sci-fi

REVIEW: Dune (1984)

After his family is attacked and betrayed on the planet Arrakis, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), leads desert warriors against the galactic emperor and his father’s nemesis Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) to get revenge and to free their desert world from the emperor’s rule.

With the newest adaptation of the novel set to be released towards the end of this year (hopefully), I thought it’d be a good idea to see what David Lynch’s adaptation was like since I’d generally heard bad things about it. I read Dune a couple of years ago and as I was reading it I thought it’s a difficult story to retell in film as there’s so much politics, world building and character backstories to fit in in order to make the story make sense and to be compelling.

Dune tries to fill in the gaps of the viewers knowledge by having a narration setting up what Spice is – the much sought-after substance that is in time travel technology – and the prophesy. That’s shortly followed by a computer talking about the main planets and who rules each one. This sort of setup makes sense. It’s how there’s so much voice over of various characters thoughts throughout the film that gets grating. It fails to show and instead has all the characters telling (or thinking) their thoughts about what’s going on and what things mean. Some of the thoughts could’ve been said out loud, whether as a rhetorical question or explanation to themselves, or even as a question to people around them.

The cast of Dune is a real eclectic mix. A lot of people’s performances seem either wooden or too over the top. In some ways that almost suits the film as it’s so odd that it’s like it’s not sure what it’s trying to be anyway. Patrick Stewart is Gurney Halleck, Paul’s weapons and combat teacher, and I wasn’t expecting to see him in this film – especially carrying a pug into battle. The inclusion of dogs in this fantasy science-fiction adventure was a weird thing anyway. Sting plays Feyd Rautha, a ruthless enemy of Paul’s, and while he looks pretty cool in the costume and his electrified hair, he really can’t act. Kyle MacLachlan does a good job as Paul, balancing the vulnerability of the character with how resourceful he is. He is older (and looks it) than Paul in the book as there he was a teenager but whether it’s the floppy hair or his performance, he does come across more youthful than he is.

The set design and costumes were all interesting, the set design especially was quite unique, and while a lot of the special effects don’t hold up (I’m not sure if they would’ve been considered good in the 80s) the practical effects like a large alien creature in a moving tank were still impressive. The score, which is by Toto of all people, is actually one of the highlights of the film. There’s haunting tracks and more tense music, even when the action on screen isn’t that exciting, the music does a good job making you think it is.

Overall while it might have interesting elements to it, Dune isn’t a particularly interesting or compelling film. The plot moves so slowly and because there’s so many characters it’s hard to keep track of who’s who or for them to have decent character development. The action sequences are pretty generic, a load of explosions and people shooting from a distance. There’s not really any hand-to-hand combat and when there is, characters have these blocky CG shields that make the fight almost impossible to see.

Dune really is an interesting mess of a film. I feel like anyone adapting this story is fighting an uphill battle as there’s so much needed to make the story understandable, and to make the story exciting as the book itself was a bit dry in my opinion. A lot of the sci-fi elements of Dune do look cool, but that doesn’t make the film an entertaining watch. 2/5.

REVIEW: Over the Moon (2020)

Fuelled with determination and a passion for science, a bright young Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) builds a rocket ship to the moon to prove the existence of the legendary Moon Goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo).

First off, Over the Moon is a musical which I didn’t realise going into it, but I didn’t mind that one bit. The songs and music add so much to Fei Fei’s story. Most are like thoughtful and touching ballads, “Love Someone New” made me bawl my eyes out, and then you get “Ultraluminary” which is the perfectly catchy, upbeat pop song. As soon as it started it reminded me of the best kind of Eurovision song which is the highest compliment.

The animation is beautiful too, especially once Fei Fei gets to the moon. What’s really cool is that both the songs and the animation are different depending if the story is taking place on Earth or on the moon, helping the moon to be its own character. On Earth the animation is pretty much what audiences are used to, but then on the moon everything is bright colours and shapes and its so luminous and different to what Fei Fei is used to.

Over the Moon is a heartfelt film. While there is the fantastical element of having an adventure on the moon and seeking out a legendary Goddess, at its heart Over the Moon is about grief and moving on. Fei Fei still loves and misses her mother and while her father is starting to move on, has met someone new who brings her annoying eight-year-old son Chin (Robert G. Chu) into Fei Fei’s life, Fei Fei sees that as a betrayal of her mother and of their love. She’s a big believer of immortal love thanks to the stories her mother raised her on, so seeing her dad move on is painful for her.

