Category Archives: Science fiction

Looper (2012)

Delay of gratification is hardly fashionable these days. In 2044, even less. So working as a looper makes sense, offering clean murder services to crime syndicates whose hands are otherwise tied by extensive body tagging. Instant cash, never mind what happens 30 years later. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains the premise:

In the future, time travel is outlawed, used only in secret by the largest criminal organizations. When they need someone gone and they want to erase any trace of the target ever existing, they use specialized assassins like me, called loopers. The only rule is: never let your target escape, even if your target…is you.

Therein lies the crux of the plot. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) travels back in time to hunt down a certain child and prevent a disastrous future, in the process endangering Young Joe’s life, whose looper contract forbids such a dichotomy. The two Joes struggle against each other, culminating in a final face-off at a Kansas farmhouse owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), whose son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) just might be the feared Rainmaker.

With all this going on, it’s not surprising that the film projects an Inception-like feel. Director/writer Rian Johnson makes his own mark on the sci-fi genre though. The movie handles information well, and it is a clash of motives that drives the conflict, not external antagonists (although we have those too). Looper owes a lot to its impressive cast. Gordon-Levitt delivers as usual, and Willis reprises a role he’s practiced to perfection: shooting down bad guys in the name of love and leather jackets. It is Blunt who surprises us with a highly emotional scene—which she pulls off without a hitch. And Gagnon gives new meaning to creepy child prodigy when he goes past mere precocious to ultra-powerful. Also, although these hardly alter the overall effect, I appreciated little touches like Gordon-Levitt’s make-up and Blunt’s tan. While they can be distracting, I recognized the added effort to lend authenticity to the movie.

Time travel is always a tricky territory to navigate. But Looper provides a caveat early on, and one that we readily agree with at the film’s conclusion. “This time travel crap,” Abe says, “just fries your brain like an egg.” This might seem like a cop-out, but it’s not. The film plays out so elegantly, so neatly (it’s a “closed loop” after all) that one would be hard-pressed to come up with a better solution. It’s not so much that there are no plot holes, but that the film holds you in thrall so effectively that you don’t want to find them, you don’t want to spoil it by thinking too much. Sure, Looper makes leaps of logic (what sci-fi movie doesn’t?) and characters make lousy decisions, but that’s part of the act. And it’s all synchronized so well that you don’t feel the need to look behind the scenes and dispel the magic. Those of you who want to take up the challenge and fry your brains, go ahead and try. As for me, I don’t need to make heads or tails of this. I’m happy with this violent, ambitious, splendid mess.

‘I’m from the future. Go to China.’

‘I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.’

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The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

There are storylines, and then there are variations. Season after season, we see movies harking back to their predecessors: targeting the same audience and using the same time-tested tropes, with varying degrees of critical and box office success. But every so often there comes along a work that is not content with playing by the rules, that changes the game altogether. Off the top of my head: The Godfather, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix—trilogies that changed the platform for all that came after. For the superhero genre, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight series is one such game-changer.

I spent almost six hours preparing for the finale last Saturday. Several hours before the 8:10 PM screening, I saw Batman Begins for the first time and re-watched The Dark Knight. I walked into the theater drugged with Batman information and fortified by an NYFD sandwich. It had been an adrenaline-packed day. By midnight I was dragging myself, but the marathon did give me a 20/20 view of the whole trilogy.

At least for the first half-hour, Batman Begins underwhelms. Although it’s an origin story, it handles Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma carelessly, using terrible sequencing. The repeated flashbacks don’t work, and the sudden introduction of Ra’s al Ghul (who basically just goes, “Come, I’ll to train you to be badass”) seems too convenient and hard to believe. The story gets progressively better though, picking up when Bruce returns to Gotham. From that point on the plot unfolds gracefully. Bruce’s childhood terror of bats comes neatly into play when Scarecrow unleashes his panic-inducing psychedelic drug. This paves the way for the film’s most poignant moment, which occurs when a heavily-gassed, hallucinating Batman clambers onto a rooftop and rasps into a cellphone, “Alfred, help me.” The scene barely lasts a minute, but it shows Batman at his weakest, his most vulnerable, and he calls out to his oldest friend and says, “Help me.” After an unexpected twist, the conflict escalates into a familiar climax: mentor and mentee fight for the greatest city in the world. It’s not particularly astounding, but as far as superhero movies go, it is gratifying. Undoubtedly the film’s worst decision involves casting Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. She and Christian Bale have zero chemistry together. Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t really embody the character either, but she’s definitely an improvement.

