Category Archives: Sci-Fi

Deep Blue Sea (1999, Renny Harlin)

Deep Blue Sea is ten years too late. I knew the movie was about genetically modified sharks gone wild but the people are also stranded at the bottom of the ocean in a habitat thing. Deep Blue Sea isn’t just an amped-up Jaws movie with terrible CGI and a lousy cast, it’s a postscript in the great Leviathan, The Abyss, DeepStar Six sea monster cohort—wait, I just read there are actually even more 1989 sea monster movies. Three more. Wow.

I wonder if any of them are better than Deep Blue Sea, which lacks distinction and is rather predictably bad. The lousy shark attacks necking Abercrombie models opener sets the stage. It even establishes there are going to be composition issues throughout, as director Harlin and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon went Super 35 (which just means the shots are cropped from 4:3 to 2.35:1); I’m not sure if every single close-up in the movie is a bad shot but at least–on the conservative side… ninety-two percent of them are bad shots. Harlin doesn’t do a lot of close-ups, just like when it seems like Jaws would use a close-up. Deep Blue Sea is very much a poorly written, low budgeted Jaws and Jurassic Park mash-up not directed by Steven Spielberg but a very Spielberg-influenced Harlin. To give Harlin some benefit of the doubt. Because besides the sound design, which is awesome and significantly better than the lousy CGI explosions it accompanies, and maybe how impressively Trevor Rabin mimics John Williams and Danny Elfman, there’s nothing good about Deep Blue Sea. There are more worse things and less worse things. There are also sad things. Lots and lots of sad, bad things. And like one good practical shark model. Deep Blue Sea is a failing postscript to that 1989 sea monster club too; it doesn’t even try with its sharks. It’s always CGI. Deep Blue Sea is from that era of CGI where everyone thought it’d be cool to have a crappy CGI helicopter flying around. Usually the same CGI helicopter model too.

All the CGI-assisted shark attacks and structural disasters aside, the movie’s a fail simply because it’s not camp. First act lead, Saffron Burrows approaches the part like an audition for a daytime soap bitchy British lady part, which has some camp potential but no one goes for it. Burrows can’t because she’s godawful, but Harlin either doesn’t see it or wants to avoid it. The script avoids camp too, it wouldn’t work well with the Crichton-sized self-delusion. Burrows eventually just becomes a prop—there’s a really creepy Ripley underwear homage, which kind of sums up the film perfectly—as she’s revealed to have violated the “Harvard Compact,” which doesn’t even sound real in the movie, to genetically modify the sharks, something none of her colleagues know about but is utterly obvious because anytime Burrows talks about her father dying from Alzheimer’s and shark brains being the only solution, she’s really intense and really, really bad. Harlin tends to go to close-up, which is too bad because it’s kind of funny seeing the actors standing around perplexed as they shift from side to side during someone else’s exposition dump. Samuel L. Jackson does it best. Him or Stellan Skarsgård. Jackson’s not good because he’s like two caricatures put together; one’s the intrusive rich investor guy, the other’s the mountaineer who killed people who didn’t follow his orders. But he’s the most likable character in the movie because he’s not giving a peculiarly terrible performance. Jackson’s just not good because the part’s terrible, ditto Skarsgård. Burrows, Thomas Jane, Michael Rapaport, Jacqueline McKenzie, on the other hand… they’re not good because of their parts, sure, but they’re also each bad in some specific ways, as I mentioned above and will not repeat with Burrows.

Jane.

Thomas Jane is the Harrison Ford-type shark wrangler. He’s got a literal swimming with the sharks scene; you can tell some of the casting is because other actors said no to being in the water so much. Jane’s in the water a lot; underwater a lot. His performance is unformed clay. With very blond hair. He’s bad but you don’t get exasperated with him like some of the other cast. Well, actually everyone else except Jackson, Skarsgård, and Aida Turturro (as the sassy radio operator topside). Michael Rapaport gets tiring fast not because he’s so bad but because he’s trying so hard; he’s really enthusiastic about playing a smart engineer guy here. It’s awkward to watch. Harlin’s really bad at directing the actors. He wants to focus on the explosions—not even the sharks—and the script wants to focus on the characters in dramatic situations, which Harlin’s got no interest in or apparent ability to direct.

And then Jacqueline McKenzie; the whole reason I’ve wanted to see the movie. She’s got such a bland Americanized accent (she’s Australian) it has lost all affect.

Oh, and LL Cool J. He’s not bad. He’s not good, it’s not a good showcase of his acting, even though he’s got all these actorly moments in his part, an ex-preacher turned undersea chef. His solo adventure through the crisis pads the movie, which doesn’t have anywhere near enough story for a hundred and five minutes.

