SPUTNIK (2020) – Science Fiction Horror At Its Best

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Few folks would disagree that 2020 has been a rough year, but one bright spot is it has produced a steady stream of very good horror movies.

You can go ahead and add SPUTNIK (2020) to the list, a very effective horror science fiction film which hails from Estonia and takes place in the Soviet Union in 1983.

When a Soviet spacecraft returns to Earth, one cosmonaut is found dead, the other bloodied and disoriented. Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) calls in psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) to help evaluate the condition of the surviving cosmonaut, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov). What they discover is that there is an alien creature living inside Veshnyakov that emerges from his body at night only to return a short time later. It needs Veshnyakov’s body to survive in its new environment, and by living inside its host, it has developed a symbiotic relationship, one where Veshnyakov can no longer survive without it.

The less said about the plot of SPUTNIK,  the better, as one of the best parts of this movie is its thought-provoking script by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev. It tells a compelling story which scores high on the suspense meter, delves into science fiction themes revolving around alien life forms, covers Soviet era Cold War suspense, and manages to encompass the theme of abandonment, of how we all need someone else to survive in this world. After all, the word Sputnik, while the name of the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, launched by the Soviet Union, also means “companion” in Russian.

In terms of tone and feel, SPUTNIK has more in common with films like EX MACHINA (2014) and ARRIVAL (2016) than it does with the ALIEN movies.

That being said, the actual alien in this one is pretty cool looking. It reminded me of a miniature version of the monster from CLOVERFIELD (2008). The special effects here are excellent, and the creature looks creepy and real.

Director Egor Abramenko keeps the thrills tight and builds suspense throughout. There are some genuinely horrific scenes in this one, as well as plenty of low key thought-provoking moments of intrigue.

The cast is superb. Oksana Akinshina leads the way as psychologist Tatyana Klimova. Akinshina’s performance carries the movie. Tatyana is more than up to the task of standing up to the Soviet military, personified here by Colonel Semiradov, but she becomes more vulnerable as she grows closer to her subject, cosmonaut Konstantin. She also has some really cool scenes where she attempts to communicate with the alien creature.

Likewise, Fedor Bondarchuk is excellent as Colonel Semiradov, the military man who sells himself to Tatyana as a man independent of his superiors, but in reality is most interested in the alien for its potential use as a weapon.

And Pyotr Fyodorov is also very good as cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov, a man who believes himself a hero but is also pained by choices he has made in his personal life. And what he knows about the alien inside him also makes him yet another intriguing aspect to this story.

The fourth principal character in this movie is Yan Rigel, an eminent Soviet scientist who at first is jealous of Tatyana’s involvement in the investigation, and he’s well played by Anton Vasilev. Rigel eventually becomes a sympathetic character, and Vasilev keeps the changes this character undergoes believable throughout.

SPUTNIK also features a strong music score by Oleg Karpachev, which really adds a lot to the movie and further enhances its uneasy mood.

I really liked SPUTNIK, and it’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far. In terms of enjoyable horror movies from 2020, SPUTNIK joins the likes of THE INVISIBLE MAN, UNDERWATER,  THE RENTAL, WE SUMMON  THE DARKNESS, THE WRETCHED, and RELIC, all 2020 releases, all really good horror movies.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking science fiction film, one that mixes its cerebral themes with emotional ones, plus adds some genuine horror and suspense to the mix, then look no further than SPUTNIK.

It’s science fiction horror at its best.

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PROJECT POWER (2020) – Pill Popping Superhero Tale Mildly Diverting

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project power

A superhero movie where the superheroes need to pop a pill to get their superpowers? Hmm. Sounds like the quintessential American superhero story!

That’s the premise behind PROJECT POWER (2020), a new superhero movie now available on Netflix.

In New Orleans, there’s this new pill on the streets that’s all the rage. Pop it and it gives you a superpower. Of course, like any drug, it can be dangerous, so for some folks, when they take it, they—- blow up!  Yikes! 

Police detective Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is busy on the streets of New Orleans trying to track down the main supplier of these super pills. He befriends a young dealer named Robin (Dominique Fishback) who’s doing this to pay the medical bills for her sick mother. Robin supplies Frank with information here and there, but nothing major.

Frank’s investigation is further compounded by men in suits who continually show up and shut the door on the local police, frustrating both Frank and his superior, Captain Craine (Courtney B. Vance). But then Craine shares a tip with Frank, that the men in suits are looking for a man named Art (Jamie Foxx) who they believe is the main supplier, and so Frank decides to find him first.

And Art is on the streets, but he’s not the main supplier. He is actually searching for his daughter, who was kidnapped by these strange scientist folks who are using her “special” DNA as part of their experiments developing this drug. On his search, Art crosses paths with Robin, and with Frank closing in, these three characters eventually come together  setting up the main confrontation with the film’s baddies.

PROJECT POWER has its moments, but not enough of them to lift this one to superior super hero status. The best part of this one is its cast.

Jamie Foxx is excellent as Art, the former soldier who’s out to take down the superpill cartel in order to rescue his daughter. He gets some good lines, has deadly charisma throughout, and looks believable taking down all the bad guys.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is equally as good as Frank, the cop who’s trying to do right by his city. Like Foxx, Gordon-Levitt gets a lot of good lines and also looks believable in the action scenes.

And Dominque Fishback shines as Robin in a very spirited performance.

All three of these performers deliver the goods and create some likeable characters, so even when the story isn’t firing on all cylinders, at the very least you get to enjoy these folks on screen.

The screenplay by Mattson Tomlin is okay. It’s really nothing we haven’t seen before. The super pill stuff is actually a bit confusing. On the one hand, characters speak of how it enhances the powers already inside the individuals taking it, but in the next breath, we see the scientists experimenting with animal and human DNA. Which one is it?

And like a lot of superhero movies, PROJECT POWER suffers from a lack of a villain. There isn’t one main bad guy here, and the few who appear in this film are sadly lacking in both villainous vision and charisma.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have this one looking good. It’s all slick and polished, but the action sequences rarely wow, and the fight scenes while commendable don’t really stand out.

PROJECT POWER is a mixed bag. I enjoyed the actors in this one immensely, and thought they created some very likable characters, but the story here never really takes off, nor do the action scenes do much to lift this one.

It doesn’t really compare to the films in the Marvel cinematic universe, although it is better than some of the awful DC films which have come out in the past few years. It also just doesn’t really have the feel of a superhero movie. It plays more like a police action/ science fiction tale.

