The Orville or Star Trek: Discovery?

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Star Trek: Discovery vs the “New” space adventure series The Orville

So, which is it to be? Seth MacFarlane’s sci-fi parody, The Orville, or CBS All Access’s new flagship series, the latest iteration of the 50 year old franchise, Star Trek: Discovery?

Well, honestly, there’s no comparison. The clear winner here is Star Trek: Discovery which pulled well ahead with it’s third episode, taking the series in a completely unexpected direction and confounding critic’s predictions. It is traveling the inroads that have been made for televised science fiction by series like Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot and currently with The Expanse.

Star Trek is reinterpreting itself to fit in with the modern television landscape. It’s a series that has been designed with the binge-watching audience in mind. It also doesn’t feel the need to slow down and explain everything.

The Orville, on the other hands is firmly planted in the same territory that was mined by Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation decades ago. The stories are heavy handed and moralistic, but with a lighter than ice cream tone. It is meant to be a parody but it only seems to remember that occasionally when it tries to inject some lame joke in the middle of the drama. And the jokes are lame. Seriously.

The funniest moment of a recent episode was probably one of the subtlest bits of comedy the show has ever attempted. Bortus, an alien crew member, stops and stares at his partner who is eating Rocky Road ice cream and watching The Sound of Music because he is depressed and has chosen a human cure for depression. That one silent moment was the high point of humor for a series that has relied on crude jokes and cultural and racial stereotypes for much of its comedy.

Discovery, on the other hand, seems to have its feet firmly in the stirrups. Once the viewer realizes that the entire season is one whole story arc (and in this day and age of Netflix and other streaming services, that realization shouldn’t be difficult) then the first two episodes, what would, in iterations past be presented as the “pilot” episode, was, in fact, merely the cold open of a much larger story. To judge the series, as many have done, based on the first two would have been akin to giving up on one of the other series episodes based solely upon the pre-credit teaser.

The other aspect of The Orville that has been remarked on by others, most notably by Steve Barnes, author of Twelve Days, and co-author of Dream Park and The Legacy of Heorot, is it’s tendency to cast actors of color as aliens, while the human cast remains mostly white. Of the main cast only Penny Johnson (Cassidy Yates from Deep Space Nine) as the ship’s doctor is not portrayed in a culturally stereotypical way. I have commented elsewhere that The Orville is Star Trek for white viewers who are uncomfortable with too much cultural diversity.

Discovery, on the other hand, embraces diversity right out of the gate with the main character being Michael Burnham, a woman of color (played by Sonequa Martin Green) as first officer to Captain Georgiou, an Asian woman (played by Michelle Yeoh)

Though that relationship does not continue throughout the series, the diversity in cast members is laudable in comparison with the half-hearted attempt at it by The Orville.

The Orville has further added to its unoriginal provenance in its fourth episode which posits a generation ship that situation that mirrors Harlan Ellison’s The Starlost so closely that I wouldn’t be surprised if Harlan were to launch a lawsuit against Fox in the coming days. That episode more closely resembled The Starlost than James Cameron’s The Terminator resembled Ellison’s Outer Limits episode “Soldier”, but we all know how that turned out.

I’m not going to draw this out any longer. For my money, Star Trek: Discovery is the superior show. It is traveling down new roads and, I am confident, it will blaze some roads of its own before the current story arc has finished unspooling.

The Orville, meanwhile, seems destined to boldly go where much better shows have gone before.

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FANT4STIC

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It was on Netflix.

I’d heard that it was bad, but I thought; “How bad could it be?” So… I watched it.

Oh… wow… really… that bad…

The first part of the movie was going somewhere… not sure where that was. It didn’t seem like the Fantastic Four that I’m familiar with but it was going somewhere. Josh Trank clearly had something in mind. But then it felt like the producers said; “This is insane! We can’t make any money off this!” so they stopped the film and then brought someone else in to finish it.

Because suddenly everything is different. The tone, the dialogue, the delivery… even the performances change. From moody, monotone delivery suddenly they switch to breezy one liners and Reed urgently shouting out hurried plot explanations that make no sense whatsoever.

I don’t know who wrote and directed that last half hour, but honestly, kids playing in their backyards could have come up with a more exciting and plausible final battle.

Oh, God this movie sucked. I’m going to go watch the Roger Corman version on Youtube just to get the taste of this atrocity out of my mind.

Here, watch it with me!

 

A Matt Damon Double Bill? What Was I Thinking?

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I don’t know what possessed me to watch two Matt Damon films back to back, but that’s what I did.

I find Damon hard to take in large doses. Although I liked him fine in The Martian his appearance in Interstellar bordered on too much despite the fact that he had less screen time in that than in The Martian, so his level of “getting on my nerves” varies from film to film.

So I watched The Adjustment Bureau on Netflix. It was a film I’d never seen before and it was based on a story by Phillip K. Dick, who is one of my favorite writers and films based on his works usually appeal to me. This one did as well, despite it feeling like an episode of The Twilight Zone that went on for just too long. I liked Emily Blunt as well. I know she’s a big draw these days but I haven’t seen many of her films and in this one I found her to be engaging and watchable.

I had a very positive reaction to this film, despite finding the “magic hats” idea kind of silly. And maybe I’m not a romantic but it seems that a lot of Damon’s character’s actions were more than a little selfish. I guess I didn’t get the sense that the feelings Damon had for Blunt’s character were overwhelming. They said it, but I didn’t feel it. Nor did I get the sense that Damon’s character had a fantastic political destiny. He was liable enough, but he didn’t convey the commitment that he was supposed to have to public service. The characters say all the right catchphrases, but there is nothing backing them up.

Still, getting past that the film was likable enough and the story was interesting and it was fun watching them go through the doors and ending up someplace completely different then where they are expecting.

At it’s heart it is a chase movie. The philosophical and existential questions are secondary. It’s about lovers wanting to be together and running from those who would tear them apart. The questioning of reality and pondering the questions of destiny versus free will were thrown in but not really explored.

Is it worth a look? Sure. It’s on Netflix. Check it out.

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But then there is Elysium, also starring Matt Damon. This is an original story (and I use the word “original” very lightly) by Neil Blomkamp and starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.

This film is awful. There are some pretty special effects, sure, but the film is so monumentally stupid. So Elysium is a space station… a utopia in space… a giant ring space station where the rich and powerful hoard all the best air and medical technology while all the poor people live on the dirty, polluted and stinky surface of the Earth. You can tell they are poor because of the color of their skin and their Mexican accents.

Except for Matt Damon who seems to be the only poor white person. Naturally he is going to be the one to save everyone. Except it seems that wherever he goes, violence happens, which is not only bad for him but for anyone around him as well, which is inconvenient because he’s just re connected with his childhood girlfriend and her daughter who has leukemia. (Oh, I can see where this is going)

As for Elysium itself it is run by a council but the Minister of Security, played by Jodie Foster, is a hard assed bitch who will not hesitate to shoot down ships loaded with dirty poor people who are trying to get access to the medical beds. The president makes noises about going to far, but Foster doesn’t care. She’s Anne Coulter on steroids, baby, an Armani suited villain who can’t decide if her accent in English, French or American, but that hardly matters once she starts raving about how she’s preserving the natural order of things and dripping equal amounts of contempt for the poor people of earth and also for the spoiled, rich but soft denizens of Elysium.

Okay, I could go on, but this movie is terrible. There are some pretty effects and the actual Elysium space station is breathtaking, although the lack of a ceiling is problematic. The atmosphere is just open to space. How it doesn’t bleed off into the vacuum is beyond me and is never explained.

This movie. is mostly stupid. Actually, no, it’s all stupid.

It’s on Netlfix, yeah, but… don’t. Just… don’t.

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn

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Hey, I’m back with another Netflix movie review!

I don’t play video games. I’m not a gamer. So what I know about HALO can be summed up as such:

It’s a video game. It features a character called Master Chief.

That’s it. That’s all I know.

So, here I am watching a movie called Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn and it begins with a bunch of cadets getting their hair sheared off (somewhat reminiscent of the opening scene of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, one of my favorite films of all time) and then these cadets start talking to someone off camera like it’s  some sort of documentary,

Okay. I think I know what this is.

Then it switches to an older guy (whom I recognize as Canadian Actor Ty Olsson, who played Lt. Aaron Kelly on Battlestar Galactica) who is listening to a distress call from a ship. The ship has 1 survivor in cryo-suspension, some alien thing is trying to take over and this cgi fairy thing materializes and…

Okay, the film’s lost me. I don’t know what’s going on.

