Sunday, 14 January 2018

Starship Troopers: Traitor Of Mars

Voice cast: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, DeRay Davis, Justin Doran, and Luci Christian

Director: Shinji Aramaki  

88 minutes (15) 2017
Widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Sony blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Ian Shutter

While independent Mars celebrates its 25th anniversary of the red planet’s terraforming, alien bugs invade and prompt corrupt Earth authority Amy Snapp to destroy the former colony to save humanity’s home world. With psychic Carl and captain Carmen sidelined for the duration, this franchise of interplanetary missions, here confined mostly to a saga of the inner Solar system, finds colonel Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) demoted to lead a ‘lost patrol’ of Martian trainees in VR combat sims, but he learns they are, at first, unprepared for actual fighting on the Martian surface.

Starship Troopers: Traitor Of Mars offers military sci-fi horror (sci-fight?) where “the future is everyone’s duty” according to Sky Marshal and scheming despot Amy, who plots against space marines and mobile infantry alike. The arachnids are legion, just as before, and although the space hardware and technologies remains fairly standard for Star Trek/ Star Wars type scenarios, there are some distinctive designs that distinguish this generic factory of war machinery from entirely run-of-the-mill space opera. Traditional SF, in the form of planetary romance, makes a strong counterpoint against sundry conventions of modern-SF space wars.


When Rico is stranded on the bug-infested Martian surface, his memory conjures a spirit, in the form of Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), who was a casualty in the original live-action movie, Starship Troopers (1997). She becomes a ghostly goad for him to continue, and a familiar but inconstant presence that leavens the lone hero’s isolation after tactical abandonment. The movie plays with military stereotypes and cross-genre iconography, fielding comedy-of-errors pratfalls alongside stirring quips and imagery borrowed or perhaps curated from Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Aliens, and Halo.



It soon becomes a repackaging of clichés that eventually transcends the usually fatal flaw of any simplistic repetition of pithy one-liners and boots-on-the-ground machismo. There is courage and camaraderie that elevates the frequently grisly material (this movie earns its 15 certificate) from the schlock and terrorism routine of most animated sci-fi, and the style that leans towards photo-realism for the hardware and environments, but draws its artistic lines at defining the major characters without many obvious attempts to cross the uncanny valley. The players are rendered just realistically enough for a willing suspension of disbelief but lack sufficient veracity to blur the differences between artwork and photo. This approach to the animation effects is wise and, no doubt, saved the movie-makers a lot of money so this production could be easily affordable.     



In terms of sci-fi action or monster movie horrors, there are tons of gory fighting scenes, while the armoured soldiers make good use of their powered-suits, and jet-pack jumps to safety or into battle. Although it’s a foregone conclusion that downed Rico will be rescued from the red planet’s hell of bug swarms charging over the dusty horizon, and the human  villain’s plan to sacrifice a colony for its rebellion against Earth-based control is obviously going to be thwarted, the tensions and suspense are palpable throughout and the weirdly composed sense of vaguely Lovecraftian mystery that supports the movie’s story is worth a couple of extra points.  

  
“Would you like to know more?”


Saturday, 6 January 2018

American Assassin

Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Taylor Kitsch, and David Suchet

Director: Michael Cuesta

111 minutes (18) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Lions Gate 4K Ultra HD  
[Released 15th January]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton  

Based upon a novel by Vince Flynn, this CBS production starts with a terrorist attack on a Spanish beach where civilians are slaughtered, including the hero’s girlfriend. A wounded survivor, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien, Maze Runner movies, Teen Wolf TV show), becomes obsessed with revenge and transforms himself into a vigilante against Muslim extremists. Going beardy in Libya, almost suicidal Rapp infiltrates a terrorist’s secret base but, in the movie’s first plot twist, he is rescued and recruited by CIA deputy director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan, Alien vs. Predator).


She introduces novice Rapp to military mentor Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Birdman, RoboCop remake), a former US navy SEAL who trains Rapp along with other agents for an elite ‘Orion’ team. This training sequence includes an augmented reality scenario with VR head-gear. Hurley leads a mission in Turkey to catch a nuke deal in progress, and Rapp is teamed up with local spy Annika (Shiva Negar), going off-script, and into rogue action, but still managing to uncover evidence of the bomb-maker’s plans. When the heroes track down a mercenary physicist in Rome, interrogations mean torture on both sides of the spy wars, where betrayals, and violent confrontations with a profiled target, known only as ‘Ghost’ (Taylor Kitsch), eventually result in an epic, disaster-movie styled, climax.  


