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Apollo 13 (1995)


In 1970, the Apollo 13 mission would blast off from Houston. Its destination: the Moon. However, it would never reach its intended landing site, as a chain of events would soon unfold that would endanger not only the mission, but the lives of the three astronauts aboard the Odyssey. It will take the ingenuity of both the imperiled crew and Mission Control back on Earth to bring all of them home safely.

Apollo 13 is a film directed by Ron Howard, based on the real-life near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission, and in particular adapted from Jim Lovell’s book Lost Moon. It stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, Chris Ellis, and Ed Harris.

Jim Lovell (Hanks), a NASA astronaut who orbited the Moon on Apollo 8, knew in 1969 that he wanted to go back. While giving a VIP tour of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly building, he is informed that he and his crew will fly the Apollo 13 mission instead of their planned Apollo 14, and it looks like he will have his chance. After he informs his family of the news, he and his crewmates, Fred Haise (Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Sinise) begin training for the mission. Days before the launch, Mattingly is revealed to have been exposed to German measles, and he is bumped from the flight in favor of backup Command Module pilot Jack Swigert (Bacon). Excitement in NASA is high, even though lunar missions have become commonplace in the media, and Jim’s wife Marilyn (Quinlan) worries about the launch.

The Saturn V rocket launches with a minimum of protests, clearing the tower at 13:13, but during a routine set of maintenance procedures, Swigert flips a switch to stir the two liquid oxygen tanks in the Service Module, unexpectedly causing one of them to explode and the other to start leaking. Mission Control aborts the Moon landing, and the Apollo 13 crew are forced to use the lunar module Aquarius as a lifeboat to stay alive while Mission Control figures out a way to get them home safely.

Ron Howard has certainly risen above his roots as Richie Cunningham, making a name for himself as an accomplished director of heartwarming (and occasionally heartrending) dramas and comedies. He keeps on this path with Apollo 13, taking a historical near-disaster and presenting it as the gripping drama it was. While he was preparing to film Apollo 13, Howard decided not to use stock footage of the original launch, or any other NASA Launch. He reproduced the interiors of the Command Module and Mission Control with exacting detail, even bringing in one of the tech guys from Apollo 16 to make everything look right. The footage of the rocket’s launch was so realistic, in fact, that it fooled the NASA guys who worked on that launch, only distinguishable from historical footage in that there were no cameras at those particular angles. During filming, the actors playing the Apollo 13 crew were filmed in actual weightlessness aboard NASA’s KC-135 reduced gravity aircraft, nicknamed the “Vomit Comet”, which saved a lot of time that would otherwise be devoted to simulating the effects of null gravity.

The acting was also exemplary. Hanks had already established himself as a skilled dramatic actor two years earlier with Philadelphia, and he is bang-on as the terrified astronaut with balls of steel. Bill Paxton also shines as Haise, showing that he can play a wider range than simply obnoxious jerkwads, and Kevin Bacon as Swigert carries himself well as the situation aboard the Odyssey deteriorates. At the Mission Control end, Ed Harris earns the hell out of his paycheck as Gene Krantz, trying to get everybody on both sides thinking about the problem calmly and rationally, even with the threat of losing another crew hanging over his head. Their dialog was taken nearly verbatim from actual transcripts and recordings (the immortal “Houston, we have a problem” line was originally, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” changed because Howard thought the original line implied the problem had passed).

In all, this is yet another example of Ron Howard’s great talent as a director, Tom Hanks’ impressive talent as an actor, and the ways in which real life can be every bit as exciting as fiction. Pick this up sometime if you’re sick of overblow sci fi and want to see how badass the real NASA guys truly are.

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Predator 2 (1990)


It came to Earth to hunt. The last one staked out the Central American jungle, but this one seeks out new hunting grounds, searching for the worthiest prey. It has found what it seeks in Los Angeles. The hunt is on. And LAPD Lieutenant Mike Harrigan is definitely getting too old for this shit.

Predator 2 is a sci fi action movie directed by Stephen Hopkins, and is a sequel to the first Predator. It stars Danny Glover, Gary Busey, MarĂ­a Conchita Alonso, Ruben Blades, and Bill Paxton, with Kevin Peter Hall reprising his role as The Dude in the Predator Suit.

