Science Fiction

Arrival

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Arrival (2016) – Science Fiction | Drama

Directed by: Denis Villenueve

Starring: Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner

How I Watched: Theatres

Best Line: “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

The events of the last two weeks have been rough on a lot of us. No matter which way you would like to slice it, the truth is that the world has fundamentally changed. Some of us are clinging to reality in a strange existential fog while others are sitting back and waiting to see what will happen. I’m not suggesting that writer Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villenueve saw the future when making Arrival, but I think it’s safe to suggest that they did a good job tapping into the anger, frustration and confusion floating like a cloud above our planet right now.

On the surface, Arrival is a pretty hard Sci-Fi film, borrowing elements from some of the most revered movies in the genre. For those who don’t know, the movie begins with an “arrival” as 12 mysterious and enormous objects suddenly appear across the globe without any apparent intentions. The US government enlists the help of language expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to perhaps obtain this intent. The film is unapologetic with its use of aliens and these are some of the better aliens I’ve ever seen. When it comes down to it though, Arrival  is a pretty great drama.

Those that have seen Amy Adams in movies like DoubtThe Fighter and American Hustle know that she can handle herself in a dramatic role. This however, is something different. Adams absolutely owns this film, delivering an incredibly heartbreaking performance that is both devastating and thought-provoking in the most mind-fucking way possible. We’ve all seen Inception and we’ve all experienced the occasional Shyamalan twist, but what Arrival gives us is a whole new meaning to crazy.

I’ve only seen a couple of Villenueve’s movies (I haven’t seen Sicario yet – I know, I’m just the worst), but Prisoners rocked my world with its twist-filled darkness. Enemy with Jake Gylenhaal is probably more closely related to Arrival with its utterly bothersome climax. Something that Villenueve is definitely great at though, is using darkness to stun his audience. Like David Lynch, his movies are dark, muted and a bit relentless in the shock value. There’s plenty of shock in Arrival so be prepared.

Speaking of shock, holy shit, the aliens. I won’t go too far into it, but the Lovecraftian brilliance that they put into these things was astounding. I talked to a friend last night that also saw the movie and he described them as “a big bucket of nope.” While I can see why someone would say that, I wanted to see more of them. Perhaps though, how Villenueve presented them was perfect, as their appearances did not take away from the incredible storyline either. However, if aliens frighten you, I’d stay away from this one.

The most important part of Arrival to me was the narrative concerning international relations. Amid the invasion, the countries in which a ship landed each investigated the ships in their own way. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that each country does not agree on how these ships should be handled, which leads to an all-out international crisis. This hit way too close for home for me, as my fears for how the world is currently treating itself looked a lot like this. I know, I know, it’s a movie about aliens, but this really struck a chord in me that I was not expecting walking into the theater.

I was a little stunned to find as much meaning as I did from Arrival. While it’s a really cool science fiction movie about aliens making first contact, it cleverly delivers a statement about the shape the world is in right now. I enjoy the way Denis Villenueve works and absolutely expect Arrival to shake things up this awards season. Science-Fiction is not generally treated very well at the Academy, but movies that have something to say with relevance about us as a species generally do. So don’t be shocked when this one gets heaped up toward the top.

Final Score: 4/4

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Similar Films: Enemy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds

Stranger Things

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Stranger Things (2016) – Science Fiction | Horror

Created by: The Duffer Brothers

Starring: David Harbour and Winona Ryder

How I Watched: Netflix

Best Line: “Mouth-breather.”

Stranger Things is technically a television program. What it plays like, however, is the best 7-hour movie that you’ve never seen. For this reason, I have decided to review the series as a film. Stranger Things begins all too familiar. We are immediately reminded of the Spielberg family-scapes of a 1980’s suburbia and given to a not-so-motley crew of nerdy kids that even The Goonies would probably bully. The 80’s worship does not stop there, though. Everyone enjoys a good helping of neon, John Hughes inspired feels and a good Reagan-era pop hit, but Stranger Things takes the decade and molds the story around it.