A gritty and graphic exploration of espionage schemes, American Assassin delivers its downbeat, genre-wise adventures with plenty of sharply choreographed stunts in tightly edited action scenes. Rapp seems a very unlikely hero at first, and O’Brien’s portrayal of him as an embittered everyman, who’s turned just as fanatical as the enemy forces that he opposes, is only sketched into place at the centre of a murky international conspiracy which proves to be a marked contrast to James Bond’s glamorous heroics. The character of Hurley is actually more compelling than the younger Rapp, and Keaton brings a much needed gravitas to an otherwise clichéd role. The set-up for a possible sequel is intriguing enough that a follow-up would be a welcome addition to the 21st century’s spy actioners.    


The 4K Ultra HD edition has superb image quality, and this movie really benefits from the HDR format where no picture detail is lost, even in the various low-light scenes.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Beyond Skyline

Cast: Frank Grillo, Bojana Novakovic, Iko Uwais, Callan Mulvey, and Valentine Payen

Writer & director: Liam O’Donnell

105 minutes (15) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Signature Blu-ray region B
[Released 8th January]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary    

Aerial assault of a grandly gothic variety was the spectacular highlight of indie production Skyline (2010). Directed by brothers Colin and Greg Strause, it began like Cloverfield meets Independence Day, concentrating on the fates of citizens, and their reactions to alien conquest, so there was plenty of widescreen spectacle in disaster movie mode. The lack of Hollywood resources meant the movie ignored typical blockbuster upscale framing for a ‘big picture’ of global events, until a closing montage, but Skyline was exemplary as a modern weird sci-fi B-movie template, ejecting the warp core of SF epic structure, and sidestepping any bother with generic portrayals of political responses to a menace from outer space, or international defensive efforts to counter the invaders’ strategy.

Putting cult comic-book styled horrors back into a subgenre culture, Skyline offered city-stomping monsters hunting humans, while airborne mecha-squid scouts are launched from hovering alien base-ships, to roam around and probe inside buildings. Even when military help appears in the form of marine snipers and USAF drone bombers, the nuked mother-ship survives to rebuild itself, and its entourage of squid-bots salvage their own, with a leave-no-tentacle-behind policy.


Skyline delivered tremendous fun as briskly impressive sci-fi terror. It’s not a great movie like Starship Troopers (1997) that provided so many gruesome shocks, but it does match the savagely downbeat effectiveness of District 9 (2009) for imaginatively satirical verve, with an edgy protagonist and compelling exhilaration. Skyline fulfils the promise of its arresting poster artwork, offering far better pulp SF entertainment than Spielberg’s woefully inadequate War Of The Worlds (2005) remake, especially when the direction quite daringly refuses to permit mankind a knowingly easy salvation, with an engagingly witty genre-twist conclusion that cribs a switcheroo surprise from Scanners (1981). 


Although it’s a belated sequel, sci-fi action horror movie Beyond Skyline is also a terrific adventure that beguiles its victims into enslavement by strange lights. As before, this is not a Rapture event, it’s an apocalypse from above. Underground train passengers, stranded between stations, are prompted to escape but not to safety, led by L.A. cop Mark (Frank Grillo, Captain America sequels) and his wayward son Trent. 

The survivors move through the subway until dark tunnels are caved-in by a nuke blast. The weirdly squid-like aliens exert a nightmarish influence before again practising their head-ripping mayhem. Mass abductions by the body and brain snatchers result in plug ‘n’ play-along drone troopers. The grungy bio-tech of the mother-ship’s interior brings hell to Earth.


Like hitchhikers or stowaways aboard the alien ship, Mark’s group find themselves in the Golden Triangle of the Mekong delta. There’s plenty of gore fu and, when jungle fighter Kanya (Pamelyn Chee) finds an alien egg in the crashed ship, she seems like a contender for this movie’s heroine, but it’s actually the train-driver Audrey (Bojana Novakovic) who eventually takes on the role with admirable gusto.


In this entertaining sci-fi horror scenario, mere survival is not enough and Mark realises it’s necessary to fight back, and fight to the death. Thankfully, there are alien cyber-drones with human brains that retain some basic humanity, and the Lovecraftian punch-up finale results in a twist ending with a sudden escalation of hostilities into the realms of space opera. 

Building upon the Strauses’ successful reworking of classic sci-fi movies War Of The Worlds and Invaders From Mars, this welcome sequel boasts an undeniable strangeness, and its SF plot twists apparently intend to support an upscale mythology that promises further sequels, extending the franchise into at least a genre trilogy.