Category Archives: Bad Robots

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) 3.9/5 (7)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.9
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Duration: 132 mins
Director: Bryan Singer
Stars: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender

Director Bryan Singer brings an assured and classy touch back to the franchise he helped forge in this surprisingly gripping fantasy sci-fi in which two versions of the same X-Men are united across time in an epic showdown to save the Earth against a future army of robot “Sentinels”. Superbly balancing the multiple threads to the story so that the main plot pulses steadily and clearly from start to finish, X-Men: Days of Future Past counts as a rather impressive feat of story-telling. With Patrick Stewart’s “Prof. X” and Ian McKellen’s “Magneto” on one side of the temporal divide, their successors (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively) on the other, and Hugh Jackman’s “Wolverine” straddling the two, we move between a nicely realised 1970’s and a desolate future as the older X-Men attempt to alter their own history and preclude the invincible Sentinels from ever coming into being. On the technical front, this movie is pillared by some genuinely striking action set pieces opening with an elegantly edited showdown between mutant and robot and peaking with an acutely impressive prison-break in the bowls of The Pentagon. This latter sequence, wryly soundtracked to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”, involves Evan Peters’ delightfully impish “Quicksilver” making a high speed mockery of the famous building’s security in a whirlwind of smile-inducing not to mention brilliantly conceived mischief-making. Alongside this brief cameo of what very well might prove to be the franchise’s most lovable character, what really sets Days of Future Past apart from the myriad of modern superhero movies is the sophistication of its construction. Though most of the future mutants offer mere cameos, Singer makes the most of their personalities and powers, deftly interweaving their trials and tribulations with those of their past counterparts and culminating in a suitably rousing finale. Given how uninspired and formulaic the genre has become, it’s genuinely refreshing to come across a simply well made movie.

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Screamers (1995) 2.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.1
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 108 mins
Director: Christian Duguay
Stars: Peter Weller, Roy Dupuis, Jennifer Rubin

Decent “alien-planet” science fiction is so difficult to come by that any Dan O’Bannon adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story which also stars Peter Weller should be given a chance. Thankfully, the result isn’t that bad although with a slightly bigger budget (or with any budget at all!) it could’ve been a lot better. Weller plays the commander of a military station on a distant planet upon which a war is being fought between Earth’s two rival powers. After being abandoned by the authorities back on Earth he decides to call a truce with the opposing force. However, in order to do so, he must cross a nuclear wasteland inhabited by lethal robotic weapons called Screamers, which were not only created by his own side but have evolved beyond their original design and are now targeting all humans.

With minimal production design and visual effects, this movie was always going to rely on the strength of its story and direction and on the actors playing it out. O’Bannon’s screenplay (based on Dick’s “Second Variety”) is clever and efficient. The scenario is intriguing though it could’ve done with some greater exposition regarding the motives of the two superpowers. The plot is reasonably original and excellently constructed. The Screamers are genuinely scary in conception which is realised well thanks chiefly to the way they sound but also to an array of clever tricks employed by director Christian Duguay.

Weller brings his usual commanding presence to the party and gives his character just the right balance between toughness and weariness. The support players range from very good to decent and given that there’s only a handful of characters in the whole movie, they do more than their fair share in giving it a distinct personality. The action is nothing special but nor is it pedestrian and it all builds to a nice climax. Overall, Screamers will go down as an opportunity wasted because with a bit more interest from the money men, this could’ve been a classic. However, as it stands it’s a fairly gripping sci-fi movie with a unique feel and vibe of it own and driven by a great premise and a fine central performance. For a science fiction movie that’s all very important.

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The Fly (1986) 4.43/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.2
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction
Duration: 96 mins
Director: David Cronenberg 
Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

Few directors demonstrated the innate ability to disturb like David Cronenberg did in his earlier films and in this more mainstream outing he didn’t hold back in the slightest (deleted cat-baboon scene notwithstanding). The result is a sci-fi horror masterpiece unlike anything before it or since. A remake of the 1958 original, this film also tells the story of a scientist who while testing a teleportation device gets spliced together with a fly resulting in a incremental transformation into a diabolical hybrid of the two species. Jeff Goldblum is phenomenal as the scientist Seth Brundle. He makes the character his own and brings a host of perfectly fitting idiosyncratic mannerisms to both Brundle’s human character and ultimately the Brundlefly character. He is well supported by Geena Davis as Veronica, the journalist documenting his project and inevitable love interest.

