Robocop by José Padilha

Robocop by  José Padilha

Set in 2028 Detroit, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp seizes this opportunity to make him into a half-man, half-machine police officer.

With its combination of B-movie kitsch, sci-fi action and satirical social commentary, Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop was a product of its time. Having thoroughly enjoyed it as a child on VHS, I owned a Robocop action figure, played the Robocop video game on Gameboy and even faithfully watched the sequels without any sense that the stories started to deteriorate in quality. Initially the first film worked as a highly violent action film and it was only later as an adult that I caught on with the satirical bits.

Hearing about this upcoming Robocop remake, I wondered if those satirical elements would work again. Yes, technology today has now caught up with what was shown in the original film, but that doesn’t necessary mean there is anything substantial to be attacked satirically. I assumed it was going to be more focused on the action sci-fi elements.

But my prediction was wrong. The new Robocop gets right what I thought it would have fumbled, the social satire, and drops the ball exactly where I never would have expected, namely the Robocop story itself. The satire elements with Samuel L. Jackson doing a parody of Fox News, makes up for the most entertaining segments but it is the only condensed source of satire. The satire works and is surprisingly relevant, but it is not as naturally incorporated into its fictional world as the original. Every segment with Jackson’s TV host feels like a break from the main narrative.

Joel Kinnaman does a decent job with the material he is given, but the story is essentially not focused on Alex Murphy. The remake version of Murphy and he is not portrayed as a warm friendly guy like Peter Weller, or at least the story is not showing it. It is a long wait before Robocop officially becomes Robocop and does the Robocop thing, as we are shown the entire production process of his creation. It is here in the second act where the story starts to sag. It is also where the action scenes begin, which are decently designed and choreographed, but ultimately are dull because there is no gravitas behind them.

Abbie Cornish plays Murphy’s wife seriously, replacing Nancy Allen’s Officer Anne Lewis as Murphy’s anchor to his own humanity, is unfortunately wasted from having no character progression or payoff.

The R-rated violence was an essential element to the original Robocop, establishing great nasty villains and touched upon themes of dehumanization and human conscience versus the judgment of a machine. Whether the ultra violence is included in this telling is irrelevant. There are many things movies can get away with a PG-13 rating now than in the eighties. I do not need this remake to be ultra violent. What I want is the scenes to be emotionally gripping, and this did not achieve that.

The main debate between Gary Oldman’s kindhearted robotics scientist and Michael Keaton’s slimy Omnicorp CEO, representing the individual versus the corporation, is the heart of the film. And it is quite ironic actually. Even down to making Robocop black and riding a black motorcycle, visually reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (frankly, the original suit still looks cooler), Robocop plays like a film that has been workshopped by a committee of producers. Robocop, or as he referred to in the film, “the Tinman”, just needed more heart.

Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-Ho

Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-ho

 

In a future where a failed global-warming experiment kills off most life on the planet, a class system evolves aboard the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe via a perpetual-motion engine. Over time a class system evolves on the train, with the elites inhabiting the front of the train and poor inhabiting the back of the train. Tired of their poor living conditions, the riders in the back revolt, attempting to seize control of the engine.

First off, I love the international cast. This is the type of  international co-production that I like to see more of.  Considering the somber heavy tone of the story, it’s surprising that this movie was even made. Every actor fits their part and they all happen to be character actors in an ensemble piece.

Chris Evans makes an engaging lead, never letting his stardom get in the way of his character. Watching him play such a righteous character never once reminded me of Captain America, and that’s probably the best thing I can say. Tilda Swinton is wonderfully ridiculous. When she first appeared, it threw me off because it was so over-the-top. Her character seemed to belong in another film. I wondered if it was possible for someone like that to exist in that environment but as the story unfolded, Swinton’s commitment to her cartoonish portrayal changed my opinion.

Song Kang-Ho is always an entertaining presence. He is held back by a language barrier but that is not enough to contain his natural funniness. Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer both make a dramatic impact with their supporting roles. Alison Pill also has a memorable cameo that teeters between creepy and satirically hilarious.

Bong Joon-Ho tells a good proper social science fiction story. The metaphor of the train representing the hierarchy of social class was handled with subtlety. This could vary for other viewers, but the film’s ideas and themes never felt heavy for me. As the lower class move up each train car in a series of action set pieces, I found myself slowly detaching from what was going on and comfortably sinking into the film’s ideas (a problem I had with Edgar Wright’s The World’s End earlier this year). The story’s themes brought me back to the time when I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Animal Farm in high school. I thought about human nature, social class and the rich versus the poor, but never for too long because the characters were about to discover what’s in the next train car. The middle portion of the film does sag a bit, but Bong Joon-Ho delivers some nice twists and turns along the way.

