“Ad Astra” Film Review

A thought-provoking science-fiction exploration of the depths of self and space. Fox Searchlight’s Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones is a visually stunning tour de force that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Not since Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey have I experienced such a pure science-fiction motion picture. The plot is so simple, yet the characters highly complex. And the questions posited by the film provide an opportunity to not only engage your senses but also your mind. On the surface, it’s a search and rescue; but beneath that premise, the conflict is built around the idea of man vs himself and father-son relationships. What happens to our minds and relationships when we devote ourselves so intensely to our academic or vocational pursuits that life is flying past us? More specifically, this film’s thesis can be summed up in one impactful, memorable quote from the movie, “he could only ever see what wasn’t there and missed what was right in front of his face.” Perhaps I do not have it quoted precisely correct, but that line spoke volumes to me. Because I will admit to you that I often become so consumed by my studies, social media presence, and what I do not yet have that I sometimes neglect to value what I have right in front of me. In many ways, this film serves as a mirror to not only me, but to all those who allow work or other ancillary elements of our lives to consume our every thought instead of appreciating the relationships we have and the needs/wants that have been met. Powerful stuff. Not only does this film deliver an outstanding original story, but the cinematography, score, editing, and production design are stellar. It’s a testament to the ability motion pictures have to evoke us emotionally and physiologically. We may spend most of the movie with one character, but it never feels boring (maybe a little slow in places, but definitely not boring). Certainly one to watch while it is in theaters for the full cinematic experience.

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet. His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos. (IMDb)

While I compare this movie to 2001: A Space Odyssey, their respective plots are different, so it does not feel like a movie that secretly seeks to remake the science-fiction classic. The strength of Ad Astra lies in the exemplary screenwriting. We have a clearly defined central character, an external goal, and the subplot driven by the need that supports the motivation to achieve the goal. Every scene meticulously peals back layers that reveal to us the depths of Pitt’s character of Roy and consistently point us to his journey to locate his father on Neptune. Although Roy is not an extremely dynamic character, and there may not be a hero’s journey, we do witness a positive growth arc. In a manner of speaking, he experiences an existential redemption that corrects the course of his psychological trajectory. If you’re seeking a contemporary film that boasts an excellent opportunity for a character study, then the two principle characters in Ad Astra will be brilliant subjects. Jones’ character of Clifford McBride may not have nearly the screen time that his son has; however, his presence is felt throughout the film. We see the father in the son, and by extension we can extrapolate that Roy was on the path to become his father. Not unlike the path that Scrooge was on before his encounter with Marley and the three ghosts. Only when faced with the reality of what his future looks like, and the effects on friends and family thereof, does Roy see the need to change. Man is often his worst enemy, an enemy that we are eternally cursed to battle in perpetuity.

Not only does this film deliver outstanding writing, but it equally delivers mesmerizing visuals that earn the film high marks in technical achievement. Never do the effects detract away from the narrative, but they are incredibly impressive. Everything feels real. Like this is a story that could believably take place in say 2100 (maybe it could have been called 2100: A Space Odyssey). When speaking on science-fiction movies with my screenwriting students, I mention that many sci-fi screenwriters spend so much time on the technology and world building that the characters suffer. Needless to say, I will be able to use this movie as a prime example of how to write a character-driven science-fiction motion picture. The technology that is used in the film feels just a few decades ahead of what we presently have, so we can connect with the people and the technology that is used much better than in more fantasy-like science-fiction movies. The cinematography shines brightly in the dark of space. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this film was shot in space because of just how real the movement of the characters was and the technique through which each and every scene was lit and shot. So smooth are the movements of the camera and the editing that brings the story together that, as the audience, you forget that you aren’t a fly on the wall of this spectacular film.

Preparing for my own review, I often like to peruse what others have said. So I sometimes read reviews or listen to podcasts to get a feel for other opinions that are out there in order to expose myself to a wide variety of opinions as a way of collecting evidence to support my own opinion on a film. And upon doing that for this review, it didn’t take long before I came across a few options that fixated on the lack of screen time for Roy’s estranged wife  played by Liv Tyler. Furthermore, opinions along these lines suggested that there needed to be a more significant female presence in the film. I disagree with these opinions because this is a film about a father-son relationship and the idea of a man battling his own internal demons, so to speak. Liv Tyler plays an important role in representing that which Roy lost as a result of his self-centered career-driven behaviors. However, she also serves as a totem for him because it is the thought of a life without her entirely that brings Roy back to earth. She is an important character in this story despite not having much to say. Her presence is a powerful reminder to Pitt that he does not want to wind up like his father. Even if Tyler was not in the movie, at the end of the day, this IS a movie about the relationship between a father and son. While mother-daughter, mother-son, or father-daughter movies are much more common, there is a need in our cinematic library for father-son movies to explore those relationships.

