GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) – Soulless and Empty Science Fiction

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ghost_in_the_shell

Just in case you don’t get the title, it’s all spelled out for you in the opening moments of the film, all very neat and tidy.

See, as GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017), a new science fiction film starring Scarlett Johansson and based on a comic and classic anime movie from 1995, opens, we are told that the Major (Scarlett Johansson) a cyborg who now works as a soldier fighting crime has had her brain implanted into an artificial body, thus her soul, or “ghost” is inside an artificial “shell.”

Oh, now I get it!  Ghost in the shell!  Gee, I don’t think I would have figured that out without that crystal clear explanation!

Talk about dumbing things down for your audience.

And like this silly pointless explanation, in spite of the extravagant special effects and eye-popping visuals, GHOST IN THE SHELL is about as imaginative as yolk in the shell.

It’s the near future— although the spectacular cityscape makes it look like the far distant future— and as the movie explains in its first few moments, the Major is a cyborg who fights crime.  She works for a division run by the noble Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano) and her favorite crime fighting buddy is fellow cyborg Batou (Pilou Asbaek).  He’s a cyborg because he loses his eyes in an explosion and receives new and improved versions.  It’s what everybody does in this society:  upgrade their bodies with machine parts.  It’s one of the more fascinating parts of a story that isn’t very fascinating.

Whenever Major is injured, she visits her doctor, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), who makes the necessary repairs and asks her how she’s feeling.  It seems to be important to Dr. Ouelet that Major not forget her humanity, as she constantly reminds her that she’s more than just a machine.  She tells Major that her brain inside this shell enables her to keep her essence, her soul.  It’s a thought-provoking concept that sadly is hardly explored in this movie.

But Major’s department is also run by a cliché evil baddie named Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) who is supposed to be a good guy but is so obviously crooked he might as well be wearing a name tag with the word VILLAIN printed on it.  One of his first lines in the movie is when he’s arguing with Dr. Ouelet about Major’s future, and whereas the doctor argues for her humanity, he calls her a weapon and declares she works for his company.  Oh no!  It’s another dreaded evil company!

When a new threat emerges, killing the scientists in this company, it’s up to Major to stop it, and along the way, she learns shocking information about her past that was kept from her by her doctors, a “revelation” that is clearly given away in the movie’s trailers, and so it’s not a revelation at all.

For a movie that talks about souls and humanity, GHOST IN THE SHELL is as lifeless as an empty egg shell.  The screenplay by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger, based on the comic “The Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow, is anemic and flat.  The dialogue is uninspiring, and the story dull and mindless.

Director Rupert Sanders does a nice job with the visuals and adds some nifty cinematic touches.  The dazzling futuristic cityscape is satisfying although not entirely original, as it is clearly reminiscent of the look of Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (1982).  These visual effects are the main reason to see GHOST IN THE SHELL, although on their own they’re not enough to save this movie.  Not even close.

Surprisingly, Scarlett Johansson is rather dull as the Major.  She doesn’t act like a cyborg with a human brain.  She acts like a robot, pure and simple.  And the generic naked body suit which she wears throughout the film when she disrobes makes her look like an undressed department store mannequin.  It’s a rather laughable look, which I’m sure the filmmakers were not going for.  Her Rated G naked body is symbolic of the whole movie:  it’s a whitewashed lackluster tale with any and all intelligence bleached out.

You know, a few years back, when Liam Neeson was making all those TAKEN movies as well as other action flicks with similar themes and plot points, the joke was, okay, which family member is Neeson trying to save in this movie?  Because he kept showing up in similarly conceived actioners.  Likewise, this is the third time Johansson has played this type of role.  She played a similar role in LUCY (2014) a film in which her character discovers unlimited brain capacity, and she played a mysterious woman who turned out to be an alien in UNDER THE SKIN (2013), all similarly themed characters who learn “shocking” secrets about themselves.  Of the three, her work as the Major here in GHOST OF THE SHELL is the least satisfying.

I found the rest of the cast to be dull and uninspiring.  Pilou Asbaek is okay as Batou, although he looks like Billy Idol on steroids impersonating  Wolverine.  Likewise, Juliette Binoche is just okay as Dr. Ouelet.

Sadly, I didn’t care about any of the characters in this movie.

The film also does a terrible job establishing a sense of place.  It certainly looks like it’s taking place in a city in Japan, yet no mention is ever made in the film of exactly where they are, what country or city.

I was bored with GHOST IN THE SHELL from the outset.  At least during the first half of the movie, I was somewhat entertained by the film’s visual landscape, but without a solid story and interesting characters, I pretty much lost interest during the film’s monotonous second act

I found GHOST IN THE SHELL to be a major disappointment.  It’s about as thought-provoking and compelling as those awful RESIDENT EVIL and UNDERWORLD movies.

Without a doubt, it’s my least favorite Scarlett Johansson movie.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

LIFE (2017)- Science Fiction Thriller Pretty Lifeless

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life-movie-poster

Life.

A great name for a breakfast cereal.  Works for the board game, too.

But for a science fiction horror movie?  Not so much.

And the title is the least of this movie’s problems.

LIFE (2017) takes place aboard a space station where six astronauts make the remarkable discovery of the first extraterrestrial life form, and this occurs before the opening credits. This life form starts off as a single cell organism but quickly grows, and the next thing the scientists know, the thing escapes, and it’s none too friendly.

