Tag Archives: Science Fiction

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

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“We’ve got some unique time constraints.” : Remembering Déjà Vu with Bill Marsilii by Kent Hill

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Initially I felt the same way about Déjà Vu as I did Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Both of the inaugural screenings I attended were sullied by external forces which greatly influenced my mood during the viewings and thus, my opinion of the films.

But time, it was once said, is the ultimate critic. Under different circumstances I watched both films again, and, this time around, my feelings toward both movies were drastically adjusted.

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In several books on the art of screenwriting it is often put about that, if you cannot sum up the film you are writing in a single sentence, then you may want to rethink the plot. There is a great moment on the commentary track of this film in which the late, great Tony Scott admits that even he struggled to distill Déjà Vu into the logline form.

It’s a science-fiction/action/thriller/time-travel/romance in which the hero, Denzel Washington, meets the girl he will eventually fall in love with on the slab – dead as disco. Unbeknownst to him, he will eventually join a team that will, along with the help of a device that can see into the past, aid him in bringing her killer to justice. And it was from this humble yet intriguing premise that my guest, Bill Marsilii and his co-writer Terry Rossio constructed this rich, multi-layered tale which deserves more applause than some would proffer for its inventiveness and compelling real-world take on the age old time machine story.

 

But what I uncovered as I spoke to Bill was far more than a series of behind the scenes anecdotes and your typical boy meets idea, boy turns idea into a screenplay, screenplay sells for big dollars, boy lives happily and successfully ever after in Hollywood kind of scenario.

And yes, while it is true that Déjà Vu is the highest earning spec script thus far, beating out other entries like Basic Instinct, Panic Room and The Last Boy Scout, the story of how Bill came to, not only the concept, but how the writing and selling of the script changed his life is just as compelling as anything Jerry Bruckheimer and Co. managed to get onto the screen.

 

This interview, at least for me, proved also to be somewhat of a masterclass in, not only screenwriting, but the ever painful and soul-crushing journey the writer must endure to actually sell the script. It’s about the luck, timing, persistence and internal fortitude that you must have sufficient quantities to survive the gauntlet that exists between the page and the screen.

Bill’s heart-warming, inspirational adventure to make it in the realm where dreams are brought to life with that strange blending of art, science and commerce – that ultimately no one can tell you how, when a film is successful, it all comes together in the perfect proportions to ensure success is on the menu – is a conversation that could have gone on and on.

I hope you’ll will enjoy some extended insights into Déjà Vu, but more than that, I hope you, if you are one of those dreamers still out there trying to write your own ticket to cinematic glory, that Bill’s wisdom you’ll take onboard and continue pounding away on those keys until fortune smiles and your efforts will be coming soon, to a theater near us…

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Bill Marsilii . . .

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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

Making Epics and eating Subway with Patrick Stewart: An Interview with Shahin Sean Solimon by Kent Hill

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There is a filmmaker working in Hollywood right now, who is out to show the big boys that you don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to make the movies you want to make. Shahin Sean Solimon is the man behind the movement. Together with his talented group of like-minded artists, he is forging new waves to achieve epic results without the big budget price tag.

“If I inspire some thirteen year old kid somewhere to pursue his or her dreams as I have, no matter what the nay-sayers say, I’ve done my job.”

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And getting the job done is exactly what Shahin has been doing.  Beginning with his first feature Djinn, Based on ancient middle eastern fairy tales written thousands of years ago, and passed down from generation to generation, Shahin crafted luscious, fantastical realms along with a pure and moving tale love and destiny.

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With his second film he took it to the next level, conjuring the days of high adventure and summoning cinema which brings to mind the heady days of Ray Harryhausen with: Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage. When the Sultan’s first born is taken by an evil sorcerer, Sinbad is tasked with traveling to a desert of magic and creatures to save her. Add into this the talents of Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek: The Next Generation), who offered his distinct vocal styling as the films narrator. He also turns out to enjoy Subway, but you’ll have to listen for more on that.

Now, for the next big thing. In his third feature Alpha: The Awakening, Shahin is tackling the sci-fi and post-apocalyptic genres with one mighty stroke. It is the story of a man, Apollo, who wakes up in the future to realize the human race has been wiped out because of an ancient virus.

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There seems to be no end to his creativity or his ability to realize his visions. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with this talented filmmaker who is, without a doubt, taking the bull by the horns and making the movies he wants to make.

“My inspiration as an artist is not about money, or fame…but about trying to project imagination, show a different perspective of life, and simply entertain.”

And entertaining us is what he has done and will, I believe, continue to do.

Genre-Defining: An Interview with Shane Abbess by Kent Hill

Continue reading Genre-Defining: An Interview with Shane Abbess by Kent Hill

B Movie Glory: Necessary Evil

There’s always those B Movies that seemed to be sewn together out of bits of other scripts and produced solely so SyFy or Space has something, anything to fill up their 3am Saturday time slot. It’s like production team grabbed discarded narratives from all kinds of genre flicks, shoved them in a magic bullet, but purée and served up whatever the result is to the distributor. Now, this can often be a terrible idea resulting in boring mish-mash horror flicks that make little sense, or they can oddly kind of work in their own absurd way. Necessary Evil… kind of works, kind of doesn’t, there’s definitely something splattered on the canvas with it’s narrative, what it is though, I’m not even sure the filmmakers had an idea. It’s part Lovecraftian horror, part psychological something, part social satire and all schlock, but these themes bleed into each other until even the most attentive viewer will have not much of a clue what they’re watching. Best I can describe it: a super sinister doctor named Fibrian (Lance Henriksen) runs a shadowy psychiatric ward. There’s all kinds of rumours about illegal testing, dodgy pharmaceuticals, mass mind control and occult ties, none of which is ever made clear or disproved. However, when you have Lance playing your asylum director, you can almost be sure the place is up to something it shouldn’t be, he just has that cavalier maliciousness that he always switches on for these types of parts. A police detective and a reporter are onto him, and do theor best to infiltrate the facility, but his powers have already spread to the city outside, causing people to act strange and… well, a bunch of other weird shit. Danny Trejo has an amusingly hostile extended cameo as some vague operative working for Fibrian, and yada yada. It earns points for sheer WTF-ness though, it’s like every day on set they picked one crew member to add the craziest thing they could think of to the script and just ran with that (which would be a cool free association method of improvisational filmmaking, now that I think about it. They outdo themselves in a hilarious, out of left field cliffhanger ending that gets pretty cosmic and out there, adding a straight up supernatural element that cements the demented vibe they’ve strived for with the whole thing. A true oddball.

-Nate Hill