Movies

For people who read this blog, M. Night Shyamalan is a director who needs no introduction. Originally revered for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, he later met mixed reviews for The Village, and was then totally lambasted for Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. My feelings on Shyamalan are mixed; on the one hand, those last two movies deserve all the scorn they receive, on the other hand, I still think his first few movies, even including The Village, are pretty great. For many people, a new Shyamalan movie is going to be bad, whether they’ve seen it or not. I’m not trying to forgive him for The Happening or The Last Airbender, but I think his early track record indicates that he’s still capable of making decent movies. If anything, I think his directing is actually fairly solid, it’s his writing that’s really hit or miss. When it was announced that Shyamalan would be directing a sci-fi movie, I was cautiously optimism. If there’s one thing I felt fairly certain about, it’s that Shyamalan was under way too much scrutiny to try anything too risky with a new movie. For the most part, that assumption was correct.

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Contrary to this flyer, the movie has almost no old Earth ruins, which I thought was a huge shame.

After Earth
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writers: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan, Will Smith (concept)
Producers: Caleeb Pinkett, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, James Lassiter
Stars: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo
Studios: Overbrook Entertainment, Blinding Edge Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Country: United States
Release Date: May 31, 2013

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The natural environments in After Earth are beautiful.

The original concept for After Earth was conceived by Will Smith, and was originally planned to take place in the present day in a remote mountainous region. At its core, After Earth is a wilderness survival movie, which makes sense given Smith’s original vision. After changing the setting to the future, Will Smith proposed the movie to writer Gary Whitta, who some people might remember for writing the sceenplay for Book of Eli. Whitta liked the concept, and fleshed it out to a full script. The two then approached Shyamalan to direct the movie, and he happily obliged. The final script was co-written by Shyamalan and Whitta, but I’m not sure to what degree Shyamalan altered the original script.

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Cypher buckles his son in before the crash, but doesn’t think to recommend that the rest of the crew do the same….

In 2025, humans leave the Earth due to environmental catastrophe. They then colonize a habitable planet outside the solar system called Nova Prime. At some point, humanity is attacked by an alien species. This species creates a bioengineered organism called the ursa, which can’t see, but can sense the pheromones that humans release when they’re scared. Humanity is set to be wiped out, that is until Cypher Raige (Will Smith) develops a technique that turns the tide of battle. This technique is dubbed “ghosting”, and involves a human eliminating their fear, thus becoming blind to the ursa. Cypher leads humanity’s military force, referred to as the ranger corps. His son, a teenager named Kitai, seeks to become a ranger. Cypher is always away, and barely knows his son Kitai. At his wife’s urging, he takes Kitai with him on a trip to a human settled planet. On route, they encounter a meteor shower, and are forced to land at a destination that the ship’s computer selected. This location ends up being Earth, which is deemed totally hostile to humans. The ship ends up crashing, leaving Kitai and Cypher as the only survivors. To make matters worse, an Ursa was being held in a cage onboard the ship, and has gone missing. Cypher is injured, so it’s up to Kitai to make a long trek to the other half of the crashed ship, which contains a device that can emit a distress beacon.

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The action in After Earth is sparse, but it’s always nicely choreographed. Most of it features Jaden wielding a weapon that looks like the combi-stick from Predator.

The story has a nice oldschool vibe to it. If you like Planet of the Apes’ theme of humans exploring a far future Earth, After Earth‘s premise will likely interest you. That being said, one of the movie’s biggest shortcomings is that there are a number of plot elements that are too convenient, or just defy science. First of all, when the ship crashes, Kitai seems to be the only person buckled into a seat, even though there is plenty of warning. The rest of the crew is jettisoned, other than Cypher, who miraculously survives. The fact that only father and son survive, for no decent reason, seems incredibly improbable. Another strange element is that apparently there’s isn’t enough oxygen in the atmosphere for humans to breathe without respiration aid, and yet there are numerous thriving mammals, many of which are larger in the size than today’s species. Additionally, the flora is more vibrant than ever, but everything freezes over at night. Also, life has somehow evolved to be harmful to humans, and yet humanity has been absent for 1000 years. Anyone with a basic understanding of evolution knows that a species won’t evolve mechanisms specifically to counter another species if the two aren’t in contact. Anyways, expect to suspend your disbelief when it comes to these plot devices. Shyamalan also has a way of being way to blatant with his foreshadowing. Not only does this not have his typical plot twists, you can see most events coming a mile off.

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After Earth has a really cool prehistoric vibe, and what would a “land that time forgot” be without a volcano?

At risk of sounding too negative about After Earth, I’ll intersperese the negative with some positive. If you like sci-fi with planet exploration and survival, there’s a lot of fun to be had with After Earth. The environments are lush and interesting, evoking some of what people loved so much about Avatar. The vegetation and wildlife are really beautiful, and you get to see a range of locales. I love the concept of surviving alone in the wilderness, and to the movie’s credit, After Earth doesn’t skimp in this area; it pushes the survival theme to brutal lengths. Kitai deals with all manner of carnivorous wildlife, toxin inducing parasites, extreme weather conditions, and harsh topography. Central to the theme of the movie is Kitai’s journey to adulthood, and his desire to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his father. Instead of giving us the archetypal “tough kid”, Kitai is very fallible, and very much afraid of his harsh surroundings. On the flip side, he also doesn’t veer too far in the wimpy, overly incapable direction.

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This is the most serious we’ll ever see Will Smith, and I totally bought it.

The human technology and clothing designs in After Earth are interesting, but far from mind-blowing. Movies like Oblivion and Star Trek: Into Darkness have way more flashy visuals, and better designed sci-fi human environments. After Earth at least tries to be different, going for a slight retrograde theme, but ultimately it’s at a lower standard. Retro design elements in AE include spaceship interiors that have straw-looking doors and almost wooden support beams, civilians that wear loose robes, a sail motif in the city, and rangers that wear a 60’s/70’s style of spandex jumpsuit. Heck, even the term “ranger” sounds like it’s from a 60’s sci-fi book (Star Rangers by Andre Norton, to be exact). To the designers’ credit, I actually really like the look of the jumpsuit. It has interesting round edged patterns, and it changes color based on the environment.

