Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

Michael Bay’s Armageddon

As Michael Bay’s Armageddon opens, a stern, well spoken Charlton Heston informs us that once upon a time a great big asteroid slammed into our planet and killed all the dinosaurs. He also makes mention that it’s only a matter of time before it happens again. Well, Michael Bay takes that and runs with it for nearly three furious hours of jump cuts, character actors, explosions, music montages and delirious extended Americana fanfare, and I love the resulting film to bits with no apologies or hesitation. Bay haters (Bay-ters to us cool kids) can whine and rip on the guy all he wants but fuck em, Armageddon is one kick ass film and an all time favourite for me. I feel like people just latch onto the glossy, runaway excess of the Transformers films and are blind to the fact that the guy has several classics under his belt, this being chief among them.

Never mind that the plot defies logical scrutiny or science, it’s an excuse to see Bruce Willis and his merry band of oil drillers train for NASA’s space program, climb aboard the space shuttle that might as well be a party bus, blast around the moon and hang out on the surface of a freaky looking meteor that Steve Buscemi’s loopy Rockhound literally refers to as ‘Dr. Seuss’s worst nightmare.’ If there’s one thing you can count on in a Bay film it’s no expense spared on spectacle and set pieces, even the ones that aren’t necessarily central to the plot. Before Willis and his team are even briefed on the situation there’s a mini-asteroid demolition derby that shreds NYC and a busted valve on his oil rig that sends equipment flying everywhere and goes on for a good ten minutes as he’s somehow chasing Ben Affleck around with a shotgun as an aside to the main event. Willis and Affleck spar with each other over his daughter (Liv Tyler) and call me an old school sap but I’ve always fallen hook line and sinker for their romance, put to the test by the potential end of the world and accented by the now infamous Aerosmith song belted out by her dad in the background. The cast is stacked too, as per Bay. Scenery chewing occurs thanks to Michael Clarke Duncan, Owen Wilson, Keith David, Jason Isaacs, Udo Kier, Eddie Griffin, Grace Zabriskie, Keri Russell, Chris Ellis, John Mahon, Shawnee Smith and Peter Stormare in probably the craziest Eastern European characterization he’s ever pulled off as the caretaker of the Russian space station who has more than a few screws loose.

As wild and crazy as much of the film gets, there’s a few characters who provide dramatic depth and weight that I’ve never seen mentioned in reviews, as most of them seem to be just focused on bashing Bay and his tactics instead. Billy Bob Thornton Is uncharacteristically grounded and dignified as the head of NASA, ditching his usual cocky prick attitude for a much more down to earth turn. Will Patton always makes me tear up as Chick, compulsive gambler who just wants to do right by his wife and kid, as well as make it home to see them. William Fichtner gives powerful work as an Air Force hotshot who also fears for his family’s lives and gets the most affecting scene of the film in a tense, emotional confrontation with Willis. Sure there’s the inherent silliness of the ‘Leavin On. A Jet Plane’ scene (it’s actually kind of sweet) and the overall maniacal attitude plus the constant stream of deafening pyrotechnics and special effects. But there’s also key dramatic moments and a host of excellent performances, and it would do many well to remember that. It’s an all timer for me, and a childhood classic that I fondly remember watching on VHS with my dad countless times. Oh, and fun fact; the guy who plays the US President here is Stanley Anderson, who also got the role in Bay’s The Rock, which pretty much suggests they exist in the same universe. I like the thought of a Bay multiverse, heh.

-Nate Hill

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Ridley Scott’s The Martian

You know those Sci-Fi movies where someone has a near miss, narrow escape or heroic encounter up in space and everyone down in the NASA control room leaps up, cheers and claps in collective catharsis? It’s a well worn narrative beat and can sometimes be an eye roll moment. Ridley Scott’s The Martian has several of these but because the characters and plot are so well drawn they feel earned, appropriate and exciting. That goes for the film itself as well, it’s a two and a half hour space epic that feels as breezy as a ninety minute quickie, an optimistic, human story of one man’s ultimate quest for survival and everyone else’s daring attempts to rescue him.

