Saturday, February 9, 2013

Three SF films

Warning:  I will discuss endings and significant plot elements.   

These are three films that I have just recently viewed.  As you can see, I'm not exactly right on top of the film scene.  

Total Recall (remake)

Source Code


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Total Recall 
If you want exciting and impossible scenes of hovercar chases (see Star Wars) in rush hour traffic, as well as car crashes, this is for you.  If exploding buildings and huge fireballs reaching for the skies are your thing, watch this film.  If scenes of hand-to-hand combat and numerous firefights are your thing, don't miss this one.  

However, if interesting characters with more than one dimension, plot development, and intelligent dialogue are your preferences, don't bother.  Watch something else.  The blurb on the DVD box says, "Better than the original."  That's a joke.  That had to be written with tongue firmly impressed into the cheek.

The bare plot line of the first film is there, buried under CGI special effects.  Quaid bored with his job, goes to a place that will insert false memories of an exciting adventure, and finds out that his present persona is an overlay.  The shootouts begin immediately at this point.   He escapes and heads for home.  He discovers that his loving wife, Lori ( played by Kate Beckinsale, has been assigned to watch for signs that he's recovering his memory, which apparently isn't his real memory either.  

Lori (Beckinsale) is the only character who stands out in this film.  She is remarkable as the embodiment of the old cliches:  Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" and "the female of the species is more dangerous than the male."   She wants Quaid dead.  And, she's not Salome who persuades others to bring Quaid's head to her on a plate; she wants to be the one who puts it there.  

The locations have been changed: it is no longer Earth and Mars, but a post-catastrophic Earth reduced to the British Federation and the Colony, which appears to be Australia and is still somewhat free of total domination by the Federation.  What's holding Cohaagen, the dictator, back is the strong resistance movement.  Cohaagen's secret weapon is Quaid who is a double/triple agent who is supposed to appear to be sympathetic to the resistance and  eventually reveal the location of the leadership.  

In the original version, Quaid learns of a device that will provide Mars with a breathable atmosphere, thus freeing the inhabitants from being forced to live in the domes because they couldn't go outside.  The end of the film was the marvelous scene of the new atmosphere covering Mars and giving all the chance to escape the Earth-controlled domes.

Total Recall 2012 has been gifted with a far less imaginative ending. Cohaagen, once the resistence is eliminated or weakened, sends his syntha-soldiers, all wearing white, shiny, plastic-appearing armor  (see Star Wars) to invade the colony and wipe out the inhabitants.  He will replace them with people from the Federation, which is getting overcrowded.  

The gimmick is the elevator, a shaft that burrows through the earth between the Federation and the Colony, which is used to transport people and goods between the two.  As the invasion begins, Quaid learns of a secret code which, if inserted into the main communication center of the syntha-soldiers,  will cause them to go inert, thus ending the invasion.  But this certainly won't provide the thrilling climax to the film:  just how exciting would be a scene where the syntha-soldiers simply stop functioning and come to a halt.  So, we and Dennis Quaid learn that the code really doesn't  exist, and Quaid is forced to resort to another method of stopping the invasion.  Would you really be surprised to learn that it involves blowing something up?

Recommendation:  see first and second paragraphs.

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Source Code

This is not a film about time travel but something to do with quantum physics. OK, but it sure looks like time travel to me.  Anyway, Colter Stevens' mission is to locate a bomb placed on a commuter train heading for Chicago, disarm it, and identify the bomber.   He needs to do this because the bomber has another "dirty bomb" which he plans to set off in Chicago.   However, he has only eight minutes to do this because the gizmo can place him on the train only eight minutes before the bomb goes off.  Fortunately for Colter, he has more than one chance to do this.  In fact, he is forced to go back numerous times because the bomb keeps going off before he succeeds in defusing it.  

Colter did not volunteer for this mission.   He was an Air Force copter pilot in Afghanistan whose last memories are of being on a mission and reporting that he's getting heavy ground fire.  Then, he suddenly finds himself on this commuter train, seated across from a very attractive young lady who seems to know him under a different name.  He heads for the men's room to regain control and finds that he has a different face and probably a different body.  The bomb explodes, and Colter finds himself in some sort of pod or control cabin, where he is able to communicate with an AF officer and a mad scientist, who finally explain just what is going on.

Now he is informed of his mission. He is being placed, thanks to a highly secret and experimental gadget, into the consciousness of a man who is about to die in eight minutes.  That is the limitation of the gadget's functioning.  Why he went the first time without any information is never explained, or at least I don't remember any explanation.  I suspect this was done, not because of the plot, but simply to make the film more intriguing to viewers.

The film has two stories: one is Colter's attempts to locate the bomb and the bomber and the other is his growing attachment to Christina Warren (played by Michelle Monaghan), the young woman seated across from him, who knows him as Sean Fentress.  What Colter doesn't know is that he is being kept alive artificially for the duration of the mission and will die at the end.  Colter, however, guesses at his true situation and persuades his contact to run a little experiment of his own.  

The director of Source Code is Duncan Jones, who also happens to be the director of another SF film that I enjoyed, Moon.   Jones is unique today in that he is able to keep the special effects to a minimum and actually spends most of the film developing interesting characters and story line.  I've seen only two of his films and in those two he follows a pattern.  He focuses on only one SF element (cloning in Moon and the consciousness-transferring gizmo in Source Code).  He then builds the story and characters around those elements, concentrating on character behavior and dialogue among the cast members and creating an interesting story line.  Special effects are kept to a minimum: the focus is on the relationship among the characters as they are acted upon by the SF element.

