Monday, June 27, 2016


Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight June 27, 2016

I will admit I went into INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (2016) with minimal expectations. I’d seen the first trailer and didn’t care much for it. There’s a Catch-22 around one’s expectations, however: I had hoped, since my expectation was low, the sequel to the blockbuster movie INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) would actually knock my socks off. Having hoped for that, I was really going in with high expectations… on and on in an infinite loop of verbose point-making that just won’t end. So let’s just stop and begin again.

The original INDEPENDENCE DAY was exciting and visually-stunning, not to mention a well-acted and cleverly-written disaster movie. That’s a lotof hyphenated words, which indicates I enjoyed it. I didn’t love it, mind you, but it was a fun two-hour thrill ride. Back then, it felt like watching a TV-movie blessed with a massive budget, as most of the cast were culled from television shows (something not normally done in that day). If you’re reading this and wondering what a “TV-movie” is, ask your parents.

The appeal of the original was the blending of modern-day warfare with high-tech science fiction. How would everyday people, soldiers, and politicians deal with an attack from outer space from technologically-advance aliens? The filmmakers did a good job with it, using the device of stolen technology from the mysterious Area 51 as a deux ex machina to defeat the bugs.

(Yes, I probably used deus ex machina incorrectly in this context, but so what? I still used it, which makes me cool, in a pretentious, literary way.)

ID: RESURGENCE (I hope you appreciate how hard it is to spell “resurgence”), on the other hand, is all science fiction. In fact, it goes a little beyond that and just skirts being a live-action anime film. I half-expected the fighter pilots to climb aboard giant, fighting robots (they didn’t, but I said it only skirts the edge). The film takes place in modern day, 2016, twenty years after the devastating attacks of the first film. Humanity has rebuilt civilization. More than rebuilt, in fact, since now everyone has access to the invaders’ technology. Everything is updated, though mostly militarily. Instead of helicopters, we have quasi-spaceships that hover and fly across the world via fusion engines (with lots of bright, blue lights). There is a base on the moon, and even an early warning outpost orbiting Saturn!

Humanity has come a long way in two decades. At least the military has. Most average people still drive cars and school buses. Aside from being able to pick apart and recreate the alien tech left behind after the mother ship went boom after the last attack, this scenario is plausible for another reason: every country has banded together, forgetting their ideological differences, working as one race to rebuild the planet’s infrastructure. At the same time they have are constantly preparing for the next invasion, if one should ever come. The base on the moon is used for controlling an array of laser cannons. We never see the outpost around Saturn, though it is soon destroyed by the aliens as they close in on Earth.

