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.
Rating: The Good – 83.5 Genre: Action, Science Fiction Duration: 120 mins Director: George Miller Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
Few films have been as eagerly awaited as the fourth instalment in the Mad Max franchise, not simply because of its jaw dropping series of trailers but because the highly selective George Miller, who hasn’t put a foot wrong since the third offering, was back behind the wheel determined to shoot the entire thing old school. Under a sand storm of hype, it opened to resounding commercial success with glowing critical reviews hot on its tail. Amidst such expectations, it’s possible for fans of the genre to be overly forgiving and for its disciples to be overly harsh. And it may just be that both will have a case.
In Mel Gibson’s place, Fury Road gives us an overtly (but appropriately) monosyllabic Tom Hardy as the former family man roaming the wasteland of a post apocalyptic Australia while dodging one manic tribe of lunatics after another. A self-described personification of the will to survive. When he’s captured by Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Immortan Joe, the leader of a cult like settlement of high octane warriors who turn him into a “blood-bag” (don’t ask!), he inadvertently gets dragged into an epic desert pursuit of Immortan’s wives fleeing under the protection of his most famous soldier, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Fear not if the premise feels a little bewildering, for it’s used to do little more than provide an admirably modest funnel for the high-gear auto carnage that runs non-stop for the first 45 minutes of the movie not to mention the final 25. Contrary to much of what we’ve heard, there’s plenty of CGI but it’s used on the periphery of the invigorating real life stunt work. The result: a feast of cranked-up, rust-eaten behemoths cutting swathes of dust trails through the Nambian desert, sideswiping, spearing, devouring the gravel, flipping like tossed coins, and exploding into rocketing balls of shrapnel! Within the wonderfully narrow parameters of the pursuit, and with no small help from John Seale’s (who came out of retirement to shoot this) cinematography, Miller brings this action to life with with hectic tension and pure excitement and there will come a moment when everyone watching will look away to give their eyes a rest and use that brief reprieve to exhale the words “Bloody hell!” or something along those lines. In the modern age of generic computerised action and simulated movie stunts, this isn’t just rare achievement, it’s a downright reason for celebration. More than that, it’s the blueprint for the future of the action genre!
But it gets better! The characters (though not well developed – wrong movie for that) are plump with personality and coloured with unusual mannerisms befitting a world so different to ours. And it’s in this regard, that writer-director Miller succeeds most impressively. For the first two acts, Fury Road completely owns itself. Dialogue, set-up, plot, characterisation, production and costume design are uniquely organic to Max’s anarchic world, meaning there’s a depth of originality to the movie that’s truly rare. Beyond an awareness that the three main characters are going to make it at least to the last act, little else is predictable. Even Hardy’s Max persona is unfamiliar, an erratic collage of communicative grunts and base intentions (to the extent that he sometimes sounds like a befuddled cartoon character). It’s missing the outback spirit of Gibson’s portrayal but it’s so damn wacky, it seems somehow more in line with this more deranged world. Theron’s Furiosa is played somewhat more accessibly than Miller’s character concept but she is nothing close to derivative in her mannerisms (though in all honesty, she’s still a little bland). Keays-Byrne (Toe-Cutter from the first film) is a law onto himself so its unsurprising that his Immortan Joe qualifies as unique. But that he (and again Miller’s character conception helps abundantly) represents the horror of this futuristic world so viscerally is legitimately arresting. Of course, as is the point, this degree of originality all adds to the integrity of the premise.
Where the film fails to reach the high ground of The Road Warrior and Mad Max, however, is in its final act. Maintaining a single link between premise and pursuit in the first half of the movie worked a treat so it’s all the more disappointing that they went overboard in explaining the motives of the final charge. Worse still is that those motives are no different to the motives of any number of post-apocalyptic characters from Logan’s Run to Battlestar Galactica. With each heartfelt emotion and yearning for a life of green and plenty we get slowly drawn back to normality and everything seems less exotically savage. Miller is essentially repeating the mistakes of Beyond the Thunderdome here. Letting familiar sentimentality intrude on a world where it doesn’t belong. There can be sentiment, for sure, but it should bear the hallmarks of its world’s stripped-down motives. Like those that carried us through the first two acts: survival with a splash of self-determination. Max says it himself in his opening monologue:- he is driven by the instinct to survive and nothing more. As streamlined and action-friendly a motive as you could hope for, an idea which the first two acts champion (to the film’s emphatic benefit) but which the last act loses grasp of. It doesn’t ruin the film, it just tempers its brilliance.
