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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

5 science fiction movies to stream now

Don Lee in “Badland Hunters.” (Cha Min-jung/Netflix)

By Elisabeth Vincentelli

Mad scientists, demanding aliens and paranoid androids make up this month’s science fiction streaming picks.

‘Badland Hunters’

A commando trying to retrieve someone from behind enemy lines is a common enough plotline. But Heo Myeong-haeng’s bananas postapocalyptic caper embraces B values — fast, furious, funny — so wholeheartedly that it is easy to overlook the standard-issue premise. A beefy hunter (Don Lee), his young sidekick (Lee Joon-young) and their special-ops ally (Ahn Ji-hye) set out to rescue a friend (No Jeong-ee) from the clutches of a mad scientist (Lee Hee-jun) who has created invincible humans in order to save humanity.

Set three years after​​ an earthquake laid to waste to Seoul, South Korea, “Badland Hunters” shares the same dystopian universe as Um Tae-hwa’s grim fable, “Concrete Utopia,” from last year. But the two movies stand alone, and “Badland Hunters” has traded the earlier one’s biting social critique for a broader humor and pure action — the spaghetti Western-style score by Kim Dong-wook sets the tone. Once again, a Korean film schools American producers and directors in how to make an effective, entertaining movie on a small budget. (Stream it on Netflix.)

‘Landscape With Invisible Hand’

Teenagers Adam (Asante Blackk) and Chloe (Kylie Rogers) meet at school and fall in love. That’s a pretty standard setup. Then they decide to launch a “courtship broadcast” of their romance to make money. OK, still with it.

Except that the audience paying to view is the Vuvv, an alien race that has claimed Earth as its possession. The Vuvv might be technologically advanced but they are fascinated by love — a concept completely foreign to a materialistic, fundamentally practical race that deals with reproduction the way it deals with food: mechanically.

This setup is rich enough to fuel an entire movie, but it’s only the start of Cory Finley’s surrealistically funny “Landscape With Invisible Hand.” The film, which takes place in the mid-2030s, feeds on the mutually bewildering relationship between the defeated Earthlings and the Vuvv, an unlikely master race someone compares to a “gooey coffee table” — they communicate by flapping two of their paddle-like limbs. The film goes through a series of plot turns that all left me gasping in delight, and were boosted by a fantastic cast that also includes a particularly good Tiffany Haddish as Adam’s mother, and Josh Hamilton and Michael Gandolfini as Chloe’s no-goodnik father and brother. (Stream it on Amazon.)

‘Restore Point’

This might be projection on my part, but it makes sense that a movie about free will and whether or not the state or a private entity should make life-or-death decisions would come from a formerly communist country, namely the Czech Republic. Set in 2041, this techno-noir centers on a lone-wolf detective, Em (the icy-cool Andrea Mohylova), who tracks down a couple’s killer. She receives assistance from the murdered husband, David (Matej Hadek), who has been “restored” — a new technology that reboots people after death. How this all works, practically speaking, is a little fuzzy; best not to linger.

The main suspect in the case appears to be a terrorist group called the River of Life, which believes that death is a natural end point and should not be messed with — David worked as a researcher for the Restoration Institute, which oversees the reboots. Director Robert Hloz works in a moodily bleak color palette — the sun never shines here, just like rain always falls in “Blade Runner” — and creates a believable near-future of soaring buildings, fancy screens, self-driving cars and, you know, resurrection. “Restore Point” is more interested in ideas than in world-building, most specifically in the ethical implications of technological advances. At one point, David tells Em that it’s now possible to insert new abilities (labeled “gifts”) into restored people, so you can come back to life knowing how to, say, speak Chinese or play the piano. Which sounds great, until you remember that historically, humans playing God tends to not end well. (Rent or buy it on most major platforms.)


The thriving AI-gone-wild subgenre grows yet bigger with this British movie in which a robotics engineer, Abby (Georgina Campbell, from “Barbarian”), lands a new job that comes with perks: a fancy smart home and a “technologically integrated manservant” who goes by T.I.M. (Eamon Farren). The unctuously subservient android immediately syncs with the house, then asks Abby for her passwords so he can assist her more efficiently. Because she works for the company that manufactures the T.I.M. machines and she embraces tech, no matter how invasive, Abby readily agrees. Her husband, Paul (Mark Rowley), is less keen. Naturally, he will prove to be right (this counts as a spoiler only as if you have never seen a movie dealing with artificial intelligence, or blindly trust ominous synthetic humanoids).

Directed by Spencer Brown, “T.I.M.” breaks no new ground — many viewers will be reminded of last year’s “M3gan,” among others — but it is a satisfying thriller doubling as a cautionary tale about our trusting reliance on increasingly sophisticated devices. As Abby battles deepfakes, identify theft and the nightmare scenario of a superior processing power run amok, it’s hard not to take in her naivete and laziness, and shudder at the realization that many of us would have acted the same way. (Rent or buy it on most major platforms.)


If you think anime is a perfect place to find bright teen romances, you’re right. At least often enough: Mari Okada’s new feature casts an almost existential, unmistakably unsettling dark vibe on adolescent turmoil. The movie kicks off when the small town of Mifuse becomes isolated from the rest of the world — and from the normal flow of time, which has stopped — after an explosion at the local steel factory. A woman will be forever pregnant. The teenage Masamune (voiced by Junya Enoki) realizes that he will always be 14. Stasis sets in, until Masamune’s classmate Mutsumi (Reina Ueda) takes him to the factory, where he meets a feral little girl, Itsumi (Misaki Kuno) — her identity is the center of the final plot twist.

Okada, who also wrote the film, is mainly concerned with an angst simultaneously magnified and dampened by the impossibility to move on. “It was always winter,” Masamune says, “but we never felt the cold.” The people of Mifuse start doubting reality, and thus their very existence. Add references to gods and diverging realities, and it’s a lot to take in — I cannot pretend that I made sense of it all. But “Maboroshi” is oddly gripping in its own tormented, super-emotional way, like a song by your favorite eyeliner-wearing Goth band. (Stream it on Netflix.)

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