Alien: Covenant – Slimy Aliens and Multiple Fassbenders

Alien: Covenant is a tricky film to write about. It seems like every review I read spoiled vast swathes of the film’s plot, which ticked me off to no end because the details of the film’s plot were kept mostly under wraps in the time leading up to its release, and to see reviewers casually giving away huge plot points struck me as flippant and disrespectful to people who want to go into the movie knowing as little as possible. In response to this, I am going to give away as little as possible. I will describe basic details of the film’s setup, which could be considered to have some minor spoilers, but I won’t reveal any major plot points.

Alien: Covenant is Ridley Scott’s follow-up to 2012’s Prometheus, his previous foray into the Alien franchise he started in 1979 with the original Alien film. Prometheus was a controversial movie among fans of the franchise. Some people loved it, others passionately hated it. I liked it overall, even though it was profoundly flawed in some areas. Fortunately, Scott and his screenwriters seem to have listened to people’s criticisms about Prometheus, and Covenant delivers a tighter, more contained story that answers some of the lingering questions from Prometheus while still leaving room for interpretation and further entries in the franchise.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Let me just say that this movie has a whopper of an ending, which I loved. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it, but man, it’s a doozy. It provides closure to the film while paving the way for future sequels, which Scott says are coming. God bless the man, he’s nearly 80 years old and is still making smart, intense, gorgeous-looking sci-fi movies. Scott has said he wants to start filming the next one in 2018, so expect more slimy alien horrors in the future. Oh joy!

Covenant follows the doomed crew of the spaceship Covenant, on a colonization mission to a distant, habitable planet. En route, they pick up a transmission from a closer planet, which also appears habitable. It’s risky, but they decide to investigate. Very Bad Things happen to them. That’s all I will say about the plot.

One thing that frustrated audiences about Prometheus was that it never fully committed to being an Alien movie. Was it an Alien movie or wasn’t it? Scott and his screenwriters couldn’t seem to decide. Alien: Covenant, as befitting its title, is definitely an Alien movie. The titular aliens, the terrifying xenomorphs (although they aren’t called that in this film), are very much present, and they are terrifying.

Everything about xenomorphs scares me. Not only how they look, which is scary enough, but what they do to you is just upsetting, and sets them apart from other famous horror-movie antagonists. Sure, Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers will kill you, but a quick knifing or decapitation-via-machete is vastly preferable to the protracted, painful, humiliating ordeal a xenomorph will put you through.

It’s a testament to how good H.R. Giger’s original design of these aliens was when you realize how little their appearance has changed over the years. The xenomorphs in this film were created with motion-capture and CGI rather than the practical effects of the earlier films, which may annoy some hardcore fans of the franchise, but when the aliens look as good as they do in this film, the CGI doesn’t bother me. The slithery, hissing monstrosities are as frightening as ever.

Image: 20th Century Fox

And they are taking no prisoners. Covenant is a far more graphic film than Prometheus, which is saying something when you consider that Prometheus is a film in which the main character had an alien slug monster surgically removed from her abdomen. This movie is so bloody that at one point people actually slip and fall in the pools of viscera on the floor. Sir Ridley’s not messing around with this one, folks.

But what of the humans who have these graphic horrors inflicted upon them? I found them to be more likable than the buffoons from Prometheus. I didn’t hate every character in that movie, but they did do some really stupid things, and Covenant has less groan-inducing characters. There are a couple of moments where you think “DON’T DO THAT YOU IDIOT” but the same could be said of any scary movie. The scene-stealer is Michael Fassbender, who, without revealing too much, plays two roles, and in some scenes acts with himself. Fassbender gives both of his characters distinctive voices and body language, so the viewer can distinguish between the two of them…most of the time.

The rest of the cast is also good. Katherine Waterston plays Daniels, the main character, and she’s very likable even if her character isn’t as fierce as Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ellen Ripley. I admire Waterston for having the courage to take the role and make it her own while knowing that she would inevitably be compared to Ripley, one of the greatest sci-fi protagonists of all time, male or female.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Alien: Covenant is a great-looking film. I’ve already talked about how good the creatures look, but the environments are also stunning, both on the Covenant in space and on the ground on the mysterious hostile planet. Ridley Scott has been directing movies for about five decades, and he knows how to make every shot in his films feel unique and give the viewer something new to look at. The movie does have one of the same issues the Star Wars sequels had, in that the technology in the film appears much more advanced than the technology in the original films, even though the new films are prequels that take place chronologically before the originals. It’s not a huge issue, but it is noticeable in comparison to the original movies.

Alien: Covenant is not a perfect film, but I think it’s an improvement over Prometheus. Covenant suffers from a few similar issues that plagued its predecessor, but to a lesser extent. It delivers the gore and the heart-pounding intensity that fans have come to expect from the series, and it’s a worthy entry to the Alien franchise.

Event Horizon and Pandorum: Two Tales of Cosmic Terror

It’s hard to believe that Paul W.S. Anderson, the schlockmeister behind Death Race, Pompeii, and the entire Resident Evil series, also directed Event Horizon. It’s difficult because Event Horizon is so much smarter than those other movies. I’m not trying to say that Anderson is a stupid person, just that some of his movies are kind of dumb. Event Horizon, however, is not one of those movies.

