Why only Part 1? Isn’t this post longer than usual already? Yes, but I didn’t watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
THE ABYSS (1993 SPECIAL EDITION)
dir. James Cameron
I’m going to be thinking about this one for a long time. Even though The Abyss is a gigantic, spectacular James Cameron sci-fi epic, it wasn’t really on my radar until recently and I only watched it because I happened across a used DVD in a store. While I, a self-professed cinephile, probably should have watched this years ago, I only knew it as “the movie that did liquid CG effects before T2” and didn’t seek it out. However, in this case I am not completely to blame.
As far as I know, The Abyss is not legally available in HD in any format, physical media or digital. On top of that, the DVD from 2000 is non-anamorphic (not optimized for widescreen TVs) so even when compared to other DVDs, the quality is atrocious (and even more galling when blown up to a 100-inch screen like I did). Watching it, I was almost constantly stunned at the degree of ambition on display and marveled that this movie, at least until a Blu-ray is eventually released, has essentially been buried to the point where your average person watching movies at home will never stumble across it independently.
The Abyss is an underwater spectacular that I have a hard time believing will ever be topped in terms of the complexity of its practical effects. Close to half the movie takes place underwater, with the actual actors doing the diving, huge submerged sets and real submersibles, both full-sized and miniature. Even when out of their diving suits and performing on sets, the cast is still getting doused with thousands of gallons of water much of the time. Even with a terrible video source, the effort and craft on display is quite stunning.
This first-contact story has a structure that is recognizably Cameron, and follows pretty closely to the shape of Aliens with the cast of space marines swapped out for a crew undersea oil drill workers. Also like most Cameron fare, there’s a choice of cuts to watch that make for decidedly different experiences. After some research I chose the longer Special Edition, but even at close to three hours I was riveted the whole time.
2010 – THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT (1984)
dir. Peter Hyams
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first – as a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece and one of the most important and influential films ever made in any genre, 2010 doesn’t measure up. It’s a fairly normal movie, and doesn’t even attempt to hit the heights of filmmaking craft from the Kubrick classic. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, because it’s not. but when I first saw 2010 as a kid shortly after having my world turned upside-down by 2001, it was a big letdown.
Roy Scheider picks up the role of Dr. Heywood Floyd from 2001 and is joined on his space voyage by John Lithgow, Bob Balaban and Helen Mirren doing her best Russian accent as a cosmonaut (which is sort of worth the price of admission itself). The special effects are very watchable for the most part (with some dodgy early CG at the end), and the story serves as an interesting companion to 2001 even if the mechanics ofthe film are operating on a completely different wavelength. By its very nature the 2010 is a less opaque film than 2001, and fits some answers the original couldn’t be bothered to explain into its recognizable three-act structure. If you have memories of 2001 but haven’t watched it in a while, it’s a good time to check out 2010.
ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011)
dir. Joe Cornish
This was my first time watching Attack the Block, though I’ve known this film by its reputation for years. This street-level invasion movie follows a band of teenage hoodlums roving around a London housing project in the midst of an attack by vicious, animal-like alien creatures. This is a good example of a project stretching to look a lot bigger than its budget would imply; the creature effects in particular look quite good. It’s also interesting to see the screen debut of John Boyega (when his character said he was 15, I almost spat out my drink).
The abrasive, tough-talking (and occasionally violent) core cast of London thugs may not be the most likable group of characters, but their rapport has a ring of authenticity to it that wakes you up and reminds you you’re watching something different. I’m not going to pretend to be up on my British TV or movie knowledge, but these aren’t the types of voices I often come across in the media I consume (this is one of those where it’s okay to turn the subtitles on).
dir. Denis Villeneuve
What was perhaps my favorite movie of 2016 has lost none of its power since. Arrival is sort of a curious beast: a big-budget, PG-13 sci-fi epic that nonetheless stays fairly quiet, maintains a intimate scale without resorting to flashy spectacle and is aimed mostly at adults (and from a director who is not known for his all-ages fare). I sometimes wonder how movies like this actually get funded and completed.
