Tag Archives: Science Fiction

CAPSULE: THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Julius Onah

FEATURING: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris O’Dowd, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Aksel Hennie, Ziyi Zhang

PLOT: Scientists orbit the Earth attempting to use a particle accelerator to solve the world’s energy crisis, but accidentally open a portal to a parallel universe.

Still from The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When we first heard of The Cloverfield Paradox, it never occurred to us to consider it as a weird movie, given the straight sci-fi nature of the series’ two previous installments. But quotes like “might get a bit weird” and “it’s just sort of…..weird” from average-Joe reviewers out there put it on our radar screen. And by gum, they were right: it is “a bit” and “sort of” weird. But unfortunately, it’s not worth watching for fans of weird films, and will only appeal to the most dedicated remaining fans of the Cloverfield franchise, while driving many away from the series.

COMMENTS: I’m a fan of producer J.J. Abrams’ concept of making each movie set in the Cloverfield universe in a different style (I really want to see what they’ll do with the romantic comedy Cloverfield, I Love You), but the “confusing sci-fi B-movie with dodgy quantum science” genre was a bad choice for this third entry. The Cloverfield Paradox is so bad that it looks like a potential franchise-killer. Greenlighting this script is a hard-to-justify choice after the series just hit an unexpected peak with its second movie, the Twilight Zone-y thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane.

On The Cloverfield Paradox‘s parallel universe version of CNN, a talking head author warns of the dangers of mankind’s desperate space-based attempt to solve its debilitating energy crisis: “Every time they test [the particle accelerator] they risk tearing open the membrane of space-time, smashing together multiple dimensions, shattering reality…” As is always the case in bad B-movies, the wild-eyed guy with the off-the-wall jargon-laced theory he pulled out of his ass is (surprise) actually correct. Paradox‘s plot is bonkers, in a bad way. It adopts a mumbo-jumbo parallel universe theory in which anything can happen; there’s no rule book to follow, so the screenwriters are free to be as lazy as they want to, in pursuit of cheap special effects payoffs. In particular, one bizarre bit involving Chris O’Dowd’s arm beggars belief. I won’t spoil it (although other reviewers have detailed it to make a point about how absurd this movie’s plotting is) except to say that something  similar could easily have fit into “Twin Peaks: The Return.” The problem, of course, is that Paradox is not “Twin Peaks” in space (which would be admittedly cool). “Twin Peaks” exists in a self-contained surreal universe where suspension of disbelief is not a relevant consideration. Paradox expects us to take its revelations seriously, as (perhaps crucial) canon in an extended universe.

Aside from its off-the-rails plot, the rest of the film isn’t much better. Despite having a couple of accomplished actors in the sprawling cast (O’Dowd and Debicki), the characters are given nothing very interesting to do. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as a reluctant communications officer with a tragic past, does her best to generate some sympathy in a lost cause. The rest of the satellite crew make little impact, but the worst offender is the lone Chinese member, who is given minimal dialogue for one simple reason: she can’t speak English. How hard can it be to find a Chinese actress who speaks a little broken English, even phonetically? Can the other crew members actually see her subtitles when she speaks? Given the singular importance of this mission to all of mankind, why waste a precious slot on a crew member who can only communicate with her trilingual German boyfriend?

A minor quibble, perhaps, but a movie made up of nothing but a series of minor quibbles quickly grows old. Another example: the ship’s onboard gravity generator saves the filmmakers from having to deal with cool-looking but expensive zero-G realities, but is explained away with a hand-wave. A few cool moments, like the discovery of a woman in the walls and some independently moving eyeballs, can’t salvage the general feeling that the movie is punching way above its weight class, and getting pummeled in the process. Watch Paradox long enough, and you’re sure to say “I have no idea what’s going on.” A fine reaction for a movie, but not the effect Julius Onah was going for.

Paradox was adapted from a script called The God Particle and retrofitted for the Cloverfield universe. Although a similar gamble paid off in 10 Cloverfield Lane, this outing suggests that a new strategy of producing films actually designed to fit into the series is warranted. The producers decided not to waste everyone’s time with a theatrical release, instead dumping Paradox onto Netflix as a surprise release after Super Bowl LII. A fourth Cloverfield movie is planned, but to succeed, it will need to find a way to overcome this Paradox.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The filmmaking is incredibly bland, the story can’t figure out if it’s having fun with the weirdness or not, and the tie in to Cloverfield is gimmicky, leaving you with way more questions than answers.”–Joey Magidson, Hollywood News (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: METROPIA (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Tarik Saleh

FEATURING: Voices of , , , ,

PLOT: The world’s oil supplies are drying up, and Europe is now connected by a network of underground railroads known as Metropia, where a young man named Roger begins to hear a voice in his head.

Still from Metropia (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The standard tale of dystopian grimness and corporate conspiracy is given a fresh twist via a esque art style, shampoo-based mind control, and rejected asylum seekers launched away in rocket chairs.

