Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence

Like your SciFi smart, slick, realistic and extremely trippy? Don’t miss James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence, a voyage into the twilight zone that will push the limits of your lateral thinking until you feel your brain lashing out at the paradoxical borders of it’s realm of thought, an effect brought on by only the most challenging films out there. Like many stories it begins at a lively dinner party somewhere in the Hollywood hills, as a group of old friends talk, laugh, gossip and reconnect. There’s a comet passing by over the night skies of LA though, a phenomenon that has, shall we say, a unique and very disturbing effect on those below. I really don’t want to say anything about what happens to these people, but it’s weird and warped in that kind of metaphysical way that keeps your rooted to the screen and has your spine shivering with each new development. Adding to the immersive atmosphere is the fact that most of this seems to have been improvised with the actors around the general core of the story, so we have a very naturalistic, humorous vibe among the group that doesn’t feel scripted or staged at all, and more or less plays out in real time, while there’s initially still linear time anyways (oops). The cool thing is that this film could be made for like, five hundred bucks, shot on an iPhone over a spare weekend with your friends. It’s that barebones and simple in the technical department and there are zero special effects save for one brief shot of the comet (hello stock footage), but the implications and function of the story are infinitely complicated, and that’s where the wealth of the film lives. If you find yourself sitting around one night wishing for a flick that really will blow your mind, give this little gem a go, while it’s still on Netflix.

-Nate Hill

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Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency

Looking for a smart, slick Sci-Fi thriller that has the emotional heartbeat to keep you caring right through the narrative? Check out Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency, a brilliant little high concept mind bender that’s aged so well they even recently rebooted it for TV, which I’m a little dubious about. Like it’s celestial Sci-Fi premise, the film is kind of a lightning in a bottle type flick where they captured the exact recipe of magic, character relationships and plot points that resulted in something really special, and I’m doubtful the new one could come close. Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviesel are awesome as father and son separated by both time, space and even death, until a miracle comes their way. Frank Sullivan (Quaid) is a firefighting, fiercely loving family man in the 70’s who is crazy about his wife (Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell) and young son. Flash forward thirty years or so, his son (Caviesel) is grown up and now a cop, haunted by the past, and his dad has died in the time since. One year there’s a particularly powerful set of Aurora causes by sunspots, right when Caviesel happens to be tinkering around with a HAM radio. It’s delightfully farfetched, but this cosmic occurrence allows him as a grown up to communicate through time thirty years previous, reconnect with Quaid and try to set his family on a less tragic course. The reason it works so well is the dynamic between the family; Quaid, Mitchell and their young son (Daniel Henson) are so thoroughly believable and adorable as a family that we stick by them with each beat and deeply care about their outcomes, which are constantly shifting every time the past is changed via the future, and vice versa. Quaid has two friends (Andre Braugher and Noah Emmerich) who revolve around the character development too and have their parts to play, as does Shawn Doyle as a menacing serial killer who crosses their paths. Quaid loves to pick out these high concept Sci-Fi scripts it seems, he’s been appearing in them throughout his whole career from InnerSpace to Enemy Mine to Dreamscape to Pandorum, the amount of interesting stuff in his filmography is inspiring and this is one of his best. This is a tale to get lost in and revel at the sheer escapism it throws your way, a clever twist on time traveling that puts it’s two charismatic protagonists at dual control panels and gives them the power over fathomless phenomena, connected by an astrological two way radio that knows no bounds of space or time. A classic for me.

-Nate Hill

Lee Tamahori’s Next

Lee Tamahori’s Next is an ironically titled piece of garbage, because in working my way through Nicolas Cage’s minefield of a post-90’s career, all I wanted to do was yell “next!” and shut this one off. Next in line is actually Ghost Rider, which is like going from the frying pan into the fire, but you can’t win em’ all I suppose. I’m all for a trashy Cage flick now and again, even enjoying some of his more lambasted outings but this one really takes the cake. Adorned in a greasy mop-mullet, he plays a low rent Vegas magician here who actually does possess a bit of the ol’ clairvoyance, which comes in handy when Ice Queen FBI Agent Julianne Moore wants to recruit him for the bureau’s x files department to stop terrorism before it even happens, particularly an attack on Vegas expected soon. It’s a thin setup and he spends most of his time hitting on truck-stop waitress Jessica Biel, who is at least half his age. That’s another thing with the latter half of his career, this old grandpa Cage keeps getting casted with these babes who are young enough to be his daughter, and man it feels weeeiirrddd. (Two films starring as Eva Mandes’s boyfriend! Two!). I know the guy’s a superstar but believability is strained when you realize none of these chicks would actually do that if these flicks were real life. Anywho, the terrorist plot here is a lazily written thing, the baddie literally called Mr. Smith, played by Thomas Kretschmann, too great of an actor to always be stuck in these half ass styrofoam villain roles. Cage uses a mode of telepathic foresight to investigate, a gimmick that plays around with time and reality but lacks any modicum of coherence and just becomes super duper confusing to the plot. This one is all glitter and razzle dazzle up front, but there’s nothing under the hood to back up the hollow roar of it’s somewhat promising premise that gets trod upon by sloppy filmmaking and an overall sense of tackiness. Next!

-Nate Hill

Alex Proyas’s Dark City

Alex Proyas’s Dark City is a radiant jewel of sci-fi beauty, madness and mystery, one of the best films of the 90’s, a testament to just what kind of world building is possible using special effects and a textbook example of deep, ponderous ideas one might explore in this area of the medium. It kind of got overshadowed by the release of The Matrix the same year (which is also masterful) and slipped through the cracks a bit, but it managed to hold on and re-emerge with a kind of cult aura around it, a reverie that prompts discussions in hushed tones and friends holding screenings for new generations who haven’t had their minds and eyes blown out of their skulls by the experience just yet. It kind of goes the Blade Runner route by fusing inky black retro noir with startling futurism, albeit less monolithic tech design and something more organic and otherworldly. In a nameless, perpetually nocturnal city, a man named Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a dingy apartment next to a dead hooker, with no memory of who he is or what happened. Chased all through the night by mysterious, pale gentlemen in hats and trench coats, he doesn’t so much try to clear his name as much as find out what his name actually is, and why things have gotten so strange in this city. He’s supposedly got a wife in Emma (Jennifer Connelly has never been sexier), a lounge singer who knows more than she lets on, and wily detective Frank (William Hurt, fantastic) is on his trail too. Then there’s the creepy, wheezing asthmatic Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland playing against type) who has a connection to the trench coat brigade. To give too much away would be criminal, but let’s say that the story goes to some truly mesmerizing and disturbing places that explore far beyond the topical murder mystery of the first act and shake the foundations of the world we see built, rearranged and then completely disassembled right before our eyes. At the heart of the narrative lies perhaps the biggest question ever asked by humans: what are we, where are we and what’s the reason for all this? The film blazes it’s own trail of answers to fit the story, but is no less provocative than those age old quandaries, and there’s a point in the third act (you’ll know when it happens) where the lid is blown off of what these characters think their world is, and it’s like a collective gasp from all the universe, one of the most simultaneously harrowing and tantalizing moments in cinema. Sewell plays it opaque as always, I’ve never really been able to connect with him as an actor, but because his character here has sort of a vacant, blank slate thing going on anyways, it works. Hurt has always had a questioning in his eyes while at work, a tender, inquisitive nature that’s put to the test and then some over the course of his brilliant arc. Connelly has all the stars of the galaxy in her gorgeous eyes and it’s so cool to watch her go from sidelined wife/songstress role into take no prisoners, dark angel mode as she joins the search for truth. As the impending legion of trench coats there’s a handful of varied faces including Ian Richardson, Bruce ‘Gyro Captain’ Spence and the absolutely terrifying Richard O’Brien, who goes down in history as one of the scariest villains on hand here. Director Proyas did the classic The Crow in which another atmospheric metropolis takes centre stage, the man knows how to set us right in the environment and keep eyes rooted to the screen with each and every shot. The disconcerting score by Trevor Jones is a restless jangle that puts forth auditory fragments like half remembered clues from a dream before, adding further to the atmosphere. It’s simply one of the best tales ever told on celluloid, a timeless piece of storytelling that speaks on all levels of consciousness. Oh, and remember Shell Beach.

