Recommendation: Decker Shado

Right now this particular reviewer is getting his butt kicked by the Youtube algorithm, probably because he puts out videos devoted to science fiction, Asian cinema, cult movies and horror rather than… well, I don’t know what does well in the Youtube algorithm, because I don’t watch it.

And of course, Godzilla movies. He’s fun, dramatic and has luscious hair, and seems like a very nice person. So please support him in whatever way you can!

“The Eternals” should have been a TV show (not much in the way of spoilers)

I kind of went off the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Avengers: Endgame, primarily because it bid farewell to most of the original Avengers who made the brand what it was, while ushering in an era of much, much lesser superheroes. It also was when Marvel started spewing out Disney+ TV shows like a geyser, and so far all of them have had serious issues of varying degrees.

But there is one Marvel show that should have been a TV show, and that’s The Eternals.

I admit that I am only about halfway through this Chloe Zhao superhero movie, but I sincerely doubt that it’s going to turn around and suddenly blow me away in the second half. It is, to put it simply, plodding. It just trudges along rather than sweeping the audience in its wake, never making you excited about anything that happens. Even when something shocking or cataclysmic occurs… you don’t feel it.

In the first half of the movie, there is a horrifying revelation about the protagonists, their natures, their mission, their very existence and everything they believed about themselves… and their general attitude towards this is, “Aww, that sucks a little.” It is so anticlimactic, and it just made me even more indifferent to most of these characters, most of whom are generic (Thena, Sersi), bland (Ikaris) or annoying (Sprite, Druig).

Remember when Captain America discovered that HYDRA had been infesting SHIELD for the past seventy years, and had corrupted it completely from within? That was a shocking moment, and it held the weight of its import. But I don’t feel that with The Eternals.

I should care. It doesn’t make me care.

Part of the problem is just that Chloe Zhao’s direction is very uninspired, and the script is extremely meh. It’s just boring. But even if there was some pep and zing in this movie, it would still have some serious issues that need to be addressed… and most of those could have been handled by making it a TV series rather than a movie. Ten, maybe twelve episodes could have told the same story, but with more meat on its bones.

Part of the problem is that the main cast is too large. Look at the Guardians of the Galaxy – they have five members of their main cast, and a small number of supporting characters bouncing off them. Each of the Guardians has a distinct personality that complements or conflicts with every other member, and the cast is small enough that nobody gets lost in the shuffle. This is not the case with The Eternals – there are too many Eternals in the main cast, and thus there isn’t time enough to explore any of them except maybe Sersi. Most of them are extremely underdeveloped, and I just ended up thinking of them as “the Superman clone” or “the guy who looks like Credence Barebone” or “the little annoying one.” The only character traits that really set them apart were that some of them were very bitter and pissy.

This problem would probably be lessened in a TV format, where we could have episodes focusing more on the many different characters and what sets them apart from each other, as well as their feelings about their mission, their history, and the events of the story unfolding in the present. Maybe they could give Ikaris a personality.

The other problem is simple: the scope of the story is too big for a movie with this many characters. The Eternals have been on earth for seven thousand years, and supposedly have been defending and assisting humanity for most of that time. We get some flashbacks to their time in the past every now and then, but again, it feels pretty underdeveloped, and it doesn’t really give the feeling of those seven thousand years. We need more to really grasp it.

A TV show? You could introduce multiple glimpses of the past, all across the world, and you could work your way through those seven thousand years incrementally, all the way to the present, rather than hopping straight from 5,000 BC to the 1600s, with a ten-second wedding detour.

I admit I have not finished the movie yet, but the handling of it so far has not given me confidence that Chloe Zhao is suddenly going to give me a wild, exciting experience. It’s been dull and plodding, and all signs point to it continuing to be dull and plodding.

What Ghostbusters: Afterlife brings to the table that the 2016 reboot didn’t

The Ghostbusters franchise is getting something that few do: a reboot of an unsuccessful reboot.

Usually when a franchise has a dud reboot, the attitude from the suits is either that the IP is poisonous and nobody wants to see it, or that they just need to wait awhile before making another bad reboot. They most definitely don’t listen to fans, who are considered the bane of entertainment companies – creators and companies will not only give the fans stuff they hate, but will insult them for not liking it.

But after the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot embarrassingly failed to bring in audiences – partly on the back of an obnoxious “if you don’t like this, you’re sexist” campaign – something unusual happened. Sony actually listened. They announced a new sequel to the original Ghostbusters movie, directed by the son of the original movie’s director, with the three surviving Ghostbusters returning (and Sigourney Weaver and Annie Potts).

What immediately made people happy was that… this is the kind of movie that fans had been screaming for for years – the classic Ghostbusters passing the torch to a new generation, and suitable respect being paid to the original.

And despite some retreading of familiar territory (demon dogs and Staypuft marshmallow men), respect and passing the torch is what the trailers are all about. We see familiar sights such as Ecto-1 and the PK-meter, and there’s a thrill to seeing them resurrected in a modern movie. There are even brief glimpses of a collection of spores, molds and fungus, showing that even throwaway gags from the original movie are being taken into consideration here.

They even found a way to make Egon Spengler central to the story, even though Harold Ramis sadly died some years ago. While Egon has passed on in the Ghostbusters universe, his work and legacy are clearly very important to the story, and his family members are central to the action. It feels like he’s still playing a part in the story.

And despite Leslie Jones’ howling about how the new Ghostbusters would all be men, it looks like it will be an even split between boys and girls. The kid most prominently displayed in the trailers is a young girl who looks like a female clone of Egon, and seems to act like one as well. This is pretty pleasant – there was a nasty undercurrent of “go feminism, down with stupid men!” to the 2016 reboot that extended to both the marketing and the script, so it’s nice to see some actual equality and the inclusion of female characters without the exclusion of males.

It even has greater racial diversity, since it looks like there will be an Asian kid in the mix as well as a black one, which also means they aren’t just making new versions of the same characters.

It also has something the 2016 version didn’t really have much of – innovation. That movie provided some proton-pack variations of weapons, but none of them felt like anything but supernatural pistols. But the trailers for this movie show the kids doing some new stuff – specifically a chase scene in the Ecto-1 where Phoebe pops out of the side on a seat, allowing her to fire a proton pack while the vehicle is moving. At the same time, there’s a trap with newly-installed remote-controlled wheels that allows it to move independently.

That’s fresh! That’s new! The 2016 movie tried to dazzle us with giant slabs of incomprehensible technobabble about the tech from the original movie, which drained all the life from the already-bad dialogue and just highlighted how inferior it was as a film. This new movie shows us the innovations being made to existing technology, and it feels natural and organic.

Then again, Ghostbusters 2016 didn’t bring a lot to the table, except a “villain is an incel” plot twist that nobody liked. It’s one of those reboots that really highlights how good the original one was. Okay, the original Ghostbusters wasn’t high art or anything, but it was tightly-plotted, clever, witty and creative. The reboot was a disaster, a mess of bad improv, a flabby incoherent script, stupid lowbrow jokes, sexism and a quartet of howling hammy harpies at its center.

Two words: Melissa McCarthy.

It also lacked scares. Though the original Ghostbusters was and is regarded as a comedy, it’s actually pretty much a horror movie with some genuinely impressive, suspenseful scenes devoid of laughs. Ghostbusters 2016 not only is not scary, but it doesn’t realize that a funny movie doesn’t have to be funny ALL THE TIME and can take itself seriously.

In short, the original was a serious movie that just happens to have a lot of comedic dialogue.

It’s hard to tell just from the trailer what the tone of the new movie will be; it seems a bit more somber, which admittedly is more a typical supernatural-movie/TV atmosphere in the 21st century. It will have some humor in it from what I’ve seen, mostly of the dry Venkman variety. I do like that it seems to be taking the whole storyline seriously as a supernatural thriller rather than just going “yuk yuk, the villain is an incel nerd troll! Let’s shoot him in the crotch! LOL! Fart jokes, dancing and screaming!”