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The easiest way of describing Event Horizon is that it’s basically Alien meets The Shining. The film takes place in 2047 and follows the crew of the Lewis and Clark, a rescue vessel on a top-secret mission, led by Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne). The mission is so top-secret that the crew doesn’t even know exactly what it is until they have almost reached their destination. A spoiler alert is in effect from here on.

When they have been awoken from their stasis pods, they are brought up to speed by Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill), a guest on their ship. He explains to them that they are there to investigate a distress signal sent from a ship called the Event Horizon, which disappeared several years earlier. He also tells them that the Event Horizon was built to test a new experimental gravity drive he designed. The drive generates an artificial black hole in order to bridge two points in spacetime, which vastly reduces travel time over great astronomical distances.

Things start to go wrong almost as soon as the crew of the Lewis and Clark crosses over to the Event Horizon. They find mutilated bodies and crew members start to experience vivid hallucinations connected to deeply personal events from their lives. Captain Miller is haunted by a crewman he once failed to save, Weir sees images of his dead wife with bloody eyes (she is later revealed to have committed suicide), and another crewmember is hounded by the sight of her disabled son with his legs covered with maggot-infested wounds.

The crew discovers the video log from the crew of the Event Horizon, the last entry of which shows them going completely insane and violently murdering each other in a sadomasochistic orgy. Yeesh. Some of the gore scenes in this film push the limits of good taste, not to mention strain the boundaries of an R rating. Anderson’s Resident Evil movies have their share of gore, but the violence in Event Horizon makes the Resident Evil series look like Disney flicks. The initial cut of the movie was so gruesome that the studio forced Anderson to tone it down, and the thought that there was even more horrific footage that wasn’t included in the movie is chilling.

As it turns out, something went terribly wrong (surprise!) with Dr. Weir’s experimental gravity drive, and Captain Miller and Dr. Weir theorize that the ship opened a portal into a dimension outside of the known universe, which is not stated specifically to have been hell, but it’s strongly implied. After its return from wherever it went, the Event Horizon itself became a sentient being, and now torments its occupants and tries to lure them back to hell. The ship itself is evil! And while Dr. Weir later becomes possessed by the evil that controls the ship, the ship itself is the true villain. That’s quite similar to The Shining, where the Overlook Hotel is itself evil, and possesses the weak-willed to do its terrible bidding (or at least that’s my interpretation of it).

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I like this movie a lot. Its horrific violence and grotesque imagery make it a film that is not for everybody, but it’s absolutely chilling and the ideas behind it are much more interesting than anything in Anderson’s other films. It benefits from solid lead performances from Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill, as well as strong supporting work from Jason Isaacs and Joely Richardson.

The special effects are also quite good. The movie came out in 1997 but watching it nearly 20 years later it’s easy to forget that this is a movie that is almost two decades old. The space ships in the film aren’t shiny and new-looking, like cinematic spacecraft tend to be. They look grungy and lived-in. Event Horizon is an incredibly atmospheric film, and the down-to-earth designs of the interiors of the spacecraft go a long way toward making the outlandish story believable.

Although it performed poorly at the box office and was met with generally negative reviews upon its initial release, the film has amassed a cult following. The look of the film also heavily influenced the Dead Space series of video games, in which the lived-in spaceships and overwhelming sense of cosmic doom are very much intact.

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Speaking of cosmic doom, in 2009 a film called Pandorum was released. The film stars Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster and is so stylistically similar to Event Horizon that it’s fun to think of the two films as taking place in the same universe. As far as I know there is no big fan theory connecting these movies, but it isn’t difficult to imagine. As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Paul W.S. Anderson was one of the producers of Pandorum.

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Pandorum is set hundreds of years in the future, when Earth’s population has grown out of control. In order to save themselves, mankind builds a massive spaceship called Elysium and fills it with 60,000 people, then sends it into space on a 123-year mission to an Earth-like planet called Tanis. The setup is not dissimilar to Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar, but Pandorum is less focused on family dynamics and more focused on white-knuckle terror.

At some point in the Elysium’s mission, crewmembers named Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) awaken from an extended period of hypersleep. Due to being improperly awakened from their hibernation, they are both suffering from amnesia and don’t know what the status is of the ship or the mission. Bower ventures out into the bowels of the ship while Payton stays behind to monitor the situation. Bower eventually finds a few survivors, as well as terrifying monsters.

There are some great plot twists in this movie. More spoilers lie ahead. It is assumed at the beginning of the film that the ship is adrift in deep space, but it turns out that the ship actually landed in the ocean of Tanis after 123 years as planned, and that the ship is in year 923 of its mission, having spent the last 800 years underwater. Trippy! There’s also a Fight Club-esque “Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are the same person” twist, as well as a very cool twist involving the film’s monsters.

