The Martian (2015) – Film Review

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Andy Weir, which was originally self-published on Weir’s personal blog in a serialised format. The Martian, released in 2015, is a sci-fi drama that combines witty dialogue, stunning cosmic visuals and real-world science to craft a captivating story of survival and innovation. Anchored by a tremendous performance from Matt Damon, The Martian is a cinematic triumph of the science fiction genre, ticking every box that needs to be ticked in this modern era of sci-fi flicks.

Plot Summary: When a fierce storm causes an exploratory mission on Mars to be aborted, astronaut and botanist, Mark Watney, is presumed dead and left behind by his crew. Awakening hours later, injured and alone, Mark is forced to draw upon his wit and scientific ingenuity to endure the hostile surface of the red planet. Meanwhile, back on Earth, employees of NASA, alongside a team of international scientists, work around the clock to develop a plan to bring their missing astronaut home… 

Just as much a survival thriller as it is a grandiose sci-fi drama, The Martian is directed by Ridley Scott (Blade RunnerThelma & LouiseGladiator), who, of course, is no stranger to the science fiction genre, with two of the most notable releases of his filmography being Alien in 1979, and Blade Runner in 1982, both renowned as some of the most iconic sci-fi films of all time. And although The Martian likely won’t reach the same level of recognition in ten years, I would say the film has about the same level of directional skill as those well-known flicks. The unsung hero of the film, however, is the screenwriter/executive producer, Drew Goddard, who laces the story with humour and energy, in addition to approaching much of the scientific exposition in a comprehensible yet never overly simplistic fashion. 

The incredible all-star cast of Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong and Donald Glover (among others), are all phenomenal in their various roles. And whilst there are a lot of characters, the story juggles them rather efficiently, never taking too much attention away from Mark Watney’s fight for survival, and subsequently, Damon’s terrific performance, which manages to be both humorous and heartfelt. As far as adaptions go, The Martian also solves one of the novel’s biggest issues, that being Mark’s constant internal monologues to provide the reader with commentary on his situation. The film gets around this by having Mark record video logs, in which he explains the science behind what he needs to do to survive, which again, is never dull thanks to Damon’s ceaseless charisma and dry wit.

Primarily filmed in the Middle Eastern desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan. The gorgeous cinematography by Dariusz Wolski emphasises the solitariness of Mars throughout the film, illustrating just how alone Mark truly is and making his line: “I Am the First Man to Be Alone on an Entire Planet,” seem all the more impactful. Furthermore, the colour palette of The Martian is surprisingly diverse considering the story takes place on the red planet. While most of the film retains a burnt orange look, many of the shots on Earth or in outer space form a remarkable contrast to the Mars sequences through their use of whites, greys, greens and blues. Much of the set design is also beautifully crafted, riding a careful line between sci-fi futurism and modern comfort. Interestingly, one of the panoramic shots on Mars displays Olympus Mons, the largest volcano discovered in our solar system. Olympus Mons is almost three times larger than Mount Everest and covers an area roughly the size of the U.S. state, Missouri.

Stylistically, the original score for The Martian is an assortment of soothing synth and the orchestral arrangements composer, Harry Gregson-Williams, is best known for. The most notable tracks are Mars, a stark, oppressive track comprised of synth chords and impressionistic processed effects, depicting the planet as a cold, inhospitable place. Making Water, which feels slightly more playful through its use of harps and optimistic strings. And Crossing Mars, the most triumphant-sounding track of the entire score, which ultimately comes across as a little generic as it ditches much of the atmospheric synth in exchange for an orchestral motif.

Amidst its many other qualities, The Martian is also a testament to science being employed rather accurately in a science fiction flick, as despite not every line of the screenplay being scientifically exact due to the story taking place in the near future of 2035, The Martian comes pretty close. In fact, NASA was actually consulted on many aspects of the story, specifically regarding Mars, with the film even being supported in its science by famed astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson. 

In summary, The Martian isn’t quite a flawless film as the supporting cast occasionally feel under-served and at one-hundred and forty-one minutes, the runtime is admittedly rather excessive. But, with the exception of these few (and frankly, minor) flaws, The Martian is a rousing story and an expertly crafted film in which the protagonist recognises he is going to die, and then willfully refuses to accept it. It’s an ennobling and uplifting story delivered with sass, allure and intelligence, essentially being everything a story from the science fiction genre should be. Rating: high 8/10.

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Dark Skies (2013) – Film Review

As much a science fiction as it is a horror, Dark Skies, released in 2013, has a solid cast, a fascinating premise and some admirable ambitions, attempting to break away from the familiar tropes of alien abduction stories in favour of delivering its own take on the common phobia of extraterrestrials discreetly arriving on Earth. Unfortunately, however, writer and director Scott Stewart (Legion, Priest, Holidays – Segment: Christmas) doesn’t seem to know how to utilise any of these elements, and as such, Dark Skies ends up being an extremely underwhelming film in more ways than one, even if it is a slight improvement over Blumhouse Productions’ usual jump-scare-filled endeavours.

Plot Summary: Suffering from financial troubles and the slow decline of their marriage, middle-aged couple, Lacy and Daniel Barrett, soon find their suburban life even further disrupted when an escalating series of unexplainable events leads them to discover that a terrifying force is monitoring them, a force which may have arrived from beyond the stars…

Originally pitched as a found-footage film with a screenplay written in only six weeks. Dark Skies curiously borrows more from supernatural horrors than it does from other extraterrestrial stories like SignsSkinwalker Ranch and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the film somewhat follows the structure of a conventional haunted house/possessed child storyline. And, as a result, suffers from many of the same issues that those films do. Appearing overly formulaic and frequently missing the opportunity to shift into full-on genre mode by the time its final act arrives. Furthermore, this structure results in many of the daytime sequences feeling quite tiresome as almost all of the extraterrestrial-related events don’t transpire until nightfall, leaving the daytime scenes to solely be used for kindred drama than foreboding moments of sci-fi dread.