Then suddenly we’re back with the cadets and the story picks up with cadet Thomas Lasky who really doesn’t know if he wants to go to war or not. Seems his older brother was a good soldier but he died on a mission and he’s real bummed about it and he never sees his mother anymore because she’s too important.

So Lasky and his fellow cadets are in training and their squad has the lowest score because Lasky can’t stop being an arrogant prick long enough to follow orders. Plus he’s suffering from some blisters and burns and other health problems which his earnest doctor can’t seem to figure out. Lasky soldiers on, though, which is ironic considering he doesn’t seem to want to be a soldier.

If this hadn’t had HALO in the title I would have given up on this film. The young cadets were good actors and the film looked fairly impressive. I liked the cadet uniforms. I liked the way they used Simon Fraser University as a backdrop (If you saw the original Battlestar Galactica pilot you’d probably recognize it). But I didn’t like any of the characters.

So there’s this subplot about one of the characters trying to un-encrypt a top secret video of a combat mission that hints that there is “something else” out there that the soldiers are fighting. Just as soon as they discover that fact the training school is suddenly under attack.

Now the movie gets exciting with these giant aliens attacking the school and real soldiers dropping in to defend them. So now it’s a horror movie where the cadets squad is trapped in the school without any weapons trying to hide from the scary monsters who can become invisible. Okay. Now I know what kind of movie this is.

But wait! Just before an alien kills one of the cadets who shows up but Master Chief! Master Chief will save the day!

Now it’s a chase movie where Master Chief and five… oh, wait, make that four… scared cadets have to run the gauntlet of scary aliens to make it to the rendezvous point.

Whoops! Make that three cadets.

Okay. This movie is a mess. It’s boring and confusing in turns. Maybe if you play the game, or know more about the HALO universe this film would make sense. Apparently it was originally a web series. Maybe seeing it in episodes would have made more sense, but as a whole movie like this… well, it`s no Full Metal Jacket, let me tell you. It`s no Starship Troopers, either

If you are a fan of HALO this might be a good film. If you are a fan of military SF, this film is a bit of a mess.

I can`t recommend it, but if you are curious, it`s currently playing on Netflix.

Dredd (2012)

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To be perfectly honest, I was never a huge fan of Judge Dredd.

I loved 2000 AD. The British anthology comic was one of my favorites growing up and I could never get enough of them particularly living in Canada and having to rely on relatives or importers with a high markup to obtain copies.

My favorite strips were Strontium Dog and Ro-Busters initially, and later of The Ballad of Halo Jones, but I never really warmed to Judge Dredd, the violent hero of the comic strip created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra. I read it, of course, but it was never really a favorite.

So when Judge Dredd was made into a movie starring Sylvester Stallone, I thought; “Well, that’s it. Judge Dredd will never get another screen treatment after this!”

Turns out I was wrong.

Dredd adapts the comic series in a far more gritty and street level way then the previous film. One thing about the character from the comic books is that he never shows his face. He is always hidden behind his helmet. That wouldn’t do for Stallone, but Karl Urban gamely steps up and does the whole movie without showing the top half of his face. In that regard he captures the character far better.

This adaptation is raw and gritty and, in some ways, hardly looks like a science fiction picture at all. Sure, the film explains that this is Mega City One, the only sity to survive the irradiated wasteland of the Cursed Earth, but it feels just like today’s inner cities. That kind of disappointed me at first. In some ways I was missing the futuristic city scape from the previous film. It seemed to have more of a kinship with the original Robocop movie than the comic book that I remembered.

Once the action gets going, however, and the fight turns to the struggle between Judge Dredd and Judge Anderson against the gangs in a locked-down building, I was finally able to get into the picture.

I enjoyed it more or less. It had the requisite shoot-em-up scenes, explosions and slow motion visions of bullets tearing their way through human flesh, but it also had a small shred of humanity in the character of Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a telepath as in the comics, but here a rookie under the tutelage of the senior Dredd.

It was an interesting redemption for a character who has had an unfortunate cinematic history, and I could see how this could easily become a Netlix series (a possibility that many on the internet are talking up), It felt like a pilot episode. But then it also felt like a music video.

In the end I’m not sure what Dredd actually was, but it certainly wasn’t pretty, or over-glitzed with CGI. It felt small and a little claustrophobic and maybe that’s just one Judge Dredd storyline, but it certainly wasn’t the best.

It was a better treatment of the character to be sure but as a film, I can’t give it much more than that it was watchable… as long as one is not squeamish.