Earth’s technological leap makes sense, and is a logical progression from the previous movie. What it causes, however, is the removal of a significant element in the previous movie: humans surviving MacGyver-like against an advanced race. 
Granted, when the aliens finally show up, it’s in a whopper of a ship, three thousand miles across, reaching from the east coast of the US to the west coast of Europe. Their technology has not advanced much compared to when they first attacked, and this gives humans a better fighting chance. But this is a Queen’s ship, and she’s one smart cookie. And did I mention the ship was three-thousand miles wide?
Most of the original cast of INDEPENDENCE DAY returns for RESURGENCE, twenty years older but no less entertaining. Bill Pullman (SPACE BALLS, 1987, AMERICAN ULTRA, 2015) plays the retired, somewhat twitchy former President Whitmore; stuttering, mumbly Jeff Goldblum (JURRASIC PARK, 1993, THE FLY, 1986) is scientist David Levinson (who, we learn, has been in charge of building Earth’s defenses); Judd Hirsch (TAXI and NUMB3RS television series) is still kicking as David’s father, Julius Levinson. Brent Spiner (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION television series), as Dr. Brakish Okun, wakes up from a twenty-year coma as the new ship comes into range. We’re also given a brief cameo by an older, but no less elegant, Vivica A. Fox (KILL BILL VOLUME 1 & 2, 2003/2004) as Jasmine Hiller, the exotic dancer who saves the first lady in ID1, and whose husband was played by then break-out star Will Smith. Smith is not in ID2, unfortunately. To deal with his absence, the writers had his character die years earlier during a test flight, leaving behind Jasmine and their son Dylan.
Dylan has grown to be the head of an elite group of young fighter pilots. The planes look a lot like our current jets, except they go a lot faster, shoot lasers, and can go into space. They didn’t combine together to form a massive robot lion, but that might have gotten left on the cutting room floor. Jessie T. Usher (WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL, 2014) plays Dylan, albeit it a little stiffly, as if the young actor isn’t quite comfortable in the role.
Liam Hemsworth (THE HUNGER GAMES, 2012, THE EXPENDABLES 2, 2012), however, shines as Dylan’s rival and hot dog pilot Jake Morrison. Jake happens to be engaged to ex-president Whitmore’s daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe, IT FOLLOWS, 2014). The super jet team is rounded out by Chinese flying ace Rain Lao, played by askance-glancing Asian actress Angelababy (HITMAN: AGENT 47, 2015). Not a typo. It’s the name she uses, and Jake’s buddy Floyd (Nicolas Wright), who nearly kills them all a couple of times, yet is still considered one of the elite.
There’s a decent mix of new and old blood in the movie. For fans of the first, Bill Pullman’s haunted President Whitmore is a treat. He (and many more humans across the globe) had made a psychic connection with the aliens twenty years ago, causing serious psychological strife. With the monster ship approaching, his nightmares are growing worse. In truth, they’re not nightmares at all, but a link to arriving alien queen. This post-psychic anxiety has actually become a psychological phenomenon, studied by the likes of David Levinson’s former girlfriend and science buddy Catherine (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Yes. There are a lot of characters in this movie. A bit too many, in fact, each with their own backstory. Like the original film, the script juggles six or seven of these subplots beneath the overarching premise of earth being attacked. The difference here is that none have any real meat to them. Judd Hirsch’s character, after almost dying on his boat when the alien ship lands, spends the rest of the movie driving a bunch of orphaned children around, arriving at Area 51 just in time for the climactic battle. His story adds a bit of humanity to an otherwise shooty-up space story, which I did appreciate, but not much else. It felt inserted into the film instead being a natural part of it. I’ve always loved Hirsch, though, so that’s okay. None of the others had much more depth than his storyline, anyway. 
Dylan is angry at Jake for nearly killing him in a training exercise years before (considering his father was killed that way, you can’t blame him).  Young Patricia Whitmore misses her fiancĂ©, Jake, and they need to pick out a house to buy before the wedding. (Honestly, that’s their subplot.) Current President Lanford (Sela Ward, GONE GIRL, 2014, and the CSI: NEW YORK television series) makes a couple of speeches, but doesn’t do much else, so overshadowed is she by ex-president Whitmore’s legacy. One other newcomer, who I thought was actually in the original but wasn’t, is William “No One Has Ever Spelled My Last Name Right” Fichtner (THE DARK KNIGHT, 2008, CONTACT, 1997) as General Adams. The military leader contends with a hodge-podge of scientists and soldiers all trying to save the world. In the end, no one had enough screentime to flesh their characters out as much as they should have.
The strongest performances are from Pullman, as President Whitmore, and Hemsworth’s cocky flyboy Jake Morrison. Pullman and Hemsworth are the stars of the film, and I admit it was fun watching the latter actor in a more smiley, active role after the eternally-pouty Gale in the HUNGER GAMESseries. He finally gets to smile in a film almost as much as his brother Chris (aka Thor in the Marvel movies).
INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is not going to be up for a Best Picture Oscar. It’s less David and Goliath than its predecessor, and the bulk of the individual storylines are thin. So, is it worth forking out 30 bucks a person for a night at the movies instead of waiting for its streaming release?
Well, depends if you have a home theater system. Visually, this has some cool scenes. Before the Queen ship arrives, there’s an eerie appearance of another craft, materializing through some kind of wormhole (this is never explained, however) above the moon. The giant alien ship which arrives soon after is impressive. Because of its size, it not only wreaks havoc with the moon as it passes almost through it, but has its own gravitational pull that drags up half of China as it comes in for a landing on top of the Atlantic Ocean—one set of feet in Europe and another in the United States.
This was interesting, but I’ll admit to being a little confused about what I was seeing from time to time. It’s so big, I had difficulty figuring out what was happening. The film did have the requisite monster waves, boats rolling around, and cities destroyed. Everything you’d expect in a Roland Emmerich film. You’ll see dog fights with aliens and other stuff which I’ll won’t discuss to avoid spoilers. Visually, you will have gotten your money’s worth. If you went to a matinee and had a coupon for the popcorn.
As an aside, I occasionally give a film nods for musical score. In this case I noticed the music, composed by Emmerich-alums Harold Kloser (2012, 2009, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, 2004) and Thomas Wander. Problem is, I noticed it in an intrusive way. The score was not nearly as pervasive as, John Williams’s score in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2005) which just wouldn’t take a break, but it was close. Sometimes you can relegate it to the back of your mind, but sometimes it’s just a bit much.
Again, I could talk about other parts of the film, good and bad, but that would require some spoilers and, to be honest, I’m out of time. We’ve reached the end. Without giving anything away, the last few lines open up the possibility that INDEPENDENCE DAY might just become a trilogy. RESURGENCEwraps up its story nicely (if not a little silly-ly), but it opens the door a crack for yet another sequel. I doubt it will happen, but if it does, expect a full-fledge space opera.
That’s the key to getting the most out of INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. Don’t expect the innocence of the first, but a film with both feet and a couple of tentacles in the science fiction genre. If you set your expectation properly, you might enjoy it more than I did. Or decide to wait for the video, if straight sci-fi isn’t your bag. For me, I give it two knives. (Two and a Half if someone buys your ticket and chips in for popcorn).

