It’s very simply a story about a guy up on the Moon. Alone. As words on a page this looks like it would be very boring. But as a film, it’s not. This is a movie with basically one set, and one main actor with the voice of Kevin Spacey playing the role of a non-insane version of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey named GERTY. Sam Rockwell does an amazing job at building up one of my favorite science fiction movies that has come out in years.
Why did this movie work for me? Because Sam Bell, the main character played by Sam Rockwell, does an amazing job just being himself, his petty, annoying self.
Attention: Spoilers abound in this review, but some of you have seen the movie, some of you may never see the movie. Hopefully this will help some of you make the choice to see the movie.
You have been out in space so long that you can’t remember much on Earth. You are two weeks shy of your three-year shift, and you do know that. You are almost ready to go home. You check the video feed and your wife and daughter remind you they are happy you are coming home, but your mind is playing tricks on you and then you find YOU.
So just imagine having a twin and just meeting that twin at age 30 or so, and you have been alone on the Moon with no one except a computer and old TV re-runs for almost three years; it would be fucking insane. You would have a ton of questions of why and how and who or what, and then you would really just try to get along and just be happy you have someone, anyone, to have a real conversation with.
This movie is not just about amazing acting, even though there are very few actors out there that could have carried this movie like Sam Rockwell did. And another thing I realized, being the son of David Bowie does not automatically make you an amazing director or writer, because Duncan Jones has proven that he is a talented writer on his own. With such a good story, the phenomenal direction, cinematography and acting just all serve to make one hell of a film. It’s not very often we get to see a sci-fi film that is both original and good.
I give this 4.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls only because at times during the movie I forget I am on the Moon, with all its hazards, and I think the director forgot about those also. But the cinematography complements the illusion of scale and darkness of the Moon, and sucks me right back in. Watch it if you liked Dead Ringers, Silent Running, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here’s the trailer:
Blade Runner (1982)
With Prometheus on its way to theatres, I thought about recommending Ridley Scott’s Alien – the best of the film series. It is, after all, a wonderful example of the marriage between science fiction and horror that can be traced back to classics like War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Thing. But Scott personally assured me, over a cup of tea, that Prometheus has NOTHING to do with the Alien films.
So instead, I chose another Ridley Scott science fiction film, Blade Runner. This film is an amalgamation of two of my favorite genres: science fiction and film noir, with a little cyberpunk thrown in for good measure. Scott’s science fiction is gritty and dark with shadows, tight spaces, and broken psyches – all elements essential to film noir. Oh and Daryl Hannah is a smoking hot femme fatale that reminds me a lot of Harley Quinn.
The story follows Blade Runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) as he hunts down four replicants who have returned to Earth to confront their maker before their life cycle is complete. Deckard must find and terminate these “organic robots” (one might call them clones today) before they cause any more violence. Like any brooding anti-hero, Deckard questions the morality of hunting down the replicants, his love of a replicant who has only months to live, and even his own humanity. The film addresses issues that can be traced back to the original science fiction story, Frankenstein, while remaining relevant to controversial scientific issues today. Scott’s sense of style makes this picture, like Alien, an iconic work of art. Even Spielberg tried to rip it off 20 years later with A.I., and thankfully failed miserably. Stick to Nazis and giant sharks, Spielberg. Your aliens and androids are too musical and too huggable. I like my aliens to disembowel and my androids to crush a man’s eye sockets, thank you.
But I digress. This movie is awesome. It has a great anti-hero played by Harrison Ford when he was still a badass. It has a wickedly violent villain, Roy (played by Rutger Hauer), who is fun to root for because he’s so crazy he just might be right. I am convinced that a connection can be made between Roy and Christopher Nolan’s Joker as well as the ending of this film and the ending of Inception. I would be shocked if Nolan was not a huge Ridley Scott fan too. This movie absolutely gets 5 out of 5 Nerdskulls from me. Check out the trailer for Blade Runner:
The Last Starfighter (1984)
In 1984 the second attempt to use computer animation as the main source for special effects was released. Director Nick Castle helmed this experimental film, though he was better known for playing Michael Myers in Halloween (1978). Starring Lance Guest (Jaws: The Revenge and Halloween II), The Last Starfighter should have become one of the most influential films in history, yet it seems to have been lost in time.
