Category Archives: Alien Invaders

Guilty Pleasures

Oblivion (2013) 3.5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Ugly – 66.1
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 124 mins
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Stars: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough

Take Moon, 2001, Omega Man, Silent Running, The Matrix, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run, Star Wars, and practically any other science fiction movie of the last 50 years, mix and match their plot points, add a bold yet rather pretty score and you get Oblivion. Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough play a couple of technicians entrusted to maintain the drones and water harvesters of a post-apocalyptic Earth so that the remnants of the human race can build a new life on the moon Titan. When the Cruiser happens across (literally) the woman from his dreams one day, he begins to suspect that all is not what it seems with his life and incurs the wrath of who or whatever has been issuing him his orders these last few years. To accuse Joseph Kosinski’s movie or his own graphic novel that it’s based on of being derivative is kind of redundant for so overt is the derivation that, structurally, it seems more akin to an exhaustive homage to the great science fiction of cinema. That it doesn’t function like a homage but a strange exercise in script construction is where the problem lies. So familiar are all the elements to the plot and premise that those source movies veritably intrude on Oblivion’s own attempt at a narrative to the point that we find ourselves struggling to feel engaged. Kosinski has certainly made a beautiful looking film though, a crisp fusion of old school cinematography and CGI punctuated with wide angle moments of grandeur worthy of the writer-director’s overall ambition. But while Riseborough manages to make her character work with a wonderfully creepy turn as Cruise’s paramour, the antiseptic nature of his character gives him little room to shine. Thus, we miss the presence he normally brings to his movies leaving Oblivion a rather cold movie to behold. For sci-fi fans, there’s much in the way of interest here but just noting to get our teeth into.

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Live Die Repeat (2014) 3.21/5 (6)

 

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Rating: The Good – 80.5
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 113 mins
Director: Doug Liman
Stars: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton

After decades of waiting for an action sci-fi that can match those of the late 80’s and early 90’s in class and smarts, Doug Liman, Christopher McQuarrie, and Tom Cruise have come up with the goods. Set during a future war for the planet against a horde of prescient aliens, the Cruiser headlines as a cowardly press officer who is railroaded into the infantry on the eve of humanity’s attempt at a D-Day style liberation of Europe. However, during the battle he gets killed and caught in a time loop that sees him re-live the same day over and over again which allows him to hone his initially hapless skills and, at the same time, avoid the pitfalls of the previous day.

The concept which inspired Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s graphic novel All You Need is Kill (brilliantly adapted as “Live, Die, Repeat” before some drone snatched “Edge of Tomorrow” off a low shelf) may have been the classic video game scenario, but Liman adds so much more polish and depth to the concept that, as with Groundhog Day, Cruise’s most wearing and touching battle is his fruitless and unending dance with time. However, that Liman merely tantalises us with this heaviness only to constantly kickstart the scenario with energetic optimism is his masterstroke. Thus, the danger with the Groundhog premise, namely repetition boredom, isn’t as much sidestepped here as it is leapfrogged…. in a funnel of brilliantly edited, pulsating action! They even make the mechanised exoskeleton (which everyone from James Cameron to Neill Blomkamp has failed to actualise) look cool while also making it work for the script.

Cruise is to be commended for playing such an unflattering character with real gusto and whether it be tapping the humour, hopelessness, and/or heroism of his circumstances, he makes for a smashing lead. As his comrade in day-tripping, Emily Blunt is equally strong in an admirably feminine way and watching the pair burst their way off the beaches of Normandy in a whirlwind of mechanised alien fighting (along to Christophe Beck’s muscular score) is just spine-tingling.

McQuarrie, Jezz and John-Henry Butterworth deserve their fair share of credit too for delivering the freshest but most purposeful screenplay the genre has seen in quite some time but it’s Liman’s mastery of time-playing that deserves most respect. A coalescence of shot composition, alternate camera angles, and editing tempo that propels the plot forward in a series of groundhog-esque transitions. So good is this part of the movie, that the scenes in which a more traditional narrative is employed suffer immensely by comparison and even begin to drag. The relative facelessness of the aliens becomes more obvious at these points too alerting us to the fact that this is one area where Live Die Repeat (the original title has thankfully been restored for home-market release) fails to live up to the classics of the genre and is more in tune with today’s more generic movie evil. In the long run, however, these issues are eminently forgivable because the rest of this movie is such an irresistible blast from the past that it’s as likely to stand the test of time. Do Not Miss!

