Tag Archives: Science Fiction

LIST CANDIDATE: ONE POINT O (2004)

AKA Paranoia 1.0 (DVD)

DIRECTED BY: Jeff Renfroe, Marteinn Thorsson

FEATURING: , Deborah Kara Unger, , Eugene Byrd,

PLOT: Computer programmer Simon J develops crippling paranoia, and a craving for branded milk, when he begins receiving a series of empty packages at his apartment.

Still from One Point O (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Telling the classic tale of corporate-owned dystopia through a low-budget lens mixing Kafka and noir, the film creates a uniquely arthouse-ian mashup out of familiar tropes.

COMMENTS: Jeff Renfroe (no connection, thankfully, to the trucker from that exploitation shock-fest The Bunny Game) is a director whose name is not likely to be widely recognized, but who, as the cutthroat movie industry goes, hasn’t done too badly for himself. Certainly, he’s been chiefly restricted to TV episodes, but they’re decent gigs: “Killjoys,” “Helix,” “Dominion,” and various other shows that, while crowd-pleasing in that way that modern television is obligated to be, are far from the worst that the medium has to offer.

Point is, I like to console myself about the negligible notice that Renfroe’s directorial debut got by telling myself that, judging by the path his career took, he must have at least impressed somebody relatively high up.

Paranoia 1.0—or One Point O, as it was called at its Sundance premier—follows Simon J, an isolated computer programmer struggling to meet his latest deadline. When a succession of empty packages begin mysteriously appearing in his apartment, Simon finds himself overwhelmed by a growing sense of crippling paranoia, and an insatiable craving for Nature Fresh brand milk.

Paranoia 1.0 draws its primary influences from film noir, Kafka, and philosophical science fiction. None of these are genres or styles I’m particularly familiar with; but I know enough to be able to tell that their combination here is a major part of what lends the film its particular atmosphere.

In the tradition of low-budget sci-fi, Paranoia 1.0 takes place in that weird historical limbo that exists only in films: contemporary fashions, computers and coding interfaces exist alongside rotary phones and vaguely Soviet architectural backdrops (the film was shot in Bucharest), while artificial intelligences, nanotechnology and VR games that are advanced even by today’s standards factor heavily into the plot.

There’s a myriad of reasons why one could argue that—in comparison with Hollywood’s tendency to invest in polished, lily-white backdrops that make the world of the future look like a gigantic Apple store—this rugged and piecemeal representation of the future comes across as more genuine. But in this case, the most relevant aspect of it is its timelessness, a timelessness that matches fittingly Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ONE POINT O (2004)

313. KIN-DZA-DZA! (1986)

“Koo! Koo!”–Kin-Dza-Dza

DIRECTED BY: Georgiy Daneliya

FEATURING: Stanislav Lyubshin, Levan Gabriadze, Evegeni Leonov, Yuri Yakovlev

PLOT: A construction foreman and a student meet a man on the Moscow streets who claims to be from another planet; humoring him, they use his “traveler” and are transported to the desert planet of Pluk. There, they meet a pair of aliens who only speak the words “koo!” (until they figure out how to translate the human’s language via telepathy). The aliens are amazed by the earthling’s matchsticks, which contain chemicals that are very valuable on Pluk, and barter to return them to Earth in exchange for boxes of matches—but can they be trusted?

Still from Kin Dza Dza (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • Kin-Dza-Dza was a minor flop when released in Soviet theaters in the winter of 1986, but later became a cult hit when it was split into two parts and shown on television.
  • The movie was virtually unknown outside of the former Soviet Union for many years, only available here in rare dubbed VHS copies until an (almost equally rare) 2005 Russico DVD release.
  • In 2013, original director and co-writer Georgiy Daneliya remade Kin Dza-Dza as an animated children’s movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The first appearance of Uef and Be, who arrive on scene in what’s best described as a flying junk bucket. Be emerges in a makeshift cage, squats with his palms facing forward, and says, “koo!” Uef takes two metal globes and places them on the ground flanking his craft. He also says “koo!” Our two Muscovite travelers are nonplussed.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Koo-based linguistics; Patsak nose bells; alien/Russian Sinatra karaoke

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This absurdist science fiction satire was deliberately odd from its inception. Today, since the vanished Soviet Union is almost as strange a world as the desert planet Pluk, Kin-Dza-Dza has become a movie about one alien culture lost inside another.


