Altered Carbon – Episode 1.1: “Out of the Past” Review – Sci-fi Knock Off Central

Altered Carbon - Episode 1.1: "Out of the Past" Review - Sci-fi Knock Off Central

The new sci-fi blockbuster Netflix series Altered Carbon doesn’t waste much time announcing its style and scale. Following a slithery and slick CGI opening credits sequence of a developing newborn, we’re shoved head first into this would be sci-fi headtrip. There’s a revolution, there’s a heady cloning system. There’s a dystopia. There are laser guns. Stuff blows up. People feel down. The show strives desperately to be edgy and thoughtful and comes as close to succeeding as it possibly can without actually developing an original voice. It should scratch an itch for those desperate to experience such things again and again. The show just doesn’t get off to particularly stunning start to suggest that it’s going to catch on in the way the studio that spent a rumoured $7 million per episode hopes it will. Oh well. At least it isn’t Bright (whew!).

Altered Carbon (Pilot Review): Sci-fi Knock Off Central 2
Chris Conner in Altered Carbon (2018) – image provided by Netflix.

Based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan and adapted to television by showrunner/screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator Genysis) the pilot episode of Altered Carbon dives head first into a litany of sci-fi tropes. In a hastily paced introduction that rips off everything from The Matrix to The Terminator and Blade Runner, we meet our “hero” Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnerman). He was a mercenary who died fighting a revolution who wakes up to find that the world has been taken over by the totalitarian corporations that he died fighting against. It’s been decades since the conflict ended. He’s brought back to life through a new system that puts minds on discs and uploads them into bodies (called sleeves for added coolness/edginess). You may have noticed that the character’s name is Asian but the actor is certainly not. That’s classic internet controversy-baiting white-washing, this time excused through a plot device that means the Asian man lives inside the generic white model/actor star. Hey, at least it’s written in, right? Maybe that makes it ok?

Anyhoo, there’s no need to dwell on that for too long. Many others will and will also likely have more insight to impart. I just couldn’t help but point it out. Anyhoo, no sooner has Takeshi found out that he’s alive again in a world that he fought to stop, the guy learns why he’s been brought back to life. Mysterious billionaire (James Purefoy) has hired Takeshi to solve a murder…his own! You see, the billionaire is living in a sleeve and decides that only Takeshi can solve the crime. Why? Well, that’s the mystery isn’t it? The sort of thing to build a novel/series around. Oh sure, Takeshi may want to go back to sleep, but he’ll get dragged deeper into the mystery. That’s the only way these sorts of stories can go, ya know?

Altered Carbon (Pilot Review): Sci-fi Knock Off Central
Joel Kinnaman in Altered Carbon (2018) – image provided by Netflix.

So, Altered Carbon is essentially a pastiche of every dystopic science fiction tale to come before it. The story is part film noir, part action flick, part social commentary, and all cynical all the time. Every scene could be read as a reference or rip off to something that you’ve seen before. That probably suggests that the show is playful and reverential. It’s not though. This story is deathly serious. The sort of thing where every actor either sulks or scowls with no other emotional variation. The tone is “edgy” and adult in ways that appeal more to adolescents seeking adult content than anything that will appeal to a mature viewer. There are weird brothels styled to feel Victorian despite being futuristic. Strange drug dealers who use terms like “brain grease” to describe their wears. And of course everyone has a shotgun or updated laser equivalent so that stuff can blow up real good when required.

Well, there aren’t too many explosions. Despite the massive budget and stylized directing by Miguel Sapochnik (Repo Men, sadly not the 80’s cult classic), Altered Carbon is still a TV series. That means there are two big action set pieces per episode and then the rest of the time is spent on slow brooding dialogue scenes to set up the next meagre action sequence that the production can afford. Lather, rinse, repeat. The series is incredibly formulaic to the prestige drama model. The premise is decent, the peaks are better, but everything else is drawn out as long as possible. This apparently was a film idea that Laeta Kalogridis had tried to sell to studios for years but kept running into problems when she demanded a big budget and an R-rating. On Netflix, she could do everything she wanted, just as long as the running time was unnecessarily tripled—and that’s not always a good thing.

