Five Sci-Fi Films that Define the Genre

dave bowman gazes with wonder, 2001: A Space OdysseyI’ve watched a lot of movies with my children and find it great fun to see the films through their fresh eyes with their oh-so-modern sensibilities. A few weeks ago I cracked out one of the best sci-fi films ever made and enjoyed it again with my 17 year old daughter: Alien. She was a bit unsure at the beginning, but was completely caught up by the time the creature bursts out of Kane (John Hurt)’s chest cavity. “This is really good for such an old movie!” she exclaimed and even had trouble falling asleep after it ended. The mark of a good film, I say!

Watching Alien with her started me thinking about what other films I’d like to share with her, films that combined form the foundation of the science fiction genre. It’s easy to come up with 15, 20, or more movies to watch, but what if it’s just limited to five movies? What are the best films that set up a younger viewer to appreciate the best of science fiction?

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MoviePass: A Film Lover’s Dream

moviepass!If you’re as enthused about movies and cinema as I am, then you probably find yourself at the local movie theater a half-dozen or more times each month. Skip the popcorn and soda, aim for the afternoon screenings instead of Friday or Saturday night, and it still adds up pretty darn fast. Still, so many films are far better on the big screen than they are on TV, even with a fancy home theater setup. Movies are designed to be big and loud, with 11-speaker systems or more, so compressing it onto your 38″ HDTV will never offer the same experience.

Enter MoviePass. For a flat $35/month, it lets you see up to 30 movies each month at the movie theater of your choice, even your local cineplex. Heck, even if you only make it to the movies every Saturday evening, that’s still over $50 in movie tickets…

MoviePass is both a credit card (it’s a branded Discover card, if you look closely) and a smartphone app, so you’ll need an iPhone or Android phone for the program to work. When you want to see a movie, you find the movie, theater and correct screening in the app and when you’re close, you check in and the card is activated for the value of a movie ticket.

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Review: The Immortal Augustus Gladstone

the immortal augustus gladstone one sheet posterIn a documentary style that adroitly switches between between a film about a delusional homeless man named Augustus Gladstone (played by writer and director Robyn C. Miller) and a film about the team making a documentary about Augustus, The Immortal Augustus Gladstone alternatively intrigues and bores with its uneven pace and over-reliance on first-person interviews in lieu of narrative.

Augustus claims that he’s about 150 years old and that his youthful appearance is because he’s a vampire. But is he? A gentle man whose home is tucked in the middle of a condemned hotel in downtown Portland, Oregon, he doesn’t appear to eat or sleep.

As he shares tales of his adventures in the early 1900s, the film crew (Mischa Jakupcak and Matt Daniels, playing themselves) becomes unsure whether they’re making a documentary about a homeless man in Portland or whether there’s more to the story, whether Augustus might just be what he casually suggests is the case: a vampire.

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Review: Noah

Noah Movie one sheet posterLet’s start with my creative retitling of the epic drama Noah from director Darren Aronofsky. I suggest that it makes more sense as Transformers: Revenge of the Righteous. Yes, somehow a film about a guy who gets a message from God that tells him to build a huge ship to rescue every animal because a storm of, well, Biblical proportions is on the way has been turned into a fantasy epic complete with 15-foot tall rock creatures called the Watchers and a remarkably self-contained Ark that could just as easily have been shooting through space as the ship from 1972′s classic Silent Running.

The element that I just can’t wrap my mind around is the addition of the giant Watchers. They’re inspired by the Biblical Nephilim, except in the Bible these fallen angels are described as heroic and able to mate with humans. In Noah, however, they resemble the ugly love children of an Autobot and The Thing from The Fantastic Four. And they’re just bizarre.

The story is loosely based on the Bible tale, with Noah the last descendent of Seth, one of the three sons of Adam and Eve (the other two are Cain and Abel, the former of whom murdered the latter), being chosen by God to save his family and all the innocent animals of the Earth from the apocalypse. We’ve seen this one before on screen, and in one scene when Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) fights off thousands of scroungy locals with his staff of power, it’s a scene that seems inspired by Gandalf’s epic staff slam and “You! Shall! Not! Pass!”

