Thursday, 24 November 2016

Ender's Game

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford , Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis   

Director: Gavin Hood

114 minutes (12) 2013
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
E1 DVD Region 2

Rating: 6/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

“When I understand my enemy well enough to defeat him, then in that moment, I also love him” - A.E. Wiggin

Some years after he was Han Solo, and a few years before he was Han Solo again in the Star Wars re-boot, Harrison Ford was a humour-free Colonel Hyrum Graff in this militaristic SF oddity. The DVD edition has trailers for Divergent (2014) – which sets the kidult/ young-adults expectations, and Ford in geek-techie drama Paranoia (2013) which also ties in neatly. For the dubious premise here is that kids with on-screen play-station skills – ‘raised on war-games’, are sharper, faster and less judgment-clouded, hence best suited for directing strategies in vast galactic real space-battles. According to the narrator’s introduction, 50 years prior to the movie’s first moments, ‘tens of millions died’ when a fleet of huge bug-shaped alien ships crewed by the ant-like Formic attack Earth. Jets counter-attack in high-speed aerial dog-fights before heroic Mazer Rackham rams the hive-mind’s mother-ship, saving the world.

And so, because “we’ve been preparing for them to come back ever since,” there’s a genuine planetary threat. As Graff argues, “when the war is over we can have the luxury of debating the morality of what we do.” On the international fleet’s orbital battle-school, gruff Graff watches troubled outsider Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) progress, noting the skinny little runt’s bad attitude and ‘talent for strategy’. His ‘complicated response to authority’ and vicious survival instinct, ably demonstrated when he beats an older bully above and beyond retaliation - in order to win all the other fights to come. Ender has a supportive sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), and a jealous older brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak), but in an overpopulated world, that makes him the stigmatised ‘third’ child.

Sergeant Dap (Nonso Anozie) does the tough disciplinarian trainer thing for his ‘launchies’ in competitive zero-gravity strategy games with all the usual tedious rite-of-passage martial Private Benjamin raw-recruit boot-camp clichés - a popular plotline in mainstream media, but one that Starship Troopers (1997) at least had the perception to treat with a sharp satiric edge. Graff further pokes and prods Ender behind the scenes into a series of stressful confrontations through which he gains the grudging respect of his team. As simultaneously, an on-screen problem-solving mind-game teaches him ‘follow the rules, you lose’. Promoted into the Salamander army, petty-minder Punk Bonzo (Moises Arias) tries to intimidate him, while Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) befriends him. Given an oddball misfit team - the Dragons - of his own, he pushes them hard but on a more interactive democratic basis, and naturally defeats the Salamanders. When he accidentally paralyses a vindictive Bonzo in a shower-room fight, his remorse forces a showdown with Graff, in which Ender quits.

Although not specified in the film, the book on which it’s based reveals Ender to be just ten-years-old at the time of his training. Orson Scott Card, who co-produced the film and wrote the novel, is a curiously unique SF writer, not necessarily in a good way. His religious context and anti-gay sentiments have repelled many, even when they are only subliminally infused into his fiction. A short story - Ender’s Game, in US magazine Analog (August 1977), was first gathered into Card's collection Unaccompanied Sonata (1981), was then expanded into his 1985 novel, which led to sequels including Speaker For The Dead (1986), Xenocide (1991), and Ender In Exile (2008). Card also introduces elements from his parallel novel Ender’s Shadow (1999) to flesh out the movie’s background. John Clute’s insightful essay on Card (in Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia, 1995), stresses the tight Mormon-informed family-centric nature of his plots, and it is the young hero’s sister Valentine who first figures in a metaphorical fantasy-sequence in which Ender also encounters a Formic (a ‘Bugger’ in the novels!), and her again, in an idyllic lakeside setting, who talks him into returning.

The movie’s emphasis switches sharply here. Instead of being taken back to the orbital battle-school, as he’d expected, Ender is posted to the Advance Command Base, a complex built into alien tunnels from which the Formic have been expelled, and overlooking the enemy’s own home planet. It becomes apparent that rather than defensively awaiting the next invasion-wave, the international fleet is proactively taking the war directly into the alien system. Who are the aggressors now? “The purpose of this war is to prevent all future wars,” explains Graff, referring back to Ender’s decisive retaliation against the bully. And there’s the Yoda-like impassivity of a Maori-tattooed Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who survived knocking out the Formic Queen’s mother-ship, in order to advise and tutor Ender through another gruelling series of simulated engagements.

With Formic forces bottled up on their world and yet to make an aggressive move, Ender is reunited with his team, to launch a final graduation simulation attack, sacrificing ships, transporters and dreadnaughts to target the planet itself. They use an MD500 ‘Death Star’ weapon to destroy the alien civilisation completely. Game Over. Except that this was no simulation. The world is genuinely dead. “I will bear the shame of this genocide for ever,” he protests. The ethics of this extermination forms the film’s moral heart, and saving grace. Can atrocity be justified? In a final sequence - as in the symbolist dream of his on-screen game, he enters a wrecked Formic ship and meets the last dying Queen. Establishing the thought-communication process that began in the dream, he pledges to travel the universe, seeking a new home-world for the brood she bequeaths to him.

From its dubious premise through the luxury of debating its muddled morality, this is a less than satisfying film. The effects are routinely stunning, Ford imposes a moody presence, and British-born Butterfield (previously seen in TV series Merlin) acquits himself well despite the inadequacies of the plot. The final turn-around is affecting, and Ender’s attempts to assuage his guilt add a final get-out-free clause. There’s a spin-off video computer game, ‘Use Your Laser Gun To Fire At Targets’. And then Harrison Ford became Han Solo again...

Sunday, 20 November 2016

UFO - The Complete Series

Cast: Ed Bishop, Michael Billington, George Sewell, Gabrielle Drake, and Wanda Ventham

Creator: Gerry Anderson

1300 minutes (12) 1970-3
Network blu-ray region B

Rating: 9/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Following their excellent hi-def widescreen release of Invasion: UFO (1974) - a movie cut together from TV episodes, Network unleash a fully restored edition of the original series, and UFO is a welcome addition to any sci-fi collection. Few television shows from the late 1960s and early 1970s remain watchable today, especially when dated as genre material, but UFO is not merely tolerable as retro telefantasy, it has long since become iconic. This is a series that influenced and encouraged thinking about UFOlogy and provided a cultish landmark for conspiracy theories to flourish and fester around. The first live-action series created by Gerry Anderson, UFO was set in the ‘future’ of 1980, and it concerns a covert war between Earth and mysterious extraterrestrials. Although Anderson followed his very popular Thunderbirds (1965-6) - about machines as the heroes of ‘International Rescue’, with the darker Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons (1967-8) - which employed a similar premise to this, the solemn drama UFO was a great jump in quality and maturity for the former puppets-master of British television.

UFO is a continuation of Wellsian themes from War Of The Worlds, and US TV shows, like Larry Cohen’s The Invaders (1967-8), while it also predates The X-Files. Science fictional espionage was central to the James Bond movie franchise and UFO included spy-fi tropes - such as assassination, surveillance, advanced weapons, and traitors, mixed with stories about orbital debris as dangerous ‘space junk’, mind-control, ESP, and some nightmarish tales of abduction. Since the series is now set in our past, the design of UFO is obviously best appreciated as alternative history, today. This sci-fi aspect of a divergent timeline to ours is especially notable just as much for the show’s futuristic uniforms (silvery cat-suits and string-vests!) and its dated 20th century tech (not very futuristic computers, etc), as for its broadly liberal social mores and a laudably utopian absence of racial prejudice, in a world that is plagued by space warfare.

A former US Air Force colonel, Straker is in command of SHADO - Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation, a secret base hidden beneath a working film studio. Straker’s played by Canadian actor Ed Bishop - who had appeared in Kubrick’s classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and voiced puppet character Captain Blue in Anderson’s earlier Captain Scarlet, the children’s TV show that might be viewed as a prototype for the more adult-oriented UFO. Bishop’s curious Anglo-American accent and straightforward manner were perfect for the cool yet indomitable Straker, with his trademark blond hairstyle (yet, reportedly, the actor hated that wig!). He presided over a world-spanning military power, including the moon base, and an orbiting telescope capable of detecting and intercepting alien spies anywhere on the planet.

Straker was a decidedly flawed executive hero, with a broken marriage in his tragic past, and too few close friends in his present, even among his most loyal SHADO staff. Bishop essayed Straker’s grim isolation and a heavier burden of responsibility for his character’s position in several episodes - like when he orders astronauts into nuclear combat against UFO attacks, and threatens to personally shoot one of his colleagues after uncovering an assassination plot. Straker was an interestingly stylised ‘Cold War’ warrior - part general officer, part spymaster. And, symbolically at least, he was the ultimate soldier of his sort - clearly a deeply paranoid obsessive willing to engage hostile forces in a wholly fantastic but nevertheless psychologically brutal conflict played out on an interplanetary scale.

Although the origin of the uncanny visitors from the stars is never revealed, Straker often had to suppress his curiosity and settle for the hollow ‘victory’ of simply destroying them. Yet, despite adherence to a strict policy of militaristic response, Straker always managed to retain his humanity and engage the TV viewers’ sympathy, thanks to a finely balanced characterisation by Bishop.

An episode about UFO and human pilots both crashing on the Moon; Survival anticipates the cooperate-or-die notion of movie Enemy Mine (1985). Because the location backdrop used actual MGM studios, the temptation for toying with fantasy and reality proved quite irresistible for the programme’s creators, particularly when Straker is required to pose as an executive producer at the functioning studio, and this led to wholesale breaking of the fourth wall in bewildering thriller Mindbender, where Straker discovers he is just an actor in a TV show about UFOs.

In one instance of life imitating art, technical problems of the Hubble telescope (launched in 1990 by NASA) were reminiscent of a faulty space probe in UFO’s episode Close Up. Of course, fandom has favourite episodes, and those indulging in an even greater weirdness than usual really do standout. The Psychobombs involves random civilians reprogrammed by aliens into a suicidal trio of superhuman terrorists keen on sabotage at security bases. The character-driven Timelash sees Straker baffled and besieged by an enemy agent who stops clocks and freezes part of the world. Our hero’s quick thinking (in four dimensions!) saves the day.

Renowned for its cutting-edge special effects, UFO remains a visually impressive show in respect of its realistic miniatures, which sustained the pre-eminence of Anderson’s genre work. One of the most memorable model sequences in UFO was the Interceptors launch. From a hideaway hanger beneath the Moon’s surface, three space bombers popup out of lunar craters, like some of kind of mechanical trapdoor spiders. They are the first line of space defence against alien invasion. Each of these atomic-powered manned spacecraft is armed with a single nuclear warhead, programmed to launch on a collision course with any threats approaching Earth. The heroes of SHADO had plenty of hardware, including a ‘SkyDiver’ submarine carrying jet aircraft ‘Sky One’ (that launched from underwater), but the trio of Interceptors had a unique design. And, for the 1970s, at least, they did appear to be a convincing portrayal of militarised space age technology.

This hi-def box-set has plenty of extras, including new retro documentary From The Earth To The Moon, featurette The Women Of UFO, some commentary tracks, audio interviews, a new SHADO recruits briefing, deleted scenes, and extensive image galleries. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and Oscar Isaac

Director: Bryan Singer

144 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

A fantastic tale of gods and men, and a few monsters too, this begins with the betrayal of a despotic ruler in ancient Egypt. Millennia later, director Bryan Singer stages a revival of the mightiest in another Cairo sequence, combining quirky tributes to Indiana Jones, and Kubrick’s 2001, when a long-buried golden pyramid is reactivated by sunlight. Following on from the franchise prequels Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011), and Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014), X-Men Apocalypse is yet another super-team flick, of more than two hours, but I’m rather sad to report that this new adventure for mutant-kind does not really get going until halfway through.

With its returning cast intact and several new characters introduced, the first section has an unfortunate tendency to wallow in soap operatic tragedy, and teenage fantasy sitcom, as reclusive Erik, alias Magneto (Michael Fassbender), has his secret identity exposed by an inadvertent yet wholly instinctive act of heroism; while nervous student Scott, soon to be aliased Cyclops, finds his eye-beams make an amusing mutant metaphor for puberty. Meanwhile, that Egyptian super-villain, nameless but easily identifiable as Mr Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), recruits powerful allies including weather-controlling punk-goddess Storm, a heavy metal Angel, and warrior woman Psylocke (Olivia Munn) wearing just the sort of costume that, for once, does justice to the over-sexualised artwork of superhero comics.

Of course, Wolverine makes a quick guest appearance. How else could any X-Men movie get away with all of that ultra-violent mayhem and the requisite slaughter of henchmen? Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark from Game Of Thrones) is great as the telepathic Jean Grey. And, as teleporting devil Nightcrawler, Kodi Smit-McPhee steals the comic-relief limelight. It’s good to see Rose Byrne is back as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert. She is effectively the viewpoint character to express suitably quizzical amazement, as mortal sidekick involved with mutants. Standout sequences include another rescue run-around for Quicksilver; the demolition of Auschwitz by Magneto; and a wholly surrealistic, climactic battle of psychics in astral form.

It seems a shame that this movie is set in the arbitrarily chosen year 1983 and not 1985. If Quicksilver is such a big fan of Rush, why the hell didn’t the writers change the setting by two years? Classic tracks, Time Stand Still and/ or Marathon (both from Rush’s album Power Windows, 1985), would have made far better/ more appropriate soundtrack songs to a speedster’s heroics than such tiredly insipid electro-pop as Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), by the Eurythmics. For that matter, any sci-fi movie that deals with astonishing X-Men’s super-powers can and should be given plenty of artistic licence when it comes to rewriting history, so there seems no easily discernable reason why said Rush tracks were not used here. I mean, it was one thing to neglect Rush’s song Ghost Rider, for either of the Ghost Rider movies, but when the Canadian band are specifically name-checked by a prominent character’s T-shirt, it’s quite unforgivable to miss such an obvious opportunity to promote Rush's music in a major cinema production. Is there a Hollywood boycott of Rush songs?

My ranting about soundtrack songs aside, Singer does very well at orchestrating epic levels of destruction and power-plays throughout, and the scale of super-team action sequences are all superbly rendered by John Dykstra’s visual effects company. In every way that really matters X-Men: Apocalypse is a successful addition to its Fox franchise. The movie aims for the creative peak of superhero cinema, exploring the meanings of messiah and madness in a world turned upside down, and nearly hits its elusive target.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Penny Dreadful - The Final Season

Cast: Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Rory Kinnear, and Harry Treadaway

Creator: John Logan

462 minutes (18) 2016
Widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Universal DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Reviews by Tony Lee & Steven Hampton  

Although partly inspired by The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Alan Moore’s graphic novel more than Stephen Norrington’s movie adaptation), John Logan’s Penny Dreadful posits tales of Victorian heroes in fantasy horrors, instead of sci-fi/ fantasy, and plays like a period version of short-lived TV series Demons (2009). As we might expect from the screenwriter of The Aviator and Hugo (both directed by Scorsese), the period details of this BritisHollywood TV series are frequently a bit too colourful to be fully authentic, but there is a charmingly presentable grittiness to location shooting in Ireland that adds some visual poetics. With derivative gothic plotlines - where science and superstition collide - this eight-episode postmodern mash-up of Stoker, Shelley, and Wilde, etc. is an entertaining batch of London legends boasting many deliciously uncanny images and splattery gore moments.

Timothy Dalton, as explorer Sir Malcolm, is the leader of an uneasy alliance with mysterious psychic Vanessa (genre goddess Eva Green), and American gunslinger Chandler (Josh Hartnett, 30 Days Of Night). As plain-clothes superheroes, they tackle all manner of gaslight stuff with as much flowery 19th century dialogue as will pass muster in a 21st century media production. Harry Treadaway as the young Victor Frankenstein, and Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, are average TV actors, but most of the supporting cast (that silly girl, Billie Piper, just for starters) really aren’t up to scratch alongside the headliners.

Although heroine Vanessa appears subdued, at first, second episode Séance gifts us with the full intensity of the amazing Miss Green taking on a spirit-channelling role (“if one is to engage with the primordial forces of darkness... expect a bit of social awkwardness”), that will not be forgotten easily. Alun Armstrong is very good as the amusingly polite Grand Guignol showman Brand who calmly recruits Frankenstein’s monster Caliban as his theatre rigger. A couple of episodes feature the very welcome presence of David Warner as Prof. Van Helsing, who is consulted by Dr Frankenstein.

