Five science-fiction movies to stream now
By Elisabeth Vincentelli
This month’s picks include an amnesiac romance and acts of sentient killer robot rampage.
‘Monsters of Man’
Mark Toia’s film is set during the pivotal moment when the creature escapes its maker — in this case, when military robots acquire the ability to think for themselves, go rogue and decide to kill everything in sight.
Three computer nerds run what they think is a navigation test involving four mechanical soldiers being airdropped into a jungle in the Golden Triangle. They don’t have a problem with black ops involving secret weapons until things go haywire, and “Monsters of Man” is quite good at describing the techies’ hubris and utter lack of morals, as well as their terminal naïveté: What did they think they were building, exactly? Not that the trio’s handlers are any better.
The film’s ruthlessness in killing off almost every character, including women and children, may feel exploitative, but there is honesty in showing the full range of casualties caused by American weaponry. If you thought drone attacks were bad, wait until you see what autonomous robots that were built to kill are capable of.
The film overstays its welcome by a solid half-hour (it is not about a time loop but feels like one because the last third is so repetitive) but its nihilism and violence are unsettling because the action feels as if it’s set just minutes into the future.
(Rent or buy from most major platforms.)
‘A Living Dog’
So, what happens after the killer mechs become sentient? Daniel Raboldt’s debut feature, that’s what.
In it, the robots have fully taken over and exterminated as much of humankind as they could — details are fuzzy but it looks as if there are few people left. A banged-up survivor, Tomasz (Stefan Ebel), moves around in a foil-lined van and sets up camp in an empty house in the woods, which he protects with a jury-rigged force field. He meets Lilja (Siri Nase), a member of the local resistance with a plan to vanquish the killing machines, and together they take off for a long walk to a mysterious destination.
Much of this, along with flashbacks showing how the world ended up in this mess, is told wordlessly to avoid alerting the new overlords — the German “A Living Dog” is a bit like “A Quiet Place” with robots instead of aliens. Raboldt shot in a Finnish forest by the Arctic Circle, an inspired location that gives the film a natural grandeur and beauty while suggesting a forlorn emptiness. Another asset is that unlike too many CGI creations, the robots project a real sense of massive weight. Add a steady, deliberate pace that is mostly absorbing, and you have a solid debut that doesn’t always match its ambition, but at least puts up a valiant fight.
(Rent or buy from Amazon and Vudu.)
Do not confuse this movie with the schlocky (in a bad way) “Monster Hunters.”
This “Monster Hunter” is the one in which a feline cook, the Meowscular Chef, prepares a meal Benihana-style for a crew of desert pirates led by Ron Perlman, who then asks a flabbergasted Milla Jovovich: “What’s the matter? You don’t have cats in your world?”
If this makes you laugh — I did — by all means cue up the preposterously entertaining latest by Jovovich and her husband, Paul W.S. Anderson, one of the best action directors around.
Based on a video game, as is so often the case with Anderson, the film is essentially an extended dash-and-fight sequence. Jovovich’s Captain Artemis finds herself marooned in a strange landscape packed with bloodthirsty creatures, which she must defeat if she ever wants to go home. Every time a beastie goes down, a bigger one pops up. Good thing a badass warrior played by Tony Jaa (from the “Ong-Bak” series) is there to lend a hand. The film is big, loud, boisterous and proudly nutty. Naturally for such an unabashed exercise in pulp fiction, the ending invites a sequel. Bring it on.
(Stream from Starz or buy from most major platforms.)
Has there ever been a movie where hopscotching between dimensions went smoothly? The various strands and timelines tend not to interact in harmonious ways, creating headaches for everybody involved (including screenwriters trying to overcome niggling paradoxes). Those problems are at the core of Gaurav Seth’s indie film, in which a student experiment exploring the coexistence of multiple planes spins out of control: This is what happens when STEM education spills from physics into metaphysics.
A car accident at the very beginning is just one in a cascade of consequences and choices, many of them deeply personal for the students. In one world, for example, a deaf woman (Sandra Mae Frank) can hear, but is that better? Another character gets so carried away that he forgets all about ethics and basic decency, raising quandaries on how to handle him. The film is at its most interesting when it juggles a series of interlocking tendrils — you may feel compelled to rewatch the beginning to search for missed clues about the final plot twist. Seth probably had a fraction of Paul W.S. Anderson’s catering budget for “Monster Hunter,” so the “Multiverse” description of alternate realities relies on dialogue and a goldfish rather than explosions and rampaging Black Diablos. But the issues it raises are almost as infinite as the universes it posits.
(Buy or stream on most major platforms.)
Some of the best what-if scenarios provoke tangible emotional responses. Such is the case of Chad Hartigan’s film, which is lovely and heartbreaking without ever feeling manipulative or sappy. The hypothetical here is as simple as it is soul-crushing: What would happen if a virus destroyed the afflicted person’s memory? Emma (Olivia Cooke, just as good in a subtly poignant role as she was as a powerful rock frontwoman in “Sound of Metal”) narrates her experience watching her husband, Jude (Jack O’Connell), progressively forget who he is and what they mean to each other. Emma sees some of the practical consequences of the pandemic at the animal shelter where she works — people forget to look after their dogs, who are then brought in and euthanized since nobody claims or adopts them. She also watches the couple formed by their friends Ben (Raúl Castillo) and Sam (Soko) sink when Ben’s mind goes. And still, Emma is not prepared when the illness hits home. You, the viewer, can be: make sure to have a box of tissues ready when watching this most romantic, and sad, of love stories.
(Stream it on Hulu.)