Tag Archives: Time Travel

ALFRED EAKER VS THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015)

A dumb, unoriginal movie made by dumb, unoriginal people. Terminator: Genisys (2015) has received well-earned negative critical reception and press. This latest from a franchise well past its tether is the summer blockbuster equivalent of nails meeting a chalkboard.

That its sheer awfulness was entirely predictable makes Terminator: Genisys even more disappointing. Worse, it is insulting on multiple levels. It reportedly did not perform as well as hoped for on opening weekend, and that is partly because it caters solely to the formula-craving fanboy audience it inherited. It seems to care not one bit for creating a new audience.

Ultimately, it offers nothing new, although there is a half-assed effort on the part of its hack writers (Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier) and director (Alan Taylor) to inject convoluted rehashes masquerading as new plot developments. This they do with the standby alternate timelines, which we have seen a lot recently in franchise reboots, such as J.J. Abrahms’ Star Trek (2009). The resume of the production team should have indicated, to anyone but an executive, that they simply were not up to this challenge. Predominantly, however, the blame must go to Paramount for ordering this unnecessary mishmash and handing it over to a pedestrian team. Studios might be financially savvy, but one is tempted to ask aloud if production executives actually go to movies, and whether they have anything better to produce with their money.

Humphrey Bogart once said: “The industry hurts itself by making so many lousy movies. It’s as if General Motors deliberately put out a bad car.” Terminator: Genisys is Paramount’s shamefully intentional lemon, counting solely on star Arnold Schwarzenegger and hoping the movie will just make itself.

It does not even succeed at that. The plot, for those who inexplicably care, features John Connor (Jason Clarke) who defeats Fascist machines that create a holocaust which wipes out most of humanity. In retaliation, the machines send a robotic terminator (Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 in an effort to kill John’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke) to prevent John from being born. John gets hold of another time machine and sends his daddy, Kyle (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 as well, so he can save and impregnate Sarah. If that sounds overly familiar, just wait for alt timeline plot twists.

Still from Terminator: Genisys (2015)This time around, the 1984 version of Sarah is already an apocalyptic warrior, as opposed to the clueless, helpless waitress of the original. She keeps the company of an old, gray-haired terminator (Schwarzenegger), who protects her from the new terminator (a digital Schwarzenegger). A nearly seventy-year-old Schwarzenegger can hardly compete with a CGI Schwarzenegger. Old Schwarzenegger does get a clever/cute line: “I’m old, not obsolete.” The only thing more grating than macho attempts at clever/cute (think of Arnold’s cringe-inducing ‘thumbs-up’ finale of the hopelessly overrated Terminator 2: Judgment Day) is geriatric macho attempts at clever cute (think William Shatner in Star Trek: The Final Frontier).

Nor can Clarke and Courtney compete with the original Sarah and Kyle (Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn).  Oh, what to do if the actors are just as lacking in personality and originality as the director and writers? You throw in lotza “character revelations” and even more CGI car crashes with exploding terminators.

The theme behind Terminator: Genisys is one that has been used since Beethoven’s “Fidelio”: the rights of the individual supersede the collective, which is hypocritical given that the film was dictated to the principals by Paramount.

Although original Terminator director James Cameron was not involved with Terminator: Genisys, he has been canonized by Taylor and company, which the previous two franchise entries failed to do. Naturally, when young sycophants kiss a veteran’s ass and stroke his ego, said veteran is ready, willing, and able to stamp the film with his endorsement, which is precisely what Cameron did.

That might be fine for undemanding fans, but not for the rest of us. Reportedly, the terminators will be back for two more lemon sequels straight off the assembly line.

CAPSULE: PREDESTINATION (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: The Spierig Brothers (Micheal Spierig, Peter Spierig)

FEATURING: , Sarah Snook

PLOT: While posing as a bartender on a mission to stop a mad bomber, a “Temporal Agent” who travels to the past to stop crimes before they happen meets a man who promises to tell him the strangest story he’s ever heard.

Still from Predestination (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Predestination is a fine, twisty-plotted mindbender, but not really any weirder than Looper, Timecrimes, Primer, or other movies that depend entirely on time travel paradoxes for their uncanny effect.