Closer Than Sisters is a great flashback episode guest-starring Anna Chancellor as Vanessa’s mother who struggles to cope with her tormented daughter’s bouts of catatonia and violent seizures. Again, Green turns in a haunting performance - especially during her character’s brutal, harrowing ‘treatment’; proving that Green is a fearless, astonishingly expressive star capable of out-acting what few peers she has in the genre she’s made her own. “How dare you presume to speak to me of death?” Later, when Vanessa starts suffering Carrienetic fits, perverse guilt and quest puzzles converge into a moral crisis under threat of our heroine becoming “the mother of evil,” while she’s in urgent need of an exorcism.  

With excellent production standards, and story-lines that critique but also celebrate a range of literary sources, this blows away all the cobwebs from costume-horror movies and most modern-day efforts, too. Of course, the season’s finale has dark pasts of the main characters catching up with them and drags unfinished business into the spotlight. But it exposes their flaws and shows us their strengths instead of simply following after clichéd patterns of fight-the-fantastic behaviour, and so revels in the “the glory of suffering.”

Penny Dreadful: Season Two continued in much the same vein as its impressive debut, showcasing flashbacks with currency and spotlighting some rural gothic chapters just as much as the urban scenes of uncanny contrasts with the dawning of a modern, scientific age. Season three, Penny Dreadful: The Final Season closes this horror series, and it certainly bows out with plenty of shudders and shocks.

Depressed recluse Vanessa begins visiting a shrink, under whose care she demands and responds to hypno-therapy with theatrical nightmares about secret devils. As usual, Eva Green portrays the matchless archetype of a tormented heroine. And, even with rasping breath from surviving asylum tortures, her husky voice is a crispy dark chocolate liqueur, except for when she goes into levitating witchcraft mode with she howls like a banshee.

The obsessive Frankenstein and ambitious Jekyll team-up for some bold experiments to cure the inmates of Bedlam. Dorian enjoys his operatic threesomes, painted in villains’ blood. Dracula stalks the British capital where he spawns black-eyed anaemic followers that scuttle about like plague rats, hunting and haunting Vanessa, even during daylight hours. Playing an Apache mystic, Wes Studi puts in a fine guest appearance. Brian Cox makes a fist of his role as wealthy patriarch turned family tyrant whose belligerence now dictates a limited future for his prodigal son Ethan. Sir Malcolm travels from Africa to find cowboy Ethan under outlaw circumstances in the USA. Will the American werewolf ever return to London?

Tones of melancholy are broken only natural wonders, desperate promises of salvation for distressed or diseased souls, and once-innocents’ fond memories of better life found mainly in dreams. The programme’s title is used ironically, of course, as if it is offering a penny for humanity’s deepest darkest thoughts. The price of admission must be paid in pounds of torn flesh or gallon buckets of blood. It’s full of dread, not dreadful as artistic entertainment. The wrongly perceived lowbrow culture of malignant horror is elevated to supremacy with references to poets Tennyson and Wordsworth, exploring grim alleyways off the road to scientifically utopian immortality (“an eternity without passion”). This delivers subtle pleas for tolerance of unsubtle moral differences, that enables redemptive action for bad men and tragic monsters. Penny Dreadful brings together all the classic creatures of the horror genre, re-imagined for our post-Clive Barker era of new Hammer styled hells raised up to the rafters.

As the poisonous fogapocalypse descends (foreshadowing WW1's gas attacks), the heroes arrive in a dying metropolis that swarms with predators. Cauterising bite wounds is only the start of several drastic measures against overwhelming evil. Latecomer to the party, feisty Cat (Perdita Weeks, one of the Bennets from Lost In Austen) is a death-defying asset in the final battle. At a time when horror on TV remains unduly sanitised (The Originals), often bowdlerised into fanciful clichés (Supernatural), or simply modernised by the pointlessly garish (From Dusk Till Dawn), here’s an intelligent gothic period drama serial that never shies away from the impolitely grotesque, the casually brutal, or the knowing humour of its atmospheric scenario. 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Warcraft: The Beginning

Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Toby Kebbell, Ben Foster, and Dominic Cooper

Director: Duncan Jones

130 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Universal blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Donald Morefield

First, let it be known throughout all 13 realms that I am ignorant of the game-franchise power-source that this fantasy epic is happily adapted from. Since ancient days of yore and lore I have studiously avoided the seemingly addictive perils of RPGs in general, and the sprawling WOW milieu in particular, whether the appeal of the game is battle-honed adventure or empire-building challenge.

A cute newborn orc helps to establish the various family values and tribal loyalties that are at the heart of Warcraft: The Beginning. In a place called Ironforge, our hero gets his first boom-stick. In Stormwind, the kingdom’s guardian wizard preps for conflict with the apparent invasion of giants coming through an otherworldly gateway. A young mage is the entry-level POV chap for initiates. He rubbernecks in awestruck wonder at every building and library stack, but is later stuck with anachronistic lines like “I got this.”

Perhaps one too many TV actors, like Travis Fimmel (Vikings) and Ruth Negga (Agents Of SHIELD), spoilt the casting choices at the front-end of this drama’s exhilarating remix of Tolkien tropes, but Paula Patton is good in a somewhat thankless role as a green-skinned and tusked heroine. The mood and the mould is broken to include WWF superstar styling re-branded as brusquely combative berserkers in smack-down tradition, without any tag-teams for the bloodthirsty horde. With griffin and golem appearances, alongside knights and elves abounding, even the imagistic and thematic riffs upon Moses and Goliath don’t seem too jarring or out of place here. Killing off the hero’s son ignites a revenge plot but it leads nowhere.

As blankly poker-faced as any movie with a monster named 'Doomhammer' could possibly be, without self-combusting from its own deadpan mirth, this succeeds as a neo-classical post-LOTR opus on its own terms. Totally corny, unreservedly high camp, and completely bonkers Warcraft may be but this is, nevertheless, extraordinarily good fun that manages to attain its own comicbookish veracity and purpose. Stunning image quality on the Blu-ray edition ensures the hulking orcs are fully convincing as CG characters and not simply genre creatures.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Dark Matter - Season 2

Cast: Melissa O’Neil, Marc Bendavid, Anthony Lemke, Alex Mallari Jr, and Jodelle Ferland

Creators: Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie

585 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 16:9
Acorn DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Reviews by Tony Lee & Steven Hampton

Although Metal Hurlant proved a disappointing failure as a sci-fi/ fantasy anthology show, the new space operas on TV are, generally, doing a better job of adventure narratives in off-world scenarios than similarly themed big-scale movies. Perhaps it’s because they are not remakes or sequels? Star Wars was merely a watchable rehash of Jedi-isms, and Star Trek was an ultimately ruinous reboot for a venerable franchise. The new all-action Trek’s mired in super-heroics and dismal comedy (Simon Pegg is particularly awful as Scotty, a parody that’s a gross insult to fond memories of James Doohan), shot with overdone and annoying lens-flare.

Two shows standout and they both benefit from strong female leads. Killjoys is good noir-punk about a team of bounty hunters, while Canadian mystery actioner Dark Matter is all about mercenaries. Based upon a graphic novel, Dark Matter concerns a starship named Raza, where six people wake up from cryo-sleep without any memories. Jodelle Ferland (Tideland, The Tall Man) plays a teen techie dubbed ‘Five’, and ‘blondroid’ (Zoie Palmer, Lost Girl) establishes a crew of seven distinctive and fairly likeable characters. Initially, the plot focuses upon secrets locked in the ship’s cargo hold, and helping miners on a nearby colony planet to resist corporate bullying. But soon enough, the Raza gang are revealed as galactic mercenaries-without-portfolio, now fighting Ferrous Corp storm-troopers, like high frontier anti-heroes in shoot ’em ups with ray-guns versus bullets - alongside even more anachronistic samurai sword-fights.

Dark Matter is 13 episodes of sci-fi that’s too low-budget for building up much genuine futurism. It is shamelessly derivative of Blake’s 7, by way of buccaneering Firefly and Serenity, and influenced, in particular, by Starhunter. It is a space western that rattles along agreeably despite escalating tensions within a starship crew (that are not really a proper team at first). At a space station for trade, One (the first ‘defrosted’) meets his doppelganger, while their unofficial yet optimal leader, Two (Melissa O’Neil), courts a violent meeting with casino gangsters. When the crew discover some facts about their personal histories, it’s no surprise that their past identities are not good news, and so a fresh start (with redemptive aims) looks promising, if they can learn to trust each other.

Hired for a combat salvage job, the crew find a ship haunted by zombies on the loose in a generic borrowing from Event Horizon. Five’s voluntary mind-probe grants access to the group’s memories in a virtuality, opening flashback-floodgates for sadly dull back-story revelations (mediocre SF) and further character origins in subsequent episodes. When the crew finally manage to open Raza’s sealed hold, they find a dying woman, and a sex drone, stored inside. New android Wendy (Ruby Rose, ‘Abigail’ in the next and possibly final Resident Evil movie) turns out to be a timebomb-program spy-bot in characteristic opposition; much like a Lore to blondroid’s Data.

Despite a notable lack of more imaginative tech that SF fans might expect from a galactic-scale civilisation, there are 3D-printed clones used as ‘teleport’ subs. (Not a practice recommended for anxious astronauts - prone to paranoia or ID-related psych problems.) The Raza crew are hired for a heist, and forced to work with another gang, but, of course, their plan fails at first, and then a no-honour-among-thieves plot twist leaves Two playing Die Hard in space. Notable guest stars include Torri Higginson (from Stargate: Atlantis), David Hewlett (Cube, Nothing), and a now-beardy Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: TNG). Overall, this is good entertainment of its un-ambitious type, so I’m glad that it was renewed for a second season. 

Dark Matter: Season Two begins after galactic police have arrested the Raza crew. All of their lost identities are recovered, but can any of them return to their old lives? There is prison riot as a distraction for the eventual breakout, with most of the team escaping in Raza with three other inmates, but our heroes suffer memory problems once again so they choose to resume using numbers instead of names. However, after a gifted fighter, Nyx (Melanie Liburd), joins the gang, she proves to be a valuable tactical asset when the unsuspected conspiracy plots, both political and criminal, continue unfolding around our heroes.

Blondroid gets a program upgrade to enable her first undercover mission and a newfound empathy is more effective (despite some amusing, socially inappropriate comments, and analytical observations) than Data’s emotion-chip ever was in Star Trek: TNG. In a witty aside, the decidedly female robot notes: “The behaviour of this crew is atypical and may not be representative of humanity as a whole.”

Teen techie Five remains about the same, but with green hair and random duffel coats. She’s the strange glue that holds the mixed crew together. Since their mind-wipes put each of them on paths of rediscovery, the feisty youngster sets an example for typically anti-social adults to follow as they reconstruct themselves from blanked identities. Our heroes steal a ‘blink’ drive for instantaneous travel, and experiments with it flip the Raza into a parallel universe. This is always a fun type of story in SF shows, with odd versions of the familiar characters in wholly different relationships.

Fearless leader Two’s illness means a trip to Earth where there’s a space elevator to the medical station where new life-saving nanotech is stored. Of course, the heroes go and nick some of that. A computer virus causes the crew to suffer hallucinations (of people from their past lives) that might prove lethal. Blondroid admits the problem is her fault. The android claims that she can fix it, but cannot guarantee that she will not make more mistakes. A crisis of confidence at every level is resolved humanely, as the crew silently accept the imperfect machine as simply human.

Whether following contingency plans or improvising madly, the Raza crew end up relying upon and increasing their own resources, and, when that includes each other, greater trust is a welcome result for the group’s integrity, as they gather combined strength to confront casual ruthlessness born of their own insecurities. There are clever twists when star cops hunting the Raza crew assume the outlaws are actually their usual old selves, and overlook the novelty and unpredictability that results from clean slates of amnesia.

The main villains, among Leagues, Councils, and elite space gangsters - all closing ranks, or closing in to make a killing - include imperial Japanese with samurai affectations, who are divided into some rebels vying for the colonial throne, and others swearing loyalty to a new emperor. Team efforts to prevent impending galactic war between rival corporate empires draw the scaled-up story-arc to a climactic crisis, one without many possibilities for political neutrality, especially when a suicide bomber threatens the summit meeting in the season finale, humorously titled But First, We Save The Galaxy. Of course, a cliff-hanger is on the cards. Who will survive from that spectacular shot of an exploding space station?

Notable guest stars include Franka Potente (Run Lola Run), with Hewlett, Higginson, and Wheaton all returning.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Neon Demon

Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, and Karl Glusman

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

117 minutes (18) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Icon DVD Region 2

Rating: 5/10
Review by Donald Morefield

Hopeful young model Jesse (Elle Fanning, Maleficent, Super 8) arrives in L.A. where she meets helpful make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone, Sucker Punch). How high Jesse climbs depends on how low she will fall. Although awash with surrealistic flourishes, The Neon Demon is never a serious contender to rival the artistic madness of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Ultimately, this is just a sob story. Another ethereal soap opera that’s over-dressed with arty pretension.

“True beauty is the highest currency we have.”

The Pasadena motel owner cites movies Lolita and Hard Candy in dialogue, but this flick is not in their league. It is too leisurely paced, but nonetheless a picture that’s brimming with cool vibes; and it boasts the likes of Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks in guest appearances. It lacks the powerful twists of Switchblade Romance (aka: Haute Tension), and, in spite of a grand finale that descends into necrophilia and cannibalism, it is rather tragically composed as vampiric chic without fangs or powers. It fails to jump off its sub-cultural diving-board into dark weirdness in the way that the Soska sisters’ full-blooded American Mary did.

“I don’t want to be them. They want to be me.”

In the end, The Neon Demon seems unlikely to have much impact on the horror genre. It is, however, dazzlingly shot, thunderously scored, and sometimes deliriously camp in its attitudes, as a more than deliciously silly enough exercise in fashionable abstraction to become a cult classic. Views that this remains a major disappointment from the director of Valhalla Rising (surely an influence upon TV series Game Of Thrones?), crime dramas Drive, and Only God Forgives, and creator of the Pusher franchise, probably won’t harm its extravagant reputation too much.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Dead Rising: Endgame

Cast: Jesse Metcalfe, Keegan Connor Tracy, Dennis Haysbert, Marie Avgeropoulos, and Billy Zane

Director: Pat Williams

96 minutes (18) 2016
Widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Manga DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Tony Lee

Unless it has something like the quirky novelty of Pontypool, and/ or the impressive scale of WWZ, any new zombie picture is lacking appeal. Zombie slayers are popular like serial killers but without a guilty protagonist syndrome of anti-heroism. In the currency of safe aggression/ first-person-shooter games, beheading the undead is practically a victimless crime. Since the world seems doomed and we are all going to die soon of post-millennial hypochondria, is zombie-mania brain poison or apocalyptic dream candy?

Comedy that is played commendably straight distinguished Zach Lipovsky’s Dead Rising: Watchtower (2015) from the subgenre’s hordes. Based upon a videogame, this movie is comicbook fare, and features Dennis Haysbert rather typecast as a US army leader who preps a nondescript city for zombicidal fire-bombing. The hero is a frustrated TV reporter (Jesse Metcalfe), while an urban survivor (Megan Ory), adds stacks to the body-count of sinister droolers, and Virginia Madsen (the heroine of Candyman) is reduced to making sandwiches in the quarantined area.

Follow-up action-thriller Dead Rising: Endgame offers more of the same, set two years after the outbreak is contained by the guarded walls of a quarantined area. Chase Carter (Metcalfe) is after another handy-cam scoop, and his snooping exposes a military scheme involving General Lyons (Haysbert) and a secret project called ‘Afterlife’. With a leisurely countdown to mega-deaths, the heroes face additional threats from army bad guys and a bunch of corporate security goons. Pat Williams makes his feature debut after a couple of decades of directing TV (including sci-fi shows Continuum and Flash Gordon), so this is a picture in safe hands, and it achieves its ambitions of B-movie status almost effortlessly.

Zombies in the movie’s second half are faster and crazier, from a new strain of the virus, than the undead seen in Watchtower, and Williams orchestrates an excellent mix of gore and stunts with a few inventive kills by the makeshift weapons - which are a signature of this franchise. The obligatory computer-hack takes long enough for the finale to get very nasty in the mad doctor’s lab, so even the medley of messed-up zombie clichés is hugely enjoyable viewing, complete with a zombie-decapitation by the rotors of a helicopter. 

Dead Rising certainly makes a fine double-bill for Halloween celebrations!