Movie Review: Annihilation. H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour out of Space’ updated with a lot of Unnecessary Emotional Baggage.

Annihilation (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

At the beginning of Paramount Pictures new Movie ‘Annihilation’ we witness a meteor streaking through the atmosphere to wind up crashing into a small lighthouse. A little while later we learn that the lighthouse has become the center of an unearthly ‘shimmer’ that is slowly growing and that anyone who enters the shimmer never returns.

After several failed expeditions a team of five women enter the shimmer to discover that the plants and animals are all mutating. It was at this point, not quite halfway into the film that I said to myself: ‘this is the Colour out of Space by H. P. Lovecraft’. Actually ‘Annihilation’ would have been better if it had just stuck to being an update of Lovecraft’s story.

For those who haven’t read Lovecraft, in the ‘Colour out of Space’ a meteor lands on a New England farm and a strange unearthly colour (Lovecraft was thinking of something like Ultraviolet or Infrared light but somehow alive) begins to spread. The colour proceeds to suck the life out of every living thing on the farm.

O’k so in ‘Annihilation’ the meteor lands in a lighthouse instead of a farm, it generates a shimmer rather than a colour and causes mutations instead of sucking the lifeforce but those are just details. It’s really the same story plot.

Some of the Mutations in Annihilation (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

The only part of ‘Annihilation’ that is different is an idea that gets mentioned along the way that anyone who volunteers for a suicide mission must have something terribly wrong with their life. The main character Lena, played by Natalie Portman certainly does. Her husband joined an earlier mission into the shimmer because he found out she was having an affair and now she feels guilty about him so she volunteers for the next mission. Much too much of the movie is taken up with this pointless subplot.

Oh, I know. Nowadays when you tell a story you simply have to have well-developed characters that your readers or viewers can care about. You can take it from me however, there’s no one in this movie to care about. Also you can add the fact that the ‘surprise ending’ simply wasn’t.

Now Annihilation wasn’t all bad, the special effects were good and the basic idea of something really alien coming to our world on a meteor is intriguing. In fact it is revealed later in the movie that the shimmer isn’t causing mutations so much as mixing the DNA of different creatures.

Then when Lena finally reaches the lighthouse we see things like glass trees along the beach. Since glass is made out of sand I started to wonder if the shimmer is now mixing life and non-life! That would have been cool but nothing is done with the concept!

Glass Trees that nothing is done with! (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

Really, eliminating the trite infidelity subplot and putting a lot more thought into the Science Fiction elements would have made Annihilation a much better film. As it is we never learn anything about why this ‘Shimmer’ came to Earth or where it came from or what it is trying to do.

Annihilation is based on a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer (who also wrote the screenplay with director Alex Garland) and is the first part of a trilogy. Maybe in the other novels we get some of the answers but frankly I don’t know if I’m interested. I think I’ll reread ‘The Colour out of Space’ instead.

The Colour out of Space by H. P. Lovecraft (Credit: Classics Illustrated)


Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

The Fenris wolf fights The Incredible Hulk!!! In my opinion that alone was worth the price of admission. The new movie Thor: Ragnarok from Marvel Studios is a nice mixture of ancient and modern mythologies.

Back when I was in grade school I much preferred the Marvel Comics to DC, Superman was especially lame and Batman was a joke. Then in high school I got interested in Norse mythology so I guess I was predisposed to like the new Thor movie. The image below is a poster for the movie Thor: Ragnarok.

Poster for Thor: Ragnarok (Credit: Marvel, Disney)

For those who aren’t familiar with the ‘Fate of the Gods’ or ‘Twilight of the Gods’, we’re not quite sure which Ragnarok means, let me give you a little background. In Norse mythology Ragnarok is the final battle between the forces of good and evil. Most mythologies predict some such conflict in the future but unlike the Christian myth of Armageddon where the good guys just win and Satan in cast into the bottomless pit the battle of Ragnarok is a lot bloodier for both sides.

Three winters without a summer herald the attack on Asgard, the home of the Gods by the Giants (Jötnar) of Jötunheimr. The giants are led by Surtr the fire Giant. The Fenris wolf breaks free of his bonds and devours the Sun while Jörmungandr, the Midgard serpent rises from the depths of the ocean causing violent storms. Even Loki breaks free of his chains to join the war on the Gods.

The Aesir assemble for battle led by one-eyed Odin (Germanic Woden which is where we get Wednesday), his sons Ty’r (Tuesday) and Thor (Thursday) along with a fertility God named Freye (Friday) and the ever faithful guardian of the bifrost bridge Heimdallr. Below is a woodcut by the artist Otto Spamer of Odin in his full splendor.

Odin by Otto Spamer

In the battle the wolf swallows Odin alive but is killed by Ty’r, Freye and Surtr kill each other. Thor slays Jörmungandr but takes only nine steps before dropping dead from the monster’s poison. In the final act only Heimdallr and Loki remain to face each other, faithful against faithless and die by each others sword. A later Christian addition has a new world being reborn out of the ashes as Odin’s dead son Baldr the beautiful rises from the realm of the Goddess of the Dead Hel (Who gives us the word Hell) and rules a world without evil.

So much for the ancient myths, Marvel studios has now given us a new take on the myth in their current movie Thor: Ragnarok. Unlike the original myth Thor: Ragnarok is a part of the ‘Marvel Universe’ so the good guys have to win without too many losses. Obviously they aren’t going to let Thor die because he has to appear in the next Avengers movie. Nevertheless there is plenty of mayhem on both sides.

Most of the original cast is here. Hel, now called Hela and played by Cate Blanchett, is the chief evildoer but she’s joined by Fenris and Surtr. The images below show Hela the Goddess of Death and the Fenris wolf.

Hel (Cate Blanchett) (Credit: Marvel, Disney)
The Fenris Wolf (Credit: Marvel, Disney)

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is joined by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Heimdallr (Idris Elba). In the movie Loki has his mischievous moments but in the end becomes a good guy probably because Tom Hiddleston has done such a splendid job with the character that Marvel doesn’t want to lose him, or make him into a real bad guy. (Hint to Marvel studios: What about a Loki movie. Of course he’d have to be an anti-hero but how about a Marvel remake of something like a fistful of dollars?)

An addition to the story from elsewhere in the Marvel Universe is The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) who gets to fight the Fenris wolf as I mentioned earlier. A five minute long cameo is also provided by Doctor Strange played by Benedict Cumberbatch that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the movie but which introduces Thor to Doctor Strange.

Now I’m not going to give away any of the major plot points, O’k I did mention that the Hulk fights the Fenris wolf, but I will make a few criticisms. I do think that Hela (Hel) could have been more effective if she’d actually had fewer lines. As death personified she should have been something more like a walking plague, killing by simply a thought or glance. Also the section on Jeff Goldbloom’s landfill planet either needed to be explained better, or reduced, and less Jeff Goldbloom is always a good thing to me.

Another thing before I forget, Hela uses Odin’s eternal flame to animate a lot of dead warriors to be her Zombie army but then Thor and the Hulk just knock’em all over like bowling pins. I’ve seen this before, the good guys have to fight their way through a big mass of nobodies before they face the real bad guys. It’s really just padding the film and it’s boring. Try using a little more imagination.

Nevertheless I certainly enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok although you may have noticed that the serpent Jörmungandr didn’t appear. Since he the one who kills Thor in the ancient myth I guess Marvel is saving him until Chris Hemsworth is tired of the role and they start planning on a reboot. Below are a few images of artwork that have been inspired by the myth of Ragnarok.

Thor and the Midgard Serpent by Emil Doepler
Ragnarok by Otto Spamer

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049, the Original was more Original.

Based upon the Philip K. Dick science fiction novel ‘Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?’ the first ‘Blade Runner’ movie was one of those films that under performed at the box office back in 1982. Even at the time however the film had a large number of genuine admirers both for the originality of the novel’s plot and director Ridley Scott’s gritty vision in filming it. Today Blade Runner has achieved much better reviews and a growing number of fans.

Original Blade Runner Poster (Credit: Warner Brothers)

For those who don’t know or remember the original movie, in the post-apocalyptic year 2019 humans are busy developing “the outer worlds” and are using ‘replicants’, human appearing androids as a slave labour force. Some of these replicants have escaped and come to Earth where they are hunted down and eliminated by ‘Blade Runners’ like Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford in both the original and the sequel. The original film ends with Deckard and a replicant named Rachel leaving together as lovers. The entire film, and the novel before it were a comment on what it really means to be human. Blade Runner was just one of those movies some people loved because it was so different, while others just didn’t understand it for the exact same reason.

So it was inevitable that sooner or later someone would get around to making a sequel and we now have Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve with executive producer Ridley Scott. The fact that Ridley Scott had a major role in the sequel ensured that ‘Blade Runner 2049’ has much the same gritty feel as the original.

Blade Runner 2049 Poster (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Without giving too much away the sequel’s plot concerns the hunt for a child that the human Deckard and the replicant Rachel had after the end of the original. It’s the job of the new Blade Runner ‘K’ played by Ryan Gosling, to hunt down this impossible child. By the way ‘K’ is himself a replicant!

That’s one problem I had with “Blade Runner 2049′. In the original film replicants were eliminated just for being on Earth but now there are replicants everywhere, replicants are even hunting other replicants. As an explanation we’re informed that most replicants are a newer, obedient model. I might have accepted that explanation if at the end of the movie we weren’t introduced to a waiting rebel army of ‘obedient’ replicants. In other words the movie changed its own rules in the middle of the story and that’s never a good thing in science fiction.

The bigger problem however is simply a lack of anything really new. If the original Blade Runner was so original that many people couldn’t accept it, the new Blade Runner 2049 certainly doesn’t have that problem. In fact Blade Runner 2049 just a rather obvious take off on the first film.

So much for the bad parts, this film does have a few good things in it as well. As I already mentioned the new Blade Runner maintains much of the same feeling, the same atmosphere as the original but with improved special effects. The effects themselves are very good being a nice mixture of real sets and CGI images. (I think some films just use too much CGI and end up looking like a cartoon.) The two images below allow a comparison of the design of the two films.

Los Angeles in the Original Blade Runner (Credit: Warner Brothers)
Los Angeles in Blade Runner 2049 (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

My favourite part of the film however was that of K’s computer generated girlfriend Joi, and not just because the actress playing the role, Ana deArmas was quite pretty. To me the technology of Joi, both hardware and software were the most original part of the film. When we first meet Joi her image is being generated by a projector in K’s apartment. The projector runs along a railing mounted on the ceiling allowing Joi to move around but only inside the apartment.

K brings Joi a present, a handheld projector that enables her to go outside, even with him on his missions. In terms of hardware that made me wonder how a handheld projector could generate a stable image, especially when K kept putting it in his pocket. More interesting however was the idea of a computer program, however sophisticated, developing a truly individual personality, and Joi had as much personality as any character in the film.

What I would have liked to have seen would have been a couple more computer generated people like Joi. Since these image people would all be developed from the same program could they really be individuals, really be different from one another? Exploring that idea could have been original!

On the whole Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t a bad movie, but with all the money and effort that went into it, it could have been better.


Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2

I know, I know, Guardians of the Galaxy is really more of a roller coaster ride than a science fiction movie but it does have spaceships and aliens and while it may just be a distraction from the real world it is a well made distraction.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 (Credit Marvel Studios)

Guardians of the Galaxy is a part of the “Marvel Universe” produced by Disney and which includes Iron Man, Captain America and etc. and which may very well become the most successful movie franchise in history. Disney / Marvel is building this universe by combining individual superhero movies like “Doctor Strange” with ensemble movies like “The Avengers” and now “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

In vol.1 of Guardians we were introduced to our group of heroes as they were introduced to each other. Peter Quill is a Earthling who was kidnapped by alien “ravagers” as a child, the ravagers are a collection of outlaws / pirates. Quill is joined by Gamora, an alien woman who was raised to be an assassin but to wants to escape that life along with Rocket, a genetically engineered intelligent raccoon and his friend Groot, a semi-intelligent tree-man. Rocket and Groot are bounty hunters. The final member of the Guardians is Drax, a powerful fighter.

For a moment can I just stop to ask why our culture at present seems to connect to the idea of pirates and assassins and bounty hunters as being saviors of galaxies??? Seventy to eighty years ago the heroes were like Superman or the Lone Ranger, so perfectly upstanding and morally virtuous that they were boring!

Then, when I was a kid there were superheroes like Spiderman, a typical teenager who didn’t really want to be a hero. Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four also did not want his superpowers. Nowadays it seems like you had to have been a bad guy before you can become a good guy. This may make for more interesting characters but to my mind it doesn’t make them any more realistic. I’ll stick with the Spiderman type, just a normal person who is a reluctant hero.

Anyway, back to the Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2. In this story Peter Quill meets his mysterious and very powerful father EGO. I don’t want to give away any of the plot but let’s just say that EGO’s desires for his son’s future are not quite paternal.

That’s just the main plot, there are complications aplenty. With a race called the Sovereigns pursuing the Guardians because Rocket stole some of their batteries while Gemora’s sister Nebula is trying to kill her, to say nothing about the mutiny of Yondu the Ravager’s crew there are fights galore. There are several times during the movie when it’s hard to keep track of who’s on who’s side or not but you know that in the end Quill, Gamora, Rocket Groot and Drax will all stick together.

During the fights there are more than a few “Come ‘on” moments, like when Gamora picks up a cannon from a broken spaceship and starts firing it at her sister or when Drax ties a rope around himself and jumps out of the Guardian’s ship to shoot at an enemy.

Despite it’s drawbacks the movie is well made with easy to like characters. Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 isn’t thought provoking science fiction, it’s a roller coaster, but it is a good one.

Movie Review: Passengers

To start with “Passengers” is a certainly a visually attractive film, and I don’t just mean Jennifer Lawrence. It’s true, the best part of the film are the special effects and especially the set design. The starship Avalon is the starship you dream of being on.

Passengers. Maybe they could have shown the starship in one of their posters?

The biggest problem with this movie is the plot, it’s sooooo slow and so predictable, especially the love story. The movie begins as the starship Avalon is about a third of the way through it’s 120 year journey to the colony Homestead II when the ship has a collision with a rather large asteroid. The ship’s deflector screen prevents the ship from being destroyed but there is some damage, the first instance of which is when passenger Chris Pratt is awoken from hibernation much too early. For the next half an hour we are treated to watching Pratt learn he is the only person awake, watching him try wake up members of the crew and otherwise try to find a way out of his problem as he slowly goes a little crazy. This is the worst part of the film.

The story gets a little better when Jennifer Lawrence wakes up (I’m trying not to give away too much of the plot here). At least now we have two people trying to figure out what they can do. As Jennifer and Chris fall in love and then break up we occasionally are shown small parts of the ship beginning to malfunction as Cleaning robots, visual displays and other systems run into walls or flicker on and off.

Here we have the biggest plot hole in the story. As the failures begin to cascade we are shown the ship’s computer keeping tract of all the breakdowns but for some reason it hasn’t been programmed to wake up any of the crew to fix the bloody problem. At the same time boy engineer Chris is so engrossed in Jennifer he doesn’t notice the accumulating malfunctions. If fact we have to wait for crewman Lawrence Fishburne to be awakened before anybody says “Hey we gotta fix this”!

Now, since three’s a crowd, Fishburne has suffered internal damage during his revival and literally only lives long enough to get Chris and Jennifer off their well exercised butts while giving them his authority to access sections of the ship they hadn’t been able to get into and control the computer systems in ways they’d never been able to. Then he dies leaving Chris and Jennifer to risk their lives saving the ship while falling in love again.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie isn’t bad but it is slow and predictable. As I said earlier the set design does have a real feel of what we imagine a starship passenger liner to be and the story does take the effort to think about why people would ever consider leaping 120 years into the future to begin a completely new life on a new world but hey, isn’t that kinda just the story of our country.

I guess if you like Chris Pratt or Jennifer Lawrence, or if you really like starships you’re like “Passengers” otherwise this movie will probably leave you feeling a little flat.

Movie Review: Arrival

I have a big problem with this Movie! The alien visitors are not only smart enough to span interstellar space and come to Earth they are smart enough to have a deeper understanding of time than we do. And when they arrive on Earth they know that we are a divided species, they seem to know something of our physiology and technology. Yet somehow they haven’t managed to learn English or any other Earth language, nor do they manage to do so by the end of the movie. Seriously, at the film’s climax Amy Adams is trying to get the big message across to them using their language!

I had the same problem with Close Encounters of the Third Kind back in 1977, I know that’s almost heresy but it’s true. In CE3K the aliens have been watching us since at least Dec1945 when they abducted Navy flight 19 but in the next 32 years they haven’t learned English! I’m sorry but that really ruined CE3K for me and it pretty much ruins Arrival.

I remember the old 1950 Film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” where at the beginning of the movie the Alien Klaatu walks out of his flying saucer speaking perfect English. He explains this by announcing that “they” have been listening in on our radio and TV broadcasts. Which is probably how any aliens would learn about our existence in the first place.


Arrival’s best part is in fact where Amy Adams learns the aliens written language where every word is based on a circle (see example below). They state in the film that this makes every word a palindrome, a word that is spelled the same backwards and forwards, but if you look at the example that’s not true, the alien symbol is different depending on whether you go around the circle clockwise or counter-clockwise.

Alien Language in Arrival
Example of Alien Language in Arrival

As to the Aliens of Arrival themselves, they aren’t very interesting. They look pretty much like octopuses that have lost one tentacle and we don’t get to see a great deal of their technology. The film is really more about how we humans react to the arrival of aliens than the aliens themselves. In that case however “Arrival” spends too much time with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and we only get snippets of news reports on how humanity as a whole is reacting.

Serious Science Fiction movies are rare and need to be supported but I just can’t give it my wholehearted approval. It’s not bad, it’s just not very alien. The scriptwriters needed to spend more time on the aliens and not just their language. Well, that’s my opinion, what’s yours?


Movie Review: Doctor Strange

The Marvel Universe has released its latest comic to movie superhero in Doctor Stephen Strange. Marvel has certainly developed a winning structure for action movies and while Doctor Strange may not be a high point in the Marvel Universe it was still an entertaining installment.

The biggest problem is the first third of the movie, where noted neurosurgeon Doctor Strange has a car accident, injuring his lifesaving hands. Abandoning western medicine he seeks a cure in eastern mysticism, becoming a super magician, and learning the truth about himself in the process

What we get is simply trite. We’ve seen all this before and the comparisons to other movies are so easy to make. I’ll use Star Wars as an example. Tilda Swinton is the Yoda character, Chiwetel Ejiotor and Benedict Wong share the Obi Wan duties while Benedict Cumberbatch is of course Luke Skywalker. There are scenes of Luke…er, Stephen in training along with the required ‘wise’ sayings stressing how no sense makes sense.

As you can tell from the cast the acting is excellent, only Mads Mikkelsen in the Darth Vader role is unconvincing, and to be honest he has very little to work with aside from just being the baddie. The special effects are also high quality. The bending of reality does manage to generate a genuine feeling of vertigo.

The film picks up a bit of steam when Strange’s artifact finds him. A mage doesn’t find his artifact, it finds him. Again, that’s a little trite. I won’t give away the ending except to say it was the best part of the film with Strange being clever in defeating his foe rather than just another fight scene.

I’m not saying Doctor Strange was a bad film, it just needed a good bit more care in the early part of the script. If you’re looking for something thought provoking, or even just clever plot twists you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re just looking for an enjoyable night’s entertainment Doctor Strange will do the trick.

Oh, and one last thing. Since Doctor Strange will be an integral part of the Marvel Universe, ya kinda have to see this this movie in order to keep up with what’s going on in the rest of MU. Clever boys there at Marvel aren’t they.

P.S. Monday night, 14Nov16, the National Geographic channel will debut the first installment of its six part miniseries ‘Mars’. You can bet I’ll be watching, and posting!