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Danny Bowes

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Legitimization of Sci-Fi Film

In adapting Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s ambition, as he expressed to Clarke in his introductory letter, was to make “the proverbial good science fiction movie.” That was in 1964, some years before the rehabilitation of genre cinema’s reputation by the critical establishment, a huge element of which was the movie the two gentlemen would end up releasing in 1968. With no exaggeration whatsoever, it is a simple fact that science fiction cinema would not exist in the form it does today without 2001.

The movie itself was not simple in any way. Kubrick’s initial interest in making a movie about extraterrestrials ended up evolving into nothing short of a story about humankind’s evolution from ape, to a point in the foreseeable future—one which we, in many ways, are living in now—where humans exist in a state of symbiosis with the technology they created, and where the possibility that one of those creations may surpass humanity in its humanity, and from there move to a point where, as Kubrick put it, they evolve into “beings of pure energy and spirit… [with] limitless capabilities and ungraspable intelligence.” This kind of ambition, and the amount of money Kubrick intended to spend realizing it, was unknown to science fiction cinema at the time. But, of course, Kubrick wasn’t particularly interested in doing something others had done before.

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Not Bad… For A Human: Aliens

On one hand, the republic would not have fallen if there had never been a sequel to Alien. Entire books could be written about how greatbordering very closely on perfectAlien was as both science fiction and horror, not to mention how brilliant it was as cinema. Its unanswered questions are actually assets, deepening the mystery and thus the horror. But, on the other hand, those unanswered questions provided the basis for Aliens, a massively entertaining and actually quite moving piece of work.

What makes Aliens not only a sequel but a companion piece to Alien is the way it does for the action genre what its predecessor did for horror. Each picture is a master class in its respective genre, from narrative to design to acting, with every element integrated perfectly and contributing to making Alien a near-perfect SF horror movie, and Aliens a near-perfect SF action movie.

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Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove Turns 50!

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr. Strangelove, we’re rerunning this article on Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, which originally appeared during our Kubrick week in November 2011.

Stanley Kubrick had already well established his reputation as a maverick genius by the time he began work on 1964’s Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, as well as his equally powerful reputation for polarizing audiences. Although often named among the greatest American filmmakers, Kubrick has equally vociferous detractors—many of whom were the studio executives who had to sign the checks to pay for his visions and were treated like ATMs for their trouble by the maestro—and even his most ardent defenders (i.e. me from about ages 16-30) have to admit one or two of his features were more interesting than good.

All that equivocation goes out the window when discussing Kubrick’s first semi-foray into science-fiction, though: Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest movies ever made and that’s all there is to it.

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We Only Live Once, Or Do We? The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

“We only live once, Sergeant,” said Mitty, with his faint, fleeting smile. “Or do we?”

James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was a snapshot of a Connecticut man going about a mundane set of errands, and, during the course of which, extrapolating elaborate fantasy scenarios with himself as the star. It became one of the classic works of American short fiction, and in fairly short order the name “Walter Mitty” became synonymous with “daydreamer.”

It was first adapted for the screen in 1947 with Danny Kaye in the lead, and now again with Ben Stiller directing and playing the lead.

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Her? Yes, Her: Spike Jonze’s Latest Film is the Best Yet

It took me a while to realize this, but the title of Spike Jonze’s new picture, Her, is the entire movie in a syllable. The protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man who ghostwrites love letters for other people, a job that requires an extraordinary amount of empathy to do properly, which he more than has. And yet, good as he is at articulating others’ feelings of love, he’s still reeling from a recent divorce, and alone in that uniquely terrible way one always is under those circumstances. On a whim, he upgrades his computer’s operating system with a new model of artificial intelligence. Once it finishes calibrating, it takes the form, in personality, of Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who takes it upon herself to see if there is any other way she can improve his life. And, the two fall in love.

Yes, the two fall in love, as however immediate the joke about “the movie where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a computer” is—and it’s even more immediate than the Arrested Development one that we should all get out of our systems now before continuing—the relationship is between two fully autonomous beings, even if one is an artificial intelligence.

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…Nor Heavy Storm, Nor Ever Rain, But Disappointment: Elysium

Although different in both particulars and scale from Elysium, a look back at District 9 can illuminate how Elysium came to be what it is. District 9 made an instant name for debut director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp, with its vivid, barely-even-allegorical Apartheid storyline and its ingenious design and effects, becoming a substantial hit worldwide. Despite a faux-documentary conceit that doesn’t really hold up, District 9 is a terrific movie, solid SF, and tremendously satisfying emotionally, however heartbreaking its final image. And so Elysium, with its bigger budget and movie stars, not to mention similarly socially conscious subject matter, is one of the most anticipated movies, SF or otherwise, in 2013. Can it possibly hold up?

[A Non-Spoiler Review]

Going To Space, Economically: Europa Report

With this being the time of summer that blockbuster fatigue begins to set in (if it hasn’t already) for those prone to the condition, the decision by Magnet Releasing to debut their new micro-budget film Europa Report on VOD is a smart one. It’s a character-based SF movie that aims to derive its suspense from filmmaking and performances rather than attempting to dazzle (or bludgeon) the audience with special effects. And it hits the target: Europa Report ranks with the better SF movies in recent memory, regardless of scale.

Its basic premise suggests Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2010: Odyssey Two without the monolith: an international team of astronauts sets out to investigate Jupiter’s moon Europa firsthand, under the hypothesis that there might be life in the liquid water beneath its frozen exterior. They lose contact with Earth, but continue on with the mission, in the face of the astounding danger and isolation.

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My Only Friends, the End: This Is the End

This is probably a moot point, as all of you are going to be seeing Man of Steel this weekend, but there’s a terrifically fun picture playing (in North America; it opens the 28th worldwide) called This Is The End. It’s the funniest thing Seth Rogen’s done in years, and a fine directing debut for him and his longtime writing partner Evan Goldberg. Their previous collaborations have featured some awkward moments with genre—The Green Hornet and The Pineapple Express were both close to being good and were quite appealing in places but suffered from artificial plotting—but This Is The End, with the exception of a minor lull in the middle, is a much smoother ride. It’s one of the better apocalypse movies, to say nothing of apocalypse comedies, in a long time, and it is this because of its characters.

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For The Next 12 Hours, All Low-Budget Dystopia Thrillers Are Legal: The Purge

The Purge is set in a very near-future America where, under only cursorily explained circumstances, a new government has come to power on the promise of reducing crime and unemployment. And lo, they succeed! Unemployment is at 1%, crime practically a memory. Their solution suggests that they (or at least the movie’s writer-director, James DeMonaco) are Star Trek fans: once a year, for 12 hours, all crime is legal, including murder, the idea being that all of society’s collective aggressions are, per the title, purged.

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It’s an intriguing scenario, but one the movie doesn’t get into in any depth, as the story’s focus is on one family’s attempt to get through the Purge, and takes place almost entirely in their house. Paterfamilias Ethan Hawke makes his (quite substantial) living selling high-end home security systems to well-to-do suburbanites so that they can—if they don’t choose to go out killing people—stay home safely.

On the home front, Lena Headey (having left Cersei Lannister’s drunken power politics in Westeros along with the blonde wig) deals with passive-aggressive neighbors and two children, teenage daughter Zoey (whose older boyfriend meets with disapproval from mom and dad) and preteen son Charlie, a sensitive boy who builds cool robots and questions the moral right of the Purge. The Stepford aspect of their neighborhood, which feeds Hawke’s complete assurance that nothing can go wrong, is a virtual guarantee that something will. And, inevitably, it does.

Ethan Hawke is oddly perfect in this, as a guy desperately trying to convince himself and everyone around him that things are somehow not what they are. He still seems, with all his ineffable (and effable) Ethan Hawke-ness, to be a little too young and slight to be king of the suburbs with teenage kids. But his seeming like “a young 42” suits his character here just right. Lena Headey’s role in the proceedings is a little difficult to talk about in too much detail without giving away plot details, but suffice to say her final scene is quite satisfying.

