Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

film1956-invasionofthebodysnatchers-originalposterBody Snatchers works seamlessly and efficiently on multiple fronts, both as science fiction and social commentary. Don Siegel helms this film with his typical dynamic ease putting every minute of running time to good use. The screenwriter, Daniel Manwaring, put together perhaps one of the greatest political allegories ever penned and, on the whole, it’s a  taut thriller combining sci-fi and horror to a tee.

It’s a wonderful bit of ethos that our main hero Miles Bennet (Kevin McCarthy) is a well-respected doctor, a genuine guy who over time gets transformed into a blubbering paranoid mess. It begs the question. What would evoke such a change in this man? Because it’s true. When he starts out he seems immeasurably chipper. Shrugging off a euphemistic “trip to Reno” and the subsequent alimony as if it were nothing. His practice is well-respected and his old beau, the beautifully elegant Becky Driscol (Dana Wynter) has returned to their idyllic town of Santa Mira, California.

The film’s amiable leads are able to suggest chemistry in only a matter of minutes. And though Wynter hardly seems indicative of a small town girl, it’s strangely of little consequence. While their relationship is integral to the narrative it’s only suggestive of the broader issue at hand — this epidemic of mass hysteria that slowly ingratiates itself on the small town.

It’s a systematic takeover — a silent killer– that runs city deep from the farmers to the police and everyone else in between. It comes slowly at first, only evident from a few seemingly incidental cases of psychological duress and odd coincidence. Dr. Bennet has sick patients leave messages with him frantically asking for help, only to reverse their pleas for help later. Then Wilma insists her Uncle Ira isn’t the same. There’s something different about him that she can’t quite put a finger on. The same goes for a young boy who repeatedly runs away from home insisting his mother isn’t his mother.

Once more Dr. Bennet finds the behavior odd but isn’t ready to come to a conclusion on it. But the epidemic continues and pretty soon Miles and Becky are horrified to find a faceless body at the residence of their close friends. It’s at this point where the full-blown hysteria begins to deluge them as well.

They must fight to stay awake as they try and get to the bottom of this nefarious scheme. But that’s precisely it. These alien lifeforms are using human seed pods to duplicate and replace people. For all intent and purposes, they look, move, and talk exactly the same. But perhaps the most telling human characteristic is absent. Their sense of feeling. Their emotions.

And as Miles and his girl frantically flee the invasion it continues to become more and more obvious that this paranoia-filled chiller is putting a voice to the anxiety of the age. Both in Hollywood and elsewhere. Both because of the Red Scare and the backlash caused by Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. Because that was the fear. That the Communists were infiltrating us. We couldn’t see them. We couldn’t weed them out because they were too well concealed. But another horror brought up by this film are the implications of having those you know and love turn against you and betray you.

All of that is in this film whether you want to acknowledge or not. But on a more cursory level, it certainly delivers on the horror and it’s the best kind of horror that’s not so much popping out at us. In those cases, the scare soon dies. It’s gone. But in the case of Body Snatchers, the horror is much more insidious as it burrows further and further into our brains. It has us unsettled from the first frame and it does not subside really until the film is over. Even with a “happy” ending, that cannot fully neutralize the impact of this 50s classic.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Solaris (1972)

solaris 1.png

Now I can finally say that I have entered the cinematic world of Andrei Tarkovsky and I am better for it. Solaris somehow traces the lines of a paradox rather remarkably. It’s a sprawling epic of nearly 3 hours and yet hardly ever feels overlong. It moves through its rhythms contemplatively but never feels too slow. And though it’s a sci-fi story, it never loses sight of its human components which remain its guiding light to the end.

To Tarkovsky’s credit, he’s able to retain the film’s continual ability to mesmerize again and again and he never lets up. I know for certain viewers this will be dull monotony–even for me at times–but for others, it’s pure magic. Repeatably fascinating for both its enigmatic mysteries and revelations. Because it delivers both up willingly to the engaged viewer.

Like any master painter, Tarkovsky begins the film by laying down his base coats. We’re introduced to enigmatic psychologist Kris Kelvin while simultaneously accustoming ourselves to the director’s naturalistic imagery — glossy and distinct. It’s in these opening moments at the home of his father back on earth where the audience gains more insight and Kris prepares himself to mount a journey to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Only three crew members still survive there and the psychologist is being sent to check in on them and continue to expand the reaches of human knowledge. That’s the idea at least.

However, when Kris gets to the space station it’s far from welcoming, austere and dilapidated thanks to poor upkeep. Now only two crew members remain, the curiously odd Dr. Snaut and the cold cynic Dr. Sartorious. Both men will give Kris very little information about the general state of affairs. And he only learns later that his colleague Gibarian committed suicide for some inexplicable reason.

But the film enters its most perplexing stages when Kris receives a visit from a mysterious woman — her name is Hari and for reasons unknown to us, Kris is very close to her. And his emotional state from that time forth is constantly being manipulated by the presence of this special visitor. He’s frightened of her. Then in love and completely devoted to her well-being. And despite the adamant insistence of his colleagues, he will not believe her to be an apparition. He holds onto the fact that this woman in front of him who is constantly self-destructive and in the same instance totally devoted to him, is the woman he knows and loves. But the question is not so much whether or not that is true, but what Kelvin will do with all that has been thrust upon him as a result.

On the whole, Solaris is a visual treat but not due to grandiose visions of space.  Instead, Tarkovsky blends color and sepia footage into a patchwork while juxtaposing the environmental beauty of underwater vegetation with the dour interiors of the space station. And the suspension of disbelief is maintained through the use of simple special effects and the underlying fact that this film is not really reliant on pyrotechnics of any kind. It’s about people. An equally remarkable observation is the fact that Tarkovsky seems to be self-assured enough to have his characters play their roles with relative restraint. Numerous times they face away from the camera. In other films, directors would be afraid of such a tactic, but here it only works to heighten the amount of intrigue.

It’s a philosophical and psychological study that happens to take place on a space station. And that’s really like any of the great sci-fi movies of our times. They’re not really about science-fiction or technology or robots or any of that. They’re only another mode to tell the most human of narratives even in the outer reaches of the galaxy or in futuristic worlds.

It’s also highly reductive to call this Tarkovsky’s 2001. In deference to both films really. In fact, the director did not see Kubrick’s film until well afterward and I think I too would side with his conclusion that 2001 is a little bit too “sterile.” While 2001 is a decidedly grand narrative of exploration and technological advancement, you can easily make the case that Solaris is a film most precisely about the incredibly human emotion of love. Although it’s also about the human search for some kind of truth much in the same way as its predecessor, it’s also far more personal. Solaris feels more intimate and true — perhaps even more closely tied to some of Ridley Scott’s themes in Blade Runner. Particularly his examination on what exactly separates man and machine when they share striking similarities.

As far as sound goes, there is a score to Solaris, but Tarkovsky only utilizes it at the precise moments, more often than not foregoing typical music for either electronic distortions or perhaps even more boldly complete silence. He also gives nods to the great Flemish master Pieter Bruegel using his work in the set designs inside the space station.

Truthfully, it’s easy to peg Solaris as a pessimistic movie but it’s as preoccupied with morality as it is with the pursuit of knowledge. It’s as much about the innate human desire for love as it is psychological torment. And its ending strikes a note of poignancy and bitter despair in the same instance.  But if you want profound cinema that stays with you and marinates in your mind then look no further. I will certainly be returning to Tarkovsky sooner rather than later.

5/5 Stars

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

e-t-the-extra-terrestrial

I remember the first time seeing  E.T. and enjoying it immensely, though it never floored me. I felt the same thing this time around for no particularly justifiable reason. Good but, in my estimation, not great, whatever that means because those terms are equally murky. Still, the fact that there had been little change in some ways made me feel uneasy. What was I not seeing?

But then thinking about it more I latched on to this idea that made me appreciate E.T. far more than I had before. Like an epiphany, it came to me what this film really is. It’s a childlike fantasy full of personal notes from a director who just happens to be Steven Spielberg. That’s not much of a discovery, but the implications are great.

The story of young Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his chance encounter and befriending of E.T. is rather like a boy and his dog story. Except both characters are going through almost parallel situations and Spielberg takes it to the literal extreme. They actually feel each other in a sense. They are perfectly empathetic towards one another.  With E.T. the motives are most obvious. His ultimate goal is to “phone home” so that he might be reunited with those that he calls family. For Elliott, it’s also about home. His home life is a bit fragmented with a father who is vaguely mentioned to be in Mexico (although that’s probably not the case) and siblings who quarrel like siblings usually do.

However, it also struck me how this family really does care about each other. Little Gerty –a beyond memorable Drew Barrymore–is the quintessential 5-year-old sister. First frightened of, then intrigued by and finally faithfully devoted to E.T. And the older brother Michael teases his siblings as has always been the case since the beginning of time but he too invests himself in this adventure. Certainly, it’s out of charity towards this visitor from outer space but it’s undoubtedly also an extension of the affection he has for his little brother.