Hmm.  A deadly alien creature loose aboard a space station terrorizing its occupants? Sound familiar?  Of course it does!  And while it would be unfair to completely dismiss this movie as a straight clone of ALIEN (1979), because there are differences— LIFE takes place on a space station orbiting Earth, while ALIEN took place on a space ship in deep space, for instance— it’s similar enough to draw comparisons, which doesn’t do it any favors since LIFE is vastly inferior to ALIEN.

So, this deadly organism which is both incredibly strong and smart, sets its sights on picking off the crew one by one.  The crew see it as their mission to either destroy the creature or at the very least, make sure it never makes it to Earth.  Easier said than done. And just why is this creature killing people?  Well, according to the scientists, it’s not because it hates people, but because it’s simply trying to survive.  It also has the nasty habit of entering people’s bodies, and when it exits after killing the person, it’s bigger, so I can only guess that it’s consuming the person’s innards, although this is never made clear in the movie.  Perhaps it’s killing people because it fears for its own life, although it became aggressive first before it was ever attacked.  Of course, it might have simply seen humans as a threat.  Or perhaps it just likes to kill.  Why am I offering all these guesses?  Because the film never really says.

One of the reasons I wasn’t all that excited about LIFE was I had seen the trailer multiple times and it seemed to give away a lot of the movie and it also made it seem like a dull clone of the movie ALIEN.  So, I felt somewhat optimistic when about 2/3 of what was shown in the movie’s trailer occurs in the opening moments of the movie, before the opening credits.  I thought, maybe there are some decent surprises ahead.

Alas, the only surprise was that a certain prominent cast member didn’t survive in this movie for very long.

The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick doesn’t create any memorable or interesting characters, nor does it provide for a compelling story.  We hardly get to know any of the characters, and when their lives were in danger, I simply didn’t care all that much.

The idea of finding the first extraterrestrial life form isn’t handled with any sense of grandness or awe, and the actual creature didn’t impress me, either.  Unlike the Alien in ALIEN, we learn very little about this creature.  It looks okay, but it’s hardly terrifying.

The film also really struggles to build any decent suspense.  Late in the movie, when all hell is breaking loose, we get to see Jake Gyllenhaal’s character deal with his fear by reading the children’s book Goodnight, Moon.  Oooh, scary!

Reese and Wernick are the guys who wrote the screenplay for DEADPOOL (2016) and ZOMBIELAND (2009), two films I liked a lot.  But they also wrote G.I. JOE:  RETALIATION (2013), a film I didn’t like.  Where does LIFE fall?  Let’s put it this way.  LIFE is no DEADPOOL.

The cast is largely wasted because none of their characters are developed.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays astronaut David Jordan, and he’s probably the character we learn the most about.  For instance, we learn that he’s about to break the record for the most days spent in space by a person, and we learn that he prefers it in space, as he is rather disillusioned with the world below.  Yet, unlike another disillusioned astronaut, George Taylor (Charlton Heston) from the classic movie PLANET OF THE APES (1968), David Jordan doesn’t get to have his beliefs challenged by a society more barbaric than the one he left behind, nor does he even get to be in the forefront of his own movie.  He’s just one of the six on board the space station, going through the motions of being chased by an alien.

The other lead belongs to Rebecca Ferguson who plays astronaut Miranda North, and she’s pretty much in charge of security.  It’s not one of Miranda’s better days.  We learn very little about this character, and Ferguson doesn’t really get to do much with the role.

The other big name in the film is Ryan Reynolds, and he plays Rory Adams.  Likewise, his talents are also largely wasted in a very underdeveloped character.  Rounding out the cast of space station astronauts are Hiroyuki Sanada as Sho Murakami, Olga Dihovichnaya as Ekaterina Golovkina, and Ariyon Bakare as Hugh Derry.  Their roles are pretty much cardboard cutouts of scared astronauts on board a space station terrorized by a deadly alien.

LIFE was directed by Daniel Espinosa, who also directed the action film SAFE HOUSE (2012) starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, another film I wasn’t all that crazy about.  LIFE is very similar in terms of quality: it’s okay, but at the end of the day it’s nothing all that special.

The opening shot in LIFE of the space station emerging from the darkness just outside Earth’s orbit is a good one and is probably the most cinematic shot of the whole film.  If only there were more shots like this.

The scenes of suspense and horror just aren’t all that intense, and I really didn’t find LIFE scary at all.  Part of the problem here is the alien creature really isn’t very frightening.  And none of the astronauts’ deaths are all that horrific, save for one, and even this scene pales in comparison to say the alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest in ALIEN.

The pacing is off, and I found the film rather slow.  As the movie went along, the suspense sadly did not build.  Like I said, in a key moment near the end, Jake Gyllenhaal’s David Jordan pulls out Goodnight Moon and starts reading.  It’s supposed to be a poignant and terrifying moment, but I took it for what it was:  main character reads from a children’s book when frightened by the alien monster. Imagine if in PLANET OF THE APES Charlton Heston, rather than screaming, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” quoted Mother Goose. Something tells me it just wouldn’t have been the same.

LIFE is a mediocre science fiction horror movie.  It’s not all that awe-inspiring, so don’t expect anything deep like ARRIVAL (2016), and it’s certainly not all that scary, so don’t expect ALIEN.  Instead, in terms of quality,  it reminded me of another flawed science fiction film which came out last year, PASSENGERS (2016) with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, only LIFE has an extra passenger, a murderous alien life form.  Not that it matters much.  LIFE is just as dull as PASSENGERS was.

