Category Archives: Science Fiction

Snowpiercer

snowpiercer-posterWhat Jesse said:

Watch Snowpiercer. Do it now.

Mike’s verdict:

I got a copy of this movie years before Jesse recommended it to me, but I never got around to watching it. For some reason I ended up forgetting what it was about or why I found it interesting in the first place. I actually believed that it was a foreign film with subtitles. If Jesse hadn’t recommended it, I’d probably never have watched it at all.

I’m glad that I finally did; given Jesse’s sparse review though I could easily have forgotten about it again. Since he didn’t elaborate on why I should watch Snowpiercer, I will have to assume that he recognized the film for what it truly is: a review of some of the most enduring themes in the history of political philosophy.

I suspect that many people will walk away from this film thinking it is a commentary on economic inequality – something along the lines of the 21st century protest movements that hope to up-end the so-called ‘One Percent’. Certainly, inequality is a major factor here – economic divide is the source of the film’s main conflict. But Snowpiercer isn’t about economic inequality – it’s about the rationale for maintaining that inequality.

The train here should be looked at as a metaphor (thinly veiled) for a society – everything
humanity needs ,thought not necessarily everything it wants, is within the train, while exiting means stepping into the cold, harsh reality of nature. But just as there are consequences to joining any social contract built to protect humankind, living on the train requires sacrifices to maintain balance. Economic classes develop both from the balance and in support of the balance. The upper-class in the front needs the idea of the poor in the back as much as it needs to physically oppress them. Moreover, the poor need to believe in the possibility of revolution just to maintain meaning in their lives. The train is an intricately designed state; meant to allow the human race to continue living safe from the dangers of nature, even if some lives will be more comfortable than others. The point is not to make every person’s life good, but to maintain a balance that will keep humanity in existence, hopefully until nature itself is less brutal.

The architects of this state understood that classes would be necessary, what each class would require to maintain it’s end of the balance, and how to manipulate both sides to facilitate that balance. The philosopher kings control the state through invisible hands that direct the people; deciding where sacrifices are necessary and building mythologies to make these sacrifices palatable. In the back of the train, the mythology is built on the great revolutionary uprisings that are never successful but close enough to give hope. In the front, people are taught to respect and revere the balance – ‘everyone has their place’.

It almost works. And it like it. Snowpiercer is a contemporary exploration of the social contract, continuing the work developed through Hobbs, Locke and of course Rousseau. That said, their are definitely flaws in this film. Leaving aside arguments against it’s philosophical commentary (that would be a whole other kind of blog), Snowpiercer has some pretty annoying holes: Where does the ‘flammable’ industrial waste / narcotic actually come from? What sort of witchcraft powers the train? Why does the train even need to keep moving? Many of the details seem needlessly implausible.

Even so, the acting is good, the story avoids being too obvious, and the ending was nicely
ambiguous. Jesse got it right, well, I assume.

7/10

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Nightcrawler

kjjjghWhat Jesse said:

So I thought I was gonna watch a movie about one of my favourite Marvel characters, instead I get a weird movie about how Jake Gyllenhaal spends his nights looking for bloody footage to sell to sleazy TV news people who go by the motto “if it bleeds it leads…”. Nice. Gyllenhaal does a nice job as an ambitious sociopath and I can’t remember the last time I saw Renee Russo in anything but she was pretty good too. Check it out.

Mike’s verdict:

I was intrigued by the trailer for this movie. It combined a slow-simmering and eerie awkwardness with an uncommonly clean look – creepy but without the cliché grittiness that everyone’s been doing lately. It gave me high hopes for the movie despite the fact that the concept – people chasing gruesome disasters with a camera, intent on sell the footage to television news – didn’t jump out at me as particularly interesting. I wasn’t overly excited, but I expected there would be a sufficient backdrop for exploring the creepy characters presented in the trailer.

I was wrong.

