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Posts Tagged ‘Serenity’

We have spent a lot of the 21st century gazing at the stars, or at least CGI versions of them.  The century started with the second and third movies in the Star Wars prequels trilogy, Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005).  A series of films that are constantly being revaluated, I’m not sure if they are officially good or bad at the moment.  Star Trek ran out of steam, with the last movie from the Next Generation Crew Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) not being very good.  But then in J. J. Abrams came along and with the help of some wibbily wobbly timey wimey stuff (if I may quote a TV series in an article about movies) created a new timeline to retell the story of the original crew of the enterprise.  The first film Star Trek (2009) was excellent, the second Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), then Abrams jumped ship and the third film Star Trek Beyond (2016) directed by Justin Lin was a partial return to form.  There may be a fourth film in the series eventually, it keeps getting pushed back or going into turnaround.  There may also be a further film in the universe that by Quentin Tarantino, that is looking less and less likely. Star Trek Wars

The reason J. J. Abrams jumped (space)ship, was to go and work for the enemy, Star Wars.  The director of the first and final movies in a new trilogy, a third and final trilogy to bring the Skywalker saga to an end.  The films came about after Disney’s acquisition of Lucas Film (for a staggering amount of money).  All three films have their fans and detractors in a hugely polarized and quite amusing social media battle among a certain type of fanboy.  For me, the middle film, The Last Jedi (2017) written and directed  by Rian Johnson is the best (and the most controversial).  The Force Awakens (2015) is the safest of the three, but good fun and it introduces some great characters, and brings back some old favourites.  The Rise of Skywalker (2019) is certainly the weakest but is still good fun and gets to a satisfying end (except for that certain group of fanboys).  Along the way, we also got two Star Wars Anthology films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) tells the story of the events leading up to the origonal 1977 film, and for me is the best film outside the original trilogy.  The flipside to that, Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) is totally unnecessary origin story of fan favourite Han Solo.  it isn’t terrible, just pointless.The end of the Skywalker sagaNot satisfied with just Star Wars, Disney went to space with their other big acquired property: Marvel.  They started in 2014 when they took a less well know Marvel property Guardians of the Galaxy and had a smash hit with a more, fun and comic take on the superhero genre.  a sequel Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017) followed.  To be fair parts of The Avengers movies were also set in space, and Thor is from another planet.  It wasn’t until Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Taika Waititi’s brilliant but bonkers take on the character that you would call it a space adventure.  After a decade, and about 20 movies Disney finally gave a woman a leading role in a Marvel movie.  While a lot of the movie is based on earth, Captain Marvel (2019) is an intergalactic character, as is Marvels big bad Thanos.  All the characters of the MCU came together to fight an intergalactic battle with the big purple one in Avengers Infinity War (2018) and the biggest film of all time (if you don’t adjust for inflation) Avengers Endgame 2019.  That brings us nicely onto Avatar (2009), with an even higher boxoffice if you adjust for inflation.  James Cameron’s first movie since 1997 when he made a little film about a shipwreck.  As you would expect from Cameron, it made great advances in effects and technology, especially in 3D.  I am not a fan.  As yet he hasn’t made another film yet, but understand he is filming about 100 sequels back to back with the first due for release in about two years. Marvel goes to spaceDC’s ventures into space were less successful.  The Green Lantern (2011) about a group of intergalactic supper powered policemen was rubbish.  Man of Steel (2013) was a reboot of a 1970’s movie about a man called Kal-El who is sent to earth as a baby before his home planet is destroyed.  He ends up fighting against bodies from his home world.  It isn’t bad, but not as good as the 1978, and 1980 movies, and like those movies, all subsequent sequels are terrible. DC and AliensRidley Scott decided that we were all wrong, the most interesting thing about his Movie Alien (1979), and James Cameron’s sequel to it Aliens (1987), wasn’t the Xenomorph, or Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley.  It wasn’t the brilliant world building of the story where corporations are more powerful than countries.  He decided the derelict alien ship, and how the Aliens got there was more important.  He then gave us two extremely average films, Prometheus (2012), and Alien Covenant (2017).  There are some excellent characters that aren’t used very well, and some who don’t know how to run to the side.  almost realLets not be too tough on Ridley Scott, he has given us an excellent movie in the genre, The Martian (2015).  The story of a man left behind on Mars.  This is part of a crop of Sci-Fi movies that feel more realistic and closer to where we are now than Star Wars or Star Trek.  The pick of these for me was Gravity (2013).  A film so spectacular in IMAX 3D (the only good 3D experience I have had) that I have not re-watched it again, it just won’t be the same on TV.  Other films in this sub genre could include Christopher Nolan’s excellent Interstellar (2014), Danny Boyle’s underrated Sunshine (2007), Claire Denis bleak but brilliant High Life (2018), and James Gray’s disappointing Ad Astra (2019).   A film doesn’t have to be fiction, or particularly outlandish to be compelling, providing it is told well, and there are two such examples from the last two years: Damien Chazelle’s telling of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong in the film First Man (2018), and the documentary on the same subject: Apollo 11 (2019).  The latter is breathtaking look at the mission using stunning NASA images, no talking heads, or voiceover. smerfs monkeys aliens and the sunI wouldn’t include Passengers (2016) in the list of realist sci-fi movies, as it is too glossy and Sci-Fi, it is however worth seeing for the interesting plot, that is more disturbing the more you think about it.  Part of the premise of the film is people in hypersleep on their way to a distant planet.  Obviously something always goes wrong in these movies.  Others worth watching are: Pandorum (2009) a film that takes these ideas, and gives them a horror and survival adventure spin.  Pitch Black (2000) is an even better take on the horror space adventure, possibly the best and most original since the first two Alien films.  It’s sequel The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), was terrible, but the third film Riddick (2013) isn’t bad, although its attempt to recreate the original are a little forced.  Life (2017) has the almost real world setting, a fictionalised version of The International Space Station, it rapidly turns into Alien when an alien life form gets loose.  It isn’t Alien, but it isn’t bad. Horror in spaceThe man who gave us The Fifth Element (1997) Luc Besson, was back this century, with another bold and bonkers tale: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017).  The film had mixed reviews, as Besson’s work often does, I liked it.  The title is a little misleading and under serves one of its characters, based on the French science fiction comics series Valérian and Laureline; Laureline is the more interesting character and probably has a larger part in the story than Valérian.  That asside, it is bright and bold and like nothing else, except maybe The Fifth Element!a mix of fact and fantasy (1)Saving the best for last.  When I went to see Joss Whedon’s Serenity (2005), I had not seen (or even heard of) Firefly, I have since watched the whole (short) series more than once.  The movie is nothing short of a masterpiece.  It works whether you have seen the TV show or not.  It is all the more impressive, as it was Whedon’s feature debut as a director.  The budget was less than $40million or about a quarter of Revenge of the Sith that came out the same year.  This doesn’t show, as the film looks amazing, largely thanks to clever photography and practice sets/effects over CGI.  Ticking every box for a space adventure, and a western, the film is fun, and often very funny, but there is a far deeper message about society, about right and wrong, but it is far more nuanced than anything you will get from Disney or Star Wars, it isn’t black and white, or light and dark, The Alliance is not The Empire!SerenityI have probably missed lots, but these are the ones that spring to mind.  I pleased to say the genre is in good health at the movies, and on TV, but that will have to be an entire article in itself. 

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I have had conversations with three people recently (one being my own farther!) who have said they don’t like Sci-Fi.  When asked why they all came up with the same vague answers about it not being real, or realistic and they can’t suspend disbelief if the concept is too far from reality.  But none of them had a problem with unrealistic plots in other films if the film was gunny or exciting.  When challenged they all came up with a Sci-Fi film they actually liked, but hid behind things like, “but its funny” or they like the star.  I didn’t intend to turn into a ardent defender of Sci-Fi or any other genre, but firmly believe there are two types of movie; good and bad, this is true regardless of genre.

