Disney’s history of imagination is unparalleled, but the studio’s shaky track record of sci-fi is paved with the likes of The Black Hole, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Tron Legacy. So the squandered opportunity for redemption is mighty in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (C-), an ambitious film that is full of ideas but misses the mark on executing most of them. The vapid protagonist played by Britt Robertson speaks mainly in cliches, and when she partners with George Clooney in what is basically an extended cameo, he doesn’t add much either to the proceedings aside from faux Han Solo gruffness. There’s lots of overreach about saving mankind from its own destiny, but Bird doesn’t do a good job outlining the plot to properly take audiences along for the ride. What’s left are a few lovely nostalgia scenes, some half-sketched visions of the future, some awkward robots (TV’s Small Wonder was more believable) and an underdeveloped sense of majesty. The film, overstuffed with good intention, is mostly a bloated bore.
The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending (D+) commits the biggest sin in the movie universe: it was a bore to the planet core. Cribbing elements from Dune, Flash Gordon and others in the space opera milieu, this talky tale of an Earthling (Mila Kunis) who gets engulfed in a galactic struggle with a campy villain (Eddie Redmayne) and wrapped up in a forbidden romance with a wolf-eared servant on flying sneakers (Channing Tatum) is lumbering and uninspired.
Christopher Nolan’s ambition exceeds his reach in the often glorious and dizzyingly satisfying outer space adventure Interstellar (B+). Matthew McConaughey valiantly anchors the film as a widowed father and retired pilot living on a midwest farm who gets activated into a journey to find an inhabitable planet for the future of the human race. The stakes couldn’t be higher, setting the stage for epic human emotion and a plot that operates on a dual time continuum of earth and a place beyond the stars, not all that unlike the director’s Inception in which the latter realm was the dreamscape. Michael Caine, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow and David Gyasi are among a very effective ensemble bringing credibility to an often arcane and sometimes pondrous story. In contrast, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain inhabit somewhat problematic characters with odd intentions and impenetrable subplots, respectively. The film’s first and second act are near perfection both visually and thematically, and the final act just can’t sustain the sense of wonder. Still, the early earthbound segments have the heft of Steinbeck by way of Spielberg, and the bulk of the outer space sequences glisten with the majesty of Herbert by way of Kubrick. The film’s heady mix of science and mental puzzles is infinitely resonant and adds up to a near-masterpiece. But as the space dust settles, there are inconsistencies, unexplained motivations and other overlong passages that reflect missed opportunities. Overall, an intriguing premise, fine acting, an engaging story and incredible technology effects put this film in hyperdrive against any others in its category and make for a splendid voyage of mind-boggling proportions.
Luc Besson’s Lucy (C-) has momentum and drive and a super-cool premise; it just doesn’t really know where to start or end. The film theorizes that if people could harness one hundred percent of the potential that lies in the human brain, they would be omniscient, omnipresent and a little nuts. As the titular character, Scarlett Johansson has to singlehandedly carry a lot of the film’s far-fetched notions on her slim shoulders as she’s made an unwitting drug mule for a substance that allows the mind to be used to full capacity. Her backstory is uninvolving, and her quest is never really properly revealed. She’s seemingly on a race against time to beat Besson’s incessant title cards that keep showing the percentage of her brain that are now in full effect. Stock mobster characters and a ponderous Morgan Freeman as a university scientist studying this very phenomenon seem to be the most obligatory of elements in the film. Some of the action and effects are pretty nifty; some are even mildly mind-blowing. But with the brain all revved up with no place to go, it’s a pretty spectacular letdown to find the film isn’t half as smart as it thinks it is. 60%?
A dystopian sci-fi action film about a rebellion aboard a train carrying the last survivors of an uninhabitable future earth, Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer (A-) is a corker of a thriller with twists around each and every turn. Chris Evans as the reluctant hero has never been better, and Tilda Swinton is inspired casting as a vampy villainess. Darker and artsier than most mainstream fare, this is a triumph of production design with a series of staggering moral choices that provide an adventure for the mind. Each train car unlocks amazing visual treasures or shocking discoveries, and it’s a testament to all involved at what a spectacular steampunk world has been so thoroughly rendered within its lengthy locomotion. Although it can’t quite hold its amazement through parts of the final reel, it genuinely ups the ante and delivers a robust journey. Amidst the genuine excitement of downtrodden denizens’ quest to reach the front of the train and possibly unseat the rule of a sinister regime, there is significant commentary on class structure and what people will do to survive. This is sci-fi of the first order, imagining genuine possibilities with complex and distinctive emotional grandeur.
A confusing title, the presence of the recently hit-or-miss Tom Cruise and a dark-looking paramilitary milieu are disguising what is actually one of the most clever films of the year, Doug Liman’s Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow (B). After a bit of a slow start in introducing a future in which warfare is being waged on the European front against squid-like aliens, the story injects a potent mixology of “mimic biology” and game mechanics to allow its reluctant hero to relentlessly reset his days to achieve victory over the earth’s invaders, even if it means dying again and again. Instead of playing his traditional alpha male role, Cruise gets to evolve into his heroism, and he does so with some deft comedy and bright, self-effacing acting choices. Emily Blunt is a fierce presence as the military might of the adventure and makes a sly foil and muse to Cruise. Video game players will relate to the idea of maneuvering scenarios until sequencing a path to success; and fans of the old choose-your-own-adventure books will relish the alternate realities afforded by the film’s central conceit. It’s a smart, action-packed spectacle; and while not as precise or enticing as an Inception, it holds its own in the category of sci-fi mind-benders.
For any creative person who has felt for a moment that they have impulses their contemporaries just don’t understand, there’s a spectacular new movie for you. Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (A) chronicles the extraordinary tale of a cult filmmaker (Alejandro Jodorowsky) who decides to follow up his underground sensations El Topo and Holy Mountain with an ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi bestseller in the mid-1970’s, and his vision is in nearly every way clearly before its time. Like a filmmaking Dorothy Gale, he rounds up talent ranging from Salvador Dali to H.R. Giger to David Carradine, Mick Jagger and Pink Floyd for a consciousness-awakening opus that was alas never to manifest. Through the ebullient storytelling of the dreamer at the heart of the story and his collaborators’ marvelous artwork brought to life, this film gives a sample of the visionary work that could have been. In chronicling the director’s failure, the movie shows the power of unlocking doors to the imagination, being true to your spirit and heeding the inner voices of creation. There have been movies made about the struggle of making movies that did and didn’t happen (Francis Ford Coppola and Terry Gilliam have been subjects), but this one was one of the best representations of conjuring the spirit of creativity and collaboration. It made me wish Jodorowsky’s outer space saga had been made, but the telling of this story – and its unintended effects on the template for the past 40 years of the global blockbuster action film – will bring the spice of life to anybody who savors wonder, surprise and inspiration at the movies.
After the novelty wears off of actually seeing Johnny Depp not pancaked in makeup and sporting an outrageous accent, it is disappointing to see that he’s one of the weakest links in a series of bad choices in a sci-fi thriller being unceremoniously dumped in a spring release time slot. First-time director Wally Pfister proves not quite up for the job of helming the complex Transcendence (C-) as sequence after sequence unspool with lethargy, lack of inspiration and flat-out loopy logic. Depp’s scientist character battles his own God complex as he uses his artificial intelligence technology to extend his life. As his long-suffering wife, Rebecca Hall isn’t very good either and makes some exasperating unexplained choices. Paul Bettany gets perhaps the only lucid speech in the whole film as the protagonist who may be able to make sense of matters. Overall, it’s just a bit too drab and goofy given the heady themes it contemplates, and the proceedings aren’t helped by dated effects and a leading man who’s hard-wiring his performance in. There are so many other ways this exact same script could have been realized brilliantly by a different cast and crew. As it stands, it’s not romantic enough, exciting enough, eccentric enough or wondrous enough to transcend its likely word of mouth.
Although it is most potent in its first hour, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (B-) is a sturdily crafted allegory about the haves and have nots of a dystopian future. Matt Damon oozes Everyman charm as the hero, and Jodie Foster chews the scenery of her frosty, somewhat underwritten villainess role. The best parts – the heady, political stuff, dissipates into brief action set pieces toward the end. The effects and art direction are strong throughout. Very good at times and altogether just a bit less than the sum of its ambition. Still recommended.
Gueillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim starts out as an A, drifts into a C and ultimately becomes a better-than-average B movie. The geek-tastic premise: to fight gigantic sea monsters, the nations of earth have created huge robots co-piloted by warriors who mind-meld to spar with the modern-day godzillas. Charlie Hunnam is earnestly appealing and the creature effects better than average. The flick is best when it espouses its bizarro mythology or plumbs the depths of the protagonists’ emotions, even though most are just Starship Troopers deep. Still, it’s a worthy adventure yarn and should appeal to the 11-year-old-boy-brain that yearns for a summer movie that is filled to the rim with adventure.
Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (B+) is an amazing hybrid science fiction action film and part dramatic mockumentary that chronicles the ghettoization of alien life forms in Johannesburg. Sharlto Copley holds together most of the scenes with human interactions, spliced with news footage and a series of interviews as illegal experiments are exposed and as a battle ensues. It’s an intriguing metaphor for Apartheid and a whole new way of making an alien movie.
Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield (C) is a mash-up of found footage horror movie and a Godzilla action film, but the you-are-there format fails to impress, and the lizard fails to scare. It just feels a little tedious and cheap and is better remembered for its pre-release hype and buzz campaign. A game cast including Lizzy Caplan and T.J. Miller doesn’t have much to do as young New Yorkers start off celebrating a friend’s farewell and then fleeing for their lives. There are a few passable action sequences and occasionally some nice camera trickery, but it doesn’t add up to much. We want to exclaim, “It’s alive…” but really it’s just ok.