Movie Review: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve is one of my favorite contemporary directors. He has a talent for suspense and visuals that rivals David Fincher. Prisoners and Sicario are as haunting as they are beautiful with a physical darkness underlining the thematic dread. Based on the hype surrounding Arrival, I imagine he is set to wow me again. Hopefully it will make up for whatever Blade Runner 2049 may turn out to be. Was Villeneuve successful or did I watch Sicario again to get the bad taste out of my mouth?

After a dozen alien ships appear at different points of the globe Louise, played by Amy Adams, is hired by the US Military to translate the alien’s language. While hard at work, the rest of the world’s nations begin to falter from what they learn in their own research.

Arrival is very similar to Girl on the Train in how it uses suspense and that anything I say will be a spoiler. Rather than lie to the audience, the film tells you everything from the start, then gradually reveals itself. It is like watching Mr. Robot twice or playing the game Neir multiple times. You will not notice most of the details or understand what is happening at first. I only saw one at the beginning, but I had no idea what it meant until after the twist. You are never told what is going on, just what is happening in the moment.

In terms of science fiction, this is the genuine article. Arrival is an invasion movie about communication. Instead of studying what first contact would be like on a global scale, the story examines how we would approach visitors whose language is utterly unknown to us and vice versa. As a linguist, Louise has to not only figure out what the aliens are saying, but interpret what she is saying to ask them complex questions. The moments where she is working as the world falls apart make for some nice points of tension.

Despite the genre, Villeneuve brings his signature style. There is the heavy use of darkness punctuated by bright light with long cuts. This time, there is an emphasis on wide shots and landscapes to capture the large scope. Both Prisoners and Sicario were tight because the stories were personal. In Arrival, scenes that are outdoors are open and beautiful in their bleakness while interiors are detailed. This does not take away from the inherent suspense, but adds to it. The stakes are far reaching and the openness of the cinematography compounds that fact.

To be honest, there is not much wrong with the film. Apart from shoddy CG effects that are barely present early on, Arrival is pretty well put together with nary an issue of plot or overt technical problems. The performances were also serviceable with Adams proving she can act after sleep walking through BvS like Natalie Portman in… everything. And it does true science fiction better than its contemporaries.

I understand a lot of people in America are anxious after the election and Arrival is just what they need. It has a message that will lift your spirits if you are dissatisfied with the result. However, I recommend waiting until the 12th because tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, and that time should be spent remembering those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our great nation.

Movie Review: Morgan

This week I was faced with a choice between Morgan (a week after it came out) and Sully. One is from the son of Ridley Scott and the other is directed by the original badass Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks, a national treasure. Both are associated with film legends that alone warrant your attention and they actually look pretty good. I try my best to budget my spending, especially at this current juncture in my life. My policy is to see one movie a week and save whatever else I need to see for another time. However, with two potentially good films from people who have excelled in the past, I find it difficult to pick one and postpone the other. Was Morgan the right choice or do I owe Clint Eastwood an apology?

After an incident involving a synthetic human named Morgan, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the company who made her sends an agent, played by Kate Mara, to assess her financial value at an isolated compound. Not long after arriving does all hell break loose.

Gene Siskle, the better half of Roger Ebert (yeah, I said it), put it best when he said, “Watching girls getting stuck is entertainment,” in his review of Friday the 13th Part 4. Slashers are popular because we can watch fictional people die in creative ways without feeling bad. Could you watch an ISIL mass execution video and laugh? If you are crazy of course, but the rest of us cannot. That is why when Kevin Bacon gets an arrow in the throat it is exciting and you can take comfort in the fact that one actually died.

Morgan is Ex Machina if it was a slasher. The movie has similar themes that serve as fluff happening the background. The characters embody horror film archetypes and are also dumb as nails. I was reminded of Lazarus Effect where scientists unintentionally created a Tetsuo monster and instead of talking to it, they tried to kill it, and died in the process. In Morgan, some idiots grew a Replicant with emotional problems that were totally their fault. In flashbacks we see Morgan as a normal person that loves her friends, even though they treat her like a science experiment. She was fine and these people were somehow surprised when she started murdering them?

