August 02, 2012

Must watch Sci-fi movies

Watching Prometheus recently took me back to the various Sci-fi movies/literature I had come across. Numerous writers and film makers have woven dramatic tales of humans grappling with the consequences of new discoveries and inventions, which, while entertaining, also serve as a reminder of the various pitfalls of tampering with mother nature. While the basic theme of a science fiction is rooted in the ‘science’ or the technicalities of the basic theme, it is the drama surrounding its application/misuse/consequences that make it interesting, and results in most science fiction movies ending up as a ‘thrillers’.

Here is a list of my favourite sci-fi movies, rated 1 through 5. Please note that since I haven’t watched as much of sci-fi as, say, drama, this might not have many of the movies you would consider to be in your top five. I would love to hear of a few more movies I can watch

5.   Jurassic Park (1993): The ‘popular’ choice! For my generation, this film is a trailblazer in many ways and I am sure everyone who reads this would have seen the movie. It was one of the first movies to employ CGI effects extensively, in this case, to recreate a ‘lost world’ on screen. Older movies either had life size models or used magnified images of miniature models to show dinosaurs and the like on the big screen. 
Starting with the animated feature on how the Jurassic Park was conceptualized, to the exhilarating helicopter ride to the park, to the moment when everything goes wrong, the movie delivered the thrills like never before. 
The ripples in the water as the big lizard approaches, the T-Rex chasing down the car, and the feisty little raptors taking on the T-Rex during the climax are images which will stay with us forever. It also sparked the trend of Hollywood movies getting dubbed into regional languages in India, almost doubling the reach of Hollywood cinema in India.
Of course, at its heart, it had the simple theme of 'thou shalt not tamper with nature' which us humans seem to have difficulty comprehending. Also, it taught us that the best way to fix issues is to restart the system!
For me, Jurassic Park narrowly beats the other Spielberg classic, E.T.. Had I been born 10 years earlier, that might have been the movie I would have grown up with.

4. Alphaville, une ├ętrange aventure de Lemmy Caution  (1965) – Jan Luc-Godard’s depiction of a computer controlled autocratic society is stylishly executed in a noir format in black and white which suits the overall grim undertone of the movie. A detective (the titular Lemmy Caution), clad in a rain coat, enters the city of Alphaville looking for a missing colleague. The city seems like any other except the fact that it is run in ‘auto mode’ by a computer Alpha 60 built by one Von Braun (a seemingly deliberate reference to the German scientist). 
The administration prohibits any kind of emotion to be felt or displayed by any of his inhabitants. His search leads him to his ultimate showdown with Von Braun and the Alpha 60. The film uses simple imagery without resorting to special effects of any kind - a bulb with a bossy voice over stands for Alpha 60 and images of ‘E=mc2’ in neon lighting flash regularly on the screen, as representatives of ‘logical’ thought). A must watch for noir fans.   

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Poster

3.     Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (2004): A controversial choice, in that the movie can also be categorized as ‘Drama’ or ‘Romance’. But what the heck, IMDB even has V for Vendetta under Science fiction! Jim Carrey (in a very non-comic role) and Kate Winslet (is there anything she cannot do?) play a couple who try to erase each other from their memories, quite literally, until Carrey’s character, realizing that he cannot really afford to lose her, begins revolting against the procedure. 
The movie uses a non-linear structure to take the viewer through their tale, told from both of their perspectives separately, till the viewer gets a handle on the goings on. The sequences wherein the program is erasing parts of his memory with traces of her is visualized brilliantly. 
Excellent cameos from the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood add layers to the plot which makes the experience that much enriching. A most satisfying film.

