Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (B-) is full of so many good ideas, many germinated by the late Stanley Kubrick for decades, that it’s a shame the final package is a bit, well, robotic. The story starts off with Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards adopting an android child, played by Haley Joel Osment, but they ultimately reject and abandon him to a cruel world of robot runaways (Jude Law plays a cyber-gigolo who befriends the tin tyke). The imagery cribbed from Pinocchio as the central character pines away to become a real boy is haunting, but the enterprise doesn’t seem to know what its viewers’ key takeaways are supposed to be. Both the humans and the androids in the film are equally unappealing, but the flickers and flights of fancy help the film occasionally rise to its ambitions.
Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (A-) is a cautionary sci-fi thriller about two men played by Ethan Hawke and Jude Law in a future world in which one’s aspirations are dictated by genetic makeup. Hawke’s character has defects that will hold him back from his dream of space travel, and ultimately he devises a way to escape his overly engineered future. Uma Thurman is exceptional as his love interest. All actors are strong in this thought-provoking piece, including Ernest Borgnine in a small role. Jan Roelf’s production design, Michael Nyman’s score and Colleen Atwood’s costumes are all central to the gorgeous look and feel of this magnificent film.
Barry Levinson’s Men in Black (C) is a warmed-over, less-funny Ghostbusters, as two clean-up artists (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) rid NYC streets of pesky aliens. Smith has some witty lines, and there’s a cute dog. Not much more to offer!
Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (A) succeeds on the power of its leads’ Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey’s central debate of science and faith as they explore the notion of finding life outside earth in the universe. The film’s powerful performances and effects are used at the mercy of its central questions and get a nice payoff in the film’s final reel.
Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi outer space creature feature send-up Starship Troopers (B) is both an exciting tale of fresh-faced young people fighting galactic aliens and a parody of such films. It works best if you simply succumb to the silliness. There are no acting standouts in this one, just wall-to-wall action. It’s well-filmed pulp and exactly what a B-movie should be.
This is the way the universe ends. It’s a far-fetched frontier where the tenets of good filmmaking hyperwarp into an otherworld of haywire folly. Transcending earth, wind, fire, ice and more, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (F) exists in a sphere of stupidity reserved only for the rarest of films. Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman are poorly used, and Chris Tucker is so thoroughly grating that I wish in space no one could hear him act. Not just a bad sci-fi flick, it’s also a bad absurdist comedy. In general, for a bad time, take the Fifth.
Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (B) is far-fetched craziness about an Alien assault on America, complete with an iconic explosion of The White House. But somehow when Will Smith and Bill Pullman board planes to kick some alien ass, there’s a strange swell of patriotism of something that makes this a fun and seminal film entertainment. Quirky performances by an eclectic cast including Harvey Fierstein, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Connick Jr. and others help make this modern-day disaster flick resonate even though most everything in it is pretty preposterous.
Sometimes comic timing can save the day. A ragtag romp about a duo of Valley guys who embark on time travels through history to help bring order to a world gone mad, Stephen Herek’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (B+) shouldn’t be as charming as it is. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are gleefully goofy as the likable leads whose superficial encounters via a phone booth travel vessel with the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Socrates (their pronunciation of his name rhymes with “no gates”) provide funny fish out of water vignettes. George Carlin is amusing as the buddies’ temporal concierge. The effects are cheap and some of the laughs really obvious, but it’s mainly gleeful fun, like a feature-length crowd surf. There are many more triumphant films in this genre, but the movie’s distinctively dense leads help it coast into cult status.