The central cast of Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett and J.K. Simmons all do a serviceable job throughout the film, portraying members of a family that is slowly growing apart as time goes on. A situation that is only made more difficult by the family’s mounting bills and Daniel’s numerous attempts to find a replacement job falling flat at every turn. And whilst all of this is interesting for a family-centred plot, the problem here is that outside of the family’s general struggles, all of the characters are given very little development, an issue that is only exacerbated by the film’s many altering subplots, which cover everything from Lacy and Daniel’s declining sex life to their teenage son’s developing hormones and subsequent teenage crush.

Moving onto the visuals, with the exception of a couple of bewitching shots, the film’s cinematography by David Boyd is rather bland, primarily relying on hand-held mid-shots and close-ups. The film also continuously employs dim lighting for the majority of its runtime, meaning that nearly every shot at night is almost pitch-black with only a few small beams of moonlight to illuminate each room in the family’s house. Additionally, the film’s setting is, again, rather bland. As even though the location of a pleasant, everyday American suburb was chosen by Scott Stewart to help ground the story in reality, the setting itself is exceedingly dull, particularly for the horror genre.

Luckily, the original score fares a little better as composer, Joseph Bishara, best known for his fear-evoking score on 2010’s Insidious, once again uses his musical skills to craft a chilling soundtrack stocked with eerie futuristic noises and unsettling sound cues most present in the tracks: Two PosibitliesNight RideNot in Control and The Disturbances. Showcasing the true terror that these extraterrestrials are capable of purely through a distorted soundscape.

When it comes to the concept of creatures from another world studying our planet, it isn’t often that this idea drifts into the realm of horror, especially with the cliché image of a small, grey-skinned alien with an oversized head and black eyes, commonly referred to as a Gray, being any but frightening. However, in Dark Skies, the Grays are genuinely unnerving beings, appearing as lanky, shadow-like figures that tower over the Barrett family. In addition to the Grays, the film establishes two other extraterrestrial races known as the Reptilians and the Insectoids. Interestingly, all three of these races are actually based on real-life abduction reports where abductees described their encounters, with Reptilians being described as green-skinned humanoids with attributes of reptiles such as hairless scaled-skin, concave-vertical pupils and the ability to shapeshift, changing from reptilian to human at will, while Insectoids are described as large beings with a close resemblance to grasshoppers/praying mantises. Playing into the various conspiracies that surround life on other planets.

In summary, whilst Dark Skies doesn’t earn many points for originality. When the film manages to tap into more low-level, relatable anxieties with its family-focused story, it does come far closer to getting under its audience’s skin than your typical horror film ghost or ghoul. Having said that, Dark Skies also repeatedly devalues the effectiveness of the alien abduction subgenre with its uninspired visuals and fairly predictable plot. And while I do consider Scott Stewart to be a talented writer and director with the right project, his films occasionally do leave something to be desired, Dark Skies simply being another example. Rating: low 5/10.

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The Lobster (2015) – Film Review

Bleak, eccentric and ambitious, The Lobster, released in 2015, is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but for those with the fortitude to crack through the film’s offbeat sensibilities, it should prove a cinematic treat as co-writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos (DogtoothThe Killing of a Sacred DeerThe Favourite) continuously demonstrates his peculiar style throughout this anomalous black comedy. And although the film does admittedly fall short in its final act as the story loses interest in its animal-transformation premise and abandons its fascinating hotel setting in favour of a less interesting location with equally less interesting characters, this does little to diminish the intrigue of The Lobster‘s unique outlook on human relationships.

Plot Summary: In a dystopian future where, by law, all citizens must have a life companion, single people are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner within forty-five days. Should they fail, they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild where they will hopefully find love with a different species. Inevitably, as the newly divorced architect David enters the luxurious rehabilitation facility, he too must find a suitable partner, or an uncertain future in the wilderness awaits…

Since its initial release, The Lobster has become an intense hub of speculation regarding its true meaning, but the most common theory is that the film is an absurdist look at modern-day coupling, which, if truthful, is similar to the rest of Lanthimos’ filmography which frequently picks apart damaged characters, attempting to expose the raw and volatile relationship between humans and their fragile sensibilities. Immediately from its opening scene, The Lobster also presents an extraordinarily unusual world, a dystopian future that is simultaneously striking, disquieting and darkly comedic without ever appearing overly futuristic. Needless to say, with a world as irregular as this one is, there are still a few lines of dialogue that feel fairly on-the-nose concerning its world-building.

The film’s large cast of Colin Farrel, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Jessica Barden, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Olivia Colman and John C. Reilly are all superb throughout the film, intentionally delivering their lines with a complete lack of emotion. Instead, many of the characters present much of what they are feeling on their faces whilst seemingly concealing everything else. This approach works flawlessly when it comes to the film’s comedy, with the numerous quirky characters David interacts with giving matter-of-fact line readings that are extremely difficult not to find amusing. Yet these constant stabs at dry humour never feel at odds with the story’s more dramatic/romantic moments either as The Lobster tries to gain emotional investment from its audience by making the characters feel distinctly human through the recognisable neuroses that label them despite their emotionless tones.

Visually, The Lobster is rather impressive as the cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis allows nearly every shot to have something poignant to it, with the symmetrical staircases and hallways of The Hotel presenting a world of order in a simplistic yet elegant manner. One hunting scene, in particular, stands out as gorgeous composition, slow-motion and lighting are all used to great effect. This is made even more impressive when considering that the production crew worked without makeup and exclusively utilised natural light. With large-scale lighting set-ups only being employed for a handful of evening scenes.