So overall, I’d say that from what we know of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, it sounds much more promising than the 2016 movie… although that admittedly wasn’t saying much, since that movie was a stillbirth of a project. At the very least, this reboot seems like it has its heart in the right place, in terms of respecting the original and the fans, and yet trying something new and different.

And I’ll be showing my support financially for Afterlife, in order to support those who treat their fans and franchises right.

Review: Star Trek: The Original Series

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations… to boldly go where no man has gone before!”

It would be hard to find many TV shows as wildly influential as the original series of”Star Trek,” which inspired a devoted fandom, several spinoffs of varying quality, a string of films, and most recently an alternate-timeline reboot directed by J. J. Abrams. And despite the late-sixties bright colors and miniskirts, there’s a bright-eyed yet intense quality to the series — it’s a smart, well-written series with a few duds, headed by a trio of memorable and lovable characters.

In the twenty-third century, mankind has spread out among the stars, and established a Federation of like-minded worlds. The starship Enterprise is part of their Starfleet division — and it does pretty much everything, from fighting hostile aliens like the Klingons and the Romulans, ferrying diplomats and alien dignitaries, and exploring planets with weird and freakish creatures on them (including a furry creature that sucks salt out of its victims).

The captain is James T. Kirk (William Shatner), who is assisted and guided by his two trusted friends, the logic-driven, half-Vulcan science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the crusty, blunt-spoken doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Deforest Kelley). With the faithful crew of the Enterprise behind them, they travel through time, encounter godlike aliens, fall prey to some weird diseases (including one that makes you drunk!), get caught in countless planetary wars, deal with a suspiciously large number of crazy/evil computers, and encounter countless strange creatures (a rock monster, brains in jars, a hostile lizard-man, flying brain cells, Jack the ripper, tribbles…).

Yes, it has those bright colors, beehives and chintzy sets that you expect from a late sixties show, especially a science fiction one. But what made “Star Trek: The Original Series” such an enduring show was that it was a depiction of a brighter future, full of exploration and wonder, without becoming too starry-eyed to take seriously. And it had a good balance of “Big Moral Message” stories (“racism is stupid,” “war is bad,” “don’t trust computers blindly”) and solid sci-fi stories that featured some truly weird, out-there alien life forms.

Simply put,”Star Trek: The Original Series” tended to have very well-written, intense stories that relied on a mix of action (usually involving Kirk losing part of his shirt), well-written dialogue and plenty of powerful emotion (a guilt-ridden starship captain becomes obsessed with destroying a machine that killed his crew). This allowed some of the stories that would otherwise seem rather silly (Spock getting a pancake-sized alien cell embedded in his back) to have some serious tension, but not in a way that precluded some actual humor (the entire episode about tribbles — chirping little furry balls that reproduce exponentially — is side-splittingly funny, especially when poor Kirk gets buried alive in them).

It also has one of the most cohesive casts ever to be seen on TV, even though actors like Nichelle Nichols, George Takei and Walter Koenig were underused. For all the gags about Shatner’s acting, he plays Kirk as a man of both brains and passion — he’s driven and emotion, with a love for his ship, his crew and the unexplored crannies of the galaxy that rules his life. But he’s also intelligent and canny, and more than once we see him outwitting a foe, whether it’s making a primitive gun by hand or playing the ultimate bluff against a vast alien ship.

And he has uniquely solid chemistry with Nimoy and Kelley, so that you can really believe that these three characters are fast friends who bicker, joke and advise each other… well, mostly Bones and Spock snipe at each other, while Kirk sits there smiling. Nimoy gives a brilliant performance as the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, struggling with the emotions that his Vulcan nature doesn’t allow him to express, even though his relationship with his people is rather tempestuous. Kelley plays McCoy as the exact opposite — a fiery Southern doctor whose determination to do the right thing sometimes clashes with his duty. Yes, he boozes it up while on duty, but who doesn’t want a doctor like McCoy?

