Friday, May 31, 2013

After Earth - 3 stars

Even though this movie is set in the future, it's basically a simple survival story.  Will Smith supposedly got the idea from watching a news story about a man and his son surviving after a plane crash. 

It's 1,000 years in the future.  Since we polluted the heck out of it, humans have left Earth and settled a new planet, Nova Prime.  Will Smith plays Cypher Raige, a respected colonel in the ranger corps, and his son is Kitai (Jaden Smith), a cadet who just failed to advance to the rangers.  The two are on a ship traveling through space when they hit an asteroid field.  They crash land on Earth, the rest of the crew is killed, the emergency beacon is damaged, and they have to go find the other emergency beacon.  The problem is it's in the tail, which is 100 kilometers away.  Oh, and the father's legs are broken, so the son will have to go do it by himself.

Kitai's space suit is equipped with cameras, so Cypher can stay on the ship and see everything his son sees.  This way he can warn him before any beasts attack.  He can also guide him to where he needs to go, and advise him when he runs into trouble.

Ok, problems with this movie.  First of all, the opening 20 minutes is badly written.  Every line of dialogue does nothing but further the plot.  No one has a conversation, and we don't learn anything about the characters except Cypher is a hard ass and Kitai wants to be a ranger.  The movie takes itself so seriously.  It's too on-the-nose and earnest, with overly dramatic music.  We have just met these characters, and the movie expects us to feel the drama.  Sorry, but I don't care about these characters until I get to know them a little.

Also, for some reason everyone speaks with this vague southern accent that's sometimes really hard to understand.  The movie opens with voiceover narration, and I thought Jaden Smith hadn't learned that actors are supposed to enunciate.  The accent kind of comes and goes, depending on the urgency of the scene. 

It's also very predictable.  You will see every threat coming a mile away, especially the showdown with the ursa, a dangerous creature that can smell fear. 

Despite all of that, I enjoyed the movie for what it was.  Once they crash and Kitai has to leave his father and the safety of the ship, I felt his fear.  Besides a survival story, it's also a coming of age story.  Kitai has to learn to be a man and not depend on his father to save him. 

There are some cool sci-fi ideas in this movie.  Their home planet's gravity is different than Earth, so Kitai says his body feels heavy.  Of course, the movie abandons this idea 30 seconds later, as Kitai is able to run and run without getting tired.  If gravity was that different, wouldn't walking exhaust him?  Oh well.  Also, oxygen is different than on their home planet, so he has to ingest some kind of liquid oxygen that coats his lungs.  They only last about 24 hours and he has just enough to make it to the tail section.

Just for fun, I have to point out a few things that bugged me.  Besides the video screens, Cypher also has a radar that shows Kitai as a green dot, and any other creatures as red dots.  He sees when a monkey is approaching his son.  He warns him that there is a life form 50 meters away and he has plenty of time to prepare.  But a minute later when 30 more monkeys show up, Cypher has no warning.  And why the hell does the eagle save Kitai?  That was just dumb. 

Also, Cypher tells Kitai that every creature is dangerous.  He says everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans.  So if there were a shorter route, wouldn't it make sense to suggest that route?  No, he has him set out on foot.  Then when his supply of oxygen packs run low, Kitai suddenly has the option of doing a sky jump.  He can jump off a cliff and his suit opens and becomes a glider.  This will cut a day or two off his trip.  Why not plan to go that way from the start?  Because it's too scary?  Isn't it more dangerous and frightening to walk through the dangerous forest days than to base jump? 

Even worse, when faced with the choice of jumping or returning to the ship, Cypher says to return to the ship.  He has already told Kitai that if he doesn't make it to the tail, then they will both die.  So rather than have his son do a sky jump, he is prepared to give up and let them both die.  That doesn't make sense.

Ok, enough about this movie.  I think I'm being generous giving it 3 stars, but I enjoyed it for what it was. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness - 3 stars

This is going to be a tough review to write.  There is a lot I can say about the new Star Trek movie, but I don't want to spoil the surprises.  The less you know about it going in, the more fun you will have.  Sometime next week I will post another review where I will get into more detail about what I liked and what I didn't like about it.  Despite my 3 star review, I had quite a few problems with the script.

In 2009's Star Trek, we were introduced to the new crew.  J. J. Abrams rebooted the franchise, but using time travel he was able to say this story takes place in the same universe as the original Star Trek, just in a different timeline.  This gives him license to write his own stories without worrying about official Star Trek cannon.  He can have characters do whatever he wants and tell whatever stories he wants.  So why did he have to go and ... no, not going to get into that now.

The movie begins with Kirk and McCoy running from some kind of tribal natives.  Kirk stole something from their temple, and the natives are throwing spears at them (very reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark).  Why did Kirk steal their sacred artifact?  We aren't told, and he ends up leaving it behind to distract the natives.  Kirk and McCoy end up jumping off a cliff into the ocean, which works fine because the laws of physics don't apply when the script demands it.  Sorry, but I'm getting tired of movies that have the hero jump off a cliff or a bridge (Skyfall) and just because they land in water, they survive.  No, if you fall from that high, landing in water is like landing on concrete.

Anyway, I digress.  The reason they are on that planet is to stop a volcano from erupting, which would kill the entire civilization (as in all Star Trek, the entire population of a planet lives withing a 50 mile radius).  The people are primitive and have no knowledge of space travel or other worlds, so it would violate the prime directive to let them see the ship.  But Spock is stuck in the volcano and they need to beam him out, so Kirk violates the prime directive and saves Spock.  No problem with that, it's typical for Kirk to do something like that.  And it nicely sets up some conflict between the characters.  Rather than thank Kirk for saving his life, Spock is upset that Kirk violated the prime directive. 

The plan seems very poorly thought out.  They really didn't know that the shuttle and the cable wouldn't be able to handle the heat from the volcano?  It's surprising that Spock couldn't think of a better plan.  And there is a lot of talk about how they aren't supposed to interfere with the planet's destiny, yet no one mentions that stopping the volcano is exactly what they were doing. 

Soon we will meet the villain of the movie, the terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Harrison is angry about something, and he wants to punish the federation.  First he destroys a Starfleet building in London, then he shows up in San Francisco and opens fire on a room full of high ranking officers (reminded me of Godfather 3). 

From there, the plot is basically about Kirk and company going to capture Harrison and bring him to justice.  I enjoyed the setup and the conflict between the characters.  The funniest bit was about Spock and Uhura having a fight.  You will remember from the first movie that the two were dating.  Seeing a Vulcan try to understand an angry woman is hilarious. 

Chris Pine is good as Kirk (even though he is a little too young for the part), and Zachary Quinto makes a very good Spock.  Karl Urban makes a good Bones, but I got a little tired of him in this movie.  He's kind of a one note character, and his crankyness gets old if it's used too much.  Simon Pegg is a very different Scotty, but he's great comic relief.  The character I really don't like is Anton Yelchin's Chekov.  His accent bugged me.

The best character in the movie was John Harrison.  If you haven't seen the BBC series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson, check it out.  Cumberbatch is a very exciting actor, and he is a joy to watch.  Harrison is a mystery in this movie.  At first, he's plotting these attacks without doing or saying much.  Then he's captured, and you get the feeling he wanted to be captured.  Standing in his cell, he is reminiscent of Hannibal Lector.  You get the impression he has Kirk and crew exactly where he wants them at all times. 

One of my complaints is that Cumberbatch is not on screen enough.  He is built up to be this terrifying villain, and the movie builds to this point where it feels like the real fight is about to begin, and then it's over after 5 minutes.  It felt a bit anticlimactic. 

The movie throws in a lot of references to the original TV series and movies.  I think they relied on that too much.  A few references here and there are fun, and only the most hard core Trek fans will catch them all.  But at some point Abrams and company need to have confidence to tell their own original story, without trying to rehash previous Star Trek plots.  By the end I felt like I had seen all this before.  There were also a lot of plot holes that could have been fixed if they had spent a little more time with the script. 

That being said, I still enjoyed the movie.  It was a lot of fun, and you don't have to be a Trekkie to enjoy it.  And Peter Weller plays an admiral.  It's nice to see Robocop in a movie again.

Iron Man 3 - 3 stars

Better than Iron Man 2, possibly better than Iron Man 1 but not as much fun.

After 2 Iron Man movies and The Avengers, seeing Tony Stark flying around in the Iron Man suit just isn't that exciting anymore.  I'm much more interested in seeing the character Tony Stark and watching him develop.  Robert Downey Jr. delivers snarky remarks better than just about anyone, and that's what I'm looking for.  That's exactly what this movie delivers.

Tony Stark is having anxiety attacks after the events of The Avengers.  Flying a nuke into a wormhole and fighting a bunch of aliens will do that to anyone.  When a terrorist known as The Mandarin starts setting off bombs around the country, Tony decides to stay out of it.  Iron Man can't solve every problem.  But when one of The Mandarin's attacks hurts someone close to Stark, he vows revenge. 

After his home is destroyed, Stark crash lands in rural Tennessee.  His suit is damaged and the world thinks he's dead, so he stays in hiding for a while.  He finds a barn which he can use as a workshop to repair his suit, and he befriends a kid who could use a father figure.  Just when you think the movie is going to turn sappy and sentimental, Stark tells the kid to buzz off and stop being a yutz.  Funny stuff.

Shane Black takes over writing and directing duties for this 3rd installment, and it's exactly what the franchise needed.  Black's last movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was one of the best movies of the last 10 years, and he really should work more.  He knows how to write for Downey Jr. better than anyone.  And the finale, with Stark and Rhodes going into the villains lair with guns drawn, is reminicent of Lethal Weapon (also written by Black).  Ben Kingsley plays a great villain with a secret, and Guy Pearce also has some fun moments.  I really enjoyed Iron Man 3, and I hope Shane Black comes back for Iron Man 4.