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) 4.76/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.6
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 115 mins
Director: Philip Kaufman
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum

One of the very best science-fiction classics, Philip Kaufman’s film is a flawless exercise in paranoia inducing film-making. With practically every frame he breathes sinister life into the world he creates from recoiling telephone cords to the gazes and half-looks of countless bystanders. Donald Sutherland has rarely been better as the San Fransisco health inspector working against time to figure out what, if anything, is changing the personalities of the town’s inhabitants. Brook Adams is strong in the co-lead and works wonderfully well with Sutherland as they both give slightly skewed performances which are in keeping with the overall feel of the film. Leonard Nimoy is excellent as the psychiatrist with all the answers and so too are Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright. This is one of the few remakes to actually justify its existence (of course it’s from a time when remakes were actually reinterpretations and not lazy money-grabbing exercises) as it goes far beyond that of Siegal’s original in imbuing the audience with its unsettled and deeply disturbing ambiance. And while doing so, it actually brings back the lead actor from that film (Kevin McCarthy) in an inspired and utterly ingenious cameo to make perhaps its most disturbing observation. Of all the great ‘paranoid’ movies of the 1970’s, it’s fair to say that few if any have captured the essence of paranoia like Invasion of the Body Snatchers does. This is film-making at its very best and like all great movies, it culminates in one of the most memorable endings in cinema history.

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Evolution (2001) 2.93/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 67
Genre: Comedy
Duration: 101 mins
Director: Ivan Reitman
Stars: David Duchovny, Orlando Jones, Julianne Moore

Hugely entertaining sci-fi comedy about a meteor that hits the earth and brings all sorts of nasty single-cell organisms with it that quickly begin evolving into ever more complex creatures bent on human destruction. David Duchovny plays a former military scientist turned community college professor who together with his colleague (played by Orlando Jones) begins studying the creatures until the nasty military show up and take control. Lots of fun is had winking to Duchovny’s X-Files persona but most of it ends up adding to the plot. Ivan Reitman is a dab hand at these types of comedies and he always builds his films around great screen chemistry. Evolution is no different in that sense. Duchovny (who tends to work well with everyone) and Jones complement each other perfectly. Rarely is one funny without the other’s involvement and together they are responsible for many a side-splitting moment. Even with the addition of Seann William Scott and later Julianne Moore to the main story line they don’t skip a beat and if anything the chemistry is improved by the latter’s involvement. The special effects are typical of Reitman films in that they’re quite well done but replete with bright colours and fake goo. And it’s this last point that makes Evolution a guilty pleasure movie. Reitman has never known how to close out a movie and his instinct to go bigger always brings him firmly into the territory of farce. In Ghostbusters 2 he had a goo-powered Statue of Liberty, in this he has a giant blob crawling around a desert. Even the acting starts getting cheesy towards the end suggesting the cast didn’t believe in the ending either.

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Predator (1987) 3.79/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.3
Genre: Science Fiction, Action
Duration: 107 mins
Director: John McTiernan
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Kevin Peter Hall

As is often the case, the original Predator stands head and shoulders above the sequels even though in the case of Predator 2 and Predators, the sequels are decent fare in their own right. What makes Predator so good is that it has one of the truly great action directors behind the camera (John McTiernan) and the most iconic of all action stars in front of it (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Having a totally original premise, a white hot script, great special effects, a supporting cast full of well known 80′s tough guys, and Joel Silver as a producer didn’t hurt it either! Arnold is immense (in what is easily his second best role) as the leader of the crack special forces unit who are sent into a South American jungle to rescue some political dignitaries only to come under attack by an alien hunter who hides in the trees and can appear and disappear at will. McTiernan handles the action with aplomb as you’d expect but he outdoes even himself in the set piece scenes which are a veritable masterclass in pacing and co-ordination. This is sci-fi action at its very best so just sit down and strap yourself in for two hours of pure entertainment.

