Morgan

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Hannah goes Haywire.”

I watched this twice: once on an airplane flight from London, and once after I returned, and I think I preferred the second viewing. For the ending here, if not perhaps what you’d call a “twist”, does provide a piece of information about the lead character, that will change the way you watch her performance in subsequent viewings. It’s something I appreciate, and also goes a long way to explain what would otherwise potentially be flaws in the plot. Said character is Lee Weathers (Mara), a “risk-management consultant” for a tech company, who is sent to a remote outpost, literally buried in the heart of the countryside.

Its inhabitants have spent more than five years working on developing an artificial life-form; after multiple failed attempts, their current creation, Morgan (Taylor-Joy) had appeared to be doing better. Initially, crafted with talents such as accelerated growth, she (or, as Lee stresses, “it”) is now developing unexpected talents such as precognition. However, a violent streak is also making itself known, culminating in Morgan stabbing one of the researchers in the eye. This is where Weathers comes in, seeking to assess the viability of the project, as well as whether it should continue or not. And if not? Well, as the one-eyed researcher, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, bluntly tells her, “You’re a goddamn assassin.” But Morgan’s creators won’t take that lying down; nor will Morgan her/itself.

Mara captures just the right degree of cold, passionless disinterest, and is helped out by a very solid supporting cast. This includes Leigh as well as Brian Cox, Paul Giamatti and even action heroine icon, Michelle Yeoh, albeit in a non-action role, playing the head of the project. After the opening scene, depicting the eye-stabbing from the POV of the complex’s security cameras, we already know everything is going to kick off, it’s just a matter of when. Given this, the first half could be considered too slow; we really don’t need to be introduced to everyone, because what matters is the Weathers-Morgan dynamic, perhaps with a side of the latter’s closest “relative”, Dr. Menser (Leslie, not without her own action cred, having played Ygritte in Game of Thrones – like GoT, this movie was filmed in Northern Ireland).

The arrival of Dr. Shapiro (Giamatti), the man in charge of carrying out Morgan’s psych evaluation, signals the start of this inevitable escalation of hostilities, and the pace certainly kicks up from that point forward. It’s this aspect which separates it in tone from the similarly-themed Splice, a more horror-oriented story, also about an artificial life-form gone awry. I note the stunt personnel here included Zara Phythian, a British action actress, whose star appears to be on the rise. Despite the loaded cast – it helps having Ridley Scott as a producer! – this was relatively cheap to make, at $8 million, and was somewhat unjustly overlooked on its cinema release. Even if it probably does take two viewings to appreciate it.

Dir: Luke Scott
Star: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Rose Leslie

Iron Girl: Ultimate Weapon

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“Post-apocalyptic soft-porn sci-fi soap-opera.”

irongirlHaving used my entire quota of hyphens for this review in that tag-line, what do we have here? I could remember virtually nothing about the original, even though it was only a couple of years ago we reviewed it. Seems to have ended up with the same vaguely mediocre rating though. The problem here, however, is mostly one of pacing. After a brief flurry of impressive activity at the beginning, there’s not much happening on the action front for about an hour, and what takes its place falls short of adequate entertainment.

It’s the same setting, with Japan’s technocracy having imploded, and the country now a slew of little fiefdoms, where bandits and bounty hunters roam the land. Chris (Asuka) is the latter, trying to raise enough reward money so she can buy a device that will restore her memories. She was unconscious and suffering from amnesia when found by fellow bounty-hunter Kento (Iwanaga) and his sidekick, Miriya (Kishi). Now, with the aid of her nifty cyborg suit ‘n’ sword, she’s taking out the leaders of the Sparti gang, who are less than impressed with her work. So, they lure here away from the peaceful settlement where she lives, and while she’s out, get medieval on the scientists and others who are there. This doesn’t exactly discourage Chris, obviously.