The story revolves around Alex Rogan (Guest) who is a teenager living in the Starlight Starbright trailer park with his mother and brother. Also in the park is the girl of his dreams, Maggie Gordon, played by Catherine Mary Stewart, of Weekend at Bernie’s fame. Playing a video game called Starfighter next to the trailer park convenience store, Alex breaks the high score and defeats the game. But he soon learns that this was more than just a game. Placed on Earth by an alien named Centauri, played by Robert Preston (Victor Victoria, How the West Was Won, this would turn out to be his last film role), the game was a recruitment tool for the Star League to find starfighters throughout the galaxy.
Soon, Alex finds himself traveling through space and landing at the headquarters of the Star League to begin training as a starfighter. Yet this turns out to be too much for young Rogan, who declines the offer, and is brought back home. At the same time the evil emperor Xur then attacks the Star League, and destroys all of the starfighters. Now it is up to Alex Rogan, the last starfighter, to save the galaxy from the clutches of evil.
This is a solid film that was years ahead of its time in 1984 and would be just as powerful today. It is a must-see for any fan of science fiction. I give it 4.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls. Here’s the trailer:
Aaron and Abe are engineers who spend their free time working on scientific projects in Aaron’s garage. One of their projects is a machine that reduces the weight of objects that are placed in it. When they use a watch as a test object they notice that a lot more time has passed on the watch than the period the watch was inside the device. They soon realize they accidentally invented a machine that allows them to travel back in time.
They start using the technology to, what else, make money on the stock market. They’re successful, get more comfortable with their invention and start taking more risks. As they go deeper into the rabbit hole they start losing control of the situation and are faced with the moral implications of their invention.
Primer was written, produced, and directed by Shane Carruth, with a budget of only $7,000. Carruth also took the role of Aaron upon himself after having difficulty finding the right actor. The modesty of the production only works to the film’s advantage though, as Carruth’s intention was to show that groundbreaking inventions are often accidental and in someone’s garage, not planned out somewhere in a high tech lab.
This is without a doubt the most complicated film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll probably never even come close to fully understanding it. As the movie progresses, more and more timelines are created and intertwined and different versions of Aaron and Abe are working against each other and other versions of themselves. Not only is the plot very complicated, the scientific lingo was also consciously not dumbed down in order to keep the movie as authentic as possible, which makes it all even harder to follow.
If you’re okay with that and are interested in a movie that will challenge your intellect and still has you thinking after multiple viewings (and you will need multiple viewings), give Primer a try. If you manage to figure it all out, be sure to let me know in the comments! I give Primer 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls. Here’s a little taste:
Star Wars (1977)
I know, I know. How the hell can I pick Star Wars as my recommendation of a film few people have seen? Well, let me tell you. I’m recommending Star Wars. No, not Episode IV. No, not A New Hope. Literally the movie that was originally screened on May 25, 1977. Few people know that upon original release, the opening crawl was simply Star Wars, followed by the now famous prologue. After it’s amazing success, George Lucas had the wherewithal to add Episode IV – A New Hope for its re-release that fall. The closest to the original version that can be seen today is from the Limited Edition DVD box set from 2008.
Pretend there is a world where summer blockbusters don’t exist, the film industry has hit a lull and the American population as a whole can’t break out of the Vietnam War, inflation, gas scarcity funk of the mid to late ’70s. Now extend that make-believe world to include the small release of a film only really hyped through the comic book world and seriously neglected by every major theater in the country. It was so overlooked that every studio but 20th Century Fox passed on the idea and even they had to force theaters to show the film by packaging it with the highly anticipated The Other Side of Midnight (we all remember that one, right?). The rest, as they say, is truly history, as the movie opened to record-breaking box office sales and became the stuff of legends. Unfortunately, this imaginary world has been destroyed by George Lucas’ more immediate real world decision, because truly, this scenario did happen and it changed the face of cinema forever.
Star Wars broke barriers. If technology did not exist to accomplish what Lucas wanted, he simply created it. He also incorporated old technique in new ways, including matte painting, blue screen techniques and models. Today many people overlook the gritty feel of space that he created. Prior to his film, space was sterile and clean. Not in this western based on his love of Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell. Perhaps the best part, which Lucas has never altered, is the original soundtrack. He is constantly criticized for his film-making decisions, but the smartest one he made was admitting his musical shortcomings. Enter John Williams to knock it out of the park. Even as an ardent fan, this movie absolutely sucks without the emotionally moving score.