I will admit that the subtle unsettling nature of the trailer does come through in the full movie. The atmosphere is right, and the creepy-but-clean setting works. Unfortunately, a lot of the scenes are drawn-out – presumably to build suspense – and they’re left just a little too long. Eerie only stays suspenseful if it fluctuates enough to not become desensitizing. Nightcrawler fails at this. It’s really, really slow.

The film is also very obvious. Maybe I have a dim view of human beings, but I wasn’t surprised by any of the things the main character did. I could see every plot point coming way in advance, and that includes the ‘big surprise’ at the end.

‘Slow’ and ‘obvious’ are enough to ruin a movie themselves, but my criticisms are not done: the characters are problematic as well.

One major issue is inherent in Jake Gyllenhaal‘s character. He’s a terrible person on the inside, and a terrible person on the outside. Everything he says is garbage and nobody around him is fooled by it. That’s the point – he’s fake and we all know it. Unfortunately, the nature of acting requires the actor to pretend to be something they are not, and convince the audience. In this case, Gyllenhaal is pretending to be someone who is unconvincingly pretending to be someone. The meta-acting means that Gyllenhaal has to convince me that he is someone who is unconvincing – in other words, the more convincing Gyllenhaal is, the less I am convinced. This movie was doomed right from the beginning. Gyllenhaal could never come across as convincing, because he was trying to be unconvincing.

Sadly, I have problems with the other main characters as well.

Rene Russo‘s character is just awful. I have no idea if she is an accurate depiction of a television news producer, but I really hope not. The trope of the newsman (or woman, whatever) who is willing to do anything for the story is well grounded in reality, but I would like to think that most television producers would set a higher standard for what they are willing to give up personally for the story. This is especially true given that Gyllenhaal’s character is so intentionally unconvincing in his sales pitches. For every hard decision Russo’s character has to make, her choice is unbelievably stupid. And I mean that literally – I simply could not believe that a real person would make such choices. Riz Ahmed‘s character suffers a similar fate – he’s so stupid that I have a hard time believing he could exist.

The movie actually reminds me a lot of the True Detective mini-series. The series definitely shares an intention with Nightcrawler: to show the awfulness of individual humans in an eerie but clean atmosphere. But it also shares its problems; both are slow, obvious and lacking believable characters. Unsurprisingly, Jesse liked both.

3/10

As for the most significant complaint raised by Jesse (and way too many other comic nerds), the bottom line is that the Marvel character is not known even remotely well enough for the movie producers to have thought there would be confusion. Marvel’s Nightcrawler is little more than a tag-along to the X-Men and nobody can realistically argue that they saw this movie thinking it was going to be about mutants.  If Marvel ever chooses to make X-Men 56: Nightcrawler’s Turn, Jesse will have no doubt what the movie is about – because every showing will be sold-out 3 weeks in advance and there will be over-night line-ups of desperate nerds outside every theatre.


Transcendent Man

What Jesse said:

Back in my electronic music days I used some gear by a company called Kurzweil. Turns out that the guy who started that company is a fascinating (and rather sad) human being named Ray Kurzweil and there’s a documentary about him called Transcendent Man. The topics covered are quite profound and reminded me of Her starring Joaquin Phoenix. Go watch Transcendent Man. It’s one of those rare movies that manages to be uplifting and depressing all at once. I liked it a lot.

Mike’s verdict:

I’ll agree with Jesse on one point for sure: Raymond Kurzweil is a rather sad human being. Transcendent Man isn’t so much a documentary as it is a biography. It presents the story of a man who, after bearing witness to the slow and all too foreseeable death of his father, becomes terrified by his own mortality. As if that isn’t bad enough, Kurzweil is an engineer – he’s used to thinking about ways to solve problems – and (because he’s an engineer) he doesn’t realize that death is not a problem he can just engineer a solution for.

Kurzweil has spent the better part of his life looking for ways to ensure that the he lives forever. He takes somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200 pills each day – basic supplements and vitamins as well as his own brand of ‘anti-aging’ chemicals. He also has his blood tested every few months to check on his progress. To be fair, at one point Kurzweil was diagnosed with Type-2 Diabetes – definitely a condition to take seriously – and he managed to reverse it. Whether or not he beat diabetes because of his daily drug routine is very much open to debate though.

