Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars

Ghosts Of Mars, there’s a title that better get lived up to with the film therein. John Carpenter has stated himself that he never meant to make something for people to take seriously and one need only look at the title to surmise that brainpower won’t be mandatory here and you essentially get an escapist space opera set to bangin’ heavy metal music without much of a brain in its head. I feel like had this been made back in the 80’s when most of the filmmaker’s flagship stuff came out it would have been received better. I mean, all of his films have headline grabbing, B movie titles and are essentially genre driven entertainment, but this being released in 2001, maybe people expected something a little different. Anyways I had a ton of fun with it, I mean how can you not enjoy a flick called Ghosts Of Mars for fuck sake.

As a nearly deserted freight train rolls into the Martian city of Chryse, Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) is the only survivor and recalls in flashback how she and her team encountered something nasty out there that crawled out of a mining tunnel and wreaked havoc on the surrounding towns. After some trigger happy demolition work a door was opened to an ancient tomb, awakening a red cloud of what can only be called John Carpenter’s The Martian Fog. In it are evil, restless spirits who take over dead bodies and reanimate them with all the style and energy of something like Uruk Hai Orcs crosses with Cenobites by way of Rob Zombie fans. Hordes of self mutilated, angry goth punk undead storm the deserted mining camps and Ballard is forced to team up with convict Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) to survive. They’re joined by other Martian PD including Pam Grier, Jason Statham and rookie Clea Duvall who was one of my first crushes in cinema, is always low key awesome and always steals the show. Her playing a Martian Cop with uniform and gun is the height of cool and attractiveness for me and I suspect half the reason I have such a soft spot for this film.

Anyways, call it what you will but don’t expect serous entertainment here and if you do and end up disappointed you’re only letting yourself down and shouldn’t blame it on this blast of a flick. Henstridge and Sir Cube actually have pretty good chemistry whether running around blasting guns or taking a few moments of downtime. Statham gets an overwritten, goofy horn-dog role but his presence is enough to justify such hammy characterization. Grier isn’t around for long unfortunately but her very name in the credits alone is enough to land some cool points. This film has a score that sort of rips through your sound system like a bat out of hell and feels nothing like Carpenter’s usual brand of ominous, rhythmic synths. The director does do part of the composing but most of the work is delegated to NYC heavy metal band Anthrax and the result is a balls out composition that really accents the film with an edge and fits right in with the costume/set dec work, all spikes, nails, piercings and rusty sharpened melee weapons flung about. This film apparently caused Carpenter to shun the Hollywood vibe and go into exile until he made 2010’s The Ward. I wish audiences had had their heads a little less up their asses in going into it and remembered why Carpenter is so special and prolific in the first place. He makes high concept horror/action/SciFi for dedicated fans of all genres, and Ghosts Of Mars covers all bases just damn fine, no matter what years of bad press or Ice Cube himself had to say about it. It’s pretty rich for someone to go on record saying this is the worst film they’ve been involved with when they also did hot garbage like Are We There Yet, Ride Along, XXX 2, Torque and I could go on. Get real. Anyways I digress but as you can tell I love this scrappy little gem, consider it highly undervalued and would definitely recommend it. Good times.

-Nate Hill

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John Carpenter’s Starman

John Carpenter usually has a flair for the macabre and the darkly mysterious forces that our world and others have to offer, but such is not the case with Starman, a touching, tender science fiction story showcasing one knockout of a performance from Jeff Bridges.

When an extraterrestrial spaceship crashes somewhere in the Midwest, the being living inside wanders out and takes the form of a woman’s (Karen Allen) deceased husband to make her a little less jumpy, which is an interesting strategy. So begins a road trip to an extraction point in Arizona with her sort of held hostage but quickly warming up to this curious, childlike extraterrestrial who slowly learns what earth life is all about. Meanwhile various factions of the government including an amoral NSA asshole (Richard Jaeckel) and a pacifist scientist (Charles Martin Smith, terrific) pursue them all over the region but mostly just trip on their shoelaces. Bridges is absolutely brilliant as the alien, infusing a truly otherworldly quality into his gentle, restrained performance full of distinct mannerisms, expert physicality and beautiful subtleties. The chemistry between the two of them is so good you can practically feel it sparkling around the in the air. Allen’s performance works wonders too, beginning on a sorrowful note and eventually opening up to hope and happiness once again.