When it comes to the film’s music, even though The Lobster lacks a traditional original score, the film does feature a tremendous assortment of brittle classical compositions such as String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18 and Strauss, R: Don Quixote, Op. 35: Variation: II, both of which give the film a feeling of serenity yet also push much of the story’s tension to the forefront. Quietly damping down the comedic tone that gradually bubbles up through the carefully placed laugh-out-loud one-liners.

Returning to the visuals briefly, The Lobster was primarily filmed in and around the Parknasilla Hotel in Ireland, an ostentatious hotel that is decorated almost entirely with Dutch flower still life from the 1600s. This ageing pattern along with the film’s exceptional use of colour; primarily blues, greens and a few alternate shades of red, including beige-pink, give The Lobster a distinct visual appeal even more so than its cinematography, as these colours can even be seen in many of the costumes or mentioned in lines of dialogue, such as the scene where the Short-Sighted Woman says she should wear blue and green clothes or when David mentions that lobsters are “Blue Blooded,” (lobster’s shells also being red, of course).

In summary, while The Lobster is a droll piece of storytelling lashed with grim humour, it also offers a rich, surreal take on modern relationships that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. As for every moment that makes you laugh, there may be another that leaves you with your mouth wide open. In many ways, The Lobster is as much a black comedy as it is a slice of existential horror, glimpsing into an outrageous yet disturbing future, one that is truly a testament to Lanthimos’ brand of filmmaking and storytelling as he’s able to trump even the most outlandish premise and turn it into an accessible and engrossing narrative. Rating: low 8/10.

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Upgrade (2018) – Film Review

Recently gaining a large amount of traction through his reinterpretation of the horror classic: The Invisible Man in 2020, writer and director Lee Whannell first proved himself a talented filmmaker with Upgrade in 2018. A riveting sci-fi-thriller that combines elements of Black MirrorMinority Report and 1990s action flicks to construct a gripping yet dreary tale of revenge, morality and technology through detailed world-building and stimulating action sequences, promptly overcoming its handful of minor glitches.

Plot Summary: In the near future, technology controls almost every aspect of day-to-day life as the world relies on artificial intelligence to complete even the most basic of tasks. As a result, the old-school, tech-shy mechanic, Grey Trace, feels like a fish out of water in an ever-changing world. But after a brutal assault leaves Grey paralysed and his beloved wife dead, he’s approached by the reclusive tech mogul, Eron Keen, who offers him a solution; a powerful microchip named; STEM, that will bridge the gap between his mind and unresponsive limbs. Now, able to walk once again, Grey decides to seek revenge against the thugs who destroyed his life…

Originally titled: STEMUpgrade was Whannell’s first project outside of the horror genre, being best known beforehand for his collaborations with writer-director James Wan, co-writing and starring in both the Saw and Insidious series. And for being the first time Whannell has truly stepped out of Wan’s shadow, Upgrade immediately proves Whannell to be a more than capable director with a distinct style, a style that certainly wasn’t displayed in his directorial debut; Insidious: Chapter 3, three years prior. Upgrade also exhibits Whannell’s almost tongue-in-cheek approach to writing, with some scenes feeling as if they’ve been ripped straight from an ’80s buddy-cop comedy as Grey humorously argues with the artificial intelligence residing inside his body. This isn’t to say that the film is light-hearted, however, as Upgrade is, in reality, quite the opposite, never shying away from bloody, squirm-inducing violence even with its surprisingly modest budget.

With regard to the cast, Logan Marshall-Green gives a very ranged performance as protagonist, Grey Trace. Quickly being established as a technophobe whose main devotions in life are mechanical tinkering and his beautiful wife, Asha Grey. That is before the seemingly unprompted assault leaves him crippled, alone and infuriated by his situation to the point of attempted suicide. Then, once receiving STEM, Grey begins to express far more concern regarding how much bodily control he’s handed over, with Marshall-Green’s performance becoming far more physically demanding as he slowly loses control of his own body. Harrison Gilbertson and Simon Maiden as Eron Keen and the voice of STEM, respectively, also portrayal their roles well, with Maiden doing a particularly great job at giving STEM a soothing yet simultaneously menacing voice.

But one of the greatest parts of Upgrade is by far its zestful cinematography by Stefan Duscio as after obtaining STEM, the camera itself visually mirrors Grey’s newly acquired agility/coordination by wildly tilting with every movement Grey makes, keeping him in the centre of the frame at all times to provide the audience with a unique perspective without sacrificing visibility as a result. Furthermore, despite the story being set in America, Upgrade was actually filmed in Melbourne, Australia, this location was chosen in order to take advantage of the city’s gothic architecture, giving the film an expansive backdrop not too dissimilar to that of Minority Report and The Matrix sequels. However, unlike those films, Upgrade does occasionally run into the issue of its sci-fi world feeling slightly inconsistent between shots as the city’s slick, looming skyscrapers almost seem out-of-place when compared to the graffitied and dilapidated warehouses on street level.

Managing to be moody, suspenseful and tranquil, occasionally even all at the same time. Jed Palmer’s original score is more than fitting for a film like Upgrade as the electronic score echoes films like Blade Runner during its quieter moments through tracks such as Aftermath and A Better Place before the more action-orientated cues kick in, that is, with tracks like We Can’t Let Them Win and Control. The sound design throughout the film is equally excellent, with every thrust and slash hitting hard during the various action sequences.

On that note, Upgrade‘s absurdly well-executed action set pieces are possibly some of the finest the sci-fi genre has seen in a long time. As not only does the camera ceaselessly track Grey, as previously mentioned, but the fight choreography is almost faultless. It’s also during these scenes that the cutting-edge technology of Upgrade‘s criminal underworld first appears, from bio-mechanically-implanted firearms to memory-retaining contact lenses and even a weaponised nanotech sneeze, The Upgraded (as they are nicknamed) are essentially seen as the next stage of human evolution, blatantly showing the audience the true extent to which humanity now relies on technology.