The year is 1997. Los Angeles is in the middle of both an oppressive heat wave and a turf war between the Colombian and Jamaican drug cartels. Lieutenant Mike Harrigan (Glover) risks his life to rescue two wounded officers and drive the Columbians back into their hideout, unaware that he is being observed by an interested third party until, bolstered with reinforcements, he defies orders and charges into the hideout to clear out the gangbangers once and for all… only to find them all slaughtered and strung up from the skylights. After catching a glimpse of something while pursuing the Columbians’ leader, Harrigan is rebuked for disobeying orders, and introduced to the source of said orders: Agent Peter Keyes (Busey), who tells him to step off, with the cryptic warning: “You do not know what you are dealing with.”

This soon proves to be completely true, when the Feds’ quarry draws Harrigan’s wrath by killing one of his team who was retrieving a speartip left lodged in an air conditioning vent. Harrigan vows to bring down his partner’s killer, but soon finds himself pursuing an alien hunter with weaponry so advanced that the Feds want to capture the thing to study its stuff. Well, if it wants to come to L.A. to find worthy prey to hunt, it is going to find exactly that in this thoroughly pissed-off cop…

I enjoyed this movie when I first saw it, and it’s still thrilling today. Predator 2 offers a bit more insight into the Predator’s motives, as well as its code of honor, by showing how it chooses its prey. It goes after the gangbangers because they’re all armed to the teeth. It slaughters a subway car full of bystanders because they’re all packing heat. It briefly considers a child pointing a plastic gun at it, but disregards him as a threat after perceiving the weapon as a toy. And it spares an armed policewoman when it sees that she is pregnant. It also demonstrates that while the Preds primarily hunt by infrared, their masks are able to help them see in other spectrums (spectra?) as well. Los Angeles is no less a jungle than the Central American setting of the first film, particularly with the gang war going on, and it has its choice of challenging targets, only to find a real thrill in hunting the cop who put seven holes in it – the first Earthling to wound it on this trip.

Danny Glover as Harrigan plays pretty much the polar opposite of Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon. While Murtaugh is a straight-arrow, by-the-books cop, Harrigan is willing to do whatever it takes to get his man, even if that “man” is a seven-foot-tall alien hunter that could easily break him in half. While a very different sort of “chosen prey” than Dutch from the previous film, Harrigan is not stupid, just bullheaded. The supporting cast is decently solid, but the Feds, while they know some of the Pred’s abilities, turn out to serve only as proof of what an efficient hunter the Pred is, with the weeks of observation and planning ending abruptly in a bloodbath in much the same way the Space Marines got fricasseed in Aliens. Bill Paxton as Detective Lambert sits squarely at the “really obnoxious” end of Paxton’s usual spectrum of roles. Unfortunately, Detectives Archuleta (Blades) and Cantrell (Alonso) are not very well fleshed out, and seem to serve only to demonstrate the Pred’s deadliness and code of honor, respectively.

At the end of the day, while the story only narrowly avoids coming off as a retread of the original, Predator 2 adds quite a few details to the mythos of the Predators, and holds up as a decent follow-up to the first. Check it out next time you’re looking for a good action movie.

Aliens (1986)


It has been decades since Ripley last tangled with the ultimate killing machine. She never wanted to go back to LV-426, but in the time that she was in cryosleep, somebody had a great idea: establish a colony there and terraform the dead planet to make it habitable for human life.

No, wait. That’s not a great idea. That’s a bad idea.

So now Ripley has to go back to the place of her nightmares, just because Weyland-Yutani decided to be an idiot…

Aliens is a science fiction action movie and the first sequel to Alien. It was written and directed by James Cameron, and stars Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, William Hope, and Bill Paxton, plus the creature effects of Stan Winston.

When Ellen Ripley, sole survivor of the massacre and subsequent destruction of the Nostromo is rescued and revived from hypersleep, she discovers that 57 years have passed since her harrowing ordeal. Called to task for the Nostromo‘s destruction by a panel of Weyland-Yutani executives, her account of a hostile alien life form accidentally picked up on LV-426 is met with skepticism, because she blew the thing out an airlock to save herself rather than capturing the specimen for study, and because, to her horror, there has been a terraforming colony living there for the past 20 years, and they haven’t griped about any hostile wildlife. Her judgment is called into question, and she loses her piloting license. Not long after, W-Y loses contact with the terraforming colony (surprise!), and she is called in as a consultant on how to handle these monsters that don’t exist, but which haunt her nightmares every night. Reluctantly she agrees to go, hoping that facing her fears with help her get a good night’s sleep, and she is sent with a squadron of Space Marines aboard the Sulaco to check out the conspicuous absence of communications. The Marines are confident that they will be able to handle whatever is wrong, because they’re Space Marines, dammit, but Ripley has seen one of these things plow through six of her seven-man crew on the Nostromo, and has her doubts, made worse by the inclusion of android artificial person Bishop, who fortunately is a newer model that is Three Laws compliant. When they arrive, they find the colony almost completely abandoned save for a traumatized young girl named Rebecca Newt, who saw her entire family slaughtered by the things. Hilarity ensues when xenomorphs attack, wiping out most of the Space Marines and taking out the dropship that would have taken the survivors out of there. Now Ripley and the others will have to draw upon all available resources and their own ingenuity to survive…

