Science Fiction. Forever the refuge of spotty young nerds, sci-fi is the genre that relies mostly on spectacle. When done correctly, a sci-fi movie can be the most exhilarating of experiences. It's a genre that has been around as long as the art form, and continues to engage audiences. From Méliès' Voyage to the Moon to Aronofsky's The Fountain, sci-fi has created some of cinema's most iconic images. Sure, a great deal of it relies on special effects. But sometimes you get those rare films that challenge the brain as well as the senses. It's a difficult genre to pick just five films, as tastes vary WILDLY. But, without further ado, here are...
THE CRITICAL MASS TOP 5 SCIENCE FICTION MOVIES.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Stanley Kubrick.
Beginning before the dawn of mankind, we're introduced to two rival tribes of apes. One morning, a mysterious monolith appears. An ape from one of the tribes encounters the monolith and subsequently creates the first tool, using a bone he has found as a club. This is the dawn of mankind. Jump to the future (as it was in 1968), and one of these monoliths is discovered on the moon. Meanwhile, a lone ship, the Discovery One is bound for Jupiter. On board are a crew of five and a 'sixth member of the crew,' the experimental computer HAL 9000. HAL shows signs of malfunction and the two pilots, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole decide to shut HAL down. HAL defends himself, forcing Bowman to take drastic measures to stop the supercomputer. As the Discovery One enters the Jupiter system, a third monolith is discovered, and Bowman exits the ship to investigate.
2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those rare films that divides audiences. Some are bored to tears by it (including Andrei Tarkovsky, who made the film Solyaris as a reaction to seeing 2001). And then there are those who claim it is one of the most important films ever made. 2001 isn't the type of sci-fi film that is going to grip the average joe multiplex. There are no dogfights, lasers or aliens. This is 'intelligent sci-fi.' The type of film that defies explanation but encourages theory. Kubrick, and writer Arthur C. Clarke claimed that if anybody could explain 2001, they would have failed in their endeavor. Kubrick wants the viewer to make his own interpretation, and every viewer does. Love it or hate it, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a study of the evolution of the human condition... with some of the greatest special effects ever put to film. Some achievement for 1968. And in this humble person's opinion, it is the greatest movie ever made.
2. Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - Irvin Kershner.
The rebel alliance, driven from their hidden base, take refuge on the ice planet of Hoth. Darth Vader, obsessed with finally destroying the rebels launches an attack on the planet. Led by Luke Skywalker, the rebels defend the base long enough for a daring escape. Skywalker heads to a remote planet to be trained by legendary Jedi Master Yoda. Meanwhile, in a badly damaged Millennium Falcon, Han Solo and Princess Leia are on the run from the Empire. They head for the planet Bespin and are met by Lando Calrissian, an old friend of Han's. But Vader is already waiting for the rebels and uses them as bait to capture Skywalker, en route to rescue his friends.
No science fiction list is complete without a Star Wars film. Their impact of the history of cinema is incalculable. And while the post millennium Star Wars films have been disappointing to say the least, the first three films remain classics. Episode IV- A New Hope kicked the Star Wars saga off, but The Empire Strikes Back is the finest of all the films. It's dark. Almost nothing goes right. It ends on a down note. But it features some of the cinema's most iconic characters. Set pieces that leave you on the edge of your seat. And the most famous film revelation of all time. Forget the truly appalling 2 hour toy commercials that are the prequel trilogy. THIS is Star Wars. And it's utterly fantastic.
3. Blade Runner (1982) - Ridley Scott.
Los Angeles, 2019. Rick Deckard is retired Blade Runner, a cop who specialises in finding and dispatching replicants, artificial humans who are indistinguishable from the real thing. Deckard is ordered by his former boss to 'retire' four replicants led by Roy Batty, a commando. Deckard tracks down the four replicants throughout a bleak, neon-lit, rain-drenched L.A. and comes face to face with Batty, a replicant who is searching for an answer to the nature of his own existence.