The beauty of genre filmmaking, and the sci-fi genre in particular, is that it can present situations that dig into our humanity in a deep, relatable way that would not be possible without some sort of fantastical element. While Arrival spends most of its time focusing on a linguist played (superbly) by Amy Adams and her attempts to communicate with aliens that have arrived on Earth in huge spaceships, the real soul of Arrival lies in how it leverages its primary sci-fi conceit involving memory and the observance of time to present a question to Adam’s character and the viewer that doesn’t have an easy or happy answer. Profoundly sad and beautiful, especially on repeat viewings.
dir. Jordan Peele
Theatrical – DCP
If there was any doubt that each new Jordan Peele film would be a major event, Us has erased it definitively. I take very little pleasure in watching most horror movies, but setting aside the thorny semantic argument over whether “elevated horror” is a real thing or an amorphous Twitter theory, Peele is one of the few people active in the genre for whose work I will actually show up. While Us is a Blumhouse production and traffics in many well-established tropes of the genre, Peele is less concerned with cheap tricks and screechy jump scares than the primal psychological terror derived from the film’s underlying premise, meeting one’s “evil” doppelganger. This slightly less aggressive approach can definitely get a knock from some folks that the movie isn’t “scary” enough and indeed, I didn’t spend the entire runtime hunched in my seat, butt clenched, waiting for the next jump scare. I gratefully view that a feature, not a bug.
Comparisons to Get Out are more useful in regards to Peele’s filmmaking approach to the horror genre rather than the themes and goals of his two films. True to the title and despite the majority-Black main cast, Us is less explicitly about race and societal structures and more about the darkness within us all, and the lengths we can go to to preserve our way of life and ourselves at any cost. The third act is a little shaggy and the the final twist took a few minutes to really land with me, but I’m confident future viewings will reward me in a way this first viewing mostly hinted at.
dir. Alex Garland
I try not to get too hung up on changes made in adaptations. I don’t think fretting over changes between a book and screenplay is generally a worthwhile exercise, especially when the changes don’t waken the movie. Still, over a year later I can’t help but keep pondering my initial disappointment at my first viewing of Annihilation.
I happened upon the book (and its two sequels Authority and Acceptance, together comprising the Southern Reach Trilogy) pretty much by accident, and was completely transfixed. The first book, from which this film is loosely adapted, follows an expedition of a group of unnamed female explorers into the mysterious Area X, a section of backwoods Florida being slowly consumed by an unknown entity, from an unreliable first-person perspective. The other two novels mostly attempt to contextualize and expand upon the the first book’s events, slowly filling in backstory. As write/director attests, he read Annihilation once and never opened it again, and didn’t read the sequels. I was incredibly excited to see the movie, but spent the whole runtime being thrown by all the changes. Garland throws out huge chunks of the first book, none of the world-building from the other books applies, and the story ends much more definitively. The things that interested me about the source material didn’t interest Garland. I was thrown.
Nothing about this is remotely fair to the screen version of Annihilation, which is a great piece of spooky, smart sci-fi cinema for adults of the kind we don’t get nearly enough of anymore. The mostly-female cast shines, and I’m particularly partial to the eerie, removed performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh that I think some people misinterpreted at the time. There’s also some very effective body horror, and I dare anyone to find a scene from a movie last year that induced more dread than the screamy bear scene. I’ve mostly come around to the film, but I can’t quite shake how the books made me feel. I know, not a very worthwhile critical argument, but hey, I’m not a real critic.
THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (2005)
dir. Garth Jennings
Speaking of loose adaptations, how about the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie? When this came out I might have gotten a little hung up on some specifics, but looking back with mostly a hazy memory of the book series in my head I’m not sure a straight adaptation would have made sense back in 2005. It’s not like Disney was going to adapt the other four books, and in my recollection Douglas Adams’s prose and wild tangents are more memorable than the plot. Still, I can’t help but feel that this adaptation is a little too far off to resonate if you like the books, but too weird for general audiences. It’s easy to forget that even a relatively pedestrian take on this source material still reads as extremely wacky to the uninitiated.