Rating: The Good – 63.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 118 mins Director: Jim Mickle Stars: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis
“All that goodness destroyed by some crazy Christians dropping vamps from the sky.” Any movie that can make those words sound unremarkable must surely do a job in (err…) sucking you into whatever messed up world it’s created. In Stake Land, that world is a United States overrun by vampires, cannibals, murderous religious cults, and pockets of humans struggling to survive the bloodsucking apocalypse. Our narrator is Martin, a young man being shepherded though this nightmare landscape by a notorious vampire killer known only as “Mister”. Characters like Mister don’t allow for much in the way of sentiment so what follows is a cruel story where any warmth seems to fight against the wider reality and inevitably fade away. It makes for a rather compelling reflection of the movie’s themes of self-sufficiency and needs-based politics but a bleak night in front of the TV. Where things could’ve been lightened up is with the Mister character. Nick Damici’s atypical physical presence tantalises at the outset and writer-director Jim Mickle’s refusal to elucidate his backstory sets him up for genre defining greatness. But however nice it is to see a lesser known actor get the opportunity to impress, he undeniably lacks the personality of an effective lead. Connor Paolo is equally slight as the narrator and although there are some nice turns of phrase scattered about Mickle’s script, he really doesn’t deliver them with enough punch. Falling back on its moodiness and some marginally imaginative obstacles, Stake Land thus becomes a somewhat occupying if ultimately cold addition to the genre.
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.
Rating: The Good – 70.8 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 101 mins Director: Francis Lawrence Stars: Will Smith, Alice Braga
Francis Lawrence’s take on Richard Matheson’s novella is a worthy addition to the sci-fi genre. Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last man left in New York City after a genetically engineered virus either killed off the rest of the population or turned them into rabid cannibals. Like the earlier adaptation Omega Man, this film gives us a different type of mutant to the book (in the book they turned into vampires and were much more sinister in their methods) but unlike that film these mutants are far more scary. The production design involved in bringing the desolate New York to life is impressive and Lawrence creates some extremely tense scenes culminating in some genuinely terrifying moments. In this task, he is ably helped by his lead. As the only actor on show for long segments, Smith needed to bring presence to the role and he does it with ease giving us just the right balance between toughness and vulnerability. There are some minor issues such as the fact that the mutants managed to lose all pieces of clothing except their pants and the ending skirts the boundaries of cheesiness but for the most part, I am Legend is first class sci-fi/horror entertainment.
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.
Rating: The Good – 90 Genre: Action Duration: 94 mins Director: George Miller Stars: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston
George Miller’s post-apocalyptic sequel picks up with the psychologically scarred Max after he takes the last of the V8 Interceptors deep into the Australian wasteland. A wasteland where life is ruled by a constant search for fuel and the desperate avoidance of the anarchic tribes bent on taking everything. The Road Warrior is quite possibly the most original and compelling post-apocalyptic film ever made as writer-director Miller dials up the action and Mel Gisbon responds with the performance of his career. As an action movie, it’s a startling achievement as Miller brings a thunderous and near crazed momentum to the desert roads with the end product being a searing and relentless white hot ball of road fury. The stunt choreography has never been bettered and the sense of foreboding and terror that comes with being an inhabitant in that world is palpable. Astonishing.
Rating: The Good – 85.8 Genre: Action, Science Fiction Duration: 88 mins Director: George Miller Stars: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne
The movie that raised the stakes on all car-chase films by giving us one visceral and frenetic chase after another on the open roads of a futuristic Australian outback. Mel Gibson has never been better as the rogue cop who ultimately takes to the road in his bloody pursuit of revenge against the marauding motorcycle gang who made the mistake of making things personal. Hugh Keays-Byrne is the wonderfully deranged leader of that gang (Toecutter) and he provides one of science fiction’s more memorable and interesting bad-guys.
The original of the franchise is not as relentless as the second in terms of its pace and savagery but it is more subtly disturbing in how it portrays the breakdown of law and order. In fact there are few post-apocalyptic movies that have matched writer/director George Miller and co-writer James McCausland’s startlingly obtuse conception of the future. The mannerisms and dialogue of the nomadic bikers, the tattered remnants of the legal system, and the breathless momentum of the action all combine to give one an utterly gripping sense of a post-apocalyptic world.
But it’s how all this is tied to what we would recognise as the modern world which makes it feel so authentic and disturbing. On top of that, Miller quite cleverly juxtaposes the chaos of the roads with the sanity and calm of Max’s family life and consequently roots Max (and the subsequent more frenetic world of the sequels) in an all too credible world. It may burn a lot slower than those sequels but Mad Max never disappoints because, once it gets going, it doesn’t stop as Max races 150mph straight into The Road Warrior.
The year is 2159 and while Earth has turned into an overpopulated slum planet, the wealthy have relocated to an orbiting space station which caters to their every need and, from which, the planet below is harshly governed. Matt Damon top lines as a lowly factory worker who must make his way to the space station named “Elysium” if he is to find a cure to the fatal dose of radiation he was exposed to in a work related accident. Unfortunately, Elysium’s minister of defence (a very nasty Jodie Foster) takes a dim view of those Earth peasants who attempt to sneak past her atmospheric defences and usually resorts to blowing them out of their ragged socks. However, when the first minister attempts to curb her extremist leanings, she sets about engineering a coup that Damon just happens to get caught up in. But not before he is surgically connected to a metal exoskeleton that makes him as strong as the droids which Elysium uses to enforce the law and the similarly exoskeletonised mercenaries who Foster uses to chase down Damon when he accidentally downloads the plans for her little coup (don’t ask!).