The monsters in this movie scare the shit out of me. They frighten me so badly I don’t want to even look at the damn things. Pure nightmare fuel. Bower and his compatriots assume that the creatures are passengers of the ship who have mutated, but this is only partly true. They turn out to be the descendants of some of the ship’s passengers who were awakened hundreds of years ago, and have since evolved to adapt to the dark environs of the ship, becoming cannibalistic and tribal in the process. Badass!

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Pandorum and Event Horizon are smart, trippy, gory sci-fi. The spaceships in both movies look grungy and worn instead of sleek and shiny, and the movies conjure some memorably horrific imagery. Both contain brutal gore, solid acting and trippy plot twists. They make for a great Halloween double feature, although you might want a shower afterwards.

Happy Halloween!

Independence Meh

Two solid decades after the release of the first smash-hit Independence Day movie, along comes the sequel, and it makes a solid case for not needing to exist at all. It’s not a total loss, but it’s very mediocre (Side question: are there degrees of mediocrity? Can something be more or less average than something else when the very definition of “mediocre” is “of only moderate quality”? Food for thought.).

It would have been impossible to make a sequel to the original Independence Day after twenty years without acknowledging the passage of time, and this is one area in which the filmmakers have done solid work.

I liked the ways that we crafty humans have adapted alien technology. We’ve got alien laser weapons, a defense station on the moon, a satellite protection grid surrounding the Earth, and our planes and helicopters are powered by alien, I don’t know, repulsor technology or something.

Characters from the first film are older, and characters who were kids in the first movie are all now grown up. Will Smith does not return, since the producers declined his frankly ludicrous demand for a $50 million paycheck for two sequels. So yes, there will very likely be a third film eventually, which is hardly surprising when you consider that this movie’s ending is quite probably the most blatant sequel-baiting I’ve ever seen. Seriously, it is shameless.

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But back to the story, such as it is. If it wasn’t already abundantly clear, I was not impressed with the movie’s storytelling, aside from seeing the ways in which mankind has repurposed alien technology. The story is cobbled together and the characters are dull, aside from Jeff Goldblum, who is the movie’s most engaging personality, mostly just by way of being Jeff Goldblum.

Bill Pullman also returns, although he’s no longer the President since 20 years have passed. He is now an aging widower who suffers from vivid hallucinations as the result of his contact with the aliens in the previous film. His daughter, Patty, is grown up and works at the White House, which has been rebuilt after having been so spectacularly destroyed in the original movie. She is engaged to Jake, a pilot who now works on the moon base, and who used to be friends with Dylan, the son of Will Smith’s character from the original.

None of these characters are interesting. They’re all quite dull, having little personality and no memorable dialogue, despite the film’s screenplay being credited to five different writers. The story is a hodgepodge of plot clichés and uninteresting characters, which make it hard to care when a new alien mothership, so big it has its own gravitational pull, inevitably arrives and starts wreaking havoc.

The movie’s pacing is way off, lacking the sense of urgency that made the original so enjoyable, despite its sharing many of the same flaws as its sequel (dull characters, uninspiring story). Resurgence is overcrowded with boring people and devotes way too much time to their various backgrounds and subplots, none of which are compelling. Especially egregious is the eccentric wild-haired scientist Dr. Okun, who gets WAY too much screentime. A character such as Dr. Okun only really works in measured doses, but the movie puts too much storytelling weight on his shoulders, and he quickly grows tiresome.

At least the special effects are good. The ship battles and various sequences of mass destruction look good and are enjoyable to watch, despite the lack of reason to care about the characters involved. I also quite liked the alien spaceships and weapons, as well as the look of the aliens themselves. Director Roland Emmerich has a lot of experience causing mass cinematic destruction and making it look convincing, and when the aliens park their new mothership right on top of Earth, the effects are impressive to watch. It’s just so hard to find good mothership parking these days.

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The 1996 movie lacked a central antagonist, but the sequel makes up for that by putting an Alien Queen in charge of the new batch of extraterrestrials. The Queen looked badass and I enjoyed the final showdown with her in the desert, but again the storytelling here is lazy. How do you destroy the alien hive mind? Why, by destroying its source, of course. Take out the Queen and the rest will be defeated. It makes sense as a plot device but feels too convenient.

And I guess it makes more sense than the original movie, in which the ingenious humans utilize a Mac virus to disable the enemy mothership’s shield generator, or at least I think that’s what happened. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go in to movies like these expecting flawless plot continuity, but at some point all of this starts to feel haphazard. Independence Day: Resurgence doesn’t have much identity of its own, and if the title were changed it could be just about any generic alien-invasion thriller.

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For me, this movie is the Jurassic World of 2016. Decently entertaining while it lasts, but profoundly flawed and doesn’t have much staying power. There’s also no particular reason for it to even have been made in the first place, aside from the fact that it’s a delayed follow-up to a previously successful film. It’s like some movie executives were sitting around one day, snorting cocaine through $100 bills or doing whatever it is that movie executives do, and one of them was like, “Hey, remember that hit movie we had back in ’96? We should make another one sometime.” And the other one was like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” and then they went back to the coke and Ben Franklins.

