Sunday, 12 January 2020

It only takes a minute girl [Review: Downsizing]

A Norwegian scientist has found a way to shrink humans to approximately 12 inches in height, meaning they have a much smaller environmental impact and incidentally can live a life of luxury on the cheap – but it’s irreversible. Occupational therapist Matt Damon and his wife Kristen Wiig are the couple trying to decide whether moving to a small community is an opportunity worth taking.

There are plenty of movies about shrinking people –Fantastic Voyage, InnerSpace, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, and of course the various appearances of Ant-Man. In all of these movies the shrinking effect is reversible and the tone tends to be a mixture of action and comedy.

Downsizing takes a different approach, the key to which is the one-way procedure which gives miniaturization a whole new meaning. This is highlighted by the shrinking process – no instantaneous shrink ray or Ant-Man suit but a prolonged and demeaning medical procedure involving removal of hair and teeth and injection with a special shrinking medicine before being anaesthetised and locked naked in a giant microwave.

It’s a little hard to describe exactly what kind of movie this is. It’s not an action movie or a thriller, and it’s not a comedy either, although there’s the occasional comic moment. There's some romance, so at least we can be sure that size isn't everything, but it's not really a romantic comedy either. Perhaps it’s a little confused – too many subplots with messages about environmental catastrophe, race, immigration, poverty, social inequality and division.

However this is first and foremost a science fiction story in the John W. Campbell sense – the downsizing is the only fantasy element, and the movie takes this concept very seriously and explores the consequences, good and bad, of this new technology and its impact on the world. The result is a thoughtful movie about the challenge of taking an irreversible step into the unknown, and how this affects relationships in which some decisions are reversible.

While most of the supporting cast are poorly developed to the point of stereotyping – flamboyant European party animal, immigrant cleaner with heart of gold and so on, Matt Damon’s lead character is the exception – he’s got enough of a backstory and personality to convince that he is not a hero or villain but a likeable Philip Dick-style everyman character trying to muddle through.

Downsizing is a B-movie, and it’s disappointing in places but occasionally thoughtful or touching. It’s been mis-promoted as a comedy in the trailers when it would be better described as a drama. I found enough positives to merit the highly coveted Sci-Fi Gene three-star rating.

Score: 3 out of 5 stars
All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

2020 Vision

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2020, the year in which, according to Hollywood we should be racing to Mars on a desperate mission to rescue some floating M&Ms, fighting Kaiju and finding true love in our Jaegers, or hiding from dragons while teaching children about Star Wars.

I know. So disappointing when reality doesn’t match up to the movies.

I've almost finished Netflix so I’m looking forward to leaving the house and discovering some new experiences in 2020. My plans include getting to London Comic-Con and also trying some immersive science-fiction theatre – will report back if I survive. I’m also looking at all the movies coming out this year and I have no idea what to think. Ghostbusters, Top Gun and Bill and Ted are all coming back – any of which could be epic or catastrophic. On the other hand there are some originals in the line-up too, including the mysterious Chris Nolan movie Tenet, and while I don't always approve of re-makes I will probably still see the new adaptation of Dune, and I'm genuinely interested to see what Jordan Peele does with his re-imagining of Candyman.

2020 is also the 100th anniversary of the theremin, that most science-fictiony of electronic instruments. The theremin was invented by Leon Theremin in either 1919 or 1920 – the theremin community are hedging their bets on this. I’ve continued practicing my Open Theremin, working through Carolina Eyck's book, and I’ll post some more thoughts and videos for your amusement shortly.

Monday, 25 November 2019

The Empire Strikes Flatpack [Review: Aniara]

The space cruise ship Aniara begins its three-month mission to bring thousands of moderately rich Earthlings to Mars, leaving behind an environmental catastrophe. Amongst the passengers is MR (Emelie Jonsson), a technician responsible for tending to MIMA, an AI that can give the colonists soothing visions of Earth before the disaster. But shortly after departure a collision leaves the Aniara drifting off course with no engine, challenging Captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) and his crew to try to find a solution and keep the passengers happy.

Aniara is a Swedish-Danish movie – and you can tell this as it takes place on the decks of a rectangular cruise ship clearly designed and built by the Ikea-Lego Corporation (Assemble Your Own Better Worlds). There’s some clever low-budget sci-fi filmmaking – the interior of the Aniara has been filmed in airports, shopping malls and hotels, or perhaps airport shopping malls and hotels. CGI is sparsely used, basic but effective, mainly limited to exterior views of the drifting Aniara.

The Aniara. Slightly rippled with a flat underside.

Aniara is based on the famous epic poem by Swedish Nobel prize winner Harry Martinson, which as well as this 2018 movie has also inspired an opera and several obscure albums in musical styles from jazz to metal. The original poem incidentally is subject to disgraceful anti-English discrimination. While the Swedish, French, Japanese and Spanish editions are all on Kindle for under £14, Sjoberg’s English translation starts at £117 in paperback only. And this isn’t even the most depressing thing about the poem.

Emelie Jonsson carries the film, playing MR as a character determined to be happy and optimistic, to persevere and to see the best in others. She believes in love and kindness. She’s perhaps a symbol for the human spirit. While other characters, such as MR’s roommate the astronomer, swing constantly between positivity and negativity, it takes a lot to bring MR down, and when this happens it is painful.

Beautiful but misleading poster for Aniara. While the woman in the centre is MR, the main character in the film, she generally looks happier than this. However she does occasionally look over her shoulder. The spaceship in the foreground is not the Aniara and indeed is never seen in the movie, and I don't recognize the coridoor behind MR's head either.

I loved the economical and atmospheric setting, and the contrast between MR’s optimistic naïveté and the growing despair of the Aniara society. Will hope triumph over darkness? I won’t give away the ending but I repeat, this is a Swedish-Danish movie. The movie is divided into years of the voyage, with each year bringing new, sinister developments. It’s bleak – only three years into the voyage there appears to be a line-dancing revival, and things go downhill fast from there. The film ends not with a traditional Hollywood bang but an indie Scandinavian whimper, which is in keeping with the tone and story but may disappoint some.

Aniara is a deliciously dark indie sci-fi drifting in the direction of three stars.

Score: 3 out of 5 stars

All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Meet The Parents [Review: Get Out]

Photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is travelling with his girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams) to meet her parents for the first time, and is anxious about how they will react to an interracial relationship. On arrival he is greeted warmly and his fears appear groundless - but the parents have their own eccentricities, and the more he gets to know the Armitage family, the more he becomes convinced that there is something strange and sinister afoot at their household.

Get Out is a well-received horror movie from 2017, directed by Jordan Peele. It has won several awards including the Oscar for best screenplay - and well deserved. This is a clever film. The theme of racial intolerance and stereotyping is explored intelligently to play all sorts of psychological games with the audience, while subtle clues are incepted to pave the way for a horror twist in the final act. The movie opens with a subversion of a stereotype - a black person becoming increasingly nervous as he walks through a white neighbourhood, and proceeds to a fairly brutal kidnapping - this scene signals from the start that this is a horror movie, as otherwise the build-up of tension in the first act is so restrained that you might forget this and think you are watching some other kind of drama. There is a challenge in a film like this - if you make racism the main theme throughout, how do you come up with a horror twist that's even more horrific at the end? I don't want to spoil the movie, so all I can say is that this goal is achieved.

There's little to criticise here. In addition to the script, the performances are excellent and the setting deeply atmospheric. There are one or two tiny plot holes, including an escapology feat that I still haven't figured out, and a completely superfluous and ill-advised use of a candle, but that's about it.

Meeting the parents is a terrifying concept in itself, explored in depth in the films Meet The Parents (2000) and Meet The Fockers (2004). These films are sometimes misclassified as comedies rather than psychological thrillers. They are however enjoyable, unlike the all-time worst meet-the-parents movie, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1968). I have watched this double-Oscar-winning film to spare you the pain of doing so - its' excruciating to watch in the 21st century, even knowing that it was progressive and well-meaning back in the day, and exploration of racial issues is clumsy, a million miles away from Peele's brilliant script.

Get Out succeeds on all levels. A truly horrific three stars out of five.

Score: 3 out of 5 stars

All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

U Can't Skek Sis [review: Dark Crystal episode 2]

Episode 2 of The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance has many pleasures. Deet has found her way to the surface, and despite being unused to the glare of the three suns has met her first podling and her first fizzgig who may prove to be a bit of a scene-stealer. The Skeksis are as treacherous as ever - not least to each other, and Rian and Brea are both in so much trouble for different reasons.

With some movies or shows there is a drive towards realism, whether through special or visual effects, with the ultimate goal of making the audience forget they are watching a created fantasy. Here the effect is different. It's never in doubt that you are watching puppets - Muppets, even, but the artistry is so good that you still accept them as real characters and care about their struggles.

