Tag Archives: sci-fi

Movie Review: Area 51 (2015)

Area 51

There was a time I was semi-obsessed with Area 51, the alleged secret US military base in the Nevada desert where alien secrets dating back to Roswell are said to be stashed. And so I thought I’d give the film Area 51 with an attitude akin to how I approach UFO sightings these days — sceptical but hopeful.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to be even worse than what I thought it would be. In short, Area 51 epitomises everything wrong with the found footage sub-genre. It uses every trite tactic in the book, looks cheap, feels cheaper, uses little-known actors to play stock characters spewing pathetic dialogue, and most of all, offers zero scares, thrills or creativity.

The premise is as formulaic as you imagined. A bunch of young people decide to break into Area 51 to uncover the alien conspiracy and government lies. Despite been terrified of getting caught and going to jail, they do a lot of stupid illegal stuff and record it all on cameras while complaining about it the whole time.

As it turns out, security at Area 51 is worse than your local supermarket, allowing the teens to get in with ease. They see a lot of lame stuff they try to trick you into thinking is impressive with their fake excitement and shock, before — you guessed it — aliens break out and start killing people.

The film’s whole idea of horror is people running around with shaky cameras while breathing loudly. That and brief glimpses of a “monster” before people are suddenly snatched away are pretty much the only two tactics of the entire movie. I guess I should not have been surprised given that it is directed by Oren Peli, whose previous directorial effort was the first Paranormal Activity.

The characters do stupid stuff and say stupid things non-stop, such as “What’s that noise?”, “Where’s that sound coming from?”, and my personal favourite, “Do you think we should be here?”

Shamefully, the film doesn’t even offer much legitimate information about the real Area 51, or at least what sources believe the place is like. Come on, at least educate us a little.

So yeah, Area 51 is a flaming turd, a combination of everything that annoys me about movies. I disliked it immensely.

1 star out of 5

Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)


In the superhero era, sci-fi movies these days are bigger, louder and more special-effected (is that a word?), and so I was really looking forward to Ex Machina, the low-budget (US$15 million) directorial debut of career screenwriter Alex Garland, best known for penning the scripts to sci-fi semi-classics like 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go (and he wrote the novel The Beach, which was made into that movie with Leo DiCaprio and Virginie Ledoyen).

The film received an avalanche of hype as early as last year, and I’m glad to say it does not disappoint. As a pure sci-fi story that goes back to the roots of the genre, Ex Machina delivers. Despite very little action and a deliberately mellow pace, the film is gripping, thought-provoking, tense and claustrophobic all the way through.

Without giving too much away, the film begins with a young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) from the world’s largest search engine company, Bluebook (basically Google), winning a contest to meet the company’s enigmatic billionaire CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who lives in a secluded research facility that requires a helicopter to access. Nathan invites Caleb to participate in an experiment involving his latest creation, a beautiful humanoid android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). It’s Caleb’s task, through conversations and observation, to judge whether Ava has consciousness, or whether she’s just simulating consciousness. And so begins an intriguing series of “sessions” between Caleb and Ava as Nathan looks on through surveillance video.

As you would expect, things are not as simple as they appear, and soon Caleb finds himself with a lot of unanswered questions. There are mini twists and turns galore, with Caleb growing more paranoid about both Ava and Nathan, and eventually, himself. Who’s telling the truth and who’s lying? Who’s playing whom? It’s one of those films where you never stop questioning the characters’ motives and what they are trying to achieve, and it’s this mystery that provides the strong pulse to the heart of the tale. It helps that it’s not a hackneyed plot that relies on one massive twist to shock audiences — this is a fascinating sci-fi story from start to finish.

In typical classic sci-fi fashion, there is a surrealistic feel to the experience that is almost dreamlike. The high-tech facility where the bulk of the film is set is grey and sombre, and the windowless walls seem as though they are closing in on Caleb as his paranoia and claustrophobia grows. The facility is juxtaposed nicely with the outdoor scenery the characters occasionally escape to, providing a technology vs nature dichotomy that plays into the film’s layered themes.

The film would not be what it is without the spectacular performance of Alicia Vikander, a Swedish actress whom I had only seen once prior, in the disappointing Seventh SonVikander is a perfect blend of beauty, sexuality and grace, and her dancing background really helped provide the right mix of human and robot to Ava. You believe what she is — a highly intelligent robot who could easily be mistaken for an attractive human but for the see-through limbs and mid-section. Everything about her performance, from the way she moved to the facial expressions and even the way she spoke contributed to making Ava so authentic that she bordered on creepy. Most importantly, she makes you believe in Caleb’s reactions to her. Vikander’s going to be a star, no doubt about it.

