09 March 2018

Science Fiction and Action Thrillers!

Science Fiction and Action Thrillers!
by Kristin Battestella

These new and old, film or long form science fiction and action spectacles with memorable stars are a hodgepodge of space ships, disasters, aliens, robots, and more. Something for everyone!

Earthquake – Despite the older phones, analog equipment, suave seventies corduroy, tacky wallpaper, and patterns everywhere; we can see the genre influence of this star packed 1974 disaster yarn written by Mario Puzo (The Godfather) on films like Independence Day. The titular rumblings begin early for engineer Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes), his cranky wife Ava Gardner (Mogambo), and an Afro sporting Victoria Principal (Dallas) as terse conversations introduce the drama. Higher up cops chew out George Kennedy (also of that other disaster flick Airport '77), and no one believes the scientist who thinks the big quake is imminent even amid fleeing animals, reservoir perils, and landslide action. Yes, the actress reading flirtatious script lines meta falls flat. The age difference between rough Chuck and ingenue Genevieve Bujold (Anne of a Thousand Days) is ridiculous – almost as bad as his father-in-law cum boss Lorne Greene (Battlestar Galactica) looking as old as his onscreen daughter Ava. However, there are enough seismic sciences, probability curves, and scale debates alongside a whiff of social commentary regarding ignored Mexican victims, so-called religious freaks, negative treatment of soldiers, homophobic slurs, and racist insults. Red tape at the top contributes to the situation with officials worried over public panic and implausible evacuations, but certain action is laughable, too – be it the trailer full of cows going off the overpass or crumbling models of famous buildings and hello faux splatter in that disturbing elevator mishap. Green screens and matte backgrounds are at times obvious, yet most of the effects actually aren't bad, with green smoke and orange fire creating eerie glows. Of course, these two hours will be slow for those expecting the disaster quickly, and the story does stall with inadvertently over the top seriousness and too many characters that should have been combined cluttering what's important before the tolling bells, trembling bridges, falling bricks, smashed cars, and buckling highways. It's interesting how these crisis scenes are also done sans dialogue – there's no news coverage, authorities are non-existent, and some of our disparate people never even meet. This starts with detail but becomes haphazard, bouncing from scene to scene with dam releases, sparking wires, and seemingly significant players disappearing in the chaos. Ironically, today such movies are one visual sensation after another desensitizing spectacle for the entire ninety minutes! Aftershocks damage supposedly safe buildings where the rescued gather, crowds remain in peril, the military is portrayed as crazy, and one anonymous kid with a transistor radio tells us this disaster is the worst ever. Sadly, we've seen far worse than this fiction, and shootout injuries, looting assaults, dangling scaffolding, and claustrophobic tunnels may be upsetting for some younger audiences. The big watery consequence should probably have happened earlier, gas and fire damage are unrealistically minor, and this is both of its time in lacking a narrative resolution yet progressive with some seventies cynicism and a few dramatic surprises. We love it when our stars rescue puppies, and only Charlton Heston can save the day – because he must rescue not one, but two babes. After all, an earthquake is the perfect time to break up, and most importantly in a crisis, that megaphone is announcing where the hot coffee is available.

Didn't Think It Was *That* Bad

Saturn 3 – Underground Titan bases, a twenty-two day eclipse, cut off communication, and evil robots spell doom for Kirk Douglas (The Man from Snowy River), Farrah Fawcett (Charlie's Angels), and Harvey Keitel (Bugsy) in this 1980 British tale with not terrible but obviously influenced by Star Wars celestial illustrations and space graphics. That futuristic faux serious marching, foreboding mission preparation, and emergency radio chatter opening, however, is all unnecessary hype. Rather than showing a murderer switching places with the real pilot over a failed psych test, just begin with the supply run landing at this sheltered assignment and leave the ulterior intentions unknown. The duo here has chosen this cool but behind schedule hydroponics lab with its artificially blue tinted water and green lit plants, and of course the talk of never having been to earth or how nice it would be to go outside and breathe real air happens in the shower! Such sheer robes, nudity, sex, and drug experimentation stir the tense dynamic between this older gent, younger woman, and new younger man amid ominous device sounds and spying on the monitors by all parties. Weird scene transitions and epic music at the wrong times under estimate the mature audience and don't need to try so hard when our newcomer is unmistakably blunt about his desire; jacking in interfaces, blasting hoses, and sliding the giant head in and out of the robot cavity make for better symbolism. He's building this demigod robot with brain tissue and advanced connections to replace half the couple – who overhear this obsolete talk and fear the end of their idyllic. Can they toss their problems out the airlock or will kindness be their undoing? Scary injuries, creepy surgeries, and dogs in peril are well-filmed tense when the cast is allowed to stew, argue over who has the more violent tendencies, or foolishly think one of them can control such intelligent machinery. Again, knowing the new guy and his toy are trigger happy takes away some of the fun when playing chess with the machine leads to something more sinister, but our sassy robot with the laughably tiny little head and giant oversize body takes charge with a creepy machine re-assembly. References to Hector, Troy, and the original fight over a woman accent the man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself conflicts while a touch of blood and gore add danger. Did we need the robot terror on top of the chilling human story? The narrative unevenly wastes time with the commonplace machine chase instead of dealing with the personal elements, meandering with random running down the hallways and under the deck grate attacks that ironically give Aliens inspiration. Editing or behind the scenes troubles are apparent and an expected twist that should have come much sooner pads the final twenty minutes with spectacle when the taut science fiction triangle is interplay enough. Although its flaws prevent this from being a totally well told SF parable, the juicy defeat of man at his own science remains late night entertainment.

