Optimistic Sci-fi

Optimistic Sci-fi
Posted by on Jan 15, 2016

The screen opens to a desolate wasteland. Remnants of some great city can be seen in the background. Humanity is all but extinct with only a few bands of  wandering humans scavenging the wasteland. If you’ve paid the smallest amount of attention to Hollywood, you may have noticed a trend in sci-fi. To blow-up the world and show what happens after.

Whether it’s in the form of a YA dystopian society (The Hunger Games, Divergent), dystopian sci-fi with humanity fighting a never-ending war against some threat (Terminator: Genisys, Oblivion), or a nuclear/environmental fallout (The Book of Eli, Mad Max: Fury Road). Right now, the popular thing to do is blow-up the world and see what happens. There are many theories you could come up with about why this is so. That’s not why we’re here today. I want to go in the other direction.

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These dystopian sci-fi films like to put the protagonists in a world where humanity already lost. To showcase the struggle of living in a world that’s harsher and more savage than our own. At the same time, it showcases the inevitability that our world is going to die. At some point, Hollywood got very depressing about humanities future. So what happens when we aren’t?

You get films like Tomorrowland and The Martian. One was a flop while the other is one of the biggest films of 2015. Let’s start with the flop. Tomorrowland had plenty of issues. These mostly revolved around the narrative and the often conflicting dialogue structure. However, while the ending could have been reworked to be less sappy, it gave us hope. It aimed, somewhat ambitiously, to demonstrate the power that one person has to change the world. Echoing many of the same sentiments that today’s scientist (see Neil Degrasse Tyson) tell the scientist’s of tomorrow.

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Honestly, Tomorrowland works far better as an animated film in my opinion. It targets a broader younger audience that is quickly showing that positivity is the way to go. An audience that grew up during the golden age of animation plus the families that have young children that enjoy animation would be far more receptive.

The Martian has a different approach when it comes to optimism. Set in the near future (2035 or 2047) where the world is not only still in one piece but we have reignited our journey to the stars. Here you have one man stuck on Mars whose only goal is to survive. What is so engaging about this film is the display of the indomitable human spirit. Sure, there low times in the film where Mark Watney, our protagonist, hits more than a few setbacks. Things explode, fail to work, and just plain go wrong. However, he and NASA never give up.

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Here again, you have a future where humanity isn’t on the way out but thriving. A story where humanity comes together for the greater good. Not only that but The Martian is more science than fiction. Any problem is solved with scientific know-how and the resources available. Where most movies might create some nifty plot-device to solve a problem, the characters are forced to use the resources they have available to them that would most likely actually be available on a similar Mars mission.

What I’m getting at is there is a place for the optimistic sci-fi drama. Where humanity is able to avert whatever disaster is looming regardless how big or small. An important distinction I want to make between this and say your superhero or run of the mill action adventure is the basis in science. You have regular people who have struggled and put in the time to learn something that inevitably saves themselves or even the world. It is much more of an earned victory.

Is this the beginning of a new trend for sci-fi? Maybe. I sure hope it is and look forward to more.

Ex Machina: The Only AI You’ll Need

Ex Machina: The Only AI You’ll Need
Posted by on May 28, 2015

This review is a little behind the times but that’s life for ya. I had the extreme pleasure of going to see Ex Machina when it released just about a month ago. To say that I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement.

Let’s start with the actors. With three main leads in Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander everyone was on point. Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb) continues to show that he is a rising star. We’ll see him later this year in The Force Awakens but in just about every role that he’s come into, he has fully enveloped it. This time is no different. Playing opposite him is Oscar Isaac (Nathan) who has been making waves himself. To put it bluntly, the moment he came on screen you immediately disliked him. Everything about his performance just resonated a smug jerkiness. It’s hard to explain but in the real world, he’s the guy that walks into a room and his smugness just instantly puts him on your shit list. You kinda just want to punch him in the face.

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Now between these two phenomenal performances was Alicia Vikander. A fairly new name to me but about the same level as Domhnall Gleeson in terms of celebrity awareness opinion. Out of the three performances, she blew the other two out of the water. With a serene ability to somehow be menacingly comforting, you’re left guessing just what her true intentions are until the end. Her performance was ethereal which worked sublimely for her AI character.

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Beyond the performances, there was something interesting going on with the directing choices. The directorial style reminded me of a documentary. It had title cards to differentiate the different sessions that Caleb participated in. Scenes of b-roll footage often were interspersed between the more traditional scripted sequences. While this film would lend itself to a documentary style, having the two styles often felt jarring. Sometimes it worked while other times I was just confused as to the director’s vision.

This being said, I have to congratulate the director on a truly chilling AI film. As I’ve already stated previously, you’re left guessing as to the true intentions of each character. Not really sure who’s good and who’s bad. Each story beat was masterfully told to keep the audience guessing and always wondering how it will turn out.

In terms of the ending, which I won’t spoil, it is not a happy ending. In fact, there is a moment where the director gives you a moment of hope just to bring you crashing down minutes later into the melancholic ending. After all, the ending is happier depending on whose perspective you choose from. Before I spoil anything, I’m just trying to say this isn’t the typical Hollywood happy ending.

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I would remiss if I didn’t take sometime to focus on the visual effects. Alicia Vikander’s robot has see-through arms, legs, and a mid-section which are largely visible for a majority of the film. I’m not a VFX expert but I feel like making see-through parts believable is somewhat difficult. The best part is that they still look realistic when seen against the flesh and blood humans. Again, something really hard to do.

All in all, this is a great film hands down, especially for sci-fi fans. It reminds me a lot of I, Robot, the book not the film adaptation. In a time where sci-fi is often synonymous with laser guns and explosions, it was refreshing to see a film that focuses on the intrigue and broader concepts found in classic sci-fi. Think Isaac Asimov meets Blade Runner. If you haven’t yet, go see Ex-Machina you won’t be disappointed.

Edge Of Tomorrow

Edge Of Tomorrow
Posted by on Jul 3, 2014

Cage (Tom Cruise) is a solider in the US Army who joined up within the PR division so he could avoid combat.  However, when the last stand of humanity begins he is ordered to go to the front lines to record it.  He attempts to get out of it but in the end he is forced to fight against his will.  In combat he finds himself facing a slightly bigger mimic, the aliens that they are fighting.  This mimic is bigger, badder, and bluer than the others.  When Cage kills it and is drenched in its blood however, he finds himself in a Groundhog Day style loop.  With every time he dies, the day starts over and he gets another chance at survival.  With the help of Rita (Emily Blunt), a war hero who used to have the same ability, and Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor), a physicist who warned that the enemy mimics had this ability, are out to try and kill the mother mimic.

Edge of Tomorrow is first and foremost a fantastic sci-fi film.  If it had to be summarized it would probably be a cross between Alien, Star Troopers, and Groundhog Day.  A weird combination, nonetheless, this film borrows aspects from all of these films.  It does a great job of balancing the inherent repetitive nature of the main plot device while still keeping things new and entertaining.  This was obviously my biggest concern going into the film and I was pleased with how well they handled it.  In fact, they actually use the repetitive nature of the film to their advantage which results in more than a few light-hearted moments that help the audience get past the initial repetition.  The action in the film was well done and they do a great job of not repeating the same scenes over and over again as the film goes on.  You often find out through exposition that Cage and Rita have already gone through this situation multiple times.  Ultimately, if you enjoy sci-fi films, than this one is an excellent addition to your must watch list.  Even if your not a huge fan of sci-fi, it is still a great film that would not be a waste of time.

Now, while this movie did a lot of good things, one of them was not the ending.  I will do my best to make this spoiler free but be warned that there will be a few spoilers in from here on out.  The ending, in my opinion, was ruined twice.  Meaning they had two opportunities to have a great ending and they botched both of them.  The first time around they completely ignore what this whole movie has been about, infinite re-spawns to borrow the video game terminology.  In a situation where there are no stakes, where Cage has an unlimited number of attempts, the film sometimes seems pointless.  However, he eventually loses these powers thus raising the stakes since he know longer has the option to be reckless and is faced with the very real possibility of dying.  You would think the film makers would keep like this since it makes the audience more invested in the film since the main character now has to be careful of paying the ultimate price.  However, in the end, in a “twist” ending he regains these power so that the day will start over and he gets to be with Rita, who he has fallen in love with (did I forget to mention that whole subplot?).  Instead of killing the main character making this whole adventure mean something, the director decides to just bring him back so we as the audience can have a happy ending.

Looking past this ending, they had the opportunity to redeem themselves slightly by making the last few moments incredibly romantic.  After Cage wakes up for the last time, he of course immediately goes to Rita to supposedly confess his love in someway.  The last scene shows Cage approaching Rita who questions him. as to why he is interrupting her training.  His response is to shrug and nervously chuckle at the whole situation before the credits roll.  On the surface this isn’t a bad ending.  However, when you take into account that earlier in the film when Cage is trying to get Rita to open up and we see their love slowly growing, she confides in him her middle name.  All the director would’ve had to do is have Cage walk up and say “Hey Rose” or even just Rose.  It would have tied the film together more completely and would have made a very sweet ending.  Instead, the instead decides to just kind of end.

All in all, despite the ending Edge of Tomorrow is still a great addition to the sci-fi genre.  It’s funny, action-packed, dramatic, and romantic.  If you haven’t seen it yet I highly suggest it.

My Rating (With a different ending): 8.5

My Rating (With the current ending): 7