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I really like the design of the suit.

For most people, the make or break factor in After Earth will be the acting. In a risky move, Will and Jaden speak in made-up accents of the far future. Unfortunately, the accents ultimately come off sounding forced and awkward, and although they’re a noble effort, they’re likely to be really offputting for some people. Will Smith plays a hardline general with literally no emotion, which is really strange considering his typical roles. Some people might find his tone too stiff, but I personally felt there was a hidden depth to his performance. If anything it shows a range that I didn’t think he was capable of, and there’s plenty of subtle emotion hidden behind his rigid exterior. Conversely, my opinion of Jaden’s acting skills has lessened. I seem to remember really liking him in 2010’s The Karate Kid, but now I’m starting to doubt that memory. His performance in After Earth isn’t terrible, but he’s way too emotive. At any moment, he looks like he’s seconds away from breaking into tears. For some people, this facet of the movie might be enough to totally turn them off. In the pantheon of young actors, this is far from the bottle of the barrel; rather it hangs around the mid-ground. After Earth has several flashback sequences that serve to provide a bit more human drama to the film. They’re pretty unobtrusive, and do a nice job of adding depth to the relationship between Kitai and his father.

Overall, I had a pretty good time with After Earth. It has its flaws, but if you’re not too critical, and you like the theme of sci-fi exploration, I would still recommend giving this a chance. Shyamalan is one of those directors who has a mile long line of critics just waiting to say: “see, I told you so, this guy sucks”. Therefore, I don’t doubt that you will see plenty of reviews that are excessively harsh. Hating on Shyamalan is the hip thing to do, and After Earth is an obvious target. These reviews will not be written by sci-fi fans, which is why I hope I can still convince people who are interested in the premise to give it a shot. For sci-fi fans, this is at least worth a rental, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually gets something of a cult following. It’s not nearly as bad as the first flurry of reviews would have you believe.

 

 

Star Trek Into Darkness is a movie that I didn’t expect to review on this site. Although I was brought up by a trekkie mother, and I’ve always enjoyed watching the shows, I didn’t think the tone and appearance of Star Trek were a good fit for the site. Xenomorphosis’ origins are rooted in the darker side of sci-fi, and frankly, Star Trek presents nearly the polar opposite of that aesthetic. Again, I’ve always enjoyed the shows, but they’re just not my preferred brand of sci-fi. Everything from the costumes to the feel good humor and drama are just slightly too clean-cut for my liking. Furthermore, Star Trek essentially ruined sci-fi television for someone with my tastes. For forty years now, most sci-fi shows have mimicked my least favorite aspects of Star Trek: silly looking humanoid characters, daytime television-level drama, and cheesy humor. Now that I’ve essentially alienated all my fans, lets get back to Into Darkness. Suffice to say, I’m really glad I chose to see it in theatres, despite being fairly turned off by the first couple trailers. Star Trek Into Darkness is one of the prettiest sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. Does it accurately reflect the feel of the shows? No, but to be honest, I almost prefer J.J. Abrams’ take on the franchise. Into Darkness has a lot going for it, regardless of its place in the franchise, so I’m going to look at it on its own merits.

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Fantastic poster.

Star Trek Into Darkness
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Jeffrey Chernov, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Tommy Gormley, Tommy Harper, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, Michelle Rejwan, Ben Rosenblatt, Paul Schwake
Stars: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch
Studios: Skydance Productions, Bad Robot
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Country: United States
Release Date: May 16, 2013

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The Enterprise has never looked better.

Following the events of 2009’s Star Trek, Into Darkness opens with the crew of the Enterprise being sent to the planet Nibiru to monitor a primitive humanoid species. In an effort to save the species, Spock puts his life at risk. Kirk manages to save him, but violates the prime directive by exposing the Enterprise to the alien race. Despite Kirk having saved Spock’s life, Spock feels obligated to report the incident. Kirk is demoted to first officer, and Admiral Christoper Pike resumes command of the Enterprise. Meanwhile, a top-secret Starfleet weapons facility is destroyed by a former Starfleet agent named John Harrison. Harrison then attacks the Starfleet’s top brass, and flees to a Klingon home world. For reasons that risk exposing spoilers, Kirk is given permission to kill Harrison, and sets course for Klingon space. Although the basic premise sounds relatively straightforward, Into Darkness has a really interesting plot that takes a number of unexpected turns. Every time I though I had cleverly guessed a surprise outcome, I found myself having guessed totally wrong.

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I actually managed to choose some of the few images I captured that aren’t drowning in lens flare.

For anyone who saw the 2009 Star Trek, you’ve probably already made up your mind about the quality and accuracy of the Enterprise’s new cast. Personally, I think they do a great job of mimicking the characters on which they’re based. Chris Pine feels like a younger version of the old Kirk. He’s slightly more brash and cocky, which makes sense considering he hasn’t fully matured. Zachary Quinto plays a great Spock, although I couldn’t help but feel that his blank stare made him look as if he was utterly confused at all times. Zoe Saldana does an amazing job as Uhura, and provides some of the most emotionally stirring performances in the film. Simon Pegg, one of my favorite comedic actors, provides some really funny comic relief as Scotty. Karl Urban plays a great Bones, and has a never-ending repertoire of strange anecdotes. The cast fit really well together, and the writing is actually pretty hilarious at times. The most critical new role is played by Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison. I was mixed on his performance. On the one hand, he’s clearly an amazing actor, and is downright chilling at times. On the other hand, I just couldn’t buy him as an uber-villain; he just looks so… Dweebish. There’s a showdown between him and Spock, and I couldn’t help but think I was watching a fight between two really nerdy looking dudes (no offense to us nerds).

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The movie’s environments, whether they be sets, or in this case CG, look fantastic.

