Trailer: “Lucy”

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What if we put Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman in a highly stylized action sci-fi that looks like “The Matrix” met “Limitless” and “Crank”? Interested? How about if Luc Besson was behind the wheel?

The basic premise of “Lucy” (by the way, Luc Besson apparently has a thing for turning people’s names into titles) is as follows: A girl (Scarlett Johansson) wakes up to discover that somebody has surgically inserted a bag of drugs inside her abdomen. Accidentally, some of that drug gets into her bloodstream and makes her uber-powerful to a point where the only thing that’s missing is Laurence Fishburne standing in the background saying ‘she’s the one’. It might not be the freshest idea ever, but – still – if there’s anyone capable of shooting aciton in a compelling way, it’s Luc Besson. And that makes me feel a bit excited, or even titillated…

“Lucy” kicks behinds on the 8th of August in the US and on the 22nd in the UK.

“Her” – Humanity gets an ‘F’

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Whenever Spike Jonze surfaces with his new film, it invariably causes a fair amount of buzz, and for a good reason. He might not be the most prolific director with only four full-feature films under his belt (and a boat-load of shorts and documentaries), but it doesn’t change the fact that each and every one of his creations is unique, cerebral and unforgettable in a way. Jonze’s films always bring something new to the table, by either inciting an intellectual conversation, or by offering an interesting new angle to a currently relevant topic, and “Her” is no different. In fact, it is much more socially relevant and brutally insightful than any other of his previous films. And it is a delight to watch. Continue reading

“Elysium” – a stunningly gorgeous case of squandered potential

However I’d like to look at it, this year hasn’t been particularly rich in good Sci-Fi so far. Sure, I should probably mention “Man of Steel” as a particularly good example, though it is still technically a reboot and a comic book adaptation, and maybe “Star Trek into Darkness” (again, a sequel to a reboot of an established franchise). Nevertheless, in the field of original Sci-Fi, apart from “Pacific Rim” that I (and nobody else) loved, it’s been real slim pickens out there. Therefore, I really hoped I could wrap up this underwhelming summer in style and “Elysium” seemed to be perfect for just that occasion.

Quite honestly, I have been anticipating Neill Blomkamp’s newest creation for months now. I’m quite certain I’m not the only one around here who was floored by the perfectionist, beautiful and painfully gritty “District 9” a few years back, and among a multitude of thoughts streaming through my brain after seeing it I remember hoping I could have another serving of this kind of delicious Sci-Fi.

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In terms of story, “Elysium” does not come across as particularly original, but stays in tune with Blomkamp’s earlier film by touching on a sensitive problem we are facing at the moment. In it, we are presented with a dystopian vision of the world that is overpopulated, poor, filthy, and dangerous, where the vast majority of people struggle to see another day, all the while the richest and the most powerful (in other words, the mythical ‘1%’) have abandoned the planet altogether to dwell on a space station called “Elysium” orbiting the Earth. Simply put, Elysium is paradise incarnate, where everyone leads happy lives oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the regular folk on Earth. Not only that, but most importantly, every citizen of Elysium has access to the cutting edge medical technology that can heal pretty much anything, thus rendering them nearly immortal.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the otherworldly technology and the standard of living makes living on Elysium a dream of everybody down on Earth. Therefore, attempts at breaching its borders with stolen spaceships seem to be quite frequent, but they are almost invariably unsuccessful with most of the illegal immigrants being caught, deported and/or killed by ruthless Homeland Security led by Delacourt (Jodie Foster) – nearly the most powerful person on Elysium.

Back on Earth, we meet Max (Matt Damon), an ex-con who works in a droid factory and is doing a particularly bad job at staying out of trouble. One morning he manages to get into an argument with a police droid and walks away with a broken arm and extended parole only to roll up at work to suffer a terrible accident that leaves him with only a couple of days to live. Knowing perfectly well that the technology on Elysium could heal the radiation poisoning that is slowly killing him, Max seeks help of a local gangster Julio (Diego Luna). In exchange for the ticket to Elysium (which doesn’t necessarily mean he would get there), Max agrees to kidnap one of the heavily guarded ‘haves’ (William Fichtner), tap into his brain and extract information that might be worth billions on the black market. What he doesn’t know is that the person he’s about to rob is in possession of data that in the right set of hands could change the course of history. All that leads to Max being put in Delacourt’s crosshairs, who sends one of her most vile and dangerous sleeper agents Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to put him out of his misery.

Even with all its shortcomings, to which I’ll get in a minute, “Elysium” did earn its place on my shelf alongside my favorite kind of Sci-Fi. Even though the story is not the strongest card in its hand, this film’s lively world and gritty atmosphere made me squeal with enjoyment all throughout the screening. I can honestly say that Blomkamp has a fantastic grasp on how to build dynamic worlds and seamlessly incorporate the Sci-Fi elements into them. In “Elysium” we don’t have an alien race that needs to be worked into the universe, but instead we’ve got tons of really cool technology that nobody wastes time explaining (a cardinal sin committed by “Oblivion”). I personally love the immersive feel Blomkamp has provided (yet again), because it was completely up to me to discover all the fine details and little geeky things. I would be really disappointed if at every turn someone had to say a line or two to help me understand what’s going on. Blomkamp definitely understands how important it is to keep the viewer ‘in the zone’ at all times and how such moments would most definitely break the immersion. Sure, at times it is necessary to provide some details about what’s going to happen, but even at that, Blomkamp doesn’t really slow the pace down for us to catch up.

I think it’s not going to be a stretch if I say that “Elysium” is a near perfect example of how the Sci-Fi components should be incorporated into a film to create and engaging experience for the genre aficionados, because that’s to whom Neil Blomkamp has definitely addressed all his efforts. While I believe everybody can find “Elysium” very entertaining (it is, after all, a high quality big budget Sci-Fi film with high-profile cast and fantastic special effects), it’s the bunch of young adults (and adults) raised on video games, who will find this film to be a rollercoaster of genre-winking that will bring a smile to their faces. Seriously, how could I stay indifferent to the idea of the main character casually using a rail-gun that is not even mentioned in the story? And that’s not the end: from the combat exoskeletons, police droids, through brain chips ran on Norton Commander, all the way to personal force fields, “Elysium” is simply full of meticulously designed details that immensely help to lose oneself in this wonderfully crafted world of disparity and violence.

 

Having said all that, “Elysium” while perfect in its visuals, attention to detail and geeky references, it falls short in quite a few other departments. The first and the most important major concern I have with this film has to do with its story. As someone who values films most often for their storytelling, I regret to say that “Elysium” could have been written a bit better. It’s not that I dislike Blomkamp’s writing altogether, because I did enjoy the way the story was presented and paced, but I would like to have seen more emphasis laid on the characters, even at the cost of longer running time or the action sequences. I understand completely that a Sci-Fi film has to juggle way too many balls in order to get everything right, but all things considered, even a great spectacle can be destroyed by terrible writing.

As much as I enjoyed the story, even with its simplicity and all too conveniently placed characters and plot points, I think in general too much focus is placed in it on the wider universe and establishing the atmosphere. At some point the world starts to live on its own and doesn’t require additional hand-holding, so that the emphasis could be shifted towards something else. Sadly, the deeper we go into the story, the more “Elysium” fails to develop. For instance, all throughout the film we can learn so much about life on Earth and see it as a well-designed thriving world, all the while Elysium itself seems to be completely disregarded. As a result, I couldn’t help but think this so-called paradise was empty and devoid of any character. Empty houses, empty rooms… Plus, almost all of the sparse characters felt severely underwritten. In all honesty, it might have been done by design in order to elevate the sense of privilege and class disparity if Elysium was actually almost uninhabited, but something tells me it was not the case. Taking into account how nearly all characters (including Jodie Foster) looked undeveloped and glossed over, I can only assume that Blomkamp spent way too much time obsessing over the grit and dust on the Earth side of things and forgot to breathe life into the main players on stage.

Speaking of Jodie Foster, I can’t really stay silent about her performance, which was disappointing at best. That woman doesn’t really fit very well as a cold-hearted ‘catch-you-next-Tuesday’, which as a result made her character look blown out of proportion and comical, especially with that fake accent that she clearly could not pull off. Maybe if we got some more background on her, and/or more on-screen time, things could be different, but as a villain Jodie Foster was definitely out of her depth.

Not to worry, though. On the other hand, wherever Jodie Foster’s character fell short of expectations, Sharlto Copley’s Kruger made up for it in style. On some level, I don’t think if I’d be too far off by saying that Jodie Foster was only posed as the main baddie of the film, whereas it was Copley who was the true villain all along. Normally, I wouldn’t mind that kind of misdirection because of its eventual inconsequentiality. What I was disappointed with in the end was the fact that Kruger’s character whilst being potentially so rich, vibrant and layered, ended up receiving even worse treatment in the writing department than Jodie Foster’s Delacourt.

I was seriously dying to learn the importance of Kruger’s implants, the reason his weapon of choice was a katana, and most importantly, what his motives were. In return, I got exactly nothing in that regard. I can only consider it a wasted opportunity, because Kruger quickly becomes as one-dimensional as it gets. Sure, he gets to be a major boss in the story and all his abilities and what-not are there, but he could have been so much more. Thanks to lack of attention, Copley’s character goes all too quickly from disturbingly terrifying to a baddie with a sword, and it weren’t for that, “Elysium” in my opinion would have had the chance to become something more than a just another beautifully wrapped Sci-Fi story.