Stupid characters are an easy way to encourage the desire to see them die and I could not wait to watch these idiots eat it. At the same time, the movie and Taylor-Joy do a great job of making you sympathize with Morgan. She is literally a prisoner with no control over her fate. Outdoors she’s full of life and curious about nature. Inside she is a wounded animal that you want to let out. She is a sad character and you feel bad for her. By the time she goes full Jason, it is exciting because she is finally getting what she wants.

On that note, Taylor-Joy carries the entire film. Coming off of The Witch she excels in part to her giant Rami Malek eyes. She steals entire scenes because her sadness, anger, and happiness are so believable. In one scene Paul Giamatti’s Dr. Shapiro is interviewing her and the shifts in emotion gradually and subtly rise and fall to a gory breaking point. It was such an intense moment that would not have made the movie without the performances. In fact, Morgan should have been just Taylor-Joy and Giamatti talking.

The film obviously does not want to be a slasher, but it does not do much with the science fiction. The ideas brought up about artificial intelligence were done better in Ex Machina. There’s an interesting dynamic where Morgan was originally designed to be an assassin, but the scientists were training her to develop normal emotions naturally. When she is in distress, she regresses to assassin mode and lashes out. Instead of exploring this idea of a repressed killer instinct, it is a plot device to explain her efficiency at murder. She also has mental powers that are not explained nor make sense.

As a science fiction movie Morgan falls short. The themes and ideas are not given that much attention to the point I would rather watch Ex Machina. However, that is not to say it has no value as a slasher. If you want to see dumbass scientists punished for their incompetence, this is a great candidate. In terms of general horror, it does a better job than most. On those merits I recommend it.

Movie Review: Independence Day: Resurgence

I was four when I saw Independence Day (ID). I remember watching it over and over because I love alien invasions and destruction when done right. Now I am 24 and I see ID as passable schlock with a patriotic spin. The notion that the world follows America’s lead to fight off aliens is charming and the practical effects are a joy. The idealism is off-putting, but I understand what the film was trying to do. How does Independence Day: Resurgence (IDR) carry on where ID left off?

On the 20-year anniversary of the War of ’96, Earth is invaded again by a more menacing alien threat. Using technology adapted from the aliens, the world fights back.

I understand that my politics tend to interfere with my criticism. Sometimes it just comes out and many people do not agree with what I have to say. However, my disdain for globalism and some liberal ideals does not change that IDR is just terrible. Jane Got a Gun was so awful I do not know how it was real, but at least it was watchable in comparison.

From the start I knew there was a problem based on how fast the movie went. It moves so quickly from one scene to another that you do not have time to absorb what it happening. Because of that you are beaten over the head with repeat exposition and visual indicators to remind you of things you were already told in a prior scene. The editing is worse because there is a cut every three seconds. Even when there is no action and the scene is calm, there are a billion cuts.

The lighting fast pace is such that you do not have time to like the giant cast of characters. Furthermore, they are written so simply to the point they are one-dimensional. The returning actors at least have the previous film to establish character, but all the new people are useless. I could not care less about their various plights. I do not give a shit about Chris Hemsworth being an orphan, Will Smith’s kid watching his mother die, and the Chinese girl losing her uncle. The only character I paid attention to was Maika Monroe’s Patricia, but only because she is a great actress.

While the last movie was not perfect, I still cared about the president losing his wife, Will Smith having ambitions, and Jeff Goldblum trying to save the planet. You had time to learn about these people and grow to like them. On top of that, ID was not cluttered with a dozen other characters that did nothing. It took time with a small ensemble to develop personality and make you understand those involved. I did not care about the characters in IDR because I did not have time to care and they were so sparsely written they were not worth the trouble.

Then there is the most Roland Emmerich thing ever: The pissants. These are “characters” that hang around with the cast to provide unfunny comedy. Most of Emmerich’s and Michael Bay’s movies have them because it is great to show contempt for your audience. IDR has a nerdy government clerk, a crew of sailors that did not have to exist, Goldblum’s father, and Hemsworth’s in-the-closet co-pilot. These “people” have maybe fifteen minutes of total screen that could have been excised from the film. Because Emmerich is too lazy to write better characters he relies on pissants to compensate.