As I mentioned earlier, Into Darkness definitely doesn’t feel much like the shows. I’m sure a more qualified fan could tell you exactly why in precise detail, but I think the major difference can be chalked up to Into Darkness‘ pacing. J.J. Abrams is a director who likes to keep things moving. Everything from the plot points to the camera shots are quick. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a strong contrast when compared with the relatively slow pacing of the shows. In the same time that it would take Picard to ponder the political correctness of an encounter with an alien species, the Into Darkness crew has wined and dined the race, and then warped off to another star system without paying the bill. Although Abrams handles the fast pacing as expertly as possible, I can’t help but think the movie would’ve benefited from a less frantic story, especially in the later half. After the movie’s midway point, it veers into a steep rollercoaster descent, and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. In fact, the movie almost felt like it had 5 acts (rather than your typical 3), each more tense than the last.

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I’m sold on Zoe Saldana. She’s a really strong actress.

In my intro I boldly stated that Into Darkness is one of the prettiest sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. As I mentioned in my review of Oblivion, in terms of visuals, sci-fi media has really matured in the last decade. As evidenced by last year’s movie Lockout, even recent B-grade sci-fi films have had great design. In the A-grade realm, we’ve been graced with Prometheus and Oblivion, both of which were fantastic looking. In Into Darkness, this style of design has been sent into overdrive. From casual clothing to space suits, the costumes are incredibly slick, and evoke the aesthetic that was perfected in Mass Effect. In addition to the costumes, the sets are even more impressive. In particular, the interior ship environments are beautiful. Imagine taking the best of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and upgrading it with dozens of intricate UIs and HUDs. Without sounding overly dramatic, I couldn’t stop gawking at how great everything looked. There are ships and buildings that only get a millisecond of screen time, but rank among the best we’ve seen from the genre. Into Darkness supposedly had a budget of $180 million, and it shows.

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The one thing I didn’t address in the review, due to space, was the soundtrack. It’s really good, and provided some great background listening while I worked on this review.

Complimenting the design are the equally impressive special effects. There are a number of really technical action scenes involving CG, and they all look fantastic. One scene, in which we see ship-to-ship combat at warp speed, is ridiculously cool. The CG cityscapes are also of the highest caliber; imagine Blade Runner tall skyscrapers, but with more vegetation.

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I’m not sure I understand the intense adoration of Cumberbatch. Sure, he’s a good actor, but to me he comes across as a creepy dork. And now everyone will hate me.

In Into Darkness, Abrams has mastered the bombardment every frame with lens flare. Although the  lens flare is probably way overdone, I totally loved it. The environments look so great that the lens flare is like an extra later of candy coating. Also, it doesn’t hurt that every scene is excellently lit. Expect plenty of predominantly white spaceship interiors lit with pinks, blues, and purples. Abrams is truly a master of style. As you can tell from my gushing, the visuals alone sold me on the movie.

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The dreadnought class starship is an amazing sight to behold.

Star Trek isn’t a franchise that I’d typically associate with strong action scenes, but Abrams has clearly done his best to change that assumption. I’m sure that plenty of fans are pissed at the abundance of action, but to the movies credit, it’s handled really well. There are no dinky phasers to be found here. Battles in Into Darkness are fought with fully automatic laser weapons. There are also a number of hand-to-hand combat scenes, as well as some excellent spaceship battles. The choreography is strong, but as with most modern action movies, Into Darkness suffers from overly quick camera cuts. Hollywood directors are finally starting to get the memo that everyone hates blurry incomprehensible action scenes, but we still have a long way to go.

Star Trek Into Darkness will likely be a divisive movie. If you’re willing to accept that this isn’t the Star Trek you remember, there’s plenty of value on offer. If this didn’t have the Star Trek name attached, it would be remembered as a really solid sci-fi action thriller. Hardcore trekkies may hate it, but everyone else will probably have a great moviegoing experience. I will admit that it’s sad that in today’s movie climate, we can’t have a more introspective Star Trek movie that’s heavier on ethical concepts, but this is still a really good substitute. I would recommend this to every sci-fi fan; this might be the best movie we get this year. If there’s one thing I can say for certain, I am really, really excited to see how Abrams handles Star Wars. Into Darkness sets the bar really high.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Star Trek Into Darkness-related images

The Colony was one of those movies that crept up on me, hard. The first I heard of it was only about a month before release, which is kind of embarrassing for a guy who tries to stay somewhat informed when it comes to sci-fi. Furthermore, as I mentioned in my Oblivion review, hard sci-fi is a movie genre that’s actually fairly undersaturated, at least compared to other mediums, so my ignorance was inexcusable. Anyways, The Colony‘s trailer had me fairly optimistic. It had a desolate setting and a small crew, which is always a good recipe for sci-fi horror, and it stars Bill Paxton and Laurence Fishburne, each of which are legendary for sci-fi. The last time I remember seeing Fishburne in a sci-fi was Predators, a cameo that was the biggest highlight in what I thought was an excellent movie. Judging from the trailer, I knew The Colony was obviously made on a tight budget, which is fine for this sort of movie. Another movie that was made on a tight budget, and took place in a similar environment, was John Carpenter’s The Thing, my second favorite sci-fi horror anything of all time. Going into The Colony, all I could think was: “please, please let this be like The Thing“. My head was swimming in fantasies of deep cold body horror.

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So far so good.

The Colony
Director: Jeff Renroe
Writers: Jeff Renroe (main), Svet Rouskov
Producers: Paul Barkin, Matthew Cervi, Pierre Even, Marie-Claude Poulin
Stars: Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Zegers, Bill Paxton
Studios: Alcina Pictures, Item 7, Mad Samurai Productions
Distributor: eOne
Country: Canada
Release Date: April 19, 2013

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The lighting in the move is excellent, as evidenced by these photos.