Scott is no stranger to darker, more austere stuff particularly in his Sci-Fi exploits, but he shines a bright light on the proceedings here, making a super complicated, science based story with many moving parts somehow seem light and carefree while also making a big emotional landing. Matt Damon is Mark Watney, astronaut, botanist, space pirate and celestial castaway, marooned on the red planet following a mission gone wrong and presumed dead by NASA and his crew, until he’s able to communicate. He grows potatoes using… homemade fertilizer, repairs a satellite and awaits rescue while everyone else faces moral and technical quandaries in their struggle to bring him home. NASA’s director (Jeff Daniels, smarmy but never an outright baddie) is reluctant to go all out and send another mission, the crew’s handler (Sean Bean, fantastically low key and against his usual tough guy image) wants to do right by them and inform their commander (Jessica Chastain). The earthbound commotion is nicely interlaced with Damon’s solo outings up there and somehow they edit the thing to both realistically depict the passing of time but also fly through the proceedings breathlessly. Scott casts his film with ridiculous talent including Kate Mara, Donald Glover, Michael Pena, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristin Wiig and Mackenzie Davis.

Many people wrote this off as a good film but simply fluff, like an enjoyable but kind of inconsequential ride, or at least that’s the vibe I got from some reviews. I couldn’t disagree more. This type of story is exactly the kind of thing we need more of in this day and age. One could remark on the vast amount of effort, overtime hours and expenditure NASA puts in simply to bring one astronaut home, and whether or not it’s worth it (Jeff Daniels certainly has that thought cross his mind), but the truth is that it’s not about just Mark Watney, or just any one person stranded up there, it’s about what the actions and efforts signify, and how important that is, as well as the notable and extreme resilience on his part. This is a film that shows the best in human beings who are put in impossible situations, and how we might make ourselves, and those around us into better people. It’s a rollicking space flick speckled with incredible talent, hilarious comedy, scientific knowledge and has already aged splendidly since it’s release four years ago. Top tier Ridley Scott for me, and one of the best Sci-Fi films in decades.

-Nate Hill

The Running Man

The Running Man is some silly ass shit, but it’s done with so much adorable enthusiasm, blinding 80’s neon and deafening ultra violence that it kinda wins you over. Plus it has one humdinger of a villain who, lets face it, gives the film most of its personality. Based on a Stephen King novel (albeit under his sheepish Bachman pseudonym), this takes place in one of those austere, glumly lit fascist hellscapes where there’s rubble everywhere, helicopters relentlessly thrum overhead and humanity has devolved to its worst. This is set in the year 2019 and although they undershot the level of depravity they imagined we’d sink to at this point, they sure as fuck weren’t far off the mark. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Ben Richards, a military man who is framed for heinous war crimes and forced to compete in the world’s most popular game show, a sadistic tournament called The Running Man where convicts are hunted down on live television by paid pro wrestler looking freak shows. This is all masterminded by an egotistical sociopath called Killian, played by real life former game show host Richard Dawson in what has to be one of the most inspired pieces of casting out there. It’s fun watching Ahnuld and slightly less athletic pal Yaphet Kotto get saddled with hilarious spandex onesies and shunted down a luge course from hell where they’re faced with such looming monsters as Subzero, Buzzsaw and Dynamo, who Arnie naturally begins dispatching in clever, gruesome ways followed by those obligatory one liners. It’s not a thoughtful film and the dystopian nightmare it establishes at the outset is never established on nor explored, mostly we just get sound, fury, profanity and extreme carnage as the game plays out about as loudly as any could get. The production design is so 80’s you could stick it in a time capsule, from dancing chicks with perms to synth music to Jesse Ventura himself in full roid-rage mode. Dawson is the soul of it all though and it wouldn’t be the same film without him, he steals the show as the ultimate evil ringmaster and has charisma that makes you laugh and want to knock his teeth down his throat in the same instance. Not the best of 80’s Arnie, but a fun, hectic ride through futuristic sci-fi.

-Nate Hill

Michael Bay’s Transformers

Because the Transformers franchise has become an unwieldy cloud of toxic waste over the years, most seem to have forgotten how enjoyable the first one was. Michael Bay gets an awful rap for these, and by all means he deserves any shade thrown his way for some of the sequels, but I’m still convinced they only got made to cash in on the massive Asian market, I’ve heard that stuff like this is huge over there. This first film is a little saner and a lot more focused though, with a sort of 90’s Amblin infused vibe crossed with big budget CGI disaster mayhem of our current era, which is par for the course in a film directed by Michael Bay, as are lens flares, a grossly backlit slow motion kissing scene, explosions, fetishistic attention to the details of military protocol, montages of various factions of Americana playing out and um…cameos from loud sassy African American actors. Based on the Hasbro toy of the same name as well as probably an animated show that came before it, Bay ramps up the scale, special effects, human characters and exposition to somewhat plausibly set the Autobots and Decepticons loose in our world, engaged in noisy warfare over the All Spark, a cube of untold power that looks not so distantly related to the Tesseract. Caught in the middle is Shia Lebeouf as Sam Witwicky, a nervous teen whose family history hides something related to the Tranformers mythology, naturally sending him and the obligatory super hot love interest (Megan Fox) on a wild goose chase of stuff blowing up. There’s also various military factions caught up in the squabble including intrepid soldiers Josh Dumahel, Amaury Nolasco and Tyrese Gibson, research scientists Rachael Taylor and Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight as the grave Secretary of defense, John Turturro in pure comic relief form as a hapless federal agent and uh… Bernie Mac too, as the world’s saltiest used car salesman. The Shia Lebeouf angle has a cool 90’s sort of Joe Dante vibe, right down to the presence of consummate 90’s dad Kevin Dunn, naturally playing Sam’s father. While it goes a little off the rails in a final battle that pretty much levels an entire city to the ground and numbs any sense of realism to a dull roar, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the film, especially in the special effects used to bring these mechanical goliaths to life. Bumblebee is always a fan favourite, Optimus Prime looks fantastic and Hugo Weaving brings the vicious Megatron to life nicely. Steve Jablonsky almost outdoes his score for Bay’s The Island here, giving a magisterial composition that’s large and loud enough to accompany the Transformers on their journey and fills the film with noise, as the does the Oscar nominated sound design. Like I said, the sequels have become an impossible wall of deafening, uncalled for noise in the years since and it’s a shame because this one gets tainted in people’s memory when it’s still a good time.

-Nate Hill

George P. Cosmatos’s Leviathan

Imagine John Carpenter’s The Thing… but underwater. That’s pretty much what you get with Leviathan, a gooey aquatic creature feature that borrows heavily from both the Thing and Alien’s book, but when you consider how equally desolate and open to monstrous imaginations the arctic, oceans and deep space are it’s not hard to see how minds think alike, whether great or not. Is Leviathan great? Well.. no, but it’s not terrible and puts on a good, enjoyably gory show populated with a cast that can *definitely* be counted as great. On the ocean floor somewhere in the Caribbean, a team of deep sea miners discovers a derelict Russian vessel that was sunk on purpose, and it soon becomes clear why. Their salvage run ends up snagging an unseen stowaway, some horrifically slimy aberration that slowly but surely dispatches members of the crew before showing up in prosthetic form that reminds us so much of The Thing its a wonder there was no lawsuit. Peter ‘Robocop’ Weller puts on a great show as their captain, a jaded intellectual among lowly grunts who just wants to evacuate the team and be rid of the whole endeavour. Others are played by the likes of Ernie Hudson, Hector Elizondo, the eternally hammy Richard Crenna, Lisa Eilbacher, Michael Carmine and Daniel Stern in a role… well what can you sway about his role here. As obnoxious, chauvinistic scumbag Sixpack, he pretty much cements his duty as first to go when the monster shows up and stands as patient zero for most hate-able character out there. We also get Meg Foster as the obligatory shady corporate bitch whose interests lie in dollar value rather than the safety of her employees, an ill advised standpoint that causes Weller to spectacularly one-punch her right at the end, which is a stand up and clap moment. Directed by 80’s genre maestro George P. Cosmatos (Tombstone, Cobra, Rambo), this is a solidly entertaining horror yarn with a schlock feel and although it shamelessly borrows from other, better films, one can’t help but brush that off when you consider the effort made and how fun it is. It’s funny, the late 80’s was a heyday for underwater horror/sci-fi and between other fun titles like James Cameron’s The Abyss, JP Simon’s The Rift and Sean S. Cunningham’s Deepstar 6, this one holds its own. Listen for a great Jerry Goldsmith score too, a loopy composition that samples the howling bleeps of a sonar device to hilarious effect. Good times.