Unofficial Hollywood-style trailer for Kin-Dza-Dza

COMMENTS: You can describe the plot of Kin-Dza-Dza in detail Continue reading 313. KIN-DZA-DZA! (1986)

CAPSULE: RUPTURE (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Michael Chiklis, Kerry Bishe, Lesley Manville, Andrew Moodie, Ari Millen, Jean Yoon, Jonathan Potts,

PLOT: Young mother Renee Morgan (Rapace) is abducted by a strange group and endures tests and tortures designed to elicit some response they refer to as a “rupture”- but what exactly is that?

Still from Rupture (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not that weird, though there are some aspects here and there. But it’s certainly odd—those expecting a straightforward piece of “capture/torture porn” will not be pleased. There’s a lot to be intrigued by, if you can run with a variation on the genre.

COMMENTS: Looking at most of the reviews, and the current mainstream arbiter of good and bad films, Rotten Tomatoes, Rupture doesn’t fare well. Fair enough. For this type of thriller, it doesn’t truly deliver in terms of shocks, it’s not nearly as gory as most of its brethren, and most of the events are standard tropes in its genre niche. That said, I think that most of those negative reviewers overlook the interesting aspects of this film, which tips its hand fairly early that it’s not going to be the usual capture/torture story.

For one thing, there’s a subtle humor running throughout the film in the lighting and art direction. There’s Suspiria-style lighting throughout the facility, and one room referencing Kubrick’s The Shining. In the performances, Renee’s captors/tormentors are surprisingly polite and deferential, if extremely focused. There’s also the lack of over-the-top graphicness and the growing realization that despite the fearful goings on, very little of the film orients towards horror. It’s not quite a subversion of the torture/capture scenario, but it’s certainly a side path.

Rupture is a much less graphic Martyrs, with a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as things play out. You can call it a social satire, if you consider current events as having some influence in interpreting and enjoying the arts. Those factors, plus an ending which leaves things open to continue the story, makes it understandable why audiences expecting a taut thriller would be slightly disappointed.

Rupture can currently be viewed on the Cinemax networks and on DVD.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Rupture is worth persevering with as it turns into a tense, claustrophobic and strange experience.”–Katherine McLaughlin, SciFiNow (contemporaneous)

STOCKING COAL: THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL (1978)

With the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (directed by ), it appears that Saint Nicholas has appeased a considerable sector of movie goers in 2017, except for the formula-craving fanatics who were preferring something akin to the pedestrian Rogue One. Johnson’s The Last Jedi, in declining to subscribe to expectations of franchise assembly line lovers, has refreshingly provoked butthurt nostalgists, and revealed what a lot of people already knew: the wrongheadedness of fandom, seen at its silliest and most cult-like in petitions to remove the film from “the canon” and Twitter threats cast at the director.

Still from the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)Of course, the jolly old elf has delivered us a few genuine clunkers over the last seventeen hundred years, among the most notorious being the 1978 “Star Wars Holiday Special” (directed by Steve Binder, best known for the 1968 ‘Elvis Comeback Special”). It’s a made-for-television abomination that George Lucas and company have desperately tried to keep buried, but like bed bugs at night—the damn thing just wouldn’t go away. It’s a good thing too; ’tis the perfect present for infantile palettes. Since its release, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” keeps cropping up in bootleg copies. The late Carrie Fisher even attempted to deny its existence and dismissed it as an urban legend, which only fanned the flames of demand. Despite her protestations, there she is, along with many of the original cast.

Not even the endurance tests of The Ewok AdventureHoward the Duck, Willow (1988), or The Phantom Menace (1999) can prepare one for the cringe-inducing ineptitude of the “Holiday Special.” After the 1977 film took the world by surprise, Lucas, knowing that the Empire wouldn’t be striking back for another two years and fearful that audiences had short term memories, unwisely agreed to CBS’ request for a holiday variety show, utilizing original cast members and footage spliced in from A New Hope (although it wasn’t called that at the time). As hard as it may be for some to fathom, this is Star Wars on the level of the most unwatchable Z-movie productions. Wretched in unparalleled proportions, its too embarrassing to be worthy of a genuine laugh.

Fleeing an imperial starship, Han Solo and Chewbacca jump into hyperspace so they can arrive in time for a Wookie holiday called “Life Day,” because Malla (Mrs. Chewie) is pining for her hubby back on the home planet (represented by a shitty drawing of a house straight out of “Swiss Family Robinson” meets “The Jetsons”). Being a stay-at-home mom, Malla wears an apron as she watches a TV program with Harvey Korman in drag as a kind of intergalactic Julia Childs octopus teaching us how to cook a cake: “Beat, stir, whip, beat, stir, whip.” It might have been amusing at a quarter of its length.

What is “Life Day?” Although the entire special is about this Wookie holiday, who the hell knows what it’s about? Apparently, it’s close enough to Christmas and/or Thanksgiving to warrant this special. Malla, anxious for Chewie to get his ass home for the holidays, calls a Luke Skywalker adorned in eyeliner. Of course, Malla just oinks. Fortunately, Luke speaks oink and assures her that her Wookie man meat will be home soon.

Han, Luke, and Leia are minor characters, with the special focused on Chewbacca’s family. Itchy (Chewie’s dad) is an argument for euthanasia. Lumpy, the Wookie rugrat, watches circus holograms while stoned out of his gourd on opium, then runs around the hut playing with a toy storm trooper spaceship. Itchy plays with it too. Gramps doesn’t seem to like Lumpy; but Luke never shows up to translate, so it’s anybody’s guess.

Art Carney stops by as Trader Saundan. He comes from Planet C. We can only assume there’s a planet A & B. Art brings presents; so, perhaps he’s a bit like Santa. He gives Malla a hologram of Jefferson Starship (this is in-between the band’s cool Jefferson Airplane phase and their fingernails-down-a-chalkboard Starship phase, although the band is already devolving here). Itchy receives a hologram sex doll of Diahann Carroll as the  Swan Woman (she has a silver thingamajig on her head, but at least she sings better than Starship). Disconcertingly, with one had on his crutch and the other on a remote control, Itchy clearly gets aroused (he oinks a lot). With all the maudlin “Leave it to Beaver”-style Wookie mugging, it’s an uncomfortable mix.

Bea Arthur, as Ackema, the bitchy cantina owner, is essentially a dancing Maude in space. The rest is a mix of cheap animation (which marks the first appearance of Boba Fett), a couple of storm troopers, some footage of Darth Vader, and a WTF finale of red robed Wookies in the sky, as Fisher sings execrable lyrics to John Williams’ Star Wars theme while Han coos over her. This is easily the weirdest entry from the Star Wars universe, but this is a case of weird being something best avoided. Think of it as Star Wars doused in sentimental maple syrup mixed with buttermilk. Lucas’ name is nowhere to be found in the credits, and he has consistently maintained that he had nothing to do with the special. He doth protest too much, methinks.

HOTTER THAN HELL ITSELF: KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK (1978)

Throughout the 1970s, the rock band KISS served as a kind of symbol for my own paradoxical, f’ed-up world. On Sundays, we frequently heard diatribes against the band spewed from the pulpit. “Knights in Satan’s Service,” the preacher warned, again and again and again. Believe me: Gene “The Demon” Simmons, with his long wiggling tongue and blood-drinking candids (from various albums) inspired countless, tongue-speaking “the Holy Ghost has taken over the service” and paranoid “Jesus is coming again soon” frenzied Sunday night services that usually dragged on past midnight, which left us dragging through Monday morning classes.

At school, it was the exact opposite. My parents, for reasons I still cannot fathom, moved us from Indianapolis to a small, gun-toting Klan county populated by trailer parks, farms (which smelled of cow fertilizer for six months out of the year), and mini-suburbs. To many of the kids from this hayseed community, Peter, Paul, Gene, and Ace were akin to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and if you were foolish enough to criticize the sacred prophets of rock and roll, be prepared for an ass whuppin’. You weren’t even safe breathing negatives about KISS in front of the white trash girls, because they had become zealous converts, one and all, with Peter’s “Beth, I hear you calling,” and would promptly order their boyfriends to beat the holy shit out of you from here to Sunday. As stupid as I was in my teens, I was still smart enough to keep my mouth shut on the subject of KISS. Actually, I was never sure what all the fuss was about either way. Their songs were harmless trifles and their stage act wasn’t much different than the average movie. My younger brother, on the other hand, got caught up in the KISS phenomenon and actually risked buying two of their LPs. Unfortunately for him, he was eventually caught in possession of “Hotter than Hell” and “KISS Alive.” Needless to say, those records were offered up  to an angry Jehovah in the sacred church parking lot bonfire shortly before Sunday night service (I can still hear those echoes of the Burgermeister Meisterburger laughing “the children of Somberville will never play with toys again” as he lit the torch).

Still from Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978)Imagine my surprise then when, a few years later, I caught Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978) at a friend’s house (the church folk never found out). My confusion over the KISS brouhaha magnified, only (perhaps) surpassed by Gene becoming a kind of constipated Pat Boone-type late in life.

Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park could very well be to 1970s TV movies what Manos: The Hands of Fate was for the 60s: a movie so Continue reading HOTTER THAN HELL ITSELF: KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK (1978)

CAPSULE: “DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY,” SEASON 1 (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dean Parisot, Michael Patrick Jann, Tamra Davis, Paco Cabezas

FEATURING: , Samuel Barnett, Jade Eshete, Hannah Marks, Michael Eklund, Fiona Dourif, Mpho Kaoho, Dustin Milligan

PLOT: A financially-distressed bellboy finds himself caught up in a mystery of metaphysical proportions when over-eager “holistic detective” Dirk Gently climbs though his apartment window and proclaims him his assistant.

Still from Dirk Gently's Holisitc Detective Agency, Season 1 (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Wrong category: episodic television. It’s still something you want to be aware of if you have an interest in strange dramatics, though.

COMMENTS: “You didn’t see anything weird this morning, did you, Mr. Brotzman?”

“Have you noticed an acceleration of strangeness in your life as of late?”

The 45-minute opening episode of “Dirk Gently” includes the following plot elements: a missing girl. A double murder in a hotel room, with bite marks on the ceiling. A kidnapped hacker.  A woman tied to a bed in the apartment directly above the protagonist.  An accidental suicide. A doppelganger. A wandering dog who shows up everywhere. A lottery ticket. Two policeman surveilling the protagonist. Two unspecified military types surveilling the protagonist. Two FBI agents surveilling the protagonist. A character who hallucinates that she’s being sliced by knives. A van of punks who roam around smashing things (and people) with baseball bats, and sucking energy from their victims. Bald alien-types with crossbow tasers. A holistic detective, hunted by a holistic assassin.

That last item—sorry, the second to last item—is Dirk Gently, first seen climbing in hapless Todd Brotzman’s window, proclaiming him his assistant. By the end of the episode the police will be designating poor Todd a “person of interest” in two separate killings. True to Dirk Gently’s mantra, the holistic faith in “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” all of the above elements will eventually merge into a coherent (if fantastical) plot—although it takes more than a couple of episodes before the first puzzle piece actually clicks into place. (We haven’t even encountered the woman who seems to believe she’s a dog yet, or the man who may be a cult leader who’s keeping her as a pet). What keeps us watching through the extremely disorienting early episodes is the absurd humor, which contrasts with a sense of mystery and genuine menace (the violence gets fairly extreme). The increasingly incredulous Todd (Wood, perfect for the role of the beleaguered everyman) and the outrageously blasé but bumbling Dirk (Brit newcomer Samuel Barnett, earnestly insistent in a tie and mustard-colored dime store leather jacket) make for a classic comedy dynamic. (Dirk: “While searching your apartment, I found a very compelling piece of evidence.” A curious Todd: “What did you find?” Dirk [portentously]: “Nothing.”) Their relationship, naturally, deepens and complicates as Todd is unwittingly, despite his best efforts, drawn deeper into the investigation. By the end, it’s a perfectly synchronized mystery, with action sequences, astounding science fantasy conceits, and a comic tone that often gets dark (but not too dark). Highly entertaining, even after the apparent surrealism of the first few episodes gets (pseudo)-rationally resolved.

“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is based on Douglas (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) Adams’ novels of the same name, although the plot involves an original case not found in the novels, the character of Todd does not appear in the books, and the setting has been Americanized. The seeds of a second season (which premiered in October 2017 and is still running at the time of this writing) were sown at the end of the first. It plays on the BBC America network (as a cord-cutter, it beats me where you can find the network, though Season 1 is available on Hulu). Other than the source material, this “Gently” is unrelated to the British BBC adaptation of the same property that ran for a single season in 2012.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…to appreciate it, you better like weird shows that seem uninterested in providing answers. ‘Dirk Gently’ doesn’t just set up weirdness and then explain it; it just keeps getting stranger and stranger as it goes.”–Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (pilot episode)

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (2004)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , , Naoto Takenaka; Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, Joey D’Auria (English dub)

PLOT: In a future increasingly dominated by half-human cyborgs, a pair of special agents investigate a series of murder/suicides committed by gynobots.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s some wild imagery and at least one mind-bending scene, but it’s essentially straight science fiction—though an accomplished example of the genre.

COMMENTS: Only slightly related to the original, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence actually exceeds its seminal cyberpunk namesake. The most obvious step forward is in the animation, apparent from the opening scene where futuristic helicopter approaches a glowing orange skyscraper, fluidly scaled by the camera (the massively vertical urban settings recall a brighter version of Blade Runner‘s world, a comparison heightened by the movie’s humanist theme). Appropriately assisted by computers, the visual onslaught never lets up, highlighted by a riotous midpoint parade sequence that, reportedly, took a year to animate. That pan-Asian smorgasbord features glittering pagodas, Buddhas and dragons, a carnival so detailed that you can follow every piece of flying confetti as it drifts to the street. The procedural plot is complex, but focused, and not as mystifying as the original. This one centers on Batou, the sidekick in the first movie; a protagonist who, again, has had most of his body and even his brain replaced with machinery, and who wonders about his remaining humanity. Although she is referenced and makes what is essentially a cameo appearance, we don’t miss the Major—it wasn’t her character we fell in love with in Shell anyway, but the setting.