The year is 2045, and humans have been living in bunkers underground due to environmental catastrophe. To combat climate change, humans built giant weather manipulating machines, but the machines backfired, sending the planet into a man-made ice age. As Sam (Kevin Zegers), the lead character, describes, “one day it just started snowing, and it never stopped”. Sam’s colony is led by Briggs (Laurence Fishburne), and Briggs’ fellow veteran and friend, Mason (Bill Paxton). Conditions in the bunker have gotten so bad, that anyone who catches a cold or flu is quarantined, lest they infect (and subsequently kill) others. If they don’t recover after a certain period of time, they have a choice between death, or a trek through the snow. Mason has become trigger happy, killing the sick rather than letting them take the trek; his increasing militarism serves as a point of tension throughout the movie. Partway through the film, Sam’s colony gets a distress signal from a neighboring colony. Briggs leads Sam and another young adult to investigate the situation at the second colony. The second colony has been eradicated; blood coats the walls. Eventually, Sam and crew encounter the menace, and the remainder of the movie is spent in heavy-duty survival mode.

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One of the only “future-tech” designs in the movie, the weather machines are really neat looking.

The Colony has a light pro-ecological message, which I’m always happy to see, but it’s really nothing to write home about. As any sci-fi fans know, ecological destruction is an incredibly common theme in science fiction. So common in fact, that I’m 90% sure that every Japanese RPG and anime of the 90’s took place in a setting where humanity had screwed up the environment. Maybe I’m just too engrossed in the genre, but is human-induced environmental catastrophe actually a unique concept for the average moviegoer? To be honest, I’m not especially surprised or impressed that the movie tackles this real-life issue. Perhaps if the movie had gotten into the real science involved, and been slightly more educational, I’d have been impressed, but as it stands, The Colony‘s take on climate change is too brief to qualify as a cautionary tale. It’s like when people say, “dude, this band is deep, they write about politics and real-world stuff”. Sorry buddy, but even the most uninformed people can tackle real-world issues; I won’t be impressed unless it’s done well.

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Sam’s girlfriend Kai, as played by Charlotte Sullivan, is an interesting character who I wish had gotten more screen time.

For horror fans, The Colony is shamelessly unoriginal. I say shameless, because this movie had so much potential. The acting is good, the screenplay is bland but solid, the special effects are decent, and the mood, atmosphere, and directing are all pretty good for a low-budget movie. So what ruins The Colony, at least for me? I’ll call it the Pandorum-effect. 2009’s Pandorum was one of those movies that had everything going for it. Like The Colony, I had high hopes for it, and everything was going great, that is, until the villains were introduced. Pandorum‘s villains were the worst kind of dull; they were essentially undead humans, although technically they weren’t undead. They jumped around and hissed like any good Gollum-reject should. I can understand the incentive to use cannibals; they’re cheaper to pull-off than more elaborate monsters or aliens, they’re guaranteed to be creepy, and they appeal to the never-ending hordes of zombie fans. However, for me, they’re about as dull as movie menaces can get. My two favorite sci-fi horror villains are xenomorphs, and the thing. Both are extremely original and well-designed. Cannibals in a sci-fi movie, on the other hand, are a sure sign of moviemakers that are afraid to take a risk, or are devoid of originality. If you haven’t yet surmised from my rant, The Colony‘s antagonists are of the cannibalistic variety. Remember the possessed forces from Ghosts of Mars? Well, The Colony features a nearly identical, but considerably more boring group of foes.

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The ferals. Although they’re mindless, they use weapons, which is kind of cool, I guess.

I’m giving The Colony a hard time, because like I said earlier, it had a lot going for it, but the cannibals were a huge let-down. If you’re the sort of person who really digs zombie movies, you might not be so put-off by this factor, but even then, many zombie movies have done this scenario much better. The problem with The Colony, is that for a movie that is primarily horror, the action and scares are way too short-lived. The movie could’ve used an extra 10 minutes of action and violence. Unfortunately, the brief thrills never manage to create much tension. There are two memorable scenes that sent a light chill down my spine (you’ll know what I’m talking about), but they were only just enough to wet my appetite.

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Bill Paxton’s acting has definitely improved since his Aliens days.

I’ve spent an awful lot of this review highlighting what I thought were The Colony‘s shortcomings. The thing is, it’s not a bad movie; far from it. It’s exceedingly average, which is too bad, because it could have been much more. No one element of the movie is handled poorly, but on the flip side, there are few standout moments. For all I know, the movie might be more enjoyable to viewers who haven’t seen much sci-fi or horror, but I really doubt my audience fits that description. This is a worth a rental if you liked movies like Pandorum, Ghosts of Mars, 30 Days of Night, or The Descent, and you’re okay with a duller example of the same concept. The sci-fi in this sci-fi movie is basically non-existent, so if you’re looking for a pure sci-fi experience, you’ll be disappointed. The Colony‘s problem is that it’s a decent film experience, but every concept has been borrowed from better movies.

 

When it comes to film, science fiction is somewhat of a confused genre. For the most part, this confusion can be attributed to the genre’s origins in cinema history. Early sci-fi movies were primarily of the pulp variety, meaning that audiences could expect an entertaining popcorn flick that was fun, but largely devoid of intellectual merit. Around the same time, authors in the world of sci-fi fiction were using the genre as a platform to explore complex philosophical concepts. With 2001: A Space Odyssey, this brand of cerebral sci-fi was brought to the cinema masses. Since then, certain filmmakers have used science fiction as an intellectual avenue, whereas others have continued the tradition of providing candy coated action flicks that are easy on the eyes and the brain. I don’t mean to imply that one avenue is better than the other; each has their place, and each can be equally enjoyable given the right circumstances. Director Joseph Kosinki’s movie Oblivion falls somewhere between the two camps. For those who remember, this was the guy who brought us Tron: Legacy, a movie that was drowning in eye candy, but relatively light on introspection and substance. Regardless, hard sci-fi movies (especially good ones) aren’t as common as the average person seems to believe, so I went into Oblivion with nervous enthusiasm.

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Tom Cruise looking pensive near his amazing aircraft.

Oblivion
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writers: Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek
Producers: Joseph Kosinski, Peter Chernin,Ryan Kavanaugh, Dylan Clark, Barry Levine
Stars: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko
Studios: Radical Studios, Chernin Entertainment, Relativity Media, Ironhead Studios, Truenorth Productions
Distributors: Universal Pictures
Country: USA
Release Date: April 19, 2013

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More of that amazing aircraft.