It’s also peculiar that almost all the secondary characters are very ill-defined and the antagonistic forces attempting to impede E.T. and Elliott are even vaguer. At first, this felt wrong in some regards– a potential sign of poor storytelling. But once more I was brought back to the unmistakable idea that this film really is a boyhood dreamscape. This is Elliott’s story and if it’s Elliott’s story, it’s even more so Spielberg’s own meditation on adolescence and his own childhood. The narrative is even said to have been inspired by his own imaginary friend as a child and his own dealings with a split household. And there’s also a hint of the Wizard of Oz here. There’s no place like home.

Thus, what becomes undeniably important is this dynamic relationship between this boy and his newfound friend who just happens to be from outer space. It’s quite simple. It’s childlike really. And that is and forever will be the beauty and allure that comes from this film. Families can watch it. Kids can marvel at it. Parents can soak it up. Because just as it is about a family–dysfunctional as they may be in their suburban life–it is also for families.

There’s the sheer mayhem of the shrimpy kid grabbing a kiss from the pretty girl in class as hordes of frogs hop by. The iconic magic of Elliott and his friends soaring through the sky on their bicycles, John Williams’ score dancing majestically in the background again and again. Even the fact that this extra-terrestrial goes from death to life is strikingly analogous to the archetypal biblical narrative that permeates our culture. It’s all spectacularly remarkable but rather than be skeptical we acknowledge it with almost wide-eyed wonderment, accepting it, accepting these people that we meet. And watching E.T. ascend back into the atmosphere with true awe.

I find it fascinating that only a few years earlier Spielberg was inspired to put Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters. In E.T. I see his closest approximation of the French director’s own thematic elements. To put it in terms of homage. E.T. is Spielberg’s version of 400 Blows, granted featuring space aliens, Star Wars, cultural references and so on, but they’re not all that different. They really are about the same core issues. It takes until after 400 Blows for Antoine Doinel to find love and intimate relationship with his wife. For Elliot, it comes with family, his brother and sister, and mother, and of course, with E.T. This is what has a lasting impact on Elliott and I could guess, with Steven Spielberg as well. But the audience gets to be a part of it too, an equally important  piece in this trinity.

4.5/5 Stars

Rogue One (2016)

Rogue_One,_A_Star_Wars_Story_poster.pngFor so many, there is a deep connection to Star Wars that started at an early age. As I have alluded to on numerous occasions, I am no different. And if I feel that way about even the prequels, it’s exponentially greater for the original trilogy, as I can imagine it is for legions of others. Thus, when I watch Rogue One I do not linger on its shortcomings, though they most certainly exist, instead, I’m fixated on that very same suspension of disbelief that overtakes me every time I enter that world, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

If Rogue One had been an unredeemable, thoroughly bad film I would have been the first to say so. Perhaps it sounds crazy (or to fans maybe not so much) but I am deeply protective of Star Wars. I only want fanservice if it’s logical, fits the parameters of the world, and so on. I’m not a voracious fact checker of every Star Wars Wookieepedia page known to man and yet I might as well be. I was one of those who was deeply defensive when Disney looked to shake up George Lucas’s original canon. Though I digress…

But even as it stands as a mediocre story with vague contours at times, Gareth Edward’s Rogue One is propelled by fun characters, space opera entertainment, and, of course, A New Hope nostalgia. For those very reasons, it’s invariably easy to lend a heavy dose of grace to this standalone entry. And that’s what I will do.

We are introduced to Jyn Erso at an early age which gives context to her later exploits. In fact, when the story flashes forward after traumatic beginnings she (Felicity Jones) is a prisoner — not on behalf of the Rebel cause — and she has no plan to help the Rebels anytime soon. But in this way, she becomes one of their unassuming champions receiving news from her father (Mads Mikkelson) that the Death Star must be destroyed and she must spread the word.

It leads her to join forces with Rebel scoundrel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his sarcastic droid co-pilot K2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). The bottom line is that all the various trips to planets and skirmishes with the Empire lead to a final showdown on the planet of Scariff where the ragtag group of Rebels lands a sneak attack on their unsuspecting enemy led by Imperial Director Krennic (Ben Mendelson). Meanwhile, a space battle erupts in the skies above and Jyn looks to transmit the vital plans to the Death Star before it is too late — so that hope might live on in the galaxy — and she does.

