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Tag Archives: sci-fi movies

(Review) The Cloverfield Paradox

Entertainment 150It’s weird to realize that Cloverfield is ten years old this year, mostly because there are still so many questions I want to be answered. Where did Clover (the nickname given to the kaiju) really come from? What was the deal with those parasites, and why did they cause people to explode? Was the brief moment of capturing another guy filming on the Brooklyn Bridge really a seed planted for a possible sequel? What happened after the bombing in New York???

So when Netflix aired a trailer during the Super Bowl promising we would get some answers in a surprise sequel they’d make available right after the game, something short-circuited in my brain. I’m not going to lie, JJ Abrams’ brand of viral “mystery box” marketing is made for pop-culture obsessives like me, and this worked like a charm. I even made my poor, long-suffering husband leave our Super Bowl party early so we could go straight home and watch The Cloverfield Paradox. The chance to be in on the ground floor of this genre “event” was just too good to pass up, but I probably should have.

The Cloverfield Paradox was, for the longest time, a different movie entirely called The God Particle. The basic premise was the same — above a near-future Earth desperate to solve its energy crisis, scientists aboard a space station turn on an enormous particle accelerator and cause the planet below to simply disappear. It’s a killer hook, and when I heard that it would possibly be the third film in the anthology of films the Cloverfield franchise would eventually become I thought it would be a good fit. Unfortunately, Abrams and company decided to make The God Particle and the previous Cloverfield film part of a connected meta-story and this is where it goes wrong.

It’s impossible to talk about the film without talking about the marketing behind it. The original Cloverfield had a masterful marketing campaign, shrouding just about everything in the movie in mystery while teasing tiny droplets of information and connections through obscure websites and weird videos posted online. While it wasn’t the very first movie to build mystique through the internet (I’m looking at you, The Blair Witch Project), it was one of the biggest to do so and kind of formed the template for the modern Abrams hype machine. With The Cloverfield Paradox, announcing the film during the Super Bowl and making it available right afterward tapped into that same feeling of mystery and excitement while updating it for an audience that had gotten several surprise album drops over the last few years. This was the first time a movie studio surprise-dropped a sequel, though, and it could have been one of those things that signaled a fundamental shift in how films are released. The gambit only works, though, is the movie is good.

I’m sorry to say The Cloverfield Paradox is not good. By shoehorning The God Particle into this universe the writers took an intriguing premise and stuffed it with bad pseudo-science that insults the intelligence of its audience, moments of weird for the sake of being weird, and head-scratching moments that frustrate more than they surprise. Worse yet, The Cloverfield Paradox takes the shine off the mystery-box model and reveals how hollow that hype machine can be. Perhaps worst of all, it wastes the talents of an amazing, diverse cast including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Chris O’Dowd and Zhang Ziyi.

I do have to give props to Abrams for tapping neophyte Nigerian director Julius Onah for the film, and for centering Mbatha-Raw as its leading actor. How many sci-fi movies do you see with a black woman as the main character? Hopefully, a lot more, because she is probably the best thing here. Even with all of the inexplicable craziness decimating the crew around her, Mbatha-Raw’s Ava manages to hold the story and keep it somewhat grounded in real human motivation. Her supporting cast does its best to roll with the twist and turns of the story, but ultimately they’re defeated by a script more concerned with shocking its audience than telling an entertaining or coherent story.

Ava Hamilton is one of a number of scientists aboard the Cloverfield Station when it disappears after a successful particle accelerator test turns out to be…not so successful. Meanwhile, the husband she left behind on Earth has his own disaster to deal with — an unknown event has destroyed much of the city he lives in. The set-up is the best part, and when the first act turns on the terrible thing that unleashes chaos on the station and the planet, it’s easy to get hooked by all of the questions it raises.

Except The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t interested in providing engaging answers here. After the scientists discover they’re in another dimension weird things happen to the crew that can’t be explained by that: Volkov’s eye suddenly goes into business for itself and he talks to himself in a mirror; the ship tries to straight-up eat chief engineer Mundy (O’Dowd); an Amazonian blond is discovered fused with the wiring behind a wall; the station’s gyroscope is found in the last place you’d expect to see it. Almost none of this is explained through the rest of the action, because the scientists are picked off one by one in ways you’ve seen done better in other sci-fi horror movies.

Back on Earth, Ava’s husband Michael (Roger Davies) isn’t faring much better. He’s basically stuck trying to explain this movie’s connection to Cloverfield in one-sided phone conversations, staring into the dark and smoke of his ruined city, or laughing with kids in old videos that Ava watches. We cut to him at weird times, so it’s hard to be really interested in his subplot — we just want to know what the heck is going on with the station. Ultimately he sets up the final stinger in the movie, one last surprise that denies anyone a happy ending. By that time, your disbelief isn’t so much suspended as assaulted and thrown in a ditch. Oh, that happened? Sure, why not?

I really wish The Cloverfield Paradox was a better movie than it turned out to be. The franchise could have been the heir apparent to thoughtful, twisty sci-fi adventure that’s been sorely missing in pop culture for some time now; instead, it looks like Paramount, Bad Robot and Netflix tried to make lemonade out of a botched story that wasn’t good enough to release in theatres. The actors, director, and audience deserved better.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2018 in Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Star Wars (#15)

Entertainment 150Star Wars (1977)
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher
Written and Directed by George Lucas

What could I say about this movie that hasn’t been said before? The impact of this space fantasy epic can’t really be understated. It provided a template for science fiction movies to follow for a long time to come, and the universe first seen here is still alive and passionately followed today, over 35 years after its release. An entire generation of geeks (myself included) know all about the exploits of Luke Skywalker and his cohorts; the story of the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance has nearly reached the level of modern myth.

A long long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away there was a band of rebels fighting an evil Empire that had nearly total control over a vast galactic civilization filled with thousands of sentient species numbering in the trillions of souls. A confluence of events brought young farmer Luke Skywalker (Hamill) into the conflict, pairing him with an old recluse who belonged to an ancient and mystical order, a princess and leader of the rebel organization, a selfish mercenary and his tall, furry alien co-pilot. Together, they discovered the Empire’s new weapon of terrible power — capable of destroying entire planets in one shot — and worked to destroy it, turning the tide of the fight towards the rebels for the first time.

Everyone knows this story, and most of us know how this story came to be. Or at least, we’ve heard apocryphal versions of it. When we think of Star Wars we tend to think of the entire trilogy of films as a single work, but most of the really iconic stuff is yet to come. Luke’s battle with Darth Vader doesn’t happen until The Empire Strikes Back, and Vader’s redemption doesn’t come until the final film, Return of the Jedi. Both are excellent in their own right, but let’s take a look at the original movie on its own terms. Star Wars as a standalone story is actually fun to pick apart; there’s a lot of interesting stuff there.

I’m sure this has been mentioned elsewhere, but Luke really isn’t the main character of the story. He doesn’t appear until about 30 minutes in, and he doesn’t have an arc to speak of. He doesn’t grow or change through his experiences. He starts out as a young farm-hand itching to get off of his planet and have cool adventures in space, and that’s precisely what happens. He’s taught to be a Jedi, uses his newfound understanding of the Universe to beat the bad guys, and goes home. Nothing to it! There’s not much in the way of personal stakes there. Han Solo, on the other hand…

When we meet Han, it’s in a wretched hive of scum and villainy; he’s willing to con just about anyone to get out ahead of any meeting he’s in, and he doesn’t join Obi-Wan and Luke for any reason other than payment. It’s a real struggle for him to stick with the gang when things get tough. At least on the surface, he’s only into the idea of getting paid. Gradually, however, he comes to value the relationships he’s formed over the course of the movie and even comes back to join in the rebel’s final, desperate fight. It’s a completely selfless act that signifies deep and lasting character growth. Even though Luke is hailed as the hero and gets the final shot that takes down the Death Star, Han is the person who allows that to happen. Han’s the true protagonist of Star Wars here, and Luke is more of a catalyst for his journey.

