Anon (2018): A Concept That Nearly Pays off

        “Anon” is very much a Philip K. Dick book. This was a man who had great sci. fi. ideas but you never cared about his characters in the end. The adaptations I’ve read have always been better in their adaptation (“Minority Report” and “Blade Runner” as prime examples). He just didn’t get people or empathy, and this film has that exact problem. I’ll get more into that later but I think most of the problem lies in execution. This was a Netflix original with a great main cast, but that wasn’t enough to make it anything more than enjoyable.

The film was directed by Andrew Niccol who also wrote the film and was one of the producers. This is really his vision at the end of the day, and it’s a start. I really wish there’d been more though.

The story follows Sal (Clive Owen) a divorcee dealing with feeling for his ex-wife and a mystery of false suicides. This is a future where all memories are recorded and all the past appear as hacked with the only connection being “The Girl” (Amanda Seyfried). From here he must find out who she is as she murders people connected to her past.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – A world where your memories are recorded. It is very much “Minority Report” in idea and feels like a Philip K. Dick novel. I like it, he created interesting worlds that would drive anyone to paranoia as it did him, and that is something worth exploring. Who wouldn’t want to revisit their past memories clearly? If you have the good memories of the past, why would you leave that up to a dying mind? This core idea is what makes the film work, and is really the only thing that does. Like a Philip K. Dick novel, the world is far more interesting than how the protagonists are expressed.

The Main Characters – I like Sal and like “The Girl.” Both of them are driven to be better but consumed by past mistakes. They work, it is sad they weren’t in a better story as each of them could have changed this world or themselves in major ways that never happens. Each has charisma that the writer did not fully use. You have divorced Sal and his past trauma and you “The Girl” in deep with a corrupt world that she ends up having little control over. I still found the characters worth at least passively following. I guess, if you need an escape, it is worth it for Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried.

Okay:

The Plot – The core mystery is alright. “The Girl” hacks peoples minds and makes them kill themselves and wipes all memory of her even being present. Who she is and Sal’s hunting her down with his agency is the premise. Within this Sal is divorced and has a drinking problem. I thought the plot was okay but it needed more. Sal’s trauma should have been explored more and in the end we never get to know “The Girl.” She doesn’t even have a name and even though the things she does are interesting, we never get deeper motivation.

Don’t go into this film expecting great, it isn’t. If you need a quick escape “Anon” might be your jam. The execution isn’t as nearly as good as the premise, but the cinematography and acting is enjoyable and it is a fun world, even though it needed a lot more fleshing out.

Final Score: 7 / 10

Advertisements

Upgrade (2018): An Amazing Sci. Fi. Thriller Worth Your Time

   “Upgrade” is a really great film. This is the kind of film that reminded me so much of “Ex Machina” as it deals with a similar exploration of Artificial Intelligence and what makes a person, which any story exploring personhood and identity is something I am always intrigued by. These are ideas that when pulled off well, lead to unforgettable films, and “Upgrade” does not disappoint.

The film was directed and written by Leigh Whannell. He’s written a lot of horror movies mostly, like the “Saw” Franchise and “Insidious.” This film certainly has horror elements but is more of a thriller.

The story follows Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) a stay at home mechanic. When his wife Asha (Melani Vellajo) is killed and he is paralyzed in a mysterious attack. After the attack his enigmatic CEO client Eron gives him STEM, an A.I. that makes it so he can walk again also can communicate with him. With new drive he seeks out those responsible for the killing of his wife.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world is a sci. fi. future where there are self driving cars and areas of extreme tech. advancement and desolate poverty, such as where Grey grew up. The world is fascinating and it is a believable place where the plot that goes down would happen. The through line of wonder and desperation makes the world real and I would watch another story told in this universe.

The Lighting / Cinematography – Part of what brings this world to light is the cinematography. This is a film that uses light really well. There is a red tinge pver everything and when they are in the poorer areas of town everything is draped in darkness. These things do a great job at racking up the tension and isolating Grey. The use of red and black express the isolation beautifully and that is part of what makes the film’s presentation work.

The Plot – The plot revolves around Grey hunting down his wife’s killer and the mystery with that as he learns to work with an A.I. that he lets control his body in life and death scenarios. There are some dark twists as each new reveal shows that there was another manipulation going on, leading up to the final reveal. All is not as it seems and this film is figuring out just how many betrayals are in store for Grey.

The Reveal – STEM is the bad guy and wins. STEM wanted to become human so it created the circumstances where Grey would accept taking it in and in the end takes control of Grey’s body and mind and kills the CEO who created it, preventing another STEM from being born. It is a dark, powerful and fascinating story.

Okay:

The Wife and CEO / Supporting Cast – The supporting cast is okay but I felt like the wife, CEO and gangster who killed the wife could have done with more exploration. They are plot mechanics in the end for the advancement of STEM’s self-actualization, which worked but it kept the film from perfection. If they’d all felt as fully realized as Grey or STEM this film would have been perfect as the mystery and tension never lets up. All it needed was more realized characters on the sidelines.

This is a film I highly recommend to any fan of sci. fi. Like “Ex Machina” before, this is a film that doesn’t have a large cast and doesn’t need one. The core ideas being explored of personhood and fear of A.I. are handled really well and the main thriller is masterfully executed. I highly recommend checking this film out if you get the chance. Might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year, but it is competing to be on that list.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

 

Mute (2018): This is no “Blade Runner”

Netflix is the new Blockbuster in more ways than one. Any place where you have a concentration of films you have copycats and crap ripping off much better films. “Mute” is a film that rips from the world of “Blade Runner,” but doesn’t have anything to say on its own. This film was awful, and one of the most disappointing films I’ve seen in a while.

The film was directed and co-written by Duncan Jones (the director behind the “Warcraft” film) and Michael Robert Johnson.

The story follows Leo, an Amish immigrant to Germany, who has lost his vocal cords after an accident. When his girlfriend, Naadirah, goes missing he investigates her hidden life as the dark underbelly of dystopian Berlin is revealed.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – This is a beautiful looking film. The neon colors and the future tech are great. The neon lights bring out the dark mystery of the environment and how shady most of the people in this world are. Gary Shaw, cinematographer, is the only person who truly did well with this film as the film’s cinematography is one of the few things about the film that works.

The Idea of the Story – I am a fan of noirs and mysteries and this is both of those things, as well as Sci-Fi. Like “Blade Runner,” we are learning about this broken world and how each person relates to one another as the mystery of Naadirah’s disappearance is slowly revealed. That is the idea anyway, nothing else works.

The Cons:

The Characters – The characters are all terrible people. Even Leo is shown to be as dark as those around him as he is willing to do anything to others ,and only cares about his girlfriend and that is it. Naadirah is manipulative and using those around her. And the antagonist, Cactus, and his friend, Duck, are creeps who don’t have arcs. They just exist as a threat to Leo, as they are doctors for the mob and Cactus killed Naadirah.

The Story – The story is crap. How Leo discovers each bit of the puzzle and how deep Naadirah was in with the gangs is a muddled mess. What story is here involves Cactus trying to escape with his daughter as he keeps having to do more jobs for the mob, and Leo gets closer to finding out that he is the killer. It sucks and the fact that Leo adopts Cactus’s daughter as his own after killing him has no real lead-up or payoff. However, Cactus and his friend give Leo vocal cords so he can speak, so that is a thing… I guess. It just happens. God I hated this story.

This is the worst film I’ve seen this year, thus far. It is a film that failed to develop characters, and unlike “Blade Runner,” had no deeper point. It took a cool idea of a mute protagonist and wasted it. What made hate this movie more than I usually would was the world is presented beautifully and I am a fan of Sci-Fi Noirs. I was ready to explore this world and find interesting characters. In the end I learned nothing about the world and the characters were some of the worst written in film.

Final Score: 3 / 10 Nothing worked except the cinematography.

 

Extinction (2018): A Fascinating Exploration of Memory and Personhood

 

Netflix is the place where original sci. fi. films are accessible. Theatres are ruled by franchises, and maybe every so often you will get a “Ex Machina” or “Annihilation,” but those are the exception rather than the rule. Netflix you will get it all. From the awful like “Mute,” to the enjoyable like “Anon,” and the good like this film. I’m still holding out for a great, but this one was greatly enjoyable for the sci. fi. it was.

“Extinction,” is a film that was written by committee. The film was directed by Ben Young, with 3 people behind the screenplay being Spenser Cohen, Eric Heisserer and Brad Kane.

The story follows Peter (Michael Pena) haunted by visions of the Earth being decimated by an invasion. Torn between whether this is simply visions or reality an invasion arrives and Peter must protect his family and discern reality.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world is really fascinating. At the beginning it plays with your head, as there is futuristic technology, and the main character has a problem with his head so you don’t know if what he is seeing is real. This world makes the viewer question the hint of annihilation they get until the action finally goes down. I love it, because in a world of the human mind and advanced tech where memories can be wiped, anything is possible, and the premise is explored through this.