As much as I’d like to be able to say otherwise, “Elysium” as a whole is a wasted potential to redefine the genre. It wouldn’t really need much more than to balance the beautiful visuals and perfectly crafted world with a compelling story inhabited by relatable and vivid characters. In terms of atmosphere and the overall Sci-Fi experience, I can only congratulate Blomkamp, because “Elysium” is a very fun ride. Really, if at any point in time somebody out there decides to adapt the “Fallout” universe for the big screen, I believe that Blomkamp would be a fine man for the job. He clearly gets the post-apocalyptic vibe and like no-one else has the ability to smear the Sci-Fi onto real life to eliminate its artificial smell. However, I cannot accept a poorly written story just because the film looks beautiful. I really need my characters to jump off the page (or at least have more than one dimension) and no amount of grit and geeky tech can make up for that. As a result, what could have been ground breaking, ended up just very good. I know it looks as if I didn’t like “Elysium” – far from it – but I really expected Neill Blomkamp to dazzle me, which he did only partially…

“Pacific Rim” – Nerdgasm!

I have no real idea where to start this little review of mine, so I think it best to go back to my very childhood, when it all began. And it looks like it’s going to be a long one.

You see, in my younger years before I could proudly call myself a teenager, the bulk of my exposure to cinema was limited to two main streams: actioners (which are a topic for a separate occasion) and sci-fi; the horror came a few years after. Even now I can remember clearly the smell of my favorite VHS tapes with “SW: New Hope”, or “The Terminator”, and the sound they made when inserted into the VHS player, or the horror when the player would try to eat them. I could only watch them before or after school in the living room provided my dad wasn’t around, because he would immediately assume control of the remote and have me stop whatever I was doing. After all, ‘how many times can you watch the same movies over and over again’, he’d wonder before sending me off…

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Right, so apart from my sacred VHS tapes that I guarded with my life, I (a 9-year-old brat) had my favorite film rental place that I visited daily looking for some new eye-candy. The owners didn’t mind I was renting some really brutal stuff (well, they didn’t allow me to watch “Alien” until I was a bit older), but for the most part I could watch whatever I wanted; and all this was paid for with the money I used to scrounge up by not eating at school all that much. I know, very healthy… I did have some sandwiches, but whatever money I got to buy something to drink was always inadvertently saved up for a movie fund.

One fine day, I took a film from the Sci-Fi shelf that was called “Robot Jox”. I took it home, watched it with my mouth wide open, and I can’t really stress how awesome it felt, but I think I had my first nerdgasm then and there. I quickly continued and watched it three more times before I had to take it back to the rental place, but I was hooked for life at this point in time. If you haven’t seen “Robot Jox”, it’s a film about a world where instead of conventional warfare, the humanity decided to solve all territorial and/or political disputes by staging epic fights between gigantic robots piloted by the bravest of men. Need I say more? Giant mechs, fights, sci-fi… What more could a nerdy boy want from a movie?

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After “Robot Jox” came “Robot wars” (the unofficial sequel to “Robot Jox”), and after that I discovered the breadth of Godzilla films. Needless to say I watched them all multiple times. And to top it all off, almost as a cherry on the nerdy cake of awesome, came “Tosho Daimos”. If you lived in Poland in the early 90’s and had access to a TV, and if you were born in the 80’s – well, there was no chance you didn’t know what “Tosho Daimos” was. For the unfortunate few, “Tosho Daimos” was a very old (made in late 70’s) anime TV series aired under various names in various countries that told a story of the Earth’s struggle with an alien nation of angel-like humanoids that involved the aforementioned aliens sending giant robots to destroy us. And our last line of defense was Daimos – a giant bad-ass transformer robot piloted by a karate master Kazuya, where the pilot was in sync with the machine and the robot mimicked every move made by its pilot. Note here, that “Tosho Daimos” actually predates “Transformers”, just sayin’… And standing here now I can say that I still consider “Tosho Daimos” to be the pinnacle of awesomeness and a provider of the weekly nerdgasmic experiences in my gleeful times of youth. If you sum it all up with other giant mechs and monsters, you’ll get the idea where my biggest soft spot is and how to touch it.

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That brings us to 2013 – with the summer season in its latter half I have seen some really epic nerdy entertainment (“Man of Steel” and “Star Trek Into Darkness”), as well as some really tragically bad (“Iron Man 3″, pretty much… Note that the other usual suspects, “The Lone Ranger” or “White House Down” don’t open in the UK for another while), but there was one film that I have been waiting for the most, and it was Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim”. I have seen all the trailers and featurettes, all the interviews; I’ve been following the viral campaign and participating in the collective hype, because to me “Pacific Rim” was not just another blockbuster, but it was supposed to be a journey in time to those wonderful years when I discovered my inner nerd.