At the end of the day, PROJECT POWER proves to be a mild diversion for those of us waiting for the day when theaters reopen and the major superhero releases return to the big screen.

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HORSE GIRL (2020) – Intriguing Drama Asks: Mental Illness or Alien Abduction?

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There’s a fine line between mental illness and alien abduction.

That’s the dance played out in HORSE GIRL (2020), an intriguing drama about a sweet yet socially awkward young woman who suffers from nightmares and blackouts which she interprets as alien abductions while those around her believe more matter-of-factly that she suffers from mental illness.

Just where the truth lies is something the movie doesn’t make crystal clear.

HORSE GIRL tells the story of Sarah (Alison Brie) a shy young woman who works in a fabric store during the day and comes home to her apartment at night where she spends her evenings alone watching reruns of her favorite science fiction TV show, while her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) occupies herself with her boyfriend Brian (Jake Picking). Sarah also has an affinity for a horse Willow which she visits every day at the stable, much to the annoyance of Willow’s owners. We learn later that Willow used to be Sarah’s horse but isn’t any more.

On her birthday, Sarah receives a birthday card from her co-worker Joan (Molly Shannon) who asks her if she has any special plans to celebrate, to which Sarah lies and says she’s going to go out to dinner with some friends from her dance class. Later, we witness the awkward scene where Sarah tries to make plans with these friends but fails miserably, so she returns to her apartment, content to spend her birthday alone, but her roommate Nikki feels bad for her and coaxes Brian to invite his friend Darren (John Reynolds) over who had recently broke up with his girlfriend. Surprisingly, Darren and Sarah hit it off well, and they agree to see each other again for a date.

Up until this point, HORSE GIRL has the makings of a tender romantic love story, but it’s at this time when Sarah realizes she’s been having some pretty bizarre dreams, dreams in which sleep walks and finds herself in other places, not knowing how she got there, and when she returns home, she finds that while she believes she’s been gone for hours, only minutes have passed in real-time.

She does some research on the internet and reads about alien abductions, and the descriptions of these abductions match things she has seen and felt in her dreams. It’s also at this time when she begins to think more about her grandmother and mother, both of whom dealt with mental health issues and spoke of experiences similar to hers. In her mom’s case, she recently committed suicide. But Sarah fixates on her grandmother, who in old photographs is the splitting image of Sarah, which gets Sarah thinking about clones.

Once Sarah starts speaking about this to her friends and family, it’s easy for them— and for the audience— to believe she has inherited the same mental health issues as her mother and grandmother. But Sarah is convinced otherwise, and she sets out to prove it.

HORSE GIRL is a thought-provoking movie that is well-written by director Jeff Baena and lead actress Alison Brie. And while its story is never fleshed out as well as one would hope, it still delivers in that it takes its audience for a ride that is compelling throughout, the only drawback being a conclusion that is a bit too open-ended.

I really enjoyed Alison Brie in the lead role as Sarah. She makes Sarah likeable and vulnerable. She nails the introvert persona suffering from social anxiety to a tee, and the scenes where she tries to be social are painfully realistic. And she does it without being cliché or superficial. In all other aspects of her life, in her job, for instance, she’s comfortable and quite good at it. So, Brie creates a three-dimensional character who we like even before all the weird things begin to happen to her, and once they do, we empathize with her and want her to be okay, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not okay.

Brie is a wonderful actress who I first noticed on the TV show MAD MEN (2007-2015) where she played Trudy Campbell. She also stars on the TV show GLOW (2017-2020). She’s in nearly every scene in HORSE GIRL, and she easily carries this film on her back.

And as I said, she also wrote the screenplay, along with director Jeff Baena. One of the best parts of the screenplay is how well-written the supporting characters are. They come off as real people, which in this story, is important, because Sarah increasingly becomes unstable, and if she were surrounded by a bunch of cardboard clichés, it would certainly make her story less believable. But that’s not the case here as these supporting characters have real reactions and really care for her.

In one of the film’s best sequences, when Sarah is on her date with Darren, it’s all going so well, and when Sarah opens up to him and starts talking about what she suspects is happening to her, at first since he’s happy and genuinely likes Sarah, he’s supportive and all ears. But as Sarah grows more intense and unpredictable and unrealistic, she becomes scary, and Darren’s reaction changes.  Had he been a cliché, the boyfriend only out for sex, for example, this scene would not have worked as well. Instead, it works wonderfully, because Darren tries so hard to  understand Sarah and to accept what she’s saying, but as she reacts more violently, he, like the audience, becomes unnerved and he has no choice but to react to that. It’s one of the more honest— and frightening— sequences in the film.

As I said, the one weakness in the movie is the ending. Based on the final sequence, you get a pretty good idea on which side the moviemakers favor here, mental illness or alien abduction, but still there’s something missing, and that something is an independent view on the matter. The film is told through Sarah’s eyes, and so even that final scene is from Sarah’s perspective, and hence you really don’t know its true meaning, which often is not a bad thing in a movie, and it’s not a terribly bad thing in this movie, as I still liked it a lot in spite of the ending, but a more emphatic ending would have helped, as it would have given this curious tale an exclamation point on which to end, rather than the way it ends now, with an ellipse.

HORSE GIRL also has an admirable supporting cast. Debby Ryan does a fine job as Sarah’s roommate Nikki, who although she gets frustrated with her does care about her. Likewise, Jake Picking is solid as Nikki’s boyfriend Brian, who’s much less supportive of Sarah and thinks she’s flat-out weird. Molly Shannon also does a nice job as Sarah’s co-worker Joan who also seems to care about her.

I really enjoyed John Reynolds as Darren, the guy who sincerely wants to start a relationship with Sarah, but he unfortunately picked the wrong week to ask her out. Reynolds does an awesome job making this guy a three-dimensional character, and he does it in very little screen time. Reynolds plays quirky Officer Callahan on TV’s STRANGER THINGS (2016-2020). He makes much more of an impact here in HORSE GIRL.

HORSE GIRL also benefits from a couple of screen veterans in the cast. Paul Reiser shows up in one sequence as Sarah’s step-father. It’s just one sequence, but it’s a good one. And John Ortiz plays a man Sarah sees in her recurring dreams, and then later she sees him in real life.

I liked the way director Jeff Baena handled this one. Sure, it’s a bit of a slow burn, as the pace is measured, and the first third is a straight drama. In fact, when Sarah experiences her first weird nightmare, it comes out of nowhere and is quite jarring. If HORSE GIRL were a horror movie, it would fall into the category of quiet horror. So, call this one a quiet mystery/thriller.