Rating:  I would give it a 3.75 on a 5 point scale. It's not a great SF film, but it's certainly a decent film about gizmos and people who try to survive with them or in spite of them.

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This is certainly the most complex film of the three.  It is definitely and clearly a time-travel film. But, like Source Code, the SF element does not dominate the plot to the exclusion of an interesting story and some interesting characters.  Time-travel in this film is one-way only-to the past. Someone who travels into the past must remain there.  In addition,  there appears to be a limit to the length of time one can travel into the past--30 years.

Loopers are assassins working for the mob, but with a twist.  The story is set in 2044 in an US suffering an economic collapse.  Time travel is invented in 2074, some thirty years later.  It is immediately outlawed by the government, but criminal elements have gotten control of a time-travel machine.  As it is extremely difficult to hide a body in 2074, the mob uses the device as a way of disposing of their enemies.  A looper in 2044 gets a message telling him where to be and at what time.  The victim appears, bound hand and foot, and with a bag over his head.  The looper then immediately shoots him.  The victim also has several silver bars strapped to his back, the looper's payment. 

Occasionally a looper will find that his payment is a considerable number of gold bars.  This happens when the looper "closes the loop."   If a looper lives long enough, he will reach 2074.  The mob now considers him a threat  for he knows about time-travel,  and they do not want the government to discover what they are doing.  So, he is captured and sent back, with the gold bars, to his earlier self to be killed.  At this point, the looper retires and decides how to spend the next 30 years.     

Joe is a looper who lives a comfortable life and even manages to save a few bars of silver from each job.  All goes well until his last assignment, which he doesn't immediately recognize as being his last one.  He get a notice of time and place and is puzzled when the victim doesn't show up exactly on time.  Then the victim appears, but Joe freezes when he is confronted by a man who is not tied nor does he have a bag over his head.  Stunned, the victim turns and is shot in the back, but the gold bars protect him.  He manages to knock Joe out and escape. The victim is Old Joe, himself 30 years in the future.

Young Joe realizes that he's in trouble and in a confrontation with several members of the looper gang is knocked out.  This is followed by the most confusing scene in the film.  Joe is knocked out and when he regains consciousness, he is back in the field, waiting for the victim to appear.  This time the victim is bound and his head is covered with a bag.  Joe kills him and discovers his payment is in gold bars, and he now realizes whom he had killed.  This time all proceeds as expected, and Joe retires.  We then follow Joe as he ages and turns in Old Joe, who is played by Bruce Willis.

 We are now in 2074 and see the events that led to the first visit by Old Joe who survives.  He has come back not just to survive but to kill the child who will grow up to be the Rainmaker, the mob leader who was responsible for the death of Old Joe's wife.  The rest of the film is now split between Old Joe, as he searches for the child and Young Joe who is trying to stay out of the hands of the looper gang. 

As in Source Code, the special effects are kept to a minimum, even in scenes involving time travel.  The traveler suddenly appears without benefit of noise or color or transporter beams, etc.  

Young Joe is portrayed as shallow and self-absorbed.  He has no compunction about killing others, including his future self, whom he insists is not him at this present moment.   Since killing his future self will benefit him, he is determined to finish him off. Old Joe, the Bruce Willis' character, is quite a different person, a reformed killer.  He is determined to kill the child because he feels that will save his wife.  He regrets the necessity, but the life of his wife is more important.

One of the most interesting scenes takes place in a diner when Young Joe and Old Joe confront each other.  Several minutes are spent in just dialogue, most likely a scene that would have been cut by the director of Total Recall or by George Lucas, who lately has forgotten that  the prime elements of a film are plot and characters.  Special effects should enhance the film's story, not be the reason for it.

Three characters who stand out:   Bruce Willis as Old Joe, Emily Blunt as Sara, the mother of the child who will become the Rainmaker, and Jeff Daniels as Abe, the head of the looper gang. 

Rating:  3.75 on a 5 point scale.  It probably would get a higher rating from someone who isn't bothered by the confusing scene I mentioned earlier, nor by the ending.  Of course, this is time travel, so I guess I should just forget the anomalies and enjoy the film. 

While Total Recall had at least three or four times and perhaps even five times the action scenes of the other two films combined, we must not forget that Bruce Willis is in Looper, and we can't have Bruce without at least one shootout.  In fact, we see him in what I consider to be the Iconic Bruce Willis encounter.  In this scene he enters the building where the looper gang hangs out and proceeds to stroll down the hallway, an automatic weapon in each hand, firing as he goes, taking them out, to the front, to the rear, on each side as he passes by the doors to various rooms.  Willis clearly was enjoying himself in this scene, and it reminded me of an almost identical scene in Last Man Standing.

Overall:  I found Looper and Source Code far more interesting than Total Recall.


  1. Fred,
    Thank you for these reviews! I think I will pass on seeing the Total Recall remake, but the other two look interesting.

  2. Cheryl,

    Glad you found the reviews helpful.

    That's my reaction also. The remake of _Total Recall_ was a waste of time, effort, and money.