In summary, even though Upgrade is guilty of playing into some overly familiar ideas with its story being based around the well-trodden concept of artificial intelligence outmatching humanity. There are enough twists and turns within its narrative to ensure that the film will hold up upon multiple viewings, serving as an exciting and stylish sci-fi-thriller in addition to providing undeniable evidence that exchanging one genre for another is a risky yet rewarding road when it comes to certain filmmakers. Rating: 8/10.

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Skyline (2010) – Film Review

Spawning multiple direct-to-streaming sequels despite its discouraging box office return, 2010’s Skyline is, at best, a middling sci-fi-action blockbuster. Offering undeniable evidence that impressive visual effects alone can’t overcome a predictable storyline, cliché dialogue and vapid characters, with much of Skyline‘s runtime being dedicated to tedious indoor melodrama rather than the potentially exhilarating extraterrestrial invasion occurring just outside, ultimately making for a science fiction flick with few original ideas and very limited scope.

Plot Summary: In the wake of an unexpected pregnancy, Elaine and her boyfriend, Jarrod, travel to Los Angeles to convene with their old friend, now-successful entrepreneur, Terry, for a party-filled weekend getaway. But the morning after their arrival, a cluster of strange lights descend over the city, drawing residents outside like moths to a flame as an extraterrestrial force threatens to wipe the entire human population off the face of the planet…

Predominantly visual effects artists, directors Colin and Greg Strause (Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) financed Skyline almost entirely by themselves without the assistance of any major production company, with filming only costing around £372,000, while the visual effects cost an additional £742,000. However, whilst it is commendable what the Brothers Strause achieved on such a low-budget for a blockbuster-level film, Skyline eschews a creditable screenplay in order to focus purely on boundless CG spectacle. That is when the film doesn’t just consist of the characters hiding away in Terry’s penthouse, peeping through his conveniently installed telescope to observe the chaos transpiring on the streets below, which, while at first, may sound like an interesting way to experience an extraterrestrial incursion, in execution, is rather dull due to a severe lack of tension. An issue that the later sequels: Beyond Skyline and Skylines, did somewhat rectify.

The film’s biggest downfall comes when we are introduced to the characters. As even when ignoring the apathetic performances from Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, Donald Faison and David Zayas, the main group of individuals are simply no different to the characters of any other alien invasion story. Being given the absolute bare minimum of characterisation, every member of the group (including the two protagonists) feels incredibly underwritten and frequently come across as unlikeable. Even if the film does attempt to keep its characters grounded in realism by representing them as agitated civilians hunkering down and utilising what little knowledge they obtain of the invaders to their advantage rather than foolishly sprinting outside and confronting the extraterrestrial force one-on-one.

When it comes to visuals, Michael Watson’s cinematography fulfils its purpose in showcasing the scale of the invasion across the world, but beyond that, the camerawork doesn’t get any more imaginative, primarily relying on hand-held mid-shots and close-ups, never attempting the utilise the claustrophobic penthouse setting (which, in reality, was part of co-director Greg Stause’s condo building) to its full effect. Another element that spoils the handful of pleasant visuals Skyline has its use of blue lighting as although the abnormal blue lights seen throughout the film are a crucial plot component (being the source that draws civilians outside before they are abducted), their constant usage does result in the film having a hefty over-reliance on vexing lens flares. An irritation that even extends to the captions and credits.

A mix of both electronic and orchestral tracks, the original score by Matthew Margeson, unfortunately, has quite the shortage of memorability, with simplistic tracks like The EscapeThey’re Not Dead and Arrival being nothing but unremarkable. With that said, credit has to be given that the computerised segments of the score do produce an eerie alien-like sound. And whilst on the topic of audio, the film’s sound design is serviceable though nothing spectacular, with the aliens having a daunting set of screeches and grunts.

Featuring over one thousand visual effects shots, Skyline‘s main selling point is unmistakably its CG effects and subsequent action sequences, which are actually few and far between due to a large majority of the narrative taking place within one location. Luckily, the rare moments of excitement we do receive don’t squander the extraterrestrial force. From the oily, cephalopod-like, Harvesters, who possess the ability to purloin and utilise the brains of different species to revitalise themselves, to the towering brutes known as Tankers, who use their immense size and strength to tear through buildings. The hyper-advanced extraterrestrials are given some much-needed variety in their designs. Additionally, many of the alien spaceships were designed using the basis of low-altitude clouds such as Stratocumulus to Cumulus, and are all brought to life through some solid CGI, particularly when they are seen swallowing masses of the human population in one of the film’s most striking shots.

In summary, whilst the broad premise of Skyline has promise, the resulting film is fairly predictable. Not only because of its numerous faults, but because the film was fighting a losing battle right from its inception, with nearly every possible idea relating to the concept of an extraterrestrial invasion already being seen. From the original: War of the Worlds in 1953, all the way up to the patriotic all-American blockbuster: Independence Day in 1996, it’s an onerous task to fabricate new ways of writing an alien intrusion, further proved by the countless other extraterrestrial occupation stories that have freshly emerged. Rating: 4/10.

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Dredd (2012) – Film Review

A considerably overlooked film when it comes to the sci-fi genre, ‘Dredd,’ written by Alex Garland and directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point, Endgame, City of Tiny Lights), focuses on said character, whose comic strip in the science fiction anthology series: ‘2000 AD’ was one of the longest-running in the magazine’s history, being featured since it’s second issue in 1977. Merging futurism with law enforcement, ‘Dredd’ and his fellow ‘Judges’ are empowered to arrest, sentence and even execute criminals on the spot, and this modern film adaptation, fuelled by much of the same bombastic violence and sci-fi imagery, does a remarkable job of capturing its source material’s gritty spirit.

