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Stowaway

Stowaway

One of us ain't leaving this room, and it won't be me!

dir: Joe Penna

2021

Stowaway is not really the kind of thing you expect to watch on the telly, at the movies or on a streaming service. There are no explosions, people speak calmly to each other. No-one gets shot or stabbed with a lightsaber. No aliens chomp off anyone’s faces.

It’s science-fiction, I guess, but it tries to be depicting space travel, or a mission to Mars, with technology we’re used to seeing from “real” NASA footage, or the International Space Station. Believable science of today, rather than magic science of the future.

I’m no rocket scientist, so I have no idea how accurate any of it is. Three people, three astronauts, set out on their mission, 2 years round trip to Mars, with the eventual goal of having a permanent manned base on Mars.

The Commander (Toni Collette) is Australian, for no other reason other than that they thought it would be okay. A biologist (Daniel Dae Kim) who’s going to be experimenting with algae, and a doctor (Anna Kendrick). They all get along fairly well. They’re going to be together for two years, so you would want them to be chill with each other.

Instead of always talking to NASA or to Houston, with their problems, they talk to Hyperion. In one of the grand gestures of complying with the current milieu, it’s possible it’s a corporation, like SpaceX and Virgin Blue and whatever Jeff Bezo’s space company is called.

You know, those companies billionaires start in order to thrust their proprietary phallus-like rockets into the stratosphere, just to find somewhere new to fuck up.

These astronauts aren’t like that. They’re calm scientists, or, in one case, a doctor, and they’re all about doing what needs to be done and following procedures and listening to every order given by Hyperion back home and following it.

I don’t think it’s meant to indicate compliance or obedience on their part: not too dissimilar to the relationship between the astronauts in space in Apollo 13, and the NASA nerds back on Earth at Houston in mission control, there are too many variables for three people to cover, no matter how adept.

That’s what you need the legions of nerds to figure out for you.

Thing is, though, this isn’t a situation where the ingenuity of scientists or the collective action of oodles of people will change the result. This isn’t a story about the triumph of American courage or American values or Tom Fucking Hanks.

This is a story where Science can’t magic up a solution to an impossible problem, and when all avenues are exhausted, someone might have to be sacrificed for The Greater Good (the greater good).

Sorry, couldn’t resist a reference to Hot Fuzz, though I did resist typing “crusty jugglers”.

Rating:

The Tomorrow War

The Tomorrow War

This is such a great poster. It screams "I am top billed: fuck all these
other losers and look directly at my crotch!"

dir: Chris McKay

2021

Flicks can be wholly derivative and still work. The Tomorrow War is constructed entirely from bits of dozens of older movies, and still works. I have zero problems with that. I feel so defeated by life right now that, honestly, if a film can have flashing lights in it and the dialogue mostly matches the moving lips of the actors, I’m pretty much convinced it’s masterpiece theatre.

I don’t particularly love seeing Chris Pratt as a serious dad type character wanting to desperately sacrifice himself in order to save the world, because he’s far better suited to goofy nutty characters, but he is getting old, and he is married to a child of Schwarzenegger, so maybe he hopes he’s the next Arnie? This is certainly not a comical romp, so there’s that against it, first up.

There’s an alien enemy that threatens to kill everyone on the planet, but it’s a threat that won’t happen for 30 years or so. Every second science fiction flick has ruthless aliens wanting to kill us just for existing. Just yesterday I saw a different flick where aliens want to kill all people because we’re such noisy buggers. And these creatures are somehow even nastier, and they can see AND hear, so we’re doubly fucked.

They are pretty horrible looking, and for the longest time I didn’t know what characters were talking about when they were talking about this alien enemy: they call them “white spikes”, but what I thought I was hearing was “The White Stripes”.

And I thought “hey, that’s a bit unkind. Maybe not all of their albums were as great as their good ones, but they never hurt anyone (except each other)”.

So now you know, I’ve spoiled it horribly: at some time in the future a billions clones of Meg and Jack White appear on the planet savagely killing humanity with the riffs from The Hardest Button to Button.

The greatest implausibility occurs right at the start of the movie. A house full of people, somewhere in the States, is having some kind of party, I think Christmas maybe. At this party, this party full of Americans, I mean American Americans, they have a game of soccer on the big screen television.

During the soccer match, a portal opens, and armed people from the future walk through.

The implausibility I’m talking about isn’t people coming through a portal from the future. The fundamental implausibility is the concept that a house full of Americans would be watching a soccer game, even if it’s the World Cup, even in fictional entertainment.

Rating:

Chaos Walking

Chaos Walking

She's got half a head, and he's got half a head! Together, they
almost make up one interesting character

dir: Doug Liman

2021

Well, that was a waste of time, money and three books.

Chaos Walking is the name of the YA trilogy. I know this because I read the books with my daughter when she was at that pre-tween stage where childish stories were too childish for her and YA stuff was too grown up. We were big fans of Patrick Ness, whose other book A Monster Calls has also been adapted into a movie, far more successfully than this.

The first book of the Chaos Walking trilogy is called The Knife of Never Letting Go. The Knife of Never Letting Go is a far cooler title than Chaos Walking. The geniuses who squandered hundreds of millions on this, you get the feeling way pre-pandemic, had the highest of high hopes that this could become another massive YA franchise, along the lines of Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner.

Geez, talk about aiming low. In a lot of ways, because the books aren’t set on Earth, it’s the hardest sell of all of them, not only because it’s fairly serious science fiction, but because a lot of other elements involving toxic masculinity, genocidal misogyny, colonialism and religious fundamentalism.