Not surprisingly, Rogue One has its share of callbacks involving the likes of Ponda Baba, Mon Mothma, and Bail Organa all returning to the Star Wars cinematic universe. And unused footage from the original film of Gold Leader exchanging callsigns is repurposed in the final offensive sequence as well. Although Grand Moth Tarkin and Princess Leia (the late Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher returning from 1976) somehow look like carbon copies of their prior selves, they nevertheless sound vaguely different, giving off this peculiar sensation that they are CGI constructions and not the real thing. Still, it’s a remarkably impressive piece of work.

Obviously, the main objective of Rogue One is simple from a narrative perspective. The Rebels must obtain the plans to the Empire’s Death Star because without those, A New Hope would not be possible. But in order to get there, there are other necessary outcomes that feel a touch more suspect. I can see the need for finding Jyn’s father since his work is so critical to the Rebellion’s objective. However, the idea of a main switch to open up communication, her father’s hologram, Jyn’s final push to broadcast the vital schematics by reaching an antenna, and yes, even Kyber crystals, all seem like easy fixes to explain away the need for certain plot outcomes. I am, however, still trying to come up with an explanation how that is any different than the Force, aside from the very fact that its balance is crucial to the entire galaxy. I’ll get back to you on that one…

Furthermore, the idea of hope comes center stage in Rogue One. In fact,  even despite the influences of eastern monism, Star Wars’ mythology reminds me of the Biblical text that reads like so, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” The same could be said of the Rebels. And people might scoff but in its resolution, the film even takes a page out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. That’s what makes this idea of hope so important because there could very easily be none at all with so much death and destruction.

My loyalty towards the franchise (more so than DC or Marvel or Star Trek) makes me also fear the continued mechanization of this world into a continuing box office cash cow. With film after film, story after story, it’s indubitable that Star Wars too will lose its allure. It will be run into the ground or become besmirched by some egregious plot hole, discontinuity, or for some far worse fates like the return of another Jar Jar Binks.

That is my major concern with Rogue One because with the absence of an opening crawl, what it really did was signal a changing of the times, a new seed has been planted as the extended Star Wars universe continues to germinate and grow. Time will indicate if it flourishes or sucks all the nutrients out of the vibrant creations that were given so much vigor by the likes of George Lucas, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, John Williams, and so many others. Only then will we see if this franchise is one with the force and the force is in it. Because with so many films, it’s difficult not to falter. Being both critical and an avid fan, I care all the more deeply about its fate. But for the time being, enjoy Rogue One and afterward slip in A New Hope again to be reminded exactly why Star Wars remains a cultural landmark.

4/5 Stars

The Martian (2015)

The_Martian_film_posterThe Martian is not the film you first expect. It’s a space thriller. It has tense moments assuredly, but it also has an astute sense of humor that pulses through the film as its lifeblood. It makes Ridley Scott’s latest endeavor, based on the novel by Andy Weir, all the more palatable because it lends a fresh face to space exploration.

I’m not sure if I quite buy Matt Damon as a scientifically savvy astronaut and world-class botanist, but he makes it go down easy with a mix of resourcefulness and charm. Despite the casting of Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, it soon becomes obvious that this is no Interstellar and that’s a good thing. Both films fly high on their own merit and both work due to their unique human component.

Our narrative opens on the metallic surface of mars where the crew of Ares III is going through their normal daily regimen as part of their expedition for NASA. As with any film of this nature, there must be a malfunction and a subsequent wrench in the plans. Initially, everything is secure enough, but a wind storm hits with a vengeance. In an instant team member Mark Watney (Damon) is pummeled by debris that sends him flying. His mission commander Lewis (Chastain) makes a last-ditch effort to search for him, but she must reluctantly call for an evacuation of her crew. They somberly begin their journey back to earth as NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) prepares to feed the news to the press.

Little do they know what is going on back on the red planet. Watney is alive and resolves to stay that way by taking stock of his resources, maintaining a video log, and beginning the arduous process of growing potatoes on Mars. It’s all part of a bigger picture, though, because he knows Ares will be returning on another mission. His time increments are denoted as Sols and he knows he has to stretch out his resources for well over 500 Sols if he’s ever to get back home. It’s going to be close.

Once they get over the initial shock, NASA’s mission control, led by Sanders and mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), look to do all they can to get to Watney in time. There are tough decisions ahead of them as they figure out when to notify Watney’s colleagues about his status, while also building up communication with the isolated astronaut so they can devise the best plan to reach him. All cylinders are powered up with the best and the brightest in NASA attempting to devise the most efficient solution, but everything comes down to some crucial tactical moves.