But then the end credits are like eight blissful minutes you get back.

Returned to life.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Renny Harlin; written by Duncan Kennedy, Donna Powers, and Wayne Powers; director of photography, Stephen F. Windon; edited by Derek Brechin, Dallas Puett, and Frank J. Urioste; music by Trevor Rabin; production designers, Joseph Bennett and William Sandell; costume designer, Mark Bridges; produced by Akiva Goldsman, Tony Ludwig, Don MacBain, and Alan Riche; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Thomas Jane (Carter Blake), Saffron Burrows (Dr. Susan McAlester), Samuel L. Jackson (Russell Franklin), Jacqueline McKenzie (Janice Higgins), Michael Rapaport (Tom Scoggins), Stellan Skarsgård (Jim Whitlock), LL Cool J (Preacher), Aida Turturro (Brenda Kerns), and Ronny Cox (The Old Man).


Fast Color (2018, Julia Hart)

Fast Color spends most its runtime saying it’s not a superhero movie—it’s just about people who happen to have superpowers—only for the third act to play like a low budget X-Men outing. And it’s not just the not-battle-in-the-streets battle-in-the-street resolution, it’s also how lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character arc becomes all about her superpowers and not her returning to her abandoned home, abandoned mother (Lorraine Toussaint), and abandoned tween daughter (Saniyya Sidney). It’s also not about how Mbatha-Raw’s gotten sober—drugs help keep her out-of-control powers in check—or how the world hasn’t had rain in the last seven or eight years. There’s a lot going on in the world of Fast Color and director Hart does a great job showing its more mundane side—utilizing the limited budget well—but engaging with the superhero movie tropes after promising to avoid them… it doesn’t undue the work of the film through most of its runtime, but it does leave the potential unrealized.

For instance, just when Mbatha-Raw and Sidney could be really connecting, the film concentrates on the superpowers. And it doesn’t even go all the way with the superpowers. It doesn’t just not show them, it doesn’t show their effect on anyone, so it’s like they’re not even there. Sorry, Fast Color’s finish is about the only disappointing thing in the film (as it compounds the problems with Toussaint’s part). Hence the harping.

The film opens with Mbatha-Raw on the run. She’s got some kind of earthquake power, which she can’t control at all but she at least tries to mitigate the damage. Water is an expensive item because of the lack of rain fall, but there’s still booze, eggs, electricity, all sorts of things just no smartphones. The whole no more rain subplot is fine but doesn’t add anything to the film. It mostly ends up serving as a budget limiter; so fine. But just fine.

Pretty soon we discover nerdy government scientist Christopher Denham is after Mbatha-Raw but also she’s gotten to her hometown, which he doesn’t realize. So she goes to mom Toussaint’s farm, even though Mbatha-Raw’s never met Sidney and Sidney doesn’t have any expectation of ever meeting Mbatha-Raw and then Toussaint makes Mbatha-Raw sleep out in the barn because her powers are so out-of-control. The film never directly addresses how Mbatha-Raw’s terrible life, on the run but also before, instead focusing on what she can do to improve her footprint, which is fine because it centers itself around Sidney’s well-being. Mbatha-Raw’s motivations and thoughts play out in her expressions versus actions or dialogue. She’s haunted by flashback sequences too. Mbatha-Raw gives an excellent lead performance but her part isn’t really enough the lead as far as the plot goes.

Most of the film is about what’s going to happen without raising much expectation. David Strathairn plays the local sheriff who’s also on Mbatha-Raw’s trail, trying not to let Denham and the feds take his case. Given how much the film ends up leveraging Strathairn, at the expense of other characters (and their actors), it’d have been nice if Strathairn weren’t involved in one of Fast Colors big secrets. The film has a lot of big secrets—well, either secrets or lies, because Toussaint wants to keep Sidney sheltered. See, Toussaint and Sidney also have powers, but they’re not as potentially damaging or affecting as Mbatha-Raw’s. When Mbatha-Raw bonds with Sidney, it’s over the powers, which is weird but the acting’s good—Sidney’s phenomenal—so Color can do whatever it wants as long as it stays focused on the characters.

The end abandons that focus and… the film suffers.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Save the occasionally too DV night time photography. Many of photographer Michael Fimognari’s night time shots are fantastic, but when there’s a lot of movement on the screen… it looks off. Martin Pensa’s editing is good, Rob Simonsen’s music is good, Hart’s direction is good… Fast Color’s got all the pieces—well, okay, not Denham (who’s way too eh)—the script just doesn’t quite get them assembled right at the end.