Blade Runner is Ridley Scott's masterpiece and remains to this day one of the most important and influential movies ever made. On it's initial release, it wasn't received well at all. But since then, the true genius of Blade Runner has been realised. Based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? the film deals with humanity, essentially, what does it mean to be human? But aside from the multi-layered script, the film is visually stunning. Scott created a film that is both science-fiction and film noir. The technology is realistic and believable and the film itself has influenced everything from Tim Burton's Batman to the new Star Wars films. And with several different versions of the film in existance, it seems the legacy of Blade Runner is as interesting as the film itself.
4. Aliens (1986) - James Cameron.
The only survivor of the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley, emerges from hypersleep after fifty seven years. She recounts her experiences to her superiors who refuse to believe her outlandish tale. The moon that the Nostromo encountered over half a century earlier has now been terraformed and there are humans living on it. However, contact with the colony is abruptly cut off. A team of heavily armed marines are sent to the colony to investigate and Ripley is asked to go along as a consultant. Ripley initially refuses to go along. However, she reluctantly agrees and the mission begins. The marines arrive on the moon to find the colony torn apart and the colonists killed... or worse. And so Ripley comes face to face with the alien queen and hundreds of her drones.
Chosing Aliens over Ridley Scott's Alien may seem like blasphemy to some. But I'm going for the popcorn on this one. Alien was a slow-burning horror movie in space, but Aliens is a balls to the wall, relentless action. Cameron himself stated that the film is alegorical of the Vietnam war. The marines storm into the colony, arrogant and complacent. They're trained and armed to the teeth. But they get their asses handed to them. And then it's time for Ripley to step up. Essentially, this is a chick-flick. Ripley mourns her daughter, who grew up and died while she was in stasis. And in Newt, the only survivor of the colony, she finds a surrogate daughter, someone to protect from the alien queen, herself a mother, protecting her flock. A film with fantastic special effects, a brilliant story and action that keeps you uncomfortably tense, Aliens has everything. And Ripley becomes one of the toughest, meanest and most compelling screen heroines.
5. The Matrix (1999) - Andy & Larry Wachowski.
1999. A computer hacker leads two lives. One as Thomas Anderson, a man who works with computers in a cubicle in a generic office building. In his other life, he is Neo, a hacker known throughout the cyber world. He is contacted by Morpheus, a man who is willing to offer Neo the truth about the world in which he lives. Neo accepts Morpheus' offer and wakes up 200 years in the future in a world that has been taken over by advanced artificial intelligence machines. But Morpheus believes Neo is 'The One,' a hero who, according to prophecy, will free the human race from their virtual prisons.
The Matrix is a triumph of style over substance. Released in 1999, it was the perfect science fiction film to mark the times we live in. It's all about computers, technology and reality. It's a flawed film, far from perfect. The philosophy is a little confusing. The acting hammy. It spawned two incredibly disappointing sequels. And it made a bunch of pasty-white, skinny nerds think it's cool to walk around dressed head to toe in long, black coats and sunglasses. But these faults aside, it's also action-packed, exciting and, well... pretty fucking cool. It's influence on films made since it's release is substantial. The Matrix is 21st Century sci-fi.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Monday, August 27, 2007
Okay crew, set your phasers on dumb. Well, to be honest, that's not entirely fair. While some of the humor in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up certainly aims for the crass, there's a lot about this film that is smart. Not least the casting, which is top-knotch. The humor is broad in every sense of the word, but that's not a bad thing. Knocked Up arrives on these shores (it's won over both critics and audiences in the US since it's release in June) with a huge amount of hype, but while it's not the greatest comedy of all time, it's certainly the best comedy of 2007 so far. And another hit for Judd Apatow and his go-to guy, Seth Rogen.
Rogen plays Ben Stone, an illegal Canadian immigrant stoner who lives with his friends and dreams of starting a web site that tells subscribers at what point in any movie, any given female movie star whips off her clothes. Yes, this is a man with lofty ambitions. Meanwhile, Alison Scott, played by Katherine Heigl, is working for the E! Network and receives the promotion of a lifetime. A promotion that will see her put in front of the cameras. She and her sister hit the town and run into Ben. Ben and Alison spend a drunken night together, and go their separate ways. Eight weeks later, Alison starts vomiting uncontrollably which, according to my medical degree, is a sure-fire sign of pregnancy. Alison, who was none to enamored with Ben once the beer-goggles fell off, decides to tell her slacker one-night stand about the proverbial bun in the oven. Ben decides to step up to the plate. But these people are polar opposites, and while Ben's intentions are certainly noble, their compatibility as a couple with a baby due will be put to the test.
The premise of Knocked Up is relatively simple. It's a formula that's been done before. The old rite of passage tale, with plenty of lessons to be learned, and responsibilities to be taken on. But while this formula is quite familiar, if there's plenty of laughs to be had, what's wrong with revisiting it again?! And what's so successful about Knocked Up is that the laughs are incredibly consistent and genuinely funny. Apatow made his mark on Hollywood with The 40 Year Old Virgin. I cant say I was a huge fan of the film, and I barely remember it (apart from the great waxing scene). But this is the film that will make his name.
I'm willing to admit, there is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief to be employed with this movie. Ben and Alison's relationship is a little unrealistic. She, the attractive, successful type takes to the stoner slacker quite quickly (believe me, it doesn't happen like that in real life!), and it all goes a little too swimmingly. But while we have the idealistic relationship between Ben and Alison, Apatow also plays a trump card by contrasting it to Alison's sister Debbie's relationship with her husband, Pete (played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd). Here we see how Ben and Alison's relationship MIGHT end up. And it ain't all sunshine and flowers. It's an interesting way of approaching the subject matter, and is key to what makes the film work.
Of course, there's plenty of low-brow humor too. After all, Ben's a stoner. But the jokes are well written, and the cast is so damn likeable that it'll take one cold-hearted person not to be won over by the movie. Sure, there's quite a bit of saccharine that's lavished over the whole affair, but in the end, this is a comedy. And there are plenty of laughs. The best comedy of 2007? So far, definitely. But with positive word being spread about Superbad, which is written by Rogen himself, this achievement may be short-lived. Which is great to hear. With 2007 being such a shitty year, we're all in need of a good few laughs.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
IGN.com have gotten their hands on the teaser for I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' biopic of the greatest songwriter of all time, Bob Dylan. What's most interesting about this film (apart from the subject matter, of course), is that Haynes has cast a number of different actors to portray Dylan at different times of his life. Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, and Richard Gere, amongst others will play Dylan, which will make for some very curious viewing. I'm Not There will hit screens later this year.
On a somewhat related topic, if you haven't seen Martin Scorsese's documentary, No Direction Home, get your hands on it. Whether you're a Dylan fan or not, it's one fascinating documentary.
On a somewhat related topic, if you haven't seen Martin Scorsese's documentary, No Direction Home, get your hands on it. Whether you're a Dylan fan or not, it's one fascinating documentary.
Monday, August 20, 2007
In the year of the three-quel, we've seen third parts of Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man, Shrek, and (although the title may suggest otherwise), Ocean's Thirteen. Sequels to 28 Days Later and Die Hard have arrived on screen. And, aside from a very strong offering in 28 Weeks Later, all these films have been rubbish. Empty-headed, cash in, disposable crap that have contributed to making 2007 one of the worst years in recent history in terms of film. It has been depressing. And now, another three-quel bursts onto the screen with the third part of the Bourne saga, The Bourne Ultimatum. And mercifully, this three-quel is not only the best of the series, but is a very strong contender for film of the year. All I can say is, thank goodness for filmmakers like Paul Greengrass.