Yup, at the end of the day, LIFE is pretty lifeless.

—END—

 

 

 

SHOCK SCENES: KING KONG APPEARS! (2017)

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I wrote the following column in 2015, in which we looked at King Kong’s entrance scenes in the various King Kong movies.  Well, here in 2017, we’ve just had another Kong movie, KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017).  And so, here’s an updated version of this column to include KONG:  SKULL ISLAND.

—Michael

 

SHOCK SCENES:  KING KONG APPEARS!king kong 1933 poster

By Michael Arruda

Welcome back to SHOCK SCENES, the column where we look at memorable scenes in horror movie history.

Up today is the big guy himself, King Kong.  With apologies to Godzilla, King Kong is the baddest monster on the planet.  Sure, Godzilla is known as the King of the Monsters, and he’s been in more movies than Kong, but Kong is King as well, and the one time they squared off in a movie, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), it was Kong who emerged victorious.

Today we’ll be focusing on King Kong’s entrance scenes, the scenes in his movies where he first makes his dramatic appearance.  We will concentrate mostly on the original KING KONG (1933) and its two remakes, but we will also look at the Japanese films and the awful KING KONG LIVES (1986).

KING KONG (1933) is the classic giant monster movie, one of the most exciting and well-made monster movies of all time.  It has aged remarkably well and still appeals to modern audiences.  The film is chock full of classic scenes, and Kong’s first entrance is no exception.

It starts when the Natives on Skull Island abduct Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and bring her back to the island where they plan to offer her as a bride for Kong.  With Max Steiner’s memorable music blaring, the Natives lead Ann beyond the great wall where they tie her up so she can await the arrival of Kong.

With the beats of a gong, the Natives summon their king, and moments later, he arrives.  First we hear his roar— the special effects department used a lion’s roar played backwards and at a lower speed for this effect— and then as he knocks a tree over, Kong makes his appearance, and we see Willis O’Brien’s remarkable stop-motion animation effects as Kong breaks through the trees and descends upon Ann.

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

King Kong discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in KING KONG (1933)

We then see a close-up of his monstrous face, which was in reality a huge model of his head built by O’Brien’s special effects team.

As first entrances go, it’s a classic.  It’s fun to imagine what it must have been like for movie audiences back in 1933 seeing Kong for the first time.  It must have been awesome and frightening.

The special effects here work so well.  To see Kong standing there, with Ann Darrow, with the great wall behind her and the Natives standing on top of the wall, and it all looking so real, is truly astonishing.

KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) is a silly movie that is only notable for pitting these two legendary monsters together in one film.  Since Kong died at the end of the original KING KONG (1933) falling from the Empire State Building in probably the movie’s most enduring image, there really couldn’t be any sequels.  There was SON OF KONG (1933) which featured a younger cute and cuddly Kong Jr., but that was it.  There were plans for a Kong prequel of sorts, a story which would have taken place in the middle of the action in KING KONG, which would have been built around a storyline of the adventures of Carl Denham and the crew of the Venture on their way back to New York City with King Kong in tow on a raft, an adventure that would have seen Denham and company and Kong face off against a new threat, but that project never got off the ground.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Perhaps the worst looking Kong in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

So decades passed before Toho, the Japanese movie studio which brought Godzilla to the world, secured the rights for the Kong character and made KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Kong’s first entrance in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA isn’t memorable at all.  We hear his roar first, and then suddenly he’s there, showing up at the Natives’ village to fight off a giant octopus.  Toho always used the man-in-suit method to create their giant monsters, and their Kong suit in this movie has to be the worst looking King Kong of all time.

KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) is yet another silly Toho movie, supposedly made to tie-in with the 1960s animated TV series KING KONG.  It certainly plays like a Saturday morning cartoon, which is the complete opposite of the original KING KONG which was much more akin to the relentless ferocity of JAWS (1975).  That being said, I have to confess, I like both Toho King Kong movies.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Kong to the rescue in KING KONG ESCAPES.

Still, KING KONG ESCAPES has nothing to offer in terms of Kong’s first appearance.  On Kong’s island a dinosaur shows up and scares young Susan (Linda Miller).  When she screams, the camera cuts away to a close-up of Kong’s face.  His eyes are closed.  He opens them to reveal eyes that look like they belong on a Sesame Street Muppet.  We then see him sitting in a cave.  He quickly gets up and races to the scene to protect the young woman from the dinosaur.  What a gentleman!

KING KONG (1976) the incredibly hyped remake by producer Dino De Laurentiis was a box office bomb and panned by both fans and critics alike.  It’s a pretty bad movie, but in spite of this, surprisingly, it does enjoy a few fine moments.  Kong’s initial entrance is one of them.  In fact, it’s so good that I’d argue that of all Kong’s entrances, it might be the best!  It’s certainly the only part of this 1976 film that even comes close to equaling anything done in the 1933 original.

This time, it’s Jessica Lange who’s captured and tied up as the Natives summon Kong.  I actually love the way director John Guillermin conceived this sequence.  We see trees being knocked over from Kong’s point of view, and we first see Kong through close-ups of his face, and it’s the best most authentic looking face to date, thanks to the incredible make-up of Rick Baker.  We see Kong’s eyes as he marches through the trees towards Jessica Lange.  Close-up, Kong looks as menacing as he’s ever looked on film.  It’s a thrilling sequence, probably the most original and thrilling part of this 1976 flick.