Do yourself a father and go see Ad Astra in theaters! Experience it in Dolby Cinema or IMAX if you can because the visual spectacle elements of this film deserve that crystal clear, larger than life treatment. At little more than two hours, the film’s pacing is pretty good for most of the story; that being said, there are a few places that my attention did drift. But it wasn’t for long, and was always hooked again. Perhaps this movie could have been shortened to 1:45-50 instead of the just over 2hr run time. I am already thinking of seeing this film again, because I know there are elements that I may have missed the first time through.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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“Stranger Things” Season Three TV Review

StrangerThings3_tallNetflix’s Stranger Things Season Three represents a return to form! Much like Apocalypse did for American Horror Story, this season of Stranger Things took what worked in Season One and delivered an outstanding third season that has–what could possibly be–my favorite scene in the entire series. Even more than the previous two seasons, this one takes 80s culture and style to the max, complete with a nostalgic shopping mall and carnival. More so than any of the previous seasons, this one is the most roller coater yet. More monsters, more conflict, more horror. It’s also only eight episodes; and to that point, this season is tight, precise, and never leaves you in a lull. Whether you were a kid or teenager in the 80s or not, this season does what Stranger Things does best–connect you with your childhood. Whereas the series has been more science-fiction than horror in the previous two seasons, season three skews much closer to horror giving audiences some nightmarish imagery that echoes sci-fi horror staples such as Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe Blob, and The Thing.

Instead of playing on the mystery or fear of the unknown, season three is aware that the spider-like mind flayer and demogorgon aren’t as scary as they were in the first two seasons. So it delivers a new character of opposition that is terrifying in both mind and body. This parallels the changes that the central characters are going through during this time of encroaching upon adolescence. The boys have deeper voices and the hormones are raging. In addition to navigating the horrors that are befalling Hawkins, our central characters are forced to navigate relationships, sexuality, growing up, and loss. And this exploration of relationships is not limited to the kids, but the adults of Hawkins find themselves forced to face true feelings as well. It’s the added intellectual dimension of the human condition that makes this such a strong season for me. In fact, the more I think about it, the more that this might just be my favorite season, with Season One being a close second. What makes some of the greatest horror films of all time stick with us is the social commentary and thematic depth. Stranger Things season three dives deep by consistently keeping the focus on the character conflict and not simply the other-worldly entities.

One of the most relatable avenues through which to connect with characters is the avenue of relationship dynamics. And there are a plethora of relationships on display in this season. Early on, we have the incessant making out of El and Mike, the sexually frustrated relationship between Joyce Byers and Hopper, the friendship of Steve and Robin, later on we have the breaking up of El and Mike, followed by the blooming friendship between Max and El. We witness the strained relationship between Will and his childhood guy friends as his friends begin dating and leave him to play D&D alone. Then there is the seemingly made-up girlfriend of Dustin’s that he cannot connect with via his powerful  radio. Add a coming-out story to this mix, and we have many different personal and interpersonal relationship dynamics with which to connect. Relationships provide conflict, and that conflict directly impacts the drama. And we have lots of drama this season. Each of the aforementioned relationships provides the means for the characters to experience his or her own arc and grow positively or negatively. On a lighter note, there is an uplifting message of embracing your inner nerd that is evident in the drama that unfolds between Dustin, Robin, Steve, and Erica at the ice cream shop; and further evidence for this message is in my favorite scene in the entire series, The Neverending Story theme song singalong between Dustin and Suzzie. It doesn’t get much nerdier than that.

Skewing closer to horror than science-fiction, season three’s monster is right out of The Blob. There are also elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing. I absolutely love the idea of this monster because attacks its victims in two different ways (1) the blob will absorb the bodies of the victims and (2) the mindflayer takes control of the minds and bodies of those it deems are worthy vessels. There is a two-fold nature to this monster that makes it more terrifying than the previous iterations, because it attacks the mind and body. Much like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist took the home invasion horror concept to the next level by a demon invading the house and bodily home of an innocent little girl, the mindflayer, in a similar fashion, takes on many of the characteristics of the demon Pazuzu in Friedkin’s horror masterpiece. Characteristics of the alien entity in The Thing are also included in the actions of the mindflayer, specifically how it takes host of a body and can remain undetected. It’s this multidimensional component in the design of the monster that makes it the most terrifying creature we have encountered in Hawkins, IN.

