Three recent SFF movies I've seen:
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
I enjoyed the first of the 'Mummy' films as a kind of entertaining low-rent version of an Indiana Jones movie, so saw the sequel (which wasn't as good) and recently watched the third – unfortunately. Rachel Weiss no longer features (a shame, she shone in the first two) and I found the plot very derivative, the action rather tedious and repetitive, the dialogue corny and most of the acting clunky. The CGI was good but this is expected nowadays. The main reason to watch it is Michelle Yeoh, who is always worth seeing and is the class act of the film. I see that most critics rated it as being on a par with the other films so perhaps I was just in a critical mood, or I've just got tired of the formula.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
This is the latest in the series of adaptations of J K Rowling's books. I can't comment on how it compares with the book because I haven't read it, or indeed any of them except for the first. I have, however, seen all of the films. That's just as well, because I suspect that anyone who sees this film without knowing the backstory would have no idea what was going on. It's just an episode in a continuous tale, with nothing from the earlier films explained and an abrupt ending leaving nothing resolved.
There are only two major plot developments in the film (I won't spoil the surprise by revealing them). The rest of the story focuses on the relationships between the students, who have now reached an age when the opposite sex begins to obsess them. The problem is that this really doesn't work that well. Harry is supposed to be in love with Ginny but we would never guess if we weren't told – there is not a spark of chemistry between them – and the idea that the brilliant (and now very attractive) Hermione could be passionate about the plodding Ron Weasley lacks any credibility; not even Emma Watson's superior acting skills could make that believable.
The film maker's task of doing justice to the books is evidently becoming steadily more difficult as the book length increases with each novel. Really, they can't win; miss out any significant characters or events and there will be howls of protest from the fans, but try to include everything and the result is lots of brief and unexplained snippets. As a result, some characters who are obviously of significance in the books briefly pop in and out of the films with little or no explanation, Remus Lupin being one of them. Harry is repeatedly referred to as "the chosen one" but displays no special talents compared with the other young wizards. Even the title of the book is unexplained; we find out at the end who the "half-blood prince" is, but no indication of why he has that title or what the significance might be. I see that the film of the final book will be split into two parts, so evidently the film-makers have admitted defeat!
Despite these criticisms this is a reasonably entertaining film, but it is perhaps the least successful of the series in dramatic terms.
A new SF film set in the near future (currently on limited release in the UK), concerning what happens when a vast alien spaceship arrives on Earth, finally coming to rest in the sky a few thousand feet above Johannesburg in South Africa. Nothing happens for three months, after which humans decide to cut their way in. To their astonishment, they find a million starving, helpless aliens, who bear a close resemblance to human-sized crustaceans and are promptly dubbed "Prawns". The Prawns are evacuated from the ship and moved into a camp beneath it, in a zone which soon becomes a huge shanty-town called "District 9". Humans and Prawns are unable to speak each other's languages (the impressively alien-sounding Prawn speech could never come from a human throat) but do learn to understand each other.
The action in the film takes place twenty years later, when the Prawn population has nearly doubled. The Prawns live sordid lives at a basic subsistence level, with no indication of understanding the sophisticated technology of their spacecraft and weapon systems; these are useless to humans as they can only be operated by those with Prawn DNA. District 9 is officially looked after by an organisation called "Multinational United" (MNU), effectively a private security firm, but is unofficially controlled by Nigerian gangsters who exploit the Prawns.
Increasing resentment from the local human population has prompted a plan to relocate the Prawn community to a secure zone in a remote area of the country. MNU is given the task under the leadership of Wikus van de Merwe; a well-meaning but ineffectual administrator who happens to be the son-in-law of the director of MNU. What happens is told partly in flash-back by commentators apparently appearing in a TV documentary, but mostly in real time.
The relocation attempt is met by resistance, brutally handled by the military wing of the MNU over the protests of Wikus. As a result of a bizarre accident, Wikus absorbs alien DNA and begins to acquire Prawn characteristics. He instantly becomes an extremely valuable possession since he can now operate Prawn weapons, and he finds himself on the run from both his former employers and the gangsters. One of the Prawns, called Christopher (they have all been given human names), is gradually revealed to know far more about their technology than any Prawn has admitted, and he and Wikus end up fighting for survival together.
It is no accident that the film was set (and made) in South Africa; it is based on historical events during the apartheid era and the parallels are obvious. The plot is intelligent and gripping, the ending well-handled with a convincing blend of success and rather touching failure, plus room for a possible sequel. Definitely well worth watching. Be warned though, some scenes are gruesome enough to belong to a horror movie and are not for the squeamish, although judging by admiring comments from younger members of the audience I suspect that I am less inured to such scenes than most modern cinema-goers.
A footnote for weapon geeks like me: the film makers were evidently able to raid the stock of the giant South African armaments firm Denel. The MNU's standard rifle was the Vektor CR-21 assault rifle, a bullpup version of the Kalashnikov in a futuristic-looking synthetic stock, which has in reality not entered service. A couple of other weapons shown in use were the formidable Mechem NTW-20 high-velocity 20mm anti-materiel rifle, and one gun I have a soft spot for, the Neopup PAW-20, a low-velocity semi-automatic 20mm rifle. The PAW-20 has also yet to enter service (although it was on display at DSEi this week), but this is (at least) its second outing in fiction, following on from its inclusion in my own SF novel, Scales. There is another parallel with my novel in that my hero also changes dramatically as a result of absorbing alien DNA, although the rest of the story is entirely different. You can read my article on the PAW-20 HERE, and read reviews plus download Scales for free HERE.