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Altered Carbon (2018) – image provided by Netflix.

Now, as harsh as I’ve been on Altered Carbon, I can’t pretend it’s a complete disaster. The production values are as high as any TV series out there. The core ideas/themes might stink of Philip K. Dick thievery, yet there is some clever material there. The action might be sparsely slotted in to the story, but it makes an impact when it arrives. For those craving some dystopic sci-fi or an action series to binge on now that there’s no new season of Black Mirror, a Marvel series, or Stranger Things available to eat away those long winter nights, you could do worse than Altered Carbon. It scratches an itch and Netflix offers the money and freedom to elevate the show far above the generic sci-fi series nerds used suck back on Space or Syfy when there were no other options. In fact, it’s even well made and R-rated enough to feel like substantial science-fiction. Sadly, there’s not much there when you peek below the surface. But hey, when the surface is that shiny, it’ll still do for a while. If shows like Altered Carbon are the contemporary equivalent of Sliders or SeaQuest 2032, then we’re doing okay. Just don’t expect it to fill the Blade Runner or Battlestar Galactica sized hole in your heart.

Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!

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Total Corruption: A History Of Dystopian VideoGames

Total Corruption: A History Of Dystopian VideoGames

CGM Dystopian Issue Now Available

Dystopias have been a popular setting in videogames for quite some time now, and their introduction helped to kick start a new wave of mature, interactive storytelling. Game makers were finally unafraid to explore more mature and nuanced themes like government control, corruption, unfair societal norms, and the importance of freedom. Ever since this setting has been on the rise, having a thought-provoking story in your game is quickly becoming the norm.

Total Corruption: A History Of Dystopian VideoGames 4The first major title to truly feature a dystopian world is actually a beloved Japanese role-playing game. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VI, when it released in 1994, was a complete departure not only for the franchise, but for the JRPG genre as well. Square finally moved away from the traditional, high fantasy setting and instead chose to explore a modern, darker steampunk aesthetic. Its famous—nd beautiful—opening scene, in which the main characters are riding on mechs in snowy tundra, immediately set the tone. Your heroes are a group of rebels who want to overthrow an imperial dictatorship.

The inspiration for the world and level design stems from the Second Industrial Revolution, with the game’s society paralleling that of the latter half of the 19th century. Instead of exploring medieval castles, you’ll spot railroads, steamships, and coal mining operations. Final Fantasy VI proved to be a refreshing departure and change of pace for Final Fantasy, and Square continued this steampunk trend with Final Fantasy VII and VIII. VII’s bleak world—controlled by the infamous Shinra Corporation—is instantly recognizable with its green, polluted skies. Square Enix gave people a fine taste of the type of stories that can be told with a dystopian backdrop.

In 2000, creative director Warren Spector, the man behind Epic Mickey, and developer Ion Storm released the first Deus Ex title. The game is set in 2025, with the central plot revolving around rookie agent JC Denton and his mission to combat terrorist forces. Deus Ex’s world is one that’s steadily slipping into chaos, and Denton eventually becomes involved in a conspiracy. He encounters organizations such as the Illuminati and the Hong Kong Triads. The story is complex and filled with plenty of important choices you must make that heavily impact the world and characters.

Deus Ex received universal critical acclaim due to its well-written plot and gameplay that encourages player choice. The game has spawned a direct sequel in Deus Ex: Invisible War—a great game that still fails to live up to its predecessor—and two prequels. 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution is set 25 years before the first title. New character Adam Jensen, like JC Denton, goes up against powerful terrorist groups and private organizations that are fighting for world domination.