The story could not be dumber. The inciting incident is a new alien ship, not like the previous invaders, showing up out of a wormhole. Instead of listening to Goldblum, who saved the world, the UN shoots it down. They did not try to communicate with the ship or wait even a minute to consider their options. Turns out, it was a good ship sent by a coalition of refugee aliens that have been fighting the invader aliens for years. The movie would have ended, but in better hands, the story could have gone in a better direction.

After the even bigger invader ship lands over the Atlantic, the first move by the military is to attack it with everyone at once from Area 51. It is no surprise they all die and apparently that was the extent of the UN’s air force. The strategy was poor to begin with, but why did the member countries not provide their forces to help the effort? Did the nations of the world feel so safe that they were fine with having one planetary defense force based in one country? Were they not allowed to have their own army because the UN could not trust its members with the advanced weapons and flight technology? I guess that is what happens when you set up a centralized global political bloc, idiots.

Aesthetically the human/alien technology and weapons look gaudy. For some reason the engines that allow for 3-dimensional movement are placed on the outside of the jets and not integrated into the body. The jets look fine except for these weird alien circle things that stick out on their bellies. The alien ships from the first movie did not even have visible engines or exhaust on the outside. Then the human/alien rifles are too big for humans and have this triangle motif that does not work. The aliens’ guns make sense because they are tall creatures, but all we did was add a carry handle with a rail system.

The only good thing I have to say is the performances were okay. The returning cast was great save for Vivica A. Fox who always sucks. It was nice to see Bill Pullman, Willian Fichtner, and Goldblum again. Hemsworth, to my surprise, was passable and actually made an attempt to act. Everyone else sucked.

Independence Day: Resurgence is not worth your time and money. The sparse few good things are overshadowed by the sum of its parts. I wanted it to end 15 minutes in and I wanted to leave. What ever you decide to do this weekend, stay home and watch the first Independence Day. Better yet, go see Neon Demon or Civil War. That is what I should have done.

Movie Review: High-Rise

This week I had the opportunity to participate in the 25th Annual Florida Film Festival. If you do not already know I am very picky about what I see, avoiding romance, dramas, some comedies, remakes, and reboots. None of the available selection at the Festival grabbed my attention and I was very cautious lest I pick a movie I end up regretting. High-Rise (HR) was one I really wanted to see since it was in post-production. In doing research on J.G. Ballard’s book of the same name I was captivated and the trailers made it all the more appealing. With the US release date in flux, the Festival was my only option. Was HR worth admission or should I have seen Jungle Book instead?

To move on from a death in the family Laing, played by Tom Hiddleston, purchased an apartment at a new high-rise, populated by all manner of people. Soon, the residents find themselves unable to abandon the many conveyances and their shared environment begins to change from the inside out.

HR is a satirical examination of the world in the context of an apartment building. It reminds me a lot of Bioshock where the city of Rapture was an objectivist paradise that could not sustain itself in the long term. The titular high-rise is an isolated culture with a fully stocked supermarket, gym, pool, and spa. The residents come to depend on it so much they forget their lives outside. With nothing to break up the monotony within the tower, conflicts, hostilities, and drama become life itself.

As a form of competition the residents throw extravagant parties, using up the available food, alcohol, and electricity. It is not long before resources become scarce and the once homogenous building begins to take sides. The high-rise becomes a microcosm of society with the floors representing classes; the rich live on the upper levels, middle at the center, and the lower close to the ground. There is even a monarch or god figure in the form of Jeremy Iron’s character Royal. Each section struggles for resources to the point of violence and a rapid breakdown of civility.

The risk of pretention was strong. HR could have taken the route of Hunger Games or Elysium by holding a critical eye to class warfare, but it is more transcendent. The conflict is a result of the story’s look at the effects of modern life on human nature. Money, electricity, and convenience have become the essentials of our everyday lives, the concept of subsistence replaced by consumerism. HR looks at what happens when we go too far relying on convenience.  Once it is gone we devolve into a state reminiscent of cavemen in our struggle to survive. The film also acknowledges the diversity of personality and that the resurgence of a class system in a homogenous environment is the result of who we are as people.  Wilder is an agitator because he does not like being poor and is furiously jealous of the upper floors.  Those above are arrogant and pompous because they achieved success and forgot what it means to struggle in the lower class.