Flaws? Well, like any TV show, “Star Trek: The Original Series” had some dud episodes, often involving space hippies, Abraham Lincoln and brain theft. And some of the attitudes towards women are… seriously problematic, especially in the final episode. The series briefly dabbled in the idea of a female first officer, and Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura is depicted as strong, gutsy and smart when she gets to do something (which is admittedly rare), but it’s still heavily weighed towards the men.

Few TV shows have had the impact on nerd culture that “Star Trek: The Original Series” has had, whether it’s transporting to a parallel reality or catchphrases that everyone misquotes. Despite some episodes that veer off into the silly and/or stupid, it’s still an excellent, enjoyable series with a bright, idealistic view of the future.

Women and “The Thing From Another World”

The Thing From Another World is usually dismissed as the “original” version of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and considered to be an inferior adaptation of the original short story. After all, 1950s special effects were simply not up to the task of making a shapeshifting monster, and the direction of most 1950s movies cannot measure up to one of the greatest horror/sci-fi movies of all time.

But despite the carrot monster, I do think this is a good movie seen on its own merits. Not because the story is particularly interesting or unique as 1950s sci-fi goes, but because of the way its characters are presented.

Specifically, the female characters.

The 1950s weren’t the best time for female characters in movies. Not saying they were all bad, because the existence of this movie clearly shows that they weren’t. But there were some extremely misogynistic attitudes in many movies that went unchallenged. These weren’t even hateful in many cases – some of them were just people who couldn’t break out of their mindsets, like in Forbidden Planet or It: The Terror From Beyond Space.

So it’s worth noting that The Thing From Another World has a pretty egalitarian approach to its characters, and treats the women with an impressive level of respect. The most basic level is just the fact that they’re there at this scientific/military outpost, holding important positions. And at no point do they fetch coffee for the menfolk, on the assumption that men will turn to sea foam if they make their own food.

But that isn’t enough to really earn my respect. It’s more that the women and men interact casually as equals – the men don’t treat the women with the casual condescension often found in old movies. In fact, they banter and pal around with the female lead in the same way they would with a male character, including when she teases her male romantic partner.

Speaking of which, the romantic subplot is also refreshing. Rather than a macho hero sweeping a woman off her feet, the two have a cute backstory that involved him falling asleep during a date, and being kind of embarrassed by it, especially since she thinks it’s so funny. It feels much more organic and realistic, and less like a personal fantasy.

Furthermore, the women don’t end up as damsels. Despite the DVD cover, there are no screaming women in peril here… or at least, no more peril than the men are in. There is a woman threatened by the monster at one point, where she is forced to hide behind a flaming mattress, but she isn’t screaming and she actually chose to take this perilous position rather than being transparently corralled into it by the screenwriter so the men can save her.

So while The Thing From Another World isn’t a standout as old sci-fi goes, it does have some qualities that bring it above the herd. It can’t measure up to The Thing, but it’s still worth seeing.

The aliens of “Battleship”

The movie Battleship is bad. Very bad.

I could write a book on all the ways this movie is terrible, starting with the fact that it is essentially a Michael Bay movie without Michael Bay. Everything you hate about a Michael Bay movie is here – the destruction porn, the fetishization of the American military, the hot women that exist to be hot, the obnoxious lead character, the ludicrously dumb plot… it can go on forever.

I will be fair, however, and note that it is better than a Bay film in several ways. There is no racism on display, not much terrible comic relief, the obnoxious lead character is actually acknowledged as being an idiot and a perennial screwup, Rihanna is realistically de-glammed, and real military personnel are shown genuine respect rather than being treated as square-jawed macho dolls for Bay to make pew-pew noises with.

But in the many ways that this movie is bad, one thing really stuck out at me: the aliens.

Yes, instead of making some kind of period wartime story about depth charges or missiles, they decided to make it a science fiction story about a bizarre alien invasion. Again, I could write a sequence of essays about the many ways this is mishandled, but today I’m going to address the fact that the aliens are really bad.

A lot of this comes down to the design. If you’re going to have your aliens show up in scary-looking all-concealing armor and masks that hide them from sight, one of two things has to happen.