Actually, with The Dark Knight, everything is an improvement. Since its release, the sequel has received worldwide acclaim, overshadowing its precursor by a wide margin, and for good reason. The Dark Knight goes well beyond what a good film should be. As an action movie, it does not disappoint. It is suspenseful, thrilling, and thoroughly captivating. In exploring dark moral themes, it is also thoughtful and fiercely intelligent, offering not black-and-white answers, but motley shades of gray. The ingenious interplay and overlap of the characters’ values creates a spectacle both difficult and incredible to watch.

What props up the movie’s ambition is its stellar cast. Christian Bale gives a consistent performance throughout the series, defining Batman in a way that will affect generations. Aaron Eckhart also delivers as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, rendering his rage-driven insanity credible and at the same time repulsive. Heath Ledger gives his best (and sadly, last) performance as the Joker, often stealing the spotlight from Batman. The Joker has already solidified his status as one of the greatest villains of all time, but through Ledger he becomes even more sinister, even more enigmatic. Thrice he asks would-be victims (including Batman), “Ever wonder how I got these scars?”—hinting, “Ever wonder why I turned out this way?”—and gives different answers, implying that there is no reason, that evil can exist sans cause.

Without a doubt, The Dark Knight marks an industry milestone, by superhero genre standards or any other. Coming on the heels of such an acclaimed movie, the third film was not poised for success. But even with lowered expectations—and as much as I do not want to admit it—the finale disappoints. Whereas The Dark Knight posits questions on meaning and morality, the third installment mostly provokes questions about plot. Its convoluted enemy storyline feels hastily patched together and shows holes in many places. Take just one point: Batman’s return. How did he re-enter Gotham from the Pit? How did he get back all his gear? And, for that matter, why hasn’t Bane destroyed his equipment yet? Five months is a long time to spend waiting around to fail.

Despite his bulging muscles, Bane (Tom Hardy) fails to command respect as a villain because of his lackluster terrorist-thug image. So we’re actually relieved to discover he’s not the mastermind—only to find out that it’s someone even more unimpressive, whose role until then had only been to provide Bruce Wayne with support, financial or otherwise. Uncharacteristically, Marion Cotillard gives a flat performance (maybe her role just isn’t compelling enough). Her final speech falls on deaf ears; we don’t really care about her father issues. What fans feel strongly about, even before production began, is Catwoman. Given Nolan’s previous female lead miscasts, fans had a right to worry. But Anne Hathaway gets to slap all haters in the face when she undergoes an exquisite transformation as the super-hot and versatile Selina Kyle. She easily proves herself one of the best cast choices in the franchise, right up there with Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s batman.

Hathaway aside, the finale still holds a lot of room for disappointment. Its clear division between good and evil may be fine for a regular superhero movie, but we’re not talking about a regular superhero movie. We’re talking about the conclusion to The Dark Knight series! We’re talking about the follow-up to the one film that changed the rules! Unfortunately, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, the much-anticipated finale finds a hard time reaching the high standards it set for itself.

Let me make this clear: The Dark Knight Rises is not a bad movie, far from it. It still attempts to ask big questions, but instead of soaring the way its predecessor does, it kind of flops and sputters along the runway. The film spends a long time cultivating a classist undercurrent, but it never really takes off because we don’t get the sense that things change after the riots. Presumably, order resumes, and up stays up, down stays down. Not like in The Dark Knight, where the Joker shakes Gotham to its core. I at least found one gem in a conversation between Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), when the latter admits the former’s point about structures becoming shackles and relinquishes his badge in favor of a more…unorthodox crime-fighting path.

If The Dark Knight Rises fails at setting up a convincing conflict, it nonetheless succeeds in wrapping up the series. And it does so admirably, doing justice to each of its characters. Thematically, the conclusion of Batman echoes several points in his life: his emotional struggles, his failures, his parents’ vision, their subsequent death, Rachel’s death. All three scripts reflect this cohesion. Even Selina’s chilling whisper of “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne” from the 2012 trailer recalls a scene two films earlier, when Batman tells then-Sergeant Gordon, “Storm’s coming.” Subtle, but shows just how much care was put into the making of these scripts. No wonder Nolan was so damn protective of them.

“Haven’t given up on me yet?” “Never.” In Batman Begins, we see Bruce and Alfred regularly exchanging these lines. During their final confrontation, under different circumstances, Alfred gives a different answer—heartbreaking, but necessary all the same. This argument sets the audience up for the conclusion, which, in hindsight, seems to be what trilogy has been heading towards all along. From Rachel’s letter to Alfred’s ultimatum, the finale makes it clear that the story no longer belongs to the symbol, but to the man—that the day has finally come “when [Bruce] no longer needs Batman.”

Although obviously an action franchise, Nolan’s series is invigorating in more ways than one. While remaining strikingly original, it calls to mind other landmark works that develop the same themes. Ra’s al Ghul’s insistence on becoming “more than just a man” finds similar incarnations in V from V for Vendetta and Zero from Code Geass. And Bane’s point about the Pit, about there being “no true despair without hope,” calls to mind a line from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Among its achievements, the trilogy’s greatest feat lies in how it pushes boundaries. It shows us the philosophical possibilities of superhero movies, a genre until now largely confined to entertaining but safe productions like the recent Spider-Man reboot.

But, as the Joker would say, “Why so serious?” For all its intellectual high-wire twists, the series triumphs because it works on a more basic level: it knows how to please an audience. All three films come out generously sprinkled with action sequences featuring top gear from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), among other visual spectacles (“Anne Hathaway on a motorbike? So worth it!” my friend TJ avows). It also doesn’t hurt that the movies weave key truths and emotions into their storyline, creating more than a few tearjerkers. “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Nolan’s trilogy is not perfect, but even with the worst of its warts, it still comes extremely well-recommended, even for non-geeks like me. It remains the best superhero series out there, and one that is not likely to fade from memory.

Batman Begins

‘A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.’

‘Death does not wait for you to be ready! Death is not considerate or fair! And make no mistake: here, you face Death.’

‘Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.’

‘Haven’t given up on me yet?’ ‘Never.’

‘Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don’t burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.’

‘It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.’

The Dark Knight

‘You either die the hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’

‘If you’re good at something, never do it for free.’

‘Tonight you’re all gonna be a part of a social experiment.’

‘That’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make.’

‘They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.’

‘Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people need more.’

The Dark Knight Rises

‘There can be no true despair without hope.’

Prometheus (2012)

In 2093, the spacecraft Prometheus enters the vicinity of LV-223, a distant moon believed to hold the secret to man’s origins. Funded by Weyland Corp.’s dying CEO (Guy Pearce), the expedition follows an ancient star map discovered by archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). On the moon, several crew members disembark, including an android called David (Michael Fassbender). Under instructions from Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), they explore the area expecting answers, and discover horrifying truths.

As many critics have noted, Fassbender gives a superb performance as David. He radiates an aura so otherworldly, so nonhuman, that it’s chilling just to watch him move. Because we are not privy to his motivations, David remains an unpredictable character. We are always suspicious. In contrast, Shaw starts off as a naïve scientist seemingly ignorant of the risks of experimenting with extraterrestrials. What she experiences, however, transforms her into a resilient survivor, and we find ourselves rooting for her by the movie’s end. Vickers, on the other hand, stays terribly underutilized. She first appears doing push-ups after two years of stasis—piquing audience interest—but she contributes virtually nothing to the plot. Without any real power (her crew keeps disobeying her) and ostensible personal agenda, Vickers functions as little more than eye candy. Theron’s capable acting is wasted on a character that isn’t done any justice in the script.

Prometheus is far from perfect, but the good news is, it doesn’t aim to be. Viewers complain that it’s confusing and that it contains too many unresolved questions—perfectly valid assessments elsewhere, but here I disagree. Details are dealt sparingly, but attentive viewers should be able to piece together enough information to feel satiated, for now. Ample threads are left open for a possible sequel, which may or may not connect to the first Alien movie (TJ filled me in on this). It’s not that I have zero complaints: An early scene, a father-daughter memory meant to provide background on Shaw’s faith, strikes me as gratuitous and too on the nose. But despite certain predictabilities (ooh this looks dangerous let’s touch it), Prometheus pulls off a thrilling and intellectually satisfying adventure by taking on some of mankind’s most enduring issues and setting them against a gorgeously bleak alien landscape. Perhaps rightly so, it portends that some questions are not meant to be answered, and leaves us with a distressing possibility.