Plot Summary: In a dystopian future on the American East Coast, lies the overpopulated and crime-ridden metropolis known as ‘Mega-City One,’ where police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner. Within this city, one of these officers, the resolute: ‘Judge Dredd,’ is assigned to assess rookie: ‘Cassandra Anderson’ as the two are ordered to reach the top of an apartment complex and stop ‘Ma-Ma’ and her clan from manufacturing and distributing narcotics. But when the pair enter the complex, they find themselves ensnared as ‘Ma-Ma’ locks down the building, forcing ‘Dredd’ and his newfangled partner to fight their way out, one level at a time…

Technically a reboot following the character’s first cinematic interpretation with 1995’s ‘Judge Dredd,’ which featured Sylvester Stallone as the titular character. ‘Dredd’ is a far more faithful adaption, as while Stallone may have looked the part, it was clear that the film itself thoroughly misunderstood the source material. ‘Dredd,’ however, immediately thrusts its audience into a riveting and intense story, which considering how self-contained it is, also manages to fit a surprising amount of world-building in-between, hinting towards the many other districts of: ‘Mega-City One’ we could’ve seen should ‘Dredd’ have been a box-office success rather than the commercial disappointment it sadly was, earning a little over £41 million on a budget of £45 million.

Speaking only when necessary and never giving even the slightest hint of emotion, Karl Urban portrays the film’s protagonist: ‘Judge Dredd’ with extreme accuracy. Displaying Urban’s clear understanding of the role as ‘Dredd,’ just as he does in the comic strips, never breaks or goes through a character-arc, but instead, is just an incorruptible officer with no time for low-life criminals, and Urban nails this portrayal, even with half his head being obscured by a helmet for the entirety of the runtime. ‘Dredd’s partner: ‘Cassandra Anderson,’ portrayed by Olivia Thirlby, is also a compelling character, demonstrating a level of skill far below her superior, yet possessing psychic abilities which make her too valuable to dismiss. Lastly, there is ‘Ma-Ma,’ the film’s antagonist who was originally written as an elderly woman before Lena Headey convinced Alex Garland to make her a middle-aged misandrist. And although there isn’t the same depth to her character as ‘Dredd’ or his rookie partner, ‘Ma-Ma’ is still a convincing felon, as Headey portrays a ruthless individual living in an equally ruthless world.

Playing into the idea of this post-apocalyptic world being in constant disarray, the ‘Dredd’s grimy set-design along with its murky brown colour palette present ‘Mega-City One’ (a.k.a. Johannesburg with some CG enhancements) as a rundown metropolis with similarly rundown technology, as the filthy hallways of the apartment complex: ‘Peach Trees’ are continuously permeated with litter and spraypainted walls. Moreover, the film is given a great sense of style through the energetic camerawork by Anthony Dod Mantle and smooth integration of CG effects, which outside of a few scenes where the film fully indulges in graphic violence by having blood flung towards the camera, have aged admirably.

As you’d expect from a pessimistic sci-fi film, the original score by Paul Leonard-Morgan is both rousing and brooding, with tracks such as: ‘Mega-City One’ and ‘You Look Ready’ all perfectly accompanying what’s on-screen through their heady mix of guitar riffs and thumping electronic beats. Making for a score that even with twenty-two distinct tracks, has no real filler, as every piece flawlessly correlates with the film’s fast-paced action.

Continuing to be true to the original comic strip, ‘Dredd’s primary form of transportation; the ‘Lawmaster’ motorcycle, is faithfully recreated for the film, as the production team created a series of functional bikes for filming. They achieved this by having the chassis of normal bikes extended and then adding custom fairings, as well as fitting the bikes with larger tires so they could remain operable. In a similar sense, ‘Dredd’s iconic outfit is also recreated, only being modified slightly to give the suit a sleeker, more modernised look.

In summary, though many may see this sci-fi action-thriller as pure style-over-substance and nothing else, ‘Dredd’ is a film deeply committed to the genres it’s trying to represent. With thrilling action sequences, substantial world-building and impressive visual effects all rooted in deadpan humour, ‘Dredd’ is a more than entertaining ride. And in a world full of compromised adaptations, this film is something of a triumph, as ‘Dredd’ avoids the common misstep adaptations tend to take where the final product ends-up bearing little resemblance to its source material aside from the title, as self-indulgent screenwriters/directors make whatever changes they desire without much thought or consideration. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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Brightburn (2019) – Film Review

An inversion of the iconic ‘Superman’ origin story, ‘Brightburn,’ released in 2019, is a film with an aggressively simple pitch, essentially boiling down to “What if the Man of Steel was Humanity’s Oppressor Rather Than its Saviour?” And even though the film doesn’t fully follow through on that enthralling premise, primarily as a result of its sketchy screenplay and often botched sense of dread, ‘Brightburn’ crossbreeds horror tropes with superhero staples in an effective enough fashion to at least offer something unique for enthusiasts of both genres.