-Nate Hill

“I will protect you. I promise.” A spoiler free review of A Quiet Place by Josh Hains

A Quiet Place will be starting, the first frames slowly unfolding, and your audience will probably still be talking, their voices filling the air. Not too loudly, but loudly enough for the noise to annoy you, to grate on your nerves and make you wish you could shout at them to ‘shut up’, or worse. The ruffling of popcorn and candy bags, and the munching of said delicious delights will only further cloud the air. They need to stop making noise, you can’t hear the movie. But within the first half a minute of the movie your audience will have grown so incredibly quiet, the dropping of a pin against the floor would echo like thunder throughout the room, because they’ve realized that while you can’t actually hear much of anything, save for the scrapes of bare feet across a floor, or the slight thump of a pill bottle against a counter top, you still have to listen, and these small sounds are being drowned out by bigger sounds. The dead silence of your audience will become a requirement. John Krasinski has forced you into silence and a world devoid of big sounds, leaving you with the blowing winds, the rustling of grass and leaves, the crunching of white sand beneath bare feet. You and your audience won’t be able to anticipate when the louder sounds, like the effects of a toy rocket, or the screeching of the alien monsters rushing to snatch their potential victim (and in doing so setting the stakes of the movie), will come, and so each and every one of you will be on the edge of your seat in stone silence, fearful of the louder sounds yet to come, bracing for their impacts in the hopes you won’t jump out of your skin. All this, and the movie hasn’t even cut to black and shown you the title card yet. Imagine 90 consecutive minutes of this, and how suspenseful, tense, and quiet the experience will become long before the final frames snap to black.

Now imagine living in a world where you can’t make a sound, or the fast moving blind aliens that attack those same sounds will rip you to shreds. Imagine having to walk across long trails of sand everywhere you venture outside because sand is quieter to tread than twigs and grass. Imagine playing the board game Monopoly with balls of cotton, because the if you’re too loud using the metal car, one of those monsters will come a knocking. Imagine being pregnant like the mother, due in two or three weeks, and the fear that the sounds of a newborn baby’s cries will bring death to your doorstep. Imagine being hearing impaired like the daughter, unable to tell if you’re making noise, let alone how loud it could be. Picture being afraid of every sound like the son, scared of what lurks in the shadows and the idea that the loud noises you could make will get you killed. Try to think of the pressure you must feel being the father, the primary protector of your family, the resourceful one that’s kept most of you alive for over a year. How much longer can you keep it up? What if you can’t protect the ones you love? Put yourself in the shoes of the Abbott family (John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe). You’ll grow to care for them so much that the thought of harm coming to any one of them will only further enhance the creeping sensation of suspense you’ll undoubtedly feel. The performances, so subtle and nuanced in their presentation, reliant on facial expressions and physicality, including American sign language, will quietly blow you away. And the scares, when they come, will remind you that the best of jump scares work not because they’re loud, but rather because they strike when you are least expecting them to, much like this film’s monsters. A Quiet Place will make whatever you’ve conjured up in your mind look like Sesame Street by comparison, as nothing I have said up until this point can prepare you for this movie, because I’ve hardly revealed a thing about this brilliant lean thriller.

Don’t wait to see it on Netflix, go see A Quiet Place on the biggest screen you can find with a top notch sound system and a packed house. See it writ large and booming in your ears. To not see this likely classic of the sci-fi horror/thriller genre in such a fashion will do yourself, the movie, and the white-knuckling experience of it all an irreplaceable disservice. You’ll thank me later.

Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin

People often say that Jonathan Glazer‘s Under The Skin is one of those films you’ll either love or hate, and while I understand the stark precautionary sentiment, I think there’s more shades of grey than a knee-jerk reaction towards either side of the fence. I loved what the film did with sound, atmosphere, imagery and expectations. I hated how it made me feel overall. Detached. Alienated. Confused. Uneasy. Cornered by otherworldly stimuli. For what it’s worth, that’s most likely the intention behind the whole thing, and I applaud the genius in achieving a goal of exquisite discomfort, but I doubt anyone could blame me when I say that it’s a film I’ll watch once, and only once. Glazer goes for less of a conventional narrative and more of a dread inducing screensaver aesthetic, moving glacially through a series of events that seem to be both cohesive and just out of reach, toying with audience perception for a mood piece that is the cinematic equivalent to a particularly intense bout of disassociation. Scarlett Johannesson is as scary and sexy as one could get, playing some type of alien creature on a quiet, merciless rampage in various areas of Scotland. Seducing, destroying and stockpiling the pilfered essences of several unfortunate dudes who wander into her proverbial spiderweb, she, or rather ‘it’, eventually experiences some kind of inner awakening and undergoes a paradigm shift clearly brought on by her ongoing affiliation with those strange and sneaky creatures called human beings. If I’m being vague, it’s on purpose; there’s no gift wrapped cliff-notes for this baby, it’s something that makes its imprint on you in a language too illusory to impart in words. I’m reminded of other science fiction films like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi or E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten in the sense that most of what we see, hear and feel is not pleasing to the senses at all. Many heady sci-fi films are engineered to elicit positive emotional response from an audience, via a cathartic score, engaging production design and very human stories. Films like this, and the aforementioned, go out of their way to come across as cold, uncomfortable and stranded in a mist of off-putting hysteria. It’s a bold move whenever it happens. In the case of this film, it’s to give us a sense of what it must be like for an alien being to be thrown in with our lot here on earth. From the shrill, rhythmically jagged score by Mica Levi, to Scarlett’s alluring menace, to the murky nocturnal photography to the half mumbled daze of near incoherent dialogue, it’s all there to move us several planes away from ‘normal’, and get under our skin (hey that’s the title). Does it work? One hundred percent, and kudos, as it’s as scarily disorienting as they come. Is it pleasant moviegoing? Miles from it, it’s a beast built to provoke a reaction, and if you don’t like what it bristles up in you, you won’t hastily rewatch it anytime soon. I know I won’t.

-Nate Hill

Alex Garland’s Annihilation

Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a stunning, incredible, awe inspiring and strikingly unique piece of work. It’s the kind of film that has you leaving the theatre and wanting to run up to strangers on the street passing by, shout how great it is in their faces and promptly buy them a ticket of their own. It’s reassuring that smart, dazzling big budget science fiction still thrives in Hollywood, and projects like this build upon and terraform the preexisting genre to produce things previously unseen, stories that wear their influences upon their sleeve whilst simultaneously hitting you as something you’ve never conceived in your wildest fever dreams. It’s also not the film you might be expecting from trailers and descriptions so far, in the best possible way. Is it about a team that heads off into a strange, quarantined area to investigate a possible extraterrestrial presence? Yes, but not really. Is it a clever blend of Alien-esque horror and trippy, delirious cosmic futurism? Sort of, but that’s just the tip of a very large, very deep iceberg surrounded by a wall of scintillating effervescence dubbed ‘The Shimmer’ by wary scientists and the military. It’s into this enshrouded no man’s land that biologist Natalie Portman and a team of professionals with nothing to lose venture, and where the film really kicks off. Every character has some kind of inner trauma which has caused them to self destruct in their own ways, an unnerving theme that Garland holds up to his audience like a prism and explores with equal scrutiny. Portman has never been better, changed by the disappearance of her soldier husband (Oscar Isaac) and eerily drawn to The Shimmer. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Ventress, coldly stoic and freakily collected as team leader. Tessa Thompson caught my eyes with her fiery work in both Westworld and Thor: Ragnorak, she’s purely haunting here as the detached, withdrawn and highly intuitive Josie, nailing her final scene with earth shattering poise. Gina Rodriguez burst onto the scene with her excellent work in Deepwater Horizon and is pure dynamite here as Josie, the emotional firebrand of their troupe, giving the character’s eventual meltdown scene a remarkably authentic edge. These four actresses pull the tapestry of the film’s narrative together with their collective and individual work ; they’re nothing short of superb. Garland has found a way to express otherworldly phenomena in an artistic and scientific way that no other filmmaker has yet achieved. The images are breathtaking, the visual effects beyond top tier, the ideas are ambitious and reach full on for the stars, and the whole deal should be the gold standard of genre films at the multiplex. I’ll say no more, and let you discover it for yourself. Oh but I have to mention Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score, an indescribable auditory experience that reaches dreamy levels of expressive percussion in the third act. Ok, I’m done, just go see it right now.

-Nate Hill