Total Corruption: A History Of Dystopian VideoGames 3Developer Eidos Montreal expertly captures the original game’s brooding tone and philosophical themes, and Human Revolution’s futuristic cities give players a glimpse of an awful future filled with poverty and racism. It continually raises the question of whether or not humanity’s reach has exceeded its grasp. Meaning, maybe it’s time for humans to stop technologically evolving? Human Revolution‘s recent sequel, Mankind Divided, looks just as stunningly gruesome and brooding, with major gameplay improvements and more player choice.

Following the first Deus Ex was a torrent of dystopian videogames. Valve took a stab at it with Half Life 2, which, like Deus Ex, pits a “normal” mortal man against a mysterious, corrupt, and impossibly powerful totalitarian government. The game presents a fascinating alternate history of Earth in which the Combine, an oppressive multidimensional empire, is harvesting the resources of the planet and the human race.

Beloved main character Gordon Freeman, with help from resistance fighter Alyx Vance and her father, Dr. Eli Vance, sets out to overthrow the government and find a way to defeat the Combine. Half-Life 2, and its two episodic sequels depict Earth and the human race as slaves who are constantly being experimented on and used. The game remains a fan favourite, with many fans still clamouring for that final third entry.

Naughty Dog even got in on the dystopian action as well with the surprising Jak II. This sequel to the more colourful and whimsical Jak and Daxter is a drastic shift in tone and ideas. Jak II isn’t just a simple 3D platformer but rather takes its inspiration from Grand Theft Auto. Players can shoot enemies with a few distinct guns and even hijack flying motorcycle-like vehicles from citizens. In the game players will explore the messed up Haven City, which is ruled by vicious dictator Baron Praxis and his Krimzon Guard law enforcers. Jak is also a much more troubled character in this sequel, as he struggles to fend off his darker alter ego.

BioShock: The Collection (PS4) Review 5After a few years of studios producing nearly identical dystopian videogames, Irrational Games’ and creative director Ken Levine’s Bioshock came along. Containing obvious influences from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Bioshock depicts an underwater city that was supposed to be a stunning utopia but eventually collapsed due to the residents’ inability to stop craving power. Rapture is one of the most beautiful and detailed cities in videogames, and is really the first time a setting outshined almost everything else in a game.

Bioshock, since it released in 2007, has inspired a slew of game makers. Arkane Studios’ Dishonored is a prime example as it sports a similar art style and gameplay, with a dystopian city called Dunwall that obviously pays quite a few homages to Rapture. The sequel seems to be continuing the same trend. Upcoming indie game We Happy Few is another title that draws heavy inspiration from Bioshock. It employs nearly identical first-person gameplay with an emphasis on exploration, and takes place in a world where people take pills to keep themselves “happy.” When the main character decides to refrain from taking his daily dosage, he begins to see just how awful his surroundings and life really are.

In 2008, EA and DICE released Mirror’s Edge which, like Bioshock, introduced an interesting new way to visually express a dystopian city. The game’s setting looks clean with monotone art design. White, red, and yellow are the dominant colors, and there is a serious lack of individualism and creative expression. DICE showed that a world doesn’t need be dirty and dark for it to feel vile, dangerous, and suffocating.

It’s been 20 years since Final Fantasy VI launched and the dystopian trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Horizon: Zero Dawn, Final Fantasy XV, Days Gone, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and plenty more are all looking to put their own twist on ravaged and troubled worlds.

