Dune (1984) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Adventure, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 137 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 1984 version of Dune could be seen as director David Lynch’s attempt to break into the mainstream following the success of his The Elephant Man (1980). He was, of course, not exactly successful, and Dune became a notorious box office bomb. The complicated plot of the surreal sci-fi movie in question is not easy to sum up, but I’ll give it a shot. In the distant future, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) leads a revolt against the galactic forces of tyranny on the desert world of Arrakis. This synopsis only scratches the surface of the intricacies of the story.

David Lynch loves the bizarre and the grotesque, and Dune has these in spades. It would be a mistake to go into this flick expecting Eraserhead: In Space!, but it does feature Lynch’s trademark sense of the surreal and the uneasy. However, it can be difficult to tell what is dream logic and what is convoluted storytelling. There’s a big exposition dump at the beginning of the picture that’s reasonably easy to understand, but the lore of Dune‘s universe gets deeper from there. For a movie that frequently has voice-overs giving the inner thoughts of characters, this sure can be an impenetrable work.

This cold science-fiction-adventure production has some visuals that make you feel like you’re having a damned stroke. The special effects are impressive, as is the set of talent assembled. I mean, rock band Toto and Brian Eno did the music. That’s just nuts. There are some familiar faces in the cast, such as rock star Sting (playing villainous henchman Feyd-Rautha) and Patrick Stewart (as soldier Gurney Halleck).

So, is Dune worth watching? David Lynch completists obviously need to check it out, but most others will be turned off by the complex plot and lore and the general weirdness. It does feel a little awkwardly structured at times, but I found it to be mildly entertaining once it found its groove. It does feel a little torn over whether it wants to be a grand sci-fi epic or a Lynchian freakshow. I’d say “approach with caution.” Fun fact: before settling on Dune, Lynch was offered the role of director on Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Looper (2012) Review

Director: Rian Johnson

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 113 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Half of a decade before he was trolling Star Wars fans with Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), director Rian Johnson unleashed the sci-fi-thriller Looper on the world. The movie concerns itself with mob hitman Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who kills people sent back in time from the future via time travel. However, what’s he supposed to do when an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) is sent back to his time for him to execute?

The performances in Looper are often singled out for praise, and rightfully so. Wearing facial prosthetics to help him resemble Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does his best impression of that movie star. The real M.V.P. of the flick has got to be Willis, though. He has a reputation for looking bored in many of his more recent roles, but writer/director Rian Johnson actually manages to coax a committed performance out of him here. Jeff Daniels, playing gangland boss Abe, also deserves a shout-out.

This movie has plenty of ideas, but there may be too many for one film. Take the issue of telekinesis in this picture, for example. It’s introduced relatively early in the runtime, but largely forgotten about until the third act or so. To the feature’s credit, it doesn’t get bogged down in the nitty-gritty science of time travel. I couldn’t tell you if Looper‘s version of that fictional science holds up to scrutiny, but it makes it believable without wasting too much time on exposition.

This flick, which was partially inspired by The Terminator (1984), has some pretty average action scenes and some pandering to China. I did enjoy the abrupt ending, though. It felt reasonably ballsy. Overall, Looper is one of those movies that exists in the Twilight Zone between being recommended to watch and being recommended to pass over. I suppose audiences looking for solid performances in a sci-fi-action picture will find much to write home about, but the story may be a bit too formless for others.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Tomorrow War (2021) Review

Director: Chris McKay

Genre(s): Action, Drama, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The sci-fi-actioner The Tomorrow War was released direct-to-streaming, but it’s the kind of movie I would have liked to see on the big screen. The film is about present-day dad Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) being sent to the not-too-distant future via time travel to help fight a vicious alien invasion that’s destroyed most of mankind. One or two story beats may be somewhat predictable, but, if you can stay in the moment, you might find yourself having fun.

Okay, maybe “having fun” isn’t the best way of putting it, because this flick presents some surprisingly dire and dark scenarios. The almost unstoppable extra-terrestrials are savage beasts that give this thriller some horror movie vibes. Moments of action are intense enough to get a thumbs-up from me, and the emotional scenes are more effective than not. For a direct-to-streaming work, the budget appears to be quite large, and the spectacle is occasionally overwhelming.

