Tron

28 05 2010

In the late-’70/early-’80s, Disney was attempting to reposition itself in a niche away from the traditional family product that they were known for, moving instead towards darker-tinged science fiction and fantasy. This was partly in response to the success of Star Wars in 1977, as is apparent with the generally goofy (but at times surprisingly sinister) Disney live-action feature The Black Hole, released only two years later.

So when a young, independent animator called Steven Lisberger approached the company, looking for someone to finance an experimental science fiction film about video games, it seemed like the perfect fit. This was the era of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Frogger, when home computing was beginning to make inroads and the potential of all things digital seemed limitless: the so-called “silicon revolution” had just arrived. What better way for Disney to remain relevant than to release a film that capitalised on such a current trend?

That film, of course, was Tron (1982). Combining back-lit animation, traditional animation and computer-generated imagery with live-action footage, this was Star Wars for the impending Information Age. Its setting was stark yet elegant and often beautiful; its themes struck at the heart of the increasing commercialisation of a market hitherto dominated by hobbyists and academics. In short, it was the mythology for a new age.
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Star Trek

19 05 2010

“Space: the final frontier…”

So goes the opening monologue for each episode of Star Trek (1966-69), a TV series that paved the way for every serious science fiction series in its wake. And yet, for a show that was so fresh and innovative at the time, its brand has become stale and repetitive over the years, turning into a shadow of its former self.

Enter the cinematic reboot Star Trek (2009), an attempt to revitalise the franchise some 43 years after its debut. Helmed by J.J. Abrams (the man behind Alias (2001-2006) and Lost (2004-2010)) and written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who also brought us The Island (2005) and Transformers (2007)), this is obviously not going to be deep or thought-provoking. With those names behind it, you can bet on things being fairly fun, however, at the very least.

The approach taken seems to be akin to recent Marvel origin films such as X-Men (2000) and Spider-man (2002): keep the fans happy while playing-up the novelty of seeing familiar characters meeting, all while adopting a light and breezy tone. And then throw in a few curve-balls to shake things up a bit.
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Tetsuo: The Iron Man

18 05 2010

Some films are safely quirky, such as Little Miss Sunshine or Juno. Some films are odd or slightly disturbing, such as Brazil. Then there’s the nightmarish territory of Eraserhead, Videodrome and Tetsuo: the Iron Man, where plausibility gives way to perverse streams of consciousness.

So let’s get the David Lynch and David Cronenberg comparisons out of the way. Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: the Iron Man shares a stark, black-and-white surrealist aesthetic with Lynch’s earlier work, as well as the body-horror theme that pervades every film of Cronenberg’s. But Tsukamoto’s approach is rooted more deeply in the cyberpunk genre, where technology consumes, devours and dehumanises, and his hyper-kinetic editing gives a whole different tone to this tale of man versus machine.

The plot is hard to describe without sounding insane. In short, a man runs into a metal fetishist with his car, and soon he himself begins transforming into a man-machine hybrid. But that’s only the start…
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A Trip to the Moon

15 05 2010

Georges Méliès’ Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) is undoubtedly the progenitor of so much cinematic science fiction that it’s impossible to overstate its influence: from the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials to Star Wars and beyond, the ripples can be felt even today with James Cameron’s Avatar. But more importantly, A Trip to the Moon is also arguably the first film in the modern sense, employing narrative, epic scope and dazzling special effects in a manner that is still with us today.

Made in 1902, this classic piece of early cinema is important for so many reasons, not the least of which is that, even today, it stands as a fine piece of entertainment in its own right, beyond any historical curiosity. The imagery is rich and startling: besides the famous image of the rocket lodged in the eye of the moon, the landscape of the moon itself is wonderfully realised with spires, craters and giant mushrooms, while faces appear in stars and moon inhabitants disappear in puffs of smoke. The whimsy alone carries the audience into a magical world of wonder and awe.
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Monsters vs Aliens

13 05 2010

Do you like a good story? Then Monsters vs Aliens (2009) is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you prefer rapid-fire gags and references mixed with some very nice animation but without any concern for heart or intellect, then this may be your film.

Monsters vs Aliens, coming between Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010), is DreamWorks Animation’s 11th 3D computer-animated film, and it shows. The formula—support a barrage of one-liners and throwaway references with imaginative design and a paper-thin plot—has been fine-tuned by this point, and its calculating cynicism and constant winks to the audience are now more mechanical than ever.

The plot has the necessary moral included, of course, taking Shrek‘s “Accept who you are” fortune-cookie wisdom and giving it a feminist twist. Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is all set to marry self-absorbed local weatherman Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd) when she is suddenly hit by a meteorite, causing her to grow to a height of 49 feet 11.5 inches. Captured by the military, she is then sent to a kind of “monster prison” where she meets fellow inmates B.O.B. (Seth Rogen, a parody of the Blob), Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, a parody of the Fly), the Missing Link (Will Arnett, a parody of the Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Insectosaurus (a parody of Godzilla). In charge of the facility is General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), a no-nonsense military man who is tough but fair.
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Blade Runner

15 01 2008

Blade Runner1982 was a good year for science fiction on film: on the one hand you had Steven Speilberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which was one of those inescapable blockbusters that was as much an event as a film; on the other hand we were given John Carpenter’s The Thing, which seemed to be the cinematic inverse of Spielberg’s offering. Transcending that dichotomy, however, was Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a futuristic film noir that is arguably the most important science fiction film of the 1980s — certainly, it was one of the most influential.

It is Los Angeles in 2019, and within the urban decay are four rogue “replicants” — sophisticated androids that are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a former blade runner — a detective charged with tracking down and “retiring” (i.e. killing) rogue replicants — and he’s brought back on the job to retire the current four who are still on the loose.

Blade Runner is an important film for a number of reasons. Firstly, it helped to define the “cyberpunk” subgenre: its world was a grimy, sprawling urban landscape fused with high-tech industry, and this became the paradigm upon which so much science fiction was later built. Secondly, its themes of humanity, creation and the nature of memory are dealt with seriously but never in a heavy-handed manner. And finally, it’s yet another case of a film that was relatively unsuccessful at the time of release but whose influence was so marked that it’s now regarded as a classic almost by default.
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Brazil

3 12 2007

BrazilQuite a few films have a behind-the-scenes history of power struggles and “creative differences”, but only a select few enter lore as being films that almost devoured their creators. Apocalypse Now is one such film; Brazil is another.

Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, who had previously directed Time Bandits and Jabberwocky, set about to create his own 1984. Gilliam’s vision was of a twisted, distorted version of the present, occupying a space and time given only as “Somewhere in the 20th Century”, but looking like a totalitarian future as envisaged from the perspective of post-war Britain. The oppression is palpable, led not by a menacing “Big Brother”-type but instead by a bureaucratic system determined to justify its own existence.

Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, a man content to live out his life working in the bowels of the bureaucracy, supplementing his day-to-day drudgery with Icarus-like fantasies where he flies through the clouds and rescues the woman of his dreams. When Sam actually encounters (quite literally) “the woman of his dreams” (played by Kim Greist), he soon discovers the impact that poorly-managed governmental systems can have on ordinary people.
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