Tag Archives: science fiction

My Thoughts on: Alien (1979)

As long as I live I will never forget the first time I saw Alien. I was in college, it was my sophomore year and I was feeling really bored and in the mood for something new. There was an Alien marathon on TV and I decided to just sit down and try them (since I’d never seen them before). And for the record, I did know about the chestburster scene going in, I just didn’t know where in the film it would be.

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Alien, if you’ve never seen it before, is a dark, gritty piece of science fiction horror that is about as far from the sanitized utopia of Star Trek as you can get. The story follows the crew of the Nostromo, a commercial space tug hauling a massive shipment back to Earth. The ship is clean (for the most part) and functional, but it’s not what you’d call elegant. There are no sleek lines or holographic displays here; this is a ship that feels real. The crew is abruptly pulled from stasis when the ship’s computer “Mother” detects a transmission coming from LV-426, a barren moon. There they stumble across the wreckage of an alien spacecraft which is carrying a strange cargo of eggs…and the situation deteriorates from there.

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The story is almost literally a case of “curiosity killed the crew.” Once Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by the alien face hugger, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the only sensible one who wants to follow protocol and keep Kane in quarantine until they can determine if it’s dangerous. Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer, overrules Ripley and allows Kane to come on board, setting the events for the rest of the film into motion. The facehugger implants an egg, which quickly develops into the iconic alien (in gruesome fashion) and one by one the crew is picked off. If they hadn’t been so hellbent on investigating the alien ship in the first place, no one would have died (probably). Though given how ruthless the Company (later retconned to the Weyland-Yutani Corporation) is implied to be, if the crew had returned with nothing they probably would have met with some kind of “accident” back on Earth.

Part of what makes the first Alien film so terrifying is how little you really see of the alien itself. This was done by design as director Ridley Scott wanted audiences to see the alien as a terrifying figure and not just “some guy in a rubber suit” (which is exactly what the alien was, but watching the film you’d never know that). There is also no way of knowing when the alien is going to appear next.

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My two favorite examples involve the death of Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and the climax of the film. In the first scene, Dallas is stalking the alien with a flamethrower…or at least he thinks he is. At an intersection of the ship, Dallas turns with a light and the last thing you see is a jump cut of the alien lunging out of the darkness (it always makes me jump too, even though I KNOW the shot is coming, the way it’s timed always puts me on edge). The second example is even scarier because it’s also a false ending: Ripley has escaped the Nostromo by the skin of her teeth and is preparing to enter a stasis pod until she can be rescued. Just as everyone’s relaxed…THERE’S THE ALIEN! It’s hand literally pops out of the wall as it had burrowed itself into the side of the shuttle to escape detection. Fun fact about this scene? If you examine the wall of the shuttle while Ripley is getting changed, you can just see him sitting there before the moment happens (but you have to look carefully, he’s camouflaged very well).

One scene that makes me intensely uncomfortable is the scene where Ash tries to murder Ripley. I know it was probably designed to make the audience squirm but that doesn’t make it any easier to sit through (in brief, Ash tries to suffocate Ripley by forcing a rolled up magazine down her throat), in fact many times I just skip the scene entirely.

And of course I have to mention Jerry Goldsmith’s fantastic score, which is minimal to be sure, but very effective. Actually, the opening credits were supposed to feature a theme that was more orchestral and Romantic in tone, but Ridley Scott didn’t like it so Goldsmith was obliged to recompose the opening to what you hear in the final cut (he would also grouse that while the first piece took weeks to compose, the piece that made it into the film took all of ten minutes to put together). Despite the difficulties, the score was nominated for a Golden Globe, a Grammy Award and a BAFTA Award (though unfortunately it didn’t win).

Alien is one of those rare films that you can watch over and over and still be scared every single time; it’s definitely one of those films you must see at least once in your life. If you have seen Alien, let me know what you think about it in the comments below and have a great day!

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My Thoughts on: Fantastic Voyage (1966)

I watched a lot of science fiction films growing up and Fantastic Voyage remains one of my favorites. The film is a slight twist on the genre in that, instead of exploring outer space (as many science fiction films do), Fantastic Voyage explores the inner workings of the human body, an environment filled with strange and wondrous things. The film follows the submarine crew of the Proteus, a vessel that can be shrunk to minute proportions, as it is injected into the body of a scientist fleeing the Iron Curtain in order to fix a brain aneurysm. It’s vital to save the scientists life because he has learned the secret of miniaturizing both people and items for an indefinite period of time (the process currently works for an hour).

