Solaris

91/100

Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Solaris, a novel by the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, betrays the director’s general disinterest in conventional SF tropes. His film does honour the mind-blowing outlines of Lem’s concept, which deals with a manned mission to investigate a planet-sized extra-terrestrial consciousness. But where Lem speculated about the practical boundaries of human intellect in the shadow of the universe, Tarkovsky opts to explore human feelings of loss and insecurity in the face of mortality. For Lem, the failed Solaris mission is emblematic of the difficulties we humans would have comprehending and communicating with a radically different form of life. For Tarkovsky, the mission re-opens old psychic wounds, flooding us with regret that we weren’t better to the people we loved. “Shame [is] the feeling that will save mankind,” murmurs protagonist Kris Kelvin near the end of the film. In Tarkovsky’s Solaris, we have made contact with the aliens, and they want you to call your mom.

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Body Snatchers

70/100

Don Siegel filmed novelist Jack Finney’s rural science fiction yarn The Body Snatchers in 1956, crafting a creepy, anti-conformist alien-invasion parable – christened Invasion of the Body Snatchers for sensation’s sake – that became a genre classic. Philip Kaufman updated it in 1978, tweaking northern California sensibilities and adding elaborate special effects work and unforgettable sound design.

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Inception

Marion Cotillard and Leonardo DiCaprio in <em>Inception</em>

Note: If you’re allergic to SPOILERS, you probably don’t want to read this review before seeing the film. If you’d like to try anyway, or if you’re willing to give it a skim, I’ve tried to keep them to the latter half of the review, and I’ve marked the spot where the spoilers begin in earnest.

Christopher Nolan’s films tend to be ruminations on loss and regret — tender morsels of bleeding humanity wrapped in an increasingly glossy, protective coating of hard-edged technical sophistication. When you get past the estimable Hollywood sparkle, you find simple dramas tightly wound around the center of each film. Leonard Shelby loses his memory and gains the capacity for infinite self-delusion. Bruce Wayne loses his parents and sacrifices his own life for the public good. Robert Angier nurtures a revenge scheme that blossoms into an endlessly cloned act of self-destruction. To be a Nolan protagonist is to perch on a razor’s edge between reason and impulse, between sanity and mania, between reality and dark dreams of aggrandizement and/or immolation of the self. The films are things of beauty, precisely constructed and expertly executed. But you wouldn’t want to live there.

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Splice

76/100

What happens when your child rebels against you? That’s the subject at the emotional core of Splice, an unsettling and skillfully mounted psychodrama that has some of the flavor of 1970s body-horror (mainly Alien and early David Cronenberg) mixed up with a contemporary retelling of the Frankenstein story. The complexity of the question is notched up by the film’s science fiction premise, which has the husband-and-wife team of Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) working in secret to create a new life form that jumbles human DNA in what seems to be a nearly random combination with that of other species.

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Moon

Paying homage to the science-fiction films of his youth, where space-base bulkheads and otherworldly landscapes were more likely to be styrofoam than CG, story writer and director Duncan Jones’s debut feature, Moon, is a surprisingly effective–even moving–story of isolation and alienation on the lunar surface. It’s one of those science-fiction movies made on a spartan budget that gives it a special kind of low-key tension. The closest forebear I can think of offhand is Shane Carruth’s time-travel drama Primer, which had a bargain-basement aesthetic that only amplified the general air of desperation and dehumanization. Moon, with its carefully-designed sets and frugally-executed visual-effects work, is a much more expensive proposition than Primer, but still dirt-cheap by multiplex standards. Moon may not be the best science-fiction film of 2009, yet it feels the most personal, its loving, handmade quality smoothing rough patches in the storytelling and landing the film’s essential emotional blow.

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Hardware

Hardware
They say all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. But if you’ve got a girl and a killer robot, then you’re really onto something. One of the joys of low-budget horror movies is that the stakes are low enough that filmmakers can get away with a lot of crazy shit, and there’s crazy shit aplenty in Hardware, the post-apocalyptic SF/horror feature debut of South African director Richard Stanley. The film takes its visual and thematic cues from Alien and Blade Runner, with a few ideas from The Terminator and Demon Seed thrown into the mix. But when you boil it down, Hardware is just a gritty, crudely fashioned cyberpunk monster movie. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, boy do you need to see this.

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John Carpenter’s Starman

Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges in <i>Starman</i>
My review of Starman on Blu-ray Disc is online at FilmFreakCentral.net:

Strange as it may sound, back in the early 1980s this gentle yet seriously weird fantasy about a woman who drives a socially-challenged clone of her dead husband across the U.S. (so he can rendezvous with his spaceship) was actually considered a safe commercial bet for the embattled director John Carpenter. Starman … wasn’t merely an opportunity for Carpenter to helm a fundamentally good-natured, optimistic science-fiction film–it was possibly a chance to rehabilitate his career.

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse: Season One

Eliza Dushku in <em>Dollhouse</em>
So you think you might be interested in Dollhouse, the Joss Whedon-created series about human drones programmed with disposable serial personalities by a shady underground organization dedicated to fulfilling the most precious needs and desires of the very rich. The first thing you need to know is that it’s gonna take a while.

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