Stranger Things 2

Hold onto your Eggos, my friends! Stranger Things is back!

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Stranger Things 2
Creators: Matt and Ross Duffer
Starring: Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Noah Schnapp, etc.
Music By: Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
Rated TV-14

(Warning: The following assumes you have seen Season 1 of Stranger Things. Spoilers may abound.)

Season 2 of the ridiculously popular Netflix show starts in October of 1984, about a year after the events of the first season. The Byers household is back together again, with Joyce dating a supremely normal guy named Bob, and Will getting some much-needed therapy. The group of kids we followed in the first season have moved on from their traumatic experiences enough to focus on the really important stuff: celebrating Halloween and impressing the new girl at school. But all of them have a few lingering emotional issues, especially Mike and Nancy, who are still mourning their lost friends. As promised by the trailers, Eleven is alive and well after her apparent heroic sacrifice in the season finale, but she’s still in hiding. And it seems that, even after surviving a weeks-long ordeal of hiding from monsters in a terrifying hell dimension, Will Byers still can’t catch a break. He’s having frequent visions of the Upside Down–visions that seem a little too real. Visions that include glimpses of a huge, shadowy presence who seems very interested in the people of Hawkins, Indiana. Visions that are increasingly reflected in the mysterious blight poisoning the town’s crops.

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Dead pumpkins on Halloween are never a good sign.

One of the many retro sci-fi classics that have influenced Stranger Things from the beginning is Alien. It’s where the creators got the idea to have people cocooned and impregnated by a monster in the first season, but the series also seems to have borrowed some of its atmosphere of suspense and dread, along with the idea of giving the audience just a few scant glimpses of the monster until the grand finale. Well, if Season 1 was Alien, Season 2 is Aliens. It’s much bigger in scope, with more monsters, more action, and more Paul Reiser (he plays the scientist who replaces Dr. Brenner at Hawkins Lab). People tend to be split over whether they prefer the creepy, suspenseful horror movie that was Alien, or the full-blown action thriller that was its sequel. I suspect there’ll be a similar rift in opinions regarding this series. The second season is a bit more fast-paced and epic in scope, uses more big-budget effects, and tries some new ideas–like a particularly controversial episode that takes place entirely outside Hawkins. Some people may take issue with the changes in tone and be disappointed with the new season.

But I’m more of an Aliens fan myself, and to me, this second season does everything a good sequel should do. It expands the world of the original, raises the stakes, and moves the characters forward, with better effects thrown in as a bonus.

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Something tells me you’d need more than gasoline and a bat to defeat this thing.

Of course, this season is not perfect, any more than the first one was. The aforementioned controversial outside-Hawkins episode, while necessary to the overall story arc in my opinion, was placed in a rather odd spot considering what happens in the episodes immediately before and after it. And it contains a few annoying characters who I hope we’ll never hear from again. The season also spends more time than I would prefer on the ongoing love triangle between Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan. Outside that annoying subplot, Nancy and Jonathan are given less to do this season than before, which hurts both of their already less-than-strong characters. As for Steve…well, I’ll get to him later. Out of the characters introduced this season, the weakest is probably Max, the girl who moves to Hawkins with her step-brother in the first episode. She gets a few good moments in near the end, and her newcomer status creates some interesting situations with the boys, but for most of the season she seems to be there mainly so the group can have a new token girl.

My other complaints are pretty nit-picky, but they bugged me enough to mention. The larger budget for this season clearly allowed the creators to include more classic ’80s songs…but I think they went a little overboard including them in the soundtrack. I love classic rock as much as the next person, but if you use snippets of five different great songs within the first half hour of the first episode, the impact is greatly lessened. Also, a few other companies must have noticed the sales boost Eggo got from the first season, because the product placement is everywhere this time around. KFC and Three Musketeers candy bars practically get their own mini-commercials. It’s as annoying as it is inevitable.

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“It’s finger lickin’ good.”

Fortunately, all these flaws are overshadowed by the awesomeness of everything else in Season 2. I’m not quite sure where to begin, honestly, because everything about this story is so cool. First of all, the monster is ten times scarier this time around–not because it’s bigger, or scarier-looking, but because of what it can do. An extra-dimensional threat that can pop through your wall at any time is one thing; but an extra-dimensional threat that can send its evil essence to infect your world and your very soul, so gradually that you barely notice until it’s too late, is quite another. The army of mini-monsters it brings with it is just icing. There were hints of a larger supernatural world in the first season, but Season 2 is a straight-up cosmic horror story. My favourite kind!

But the monsters aren’t what make Stranger Things great. Neither is ’80s nostalgia, which is still present in spades this season. The heart of the story has always been about human interactions between the characters in the face of whatever threat they’re dealing with. And boy, does Season 2 give us some great character moments. We get to see a lot of new relationships between characters who didn’t really interact in the first season–like Dustin and Steve, who make a surprisingly awesome duo, and Chief Hopper and Eleven, who form a very touching (though complicated) father-daughter dynamic over the course of the season. And some characters who were a bit out of focus last year get much more development here. The best example is Will, who, despite driving most of the plot in the first season, barely got any screen time. That is more than remedied this season, as he once again drives the plot by becoming an unwilling conduit of the evil entering Hawkins. This means his actor, Noah Schnapp, finally gets to show off his acting chops–and it turns out he’s arguably the most talented in a cast full of amazing child performers. He delivers some of the most terrifying and heart-breaking moments in the season, and he pulls it off with a nuance plenty of adult actors would envy.