The 5th Wave (Movie) Review

The 5th Wave (Movie) Review

Well…here we go again. Ever since The Hunger Games brought in buckets of dough, a new and increasingly tedious genre has emerged of YA dystopia movies. They’re all essentially the same, except each successive franchise is worse than the last. Divergent seemed like the bottom of the barrel until The Maze Runner came along. Somehow both proved to be worldwide successes. So now we have The 5th Wave, a movie that trudges through the genre’s motions with such disinterest and dispassion that it’s borderline insulting to watch. In fact, the last third of the movie was met with waves of laughter from the preview audience I shared the special experience with. If someone told me this was a parody of YA dystopian tales, I’d believe it. But that’s wishful thinking. It’s real and sadly, there’s a chance it will be successful. Outside of The Hunger Games series, the standard for this genre is pretty low.

the 5th wave insert 2This time Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) stars as the tough young girl in a destroyed world. Aliens were responsible for the mess this time. First they appeared in silent ships hovering above cities like Independence Day or District 9. Then they started their attack in waves. The first wave was shutting down all earthly technology. The second wave was a series of natural disasters. The third wave thinned out the human race through a virus. The fourth wave brought the arrival of aliens that looked just like humans. The fifth wave is the big twist ending of the movie that anyone with half a brain will see coming a mile away.

So how about Hit Girl? Well, she slowly watches her family get depleted down to her little brother (Zackary Arthur), who is then taken away. Thankfully, her high school crush (Jurassic World’s Nick Robinson) survives, so she can still do some teen pining. She also picks up skills with a gun rather quickly and after being injured is nursed back to health by a hunky college boy (Alex Roe), who loves to take his shirt off. Yay, a love triangle! While Chloe is suffering next to a shirtless hunk, Robinson and Arthur are taken by the military. Led by Liev Schreiber, the military has inexplicably decided to round up children and train then to machinegun down the alien threat. Odd choice, but given that they find a moody teen girl with earth’s remaining supply of eye shadow (It Follows’ Maika Monroe) they might be on the right track. Obviously everyone comes together for a shoot out finale, but a small one in accordance with the limited budget.

Yep, the script is a cut and paste job combining pieces from Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, Twilight, and Invasion Of The Body Snatches into one big dumb mess. There’s a palpable sense that no one involved with the project (especially the original novelist and three screenwriters assigned to “write” this thing) cared about what they were doing. Sadly directing duties fell onto Brit J. Blakeson who showed considerable promise in his kidnapping debut The Disappearance Of Alice Creed. Based on that movie alone, it’s clear the guy has talent. Not that he gets an opportunity to show it in The 5th Wave. Budget limitations ensure that every scene takes place in an abandoned house, empty woods, generic cement buildings, or other affordable and personality-free existing locations. He doesn’t get to display his visual style either, merely shooting in the vaguely underlit aesthetic defined by these movies. There’s never much sense of tension even though the stakes are life or death. Since the movie is so obviously one long set up for a franchise, it’s clear no one important will die. So pretty people occupy frames barely acting until the whole thing mercifully comes to a close.

The acting is pretty terrible across the board. Even Moretz who is typically a strong screen presence brings nothing to the movie beyond a series of pouts. Her twin love interests have little to do beyond appearing pretty while looking longingly at her. Maika Monroe might deliver a decent performance, but it’s hard to tell given that her laughably distracting emo costume. The child actors all seem lost, especially during the action sequences that they are supposed to sell. The adult cast are merely going through the motions and waiting for their paychecks. The only guy who doesn’t thoroughly embarrass himself is the unflappable Liev Schreiber and even that’s likely the result that mumbling dialogue in vaguely threatening monotone is his forte. He should have been in a better YA sci-fi soap opera than this.

the 5th wave insert 6There’s really nothing positive that can be said about The 5th Wave and given that everyone involved makes it clear that the couldn’t care less about the final result, it’s hard to even feign an interest as a viewer. This is Xerox filmmaking at it’s worst, copying past successes without adding anything new and hoping that hungry audiences won’t notice. It’s a wretched enough that it will hopefully be a breaking point for the tween viewers who constantly eat this crap up and ask for seconds. However, I thought that about both Divergent and The Maze Runner and somehow both of those movies managed to bust the box office wide open. Perhaps lightening will strike four times and if so, god help us all. However, if the accidental explosion laughter at the screening I attended signals anything, it’s that these genre tropes are getting too repetitive to take seriously anymore. Someone really needs to make a YA dystopia parody movie pronto. The 5th Wave practically is one without even going for laughs. All it would take to transform this into comedy gold would be sillier character names and a couple comedians in small roles who get the joke. Make it happen, Hollywood.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Movie) Review