There are some inspired choices to be found, particularly in the casting. Martin Freeman is a perfect Arthur Dent, the choice of Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox is fairly inspired and I like the casting of Mos Def as Ford Prefect at least in theory. While I love Alan Rickman, I can’t get Freeman’s own performance of Marvin the depressed and hyperintelligent robot from the audiobooks out of my head and find the movie version disappointing. Mos Def pronounces “Vogons” wrong most of the time. “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” is a very catchy song. I’m mixed-to-positive. If this were to be adapted today it would probably be a Netflix series, not a Disney movie.
dir. David F. Sandberg
Theatrical – 2D DCP
If I were to use a rubric and call it on points, I might have to say that SHAZAM! is the best DCEU movie. At a minimum, it has the lowest volume of elements that are actively, obviously bad. Watching DC movies evolve is turning into an interesting journey, as Warner Brothers is figuring out that what makes the Marvel formula so successful – broad consistency of tone and content from movie to movie – simply isn’t going to work given the DCEU’s Zack Snyder-laid foundation. The individual DC movies are becoming more their own distinct things – Wonder Woman was a broad, crowd-pleasing period piece that stumbled a little while working its way down the superhero movie checklist, Aquaman is pure, unhinged campy insanity and the new Joker movie is going be some sort of weird thing – and Shazam continues this trend by fashioning itself in the Amblin tradition of maintaining a mostly jokey and friendly-looking demeanor while also going into some surprisingly gnarly directions. It wants to be one of those early 80’s studio movies that pulled off all sorts of crazy shit and somehow still landed a PG rating.
There are some nits to pick, mostly involving the continuity between main character Billy Batson and the superhero form he transforms into, the titular Shazam!, as it can be hard to believe at times that the two actors are really playing the same character. For the most part though, this movie is a real romp that knows what it is, isn’t afraid to have fun, and has a third act that, instead of shitting the bed, actually shows off competent action that has stakes and meaningful payoffs. It’s a great movie for the 10-year-old in all of us.
dir. Robert Zemeckis
A main motivation for going with this “theme” for a grouping of movies was largely to get to this movie, one I’ve been aware of as an oft-referenced staple of this subgenre (along with Close Encounters) for as long as I can remember. Somehow though, I wasn’t aware of this film’s perhaps most important underlying theme: its religious subtext and meditation on faith. After the famous and climactic first-contact scene experienced by Jodie Foster’s character, I was surprised to find there was still 20 minutes left in the movie. This stretch of time, after which most movies would have ended, is the most interesting and presents an interesting idea that I haven’t seen explored in such depth elsewhere: how is belief in extraterrestrials really much different than a belief in God? We don’t have proof of either.
The preceding two hours make for solid Earth-based hard sci-fi, and spend a healthy amount of time dealing with processes and scientific problem-solving while juggling the bureaucracy. Jodie Foster keeps the affair firmly grounded with a determined performance that keeps the audience on her character’s track as larger forces conspire to derail her.
CAPTIVE STATE (2019)
dir. Rupert Wyatt
Theatrical – DCP
The newest film from Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is more interesting for what it tries to do than what it actually achieves. Set about a decade after scary aliens land and occupy human governments around the world, Captive State doesn’t worry much about the aliens themselves and instead follows the humans living in this new society, split into conflicting factions of rebel insurgents and “collaborators” who run the government and quell dissent. The insurgency is depicted as a group effort with a top-down storytelling approach that attempts to emphasize the contributions made by many different characters, but the resulting narrative doesn’t focus enough on any single character enough to make you care. By the end there’s so much going on in different places that the whole thing becomes near-impossible to fully track on a first viewing alone. The problem is, I don’t think I care enough to try again any time soon.