But it works.

HORSE GIRL is a captivating drama with sprinkles of mystery and science fiction thrown in that takes its time telling its weirdly provocative story, and while its ending isn’t completely satisfying, it remains a movie that creates a sympathetic main character who’s searching for answers about her past and her future. You’ll want her to find them.

It’s now available on Netflix.

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THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020) – Frightening Re-Imagining of Classic Tale

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the invisible man 2020

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020) is a clever and creative re-imagining of the Invisible Man tale, of both the classic Universal Invisible Man movies, and of H.G. Wells’ famous novel, on which all of these movies are based.

Writer/director Leigh Whannell changes the focus of the story and places it on a young woman Cecilia “Cece” Kass (Elisabeth Moss) who is trapped in an abusive relationship which only gets worse when her husband fakes his own death and makes himself invisible, giving him unlimited power to torment her relentlessly. It adds a whole new layer to the story and gives new meaning to “he said, she said,” since obviously no one believes her story.

My only question when all was said and done was why? Why go through all the trouble of faking your own death and making yourself invisible if your only goal was to torture your wife? The movie does give a reason for his motives, but it still doesn’t change the fact that this is an incredibly convoluted way of getting what he wants.

When THE INVISIBLE MAN opens, a frightened Cece escapes from her abusive husband Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and is whisked away to safety by her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer). Cece is so fearful of Adrian, that even when she is staying with Emily’s friend James (Aldis Hodge) who’s a cop, and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) she can’t bring herself to step out of the house, terrified that her husband will find her.

But a short time later, the news breaks that Adrian committed suicide, which strikes Cece as odd since he was always in control, and taking his own life would be the last thing she’d expect him to do. Anyway, he leaves her a ton of money, and all seems well, until Cece begins to feel his presence around her, and then strange things begin to happen.

Cece becomes convinced that Adrian faked his own death and has found a way to become invisible. Of course, her story is completely unbelievable and makes her sound crazy, as if Adrian got inside her head and scarred her so badly that she’s now having delusions that he’s still alive. So, she sets out to prove she’s right, but before she can do so, there’s a vicious murder and when she is seen with the bloody knife in hand, her defense that it was an invisible man and not her, all but seals her fate.

I really liked this new version of THE INVISIBLE MAN. It’s smart and scary and provides a fresh new way of telling the story. The only thing I didn’t like, as I already said, is I thought the plot was a bit too contrived. Why a man would go to all this trouble to get what he ultimately wants is a head scratcher. There are far easier ways to get the same result.

Still, the screenplay by Leigh Whannell is a good one. Whannell, who wrote the SAW movies and the INSIDIOUS films, has written his most ambitious screenplay yet with THE INVISIBLE MAN. Making it a story about an abused wife living in horrific fear of her abuser husband adds an entirely different element to the tale and makes it that much scarier.

Speaking of which, that’s one of my favorite parts of THE INVISIBLE MAN, that the film is scary. While I’ve enjoyed Leigh Whannell’s screenplays, I did not enjoy his directorial debut with INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 (2015), the first film in the INSIDIOUS series that I didn’t really like. But he more than makes up for it here with THE INVISIBLE MAN.

I don’t get scared easily at the movies, but there are a couple of scenes in this one which made me jump. There’s a nice contrast between silence and noise here. When Cece senses something is wrong, it’s dead silent. She feels someone in the room with her but she can’t see him, and so she keeps perfectly still, relying on her other senses, hearing and smell, and so you have scenes that go from silence to terror, and they really work.

The underlying theme of the entire movie, the abused wife, keeps the audience unsettled throughout and enhances the traditional horror movie elements, which also work really well.

I wish the movie had played up the plot point of whether or not the invisible man is real, or is Cece just going psycho? I found this aspect of the story fascinating, but the film only flirts with this for a while before making it clear that yup, there’s an invisible guy on the loose.

I’ve been a fan of Elisabeth Moss since her days on MAD MEN (2007-15), and of course she now stars in THE HANDMAID’S TALE (2017-2020). She’s excellent here as the tormented Cece. The film is mostly about her, and Moss is convincing throughout. She does ask a question which also unfortunately remains unanswered, when she asks Adrian, “Why me?” He could have had any woman in the world. Why was he obsessed with her? The film doesn’t really provide an answer, which is one of the weaknesses of the movie.

The Invisible Man himself Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) isn’t developed at all. We know little about him. He just comes off as a jerk who happens to be a genius. In a way, this makes sense. Do we really want a back story for vicious wife abuser? Not really. But compared to Claude Rains in the original THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) who stole that movie with his crazed voice in spite of never being seen since he was invisible, Oliver Jackson-Cohen is barely a blip on the monster meter. Jackson-Cohen was much more memorable as troubled brother Luke on the Netflix series THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018-2020).

Strangely, more villainous here is Adrian’s brother Tom, played with weasel-like coldness by Michael Dorman.

It’s worth noting that Leigh Whannell kept the name Griffin for the Invisible Man, which hearkens back to H.G. Wells’ novel and the classic Universal Invisible Man movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Aldis Hodge is excellent as police detective James Lanier, as is Harriet Dyer as Cece’s sister Emily. Storm Reid is also very good as James’ daughter Sydney.

The film also has a menacingly powerful music score by Benjamin Wallfisch, which really adds a lot to the tension in the story.

THE INVISIBLE MAN is a successful re-imagining of the Invisible Man story that adds layers and depth not present in previous tellings. That being said, it doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny, as it never convincingly makes its case for the reasons its main villain takes such a convoluted route to achieve his goal, but if you can look past this, you’ll enjoy this frightening new take on a classic science fiction horror tale.

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COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019) – Adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft Story Decent Enough

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COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2019), filmed in 2019 but just getting its U.S. release here in February 2020, is based on the H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name, and tells a tale of a meteorite which crash-lands on the property of a family’s farm, poisoning the land and water surrounding it, as well as the people, and if that wasn’t enough, completely messes with the space/time continuum.

Sound like a crazy trip? That’s because it is! And if you want further proof of just how trippy this one is, look no further than its cast, which includes Nicholas Cage as the patriarch of the farm family and Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame as their oddball neighbor.

And while the film is a visual tour de force, taken as a whole, it’s far from being a complete package, as its story is uneven at best and the special effects while colorful are often cheap-looking and unimpressive.