I was born in the 1980’s. Before I was 5, though, they were over. I can’t really say I know what the decade was actually like, but I’ve always felt a strange kinship to its music, movies and pop culture. So whenever someone makes the creative choice of setting their story in the 80’s, I’m usually intrigued. Donnie Darko did an excellent job making you feel like you were watching something made in the 1980’s and Stranger Things is no different. The music is blissfully extreme in its synth-heavy soundscape, evoking the most insane crescendos in John Carpenter films. The characters’ fashion choices are tamed but convincing, and even a lot of the architecture looks as though it was ripped from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Matthew Modine and Winona Ryder hold their respective places in 1980’s filmdom. Ryder is excellent as a grieving mother in the series, slowly descending into understandable craziness while she desperately searches for her son. Modine plays a soft-spoken and mysterious doctor in a laboratory on the outskirts of town, and his looming, often creepy presence grows as the show progresses. Perhaps the most impressive character among the show’s adults, though, is that of David Harbour’s Sherriff Jim Hopper. We’ve all seen Harbour before in small parts (TV and film) but this is really a breakout role for him, as he excellently guides the cast through the series’ ups and downs.

The real stars of the series though, are the four geeky kids mentioned earlier. Never have I been more impressed with children acting than I have with Stranger Things. Led by the spectacular Finn Wolfhard as Mike (who has been cast as Richie Tozier in the new 2017 incarnation of IT), these three boys never give up looking for their friend Will who goes missing in the first installment. Will does not get much screen time, but when he does, he steals every frame. The actors playing Dustin and Lucas are excellent as well, battling bullies and difficulties of middle school life as D&D loving dorks. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is also a really cool character and the focus on her storyline grows throughout the series.

I think what impressed me most about Stranger Things was its ability to take so liberally from those projects that inspired it, and make it its own original story. At times, you’ll feel you’ve seen certain scenes before, whether it’s the bike chase scene in E.T., an alternate universe in Poltergeist or Under the Skin, telekinetic abilities in Stephen King stories like Carrie, a synth-heavy montage in a Carpenter flick…the list goes on and on. Once you watch it yourself, you’ll probably even discover nods yourself that I never would have thought of. It’s really incredible how well the Duffers acknowledge their influences in this.

It’s hard to put into words how much I really loved Stranger Things. It’s become so easy to just sit for hours and “binge” on shows featured on Netflix. But when a project like this comes out and there are only eight nearly hour-long episodes, it really becomes a feature film. A couple “episodes” in, you’re going to be facing a tough choice, just like I did: “I know it’s late, but this is so damn good. I need to finish this.” I suggest you do just that before someone ruins Stranger Things for you.

Final Score: 4/4

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Similar Films: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, The Goonies, Poltergeist

Midnight Special 

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Midnight Special (2015) – Drama | Science Fiction 

Directed by: Jeff Nichols 

Starring: Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton 

How I Watched: Amazon Instant Video

Jeff Nichols makes a habit out of taking his viewers into a different dimension. Take Shelter lifted Michael Shannon into an otherworldly acting status and Mud further solidified this decade’s Matthew McConaughey dominance. In both of those films, it was easy to get completely absorbed into the stories. His characters, often seemingly simple people, can be frustrating, yet immensely likable. Shannon is fighting paranoid schizophrenia in Take Shelter, stricken with visions of an imminent worldwide storm threatening his family’s safety. In Mud, McConaughey quite literally takes shelter in the forest on an island in Arkansas. While both stories stay grounded, there are times in each which border on the unbelievable. I don’t want to say this film is unbelievable, but Nichols definitely has jumped into another genre with this effort.

Midnight Special tells the story of a young child with extraordinary powers and his father (played brilliantly by Nichols alum, Michael Shannon) who does everything he can to protect his son from all those who threaten his existence. From the beginning, the film is exciting, unnerving and incredibly mysterious as it ramps up toward the heart of the movie. There’s a creepy religious cult, car chases, shit crashing to earth from space and some breathtaking CGI that is refreshingly done right in today’s world of graphic overabundance. While it might not reach the emotional levels that Nichols’ previous two offers do, Midnight Special has earned its place in the world of modern Science Fiction.

The film’s ensemble is one of the most impressive elements of Midnight Special. Joel Edgerton shines as Shannon’s old friend, driving and protecting the father and son throughout the film. Adam Driver is not a huge part of the movie, yet provides some of the little humor that pops up. Kirsten Dunst makes an appearance, which seems questionable at first, until I remembered when she rocked the hell out of the transcendent Melancholia. This is not quite the emotional rollercoaster that Melancholia is, but it’s easy to compare elements of the two. I get annoyed by child actors quite often, but Jaeden Lieberher does a great job as Alton, the film’s focus as the young boy with supernatural abilities. Whenever I see Sam Shepard’s name in the credits, I know I’m in for a treat. He does not let down in Midnight Special, as the leader of the cult. His character is unsettling, and walks the tightrope that begs both empathy and hate.

As I mentioned previously, Jeff Nichols has a knack for creating his own worlds. Like Steven Spielberg, you know when you’re watching one of his movies. David Wingo (who has worked with Nichols on all three of his features) and his music in the film, oppressively drones at your emotions, only ramping up when the action does. The beginning of Midnight Special is strange, but delivers an important sense of wonder, much like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not much is said for quite a while and we as the viewers are left wondering where the story might move next. Little by little, the story comes together and is pieced together much like a 1980’s sci-fi flick (ala Spielberg) would be. Nichols ultimately abandons his typical penchant for leaving us suspended by the time the film comes to an end, but it still leaves enough to probably require a second viewing.

Midnight Special is the ultimate display of just how much Nichols is capable of with the appropriate budget. With more than three times the amount of money he was given to make Take Shelter, Nichols created a golden Science Fiction film that does not forget to keep the human element an active part of the story. While I feel it does not quite reach the level of Take Shelter and MudMidnight Special is a spectacular visual treat that lovingly takes from exciting sci-fi of yesteryear. If you haven’t yet experienced Jeff Nichols’ cinematic worlds, do yourself a huge favor and soak all of these in.

Final Score: 3.5/4

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Similar Films: Melancholia, Take Shelter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

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Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982) – Science Fiction | Action

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Starring: Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer

How I Watched: Blu-Ray

Best Line: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

The first time I saw Blade Runner, it was playing on cable in standard definition and it was the spectacularly underwhelming theatrical version. For those unfamiliar, Blade Runner has had a tumultuous history, and seven versions exist that we know of. I really enjoy Ridley Scott’s films, but after seeing that cut of Blade Runner, I had no real intention of watching any other version as it left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. What I did take note of though, was the world that Scott had created as well as the incredibly cool Vangelis score. So when I heard that a sequel was being made by a director that I really respect (Prisoners‘ Denis Villenueve), I thought I’d give The Final Cut a try. And god damn, I’m glad I did.

Perhaps it is not fair to dislike a film for something as minute as voiceovers, but when it comes down to it, this is the main culprit behind my disdain of the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. Harrison Ford’s narration is cheesy and comes across as condescending, as if we’re too stupid to follow the storyline. It almost reveals too much about Ford’s character Deckard, and strips away the natural mystery that Scott intended for the audiences. It’s a ham-fisted approach and honestly changes the tone of the entire film. Luckily in The Final Cut, this narration has been completely removed.

It’s obvious how much influence this film has had on the genre of Science Fiction. The neons and electronic score, flying cars, cascading skyscrapers, hyperrealistic androids and dystopian future are all on full display throughout Blade Runner. It’s easy to see why many consider this the peak of Sci-Fi film. Truth is though, this movie is more closely related to noir fims like L.A. Confidential or Chinatown.

The themes that Blade Runner address are deeply philosophical and grow exponentially larger once the film’s antihero Roy Batty (a ridiculously good Rutger Hauer) is introduced. Like many throughout history, Roy is consumed by the philosophy of what it is to be alive and those limits we must all face. I have a feeling that Ridley Scott underestimated Hauer’s acting chops and there is tragically too little of Roy Batty by the time the credits roll.

The set design is perhaps, Blade Runner‘s greatest cinematic achievement. The slow zooming aerial shots are incredibly breathtaking, and though at times you can tell that these shots feature scaled models, the detail is amazingly unbelievable. Scott created a world (with the assistance of H.R. Giger) that was almost revolting in Alien and a good amount of that carried over in Blade Runner. I’ve always been impressed with the dreamworlds in Terry Gilliam’s movies (none more than Brazil) and I get the same feeling from the set design in Blade Runner.

The score by 1980’s electronic virtuoso Vangelis, is one of the most important additions to the movie. I cannot imagine any other score than this synthesizer-soaked soundtrack sweeping over the shots of the dark dystopian metropolis. The neon-lit rain and absolute darkness are accompanied perfectly by the music and it gives a feeling of such wonder, that you can’t help but want to visit this insane landscape.

I’ve heard that “The Director’s Cut” version of the film is the next best way to go if you can’t get your hands on The Final Cut. Unfortunately, this version was not actually supervised by Ridley Scott and instead was rushed out to the public by the studio in 1992. I picked this version up on Laserdisc a few years ago, but did not watch it in fear of being let down by what was left out compared to The Final Cut. All I can say is, if it’s your first time seeing this movie, be safe and make sure it is this Final Cut. The theatrical version is relatively terrible to this and if you enjoy Science Fiction, you owe it to yourself to see The Final Cut.

Final Score: 4/4

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Similar Films: Looper, Total Recall (1990), Brazil