Tagged: sci-fi

6 tweets about LIFE (the movie, not the existential dilemma)

Ryan Reynolds in LIFE

  1. LIFE is not a bad movie, but it’s a B-movie. ‪#LIFEmovie‬ ‪#rental‬
  2. So yeah, if you liked the trailer that’s what the movie is. No more, no less.
  3. There IS a long, lovely single-take intro that’s maybe the best zero-g scene ever in a space movie
  4. There’s also a major action scene toward the end that just doesn’t work very well, IMO
  5. But there’s tension/suspense, gross-outs & scares. Things zip along in a 10-little-Indians way that can’t help but remind you of ALIEN.
  6. The ending (SPOILER!) reminded me of the ’70s when big studio pictures more often than not went “tails” at the end instead of “heads”

I’m @giantspecks on Twitter. Occasionally Yelling About Movies #YabtM with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back!

Beyond Recognition

Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto in STAR TREK BEYOND

Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto in STAR TREK BEYOND

Star Trek, we need to talk. We’ve had a lot of good times. But we’re both in such different places now. I’ve grown. You’ve shrunk.

I never saw INTO DARKNESS. After STAR TREK (2009) I decided to save myself the aggravation. But I was one of the hopeful fans who’d heard STAR TREK BEYOND would be the course-correction the series needed. I got burned again.

Initial reports that this one “got it right” were probably based on a few quiet scenes between McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). The casting has always been the best thing about these reboot movies, and indeed, here they kinda get the dynamic: Spock and McCoy bicker but underneath we can tell they respect each other. Fine. The bar is pretty low if we’re pleased with 10 minutes of chit-chat amid two hours of frenetic nonsense.

I won’t waste anyone’s time with a plot synopsis, but BEYOND kicks off with Kirk whining into his Captain’s log that he’s basically bored (what) with the routine (WHAT) of his 5-year mission. Exploring strange new worlds and boldly going has apparently become a big drag. I wanted to slap Chris Pine. Imagine original series Shatner/Kirk expressing this. It would never have happened. Here, the reboot (or “Kelvin timeline,” if you must) gets fundamental traits of both Kirk and the franchise wrong. This scene was Star Trek putting itself on the psychiatrist couch, trying to diagnose its own malaise. It’s not you, Jim: it’s the scripts.

But J.J. Abrams (director on the first two reboot pics, producer on BEYOND) has never respected the source material. He’s never treated Star Trek like anything more than a gig. He said he tried to watch the original series but “couldn’t get into it.” So he ripped it to shreds and picked out the bits that looked shiny to him. The end result is some kind of assemblage that only vaguely resembles Trek. In this metaphor I think Abrams is either some kind of primitive folk artist or maybe a crow.

But if you like movies made by crows, there’s plenty of shiny bits here to keep you busy. Kirk rides a motorcycle! The Enterprise gets smashed (again), and then the crew blows up the bad guys with an old Beastie Boys tape! Neat! And director Justin Lin never, ever, ever stops moving the camera.

In a rare quiet moment near the end of the film, Spock pulls out a picture of the original cast (from WRATH OF KHAN, I believe) and silently gazes upon it. More soul-searching, maybe: “where did we go wrong?”

Star Trek, I came back to you. I thought you’d changed. I thought maybe it could be like it was before, when we were both younger. But I got hurt again. So this is goodbye.

At least until May, when Discovery debuts.


I’m @giantspecks on Twitter. Occasionally Yelling About Movies #YabtM with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back!

Time is an inky circle

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This post contains spoilers for ARRIVAL.

ARRIVAL is one of those rare birds, a sci-fi movie for grownups. It’s aesthetically and conceptually elegant and at the same time very moving, and if you haven’t already, you should see it before you learn too much. Not that there is a huge and sudden reveal: there is no SIXTH SENSE moment. At least, there wasn’t for me: it was more a gradual, growing awareness of the story’s main premise and all its implications.

The protagonist of ARRIVAL is linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited to communicate with alien visitors who have appeared in our skies. As the story begins, language is seen by all the characters in the film as a means to an end. Slowly and simultaneously, you and the characters on screen come to realize language itself the point.

