Science Fiction

THE IRON GIANT (1999)

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Director: Brad Bird
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 86 min.

Hogarth Hughes loves collecting unusual pets.  Unfortunately, his pets have a habit of getting loose and wreaking havoc—like the squirrel at the diner.  But when Hogarth discovers a giant alien robot in the woods behind his house, he is a little afraid to bring this particular creature home.  What would his mom say, after all!  The robot is determined to follow him, however, and once Hogarth discovers that a ruthless government agent is tracking the robot to destroy it (fearing it to be Soviet spy technology), Hogarth is determined to protect his giant friend.  With the help of a friendly junkyard artist, Hogarth is able to hide the iron giant for a time.  But the persistent government agent has no intention of backing down…

Although the animation leaves something to be desired, this story is sweet, suspenseful, and filled with the Brad Bird humor that made his later film The Incredibles (2004) so great.   It is not as good as The Incredibles (but then, few films are), but kids and parents will all find something to love in this great family film.  I highly recommend it!

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

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Director: Bryan Singer
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 131 min.

In a bleak future world, mutants are hunted by machines called Sentinels.  In the 1970s, scientist Bolivar Trask experimented on and dissected mutants in order to create the Sentinels.  He was assassinated by the shape-changing mutant Mystique, but ironically Mystique’s arrest gave the surviving scientists access to her genetic code which they used to perfect their lethal machines.  Now, Professor X, Wolverine, Magneto, and the other mutants are facing extinction.  Their only hope is for Kitty Pryde to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to end the feud between Magneto and the Professor and convince Mystique to choose a better path.

If you are familiar with the X-Men comics, this is a very fun movie.  A bunch of characters make brief appearances (Quicksilver’s 15 minutes of screen time was absolutely the highlight of the film!) and there are some great inside jokes.  If you are not familiar with the X-Men comics, though, I suspect it will fall a little flat.  The intensity of the dystopian framing story depends on you having an emotional investment in the characters—and for the most part, the framing story drives the suspense of the plot.  But you get limited characterization of minor characters in this film (Quicksilver excepted).  I think that is something that is consistently a struggle in the X-Men movies:  so many characters, so little time.   Marvel has done a much better job of dealing with the Avengers by isolating them in origin stories—something that is more difficult if not impossible for the X-Men.

My gut reaction would be to recommend this film only if you are somewhat familiar with the X-Men characters and comics.  But I’d love to hear from folks who watched this film without any prior knowledge; let us know what you thought in the comments!

MAN OF STEEL (2013)

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Director: Zack Snyder
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time 143 min.

With the planet’s core on the verge of destruction, General Zod attempts a military coup to eliminate the foolish Council and preserve Krypton.  But Jor-El realizes that the planet is beyond saving.  He and his wife, Lara, have had a child—the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries.  Jor-El steals the genetic codex from the Genesis Chamber where other children of Krypton are created (each with a specific predetermined role in society).  As the coup rages outside, Jor-El and Lara send their son, Kal, and the codex in a small space craft destined for Earth.  General Zod is too late to stop the launch, but he kills Jor-El and vows to track down and eliminate Kal-El, who he views as a blasphemy against Krytpon’s ideals.

While Zod and his soldiers search the universe for Kal-El, Clark Kent grows up on a small farm in Kansas, struggling to hide his unique abilities, but unable to resist helping when he sees someone in danger.  He succeeds anonymity for over three decades, until a journalist named Lois Lane stumbles upon him in the arctic wilderness while investigating a frozen spaceship.  Clark is about to discover his past—and the world to discover its hero.

This film was an artsy, angsty reimagining of Superman. I loved getting all of the history of Krypton and the psychology of General Zod (and of Superman, of course).  But after the fall of Krypton, the plot was very slow moving for quite a while, and unfortunately the dialogue was not very well written.  (Let’s just say this film has nothing on The Avengers , Iron Man, or Captain America.)  That said, I enjoyed watching it; it was an interesting twist on the Superman story.  And I thought Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon were both quite good.  Still, if I had to pick a Superman movie to watch again, I’d definitely stick with 1978.

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

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After Agent Romanov’s secret spy mission jeopardizes a hostage rescue operation, Captain Rogers begins to lose faith in Nick Fury’s leadership.  When Fury divulges SHIELDS  latest secret project–three deadly aircraft carriers that will circle the globe preemptively eliminating “threats”–Rogers loses faith in SHIELD altogether.  Captain America is ready to return to civilian life.  But the game changes when a bleeding Fury shows up in the Captain’s apartment after being chased down by an assassin.  Before the assassin finishes the job, Fury presses a flash drive into Rogers’ hand and warns him “trust no one.”  Suddenly, Captain America finds himself on the run as SHIELD leader Alexander Pierce calls on a manhunt, claiming the Captain may be withholding information about Fury’s death.  Meanwhile, Romanov recognizes the description of Fury’s assassin as an opponent she has met before: the elusive “Winter Soldier.”  Rogers and Romanov team up to decrypt the flash drive and discover the SHIELD traitor’s identity.  But the secrets they uncover run far deeper than they expected.

THIS MOVIE WAS SO AWESOME!  One of, if not the, best of the Marvel Avengers movies so far. (I would have to rewatch them all to really judge where it falls.  Valid excuse to do this? I think yes.)  Very well written story–funny and exciting.  More action/suspense than the first Captain America, though significantly less personal growth and development for the characters.  Like the first Captain America movie did with the standard underdog-becomes-hero plot, this second installment also worked with a classic trope (hero-turned-fugitive) and executed it just as beautifully.

This is a very significant film for the Marvel film/TV Universe.  If you are planning to watch “Agents of SHIELD” tomorrow, try to catch this film tonight.

PACIFIC RIM (2013)

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Director: Guillermo del Toro
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 131 min.

When Kaiju aliens began invading Earth through a portal in the Pacific Ocean, the humans created giant fighting robots (Jaeger), powered by two men who linked their minds with the machine.  The men who powered the Jaegers were at first revered as heroes.  But after a while, the Jaegers faded into the background as new defenses were developed.  When the attacks of the Kaiju increase, however, and new defenses fail, it will be up to the few remaining Jaegers and their pilots to prevent the apocalypse.  Raleigh Becket, who has not piloted a Jaeger since the battle that killed his co-pilot brother, is called out of retirement and paired with a talented rookie with a traumatic past to pilot the oldest of the Jaegers.  Although their fellow pilots are skeptical about their abilities, the has-been and the rookie may be the Earth’s best hope for survival.

This film is a blend of the Kaiju genre (giant monsters like Godzilla) and the Mecha genre (giant robots like the tripods in War of the Worlds) with a new twist–exploring how chronic alien invasion would transform a society.  Like all Guillermo del Toro films, the cinematography rises to the surface with great visuals and art direction.  The story has a decent blend of character development and action, and the poorly matched pair of expert scientists provide comic relief.  But all of the characters were archetypal stock characters who made predictable choices and evolved in predictable ways–completely appropriate for the genres del Toro is playing with, but not necessarily stimulating for viewers who thrive on rich and interesting character development.  Still, a very entertaining action movie with a cool twist on some classic sci-fi tropes.

Marvel’s Avengers Origin Movies Ranked

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UPDATE: As of April 2014, I’ve plugged Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier into the line up!

 

Thor: The Dark World comes out this week; who’s excited?!  In preparation, I’ve rewatched the Avengers origin story movies these past couple of months.  So for those of you who are wondering which to watch and which to skip, here’s my countdown!

9. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Directed by Louis Leterrier
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 113 min.

As much as I like Edward Norton, this Hulk movie easily comes in last place for the recent origin stories.  The film has very little momentum.  Basically, Bruce Banner runs away from some people.  He does this in various cities.  At some point an incredibly underdeveloped supervillain is introduced.  In the end the Hulk fights him because he is the only one who can, but hero and villain really had no personal grudge.  In fact, we aren’t sure what motivated the villain to experiment with the gamma radiation in the first place, except for the cliché and shallow reasoning that he wanted to be stronger.  There were a few good lines, but overall this movie is totally skippable.  There is no information that you gain in this film that you need in any of the others—even The Avengers. 

8. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Directed by Alan Taylor
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 112 min.

This film is much, much better than the 2008 Hulk.  But falls short of its predecessor, the first Thor.  The good in this film is (unsurprisingly) Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  The villain of Marvel’s Avengers and Thor gets a chance to bare his soul a bit in this one and we see some development in his relationship with his brother (although it is often hard to distinguish sincere Loki from manipulative Loki…).  But the Thor-Jane relationship is still boring (see below) and the film’s villain is also one-dimensional.  Combine that with large chunks of awkward dialogue and explication, and even the amazing cameo of Chris O’Dowd (Roy from the IT Crowd) is not enough to place this one higher on the list.

7. Thor (2011)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 114 min.

This film is a bit better than its sequel, and essential to watch before The Avengers or Thor: The Dark World .  The immature, prideful, moody hero we see at the beginning of this film is straight out of the comic book, and his transformation is believable.  Other highlights of the film include an awesome villain (Tom Hiddleston’s Loki who will return in Avengers and Thor 2) and some great comic moments.  What stops Thor from ranking up with everything ahead of on the list for me is the ridiculously underdeveloped romance.  Jane the scientist somehow falls deeply—life-sacrificingly—in love with Thor the minute she meets him.  And while Thor undergoes quite a transformation over the course of the film, their relationship really doesn’t seem to evolve at all.  And since they haven’t known each other that long and their attachment seems purely physical (contrast with Captain America), the sacrifices that are made in the end do not seem as dramatic or impactful.  An entertaining movie and essential to the plot development of the subsequent films, but low on this list.

6. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Directed by Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 124 min.

Pretty universally agreed to be the least of the Iron Mans, in this adventure Tony Stark must atone for the sins of his father—not nearly as compelling as when he faces his own past idiocy in 1 & 3.  We also lack the underdog effect that made Iron Man 1 (and arguably also 3) so fantastic.  Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow will be an interesting character in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but in this film she has zero character depth and not even that much action.  Still, a fun action movie and good to watch before the superior Iron Man 3.

 Here’s where it starts getting tough to rank. . .

5. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Directed by Shane Black
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 130 min.

There are many people who would put The Avengers in 4th place and others who would rank Iron Man 3 higher than Iron Man 1.   I can see making both of these choices, but here’s why I’ve got Iron Man 3 down at number 4.  The premise of this film is great.  Coming off of the Avengers mission, Stark has PTSD from his nearly fatal trip into the vortex.  Meanwhile, although he has grown so much as a person during his stint as a superhero, mistakes he made earlier in his life and career still have dire consequences.  Unlike in Iron Man 2, Stark becomes an underdog again—forced to go back to the root of his superhero “power”: his skill as a mechanic.  Ben Kingsley is an absolutely fantastic villainous figure.  And like all of the Iron Mans, the film has a great balance of humor and action.  So what knocks it down to number 4?  Deus ex machina at the end.  There is a fine line between awesome sci-fi concept and over-the-top ridiculousness.  But it is still a must-see!

4. Iron Man (2008)
Directed by Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 125 min.

After much deliberation, I’m going to put Iron Man below The Avengers, but I don’t know that I can really make the argument that The Avengers is a better film.  I just like all the inside jokes…

Iron Man is your classic underdog-becomes-superhero set up.  Stark’s arrogance gets him into a situation where his own weapons are being used against him—and with all of his body guards taken away, he must draw on his skills as an inventor to save himself.  This film is action-packed and hilarious, and the lack of a prominent romance plot in this particular Iron Man leaves all of the focus on Stark’s transformation from irresponsible jerk-face to superhero.

3. Marvel’s Avengers (2012)
Directed by Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 145 min.

It is probably unfair to put The Avengers quite this high on the list, because it is definitely less self-contained than Iron Man.  You can watch Iron Man with no prior comic book knowledge and the film will give you everything you need.  For The Avengers, in order to get all the jokes and truly appreciate what is going on, you must not only have seen Thor and Iron Man, but you also need to know your comic book characters.  The Black Widow/Hawkeye dynamic is great, but if you don’t know their backstory, you aren’t going to get enough of it in the film to know what’s going on.  That said, if you do know some of the backstory of these characters, this movie is fantastic.  Loki is even more compelling and interesting on Earth than he was in Asgard.  And the way the heroes clash with one another while trying to unite into a team—in a script written by Joss Whedon—is both hilarious and suspenseful.  Also, giant, alien-spewing space whales.  Just saying. 

2. Captain America (2011)
Directed by Joe Johnston
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 123 min.

Although it doesn’t have the humor that comes from combining all of the heroes in The Avengers, Captain America’s structure and character-driven plot are so cohesive and self-sufficient that I have to put it on top.  We start with a scrawny kid who just wants to go fight Nazis.  His moral integrity and work ethic earn him a spot as an experimental super soldier, but still no one takes him seriously.  So he has to prove his worth by facing impossible odds and saving a bunch of lives—and then later fighting a Nazi supervillain.  The plot is a classic, but it was perfectly executed, keeping us invested in the character development while also maintaining momentum in the action of the plot.  And—a bit shocking in a superhero action movie—Captain America has a believable romance where the hero and leading lady actually know one another over a period of time and fall in love with each other not as superhero and damsel in distress, but as teammates.  And because of this, the sacrifice Captain Rogers must make in the end is genuinely heart-breaking—and yet the only believable choice his character would ever make.  Captain America has fewer of the hilarious superhero inside jokes that make me love The Avengers and less of the character charisma of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, but this movie is just solid on all levels.  And unlike The Avengers, it can stand on its own without prior knowledge or even the need for a sequel (although they clearly intend one).  It ends by closing the door on Captain America’s past life and love.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 136 min

I didn’t think the new Captain America could possibly outdo its sequel.  But I was wrong.  The story writing is again flawless–again a typical trope, this time hero-turned-fugitive, but executed well.  The balance between humor and action are great, and the major characters develop throughout the story.  There is some prior knowledge required.  You must have seen Captain America and The Avengers.  But it is a sequel, so that is to be expected.  It does not require any knowledge that is unavailable in those previous films (the way that The Avengers requires some comic book knowledge).  But what gives this sequel the edge over its predecessor is a more nuanced and compelling villain/challenge for the hero.  Now in the modern day, we have a modern version of the former Nazi villian’s vision.  The evil is less black-and-white, and the best solutions to problems are unclear and a source of dissent among the heroes.

So while The Avengers is probably still my personal favorite, the Captain Americas continue to dominate as the most cohesive, well-structured, character-driven films in the franchise.

 

THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)

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Director: Luc Besson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 126 min.

For decades, an ancient priesthood has kept the secret knowledge of the Fifth Element—the perfect being—that will save the universe from destruction by an alien foe.  But when the Fifth Element arrives in the world’s hour of need, a group of alien mercenaries destroys its ship; the government only recovers one of the Fifth Element’s hands.  Using that hand, they reconstruct the perfect being in their lab, who turns out to look remarkably like an ordinary woman.  But the Fifth Element is not eager to operate on the government’s terms.  Confused and frightened, she escapes from the lab and winds up in the back of Korben Dallas’ cab.  Korben has gotten out of government service after he was the only survivor of a botched mission, and now he is just trying to make ends meet.  Unfortunately, with the arrival the Fifth Element, he is thrown back into the crazy world of government secrets, militant aliens, and . . . luxury cruises?

I think The Fifth Element is the most ’80-sish movie I have ever seen that was not actually made in the ‘80s… Amazing!  It is hilarious, suspenseful, and also touching.  I highly recommend it to all lovers of quirky ‘80s sci-fi!