I was impressed when I saw this movie for the first time. Building on the plotline established by Alien, this is a sequel that doesn’t feel like a sequel so much as a natural extension of the first – something that is apparently really hard to do, to judge by 95% of the sequels I’ve seen. Ripley is actually realistically affected by the horrors of the first movie, suffering from nightmares and flashbacks consistent with PTSD, and who could blame her? Then W-Y throws her under the bus regarding her actions aboard the Nostromo (kind of a dick move on their part, but a logical reaction to an apparently unbelieveable story), only to make it clear later that, yeah, we knew about them the whole time, and we didn’t want you jeopardizing access to possibly the coolest living weapon of our generation. Even here their motives make sense in a dystopic sort of way.

The acting here is also very well-done. Sigourney Weaver, reprising her role as Ripley, demonstrated that Alien wasn’t just a fluke (as she has continued to prove in the decades since), and Paul Reiser is affably slimy as Carter Burke, the guy who manages to wrangle Ripley back to LV-426 with the promise that W-Y will do everything he can to ensure the Xenomorph colony is destroyed (*cough*liar*cough*). And if creature effects can be considered actors, then Stan Winston’s Alien Queen rig, the most detailed single monster he had ever built to date, is still one of the most impressive animatronic puppets I have ever seen, alongside, er… much of Winston’s other work. The establishment of a hive society with a central breeding Queen takes its cue from the social insects of Earth, but ups the ante from fighting a single individual to outmaneuvering hundreds of Xenos, all coordinated with a single, thoroughly badass matriarch.

If you enjoyed the original Alien, I highly recommend Aliens. While it’s more action than horror, it’s a satisfying continuation of Ripley’s story, and capably expands on the cold insectile ways of the Xenomorphs to make them seem more like an organic species, intelligent, deadly, and brutally efficient. Every sci fi fan should have this in their collection.

Twister (1996)


Tornadoes are funny things. Borne from the most violent of inland weather conditions, they can strike without warning or pattern, touching down just long enough to erase one or two (not necessarily consecutive) houses before vanishing like ninjas into the sky, only to drop on your head a block later on. This is why it’s been so hard to come up with an effective early-warning system, but storm-chasers continue to brave hostile weather to try to figure out what makes a tornado tick, knowing that if they don’t, tornadoes will hunt us all down and murder us in our beds. At least, that’s what disaster movies would have us believe.

Twister is a disaster film based on a script by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, and directed by Jan de Bont. It stars Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Cary Elwes, Jami Gertz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Alan Ruck.

After witnessing her father’s death during a tornado that hit her farm when she was young, Jo (Hunt) has grown up to be a storm-chaser, swearing to hunt down as many tornadoes as possible and prevent her childhood tragedy from happening to anyone else. Her son-to-be-ex-husband Bill Harding (Paxton) and his fiancee Dr. Melissa Reeves meet Jo and her quirky team of storm chasers out in the field in order to get the final divorce papers back from Jo. As Bill was once a member of that same team before retiring to become a meteorologist who hates being called a weatherman, he and Melissa are greeted warmly, but he resists the idea that he is returning to the field. Jo, of course, is still madly in love with Bill, and stalls his attempts to get the divorce papers from her, instead inviting him along for the field testing of a tornado analysis device that Bill co-designed, named Dorothy. With a record number of tornadoes predicted that season, they should have plenty of chances to try out the four prototypes.

However, they are competing against a rival group of storm-chasers led by Jonas Miller (Elwes), whom Bill disdains because Jonas relies on instruments rather than his own instincts (as he apparently has none), and is only in it for the money. Jonas, of course, has his own version of the same tornado analysis device, which he has dubbed D.O.T.; Bill accuses Jonas of stealing his idea, but Jonas makes it clear that the credit for the device will only go to the first team to successfully test it. Bill’s pride wins out, and he agrees to join the team for one more day in order to beat Jonas, incidentally dragging Melissa along for the ride, much to her initial excitement and later terror. The first tornado of the movie is sighted, and the race is on – and along the way, special effects happen.

