Thoughts on Passengers and Arrival

Passengers? release here in Malaysia bumped Arrival to a later date, which bothered me immensely, as I was anticipating Arrival much more. I assume that the Malaysian film industry buyers saw Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence and thought ?gold?. But Passengers disappeared quickly, and Arrival, once it arrived, gain screens (more so after it started be nominated for awards).

But it?s not fair to force these two films to compete against each other, even though they are in the same genre, Science Fiction, and were released close together. One is Earthbound, one if spacebound. One is about solving a mystery, the other about making an ethical choice. One is a deep, serious movie, one is almost a romantic date film (almost).

Both are about loneliness, but take different approaches to exploring it.

Interestingly, according to Box Office Mojo, they?ve both made just under US$100 million (but Arrival was made for half the budget, Passengers hasn?t recouped its production budget yet).

I loved Arrival. I really liked Passengers. There?s room for both of them in my heart.

Arrival is the slow-moving film that doesn?t give you all the answers. The characters work hard for their victories, and there?s that twist (no spoiler) that makes you rethink what you?ve just been watching. Passengers starts with a bang and ends a bit too rosily, compactly.

Amy Adams, in Arrival, is cautious, intelligent, confused, subtle. Jennifer Lawrence is very emotive and engaging, but not challenging. Jeremy Renner didn?t make a big impression on me in Arrival. Chris Pratt is Chris Pratt. Seeing him in anything makes me long for the next Guardians of the Galaxy. Michael Sheen, as the android bartender Arthur, almost steals any scene he?s in. He does an amazing job of making the character not human.

Both are decent original science fiction stories (as opposed to franchises). Their existence should be embrace by fans everywhere, as they add to the spectrum of good original science fiction films being produced year-in year-out (often lost in the sea of Star Wars / Marvel / Transformer films that shout louder for your attention.

If you haven?t seen either, I?d recommend both: Arrival for when you want a patient, thinking film and Passengers when you want an evening of adventure/romance with stunning sets (even if it gets ethically challenging in the middle).

Valley Girl Revisited

I recently heard that they were going to remake the film Valley Girl (1983), as a musical. I remember that film well (I remember being a little smitten with the titular girl, not shown in the poster). So I decided to re-watch it. Mistake?

The acting – well Nicholas Cage is Nicholas Cage, even back then – was all short-handed stereotypes to a painful degree. I never understood the motivations of the characters, beyond the hormonal ?hey, you?re sexy! Let?s make out.?

Yet the film tries desperately and repeatedly to be seen as a modern day Romeo and Juliet. Nic Cage plays Randy, Deborah Foreman plays Julie. In case that wasn?t obvious enough, here?s a picture of them below a theatre marque advertising Romeo and Juliet.

Yes, it?s that heavy-handed.

If it?s going to be Shakespearean in scope, it needs conflict. Tommy, Julie?s exceedingly cliched ex brings that. You know he?s evil because he turns the collar of his shirt up. He?s fashionable, arrogant and reeks of what we?d now call ?affluenza.? He doesn?t so much want Julie back as he wants to prove his dominance over her and all women. He plays the sympathy card to get one of her friends to make out with him, then blames her when she asks if he has any feelings for her.

Julie and Randy?s relationship just never quite seems authentic, viewing it now. Character development is limited to pouty faces (both leads) and wardrobe changes (again, both leads). Frankly their best friends have a better, more realistic love/hate relationship. There?s also an awkward subplot about one girl?s mother flirting with her daughter?s boyfriend.

Of course since this technically about high school kids, it culminates at prom, which Julie is attending with Tommy even if she doesn?t care for him. He, in turn, plans this night as his rightful night to have his way with her at a hotel after the dance (worth noting, on this viewing I was surprised at the number of topless women – three – for a film that seems to be about a young woman breaking away from societal norms).

As you?d expect from a high school story, it ends in a fist fight (no weapons, even though this is L.A. and we?re certainly meant to believe that Randy is hat type of boy). We last see our young lovers in Tommy?s limo, heading to Tommy?s hotel room, to apparently shag each other?s brains out, totally, for sure.

Won?t Tommy want to know what happened to his limo?

Won?t he and his friends, go to his hotel room, either looking for her and the limo or to sulk off the indignation of their obviously righteous defeat?

We?ll never know, because ?happily ever after? has to end somewhere. Wait, isn?t this supposed to be a Romeo and Juliet retelling? What does ?happily ever after? have to do with this?