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The crew consists of Grant (Stephen Boyd), a government agent; Captain Bill Owens (William Redfield); Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance); surgeon Dr. Peter Duval (Arthur Kennedy); and his assistant Cora (Raquel Welch). Once placed inside the body, they’ll have one hour to travel to the brain, eliminate the aneurysm and reach an extraction point, otherwise they’ll start to grow and be attacked by the scientist’s body.

For years clips of Fantastic Voyage were played in medical schools to explain various facets of human anatomy; and once you see the film it’s easy to see why as the story covers a large chunk of the body. In no particular order, the Proteus passes through: the heart (the circulatory system), the lungs (the respiratory system), the brain, the inner ear and several veins and arteries. Various bodily processes are explained (for the sake of Grant, who serves as the audience surrogate) with a great degree of detail and it really changes how you think about your own body.

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During the journey to the brain, the crew has to dive outside the ship several times and I was amazed to learn that none of those scenes were filmed in water. Instead, everyone was suspended from wires and miming the motions of being underwater (if you look carefully, you can see the wires and harnesses in most of these scenes, despite the production’s best efforts to disguise them).

*warning, major plot spoilers can be found below*

I can’t end this article without discussing the climax of the film. For most of the journey, Grant has suspected a saboteur is on board, someone who doesn’t want the mission to succeed. He suspects Dr. Duval for most of the journey, but out of the blue Dr. Michaels is revealed as the culprit. Michaels attempts to flee with the Proteus (which is starting to grow back to normal size) but can’t control the vessel and it crashes, attracting the attention of a white blood cell (which views the growing ship as a threat). Grant, being a good guy, enters the damaged ship to get the rest of the crew out to safety and finds Michaels pinned inside the pilot’s compartment as the white blood cell begins to descend.

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It’s terrifying enough that Michaels is stuck looking up at an organism that will dissolve him into oblivion (a painful way to go), but it becomes even worse when you remember that Michaels has a fear of enclosed spaces and being trapped. Thus, the would-be saboteur is living all of his worst nightmares at once. Grant tries everything to get Michaels free, but it’s no good, he’s hopelessly stuck. During these last few minutes, Michaels’ voice slowly rises in panic as he realizes he’s going to die. It’s a hard scene to watch, and one of the more gruesome comeuppances I’ve ever seen for a villain.

It’s hard to believe that Fantastic Voyage is 52 years old, but all things considered the film has aged extremely well. If you ever get the chance to check it out, I highly recommend it. If you have seen Fantastic Voyage, let me know your thoughts about it in the comments below and have a great day!

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My thoughts on: Forbidden Planet (1956)

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If you’re looking for a list of influential science fiction films, one title that consistently turns up is Forbidden Planet. Considered one of the great science fiction films of the 1950s, the film set the bar for many films to follow. The film follows the crew of the C-57D as it travels to the distant planet Altair IV to follow up on a mission that went there and disappeared 20 years previously.

The story can be considered a loose retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play where sailors from a distant land encounter the sorcerer Prospero (who controls the spirit Ariel) and his beautiful daughter Miranda, who has never seen any man except for her father. In the film then, Prospero is Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), one of two survivors of a previous mission to Altair IV, Miranda is Morbius’ daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), Ariel is the ever helpful robot Robby and the sailors are Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and his crew, though it could be argued that the commander is also an analogue to Ferdinand, the nobleman who ultimately marries Miranda.

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The film contains a number of firsts: its the first to depict humans traveling in a faster-than-light vessel; it was the first to take place entirely on another planet besides Earth (the story opens with the C-57D in deep space); most notably the film is the first to contain an entirely electronic film score (credited as ‘electronic tonalities’). The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

 

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From the start, you can tell there’s something fishy going on with Dr. Morbius. He’s way too eager for Commander Adams to be on his way back to Earth, and small wonder. It comes out that the first expedition discovered the ruins of an ancient civilization belonging to the Krell, an ancient super-race that accomplished everything you can imagine before mysteriously vanishing overnight. And that’s not all: there’s a giant machine 20 square miles in size located underground, introduced with a scene that almost boggles the imagination.