I think it’s safe to say that just minutes before the lights were dimmed and the screening was about to commence, I was a bit nervous, because I subconsciously feared “Pacific Rim” could probably never satisfy my expectations that I have been building up throughout all my life. Up to that point, there have been only a few titles (“Independence Day” to name one) that have managed to tickle my inner nerd in a way it’s been tickled back in the day. I don’t want to sound dismissive of some really awesome cinema that I had the privilege to watch over the years, but I believe there was only a handful that made me squeal internally like a little piggy. And in the department of giant robots and/or monsters, I haven’t really seen anything worthy of being the torch carrier in the nerdy marathon that is my life.

Up till now, that is, because “Pacific Rim” was just awesome! It was everything I hoped it would be and more. It was over 2 hours of brilliant entertainment that teleported me back 20 years and made me feel like that young boy again discovering the meaning of cool.

Before going any further I should probably say a few words on the film’s synopsis. In that regard, imagine that at some point this year, a monster of unbelievable size walks out of the Pacific Ocean and levels San Francisco. It takes a good deal of military effort to actually bring it down, but we are ultimately successful, we bury our dead, start to rebuild and go about are lives. But then another one shows up, and another… and another… Before we know it, we are under full-frontal attack from what we refer to as kaiju (jap. giant monster) and our regular forces are simply not enough. To overcome the threat that we uncover to be coming from an inter-dimensional rift deep in the Pacific Ocean, the mankind gets together and develops The Jaeger Program – a program that involves building massive robots matching the kaiju in proportions, so that we could fight them on equal grounds. Because the scale and complexity of piloting the Jaeger robots turns out too much for a single human to handle, each of them carries two pilots who link up their minds in the process called ‘neural handshake’ and act as one mental entity piloting the uber-massive mech.

After the initial success of the Jaeger program, mankind pushes back the kaiju onslaught, but soon thereafter the monsters evolve and adapt to fight the robots. After one too many terrible defeat, the Jaeger Program led by a veteran pilot Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is about to be scrapped and humans decide to build massive walls on the Pacific shores hoping to contain the threat. Pentecost doesn’t believe walling off and isolation is going to work against the more and more powerful kaiju streaming from the rift, so he decides to attempt to go all-in and bring the war to the kaiju. He brings together whatever Jaegers are still operational along with their pilot teams, he recruits a washed-up former superstar pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and with a helping hand from a pair of (maybe a bit too wacky) scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) he devises a plan that would hopefully end the war once and for all.

I think it needs to go down in writing that if there’s a person out there capable of making a super-nerdy sci-fi blockbuster of epic proportions, it is Guillermo Del Toro. The film starts off in high gear and doesn’t slow down for a second with the volume of brilliantly produced imagery and action. On top of all that, the attention to detail in the production design is simply outstanding. Everything in “Pacific Rim” has been carefully designed and nothing looks to have been glossed over. Every little thing from the pilot costumes, door knobs, through lively cities being trampled, all the way to the kaiju and jaegers – they are all designed with the utmost diligence. Plus, contrary to, say, “Transformers” (pick any of the three) “Pacific Rim” actually makes you aware that what you see on screen are not toys, but massive giant robots that suffer from intertia and everything else that goes with humongous mass.

With all that, the fights (the bulk of the film) are extremely dynamic and creatively designed. At no point in time “Pacific Rim” gets boring with the sensory overload, but rather Del Toro’s ideas keep on teasing your ‘geek within’ with cooler and cooler stuff. Probably thanks to the careful design, the film’s CG effects don’t even feel artificial, so the overall experience does not wear off after a while, but rather carries on with the awesome entertainment.

 

As a plus I may add that I was worried initially that “Pacific Rim” would fall victim to the very common phenomenon of having all the best scenes and sequences revealed during the marketing campaign (“World War Z” is a perfect example of just that), but in all honesty, the trailers tease maybe a small fraction of what “Pacific Rim” has to offer in terms of imagery. And quite frankly, the amount of cool sequences I’ve seen in it was so overwhelming I couldn’t even cherry-pick the best ones. There were just too many. In fact, the whole film (from a perspective of a day or so) feels to have been a near constant stream of action and epic battles with only little breaks in between.