COMMENTS: Predestination is one of those movies that is so dependent on its twists for its effect that it becomes hard to review. Certainly, I would like, if nothing else, to praise Sarah Snook’s star-making performance here; but it’s difficult to discuss what’s so impressive about it without giving away the secret (I will say she shows great range). Nominal protagonist Ethan Hawke is serviceable as the time-weary agent who’s been doing this way too long, but despite being top billed he is essentially the frame for Snook’s bizarrely tragic story. There is not much money here for spectacular visuals—they blow most of the FX budget on a single virtual reality simulator in the movie’s first thirty minutes—but not much is needed to tell the story correctly. Predestination also dances around some big ideas without really addressing them directly. There’s the title conundrum, and a testing of the limits of pragmatism—sure, most everyone agrees it’s ethical to kill one man now to save the lives of one hundred innocents later, but what about killing one guilty party and nine harmless civilians to save one hundred people later? Those ruminations aside, the pleasures here are almost entirely of the unraveling-the-tangled-plot-skeins variety, with Snook’s impressively sympathetic performance as a noteworthy bonus.

When you feel embargoed from discussing the plot at all for fear of mentioning spoilers, a movie becomes hard to discuss; although that very reluctance is also a good sign, since you are implying that there is some pleasure to be spoiled. I will make an observation that it is neat how the Spierig’s script keeps some elements from Robert Heinlein’s original 1958 short story (titled “All You Zombies”) to create an alternate version of the past (specifically, Heinlein imagined a 1960s world where women were barred from becoming astronauts, but allowed to go into space as state-sponsored courtesans!) If Temporal Agents were really running around changing the past, surely they’d be messing up little sociological tidbits like that by accident. More of those sorts of details would have helped kick the film up another notch and added to the feeling of disorientation. Still, Predestination is a solid time travel movie of impeccable lineage, one that is not too difficult to follow despite its complexity. What in another movie might appear to be a plot hole here seems like a rigorous exploration of an alternate understanding of causality. Well done.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like all time-travel stories, this inevitably trips on its own causal illogic – but not before it’s offered you a taste of something genuinely rich and strange, and probably toxic.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “ jeandeaux” who argued that it “explores, in its own weird way, the ultimate concerns of human existence: meaning, loneliness, freedom, and mortality.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Alain Resnais

FEATURING: Claude Rich, Olga Georges-Picot,

PLOT: When Claude Ridder fails at suicide, he is recruited by a group of scientists who wish to test their time machine; things go wrong and Claude gets stuck reliving scattered sections of his past over and over.

Still from Je T'aime Je T'aime (1968)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With an unreliable narrative, hundreds of film cuts, and a dead-pan leading man, Resnais’ picture is a strange combination of pathos, editing wizardry, and, more unlikely, a fair amount of humor.

COMMENTS: Perhaps the oddest thing about Je T’aime, Je T’aime is that this movie, subtly, is rather hilarious. While some might shy away from such a strong word, I found the mounting irony and scenarios to be overwhelmingly amusing. I could not imagine a more twisted fate for an aspiring suicide victim than to be obliged to live through extended, repeated chunks of time that lead up to his failure and subsequent hospitalization. Added to the film’s black comedic tenor is the protagonist’s perpetually subdued tone of speech and action; he puts up a front of total emotional apathy for much of the time. This creates an effective contrast with the moments of emotional passion, the most moving of which is his muttering “je t’aime” in the embryonic cocoon of the time machine.

The science-fiction element is as subdued as the protagonist’s interactions with his surroundings. The scientists in this movie are all normal looking men, their mechanisms and labs (aside from the main device) are very low-key and functional looking. The time travel machine in question is an intriguing aesthetic choice: the pod-like nature, with the odd, organic-looking tubing that runs through it, creates a “sci-fi feel” that one cannot help but think influenced David Cronenberg. Once within the organic space, resting on a soft pink-hued chair-like space, the protagonist returns to an embryonic state (a nice touch, reflecting the nature of the time travel Resnais is invoking).

The way time travel operates in this movie is incredibly vague. It seems at first that perhaps we see things as the subject does, somehow detached from his past body. We witness occurrences again and again along with him. We begin to wonder, though, what exactly is going on, because it seems more that he is exploring things he remembers, than actually going back in time to witness them when they occurred. A further obfuscation is created when we see things in his “past” that obviously could never have been there: there is a man in a flooded phone-box, for example. Speaking personally, I have had flashes of hallucinations when going about my daily business, so if he is inside his memory, than these can perhaps make somewhat more sense.

But where is he, and why can’t he get back? And what does the repetition of all these slices add up to? These odd time phenomena warrant repeat viewings. Visiting this man as he lies on the organic surface within the time pod, it seems a more effective escape from life than was his attempted suicide.

When all is said and done, Resnais presents the viewer with an extraction, repetition, and reworking of mundane events in a man’s life that results in a very weird trip through the blasé experiences of this character; experiences that, when combined and re-combined, turn out to be what drives him to his suicide in the first place.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the nonsensical and aggravatingly surreal final stretch rolls around, Je t’aime je t’aime has definitively established itself as an art-house experiment that completely (and distressingly) squanders its promising setup.”–David Nusair, Reel Film

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

For years, Trekkies have perpetrated the “odd-numbered curse” rumor that befell the original crew’s movies. According to this theory somehow, someway the odd numbered movies are mysteriously inferior to the even numbered entries. While there is a certain truth in that, it is not because of some silly curse, nor is it a mystery. Movies do not just magically “make themselves,” and the actors do not make it up as they go along. The common denominator in the even numbered Star Trek entries is Nicholas Meyer, who wrote and directed Star Trek II (1982) and Star Trek VI (1991) and co-wrote the script for Star Trek IV (1986). The strengths of Star Trek IV lie in the writing, particularly that which is clearly from the stylistic hand of Meyer. The film’s weaknesses lie in Leonard Nimoy’s pedestrian directing.

Still from X-men Days of Future Past (2014)When the third X-Men movie, The Last Stand (2006) was released, fans (and some critics) were shocked that it fell far short of the first two entries. Since Bryan Singer directed and co-wrote both X-Men (2000) and X-Men 2 (2003), and was not at all associated with The Last Stand, that third film’s lesser quality should not have been a surprise. Regardless, Singer has returned after an eleven year absence to direct and co-write Days of Future Past. With him, the franchise is vital entertainment again. Although not without flaws, X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) is as much imaginative dumb fun as Singer’s previous efforts. Its biggest misstep is that it is not a stand alone movie. It expects the audience to have seen all the previous X-Men movies, and after The Last Stand it should be counted as almost a miracle that any future movies were even made about mutant super-people. (Except, of course, we are talking about the 21st century American market; the same market that actually made a hit of live action Scooby Doo movies, the Transformers franchise, and the Fast and Furious franchise). It is probably helpful to have along a translator who speaks Marvel Comics if you are unfamiliar with all the characters’ histories—and there a lot of characters, too damned many for Singer to balance with the same level of deftness that Joss Whedon is adept at.

Like many Trek stories, this X-Men opus tackles a time travel plot, albeit an overly complicated one. Thankfully, it turns playful. There are plenty of allegories bandied about and historical parallels abound (think the Vietnam War and a Terminator-like apocalypse). An older Professor X (Trek veteran ) and Magneto ( ) meet their  younger selves ( and ), shades of Picard-meets-Kirk or Spock-meets-Spock-Prime. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has to go back to 1973, which means waking up to the music of Roberta Flack and the discovery that Richard Nixon (Mark Comancho) was not only deep in Watergate, but also aiding and abetting Dr. Trask () in a robot plot (it always helps to have robots). References to the Kennedy assassination and the magic bullet are thrown in for good measure (which diverts us back to another unused Trek plot).

Singer occasionally gets waterlogged, probably from trying to appease fanboy expectations. Additionally, his return to pulp is excessively long in its last quarter. However, it is capped off with a winning finale, which feels like a teenage interpretation of “Twilight Of The Gods” (minus Wagner himself, of course).  Singer keeps the film flowing through pop references galore, which helps levitate all that on-sleeve, existential mutant angst. Even the much-missed Jim Croce provides good tonic, via his legendary “Time In A Bottle,” as does John Ottman’s assured score. Once past the confusing opening, X-Men: Days Of Future Past shifts gear into ambitious, melodramatic fun, and has a few surprises up its sleeve, at least to those of us who forgot our Marvel concordance. Now, if the producers are smart, they’ll keep Singer employed in this franchise (providing he can keep out of jail).

150. JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

“The name grabbed me instantly, but when I read the log line about a street drug called ‘soy sauce’ and a pair of mid-west slackers battling a silent otherworldly invasion, I was hooked. Since my youth I’ve had a rabid interest in the sci-fi, horror and fantasy genres.  Many of my previous films have explored the surreal and strange.  What I love about JOHN DIES AT THE END is that in addition to being hide-under-the-bed scary, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny.”–Don Coscarelli, director’s statement

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Rob Mayes, , , , Glynn Turman,

PLOT: A college dropout named David Wong tells a story to a journalist at a Chinese restaurant while under the influence of a drug called “soy sauce.” He reveals that the sauce has given him and his friend John psychic powers that enable them to see inter-dimensional intruders who are bent on conquering our reality. He then relates the story of how, together with his one-handed girlfriend and her dog, he and John traveled to the alternate dimension to thwart the invasion.
Still from John Dies at the End (2012)

BACKGROUND:

  • John Dies at the End was adapted from a comic novel of the same name. The name of the story’s protagonist and the author are both “David Wong,” which is actually a pseudonym for Jason Pargin. “John Dies” began life as a short story posted on Pargin’s blog.
  • Don Coscarelli had been working on a sequel to his previous feature, Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), with , but funding fell through. Giamatti supported the idea of adapting John Dies at the End instead, and served as executive producer on the substitute project.
  • Coscarelli credits Amazon’s recommendation algorithm with suggesting the novel “John Dies to the End” to him.
  • The movie’s prologue is a modern zombie-based variation on an ancient philosophical paradox called “the ship of Theseus” (in the book, the prologue refers to an ending that is not explicitly present in the movie).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We can’t actually mention the movie’s most memorable image here, both thanks to the fact that it’s obscene, and that doing so would spoil what may be the movie’s best joke. Those who’ve seen the film already, however, will doubtlessly remember the door that “cannot be opened.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jason Pargin wrote a sprawling comedy novel in part about two party-hearty college dropouts who take a mysterious drug nicknamed “soy sauce” that makes them clairvoyant, enabling them to perceive an invasion by demonic forces from another dimension. Don Coscarelli, the writer/director of Bubba Ho-Tep and the Phantasm series, took note of this literary property and decided to adapt it, chopping up the timeline and adding hallucinatory demonic visuals until the result plays out like a bad trip brought on by shooting up way too much of an experimental psychedelic drug.


Original trailer for John Dies at the End

COMMENTS: Here’s an unexpected spoiler for you: John doesn’t die at the end of John Dies at the End. At least, I don’t think he does. But it may Continue reading 150. JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

CAPSULE: LA JETÉE (1962)

Note: In the third reader’s choice poll, 366 readers voted to make La Jetée a candidate for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made; we’ve upgraded its status accordingly.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Négroni (narrator), Davos Hanich, Hélène Chatelain (models)

PLOT: After World War III, a man is trained as a time traveler to try to find a cure for the devastation, but he is more interested in locating the woman on a pier whom he briefly glimpsed as a child and whose image burned itself into his memory.

Still from La Jetee (1962)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTLa Jetée has all the cinematic quality it would need to qualify for the List, and a significant enough level of weirdness to justify inclusion. The film’s only drawback is its length; at a mere 30 minutes, it would need to be ghost-of-Hunter-S.-Thompson-on-a-peyote-trip bizarre in order to take a spot on the List away from a movie that’s three or four times its length. It is, however, a historically important film with links to lots of other weird movies, and any serious student of cinematic surrealism should be sure the name “La Jetée” at least rings a bell.

COMMENTS: The credits introduce La Jetée not as a film, but as a photo-roman (photo-novel). Filmmaker Chris Marker made this experiment, his only significant fiction film, between his usual essay-style documentaries; the story is told entirely through still photographs (with one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it motion sequence), third-person narration, and sound effects. The technique is surprisingly effective and remarkably cinematic, and it dovetails with the movie’s theme of memory; each image is itself like one of the nameless hero’s stored memories, which he accesses as if he’s browsing an interior museum. Sometimes the pictures fit together in sequence to compose a fragmented scene, and other times they make giant leaps into the future or past, in the same way that the mind jumps back and forth between present and past as it composes reality in real time. The story is vague in its details—we get no information about the war that nearly destroyed the world, and the potentially troubling etiquettes of romancing a woman across a gulf of time are glossed over—but we accept the fabulous story more easily and focus on its emotional and intellectual messages better without a lot of distracting Continue reading CAPSULE: LA JETÉE (1962)