Science Fiction

The Hunger Games (2012)

Film #28: The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games is the highly anticipated film adaptation of the 2008 Suzanne Collins novel of the same name. I read The Hunger Games and its two sequels last year, so I’m familiar with the world of Panem and Katniss Everdeen. Since the books are interesting and easy to read, I’m assuming that most of the people going to see the movie have also paid dues with the source material. For those who haven’t, I’ll recap the backstory: In an undisclosed point in the future, North America has become Panem, a nation split into a Capitol and 12 subservient districts. At one point, there was an uprising from the districts against the Capitol. After this rebellion was put down, the 13th district getting destroyed in the process, the Capitol instated a rule to remind the districts of their failure every year. An annual raffle is held (“the reaping”), during which one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are drawn from each district. These 24 children are placed in an arena and have to fight to the death. The winner takes home a lifetime supply of food (valuable in the resource-scarce world of the districts) and glory for their district. This deadly battle royale is called The Hunger Games.

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Moon (2009)

Heads up, this review is riddled with spoilers. RIDDLED!

Moon is a British science fiction film quietly released in 2009. It got some attention from its screening at Sundance, but besides that short-lived buzz, it got little notice from the media or the public in general. This is one of the more tragic facts in recent cinematic history, because this little indie movie was able to evoke the isolating tone of 2001-era science fiction while delivering an intelligent and reality-based story. Moon is the debut feature film of director Duncan Jones, and on that note, I have to disclose my bias in reviewing this film, since Jones is the son of the handsome and ageless rock star David Bowie, a man who visits me in my dreams every night and can do no wrong. But even with that conflict of interest accounted for, Moon is seriously an awesome movie.

In the near future, Earth’s energy crisis will finally be resolved through the harvest of helium-3, an element used in nuclear fusion that is found in abundance on the moon. Lunar Industries operates a moon-based facility that mines and transports the helium-3 back to Earth. Overlooking this process is a single employee, whose contract of loneliness lasts three years. We join Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) as he nears the end of his long shift. With live transmission to Earth apparently blocked, Sam watches delayed recordings from his wife and new daughter on Earth. Despite the assistance of an emoticon-faced robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), Sam is beginning to break down psychologically. After a hallucination causes him to crash and pass out on a harvesting expedition, he comes to in the station’s medical bay. And this is where things get weird.

Sam investigates the accident site and finds someone unconscious. Turns out, it’s him. They’re both Sam Bell, as GERTY reveals. After some initial hostility from Sam2, they begin to piece together the facts of the situation. It turns out that the original Sam Bell is back on Earth with his teenage daughter, his wife having recently passed. The memories and videos from them have been manipulated and implanted into each clone. After a three-year service, the clones begin to deteriorate, before they’re finally incinerated in a pod that they believe are taking them back to Earth. The new clone is awakened just like Sam2 was after the crash, then quickly takes over the shift after some rehabilitation.

This is an incredible story that evokes thoughts about corporations, technology, personhood, and the ethics surrounding cloning. Every turn in the story could have been treated as some kind of big twist, but instead, the script just slides them out, confident that the audience will be satisfied enough intellectually to not require a dramatic delivery. It is, in all manner of sorts, a slow burn of a movie. And how could it not be? It’s set on the moon, the loneliest place humans have ever been to. Using models instead of CGI, Jones gives us plenty of wide long shots that let us get lost in the emptiness of space. The colorless, barren moon surface is only slightly less terrifying than the pitch black sky above it. It’s a nice setting for a movie largely about its characters’ psyches.

To say “characters” in the plural is a slight stretch, however, since Moon is mostly a one-man show. Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite actors, able to make characters seem both amiable and a bit psychotic with ease. Playing against himself, Rockwell gets to paint his performance with every shade of emotion. From the hopelessness of Sam1 to the frustration of Sam2, Rockwell is what carries Moon through its sometimes lengthy sequences. Another tragic fact of this film is that Rockwell was ignored by the Academy and never nominated for Best Acting in Moon. How he could have been overlooked is beyond me.

Lending his voice to a robot tethered by rail to the station ceiling, Spacey is a nice accompaniment to Rockwell & Rockwell. His droll voice is perfectly suited for a mechanical assistant. It’s only natural to see GERTY and think of HAL, and the filmmakers know this, so they play GERTY’sintentions somewhat ambiguously at first. Soon enough, however, it’s clear that GERTY is entirely on Sam’s side. This sort of Bizarro-HAL is a breath of fresh air in a genre where robots are often just cold, calculating, and murderous. As we root for Sam to find a way around his injustice, GERTY roots with us, offering his assistance at all turns. But it’s still never easy for the Sams – the fact that GERTY is rail-based keeps him from being too omniscient or powerful, a restriction that only makes sense given Moon‘s low-key future.

Bathed in bright lights and completely sterile white interiors, the set design evokes THX-1138, another slow-paced science fiction movie with a conspiratorial theme. It’s futuristic, but entirely rooted in reality. The models, which look fantastic, add to this approach. So does the fact that it only takes place a generation into the future. The problem that Sam Bell is there to solve is one of our most immediate and pressing; the problem that surrounds the use of his clones is one that lurks in the shadows of our technological future.

Moon is a thinking person’s movie, akin to several excellent decades-old science fiction films. Its steady reveals keeps the story interesting, and when the pace begins to lag, it’s supported by Rockwell’s stellar performance and beautiful direction from Jones. I saw that there was some talk of a trilogy of films set in Moon‘s fictional universe. Although I’m usually against such ideas, I think that as long as Duncan Jones gives those movies the intellectual and technological attention he gave to Moon, then we have two movies to look very forward to.

Final Rating: 9/10

Stray Observations:

  • One thing I wish the film had addressed was the nature of the hallucinations Bell started having. When he burned himself he saw a teenage girl – but it wasn’t his actual-aged daughter, was it? And was it the same figure he saw in the harvester? It just seems like a weird loose end in a story so fully realized.
  • I also wasn’t sure what the point of making the clones get sick after 3 years was if they were just going to get incinerated anyway. Could anyone help me figure these points out, because I might very well just be overlooking something.
  • If you like to watch Sam Rockwell unravel into mental instability, make sure to check him out in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a trippy movie directed aggressively by George Clooney.
–James A. Janisse

Predators (2010)

Robert Rodriguez’s Predators is the third film in a series that began with Arnold Schwarzenegger running around Guatemala in 1987. This latest entry sees a group of the world’s most dangerous individuals paradropped onto a foreign planet, where they serve as game for a pack of Predators.

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Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report is Steven Spielberg’s 2002 science fiction film loosely based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. Taking place in a dystopian 2054 when civil liberties and privacy are beginning to seem like mere memories, the film follows Tom Cruise as an officer of the PreCrime division of the Washington D.C. police. As part of this division, Cruise interprets visions from three “Pre-cogs”, and arrests people before they are able to carry out murder.

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Eraserhead (1977)

After watching Dune as my first David Lynch film, I realized that he might best be approached in a chronological fashion. So I rented Eraserhead, Lynch’s first feature, and sat down to watch it, unaware of what I was in for. I of course knew a bit of Lynch’s reputation as a filmmaker, but no amount of reading or talking about him could prepare me for the surreal grotesque nightmare that is Eraserhead.

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9 (2009)

In 2005, Shane Acker made a short film called ‘9’ about a mute little puppet guy running around in a post-apocalyptic world. The short was visually stunning and mysteriously interesting, and it gained a nomination for Best Animated Short at the Oscars that year. That success was probably what allowed Acker to make a (mostly) full-length version of his short, also entitled 9, which came out in 2009. Unfortunately, when the material from his short is extended to a longer runtime, it is stretched very thin. 9 looks amazing and has an outstanding voice cast, but offers very little in terms of story, character, or action.

9 begins with the eponymous doll coming to life and finding all the humans in the world around him dead. He soon runs into a similar being, numbered 2, who helps him out before getting taken by an evil machine. Apparently robots have revolted and are the cause for human extinction. After the attack, 9 wakes up amidst most of the other homonculi that were numbered prior to him, and the movie sets off.

The puppets that have real lines (six of the nine do) are voiced by very well-known actors. Elijah Wood voices 9, and the others are taken on by Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, and Jennifer Connelly. Everyone does a great job and fits nicely into their roles. They bring a lot of spirit to the “stitchpunk” golems that the film follows.

Unfortunately the characters they are voicing don’t really have much to say. All of them seem to be pretty archetypal – the overbearing but well-meaning grizzled leader, the soft-spoken nice guy, the adventurous and capable female, the quiet weird artsy one… granted, these are all aspects of one man’s soul that have been put in these dolls, but it still would have been nice to have them fleshed out a bit more.

What needed even more help was the plot of the film. It’s depressingly simple. The way the story begins, you expect to go on some sort of epic journey with these puppets, but instead you do a sort of point-to-point roadtrip that ends up being extremely predictable and unoriginal. They go somewhere, they get attacked, another member gets their souls taken away; rinse and repeat. After 20 minutes you can probably guess who’s going to bite the dust and what order they’ll do it in. The robots are made to look way too obviously evil (how could anyone have expected these things to usher in peace if they have machine guns on the front?), and the action scenes that pit these evil mechanical creatures against our lovable stitchpunks are equally unsatisfying. The first creature is decapitated with startling ease by an intervening 7, and though the next villain is a very interesting serpent-like machine, we know that he too will soon fall relatively easily, perhaps after taking out a puppet or two.

The film leaves one wondering who exactly it was made for. The fact that it’s animated isolates many adults who can’t bring themselves to watch animated puppets running around. However, it also has a very dark and somewhat scary tone about it, and its setting is littered with many dead human bodies, so you have to wonder at what age this kind of stuff would stop giving one nightmares.

9 looks amazing. It’s got some of the best CGI I’ve seen in an animated feature so far, and it makes a lot of use of its heroes’ size. There’s a ton of really cool instances showing how these little guys interact with the world from their tiny perspective, and whether it’s using a sewing needle as a weapon or running on a record to play it, it’s all very fun to look at and point out. The earlier puppets like 1 and 2 are markedly different from the later ones – just look at their eyes and construction. This kind of detail is what makes 9 good enough to watch. It just looks so cool.

Despite being the shortest film I’ve watched in a long time, 9 is repetitive and not as inspiring as you may hope it to be. Its plot and characters are sadly underdeveloped, and a lot of the surrounding story doesn’t feel fleshed out at all either. 9 is a movie that you could take or leave, depending on how interesting it seems to you. Even if you don’t end up getting into it, at least you won’t have to spend more than 80 minutes on it. It’d be great, however, if the film had been good enough to make me want it to be longer.

Final rating: 6/10

–James A. Janisse


Dune (1984)

Going into this movie for me was like jumping in the middle of World War II with a sword and shield. My preparation was woefully inadequate. Not only had I never read the evidently dense Frank Herbert novel and was thus entirely unfamiliar with the story, I had also never seen a David Lynch film before. To be honest, I don’t feel as though I can legitimately review this film, but knowing that there are probably other viewers who enter under the same conditions, I’m going to review it from that perspective, for them.

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Avatar (2009)

Avatar is the newest James Cameron film, and the first of his since the Oscar-sweeping Titanic in 1997. It’s shot in 3D, and advertisements are claiming that Avatar is a new benchmark for filmmaking, impressively innovative in visual effects. While the first claim may not be met, Avatar definitely succeeds on the second. This film is quite possibly the best-looking movie I’ve ever seen, and easily the best 3D film of all time.

Avatar takes place in the 22nd Century, in a time when humans have apparently destroyed their own planet and are now colonizing Pandora, home to the sentient and humanoid Na’vi. The film follows Sam Worthington as a Marine whose twin was a military scientist before being killed. Worthington becomes an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation when he’s called on to fulfill his brother’s duties. Except I guess he’s not that ordinary, since he’s a wheelchair-bound Marine. But you get the idea.

I’ll start off by saying that the story and Worthington’s performance are what keep Avatar from truly becoming a new benchmark for all of filmmaking. The plot is exceedingly simple and straightforward. I actually enjoyed most of its straight-forwardness, but it’s nothing new, and the predictability can sometimes take away from the story. Worthington goes undercover and learns the Na’vi’s ways in a plan to exploit their weaknesses. You can guess immediately that a.) he’s going to fall in love with the girl who takes him around, causing him to lose his loyalty to the military program, and b.) there’s going to be a point where he reveals his longstanding deception, the girl turns away from him in disgust, and he has to win back her and the peoples’ trust to save them before destruction comes. Both of these things happen, and you can see them from a mile away. But I’ve gotta be honest, I didn’t care. I didn’t see this movie to see the next Citizen Kane. I saw it to see the next Star Wars.

And from a technological showcase standpoint, it clearly succeeds. The film’s creation of Pandora has to be unmatched in cinematic setting depth. Every inch of the map is carefully constructed, and it shows that time and creativity went into all of it. There are a number of wild species on the planet – every single one is distinct and interesting, and makes you want to see more. Even the plant life is so captivating that you wish the characters could just frolic and explore the jungle around them, so you could see what else the developers of this universe came up with.

It all looks and sounds amazing, and the 3D effects are really put to their best use in Avatar. I’ve seen many of the new films coming out in 3D, and this is hands down the best one. I believe that this is the first film to bring a respectable non-animated film to the realm of 3D – before this, we had things like The Final Destination and other cheap gimmicky fare. Avatar takes this technology and blends it into its cinematography as well as widescreen or depth of focus has been adapted in the past. There are few outstanding uses of it that purposefully jump out at you, but it’d be boring without at least a couple of indulgences in the new technology. Most of the time,  it is used maturely and artistically, creating a very immersive and enchanting depth and feel to the film.

The film also operates on a number of other levels. It blends psychology (the biologically-based scientific psychology, not the archaic Freudian psychobabble) and spirituality to give the Na’vi a faith rooted in the world around them forming a biological network with neuron- and synapse-like connections. That’s very cool, and very appreciated in an industry where psychology is usually abused and misused.

The story also touches lightly on some philosophical issues dealing with identity. When you really think about it, operating another body as your own opens a whole case of questions and considerations, some of which have been discussed by great thinkers in the past. Avatar definitely doesn’t become some Godardian experience, but the fact that it brings some questions up at all is another welcome intellectual addition to what is undeniably a blockbuster film.

The film also has a political slant to it, which ends up getting a bit overbearing by the end. People who have problems with “tree hugging liberals” may very well leave upset with the film’s message and its almost laughably stereotypical antagonist (he’s like George W. Bush on steroids). To be fair, however, the film’s story does bring in political considerations almost inherently, and considering the perspective of the film, its alignment is practically predetermined.

Overall, I recommend everyone see this film. See it to see that 3D isn’t the same stuff from the 50s or 80s, and that it’s matured into a respectable and entertaining technology. See it because everyone else is and you don’t want to be left out of good water cooler conversation. See it because even at its near-3 hour length, you really and truly don’t have anything better to do. I promise you that if you have even an ounce of childlike curiosity or appreciation for aesthetics, you will be entertained. If not, then movies probably aren’t really your thing anyway.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse