TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019) – Linda Hamilton Returns to the Series, As Do the Same Plot Points

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The buzz leading up to TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019), the sixth film in the TERMINATOR franchise, was that Linda Hamilton was returning to the series as iconic character Sarah Connor.

Hamilton had been absent since the second film in the series, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991). Her return after so many years reminded me of a similar return last year, when Jamie Lee Curtis reprised her Laurie Strode role in the latest HALLOWEEN movie, innovatively titled, eh hem, HALLOWEEN (2018). While Curtis was fine in her return, the movie wasn’t. The 2018 HALLOWEEN was pretty bad.

The good news here is Linda Hamilton fares better, because TERMINATOR: DARK FATE is a much better movie than HALLOWEEN (2018). But don’t break out the champagne yet.

See, while I certainly liked TERMINATOR: DARK FATE, as the sixth film in the series, there is a lot that is redundant here. As a result, this latest Terminator tale while well-made and entertaining is far from anything special.

If you’ve seen any of the other TERMINATOR movies, the plot of this latest entry will no doubt be familiar. A woman named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is sent from the future to protect a woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes) in the here and now from a murderous Terminator, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), also sent from the future, his mission being to kill Dani for reasons the movie doesn’t want to tell us at first, but you can be assured that it has something to do with her saving the future from the murderous machines, the thinking being, eliminate her in the past, and the machines win in the future.

When will these villains in the future realize that this sort of plan never works? At the end of every TERMINATOR movie, these machines from the future fail. Six films into a series with the same plot point grows kinda tired.

Anyway, old friend Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has been traveling the countryside destroying Terminators from the future whenever they arrive, as she receives anonymous tips from an unkown secret source alerting her of these arrivals, which is how she meets up with Grace and Dani and helps them fight off the Rev-9.

Why is this still happening when Sarah Connor supposedly saved the future back in the day? It turns out she saved only one future. While her actions at the end of TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY saved the world from the evil Sky Net corporation, it turns out another evil company took over and basically did the same thing, create machines that eventually took on the human race.

Yeah, right. I mean, seriously, what are the odds?

Another old friend also shows up, as Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as a variation of the Terminator from TERMINATOR 2, who’s been living the dream since the 1990s and learning what it is to be human, and so he too joins the fight to save Dani from the Rev-9.

I say “variation” because TERMINATOR: DARK FATE not only chooses to ignore the last three TERMINATOR movies, but it also changes events that happened at the end of TERMINATOR 2. I can’t say that I enjoyed this change. It always feels like a cheat to me when filmmakers go back and change things in a story that has been known for years. No. Sorry. That’s not what happened. This is what happened.

Anyway, this twist didn’t ruin TERMINATOR: DARK FATE for me, but it didn’t help either.

Linda Hamilton enjoys a successful homecoming as Sarah Connor. Older, grizzled, and just as tough, Hamilton gives Sarah Connor a triumphant return to the big screen.

Lost in the Linda Hamilton buzz was that Arnold Schwarzenegger also came back for this one. Of course, his return is less of a story since he’s only missed one Terminator installment, the fourth one, TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009).  Still, Schwarzenegger makes the most of his screen time, and he has some of the better moments in the movie, a lot of them of the humorous variety.

Which reminds me: one of the best parts of the original TERMINATOR back in 1984 was that Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character was the villain. In subsequent movies, his character joined the good guys, and while this was fun, the character was never as good as he was in that first movie when he was the villain. We’d be looking at quite the different TERMINATOR series had that change not been made, and I think you could make the argument that it would have been a better series.

Mackenzie Davis is very good as Grace, the enhanced human sent back from the future to protect Dani from the latest Terminator threat. She’s believable in her action scenes, and she has enough personality to hold her own next to Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.

The same can be said for Natalia Reyes as Dani. She’s also quite good. And when these four are on-screen together they do generate some chemistry and are fun to watch.

