Tag: Sci-fi

Alita: Battle Angel review

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Writers: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis

Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley, Ed Skrein

Release date: February 14, 2019

Alita-Battle-Angel-poster-6-600x889

This is yet another attempt at making a good American live action adaptation of a manga/anime. This is a project James Cameron has been wanting to make for years, but it’s Robert Rodriguez who is in the director’s seat this time. Alita: Battle Angel is certainly an interesting and ambitious film, but it falls short of its goals.

Alita: Battle Angel adapts the manga Battle Angel Alita, which I have not gotten around to reading yet. Set in a cyberpunk future, Alita is an amnesiac teenage cyborg repaired by a kindly doctor named Ido. As Alita gains more memories of her past, she makes friends with a boy named Hugo, and enemies with those in power.

Alita: Battle Angel boasts impressive visuals, some well done action scenes, and a strong performance from the main lead. I was actually taken aback by how realistic the effects were for turning Rosa Salazar’s face into the big eyed anime girl. While there are a few moments of jarring greenscreen, for the most part, everything was seamless. It also smartly mixes in a few practical effects with the CGI. The action scenes are very well shot and directed, with some rather gruesome violence for a PG-13 film. The scenes involving a sport called Motorball are some of the most exciting and fun to watch in the whole film. The world feels lived in with every shot of another citizen or building telling you a little more about the setting and its people. It’s got some great filmmaking and eye candy in it, make no mistake.

All that said, the movie severely suffers from a bloated plot. It’s only just over two hours long, and has material for two or three movies. Rather than focus on one story arc and leave the rest for sequels, it opts to try and cover all of them. It moves from plot point to plot point without giving any one of them time to develop fully. Either cut down on the material, or make it much longer. There is a sport called Motorball in the film’s world that has a whole tournament centered around it, and ends up being integral to the plot and development of the character. It’s barely given any more importance than the other events of the film. The plot is scattershot and tries too hard to cover as many arcs as possible to set up a sequel it hasn’t earned. The longer it goes on, the more obvious it is that the film is struggling to fit in as much material as possible, and it crumbles under the weight of trying to do too much with too little time. Structurally, it plays out like a fighting anime: Alita will fight an enemy, and will either gain memories of her past back or a powerup that makes her even stronger. This sort of story structure would work for a longer form of storytelling, but this is a single movie. Different rules need to be followed.

I have to give attention to some of the dialogue in this script. It’s very cheesy, and not always in an endearing way. Near the end of the film, there’s a death scene that caused me to chuckle because of the lines and the delivery of them. Other lines of dialogue elevate the corniness due to good delivery, or there is a level of cringe that is intentional, such as Alita trying to give an inspiring speech that falls completely flat.

Alita’s cast gets high marks, mostly. Rosa Salazar makes Alita come off as both a badass and an adorably naïve teenager. Salazar’s best acting comes from her use of facial expressions and eyes. It’s an effective and emotional performance that helps us track Alita’s development over the course of the film. In addition to her, Christoph Waltz does a great job as Alita’s father figure, coming across as a warm and wise man but also adding layers to the role. Ed Skrein plays an unlikable bounty hunter named Zapan, and boy does he do a great job of making you hate this tool. Too bad Keean Johnson and Mahershala Ali fail to leave much of an impression, as well as Edward Norton. Yeah, Edward Norton is in this, merely as a tease for movies to come. If you’re going to have him, give him something to do.

Alita: Battle Angel is not an abomination like Death Note was, but it is still not the success we were all hoping it would be. It starts strong but loses steam the longer it goes on. It’s an admirable attempt with very strong qualities, but only an attempt nonetheless.

Score: 5.5/10

Advertisements

Foundation review

Author: Isaac Asimov

Published: 1951

foundation-book-cover

Some works manage to stand the test of time and retain their power, while others that may have been revolutionary at the time of their release, become obsolete. Foundation is the latter.

