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228. Interstellar (#29)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Andy Hazel, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

Cooper is a former astronaut who has resigned himself to life on a farm, raising his two children Tom and Murph. However, when the fates align to send Cooper back out into space, he finds himself faced with the terrible choice to leave his kids behind with no idea of when – or even if – he might return.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 29th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On How “The Expanse” is the Science-Fiction Show for the Moment…

I published a new column at The Escapist this evening. Since I binged The Expanse and since the season finale is out this week, I figured it was worth taking a look at the show as one of the defining television series of the past ten years.

Every generation gets a science-fiction show that reflects its particular anxieties. The Expanse is a show that engages aggressively with the concerns of the moment. It is a show about fragmentation, about nationalism, about inequality, about exploitation and about power. In the same way that Star Trek spoke to the uncertainty and tumult of the sixties, and Battlestar Galactica spoke to the nightmare of the War on Terror, The Expanse resonates with a world still coming to terms with the aftermath of the Great Recession.

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

215. Dune (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Charlene Lydon and Joe Griffin, The 250 is a weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturdays at 6pm GMT.

So this week, David Lynch’s Dune.

The galaxy is in turmoil. Rumours swirl of a plot against House Atreides. As Duke Leto Atreides takes control of the desert planet of Dune, he tries to track down the traitors in his midst. Meanwhile, his son Paul finds himself on the verge of an awakening that will have a profound impact on the future of mankind.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: The Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky is an ambitious and sporadically interesting mess.

There are a lot of individual elements that work relatively well in George Clooney’s most recent directorial effort. Indeed, the most surprising thing about this apocalyptic space drama is the way in which is eschews a lot of the stylistic trappings of the recent “sad astronaut” subgenre. Conceptually, The Midnight Sky feels like a companion piece to films like GravityInterstellarThe Martian, First Man, and Ad Astra. It is a story about isolation and about a space mission with the potential to go horribly wrong. However, Clooney gives the film a distinct texture, brighter and bolder.

Drinking it all in.

However, The Midnight Sky never coheres in a satisfying manner. Part of this is simply structural, with Clooney having to consistently cut between two sets of characters in radically different situations in a way that constantly undermines momentum. However, part of this is also narrative, with The Midnight Sky essentially built around a powerhouse closing twenty minutes that are obvious from the opening ten, but have to be delayed and postponed with a series of tonally disjointed episodic adventures to prevent the film from ending too soon.

This is a shame. There are hints of a much better movie in The Midnight Sky, but the film itself gets lost in space.

“Nuke the sky from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

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New Escapist Column! On “Flash Gordon” and “Dune” as Biblical Epics for a Secular Age…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. As this week marks the fortieth anniversary of Flash Gordon and this month would have seen the release of the next cinematic adaptation of Dune, it seemed like a good time to talk about Dino DeLaurentiis’ science-fiction epics.

Flash Gordon and Dune exist in the shadow of George Lucas’ Star Wars, but they are markedly different films. While Lucas drew heavily from classic science-fiction serials, he adopted modern techniques in production and editing. In contrast, Dune and Flash Gordon are more old-fashioned in their storytelling. More than that, with the death of New Hollywood and the emerging blockbuster film market, it seems like the studios leaned rather heavily into the kind of epic that they knew how to make. As a result, Dune and Flash Gordon feel rather like biblical epics… in space!

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

Non-Review Review: The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night is a loving fifties homage, with more than a few contemporary resonances.

The film is structured so as to evoke pulpy science-fiction, opening on a slow push in on an old black-and-white television set airing Paradox Theatre, a show clearly designed to evoke the various fantastical anthology shows modelled after The Twilight Zone. Director Andrew Patterson keeps reminding audiences of this framing device, occasionally pushing out of his narrative on to the grainy distorted television screen and even occasionally cutting to black to underscore the fact that the narrative the audience is watching is being controlled.

Zero to fifties in only ninety minutes!

The premise of The Vast of Night is remarkably straightforward. One summer evening late in the fifties, something strange happens in a New Mexico town. As the bulk of the town gathers for a big basket ball game, only a handful of residents remain at home. Fay dutifully mans the town switchboard, while the charming DJ Everett handles the radio broadcast for the benefit of “the five of you out there listening.” However, his radio show is briefly interrupted by a strange noise, sparking an investigation that leads to somewhere very strange indeed.

The Vast of Night doesn’t really have too many surprises. After all, the basic premise all but suggests an inevitable conclusion: what could possibly be causing strange signals in New Mexico in the late fifties? However, The Vast of Night is elevated by a number of key factors. Patterson brings a very confident and assured direction to the story, making The Vast of Night a very compelling watch given its relatively low budget and tight focus.

Radio gaga.

However, writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger deserve a great deal of credit for the script. The Vast of Night is a film that takes great pleasure in the trappings of its late fifties setting, and is keenly aware of the context in which its characters operate. “I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of the communist party,” Fay jokingly records into a microphone early in the film, while later events include accounts of the horror of radiation. The Vast of Night is a loving homage to the era in which it is set.

However, more than that, The Vast of Night understands the strange tethers that tie that idealised past to the more complicate present. By its nature, The Vast of Night is a film about hearing and listening. More than that, though, it is a story about the choices that people make in what they choose to hear and who they choose to listen to. It is a film about conversation, about signal, about noise, about cross talk, and about decay. The Vast of Night is a story about the breakdown of communication, and the horrors that unfold in what society tunes out as white noise.

Interview to a kill.

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New Escapist Column! On the Unique Appeal of David Lynch’s “Dune”…

I published a new piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. This week saw the release of the first production photos from Denis Villeneuve, so it felt like the perfect opportunity to take a look back at the last attempted adaptation of Frank Herbert’s iconic science-fiction classic.

David Lynch’s Dune is not necessarily a coherent film. It’s not a good film by any traditional metric of quality. However, it is a unique film. There has, quite simply, never been another blockbuster like it. It’s a film at war with itself, caught between extremes. The producers clearly want the film to look like a Star Wars rip-off, while Lynch is pulling from his own esoteric influences. The results are dazzling and chaotic. It’s hard to believe that a film like this could ever exist.

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

New Escapist Column! On the “Altered Carbon” and the Ghosts of Futures Past…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. With the release of the second season of Altered Carbon, I thought it was worth taking a look at the recent trend towards retro-futurism, how modern pop culture is haunted by the ghosts of futures past.

Altered Carbon works best as a celebration of the cyberpunk genre, drawing from a wealth of sources like Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, steeped in nostalgia for a particular kind of future that was very popular during the eighties. It is not alone; after all, the first season was released after the Ghost in the Shell remake and Blade Runner 2049. However, it isn’t just cyberpunk that informs such nostalgia. Franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek have taken to looking backwards, while it’s hard to think of a modern piece of science-fiction that suggests a novel vision of the future.

It’s an interesting and unsettling trend, as if pop culture has given up on the idea of the future being different. Instead of imagining bold new worlds, pop culture seems instead to be recycling early generations’ hopes and dreams. You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Annihilation

Annihilation is a science-fiction smorgasbord.

Early in the film, a group of scientists determine that the are of land which they have been sent to investigate has taken strange properties. Local plants and animals seem to have mutated and warped under the influence of some strange beings. Impossible hybrids stalk the landscape, exotic combinations of recognisable forms in order to create something uncanny and unsettling. In its own way, Annihilation feels self-aware.

The mouth of madness.

Alex Garland’s latest film is very much a hybrid itself, a synthesis of iconic science fiction elements, fused together to create something novel and exciting. Audience members will recognise a strand of DNA here, a stronger marker there. Even its harshest critic must concede that Annihilation has a broad palette; a dash of Stalker, a shade of Alien, a hint of Arrival, the slightest trace of Solaris, a nod towards The Thing, some 2001: A Space Odyssey for flavour. All these elements thrown together and mixed to create something eccentric and something intriguing.

Annihilation is a brainy high-energy imaginative science-fiction mixtape, and one both enticed and horrified by the idea that this is essentially the future culture.

“He was always throwing himself into his work.”

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Star Trek: Voyager – Dragon’s Teeth (Review)

In many ways Dragon’s Teeth demonstrates the chaos that marked the start of the sixth season.

On paper, Dragon’s Teeth looks to be a big blockbuster episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It has top-notch production, a large guest cast, an impressive special effects set-up, a new alien menace, and an emphasis on momentum ahead of character or theme. Just looking at Dragon’s Teeth, it has the look and feel of an “event” story. It seems like an episode with a bold statement of purpose, from the opening teaser that suggests an epic scope by unfolding in the distant past of an alien world through to the ominous closing line that promises that Dragon’s Teeth is just the beginning.

Let sleeping dragons lie…

It seems like the sixth season’s answer to earlier mid-season two-parters like Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, or Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II. It even broadcasts in roughly the same stretch of the season as Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II or Timeless. It is an early November episode, intended to help boost ratings during Sweeps.

However, what is most striking about Dragon’s Teeth is how much it feels like a non-event. The episode has all the markers of a big event story, from the promise of a shortcut home to the sight of the ship landing on a planet surface, but the story is actually incredibly generic. Dragon’s Teeth is not necessarily bad, it is simply competent. There is a strange sense watching Dragon’s Teeth that a phenomenal amount of effort has gone into ensuring that the episode works, rather than trying to make it excel.

Sweet dreams.

Of course, this makes a certain amount of sense. Dragon’s Teeth aired almost a third of the way through the season, but it was produced earlier. In terms of broadcast, it fell between Riddles and One Small Step. In terms of production, it came between Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy and Alice. As such, it was produced in the midst of the chaos following the sudden departure of Ronald D. Moore and the reinstatement of Kenneth Biller. More than that, it was the first episode of the season to be written by Brannon Braga since that behind the scenes shake-up. As a result, it makes sense it should feel “off.”

Dragon’s Teeth is an episode that spends so much of its energy trying to remain upright that it never manages to take flight.

Oh, mummy.

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