One of Oblivion’s strengths is a narrative that constantly keeps you on your toes. For the benefit of my readers, I’ll keep this review as spoiler-free as possible. As can be surmised from the trailer, Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise, is one of the few remaining humans on Earth. His task, along with his lover and communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is to protect several giant devices that are mining the Earth of its remaining natural resources. These natural resources are being sent to Saturn’s moon Titan, where the remaining human population resides. It’s the year 2077, 60 years after an alien invasion by the scavs (scavengers). The scavs destroyed the moon, which then altered the Earth’s gravitational pull, causing massive natural disasters and the loss of half the Earth’s population. Following the disasters, the scavs invaded, but were narrowly defeated by humanity. Pockets of scavs still roam the Earth, which is why Jack and Victoria remain behind to keep watch. Flying attack drones patrol the planet, thwarting any would-be threats to the resource extraction. Floating above the Earth’s atmosphere is a massive structure called the Tet, which acts as a mission control; feeding daily instructions to Jack and Victoria. As we see in the trailer, Jack discovers that a mysterious group of humans still reside on Earth, and things are not what they seem. “Things are not what they seem” is an effective descriptor of Oblivion’s screenplay. Although I’ve refrained from giving away any details, the later revelations are one the movies biggest selling points.

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One of the mystery humans. Gotta love that mask.

As with TRON: Legacy, Oblivion is a beautiful movie to look at. Expect never-ending panoramas of pristine vistas, à la Lord of The Rings. I’d love to see which of the two spent more money on helicopter rentals. Most of the movie was shot in Iceland; the environments are impressive enough that I can’t imagine a better travel brochure. Apparently, Kochinski intentionally filmed most of the movie in bright daylight to the oppose the dark mood that is typical in sci-fi. I can safely say that this plan was a success, and that Kochinski manages to create an oppressive atmosphere even in plain daylight. In fact, the two main living spaces in Oblivion are almost obnoxiously open to sunlight.

Complimenting the cinematography, the costume, environment, and mechanical designs are excellent. Thanks in part to modern video game concept design (Mass Effect, please stand up), sci-fi concepts in film have gotten considerably better in the last five or so years. In particular, the Tet and resource harvesters look like they’re pulled from the pages of Mass: The Art of John Harris. They’d fit right in on the cover of even the hardest of hard sci-fi novels. Jack and Victoria’s clothing, equipment and living spaces have a light, clean design (think 2001: A Space Odyssey), whereas the mystery humans wear dark, rugged clothing and harsh respirator masks (think Mad Max). Finally, my favorite piece of design is the small, personal aircraft that Jack pilots. For me, the most memorable scene in the trailer was the one in which we saw the aircraft in free-fall. As a space shooter fan, my immediate reaction was: “damn, that would make a great ship for the next Cave shmup!”

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The massive resource gatherers in the distance. This is a great shot.

Complimenting the sexy visuals is the equally sexy soundtrack. Throughout the entire movie, I couldn’t stop asking myself: “was this also done by Daft Punk“? For anyone who liked Daft Punk’s soundtrack for TRON: Legacy, Oblivion’s is so similar that I had difficulty distinguishing the difference. Expect plenty of synth melodies interspersed with “epic” orchestral sections. After some quick research, I discovered that French group M83 was responsible for Oblivion‘s soundtrack. This name should instantly ring bells for any electronic music fans, and to be honest, I think their ambient sound is probably better suited to film than a group who are known for catchy dance tracks. My biggest complaint with the soundtrack is that it often overwhelms each scene. For example, a simple scene involving Jack and Victoria swimming in a pool has to be accompanied by sweeping camera angles and music so epic it would put Braveheart to shame. Kosinski is so good at drenching viewers in style that he seems unable to tone it down, even when it’s completely unnecessary. The first 30 minutes of the movie involve Jack performing fairly mundane tasks to a never-ending background of larger than life music.

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The monolithic Tet.

The performances in Oblivion are all top-notch. Regardless of your feelings on Tom Cruise’s personal life, he’s a really solid actor, and his portrayal of Jack is suitably empathy-invoking. Actress Andrea Riseborough, who I must admit I’d never heard of, provided my favorite performance of the movie in her role as Jack’s partner Victoria. Her character nature is such that you’re never quite certain of her motives, but she seems so likable that you feel guilty for doubting her. Without delving into spoiler territory, a second female character is introduced (Olga Kurylenko), and creates something of a love triangle. The two are so likable and respectable that I kept thinking: “Jack for chrissakes, please keep both of them with you, I don’t want either of them to get less screen time”. Both are great examples of strong female characters, which I’m always really happy to see in any movie. Finally, Morgan Freeman makes a minor appearance as, well, himself. Morgan Freeman is great, and we all love him, but I always suspect that one day we’ll find out that every movie he’s ever appeared in is canonically related, given that he plays the same character in each one.

Oblivion -- Tom Cruise 2

Unintentional base-jumping.

My biggest criticism with Oblivion is that the storyline wraps up way too cleanly. Nothing is left unexplained, which is a shame because, as viewers, we’re not encouraged to formulate any of our own conclusions. In my opinion, the best cerebral sci-fi movies leave enough clues that the storyline may be surmised, without explaining every last detail. In Oblivion, you’re explicitly told what’s going on long after you’ve already figure it out on your own. Furthermore, as a result of creating a clean and tidy ending, the last third of Oblivion feels way too rushed, and relies on an implausible plot device to reach a conclusion. I wish I could explain exactly why the ending wasn’t plausible, but sadly I’d be forced to wade into spoiler waters.

Overall, Oblivion is a really decent movie, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to literally anyone. The nice thing about sci-fi movies, as opposed to books, comics, and video games, is that everyone goes to see them, even your mom. Although Oblivion has its flaws, I doubt they’d prevent anyone from having a fun movie experience. As for us sci-fi fans, this is definitely a must-see, but unfortunately it comes oh-so-close, but just slightly out of reach of true classic status. You will have seen every story concept elsewhere, but to its credit, Oblivion repackages them in a nice chocolate coating.