Friday, June 10, 2016

I ORIGINS (2015)

I ORIGINS i origins (2015) I ORIGINS (2015) I ORIGINSOriginally published in Cinema Knife Fight June 10, 2016

Not too long ago, I discovered a gem of an independent science fiction film called ANOTHER EARTH (2011), written and directed by Mike Cahill; produced and co-written by the film’s lead, Brit Marling. See my review here. When a new work by Cahill was released, I ORIGINS (2014), it immediately went on my radar to watch and review. Finally, here it is.

Does I ORIGINS live up to its predecessor? No, not really. It’s an interesting little film, just not nearly as gripping in plot and characters as ANOTHER EARTH. In fact, as I explain below, it is a movie with profound, but largely unexplored, potential.

Michael Pitt (SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, 2012) plays Ian Gray, a graduate student researching the evolutionary development of the eye. Every animal’s (including human’s) eye pattern is unique within a billion-to-one ratio (something like that, I never wrote down the specific number), much more than fingerprints. Ian is obsessed with eyes, taking pictures of them whenever he can. It’s a hobby and clinical obsession with which he slowly builds a database of unique eye patterns.

Some say the eye is the window to the soul. Ian doesn’t believe in a soul, and hopes his research will prove him right. His subjects range from mice to blind, single cell organisms, used to uncover the evolution of this starkly unique physical trait. More than scientific curiosity, Ian wants to disprove the idea of an intelligent designer. There is no God, or higher intelligence controlling the universe. Everything happens by chance, every trait and physical characteristic a random turn in evolution.

Why he feels the need to disprove anything is never said, not specifically, except that as random as it can be (genetically-speaking), life should always be viewed rationally. And to him, the concept of an outside intelligence guiding events around us is as far from rational as one can get.

Pitt plays the role with a sullen, brooding manner which fits the character. Ian is a socially reclusive (for the most part), opinionated, and highly intelligent scientist with a strong sense of what is the right way to see the world. He has little patience for anyone who thinks differently. Pitt does well with the character, and has a decent presence on the screen, but Ian is not a very likeable—or relatable—person, so we never have much of a connection to him as a viewer.

After meeting, then losing, a woman he makes a strong connection at a party, Ian finds her again weeks later when a seemingly deliberate series of events around the number “11” lead him to her. Sofi (played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey—PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, 2011) is his polar opposite: physically, emotionally and spiritually. She moves through life nurturing a strong spiritual sense of everything around her. They were destined to be together, she explains, implying they may have been together in previous lifetimes. Ian rebukes this idea. In fact, any time the subject of a supernatural influence arises in conversation, he gets defensive, even condescending in his reply. Still, she patiently explains that his moment will come when he is face-to-face with something bigger than him, on a spiritual level, and Ian will need to decide whether (or not) to accept it.

Berges-Frisbey portrays the best character in this film, full of life and comfortable in her own skin. She adds much-needed light to the otherwise routine existences of the other characters. A third significant character, who is quite opposite of Sophie, and so much more like Ian, is Ian’s lab assistant Karen, played by Brit Marling (who, as I’ve mentioned, was the lead in ANOTHER EARTH). Along with being able to keep up with—and sometimes exceed—Ian’s brilliant mind, Karen is very much attracted to him.

