Archive for sci-fi

Review: Alien: Covenant

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2017 by Tom Austin-Morgan

Originally, Ridley Scott had the idea to make a trilogy of films that would be linked to, and eventually link up with, the Alien franchise that he started back in 1979 but would explore deeper ideas. The result was Prometheus and, on the whole, people reacted negatively to it. The general consensus was ‘It’s not like Alien’, ‘Where’s the xenomorph?’ and ‘this is too pretentious’.

Alien: Covenant is the direct sequel to Prometheus and has been through a number of scripts and titles since its original inception with Scott seemingly making changes to his original plan based on reaction to Prometheus. It feels a shame that such a visionary director appears to feel that he has to appease the audience over sticking to his original vision. So, Alien: Covenant is what Scott thinks we want, rather than exactly what he wanted to make. This is a film for the people that moaned.

The philosophical ideas explored in Prometheus are right there from even before the title appears on the screen in Alien: Covenant. Also, the over-ripe dialogue that is only really there to explain what’s going on, which was never there in Alien. In the 1979 original the characters had believable conversations about pay and profit-sharing schemes, they were space-truckers and spoke like truckers. In Prometheus, the scientists are looking for the answer to where humans came from, so the cod-philosophical dialogue made some sense. But in Alien: Covenant the majority of the cast are colonists, off to make a new planet their home. They are engineers, botanists, explorers, yet they constantly talk in ways normal people don’t.

In film, it should be ‘show, don’t tell’, but at one point Billy Crudup’s newly-promoted captain says – out loud –  that people don’t trust him because he is religious. It’s written on the faces of the actors, we can see it, it doesn’t need saying.

This sounds like an absolute slating, but there are many, many positives too. Scott is an amazing world builder, and the landscapes and sets are stunning, the gore is visceral and used sparingly to leave things to your imagination, except in one scene very early on which is super uncomfortable to watch. There also isn’t a weak link in the cast either, this is probably the first time since Tropic Thunder that  Danny McBride has turned in a performance that I’ve enjoyed. Michael Fassbender gets to show more range than previously, playing two very different (but quite similar) roles and Katherine Waterston is brilliant as this film’s Ripley stand-in who starts off weak, but proves to have hidden reserves as the horror unfolds.

You get a lot of history about what has been happening in the 10 years between the goings on in Prometheus and now. Which probably serves as a proxy for some of the stuff Scott cut from his original drafts. The other half of the movie serves as a remixed greatest hits of scenes from previous Alien movies. Which is great!

There are face-huggers scrambling around and jumping out at people, chest bursters (that isn’t quite how it happened in Aliens and gestated as fast as in the Alien v Predator films that people also had problems with), Aliens attacking from shadows/above, acid blood spraying, chases through corridors, air-locks, big machinery, small Alien mouths through the skull, and much more.

There are new thrills, one of which has been mentioned in this review already, and they are super-effective. The problem with having so much that harks back to the Alien films is that as soon as characters start to split up or investigate certain things you know what’s going to happen to them. This makes the film a lot less scary than it’s predecessors, but it’s no less tense.

The villainous character is properly insidious and keeps you guessing… to a point. And the finale of the film really has you in suspense for another film, perhaps this will be the one before Alien and Scott will finally have closed his loop, perhaps not. Maybe Neill Blomkamp will get the roll the clock back with his Alien 2.5 movie that is supposed to be set after Aliens and rewrites the timeline after Alien 3 did something almost unforgivable with two of the characters from the second film.

Either way, I’ll see and enjoy any film based around xenomorphs. Alien: Covenant may be a little messy, mainly because of the fact that Scott felt he had to diverge from his original plans, but when it works it really works, and it works more than it doesn’t. I just wish he’d stuck with his convictions.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2017 by Tom Austin-Morgan

Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be the sleeper hit of Marvel Studios’ prolific output from the last 12 years because it came completely out of left field, with no huge stars (on-screen at least) and about characters very few had ever heard of. However, the mix of a hilarious script, irreverent soundtrack and the chemistry of the cast came together to blow audiences and critics away.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn’t have that same luxury, people know what to expect from it. So, how does Vol. 2 go about replicating, if not building of the success of Vol. 1? As with so many sequels – especially in the comic-book genre – Vol. 2 goes bigger right from the jump.

The opening five to 10 minutes looks like it cost more money than any opening scene ever. But what the film does is focus on a very small, cute detail rather than the massive action set-piece happening in the background. And, in a way, that’s kind of the point of this particular franchise: the first film was about finding family, this film is about being a family – while also being a team that saves the galaxy.

Almost all the characters in Vol. 2 have been fleshed out and given more depth, rather than sticking with the templates that were sketched out in the fist film. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Drucker) have been given deeper issues to work through, Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) is more playful, the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) has been deepened with Nebula giving the real reason for her hatred of her stronger sister. Drax (Dave Bautista) continues to be a scene stealer with all the best lines, but his character has even been given more depth. Instead of being a character that takes things completely literally, he is now trying to use sarcasm, though he still doesn’t understand it.

The only character that doesn’t seem to have been given more is Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), despite the fact he has become the leader of the group and is the lead human character that we’re supposed to empathise with. He’s found his biological father in Ego (Kurt Russell), a god of sorts that offers Quill the chance to become a god too. For some reason though, this his character doesn’t seem to have the spark or charisma that he did in the first film.

There are some decent, if not well-telegrahed, plot twists along the way and some great visuals. Some of the action sequences, especially towards the end of the film, can be a little hard to focus on because of the quick cutting and the fact that there is so much going on.

There are some interesting cameos including Sylvester Stallone (who is difficult to understand), Ving Rhames (fleetingly), the Hulk (possibly), Jeff Goldblum (buried in the credits) and David Hasselhoff (bizarrely)! But my personal favourite was Stan Lee’s double cameo that goes some way to addressing a fan theory about his cameos. In it he is communing with the Watchers, a race of aliens who oversee the Marvel universe, telling them about his various entanglements with superheros on Earth. It would have been truly mind-blowing had he referenced a cameo in one of the Fox or Sony films… but that’s me getting super-geeky about things. Is he a Watcher in human form, or just a human go-between, keeping them abreast of goings on they may have missed?

If anything, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a funnier film than it’s predecessor and has been given more substance. The few criticisms levelled at it are the abundance of characters muddying things, the lack of development of the central character and the fact that a lot of what happens in the film relies on your knowledge of the previous film, even more so than most of the other films Marvel puts out. But if you’re seeing a film with Vol. 2 in the title before seeing the first, you’re doing something wrong.

Reviews: Passengers

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2017 by Tom Austin-Morgan

passengers

Passengers has been miss-sold to you. The trailer makes it look like Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence wake up in deep space and strike up a relationship while trying to find out why they’ve been woken up. This is not what the film is about, and this makes it problematic.

The actual plot of the film is much more intriguing than that.

In the future, humans have terra-formed planets for communities to start again. En route to on of these ‘homesteads’ a ship is hit by a meteor shower and this damages some of the ship’s systems resulting in Pratt being woken up 90 years early. He tries for years to gain access to the ship’s crew and attempts to get himself back to sleep, all with no success. After a failed suicide attempt he stumbles across the pod of Jennifer Lawrence and he falls for her while watching clips of why she had decided to leave Earth.

The only companion he has had for three years is a robotic bartender played by the ever-charming Michael Sheen, but  this isn’t enough. For months he bats around the idea of waking Lawrence up so he can have a companion… a lover, knowing that he is condemning her to the same fate.

This is such a great premise that it’s difficult to understand why it wasn’t marketed as this in the first place. Possibly because the film’s stars are too big to attract mainstream audiences to a creepy, psychodrama set in space, but this is what the film is.

This could be the film in which Pratt plays his most despicable character yet, at the point Lawrence finds out she calls him a murderer, and his has effectively sentenced her to death with his weakness.

The problem comes with the film trying to tie itself up to a nice ending. The two have to work together along with a fleeting performance by Laurence Fishburne as a crew member that also wakes up just to give them access to parts of the ship that previously were unobtainable to them. And all of a sudden all the bad feelings and the loathsome act Pratt had committed is forgiven by Lawrence in a way that is unbelievable given how her character has acted until this point.

Overall, it’s not a bad film, it was just sold to the world as a different film and it works against it, which is a shame. It taints what could have been a great psychological drama with a brilliant premise.

Review: Arrival

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2016 by Tom Austin-Morgan

arrival-poster

 

This is easily the best film I’ve seen in 2016. It may be an alien invasion film, but it’s so much more than that; it’s also about bigger issues like communication and working together to reach a common goal.

Where Arrival really stands apart from almost every other alien invasion film, like the recent Independence Day: Resurgence for example, is that the aliens aren’t here threatening the Earth and not a shot is fired. In fact, there’s only one explosion in the whole film.

The hero of the film is Amy Adams’ character, she’s not a soldier but a linguist, who is brought in after the US military realise the aliens aren’t hostile but can’t be understood. So, it’s up to her character and Jeremy Renner’s character to work out how the alien’s language works as it’s unlike any language in the world. All this is going on at multiple sites around the world, but paranoia between nations threatens to ruin everything.