One, they have to remain armored and masked so that they seem more menacing.

Two, they have to be really well-designed. If you pull off that mask, people have to gasp in horror at what they are seeing, and marvel at just how alien and freaky the creature underneath looks.

Battleship… does neither.

The sad thing is that the alien armor is sufficiently menacing-looking that the aliens could have worked if they had just kept it on, maybe with some subtle glimpses of something weird peeking through the visor. The problem is, partway through the story, the Navy captures one of the aliens and pulls off its helmet.

And it looks… pretty bad. By “pretty bad,” I mean it’s wildly unimaginative – they basically took the overall look of a human, stuck some keratin spines on the chin, gave them catlike eyes, and tweaked the details just enough that they don’t look technically human. It’s a design that you’d expect to see in a subpar episode of Star Trek.

I don’t know about anyone else, but the sheer lack of imagination in their design really killed any sense of menace they had for me. All I could think was a sarcastic, “Oh no, the Earth is being invaded by goat people.” Even when we saw them striding around in their intimidating armor, I couldn’t stop seeing those terribly-designed goat people. There’s nothing about them that activates instincts of fear and revulsion.

And remember, this was a tentpole blockbuster. It had a budget of well over $200 million (which seems like way too much for a movie that doesn’t have a well-proven franchise or director behind it). I do not for a second believe that it didn’t have the money to spare to make something really bizarre and creative! I’m not talking about John Carpenter’s “Thing,” but throw on some nonhuman skin textures or a bunch of extra eyes or tentacles or something.

Review: Chaos Walking

Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy was never going to be an easy book series to adapt into movie form, simply because one of its central concepts – the Noise, the telepathic projection of thoughts from humans and other living things – is so difficult to represent in a visual medium.

But it turns out that the deeply annoying movie version of the Noise is not the only problem with “Chaos Walking” – it’s a staggering, awkward beast of a movie that seems to hope that we’ll find the constant overlapping chatter of Tom Holland to be suspenseful and gripping. It’s not – it’s intensely annoying, like listening to someone chatter banalities directly in your ear while you’re trying to watch TV.

Holland plays Todd Hewitt, a young man raised in a human colony where there are no women, and all the men are affected by the Noise, which causes their thoughts to manifest as voices and flickering images around their heads.

One day he encounters a strange scavenger in the woods, and a fiery spacecraft that has just crashed into their world. It turns out this stranger is a girl – something Todd has only heard of – named Viola (Daisy Ridley), and she doesn’t have the Noise. She’s from a scouting mission investigating what happened to the first wave of colonists on the planet, and she quickly discovers that Todd’s home of Prentisstown is… not friendly.

When Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelson) voices his ambition to ambush the new colony ship, Viola ends up on the run, hiding in the barn belonging to Todd and his fathers. The only hope for Todd and Viola is to get to another town that Todd has never heard of, Farbranch. Furthermore, it turns out there has been a lot of stuff that Todd hasn’t been told, specifically about the women and the native alien life.

“Chaos Walking” is one of those movies that really doesn’t have any business being as bad as it is. Ness’s original novel “The Knife of Never Letting Go” is an imaginative and clever sci-fi novel. Doug Liman has made some excellent action and sci-fi movies, and it has a cast of talented actors, both veterans and relative newcomers. Yet the sum of all these parts is as awkward and weird as Todd himself.

Liman’s direction in this film is, to put it bluntly, rather strange – there are odd silences where characters just stare and stand in place, punctuated by rapid-fire, hyperactive chattering that grated on my nerves like a belt sander. Somehow, the Noise was understandable and even cleverly-written in the book, but the way it’s handled in the movie is just… deeply unpleasant.

In addition to the awkward and grating Noise, the movie feels like large chunks of it have been sewn together haphazardly, with some events – like the early encounters with Aaron, the preacher – feeling clunky and artificial. The script also telegraphs Prentiss’ evilness and his sinister plans way, way too early, as if it’s afraid to surprise us later on – things that should be subtle and secret are instead made obvious and glaring. Just like the Noise.

The actors give a mixed bag of performances – Mikkelson is hypnotic even in his lesser roles, and here he has quiet dignity and menace as Prentiss. Sadly, David Oyelowo is two-dimensionally evil here, which seems like a waste of his talents, and Nick Jonas is thoroughly unconvincing as a thuggish rich boy who poses a physical threat to others.

Perhaps the biggest waste are Holland and Ridley. Ridley is called upon to look wide-eyed and scared almost all the time, not doing much else, and Holland is drowned out by his own pre-recorded chatter, making his character feel like an awkward weirdo who can’t stop fixating on Viola’s hair.

As valiant as “Chaos Walking’s” intentions were, the movie stumbled over its own weird, haphazard, dull self, becoming a sci-fi beast that can’t stop talking. Overall, a waste of great material and cast.

Review: Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Complete Series

Almost twenty years after “Star Trek” was cancelled, it returned to television screens in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” This series was set many decades after the original, on a brand-new starship.

And while the first two seasons are fairly awful (peppered with some brilliant jewels), “Star Trek: The Next Generation” eventually came into its own, weaving together interstellar political strife with some very entertaining stories. Indeed, it boldly went where science fiction had not gone for quite some time, creating epic conflicts that were easily combined with the smaller-scale problems-of-the-episode, and distinguishing itself from the original “Star Trek” without losing its sense of wonder.

The year is 2364, and the Enterprise-D is being launched under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). But as the ship proceeds towards Farpoint Station to pick up the rest of their crew, they are waylaid by a seemingly-omnipotent alien creature who calls himself Q (John DeLancie). Q decides to put the human race on trial for past savagery, so the crew of the Enterprise must solve the rather obvious mystery of Farpoint Station to prove themselves.

Over the seven years that follow, the Enterprise-D crew has a wide array of strange and mind-blowing adventures, including time-travel to the 1800s, the discovery of a humanoid android like Commander Data (Brent Spiner), assorted murder mysteries, a hologram that conquers the ship, a witchhunt for spies, a probe that beams ancient memories into Picard’s head, ancient traps left behind by dead worlds, and strange life-forms that look like grains of sand, giant snowflakes, nanites, space jellyfish, imaginary friends and other such creatures.

Furthermore, they become deeply enmeshed in the politics of alien races. Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn) becomes the central point of a conspiracy that might spark off a civil war in the Klingon Empire, and the tenuous relationship between the Federation and the Romulan Empire threatens to start ANOTHER war, especially when there is talk of reunification of the Vulcans and Romulans. And thanks to Q, the Enterprise-D encounters a terrifying enemy in a far-off corner of the galaxy — the biomechanical Borg, who sweep through and assimilate every civilization they encounter.

“Star Trek: The Next Generation” is one of those rare spinoffs that managed to create an identity of its own, and to distinguish itself from the original series without being drastically different. Much of this comes from the arcs that are lightly woven through the seasons, which often finds the Enterprise-D crew finding themselves trying to maintain a delicate balance of peace and morality, often with outcomes that don’t feel right, but are necessary to avoid devastating warfare. Yes, the Cold War ended during this show’s run. Why do you ask?

What are its flaws? The first season… well, to be frank, it sucked. It was smug, obnoxious, hypocritical, uncreative and poorly-written. The second season sucked somewhat less, but it was still badly flawed. And though all the seasons that followed ranged from very good to brilliant, they had a few clunkers in there as well (“Genesis,” “Rascals,” “Sub Rosa,” etc), including most episodes with the Ferengi.

But after those first two seasons, the complexity and depth of the writing bloomed along with the plotting. The stories often dealt with some serious ethical issues (euthanasia, drug addiction, terrorism versus freedom fighting, loyalty to an old commander, McCarthyesque witch-hunts), and had some very clever stories that could be wrenching and thought-provoking, such as the brilliant “The Inner Light” (where Picard experiences a whole lifetime on an alien world) or the action-packed, harrowing “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter, in which the Borg are poised to destroy the Federation.

Despite a rough start, Patrick Stewart’s Picard becomes a warmly endearing character over the course of the series — he’s a reserved, intellectual man who is also kind of an introvert, but also a brilliant orator, a compassionate man, and one who commands respect whenever he speaks. He also was backed by some truly excellent supporting characters — Jonathan Frakes does quite well as the first officer, even though Riker is kind of controlling and slutty; Gates McFadden is the endearingly passionate Doctor Crusher; and LeVar Burton as the endearingly earnest, awkward engineer Geordi LaForge. Just ignore Wesley Crusher.

But probably the two breakout characters were Data and Wolf, played respectively by Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn. Every Star Trek series needs its oddball, and these two shared the duty — Data is a childlike, literal-minded android whose encyclopedic knowledge doesn’t give him understanding of human emotions or actions, while Worf is a warrior alien raised among humans, not fully belonging among his own kind or among his adopted people.

“Star Trek: The Next Generation” had a bumpy start, but gradually blossomed with the introduction of the Borg and the exploration of truly creative, unique science-fiction stories. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise, and they are (mostly) astonishing.

Review: The Blackout: Invasion Earth

More than anything else, “The Blackout: Invasion Earth” reminds me of the TV show “Lost.” If Damon Lindelof were Russian, this might be the sort of movie he would produce.

And that’s because “The Blackout: Invasion Earth” has a truly fascinating sci-fi premise as a beginning, and for a while it seems like it’s chugging along pretty effectively – there’s military action, strange occurrences, and eventually some aliens. But the more answers that are revealed, the less satisfying they become, and the more hamfisted, clumsy and needlessly nihilistic the writing becomes.

The first half of the movie is a fascinating setup, with almost limitless potential. A complete blackout suddenly strikes most of the Earth’s surface, except for a circular region in Eastern Europe (including Moscow). The rest of the planet, thereafter dubbed the Quarantine Zone? Dark, incommunicado, and effectively uninhabited. Where did everyone go? Why is all technology down outside the “circle of life”? Why did all the bears attack the Russian army? And what blasted a giant tunnel through several urban skyscrapers, seemingly from space?

So far, so good. Egor Baranov crafts a genuinely suspenseful, semi-apocalyptic atmosphere, while introducing a variety of characters who find themselves on the front lines of the Quarantine Zone – an embittered man who has found purpose in the crisis, a compassionate journalist, a soldier and the medical doctor he hooked up with, and a general who is just trying to figure out what to do.

But… then we start getting answers, and they aren’t very good.

It seems that a small number of people have developed psychic powers. We don’t see most of them – just one guy, who is seeing visions of strange people who tell him that he’s needed to save the world. Soon the humans learn that all this insanity and change is part of a chilling alien invasion that has already begun, and which threatens our species with extinction if they don’t find a way to stop it.

“The Blackout: Invasion Earth” is a perfect demonstration that, when you build up a mass of mysteries and fascinating possibilities, you have to really stick the landing. But the more answers this film produces, the less satisfying they become – and a lot of the cool moments, such as the blasted skyscrapers and the bear attack, really don’t make a lot of sense when you find out what’s really going on. It’s like the story was written around these cool little moments, rather than the cool moments being the product of a well-thought-out story. See above comparison to “Lost.”

And without revealing too much about the ending, it’s ultimately a bleak, rather nihilistic depiction of humanity in general. Only in the last two minutes does anything even remotely positive happen, and it feels slapped on. Not to mention abrupt – the movie simply thuds to a stop, all problems unresolved.

Admittedly some of the problems – the uneven pacing, the thin characterization, the thin romance that leads nowhere – might be because this was originally conceived as a television series. But being a series wouldn’t have helped the flimsiness of the alien invasion plan, which shows the need for a few more script revisions. Honestly, the entire movie would have been better off without the aliens claiming they built the pyramids and started all religion.

