Category Archives: Science Fiction

TIFF Review: The Martian (2015)

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The Martian (2015)

 

 

I Origins (2014)

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The cleverness of Mike Cahill’s latest, “I Origins” stretches way beyond the title itself, but it’s as good a place to start as any. Presenting the fairly new prospect of cataloging the entire human race through iris recognition, “I Origins” takes a fantastical twist into much more profound philosophical territory. An arduous trek for validation to all that we consider hallow and priceless. A search for individual definition and a unanimous understanding of our universe, both spiritually and scientifically.

Looking through a lens of such broad, unfathomable depth, it feels down-right irresponsible to define “I Origins” by the placement of this witty, otherwise utterly precise homophone, but if the contact fits… Regardless, I’m sure this relative synopsis of “I Origins” will only further discourage those intimidated by the sheer magnitude of what Cahill proposed with “Another Earth,” from ever seeing it. You know, alternate universes, tears in the very fabric of space and what not. If these topics flabbergast and frighten you, what’s beyond will surely send you into fits of cardiac-arrest, as I assure you the scale of “I Origins'” grasp couldn’t possibly reach any further.

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It’s difficult to break-down what Cahill is proposing with “I Origins” into manageable portions while trying simultaneously not to get caught up in their scope. I mean, we’re literally left to decipher the direction of our compass as a conscious being. That being said, one can’t help but become transfixed by what’s on display here. The science of it all is enough on its own to discombobulate and overwhelm, like a virus. And that’s a mere superficial blemish compared to where “I Origins” delves. A place where belief and fact collide like charged particles in an acceloator. Leaving us aware of our predetermined doom, scattered about desperately searching for answers to unanswerable questions. Yet, perhaps what’s most engaging, conversely infuriating about “I Origins” is that it doesn’t exactly provide a formidable solution. However, much like the things we cling to for meaningless solace during our brief existence, it does act as a sedative, a distraction, a numbing agent.

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This war between religion and science is nothing new and as a result, predictably so, “I Origins” offers nothing imperative to its resolution. “I Origins” simply explores where either road will lead you. That said, one must invest genuinely to reap its benefits. If there’s been one thing consistent about Mike Cahill’s body of work it’s that the viewer must be willing, at any given moment, to entrust their experience entirely to Cahill and his vision. We might be asked to skip a few steps along the way, forgive the occasional absence of slight details or the probability of suspect coincidences. In the end however, our reward outweighs the risk.

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The performances aren’t imperative to a successful experience here. One can’t help but feel that “I Origins” would’ve been better off as a documentary rather than a romantic drama infused with frequently incomprehensible elements of sci-fi. But, each character does come off as believable, creating the right amount of sympathy and intrigue. Michael Pitt keeps getting stronger, Brit Marling is as entrancing as ever, Steven Yeun will have to settle for ‘Walking Dead’ fame at the moment, and Astrid Berges-Frisbey is surprisingly memorable. Most importantly though, it’s clear that each cast member understood the insignificance and subtlety that defined their respective characters. Yes, they’re to represent humanity, but buy and large, they’re a progressing agent.

Without question, “I Origins” is Mike Cahill’s most visually impressive picture to date. Where his previous efforts, such as “Another Earth” tackled the macro universe, “I Origins” is a veritable microscope. Cahill has really solidified his delicate touch and flaunts it. Some might find the visual contrasts too dissonant, ranging from cringe-worthy dismemberment to angelic symbolism, but there’s no denying the stimulation that accompanies it. Yet, perhaps the biggest surprise of Cahill’s latest is the musical accompaniment composed by Will Bates and Phil Mossman. A film that can barely keep grounded is lifted to even dizzier heights by a soundtrack of such epic proportions.

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I choose to believe that too much ambition is never a bad thing. I applaud Mike Cahill endlessly for the leaps of faith and fact he took to arrive at his fully formed vision and will never condemn him for exercising it. It’s a cloudy, often beautiful, yet oddly empty vision, but something to marvel nonetheless. Unfortunately, we live within the bounds of reality, so at its core, “I Origins” is mere assumptions and hypothesis. There’s a lot of material to digest split by merit and belief. Coincidentally, what this concoction of opposites accomplishes is a hollow victory. Easy on the eyes rather than thought-provoking fodder. However, it’s occasional spurts of brilliance rooted in research and passion makes “I Origins” noteworthy, watchable. Nevertheless, tackling the human eye’s ‘Irreducible Complexity’ head on is admirable no matter which way you slice it.

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I ORIGINS: 8 OUT OF 10

The Last Days On Mars (2013)

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Ruairi Robinson’s “The Last Days On Mars” sure picked one hell of a time to unveil. With sci-fi stunners like “Europa Report” and Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar heavyweight “Gravity” already lighting up the screen so far this year, it appears this horrific space adventure is a tad too late to the party. That being said, although it certainly doesn’t measure up to its brethren’s immense successes, this little tale about a group of astronauts fighting off their colleagues turned space-zombies offers up a few moments of pure brilliance and one heck of a soundtrack. Make no mistake, this flick is only related to the previously mentioned gems by label only. Their content, premises, and aspirations are in no way alike. While all three are technically science-fiction, their sub-genres greatly differ. “Gravity” is more of a thriller, “Europa Report” a mix between mockumentary and drama, and our current subject “The Last Days On Mars,” is without question, a horror. So one must critique accordingly.

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Reading through some of the more harsh reviews out there, I noticed terms like “over-saturation” and “generic” getting tossed around, not to mention the opinion floating about that another perfectly sublime sci-fi epic was ruined by falling back to convention and common ploys. Then you have those claiming that “The Last Days On Mars” failed when compared to the genre’s efforts this year, and to their credit, they’re idiotically accurate. Of course it crumbles when lining it up alongside films like “Gravity,” the two aren’t even in the same league! All this criticism does is make it easy for those on the fence to get caught up in the negativity surrounding “The Last Days On Mars” and disparage it all together. When in actuality, it’s anything but your run-of-the-mill space horror. The acting is strong, the visuals breathtaking, and the soundtrack rivals those of past, great sci-fi epics. There is value here, one just needs to look beyond the mistakes.

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“The Last Days On Mars” is a lot like a plate of food you receive at a fancy banquet hall or that someone has ordered for you…instead of throwing it away, just pick around what you don’t like. Sure, you could be a baby about it and toss the whole meal out all together and miss out on something spectacular, or you can live a little and swallow the occasional bitterness just to say you had. This film, this plate, this smorgasbord of space, spectacle, sensation, and slaughter might be chaotic, inconceivable, and tired, but it’s also beautiful, stimulating, and rewarding. I can tell you in confidence that there is a hell of a lot things I genuinely loved about “The Last Days On Mars,” and yeah, a few that didn’t sit well with me. Yet, I’m not going to throw something away just because I don’t particularly like or agree with all of it, which is what a lot of viewers seem to be doing with this polarizing look at exploration and discovery.

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Director Ruairi Robinson makes his full-length feature debut with “The Last Days On  Mars,” and for the most part, it’s a reassuring, impressive one at that. He’s a little shaky from time to time, but doesn’t get too comfortable in his mistakes. At times, his quick movements and jumping around will nauseate you a tad, but other than a few questionable scenes, it’s a successful outing. There’s moments he captures of such beauty and atmosphere that they’ll leave you shaking your head in disbelief. If there is a weak spot in the film, it’s the screenplay. Scribed by Clive Dawson, the structure can seem nonexistent at times and the story a little worn out. That being said, there are some lines of dialogue that blew me away and moments of excellent substance that make up for any wrong doings.

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Max Richter, who’s probably best known for his musical contributions to Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” composes the original score for this flick…and what a score it is. I mean, What can I say? After I finished watching “The Last Days On Mars” I went and bought the soundtrack…that’s probably the best summary I can give. Go and give it a listen, you won’t be disappointed. As for the cast, led by Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, and Romola Garai, I felt they really grounded the film, gave it that human element is desperately needed. They frequently executed Dawson’s dialogue to heartbreaking effectiveness and melded into a dysfunctional, occasionally funny family on the edge of collapse and death in the middle of nowhere. Granted, things could have been a little stronger and consistent on the acting front, but for what they’re given, this cast does a respectable job.

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Look, this ain’t Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine,” Duncan Jones “Moon,” or Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” It has similar themes, motivations…you know, some fragments of those films, but not to the same extent, nor is it as thoroughly executed. Odds are if zombies in space isn’t a flavour you prefer, this film isn’t for you. That being said, its stunning visuals, transcendent score, and powerful characters make “The Last Days On Mars” a notch above the genre’s drivel, enough anyway to make it recommended viewing.

The Last Days On Mars: 7.5 out of 10.

 

TIFF 2013: Under the Skin (2013)

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It’s essentially a foregone conclusion that everyone on this planet has a fear of something or someone. Anyone who tells you different or that they are fearless is down-right idiotic, lying, or inhuman. To fear is to live. Now, you’ve got your typical fears of sensible, common, physical things, for example: spiders, ghosts, storms, clowns, etc… Then, there are psychological trepidations such as: social anxiety, heights, being alone…things that are a little bit harder to understand and empathize with. Regardless however, for the most part, the things that draw the ire of our dread can be avoided, accepted, tolerated. And for the most part we can continue living day-to-day without our fears ruling over our existence. That being said, the majority of us have a fear that exceeds all bounds of comprehension, rationality, and common sense. They leave us inconsolable, paralyzed…just a complete wreck. Not everyone has despair this extreme, but the ones who do know what a nightmare it can be.

Now, you’re all probably wondering to yourselves, “what does this have to do with the review?” Well, it just so happens that my unbearable fear, I’d even go as far as to call it a phobia, happens to be aliens. You know, the kind that travel amongst the stars, searching for habitable planets or resources and settle into Earth to begin exterminating us. It’s quite ironic actually, I’m an avid stargazer and enjoy being an amateur astronomer, cosmologist if you will. So I’m rather knowledgable when it comes to the cosmos, therefore completely convinced that extraterrestrial life exists and have come to peace with it. I am aware that the way these foreign creatures are depicted in films, novels, and media is inaccurate and for the most part is just science fiction being science fiction. Yet somehow, it still manages to make my skin crawl. So you can imagine how conflicted I was being a cinephile aching to see “Under the Skin.” While the film doesn’t portray alien life to the same negative extreme as sci-fi epics such as “War of the Worlds.” It still consists of a foreign life form consuming and ending human lives…so I was a little weary.

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Nonetheless, we are here. I watched the film at TIFF and survived the experience. To be honest, it wasn’t even as bad as I originally anticipated. I concluded it to be because the alien was cloaked in Scarlett Johansson’s skin. And if I was to be murdered, then digested by an extraterrestrial, I’d prefer it to be at the hands of one who looks exactly like Scarlett Johansson. Not to mention, I’d manage to find a way to come to peace with the fact that the last thing I saw was Mrs. Johansson completely naked…but that’s besides the point. The film is, in my opinion, quite remarkable. It’s a highly visual, highly artistic exploration into this typically high-budgeted, explosion-filled science-fiction trope. It is, without question the most unique film I experienced at this years festivities and I officially dub it my sleeper hit of the festival…if that means anything to anyone at all.

Based on the novel of the same title by Michel Faber, “Under the Skin” tells the tale of an alien sent by a massive corporation from her home planet to capture unimportant, family-less, lonely hitchhikers. She is then to return them for fattening and sale as human meat is a delicacy on her planet. But believe me, it offers so much more than this disturbing premise in the sense of underlying themes and content. The story is one of the more intriguing, intelligible aspects of the film. Touching upon several significant, socio-political, and controversial topics: humanity, mercy, farming, sex, and business morals being the most prominent. Although, in my opinion, the film could have better explored and expanded these themes, much the same as Faber’s novel did. Jonathan Glazer, the director of “Under the Skin” does a sublime job packing in all the lyricism, relevance, and symbolism from its source into the hour and forty minute runtime.

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Set in the Scottish countryside, “Under the Skin” has no shortage of serene, stunning scenery. It is immaculately captured by Glazer, who superlatively masks the vibrancy and naturally enthralling element of northern Scotland and drenches it with the dreary, shadowed nature of the film. Visually, it might appear all doom and gloom, but there is something uplifting, chilling about its epic atmosphere. Alongside, Glazer accompanies his complex, hypnotic story and dark setting with an entrancing, terrifying score composed by Mica Levi. The soundtrack really completes the film’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” feel with its ominous tones and horrifyingly abrupt shifts. No doubt, if you prefer the lack of emotion and drama in  “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it’s subtle intellect and deceptiveness. “Under the Skin” will serve as an excellent update to a sub-genre that’s recently lost its way.

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For the most part “Under the Skin” relies on the beauty and seductiveness of its female lead, played by the aforementioned Scarlett Johansson. Who, I forgot to mention is unfathomably stunning here, both physically and in her portrayal. She elegantly captures the dark, at times satirical humour of the film drawn on by awkward encounters and familiarizing herself with our planet’s customs, not to mention her own body. However, as impressive and memorable as her physical and socially inept performance may be. Watching her stoic, cold-blooded alien transform into an emotionally conscious and understanding being is the highlight of the film without question. Apart from Johansson, “Under the Skin” is practically void of a cast, which makes her portrayal all the more amazing. Nevertheless, the supporting ensemble, despite not being on screen for more than 5 minutes individual, do a fantastic job selling the premise and evoking strong reactions.

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Deeply intelligent, highly visual, and featuring an outstanding performance from Scarlett Johansson. Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is one of the films to watch out for in 2014 and is sure to be a cult smash. I recommend it be infused into the science fiction canon.

Under the Skin: 9 out of 10.

TIFF 2013: Gravity (2013)

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Visually striking, unfathomably straining, and performed to near perfection. In space, no one may be able to hear you scream, but the Oscar buzz surrounding Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” travels infinitely and is completely deafening. It’s consistently destructive, awe-inspiring, and unbearably tense. The flick’s climactic nature makes for a non-stop thrill-ride that will leave you craving the solidarity and silence of the void, when or if you are able to survive. Undoubtedly, this will be the most physically and mentally draining 90 minutes you’ll ever spend in a cinema. If you’ve never felt the insignificance of your own life, you’ll surely feel microscopic against the staggering backdrop that is our universe. Cuaron’s visual effects and relentless action are tremendously enthralling, but are a mere bonus to “Gravity’s” true brilliance… Which is the inevitable, disconcerting truth that no matter how far we stretch from the bounds of Earth, we will never truly leave the atmosphere.