Saying much more about the plot would give things away but the twist – if it can even be called that, as it’s actually there from the off – is a real gut punch even after what you learn at the beginning of the film. But when it’s revealed, you’ll wonder when everything started, how it links and where it ends.

This is a film that makes you think, requires re-watching and is an example of everything that sci-fi can be when it’s done well. If it doesn’t win best adapted screenplay and best actress at this year’s Oscars, I’ll be gob-smacked. See it three times, right now!

Review: Star Trek Beyond

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2016 by Tom Austin-Morgan

Star Trek Beyond

The third installment of the new Star Trek franchise is the first not to be helmed by JJ Abrams, with Justin Lin stepping into the rather large shoes of Abrams. Lin has been best known for the Fast & Furious films from Tokyo Drift through to the sixth installment of a franchise that is safe to say has been completely rejuvenated under his stewardship. But, does he have what it takes to carry on the stellar work already done by Abrams?

If the trailers were anything to go by, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that Lin had the writers destroy the Enterprise (it’s in the trailer, it’s not a spoiler. The Enterprise is constantly being blown up!) so he could shot a load of motorcycle chases. Happily, there’s slightly more to it than that.

This time around we find the crew of the Enterprise a couple of years into its five-year mission exploring space and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is starting to wonder what the point is of exploring infinity. “Life has started to feel episodic” is one of his lines, which is the first in quite a few call-backs to Star Trek’s televisual origins.

As previously stated, due to a trick, the Enterprise is destroyed by the main villain and a seemingly unstoppable wave of an army. Due to the evacuation process, the various members of the team are split up which makes this film much less of a team movie than the previous offerings. But this, and the fact they are severely under equipped to fight such a large army, forces the crew members to put their heads together and think their way out of the various situations they find themselves in. Again, this is more reminiscent of the TV series, which was always based more on diplomacy than action.

It’s clear that Simon Pegg, as one of the writers, gave himself a prominent role in the plot as his character, Scotty, is partnered up with Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), the latest kick-ass alien in the Star Trek universe. Her character is the most interesting, the most fleshed out and the most exciting, as the rest of the original cast seem to be coasting somewhat with only one or two other actors to bounce off for most of the film and not much in the way of development. With the exception of the relationship between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) whose bickering and misunderstandings mark some of the comedic highlights of the film.

There are some fairly sizable plot holes in the film, it is a blockbuster sci-fi that has been written by five people after all. For example, who is the henchman of the villain, Krall (Idris Elba), and what’s his back story? Also, there was a distinct lack of emotion from the crew of the Enterprise after the destruction of what had been their home for the past three years, which detracted from what could have been a much more emotional scene.

Another, possibly slightly less important, issue is why would you cast Idris Elba as the main antagonist and then bury him in full prosthetics? Eric Banner was recognisable in the first of the reboot films and in Into Darkness Benedict Cumberbatch and Frank Weller had none at all.

Overall, Star Trek Beyond is better than is has any right to be on paper. It’s probably a little less enjoyable than the previous two films, but still more than watchable and one of the closest in tone to the original films and TV series. A laudable effort, that has seen the green light given for a fourth installment already. Can Justin Lin do for Start Trek what he did for the Fast & Furious franchise? He’s not definitely attached to the fourth installment, but don’t bet against it.

Review: Lazer Team

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2016 by Tom Austin-Morgan

lazer team

I entered the cinema with an air of trepidation. Lazer Team (intentionally spelt with a ‘z’) is a film by a group of people (Rooster Teeth) who predominantly film stuff and put it on YouTube, produce podcasts and play computer games. I don’t watch things on YouTube, it’s a phenomenon that’s passed my by, I’m afraid. So, I thought it would by chock full of in-jokes and references that would alienate a Luddite like myself as it had been crowdfunded by the fans of Rooster Teeth.

I was wrong. Actually what it is is a slacker sci-fi comedy where a group of misfits unwitting stumble upon a suit of power, put on a piece each and then have to learn to get on and work together as they face a threat from beyond the galaxy.

Cue training montages where no-one gets any better, falling out, making up and ultimately coming together to save the Earth. Oh, and zombie-like soldiers being controlled by the aliens of course!

Apparently there were loads of references and easter eggs for those who are indoctrinated into the world of Rooster Teeth, but for those who aren’t it’s a passable couple of hours with more than enough laughs and some pretty good effects for an independent film.

It hasn’t converted me to wanting to spend hours on YouTube, but it wasn’t even half as bad as I feared.

Review: Star Wars The Force Awakens

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2016 by Tom Austin-Morgan

Star Wars The Force Awakens

The long and eagerly awaited seventh episode of the Star Wars saga picks up around 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, so all the original cast didn’t have to go through any post-production de-aging that made people in The Hobbit look so strange. So that’s one good thing… among many more good things.

