Tag Archives: special effects

Starship Troopers Series – Review: Part 1

15 Sep

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres of film, and when you add the themes of war and militarization along with the enemies being giant bugs from another planet, I’m completely on board. This makes the Starship Troopers movies right up my alley, but not all of them have gotten much praise. Based off of a 1959 novel by Robert Heinlein, the story of humanity in a utopian, yet oddly fascist, world in the 23rd century who go to war against a race known as the Bugs provided a lot of heavy handed messages that the author believed in. It seems pretty ripe for feature film story telling, and in some ways it worked. This series, like many others, certainly has its fair share of ups and downs.

Let’s start with Paul Verhoeven’s original cult classic from 1997, Starship Troopers.

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By the 23rd century, the Earth is now classified as a federation that is ruled in a fascistic and militaristic way. It’s a strange utopia that condones violence to survive and the only way to become a citizen is to serve in some branch of the military. That’s exactly what Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) intends to do once he graduates high school. Along with his friends Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), Carmen (Denise Richards) and Dizzy (Dina Meyer), Rico joins the military and is assigned with Dizzy to Mobile Infantry. After a race of giant insects called the Bugs shoot an asteroid across the galaxy and completely wipe out Buenos Aires, the Mobile Infantry and the Federation’s air fleet mobilize to the Bug planet of Klendathu, where a bloody war begins for the survival of the human race.

When it was first released, Starship Troopers was not met with too much success critically and the box office return was less than what was expected. Over the years, however it’s gained a status as a cult classic. When the film first begins and a lot of time is spent at the high school and basic training, I was worried that this would be an uneven mess with a disappointingly low amount of action. The first 45 minutes seemed to drag, but when the action does begin, I became thankful for all the time setting up the characters’ personalities and relationships. This makes the war scenes all the more impactful, and when someone gets hurt or is killed, I really felt like something was lost. Believe it or not, this is not a mindless movie and does evoke some real emotion, even though the acting is less than stellar.

Let’s face it, though, this is a sci-fi war film, so let’s get into the real nitty gritty. Paul Verhoeven may have had some missteps as a film maker, but it’s much easier to remember his films like Starship TroopersTotal Recall, and RoboCop. This movie stands as one of his achievements. The special effects are out of this world for the time and were even nominated for an Academy Award. When the Bugs swarm the soldiers, the movie gets so intense and action packed, which is where it really shines. There’s also lots of what I like to call “Verhoeven gore,” which, if your like me, adds some fun to the movie. He just seems to love blowing people up. Finally, this film works great as a satire of fascism and blind love and devotion to the military. The 1959 novel this film is based on got a lot of flack for seemingly glorifying a Nazi-like utopia. Verhoeven used this, flipped it on its head, and created bitingly funny satire that’s the backbone of this entire movie.

While I was planning on not really liking this movie when it first started up, I ended up loving it as the credits began rolling. It’s such a fun movie loaded with action, great special effects, and hilarious satire that starts in the very first scene. I was even surprised with how much I cared for the characters, despite some rather tone deaf performances. This is a movie I wish did better when it was first released so Verhoeven would have returned for a sequel. Nevertheless, it is what it is and this particular movie is a total sci-fi blast.

Final Grade: A-

I feel like I was just talking about direct to video movies with my review of the Darkman films, and here I go again. The original Starship Troopers was the only film to make it to theaters, and all the sequels went right for the home viewers. Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation premiered on Encore (now known as Starz Encore) in 2004, and then went on DVD a few months later. The reasons can not be more clear.

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The war against the Bugs has been raging for nearly 5 years, and while the humans are victorious in many places, there are fronts where the Bugs have the clear upper hand. On one such planets, a group of troopers are overrun by a swarm of Bugs and are forced to retreat to an abandoned outpost called Hotel 1-8-5. With their commanding officer, General Shepard (Ed Lauter), missing, the squad is under the new leadership of psychic Lt. Dill (Lawrence Monoson) and Sgt. Rake (Brenda Strong). As the Bugs find the outpost and prepare to attack, Pvt. Sahara (Colleen Porch) releases an imprisoned officer, Captain Dax (Richard Burgi), in the outpost to help fight against the swarm. What these troopers don’t know is that the Bugs can now infect people and infiltrate squads from within, which spells danger for these soldiers confined to this small area.

