Science Fiction

STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS (2013)

Posted on Updated on

Director: J. J. Abrams
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 132 min.

On a planet in the Nibiru system, Captain Jim Kirk and his crew have broken protocol in order to rescue a civilization from a deadly volcano.   When their plan goes wrong and in order to save Spock’s life, Kirk must violate Starfleet’s Prime Directive—never to interfere with the development of an alien civilization—by allowing the primitive natives to catch a glimpse of the Enterprise.  Naturally, he lies about it in his official reports.  Unfortunately, Spock submits a report as well, and Vulcans never lie.  Admiral Marcus responds to Kirk’s blatant disregard of protocol by demoting him to First Officer and transferring Spock to another ship.  But before these changes can take place, tragedy strikes.  A rogue Starfleet Officer, John Harrison, blows up a Starfleet library, and when the Starfleet Command gathers to address the crisis, Harrison attacks again.  Among the dead is Kirk’s mentor and friend, Christopher Pike.  When Mr. Scott traces Harrison’s teleport back to the Klingon home world, all that is on Kirk’s mind is regaining control of the Enterprise and avenging Pike’s death.  But John Harrison may not be who he seems. . . .

J. J. Abrams has once again created an absolutely wonderful Star Trek film.  I am still amazed at how true this cast is to the original characters they are portraying.  Of course Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful addition.  Star Trek fans probably won’t be surprised by any of the “twists,” but that doesn’t matter.  Abrams isn’t relying on any cheap tricks or dramatic revelations.  Everything—from the dialogue to the character development to the action sequences—is well written and engaging.  If you like Sci-Fi and/or action movies, go see Into Darkness!  (I also recommend 3D on this one; it’s great!)  

 

THE AVENGERS (2012)

Posted on Updated on

Director: Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 143 min.

When a mysterious alien enemy breaks into a high-security government lab and steals a tesseract–capable of ripping a hole in the universe–the entire planet is in danger.  To make matters worse, the enemy captures several government agents, including superhero Hawkeye, and takes over their minds, gaining access not only to their peculiar skills but also to all of the government’s secrets.  Agent Nick Fury tries to assemble a group of Earth’s greatest defenders to defeat the menace.  Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and the Black Widdow all answer the call, some more reluctantly than others.  But if they are going to do anything as a team, they will first need to find a way to get along with each other.  The “Avengers Initiative” might never get off the ground–unless they have something to avenge.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie.  Typical of Joss Whedon productions, characters and personalities are a major focal point–something which is often overlooked in large budget action movies.  That is not to say that he skimped on the action.  There was plenty of destruction, combat, and suspense to go around.  The Avengers is not the greatest thing that Joss Whedon has ever done, but Firefly is hard to top.  I would highly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys a good action movie and anyone who enjoyed the origin stories.  If you are hoping for hard science fiction, however, you may be disappointed.  Aside from the obvious space travel and super powers, there was very little focus on the science/technology aspects of the plot.

DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG (2008)

Posted on Updated on

Director: Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time 42 min.

In his super villain identity as Dr. Horrible, Billy dreams of joining the Evil League of Evil and disrupting the “status quo” of a society that is clearly complacent in its corruption and brokenness.  But he also dreams of asking out the gorgeous girl from the laundromat, Penny. Unfortunately, when a chance to talk to Penny finally presents itself, Dr. Horrible is in the midst of a major heist–one that could make or break his application to the League.  Even more unfortunately, Dr. Horrible’s nemesis Captain Hammer gets in the way on both fronts, foiling the heist and rescuing Penny who then agrees to date him.  Now in order to get into the ELE, make Penny fall in love with him, and of course fix the world, Dr. Horrible will need to do something drastic.

Thank you, 2008 Screen Writers Strike, for prompting the creation of this brilliant three episode web-series, now available through iTunes and on DVD.  If you love Joss Whedon/Firefly/Serenity/Buffy/any of the above, you will love Dr. Horrible (let’s face it–you’ll already have seen Dr. Horrible. . . .).  But if you like funny, quirky sci-fi and/or musicals (and don’t mind low budget!), give Dr. Horrible a try.  It’s one of my favorites!

THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

Posted on Updated on

Director: Gary Ross
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 142 min.

In a dystopian society, a wealthy Capitol City rules over twelve impoverished Districts, home to the laborers who keep the Capitol supplied with food, clothing, and other luxuries while their own families starve.  In punishment for a previous rebellion, each District is required to send two of their children–a boy and a girl–to the Capitol each year where they will be forced to engage in a televised fight to the death.  When her little sister’s name is selected as the female contestant from District Twelve, sixteen year old Katniss volunteers to go in her place.  She and the boy from her District, Peeta, travel to the Captiol and prepare themselves for the brutal fight for survival in the Hunger Games arena.  Katniss is determined both to survive and to retain her dignity, and the Capitol officials soon realize that they have a potential problem on their hands.