File:District nine ver2.jpg
2. District 9 (2009): One of the most under rated movies of recent times, this genre defining Peter Jackson’s production is set in the city of Johannesburg. The city has been visited by aliens and, following a mishap to their mother ship, they have since been set up by the xenophobic government in a ghetto in the city called ‘District 9’. A multinational corporation (which, strangely, is also the name of the org) are charged with moving them from District 9 to a remote location and this is where you come across Vicus Van Der Marwe, an employee of the corporation, who is in charge of the operation. As luck would have it, he comes in contact with a chemical which triggers a mutation in him, and would eventually turn him into an 'alien'. As he grapples with his identity and crosses the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, he becomes much sought after property with the MNC, the aliens and Nigerian gangs chasing him for his unique generic makeup. This is when he befriends an alien father-son duo who are working on getting their mother ship repaired and finding a way back home and decides to help them in return for a favour.
The movie begins with a documentary style of film making which is non intrusive and lends a historical context to the events. Setting the story in Jo’burg proves to be a master stroke, with the lively city itself becoming a character in the narrative. 
This might have set of another trend – of the aliens triumphing over the humans, which was also used by Avatar, released in the same year. Though the second half of the movie goes into the typical ‘bad guys chasing the good ones’, it ends with aplomb and has the viewer cheering all the way for Vicus. I only hope they don’t make a sequel and spoil this. It is one of those rare movies you would want to preserve.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): I had only seen clippings of the movie in various ‘Top movies’ lists over past several years and had thought it to be a ‘typical’ sci-fi movie with spaceships, aliens, guns et. al., until I realised it was by Kubrick which meant it had to be seen and thank god I did! 
Dealing with evolution, the origin and advancement of mankind and the role of technology, the movie is set on a scale very unlikely to be touched by any other movie in the genre. The bone metamorphosing into a space ship, the western classical score set to its spinning disc, the man vs. machine plot, all add up to a movie experience like no other. 
The plot is too far reaching and complex to be attempted to be explained here. The movie is split into distinct chapters, each unravelling one piece of the puzzle of the ultimate question of ‘who we are’. The ending is left open ended for the user, and it was not before reading a few blogs that I could decipher what it stood for. Like any Kubrick movie, it is a movie which demands much of the audience and requires a second, or even a third, viewing, but is totally worth the effort. Watching it is one of those events which would alter your perception of the very concept of being 'human'.

January 01, 2012

Of Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and Shakespeare

As I caught up with a few movies over the new year weekend, it got me thinking over a tool many filmmakers seem to have been using recently - that of retelling a standard classic. Since there is no longer anything of value to be added, they tweak a little something: either set it to a different time, or provide additional layers to the characters or the plot. While most of the time it is an interesting exercise in that it tries to provide an answer to some of the 'what if..' situations we think of, other times the filmmakers take the idea so far out we have a tough time convincing ourselves we are watching the same movie the title seems to suggest!

I must admit I had my apprehensions when Guy Ritchie's 'Sherlock Holmes' came out a couple of years back, but the movie was a pleasant surprise. Ritchies' achievement lay in getting away from the stereotypes that Holmes, and especially Dr. Watson, had becomes in the earlier versions and not retelling any of Conan Doyle's original plots. That, combined with the typically edgy way Ritchie filmed the action sequences with the London thugs, gave us a Holmes with a spunk never seen before.

Where the sequel to the movie fails though, and spectacularly at that, is when it starts taking itself too seriously. While I merely squirmed in the seat when we had Holmes predicting the impact of wireless communication in the first installment, here he goes as far as to saving the world from a 'world war' - in circa 1880! I am not even sure when the particular term was coined! In an instant, Holmes thus gets promoted from a master detective to a political analyst of the highest order - as if Holmes and Watson dodging 'machine guns' was not bad enough. Another example was Ridley Scott's 'Robin Hood' which suggested that our beloved thief in fact contributed to the scripting of the Magna Carta!

Some of the little touches, like the shots of the Tower Bridge under construction in the first Holmes movie and those of the underground in the second one, are crafty and useful since they map the events into a historical timeframe but attributing undeserving, and must I add unnecessary, achievements to the subject just makes it more complex than it really is, as if to tell the viewer 'look, this is important stuff, we aren't making a trivial action movie here!'

The very next day though, I happened to catch BBC's 'Sherlock', which is basically Holmes in a contemporary setting. It is definitely more watchable since other than changing the setting of the stories, and adding the necessary technology aids to Holmes, it retains the characters from the original to the T.

One of the movies which managed pull the trick off must be 'Shakespeare in Love', one of the finest romantic movies in recent years. Being a fictional account of the Bard's own romance, it followed many of the themes from his plays making it fun spotting the various Shakespeare references throughout the movie. The banter between Romeo and Juliet being mouthed by Ralph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow as they make love gives a whole new meaning to those immortal lines and takes it to an altogether different level.

Back home, Vishal Bhardwaj's Shakespeare adaptations must rank as one of the finest in the world. As is the case with the best adaptations, he takes the basic premise and transports it to a drastically different setting. His understanding of the rural Indian landscape combined with the sheer dramatic nature of the Bard's works results in a heady cocktail. I only wish he signs of a trilogy by adapting 'Hamlet'.

Then of course there are those who stick to a retelling of the stories without deviating from the written word. The challenge here is recreating the time period and getting the casting right. The LOTR trilogy had the toughest challenge in this regard and it is only due to Peter Jackson's love and admiration for the source material that he was able to recreate middle earth so convincingly, pleasing even the most ardent LOTR fans.

Now only if Jackson would read the Mahabharata and come up with a trilogy!