I have taken a decision not to binge-watch The Dark Crystal. It's too good - I want to take a bit more time and enjoy each episode. Also, at this point two episodes in I feel a need to go back and watch the 1982 movie, strictly for research purposes.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Fantastic Beasts And Thra To Find Them [Review: Dark Crystal episode 1]

The world of Thra is changing. The Skeksis, alien vulture-like creatures who have ruled over the native Gelflings for hundreds of years, have plundered the power of the Crystal to sustain themselves, and this is beginning to influence Thraian lifeforms in sinister ways. Most of the Gelflings are extremely gullible and view the obviously evil Skeksis as benevolent lords, but one or two are beginning to smell a rat. Junior guards Rian (Taron Egerton and Neil Sterenberg) and Mira (Alicia Vikander and Helena Smee) are searching the Skeksis castle for an escaped Spitter when they have an unfortunate encounter with the Skeksis chief scientist; meanwhile Gelfling princess Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy and Alice Dinnean) becomes suspicious of the tributes offered to the Skeksis lords during the annual tithing ceremony, and underground-dwelling Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel and Beccy Henderson) discovers that her favourite baby nurloc has become a little irritable. Something isn't quite right.

Set before the events of the 1982 movie, The Dark Crystal is a new TV series produced by the Jim Henson company and available on Netflix. Like the movie, it's an ambitious attempt to tell an epic science fiction story through puppetry - the cast, and the many forms of wildlife on Thra, are all portrayed by puppets. However this is not an anti-CGI campaign but a pairing of visual and special effects, with live-action puppetry transported to a computer generated landscape.

Thra is a planet rich in fantastic beasts, and they have been created with imagination and humour - this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the episode. Imagine Avatar re-created by the Muppets. In fact there are plenty of similarities between Pandora and Thra. Both ecosystems have been imagined in great detail, and there does seem to be a lot of bioluminescence about on both planets.

The first episode has to introduce the planet's backstory through a brief history lesson, introduce the many Gelfling factions, and begin the stories of the Gelflings and Skeksis central to the plot - as a result the action switches from region to region rather like an episode of Game of Thrones. And without providing too many spoilers, as with Game of Thrones maybe you shouldn't get too fond of any particular characters.

Speaking of characters, each major role in Dark Crystal is credited to two people - a voice actor and a puppeteer. The voice cast is stellar - see examples above, but the list also includes Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Sigourney Weaver, Helena Bonham-Carter, Killjoys' Hannah John-Kamen and a few Game of Throners for good measure. Look at the full cast list on IMDb here and weep. I haven't heard of any of the puppeteer cast but I now wish I had - they are incredibly talented.

Conclusion: a strong first episode that provides exposition, starts off several plots, introduces characters and gives some idea of just how epic this series could be. The rest of the series has much to live up to.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

The Only Whale Is Essex [Review: White Space]

Space... the final food frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Essex, it's continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new recipes, to boldly eat what no man has eaten before.

White Space, also released as Beyond White Space, is a 2018 sci-fi movie. It is the future, and mankind has taken up space fishing. Captain Richard Bentley (Holt McCallany) commands the starship Essex and its dysfunctional, squabbling and unfeasibly good-looking crew. Their mission: to catch space-crabs (these are giant, edible asteroid-dwelling creatures actually called Clickers, not some sort of space STD) under the watchful eye of inspector Navarro (Zulay Henao). However Bentley's father perished seeking Tien Lung, a legendary dragon-like space creature, and Bentley is obsessed with revenge. Yes, this is another sci-fi take on Moby Dick. And no, this is not going to end well.

The best aspects of White Space are the ship and the crew. The Essex is well designed inside and out, it has character - part submarine, part trawler, it's dark and atmospheric, there's plenty of blue lighting which is important in sci-fi, and by the end of the film you can feel reasonably familiar with it. Is it named after my home county of Essex, England, famed for its orange lifeforms? Or for the various towns or counties also called Essex in the US? Perhaps it was named after David Essex, who finally receives the acclaim he so deserves for the song "A Winter's Tale" in the 22nd century. We will never know. The visual effects are great for the various spaceships, a little less great for the creatures.

I enjoyed getting to know the crew - interesting characters and interesting relationships, although Hawthorne (Mike Genovese), the marinated ancient mariner, is a bit of an annoying cliché. The cast are relative unknowns, at least to me. Perhaps I should get out more.

I actually think this film would have been better if it had just focussed on the captain and crew with their various obsessions, and let their tensions, arguments and misbehaviour go even further - but instead the writers throw in such highly original elements as Space Pirates (TM)! and a Parasitic Life Form (TM)! which add little and get in the way of the story.

White Space is a decent B-movie, and as Moby Dick sci-fi adaptations go I found it more enjoyable than 2010: Moby Dick. It gets enough right to be watchable despite its flaws, and manages to reel in a leviathan 3 stars out of 5.

Score: 3 out of 5 stars

All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars