Quality Science Fiction Tales
By Kristin Battestella
These recent and retro science fiction tales provide genre statements, epic adventures, and intergalactic visuals for some speculative but quality escapades.
Narcopolis – Crime thrills and neo noir science fiction mix in this 2015 crowd sourced bender as CEO drug lords, corrupt officials, and noble but bottom dwelling cops vie for control in a futuristic world of legalized drugs and time travel. Pharmaceutical suppression, work cutbacks, and allotted utilities keep the public down in the city and looking for any kind of fix, and citizens are statistics, designated or unregistered people with unlicensed drugs deemed unworthy to have their victimizing investigated. Cop Elliot Cowan (Lost in Austen) begins as a typically angry lone wolf with a rap sheet and his own muddled history, but he's trying his best to protect his family – even if that means being late in giving his son a book for his birthday and distancing his wife from his work. The bleak concrete and desolate highway duty feel more grim reaper than cop as he catalogs dead junkies in a sort of mea culpa penance. We get the seedy mood without the unnecessary nudity, in your face music, nightclub strobe, and slo mo flashbacks of a rock bottom disaster. Fortunately, the cool effects are mostly reserved for future actions as people who haven't been born yet wearing watches that aren't yet invented pop through time thanks to freaky drugs injected through the eye. The how and why fantastics tie the suspect evidence and shady company dealings together, keeping the drug dystopia, contemporary crime, and paradox twists intriguing. However, the plot does drag, playing it safe or not going far enough as if this short premise is stretched too thin for a feature. 2044 to 2024 also seems too recent a time frame, with dated mobiles and skyping medical examiners also using convoluted, hi-tech DNA scans – and come on, today's millions of paperbacks are going to be scarce oddities seven years from now? The half-baked megalomaniac corporate villain should have remained unseen, and Jonathan Pryce (Tomorrow Never Dies) accents the touching generational aspects alongside Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones) – who should have been used more. Why is he in so many movies for five minutes cameos? Tender moments in the final act raise the future risks, making wrongs right, and second chance escapes. Of course, the audience figures out the on the nose references to The Time Machine immediately, and the try hard gritty doesn't fully address the cult like power of this drug stranglehold – a suit at the top hiring the street peddlers to offer candy and magic to kids door to door is still the same drug trade in a new corporate uniform. However, the going through the motions numbness and corruption aggravating the situation for its own gain feels nineties throwback amid the sequestering control and corporate parallels certainly familiar today – a little twenty year reversal in itself. Although this isn't anything serious SF fans haven't seen before, the futuristic framing and genre statements make this an interesting little indie.
Quintet – This bleak 1979 tale – a rare science fiction outing from Paul Newman – is an icy, desolate two hours with snowbound civilization, small humans braving the bluster, birds a rare sight, scarce seal hunting, and memories of trees. Echoes, broken glass, icicles, and dangerous crackling sounds accent the ruined photos, damaged crystal chandeliers, shaggy beards, and bundled clothes. The information center no longer transmits, ten or twelve years have passed but who can be sure, children and pregnancy are uncommon, and water is everywhere but precious alongside lost life affirming opportunities and somber river burials. Despite his chilled exterior, Newman's Essex isn't unfeeling, however he doesn't initially realize just how high stakes the titular game is until the coercion, explosions, Latin oaths, slit throats, and assumed identities. He has a list of names due revenge, but the killings must play out within the Quintet rules. While promotions at the film's release included how to play brochures, today us not knowing the specifics on the mysterious sixth man in a five player game adds an interesting confusion to the high brow competition, and viewers must pay attention to the one man SF chess. At times, the game concepts fall flat and the trying hard statements on the cult-like mentality of the tournament don't quite come across. Like the solitary plodding and stilted chill it depicts, this is slow to start and the runtime could have been trimmed, but this shouldn't be a globe trotting, fantastic fun filled pretty people adventure game the way a modern movie would be, either. Mentions of five million people struggling in color coded sectors also don't quite register thanks to the small scale production, but prowling dogs, frozen carcasses, and on location filming at the abandoned Montreal Expo create realism. Director Robert Altman's (The Long Goodbye) decision to film with a foggy, Vaseline framed camera lense, however, misfires. The idea of the audience peering through the blurred trim of a frosted glass adds style while hiding cut production corners – the edging even mirrors the titular pentagon shaped symbolism that dominates the futuristic furniture and decor. Unfortunately, the execution is too noticeable and perhaps should have been used for indoor scenes only. Here hope is an obsolete word, and the desperate, arbitrary deceptions hit home the insensitive nothing else left to do but kill pointlessness – you bleed to stay alive and help decrease the population a little faster. Bitter tenderness and some tense shocks accent the cerebral tone as the intriguing melancholy escalates in the final act, and this somber, life imitating art statement is eerily prophetic in the notion of games and movies becoming social reality obsessions.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – This 2016 offshoot set before the original Star Wars certainly has pleasant visuals, pretty planetary vistas, intergalactic cities, and epic island battles. However, the spectacle doesn't overtake the sad family separations, weapons coercion, labor camps, extremist leaders, and bleakness of life under the Empire. Such hopelessness remains the film's unifying thread amid ties lost and gained, near gone Jedi philosophies, competing rebellion tactics, doubts on whether a life like this is worth living, and where you take your stand when the line is drawn. Those seeking it can find modern political parallels in the cinematic tensions, but the personal attachments to the refreshing, multidimensional ensemble are more important. There's no romance between the leads, either, another fresh turn against the usually required movie matchmaking. Instead, these likable rogue heroes – including Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Diego Luna (Y tu mamá también), Riz Ahmed (The Night Of), Donnie Yen (Ip Man), and more – become their own reformed Han Solos. Even Alan Tudyk (Firefly) who's hidden behind the delightfully charming K-2SO droid remains memorable, and the audience wants these rebels from the Rebellion to succeed in their choice for hope regardless of the consequences, leaving their mark long after the picture assures the stolen Death Star plans make it to Star Wars as we know they would. Older stars such as Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal), Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline), and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) anchor the nods to this galaxy far, far away alongside the returning Genevieve O'Reilly as Mon Mothma, Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa, and familiar hallmarks such as Yavin 4, X-Wings, and more surprises. There's even an “I have a bad feeling about this” quip – almost. Unfortunately, I'm hesitant about the digital revival of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Absolutely positively, I love the deserved respect with such a critical role and careful attention to detail. The composite isn't out of place, yet, when you've watched enough of his movies, it just reminds you that this isn't really Peter Cushing. It's a great technical achievement, but being aware of the wizardry makes the moral implications of using a late actor's likeness on a body double a distraction. For all its impressiveness, a blurry hologram message or onscreen video communiques would have sufficed, and Star Wars footage is used to recreate the X-Wing squadrons. There's uneven, convoluted techno babble, too – with ridiculously simple flick the switch/press the button/insert the data tape, some poor dialogue, and confusing planet hopping. Rewrites, editing changes, missing scenes, and reshoots are apparent, however the realization that this is the Star Wars movie we didn't know we needed bests any technicalities. Between the Prequels and the now de-canonized Extended Universe, who knew there was room for an entire movie leading up to the hours before Star Wars? Where The Force Awakens understandably re-endears with similarities to A New Hope, I'm still surprised this mature and sophisticated catharsis is a Disney movie. The only real trouble with this Star Wars Story is where it goes in a viewing marathon. Always introduce with the Original and Empire, let Han Solo in carbonite stew and remind us why the Empire must be defeated with Sith and Rogue One before coming home with Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Let this be your bittersweet Jar Jar palette cleanser!
An Unfortunate Skip
Outcasts – Although this 2011 eight episode limited series opens with intergalactic intrigue, the promising science fiction falls prey to standard television trappings. This refuge from Earth isn't what the New Haven colony had hoped – while some are grateful to be alive, others see this bleak time for humanity as an opportunity for power. Older adults and younger characters alike have touching recollections of how Earth used to be, and the title fits for both those willfully exiled and those cast beyond the colony's walls. Unfortunately, the survival science versus planetary pursuits are slow, few, and far between – feeling like thinly disguised The Next Generation meets Earth 2 threads when not taking a backseat to teen angst or bar fights. Archaeological evidence and alien frequencies remain B plots behind killer husbands and Lost delays with little purpose or explanation, and their technology is embarrassingly all over the place – space travel and memory revisiting machines but no way to tell if a hurricane’s a coming? Unlikable personal twists undercut already superfluous characters who run around each week or play cards when they are supposed to be exploring the exiled clones, diamond oceans, and non-corporeal beings. Obvious religious charlatan/smirking narcissists and political coups underestimate the audience with glossed over critical points and unnecessary on the nose tensions. Despite fine special effects, planetary vistas, and a neo noir feeling with dark corridors and cramped spaceships re-purposed as pioneer housing, there’s not a lot of actual SF and the odd timeframe embraces no genre wonder. Show us the settlement start with viruses, explorations, and excised soldiers or move to another five years on with a firm outpost thrust with surplus arrivals and strife. Instead, two cops do most of the work amid one nurse and a murdering botanist, relegating the lack of pregnancy and reproduction issues as secondary to guest of the week Gilligan's Island fodder. Veteran performances from unstable and talking to ghostly aliens in disguise Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) and the steely but surprisingly stiff and washed out Hermione Norris (MI-5) can't detract from this disappointing lack of focus, and when they say their planet is named Carpathia after the Titanic's rescue ship, well I just think of Vigo from Ghostbusters II.