Of course, Kurzweil doesn’t limit himself to the traditional remedies of medical science. He is, after all, an engineer – and he has been looking at technological advances as the next step to defying death. He’s spent decades inventing and researching in a broad range of fields and he’s witnessed first-hand the way that technology has exploded over the last 50 years. He thinks of the world he was born into, compares it with the world he lives in today and imagines the world he’ll experience in another 50 years. Kurzweil has convinced himself that, within his lifetime, technology will advance to the point that death will no longer be a concern – he just needs to live long enough to make use of the technology.

As a response to his fears, Kurzweil has prophesied a pseudo-religious utopian future where humanity and machines intertwine such that there is no way to distinguish between the two. First science will advance nano-technology to fix everything, then it will advance convergence technology to bridge the gap between mind and machine. Then we will travel the stars.

Eventually, we will be sentient machines and as we spread the universe will ‘awaken’ as a single entity.  He calls it The Singularity but there are corollaries found in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Bahá’í, Buddhism, and nearly all other religions.

As it happens, Kurzweil isn’t just another crack-pot with a vision – he is actually a brilliant engineer who is responsible for, among other things, the CCD flatbed scanner and text-to-speech synthesizers. He is a director of engineering at Google.

And that’s why his story is so sad. Technology is moving at blistering speed, but it’s not going to continue fast enough to save Kurzweil. You know it, I know it, his doctors know it. And on a certain level Kurzweil knows it too. But he lives in a world that wants his delusions to be true – and is constantly recognizing him for his very real accomplishments. Everyone knows he’s crazy, yet despite his delusions he is helping people. His delusions are riding the coat-tails of his otherwise brilliant career.

I would have like to see more dissenting opinions in this film – particularly from technology experts who could speak to the validity of Kurzweil’s beliefs. The producers chose to include interviews with two people who questioned Kurzweil’s prophecy but they were clearly straw-men – one’s argument was lost in his own completing religion while the other came across as the caricatured cold, unsympathetic scientist.

Overall, the film was interesting – I hadn’t ever heard of Kurzweil before and now I know a great deal about his life. But it was slow in parts, and it became clear that the producers didn’t have a lot to work with in terms of presenting Kurzweil’s imagined future. Just as with any other religion, it’s impossible to provide real evidence to justify his utopian predictions so the producers had to rely on clips of his impassioned speeches – entertaining, but ultimately empty. What I would have liked is a documentary discussing the (im)possibilities of the technology he imagines rather than a biography of the man. I’d like to know more from biologists, chemists and other engineers.

I guess that’s a different film though.

6/10


Interstellar

What Jesse said:

… before he watched Interstellar:

Dude, we should go see Interstellar. Everyone and everyone’s monkey and everyone’s monkey’s dog is saying that it is fantastic. My brother and my cousin and my neighbour and my wife’s hairdresser’s pet saw it and they all say it’s awesome. They also say it’s the kind of movie we definitely need to see in IMAX. It is a space movie after all. Seriously, it’s going to be great. Plus it has Matthew McConaughey – he’s not as dreamy as Brad Pitt but he’s a close second.

… after he watched Interstellar:

Dude, please don’t review this movie. I don’t want people to think that I would recommend this – it will be devastating for my reputation as a movie-watcher and human-being. Please, please, please don’t tell people I made you and our respective significants pay $17 + taxes to see this in IMAX. Please. Let’s just forget this night ever happened.

Mike’s verdict:

I’ve decided to review Interstellar because even though the recommendation was both premature and formally rescinded, in the end I saw this movie because Jesse suggested we watch it: as far as I am concerned, that’s pretty much the definition of a recommendation. The fact that Jesse didn’t have his facts straight before he made the recommendation is irrelevant. Besides, there is already precedent for this type of situation: Black Dynamite.

