Science Fiction

The Avengers

I suspect that the Avengers exists as a comic book series because, despite their dominant position in that arena and broad portfolio of characters, only one, Spider-Man, really counts as an A-List superhero to the world beyond the fringes of comic book fandom. The rest of the major league franchises, Batman and Superman, belong to DC Comics.

Recent movies have changed that pecking order, but let’s face it: No one really gave a rat’s ass about Iron Man until Robert Downey, Jr. strapped on the suit and when most people hear “Incredible Hulk,” they think Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno before they think of Eric Bana, Edward Norton, or Mark Ruffalo.

Good thing no one told writer/director Joss Whedon. Continue reading

The Return of the Jedi

The wrap-up to the first trilogy (chronologically, not narratively) should have served as a warning of the pain we were to endure upon the release of the prequels twenty years later. All of the flaws that dogged episodes I through III were visible in Episode VI for anyone who cared to look.

Of course, back then we simply assumed that it was George Lucas unable to top the success of The Empire Strikes Back. Maybe he hired the wrong director in Richard Marquand or, as we have often seen in the case of movie trilogies, the filmmakers can’t always write an ending that lives up to the promise of what’s gone before.

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The Empire Strikes Back

Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder.

While the 1977 original may have launched the Star Wars phenomenon, I would make the case that this film was responsible for creating the enduring franchise. Had The Empire Strikes Back fallen flat on its face, had it not been, in many eyes, a superior film to the original (or equal in quality at the very worst), there would have been no special editions, no prequels, no Disney sale, and no one would be talking about whether J. J. Abrams wants to direct a seventh film.

I think the strength of this film lies in one simple fact. This is Darth Vader’s movie, more than any other in the franchise. Continue reading

Star Wars

Luke's just not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him.

Looking back on it from more than 30 years, it’s hard to imagine a time when Star Wars did not permeate our culture. It informs both our popular arts as well as high-level policy debate during the Cold War. It rewrote the rules of summer movies only two years after Jaws wrote them in the first place. This one movie took merchandising from a tidy little sideline to a stratospheric cash cow for Hollywood.

In short, a little movie made for less than $10 million, of which the studio thought so little that they willingly parted with all the ancillary rights that studios normally hang on to until hell freezes over, ended up being the greatest single act of creative destruction in the history of the business since The Jazz Singer. After Star Wars, the artistically ambitious films that were a hallmark of the early-to-mid-seventies were shuffled off to the independent filmmakers, while Hollywood became a factory for blockbusters.

At this juncture, it’s pointless to review this movie like I would a “normal” film, other than to offer my conjecture on why this little movie worked like no other movie before it and few since. And yes, I’m calling it Star Wars, not Episode IV or A New Hope. The movie that hit theaters in 1977 was called Star Wars, so that is the name of the movie.

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Cowboys and Aliens

If I didn’t already know this was based on an existing graphic novel, I might have assumed that the title was a leftover “working” title, and no one could be bothered to come up with anything better when the film was completed. Despite the major-league production values and the marquee value of Indiana Jones and James Bond in the cast, this is a forgettable pot-boiler that does proper service to only one half of its title.

A nameless stranger (Daniel Craig) wakes up with no memory of who he is, a wound in his side, and a large and strangely unremovable metal bracelet on one wrist. He reaches the nearest town, where people recognize him as Jake Lonergan, notorious stagecoach robber. Awkward.

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Men in Black 3

You know, we been doing some pretty smart stuff over the past day or so. How about we do something stupid?

After ten years, the only real impression left behind by Men in Black 2 was a vague sense of dread at the announcement of Men in Black 3. After such a badly misfired sequel, the third film in a franchise can do one of two things: either drag the series further down the rat hole, or like Die Hard: With a Vengeance, actually redeem the series. Chalk this one down for option B.

The original film prospered on the casting of Tommy Lee Jones as an anchor for Will Smith. Wouldn’t you know that the third film’s success is the result of an equally inspired bit of casting. More about this later.

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Men in Black

Did anything about that seem odd to you?

The success of this movie, creatively as much as commercially, is down to a triumph of casting. Of course, they had Will Smith, fresh off his breakthrough role in Independence Day, but that coup carries some hazards. Smith’s high-energy presence can dominate and unbalance a movie if allowed, requiring an actor of equal weight and with a complementary presence to even the scales. Thus, pairing Smith with the deadpan Tommy Lee Jones is half the key to the success of Men in Black.

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The Road Warrior

The Road Warrior

Three or four career meltdowns ago, Mel Gibson was still a fresh face on the scene when he went into a bar the night before his audition for a little film called Mad Max. The brawl that temporarily battered his youthful good looks actually helped land him the role that would launch his career. The first Mad Max was a hit worldwide but made a negligible impression in the States, partly due to a lousy dubbing job the studio inflicted on the film because the suits thought Yanks weren’t ready for a real Australian accent (This was a few years before Crocodile Dundee).

As a result, the sequel was called Mad Max 2 everywhere but the U.S., because you can’t have a sequel to a movie no one had heard of. Call it Mad Max 2 or The Road Warrior, it was like a jolt of adrenaline right into the eyeballs.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Now don't take this the wrong way, but you're a terminator, right?

You have to hand it to James Cameron. He knows how to spend money. Not only did he spend $300 million on Avatar without blinking, but he was the first to sink $200 million into a picture, that being Titanic. Even before that, T2 was the movie to break Hollywood’s $100 million cherry. Considering the results, none of that money was wasted, but do we really want to keep encouraging this sort of behavior? What happened to the James Cameron who could make the first Terminator movie for less than the loose change he found in his sofa?

It’s hard to argue with the results when they look like this. Terminator 2 takes the lean, stripped-down muscle car that was the original and straps on a couple of booster rockets from the space shuttle. It’s sci-fi action filmmaking at such a level of relentless professionalism that it just wears you down and makes you hand over your skepticism like it was your lunch money.

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Avatar

Avatar

When I first saw Avatar in the theaters, I experienced it the way it was supposed to be seen, in full-blown IMAX 3D. Seen that way, it was a visual and aural experience unlike any I’d had before or since in the movie theater. James Cameron had eschewed the usual 3-D gimmickry of objects seeming to fly over the audience’s heads, and used the tools at his disposal to create an all-encompassing fantasy environment that seemed real enough to touch.

Some people even reported feelings of depression after the movie because they preferred the alternate reality of the movie to their own. While I think such people were already in need of serious therapy and possible medication, I can understand how this movie, more than any other, would be the one to inspire that kind of “separation anxiety.”

As a visual spectacle, this film has thrown down an intimidating gauntlet that will be hard to top for the sheer exhilaration factor. Even “King of the World” Cameron himself might be feeling a little performance anxiety as he prepares Avatar 2, because even he might be hard-pressed to top his own creation.

But, about that story…

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Them!

Them!

Them! launched what would be Hollywood’s version of the Godzilla movie, expressing our atomic-age fears via giant bugs and insects instead of rubber lizards. This particular sub-genre has been largely forgotten by our collective movie memory, but Them! remains as an example of 1950s sci-fi done with a style and self-confident maturity that the category often lacks.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

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Combine a completely unnecessary remake of a 1950s science-fiction classic with a starring role for Keanu Reeves and you have a recipe for nothing to get excited about. In that respect, the 2008 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still does not disappoint. It unsuccessfully tries to hide its narrative emptiness behind a noisy CGI light show and half-hearted lip service to a ripped-from-the-headlines current-events subject.

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