Peter – Michael Pena is a great actor. He is the one who carries this film, and in doing so, makes it good, beyond the premise. The rest of the cast do okay to not even being noticeable, which brought it down some. Peter never stops being compelling though. You are with him as he questions what is real, and when he takes the next step of questioning his entire reality and what he is. There is so much depth to his character and weight to his decisions that I couldn’t help but be pulled into the drama.

The Truth and Conclusion – The people inhabiting Earth are robots, and the aliens invading are human colonists trying to take back Earth. It is very much like the “The Twilight Zone” in the premise, and I really enjoyed this core truth that drives the film. Especially as one of the invaders save’s Peter’s wife after he realizes that the robots have kids, families, and lives. After that, the robots are on the run as the invasion continues and things are left up in the air as to the future of Earth.

The Cons:

The Supporting Cast – None of the other characters stood out to me except for his cop friend, played by Mike Colter (Luke Cage), who kept his memories from the last human / robot war. He was the only one with any layers to him and the rest were just plot devices to drive Peter’s actions. If the cast had been better, this movie would have been great but because I only cared about Peter, it never got beyond good.

Netflix is the place where any B sci. fi. movie will get made now, and that works for me. Movie theaters are so lost in franchise management that I almost prefer seeing a flawed decent original gem than another “guaranteed-to-be-good” franchise film. It is out of these original stories and taking chances that more “Ex Machina” and “District 9” original movies will get made. If there is no taking of chances, the visual medium of science fiction could easily get lost. I support this movie for being on the better end of that spectrum of original sci. fi. films and I definitely recommend to anyone who is a sci. fi. film fan.

Final Score: 8.2 / 10

Annihilation (2018): A Haunting Exploration of Inner Fears

  If you are new to the blog, I am a huge fan of sci. fi. Most of the films and shows I review are science fiction based and more often than not, they make my Top 5 of whatever year they were made if they are great. “Annihilation” never reaches the heights that the premise creates, but it is a solidly good film. I rented it from Amazon and it is worth checking out.

The film was directed and wrote Eric Garland, who was the writer and director behind one of my favorite films “Ex Machina.” It is based off a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, which I plan on checking out.

The story follows Lena, a biologist who is brought in on a special mission when her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns back changed and goes into a coma. From here she works with the team to try and solve the mystery of “The Shimmer,” a reality warping anomaly that is expanding slowly upon the Earth.

The Mystery – The core mystery is what drives the story, and what kept me most involved. The characters were interesting enough that I cared about what happened to them a little (though we never got to know them fully outside of Lena). And, I love that it starts out with a mystery; someone coming home different with no memories of who they were before. “The Shimmer” is a fascinating concept and I love how everytime you feel you learn something else about it, it reveals a greater mystery. The core premise of solving “The Shimmer” kept me in the story the entire time.

The Idea of the Team – The team is made up of women, and they are awesome! We have Lena, the biologist, holding her secrets. The cruel and distant Dr. Ventress, as the leader. The empathetic Josie, the kindness of Cassie, and the hard driven Anya. Each character carries a darkness that “The Shimmer” brings out.

The Darkness We Carry – Each of our characters carries a darkness with them. There is the fact that Lena cheated on her husband, Anya cuts herself, and Ventress has become detached and uncaring. The darkness consumes each of the characters in different way the deeper they get into the “Shimmer.”

Metaphorical and Actual Cancer – The film is also a metaphor for cancer. Everything in “The Shimmer” warps and grows. Like cancer it consumes until there is nothing left. “The Shimmer” is defeated after the alien inside of it is set on fire by Lena. As it burns, the entire “Shimmer” down to its core continues to desire to spread.

Okay:

Lena – Lena is okay. I like how she is complex as a character, but Natalie Portman’s performance doesn’t bring to the next level. I didn’t care enough about any of these characters the way I cared about the protagonists in “Ex Machina.” Here there is a level of detachment from the events going on, and a good portion of that is Lena’s own detachment from the situations she is in. She still did okay, but I can’t put her as a pro, though she was the most compelling member of the team.

The Cons:

The Ending – In the end we find out Kane, who came back as a doppelganger, is the alien life form (from “The Shimmer”.) The twist is that Lena is now a doppelganger too, even though she defeated it in the end. This contradiction took away from the entire film’s theme of overcoming darkness and healing. It kept the film from being great. The film really should have ended with her being interviewed, and Kane’s mystery never being answered. .

If you are fan of sci-fi, like me, chances are you will enjoy this film. This is a flawed and beautiful film that aspires to achieve so much, but because the characters are never quite fleshed out enough, never gets there. The ending also was a bit of a cop out and cancels out so much of what Lena went through. Even with a flawed ending, it is still worth checking out. I rented it, and it is a film that I’d say isn’t worth buying, but was worth the rent.

Final Score: 8 / 10

Ready Player One (2018): When the Film is Better Than the Book

It has been some time since I’ve watched a Steven Spielberg film. After seeing this film, I really should change that. He really is one of the best living directors today, as this is a film that could have been a cringe-worthy mess. First, I was a fan of the book, even though this film gets away from the book in some ways it still keeps the core spirit of the book. This is a film that celebrates video games and nostalgia while doing it well, even though the main characters are flat. My non-spoiler thoughts are: if you liked the book, you will probably enjoy this film too.

The film was directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (the author of the book).

The story takes place in the dystopian future of 2045. The world has fallen apart and everyone lives in the Oasis, a virtual reality world created by Halliday where you can be anyone and do anything. Wade Watts is the main protagonist who is trying to find the 3 Easter Eggs that Halliday put in the game as a way of passing on ownership after his death. From here Watts and his friends must find the keys and beat the game before the evil corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), lead by Nolan Sorrento.

The Pros:

The Dystopian Reality – The dystopian reality of the world outside of the Oasis is a tragic place. You have debt slaves to IOI, cars and houses stacked on each other in the Stacks, a militarized police force and drones everywhere. I wanted to learn more about this world and spend more time there as the human connections we see are made primarily in the Oasis. For me, one of my favorite parts was seeing the characters outside of the game working together, having to depend on their brains rather than how awesome they were in the game. I wanted more of this and to hear more of their stories.

The Oasis – The Oasis is really cool. This is a VR world where you can make yourself into any avatar you want. You can also build robots, tanks, cars, etc. It is a huge modding community where you can do PVP (Player versus Player) and PVE (Player versus Enemies [AI]) combat. It is the endless possibilities of imagination and gaming combined. I really hope we can make something like it, someday.

i-R0K the Mercenary – i-R0K is the mercenary Sorrento, and his evil corporation IOI, uses to hunt our heroes. He is a funny guy, as he is only in it for the loot. He’s a huge threat, and also, very human as he talks about how bad his back is and needing physical therapy. He has more character than our heroes, and I would watch a movie just about him.

The Tone – The tone is one of wonder and imagination intermixed with sorrow and desperation. Spielberg owns the tone, and it pervades the film giving weight to everything that happens and the actions our characters take.

Okay:

Flat Heroes – Wade is an orphan who lives in the stacks who comes off as a bit one-dimensional, as he only lives for the game and has no real defining character traits. Samantha is the love interest who thinks she’s ugly because she has a birthmark on her face, and her dad is enslaved by IOI. The Japanese Brothers are an older and younger brother duo. The younger brother is an 11 year old who doesn’t like people thinking he’s young, as he fears they’d mock him in the Oasis. Helen is an African-American woman who plays a troll-like, tough character, called Aech. These characters aren’t bad… it’s just that there isn’t more to them beyond the descriptions I gave. They are all heroes who do the right thing, always, and have no inner conflict or aims. This was a missed opportunity. They are this way in the book, but we do get into Wade’s head which makes him more compelling. These characters work within the story, but they really deserved much better development.

Idealization versus Reality – Oasis is a giant gaming community, so where are or what happened to all the toxic trolls? The racists? The sexists? As far as we know there isn’t a moderator who kicks players out, so how did this reality become perfect? This is where the stories fantasy element really came out. The film could have critiqued itself, or shown us how to get to the ideal reality the Oasis community seems to be.

The Cons:

The Villain and Predictability – Sorrento is a cliched. corrupt businessman. one-dimensional villain. He’s just greedy and selfish, having no greater depth. He was that way in the book too, which is a shame as he knows Halliday and it could have been Halliday who brought out his worst self. He’s entertaining, but there is nothing there. He is flatter than our heroes, and their presentations aren’t great.

Overdependence on Nostalgia – The Oasis is full of references, and it is fine up to a degree, but in a game you’d expect more original content. Why is everyone so focused on creating things that already exist rather than things that don’t exist. Some moments of nostalgia are cool, like the T.Rex  and King Kong in the race at the beginning, but the old arcade game at the end felt unneeded and could have been adapted into a better trial.

This was a film that missed opportunities to critique the culture of gaming, and nostalgia found in the modern world (they could have shown how we got past toxic troll culture, etc.). The flatness of the heroes and  the villain didn’t help the film… but the world, the world carried it for me. This is a good film that could have been great if it had dared to observe and critique itself. Once more, if you loved the book or love Spielberg, you will enjoy this film.

Final Score: 8.3 / 10

 

Pacific Rim Uprising (2018): The Great Old With the Bland New

I’m a fan of the “Pacific Rim” universe. I also think the last film was perfect for what it was, and didn’t need a sequel. Now that a sequel has been made… I enjoyed it. But, this is a very flawed film brought down by child actors that can’t act; contrasted with some beautiful action, expansion of the “Pacific Rim” universe in intriguing ways and solid leads. I wouldn’t call it good, but if you are looking for an escape, my thoughts are, it is worth checking out.

This was a film that had a lot of people involved in its creation, with Steven S. DeKnight directing the film and being one of the 4 writers. Guillermo del Toro and John Boyega were producers, along with 5 other people. On paper, this looks like a film designed by committee.

The story picks up 10 years after the end of the first film. Jake Pentecost (Stacker Pentecost’s son, played by John Boyega) is living as a scavenger until he is picked up, and forced back into being a Jaeger Ranger. He must train new recruits as the world prepares for the return of Kaiju. All is not as it appears to be, though, as a new drone program is implemented, and a mysterious Jaeger arrives. The new Jaeger starts attacking people rather than protecting them.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – I love this universe. Since middle school I’ve been a fan of monsters and mechs. The world del Toro realized is so rich in character and mythology. The mythology this time around doesn’t disappoint. We get solid world building, as we learn more about the Kaiju, The Precursors, and how humanity has changed after the Battle of the Breach that ended the first film.

The Jaegers and Kaiju – The Jaegers and Kaiju look great, as always, and the introduction of drones, which are later shown to be Jaeger/Kaiju hybrids, are a treat that add a lot the action. These two things, along with del Toro, are what drew me to the first film, and it was the mechs and monsters that kept my interest through the times where this film fell short. As both their creative designs and action scenes brought to life the world when the characters weren’t up to it.

Jake Pentecost and Nate Lambert – The main character drama is between Jake Pentecost and Nate Lambert. Jake is the party boy who becomes responsible after facing his trauma. Nate is the one who has to trust Jake, once again, if they are going win. Boyega’s charisma continues to make his character intriguing, even if the script doesn’t always help. Nate Lambert is a battle hardened veteran who was shaped by the war in such a way, he has trouble connecting to people. It gives him a level of mystery, as if he is holding onto some past trauma, which gives him a way to relate to Jake. It is their core relationship that kept the film going for me, as each of them grew over the course of the film, and it was a genuine challenge for them learning to trust one another.

Newt and the Kaiju – The main antagonist is Newt, who is being controlled by The Precursors, that also control the Kaiju. We discover he kept the Kaiju brain at the end of the last film, and it has corrupted him. Charlie Day hams the hell out of it, and is enjoyable to watch in his madness. He nearly wins on multiple occasions, and I can’t wait to see where they take his story.

Dr. Hermann and Liwen Shao – The two support characters who really drive the story are Dr. Hermann (he was around in the first film too), and Liwen Shao, owner of the drone program. Together they are able to save the world from the Kaiju, as each of their skills complement the surviving Jaegers and help them defeat the Giant Kaiju in its final assault on Tokyo. Which felt like a brilliant salute to all the mech and monster films that made this genre possible.

The Cons:

The New Recruits – These kids can’t act. I didn’t care about their story, each line of dialogue felt forced, and fake. These kids made the film feel like an episode of Power Rangers. If I had to describe them…it’d be difficult. We are shown how each of them are (the nervous one, the angry one, the inventor), but there isn’t enough there for them to be compelling. They brought the film down, and even making one of them a main character, in the inventor Amara, wasn’t enough to make me care about their story. 

The Death of Mako Mori – Mako Mori deserved better. She is killed by a rogue Jaeger, and it ends up being anti-climatic. She already existed primarily to give us plot (a disservice to the character), and even her great scenes with Boyega can’t change the fact that her death wasn’t dying in a fight against the monsters…it was in a copter crash. She never got that “moment of awesome” Stacker got, and there was so much more development she could have received with the re-establishing her relationship with Jake. Besides the child actors this was the worst part of the film.

Love Interest Woman – There is a woman named Jewel. Both Jake and Nate have a crush on her. She is an object in a contrived love triangle object. I couldn’t tell you her personality, her aims, or what she wants. She exists purely as “love interest girl” and is the worst part of the script. She wasn’t needed.

In the end, what holds up this film and keeps it from sucking are: the old characters and those tied to the old characters from the first film, Newt and Hermann were wonderful, Pentecost and Lambert had a great relationship, and Liwen Shao (the new character) shakes the story up in ways that only enrich this universe. I loved her character arc, and hope that she is a major part if they make a third film. This is a film that largely exists because of success in the international box office, specifically China. In the end I’m glad it was made.

Final Score: 7.7 / 10