Screening Room: ‘Mute’

The new sci-fi movie from Duncan Jones (Source Code, Moon) is called Mute and it premieres on Netflix today. My review is at Film Journal International:

What might happen if M*A*S*H’s Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce jumped about a century ahead in time, went AWOL and worked as black-market sawbones for gangsters in a post-EU Berlin? If you ever wondered about the answer to that question, then Duncan Jones’ Mute is the movie for you. If not, then your best bet would be to stay far away, as in Korea and Germany far away…

Here’s the trailer:

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…

 

Now Playing: Romantic Comedy Sci-Fi in ‘The One I Love’

Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass get a surreal bit of marriage counseling in 'The One I Love' (RADiUS-TWC)
Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass get a surreal bit of marriage counseling in ‘The One I Love’ (RADiUS-TWC)

The One I Love is playing now in highly limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

How well can we ever know each other? That’s one of the less interesting questions posed by Charlie McDowell’s willowy and romantic science-fiction two-hander with a Twilight Zone twist about a couple with marriage problems whose sojourn at a therapeutic retreat takes a quirky turn. When the story is fully locked in, it wrestles with some more gripping issues of identity and a Machiavellian spin on relationship dynamics. But all too often, it falls back on easygoing relationship drama that saps the underlying premise of its more meaningful promise….

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘The Purge: Anarchy’ Takes Aim at the One Percent

In 'The Purge: Anarchy' all crime is legal for one annual twelve-hour free-for-all (Universal Pictures)
In ‘The Purge: Anarchy’ all crime is legal for one annual twelve-hour free-for-all (Universal Pictures)

purge-poster1Just last year, a little sci-fi/horror film called The Purge lit up theaters with its canny blend of exploitation thriller jolts and subversive agitprop. Now comes the inevitable sequel, which ramps up the class-conscious revolutionary rhetoric in an expanded story about a near-future America where one night a year all crime is legal for 12 hours.

The Purge: Anarchy opens this Friday everywhere. My review is at PopMatters:

 In the first film, the ridiculous rationale left open the suggestion that the Purge’s real purpose was even uglier. What if the big night isn’t a means to purge unwanted impulses, but rather, a way to get rid of unwanted people? In Anarchy, the politics read loud and clear. Sergeant and his carload of charges face down everyone from flamethrower-wielding ATV rednecks to storm troopers cruising around in armored big rigs and nihilist skateboard punks with ghostface makeup and machetes…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘I Origins’

Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey in 'I Origins' (Fox Searchlight)
Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey in ‘I Origins’ (Fox Searchlight)

I Origins-posterA few years back, Mike Cahill made one of the more ghostly sci-fi movies of recent years with Another Earth. Now he’s back with that film’s enigmatic Brit Marling and Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Pitt for a globe-spanning story about, well, eyes.

I Origins opens this Friday in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

A haunted-looking Michael Pitt is the main attraction in Mike Cahill’s curious fandango of a science-fantasy story about fate, destiny, genetics and love, and that’s unfortunate. Pitt can usually excel when playing dreamers or tortured types befitting his sensuously languorous mien. But for I Origins, Pitt has to put on a sweater, adjust his glasses, and play a molecular biologist. For the many scenes that call for a sense of true obsession, he can’t quite summon the proper focus, deploying a Johnny Depp-like dourness. Without that, an already disjointed film drifts further apart…

You can see the trailer here:

Now Playing: ‘Chef’

Jon Favreau and John Leguizamo in 'Chef' (Open Road Media)
Jon Favreau and John Leguizamo in ‘Chef’ (Open Road Media)

Chef-posterAfter making a mint with the first two Iron Man movies, Jon Favreau went smaller. In Chef, he plays a chef who loses his job and redeems himself by driving around with his son and best buddy serving up cubanos and beignets. Not a bad life.

Chef is playing around the country now and should be hanging around for a few more weeks before the summer season really gets started. My review is at Film Racket:

Chef is one of those jobs that many people dream of but not that many would actually want to do. A few hours on the prep line in August would burn away most foodie fantasies quite nicely. Carl Casper, the chef played by Jon Favreau in his post-Iron Man palate cleanser, however, doesn’t have many of those grotty concerns mucking up his pretty perfect life. Surrounded by gorgeous women, delectable food, rowdy friends, and a keen-eyed little moppet of a son just dying for his attention, his only real problems are those notes of discontent twanging in his head….

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

Emily Blunt, Tom Cruise in 'Edge of Tomorrow' (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Emily Blunt, Tom Cruise in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (Warner Bros. Pictures)

In Tom Cruise’s latest man-vs-world thriller, he plays a futuristic soldier who dies and dies again in the line of service. Emily Blunt is there to … well, it gets confusing.

Edge of Tomorrow opens wide on Friday. My review is at Film Journal International:

The spirits of World War II thrum mightily through Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, visually in everything from the sight of aerial troopships soaring over the Dover cliffs to the rakish tilt of Tom Cruise’s officer’s cap. It self-consciously evokes the grand, terrifying spectacle and unifying purpose of the Normandy invasion. This even though the enemy forces occupying most of Europe are not Nazis but multi-tentacled, wolverine-nasty aliens called Mimics who are about this close to cleaning humanity’s clock. It’s up to an initially cowardly Cruise and a fearsomely muscled Emily Blunt to take them out, which they can accomplish by Cruise reliving the same gruesome day of battle until he figures out how to achieve victory…

You can see the trailer here:

Reader’s Corner: 50 Essential Science Fiction Novels

neuromancer-gibsonEvery now and again the good people over at the online used-book emporium AbeBooks put up collections of grand book covers. Those who like this sort of thing enjoy just trolling through all the glorious old designs, with their funky and outmoded typefaces and abstract illustrations. But every now and again they do more of a curated thematic listing. That’s the case with their recent “50 Essential Science Fiction Novels.” As Richard Davies notes, it’s a fairly impossible task:

I wanted to show the unbelievable breadth of this galactic-sized genre and, of course, I failed because this is just the tip of the spaceberg – there are probably 500 essential science fiction books, not 50.

hitchhikersThe list covers everything from William Gibson (pictured) to Jules Verne and J.G. Ballard. It’s not just a piece of literary eye-candy, but a welcome reminder that there’s plenty out there still to be read. (Note to self: need to add more Theodore Sturgeon to the must-buy list.)

Davies notes that selecting these books “was a virtually impossible task.” Still, there are worse tasks out there in the universe…

New in Books: ‘American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of The 1950’s’

My review of the nine novels in the Library of America’s new two-set volume American Science Fiction is now up at The Millions:

There was something in the air during the 1950s in America that bred an especially grand strain of science fiction whose like was never witnessed before and hasn’t been since. It was a heady concoction: postwar triumph and trauma, unprecedented technological advances, the true advent of mass media swamping the atmosphere, that pseudo-fascistic hum of nationalistic propaganda and blacklisting, and the incessant reminder that a mushroom cloud could end it all… like that. The new Library of America two-volume collection, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, dusts off nine lesser-known novels that illustrate the breadth and depth of what was happening in science fiction during that decade. With its crisply typeset cloth volumes totaling almost 3,000 pages, the sturdy box is a welcome reminder of past joys for some readers and a striking introduction to fresh futuristic wonders and Cold War chills for others…

You can also read essays on these novels by authors from William Gibson to Neil Gaiman at the Library of America site here.