The first in a trilogy of books from the legendary science fiction author from the “Golden Age of Sci-Fi”, Isaac Asimov, Foundation is a collection of smaller books that were then collected into one single novel. Foundation is an extremely important work within the genre. It featured world building on a scale that had never been seen before, and paved the way for future authors to attempt the same. The story is about an organization of scholars known as the Foundation. Its founder Hari Seldon has predicted that in a thousand years time, the empire that rules the galaxy will collapse and civilization will fall into a new dark age. Seldon’s goal is not to avert the collapse, because he does not think that it can. However, he does think he can mitigate it, and get civilization back on track with the right preparations. He gathers the brightest minds of the galaxy to preserve knowledge so that the galaxy has a fighting chance at recovery.

While Asimov’s vision of the future, and his concepts such as “psychohistory” are interesting and have been very influential, the book fails to live up to its reputation because of uninteresting characters, a very boring writing style, stilted dialogue, and an overall feeling of being undercooked.

The characters in Foundation are two dimensional at best, and blend in with each other. Every one of them is basically the same. They’re very intelligent, and have conversations with other characters about economics, history, strategy, and other very important matters. Said conversations are just long, boring dumps of exposition where no one talks like an actual human being. Characters use phrases of exclamation such as “Great space!” or “Great galloping galaxies!” These aren’t dramatic, just goofy. Dialogue was definitely not Asimov’s strong suit. His characterization even less so. None of them develop, and each book focuses on a different era of time in the Foundation’s history, and the chapters and books are already very short and easy to read through.

In addition to the bad characters and laughable dialogue, Foundation is written in a very bland way lacking any style. He occasionally has interesting and well written descriptions of the world in Foundation, but these are few and far between and are mostly in the first couple of chapters. Some writers don’t spend too much time on meaningless details, but going in the opposite direction can be just as bad. Other writers will use a minimalist, dry style to convey atmosphere or get a reader into the mindset of a character. Asimov’s prose is just minimalistic because he seemed to have no interest in refining it. He may have had good ideas, but those ideas do not make for an interesting read.

Foundation is a dull, average read. It has been left in the dust for a long time now by better science fiction novels and films. Only people with an interest in the history of the genre will find something of value. Others should just find something else to read.

Score: 5/10

Beyond the Black Rainbow review

Director: Panos Cosmatos

Writer: Panos Cosmatos

Cast: Michael Rodgers, Eva Allen, Scott Hylands, Marilyn Norry, Rondel Reynoldson

Release date: December 3, 2010

beyond_the_black_rainbow_a_fekete_szivarvanyon_tul_bemutato_4

Beyond the Black Rainbow is a flawed, yet interesting and very unique film. It was the debut of Panos Cosmatos, the director and writer of Mandy. A science fiction horror film, it is about a young woman with psychic abilities who is being kept captive at a secretive institute by a creepy doctor played by Michael Rodgers.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is the kind of film that doesn’t make your viewing experience easy. It’s a very deliberately paced, clinical film in the vein of Stanley Kubrick; with characters that don’t particularly come off as emotional or human, except for one. Its plot is very minimalistic, requiring viewers to slowly piece together what exactly is going on. A lot of people will come away from it thinking that it’s boring, but sticking with it is a rewarding experience.

The film’s aesthetics are its strongest attributes; thanks to its direction, cinematography, and score. As mentioned above, Cosmatos was clearly influenced by Stanley Kubrick. His cold and calculating direction giving me flashbacks to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Every shot of this film is masterfully framed and beautiful to look at, yet also gives a haunting vibe. There are scenes and images in this film that will not leave your brain when you see them. The standout example being a flashback in the middle of the film that is surreal horror at its finest. The uncomfortable synthesizer soundtrack doesn’t exactly help either. Nothing comes across as quite human or natural in its neatness. The same can be said of the characters and their actors’ performances. Michael Rodgers as our antagonist is quite frightening throughout; first in an understated way, and then in a way that is the stuff of nightmares. Our protagonist named Lena is the sole sympathetic character in the whole film. She’s a captive in a cold, uncaring facility that she wants to escape. It would not surprise me if Cosmatos was inspired by Elfen Lied, nor would it surprise me if this film inspired the Duffer Brothers during the creation of Stranger Things.

Despite having great elements, Beyond the Black Rainbow is held back from being a great film. The plot is extremely bare bones, to the point of near non-existence. Its mostly just a series of events that happen, with the one flashback in the middle of the film to give events some more context. The third act is when things at last come together, and the film’s surreal horror kicks into high gear. Also, while beautiful, the film will linger on shots too long at times; coming across as pretentious.

It’s a flawed gem, and many will walk away from it feeling they had their time wasted. Regardless, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a nice throwback film that justifiably has a cult following. For all its faults, it was the arrival of a genuinely talented filmmaker with a unique style and vision. Anyone looking for a more unconventional horror experience should give it a shot.

Score: 7/10

Ready Player One (movie) review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Hannah Jon-Kamen, Lena Waithe, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller

Released: March 29, 2018

ready-player-one-movie-poster-405x600

What a pleasant surprise that this wasn’t awful. Then again, when your movie is in Steven Spielberg’s hands you can usually breathe a sigh of relief, but even for him this was a tough hurdle. He was working with an at best mediocre novel, and he managed to elevate it to an enjoyable blockbuster.

Wade Watts is a socially awkward teenager living in Columbus, Ohio with his aunt. He spends most of his time in the OASIS, a virtual world where you can be anyone and do anything. The game’s founder James Halliday, in his will, states that whoever wins a contest to find an easter egg in the OASIS, will win his whole fortune and control of the entire simulation. Using his wits and with help from his friends Aech, Daito, Sho, and his crush Artemis, Wade must find the clues and win the contest before the evil IOI does.

If you’re looking for something deep with themes to chew on, don’t even bother seeing it. But taken as it is, Ready Player One is an enjoyable if flawed blockbuster and a respectable addition to Spielberg’s resume. I found it to be at least more enjoyable than the novel it’s adapting. The script from Zak Penn and author of the original novel Ernest Cline actually changes quite a lot from the source material, keeping the premise but making the actual challenges work for a film, tightening the pacing, and adding new scenes that work better for a film adaptation.

Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, actually manages to be sympathetic in the film. He’s socially awkward with dreams of having a better life by winning the contest. The film gets rid of the unintentionally unlikable elements from the novel such as Wade acting like a stalker towards Artemis after their breakup, and has him try to stop a tragedy from happening. Still, he’s nothing special as a protagonist and has no meaningful development. Artemis is in her own right a very interesting and likable character, and I found the relationship between her and Wade to be just believable enough to work. She’s even given some more backstory this time around that explains why she’s so obsessed in winning Halliday’s contest. Unfortunately the other side characters Aech, Daito, and Sho don’t have any memorable characteristics outside of the reveals of their real world identities. The villains are quite hammy and cartoonish, especially Hannah Jon-Kamen as the main villain’s second in command. She has no character other than being evil. While this is a blockbuster primarily concerned with entertainment, other popcorn flicks like the last few Marvel movies have shown you can have complex villains in them. That said everyone gave a good performance even if their characters were bland.

What really brings it home is how non-stop entertaining it is. Instead of merely being tests of how much pop culture you know, the challenges require both mental skill beyond your knowledge of classic video games and movies, and you have to be just as good at driving a car or dodging an axe to win. The three challenges are both very unique and will get you more than your money’s worth in entertainment, with the first challenge being a race with all of the excitement and energy you’d expect from Spielberg, and the second challenge referencing The Shining in the most awesome way imaginable. The plot has a fairly decent pace, albeit the first act at times feels either rushed or too slow depending on what’s happening. While some people will be left scratching their heads at just how does the OASIS actually work, some of the characters having martial arts mastery, and a couple of other plot holes; the movie’s focus on spectacle and not taking itself too seriously makes up for it. It doesn’t feel like it’s exploiting or looking down on its audience, it feels like it’s a part of the audience and wants to have a blast with it. It also manages to succeed, or at least succeed more so than the novel in having a cautionary message against overindulging in escapism.

The pop culture references are updated to fit modern tastes this time around, so you’ll see just as many Batman and Superman nods as you will Back to the Future and Atari video game ones. There were a few times where they were rather obnoxious and almost patronizingly explained to the audience, but there were also a couple of moments where even I couldn’t help but get excited at seeing a favorite character or vehicle from a franchise I love. This all comes to a head in the climax, which is just pure, unadulterated, shamelessly pandering fanservice that you will love every moment of. I knew I would have my fun when “We’re Not Gonna Take It” started playing.