With Hero of the Federation, we go from the knock out action, special effects, and satire from the first one and just downgrade it to what comes close to the lowest it can possibly get. I understand that a t.v. movie isn’t going to have the budget of a Hollywood feature film, but my goodness this movie looks hideous. Aside from the fact that it was shot on HD video, it’s just a dark and colorless film. All of the exterior shots are filmed at night with only a small area lit or sand completely covering up any scenery that could’ve given me an idea of where everything was taking place. Once the soldiers get into Hotel 1-8-5, things remain dark and colorless, but everything now just looks old and gross. I give the film makers credit for the claustrophobic feeling, which is nailed really well, but this is just not an easy movie to look at.

Phil Tippett, who is known for his special effects work on Jurassic Park and the first Starship Troopers, returns to direct this film which helps in a lot of ways. For one thing, for a t.v. movie that’s then released right to DVD, the special effects are really good. They aren’t stunning, but there are some scenes that had really impressive practical work. I can’t really say the same about his work with the actors. The acting in the first film really wasn’t anything special, but this is a different story completely. There are some line deliveries that made me either cringe or burst out laughing. The fact that this isn’t a big budget film really isn’t much of an excuse since I’ve seen t.v. movies with impressive performances. I feel like the ambition of this project just didn’t meet the standards of what was actually possible in making a good movie.

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation is more than a disappointing sequel. It hardly even registers as a sequel. Not only was it released almost 8 years after the original, but it was also a t.v. movie that loses a lot in translation to the small screen. The acting is subpar, the cinematography is bland, and the only saving grace is some cool special effects and an action filled ending. If you want to watch a movie with close to the exact same storyline, watch The Thing, or forget this storyline and just put on the original Starship Troopers.

Final Grade: D

So far we have a one great movie and one that really bugged the hell out of me, pun definitely intended. We still have a few more movies to go with this series, but that review will be coming soon. For now, stick with the original.

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King Kong (1933) – Review

12 May

I feel like it’s fair to say that most people know the story of King Kong. Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Giant ape takes girl into jungle. Man saves girl. You know, that story. This is where it all began, however, in the year 1933 with its original release. Studios weren’t too excited about getting this movie made since the executives thought that a story like this wouldn’t make them any money. Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, on the other hand, were determined to get it made. With two years of their lives dedicated to this movie, audiences both then and now get the pleasure of experiencing one of the most inventive and exciting movies ever made.

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Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a big shot film maker who specializes in traveling to exotic locations to get the most interesting shots imaginable. He finds the beautiful Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) on the street and recruits her to come with him and his crew to Skull Island to shoot his most recent film. On the ship ride over Ann meets Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), and they both fall for each other. Once they are on Skull Island, the crew runs into the natives who prompt kidnap Ann and offer her to their god, Kong, a giant gorilla. Jack and the crew lead an escapade to find and reclaim Ann, but Carl has another goal entirely: to capture Kong and bring him back to New York City and make millions off of his prize.

The first thing that I need to touch on is the outrageous special effects that are in King Kong. In Peter Jackson’s version, which I really enjoy despite a run time that is way too long, Kong, the dinosaurs, and a lot of the scenery was done through the usage of computer graphics. In the 1933 version, all of Kong’s movements, the dinosaurs, and the jaw dropping fights that happen between them is all stop motion effects using models that were made and moved by hand. Giant limbs and heads were also built for close ups of Kong that strike me as a little off putting compared to how awesome the full model is. The forest is also all built or drawn and is absolutely mesmerizing. Finally, to make it seem like the actors were actually there during some of the major moments of the film, they would composite the actors in, super impose, use matte shots, or use rear projection. All very difficult, all very time consuming. Now, I don’t want anyone jumping down my throat here. The work put into the computer graphics of Jackson’s King Kong is also remarkable and very difficult. I’m just a bit of a freak for stop motion and puppetry.

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While the effects are my favorite part of the movie, I need to touch on the story since it has become a classic tale. The whole idea of a giant ape taking a woman away who is part of a film crew sounds pretty preposterous when put that way, but when you actually see it play out, it’s actually a very touching story. Sure, there’s a lot of action and adventure, but Kong’s character is a very interesting one. He’s an ape who understands beauty and will fight and kill to protect the woman he finds so beautiful. Certainly not a love story in the most traditional of senses, but definitely a deep one. While Kong may seem like the “villain” (and I’m using that word pretty loosely), we find out during the film that mankind is the real “villain.” Denham and his crew want to exploit beauty, but Kong wants to appreciate and cherish it.

The story of how this plot line came to be is pretty remarkable when you stop and think of the history of it. From 1933 to 2005, there has been two other King Kong movies and a sequel, Son of Kong, also from 1933 which didn’t do nearly as well as its predecessor. There was even a Toho produced movie that is wonderfully titled King Kong vs Godzilla. How cool is that? Anyway, back to how the story came to be. According to Merian Cooper, he had a dream that a giant gorilla attacked New York City. From there, he started at the infamous scene on the Empire State Building and worked backwards. So that’s it. The idea for this movie simply came from a dream. Maybe I need to start keeping a dream journal. Food for thought.

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Simply put, King Kong is a masterwork of American cinema whose legacy speaks for itself. It has been remade, copied, parodied, but above all, it has been appreciated. Production companies may have been nervous upon its original release, but this is the movie that single handedly saved RKO. I understand that movies from this time period may not be everybody’s cup of tea, however, if you haven’t seen the original King Kong, it is pretty much a must see. The effects, the acting, and the chance to see the story in its original format shouldn’t be missed. If you’ve seen it already, why don’t you watch it again after you’re done reading this? You know you want to…

Altered States – Review

4 Feb

The mind is one of the most amazing things to really think about. It’s a complex, almost abstract, biological machine that is strong, yet can be destroyed very easily. Enter drugs.  To some, they are a demented tool used by disturbed individuals for their own sadistic pleasure, yet others see drugs as a way of tapping into areas of our mind that we may not even know exists. Altered States is a strange and intelligent movie that explores drugs and their effects in a way that I’ve never seen done before.

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Edward Jessup (William Hurt) is a professor with a unique interest in abnormal psychology. At first, he’s interested in how schizophrenics react, through drug research and sensory depravation, to supposed altered states of consciousness. It doesn’t take long for Jessup, himself, to begin experimenting using the sensory depravation combined with a strange, mind bending mushroom brought back from Mexico. After months of doing this research, and using the drug multiple times, Jessup begins to notice something strange about himself. He appears to be devolving.

As far as narratives go, Altered States is not a very easy movie to 100% understand what exactly is going on. The story itself isn’t very twisted, but it is, arguably, pretty convoluted. A strange Mexican drug that, when mixed with sensory depravation, makes you devolve? I dare you to find something remotely like this. While it may be a little hard to buy into at first, it is intriguing, and you begin to really get lost in the story and all of its impressive visual effects. The effects, however, are a whole different story all together.

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Released in 1980, I figured that the special effects would look really cool, but also pretty dated. I’m a fan of older special effects, like what is seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing, but there are instances where these kind of special effects are distracting due to their aged look. Luckily, Altered States looks fantastic. They do look a little aged in their own way, but it sort of works great with the movie. If this was remade, and all of the effects were CGI, I feel like the “trip scenes” wouldn’t have impacted me as much as they did. Speaking of CGI, this was one of the first movies to really implement it, even though it was just for a quick scene towards the end of the movie. This particular effect looks pretty primitive, but it is a pretty important step for special effects in the film world.

I don’t feel like Altered States really gets the recognition it deserves. It was recognized back then as a great exercise in film making with two Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Original Score. It lost Best Sound to The Empire Strikes Back, which I will admit, is pretty understandable. We are talking about one of the greatest sequels ever made. Still, I find it upsetting that it isn’t really remembered today. I hypothesize that if you were to try to bring Altered States back into pop culture, it wouldn’t be received very well because of how bizarre it is.