Oscar Issac also impresses as Nathan, a genius with demons to exorcise. After seeing him shine in Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January and A Most Violent Year, I knew this was going to be the case. Isaac is a chameleon capable of playing anyone, and the intensity he brings to Nathan elevates the character into more than it should have been. Can’t wait to see him in the new Star Wars film at the end of the year.

By contrast, Gleeson is the weakest link. He’s pretty good as Caleb — just not as eye-catching as the other two — though I suspect the burden of suppressing his Irish accent in favour of an American one affected his performance to some degree. Interestingly, the first time I saw Gleeson was in an episode of Black Mirror, the brilliant Charlie Brooker sci-fi series, where he played a life-like android himself. That was a phenomenal story with parallels to this one, and I’d recommend fans of the movie to check out the “Be Right Back” episode of Black Mirror if they haven’t already.

Ex Machina does have a few holes in it as the story veers towards its tense conclusion, a problem common to even the best sci-fi films, though on the whole it’s hard to ask for much more from Garland in his directorial debut. It’s also a fine film from an aesthetics perspective; the special effects are used sparingly but effectively — mostly on Ava’s semi-transparent body — and the cinematography does a solid job of balancing the emotional and visual aspects. This is a fable that will make you think about the inevitable fallibility of human nature and the future of technology, especially in an age when artificial intelligence is making it difficult to distinguish sci-fi from reality. Even Stephen Hawking said recently that he believes “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Now think about that.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)


I wanted to be the guy to tell everyone that Jupiter Ascending is actually pretty good and completely unworthy of the 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Unfortunately, I can’t be that guy. While typically ambitious and visually eye-popping, the whole thing was just too bonkers and incoherent to be appreciated, especially as a once-off viewing experience. I could like it more if I watched it again, but it’s just not good enough to warrant another go.

I don’t even know where to start with the plot synopsis. Mila Kunis plays a domestic cleaner by the name of Jupiter, and it turns out she’s really important to a bunch of powerful aliens in space. Some want to kill her, some want to save her. Falling in the latter category is Channing Tatum and his blonde eyebrows. Tatum is a human spliced with wolf DNA and he has super anti-gravity rocket boots and a projected force-field shield. They fight off aliens and fly to distant galaxies and blow lots of shit up while flying through the air.

That’s an ultra simplistic description of the premise of Jupiter Ascending. In reality there is a plethora of discoveries and plot twists that I couldn’t really keep track of and gave up trying after a while. To be honest I may not have been paying my fullest attention to the conversations.

The problem with the film is that it’s just completely all over the place. The first few minutes or so, which detail Jupiter’s birth and her grown-up life, were quite interesting. But once the first alien appears on screen, all hell breaks loose. People just start bouncing off the walls, shooting blasters, smashing through buildings, falling out of the sky, kicking each other in the face, going invisible — you name it, they did it.

To make matters worse, they also tried to fit in all this convoluted exposition in between, so you’d end up going from crazy action one minute to boring explanations the next. With so many characters to keep track of — there’s a trio of alien “royalty” played by Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton, as well as a bunch of bounty hunters, Sean Bean, his daughter, and many other aliens and Jupiter’s extended family members — I was constantly lost trying to keep track of who’s who, which side they’re on and what motivations they have. It didn’t help that some characters were duplicitous, telling lies one second and the truth another, and people were being duped by secret schemes and nasty plans and so forth.

I also had trouble understanding what some of them were saying, including these crazy winged kimodo dragon-type aliens and Eddie Redmayne, who delivers a so-bad-he’s-good pussy villain with a permanently husky whisper. It’s hard to fathom that this is the same guy who just won an Oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

I’ve been a fan of the Wachowskis when they were still the Wachowski Brothers (before Larry became Lana), even though their directorial efforts have arguably been sliding in the wrong direction since The Matrix. I like that they push the boundaries and challenge themselves with home-run projects– as evidenced by the polarising Cloud Atlas in 2012 — but this time I believe they bit off far more than they can chew.

There’s simply too much stuff to swallow in Jupiter Rising. The characters, their complex relationships, the unnecessarily convoluted plot, the twists, the gadgets, the weapons, the technology, and all the different alien races. Remember, much of this is sci-fi world building, so audiences have to take some time to accept and digest it. When it comes so fast and furious you’re just left wondering WTF is going on. In the end, the only thing I cared about was whether Sean Bean’s character was going to die. It’s like squeezing four Game of Thrones seasons worth of characters, backstory and world-building stuff into just a little over two hours. It’s too much. That’s why I think Jupiter Rising would have worked better as a TV series, where the concepts and characters could be introduced at a slower pace.

