Sunday, June 26, 2011

Science Fiction Movie Round-Up

I've seen a number of science fiction movies in the past month or so, and (amazingly) some of them have been quite good. And when it comes to SF movies, I'm really hard to please: there's a certain balance between "willing suspension of disbelief" and "good characters / plot / SFX / etc" that most movies can't manage. I mean, I even have serious issues with The Matrix, a movie that many people see as the epitome of SF film-dom (I almost walked out on that scene where *gag* Trinity's love brings Neo back to life). So if fate and Hollywood decide to hand me some material that even I like, I figure I owe it to the world to blog about it (no ego here! And, hopefully, no spoilers either):

Source Code - The worst thing about this movie is the title, which turned me off enough that I almost actively avoided seeing it. But luck was with me and I saw it and to my astonishment found that there is intelligent life in Hollywood. Or, at least, people in Hollywood who can write and film a science fiction movie that doesn't insult its viewers' intelligence. Since a lot of this movie's charm comes from trying to figure out WTF is going on, I won't / can't go into details, but a) I thought it was great and b) they managed to pull off an ending that didn't insult my 4+ decades of science fiction sensibilities. I mean, they really pulled the rabbit out of the hat. Did they drag Greg Egan in as a consultant? If this movie doesn't get at least a nomination for a Hugo award I'll be massively disappointed.

Limitless - Another intelligent SF movie -- is there something weird going on in Hollywood? -- this time about the ultimate nootropic drug. I enjoyed how the movie stuck to the topic and didn't phone in some Reagen-era message about the Evils Of Drug Use. If anything, it pushed the idea that Being Smart is the Ultimate High. The plot had a few holes in it -- it felt like maybe it went through substantial re-editing in post-production? The movie poster itself (above) is almost a metaphor for the movie: kinda chopped up, with no real cohesive center. But parts of this movie (ie, the law school student) were just pure, delightful wish-fulfillment candy. Not exactly a "message" movie, but part of the take-away is that Really Smart can still be Really Stupid. Another movie that deserves a Hugo nomination, losing out only because Source Code was better.

Next up, an "Alien Invasion" triple-feature:

Skyline - There has never been, nor will there ever be, a movie that has more blue lens-flare effects than this. There's an obvious resemblance to Battle Los Angeles (below), but they're both very different movies. I know it got slammed by reviewers, but I liked it anyway. The entire motivation for the alien invasion required considerable suspension of disbelief, but it led to an ending that was rather more imaginative (not to mention gruesome) than I expected. Not a life-changing experience, but the SFX were great and, overall, it was fun.

Battle Los Angeles - I noticed that Roger Ebert really didn't like this movie, and I think that I understand why, but I guess Roger and I have very different standards for this kind of thing. Admittedly, the movie was a bit like "what if the marines in Black Hawk Down were battling aliens instead of Somalians?", characterization was shallow-to-nonexistent, and there was this almost embarrassing "humans / marines uber alles" subtext (I'm positive that John W. Campbell, Jr. would have loved this movie). But for all that, I rather liked it. The SFX were well-done and the battle scenes really got the adrenaline pumping. The sound design was top-notch, too: I liked how the flying drones 'stuttered'. Not a movie that's gonna bowl 'em over at Cannes, but (like Skyline) it was fun.

Falling Skies - Not really a "movie", but TNT showed the first two episodes back-to-back so it was two hours long, so it's "movie-like". The last (and weakest) of the trio. I can imagine this being pitched as "alien invasion with a focus on the human element" or somesuch, but personally I could have done with a lot more alien SFX and a lot less warm Spielbergian fuzzies. The SFX were meh okay -- I'm sure there's some Maya-jockey out there who's made their career by character-rigging the excessively-jointed centaur alien bad-guys -- but, frankly, if I'd watched this in a dark theatre I'd have fallen asleep halfway through. I may continue to watch it just to see if they follow through some hinted-at exposition on the alien conquerors (someone just happened to notice that the aliens have four legs while their robots have two legs, what's up with that?)

Book plug: all of that alien invasion pushed me to re-read the best SF novel on the topic, namely William Barton's When Heaven Fell.

Also, an honorable mention for:

Devil - It seems like it's trendy to run down M. Night Shyamalan (who is only credited with "story", not "writing" or "direction"), but I won't because I found this was a fun way to spend 80 minutes. A simple tale, but well-told and well-acted. I've seen a number of people complain that Shyamalan's movies would be better suited to episodes of The Twilight Zone (and this movie is a case-in-point), but is that so bad?

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