Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Spring sci-fi roundup

I’d planned on posting about how the spring movie season marked the return of smart, satisfying science-fiction to the big screen. Then I saw Limitless; BIG disappointment. Still, the fact that three ideas-driven sci-fi movies performed respectably at the box office – all in the same one-month period – certainly qualifies as a resurgence of some sort. Each of these movies has a charismatic lead performance, an impossibly gorgeous young actress to gawk at, and something thought-provoking to say about the way we live in the 21st century. Reviewed in the order I saw them:

While watching The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi’s ridiculous (but strangely captivating) sci-fi/romance, I was reminded of Richard Kelly’s much-derided 2009 release, The Box. Both movies are based on short stories by celebrated SF writers (Philip K. Dick in the case of The Adjustment Bureau, Richard Matheson in the case of The Box), and both are about Men in Hats conducting grand experiments on the human race. I find myself returning to The Box quite often; the movie is inscrutable but atmospheric and never dull, and the score (composed by Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire) is a super-cool homage to Bernard Hermann. Is Kelly’s movie all that more ludicrous than Nolfi’s, in which Matt Damon asks a mystery dude in a fedora, “Are you an angel?” At any rate, I was more enamored by Damon’s chemistry with Emily Blunt than by the faith-based sermon on free will that The Adjustment Bureau ultimately serves up. It’s a decidedly gooey, sentimental piece of sci-fi, but also an irresistible one – the cinematic equivalent of a big bear hug.

As mentioned earlier, the impact of Limitless is limited. It’s about an aspiring writer (Bradley Cooper) who discovers a miracle drug that gives him superhuman intelligence. Sounds like the recipe for a trippy, speculative cautionary tale about addiction and modern medicine, right? Instead, we get a weak narrative about stock market trading that’s about as much fun to watch as Atlas Shrugged is to read. You end up wondering what a young David Cronenberg might have done with this material. Director Neil Burger demonstrates some ingenuity with the “infinite zoom” shots, which, as the filmmaker has said, create the effect that you’re “rushing through the city streets but not at high speed – you are at an infinite zoom, moving relentlessly at real time but faster than everyone around you.” As others have said, this effect is “nauseating”.

After showing great promise with The Illusionist, Burger has failed to live up to his potential in recent years. (Like Limitless, 2008’s The Lucky Ones was a major letdown). In contrast, Duncan Jones just keeps getting better and better. After Moon and now Source Code (his first two feature films, if you can believe that), he just might be the best sci-fi director working today. Easily one of the best films of 2011, Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Capt. Colter Stevens, a war vet assigned to find the bomber of a Chicago-bound train. To do this, he must repeat the same eight minutes on a loop (and get blown to bits each time he fails to identify the perpetrator). With its zeitgeist-y terror plot, sexy stars (Michelle Monaghan plays Gyllenhaal’s love interest) and twisty script, the movie is an absolute winner from first scene to last. How much do you want to bet that Jones (the son of David Bowie, if you can believe that) knocks Moon 2 out of the park?

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