Getting back to Mackenzie Davis for a moment, she was also memorable in TULLY (2018), where she co-starred with Charlize Theron, and she also appeared in THE MARTIAN (2015).

Who’s not overly memorable here is Gabriel Luna as the latest Terminator, the Rev-9. It’s not really Luna’s fault. The character isn’t given much personality. He’s mostly based on CGI effects.

And yes the effects here are all top-notch, as are the action scenes. In fact, some of the fight sequences and chase scenes are among the best in the entire series. Director Tim Miller, who directed DEADPOOL (2016), does a masterful job with the action sequences. Everything looks great, the sound is awesome, the stunts and CGI all believable.

If only these well-orchestrated events had resonated on an emotional level.

The screenplay by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray does what it sets out to do, in that it tells a Terminator story and it connects all the dots so things make sense. But the problem is that it’s pretty much the same Terminator story told in all the movies, with the exception of TERMINATOR SALVATION, which told a somewhat different tale. Ironically, TERMINATOR SALVATION tends to be the least favorite of the series among Terminator fans.

The fact is in spite of all the technical success here, nearly everything in this story rang hollow. There wasn’t one moment in the film that reached out and grabbed me. It all felt like deja vu. Even down to the ending. Yup, if you’ve seen one TERMINATOR movie, you’ve seen them all. Don’t get me wrong. I like the TERMINATOR series. But originality hasn’t been the series’ strongpoint. The movies are very repetitive and really haven’t made much of an effort to tell different and new stories. They just sort of repeat the formula from the first movie.

My favorite TERMINATOR move remains the first one, THE TERMINATOR (1984). I also really like TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. After that, they’re all about the same. Entertaining, action-packed, satisfying, but not very original.

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE benefits from having two of the series’ original stars, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, back on the big screen together, along with some talented newcomers, and superb special effects and action sequences, but at the end of the day, you’ve seen this shtick before.

Even the series’ catchphrase seems to return with every film, I’ll be back.

Which is fine. I just wish once in a while they’d be back with something different.

—END—

AD ASTRA (2019) – Emotionless On Purpose, Science Fiction Flick Still Dull

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Remember the famous tagline from ALIEN (1979), In space no one can hear you scream? 

Well, the tagline for AD ASTRA (2019), the new science fiction movie by writer/director James Gray, and starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut searching for his missing father on a mission to save the Earth, should be In space no one can hear you snore.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Yep, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few moviegoers found themselves dozing during this one.

And that’s because AD ASTRA is as cold as space and just as devoid of emotion. Now, admittedly, this is on purpose, since the main character prides himself on his lack of emotion and detachment from others, all in the name of remaining focused on his missions, and this is definitely a main theme in the movie, that this type of thinking takes a toll on human relationships. But it also takes a toll on the human audience’s patience.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) became an astronaut to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is remembered as the most famous astronaut of all time, as he led one mission after another in search of extraterrestrial life, and his final mission took him to the far reaches of space where he was never heard from again.

But now strange energy surges are threatening Earth, and Roy’s superiors inform him (without really showing him any proof, by the way) that they believe his father is still alive, and that he’s responsible for these deadly energy surges. They believe Clifford McBride has become deranged, and they also believe that Roy will be able to reach his father in ways they can’t and convince him to stop. Seriously, this came across as such a flimsy excuse for a mission that I almost laughed out loud. I mean, they’re going to send an astronaut halfway across the solar system because he might be able to convince his dad to stop, when it still hasn’t been 100% established that his father is responsible in the first place? Ludicrous.

Anyway, Roy agrees, or as he says, what choice did I have? See, the space agency in this movie is one of those— repeat after me–– evil companies!—- that show up often in movies as sort of a de facto villain. If you don’t do what we want, Roy, you won’t be coming back. That sort of thing.

On his way to find his father, Roy has plenty of time to reflect on his life, especially on how his focus on his career has affected his relationships— his wife, for instance, has left him— and how he pretty much is alone.

And when the film talks about Roy’s journey discovering secrets that challenge the nature of human existence, that’s what it is really talking about: human interactions. That’s pretty much the theme of the movie. We can’t succeed alone. We need human interactions and relationships to be human. And the film seems to be making its point by subjecting us to two hours of Roy’s brooding journey as proof. See, this guy alone is a snooze.

AD ASTRA reminded me of an old episode of the classic STAR TREK TV show. I could just see Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down from the Enterprise on a planet in search of the brilliant scientist who went missing and may now be deranged. In fact, there was an episode just like this. And it was much shorter and much more interesting than anything that happens here in AD ASTRA.

Speaking of STAR TREK, Brad Pitt shows about as much emotion in this one as Mr. Spock. Again, this is by design, but it makes for a long two hours. In fact, this one felt more like three hours in the theater. And Pitt’s stoic narration sounds like someone being forced to read the dictionary.

Pitt was much more enjoyable a few weeks back as stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019). I wouldn’t place AD ASTRA up there with Pitt’s better films.

And Pitt is pretty much it. Everyone else in this one is reduced to small supporting roles, including Donald Sutherland who plays a family friend, and Liv Tyler who plays Roy’s wife. In the supporting cast, Tommy Lee Jones probably fares the best, and that’s not saying much. He doesn’t show up till the end, but at least he has some emotional scenes.

The ending is pretty much the best part of the movie, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing a la INTERSTELLAR (2014) or ARRIVAL (2016). The ending here works on a much smaller scale, but it’s still satisfying, not just in a grandiose science fiction sort of way. It works because the father-son reunion is the first time the film really becomes emotional, and the scene where Roy reacts to his father’s decision is the best moment in the film. It’s the moment where Roy finally loses control and allows emotion to overtake him. And then later this allows him to see his life differently. Satisfying, yes, but not exactly awe-inspiring science fiction material.

Still, the point is well-taken, and it fits in with the general theme of the film.

The movie looks good, as the scenes in space are crisp and clean. Yet, like the story, the visuals don’t exactly awe or inspire. Probably the best sequence in the film, aside from the ending, is when the ship carrying Roy to the faraway space station makes a detour to answer a distress call. But even this scene is more subdued than it could have been.

Writer/director James Gray has made a competent yet cold space drama that could have used more drama. It’s all very robotic, and again, that seems to be the point, that the human race has lost its way in terms of human interactions. I get the message. But that didn’t make the film any more enjoyable. Gray also wrote and directed THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016), a biography adventure that also struggled with emotions. Maybe Gray should try his hand at a movie about Vulcans.

Ad astra, by the way, is a Latin phrase that means “to the stars.”  And AD ASTRA the movie seems to be saying before we concentrate on the stars we might want to get ourselves in order here on Earth first.

—END—

 

 

 

 

PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956)

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Hey, good lookin!

Huh, me? Are you talking to me?

If you are, you best mean what you say. The Gill Man is not known for having thick scales—er, skin.  And yes that is the Gill Man in the photo above, otherwise known as the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

We all know the iconic look of the Creature From the Black Lagoon, one of Universal’s classic monsters, but in the photo above, that ain’t it!  And that’s because in the third and final Creature movie, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956),  a group of scientists perform surgery on the creature, in a misguided attempt to make him more human.

There are three Creature From the Black Lagoon movies. The first and the best, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), was followed by two sequels, which while not as good as the original, were highly entertaining in their own right, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956).

The most memorable part of the third film is that the Creature’s look changes in the second half of the film, as seen in the photo above, and that’s because evil scientist William Barton (Jeff Morrow) attempts to change the Gill Man into an air breather for reasons which never make much sense, but that’s okay. After all, he’s an evil scientist. He’s not supposed to make sense.

The surgery also seems to give the Creature some bulk, and that’s because after the surgery, the gill man was played by the very large Don Megowan. And if you want to see Megowan without the Gil Man make-up you can check out the neat chiller THE WEREWOLF (1956) in which Megowan played the hero, the town sheriff. Anyway, this new gill man on land is a hulking figure who appears much more monstrous in size than when we saw him underwater.

I like all three CREATURE movies, and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US is probably my least favorite of the three, mostly because I prefer the classic underwater Creature. That being said, the on-land Creature is certainly scary looking, and I wouldn’t want to bump into him while walking along the beach at night, that’s for sure!

And while the Creature never perishes on-screen, it’s assumed that he finally dies at the end of THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, because the film ends with the Creature returning to the ocean, only now he doesn’t have gills anymore, and so most likely he will drown.

Then again, the Creature is not stupid. For all we know, rather than drowning, he simply turned around and came back ashore.

But where did he go afterwards, you ask?

For the answer to that question, let’s turn to the fictional side of this otherwise nonfiction article:

There are a number of theories. Rumor has it that he settled in the woods of North America and started the Bigfoot craze. Others believe he went on to enjoy a successful career as a Hollywood stuntman. And still others believe he simply settled down and opened his own seafood restaurant, Gillman’s Fish and Chips Shack.

Whatever his fate, he was never seen on the big screen again, and that’s no fiction!

—END—

PICTURE OF THE DAY: GODZILLA (1954)

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For my money, Godzilla’s first ever appearance on-screen in GODZILLA (1954) as seen in the picture above is hands down one of the scariest moments in the entire Toho Godzilla series.

And that’s because the original 1954 is unlike any of the Godzilla movies to follow it. By far, the deepest, most serious of any Godzilla movie, with Godzilla himself symbolic of the atom bomb which ravaged Japan just nine years earlier, if you have never seen this film, you are missing one of the best giant monster movies ever and one of the few that transcends the genre and works as a tragic drama, a metaphor for the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For years, I had only seen the American version with the Raymond Burr scenes added, which was called GODZILLA- KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956) but even this version is superior to the films which followed it, although the original Japanese version is preferable to the Raymond Burr one.

Anyway, in this first appearance, Godzilla is terribly frightening. I first saw this film on TV when I was probably about 10 years old, and it gave me nightmares for weeks afterwards. I’d hear his thunderous footsteps, his unique roar, and I’d see that massive shape with the jagged teeth looking down upon me.

Scary!

Although Toho primarily used man-in-suit special effects for their Godzilla movies, in this first appearance that’s a puppet being used, and a mighty frightening puppet at that.

While I certainly enjoy the Godzilla movies which were to follow, the ones that turned Godzilla into a sort of superhero fighting all the “bad” monsters to save the Earth, and in fact I actually prefer some of those films, I can’t deny that the one and only true Godzilla horror movie is the first one. It’s terribly scary.

And Godzilla’s rampage and destruction of Tokyo remains one of the most memorable scenes in any giant monster movie.

The recent GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019) while an okay film pales in comparison to this cinematic classic.

Wanna have a nightmare? Watch GODZILLA (1954). Or maybe just stare long and hard at the photo above.

Either way, you might be in for a restless night.

—Michael

MOVIE LISTS: SCARLETT JOHANSSON – 2019

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MOVIE LISTS:  Scarlett Johansson

One of my favorite parts of AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) was Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Black Widow and the character’s story arc. So, with that in mind, I thought I would bring this column (originally from 2014) up to date.

Here’s the updated partial list of Johansson’s movie credits through April 2019:

 

EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (2002) – frightened by giant spiders in this horror movie starring David Arquette.

LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) – hanging out with Bill Murray in Japan in this quirky film by writer/director Sofia Coppola.

THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE (2004) – lends her voice to this big screen adventure featuring SpongeBob, Patrick, and their undersea buddies.

MATCH POINT (2005) – really shines in this Woody Allen drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

THE PRESTIGE (2006) – Part of the rivalry between magicians Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in this Christopher Nolan thriller.

VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA (2008) – Another Woody Allen drama, this time with Javier Bardem.

IRON MAN 2 (2010) – Hello Black Widow!  Johansson is the best part of this underwhelming IRON MAN sequel.

THE AVENGERS (2012) – Johansson’s Black Widow is the sexiest crime fighting heroine since Diana Rigg in the other THE AVENGERS, the 1960s TV show with Patrick MacNee.

HITCHCOCK (2012) – Playing Janet Leigh to Anthony Hopkins’ Hitch.

DON JON (2013) – Loses her boyfriend first to porn and then to older woman Julianne Moore in this quirky innovative movie by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

UNDER THE SKIN (2013) – sexy alien who has the bad habit of killing those she seduces. Offbeat and weird, definitely worth a look.

HER (2013) – seduces Joaquin Phoenix with only her voice in this Oscar-nominated movie.

CHEF (2014) – has too small a role in this comedy drama by actor/director Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – Black Widow is back and she’s still kicking butt and looking incredibly sexy doing it in this superior CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel.

LUCY (2014) – She’s the best part of this science fiction thriller about a woman who suddenly finds herself able to access her full brain capacity.

AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON (2015) – fourth appearance as Black Widow in this AVENGERS sequel, which is not as good as the first.

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) – has one of the best scenes in the movie, a hilariously sexy sequence with Jonah Hill, in this otherwise underwhelming misfire by the Coen Brothers.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) – provides the voice for the snake Kaa in this impressive Disney remake of the Rudyard Kipling tale, well-directed by Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016):  fifth turn as the sexy Black Widow in the third CAPTAIN AMERICA movie and one of Marvel’s all time best.  This rousing superhero film plays like THE AVENGERS 2.5 and contains some of the most entertaining sequences in the Marvel movie universe thus far.

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) – plays the lead role of the Major, a cyborg crime fighter, in this disappointing remake of the classic Japanese animated film.

ROUGH NIGHT (2017) –  it’s a girl’s night out gone wrong as Johansson plays a woman enjoying a reunion with her college friends when they accidentally kill a male stripper.

ISLE OF THE DOGS (2018) – lends her voice to this Oscar-nominated animated film which also features voice work from Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – back as Black Widow again in what for my money is the best AVENGERS film yet. Nonstop entertaining, and a gut-wrenching emotional finale, thanks to the unstoppable cosmic villain Thanos who will not be denied.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) – while I liked INFINITY WAR better than ENDGAME, Johansson enjoys some of her finest moments in the entire series as Black Widow right here in this movie. Indeed, Black Widow’s story and Johansson’s performance are some of the best parts of this film, which wraps up the AVENGERS saga as the Avengers go after Thanos and attempt to undo what he did in the previous film.

There you have it, a partial list of some notable Scarlett Johansson movies, updated for 2019.  Previously, I had written about looking forward to the rumored standalone movie for Black Widow, and supposedly, that film even though it’s been rumored for years, is in pre-production, which is interesting, considering what ultimately happened to Black Widow in AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Anyway, I would still be incredibly excited to see that standalone movie for Black Widow, and I do hope it still happens.

Okay, that’s it for now.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

CAPTIVE STATE (2019) – Science Fiction Thriller Struggles Mightily To Tell Its Story

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CAPTIVE STATE (2019) is a new science fiction thriller with some really neat ideas and a remarkable story to tell, but sadly— very sadly—- it also has a script that struggles mightily to tell it.

The movie gets off to a busy yet intriguing start with a bunch of information hurled at its audience immediately. There’s been an alien invasion which has completely overwhelmed humankind, and the governments of the world have capitulated power to these superior beings who now control the Earth.  As a result, the “haves” — people with power and money— have gotten stronger as they’ve been given positions of leadership, while the “have-nots” have gotten weaker, as they’ve been thrust into ghettos and hard-working mining jobs, which happens to be a perfect metaphor for what some say has been happening in the real world for the past few decades.