 

 

Dead Space 3 is just over a week from release, and rather than playing the demo, I’m busy exploring its intricate backstory. To cut to the chase, today’s offering is the second animated film, Dead Space: Aftermath. Rather than bore you a second time with the various reasons that I love this series, I figure I’ll just jump right in, so to speak.

Dead Space Aftermath Cover

I love this cover.

Dead Space: Aftermath
Director: Mike Disa
Producer: Joe Goyette
Studios: Film Roman, Starz Media, Pumpkin Studio
Distributors: Electronic Arts, Manga Entertainment
Country: USA
Release Date: January, 2011

Dead Space: Aftermath was released in January of 2011 to coincide with the release of Dead Space 2. I distinctly remember seeing it on store shelves in the cold winter months of 2011. The packaging is really attractive, so I remember being instantly interested. For whatever reason, I chose not to buy the movie until recently. I seem to remember that it had a fairly high price point, so as I’ll soon explain, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t purchase it at its original cost.

Dead Space Aftermath 2

The remains of Aegis VII.

Set in the year 2509, Aftermath takes place one year after the Ishimura incident, and two years before the events of Dead Space 2. That places it firmly in prequel territory, which is funny, because nearly every media tie-in with Dead Space is advertised as a prequel. There are considerably more DS prequels on store shelves than products that advance the story forward. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but lets just hope you like Aegis VII and the Ishimura, because the creative heads in charge of the series sure do.

Dead Space Aftermath 3

Ubiquitous marker-induced psychosis.

As you may remember, the events of the first DS ended with Isaac returning the red marker to the surface of Aegis VII, which in turn disrupted the gravity tethers that had been holding the planet together. Isaac then killed the main necromorph baddie, and escaped the destruction of Aegis VII on a shuttle craft. One year later, the USG O’Bannon (likely a reference to Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter of Alien) is sent by the CEC (a mining corporation) to investigate. It should be no surprise that the crew of the O’Bannon is sent under false pretenses, and that the CEC, in combination with EarthGov, is merely interested in monitoring the effects of the marker on hapless humans. It turns out Aegis VII wasn’t totally destroyed by Isaac, so the investigation team are able to navigate the surface of the planet, albeit with some difficulty. As expected, the crew encounter a fragment of the marker, they bring it on board the O’Bannon, and all hell breaks loose.

Dead Space Aftermath 15

Yes, Aftermath has nudity.

Aftermath is told from the perspective of the four crew members of the O’Bannon who survive the introduction of the marker fragment to the ship. An EarthGov ship intercepts the O’Bannon, retrieves the four survivors, and brings them to the Sprawl, which you may remember as the location of DS2. En route to the Sprawl, each survivor is individually interrogated; each one telling a portion of the events that lead to the deaths of the O’Bannon’s crew. Circa 2013, flashbacks aren’t an entirely unique storytelling device, but in Aftermath they add some flavor to what would otherwise have been a standard linear narrative. Unfortunately, the creators decided to take the flashbacks one step further…

Dead Space Aftermath 6

Are all those glowing lights really necessary?

Aftermath is a mess of movie, thanks to the decision to use five different animation styles, one for the present day events, and one for each of the four flashbacks. I can’t emphasize how badly this decision ruins the movie. Although it’s difficult to find the specific details, it seems that Film Roman contracted the animation to five different Korean studios. By far the worst offender of the five, the present day events are animated in some of the worst CG I’ve seen this side of the 90’s. To put it bluntly, the CG looks like total crap. Remember the show Reboot from the late 90’s? The CG in Aftermath quite literally looks worse. In all seriousness, I compared still frames from the two, and Aftermath loses. There’s almost no texture on each surface, and the environments are as clean, sparsely detailed, and lifeless as that guy’s apartment from the last short in the movie Creepshow. When I first started Aftermath, I didn’t realize the CG would transition into conventional 2D animation; had it stayed CG the entire time, I may well have stopped the film.The CG is so awful that I’m hesitant to even include any images of it on this blog…

Dead Space Aftermath 4

The CG… I captured the least offensive looking screen possible.

Thankfully, the CG eventually ends, and gives way to some pretty decent 2D animation. Had the entire movie been done in 2d, I would have a much higher opinion of it. EA would have been wise to scrap the CG and start fresh. They have a reputation for sacrificing quality for the sake of making an extra dollar, and I can only imagine that’s what happened in this case. Sorry to bring up the example of Halo a second time, but the comparison is apt. Frank O’Connor, the man in charge of maininting the consistency of Halo‘s creative image, explained in the Halo Graphic Novel‘s forward that they waited until they had the perfect team before crafting a Halo comic. EA on the other hand, a company who can financially afford to handle their properties properly, seem content to shovel money at the cheapest options available. There are hentai studios that release better looking CG, not that I would know…

Dead Space Aftermath 12

The animation from the last 2D section looks incredible.

Returning back to the animation, the four 2d segments all look great, with the possible exception of the fourth. The backgrounds are detailed, the character models are nicely proportioned, the movement is fluid, and the angles are dynamic and interesting. Each one is superior looking to the animation from Dead Space: Downfall. The third 2D section, in particular, is beautiful. The style is fantastic, and the animation is as kinetic as any of Japan’s best offerings. I wish so badly that the entire movie had been done in this style. Had this been the case, we wouldn’t have to deal with the jarring differences in animation. To add weight to my statement that the movie is a mess, each character looks completely different in each of the five sections. Different to the point of skin color changes.

Dead Space Aftermath 7

More incredible animation from the last 2D section.

Aftermath‘s story is fairly interesting, and does a nice job of tying off a few loose ends between the events of DS1 and DS2. Like Downfall, nothing particularly important is added to the cannon, but we do learn a few new interesting details. For one, I was never very clear on how exactly the markers turn humans into necromorphs. Downfall explains fairly explicitely that the markers reanimate dead tissues. Necromorphs then spread the infection to other humans as they rack up kills. This still doesn’t explain the necromoph variations, but perhaps those questions have been answered elsewhere in the fiction. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no DS expert. Another addition to the cannon is that we learn Nolan Stross’ backstory. Apparently there was a time when he wasn’t a raving lunatic. Finally, we’re introduced firsthand to EarthGov’s “Overseer” (the chief of the marker conspiracy), who to the best of my knowledge has never appeared directly in the games. Perhaps my biggest issue with the plot of Aftermath is that the necromorphs are introduced fairly late, and only get about ten minutes of screen time. Then again, this serves to emphasize that the humans are the true evil; an idea which is explored every time EarthGov appears.