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“He likes it cold.”

Then there are the characters we already knew were awesome, but who become more so in Season 2. Steve Harrington, the annoying jock everyone hated at the beginning of the series, has fully graduated to “lovable action hero” status. He’s still flawed, to be sure, but it’s quite clear that he’s working hard to leave his old, irresponsible ways behind. With the help of his trusty nail bat, of course. His is one of the better character arcs I’ve seen in a TV show. Dustin and Lucas are also a bit more in focus this season. We even get to see enough of their home lives to learn that Dustin’s adorableness came from his mom and Lucas’s little sister is a force to be reckoned with. Lucas, whose paranoia sometimes got on my nerves in the first season, becomes much more likable here, and Dustin, the voice of reason last year, makes a few more mistakes this time around. And yet, he remains adorable.

Then there are the new characters we’re introduced to this season. Out of these, the best by far is Bob Newby, Joyce’s new boyfriend. He’s automatically awesome because he’s played by Sam Gamgee, but he becomes even more so after we learn that he’s a lovable dork who makes dad jokes, tries hard to cheer up Will, and shows unexpected bravery and brains in the face of danger, despite not liking scary movies. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Billy, Max’s step-brother, who fills in the “horrible jock we love to hate” slot that was vacated by Steve’s decision to become a decent person. With his hideous mullet, casual racism, and tendency to beat up children for fun, it doesn’t look like he’ll be leaving that spot anytime soon. But with the Hawkins Lab scientists showing a bit less malevolence than they did before, he does an excellent job filling the role of the season’s human villain. Then there’s Kali, the person most responsible for expanding the show’s horizons this season. She may not be the strongest character  Stranger Things has ever produced, but she does play a vital role in Eleven’s development, and I have to admit, I kind of like her style.

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Can’t compete with Punk!Eleven, though. 

All these character arcs and relationships build into a finale that is both epic and very emotionally satisfying. I got pretty choked up a few times in the last episode, both in a happy way and a sad way. My only concern is that I’m not sure how a third season can top this one, especially with most of the loose ends from Season 1 tied up already. But the finale makes it clear the Upside Down still has a few tricks left up its sleeve. Let’s hope the writers do, too.

Until then, at least the two seasons we’ve got are “totally tubular.”

Grade: A

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Blade Runner 2049

At the beginning of the year, I said I wasn’t going to review any sequels (except superhero-related ones). Well, I already broke that rule with War for the Planet of the Apes, and I’m about to break it again, because I can’t not talk about this movie.

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Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas
Music by: Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer
Rated R

If you’ve seen the original Blade Runner, you know the setup. (If you haven’t seen the original Blade Runner, I’d highly recommend watching it before the sequel.) Thirty more years into the alternate future imagined there, Los Angeles is just as polluted, overcrowded, and full of the incredibly lifelike androids known as replicants. Ryan Gosling plays a blade runner named K, whose job description is the same as Deckard’s in the first movie: hunt down and kill–erm, excuse me, “retire”–rogue replicants. His job is a little easier, though, because only a few long-lived older replicants are still willing to rebel against their human masters. The newer models, the movie’s opening text tells us, are programmed to be more obedient. But during a run-of-the-mill investigation, K uncovers a secret that leads to a much bigger mystery, and ultimately causes him to question his own identity.

I am a fan of the original Blade Runner–up to a point. When I first watched the Final Cut (there are, like, five different versions of the movie, but that’s the only one I’ve seen), I fell in love with its bleak yet beautiful vision of the future, its neo-noir atmosphere, and its haunting soundtrack. It’s the movie that got me hooked on cyberpunk. But I felt the story left a lot to be desired. I didn’t care about any of the characters (not even Harrison Ford’s–and I love Harrison Ford), and the plot was a pretty basic detective story that, while entertaining, didn’t really seem to warrant all the philosophising and faux symbolism piled on top of it.

So I’m pleased to say that 2049 is better.First of all, as gorgeous as the first movie was, the sequel blows it away in terms of cinematography. With its rich colours, its desolate city landscapes and its shiny futuristic tech, it’s easily one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Every shot feels like a work of art all by itself. And while the soundtrack isn’t quite as imaginative as the original, it still has plenty of lovely, synth-heavy melodies to add to the atmosphere.

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Radioactive wastelands have never looked better.

