“The Last Question”, a short story by Isaac Asimov (1956)

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Isaac Asimov considered “The Last Question” one of his best science fiction works, and rightfully so. For those who haven’t read it – go on, it takes roughly just 15 minutes. For those who have – it would be great to know your thoughts on it as it touches very complex matters, such as ageing, biomechanics, what is immortality, interstellar travel and many others…

Spoilers below (just highlight the text):

  • Do you think this kind of scenario is plausible? That first we live longer, than we become immortal, then, bored by the immortality and getting used to the environment, we start to separate from our physical bodies?
  • Do you think that names that combine letters and numbers are a cliche? VJ-23X, THX 1138… I think it is a cliche, although it doesn’t mean it was so in 1956.
  • How do you interpret the ending?
  • Here’ s a good discussion.

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i-robot

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The last question was asked for the first time, half in jest, on May 21, 2061, at a time when humanity first stepped into the light. The question came about as a result of a five dollar bet over highballs, and it happened this way:

Alexander Adell and Bertram Lupov were two of the faithful attendants of Multivac. As well as any human beings could, they knew what lay behind the cold, clicking, flashing face — miles and miles of face — of that giant computer. They had at least a vague notion of the general plan of relays and circuits that had long since grown past the point where any single human could possibly have a firm grasp of the whole.

Multivac was self-adjusting and self-correcting. It had to be, for nothing human could adjust and correct it quickly enough or even adequately enough — so Adell and Lupov attended the monstrous giant only lightly and superficially, yet as well as any men could. They fed it data, adjusted questions to its needs and translated the answers that were issued. Certainly they, and all others like them, were fully entitled to share In the glory that was Multivac’s. Continue reading

Embers

Director: Claire Carré. Starring: Jason Ritter, Iva Gocheva, Greta Fernandez, Tucker Smallwood, Karl Glusman, Roberto Cots. Poland, USA, 2015. IMDb: 5.3. Budget: unknown, but very small. Box office: none (direct-to-video). My rating: 2/4. Research about the human identity through memory loss epidemic in a post-apocalyptic world.

“How can a person who has no memories show up with shaved pits?”
(Bartolomeu from Portugal)

“Toward the end I was hoping to see some kind of point to justify the favorable reviews – instead the movie just ended.”
(J-J N from United States)

“…it was not that generic Hollywood garbage.”
(A1CashFlow from East Coast USA)

In the near future a virus has infected most of the population, causing a dysfunction of the short-term memory and the creation of new memories. That is the whole plot of the movie, which consists of several stories about how people survive in this world. I found “Embers” through various festival nominations (about 30 of them!) and decided to give it a try, despite quiet low Imdb rating. I couldn’t find any info about the budget, but the film raised $23,000 on Kickstarter.

Embers” is a very minimal movie. Mostly it tries to follow the mood of “Stalker” by Andrei Tarkovsky but with a more romantic flair. The ideas (and there are quiet many of them) are good, but the realization is not perfect. Unfortunately. When something is made of bare20170404_142135 bones, every millimeter should be of a perfect beauty. Otherwise… don’t do it that minimal? Tarkovsky was a master of long, haunting scenes with stunning visuals, photography and music, thus, he could create endlessly slow scenes where barely nothing happened. In this debut film by Claire Carré, this kind of maturity is missing.

20170404_142058The reception. The biggest problem of “Embers” is that it is desperately trying to look like an art-house movie or a video installation. It reminds me of people, who do various efforts to look smart/cool/intellectual – you know, meaningful quotes and pauses, unusual look, weird hipster pants, whatever. After few minutes of talking it’s pretty easy to recognize who is trying to imitate something and who is really different. Unfortunately, “Embers” is balancing very unevenly between both types – hence the festival success where all this artsy stuff is highly adored, but low ratings from the public (80% RT / 5.3 IMDb). IndieWire praised it as “the best sci-fi discovery of the year”. Just to remind you for a sec, that in 2015 were released such sci-fi movies as “Ex Machina“, “The Lobster“, “Chappie“, “The Martian“. What are they smoking there?

