Science Fiction

Her

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It’s tempting to dismiss this mopey techno-romance as just another spin through the solipsistic post-hipster universe of Spike Jonze, but Her is just too prescient about how humanity’s dependence on technology will escalate to include our total emotional well-being, too well-acted and, finally, too wise and gentle in its prescription for the survival of human interrelationships for any trash talk. While its limited characters can make Her a long slog, Jonze’s observations about the sad, misguided intersection of humanity and technology won me over.

In near-future Los Angeles–gorgeously rendered by designer K.K. Barrett and art director Austin Gorg–the superb Joaquin Phoenix plays the lonely and soulful Theodore Twombly, one year removed from a painful split from his emotionally fragile ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara, who’s become a specialist in playing disturbed and/or volatile women). He’s kind of a proxy letter-writer working for an Internet company specializing in crafting customized letters commissioned by its clients to any variety of recipients (relatives, friends, the parents of fallen soldiers, etc.).

In his ability to exude empathy through these letters, Twombly is not unlike another lost urban soul–Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s greeting-card writer in (500) Days of Summer (another self-consciously quirky romance set in L.A.!). Whereas Gordon-Levitt’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl was the moon-eyed Zooey Deschanel, Twombly meets his ideal woman in Samantha, an artificially intelligent operating system played by Scarlett Johannson. She’s a Manic Pixie Virtual Girl.

In fact, the whole world is awash in these revolutionary operating systems; people buy them up and, before long, there’s an entirely new economy and sub-culture created from millions of these newly formed hybrid relationships. After the iPhone and Siri, the advent of a sentient OS companion seems like the logical end point in our desire to synchronize consumer technology with our every human whim and need. And in a culture of dysfunctional relationships, serial self-absorption and a spiraling increase in our collective narcissism, it’s only natural humans would turn to the relatively nonjudgmental safety of a “personal” relationship with an artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile, Her’s Los Angeles is an unending forest of skyscrapers and sleek surfaces–the fusion of Hong Kong and present-day L.A.–everything bespeaking a cool nonchalance. The city isn’t foreboding or unwelcoming–it’s simply disinterested.  As social satire, this is wickedly on-point and a much-needed commentary on where we are today.

The society that Jonze depicts isn’t so much bleak or alienating as it is fraught with the terror of failure and abandonment; disconnection and loneliness, therefore, are our default emotional settings. Still, it’s not Orwellian: Theodore enjoys a close friendship with his college friend/neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), who’s married to Charles (Matt Letscher), an absolute drip and control freak. And, at work, the cheery receptionist Paul (Chris Pratt) is a reliably sunny presence in Theodore’s life.

There’s misery here, for sure, but you look around, and you don’t see much to stand on: The characters we meet are all white, middle class, well-to-do, educated first-world citizens who’ve never–from what we know–suffered much or sacrificed. They’re over-the-hill hipsters who presumably moved out of their Silverlake bungalows and into gorgeous, ultra-modern downtown lofts when they hit their 30s and are still crying about how they can’t have a relationship. You want to scream, “Get the fuck over it!” But then we wouldn’t have this film and the rewarding ruminations that follow.

Those ruminations begin after Samantha enters Theodore’s life, and, quickly, he falls in love with her. Hyper intelligent and programmed to “evolve,” Samantha falls in love right back. Soon, Theodore is in the midst of a relationship more fulfilling than any he’s ever had with a human. This is when Her gets interesting as Jonze takes the tropes of the star-crossed romance and posits them into his novel framework. The results are fascinating as Samantha learns to feel everything from sexual ecstasy to embarrassment and shame, especially when the matter of her not having a body comes up. When Theodore, smarting from Catherine’s demeaning his relationship with an OS, lashes out passive-aggressively at Samantha, you can’t help but feel her pain, the sting of her wounded self-esteem. Then, you realize, you’re feeling deep sympathy for a computer. One moment stands out: When a little girl, speaking into the iPhone-like device where Samantha’s “lives,” asks why she lives inside a computer, she answers sweetly, “I have no choice.” I have no choice: An existentialist’s worst nightmare. And that is when, to me, she became tragic and beautiful, and when I fell in love with her myself. Moments like that are the film’s miracle.

But even after the two make up, Jonze isn’t finished as he enters the territory of distrust, jealousy and heartbreak that marks the full maturation of a relationship that’s taken its bruises … and the writer-director keeps on going, beyond considerations of mere romance and into the meaning of life and death itself. This is American filmmaking venturing out to its very edge, and Jonze manages to balance himself beautifully. He does it the way of all great storytellers: By journeying from the anxiety of the ego–which occupies everyone in this film from the first scene–to deep into the soul where Theodore finds self-realization in moments captured with lyrical beauty and emotional honesty. Her does American cinema proud.  

Grade: B+

Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher

World War Z

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For a zombie movie, the PG-13 rated World War Z is among the tamest in the genre. There are scenes of horror and hysteria, induced by mobs of undead going berserk as panicked citizens flee–some do escape, others are bitten and transformed into zombies themselves. The only sure way to kill them is a bullet in the head. In that sense, this follows the zombie playbook. Otherwise, there isn’t the level of gore to which we’ve become accustomed coming from this genre. Indeed, the focus isn’t on the subject’s goriness, but the human drama that unfolds around it. World War Z is less about zombies than it is a portrait of human despair and one man’s quest to rid the world of the plague, fueled only by his love for his family. This movie is really about a father and husband’s devotion and his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Themes don’t get any more profound.

The world has been overrun by a terrifying virus that turns its victims into raving, run-amok zombies. Former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family learn that firsthand when they find themselves in the midst of a zombie attack and a military crackdown in Philadelphia. Because of his UN status, Lane is able to secure safekeeping for his family aboard a U.S. Navy carrier, which serves as a kind of floating safe zone, before he embarks on a globe-trotting hunt for a way to stop the pandemic. Along the way, the film lingers on details of survival–on how a family that takes in the Lanes on the day of Philadelphia’s collapse clings close to their radio for news and on American soldiers in a remote South Korean military base and how they’ve barricaded themselves against the zombies waiting outside. And, of course, there’s the depiction of Jerusalem, sealed off the outside world by newly built steel walls, and housing a diaspora of Jews and Palestinians. Yes, it’s the zombie apocalypse but, because of its real-world geopolitical considerations, World War Z also feels like a convincing depiction of a humanitarian crisis.

The direction by Marc Forster, while never inspired, is dependably utilitarian. Forster follows the paces outlined in this adaptation, which only takes its cue from Max Brooks’ novel in its premise and global overview, and he lets Pitt anchor the material and deliver one of his sturdiest performances. Over 20 years, Pitt has become of Hollywood’s best and most compelling actors; there’s both conscience and conviction at play in his work. It was front-and-center in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, and it commands this film as the story tapers down from the large-scale chaos of its first half to a third-act stand-off set inside a WHO research lab. Sure, there are the alternately obligatory and frightening depictions of zombie carnage, civilian breakdown and military resistance, but they pale in comparison to Lane’s personal journey. Pitt’s soulful performance lends World War Z real heart and strength. When the end credits roll, you really wish that the movie were longer, extending and deepening its investigative mystery as Lane (and the rest of us) learns step-by-step the origins of the plague and its nature. The story’s premise, the seriousness and intelligence of this adaptation and Pitt’s performance towering over it all could’ve handily accommodated an epic of that scale. Were it so.

Grade: B

Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse

Moon

Talk about curveballs. What begins as a self-searching meditation on loneliness, set on a lunar mining station in the near-future, becomes a Twilight Zone-esque, down-the-rabbit-hole inquiry into identity, madness, and the validity of one’s memories. Sam Rockwell plays Sam, a miner sent to the moon by an energy company specializing in extracting a lunar mineral that ends up solving Earth’s energy crisis.

At the end of a solo, three-year stint, Sam is desperately homesick, eager to see his wife (Dominique McElligott) and daughter again, and give life on Earth another shot after a track record marred presumably by dangerous mood swings. His only companion on the lunar station is GERTY, a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey, and one of Moon’s slyest and most amusing offerings. Equipped with a full range of emotional and verbal abilities, it’s odd that GERTY expresses moods by way of smiley-face/sad-face emoticons that appear on a tiny screen. Add to that Spacey’s gift for the half-genuine, half-sarcastic line reading, and you’ve got one of the screen’s most memorable computer characters since HAL 9000.

It’s in the second half of Moon that GERTY’s motives become suspect. After Sam survives a mining accident, strange things begin to happen. Chief among them, he finds himself sharing the station with his doppelganger, who mysteriously appears as Sam awakens from his trauma. Also calling himself Sam, this twin is just as perplexed as the original Sam at the presence of the other. Both Sams share the same memories, the same hopes, dreams, and goals. What the two can agree on is that GERTY is hiding something. And, in spite of their mistrust of each other, team up to uncover the truth behind who they are and why they’re here.

The star of the show, of course, is Rockwell who bifurcates Sam into two wholly compelling characters, both different shades of the same persona. The more you consider his performance, the more its brilliance and complexity dawns on you. Rockwell brings his trademark quirkiness and snark to both Sams, but his style is tempered by a guilelessness on the one hand and a tough-guy bravado on the other so that we see competing ranges of color coalescing into a pleasing buddy-movie dynamic that’s alternately comedic and poignant. Intriguing, imaginative, and thematically ambitious, Moon gives ample proof that Jones is a serious talent, pushing his concepts into intellectually and spiritually challenging territory.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Duncan Jones
Written by: Duncan Jones, Nathan Parker
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott

Chronicle

Three high schoolers stumble onto a sinkhole in the middle of a field. They descend into it and encounter a mysterious, supposedly alien force that imparts each of them with superpowers in director Josh Trank’s debut feature, Chronicle. Employing the by-now familiar, low-budget artifice of “home video” footage (made famous by The Blair Witch Project on through Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity series, to name a few), Trank follows the boys’ exhilarating discovery of their telekinetic abilities, beginning with the playing of harmless pranks and culminating in the near-destruction of Seattle.

Chronicle is positioned as a superhero origin story as the teenagers — happy-go-lucky jock Steve (Michael B. Jordan), charming misfit Matt (Alex Garetty) and disturbed loner Andrew (Dane DeHaan) — must contend with whether and how to use their powers. While Steve and Matt are content to limit the use of their abilities for the mere pursuit of fun, Andrew veers off-course and begins a downward spiral into criminality. Andrew’s choice isn’t surprising; as a victim of abuse, a son of an alcoholic father and an ailing mother, it’s only natural that his mind would steer towards revenge and mayhem. That forces the iconoclast Matt into the role of superhero, something he wants nothing to do with, but he’s all that the world has in terms of a defense against Andrew’s armageddon-scale abilities. So, in that sense, we have the creation of the classic Marvel Comics dynamic of the unwilling superhero (in the Peter Parker/Spider-Man mold) against the psychologically damaged arch-villain).

As always in the case of first-person, home video-style movies, the artifice gets in the way of the action. That characters would tote along a camera and have the presence of mind to shoot video while in the midst of wildly traumatic or ecstatic events (whether being chased through the woods by a witch, intruded upon in the middle of the night by a demon, invaded by an alien monster or, in the case of Chronicle, discovering that you have the ability to fly) is simply ridiculous. It’s an artifice that appeals because of its approximation to cable news, YouTube and home videos — things that are as much a part of our lives as the laptop I’m writing on or the tea I’m drinking. The merging of the familiar with the supernatural or the uncanny is what viewers find so irresistible (including me). But when the action ramps up, the artifice reveals itself to be the clumsy gimmick that it is. And it doesn’t fare any better here than it did in the case of its predecessors. While we’re on the subject, Chronicle breaks its own rule by frequently shifting to a smoother, objective visual style when the need arises, thereby wanting the best of both worlds. We only see it, though, as cheating.

That said, Chronicle is an enjoyable spin through the tropes of the superhero origin story. And it takes time to develop its characters richly, Andrew in particular. DeHaan nicely modulates Andrew’s sweet, soft-hearted interior in the movie’s first half with the hardening, monstrous anger that takes over in the second half. And while Russell’s Matt is a somewhat hazier, less sure-footed characterization, we can get behind any character with a dimpled smile who can quote Jung and use the word “hubris” in conversation.

Predictably, Chronicle unravels into forgettable mayhem in its third act as Andrew takes out his pent-up rage on Seattle leading to an Andrew-Matt showdown. Yet the movie’s first half contain enough unique moments to prove that Trank and screenwriter Max Landis have more than spectacle in mind. The scenes in which the boys first try out their powers come off best. Trank maintains a low-key, open-eyed curiosity throughout these scenes and a childlike sense of wonder prevails, most memorably in the “I-can-fly” sequence, which unlocks a primal sort of exhilaration in the viewer to match that of the characters. Moments like these demonstrate perhaps the most effective use of the home video style since “The Blair Witch Project,” anchoring their characters’ (and our) shock and surprise at the supernatural in the background of the familiar.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Josh Trank
Written by: Max Landis
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Anna Wood, Bo Petersen

Code 46

A futuristic film noir-love story with an Oedipal twist. That sounds like a devilish cocktail and it might’ve made for just such a movie. But “Code 46” by director Michael Winterbottom and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce is a muddy, strangely unintoxicating mix. A noir with no moral desperation, no clear-cut point-of-view and a love story whose eroticism feels about as urgent as yardwork.

This is not to say that “Code 46” lacks merit. Mark Tildesley’s production design and Alwin Kuchler and Marcel Zyskind’s photography ingeniously render a future-world that has ingredients of “Blade Runner” and “Mad Max” among other futuristic noir antecedents. Its soaring neon-lit towers and its smog- and dust-enshrouded landscapes are striking, but equally so is how the movie’s design—out of a need for economy and narrative expediency—is kept within the bounds of a recognizable reality. Those gleaming and ominous settings are modern-day Shanghai, Dubai and Hong Kong tricked out merely with lighting, filters and minimal art design.

Winterbottom and Cottrell Boyce postulate an endpoint to our age of rapid urbanizing and globalizing. Theirs is a George Orwell-meets- Phillip K. Dick dystopia where people’s mobility and behavior are heavily regulated and where overpopulated cities are separated by vast stretches of wasteland. “Code 46” itself refers to a reproductive law in which partners who share common genes are prohibited from mating—a way to keep genetically identical humans and clones from getting it on.

There’s the rub for William (Tim Robbins), a detective who arrives in Shanghai to track down who’s been manufacturing and selling counterfeit “papelles”— special permits needed to transit from one city to another. The culprit, he discovers, is Maria (Samantha Morton), a waifish, dreamy-eyed loner. He promptly falls in love and into bed with her. Soon after returning to his married life, William is alerted to a murder that leads him back to Maria. But her memory of William, their shared sexual history, has since been wiped clean by doctors, owing to a Code 46 violation. William learns that Maria was cloned from his own mother’s genes. Logically, I wondered why, if sex with such a clone were possible, aren’t there measures—identity cards, retinal scans, whatever—to preempt such an act. Why? Because logic would’ve overstepped “Code 46’s” entire second half when William, too smitten with Maria to care about their genetic relatedness, flies off with her for another illicit jaunt in the desert. Their cavorting, of course, comes to the lovelorn end we expect from this genre, but which registers none of its emotional payoff.

Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, two intelligent actors, are fatally unconvincing as lovers. As William proceeds to woo Maria, we continually wonder what he sees in her and vice versa. Sporting her close-cropped “In America” haircut, Morton pitches her performance somewhere between the crime-predicting humanoid of “Minority Report” and the mute wallflower of “Sweet and Lowdown”—not exactly a combination to get a man’s pulse racing. The foundation for all noirs is how it reveals a wounded world through the dark but ever-hopeful gaze of its detective-protagonists. “Code 46,” which poises itself as noir, fails utterly to lock us into William’s world-view; Winterbottom, instead, lingers on Maria’s pseudo-poetic interior monologues, conjuring dreamy moments that narratively amount to nothing. Below William’s cocksure surface, Robbins’ characterization is a milky mess, absent of any motive for his infidelity, let alone a personal desire to solve this or any crime.

“Code 46” is an ambitious but miscalculated affair, owing entirely to Cottrell Boyce’s unengaging script. It prompts more questions of logic and motivation than it bargained for, losing its actors and audience along the way. Winterbottom is a competent filmmaker known also for his prolific output. Were it not for his flair for mood and texture, “Code 46” might sink entirely. Nevertheless, he might better serve his stories—especially those as conceptually complex as this one—by slowing down and taking the time to tell them clearly and well.