There’s a lot wrong with Interstellar, but let’s start with the good because it’ll be quick. The atmosphere is great. This movie doesn’t have quite the same feeling of vastness that Gravity has – which is significant given that I watched Gravity on a comparatively tiny 8-foot screen rather than IMAX – but it still does a very good job of expressing the distance and emptiness of space. There is even one scene where I had a twinge of agoraphobia. I also really liked the stark difference in soundtracks between scenes on earth, in space vessels and in open space. You could really, really here the silence when it mattered.

And that’s it for good points.

My first complaint is that every major plot point is obvious – including the big twist. It’s not just obvious from the point of view of the spectator watching on the outside either – the characters themselves definitely should have seen it coming. The only parts of Interstellar’s plot that were not obvious were the ones that lacked any tie to actual science. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan took the liberty of using fantasy to fill in where science stops. In some sense this is fair, unfortunately I felt that the fantasy they invented was too silly. I really enjoy learning about the theoretical science behind space travel and this movie started off really well (at least to my non-specialist eyes). But it takes a bizarre tangent at the point where the science runs out.

Next, the characters. There is one interesting character in this movie; he gets all the best lines and is the only one you will feel for when there is danger. The entire rest of the cast is just there to ensure that the plot moves along – and I was never invested in any of them. In case you are wondering, the one good character isn’t portrayed by McConaughey, nor is it  really a central character in the strictest sense – in fact it isn’t a real person. I hope Bill Irwin is given the credit he deserves for bringing some entertainment to this movie. As far as the real characters are concerned, McConaughey was the same gritty-but-well-meaning character he is in every movie; Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine had suitably adequate performances but nobody is going to remember them for this movie. Matt Damon‘s role is less forgettable, but his performance isn’t really notable. I did like how Topher Grace and Casey Affleck were unceremoniously thrown in like extras though.

Overall, I think most of this movie was okay. I was basically entertained most of the way through until fantasy took over near the end. But it isn’t a good movie and it doesn’t deserve anywhere near the critical praise that it’s been getting. It’s also not worth the money to see it in a theatre – much less IMAX. I wish I’d waited and watched this at home.

4/10


Gravity

What Jesse said:

Gravity was stupid but very entertaining. There’s only so much Clooney doucheyness a man can possibly endure and that movie pushed that limit to the brink.

Mike’s verdict:

Jesse got this one dead-on; Gravity is stupid. The story failed to suspend my disbelief in almost every way and at no point did I accept the progression of the plot as even remotely plausible. It’s one thing to have the hero be an expert that can make fantastical last-minute achievements to stay alive, it’s another thing entirely to have these achievements made by a bumbling idiot who just randomly mashes buttons. On top of this, add terrible dialogue and Sandra Bullock’s extremely annoying soliloquies. The whole thing is so bad that I barely even noticed the Clooney doucheyness.

As a film, my rating is 1/10. The story is just that bad.

That said, the cinematography in Gravity is absolutely stunning. The visualizations of Earth, the detail in the space stations and the actors fluid motions were fantastic. Even the final scene back on Earth looks great. The physics wasn’t even close to perfect but the most noticeable errors at least made things look good – this is science fiction after all. I don’t think I agree with James Cameron’s judgement that Gravity is “the best space photography ever done”, but I’ll admit it is the best fake space photography ever done.

Assuming a big enough display and the sound turned off, Gravity could be an engaging addition to the background of a party; particularly with the right music playing. But I would definitely not invite people over to watch the movie itself.


Her

What Jesse said:

Crazy movie about a guy who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. Joaquin Phoenix does a great job as an introvert going through the painful/depressing process of separating from his wife while trying to deal with the “feelings” he is developing for the latest technology available: an artificially intelligent OS very competently played (voiced) by [CENSORED].

Mike’s verdict:

Jesse got lazy with his overview of this one – probably because Brad Pitt isn’t in it – but I happen to know he liked Her a lot more than the above suggests. He definitely thought the artificial intelligence was portrayed more than just ‘competently’, and he went on a lengthy tangent about how Phoenix’s acting may or may not be affected by the untimely death of his brother.