So much fun! Season three of Stranger Things provides us with a fantastic character-driven plot that deviates from the action-driven plot in season two by returning to form. By the Duffer Brothers going back to what made the first season such a hit, this third season keeps the show going strong. Furthermore, the story is a lot tighter in this shortened season. Just goes to show that even when you have fewer episodes, the quality of the show doesn’t have to suffer. In this case, the quality went up from the previous season. Everything in this season works so very well, from the tight screenwriting to the nostalgic production design. After a mediocre second season, I was anticipating much the same for the tertiary season. Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed season three, and feel confident that you will too!

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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Jordan Peele’s “The Twilight Zone” Season 1 Review

You’re about to enter a dimension, not only of sight and sound, but of mind. That’s the signpost up ahead. Next stop, Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone. Debuting on April 1st, the revival of the classic anthology series The Twilight Zone, created by Rod Sterling, hit CBS All Access. For many resisters to paying for a “broadcast” channel’s streaming app (whereas most apps are free or included with a cable/satellite subscription), CBS finally figured out how to force wallets. Between TZ and the new Star Trek featuring the highly anticipated return of Patrick Stewart as his most famous character of all time Captain Picard, CBS knows precisely how to get you to subscribe to its service. I’d love to see difference in subscribers before Peele’s Twilight Zone and after. Have you seen the new series?

Although TZ has been revived before, it never quite took off the way the original did, and still commands an audience. Regularly ranked as one of the best written shows of all time by the WGA, IMDb, and other respected organizations and sites, this show left an indelible mark on television. Furthermore, it has even influenced recent cinema and television as evident in shows/movies such as Black MirrorUsAre You Afraid of the DarkEx Machina, and more. Rod Sterling’s groundbreaking show creatively tackled complex issues such as conformity, the uncanny, human frailty, fear of the unknown, self-destruction, faith and lack thereof, paranormal/supernatural, and more. Specifically, it was a welcoming place for all kinds of people to explore these topics. No matter how the central character’s tragic flaw affected him/her, whether for the positive or negative, you could always count on the episode’s moral compass pointing north and a closing monologue from Sterling to tie everything up.

Right out the gate, I feel that the series premiere was on the weak side, but it made up for the sluggish start in episode 1 with episode 2 (released with E1), an adaptation of one of the most popular episodes in the original series Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. I thought it would be fun to analyze and review each episode in the seasons of this show. The challenge of this new series is to deliver the same powerful, memorable stories as the original. Since this is an anthology series, and therefore each episode is a complete story in and of itself, it is not fair, at this early stage, to generalize a review of the show–not yet anyway. So, you’ll find reviews of each episode in this blog. For the sake of readability, I’ve limited each episode to one paragraph. Simply click an episode to jump to that part of this running review.

Season One Evaluation

In short, this premiere season fell flat until Episode 10. It’s thanks to that single episode that we have hope that Peele’s series can perhaps overcome the plethora of struggles it has demonstrated it has in the future seasons. Pacing is a big issue, not to mention largely missing that Twilight Zone magic in most of the episodes. With the exception of Episode 10, the rest of the episodes do not justify their “hour long” runtimes. The plots that we have witnessed are better suited for a half-hour runtime. Striving to not be so on-the-nose or polarizing is something else that I would like to see moving forward. Some of the episodes this season depict unfair representations of groups of people that do not help facilitate progressive and beneficial discussions. Instead of being concerned with perpetuating ill-informed or prejudicial representations of types of characters, this episodes need to place focus on the root cause not the symptoms. Moreover, the future episodes should place more value in allowing the audience to make up their minds on how they view a conflict, allegory, or situation more than the episode telling you how to think, feel, or behave. Episode 10 gives us reason to look forward to season 2.

Episodes

  1. The Comedian
  2. Nightmare at 30,000 Feet
  3. Replay
  4. A Traveler
  5. The Wunderkind
  6. Six Degrees of Freedom
  7. Not All Men
  8. Point of Origin
  9. The Blue Scorpion
  10. Blurryman

The Comedian

If you haven’t watched either E1 or E2 yet, I recommend starting with E2 because this first episode drags as it searches for its dimension. At its core, this episode is about the perils of fame, treating people as disposable commodities, and be careful what you wish for. Solid themes around which to build a show. Despite Peele having a shared writing credit on this first episode, the Sterling-esque monologue/narration and plot do not appear to have a singular unifying voice. Much like his recent Us struggles to tell a singular, coherent story. It’s an ambitious interpretation of Faust, but the episode isn’t capable of following up the ambition with effective delivery. If you recall, the majority of the original TZ episodes were half-hour shows. The original series wasn’t produced simply to entertain, but was written to tackle socio-political, religious, and psycho-social topics. This was accomplished through thought-provoking stories with am emphasis on the writing more so than the visual design. Now that I have the negative out of the way, I would be remiss to not highlight what it did well. The performances by lead Kumail Nanjiani and supporting cast Diarra Kilpatrick, and Tracy Morgan were fantastic! Additionally, the cinematography and editing were on point. One of the key differences between the original series and Peele’s new one is the production quality. Even though I have no issues with the production value and design of the OG, I do greatly appreciate this new one for the cinematic quality to the story. Had The Comedian been a 30min episode, I think that it would have been better executed.

