Sounds In The Ether : Science Fiction and Johann Johannsson’s ‘Arrival’ Score

One of the best science fiction movies I’ve seen in awhile is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. It’s one of those films that after you watch it you sit and ponder it on and off for days. The implications it possesses, the scope of its reach, and the overall emotional heft it lays on your head and heart. It’s not a perfect film by any means(a recent comparison to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact by a friend had me second guessing Arrival‘s overall approach…for just a second), but some of the best films aren’t perfect. They create the environment and give us the ideas to mull over and think about obsessively for days, weeks, that allow us to decide whether they’re perfect in their own imperfect way. Science fiction allows each of us experiencing it to decide just how perfect or imperfect it is. I’ve never been a fan of hard science fiction. I don’t necessarily need a story to be based in some sort of factual reality. I mean, isn’t the appeal of sci fi the escapism aspect of it? I don’t even need a well written story to be honest. As long as there’s a definitive mood, look, sound, and feel that pull me out of the moment for a bit then I’m good(see Beyond The Black Rainbow.)

Another friend had told me he wasn’t a fan of Christopher Nolan’s hard science fiction approach, both in his Batman films and especially Interstellar. I can understand that. I watched his Batman films prior to reading the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale Dark Knight stories so I appreciated the films on a cinematic level. After reading those excellent books the films seem to have a certain detached brilliance to them. The fantastical ideas behind some of those great villains seems too grounded in our real world reality now. I still love the movies on a filmmaking level, but they seem slightly “colder” than before.

When it comes to Interstellar I have to disagree with my friend(who knows quite a bit more about sci fi then I do, honestly.) While the film is certainly steeped in a heady dose of real science and actual time travel theory, I feel the human aspect of the story trumps the hard science fiction approach Nolan uses to tell the tale. At the base of the story is a father wanting to save his daughter, and he’ll sacrifice his own life for hers. It’s pretty simple. If that means traveling to the far reaches(literally) of the universe to do so then so be it. I felt there was a perfect balance of emotion and intellect in that film. There’s lots of black hole theories, space/time paradigms, and general poindexter jargon to satisfy the Stephen Hawking in all of us, as well as plenty of emotional heft to satisfy the person looking for a deeply heavy film.

So Arrival. Well for those that are reading this that haven’t seen the movie I won’t talk about any of the heavy details. It’s best to discover things naturally as you’re watching. In a nutshell, the film is about a handful of oblong UFOs that land at various points around the world. The US military bring in a nationally renowned linguist and a physicist to try and figure out how to communicate with the creatures that live inside these objects that seem to float above the ground like skyscraper-sized cocoons. You’re given hints of some tragedy that occurred in the life of one of these experts, which the lifeforms in these ships seem to be connected to. Are they trying to bond with the human? Or manipulate? As the late Chuck Berry once sang, “you never can tell.”

The film has a dreamy quality to it. In Villeneuve’s direction, Bradford Young’s cinematography and the acting of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, there’s a truly impressionistic approach to storytelling. There’s nothing bombastic here. It’s all very quiet, with muted colors and quiet conversations. The film feels very meditative. For those that like their science fiction with Will Smith and Luc Besson, you may not get the proper thrills out of this. But for fans of Blade Runner, Under The Skin, Ex_Machina, Beyond The Black Rainbow, and even A.I., I think you’ll love this film.

Johann Johannsson’s score to Arrival is just as big a character as Adams, Renner, or the Heptapods. He creates both quiet beauty and shaded dread. He uses both traditional orchestration, as well as vocalization, electronic manipulation and loops to create this musical world. But his approach is anything but “traditional”. You feel like you’re in another world listening to his beautiful music. Opening piece “Arrival” drones along and is accompanied by what sounds like whales communicating(strangely, the alien objects look a bit like whales floating vertically above the ground.) “Heptapod B” brings Steve Reich to mind, especially in the looping aspect of the piece. This piece feels like a hallmark of Johannsson’s score, which in turn makes the overall sound seem like something new and exciting. Johannsson turns the traditional film score on its head. It runs the gamut from incidental to emotionally crushing.

I recently picked up this score on vinyl via Deutsche Grammophon and its a beautiful piece of vinyl. The sound is pristine, with Johannsson’s work coming through exquisitely. And the last song is the beautiful Max Richter piece “On the Nature of Daylight” which the film dons both at the beginning and end(unfortunately, because of the inclusion of Richter’s piece Johannsson was ineligible for an Academy Award nomination.)

I guess it doesn’t really matter how you take your science fiction, just as long as you take it. It’s important to open your mind a bit and delve into some critical thinking once in a while. Even if you don’t understand it right off the bat, give it a shot. Ponder it, re-watch it, read Dune again, buy The Criterion Collection edition of  Solaris and put that in your skull. Go to your locally owned used book shop and buy a stack of Philip K. Dick paperbacks, hit a coffee shop, and jump into his world. Let Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson tickle your frontal lobe, then jump into some classic Terry Gilliam fare. Just step out of the intellectual meat grinder known as modern entertainment for a bit and go somewhere in your head. Somewhere strange, hard to grasp, and uncomfortable.

Stretch your brain a bit. Your heart will follow.



Scoring Horror : Steve Moore’s ‘The Mind’s Eye’

I find myself listening to more soundtracks than I do watching the movies they score. Is that a bad thing? I’m sure the film directors and writers and producers might think so. It’s not that I have anything against watching movies, it’s just that a lot of the time I have easier access to the scores, and the soundtracks are usually better than the film. That’s just a cold hard fact of life, people. I give the filmmakers credit, though. They’re smart enough to hire top notch musicians to score their films. And I’m not saying all those films are bad or anything. I’m just saying the soundtracks usually grab me right away.

There are a crew of great people making some amazing music for indie and low budget films that are really classing up these flicks. Jeff Grace, Wojciech Golczewski, Disasterpeace, David Wingo, and Steve Moore.

Not familiar with Steve Moore? Well he’s one half of the heavy synth/progressive rock duo Zombi. Not familiar with Zombi? Really? Just, well see yourself out the door, okay? Close the door, too. Okay, they’re gone. So anyways, Moore has been making some pretty incredible noise in Zombi for years now, and a few years ago he started scoring films. The first that I saw was The Guest, which was both a great film and an incredible score. Cub was another one he scored, and again he hit it out of the park with that score. Last year he scored the low budget horror film The Mind’s Eye.

So as I stated earlier, I don’t see a lot of these films I pick up soundtracks of. The Mind’s Eye is on my list of films to see, for sure. But I was more interested in hearing Steve Moore doing what he does best, and this soundtrack does just that. It’s got all of those great early 80s synth sounds Moore is known for. The moody, rhythmic arpeggios…the swaths of dissonance…the new age-y interludes…they’re all there. He tends to stick to certain motifs. I can hear repeated sounds and expressions in each of the soundtracks I’ve heard of his, but I think that’s true for a lot of film scores. Certain build ups during scenes, creating tension for a scene, yadda yadda. It’s sort of like a hallmark of a Steve Moore film score.

To get an idea of what Steve Moore does, you should hit up albums like Zombi’s Surface To Air, Escape Velocity, and Shape Shift. For my money, those three records really show his compositional skills(along with drummer AJ Paterra.) Then once you’re fully committed to this synth wizard’s chi(sorry, been watching Iron Fist on Netflix), I’d suggest you find his score for The Guest and put that in your ears. I think that’s the ultimate power punch in regards to his scoring prowess. It’s got it all, really. Want more? Then The Mind’s Eye should be your next stop. This thing is a massive chunk of synth-heavy goodness. It’s a double LP, so there’s plenty to enjoy here. 85 minutes of music, to be exact. It’s an epic collection of heady sounds.

