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New Escapist Column! “Ad Astra” and What We Carry with Us…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine yesterday. This one has been kicking around for a little while, discussing James Gray’s Ad Astra.

In particular, it takes a look at a broader trend in modern space movies – what might be dubbed the “sad astronaut” genre. In contrast to the sixties utopian fantasies of shows like Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey, these films tend to offer a more introspective portrait of space travel. Films like Gravity or Interstellar or First Man are as much about the baggage that the protagonists bring with them on their journey as they are about what the character in question might find out there.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Life

Life has a certain endearing b-movie schlock value to it, a cheesy and derivative deep space creature feature that indulges all manner of body horror in its race to the climax. With all due respect to the esteemed philosopher Forrest Gump, most viewers know exactly what they are going to get.

The biggest problem with Life is that the film is very predictable. There is very little here that seasoned science-fiction horror film fans will not have seen before. Indeed, this is arguably reflected in the biggest problem with its central monster. The first life form discovered in outer space, the creature that stalks the crew in Life is initially appealingly alien; a translucent starfish evolving into a mass of tentacles with a love of bodily orifices. Unfortunately, the creature quickly becomes more conventional. The movie even names the beast “Calvin.”

Caught in the Gravity of Alien.

And yet, there is a quirky appeal to all this. Life is a movie with an attitude mirroring that creature. It begins as something intriguing before morphing into something far too familiar. More than that, there is a ruthless efficiency to the film. Characters are rendered as little more than archetypes, information is delivered primarily as plot set-up rather than character development, the first act of the film races through what should be huge dramatic beats in order to get to the squidgy monster mayhem. Life knows what it is, even when it’s not pretty.

There is something endearing about this ruthless efficiency, the commitment with which Life seizes upon its b-movie stylings as a vehicle for really creepy space scares. Life suffers a little bit from its by-the-numbers second act, but it demonstrates enough enthusiasm for its schlocky sensibilities that it’s hard to hard. Life finds a way.

Needing some space.

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Non-Review Review: Life (2015)

The biggest problem with Life is that the film is largely lifeless.

Life is the story of the iconic photographs of James Dean taken by photographer Dennis Stock in the run-up to the release of East of Eden in March 1955. At that point, Dean was a young actor on the cusp of stardom. As the premiere of East of Eden approached, Dean still aspiring towards his definitive role in Rebel Without a Cause. Dennis Stock saw something in the young actor, believing he might capture a moment of cultural change in the brooding young actor.

"The coat, he borrowed from James Dean..."

“The coat, he borrowed from James Dean…”

Even if they didn’t make the cover of Life magazine, Stock’s photographs have come to define Dean in the popular memory. These photographs capture Dean at his most brooding and his most joyous, capturing the extremes of his experience. Snapping Dean walking through the rain in Times Square or reading comics with his brother, Dennis seemed to trap some of the essence of the actor in his work. Life centres on the complicated relationship that exists between the two men, as they attempt to get a read on one another and navigate the taut waters of celebrity.

However, for a film inspired by (and derived from) an instantly recognisable set of photos, there is something just a little bit too staid about Anton Corbijn‘s two-hour long character study. It feels like a loose selection of pop psychology strung around some faithful recreations, missing the vibrancy and the intimacy that made those shots so distinctive.

#HairRaising

#HairRaising

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The X-Files – The Sixth Extinction (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

The fate of individual human beings may not now be connected in a deep way with the rest of the universe, but the matter out of which each of us is made is intimately tied to processes that occurred immense intervals of time and enormous distances in space away from us. Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.

– Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection

Sea of blood...

Sea of blood…

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The X-Files – Dreamland I (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

It occasionally seems like the sixth season of The X-Files is having something approaching a midlife crisis.

It has gone through a fairly massive change in routine and lifestyle; the show recently pulled up sticks and moved to Los Angeles. It has gotten a lot more ostentatious; it looks to be spending a lot more money than it was before, and it is hanging around with a whole new caliber of guest star. It has reinvented itself completely; no longer the brooding and atmospheric show it once was, it is now downright goofy and silly. Old acquaintances would be forgiven if they had trouble recognising the show. And it’s perfectly understandable.

Back to back...

Back to back…

This is the sixth season. Dreamland I is the one-hundred-and-twenty-first episode of The X-Files. The show is well past what Chris Carter had originally planned, and well past just about any measure of success. Most shows are lucky to reach a sixth season, let alone come into the sixth season off the back of a summer film and with a great deal of security about the future. David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and Chris Carter were all committed through to the end of the seventh season. There was even talk of a sequel to The X-Files: Fight the Future being released in 2000.

Dreamland I and Dreamland II just externalise that midlife crisis, using the classic “freaky friday” body swap set up putting Fox Mulder in a dead-end job with a family that hates him as Morris Fletcher tries to help the FBI agent grow up just a little bit.

"Yep. It's a little... out there."

“Yep. It’s a little… out there.”

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The X-Files (Topps) – Afterflight (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

And so we reach the end of Stefan Petrucha’s work on The X-Files.

It is quite a delayed end. Petrucha had originally written Afterflight three months before Home of the Brave, his last script for the monthly tie-in comic book. It was published fifteen months after the publication of Home of the Brave. That meant a year and a half had passed between Petrucha finished and Topps actually publishing it. The delay was rooted in disagreements with Ten Thirteen over the artwork. Still, Afterflight offers just a hint of closure to the sixteen-issue (and more) run that launched Topps’ licensed X-Files comic book line.

The truth is up there...

The truth is up there…

Afterflight is a mournful little comic, a story that takes a lot of the core themes of Petrucha’s X-Files work and distills them down to a single story. Interviewed about his work, Petrucha contended that his writing for The X-Files primarily meditated on themes of “memory, the self and what is reality.” All of these ideas are brought to the fore in Afterflight, a comic that offers a similar thematic resolution to Home of the Brave, suggesting the faintest hint of hope can be found beyond the world of men.

Afterflight is a beautiful piece of work, and a suitable conclusion to a fantastic run.

Aliens among us...

Aliens among us…

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Non-Review Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Ben Stiller recently explained that he was growing more interested in directing and less interested in acting in front of the camera. Even if he hadn’t confessed that in an interview, it would be hard to shake that feeling while watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It’s beautifully shot and contains a number of impressive sequences and set pieces, but ultimately feels a little hollow – like a beautifully-sketched picture inhabited by two-dimensional characters.

There are moments of splendor and beauty to be found in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but often in spite Steve Conrad’s script rather than because of it.

Daydream believer...

Daydream believer…

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