Over the Moon is a great exploration of grief and how even if someone is gone, it doesn’t mean you stop loving them, or that you can’t ever love anyone else. It’s an important message and is one that’s handled in way that’s easy for younger audience to understand thanks to the songs. “Wonderful” (sung by Ken Jeong as a glowing green creature) is a great example as it’s all about moving on without forgetting.

The pacing in Over the Moon could be a little tighter, the stuff on the moon flies by compared to some of the set up on Earth, but besides from that minor complaint Over the Moon is just a gorgeous, animated film with important themes. I laughed, I cried, and it was just a beautiful and fun story about a young girl doing what she needs to do in order to be happy again. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Zambia: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Narrated by Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

In 1904, in a smoky room at the hotel across the river, an Old Drifter named Percy M. Clark, foggy with fever, makes a mistake that entangles the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy. This sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families (black, white, brown) as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond. As the generations pass, their lives – their triumphs, errors, losses and hopes – form a symphony about what it means to be human.

I shall preface this review by saying it took me over two months to listen to this audiobook. Audiobooks are something I tend to listen to when I’m out and about and as I’m not going anywhere due to a pandemic it took me lot longer to read this book than normal. I think this probably did affect how much I enjoyed The Old Drift as it’s such a sprawling generational epic that I’d sometimes forget characters names between times I was listening or find it difficult to remember the different familial connections.

The Old Drift is a generational story, and it is interesting how three generations of three families can keep encountering one another in different ways and in different times. There’s romance and conflicts and just passing freak meetings, and often younger generations have no idea that their parents or grandparents may have met in some capacity before. Characters hear stories about things that as the reader you’ve already seen from someone else’s point of view and you realise that while some characters in these families might not meet themselves, they may have mutual friends or even passing strangers who have talked to them both at some point or another.

People in all three families go through love and loss, have children, and jobs and while there are universal struggles or life events The Old Drift does a good job at showing how their different backgrounds can have an effect on things. One family is descended from Italian immigrants/colonisers and one of their children then marries an Indian hairdresser. Another family is descended from a Black Zambian and a white English blind woman who ran away with her husband back to his home country. And the third family is Black, born and raised in Zambia. Due to their differences in wealth and education these families have very different lives and attitudes. One odd thing does connect them all and that’s hairdressers. A lot of the major life events for these characters happen in a hair salon or because of a hairdresser.

There’s a sci-fi element to The Old Drift I wasn’t expecting. As the story gets to the twenty-first century, there’s the technology we know, iPhones and drones for example, but then there’s advanced tech imbedded in people’s hands so they can use their had like a phone. It has a torch in a fingertip and their palm is a holographic touchscreen connected to the internet. It’s a bit jarring having these futuristic elements after previously appearing to be very true to the various periods of history these generations of characters have been living through – the AIDS epidemic plays a big role in many characters lives when the story gets to the 1980s.

There’s so much going on in The Old Drift that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who and how they’re connect, nevermind finding meaning and some sort of thread to follow through this story. Seeing events from different characters points of view, some more in depth than others, lets you see how different people react to events, how it can be a big deal for some and barely a memory for others, but this can get a little repetitive.

I’m really not sure what else to say about The Old Drift. It is an impressive debut novel and one a may have found easier to follow if I didn’t have such huge gaps between picking it up. There’s a lot of tragedy in these characters lives and maybe it’s because you only see snapshots of their lives at different times but there certainly seems to be more sad moments than happy ones. This, along with how long the book is and the often lyrical narrative, does make The Old Drift a bit dense and hard to get through.

REVIEW: Upgrade (2018)

After a brutal attack that leaves his wife (Melanie Vallejo) dead and himself a quadriplegic, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) feels his life isn’t worth living. When an artificial intelligence implant called STEM is offered to him, Grey is able to move again and with his newfound abilities he seeks revenge for his wife’s murder.

Upgrade is really clever while never being obnoxious with it. The basic premise is something we’ve all seen before – having a man seek revenge/justice for his wife/girlfriend/family’s murder is the starting point for so many action/thriller films. With Upgrade it it takes that starting point and takes it to new and interesting places.

Upgrade is set in the new future where technology is so advanced. There are self-driving cars, smart houses, and the integration between humans and machinery seen as the norm. Grey is a guy who prefers to not rely on technology and to build things himself, so when he’s suddenly put in the position where he’s near enough defenceless without technology it makes things challenging for him as he has to relearn his body – both when he’s paralysed and when he can suddenly move again thanks to STEM.

STEM is like its own character. Grey can here its voice in his head and they have these conversations, discussing how to find the people who killed his wife. Stem can also take complete control of Grey’s body which lead to some very violent and innovative fight sequences. They really are great, and Marshall-Green does a great job as his body is moving robotically but brutally but the expressions on his face (which he always has complete control over) are often scared, confused and shocked by what he’s doing. His performance is all around great as you can clearly see the difference between not only when STEM has control and not, but also how Grey was before the attack.

Upgrade is a great revenge action flick but it’s also one of those films that has a decent amount of substance to it. In this world where reliance on technology is so great, there’s ethical dilemmas about what Grey has done to his body and how he can allow something to take control of it. And even outside of Grey’s situation the little bits of world-building that show how everyone is reliant on technology, surveillance and AI is interesting.

Upgrade is tense and thrilling and the action sequences really stand out due to how well they’re shot and how creative they are. The violence is sometimes pretty gruesome so be aware of that, but it’s also surprisingly funny thanks to the dynamic between Grey and STEM. Upgrade really is one of those films that you hear a load of great stuff about, and it does indeed live up to the hype. 4/5.

REVIEW: Fast Colour (2018)

After years in hiding, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is forced to go on the run when her superhuman abilities are discovered. Years after abandoning her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and her young daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), the only place Ruth has left to hide is with them.

The three generations of this family all have abilities and while there’s similarities between them, they each have a different level of control to them. The abilities themselves, to break things down and rebuild them, to see the colours of the universe, for being a mythology that’s so different from the big blockbuster superhero films we are used to seeing, it’s explained well and it is captivating.

Fast Colour is one of those quiet sci-fi films. It’s a film about superpowered characters, but their abilities are not really the driving force of this story, instead it’s the relationships. It’s the moments where you get to see these three people just inhabit the same space that really work. There’s a static shot of the kitchen and slowly the three of them come in at different moments, easily moving around one another as they make breakfast together that hits home how even though Ruth hasn’t been with her mother and daughter for so long, they’re still a family and are connected to one another.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the standout here. Her guilt, fear and regret when it comes to how she acted in the past towards her family is palpable and I would say she gives a star performance, but to be honest she’s been giving great performances for years and it’s everyone else who needs to take notice. Lorraine Toussaint is also great. Her world weariness and desire to do anything to keep her family safe, her calm guidance when it comes to trying to teach her daughter and granddaughter their abilities, it all hides a pillar of strength and power more than those who’d seek to harm her daughter could imagine.

Fast Colour is just a beautiful film about familiar ties and inner strength. It has a beautiful and often haunting score by Rob Simonsen, that compliments the open, deserted spaces of a middle America where so many people are struggling. Fast Colour is a striking and impressive film, and it’s one that’s likely to stick with me for a while. 4/5.

Sci-Fi Month 2020

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com. QUOTE from Seven Devils by Elizabeth May & Laura Lam.

Even though 2020 seems to be dragging on forever, we are getting closer to the end of the year and November brings Sci-Fi Month, hosted by Lisa and Imyril.

As the name suggests, Sci-Fi Month is all about celebrating all things sci-fi, whether that’s books, films, TV show, games or podcasts. It’s the chance to focus on the sci-fi stuff you’ve been putting on the backburner, whether it’s speculative fiction, epic space operas, time travel adventures or parallel worlds.

There’s a couple of readathons happening during the month if that’s your kind of thing. Jorie Loves a Story is hosting a readathon of Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott while Imyril is hosting a readathon of Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle.

While there’s the readathons and some challenges still to be announced, there’s no requirements or goals to take part in Sci-Fi Month, the main point is to consume some sci-fi, a little or a lot, and have some fun. See imyril’s blog for more information and to sign up to Sci-Fi Month and follow @SciFiMonth on Twitter and use the hashtag #SciFiMonth to take part in all the chats or when sharing your posts.

While I like sci-fi books, I don’t currently have a lot of them on their TBR, in fact I only have two: Brilliance by Marcus Sakey and Gemina Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. I’ll try and read them both in November but Gemina will be the priority as that chonky book has been on my shelf for far too long.

