Tag Archives: “science fiction”

Midnight Special

Midnight Special is readily understood as a film about being a parent who loves a child so much — and of course there are plenty of movies about people who love their children, so a common objection is that this one is too humorless and withholds action and who needs that? But there’s something about the way this film depicts the way adults interact with the child in question — not so much a cute kid like you’d see in a Steven Spielberg movie, but a weird kid like you’d read about in a Stephen King novel — that’s as heartening as it is serious and sad. It works as a metaphor for raising an autistic child, or a physically ill child, or a prodigy, or some other young handful. The climactic visualization of the remove between young Alton and his surroundings isn’t tremendously satisfying as an action set piece, but it’s a solid science-fiction metaphor, and it makes better emotional sense here than the same gimmick did in Tomorrowland. But in its presentation of confidence and selflessness as imperatives for parents and parental surrogates, Midnight Special plays like a stoic, even-keeled answer film to the crisis of faith posed by The Babadook. Continue reading

The Zero Theorem

The list of things Terry Gilliam doesn’t like includes iPhones, earphones, computers in general, advertising, modern pop music, and the yawning vacuum at the end of the universe. Gilliam drafts Christof Waltz as his beaten-down-by-bureaucracy surrogate this time around, casting him as a kind of genius math whiz who’s put to work as a kind of human calculator, performing numeric operations to help prove the titular postulation about the fate of the universe and the meaninglessness to which it suggests human existence amounts.

It’s schematic and mostly redundant in Gilliam’s body of work, but still there’s stuff to like here, including the performances (David Thewlis does a mean Michael Palin, as it turns out) and some of the production design. I liked the parody of targeted advertising, in which annoying talking billboards follow right on your heels as you walk down the sidewalks of the future. I was pretty impressed, even, by Gilliam’s crude-by-CG-standards visualization of mathematical problem-solving as a huge three-dimensional puzzle, especially the deflating moments when huge masses of perfectly stacked building blocks come tumbling down, another big idea collapsed into rubble. (Gilliam knows a thing or two about that kind of heartbreak.)

There are some striking moments where the grim conditions of Waltz’s life are compared to the benevolent, it’s-always-the-golden-hour fantasies that a virtual-reality suit bestows, but mostly it feels like Gilliam is directing a screenplay written by a tyro who was really, really impressed by Brazil — homage becomes cannibalization, and as Big Statements go The Zero Theorem doesn’t add anything to what Gilliam’s delivered before. Part of the problem is surely budgetary, lack of funds limiting the film’s visual scope and finesse. On the other hand, there’s that script. Emotionally stunted hooker with a heart of gold falls in love with disturbed hermit 25 years her elder? Ye gods, Gilliam, you can do better than this.

Under the Skin

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Director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is, most of all, a study in imagery. Its science-fiction status is hinted at by visual design, as in the film’s opening moments, when concentric circles appear out of the darkness on screen, then are seen to separate, inhabiting three-dimensional space, from left to right, with a bright light blazing on one side. The figure suggests a diagram of a solar system, all its planets in perfect alignment, or (more on point) the glass elements of a lens.

Out of the previous silence, we start to hear fragments of a woman’s voice on the soundtrack, and the elements on screen, clean and fresh as something out of the Apple factory, are resolved as the workings of an eye, iris and pupil appearing on screen in startling close-up. The film then cuts to images of nature, water rushing by, and a jagged road slicing across the screen like Dali’s razor blade slashing an eyeball.

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Saturn 3

There are bad movies and there are tantalizingly bad movies, and Saturn 3 is the latter–the type of bad movie that tickles the imagination and demands an explanation. On first blush, there’s nothing unusual about it. Released in 1980, it was clearly trading on the post-Star Wars mania for sci-fi movies. The casting of Farrah Fawcett, at the time a big star, was a reasonable commercial gambit. And the release of Alien a year earlier certainly explained the idea of a monster movie set in space. If you look at the credits, you simply get a sense of older Hollywood types–director Stanley Donen, actor Kirk Douglas–striving to keep up with the prevailing trends.

But then you watch the movie, and you wonder: what the hell happened here?

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

Chamber music for fists, feet, and fluorescent lights. It’s as if Gaspar Noe were a genre director on contract with Menahem Golan in the late 1980s. The story owes royalty payments to the estate of Philip K. Dick, but it’s enhanced by enthralling NC-17 action beats, a seamy and fully staffed R-rated titty bar, and an overall sense of existential despair thick enough to choke on. Watching it feels a little like smelling a T-shirt soaked in blood, sweat, and testosterone. Recommended.

Brainstorm

Brainstorm will always have a reputation–among those who are familiar with it at all–as a film maudit. Casual film buffs know it as the sci-fi picture Natalie Wood was shooting when she drowned at the age of 43, under circumstances that remain clouded by mystery. Some of them know that it was one of only two narrative features (Silent Running being the other) directed by special-effects genius Douglas Trumbull, whose work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner is the stuff of legend. Real movie nerds remember that Brainstorm was intended by its director to be one of those landmarks that forever changes the future of film–like The Jazz Singer debuting sync sound, Becky Sharp employing three-strip Technicolor, or The Robe introducing CinemaScope. As a movie partly about the afterlife, it is a weird kind of eulogy to Natalie Wood, yes, but it also memorializes Trumbull’s enduring dream of a new breed of cinema that would make moving images more likelife, and more mind-expanding, than any photographic process that had come before.

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Prometheus

For the purposes of my devotion to Alien as perhaps the greatest horror film ever made, I pretend the sequels never existed — especially James Cameron’s take, a sop to the gun lobby that brought Ripley’s character in line with pop-culture convention by forcing her into surrogate maternity, as if her main character flaw was the absence of a child sucking at her tit. David Fincher’s Alien3 wasn’t exactly a great movie, but it was at least a welcome return to tough, uncompromising form. It pleased me that the story was set up with a middle finger raised in Cameron’s direction, so that you could essentially pretend that Alien3 picked up where the first movie left off.

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