Nothing in the world is perfect, though, and “Pacific Rim” does have flaws, most of them in the characters and the plot development. As you might expect, spectacles of that scale very often suffer from a generic and/or underdeveloped story. While the story in “Pacific Rim” in the general sense holds together quite well, the characters, their backstories and their dynamism tend to be quite underwhelming. It looks to me that Travis Beacham (who wrote the script) was more concerned in getting the universe right, a task in which he was most successful. The world is pieced together quite believably with only a few major leaps in logic, but I dare say that any sci-fi suffers from that condition to certain extent. The neural handshake and the phenomenon of drifting are explained quite well, and most attempts at challenging the logic in the general story are answered somehow within the story, so all potential holes look to be patched up convincingly, so I wasn’t majorly bothered there. Additionally, if you’re interested in a greater backstory to “Pacific Rim”, Travis Beacham has released a graphic novel (“Pacific Rim: Tales from the Year Zero”) that fills in the blanks between the first sightings of kaiju and where the film picks up.

Sadly, as much as I loved the universe of “Pacific Rim”, I couldn’t say the same about the character arcs. They are as generic as they can possibly be with the war-torn scarred veterans struggling to get back in stride, maverick-type jocks, rookies hoping to prove themselves in the eyes of their leader, stencil-type crazy scientists who do crazy crap and think later, but are ultimately vital to the success of the mission, hard-boiled veteran generals who are a bit softer on the inside, and so on…

Does the mediocrity of the characters destroy “Pacific Rim”? Hell, no! If – hypothetically – the characters in it were completely rewritten more creatively, I think nothing about the film would have ultimately changed, simply because between the epic battles and rampaging kaiju there is little space for it. In the end, nobody cares, because there’s more stuff happening at any given moment for anybody to stop and think whether Raleigh’s personal problems are a bit too sketchy. And apart from all that, a film like “Pacific Rim” needs a good one-liner here and there, a cast of characters that don’t overwhelm the screen with their problems and a good pep talk before all hell breaks loose – this is the modern-day “Independence Day” in all respects.

In summary, “Pacific Rim” is just about a perfect summer blockbuster in my view and it saddens me to see that it’s not doing very well in the box office. But then again, it is not a film for everyone. If you happen to have been more of a popular guy in school and you were never picked last for a football team, chances are you will never get this film on a level that I did. Because for us, nerds, giant robots and monsters are special and we tend to get excited about things that normal people would dismiss in a film like “Pacific Rim”. For an average customer, whether a robot wields a sword or not is nothing big. Personally, I can’t even find proper words to describe how cool it looks when a massive Jaeger draws a sword – it’s just a whole new level of awesome. Guillermo Del Toro in “Pacific Rim” is clearly communicating in a language privy only to a certain kind of people; people who would never call action figures ‘toys’ and who would gladly engage in a serious discussion about the intricacies of fighting a dragon. And quite fortunately, I happen to be one of those, for whom “Pacific Rim” was made. Are you?

Shortcake #15 – “Dr Easy”

Note to self: if I ever need to be reminded why I like Sci-Fi at all, I shall simply watch a short like that one – “Dr Easy”. It has been released a couple of days ago and its story is based on a chapter from an apparently fantastic novel “The Red Men” by Matthew De Abaitua. By the way, now that I have seen the short, I think it is vital for me to go and read the book. Why? Because, simply put, this might be the kind of sci-fi I love the most – the dirty kind.

While I enjoy any type of science-fiction, what “Dr Easy” has to offer is pushing just the right buttons for me. In short, it’s not so much of a story, but a sequence, in which a medical robot (Dr Easy) attends a crime scene of some sort where an armed man has barricaded himself in a house and the police has siege’d the building up. What Dr Easy tries to do is ensure the man comes out of it alive, by tending to his wounds and trying to calm him down, while the heavily armed SWAT units are just outside waiting to strike. And that’s pretty much it.

What the makers of “Dr Easy” are trying to accomplish here by presenting the world with this beautifully crafted short is to create enough buzz to get their full project funded. I don’t know, how this will pan out, but if they attracted attention of some major studios, we might see a proper feature adaptation of “The Red Men” in the cinemas. I, for one, cannot wait for it to happen, because both stylistically and in terms of story-telling, “Dr Easy” places the bar very high. The special effects are subtle and complement the story perfectly without overshadowing it. While the dialogue is sparse in the film, the whole story is suspenseful and compelling. Therefore, if the makers –once funded – deliver the full feature to the standard set by “Dr Easy”, we might have a blockbuster on our hands.

So, if you have 10 minutes to spare, give “Dr Easy” a go. It’s a lovely little Sci-Fi short that reminded me that the genre is still in good shape – alive and kicking. Let’s just hope “Dr Easy” becomes the full feature it deserves to be. If “Mama” could do it (see the short here and read my review of the feature here), I see no reason why this project would not get funded. Enjoy.

“After Earth” – M. Night Shyamalan’s last ditch effort

Summer turns out not to be the most friendly time of the year – especially when you are a film. The competition is fierce and all kinds of high-budget productions roam the screens in search for box office revenue. Therefore, if you are not a superhero flick or a high-profile Sci-Fi (i.e. Star Trek Into Darkness), you’re bound to be fighting an uphill battle to break even. The struggle is even harder if your director seems to be cursed. Therefore, I think ‘mixed feelings’ is the most polite way I could describe my state of mind when I was about to watch “After Earth” this afternoon.

Normally, if somebody told me that a name like Will Smith was just attached to the upcoming summer Sci-Fi flick, I’d be in all kinds of heaven. Let’s face it – his name is almost a brand at this point with titles like “Independence Day”, “Bad Boys”, “I, Robot”, “MiB” virtually guaranteeing high octane entertainment and phenomenal box office turnover. Normally… but “After Earth” was not supposed to be normal, not by a long shot… Because this film was being created by none other than M. Night Shyamalan himself – and once you mention his name in public, everybody starts staring at you, as if you just farted in a church or something. I don’t intend to digress too much here, because I already have it planned for a different occasion, but one thing was clear the minute I learned Shyamalan was helming this upcoming Sci-Fi film with Will Smith in it – it was going to be something else entirely. And I wasn’t far off in the end, but not the way I anticipated.

There are a bunch of little things that make up the bulk of “After Earth”, but the general concept can be summarized in the following way: at some point in the future, the mankind has finally succeeded in destroying the planet. Therefore, humans had to evacuate Earth and move their civilization somewhere else – to a planet called Nova Prime, which is of course capable of supporting life. In order to organize the move and later to protect the people from various threats, an organisation called The Ranger Corps was brought to life where the finest warriors could play their part in keeping the mankind safe.

Fast forward one thousand years; Nova Prime settlements have been troubled by an alien race that uses monsters that sense fear to hunt down humans, and only thanks to General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) the Rangers were able to turn the tide of the war. It turns out that Cypher learned how to dismiss fear entirely thus making himself completely invisible to Ursas (the fear-sensing monsters). Once he started teaching other rangers how to master his skill, everything was more or less fine again and Cypher returned home a hero.

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Now, back at home his teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying desperately to become a ranger himself in order to prove his worth to the very distant father – and he fails, not because he lacks skill, but he has problems following orders and keeping in line. Understandably, Cypher being the military-type strict type of father is utterly disappointed in his son and the gap between the two keeps widening. Only because Kitai’s mom convinces Cypher to cut the kid some slack, he decides to take him on what is supposed to be his last mission before retiring – a perfect opportunity for the two to have some time to bond. Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan and mid-voyage their spaceship gets badly damaged by an asteroid and crashes on Earth (quite conveniently; it is somehow explained in the dialogue, but I can’t recall the details now). The only problem is that Earth after a thousand years without humans is a dangerous place to live in – completely taken over by blood-thirsty animals that look at people the way people look at bacon.

It then turns out that Kitai and Cypher are the only survivors of the crash (with Cypher being badly injured) and the only way for them to contact their compatriots is to find a distress beacon that crashed somewhere else – a perfect opportunity for young Kitai to prove to his father once and for all that he could be a Ranger. In order to achieve that, however, Kitai will have to face all kinds of deadly animals, rapidly changing weather and an Ursa that had their ship had carried before it crashed.

Now that I have seen this film I can honestly say that M. Night Shyamalan felt a bit out of his depth developing a high-concept science fiction film and, as a result, “After Earth” is a very chaotic and uneven experience. Note here that I am specifically trying to use neutral wording in order to avoid jumping on the hate train. I realize it would have been much easier for me to go on a rant here and join the crowd, but I feel it would be unfair on my part, because – all things considered – I quite liked the film with all its flaws and shortcomings. Correction: not so much liked it, but I didn’t dislike it, if that makes any sense.

I believe it is only logical to start with the good bits. First of all, I think the father and son duo of Will and Jaden Smith will remain one of the strongest points of the film in general. For one thing, they naturally have some good chemistry going and most of the scenes with both of them in the room have this weird tension – in a good way. However, we don’t get to see those too much in the film, as the bulk of “After Earth” is simply Jaden running around alone in the jungle with his father watching his every step from the safety of the wreckage. Jaden on his own acts nowhere near as good as when he is with his dad and no amount of Will Smith’s solid acting could possibly make up for that fact.

The contraptions used by the characters are also nice additions to the film. From the biologically inspired design of the spaceship with its bone-like skeleton, squishy buttons and tissue-like membranes for doors, through the mutating suit worn by Kitai, all the way up to the shape-shifting Ranger weapon – all the props in the film are designed very interestingly. Also, the CG modelling of the Ursa was quite clever, although the concept alone of a creature that finds its prey by tracking its fear was a tad underdeveloped.

