Tag Archives: science fiction

My Thoughts on: Ad Astra (2019)

*minor spoilers may follow for Ad Astra*

Well that was…different.

There is no doubt that 2019 has been a really good year for science-fiction films. There was Alita: Battle Angel waaaaay back in the first part of the year; then there was High Life and Aniara, both amazing films in their own right. And now as the year begins to turn towards the end, we have Ad Astra, a film that’s been in the pipeline for quite some time. Having seen a wide variety of science-fiction films, both this year and in years past, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Ad Astra. But I think I’ve been spoiled by all the action flicks I’ve been watching as of late, because I definitely wasn’t expecting what I saw.

First, let me make one thing crystal clear: Ad Astra is a good film, it really is. The visuals are stunning, the cinematography is on point, and I actually like the voice-over from Brad Pitt’s character. That being said, this film is a lot more…cerebral…than what I was expecting. There are a few beats of action here and there, but most of the story is devoted to much deeper issues. This is a film designed to make you think about what exactly it is you’re being told (maybe not as much as Annihilation, but headed in that same direction).

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And what exactly are we meant to think of Ad Astra? What story is being given to us? Honestly, I’m still piecing that together, but I have managed to work out a few of the pieces. First of all, on the most simple level, Ad Astra looks at how humans affect outer space. The commercialization of the Moon, for example, was nailed so perfectly it physically hurt. There’s also the recurring trope, one I see in most science-fiction films, that points out in several ways that no matter how advanced our technology becomes, the lowest aspects of human nature (greed and a base desire for violence) will out in the end. But on that deeper level I alluded to before, Ad Astra looks at what outer space does to humans, in both good ways and bad. On the one hand, it’s not so bad to spend some time in the near infinite void, because it really gives you a sense of perspective for what matters (and this is what I believe happens to Brad Pitt’s character by the end). But on the other hand, there’s the opposite end of that spectrum, where humans become so wrapped up in exploring space that they forget where they came from, and are in fact driven to insanity after being in space for so long.

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Those thinking points aside, I should mention that Ad Astra is not without its flaws, most notably in the realm of physics. After all these years, it astounds me that films are still being made that lean on long since debunked film tropes (the one that annoys me the most involves explosions in space creating shockwaves, which is impossible in a vacuum). I understand films need moments of action now and then, but surely there are ways to create these moments while still obeying the laws of physics. Also, I feel like one section of the plot was almost completely unnecessary (I mean that little side trip to the Vesta en route to Mars). The rest of the film can be neatly compartmentalized into my mind, all except that part. That part feels like a relic from an earlier draft of the script when the film was meant to go in an entirely different direction. Seriously, cut it out and I don’t think you’d have noticed the difference.

Even with those issues, Ad Astra is a good film. I get the sense that this is a film that will reveal different messages and ideas each time you watch it. Do be sure to see this on the big screen if you can, these visuals were meant to be seen in the theater. There’s so much more I could say, but I think I need further viewings first.

Let me know what you think about Ad Astra in the comments below and have a great day!

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My Thoughts on: Aniara (2018)

*warning: spoilers down below for Aniara. If you don’t want to know, stop now!

As one who specializes in science-fiction film, I’m always on the lookout for new entries in the genre. From the moment I saw the first trailer for Aniara, a Swedish film based on the epic poem of the same name, I knew this was a film I would need to see. While a theatrical viewing was unfortunately denied to me, I was able to pick up the film on DVD and I finally sat down to watch it last night. Ever since the credits began to roll, I’ve been struggling with how to start this review, but I think I’ve finally found a place to start:

Relatively early in the film, the captain of the Aniara (a super-large spaceship that reminds me in many ways of a cruise ship but in space) remarks that they’ve essentially made their own planet. Assuming he’s correct, if the Aniara is meant to represent humanity in microcosmic form, then humanity is well and truly f*cked.

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I’ve honestly struggled with this type of film in the past; those stories that are built on the idea that when things go wrong humans lose their sanity and go tribal before perishing altogether (High-Rise is built on a roughly similar premise, albeit on a much smaller scale). But now, after watching Aniara, every last horrifying minute of it, I think I’m beginning to understand why and how this particular story came about. At one end, it does seem ridiculous for the passengers to behave in this fashion, but then again, there’s no telling what you might do if you learn you’re now trapped in space for the rest of your life. Furthermore, the passenger’s actions are meant to highlight the inherent failings in humanity in general. Humans can’t handle not being in control. Place them in a vulnerable position long enough…and it all goes to pieces, quite literally.

Words can barely describe just how depressing Aniara is. The film wastes little time in beginning the death spiral of however many passengers are now trapped on the ship. Even worse, much of what happens is left to the viewer’s imagination. We know at the start that the ship is full of people both very young, and very old, yet by the end of the film (when MR gets her medal), the population has decreased significantly. Where did they all go? There are hints throughout, most of them quite gruesome in nature.

