Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Media Reviews: February 2019

At Netflix, content is king—or so one would gather based on the vast sums of money it’s recently thrown at original material, a healthy percentage of which falls under the SFF genre umbrella. In general, I’ve been more impressed by its serials than its films, but I do think there are some worthy one-off projects at the site. Few are truly first-rate, perhaps, but there’s often much to admire in the details, and as a whole, the site provides a refreshing alternative to theatrical Hollywood’s increasingly formulaic and predictable output.

Mute
Directed by Duncan Jones
Produced by Liberty Films UK and Studio Babelsberg
Released February 23, 2018

Some of these movies come from high-profile directors with considerable genre street cred, but surprisingly these were the ones I found most disappointing. Mute (2018), directed and co-written by Duncan Jones of Moon and Source Code fame, presents an impressive cybernoir vision of the future, but its plot doesn’t quite live up to its look. It’s the tale of an Amish bartender (Alexander Skarsgård) forced to negotiate the tech-drenched streets of Berlin in search of his missing girlfriend. Mute has a dazzling look, a reasonably engaging plot, and memorable, oddball villainy from Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux. The protagonist’s inherent dilemma—throughout, he’s forced to confront his greatest weakness (technology) in the pursuit of his goal—has compelling possibilities. But in the end, this one didn’t ring true, as none of its SF furniture seemed essential to the plot; Mute could easily, with the same structure, have taken place in the present. An interesting passion project from Jones, but with a glaring core drawback.

Anon
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol
Produced by K5 Film, K5 International, and K5 Media Group
Released May 4, 2018

More successful, if slow-paced and somber, is Anon (2018) from writer-director Andrew Niccol, whose SF credits include Gattaca, The Truman Show, and S1m0ne. Fortunately, Anon’s science fictional worldbuilding is highly integral to the plot, presenting a privacy-free surveillance society where the police use ubiquitous POV recordings to solve crimes. Naturally, the very existence of this technology has dramatically reduced crime, but Detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) still catches cases—including a serial murder spree that hinges on the search for a “ghost” (Amanda Seyfried) who seems to have cracked the system to keep her identity secret. It’s an intriguing examination of its concept that, like Mute, is beautiful to look at in its dark way, but ultimately Anon falls down in its lack of energy and overly portentous tone.

What Happened to Monday
Directed by Tommy Wirkola
Produced by Vendome Pictures, Nexus Factory and Raffaella Productions
Released August 18, 2017

Moving on, What Happened to Monday (2017) stirs familiar cautionary SF tropes—overpopulation and climate change—into a colorful action-thriller cocktail. On a future Earth ruled by an autocratic world government, a one-child-per-family law has rendered siblings illegal. This makes the existence of “Karen Stettman” (Noomi Rapace) all the more improbable. Karen is, in fact, seven different people—septuplets rescued by their father (Willem Dafoe) and raised in isolated secrecy to avoid the law. For their entire lives, they’ve taken turns portraying Karen in her daily life, but when “Monday” doesn’t come home one day, their secret threatens to crumble. What Happened to Monday certainly delivers on the cinematic front, and deploys its nifty core conceit entertainingly. Rapace does a decent if unspectacular job at the multiple-personality acting challenge—Tatiana Maslany pulls this sort of thing off much more impressively in Orphan Black—but her action-adventure presence is as riveting as ever. At times the SFnal worldbuilding comes across clunkily, but overall, this one makes for entertaining skiffy spectacle.

The Discovery
Directed by Charlie McDowell
Produced by Endgame Entertainment, Netflix, and Protagonist Pictures
Released March 31, 2017

The Discovery (2017) brings A-list talent to a lower-key, more “literary” genre tale. In this one, a scientist, Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), uncovers definitive proof of the existence of an afterlife. Unfortunately, his discovery has led to a worldwide epidemic of suicides, as desperate people look to hasten their deliverance to a better place. When Thomas’s son Will (Jason Segel) returns to the island where his family lives, he meets Isla (Rooney Mara) on the ferry, and together they work their way into the strange new cult that has grown up around Thomas’ scientific work. More interested in philosophical what-ifs, thoughtful ambience, and quiet romance than its genre elements, The Discovery is hardly earth-shattering as genre fare, but it’s an earnest, thoughtful story with nice structural touches and fine supporting performances from the whole cast, particularly from Mara, Redford, and Jesse Plemons.

Extinction
Directed by Ben Young
Produced by Good Universe, Mandeville Films, and Universal Pictures
Released July 27, 2018

Netflix’s high-profile films are sometimes outshone, I think, by ones with more of a “B-movie” flavor—for example, Extinction (2018), an alien invasion tale that evolves into something more. This one stars Michael Peña as Peter, a happily married technician and father whose life is beset by apocalyptic nightmares of an attack on the Earth. Is he having premonitions of the future? It certainly seems that way when the attack indeed comes, forcing him into a desperate struggle for survival that he believes to be aided by his premonitions. Extinction lacks personality, and indeed manages the rare feat of flattening out actors—Peña, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Colter—who are usually brimming with charisma. But it progresses cleverly, as well-timed twists and turns gradually unlock the mystery of Peter’s nightmares and propel the story from simple survival spectacle into increasingly more interesting science fictional territory.

ARQ
Directed by Tony Elliott
Produced by Lost City, XYZ Films, and MXN Entertainment
Released September 16, 2016

ARQ (2016) is a more modest production, as its nutshell pitch would suggest: It’s basically Desperate Hours meets Groundhog Day. A time machine inventor (Robbie Amell) finds himself locked in a repeating loop of events during a home invasion, enabling him to try different strategies to escape death as he cycles through iterations that continuously reveal new layers of mystery. Arq is low-budget, B-movie fun, a guerilla filmmaking variation on Days of Tomorrow that cleverly executes its premise, with Amell and Jessica Jones’ Rachael Taylor serving as agreeable viewpoints into its one-set dystopian setting.

Next Gen
Written and directed by Kevin R. Adams and Joe Ksander
Produced by Netflix, Baozou Manhua, and Tangent Animation
Released September 7, 2018

Netflix ventures into animation as well. Next Gen (2018) is a colorful feast for the eyes, presenting an impressive futuristic vision of a massive city where robots are ubiquitous. Mai Su (voiced by Charline Yi) is a troubled girl whose family life has been shattered by her father’s departure and her mother’s escapist obsession with robotic accessories. Tagging along with her mom to a glitzy robotics conference, Mai unexpectedly comes into contact with a robot (John Krasinski) who becomes her devoted friend—but whom she quickly starts to leverage toward shortsighted ends. Next Gen’s science fictional worldbuilding is a mess, full of logic gaps, and its tone is all over the map. It can’t seem to decide whether it’s a touching, Pixar-like coming-of-age tale or a chaotic, violent action flick. But it’s visually enthralling, and has some great voice work. Jason Sudeikis in particular makes a mark as the celebrity CEO of the robotics company, his performance contributing to an effective send-up of tech industry self-importance. And the animation is quite striking, making this worth, if nothing else, a casual background watch.

Blame!
Directed by Hiroyuki Seshita
Produced by King Records, Kôdansha, and Netflix
Released May 20, 2017

I preferred Blame! (2017), an evocative anime about an enclave of human survivors in a bizarre, self-replicating city. The villagers are protected within the boundaries of their village, but they’re desperately low on resources, and venturing beyond the perimeter exposes them to attack by murderous robots. Their fortunes look to change when a band of rebellious teenagers, out scavenging for resources, are rescued by Killy (Takahiro Sakurai), an enigmatic wanderer who’s on a quest to put an end to the city’s deadly programming. Blame!’s pacing is awkward and sluggish, but its unsettling ambience is immersive, and it’s full of inventive, unexpected worldbuilding flourishes.

Cam
Directed by Daniel Goldhaber
Produced by Divide/Conquer, Blumhouse Productions, and Gunpowder & Sky
Released November 16, 2018

For the cream of this particular crop of Netflix films, we’ll bounce back to live action. First up: Cam (2018), a deceptive, unnerving film of psychological horror about an internet camgirl named Alice (Madeline Brewer), whose online stunts under her screen name “Lola” get more and more outlandish as she climbs the ranks in popularity at her site. Alice possesses fierce dedication to her much-maligned work, which makes it all the more disturbing when a lookalike hacks her identity and takes over her account—leading her down dark, desperate paths to recover her career, and indeed her identity. Co-written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei, Cam is an ingenius piece of work, with a surprising, slippery slope of a plot that has its finger on the pulse of contemporary internet fears, biases, and psychology. Initially leaning into its prurient surface, it then takes the viewer to unexpected places, ultimately slotting in nicely alongside films like Get Out and Sorry to Bother You as a mix of quirky horror and incisive sociocultural critique.

Bird Box
Directed by Susanne Bier
Produced by Bluegrass Films, Chris Morgan Productions, and Universal Pictures
Released December 21, 2018

Finally, there’s Bird Box (2018), which may be the most broadly successful film on this list, a compelling and superbly executed tale of apocalyptic horror. A pregnant artist named Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) manages to survive a mysterious outbreak of mass psychosis, which has led to worldwide chaos, murder, and mass suicides. She holes up in a house with a small group of survivors, and together they discern that the psychosis is caused merely by seeing mysterious, otherworldly entities—meaning the only way to survive is to stay indoors, and never venture outside without blindfolds. Ricocheting through timelines, Bird Box deftly delivers on the promise of its scenario, not only as a shocking, creepy tale of supernatural horror, but as a vast metaphor for the madness of merely paying attention to the way the world works. Some viewers will notice an obvious conceptual similarity to A Quiet Place, but I think it’s a more thematically robust and visually interesting film. End-of-the-world movies have gotten more and more difficult to watch in recent years, but Bird Box is an exceptional example of its type, tapping insightfully into our horrifying zeitgeist.

If this sampling is any indication, Netflix’s heavy investment in original content, while certainly of mixed quality, is still worth keeping an eye on. With theatrical Hollywood’s SF fare still dominated by all-or-nothing blockbuster ambition, it may be up to the online streaming services to serve as a playground for less outwardly commercial projects such as the above. Looking forward to more interesting experiments from Netflix in the future.

Christopher East

Christopher East

Christopher East is a writer, editor, reviewer, and avid consumer of science fiction, fantasy, and spy fiction. His stories have been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cosmos, Interzone, Talebones, The Third Alternative, and a number of other speculative fiction publications. He’s attended the Clarion and Taos Toolbox writing workshops, and served for several years as the fiction editor for the futurism, science, and technology blog Futurismic. He blogs extensively about writing, fiction, film, television, music, comics, and more at www.christopher-east.com. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works for an occupational and environmental health and safety consultancy.