In any case, Jesse and I agree that this film was fantastic. Whoever wrote the IMDB blurb did the film a real disservice because it sounds like Her is either a ridiculous comedy that should be staring Ben Stiller, or a geeky sci-fi flick about computers. It’s not either of those.

Her is primarily about people: how we define who and what is a person, and how we understand our connections to others. I expected that the human-computer interactions would be awkward or cheesy, but in fact they are all very natural. Spike Jonze chose to have the artificial intelligence act ‘normally’, so you can’t tell the difference between a conversation with a computer and a conversation with a live person using a  telephone. Perhaps I’ve just grown accustomed to our ever-connected environment, but to me most of the movie felt like Phoenix’s character was just in a long-distance relationship. The futuristic technology is so familiar that it never seemed like much of a stretch from what we have today; the electronic interaction never seemed out of place.

Of course there are major differences in how ‘meat’ people and virtual people see the world and that is explored brilliantly. Jesse thinks this is a story about how individual expectations based on initial impulses can turn terribly wrong when they’re allowed to develop in the imperfect, often irrational, mind. He sees the film from the ‘meat’ point of view, essentially limiting the computer to a fancy imitation of a person. He thinks Phoenix’s character tricked himself into believing a computer could be a person and then learned from his experiences. Looking at it that way, our ‘meat’ protagonist is not just the focus but the only concern.

For me that is only part of what this film is trying to say. I don’t think we are supposed to make a distinction between the ‘meat’ people and the virtual people – they’re all people, and there are actually two equal leading roles. The key is that the two main characters have different desires, view points and intentions based on their environment and abilities. Exactly like the world we live in today.

Overall, Her is a great film. The writing (there are some super awkward moments!), the music, the cinematography, the acting; everything is spot on.

10/10

One last note: I censored Jesse’s bit about the actor who voices the computer. She does an incredible job given the difficulty of expressing the character without body language, but you’re better off not knowing who the voice belongs to if you don’t already know. By the time I got around to starting the movie I had forgotten who the actor was. The voice was so familiar though that I couldn’t help but look it up halfway, and I immediately regretted it. Once you know who it is, you’ll only be able to picture her and it changes the movie.


Zardoz

zardozcoverWhat Jesse said:

Time for another weird movie I saw long ago. I know why I started watching it (it looked like a promising sci-fi romp), but I don’t know why I kept watching through to the end. The whole movie feels like an acid trip. Anyway, if you figure out what this flick is trying to say, please let me know…

I give you: “ZARDOZ“!!!! (I would say “enjoy” but I’m not sure it would be appropriate…)

Mike’s verdict:

By the time he participated in Zardoz, Sean Connery had already completed most of his run as James Bond – meaning he could have done anything he wanted.  My first impression was that he chose the role of Zed because he was looking for a working vacation – there were very few lines to memorize and 90% of the cast members are attractive young women who have trouble keeping their tiny tops in place. But sometimes first impressions can be misleading, and I think that Connery actually saw something much more in this film.

Zardoz isn’t just a sci-fi romp. The distant future setting is really just a means for exploring other themes.  At it’s base, Zardoz is a thought experiment. It’s an exploration of the human condition through the nature of mortality and a critical examination of how organized religion informs our understanding of that condition – and, since it’s the 1970s all of this is seen through a veil of post-hippie ideals. Love and sexuality, equality and superiority, immortality and humanity, knowledge and instinct, are each deliberately portrayed in caricature. The intention is to illuminate these concepts along a continuum rather than treat them as strict dichotomies.

And I think it works. The film is a bizarre trip, for sure, but its goal is to present the audience with questions rather than answers.

As I noted, Connery has few lines in this film. But if you pay attention you’ll see that much of what he does say is unconsciously thought-provoking. “I see nothing inside, except my own complexity.”

10/10