It’s on Netflix now.

After Earth (2013)

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After Earth is a film that got severely and unfairly panned when it was released. Its box office performance was dismal and that was a shame because the movie is a real gem. Fortunately it’s on Netflix and I would encourage you to give it another go if you passed on it in theaters. This film is head and shoulders above the other post-apocalyptic film released that year, Tom Cruise’s messy Oblivion.

Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith take the two leads in this picture and although Will Smith is the heavier screen presence, the film’s star is definitely Jaden.

In the near future, an environmental cataclysm forces the human race to abandon Earth and settle on a new world, Nova Prime.

One thousand years later, The Ranger Corps, commanded by General Cypher Raige (Will Smith), comes into conflict with the an alien race called the S’krell, whose secret weapons are the Ursas, large predatory creatures that hunt by “sensing” fear. The Rangers, however, have developed a technique called “ghosting” wherein they can mask their fear and remain invisible to the Ursas.

Cypher’s son, Kitai (Jaden Smith) is training to become a Ranger, but his application is rejected because of his lack of proficiency in the field. The general is disappointed and there is the expected father-son anger. Before he retires the general is going on one last trip and his wife Faie convinces him to take Kitai along, presumably in the hopes that it will help heal the rift between them.

There is a lot to work out, however. In flashbacks we learn that Kitai blames himself for the death of his sister Senshi (Zoë Kravitz) at the hands of an Ursa. He also blames his father for not being there to rescue them both. Cypher is stoic and undemonstrative, qualities that make him an excellent general but not an effective father.

During flight, their spaceship is caught by an asteroid shower forcing them to crash-land on the now-quarantined Earth. Both of Cypher’s legs are broken, and the main emergency rescue beacon damaged. Cypher instructs Kitai to locate the tail section of the ship, which broke off on entry to the atmosphere. Inside is the backup beacon which they can use to signal Nova Prime.

This is where the film really begins and where Jaden really shines. Unfortunately the character that he plays has obvious problems. He is willful, does not listen  and is prone to panic. It is these characteristics that his character has to overcome in order to succeed and to stay alive.

Despite the story being somewhat predictable, the film still manages to launch some surprises at the viewer and even a few genuine scares. The scenery is lush and beautiful and the cgi effects are subtle and understated for the most part. Will Smith spends most of the rest of the film laid up and only able to offer advice but his presence mitigates Kitai’s adolescent behavior until the communication is severed and Kitai is forced to manage on his own which, when he finally does, provides a satisfying payoff.

The film is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, but has none of that filmmaker’s usual plot twists and turns. Shyamalan brings a stately and an understated approach to the action and the alien creatures. He does yeoman work as a director-for-hire in bringing Will Smith’s movie to life.

The only issues I have with this film is its predictability. As soon as Kitai is told that he will not be graduating and joining the Ranger Corps and the reason why, then you know that the character will have to overcome that very flaw in order to survive. As soon as you see that the ship on which they are traveling contains a giant Ursa egg… well, as Anton Chekhov said: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Here the Ursa egg is shown prominently in act one, so it’s no surprise when a fully grown Ursa threatens Kitai by Act Three.

I also really did not buy the role of the giant eagle. It was more a mythical Roc than a natural eagle and its implied self-sacrifice to save Kitai was patently ridiculous. Also… lions climbing trees to raid nests? I know this is a future Earth, but… come on!

Still, aside from those there was a lot to like. I loved the look of the film. I loved the interesting look of the technology and how the film doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with heavy explanations about what it is and how it works. There is very much a “show, don’t tell” attitude about it and that I very much liked.

I also loved Will Smith’s understated performance as General Raige. It was the perfect counterpoint to Jaden’s hyperventilating turn as Kitai.

It’s a real shame that this film did not do very well at all in theaters because there is a lot here. I hate to say this but I really do believe, despite Will Smith’s box office power, that this film would probably have done better at the box office if the cast were white. The only film with a majority black cast that does big business in movie theaters are ones where they play slaves or servants.

In a science fiction film… and in charge of humanity? America don’t buy that, apparently.

But you should watch After Earth. It’s on Netflix. Check it out.

Oblivion (2013)

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You know, there is a really interesting science fiction story somewhere in this film. Unfortunately it’s buried underneath the weight of Tom Cruise.