The film itself? Here’s the trailer:

Like I said I haven’t seen it, but it seems to do a lot with a little. Low budget horror can be a tricky thing, but done in the right hands it can do what major studios do with millions more bucks and far better. This one sort of puts me in my of Cronenberg’s Scanners, just from the trailer. That was a classic of the genre, and a low budget flick to boot. If Joe Begos does just half of what Cronenberg did then The Mind’s Eye will be pretty damn good.

Well I’ve rambled enough. I think I got off point a bit, but that’s typical on a Saturday morning. Steve Moore. The Mind’s Eye. Film Composers. Indie horror. GO!



Friday Rentals

All this talk of classic horror films from when I was a boy in short pants has me reminiscing about Friday nights of my youth. The Friday night video rental, to be exact. It was a semi-regular thing for my parents and I to go out after my dad got home from work and go grab a pizza at Pizza Hut, stuff ourselves, and then head to Video World and rent some movies for the weekend. Of course, I’d head straight to the back room(not THAT backroom, you perv) and start perusing the horror and sci fi. Video World had a back room dedicated to nothing but horror, sci fi, music docs, and weird odds and ends. That’s where I spent a good portion of my time. This was my formal education into the world of the undead, vampires, alien creatures, soulless slashers, and general weirdos that I’d carry around in my memories for years to come. At first it was an appreciation for being scared, but then it changed. It was the whole aesthetic that I loved: the effects, the music, the set designs, and yes even the stories that were attempted. Some were better than others(much better at times), but each movie carried with it something endearing, no matter how horrible the film was. If it was really bad it would sometimes transcend into something even greater than scares. The horror film that tried so hard but missed the mark would become something else: parody. Something so bad that it became a completely different genre. Even a lousy movie could make for fun viewing.

This Friday night ritual continued on through high school. One of my best friends and I would crash at either my place or his, grab a Tombstone pepperoni pizza from the store along with a bag of Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles, hit Video World for the newest horror film(by this time we’d rent from either Video World or Video Plus), and spend Friday night distorting our minds(and our intestinal tract with that Tombstone Pizza.) Oh, and if you hadn’t guessed, we weren’t the partying types. Were we dorks? Nerds? I don’t think so. But we definitely weren’t “popular kid” material. Listening to Rush and Joe Satriani and pining over Daphne Zuniga didn’t win us any cool points, but we were cool with that.

I don’t think much has changed for me(except I make my own pizza nowadays.) The video store has turned into renting movies off of Amazon, and Fridays are also shared equally by watching movies and spinning records. If I’m going to waste time, I might as well waste on things I love to do, right? I do miss the video store, though. The strange cast of characters that haunted the aisles: whether it was parents and their kids looking for something to watch together, teens looking for something they shouldn’t watch, or the creepers disappearing into the “other” back room. And of course the folks working behind the counter, renting to the folks hungry for entertainment on a Friday evening. Spending their weekend making ours a little more interesting. I had much admiration for them. I was one of them, as I started working at Video World when I was 18 and worked their for nearly a year. A great year it was, too.

So here’s to Friday rentals and making the most of those little moments.

Who Goes There?

The first movie I watched that truly disturbed me to my core was John Carpenter’s The Thing. Sure, I’d seen films that made me jump and that had given me nightmares for a week straight. And yes, there were films that made me not want to go downstairs for fear of creature hands coming through the steps and pulling me underneath for a grotesque fate. Did Poltergeist make me fear clowns and looking under my bed? Absolutely. Friday The 13th cured me of ever wanting to be the outdoors-y type. Nightmare On Elm Street made sure I’d always try to wake up before I hit the ground in a bad dream where I was falling, for fear of never waking up. And The Food Of The Gods made me fear…well, giant worms? I don’t know, but I had nightmares for a week after my parents took me to see it at the drive-in when I was 3 years old. But the film that really grabbed me and viscerally messed with my head was The Thing.

