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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Five science fiction movies to stream now

Joo Won in “Carter.”

By Elisabeth Vincentelli

Apocalyptic photographers, amnesiac killers and dueling Karen Gillans make up this month’s sci-fi selections.


Just a few minutes into this new South Korean import, it’s obvious we are in for a completely bonkers ride. Shortly after waking up with amnesia and a cross-shaped incision on the back of his neck, Carter (Joo Won, the star of the original Korean version of “The Good Doctor”) has recovered enough to brutally dispatch dozens of half-naked foes in a blood-soaked melee inside a bath house. He hears a woman’s voice in his head that informs him that a spreading virus is turning people into bald zombielike maniacs, and he must deliver the antidote to North Korea. Should Carter, a rogue former CIA operative, trust a disembodied voice from North Korea to begin with? You have one guess.

This sci-fi-inflected actioner’s plot matters less than its operatic violence and dizzying camera work. Director Jung Byung-gil (“The Villainess”) has devised a series of virtuosically unhinged set pieces, and Carter is a turbocharged hybrid of Jack Reacher, Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne. A high-speed chase involves our indestructible hero jumping on and off a bike and three moving vans, and another repurposes the codes of high-flying — literally — Asian cinema wire action with combatants in free fall from a plane. The ending leaves the door wide open to a sequel. There’d better be one.

(Stream it on Netflix.)


At the stylistic and moral opposite of “Carter” is Jake Wachtel’s gently philosophical debut feature, which feels like a cross between François Truffaut’s “Small Change” and “The Goonies,” peppered with musings about the evolution of the human mind. Set in near-future Phnom Penh, Cambodia, “Karmalink” belongs to the branch of science fiction preoccupied with spirituality and metaphysics: Where do we come from and what makes us who we are? How is our consciousness formed and transmitted? The key here is that the film is rooted in Buddhism.

The teenage Leng Heng (Leng Heng Prak, who, sadly, died after filming ended) is convinced that his dreams, informed by his past lives, will direct him to a treasure that in turn will help his family stand up to local developers. He teams up with Srey Leak (Srey Leak Chhith), a local smart-aleck girl, and soon the pair find themselves involved in the activities of a scientist (Sahajak Boonthanakit) exploring artificial consciousness. Co-written with Wachtel by Christopher Larsen (the Laotian sci-fi film “The Long Walk”), “Karmalink” juxtaposes Buddhist beliefs and neurological research in intriguing ways, against a background of overdevelopment and exploitation — and yet the movie often retains a playful sensibility, thanks to its young actors.

(Rent or buy on most major platforms.)

‘Exposure 36’

Famines, wars, ecological destruction: Earth is dying from a thousand wounds in Mackenzie G. Mauro’s debut feature. It’s unclear which is the fatal one — all we know is that the film is set over the last three days before the final switch is flipped. Not that Cam (the quietly charismatic Charles Ouda) appears to be affected by this final countdown. He continues to sell prescription drugs to his regular clients and obsessively snap black-and-white photos, with an old-fashioned camera, of a deserted Manhattan. This could be a case of ultimate resignation. Or perhaps standoffish voyeurism is Cam’s regular attitude.

For a while, it feels as if Cam is going to go down with the ship in a state of complacent passivity: Why bother doing anything since there is no future? The plot feels like a flimsy excuse for an expressionist look at a man and a city mired in doomed expectancy. Mauro shot his film at a time during the COVID-19 pandemic when New York City was in limbo. The setup is reminiscent of Ben H. Winters’ novel “The Last Policeman,” in which the title cop continues to do his job knowing that the planet is doomed by an incoming asteroid, but “Exposure 36” is more reminiscent of “Downtown 81,” in which Jean-Michel Basquiat played an artist wandering the derelict streets of a pre-gentrified lower Manhattan.

(Rent or buy on most major platforms.)


They look odd, these women: It’s not so much their Victorian garb as the fact that their face is covered in a combo of bonnet and breathing mask. And then they shoot a man who has made the mistake of getting a little too close to their home, a sealed glass house that protects them from a memory-destroying virus known as the Shred. The tight group of survivors in Kelsey Egan’s film, from South Africa, consists of a mother (Adrienne Pearce) and her three daughters (Anja Taljaard, Jessica Alexander and Kitty Harris), looking after an infected sibling (Brent Vermeulen). The women’s heavily ritualized existence unfurls outside of time and space — the film often feels like a perverse fairy tale about a cult — until a newcomer (Hilton Pelser) makes it into their sanctuary. Anybody familiar with both versions of “The Beguiled” or Pasolini’s “Teorema” knows that the whole point of cinematic tight-knit units is to see how they react to interlopers. Egan is not afraid of grisly details (as with what happens to the women’s victims) but the dominant mood once the stranger enters the picture is one of forbidden eroticism. As slow as its pace can be, the film rewards patience.

(Rent or buy on most platforms.)


If awards were more welcoming to genre films, Karen Gillan (“Doctor Who,” Nebula in the Marvel universe) would be feted for her terrific performance in this deadpan dystopian comedy from Riley Stearns. After throwing up copious amounts of blood, Gillan’s Sarah is told — in an absurdist doctor visit — that she has an indeterminate terminal affliction that will kill her at an indeterminate time. To preserve her mother (Maija Paunio) and boyfriend (Beulah Koale) from grief, she decides to undergo a “replacement” procedure: Sarah gets cloned and starts training her double (Gillan again) to take her place. What the original Sarah didn’t predict is that her loved ones would end up preferring the double.

As if this weren’t bad enough, Sarah is informed that her illness has gone into remission. Alas, legally there can’t be two of the same person — the women must battle each other until there is just one left. Leaving nothing to chance, Sarah starts intense combat training with Trent (Aaron Paul). The film’s most daring move is not so much its premise but that neither Sarah nor her double are sympathetic — Gillan plays both with brusque exasperation and no-filter frankness. It’s rare to see a performance so committed to keeping the audience at bay, and yet so weirdly entertaining.

(Rent or buy on most major platforms.)

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