In COLOR OUT OF SPACE, Nathan Gardner (Nicholas Cage), his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), their teen daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), teen son Benny (Brendan Meyer), and young son Jack (Julian Hilliard) have all moved to a secluded farmhouse in Arkham, Massachusetts to get away from it all, to basically live off the grid and raise alpacas. Everyone seems happy enough, except for rebellious Lavinia, who wants nothing more than to escape her family and the isolated farm.

But when a meteorite crash-lands on their property, things change. For starters, their personalities are affected, especially Nathan’s and Theresa’s who both become more belligerent around their children. Young Jack hears voices coming from the well. Time changes, as it’s dark one moment, light the next, and they find themselves off- kilter, in an almost dreamlike state as their grip on reality begins to shift.

Furthermore, a young man tasked with studying the water tables in the area, Ward (Elliot Knight) determines that there’s something wrong with the water, that it’s poisonous. As things grow more bizarre, strange mutations start taking place, and suddenly in this dreamlike state the Gardners find themselves fighting for their lives.

For the most part, I liked COLOR OUT OF SPACE. It tells a decent enough story, although it doesn’t really push the envelope enough to fully do justice to the source material. The film is unrated, and in spite of some scenes that try to be gory, the film doesn’t ever really get all that disturbing or scary.

Once the meteorite has crashed and is doing its thing, the colors at the farm and throughout the surrounding wilderness are fun to behold, but the actual special effects aren’t so great, and in fact they’re rather cheap looking. What should be some of the more disturbing effects, scenes where beings are mutated together in horrifyingly twisted creatures, come off instead looking like inexpensive cousins to the effects seen way back when in John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982). Carpenter’s classic is 38 years old, and the effects in that movie are better than the effects here.

The actual story remains more bizarre than frightening. Screenwriters Scarlett Armaris and Richard Stanley, who also directed, do a good job setting up the mystery but afterwards never go for the jugular.

Nicholas Cage has a field day as papa Nathan Gardner, and for most of the film, he was my favorite part. Madeleine Arthur is also very good as recalcitrant daughter Lavinia.

The rest of the cast is satisfactory. And if young Julian Hilliard with his big eyeglasses looks familiar acting terrified, it’s because he did the same thing with better results on the Netflix TV show THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018).

COLOR OUT OF SPACE works better as a science fiction movie than a horror movie, although it certainly tries hard to be the latter, thanks to some gory scenes by director Richard Stanley. Unfortunately, these scenes don’t really resonate. With their cheap look, they play more as high camp, but other than Nicholas Cage’s performance, the film isn’t all that campy.

I wish COLOR OUT OF SPACE had been better. As it stands, it’s a many-hued science fiction flick with aspirations of being horrific, but it falls slightly short of this goal. Still, if you like this sort of thing, you definitely want to check it out, especially if you’re a fan of Nicholas Cage.

At the end of the day COLOR OUT OF SPACE is just decent enough to satisfy its niche audience.

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STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019) – Doesn’t Offer Much of a Rise

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star wars the rise of skywalker

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019), the final film in the epic nine movie STAR WARS saga, is indicative of what the series has ultimately become. It’s a superiorly crafted movie in which everything looks amazing but without compelling storylines and characters, there’s simply not all that much to be excited about.

Ouch!

But it’s true.

When the original STAR WARS (1977) came out, I was in 7th grade, and I absolutely loved it. I loved its sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) even more, so much so that today all these years later it remains my favorite in the series.

But then came RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). I was in college for this one, and it marked the first time I was disappointed with a STAR WARS movie. It’s not just the Ewoks either, although they were my least favorite part of the film. I thought the pacing and the way it went about telling its story was all off, especially following upon the heels of EMPIRE.

The prequels in the middle of the series, which chronicled the back story of villain Darth Vader, were meh, although I did enjoy STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005).

And while the latest three STAR WARS films— THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), THE LAST JEDI (2017) and now this one, have successfully recaptured the spirit and feel of the original trilogy, at the same time introducing new characters and closing the book on some of the original characters, they have hardly been game changers.

The biggest culprit? The writing.

I don’t mean to imply that the folks writing these movies are bad writers, but rather, that good writing is not the priority with these films. In other words, time and energy is spent on the technical side of these movies rather than on the written word. As a result, very little of what happens on screen has any resonance.

Here in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, new character Rey (Daisy Ridley) is still searching for answers regarding her parentage, still training to become a Jedi, and oh yeah still busy battling the villainous First Order. Yup, she has a lot on her plate.

Likewise, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still busy with his quest to take over the galaxy, which means sometimes leading the First Order and other times wooing Rey to join him in order to become the galaxy’s all-powerful super couple. He has trouble with his past as well, since his parents are Han Solo— who he killed in THE FORCE AWAKENS—- and Princess Leia— but his granddaddy is Darth Vader. He kinda wants to be like his grandpa, only more powerful.

To complicate matters, it’s learned that the dastardly Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) didn’t really die at the end of THE RETURN OF THE JEDI but has been secretly hibernating waiting for his chance to crush the rebellion once and for all.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Yup, we’ve heard this all before. Like the TERMINATOR franchise, the STAR WARS series also suffers from serious plot redundancy.

All this being said, I certainly enjoyed STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. It’s an entertaining piece of filmmaking. It’s just not an entertaining piece of storytelling.

Regarding the two main characters, I like them both a lot, so that’s not a problem. Rey is the most compelling character in this new trilogy, and Daisy Ridley is superb in the role. She strikes a nice balance between serious intensity, angst over her unknown familial roots, and a sense of caring and strength not really seen in any of the other characters. She makes for a much more interesting Jedi than either Luke Skywalker, Ben Kenobi, or Anakin Skywalker. And it’s refreshing to have the most powerful character in the new series be a woman.

She’s the best part of this final trilogy, and the story here doesn’t really let her down either. The answers provided regarding her parentage are adequate.

Kylo Ren has grown on me throughout the series. I was not a fan back in THE FORCE AWAKENS, but he won me over in THE LAST JEDI. Adam Driver is excellent as the tortured wannabe villain who strives to outdo the memory of Darth Vader but can’t seem to shake the influence of his parents Leia and Han Solo.

The other new characters I have not enjoyed as much. Both Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) have only been okay, although they enjoy some of their best moments in the series in this movie. They’re the energetic wise-cracking resistance fighters, and they do a nice job filling in the for the spirit of Han Solo, but nearly all of their banter seems rehashed from the original series. It definitely suffers from the “having seen this all before” issue.