Mad Max: Fury Road (Movie) Review

At the tender age of 70, writer/director George Miller should theoretically be curling up with a good book at resting on his laurels at this point. He spent the last few decades making Babe and Happy Feet movies with his influential and unmatched automotive apocalyptic Mad Max epics now a distant memory. Yet, that’s simply not what happened. It’s as if Miller watched the Fast & Furious movies and thought, “That’s cute, boys. Now let me show you how it’s really done.” Miller tops absolutely everything the F&F series has collectively accomplished in the first 20 minutes of his audacious action masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road, then spends the rest of the movie topping himself and even slipping in some ideas amidst the carnage. Fury Road is easily one of the most viscerally thrilling action movies ever made, a non-stop barrage of intense carnage that pauses only occasionally to give audiences a chance to catch their breath in the interest of public safety. The movie shakes the foundations of contemporary blockbusters to the core, easily topping the over-the-top spectacle of the last 30 years of popcorn filmmaking and daring anyone to attempt to match it’s insanity. Fury Road isn’t merely the blockbuster to beat this summer, it’s an action movie milestone that likely won’t be touched for the foreseeable future. Not bad for an old guy.
madmaxfuryinsert4Tom Hardy steps into Mel Gibson’s shoes as the iconic “Mad” Max and given that this franchise virtually lacks continuity, it’s not distracting for an instant. A brief voiceover prologue spoken while Max munches down a two-headed lizard establishes Miller’s apocalyptic wasteland for any late comers in a matter of minutes, then the first chase scene begins and the flick never takes its foot off the gas pedal from there until the credits roll. Max is quickly kidnapped and brought back to the nightmarish wasteland wonderland of Citadel. It’s run by the vicious demonic dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne who played Toecutter in the original Mad Max as an amusing nod to fans), who keeps his masses at bay with a rationed water supply and milk farmed from enslaved women. He raises crops of face-painted and cancer-ridden War Boys to carry out his evil bidding and assigns Max to be a hood ornament and living blood-bag for one such slave warrior known as Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Charlize Theron stars as Imperator Furiosa, a one-armed warrior assigned to drive a battle truck to gather gas for Citadel. This time she has different plans though, kidnapping Joe’s harem of model-beautiful slave women who he uses to carry his children. Furiosa promises the women freedom and forges a reluctant partnership with Max to drive them to paradise in what essentially amounts to a feature-length chase sequence.