On the face of things, Neill Blomkamp’s eagerly awaited follow up to his directorial debut, the South African sleeper hit District 9, ticks a number of boxes: a 1980’s esque sci-fi escapism; a director who recently made an impressive debut in the genre; and one of the 21st century’s most watchable action stars. And for the first 40 or 50 minutes, it more or less lives up to that promise. Damon shows a likeable presence as the blue collar everyman who like Schwarzenegger’s Doug Quaid, reluctantly gets caught up in the political instability of his world. The film has a distinctive look, captured stunningly in 4K, and the visual effects are elegant and well conceived. And then there’s the hint of a time honoured bad guy dynamic where a sinister yet erudite mastermind uses a greasy thug to do her dirty work (think Kurtwood Smith and Ronny Cox or Michael Ironside and err…Ronny Cox).
Alas, as much as all this plays to an 80’s vintage of science fiction, this turns out to be very much a 21st century movie with all the muddled scriptwriting problems that blockbusters of this century are almost invariably beset with. Instead of taking the neat sci-fi premise and telling a simple straight forward story on the back of it, Blomkamp tacks a number of weak subplots onto the basic plot. What the purpose of these side plots are is anyone’s guess. Is it an attempt to make the movie something more than ‘just’ an action sci-fi? Are there deluded executives demanding the story have a “social angle” because some irrelevant focus group indicated a place for it? Whatever the reason, it pulverises the otherwise sleek concept.
Even without the plot confusion, the script becomes increasingly coarse. After an encouraging introduction, the villains fail to develop beyond their archetypes and Blomkamp uses them and the heartlessness of the new world system merely to flick switches in the mind of the audience. Sharlto Copley’s (Blomkamp’s leading man from District 9) central bad guy becomes more and more laughable in his nastiness and with the persistent and frankly ridiculous overuse of slow motion (coupled with the usual formidable score), Blomkamp gives the audience what seems like forever to ponder just how mean he is. Foster shows more potential but she too is painfully static in her cruelty. Not surprisingly for a film which is saturated with side plots, it’s the secondary characters that suffer most. Alice Braga is just a token presence and an actress with her talent should really start becoming concerned with potential typecasting. But at least she’s good with what she’s given. Wagner Moura on the other hand adds a new layer of awfulness to the catalogue of sci-fi’s bad performances with an altogether misjudged turn as the lesser of two evils whom Damon inevitably sides with against the elite. Positives notes on the acting front are sounded out by Damon himself who yet again proves a safe pair of hands for driving a blockbuster and a sinister William Fichtner who delivers the goods with his usual interesting degree of edge.
Technically, Elysium similarly suffers much more than it should. The concept design is rich and the immaculate visual effects would have done every bit of it justice if it were not for Julian Clark and Lee Smith’s bewildering editing. Every one of the fight sequences, of which there are many, is rendered nearly unintelligible by some frankly amateurish assemblage. Of course, Blomkamp’s stylistic ambitions played a major role here but somebody needed to speak up and steady the ship. Speaking of the fight sequences, as the movie wears on, the metal exoskeleton becomes an increasingly bemusing affectation for it really just isn’t an integral part of the story. This leaves the audience to notice it at the most random times and wonder what the hell its point is!
In the end, Elysium qualifies as a seriously flawed but visually and conceptually rousing piece of entertainment which fans of 80’s sci-fi in particular will probably accept – if only because we’ve been starved of classy science fiction for too long.
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.
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.
Rating: The Ugly – 64.3 Genre: Science Fiction, Horror Duration: 98 mins Director: Boris Sagal Stars: Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash
Matheson’s seminal novel “I am Legend” sees Charlton Heston playing the seemingly sole human survivor of a plague which either killed everyone else or turned them into deformed nocturnal fruit cakes. Free to roam the empty city by day, he is besieged at night time by a group of mutants organised by the mutant leader Matthias (in a deliciously over the top turn by Anthony Zerbe). First off, this film has dated drastically in terms of the mutants’ makeup. Not only are they not scary but it’s difficult to see how they’re anything but scarred, light sensitive, and pale skinned humans. In which case, Heston’s character Neville, who spends his days exterminating them, comes across as a homicidal maniac. They also refer to Neville as “him of the wheel” (in a reference of disgust to the technology that brought this plague upon them) as they wheel up a catapult to destroy him. However, despite these issues, this is still really enjoyable. Sure, it’s of its time but that seems to make it all the more atmospheric. Moreover, Heston was always great in these roles and he carries the film on his square shoulders with ease and plenty of personality. The production design is fairly impressive too in so far as the film quite realistically brings the deserted LA of the story to life. The Omega Man is not as slick as the more recent Will Smith film, it’s not as dark as the earlier Vincent Price driven adaptation The Last Man on Earth, nor is it as sinister as the book itself but it’s a decent effort all the same.