Mila Kunis is as good as Jupiter, though despite the praises of feminists her character is only marginally better than your typical damsel in distress in love with the hunky Channing Tatum. Speaking of which, Tatum’s physical performance is decent, but his acting is still not the greatest. He’s not the best actor in the world, and acting primarily against a green screen doesn’t help his wooden expressions. As for Eddie Redmayne, I don’t think it’s a horrible performance. It’s just that you can’t take his character seriously because of the voice and the eyeliner.

In fact, it’s impossible to take the entire film seriously. If you can forget about everything wrong with the movie, ignore the incoherent script and the WTF moments, and just go along for the insane, CGI-fuelled, action-packed ride, Jupiter Ascending could possibly pass as an entertaining experience. The bigger the screen, the higher the odds.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Predestination (2014)


Predestination wins the award for the most ambitious sci-fi movie of the year. I don’t mean ambitious in terms of scale and scope, like Interstellar, but ambitious in terms of its central conceit and its execution of it. I have a feeling this will be one of those cult classics people either love or hate, and, despite its flaws, I find myself falling into the former category.

This is one of those movies where you can’t really say too much about the plot or else you’d give away too much. Suffice it to say that it is a sci-fi film with a time travel foundation. Ethan Hawke plays what is known as a Temporal Agent, someone who travels back in time to catch criminals before crimes are committed. Aussie Sarah Snook, in a star-making performance, plays two roles, a young woman who grew up in an orphanage before trying out for the Space Corps, and an older man who tells his story to Hawke’s character in a bar.

All of this will make sense as the movie progresses, but what should be noted upfront is that Predestination is not just a time-bending movie. It’s also a gender-bending movie as well as a mind-bending one. It’s by no means impossible to follow or even figure out the twists and turns in advance, but like many time-travel movies, it’s complex and circular, and may require multiple viewings if you want to make sense of it all.

Directed and written by Aussie brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, who last made the underrated political vampire movie Daybreakers (also with Hawke) in 2010, Predestination is based on a the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein. It feels like a short story adaptation too in that it requires some level of suspension of disbelief and is told through unconventional narrative methods, jumping around in time and delivering stories within stories.

In some ways, the make-or-break point of the film is whether you can buy the idea of Sarah Snook, as good as she is, playing a believable male character. If you can, then all the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place. If not, then the whole thing begins to crumble. In my humble opinion, she was more than good enough to make me believe in the characters and their emotions, which is why I found the journey to be so engrossing. For the first half of the movie, at least, I had no idea where the story was heading and why it was being presented in the way that it was — and yet I felt as though I had been entranced by the peculiar narrative. At a certain point, the whole point of it all becomes clear, and even if you think it’s stupid you still have to be impressed by its creativity and audacity.

With a relative lack of action and a narrower, personal scope, the film is not as well-rounded or as exciting as some other time travel films like 12 Monkeys or the more recent Looper, but it makes up for it with stronger character development and a distinct Twilight Zone-feel.

At the end of the day, Predestination is a strange film and an acquired taste — one that happens to be my cup of tea. I love sci-fi and fascinating time travel stories, and I enjoy films that challenge you — for better or for worse — to pick apart its logic. Throw in the excellent performances of Hawke and Snook, and the stylish direction and visual style of the Spierig brothers, and Predestination is turning out to be one of my dark horse highlights of the year.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Interstellar (2014) (IMAX)


Well, it looks like I have to reshuffle my list of the best movies of 2014 – again.

Memento. The Dark Knight trilogy. Inception. Time and time again, Christopher Nolan proven to be one of the most creative and visionary directors of this generation. His latest, Interstellar, is his most ambitious project to date, and also arguably the most rewarding.

I rushed to see the first session available of Interstellar this morning, not knowing what to expect other than a 169-minute sci-fi starring Matthew McConaughey. I intentionally avoided the trailers, the reports, and the early reviews. In fact, I didn’t even know who else was in it. Going in blind was the best decision I ever made, and so I am going to make sure there are no spoilers in this review so that your experience, if you haven’t already seen it, is as fresh and awe-inspiring as it can be.