Watney on his part, maintains his good humor, grows sick of the ship’s vast catalog of disco tunes, and continues to cultivate his food stock, while also doing some creative problem-solving in order to prepare to rendezvous with the next mission. But time in this scenario is an evil bedfellow, and following the destruction of Watney’s cash crop and the annihilation of a NASA rocket carrying provisions, it looks like dire straits ahead. That’s when it comes down to a brainiac of an astrodynamicist (Donald Glover) and the crew of the Aries led by Commander Lewis to salvage the rescue operation.

By now it seems almost second nature for Ridley Scott to direct films in space and once again he looks perfectly at home in the vast expanses of the Milky Way. The trick, like any respected director, he brings the story down to earth. Back to the people who make up the story. And truthfully, the casting is ceaselessly interesting and Matt Damon might just be the most unsurprising pick of all. But going down the line we have the likes of Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, and Donald Glover. They each hold varying degrees of importance at different junctures in the narrative, but each one of them comes from a comic background. Thus, it becomes an interesting change in environment, because we get to see them function in a different type of capacity altogether. Otherwise, the film has a fun disco-filled, David Bowie-accented, ABBA-infused soundtrack that feels perfectly at odds with outer space.

The Martian goes out with a wonderfully fitting denouement giving a nod to all its cast members, continuing the ongoing exploration of space, and leaving us with some quintessential O’Jays. Who would have thought a film such as this would have ended with “Love Train” and “I Will Survive” back to back? It’s pretty fantastic. Mars is cool too.

4/5 Stars

Metropolis (1927)

MetropolisposterFritz Lang’s archetypal sci-fi epic is steeped in politics, religion, and humanity, but above all, it is a true cinematic experience. It is visually arresting, and it still causes us to marvel with set-pieces that remain extraordinary. How did Fritz Lang piece together such a gargantuan accomplishment? Maybe even equally extraordinary, how was I able to see almost a complete cut of this film, which was at different times thought to be lost, incomplete, and ruined?

Metropolis really feels like one of the earliest blockbusters, although I would have to further substantiate that. Still, it’s basic story is generally captivating following a young man named Freder from the upper echelon of society with a father who runs things. This young man is really in the perfect position to succeed, the way society is set up. He even goes to the preeminent school where all the boys are dressed in white. Little does he know in the lower depths the beleaguered, grungy, weary masses in black are slowly killing themselves with work. The machine that drives this society is never satisfied, always desiring to be fed more and more and more.

When the boy finally sees the reality of the infrastructure his paradise is built upon, he cries out in horror. This is not the way things are supposed to be. He eventually switches places with one of these workers and attends a meeting deep in the catacombs (an allusion to the early Christians), where the pure goddess Maria lifts the spirits of her fellow man. But of course, the evil inventor Rotwang is enlisted by Freder’s father Joh Frederson. Their own relationship is marred by conflict over a woman they both loved. Freder’s dead mother. And so the scientist looks to resurrect his long lost love, and he needs Maria to develop his plan. He kidnaps her and from her likeness creates a double, who goes out to wreak havoc on all of Metropolis. The apocalyptic words of the Book of Revelation ring true as the whore of Babylon deceives the masses and leads them to destruction.

But Freder is the Mediator, he is the Savior of his people, and he is necessary to bring peace and tranquility to a world that has descended into such brokenness. So Metropolis is certainly a film full of symbolic touches, religious connotations, and political commentary, but all of this is developed by Fritz Lang through an archetypal hero’s narrative.

Hollywood has become an industry seemingly so obsessed with story, screenplays, plots. Certainly, a film like Metropolis is at least adequate in that area alone, but what really sets a film such as this apart is its cinematic scope. The sheer vast expanses it fills. The scope it creates through its plethora of extras and encompassing sets is hard to downplay. How to describe scenes where water is literally breaking down walls and covering masses of fleeing children? Or smokestacks spewing out refuse while trains, planes, and automobiles pass by in every direction. People scattering this way and that, following the false Maria in a chaotic frenzy. It reminds us what the motion picture, the moving picture, is all about. The images that are brought before us lead to a suspension of disbelief because more importantly they are incredibly affecting. At the atypical 20 frames per second, they are images full of tension, full of energy, and full of life.