Noah (Russell Crowe) is married to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and they have three boys, Ham (Logan Lerman), Shem (Douglas Booth) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). In the original story each has a wife, but in the film there’s only one woman along for the journey, the rescued orphan Ila (Emma Watson). The lack of women causes great dramatic tension, as does the presence of the evil tribal king Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who sneaks aboard the ship in a highly improbable manner and hides in the furthest reaches until a climactic – and predictable – mano-a-mano battle with Noah himself.

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Review: Sabotage

sabotage movie one sheet posterSabotage is a a horrible, bloody mess. As a critic, I always try to say something nice about a film but every so often I’m dumbfounded by how bad a movie is and marvel how it could have been green-lit by the studio in the first place. Sure, Sabotage has a solid cast with the former Governator himself Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role as Breacher, the tough-as-nails (of course) leader of an elite DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) task force, but there’s not a single character in this film that’s pleasant, not one person that anyone will identify with.

We have the requisite cast of hyper-violent and aggressive misfits — including Monster (Sam Worthington, a standout performance in a muddy mess of a film), Grinder (Joe Manganiello), Neck (Josh Holloway), Sugar (a somewhat wasted Terrence Howard), Pyro (Max Martini), Tripod (Kevin Vance) and Smoke (Mark Schlegel) — but they’re all unpleasant and disposable characters. The desire was there, but the film never comes together as a quasi-military “band of brothers” movie.

Then there’s the bizarre role that Lizzy (Mireille Enos) plays in the film. She’s married to Monster but is such a horrible, foul-mouthed drug-addict loser that it’s hard to imagine how anyone would find her worth the time of day, let alone m attractive. And her story arc? Inexplicable.

Even director David Ayer acknowledges the problem in the film’s production notes when he explains “Breacher and his team aren’t exactly morally centered… it’s not necessarily clear who’s who at any given point”. Well yeah. But a film where everyone is in it for themselves and where the rallying cry of “we’re a family” is just wasted air because each person’s completely self-absorbed, that moral ambiguity means that we just don’t care about any of them.

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Review: Divergent

divergent movie poster one sheetSome teen-focused films turn out to be wonderful entertainment for all ages in the audience, like the extraordinary 8-film Harry Potter series and, to a lesser extent, The Hunger Games movies. Then there are films that only a teen can love, like the ghastly Twilight series. I couldn’t even finish watching the first film in that series, though, so I don’t know, they might have gotten dramatically better as the series progressed. Maybe.

Divergent is somewhere in the middle, a competently assembled film from a shallow but interesting best-selling book by Veronica Roth that features all the fascist, dystopian tropes you’d expect from a post-nuclear holocaust, along with a mix of decent and mediocre acting. Divergent takes place in a walled-off Chicago at some unknown period in the future. Lake Michigan has dried up so Navy Pier thrusts out into fields of mud and scrub plants. The Chicago River is also dried up, and most of the skyscrapers show significant damage and have massive wind turbines attached to their edges to, presumably, generate electricity.

To keep society under control, adults are sorted into one of five different factions: Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity and Candor. Dauntless are the soldiers and peace keepers, Abnegation are the selfless, helping the factionless and shunning material goods, including the vanity of mirrors, Erudite are the academics, the center of learning and research, Amity are the peace-lovers, the farmers who happily tend the soil, and Candor are the honest and truthful, the center of justice in this post-modern world. Government is run by the Abnegation council, but the Erudite scheme to overthrow them and run the city-state for its own benefit.

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Review: Stalingrad (Сталинград)

stalingrad movie one sheetThere’s something fascinating about movies set during wartime.  Some of the best movies ever made are set during war, often World War II. The most recent American film related to WWII, however, was the slick but lackluster The Monuments Men [see my review of The Monuments Men]. War isn’t pretty, though, which is why the films, like Saving Private Ryan, Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, are gripping, anxiety-provoking and even frightening to watch.

Add the new Russian-language release Stalingrad (known in Russian as Сталинград) to this list. It takes place during the middle of the bloodiest battle in human history, the occupation of Stalingrad by the Germany army mid-way through WWII. As with all great war films, it starts out large, with thousands of Russian troops crossing the Volga river to try and retake their city then focuses on a very small group of people trying to make sense of their experience and the senselessness of battle.

The film starts during rescue efforts post-tsunami in modern-day Japan, with a mysterious Russian man telling a trapped young woman that he had five fathers. Five? How can that be? The main story takes place during the historic 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, and it’s his mother Katya (Maria Smolnikova) who met and befriended a small group of Russian soldiers during the battle.

The Russians desperately trying to cross the Volga so they can sneak into the city and commandeer the oil and gas reserves. But the Germans hold their hard won territory with a furious intensity and at great cost in a sweeping battle sequence reminiscent of the extraordinary landing on Normandy Beach in Saving Private Ryan. A small group of Russians led by Kapitan Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) survive the crossing and claim a strategically positioned, half-destroyed building on the edge of the city.

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Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

300: Rise of an Empire one sheet posterIf you’ve seen the 2006 surprise hit 300, you’ve basically seen 300: Rise of an Empire. This time, however, it’s not Greek King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who is sacrificing everything for Sparta against the evil Persian god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) but Greek battle commander Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) sacrificing everything against, yes, Xerxes and the invading Persians.

300: Rise of an Empire basically takes place concurrently with the original 300 movie, where early in the film they reference Leonidas and then later observe that he was slaughtered, along with Sparta’s 300 finest warriors in the ongoing fight against those pesky Persians. But Sparta is fiercely independent and has no interest in a United Greece, even to being uninterested in joining arms to defend against the Persian hordes.

This time we learn that the gorgeous but evil Artemisia (a tough/sexy Eva Green) is the puppet master behind the transformation of mortal turned God Xerxes and it’s she who leads the massive Persian army against the Greeks, to defeat after defeat. Turns out she’s got the numbers but wily Greek Themistokles has her beat on strategy and tactics. Bummer.

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Review: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

mr peabody and sherman one sheet movie posterI always enjoyed the edgy humor of the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, even though much of its cold war-inspired humor was way over my head. Like many of its contemporary animated shows, Rocky & Bullwinkle had other characters that would star in their own adventures, usually neat, self-container 5-10 minute stories, and most engaging among those were the peculiar time-traveling journeys of über-smart dog Mr. Peabody and his adopted human son Sherman. Yes, “dog adopts boy”.

The 2000 live-action Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, with Rene Russo as Russian vamp Natasha and Jason Alexander as her dim Soviet sidekick Boris, however, was horrible. Yikes. Well worth avoiding.

The Dreamworks update of the witty dog and his boy story Mr. Peabody & Sherman, however, retains the wackiness and smarts of the original cartoon and is a delight throughout, a movie that gives the kids lots of kinetic visuals and sight gags to enjoy while simultaneously entertaining us adults with its puns and subtle references to many, many other films.

Directed by Rob Minkoff, the dog Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a savant with the “genius of Einstein, the wit of Oscar Wilde, the daring of Indiana Jones, the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes, the sartorial style of James Bond and the culinary skills of Mario Batali”. But his greatest challenge, one that all parents know well, is being a good parent.

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Commentary: Why Don’t Movie Heroes Use Disguises?

I’m watching the 1996 film Chain Reaction, starring a young Keanu Reeves and while it’s not too bad as an actioner, there’s a trope that appears in the film that drives me crazy. What’s worse, it happens over and over again in even otherwise decent films: the hero’s in trouble, their photo shows up on TV, and they run, propelling the story forward.

And then won’t adopt even the most meager disguise.

chain reaction publicity photo

Weis and Reeves on the run in “Chain Reaction”

What the deuce?

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