While HR is very good overall, the issues cannot be ignored. Director Ben Wheatley is known for his surreal visuals. Kill List was the only one of his I saw and I was taken aback by the unconventional approach to suspense. At the same time, I could also tell what was happening. With HR, the eccentricity hurt the storytelling; there were a lot of moving parts that sometimes failed to work with one another. Little snippets of irrelevant scenes would pop in during other scene for seemingly no reason, interrupting the flow. Why it was included I could not figure out as the scene continued.

HR is also a thick beast of a movie that shows you everything and tells you nothing in the form of montages. It relies so heavily on visuals (you know, like a movie) that you may have to watch it a second time to fully digest what was going on. At times I could not divine why anything was happening because perhaps I missed it in a conversation between characters or another montage. My knowledge of the book helped me along, but for the average moviegoer, this is a problem.

The entire cast was fantastic. Hiddleston carried the whole thing and he was even better when on screen with Irons. Luke Evans really shined as Wilder, a man so obsessed with being happy and supporting his family he was unaware of the irony in his conflict against the upper floors. Elizabeth Moss and Sienna Miller did well in their supporting roles, while James Purefoy and huge chuck of the minor cast kept up the pace.

High-Rise is a unique satire that takes the genre and applies a beautiful artistic aesthetic. It is the kind of movie that will make you think as you ogle at the dreamlike visuals and provocative writing, punctuated by a retro synth soundtrack. Though understanding what it is trying to say takes time, High-Rise is worth the trouble. If it gets a wider release, do not hesitate to buy a ticket.

Movie Review: The 5th Wave

Before I begin, I feel it necessary to express my feelings on the Oscars “controversy.” Normally I do not get involved with issues that are meaningless to the point thinking about them taxes on one’s intellect, but I have been so annoyed by the fallout I cannot ignore it. To put it simply, Alejandro Inarritu (The Revenant) is Mexican, Hiromasa Yonebayashi (When Marnie Was There) is Japanese, and three of the five nominations for Best Foreign Language Film are from non-white countries. If people stopped worrying about how someone looks or what genitals they have, then maybe we could see the reality of the situation and judge people as people. Did you ever consider that the reason why no colored actors were nominated is because no one was good enough? If you are so desperate to have diversity in an awards show that will mean nothing the second it is over, I recommend researching all of nominees to satisfy your racist beliefs before making judgments. You have a brain for reason, idiots.

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We have been here before, young adult (YA) genre. Female protagonist. Love triangle. Familial devotion. Psychological trauma. Dystopia. Obvious antagonists. Allegories. And stupid names for things. It was not long ago you showed promise and after so many years of annual releases, the banality of your existence is impossible to ignore. Since Hunger Games wrapped up I expect an endless precession of YA adaptations to fill the gap. Maze Runner is a broken wreck and Divergent is boring, yet their completion feels obligatory. If only you could die so I do not have to repeat myself.

I have said on more than one occasion (I think) that all movies are same story repeated ad nauseam, but the way they are made is what sets them apart. Django Unchained and Conan are about slaves getting revenge, but it is the genre, and setting that makes them different. Of course, not all YA are created equal with a good helping of romance, fantasy, and dramas, but the most common form is the one I described above. Because Hunger Games was so successful, every new movie since will follow that formula. Is 5th Wave another failed clone or should Katniss Everdeen make way for what’s-her-face?

Following the arrival of a large spaceship, a series of disasters gradually kill off humanity as the aliens begin to take over. After her little brother Sam, played by Zachary Arthur, is drafted into a resistance force and her father killed, Cassie, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, goes on a journey across the devastated landscape infested with alien drones to save him.

This movie is bad. It is every YA title ever butchered in all the ways you can possibly screw up a film. Its genesis, I feel, is one of cynicism. Desperate to save face after losing Spider-Man, Sony decided to capitalize off the success of the YA genre. So, they took a modestly successful book kids have probably read and adapted it with little to no effort. I assume they thought they could recoup costs on brand recognition and genre without considering the quality of their work and what it will mean for the poor saps involved.