The film gives Mbatha-Raw a solid lead, Sidney an okay supporting showcase (Sidney could handle more), and Toussaint a disappointing one. The film utilizes her but doesn’t showcase her, which really hurts in the third act.

Fast Color’s successful without exactly being a success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Julia Hart; written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz; director of photography, Michael Fimognari; edited by Martin Pensa; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Gae S. Buckley; produced by Horowitz, Mickey Liddell, and Pete Shilaimon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ruth), Lorraine Toussaint (Bo), Saniyya Sidney (Lila), Christopher Denham (Bill), and David Strathairn (Ellis).


RECENTLY

Logan’s Run (1976, Michael Anderson)

I wouldn’t say everyone does their best in Logan’s Run, but everyone does try. Farrah Fawcett does try in her scenes. You can see she’s trying. And for some reason director Anderson wants to make it painfully clear no matter how hard she tries, Fawcett’s going to be terrible. But at least Fawcett’s big moment comes right before Run finally gets interesting. Only takes it an hour.

In the 23rd century, the world is an irradiated wasteland. Within it lies a domed mega-city. Outside the dome, a cursed earth. Inside the dome, a paradise; every need is met, every desire granted; the only catch? No one lives past thirty. A master computer controls the civilization with population control and eugenics. It is not called execution, it is called renewal. Most people submit to this fate willingly, those who do not run a place called Sanctuary. Only one thing trying to keep them to fulfill their civic duty: the Sandmen.

Hopefully you enjoyed that paragraph because it’s basically better than everything in Logan’s Run except Peter Ustinov. Just mentioning Peter Ustinov in Logan’s Run ought to be a spoiler, but it’s not because he’s in the opening credits with an “as Old Man” character description too. Movie about no one living past thirty and we know “Old Man” Ustinov is going to play a part. We also think Roscoe Lee Browne is going to play a part, which is strange since he too is over thirty but he’s not actually in the movie because he’s Black and there aren’t any Black people who get lines in Logan’s Run. They don’t even show up until the last shot. It’s all White people. And they’re all idiots—it’s a shock when they can read; Run does a terrible job making the future seem possible for the kept humans. Everything’s perfect, but no one’s running it. Like the orgy place in the mall, who’s in charge of cleaning up the orgy place and hiring the custodial staff. Far more interesting story potential.

But one thing the future people understand pretty well is consent; it’s a big plot point when lead (and Sandman) Michael York orders up a booty call on “The Circuit” and gets Jenny Agutter, who was looking to hook up but not with a Sandman because a Sandman killed one of her friends early that night. It was, of course, York. But that detail doesn’t trouble Agutter for long because she’s kind of dumb. Just like everyone, even York and his best pal (and fellow Sandman), Richard Jordan. Until Ustinov shows up, Jordan gives the film’s best performance. He’s at least able to acknowledge his character. York can never acknowledge he’s playing a sadist. Jordan and York torture Agutter’s friend. They terrorize him and then murder him. And they have a great time doing it—Jordan’s a great sadist and York’s smiles are a lot more genuine than when he’s making kissy-face with Agutter.

So Run sets up its “hero” as this sadist himbo who accidentally gets assigned the most important case in the history of the Sandmen. It’s top secret—he’s got to try to run. And, wouldn’t you know it, Agutter knows all about the secret underground running network. She wants to help York because she thinks he’s swell, but will she ever want to hook up with him? And how would anyone tell when she made the decision one way or the other because Agutter and York have no chemistry. York’s okay playing the future executioner cop, but once he gets challenged with all Agutter’s hippie stuff, he dumbs down a lot, which makes no sense because the movie introduces all the hippie stuff when York’s talking to Jordan about it and Jordan tell’s York to shut up and stop thinking. Apparently York’s not really interested in the hippie stuff and gets scared and upset when Agutter talks about it.

Until his big assignment. Then it’s his job to know the hippie stuff. Logan’s Run has a really overly complicated first act for what just ends up being a chase movie. Jordan after the fugitives. All the future stuff is completely unimportant to the plot, even though director Anderson and screenwriter David Zelag Goodman pretend it’s going to factor into the plot. It doesn’t. Nothing figures into the plot. Except, eventually, Ustinov.

Ustinov’s awesome. He ought to make Logan’s Run worth watching. But not even he can manage that task.