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Nightmare at 30,000 Feet

Parks and Rec‘s Adam Scott figuratively steps into the shoes and sits in the airline seat of William Shatner in an adaptation of one of the most popular, recognizable and oft parodied episodes of the original Twilight Zone. Completely grounded in the premise of the original, but writers find a way to provide us with a new interpretation that brings the iconic plot into the 21st century. If you’re wondering if it’s an unnecessary, pretentious remake in the vein of Psycho (1998) or The Lion King (2019), then you can exercise relief as this episode will have you on the edge of your airline seat. Without going into spoilers, you’ll likely not think of podcasts or aircrafts in the same way next time you travel. Unlike the previous episode, this one is much stronger. I wish the series had launched with this as the premiere instead of The Comedian. When you think of the bizarre, uncanny nature of many of the original series episodes, you think of that intersection of shadow and substance a which these stories occur. And this reimagination of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet holds moderately strong to the pacing, tone, and structure of the original. Although the writing of episode 2 is tighter than episode 1, it still falls a little shy of the exemplary writing of the source material. For example, the original at 22mins delivers a more powerful punch with all the character and plot development therein than this new one does in nearly 1hr. That’s not to say that episode 2 is not effective and enjoyable–it is. But just not AS effective or memorable as the original. At the core, this story is about the worldview of having people think you’re crazy is almost worse than actually being crazy; furthermore, it also touches on the fear of terrorism. The windup is a little slow, but then as soon as he sits in his seat, you are in for the flight of your life. That is, until the final scene and closing words from Peele confuse instead of clarify (much like Us).

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Replay

After the fantastic second episode in Jordan Peele’s revival of The Twilight Zone, the third episode gets bogged down in politics instead of focussing on the moral or thought-provoking message. The science-fiction element of the now-retro camcorder that rewinds time gets overshadowed by the message of remembering one’s roots, but that theme gets lost when the plot chooses to divert attention to the relationship between white law enforcement and the black community. Taking its inspiration from another classic original episode, this one perpetuates and reinforces a real division that exists in some areas of the country between two groups of people. Although this episode could have been used as an allegory that could be applied to many different issues of prejudice and unfair treatment, it chooses to focus on one particular socio-political issue that runs the risk of further alienating audiences than unifying them. At its core, it is not about any particular theme but instead highlights the issue of white law enforcement brutality against black individuals. Replay could have been a powerful episode that inspires productive, positive change; but in lieu of a call-to-action, it reinforces the idea that most white law enforcement officers treat black individuals grossly unfairly. Statistically speaking, that is simply not true. But due to media attention and high profile cases that do show mistreatment that needs to be condemned, there is a growing idea that this is the state of affairs in general. Yes, this is a real issue that has been highlighted in the news for years now, but I am afraid an episode like this seeks to divide instead of mend or evoke constructive change. In terms of the plot, the episode executes its setup quite well, but feels stretched to fill the “hour” much like the previous two episodes. Our lead characters are developed effectively and we even get a backstory that is strategically revealed as we work our way through the story. Like with the first two episodes, we also witness excellent performances by the three lead characters in this episode. I appreciate Peele’s desire and ambition to approach this series like Sterling did; but it needs to deliver episodes that can be applied more generally to present-day audiences that can stand the test of time instead of focussing on message delivery that makes it a time capsule.