The Bourne Ultimatum kicks off immediately after The Bourne Supremacy ends. Uber-badass, Jason Bourne is fleeing Moscow police after causing somewhat of a ruckus in a Moscow tunnel. Bourne states quite clearly to a trapped officer that his beef is not with him. He's no arbitrary killing machine. Bourne is a man with a conscience. Six weeks later, Bourne discovers his name in an article written by one Simon Ross, a journalist for The Guardian newspaper with a penchant for getting involved in situations way over his head. Bourne arranges to meet this journalist in order to start what may be his most personal vendetta. Bourne wants to know who made him what he is. However, the CIA aren't about to let their most dangerous rogue agent get too close to home, and CIA deputy director, and head of a project simply known as 'Blackbriar,' Noah Vosen wants Bourne's head on a plate.
What is immediately clear after watching The Bourne Ultimatum is the fact that with each film he makes, director Paul Greengrass becomes a better filmmaker. Doug Liman left the director's chair after The Bourne Identity and Greengrass took over helming duties for The Bourne Supremacy. In Supremacy, he delivered a far more interesting and exciting film than the predecessor, with star Matt Damon settling more comfortably into the role of Jason Bourne. In The Bourne Ultimatum, Greengrass has upped the ante even more, and has made the best film of the series. Bourne goes all out to discover his roots. He has nothing left to lose and will go anywhere and do anything to finally discover who he is and where he came from. What is so compelling about the character, however, is he's a reluctant action hero. While James Bond is a remorseless killing machine, dispatching bad guys with a grin and a quip, Bourne just does what is necessary to get to his goal. He's not out to kill 'faceless Guard number two.'
Greengrass' direction is on top form here. His style is almost documentary-like, as seen in last year's superb United 93, and it is in full effect here. He uses handheld cameras and a frenetic editing style that is chaotic, but keeps the action fresh. In particular, one close-quarters fight sequence in a Tangiers apartment, is as chaotic as it is violent. But it's to Greengrass' credit that even the scenes that don't feature this almost trademark style retain a nail-biting tension. When scenes aren't as action-oriented, the film still keeps you on the edge of your seat, a true mark of the director's talent. There isn't a car chase that matches the climactic one in Supremacy in this film, but there are still some fantastic chase sequences. There isn't a moment in the film that leaves you bored.
The cast, as expected from the series, doesn't have a weak link. Matt Damon returns, obviously, as Jason Bourne, and has never looked more comfortable in a role. He's as tough as ever, while at the same time has the humanity that makes Bourne a compelling character. The support cast, once again, is filled by some brilliant character actors. The previous Bourne films had two excellent bad guys in Chris Cooper and Brian Cox. This time it's David Strathairn's turn to fill the role. Strathairn is a highly underrated actor, and proves this in another great turn as the ruthless Noah Vosen. Returning from the previous films are Joan Allen and Julia Stiles, both with more to work with than the previous films. Rounding off the cast are Paddy Considine (check out the fantastic Dead Man's Shoes) and the always great Albert Finney.
It's a pleasant change to have a sequel that isn't a steaming pile of shit. And it's even better to get one of those very rare things- a third film in a series that tops the previous two. But the Bourne Supremacy is exactly that. While I'm sure it isn't exactly a realistic portrayal of the CIA, Greengrass' style grounds the film with enough realism to prevent Bourne from looking like a superman. Greengrass is one of the most talented directors working today. While I'm sure this will be the last in the series, it's fitting that the film should go out in style. The Bourne Ultimatum is the best actioner of the year, and is definitely in consideration for film of the year. Fantastic.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Adrienne Shelly was an independent actress and sometime director before her murder in November 2006. At the time of her death, she was working on her final film, a comedy by the name of Waitress. Completed without the writer/director, Waitress went on to be a hit at Sundance and won over critics and audiences alike. It may be tempting to go easy on a film after such a tragedy befell it's creator, but then that would be doing the film an injustice. But Waitress nevertheless is a wonderful, warm film, so singing it's praises wont seem like a loss of credibility!