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PLOT:

Engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is on her first space shuttle mission. Accompanying her is veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) who is on his final expedition. During a routine spacewalk to issue some repairs to the Hubble telescope, debris from a satellite collides with the space shuttle Explorer. The impact delivers catastrophic damage to the ship, kills the other astronauts on board the ship, and leaves Stone spinning alone in space. Now, with no means of communication to Earth, Kowalsky must retrieve Stone and the two must figure out a way to return to Earth.

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Listen, I’m a sucker when it comes to specific sub-genres, and none more so than sci-fi driven by actual science, space, and drama. Granted, there isn’t exactly a name for this particular tangent, but we all know the films that fall into the category. They are astonishing feats of cinema that reach out and connect with our humanity, leave us in awe of the universe and marvelling at our technological advances. Films such as Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine,” Duncan Jones’ “Moon,” and more recently Sebastian Cordero’s “Europa Report.” These films capture the very essence of science-fiction while never forgetting our benevolence, flaws, and irrelevance. The visuals are unprecedented and leave the audience winded. It’s nearly impossible to find a cinematic experience that rivals this strand’s immaculacy and for good reason. I can tell you with pure confidence that “Gravity” is the newest and possible best member of my favourite genre.

Now, you might think that my passion for this very precise sub-genre hampers my ability to distinguish the truly brilliant from the utterly lacking. When in actuality, it’s quite the contrary. If anything, my fascination has made me even more skeptical and critical of new entries. I respect the art too much to compromise it with childish crushes. So when I tell you that Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” is resplendent, heart-stopping, and impassioned…you better believe I am telling you the truth. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever witnessed on the big screen. Which is why I can deem it the best film I saw at TIFF 2013 without hesitation. And the argument could be made that I attended a majority of the screenings for Oscar favourites at the festival, such as “12 Years a Slave,” “The Fifth Estate,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “August: Osage County,” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” So it’s not like I’m comparing it to mediocrity. There’s no doubt in my mind that you will not see a better film than “Gravity” released so far this year. As for November and December releases, only time will tell, but I can’t see it being trumped.

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The film itself literally has no weaknesses. From the soundtrack, the story, its graphics and performances. “Gravity” is as completely and structurally sound as they come. Even more astonishing is the scientific, visual, and technological authenticity. And of course with astronaut Chris Hadfield on hand to verify the film’s successes at the screening, I rendered it pointless to argue. The story is not overly complex, but it is real and believable. Which is why I feel it is so effective and relatable. With “Gravity,” Cuaron definitely understands that less is more. Once you’ve settled in for the ride, there is no escaping. You might as well strap yourself into a spacesuit, buckle up, and prepare for the physically and mentally draining journey that is “Gravity.”

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From the get go, two things hit you, the music and the imagery. And there’s this beautiful dissonance between the two that you have to experience to believe. The original score shifts, swiftly I might add from a sweet, atmospheric hum to a terrifying, exploding, tense onslaught that wreaks havoc on your nerves. It’s similar to an ascending, ear-piercing rumble that, at a point becomes impossible to withstand. It is undeniably one of the most definitive, creative soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Alongside the score in this intoxicating concoction is Cuaron’s stunning, panoramic imagery that’ll leave you breathless and in disbelief. All I can say is that it’s sure to resonate with you long after the closing credits. Above all however, is the genuine interpretation of the space just outside our planet. All the beauty that the universe has to offer present in “Gravity” is no substitute for the authenticity on display here.

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As revolutionary, engaging, and stunning as Cuaron’s sci-fi thriller is, the fact of the matter is that “Gravity” would be totally lost without its two phenomenal stars. Leads George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are thoroughly outstanding and remind us all of their deep talent and why they are so revered in the first place. The truth is that it’s been a while since either have tastefully and fully wowed cinephiles, but no longer. Even more remarkable is what makes their performances so compelling and down-right impressive. It’s not merely the conventional dramatic element, although they do provide that abundantly. The duo’s physical maneuvers and delicate mannerisms in the vacuum is what really stupefies. It is immensely strenuous and difficult to make it look like your floating and working in space. Yet Clooney and Bullock pull it off with sheer immaculacy and make it look so easy. Their performances are just another facet  in “Gravity’s” long line of sublime accomplishments.

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As totally immersive of an experience that you’ll likely ever be apart of in a cinema. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” is performed flawlessly, visually impeccable, and as a whole, matchless.

Gravity: 10 out of 10.

Elysium (2013)

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Following up a revolutionary blockbuster such as “District 9” is no easy task. One that the director and writer of said film Neill Blomkamp was charged with completing. While his follow up “Elysium” might not be as avant-garde as its predecessor, it certainly doesn’t pull any punches. Granted, the story’s themes might feel a tad worn and the plot is occasionally dotted with structural and character cliches. Nonetheless, Blomkamp continues to dream big and it is this very trait which makes him so well respected and important in the filmmaking industry. Even though he still might need time to perfect capturing his immense ideals. The fact that he has continued the trend is a great sign for cinephiles. “Elysium” offers enough sci-fi thrills and ingenuity, in addition to a smart, albeit familiar socio-political message to blow summer audiences away.