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A Traveler

It’s Christmastime in the Twilight Zone. More so than any of the previous three episodes of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone, this episode sets up its characters and plot more effectively than any other. The beginning truly feels like a Sterling-inspired episode. Whereas the previous stories in this new anthology series struggle to find their respective places within the library of Twilight Zone episodes, this one starts out as close to the pacing, tone, and feel of the original series as we have seen so far. The setup is so effective, that we don’t even need the opening commentary by Peele in his brilliant Sterling-fashion. Although this episode, like all previous ones, feels stretched for time, it attempts to follow the “joke” structure of the original series closely. I don’t mean joke as in funny-haha, I mean joke in that the OG episodes quite regularly setup the plot/characters in Act I, reinforced the plot/characters in Act II, then disrupts that pattern with a twist in Act III. If this were a typical joke, then that twist would be the punchline (“I’ll have 3 chili dogs, salt & vinegar french fries, and a diet soda”). In the case of A Traveler, Acts I and II are outstanding, but then the twist in Act III is a let down. The payoff does not equal the windup. Instead of adapting or reimagining any single classic episode for the new series, this episode channels several classic episodes in order to repackage into a new story. Like with the previous three episodes, this one takes a classic approach and attempts to comment on ethnocentrism, appropriation of property, and forcing a native people out of its land if it doesn’t conform to the “superior” group, but this analogy never quite solidifies. Without spoiling the twist, it is a twist that would have worked very well during the run of the original series, but doesn’t work as well in 2019. I appreciate the reason for the mysterious traveler’s sudden appearance, but just doesn’t do it for me. One of the best parts of the original series is that the end often prompts the audience to vicariously interact with the story by deciding what they would do. But that power is withheld by the audience by allowing a character to voice what should come from the audience. Moving forward, I hope to see future episodes that stick close to the pacing and tone of the original, but still provide the audience with the ability to interact with the story.

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The Wunderkind

Aside from episode two which was a direct adaptation from the OG, this is the episode that feels more like Sterling’s Twilight Zone than any of the others in terms of tone and substance. Parts of the plot of this episode feel like they are inspired by the famous It’s a Good Life episode about the boy whom wishes you out into the cornfield or kills you in front of him if you disagree with anything he says or feels. It’s his way or the highway. Clearly, this episode is a commentary on a child-like spoiled president, so it doesn’t take a political analyst to pinpoint the inspiration for the character of Oliver. Although many, if not most, of the most memorable TZ episodes contain a strong science-fiction or supernatural element, this one is a political satire. Unfortunately, that means that it may not sit as well with many TZ fans; however, I am a lifelong fan of the OG (the jury is still out on this one) and I enjoyed it. Albeit foreshadowed, the twist at the end is still very Twilight Zoney. Where this episode shows weakness is in the writing (again). I know that I mention the writing often, but it does seem to be this iteration’s Achilles heal. Like with previous episodes in Peele’s TZ, this one is also stretched to fill the nearly hour run time. Had this been a half-hour episode, then I feel that it would have exhibited better pacing. It starts out quite well, but get’s incredibly sluggish in the middle, then finishes strong enough. What I find particularly interesting about this episode is the commentary, not only on the president, but on the American public that despite knowing presidential politicians are manipulative, still readily believe whomever the newest or perhaps most unique candidate is. The takeaway from this episode is to be ever vigilant of the nature of those whom seek your vote or approval because it is likely that there is a significant self-serving angle to serving the public.

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Six Degrees of Freedom

Heavily inspired by classic Twilight Zone stories, this episode never truly leaves the launchpad. Six Degrees of Freedom features a six-man spacecraft crew on a mission to lay the groundwork for a colonization of Mars since Earth is nearly destroyed. After a reported impending nuclear attack, the crew decides to launch instead of a more conventional evacuation. With Mars nearly 300 days away and a presumed destroyed Earth behind them, they embark on the mission. The crew has a lot of time to ponder the tragic events they narrowly escaped and the overwhelming responsibility of what to do on Mars. The setup in this episode is classic Sterling, and works incredibly well. In fact, I was excited that this episode was going to feel like a 21st century interpretation of previous plot–the soul of the plot remaining in tact, but with an updated setting and more diverse characters. Abort. This episode does not deliver what it promises in the opening. We may have a more diverse cast, but all of the characters are flat, lacking in any substantive dimension. Unlike the crew of the Nostromo, this crew comes off as lacking in training and preparation for this mission. I get that the pressure of a doomed mission, lengthy periods in space, and the trauma of the alleged destroyed Earth are brilliant plot tools to wear down the rational, disciplined mindsets of the crew; and the breakdown, manifest itself in an undesirable human trait that contributes to the psycho-social breakdown of the crew, but these crew don’t seem like they are qualified for their respective jobs to begin with. Perhaps the goal of the teleplay was to showcase this crew of six (interestingly, six is the Biblical number of man) as a microcosm for out present society, but that analogy is lost in the vapid dialogue and lack of context for the interpersonal conflict. This launch never truly reaches the orbit of Sterling’s Twilight Zone.

