(On Cable TV, February 2019) The good news for Science Fiction movie fans lately is that special effects are cheap, SF devices literacy is high and there are plenty of non-theatrical distribution channels for low-budget SF movies to reach an audience. The not-so-good news are that given all three previous factors, it’s easier than ever to stumble upon a big cube of nonsense. I think that there are a few good ideas in 2036 Origin Unknown. Too many of them, in fact: By the time we’re past a Martian expedition, an Artificial Intelligence taking over a mission, a cube of mysterious origins, then we’re off into the usual 2001-inspired special effects mysticism, virtual reality reboot, the destruction of the human race and an AI that learns the true magic of friendship. That’s a whole lot, and by the end of the film it feels as if it’s been clearing its throat for 75 minutes before getting to what it really wanted to say. Not to mention an ending that pretty much trivializes what’s come before it, a high-tech fillip very much in the tradition of the venerable “it was all a dream” dodge. Still, despite 2036 Origin Unknown final flop, there are a few intriguing elements in the mix. There’s a striking structural audacity in having most of the film being Katee Sackhoff interacting with computer displays, slick special effects taking over much of the heavy lifting in describing a much bigger story outside the confines of the (essentially) single-room set. The technobabble is ambitious but remains technobabble—and it’s all too easy to find mistakes in the illustrating special effects, even in the first few minutes. The writer clearly has a lot of his mind—it’s too bad that he couldn’t quite cull and select what he should have focused on, or gone beyond many of the obvious ideas in his premise. There’s a bumper crop of those low-budget imaginative SF movies lately, and they should be encouraged: they’re significantly better than what Syfy-special “low-budget SF movie” used to mean even a few years ago, and from time to time you get one that hits it out of the park. 2036 Origin Unknown isn’t one of them, but you have to play the averages.
(On Cable TV, July 2014) I’m constantly nonplussed at the insistence on making Riddick an ongoing SF franchise. Sure, I was an early fan of Pitch Black. Of course, I really like Vin Diesel. It goes without saying that I wish writer/director David Twohy the best in his career. But after the messy incoherence that was The Chronicles of Riddick, we’ve seen the best that universe had to offer, and it’s something best let go. Not that Riddick is overly enamored of its predecessor either: It’s impressively dedicated at erasing the memory of the previous entry, quickly and definitively putting Riddick back in his favorite environment: battling nature and human opponents on a planet where survival seems unlikely. The first twenty minutes of the film go by with nearly no dialogue, all the better to demonstrate against how much of an invulnerable bad-boy Riddick can be. By the time a “mercenary station” (WHAT???) is reached and two competing teams land to vie for Riddick’s head, the film settles into a comfortable B-movie routine. There are, to be fair, a few good moments here and there. By stripping down to the basic essentials of a survival thriller, Riddick judiciously focuses on its lead character and goes back to straight-up suspense rather than the nonsensical extended mythology of the second film. Other actors get a chance to try to equal Vin Diesel’s usual intensity: There’s a nice rivalry between Matthew Nable and Jordi Mollà as the rival mercenary leaders, while Katee Sackhoff gets to be a little bit more than just “the girl” in the script. Of course, there’s little suspense regarding Riddick’s fate – it’s the kind of film to be watched to see what the protagonist will do to his enemies. (In most movies, we fear when a protagonist is in chains and threatened. In this one, we sit back and anticipate the carnage.) Of course, Riddick is a movie for fans –essentially an attempt to gain operating capital for the next installment. As such, it’s a bit bland, a bit competent, a bit ridiculous and a bit enjoyable. There may or may not be another installment in the series –I don’t particularly care, which is actually a step up from how I felt at the end of the previous film.