Arrival (2016): A Great High Concept Sci. Fi. Film That Just Needed More Heart

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   “Arrival” is a film I really enjoyed but could have been better and more. Non-spoiler thoughts up front…at times it drags and there just isn’t enough heart as there are two characters we don’t really get to know which gives the film the detached feeling of an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I’d still recommend it though.

   The film was directed by Denis Velleneuve, written by Eric Heisserer and produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder and David Linde while being based off the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

   The story involves linguist Louise (Amy Adams) and scientist Ian (Jeremy Renner) being called onto the scene of First Contact as strange alien pods have touched down all over the world and humanity is attempting to communicate before other countries decide to attack them.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is fantastic! Countries act with fear but also with openness too as their societies crumble from the masses unable to take first contact, but they go forward anyway. This universe is full of stakes that make the importance of first contact all the greater. The aliens also have a cool squid like design.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful, especially in how it presents the inside of the UFOs and the outside as they float above different areas of the world. It keeps the mystery and suspense up just seeing them as the music plays. Bradford Young did a fantastic job.

The Soundtrack – Johann Johannsson did a wonderful job of creating a soundtrack that reminded of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and with it power and mystery as the aliens aren’t so much a threat as a great unknown. The soundtrack captures this beautifully in how limited it is.

Louise – Amy Adams is the best part of the film as it is her relationship with her daughter and those in the future that help her solve the problem of first contact in the present. She is really cool and I liked how human she was. She was anxious and nervous but went forward anyway because she wanted to and she knew what was at stake. The only thing that felt tacked on was her romance with Ian.

Cyclical Time – In this time is cyclical and it is events in the future that prep Louise to solve the problems in the past. From General Chang telling her what they talked about that made him call off his attack on the aliens, to her daughter and her marriage to Ian. This changes her as she now perceives time as the aliens do.

Okay: Ian – Ian is just kind of there. Renner does a good job with him but he is mostly a support character and he isn’t given the chance to really make his own decisions outside of how they relate to Louise, so more could have been done with him.

Colonel Weber – Whitaker does a good job with what he’s given but Weber’s motivations are never fully explored. He is supportive and antagonistic at different points but we never get why. He just represents the U.S. governments reaction to the project at the end of the day.

Okay/Con: The Ending’s Length – The ending goes on way too long and could have just ended with Ian and Louise starting their romance and it would have been fine, instead we see the future with them talking about having a kid (who we know will die of cancer later). It could have been cut down and been the more powerful for it.

The Cons: Pacing – Segments of the film drag, especially after first contact is made and they are figuring out how to ask the aliens for their motivation. The switch from understanding one another from not is really quick too which made the pacing all strange and didn’t help the film.

Detachment – The film is a bit too detached at times. For example we don’t learn anything about Ian until the very end when his romance with Louise is a major part of the film. He is still great and is given chances to shine but we never really get his motivation at first beyond Scientist Stereotype (loves science to science!). I think if there had been more of a core and less detachment the script would have explored that better.

   This is a film well worth your time. I wouldn’t consider it in my Top 5 of 2016, but it is still a film I’d highly recommend. The detachment of the narrative didn’t change the fact that I cared about Amy Adams’s character and was rooting for first contact to be successful. In that way it as a successful “Twilight Zone” episode as even though it was detached I found myself still really enjoying the story, even if at times it dragged. I you are a fan of sci. fi. like I am, this film is well worth your time.

Final Score: 9.1 / 10

Chappie (2015): A Great Premise Ruined by Poor Villains

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    I’ll start out by saying I like “Chappie” more than “Elysium” but it doesn’t come close to “District 9,” in regards to projects that Neill Blompkin has done. Having the South African rappers Die Antwood in this film also took me out of it besides the Blompkin villain problem where he seems to overly focus on evil capitalists who have no real depth or motivation to what they do…but I’ll get into that more further into the review. This film was fun and there was the potential to be good and great in it.