I read the news about the Weinstein Company is trying to cut a shorter version of Snowpiercer for its upcoming American release. Even thinking in Harvey Weinstein’s terms (and believe me, witnessing the amount of Asian cinema has neutered by Weinstein for the last decade, I consider myself an expert),  I don’t see what he thinks Americans won’t understand about the social politics and story in Snowpiercer.

The only commercial concern that I can think of is the Korean language portions of the film because American audiences apparently dislike reading subtitles. Korean only takes up a small portion of the film. And actually, an universal translating device is aptly written into film for audiences that prefer to listen. That or Weinstein just wants to put down his authorial stamp for unearthing Asian cinema to the West. So don’t be patronized, if it’s available, please go see the original director’s version. It’s solid science fiction made with proper intentions by a cast and crew that are passionate about the material.

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Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

In my opinion, the key to making special effects convincing onscreen is designing the effect to look somewhere between real and unreal. When the audience can’t figure out what’s real and what’s not, they will believe it. This is what happened to me during Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

Since Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón takes his love of the long take and brings it to new levels. I couldn’t figure out how these long shots were accomplished.  The camera floats freely around the astronauts in space in long takes, occasionally shifting from third person perspective to first person. The camera loops, twirls, corkscrews around space, completely forgoing the human sense of up and down. It looked like the cameraman was really floating around with the actors. I knew that wasn’t possible. But eventually I tapped out and let the movie spectacle just wash over me.

As science fiction thematically explores the extreme potential of mankind, awe is an important component to every science fiction story. I was in sheer awe through the entirety of Gravity. Firstly, outer space and the beauty of Earth from a distance awed me. Then there was the solemn beauty of witnessing the space stations being decimated in space. I began to marvel at the destruction and momentarily thought deep thoughts. It was as if for a second I was watching waves wash ashore on a beach while reading J. Krishnamurti. Finally, I was awed by the fragility of human life. After all, all astronauts are just little fishes trying to survive out of their own habitat. The experience was otherworldly, self-reflective and dangerous all at the same time.

I walked into Gravity mistakenly thinking it was a George Clooney vehicle. To my surprise, it’s a Sandra Bullock movie. Sandra Bullock has always had a natural personable quality onscreen. Whether it was pining for her crush to awaken from a coma in While You Were Sleeping or driving a bus that’s primed to explode in Speed, she’s always able to draw the audience into her plight with vulnerability. Bullock’s characters never feel above the audience. Often this quality of hers get overlooked from having to play cheerful funny characters in romantic comedies.

In Gravity, that quality is used to its full extent. We watch as she struggles to survive a series of obstacles. Her performance is as immersive as the special effects. She draws you in completely into her plight. I wish more depth were given to her character. By the beginning of the third act, the film starts to run low on its spectacle and it came to the moment where more character was needed for a bigger statement. Gravity elected to stay with its spectacle and jetted for the finish line. It had a good ending, but it was missing that final thematic punch that answers, “What is this story ultimately about?” and “Why am I watching this?”

And for that, Gravity is a great gem and one exhilarating thrill ride. I am even happy that it was a great role for Sandra Bullock. I just do not know if the thrills will be as compelling on subsequent viewings. So in the end, it is not a masterpiece, but very awesome nonetheless.

About Time by Richard Curtis

About Time by Richard Curtis

About Time by Richard Curtis

At the age of 21, Tim (played by Domhall Glesson) discovers he can travel in time and change what happens and has happened in his own life. His decision to make his world a better place by getting a girlfriend turns out not to be as easy as you might think.

As a story that involves time travel, About Time doesn’t even follow it’s established time travel rules. The most impressive part of it is, the movie is so charming with human warmth, none of that even matters.

I found myself not even caring about the broken rules. In fact, to be honest, I was so charmed and immersed into the story and characters I did not notice the rules were broken long after the movie was over. Plot hole zealots will have a ball nitpicking this film to oblivion but those who do will completely miss the film’s point. Curtis’ interest doesn’t lie in science fiction spectacle; the time travel explanation itself is as unscientific as it gets.

Curtis’ priorities lie upon human matters, which brings me to the characters. The film is well casted. As a romantic lead, Domhall Gleeson has an everyman quality that believably would have struggles dating women. That’s a common complaint I have with a lot of romantic comedies generally. Glesson seems like a normal bloke whose charm needs time to grow on someone as opposed to being immediately charming with practiced swagger. Rachel McAdams is adorable and shows good comic timing. She’s played a similar role before in Morning Glory, which was one of my favorites that year. Again, unlike a lot of romance stories, McAdams’ allure doesn’t hang solely on her beauty. The Mary character is smart, funny and an interesting person. More importantly, she is the type of the girl one would marry and take home to your parents.