And of course, since this is being billed as the final film in the series, it attempts to wrap everything up nicely from all the previous movies. Sort of. There are some glaring omissions. More on that in a bit.

Mark Hamill returns as Luke Skywalker, but don’t expect too much from him here, since he’s relegated to appearing in Force-ghost form, since the character died in the previous movie.

Carrie Fisher returns sporadically in archive footage as Princess Leia since Fisher passed away before this movie was filmed.

Old friends Chewbacca, C-3PO, an R2D2 are all back, with Chewie and 3PO getting the best moments. Billy Dee Williams returns as Lando Calrissian, who serves as a sort of cheerleader to Finn and Poe, telling them that in his day neither he, Luke, Leia, or Han, knew exactly what they were doing either, and they just relied on each other and made things happen, which is a point well taken as it inspires Finn and Poe to get off their butts and save the galaxy.

Now back to those omissions. For a movie wrapping up the final chapter of a nine film series not to include Darth Vader, Ben Kenobi, or Yoda, that’s just flat-out weird, and disappointing. Darth Vader was the larger than life villain in the first trilogy, and then the second trilogy was devoted to his back story, and for him here to receive nary a mention other than his beat-up helmet is simply odd.

As I said, the screenplay by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams fails to really resonate on any level other than the superficial. The story itself is a rehash of earlier movies— the rebellion is outmanned and outgunned, how will they ever succeed? Yadda, yadda, yadda. And the characters are hardly exciting.

The two best characters, Rey and Kylo Ren, enjoy the best moments in the film, but even these moments aren’t original. For example, Rey has her “I am your father moment” and Kylo Ren has his “I love you. — I know,” moment, but neither one is as good as the original scenes from which they’re inspired. And that’s because little that happens to these two feels new at all.

J.J. Abrams returned to the director’s chair for this one. He had also directed THE FORCE AWAKENS.  He takes great care to carve out various homage moments throughout, all the way down to the final scene, and these bits are enjoyable and appreciated.

But any emotion gets lost in an incredibly fast pace which features one action scene after another. THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the kind of movie I generally do not enjoy, one that never stops to take a breath or seemingly have a meaningful conversation. The drawback obviously is the characterizations suffer mightily and you end up with a movie with characters you don’t care about. The only saving grace is we’ve met these characters before, so we know who they are, but it still makes for boring storytelling.

It’s one of the reasons the MARVEL superhero movies are generally always good. They never sacrifice character development, even in the AVENGERS movies which featured a ton of main characters. Great care is spent on these folks’ personalities so that nearly every time they’re on-screen something notable is happening. That’s not the case in the STAR WARS series.

The special effects are amazing as always, but are there memorable images and action sequences? Not really, no.  For example, one sequence featuring a raging ocean has potential, but when it plays out, it’s all so smooth and harmless, and then it’s on to the next action scene.

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the ninth film in the STAR WARS series, and it seems like it. If you’re a fan of the series, you no doubt will enjoy its Jedi vs. Dark Side angst, eye-popping space action sequences, and colorful wise-cracking quips, but for those of us who see tons of movies year in and year out, these films are hardly on the meter for what constitutes the best in modern cinema.

Sadly, this wasn’t always the case.

After all, “May the Force be with you” didn’t enter the cultural lexicon by accident.

—END—

 

 

 

 

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019) – Linda Hamilton Returns to the Series, As Do the Same Plot Points

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The buzz leading up to TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019), the sixth film in the TERMINATOR franchise, was that Linda Hamilton was returning to the series as iconic character Sarah Connor.

Hamilton had been absent since the second film in the series, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991). Her return after so many years reminded me of a similar return last year, when Jamie Lee Curtis reprised her Laurie Strode role in the latest HALLOWEEN movie, innovatively titled, eh hem, HALLOWEEN (2018). While Curtis was fine in her return, the movie wasn’t. The 2018 HALLOWEEN was pretty bad.

The good news here is Linda Hamilton fares better, because TERMINATOR: DARK FATE is a much better movie than HALLOWEEN (2018). But don’t break out the champagne yet.

See, while I certainly liked TERMINATOR: DARK FATE, as the sixth film in the series, there is a lot that is redundant here. As a result, this latest Terminator tale while well-made and entertaining is far from anything special.

If you’ve seen any of the other TERMINATOR movies, the plot of this latest entry will no doubt be familiar. A woman named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is sent from the future to protect a woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes) in the here and now from a murderous Terminator, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), also sent from the future, his mission being to kill Dani for reasons the movie doesn’t want to tell us at first, but you can be assured that it has something to do with her saving the future from the murderous machines, the thinking being, eliminate her in the past, and the machines win in the future.

When will these villains in the future realize that this sort of plan never works? At the end of every TERMINATOR movie, these machines from the future fail. Six films into a series with the same plot point grows kinda tired.

Anyway, old friend Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has been traveling the countryside destroying Terminators from the future whenever they arrive, as she receives anonymous tips from an unkown secret source alerting her of these arrivals, which is how she meets up with Grace and Dani and helps them fight off the Rev-9.

Why is this still happening when Sarah Connor supposedly saved the future back in the day? It turns out she saved only one future. While her actions at the end of TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY saved the world from the evil Sky Net corporation, it turns out another evil company took over and basically did the same thing, create machines that eventually took on the human race.

Yeah, right. I mean, seriously, what are the odds?

Another old friend also shows up, as Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as a variation of the Terminator from TERMINATOR 2, who’s been living the dream since the 1990s and learning what it is to be human, and so he too joins the fight to save Dani from the Rev-9.

I say “variation” because TERMINATOR: DARK FATE not only chooses to ignore the last three TERMINATOR movies, but it also changes events that happened at the end of TERMINATOR 2. I can’t say that I enjoyed this change. It always feels like a cheat to me when filmmakers go back and change things in a story that has been known for years. No. Sorry. That’s not what happened. This is what happened.

Anyway, this twist didn’t ruin TERMINATOR: DARK FATE for me, but it didn’t help either.

Linda Hamilton enjoys a successful homecoming as Sarah Connor. Older, grizzled, and just as tough, Hamilton gives Sarah Connor a triumphant return to the big screen.

Lost in the Linda Hamilton buzz was that Arnold Schwarzenegger also came back for this one. Of course, his return is less of a story since he’s only missed one Terminator installment, the fourth one, TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009).  Still, Schwarzenegger makes the most of his screen time, and he has some of the better moments in the movie, a lot of them of the humorous variety.