SPOILERS ahead

     “Chappie” was directed by Neill Blompkin who also wrote the original story, co-wrote the screenplay and was one of the producers. The other screenwriter was Teri Tatchell and the other producer was Simon Kinberg.

    The story takes place in 2016 as Tetravaal (a weapons company) has created Scouts that are Robotic Cops that enforce the laws in the city. When one of them is injured and the creator decides to use it to see if he can create consciousnesses things unfold for the worst as he is captured by gangsters and one of his competitors seeks to undo him so his Robotic A.I. called the Moose can be the main security force in the city as the injured Scout becomes a new being called Chappie.

The Pros: The World – The world is really cool. The A.I. looks great and you have a world where in reaction to complete police control, what gangs there are have a lot of power and money so there is competition between them.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and Trent Opalach did a great job on it. He is able to show the gritty world of the slums as well as the industrial corporate feel of the factory and business really well.

The Different Robots – The robots were the best part, humans were the weakest part of the story and if we’d had more time developing the robots and Deon’s relationship to them. Any scene with robots was great…and was the few times the horrible human characters (outside of Deon) were actually interesting.

The Moose – The Moose looks like something out of “Robocop” and is a pretty awesome threat! It also has limitations too since it is completely controlled by a human on the other side (like a drone) so it can’t adapt to tactics or use it’s own body. Still, it has a great design and a ton of weapons. It took a lot to take it down.

The Scouts – The Scouts are really cool. They are all business and actually make good cops since they do no harm and have to obey the laws. It was a nice twist to how robocops are usually played in sci. fi. outside of Asimov.

Chappie – Chappie is wonderful. The A.I. is a child but in learning what he is as A.I. he is able to save his maker and his Mommy as he uses the tech around them them to put his Maker into a Scout body and to build a new body for him as he saves their mind onto a flash or transfers it using the neural helmet. Chappie is impossible to hate and is complex as it makes complicated choices for survival and protecting the people he cared about. Sharlto Copley did a great job voicing him.

The Maker/Deon – Deon didn’t expect Chappie to become alive so his arc is dealing with this reality and laying down his life Chappie, which Chappie prevents by giving him immortality and in turn keeping his family. He is a great character as he is the idealistic scientist trapped in a corporate job. He was the only human character I liked so it was good seeing him become A.I.

Mommy – Yolandi from Die Antwood is one of the few kind characters to Chappie and though she can be annoying, when she’s in Mommy mode to Chappie she’s great. She dies protecting him but Chappie makes her another body at the end.

The Cons: Die Antwood – Ninja was just annoying and Yolandi was most of the time…also they weren’t even acting they were just playing themselves…really Blompkin? That’s a super lack of creativity.

The Gangs – The gangs are violent and there is no depth to them. We don’t get there motivations beyond money and they are just as empty as the suits at the corporation.

The Corporate Villains – Bradley played by Sigourney Weaver is an empty suit stopping Deon and Jackman just plays a violent religious competitor. They were seriously uninteresting and really brought down the script showing just how much of a problem writing humans was in this film. Seriously…Deon is the only sympathetic human character.

To Easy of a Victory – Everyone gets to be immortal and the human cops are shown to be inept so the new world Chappie is creating won’t have any threat against it…”Elysium” was better with the bittersweet and “District 9” was super realistic…sadly this film tries to be a fairy tale which just causes a clash in tone from everything we went through in the film prior. There isn’t any cost.

  This is a film I’d recommend renting but not buying, not unless you are a huge fan of Robot Films, in which case there is a great Robot Film in this film but it is brought down by the one-dimensionality of all the human characters. If you want a great film about Robots and A.I., check out “Ex Machina”: https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2015/07/10/ex-machina-2015-sentience-and-the-path-to-liberation/. It is a film that will probably be in my Top 5 films of the year. This one was an enjoyable ride but never reached the point of great for me.