But all hope is not lost, as there are resistance fighters constantly operating in the shadows with the express purpose of taking down these all-powerful aliens. These resistance fighters believe the only thing the aliens are interested in is draining the Earth of its resources. They believe the aliens’ end game is the destruction of the planet, even if the “haves” who enjoy plenty of power now refuse to see it.

So, the plot of the movie focuses on a small band of resistant fighters in Chicago as they work on a plan to strike back at their alien oppressors, while one of the “haves,” police detective William Mulligan (John Goodman) does everything in his power to uncover this resistant cell and destroy them.

I really liked the idea behind CAPTIVE STATE. I enjoyed its story of resistance fighters trying to strike back against an all-powerful alien race which had been ruling the world for nearly a decade. I enjoyed the obvious symbolic references to what’s going on in today’s world, where people feel increasingly oppressed and powerless.

But there are far more things with CAPTIVE STATE that I didn’t like. Let’s start with the way it tells its story. The screenplay by Erica Beeney and director Rupert Wyatt seems to be purposefully confusing. Characters speak, and their meanings aren’t clear. They make phone calls and send messages in code, but the audience doesn’t know why nor do they understand the meanings.

Most of the movie is a collection of really cool looking scenes showing people slyly plotting resistance while cop William Mulligan hunts them down. It all looks good and sounds good with some effective music by Rob Simonsen, but very little of it makes sense. The writers forgot to include the audience on what’s going on. It’s one of those films where I’m sure the audience is going to spend most of the time scratching their heads rather than enjoying a suspenseful story.

It reminded me of a 1960s British spy thriller where the screenplay was purposefully obscure, or a movie which back in the old days would have been aired after midnight because prime time audiences wouldn’t have had the patience for its lack of narrative. Some folks will no doubt absolutely love CAPTIVE STATE and won’t see its narrative woes as a weakness, but for me, I prefer a story that is told in a more organized fashion than the one told here.

There are other problems as well. The biggest one for me is there wasn’t a clear protagonist. The central characters in the movie are two brothers, Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders) and Rafe Drummond (Jonathan Majors) whose parents were killed by the aliens in the film’s opening moments. Rafe has become the face of the Chicago resistance, but since his character is officially dead, he lives in the shadows and is barely in the movie.

The main character is supposed to be Gabriel, the younger brother, as he’s also a person the police are interested in, as they believe he can lead them to the resistance. But even though Gabriel is on-screen more than Rafe, he’s not developed as a character either.

Then there’s cop William Mulligan as played by John Goodman, who gruffly goes through the motions hunting down resistance fighters without showing any emotion.

Speaking of those resistance fighters, there’s a whole bunch of them, none of whom we ever really get to know or care about.

Then there’s the aliens themselves, which we hardly see. When we do see them, they reminded me of the types of creatures seen in the CLOVERFIELD universe, but we really don’t see much of them at all here.

There is little that is visually stimulating or memorable in CAPTIVE STATE, nothing memorable like those huge hovering ships in DISTRICT 9 (2009), a film that did a better job telling its alien occupation story. There were also shades of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End here, with its story and theme of humans dealing with the occupation of a superior alien race, but the novel dealt with it in ways that are far superior to how it is handled in this movie.

The cast here also doesn’t do a whole lot, and a lot of the problem is the screenplay which really doesn’t develop the characters. John Goodman is okay as William Mulligan, but it is largely a one note performance. Unlike his role in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) where he knocked it out of the park playing quite the frightening character, Goodman is stuck playing a man who is purposely unemotional for reasons that become clear later in the story.

Ashton Sanders, who starred in the Oscar-winning MOONLIGHT (2016), is decent enough as Gabriel, the character who should have been the main focus here had this film had a better script. There just really aren’t any defining moments for Gabriel or ones that allow Sanders to truly shine in the role.

