Infini (2015)

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The recent trend towards indie sci-fi is a welcome one here at the ISCFC – we’ve directed viewers towards “Robot Revolution”, “Europa Report”, “Stranded” and “Last Days On Mars”, among others. Of course, some movies are more indie than others, and “Infini” looks like it’s had a pretty decent amount of money spent on it, thanks to new sci-fi production company Storm Vision Entertainment. Or I’m getting worse at telling when special effects are good or not – either option is possible.

 

Director Shane Abbess spent years on the lower rungs of the Australian movie industry before getting the chance to write and direct, and this is his first movie in both roles (he also produces too, so maybe he won the lottery? Anyway). We’re presented with the world of the 23rd century, where “slipstreaming” has become a thing. This is a way of transporting people and items instantaneously across the known universe, thanks to a metal doohickey implanted on the back of the neck.

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Time dilation is a thing, so when mercenaries are sent to the remotest of all discovered planets, a small mining colony they’ve lost contact with, an hour on Earth is equal to a week there. It’s due to its closeness to black holes or something – I don’t think the science checks out, but it’s a cool idea and ratchets the tension up. Anyway, the first team of mercenaries come back after a few seconds either soaked in blood, dead, or with a weird infection of some sort, and this causes the entire West Coast base to be shut sown with “lethal quarantine”. The only guy who gets out is new recruit Whit Carmichael (Daniel MacPherson, formerly of “Neighbours”), who does an emergency slipstream to Infini. He’s got a pregnant wife back in the slum, which leaves you wondering if this will be a reunite-the-family movie or a send-the-wife-back-a-final-message movie.

 

Two Earth hours later, the East Coast guys send a retrieval squad to Infini (including the other Hemsworth brother, Luke) and that’s when the movie kicks off. It becomes a sort of mashup of “The Thing” and “Solaris”, with a smidgeon of “Alien” in there too. The last miner went mad, for some as-yet-unknown reason, and was about to send a bomb back to Earth, so the mission is to defuse that and find out just what’s going on.

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This is an interesting movie with a lot of strong ideas in it; the acting is pretty good; the special effects and sets all look like they had a lot of money spent on them; and the sort-of-twist is extremely well handled, I think. There’s not even an “evil government agenda” subplot, which is surprising indeed. Now, that’s the good stuff out of the way…It feels to me a little like a cake which was left in the oven five minutes too long – still pretty nice, but tough to get down. And let’s see if I can tell you why without ruining it!

 

One scene relies on a wall blocking radio communication between the marines and a miner. Now, bear in mind this is a society where information can be beamed literally anywhere in the universe instantaneously and a wall messes their plans up? The opening credits discuss how 97% of the world’s population live below the poverty line, but rather than burning the rich peoples’ homes down, they just take on more dangerous jobs in deep space. Boring! Plus, that same info-scroll tells us that slipstreaming carries the risk of “data corruption”, but this potentially interesting idea is, unless I’m really missing something, never used at any point.

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While it wears its “influences” a little too proudly on its sleeve, the ending is excellent and quite clever, and even though I think Abbess is a stronger director than writer (some of the dialogue is terribly clunky, plus a horrible use of a team briefing as exposition) I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in the future.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Space Milkshake (2012)

Ducked! Ahahahahahahaha

Ducked! Ahahahahahahaha

Sci-fi comedies have a long and glorious history, starting (to all intents and purposes) with “Dark Star” in 1973. With its crew of slackers and oddballs, it showed that space wasn’t all clean corridors and humanoid aliens, but dirty underwear, things breaking down and weird beachball-with-feet aliens. We fans of both genres are living in its debt, and the makers of this film are definitely doing so too.

Robin Dunne, Billy Boyd, Kristin Kreuk, and Amanda Tapping are our heroes, the crew of an orbiting sanitation station, sort of a rubbish bin / recycling centre for all the junk left in space. They keep the space lanes clear but they’re seen as no better than the garbage men of earth. Bog-standard incompetence and petty jobsworth-ness on their part leads to an unscheduled transport getting blown up, and it contains two things – a rubber duck and a blue glowing time cube (the deadliest machine in the universe, so we’re told). One quick beaming to an alternate universe later, the duck starts mutating, while still retaining the personality of Tapping’s ex-boyfriend (and the voice of George Takei), and a robot double of Kreuk’s beams on board, kills her and starts behaving very oddly.

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There’s little in life worse than an unfunny comedy, and sadly for way too much of its running time that’s what this is. These people are all awful to each other, with the exception of Dunne as he’s the new guy on the station, and that snark and unpleasantness is used in the place of jokes and funny situations. You can tell where the jokes are supposed to be, but unless you think unnecessary rudeness is hilarious then you’re not going to get a great deal.

There’s also a lack of care over the finer points of the film, which worries nerds such as I. People making monstrously large words in Scrabble is a pet peeve of mine (you only have seven tiles, dammit!) and when they make a big point of the computer voice having changed, there’s a scene where it’s changed back and no-one seems to notice. Still, in the history of movies very few people have ever said “I would have loved that hilarious film, except for a lack of verisimilitude when it comes to Scrabble” so ultimately it didn’t matter.

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Gives an unrealistic expectation of how much fun this film was

The acting is absolutely top-notch, as you’d expect from a cast such as this, full of TV and film veterans. Boyd pokes a little fun at his Lord of the Rings role, while suffering from a mild case of Small Man Syndrome; Kreuk does well with her two roles; and clearly Tapping and Dunne must have had fun working on TV show “Sanctuary” together for four years, as they’re both producers on this. All four of them are clearly capable of comedy, but I feel the problem isn’t them so much as the writing. And now I feel bad because it’s a low budget movie made with several Canadian tax benefit packages, and was filmed in a little over two weeks…but then “Dark Star” had a tenth the budget of this and was a classic.

I love that people are making more sci-fi movies now, and they’re trying to do different things with them. And this certainly isn’t a bad movie, but it’s just not quite good enough. I presume there’s a hilarious story behind the title, too, but I don’t care enough to find out what it is. Still, I’d be happy to watch this cast do something else together, and given it’s the director’s first movie, he may improve too.

Rating: thumbs down (sorry)

EXTRA: The film’s website is remarkably similar to the film, having lots of little games to play which look fun but are in fact sort of boring and pointless.

Stranded (2013)

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Whatever happened to Christian Slater? After a star-making turn in “Pump Up The Volume”, throughout the late 80s and 90s, he could do no wrong, and starred in a continuous string of pretty high-profile films. Then, after a couple of blunders in the late 90s (“Hard Rain”, which I liked but few others did, and “Very Bad Things”, which was one of the least enjoyable films I’ve ever seen) he just seemed to fall off a cliff, career-wise. He’s still a face on the front cover of the DVD for films he’s in, but it’s a great deal less likely you’ll have heard of any of them.

After our review of “Last Days On Mars”, we promised you more indie sci-fi reviews, but then one of our hundred other review projects got in the way; and in this review, you’ll find out the difference between “indie” and “low-budget”, a fine bit of semantics.

It’s six months into a year-long mining project on the moon, and Slater is the Colonel in charge, giving us the sort of exposition that we’ve come to know and love from bad movies – the “speech the people you’re giving it to really ought to know, directed straight at the audience”. Wasting no time, we start with a meteor shower which completely cripples the base, destroying communications, main power, food stores, and causing a carbon monoxide leak, which could cause hallucinations and even death. We’re told it’s going to be 96 hours before a rescue can be expected, so the scene is set; and when they start analysis on one of the meteors and find a weird yellow substance inside, all hell quickly breaks loose.

This film is a handy combination of three others – “Alien”, “Species” and “The Thing”. But a cloth-eared version – like you showed all three films at the same time to an enthusiastic child and then got him to tell you what happened. It relies on people acting in counter-productive ways to drive the plot along – firstly, a similar problem I had with “Last Days On Mars”, is that the crew fall to pieces really quickly. If I was sending people to the Moon for a year, I’d do a bunch of psychological testing on them, but aside from Slater and the crew’s doctor (Brendan Fehr, best known for being one of the aliens on “Roswell”, many years ago) everyone just flips out at the first possible opportunity.

Two different people who get infected by the alien thing don’t tell anyone, because they were both worried about being locked up. Personally, I’d love to be locked up if there was an alien who enjoyed killing people trotting about the base! But no, for no reason whatsoever, people keep their mouth shut and that inevitably leads to disaster. Well done, dumbasses! The female member of the crew, who after getting infected and not telling anyone, gives birth to…something…is put in quarantine, but it is by a distance the least accurate use of that word in cinema history, as people are in and out of her quarantine area more regularly than they’re anywhere else on the ship.

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If I could say one thing to the casts of low-budget sci-fi movies, it would be “BE MORE SUSPICIOUS”. If someone starts acting weird, they’ve probably got an infection or they’re an alien doppelganger or something! Don’t just shake your head a little and carry on with your business – you’re in space! Show some basic competence! Do you want to stay alive?

I apologise, reader, but I’m going to have to spoil the ending of this film. If what I’ve said so far has entranced you, please stop reading now; if you’ve got any sense, read on. There’s a race to the last remaining escape pod, but the weird alien creature (who evolved into a replica of one of the dead crew members), after sabotaging the air supply, gets there and just figures out how to use it and sets off. Slater and the alien’s “mother” sit there and wait for death, 18 minutes to go. But rescue arrives! Here’s where it gets a bit confusing. We cut to Earth and a shot of the crashed escape pod, and the army guys who go to check it out are just being sent a video from the rescue ship.

Fairly dramatic, right? But it immediately falls apart if you think about it at all. It takes three days or so to get from Earth to the Moon, while radio signals take about a second and a half. The escape pod with the alien had, at the very most, an 18 minute head start. So not only did the rescue ship not attempt to intercept the escape pod, but they didn’t bother telling anyone on Earth about the danger until it was too late. Or, the people making this film either didn’t know or didn’t care how long the trip from the moon to the earth would take. It’s the second one, isn’t it?

After this film ended, I turned to my wife and made a long fart sound, and her reply was to say “I’ve seen worse. At least Slater didn’t do his Jack Nicholson impression this time”. That is as much praise as this film deserves. It’s lazy and boring and the people who made it don’t deserve careers in something as awesome as making films.

Amazingly, that person is Academy Award-winner (okay, for set design) Roger Christian, who’s had a long and varied career and was amazingly allowed near a director’s chair again after “Battlefield Earth”, a film even worse than this one. Still, I can’t be too grumpy, as he worked as a set dresser on one of my favourite TV shows, “Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)” at the beginning of his career, and may have been one of the people who stopped George Lucas making “Star Wars” bad.

Rating: thumbs way down

The Last Days On Mars (2013)

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I love science fiction. Not as much as my mate Julian, who will pretty much watch anything with a spaceship in it, but enough that I’ve seen a heck of a lot of sci-fi films and TV series. So the current mini-trend for “indie” sci-fi is pleasing – “Europa Report” (review coming soon), “Moon”, “Gravity” (okay, not really indie) and now this, among others, are trying to do interesting things with the genre. But does this one succeed?

At some unspecified point in the future, humankind’s got its act together enough to organise 6-month people-led missions to Mars. There’s 19 hours left before this crew’s trip is over and they get to go home, and it’s safe to say tensions are building among the crew. Kate (Olivia Williams) seems to be the most hated of the lot, but the desperation of some crew members to be the person who discovers life on Mars is causing everyone to be a bit stressed out. The first half hour of the film is really good, sketching out characters quickly and building a sense of tension well. The film cleverly shows the future to be a lot like the present – people have their petty jealousies about wanting to be the first person to find alien life, all their equipment is breaking down or worn out, and so on.

Without wanting to spoil it too much, they find something, and that’s when people start falling apart. Quite quickly, too. I can sort-of understand how big a deal it is to the characters, but you’d have to hope that these people would be subject to the strictest psychological profiling and testing before being sent out, and I just don’t believe some of them would have passed it. Also, one of them talks about going home to his young kids…would they let someone on a mission that lasted (with travel there and back) 18 months if they had young kids? But, this isn’t the moment where the film turns and becomes something rather odder. When a crew member, taken over by Martian bacteria and turned into some sort of weird space zombie, stabs one of his friends in the stomach with a screwdriver is when the film takes a lurch to the left.

If you’re reading this site, chances are you’ve seen “Dark Star”, the amazing John Carpenter sci-fi comedy. Well, “Last Days On Mars” is, for its first half, “Dark Star” played as drama, and its second half is “Dark Star” played as horror. It’s a surprisingly close fit, too. The one thing it doesn’t rip off is the timescale of the film – in “Dark Star”, they were years along into a seemingly never-ending mission, whereas in this they’re hours from getting to go home.

This film’s best and worst thing is its cast. Elias Koteas, Olivia Williams and Liev Schreiber are all long-term seasoned film pros, with Williams being the standout for her portrayal of a character who’d be a nagging unsympathetic shrew in lesser hands. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are lesser hands, and the gulf is immediately apparent when any of them interact with the A-team.

I can’t believe no low-budget film company has made “Space Zombies” yet which, if directed by a guy like Paul WS Anderson or Christopher Smith, would be amazing. Unfortunately, this just isn’t. The high water mark for real intelligent sci-fi remains “Solaris”, and while it’s a good thing that people are trying to do this sort of film again, it’d be nice if they were a bit better.

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