 

Well, that’s all, folks… I like the premise of the film as well and I secretly hoped it would trump the ghastly “Oblivion”, but “After Earth” didn’t quite deliver. While the concept alone was more or less OK and maybe I could buy it, in the end the film offered a bit too much bulls**t to swallow in one go. I really dug the political commentary of how the planet will force us out and make sure we don’t come back, but I feel the script (co-written by Shyamalan again) would have been better if it was developed by someone experienced in designing universes from the foundations up, so that it would be actually believable and not full of gaping holes. Even though most of Shyamalan’s films involve supernatural elements, he clearly is not cut out for a job of that calibre. As much as I like the guy and understand where he’s coming from, “After Earth” ended up smothering him completely. When it comes to twists and turns and putting the characters in peril, that’s all fine and, even though it is rather expected for the characters to come out alive, he had me sitting at the edge of my seat quite a few times.

Nonetheless, a good sci-fi needs a bit more than that. While it was perfectly OK for “The Sixth Sense” to concentrate on only two characters and more importantly on fooling the viewers, “After Earth” needed a completely different approach – one that it never got. It almost looked, as though Shyamalan was forced to direct it without being able to think it through, because neither the character dynamic is established well enough to drive the film, nor the sci-fi aspect is compelling enough to be believable. A good sci-fi either requires a fully established mythos that breathes life into the world, or it needs to be completely cut off and self-contained – with no middle ground. The middle ground is where the mediocre sci-fi films go to die. Of course, it is more than welcome to expand on the cut-off variation and introduce the world in sequels or in lateral plot points, but unfortunately “After Earth” cannot be successfully assigned to any of these categories. In the end, Shyamalan tried to cook two dishes at once and he burned them both.

And I haven’t even touched on the leaps in logic and poor understanding of science that served as foundation for the entire universe in the film. I think “After Earth” would have benefited from a bit more science and less fiction. Maybe it takes a mere thousand years for the earth to go completely green again with oxygen levels being weirdly too low for humans to breath comfortably! Photosynthesis much? Also, how can anything evolve to kill humans if the humans are not around any more? It’s impossible by definition and a thousand years is nowhere near enough for anything to evolve into anything else. Luckily, the animals in the movie look mostly normal… Clearly, nobody over there knew how to tackle Sci-Fi properly. Since we live in the 21st century, we require our Sci-Fi to be properly done and fancy costumes and spaceships don’t cut it any longer.

I dare say that “After Earth” was most probably an ‘all or nothing’ move from M. Night Shyamalan. Maybe the Smith family who produced the picture kept pushing the studio to film their project and Shyamalan’s name was attached to it, because no-one else would do it… I don’t know, but the entire thing smells fishy to me. I mean, it is not even a full-blown Shyamalan movie, but it’s truncated surrogate and I can only explain it by thinking that the producers had more to say about what goes in the movie than the director would have liked. Therefore, I think it’s unfair to flog poor Shyamalan any longer, because it might not have been his fault entirely for what “After Earth” ended up being. Love it or hate it, but this guy has his style of story-telling and in here I could barely see it, as if somebody explicitly told him not to do what he knows best…

In short, “After Earth” looks like a collection of clichés and well-worn ideas slapped together for the benefit of Will Smith and his son, dressed in poorly engineered universe and thrown into the hands of M. Night Shyamalan for him to make something coherent of it. A good artist can make music using anything for an instrument, but it won’t be a symphony… Don’t get me wrong, there are some good moments in the film and once the ball is rolling, the story develops some suspense (and this is what Shyamalan really knows how to do), but Sci-Fi needs more than that. Still, it was better than “Oblivion”…

“Star Trek Into Darkness” – it boldly went…

Note: The following review is kept spoiler-free. I have no interest in ruining anyone’s experience with this movie, so feel free to read along.

This morning I made a bet against myself, which stated that if I enjoyed “Star Trek Into Darkness” later today, I would make an effort and watch every single “Star Trek” film and all the TV shows. Yes, I admit I haven’t been the nerdiest of nerds so far and I somehow managed to survive until this day having only seen an odd episode of The Next Generation and maybe Voyager, back when it was on TV and there was nothing more interesting to see. Strangely enough, I have always been drawn more towards other types of Sci-Fi with the likes of “Star Wars” at my side.

Well, I think now would be the time to get acquainted with William Shatner and the gang, because I thoroughly enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness”. In fairness, ‘enjoyed’ is a bit of an understatement, as I can honestly say that it’s the best Sci-Fi I’ve seen this year – hands down; and quite frankly it is one of the best Sci-Fi I’ve seen in recent memory. On top of all that, it being a sequel (and I think I’ve made myself clear on where I stand on sequels) makes it look even better, with the bar set a couple of notches higher than usual.

