Category Archives: Science Fiction

Arrival

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There seems to have been something of a sci-fi Renaissance recently, with each year supplying a groundbreaking hallmark of the genre. 2013 was Gravity, a film with unrivalled effects, visually astounding and constantly breathtaking. 2014 was Interstellar, offering intense cinematic and emotional spectacle. And 2015 was The Martian, giving us an inspiring appraisal of the good of humanity. 2016, then, can only belong to Arrival, a film that serves as a cry for intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi, not needing to rely on bucketloads of CGI or showy futuristic lingo.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist with the weight of the world thrust upon her when twelve egg-shaped UFOs carrying aliens appear, dotted seemingly at random across the planet: she must translate their dialect in order to discover the purpose of their arrival before the threat of military retaliation is fulfilled. Assisting her is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who’s devoted to Banks as much as he is to his job. Her unorthodox approach to the task at hand is garnering results, but growing distrust and paranoia spread across the research camp and various governing bodies altogether threaten to derail the mission entirely.

The film functions as both a metaphor for the growing separation and antagonism between the world as a whole, and a philosophical insight towards many ideas that if I were to reveal them to you, would spoil the movie’s emotional impact. It is not necessarily, however, an alien flick. The aliens in Arrival serve as a vehicle for the film’s integral themes. That’s not to say that their presence isn’t worthwhile, but that venturing into this film in want of a gun-ho alien quasi-horror wouldn’t fulfill expectations.

Denis Villeneuve’s take is much more intellectual – but this is to be expected from a director with such a mature filmography. His influence on Arrival isn’t as tangible as usual – he instead allows the film’s superb script, written by Eric Heisserer, and based on Ted Chiang’s short story, The Story of Your Life, to prosper. It’s a wonderful script, made poignant and dramatic through the overbearing tension and uncertainty it creates, emphasised by the twisting narrative. Villeneuve’s role is to maintain these emotions, and he handles this incredibly effectively. Memories of Bank’s daughter, whom she lost to cancer, are intertwined in the story seamlessly, and he sustains the uncertainty behind both the unknown purpose of the aliens’ arrival, and their odd, potentially threatening behaviour.

Despite the less significant (though still just as important) role Villeneuve has to Arrival’s success, there’s still room for his directorial flourishes: he employs a visual trick, that was also used in one of his previous films, Enemy, to establish how entrenched Banks is in the alien language she’s trying to decipher. His record of creating visually interesting films doesn’t go amiss either; Roger Deakins may not be at the helm this time, but Bradford Young displays a keen eye for stunning visuals – a long take of clouds scrolling past the alien vessel during our first proper look at it is as beautiful as it is calculated. Slow pans of the ship’s surface during Banks’ introduction to its interior are particularly effective in conveying the alienness of the whole ordeal, and its power to overwhelm – which it indeed does, as we hear the diegetic sound of Banks’ heavy, stumbling breathing, amid Jóhann Jóhannsson’s droning, otherworldly score. The film as a whole manages to overwhelm, and astound, not necessarily with spectacle as in Gravity and Interstellar, but simply with a sharp, powerful script.

Amy Adams herself is remarkable as Banks, conveying her utter confusion and determination beautifully; although each other actor delivers serviceable performances, this is a film that belongs to her, her character saturated with complex philosophical ideas about humanity and its intent. The film often hinges on Banks’ reaction to revelations, and Adams certainly delivers.

Jeremy Renner’s character’s bum-note of a final line aside, Arrival is a cerebral, imaginative, emotionally satisfying sci-fi that bears potent metaphysical concepts and a tour-de-force performance from Amy Adams. It’s a brilliant, brilliant addition to an ever-evolving genre. I can’t wait for 2017’s sci-fi showpiece, whatever it is…

The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials

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And the award for most disappointing sequel of 2015 goes to Scorch Trials, the follow-up to 2014’s actually-quite-good Maze Runner. Helmed once again by Wes Ball, the film kicks off right where the last one left us – Thomas (played enthusiastically by Dylan O’Brien) and his group are ‘rescued’ and sent into a menacing facility where other young groups – each previously having their own maze – are waiting for them. Cue an expected escape from the building after Thomas unearths horrifying secrets about who their captors are, with the remainder of the film taking place in the sun-scorched open air, the gang encountering numerous obstacles that move the plot along, though not swiftly enough.

Right from the off, it’s made clear that the novel isn’t being adapted from, but rather being used as a source of inspiration. There are certain elements of James Dashner’s best-seller that remains untarnished, but most of the plot is replaced and restructured in order to either make the flick more palatable to a modern audience, or to avoid breaching the slim budgetary constraints. Though despite the film being limited by its budget, it comes across as a $20m flick rather than $60m, thanks to dodgy effects and the use of shaky-cam to obscure action.

Simply put, the new plot that this sequel has is just not good enough. The directing is admirable, the acting fine – though a league below its predecessor – and the camerawork impressive for a YA adaptation. The plot, however, is deeply convoluted, fatuous, and irritatingly generic. In my Maze Runner review, I praised the film for its refreshing refusal to bow down to YA tropes. Sadly, Scorch Trials doesn’t follow suit, integrating a tepid love plot, uninspired zombies and somehow finding room for a celebratory house-party – yes, in the middle of a dusty, zombie-ravaged world. Revelations concerning the film’s characters and the series’ overarching plot arise every now and then amid the contrived chaos, but you hardly care – you’re just lost trying to find out whether each plot point the film undergoes has relevance or even makes sense in context of the film. Here’s a hint: it doesn’t.

 

– Gus Edgar

Big Hero 6

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There’s been talk of a Disney renaissance; hot off the heels of Frozen’s commercial – and critical – success, the studio released Big Hero 6, a charming flick that was met with a similarly superb response. So much so, it went on to beat the likes of The Lego Movie and The Tale of Princess Kaguya to the Best Animated Feature Oscar. The accolade was clearly indicative of the golden period Disney now finds itself in – away from the depths of the 2000s; the award was sweet, a success story, a signifier of great things to come. The award was undeserved.

Big Hero 6 is undoubtedly a pleasant, likeable film. Baymax, the sidekick of main protagonist Hiro (Ryan Potter), is irresistibly adorable and wonderfully voiced by Scott Adsit. Together these two heroes attempt to stop a mysterious masked villain in control of a creation owned by Hiro himself – microbots -, a figure of formerly ambiguous motives. To conquer this villain, they team up with a group of scientists/thinly-veiled caricatures, each given an upgrade via Hiro’s genius that tailors to each character’s specific skill set. To give any more plot points away would risk delving into spoiler territory – it’s a shame then that you’ll see each plot development coming a mile away. Disney has certainly benefited from their control over the majority of Marvel, and Big Hero 6 is a way to flaunt that control; adapted from the Marvel comics of the same name, the series offers a huge array of creative sequences to choose from. And Big Hero 6 certainly excels in its world-building – the film takes place in the city of San Fransokyo, an imaginative hybrid city that looks beautiful and is much a character of the film as any of the other characters. If the movie shines in one department, then its most obviously the world created, and its sumptuous visuals.

The creativity of the city isn’t translated into plot however, where somehow the writers manage to turn an animation – a cinematic form that has endless possibilities – into a formulaic, albeit enjoyable romp that’s inseparable from a large proportion of live-action movies: A protagonist is introduced, a traumatic event occurs that spurs on the emergence of a hero from within the protagonist, a villain arises and the protagonist, with the help of some lazily-written sidekicks, battle this villain in a huge showdown of mass destruction. It’s disappointing, and frustrating, to see a plot mishandled and shaped into a generic Marvel formula when there’s potential for so much more. It’s not just live-action Marvel films that Big Hero 6 seems to be copying- the animations wears references of The Iron Giant on its sleeve, the similarities bravely shuffling on the edge of ripping-off as opposed to endearingly referencing.

The dialogue itself is a mixed bag – some jokes hit, others are miscalculations, a large portion of the characters are poorly written and used more as plot devices than for realism, and there are many, many expositional problems at the start of the film (“Our parents died in a fire when I was 3, remember?”). Where the script succeeds is in its truthful, adult moral message, and how the film conveys that message. It’s touching, heartfelt, and admirably separates itself from feel-good animations that may end up serving as lies given to younger viewers. This is fast becoming a trend in 2015 – Inside Out deals with a similarly mature, acceptance-themed message too, and is made all the better for it. The ending of Big Hero 6 hits hard (although it’s then hindered by a following scene), despite the likelihood that you may see it coming, and proves to be a high of a film that’s otherwise a little flat.

Big Hero 6 is one of the most beautiful films animated, yet its visuals and resoundingly satisfying message can’t quite make up for poor plot-characterisation, poor plot writing and simply a poor plot. How this won the Oscar over The Lego Movie is anyone’s guess.