Waitress is about Jenna, a waitress at Joe's Diner. Apart from serving customers their food, Jenna is also a 'pie genius,' creating pies both sweet and savory that adorn Joe's menu. Married to an incredibly selfish and insecure man, Jenna discovers to her horror that she has fallen pregnant by her husband, something that screws up her plans to make a clean break. She wants to enter a pie making contest with a prize of $25,000, allowing her to make leave her husband forever. Her baby will trap her in her miserable life, and creates resentment in Jenna. After her life-long doctor retires, Jenna meets Dr. Pomatter, a charming but goofy man who develops an immediate attraction to Jenna. Jenna's dream seems to drift away as the baby inside her continues to grow.
Ya know, I'm not a huge fan of 'chick-flicks.' Over the years, the films I've seen of this kind have bored me to the point of sleep. I'm just being honest. And I think, if they're being honest here, most men would agree with me. However, I defy anyone who isn't won over by Shelly's incredibly charming film. It's not a perfect film by any means. The ending is a little saccharine, and sometimes the comedy does tend to get a little too like a sitcom. But these criticisms aside, Waitress is a great little character film.
Shelly's script mixes the comedy and drama in equal doses, never becoming a farce, but also refraining from becoming too dark when it comes to the drama. With quite a strong script, finding an actress to suitably embody Jenna could prove a problem. However, Keri Russell is fantastic as Jenna, carrying the film's more dramatic side, while also managing to be sweet and funny. She's surrounded by actors whose characters are a little more broad in terms of comedy (and is another minor weakness in the script), but it's Russell's performance which grounds the film. Nathan Fillion provides the love interest for Russell. There's something very likable about all Fillion's performances, and while his character isn't as tough as Mal Reynolds (Fillion's most famous role from TV's Firefly and 2005's Serenity), he still retains the charm of that character. It surely is only a matter of time before both actors are better known. Jeremy Sisto as Jenna's husband Earl puts in another creepy performance, something he's become known for, but Shelly refrains from making Earl too cliched an abusive hill-billy character.
It's rare that I enjoy a film of this kind. But Waitress is a disarmingly charming film. It's not perfect, but with a brilliant central performance and a genuinely funny script, there's plenty to like.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Lord knows how long ago it was when I first saw Trainspotting. All I know is I had to sneak a look at it. I was fifteen when it was released, and I knew I'd be banned from seeing it by the parentals. So I'm pretty sure I saw it in one of the local kid's houses. All I know is it had an immediate impact on me, and stayed with me ever since. It's been a while since I watched the movie, so tonight I thought I'd revisit it to see if it still has the same impact as it once did.
For those of you who haven't seen it (and what the hell have you been doing with yourselves, if you haven't?!), Trainspotting is essentially the story of Mark Renton, a heroin junkie from Edinburgh in Scotland. Renton uses the drug to escape reality. A reality that sees him commit petty crimes in an attempt to feed his habit. He is surrounded by people he questionably calls friends, each with their own addiction, be it drugs or violence. Renton decides to kick his heroin habit, but finds this increasingly difficult as he cannot break the ties with his group of friends. No matter how far he tries to distance himself from them, they find a way back into his life and offer him nothing but ways to destroy himself.
Trainspotting is a difficult film to discuss without descending into cliche. Obviously, it's one of the most influential movies of the 1990's, and probably one of the most popular British films of all time. It made a star of Ewan McGregor (Renton), and launched the careers of director Danny Boyle, and actors Robert Carlyle, Johnny Lee Miller and Ewan Bremner. What works about the film is that it approaches the difficult subject matter of heroin addiction in a manner that is honest, hard-hitting, yet it doesn't refrain from throwing in some wicked comedy.
Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting's iconic opening sets the pace for the rest of the film. Welsh and screenwriter John Hodge never compromise with their characters, who are the driving force of the film. Renton is clearly an intelligent guy. His problem is he's not strong enough to make a full break from his friends and the heroin. He says himself at the beginning of the film he's vowed to kick the junk many times, but cannot make the full commitment, no matter how good his intentions. His addiction to the heroin and his misguided loyalty to his friends are intertwined. One cannot exist without the other.
Trainspotting wouldn't be a success if Renton was the only interesting character in the film. It's to Welsh's credit that he creates fully fleshed out and compelling characters that surround Renton, each with their own conflicts, desires and behaviors. One of the most iconic of these characters is Francis Begbie, a psychopath who doesn't get off on doing junk, but on 'doing people.' He's different from the Travis Bickle or Norman Bates type of psycho, in that he's open in his love for violence, at one point starting a riot just for the pure sick thrill it gives him. Robert Carlyle's portrayal of Begbie is terrifying, but brilliantly realised.
Danny Boyle's direction is fantastic. The pacing of the film (which clocks in at 94 minutes) never lets up. Every frame of the film is fully realised and drives the story along. When it comes to the darker side of heroin, the film doesn't shy away from how dangerous and destructive the drug is. The scenes of Renton going cold turkey are a nightmare of hallucinations, with Renton writhing and screaming in his bed as horrific visions creep across his bedroom ceiling. While the film isn't as depressing as Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream, it in no way makes light of the subject of heroin addiction.
The film itself is packed with pop cultural references, from the obvious in Iggy Pop and James Bond, to more subtle references like The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night. Indeed, the soundtrack itself is as iconic as the movie itself, with songs by aforementioned Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, Blur and Underworld amongst others, perfectly complimenting the film.
As I finished watching Trainspotting, I was in no doubt that the film is as relevent now as it was eleven years ago. In fact, it has improved with time, and I found myself appreciating the more subtle elements of the film such as pacing and editing and not just the hilarious dialogue and more superficial elements (not that they are in any way weaker elements of the film). What is undeniable is that Trainspotting is a brilliant, hard-hitting, and highly entertaining film. And one of the best films Britain has ever produced.
Monday, August 6, 2007
SherryBaby, Laurie Collyer's raw and honest look at a recovering heroin addict's attempt to turn her life around, garnered much praise at the Sundance Film Festival. Indeed, the film earned a Grand Jury Prize nomination in the dramatic category. And it's easy to see why. It's very much a festival-type movie. A story about a character who struggles to better herself despite the odds, with a barnstorming performance by the main actor, SherryBaby is very much a film the festival juries would lap up. But is it a good film?
Sherry Swanson is a recovering heroin addict, who has spent three years in jail for robbery. She returns to her New Jersey home in order to establish a relationship with her daughter, whom she hasn't seen since she was an infant. The child is in the care of Sherry's brother and his wife, a couple who (despite her brother's affection for Sherry) aren't quite comfortable with allowing Sherry back into the child's life. Sherry struggles to maintain her status as a recovering addict as life on the outside of prison isn't as easy as she'd thought it would be.
Well the first thing to note about SherryBaby is, it's no comedy. This is one of those movies that makes you think 'well at least my life is a helluva lot better than that!' So don't expect to go in and be chuckling for ninety minutes. But that's not to say it isn't a good movie. Obviously, it's a character driven piece, with Maggie Gyllenhaal's Sherry dominating nearly every frame of the movie. And it's a good thing she puts in one of the best performances of her life. It's a very difficult role to play, requiring quite a lot of courage from Gyllenhaal as an actor. But she's well up to the task.
Sherry herself isn't the most sympathetic of characters. She's quite a selfish person, and you would be forgiven for thinking she should just quit her moaning and get her life together. If she wants her daughter back, she has to work at it. But then, there's the drama. Without that, there'd be no film. At the end of the day, SherryBaby's definitely one of those festival-type movies. A huge departure from the usual soulless, empty and flashy box office pullers of the summer. But that's something refreshing. Not a date movie, but if you're looking for an antithesis to the blockbusters out at the moment, this is it.