sci-fi

REVIEW: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

I reviewed The Force Awakens when it was released. You can read my original review here. As a good chunk of time has passed and I’m rewatching the sequel films on the run up to The Rise of Skywalker’s release, there may be more spoilers here than in a normal review – you’ve been warned.

Three decades after the Empire’s defeat, a new evil threatens the galaxy – the First Order led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). After meeting Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), defector Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) gets caught up in the fight against the First Order along with scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and they struggle to find the Resistance and help in the search for the missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

I love The Force Awakens. I didn’t grow up watching Star Wars (I first watched all previous six films when I was at university) so there wasn’t the nostalgia or added fear and excitement that came with seeing a new Star Wars film when I went to see The Force Awakens. Still, I was blown away by the spectacle, the magic and the characters in this story that simultaneously felt new and exciting, and comforting because of how familiar the themes and the score were – because even if you’re not a huge Star Wars fan, some of those motifs are a part of popular culture.

The Force Awakens juggles the old and the new really well. It gives space for the original characters who everyone knows to be a part of this story, while also introducing us to new heroes and villains. The new trio of heroes; Rey, Finn and Poe are all wonderful. The immediate chemistry between Isaac and Boyega is palpable and how Poe and Finn meet and immediately put their lives in each other’s hands make their relationship so strong. With Rey and Finn, it takes them longer to really trust and understand one another, with each of them running away from different things. For Finn it’s his past while for Rey it’s the future and the unknown. It’s when the two of them start letting the other in that they relationship goes from annoying siblings to firm friends. Finn is the first person who ever came back for Rey, while for Finn, Rey is someone who makes him want to be brave.

The action in The Force Awakens is exciting and fun. The sound effects, the way things are shot, along with the score makes it all come together into these wonderful fun sequences. The aerial battles between the Millennium Flacon and TIE Fighters or between X-Wings and TIE Fighters are almost awe-inspiring to watch. It’s fun to see Finn and Rey or Finn and Poe work together to take down the bad guys. And it’s always great when after hearing a character is really talented at something, you actually see them do it. In this case it’s Poe being the Resistance’s best pilot. It’s even mentioned in the opening title crawl and you see how good he is multiple times.

Kylo Ren is an interesting character. He’s still feeling like he’s being pulled towards the light and he prays to a Darth Vader helmet to keep him on what he perceives to be the right track, but he’s also kind of scared and inexperienced. I love that he looks like such a normal guy when he takes off his helmet for the first time. Due to his costume and his actions, torturing Poe and killing villagers, he seems like such an imposing figure, but beneath it all he’s just pretending to be stronger and more in control than he is.

The lightsaber fights between Finn and Kylo Ren, and Rey and Kylo Ren are absolutely brutal. They tear chunks out of each other and cut down trees as they go at it. Finn is wholly unprepared and while he does get one hit in against Kylo Ren, ultimately, he is bested. It’s when Rey steps up, the lightsaber flies to her hand and the music swells that it’s really impactful, and once she lets the Force in, she is just as strong, if not stronger than Kylo Ren and it is beautiful to see her absolutely wreck him.

The thing I love the most about The Force Awakens is the characters – both the old ones and the new ones. The whole cast give such great performances (quick shout out to Harrison Ford for playing a believably world-weary Han Solo but still retaining that attitude) and their chemistry is wonderful. Even though you don’t see a lot of some characters or their relationships with one another, there’s enough hinted through the script and the actor’s performances that you can see the history between them. One such example is Poe and Leia (Carrie Fisher). It’s clear he’s told her all about Finn, that she trusts his judgement on Finn and his tactics, and that Poe is clearly relatively high up in the Resistance due to how easily he can talk to Leia and in a relatively familiar way.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is just brilliant. It’s funny, thrilling, emotional and just a joy to watch. There’s so much to fit in but there’s never a dull moment or a moment wasted. The quieter, character driven moments are just as important and as engaging as the dogfights and action sequences. The Force Awakens is truly something special and I’ll always love it. 5/5.

REVIEW: Geostorm (2017)

When a network of satellites designed to control and prevent extreme weather patterns starts to malfunction, it’s a race against the clock for its creator Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) to figure out what’s going on in the space station, while his younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess) tries to figure out a conspiracy on Earth, before a worldwide Geostorm wipes out everyone and everything on the planet.

Let’s get this out of the way. Depending on your taste in films and your definition of “good” Geostorm isn’t necessarily going to be classed as “good”. However, it is enjoyable. Geostorm is in the same vein as Roland Emmerich’s disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, but unlike 2012 which has some truly awful characters that you don’t care about, Geostorm’s cast does well with what they’re given and for the most part portray likeable (yet often cliché) characters with decent chemistry.