Oh, well. I’ve seen plenty of worse blockbusters than this. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen comes readily to mind. At least this movie has some redeeming qualities, unlike that one. The biggest sin of Independence Day: Resurgence is that it’s simply not memorable. Hollywood churns out movies like this all the time, and this one is neither better nor particularly worse than your average summer popcorn flick.

Edge of Tomorrow Today!

I like Tom Cruise as an actor. I mentioned this when I wrote about Oblivion last year: the dude is a really good actor. It can be hard sometimes to separate one’s mental image of Cruise from the characters he plays. He’s one of the most famous people in the world, just say the name “Tom Cruise” and probably every single person within earshot will automatically know who you’re talking about. His reputation precedes him, which sometimes works to the disadvantage of the movies he’s in.

But with his latest movie, Edge of Tomorrow, I didn’t have much trouble separating Cruise’s public persona from the character he plays.

Tom Cruise edge1

Cruise plays Major William Cage, a military PR guy who has never seen a day of combat. Mankind is at war with a race of shape-shifting aliens called Mimics, and, as is so often the case in movies, we are losing. On the eve of a massive invasion of Mimic-controlled continental Europe (ominously called Operation Downfall), Cage is told by General Brigham (played by Brendan Gleeson, aka Mad Eye Moody), the commander of the invasion force, that he will be dispatched to the front lines on the beaches of France the next day. In his reluctance to comply with this order, Cage attempts to blackmail the general, which results in his getting busted down to Private and sent to the army base at Heathrow Airport, where he will deploy with the rest of the grunts the following day.

The next day, he is deployed on the front lines, where the invasion fails spectacularly. The mimics have somehow anticipated the attack, and annihilate the invasion force. Cage manages to kill a particularly large mimic by blowing it up with an explosive, but is doused with the creature’s blood and dies in the process.

He then wakes up the previous morning at Heathrow Airport, and meets many of the same people and hears many of the same things all over again. He becomes stuck in a time loop, repeatedly dying in the invasion and reawakening the previous day.

He tries during several of these time loops to convince people that the invasion will fail, but of course no one believes him. It isn’t until he meets Sergeant Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt) on the battlefield that he gains an ally. It turns out that she too once had the time-resetting ability, and she trains him to fight the Mimics. Cage becomes more proficient in combat with each repetition and he and Rita develop a plan to destroy the Mimics. He also begins to develop feelings for the hardboiled Sergeant Vrataski, which are somewhat stymied by the fact that every time he meets her, for her it’s the first time.

The most obvious way to describe this movie is as a sci-fi version of the Bill Murray/Harold Ramis classic Groundhog Day, only with more explosions, aliens, and badass metal exosuits.

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But I think that simply dismissing Edge of Tomorrow as “Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers” is, while admittedly somewhat accurate, not really fair to the movie, since it manages to have a life and an identity of its own. Sure, there are similarities. Major William Cage is self-centered and smooth-talking at the beginning of the movie, and gradually learns to be a better person, much like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. The biggest difference is that Cage is also trying to, you know, save the world from vicious shape-shifting aliens.

The aliens themselves look really cool and original. They made me think of a number of different things, ranging from spiders and squids to the robotic Sentinels from the Matrix.

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You can’t really make out too many details here, but this is the best picture I could find. Suffice to say that they are some seriously mean customers. I wouldn’t want to fight them once, let alone over and over and over, as Cage does.

The exosuits, called Jackets in the movie, are also very cool. They’re kind of reminiscent of Matt Damon and Sharlto Copley’s exosuits in Elysium, but on steroids.

edge of tomorrow poster

Man, I really liked this movie. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much I liked it. The movie was directed by Doug Liman, who had a pair of hits in the early 2000’s with The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but has been in something of a rut since then. This movie should help him reestablish himself, though. He gives the movie an elegant balance of action, plot, character development, hints of romance, and a healthy amount of dark comedy.

And it is a darkly funny movie, which mines quite a bit of humor from the various ways in which Cruise’s character repeatedly meets his end. He gets shot, drowned, blown up, run over, and crushed by falling dropships. There are a couple of very funny moments in particular where he is about to succeed gloriously, only to get plastered by a truck or something and have to start over.

The film also benefits from strong performances from both of its lead actors. Cruise is a natural as a PR guy, and we all know from countless other movies that he is more than capable of kicking ass when he needs to.

Emily Blunt is also really great. She was awesome in Looper, which is one of my favorite movies, and she’s equally good here. It’s a tricky role, and Blunt really sells it. She’s completely believable as an alien-killing badass, but there’s also a strong sense that there’s a lot going on with her beneath her steely demeanor and impressive biceps that make for a continually interesting character. I read that she trained for three months for the role, and it shows.

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She and Cruise have really great chemistry, and the movie wouldn’t work nearly as well without them.

The action scenes and special effects look great, too. I know I’ve been saying that a lot in my recent movie reviews, but it’s true. This is a really good-looking movie, and not just because of Emily Blunt.

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Doug Liman likes this particular shot so much that he reuses it several times throughout the movie, and I have a hard time finding fault with him for that.