This is essentially a story of loss, and how one can deal with it. Granted there’s not a lookalike space alien out there for everyone who has lost someone but Bridges’s presence feels like an essence that could be any type of good, helpful quality that enters someone’s life following such an incident. This is the type of compassionate, heartfelt film that leaves a warm glow in the living room when the credits dim, and Carpenter blesses it with his trademark touch while giving it a slighter, brighter atmosphere than usual. The score by Jack Nitzsche is also a brilliant composition that adds to everything I’ve outlined above. Great film.

-Nate Hill

All That We See or Seem: Nate’s Top Ten Films on Dreams and the Subconscious

What happens to us when we sleep? How does our collective and individual subconscious influence the way we exist both awake and dreaming? It’s roughly half our lives, so time spent in the subconscious realms, land of the dead and places beyond mean a lot to our existence as a complete life cycle. There are many films out there that explore these concepts. Some visually, some emotionally but always with a good deal of creativity and imagination. From virtual prisms to nocturnal demons to tangible alternate realities and the deities that dwell therein, it’s a complex, mysterious sub-genre! Here are my personal top ten..

10. Neil Jordan’s In Dreams

A psychic link is established early on between a small town housewife (Anette Bening) and a bizarre, elusive serial killer (Robert Downey Jr). But why are they connected? What do the visions she has even mean, manifesting to her in vague images and abstract impressions that only suggest the evil lurking out there? Jordan is a filmmaker obsessed with mood and style but also dutiful in making sure that such things serve that story and have weight. This is a gorgeous looking psychological fairytale with an avant-garde performance from Downey, breathtaking visuals and excellent supporting work from Aiden Quinn, Stephen Rea and Paul Guilfoyle.

9. Calvin Reeder’s The Rambler

This abnormally surreal piece of midnite movie madness sees a stoic Dermot Mulroney as the titular Rambler on a post-prison meander through a version of America’s southwest that’s been poisoned by abstract qualities and turned on its head. It isn’t explicitly about the subconscious other than a subplot in which a bemused scientist (James Cady) records people’s dreams onto a VHS doohickey, an endeavour that goes wrong in the most hilarious of ways (think Scanners except bloodier). However, I’ve rarely seen a film that captures nightmare logic like this gnarly little piece does. It isn’t ever said whether the Rambler’s journey is all a dream or not, but the feeling one gets as he ambles dazedly from one bizarre encounter to the next, the nonsensical fashion of language used and the overall feeling that one has been lost in some threatening netherworld where sensory input has been scrambled and people are indistinct grotesqueries is overpowering. Be warned with this one, there’s nothing pleasant about it, it exists purely to shock, disgust and disorient, areas in which it thoroughly earns its keep.

8. Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape

The most playful film on this list sees Dennis Quaid as a young psychic recruited by government scientist Max Von Sydow to enter the dreams of the US president (Eddie Albert), who has been having some disturbing nightmares. There’s a conspiracy afoot involving a shady government big-shot (Christopher Plummer) and time is running out to decipher the mystery. This is a colourful kaleidoscope of a flick with dazzling special effects, especially in the impressive dream sequences. A giant cobra rears it’s head, mutants leer out from a nuclear wasteland, an eerie, endless staircase descends into darkness and the visual aspect overall is exceptional.

7. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street

Dreams get the slasher treatment with lucrative and legendary results in this lean, mean horror flick that would go on to span a mammoth franchise. Using clever practical effects, an ambient score and Robert Englund’s now iconic performance as dream demon Fred Krueger, Craven sculpts an atmospheric aesthetic for the ages. Johnny Depp’s first role in cinema as well, and he gets eaten by a bed no less. I dare you to google the true story that inspired Craven to write this film, you might just have some nightmares of your own.

6. Satoshi Kon’s Paprika

Dreams as a collective and quite literal parade come tumbling into our world when a therapist’s machine to enter them is stolen by a terrorist. This film truly breaks some boundaries in what storytelling can do and show with animation, and requires several viewings to appreciate the full scope of vision. Kon and his animators thoroughly paint in all the corners and write a dense, chaotic script full of moving parts and wild ideas in telling the story of dreams run amok, with a deft subplot about cinema itself thrown in seemingly just for fun.