It is a very rare occurrence when a sequel surpasses the original and – make no mistake – “Star Trek Into Darkness” does not fall into that category… but it’s damn close, I have to say. If anything, people like Shane Black or Michael Bay should actually ring up J.J. Abrams and request some lessons on how to make a sequel properly, so that it doesn’t suck. My point is that if a given film deserves a sequel, than it needs to be to its original what “Star Trek Into Darkness” is to “Star Trek” (2009).

Even though it is not crucial, the knowledge of what happened in the previous “Star Trek” is highly recommended in order to feel comfortable. While there are plot-points that specifically address some events from the original, they are mostly of minor nature and refer to character development. Anyway, we are introduced to the crew of USS Enterprise a couple of years after the events of the previous film. Of course, we still operate under the assumption that the previous “Star Trek” formed an alternate timeline to what all the Trekkies consider ‘canon’, therefore it is only logical to dismiss any butt-hurt comments on the discrepancies between the old Star Trek and this one as stupid and out of place.

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Right, so we’re back with Captain Kirk and the gang who keep on going boldly where no man has gone before as they survey other species, observe, learn and stuff. Gut-feeling Kirk (Chris Pine) and cold-and-rational Spock (Zachary Quinto) have managed to develop a one-of-a-kind relationship that involves a lot of snappy comebacks and situation humor based on the fundamental differences between them. However, something goes wrong during the mission and as a result the crew gets disbanded, Kirk gets sent back to the Academy and the rest of the gang gets reassigned to other starships. Meanwhile over in England, a mysteriously looking fellow (Benedict Cumberbatch) pulls off a terrorist attack of massive proportions. The Starfleet brass quickly identifies the culprit as one of their own, a rogue agent called John Harrison, whose agenda is not exactly understood, but one thing remains clear – he’s one dangerous puppy. A series of events (that I shall not disclose) leads the Federation to reinstate Kirk and to send him on a hunt to the far reaches of the galaxy with a mission to find and bring Harrison down for his crimes. And it’s no easy task as he seems to be hiding on Kronos – the Klingon home world, and any misstep by our brave protagonists might extend the already tense relationships between the Federation and the Klingon Empire into an all-out war.

As you might have already noticed, I’m no Trekkie (at least for now, but I can’t promise anything), but what I can say is that I can’t help but admire how brilliantly Abrams handled this film; I’d even go as far as to say that I enjoyed “Star Trek Into Darkness” so much because I have little knowledge of the classical Treks. The film is packed with action delivered at a steady pace with the pathos and epic scenes dosed rationally. In fact, it’s the story and the characters that make up for the bulk of awesomeness of this film, because most of the action takes place in confined spaces. There are, of course, some epic sceneries and sequences of catastrophic proportions, but they somehow fail to overshadow what is the most important in this film – the characters of Kirk, Spock and Harrison, and the game they play.

 

Speaking of John Harrison, Benedict Cumberbatch has done a splendid job in creating a real flesh-and-blood villain that a viewer can have an emotional response to. His character is seriously malevolent, scary, vindictive and unpredictable. Plus, his character is responsible for most (if not all) of the story’s dynamic qualities, as his actions trigger very important changes that protagonists will undergo, and this ultimately stands behind the film as its biggest asset. It only goes to show that you can throw away millions of dollars on CGI effects, but the story is what will make the film float or sink. Here we seem to be having a damn near perfect storm of both, with exquisite CGI, action and solid important characters.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” is very much a sequel well done; still a sequel and very much an Abrams’ movie with the characteristic photography, lens flares, dynamic cutting and bold twists. J.J. Abrams clearly knows how to handle a universe of that size and still create something gripping and enjoyable. Additionally, this film does not fall into the trap of ‘bigger, louder and more explosions’ and does its job as a proper expansion on the story-line  characters and the general universe. Sure, there’s action and suspense and the entire bang required of a modern-day big label sci-fi, but “Star Trek Into Darkness” has much more to offer than only that. What I’m about to say might be considered heresy in some circles, but from the point of view of character development, story progression and the overall tone of the film, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is “The Empire Strikes Back” of the Trek universe. The story sets many important things in motion, the characters undergo massive and very important changes that would define the tone of the next installment  some potential momentum is generated, and the atmosphere as a whole is far more dark and ominous than the original “Star Trek”. I can’t say more at the time in the interest of not spoiling anything.

In summary, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a very good movie on its own and a fantastic addition to the vast Trek universe. The film pays due homage to the classics with the signature lines now part of the wider pop-culture that would make a nerd squeal, and it sports a fair share of laughs, however, not even once does it cross the line. The movie retains its independent style that looks more ‘starwarsy’ than ‘startrekky’, but it works only to the benefit of the film as a whole. The rapid action, witty humor and gorgeous effects are in perfect balance with engaging story, seriously sinister villains and their actions. It truly is a star trek into darkness.