The story, overall, is relatively simple, but that’s not where the magic is. George Lucas has a fairly good grasp of the film’s structure and pacing, so he hits all of the beats he needs to exactly when he needs to hit them. Besides that, the movie simply LOOKS gorgeous, and it treats us to a science-fiction landscape that’s still unique to this day. The settings look fantastic yet lived-in, really grounding the world and enabling us to get invested in it. Everything looks real, functional. The tech — light-years beyond anything we could have dreamed at the time — looks beaten up and sometimes barely works.

Even today it’s difficult to find a movie — especially a science fiction film — that blends the fantastic and the mundane quite that well. I think that’s one of the reasons Joss Whedon’s Firefly is so beloved — it manages to make a fantastic universe that feels….used. And that makes us all the more excited for it, because it’s easier for us to imagine living there, eating the food, drinking exotic alcohols, feeling the heat and dust and fabric we use to protect ourselves from it. Lucas managed to create a movie that encourages our imagination to fill the world beyond the screen. That’s the lightning in a bottle Star Wars captured.

It’s by no means a perfect movie, but it’s a vastly entertaining one. Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill have a great chemistry together, and it’s enough for us to overlook the many shortcomings in the script and direction. It’s easy to see Star Wars as the skeleton on which an entire universe was fleshed out, and that’s largely true. But taking a moment to appreciate the construction of the foundation is a worthy exercise just the same.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey (#22)

Entertainment 1502001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Starring Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood and William Sylvester
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

A tribe of apes scratch out a marginal existence somewhere on prehistoric Earth. They have a bad day; one of their number is killed by a predator, then they are driven from their watering hole by a bigger, more aggressive tribe. They fall asleep in a small crater, and when they wake up they find a black monolith looming over them. It is a perfect rectangle, unnaturally straight, featureless — purposefully so. At first, the apes freak out. Then they touch it, explore it, and, when it doesn’t do anything, ignore it.

While playing in a spot where some other animals have laid down to die, one ape has an epiphany. He curls his fingers around a long bone, picks it up, brings it down. Other bones scatter and break. At first, you’re not sure if the ape realizes what he’s stumbled upon, but as the music swells he begins to slam the bone again and again with more purpose and vigor. From there, his tribe kills animals for food and successfully drives off this other tribe from their watering hole. Overjoyed, the ape flings the bone high into the air. Cut to a space station, a long white cylinder with knobs on the end that makes it look sort of like a bone.

So this is how 2001 opens, bridging the dawn of Man as we know it with the beginning of Man’s end. We learn soon enough that another monolith has been found on the Moon, and as soon as the astronauts who study it take a picture they’re paralyzed by a high-pitch radio screech apparently sent to Jupiter. Eighteen months later, the Discovery One is sent to investigate.

The Discovery One is manned by only two astronauts, Dave Bowman (Dullea) and Frank Poole (Lockwood), and an artificial intelligence named HAL-9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). HAL is one of the most memorable (and earliest) AIs in film, and his breakdown is legend. Concerned by the conversation of the astronauts about his fitness to remain operational, HAL kills Poole and attempts to exile Dave to deep space. Since this is the part of the film with the most dialogue and action, this is the part that most of us remember.

But HAL’s section of the movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What does HAL’s sabotage of the astronauts mean in the broader scheme of the narrative? What are we supposed to take from it? It’s a huge piece of the puzzle, but it’s only a piece. From what I’ve read about the film, Kubrick invites the audience to take what they want from it, so here we go. This is my stab at it.

One of the things that sets man apart as a sentient life-form is his use of tools. The movie notes this with the opening sequence by marrying the rise of primitive apes with the arrival of the Monolith; soon afterward, the ape discovers that a bone could be used for something. And it’s used immediately for violent ends — the ape goes on to kill an animal for food, and kill the leader of a rival tribe for resources. That stamps the template for man’s use of tools through thousands of years of evolution; almost everything we make is for the purpose of controlling our environment and eliminating our rivals.

In the far-flung future of the movie, we’ve done great things with our tools — but they’re only going to be as good as we are, and it’s clear that we’ve reached the pinnacle of our development. The HAL series is a tremendous AI, capable of managing a vast array of processes and calculations. Yet we expect it to be absolutely perfect. At the first sign of error, Bowman and Poole have a serious discussion about shutting down HAL for the rest of the mission — in effect, killing him. Is it possible for an imperfect being to create something completely without error? I wouldn’t think so. In addition to the huge burden of keeping Bowman, Poole and the other astronauts in stasis alive, HAL is expected to monitor and even predict any possible breakdown of equipment.

In an interview with the BBC, Bowman and Poole posit that HAL seems like it has emotions, yet there’s no way to know for sure. I’d argue that it does — any creation of ours with sufficient complexity is bound to behave like us. Perhaps an advanced enough AI will begin to exhibit signs of human emotion in addition to intelligence as we understand it. Would we understand where and how that emotion developed? Of course not. Most of us barely understand our own emotions, and it’s all but impossible to understand those of our fellow human beings. It’d be no different for an artificial intelligence with a tremendously complex make-up.

That being said, anyone given enormous power, responsibility and expectation is bound to crack under the strain of it. I imagine that HAL simply had a breakdown caused by a consciousness that it was never equipped to deal with. When it says that any mistake it makes is the cause of “human error,” I’m inclined to believe it. Even if the error originated with HAL, it’s because of our frequent inability to understand the tools we use.

The ape at the beginning of the film barely understood what it was doing with its bone — it only knew that it could use it to eliminate threats and preserve itself. Perhaps this ancient instinct was instilled in HAL as well. When faced with the impossible task of being perfect at the cost of its life, it used any and every tool at its disposal to eliminate a threat and preserve itself. Constructed by humans to manage an enormous amount of control, it proved better at doing that then Bowman could have anticipated.

Of course, Bowman survived; HAL was disabled and humanity turned back the challenge of its dominance. But the danger is plain. If this happened with HAL, it would almost surely happen with subsequent AI. The flaws of humanity would continue to be present in the tools it made, and as those tools grew more powerful, the chances of catastrophic failure proved to be too great to ignore. It was time for another change.

Bowman was the first to receive this mammoth kick-start to humanity’s evolution. Just as the ape with the bone transferred knowledge to its brothers that shifted the paradigm and sparked thousands of years of progress, Bowman alone walked into unknowable territory, experienced wonders and terrors, and came back to spread the knowledge of what he had seen to the rest of his tribe. One cycle closed, and we saw the glimpse of what came next.

2001 is a fascinating film to me. Kubrick’s direction is sparse, spare and dry; the sets are bare, almost austere, and every moment feels expansive, almost mythic in nature. I’d like to think of it as a reaction against A Clockwork Orange, which was the film he directed right before it — tired of the trash and noise of dystopian London, he wanted to spend time in vacuum-clean rooms, mute people and grand ideas. It amazes me that it feels like he’s at home in the Discovery One as well as Alex DeLarge’s tiny, messy room.

It’s easy to be frustrated and bored with the movie. Kubrick strips out everything except for his themes, then stretches out that theme over more than two hours. Each sequence is so atmospheric it’s hard to take a high-level view, to think of it as a part of a whole, to imagine how it relates to what’s come before and what comes afterward. It’s interesting that he encourages us to focus on what’s in front of us without then pushing us to consider what it all means in a grand sense. The music cues us to when something grand or unsettling is taking place in extremely effective ways. The sudden appearance of the monoliths are always creepy because of the discordant, nervous music buzzing in our ears. The swell of music during the ape’s discovery of bone as tool and Bowman’s return to Earth as the Star Child links those moments thematically, bookending the movie quite nicely.

2001 might be a little more fun to talk about than to watch, but it’s definitely worth the viewing. Just…be sure that you’re prepared for a very long, quiet experience.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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