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Altered States is a really good science fiction/horror film. It can’t really be compared to a film of the same genre like Alien or its sequel, but it is definitely a lot better than I expected, and a really good movie in general. It’s quite a bizarre narrative with some of the weirdest scenes you will ever see in the movies. Unfortunately, the story can be a bit difficult to really buy into and the ending is a bit of a let down, but it’s still a trip worth taking if you think your mind can handle it.

Meatball Machine – Review

30 Nov

I gotta say, Japan is a pretty eccentric place, and I mean that in the best way possible. I know that they have very dramatic and artistic cinematic pieces, but what I’m going to be talking about today is something totally different. I’m talking about Meatball Machine, a film that’s in the same league as the outlandish Tokyo Gore Police. It’s gory, violent, hysterical, strangle romantic, and truly bizarre. That goes without saying, but is it any good?

Freakish and murderous creatures have begun popping up through all of Japan without any rhyme or reason. Some theories say space, but no one is sure. All that is known is that these parasites infect humans and turn their bodies into tools have war to not kill other humans, but other creatures. Yoji (Issei Takahashi) witnesses this first hand after the girl he is enamored with (Aoba Kawai) is infected. Yoji soon learns that the only way to save her is to put her out of her misery, but how?

I don’t even know where to begin. People may criticize this movie all they want, but you have to admit that it sure packs a wallop of imagination in its story and its presentation. The creature effects were designed by Yoshihiro Nishimura, who actually directed Tokyo Gore Police and some other movies whose reviews are to come! While the story is pretty cool, the effects are what steal the show. They look low budget and cheap at times, but they are! Nishimura still did an excellent job with what was available.

 

The thing with this movie is that it felt like it wouldn’t end. This movie isn’t even long, only 92 minutes. The climactic showdown starts off pretty bland, stays bland, then all of the sudden explodes into bloody awesome over the top goodness. I just felt like I had to wait so long to get there. There’s a point in the movie where all of the cool stuff has happened, and all we really want to see is the resolution. This is the weakest part of the movie, and the film makers should have pushed things along.

Everything else is still pretty solid as far as something as ludicrous as this goes. The acting was ok, and the writing was even well done. I feel like I don’t really have too much to say about this movie, which could be a bad thing, but I don’t really think it is. It’s just not really a movie to sit down and nit pick or compliment. It’s a movie to watch when you’re in that weird kind of mood, where a normal narrative with normal situations just won’t suffice.

 

I can’t say that Meatball Machine is a good movie, but I can’t say that it’s a bad movie either. As far as Japanese “splatter” movies go it’s not my favorite, but I can still appreciate it for what it is: an imaginative blood bath into mayhem. I said before, you have to be in a certain mood to watch this movie for it to really be enjoyable. Just have an open mind, know what you’re getting into, and brace yourselves for bloody silliness.

The Thing (1982) – Review

9 Oct

John Carpenter is a big name in the horror genre, and can easily be considered one of the masters. Halloween changed the way people viewed slasher films, and I feel that his 1982 masterpiece, The Thing, was a landmark in special effects technology. Not only does it look great, but the horror and paranoia behind it will leave a mark on you, no matter if you’re new to horror or consider yourself a buff.

The Antarctic is not a place where you want to be trapped, but unfortunately a group of American researchers are stuck on their base after a mishap concerning a couple of Norwegians. To make matters worse, there seems to be an extraterrestrial that is infecting the scientists and mimicking their personalities. Under the command of helicopter pilot, R.J. Macready (Kurt Russell), the team of scientists must find out who the alien is and fight their own paranoia.

This film can be seen in the same light as the first Alien film. It’s claustrophobic, filled with paranoia, and shocking special effects that are marvels in puppetry and animatronics. The whole time, the viewer is filled with dread at what truly seems to be a hopeless situation, especially since the creature that is so terrifying can’t be seen and works on the cellular level.