Which reminds me: one of the best parts of the original TERMINATOR back in 1984 was that Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character was the villain. In subsequent movies, his character joined the good guys, and while this was fun, the character was never as good as he was in that first movie when he was the villain. We’d be looking at quite the different TERMINATOR series had that change not been made, and I think you could make the argument that it would have been a better series.

Mackenzie Davis is very good as Grace, the enhanced human sent back from the future to protect Dani from the latest Terminator threat. She’s believable in her action scenes, and she has enough personality to hold her own next to Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.

The same can be said for Natalia Reyes as Dani. She’s also quite good. And when these four are on-screen together they do generate some chemistry and are fun to watch.

Getting back to Mackenzie Davis for a moment, she was also memorable in TULLY (2018), where she co-starred with Charlize Theron, and she also appeared in THE MARTIAN (2015).

Who’s not overly memorable here is Gabriel Luna as the latest Terminator, the Rev-9. It’s not really Luna’s fault. The character isn’t given much personality. He’s mostly based on CGI effects.

And yes the effects here are all top-notch, as are the action scenes. In fact, some of the fight sequences and chase scenes are among the best in the entire series. Director Tim Miller, who directed DEADPOOL (2016), does a masterful job with the action sequences. Everything looks great, the sound is awesome, the stunts and CGI all believable.

If only these well-orchestrated events had resonated on an emotional level.

The screenplay by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray does what it sets out to do, in that it tells a Terminator story and it connects all the dots so things make sense. But the problem is that it’s pretty much the same Terminator story told in all the movies, with the exception of TERMINATOR SALVATION, which told a somewhat different tale. Ironically, TERMINATOR SALVATION tends to be the least favorite of the series among Terminator fans.

The fact is in spite of all the technical success here, nearly everything in this story rang hollow. There wasn’t one moment in the film that reached out and grabbed me. It all felt like deja vu. Even down to the ending. Yup, if you’ve seen one TERMINATOR movie, you’ve seen them all. Don’t get me wrong. I like the TERMINATOR series. But originality hasn’t been the series’ strongpoint. The movies are very repetitive and really haven’t made much of an effort to tell different and new stories. They just sort of repeat the formula from the first movie.

My favorite TERMINATOR move remains the first one, THE TERMINATOR (1984). I also really like TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. After that, they’re all about the same. Entertaining, action-packed, satisfying, but not very original.

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE benefits from having two of the series’ original stars, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, back on the big screen together, along with some talented newcomers, and superb special effects and action sequences, but at the end of the day, you’ve seen this shtick before.

Even the series’ catchphrase seems to return with every film, I’ll be back.

Which is fine. I just wish once in a while they’d be back with something different.

—END—

AD ASTRA (2019) – Emotionless On Purpose, Science Fiction Flick Still Dull

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Remember the famous tagline from ALIEN (1979), In space no one can hear you scream? 

Well, the tagline for AD ASTRA (2019), the new science fiction movie by writer/director James Gray, and starring Brad Pitt as an astronaut searching for his missing father on a mission to save the Earth, should be In space no one can hear you snore.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Yep, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few moviegoers found themselves dozing during this one.

And that’s because AD ASTRA is as cold as space and just as devoid of emotion. Now, admittedly, this is on purpose, since the main character prides himself on his lack of emotion and detachment from others, all in the name of remaining focused on his missions, and this is definitely a main theme in the movie, that this type of thinking takes a toll on human relationships. But it also takes a toll on the human audience’s patience.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) became an astronaut to follow in his father’s footsteps. His father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is remembered as the most famous astronaut of all time, as he led one mission after another in search of extraterrestrial life, and his final mission took him to the far reaches of space where he was never heard from again.

But now strange energy surges are threatening Earth, and Roy’s superiors inform him (without really showing him any proof, by the way) that they believe his father is still alive, and that he’s responsible for these deadly energy surges. They believe Clifford McBride has become deranged, and they also believe that Roy will be able to reach his father in ways they can’t and convince him to stop. Seriously, this came across as such a flimsy excuse for a mission that I almost laughed out loud. I mean, they’re going to send an astronaut halfway across the solar system because he might be able to convince his dad to stop, when it still hasn’t been 100% established that his father is responsible in the first place? Ludicrous.

Anyway, Roy agrees, or as he says, what choice did I have? See, the space agency in this movie is one of those— repeat after me–– evil companies!—- that show up often in movies as sort of a de facto villain. If you don’t do what we want, Roy, you won’t be coming back. That sort of thing.

On his way to find his father, Roy has plenty of time to reflect on his life, especially on how his focus on his career has affected his relationships— his wife, for instance, has left him— and how he pretty much is alone.

And when the film talks about Roy’s journey discovering secrets that challenge the nature of human existence, that’s what it is really talking about: human interactions. That’s pretty much the theme of the movie. We can’t succeed alone. We need human interactions and relationships to be human. And the film seems to be making its point by subjecting us to two hours of Roy’s brooding journey as proof. See, this guy alone is a snooze.

AD ASTRA reminded me of an old episode of the classic STAR TREK TV show. I could just see Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down from the Enterprise on a planet in search of the brilliant scientist who went missing and may now be deranged. In fact, there was an episode just like this. And it was much shorter and much more interesting than anything that happens here in AD ASTRA.

Speaking of STAR TREK, Brad Pitt shows about as much emotion in this one as Mr. Spock. Again, this is by design, but it makes for a long two hours. In fact, this one felt more like three hours in the theater. And Pitt’s stoic narration sounds like someone being forced to read the dictionary.

Pitt was much more enjoyable a few weeks back as stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019). I wouldn’t place AD ASTRA up there with Pitt’s better films.

And Pitt is pretty much it. Everyone else in this one is reduced to small supporting roles, including Donald Sutherland who plays a family friend, and Liv Tyler who plays Roy’s wife. In the supporting cast, Tommy Lee Jones probably fares the best, and that’s not saying much. He doesn’t show up till the end, but at least he has some emotional scenes.

The ending is pretty much the best part of the movie, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing a la INTERSTELLAR (2014) or ARRIVAL (2016). The ending here works on a much smaller scale, but it’s still satisfying, not just in a grandiose science fiction sort of way. It works because the father-son reunion is the first time the film really becomes emotional, and the scene where Roy reacts to his father’s decision is the best moment in the film. It’s the moment where Roy finally loses control and allows emotion to overtake him. And then later this allows him to see his life differently. Satisfying, yes, but not exactly awe-inspiring science fiction material.

Still, the point is well-taken, and it fits in with the general theme of the film.