Plot Summary: After a difficult struggle with fertility, ‘Tori Breyer’s dreams of motherhood become a reality when a child from another world crash-lands on her farm. But, years later, as ‘Brandon’ nears puberty, a darkness begins to manifest within him, leading ‘Tori’ and her husband: ‘Kyle’ to become overwhelmed with terrible doubts concerning their son, doubts that soon put them in grave danger…

Directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive, Nightbooks) and written by James Gunn’s brother and cousin, Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, respectively, ‘Brightburn’ certainly succeeds in its main goal, setting-up an almost identical scenario to ‘Superman’s origin before then taking the narrative in a far darker direction. And the film clearly has no pretences with what it’s drawing from, as ‘Brightburn’ actually shares many similarities to the ‘Superman’ comics beyond just its story. From ‘Brandon Breyer’s name following the comic book convention of superheroes with alliterative first and last names, such as: ‘Clark Kent,’ ‘Peter Parker’ and ‘Bruce Banner,’ to the story taking place in Kansas, the same state where ‘Kal-El’ touched down and later grew-up to become ‘Superman.’ The film’s connections to the ‘Man of Steel’ are ever-present, even extending to the costume design in certain scenes as ‘Brandon’ wears combinations of blue, red and yellow, the principal colours of: ‘Superman’s classic outfit. Still, all of this association doesn’t fix what is ‘Brightburn’s most predominant problem; its runtime. As the plot is squeezed into a very brief ninety-one-minutes, meaning the film wastes no time in jumping straight into ‘Brandon’ discovering his abilities and embracing his detrimental side, thus, the story allows for little emotional investment, with much of the first act being nothing but scene-after-scene of what seem like trailer-made moments.

When it comes to the cast, Elizabeth Banks and David Denman share most of the film’s character-related scenes as the pair portray concerned parents starting to suspect that their blessing from the stars might, in actuality, be a curse. However, whilst this is an acceptable start for writing your central characters, ‘Tori’ and ‘Kyle’ have little nuance and barely any development outside of the love (and eventual doubt) they share for their son. Then there is ‘Brandon Breyer’ himself portrayed by young actor Jackson A. Dunn, who does a great job not only considering his age, but also a similar lack of characterisation. As once ‘Brandon’s twelfth birthday arrives, his psychopathic behaviour suddenly arises, morphing him from an innocent child to a homicidal supervillain so swiftly it appears forced, even if Dunn’s performance does help to make the transition feel slightly more believable through his complete absence of emotion during the latter half of the film.

Aside from some nice visual nods to further associate itself with ‘Superman,’ including a sweeping rural landscape and a farmhouse interchangeable with that of: ‘Clark Kent’s. The cinematography by Michael Dallatorre is fairly unremarkable, often just displaying shots without much thought or creativity put into them. With that said, many of the film’s CG effects are solid, especially when taking into account the film’s budget, which was considerably smaller than most superhero blockbusters.

Moreover, despite being described as a merging of superhero and horror soundtracks, make no mistake that the bulk of the original score for: ‘Brightburn,’ composed by Tim Williams, is firmly entrenched in the horror genre, with tracks usually starting-out slow and composed before warping into something far more nightmarish, likely symbolising ‘Brandon’s gradual corruption from the evil that dwells within him. This idea is further illustrated by the unnerving sound design, as the more ‘Brandon’ falls into the abyss of immorality, the more distorted voices he begins to hear, each speaking a foreign alien language.

Unfortunately, out of the two genres ‘Brightburn’ is attempting to represent, the film undoubtedly appears underbaked on the horror side of things, as ‘Brightburn’ lazily relies on clichéd scares like flickering lights and twitching curtains. Meaning it’s a rarity that the film actually tries to build tension or have any frightening occurrences outside of loud jump-scares or the admittedly gruesome ways ‘Brandon’ disposes of his victims.

In conclusion, between the red cape and blazing heat-vision, ‘Brightburn’ is a film that knows exactly what it is; an immoral retelling of an established superhero’s beginnings complete with plenty of violence and an abundance of horror trickery. Yet all of the film’s spectacle ultimately feels meaningless when compared to its deficiency of strong characterisation and emotional depth. And, as such, a majority of the film’s most entertaining moments come at the expense of understanding any of the characters on a deeper level, consequently leaving ‘Brightburn’ a film that never manages to strive past the subversive elevator pitch it was conceived as. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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Harbinger Down (2015) – Film Review

In 2010, practical effects company Amalgamated Dynamics (or ADI for short) was hired by Universal Pictures to create effects for their upcoming prequel to the 1984 classic: ‘The Thing,’ but just before the film was released, the majority of ADI’s work was digitally replaced by CGI. This decision greatly upset the Amalgamated Dynamics team, especially since ‘The Thing’ wasn’t the first film they had worked on only to later discover their effects had been replaced. So, in response to queries about what became of their effects, the founders of Amalgamated Dynamics uploaded a behind-the-scenes video to YouTube which showcased their original effects, and the overwhelmingly positive response they received began a new phase for the company, as soon after, ADI began a Kickstarter with the intention of creating their own sci-fi-horror titled: ‘Harbinger Down,’ a film that would exclusively employ practical techniques.

Plot Summary: While studying the effects of global warming on a pod of belugas in the Bering Sea, grad students on a crabbing vessel fortuitously uncover a Soviet space shuttle buried within layers of ice. But when the ship’s crew bring the Soviet wreckage aboard, they unintentionally release a long-dormant extraterrestrial parasite that relies on the warmth of the human body to survive…

Commonly known by its alternate title: ‘Inanimate.’ ‘Harbinger Down’ was written, directed and produced by Amalgamated Dynamics co-founder Alec Gillis. And although I have a huge admiration for Gillis and his partner Tom Woodruff, Jr. as the duo courageously opposed the mammoth production companies that no longer respected the art of practical effects, ‘Harbinger Down’ frequently suffers as a result of the pairs’ lack of experience when it comes to filmmaking, as is it’s not uncommon to see exaggerated performances, cliché dialogue and messy editing. Furthermore, ‘Harbinger Down’ like many sci-fi-horrors takes plenty of inspiration from ‘The Thing,’ though in this case, this inspiration is a little too evident in the final film, as many story-beats are either extremely similar or a stark contrast in an attempt to avoid comparisons, such as the creature being maimed by liquid nitrogen rather than fire.

Eminent ‘Aliens’ and ‘Pumpkinhead’ actor Lance Henriksen headlines the film, being by far the most prominent performer present, and suitably gives a stand-out performance due to his raspy authority and effortless professionalism. Just like the rest of the cast of forgettable stock characters, however, Henriksen is given very little to work with, only being able to portray his character: ‘Graff’ as an adept ship captain who cares deeply for his astute granddaughter: ‘Sadie,’ sufficiently portrayed by Camille Balsamo.

The film’s cinematography by Benjamin L. Brown does allow for one or two attractive shots, yet because of its over-reliance on hand-held techniques often feels frantic, again playing into the idea of Gillis’ deficiency of filmmaking experience, as whilst Alec Gillis may know how to fabricate outstanding effects, he doesn’t seem sure how to capture them on film or hide them when necessary. And, as such, the effects on-screen soon become gluttonous, holding on certain shots until the point when the effects begin to appear fake and rubbery. That being said, the film’s setting and production design are brilliant without fault, as the film manages to craft the convincing illusion that the characters are all confined to ‘The Harbinger,’ a vessel that has indeed been set adrift on frigid waters.

Nowhere close to memorable, Christopher Drake’s intense original score does at least add to the film’s atmosphere, but where the score succeeds, the sound design utterly fails. As in addition to numerous areas of the ship utilising time-worn sound effects, the story’s shapeshifting creature rarely makes any sound beyond generic grunts and growls, none of which are menacing nor daunting, and considering the film had a budget of over £250.000, refining the sound design couldn’t have been that arduous of a task.

Needless to say, all the traction that ‘Harbinger Down’ gained was likely on account of its practical effects, which make use of everything from animatronics to prosthetic make-up to stop-motion and even miniatures, all of which are marvellous to see, particularly for those who enjoy films with little reliance on CGI, as the film’s creature relies on no digital animation whatsoever outside of rod/rig removal. However, as mentioned previously, the way some of these effects are presented occasionally takes away their impact. Another issue arises with the creature design itself, as every form the creature takes is entirely different from its prior appearance, so the creature never has the chance to fully borrow into the audience’s mind as a recognisable extraterrestrial antagonist.

To conclude, ‘Harbinger Down’ ultimately falls somewhere between a cheesy SyFy Channel flick and a better than average direct-to-video product, which is unfortunate. As for myself, a fan of ’80s creature-features, I truly wanted this low-budget claustrophobic horror to triumph, but as a result of its long list of flaws, many of the film’s practical effects (and the scenes in which they are employed) tend to just be echoes of well-known moments in better films. Be that as it may, ‘Harbinger Down’ does have a captivating backstory when it comes to its creation and the passionate team behind it. Final Rating: low 3/10.

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Coherence (2013) – Film Review

A case study in less-is-more filmmaking, 2013’s ‘Coherence’ is a taut puzzle box of a film, brimming with scenes of both existential terror and multidimensional weirdness as its reality-bending story unravels further and further. And even though this sci-fi/drama is by no means a masterpiece, ‘Coherence’ does demonstrate a willingness to embrace the unknown, the implied and the mysterious, in addition to serving as a strong calling-card for debuting writer and director James Ward Byrkit, a long-time storyboard artist for Oscar-winning director Gore Verbinski.

Plot Summary: On the night of an astronomical anomaly, eight friends meeting for a dinner party in Northern California experience a series of troubling events following a street-wide blackout. But when the group venture outside to investigate a lone house that seemingly still has power, they soon find themselves in an alternate reality where identical versions of themselves exist…

Shot over five nights on an extremely low-budget of around £36,000, ‘Coherence’ is a true indie film, treating every shred of its thin-budget, short production schedule and small crew of only two sound operators, a cinematographer, a producer and writer-director James Ward Byrkit as a virtue. This is best seen in Byrkit’s unorthodox directing style, with Byrkit only giving each of his actors a note (that only they would see) as their goals for the day instead of the full screenplay, this approach allows the story to naturally unfold and implies that many of the reactions from the actors are genuine, as they were unaware of what their co-stars would say/do. Yet this method does have one major flaw, as due to a large amount of the film’s dialogue being improvised, a good portion of lines end-up sinking into audio muck as a result of the sheer number of characters present, even if most of the overlapping dialogue is comprehensible.

Primarily being a drama despite its initial sci-fi set-up, it was essential that ‘Coherence’ feature as many strong performances as possible, and luckily, this is the case, as the entire cast of Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Lorene Scafaria, Elizabeth Gracen and Hugo Armstrong (among others) are solid, balancing their fear, confusion and frustration regarding their peculiar situation without ever seeming too outlandish. And while certain characters do receive far more characterisation than others, the main conflict within the group focusing on ‘Em’ and the issues she is currently facing with her boyfriend: ‘Kevin’ is interesting, though it is ultimately there for the sake of the climax, which leaves plenty of room for speculation.

Shot chronologically to further fit with the film’s largely improvised production, ‘Coherence’ is shot almost entirely through hand-held claustrophobic close-ups, and even though this was a stylistic choice as Byrkit wanted to give his actors the freedom to move anywhere they wanted during filming, I feel it works both for and against the film. As this idea of making use of the film’s limited resources through shaky and focus-blurring shots draws-thin by the end of the runtime, especially when the film has no reason to be shot in hand-held when it comes to the story’s quieter moments. However, whilst the cinematography by Arlene Muller and Nic Sadler leaves much to be desired, I did enjoy how ‘Coherence’ uses shadows, as the many alternate realties that lie just outside the house are only hinted at, with anything outside of the property being shrouded in near-total darkness.

Kristin Ohrn Dyrud’s minimal yet atmospheric original score makes excellent use of eerie drones and moans, amplifying the film’s sense of creeping dread which is present even from early on with tracks like ‘The Box,’ ‘Lights Out’ and ‘Schroedinger’s Cat.’ What’s more impressive, however, is that is ‘Coherence’ is one of the few films Dyrud has actually composed, with most of her career revolving around electronic music. But if this score is anything to go by, then I personally can’t wait to see more from her as a composer.

