Tag Archives: sci-fi

NETFLIX REVIEW: Annihilation – future cult classic or subpar sci-fi?

A meteorite streaks past the camera. It carries some kind of alien mineral, and it ain’t Vibranium. It smashes into a lighthouse: the invasion of planet Earth has begun.

Ground Zero is covered by an iridescent dome – like a soap bubble, or a gigantic blister. They call it ‘the Shimmer’. Inside, communications fail, and those who enter don’t return. The government are keeping it top secret, but not for long; the phenomenon is expanding, and will eventually swallow up whole cities and states…

‘Annihilation’ started life as the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘weird fiction’ Southern Reach trilogy, where a nameless four-woman crew venture into the unknown Area X. (A fifth turns back.) One, a perpetual student and passionate observer of tide pools known only as “the biologist”, served as narrator.

In Alex Garland’s adaptation, the biologist – now Lena – is played by a characteristically poised, brittle Natalie Portman as an ex-military John Hopkins professor. Flashbacks reveal her cheating on her angelic-looking husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) with Daniel (Interstellar’s David Gyasi).

We see Lena Portmansplaining cellular senescence, AKA aging, to Kane. They playfully argue over whether God can make mistakes, and discuss the unusual ‘silence’ around Kane’s deployment. Kane tenderly says they will be under the same stars, but Lena mocks the idea of pining for her husband.

Kane goes MIA but materializes a year later at their home, clearly unwell. The couple are ambushed and held in a facility where Lena meets creepy wierdo Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains that Kane volunteered for and escaped the Shimmer, but is now in multi-organ failure.

With Oscar Isaac on a ventilator, a guilt-wracked Lena joins Ventress on the next Shimmer trip. The rest of the team are all damaged in different ways: an unkempt Tessa Thompson is self-harming physicist Josie, Gina Rodriguez is recovering addict Anya, while geologist Cass is a grieving mother. “We’re all damaged goods here,” she explains.

Inside the Shimmer, radio waves are scrambled, and time is distorted. DNA gets reshuffled and recombined; flowers twist into the human form, deer have tree branches, alligators have shark teeth.

“The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything,” realizes Josie. When Cass is killed by a mutant bear, its jaws open and her voice screams for help. Josie doesn’t want terror to be her surviving fragment, and she walks peacefully into the flower mannequin forest, shoots and buds sprouting from her self-harm scars.

Yuk. For most, the thought of being broken down and incorporated into this new ecosystem would be grotesque. Ventress rages that it feels like the onset of dementia. Lena realizes that Ventress was already dying and is resigned to her fate, but wants to face the alien entity while still herself.

So is Annihilation about how we accept the inevitable? Some viewers saw it as a movie about cancer, or interpreted the Shimmer as a manifestation of Lena’s guilt. To others it’s a searing depiction of depression, or all about Pokémon. Garland, meanwhile, said he was actually going for something on a theme of self destructiveness.

annihilation swimming pool

F U Humanity!!

OK, but this stupid thing invaded us. And although Lena believes the organism doesn’t ‘want’ anything, it’s hard not to take it personally; there’s something about the fruiting corpse in the swimming pool and the artfully arranged skeletons that feel like they sprung from the imagination of a serial killer on NBC’s late, lamented Hannibal.

Despite the triumph of Ex Machina, Paramount had little faith in Annihilation; international rights went to Netflix. American audiences – who had the benefit of experiencing this admittedly visually and aurally accomplished movie on a cinema screen – only gave it a ‘C’ CinemaScore.

Maybe it’s because of the incoherent narrative. Some claim to enjoy the fact that it “doesn’t give us all the answers”. Others might point to the umpteen articles ‘unpacking’ the movie as a sign that it falls back on making audiences feel stupid for finding it all a bit of a muddle.

BOOK REVIEWS: Annihilation & The Book of Strange New Things..

I’m too scared to see the movie ‘It’. I know it involves an evil clown and sewers and things that float down there – and of course that it started out as a book by Stephen King.

Recently, I’ve been reading books that are being adapted for the big screen. One such pick was Annihilation, the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series, a novel that King himself called ‘creepy’!!

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer

Four women are sent by a secretive government agency to investigate Area X, a quarantined coastal zone in the USA.

The Biologist, the Psychologist, the Surveyor and the Anthropologist (no names) uncover a terrifying force writing on the walls of an uncharted subterranean tower: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” Errrr.

And as if I had breathed in the spores from the cover, Annihilation is immersive, sinister, and genre-defying.

One issue I had was that it takes the Biologist’s field journal as source material, and while she may be happy spending hours observing lifeforms in tidal pools, I’m not! (The novel also flashes back to her life with her husband, who volunteered for an earlier, doomed, expedition.)

I hope the movie doesn’t end up feeling like Alien Covenant – scientists behaving stupidly while trudging through the wilderness.

Luckily, it’s directed by Alex Garland, who proved he knows a thing or two about creepy tension with Ex Machina!

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber 

From a woman of science to a man of faith. The King of the North has gone interstellar in the Amazon pilot ‘Oasis’.

It takes as its veeery loose inspiration Michel Faber’s (Under the Skin) melancholy novel The Book of Strange New Things – published in 2014 before the Netflix phenomenon.

The good book focuses on Chaplain Peter Leigh, who leaves his beloved wife for a job with a shadowy multinational, ministering to the native inhabitants of a distant colonized planet named Oasis.

Peter’s new congregation were introduced to the Bible by his (missing) predecessor, and they’ve really taken to it enthusiastically, calling themselves Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Two, etc. Their ‘faces’ resemble “a placenta with two foetuses…nestled knee to knee.”

To speak their language, Peter would “need to rip off his own head and gargle through the stump.” (Any linguists want a challenge?!)

It’s not a mystery or a religious satire, but a tale of grief and failure of communication – interplanetary email can be a bitch.

The Amazon pilot couldn’t be more different. It’s a budget sci-fi, and the sad heart of TBOSNT is gone. There’s no word yet on whether it will go to series, but the book is certainly worth the near-600 pages.

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I’m currently slogging through the latest Zadie Smith, but I should be back with a Wind River review soon……

FILM REVIEW: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

valerian-v-poster-full-highres-01The search for a male star who can replace Harrison Ford continues. As the eponymous Valerian, Dane DeHaan is supposed to be a happy-go-lucky, square-jawed hero and roguish galactic agent.

Instead he looks like he should be playing a space cadet in some sort of academy somewhere with fellow cast member Clive Owen as the bullying principal.

Unfamiliar with the comics, I briefly and mistakenly thought Valerian and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) were siblings, like a Luke and Leia crime-fighting duo.

In fact, the French-Belgian Valerian et Laureline comics were a suspected early influence on George Lucas.

But Valerian drools over Cara (more than Luke did Leia) and it quickly gets annoying to watch the little twerp sexually harassing model Delevingne. “He’s got no chance!” I thought.

The romance is pure Attack of the Clones level space crash, complete with stilted dialogue.

There are hints of Avatar’s Na’vi in the humanoids from the destroyed planet of Mül, who stow away in the bowels of a giant free-floating metropolis called Alpha (the City of a Thousand Planets). There, different alien species all pool their knowledge in brilliant harmony. Or not.

There’s a plot involving the annihilated planet, Alpha’s Commander Clive Owen, plus a kidnapping and a little MacGuffin creature everybody is trying to get their hands on.

Agents Valerian and Laureline both get captured and have to save each other. Laureline puts a giant mind-reading jellyfish on her head to find Valerian, who later has to swoop in with a shapeshifting Rihanna to stop Laureline from getting her brains eaten by a race of master chefs on Alpha. (So much for harmony!)

The largely teenage audience were probably there for RiRi, but it’s just a cameo really. There’s a rushed immigration subtext involving her character, and the film has a message of love conquering all.

Director Luc Besson has an established reputation for style over substance. Valerian – his passion project – is a zany, hot mess, with the characters slaloming and sloshing around his crazy pinball machine universe. I tried to enjoy it – I loved the score and the soundtrack – I just would have liked better dialogue too.

Verdict: Valerian is like spending two and a quarter hours(!) on the now-defunct Bubbleworks ride at Chessington. Isn’t it amazing the childhood nightmares that can be dredged up years later?

FILM REVIEW: Alien: Covenant

There are probably certain things you just know about yourself – like whether or not you’d be cut out for daring interplanetary exploration. Personally, I can confidently say I wouldn’t be much good.

However, in this sci-fi franchise, I’d be well-qualified. From the hardscrabble marines of Aliens to the inept scientists of Prometheus, Xenomorph Expedition’s workforce aren’t exactly first pick.

This brings us to the Covenant, a beautiful hunk of a ship housing a crew of married couples, jolted out of hypersleep by a neutrino burst. (Yes I’m totally going to pretend I know what that is.) Playing nursemaid is Walter (Michael Fassbender), the nice android brother/updated model to Prometheus’ smarmy malcontent David.

Our newly-awakened crew are lured from their target planet by an eerie transmission of sole Prometheus survivor Shaw singing John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. Upon hearing her, I realized I didn’t care about these new Covenant losers, and I never would.

The only person against deviating from their planned course is Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the Ripley-esque heroine for the journey. Widowed when Captain James Franco got Anakin Skywalker’d in his malfunctioning sleep pod, she’s now second-in-command to Billy Crudup’s wimpy Captain Arm (OK it’s Oram, but it sounded like they were saying ‘arm’).

Daniels and Arm lead some of the other marrieds and a security team to explore this strange new world, and despite knowing nothing about it, they’re soon moaning and stopping for cigarette breaks like it’s a routine rekkie.

Luckily David (minus Shaw – Sob!) is back, so ha-ha for our marrieds! Bye, suckers! David’s been busy experimenting with the Engineer’s black goo, which infects the Covenant idiots, who are so rubbish with firearms they shoot up their own landing craft.

Now, I loved Prometheus. Not just David (the crew were so stupid and hostile you rooted for his evil robot genius) – I loved Shaw, and I loved the blueness, and the weirdness of it. I was probably alone in the universe in just wanting Prometheus 2: More Dodgy Philosophizing Please!

But we know where this sequel-prequel is headed: a CGI face-off with an Xenomorph in the halls of the Covenant. It’s Aliens, minus the snappy dialogue and (my earlier disrespect notwithstanding) the memorable supporting cast.

People who didn’t like Prometheus (there were a fair few) have got their way: Alien Covenant is a return to typical, hardcore blockbuster terrain. Return it to a permanent cryo-sleep. zzzz

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Teen Wolf leads me to Ian Bohen to Wind River and Soldado

I only got my free Netflix trial last year to watch the phenomenon that is Stranger Things. Soon, I was back to my old ways, guiltily exploring ‘TV Sci-Fi’ and even ‘Teen TV’.

I tried to reconnect with The Vampire Diaries, but it should have bit the dust when Nina Dobrev left. I also tried its humourless spin-off The Originals, before binge-watching Tatiana Maslany in the cyberpunk series Orphan Black.

To my surprise, Teen Wolf – the MTV show based on the 1985 Michael J. Fox hit of the same name – has been pretty entertaining, in a Buffy kind of way.

The breakout of the show, Dylan O’Brien, plays the comedy sidekick, and there’s an actor called Ian Bohen, who plays the mysterious Big Bad Wolf in Season One, before returning in a neutered capacity as a snarky mentor figure later on.

I don’t know much about him, but I was keeping tabs on Sundance and he showed up at the Wind River premiere.

Apparently he has a small role in the movie – a thriller written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water, which just got four Oscar nominations.

Wind River had a positive response at Sundance, especially for the final ‘kinetic’ gun battle. (It’s not Sheridan’s first time directing, although it’s being called his directorial debut.)

Bohen is now filming Soldado, Sheridan’s follow-up to Sicario. It’s directed by Stefano Sollima, and we know it’s not a sequel, but a standalone story with some of Sicario’s characters. Emily Blunt is out, and apparently we’ll see what happens when Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro are off the leash. Yikes.

blogger from the isle of wight

The Year Ahead

It’s my first post of 2017, and I thought I better get it published before this month is over, the Oscars have been handed out, and we’re moving into summer blockbuster territory.

This is about movies slated for release this year that I just might casually wind up seeing, like, um, Episode VIII. If I can find the time, of course. Ahem.

Honestly, I’ll probably be at home watching movies (*cough Star Wars I – VII cough*) on DVD and catching the latest digital releases on streaming platforms far more than I will be seeing the newest flicks at the local multiplex.

But these are the films calling me, blinking, out into 2017…

Remember last year when everyone was going on about Brie Larson in Room and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl (when they weren’t going on about it being Leo’s turn)? They were the It Girls and went on to win Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Well this year, it’s all about Natalie Portman vs Emma Stone for Best Actress.

I want to see Stone in La La Land, and I’ll also try to see Jackie, although Portman’s voice in the trailers makes me want to stuff my ears with one of the late First Lady’s headscarves. Yes, it really looks like Portman will be a two-time Oscar winner come February.

Last year’s winner, Larson, is back with Kong: Skull Island, which I’m actually excited for as I loved the 2005 Peter Jackson King Kong. (The new movie is an original take on the tale, and not connected to the earlier movie, BTW.)

Vikander’s 2017 bow, meanwhile, will be in the long-delayed historical drama Tulip Fever. It’ll also feature Cara Delevingne, although the interesting wannabe actress will have a bigger part in Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Will it be up there with the best of Besson?

Sticking to the sci-fi theme, nothing is keeping me away from Alien: Covenant (oh my beloved Prometheus) and Ghost in the Shell. Nothing!

I want to see Victoria and Abdul, which filmed over at Osborne house on the Isle of Wight. Judi Dench will play Queen Victoria in the drama about the monarch’s friendship with a young Indian servant. Based on the book by Shrabani Basu (which I haven’t read) it sounds similar to the award-winning Mrs Brown, which also saw Dench reign as Queen Victoria.

Another adaptation I’m looking out for is Mudbound, starring Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan. Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, it premieres at Sundance later this month.

What else? Sofia Coppola is back, and she brings with her Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell and Elle Fanning for The Beguiled, a remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1971 movie of the same name. Seriously, that cast is amazing.

I want to see Kristen Stewart in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. Long before Twilight, Stewart’s brand of twitchy lip-biting was considered profound by critics. And so it is once more.

Really, there’s a lot of stuff that seems promising right now – films like Hidden Figures, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Ex Machina director Alex Garland’s Annihilation (starring Portman), Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, and the comedy Logan Lucky from Steven Soderbergh, starring Adam Driver.

And OK, I admit it: if I were only allowed one cinema trip this year, I’d forgo everything else to see Star Wars: Episode VIII when it arrives in December.

What movies are you most looking forward to in 2017?