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Maybe these people weren’t informed that “Ex Machina” was released the same year too?

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20170404_142154The ideas and the plot. Let’s talk about the ideas. The film consists of several story lines. A guy and a girl, who supposedly are a couple and do not recognize each other every morning as they wake up. The do not remember their names and mostly sleep in abandoned buildings. As the day goes on, they find a way to restore the connection, but the next day the story repeats. Then there is a scientist, living in the forest with his everyday reminders how to heat up the water or start the fire. He is working on the cure to defeat the virus, but he struggles to keep all the things is his mind as they fade out too soon. A young fellow, who has unstoppable rage and violence inside, pouring it on anyone and anything he sees. Finally, 20170404_142321a father and his daughter, who managed to hide from the epidemy in the high-tech bunker and are only characters, who escaped from the virus. The daughter struggles with her boredom. Locked inside, she cannot create new memories because every day seems exactly the same to he. We don’t know more than that, the characters shown are pretty blank, just like their memory.

What I liked. The movie uses the memory loss as a metaphor, how people are locked up in a certain circle of behavior. In most circumstances, a person acts only in certain way and cannot see itself from the outside. It’s like for every event a human is programmed for several different reactions, but is it possible to overcome and do something else?20170404_142116 This reflection reminds me of brilliant “Ex Machina” by Alex Garland (the conversation about Pollock, remember). Every character in ”Embers” represents a certain commonplace – a romantic couple, a professor, a bully, a bored daughter seeking adventure. Most probably they would follow the same behavioral patterns in a normal world. So what makes them human? Memories? The ability to create new memories?

What I didn’t like. The realization of the movie is far from being perfect. Almost everything was shot with a shaky camera and from a very close distance. This was a little embarrassing (I do not have anything against a shaky camera, but what was the purpose of it here?). The music could be 20170404_142435much better and create more atmosphere. The location sets are great (Poland and USA), but the photography seems to be not that careful (again, why so many close-ups? Show us more of the abandoned city with abandoned streets). It’s not visually interesting enough to be a video installation either. All this prevents from enjoying the movie fully and connect with the characters who are pretty blank already. Many scenes could have been cut easily, being repetitive or just dull. So I can understand many negative reviews. The movie for sure is not just for some random moviegoer. But a science fiction and independent cinema fan (like me) may see it differently.

Spectacularity: 1.5/4
Acting:  3/4
Directing: 2/4
Originality: 3.5/4
Final vote: 2/4

Worth watching? Maybe. If you want a slow non-Hollywood dystopia. Well, “Embers” is not completely flawed for a first step. I’d definitely have a look at the next movie by Claire Carré though, because this debut feel a little bit incomplete and too artsy. Ironically, just like its characters who are struggling to create new memories, most viewers would do the same after watching “Embers”. The ideas are there and maybe for somebody it’s worth exploring this reflection upon human identity. I’d love to enjoy it more, though.

You can stream or buy “Embers” online here.

Watch also: “Sleep Dealer” is a very curious Mexican dystopia worth checking out. Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (which I consider one of the best films ever) seems like an obvious recommendation. Debuts as “Moon” by Duncan Jones and “10 Cloverfield Lane” by Dan Trachtenberg  are also excellent minimal dystopian thrillers.

Top 10 Soviet Science Fiction Movies

Here is my Top 10 Soviet sci-fi movies with a dozen of modern trailers I made specially for it while studying some video editing.

†1924-1988 selection.

Beautiful new ambient, shoegaze, dreampop, synthpop and techno soundtracks included.

 

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1. ”Stalker”, 1979.

A cerebral timeless masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, probably the most renowned and influential Soviet/Russian director. Loosely based on a story by important Soviet science fiction writers Strugatsky brothers (and seen by many as a prophecy for several upcoming catastrophes including Chernobyl), “Stalker” could be interpreted as a philosophical tale about destiny and choices. But there’s much more that that. It’s simply one of the most important cinema achievements ever, let alone science fiction. The story follows three men as they penetrate deeper into into a mysterious area called “The Zone”, each of them for a different purpose. A thinking sci-fi geek’s must-see. This movie is like a Universe, there are always new layers to discover. Read more here and here.