The movie looks good, as the scenes in space are crisp and clean. Yet, like the story, the visuals don’t exactly awe or inspire. Probably the best sequence in the film, aside from the ending, is when the ship carrying Roy to the faraway space station makes a detour to answer a distress call. But even this scene is more subdued than it could have been.

Writer/director James Gray has made a competent yet cold space drama that could have used more drama. It’s all very robotic, and again, that seems to be the point, that the human race has lost its way in terms of human interactions. I get the message. But that didn’t make the film any more enjoyable. Gray also wrote and directed THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016), a biography adventure that also struggled with emotions. Maybe Gray should try his hand at a movie about Vulcans.

Ad astra, by the way, is a Latin phrase that means “to the stars.”  And AD ASTRA the movie seems to be saying before we concentrate on the stars we might want to get ourselves in order here on Earth first.

—END—

 

 

 

 

CAPTIVE STATE (2019) – Science Fiction Thriller Struggles Mightily To Tell Its Story

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CAPTIVE STATE (2019) is a new science fiction thriller with some really neat ideas and a remarkable story to tell, but sadly— very sadly—- it also has a script that struggles mightily to tell it.

The movie gets off to a busy yet intriguing start with a bunch of information hurled at its audience immediately. There’s been an alien invasion which has completely overwhelmed humankind, and the governments of the world have capitulated power to these superior beings who now control the Earth.  As a result, the “haves” — people with power and money— have gotten stronger as they’ve been given positions of leadership, while the “have-nots” have gotten weaker, as they’ve been thrust into ghettos and hard-working mining jobs, which happens to be a perfect metaphor for what some say has been happening in the real world for the past few decades.

But all hope is not lost, as there are resistance fighters constantly operating in the shadows with the express purpose of taking down these all-powerful aliens. These resistance fighters believe the only thing the aliens are interested in is draining the Earth of its resources. They believe the aliens’ end game is the destruction of the planet, even if the “haves” who enjoy plenty of power now refuse to see it.

So, the plot of the movie focuses on a small band of resistant fighters in Chicago as they work on a plan to strike back at their alien oppressors, while one of the “haves,” police detective William Mulligan (John Goodman) does everything in his power to uncover this resistant cell and destroy them.

I really liked the idea behind CAPTIVE STATE. I enjoyed its story of resistance fighters trying to strike back against an all-powerful alien race which had been ruling the world for nearly a decade. I enjoyed the obvious symbolic references to what’s going on in today’s world, where people feel increasingly oppressed and powerless.

But there are far more things with CAPTIVE STATE that I didn’t like. Let’s start with the way it tells its story. The screenplay by Erica Beeney and director Rupert Wyatt seems to be purposefully confusing. Characters speak, and their meanings aren’t clear. They make phone calls and send messages in code, but the audience doesn’t know why nor do they understand the meanings.

Most of the movie is a collection of really cool looking scenes showing people slyly plotting resistance while cop William Mulligan hunts them down. It all looks good and sounds good with some effective music by Rob Simonsen, but very little of it makes sense. The writers forgot to include the audience on what’s going on. It’s one of those films where I’m sure the audience is going to spend most of the time scratching their heads rather than enjoying a suspenseful story.

It reminded me of a 1960s British spy thriller where the screenplay was purposefully obscure, or a movie which back in the old days would have been aired after midnight because prime time audiences wouldn’t have had the patience for its lack of narrative. Some folks will no doubt absolutely love CAPTIVE STATE and won’t see its narrative woes as a weakness, but for me, I prefer a story that is told in a more organized fashion than the one told here.

There are other problems as well. The biggest one for me is there wasn’t a clear protagonist. The central characters in the movie are two brothers, Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders) and Rafe Drummond (Jonathan Majors) whose parents were killed by the aliens in the film’s opening moments. Rafe has become the face of the Chicago resistance, but since his character is officially dead, he lives in the shadows and is barely in the movie.

The main character is supposed to be Gabriel, the younger brother, as he’s also a person the police are interested in, as they believe he can lead them to the resistance. But even though Gabriel is on-screen more than Rafe, he’s not developed as a character either.

Then there’s cop William Mulligan as played by John Goodman, who gruffly goes through the motions hunting down resistance fighters without showing any emotion.

Speaking of those resistance fighters, there’s a whole bunch of them, none of whom we ever really get to know or care about.

Then there’s the aliens themselves, which we hardly see. When we do see them, they reminded me of the types of creatures seen in the CLOVERFIELD universe, but we really don’t see much of them at all here.

There is little that is visually stimulating or memorable in CAPTIVE STATE, nothing memorable like those huge hovering ships in DISTRICT 9 (2009), a film that did a better job telling its alien occupation story. There were also shades of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End here, with its story and theme of humans dealing with the occupation of a superior alien race, but the novel dealt with it in ways that are far superior to how it is handled in this movie.

The cast here also doesn’t do a whole lot, and a lot of the problem is the screenplay which really doesn’t develop the characters. John Goodman is okay as William Mulligan, but it is largely a one note performance. Unlike his role in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) where he knocked it out of the park playing quite the frightening character, Goodman is stuck playing a man who is purposely unemotional for reasons that become clear later in the story.

Ashton Sanders, who starred in the Oscar-winning MOONLIGHT (2016), is decent enough as Gabriel, the character who should have been the main focus here had this film had a better script. There just really aren’t any defining moments for Gabriel or ones that allow Sanders to truly shine in the role.

Jonathan Majors is allowed to do even less as older brother Rafe. There are a lot of solid actors in supporting roles here, but none of them get to do much of anything. Even Vera Farmiga can’t save the day, as her role as a mysterious prostitute has little impact while she’s on screen. Now, her character is important, as revealed later on, but that’s how a lot of this movie is. Important details are relayed after characters are gone or situations have already happened. It just doesn’t make for satisfying storytelling.

Even the end, when it’s obvious what’s happening, and what direction the plot is taking, the movie doesn’t give the audience the benefit of a satisfying conclusion. It leaves things just a bit obscure. The trouble is, what’s happening is not obscure, so why not just show the audience this instead of playing games and keeping important plot points hidden just for the sake of trying to be creative? It’s a case of trying too hard to make a thought-provoking offbeat thriller. Sometimes straightforward storytelling is just plain better.

Director Rupert Wyatt does a nice job creating quick intense scenes of resistance fighters organizing and plotting but struggles with the big-ticket items like grand cinematic sequences and building suspense. Probably the best sequence in the movie is the major caper by the resistance to attack the aliens at Soldier Field.  This sequence works well, even if its payoff isn’t all that satisfying, but other than this, there’s not a whole lot that’s memorable about this movie.