The film has a plot and even some intriguing themes on its mind, but none of this text or subtext ever gets in the way of the face-melting spectacle. The years Miller spent struggling to bring Fury Road to the big screen clearly worked wonders for the script as his imagination went wild delivering some of the most astounding spectacle ever to grace a blockbuster delivered at a relentless pace. Some digital effects were used to heighten the world, but for the most part the action was thrillingly captured through $150 million worth of stunts, pyrotechnics, and imaginative junkyard beauty vehicles. You’ll see such astounding sights as stuntmen flung between vehicles on massive poles while dropping actual explosives in the process. These sorts of stunts deliver the type of cinematic spectacle that glues viewers to their seats, drops their mouths to the floor, and makes them wonder how such astounding feats of filmmaking were achieved without casualties. The pummeling mayhem is all shot clearly and concisely. There’s not a moment when the rhythmic heavy metal editing ever overwhelms the eyes, even when pushing to the limits of blockbuster excess. Miller even peppers his onslaught of action with humor: a favorite image being a live band playing along with the villains at top speed. A guitarist on a bungee cord rocks out with a massive drum section to provide the villains with a live soundtrack and in case you were wondering, yes that guitar also doubles as a flamethrower. It’s a hilarious image to behold and one that isn’t merely tossed in either. Miller has a specific plan for that vehicle in the climax because nothing is wasted in this epic. It all serves a specific purpose that will cause bowels to loosen worldwide as viewers take this remarkable ride.
madmaxfuryinsert3During the few moments that Miller eases up slightly on action to tell his story and develop his characters, some fascinating subtexts slip in through the cracks. Theron’s character is actually sneakily the protagonist this time and her battle scarred heroine is one of the best to grace the genre since Sigourney Weaver told the Alien queen to, “Get away from her, you bitch.” Theron delivers a pained and humane performance as a woman forced to be a warrior through slavery. Her mission subtly doubles as feminist doctrine, presenting a nightmare world destroyed by men that could well be saved if women were handed the keys to the ignition. Hardy ambitiously and wisely ignores Mel’s performance entirely to create a fascinating new Max. He’s a man so used to solitary survival that he communicates primarily through grunts and monosyllables. The character takes the hero’s journey once more over the course of the film and this time Hardy makes that transition physical as well as internal. Given that Miller’s wildly visual adventure almost plays out as a silent film despite the incredible theater-rocking soundtrack, that proves to be an inspired take on the character. This Max isn’t just a walking ode to macho posturing, but thoroughly damaged soul perpetually chasing redemption and a genuinely tragic hero.

While Fury Road was designed to appeal to audiences completely unfamiliar with the Mad Max franchise, it actually fits into the series nicely. Miller’s goal with his Mad Max pictures has always been to reduce cinema down to its most primal visceral pleasures and classical narrative devices within a popular form of cinema for its era. The original film was pure drive-in revenge sleaze elevated to art, The Road Warrior added R-rated stink and cynicism to the self-conscious Joseph Campbell myth-making that George Lucas was doling out in Star Wars at the time, and Beyond Thunderdome lightened up the series for Spielberg-flavored pop in the mid-80s. Fury Road delivers the living comic book drug that Hollywood chases these days on an unparalleled scale and then sneaks in the feminist slant that critics, bloggers, and tweeters have been demanding from their blockbusters. It’s not just a movie of the moment, but the blockbuster necessary to shake up the popcorn-flogging industry in the ways we’ve all been waiting for. Mad Max: Fury Road is worthy of absolutely all the praise and hyperbole you’ve heard slathered upon it and if possible, it’s actually even better than you’ve been imagining. Buy a ticket immediately and buckle up. This is a wild ride that viewers will praise and debate for years to come. A blockbuster benchmark that filmmakers will struggle to top for the foreseeable future.

Insurgent (Movie) Review

Insurgent (Movie) Review

Well, Divergent made a bunch of money so now we have Insurgent. That’s the reason that this sequel exists and it sure feels like it. Certainly the final product gives off the impression that no one involved with the movie had much invested beyond the fact that the production will likely make a ton of money and a boost the marketability of their respective careers. They’re probably right too. There’s nothing wrong with movies existing purely for commerce. Hollywood is a business after all. It’s just a shame for audiences who actually show up for something like Insurgent. Sure, it’ll be clear to anyone watching that this sequel is very expensive and they will have gotten their money’s worth of CGI spectacle. But, it’s too bad that a movie so encumbered by allegory and big sweeping societal generalizations presented as a message actually has so little to say.
insurinsert1So, if you saw the last movie you’ll know exactly where this story-in-progress left off last time and if not, don’t worry, Kate Winslet will explain it to you. Basically, we’re back in a vaguely dystopic future world where everyone in society is assigned a social group and function based on an adjective. The system kind of works, but the people feel repressed (you know, like the class and nationalism systems and blah blah blah). Our heroine is played by Shailene Woodley and she’s a real thorn in the side of this regimented society because she’s filled with so many qualities related to inner strength that she doesn’t fall into any one group. Actually, she falls into all of them (making her a divergent, like the title). Woodley figured that out by the end of Divergent and ended up getting in a big battle against the stuffy leaders of this world along with her hunky/caring boyfriend (Theo James).

Insurgent kicks off with Winslet’s ice cold leader blaming Woodley for all of the catastrophes from Divergent’s climax. So Woodley goes into hiding, eventually meeting up with a revolutionary group (led by Naomi Watts in black eye shadow that makes her seem evil-ish) who want to rebel against this repressive system. While Woodley and co. struggle to decide if they want to revolt, Winslet starts tracking down all of the divergents to help her open up a secret box with a secret message from the secret folks who founded this society. It turns out she needs an extra special divergent to do it and wouldn’t you know it? The protagonist of this franchise is extra special! Then a bunch of stuff blows up and there’s a cliffhanger. The end.

Once again, The Hunger Games casts a long shadow over every single plot beat, character, costume, scene, and idea in Insurgent. This movie franchise only exists because of all the money that the Hunger Games series continues to make and it shows. It appears as though director Robert Schwentke and co. spent more time studying Hunger Games sequels while mounting this production than they did paying attention to their source material. As a result, everything in the film is tediously calculated to try and trick audiences into thinking they are watching the latest Hunger Games movie. Unfortunately, like all photocopies, the quality has faded in transition and nothing feels quite right. Sure there are all the big emotional beats, CGI-heavy action sequences, and grand statements of social commentary that should, at least in theory, move us and thrill us like a Hunger Games movie, but nothing ever quite connects as planned.

Part of that is because this series is far dumber than the other one, so it’s never as profound as it thinks it is. Part of it is because Schwentke’s skill with action storytelling never stretches beyond staging a bunch of expensive explosions and hoping for the best. And part of it is because we all saw a far better version of this exact same movie a few months ago and even it wasn’t that great. Yep, Insurgent is a big ol’ waste of time, money, and resources. Unfortunately, it’s also one guaranteed to be a big hit because the timing and manipulative calculation are right.
insurinsert3Now, that’s not to say that Insurgent is completely devoid of any quality content. There are some very talented cast members who do their best. Shailene Woodley is a major young talent and she tries so damn hard to elevate the mediocre material she was given that you’ll wish there was an Oscar for “Best Effort” like a public school track and field day. Winslet and Watts are of course long time talents incapable of bad performances, so they made their cardboard villainesses (Or are they? Hmmmmm…) feel like they are two-dimensional rather than one-dimensional. Then there’s Miles Teller, a live wire who injects the few moments of fun into the movie in what amounts to little more than an extended cameo since his career was in a far better place when Insurgent contract negotiations rolled around than he was when he made Divergent. Those four folks are fun to watch doing pretty much anything and Insurgent proves that fact (you need only look at how lost every other actor feels to notice how good those four folks are). Unfortunately, the movie surrounding them simply isn’t worthy of their talents.

Insurgent is not a disaster (and it could have been given that Batman And Robin screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith was involved), but it is a deeply mediocre movie that would likely disappear without a fuss if it wasn’t part of the obscenely popular YA sci-fi genre that’s the current big blockbuster trend. I suppose if you somehow were intrigued enough by Divergent to want to see the sequel, it’s worth a look. However, if you noticed how empty this series was the first time, there’s absolutely nothing here that will win you over. If anything this big, dumb, expensive mess of a sequel will likely lose franchise fans rather than bringing any new converts into the fold.

