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The Wandering Earth

The Wandering Earth

Better translated title: My Wandering Attention; I'm Wandering
Away from This Movie and Down the Pub; The Frantabulous Earth
Saving Contraption of the Chinese Communist Party.
There's a lot of fun to be had, just not watching this movie

dir: Frant Gwo

2019

This is one of the highest grossing movies in Chinese history, and so I thought I’d give it a gander (on Netflix), knowing full well that something being immensely popular sometimes guarantees a certain level of interstellar shiteness, no matter the pedigree.

Also, despite being a fan of Chinese and Hong Kong movies for decades, I always knew that there was a disconnect between the stuff I was getting to see in the arthouse cinemas and from the dodgy Chinatown DVD sellers, and what the mass Asian audience was watching in its own backyard.

The Wandering Earth, despite being based on a short story by Liu Cixin, is certainly one of the dumbest science fiction flicks to have ever been produced, at least as far as the actual ‘science’ part of the phrase is concerned. Again I say despite the involvement of Liu Cixin, most famous outside of China for the Three Body Problem and for his other novels in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy which brought a profoundly different take on the science fiction genre and to stories about other alien cultures finding out about sentient life on Earth. He is a great writer of complex stuff. This film is neither great nor complex stuff. It’s essentially the Mainland China Communist Party Approved version of Armageddon; that dumb – as - a - box - full - of - Bruce - Willises movie where Michael Bay does to our brains what Michael Bay has been doing to movies for decades.

Big budget Chinese films are, like the big budget films of any nation, propagandistic by their very nature. All of them say something political just by existing, but Chinese movies specifically say ‘something’ just by being approved by the government censors for production. And Chinese films for the last couple of decades have been getting vastly more nationalistic in their plots and their action. If Wandering Earth is the second most Titanic-like movie in Chinese box office history, well, Number 1 is Wolf Warrior II, a movie where noble Chinese ex-special forces jerks / mercenaries save helpless African locals from evil Americans mercenaries. I wonder what the attraction is, hmmm…

Maybe there’s a theme emerging here. Big box office comes from, apparently, making Chinese heroes the saviours of all of humanity, with the best and brightest from other nations taking a bit of a back seat. It’s only fair; now it’s their time to shine.

The Wandering Earth’s plot is so fucking bonkers that if I even try to describe it openly, you’re probably going to think I’m either bullshitting, flat out wrong, or that it sounds so insane that it has to be a guilty pleasure to watch, like a Sharknado movie or anything with talking animals in it. It is none of those things. I swear on all that is good and holy, it is none of those things.

The sun in our solar system, about 40 years into the future, spontaneously decides to become a red giant, meaning the Earth is fucked, or at least more fucked than it was previously.

Rating:

I Am Mother

I Am Mother

Surely there's nothing ominous about this setup?

dir: Grant Sputore

2019

There’s a lot going on in this flick. A lot. Firstly, and this is going to blow your mind because you’ve never heard of such a thing before, it’s set in the future, it has robots, and the robots have turned eeeeeeeeeevil.

I know! Whodda thunkit?

Every day we have news media telling us automation is taking over all our jobs and that robots are now doing heaps of things previously only people could do, from complex tasks to climbing stairs and doing backflips. And every night we have movies telling us that if we make smart robots, they will one day try to kill us all.

People, we’re getting mixed messages. Or maybe they’re just partial messages that we need to combine in order to get the full message: “The Robots Are Coming and they’re Going to Kill Us All!”

It has been science’s job for centuries to tell us how or why things happen, and to explain the progress we’ve made as a species, and science fiction’s job to tell us how and why we should be afraid of that progress. Even as far back as the first famous science fiction novel, which is probably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, science fiction has been telling us that just because you can miraculously do something that couldn’t be done before doesn’t mean you should. Doing something previously impossible often brings with it unfortunate consequences we have little chance of foreseeing because a lot of the time you can’t predict the possible outcomes of scenarios you’ve never imagined before

In I Am Mother, something terrible has already happened wiping out the humans on this sad planet Earth. In some kind of secure facility, a solicitous and kind robot (voiced by Rose Byrne), raises a child from an embryo, that she calls Daughter (Clara Rugaard, eventually), and who calls her Mother. The robot that is Mother is in no way approximates human features – the robot is sleek like an appliance and very functional. The voice it uses has this lilt of concern or feeling, but is fundamentally cold. Mother uses all sorts of functions and programs to maximise its efforts in child-rearing, probably having read all the What to Expect When You’re Expecting-type books and follows all the advice, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.