The movie is about as gritty and realistic as a high-concept sci-fi movie is capable of being. The main invasion scene(s) has a sort of sci-fi Saving Private Ryan vibe (minus the gore), which contributes to the movie’s gritty feel. This is light-years away from the candy-colored visuals of Michael Bay’s Transformers films.

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Overall, this is a really good movie. Sure, it may be easy to find the DNA of several other films imprinted on it. But it still manages to be its own movie, and is one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer movie season for me so far.

2013: The Year in Villainy

2014 is almost here, and with it, the yearly “Best-of” lists from all corners of the Interwebs. Best movies, best books, best TV shows, best Tuesdays, you name it. But we don’t really go for that sort of thing here at thezombieroom. Instead, we prefer to reflect on the year in all of its evil cinematic glory. Here then, in no particular order aside from the first two, are my favorite movie villains from 2013.

NOTE: This is not a comprehensive list of ALL movie villains from 2013, just my favorites. Not included are any villains from movies I haven’t seen yet. Also, there may be SPOILERS.

Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness

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My favorite villain of the year was Khan, played so wonderfully by Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness. He was everything a classic movie villain should be: a smooth, suave, super-smart, creepy badass. It was a very good year for the Batch of Cumbers. He gave a great performance as Khan, and made him into a character you could feel sympathy for instead of just a two-dimensional bad guy. Even though it’s a character who’s appeared in other versions of Star Trek, Cumberbatch put his own spin on Khan, turning him into a guy you kind of felt sorry for (sort of), even as he was committing horrible acts of evil. It just didn’t get any better for cinematic villainy in 2013.

Kruger in Elysium

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Coming in at a very close second is Kruger, played by the wonderful Sharlto Copley. In addition to having an awesome name, Copley is fast becoming one of my favorite actors. I’ve only seen him in three films (District 9, The A-Team, and Elysium), but in those three films he’s shown he has a lot of range as an actor. The characters he plays in all three of those movies are completely different, but he makes all of them work. The character of Kruger in Elysium isn’t as multilayered as Khan in Star Trek, which is a little unfortunate. Not much explanation is given for his psychotic evil badness, so he is admittedly a bit two-dimensional in that respect. You could also argue that the lack of backstory for him makes him even creepier, but what is never in doubt is that holy crap is he scary. Copley turns him into the kind of character who scares the crap out of you, but at the same time his performance is so magnetic he steals every scene he’s in.

General Zod in Man of Steel

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Zod is a classic example of a bad guy who is 100% convinced that what he’s doing is right. He’s motivated, and he’s committed, and that makes him scary. Man of Steel was a controversial movie among superhero fans, I still stand behind it as a good movie, although some of its flaws have become more apparent to me. Michael Shannon’s performance as Zod, however, is not one of those flaws. Shannon gives an intense, crazy-eyed performance that makes Zod a formidable enemy for the Man of Steel. One of the problems I’ve had with Superman as a character is that it’s hard to be concerned about him when his survival is never in doubt because he’s so much more powerful than everyone else, but Zod turns that into a moot point. When the hero is as powerful as Superman, you need a villain who is just as powerful, and Zod fits that description nicely.

Viper and Silver Samurai in The Wolverine

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I really like The Wolverine. It got a mixed reception, but the more I watch it the more I like it. When I first saw the movie, I didn’t really like the character of Viper, I guess I didn’t get what her purpose was in the story. But on subsequent viewings, something clicked for me. She’s extremely creepy, especially in the face-peeling scene above. I also understood more how she fit into the story, so that helped.

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I am also a big fan of the Silver Samurai. He’s so fricking cool. There’s a plot twist involving him that I know turned some people off, which I can understand. But for me it worked. Two memorable villains in a movie that was, for me, the best X-Men related movie since X2, all the way back in 2003.

The Kaiju in Pacific Rim

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Guillermo Del Toro loves monsters. The monsters in Pacific Rim are of both the mechanical and biological kind, and they are all badass. They’re big, scary, and extremely powerful. The kaiju are the towering Godzilla-esque monstrosities that emerge from the sea to destroy us. Just look at that big dude up there. You don’t need me to tell you why he’s awesome. Del Toro’s monsters speak for themselves.

The Mandarin (sort of) in Iron Man 3

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Ok, so, everyone knows by now that Ben Kingsley’s character wasn’t actually the Mandarin, right? He was just a decoy and Guy Pearce was the real villain. It’s a weird plot twist, and (as with much of the plot of Iron Man 3) I’m not entirely sure where it came from. The reveal that Kingsley’s character was just a drunk, washed-up stage actor was kind of funny, even if it didn’t make much sense. Guy Pearce is a great actor who plays a great bad guy, even if his character’s motivation in Iron Man 3 also didn’t make much sense.

You know what? Let’s just move on.

The Zombies in World War Z

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This movie caused a bit of a furor among fans of the book when the first trailer was released, showing the movie’s unconventional take on the undead. This is another movie I like more with repeat viewings, and I think the filmmakers deserve credit for putting a new twist on the zombie-apocalypse subgenre, even though the movie’s zombies are pretty much the polar opposite of the book’s zombies. The movie and the book may share the same title, but I think they should each be taken on their own terms.