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Not All Men

Loosely based on the classic Twilight Zone episode A Good Man is Hard to Find, this episode of Peele’s show is built around the idea of personal choice. Unfortunately, it lacks the power it could have had by only focussing on the idea of toxic masculinity. Whereas the show could have packed a more powerful punch by showing both men and women grappling with a refusal to give in to primal behaviors and violence, it just shows one group effected by the meteor. I know why; toxic masculinity is constantly in the news and on social media; but the truth is that both men and women can exhibit toxic behaviors that have a negative impact upon society. The twist of the meteor acting as a kind of placebo was a nice TZ touch that I appreciated immensely, but wish the episode truly drove home the point that we ALL have toxic behaviors and thoughts that could significantly impact our outward actions unless we make the intentional choice not to act upon them. Case and point: revenge. Revenge can become an all-consuming monster unless it’s checked. We have to weigh our selfish or self-centered tendencies against the greater good of society and more personal relationships. I love the idea of the plot of this episode, but wish the execution had been more effective. As has been the pattern established so far, this episode boasts excellent acting, cinematography, and direction.

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Point of Origin

An apt title for an episode that truly feels grounded in the original Sterling series. Instead of feeling like a sermon, the original series often depicted a story that didn’t answer some posited philosophical or sociological question but ended just before a directed action was requested of the audience. The main idea of most of the episodes (much in the same way Black Mirror does) was to confront the audience with a thought-provoking question and leave it at that. Allow the audience to decide what they are going to do with the story and commentary therein. Although this episode is clearly on immigration, it moves the conversation from the familiar to the unfamiliar–to another dimension altogether. Although the character of eve is completely unlikable (problematic in my mind), she is the vessel though which we experience what it would be like if you were accused of being an illegal immigrant, brought here as a child with no memory of life before. While we are never given a full explanation WHY the interdimensional beings fled their home to make a new life in ours, it is ultimately unimportant. The stark contrast from the life Eve built for herself to the soul crushing surroundings she finds herself in, works well to depict what it must feel like to be forcibly extracted from all you’ve ever truly known and thrown into a frightening situation. Elements of this episode are incredibly terrifying.

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The Blue Scorpion

Probably the least enjoyable of all the Season 1 episodes. The Blue Scorpion wants so much to comment on gun control–and not in a subtextual way. It is way too obvious. When providing social commentary, Rod Sterling’s original Twilight Zone was seldom on the nose. From the opening scene, this episode is up front and center with its topic. All that’s missing is a Powerpoint presentation to accompany this episode. Not to mention it struggles with the same pacing problems that all the episodes have–taking what might work well in 30mins, and stretching it to fill the “hour long” runtime. Had the episode taken a more creative approach to the obsession with and lack of legislation regarding firearm access and use in the United States, then perhaps this episode would have played out much stronger. As it is, the sledgehammer approach is not only polarizing but shows a lack of understanding of why the original series worked so well. While it is common knowledge–also demonstrably evident in this series itself–that Peele displays a great admiration for the legendary show, he seems to have missed the whole point of why it worked and still works so well. Thankfully there are comedic elements in the episode in order for it not to be entirely depressing.

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Blurryman

While most of the season has been lackluster and continues to provide evidence that Netflix’ Black Mirror is the more thoughtful “new” Twilight Zone, episode 10 of Peele’s series is the most Twilight Zone of the first season; furthermore, this single episode provides hope for the otherwise forgettable series. Until Ep10, if I was to attribute an over all title to Season 1, I would have called it “Twilight Zone: Failure to Launch,” but thanks to this single episode, the series leaves us with a glimmer of hope for the subsequent seasons. If you select just one episode of this series to watch, make sure it is this one. Not only does it provide excellent technical elements and a fantastic cast, the writing is exemplary. Even though from an editing perspective the final scene is wonky, a bit clunky if you will, this teleplay is the best of the season. It nearly overcomes the pacing problem as well. More than any other episode, this one almost justifies its “hour long” runtime. Of all the twists that we have encountered this season, Blurryman has the best one. With meta horror and meta science-fiction being popular storytelling methods nowadays, I was waiting for this season to deliver a meta episode. And sure enough, this is it! All the way down to Jordan Peele playing himself and the writer of some of the episodes visiting the sets of her episodes (i.e. the bar from The Comedian). Zazie Beetz plays a teleplay writer for The Twilight Zone and she begins to see and get stalked by a blurryman on the set of the show. The episode follows her on her descent into madness as the entity, primarily visible to her except at the very beginning, pushes her to question her reality. Unlike the previous episodes, wherein there is no need to worry about talking about spoiler content, this is one that needs to be experienced without any knowledge of the twists and turns after the first act. The only negative critique I really have of the episode is failing to achieve what the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios was able to accomplish when the iconic attraction opened in 1994. Once you watch this episode, you will know precisely what I am talking about.

