Deadly planets and deadly viruses must be contended with in this month’s selections.
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By Elisabeth Vincentelli
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The writer-director Carlos Amaral’s debut feature seems to be set in the 1980s, including repeated shots of boxy computer consoles with flickering data scrolling on their tiny screens. But this is not the decade we know. Most people seem to have decamped to the planet Proxima Centauri b — the reasons are never explained but Earth appears to be slowly dying — and Miguel (Nuno Nolasco), who has been left behind, looks forlornly at the rockets that take off nightly. He types away on his computer and hacks into the space program’s files; in the evening he drinks at a restaurant whose only other customer is a lonely silent woman. “Infinite Sea” moves at a slow, contemplative pace, and is soaked in existential anomie. At times it feels as if Michelangelo Antonioni had branched out into science fiction.
Amaral uses a lot of aquatic imagery, as if Miguel, who has a complicated relationship with water, were suspended in a kind of netherworld. That is, until he falls for Eva (Maria Leite) and comes out of his shell. Eventually the couple take off for humanity’s new home. Or do they? In this gentle, poetic Portuguese film, it’s hard to differentiate between dream and reality, or between past, present and future. What is certain, however, is that Amaral switches to a higher gear as he enters the final stretch into the film’s stunningly beautiful conclusion.
Stream it on Netflix.
Based on the George Saunders short story “Escape from Spiderhead” (2010), this movie does not entirely work as a faithful screen translation of the writer’s deadpan, surrealistic take on consumerism and free will. “Spiderhead,” however, is a lot more satisfying if you engage with it with fresh eyes and see it as a slickly cartoonish satire of the American obsession with absurd medicalization. If you’ve ever marveled at drug commercials listing extensive side effects, you may want to check out this deceptively wacky dystopia.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski (“Top Gun: Maverick”), the film centers on the Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center, housed in a sleek concrete compound on an exotic coastline. There, Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) researches experimental compounds like the feel-bad Darkenfloxx on inmates — including Jeff (Miles Teller) — who have volunteered as lab rats in exchange for commuted sentences. The movie is as bright and shiny as those ubiquitous ads, but it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Abnesti’s motives and methods aren’t pure. Hemsworth is a perfect conduit for a character who embodies the destructive appeal of modern snake-oil peddlers. Even when Kosinski’s grasp on the narrative loosens, “Spiderhead” remains a chilling warning that too many people are willing to ignore the fine print in exchange for short cuts or convenience.
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Watching the first two thirds of the Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam’s latest film (his 10th, hence the title), you will certainly ask yourself why it’s included in a science-fiction column. We follow a small company as it rehearses a new play, a process made more tense by the fact that one of the actors, Günter (Tom Dewispelaere), is having an affair with Isabel (Anniek Pheifer), the wife of Karl, the show’s director (the Dutch stage great Hans Kesting).
So far, so psychological drama, albeit of a superior kind because van Warmerdam is a sharp filmmaker who can create suspense of seemingly innocuous scenes, especially as Karl tightens his control over the theater company. It’s all very involving but why are we watching this, exactly? Van Warmerdam patiently keeps us waiting, then “Nr. 10” drops a narrative bomb involving Günter — a colossal revelation that, amusingly, is taken in nonchalant stride by everybody involved, as if this kind of stuff was routine. The movie follows it with another outsize development that pushes the plot’s cosmic scope even further, before landing a demented final punch. That moment is likely to particularly delight fans of the Spanish director Luis Buñuel — they may get an extra chuckle from the devilish trick van Warmerdam pulls on some high-ranking clergymen.
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The latest from the director Alex Lehmann (“Paddleton”) is a sensitive family drama in which a daughter and her father tentatively reconnect after a long time apart. We watch the quiet proceedings through the eyes of the circumspect Maggie (Dianna Agron, who used to play Quinn on “Glee”), a young woman who has traveled a long way to spend a few days with her reclusive father, Loyd (Thomas Haden Church, “Sideways”), and yet keeps things close to the vest. The reasons for the visit, for example, are unclear for a while.
Maggie quickly discovers that Loyd, a trained engineer, is now living in a semi-derelict shack in the woods and is obsessed with looking for U.F.O.’s. What else could those mysterious lights hovering in the night sky be? Loyd is seen as the local weirdo, and taunting kids have spray-painted the title word on his house. But essentially he’s just a guy who wants to be left alone so he can watch for extraterrestrial visitors — who Loyd assumes have benevolent intentions. Simultaneously cagey and warm, Haden Church is so good in the role that it makes you wonder why he’s not getting more leads. We can only thank Lehmann for offering him this one.
Stream it on Hoopla. Rent or buy it on most major platforms.
A lethal virus has laid waste to Earth … Don’t stop me if you have heard this before, because if you’re a regular reader of this column, you have heard this premise many times — it is among the most common in modern sci-fi movies, along with time loops and rogue A.I. What’s fun, of course, is to watch how movies spin it.
In Crash Buist’s “The Stratum,” the mighty, all-controlling WrightCorp has safely relocated on an orbiting station, where its leader, William Wright (the musical-theater star Ramin Karimloo) lords it over the peons stuck in “work from Earth” mode. What he hasn’t counted on is his daughter, Ayla (Lauren Senechal), meeting the roguish hacker James (Buist) in an elaborate virtual-reality simulation. He slowly opens her eyes to the dire situation on Earth and things turn sour with Dad.
The film has a resistance plot but really comes to life whenever James and Ayla are onscreen, thanks to the playful chemistry shared by Buist and Senechal (the movie’s co-writers). No matter how fanciful futuristic scenarios can get, in the end it’s such old-timey qualities that make or break most movies. With clever world-building details and a loose, unpretentious vibe, “The Stratum” is a B movie done right.
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