Extinction (No Spoilers)

Extinction 2018 Directed by Ben Young.

It’s been driven home to me recently that I’m getting old. My local cinema, the State Cinema in North Hobart is putting on a couple of screenings of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its release. But this also gives me cause to celebrate, as 2001 was one of the films that really hooked me into science fiction film, going to the movies in general and remains a film I still love to watch.

This release from Netflix reminded me again what in influence Kubrick still has over the genre, with some early shots from Extinction clearly paying homage. I also spotted a cinematic nod to Ridley Scott’s Alien (which is rarely a bad thing) and in hindsight, these little crumbs set the tone for this flawed but interesting piece of near-future sci-fi.

Essentially, this feature directed by Australian Ben Young is a film about family – what it means to be a family and how those bonds can be stretched, twisted and (in this case) strengthened – but it is quite a dour tale.

Michael Pena plays Peter, a building engineer cum maintenance worker who lives in an architecturally beautiful unnamed city with his engineer/town planner wife (Lizzy Caplan) and his two young daughters. Peter is troubled by dreams of an alien invasion that destroys his family but as his dreams become more intense and frequent, he finds himself increasingly alienated from those he’s trying to protect. I’m not going to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t seen this yet but suffice it to say that Peter’s nightmares turn into reality and the ensuing shenanigans provide the bulk of the film. The first act/set up tells us all we need to know and above all, doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Once the action starts, it wisely relies more on practical than computer generated effects, which at times look very cheap. The tension mounts in a good but fairly predictable way but despite this, overall I found the second act pretty lacklustre. There’s a flatness about the action that took me out of the film on several occasions and I suspect this is one of the issues of trying to be a big blockbuster on a budget. Also, I felt Michael Pena and Lizzy Caplan were sadly wasted in their roles, and the inclusion of Mike Coulter (Luke Cage) as Peter’s boss confused me. One of the things I really liked were the young daughters not being the standard stereotypical “plucky kids” so often seen in this kind of film. They’re not brave or particularly resourceful, they’re just terrified kids, which was refreshing.

The twist in the third act was very good and although I knew something was coming, I didn’t spot it specifically. (Again, no spoilers here – go and see it for yourself!)

Apart from uneven pacing and lacklustre CG, my main gripe with the film is the ending. Apart from clearly leading with a case for a sequel (please don’t do it!) I feel the movie lingered way too long after the denouement. I wanted it to wind up and wave goodbye at least 10 minutes before it did.

Despite this, I am increasingly impressed by Netflix’ foray into original sci-fi film distribution. While Extinction isn’t brilliant, along with Mute, Anon and the wonderful Annihilation (all of which I’ve written about elsewhere but neglected to review here!), Netflix is bringing a welcome breath of new(ish) science fiction to my screens. The ongoing issue I see here is the platform – these films were all made to be at their best on a big screen, with so much of their cinematic value being lost on my home television or laptop.

Or perhaps, I’m just getting old and feeling nostalgic for the magic of seeing something for the first time in a cinema? Nevertheless, I’m still watching with interest!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi 2017. Directed by Rian Johnson.

I can rarely be bothered to go to big releases in their opening week but I made an exception with this, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise.

I should say from the outset that while I like the original movies, I’m film studies scholar – not in the simpering fan-girl brigade. In fact, I’ve always felt a degree of frustration because I could always see how good these films should be but never seemed to hit the mark.

Having said that, I thought The Force Awakens (2015) was infinitely better than any of the prequels and reignited my interest in the series. But this was completely eclipsed by the stand alone and beautifully self-contained Rogue One (2016), which (despite a baggy first act) is a fabulous sci-fi war movie.

But Thursday I saw something really good, much better than I anticipated, and I reacted accordingly.

The Last Jedi explored complex themes – in a far more nuanced way than I expected – about family, friendship, connection and the nature of difference and subversion. Given the global political climate this past 12 months, it was an excellent commentary, and a reminder that nothing is ever just black or white.

The young cast are really very good, with Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver outstanding, providing emotional depth to their characters. They are ably supported by John Boyega, Oscar Isaacs and Kelly Marie Tran. Despite being a wee bit sentimental about seeing Carrie Fisher in her final role (yes, I did well up!) the thing that reduced me to tears was seeing the wonderful Laura Dern showing all the kids how it should be done – and a scene that immediately reminded me of her father Bruce Dern and Silent Running (1972), one of my favourite films.

If this is what Star Wars is going to be from now on, I’ll have some more thanks!

* This is an expanded version of a review that was included in Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review on BBC 5 Live (15/12/17) – and yes, I was thrilled to hear Simon Mayo read it out! *