You can really see how they started out, and how they murdered the story by deciding to cut their losses and run. It reminds me of when Peter Jackson went to the despicable Weinstein brothers, and said “give me money to make the Lord of the Rings trilogy”, and they said “Sure, but it has to be one movie.” Well, those movies turned out okay, and half the Weinsteins are in jail forever, and the other half shouldn’t be allowed to ever produce a movie again, so I think the message is: Stop enabling sadistic monsters, and don’t turn trilogies into single movies.

It probably was never going to work, though for much of this movie, I watched it thinking, hm, they haven’t fucked it up too much yet. But then it also seemed deeply wrong to have Tom Holland playing the lead character, since Todd Hewitt is meant to be quite young, like 13 I think at the beginning of the saga.

I guess Holland playing a teenager in Spider-Man movies was acceptable way back then, but he’s 24 now, and doesn’t really look 13.

Rating:

The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night

I think her awesome glasses are the third main character

dir: Andrew Patterson

2020

The Vast of Night is such a tiny, modest and strange little film, that you almost want to hold it in your hands like a hatchling that’s fallen out of its nest to protect it, and it’s like not much else that I’ve ever seen, at least not lately.

It’s set in the late 50s, and everyone’s talking in that gee golly gosh way that apparently they spoke after the war, and dressing like they’re all going to a sock hop or the drug store for a malt shake. But the movie is also bookended with strange television credits as if this is a lost episode of some Twilight Zone-like early television program called Paradox Theatre. Everyone smokes, including teenagers, but I guess that was just the style at the time. The town in which all of this happens is so tiny that the local high school basketball game consumes virtually the whole town. Everyone bar a couple of stragglers are at the pokey school stadium in anticipation of the game.

It’s not even a final or anything. It’s just a game, and these hicks have literally nothing better to do. There were a lot, and I mean a lot of Salvation Army and vintage stores raided to get the ugly ancient clothing necessary to clothe all these extras. None of it looks like fancy hipster costuming, not by a long shot. It’s all just quietly ugly, era appropriate clothing.

And that’s where the movie production’s entire budget possibly went. That and buying one drone with a camera, and probably a Go-Pro, and that’s about it. Just because this is an Amazon Original doesn’t mean Jeff Bezos, he of the costliest divorce settlement in human history, ponied up the cash for this flick. They made it on the scent remaining from the fumes exuded from an oily rag that was set on fire which wafted across to a third rag. But they do an incredible, flat out incredible job pulling something so small and strangely perfect, in its own way, which manages to be familiar but not formulaic in any way.

After all, this flick has a continuous at least ten minute scene where one of the protagonists (Sierra McCormick) does nothing but connect calls at one of those old timey switchboards, and yet the scene remains utterly riveting.

Rating:

Terminator: Dark Fate

Terminator: Dark Fate

The future is female, which is fine by me

dir: Tim Miller

2019

And thus completes my recent trip down Nostalgia Lane. Of the two recent reiterations of venerable franchises, being the very dumb Predator movies and the slightly less dumb Terminator movies, the thing they have in common is Arnie. The Predator franchise felt no need to involve Arnie in any of its movies past the first one, and they were right, because he had better things to do, and they were only going to be shit (he must have known).

The Terminator flicks have always been indebted to him, because he is the Terminator of the title, after all, and only one of the flicks thus far didn’t have him in it (though it had a CGI version of him, because he was busy being Governor of California, after all). In a strange new trend, this is not a reboot or a continuation from the last flick Terminator: Genisys, but instead argues that everything after Terminator 2: Judgement Day never happened, so this is a direct sequel to T2.

It’s…a strange thing to do, isn’t it? It’s not unheard of, because different people work on stuff over years, and either new people want to go in other directions without being handcuffed, or the original people come back in, think everything they weren’t involved with is shit, so they revert the story back to where they’re comfortable with.

I can’t help but think that real world issues impacted on many choices in these movies over the years. I’m not going to use the words “artistic choices”, because let’s not pretend franchises are art. They’re product, and we know it. No, I mean stuff like Sarah Connor being written out after T2 mostly because James Cameron dumped her for someone he met making Titanic. And while the John Connor character kept popping up in T3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation and Genysis, they were never going to bring back Edward Furlong, considering his addiction and legal troubles over the last 20+ years.

Rating:

The Rise of Skywalker

The Rise of Skywalker

Let's take a few years off before making the exact same movie again,
Okay?

dir: J.J. Abrams

2019

Skywalkers rise and Skywalkers fall. All we know for sure is that, like the waves on any ocean, they’ll keep rising and falling as long as there’s money in it. And since this still made over a billion dollars for Disney, it’s pretty clear they’ll never stop the Skywalkers.

Where something will always happen very similar to before, doo doo doo de doo.

Even with all the rancour and acrimony out there in the fandom, still angry about female characters getting too much agency, screen-time and dialogue in these latest three films, they still went to the cinemas late last year and early this year in order to make this succeed, gazing angrily through their tears of hatewatching.

The Rise of Skywalker pretty much could have started off where Return of the Jedi ended, because it kinda makes it seem like the other films really weren’t that necessary. Right off the bat, they bring Palpatine back (Ian McDiarmid), who admits he’s been pulling the strings of the First Order after all these years, and that Snoke was a puppet (does anyone fondly remember and miss Snoke?) He tells the moody Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) that he’ll get all the candy he ever wanted as long as he kills Rey (Daisy Ridley).

Let’s not skip over the insanity of where Palpatine is: I could be all sorts of wrong about this because maybe the imagery was a bit confusing, but after flying through a storm cloud that’s on fire, Kylo Ren walks in this dark place that has like this evil Sith pyramid or something suspended above the ground by the power of, evil, I guess, and then there’s the even creepier than before Emperor, who promises him a bunch of stuff just like the evillest Santa imaginable.

Rating:

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:

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