The special effects in the film are pretty decent, but are 100% CGI and you will never be convinced otherwise. Now because most of the film takes place in the virtual world, that works and they never looked straight up terrible, but it’s a shame more convincing effects weren’t added. What elevates them is Spielberg’s direction, which manages to inspire a level of awe and reverence to the world and characters of the OASIS, especially during the exciting action scenes. Except for the music during the climax, I have to say I didn’t find the score by Alan Silvestri to be anything memorable except for the main title, which sounds like something John Williams would make.

Ready Player One is not great, but it towers over its source material and other films like it. It will probably be one of the better films of the year if you’re looking for just entertainment. It’s not a deep film, but it’s not a dumb one either and Spielberg is not trying to trick you into thinking it’s anything more or less than a fun blockbuster that gamers, 80s movie fans, and other nerds can have a good time with. Even if you’re not in those three groups there is still fun to be had with it.

Score: 6/10

Ready Player One review

Author: Ernest Cline

Published: August 16, 2011

021915_ReadyPlayerOne_Cover

Ready Player One is the first and most famous novel of author Ernest Cline. The premise is that in the future, people escape the miserable reality of a resource depleted, climate change raddled Earth to the virtual reality of the OASIS. The OASIS is a massive multiplayer rpg that has practically taken the place of the real world. The original creator’s will states that whoever can solve a challenging easter egg hunt that he set up himself within the game will inherit control of the whole OASIS and his whole, multi billion dollar fortune. Years pass until a teenager obsessed with 80s pop culture named Wade Watts finds the first clue, and the race is on to reach the prize before rivals and an evil mega corporation can beat him to it.

Ready Player One may have an interesting premise, but that can’t save it from its badly written characters, plot, and prose. The biggest example of this is the protagonist Wade Watts, easily one of the most shallow, wish fulfillment characters I’ve seen in years. He’s flat and I can barely remember what personality he has in the story. Apparently in the world of the novel, just having an obscene amount of knowledge regarding 1980s pop culture is enough to get you to succeed in life, which is exactly how Wade gets through the plot. Thanks to his obsessive knowledge of everything 80s, he starts off a broke, low level high school student and eventually becomes a rich, high level world famous celebrity. Whatever struggles he has or could potentially have are completely glossed over and just told to the reader rather than shown. For example, Wade eventually has some falling out with his best friend Aech, and he just tells it without us ever seeing it. He also has a romance sub-plot with Art3mis, the main female character that has next to no chemistry in it and has some rather creepy undertones to it.

The side characters really aren’t much better written. The love interest Art3mis is supposed to be this strong female character, and to her credit she is a more interesting character than Wade is with some cool moments. It still doesn’t fix the fact that she’s completely overshadowed by Wade and his shallow personality. The other important side characters are pretty flat as well, with Wade’s best friend Aech having barely any personality themselves or anything interesting about them at all aside from a completely preachy and clumsy reveal about their identity that makes you think the novel is deeper than it actually is. The antagonist is at least charismatic but he’s just a stereotypical evil businessman.

The plot has a quick, page turner pacing to it that will get the reader moving smoothly along from one event to the next due to the chapters’ short length. The quick pacing is the one good thing I can say about the plot because like the characters, it is shallow and badly written. The premise has the potential to be really interesting but it doesn’t seem concerned with actually exploring it. Oh it sprinkles some concepts to make it seem deeper than it actually is, like the evil mega corporation cheating to win the contest so they can control the OASIS and charge a subscription fee and insert advertisements into it being reflective of the net neutrality debate. Yet this, and the other issues the book stamps onto the plot aren’t actually explored with any nuance or even reveal something meaningful about the characters. The ending tries to have this message about not using escapism as a means of always avoiding the world, but it comes off as cheap and doesn’t really hold up considering Wade saves the whole world real and virtual via escapism

Lastly the writing style ranges from bland to insufferable. The dialogue is riddled with outdated slang that was already going out of style at the time it was published and is now just embarrassing to read now. The characters will actually say “noobs” and call the enemy faction called The Sixers the “Suxorz”. You know, because they suck (that is an actual line in the novel). If that wasn’t bad enough, the novel will usually stop the plot to explain a reference to 80s pop culture it makes because it assumes you care or are an idiot who can’t just look it up. The worst instance of this is when Wade spends a whole three pages bragging about how much 80s trivia he knows. If you grew up with 80s movies, games, comics, and books I guess you could forgive it but I found it to be needless and eye-rolling. At least the action scenes are described well.

Ready Player One is not the worst novel ever written, or even that I’ve ever read. It’s bad, but just bad. It’s like Sword Art Online: an interesting idea brought down by bad writing and characters. At its best it is a good airport book, but I found it to be mindless and didn’t think it worked as entertainment. My hope is that Steven Spielberg can manage to make a good or even great movie out of this sub-par novel, since he’s managed to do so before. As for Ernest Cline’s other novel Armada and his plans for a sequel, I have no interest in either.

Score: 4/10

Annihilation (movie) review

Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland

Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac

Released: February 23, 2018

Annihilation-new-poster

I had some high hopes for this one, and it didn’t disappoint. Support this film to show that science fiction films like these can still succeed at the theater.

Annihilation is the film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, directed and written by Alex Garland. I have some familiarity with Garland’s work. He wrote 2012’s Dredd, which was really good and I’ve heard high praise for his first film from 2015, Ex Machina. Annihilation just further cements his status as a guy to keep an eye on when he’s attached to a project.

The story is about Lena, a female biologist played by Natalie Portman whose husband played by Oscar Isaac has come back home after a year of being presumed dead from a military op. It quickly becomes clear something is very wrong as he can barely remember anything, and becomes deathly ill and is taken and quarantined by an organization known as the Southern Reach. Lena, wanting answers as to what happened to her husband, decides to join an expedition of all female scientists into a closed off area of land known as “The Shimmer”. As the mission goes on, they encounter unexplainable phenomena, and must try to finish their mission.

My previous review was for the original novel so I can comment on how this film is as an adaptation of its source material. Quite frankly I not only think it’s a great adaptation but I think I prefer it to the novel. The original novel was a top tier sci-fi read with great atmosphere and a chilling plot, but its characters were rather thin with very little actual emotional investment for us to give. They didn’t even have names, not even the protagonist. The movie fixes that by giving the characters names, added personal life details, personalities and backgrounds that serve as motivation for why they’re on the mission, and gives them a sense of comradery which makes the story more tragic. It also removes some details that would drag the film’s narrative down so as to streamline it more to fit the runtime. Last and most importantly, it preserves the novel’s spirit of Lovecraftian fear and desire to know the unknown. The only change that I don’t think they needed to make was change the name of the area itself, but that’s a very petty thing to knock it for and at least the new name sounds cool.

The technical aspects of this film are exquisite. The special effects are extremely convincing with creative creature and set designs, aided by gorgeous cinematography and stellar direction. The film is simply beautiful, no two ways about it. Garland managed to bring to screen the haunting beauty of Area-X VanderMeer put to paper. Even as beautiful as the film is, there is still an uncomfortable feeling lingering in the back of your mind. Even as you get lost in the beauty of the environment, what you don’t see may kill you. The spin-tingling moments of tension in the film is aided by the film’s chilling musical score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The performances from the cast are all really good, especially from Natalie Portman as the lead and Tessa Thompson pulling of a pretty sympathetic and complex role.

Annihilation’s plot is hard to get into without risking giving spoilers away. The trailers have done a good job of keeping the plot as vague and detailed as it needs to be, and I’m going to try to do the same but fix a misconception some may have from the marketing. The plot is not your traditional sci-fi horror story you’ve seen from Alien or The Thing. It’s a much more cerebral, slow-burn plot dealing with heavy themes such as humanity’s tendency to self-destruct, the apathy of nature, and the fear of the unknown that all culminates in one hell of a climax and ending. All of this is aided by an emotional hook from the characters all having damaged personal lives and differing traits that set them apart from each other. That’s all I’m going to give away concerning the plot and characters. If you want to know more, go out and see for yourself.

It’s not a movie whose flaws can be totally forgiven in spite of its outstanding qualities. I didn’t mind the slow pacing because I just got lost in the beauty and wonder of the film, but it probably could’ve gone a bit faster. Nevertheless it at least didn’t get boring. Also some characters are more fleshed out than others and while the special effects are outstanding 99% of the time, there is that 1% that just doesn’t quite work.

Annihilation is a smart science fiction film that deserves to succeed at the box office. It’s definitely a movie that will leave you pondering what it all meant, especially the shocking last act. It isn’t a masterpiece like Blade Runner 2049 or Under the Skin, but it’s a damn good movie that can be viewed in the same light. I highly recommend you give it your money.

Score: 8.5/10

Annihilation review

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Published: February 2014

9780374104092_custom-6fc4705c2501460e1d26b62338334f9cddd09eff-s6-c30

Well isn’t this a surprise, I’m reviewing a book this time. Specifically, the first novel of the Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. I first heard about this book when I saw the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation from Alex Garland. I liked what I saw and figured I would read the source material before I see the movie. I didn’t even know it was the first of a trilogy. I started reading it about two days before writing this review, and managed to finish it hours earlier today. It has been a long time since I’ve read something this engaging and well written.

Annihilation is just like a good Lovecraft story, if Lovecraft had managed to write a full book instead of just short stories. Its story is about an all female team consisting of a psychologist, surveyor, anthropologist, and our protagonist a biologist as they venture out into Area-X, an area of land which seems to defy the very laws of science. As the team investigates, things quickly fall apart, but that’s all I’ll say about the story without going into spoiler territory.

Like I said earlier, this has all the trappings of a good cosmic horror story written by H.P. Lovecraft. It involves a group of people dealing with an entity that their minds cannot fully make sense of, no matter what technology they have or investigative tools they use. Area-X is one of the most fascinating, realized locations I’ve witnessed in years. It’s strange, disturbing, and defies any attempts to make sense of it. It is as if it exists in a plane of reality outside of the rest of the Earth. The laws of nature as we know them are not followed in Area-X, with one of the books most memorable scenes being one where our protagonist witnesses some dolphins with a very peculiar trait their species should not have, and numerous ones that takes place in a “tower” that goes underground. Everything in Area-X simply should not be.

On the character side Annihilation doesn’t excel but it works. None of the characters are given names, not even our protagonist, and she’s the only one we’re ever given any insight into. She has a rather unconventional, and at times unsympathetic personality. She’s antisocial, wrapped up in her work, and just seems not to care about the people around her. The novel is entirely from a first person perspective, so we learn about her, and only her. The other characters’ pasts are unexplored. We also only have the protagonist’s knowledge of the area and its wildlife. This is a good way of adding to the fear of the unknown the book has. By the end, the protagonist doesn’t have all the answers, and neither do we.

Annihilation’s single greatest attribute is easily its atmosphere, which is thanks to VanderMeer’s excellent writing. He manages to bring to life the vast loneliness the protagonist feels during the plot, the sadness and isolation given off from the remnants of humanity found in Area-X, and the surrealism of its ecology. While it builds atmosphere, the novel still manages to have an excellent pace to it. Nothing feels padded on or unnecessary, and when I was finished I felt breathless and wanting more.

For all the good things I have to say, Annihilation is not for everybody. While it’s only 195 pages in total and I managed to read through it fairly quickly, it can be a tad confusing at times and the characters aren’t really the focus of the story. You also are left with unanswered questions by the end, which will no doubt leave at least one person feeling cheated. I personally did not mind this because the protagonist finished her own personal journey and since the story is framed as her recounting her experiences, it immerses us into her mindset and maintains the book’s Lovecraftian horror traits.

Annihilation is a great read and has left me feeling even more excited for Alex Garland’s film adaptation. I’m nervous and excited to see if he can make a movie out of such a surreal novel, but if he has to take some liberties to make it happen, then let him do so. It works both as a standalone work, and as the first of a trilogy. I’m eager to read the other two books of the series as soon as I can.

Score: 8/10