Rise of the Planet of the Apes

One of the oldest formulas for stories – maybe even the single oldest, considering The Epic of Gilgamesh and so forth – is of a familiar world that encounters a strange world, and the clash between the two that is resolved at the end. If you think about it, most stories are about this in one way or another – after all, stories are about people who think in different ways, and coming from different worlds is an easy way to explain why they would do that.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about the most literal form of this story formula in a long time: It’s the post-apocalypse. There’s a deadly virus about, that kills people but grants apes superintelligence, and the apes’ civilization is flourishing as the humans’ is falling. There we go – two worlds, which obviously would think in different ways since they’re literally different species. Even with this, though, there’s a twist to the premise – the familiar world is the apes’, and the strange one is the humans’.
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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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Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor

This, folks, is the big moment. The reckoning.

“The Day of the Doctor”, the film-length 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, written by the deeply passionate and idiosyncratic showrunner Steven Moffat, who had really lost his golden touch when it came to his mixture of horror, comedy, and emotional drama since the beginning of the season.

This had the potential to be horrible. Not only did the big hook of the episode – introducing a “Forgotten regeneration” of the Doctor played by the legendary John Hurt – irrevocably retcon the last decade of the show, but the episode would be about the Last Great Time War, the mind-bending universal holocaust which Moffat’s predecessor adamantly stated they “could never show on screen”, because how do you show a war fought with time as a weapon, in boring old causal 3-dimensional space?

And yet, I thought it was good. No, I absolutely loved it. And initially, I wasn’t quite sure why, but after some thought I think I’ve figured it out:

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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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Thor: The Dark World

ylthor

Thor was bad because so much of it was what Douglas Adams termed “a beautiful void” (speaking of Adams, the movie is also one of the better adaptations of his works); very good looking, but with almost nothing in the way of character development or plot. Sure, people are talking and moving around with haste, but for long stretches of the movie it’s never clear what they plan to accomplish.

Thor: The Dark World recognizes this problem in its predecessor, and addresses it by giving it an even thinner, less interesting plot that only serves as an excuse for a veritable toy box of a film – a combination of loosely connected performances, set pieces, scenes, locales and pithy lines that exist mostly for their own sake rather than to combine into any kind of story.

As such, this review will be on its terms, not mine, presenting a binary judgement of each of these items in chronological order, with minimal connective explanation from yours truly.

Rest assured, the fact that I’ve got my hands so full this month with Catching Fire, Frozen and Day of the Doctor all in five days has nothing at all to do with this.

TITLE

THUMBS UP: It’s correct – Thor is the main character in the movie, and the Dark World is a crucial location

THUMBS DOWN: Even worse than Star Trek Into Darkness when it comes to the endless parade of “dark” titles – Knight, Shadows, Of the Moon…uh, City, Crystal, Star…Souls… (more…)

Ender’s Game

Note: This review will contain no discussion of Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card. I already have plenty of things to grouch about with this, adding the largely unrelated views of a one-hit-wonder author would make this way too long.

That's one big X-Wing.

That’s one big X-Wing.

Ender’s Game is – let’s be clear here – a classic of our times. Aside from being a deeply affecting and surprisingly prophetic sci-fi story, it’s the premier work of the age on the complicated mix of duty, pride, loneliness and angst felt by students and children the world over. Seriously – Adrian Mole? Tom Brown? Arthur Read? Freakin’ Harry Potter? They have nothing on Ender Wiggin.

The problem with this is that no one seems to realize it, least of all author Orson Scott Card. Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide – the sequels to the story – are much more traditional cosmic sci-fi stories, to the extent that the latter has the exact same plot as Halo 4 – and again, I’m being completely serious. All you console gamers who like Halo? Have you played the decently-received video game Halo 4, and paid attention to the story? Great, now you don’t need to read the award winning novel Xenocide.

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Gravity

gravitywhip

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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Agents of SHIELD: Pilot

Well, you try thinking of a better acronym.

Yeah, I like the Marvel movies.

But yeah, I also don’t like quite a few things they represent – like how commercialized they are, the ouroboros storytelling method that means the movies won’t stop even if everyone wants them to, and so on – but the fact remains that the actual movies are still in a golden age because of their post-modern storytelling sensibilities and an imaginative visual style coupled with archetypal storytelling…man, those were long words.

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