Bill Nighy is Curtis’s secret ingredient and is the heart of the film. It’s a subtle minimalist performance, as if Nighy played the scenes as honestly as he could without adding any character quirks or anything an actor would do to purposely chew up the scenery. Nighy is an amicable presence, is effortlessly hilarious with his deliveries and inflections of every piece of dialogue he’s given.

There’s also a great cast of supporting characters that cover a variety of character quirks that I don’t even want to spoil here. They all have their little arcs and I think it’s probably a better experience to discover them while you’re watching the film.

The main point is that Richard Curtis used time traveling as a metaphor to say something profound about life. He captures moments of life’s joy and sadness. In doing so, the film is more than the sum of its parts. I was warmed by Curtis’ optimistic view of life and the sincere message he conveyed in About Time. For a guy that doesn’t cry at movies, I can say that other people will by the film’s end. Heck, I probably would have enjoyed it more if I could roll a tear.

This is probably the one of the best movies I have seen this year. If it doesn’t stay on my top ten by the end of 2013, it would be very surprising.

Primer by Shane Carruth

Primer by Shane Carruth

Primer by Shane Carruth

Two friends, who perform scientific experiments as a hobby, accidentally discover a means of time travel.

If anybody has read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, you will know the workings of the Time Traveller’s time machine is never properly technically explained. The Time Traveller loosely explains his theory about time being a 4th dimension, pulls a lever on his time machine and is able to time travel forwards and backwards. That’s as scientific as the story gets. From a storytelling approach, like the exposition of the Frog DNA being the key to cloning dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, it’s important to give enough story information so the audience can suspend their disbelief but not too much or risk the logic collapsing itself.

Primer challenges this idea. Shane Carruth’s storytelling approach, much like his two main characters, is equally experimental. The realistic way he’s chosen to present the science is noteworthy. Is it more realistic than The Time Traveller pulling a lever to travel back in time? No. Because the science again is never explained in full detail. It’s the feeling of realism and science that’s put onto the story that makes it feel realistic. Many scientific discoveries in the past have been accidental and Primer puts the audience inside that drama through its two scientists Aaron and Abe. The technical jargon-heavy dialogue is probably as close to not having any exposition in a film ever. The effect is jarring because we don’t know what they’re talking about exactly. However, it refocuses on Aaron and Abe’s emotional reactions and that’s where Primer grabbed me. I believed that they were scientists and experienced their excitement and awe of their accidental discovery. I was on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what will happen next.

I’m glad I didn’t see Primer in theaters, as the last 20 minutes of the film really test your brain power as an audience member. The story shifts into 4th gear and crescendoes into a finale. I had to rewind the last 20 minutes and rewatch it a few times to understand what was going on. For that Primer loses some points in my book because the film assumes that it’s okay for the audience to be lost in Primer, it accomplishes that for the first two thirds. Whether an audience member follows along the last third of the film will ultimately justifies Carruth’s story experiment. For me, it proves that as non-cinematic as it is filling your story with exposition, it is still a critical component to storytelling.

That said, I applaud Carruth’s experimental exposition-less approach to storytelling. I believe the completed film is 100% what Shane Carruth set out to make and the fact that he achieved his vision for 7000 U.S. dollars is impressive to me.

Star Trek Into Darkness by J.J. Abrams

Star Trek Into Darkness by J.J. Abrams

The crew of the USS Enterprise meets an unstoppable force of terror from within Starfleet, Captain Kirk leads a manhunt to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction.

The central relationship between Kirk and Spock is the most compelling element out of the entire Star Trek canon. My peers frequently debate me about Star Trek: The Next Generation but my viewing experience of TNG has only been the movies. Unfortunately I missed it as a television series. For my money, there’s been nothing nearly as compelling and iconic as Kirk’s hot-blooded brash instinct versus Spock’s cold logic and the temperamental humane Dr. McCoy caught between them. I love what they each represent and their eternal triangular quarrel. They want to work together to solve grandiose problems but they all see different on the approach. Never does one of them ever solve the solution completely with their own philosophy and often it’s a varying combination of all three that saves the day. It’s about hearing people out, being unassuming and adapting to new ideas. When Star Trek: The Original Series debuted in the mid-60’s, Gene Roddenberry intended the original show to have a major political agenda and aimed to present an optimistic version of what man can be at their very best.

Much of the essence from Star Trek: The Original Series remains in Star Trek Into Darkness, it contains themes about colonialism, political intervention, foreign policy and terrorism. But it is there only if you want to read it. These themes are expressed in a muted fashion as the thematic discussions are always running parallel to major action set pieces. As if the material was like a shark that had to keep moving at breakneck speed or it will risk dying of boredom. Personally, I never minded those thematic discussions in the previous Star Trek films. A few more quiet moments wouldn’t have been bad either. Just saying. Now that J.J. Abrams is helming the next Star Wars movie, the “Star Wars vs. Star Trek” geek war that existed when I was a teenager might very well be over now. A Star Wars influence is present in the film and I ponder what elements Abrams will bring over.

The script is workshopped to an inch of its life. Heck, it’s indicative in the film’s “no colon” title. The fact that the writers have been quoted stating that “There’s no word that comes after the colon after Star Trek that’s cool.” has been clearly spent way too much time pulling their hair psychotically, obsessing over every detail and perfecting the story over coffee-spilled paper. Seriously, is there really a group of people out there that feels negative about colons after the movie title? Does that really justify warping (yes, pun intended) English grammar? This sounds like ranting but I really mean this as a compliment to their supposed geek madness.

The cast delivers as they did in the previous installment. I do think having watched the previous installment helps immensely as there are not a lot of character building moments for everybody. But the actors are all well casted in their roles and fortunately every crew member still has something to do. Zachary Quinto shines as Spock and his friendship with Chris Pine’s Kirk is a believable one. Their friendship is the heart of the movie. Simon Pegg gets to do something new as Scotty. Benedict Cumberbatch is a great villain. He owns the audience. One minute he is savagely evil, the next minute we slightly sympathize with him and then he shifts again. On that note, I can’t wait for Sherlock season 3.

This is a very ambitious film that has a lot of things to accomplish. It’s trying to deliver a story with multiple characters, please both the non-fans and the fans, go to new territory but also honor the spirit of the original series. The film essentially wants to have its cake and eat it too but it accomplishes it really well. If J.J. Abrams’ gave any more pop culture nods as he does in this film, his head would fall off. I cheered at the spectacle of the action scenes, laughed at the in-jokes, and almost cried at the film’s climax. It doesn’t go to new territory as much as the first one and I hope they do go somewhere new for the next installment.

I want to see it again and look forward to the third installment. Hopefully it won’t take as long as this one.

Oblivion by Joseph Kosinski

Oblivion by Joseph Kosinski

A veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself.

Unlike a lot of science fiction films that often have busy mechanical designs and crowded backgrounds, there is a very distinct simplicity to Oblivion’s production designs. The empty barren Icelandic landscapes, machines and buildings built in straight clean lines and the bright daylight all help create an effective atmosphere. The film is beautifully shot and finds a natural beauty in post-apocalyptic destruction. Often I found myself just gazing upon the landscapes and felt awe watching huge robotic monolithic ships harvesting the Earth’s water. Oblivion should definitely print a production art book.

The best performance in the film is Andrea Riseborough’s. A lot of the intrigue and mystery of what’s really going on behind this world is built from Riseborough’s performance. The intrigue is built so well that the beginning section with her and Tom Cruise makes up for the more interesting portion. She plays a very fine line between someone who is concealing a secret or not wanting to know the truth. As the audience, we cannot tell which one it is.

There are little Americanisms in the film that are problematic. At the beginning, Tom Cruise’s character lands an aircraft on Earth. As he gathers his gear, he puts on a New York Yankees baseball cap. Why? Even if it were a blue-collar habitual daily routine, why wouldn’t he have put it on before flying the aircraft? Wouldn’t there be more sun in the sky than in the ground? It’s not a big deal, and it took me out of the movie a bit.

Oblivion draws upon a lot of science fiction films in the past. Example? Let’s just say Tom Cruise jogs on a treadmill that is not rectangular. For that, science fiction fans may have a harder time enjoying Oblivion as they may fall into an accidental game of ‘spot the reference’. I personally didn’t have a problem with that. It doesn’t bring anything new to the science fiction genre but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Looper by Rian Johnson

Looper by Rian Johnson

Time travel is invented by the year 2074 and, though immediately outlawed, is used by criminal organizations to send those they want killed 30 years into the past where they are killed by “loopers”, assassins paid with silver bars strapped to their targets. Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper, encounters himself when his older self (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to be killed.

First, to get this out of the way… the Bruce Willis make-up on Joseph Gordon-Levitt did not bother me. I stared at it for a while and eventually my eyes tuned to it. I can understand people being distracted by this but it ultimately works as a story device.

In short, Looper is a well-made science fiction actioner that asks its big questions while retaining its fun factor. The best thing it has going for it is that the film is hyper aware of movie genre conventions and chooses to play with them.