There are some missteps along the way. The first and third acts of the feature have a tendency to rely on Marvel-style comic relief that inappropriately defuse moments of tension. Marvel products are just about the biggest thing in the world at the time of its release, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked that this picture tried to ape their formula a tad. There’s also the matter of the third act feeling like it takes place after the main climax of the film. I won’t go as far as to say that it’s “unnecessary,” but The Tomorrow War might be overstaying its welcome.

This movie’s blend of silly comedy and serious, seemingly apocalyptic situations isn’t its strength. To enjoy the motion picture, it’s best to focus on the palpable sense of dread and desperation, along with its gooey action and violence. Yeah, The Tomorrow War is a flawed work, but my impression of the big picture is rather positive. The second act is especially hard-hitting, easily being the best part.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

RoboCop (1987) Review

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 102 minutes (R-rated version), 103 minutes (unrated version)

MPAA Rating: R (rated version), Not Rated (unrated version)

IMDb Page

The 1987 version of RoboCop may have a somewhat kitschy title, but this actioner proves a movie can have both brains and brawn. You see, this film is in on the joke and serves as a biting satire of American consumerism. Anyway, RoboCop is about viciously murdered Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who’s brought back to life as a cyborg crime-fighting machine.

This sci-fi-crime flick is a no-nonsense joy that intelligently handles its subject matter. However, even if all you want to see is a bunch of people get killed, you’ve come to the right place. The action scenes, while certainly quite good, aren’t top-notch, but they’re handled with so much enthusiasm that you can’t help but find yourself entertained. The gory carnage here feels like director Paul Verhoeven playing with (and brutally destroying) action figures in a sandbox.

Under Verhoeven’s wily direction, every character makes an impression, although thanks to a game cast willing to jump into the fray and try out some weird stuff is also due. The humorous screenplay has proven itself endlessly quotable, and it keeps the pacing from ever lagging. Perhaps the feature’s secret weapon is Basil Poledouris’ amazing and heroic musical score that guarantees that fists will be intermittently pumped in the air.

RoboCop is seriously graphic in the violence department, but the tongue-in-cheek nature of many scenes prevents the slaughter from becoming overbearing. Despite its satirical attitude, the picture works on the sincere level of the audience actively rooting for the titular character and hoping for his success. I suppose you couldn’t ask for a whole lot more. A franchise would follow in the wake of this film, but the 1987 original is in a league of its own.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Timecop (1994) Review

Director: Peter Hyams

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Police officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is tasked with preventing the abuse of time travel, when he finds himself fighting against corrupt American politician Aaron McComb (Ron Silver), who’s been using that technology to accumulate funds for a Presidential campaign. As of the writing of this review, Wikipedia says that this is Jean-Claude Van Damme’s highest grossing movie where he played the lead role. Does it live up to that title?

When it comes to action, Timecop is definitely not the be-all-end-all Van Damme picture. The fights are actually pretty good, but the most elaborately choreographed ones are not saved for last. The ending confrontation feels forgettable in comparison to some of the set-pieces that preceded it. This feature’s finale focuses more on the emotional stakes than the physical ones, though that’s not to say that there’s no death and destruction during the third act.

The script gives the Muscles from Brussels one or two solid one-liners, but most of the comic relief is handled by Bruce McGill, who plays Eugene Matuzak, one of the higher-ups at the time travel agency. I mainly know this actor as “that one guy” from FDR: American Badass! (2012), but his attempts at providing levity are successful here. Does all of the time travel science and whatnot make sense in Timecop? Well, you’re asking the wrong person. I can’t wrap my brain around all of this complicated, scientific stuff, so I just ride with it. It’s fine in a turn-off-your-brain-and-watch-stuff-explode sort of way. It takes a high-concept idea and follows through with a fairly run-of-the-mill execution.