‘The trick is not minding that it hurts.’

‘Why do you think your people made me?’ ‘We made ya ’cause we could.’ ‘Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?’

Moon (2009)

Sam (Sam Rockwell) is a Lunar Industries employee who has signed a three-year contract to oversee automated operations on the moon base Sarang. His job consists of collecting full canisters of helium-3 from robotic harvesters and sending them to Earth, where clean fusion energy has replaced fuel as the main source of power. With only a mechanized assistant called GERTY for company, Sam maintains a regular routine, counting down the days until he sees his family again. However, things change when an accident occurs and he finds someone out there, the one person he would have never expected—himself.

Co-writer and director Duncan Jones deserves praise for this stunning debut, which—as Joachim Boaz warned me—far exceeds the merits of his other film Source Code. While both involve thought-provoking science fiction, Moon (among other achievements) attains greater success in the creation of a singular effect on its viewer. I went to bed that night feeling sorrowful and deeply moved. It’s also worth noting the director’s aptitude in crafting a story about immense solitude and intuitively situating it on the moon, which carries with it simultaneous associations of fascination and alienation. On the one hand, it’s new terrain—exotic and unfamiliar. On the other, it represents the furthest possible distance between one man and others (in this case, also himself).

Moon is a prime example of the kind of science fiction that asks the terrible questions. What does it mean to be human? What differentiates us from highly intelligent machines like GERTY, one that can express a limited range of emotions and even make decisions on its own? In a world where both are manufactured, rebooted, and disposed of as needed, where do we draw the line? This film forewarns of a plausible (and in some ways already palpable) future based on dehumanization, where our perception of man draws from mere practicality, where a person is reduced to a commodity, of which hundreds of similar stocks may be produced; most cruelly of all, where an individual is permanently deceived in regard to his own identity. In the most painful of ironies, Sam is reduced to asking questions about his existence to a machine.

A highly satisfying movie, Moon convinces, compels, and assaults with a poignancy human enough to disturb an emotional core. It is a film I am grateful to have watched, and one I passionately recommend.

‘GERTY, we’re not programmed. We’re people, you understand?’

Melancholia (2011)

Revealing the end is not something most of us would consider doing in a movie, especially one about the end of the world. But that is exactly what Lars von Trier does in Melancholia, and very consciously at that. The film opens with a series of slow-motion images chronicling Earth’s last moments: a bride floating down a stream, a mother carrying her child, two planets at the moment of collision. Not wanting his audience to be distracted from the central drama, von Trier dispels the suspense by establishing the end at the beginning.

I’m not completely sold on this idea, mostly because I found the opening scenes too dramatic and too consciously “artistic,” to the point that they seemed little more than overdone wallpapers. Nonetheless, I do get von Trier’s point about distraction, and I did like the movie better as it progressed. Part I focuses on Justine (Kristen Dunst), who remains distant and troubled throughout her wedding, until her new husband leaves her by the night’s end. In Part II, we see Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) struggling with her depressive sister as her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) tracks the approach of the rogue planet Melancholia.

Maki always makes me watch the strangest films. Although it doesn’t beat Waking Life, Melancholia ranks very high in terms of oddity. For one thing, it confines a world catastrophe to one family’s experience. It’s actually more frightening than typical apocalyptic movies where everything is large-scale and explosive. Here, the end of the world is a most private experience. Seemingly marooned on a sprawling mansion, our characters are cut off from the rest of humanity and are left to face the end alone.

What I appreciated most about Melancholia is its skillful handling of metaphor in conflating depression and planetary collision. Von Trier identifies melancholy with a destructive planet, both of which loom over the characters’ lives in their immensity, and against which they are rendered completely powerless. But this subtlety is difficult to reconcile with the film’s extremely slow pace, which adds to its inherent heaviness and disconcerts the viewer. It’s not a pleasant experience, but one I cannot criticize because it’s clearly part of the intended effect. Strange and eerily beautiful, Melancholia is not a readily enjoyable film, but is triumphant enough to warrant intellectual appreciation and discussion. Most importantly, it exhibits a conceptual ambition that few other movies even attempt.