As a genre, anime is often replete with characters who spew vague pseudo-philosophical dialogue (much as 50s sci-fi films would proffer pseudo-scientific explanations for their atomic monsters), usually to impart an air of mysticism. But the Shell series is the real deal, with apt quotations from everything from Rene Descartes to Buddhist parables. While it’s somewhat amusing to hear a couple of gumshoes on a case drop lines from Milton into casual conversation, the citations are always on point and never play as pretentious. These wired-up special agents can tap into world literature databases with a thought, after all.

Aside from the cyberdelic drawings, there isn’t much actual weirdness in Innocence, but the ability of characters to “hack” into each others’ cybernetic brains leads to at least one scene that will mess with your mind. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll notice it starting when the movie suddenly turns eerily quiet and slow. The film recovers from its bout of insanity, and despite its intricacy, the mystery at its core is resolved without lingering ambiguity. The bullet-flying action sequences and soundtrack (Akira-esque world music, and a closing ballad which puts lyrics to “Concierto de Aranjuez”) are also ace, leading to an overall package that flirts with “” status.

To cash in on the 2017 live-action version of Ghost in the Shell with , Funimation released a DVD/Blu-ray combo of Innocence in 2017. It features a commentary track by Oshii and animator Toshihiko Nishikubo along with a “making of” featurette (we’re not certain whether either of these features are exclusive to release).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like an anime made by Bergman or Tarkovsky… pure, wordless cinema, existing in a realm too deliciously mysterious to pull down.”–Sci-Fi Movie Page

BLADE RUNNER (1982) & BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

When s Blade Runner 2049 was released this Fall, many were surprised that it did not meet box office expectations. Nor did its father, s Blade Runner (1982). Having seen the original on its opening weekend, I’m among those who witnessed its initial weak box office evolve into a cult phenomena. ‘s The Thing, released the same year as Blade Runner, also took off slow amidst lukewarm reviews, yet both became examples of visionary science fiction, joining a small cluster of classic films from the last half century that includes Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Alien (1979), E.T. (1982), Videodrome (1983), Back to the Future (1985), The Fly (1986),  A.I. (2001), Minority Report (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Children of Men (2006), and Prometheus (2012) (and of course a few others). Like ‘s aforementioned Close Encounters, competing edits of Scott’s Blade Runner (my advice: go with “The Final Cut”) didn’t hinder its eventual cult status.

Based on ‘s novel “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?,” the iconographic texture of Blade Runner was apparent mere moments into its release, despite the awkwardness of the silly studio-mandated Phillip Marlowe narration (supplied by star Harrison Ford as Deckard) and a happy ending that was woefully unconvincing for a film that practically defined dystopian noir. Thankfully, Scott was able to restore the film and added to it considerable by omitting those executive errors (while excising five minutes).

With his “Final Cut,” Scott cemented Blade Runner as his second (and greatest) of three unquestionable science fiction classics (the first being Alien and third being its belated prequel Prometheus—which of course will provoke futile debate). The cast is uniformly excellent. Despite its initial weak box office performance, Blade Runner made a brief star of antagonist , whose characterization of the replicant Roy is far more haunting and aptly hammy than its source material. The same could be said for Sean Young; she’s magnetic as Rachel, in her chic 2019 shoulder pads and -inspired bob, diaphanously exhaling a smoky-treat. Darryl Hannah as Pris (with lethal thighs), Brion James as Leon, and the eternally underrated Joanna Cassidy as the snake-wielding Zhora make a trio of memorable replicant villains, more poignantly human than most of the humans. Apart from Ford’s Deckard, who—as has been noted and debated endlessly—is possibly a replicant himself, the human exceptions are Joe Turkell as doomed Dr. Tyrell and William Sanderson as the pathos-ridden toymaker Sebastien. Both remain etched in the memory.

Still from Blade Runner (1982)There’s little need to rehash Blade Runner’s plot or dive into the polemics it has inspired (i.e. the significance of the origami unicorn). What we can assuredly agree upon is that it is an innovative production of its time—MTV does German and Continue reading BLADE RUNNER (1982) & BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)