– Gus Edgar

The Maze Runner

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YA (Young Adult) flicks are going through a rather turgid time currently; Divergent‘s mediocre reviews and the similar reaction to The Giver is earning the profitable genre a bad reputation. And, presently, that’s what the genre represents: an easy way to churn out bog-standard productions and earn dosh following the startling success of 2012’s The Hunger Games. The Maze Runner is just another run-of-the-mill adaptation from a mildly popular YA novel in order to generate plenty of cash, right? Er, no actually. I’d go as far as to say that The Maze Runner is the best YA film in recent years, shadowing the might of even The Hunger Games.

The quality of The Maze Runner lies within the fact that it chooses not to conform to the stereotypes of the YA genre. It’s incredibly refreshing to watch a YA flick without worrying about distracting love triangles, numerous extravagant settings and an easygoing tone that doesn’t quite fit with the material and messages it attempts to send. No, The Maze Runner sets itself apart from its competition – and it would no doubt be receiving much better review if it were not for the negative connotations that its genre has garnered over time.

The plot is deceivingly simple at first – a teenager (Dylan O’Brien) find himself dazedly placed in a maze where other teenagers like him reside, in the same situation. They are trapped in a box – known as The Glade, where an impressive and colossal maze surrounds them, preventing their escape unless they find a seemingly non-existent exit. Here, disputes occur and tension rises, toppling over as the only girl is introduced into the fray (Kaya Scodelairo). As the walls to the maze then refuse to close, the terrible inhabitants of the maze known as Grievers come out to play…

Basically, think a modern version of Lord of the Flies.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the tone and mood it creates; there is an overbearing sense of urgency, which comes across fantastically to the audience. While many YA flicks don’t encapsulate the looming, dread-foreshadowing tone that may be more suited to their source material (instead resorting to cheap jokes or melodramatic romance), The Maze Runner captures this perfectly. Scenes such as the sprint to escape the closing walls of the maze, and the introduction to the hideous Grievers, are incredibly tense and increasingly stressful (and enjoyable) to watch. The Maze Runner takes itself very seriously, and while that approach has been misused in recent history (Man of Steel comes to mind immediately), it’s masterfully used here to squeeze the largest amount of intensity out of the film as it can muster. Yet while the film is gripping, it’s also contemplative and intriguing, where many loose strands that the plot begins with urges the audience to remain focused.

Another impressive aspect of The Maze Runner is the acting of the main characters. Dylan O’Brien plays both the confused and the increasingly-confident hero extremely well, where his understated performance contains exactly the right amount of both bravado and pretense at knowing how to deal with the situation he’s in. Will Poulter, hot off last year’s BAFTA Rising Star Award, plays fellow trapped teenager Gally with a bullish confidence, his antagonistic intentions contradicted by his good intentions. While he may serve as the antithesis to O’Brien’s protagonist, his performance is both sympathetic and easy to relate to. Thomas Brodie-Sangster (He’s 24! 24!) plays second-in-command Newt with subtle kindness, acted out well enough but mainly used for expositional purposes. Similarly impressive is relative newcome Ki Long-Hee, who plays the main action figure of the film, Minho. His performance carries an air of competence and physicality, a facade that protects his feelings of helplessness towards the situation he finds himself in.

Less impressive is the supporting cast, where the line deliverance is robotic and devoid of any empathy. It’s a compliment to the main cast’s acting (or inversely, an insult to the supporting cast’s) that their performance is so prominent in how lifeless they are. And while the plot is simple, it unravels rather quickly into many loose strands, where only a small amount are tied up (of course, there is 2015’s sequel to look forward to). Finally, despite the stunning CGI, where the maze in particular looks epic both aesthetically and in scale, there are a few short moments where the effects are clear and obvious, though that shouldn’t detract from the film too much.

One of the film’s main criticisms stems from its ending, and how anti-climatic and nonsensical it seems. Of course, the fact that the film is merely the first of a trilogy is neglected, where critics are too hasty in their distaste of the amount of questions the film leaves open by the end of its running time. In terms of its underwhelming nature, it’s representative of its refusal to abide to the YA stereotypes, instead choosing to end on a sombre, intriguing note that will give the audience goosebumps. The Maze Runner is a refreshingly intense, gripping and unique movie experience that will have the audience salivating for more.

– Gus Edgar

Guardians of the Galaxy

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The reaction to Marvel’s next superhero flick has been more positive than even the optimistic main actor, Chris Pratt could have hoped for. Insanely risky, even for Marvel’s standards, Guardians of the Galaxy features a talking raccoon, a green Saldana and a talking tree. To top it all off, it’s directed by James Gunn, notorious writer of both Movie 43 and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Despite all the potential for disaster (there’s plenty), the film has been hailed as an entertaining, feel-good Marvel caper that’s totally original. So then, why’s it more of the same?