I was very impressed with the quality of this adaptation, particularly in terms of the screenwriting and acting.  The writers made few major changes to the story, and while some of the slight changes did have a noticeable effect (Katniss’ ambivalent feelings toward Peeta were somewhat Hollywood-ized), I felt that other changes were incredibly appropriate to facilitate the transition from novel to film.  The actors had clearly studied Suzanne Collins’ portrayal of their characters and were able to convey the rich complexities that could have been lost without Katniss’ narration.

The cinematography was less impressive.  While at times the shaky camera effect emphasized the chaos of the Games or Katniss’ anxiety and unfamiliarity with her surroundings, the technique would have been more effective if used more sparingly throughout the film.  In addition, some of the action sequences were fairly dark, and the images were nearly impossible to track; the audience was left watching a dark blur of motion, sometimes for thirty seconds or more.  Still, the overall artistic design and costuming created an appropriate atmosphere for the story and closely mimicked the descriptions in the novel.  The filmmakers’ imagining of Collins’ story was enjoyable and effective, both as an adaptation and a stand-alone film.  In this case, I do think the book was better, but I still highly recommend the film!

SERENITY (2005)

Posted on Updated on

Director: Joss Whedon
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 119 min.

Science fiction fans everywhere wept when Joss Whedon’s phenomenal television series “Firefly” (2002) was canceled after just one season.  The 2005 film Serenity picks up roughly where the show left off and ties up some of the most frustrating loose ends of the plot.

When the Earth’s environment began to die out, the human race colonized other planets, terraforming them to support human life.  When the governments of the wealthy central planets decided to unite all planets under one Alliance, the “less civilized” border planets fought back.  Among the Independent soldiers were Mal Reynolds and Zoe Washburn.  After their crushing defeat at the Battle of Serenity Valley which ended the war, Mal and Zoe got themselves a ship (a Firefly class ship that Mal named Serenity) and a crew and began to travel, picking up any jobs they could get, most of them illegal.  Among the crew members that they assembled over time were Simon, a former Alliance doctor, and his little sister, River, who he had rescued from some sort of Alliance medical testing facility where she had been the victim of experimental brain surgery.  No one knows exactly what the Alliance had been trying to do to River, but she seems to have lost her sanity.  It also quickly becomes clear that she has special abilities, in martial arts and possibly mind-reading.  As Alliance officials try to hunt Simon and River down, Mal has to decide whether protecting the fugitives puts the rest of his crew at risk.  Complicating Mal’s loyalties, it seems that River subconsciously remembers a secret that could bring the downfall of the hated Alliance. The only catch is that in order to uncover the secret, the crew will have to face the bloodthirsty Reavers.

Although intended for both devoted “Firefly” fans and newcomers, Serenity is likely to fall flat if you haven’t seen the series first. Important plot details are conveyed, but the relationships in the film are less meaningful without knowledge of the depth and nuance of the character development in the series. That said, I highly recommend both the series and this film.  “Firefly”/Serenity is character-driven sci-fi at its best, building on conventions of the genre but with new twists (a series set in outer space, but with no aliens, the feel of a Western, and an emphasis on social and political conflict in addition to traditional gun fights and spaceship chases).  The characters are realistic and complicated, the scripts filled with a blend of hilarious comedy, romance, action, and heartache.  Joss Whedon is well-loved for a reason, and “Firefly”/Serenity is his masterpiece.

But watch “Firefly” first . . .

INCEPTION (2010)

Posted on Updated on

Director: Christopher Nolan
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 148 min

This film is based on the premise that technology exists which allows people to infiltrate and manipulate the dreams of other people.  As the story opens, Cobb, an expert in dream technology is on the run from the law, forced to hide abroad and work for corporations illegally.  After a failed operation, Cobb is approached by the head of a major corporation for a job.  If he is able to penetrate the dreams of a young business man and plant an idea that will cause the man to break up his company, then Cobb’s employer will see to it that all charges are cleared from his name and he can return home to his children.  Cobb takes the job, but in order to succeed, he must escape the ghosts of his mysterious past who seem to sabotage him every time he enters the dream world.

The film takes advantage of the similarity between dreams and the medium of film–the quick cuts from one scene to another without having to know exactly how the characters got there, the seemingly impossible or improbable events that we take for granted, etc.  Just as the characters sometimes have trouble sorting out what is dream and what is reality, so does the audience.  This is not a movie to watch when you are tired or unprepared to pay close attention.  But if you like a solid science fiction concept and like trying to figure out what is going on in a mysterious plot, this is a great film.