I also plan to watch and review a lot of sci-fi films next month. I’ve had a look through what sci-fi films I’ve got in my Netflix and Prime watchlists and pulled together a selection of what it’d like to watch. There’s a whole load of different types of sci-fi, superpowers, aliens, and AI, and from different countries too. Here’s some of the films I’ll hopefully be watching next month – any thoughts or recommendations based on this list would, as always, be much appreciated:

What are some of your favourite sci-fi media? I’m always looking for sci-fi book and film recommendations. My favourite kind of sci-fi (or sometimes it’s science-fact) is when people are really competent at their jobs e.g. The Martian, Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures.

REVIEW: Ready Player One (2018)

When James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creator of a popular virtual reality called the OASIS dies, a virtual contest is created to compete for his fortune and for control of this virtual world.

Ready Player One is based on the book of the same name by Ernest Cline. I read the book back in 2016 when the hype for it was at its peak and to be honest, I didn’t really like the book. I thought the main character was creepy towards and obsessed about the main female character as well as being very arrogant and all around unlikable – and then there was this over reliance on pop culture references that ended up being more annoying than anything else. So to say I had low expectations for the film version is an understatement.

The film follows Wade Watts or, as he’s known in the OASIS, Parzival (Tye Sheridan) as he and his friends search through the OASIS for the clues to finding the keys that will lead to Halliday’s fortune. There’s car races and battles and so many pop culture references. Some references are very blatant while others are blink and you’ll miss it types where if you get it that’s cool but it if you don’t you’re not missing anything. Or at least, I feel that what the film was going for but as it relies so heavily on nostalgia and computer game and movie references, there’s a whole other level of enjoyment to potentially have with Ready Player One if you get all these references. Otherwise, when Wade is in the virtual world it does look great and there’s all these cool looking characters or items, but you don’t get any meaning from them – they’re just there.

Wade’s not as unlikable here compared to his book counterpart and that’s probably because while we do get voice over narration from him explaining what the OASIS is, you don’t spend all his time with his thoughts. There’s still a very rushed “romance” that’s terrible and Wade’s friends turn out to tick the ethically diverse box.

As well as Wade and his friends competing with other players to find the keys to OASIS’s future, there’s a big bad corporate businessman played by Ben Mendelsohn who wants to win the challenge in order for his company to take it over. It’s such a cliché and Mendelsohn is pretty great as the over the top businessman who’ll stop at nothing to stop those pesky kids, but it’s something we’ve all seen so many times before and they don’t do anything interesting with it.

In the virtual world, Ready Player One looks great and some of the battle sequences are engaging but on the whole the characters and story just seem flat. It’s also a pretty depressing future (it’s set in 2045) where people escape into the OASIS because everyone’s stopped trying to make the real world better. Ready Player One plays out like a video game and if you enjoy them and know a lot of the pop culture references, you’ll probably have more fun with this film than I did. 2/5.

REVIEW: The New Mutants (2020)

The saga of The New Mutants production and release is almost legendary at this point. Different cuts were made, reshoots happened and the release date got pushed back by at least two years and was then released after the supposed peak of a global pandemic. What a legacy this film has.

The New Mutants follows Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) who wakes up in a facility after her home is destroyed. There she’s told by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) that she’s a mutant and she and the four other teenagers are there to learn how to control their powers.

The New Mutants gets props for attempting something different within the comic book/superhero genre. There’s a small group of superpowered people (something we’re all familiar with by now) but instead of being in a safe and nurturing environment to learn about their powers like we’ve seen in previous X-Men movies, these teens are in what is called a hospital but is more like a creepy mental institution from a horror movie. There’s cameras and microphones everywhere and Dr Reyes likes to do tests on them and send them to solitary confinement if they misbehave. And that’s before each of the teens start to see and experience unexplainable horrors.

These mutant characters aren’t ones that are so easily recognisable. Personally while they’re regular human names didn’t instantly mean something to me, like Scott Summers would for instance, as their powers were slowly revealed I realised that all but one of the five were in the latter seasons of the X-Men: Evolution cartoon series. I highly recommend that series (it does the Apocalypse storyline brilliantly) especially if you want to see more of these characters as I feel it’s unlikely they’ll get a movie sequel.

Danielle is a nice enough character but isn’t particularly compelling. Her scenes with Rahne (Maisie Williams) are the best as their hesitant but blossoming relationship is an unexpected bright spot in a film where all the characters have or currently are experiencing great trauma. Anya Taylor-Joy often steals the limelight as the cutting Illyana, while Sam Guthrie and Henry Zaga aren’t given much to work with as their characters are the stereotypical quiet but nice guy and the brash jock type respectively.

After all the wait, The New Mutants is just fine really. It could’ve been scarier, and it could’ve delved more into these characters, so it doesn’t end up fulfilling the potential of its concept. It has a 90 minute runtime and you do feel that, an extra 20 minutes could’ve done wonders for character development and allowed for scenes to breathe as it was hard to gauge how long Danielle and the others had been in the facility before everything went wrong. Overall, The New Mutants is perfectly serviceable but not one to rush out to see during a pandemic. 3/5.

REVIEW: Victor Frankenstein (2015)

Told from Igor’s (Daniel Radcliffe) perspective, the troubled young apprentice tells the tale of his unhappy life before being rescued and befriended by Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and how they worked together to create life where it should not be.

The story of Frankenstein is so well known – it’s the blueprint for the monster genre – that it is nice to see a film that does try and put its own spin on things, however that doesn’t mean it’s successful in doing so. Having Igor being the main character is new and having him being intelligent and not a snivelling sidekick to Frankenstein was interesting. He goes from being downtrodden and never having anyone care about him, or even see him as a human being, to being more self-assured thanks to Frankenstein’s friendship and belief in him – that turn around is very quick though.

McAvoy as Frankenstein is good fun, the way he annunciates certain words or gets into other characters personal spaces is unsettling as he seems like he’s living life on a knifes edge. His Frankenstein is obsessive and volatile and is indeed the quintessential mad scientist. The characteristics of this Frankenstein seems to take a lot of inspiration from Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the tone and filming and editing style seems to be trying to emulate the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. There’s the bickering relationship between Frankenstein and Igor, the random slow-motion shots in action sequences, the illustrated title cards, and one scene where Igor runs through a forest seemed to be a poor imitation of a sequence in A Game of Shadows.

Besides from the ethical dilemma of what Frankenstein and Igor are trying to achieve, the main antagonist for them is Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) who is investigating the thefts of human and animal bodies parts. He is also obsessive and unfortunately quickly becomes a cartoonish villain – though a verbal sparring session between him and Frankenstein is one of the more compelling parts of the film.

The editing in the scenes where Frankenstein and Igor have successfully animated a dead body and then everything goes wrong is not good. Especially in the final showdown it is difficult to keep track of where characters are in relation to each other and to generally have a good idea of the space they are currently inhabiting. It’s hard to keep track of what’s happening and minor antagonists are dispatched so quickly it’s laughable.

While Victor Frankenstein does attempt to breathe new life (ha!) into a well-known story, in the end the final act becomes a clichéd monster movie and the lead up to it often feels like you’ve seen it before due to character and stylistic choices being so similar to previous big franchises. 2/5.

REVIEW: See You Yesterday (2019)

Two teenage scientists C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) who have built portable time machines use them to try and save C.J.’s brother Calvin (Brian ‘Stro’ Bradley), who was wrongfully killed by a police officer.

See You Yesterday is a very relevant film. Before Calvin is killed there’s moments where it’s clear that the police aren’t to be trusted. For instance, C.J. and Calvin have an argument in the street, just like any brother and sister do, and two police officers ask them what’s the problem in an intimidating manner. There’s tension in the scene that comes from the script and from just knowing what is happening to Black people at the hands of the police now and for years before.

C.J. and Sebastian are great characters and their friendship is at the heart of the film. It’s refreshing to have a film where romance is firmly at arm’s length with both of them scoffing at the idea of being anything over than best friends.

Naturally there’s a lot of the usual time travel tropes; not wanting to run into your past selves, accidentally changing things for the worst, but they work because we know the tropes. As a viewer, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a lot of time travel media, or at least have an idea of the “rules of time travel” so it’s how C.J. and Sebastian either fall into those traps or try and avoid them that is interesting. The fallout from some of their time travel adventures is emotional and both the direction and the young cast make those emotional beats land.

Having looked at the comment section under the trailer I can see the ending of See You Yesterday isn’t to everyone’s liking. I can see why as it’s sudden and leaves you wanting a more definitive answer. However, I feel it does suit the story and C.J.’s character. It perfectly encapsulates her desperation to save her brother and highlights how time travel is a fickle thing and may not give you the results you want.

See You Yesterday is fun, imaginative and emotional as it combines the socio-political issues of today with a time travel adventure. 4/5.