Tag Archives: sci-fi

Way late review: The Hunger Games


Young adult fiction is popular these days, for better or worse. The young adults who read it, obsess over it and turn out in mass for movies based on the source material aren’t always so young. The obsession over and popularity of a series like The Hunger Games makes it difficult to create a good flick. Fans these days tend to demand a faithfulness to the source or they’ll riot, digitally of course, but still. I’m in the envious position of never having read any of the three books. After all, my favorite novel is: I’ll wait for the movie. I consider this a blessing when taking in movies based on modern day popular books. I’m more interested in a good film than allegiance to the author’s writings.

The story behind the film is not completely original. I won’t mention other films which have used similar narratives before because it doesn’t matter. It’s not unlike those who bemoan the cycle of bands whose only purpose seems to be to reinvent what came before. The complaint is one of, why bother? What is missed is that it may have been done before but not for this audience, not by this set of artists. I view The Hunger Games in a similar manner. The story is an interesting one regardless of its originality or lack thereof.

The future is not looking bright. It’s dystopian outside and the select few with wealth and power lord it over the rest. The capitol city is bright, high gloss, wine and dine. The surrounding districts are dark and dingy. In celebration of society’s survival from a nuclear fallout there is a televised competition in which two kids from each district are randomly selected to compete. First prize is you live another day. Second prize is you’re dead. Fairly simple rules, if not the greatest way to commemorate mankind’s continued existence.

Long story short, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister who was picked. She and Peeta represent their district. They train and put on a show to win support of those watching. Viewers can provide help during the competition, though how this is done is not clear, it simply happens. The games begin and lots of kids are killed. For those disturbed by this tale being for a younger audience I will point out that fairy tales could be pretty gruesome as well. Granted, the deaths didn’t normally involved knives, swords, genetically modified dogs and insects, but there were plenty of children meeting their early demise in stories much older than The Hunger Games.

The vast difference of the world between those in the capitol city and those outside it are interesting. Those on the inside wear garish costumes while those on the outside are perfectly dressed for a Charles Dickens novel. The outside districts are about harvesting raw materials to keep those in the high tech city moving along. The dichotomy is intentional if not a little too on the nose. No matter, it’s made clear there are two classes in this society and one is there to work for the other. One class is so subservient it offers up its children to the world’s worst reality TV show.

Katniss is a teenage girl capable of taking care of herself. Early on we see how she moves fluently through the forest hunting food for family. She is convinced no one is looking out for her good. She probably has a point. Every year she lines up waiting to hear her name called for the honor to battle other kids to the death on television. When she discovers one of the keys to surviving and winning the game is to win the hearts of those in the audience, it’s as if she’s already lost. She is no nonsense; and pretending to enjoy the experience of being thrown into the lion’s den for entertainment purposes tips the nonsense scale. She and Peeta have advisors who guide them through the process. They attempt to make Katniss and Peeta as different and as winsome as any two competitors have ever been.

Once the games begin the excitement is less than one might expect considering the setup. The action set pieces are mostly not there. The moral dilemmas presented by the competition and the way the (mostly) reluctant participants go about it are often side stepped with quick and easy solutions. Since the focus is mostly on Katniss the other characters seem almost inconsequential, even as they die painful deaths. Thankfully there is enough cat and mouse action to hold interest. And while some have made a big deal about the shaky cam technique being awful, I thought it fit in nicely with the tight focus on Katniss’ story. Then again, I liked Cloverfield. Nothing goes too far off the rails until there are, inexplicably, miraculously created obstacles which appear out of nowhere on command from central control. Apparently we’re in a world where there is still a need for coal and other natural materials, but the ability to create fireballs and monster dogs out of thin air is easy peasy.

There is an unevenness to The Hunger Games, which is at least partially due to there being two more books to cover. The story is good and the execution is solid if not spectacular. Our reluctant heroine holds interest throughout, even in those moments when the parts don’t make a cohesive whole. There is enough here to serve as a good launching point for the next films. Of course, if we’re to read the tea leaves set forth by its predecessors (Harry Potter, Twilight), we’ll likely see more than two films follow this one. For better or worse.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

When I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind a number of years ago for the first time I remember being disappointed. I wanted E.T. and instead I got a bizarre story of a man who sees a UFO and proceeds to lose his mind. Years later I appreciated Spielberg’s first alien movie much more having my expectations reset.

When Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) encounters a UFO, he’s left with a sunburned face, a skeptical family and a shaken psyche. In an attempt to make sense of what he saw, Roy starts seeking out others who’ve had similar “visions”. Among those he finds are a woman, Jillian (Melinda Dillon) who has lost her son to the invaders, and a researcher (Francois Truffaut) preparing for Earth’s first contact with extraterrestrials.