Problems started within the first 20 minutes and it only got worse.

The biggest issue is the character of Cassie. We know next to nothing about her and we do not learn anything else as the story progresses. She cares about her brother and has an existential crisis when confronted with the prospect of killing people, but it is never said why she cares so much. It could be the familial devotion trope, but often times in fiction there is a concrete reason behind it. Did something happen to Sam in the past that would make Cassie extra protective or was he adopted and she is just trying to a cool sister? I would not know because this movie did not make it clear enough. At least in Twilight we understood from the outset that Bella Swan was a dick-hungry sociopath.

The real bad guy, however, is made blatantly obvious yet played off like a twist come the climax. Spoilers, it is the military under alien control that took the kids after they massacred their parents in a barn. I would have been shocked if I was not rolling my eyes and groaning. Another give-away was the soldiers’ nonchalant exit from said barn like they did not commit a war crime two seconds ago. Their plan is to use an army of children to wipe out the remaining humans in complete their takeover. I understand this is an allegory for adults using kids to fight their wars because we are totally living in the late ‘60s, but how they do it defeats the whole purpose.

The age of recruits range from about nine to the late teens, which are then organized into squads. Basically, you have toddlers running around in combat gear with weapons that are bigger than them. I get they are being used as cannon fodder to finish a job the aliens could have done themselves, but when it comes to organizing a basic military outfit designed for attrition, they are about as competent as General Westmoreland. Shaka Zulu in the 1800s made use of all age groups in his army, but they were organized according to age in a way that gave them a tactical advantage. Obviously the very young would stay behind to guard the camp while the teens and elders did the fighting. Here, the aliens just threw everyone together expecting it work, and ended up foiling their own plan when the kids were slaughtered. Even Hitler would say they are trying too hard.

In addition to being a poorly thought out narrative that needed to be gutted and put back together, 5th Wave is not especially well made. Some areas that stuck out were insert shots of alien drones flying around that were obviously shoved in post-production. Between cuts there will be a single shot of the drone passing from one end of the frame to another. I guess they were trying to make up for the fact there are virtually no visual indicators of the aliens’ presence. One shot that made me gasp was one of a controlled human walking down a hill with a rifle. About 10 minutes later, after a chunk of time has passed in the story, the same human with rifle walking down a hill is repeated at what looked like a flopped angle; the same shot with the frame flipped over. It was jarring and an elementary mistake an editor should know to avoid. And for a movie so inexpensive and flawed in form, I cannot fathom why anyone in the production thought using CGI was a good idea. Wow, is all I can say.

All of these problems culminate in an experience that makes 5th Wave utter trite, until you take into account the intent. This was an attempt to capitalize off the success of the YA genre and it fails spectacularly. The way it fails in the story, effects, and general design makes for some funny moments. Between rolling my eyes and contemplating getting a refund, I was laughing at the awkward dialog and botched tropes that make YA boring to watch. In retrospect, 5th Wave is not a bad movie, but a good bad movie.

Like its many problems it started at the beginning where Cassie was recounting the waves that came before. While her dull voiceover plays, we see a plane casually fall out of the sky as she looks on with about as much emotion as Liam Hemsworth. Then it smash-cuts to these scenes of poorly animated tsunamis demolishing cities, and back to Cassie walking through her neighborhood after a flood. The next cut shows the affects of a virus with body bags lined up in a stadium and then a grave where her mom is buried. The emotion bares it all and you do not know what to do because you are being jerked around every other cut.

The best came later when she meets the hot dude archetype named Evan, played by Alex Roe, who is obviously an alien. Thus began the movie’s awkward attempt at a Twilight style romance. They look longingly into each other’s eyes, get into suggestive situations when he shows her how to disarm someone, and have pent-up sexual tension that pays off in most telegraphed way possible. Later she sees him taking a bath and makes a face that says “Oh, I need to have him in me.” It got even better when Evan had to explain why he is a good alien. “I always thought love was an instinct, until I met you… I can human or alien, but I’ll a human to be with you, girl.” I am clearly paraphrasing, but Jesus Christ this material is solid gold. You just have to see it.