5. Jamin Winans’s Ink

This is one I’ve been championing for years, a low budget indie that defies description in ways that you won’t see coming. The multifaceted story is free from the bonds of time and space and sees a mysterious supernatural demon named Ink kidnap a young girl (Quinn Hunchar) and drag her off into the dream realms for some vaguely nefarious purpose which soon becomes appallingly clear. Meanwhile, the forces of light and darkness that rule over our unconscious bodies while we sleep both race to track Ink down and engage in a furious war for the girl’s soul. That seems like a chunk of exposition, doesn’t it? Well it doesn’t even hint at the wonders, revelations, trips to alternate dimensions, flashbacks to several different pasts and narrative twists to come. This is a gorgeously moving fantasy film that works wonders with a scant budget but also gets surprisingly deep and psychological in exploring its human characters, a mini masterpiece that I will recommend until the end of time.

4. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

This is technically my favourite film of all time but I’m trying to gauge this list on which films provide a provocative and comprehensive view of dreams and the subconscious, so here we are at #4. Lynch’s challenging masterpiece involves many aspects and moving parts, but a big influence on narrative is the creeping presence of mysterious spiritual beings that reside in the mythical plane of The Black Lodge and manifest in dreams. Protagonist Laura Palmer has harrowing nightmares that present an illogical, fractured view of the dark forces amassing against her and others who live in the Pacific Northwest town that is filled with secrets. David Bowie also shows up, literally escaping a tangible nightmare very briefly to incoherently warn his FBI buddies about something before being dragged off back to the netherworld.

3. Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky

Yes this is a remake of a Spanish film that also starred Penelope Cruz in the same role she plays here, and I’ve had the discussion many times on which film is better. This one speaks to me far more than the original though, Crowe’s hazy hued, autumn in New York aesthetic is gorgeous and don’t get me started on the amazing soundtrack. Tom Cruise is a bratty publishing heir who discovers the danger of his ways in encounters with two very different women, angelic Cruz and unstable Cameron Diaz. The story is about much more of course but to say too much here would be to ruin it. It’s a fantastic piece of heartbreaking filmmaking with a haunting conclusion and solid supporting turns from Jason Lee, Tilda Swindon, Michael Shannon, Timothy Spall, Jason Lee, Noah Taylor, Alicia Witt and Kurt Russell.

2. Christopher Nolan’s Inception

An obvious choice no doubt, but this is every bit the magnificent game changer its reputed to be, and a blockbuster with a brain in its head. Combining elements of corporate espionage with dreaming, Nolan tells a magisterial, hugely ambitious tale of Leonardo DiCaprio’s thief of the subconscious and his crew in pulling off a dangerous, near impossible task. What really makes the film work for me though is the relationship with his deceased wife (Marion Cotillard) and how it highlights the toll that entering dreams would take on your psyche as the forces that sculpt reality begin to crack and there’s danger of getting lost in these realms. It’s so much more than just a pseudo heist flick that happens to take place inside a dream world, there’s psychological depth, a rubik’s cube of a narrative to feast on and some truly heartrending moments when we discover just how much power the unconscious mind has over our souls.

1. Tarsem Singh’s The Cell

The hunt for a heinous serial killer ends with his dramatic capture in a spectacular FBI raid. End of story? Not so much, as he’s in a permanent coma and his last victim is still out there somewhere in captivity, with time running out. Jennifer Lopez is a compassionate child psychologist who uses futuristic technology to enter the man’s terrifying subconscious and look for clues, as well as appeal to the side of him that still retains innocence. Singh is a master stylistic storyteller and the images, sound, costumes and visual dreamscapes on display are like eye candy for the spirit and tell this story in an otherworldly fashion that I can’t even describe here. Vincent D’Onofrio is hauntingly complex as the killer, Vince Vaughn grounded and intense as the agent spearheading the search and the eclectic cast includes Patrick Bauchau, Dean Norris, Tara Subkoff, Peter Sarsgaard, Jack Conley, Dylan Baker, Marieanne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Pruitt Taylor Vince, scream queen Musetta Vander and the late great character actor James Gammon. This is top of my list and one of my favourite films of all time, partly for the gentle yet arresting way it dives into the psyches of several characters, also the pure artistic innovation present in the visuals that are constantly changing, shaping and mapping out the subconscious using picturesque poetry, startlingly graphic horror and an ever present, bewitchingly ethereal score from Howard Shore.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to share some of your favourites of this genre in the comments!! More to come as well!

-Nate Hill

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain..”. Saying goodbye to Rutger Hauer

A dark angel android desperately seeking longer life. A spectral hitchhiker hell bent on homicide. Both Dracula and Van Helsing at different points in his career. A rogue cop stalking an alien beast through futuristic London. The CEO of Wayne Enterprises. A psychotic drifter who drives a wedge between a married couple. A blind Nam vet with a deadly samurai sword. A rogue medieval warrior put under a magic spell. A ruthless European terrorist waging war against an entire city. A hobo with a shotgun. Rutger Hauer has passed away, and leaves behind him a legacy of incredible work over a decades long career that has firm and lasting roots in the horror, action and science fiction genres. With a rough hewn, elemental figure, a honey soaked purr of a voice and electric eyes, the guy practically radiated originality, never one to rush a line, hurry a glance or let his gaze move too quickly.

A native of The Netherlands, Hauer got his start in Dutch television during the 70’s, until a lasting friendship with director Paul Verhoeven led to his casting in the director’s Middle Ages romp Flesh + Blood alongside Jennifer Jason Leigh. From there the rest of the world saw this man’s immense talent and he found himself taking part in Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke, Sylvester Stallone’s Nighthawks, Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka, Sam Pekinpah’s The Osterman Weekend, Albert Pyun’s Omega Doom, Phillip Noyce’s Blind Fury, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, George Clooney’s Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City and so many more. He also had a multitude of memorable television appearances including Smallville, Alias, True Blood, The Last Kingdom to name a few.

For me the two roles that stand out from the rest are Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Ryder in Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher. Within those two performances Rutger packed more magnetism, charisma and character than some can hope to exude their whole careers. It’s no secret that a great portion of his career was spent in some lower budget B movie fare, a fact that some people lament given his great talents. Here’s the thing though: He never phoned it in, gave a bad performance or threw away a line. No matter what the project was, he was always there and always stepped up to command the scene even if it was just a cameo. I remember in one horror flick about killer wasps he played a mercenary who, when warned about the creatures, stated with a straight face “actually, wasps are allergic to me.” The same conviction was put into that ridiculous line as any of his serious roles in iconic stuff, but that was his power. Character actor, leading man, comic relief, heinous villain, the President or a street thug, this guy could do it all and everything in between. As Roy says in Blade Runner: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” He improvised part of that line too, highlighting the organic nature of his talent beautifully. Time to say goodbye. Peace out, Rutger ❤️

-Nate Hill

Duncan Jones’s Source Code

Duncan Jones’s Source Code sits in the same realm of bombastic science fiction as stuff like Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency, Tony Scott’s Deja Vu and others. What I mean by that is that the central premise is just too out there to be believable, but the film possesses a sense of wonder, energy and salesmanship around the story that it somehow grabs you along for the ride and becomes a great film despite itself.

Sort of an archetypal reworking of Groundhog Day, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a US military pilot who finds himself out of space and time, waking up on a speeding Chicago train that’s destined for a fiery explosion once it reaches the city limits. The train explodes, everyone on it dies including him and then… he wakes up on it again minutes later, rinse and repeat. This mysterious time loop continues until he can find a way to locate the mad bomber and stop them before catastrophe, with the help of another intrepid passenger (Michelle Monaghan, always superb). Elsewhere and when, a military correspondent (Vera Farmiga) and her oddball scientist boss (Jeffrey Wright in yet another brazenly eccentric but fun performance) oversee his actions from some unseen echelons, literally keeping him in the dark about what’s really happening.

This is the kind of boundlessly imaginative SciFi stuff you’d find Dennis Quaid or Jeff Bridges starring in back in the 80s/90s heyday of the genre, and I love the retro feel. Gyllenhaal makes his performance a nervous, jumpy and engaging creation, inhabiting a trippy world of sliding planes, otherworldly revelations and fast paced problem solving nicely. Watch for comedian Russell Peters in a key role too as well as Michael Arden and Scott Bakula. This film has drawn criticism for several plot holes, but I don’t even think they can be called that, given the extremely ‘out there’ nature of the content. Yes, there are some issues with how things are wrapped up but by the time we get there the fabric of time, space and reality are so thrown to the wind that one can think a way around the troubling implications using imagination. It’s such a far flung concept but the actors all sell it straight-faced for the most part (Wright gets a bit knowingly campy) and the whole thing comes across very well, especially elements of sunny optimism and pathos that are welcome and make the story stick. There’s no denying the originality here either, or the ambition. Director Jones debuted with the excellent Moon, followed it up as strongly as this and then sort of took a plummet with that lame Warcraft thing, but here’s hoping he gets back on top of the SciFi game soon, because he’s got talent and genuine affection for the genre.

-Nate Hill

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

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