From the opening credits we realize that we are witness to a film that is very different.* The set up, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” What the hell does that mean? Then the music punches us in the gut as a brief prologue introduces us to the events about to happen. And of course the grandaddy of all opening scenes, a starship passes by the camera, followed by the largest spaceship anyone has ever seen. It quickly becomes evident we are in for a rock’em sock’em fight! Let’s get it on! Obviously we know the story rolls on to introduce us to comedic droids, the biggest badass in the universe, a princess, moisture farmers, a Jedi Master, a wookie and of course the coolest rogue ever, Han Solo. The original adventure of Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and Captain Solo is truly a sight to see. If you have not seen the original film, sans added computer generated effects, watch it immediately. If you haven’t seen it in any incarnation, put your life on hold and watch it now.
Without a doubt, Star Wars gets a solid 5 out of 5 Nerdskulls. It is my all-time favorite movie. For fun, check out the original trailer:
*George Lucas fought and lost a battle with the Directors Guild of America (DGA) over his use of Lucasfilm (his film company) in the opening credits for The Empire Strikes Back. Their issue was that he put his name first while not offering any reference to the director or writers of the film (because all other credits were only shown at the end of the film). He summarily left the DGA, WGA (Writers Guild), and the MPA (Motion Picture Association) and has essentially made independent films ever since.
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
I’ll say it upfront: I’m biased. John Carpenter’s The Thing is my favorite movie of all time. When I think about my perfect movie, this is it. When I think about what type of movie I’d want to make, this is that movie. Whenever I can’t find something to watch, my go-to is this movie. To me this movie is flawless. I love the story, I love the effects, I love the acting, I love the direction, I love the cinematography, I love the setting, I love the music; every single component of this movie works together to create what I feel is the greatest masterpiece of all time. I know that’s a bold statement, but I stand behind it 100%.
The story (based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.) is about some men working at an Antarctic research station. They are isolated until a dog on foot, and two Norwegians in a helicopter trying to shoot the dog, appear. The Norwegians accidentally blow themselves up, and the Americans are stuck with a new dog. Turns out there was good reason to kill this dog, as it is actually an alien organism pretending to be a dog. One by one, the organism spreads and takes over the Americans. The guys remain isolated, but now aren’t only isolated from the outside world, they become isolated from each other, as it is near impossible to tell who is human and who isn’t.
The alien organism is set up as the villain, and as a viewer you side with the humans. Sounds simple enough, but when you can’t tell which human has been assimilated by the organism, and when at the end you still can’t tell whether the survivors are human or part of the organism, you as the viewer feel the same isolation, paranoia and lack of trust that the characters feel, and you start to experience the same sense of terror. This movie is science fiction, but it is also horror, and nothing is more horrible than not being able to trust in those around you. Another film that conveys this same level of tension is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (any version, really), however in The Thing you also get the isolation and danger of the unstable and harsh conditions surrounding you.
Aside from the horror of the situation, Dean Cundey (director of photography) and Carpenter himself only aid to your sense of discomfort and uneasiness with the constant, slow-moving pans around the base. A room full of people becomes just as terrifying as an empty one. While Carpenter usually does the music for his films, no one could have made a better score than Ennio Morricone. The opening credits with the ominous hum, the amazing effect to create the title, and then the foreboding beat (dunh dunh. . .dunh dunh. . .dunh dunh) as we are introduced to the harsh Antarctic landscape all serve to create one of the most memorable and greatest movie openings of all time.
The discomfort of the film so dismayed audiences and critics when the film was first released that it was criticized for being too depressing and not enjoyable. In fact, even Rob Bottin and his crew, with some effects created by Stan Winston, did such an incredible job at creating real-live monsters that critics praised the technical genius yet were too horrified and disgusted to rate the film well. I don’t understand why you would want to enjoy a movie that is supposed to be a mixture of horror and sci-fi. This is the quintessential example of a film that perfectly conveys the mood and tension of the characters and the situation they are in! To deny this is folly.
I like my sci-fi more on the horror side than the action side. I prefer a slowly creeping chill up my spine to flashy space battles, futuristic weapons, and taking the red pill. I’m not saying other sci-fi films aren’t good; I’ve enjoyed many of them. But that’s all I did, enjoy them. I lived and felt the terror of The Thing just by gluing my eyes to a screen for 109 minutes, and to me that is truly science fiction at its best. 5 out of 5 Nerdskulls easily. Now enjoy the original trailer and remember, what you fear most…is among you: