Some Sci-Fi Junk Food

Let’s see if I can ignore the Doomsday Clock for a few minutes and actually get something written.

In the odd evenings that I’ve managed to put aside for movie-watching, I’ve definitely gone the escapist route this year. So on a vacant Friday evening I decided to finally watch two of the biggest flops of the last year, just to go someplace else for a while, even if that place might not be worth the visit.

First up was Independence Day: Resurgence, which was one of many dull thuds in the Summer 2016 box office. It’s 20 years after the first movie (appropriately enough), and the aliens return for a rematch, except this time they’re serious. Stage center is largely occupied by the children of the main characters of the first movie, though Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Vivica Fox and Bill Pullman all return.

And overall… I liked it. Hey, Mikey!

We are told that in the intervening 20 years, mankind is still united, and we’ve reverse-engineered alien tech to a degree that put me in mind of Macross. There’s a thriving military moonbase and, at the very least, an observation post near Saturn. Another alien race attempts to contact us, and given our last experience, we immediately shoot them out of the sky. Too bad they were offering to help, huh? When the new bad guy mothership arrives, it is over 3000 miles across, has its own gravity field, and parks across the Atlantic ocean. The whole ocean.

Guys, that is some cool mind-blowing science-fiction right there, and it’s only damaged a little by Roland Emmerich’s fetish for out-doing Irwin Allen in the disaster department. (“How will we get a speeding vehicle dodging stuff falling from the sky this time?” I wondered. “Ah! Here we go!”) People deride it for being basically the same movie as the first, just bigger – my question is: is this the first sequel you’ve ever seen?

My other question is why with all this alien tech at our disposal are people still driving cars that require gasoline, but let’s not get too far down that rabbit hole, or we’ll be wondering why it takes the aliens three-quarters of the movie to toast the communications satellite network aw crap.

I wanted big and stupid, I got big and fairly stupid. I enjoyed it, which surprised me, as I’m not a big fan of the first movie. I liked it alright, but I wanted to love it, and I didn’t.

So I might as well tarnish that experience by immediately following it up with Ghost in the Shell, which for some reason I felt compelled to watch. I guess there’s a nerd punch card somewhere I needed to fill?

Briefly: Scarlett Johannson is Major, a human brain in a robot body. Major has no memory of her former existence, though she is told her body may have died by drowning. She is employed as an intelligent tactical weapon by an elite peacekeeping force overseen by Takeshi Kitano. As she works to root out a rogue cyborg who is hacking into the data centers of other cyborgs, she begins to find out unpleasant truths about her own existence, not the least of which is her true identity and origin.

Ghost in the Shell is a competently made, if relatively (and ironically) soulless. When I found out this was made by Rupert Sanders, a whole lot of things suddenly made sense. Like Snow White and the Huntsman, this movie uses its technology fairly well, but an essential feeling of reality is missing. In Snow White‘s fantasy world, this wasn’t a big deal, but in cyberpunk, it is. The frequent loving vistas of a futuristic city overwhelmed by gigantic advertising holograms look like they came out of a Mind’s Eye laserdisc in the early 90s, not a big budget CGI extravaganza from 2017.

Sanders seems to rely almost solely upon the talents of his stars to give his movies life and energy; before it was Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth, this time it’s Johannson and Takeshi, and the movie isn’t willing to meet them halfway in that effort. They’re a talented bunch, but they need a script that did more than read the definition of anomie in a word-a-day calendar. I’m going to be honest and admit I haven’t seen the original since it came out in the mid-90s, but golly it sure seems like Major is rendered helpless a lot for an unstoppable killing machine, just so exposition can be delivered. The most damning thing about Ghost in the Shell is that it’s a great comic book and a perfectly fine anime – why was it felt necessary to make a big budget live version? (Truthfully, I can think of more than one movie that needs to have that question asked, but we’re trying to be brief here)

So. Independence Day: Resurgence, thumbs up, Ghost in the Shell thumbs down.

Now I’m going to become scarce around here for a while. Yes, yes, I know, scarce-er. The October Hubrisween event is coming, and I need to get way more done on that than I have at this point. I’ll try to poke my head in, I really will.

(Ron Howard voice: “He didn’t poke his head in.”)

Buy Independence Day: Resurgence on Amazon

Buy Ghost in the Shell on Amazon

Better yet, buy the original Ghost in the Shell on Amazon

U: Under the Skin (2013)

Hubrisween 3 BlackClick ^^ for Hubrisween Central, here for our Letterboxd page

under-the-skinIt’s actually rather rare I get to do a movie so recent for Hubrisween, though that’s likely more a matter of personal taste than actual happenstance. The fact that I’m calling a two year-old movie “recent” is telling, some people are likely thinking.

Then, perhaps Under the Skin isn’t of such recent vintage after all – it’s said it took director Jonathan Glazer ten years to get it made. And then, once it was made, nobody seemed to like it. Dipping a toe into User Reviews and message boards is a whole lot like falling into a Gamer Gate discussion or something equally rancid. There are people who like this movie, but they’re not the ones who are driven to spout off about it; they’re the ones in the corner pondering and staring into space.

Scarlett Johansson is The Female (watch the extras and you’ll find out the crew named her Laura). The Female is some sort of alien being imitating a human woman. Driving about chilly Glasgow in a van, she picks up men, takes them to a deserted house for some sex, but instead they find themselves in some sideways dimension where they are consumed.

Under-The-Skin-trailer-2That is a B-movie concept right there, and you can be sure that Fred Olen Ray has used it at least once or twice; what is different here is the way in which the story is told. Under the Skin has maybe 100 lines of dialogue (if that many) in its hour and forty-eight minutes. This is purely visual storytelling, using some astonishingly sneaky technology. The reason the van the Female uses for stalking is so large is because it has eight cameras concealed in it and a recording studio in the back. The Female’s interactions with men is quite real, many of them not realizing they were in a movie until Glazer told them.

The Female is quite good at mimicry, it seems, but her observation of and traveling among humans begins to wear upon her, to infect her. Upon the seduction of a man afflicted with neurofibromatosis (Adam Pearson, and that ain’t makeup), she has a most un-alien crisis of conscience, frees him from the death dimension, and goes on her own voyage of self-discovery, ditching the van and wandering at random. She will find that humans are capable of great kindness. She will also find that some humans are just as capable of predation as she, perhaps even moreso.

It’s feels hard to judge Johansson’s performance here, which is why I tend to think it’s great. The bits with human interaction stand so starkly against the Alien parts – unreadable, unknowable. The hardest thing for an actor to do is to present a totally blank slate that the audience can pour itself into. She does this, then gives us a conflicted blank slate. It’s at least as tough a nut to crack as the movie that contains it.

Scarlett-Johansson-Under--011What infects The Female is empathy, something neither she nor her handler, The Bad Man (Jeremy McWilliams) possesses. It is something that cannot be afforded in their line of work, whatever the ultimate purpose of that may be. And that will bring us to the probable reason of why so many seem to hate this movie: there is never a breath of explanation in it, anywhere, as to why they are seeking out men who can vanish without a trace (whatever the reason is, their demise is pretty horrific and apparently not very speedy). Under the Skin requires engagement from the viewer, to the level that the viewer has to connect and devote themself to the whys and wherefores of what is happening. The only other movie I can think of to compare it to is Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which is similarly divisive to its audience. Under the Skin‘s narrative is much more straightforward, at least.  At its heart, it is what it is like to be human, and that turns out to be complicated. As complicated as the taste of chocolate cake, it turns out.

It’s a puzzler, so I did something I rarely do; I looked at the comments. I would have had better luck asking for the opinion of the local cesspool.

“It’s so long! Nothing happens!” Dude. avoid Tarkovsky. In fact, give up on World Cinema in general.

“I’d rather be watching a wall.” A wall is what you deserve.

“It’s boring!” You’re not paying attention.

“Scarlett Johansson has a fat ass!” That is what you took away from this movie? Go fuck yourself, which is likely the only prospect you have.

under_the_skin_grab02It’s obvious, I guess, that I liked it far more than I originally thought as the final credits roll, that I would be driven to actual anger by Idiots on the Interwebs, Incorporated. I’m still haunted by it days later, that it pricked so many responses deep inside me. It has completely – and you will have to forgive me – gotten under my skin.

Buy Under the Skin on Amazon