On the technical front, the creature effects are incredible but certainly not for the squeamish while Howard Shore’s score is tremendous and reminiscent of Herrmann at his most dramatic. The Fly is a peculiar film in many ways. It has a very small cast as most of the action takes place in Brundle’s lab. This augments the authenticity of Brundle’s and Veronica’s relationship, making the climax all the more poignant. On an implicit level, The Fly is perhaps better remembered for its more sinister undertones. The idea that technology is the manifestation of the over-boldness of genius lies at the heart of the film. Rarely has this message been expressed in colder more effective fashion than in Cronenberg’s masterful use of the Kuleshov effect where Brundle gets told the cold hard truth from his seemingly insidious computer. Take a bow Mr. Cronenberg.

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RoboCop (1987) 4.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 83.7
Genre: Science Fiction, Action, Satire
Duration: 102 mins
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox

You have to admire directors who have a clear unmistakable and atypical style. It indicates a level of control and finesse that separate themselves from the mainstream line-towers who movie execs tend to favour. Carpenter, Cronenberg, Mann, DePalma, Kubrick are some such directors and so is Paul Verhoeven – even if his hallmarks are slightly more overt than the aforementioned. His signature trilogy comprise Starship Troopers, Total Recall, and RoboCop. Each are as much fun as you can have with a sci-fi and each have their unique strengths. Two of them have silly names but they are Verhoeven’s masterpieces. In fact, Robocop and Starship Troopers are similar in other ways as both play with the social mores of the their time through a mixture of clever story-lines and delicious television newsflashes which act as intermissions to the drama.

RoboCop is exactly what it says on the tin (no pun intended). Detroit police department of the near future gets contracted out to a nefarious company who institute a new security programme by turning a cop killed in the line of duty into a heavily armed and virtually unstoppable cyborg. Peter Weller is a revelation as the titular hero as he transforms from everyman cop to robot. Everything from his walk to the way he speaks seems authentically robotic (startlingly so in fact) and it’s hard to imagine even Schwarzenegger (originally meant for the job) matching his performance (The Terminator required a more subtle portrayal due to the fact that those cyborgs were supposed to look human). Nancy Allen does well as his gutsy partner and Ronny Cox is of course on hand to spit venom at all and sundry. However, even he is outshined in that department by Kurtwood Smith as the truly loathsome Clarence Boddicker.

Basil Poledouris’ score is suitably exhilarating and Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script is daring, witty, sharp, and perfectly structured. Some of the special effects involving the ED 209 are a bit clunky but Rob Bottin’s robosuit is a joy to look at. The star of the show however is undoubtedly Verhoeven as RoboCop is a tight, meticulously crafted, and hugely satisfying satirical sci-fi. Everything from the way RoboCop is finally introduced to the switching from regular perspective to RoboCop’s perspective is done to drive the dramatic tension of the film and it all works a treat. Don’t dismiss because of the title. Watch it and even that will make sense. “I’ll buy that for a dollar.”

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Logan’s Run (1976) 3.67/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Ugly – 64.2
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 119 mins
Director: Michael Anderson
Stars: Michael York, Jenny Agutter, Richard Jordan

A great concept (futuristic underground world where the population is controlled through a form of mass suicide) is brought to life with some impressive production design and a real nasty performance by the late great Richard Jordan. Michael York (Logan) and Jordan (Francis) play two ‘Sandmen’ whose job it is to track down ‘runners’, those who try to escape their social obligation to kill themselves at 30. Logan and Francis are suitably arrogant given the power they have and are quite content with life until Logan himself is betrayed by the artificial intelligence that runs his underground city. All of a sudden the hunter becomes the hunted as Logan and another runner Jessica-6 must stay ahead of his former partner and the rest of the sandmen. Logan’s Run is a thrilling film and conceptually it was years ahead of contemporary science-fiction thrillers. Unfortunately, it has dated immensely since its release and together with York’s sometimes cheesy performance not even Jordan’s excellent turn can warrant this being anything more than a guilty pleasure movie.