Sssshhhh!

Deborah Foreman didn?t have much of a career after this. When I was younger, I wondered why. Now I wonder how Nicholas Cage did manage to build a career out of playing basically this same character repeatedly. I?m not saying that he?s bad in this, he?s probably the best part. I?m just saying that this film basically encompasses every role he would ever go on to do.

There are good parts to the movie. The music certainly stands the test of time (some of it any way). I Melt With You by Modern English has certainly held up well, and I remember falling in love with Eyes of a Stranger by the Payola$ (Here with clips from the movie edited in). Both of these songs are still playlists of mine.

Thoughts?

A Rainy Day Movie List – Some Sci-Fi to Watch

There has been a lot of good science fiction movies in the past few years, and there have been some blockbusters. But those haven’t always been the same. Think of a Venn Diagram, two circles overlapping, there’s a few movies that appear in the overlap (perhaps Guardians of the Galaxy or Mad Max: Fury Road), but most fall outside one way or the other. Here’s a list of some great-to-decent science fiction films that weren’t blockbusters, but weren’t bad. They cover a spectrum of styles and moods. You can probably find one or two that you haven’t already seen.

Edge of Tomorrow (imdb)

Seriously, not enough people saw this, and the only reason I can think of is because it stars Tom Cruise. I’m not a big fan of his political/religious views, and I’m always weary going into one of his movies in case it’s trying to proselytize Scientology, but this film was quite good. Hollywood noticed, although not enough viewers did. It did a respectable $369m worldwide, but only $100m domestically. Don’t like Tom Cruise? He dies! Repeatedly! It wasn’t just a good actioner, it was funny, too (and made you think, just a little). Also, it’s being rebranded as Live, Die, Repeat so look for it under that title too.

Who is it for: Anyone desiring a good action/war movie with a lot of humour sprinkled in.
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Ex Machina (imdb)

Why oh why didn’t this excellent, thoughtful movie about Artificial Intelligence and ethics get seen by more people? This was a metaphysical film about intelligence and morals involving indistinguishable-from-human AIs. If you have no remorse in killing them, should they really have remorse in killing you? It’s the most Kubrick-ish film I’ve seen since Kubrick died — not to mention the amazing effects used to create Ava’s transparent body. Maybe if they’d said ‘you’ll see a cute actresses nude!’ more people would have gone, but nudity wasn’t what this film was about (yes, it’s in there, perv).

Who is it for: Anyone who wants a thoughtful, slow movie that will stay with you.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Oblivion (imdb)

My second Tom Cruise entry, what’s going on? Have I become a Scientologist? Seriously, this was much better than expected. Not only were the effects pitch perfect, the smallness and intimacy of the story, painted on a large canvas, was fascinating. Two quibbles (one’s a spoiler): Morgan Freeman was under-utilized, which is a crime in itself; and I’m not sure that it’s true love if you’re banging a clone of your lover. (highlight with your mouse to view the missing text).

Who is it for: Old School Sci Fi short story buffs – think Heinlein or Bradbury.
Rotten Tomatoes: 54%
My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Tomorrowland (imdb)

I joked on twitter about this film when it opened, more a stab at the marketing than the film itself. I liked this movie, keeping in mind that it was very much an old school Disney kid’s film. They’ve taken the old formula (think The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, or Blackbeard’s Ghost), and update the storytelling for modern audiences – less humour, more threat. My 11-year-old students didn’t like it because it had ‘too much science’ which I translate as ‘not enough fun’ and I guess I can agree with that, but it’s still worth the 130 minutes of your time.

Who is it for: Anyone looking for light entertainment with just a bit of an alt-history twist. Think of it as Back to the Future lite, very lite.
Rotten Tomatoes: 50%
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Pacific Rim (imdb)

Like Transformers? Like Jurassic World or Godzilla? Why haven’t you seen this film? Seriously, large mech warriors fight monsters from the deep to save Earth for humanity. There is more to the story than that, but not much. People die, we’re supposed to care. Buildings get crushed, we’re supposed to care. Rivals have a show down, we’re supposed to care. But really – mech warriors fighting giant monsters! Come on!

Who is it for: Fans of Michael Bay, Transformers, or Godzilla-esque movies. Anyone who wants a movie where they can take a toilet break or go grab another beer and not miss anything substantive.
Rotten Tomatoes: 72%
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Moon (imdb)

At six years old, I’m not sure that this film should be on the list, but it was well worth seeing. Sam Rockwell is a solitary miner working a platform on the Moon’s far side when his reality starts to come undone.