Space in Gravity

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This one is a bit existential, since the villain of this film wasn’t an actual physical entity. But was any other villain as relentlessly committed to killing its film’s protagonist as outer space was? Seriously, space really, REALLY wanted Sandra Bullock dead. Gravity is a harrowing 90 minutes, and makes you grateful to be standing on solid ground.

Owen Shaw in Fast and Furious 6

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Fast Five was a fun movie, but its villains were a bit boring. Drug cartel bosses and corrupt cops are boring. With Fast Six, they fixed that problem with Owen Shaw, a thoroughly dastardly fellow played by an actor I like named Luke Evans who always kinda reminds me of Orlando Bloom only, you know, manlier. He kidnaps the wife of one of the protagonists and runs over a bunch of civilians in a tank, so you know he’s not messing around. When you can hold your own in a fight with Vin Diesel and Dwayne “Samoan Thor” Johnson, your bad guy cred is pretty high in my opinion.

The Blanks in The World’s End

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The World’s End was my favorite movie of 2013, and its glowy-eyed robots were both funny and creepy, much like the villains in the previous two films of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright’s epic Cornetto Trilogy.

Butch Cavendish in The Lone Ranger

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The Lone Ranger was the weirdest movie I saw in 2013. The WTF factor of this movie was higher than both Iron Man 3 AND G.I. Joe Retaliation, which for me is really saying something. I still don’t know what to make of this movie, but one thing I do know is that William Fichtner gave a great performance as Butch Cavendish, the cannibalistic outlaw whose gruesome visage is way too scary for a kid’s movie.

Loki and Malekith in Thor: The Dark World

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Loki is a great character, he’s got to be one of the most charming villains around. He’s so popular that fans want him to get his own movie. Who knows if it’ll ever happen, but it would be fun to see. You can tell that Tom Hiddleston has a blast playing this character, and it’s not hard to see why. He has so much personality and is always fun to watch. You’re never quite sure what’s going on in that scheming head of his, and an unpredictable character is an interesting character.

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Malekith doesn’t have as much personality as Loki, but he’s still a badass villain with plenty of equally-badass henchmen, and he proves to be a formidable opponent for The Mighty Thor. You probably wouldn’t guess that he’s played by former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston, which is also pretty cool.

So there you have it, thezombieroom’s annual roundup of the cream of the crop in cinematic villainy. Who knows what dastardly evil awaits us in 2014?

Happy New Year, everyone!

It’s Better Up There

I’ve been looking forward to Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” pretty much ever since it was first announced. Back in 2009, Blomkamp’s debut feature District 9 became one of my surprise favorite films of the year. It kind of came out of nowhere for me, and I didn’t really have much interest in it until it came out and got really good reviews, so I decided to check it out and was very pleasantly surprised.

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I watched it again last week and it still holds up really well. The effects are top-notch (which is especially impressive given the movie’s relatively small budget), the acting is solid, the action is intense, and the story is original. And yes, there are certainly allegorical ties to Apartheid, but if you want to you can ignore the allegorical aspects of the film and simply enjoy it for the smart, original science fiction film that it is. I could go into the symbolism and such, but that’s a discussion for another time. I actually wrote a paper about District 9 in college, which is kind of cool I guess.

But anyway, on to Elysium.

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The plot of Elysium is fairly simple: in the future, Earth sucks. People on Earth basically live in a soul-sucking wasteland, and the Los Angeles of the future is half-desert. The wealthy folks, however, have it pretty good: they live on Elysium, a luxurious space station orbiting high above the Earth. They live in grandiose mansions and have these great machines that quickly heal all injuries or illnesses. Jodie Foster plays Delacourt, the station’s ambitious head of security, who just may be a bit too ambitious for her own good.

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Back on Earth, Matt Damon plays our hero Max, bald, buff, and tattooed. He’s dreamed of going to Elysium ever since he was a boy, growing up in an orphanage with his friend Frey, who is now a nurse with a daughter of her own. Frey’s daughter is in the final stages of leukemia, which will provide Max with a bit of extra motivation later on.

One fateful day, Max is inadvertently exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while working his job at the robot factory, and just like that, he only has five days to live. In a darkly funny scene, he is given painkillers by a medical robot, which tells him in its emotionless robot voice that “the pills should keep you functioning until your death.”

With no other options available to him, Max hooks up with some of his old pals who have a plan to get to Elysium, a plan that is, of course, So-Crazy-It-Just-Might-Work. In the process, Max submits himself to a gruesome operation (performed by some highly questionable surgeons) that welds a sort of robotic exoskeleton to his body, which greatly enhances his strength and endurance.

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And of course, when overly-ambitious Secretary of Defense Delacourt cottons on to their plan, she dispatches her secret weapon: Kruger.

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Kruger is played by the wonderfully-named Sharlto Copley, best known for playing Wikus, the hapless protagonist of District 9. Kruger is such a fearsome badass that he is already another one of my favorite villains of the year. He’s like the freaking Terminator: unstoppable, relentless, always showing up when you least expect him to, and when you really, REALLY don’t want him to.