The Zero Theorem (Movie) Review

The Zero Theorem (Movie) Review

Terry Gilliam is quite possibly the most underrated filmmaker of his generation. After providing the animation and visual aesthetic for the Monty Python comedy troupe in the 60s, Gilliam went on to deliver a wide array of distinctly bizarre films like Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. He’s at once completely irreverent yet deeply philosophical, an entertainer who strives for art, a man who dabbles in genres with little concern for their rules, and a visual stylist who somehow rarely lets the visuals overwhelm his ideas. Yet, despite the fact he’s been one of the most consistently creative filmmakers working for over 30 years, he’s rarely considered a major filmmaker. His movies tend to be too messy and funny for high-minded folks to take them seriously and often demand multiple viewings to make a full impact. All of that brings us to The Zero Theorem, Gilliam’s first film in four years that for some reason won’t be playing in theaters. Despite starring two-time Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz and offering a glorious visual experience designed for the big screen, it will be premiering on VOD and Blu-ray. That’s a real shame for Gilliam, but at least it was made at all. That’s a reoccurring challenge in this director’s career.

zerotheoreminsert1The Zero Theorem feels very much like Gilliam’s possible masterpiece Brazil as it’s a vaguely existential study of a man alienated by technology in a vaguely dystopic future. That man is played by Christoph Waltz, and he’s a button pusher obsessed with his own mortality who is assigned to solve the mathematical equation the zero theorem, which could theoretically provide the meaning (or lack thereof) to the universe. Amidst that central thread, Waltz is surrounded by the usual gang of Gilliam-flavored eccentrics like David Thewlis as a Python-esque office drone, Melanie Thierry as a digital sex worker with a philosophical heart of gold, Matt Damon as a silver haired ruler of big business/society, and Lucas Hedges as Damon’s son, a boy genius/computer whiz. As you might have gathered, there are perhaps too many threads competing for attention in Zero Theorem and not enough focus. Well, that’s absolutely true and it’s a consistent problem/strength in all of Gilliam’s work. He’s never been much of a concise storyteller. He’s more of a filmmaker who cracks open his brain and spills out every possible idea he might have about a certain theme, hoping that at least some of it sticks.

“Given how visually inventive and beautiful the film is, it’s a shame that audiences won’t get a chance to see it on the big screen, but at least they’ll get a chance to see it at all.”

The biggest problem with The Zero Theorem is that it’s too much of a good thing. After multiple viewings and a great deal of thought, the film might eventually slide into clear and concise focus, but I kind of doubt it. The movie is a bit of a mess, yet it’s at least a movie that suffers from being too ambitious and that’s always at least admirable. What the film does offer is a flurry of brilliant concepts and images in search of a focus. Gilliam’s neon-lit future filled with an overwhelming array of advertisements and images is a brilliant satirical extension of our own time. It’s a world where people are more interested in examining their favorite screen than participating in life and that’s certainly a world worth exploring these days. Gilliam also brilliantly visualizes Waltz’s existential math equation as a sort of building block video game that is impossible to solve without creating new and deeper problems. It’s a clever way of visualizing a very non-visual central conceit and one that only Gilliam could have dreamed up. The supporting roles like David Thewlis’ surreal office manager or Tilda Swinton’s digital psychologist provide some of the distinctly irreverent humor that Gilliam has peddled since Python. Finally, it’s an entertaining pop sci-fi movie that preaches the meaningless of the universe in a disturbing yet carefully thought out way that rarely appears in such a goofy movie. That ultimately makes The Zero Theorem a delightfully bitter little pill to swallow (much like Brazil).

So, this is definitely a film very easy to admire and one that is filled with wonderful sequences to tickle the eyes and feed the brain. It’s proof that glorious visual filmmaking need not lack substance and that philosophical films need not be boring. It’s hard not to fall in love with the many ingenious bits and pieces that Gilliam dreams up throughout the running time, but also equally difficult not to feel somewhat disappointed when it doesn’t quite all add up by the time the credits roll. Still, the good in The Zero Theorem far outweighs the bad. It’s a movie very much worth seeing and one that demands to be seen by any fans of the director if only because it provides a hit of pure, undiluted Gilliam. Given how visually inventive and beautiful the film is, it’s a shame that audiences won’t get a chance to see it on the big screen, but at least they’ll get a chance to see it at all. This is hardly a commercial or conventional movie and God bless Gilliam for continuing to dedicate his life to such endeavors even as he enters retirement age.