As for the actors, they’re… meh. Just meh. Most of them do serviceable but not very good jobs, although Ksenia Kutepova is almost painfully out of her league whenever she tries to act serious. The only really memorable performance is Artyom Tkachenko as “Id,” an alien who claims he’s here to help humanity – given the structure of the aliens’ faces, Tkachenko is reduced to mainly acting with his eyebrows and eyes, and he gives a pretty decent performance.

“The Blackout: Invasion Earth” began with such promise and such memorable concepts… and then fell flat on its face with poor answers and a cast of rather uninteresting characters. Give this one a miss.

Review: The Thing

Imagine that you’re in a remote Antarctic outpost, locked in eternal icy winter, with little to do and only a few people to spend time with. Now imagine that a screaming, fleshy alien horror infiltrates your base, turning everyone it touches into extensions of itself – and if you don’t stop it, the entire planet will be destroyed.

That’s the premise behind “The Thing,” a haunting 1982 horror movie by masterful director John Carpenter. And this classic cult film is a prime example of science fiction at its most terrifying – it’s a slow-burning, claustrophobic film filled with psychological dread that periodically erupts into tentacular, flame-filled warfare. This is no jump-scare-filled schlock movie, but a finely-crafted nightmare.

A seemingly ordinary sled dog runs into an American station in the Antarctic, pursued by a crazed screaming Norwegian with a gun, who is quickly shot dead in self-defense. Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) venture to the Norwegian base, and find that someone has burned it down. Everyone is dead and burned, frozen or both… and they find the remains of a horribly malformed, inhuman creature.

Well, they find out what happened when the Norwegian dog is kenneled with the other sled dogs: it starts absorbing them into one grotesque tentacled mass. Only fire kills it. The Americans soon realize that it’s an alien organism from a nearby crash site, which can perfectly mimic other organisms – so perfectly that no one can be sure who is really human, and who is part of The Thing. Even worse, it could assimilate all life on Earth in a relative short time, if it ever got out of the frozen wasteland of Antarctica.

So, unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of paranoia and suspicion among the Americans, especially after Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) sabotages their vehicles and destroys their communications equipment. Deprived of sleep and not knowing who to trust, MacReady and the others must discover who is a Thing before it’s too late.

John Carpenter produced a number of outstanding classic films like “Halloween,” “The Fog,” “They Live,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “Escape From New York,” and so on. But “The Thing” may be Carpenter’s finest hour – it’s one of those carefully-cultivated, intricately intelligent movies that has pretty much no flaws. The acting, the writing, the atmosphere, and the feeling of all-consuming, gnawing paranoia right to the very final seconds of the film.

Carpenter’s direction here is mostly a slow-burn, building up a tripwire tension that permeates every scene… until, without warning, flesh starts stretching, tentacles whip out, and strange fluids pour out. The nightmarishness of the whole claustrophobic experience is only heightened by the way the movie makes you feel for the characters. You feel the horror of being surrounded by people who might not even be human, of being too afraid to sleep, of being surrounded by a wasteland of snow and burned remains.

And a lot of the movie’s effectiveness comes from its special effects. These are some of the most convincing practical effects ever captured on film – they’re fleshy, dripping with fluid, twisting and gnarling into something bloated and grotesque. And yet, for all the giant grainy teeth, oozing fluids and spider-legs, the most horrifying moments of The Thing’s presence are when it looks just a little too much like something ordinary and living, such as the giant screaming snarling dog-Thing. There’s almost a sense of cathartic relief when the humans fry one of the Things, just because something so profoundly wrong and horrifying is now dead.

The acting is also absolutely top-notch here, with Russell taking center stage as MacReady. The character isn’t really a hero – he’s just a guy who flies helicopters, who finds himself in the unenviable position of saving the world by whatever means necessary. He may be less educated than many of the other people in the outpost, but he’s undeniably intelligent, cunning and resourceful. But Russell is bolstered by some excellent supporting actors, including Brimley, Dysart, Keith David, and… well, pretty much everyone. The dog isn’t a bad actor either – its unnatural silence and calm is an early clue to what it truly is.

It may not have gotten the love it deserved when it was first released, but “The Thing” has proven over time that it is a true horror/sci-fi classic. Absolutely masterful.