The special effects are a bit of a mixed bag. The stuff in space looks great from the various high-tech satellites and rockets to the space station itself, but it’s the extreme weather that doesn’t always looks so great, from tsunami’s to large hail stones to tornadoes, there’s every kind of weather imaginable. It’s when sequence focuses on a character experiencing the disaster like Cheng (Daniel Wu) trying to outdrive molten lava exploding from the streets of Hong Kong, that are tense and exciting. The effects are most noticeable with a tsunami that hits Dubai, especially because the tsunami that hits New York in The Day After Tomorrow, a film released over 10 years earlier, still looks a lot better.

Geostorm is entertaining nonsense. The conspiracy in of why the technology is going wrong and who could be behind it and why, is predictable a lot of the time but the speed of which the reveals and action happen helps you forget about that. It’s the perfect film to watch when you don’t want to think too hard but there’s still some intrigue and some exciting moments. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. But Rosemary gets more than she bargains for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mismatch of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptilian pilot to chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running. Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants. That is until the crew is offered the job of a lifetime; the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn a fortune… if the manage to survive the long and dangerous trip. Along the way Rosemary learns she isn’t the only one on board with secrets to hide, and that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is mostly a space road trip where not a lot of big plot things happen. Instead it’s a character driven story as Rosemary becomes a part of this crew that’s more like a family. The way exposition and character backstories are interwoven into the story is wonderful, as often it is from characters learning from one another or learning to open up and ask for help and support.

The book is told from all of the crew member’s point of view at least once, though characters like Rosemary, Sissix, Kizzy and the captain Ashby seem to get more focus. You still get a good feel of all the characters though and how they fit together. They each have their problems or secrets, some of which they don’t even know about themselves, but they still all mange to work together.

How space, and the many different species that live there, is beautiful and vivid. Humans are far from the dominant species which is a different take compared to the majority of sci-fi I’ve come across before. It’s also great to read about characters that are different species and are so different from humans – whether that’s by appearance, social norms or both. The political systems, and politics between different species, are intricate yet as the author has taken the time to sprinkle information throughout the story, when there’s tension between species, you can quickly understand why.

The world (or should that be universe) of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is full or rich detail as the crew stop off at different planets to restock their ship and even see friends. There’s so many different people and their technology is advanced yet not always working well, meaning the world feels lived in. This isn’t the shiny and sleek kind of sci-fi, instead it’s a dirty, lived in kind of sci-fi. The Wayfarer isn’t a new ship, things go wrong with it and it’s the crew that fixes it and makes it feel like a home.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a bit of a slow read but that doesn’t mean it’s not a compelling one. It has so much detail with its world building and it really gives the characters room to breathe. Every single member of the Wayfarer crew has their own unique personality and the author does a great job of not turning any of them into clichés.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a sweeping science-fiction novel that never forgets that humanity (though is that the right word when there’s characters who are not human?) is the most important thing. 4/5.

REVIEW: Sorry to Bother You (2018)

When Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) gets a job as a telemarketer, he learns that the key to success is having a “white voice” but the road to success and fortune isn’t what it seems.

Sorry to Bother You is a scathing look at capitalism and racism and how the two interact. There is a lot going on in this film and it doesn’t always seem to give each thing the attention it deserves. The idea that having a “white voice” will make you more successful and respected is obviously terrible but people in the real world have experienced such double standards. There is also the idea of the power of protests and unionising, standing with your co-workers to demand better pay and rights – though the success of this is shown to be debatable as the capitalist machine may be too strong.

Sorry to Bother You is set in the present-day though everything is just a bit different or over-exaggerated. This makes every theme the film touches on more eerie and relevant. The choices of what kind of television shows to appear on in the background, or what kind of things trend online, is very close to our reality and it shows how they can be used for good or for bad.

The performances in this film are great, both the actors on screen, and those that do the voice work for the “white voices”. It’s weird and amusing to hear very different voices come out of a character’s mouth. Hearing David Cross’s voice from Stanfield’s mouth is strange but both the physical and vocal performance make you believe that is Green’s voice. Green’s girlfriend Detroit (Tess Thompson) is a great character as she uses her art to make a statement and believes in standing up for the everyday person. Her character was a more interesting character who was proactive in her story compared to Green who instead just seemed to be just wander through the story until the very end.

Sorry to Bother You is very weird and surreal. It’s billed as a comedy though it doesn’t really hit that button, instead it’s a unsettling fantasy that hold a mirror up to our world today. 3/5.

REVIEW: Battle Los Angeles (2011)

As a squad of U.S. Marines attempt to rescue a group of civilians during an extra-terrestrial invasion of Los Angeles, they become the last line of defence for the city.

There are a lot of characters in Battle Los Angeles and they spend most of their time in full tactical gear including a helmet, so it is often difficult to tell them apart. Plus, as there’s so many characters who have only the bare minimum of character traits to make them stand out, it’s hard to keep track of who has just been killed and who is still alive.

The squad is led by 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) but the real main character is Aaron Eckhart’s Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz. He’s the one that has more than a superficial backstory and has some dramatic moments too – he gets a rather good speech where everyone else looks at him with respect.

Michelle Rodriguez’s Tech Sergeant Elena Santos is one of the more memorable characters, that that could be because she’s one of two women in the main cast of characters. The actors all do as well as they can do with what they’re given. The characters are all pretty one-dimensional, the dialogue is full of military clichés and there’s expository dialogue every ten minutes or so.

While Battle Los Angeles is an alien invasion film it plays out more like a war film with the aliens attacking the squad from a distance, and each side taking cover, so you never really get a good look at them. When the aliens do become clearer, the creature design is not that imaginative or interesting.

There are some exciting shootouts in Battle Los Angeles but they’re unfortunately few and far between, and the slower, more serious moments seriously bog down the film. It’s also far too long and had at least three moments where you felt like it was coming to a conclusion but then things kept happening. 2/5.

REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

In the near future Major Mira Killian (Scarlet Johansson) is the first of her kind; a human brain inside the perfectly made machine body means she’s cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier. When a terrorist known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt) begins to kill important figures in a huge corporate business, Major faces her biggest challenge yet.

Ghost in the Shell is based off a popular manga, which in turn was made into an even more popular anime in the 1990s. I have not seen or read the original source material and I can see this adaptation going one of two ways with the fans of the manga or anime; one, it’s got a tonne of cool references and is very faithful to the source material, or two, it’s not faithful at all and fans don’t like it. As someone who knew nothing about Ghost in the Shell going into the film, I found it to be intriguing on the surface but lacking any real depth or emotional connection. It also felt like the film had a lot of information and world-building to give to the audience which then made it surprisingly slow-paced for a film with so many shoot outs.

The world of Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning one with the high-rise buildings, ginormous and colourful holograms, and futuristic technology. It’s a world where cyber-enhancements are the norm, whether that means you get new eyes, a robotic liver, or new limbs – if you don’t have some form of technology implanted in your body, you’d be the odd one out. With a character like Major, who is so different from humans, even with their technological enhancements, and robots, she doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. Like the setting, the dilemma of the line between human and artificial intelligence is an interesting one but the film never delivers on its promise to examine that.

There’s a lot of cool action sequences, shoot outs and fights but they all pad out a plot that’s pretty boring. You do not spend enough time with the victims to care about them, nor do you get enough information about the corporate entity they are a part of to see why or how their deaths are important. Neither the mystery nor the overarching plot is interesting meaning the action sequences are just there to look good and rarely add anything to the characters or their motivations.

Ghost in the Shell seems to be trying to be two things. The first is a character study of Major and the world she’s apart of and the second is an action mystery story with bad guys to find and take down. The film gives neither of these elements time to breathe meaning that Major is (excuse the reference) a shell of a character, and the detective side of the story isn’t interesting. The third act is rushed as a lot of things are revealed and then new foes are brought to the forefront, however as there’s been no time dedicated to foster proper emotional connections with the characters, you do not care about what they are going through.

Ghost in the Shell has lots of cool visuals but the one-dimensional characters and a lack of a compelling story, means the finished product is ultimately forgettable. 2/5.

REVIEW: Life (2017)

When a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station are examining the first samples from Mars, they discover a rapidly evolving life form that not only threatens their lives, but all life on Earth.

A lot of comparisons can be made between Life and the original claustrophobic-space-horror-film Alien, but that doesn’t mean Life doesn’t do a good job with that template, and it offers its own spin of certain elements.

The first half of Life is more of the philosophical and scientific side of things as you get to know the basics about the crew and what they are trying to achieve with this life form they are studying. While the second half is more action-packed as naturally when the creature escapes, things get increasingly worse and the intensity never really lets up. It’s interesting how to begin with there is humour in this film, most of it coming from Ryan Reynolds’s character, but as soon as the danger is realised, the tension jumps up a notch and all characters are suddenly a lot more serious.

The camera work and editing make every tunnel and compartment of the ISS feel deadly. As the creature grows smarter and reactionary towards the humans onboard it becomes a bit of a cat and mouse chase around the space station as the crew attempt to contact Earth and stay alive. The dangers are real as members of the crew get injured or die in increasingly gruesome ways and it really is a battle as the creature and the humans onboard have a lot of the same basic needs.

Life is a tense, claustrophobic space horror that leaves you on the edge of your seat, but its dark undertone gets more and more prominent as the film progresses, leaving you drained by the time the credits begin to roll. 4/5.