Jonathan Majors is allowed to do even less as older brother Rafe. There are a lot of solid actors in supporting roles here, but none of them get to do much of anything. Even Vera Farmiga can’t save the day, as her role as a mysterious prostitute has little impact while she’s on screen. Now, her character is important, as revealed later on, but that’s how a lot of this movie is. Important details are relayed after characters are gone or situations have already happened. It just doesn’t make for satisfying storytelling.

Even the end, when it’s obvious what’s happening, and what direction the plot is taking, the movie doesn’t give the audience the benefit of a satisfying conclusion. It leaves things just a bit obscure. The trouble is, what’s happening is not obscure, so why not just show the audience this instead of playing games and keeping important plot points hidden just for the sake of trying to be creative? It’s a case of trying too hard to make a thought-provoking offbeat thriller. Sometimes straightforward storytelling is just plain better.

Director Rupert Wyatt does a nice job creating quick intense scenes of resistance fighters organizing and plotting but struggles with the big-ticket items like grand cinematic sequences and building suspense. Probably the best sequence in the movie is the major caper by the resistance to attack the aliens at Soldier Field.  This sequence works well, even if its payoff isn’t all that satisfying, but other than this, there’s not a whole lot that’s memorable about this movie.

For a science fiction thriller, it’s not visually satisfying at all. As I said, there are no memorable images as found in DISTRICT 9, and the script is far inferior to the stories, dialogue, and character development found in recent science fiction films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and ARRIVAL (2016).

ANNIHILATION and ARRIVAL also had strong female leads and supporting characters. The women in CAPTIVE STATE are few and far between, and none of the major characters are women.

Rupert Wyatt also directed RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011), the first of the APES reboots, and a movie I enjoyed more than CAPTIVE STATE.

I really wanted to like CAPTIVE STATE. In fact, after its first five minutes, I was even more interested in the story it was about to tell, but what followed was a narrative that clearly struggled to move this intriguing story forward. Its characters were not developed, and as such there really wasn’t anyone for the audience to identify with or root for. And the alien threat was barely shown and hardly explored.

So, at the end of the day, while I certainly did not hate CAPTIVE STATE, I left the theater disappointed.

A better script could have made CAPTIVE STATE a captivating science fiction thriller, but it’s clear that this film did not have that script. The end result is a movie with impressive ideas and symbolism but with such a muddled narrative that its audience will be hard-pressed to enjoy them.

—END—

 

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019) – Tale of Teen Cyborg Lifted By Impressive Effects

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I have to admit. I wasn’t overly excited about seeing ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019), even with such heavy hitters as James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez on board.

Its plot about a teenage female cyborg trying to find her identity and purpose in life didn’t exactly entice me. I mean, there have been a lot of movies that have covered similar ground, most of them starring Scarlet Johansson!  Seriously, Johansson could have her own boxed set of these films!  From GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)— the only one in which she actually played a cyborg— to LUCY (2014) — synthetically enhanced human, to HER (2013)— artificial intelligent entity,  to UNDER THE SKIN (2013) — alien— in each of these films she’s played an enigmatic character searching for answers about her identity.

And there have been plenty of these without Johansson.

Yet, guess what? ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL was better than I expected, so much so that I really enjoyed it.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is based on a series of manga books by Yukito Kishiro. It takes place in the future, in a world once ravaged by war. Its cities are inhabited by humans, robots, and cyborgs. As the film opens, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the discarded head and shoulders of a cyborg in a scrap heap. Ido makes his living attaching robotic limbs to people who need them, and he uses his skills to attach the cyborg’s upper body to a main frame body he had built years earlier for his daughter who was killed before he had a chance to give her the new body.