But more importantly, this movie has what the original lacked: a heart. Unlike his predecessor, K is a very sympathetic character despite his morally questionable job.  He’s a calm, stoic guy who seems to accept his role as a small cog in the big machine that preserves what passes for “order” in his society, but as the movie goes on, we find out that a part of him longs for a greater purpose in his life. In a world where human beings can be manufactured as easily as toilet seats (and get about the same amount of respect), K wants to be special, to feel that his life has meaning. It’s a desire most of us can relate to. And K’s not alone in this movie’s universe. His girlfriend, Joi, is also looking for more substance in her life, although her motives are a bit of a puzzle. Even the villains want to make their world a less artificial place–for their own twisted purposes, of course.  Even Deckard, when he shows up this time around, lets his gruff attitude slip often enough to reveal that he, too, longs for a genuine relationship with someone else. As one character says, “We’re all looking out for something real.” Between the excellent acting and the greatly improved story, I ended up caring deeply about most of the people in this movie–human, replicant and other. The original Blade Runner made me think, which is good; but this one made me feel.

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“You’ve never seen a miracle.”

You don’t have to be a film expert to tell this movie is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. But, like its predecessor, it’s a flawed masterpiece. A lot of people will probably balk at its length, which is close to three hours. I grew up on The Lord of the Rings extended editions and marathons of BBC miniseries, though, so the length really didn’t bother me. It’s somewhat slow-paced for a big blockbuster, but that’s because it needs to be in order to fully develop its characters and themes. And it has plenty of fist fights and explosions for those patient enough to wait for them. That being said, there are a couple of scenes I could have done without–mainly those involving Jared Leto as one of the main villains. Something about the way he talks just makes it hard for me to take the guy seriously. He came off a bit too much like a pop star trying to be “edgy,” rather than the evil genius he was supposed to be.

Speaking of scenes I could have done without…I did not go into this movie with high expectations regarding its representation of women. After all, in the original Blade Runner, the only female characters were literal sex objects, and the “romance” that drove much of the plot was questionably consensual at best. 2049 is a bit better in that area–in fact, it arguably has more plot-relevant female characters than male ones. But it also has  a giant hologram of a naked woman strutting through L.A. as an advertisement for a virtual girlfriend who is “Everything You Want to See” and “Everything You Want to Hear.” So…there’s that.

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And I thought Victoria’s Secret ads were bad.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure imagery like that (which occurs frequently throughout the film) is meant to highlight the shallowness and debauchery of this dystopian society, with its tendency to treat living, thinking beings like disposable objects. But here’s the thing about working in a visual medium: you can’t criticise the objectification of women and parade CGI-manipulated images of naked women through your movie at the same time. That’s contributing to the problem, not solving it. And while it may not be surprising in a Blade Runner sequel, it is pretty disappointing coming from the director behind a wonderful female-driven sci-fi film like Arrival.

But just because I disagree with some of the execution, that doesn’t mean 2049 has nothing to say worth listening to. Quite the contrary.

Many essays could be written–and will be, no doubt–about the many implications of this movie’s premise on issues like racism, classism, the ethics of A.I. and the mysteries of reproduction, just to name a few prominent themes. There’s no doubt that, despite the flying cars and highly advanced robots, the Blade Runner universe is bleak and miserable in ways that sometimes feel uncomfortably familiar.  The climate’s a wreck, whole cities have been turned into literal trash heaps or nuclear wastes, and a large section of the population is treated as sub-human slave labour…but at least those omnipresent hologram ads are still there to distract us with Coke, Sony products, and virtual girlfriends. ‘Murica?

But for me, the heart of this story is in K’s search for identity and purpose. He lives in a world so artificial it’s difficult to tell whether anything is real–even the characters’ own memories–and one of his main goals throughout the movie is to find out how much of his own life is genuine. And while he does get answers by the end of the film, it’s still up to him to decide how those answers will affect his identity. 2049, like its predecessor, spends a lot of time exploring what it means to be human, and it takes a much more definitive stance on the subject by the end. Without giving too much away, I think I can reveal one message I took away from this movie: you don’t have to be “special” in order to make a difference in the world. You just have to do the right thing.

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And sometimes you get your nose broken along the way.

There’s a lot more I could say, but to avoid spoilers and to give my typing fingers a rest, I’ll stop there. This is a movie that sticks in the brain, one that demands multiple viewings to fully unpack all its themes and character arcs. It may be bombing at the box office right now, just like its predecessor (you couldn’t ask for a more faithful sequel, honestly), but I have a feeling people will be talking about Blade Runner 2049 for many years to come.

And did I mention how pretty it is? ‘Cause it’s really pretty.

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SO PRETTY.

Grade: A-

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War for the Planet of the Apes

So here’s a franchise I never thought I’d be into…yet here we are.

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War for the Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback
Stars: Andy Serkis and some other people
Soundtrack Composer: Michael Giacchino
Rated PG-13

When the movie begins, the war that started in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is still raging. Caesar, our charismatic ape leader, and his people are being hunted by an army of humans led by a slightly insane man called The Colonel. After a particularly fierce battle, The Colonel finds Caesar’s hiding place, and, well…let’s just say things get personal. While most of the apes head out to find a home far from the redwood forest and its human inhabitants, Caesar teams up with three of his oldest companions and sets out on a quest for vengeance. Along the way, they pick up an adorable human girl who happens to be mute, and another ape who has learned to speak, despite not belonging to our original band of escaped lab rats. But as the group gets closer to his goal, Caesar finds himself as much at war with his inner demons as with the humans.

Man, how did I get sucked into this trilogy? When Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, I hadn’t seen any of the previous Apes movies. (Still haven’t.) I thought the name sounded stupid. (Too many “ofs.”) And generally speaking, anytime a monkey or an ape shows up in a story, I start taking things a little less seriously. But I watched the movie at a friend’s house after it came out on DVD, and it wasn’t half bad. Then I had to review the second movie for a college project, and that one wasn’t half bad either. So when the third one came out, I thought, “Why not?” and went to see it on opening night.

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Guess I’m a sucker for apes on horses or something.

There are a couple things in this movie that particularly stood out to me throughout the whole viewing experience. One is the music. Now I know why Michael Giacchino’s Spider-Man score was so underwhelming: he was saving all his talent and skill for this movie! This film relies on music every bit as much as dialogue and cinematography to tell its story, so it’s a good thing the soundtrack is so thick with atmosphere, suspense, and emotion. There are many scenes that would have been just okay on their own, but with the soundtrack, they become masterpieces. Whether it’s  a minimalistic drumbeat or a majestic choral piece, the music is always perfectly suited to what’s going on in the story. At times it reminded me of the feeling I get when listening to an early John Williams score. That’s how good it was.

Secondly, I’ve always been impressed by these movies’ ability to create believable human emotions in characters that are both fully digital and, well, very much not human. This movie does it again...but even more so. There were many times when I completely forgot I was watching CGI apes. Their performances just seem so real, thanks to a combination of great acting and freaking miraculous animation. And in this movie, those performances get to take centre stage. My biggest problem with Dawn was that it spent a lot of time on bland, uninteresting human characters, when I only cared about the apes. This movie fixes that problem by focusing almost exclusively on its simian characters. There are really only two humans with any significance to the plot: the young girl and The Colonel. And they’re both quite interesting, actually, so I didn’t even mind the few scenes that focus on them.

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She’s too cute! I can’t stand it!

The apes are still the most interesting, though. Maurice the orangutan is awesome as always, and the new member of the crew, Bad Ape, provides some much-needed comic relief in what is often a very dark film.

But can I just talk for a second about how amazing Andy Serkis is? Yes, the animators deserve a lot of credit for putting his facial expressions and body language onto Caesar, but he’s the one who had to make those facial expressions in the first place. He inhabits the role with so much power and pent-up emotion, and then every once in a while, he EXPLODES and it’s beautiful to see. Over the course of three movies, he really has created an iconic character in Caesar, right up there with his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. As good as certain other elements are, his acting is the heart and soul of this whole trilogy. The man is great at what he does, and if there were any justice in the world, he’d have at least two or three Oscar nominations under his belt by now.

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I know, dude. It’s messed up.

So the movie has a lot going for it, production-wise, and that’s a mighty good thing, because this is a story about talking apes that asks its audience to take it 100 percent seriously. It is a bleak, tragic film about a post-apocalyptic war that occasionally delves into heavy philosophical territory. And it’s about apes. Who, I kid you not, fling poo at one point. If anything–the acting, the special effects, the writing–had gone the slightest bit wrong, this movie would have become a farce.

But fortunately, almost nothing seems to have gone wrong on the production side, so I can actually identify with things like Caesar’s desire for revenge, and his fear that he’s becoming more like his old enemy, Koba. Like in the previous movies, the toxic cycle of fear and hatred comes up a lot. In addition to the usual prejudice between humans and apes, we also see both apes and humans betraying each other out of fear, and Caesar finds his own hatred driving him to do more morally questionable things. And as it becomes clear that the apes are getting even smarter and humans are starting to regress, some questions come up about what really makes them different from one another. Speech? Culture? Violence? Or does it not even matter? Does the amount of mercy and compassion you’re capable of showing matter more than the amount of body hair you’ve got?

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“SO EMOTIONAL!”

There’s a lot of religious symbolism in this movie, which surprised me for some reason. It’s pretty common for post-apocalyptic stories to feature vaguely Christian-sounding cults with insane leaders, and sure enough, the villain in this movie has delusions of God-hood. Since the other two movies didn’t show any tendencies in that direction, I guess I wasn’t expecting it here, but I didn’t necessarily mind it. It’s not usually too heavy-handed, and it does set up a nice contrast between the villain, with his twisted ideas of what sacrifice for the greater good looks like, and Caesar, who knows more about what it really means. There were also a few times when I was vaguely reminded of certain current events (the building of a wall becomes a plot point in the second half) but fortunately, it never felt like the movie was trying to push a political message. It’s much too subtle for that. Very few things are spelled out for the audience.

Overall, what we have here is a well-made, often moving, always gorgeous film that is well worth watching and discussing. It’s the best movie in the trilogy, and it’s the best movie about apes I’ve ever seen. And Andy Serkis is just the best.