Kong's looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

Kong’s looking mighty ferocious in the 1976 KING KONG.

It’s also helped along by John Barry’s music score, which as a whole, I don’t like at all.  But in this scene, it’s probably Barry’s best moment.

At this moment in the movie, the film truly captures the awe of King Kong.  The build-up—audiences hadn’t seen a serious Kong since the 1933 original, the anticipation, is wonderfully captured in this sequence.  And when the camera pulls back, and we see Kong’s entire body for the first time, Rick Baker in his ape suit, he’s awesome to behold, and when he roars, the film nails King Kong at this moment perhaps more effectively than any other moment in any other King Kong movie.

And then— it’s all downhill from there.

It’s amazing how quickly and how far this movie falls after this scene, which is the story for another article.   A lot of it is the silly script, but most of it is the special effects which to me has always been the main reason this 1976 film failed.  Rick Baker’s ape suit looks fine, and in terms of how he looks, he blows the Toho Kongs out of the water, but at the end of the day, it’s still a man-in-a-suit which has never ever been a completely satisfying way to make a giant monster.  The hype for the 1976 KING KONG was all about the giant mechanical robot of Kong that was built and was supposed to be the main special effect in this film, but a not-so-funny thing happened:  it never worked. It appears in two brief scenes in this film for a mere few seconds.

But Kong’s first entrance in this 1976 film— priceless.

 

KING KONG LIVES! (1986) is the horrible sequel to KING KONG (1976) that is believe it or not even worse than the 1976 film.  In this one, scientists bring Kong back to life after his fall from the World Trade Center so the first time we see Kong in this one he’s a patient in a laboratory.  Not very exciting.  Neither is this movie.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

Kong the patient in KING KONG LIVES.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KING KONG (2005) is Peter Jackson’s homage to the 1933 original.  Jackson’s obviously a fan of the original Kong, and this was clearly a labor of love, but strangely, it’s a very uneven movie.  The scenes on Skull Island are exceptional and make this one worth watching for these scenes alone, but surrounding these scenes is a dull opening in New York City, and the climax which also takes place in New York also doesn’t really work.  Kong and Ann share a romantic moment in Central Park?  Seriously?

Now while I love the Skull Island scenes, I’m not so hot on Kong’s first entrance.  Why?  Because it’s oddly all very undramatic!  It’s Naomi Watts who’s abducted for Kong this time, and when Kong appears, he just sort of shows up, coming out of the jungle swinging his arms and roaring.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and it plays much closer to the mundane first appearances in the Toho movies than the well-crafted and dramatic entrances in the 1933 and 1976 versions, making it yet another contribution to the reasons why the 2005 version is an uneven movie.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

Kong looks impressive in the 2005 Peter Jackson KING KONG, but film is uneven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017) was just released a week ago, and while many fans are instantly calling this the best Kong flm since the 1933 original, I was only lukewarm on it.  I found the script rather stupid, the characters dull and not developed to any degree of satisfaction, and Kong himself, while looking fine, rather boring.

Kong in this movie is probably the least satisfying Kong in any of the movies for the simple reason he has zero personality.  In the other movies, Kong showed a wide range of emotions, from anger to rage to ferocity to even tenderness, but here, he’s just a slow moving enormous creature who fights monsters and humans.  Blah.

There are actually two entrance scenes here for Kong.  The first is a teaser, in the opening moments of the film, which takes place during World War II.  Both an American and Japanese pilot crash land on Skull Island, and they quickly become involved in hand to hand combat, when suddenly King Kong appears.  We see his giant hand, and they see him.

Kong’s official first appearance comes later in the movie, which now takes place in 1973, as military helicopters carrying the scientific expedition to Skull Island suddenly encounter Kong who introduces himself to the copters by hurling trees at them.

Kong-Skull-Island-Kong

Kong battles helicopters in KONG:  SKULL ISLAND (2017)

This scene had the potential to be awesome, but the full effect of this first entrance is never as cinematic as it should have been.  Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts seemed satisfied to film this as a routine war scene as opposed to a larger-than-life Kong-makes-his-first-appearance scene.  Too bad.

Like the entire movie, Kong’s first entrance in KONG: SKULL ISLAND falls short of expectations and never rises above standard giant monster fare.

 

You can’t really argue that any other Kong movie is actually better than the 1933 original KING KONG.  It simply hasn’t been surpassed yet.

However, I can and will argue that in terms of first appearances, if any other film challenges Kong’s first entrance, surprisingly, it’s the 1976 version of KING KONG that does this.  Director John Guillermin pulls out all stops and creates an impressive and thrilling first Kong scene, combined with John Barry’s effective music—the only moment in the film where his music works—, as well as Rick Baker’s amazing make-up, makes this moment as good as Kong’s opening moment in the 1933 film, and way better than similar scenes in any of the other Kong movies, which is saying something, since the rest of the 1976 film is so bad.

So there you have it.  A look at King Kong’s first entrances in the KING KONG movies.

Hope you enjoyed today’s SHOCK SCENES.  I’ll see you again next time when I look at more classic scenes from other classic horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

Science Fiction Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look back at the major science fiction movies from 2016.  There has been a resurgence of late of quality science fiction films, but that being said, 2016 didn’t have a lot to offer audiences in the sci-fi genre.  In fact, of the more than 50 films I saw in 2016, only five were science fiction.

Here’s a break down of how they fared, from worst to first:

passengers

5. PASSENGERS – this big budget pairing of superstars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt was my least favorite science fiction film from 2016.  That being said, it’s really not that bad a movie.  I would rate it slightly less than average.  Probably not worth a trip to the theater, but something you might consider catching at home on a streaming service or on DVD or Blu-ray.

The biggest culprit is a story that just didn’t work.  It’s about a massive spaceship carrying thousands of passengers in sleep stasis to a new colony planet where they hope to begin a new life.  When there’s a malfunction, and a man Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is accidentally awoken, he finds himself alone and realizes with 90 years still left to the voyage, he won’t get off the ship alive.  His decision to awake fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence)— in effect giving her a death sentence— and the subsequent love story  which follows sets up the burning question:  what will happen if Aurora finds out that unlike Jim she didn’t awake by accident?

The resolution to this question is both unsatisfying and unbelievable.  PASSENGERS is a good-looking science fiction movie hindered by a muddled storyline.  Plus Lawrence and Pratt share very little chemistry as desperate space lovers.

 

rogue-one-poster

4. ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY –  while legions of fans call this the best STAR WARS movie ever! I simply found it to be a decent stand alone film in the series.  It starts off slow but gets better with an exciting ending that is one of the best endings of the entire series.

ROGUE ONE is a stand alone film in the series, meaning it’s the first film in the STAR WARS franchise not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing story of the daring mission to steal those Death Star plans which would ultimately give Luke Skywalker the ability to destroy the evil Empire’s ultimate weapon way back in the very first STAR WARS (1977).  It’s a good story, but the film struggles to tell it at first, as we are introduced to a bunch of new characters early on with a minimum of character development.  As such, during the film’s first half, I didn’t care for any of these new characters.

Things eventually get better, and the ending is superb.  I really liked Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, but the rest of the cast didn’t really wow me.  Nor did the much hyped CGI-motion capture hybrid of Grand Moff Tarkin, which tried to recreate the late great Peter Cushing in one of his later roles.  Mixed results here, as this Tarkin looks just like Cushing if you imagine him as a cartoon.  I enjoyed STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) better.

 

morgan

3. MORGAN – Little seen and critically panned sci-fi actioner, but I really liked this one.  It’s the story of an artificially intelligent being named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) who kills one of the scientists working with her.  As a result, the company which financed the project to create Morgan sends in an agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate whether or not Morgan needs to be terminated.

The scientists who created and now care for Morgan argue in her favor, even though she killed one of their own.  They believe she has attained life and as such cannot be terminated at the whim of a company.  While the film does explore what it means to be an artificial life form, the story is not on the same level as the deeper and better written EX MACHINA (2015).

But where MORGAN does succeed is as an action thriller.  As such, MORGAN features two strong performances, one by Kate Mara as the driven investigator who will stop at nothing to reach her conclusions, and the other by Anya Taylor-Joy as the introspective and potentially dangerous Morgan.  The climactic fight scene between agent Lee Weathers and Morgan is expertly edited, as intense and violent a fight as you’ll see in an action movie, especially between two women.

 

star_trek_beyond_poster

2.STAR TREK BEYOND- As a lifelong STAR TREK fan, I’ve enjoyed this rebooted movie series a lot, as it explores an alternate timeline involving the characters from the original STAR TREK series.

This third film in this rebooted series is as enjoyable as the two films which came before it. By far, the best part of these movies is its cast, which continue to do a bang up job at capturing the personas of the original cast from the first STAR TREK TV show.  Chris Pine shines as Captain Kirk, and I thought he played the role a bit more like William Shatner here in this third film than he did in the previous two.

Zachary Quinto continues to nail Mr. Spock by delivering a performance that Leonard Nimoy would no doubt be proud of.  But most impressive is Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy.  He has gotten better with each successive movie, and he was excellent to begin with.  He truly captures what DeForest Kelly did with the character in the original series.  Urban’s performance is uncanny.

 

And now we’ve reached my pick for the best science fiction movie from 2016.  We started with PASSENGERS, which I found slightly less than average, and the next three movies were all solid, flirting with average to better than average.

But my pick for the #1 science fiction movie of the year is the only science fiction film from 2016 that I considered excellent.  It’s a far superior science fiction movie than the other four films in this list.

And that movie is:

 

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1. ARRIVAL – the one true science fiction movie from 2016.  When mysterious space ships suddenly appear all over the Earth, suspended silently above ground like enormous storm clouds, the governments from around the world scramble to decipher what these aliens want.

The U.S. government sends in linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to communicate with the aliens.  Banks not only has to try to learn the aliens’ language, but she also has to figure out a way to teach them ours.

What she, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) ultimately learn changes the way we think about time and space.

ARRIVAL is fun science fiction movie with a thought-provoking script by Eric Heisserer.  It’s not perfect. I found the ending not quite as satisfying or mind-blowing as the ending to INTERSTELLAR (2014).  But Amy Adams is excellent in the lead role, and the film really belongs to her.

Without much serious competition, ARRIVAL is easily the best science fiction movie I saw in 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

— Michael

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972)

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For a monster born more than 50 years ago, Godzilla may be more relevant now than ever before.

The movies just keep on coming.  The latest Godzilla movie arrived last year with SHIN GODZILLA (2016) to a limited release here in the U.S., and it received some pretty good reviews.  And there is another film in the works, GODZILLA:  KING OF MONSTERS, due out in 2019, from the same folks who made the Bryan Cranston GODZILLA (2014).  All told, there have been 31 Godzilla movies to date, and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping any time soon.

But today’s movie comes from that time when Godzilla was a silly monster superhero, constantly saving the world from the evil and bad monsters.  Silly stuff for sure, but also the type of Godzilla movie that a lot of us grew up with.

Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT it’s one of my favorite Godzilla movies from the 1970s, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972).

This one sat on the shelf for a few years before being released in the U.S. in 1978 with the title GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND.  It was supposed to be a return to the traditional Godzilla format, after the offbeat message-driven GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971),  a film I did not enjoy as a kid, but it’s one that has definitely grown on me over the years.

In GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, aliens from outer space are once again trying to take over the Earth, and they employ space monsters Gigan and King Ghidorah to help them.  To defend the Earth, humankind turns to their giant monster friends Godzilla and Anguirus for help.

And defend the Earth they do, in one of the series’ better and longer climactic monster bashes.  And there you have it.  That’s pretty much GODZILLA VS. GIGAN in a nutshell.  What did you expect?  Shakespeare?

I find GODZILLA VS. GIGAN particularly enjoyable for two reasons.  The biggest reason is the aforementioned climactic battle.  It’s one of the best in the series.  That being said, in terms of monsters, this one gets off to a slow start, and it seemingly takes forever for Godzilla and Anguirus to show up, but once they do, nearly the final third of the movie is one long and rather exciting giant monster bout.

The other fun thing about GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is its human characters.  While the space villains are your typical bad guy types, the heroes in this one seem to have stepped out of a Scooby Doo cartoon.  They’re young and they’re hip.  Groovy, man!  We have a young cartoonist who draws monsters, a young woman looking for her kidnapped brother, and her male friend, a classic hippie who can’t seem to stop eating corn on the cob.  I guess Scooby snacks weren’t available. These three provide lots of light-hearted fun during the people parts of this monster flick.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is also the film famous for being the movie where Godzilla actually talks!  Yep, words come out of Godzilla’s mouth as he talks to his buddy Anguirus. It’s a ridiculously silly scene, and Godzilla and Anguirus sound like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.  It’s awful.

The good news is, we live in the age of DVDs and Blu-ray, and these discs often include the original Japanese versions as well.  So, you can watch the original Japanese version in which Godzilla and Anguirus do not talk.  Oh, they communicate, but through sounds rather than words, and it’s very obvious that they are communicating.  Unfortunately, the American distributors didn’t think their Godzilla audiences were intelligent enough to figure this out, and so they added the ridiculous English language dubbing.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN was directed by Jun Fukuda, no stranger to the Godzilla franchise, as he directed five movies in the series. In addition to GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966), SON OF GODZILLA (1967), GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974) were all helmed by Fukuda.

Shin’ichi Sekizawa wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Takeshi Kimura. Kimura wrote the screenplays to some of my favorite Toho movies, including RODAN (1956), THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), and KING KONG ESCAPES (1967).

Are there better Godzilla movies?  Certainly!  But in terms of fun Godzilla movies, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN ranks near the top.

Of course, the big question for Godzilla fans is, how does Godzilla fare in this one?  Well, truth be told, it’s not one of the big guy’s better performances.  The costume looks rather silly here, and it does take Godzilla forever to finally show up and take on Gigan and King Ghidorah.  There really isn’t a good balance here of Godzilla scenes.  It’s pretty much all or nothing, with the “all” coming in the film’s final  30 minutes or so.  But the climactic battle is worth the wait.

Plus, Godzilla’s goofy appearance kinda fits in with the rest of the movie, a 1970s romp.  You almost expect to see Cheech and Chong show up.  It would actually make a nice companion piece with Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972).

Want a cure for the winter blues?  Watch GODZILLA VS. GIGAN and see Godzilla and Anguirus take on Gigan and King Ghidorah in an all-out monster bash.  It’s a sure-fire way to smash out the cold weather doldrums.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PASSENGERS (2016) – Odd Love Story Set in Space

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When watching PASSENGERS (2016), the new science fiction movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, I was reminded of a line from an old James Bond movie.

In THUNDERBALL (1965), after racing along at high speeds with an uncomfortable James Bond in the passenger seat, Fiona (Luciana Paluzzi) tells Bond (Sean Connery), “Some men just don’t like to be driven.”  To which Bond replies, “No, some men don’t like to be taken for a ride.”

On the long space voyage which makes up the story of PASSENGERS, I  felt I had been taken for a ride.

First and foremost, there’s not a lot to PASSENGERS.  It’s basically a love story— and a strange one at that— set on a spaceship in the future, and the setting is about as deep as the science fiction gets in this movie.  There’s not much beyond that.

In the future, the spaceship Avalon is enroute to a distant planet called rhe Homestead Colony which promises a brand new start for its occupants and crew.  It’s a 120 year voyage, and so everyone on board is in sleep stasis.  When the 120 years are up, they’ll awake and their new life will begin.

That’s the plan anyway, but as we all know, the best laid plans—.  Anyway, the Avalon unfortunately collides with some meteors, and one humongous meteor in particular, and as a result some of the ship’s systems are damaged.  This damage causes one of the sleep pods to malfunction, and its occupant Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakens 90 years too early.  Preston realizes that this is a death sentence.  He’ll be dead before they reach the Homestead Colony.

Preston, a mechanic by trade, uses this time to study up on the ship to try to find a way to either get himself back to sleep or to awake the crew so he can get some help.  He fails at both.  His only contact is a robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) who at least provides him with a daily dose of conversation, and of course, alcohol.

But this isn’t enough.  After nearly a year on the ship, Jim reaches his low point and contemplates suicide, but he loses his nerve, and at that moment he happens to set eyes on a beautiful woman Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) sleeping in her cryogenic chamber.  He reads up on her and learns that she is an author, and basically he falls in love with her.

Around this time, Jim also discovers a way of opening her sleep chamber, and so he now faces a dilemma:  he desperately wants companionship, but he knows if he wakes her up, he’s also delivering a death sentence to her as well.  But, in what is supposed to be the big plot twist in the movie— although it’s a deeply flawed twist because every single trailer shows the two characters awake on board the ship so the audience knows exactly what Jim is going to do— Jim wakes her up.

Which then sets up this bizarre love story between these two characters, with the tension being, will she find out that he woke her up, and if she does, how will she react?

Excuse me.  But you’re also on board a malfunctioning spaceship.  Perhaps that should be something else you should be concerned with?

PASSENGERS is a rather bizarre movie in terms of its plot, and ultimately I did not find this movie all that satisfying.

First, its love story just doesn’t work.  From the get-go, as we watch these two characters get to know each other, we know that Jim has manipulated the situation.  He woke her up from cryogenic sleep.  He basically stole her life away.  Now, for such a story to work, and it can work, the writing and acting have to be so strong that in spite of this awful and very selfish decision on Jim’s part, we still want to see him and Aurora get together.  But, alas, neither the writing nor the acting reaches this level.  Nothing that happens between Jim and Aurora made me forget what Jim did or made me believe that Aurora could forgive him and move on.

The writing here is simply not very good.  The screenplay by Jon Spaihts, constructs an odd story and never takes it to places where it overcomes its oddities.    Had Jim and Aurora both awoken naturally, then the film could have concentrated solely on their efforts to learn what happened and to survive, and if they fell in love along the way, that would have seemed perfectly natural and been accepted.  The plot point of Jim waking Aurora on his own never really works and only serves to be a distraction from what otherwise could be a riveting tale.

Spaihts co-wrote the science fiction movie PROMETHEUS (2012) and this year’s Marvel adventure DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).  PASSENGERS is a solo effort, and the script here isn’t as good as those two other movies.

Chris Pratt is OK as Jim, the down to earth mechanic.  Pratt does his usual charming handsome hunk shtick, and it’s somewhat enjoyable here.  His decision to wake Aurora kind of gets in the way of this likable persona, and Pratt never seems to rise to the occasion to take the character to the dark places necessary to give the guy some depth.  Jim is too shallow a character to make such a grave decision and then be supported for it.

I’m a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence, but I have to be honest here, I was not impressed with her performance in this movie.  I never warmed up to Aurora, and I never really believed in the love story here.  I mean, I can believe that two attractive people, the only two people on a spaceship, would lust after each other, but fall in love?  They didn’t seem to have anything in common.

Furthermore, I didn’t find any chemistry between Lawrence and Pratt. Not what you’re looking for when you’re telling a love story.

Michael Sheen is fairly amusing as the robot bartender Arthur, but ultimately, he’s such a shallow boring character he’s pretty much useless.

Also, for reasons I have yet to figure out, the way these bar scenes are shot, they are clearly reminiscent of the bar scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980).  I kept waiting for some deeper dark connection, especially between Pratt’s Jim and Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, but I never found one.

And Andy Garcia, in spite of 5th billing, does his best STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) Luke Skywalker impersonation as he shows up in the final few seconds and utters no dialogue!  Nice job Andy!

Fourth billing went to Laurence Fishburne, who plays a character who does have dialogue, but ultimately is as useless as bartender Arthur and Andy Garcia.

PASSENGERS was directed by Morten Tyldum, and one thing I’ll say about this movie is it looks good!  I especially liked the ship, the Avalon.  It’s cool-looking, and the scenes where we see it barreling through space are very cinematic.  It’s too bad the story here didn’t rival the visuals.

I saw PASSENGERS in 3D, and while I’m growing tired of saying this nearly every single time I see a 3D movie, it still has to be said, especially for those folks watching what they spend, because, as you know, a ticket for a 3D movie costs more than a ticket for a 2D movie.  So, anyway, here’s my repetitious statement which I make after nearly every 3D movie I see:  it looks good at first, but after a while, you hardly notice, and the 3D certainly does not add anything to the movie.

Tyldum’s previous movie was THE IMITATION GAME (2014), a great movie that is far superior to PASSENGERS.

There’s been a steady stream of high quality science fiction movies hitting theaters in recent years.  PASSENGERS is not one of them.  It’s simply a love story in space, and an odd one at that.

No need to be a passenger on this voyage.  Save your ticket money for another destination instead.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: STAR WARS (1977)

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Welcome back to MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, that column where we look at memorable quotes from some really cool movies.  Up today, on the heels of the hype of the latest STAR WARS movie and first stand alone film in the series, ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY (2016), we look at quotes from the movie that started it all, STAR WARS (1977).

Those of us old enough to have seen STAR WARS when it first exploded across theaters back in 1977 remember fondly that back then it was simply known as STAR WARS and not STAR WARS:  EPISODE IV –  A NEW HOPE.

Ah, the good old days, when the Force was young!

So, without further hesitation, here are some cool quotes from the original STAR WARS, screenplay by George Lucas.

To begin with, there are a lot of classic quotes from STAR WARS, enough to fill several columns, and so today we’ll just be looking at some of them.  I’d rather write multiple columns in order to give all the quotes their due rather than jampack them all into one crowded piece.  Hmm.  I just might have to do that.

A lot of my favorite quotes from STAR WARS come from Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the wise-cracking pilot of the Millennium Falcon, such as in this sequence where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Han discover that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is being held prisoner on the Death Star, and Luke tries to convince Han to help him rescue her.  Let’s listen:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  They’re gonna execute her! Look, a few minutes ago you said you didn’t want to just wait here to be captured. Now all you want to do is stay?

HAN SOLO:  Marching into a detention area is not what I had in mind.

LUKE SKYWALKER: But they’re gonna kill her!

HAN SOLO:  Better her than me!

 

But Luke won’t give up:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  She’s rich.

HAN SOLO:  Rich?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Rich, powerful. Listen, if you were to rescue her, the reward would be…

HAN SOLO:  What?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Well, more wealth than you can imagine!

HAN SOLO:  I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit.

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Later, when they actually do attempt to rescue the princess, Han finds himself on the wrong end of a communication device.  After he and Chewy had taken out the Stormtroopers guarding Princess Leia, the intercom beeps and an official wants to know what exactly is going on there.  Han has no choice but to answer:

HAN SOLO:  Uh, everything’s under control. Situation normal.

VOICE:  What happened?

HAN SOLO:  Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?

 

Han Solo even gets philosophical when Luke questions him about his lack of belief in the Force:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  You don’t believe in the Force, do you?

HAN SOLO:  Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything.  ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.

 

Speaking of the Force, another character with lots of memorable lines in STAR WARS is Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness).  In this now classic exchange with a troop of Stormtroopers, Ben uses the Force, the now infamous Jedi mind trick, to circumvent the Stormtroopers’ checkpoint.  Let’s have a listen to the Jedi Master:

STORMTROOPER:  Let me see your identification.

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI (waves his hand):  You don’t need to see his identification.

STORMTROOPER:  We don’t need to see his identification.

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI:  These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

STORMTROOPER:  These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.

Which led to years later, a hilarious T-shirt photo of a Stormtrooper sitting forlornly with his head buried in his hands with the caption:  “Those were the droids you were looking for!”

 

Ben Kenobi also has one of the more ominous lines in the movie and perhaps the entire series when the Millenium Falcon approaches the Death Star for the first time, and Han announces they’re approaching a small moon, to which Ben says gravely,

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI:  That’s no moon. It’s a space station.

 

And later, when he finally meets Darth Vader in a duel to the death, he has this exchange with his former pupil:

DARTH VADER:  Your powers are weak, old man.

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI:  You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

I remember my reaction when I first saw this scene in 1977.  I thought, what is he talking about?  And after Darth Vader struck him down, I thought, Well, that was wishful thinking on his part.  But then, miraculously, his dead body is not present, and I immediately changed my tune.  Hmm.  Maybe he had something there.  And of course, Kenobi’s “spirit” is on hand for the next two STAR WARS movies, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), and THE RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983).

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One character I haven’t mentioned is the main character in STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker.  Luke has his share of memorable lines as well, like in this banter with Han Solo and Princess Leia:

PRINCESS LEIA:  It’s not over yet.

HAN SOLO:  It is for me, sister. Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.

PRINCESS LEIA:  You needn’t worry about your reward. If money is all that you love, then that’s what you’ll receive. (To LUKE)  Your friend is quite the mercenary. I wonder if he really cares about anything. Or anybody.

(She exits.)

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I care.  (To HAN)  So, what do you think of her, Han?

HAN SOLO:  I’m tryin’ not to, kid.

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Good.

HAN SOLO:  Still, she’s got a lot of spirit. I don’t know, whaddya think? You think a princess and a guy like me—.

LUKE SKYWALKER:  No.

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Then there’s this lively exchange as Luke arrives to rescue the princess:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I’m Luke Skywalker. I’m here to rescue you.

PRINCESS LEIA:  You’re who?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I’m here to rescue you. I’ve got your R2 unit. I’m here with Ben Kenobi.

PRINCESS LEIA:  Ben Kenobi? Where is he?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Come on!

 

And then there’s these prophetic lines, when Luke finally decides he’s ready to follow Obi-Wan Kenobi:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I want to come with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.

Luke also gets to utter the line, along with many other characters in subesequent movies, which would become a STAR WARS catch phrase:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I have a very bad feeling about this.

 

Of course, the most famous catch phrase and line to come out of STAR WARS is the now iconic “May the Force be with you.”

So, that’s it for now.  I’m sure I will follow this up at some point with another column on more memorable quotes from STAR WARS, especially when in this edition we heard nary a word from one Darth Vader.

Thanks for reading, and join me again next time when we look at more memorable quotes from another classic movie.

—Michael