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Transformers (2007) 2.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 67.8
Genre: Science Fiction, Action
Duration: 144 mins
Director: Michael Bay
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel

Terrific adaptation of the popular cartoon that, like all the great blockbusters, works not as much due to its special effects but due to a smart script, good actors, and great chemistry between the leads particularly between Shia LaBeouf, Kevin Dunn, and Julie White as Sam and his parents. The special effects that bring the Transformers to life are marvelous so long as the robots aren’t moving too much. As soon as they start fighting, Bay employs the old quick-cut/tight-shot trick which makes it difficult for the audience to see what’s going on. That said, there are two sequences in which he shows some restraint and indeed inspiration. The first is the overpass scene where we see Optimus Prime at his most bad-ass and the second is that desert battle sequence which culminates in a spectacularly framed aerial shot of a heavy bomber blasting the crap out of the enemy.

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Blade Runner (1982) 4.9/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 90.5
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 117 mins
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young

Few films can be truly described as seminal and Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic would intuitively seem like a prime candidate given the fact that it has become a landmark in science fiction. However, truth be told, it is such a singular achievement that nobody seems to have known how to pick up where Scott and company left off. Though many would argue that Alien is Scott’s crowning achievement, many directors proved capable of at least emulating the industrial sci-fi vibe which he forged in that film, resulting in a traceable sea change right across the genre. Blade Runner had no such obvious effects and when one takes in the breadth of both its technical and conceptual complexity one begins to suspect that it is because nobody knew how Scott did exactly what he did.

Based on a Philip K. Dick story, Blade Runner is set in a future when evolution in robotic technology has produced genetically engineered robots or ‘replicants’ which are almost completely indistinguishable from humans. When four of the most advanced and dangerous replicants escape their enslavement and make it to Earth, one of the few crack investigators (called ‘Blade Runners’) who can identify them is forced out of retirement to track them down and eliminate them.

Blade Runner is a spectacular film graced with sublime production design, unrivaled visual effects, and that mesmerising Vangelis score. However, it’s the qualitative experience of Scott’s futuristic vision that is so utterly captivating and such an experience can only be achieved when every aspect of the film-making process is pitch perfect. The actors from Harrison Ford as the Blade Runner to the improvisational Rutger Hauer as the nastiest of the replicants are totally in tune with the proceedings and provide that final touch of mastery to what surely must be one of the most impressive science fictions films ever made. It’s not always an easy watch because this is a darkly heavy and profoundly existential film. But stick with it and you’ll never forget it.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) 3.64/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.5
Genre: Science Fiction, Action
Duration: 137 mins
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong

James Cameron’s follow-up to his seminal The Terminator was made about the time the director was becoming overly preoccupied with the technology of special effects. Thus, despite the tendency for some to rate it higher than the original (yep higher!?!), it really doesn’t compare. That’s not a criticism in itself because the 1984 classic represented one of the finest pieces of film making to ever grace the genre. Judgement Day sees the machines of the future sending another terminator back to our present but this time to kill the future resistance leader himself as a young child. Like before, the resistance send another protector, this time a reprogrammed terminator (in a cynical attempt to make the now famous Arnold a good guy). Another high octane pursuit around LA develops as John Connor and his protector spring Sarah Connor from a mental institution and then set about trying to change the future themselves.

Though T2’s stunts and special effects were just about the best thing to have ever hit the screens at that time (and still look sensational even to this day), the story is weakened considerably by Cameron’s newly found soppiness (more superficial Abyss-like messages here that he continues to make us cringe with to this day) and cynical effort to cash in on a younger audience by introducing a child, removing bad language, and reducing (by far) the death count. Of course, all this changes the entire feel of the world he created in the first film which was built on taut and elegant direction, economic but gritty dialogue, and clever low budget stunts and special effects. The result is a lighter hearted, one-line infested, child-orientated blockbuster. We know the real Cameron was in there somewhere though because it still manages to be one hell of an entertaining film with some great set-pieces. Schwarzenegger is great value yet again as the more diminished (from the point of view of being threatening) cyborg. Linda Hamilton is excellent as the more hardened Sarah and Robert Patrick is suitably nasty as the new, slick, and deadlier terminator. Unfortunately, Edward Furlong is unbelievably annoying as the whiny kid through whom Cameron delivers most of the schmaltz which Terminator 2 sadly offers up in regular doses.