Interstellar is the very definition of an epic. The ambition, the scale, the scope, the cast, the special effects, the storyline — even the running time; everything about this film is huge, which makes it perfect for the big screen, and in particular, IMAX, which I fortunately saw it on. It is not available in 3D (which I hate anyway), but this is one rare situation where I do wonder if the added dimension could have enhanced the visual experience even more.

I don’t want to give away the plot, so all I will say is that Interstellar is first and foremost a space exploration film. I liked the fact that there was no arbitrary exposition at the start of the film explaining the world the film was depicting. There’s no voice-over, no subtitles, no Star Wars-like opening crawl. It immerses you into the story straight away, while at the same time creating an intriguing mystery that needs to be slowly pieced together. And while the progression of the narrative is relatively simple, there are some exciting twists and turns along the way.

Interstellar is also a great big adventure flick filled with excitement, action, drama, and emotion. There are big set pieces, jaw-dropping landscapes and seamless effects, though all of these things feel like they are there because they are integral to the story, rather than simply to provide candy for the eyes.

My number one film of last year, Gravity, is probably best characterized as a space survival film. That was a thrilling spectacular which had some of the above elements, but Interstellar just takes it to a whole other level in every way. And it’s even twice as long! Interestingly, the film that first popped up into my mind when watching Interstellar was another McConaughey classic, 1997’s Contact, another one of my favorite sci-fi films. Both are about exploring the unknown with a health dose of hope and fear, and pose thought-provoking questions about human nature and humanity.

I don’t know much about the science the film rests on, though I assume there are going to be a lot of gaping holes, inconsistencies and flaws in logic. But the silliness of the science is beside the point. The important thing is that Nolan made me believe in it. Like he did in Inception, Nolan takes some very complex ideas and concepts and boils them down in a way that ordinary audiences can understand. Perhaps not fully comprehend or even grasp everything that is happening, but at least enough to be able to suspend disbelief and not get lost in the storyline. To me, that is the key to the film, and my guess is that if you did not enjoy it, it is because you were unable to buy into the film’s ideas in the first place.

Nolan’s films have been accused of being too cold and emotionless in the past. That is definitely not the case with Interstellar, which is powered by a surprising amount of human drama. Not all of it was effective — some of the dialogue came across as a little mushy, a little sentimental, and shall I say, McConaughey-esqe, though in the grand scheme of things I cannot fault Nolan for trying, because the film’s ultimate pay-off and message would not have worked without emotion.

I know I have not been the biggest Matthew McConaughey fan, and I admit I cringed a little when he first opened his mouth in the film (I expected his dialogue to be “Alright, alright, alright” on an endless loop). Smugness like that is hard to contain, even for an Oscar-winning actor. Slowly but surely, however, McConaghey managed to grow on me, and by the end of the film I was convinced he was the right man for the role. I cannot say much more about the other performances without mentioning their names (not knowing the whole cast adds to the pleasant surprises), so I will simply say that there is more than one Oscar winner in the cast and that they are all very good and go a long way towards mitigating the flaws in the dialogue.

Interstellar might not be perfect. It may not even be as intriguing, action-packed or ground-breaking as some of Nolan’s other films. And it even stars Matthew McConaughey. But man, I don’t think I’ve been more entertained more by a film in years. Nolan really reached for the stars with this grand epic. Some may think it was a spectacular success; others may think it was an admirable failure. For me, I’m just glad I was fortunate enough to be on the journey.

5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Lucy (2014)


Lucy is a big deal in Taiwan. About half the movie was shot in Taipei, which is why locals have been so supportive by flocking to see it by the truckloads, turning the sci-fi action flick into the No. 2 film at the domestic box office for 2014 (behind — you guessed it — Transformers: Age of Extinction). The film’s reception in Taiwan has been somewhat muted. Some people say it’s awesome, while others have given it the lukewarm “It’s OK.” No one in the country really wants to say it. So I will. Lucy sucked.

Our eponymous protagonist, played by Scarlett Johannson, is a young woman living in Taipei who becomes an unwilling drug mule to some Korean gangsters. During her ordeal something happens, opening up her brain capacity from the normal (mythical) human 10% and accelerating it towards 100%. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know some crazy stuff goes down. She doesn’t just become a smart gal. She becomes a freaking superhero who would shit all over the Avengers if they ever met in a dark alley (and yes, that includes the Black Widow).

It sounds like a cool idea, and writer and director Luc Besson (who is also very popular in Taiwan) clearly thinks so too. But for a movie about an unfathomably intelligent being, Lucy is remarkably stupid. Stories about maximizing human brain capacity are not novel — Bradley Cooper gave it a shot in the flawed but vastly superior Limitless back in 2011 — but in Lucy the enhanced brain functions are taken to a whole new level, giving her ever-expanding supernatural powers like telekinesis, super-hearing, mind-reading, shape-shifting, tapping into electronic signals, controlling gravity, expert marksmenship, time travel, etc — you name it, Lucy can do it. And you thought the stuff Johnny Depp could do in Transcendence was ridiculous.

So basically, any semblance of real science goes out the window. The film is more or less a superhero action flick, and everything about it — from the tone of the film and its completely over-the-top action scenes to the way she transforms after gaining her powers — tells us not to take things too seriously. And yet, Lucy lacks the elements of what makes a superhero movie good. The problem lies with the complete lack of character development, or rather, the reversing development in her character. Lucy started off semi-likable, but the more powerful she grew the less human she became. She loses her morals and emotions. She essentially (and quite literally) turns into a machine — and we don’t give a shit.

When a film fails to make any emotional connection we start looking for something else, and in this case it’s the action. Lucy is adequate in this regard but nothing special. There is one scintillating car chase scene through the streets of a major city, but apart from that there’s not much we haven’t seen before. One of the reasons the action fails to truly excite is because Lucy becomes so powerful that she has no enemy who could provide the film with some much-needed conflict or tension. There’s no formidable foe or arch nemesis to give us the type of showdown a movie like this demands.

Worse still, Lucy has a distinct dearth of humour for a Luc Besson film. There’s a little bit of the usual cheekiness, perhaps, but there are no laughs to be found in Lucy, which is strange given the film’s farcical nature and tone. As for the performances, Johansson and Morgan Freeman are about as good as you could have expected, while the special effects are admittedly seamless, though both are things we tend to take for granted these days.

Unfortunately, my gripes go deeper than that. For all the hoopla about filming in Taiwan, it turns out that those scenes could have been shot anywhere. So we see some shots of the busy Taipei streets and various angles of Taipei 101. Big deal (sadly, for some Taiwanese audiences, that’s enough to make the movie great). We actually have no idea what the heck Lucy is even doing in Taiwan. We know she lives there and she appears to be a student, but that makes no sense because she doesn’t know a lick of Mandarin. Moreover, the antagonists in the movie are Korean. We don’t know what they’re doing in Taiwan either. They don’t speak English or Mandarin. It just makes the whole Taiwan setting extremely pointless.

I consider myself quite a careless viewer in that I don’t usually notice holes in movie storylines, but in Lucy they were jumping out at me because they was so obvious. For example, when Lucy goes into a Taipei hotel to look for a Mr Jang, the receptionist connects her over the phone and acts as a translator between the two. The problem is, the receptionist is speaking Mandarin to Mr Jang and/or his henchmen, and we find out later that they’re all Korean! Or when Lucy is in Taiwan and tells Morgan Freeman that she’ll be at his place in Paris in 12 hours — except a direct flight from Taipei to Paris is 12 hours and 35 minutes, and she’s not even at the airport! And I haven’t even talked about how Lucy apparently loses most of her teeth at one stage, only to have them apparently all grow back (so she’s got Wolverine powers too?) or how she kills a whole bunch of innocent people for trivial reasons (or no reason at all), and yet spares all the bad guys who are hell bent on tracking her down and annihilating her. Just really careless, sloppy stuff.

Having said all that, I didn’t loathe Lucy, or at least not as much as I think I should. The film actually started off relatively strong and was packed with a decent level of intrigue, but the further along it went the more preposterous and — pardon my “political correctlessness” — retarded it became. Apart from all the batshit insane stuff Lucy was doing, the film was filled with trite philosophical BS pretending to give meaning to the story, complete with Terrence Malick Tree of Life-style random snippets of micro-organisms, (copulating) animals and outer space. And if that’s not crazy enough for you, the Akira-esque ending almost makes Muholland Drive seem logical

All of the above combines to make Lucy a trippy, messy, cheesy experience where the enjoyment level is heavily dependent on how much nonsense you can stomach. If you go into it knowing you’re about to see the dumbest action movie of the year rather than the intelligent sci-fi it appeared on paper, you might even find the silliness endearingly fun. For me, however, Lucy was just one big clusterWTF that’s neither clever nor funny, rarely exciting, and only passably entertaining.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Divergent (2014)


Divergent is, by all accounts, the next big thing after Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games. It’s based on the bestselling sci-fi novel series by American author Veronica Roth and stars one of the hottest up-and-coming stars in Hollywood, Shailene Woodley. The film was a commercial success and a sequel, Insurgent, is slated for a March 2015 release.