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You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

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“Captive State” brief movie review

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts; or in the case of this movie, the director gifts us a movie that looks fantastic on the outside, but is a disaster on screen. There is a good science-fiction movie in there somewhere. But because of the poor direction, the movies plays off as completely disjointed, lacking any emotional connection to the characters. The concept for the film is quite brilliant. It takes the alien invasion premise and provides audiences with an original interpretation of this sub-genre of science-fiction. Often science-fiction suffers at the hands of the screenwriter(s) who becomes so pre-occupied with the world and technology of the story that they forget about developing the characters and plot. However, this film suffers more significantly at the hands of the director, but the screenwriting does play a hand in the confusing nature of this film. Incidentally, director Rupert Wyatt also co-wrote the screenplay, so it appears that he should have stuck to writing with co-writer Erica Beeney rather than directing.

Clearly, there is a solid science-fiction story in Captive State, but the story suffered as it was being written down, and even more damage was done while on set. The idea is original and good! The execution is bad. There is too much exposition in some places, like the beginning text-heavy scene and then too little exposition in other parts of the movie. Characters get introduced then forgotten, and John Goodman and Vera Farmiga are completely wasted. Literally any actor could have played these roles, and even other characters could have had their lines, and it would still play out the same way. I can tell that this movie is trying to provide me a post-modern thought-provoking story, but I am still not entirely sure what I watched. Upon watching it, I found myself grasping for whatever details I could find, and it was not enough to make heads or tails of what was going on sometimes. What we have here is a case of complex plot and simple characters. The antithesis of what makes a good screenplay. The idea for this film is certainly admirable, but the idea was lost in the translation from mind to page, and then from page to screen.

You can join Ryan at the cinema most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Dark City” (1998) Throwback Thursday Film Review

The “thinking man’s Matrix.” That is how fellow critic and senior producer of One Movie Punch Joseph Dobzynski describes this underrated neo-noir science-fiction film that predates The Matrix. For the weekly film screening with my cinephile friend Leon in Germany, he selected Dark City. Truly visionary and incredibly rewatchable! I don’t know about you, but I had never even heard of it before. Perhaps that’s because I was so young when it came out. But I am glad that we watched it. It’s now among my favorite neo-noir films.  Never before have I seen a film take the stylistic techniques of film noir and extended them into the realm of fantasy, delivering a motion picture that is highly artistic and cerebral. Perhaps the film was ahead of its time, and that’s why it does not receive the fanfare that The Matrix gets. Between the two, objectively this one is more thought-provoking and artistic. Directed by Alex Proyas, this Fincher meets Scott neo-noir successfully fuses a classical film noir/detective mystery approach with futuristic fantastical allegory. One of the elements of early horror and film-noir that I feel gets lost today is the extension of the plot into the setting itself to the degree that the setting becomes a defacto character. Just as a human is more than the sum of his or her parts, so a setting can be more than the sum of its physical dimensions and time. I would have loved to have experienced watching this one on the big screen to get the full surrealist effect of being completely immersed in this volatile world. Hey Fathom Events, put this one on your list!

John Murdoch wakes up in a bathtub in an unfamiliar hotel just to find out that he is wanted for a bizarre string of murders in a cult or serial killer fashion. One problem, he has no memory of committing the murders, nor much of a memory of anything save a place called Shell Beach. Thinking that he may have completely lost his mind, Murdoch begins to connect the pieces together in order to solve the twisted riddle of his identity. After a bizarre run-in with someone claiming to be his wife and a persistent detective, Murdoch continues to unravel the mystery surrounding the entire unnamed city. Never could he have imagined that his investigation would lead him to uncovering the presence of ominous group of aliens that have taken over the city. The truth that he uncovers will blow your mind.

Next to horror, film-noir is my favorite genre. And yes, we could all too easily debate film-noir‘s status as a genre as it only existed for a moment in cinematic history; and anything more modern is considered neo-noir, but for the sake of argument, let’s accept film-noir as a genre. There is a beauty to this film that does not exist in The Matrix. And that beauty runs incredibly fluidly from page to screen as is made evident from the brilliantly crafted setting, characters and conflict. There is a Metropolis-like quality to the setting and characters in Dark City. Even before Inception blew our minds with its ability to completely immerse us in the world of reality manipulated by the boundless imagination, Dark City transformed the landscape of this city in perpetual darkness. Some of the cinematic characteristics of film noir are found in the lowkey lighting, architecture inspired from German expressionism, and often a character playing the role of a detective. Whereas detective/mystery is a separate genre, there are several films with overlap between noir and detective. If you pay close attention to the production design, you will notice that the buildings grow more elongated and twisted the closer Murdoch gets to solving the mystery; furthermore, the buildings grow more slanted as Murdoch reaches the edges of the city. On a meta level, the setting is an extension of the mind of Murdoch and reflects his memories or lack thereof, more precisely the unreliability of memories. Just as his [Murodoch’s] memory is unreliable, so is the cityscape in which he resides. Characters and settings change and display broken collective memories, even when remembering how to get to Shell Beach. The design of the setting demonstrates Proyas’ attention to the stylized visual components of building this hybrid noir/sci-fi.