-Nate Hill

William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic

Keanu Reeves can somehow make almost any story, no matter how ridiculous, seem sober and coherent, but Johnny Mnemonic kind of takes the cake. A weird, messy, hyperactive fusion of classical cyber punk elements and 90’s B movie sensibilities (Ice T cements that vibe early on) it’s not a good film but certainly an interesting one that makes a loony impression. Reeves is Johnny, a data courier in a world of trafficked information stored in people’s brains, wanted by all sorts of undesirables including the Yakuza, surrounded by a a throbbing underground rock soundtrack and more cacophonous screensaver special effects than The Lawnmower Man. Reeves looks slick as ever and treats the material with due diligence, but the best and most effective performance comes from Dolph Lundgren as an aggressive freak dubbed the Street Preacher, a platitude spouting baddie who is endlessly fun to watch and stands as one of the actor’s best and most idiosyncratic creations. Henry ‘scream my lines’ Rollins cements the rock vibe as a weirdo doctor who tinkers with Johnny’s brain some, Dina Meyer plays his sidekick and pseudo love interest, and watch for Udo Kier as a corrupt diva of a nightclub owner. This film is fun enough from some angles, but for a SciFi film revolving around intel stored in one’s brain, the whole thing is pretty fucking brainless. There’s cool exposition detailing how Johnny needs to wipe certain chunks of memory like his childhood to make room for more bytes of black market info, but it’s never really shown how this affects his character. The whole thing is a blast of arbitrary, technicolour sound and fury that doesn’t really sit still long enough to think much on what it’s about, which is fine I suppose if all you want is fireworks. I will give it props for some inventive production design and gorgeous costumes though, but too little too late. One scene in particular kind of sums it all up, with Johnny having a full on emotional meltdown temper tantrum in some back alley over the fact that he doesn’t get to spend nights in a five star hotel with top class hookers. One could almost see his exasperation mirroring Reeves at having to play part in something so silly as this. Chill out Keanu, only four more years to go until you headline one of the best, most influential science fiction films ever made.

-Nate Hill

Christian Alvert’s Pandorum

I can understand that a bleak, disturbing SciFi horror like Pandorum didn’t connect well with Hollywood audiences or generate a lot of income, but it’s a shame because it weaves an intelligent, beautifully shot, truly scary dark dream of psychological paranoia, freaky ideas and tense, claustrophobic set pieces. Helmed by Christian Alvert, a German director best known for unconventional horror films, this was never going to be a flashy, familiar feeling big budget thing, which many probably didn’t expect. Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid are Payton and Bower, two astronauts who awaken on a giant derelict spaceship with severe amnesia and the unsettling feeling that their mission has gone horribly wrong. After a bit of exploring they find out just *how* wrong. Terrifying, monstrous humanoid creatures hunt any survivors through dim, clanging corridors that echo Ridley Scott’s Alien. Payton encounters two initially hostile nomads (Antje Traue and Cung Le) who he must band together with. Somewhere deep inside the ship, the reactor starts to fail. Another mentally unstable survivor (Cam Gigandet) is found by Quaid and starts to dangerously unravel. Gradually the secrets of what happened are revealed along with the reason for the presence of these creatures, which I won’t call aliens because they’re not. This is brutal, grim stuff that isn’t light watching or easy on the senses, it’s a skin crawling deep space nightmare of a film and a tough piece, no kidding. But it’s smart, tightly wound storytelling with fantastic acting (especially Quaid who rarely gets to go this bonkers crazy) and a plot that races along like some intergalactic nightmare until the final revelation, a thunderclap that lets us breathe again for the first time in over an hour. The title itself refers to a fictional psychotic disorder in which one believes the mission is cursed and becomes a delusional nut-job with destructive behaviour, the mental byproduct of extended space travel. This ties neatly into the very real dangers aboard the ship as reality shifts for these characters and their narratives become unreliable. A brilliant piece of SciFi horror filmmaking, a film that still hasn’t gotten its proper due. Get the Blu Ray, it looks fresh, crisp and darkly dazzling.

-Nate Hill