Really, the whole plot is the curtain rod on which the tornado effects are hung. While it does give a valid reason for these two groups of (probably insane) tornado chasers to be out in horrifying weather, Melissa is only there so the seasoned tornado experts have someone to whom they can explain all the stuff that they already know by heart as part of their job, and Jonas & Co. are only there to give us someone to hate, because it’s stupid to hate tornadoes. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with using instruments to track storms – that’s why they’re there, and Jo’s team uses instruments as well as their eyes and years of experience to try to predict when and where the tornadoes will show up.

That said, the tornadoes are really damn impressive-looking. While the previous standard for movie tornadoes was set by The Wizard of Oz, the twisters here are CGI, using complex particle-rendering software developed by ILM for the film in order to create and control soft-shaded particles within each storm, resulting in the most realistic movie tornadoes to date. In order to get the rotation of each funnel just so, the animators studied actual tornado footage, adjusting the settings on their simulated storms accordingly. Unfortunately, the debris looked fake at times, and while it was still impressively animated it broke the immersion a bit. One funny moment that I enjoyed was the airborne cow caught in the waterspouts, an image that has since gone on to inspire the Flying Cow Cafe in the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma. Incidentally, the “Dorothy” analysis device featured in the movie was inspired by a similar tool used by the National Weather Service, dubbed T.O.T.O., further proving that real-world storm chasers have a sense of humor.

If you want a flashy foul-weather movie with impressive special effects and don’t care about the plot, I recommend Twister. The plot is thin, but it’s still a neat little disaster flick.

The Terminator (1984)


“Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

In 1984, the idea of the implacable, unstoppable killer was not new. Halloween did it in 1978, and Friday the 13th did it in 1980. Then James Cameron had himself a nightmare about an implacable, unstoppable, cyborg killer from the future, and a franchise was born.

The Terminator is the first movie in that franchise, which Cameron directed, as well as co-wrote with William Fisher, Jr. It stars Arnold “I’ll be back” Schwarzenegger, Linda “not an action girl yet” Hamilton, Lance “Aliens” Henriksen, and Michael “Come with me if you want to live” Biehn. It is worth noting that O. J. Simpson was considered for the role of the terminator, but Cameron didn’t think he would be believable as a cold-hearted murderer.

In 2029, intelligent machines seek to exterminate what remains of the human race. Standing in their way is John Connor, a freedom fighter who has united humanity against them. With the Resistance on the verge of victory, the machines send back a cybernetic T-800 (Schwarzenegger) to hunt down and kill Connor’s mother Sarah (Hamilton) before he is even conceived, thereby accomplishing a retroactive abortion. The humans, however, send back an agent of their own, a soldier named Reese (Biehn) to defend Sarah from the terminator. Sarah, meanwhile, is a mere waitress at a diner, and has no idea yet what’s going on. However, there are three Sarah Connors listed in the local phone book, and the two time travelers race to find the correct one first, in order to either kill or protect her.

This is one of my favorite sci fi movies. James Cameron’s twist on the Implacable Killer theme works on so many chilling levels, even with the tiny budget he had. The “post apocalyptic future” scenes were plausible, considering that they were accomplished with scale models, forced perspectives, and matte blocking, and Stan Winston’s stop-motion endoskeleton, though slightly dated, is thoroughly calculating and looks like it really wants to eat your face. The facial surgery sequence doesn’t look quite as real at is might have, but I heard they scaled back the realism to keep it from being too disturbing. Seriously, the Terminator just sliced out his eye with an Exacto knife – how is that not supposed to be disturbing?! Stan Winston was and still is an FX genius.

And of course, rather than riding completely on special effects, this movie (like so many 80s sci fi films) relies on its acting to carry the terror of the concept. Biehn, as usual, plays an intense military type desperate to convey the gravity of the situation to his terrified charge in a limited period of time, and Hamilton is plausible as the unsuspecting civilian caught between faction in a war that hasn’t even happened yet. And… Arnold. Arnold, you terrifying, machinelike bastard. Where would this franchise be without you? (Probably trying to do the same thing with another bodybuilder, with less impressive results, but I digress…) He has maybe 18 lines in the whole film, but he makes it work, even with his heavy accent, almost like they were still ironing the kinks out of the vocal synthesizer. Although, if you’re acting like an emtoionless machine, is it still really acting?

In all, if you want to see a thrilling, suspenseful sci fi action flick, if you want to see where the whole Terminator franchise started, or even if you just want to see Arnold Schwarzenegger clad only in shadows for about a minute and a half, rent this movie. You will not fail to be impressed.