Ten minutes into the film, I was suddenly becoming very aware of the film’s influences, including Blade Runner, Terminator, and a Twilight Zone episode called It’s a Good Life. (There probably are more I haven’t named. I invite you to name more.) By the second shift, I was aware that this is part of the film’s design. Most movie-going audiences are pretty familiar with film genres at this point. Looper is aware that your mind is thinking back to another film you have seen, and the film uses that thought train to surprise you. Every time I had an idea of where the story was going, the film would mutate it’s genome, tonally shifting into a completely new territory of genre.

I have read that the genre shifting has been the major reason why a lot of people dislike the movie. It didn’t bother me because what really won me over ultimately was the film’s energy. Yes, the film a crackling independent film feel to it that was visceral and fresh in how the story was told and paced. Every time the story made its tonal shifts, I was renewed with excitement and found myself going along with it again and again. I even found myself excited by the camera movements during an action scene, particularly what they choose to show on and off camera.

The common time paradox issue in time travel stories is addressed by literally having a scene where its two leads sit down, discuss the science of it and arrive to the agreement that it does not make a lot of sense, but ask the audience to go along with it anyways. And that’s the key point to whether audiences will enjoy Looper: whether you choose to go along with it.

In the end, the pacing never lets its big existential questions settle in to ever let you really ponder deep thoughts about them, but that’s the point. It’s delivering a fun ride. And it’s plenty fun!

Oh, and by the way, Jeff Daniels was a great villain.

Prometheus by Ridley Scott

Prometheus by Ridley Scott

In the late 21st century, the crew of the spaceship Prometheus follow a star map discovered among the artifacts of several ancient Earth cultures. Seeking the origins of humanity, the crew arrives on a distant world and discovers a threat that could cause the extinction of the human race.

First off, I am proud to say I was not a victim of all the hype and it was definitely a much better film-going experience having not having seen the film with too much worked out in my mind. Now on with the review…

Awe is a very important component for science fiction films. Thematically science fiction deals with both the potential and limit of mankind, reflecting who we are as human beings if there were no bounds to our ability to accomplish good or heinous things. For example, seeing a spaceship soaring through space or a planet get blown up should both evoke awe. From frame one I was instantly awed by the world created in Prometheus. Using real physical sets and locations over computer generated ones really makes a big difference. I was marveled by the space of the world and was ready to explore it along with its characters. Thanks, H.R. Giger!

It’s been a while since we had a true science fiction film asking big questions. Does God exist? Who am I? Who made me? Why did he make me? How would he see me? Every character represents in the story a different argument against all these questions. Although we are given a conclusion for all these questions on a narrative level, the film never really provides an answer to its big thematic questions and I loved that.

This is one of Rapace’s better-suited parts that I have seen her play as she has a lot more emotions to play compared to a role like Lisbeth Salander. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is not “Ellen Ripley Deux”, she is clearly playing her own original character. If there are any similarities, it’s that they’re both well-rounded female characters that both show moments of vulnerability and strength.

Michael Fassbender is captivating as the android character David and interprets playing a robot creatively through physical choices. A delicate weightless walk, a constant neutral tone to his voice and facial expressions that don’t quite match what’s being said. The audience is left constantly guessing, “What is he up to? Is he being deceitful? Was that a joke or did he really mean that?” He plays up the ambiguous non-human nature of a machine and adds to a lot of the mystery of what’s going on in this world.

As a side note, is the Blade Runner sequel from Ridley Scott necessary at this point? The “can a robot be human?” theme established in this film can be totally explored possibly in sequels with the David character.

There’s been a very common complaint about how the characters act very unscientific for a group of scientists. I have thought about this argument even though it didn’t occur to me upon my first viewing because I was absorbed into the film. I will say this as a counter argument: Prometheus, as the title suggests, is a cautionary tale. The characters are meant to do all the wrong things and pay for it. It’s a rule of the genre, it’s the equivalent of someone checking an odd noise in the attic in a horror movie. Now you might say that that’s not an excuse for bad characterization, I agree. But if people are noticing stuff like this, I think the movie probably failed to engage you on some level. It was not the case for me and I didn’t have a problem with it.

What will ultimately divide audiences about Prometheus is the fact that it is a movie embedded with dual goals in its DNA. There’s the Alien prequel and the Prometheus movie. Personally I was much more fascinated with the Prometheus portion. Some may think that Prometheus does not answer enough questions about Alien. I agree and disagree. It does provide you answers about the events in Alien but it gives it to you in the form of creating more questions. Personally, I would have preferred fewer answers. I’m more interested in the questions.

Bring on Prometheus 2!