Because even though everyone is trying, it’s not working. Anderson’s terrible with the special effects, which are sometimes less competent than other times. Ernest Laszlo’s bad at shooting the effects. Bob Wyman’s bad at editing them. York’s got this silly “future” gun, but it’s a crappy flare gun. Dale Hennesy’s production design is… wanting. But the sets are kind of great. They’re impressively rendered, anyway. Only the matte paintings are all godawful. Because Anderson doesn’t know how important they are. Or how to shoot them.

Then there’s Jerry Goldsmith’s “future groovy” score. It’s fairly godawful too.

But he’s trying something with it. Failing, but trying.

More than anything else, the movie hinges on York and Agutter and they’re terrible together. He’s mediocre, she’s bad, together they’re terrible. Kills the movie’s chances, awesome Ustinov or not, enthusiastic Jordan or not. Plus the third act is terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Anderson; screenplay by David Zelag Goodman, based on the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by Bob Wyman; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Dale Hennesy; produced by Saul David; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Michael York (Logan), Jenny Agutter (Jessica), Richard Jordan (Francis), Roscoe Lee Browne (Box), Farrah Fawcett (Holly), Michael Anderson Jr. (Doc), and Peter Ustinov (Old Man).


Zone Troopers (1985, Danny Bilson)

The saddest thing about Zone Troopers is Biff Manard gives a fantastic performance and there’s no reason to see it. Nothing Manard could do would make Troopers worthwhile; it’s got so many problems—cast, direction, photography, editing, music, budget (though some of the effects are outstanding)—the thing is a wreck. With a few good ideas, a great performance, and a lot of derivative nonsense.

I got ahead of myself. I was being positive—the second saddest thing about Zone Troopers. When it has those good ideas, it can’t figure out how to execute them. You watch it, getting hopeful, then it fails and you don’t just get disappointed, you feel bad for the movie; you can tell what director Bilson (who co-wrote with producer Paul De Meo) and he just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Zone Troopers, visually, needs a lot of things—it needs cinematographer Mac Ahlberg to light sets better, it needs Bilson to figure out how to shoot his actors, and they need a crane. They really, really, really need a crane. The movie takes place in an Italian forest during WWII and there’s not a single good establishing shot in it. Not even when a crane would have helped. Bilson just can’t do it. He’s got maybe three creative shots and they’re not so much good or even better than the standard bland composition, but they’re creative. Someone thought about them. No one thinks about much in Zone Troopers.

If anyone did, Timothy Van Patten wouldn’t happen. Van Patten is the young guy in the movie. He’s the private, Art LaFleur is the corporal, “top-billed but should’ve had an the ‘and’ credit” Tim Thomerson is the sergeant, an atrocious John Leamer is the inept greenhorn lieutenant, and Manard is the wartime correspondent. LaFleur and Manard are definitely in the forties, Thomerson looks a little too old too, so for the battle scenes before the aliens show up, Zone Troopers basically looks like WWII reenactment with middle-aged men. Bilson’s direction doesn’t help with that feeling either.

Anyway, Van Patten is the young Italian kid who reads sci-fi magazines and talks all the time, especially in dangerous situations, and ignores Thomerson’s orders and almost gets everyone killed over and over again. Until the movie evens out a bit in the second act, the only thing Troopers has to keep one occupied is the hope Thomerson will just shoot Van Patten in the head for insubordination.

And Van Patten is objectively terrible. No one could watch what he was doing and think it was a good idea, not even in a movie where the script has commercial breaks in the second half, like Bilson and DeMeo were plotting a three or four-part cartoon… though it’d be a lot better as a three or four-part cartoon. Van Patten wouldn’t be in it.

The effects work is bad when it comes to the lasers and the humanoid aliens are silly, but the bug-monkey alien is at least a good suit and the script handles that character surprisingly well. Again, Bilson and DeMeo have some decent ideas, they’re just in the muck of bad performances and lifts from E.T., The Thing, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and… something else no doubt. They don’t have any lifts from Empire Strikes Back, which is weird because composer Richard Band rips off its score mercilessly. It and Raiders. Clearly likes his John Williams.

And if it’s not going to be a four-part cartoon pilot, Zone Troopers does seem much more like a Spielberg movie. Just an amateur one. A poorly directed and acted amateur one. With WWII re-enactors.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Bilson; written by Bilson and Paul De Meo; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Ted Nicolaou; music by Richard Band; production designer, Philip Dean Foreman; produced by De Meo; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Tim Thomerson (The Sarge), Timothy Van Patten (Joey), Art LaFleur (Mittens), Biff Manard (Dolan), William Paulson (The Alien), Max Turilli (SS Sgt. Zeller), and John Leamer (The Lieutenant),