Science Fiction

THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK (2004)

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Director: David Twohy
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 119 min.

When bounty hunters come searching for the fugitive criminal Riddick on a remote, frozen wasteland of a planet, they severely underestimate their opponent.  Before they even know what happened to them, Riddick has taken their ship and is heading back to the planet that raised the bounty on their head.  There, he discovers that a friend from his past needs his help in saving his world and all worlds from a vicious alien cult that is destroying civilizations throughout the universe.  Riddick is unable to save his friend or his world, but learns that he may be the key to stopping the cult.  He also learns that the young girl he once rescued and used to travel with (Jack) is incarcerated in the worst prison in the galaxy.   And for Riddick, the choice between saving the universe from evil and saving Jack is an easy one.  Jack is his responsibility.  The universe can fend for itself.

If you like sci-fi action and don’t care at all about character development or thematic nuances, then this movie is pretty entertaining.  I kind of feel the same way about this movie as I did about Taken (2008)The hero said he was going to go in there, kick everyone’s ass, and get the girl out . . . and then he did.  The only difference here is an overarching sci-fi good vs. evil theme that is intriguing, but underdeveloped.  It is nice to see a hero-leading lady relationship in an action movie that is more of a brother-sister thing than a romance, reminiscent of Firefly’s Simon and River.  But otherwise, nothing stands out as noteworthy.  Basically, if you want to watch Vin Diesel kill a bunch of people in space and speak in (often amusing) one and two word sentences, this is the movie for you.  The third in the Riddick series just came out September 2013.

THE WORLD’S END (2013)

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Director: Edgar Wright
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 109 min.

The greatest moment of Gary King’s life was the night he and his four best friends did the Golden Mile—12 pubs, 12 pints, from the First Post to the World’s End.  Well, almost to the World’s End.  They never quite made it to the last pub before collapsing on the hill to watch the sunrise.  A decade later, Gary’s friends have moved on to careers and families, but for washed-up Gary, that high school moment still stands out as his greatest almost-achievement.  And he is determined to “get the band back together” for another go at the Golden Mile—this time to the World’s End.  With his friends reluctantly joining him, Gary returns to his hometown, but he is sure something strange is going on.  No one remembers him.  He was Gary King—the one and only!  But the people act as though they have no recollection of him at all.  As his friends begin to get frustrated with his self-centered immaturity, Gary may be on the verge of having to confront certain truths about his life and grow as a person.  Until he discovers that the whole town has been swapped out with deadly alien robot creatures. . . .

I have been involved in some pretty fierce debates over which is more awesome: Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.  Unfortunately, The World’s End falls short of the earlier Wright-Pegg-Frost collaborations.  Don’t get me wrong—it was hilarious.  I laughed pretty much the whole hour and a half.  But it lacked the emotional depth and cleverly incorporated social commentary that made its predecessors great.  The emotional stakes in The World’s End were really low.  When friend turned robot, there was none of the emotional angst of Shaun vs. his mum or Danny vs. his dad.  We never got to know Gary King enough to understand him and root for him, and there was very little character development overall.  In contrast to Shaun of the Deads smooth and clever real world/zombie apocalypse parallels, the surface level social commentary in World’s End was poorly integrated throughout the film, causing the ending to fall kind of flat.

All that said, it was still hilarious.  Though I was never emotionally invested, I still enjoyed the movie.  Don’t clamber to see it in the theaters, but if you enjoy the traditional Wright/Pegg/Frost blend of wit, slapstick, and absurdity, The World’s End is sure to keep you laughing.  Just don’t be expecting another masterpiece.

“ORPHAN BLACK” (2013- )

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Creators: John Fawcett and Graeme Manson

After ten months away living with her abusive, drug-dealing ex-boyfriend, Sarah Manning takes a late subway train back to Toronto, hoping to see her young daughter, Kira.  Unfortunately, Kira’s current guardian (Sarah’s own foster mother) makes it clear on the phone that Sarah can’t see her daughter until she has cleaned up her act.  As she is about to leave the subway, Sarah sees a woman identical to herself commit suicide by jumping in front of the train.  In the commotion that follows, Sarah—enterprising young grifter that she is—steals the dead woman’s purse.  She realizes that she looks so much like the dead woman (who is revealed by her driver’s license to be Beth Childs) that she may be able to make even more money by stealing her identity.  But Sarah’s plan to drain Beth’s bank accounts and then escape with Kira goes awry when she discovers that Beth was actually a cop.  Even worse, Beth (now Sarah) is on trial for having accidentally killed a civilian.  As Sarah tries to think on her feet and keep herself out of prison, she also discovers that Beth may have been caught up in something even more sinister and complicated than she first realized.

This show is awesome!  It is a funny, suspenseful Sci-Fi thriller (though you wouldn’t know it from my description above; the Sci-Fi enters a couple episodes in) and is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat as you try to untangle the mystery.  If you don’t like shows that make you think, this is not the show for you.  But if you like humorous, fast-paced, suspenseful science fiction, you will love this show.  It is incredibly well-written, and Tatiana Maslany is a phenomenal actress.  She can play more than one role and have you fully convinced that she is two different people.  She even has chemistry with herself.  I cannot recommend it highly enough to Sci-Fi and mystery/thriller fans. It is quickly becoming a favorite of mine!

Orphan Black will probably appeal to viewers who like suspenseful yet humorous Sci-Fi such as “Warehouse 13,” “Doctor Who,” and “Firefly.” It may also appeal to fans of suspenseful shows like “Alias” and “24.”

STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS (2013)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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!