Dead Space Aftermath 10

Every good sci-fi horror needs some tentacle action.

Once again, the voice acting is quite good, other than one of the characters who can’t seem to stop awkwardly dropping the f-bomb. If you’re familiar with TV actors and voice actors, you’ll likely recognize the cast. Personally I’m not, so I won’t waste your time by pretending I’m knowledgeable. All things considered, the only strong detractor from Aftermath are the offputting animation changes and z-grade CG; other than that, it’s pretty watchable. The story isn’t excellent, nor does it add significantly to the cannon, but it’s pretty good. To summarize, I would only really recommend this to the most die-hard Dead Space fans, everyone else will probably turn it off after seeing the CG. To any non-DS fans, this Aftermath a pretty tough sell, even if you’re into sci-fi horror.

The Dead Space 3 hype train will continue in the next post. As a small hint, I have a certain comic in my apartment. Here’s to hoping that it will be less mediocre than the movies. As always, please check out the facebook page, I’ve been posting lots of DS news.

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of my favorite images from Dead Space: Downfall

Dead Space 3 is a mere two weeks away, so I thought it would be appropriate to count the days by writing several Dead Space related posts. Along with Doom, Half-Life, and perhaps Bioshock, Dead Space is easily one of the best sci-fi horror video game series of all time. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it is the best. The aforementioned series might be more critically claimed, but Dead Space is the most pure of the lot. Equal parts Aliens and Event Horizon, DS nails the atmosphere that we’ve come to expect from pure sci-fi horror. Space stations, grotesque aliens/monsters, demonic possession, futuristic weaponry; DS delivers on all fronts. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a really design-oriented guy. With that in mind, I’d probably be fairly happy playing DS even it played terribly — the design is that good. Thankfully, the gameplay is equally satisfying. DS took the standard 3rd person shooter formula, and added an extra layer of depth with the inclusion of strategic dismemberment. In most other shooters, players are encouraged to aim for the head or chest for maximum damage. In DS, survival is heavily dependent on pinpointing various enemy body parts. Shooting an enemy in the legs renders them immobile, whereas shooting them in the arms decreases their potential to do harm. Anyways, I’m sure you’re all well aware of this. DS is an excellent series, ’nuff said.

2008 was the year of the dismembered hand.

2008 was the year of the dismembered hand.

Dead Space: Downfall
Director: Chuck Patton
Producers: Joe Goyette, Robert Weaver
Studio: Film Roman
Distributors: Electronic Arts, Manga Entertainment, Anchor Bay Entertainment
Country: USA
Release Date: October, 2008

Released as a tie-in with the original DS, Dead Space: Downfall is an animated movie that tells the events that occurred prior to the start of the game. In DS, the protagonist, Isaac Clarke, arrives on the mining ship USG Ishimura to discover that all hell has broken loose. In Downfall, we witness how all hell broke loose. Fun fact: Isaac Clarke was named after Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. It’s nice to see that DS was written/designed by people who have respect for classic sci-fi. I doubt the same can be said for most modern game designers, although I’d love to be proven wrong.

The marker: much more evil than it looks.

The marker: much more evil than it looks.

Before getting into the real nitty-gritty of the film, I have to address the elephant in the closet. Downfall was animated by a studio called Film Roman. Film Roman is an American animation studio, through and through. Their major claims to fame are for shows like The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, and many other American cartoons that you’ve inevitably heard of. Why EA decided to contract a Dead Space movie to these guys is totally beyond me. The most mature properties in their repertoire previous to Downfall were Hellboy Animated and X-Men Evolution. These are hardly on the same dark level as something like Dead Space. Downfall isn’t awful looking by any means, but I can’t help but think it could have looked much better. When it came time for Halo to explore the world of animation, 343 Industries made the wise decision to enlist several Japanese studios that had proven experience with hardcore subject matter. If I were in charge of the Dead Space property, I’d have done the same. In fact, previous to seeing Downfall, I totally assumed it was an anime. Again, the animation in Downfall is competent, but I’m sure it could have been so much more. Perhaps the biggest problem is that you feel as if you’re watching a Saturday morning cartoon, but with incredibly disturbing content. It’s a really strange mix. Personally I’m still able to enjoy the movie, but the same probably can’t be said of all DS fans. A friend of mine who’s a big DS fan owns both movies, but can’t get over the visual style. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, the images in this post should probably give you a suitable impression of how you’ll feel about the style.

The crew.

The crew.

As I mentioned earlier, Downfall serves as a prequel to the first game. In the year 2508, the mining ship USG Ishimura is busy performing a “planet cracking” (mining) operation on the planet Aegis VII. Colonists on the planet have discovered a large relic known as a “marker”. A religious cult called “Unitology” bases a large portion of their beliefs around these markers. It is soon revealed that the Ishimura was sent by the Church of Unitology with the express purpose of retrieving the marker and returning it to Earth. After the marker is brought on board the ship, strange occurrences start taking place on Aegis VII. Violence and murder spreads among the colonists who live on the planet’s surface. By the time the crew of the Ishimura respond, it’s too late. The colonists are all dead, and the “virus” has started to spread to the ship. This virus takes the form of ex-human creatures called necromorphs that kill everything in their path. The remainder of the movie is centered on Alissa Vincent, head of security on the Ishimura, and her security crew, as they attempt to eliminate the foreign menace from the ship.

The cure for a headache.

The cure for a headache.