If it could, Mother would probably breastfeed and give super formula at the same time to maximise the infant’s potential, but the difference is (one of a multitude) that this Mother doesn’t second-guess herself (itself) constantly, doesn’t constantly compare herself to other mums on social media and find herself inadequate; she doesn’t have to try to balance the needs of her relationship with looking after the kids and looking after a house and balance a job and try to have a social life and do find time for self-care and not feel undermined by her mother-in-law / younger Instagram influencer sister.

Rating:

Annihilation

Annihilation

I'm trying to imagine what the opposite of Annihilation is and I can't.
Is it a Jennifer Aniston / Jason Bateman movie?

dir: Alex Garland

2018

Damn. Now that was an unsettling experience.

Annihilation was not what I was expecting, and I’d already read a bunch of reviews referencing Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, all of which I’ve seen / endured / survived. Mostly, Solaris, one of the most sleep inducing movies ever made, and Stalker, the other most sleep inducing movie ever made, are referenced. Everything’s always just a collection of references, naturally, but these are two very specific, very necessary ones.

Rest assured, Annihilation is nowhere near as boring as any of those movies mentioned. It has too much forward momentum, too many evil crazy bears and alligators, and people confronting the unknown and being painfully fucked by the unknown to have too much in common with the films of the Russian master.

Annihilation, though, is not a cheap and easy flick cobbled together from the remnants of a thousand other sci-fi flicks. It is, like many of the other flicks Alex Garland has been associated with, a fairly unique experience. Yes, there are antecedents, but it stands alone, and mostly unloved, but it deserves at least a certain amount of respect.

He used to just write the screenplays before, but then he must have thought “fuck it, I can do at least as good a job as the shmucks directing my work” and for once he seems to be right. Virtually everyone who saw Ex Machina thought it was pretty good, if not great, and on the back of that somehow somewhy Netflix coughed up a bunch of money to buy the flick after Paramount lost faith with the end product. Some people saw it in cinemas, but really, Netflix is the perfect venue for this. It’s visually strong but it’s not something that has to be seen on the big screen. Its virtues aren’t purely visual, they’re more conceptual, and that’s fine for the home theatre.

It’s an odd flick, that’s for sure. It doesn’t fit completely in either the science fiction genre or the horror genre, nor is it really an amalgam of the two. It does have a predominately female cast, but that doesn’t really change the nature of the flick even if it changes its tenor, its tone.

Rating:

Blade Runner 2049

2049

This was the best poster I could find for it, and
they still missed the point. Unless they wanted to
trick those pesky Ghost In The Shell fans into watching it

dir: Denis Villeneuve

2017

It’s amazing that they tried to do this.

I’m glad that they did it, in some ways. Yes, the original is a bona fide 80s sci-fi classic. On the other hand, there’s not really a sense that some mercenary jerks got together and thought “Hey, we need to make oodles more money from exploiting a franchise famous for being a box office failure but a critical darling, because that’ll definitely work”.

Or maybe they were that delusional. It happens. They made a Baywatch movie, after all.

Instead of going down the commercial route, they seem to have made a very expensive film, and spent a fortune advertising it (I assume it’s a fortune if I see posters advertising it at the tram and bus stops in my neighbourhood), completely at odds with what was likely to happen with audiences.

So, just to leap ahead to the end result: Blade Runner 2049 lost way more money and connected with far fewer people than the original did. Maybe that was all part of the plan?

Which is a shame, because in a lot of ways it’s a better film, and is quite compelling, even if it is the continuation of a story that no-one really asked for. Also, it has as its centre an actor who seems content to be a void more than a presence, which is his prerogative, I guess. Say what you will about Harrison Ford, but whatever role he’s in or however good or back the flick is that he’s in, he is very much present. He very much fills a role with his presence.

Not so much Ryan Gosling, who has raised impassivity to an art form. It might sound like I’m criticising him for his performance here, but I’m really not, because I don’t doubt that he probably did exactly what the director wanted for this role. You needed a blue-eyed robot for a role; you got the most blue-eyed robot of them all.

Rating:

The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi

Love the posters. Don't really know what film they're from

dir: Rian Johnson

2017

So, yeah, I didn’t care for it.

Not my cup of tea.

Maybe I’m just burned out on the whole Star Wars saga. It’s possible. I’ve consumed more of it on a daily basis than any doctor outside of George Lucas’s doctor would ever recommend without receiving corrupt money directly from Disney.

But something, or rather many somethings, just didn’t feel right about this movie.

I don’t get where it’s coming from. I don’t really get why the characters do most of the dumb things they do, and where the actions aren’t dumb and maybe seem kinda cool it doesn’t feel like it belongs in a Star Wars flick, or this flick specifically.

It seems more like it belongs in a Rian Johnson flick. Sure, I know he’s the director, and had he not been able to superimpose his stamp over such an entrenched property like Star Wars, it would have just seemed like generic work-for-hire stuff that anyone could have produced (anyone other than Lucas). But there’s a sometimes distracting cleverness to Rian Johnson’s stuff, as seen in his flicks like Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper and in several Breaking Bad episodes that he had a hand in.

The best example of what I’m talking about – distracting smartarsedness – is not even from Last Jedi. It’s from Brick. Bear with me, I swear it (might) make sense in the long run.

Rating:

Alien Covenant

Alien Covenant

Damn, that does not look like a fun Saturday night out

dir: Ridley Scott

2017

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. What is Ridley Scott on?

What’s his major malfunction? Why is this the story he needs to tell? He could be doing anything instead of this. Literally anything else. He could be making The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel or an adaptation of Adaptation or a new version of Birth of a Nation, but instead he makes this?

Continuing the pointlessness that started with Prometheus, which I initially thought was pretty shit but now looks better compared to this flick (not by much), Ridley Scott continues in his strange crusade to fill out the gaps no-one knew existed or even cared about regarding the origins of the terrifying creatures usually referred to as xenomorphs, made popular by the creepy HR Giger design.

It started with Alien. Reached its apotheosis with Aliens. Wasted our time with Alien 3. Confused the universe with Alien: Resurrection. Delighted no-one with Alien Vs Predator. Angered everyone who watched Alien vs Predator: Requiem.

Then we got some horribly pointless backstory with Prometheus, that showed some bald species of albinos seeding a planet that was probably Earth with, I dunno, their DNA or something, for the purposes of… something. Humans and an android stumble across something ages later, and it’s meant to mean that an alien species they refer to as the Engineers probably had something to do with life starting on Earth, on other planets, and they probably created the xenomorphs (vicious reptilian acid-blooded chomping legends) too.

Well, whatever it was that happened in that previous flick, and whatever the reason was that Scott demanded that story be told, here he is elaborating upon it, like a drunk sitting next to you on a plane telling you some well-polished anecdote from their past that they’ve forgotten why they started telling you, and you never started caring and just keep hoping that the plane will crash so that you don’t have to listen to it any longer.

Rating:

Okja

Okja

Being tasty appears to be very bad for your health.
Smoking's cool, though.

dir: Bong Joon-ho

2017

Sublime. Silly. Surreal.

That’s my all encompassing take on Korean cinema in general and the films of Bong Joon-ho in particular. Like all generalisations, it ignores a lot of nuances and detail to say something so simplistic and reductive, but, hey, at least I just made a generalisation about generalisations.

I would not be exaggerating to say that Okja is the strange reason I started subscribing to Netflix. Having had the ‘flix for the last month or so, and this isn’t a thinly veiled ad for the service, I can honestly say, what the fuck was I waiting for? Not to blow too much smoke up their collective arses, but it is incredible how much stuff I’ve gotten to watch through subscribing to this service. How did I live before…?