So is Divergent the real deal, or is it yet another pretender in the vein of The Golden Compass, Percy Jackson, I Am Number Four and Vampire Academy?

To be honest, I don’t think I can make my mind up — yet. It has a fairly typical post-apocalyptic premise, in which the world — as far as we know — is essentially decimated but there are elements of extremely advanced technology, kind of like The Hunger Games.

What sets the premise apart is the introduction of the idea that all human beings can be categorized into one of five factions: Abnegation the selfless, Amity the peaceful, Candor the honest, Dauntless the brave, and Erudite the intelligent. When someone turns 16 they are given a personality test which tells them the faction they belong to, though they are still given the freedom to choose whatever they want. Once you choose a faction, however, you are there for life.

Say what? I hear you say. Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me either. First of all, how can humans only have five personality traits? Second of all, how can a person be deemed to have only one of the traits? Thirdly, what is the point of the test if you get to choose whatever you want anyway? And lastly, how does any of this help create a more peaceful, more organized and more advanced society?

Anyway, our teenage protagonist, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort, who coincidentally plays Shailene’s lover in The Fault in Our Stars — awkward!) reach that age whenthey have to undergo the test and pick their faction. But of course there’s a twist — we find out that Beatrice is “special”! She joins a faction regardless, and the first half of the film revolves predominantly around her group training to become a badass, and the budding romance she develops with a team leader (Theo James). Later on, stuff inevitably happens, leading to a climactic showdown in which — you guessed it — only Beatrice can save the world.

When I put it that way, Divergent sounds like a pretty stereotypical teen/sci-fi flick, not all that different from The Hunger Games or Ender’s Game, both of which have similar plot points and progression.

Having said that, I still found Divergent to be a surprisingly entertaining and engaging experience (especially during the tense and exciting training sequences). That can happen when you have an $85 million budget and a first-class production team and cast.

Neil Berger is a solid commercial directors proven track record in making test intelligent thrillers such as The Illusionist and Limitless. And regardless of the future of this franchise, Shailene Woodley is poised for big things. Despite her age (22), she has a remarkable screen presence, which she uses to carry the film from start to finish, and she also has this face that’s not immediately attractive or appealing, but somehow grows on you as her personality starts to shine through. Most young actresses would be thrilled to be called the poor (wo)man’s Jennifer Lawrence, but in Woodley’s case it would be an insult. She’s for real. (And while we’re at it, Beatrice Prior is a good enough character to not be called a poor (wo)man’s Katniss Everdeen either.)

English actor Theo James won’t be getting hype like the Twilight boys because his character is fairly lame and secondary, but he does what he can with limited material to work with, and Zoe Kravitz, Lenny’s girl, adds some sass as Beatrice’s closest friend. Ansel Elgort is decent, but he doesn’t have much screen time. The rest of the supporting cast is A-list, with Kate Winslet playing a key government official, Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn as the parents, and Jai Courtney as a faction member, with minor characters portrayed by the likes of Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson and Mekhi Phifer.

The problem with the film lies ultimately in whether you can stomach the illogical premise. Most sci-fi films have plot holes and things that don’t necessarily make sense, but in many cases audiences can look past the flaws as long as the film works within the confines of its own rules. The Hunger Games, for example, had several issues with logic, though nothing stood out to the point where the whole film was at risk of collapsing. With Divergent the situation is a lot more iffy. We get what the premise is trying to say about free will and how people tend to be judged and grouped by appearances or a single characteristic, but when it fails what I like to call the “smell test” you have to ask yourself whether you can accept anything else in the story.

I haven’t read the book, but perhaps the author did a better job of fudging the premise than the movie did. In any case, given that there’s more to come in the story that might provide some much-needed explanations and context, I’m going to withhold my judgment for the time being. In reviewing Divergent as a standalone movie, however, I admit the premise did bother me, perhaps not to the extent that it ruined the film, but it certainly tempered what would have otherwise been a solid first entry to a series capable of competing with the Hunger Games franchise.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer poster

It’s not often that a film with mostly western actors gets released in Asia nearly a year before in the US, but that’s the case with Snowpiercer, a wild sci-fi action thriller starring big names such as Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and Octavia Spencer. The reason why Snowpiercer isn’t released in the US yet (apparently it will get a limited release on June 27, 2014) is because it’s actually a South Korean film directed by Bong Joon-ho (what a great name), best known for the wacky monster movie The Host (not to be confused with the Stephenie Meyer adaptation) from 2006.