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In the year 2154, the wealthy have fled Earth to live on a space station orbiting our planet called Elysium. The rest of the population is left to inhabit what remains of our desolate, disease-ridden planet. Max Da Costa (Damon), an ex-con, lives in the ruins of Los Angeles working for a manufacturing company. After being exposed to a lethal amount of radiation, Max seeks the help of a fellow criminal who is dead-set on transferring Earth’s population to Elysium using any means necessary.  Upon being melded with an exoskeletal device, Max, with the help of a small team sets out to infiltrate Elysium, and hopefully be completely healed by a med-pod.

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Definitely the fortuitous recipient of a keen eye for stunning imagery. Whether it be natural or CGI. Neill Blomkamp exudes both effortlessly and utilizes this seemingly inherited gift to maximum effectiveness in “Elysium.” Although this tremendous talent is miraculous all on its own. The fact that he does not, like most big-budget blockbuster directors, get bogged down in the process of large-scale fabrication is perhaps more respectable and to an even further extent, more remarkable than the skill itself.

Now, this goes without saying, Blomkamp’s logical and moderate use of computer generated images by no means hampers or discredits “Elysium,” or “District 9” for that matter. Not getting caught up in the over-falsification of visuals is a testament to Blomkamp’s direction and unwavering motivation to keep the viewer just as focused on the story and its characters. Between Elysium itself, the droids, and his futuristic flying machines. Blomkamp clearly hasn’t lost his imagination or his capability to transpose his ideals to reality, regardless of how minutely imperfect the adaptation might be. Not to mention the facial reconstruction scene, which is easily the most breathtaking sequence in the film. With “Elysium,” he might not be able to hypnotize the audience as well as he did with “District 9,” but it isn’t that much of a drop off either.

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Speaking of “Elysium’s” story, it might be one you’re familiar with. I mean, a dystopian future where only the rich and powerful thrive isn’t exactly a plot unheard of in cinema. However, make no mistake, Blomkamp has made this common yarn his own with some clever additions, but more importantly, with unflinching violence and pure content.

“Elysium” is what I like to call an adult blockbuster. While many high-budget summer flicks, more specifically the superhero sub-genre dull down their content and violence in order to appeal to a wider audience and simply make more revenue. There is a tradeoff and it is usually a weaker pull to more mature audiences or it is not received well by the general consensus. This is not the case with Blomkamp’s “Elysium.” There is some instances of brutal carnage, gore, and magnified violence, but it is tasteful and relevant to the story. Nor does Blomkamp dilute the more challenging aspects of the story. Now, “Elysium”  might not be the mind-bender we all thought it’d be, but it’s still more intelligent than half of the films released during this season. Nothing in Blomkamp’s fictitious world exists for the sake of excess. Essentially, what you see is what you get, Blomkamp gives the audience credit and respect and receives it in return.

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Perhaps the most consistent and unforgettable aspect of “Elysium” is its tremendous performances. Featuring actors of brilliance such as Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Jodie Foster, William Fichtner, and Alice Braga. It quickly becomes clear that no matter how typical and cliched “Elysium’s” story and script might be. The cast is undoubtedly capable of carrying a majority of the load. As far as tragically underused actors go, Alice Braga and William Fichtner continue to add fuel to the fire. Both do phenomenal jobs in supporting roles and are a beautiful contrast to one another. I must admit that I’m not a big Jodie Foster fan, but she took me by surprise. She gives an excellent performance as some form of anti-hero and truly teases the audience.

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It has been proven time and time again, whether it be through box office numbers or critical acclaim. That Matt Damon is, without question, able to play the hero. So, with “Elysium,” Damon might not be challenging himself the way we might have hoped. Nonetheless, he does prove that the well hasn’t dried up. He might not be as effectively used as he was in the “Bourne” trilogy. Regardless, he exudes everything that compiles a summer action-hero. As much as I love Sharlto Copley as the protagonist in “District 9” and “Europa Report.” His antagonist portrayal is oozing with villainy. Mixing in comedic elements, sufficient hand-to-hand combat, and an unprecedented ruthlessness. Copley easily gives the best performance of the entire ensemble.

Superbly acted, mesmerizingly directed, and visually amazing. Neill Blomkamp and cast create another mildly-budgeted summer triumph that will kick you off your feet.

Elysium: 7.5 out of 10.

District 9 (2009)

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A disheartening, realistic, and utterly original take on humanity’s first encounter with an extraterrestrial species. “District 9” is riveting cinema at its finest and packs quite the emotional wallop. Combining fast-paced action, morality, and a brilliant socio-political influence. This sci-fi drama stings, lingers, and is by no means easy to watch. It is an endless serenade of stunning visuals and superb performances, which brilliantly compliments the endearing story at its core. It is the first full-length feature directed by up-and-comer Neill Blomkamp and is also the cinematic debut for lead actor Sharlto Copley. Both of whom do an absolutely superlative job in their respective roles. While it may not have the traditional large-scale destruction or typical villainous twist. “District 9” is gut-wrenching, cosmically astounding, and incredibly satisfying.

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An alien mothership floats gently above Johannesburg in South Africa. An investigation team enters the ship and discovers a population of sick and malnourished extraterrestrials, soon refereed to as Prawns. This species is confined to District 9 which is a government camp just outside of the city. Not long after, the city grows uneasy with their new neighbours and protests are not far behind. Eventually, the South African government decides to move the Prawns to a new internment camp using the MNU (Multinational United). However, during the routine transfer, things slowly begin to go awry.

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Although “Avatar” may have demolished “District 9” at the box office, predictably. In the long run, the shadow James Cameron’s epic cast over Blomkamp’s modestly-budgeted sci-fi experiment was more of a high-priced mirage. Granted, Cameron’s CGI is striking, atmospheric, and haunting. That being said, for the price, Blomkamp’s achievement is much more impressive, essentially a cinematic stroke of genius. Throw in a more compelling, plausible story, thoroughly outstanding performances, and action sequences that get the viewers heart-racing viewing after viewing. Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” is entirely more entertaining and a much more diverse and rewarding film experience. Which deservedly earns it staying power that will long outlive “Avatar’s” temporarily topnotch graphics. By no means am I discrediting Cameron as a filmmaker, I respect, appreciate, and enjoy all of his films. However, simply put, Blomkamp’s work here is truly mesmerizing and faultless.

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What utterly sets Blomkamp’s “District 9” apart from the bottomless cesspool  of haphazard, drivel sci-fi flicks that do nothing but dilute the genre to a point of irretrievable inaneness is its ability to strike at the viewers jugular. There are many points in which deplorable, inhuman behaviour and acts really make the audience cringe. Yet, Blomkamp is able to simultaneously retain the viewers attention with pure intentions, awe, and merciful innocence. It’s as serious and dark as it is playful and bright. Blomkamp is able to subject his audience to both sides of the coin, making it an unprecedented movie experience. And for this, Blomkamp was rewarded. Garnering 4 Oscar nominations on a mere 30 million dollar budget, compared to Avatar’s 237 million (roughly). “District 9” is truly a triumph and all comparisons aside, is a prime example of what cinema should be: imaginative, emotive , smart, and visually stellar.

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Not to be overlooked in this modern day masterpiece is the performances of its relatively unknown cast, especially Sharlto Copley. While “District 9” is thoroughly appealing to all the cinematic senses and it does owe the majority of its success to creator Neill Blomkamp. Who, by the way, does a magnificent job with control of the camera for a first timer. The cast of this miraculous sci-fi drama does deserve a significant portion of recognition as is it what completes the story and brings it to life.

Amongst the deserving recipients are the scientists, tv crews, etc… In the  faux-documentary aspect of the film, they do a marvellous job authentically creating the hype, fear, and human aspect of the invasion. Not to be left out are the government officials, war criminals, and supporting cast members to the main protagonist. Although occasionally portrayed as heartless, conceded, and villainous, these cast members do convey what we hope doesn’t happen behind closed doors. Nonetheless, no matter how evil, they do a lovely job making the viewer hate them. Finally, Sharlto Copley, who is flawless in the lead role, should earn the most kudos. Never have I witnessed a first-time performer steal the show as Copely did completely throughout “District 9.” If sci-fi thrillers aren’t you’re preference, at least view this film simply for Copely’s performance.

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Original, captivating, and occasionally disturbing. Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” will hopefully kick-start the genre and continue to be irrefutable prof that you don’t need a big budget to make an instant classic.

District 9: 9 out of 10.

Upstream Color (2013)

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Staggeringly beautiful and disconcertingly haunting right down to the microscopic level. Upstream Colour is a delicate, interwoven fabric that, much like everything in existence, has an intricate, atomic balance at its core to upkeep in order for it to flourish. If there is even a slight miscue, the film in its entirety would implode. Yet astoundingly, Upstream Colour strikes an unparalleled equilibrium between its content that ranges from severely bizarre, decidedly violent, and remorselessly disheartening. Written, directed, and produced by Shane Carruth, who follows up his first full-length feature Primer with something equally as confusing. And even though it may not be as obscure, it is certainly as innovative and brilliant. Upstream Colour is overwhelmingly melancholic for the majority, but if you can stand it, the reward is unlike anything else you’ve every felt while watching a film.

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PLOT: SPOILERS!

Kris (Seimetz) is abducted by the Thief (Thiago Martins) and infected with a worm, which is used to brainwash her.  After the Thief successfully completes his transgressions, he hands Kris over to the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who transfers the worm into a pig. The transfer of this worm establishes a connection between Kris and the pig and allows the Sampler to witness the victims experiences. Essentially, each time the Sampler approaches a pig, he can see what is going on in that persons life. The Sampler uses these experiences to create music which he sells through his record company. When a pig needs to be discarded, it is tossed into a lake. The Orchid Mother (Kathy Carruth) and Orchid Daughter (Meredith Burke) collect the orchids which have been latched onto by the worm from the deceased pig. When Kris meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), the two strike up a loving relationship, but soon uncover dark secrets about one another.

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Shane Carruth’s evolution from Primer to Upstream Colour is unbelievably remarkable and unprecedented. Anything that was somewhat amiss in his directorial debut has been touched-up and perfected. Not only has he ditched the incoherency, shadiness, and lack of emotional integrity that remotely plagued Primer. Carruth has infused a sense of awe and wonderment that was vacant throughout his debut, as well as adding the significance of empathy. Carruth has always had the intellect, intrigue, and drive to accomplish riveting and vivid filmmaking. Nevertheless, now that he has merged his craft with the heart and sentimentality needed to spawn truly complete pictures. Carruth’s growth has made him an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with, regardless if you respect his films or not.

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It is exceedingly difficult to capture the transcendent, disturbing, atmospheric, sociopathic Upstream Colour in mere words. A similar problem fell upon  Primer, as it frustrated and isolated countless viewers. With Upstream Colour, even more so than Primer. Carruth’s idealistic and resourceful search for honesty and truth in fictional settings has left myself and many others speechless. Not to say that time travel, inter-species splicing, or multi-brain connectivity will never exist. Simply put, as of the moment, these futuristic ideals are radical and irrational. Regardless, Carruth’s ability to birth these unique, futuristic irregularities is unrivalled as of the moment and inadvertently makes him one of the most forward-thinking, original, and creatively outstanding individuals in cinema today.

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Aside from relying heavily on the shocking and passionate nature of Carruth’s script. Upstream Colour found itself a very favourable and capable lead in Amy Seimetz. She showcases extreme diversity and talent stretching her emotional capabilities to an unmatched extent. Watching her performance, one can’t help but feel bewildered and exhausted. It’s unnerving to see how calm and composed she remains throughout despite, or perhaps in spite of the events she has withstood. Seimetz’s co-star who also happens to be Shane Carruth who pulls multiple duties once again matches up adequately. I don’t have an issue with Carruth acting in his own pictures. That being said, his performances in his first two outings have been passable. Nonetheless, for his future films, I would suggest investing in more experienced and accomplished actors, or at least lessons. It should greatly enhance the effectiveness of his masterful direction and unmatched ability to concoct abstract and beautiful stories.

Decidedly visceral, highly hallucinogenic, and utterly mesmerizing. Carruth’s Upstream Color is rooted with outstanding performances and firm direction.

Upstream Color: 9 out of 10.

Europa Report (2013)

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Purposely and decidedly more science than fiction. “Europa Report” blends documentary style filmmaking with dramatic flare to spawn a tense, beautiful, and intelligent thriller that is truly beyond this world. Easily one of the most smart, accurate, and awe-inspiring films of the genre. “Europa Report” matches recent sci-fi hits like Danny Boyle’s”Sunshine” and Duncan Jones “Moon” stride for stride. While it may not be as charismatic or cinematic, it more than makes up for it with authenticity, astounding visuals, and futuristic probability. Directed by Sebastian Cordero, who does an amazing job capturing the stillness and immensity of space with a minimal budget. “Europa Report” may not be the taut character study or twisty adventure many expected. Nonetheless, it is a veritable gaze into the act of discovery, the soul of humanity, and the unpredictability of our infinite universe, its past, present and future.

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Six astronauts embark on a privately funded mission to one of Jupiter’s moons called Europa in search of extraterrestrial life. Europa is an ice covered moon who’s surface constantly shifts. It is believed that under it’s surface, Europa is home to vast and deep ocean. After experiencing a terrible technical failure en route and barely making it to Europa in one piece, the crew begins their research. What they discover and what it results in, no one, not even our bests scientists could have predicted.

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Without question, the most impressive aspect of “Europa Report” is its genuine portrayal of space and physics. In addition, the branches of cosmology and astronomy throughout “Europa Report” are equally as fascinating and valid. The film deals more specifically with the plausibility of and search for extraterrestrial life. It doesn’t trifle with the over-the-top, violent way big-budget blockbusters falsely abuse and portray alien life forms.  Whether it is the simplicity of weightlessness, the intricacy of surface textures, the colours of cosmic bodies, and everything in between. “Europa Report’s” material is legitimate and its imagery, credible to say the least.

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Magnify the subtle movements of Europa 1’s crew, or at times, the lack there of, and it becomes apparent that the attention to detail and an honest portrayal  is of great value to the film and its makers. Floating in the blackness of the vacuum or the lack of resistance inside the ship, everything down to the tiniest detail is honed to perfection. Not to mention the attention paid to the consistency, appearance, and forms of Jupiter, Europa, and other celestial bodies. Every facet of our galaxy and its material is showcased with the utmost care and precision. Even more compelling and realistic is the detail in the ship, its travels, and the forces working against it. Its interior, exterior, and experiences are conveyed masterfully.

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Granted, the story of Europa 1, its adventures, and its six astronauts is somewhat simple. Yet, its mission, objectives, and the earnestness of its crew are as enthralling and endearing as they come. The cast does a remarkable job capturing and exuding the wonder of witnessing space and the yearning for its exploration. Admittedly, it would prove difficult for any filmmaker to showcase emotion with cinematic strength while trying to remain authentic, let alone doing so only being able to utilize found-footage tactics. Yes, “Europa Report” is a found-footage film, but trust me, it isn’t what you think, but I digress… Sebastian Cordero’s ability to take this simple story and its characters and make it so stellar and entrancing is outstanding. His work behind the camera is phenomenal. Everything terrific about this film has so much to do with Cordero. This man has a bright future ahead of him.

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Many feel the need to discredit and discontinue found-footage from cinema, and rightfully so. Between the over-saturation and hackneyed attempts slapped together in short amounts of time, who can blame them? Yet, there is still hope. Who’d have thunk that in 2013 a grisly sequel and an indie sci-fi thriller would come along to rescue and revive the sub-genre. Horror anthology “V/H/S 2” and docu-drama “Europa Report” are existing proof that found-footage films are still relevant and utterly effective, when done right. “Europa Report” gives its own unique twist to the sub-genre and takes full advantage of the premise. This is found-footage done right.

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Although thus far I’ve given a lot of the credit to Cordero and crew, and with good reason. “Europa Report’s” cast has just as much to do with the films success and effectiveness. Featuring Sharlto Copley (District 9), Michael Nyqvist (Millennium Series), Karolina Wydra (Crazy, Stupid, Love), Christian Camargo (The Hurt Locker), Anamaria Marinca, and Daniel Wu. “Europa Report’s” characters are ably portrayed by thoroughly competent actors. Each individual bursts with a heartfelt and honest desire to bring the mission to fruition. While it may be for their own cosmological reasons and aspirations. They still perform and sacrifice everything they’ve got for one another. Their eyes gleam with innocence and awe, it is truly bewildering.

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Scientifically accurate, visually resplendent, and utterly inspirational. “Europa Report” is brilliantly put together and performed with on the grandest of scales with great attention, care, and drive by everyone involved.

Europa Report: 8.5 out of 10.

Primer (2004)

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Extremely obscure, complex, and compacted. Primer is an enlightening, thought-provoking thriller about the wonders of time travel and the inevitable consequences that accompany it. Managing to stick it out till the end shouldn’t be an issue considering its relatively short running time. However, don’t get too down on yourself if you can’t make it through half of the film. Considering Primer’s intricate, easily confusing, and dense story. It would be miraculous if one could watch unfazed and without being overwhelmed, let alone understanding the plot in a single go-around. Regardless of how discombobulating Primer is. Director and Writer Shane Carruth authentically portrays discovery for what it usually is: accidental, stupefying, and utterly uncontrollable. Remaining grounded and vulnerable while earning an individuality deprived of any commonality with other sci-fi flicks. Primer is an underrated gem and unlike its characters, will never be duplicated.

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During their free time, four men work in a suburban garage building and selling products to pay for their side-projects. When Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) stumble upon something that they cannot explain. They begin a series of tests and start building new, bigger prototypes. Once they are finally able to comprehend what is happening, their tests become more elaborate and the results, astounding. Soon, everything they once knew is discredited and their friendship begins to falter.

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Although Primer’s budget was limited and coincidentally so were the visual options available to its creators…granted, the cast and crew did the best with what they had available to them and what they conjured up is a beautiful and unforgettable journey. Yet, one can’t help but feel that the story and film in general could have benefited from a bit more showmanship. Not to make it easier on the eyes, more so, on the brain. If the viewer could decipher between characters and timelines more simply, Primer’s complexity wouldn’t be so unfathomable. Nonetheless, Primer is an astounding cinematic achievement and goes to show that you don’t need a big budget or high-profile actors to spawn something of merit. Carruth and company have created something truly unique using their intelligence and drive, something that is missing from the majority of cinema today.

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Carruth’s ideals really test the extent of our understanding and morality regarding tremendous gifts like intelligence and discovery. While his characters might not always make the best choices. The beauty of Primer is that it’s easy for the viewer to insert themselves in the predicament and make decisions based upon their own personal motivations and values.

The emotional variety, or lack there of, illustrated by Primer’s cast may leave a lot to the viewers imagination. It can be argued that it is primarily due to the numerous clones and timelines. Regardless, Carruth’s ingenious, elaborate, and brilliant story more than makes up for Primer’s seemingly dehumanized cast and visual repetitiveness. Make no mistake, Primer isn’t here to look pretty, you’re here to let its ingenuity and intellect broaden and relentlessly stretch your mind.

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Primer: 8 out of 10. (Honestly, as my understanding of the film progresses, the rating may alter. I still need at least a couple of more viewings to fully comprehend Primer).