In between the opening, where she saves a brothel from harassment, and the final assault on the Sparti headquarters, there’s not much going on. You get a fair amount of Chris using her sexuality on men, then whacking them in the crotch, to the extent this begins to feel like a Japanese version of Ow! My Balls! [or a Japanese game-show; you decide] This could be a commentary on the male gaze, except the film itself is obviously extremely interested in that perspective of Asuka, as evidenced by the gratuitous shower-scene. There’s obviously some unresolved sexual tension between her and Kento, and she has her own sidekick to fend off, a lecherous guy wearing aviator goggles, who provides broad comic relief. It’s all not very interesting, unfortunately.

The action scenes do seem a little better, with Asuka making a greater impression this time – experience does matter, it seems. If there’s nothing quite as memorable as the opening fight, where she traps an opponent’s sword with her high heels(!), the film delivers some fairly decent battles in the final chunk. Chris works her way up the Sparti chain of command, until facing someone (thing?) who may be her equal in terms of technological enhancements. It’s likely no spoiler to say the film does not end with the heroine recovering her movies, instead setting things up for a third entry in the series. I guess I’ll be watching it, and imagine by the time that happens, I’ll have forgotten all about this second movie, just as much as I did the first.

Dir: Kenichi Fujiwara
Star: Kirara Asuka, Hiroaki Iwanaga, Asuka Kishi, Ryunosuke Kawai

Painkiller Jane – TV Series

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“The pain and strain, stays mainly in the Jane…”

painkiller1Originally created as a comic-book by Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada in the mid-nineties, it told the story of its heroine, Jane Vasko, who became effectively immortal after an incident left her with superhuman regenerative powers. She can still be hurt, certainly – even knocked down – but she heals at a phenomenal rate, rendering her nearly unstoppable. Over the years since, she has crossed paths with a number of other characters, including Hellboy and Vampirella, and the show became a TV movie on SyFy in December 2005, starring Emmanuelle Vaugier as Jane. The film was also used to gauge interest in a potential TV series, and one duly emerged in April 2007, albeit with Kristanna Loken now in the role, and effectively pretending the movie didn’t exist. For example, Jane went back from being a soldier to the law-enforcement agent of the comic, albeit a DEA agent rather than an undercover cop, and the cause of her abilities also became rather less opaque.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t very good, especially in the early episodes. This is actually my second attempt to review the show: after eight episodes or so in the my original effort, I realized I had entirely abandoned watching them, and simply had them on in the background while I did something else. The return effort proved my attention span was made of sterner stuff, though I admit that I might not have watched every single frame of every single show. But I did make it through to the end, which teases a second series that never materialized, SyFy deciding it would not renew the show in August, with half a dozen episodes remaining to be screened.

painkiller2Certainly, from a 2016 viewpoint, it seems overly familiar, treading territory we’ve seen, with variations, in X-Men, Heroes and Alphas, among others. The core concept here is the “neuro” – someone who has developed an inexplicable paranormal talent which might be anything from invisibility through mind control to fire manipulation. Jane encounters one such on a drug bust at a nightclub, and as a result, is recruited by Andre McBride (Stewart), who leads an undercover team dedicated to capturing and neutralizing neuros. The rest of the team are the usual bunch of shallow stereotypes e.g. computer wiz Riley Jensen (Roberts), ex-military muscle Connor King (Danby), etc. but Jane is “different” in that her first mission results in her neuro-esque ability being awakened, after she is defenestrated from a high-rise window. I say “neuro-esque,” since there’s an ongoing vague debate as to whether she should be chipped and shipped off to NICO, the internment camp set up for the “special”.

After that, however, the show rapidly became not much more than a series of “neuro of the week” episodes, effectively abandoning much real interest in its heroine and her abilities. To some extent, I can understand this: once you’ve established that she is, literally, bulletproof, what more can you do? There’s not much sense of threat. But outside of sporadic examples, the creators didn’t make sufficient use of Vasko’s abilities, which could certainly have come useful, as the most extreme example of “taking one for the team” Nor do they bother to give her much life outside the disused subway station which is her team’s super-secret lair. There’s a brief friendship with the girl next door, which comes to a sudden end with so little impact, it feels like the actress involved must have demanded a pay rise or something. Then there’s a boyfriend, and at least that relationship does end up having a point – like the rest of the show, however, it takes far too long to get there.