Anyway, despite all its flaws, I had a fantastic time with Snowpiercer, which I think is one of the more original sci-fi flicks to hit our screens in some time. It’s actually based on a French graphic novel and is about a post-apocalyptic world where the survivors of a disastrous anti-global warming experiment that has frozen the entire planet live on a never-stopping train that travels in loops around the planet. There is of course a class system on the train, with the elites up the front and the poor stuck in the back in horrific conditions. The film focuses on a man called Curtis (Chris Evans), who is sick of the mistreatment and decides to launch a revolt from the back of the train.

Snowpiercer  is ludicrous in many ways and requires a certain level of belief suspension, but it works in the end because Bong manages to balance a weird, wacky sense of surrealism often seen in Korean films with violent action and gritty drama while not forgetting about the political messages and clever satire. It’s a unique blend that sometimes treads a fine line and occasionally gets a little too surreal for my liking, but on the whole I think it gets the job done. I’m convinced a Hollywood director wouldn’t have been able to create the same type of feel, and I’m glad there won’t be any America remakes because they won’t be necessary with only two key Korean characters (The Host’s Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, who again play father and daughter).

For me, the greatest strength of the film is the depiction of the idea itself and the world in which they live in. The special effects are not exceptional, but they are good enough for a Hollywood blockbuster. The action also fits in with the rest of the film — it’s brutally violent in some respects but lacks genuine realism — in a good way — so that you never get the urge to turn away or categorize it as gratuitous.

The performances are solid, though not many characters are properly developed given the focus on the action. I had just seen Chris Evans and his blonde locks in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and he was almost unrecognisable here with the scruffy brown hair and dark stubble. Tilda Swinton is also fantastic and equally unrecognisable with her huge teeth as the nasty Minister Mason, while a special mention goes out to Alison Pill (from The Newsroom) for her small but important role as a creepy school teacher.

Snowpiercer is the type of film that doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny because of how crazy its premise is, but thanks to the skillful direction of Bong and the fast-paced action it’s an excellent and thought-provoking piece of sci-fi entertainment that would make an awesome DVD rental or on-demand stream if it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves at the cinemas.

4 stars our of 5

Movie Review: After Earth (2013)

after earth

I am…well, was…one of the staunchest M Night Shyamalan defenders out there. I loved The Village and thought The Happening was, er, good (up until the ending) and didn’t think The Last Airbender was as awful as advertised, though Lady In the Water pushed me about as far as my limit would go. And so when I discovered that he was directing Will Smith’s latest sci-fi adventure After Earth (the same Will Smith who does not choose to make bad movies, apparently), I did not run off screaming like most other people.

I probably should have.

After Earth is, plain and simple, a bore, which is an incredible feat considering the semi-interesting premise and how much “action” there is. Basically, humans are forced to abandon Earth at some time in the future after making the place inhabitable, and the new place they decided to settle down has these alien creatures who are blind but can sense fear. Will Smith is some legendary commander who can suppress his fear (and hence practically invincible), and Jaden Smith (his real life son), is constantly living in his shadow. On a final trip to an abandoned Earth, their spaceship crashes and Will is hurt, and the only person who can save them (by trekking through dangerous terrain with evolved/mutated monsters) is Jaden.

So yeah, After Earth is basically a Jaden Smith star-making vehicle produced by his family. Will Smith, who came up with the idea for the movie, is more or less there for the star power and barely moves for the entire film. Jaden’s name even comes up first in the credits (this is living proof of fatherly love).

Apparently the original premise was not sci-fi and was about a father and son duo who are trapped after their car breaks down in the wilderness. That idea might have made a better motion picture, because the sci-fi elements in After Earth don’t really work. Maybe it’s the effects of a hangover from The Last Airbender, but After Earth has a childish feel to it, as though it was made with a Nickelodeon-esque audience in mind. It’s a morality tale and a coming of age story, but there is no nuance or subtlety. Everything is so painfully obvious and predictable. Bland and uninteresting, even when the characters are supposedly in danger. It’s not often that a 100-minute film feels too long. I’m not kidding here, but I think perhaps the film would have been better as an animation.

It’s pointless dissecting Will Smith’s performance because he has so little do to. As for Jaden Smith, I think his acting abilities have regressed from The Pursuit of Happyness (made 7 years ago) and The Karate Kid remake (3 years ago). Maybe it’s the script’s fault, or simply a lack of charisma, because I could not connect with his character at all. The most emotional parts of the film, including a (remote) tearful exchange with his father, felt strangely empty and cliched.

That said, the film is not quite as bad as it has been made out to be. Though clunky, the film tells its story adequately, and the special effects and scale are quite impressive. It’s not the worst of the movie of the year and 11% on Rotten Tomatoes is a brutal overreaction. However, After Earth is still ultimately a huge disappointment and a failed experiment. Maybe it’s time for M Night to retreat into the shadows and get back to the smaller, more intimate projects that made him a respected filmmaker in the first place.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Elysium (2013) (IMAX)


Elysium is a thrilling sci-fi action blockbuster with a thought-provoking premise, but it also requires you to partly switch of your brain to fully enjoy it.

I was expecting an intelligent thriller as Elysium is director Neill Blomkamp’s highly-anticipated follow-up to the acclaimed District 9, which you might recall was a clever and cheeky 2009 sleeper hit inspired by South Africa’s apartheid era. But if you watch Elysium looking forward to the same sharp wit and veiled political commentary you will probably come away disappointed. On the other hand, if all you want is exciting popcorn entertainment, then Elysium will surely satisfy as a violent, white-knuckle thrill ride with a suped-up Jason Bourne.

Towards the end of the 21st century, Earth is overpopulated, polluted and practically in ruins. The wealthy don’t have anything to worry about, because they live on a luxurious man-made community floating above the planet’s atmosphere called Elysium, where there is no poverty, no disease, and presumably, no need for people to commit any crime.

Matt Damon plays Max, an Earthling who dreamed of one day making it to Elysium as a kid but instead grew up to be a crafty criminal — well, ex-criminal, because he now works at a factory manufacturing the same androids that police their sad, wretched, pathetic lives.

I’ll try to tread around spoilers, but of course, Max needs to make it to Elysium at all costs. Standing in his way is Jodie Foster, the defense minister on Elysium, and the crazy South African mad dog she hired to do her dirty work on Earth, played by Sharlto Copley (the protagonist from District 9).

I was surprised that Elysium turned out to be such a straightforward sci-fi action flick (complete with the typical cliches), which may not have been a bad thing had the premise not held so much potential. Yes, there are obvious moral themes that emerge out of the premise, but most of these are only touched upon on the surface.

There are a lot of things left unexplained: How did the world get like this? How did Elysium get built? What’s the political or legal system there and on Earth and between the two? How is it possible that every house on Elysium has a miraculous machine that can cure all diseases (including cancer), perform instant surgeries and even reconstruct body parts — and Earth not even have a single one? Are there no altruistic rich people anymore? I’m not talking about a comprehensive explanation, just some hints. Oh, and I would have loved to have seen more of what people actually do on Elysium — apart from high society afternoon parties and dips in the pool.

And those are just the questions about the background. Elysium also raises many other in-film questions that, if left unanswered, result in Prometheus-sized plot holes. Perhaps I’m being picky, but I had so many questions about what was happening that it became a distraction at times.

If you can put these issues aside and just go along for the ride, however, then you might find Elysium a highly entertaining film powered by near-seamless special effects and inventive sci-fi creations. Watching Matt Damon run around, getting smashed and smashing people and being Matt Damon is never a bad thing anyway.

Elysium has plenty of graphic violence that could shock viewers unfamiliar with Blomkamp’s style, but personally I don’t have a problem with some visceral stimulation every now and then. What I did have a problem with was some of the intentionally shaky camera movements and quick cuts during some of the action sequences, especially the hand-to-hand combat scenes. I just prefer clarity.

The performances were interesting. Matt Damon was his usual steady self, focused and charming and dedicated to the task. He was believable and probably the only character to experience any development throughout the whole movie. Sharlto Copley got to play the cool villain by being a complete nutjob, albeit an extremely dangerous and lethal one. Strangely, it was the dual Academy Award winner, Jodie Foster, who ended up as the weak link. I think she what she could with her flimsy lines, but she couldn’t help that her character was a cardboard cutout who was never as important as we thought she was.

Final word: Viewers expecting Elysium to be Blomkamp’s allegorical portrayal of the world’s growing wealth gap in the same way he tackled apartheid in District 9 might be disappointed. But who says all of his movies need to have a potent political message? In many ways, I actually enjoyed Elysium more than District 9. With a considerably bigger budget (US$115 million vs US$30 million), enhanced star power and an enlarged scale (seeing it on IMAX was particularly stunning), Elysium is one of the year’s more exciting and aesthetically impressive action blockbusters. It might not tick all the boxes, but the film is never boring and should keep audiences completely engaged for its apt 109-minute running time.

3.5 stars out of 5