The performances were nothing special and nobody really had fun with their roles like Michael Sheen from Twilight. They either took it seriously like Peter Facinelli, tried their hardest like Ashley Greene, or did not give a shit like Robert Pattinson. The only standout for me was Maika Monroe from It Follows, who played this emo survivalist named Ringer. She wore eye shadow in every single scene like it was tattooed to her face while she threatened to murder most of her costars. It is as if her character did not want to be in the movie, but Monroe played it so well I could not tell if she was just being herself.

5th Wave is terrible is every way a movie can be, let alone one of the young adult genre. But on the basis of irony is a great watch if you are interested in the spectacle of failure. It is the new Twilight and the first good bad movie of 2016. If there are sequels just as terrible, I cannot wait. It belongs up there with Space Mutiny and if you want a similar experience, I recommend it for a matinee with friends for good old riff.

Movie Review: The Martian

I apologize for being late on posting. It is purely the fault of my own. Please excuse my tardiness. Also, I will not be seeing The Walk because director Robert Zemeckis is creatively washed up (insert Cast Away reference here). Side note, I was actually in the Twin Towers a year before 9/11. The Statue of Liberty was tiny from up there. The One World Trade Center, however, looks like a modern art dildo.

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Since I could remember I have been interested in all things space. It is not totally on my mind every waking hour, but when I think about it I am confounded by how awesome it is. The possibility of exploring a planet other than our own or travelling vast distances to discover what lies beyond is what keeps my attention to the stars. When it comes to the celestial bodies in our system, I think the Moon is underrated, but Mars will always hold a special place in my heart. It is a cool place I would like to visit and the Science Fiction genre thinks much the same.

Movies about Mars have steadily fallen by the way side. Mission to Mars and Red Planet were my favorites back in the day, but upon revisiting them I found they do not hold up. Next came John Carter, which is still great despite everyone saying otherwise because they do not know how to have fun. Three years later we have The Martian, based on a book I have not read. Did it do my favorite planet justice or should I have read the book?

I was elated to find my favorite director, Ridley Scott, was at the helm. If anyone can do sci-fi right, it is the man who changed it forever with Blade Runner, one of my favorite movies. It came out in 1982 and Scott did not return to the genre until 30 years later with Prometheus, but because people are stupid nobody liked it. On top of that, his brother Tony committed suicide, which could have contributed to the creation of Exodus, a movie I was a little too kind to. It was not good and not terrible, but it did not feel like Scott at all. With Martian, however, I can safely say he has made his triumphant return.

While on an expedition to explore a region of Mars, Watney, played by Matt Damon, becomes stranded in a storm as his team flees to safety. Alone on the Red Planet, Watney must try to survive while NASA devises a way to deliver more supplies or mount a rescue mission.

The theme of Martian is global cooperation. Despite wars and petty disputes, exploring and studying space is something every nation can get behind. When Watney is discovered alive, the whole planet comes together to save him. The personnel behind the rescue are multiracial, multi-gendered, multi-religious, and China offers to let NASA use their propulsion system when attempting to launch a supply rocket. It reaffirms that space travel transcends Earth and makes us see ourselves from the perspective of our humanity, bringing us together better than any worldly cause.

Scott is a movie buff’s director. He knows the value of the craft of filmmaking and sees the corruption bureaucracy has wrought. He is as old school as you can get, subverting conventions while being accessible to contemporary audiences. He takes his time delivering story in a clear and consistent manner without looking down on his audience by giving everything away. Scott is also a big fan of practical effects, real sets, and real locations, making strategic use of CG when there is no other option. I wish he would use more miniatures, though.

Martian is very much Scott’s rebirth, a nostalgia trip to his early years. The opening credits sequence is a borderline copy of the Alien opening with a similar font and score. The look and feel is clean with steady shots that show every element of scenes from action to set pieces in a simple, beautiful way. The Mars environment looks authentic with colors consistent with the actual planet and not some desert filmed through a filter.