For after initially setting up an evil corporation as the Big Bad, the series seem to forget about them completely for the next 20 episodes, before suddenly blowing the dust of the company for the final episode. It seems likely that never-realized second season might have gone in that direction, though if that was always the intent, seems very odd to start off as they did. The budget was apparently jacked up for the final three episodes, allowing for the cast and crew to travel to Hungary and the NICO facility, where it turns out there have been various dubious medical experiments going on, involving reversing the chips implanted to disable the neuro abilities. There are some interesting moral questions raised in this arc, and it’s a shame the show chose to ignore them, until after it had been given the ace.

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That isn’t to say the show was entirely worthless up to that point. There were a few episodes which actually made use of the concepts and developed them in interesting ways. The one I liked most was Playback, about a neuro who could reset time to the beginning of the day. He was being used to plot the assassination of a visiting foreign politician, gradually refining his plan to negate the countermeasures of Jane and her team, as if this were Groundhog Day. Jane’s ability to take damage came in handy here, and the script was well-thought out, both in problem and solution; while they couldn’t foil the neuros plan, they could make the rest of his day such a bad one, he was compelled to rewind one more time. More of this smart invention would have been welcome, but the show instead seemed to run out of ideas almost immediately. I mean, a handful of episodes in, and you’re already going down the “ghost hunters” route? Why not just have a musical episode and be done with it?

AS in most things she has done – hell, even BloodRayne – Loken is fine, and seems to embrace the action aspects with enthusiasm. I’d say that gives her the edge over her predecessor, Vaugier, and the series likely solidifies her position on the B-rung of action actresses [“Can’t afford Milla Jovovich? Give me a call!”] It’s the writing that is the key weakness here, often giving the impression that they were making things up as they went along, never a good thing. Still, it may not be the end for Jane. In July 2014, it was announced that Palmiotti was producing an independent feature film version, with the Soska Sisters signing on to direct. While I’m not sure about them as a choice [I saw their horror film American Mary, and found it very much over-rated], and I haven’t heard anything much regarding the project since, it’s interesting that adapting Painkiller Jane appears to be every bit as difficult to kill off as the character herself!

Star: Kristanna Loken, Rob Stewart, Noah Danby, Sean Owen Roberts

Paradox

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“Yes, we will watch and enjoy Zoë Bell in anything.”

paradoxEven as a scientist. Seemed like a bit of a stretch for one of our favourite two-fisted heroines, but here, it turns out she’s actually an undercover NSA agent. She is only pretending to be a brainiac, whose cover identity of “Gale” is sent in to infiltrate a mysterious, highly secretive project being run in an underground facility by the equally mysterious “Mr. Landau” (Yoba); he has made a fortune on the stock exchange with an impeccable knowledge of its future movements. Perhaps related, turns out his team have been working on a time-machine, though it requires so much power, it fries the grid over a wide area – not unimportantly, sealing them into the underground base. Their first effort involves sending one of the group, Jim (Huss), ahead an hour; the plan is then for everyone else to “catch up.” A few minutes later, he returns, having seen a future where most of the scientists are dead, and the survivors stalked by an unknown assailant. Can their rapidly approaching. lethal fate be changed, or is it immutable?

I’m a sucker for time-travel films, but they need to be rather more rigorous than this one, which feels sloppy both in tone and execution, as if the makers couldn’t decide quite what they were trying for. One minute, it’s hard sci-fi, the next it’s a slasher pic. No, hang on – it’s a romance between Gale and one of the scientists! Wait, it’s suddenly Zoë Bell kicking ass? Not all of these work equally well, and the shifts between them are rarely less than jarring. There are also plot-holes – not so much with the time-travel aspect, which is handled relatively well, despite a film title that almost appears to be apologizing in advance. Most obviously, how does this underground facility have absolutely no stairs? Or, given the first use of the time-machine triggered a massive black-out, why is it then used repeatedly thereafter without issue?

