400 Days

400Director: Matt Osterman. Starring: Brandon Routh, Tom Cavanagh, Caity Lotz, Ben Feldman, Dane Cook. USA, 2015. IMDb: 4.5. Budget: unknown, but very low. Box office: $58. My rating: 0.5/4. Comatose fight of Solaris vs 2001 vs Alien vs Moon.

 What is your current mood?
 Tired… and a little hung over.
 Tired and hung over aren’t moods, I need something like happy, sad, depressed, angry.
(a dialogue between main characters)

400 Days” is a brilliant showcase of how with very little you can achieve even less. I found it on some faraway dusty sci-fi forums thanks to a viewer who complained about ”10 Cloverfield Lane”, criticizing it as a dull and uninspiring movie with bad acting. Thank you, dear unknown viewer! I must confess I feel like a snob by saying this, but… should a basic cinema education be introduced in secondary education program? At least, as a short course?

Still, I am particularly proud I have seen a movie that grossed $58.00 (fifty eight dollars). Way better than ”Man Down” with Shia LaBeouf that took just £7.00 at UK box office during its premiere, isn’t it? I am also deeply convinced that even worst movies can tell you something new – for example, this year NASA will be actually testing 6 potential cosmonauts for 8 months in closed environment to examine psychological issues. On Hawaii.

20170427_062257400 days is the length of the preparatory mission for a space travel to the Moon. 4 people selected. They will live together in a claustrophobic underground environment, kind of a spaceship simulator, in order to see how psychologically prepared they are for a real mission. As their voluntary imprisonment is reaching the end, something starts to go wrong. It seems that it wasn’t exactly a preparatory mission.

Sounds cheesy? Well, that’s actually the least cheesy part of the film. NASA actually is developing a similar program right now on Hawaii, it’s called HI-SEAS. 6 people, 8 months, Mars-like simulated environment and geology exercises. You can read more here, it’s interesting.  Here is a photo of how it actually looks like:

habitat

20170427_062124The problem of the movie is not the idea. It’s actually pretty good. The problem, as it often happens with the low budget sci-fi, is the realization. I also have no idea why exactly 400 days are needed, not 399? Doesn’t sound like a cool name for the movie? Pardon my vocal gymnastics, but it may give you a general idea of the internal logic of the film. Or, to be more precise, its absence. What is the characters background? What kind of program is that? Why20170427_062109 these 4 people are selected? Why one of them is taken right out of jail? Where comes from the image from the poster? Why the slogan is ”time to kill”? We will never know that.

Oxford Dictionary has a pretty good definition of this movie. “Comatose – of or in a state of deep unconsciousness for a prolonged or indefinite period, especially as a result of severe injury or illness.”

20170427_062223The first 40 minutes are particularly hard to watch, since this is how much the movie actually takes to arrive to the main point (which was already clear to anyone who read the description or saw the trailer). Damn, in Peter Jackson’s ”King-Kong” it took more than one hour to show us the ape… but at least we saw it!

20170427_062151To make it even worse, these 40 minutes are full of broad hints that there is something wrong with the future mission (as if it wasn’t clear already), boring wandering around the ship and weird behavior for no apparent reason when the characters start to go mad (probably because it was written in the script?). The sets look cheap – but still would do fine for some secondary “Outer Limits” episode, if cut by half. “400 Days” feels infinitely long. Like 400 minutes (God bless you, Peter Jackson).

20170427_062243The acting is on the same level as everything else. But it’s not the fault of the actors because we have some good names here. I mean, these people can act. I don’t know what Brandon Routh (Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns“, Egdar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” which I adore) is doing here. Tom Cavanagh dilutes the ongoing sleepiness with some sinister lines, but that barely saves the movie. And Caity Lotz? She did a brilliant performance in “The Machine“, a cyberpunk movie I just loved.

Oh. Almost forgot.

The characters here have one bad habit. They talk.

I mean, they comment literally everything that is happening around, often several times – like we, viewers, have a 3-year-old-kid brain and are not able to get it. There is a remarkable episode, when the main characters have been 20170427_062137hanging around in one place for roughly 2 minutes of the onscreen time and one of them finally says, ”Hey guys, how long we have been wandering around here?”, and his mate replies ”I think an hour or two”. It’s curtains.

20170427_062209The ending could provide some catharsis to all this like it often happens in ending-based movies, but there is virtually no ending. Yes – when the movie ends, you have barely no idea of what actually happened. It’s simply not shown. There are some clues here and there though, so basically here we have same story as with lots of other dull sci-fi like “Primer” or “Uncanny“, when various geeks will watch the movie over and over 93455 times to solve the puzzle.

Worth watching? I think the Oxford Dictionary has a pretty good definition of this movie. “Comatose – of or in a state of deep unconsciousness for a prolonged or indefinite period, especially as a result of severe injury or illness.” The Oxford Dictionary is right – with a huge choice of great sci-fi of all kind like we have now, there is very little reason to watch ”400 Days”.

But if you don’t take the movie too seriously, it can be plenty of masochist fun to watch too. It will be a tough experience you’ll never forget.