Whereas the neo-noir characters and world, in which they live, are very much a product of a reimagination of the film-noir genre, the conflict and plot (after the very much noir first act) are a deconstruction of the noir genre through a science-fiction plot. One of the dangers the many science-fiction screenwriters encounter is that he or she spends way too much time on constructing the science-fiction world and technology and quickly writes characters for the world. The error: starting with the world instead of with the characters or plot. Proyas demonstrates a strong commitment to his characters and plot, followed by the world. He was able to masterfully craft both because he used the world from one and the plot from another. Think of this combination of noir and sci-fi elements as Walt Disney’s patented multi-plane camera (last used on The Black Cauldron). Instead of elements mixed together, they were layered on top of one another in order to increase the depth of story. The plot remains simple; but the conflict, characters and world built on top of it gives the illusion of a complex plot. The screenplay stays true to a simple plot and complex characters. Through this visionary approach of fusing a film-noir setting to a science-fiction plot, Proyas provides the characters (and by extension, audience) a thought-provoking means of exploring reality in a most cinematic fashion.

There are considerable similarities between Blade Runner and Dark City in terms of the setting, score, and cinematography. And this is to be expected from a director who has demonstrated an admiration of Ridley Scott’s brilliant film. In retrospect, there are prominent earmarks of Muholland Drive by David Lynch as well. The meta nature of this film can be observed in the city itself. As the plot unfolds, we learn that the city is glorified set–not so different from a film set which changes throughout production in order to capture each and every scene. Just as a mood ring supposedly visualizes the emotion of the wearer, the set serves as an extension of the paranoia of its inhabitants. Capturing the madness experienced by the characters, specifically Murdoch, in the setting and cinematography adds to the experience of watching this film by creating an immersive environment as much for us as it is the characters. As this film is a means to deconstruct a film-noir through a science-fiction plot, we have the trademark characters such as a love interest and private eye; but instead of a central character who is experiencing a type of psychosis, the central character of Murdoch is the only character who has complete control of his mind and thus sees the cracks in the world created for him by The Strangers. This inverse of the central character injects this story with innovative ingenuity.

I would be remiss to not analyze the characters of opposition led by Mr. Book (Ian Richardson), with a notable chief of his version of the KGB, Mr. Hand played by the legendary Richard O’Brien (the writer/director of Rocky Horror Picture Show). While Mr. Book is the leader of The Strangers, the alien species whom have kidnapped these citizens of earth to place them in this futuristic experiment to analyze what constitutes the human soul, we spend most of our time with Mr. Hand. To borrow from Game of Thrones, Mr. Hand is the hand of the king. While these aliens resemble humanoid lifeforms, they are in actuality a jellyfish like species that uses human bodies as hosts in order to interact with humans. For all the power that their telekinetic abilities give them, water and sun is their greatest enemy, hence why Shell Beach is nowhere to be found and the city is perpetually in darkness. Just like Murdoch is an inverted noir central character, The Strangers are inverted humans as they have a great fear of water and sunlight, whereas humans require water and sunlight to remain healthy. I cannot help but wonder that Star Trek TNG and Voyager’s The Borg was influential in the development of The Strangers, as they both share the hive-like mind and pale skin. Of course, a chief difference is The Strangers’ ability to adopt some unique traits to blend in with the humans.

In retrospect, this is a much stronger film than The Matrix. Both share a similar premise, but the original expression of the shared premise in Dark City is far more timeless than the more famous of the two. And I am not merely talking about the visual effects, of which they hold up better in Dark City than The Matrix; I am talking about the comprehensive execution of the two films. Had James Cameron’s Titanic not dwarfed Dark City, then it may have been seen as the superior film to The Matrix by wider audiences than the strong cult following it currently has. But why do I feel that Dark City is superior to The Matrix? Simply stated, it comes down to the writing and direction. There are so many more layers to the writing and direction that makes it a cerebral film. I would not characterize The Matrix as a thinking man’s film, but I would Dark City. You can liken the two to Star Wars vs Star Trek (TV series). Star Wars is action-driven whereas Star Trek is largely character-driven. One may even go so far as to call The Matrix high concept and Dark City low concept. On the topic of visual effects, virtually all the effects in The Matrix are CGI; conversely, Dark City contains a beautiful fusion of practical effects (including miniatures) supplemented with digital effects. Dark City feels so much more real, tangible. It’s that authenticity that makes it the stronger of the two and warrants far more rewatches.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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