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Alien (1979) 4.9/5 (7)

 

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Rating: The Good – 93.5
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror
Duration: 117  mins
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton

Ridley Scott’s seminal film is a classic of both the sci-fi and horror genres. It tells the story of the mining ship Nostromo and its crew who are asked to land on an uncharted planet to investigate a crashed spacecraft. Things take a turn for the horrific when one of the crew comes back with a creature attached to his face. Made with a level of discipline and patience not often demonstrated in Hollywood films, this genuinely terrifying film slowly reels you into its futuristic world by gently introducing you to the ship, the crew, the technology, and finally the hostile planet they have landed on. The symmetry of the interior shots on board the Nostromo is clearly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001 but Scott’s vision is somewhat darker. Unlike the clean spartan spacecrafts of 2001 we have a grimy and cluttered industrial ship, an idea that took root and defined almost every space-based sci-fi flick ever since. The action doesn’t get going until about midway through but the wait only serves to heighten the tension of the later scenes and the sense of alien intrusion. And once the alien does appear, H.R. Giger’s design of the creature (in its different stages of maturation) combined with Scott’s notion for how it should behave are so deeply primal and bone-chilling that they seemingly tap into the deepest reaches of our psyche.

The cast, replete with serious heavy hitters, is uniformly superb and their freedom to improvise their lines paid off in spades as the authenticity that Scott’s vision generates so well is only compounded. John Hurt, Ian Holm, and of course Sigourney Weaver as Ripley deliver truly masterful performances but the rest aren’t too far behind them. Alien is what happens when every piece of the film-making puzzle comes together in mutually inspiring fashion. Scott’s direction was commanding, the cast’s acting was perfectly in sync, Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score was revolutionary, Dan O’Bannon’s story & screenplay was as imaginative and as disciplined as they come, while Giger’s creature design and Michael Seymour’s production design were on a different level to anything the science fiction genre had offered up before. Yes, Alien is truly a case of cinematic perfection.

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Terminator Salvation (2009) 1.79/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Bad – 28.4
Genre: Action, Science Fiction
Duration: 115 mins
Director: McG
Stars: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin

One could argue that the Terminator franchise should never have moved into the future (outside of a few flashback/forward shots) because it was inside the audiences’ imagination that the horror of that world’s future was at it’s scariest. But if one must make a future-based prequel then all fans would expect the plot to that film to lie in the story that Reese told Sarah Connor in the parking lot during The Terminator. The story of how John Connor brought the last remnants of human kind back from the brink by organising them, teaching them to storm the wire of the camps, to smash those metal…. anyway you remember. In other words, the film would illuminate that which was alluded to in the earlier films. Terminator Salvation gives us none of that. Instead, it lands us right bang in the middle of the resistance’s campaign where Skynet is already on the back-foot and John Connor is merely a local commander who takes orders from a bunch of guys on a submarine. It then proceeds to give us some half-assed story of a half-man/half-machine (Sam Worthington) creation of Skynet (which wasn’t in any way referenced in the earlier films) and amazingly makes this machine the central character! Connor is relegated to a secondary character in this mess, Reese is turned into a whiny boy who in no way resembles the battle-hardened and gnarly Reese of the first film, and the film lurches forward on the steam of it’s own crap. It’s not even like the story was too great to pass up, it’s truly awful and riddled with the most inane plot holes like Reese not seeing anything strange in Worthington’s lack of awareness about, you know, the apocalypse! Or why Worthington wasn’t just programmed to kill Reese on first contact (?!!) or why John Connor, the man who believes he is the one true saviour of humankind, jumps out of a plane into a tsunami just so he can talk to those submarine guys! The list of plot holes is extensive and indicative of a film to which zero thought or consideration was given. On top of all this, Christian Bale speaks in his Batman voice (which isn’t even appropriate for the Batman films) and the director is someone who calls himself McG!

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The Terminator (1984) 4.53/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 92.5
Genre: Science Fiction, Action
Duration: 107 mins
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen

Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is just a regular unassuming young woman living a normal life oblivious to the fact that her future son is destined to lead a human resistance against an army of sentient machines. When the machines send a seemingly unstoppable cyborg (Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill her and her unborn son, the resistance send back their own soldier (Michael Biehn) to protect her.

One of the very best science fiction films, The Terminator has it all: timeless special effects, an unforgettable score, sublime action, an excellent cast, and a story that re-defined what science fiction was all about. Hamilton and Biehn have never been better with the latter’s contribution often going underrated as the wily yet traumatised soldier whose performance is just unhinged enough to give us a terrifying sense of the future he comes from. Nothing about his acting seems false and it easily rates as one of the great sci-fi performances (check out that interrogation scene). However, in retrospect everyone seems to have been overshadowed by Schwarzenegger who was indeed born to play the role of the remorseless machine. There’s not another actor who could’ve played that character as coldly and as clinically as he does and it has rightly gone down in history as his defining role.