Music by Bowery Electric.

2. ”City Zero”, 1988.

Theatre of the absurd, a mysterious tragicomedy, a dark metaphor. The late 80-s, without doubt, were the most prolific period for the underground culture in Soviet Union, especially rock music but also cinema. ”City Zero” is the finest dark offspring of that epoch. The film is normally classified as sci-fi/mystery – but if you analyze every single scene separately, there’s nothing completely impossible. It’s the sum of all parts that is greater than the whole… The famous headcake scene actually happened once in Russia. But looking at the whole story makes you feel like slowly drowning in the swamp… It’s kind of ”Donnie Darko” goes on ”Mulholland Drive” in ”The Twilight Zone” atmosphere. My full review here. Watch online here.

Music by Auktyon (Аукцыон).

3. ”Dead Man’s Letters”, 1986.

Directed by K. Lopushansky, surely the most faithful of all Tarkovsky’s followers (he worked as assistant on ”Stalker” set), this film is a heavy and realistic portrayal of the end of the world. Endless piles of rusty metal, interminable yellow twilight, dirty radioactive puddles of mixed water and blood. And dead bodies. Dead bodies everywhere. Men, children, women. Everywhere. There is no hope here. It’s finished. There is no ”if”. The doomsday clock has moved. We are just witnessing the final decay of small group of survivors that will last several months, probably. There is not even a single hint about their survival. It’s a death rattle. Just a matter of time. My full review here. Watch online here.

Music by Ital Tek.

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Tarkovsky / posters

“And so, what is a film? It’s a mosaic made of time.” (A. Tarkovsky)

 

Dreamy and poignant posters for several films of the great Russian director, by Curzon Artificial Eye. These are definitely most beautiful posters of his works I have ever seen (including probably the original posters)  as they reflect carefully the poetic nature of these films, which continue to influence modern filmmakers, such as Dennis Vileneuve who directed the best science fiction movie of 2016, ”Arrival”.

And probably will make the best sci-fi of 2017. And who is currently working on Blade Runner 2049.

 

Jonas Mekas / Vladimir Kobrin / Wire / surrealist cinema

Surrealism and absurdism have always captivated me, they slice the reality as we know it and perform its autopsy, opening unseen layers… But first things first. Here is my new video on of the best post-punk/new wave songs ever by the British band Wire, 1979. The clip is composed of 2 works by great surrealist directors Jonas Mekas (born in 1922, Lithuania/USA) and Vladimir Kobrin (born in 1942, USSR).

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THX 1138

thx1138Director: George Lucas. Starring:Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie, Don Pedro Colley. Budget: $777,777. Box office: $2.4 mln. USA, 1971. IMDb: 6.8. My rating: 3/4. Disturbing art-house dystopia at its finest.

– Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy.
(OMM, the digital Jesus)

– I think I’m dying.
– Could you be more specific?
(THX 1138’s confession to OMM, the digital Jesus)

– Everything will be all right; we are here to help you. Stay calm. We are not going to harm you. Everything will be all right.
(chrome police robots)

 

First part and more GIFs about the numbers in ”THX 1138” here.

”THX 1138” is an impressive, visionary and visually striking science fiction movie that I found fucking boring but absolutely loved at the same time. It may be a pain in the ass to watch because it’s so desperately monotonous and emotionally deadened – but that was the aim of the film too.

But once you get through it… your suffering will be rewarded. You may even want to rewatch it over time. It’s still one of the best dystopias around (and almost 50 years passed since its release).

Besides of the visuals, ”THX 1138” has an incredible amount of cultural references and just that may make it worth a watch. Steel-faced chrome police robots (lets call them, uhm, T100?), futuristic car chases (long before George Miller touched his camera), Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor’s sampling source, dystopian underground drug-controlled society, infinite white prison with no walls (remember the Matrix endless gun warehouse scene?), early Star Wars designs, weird silent surveillance footage, erotic hologram dance, tape-recorded Jesus… A long and extensive analysis could be done on this movie.