Grade: A for “APES! TOGETHER! STRONG!”

Titan A.E.

I promise I’ll get back to reviewing new movies soon. It’s just that not too many interesting ones are being released right now, at least not at my town’s tiny theatre, so this seems like a good time to catch up on older films I haven’t seen before.

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This little cartoon, released in 2000, starts off with a bang: in the year 3028 A.D., the Earth gets blown up by some evil energy beings called the Drej. A scientist has to leave his young son on an escaping space ship so he can pilot a mysterious super ship, known as the Titan, to an unknown location. Fast forward 15 years, and the son (who is unfortunately named Cale–I think the vegetable kale craze was still a few years away when this was made) is eking out a living at a salvage station in deep space. But one day a stranger named Korso shows up to tell him that his father left behind a map to the Titan’s hiding place that only Cale can open, and that the ship could save what’s left of the human race. So they set off, along with a pretty pilot named Akima and a few alien crew members, to find the ship before the Drej can destroy it.

I’ve wanted to watch this movie for a long time–and I mean a really long time. I was eight when it came out, and I remember seeing commercials for it on TV. Back then I barely knew what sci-fi was, and the concept of the Earth getting destroyed was a brand new, terrifying idea for me. So I was pretty intrigued by the movie, but then it came out…and I never heard anything about it again. Apparently it made so little money that it almost single-handedly destroyed the studio that made it (Fox Animation). But I recently found a copy of the DVD, and I just couldn’t pass up the chance to see it.

One thing’s for sure: this movie did not deserve to fail as badly as it did. It’s got a decent story, a creative universe, and some freaking incredible visuals. A mix of hand-drawn and computer-generated animation brings to life a ton of amazing alien worlds and outer-space imagery. When a movie begins with the most impressive blowing-up-a-planet shot I’ve ever seen, I know it’s going to be a fun ride. And this one didn’t disappoint. Just a couple of the scenes where the animation made my jaw drop: the part where Cale pilots a ship through the atmosphere of a gas planet while accompanied by what look like cosmic stingrays; and the scene where the heroes are flying through an ice field and have to figure out where the villains’ ship is among all the reflections. It puts most Disney cartoons I’ve seen to shame.

Where’s an IMAX screen when you need one?

That being said, I can understand why it wasn’t a hit. See if any of this sounds familiar: A young man with a weird haircut and daddy issues, who happens to be one of very few humans in his spacefaring culture, discovers a map that only he can open, which ends up leading him to a planet-shaped machine of incalculable value, while his mentor betrays him but ultimately turns good again, and the whole thing is soundtracked by turn-of-the-millennium punk rock. If that rings a bell, it’s probably because you’ve seen Treasure Planet, Disney’s steampunk adaptation of Treasure Island, which came out around the same time. I’m not sure who was copying whom (this one came out first, but they were in production at the same time), but the similarities are eerie. And both movies, sadly, bombed in theatres, even though Treasure Planet is one of the best Disney movies ever.

Also, I couldn’t quite figure out who Titan A.E.‘s target audience was. Some of the characters and humour seem designed to appeal to younger kids, but the overall tone of the story feels more adult. And it definitely has more blood and nakedness than you’d expect in your average kids’ movie–though perhaps not more than you’d expect in a Don Bluth movie. Every cartoon of his that I saw as a kid gave me nightmares, so maybe it’s for the best that it took me so long to see this one.

The lack of a discernible target audience doesn’t necessarily make for a bad movie, but the story does have some genuine flaws. The biggest, for me, is a lack of development for the villains. We know the Drej are trying to destroy humanity because they think they’ll become a threat to them if they’re allowed to survive, but we never really find out why they think that, whether it’s true, or what form that threat could take. The manner in which the aliens are finally defeated suggests a few possibilities, but I would have liked their motivations explained a little better.

Yeah…that doesn’t count as a motive, no matter what Marvel tells you.

But there’s one thing I really like about this movie, which sets it apart from others of its type. In most of the movies I’ve seen where a planet gets destroyed (isn’t it weird how many there are to choose from?), the loss of an entire habitat is usually glossed over in favour of a larger story. A New Hope, Star Trek, any number of Doctor Who episodes…heck, The Force Awakens blows up five planets at once and hardly blinks! This is the first movie I’ve seen that really delves into the consequences of such a mass destruction–the feeling of homelessness and aimlessness that a species without a planet might experience, and their need to find a place to belong. It put me in mind of real-life refugees, and how they must feel when they’re forced to leave home and settle in unfamiliar and often unfriendly places. Overall, it’s not bad material for a sci-fi film to explore.

The guy on the right is voiced by baby Matt Damon, so we can add this to the list of movies where he’s been lost in space. What oddly specific type-casting.

It’s hard not to compare this movie to Treasure Planet, even though they really are very different films under the surface. Titan A.E.‘s visuals blow Treasure Planet‘s out of the water–which is saying something, because that movie is gorgeous, too. But I think Treasure Planet had a better story. It was based on a classic novel, after all.