DISTRICT 9 (2009)
dir. Neill Blomkamp
Every time I watch District 9, I have to remind myself not to watch Elysium or Chappie. The debut film from Neill Blomkamp remains tremendously effective, particularly in the first half before the bullets and energy beams start flying. When Chappie came out a few years ago, I experienced District 9 in the worst possible way: I watched Blomkamp’s later two films first. As most folks who have seen Elysium and Chappie can attest, the movies look beautiful but are just, like, powerfully dumb. In fact, Chappie made me so upset it drove me to write the first article on this blog. Having later features pale in comparison to a debut work is not the craziest thing to happen to a filmmaker’s career, but the degree to which the latter features resemble Blomkamp’s debut in terms of visual aesthetics and tone while failing so spectacularly from a storytelling standpoint can, quite frankly, make District 9 look bad.
Given some time and distance from that context, I was reminded why this film was considered so groundbreaking at the time. The first hour or so, before the story settles into a groove with gross body horror and splattery violence, is particularly effective at showing things that really feel unique and otherwise unexplored in the genre in this way. In many ways, its themes about refugees and the casual cruelty that is imposed on them even by seemingly well-meaning societies are much more relevant here in America today than they were a decade ago. Of all of Sharlto Copley’s showy performances, this one seems to seems to dovetail best with what the rest of the movie is trying to accomplish. I’m also a sucker for mainstream-leaning movies aimed at American audiences, especially genre movies, that don’t take place in America or Great Britain but don’t draw attention to that fact. The South African-born Blomkamp sets the story in Johannesburg, and the setting is treated as normally as if the film were set in a place like New York that the audience would be generally familiar with. Even as a promise for an exciting filmmaking career that hasn’t really been fulfilled, District 9 remains a fascinating little gem of a sci-fi banger.
WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)
dir. Steven Spielberg
Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a curious mixed bag, alternatingly enthralling and frustrating. Some of the problems stem from the fact that this is a relatively faithful adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel, which has a resolution that isn’t really satisfying in a traditional way. The film follows a family (including Tom Cruise straining credulity as a normal, blue-collar dude and deadbeat dad) as they struggle to survive a horrifying alien invasion, but at the end of the day the human characters have basically no agency over the broader alien invasion plot. As such, the film’s back half struggles to find much of a reason to exist after some truly visceral and memorable disaster-horror sequences.
War of the Worlds bears some resemblance to the invasion/disaster movies you’d expect like Independence Day, but the scale and focus is different. Instead of blowing up Manhattan, Spielberg initially focuses the destruction on a neighborhood in New Jersey and keeps the action in relatively intimate rural settings. Unlike many PG-13 disaster smorgasbords, we witness the terrifying human violence at street level, seeing the faces of the folks getting vaporized and placing the focus on human terror rather than collapsing buildings. Some of the character work and performances are a little questionable and an extended sequence in a basement with a deranged survivalist Tim Robbins feels like an unnecessary detour, but when War of the Worlds is in high gear it’s A-grade stuff.
dir. Matt Reeves
What with the strange directions the series has gone down since, it’s easy to forget that ate first entry in the tenuous Cloverfield “franchise” is actually a pretty formally daring work of mainstream filmmaking. Sure, found-footage movies have been made before and since, but never at this scale and aiming for this broad an audience (i.e. it was not marketed as a straight horror movie) while still staying strictly disciplined in its adherence to its format. It’s a very intense watch, both unrelenting in its pacing and overwhelming in its audiovisual presentation.
I guess it’s worth noting that Cloverfield has its priorities in order, and the characters and story are near the bottom of the list. The party scene that makes up the opening 15 or so minutes contains necessary character information and sets up the stakes before everything explodes into chaos, but that material is downright painful to watch (and T.J. Miller running around with a camera and using it as a way to come on to a disinterested Lizzy Caplan is as gross as it sounds). Sort of like War of the Worlds, the characters are kept well at arms length from the story of the alien monster, their only recourse is to react to it. Despite some rough work that goes into the setup, the overall impression I’m still left with is the raw, visceral experience of being enveloped in the terror and chaos. Maybe a one-trick movie, but a successful one that’s never really been contested since.