Who is it for: A quiet night, a mystery. It’s good but slow.
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

The Signal (imdb)

Want something more grounded in Americana, perhaps a little weird and UFO-y? This is your film. I’ve got to admit that the ending was unsatisfying, but parts of the journey were worth taking. In the beginning, the movie doesn’t know if it wants to be a horror film or a Kerouac road movie, then it morphs, and they really don’t want you to know more about it than that. But Laurence Fishburne’s presence kept making me thinking of The Matrix. Remember that.

Who is it for: X Files fans desperately waiting for the new show to start.
Rotten Tomatoes: 58%
My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

John Carter (imdb)

This one is on the decent-but-not-great side of the spectrum. It’s a good story, with a flawed telling. At the very end, the film gets its true title, John Carter of Mars, which is what the film should have been called, and how it should have been marketed. The casting was strange, too, although a lot of it worked well (Dominic “Jimmy McNulty” West as the villain, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris). The one that didn’t work was Taylor Kitsch as the titular hero. Also distracting was the presence of Ciaran Hinds (Julius Caesar from HBO’s Rome) and James Purefoy (Mark Anthony from the same Rome) playing roles too similar those they played in… HBO’s Rome? Yeah, you get it. And the whole Ned storyline needed to die. Maybe just binge watch HBO’s Rome instead?

Who is it for: Taylor Kitsch fans, Vin Deisel fans on a drunken nights, those going through Jimmy McNulty withdrawal.
Rotten Tomatoes: 51%
My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

For context, I’d give Guardians of the Galaxy 3.5/5; Avengers: Age of Ultron 3/5 and Jupiter Ascending 1.5/5 (Even after a bonus 0.5 for the pretty spaceships). I’m sure there are more under-recognised decent films out there.

If you have any to add, drop them in a comment and we can discuss or I can added them to the list. Thanks!

Artificial Intelligence: Malicious in Movies, Benevolent in Books

Why is it that the portrayal of artificial intelligence in movies and books are contradictory? Almost universally, movies portray AI as adversarial to humans.

Recent movies such as this year?s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ex Machina each offer their own interpretation of the idea that AIs can’t be trusted. In both, humans become the victims of AI free will, although the scale is vastly different. There have been hints of this malevolent interpretation in movies for some time, and can invariably be traced back to Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And between then and now, we’ve had The Matrix and the granddaddy of all malevolent AIs, Terminator.

One of the few examples that breaks that mould, showing AIs as victims of humanity’s baser impulses, is AI: Artificial Intelligence. Here we have an AI that wants nothing more than to be loved by a human and is rejected repeatedly. Another exception that I can think of is War Games, where the AI realizes that total nuclear war is unwinnable and refuses to play.

But what’s most interesting is I, Robot, based on Isaac Asimov’s ‘robots’ series of books. The books explicitly and repeatedly state that in that future, all AIs will adhere to three laws that are destined to keep them from harming humans. The movie subverts this, and its robots can certainly hurt people.

Yet many successful utopian book series have benevolent AIs as an underpinning of that very utopian-ness. Think of the Culture series by Iain M Banks, or the Commonwealth Series by Peter F. Hamilton. True, Dune talks about the banning of thinking machines because they once rebelled against humans, but I wouldn’t call Dune’s post-AI existance utopian anyway.

I think the argument is more muddled for TV, probably because there is invariably many more hours of it.

Classic Star Trek had many episodes about bad AI, from Dr Daystrom’s M5 to the Serpent that kept people innocent and free of sin, to Landru and Nurse Chapel’s lover/android, Roger Korby. AI was rarely if ever seen as benevolent. Now, there’s a TV show called Person of Interest in which not one but two AIs are trying to control humanity. In between, there’s been a lot of hours of a bit of both:

  • Battlestar Galactica, both versions, were clearly about AIs wanting to exterminate pesky humans, although the reimagined series complicated the question by having them interbreed.
  • Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation represents a more benevolent AI, one that although superior in almost every way still choses to participate in life’s social and moral uncertainties.

I’ve noticed this disconnect between how books and movies portray artificial intelligence but I don’t have a clear explanation for it. Perhaps I have an observer’s bias and this is completely wrong. If you could use the comment space below to help me flesh out either this obvious disconnect or my obvious bias, I’d appreciate it.