The cast is equally inconsistent. Bell is, naturally, the best, but Yoba (whom we recognized from Alphas) is okay as an enigma dressed in a dark suit. The rest of the performers, however, appear to have been picked up at random from a local community college; someone needs to check if the director owns a white van or has made large, online purchases of chloroform. For the other actors appear capable of delivering lines or showing emotion – just not both, and certainly not at the same time.  This may be where the film comes closest to the slasher film, in that you care precious little for most of the victims or their fate. I’ll admit that we did not see the final twist coming, and like most time-travel films, may merit a second viewing, just to figure out whether or not it still makes sense, in the light of the late reveal. But there are an awful lot of movies further up the list.

Dir: Michael Hurst
Star: Zoë Bell, Malik Yoba, Adam Huss, Bjørn Alexander

Robot Revolution

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“The revolution will not be televised.”

My heart sank when I saw the production company’s logo in the opening credits, as I realized this was from the same people who brought us Earthkiller, which… Well, wasn’t very good, to put it mildly. Four years and several features later, has Bellware and his micro-budget associates improved? Yes, actually, they have. Not that this is “good”, by any neutral standards, especially if you’re expecting anything like glossy, big-budget SF. However, it does seem more aware of its own limitations, and works within them a lot better than Earthkiller.

robotrevolutionIt’s set somewhat in the future, where Constable Hawkins (Logan) and her android partner have been ordered to pay a visit to the apartment of a researcher (Murphy), who is allegedly working on a weapon for a notorious terrorist. Unfortunately, the terrorist’s henchmen show up at the same time, and the weapon is activated. It consists of a swarm of nanobotz that can “hack” into anything containing electronics and control it. Which is unfortunate, since in this future, all adults have been implanted with an identification chip. Fortunately, the scientist has a somewhat effective countermeasure, but she and Hawkins still have to try and make their way out of the apartment, dealing with both the infected human residents and the automated cleaning robots, that are intent on preventing them.

It’s actually not a bad idea, even if derivative of Dread [which was, itself, derivative of a truly superlative Indonesian action film, The Raid] With just a single location, it’s a good setting for a low-budget film – except Bellware, for some reason, still injects repeated, really crappy CGI exteriors, and the static-laced camera shots, whether from the android’s POV or elsewhere, are also far too excessive. He should just have kept things claustrophobic. A bigger problem are the infected residents, who are about the least threatening monsters I’ve ever seen: a trickle of blood from the nose and five minutes of Zombie 1.0.1. training do not make you scary. [Indeed, it’s probably less horrific than their attempts at acting] The cleaning robot is far more impressive: in form and execution, it appears to have strayed in from a much bigger, better movie.

Logan, sporting a fetching eyepatch, for no readily apparent reason, isn’t bad, projecting a degree of no-nonsense competence appropriate to the character. However, in the film’s second half, it does degenerate into a long series of sequences in which people creep around corridors, that are neither as tense or as interesting as Bellware seems to think. Though I did appreciate the discussion on whether or not these should be considered as zombies, and whether shooting them in the head is the only way to kill them. If Earthkiller’s 1½-star rating was charitable, this one is perhaps a tad harsh, though my appreciation may in part be due to expectations that were not so much low, as subterranean. At this rate, by 2030 or so, Bellware might actually be making decent films.

Dir: Andrew Bellware
Star: Virginia Logan, Mary Murphy, Matthew Trumbull, Dirk Voetberg.

Garm Wars: The Last Druid

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“In serious need of more tell, don’t show”

garmwarsOshii is best known for his anime work, but this isn’t his first foray into live-action; we already reviewed Assault Girls, and this has much the same strengths and, unfortunately, weaknesses. It looks wonderful, but the script here is virtually impenetrable, leaving the viewer on the outside, looking in. I had to watch this twice, because an hour into the first time, I realized I had absolutely not been paying the film any attention for at least 15 minutes. The setting is the planet Annwn, where a long, ongoing war has reduced the original eight tribes to Columba, who rule the air, versus the land-based Brigga, who also have the support of the few remaining members of the Kumtak tribe, who specialize in information technology. When an Brigga escape pod is retrieved, it contains Kumtak elder Wydd (Henriksen) and a druid (Howell), which is a shock, because druids, who provide a direct line of communication to the gods, are supposedly extinct. Wydd offers the druid’s potential power to the Columba in exchange for his tribe’s freedom, but the Brigga mount an attack and re-capture them. Pilot Khara (St-Pierre) leaves in hot pursuit, but is forced to crash-land and team up with Brigga warrior Skellig (Durand, a ringer for Benicio Del Toro), as Wydd’s agenda becomes clear.