But despite its flaws, I found Titan A.E. a very fun, enjoyable sci-fi flick. It’s worth watching just for the visuals, and the story isn’t bad either. And, of course, I’ll always be in its debt for inspiring my life-long love of explosions in space.

KABOOOM!!!!

Grade: B+

Primer

To quote Keanu Reeves: “Whoa.”

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Primer is an odd little sci-fi film that came out in 2004. (And when I say “little,” I mean it was written, directed, produced, cast and scored by one guy–who also stars in it.) It’s about a couple of young entrepreneurs, Abe and Aaron, who are tinkering with electronics in a garage when they realise that their latest invention has an unexpected quirk. Simply put, it allows time travel. The two guys start using their machine to rewind each day and use their knowledge of the future to get rich off the stock market–always being very careful to avoid their past selves. But eventually they realise someone else has discovered their secret…and that’s when things get complicated.

I have always thought of myself as a pretty huge nerd. I wear it as a badge of pride, in fact. I read books about black holes for fun; I can recite the names of all the Valar in The Silmarillion; I care about stuff like the Oxford comma and British vs. American spelling (I hope you can tell which side I’m on there); and I have always loved brainy, hard science fiction that takes some effort to puzzle out. The Martian, Interstellar, Moon, Inception…all of those would be in my Top 10 list of movies if I could actually narrow down my favourites to just 10.

But it’s finally happened. I have found the movie that is too nerdy for me.

FOR SCIENCE!!!

Time travel has always been one of the staple concepts of science fiction. It shows up in all kinds of movies, both good and bad. But as most writers have realised, time travel is also one of the most deep, complicated premises ever devised. Can one actually change the past, or is everything pre-ordained? Does changing the past create an alternate universe? Does knowing the future take away one’s free will? If you run into your past or future self, does it create a paradox that destroys the world, or can the two of you just hang out?  Most movies that deal with time travel focus on one or two of these questions, and just conveniently ignore anything else that’s not important to the story. And of course, most movies throw anything resembling real-world science out the window as soon as they bring up time travel.

But this one doesn’t. This movie is the closest thing I’ve seen to a realistic portrayal of time travel. There are no alternate universes, no signs of “wormhole magic” as one character puts it, and no flashing lights or Deloreans. It even manages to make the time machine sound plausible–largely because the characters speak only in physics jargon and always sound like they know what they’re talking about, even if I don’t. And honestly, it’s…kind of terrifying. Without bringing up any of the usual time travel problems, like preventing one’s own birth or accidentally letting the Nazis win, it still manages to make interfering with the past seem like a very bad idea.

For one thing, you’ve gotta lug these big oxygen tanks around.

Technically, this movie falls under my “if it’s 10 years old, I can spoil it” rule, but I’m not going to spoil the ending. Mainly because I’m still not entirely sure I understand it. I don’t think it’s possible to understand this movie’s ending the first time through unless you’re unusually smart, and possibly have a background in physics and/or computer science. The timeline is incredibly intricate, a lot of important things happen off-screen, and, like I said, the dialogue is almost entirely made up of rapid-fire engineer talk. There are some helpful charts and graphs that can be found online explaining the whole thing, but just the fact that you need a graph to understand this movie speaks volumes. This movie is rated PG-13, but since there’s nary a hint of sexual content or violence, and only the mildest of language, I’m forced to conclude it received that rating just because the MPAA couldn’t figure out what the heck they were watching.

Personally, I think Primer could have tried a little harder to explain what was going on to viewers like me. But on the other hand, it’s kind of nice to see a movie that over-estimates its audience’s intelligence for once. Most movies these days are so committed to dumbing everything down and spelling everything out, that it makes me wonder: if more movies assumed their audiences were smart, would we actually become smarter?

There are some things about Primer that you don’t need a graph to understand. Underneath the confusing timeline and the crazy science, this is fundamentally the story of a friendship that goes bad because of a lack of trust. All of Abe and Aaron’s problems (and they do end up with a pile of them) can be traced back to their inability to trust each other with the technology they invented, even as they exploit it together. Greed is also a problem. Because their first instinct is to use the machine to get rich, they ignore its potential for more beneficial purposes until it’s too late. And in their pursuit of wealth and fame, they end up alienating everyone in their lives, including each other. It’s really a rather straightforward cautionary tale–if you ignore the timeline. Which you can’t. It’s still bugging me.

See? They’re standing so far apart in all the shots by the end of the movie.

In a meta sense, the most amazing thing about this movie is how much it accomplishes with so little. It was made on a $7,000 budget. $7,000! You can barely get a decent used car for that money, let alone a decent set. The cast and crew is basically one guy with no film experience, and a few of his friends and family. It’s shot in about three locations, on a noticeably cheap camera. And it’s one of the most mind-blowing sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen.  So let that be a lesson: if you’re an aspiring filmmaker, but you don’t have that much money or any big studio connections, you can still make art! You just have to be really, really smart about it.

All that to say: I don’t think I’m quite smart enough to fully understand Primer, at least not without watching it a few more times, but I sorta like being outsmarted once in a while. If you like your movies more straightforward, you probably won’t be a fan of this one. But if you’re a big enough nerd to be in its target audience, you won’t be content with just one viewing.

Grade: A

Rogue One

Star Wars is back! Merry Christmas, everybody!!

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I hesitate to call this movie a prequel, because we all know how Star Wars is with prequels, but…yeah, it’s a prequel. Taking place in the weeks just before the beginning of A New HopeRogue One: A Star Wars Story follows the Rebellion’s efforts to find the newly-completed Death Star’s weakness and destroy it. To do this, they rescue Jyn Erso, the estranged daughter of the super weapon’s chief engineer, from an Imperial prison in the hope that she can help them get to her father. Jyn is reluctant to join the rebel cause at first, but that changes once she finds out her father is secretly working for the same cause, and that he has purposefully placed a strategic weakness inside the planet-destroying weapon. After seeing what the weapon is capable of, she decides to risk everything to save the galaxy from its power. Together with rebel captain Cassian Andor, his reprogrammed Imperial droid, and a team of other misfits, she sets out on a desperate mission to steal the plans to the Death Star.

You know how, ever since The Phantom Menace came out, most every Star Wars fan over the age of 10 has been clamouring for Jar-Jar Binks’ head on a stick? Well, we’ll probably never get to see Jar-Jar die on-screen, but in a metaphorical sense, I think Rogue One will go down in history as the movie that killed him. Everything about it is the absolute antithesis of every idea that led to Jar-Jar’s existence. It’s the first episode of the Star Wars franchise that actually feels like a war movie. There are no flippy lightsaber battles, very few goofy aliens, and absolutely no attempts to pander to the kid demographic. Just a bunch of outnumbered, outgunned underdogs trying to fight back any way they can against a hugely powerful enemy.

Walkers vs. runners. Not good odds.

And it is dark. This movie makes The Empire Strikes Back look like…well, I was going to say ‘a Disney movie.’ How did Star Wars become less Disney after Disney acquired it? However it happened, Rogue One is not the type of fairy tale that made its parent company famous. For starters, none of the characters are exactly pure good. Almost all of them are trying to atone for past misdeeds, some of which were done on behalf of the Rebellion. And as for beating the bad guys–well, anyone who’s seen A New Hope knows that the Rebels succeed in getting the Death Star plans, but it’s pretty clear from the outset that it’s not going to be easy. The Rogue One team is made up of a few brand new characters who don’t appear in any movies that come later chronologically, fighting thousands of Stormtroopers who can actually aim for once and have an oversized gun–and a certain Sith Lord–backing them up. So…don’t get too attached to anybody, is what I’m saying.

Speaking of which, it’s hard to develop a lot of totally new characters in a movie as action-heavy as this one, but the Rogue One crew does a pretty good job overall. Jyn may be another female, British, brunette lead with anger issues, but she still manages not to come across like a Rey clone. Unfortunately, she’s also not as much fun to watch as Rey. (Which was a pretty high bar to clear.) But her partner, Cassian, is interesting enough to make up for it, with his moral ambiguity and need to atone for his past driving much of the movie’s (superior) second half. The blind, Force-believing ninja guy and his heavily-armed sidekick are a welcome addition, as well. But the best new character by far is the droid, K2SO, voiced by the great Alan Tudyk. His wonderful sarcasm and cynicism provides the movie some much-needed comic relief, and he’s also a lot better in a fight than most Star Wars droids. Alan Tudyk tends to be one of the best things about any movie he’s in, and this one is no exception.

Must be nice for Wash to look down on someone for once.

But while the heroes are pretty much all brand new, there are some familiar faces here, too. Moff Tarkin manages to make several appearances, despite the fact that his actor has been dead for more than 20 years. The CGI work used to accomplish this is some of the best I’ve ever seen–which means it only occasionally looks like someone put a cartoon head on a live-action body. There are a few other cameos from the Original Trilogy, some of which feel more forced than others.

But none of that really matters. What matters is that DARTH VADER IS BACK. And he’s here to remind us why he’s the baddest Big Bad of all pop culture. Vader’s only on screen for maybe five minutes total, but he makes every single second count. He’s never been more terrifying–or more awesome–than he is in the final scenes of this movie.

“Asdfasdlkfjasdjfhkj!!!!!!” – Me, during this scene.

Although Rogue One feels, if possible, even more like a love letter to the Original Trilogy than The Force Awakens did, it stands out from the rest of the franchise in a lot of ways. For one thing, it’s the first movie not to have the classic opening text stretching out to the stars. It’s the first movie without a soundtrack by John Williams (although Michael Giacchino imitates him pretty well). It’s the first movie without any Jedi in sight. And, based on my first viewing, I believe it’s the first movie in the series not to feature a Wilhelm scream.

It also differs from the rest of the series in its willingness to acknowledge the cost of a rebellion. Star Wars has always had a bit of a cavalier attitude towards unnamed casualties. It takes Leia about five seconds to get over the destruction of her planet in the very first movie, and most of the X-Wing pilots who die throughout the trilogy don’t get so much as a moment of silence from the rest of the cast. You could argue that the movies are just too full of plot and action to dwell on those casualties, but regardless, Rogue One is important because it finally makes those background sacrifices seem real and meaningful. Where other movies in the series have glossed over the issue, this one confronts the truth that defeating evil is never easy, and never comes without a price.

And it does so while still giving us the coolest, most epic battle sequence in Star Wars history. Good job, Gareth Edwards. I completely forgive you for Godzilla.

You thought TFA had some nice fight scenes? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

It might just be because my expectations were lower, but I think I like Rogue One even more than The Force Awakens. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a strong contender for the title of Second Best Star Wars Movie Ever. (Nothing will ever beat The Empire Strikes Back, obviously.) It’s not perfect–the first half feels a bit disjointed at times, with all the skipping about between planets, and for all his awesomeness, I can’t deny that Darth Vader does make a pun at one point. But most of my complaints about this film could also be made about every other Star Wars film, and it compensates for them in so many more ways than its predecessors. Rogue One is as good as Star Wars gets, and that’s good enough for me.

So far, this movie is my favourite Christmas present.

Grade: A

Arrival

It’s a great time to be a sci-fi fan. It seems to be the only genre that still produces smart, creative movies on a semi-regular basis–and they just keep on getting better. This year’s model is Arrival.

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It starts by introducing us to Louise, the linguistics professor who will be the movie’s protagonist. But before we get to know her language skills, she’s shown as a mother, welcoming her brand new daughter to the world. In about five minutes, we see the daughter play in the backyard with her mom, struggle with school, grow into a rebellious teenager, get diagnosed with a rare disease, and die in a hospital bed, leaving Louise alone and grieving. This will all become incredibly important later.

But the story proper kicks off when 12 strange extraterrestrial objects land in 12 different countries around planet Earth. The world’s scientists, military leaders, and politicians are naturally very eager to find out why the aliens inside have come (and whether they’ve got any death rays), but there’s a problem: the alien creatures, dubbed “heptapods” because of their seven octopus-like limbs, don’t speak anything resembling any of our languages. As fear of the unearthly visitors spreads, Louise is recruited, along with physicist Ian, to figure out how to communicate with the heptapods who’ve landed in America before the government assumes the worst and starts shooting. But she soon finds that learning the alien language comes with…unexpected side effects.

“What’s that? I feel like we’re talking in circles here.”

I feel like the issue of language doesn’t come up often enough in alien movies. Most of the time, humans are too busy either blasting the aliens, smooching them or getting melted by them to really struggle with the quite realistic problems of deciphering a non-terrestrial language. If aliens ever did land on Earth, I expect we’d have to spend a few months learning how to say “hello” before we could decide whether or not to be friends. Always assuming neither the aliens nor humans subscribed to the “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality. Well, if you’ve always wanted a movie that meets the communication problem head-on, in a scientific manner, it has arrived. (Heh.) The movie also explores the various ways humans would respond to a first contact—from curiosity to outright worship to panic and fear. And of course there are parallels to the current rise in xenophobia in certain countries, complete with the obligatory jab at Fox News.

But despite its relevance to current events, this is, at bottom, entirely Louise’s story. I’ve always thought of Amy Adams as a good actress who gets stuck with a lot of bad roles, but this is one that really allows her to shine (Jeremy Renner is also in his element as the smart, sarcastic Ian). Her excitement and awe as a scientist confronted with the ultimate challenge is both believable and contagious. But as she begins to understand the two heptapods she’s talking to (dubbed “Abbott and Costello” due to their real names being unpronounceable) and their purpose in coming to Earth, her task becomes a lot more personal than she expected, resulting in a surprisingly emotional climax.

“Man, these aliens are so much more talkative and interesting than the last one I met.”

There’s a pretty huge twist near the end of this movie, and like most self-respecting sci-fi twists, it’s to do with time. I won’t say any more, except that it’s pulled off quite well and adds a whole new dimension to the story. And it left me with a lot to think about, including the numerous plot-related questions it left unresolved.

Arrival doesn’t have as much action or CGI as some of the bigger sci-fi blockbusters, but it’s still quite visually impressive. The scene where Louise and Ian first enter the alien ship and discover that gravity works a little differently inside is pretty jaw-dropping. The ship’s weird appearance and the unearthly noises its passengers make, combined with the eerie minimalist soundtrack, really drive home just how alien these visitors are. Which just makes it even more effective when the characters—and the audience—finally start to understand them. A bit.

But again, the visuals aren’t the star of this show. It’s a quiet, introspective, and ultimately quite idealistic movie with a message: that humans can accomplish great things by putting aside our differences and working together. And that it’s worthwhile to do so even when it involves pain. Oh, and also that you can totally breathe an alien atmosphere without any long-term health issues.

Maybe don’t take that last one to heart.

I have some quibbles with Arrival, as you can see, but overall I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys smart sci-fi. It’s a slow burn that pays off nicely in the end.

Grade: A