Watch instead: anything else. Perfect “Ex Machina“, ”Moon” & ”10 Cloverfield Lane”, quite good “Exam” & ”Signal”, all of these are valid flicks for some mind-bending thrills, not mentioning old classics like ”Solaris”.

0.5/4

The Machine

f04c6c2af663d16125acc53ff0ea71e9.jpgDirector: James W. Caradog. Starring: Caity Lotz, Toby Stephens, Denis Lawson, Pooneh Hajimohammadi, Sam Hazeldine. UK, 2013. Budget: $1 million. Box office: $322,000 DVD sales. IMDb: 6.1. My rating: 3.5/4. Noir cyberpunk tale about a thin line that separates humans and A. I.

– How do I know that you’re alive and not just a clever imitation of life?
(one of the main scientists)

”The Machine” beats the recent ”Ghost in the Shell” adaptation with an incredible ease. If it were done in the 80-s, it would have been a cult movie. But it’s a 2013 directional debut by the Welsh director James W. Caradog, so let’s just be humble and categorize it as… almost excellent.

I have often been harsh with independent sci-fi about A. I. There hasn’t been much of it in last decade – I mean, the good one that makes think and feel, like ”Automata’ or ”Ex Machina”. Most of the others failed, taking the easy path of violence like ”A. I. against humans” or puzzles like “guess-who-is-robot-who-is-human”, which I find it incredibly boring.

So I prepared for the worst after watching the trailer of ”The Machine”, but found out something completely different. And it seems not only me. I have no idea why it was promoted (according to the trailer and poster) as an action-based sci-fi about A. I. ”The Machine” unexpectedly turns out to be dense, smart and sensible science fiction, and in the last place it’s about gore and rampage.

The plot. Near future. The West is in state of a Cold War with China. British scientists are working on creating android killing machines that will help in case of a real war that seems inevitable. Implants and artificial limbs for humans are being developed. Ava, a young scientist, joins Vincent in the hidden research facility in the attempt to develop the first self-aware artificial intellect. But they are on the edge of something bigger.

What I liked. The Machine” feels like a spiritual sibling of ”Blade Runner”, but consciously done in a harsher way. What surprised me most is that often it felt really scary – and not because of some cheap thrills. It’s because of how well it shows a thin line between humans and androids. Fear of the unknown. Few examples…

  • The guards that work as security in this research facility are for the most part wounded or partially disabled war veterans. They were given artificial limbs to substitute missing body parts or special implants that help to recover whatever sense they miss (in case their brain, sight, hearing etc were damaged), but it has certain side effects. Pretty soon they lose the ability to speak – nobody knows why, but a brilliant explanation is given later in the movie – and it seems that they start to have more of the machine than of human.
  • As the Machine (the main character) is ”born”, she behaves almost as a normal human, with small subtle differences that feel incredibly weird. There is a brilliant episode when the Machine is thinking that she is smiling to Vincent, but in fact her ”smile” looks like a sinister grin because she doesn’t know how to smile – but she doesn’t realize it, saying that she smiles it in  the same way as humans. The Machine doesn’t see the difference, so she heads to the mirror in order to learn how to smile. It looks creepy. This scene alone feels incredibly powerful.

Plus there are many episodes that feel really tense as they show broken, distorted human emotions, as if seen through a broken glass. Very creative and thoughtful approach. ”The Machine” shares a lot with the recent adaptation of ”Ghost in the Shell”, but it explores things in a deeper and more original way. Shame on you, Hollywood.

The acting is much better that one could expect from a $1 million budget directional debut of this kind – and not only from main protagonists Caity Lotz (awesome double role here), Toby Stephens and Denis Lawson, but from incredible background characters as well. Iranian-born Pooneh Hajimohammadi and Sam Hazeldine did especially a great job, portraying people with mutilated and warped senses and emotions, avoiding any kind of cliches that are typical for the genre. Kaity Lotz was very good (nothing to do with awful ”400 Days“), taking the role more seriously than portraying just a newly-created A. I. She managed to show a very wide array of emotions, from childish first steps and mistakes to delusions and learning how to survive in a cruel human world.

The movie is beautiful visually as well. It borrows a lot from “Blade Runner” visual style, and thanks God it does. It never becomes the end in itself though, blending the visuals with the narrative and using them as an integral part of the story. Everything feels organic here. With a tiny $1 million budget the Welsh director James W. Caradog and his team did really a good job. The movie never looks cheap. The synth-based soundtrack gives the warm 80-s feel as well.

What I didn’t like. There are certain moments that feel a little bit like a cliche (mostly the villain part that felt strained), but compared to the overall creativity and thoughtfulness put into the movie, let’s just close eyes to it. Finally, you cannot want everything from such a good debut like here.

Worth watching? Yes. ”The Machine” unexpectedly turned out to be one of the most original and well-crafted movies about A. I. of the last decade. It may not be as delicate and refined as ”Ex Machina” – and we don’t need another ”Ex Machina” anyway, don’t we? – but feels fresh, original and creative. Good old dense cyberpunk with an intense texture and often scary feel. A must-see for anyone who’s into thinking sci-fi.

Watch also: ”Automata”, ”Ex Machina”.

3.5/4