Well, somewhat clear. Like many of the other plot elements, it’s never quite clarified to the point you’d be willing to swear to them. For example, the druid’s power is shown when plugged into the central computer, resulting in… a swirling, red-tinged CGI sphere. What is it? Why should we care? Oshii is untroubled by such concerns, being more concerned with creating a universe that, like Sucker Punch, appears almost entirely green-screen. It looks very nice, certainly, but only occasionally provokes anything more than wondering “Is this available in a format suitable for framing?”. An early narrated sequence gives you the setting; after that, you’re on your own, and the visuals come wrapped in some particularly leaden and indigestible pseudo-philosophical dialogue, that is neither as deep nor as interesting as Oshii seems to think.

Once the foursome reach their heavily wooded destination, things perk up somewhat, with a nicely-staged battle against a set of robotic guardians that is likely the film’s high-point. There are other potentially interesting, yet under-explored aspects, such as the way dead soldiers on both sides are resurrected to continue fighting – Khara is currently on her 23rd incarnation. However, the film ends just as things look about to kick off seriously, in an Attack on Titan kinda way, with far too many plot threads left unresolved. I can only presume this is intended to be the first in a multi-episode saga, since on its own, it feels severely incomplete. If I can’t argue with Oshii’s amazing eye for visuals, he really needs to ensure his scripts are  better developed.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star: Melanie St-Pierre, Lance Henriksen, Kevin Durand, Summer H. Howell

The Quiet Hour

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“Alien apocalypse? Time for a nice cup of tea.”

quiethourIt took me forever to figure out where I’d seen the heroine before. Turns out Richards was also the young central character of The Golden Compass though in my defense, she was two-thirds of the age she is here. The film takes place some time after an alien invasion has effectively destroyed humanity, in order to strip-mine resources from the earth’s core: for all except a brief period of two hours each day, anyone found outside is ruthlessly tracked down and killed by the aliens’ craft. Hiding out in their rural farmhouse are Sarah (Richards) and her brother, Jude (McMullen), the latter having been blinded during the initial assault. Their isolated security is disrupted by the arrival of the wounded Tom Connelly (Davies) – he is being pursued by another group of survivors, with highly unpleasant dietary habits and led by Kathryn (Millar), who lay siege to the house, demanding Sarah hands over Tom to them.

By coincidence, I watched this the same week as the similarly-themed (though alien-free) October Gale, with Patricia Clarkson as the woman under siege after helping a wounded guest. This is actually better, with the director here having a better handle on the escalating tension, and Richards giving a solid performance, trying to put a brave face on a steadily-disintegrating situation, for the sake of Jude. What’s curious here, is how the aliens are almost irrelevant to the rest of proceedings: for virtually the entire movie, they’re just a backdrop in front of which the bigger threat, of Kathryn and her clan, plays out. It’s a strange approach. I kept expecting the extraterrestrial angle to be more significant, and if you’re expecting something like a British version of Independence Day, you are going to be very, very disappointed, as this is much more slower-paced, almost to the point of glacial.

However, I can’t say I minded too much, as that makes for a more character-driven movie, and the aliens’ almost-complete indifference to humanity is, in some ways, more chilling; it’s as if we were insects, worthy only of swatting. On the other hand, it feels a bit of a bait and switch, being little more than an excuse for why there’s no external help coming for the siblings – a slightly more sophisticated version of waving a cellphone around and saying, “No signal”. Still, Sarah has a nice sense of English resolve to her, in a ‘Keep calm and carry on’ kinda of way, and Richards shows enough here to make her a name to look out for. Hopefully, The Golden Compass, will not be her sole big-budget effort, since on the evidence here, she deserves better..