 

There are some gnarly scenes in this movie. Just look at the picture right above this. If you haven’t seen this movie then there is really no way you can understand just how weird and over the top that scene is. And this is just one of many. All of the frightening moments in this film will stick with you for a very, very long time. Just picking one scene as my favorite is so hard to do, because each one offers something so original and different. While a lot of the credit goes to John Carpenter, you can’t forget the creator of these special effects, Rob Bottin, who was only 22 at the time he was designing these.

While The Thing is certainly not for the squeamish or the feint of heart, the film doesn’t just rely on these totally overt scares. The themes of paranoia and isolation is just as disconcerting as all of the creatures. Going back to Alien, the main theme was that of isolation. The tagline was even, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Pretty effective. The Thing adds the layer of distrust and fear of what can’t be seen on top of that. Distrust and violence erupts at the worst times, as this microscopic organism works to tear the researchers apart, sometimes quite literally.

 

Both as a horror film and as a science fiction film, The Thing exceeds all expectations and is truly a masterpiece. John Carpenter has even stated that this is his favorite film that he has ever made. Is it better than Halloween? Well, they’re two totally different movies, but if I had a choice I would rather watch The Thing. It’s a gory tale of suspense, distrust, and a microorganism from outer space. What more could you want? If and when I make a list of my favorite horror films of all time, you can be certain that this one will make the list.

TRON – Review

23 Jul

Using CGI has become the norm in blockbuster film making, but believe it or not, there used to be a time where that tool didn’t exist! Slowly, but surely, it came to be and one movie can be solely responsible for making it happen. This movie is TRON, a science fiction classic that helped kickstart a new generation in film making.

 

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a software engineer who runs a popular arcade. On his downtime, he hacks into ENCOM’s mainframe in order to prove that his own ideas were stolen by Ed Dillinger (David Warner) and used for his promotion and Flynn’s being fired. Flynn’s friends, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora (Cindy Morgan), offer to help him break into ENCOM and try to find his evidence in the computers there, where he can more easily avoid the Master Security Program. Flynn is again caught and transported into the world of the computer where he must fight in gladiatorial games and defeat the Master Security Program and its army.

If there ever was a movie to be described as dated, this would most certainly be the one. From the games, to the lingo, to the special effects, everything is dated by over twenty years.  It was interesting to see how the world was using what we would call primitive computers. So the outdatedness isn’t a fault or a detraction from the movie, just something you have to get used to and learn to enjoy.

The CGI effects are really excellent, and this isn’t sarcasm. Put yourself in the 1982 mind set and imagine seeing this. It would be great. Still, in 2012, I still think that CGI has a really cool look to it that no other movie has. It’s a great way to distinguish this from anything else, and it was a stepping stone in the film universe that paved the way for the most popular summer blockbusters today.

But, what about the story, the acting, and the writing? Well…that’s an entirely different story. If you’re looking for anything other than interesting concepts and special effects, than about face and look for another movie. Let’s start with the writing and the acting. Bad acting doesn’t mean bad writing and vice versa. But with TRON, not only is the acting bad, but so is the writing. Combine both of those two and we have an extra cheese movie experience. The only saving grace for the acting was Jeff Bridges, who delivered his ridiculous lines with some believability. The rest are pretty bad.

The story and the way it’s told are total opposites. Having a computer genius literally put inside the computer and forced to go head to head with an evil program is awesome. The imagination at work here is awesome. The way the story is told is less than great. Despite the cool story and the great special effects, I found myself getting bored. The pacing was very strange and didn’t spend enough time in one spot to completely explain and show anything. Moving fast through a world as elaborate and intriguing as this is a big mistake committed but the film makers.

Even with all of these glaring faults, TRON is a major motion picture that can be considered one of the most important movies ever made. Certainly not one of the best, however. The special effects and ideas here are incredible and were new. The pacing, acting, and writing are something else. If you’re interested in film history and the progression of special effects, TRON is a textbook example to view. It is still not a very good movie in all other respects.