I remember watching Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World on Nightmare Theater, a local Friday night “creature feature”- like show, as a little kid with my dad and not really thinking much of it. It was interesting, but for some reason I remember thinking James Arness’ “Thing” was a giant carrot. Maybe my dad told me that(he liked to mess with me as a kid…much like I like to mess with my own children.) I got to see a lot of great and not-so great horror flicks on Nightmare Theater, which I credit for my love of horror in general. But it wasn’t until I was 10 and we bought our first VCR that I truly began building up my horror knowledge. The first two movies we rented? Romero’s Creepshow and the Bob and Doug McKenzie flick Strange Brew. I was off to a great start.

Within that first year of renting movies from Video World The Thing came about 6 months into our Betamax journey. I’d heard things about the movie, mainly from my dad talking about it, and knew I wanted to see it. My parents weren’t super strict about what they let me watch growing up. There were some “off limits” films, for sure. Mainly movies with lots of sex and lots of bad language were gonna be on the “no way” list. I remember mom and dad usually watching those after I went to bed. I could hear Risky Business, Dressed To Kill, and Scarface through the wall as I tried going to bed. The TV was directly on the other side of the wall where my bed was. Horror movies, though, my parents were a little more lenient with my brother and I. I can remember mom and dad taking my brother and I to see the original Fright Night, Silver Bullet, and even Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. I wasn’t even in middle school for any of those. We were just a horror film household I guess.

So The Thing. Both the original and Carpenter’s remake were based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell(writing as Don A. Stuart.) Hawks’ version was more loosely based, where Carpenter took a more direct approach to the adaptation. I think, whether they were direct or not, there were nods to McCarthy-ism in the original as it was released around the time of the McCarthy trials and the Communist witch hunts in Hollywood. The idea of not knowing who you can trust among your peers felt very close to home to those working in the community at the time, as well as in the country as a whole. In 1982, Carpenter was coming off of a stream of classic films. Halloween(1978), The Fog(1980), and Escape From New York(1981), as well as a much-loved TV movie Elvis starring Kurt Russell in 1979. He proved he was capable of doing a hell of a lot with not much bank. He went from a $6 million dollar budget with Escape to $15 million for The Thing, and it showed. The movie’s special effects were unlike anything we’d seen before. Rob Bottin, then only in his early 20s, pretty much revolutionized special effects in film.

So for those that aren’t aware of The Thing, I’ll give you a synopsis(why aren’t you aware of this classic??): At an American research station in Antarctica, the crew is encountered with an alien life form that can take the shape of its victims, which causes the all-male crew to start wondering who’s really themselves and who’s actually the alien in disguise. How they come in contact with the alien I’ll leave that up for you to find out(if you haven’t seen it.) Like I said, the special effects in this film are impressive, even by today’s standards. CGI does some great things, but it doesn’t begin to compare to practical effects. Between Bottin’s special effects crew(and one memorable effect by effects wizard Stan Winston), this film was viscerally and stomach-churningly on-point.

The score was written by Ennio Morricone. Unlike most of Carpenter’s other films, he let someone else take the reigns this time around, and that person was the spaghetti western master himself. After recently picking up the Waxwork Records release of this stunning score, I have to say that I never noticed just how incredible it was. I think watching as a kid I was so engrossed with the film that the music just didn’t register with me. Even after watching it less than a year ago the music still didn’t register with me. I think more than anything after listening to it recently was that it sounds nothing like what I imagine Ennio Morricone and his scores to sound like. That’s probably due to my ignorance more than anything else.

Like I said before, I correlate Morricone to Eastwood and spaghetti westerns. On The Thing, Morricone goes for a much tenser vibe, complete with trickling strings and brasher symphonic sounds. At times it sounds more like Bernard Herrmann scoring Alfred Hitchcock, which for a film about isolation and paranoia you couldn’t ask for anything more. There’s also a real classic feel to the orchestral movements in this film, like you’re hearing pieces from a classic Universal monster film. You can almost see Dracula’s castle in the distance, or smell the electrified corpse of Frankenstein’s monster as its being lowered from the roof into the famous laboratory. There are also moments where Morricone seems to be pulling from Carpenter’s playbook here, with minimalist notes and quiet tension. “Humanity, Pt. 2” feels like something John Carpenter would’ve come up with, while “Eternity” sounds like it could’ve been used in Carpenter’s The Fog. “Humanity Pt.1” is all slow burn with lilting strings and piano. It puts me in mind of what Jeff Grace did years later in Ti West’s excellent The House Of The Devil.