Central to the film is the notion that language shapes perception. As Louise learns to parse the aliens’ looping pictographs she also acquires their ability to perceive time in a non-linear way. Exploring this concept, ARRIVAL does that amazing thing science fiction can sometimes do: it re-situates you, offering a unique vantage point from which to consider the conscribed parameters of your human experience. After seeing it, your own inability to perceive events before they happen may feel to you a sorry limitation, like a kind of blindness.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer employs non-linear story structure to represent Louise’s expanding perception. As directed by Denis Villeneuve, it’s a fairly daring tactic that tosses the audience without warning or cues into key scenes in Louise’s future. A sequence in which Louise and a high-ranking Chinese general collaborate to avert global catastrophe is breathtaking, cross-cutting between Louise’s present and future while defying notions of cause and effect.

But the film is not just a think piece: in ARRIVAL, the intellectual and the emotional are unified, inseparable. For Louise’s newly expanded perceptions also allow her to foresee a great personal tragedy. Ultimately she embraces the choices that will lead to that tragedy, fully aware of the terrible cost. I found myself turning her decision over and over in my mind for days afterward. That says everything about the strength of the film.


I’m John Harden. I also write and direct. I’m on Twitter as @giantspecks, sometimes Yelling About Movies with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back! #YabtM

That time Supergirl made me cry

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Melissa Benoist as Supergirl

Currently I’m watching two very different TV shows: SyFy’s The Expanse and CBS’s Supergirl. The differences between them, and how I find myself reacting to them, is making me think a lot about what’s really important in storytelling.

The Expanse is SyFy Channel’s prestige programming. It’s complex. It’s dark. It looks expensive. It takes itself very seriously. It tries very hard, but often to little effect. Supergirl, on the other hand, doesn’t hardly seem to be trying at all, but the emotional payoffs have been surprisingly powerful.

The storylines in Supergirl are your basic, primary-colors comic book stuff. No gritty re-imagining here. It’s not a perfect show: dialogue can be clunky, and effects and production design are often pretty cheesy as well. The stories are quite simple. But they resonate, because the writers are working basic, relatable themes: family loyalty, prejudice, anger vs. self-control.

The character of Supergirl (aka Kara) illuminates how important backstory can be to creating a relatable character. Like her more famous cousin, Kara was rocketed to Earth in a little space capsule by parents who stayed behind to die on doomed homeworld Krypton. The big difference between the two of them: Kal-el (Superman) was a baby when he left Krypton. Kara was 12. This simple fact makes Supergirl a much more interesting character than Superman, and has been driving the best story moments all season. Kara remembers her home, and her parents, and she misses them terribly. At times, torn between her human and Kryptonian identities, she literally feels alienated from the human race. She has anger issues. Think about that one for a minute: Supergirl has all the powers of her cousin. If she really came unglued, she could do a lot of damage.

We got a glimpse of that in the episode where Supergirl was temporarily turned bad by some red kryptonite. It revealed an inner life full of resentments, and made me think about her in a way I never had with Superman. (This hour also featured some of the best acting ever seen on the show, and yes, this is the one that made me cry.)

Ultimately, Supergirl’s corn and goofiness don’t matter: I understand the characters and I want to know what they’ll do next. I am entertained.

“Entertainment,” I imagine, is probably not a word that comes up much as often as it should in The Expanse writers’ room. To their credit, it feels like they are smart people working very hard at the 10,000-foot level to honor the big story arcs of the books (I haven’t read them).

SyFy's The Expanse

SyFy’s The Expanse (Photo by: Jason Bell/Syfy)

The show plays a long game, over the course of the first season setting up political tensions on an interplanetary scale between Earth, colonial Mars (now an independent state), and the Belters, roughneck denizens of the industrialized asteroid belt. But big things are made up of little things. And The Expanse is rarely compelling at the smaller scale, the scale of viewer engagement – that is to say, individual scenes and episodes. (See Game of Thrones to observe how a show develops big story arcs while simultaneously making things work moment-to-moment. Personally, I’m not much into swords-and-sorcery stuff, but I’ll make an exception for GoT because… well, because that shit is undeniably gripping.)