There’s a prominent formula that Marvel are seemingly sticking to. An introduction of the main characters as they assemble, a good look at the central antagonist and his motives, and some partially-relevant high-action antics just before a final showdown where everything explodes and the heroes eventually prevail. The same applies to GotG, and even then it can’t clarify the villain’s motives (more on that later). It’s wrong to say that GotG is an original Marvel flick; it’s disappointingly unoriginal, glittered up with colourful aliens and a fantastic 1970s soundtrack.

The film takes place, as the title suggest, around a myriad of areas contained within the galaxy. Opening with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a child stating farewell to his mother, he is quickly whisked away into space and the rest is history. The opening credits feature his attempt to steal an orb with an unknown power set to Redbone’s Come and get Your Love (fantastic), setting the scene for what I expected to be an awesome watch. After his travails, he’s swiftly captured and reluctantly teams up with the aforementioned set of characters, Rocket the Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista). Of course, they’re rough with each other at first, but then grow to like their teammates and end up as an (admittedly odd) group of buddies.

Which leads to one of my major qualms of Guardians of the Galaxy – it’s incredibly clichéd and only has a facade of quirky characters to shield criticism from most reviewers. A good portion of the characters aren’t fleshed out, generic to the point where they become caricatures. The main antagonist – Ronan (Lee Pace) has incredibly unclear motives where it’s easy to assume that he seeks world domination simply because he’s assigned as the bad guy. His villainy is exaggerated tenfold, almost to the point where it’s ridiculous. The main protagonist, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill has nothing interesting going for him. He’s arrogant and irritating, and sure, he develops to take responsibility and becomes a better person, but I still wasn’t invested in his character. Gamora, meant to be a strong female character, is identified fairly early on as Quill’s love interest and is set aside until the end for the predictable big kiss. The only other notable female character – Nebula (Karen Gillan) has barely five minutes of screentime (though I’m sure she’ll return for the second installment). Michael Rooker’s Yondu is incredibly irritating and stalls the film whenever he’s on screen. Similarly annoying is Rocket – intended to be portrayed as the badass of the group, this intention is laid on so thick that it’s hard to resonate with him. Instead, he comes across as obnoxious and only obnoxious.

Yet it’s not just the generic characters that Guardians of the Galaxy suffers from. Most of the film’s jokes fall flat – including nearly everything that Rocket says and a running ‘I am Groot’ joke that gets increasingly more boring every time it’s uttered. Sure, wit is present, and Drax’s moments where he takes everything literally is a great example of this. So why can’t there be more moments of this comedic ingenuity?

I want to clarify – I don’t dislike GotG as much as I purport. Despite my problems with the film, it has a decent entertainment value with some admirable sequences (the prison-escape scene comes to mind) and one of the best soundtracks of any film released in 2014. It may not be as good a film as you’d expect after all the praise dished out towards it, but Guardians of the Galaxy may still be worth watching if you’re looking for an enjoyable film with little substance but plenty of action.

– Gus Edgar

Man of Steel

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While the trailer for the new Man of Steel roared with entertainment and excitement, the film whimpered with waning enthusiasm. In truth, the film could’ve been a lot worse. Previous editions had failed to capture the power and riveting nature of Superman. This film gradually managed to achieve that, but it wasn’t without its faults.

The film indulged in destruction. Action scenes were never without a building or two crashing to the ground, windows being ripped off or stone pillars breaking in half. Sure, action is good. Right? Sadly, too much action leads to a boring, poorly directed film (see: Total Recall (remake)). Whilst it certainly wasn’t as bad as Total Recall’s unsightly remake, parts were unfortunately reminiscent.

A sad side effect of the relentless action was that the few sentimental scenes didn’t come into fruition. Instead, the film became boring and drab, its serious nature wearing off on the viewer. Superhero flicks, such as Iron Man 3, kept humour to keep the audience entertained; Zack Snyder’s choice to exclude it was poor, and one of the key factors as to why this film will annoy rather than impress.

That’s not to say that the film was entirely bad; each actor played their part sufficiently, Cavill being one of the better Supermen. And if you get past the Spy Kids-esque speed of the action scenes, the action is great. Unfortunately, a combination of action upon action, cliches being thrown at you and a drab overall feel to it makes this film is very much a forgettable one.

– Gus Edgar