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:

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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:

 

arrival

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

 

 

 

 

 

Action, Not Story, Rules STAR TREK BEYOND (2016)

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My love for STAR TREK goes back to the original series with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, so when it comes to the Star Trek universe, I guess I’m a hard person to please.

That being said, I have enjoyed the new STAR TREK movies, but the problem I have with them is they rely too heavily on action rather than story.

It’s especially noticeable in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016), the third and latest installment in the rebooted series.  The actors here have really grown into their roles, and they are a joy to watch, especially if, like me, you’re a fan of the original series, because they truly capture the spirit of the original actors.  When these actors are on screen with actual dialogue, the film soars, but when they get drowned out in long action scenes filled with eye popping and often exhausting special effects, the film falters.

Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe for some fans the special effects and action scenes are the thing.  For me, I prefer the characters over the special effects, ideas over action scenes.  That’s the true spirit of STAR TREK, and that’s what’s missing in these movies.

In STAR TREK BEYOND, the Enterprise is in the third year of its five year mission of exploring new worlds and civilizations.  The ship and crew dock at the space station Yorktown to get supplies and some rest.  Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) ponders his decision to leave the Enterprise and become an Admiral, while Spock (Zachary Quinto) learns of the death of Admiral Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and begins his own soul searching, wondering if he too should leave the Enterprise and help rebuild the planet New Vulcan.  Meanwhile, it’s Jim Kirk’s birthday, and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) helps him celebrate with some special ale, in a scene that’s a clear nod to a similar scene between William Shatner and DeForest Kelley in STAR TREK II:  THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982).

The respite is short-lived as the Yorktown receives a distress call from a ship inside a nebula, and of course the Enteprise heads off to investigate.   But all is not as it seems, and in the famous words of a character from that other science fiction series, “It’s a trap!

A trap indeed, as waiting for the Enterprise inside the nebula is a nasty group of aliens led by a cold-hearted villain named Krall (Idris Elba) whose superior technology makes short work of the Enterprise, literally ripping it apart, sending the shocked crew fleeing in separate directions.  The bulk of the crew, including Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are abducted by Krall, while the rest flee in escape pods only to crash on the planet below.  These separate groups include Spock and McCoy, Scotty (Simon Pegg) who meets an alien woman Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) whose help proves invaluable, and Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin).

It’s pretty much the theme of the movie.  Together the Enterprise crew can do anything. They need each other, and so it’s up to these separate groups to reunite to rescue their abducted crew members and stop Krall from destroying the Yorktown and the rest of the Federation.  Working towards this goal, Kirk and Spock ponder that perhaps their destiny shouldn’t include going their separate ways.

STAR TREK BEYOND is silly fun.  I liked it most whenever the characters actually engaged in conversation.  When they navigated through CGI-immersed action scenes, I was less than impressed.  To me, these scenes should be saved for key moments in the movie, but when they go on nonstop one after another, as is the case during the middle of this movie, I quickly become bored.

For example, rather than a ridiculous ten minute sequence featuring Jim Kirk racing a motorcycle through a firefight to cause a distraction, a sequence that is so implausible I half expected to see Bugs Bunny riding the cycle, I’d rather have had a ten minute sequence where Kirk, Spock and McCoy actually discuss a real  rescue plan, one that is at least half way believable.  One of my favorite episodes from the original series, “The Corbomite Maneuver” has as its centerpiece not an elaborate battle scene, but a highly tense conversation on the bridge dealing with a no win situation in which Spock tells Kirk that in chess, checkmate means the end, and that loss is inevitable, whereas Kirk turns the tables by suggesting another game, poker, and he proceeds to bluff their all-powerful adversary into submission.  It’s moments like this that this new series misses the most.

The cast here, as has been the case throughout this series, is fun, and they continue to grow into these roles.

As Captain Kirk, Chris Pine seemed more influenced by William Shatner this time around. His performance here really hearkend back to Shatner’s in the original series, more so than in the previous two movies.

I’m still amazed at how good Zachary Quinto is as Spock and how successfully he nails the role.  It’s like Leonard Nimoy reborn.  Speaking of Nimoy, some of Quinto’s best scenes here are when he reminsces about the death of his parallel universe self, Commander Spock (Nimoy).  These scenes are poignant and special.

Once again, Karl Urban has a field day as Dr. McCoy.  More than any of the other actors in this series, Urban plays McCoy as a clear homage to the way DeForest Kelley played him in the original series.  As McCoy, Urban gets the best lines in the movie and delivers some genuine laugh out loud moments.

Simon Pegg, as you might expect, infuses more humor into the role of Scotty than James Doohan did.  Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, and the late Anton Yelchin as Chekov all hold their own, but they don’t do as much as they could.

Idris Elba, while looking menacing underneath his alien make-up, is largely wasted as villain Krall.  Elba is a tremendous actor who if given the chance to act here could have made Krall a memorable villain, but other than a line here and a line there, there’s little development, until the end of the movie when we learn more about Krall, but that’s too little too late.

Sofia Boutella is very impressive as alien Jaylah.  Her scenes with Scotty are some of the best in the movie.

Director Justin Lin, taking over for J.J. Abrams, infuses this one with heavy action scenes.  No surprises here from the FAST AND FURIOUS director.  These scenes were okay.  The problem is I wouldn’t cite any one scene in this movie as being memorable or incredibly cinematic.  In fact, I’d argue the opposite.  There were some scenes that looked way too cartoonish and CGI infested for my tastes.  I felt like I was watching an animated STAR TREK movie at times.

The screenplay by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung is okay.  The overall premise- Enterprise crew must stop alien from destroying Starfleet- is pretty standard and not very thought-provoking.  Its strength, which again is no surprise since it was written by comedian Pegg, is its humor and the dialogue between the characters.  I also thought Scotty’s role was beefed up a bit here.  Again, no surprise since Pegg wrote it.

STAR TREK BEYOND doesn’t go beyond where any of the other STAR TREK movies or TV shows have gone, doesn’t explore new worlds or civilizations that we haven’t already encountered, but it still makes for a solidly entertaining two hours at the movies.

STAR TREK BEYOND seems to be STAR TREK for the 21st century audience, where action has replaced characters and story.  I wish it were otherwise.  And don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing for no action scenes whatsoever.  I just want them to matter.  To be few and far between, and when they occur, for them to have impact and resonance.

While I prefer the STAR TREK of old, I still enjoy these new films, mostly because of the nostalgia they resurrect, but also because the cast here truly does a bang-up job.  If only the directors and writers would follow suit and do the same.

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