Friday, January 21, 2022

THREE TO STREAM FOR SF FANS

I haven’t had a chance to review any SF films in a while here on Spacefreighters Lounge. I’ve been saving all those opinions for my podcast, My Moviehouse My Rules, now housed on SoundCloud. But there are a few interesting new titles to stream right now that SF fans might want to check out.

Let’s start with a film that’s generating quite a lot of buzz on Netflix, DON’T LOOK UP, starring just about everybody in Hollywood, but most notably, Leonardo di Caprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Timothee Chalomet, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance, Jonah Hill, and Ron Perlman. Written and directed by Adam McKay, who wrote THE BIG SHORT and produced the Academy Award-winning VICE, this is a dark comedy about the end of the world, that demise coming in the form of a giant comet headed straight for Earth.

Two scientists, nerdy-but-attractive Dr. Randall Mindy (di Caprio in tweed and glasses) and impulsive-but-beautiful grad student Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence looking much as she always does), discover the comet and try to get someone, anyone, to listen to their message of looming disaster. To no avail. The politicians (including the President (Streep) and her idiot son/Chief of Staff (Hill) are too concerned about politics; the media (Perry and Blanchett) are too concerned about “keeping things light” on their talk show. An “Elon Musk”-type tech genius (Mark Rylance) delays destroying the comet in vain hopes of exploiting its precious rare-earth elements. All of this is played for laughs, but the premise cuts a little too close to the bone to be laugh-out-loud funny.

McKay’s sentiments are obviously skewed toward the liberal side here, which may lead some more conservative viewers to avoid the film. But DON’T LOOK UP is more pro-science than against any particular political faction, sympathizing with all the scientists currently crying in the wilderness about climate change.

I wasn’t expecting much from the film, given the poor reception it got from critics (who called it too preachy). Instead, I found DON’T LOOK UP unexpectedly touching, thanks to the filmmaker’s repeated use of a single technique to bring his point home. From the moment the news of the comet becomes known, he shows everyday people absorbing the information via their phones, TV screens and tablets, at first with mild interest, then with increasing alarm. McKay checks in with folks at home at key moments throughout the film, not just Americans or Europeans, either, but people gathered around TV sets in huts in Africa, in slums in India, on islands in the Pacific. As the comet comes nearer, some people are in active denial (thus the title of the film), some are glued to their screens. But finally the object of doom is impossible to ignore—the thing is like a searchlight in the sky.

As humanity’s end grows near, we are treated to images of all that would be lost if the powers that be do nothing and the comet hits: wildlife in forests and savannas, birds on the wing and fish in the ocean, babies and puppies and rushing streams. Just flashes, but enough to remind us what a treasure this Earth is, unlike anything else in this solar system; unlike anything else we know within reach in this galaxy. It becomes clear that McKay isn’t talking about the fictional, unlikely, planet-ending disaster of a comet striking us. He’s talking about global warming, something that is happening right now, the response to which is equally inadequate, too little and too late, hampered by politics and denial.

Timothee Chalamet’s character, the relapsed Christian evangelical skater-boy Yule, provides a tiny, flickering spark of hope near the end of the film when he offers up a prayer around the family dinner table as doom approaches. Far from being a saccharine moment, in Chalamet’s hands, it becomes another touching scene when you least expect it. And, yes, I’ll admit to a taste for good corn when the film calls for it.

Of course, SPOILER ALERT! there is a problem with this film if you like happy endings. There genuinely isn’t one here, unless you count what happens to the despicable President Orlean. But those are the times we live in. Contrast that with the optimism of 90s disaster films like ARMAGEDDON (Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck) and DEEP IMPACT (Morgan Freeman, Elijah Wood, Robert Duvall). Yes, we lost lots of people and coastlines in those films, and heroes sacrificed their lives to save the world, but the world was saved in the end. And, perhaps more important, the citizens in those films trusted both science and their leaders. Just as we all did in those days. 

 Davis's troupe of players post-pandemic in Station Eleven.

The world does survive the apocalypse in a marvelously creative science fiction limited series streaming now on HBO Max, Station Eleven. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you want to engage with a screen project that deals with the effects of a global pandemic (in this case a type of flu) that kills off most of the world’s population in just a few weeks. There are advantages in engaging in a fictional account of such a pandemic and its impact; you can remove yourself from it to a certain extent and see it objectively. And at least the pandemic in STATION ELEVEN isn’t a lingering thing like our COVID struggle. The premise here is that the flu blew through its host population quickly and was gone, leaving its small reservoir of immune survivors to carry on and rebuild civilization as they could.

In this series based on the novel by Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, we follow the intersecting stories of a young girl, Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), who is onstage in a version of KING LEAR when all hell breaks loose; the man who, by chance, becomes her guardian, Jeevan (Himesh Patel); Kirsten 20 years later (Mackenzie Davis), now the unofficial leader of a troupe of Shakespearean actors wandering the wasteland of the Great Lakes region; and various other characters, all loosely connected by a pre-pandemic science fiction graphic novel they are each intimately familiar with titled STATION ELEVEN. The series jumps back and forth between characters and timelines to fill in gaps in the plot, assembling a full picture of what happened when and to whom, eventually giving us a complete three-dimensional model of how everyone (and everything) is related. It really is the most remarkable piece of storytelling, bolstered by some wonderful acting, stark camera work and a jarring electronic score. The show does require patience, however, and it may not be for everyone. If you like complex, though, (and you’re fond of SF and Shakespeare), I recommend it.

In a similar introspective vein comes a film advertised as science fiction, ENCOUNTER,  starring Riz Ahmed, star of 2019’s Oscar-winning SOUND OF METAL, backed up by versatile Oscar-winning actor Octavia Spencer. Amazon Prime chooses to describe this film by writer-director Michael Pearce as a science fiction tale about a Marine veteran trying to protect his two sons from the threat of an alien invasion. But SPOILER ALERT! at the risk of putting you off the movie, I’m going to tell you ENCOUNTER is NOT about that, except in the lead character’s mind. I guess the producers (and Amazon Prime) thought that if viewers knew it was about a mentally ill veteran of the Afghanistan war kidnapping his children and taking them across country under the delusion that microscopic bugs were controlling people’s minds, it might not go over so well.

So the setup puts us in the Marine’s mind, and, at first, we go along with the alien invasion idea. We see what appears to be something streaking into the atmosphere, what looks like a tiny tardigrade invading the bloodstream of insects, a mosquito injecting microscopic beasties into a human bloodstream, news reports of widespread rioting and crime on the television. We meet our antihero Malik (played with unstinting credibility by Ahmed—what a fine actor he is!) in a hotel room that appears to be crawling with nasty bugs. He’s covering himself with bug spray and “researching” the invasion. He’s also planning to grab up his two sons, 10-year-old Jay and 8-year-old Bobby, (played with skills beyond their years by Lucian-River Chauhan and Additya Geddada) from their mother’s house because he’s convinced Mom has been infected by the alien bugs.

What follows is a tragi-comic road trip from Oregon to Nevada’s Groom Lake, where Malik believes the last uncorrupted base still holds out against the invasion. Meanwhile, the FBI is on his trail, thinking he is a “family annihilator,” someone who will kill his boys and himself when he finally snaps. Only his parole officer (Octavia Spencer), a good-hearted type who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, believes he will put his sons before himself.

The power of the acting is what lifts this admittedly strange and clunky vehicle out of the mud. Ahmed and both boys take the mundane to the next level here, making ENCOUNTER worth watching. And the end, far from being the disaster you might anticipate, is touching and even uplifting. I started watching this because I like Ahmed and I expected SF; I stayed with it because it had surprising depth. You might, too.

You can find these and more of my new screen reviews with old-school attitude on SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, my Facebook Page app or on my podcast website at mymoviehousemyrules.com. You can comment there, too, and tell me what you think!

Cheers, Donna

 

2 comments:

  1. Great reviews as always, Donna, and hmmm, interesting. Disaster seems to be the new gray in Hollywood. Probably with good reason.

    DON'T LOOK UP sounds like a fresh take on the many comet/asteroid headed for Earth plot re-dos (life imitating art or art imitating life?) and I think I might check this one out.

    As for Station Eleven, yeahhh, you had me at Himesh Patel. (Though there's a 'but' in there.)

    ENCOUNTER sounds interesting in that it suggests elements of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (not CLOVERFIELD) turned on its ear, but with a less disturbing ending. Another one I might check into.

    Thanks for the suggestions, though we're still in the High Speed Deprived Zone out here, so I'll have to find another way to watch, if possible, other than streaming.

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  2. Thanks, Laurie! Yeah, I get you about the rural Internet problem. Luckily we are soon to be benefiting from a Federal grant to place fiber optic service in rural areas through our electric co-op. I’m ecstatic because our current service is getting slower and slower as more people sign on. I’ve lost access to Disney Plus and couldn’t watch the final episode of STATION ELEVEN last night because of buffering issues. Aarrggh!

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Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 8 RWA Golden Heart finals and a RITA final between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of SFR, hot topics, and our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.