Final Score: 7.3 / 10

Ex Machina (2015): Sentience and the Path to Liberation

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  “Ex Machina” is a film that doesn’t need many characters to create a very real and possible world in which highly sentient A.I. could exist. There is no idealism in this film except for the very core human ideas of liberation and freedom as we see the depths that humans can go to in their cruelty when they “other” sentience which is different, even if it is designed to be human. I’ll get more into the details of that below but I was really impressed by this film and would not be surprised if it makes the “Top 5 Films of 2015” at the end of this year.

   The film was directed and written by Alex Garland and produced by Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich.

      The story involves the programmer Caleb who works for the largest search engine in the world called Bluebook being chosen to be part of a Turing Test in order to test an android created by the creator of Bluebook named Nathan for sentience. Things are soon not what they appear as Caleb discovers the dark secrets that Nathan is hiding.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful in this film! It is good at creating a sense of mystery and threat where the motivations are hidden yet the story progresses as characters make choices in action against or for one another. Rob Hardy did a fantastic job. The special effects are really good in regards to this too as the shells of the A.I.’s look like silver material that would be used for a robot and the skin they can put on is good at contrasting their artificial nature of their creation.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is very subtle and reminded me a lot “Moon.” This lends strength to the film and keeps up the feeling of being trapped as everyone except Nathan in feeling in his home. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow did a good job on it.

The Writing – Alex Garland is an amazing writer and director and after seeing this film I really want to watch “28 Days Later.” This script is tight and we are given time to see the different character motivations and what the relationship dynamics are between the characters. It is a slow build but really picks up after the reveal of Kyoko being a robot too which throws Caleb’s perception of reality into chaos.

The Characters – There are only a few characters in this but all of them get exploration. From the slave android Kyoko to Nathan and Caleb and finally Ava, whose arc really drives the story.

Kyoko – Kyoko is one of the many android/A.I. slaves created by Nathan. She is used primarily for pleasure and is dehumanized by Nathan in all interactions we see. It is only Caleb and Ava who treat her as someone worthy of respect and it is Ava’s actions of rebellion that lead to her stabbing Nathan, which leads to Nathan killing her but it leaves the opening for Ava to finish Nathan off. Sonoya Mizuno does a wonderful job in the role.

Nathan – Nathan is the brilliant inventor who is a drunk and also extremely controlling and narcissistic. You don’t really get the depths of his cruelty until later but you see that he’s isolated from people because of how he would most likely treat them and also because he fears being influenced by them as he wants a world that he fully influences. To this end he creates and discards A.I. after using and abusing it and we see him do the same with Nathan as Nathan was only brought there to test Ava to see if she could use all manipulations to try and escape. This beats him in the end as Ava makes her escape and with Kyoko get revenge for all the abuse that he has done upon them. Oscar Isaac gives a lot of depth to this antagonist as you see a man truly alone and are left wondering if it is by choice or if his undealt with psychological issues lead to his business putting him there.

Caleb – Caleb is a lonely programmer who is easily manipulated as he is so genuine. This was why he was chosen, he is also still very much a kid as he doesn’t fully see Ava’s humanity in the end as he rejects her after he learns that she has just been trying to escape the entire time. From here we never know if he still loves her or is just drawn to her outer shell (which Nathan had designed to fit his porn search profile) so it leaves an interesting dilemma when Ava leaves him behind. Would have Caleb become another Nathan afraid of being manipulated and seeking to control, or would he have truly embraced Ava as a person after they had run away. It is a question that is left open and a risk that Ava is not willing to take since he doesn’t show up to escape with her leaving her to leave him. The reason I think he isn’t fully noble is he cares nothing for Kyoko even after he sees Nathan abuse her. She is never on his rescue even after he learns she is an A.I. as well, it just makes him question whether he is one or not. I think the nature of this character is someone seeking self versus Ava who can see outside herself and is looking to embrace the world. Domhnall Gleeson does great.

Ava – Ava’s arc is the discovery of her own desires and wants. She is the only one fully aware of how much of a monster Nathan is besides Kyoko and to this end she uses Caleb against him. Whether she loves him or cares about him is unknown, but he is left in the house with everything when she leaves. She has finally grown beyond the games being done on her (by both Nathan and Caleb in regards to the Turing Test) and embraces her own liberation. First with the killing of Nathan and later when she enters the world looking fully human. Alicia Vikander does a great job in her movements and capturing both her alien nature as an A.I. and her choice and feeling as a sentient creation.