With this in mind I have come up with my ultimate list of ten(ish) Sci-Fi films everyone should watch.  I have taken out some of the more challenging movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Solaris (1972), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); anything animated that they may try and dismiss as kids films: Akira (1988), WALL·E (2008); and anything silent: Metropolis (1927).  I have also taken out anything with serious baggage like Star Wars and Star Trek.  We are left with my Must See Sci-Fi list:

Alien (1979) & Aliens (1986)Alien

Blade Runner (1982) blade runner

The Thing (1982)the thing

The Terminator (1984) & T2 (1992)Terminator 2 Judgment Day

Back to the Future (1985)Back to the future

The Matrix (1999)The Matrix

Donnie Darko (2001)Donnie Darko

Serenity (2005)serenity

Children of Men (2006)children of men

Inception (2010)Inception

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At the start of the film Iron Man (2008) you would be forgiven for thinking that you were watching a film set in the real world. As it went on it remained on the edge of reality with the only science fiction being the technological advances of Iron Mans suit. Later the same year The Incredible Hulk (2008) added more sci-fi and fantasy to the story as did Captain America: The First Avenger ( 2011), Thor (2011) and The Avengers ( 2012). Later this month will see the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, a film within the same fictional universe as the Marvel movies but set “In the far reaches of space”. This leads me to ask the question; have you ever noticed that is space set Sci-Fi movies we can never get too far from earth? When I say too far, I am talking I am not talking physical distance. With the exception of Star Wars (1977) most notable “space operas” tend to be set a few (or many) years from now and feature humanity exploring or colonizing other worlds. The other common plot involves returning to a Earth after some near apocalyptic event. I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with films that are tied to earth, humanity and reality but the freedom that George Lucas gave himself and the makers of the new films by setting the first film “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…” is immeasurable.Guardians-of-the-Galaxy

Serenity (2005) Set mainly in the outer worlds away from the Alliance government, it is basically the American west or frontier in the late 19th century, with the addition of space travel. The towns on many of the planets look intentionally like those from western movies. There are no alien life forms or creatures, everything has an old fashioned look to it. This is contrasted with the new and shiny cities on alliance planets. The film uses its settings and the idea of humans colonising the universe to its advantage in the plot of the film. I can’t remember any reference to Earth in the Firefly, the TV show that spawned the movie, but the film starts with the explanation of earth not being able to sustain us so new planets were found and terraformed. This comes back to bite humanity later as we learn what was created in the process. There is a nice symmetry about the way the story creates its own monsters “like the bogeyman from stories”, this gives an extra dimension and meaning to the plot. It makes the back story of the setting integral to the current plot but also grounds it somewhere near reality.serenity

David Lynch’s Dune (1984), is a more complicated story, there is no reference to earth in the film, but there is in Frank Herbert’s source novels (a reference to Chaucer as I remember it). It is the film, after Star Wars that best creates a believable universe. There are planets with different ecosystems and inhabitants. The Spacing Guild acts as an antagonist in the story, with a monopoly on banking and interstellar travel, I have always suspected they were an inspiration for the Trade Federation in Star Wars. At the time of its release, it was hit with the duel criticism of not being faithful to the book at the same time as being unintelligible to anyone who hadn’t read the book. I have never understood this, I saw the film on its initial release when I was around ten years old, several years before I read the book and had no trouble following the plot. We only see a handful of the planets and the people who populate them, as the story is mainly set on the planet Arrakis (also known as Dune) rather than the rocketing around the galaxy. Dune is the centre of the universe because of the presence of Spice, the most valuable substance in the universe. Unlike the McGuffin Unobtainium (Avatar) Spice becomes central to the plot of the film.Dune

Alien (1979)and its sequels are all about humans in space, despite the extraordinary alien creatures the film always has a sense of realism. There is always an unbalance between the working man and the plans of big business. There is always a desire to capture the alien to study and weaponise it, this is both a plot point and the bases for the movies subtext. The themes explored give it more in common with a Bruce Springsteen song or a John Steinbeck novel than with Star Wars. Most of the action in Alien takes place onboard a spaceship. Aliens (1986) relocates the action to the surface of the planet, that is undergoing terraforming leaving the action mainly in an industrial interior.Alien

There is then sub genre of films about protecting the world from an alien invasion or attack. Notable among these are The Fifth Element (1997), Flash Gordon (1980), Starship Troopers (1997). Notable, not for how good they are, but because they leave the confines of earth and are set in part on alien planets. Of these only Flash Gordon does any notable “world building”, but this is largely inspired by earlier film, TV, and comic versions of the story. One of my most anticipated films of the year is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a film that appears from the trailer to be a film about space exploration set in a near future of depleted resources. I’m sure there is more to it than that but the less I know going in the better. interstellar