He’s so tough he even survives getting his face thoroughly mangled by a grenade, and gets his face gruesomely reconstructed by one of Elysium’s healing machines in a scene that is definitely not for the squeamish, but is also undeniably impressive in terms of the special effects.

The showdowns between Max and Kruger are suitably epic, with Kruger’s ferocity and state-of-the-art exosuit pitted against Max’s black market knockoff exosuit and insatiable will to live. The two are great foils to each other, and make for a memorable pairing of hero and villain. And seriously, Sharlto Copley proves he has some serious range. His character in District 9 and his character in Elysium couldn’t be bigger opposites, and it is very much to the actor’s credit that he makes both of them work as well as he does.

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There’s also some serious hardware for our hero Max to contend with, and it will come as no surprise to anyone who saw District 9 that director Blomkamp once again comes up with some extremely cool sci-fi weaponry, equally as capable of shredding bodies as the alien weapons were in District 9.

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That ChemRail gun in the above picture gets my vote for Most Badass Sci-fi Weapon of 2013 so far. Elysium is a violent film, definitely not for the squeamish. There aren’t quite as many of the ultra-gory corpse-splosions that splattered most of the second half of District 9, but if you don’t like watching people getting literally blown to bits then you’re probably better off not watching a Blomkamp film.

And as with District 9, Elysium does have some allegorical aspects, even if they’re not as specific as District 9 was to South African Apartheid. It’s a science-fiction parable about the haves and the have-nots, but I’m not too concerned with the politics of the film. You can find people arguing on internet message boards and such over whether or not the film is socialist or some nonsense, but I could care less.

In my opinion, if you let yourself get so wrapped up in the political undertones of the film that you forget to have fun (since it’s a MOVIE and is meant first and foremost to be ENTERTAINING) then you’re just missing the point of going to the movies in the first place. Yes, movies can inform and enlighten us. I’m not denying that. Film is an incredibly versatile medium. But I think if you go into a summer sci-fi blockbuster and get all bent out of shape over the political undertones, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.

But enough about politics. It’s been a good year for sci-fi, and Elysium continues that trend. I’m already looking forward to whatever shenanigans Blomkamp has in store for us next. District 10, anyone?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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I’m also a big fan of these retro-style posters.

Guillermo del Toro: Nerd Hero

Pacific Rim is a dream come true for nerds everywhere. No movie since The Avengers last year has had more Nerdgasms-per-minute than this one. It should cement Guillermo del Toro’s status as Nerd Hero of the Highest Order, on a level with Saint Joss Whedon. And, as with World War Z (and The Avengers for that matter), I consider it a minor miracle it even got made in the first place.

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It would have been so easy to screw this up. I think it’s safe to say that there are perhaps a fair number of people out there (myself included) who would go to see a movie about giant robots duking it out with giant monsters regardless of the talent involved. It really is somewhat miraculous that A) this movie got the nine-figure budget required to do this sort of concept convincingly, and B) the movie got a director who actually knows what the hell he’s doing.

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Guillermo del Toro is a respected filmmaker with an Academy Award under his belt (Best Foreign Film for Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006) but he hasn’t really been known as a big-budget blockbuster sort of director. Sure, he’s directed action movies and comic-book adaptations (Blade 2 and Hellboy 2 are my favorites) which have been well-received and modestly financially successful, but until now he hasn’t made a megabudget tentpole blockbuster.

If you’ve seen any of del Toro’s other films, you know he’s got a thing for monsters.

Monsters like this…

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Or (nightmare fuel alert) this…

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Seriously, the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where this guy shows up is one of the most terrifying scenes I have ever witnessed in any movie ever. Being on the set of a del Toro movie must be like walking into another dimension.

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Just another day on the job.

But what is so great about del Toro is that he doesn’t let the monsters overwhelm the story. Pan’s Labyrinth is an incredibly, heartbreakingly human film despite the fantastical creatures, and Hellboy 2 in particular really makes you feel for the big red guy, because he’s such an outcast. A lot of people can identify with that.

What I’m trying to say with all this is that GDT was the perfect choice of director for Pacific Rim. He’s a talented filmmaker, he knows how to direct an action scene, he’s got a vivid imagination, and, come on, he clearly loves this stuff. His enthusiasm for the material is pretty infectious.

Well now that I’ve waxed eloquent about how great GDT is, let’s get on to the movie, shall we?

Yes, Pacific Rim is a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in the face, and vice-versa. But there is more to it than that.

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Okay, backstory time. I won’t say too much about the plot, but I think a bit of explanation is appropriate.

The giant monsters are called Kaiju, which, as the movie informs us, is a Japanese term for “giant beast.” The giant robots are called Jaegers, which, as the movie also informs us, is German for “hunter.” Some years ago, the Kaiju started appearing out of some sort of dimensional rift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The first one annihilated San Francisco (the poor Golden Gate Bridge is always the first thing to go in these kinds of disaster movies) and blazed a path of destruction before us humans managed to finally bring it down.