The Terminator stands apart from most other action sci-fi’s in both the sophistication and inventiveness of its writing. Not only do writers James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd incorporate the initial killings of the other “Sarah Connors” into a fascinating sub-plot of a police investigation into a “one-day pattern killer” but they also offered a far more intense and thoughtful play on the time-travelling concept than we had previously seen from the sub-genre. Furthermore, technology modern to 1984 plays an extensive if subtle role in the film and, thereby, accentuates the central theme exquisitely. Answering machines, pagers, a punching clock, a walkman, laser sighted guns (for a cyborg who shouldn’t really need one), drills, the radio advertisement for CD’s (referred to as the latest in sound technology), motor bikes, petrol tankers, techno music, & the Tech-Noir club (with its electronic decorative theme) all heighten the relevance of technology to the story. The film opens with a shot of a dumpster truck, builds up to a finale in an automated factory where the present day machines play their most overt role, and closes with a polaroid (which itself has the most direct links with the future of all featured contemporary technology). Sure many of these things are every day items and feature in many films from that era but never as prominently and indeed as conspicuously as they do here. They act as Cameron’s central device in foreshadowing the future the Terminator hails from by quietly illustrating how machines have crept and continue to creep further into our lives. Insidiously so.

However, in the final analysis, the highest praise must go to Cameron the director, whose work in this film is among the very best to bless either the sci-fi or action genres. The pinnacle of which, the Tech-Noir sequence, where Connor first encounters the Terminator and where Reese’s role is finally revealed is a suspenseful master class in multi-layered staging and editing which explodes into the most ferocious and focused action ever filmed. Pure Genius.

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Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) 3/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.9
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 100 mins
Director: Joseph Sargent 
Stars: Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent

Back in the early days of the computer revolution, when computers seemed all powerful and full of potential malevolence, the notion of a sinister AI systematically removing our human liberties was one that made for some unsettling films. Given how overrated we now know those dangers to be, most films premised on this topic don’t maintain that same sense of menace when watched nowadays but a few (the most obvious being 2001: A Space Odyssey) do. Despite its shoestring budget, and modest place in the history of cinema, Colossus: The Forbin Project is one such film. Eric Braeden plays Dr. Charles Forbin, the world’s leading computer scientist, who has just completed work on a massive computer system designed to maintain full autonomous control over the US military’s defence capabilities. However, as soon as this system (named “Colossus”) is placed on line, it detects a similar computer controlling the Soviet network and despite the best effort of both countries, the two supercomputers begin working together to take control of the world.

There’s a lovely build up to this film as it begins by picking up at the end of what appears to have been an exhausting project. As the scientists celebrate and the politicians preen, there’s a real sense of one’s guard been let down. James Bridge’s script gives the various characters a believable overconfidence by rooting it not in arrogance but, ironically, in their intelligence. Thus, when Colossus begins misbehaving, a wonderfully drawn out recognition of peril occurs. As he would later demonstrate in The Taking of Pelham 123, director Joseph Sargent has a refined touch when it comes to handling tense drama and his framing and use of space parallels and therefore accentuates the heightening sense of claustrophobia which the apparent omnipresence of Colossus gives rise to. The shots of Colossus’ physical manifestations (close circuit cameras, mainframes, etc), while very dated, still play wonderfully on the Kuleshov effect (which Kubrick tapped so brilliantly in 2001) so that much of the malevolence it takes on begins within the minds of the audience. Of course, no such subtlety is aimed for with its voice but the grizzled electronic sound is a welcomed turn of pace for a film which primarily dealt with the subtle.

There are nice touches of comedy layered throughout the picture which are picked up on and channeled well through the cast. Braeden is superb as the stern but thoughtful Dr. Forbin in a performance reminiscent of Gregory Peck in his pomp while Susan Clark’s turn as his chief accomplice in his plans against the computer is a positive addition to vibe of the movie. Colossus: The Forbin Project isn’t an explicitly terrifying film but as we see the machine devise ever more clever ways at keeping the humans under its control, it does become implicitly unsettling which is what these type of science fiction films have always been about.

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