For a science fiction thriller, it’s not visually satisfying at all. As I said, there are no memorable images as found in DISTRICT 9, and the script is far inferior to the stories, dialogue, and character development found in recent science fiction films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and ARRIVAL (2016).

ANNIHILATION and ARRIVAL also had strong female leads and supporting characters. The women in CAPTIVE STATE are few and far between, and none of the major characters are women.

Rupert Wyatt also directed RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011), the first of the APES reboots, and a movie I enjoyed more than CAPTIVE STATE.

I really wanted to like CAPTIVE STATE. In fact, after its first five minutes, I was even more interested in the story it was about to tell, but what followed was a narrative that clearly struggled to move this intriguing story forward. Its characters were not developed, and as such there really wasn’t anyone for the audience to identify with or root for. And the alien threat was barely shown and hardly explored.

So, at the end of the day, while I certainly did not hate CAPTIVE STATE, I left the theater disappointed.

A better script could have made CAPTIVE STATE a captivating science fiction thriller, but it’s clear that this film did not have that script. The end result is a movie with impressive ideas and symbolism but with such a muddled narrative that its audience will be hard-pressed to enjoy them.

—END—

 

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019) – Tale of Teen Cyborg Lifted By Impressive Effects

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I have to admit. I wasn’t overly excited about seeing ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019), even with such heavy hitters as James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez on board.

Its plot about a teenage female cyborg trying to find her identity and purpose in life didn’t exactly entice me. I mean, there have been a lot of movies that have covered similar ground, most of them starring Scarlet Johansson!  Seriously, Johansson could have her own boxed set of these films!  From GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)— the only one in which she actually played a cyborg— to LUCY (2014) — synthetically enhanced human, to HER (2013)— artificial intelligent entity,  to UNDER THE SKIN (2013) — alien— in each of these films she’s played an enigmatic character searching for answers about her identity.

And there have been plenty of these without Johansson.

Yet, guess what? ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL was better than I expected, so much so that I really enjoyed it.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is based on a series of manga books by Yukito Kishiro. It takes place in the future, in a world once ravaged by war. Its cities are inhabited by humans, robots, and cyborgs. As the film opens, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the discarded head and shoulders of a cyborg in a scrap heap. Ido makes his living attaching robotic limbs to people who need them, and he uses his skills to attach the cyborg’s upper body to a main frame body he had built years earlier for his daughter who was killed before he had a chance to give her the new body.

The cyborg awakes, a wide-eyed 14 year-old girl eager to learn about both life now and who she once was, and Ido promptly names her Alita, after his deceased daughter. While Ido tries to shield Alita (Rosa Salazar) from life’s dangers, it’s not so easy as she is a teenager who is intent on carving her own path. She befriends a group of teens, learns about the most popular sport in her day, “motorball,” and once she discovers she possesses the skills of a warrior, joins the group of “Hunter-Warriors” to help combat the seedier side of life, as there are murderers on the loose and people who harvest body parts for the black market.

Alita also learns more about her past, as she finds out just who she is and why it is she possesses superior fighting skills and strength.

Speaking of strength, as much as I enjoyed ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, the strength of this movie is not its story. Very little of what happens in ALITA is all that original, and the film offers little or no insight into the topic of cyborgs and artificial intelligence.

What drives ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is its special effects and its performances, especially Rosa Salazar’s lead performance as Alita.

As you would expect in a movie produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, the special effects are second to none. The film is visually stunning throughout.

Without doubt, the most impressive effect is Alita herself. A combination of motion capture, CGI, and live performance by Rosa Salazar brings Alita to life. Visually, her look is flawless. She looks exceedingly real. But Alita is more than that, thanks to Salazar’s performance. Salazar captures personality, nuances, and emotions, and she gives Alita spunk, vivacity, and humanity. Salazar’s performance is up there with Andy Serkis’ work as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies and Caesar in the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Salazar has starred in AMERICAN HORROR STORY (2011), the MAZE RUNNER movies, and most recently in Netflix’ BIRD BOX (2018) along side Sandra Bullock. She’s supported here in ALITA by a fine cast of veterans.

Christoph Waltz does his thing as Dr. Ido. I like Waltz, but truthfully, it’s been a while since he’s taken on a role that has impressed me. Both Jennifer Connolly and Mahershala Ali are on hand as villains here, although neither one really gets to show off their full potential.

And this is certainly a weakness in the film. It doesn’t have a decent villain.

Keean Johnson is enjoyable as Hugo, the young man who befriends Alita and eventually becomes her boyfriend.

James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, and Robert Rodriguez wrote the screenplay, again based on the manga series by Yukito Kishiro. In creating the character Alita, the script is very successful, but as for the rest, meh. Its story simply did not wow me.

Its main plot is average at best. Alita’s past isn’t hard to figure out, and what she is fighting for, other than to protect her friends and family, isn’t all that grand or exciting. The villain is never clearly defined, and as a result it’s never clear why this shadowy figure wants to destroy Alita.

For most of the movie, Alita was a fascinating enough character to overcome these flaws in the plot, but towards the end, the story starts to run out of gas, and the pace drags.

This is James Cameron’s first script since AVATAR (2009).  Remember that movie? That remains such an odd story. I loved AVATAR when it came out. Sequels were announced, and here we are ten years later and the sequels still haven’t happened. It seems they’ve been in pre-production forever. Supposedly, AVATAR 2 is set for release in 2020.  And that’s the reason Cameron didn’t direct ALITA. He’s been too busy with the AVATAR movies.

Laeta Kalogridis also wrote the screenplay for SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) and TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015).  I know a lot of people hated GENISYS but I really liked that one.

I’ve been a fan of Robert Rodriguez since his fun vampire flick FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996) which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino. I’ve also really enjoyed his SIN CITY films and MACHETE movies. And he also made the SPY KIDS movies.

Rodriguez always brings an energy and oomph to his movies, and his work here with ALITA is no exception. From the dark look of the film, to its exciting action sequences, like the motorball race, Rodriguez’ signature style is on full display throughout.

I liked ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL a lot, mostly because of its phenomenal technological achievement in creating such a life-like character in Alita. And a huge part of this success is the human element, the motion-capture performance by Rosa Salazar. The combination of acting and special effects create a wonderfully impressive and memorable character.

Alita is worth the price of admission alone, even if her story isn’t.

—END—