We killed the beast, but the cost was just too high. So, when more Kaiju started appearing, we had no choice but to create the Jaegers and deploy them in the ocean where the Kaiju appeared and attempt to kill them before they could reach any major cities. All of this is shown to us in the opening few minutes of the movie.

The way the Jaegers work is that there are two pilots in the cockpit of the robot, which is located in the robot’s head. The pilots are connected to each other via a kind of neural link in a process known as drifting, and they control the robot together. The stronger the bond between the pilots, the better the robot is able to fight. Two pilots are required because the Jaegers are so complex that they are too much for just one pilot to be able to handle.

This has some pretty significant drawbacks, of course. Piloting a Jaeger is still almost too much for even two pilots to handle, and the neural link between the two of them can be problematic. Also, they are so connected to the robot and to each other that they are surprisingly vulnerable. Basically, when the robot gets hurt, the pilots feel it too.

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So it’s not just the robot who is hurting here, the pilots are also in pretty bad shape.

I love this because it makes both the Jaegers and the pilots vulnerable. I mean come on, you’d think a couple of guys encased in several thousand tons of steel would be pretty safe, right? But no. They’re not.

When I saw the trailers for the film, for some reason I had assumed the pilots were controlling the robot from a distance, like they would hang back and control the robot from base or something. I really don’t know why I assumed this. It wasn’t until a few minutes into the film itself that I realized the pilots were actually in the robot, which makes so much more sense in just about every way.

It’s also brilliant because del Toro clearly realizes that it might be just a bit difficult for audiences to care about characters who are safely encased in a giant monster-killing deathbot, so he makes them vulnerable in a way that makes sense in the world the movie creates. If you care about the people in the robot, then you care about the robot, too. Well played, Guillermo.

I’m not going to say much about the actual plot, since the plot itself isn’t really all that special. Suffice to say that a former Jaeger pilot who quit after his brother (who was also his co-pilot) got Om Nommed by a Kaiju in the movie’s opening battle scene is called back into battle by his former boss, the wonderfully-named Stacker Pentecost, to help in the final battle blah blah. You can probably see where this is going, and the plot follows some familiar paths that aren’t all that surprising.

But hey, who cares when the movie is this much fun? The effects and action scenes in this film are pretty stunning, brought vividly to life with the help of that nine-figure budget. A large budget does not always equal a good movie (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay) but it would have been pretty damn hard to make a movie like Pacific Rim convincing with anything less than $200 million.

The movie’s battles are similar in special-effects powered destructiveness to those in Man of Steel, only on a much bigger scale because the combatants themselves are, you know, much, much bigger.

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Like, getting-chucked-through-a-building-demolishes-the-entire-building bigger.

The robot/monster smackdowns in this film are truly epic, and no words I can use to describe them will really do them justice. They deserve to be seen for themselves, in all of their fantastically-realized glory.

Another thing I love about this movie is how well thought-out it is. I’m sure if you really wanted to you could poke holes in the plot, but I still think that this is one of the most fully-realized sci-fi films in some time. The world it portrays is very convincing, and del Toro and his co-screenwriter Travis Beacham really did a stellar job exploring different aspects of the giant robot/monster world that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of.

For example, there’s a slum in Hong Kong called the Bone Slums, which is built around the skeletal remains of a fallen Kaiju. There’s also del Toro regular Ron Perlman (he played Hellboy in both Hellboy movies and has been in several of del Toro’s other films) as a dealer in black-market Kaiju body parts named Hannibal Chau. It seems that Kaiju bone powder is good for the, ahem, male potency, and even Kaiju crap makes damn good fertilizer. It’s details like these that make the film’s world seem really genuine and easy to get lost in, despite the film’s far-fetched premise.

There’s also Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost (how’s that for a winning combination of actor and character names?), the Commander of the Jaeger program. Elba is a darn good actor, and he effectively conveys the world-weariness that comes with all those years of punching giant monsters right in their ugly faces.

He’s also suave as hell.

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Cuts a pretty great figure, doesn’t he? This film has me firmly convinced that Elba is one of the smoothest, most badass mofos on the planet. He was also easily the best part of Prometheus last year. Just sayin’. (Also, check out a little movie called The Losers for another fun Elba performance.)

Pacific Rim won’t be for everyone. It’s very BIG and very LOUD, with lots of monster-screeching and metal-tearing. It almost borders on sensory overload at times. Not everyone out there will find this sort of thing appealing. That’s fine. I get it. Not everyone really wants to watch robots punch monsters in the face. Which, again, is totally fine.

HOWEVER, if you do think robot/monster beatdowns sound like a good time at the movies, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. You will not be disappointed. It’s extremely well-made by a director who clearly loves the material, it’s got a surprising amount of depth, and it is simply a blast to watch.

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I mean seriously, people. Adam Sandler doesn’t need any more freaking money. Support Guillermo instead. That might become my new slogan.

SUPPORT GUILLERMO 2013!!!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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Seriously. He’ll eat you if you don’t see his movie.