‘Life is only on Earth. And not for long.’

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Is it just me, or are Hollywood movies getting better with their plot lines these days? Since Inception, more and more directors are dipping their fingers into science fiction. In 2011 alone, we have popular films like Source Code, Contagion, and In Time all with sci-fi elements serving as premises to fuel the story. In The Adjustment Bureau, fate is a book that you hold in your hand, and chance is a man in a fedora hat setting up your every choice.

On election eve, Senate candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) meets beautiful, impulsive Elise (Emily Blunt). Fate dictates that they never see each other again, but chance intervenes and sets in motion a problem for the agents of destiny. Harry (Anthony Mackie), a jaded member of the Adjustment Bureau, makes a slip-up that allows the two to meet again, and this time the attraction is strong enough to reshape their lives. The Bureau does not respond kindly to deviance, so in order to stay together, David and Elise must overcome forces they never knew existed and fight against fate itself.

“The guy rides the same bus every day for three years. Who does that?” Romantic movie heroes, that’s who. It’s easy to imagine the same scenario with Ryan Gosling, dutifully waiting for that moment he chances upon Elise again. But Matt Damon, really? Because we saw so much running from him in the Bourne series? For a movie centering on love, the romance falls flat in this film, partly because Matt Damon fails to convince. The script had some winning lines, but it also contained too many cheesy scenes. I prefer Source Code, where the focus is more on the action and the implications of the setup than the romance. Here, all I see is a sci-fi love-conquers-all drama.

Maki agrees with me: The Adjustment Bureau has a promising concept, but unfortunately it came out half-baked. Somehow it feels like the people behind it didn’t think their premise through because they were too busy trying to make it appealing. If God watched this, I’m sure he would feel offended. The Chairman is a whimsical God: he intertwines David and Elise’s fate from birth, then one day rewrites everything. Later on, he again changes his mind. Really, God? That’s the plan, impulsive revision? Plus the hat thing is just hilarious. What God would do that?

‘You ruined me. I didn’t want to settle for less.’

‘You don’t have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will.’

‘All I have are the choices I make.’

‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Even if it’s only a little while.’

Free will is a gift that you’ll never know how to use until you fight for it.

District 9 (2009)

What is District 9? This was a question I had asked myself many times, whenever I heard the title brought up in workshop discussions or random conversation. Initially I thought it was an action-drama movie. I had imagined prison breaks, rapid gunfire, a happy ending. What is District 9? This was a question I asked even as I pressed the button that would play it on our TV. What unfolded on that screen was as far from expected as possible.

Aliens. A million of them. Their sudden arrival on an inoperative spacecraft in Johannesburg pushes the government to confine them inside District 9. During a mass relocation decades later, operation leader Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) becomes exposed to alien biotechnology, making him a valuable specimen for genetics research. Escaping capture, Wikus runs for his life and in the course of survival forges an unlikely friendship with an extraterrestrial (Jason Cope). Together, they struggle to harness alien biotechnology to achieve individual ends, even as a military colonel (David James) and his army follow at their heels.

The movie opens with Wikus, immediately establishing him as a bureaucratic flunky. In his early encounters with aliens, he displays a flippant callousness bordering on offensive. But while he is an unpleasant character, Wikus does not deserve what happens to him. Since exposure, his life is reduced to a series of choices forced onto him by circumstances. As a viewer, I felt tremendous pity for him. But I also recognized the cleverness of the setup, the possibilities it held for the film. The movie’s structure also deserves praise. Regular action sequences are interspersed with various mock-documentary material such as fictional news footage and interviews, creating an illusion of reality. This technique also lends the movie an exposé feel, as if we viewers were regular citizens suddenly given a chance to become privy to national secrets. The surveillance camera trick makes you feel as if the whole truth is unfolding before the public eye. Who can resist?

Like any good science fiction movie, District 9 offers a lot more uncertainties than answers. It pushes viewers to the limits of their imagination and poses the right questions—without brandishing a moral and, most importantly, without sacrificing the story. A film worthy of its premise, District 9 refuses to fade into memory. It delivers a calculated ending that leaves viewers with a profoundly disturbing chill.

When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.