Metropolis-new-tower-of-babelIn a sense, with Metropolis, we can easily see a precursor to Chaplin’s Modern Times a decade later. There is a general apprehension of the machine and the impact of a true industrial revolution. There is a fear that there are more positives than negatives. That machines will take over and man will become outdated. Perhaps someday our creation will destroy us. By today’s standards, such notions seem archaic, but are they? We still live in a society ever more obsessed with advancement, technology, and all the things that come with that. However outdated some of Metropolis might feel, and there are numerous such moments, at its core is the final resolution that between the body and the mind there must be a heart to regulate. We are not simply animals with bodies or rational machines with minds, but the beauty of humanity is that we have a heart, pulsing with life and vitality. That is something to be grateful for and never lose sight of.

5/5 Stars

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex-machina-uk-posterThe film industry needs films like Ex Machina. They’re smaller productions, but that usually means they’re more audacious and oftentimes far more interesting. First time director and veteran screenwriter Alex Garland delivers up a story that takes place in an isolated, ultra-modern getaway that’s a helicopter ride away from civilization. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) gets dropped into this little piece of paradise thinking he’s won a huge honor, and in truth, he has hit the jackpot. He makes his way to this isolated locale and comes face to face with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the mastermind behind his little company. We don’t quite understand why Caleb was called in or what the following hours will look like exactly.

Nathan quickly clears up any ambiguity with one pointed question: “So do you know what the Turing Test is?”That begins the jumping off point for the entire narrative which is compartmentalized into different sessions of observations. It’s Caleb’s job to interview the one and only Ava (Alicia Vikander) over the course of a couple days to decipher whether or not she can pass the Turing Test. Yes, Ava is a highly intelligent A.I., but just how intelligent we’ll find out over the course of the story.

This is most of the film, but there are a lot of oddities that plant themselves in back of our minds. Who is Kyoko the maid? Is Nathan to be trusted? After all, Ava induces powercuts so she can talk with Caleb in confidence. Because she knows we act differently when unobserved — when all the eyes aren’t watching us.

Ava is strikingly metallic, mechanical, and still somehow incredibly lifelike. Nathan has developed her in such a way that she has attraction down to a science. She somehow exudes a robotic sexuality.  The trick is finding the perfect algorithm for action that is not automatic. Getting the precise equilibrium of nature vs. nurture.

The mind games delve ever deeper as Caleb tries to maintain a balance between his intellect and his own insecurities. Ava asks to question him, and the tables are quickly turned. Caleb is manipulated constantly and he himself manipulates. But he realizes too late that he served one function, only to be quickly discarded.

Ex Machina is fascinating as it spirals deeper and deeper into an abyss of deception and disorientation. It exists in that terrifying realm of the not so distant future, and while we are not there yet, it feels like we may be on the cusp of such a world. It brings up questions of man’s desire to be God and the dichotomy that arises between the creators and the created. The history of computer science arguably extends all the way back to Alan Turing, and it certainly has opened grand avenues of exploration. But with such power, including Artificial Intelligence, Search Engine Optimization, and the like, we are opened up to a far more perilous world. A world, where if we’re not careful we can lose all grasp of reality and all confidence in our fellow man.

4/5 Star

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Galaxy_Quest_posterGalaxy Quest might be a kitsch homage to all things Star Trek and Star Wars, but that’s the secret to its unequivocal success. It stands on the laurels of its campy fun which it wears as a banner like all the Trekkies and Star Wars fanatics it looks to pay tribute to.

The film opens in the days before international comic cons and crisscrossing social media connections when nerd culture was still highly prevalent, but perhaps not as refined, and dare we say trendy, as it is today. People dress up in costumes, dote over their heroes, and let the fantasy worlds flood into their lives. It’s like they forget those worlds aren’t real. Or are they?

The crew of the NSEA Protector has been off the air for well nigh 18 years, but they attend a Galaxy Quest convention in order to milk the franchise for all its worth. By now most parties involved are fed up with these shallow, superficial roles they were forced to dawn all those years ago.

Daryl Mitchell was the boy genius Lt. Laredo piloting the ship and has by now outgrown his part, only being remembered as the precocious kid he used to be. Alan Rickman is the intelligent Klingon-like Dr. Lazarus, and yet by this point in his career, he hardly deigns to play such a tacky part. He would be much more lauded on the Shakespearian stage, and he’s long been tired of his role as the only alien member of the crew. Tony Shalhoub is the crew’s even keel tech the very un-Asian Sgt. Chen. Meanwhile, Sigourney Weaver is the dumb blonde whose only job is relaying information from the computer to her commander, while in real life she’s assertive and miffed by Jason Nesmith’s cavalier attitude. She’s not the only one. And as the nucleus of it all is our Captain Kirk, our William Shatner, a pompous, showboating celebrity who doesn’t know when it’s time to hang up the towel, Jason Nesmith aka Peter Quincy Taggart.

The behind the scenes turmoil that they are going through is necessary and for these characters to find themselves they must go on a hero’s journey. They must actually go on a real galaxy quest and in the ensuing adventures they cease being actors donning roles begrudgingly, but they actually begin to believe in the parts they are playing. They grow closer to the people they portrayed on screen and as a result grow closer together as a real-life television crew.

The peaceful Thermian people represent all those alien species in the vast galaxies who have ever needed a savior. The crew of the Protector, although caricatures, represent all the heroic ensembles that have ever graced the silver screen. They’re petty, insecure, and unskilled, but they still manage to succeed and we’re cheering for them all the time with dopey grins plastered on our faces. Even Sam Rockwell, a young, insecure extra who doesn’t want to die at the end of the episode gets his chance, and as an audience, we wholly relate with the audacious nerd Justin Long who is able to help his heroes on their greatest mission yet.

Is this a tacky, sentimental, melodramatic space opera? Most certainly yes, and yet we would not want it any other way. What it goes out to do, it does very well and that is better than plenty of other parody films floating around out there.

“By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!”

R.I.P. Alan Rickman, you will be dearly missed.

3.5/5 Stars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_PosterAnyone who is at least a little bit familiar with ring theory knows that the Star Wars saga has often folded back on itself, with near-mirror images, similar plot devices, and obvious parallelism. It gives any fan a new found appreciation for the films, and with that mentality, The Force Awakens can be thoroughly appreciated.

Without a doubt, it is positively exploding with entertainment value, up and coming talent, as well as the old friends that we were looking to catch up with after 30 long years. However, this is not simply another installment, reimagining, or remaking of Star Wars (although Abrams does succeed in rebooting the franchise). This chapter is yet another refrain in the epic intergalactic ballad that is Star Wars. As such, it points to the future and recalls the past much like many ancient texts, fairy tales, and pieces of mythology.

In this film, we do see many things that hearken back to the earlier films, which makes sense due to the return of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan as well as legendary characters like Han, Chewie, and Leia (now known as General Organa).

The Force Awakens also introduces a lowly scavenger girl (Daisy Ridley), who is reminiscent of Luke Skywalker in her hero’s journey. A new evil has risen up in the form of The First Order, and the Rebellion has been replaced by the more progressive Resistance. They still have many of the same problems, however, like defying a menacing dark lord who is very strong in the force. There is also a giant battle station dubiously named “Starkiller” which dwarfs any previous Death Star. Young Rey must sneak around the colossal fortress much like her predecessors, and a meager fleet led by crack pilot Poe Dameron looks to find the one weakness to bring the menacing giant to its knees. We’ve seen variations of it all before, but whereas remakes get old all too quickly, our contemporary culture revels in the remix. That’s part of the magic behind what J.J. Abrams has done.

He’s left the framework: We have our obligatory opening introduction, there are the glorious orchestrations of living legend John Williams and numerous other familiar touchstones. In fact, it’s frighteningly familiar. We see the rubble of star destroyers and AT-ATs. Stormtroopers have a facelift, the Millennium Falcon is still kicking, and some of the planets strikingly resemble the likes of Tatooine, Yavin IV, and Hoth. A lightsaber in the snow brings back images of a Wampa’s cave from The Empire Strikes Back. Nightmarish hallucinations feel reminiscent to the caves of Dagobah, and plucky little BB-8’s secret map makes us think of all those years ago when R2 first took that message from Princess Leia. It all falls wonderfully into place.

But there is also so much that this film does that inches away from the original trilogy, without cutting ties completely. It brings in a new batch of capable stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. It gives us new pieces of backstory, more definition to this galaxy, while simultaneously creating characters, weaponry, and settings that little boys, and now girls, all across the galaxy will be emulating.

However, perhaps one of most profound aspects of the latest continuation of the saga is its diversity on so many levels. There is a strong female lead in Ridley, an ethnically diverse cast, and there are actually some juicy roles for actors over the age of 45. Aside from the newcomers and the vets, we are also treated to the likes of Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Gwendoline Christie, and even Max von Sydow. Most of them by now are well established, but each one explored different avenues with their characters allowing for greater definition and depth.

In fact, Mark Hamill has arguably the most enjoyable role, because he is the main driving force behind this whole tale (He also gets top billing to boot). Everyone is looking for him, and in this way, he’s rather like the Third Man, Harry Lime, a character who makes the most of a brief climatic cameo, due to the vast shrouded mystery that has been developed around his character. In this case, we are itching to know where he is and what he’s been up to. Why? Because he is Luke Skywalker! The last Jedi in the galaxy. Do you need a better reason?

Thus, The Force Awakens has some dour notes, but it most certainly is a narrative of beginnings, awakenings, and rebirth. We do not quite know actually where they will lead because evil still exists in the shadows and the light side has yet to bring absolute peace to the galaxy.

Star Wars VII is most everything that any hardcore fan or casual viewer could desire in a saga that bursts at the seams with cultural clout. The exciting part is the titillating prospect that there’s still so much room to grow and a lot more galaxy to be revealed. Perhaps it’s best that Abrams hands over the reins to someone else so they can try their hand at expanding the galaxy. But for now, he did a stellar job at bringing balance back to the force, at least for a couple years. We had a bad feeling about this, but we can all let out a collective sigh of relief. All is right in the Star Wars universe.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

eternalsunshine1In truth, I always thought this film had a well-suited title for its material. It was rather unusual and unique. There was not much more to think about otherwise. But when you actually think about it, whether or not you consider Alexander Pope’s poem from which it originates from, there is great truth that can be gleaned from this phrase “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.” In fact, it’s truth that points to the heart and soul of Charlie Kaufman’s story.

As humans who love and love to love, there is also the equally likely chance that we might lose that love, or have it come crashing back down upon us. Thus, if we lived with a mind never cluttered with such a thing as love and all the complexities, pain, and emotions that go with it, then could we not be forever happy? There would be nothing to darken our mood, as ignorance truly is bliss. Except in that statement, there is something inherently wrong, because to be human means to be thinking and feeling creatures of reason. Take that away from us and we are little more than animals. But with our minds, we can do so much that is worthwhile. Perhaps we get hurt in the process, and yet that brings to mind another long overused epithet. It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. It’s a paraphrasing of Tennyson I think.

This is a great place to enter into this film — this absurdly idiosyncratic vision of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry. Initially, the story of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a great mess — a great web of confusion. The tone is a bit melancholy only to be injected with a heavy dose of whimsy. A man quite suddenly boards a train and meets a free-spirited girl. It’s a meet-cute, and yet there’s a strange sensation that this is not the first time they have met.

Over time everything begins to fall into place just like memories hidden away in the human mind. In fact, that’s exactly like this film. Joel (Jim Carrey) is a subdued, often lonely man, who decides to get rid of his memories, especially when he learns that his former girlfriend Clementine has done the same. He just wants to be able to get over her. But as part of the process, all his past memories come flooding back from the most recent to the oldest. Each and everyone seems to include Clem in one way or another. It’s quite the strange sensation, although Joel does begin to get used to it. That doesn’t mean he likes it.

eternalsunshine2He swims in and out of consciousness between the past and then the present that is going on outside his head. The voices inside his head, or more aptly, the voices right outside his head come from two engineers (Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo) from a company in charge of erasing his memories. They create a map of them so they can remove the memories later.

Paranoia sets in as Joel’s past disappears, and he attempts to stop the inevitable erasing of all his recollections. They’re lucid dreams or more like lucid nightmares accompanied by paralysis. However, Joel goes off grid into the deep cavernous expanses of his brain. Entering places where his deepest desires and deep-seated feelings hide. It might be buried in his childhood, humiliating ordeals he was put through, or his most intimate memories of the girl Clementine.

This film is most certainly inventive, but it becomes endangered of relying too heavily on a concept or a gimmick in a way that gets in the way of the love story. Although that does happen at times, in general, Eternal Sunshine functions in great capacity. While being utterly original, it still manages to be anchored by the story of Joel and Clementine. That is due to the wonderfully restrained performance of Carrey paired with Winslet’s dyed-hair and unfettered turn as Clem.

eternalsunshine3Finally, the narrative folds over on itself again as Joel’s mind returns to the present — a present without any recollection of Clementine. They meet again and there’s a strange sensation in the air. It’s a true deja vu moment that has them befuddled and confused. Will they go through with their relationship even when they find out about their rocky history?

Perhaps the most troubling thing about Eternal Sunshine is that it feels liberating, but it’s liberation without the prospects of romance going anywhere. How do we know that Joel and Clem won’t fall into the same ruts they did before? However, maybe that’s exactly the point. Love often means taking risks and stepping out when it’s hard. The great unknown can be daunting, but without it, there could be no joy or hope in life, only mindless interactions with arbitrary meaning. Love is worth the risk for Joel and Clementine. It’s the same for most people. Therein lies the beauty behind it.

4/5 Stars