sympathy and for mood-swingy teenagers everywhere, and it’s easy to see why “I volunteer as tribute!” Became the “Yer a wizard, Harry!” of a new generation.

Compared to its overachieving older brother Harry Potter, though, the moody younger sister of the Hunger Games series isn’t nearly as good, for one very important reason: In the former, the narration was third-person limited. We could identify with Harry, but we got a healthy amount of distance that came in handy whenever he got too angry, too lovestruck or too stupidly focused on his hero complex.

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Gravity

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I’m sorta in two minds about popular sci-fi filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron (full name ‘Alfonso Ka…koo…how do you say it?’). One the one hand, his two American-released movies, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, were among my favorites as a child and adult respectively.

But on the other hand, no one likes admitting that he’s a sci-fi filmmaker. I mean, quite aside from the movie about time-traveling teenage wizards, or the feature-length Twilight Zone episode, there’s his latest movie, the space-action blockbuster Gravity. Critics up to and including the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, who has the unparalleled honor of having his reviews at the top of every Rotten Tomatoes page he’s on, try to avoid the guy’s genre-movie roots.

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Futurama

You might have heard about the just completed quote-unquote “television event” on one of the Fox Network’s unruly children, where every single one of the 550-plus episodes of The Simpsons was shown in broadcast order.

I really don’t feel anything particular about it. I’m blessed to live near a wonderful relative who has every single Simpsons DVD there is, so I still treat myself to a classic episode every now and again. Seriously, I was struck a couple months ago with an urge to watch “King-Size Homer”, and I just…did. I felt like a god, I don’t mind saying.

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Elysium

District 9, the turtleneck and shades-wearing alternative to the Yankees cap and cargo shorts of Avatar, was a good movie. But let’s be honest here: it wouldn’t have been called “The best sci-fi movie of the decade” without the well-known Cinderella story of its creation.

That story is one of Afrikaner and film geek Neill Blomkamp, who made a short special-effects reel with his friends that impressed overgrown nerd Peter Jackson so much that he signed Blomkamp on to help make his planned movie of the Halo games.

Now, a quick side note: A Halo movie, even done by these guys with undeniable passion for the series, would have been dumb and bad. In fact, now that they’ve got Ridley Scott signed on instead, it’s looking to be equally dumb and bad as the last sci-fi movie he made – seriously, check out that fake Idris Elba – but at least it looks to be more harmless than that other movie he’s been threatening everyone with. So yeah, one of the many reasons District 9 is so good is that it prevented another, much worse movie from being made.

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Star Trek Into Darkness

I am a Star Trek fan.

I won’t say I’m a Trekkie, because I’ve recently discovered quite a few people of my generation and below don’t even know what Star Trek is. I’m not joking about this – take my good friend Daniel. He’s smart, likes video games, has friends, and is a pretty good representation of modern geek/nerd/plain ol’ pop culture. And when I first asked him what Star Trek was, he responded “Oh, yeah! The spaceship show that had George Takei on it, right?”

I’m just gonna let that phrase hang there. Daniel’s a great dude, but sometimes I just have to look at him and stand back, and…whatever. Point is, I’m a Trek fan – I know my Romulan Ale from my Saurian Brandy, and my multi-modal reflection sorting from my multi-spectral subspace engines. So this review of the latest Star Trek piece, Team Abrams’ no-one’s-sure-what-to-call-it-quel Star Trek Into Darkness, will be heavily grounded in my long experience with the franchise. (more…)

Oblivion

Oblivion is the sort of thing I really want to encourage. After the lukewarm reception of yet another reboot of a popular franchise (In this case, the pretty darn good 2010 film Tron: Legacy), the creative team behind it turned around and used the resulting mountain of moolah to finance a heady sci-fi original property that uses top-notch visual effects to explore deep themes of the self.

But why has this movie not made more of a splash? A year later, you’ll barely find anyone who even saw it the first time, much less remembers it. And I think the reason for this can be summed up in three simple words: Ambition exceeding ability.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a deeply unnecessary film, but unlike some other unnecessary films  (cough, cough), I was perfectly willing to see it, and meet it on its own terms. Say what you will about the Lord of the Rings movies, but you can’t deny that they built one of the most rock-solid and epic worlds in modern cinema – and I didn’t mind the chance to see another story in that world.

And speaking of saying what you will about LOTR, I’d like to do just that. So permit me to blaspheme for a moment: I think that J.R.R. Tolkien was an amazing writer, but a horrible storyteller. I really don’t like how exhaustive and minutely detailed his writing style can get, and I much prefer the movies to the books because of how they remove the restrictive filter of the narration between the story and my perception of it.

The Hobbit’s main problem is that Peter Jackson and company try to make it another Lord of the Rings, but the original children’s book can’t really bear the weight of a sprawling, three-hour epic, much less three in a row. It’s fun to watch, but it’s a bit less brainy than the original trilogy – though that’s not saying much, and the wonderfully dedicated team behind the first trilogy really brings their A-game in every way they can.

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