The second act is all about observing a man who appears close to losing his mind. He sees images of a strange mountain that he can’t escape. Everywhere he looks he sees this vision and feels an uncontrollable urge to model it out of everything he can, including mash potatoes and piles of dirt he throws inside his home. His wife loses patience after Roy begins his indoor landscaping project. She and the kids take off. Roy tries to stop them but it’s no use, they’re gone so he continues to build a large model in the middle of his home of the image that’s burned into his mind. The model is built and Roy is no closer to understanding what it is or what it means. He’s lost his family and his sanity until he catches a glimpse of Devil’s Tower on a TV news report. This revelation leads Roy to Wyoming where he meets Jillian.

The government is trying to scare everyone away from the area near Devil’s Tower. They know they’re making contact with alien lifeforms and they don’t want the public to know about it. That doesn’t stop Roy, Jillian and others from making their way to the sacred spot. The army does its best to capture and deport all those who’ve made the trek but Roy and Jillian escape.

The last act is quite long and a bit disappointing after experiencing the full on insanity of knowing what Roy saw and the torment he went through trying to convince himself and others that what he witnessed was real, that it wasn’t the end of the story. What should act as closure feels more like a merciful ending.

Spielberg has commented in the past that he wouldn’t likely end Close Encounters the same way if he was making the movie today. I respect him for admitting this yet still leaving the original film intact unlike some other directors I won’t gratify by mentioning by name who take their prized works of the past and tinker endlessly with them.

Finally, it should be mentioned that this Blu-ray transfer is gorgeous, especially considering the age of the film. It gives me great hope for the release of Jaws, E.T. and the Indiana Jones series on Blu-ray yet this year. If you watch Close Encounters I highly recommend the Blu-ray release. Definitely worth the high-def treatment.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Wait, I thought Tim Burton killed the Ape franchise with his 2001 rendition of the classic. He didn’t succeed. I’m thankful he didn’t because Rise of the Planet of the Apes is close to a perfect sci-fi action flick.

Rather than focus on the human protaganist, Rise takes a fresh approach by making the genetically enhanced, lab born ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis) the center of attention. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist desperately searching for a cure to Alzheimer’s disease. His search is personal, as Will’s dad, Charles (John Lithgow), suffers from the disease. Right away we learn that Will is on to something, as an ape known as “Green Eyes” shows greatly improved intelligence as a result of the proposed cure, ALZ-112. Things turn sour as Green Eyes goes crazy, wrecks havoc on the lab and is shot. The other apes are put down as the company fears ALZ-112 is deeply flawed. Unbeknownst to Will and his co-workers, Green Eyes flipped out trying to protect her newborn. Rather than put the chimp down, Will sneaks him home.

Will quickly learns that Caesar is not an ordinary chimp. Caesar shows signs of incredible intelligence. This leads Will to eventually give his dad ALZ-112 he smuggles from the company. Charles returns to his normal self while Caesar continues to exhibit extraordinary acumen. As years pass Caesar desires to get out of the house, to enjoy life like the children he observes from his attic window. Will takes Caesar to the Redwoods but Caesar soon realizes that he is treated more like a pet than a human. Will breaks down and shows Caesar the building where Caesar was born and his mom died. This moment ultimately leads to Caesar’s descent. He realizes he’s not human yet he’s not just an ape.

Meanwhile, Will notices that his dad’s disease is back with a vengeance. It’s so bad that Charles goes outside one morning, hops in a neighbors running car, and proceeds to smash it into the cars parked in the front and back. The neighbor comes out and freaks out. He yells and gets in Charles’ face. Caesar observes this from the attic window and takes action. This is Caesar’s ticket to the ape sanctuary where Will promises Caesar he’ll be back home soon.

It’s at this point in the film that the ape sanctuary turns into a prison film. Caesar is the new kid on the block. He’s never been around other apes. He doesn’t completely understand apes who are not intelligent like he is. The lessons for him are rough. Caesar is homesick and more confused than ever. The fact that all of this is completely believable with computer animated apes is astonishing. After hearing and reading interviews with cast and production crew members, I’m convinced now more than ever that Andy Serkis should be nominated for a best actor award. His performance mixed with the technology take this movie to new heights.

The ape sanctuary has some of my favorite moments in the film and one of its worst. If Rise is guilty of anything it’s of some over the top archetypes. The most obvious example is Tom Felton playing one of the sanctuary workers. Felton’s performance is so absurd that by the time he utters a famous line from the original movie I simply rolled my eyes. It was completely expected, as Felton proved he was nothing more than the sinister prison guard.

The movie zooms past at an exhilarating speed. There is no time for exposition. The storytelling is precise. Every small moment has a purpose. For example, Caesar draws the attic window on the wall of his cell at the sanctuary only to erase it once he decides he’s going to lead an ape rebellion. Charles’ struggle to play a piano song prior to ALZ-112 and then gracefully playing a composition afterwards. The use of green eyes to show that an ape has been exposed to the cure. All these are small ways that tell the story rather than spend precious time better spent elsewhere.

While Caesar works overtime to put together his plans, Will works overtime to find a new cure for Alzheimer’s and convinces his boss that it’s time to reopen the project. The boss buys in once he learns that Will’s dad showed great improvements for a period of time and Caesar showed increased intelligence. The prospects of a drug that makes you smarter is too much to resist. Will’s boss wants research on apes to return and to go full throttle.

Eventually the big pay off happens. Some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in a long time take place. Awesome action set pieces. One brilliant call back to the original movie. So much good action in the end that we forget that we’re rooting for the end of mankind as we know it.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may not get a lot of love on people’s top films of 2011 but it should. It’s one of those rare sci-fi action films that is so well paced and executed that you forget the challenge it overcame, following a long line of predecessors, many of which weren’t all that good and some that were simply awful.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Jurrasic Park

I’m a Spielberg fan, so it should come as little surprise that I enjoy Jurrasic Park. That’s not to say that Spielberg can do no wrong. But, Jurrasic Park does much more right than wrong.

I’m sure there are endless debates all around the Internet about the science behind Jurrasic Park. Finding dinosaur blood in a mosquito from way back in the day to recreate the DNA and clone dinosaurs sounds like a boring debate waiting to happen. Whether the science is solid or not, the setup to explaining how the park came to be is definitely solid. Rather than drone on with needless exposition we’re taken through an amusement park like ride that explains everything in a brief and entertaining manner. From there we launch into what becomes an action packed thriller full of dinosaurs.

The biggest complaint I can lodge against Jurrasic Park is that everyone we want to survive does and everyone we don’t want to survive doesn’t. It’s an easy out and especially hard to accept when you get scenes like the following. Tim, one of the kids trying to make it back to the headquarters, gets 10,000 volts through him as he hangs on one second too long to the electric fence that regains power. Tim survives the fall and shock. The worst part? His first word is to finish his count, “3″. It’s a terrible scene. Fortunately it’s followed up by a classic game of hide and seek in the park’s industrial kitchen with Tim, his sister Lex and a pair of raptors. That still got me jumping a bit, at least once.

Jurrasic Park is a fun and fast paced movie. The main characters are archetypes but serve their purpose. The drama is never melodramatic and the focus stays where it should – the dangerous journey of trying to escape from an island overrun with dinosaurs. Speaking of dinosaurs, they generally hold up on screen 18 years later which is no small feat. Bad CG or animatronics can ruin the suspense of a film. Jurrasic Park was ahead of its time in that regard. Debate can be had on whether we see too much of the dinosaurs too soon, but there is no denying that the action delivers even though we know exactly what is after our human protagonists.

In the end, it’s a fun blockbuster that doesn’t pretend to be more than that. It’s competent in the areas it needs to be (story and characters) and excels in the other areas (action, computer animation, set pieces). Current day blockbusters would do well to take note.

NOTE: I watched the Blu-ray version this time around. A good but not great looking blu. I’m hoping the great remastering is saved for Spielberg’s true classics that have yet to hit the format.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: I Am Legend

The most common complaint I recall reading or hearing about when I Am Legend came to theaters was that it did not stick to its source material, Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name. It’s a good thing I don’t read much. ;)

Will Smith is Robert Neville, a scientist in the armed forces, who is the lone survivor in New York City as a virus has spread that turns humans in to blood thirsty vampire/zombie creatures (Darkseekers). The virus came about as a result of an astonishing cure for cancer. Neville seems immune to the virus and is frantically at work in his lab to find a cure.

For much of the movie we spend time with Neville and his dog Sam as they navigate in a post-apocalyptic New York City. Wild animals are found roaming the streets. It’s never clear why lions and antelope are racing through the streets of New York city after a few years of a terrible virus wiping out man kind. Neville has his routines and we follow him as he hunts for food, looks for useful items from all the abandoned homes and makes notes of where he’s been. The first thirty minutes of the film are not unlike those in Cast Away where Tom Hanks is on the island all by himself. And, much like Hanks’ performance in Cast Away, Smith pulls off a tough task by being the lone presence on the screen for large amounts of time.

The suspense of I Am Legend is solid until we get too much of a long look at the Darkseekers. The computer animated human mutants feel like animations when the camera focuses for too long on any one of them. This is an example of where it would have likely been better to take J.J. Abrams’ approach to monsters and do your best to hide the details as much as possible. It not only adds to the suspense (at least in this case) but also covers up some shoddy animated creatures.

I don’t want to go into spoilers, but I will say that one surprising complaint I heard about this film is the overt religious overtones. There is no doubt, they are there and maybe caused me to think a bit deeper about some of the themes. At its core, I Am Legend is an action thriller film but overcomes some poor special effects and potentially baffling plot lines with a solid lead by Will Smith, a quieter than normal first act, and a story that asks viewers to think a bit more than the usual summer blockbuster flick.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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