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Weird things begin happening back at the space ship: vital equipment is sabotaged, a crew member is violently killed (literally ripped limb from limb offscreen) and strange footprints from an invisible being (in one of my favorite scenes) are spotted. I remember the first time I watched this film it drove me crazy as to what was stalking the planet. For a while I was convinced that it must be a Krell, a lone survivor as it were, attacking outsiders. But the truth is so much more terrifying. It turns out that the mysterious beast is none other than Dr. Morbius himself, or at least it’s a part of him.

See, when Commander Adams and two of his men discover the Krell ruins, Morbius gave them a tour and showed them a strange machine that had the ability to dramatically increase intelligence. Morbius used it on himself and is now arguably the smartest human alive. But what the scientist fails to realize is that boosting his intelligence gave his subconscious mind access to the large underground machine. That huge machine was the Krell’s greatest accomplishment and their undoing. Having accomplished everything else, the Krell sought to make the final accomplishment: creation by mere thought, simply imagine it and it will appear. It’s not a bad idea, if the conscious mind were all there is. But the Krell had long since forgotten about the subconscious mind, known in psychology as the Id, the reservoir of all our deepest, most primal desires. When the machine was turned on, the Id of every Krell on the planet gained access to a machine with unlimited power. Though they consciously didn’t wish to destroy or kill, their subconscious acted out their secret desires and thus the whole race was wiped out.

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Morbius is unwittingly in the same predicament as the Krell, though he cannot consciously use the machine, his subconscious can and has before! Deep down, Morbius only wants to be left alone with his research and daughter, so his Id is acting on these desires and attempting to ‘eliminate’ the problem. It’s a horrifying moment, when the scientist realizes he is the monster. And speaking of the monster, the one glimpse you do get of the Id monster is the stuff of nightmares.

Robby the Robot provides several moments of humor throughout the story (he has a very dry wit), including a memorable exchange with Altaira:

Altaira: “Robby, I must have a new dress made right away!”

Robby: “Again?”

Forbidden Planet is definitely a must-see film for any fan of science fiction cinema and if you haven’t seen it before I hope you’re inspired to go check it out. If you have seen the film, what did you think about it and the revelation of the Id monster? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below 🙂

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My thoughts on: Annihilation (2018)

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*warning: this review will contain a number of spoilers, so please stop here if you haven’t seen the film yet!

It’s been just over 12 hours since I saw Annihilation and I still have an intense feeling of awe. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this film could be the 2001: A Space Odyssey for my generation, it has that exact same feeling of “I just saw something beautiful but it’s going to take  multiple viewings to better understand it.” Nevertheless, I believe I understand the gist of what director Alex Garland was trying to show us, so I’ll make my way as best I can.

Three years before our story begins, a meteorite crashed into a lighthouse inside a national park and immediately began emitting something dubbed the Shimmer. Imagine the iridescent surface of a bubble and combine it with endless flows and ripples. Now grow that bubble to gigantic proportions and you have a pretty good idea of what the border of the Shimmer looks like. Scientists have sent multiple teams in to explore this phenomenon, but no one has ever returned…until now.

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I should mention the proper story actually begins with Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier and professor in cellular biology, being debriefed in an isolation chamber after the story is already over (dialogue implies she is the lone survivor). Apparently, she was inside the Shimmer for 4 months, even though Lena can’t recall that much time passing. The story then flashes back and reveals her husband, Sgt. Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for a year. It turns out he was part of the last team sent into the Shimmer. Out of nowhere, Kane appears outside the bedroom, but something is off about him. He doesn’t remember anything and he suddenly gets really sick. Lena and Kane are taken to the facility studying the Shimmer and while Kane falls into a coma, Lena decides to join the next team going in (all-female as it turns out) to see if there’s some way to reverse what’s happening to her husband.

The team consists of Lena, Anya Thorensen (a paramedic), Josie Radek (a physicist), Tuva Novotny as Cass Shepherd, a surveyor and geologist, and all are led by Dr. Ventress (a psychologist who secretly has cancer and wants to know the secret of the Shimmer before she dies). I need to stop and highlight Dr. Ventress for a moment because she’s the closest we come to a human antagonist in the entire story (and I’m still debating whether the Shimmer is an antagonist or not). From the moment you meet her, at least in my experience, you instantly start to hate her. There’s something unnatural in her behavior even before entering the Shimmer, I’d almost go so far as to say she was exhibiting sociopathic behavior.

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One great thing about this film is it doesn’t take too long to get to the action inside the Shimmer, but you should know that once the team is inside things get really weird really fast. For example, Lena wakes up in a tent, having no memory of making camp, and it turns out that somehow three or four days have passed and no one in the team remembers any of it. Then there’s the mutations: as Lena recounts, they start subtly. First they find strange new flowers that seem to be crossbreeds of different species (that shouldn’t be possible). Then Josie is attacked by a huge crocodile that has strange mutations in its teeth. Some of the mutations are beautiful: Lena comes across a pair of deer that have mutated into strange beings with flowering branches where their antlers should be, but some are absolutely terrifying. The hardest scene for me to get through was one where the group is twice attacked by a monstrous bear that somehow has part of its skull exposed. But that’s not the worst part of it: after attacking and killing Cass, it somehow absorbed part of Cass’ consciousness as she died (Josie speculates that the Shimmer is acting like a genetic prism that is causing the DNA of everything inside it to actively combine together) and now can use her final screams of help as a lure. What I mean is, every time the bear roars, you can hear Cass screaming and it was absolutely terrifying.

Of course, as in any horror film, one by one the team is picked off:

  • Cass is killed when her throat is ripped out by the bear
  • Anya is mauled to death by the same bear after suffering a psychotic episode
  • Josie’s fate is….interesting. After Cass and Anya die, Josie is seen sitting outside, seemingly at peace. As she tells Lena “She (Ventress) wants to face it (the Shimmer) and you want to fight it. But I don’t want either of those things.” And as Josie talks and walks away, she begins to sprout leaves and branches and suddenly disappears altogether. I think she transforms into one of the people-shaped flower growths that have begun appearing. And I don’t think she died either; if anything, I feel like Josie transcended into…something else.
  • Ventress makes it to the lighthouse before Lena, but something strange happens to her that I cannot adequately put into words (but I’ll address a theory I have when I wrap this up).

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Lena finally arrives at the lighthouse, ground zero of the Shimmer and discovers a strange growth surrounding a dark hole and also an incinerated body sitting in front of a video camera. And this is when things go beyond “this is weird” to “what the f*ck just happened??” Because, as the footage reveals, Lena’s husband went inside the Shimmer and committed suicide with a phosphorous grenade while talking to…a doppelganger. It’s one of those situations where your brain races like “If that’s Lena’s husband sitting dead on the floor, then who or WHAT is lying in a coma back at the base??”

 

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The next sequence is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, but I simply can’t put it into words. I’ve tried several times and it simply doesn’t do the moment justice. Suffice it to say that Lena is confronted by her own double, or at least something that is morphing into her double. But just as it gain’s Lena’s face, the real Lena puts another phosphorous grenade into its hands and triggers it, running out the door as it goes off. This incinerates the root of the Shimmer and causes the entire phenomenon to collapse.

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Apparently, the Shimmer was some kind of alien life, but Lena can’t say what it wanted, if indeed it wanted anything at all. All she wants is her husband (and it’s interesting that she apparently neglects to mention that the man now recovered from his coma is NOT her husband but an alien duplicate). “Kane” confirms to Lena that he is not her husband, but upon ascertaining that she is the one the real Kane told him about, he embraces her and then something strange happens: his eyes begin to shimmer with a certain familiar iridescence. And after a moment, Lena’s eyes “Shimmer” too. And that’s where the story ends!

What does it all mean? I believe, that even though the phenomenon has collapsed, the Shimmer is still here, it’s just internalized inside two people now. Just like a pair of cells. As Lena told a class at the beginning: two become four, become eight, become sixteen…I think this is only the beginning before the Shimmer spreads through humanity, though what it will ultimately do I cannot say (though if you have a theory I’d love to hear it in the comments below).

Now as to the fate of Ventress, here is my theory: I think Lena was talking to her double the entire time and here’s why: when we first see Ventress in the chamber, you can clearly see that she has no eyes, but when she turns to face Lena, she suddenly has them. When Lena’s double is being made, the last thing to emerge are the eyes. So I think the real Ventress died, was absorbed by the Shimmer and now her double is here, but it can’t sustain itself because of the cancer in the original Ventress. That’s my theory anyway.

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I wish I could explain certain parts better, but Annihilation is one of those films that needs to be experienced to be understood. Is it, as some say, too “intellectual”? Maybe…but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a movie that makes you think about what it’s trying to tell you.