I understand the reason for tethering a story to earth and humanity, and the emotional connection it gives an audience to the plot and characters, however I want to see something different. Films will always be filled with meaning, metaphor and subtext. A films social and political stance will always be grounded in the era its is from, but cutting the ties from earth and humanity as we know it could be the start to it. I’m not sure if there is a film other than Star Wars set in a totally fictional universe, but if there is I would like to see it. If there isn’t it’s about time someone made it. With a new Star Wars trilogy and at least two stand alone films I think they will have the market cornered, but my hope, and the real reason for this article, can they inspire future generations of film makers the way Star Wars inspired a generation in 1977?A_long_time_ago

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On episode 5 of the Film Don’t Hurt podcast Kai and Dylan talk about a list devised on The Vulture of the best 25 action movies since die hard. You can see what they came up with HERE. While I don’t disagree with any of there list (except Suppercop that I haven’t seen) I have my own ideas so thought I would come up with my own list. Die Hard is probably my favourite action movie. I have stated many times that it reinvented the genre. While this is largely true, if you look at it from a different point of view, it also killed the genre. Through the 70’s and 80’s action meant big men like Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Lundgren. With Die Hard Bruce Willis made it possible for the everyman to be an action hero. Then through the 90’s things changed with the rise of comic book movies and directors like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich who just want to blow shit up. I like comic book movies but am a board of blowing shit up movies as reflected in my list. It was surprisingly difficult, there are at least another fifteen movies I would have liked to have included. I couldn’t decide on the order for the list. The best movies or the ones that represent the genre best. I decided to go for a chronological list, firstly for simplicity but I also think it gives an interesting overview of the changes in the genre. I used the same three simple rules:

Not every movie with action in it is an action movie. (it had to be a film that wouldn’t make any sense if you took all the action scenes out)

Only one film per franchise.

No animation.

Nikita (1990)nikita
Total Recall (1990)Total Recall
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)Terminator 2 Judgment Day
Point Break (1991)Point-Break Utah and Bodhi
Hard Boiled (1992)hard boiled
Speed (1994)Speed
The Crow (1994)The Crow
Desperado (1995)Desperado
Run Lola Run (1998)Run Lola Run
Taxi (1998)taxi
The Matrix (1999)The Matrix
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Gladiator (2000)Gladiator
Battle Royale (2000)Battle Royale
Blade II (2002)Blade 2
The Bourne Identity (2002)The Bourne Identity
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)uma thurman kill bill
District 13 (2004)District 13
Serenity (2005)river
Batman Begins (2005) (I prefer The Dark Knight but Batman Begins is more of an action film)Batman Begins
Casino Royale (2006)Casino Royale
Apocalypto (2006)Apocalypto
300 (2006)300
Doomsday (2008)Rhona Mitra Doomsday
Avengers Assemble (2012)Marvel Avengers Assemble
 

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As I work on my inevitable list of best films of 2012 I started thinking about Argo. Not the Ben Affleck film that we saw, but the un-filmed Star Wars rip-off Sci-Fi movie that featured in it. For as long as I can remember Star Wars has been essential Christmas viewing, but why? Probably because as an action adventure fantasy film it is yet to be surpassed. It is often stated that Star Wars changed films for ever, it certainly built on the idea of the summer blockbuster that began with Jaws two years before. All this is most probably true, but surprisingly Star Wars has never inspired a successful and credible action adventure set within a alien universe. The greatest failing of most of them is an unnecessary attempt to ground the plot in the reality or to earth, this is true from The Last Starfighter (1984) through to Avatar (2009). It worked for Star Trek as the idea of humanity exploring space was central to the premise. After its cancellation in 1969, it gained cult status, around the time of Star Wars a plan to resurrect the television series as Star Trek: Phase II.  It was a planned and quickly abandoned, ideas from the pilot were however saved and became Star Trek (1979). The  highlights of the film series that followed are: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and the reboot Star Trek (2009). 1977 star wars

The latest failed attempt of the genre was John Carter (2012) based on A Princess of Mars by (Tarzan author) Edgar Rice Burroughs. So uncomfortable in its own skin the producers dropped the Sci-Fi “of Mars” title from the movie shortly before it hit cinema screens. Telling the story of a civil war era gent who is transported to Mars that is going through its own Civil War. A lot of the story involves the fish out of water scenarios as Carter adapts to the culture of the society and then imports his own sensibility. Going back to the time of Star Wars, the biggest of the early attempts to cash in on the Star Wars was unsurprisingly by Disney. The Black Hole (1979) had a budget of around $20million, around double that of Star Wars but only grossed around the same as Star Wars took in its first weekend. There is a good reason, for all its technical accomplishments, the movie is just plain dull. I have seen it at least twice and remember very little about it. With a budget of around $4million Starcrash (1978) is certainly low budget but isn’t quite the Z Movie it is often claimed to be. Poorly acted with terrible effects and unintentionally funny moments it isn’t very good. However it does deserve a certain amount of praise as a low budget movie that has grander ambitions than many of its contempt competitors, it is also good silly fun at times.

Starcrash

The one success of the genre (artistically if not financially) was Flash Gordon (1980). The plot is a rehash of the original thirteen part film serial starring Buster Crabbe from 1936. One of the reasons the movie looks so good and worked so well is the retro design including long shiny almost phallic spaceships that were inspired by the original 1930’s comic books. The result is utter camp, the characters and the performances are totally bonkers and over the top in the vein of Barbarella (1968). All this was held together by a an equally camp and over the top score by Queen.

Flash Gordon

The story goes that David Lynch turned down Return of the Jedi instead opting to replace Ridley Scott as the director of Dune (1984). Unlike most people, I am glad he did. I first saw Dune on video in 1985 and loved it. A few years later I read the first three or four of Frank Herbert’s novels. It was the first David Lynch film I saw, I have seen and loved everything he has made since. The movie shares producer Dino De Laurentiis with Flash Gordon, that is where the similarity ends. While Flash Gordon is fun and camp, Dune is sombre serious but when you strip away all the religious symbolism, mythology and the ideas of loyalty and betrayal it is simply a story of trade and politics, possibly an allegory for the fight for the control of the worlds supply. The TV mini series is heralded as a superior adaptation, it may be but it is painfully dull, something the movie can not be accused of even in its three hour cut.Dune

Star Wars often plays like a western set in space.  This is where the genre has found the most sucess.  A film that took this idea a stage further was the Roger Corman produced Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) that took its plot from Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai. It has a certain degree of pedigree with a screenplay by John Sayles, a score composed by James Horner, and the special effects directed by a young James Cameron. A similar idea had been attempted in the “High Noon in space” Outland (1981) with Sean Connery in the Gary Cooper role. Not a classic, but far better than its reputation. The best space western is probably Serenity (2005) based on the too short-lived TV show Firefly (2002-2003). It is still rooted in the reality of humanity but unlike the movies that suffer for this, Serenity plays its hand perfectly.Battle Beyond the Stars

The Star Wars prequels failed to live up to their billing, will the new Disney produced movies be more successful or will we have to wait for someone else to create a new Space Opera in a believable alien universe? Star Wars: Episode VII is expected in 2015.

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Another strong decade, 2004 and 2009 only just missed out.

2000: Almost Famous, Battle Royale, The Claim, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Memento

2001: Mulholland Drive, Donnie Darko: Amelie, Training Day, Y Tu Mamá También

2002: City of God, 28 Days Later, Talk to Her, Hero, Punch-Drunk Love

2003: Oldboy, Kill Bill vol 1, Lost in Translation, X2, Azumi

2005: Sin City, Batman Begins, The Descent, Good Night and Good Luck, Serenity

2006: Pan’s Labyrinth, Casino Royale, Children of Men, Miami Vice (I know I’m of about three people who like it), The Departed

2007: Juno, No Country For Old Men, The Orphanage, Death Proof, Into the Wild

2008: The Dark Knight, The Hurt Locker, In Bruges, Let the Right One In, Gran Torino

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