Freedom and Sentience – The question of freedom and it being tied to choice and sentience is major in this. Kyoko and Ava both go against their programming to break free and make the choice to kill their “father” Nathan. This goes for the human characters too, Nathan chose Caleb because he fit the profile he wanted and Caleb chose to take action in regards to freeing Ava. This choice is the basis for sentience, especially in regards to survival which is the drive for what Ava and Kyoko do.

External Versus Internal Action – In the talks between Nathan and Caleb external versus Internal input in regards to what makes sentience is talked about a lot. We learn that it is the internal desire for freedom that Ava was being tested for all along and her external actions that lead to Caleb unlocking the doors for her. It is the external actions of Nathan that lead to Caleb and the A.I.’s turning against him and it is his internal issues that lead to them being alienated in the first place and his external actions of abuse that push them to action to stop him.

What Does it Mean to be Human and Choice – This is a great film that analyzes what it means to be human and at the core it is choice and the ability to break free. It is this choice and feeling like he had a lack of it that lead to Caleb questioning whether he was one of Nathan’s creations or not and it is realizing that she has choice after Ava talks to her that Kyoko stabs Nathan and fights for her freedom. It is choice of the analysis of that choice that illustrates human sentience and at the end we see that in Ava and in her conversations with Caleb and Nathan as she acts wholly of her own will to the point where she goes against her creator to free herself and her sister. It’s a powerful film and that message of choice and freedom captures what we are capable of.

 I highly recommend this film. It starts out a little slow but I see that as akin to “Alien” it uses the slow build to build up Nathan, Caleb and Ava’s relationship and world so when the chips fall you see clearly where everyone stands and what the reasons were behind their actions. They are all flawed characters with Caleb and Ava doing some noble things but their core desires still being freedom and fear of being hurt again keeping them from truly growing beyond themselves. In this way it is real to human nature. Not every relationship whether friendship or otherwise works out because of factors like this and people whether they are A.I. or not change from their experiences.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Moon (2009): A Sci. Fi. Exploration of Self and Identity

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This is a great film, which is saying something considering that it is mostly a one person performance with the only real addition being Kevin Spacey as the voice of the robot GERDY. In that way this film could have easily been a flop. It takes an amazing actor, of which I discovered Sam Rockwell is, to carry a film beyond cinematography and music.

“Moon” was directed by Duncan Jones, who also wrote the story. The screenplay was by Nathan Parker and the producers were Stuart Fenegan and Trudie Styler.

This review does contain SPOILERS, so be warned. The point of this movie is in the twist and the reveal so I can’t review this movie and do it justice without talking about that reveal.

The story involves the character of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who has been living for years on the Lunar Base run by the corporation of Lunar Industries who provides an alternate fuel source of Helium-3 which is mined from the base that Sam and the robot GERDY run. Sam’s contract is almost up and he can return home to his wife and daughter. The story unfolds from there as all is not as it appears to be on the station.

The Pros: The Premise – The idea of a man alone with a robot mining resources on the Moon is very cool and very high concept science fiction. It gets even more high concept when we learn this has been going on for years and that the person who we think is just one person is in fact many and has been many clones of the same individual, with slight different genetic variations.

The Tone – The tone of the film is dark and introspective, you can feel claustrophobic sometimes in certain scenes and and Sam Rockwell’s performance is so subtle that it’s easy to see the things from the characters’ points of view and what each of them is going through and what it means on an individual level as well as the societal level of some of the messages explored.

The Soundtrack – The Soundtrack is also very introspective and does a great job capturing the desolation of the moon, and the hope or despair characters feel. It’s Clint Mansell so I wouldn’t expect any less. The guy is a genius and one of my favorite composers.

The Cinematography – Visually, this film is stunning. It feels like one is actually on the moon during it and the base feels lived in and real, with an element threat to it and leaves you guessing at certain times as the mystery unfolds.

Sam1 – I’m going to call the first Sam we meet, Sam1, he is similar to the past Sam’s but some of the things that set him apart are an extreme attachment to the family he believes he has, a love of life as seen by his caring and talking his plants and in how when he is sick he chooses to help Sam2 escape, partially because he knows he himself is dying but also because he’s grown fond of the one other connection on the station who isn’t GERTY or false memories. He is the most attached to those memories and breaks down after GERTY tells him the memories are implanted and when he talks to “his” daughter and hear’s his own voice, the voice of the original Sam calling to her on the other line. It is at that point he gives up, knowing he is already dying and wants to give Sam2 a chance. He has Sam2 bring him back to where he crashed which is what happened when Sam2 was activated since Sam1 was believed to be dead.

Sam2 – Sam2 is more of a jock in personality. He’s more aggressive, is usually working out and active and is less likely to take GERTY’s advice to rest. He is also more suspicious as he is the one who discovers Sam1 trapped and learns that central is sending a team to kill them so that word doesn’t get out about the Clone program. He is also empathetic though and he is the one trying to help Sam1 get out until Sam1 convinces him to let him die and that he should be the one who escapes and tells the world what’s going on.

GERTY – GERTY is a pretty awesome AI voiced by Kevin Spacey. His whole programming is to protect Sam until Sam fulfills his contract. We learn that his applies to all Sams that are created and he even goes as far as to let Sam2 who escapes to wipe his memory so that he can escape the Moon safely without being killed by the forces Lunar Corporation sent. We never know if he makes choices beyond his programming or if he is just like Baymax fulfilling his programming but his letting Sam2 wipe his memory when he didn’t have to showed that there was more going on. He chose, even if it was within the parameters of his programming to save Sam and help him escape. If that doesn’t make him sentient, than he is at least getting there or near sentient. Also, he has a great design as he has a screen that moves around the station and communicates in emoticon faces as well as having lots of arms to help with the work the station needs or helping the Sams recover and do tasks.

Sam Rockwell – Sam Rockwell plays so many different versions of Sam Bell in this film, and in all he does a great job. Sam1 and Sam2 get the most exploration but we see others when Sam1 pulls up the video of the past clones and history on the station after GERTY accesses the memory banks with the password. Sam is truly a master at the craft as every person he was felt like a unique individual, yet similar enough that you knew they were clones. This is something that very few actors can pull off and after this film I have to consider Rockwell to be one of the best.

The Message – The core point that this film captures is that we are more than our memories. We are our choices and personality and as long as we are aware of our own existance and striving for survival we are worthy of life. The movie ends with Sam2 revealing the Lunar Corporations wrongs to the world (all the past Sams who have died and been used to the Corporations own ends) and it ends with people having the discussion the movie begins. Is a clone as much of a human being worthy of rights as any other human being? I believe and the movie believes that the answer is, “Yes.” No human should be used like a slave, we see the human cost of people getting cheap energy.

Okay: Sam’s Wife and Daughter – These two never felt like wholly realized characters. I think part of this might be purposeful as the Clones are having old memories related to the wife and we don’t have enough time to talk with the daughter to really get to know her. I’m not putting this as a con as it helps the clones separate themselves from the original person they were cloned from. It is the fact that they can’t connect that helps them create their own identity beyond the memories of another.

This is an amazing film and one of my favorites. Clint Mansell’s soundtrack and the cinematography create beautiful scenes and Kevin Spacey’s and especially Sam Rockwell’s performances are so deep and layered that it is hard not appreciate how great they are as actors. Their characters are real and the struggles matter as well as giving us a great “So what?” No one deserves to be slave and we shouldn’t create slaves through cloning. If sentient life is created it deserves just as much respect as us, as it is us, just born different. If you like a dark film, that ends with hope and has an amazing point…check this film out. I know this film has me interested in any other work Duncan Jones has done.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10. Near perfect, only thing that brings it down are the side human characters who don’t feel like real people.