Dir: Stéphanie Joalland
Star: Dakota Blue Richards, Karl Davies, Jack McMullen, Brigitte Millarof

Wreaths of Empire, by Andrew M. Seddon

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

wreathsIt’s often frustrating to me that in today’s two-tiered fiction market, in which the big-time tier is practically a closed caste and the tier that admits everybody else is so glutted that gems get easily buried beneath the mountains of slag (and nobody knows where to look for them), it’s really difficult for some first-class authors to get the recognition and readership they deserve, and would have had a generation ago. Andrew M. Seddon is definitely one of these authors. He and I have been Internet friends for over ten years; I had the privilege of beta reading this excellent novel a couple of years ago (and Andrew is kind enough to mention me in the acknowledgments, though he truly didn’t need much if any help from me!) and now, since he’s generously given me a signed copy, I have the added privilege of being one of the first persons to review it anywhere.

Andrew writes high-quality historical and supernatural fiction, but it’s probably fair to say that his literary first love is science fiction. A medical doctor, his training and experience in the life sciences gives him a predilection for the genre’s “hard” tradition, in which science is handled accurately and the speculative element builds on credible extrapolation from actual knowledge. Wreaths of Empire stands in this tradition; it’s also a work of “space opera,” set in a far-future galaxy with far-flung human settlement, against the background of “a clash of civilizations,” humans vs. aliens in a high-stakes interstellar war, with battle scenes, intrigue, and plenty of action. In its roots and for much of its history, this tradition tended to be associated with shallow characterization, a simplistic “us against them” orientation, and heavy concentration on description of hardware and display of technological and scientific speculation to the neglect of the human element. Happily, none of those features have ever characterized Andrew’s work, and don’t here. This is a novel where the key element is people (whether they’re human or alien) and the choices they make –people and choices we come to care about greatly.

Readers of Andrew’s earlier novel Iron Scepter will recall that there we find the malevolent Hegemony, which dominates human space, plotting to gin up a war against another space-faring race, the Gara’nesh, in order to use fear and hatred of an outside enemy to solidify its own control over its hapless subjects. This new novel is set in the same universe, like much of Andrew’s SF. (Despite the broad chronological framework that ties them together, though, these books aren’t a “series;” they can each stand alone and be read independently.) Here, though, our setting is much later; the bloody Gara’nesh war has dragged on for decades, shaping the lives and attitudes of a whole generation that’s never known anything else. When we meet Jade Lafrey in the prologue, she’s an ensign in the Hegemony’s space fleet –an ensign who’s destined to make a crucial choice that will have far-reaching consequences, for the galaxy and for two sentient species.

Eleven years later, as peace negotiations are finally opening, Jade’s a (space) Naval Intelligence officer, called on to deal with a complex behind-the scenes intrigue that may threaten the diplomatic efforts, if not the survival of humanity itself; and it will be very difficult to tell friend from foe. She’ll get her share of fighting action and physical jeopardies and challenge as a result. As an added bonus for action heroine fans, the author actually gives us two action-oriented ladies here; besides our protagonist, one of the secondary female characters, interstellar smuggler Trevarra, can also handle herself well in a fight. (In fact, while the one-star kick-butt quotient above rates Jade’s performance, if I’d rated Trevarra’s it would have been three.)

Earlier this year, I was asked if I could provide a blurb for the cover copy of this book. I can’t think of a better way to finish this review than to quote it. “Top-notch SF author Seddon creates possibly his best novel yet in Wreaths of Empire, bringing a new depth and freshness to the space opera tradition. A wonderful heroine to cheer for; a well-crafted, character-driven plot; some of the genre’s finest writing; excitement, suspense, and food for thought –what more could a reader ask for?”

Author: Andrew M. Seddon
Publisher: Splashdown Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Earthkiller

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“In space, no-one can hear you yawn.”

earthkillerIf one and a half stars is likely kind, I know how much work goes into micro-budget film-making, and this is clearly a labour of love. However, if ever there were evidence more than that is needed… this would be it. At some point in the future, an android, “Helen” (Kurtz), reboots to find herself on a space-station with no memory of why she is there. It turns out, she was part of a mission sent to the space-station, involving a massive weapon located there, capable of creating a black hole and destroying the Earth below. Some want to destroy the weapon; others want to set it off, in order to fulfill religious prophecy. Helen initially assists the former side, but as her memories return, it turns out that may not have been her originally programmed mission. As well as the fanatics, there are also nanobot-infected zombies [I think – my notes grew a bit vague on the details of some elements, as my interest waned!] who must be avoided or fought, for Helen to make her way through the station to the Doomsday device’s location.

Which would be okay, if the film-makers could deliver anything approaching the productions values necessary for this kind of epic science fiction. Instead, we get what feels like the same three sets, shot repeatedly from slightly different angles, in a touching and severely-flawed belief that no-one will notice; “zombie” make-up which looks like an Alice Cooper look-alike contest got left out in the rain; and perhaps one of the worst “acting” performances of the decade. Though, I have to say, this does not belong to Kurtz, who acquits herself adequately as a robot. She spends the first 20 minutes of the movie naked, for no reason ever satisfactorily explained, and I wondered is she was going to go all Lifeforce here. Kurtz is – how can I put this? – more reminiscent of Tilda Swinton than Mathilda Maym and it’s about the least erotic nudity you can imagine, but I kinda respect her and the director for that. Anyway: no, the acting Razzie for this one gives to whoever is playing her boss, who delivers his lines with considerably less enthusiasm than the zombies. It’s certainly memorable; unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.

Throw in poorly conceived and badly-executed CGI blood (something I generally dislike and rarely used except out of laziness),  exposition that manages to be uninteresting during the minority of the time when it is intelligible, and digital effects that run the gamut from acceptable – the space-station exteriors aren’t bad – to 8-bit video game, and you have something which even the best will in the world can’t save. Sometimes, reining in enthusiasm is good; sometimes, realizing you aren’t yet ready for public consumption is better.

Dir: Andrew Bellware
Star: Robin Kurtz, Lisa Marie Fabrega, Stacey Raymond
a.k.a. Total Retribution

Haphead

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“Virtually worthless.haphead

A good idea goes entirely to waste in this woefully-executed cyberpunk webseries, with the episodes now combined back into something more or less feature-length. The heroine is Maisie (White), who gets an entry-level job working in an electronics factory belonging to the murky Asteri*k corporation. They’re making “haptic” cables which allow computers to interface directly with the brain; the potential in this idea is massive, but here, it’s explored only in a few scenes of Maisie playing a VR game in which she controls a rabbit with ninja skills. There’s some kind of rumblings that the skills learned stick in your brain, so as you become good at fighting in the virtual world, you become good in the real world. Except, this doesn’t go anywhere either – although this is probably wise, considering White’s fighting abilities, charitably described as wobbly. Instead, the film diverts in its second half into her investigation of the mysterious death of her father (Strauss), a security guard who took an unwanted promotion so she wouldn’t have to work in the factory, only to be killed by a “haphead”. Maisie investigates this, and soon discovers things are not quite what they seemed.

The problems here mostly stem from the script which comes up with any number of initially interesting concepts, including the positive and negative uses of technology, through corrupt practices of big business… and then discards them without doing anything significantly more than bringing them up (never mind even scratching the surface), instead scurrying on to the next one. The end result is less a frothy cybernetic souffle, and more a leaden lump of undercooked plot elements strapped together with old USB cables, like the parkour which shows up for no apparent reason, other than someone thought it would be cool. Or, equally likely, the film-makers’ mates wanted to be in the film.

You don’t even need big-budgets or incredible effects to do something like this justice. The makers could, and should, have learned a great deal from something like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which covered a fair amount of the same ground, but did so with a script which truly explored the possibilities of virtual reality – and saved a lot of money, because the VR world was very, very similar to our own one. Of course, no doubt it helped to have Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, etc. However, a low budget is no excuse for a bad script: indeed, the reverse is true, if your means are limited, you’d better be damn sure your script is engaging and well-written. Throwing a bunch of semi-“edgy” cyberpunk elements on top of a story painfully ill-suited to handle them, is not an acceptable substitute.

Dir: Tate Young
Star: Elysia White, David Strauss, Joanne Jansen, Kwame Kyei-Boateng