One can think of Timecop as a fusion of the time travel elements from the Terminator series and the sci-fi law enforcement parts of RoboCop (1987). Unfortunately, it can’t reach the high peaks of its apparent inspirations. As far as Van Damme films go, this one’s pretty average, but this average is higher than the normal score a movie starring, say, Steven Seagal would get. There are certainly better JCVD flicks out there – like The Expendables 2 (2012), Double Impact (1991), Legionnaire (1998), and Hard Target (1993) to name just a few – but this one will do in a jam.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Drama, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 115 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

If one wants to understand the influences of the popular television show Stranger Things, there’s no better place to start with than 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Set in American suburbia, a troubled child named Elliott (Henry Thomas) befriends an alien that was accidentally left behind on Earth. This is an excellent movie, but what else would you expect from director Steven Spielberg?

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is full of that classic, Spielbergian sense of wonder, particularly at things that are unknown, fantastical, or misunderstood. Watching this film makes the viewer feel just about every emotion imaginable, from fear to elation, from sorrow to excitement, from awe to joy, with some laughs along the way. It manages to be warm, nostalgic, and even suspenseful (perhaps too much so for some of the very youngest audience members).

Of course, the technical aspects of this picture cannot be criticized. The glue holding the flick together is John Williams’ magical musical score. The tune that plays during the bicycle sequences is mesmerizing. The special effects also deserve a special mention. They’re not as intrusive as the effects in some other science-fiction blockbusters, but they’re still top-notch when they do show up.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the first known film to receive the “A+” grade from audiences as calculated by CinemaScore, and, after it was screened at the United Nations, Spielberg was given a UN Peace Medal. This is a slick, sentimental favorite that has stood the test of time. All one has to do is look at the works that have aped its success, like the aforementioned Stranger Things or the movie Super 8 (2011), to see its enduring appeal.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Metropolis (1927) Review

Director: Fritz Lang

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 153 minutes (“Complete” cut), 80 minutes (Giorgio Moroder cut)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the all-time great masterpieces of cinema, 1927’s silent science-fiction epic Metropolis was the first movie to be named to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. It may be silent, but thanks to its bombastic visuals and genius, impossibly vigorous musical score from Gottfried Huppertz, it’s loud as Hell. The story concerns itself with the city of the future, where tensions between the working and upper classes are reaching their breaking point…can some sort of mediator prevent a war between these two castes?

Yes, Metropolis has ahead-of-its-time special effects that will floor you, but there is more here than just that. The performances, while remarkably over-the-top, are stunning, and the whole motion picture is melodramatic in the very best way possible. Everything’s heightened (it is a work of German Expressionism, after all), but it’s no bloated soap opera. It even becomes an action-adventure film in the last third (or so), piling on massive, tour-de-force set-pieces.

The politics of Metropolis are often seen as na├»ve, simplistic, or half-baked. The feature’s director, Fritz Lang, essentially disowned it for this reason. It certainly does contain an odd mish-mash of symbols, ideas, and metaphors that may not make sense if analyzed too closely. Still, this is a brilliant, king-sized flick that paints in very broad strokes, so, if you can get behind that, you’ll have your mind blown.

This masterclass of filmmaking is available in both a black-and-white, “Complete” cut running about two-and-a-half hours (with a reconstruction of the original Gottfried Huppertz score) and an eighty-minute, color-tinted version from 1984 with a rock and pop soundtrack arranged by Giorgio Moroder. While I prefer the “Complete” edition, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the Moroder cut, which features some rousing music from Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, Jon Anderson, Cycle V, Bonnie Tyler, Loverboy, Billy Squier, Adam Ant, and Moroder himself. One of the most ambitious pictures ever released, Metropolis is still thrilling and fast-paced, making it the perfect introduction to the world of silent cinema. Few movies released since have managed to top it.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) Review

Director: Peyton Reed

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a sequel that tops the original (Ant-Man [2015]) in every way. The comedy, action set-pieces, and emotional hooks are all more effective here, not that they were bad by any means in the first installment. The plot of this picture is about superhero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), with his special suit that shrinks the wearer to ant-size, trying to help Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) rescue Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm, while battling those who want to steal the size-altering technology he uses.

While this is obviously a superhero movie, the physical action often takes a backseat to the humor and characterizations. This might be detrimental to the success of any other actioner, but Ant-Man and the Wasp might be better off for it. This relatively family-friendly flick certainly is a crowd-pleaser with its well-integrated special effects and creative action.

While the jokes come fast, frequent, and funny, I didn’t get the feeling that they were undercutting the gravity of the situations onscreen quite like they did with the first film. This action-comedy is no drama, but the sympathies of audience members are pretty easily gained by this more earnest take. Even one of the villains of the story, Ava (Hannah John-Kamen), isn’t really such a bad person, and this feeds into the somewhat kiddie-friendly nature of the production.

The dramatic hooks give Ant-Man and the Wasp more weight than its predecessor. It still sticks pretty closely to the established Marvel formula, but it is probably one of the better features to employ it. I suppose that each subseries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe offers something slightly different for viewers, and these Ant-Man flicks specialize in movies where the physical stakes aren’t particularly high (by superhero media standards), but the films still manage to thrill anyway.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Ant-Man (2015) Review

Director: Peyton Reed

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 117 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Ant-Man is a superhero film that sticks pretty closely to the established Marvel movie formula. Fortunately, this formula works quite well, even if the feature sometimes feels like a product from an assembly line. The basic plot here is about a thief named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who steals a high-tech suit that can shrink the wearer to ant-size, and must use it for the greater good of humanity. It’s more of a heist picture than your typical Marvel flick, but it still has the usual save-the-world stakes.

The likable cast and inventive set-pieces involving the shrinking Ant-Man suit are the real reasons to watch. The characters are very well-defined, and the production makes you care about ants, of all things. The lengthy action climax will satisfy those looking for superhero-related chaos. Ant-Man is also pretty funny, being one of the more comedic entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

On the down side, this movie feels the need to follow up several moments of action and/or drama with quippy humor. This can sort of undercut the gravity of the scenes, and almost feels like a coldly calculated way of “keeping matters light.” It’s already a fairly light-weight piece, so does it really need that sort of thing? It almost appears that the film is too scared to commit to sincerity at times.

While Ant-Man would be topped by the next installment in its subseries – Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) – this flick can still be viewed as effective entertainment. Despite what I stated in the above paragraph, this work still has a solid emotional hook and it benefits from characters that the audience gives a hoot about. Cynics may look at it as just another cog in Marvel’s money-making machine, but I think it works reasonably well as a solo feature.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The War of the Worlds (1953) Review

Director: Byron Haskin

Genre(s): Action, Drama, Horror, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Decades before director Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), there was a similarly-titled sci-fi picture that covered the same ground. Martians have invaded Earth, and humanity finds itself waging a seemingly losing battle against the extraterrestrial invaders. Largely set in the 1950s United States, this one feels like a bunch of aliens crashed into a Norman Rockwell painting.

Elements of this science-fiction-horror feature may seem hokey by today’s standards, but I think that it’s got it where it counts. The lead character, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), may not be the kind of hero you’d expect from a 1950s film, but it totally works in the context of the movie. There’s a fair amount of action once things get rolling, and the flick is bleaker and darker than one might anticipate from an American production of this time period (although it’s certainly not as moody as it could’ve been).

The most notable hit-or-miss aspects of The War of the Worlds are the special effects. They won an Oscar, with some of the destruction looking quite impressive for a 1953 movie. However, not every effect is flawless, and some of the visuals have definitely dated…if they ever looked good at all (during the scene where human artillery is firing at the Martian war machines, it looks like someone tossing fire-crackers at miniatures). The aliens themselves also present a problem, since they look more cute than terrifying.

This sci-fi-thriller, which may reflect the Cold War paranoia of the time, runs a brisk eighty-five minutes, so time is rarely wasted. Modern audiences will find some parts of the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds to be cheesy or quaint, but I think that the picture’s desperate tone and focus on physical mayhem save it from being a useless 1950s relic. To be honest, I prefer the 2005 film directed by Spielberg, but this one is still worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.