All in all, this is a beautifully arranged piece of orchestral work.

So the film was universally panned when it came out in 1982. Carpenter was crushed as his great efforts were ignored and his classic science fiction film was downplayed as “excessive” and “a wretched excess”, “the quintessential moron movie of the 80s”. One reviewer states of John Carpenter, “Astonishingly, he blows it.” Of course, dear reader, none of these critics got it. In fact, hardly anyone did at the time. It was as if everyone in the cinematic-reviewing community felt as if John Carpenter had broken some cardinal rule when he mixed both science fiction and horror together in one film. Of course it had been done before. Anyone heard of Alien? Yeah, me too. Of course, science fiction and horror go hand in hand. Some of the most astonishing evils have come from science: the atomic bomb, chemical warfare, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. I’m all for science, folks. I’m just saying there’s a lot of scary stuff to come from scientific progress, as well some great stuff. But having said all that I don’t think John Carpenter was trying to say any great truths with The Thing. He just wanted to make a hard-boiled, bloody version of Ten Little Indians and he succeeded wonderfully. It was a film about a group of rough dudes stuck together in a place where there’s no escape, trying to figure out who’s who and what’s what. If the beast doesn’t get ’em inside, the sub-zero temps will get ’em on the outside. Even though it’s still basically a monster-in-disguise movie, there’s still plenty of “who can you trust when the enemy is hiding in plain sight” fodder that you can mull over and compare to the times we currently live in.

Everything about The Thing is perfect. From the casting to set design to the special effects to the frigid isolation. And of course the music. When Carpenter first asked Ennio Morricone to score his film, Morricone said “Regarding The Thing, by John Carpenter, I’ve asked him, as he was preparing some electronic music with an assistant to edit on the film, “Why did you call me, if you want to do it on your own?” He surprised me, he said – “I got married to your music. This is why I’ve called you.” I was quite amazed, he called me because he had my music at his wedding.” If I could tell John Carpenter why I spent so much time writing about and obsessing over a movie made 35 years ago, I guess I’d say it’s because it completely messed my prepubescent mind up.

But in the best way possible.


The Satanic Path Is The Right Path

The Satanic Path(1983) -courtesy of Gorgon Video

A young woman named Jamie, after just turning 18 years old decides to leave her cushy Midwestern upbringing after her mother dies from mysterious circumstances. She moves to Europe in order to search for her biological father whom she has never met. Her search leads her to a small village in the River Avon valley named Hedonshire where she encounters a mysterious and beautiful older woman called Zans who tells Jamie she knows the young woman’s father and that she can lead her to him, but for a price. That price? Jamie’s eternal soul? 

The Satanic Path works off the whole “Satanic Panic” fears of the 80s beautifully by incorporating the loss of innocence with also thea2059325644_10 liberating possibilities of “finding oneself” through spiritual, sexual, and even self-destructive means. The protagonist, the innocent and naive Jamie, knows there’s something dark and mysterious about her mother’s death and the man who is Jamie’s biological father whom her mother kept secret all these years. But after Jamie’s mother’s funeral Jamie comes across a letter hidden in a locked cedar chest in the basement of her grandmother’s home. A letter written to her mom by a man named Ezekiel. Ezekiel speaks of a forbidden love and of rituals, blood sacrifices, and wanting to see his daughter, whom Jamie realizes is her. The return address is Bristol, England, which is Jamie’s first stop on a journey for the truth. She finds the truth; as well as a coven of witches, Satanists, a demonic monastery, killer lesbians, a portal to an alternate universe, horny backpackers, a possessed church organ, dim-witted occultists, and a gateway to the “Dark Realm” where all of Jamie’s deepest, darkest desires come to life, but at a very steep price.