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Discovering the depths of tape-recorded digital religion.

It’s inevitable to mention George Lucas’ persona when discussing “THX-1138”. The man was known for his little love in directing the movies, that’s why after doing this, “American Graffiti” (a coming-of-age cult film which I haven’t seen, but 7.5 IMDb and 95% RT may actually mean it’s worth something!) and the first “Star Wars” movie he stepped out of the director’s seat for 22 years, only to direct the dubious “Star Wars” prequels, which for the most part are not considered as good as the original trilogy. Anyway. I’m not a huge fan of Star Wars, although I’ve watched them multiple times and enjoyed it.

In short, “THX 1138” is everything that “Star Wars” is not. It is was the art-house face of George Lucas. Ultra slow, depressive and without even a hint of being funny. But its influence on the visuals of the latter is significant. Many of design solutions, like dominating sterile colours contrasted with black and white uniforms, holograms and other futuristic elements.

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This is not your average Interceptor.

What’s wrong with the The Director’s Cut. Oh, these freaking DC… It was released in 2004 and sadly it confirms that – with the exception of barely few scenes – Lucas lost the understanding of his own movie. He used the same approach as in Star Wars prequels with too much CGI out of place, thus many scenes were needlessly modified with new graphics, the corridors were extended (why, George? Why do we need extended corridors?) and extra space and colours added. Here‘s the full comparison and additional info here too. Several GIFs below (this may look fine out of context though):

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Copy-pasted humans and extended corridors of the infamous Director’s Cut.

Few words about the acting. Robert Duvall (born in 1931) is an interesting guy. He reminds me of Harry Dean Stanton (born in 1926), an incredibly talented American actor, who has made about 100 movies since 1956, including such titles as ”Alien”, ”Repo Man”, three David Lynch’s movies, ”Escape From New York”, ”Paris, Texas” and a literally lots of other stuff, yet the man never became a big star, staying in the shade of his colleagues.

So what has Stanton to do with Duvall? Well, both are those type of actors that we all have probably seen dozens of times (”MASH”, ”Deep Impact”, ”The Godfather 1/2”, ”Falling Down”) but struggle to recognize. So while Duvall certainly got more notoriety over the decades and received some important awards, his fate is somewhat similar compared to the Hollywood’s major stars and he is often overlooked. In ”THX 1138”, the man creates a wonderful and powerful performance, that ranges from emotional overload and despair to escapism, protest and silent consent. A very versatile role indeed.

Donald Pleasence (Carpenter’s ”Halloween”, Polanski’s ”Cul-de-sac”) was also wonderful as a psychotic and neurotic dweller of this huge underground world hospital. His characters was more one-sided than Duvall’s and that was a good contrast.

Maggie McOmie’s role as LUH felt a little bit underdeveloped given that it was her character that gave THX 1138 (the person, not the film!) a major input… She did not pursue an acting career after finishing ”THX 1138”.

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Worth watching? ”THX 1138” may seem overly slow and artsy at a glance, but nevertheless it’s a visually striking and original dystopia with various elements to be found in many forthcoming science fiction movies of all kinds. Wonderful performances from Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence, gorgeously sterile visuals, story’s depth and a well-developed deadened underground world prove that there were times when George Lucas was as a talented and original filmmaker. 

Watch also: dystopia is a good genre for experimenting and many filmmakers used that to create something unorthodox, like amazing ”A Boy and His Dog”, poetic ”Fahrenheit 451” or absurd Soviet masterpieces”Kin-Dza-Dza!” and ”City Zero”.

3/4

Augmented reality. Day 11. ”La Jetée”

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”La Jetée” (1962) is a very unusual project. It is…

…a photo novel  – a science fiction short film made almost entirely in still photographs. 29 minutes of brain-penetrating painful stills.

…a dystopian science fiction movie made by Chris Marker, a French director whose career spanned for 5 decades and his most notable work were documentary essays, not feature films – let alone science fiction. Yet ”La Jetée” was interconnected with his later works in terms of the spirit.

…incredibly long-lived for a film with such an unusual form – no action, no stars and no actual video – that directly inspired one of the best Terry Gilliam’s films ”12 Monkeys”. Yes, the time when Hollywood still had the guts of making these kind of weird ‘remakes’.

…a grim philosophical story about human perception of things and memory, madness, love, time interchangeability and bleakness.

”The victors stood guard over an empire of rats.”

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Resolution

Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead. Written by: Justin Benson. Starring: Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran, Bill Oberst Jr, Zahn McClarnon. USA, 2012. IMDB: 6.2. Budget: unknown, but very small. My rating: 4/4. Horror meditation wrapped into a puzzle.

– You know why Jimi Hendrix died? He didn’t have Mike Danube and a set of handcuffs to save his life.
(Mike Danube to Chris)

”Resolution”, surprisingly, is more a movie about horror genre than a horror itself. Just like if ”Cabin in the Woods” met David Lynch.

A directional debut by two young filmmakers, ”Resolution” tries to refresh the old genre and succeeds, being both a great story and a contemplation about the horror, cinema and itself as well. It is not pretentious though, but fun to watch, thrilling, tense and spectacular – even if you don’t care that much about its meditation about the genre. 

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The plot. Simple but effective and it keeps the movie pulsating. Mike Danube (Peter Cilella) visits his old school friend Chris (Vinny Curran) to help in overcoming the drug use. Chris is almost a junkie now, moving from one abandoned house to another. He is honest in admitting to be completely happy in his drug oblivion. This time, Chris found some cabin on the outskirts of an Indian reservation. Strange place. Nevertheless Mike is determined to kick the shit out of him, so he locks him up in the house with a chain and provides him some food and water. But pretty quick they discover that something really weird goes on around the house. And very soon weird turns into scary.

It’s full of weird people here. Hostile native Indians, UFO researchers, junkies, bums… Not much gore, but there is no need for it – most characters already look strange enough. ”Resolution”has it’s own great atmosphere and has lots of classic things you would expect from a horror movie, though it blends them in the story in a different way. So till the very end you have no clue of what is actually happening. A great example of an indie sci-fi film with horror spirit.

Of course, a low-budget movie like that would be nothing without great acting – and it is here. Both Cilella and Curran are amazing, and all the mysteries a part, it is still a wonderful story (well, if a story about a junkie rehab can be described with this word). Cilella is very convincing – a designer, who preferred to have stable job instead of reaching his early dreams, good guy, married, absolutely convinced in his right to force Chris to detox. Curran is awesome, as he swings between depression, suicide, peaceful contemplation of the world, fear, absence and acceptance. All other episodic characters were great as well. Especially the creepy French occult scientist played by Bill Oberst Jr.

Reception. “Resolution” received a bunch of awards on sci-fi festivals and was praised by critics (100% RT… even if just 9 reviews, but still), festivals and public. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any information about the box office or budget (I am pretty sure it was a very low budget). The next film by Moorhead and Benson (yes, they continued their cooperation!), ”Spring”, was released in 2015, and has a very unusual approach too. Their new film, ”Endless”, is coming out soon.

So, a great debut from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Very refreshing. It has all the elements in the right place and something more to offer. Imagine you are assembling a jigsaw puzzle. But then in the middle of it you realize there is actually a bigger puzzle, being assembled by somebody and you are just a small piece of it. Truly ingenious and witty movie. Entertaining, vibrant and fun to watch. It’s really rare to see all these qualities in one movie. Many compared it to the “Cabin in the Woods“. That one was awesome as hell too, but they are of different nature. Let’s say they offer different approach in dissecting the horror genre.

Spectacularity: 3.5/4
Acting:  4/4
Directing: 4/4
Originality: 4/4
Final vote: 4/4

Worth watching? Absolutely. This movie approaches mystery and horror in its own way. Apparently, it plays by the classic rules. But the more you watch, the more you get sucked in, because at a certain point you understand that this movie follows only its own rules.