Whether, on the whole, The Purge ends up seeming like an intriguing premise wasted on a home-invasion thriller or a home-invasion thriller with a neat high concept is going to vary depending on expectations. For my part, I went in with as few expectations as someone who’d spent the previous couple weeks making every possible “for the next 12 hours, [x] is legal” joke could have, and personally found it to fall into the “home-invasion thriller with a neat high concept” category. Its shifts in tone are handled smoothly by relative novice director DeMonaco (who is, though, a veteran screenwriter), and its various narrative twists and turns provide enough genuine surprises to at least partially outweigh the obvious stuff.

Nothing is terribly subtle in The Purge, in particular its extremely pointed commentary about class and gun culture. Hawke’s high-end home security system proves to have “not been tested for worst-case scenarios,” because his principal concern was not the quality of the systems he sold, but the money he made from selling them. The new additions he had built on his house with that money arouses the envy of the neighbors. Status, and competition for it, is all.

As neatly as The Purge works as a thriller, the world implied by “the New Founding Fathers,” the swiftness of their rise to power, and the totally-different-yet-pretty-much-the-same society that annually declares open season on the powerless classes for the sake of keeping unemployment down (and yet still has homeless military veterans) is practically begging for sequels. This one is nothing great, but is just interesting enough, and just pointed enough about making its (pretty graphic) violence tough to watch rather than entertaining, to feel worth exploring in greater detail. I’m interested in seeing a sequel, whether with the same cast or not, where we find out a little more about this world. Which is something I never thought I’d say when making all those “for the next 12 hours” jokes.

Danny Bowes is a New York City-based film critic and blogger.

Without a Philosophical Paddle: Upstream Color

Upstream Color, like auteur Shane Carruth’s first feature Primer, is science fiction not for the faint of intellect. But where Primer tested the audience’s ability to keep track of things strictly on an organizational basis, Upstream Color is a challenge to one’s ability to simultaneously keep track of physics, poetry, and philosophy. There’s no story as one customarily thinks of it, with characters and dialogue and three acts and so on; Carruth builds Upstream Color from a series of signifiers, with the meaning coalescing from the patterns in which he arranges them. The result is a work of great skill, and very much not run-of-the-cinematic-mill, yet still somehow a little less than the sum of its parts.

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“Let’s Play Global Thermonuclear War”: WarGames

Conversations about WarGames these days tend to focus on things like how ridiculous the idea of a kid hacking into NORAD’s weapon systems is, or the old-school gadgets and hardware, or how it’s dated because of the Cold War stuff, or any number of ultimately superficial and/or misremembered details. This is the problem with movies we haven’t seen in 20 years. This is why rewatching them is great, because it leads to pleasant surprises like WarGames still being awesome.

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I, On The Other Hand, Do NOT Love My Power Glove: The Wizard

Calling The Wizard nothing more than a 100-minute commercial for Nintendo would only be partially accurate. It’s a 100-minute commercial for lots of other things, too. The way in which it goes about being this craven, strictly pecuniary beast is truly something to behold. The Wizard is a very bad movie in ways few bad movies dare to even attempt.

[To quote the movie “…it’s so bad”]

The Music From My Dream: Cloud Atlas

The term “poète maudit” was coined in the 19th century to describe a class of poet—among whom were Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine—who took drugs, committed criminal acts, and had interesting sex lives. The adjective “maudit,” which means “cursed,” referred to the tendency of these poets to die very young, at no point in their brief lives ever able to functionally connect to society and live the proverbial normal life. The term “maudit,” in reference to both les poètes maudits themselves and to the notion of being cursed in general, has been appropriated by some film critics recently to describe movies that, for whatever reason, are doomed to be misunderstood and overlooked, too strangely beautiful for this world, to never live on as classics of the form. Such a film maudit is Cloud Atlas.

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“Trois, douze, merde!”: Holy Motors

French director Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, his first feature in over a decade, manages to be accessible and engaging while proudly being the kind of film that mocks the notion of accessibility and the audience’s need to engage. It does not, it must be made clear, mock the audience itself. The influences of past French cinema on Carax and Holy Motors are almost all good ones, like the stately clarity of Alain Resnais’ surrealism, Jean-Luc Godard’s endless pop erudition and sense of humor, and the will to be weird of countless Gallic auteurs.

[Accessing all genres from the back of a limo]

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