sci-fi

REVIEW: Poster Girl by Veronica Roth

What’s right is right. Sonya Kantor knows this slogan – she lived by it for most of her life. For decades, everyone in the Seattle-Portland megalopolis lived under it, as well as constant surveillance in the form of the Insight, an ocular implant that tracked every word and every action, rewarding or punishing by a rigid moral code set forth by the Delegation. Then there was a revolution. The Delegation fell. Its most valuable members were locked in the Aperture, a prison on the outskirts of the city. And everyone else, now free from the Insight’s monitoring, went on with their lives. Sonya, former poster girl for the Delegation, has been imprisoned for ten years when an old enemy comes to her with a deal: find a missing girl who was stolen from her parents by the old regime, and earn her freedom. The path Sonya takes to find the child will lead her through an unfamiliar, crooked post-Delegation world where she finds herself digging deeper into the past – and her family’s dark secrets – than she ever wanted to.

I’m not one who often comments on the writing style in a book so it has to be pretty bad or pretty different for me to notice it – I tend to be more focused on characters and how the story makes me feel. Veronica Roth has written a few adult books since her YA dystopian juggernaut series Divergent (which I read over a decade ago) but Poster Girl is the first I’ve read. I have to say, I did have to check a couple of times to see if Poster Girl was supposed to be YA or adult as the writing style is quite simplistic and it felt more like a YA story. Also, Sonya herself felt juvenile at times. Perhaps this was intentional as she was put in prison when she was a teenager and so has simultaneously been forced to grow up but everything in her life also stopped for the past ten years so she hasn’t matured in other ways. Either way, Sonya often felt younger than someone in her mid-late twenties.

It was interesting seeing how a society moved on after being a dystopian one for so long. So often dystopian stories are about the rise of the people and overthrowing the corrupt government and they end once they’ve succeeded in doing that. Having Poster Girl set ten years after the revolution was interesting as you could see how some characters attitudes have changed and how others were still stuck overthinking everything as they were so used to having an implant in their brain that automatically quantified if something they said or did was worthy of reward or punishment.

There is a romance element that is underdeveloped and just feels like it was added for the sake of having a romance subplot and added nothing to the overall story or to Sonya’s character. It’s kind of enemies-to-lovers but the transition from reluctant allies to lovers is far too rushed and there’s little chemistry when it comes to the romance side of things. I preferred the mistrust and jabs Sonya and her former acquaintance had before they started to be on the same page.

The case of the stolen child that Sonya is tasked with finding has its moments but the mystery isn’t particularly compelling and some of the twists can be guessed from a mile off. I think that is the crux of the problem with Poster Girl. While it is a pretty quick read at less than 300 pages, the case doesn’t have enough tension and Sonya isn’t that interesting as a character either. While the setting is a good and intriguing starting point, the story isn’t memorable or event that satisfying because so much was predictable. 2/5.

REVIEW: John Dies at the End by David Wong

Normally I’d give a general overview of the book I’m reviewing, whether that’s what’s on the blurb of the book or my own synopsis, but with John Dies at the End I’m not really sure I can. The blurb is weird and vague and gives now real information except warnings not to read the book, but now that you’ve picked it up bad things are going to happen and you can’t unlearn the fact there’s an “otherwordly invasion currently threatening to enslave humanity”. So needless to say, going into John Dies at the End I really did not know what to expect. I will say it’s about two friends, John and David (the book is from his perspective and parts of it has him recounting events of the book to a reporter), and how they can see things that aren’t there and go on adventures as they try and figure out what’s going on.

Even though I’ve now read John Dies at the End, I still can’t describe it. It’s a weird, creepy horror story with paranormal elements and drug-induced psychoses and a dog that’s perhaps immortal. At this point I’m not even sure I really liked it but there was something about it that was super compelling and kept me reading. Perhaps it’s because so much strange and/or unsettling things were happening all the time so I ended up feeling like I was just going along for the ride and was waiting to see what on Earth was going to happen next – and if anything was ever really explained.

There were some answers but not enough for me and the answers we did get often led to more questions. There’s so many moments when characters aren’t sure they can believe what they’re seeing and as this is being told from David’s point of view, you end up doubting things too. It’s really quite the strange reading experience.

I think I preferred the first third of John Dies at the End, mainly because that really set the scene in terms of the creepiness with horrifying creatures and the general unnerving feeling of something not being right. While I knew John Dies at the End was classed as a horror story, the kind of weirdness and horror it had was so unexpected that it was more shocking and interesting to begin with. There’s also a time skip about a third of the way though and I’m generally not a fan of time skips so that didn’t really do much for me, especially as the first third was so action-packed and interesting. As John Dies at the End is a 460-page book, variations of the same weirdness did get a bit repetitive over time and I did find the last 100 pages or so a bit more of a drag even though more and more things were being revealed.

Character-wise David seems to be a bit of a spectator to his own life and gets dragged into this situation by John and though he’s pretty resourceful, a lot of it comes down to dumb luck. The same can be said for John but pretty much everything that came out of John’s mouth was cringe-inducing as it often revolved around his penis or making himself seem more strong/smart/skilled than he was. These two guys are just average twenty-somethings and so there is the internet-related, kinda gross boys’ humour that you might expect which at times I did find myself skimming over.

John Dies at the End was an interesting reading experience. As I said, I preferred the beginning when it was all new and unexpected (one of the first sequences inside a supposedly haunted house was genuinely suspenseful and surprising) and as the plot progresses it gets more and more wild which some may love while others may find ridiculous – I was on the fence about it. I didn’t like John but being in David’s head wasn’t so bad and his sense of imagination really did paint a vivid picture when it came to some of the creatures they encountered or horrifying (and sometimes really gross) situations they found themselves in. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)

Teamed with a group of her closest friends – including Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin), and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) – Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) goes off on a mission with the unit from District 13 as they risk their lives to stage an assassination attempt on President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who has become increasingly obsessed with destroying her.

While Katniss and her team have to take part in guerrilla-style warfare, the themes that have been prevalent throughout this series are still there. Katniss’s march through the boobytrapped Capitol is like she’s back in the Arena and both President Snow and President Coin (Julianne Moore) are doing their best to manipulate the situation and Katniss to their advantage.

Josh Hutcherson deserves a shout out for his performance in Mockingjay – Part 2. Naturally Jennifer Lawrence is still fantastic and she is really the glue holding this franchise together, but in this film, Hutcherson gets to do more than just be in love with Katniss and be a way for her to show her softer side. Peeta has been tortured and had his mind manipulated while being captured by the Capitol and as he slowly starts to break out of the confusion of not being able to trust his own mind, Hutcherson’s performance is often both impressive and heart-breaking.

Katniss and her team’s mission is tense and exciting as boobytraps of any kind can spring up out of nowhere and when Peeta joins the team he’s a wildcard that gives Katniss extra stress. There’s a couple of moments of levity at the beginning of Mockingjay – Part 2, mostly down to Finnick and Annie (Stef Dawson), but really it is almost relentless grim as it doesn’t shy away from the realities of war and Katniss has to face losing the ones she cares about in a way she hasn’t before.

Sure, an argument can be made that Mockingjay should’ve been one film (like many last books in YA series film adaptations) but it really is a solid end to a series of films that have always been somewhere between good and fantastic. I think The Hunger Games films are some of the best adaptations of YA books and is truly the high point of an influx of dystopian media we had a decade ago. Mockingjay – Part 2 is an impressive and satisfying end as it pulls together all the themes and characters the series has been dealing with. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

After surviving the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) become targets of the Capitol as unrest rises in the Districts of Panem. Then when the Quarter Quell is announced, they plus twenty-two other former victors, are forced to return to the arena.

Catching Fire is honestly perfect. It’s one of the best sequels ever and best book to film adaptations. It does exactly what you want from a sequel (even one that’s a bit of a rehash of the original), it builds on the character work done before, increases the stakes and tension, and it leaves you wanting more. Just like when I reread the book, I was amazed that half the film happens before Katniss and Peeta arrive in the arena and you’re never wishing it would hurry up and get to that point. The pacing is truly excellent as the civil unrest throughout Panem in the first half of the film is like an ever-increasing boiling pot of tension, threatening to explode at any moment. Meanwhile the latter half in the arena is tense and exciting as there’s a whole load of new creatures and elements ready to kill Katniss and her potential allies.

Hutcherson’s Peeta and Liam Hemsworth’s Gale are still kind of pushed to the side and like the first film, any thoughts on focussing on a love triangle are soon forgotten as Katniss does what she can to keep herself and those she loves safe. Because that’s the thing throughout the books/films, it’s clear that Katniss does care for both of them but she’s never allowed herself to think of a future where a happily ever after was possible.

The cast is expanded with a whole host of new – or rather former – tributes. Having the competitors being former victors adds an extra edge to this Hunger Games and there’s alliances and friendships that Katniss and Peeta are unaware of. Finnick (Sam Claflin), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Johanna (Jena Malone), Mags (Lynn Cohen) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer) are some of the major players but with everyone having their own agenda it’s hard for Katniss to know who to trust.

Jennifer Lawrence really is fantastic throughout all these films and she’s the backbone to this franchise. The final shot of Catching Fire though is outstanding though. It’s a close up of her Lawrence’s face as Katniss goes through all five stages of grief before staring straight into the camera with a look of fiery determination in her eyes.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is truly an excellent film and is pretty much the gold standard for a YA book to movie adaptation. It’s exciting, heartfelt, and tackles big themes like cruelty and dictatorship in an engaging way. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Hunger Games (2012)

After revisiting the books for the first time in about a decade it was time to revisit the films – many of which I probably haven’t seen since they were first released.

Every year in the ruins of what was once North America, the nation of Panem forces each of its twelve districts to send a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games – a fight to the death on live TV until only one victor remains standing. When her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) is chosen, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place. Katniss is forced to rely upon her sharp instincts as well as the mentorship of drunken former victor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) as she and her male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are pitted against bigger, stronger representatives, some of whom have trained for this their whole lives.

From the outset it’s clear the difference between the Capitol and the Districts aka the haves and the have-nots. The Hunger Games opens with two men with brightly coloured hair and vibrant clothes talking about the Games and then cuts to District 12 where a woman screams and everything is bleak and grey.

Even before we get into the arena, the camera work is shaky and frantic. While it works in the arena, encompassing the fear and the adrenalin as the tributes fight to survive and quickly moving away from children’s bloody bodies allowing the imagination to fill in the gaps, in Katniss’s day to day life it feels jarring. I’m not one to feel queasy due to shaky cam, especially not when watching a film on my laptop, but some of the sequences in District 12 did make me feel funny and my eyes hurt due to the camera work.

Some of the most interesting moments in The Hunger Games comes from things we’d never have seen in the book as it was all from Katniss’s point of view. In the film, you get to see the Gamemakers, the people pulling the strings behind the scenes on their holographic screens as they set traps for the young competitors. Again, it goes to show that for people in the Capitol this is just entertainment or just a job but for the tributes it’s the worst time of their life.

I feel like there will be more to comment on performance-wise as the films progress but the likes of Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Toby Jones looking like their having a whale of a time. They all play citizens of the Capitol and are used to lives of luxury but Banks manages to ensure that Effie comes across as well-meaning if a bit insensitive as she’s never not on Katniss and Peeta’s side.

Jennifer Lawrence is really does a fantastic job at Katniss. She’s not the most expressive or potentially even likeable character as she’s had to have so much responsibility from a young age but Lawrence makes it work, showing the girl behind Katniss’s stoicism and the moments when she truly lets her emotions out, often when she’s with her sister or Rue (Amandla Stenberg), you truly feel what she’s going through.

Overall, The Hunger Games is a solid, though sometimes a little slow, adaptation and with stellar performances bringing to life such interesting characters it sets the franchise off on a good foot. 4/5.

REVIEW: Sea Fever (2019)

Marine biology student Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) joins a trawler crew to conduct research as part of her studies but things soon go awry as she and the crew, marooned at sea, struggle for their lives against a growing parasite in their water supply.

Written and directed by Neasa Hardiman Sea Fever is one of those more subtle, quietly haunting horror films. It has a great script and cast but one thing I think it really has going in its favour is it doesn’t try and overly explain the creature. You just see glimpses and Siobhán has theories based on science but nothing is ever proven. Sometimes with “creature features” having to have answers for everything leads to plot holes and an unsatisfying threat. Sea Fever embraces the mystery and having the creature, the parasites and how it functions being an unknown quantity means that there’s always a danger to every decision the characters make.

Though there’s hints of more of a gruesome outcome for the crew, the third act focuses in on the horrors of panicking people rather than the horrors of some unknown creature. Siobhán is a scientist first and foremost and believes everyone should quarantine and not get ashore as soon as possible for fear of infecting others, while the rest of the crew just want to get home and be safe, even if they don’t know whether or not they’ve already been infected. Personally, I thought that worked really well as sometimes a group of people are their own worst enemy. Seeing how these characters react in close confinement and when and how they turn on each other was riveting.

Sea Fever is super atmospheric little Irish indie film and one that I’m really glad I watched. The sound design is great too as is the score by Christoffer Franzén. It suits the tone of the film perfectly and never oversells a moment. 4/5.

REVIEW: Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is just trying to get her taxes sorted while running her laundrette business with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) when she’s informed of a threat to her world and the multiverse and is told that she might be the only one who can stop it.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is one of those films that’s completely barmy but brilliant. It’s a film I knew little about before watching it (I hadn’t even watched the trailer) and had just heard positive things via social media though had seen no spoilers or had any real idea of the plot. I think that might be the best way to see this film as it’s such a surprise at times as it veers off into different themes or genres that I never expected.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a lot of movie. So much so, it can be almost overwhelming at times but by no means is that a bad thing. It suits the tone and the story perfectly but how the plot moves with the sounds and visuals can feel chaotic. However, you never feel lost in what’s happening. What Evelyn is going through is overwhelming to her, so to make the audience feels like that too. It helps make Everything Everywhere All at Once feel different and as it bounces between ideas, time, and universes, there’s a beauty to it too.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is impressive for many reasons but something that surprised me was how in one scene I could be laughing and in the next I’m tearing up. How the writers and directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (known as the Daniels) handled the different tones of this film, balancing the emotional payoff with inventive and fun action sequences is impressive. Though the story feels chaotic and weird at times, I never felt that the film was getting away from its directors. All the weirdness and chaos was just what was needed as a story about the multiverse and an older woman having to learn how to save the day is a bit unusual and unexpected.

Michelle Yeoh is just fantastic as Evelyn. She is funny and relatable and she’s both strict and caring. Evelyn has a lot on her mind with the responsibilities of running a business and looking after her ailing father (James Hong) that she neglects both her husband and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), however unintentionally. The action sequences with Yeoh showcase her talents but equally, the big emotive moments do as well.

Honestly, the whole cast is outstanding and the trio of the family; Evelyn, Waymond and Joy is wonderful. All three actors bring their A game and elevate each other with their performances. Each character is allowed to be well-rounded and a real person. They can be scared, strong, kind, mean, funny, stressed, or apathetic and it’s all fine – especially as some characters learn from others about how to be better people or how to go through life with a better attitude.

There are so many layers to Everything Everywhere All at Once and it’s one of those films where I’m enjoying reading everyone else’s thoughts on it – especially Asian Americans. Because Everything Everywhere All at Once is an immigrant story, it’s a story about family, love, and kindness, it’s a story about second chances and togetherness. It’s one of those stories that’s so specific that it becomes universal.

I don’t even really know if I have the words to properly describe Everything Everywhere All at Once but it’s funny, action-packed, heartfelt, and beautiful. It’s weird and wonderful and it’s a film that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. 5/5.

Z is for Zoe (2018)

Cole (Ewan McGregor) and Zoe (Léa Seydoux) are colleagues at a research lab that designs drugs and technology to improve and perfect romantic relationships. As they become close, their relationship is threatened when Zoe discovers the truth about their relationship, sending them into a spiral of confusion, betrayal and the most intense of human emotions, love.

Zoe is such a sweet, thoughtful take on relationships, romance and what it means to be human. It’s that kind of near-future sci-fi that I love where everything is as we’d expect bar one aspect. In this instance, that thing is how evolved AI is and that androids, or “synthetics” as they’re called here, can be so lifelike that they can fool humans. They can be programmed to feel and connect with people so humans never have to be lonely.

Ash (Theo James) is one such synthetic and seeing him learn and adapt and feel does make you question the differences between humans and machines. While his code is his foundation, he’s been given memories and personality and is able to decide things for himself. Theo James does a good job at adding little hesitations to Ash’s movements and showing that as he learns, he mostly appears “human” but there’s still the odd moment with him that’s a little unsettling.

The romance between Cole and Zoe is interesting as they both seem so isolated but for different reasons. There’s a hesitancy about both of them and as more of their pasts are revealed, you begin to understand why they act that way.

As a sidenote, I really liked the relationship between Cole and his ex-wife Emma (Rashida Jones). So often you see an antagonistic relationship between ex’s, even when they’re coparenting like these two are. While there still is the odd moment of awkwardness between the two of them, it’s clear that they both still care about each other and want the other to be happy, even if it’s not with themselves.

Zoe is an interesting sci-fi/romance film. The central performances are all great and the romance between Cole and Zoe is believable. Similarities can be made between Zoe and Her, and both films have a similar melancholy vibe to them. So if you like one of those films, there’s a good chance you’d like the other. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Palestine: Palestine+100 edited by Basma Ghalayini

A collection of twelve short science-fiction stories from twelve different Palestinian writers answering the question, what might their country look like in the year 2048? A century afterwards the tragedies and trauma of what has come to be called the Nakba, which saw the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes.

Naturally there were some stories I liked more than others but I was always intrigued by what kind of sci-fi spin each story would have. Stories feature pretty much any sci-fi trope you could think of; virtual reality, drone swarms, aliens, AI. How they use these elements is often interesting. There are not only the sci-fi story elements but different genres of sci-fi in this collection too. There is almost a noir story with a sci-fi edge, (a journalist tries to find out the truth when an academic is murdered) as well as farce and dystopia.

While a few of the stories imagine a time where peace has been reached and Palestinians are content and thriving in this new peace, a lot of the stories aren’t happy. There’s a few out and out dystopian stories, ones where different parts of the country are walled off or there’s too much pollution so everyone has to wear gasmasks in order to survive. There’s a technical aspect to the dystopia too, whether it’s the AI going out of control or the realisation that what characters are experiencing isn’t real and they’re living inside a simulation where everything is fine and good.

While some stories seem to have more hope to them, others are more pessimistic (or maybe realistic) and show that in the future Palestinians will continue to suffer and the evolving technology will amplify that.

Some of the stories drop you right in with the characters and what they’re going through with little context of the kind of world they live in, so those can be a bit hard to follow – especially if you’re reading a few of the stories in a row. Others drop in things like a treaty of 2025 and how that’s changed their lives. I thought how some of these stories set 26 years in the future referenced both real historical events and fictional historical events was a lot of fun and made the time the story was set feel more concrete.

Palestine+100 is a great collection of sci-fi stories that often made me think. It was just interesting how these stories combined the real and imaginary to make stories that were sometimes weird but also believable. With the way the world is some of these scenarios aren’t too far out of the realm of possibility. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is loving being Spider-Man though he does feel guilty about continuing his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) as he feels he’ll only put her in danger. That danger soon arrives in the form of Electro (Jamie Foxx) and as Peter tries to deal with this new threat while still coming to terms with the secrets of his parent’s past, his best friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns to New York.

Watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2 now, knowing this was Andrew Garfield’s last outing at the titular character and the filmmakers/studio never brought to screen the Sinister Six they spent a chunk of this film setting up, is a very funny and kind of a sad experience.

Because by the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 you can’t help but feel it’s an extended set up for what never came. There are so many plots in this film and if a few were cut out or even shortened it might have made a more cohesive film and the plots left might’ve been more effective. In the end, there’s a lot of things that felt pointless and repetitive.

Speaking of repetitive, the on and off again romance between Peter and Gwen got old very quickly. While yes, they’re supposed to be awkward teens in love they just kept going over the same arguments about why they should or shouldn’t be together. Garfield and Stone still have great chemistry but there’s only so many times you can watch two people have the same argument or talk at cross-purposes.

Another aspect that felt pointless and dull was all the stuff about Peter’s parents – or rather his father, his poor mum certainly got shafted. There was one minor detail revealed once Peter learns more about his dad but it’s more of a “Oh that’s cool” thing rather than having any major narrative impact. Otherwise, anything to do with his dad seems to say Oscorp is bad – something which was already pretty clear from the first film. In The Amazing Spider-Man you learnt that Peter’s dad didn’t want his research getting into the wrong hands and in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 it just rams that point home again.

Electro is a pretty decent villain. His looks and powers are interesting though (like another character) his decent into villainy felt far too quick, especially because of where he started. Before he got his powers, he was a nerdy guy who was a pushover and idolised Spider-Man so seeing him first of all be scared and overwhelmed by what was happening to him felt true to character. How he changed from loving Spider-Man to hating him so quickly felt more out of place.

Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man is still one of the best we’ve seen on screen. He’s confident, cracking jokes and poking fun at the bad guys, but the problem is that the attitude bleeds into his Peter Parker. While his Peter Parker is clearly more intelligent than the Maguire version (always like the scenes where Peter is doing experiments to improve his web shooters) he doesn’t seem as awkward, quiet and nerdy.

Surprisingly considering how little screentime and decent character development he had, I once again both really liked and felt sorry for Harry Osborn. Though, I probably would’ve liked his arc a lot more if it was given more time and his decent into villainy wasn’t shoehorned into the end of the film. Also, having Peter and Harry be childhood friends reconnecting is a neat way of getting him back into Peter’s life but there’s only really one scene where you see them bonding and acting like friends before Harry starts to want something from Peter. Cutting out some of the will they/won’t they stuff with Peter and Gwen to give us more scenes of Harry and Peter could’ve helped all three of those characters.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 just has too much going on and now there was never a third film in this series the flaws seem even more obvious. It’s messy when trying to juggle all these plot threads and while many of the Spidey scenes are great fun and action-packed, there’s a bit of a videogame quality to them due to the CGI.

I’ll end this on a positive, I did like the score by Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams, Mike Einziger, Junkie XL, Johnny Marr, Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro. Electro’s theme especially was eerie with the whispers underscoring the techno and it really suited the character. 2/5.