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All of that being said, it seems strange that all of this would start with something as small as a screw (or whatever small debris impacted the ship). If the story has one failing, it’s that the event that sets off the plot seems so…unbelievable. Even the captain calls it “something incredibly unlikely” and it just seems strange that such an advanced vessel could be damaged so catastrophically just like that. Where are the backups, where’s the reserve fuel? What space vessel keeps ALL of their fuel in one place? The only thing that bugs me more is why couldn’t the Aniara simply radio Mars for help? If humans have developed the means to establish colonies on Mars and travel there in less than a month, surely communication with the red planet was possible (or perhaps not, it’s possible I missed a detail). All I’m trying to say is, it almost feels like the Aniara is set up to fail from the start.

I’ll close by mentioning the one image that will stick with me for a very long time. At the very end of the film, the last we see of the Aniara is that everyone on the ship is long since dead (we’ve jumped millions of years into the future by this point). In a scene I’ll never forget, the air is full of swirling debris (the artificial gravity has long since failed) and detritus. The only sign that humans were ever onboard is a human jawbone spinning through the air. As horrifying as that image is, it speaks volumes as to the fate of humanity that Aniara wants to share. For all of our accomplishments, everything humanity has done, ourselves included, will one day return to dust, and ultimately that’s all we will be. That’s why I said at the start, if Aniara is humanity in a microcosm, we are f*cked indeed.

Let me know what you think about Aniara in the comments below and have a great day. If you haven’t been able to see it, be aware that there is an English language option available so you can watch without staring at subtitles all of the time.

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My Thoughts on: High Life (2019)

*note: minor spoilers for High Life follow

I knew I wanted to see High Life from the moment I saw the first trailer. I have a keen interest in science fiction cinema that’s only grown stronger since I finished my dissertation, and I’m always looking for that best kind of science fiction film, the ones that really make you think about what they’re trying to tell you.

And let me tell you, High Life is without a doubt that kind of film.

One thing that’s interesting about High Life is the story isn’t told in a regular, linear format. The story opens after most of the action has already happened, then jumps back and forth, filling in the pieces of the story bit by bit. This is a process that can go horribly wrong if not done properly, but here it works. With each piece of the story that’s told, you feel a growing need to continue with the story, to find out what happens next.

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Robert Pattinson is great in this film. I admit, I haven’t really seen any of his work before this. I haven’t watched the Harry Potter films he appears in, I haven’t even watched any of the Twilight saga, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from him, but he does a really good job playing a man struggling to fulfill a multitude of roles all on his own. Many times he acts like he’s right on the edge of insanity, but there’s always something to bring him back in the end.

There’s one detail in High Life that surprised me very much, and that’s how…sexual the film is. I knew from the previews that the film centered in some part around the birth of a child, but the sexual undertones and the sexual imagery still took me somewhat aback. I’m not saying that part was bad, just that it was a shock to my system that at times left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. Looking back though, I think that was the idea; we were supposed to feel uncomfortable, especially during THAT scene between Monte (Pattinson’s character) and the doctor.

If you get the chance, you need to see High Life. It is a beautiful addition to the science fiction genre and one that will leave you thinking for quite a while after the credits roll. Let me know what you think about High Life in the comments below and have a great day!

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My Thoughts on: Prospect (2018)

Ever since I’d seen the first trailer for Prospect, I’d been excited to see this movie, mostly because it was science fiction, but also because it looked like good science fiction. There was the added benefit of having Pedro Pascal (best known to me as Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones) as part of the cast. I’d hoped to see this movie months ago, but it never screened on any theaters near me, and obtaining a copy to review proved…difficult. But I was finally able to get my hands on a copy this past week and sat down to watch it yesterday.

What a disappointment. I barely made it halfway through the film before I had to turn it off. That in itself is saying something, since I almost never turn a movie off in the middle. Now it’s entirely possible that I might be able to watch this film all the way through in the future and be able to appreciate details that bugged me, but not right now.

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Prospect isn’t all bad, don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the look of the alien moon. It’s strange to see such a lush environment that is actually toxic if you breathe the air in (though now that I think about it, the same scenario exists in Avatar). The film has this little detail I really enjoyed where, as the characters are walking through the alien forest, you can see these little particles floating in the air. My brain interpreted this as a sign of the moon’s toxicity.

I also liked the look of the drop ship that brings the main characters to the planet. Just looking at it was enough to make me question what year/century this was all occurring in. Everyone looks human enough, but if you look closely, the instruments are labeled in a strange language that isn’t English (even the main character writes in a language that isn’t English). So it made me wonder, does Prospect take place in a future so distant that English has ceased to be used as a language? It’s an interesting detail that I liked.

 

Now to talk about what I didn’t like, and that’s the dialogue. The reason I had to turn the film off is the dialogue was driving me crazy. Considering this is a science fiction film, the dialogue, especially from Pascal’s character Ezra, just felt all wrong to me. It didn’t fit. I can enjoy almost every aspect of a film, but is the dialogue is wrong, it just ruins the film for me.

While I enjoyed a few parts of Prospect, I was bitterly disappointed overall by the portion of the film I was able to watch. I couldn’t really get into the story because of the dialogue, which threw everything else off for me. Let me know what you think about Prospect in the comments below and have a great day!

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My Thoughts on: Alien (1979)

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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.

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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: Aliens (1986)

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My Thoughts on: Fantastic Voyage (1966)

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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.

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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.

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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