Screening Room: Human and Machine in ‘Ex Machina’

exmachina-mv-5Theaters were full of science fiction this year. However, it was mostly of the post-apocalyptic YA (Hunger Games) or space opera (Star Wars) variety. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was something different. It’s available on DVD now.

“The Year’s Best Science Fiction Movie Wasn’t Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was published at Short Ends & Leader:

In the final reckoning, people are never that creative. That’s true even when they think they’re changing history. The explorer who goes to the ends of the earth is usually after fame, money, or both. The investor will ignore every warning sign about a too-good-to-be-true opportunity until it’s too late and he’s lost everything. The genius inventor announcing that he’s creating an epochal advancement in technology will turn out to have some fairly mundane reasons for doing so.

That last scenario is what Alex Garland digs into for his directorial debut Ex Machina. It’s a chilly investigation of the ethical consequences of artificial intelligence wrapped up in the skin of a sleek and increasingly horrific thriller…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Martian’

Matt Damon works on not dying in 'The Martian' (20th Century Fox)
Matt Damon works on not dying in ‘The Martian’ (20th Century Fox)

Astronauts go to Mars and a storm makes them bug out early, thinking they’ve left one of their own behind dead. Only that astronaut, a botanist played by Matt Damon with Chuck Yeager panache, isn’t dead and he’s got to figure out how to stay alive on an alien planet for years while Mission Control tries to put together a rescue plan. The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s bestseller, is the first Ridley Scott film in years that registers a pulse and might be the year’s first film to grab attention from both mainstream audiences and Oscar voters.

A can-do paean to engineering and astronaut awesomeness, The Martian is opening everywhere this week. My review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer:

Bookmark: Neal Stephenson’s ‘Seveneves’

In 'Seveneves,' this blows up ... and everything changes. (NASA)
In ‘Seveneves,’ this blows up … and everything changes. (NASA)
Last week, Neal Stephenson released his latest novel, a big-thinking plot about the end of the world and a possible new start for the human race. Seveneves is another doorstopper of a piece, so in that sense right in line with just about everything he’s written since the 1990s. In many other ways, however—particularly in being a return to full-fledged science fiction and also curiously (for him) devoid of humor—this is an entirely new direction for the author of Snow Crash.

seveneves-coverMy take on the book and the arc of Stephenson’s career can be read at The Millions.

You can read the first couple dozen pages of Seveneves at Stephenson’s site here. This is how it starts:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero…

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: Here Come the Robots

More artificial futures in 'Ex Machina' (A24)
More artificial futures in ‘Ex Machina’ (A24)

Last Friday’s Wall Street Journal featured in its arts and culture section an article by Don Steinberg about the prevalence of robots and artificial intelligence in movies coming soon to a multiplex near you. It’s a subject that filmmakers just don’t seem able to stay away from.

Don very nicely included a few quotes from myself on the subject in the story: “Invasion of the Friendly Movie Robots.” Check it out.

New in Theaters: ‘Jupiter Ascending’

'Jupiter Ascending': Check it out, hover boots! (Warner Bros.)
‘Jupiter Ascending’: Check it out, hover boots! (Warner Bros.)

A preposterously silly and overbudgeted space opera from the Wachowskis, whose Cloud Atlas was one of the more exciting sci-fi/fantasies of recent memory, Jupiter Ascending would seem to have it all: Laser battles, baroque outer-space architeture, Eddie Redmayne in full camp mode, Channing Tatum with wolf ears. Disappointingly, such is not the case.

After a poorly-considered surprise screening at Sundance (wrong crowd), Jupiter Ascending opened wide on Friday, for a likely very brief run; my review is at PopMatters:

There was a time when beautifully begrimed working-class movie heroines would be delighted to discover they had royal blood coursing through their veins. While those Cinderella stories focused on the romance between girl and prince,Jupiter Ascending changes the stakes. Here, the princess must save the world and the prince has had his DNA spliced with that of a wolf.

Ah, love, Wachowski-style…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Sci-Fi Films You Need To See

The future is past in 'La Jetee' (Criterion Collection)
The future is past in ‘La Jetee’ (Criterion Collection)

Everybody’s definition of unknown films differs, based on their depth of knowledge. This is particularly so with science fiction. Some people delve into the genre like moles and others avoid it at all costs. There are those who barely know anything past Star Wars and others who can cite the full Gamera canon chapter and verse.

scifimovieguide1To illuminate the multitudinous discoveries found in the update I did for newly released Sci-Fi Movie Guide, the team at Barnes & Noble Review very kindly ran this short piece of mine where I make a few suggestions for some less-remembered but still worthy sci-fi films.

“Way, Way Out There: The 10 Greatest Science-Fiction Movies You Haven’t Seen” is at The Barnes & Noble Review here.

 

Now, a moment from The Apple:

 

And, lest we forget, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension:

Screening Room: The Top 5 Sci-Fi Movies That Never Were

Production art from Alejandro Jodorowsky's never-produced 'Dune' (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production art from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-produced ‘Dune’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

Sometimes it can be better to think about the possibilities of those great unrealized what-if film projects of legend than to actually see them made. Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, Ridley Scott’s I Am Legend, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs spinoff; there’s a lot of possibilities there for genius, but also insane overreach.

In the interest of indulging the what if side of things, I posted a highly subjective list at Short Ends & Leader of the “Top 5 Sci-Fi Movies That Never Were“:

Even were it not for the mental anguish brought about by the revival of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it would be obvious we live in strange times, cinematically speaking. To wit: Every other movie playing in theaters features alien invasions, bionic bodysuit weaponry, time travel, or a half-dozen other elements that make a geeky kid’s heart beat just that much faster. You would think, then, that studios would be dusting off every science-fiction script their D-girls passed on over the past couple decades and working out how to put Matthew McConaughey in it…