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Village of the Damned (1995) 2.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 67.7
Genre: Horror
Duration: 99 mins
Director: John Carpenter
Stars: Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Mark Hamill

The residents of a small town are all rendered unconscious by a mysterious force only to wake up seemingly unharmed. However, it’s not long before they realise that the womenfolk were  impregnated during the event. Even more shockingly, when the children do arrive, they rapidly develop and seem to gravitate towards each other for reasons that seem worse than sinister.

Okay, so it’s not as good as the original, it has some seriously laughable creature effects, and it kind of looks like a TV movie, but John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned can be an interesting and even enjoyable watch for several reasons. Firstly, the slow, tempered style that defines all of Carpenter’s movies is there in spades and, as such, the shocks never come when you expect them. This keeps you on edge throughout and when the shocks do come, they’re paired with Carpenter’s trademark piercing sound effects so you get that great startle response every time. Carpenter has always been the undisputed master at evoking said response and for that reason alone, Village of the Damned is good value. But the movie also gives us one of Carpenter’s best scores (co-written with Dave Davies) and combined with that final shot we get a classic Carpenter ending reminiscent of The Thing.

There’s a lot to be said for how Carpenter handles his actors too. The casting in Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is peculiar given that we have three of the most type-cast actors in the business (Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, and Mark Hamill) all holding major parts and all eschewing any residue of those career-defining roles. Such a feat is not only a testament to the acting ability of the actors but also to the way in which Carpenter introduces and continues to use their characters throughout the picture.

John Wyndham’s story survives the switch to an American small town setting and it’s is given time to breathe (with a few leaps here and there). Moreover, the children often (but not always) reach the levels of creepiness experienced in the book not to mention the original movie adaptation. Of course, the production values aren’t amazing but that is where a maverick like Carpenter found himself if he wanted to make films his own way. Once accepted, Village of the Damned is a fun movie and if nothing else, a chance to visit the John Carpenter dimension one more time where everything is just a little off-kilter.

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Under the Skin (2013) 4.43/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.9
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 108 mins
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams

In his 2000 debut Sexy Beast, Jonathan Glazer burst onto the scene with all the swagger and verve of a young Tarantino but instead of capitalising on that success, the music video director made only one more movie (2004’s underwhelming Birth) in the next decade and a half. However, despite the lack of hands-on practice, his new film is nonetheless marked by the kind of reach and maturity that, back in 2000, we all would’ve hoped he’d be showing right now.

Based on Michael Faber’s novel, Under the Skin is a stunning piece of science fiction cinema that lives up to the genre’s loftiest promises in the manner 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark City, and Primer do. It begins with an extraordinary Scarlett Johansson assuming the guise of a human female in order to lure lonely men (played by unwitting non-actors who thought they were genuinely being picked up and who the crew filmed with hidden cameras) back to her apartment where human reality and that of her species’ morph into a gateway from the former to the latter. The purpose of this seduction is revealed in one remarkable scene that will chill you to the bone – a process of extraction that someone or something else takes care of while Johansson’s alien predator goes back out on the prowl. But with each foray into the world of humans and each victim she brings back, something changes within her that causes her to crave a fuller range of human experience.

Within this stripped down narrative, Under the Skin achieves two equally daring and intangible objectives. Primarily, it offers an examination of human existence as an alien construct but within that aim is the ostensibly narrower but infinitely broader goal of pondering the oft dodged question of what alien consciousness might amount to. It does this not through abstraction or surrealism but through a dramatic realignment of the traditional realism in which movies are shot. Under the Skin has been compared by some to 2001 and it is this regard that such comparisons are warranted. For Kubrick is one of the very few to have previously addressed the hypothetical question of alien perception. Thus, like Kubrick does in the closing sequence of 2001, Glazer (albeit to a lesser extent) methodically probes what experience might be to a sentient being of an incomprehensible nature (incomprehensible to us). A creature born to and framed by a different reality and dimensional constraints. This is what so many sci-fi films avoid dealing with because it obtrudes on any traditional notion of narrative. But through Glazer’s ability to detach from the standards of character perspective and meticulously frame a new kind of perspective around Faber’s vision, an intriguing marriage between the two is achieved.

Central to the project’s effectiveness however is Johansson’s bravery and strength as an actor. She not only carries the film as the only significant character but she builds a character every bit as nuanced as the reality which Glazer gives her to inhabit. A level of technical proficiency is equally crucial here for one misstep along the way and the delicate tangibility of that reality could shatter. Thankfully, that’s what we get. There’s a stark beauty to Daniel Landin’s cinematography that complements the bleakness of the subject matter and Mica Levi’s ubiquitous but unobtrusive score provides an appropriately haunting quality.

It all adds up to a profound meditation on existence that reaches deep into the psyche. It’s cerebral and stimulating but, as is often the case, it’s also extremely disturbing. Anything that makes us abandon our archetypes of understanding always is and so anyone looking for a mainstream science fiction movie should be warned away. This is as bleak a film as you’ll ever see and so it works less as a piece of entertainment as it does a work of art. Even those who appreciate such endeavour may not be inclined to revisit it too often such is the level of discomfort it can generate. Not to worry, though, because Under the Skin isn’t a film you’ll forget easily.

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District 9 (2009) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.3
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Sharlto Copley, David James

Neil Blomkamp’s surprise blockbuster makes strategic use of his home country’s recent history to construct an intelligent sci-fi with a modest political conscience. Beginning in documentary style, we are introduced to a Johannesburg that has for two decades been home to a million alien refugees who arrived in a mother ship that parked itself over the city on their arrival but has since remained stationary and unmovable. The “documentary” tells us that the “prawns”, as the native South Africans derogatorily call them, are considered to be a social menace and have been herded into a gigantic slum called “District 9”. It then introduces us to a beurocratic representative of an international company named Wikus, played by Sharlto Copley, who is heading up a massive government contracted operation to evict and move the aliens to a new site. The film stays in documentary format for a good 20 minutes before shifting to a more standard narrative which builds around Wikus’ exposure to an alien fluid and his subsequent metamorphosis into a human alien hybrid. Naturally, this makes him an attractive quantity to the shady company who hunt him down in an effort to develop their bio weapons programme and, in order to escape them, he flees to none other than District 9.

Though a South African/New Zealand production, District 9 is very much a blockbuster of Hollywood proportions. That is to say – it is heavy on the action and special effects and places only a minor emphasis on the social message. But thankfully, its execution sets it apart from its Hollywood counterparts in that there’s far less slow motion action, tight angles, lightning editing, nor over the top scoring that plagues the latter kind of movies. The story too unfolds in atypical style and around a central character that is as far removed from a Hollywood hero as one could be. A meek low level management type with a discernibly racist attitude towards the “prawns” who gets around to the self sacrifice thing much later in the movie than usual. And Copley plays him well refusing to shy away from his weaker characteristics and keeping a lid on any redeemable qualities until absolutely necessary. That he carries the film in that manner is therefore fairly impressive. The only significant supporting characters are entirely CGI generated aliens who Wikus aligns himself with when hiding in the slums. That said, this father and son duo are colourfully fleshed out with enough endearing characteristics to successfully solicit the audience’s concern. The bad guys similarly are largely nondescript with the exception of David James’ nasty security chief. James is solid in the role and he gives his army of mercenary types enough of a face to represent them.

By some accounts, producer Peter Jackson gave Blomkamp $30 million to do whatever he wanted and given this was his first feature length film, it was a brave move. But it paid off as the South African belies his inexperience by maintaining tight control over what is an extraordinarily high concept movie. Even with the switch from documentary mode to traditional perspective, he keeps the style streamlined so the transition goes mostly unnoticed. The action sequences are expertly constructed and made especially coherent with a refreshing use of wide angles and astounding visual effects. His script is equally stimulating and the latent and overt racism of the characters during the opening act is perceptively captured. At times, later in the movie, Blomkamp comes in danger of laying on the social commentary a little thick but, in the main, he handles it rather deftly. If there is a weakness to District 9, it comes (as it so often does) in the final act when the emotional points to the story are driven home. Here too, it gets a little heavy handed and we start to see a greater proportion of the dreaded slow motion shots but relative to other bonanza movies, it’s a minor offence.

District 9 isn’t the subtle masterpiece that so many have labelled it but it is an exceedingly strong action sci-fi that over the last twenty years has become an endangered species in cinemas. Here’s hoping we see more like it.

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Slither (2006)

 

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Rating: The Good – 69.7
Genre: Horror
Duration: 103 mins
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker

A thoroughly enjoyable creature- feature with the always likable Nathan Fillion in fine form as the sheriff of a small town that has been invaded by alien parasites that take possession of their human hosts. Sound familiar? Of course, but that’s not the point. This is escapism at its best so just sit back and enjoy the smart script, the many funny moments, the outrageous special effects, and the various nods to great sci-fi classics.

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The Andromeda Strain (1971)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.5
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 131 mins
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Nelson Gidding
Stars: James Olson, Arthur Hill, David Wayne

Robert Wise brought Michael Crichton’s early novel to the screen in this unique looking thriller about a team of top scientists who are sequestered in a hi-tech underground facility to investigate a lethal extra-terrestrial bacterium. Initially contained within a crashed satellite, it quickly spread to a nearby town wiping out its entire population in the process. There are no major acting names on show in The Andromeda Strain, just some solid journeymen actors who each do their bit in raising the tension levels. In that respect, however, the star of the show is undoubtedly Boris Leven’s outstanding production design. He gives the deep underground facility an even deeper sense of authenticity and when captured by Wise’s assured eye, it is primarily responsible for creating the tense and often claustrophobic atmosphere. The story is fantastic too and Nelson Gidding’s adaptation of the famous author’s book cuts away none of the muscle.

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The Faculty (1998)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.8
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror
Duration: 104 mins
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Stars: Aordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris

“Aliens are taking over the world, weight it.” Superior take on the alien invasion story set in an Ohio high school, the faculty of which has been taken over by alien parasites that are bent on making hosts of the whole town. Six different students catch on to what’s going down and attempt to put a stop to their nefarious plans. Robert Rodriguez has great fun blending the John Hughes high school movie genre with the alien invasion genre as he plays with all the various stereotypes that pop up in both types of movie. The Breakfast Club are all present but with a more modern look and acerbic language. The high school characters are well thought out and the various (pre-stardom) youngsters inhabit them wonderfully. Jordanna Brewster, Elijah Wood, Clea DuVall, and Josh Hartnett do particularly well with Hartnett putting in a more substantial performance than we have typically seen from him in later years. The faculty members are perhaps the most entertaining from Robert Patrick’s delightfully nuts coach to Bebe Neuwirth’s against type principal. Aside from some confused dialogue here and there, The Faculty doesn’t really miss a beat as it gives us a fresh take on an old story while keeping us thoroughly entertained throughout.

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The Abyss (1989) 4.29/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.4
Genre: Science Fiction, Action
Duration: 139 mins
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn

The very definition of a concept film, The Abyss is a different animal to the average sci-fi flick. The story centres on an deep submersible drilling rig that is sequestered by the US Navy when one of their nuclear subs goes missing in a deep trench. Ed Harris plays the head tool-push who has to contend with a trigger happy SEAL unit as well as his pushy ex-wife played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio taking over his rig. The visual effects were spectacular at its time of release and are still hugely impressive while the underwater live action shots have never been equalled. The scale of the film’s production has become the stuff of legend given the giant underwater set that was built in an old missile silo and the extended dives the actors and crew (particularly director James Cameron) underwent to get the hugely impressive action sequences shot. Happily, Cameron gets it all up there on screen, making this one of the most uniquely impressive film experiences. The acting is top drawer for an action film with Harris, Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn (as the unhinged SEAL commander) all in terrific form. The ending borders on the fluffy (cliched ‘messages’ about world peace and all) as Cameron’s movies sometimes tend to do but one is compelled to forgive it given the earlier technical and dramatic achievements. There’s a somewhat interesting extended cut of this movie that adds nice touches to some of the characters but, given it also turns the volume up on the cheesier elements to the film, those who prefer their messages with a little more depth and finesse may want to give it a miss.

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