Grade: C

Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Cast: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton, Om Puri

Resident Evil: Afterlife

Producer-director-writer Paul W.S. Anderson’s unstoppable spinoffs of “Resident Evil,” the megahit humans vs. zombies video-game franchise, continues with “Resident Evil: Afterlife.” It offers the full grab bag of “Matrix”-y effects thrown at your eyeballs over and over again accompanied by a head-pounding fusion of hard rock and techno. In fact, during many scenes in “Afterlife,” I wasn’t sure whether to watch Milla Jovovich do leaps and somersaults in slo-mo while firing bullets and bathed in droplets of rain, or just get up and dance to the soundtrack.

Unsurprisingly, “Afterlife” is being released in both 2D and 3D versions; I saw the 3D, which adds nothing qualitatively to the experience. While if offers some genuinely clever touches initially, “Afterlife” loses steam once Anderson becomes less interested in the story at hand and more on wrapping it up, making sure to set up another sequel.

In terms of visual design, the movie’s opening set inside the expansively futuristic headquarters of the evil Umbrella Corporation (the company that perpetrated the zombie virus) impresses most. Here, Alice (Milla Jovovich), a human with all the emotional register of a mannequin, confronts the company’s CEO, Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts) – he’s the one sporting the shades and the bad Brit accent – in a no-holds-barred battle that begins indoors and ends in a plane crash from which Alice escapes. Thereafter, the bulk of “Afterlife” follows Alice and cohort Claire’s (Ali Larter) attempts to lead a group of survivors, holed up in a high-rise L.A. prison, to a tanker ship believed to be a safe haven from zombies, just offshore. The sections inside the prison work best as the survivors – ranging from the rangy, Will Smith-esque ex-basketball player Luther West (Boris Kodjoe) to the reptilian movie producer, Bennett (Kim Coates). Anderson, thankfully, slows the story enough to take advantage of his premise’s horror-movie and survivalist drama tropes as issues of betrayal, trust and camaraderie boil to the surface, and suspicions arise that the zombies may be tunneling their way in.

Once the zombies overrun the prison, “Afterlife” switches to action-movie gear from which it never returns, culminating in a finale that’s a pale rehash of the opening. The occasional flashes of imagination aside, “Afterlife” epitomizes what movies written largely by software and marketing committees look like. Diehard fans of the franchise and genre enthusiasts may flock to it, but on its own merits, the movie offers little. To say it’s nothing more than a crass merchandising gimmick would be to acknowledge Hollywood’s openly cynical attitude to story telling and the film business in general. And what’s the point of that?

Grade: C-

Directed by: Paul W. S. Anderson
Written by: Paul W. S. Anderson
Cast: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Kim Coates, Shawn Roberts, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Spencer Locke, Boris Kodjoe, Wentworth Miller, Sienna Guillory, Kacey Barnfield, Norman Yeung, Fulvio Cecere

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

The bar has been set so low in mainstream Hollywood movies that it’s not even worth seriously analyzing this stuff. Lucas’ franchise is a cultural event and that, more than the movie, is cause for serious worry. What can you say when a series of movies (beginning with 1999’s Phantom Menace) is this incompetently made? Lucas has a tin ear for dialogue, and he’s so grossly oblivious to issues of dramatic tension and narrative pacing that, while watching Revenge of the Sith, I just sat there benumbed to it all. The kindest thing I can say about Sith is that it’s a couple of notches better than Menace and generally watchable. It’s an orgiastic spectacle of visual effects and painterly CGI alien cityscapes in place of smart, engrossing storytelling. What’s weird is that the most emotionally resonant moments in it don’t really stem from the story itself but from how we causally connect the implications made therein with our memory of the original three Star Wars movies…sigh. Still, if this tripe works for you, so be it. For me, this (along with other recent drivel like Sin City) is another nail in the coffin for the art of storytelling in Hollywood. And, while I’m on it, it points to the degradation of intelligence in culture as a whole, both in America and in its imperial subsidiaries overseas.

Grade: C+

Directed by: George Lucas
Written by: George Lucas
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Christopher Lee, Keisha Castle-Hughes