The plot is actually pretty decent, and more comprehensible than your average anime. Although the crew mainly serve as fodder for the necromorphs, they’re actually fairly distinct. The creators did a good job of somehow making one-dimensional characters somewhat memorable. Don’t expect much character development from DS; once the action starts (early on), it doesn’t slow down for the remainder of the movie. If action doesn’t get you wet, steer clear of this movie. To the studio’s credit, they did a fantastic job of animating the action scenes. The choreography is good, and every kill has weight. Speaking of kills, this movie delivers them by the boatload. This is possibly the most violent animated movie I’ve ever seen, and that’s including Koichi Ohata’s entire repertoire. The blood and gore literally never stop flowing. It’s as if Film Roman spent the last twenty years repressing their desire to animate gore, and were only finally given the opportunity to act out their desires. This probably isn’t far from the truth, because judging by their resume it looks as if this was their first R-rated production. The dismemberment is rampant. In one scene, one of the crew members, who we’re meant to identify with, is slowly carved in two by another crew member. Intense.

Let's just be glad these things aren't real.

Let’s just be glad these things aren’t real.

The voice acting is extremely solid. So solid that I barely remembered to mention it. None of the voice actors’ names stand out to me, but they all seem to be veterans of animation. The solid voice acting makes it easier to identify with the characters. As I said earlier, the characters are actually fairly memorable, thanks in no small part to the cast.

Dead Space fans will appreciate the references to the original game. Although you could easily enjoy this without having played the game, there are some nice little occasional nods. For example, the incident between Dr. Terrence Kyne and the ship’s captain is explored in full detail. In addition, fans will recognize the locations from the game. Specifically, the medical hall, bridge, and hydroponics facilities are all featured prominently. That being said, not everything is covered faithfully. For example, the plasma cutter is wielded as a sort of lightsaber rather than as a weapon that fires rounds from a distance. This creative liberty is actually pretty fun in the movie, because the protagonists get to slice the enemies apart.

Some healthy gore.

Some healthy gore.

So, now for a verdict. Dead Space: Downfall is a fun little side diversion in the DS universe. Although it tells a nice compact narrative, it adds very little to the overall fiction. Nearly everything that’s covered is explained at some point in the original game. Furthermore, the visuals aren’t nearly as stylish as in the game, which is a big shame. Should you avoid the movie because of its mediocre visuals? Definitely not. The animation is actually pretty good, it’s just the style that’s a little off-putting. If you’re looking for a shallow, hyper violent extension to the DS universe, Downfall should serve you nicely. Luckily it doesn’t drag, so you should be entertained from start to finish.

And with that, I’m done my first post in the Dead Space 3 hype train. Expect to see more soon! If there’s anything Dead Space-related that you’d like to see covered, please shoot me a message on the facebook page. I’m always super excited to hear your feedback!

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of my favorite images from Dead Space: Downfall

Forbidden World (1982)

Forbidden World (1982) — Very reminiscent of Harry Dean Stanton’s solo scene in Alien

As I’ve stated several times on this blog, I’m a pretty big Alien fan. As far as movie franchises go, the Alien universe is fairly expansive, meaning that the various spin-off comics, books, toys, and video games will keep you entertained for a while. However, I’m someone who loves to explore a franchise’s entire sphere of influence. For example, I can’t watch just one cyberpunk anime whithout wanting to know everything about cyberpunk anime. In practice, this almost never pans out; I start out with the loftiest of intentions, but then I quickly burn out or lose interest. Nevertheless, this desire to consume everything has led me on a journey into the darkest depths of Alien‘s influence.

Inseminoid (1982)

Inseminoid (1982) — The perfect atmosphere

Although there are a number of  movies that ripped off Alien, there was really only one that was even remotely as influential: John Carpenter’s The Thing. Even then, The Thing only became a cult hit way after its cinematic release, whereas Alien was instantly popular. Every other imitator falls strongly into the B-grade of cinema history. I don’t mean that in a demeaning way; as you will soon see, I love many of the imitators, but they were almost all made on incredibly limited budgets. Also, just as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I use the term rip-off in the kindest way possible. I have nothing against rip-offs; I’ll take any half-decent Alien clone over most other movies anyday.

The Terror Within (1989)

The Terror Within (1989) — Seconds before chestbursting

So, which ingredients are necessary to brew an Alien rip-off? First, you need a tightly confined or secluded space; usually this is a ship or a space station, but contemporary settings like submarines or military bunkers are also appropriate. Second, a sci-fi setting is ideal, but not necessary. Although the obvious imitators take place in a futuristic setting, plenty of Alien clones are set in the present day. Next, you need one or more creatures that slowly pick off a human contingent one-by-one. Best case scenario, the creature is an alien; even better case scenario: an alien that looks like a xenomorph. That being said, mutants, robots, infected organisms, and the like are all equally acceptable. Continuing onwards, the human prey is usually composed of a small crew. We’re not talking large scale alien invasion here; the smaller the crew, the more we sympathize with them before they die (and the cheaper the budget). Finally, the keenest imitators replicate the chestbursting element. Nothing screams Alien harder than alien impregnation. Again, this element is reserved for only the most die hard clones.

To recap, Alien rip-offs usually contain the following elements, which I’ve ranked in terms of importance:

  1. Tighly confined or secluded space
  2. One or more creatures that kill humans one-by-one
  3. Small cast of humans
  4. Science fiction setting
  5. Chestbursting
Galaxy of Terror (1981)

Galaxy of Terror (1981) — One of my favorite locales in any sci-fi horror movie

Now that I’ve set the ground rules, I plan for this series to be the definitive source for Alien rip-offs. Several blog posts and forum threads have been dedicated to this topic, but they’re either limited in scope, or consist of lists that don’t delve into any details. Through intense scientific research using only the most peer-reviewed sources, I’ve compiled my own personal list of over thirty movies that I plan to cover. I’ll admit, I’ve only seen roughly half these movies, so this series is a strong incentive for me to actually watch the other half. It goes without saying that I’ll only cover movies that I’ve actually watched (duh). Also, I’d like the coverage to be done in a somewhat chronological fashion, with approximately five movies covered per post. I’m pretty excited, so you should be too! If you have any suggestions for this series, please contact me at the Xenomorphosis facebook page, or by email at xenomorphosis@gmail.com.

Dead Space (1990)

Dead Space (1990) — The hydralisk’s long-lost brother