Tag Archives | science fiction

Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

The third and final picture in Fox’s latest Planet of the Apes franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes, is a stinker. So much was expected by this fan of the first two films―I also enjoyed Fox’s original 1968-1973 quintet, which I repeatedly saw as a boy in theaters and on TV and video―and so little is delivered from filmmakers, including co-writer and director Matt Reeves. The flat movie fails to engage at every level, starting with characters. But the main problem with War for the Planet of the Apes is a lack of plot, conflict and war. It’s rote and there’s not much at stake.

Consider that the trilogy’s leading character, the chimpanzee Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, who is sufficiently expressive in computer generated or performance capture mode, loses his wife and child early in the plot. This ought to be either devastating or formative or both. But it’s not. This is because the audience is not invested in the murdered characters. Accordingly, the pivotal plot point’s impact is limited. Without proper exposition, the whole plot feels strangely uninvolving. You know you’re supposed to empathize with Caesar, the voice of reason in the series, but it only goes so deep and, with the loss mitigated by lack of development―wife and son screen time goes by in a few blinks―you don’t get absorbed into the rest of the film. No abundance of CG tears and facial expressions can make this crucial event and its aftermath matter.

Caesar’s loss needs to matter very much, too, because it ostensibly serves as the catalyst for major change in his character. Without saying too much, Caesar is haunted by the deaths and rightly moved to seek justice. This entails hunting, tracking and defeating those responsible for the attack, ape and human alike. Quickly deciding that he must do this alone, and leaving his surviving son Cornelius with the tribe, Caesar goes off in search of hostile apes and humans, led by Woody Harrelson (Wilson), essentially and unfortunately playing Woody Harrelson in one of the most hollow performances of his career. What could have been a catalyst for introspection into Caesar’s failed or flawed leadership—really, after 15 years, Caesar still fails to gauge dissent and detect betrayal and hostile threats?—turns into an overly sentimental trek that exists primarily to create and chew scenery, overplay Michael Giacchino‘s sugary score and borrow too heavily and obviously from James Cameron’s Aliens.

Not that the first two films, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, didn’t move the audience to emotion and even get cute here and there. Yet the first two movies, made by the same studio and filmmakers, also provoke thought, which War for the Planet of the Apes does not. At every plot turn, from Harrelson’s sadistic military colonel running an ape slave camp with goosestepping troops one minute and with lousy patrols, training and cohesion the next to a human child wandering into harm’s way as if her entirely war-ravaged, traumatic life had never happened, the jaw drops at the unrealism of the whole, ridiculous thing. During my theatrical showing, one couple started laughing and walked out. At first, I thought they were jumping the gun, so to speak. In subsequent scene after scene of preposterous plot action, I understood what drove them out. Effects are not enough to satisfy an intelligent audience. Recreating tears with skill, ability and precision does not substitute for plot, character and theme.

On this point, War for the Planet of the Apes‘ theme is lame. Aside from being predictable, and every major development lacks imagination, the meaning of the movie is safe, tame and purely serves the status quo. Its Judeo-Christianity—the movie proposes that to forgive everyone, including the mass murdering tyrant, is divine—contradicts its righteous bloodlust, which apparently on the movie’s terms is morally acceptable if judging one’s identity solely by one’s species. That might not matter, or it might matter less, if War for the Planet of the Apes, which I opted for over comic book-based movies (which I wasn’t in the mood to see), had been entertaining. A zoo chimp adds nothing and might even be mildly annoying. It’s a mystery why filmmakers dispensed with clever references to the original series, such as Maurice’s name (Maurice is the best thing about War for the Planet of the Apes), which would have made this movie tolerable. Naming a character after a car and Forbidden Zone-type scarecrows do not count as clever; they come off as add-ons.

Instead, this curious departure from superior previous entries is puzzling, plodding—with long, boring stretches without action—and, because it overplays its contradictory themes, pretentious. I can’t begin to count gaping plot holes but let me point out that mortal wounds probably take their toll before days-long treks across deserts, mountain ranges and promised lands. A movie called War for the Planet of the Apes ought to at least have a strong sense of conflict. War for the Planet of the Apes does not. Like its number of references to the first movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is zero—Caesar apparently has no interest in reflecting on his life in whole—ape leader Caesar’s climax comes to a low, flat and empty end.

Movie Review: Rogue One

The Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, induces fatigue. Though based on a major plot point in the original Star Wars film in 1977—and prominently featured in the marketing campaign—the studio asks for no spoilers and I promise this review is intended to inform and enhance, not distort and detract from, one’s cinematic experience.

That said, I wish I had known more about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in advance. Coming so soon after last winter’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a better movie which takes place after Return of the Jedi, Rogue One starts in a haze of sameness that the uninitiated or occasional series viewer may find disorienting and confusing.

It’s not merely that both pictures sport a British-accented brunette in the female lead. There is also a scientist named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) on strike from developing the Death Star who’s a farmer with a wife and kid on the farm like Luke Skywalker’s uncle in the 1977 movie. Other scenes are strikingly derivative, too, to the point that Rogue One feels like a stew of Star Wars movies you’ve seen before. It’s always on the verge of tying into some previously known plot point.

Aligning everything Star Wars comes at a cost. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this while seeing the current crop of series films (1977-2015) in theaters, but, whenever something remotely familiar in the Star Wars universe (no matter how obscure) appears on screen, certain audience fanatics audibly react, taking me out of the movie and making me stop and think about what connection, if any, what I may have seen (or missed) has to the story and series. It’s mentally exhausting. There’s a lot of that here, and I’m not supposed to say what. A movie should stand alone and Rogue One does, in some respects, but audience response from series fans may get in the way.

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“Trust the Force” is Rogue One‘s meaning, which is neither more complicated nor more logical than that. Tracking Erso’s daughter (a bland character ably played by Felicity Jones), the tale of mild intrigue revolves around the rebellion’s efforts to halt construction of the evil Empire’s Death Star. As a girl, Erso’s daughter Jyn witnesses an act of heroism and it’s implied that she gets some sort of training (and there’s a kyber crystal) but, more than Rey in The Force Awakens, she inexplicably becomes an adult who’s suddenly imbued with technological, weapons and combat superiority and a curious blend of cynicism and idealism. Lacking sufficient development, Jyn’s journey runs rather flat.

This is not to say that all is dull. Indeed, parents best bear in mind that the Death Star as a means of mass death is fundamental and Walt Disney Pictures’ Lucasfilm doesn’t go soft in this regard. Rogue One reminds everyone that the series created by George Lucas is extremely dark and death-driven. The body count climbs pretty high.

With balmy beaches, jungles, rainy weather, Imperial walkers and destroyers, all kinds of new and familiar aliens, returning cast members, computer generated surprises and new characters, such as a blind monk who may have a same-sex partner (it’s a bit vague) and a drone dubbed K-2SO voiced by Alan Tudyk (42) that’s both less prissy and more jaded than C-3PO, Rogue One has a lot to look at and listen to. Among the new ride-alongs with hard-charging Jyn are a cagey rebel named Cassian played by Diego Luna (the most developed, consistent and interesting character). A pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) seems half-stoned for most of the movie. But even an urban scene evoking Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner channels the series’ proclivity for hooded, cloaked and caped creatures.

All the rebels are divided over an “extremist” (Forest Whitaker, Arrival, Phenomenon, Black Nativity) who proves crucial to the cause, though he’s not in Rogue One for long. Writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) do their best and cram heaps of plot, character and action, especially in the battle-heavy third act, to dramatize the rebellion converging to win the star wars.

“The Force wills it,” someone says in a climactic battle, and Rogue One may be the most explicitly religious of the Star Wars movies, turning the Force into a catchy new chant. An infidel converts to mysticism. So Rogue One is more about having faith than it is about going rogue. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla remake) downplays compelling and ethically and politically-charged points—questioning unchecked government surveillance of communications, what constitutes peace and security and why self-sacrifice is the series’ highest virtue—in favor of the generic idea that buying time for the good to prevail requires faith, sacrifice and mass death, with hope and dry humor sweetening what’s at root a dark and bitter deal.

Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond

The new Star Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond, is fine as light summer entertainment. The series’ leading characters, three white males named Spock, Bones and Kirk, are both true to their original incarnations in the 1966 television drama created by Gene Roddenberry and boldly against Hollywood’s new purge of white males. This is the boldest thing about the new picture, which is written by six different writers, directed by Justin Lin (Annapolis and some Fast & Furious movies) and produced by the man who directed the first film in this batch of movies, the overrated J.J. Abrams, who brought forth the bland 2009 reboot.

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I think this is a better movie than that first installment, which was campy and full of itself. The second movie was a snoozefest, so I didn’t bother to write a review but I remember thinking that Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain was the best thing about it. Here, the production design is marvelous, and it is especially well done in rendering the villain’s (Idis Elba) world, which includes a kind of slave encampment.

But success as fun, lighter summer fare means that the boldness of the whole series is gone. The NBC show, which I found in reruns, was serious and dramatic. Something important, occasionally an ideal, was often at stake. Some were better than others, but subsequent series and movies recycled mostly the multiculturalism, comedy and nostalgia. Now, in 2016, Paramount’s Star Trek Beyond delivers more of the same, though it’s more linear. An outstanding actress is wasted in a cameo role (that’s Shohreh Aghdashloo) and the lines are flat, cringe-inducing or worse while the chemistry among the three leads, which was always a sideline at best to the dramatic arc, is the highlight. A self-reliant new character, Jaylah, is a welcome addition in a decent subplot.

Star Trek Beyond mixes plot fragments involving torture, surveillance and loyalty. Yet there’s nothing bold about how they’re treated. With another all-powerful villain named Krall drawing strength from suffering, the madman bit is getting old, and his contest with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine, Into the Woods) feels tacked on because it is. The basic conflict is underdeveloped.

Plot and action move briskly, however, in three different directions, as the U.S.S. Enterprise and crew spin off into separate orbits as Krall amasses the power to destroy an entire idyllic civilization and threaten the Federation.

So much could have been done with Krall’s inferiority complex leading to a barbaric siege against civilization. But no. Amid breakaways, imprisoned or eviscerated crew and tests of character, loyalty and teamwork, the Federation, utopia and the Enterprise are diminished by the end. The crew are smaller as the franchise ages. No longer the intrepid seekers of knowledge in space, these characters—and I’m sorry to say that the late Anton Yelchin in his final appearance as Chekov deserved a better send-off—convey none of the enthusiasm for enlistment that the original cast did. Zoe Saldana plays Lieutenant Uhura as tougher yet she’s less thoughtful and more stereotypical than was Nichelle Nichols in the role. Familiar characters return. There’s a nod to the late Leonard Nimoy. Sulu (John Cho) is, it turns out, a gay dad which plays neatly if predictably into the plot.

In short, Star Trek Beyond is mildly enjoyable at the expense of deeper engagement. Like its muted lighting, which looks the same in every atmosphere, Star Trek‘s whole universe feels artificial. The series, in playing to today’s demand for momentary thrills, jabs and jokes, is selling out its core value premise: excitement about discovering, exploring and mastering the unknown with a united band of enterprising men and women. A movie based on Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek vision should be bold. This one is not.

Movie Review: The Martian

TheMartianPosterDirector Ridley Scott’s science fiction saga, The Martian, cleverly plays off the modern media culture. The story of an astronaut (Matt Damon, Hereafter) stranded on Mars begins with a band of spaceship Westerners, apparently at some point in the near future, bantering back and forth up through and until a literal storm warning. That hook quickly leads to the emergency departure of the space vessel, Hermes, which is the name of a Greek god who was messenger for the gods to mortals.

The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir and adapted for the screen by Drew Goddard, delivers Ridley Scott’s mythological message.

It’s very purposeful, at times gripping, and it is probably unlike what most of today’s audiences have seen and come to expect from a movie set in outer space. Also, The Martian, which is strangely and invitingly both telescopic and episodic, shuttles between Earth and Mars, leaving space and its wonders largely off screen. The Martian is more intimate like Silent Running (1972) than it is like the recent and overrated Gravity. The scale, orientation and theme is utterly human. Damon’s astronaut, Mark, is the lone human left on another planet.

Whether and how he adapts and survives becomes the agonizing and, to some in the audience and probably by the filmmakers’ intention, humorous point of the tale and focus of the film. Mark begins his solitude by treating, medicating and healing himself. He hates disco music. He uses humor to cope. He imitates a popular TV character. In other words, Mark is an everyman. To prove it, Mark swears, gets cocky and makes mistakes. Mark is also a botanist, and he is resourceful, so maybe he stands a chance. With Mark as the main character, the audience bears witness as he becomes the Martian. What becomes of Mark—what becomes of the lost individual—is up to him. Should he ever make it off of Mars, it is equally up to everyone else.

This idea of interdependence is at the core of The Martian. Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Robin Hood, Prometheus) reinforces the plot with this prospective interdependence and harmoniousness many times. It may be cloaked in other themes, such as man’s ability to think, reason and choose as the key to his survival, but man as a social being who must live, and learn to live, among others is the movie’s theme. This is fine to the degree it is true, and Mr. Scott does not mitigate the role of the superior individual in his own advancement and in the march of human progress. Again and again, the individual stands up to make an original thought, comment or action that leads to finding a new path. In this sense, the spirit of discovery is very much infused here. Damon’s Mark makes a valiant effort to stay alive and not out of duty; he wants to live, even if only to say “in your face, Neil Armstrong” in one of the more unfortunate lines.

On the way to this potential convergence of Mark’s impossible plight and the many others upon whom his life depends, The Martian itself feels derivative of other pictures and dependent upon audience predispositions to other movies based on today’s culture. This makes The Martian feel generic over the two hour, 20-minute haul. The banter among the Hermes astronauts, led by the ship’s commander (Jessica Chastain) and including crew played by Kate Mara (Brokeback Mountain) and Michael Pena (Ant-Man), chugs right along. Jeff Daniels (Pleasantville, Looper, TV’s The Newsroom) as the NASA chief, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) as the mission lead and Sean Bean (Troy, TV’s Game of Thrones) as head of flight operations, lead the team from crisis to crisis at conflicting purposes as various characters play their parts in the plan. Arcing upward toward some sort of twist and conclusion, The Martian is more than a bit too Hollywood.

That plot points chart the theme too neatly might make one overlook finer moments, such as a handwritten note at the last minute and a sudden desire to become more civilized in anticipation of communion, which felt like two of the most honest scenes in the picture. If The Martian oversimplifies the mechanics of an enormous mobilization of America’s military-space complex and underdramatizes the rest of humanity—and it does—it also accounts for the science, technology and dynamics of the mission, despite the Apollo 13-like cross-your-fingers quality and nods to religion. Audiences may notice the role of rebellion, too, in pursuing such noble ends in The Martian. There is much to feel good about in what might be called Ridley Scott’s hymn to humanity, a sort of anti-Alien, and Chastain, Mara, Ejiofor and Bean give especially good performances.

Everything in this problem-solving movie serves the climactic conflict resolution and nothing in The Martian feels perfunctory, even when it’s as generic as Matt Damon’s character. Scenes just before and during the end credits drive the mythological message home and, though The Martian is both too contrived and too contingent upon an opposite response to today’s pervasive sense of dread, it is also an experience that, in a world lacking in optimism, may be too good to pass up.