When Sofi dies in a rather clever, and coolly grotesque, manner midway through the film, I ORIGINS gets a much needed boost of, well, something interesting. Until this point, the only scenes which felt to be moving the plot along at a decent rate were whenever Sofi was on-screen. Her death adds a bump to everything that came before, giving the viewer a chance to be shocked and think, Oh, ok, here we go, things will happen now. In this scene, Pitt shines as Ian, who holds his new wife’s bloody body in his arms.

When the story cuts ahead seven years, Ian and Karen have married and have a new baby. His research is complete and has made them both famous—at least in some circles. He’s also infamous as a scientist using his work to disprove God.

Here, more than anywhere else, I ORIGINS had a choice in what direction to take, and chose wrong. I won’t rehash any more plot except to say that a call from a doctor about some tests on their new child sets Ian and Karen on a journey to discover if perhaps the idea of eyes being windows to souls has some merit. Ian starts this journey wanting to believe, for personal reasons, while at the same time keeping himself as far away from the precipice of life re-evaluation as possible. Until, at one point, he is pushed (metaphorically speaking) over the edge.

The second half of the film is more interesting, with varied locations and storylines. This, from the introduction of some strong (and potentially strong) new characters. Especially Archie Panjabi’s (THE GOOD WIFE TV Series and BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, 2002) Priya Varma, whom Ian encounters in India while trying to locate someone with a specific eye pattern. (I did mention I’ve stopped rehashing the plot, so just work with me here). Panjabi is always a strong presence in whatever she does. Here is no exception, even if she doesn’t have much to say in the way of deep dialogue.

On a lesser scale, Steven Yeun (Glenn from the TV series THE WALKING DEAD) has a minor role in the first half of the movie as Ian’s oft-drunk roommate, and less-efficient lab partner. I was excited to see Yeun in a role other than Glenn the zombie fighter, but his Kenny simply appears when a background character needs to be a sounding board for someone else. He doesn’t do much else.

Yeun, however, is not who I was referring to earlier when I mentioned the introduction of a “potentially strong” character.

William Mapother (the LOST TV series, as well as ANOTHER EARTH) introduces us to Darryl McKenzie late in the film, in a single scene. McKenzie is on business in India and staying at Ian’s hotel. He is also a preacher. This single scene brings with it such a quiet menace, I assumed Darryl would be back as a major foil to Ian’s New-Aged quest. He wasn’t. In fact, aside from standing in the distance at an elevator, forcing Ian to take the stairs in a key scene, the preacher man has no point in the film (aside from, perhaps, paying Mapother’s rent that month). This is too bad. As a character actor, William Mapother is awesome. He eats up the screen in his unique way wherever he appears, and could have injected this film with much-needed antagonism.

Herein lies the rub, if I may misquote the Bard. I’m one of those readers (and viewers) who sometimes wishes there was no bad guy, just people struggling and working through life without having to deal with an antagonist at every turn. But for a story meant to be entertaining, it needs something. The only battle Ian has throughout the film is with, well, Ian. It’s a Man versus Himself  narrative struggle, but I don’t think it’s enough. This might work in a quiet, romantic film about two elderly residents struggling with a decision to sell their Brooklyn apartment, but not in a plot where a scientist is trying to discover the meaning of life.

I ORIGINS needed more story than one man’s struggle to overcome his own viewpoint and admit that the universe might be more than the randomness of genetics. Though the ending does satisfy, in that Ian comes to a decision on that metaphorical precipice, to me the story is only just beginning. Much of this film could be condensed into a few scenes, to make room for Mapother’s preacher—was he there to kill Ian, or spy on him in order to preserve his own stubborn faith? When Ian leaves his hotel room just before the credits roll, what will his life be like? In the early moments of the film, Ian finds his lover Sofi initially through a series of coincidences and intuition, all centering around the number 11. Why 11, and what was causing this?

There was an extra scene after the credits rolled, which only exacerbates my problem with this movie—without giving things away, it opens up a whole new potential story, highlighting what could have been done before the credits.

Maybe I ORIGINS was intended as an introduction to a larger film series. Obviously there are budget and time restrictions, but if there is no forthcoming series of films, so many “what ifs” will never be answered. Of course, if a series does show itself, it runs the risk that the individual parts (films) of the whole are too thin.

As much as I hoped for more based on my enjoyment of his previous film, Cahill’s I ORIGINS stabbed me with only 2 knives. Even so, I’ll definitely check out his next. Who knows, maybe someday a director’s cut will be released with more Mapother and Yeun.