The weaknesses of The Expanse are instructive to me because as a sci-fi guy I’m enamored with all the things it counts as virtues: the detailed world-building, the realistic hardware, the getting the physics of space travel (mostly) right. Yet, all through season 1, I struggled to stay with it because I didn’t much care about what was happening. There was a glimmer of hope in episode 2, when space-freighter guy Holden logged a distress call in direct violation of captain’s orders, forcing them to change course & try to help. Stakes! Conflict! Characters are what they do, and I saw Holden make a hard choice to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. So now I’m in his corner. As the show has progressed, it’s been interesting to see Holden become the de facto leader of the Rocinante crew, despite the fact that they all rightly blame him for the pickle they’re in. I hang onto Holden and his gang to stay afloat in a sea of I-don’t-care.

But those scenes aboard the Rocinante are only about one-third of the show. The UN/Earth scenes are all talk. I just wait for them to end. The Ceres scenes are tough going too, but for different reasons. Sorry, maybe I’m a bad person, but I don’t care about the downtrodden people of Ceres. Oh, hey, you know who I cared about? Those mutants on Mars in Paul Verhoeven’s TOTAL RECALL. The Ceres scenes kinda bring those guys to mind. Again, stylistically far goofier than the grimness of The Expanse, but in TOTAL RECALL the basic requirements of drama had been met: I got to know the mutants. Early scenes introduced some of them to me as individuals, so when their oxygen got cut off, it hurt. The people on Ceres, by comparison, are an undifferentiated bunch of rabble. They are a symbol. And because they are a symboI, it doesn’t much matter to me whether they have air and water.

Furthermore, I didn’t care about the missing girl – the other part of the Ceres storyline – because again, I’ve been given no reason to care. Onscreen for maybe 10 seconds, at the beginning of episode 1, what we were shown of her was totally cryptic. I understand we were building a mystery, but if I can’t be told any info about the girl because it’s a mystery, I better damn well care about the guy who’s trying to solve the mystery for 10 episodes… but I come up empty there too. I don’t know why he’s working on this case except that his boss told him to. Oh, and I think he fell in love with a snapshot of the girl. Really?

There’s also the problem of uniformity of characters. Personalities in The Expanse range in disposition from “tough-but-fair” to “mass-murderer,” so inevitably we’re steeped in hard-boiled dialogue, all delivered with unblinking stares. It gets old. To differentiate the characters, some of them have accents, and a few of them are women (UN lady and mohawk girl*). This is the same flaw – wall-to-wall second-rate tough talk – that very nearly made me bail on season 1 of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, before that show was redeemed around mid-season by virtue of its terrific villain.

There are other things about The Expanse that make watching something of a chore. There’s a triple-whammy of accents, slang, and an invented language, compounded by characters who mumble, or whisper, or struggle with English pronunciation (UN lady). I’m not sure how much a crummy stereo mix has to do with it, but I for one am constantly rolling the DVR back trying to tell what’s being said. I should just turn on the subtitles I guess.

Finally, The Expanse is sometimes hobbled by what seems like indifferent direction. There are fumbled opportunities to build suspense and pay it off with action. Setups are poor, so when action comes, I’m surprised or confused. Moments that should have visceral impact slip by because I’m trying to interpret them. Hey, somebody in a spacesuit (can’t tell who) just did something! A gun went off! Whose gun? Which way was it pointed?

Happily, there are exceptions to this. Most notably, a terrific scene in the season’s final episode, set in the lobby of a seedy space hotel. Pretty much every character in the show arrived there at once, all of them looking for the mystery girl. What transpired next was a long, wordless scene as the suspense built, and built, and built… and was finally paid off with a shootout that was absolutely bananas. I was grinning.

The Expanse is telling a complicated story. For that, it should be applauded. I’ll bet I’ve been more patient with it than your average viewer, but, like an average viewer, I am tuning in for entertainment. I want a payoff. So far, The Expanse’s payoffs have been kind of meager. I’m hanging in there, hoping it will get better. Rooting for it, really, because on many levels The Expanse is just what I always wanted in a sci-fi TV show. It’s been renewed for a second season, and I’m glad. It would be a shame to see it go away. There’s a lot of potential there.


*After an entire season I can’t remember anybody’s name except Holden’s. For that I’m not going to apologize… or Google, for that matter.

Our view stats on Vimeo during our busiest week to-date

Thousands of eyes on us

Our sci-fi short film NEW debuted online November 2, and the response has been very gratifying indeed. As I write this post, we’re coming up on our 15,000th view. For a three-day period in early November, we were clocking around 3000 views per day! Those might not be spectacular numbers for, say, a 30-second kitten video, but for a quiet, 17-minute drama it’s pretty damn great. Even better: the smart comments the film has received. More about that in a moment.

Vidsee postThe film has been featured at sites like Film Shortage and Alltop. And I particularly enjoyed the generous selection of screen caps and long, English-as-a-second-language plot summary over at Singaporean short film site VidSee. Fun… but don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film yet!

Last week, I did an interview for a TV station in Switzerland called BeCurious TV – they’ll be airing that interview soon, along with NEW and two of my other shorts.

Best of all, we’ve been covered at io9.com, the go-to site for all things science fiction. I’ve been trying to get them to write about NEW for over two years! They were my white whale. Back when we were crowdfunding the budget, I sent the editors emails brimming over with all the charm I could muster, detailing the sci-fi epic being cooked up in their very own backyard (the site is based in San Francisco). All to no response… until now. Fair enough. I imagine they wanted to have a finished film to show people before writing about us.

But write abOur review at io9out us they did, last month, with a nice review that declared NEW “pretty heartbreaking.” When their story was published, it shot our view count through the roof for a couple of days. A month later it’s still a major driver of traffic to the film. Thank you, io9.

Click the image to read the review, and then take the time to savor the hardcore sci-fi discussions happening in the comments. You can see the viewers digging in, debating story points and extrapolating on the future glimpsed in NEW. No one is discussing whether the film is any good or not – that bar has been met for them. Following what was a just-okay festival run, it’s immensely satisfying for me to see NEW really finding its audience like this.

Six tweets about HER, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Singularity

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's HER

Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johanssen in Spike Jonze’s HER

A little spoiler-y, I suppose, especially toward the end. You’ve been warned.

As usual Jonze gets details just right. I ❤ Theo’s safety pin. A lesser mind would have given him a taller phone or shallower shirt pocket

I’m taken with how Jonze forgoes cynicism/anger. Theo’s job: ghost-writing personal letters. A chance to bludgeon us with satire…

…but Theo’s great at his job. His letters are poetic, heartfelt; we can’t feel superior. Emotions are real & valid regardless of origin?

Last time 2 AIs talked in a movie it was COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT. Here, we get Samantha chatting to an Alan Watts simulacrum. (Swoon.)

I did wonder if Theodore returned to the mall to ask for a refund on OS1. Think I would, if my Mac told me it needed to see other people.

HER is a gentle, sweet love story that takes on big scifi ideas with ease and grace. I admire many films; this is one I wish I’d made.

GRAVITY: a review in 6 tweets

photo by @gloomboy

photo by @gloomboy

(No major spoilers here, but if you’re like me, sometimes even an opinion can be more than you want to know. Fair warning.)

  1. GRAVITY literally a gripping experience. My wife’s hand, arm of the chair… @gloomboy: “They should warn you to wear a bite guard.”
  2. A nuts&bolts movie, vein of APOLLO 13, or mountaineering/submarine pic where survival hinges on physical things, like a wrench or a rope
  3. Cuarón is a visual master. The pacing between the hairy suspenseful moments and the more meditative ones in GRAVITY is nearly perfect.
  4. If GRAVITY falls short of being a classic, it’s because of some lazy Hollywoodisms that took me out of the moment.
  5. If I could do my own director’s cut of GRAVITY I’d excise the Sandra Bullock’s character’s backstory and all the music.
  6. Yes you should see GRAVITY, and in the theater. Find the biggest screen you can and spring for the 3D.

I’m @giantspecks on Twitter.