The cyborg awakes, a wide-eyed 14 year-old girl eager to learn about both life now and who she once was, and Ido promptly names her Alita, after his deceased daughter. While Ido tries to shield Alita (Rosa Salazar) from life’s dangers, it’s not so easy as she is a teenager who is intent on carving her own path. She befriends a group of teens, learns about the most popular sport in her day, “motorball,” and once she discovers she possesses the skills of a warrior, joins the group of “Hunter-Warriors” to help combat the seedier side of life, as there are murderers on the loose and people who harvest body parts for the black market.

Alita also learns more about her past, as she finds out just who she is and why it is she possesses superior fighting skills and strength.

Speaking of strength, as much as I enjoyed ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, the strength of this movie is not its story. Very little of what happens in ALITA is all that original, and the film offers little or no insight into the topic of cyborgs and artificial intelligence.

What drives ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is its special effects and its performances, especially Rosa Salazar’s lead performance as Alita.

As you would expect in a movie produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, the special effects are second to none. The film is visually stunning throughout.

Without doubt, the most impressive effect is Alita herself. A combination of motion capture, CGI, and live performance by Rosa Salazar brings Alita to life. Visually, her look is flawless. She looks exceedingly real. But Alita is more than that, thanks to Salazar’s performance. Salazar captures personality, nuances, and emotions, and she gives Alita spunk, vivacity, and humanity. Salazar’s performance is up there with Andy Serkis’ work as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies and Caesar in the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Salazar has starred in AMERICAN HORROR STORY (2011), the MAZE RUNNER movies, and most recently in Netflix’ BIRD BOX (2018) along side Sandra Bullock. She’s supported here in ALITA by a fine cast of veterans.

Christoph Waltz does his thing as Dr. Ido. I like Waltz, but truthfully, it’s been a while since he’s taken on a role that has impressed me. Both Jennifer Connolly and Mahershala Ali are on hand as villains here, although neither one really gets to show off their full potential.

And this is certainly a weakness in the film. It doesn’t have a decent villain.

Keean Johnson is enjoyable as Hugo, the young man who befriends Alita and eventually becomes her boyfriend.

James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, and Robert Rodriguez wrote the screenplay, again based on the manga series by Yukito Kishiro. In creating the character Alita, the script is very successful, but as for the rest, meh. Its story simply did not wow me.

Its main plot is average at best. Alita’s past isn’t hard to figure out, and what she is fighting for, other than to protect her friends and family, isn’t all that grand or exciting. The villain is never clearly defined, and as a result it’s never clear why this shadowy figure wants to destroy Alita.

For most of the movie, Alita was a fascinating enough character to overcome these flaws in the plot, but towards the end, the story starts to run out of gas, and the pace drags.

This is James Cameron’s first script since AVATAR (2009).  Remember that movie? That remains such an odd story. I loved AVATAR when it came out. Sequels were announced, and here we are ten years later and the sequels still haven’t happened. It seems they’ve been in pre-production forever. Supposedly, AVATAR 2 is set for release in 2020.  And that’s the reason Cameron didn’t direct ALITA. He’s been too busy with the AVATAR movies.

Laeta Kalogridis also wrote the screenplay for SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) and TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015).  I know a lot of people hated GENISYS but I really liked that one.

I’ve been a fan of Robert Rodriguez since his fun vampire flick FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996) which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino. I’ve also really enjoyed his SIN CITY films and MACHETE movies. And he also made the SPY KIDS movies.

Rodriguez always brings an energy and oomph to his movies, and his work here with ALITA is no exception. From the dark look of the film, to its exciting action sequences, like the motorball race, Rodriguez’ signature style is on full display throughout.

I liked ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL a lot, mostly because of its phenomenal technological achievement in creating such a life-like character in Alita. And a huge part of this success is the human element, the motion-capture performance by Rosa Salazar. The combination of acting and special effects create a wonderfully impressive and memorable character.

Alita is worth the price of admission alone, even if her story isn’t.

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