JJ Abrams was on a hiding to nothing directing the first Star Wars film since the almost universally panned prequels. Also, Disney needed to make a decent return on the $4billion investment it made buying the franchise from George Lucas.

The idea seems to be: The best way to make a ton of money from this film is to give the fans what they want. What the fans have been clamouring for since it looked like episode seven was on the cards was another film like the original films. And that’s exactly what they’ve got.

The film hits almost every beat from A New Hope; starts with a shot of a Start Destroyer floating across the screen; a droid is given instructions to keep safe; a masked bad guy clad in black; an orphan on a desert planet; an up-himself general; a grand master hologram; a Yoda-style alien figure; a kidnapped central female character; a Death Star/ice planet (I know this is Empire Strikes Back) for the main Jedi to sneak round; there are more, but you get the gist.

Luckily for Abrams, he decided to go mainly with physical settings and stunts, for the most part. So, automatically it looks like it belongs to the same universe as the original films. I don’t even think the amount of references is problematic, though there were slightly too many. The bits that really stood out and don’t work are the fully-CG monsters or characters. For example, the big ball-monsters on Han Solo’s freighter and Grand Master Snoke.

In fact, until it was made obvious that Snoke (Andy Serkis) is a hologram it made me angry that they had some weird giant that looks like a cross between Gollum and the leader of the orcs from The Hobbit. I still can’t get over the look of Snoke and can’t see why he couldn’t have been in prosthetics that were augmented by CG.

The new cast was great, John Boyega’s character, Finn could have had a more interesting arc from stormtrooper to resistance member, but was so charismatic it didn’t really matter. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a great, strong lead female character, though how she progressed so quickly is a little beyond me compared to those who have gone before her. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren was a strange one, his entrance was brilliant, but over the course of the film he became more annoying and weaker. Also, he probably should have kept his helmet on.

The best of the new cast, by far, apart from BB-8, was Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Issacs who is on a really strong role at the moment. He was massively underutilised, but it leaves you wanting to know more about him. He almost seems too good.

Some of the original cast were back, can’t say much about Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher has been through some really tough times since the 70s and I’m afraid it shows. It was a bit sad. R2-D2 and C3PO are back, but not quite as you might remember them, though C3PO has one of the funniest moments in the movie. Chewbacca gets a much bigger role in this film, but the greatest turn comes from Harrison Ford as Han Solo, he looks like he was having such a great time, though that’s probably because he knows there’s an end to his contract any he can go and be Indiana Jones again, history repeats itself!

I wasn’t at all bowled over by this film because, for each throwback to the original films it took away the option to create something new, but I think the balance was just about right. It was just a bit of a shame that the plot was so predictable as it stuck so rigidly to the skeleton of A New Hope. Compared to the prequels it’s a breath of fresh air and is exactly what it needs to be and the further away I get from the film the more forgiving I am of it.


I’ve avoided major spoilers until this last section, it’s very hard to know exactly what’s a spoiler and what’s not, which is why I’ve left it this late to post. But I may drop a spoiler in here now, because I need to call out the biggest gripe I have with the film: The treatment of Han Solo in this film.

At the end of Return of the Jedi he has gone through a change from being a rogue who is just out for himself to a caring person who has found a niche and people who care about him and vice versa. Between the sixth and seventh movies he and Leia have had a child (at least one) who has been trained in the Jedi arts by Luke, but turns against him. So, he’s lost his child, lost Leia and has gone back to smuggling, which he still sucks at. So much so that he loses the Millennium Falcon.

Meeting Rey and Finn at the beginning of the film reunites him with all these elements, apart from his son, things are starting to look up, but no. He is then killed by his emo son and thrown into an abyss. The abyss is then blown up, leaving absolutely no doubt that’s he coming back or could be saved. The upcoming Han Solo origin story will be tinged with sadness too as we all know his eventual fate.

 In fact, that there’s even still a dark side and empire that is so powerful casts a pall over the achievements of the first three films. It renders all the rebel victories completely pointless as it’s all just repeating itself, seemingly straight away.  Even the droid are sad! R2-D2 is so depressed that Luke ran away without it that it shut itself down and now lives under a duty tarp, leaving C3PO’s second line in the whole film – and one of its few – to be “I do miss him so.” This is not what I wanted from this film, it was supposed to be a bit more of a celebration.

It’s not a bad film, and I did enjoy it, I just think that the back story that we didn’t get to see is so sad. In a way, I’m glad we didn’t get to see it. The fans would have would have torn Disney’s castle down.

There’s way more to this, and the best thing you can do is to go listen to my podcast to get the full story.