And why was it Okja that broke the seal on my intransigence? I dunno, but for some reason I was enthralled by its existence, and I couldn’t think of any other way to watch it when I wanted to watch, which was the day of its release, soon after its premiere at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where it received… tepid to okay reviews. The main point of contention at the time, if I recall (it’s not like I was there, it’s just what I read), that many of the people at the screenings objected to something being promoted at Cannes that wasn’t really intended for cinemas, despite the much bigger budget that Bong had access to, which was probably bigger than all the other film budgets he’s ever had combined.

I don’t know how to feel about that. It’s seems a bit Luddite, a bit petty, and a bit wilfully ignorant of the changes in the media landscape to boo a film before it’s even screened with a nasally French accent to the booing, no less. I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed in this life that denying something is happening doesn’t actually make that thing not happen. If it did, I can assure you, a lot of stuff that happened this year never would have troubled us, because they would have been willed out of existence.

Rating:

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

Guardians 2

I wouldn't let them guard a sandwich let alone a whole galaxy

dir: James Gunn

2017

Meh. I’m left feeling pretty meh after watching that. That it was an experience of sorts is undeniable. What I can’t really grasp yet is what kind of experience it was.

It didn’t really feel like a movie, let alone a Marvel movie. In a lot of scenes I felt like I was watching people rehearsing scenes from a bunch of different plays, and really so much of it doesn’t really hang together. Maybe it was like one of those interactive rides at a theme park where it’s really not that interactive and it’s over awfully quickly, and at best you remember that you had an experience without remembering what the experience was.

Unless it happened at Dreamworld, in which case you’re lucky to still be alive after the ride. Damn that place is a Deathtrap on the Gold Coast™.

And while I’m the first to admit that I had, shall we say, ambiguous feelings about the flick up to this specific point, if I thought the flick was lame / unsatisfying before the “father and son bond over playing catch” scene, afterwards, when the cold sweat of embarrassment faded, my feelings about it were no longer ambiguous, I can tell you that much.

No. In fact, I thought for a while that this could be the lamest / dumbest thing I’d seen in a while, but then there were little bits and pieces that made me not loathe it as much.

Rating:

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell

They really did think they were going to get sweaty nerds in a lather with this flick

dir: Rupert Sanders

2017

Well. That was something.

Yes, this is the part where I talk about something other than the film I’m pretending to review. I have seen the Japanese animated movie at least a thousand times, and I had the soundtrack, or at least songs from it on various music-playing devices for ages and heard those crazy Japanese wailing banshee songs at least 10,000 times. The (original) movie is in my DNA. Hearing that they were going to make a new version of it, I thought, rightly “so what?”

My relationship with the original, whatever it might be, can’t really be changed or tainted or in any way damaged or even really improved by something that comes out twenty years later, can it? Is this like what happened with the Indiana Jones flicks, where the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls made me hate myself for liking the first three movies, and childhoods were destroyed etc etc?

Rating:

Arrival

Arrival

With hope and patience and open hearts, no matter the colour of blood they
might pump, perhaps we can figure this puzzle of our existence out.

dir: Denis Villeneuve

2016

There aren’t many science fiction films that leave me crying or thoughtful as I sit blubbing through the credits. The reason is this – most science fiction flicks aren’t really science fiction flicks. They’re action flicks with science fiction set dressing and costuming.

Arrival is definitely not an action flick masquerading as a science fiction flick. It is certainly about a first contact scenario with what we would call actual alien aliens, who appear on Earth without even the courtesy of an advance email or nothin’.

They just appear, and they don’t even seem to want anything. They don’t want our resources, or our women, or anything. They just sit there, in their ships, waiting.

This is enough to make the leaders of several countries think “We should be blowing the ever-living fuck out of them, because their very presence makes us uncomfortable”.

It’s frustrating to see, but when I look at the world we currently live in, it doesn’t seem that far fetched. When some ‘just listening to right-wing extremists on the internet’ Marines think, for no sensible reason “well, let’s just blow them up!”, it seems discordant, and arbitrary, but again, I look at Trump’s America, and I don’t think the naughty soldiers would have even been able to wait as long as they did.

Rating:

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