One more brief note: in the middle of the film, there’s an extremely graphic scene involving some found footage (you’ll know when you come to it). I just wanted you to be aware that such a scene exists because it deeply disturbed me while I watched it.

Final thoughts: Annihilation is a brilliant film from Alex Garland and a must-see for fans of the science fiction genre.

What did you think of Annihilation? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Have a great day!

See also: Soundtrack Review: Annihilation (2018)

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Soundtrack Review: Altered Carbon (2018)

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Based on the classic cyberpunk noir novel by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is an intriguing story of murder, love, sex, and betrayal, set more than 300 years in the future. In Netflix’s Altered Carbon, Society has been transformed by new technology: consciousness can be digitized; human bodies are interchangeable; death is no longer permanent.

Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) is the lone surviving soldier in a group of elite interstellar warriors who were defeated in an uprising against the new world order. His mind was imprisoned – on ice – for centuries until Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), an impossibly wealthy, long-lived man, offers Kovacs the chance to live again. In exchange, Kovacs has to solve a murder … that of Bancroft himself.

The soundtrack is composed by Jeff Russo, who has also composed music for Star Trek: Discovery and Fargo. For the latter, Russo earned a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie, or Special in 2017. Russo began his music career in 1990, after founding his rock band TONIC. The group quickly achieved great success and in 2003, received two Grammy nominations, one for “Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal” for “Take Me As I Am,” and one for “Best Rock Album.” The band was a great showcase for Russo’s guitar work and songwriting that allowed him to branch out and begin his solo career in producing and composing.

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I’d heard that the soundtrack for Altered Carbon was unusual for a story in the cyberpunk genre, and now that I’ve listened to the soundtrack album I can definitely attest that this is true. As a general rule, the music in any show or film set in the future (and particularly in a cyberpunk future like Altered Carbon) has an “edgy futuristic” feel to it. Notable examples of this practice include: Blade Runner and its sequel; Automata; The Machine and Forbidden Planet. These films have soundtracks with weird electronic noises, guitar riffs and descents into heavy rock beats during action sequences.

 

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But the soundtrack for Altered Carbon doesn’t do this. Instead, the music, beginning with the “Main Title” has a mysterious quality to it. There are long, held-out string drones that combine with soft vocals (that are half muttering, half singing) and a cello solo. The opening title has the slightest touch of a drum beat, but it only lasts for a short time and doesn’t dominate the track.

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Most of the album: “Consciousness,” “Bancroft Shows Kovacs,” “Her Daughter,” and “Attacked by Troopers” are all variations on the same musical arrangement: strings with a prominent solo cello, combined with female vocalizations and an on-again/off-again background of electronic music. This is not a bad thing: In fact it shows that the world of Altered Carbon has a consistent musical background (and consistency is never a bad thing in film and television music). It’s actually refreshing to listen to a science fiction soundtrack that doesn’t include heavy rock music. Jeff Russo has composed a beautiful soundtrack for an amazing show. If you haven’t watched it yet, the first season is currently available on Netflix. The soundtrack became digitally available from Lakeshore Records as of February 9th, 2018.

Let me know your thoughts on Altered Carbon and its soundtrack in the comments below! My thanks to The Krakower Group for making this soundtrack available for review.

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"Ride of the Firemares" by James Horner

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Krull is one of the first films to feature a score by James Horner and is personally one of my favorite pieces of film music period. The movie was a combination of science-fiction and high fantasy and attempted to cash in on the popularity of sci-fi after the debut of Star Wars in 1977. The plot centers on Prince Colwyn gathering allies to rescue his betrothed, Princess Lyssa, from the clutches of the extraterrestrial Beast, who wants to marry her himself. “Ride of the Firemares” is set in the latter part of the film when the heroes are riding to the rescue of the princess on “firemares”; horses that can travel incredibly fast and leave trails of fire in their wake. They have to arrive quickly because the fortress Lyssa is being held in changes location every 24 hours, and firemares are the only way to reach the fortress’s location in time.

Krull “Ride of the Firemares”

The heroes on firemares

In truth the “firemares” were large draft horses with fake fur attached to their legs, but the scene is enjoyable nonetheless. I especially enjoy the little detail where the horses move so fast that they can actually run on the air (essentially they can fly). If you like quirky science-fiction/fantasy from the early 1980s, this is definitely the movie for you. Is the plot perfect? No. It’s blatantly obvious in some points that the film is borrowing from Star Wars, but if you take the film as it is, it’s very enjoyable.

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