Oblivion was written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, based on an unpublished graphic novel which he co-wrote with Arvid Nelson. Kosinski pitched the idea to Universal and they bought it which led to it being developed as a motion picture. According to Kosinski the film pays homage to the science fiction films of the 1970’s.

Well, he’s got that part right. Oblivion travels some very familiar territory. Visually the film borrows heavily from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the original Solaris and some of the Planet of the Apes films. Visually there is more than a few nods to the future as envisioned by the 1970`s.

Oblivion takes place in 2077. The Earth has been devastated by war with an extraterrestrial invader, the Scavengers (referred to as scavs)  Humanity is relocating Titan via the Tet, a large tetrahedron-shaped space station. Gigantic offshore fusion energy generators drain the oceans to produce power for the colonists on Titan.

Jack Harper (Cruise) is Tech / 49. He and his teammate and lover Victoria “Vika” Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) are among the few humans left on Earth. Instructed by mission controller Sally and assisted by drones, they protect the generators from attack by any remaining Scavs. Despite having had a memory wipe, Jack experiences visions of being on the observation deck of the Empire State Building with an unknown woman before the war.

All this is backstory and is given to us via Tom Cruise`s voice over narration, which feels kind of forced and awkward. Jack and Vika live in an ultra-modern sky apartment that looks like it was designed by a tech firm rather than an actual production designer. Cruise wears a funky leather suit and flies a sleek looking airplane. Vika stays behind wearing a dress and shiny pumps operating a super-slick monitoring station.

Cruise flies down to the surface of the ruined wasteland that was the earth. Only the tops of the very tallest buildings can be seen poking above the sand. Despite that Cruise finds the ruined remains of an old football stadium and single handedly re-enacts the last Superbowl ever played before the war (how he can remember that with his memory having been wiped is never fully explained). He also has a place where he hangs out, an idyllic cabin that he has built for himself in a little wooden area hidden in a valley and conveniently located in a radio blind spot so that Vika can`t find him. Here he has his aviator sunglasses from Top Gun and his New York Yankees cap and he unwinds and lies in the grass and enjoys the sunshine of old Earth.

He also rides a motorcycle, which should come as no surprise. I think Tom Cruise’s standard contract comes with a “must ride a motorcycle in the movie” clause. Sure, it’s a super sleek futuristic motorcycle, but it still makes the requisite “vroom vroom!” noise.

So Tom’s idyllic existence is interrupted by the arrival of a pre-invasion earth ship which crash lands nearby. When Tom goes to investigate he finds several cryo-pods containing humans in suspended animation. What are the odds that one of them is the unknown woman from his dreams of the Empire State Building.?

A drone destroys all the pods except for the one containing Julia Rusakova (Olga Kurylenko). Tom saves her from being destroyed, of course, because she is his dream girl. But her presence causes Tom to start questioning everything he’s been told.

Well, from there the film plods along in a rather predictable way. If you’ve seen a lot of science fiction films from the 1970’s (and, believe me, I have) then the plot’s twists and turns will not come as any surprise.

In fact, little about this film surprised me, right down to the dialogue which I found myself quoting before the actors had even spoken the lines.

Like I said, there is a good story underneath all the flashy designs and Cruise’s overbearing performance. Not even Morgan Freeman is able to elevate it all above mediocre, though. The way that the filmmakers get to the meat of the story feels awkward, like they had to incorporate so many disparate elements to meet the requirements of the film’s star that by the time you get there you wonder why it took so long.

The other big problem is casting. Cruise is the star and he needs a heavyweight antagonist. That’s Freeman. But is he an antagonist? Or is he really on Cruise’s side? See, you need a talented heavyweight actor to pull that subtlety off, right? Then there’s Nicolaj Coster-Waldau who is cast as the standard “angry” antagonist, the kind who wonders aloud why-are-we-keeping-him-alive-why-don’t-we-just-kill-him?

The problem with this film lies with its female leads. They feel rather miscast. The female characters have very little to do to begin with, but it seems like the director has purposely cast smaller, frailer, very non-kick-ass actresses into the roles. The one character who could have been a real threat to Cruise if she had been beefed up a little, is portrayed as simpering and unsure and more of an annoyance than an obstruction.

You know, if you’ve got a few hours to kill (and you’ll need more than two. This is a needlessly long movie) and you don’t have to pay for it, then you could watch this film. But if you have to go to any sort of trouble… don’t bother.

This film isn’t worth the effort.