When ignoring its science fiction elements, ‘Coherence’ is predominantly a film about the choices we make in life and the idea that making a specific choice won’t necessarily lead to happiness. This underlining theme is most evident in the film’s opening conversation, as the various characters discuss their successful careers while simultaneously ignoring their inner struggles, which could also be seen as a sly dig towards the vapid state of American privilege. It’s also during this first act that ‘Coherence’ attempts to utilise editing to display a passage of time, but rather then achieving this in a creative fashion, the film merely cuts to black before then cutting to a scene later in the evening, which is continuously jarring.

In conclusion, considering how much of the film consists of a group of friends becoming increasingly unhinged as they pace around a residential living room, it’s impressive how effectively Byrkit manages to suggest multiple realities and ominous threats, even if it’s trembling camerawork, odd editing choices and occasionally untapped potential cause the film to stumble now and then. Yet whatever its imperfections, ‘Coherence’ is still a thought-provoking and well-crafted experiment in micro-budget sci-fi, working best as a cautionary tale about the paths we choose in life and the alternate selves we sometimes dream of becoming. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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Rampage (2018) – Film Review

There has been a debate amongst film buffs for many years now regarding whether it’s possible to make a great film based on a video-game, and whilst I’ve always strongly believed it is, I feel the reason we haven’t received a great film as of yet is that many of the video-games chosen for adaptations were simply not the right choices, nor did the films have talented writers or directors behind them. ‘Rampage,’ released in 2018, is the perfect example of this, as this moronic blockbuster is actually based on the arcade classic of the same name, a video-game which contained no characters and little-to-no story, and the film faces all of the repercussions as a result.

Plot Summary: Sharing a special bond with ‘George,’ an extraordinarily intelligent albino gorilla, ‘Davis Okoye,’ a retired U.S. Army soldier and now a San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist, sees his world turned upside-down when his primate companion is accidentally exposed to a gene-mutating pathogen. Morphing ‘George’ along with an unsuspecting wolf and crocodile into ravenous monsters as they grow to gargantuan proportions, thrusting ‘Davis’ and ‘Dr. Kate Caldwell’ into a race against time as they struggle to find an antidote….

Even when ignoring its video-game origins, ‘Rampage’ is merely a predictable and at times fairly dull creature-feature, as director Brad Peyton (Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Incarnate, San Andreas) never attempts to do anything to set the film apart from other action blockbusters. For instance, in the original 1986 arcade game, players controlled one of three giant monsters, playing as either: a wolf, a lizard or a gorilla, as they are tasked with destroying cities before the military can shoot them down and transform them back into the humans they once were. This aspect of the creatures being mutated humans could’ve added a more emotional viewpoint to the film not present in many other action flicks, as the characters deal with the morality of their actions, yet the film just abandons this idea in exchange for oblivious animals simply having their growth and aggression altered, which is a far less engrossing concept.

Reteaming with Peyton after the pair worked together on 2015’s ‘San Andreas,’ Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson flashes the same effortless, self-deprecating appeal that’s always been the hallmark of his work. And although I’m personally rather weary of the ‘muscular action hero’ stereotype, there’s no denying Johnson has a natural charisma as ‘Davis Okoye’ beyond his constant smouldering. Naomi Woods, however, is nowhere near her best here, as her character: ‘Dr. Caldwell’ is nothing more than a sassy female scientist with little to offer aside from exposition dumps and an unnecessary romantic subplot with ‘Davis.’ Then there are the film’s antagonists portrayed by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, who fully embrace the absurdity of the film they are in, overacting in every scene alongside Jeffrey Dean Morgan, a government agent who saunters around the screen like a modern-day cowboy, speaking in painfully forced good-old-boy idioms.

Aside from one rip-roaring sequence where the trio of monsters rage through the streets of Chicago destroying everything in their path, which is supposed to appear as one singular take. The majority of the film’s cinematography by Jaron Presant is fairly standard for a modern blockbuster, primarily utilising mid-shots for conversations between characters, and wide-shots whenever possible to display the huge scale of the creatures, which luckily helps to distract from the film’s innumerable lines of cringey dialogue.

As the creatively named tracks: ‘Gorillas,’ ‘Kate,’ ‘Cornfield,’ ‘Chicago’ and ‘George’ would imply, the original score by Andrew Lockington is a minimal-level effort from the composer at best, as the predominately orchestral score is instantly forgettable but does its job well enough during the film’s few tender moments. But with action dominating a large portion of: ‘Rampage’s runtime, the score mostly has to rely on aggressive string ostinatos and a collection of simplistic motifs, all of which simply enter one ear and fall out of the other.

While I can appreciate that there was a clear level of effort put into ‘Rampage’s visual effects, with a small crew from Weta Digital even traveling to Chicago to examine the materials and architecture style of each building before creating a virtual model of the Chicago Loop that could be destroyed in the film’s climactic battle. Many of the CG effects throughout ‘Rampage’ range in quality all the same, specifically with the scene: ‘Plane Crash,’ which looks absolutely horrendous during a handful of shots as Johnson and Woods are digitally recreated as they fall out of the sky.

Overall, whilst ‘Rampage’ does feature some entertaining action sequences and the occasional piece of self-aware humour, I mostly just find the film to be an exasperating waste of potential considering the film is a video-game adaptation. As when there are so many video-games with riveting stories, worlds, and characters, with ‘BioShock,’ ‘Portal,’ ‘Mirror’s Edge,’ ‘Gears of War’ and ‘Red Dead Redemption’ being just a few considerable options, it’s insulting that production companies continue to adapt games with barely any plot or characters to speak of, and with so many of them ultimately ending-up as your run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster, is it even worth the effort? Final Rating: low 4/10.

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