COMMNETS: I’m told that director Tarik Saleh’s most recent feature outing—The Nile Hilton Incident, set in revolutionary Egypt—was a stellar piece of neo-noir crime drama. I personally avoided it, since modern politics gives me a migraine, but it had enough impact to net Saleh a directing gig on the acclaimed “Westworld” series.

When Metropia came out, though, Saleh was still largely an unknown; and fittingly, the film—despite clearly being intended for an international audience—made little impact either inside or outside Scandinavia; after all, by 2009, neither dystopian tales, nor animated films aimed at adults quite carried the novelty they once did.

But in many ways, Metropia seems quite well-aware of this. Really, perhaps that’s one of the best things that can be said about this film; it never tries to be more than it is. It isn’t under the illusion that the tale it tells of resource depletion, corporate conspiracy, and a bleak, excessively urbanized future is especially new; as a result, it makes an effort to avoid jamming its finger into the viewer’s chest the way some such films might do. To be sure, the grimness of the world that mankind has created for himself is still very much evoked—a half-crazed man in the subway soapboxes about the days when seasons still existed, and Juliette Lewis’s character laments how every city looks identical nowadays—but for the most part, the film clearly assumes that, by now, you’re familiar with the sort of desolate and drained world that humanity is rapidly heading toward, and doesn’t feel the need to spell it out in excessive detail.

Instead, the plot concerns itself chiefly with two things. The first is an elaborate conspiracy, implemented by the owners of the metro, Trexx, to read and control the minds of the European public via a leading brand of dandruff shampoo. The second is a standard love triangle.

The conspiracy plotline might be lacking in certain aspects. It follows a tried and tested structure, and, at the film’s climax, is brought down a little too easily. Nonetheless, the film seems conscious of this flaw, opting to evoke this familiar tale of corporate conspiracy in an unpretentious manner that focuses on its impact upon a single isolated individual, while portraying it in a quietly tongue-in-cheek manner (to reiterate: the mind-control is accomplished by the use of dandruff shampoo).

Of course, there are points when the comedic undertone is overemphasized (most notably in a brief, almost cartoon-like sequence, largely unrelated to anything else in the film, where the protagonist watches a live game show where rejected asylum seekers are launched off a bridge from spring chairs). But even in those moments, the delivery is deadpan enough for the film to retain its general sense of grounded self-awareness.

The love triangle, meanwhile, doesn’t do anything new with the formula, and the film, seemingly aware of this as well, doesn’t provide it much in the way of either attention or screentime. The subplot does offer a decent means of giving the protagonist a stake in the world, and a reason to hurry home from his clandestine investigations.

But as many guess before even watching it, the film’s defining characteristic is its singular animation. Through an unusual blend of CGI and motion capture, the characters, with their outsized heads, uncanny faces, and strangely puppet-like gait, evoke a digitized form of Terry Gilliam’s cutout animation style, with the characters bringing to mind sombre and gloomy bobbleheads. It’s unique, to be sure, and not in a way that feels gimmicky. It suggests a strangely harmonious meeting between the comically exaggerated and the grimly realistic, which fits with the film’s tone of cynical social commentary undercut by tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.

Considered in terms of its individual parts, Metropia might be mistaken for nothing special. It’s a fairly standard conspiracy thriller, in a fairly standard dystopian setting, in an unusual animation style. But taken together, these aspects create a film that, while perhaps not ground-breaking, is refreshingly self-aware in its approach to a familiar tale, telling it in a way that delicately spices up this grounded and grim tale of a dark future with an overlay of surreal, deadpan humor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s more interesting for its ideas and atmosphere than its story, but Saleh’s weird imagery and alienated animation style—a strange marriage of photo collage, CGI sophistication and cut-out animation with figures that suggest proletariat kewpie dolls—creates a unique world.”–Sean Axmaker, seanax.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY, SEASON 2” (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Douglas Mackinnon (episodes 1 & 2), (ep. 3 & 4), Richard Laxton (ep. 5 & 6), Wayne Yip (ep. 7 & 8), Alrick Riley (ep. 9 & 10)

FEATURING: , , , Amanda Walsh, , , , , John Hannah, Alan Tudyk

PLOT: After the events of Season 1, Todd and Farrah are on the run and Dirk is a prisoner in a secret military facility; a new mystery begins when a visitor from the magical land of Wendimoor reveals that Dirk is prophesied to save their world from an evil Mage.

dirk_gently's_holistic_detective_agency_season_2

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: TV series, not movie. But it’s a series you may want to take note of: otherwise, we wouldn’t be reporting on it, would we? “Dirk Gently”’s mix of absurd humor, bewildering but addictively complex plotting, and fanboy-friendly sci-fantasy tropes was just intriguing enough that that BBC America took a chance on it as potential cult item, but also so weird and difficult that it was cancelled after only two seasons.

COMMENTS: “Have you noticed an acceleration of strangeness in your life?”

The following synopsis may not make much sense to a lot of you. This includes veterans of “Dirk Gently Season 1” as well as newcomers to the series. The one advantage Season 1 viewers have over total neophytes is that they understand “Gently”’s method—throw about a dozen subplots and random events at the viewer in episode 1, then spend the rest of the season slowly connecting the dots, with every little detail merging in a “holistic” (and fantastic) fashion. So, I’ll just lay it out: season 2 introduces a gay pink-haired hero with a scissor sword. A train in the sky. A fishing boat run aground in a field in Montana. A friendly, sort of slow sheriff and his hard-partying deputy. A beleaguered middle-aged woman with a limp, a crummy son, a crummy husband, and a crummy job at the quarry where her crummy boss is making shady deals. A dashing gangster in a snappy white suit with a black tattooed hand and a fabulous mustache. A magic wand. A car stuck in a tree. (The literal Purple People Eater won’t show up until episode 4).

It does all connect, naturally. This high-fantasy based plot is perhaps not as satisfying as Season 1’s time-travel yarn, but on the other hand the show devotes more time to building up its underlying infrastructure, dropping hints about Project Blackwing and introducing new “anomalous individuals” like Dirk and the Rowdy 3. (They’re all sort of a team of metaphysical X-Men gone renegade.) Rather than dominating the plot with his clueless exuberance, Samuel Barnett’s Gently is sidelined a bit this season, moping through most of the story in an existential crisis. He and Elijah Wood’s Todd Brotzman invert their Season 1 dynamic, with Todd now eager to solve the case for his own reasons, dragging the reluctant detective along with him. Other characters pursue their own arcs. Farrah shows more vulnerability, and there are hints of burgeoning romance between her and Todd. Todd’s sister Amanda develops magical powers, making her character more relevant—although this development feels a little forced. Ken is set up for a heel turn. And holistic assassin Bart (Fiona Dourif) remains the most fascinating entity. Her fans will be thrilled with her opportunities to prove she is the ultimate badass killing machine, and she gets by far the best lines: “I think that sometimes when you’re killing people they don’t like it, and it makes them unhappy, and scared, and also dead, which they don’t like, I don’t think…” If that monologue doesn’t intrigue you, then “Dirk Gently” isn’t the show for you.

Unfortunately, the series has been canceled, and we’ll never get to see where creator was ultimately headed with all of this. The most bittersweet part of what turned out to be the series finale is that the last shot sets Bart up for a dramatically increased role in the unmade Season 3.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a show where weird things happen in literally every frame…”–Hahn Nguyen, IndieWire (season premier)

346. LIQUID SKY (1982)

” I’ll tell you something, too, that’s starting to annoy me about UFOs: the fact that they cross galaxies or universes to visit us, and always end up in places like … Alabama. Maybe these aren’t super-intelligent beings, you know what I mean? ‘Don’t you wanna go to New York or LA?’ ‘Nah, we just had a long trip, we’re gonna kick back and whittle some.'”–Bill Hicks

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anne Carlisle, Otto von Wernherr, Paula E. Sheppard, Susan Doukas, Bob Brady

PLOT: A tiny alien flying saucer lands on top of the Empire State Building, directly across from the penthouse where drug-scarfing New Wave fashion model Margaret spends her nights bedding partners of both sexes. A German UFO scientist who has tracked this manifestation takes up residence in an apartment across from Margaret, spying on her through a telescope. Margaret’s sex partners begin to die off as the aliens harvest the endorphins released during their orgasms.

Still from Liquid Sky (1982)

BACKGROUND:

  • Slava Tsukerman was a Russian Jew who trained as an engineer before switching to filmmaking. He made a mostly documentaries in the Soviet Union and Israel before emigrating to the U.S. to make features. He began developing Liquid Sky after funding for a sci-fi film that would have starred and fell through.
  • Co-writer Anne Carlisle, who starts as a fashion model in the film, was a fashion model in real life. Most of the actors were art-scene punks drawn from bohemian casting director Bob Brady’s acting classes, and most played some version of themselves.
  • Many repeat the claim that Liquid Sky was chosen as the title of the film because it was slang for heroin, but according to Tsukerman he encountered the term as a metaphor for euphoria in his research, and junkies only began to refer to the drug as “liquid sky” after the movie became a cult hit.
  • Made with an estimated budget of half a million dollars, Liquid Sky grossed more than $1.7 million in 1983.
  • In a 2014 interview Tsukerman announced his intentions to make Liquid Sky 2, but no news has emerged on that front since.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: New Wave fashion shows? Neon sculptures? Flying saucers hovering in front of the Empire State Building? Margaret’s fluorescent face paint under a blacklight? All excellent choices. But we had to go with alien-eye-vision, rendered through technology that looks like a cross between malfunctioning army ranger night-vision goggles and News at 11’s stormtracker radarscope, but with a Day-Glo color scheme, and often looking like it’s peering through a microscope aimed at a dividing zygote.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: UFO/heroin connection; spontaneous hateful beat eulogy; prayer to the Empire State Building

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Liquid Sky is like an alien’s attempt at making a film set in the No-Wave Greenwich Village art scene in 1982, if their only previous exposure to movies was the works of , , and Rinse Dream. Neon, nasty, and occasionally tedious, but there’s nothing else quite like it.


Original trailer for Liquid Sky

COMMENTS: Liquid Sky is about aliens, and it might as well have Continue reading 346. LIQUID SKY (1982)