The Satanic Path was written and directed by Roberto Bava, the famous Italian B-movie director of such lurid(and at times X-rated) horror and occultist films The Dead In Your Bed(1965), Souls For Sale(1969), Bravo, My Dear(Fear Eater)(1973), and his game changing My Lesbian Summer(1976). The Satanic Path marked Bava’s return to the genre he helped to define after several softcore film adaptations of Shakespeare plays in the late 70s and early 80s and one catastrophic, orgy-filled production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream that played one time and one time only at the Herzog Theater near his home in Cologne, Germany.

The idea for The Satanic Path came to Bava after dropping his daughter off at her private school in the Swiss alps. He immediately returned to Cologne and spent the better part of September of 1981 writing. After securing funding from Spanish film producer Diego(Diablo) Garza and a small group of Italian investors filming began in the summer of 1982. Shot on location in both Columbus, Ohio, the River Avon Valley, and Zurich, Switzerland, the film was complete and edited within a mere 3 months.

The biggest change with The Satanic Path in regards to Bava’s previous work was with the film scoring. His brother-in-law, the famous German film composer Herman Wagner, had scored nearly every Bava picture since his 1959 debut Sisters, Lovers. With Path, Roberto Bava felt he needed to step away from the romantic, wind-swept drama of Wagner’s more traditional approach to scoring and he instead went with the mysterious Pentagram Home Video. He wanted the film to have a more modern feel, so the cold, detached sounds of analog synthesizers seemed to be the way to go. Pentagram Home Video would go onto to score the cult film Who’s Out There(1986) and most recently the short Slumber(2015). But with The Satanic Path, Pentagram Home Video would create a dark and foreboding aural companion to what might be Bava’s best work(it was his last as he died in 1985 at the age of 73 in a boating accident.)

PHV went about creating the musical pieces for The Satanic Path much like they created dark, dance floor ambient techno they used to perform in the dingy, smokey clubs of London in the late 70s and early 80s. Their approach is a minimal one, but one that pulls maximum reaction. With just simple synth lines and programmed beats, Pentagram Home Video can create a sense of dread and dark emotion. Pieces like “A Satanic Perspective On Youth Television”, “A Problem For The Occultist”, and “The Black Mass Part I/II/Leviathan” build upon Bava’s moody scenes, set designs, and help to fill the gaps that are apparent in Roberto’s sometimes thin script. PHV’s “The Parallel Realm” exquisitely captures the luridness and dark sexuality that surrounds Jamie’s quid pro quo near the end of the film. The music turns what could’ve been an exploitative scene of dark lust and sexual shock into something far deeper.

Overall, Pentagram Home Video helped turn Roberto Bava’s swan song of a film into something far richer, deeper, and compelling.

The Satanic Path will not make someone who’s not a fan of the genre a fan. It’s still lurid, exploitative, hedonistic, filled with sex and nudity, and can be quite shocking when it wants to be(Hell, what’s not to like about any of that?) If anything, it may have you searching for those old Pentagram Home Video soundtracks, as they’re absolutely stellar albums. The Satanic Path is one of the best. Look around, you may be able to find a copy…if you’re lucky.

Nuts & Bolts & God Complexes

As I’ve gotten older I’m finding myself more drawn to the world of science fiction as opposed to the world of horror. As a kid I was all about horror films. That’s where it was at for me. I liked science fiction, as long as it was based in jump scares and gore. Yeah, I wasn’t much of a scholar. I wanted some visceral experiences while I enjoyed VCR time. I didn’t want to have to think about this stuff. Existential dilemma? Morality? The battle between what we CAN do and SHOULD do? Pfft. I want half naked chicks being chased by a chainsaw/electric drill/machete/razor glove-wielding psychopath. And a frozen pepperoni pizza. And a two-liter of Mountain Dew. That’s entertainment, dude. Not morality plays and technical jargon about man’s ego getting the better of him and making contact with lifeforms from deep space. Some intellectual sci fi/horror did make its way into my brain as a kid, but those movies were few and far between.

Then my junior year of high school a few friends and I went to see Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. It was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who up to this point had made a name for himself by writing the screenplay for the Patrick Swayzee goo-fest Ghost. While that film wasn’t a horror or sci fi necessarily, it completely blew my mind(Jacob’s Ladder, not Ghost.) The idea of redemption, the pain of letting go, and the struggle of figuring out reality from fantasy. It was a stunning work and still is to this day. It was also a movie that opened my mind to other possibilities in film. The “psychological drama”, as they say.

Now that I’m in my 40s I’ve completely made a turn in my cinematic proclivities. I seek out the intellectual story. A film where stunning visuals collide beautifully with thought-provoking storytelling and mind-altering ideas. 2015s Ex_Machina was one of my favorite films in 2015, and one of my favorite films in general in recent years. Alex Garland, who’s collaborations with Danny Boyle have been some of my favorite movies in the last decade, made a science fiction classic with Ex_Machina. Beautifully shot, written, and acted it pulls you into the world of a madman with delusions of grandeur.

The story, in case you haven’t seen it, is about a brilliant and enigmatic CEO of a software company who invites one of his employees to stay with him for a week at his isolated mansion/bunker in the woods to help him on a project. The project is a female humanoid robot named Ava that the CEO, named Nathan Bateman(played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac), is working on. He wants the employee named Caleb Smith(played by Domhnall Gleeson) to talk with Ava and figure out if she has developed her own conscience and free thoughts. Of course, there’s much more going on and Nathan Bateman is far more than just eccentric.

As far as maniacal evil scientists go, Bateman is one of the more interesting. He drinks too much, punishes himself for it by excessively working out and drinking protein shakes to cleanse his system. He’s incredibly smart and equally full of himself. His gestures of friendship towards the mildly skeptical Caleb feel anything but earnest. He’s one of the more endearing genius creeps I’ve seen in film for quite a long time.

Caleb Smith is the patsy in this. He won a drawing at work that allowed him access to his bosses stunning and luxurious bunker in the middle of nowhere(you can only get to this place by helicopter.) He’s thrilled to be a part of whatever is going on, but soon enough paranoia and skepticism seep into his brain when he realizes that Nathan Bateman is equal parts Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.

Ava, the humanoid robot of which the story and experiment evolves is so convincing it’s not hard to understand how the lonely Caleb would fall for her. Played wonderfully by Alicia Vikander as both a robotic babe lost in the woods and a sly machine pulling one over on the naive and lovestruck Caleb.

Kyoko is a Japanese assistant/lover of Nathan Bateman that we later realize there’s more to her than meets the eyes.

What’s amazing about this film is how we start out with a sense of awe with Caleb as he first arrives at Nathan’s fortress of solitude in the woods. The excitement for Caleb at being involved in such a forward-thinking and pivotal experiment, and the feeling that this brilliant and successful guy wants lowly office worker Caleb to assist in such an important scientific endeavor. But that excitement quickly turns to tension as we figure out CEO Nathan Bateman is suffering from a serious God complex. His drive to create life through his brains and circuits overpowers what humanity the guy may have started out with in life. The effects are stunning and realistic as Ava sits and talks with Caleb. You see the mesh body she sits in with the face of a beautiful woman. A scene in the film where she slips on skin and picks out a pretty dress to wear in order to impress is just incredible. What Alicia Vikander can do with just facial expressions is unbelievable.

The score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is a less-is-more affair and that works perfectly for this film. It’s quiet interludes are occasionally interrupted by blasts of noise and heavy synth. For the most part it’s subtle enough that you don’t notice what’s really happening until it creeps up on you. Having recently picked this score up and I can say it works beautifully as a standalone. Much like Cliff Martinez’ Solaris S/T and Ben Lovett’s Synchronicity score, Salisbury and Barrow keep things at low boil for the most part, which allows the story to pull you in. On its own it’s an incredible mix of ambient tones and slow-churning tension.

When I look back on all the film’s I watched in my teen years that I thought were great horror films there were a few that were also great science fiction. Movies like Hardware, The Hidden, Altered States, Scanners, Phantasm, and Alien were great science fiction disguised as horror. More recently films like Beyond The Black Rainbow, Synchronicity, and both of Shane Carruth’s films Primer and Upstream Color are fine examples of great modern science fiction.

And of course, Ex_Machina.


No, this isn’t a pro-abstinence post. It really has nothing to do with abstinence. Please, continue the fraternizing and heavy petting. No, actually I’m just sitting here on a blustery December Sunday afternoon with the snow accumulating outside. We’ve been under a winter storm warning all day and will be until late tonight. We could see as much as 8-10 inches of the white stuff(I believe we’ve gotten at least 7 inches up to this point.) It was a weekend of laziness on my part. Other than my dad coming over for coffee yesterday morning, I spent the rest of the day in pajama pants and my Wooden Shjips pullover hoodie and did nothing. I did some writing, then sunk into my leather recliner and let Netflix guide my moves from then on.

The wife and my 13-year old headed out of town for some Christmas shopping, and my son was over and my mom and dad’s house so I took advantage of the quiet and watched the film White Girl. The story of a promiscuous, drug-addled pixie of a blonde college girl living in Brooklyn. Her and her roommate get high, hang out with the drug dealers across the street, have sex, get high, go to clubs, get high, have sex, sell drugs, get high, party, have sex, and get high. There are a couple redeeming characters in the film(including the Chris Noth-played lawyer and the drug dealer with a heart of bronze played by Brian ‘Sene’ Marc), but everyone else are just horrible people. Well made, but Kids it is not. After that I watched the excellent documentary DePalma. It’s Brian DePalma talking about his career and films for nearly 2 hours and it was amazing. I forgot how prolific of a filmmaker he was. I’ve always been a huge fan of his, but this film made me think about all of his movies I haven’t seen in years. Raising Cain, Carlito’s Way, Body Double, Dressed To Kill, and Femme Fatale just to name a few. He seems to have a pretty good head on his shoulders after so many ups and downs in his career, and he tells some great stories about Bernard Herrmann, Sean Penn, and Orson Welles. My son and I watched A Christmas Horror Story. It’s an anthology horror film about the events on one Christmas eve the involve the Krampus, zombie elves, a Changeling, and a ghostly possession. It was a pretty funny and gory flick that the boy and I quite enjoyed. Stupid fun.

I suppose Saturday was in response to last weekend where there was no downtime. Honestly, it felt great to just do nothing and get caught up on some movies I’ve wanted to see for some time. I also finished up the first two volumes of Jessica Jones : Alias. It’s the 2001 series that created the Jessica Jones character for Marvel and is also what the Netflix series is based on. It’s a great series. It’s more like a noir tale with hints of superheroes strewn throughout. I highly recommend it to all you comic book folks that haven’t read it yet.

mansellIt’s now Sunday on this lazy weekend and I’m listening to Clint Mansell’s score to the horror short In The Wall. This was one of those LPs I got back in January of this year that I’ve only recently just begun to enjoy. I haven’t seen the movie yet, which is sad as it’s free to watch on VEVO. I’ll fix that very soon. If the score is any indication it’s a tension-filled 26 minutes. Mansell is another favorite composer of mine. He’s done some amazing work, with his scores for Requiem For A Dream and Moon being two of my favorites. I’m just finding myself being drawn to scores and instrumental fare lately. Gives more space to explore ones own mind without all those pesky lyrics and vocals. Mansell goes for a more classical approach to his composing and arranging, but likes to throw in elements of noise and dissonance here and there. On In The Wall there’s a couple of spots where loud explosions of distortion break up the quiet.

Well that’s all for now. I’ve got a great one cooking up that will be up very soon. Until then, take a weekend off here soon if you can. I highly recommend it.