The weakest part of Martian is also its performances. Being a large cast I understand if it was difficult for anyone to standout. For me I have always seen Damon as Generic White Guy. While he puts effort into his roles unlike King Generic White Guy Paul Walker, I never see him as anyone other than himself, and he did not feel like the character Watney. My least favorite performance was Jeff Daniels as Sander. I understand he is an allegory for NASA’s arrogance, but I could not tell if he was willing to let Watney die or save him because of how transparently inconsistent he was as a prick character. There were a couple standouts like Jessica Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor, but nobody else to warrant mention.

The Martian is what Science Fiction used to be and what we need in our time. Like the genre specifies, it uses fact to enhance its fiction while delivering a compelling message that speaks to our humanity. Definitely get a ticket it if you want to see modern sci-fi done right. But if the genre is not your thing, Sicario is still fantastic.

Movie Review: Self/less

At face value, Self/less appeared to be ordinary science fiction about body switching with the theme of immortality. Simple enough until I found out it was directed by Tarsem Singh, the man behind, The Cell, The Fall, and Immortals. My opinion immediately changed in anticipation for his signature Jodorowsky-on-steroids style and surrealist aesthetic. Is it another crazed fever-dream of Tarsem’s imagination or is it as ordinary as I was led to believe?

While he has not abandoned his eccentric use of camera and scene composition, Self is Tarsem’s most accessible and normal movie to date. For a man known for being an artist in the sense of a painter in the director’s chair, it was confounding to see his name attached to such a plain film.

After a fatal episode as a result of terminal cancer, Damian, played by Ben Kingsley, seeks out the mysterious Albright, played by Matthew Goode, to help transfer his consciousness into a younger body played by Ryan Reynolds. A few weeks after the procedure, Damian experiences hallucinations of memories that are not his and sets out to discover their meaning.

To put everything in perspective, the only film of Tarsem’s that I have seen is Immortals, a movie many probably do not remember exists. I am familiar with The Cell from Nostalgia Critic’s review and I just watched the trailer for The Fall. What all three have in common is a style not unlike a classical painting, vibrant with color and detail. The design and set up of each scene is arranged in such a way they work as still images and frames of film. Immortals is basically Greek Mythology paintings, mosaics, and bas-relief sculptures brought to life. They are meticulous in their appearance and it is obvious a lot of effort was put into making the elements of each scene work in perfect cohesion.

Self is an ordinary story with a contemporary aesthetic, but Tarsem makes the film look more than how a normal director would shoot it. Even with a muted color pallet of blues and skin tones each scene is a cleanly shot tableau. Instead of creating sets with an artistic flair, there are nice arrangements of ordinary elements in room settings that have absolutely nothing going on, but look great. Self succeeds in a strictly visual sense if you do not factor in the story.

I have said before to make plot work you need to create conflict. This usually involves characters withholding information from each other or details deliberately kept in the dark. There is nothing wrong with that as long as you do it right, but that does not stop people like me from complaining. Said complaints require spoilers, but if you have seen movies and watched the trailers, you already know what is going to happen.

Damian is led to believe his new body was grown in a lab before the transfer. After the fact, he finds out the body was originally a person with a family who willingly gave himself to Albright to pay for his daughter’s cancer treatment. As a cover up, the family was told he drowned. The conflict of the story is built upon the idea that Albright tore a family apart to provide a service for Damian. All of it could have been avoided if both parties told each other the truth. If Albright told the family their Dad voluntarily sold his body to save his daughter, then Damian would not have been compelled to shut down his activities. But because the story needed a villain, our protagonists are in constant danger because they “know too much,” when knowing all of it beforehand would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.

Overall, there was nothing else wrong that requires mention. It can feel long at times as the story takes a while to get to the heart of the conflict, but if you do not mind slow-burn science fiction there is no problem. The acting was exceptional for most of the cast. I thought Matthew Goode was great as a cold and calculating mad scientist while Ben Kingsley made the most of his short screen time in both a physical and emotional performance.

Self/less is a good movie. It is not extraordinary or groundbreaking, but an acceptable distraction if you are looking for something to see this weekend. It has plenty of visuals that will satisfy any fan of good cinematography. On top of that, it is original sci-fi, something the industry is in dire need of.