You can stream it for a ridiculous price here on Amazon, plus they have a DVD/Blu-Ray too. I can’t get tired repeating again and again – support independent movies like that! Trust me, Marvel can prosper even without your ticket contribution, while smaller film creators need to have a daily job just to survive (a thing I’ve read in way too many interviews, sadly).

P. S. Here’s a curious comment of Justin Benson (one of the directors) that I found under one of the reviews over the web:

…nothing against anyone who makes naval-gazing dramas (‘Before Sunrise’ is one of my favorite movies of all time), but that’s not what Resolution is or the background we come from. We set out to make a genuinely scary movie via characters that you care about, while striving for originality above all else. We wouldn’t make any film we didn’t love in every way, and we are as passionate about genre film as every other classification of cinema. That being said, what genre we’re working in specifically is not something we talk about while developing our films. Being as scary, funny, heartbreaking and unique as the overall tone of the story allows, is infinitely more important to us than how the marketing department (or at least the hope that there is one) decides what to sell it as. Sincerest thanks for reading about our movie and we really hope you check it out!’

Another great interview in Italian here.

Parade of the Planets

parad planetDirector: Vadim Abdrashitov. Writer: Aleksandr Mindadze. Starring: Oleg Borisov, Sergey Shakurov, Sergey Nikonenko, Liliya Gritsenko, Aleksandr Pashutin, Pyotr Zaychenko. USSR, 1984. IMDb: 7.2. My rating: 3.5/4. A surreal metaphor about the end of an era, generations and human fate.

– I was a good student. And all good students dreamt to be astronomers. Discover new stars. But all stars have already been discovered…
(conversation between main characters)

– I was a butcher, I was…
– And now?
– And now I’m a spirit.
(conversation between main characters)

“Parade of the Planets” gives you an illusory airy, gauzy feeling. It’s woven of a light and some invisible matter – hard to catch, yet impossible not to feel. It’s late in the afternoon, the sky is still crystal, but you feel the air is thicker, there’s a sense of doom all around… the thunder is coming. The storm that will wash away everything. We won’t even see it, probably, but the feeling itself is overwhelming. Continue reading

City Zero (Zerograd)

zero-cityDirector: Karen Shakhnazarov. Starring: Leonid Filatov, Oleg Basilashvili, Vladimir Menshov, Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, Evgeniy Evstigneev. USSR, 1988. IMDb: 7.6. My rating: 4/4. Theatre of the absurd, mysterious tragicomedy & black metaphor.

– I need one first class ticket to Moscow.
– There are no tickets.
– I don’t care which one,
first or second class…
– I have neither of them.
– Where is the manager of the station?
– The manager won’t help.
(a dialogue between the train ticket seller and the main character)

20170614_070542It’s called a silent hysteria. The late 80-s, without doubt, were the most prolific period for the underground culture in Soviet Union, especially for the rock music, when so many original bands appeared whose heritage is still relevant today. But mostly they were still prohibited, while the the cinema was changing… ”Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important”, as Lenin once said. The censorship became less strict – occasional nudity, freethinking or just weird stuff were allowed.

”City Zero” is the finest dark offspring of that epoch. It wasn’t appreciated by the masses at that time (which is not a good symptom by itself, given that in large part the movie is about crowd manipulation as well…), being an intellectual, allegoric and metaphoric dark tale. It was the 4th feature film by Karen Shakhnazarov, already a successful and experienced director, and he managed to capture the spirit of the falling empire in this theatre of the absurd. As he admitted later, portraying the Perestroika and fall of the USSR wasn’t his priority, but the film outgrew the original intention of the director.

What’s most remarkable, “City Zero” is normally classified and sci-fi/mystery – and if you analyze every single scene separately, there’s nothing completely impossible. The famous cake scene actually happened once. But looking at the whole story makes you feel like slowly drowning in the swamp… It’s kind of ”Donnie Darko” goes on ”Mullholland Drive” in ”The Twilight Zone” atmosphere.

Continue reading