Should Have Been Better

The Kettering Incident – Lovely forestry, mysterious lights, hooting owls, mountain fog, and past abductions open this 2016 eight episode Australian series starring Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager) before London blackouts, nosebleeds, and creepy phone messages. Journal entries record the hours missing, but security footage captures actions unknown amid strobe sounds, distorted camerawork, and unaware travels to eerie Tasmania. Aurora Australis, frozen birds, and UFO snowglobes in the general store add to the awkward homecoming, bizarre happenings, threatening letters, and small town who is who as local pubs versus bonfire raves reflect generational clashes and radical environmentalists protest the logging industry. Older homes, dusty case files, big computers, and the often down internet create a backwater mood as newspaper clippings, retro tunes, and decades old unsolved crimes lead to more abductions, hidden drugs, crooked cops, and under the table deals. Thunderstorms, reflections, ruins on the ridge, hazy dreams, and surreal colors askew nature while affairs, police egos, power outages, strange science, and cancer diagnoses divide the community. Cover ups, stonewalled investigations, phantom blood samples, and tense family relations interfere as mysterious rashes spread and moss grows indoors. Dogs turn on their owners, rare plants bloom, and high radiation counts contaminate fish, but ghostly static on the radio, chainsaw mishaps, night vision goggles, and geophysicist readings uncover catatonics and whispers of who knows what. Desperate men – accustomed to ruling over disposable daughters and drinking mothers or bar maids useful only for hitting, cooking, or sex – take matters into their own hands despite electromagnetic fears, screams in the woods, poison bogs, altered blood types, and multiple moons. From the ill but edgy cops and doctors to missing girls and suspicious sleepy inlets, unfortunately, this has a lot of cliches often seen in commonwealth television. Lacking procedures, tainted crimes scenes, and cryptic doctors bend for plot conveniences, and our lead isn't piecing the case together but preposterously meddling as dramatic effect requires. While it's pleasing to see strung out and realistic looking people; no one asks how everything is interconnected nor shares information. If they worked together, the mystery would be solved in six episodes. Instead, Lost style montages, red herrings, and tangents pad the weird occurrences, delaying important clues and stretching disbelief as smart police and scientists are made stupid with unaccounted for people sans alibis, fingerprint clues, and stolen evidence ignored. This isn't billed as science fiction, so the straying focus and point of view changes become window dressing as Antarctic connections and Dyatlov Pass similarities are tossed in with unnecessary sex scenes. Apparently, people won't share information unless they have sex, the hermit in the woods is never questioned, and established information is literally forgotten until the final hour. Dramatic asylum cliffhangers are easily resolved, and never held suspects unravel the intriguing underground evidence, craters, stolen weapons, and bio tech company bribes. Voiceovers resolve actions and revelations that were obvious all along – telling events rather than having the lead discover anything for herself. Maybe the lack of communication is part of the moral here, but the unlikable dumbing down and bait and switch genres take on too much flab. Empty shocks meant to sustain weekly viewing are better to binge marathon, for this doesn't know who its audience is and therefore underestimates not one, but two potential viewing groups in anticipation of a second season to explain everything. Those expecting a crime thriller will find the science fiction outcome annoying, and today's sci-fi audiences will be irritated at the slow potboiler pace not putting the fantastic at the forefront.

A Disappointing Skip

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – The themes, pacing, and characters for this 2017 Episode VIII from writer and director Rian Johnson (Looper) are very disjointed. John Boyega, newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, and Benico del Toro (The Wolfman) are lost in an irrelevant subplot of intergalactic casino races, contrived theft, and star destroyer stealth attacks made useless by The Resistance's slow crawl through space. Domhnall Gleeson's cranky General Hux doesn't so much pick off the fleet as they merely sacrifice themselves one by one with dumb counter attacks while purple haired Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) is wasted and Oscar Isaac does little but redundantly repeat the elder ladies' jejune wisdoms. There were several moments to fittingly send off the late Carrie Fisher, but instead, The Force goes even further beyond what we ever thought its mystical capabilities were. Daisy Ridley's Rey and the utterly lame Kylo Ren play telepathic footsie for most of the movie – I really hope they aren't related – while poor Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker is sort of there...maybe. Too many characters old and new enter or exit without deserving time. For all the female fronting, the cardboard women tropes are obviously written by a man and don't seem like characters in their own right. Each is defined by what the men around them need – sacrificing, motherly, crushes, babes blowing on dice, or alien maids. Even Leia is repeatedly stressed as Luke's sister being her most important value. Gwendoline Christie's tough Captain Phasma is easily defeated in one scene, and CGI covered Lupita Nyong'o is reduced to a hologram call. More silly animated animals, easily dismissed villains, and lengthy purely for the spectacle sequences litter the screen while a major female character's narrow escape from an exploding ship on a stolen shuttle is told by another male character rather than shown. Although rebel numbers dwindle constantly, there are somehow plenty of people to keep fighting while the overlong two and a half hours plus battles over whether the space action or Jedi plot is more important. Despite so many should be enjoyable people and dazzling designs, this is incredibly busy for being so boring. It's also disappointing, even angering, to hear there is no overall trilogy sequel plan and that each director can do his own thing – leaving these films to meander as long as it pleases Disney to manipulate Star Wars fans. In low budget horror, problems arise when one writer/director has no second checks or balances, and this makes for expensive, glaring issues here amid lifted elements of Empire and Return of the Jedi as Last tries to be a personal middle a la The Two Towers but grasps for air rather than giving us anything to hold. I'm still nicknaming VI as just Jedi and shortening this to Last – as in the last Star Wars movie I'll see at the box office for the foreseeable future. The rehashed but recognizably fun Episode VII launched something new and Rogue One came full circle where we never knew possible. I'm still thinking of this one, but for all the wrong reasons, and I wish we just had The Thrawn trilogy as films instead.

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