Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Review: Origin

Posted: June 17, 2014 in Archive posts, Journalism, Reviews

Origin by J.T. Brannan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From SFX #229.

The Da Vinci Spaceship

The Bilderberg Group, Area 51, the Nazca Lines, Greys, world government, alternative archeology – name an element of alien-connected conspiracy silliness, and it’s in SF thriller Origin.

Evelyn Edwards is a scientist in Antarctica who discovers a human body frozen into 40,000 year-old ice. Not only should this corpse not be there, but he’s also possessed of advanced tech. After reporting the find, Evelyn’s team are wiped out by members of the US Army. She goes on the run, hooking up with her ex-husband – ace Native American tracker Matt – and discovers a conspiracy that threatens the human race.

Origin is the kind of book that spoon feeds its readers. Everything, from its characters’ motivations to geographical locations, is not so much artfully described as ladled into one’s mind. We suppose that’s fair enough; this is a simple thriller, not the ambiguous latest from Christopher Priest, but the common audience denominator being aimed at here is pretty darn low.

Matt’s Indian background and an okay-ish final twist aside, there’s not a great deal to recommend Origin. The main characters are uninspired ciphers designed to absorb exposition, and there are some jaw-dropping bits of narrative fudgery that derail what is otherwise a pleasantly brainless ride. If this were a film, it would be directed by Paul Anderson. No doubt it has the potential to sell very well, but there are a lot of better books around – even in the unambitious technothriller subgenre of which Origin is firmly a part.

Did you know?

J.T. Brannan trained as an army officer at Sandhurst before deciding to be a writer. This is his first book. He’s also a karate expert. Ulp.

View all my reviews

I really didn’t rate this much, although I’ve read more positive reviews elsewhere. From SFX #233.

2009/15 /38 mins

Director: Fred Gerber, Sturla Gunnarsson, Peter Howitt, David Straiton

Writers: James D. Parriott, Sheri Elwood, Meredith Lavender, Marcie Ulin

Cast: Ron Livingston, Malik Yoba, Andrew Airlie, Paula Garces, Florentine Lahme. Karen LeBlanc, Eyal Podell, Laura Harris, Dylan Taylor, Christina Cox, Ty Olson, Zahf Paroo


Defies enjoyment.

This TV show deserves to be liked. It’s so earnest. But it’s like an introvert at a party – a little distant, and well, boring. SF TV demands extroversion.

Charting a near-future voyage to the nine planets (it was made before Pluto was demoted), Defying Gravity takes a Grey’s Anatomy approach to astronauts, with the SF-y twist of a telepathic something in a pod secretly running the mission.

Defying Gravity was cancelled after 13 episodes. Neither factual enough to be enlightening, nor SFnal enough to be entertaining, Defying Gravity goes to lengths to establish some scientific truths, yet the astronauts are all head cases, and messages zip over 30 million miles of space in an instant, allowing endless heart-to-hearts between parted lovers.

Is it a romance show? SF? Realism? All and none of the above. The characters mesh well, even if they are unsuitable as astronauts, but the series makes the fatal error of playing the long game with them. Nothing happens. We get to one planet, Venus, right at the end. Many SF series save money with tense “bottle episodes”, but this is one long bottle series, barely enlivened by its accidents of the week.

Real astronauts are rock-solid, thoughtful people. Introverts, actually; competent, capable, modest and highly intelligent. This show is not enough of those things.

DVD Extras: Picture gallery, deleted scenes, documentary. The doc’s a preview where the actors are all excited, and tells us nothing of how the story would have progressed.

Did you know?

Peter Howitt, that’s Joey from classic 80s sitcom Bread, features as a prying Brit journalist in the show, and directed three episodes.

These reviews of the continuation of George Pal’s brilliant movie were originally published in SFX #222 and #226. Hailing from a time when modern TV SF was struggling to be born, it is one of those series that encapsulates the battle between syndicated and serialised telly. In the War of the World‘s case, serialisation lost out.

Season One
Two stars
Extras: One Star
1988 1080 minutes
Director: Various (Created by Greg Strangis)
Cast: Jared Martin, Lynda Mason Green, Philip Akin, Richard Chaves

 80s continuation of George Pal’s 50s flick

Hailing from the time when syndicated telly took the risks which led to today’s US goggle-box excellence, War of the Worlds was groundbreaking in its way, but has dated badly.

A continuation of the 1953 George Pal flick, the show posits that the alien invaders were not killed by earthly bacteria, but put into suspended animation. When a terrorist attack on a nuclear dump revives them, a small team of heroes is recruited to stymie the ET threat.

The series’ links with the film are so strong it includes Sylvia Van Buren, played again by Ann Robinson, as a recurring character. Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast is also referenced. But the show’s faithfulness to WOTW mythology is undone by the clumsy employment of UFO lore; its aliens are either secret or widely known of as the story demands, and it never strikes a plausible balance. The government take the threat very lightly. Rather than the full weight of the FBI, we have a maverick, proto-Mulder scientist backed up by an eclectic crew of ethnically balanced SF staples as Earth’s only hope. If you remember the series as dull, your memory does not deceive you, pointless disagreement and tired dialogue such as “Let me do my job!” pad episodes up to the requisite three-quarters of an hour. There are some surprising gore effects, and the characters are well played, but they’re not enough to keep one’s interest engaged.

Season Two
Two stars
Extras: One Star
1989 * 15 * 913 minutes
Director: Various
Cast: Jared Martin, Lynda Mason Green, Adrian Paul

War of the Storylines, more like

The second year of this TV sequel to George Pal’s War of The Worlds saw radical changes. Out went creator Greg Strangis, in came in exec producer Frank Mancuzo Jr. Fan faves Norton and Colonel Ironhorse are offed in the first episode and replaced by Kincaid, a US soldier with a heart and an inexplicable British accent (it’s Adrian Paul, of Highlander fame). We’re even introduced to a new bunch of aliens, who execute the earlier lot en masse.

It’s standard SF, semi-episodic stuff – stories cover time travel, aliens with divided loyalties, cyborgs, adventures for the resident moppet… Lead Blackwood (Jared Martin), even gets his own alien romance. All far from original, and the baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach of the new creative team wrecks what charm the show did have. None of the more interesting subplots are continued, the through-storyline contradicts season one, and in the hurriedly filmed finale also much of what happens in season two, while quirky, wry, gun-hating Blackwood has a massive personality change to become a miserable, bearded revolutionary type.

Most perplexing is the inexplicable decision to make the world into a shadowy dystopia, without ever telling us why, and pitching a lot of the action in that tedious stand-by of SF shows: the “exotic” street market.

Add this frustrating, careless confusion and a decline in brains and gosh-wow-yuk moments to the series’ already somewhat underwhelming pacing, direction and acting, and this is a show on the skids.

Did you know?

Not many people remember the 1953 invasion in the series, a mystery that was being addressed in season one, but dropped in season two.

A film review from Death Ray #18.  As an added bonus, there’s an interview with the director too.


Director: Toby Wilkins

Writers: Kai Barry, Ian Shorr, Toby Wilkins

Starring: Shea Whigham, Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner, Rachel Kerbs

Not shards of wood, but a thorny malevolent mould from the deep, deep forest.

Film: THREE STARS Extras: None

Independent filmmaking is where it is at in horror. All the best horror movies are made by eager young chaps with a desire to scare and a will to get it done right. It’s been that way since Dawn of the Dead. Splinter follows in this noble tradition, it’s not as good as the very best, like the Descent, say, but it’s near the top of the curve.

Seth (Paulo Constanzo) and Polly (Jill Wagner) are an unlikely couple, she’s an outdoors-loving gal who can change a tyre, he’s a biology nerd who appears practically helpless. They’re hijacked by a Dennis (Shea Whigham), a con on the run and his junkie girlfriend. After running over a mysterious creature, they find themselves trapped in a petrol station by a weird parastic organism that feeds off blood and uses living creatures as hosts. It’s nothing new (we’ve even had evil, parasitic plants recently in The Ruins) but does well in directorial, story and performance terms. Seth the nerd provides just enough exposition, the con is not quite what he seems and all of them have skills and attributes which are at least a little surprising. Director Toby Wilkins wrings plenty of suspense and scares out of his limited set, and good performances from his cast. The monster is imaginatively realised, and is never on screen long enough for you to laugh at it. Only a few, lingering seconds on a crap raccoon spoil the movie (incidentally, the only time we see a ‘splinter’ possessed creature in full daylight). It’s bad that this comes right at the start of the film, because it almost derails the venture before it’s out of the gate. Otherwise, a fine Saturday evening’s scare.

Shards of Fear

Q&A Toby Wilkins, director of Splinter

British born Toby Wilkins moved to LA to pursue his dream career in film. Originally a graphic designer, he’s now a director of no mean skill, as his solid horror flick Splinter shows us.

Death Ray: You’ve worked in many different aspects of the film industry. Has this helped prepare you for your role as a director?

Toby Wilkins: I spent my early career in post-production at a time when digital technology was rising to the challenges of filmmaking, I was learning to splice film as everyone else was forgetting how, and was conversely showing the old guard how this digital stuff could make everyone’s lives easier. Working in post afforded me the skills I needed to make my own films more cost-effective. I was experiencing the full range of production styles, from my own micro-budget shorts, to features that would spend more on a single effects shot than all my short film budgets put together. It was quite an education.

DR: What attracted you to Splinter?

TW: The script by Ian Shorr clicked with me. It reminded me of the films I loved as a kid, the siege-based movies like The Thing, Alien, Dawn of the Dead… It had an emphasis on the characters, it wasn’t another slasher/torture script, it had a real old-school horror heart to it. My friend George Cawood and I had been trying to find the right way to bring our creature concept to the screen. Splinter seemed like a perfect home for it.

DR: The petrol station. Was it real or did you build it?

TW: The location had been a petrol station at one time, but had been abandoned for years. It was basically a concrete box a month before we started shooting, our art department ripped the front off the place to install the windows I wanted, built a new roof over the pump area and a restroom. They bought and installed disused pumps, shelving, a walk-in refrigerator… it was an incredible feat. I wanted every detail to be as close to real as possible. Most of the stuff on the shelves was actual food or drinks, much of it was donated. Everyone worked really hard to pull it off, the movie wouldn’t have worked if that location didn’t feel real.

A review from Death Ray #18 of the US  [• REC] remake.

I hate shaky-cam found footage films. Not because of any aesthetic objection, but because they trigger waves of horrible nausea engendered by motion sickness. I suffer the same problem playing FPS computer games, although oddly I don’t really struggle too much with sea sickness, and am unaffected by car and air sickness. But shaky cam footage, bleurgh. I discovered this when I went to see The Blair Witch Project, and was forced to spend the whole time looking away from the screen.  So, it’s an unpleasant surprise for me when I pick up a film for review without checking for this technique. Still, I manfully soldier on. I deserve some kind of medal.


Writers: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle, Jaume Balagueró, Luis Berdejo, Paco Plaza

Director: John Erik Dowdle

Starring: Jennifer Carpenter, Steve Harris, Jay Hernandez

Callous FEMA officials doom a cross-section of US society by locking them in an apartment building to prevent an outbreak of shaky-cam sickness.

Originally made as [• REC] in Spain, Quarantine is a film that ticks many ‘yet another…’ boxes: yet another remake, yet another (sort of) zombie flick, yet another filmed with first person perspective shaky cam.

It starts out with a bit of promise, chirpy newsgirl Angela Vidal is tailing a bunch of LA firefighters on one of their average night shifts. The first act sets the scene with the young reporter eager for a call out. She gets her wish, and finds herself trapped in an apartment block that’s been contaminated by a mysterious, rabies-like disease. It’s zombies within and trigger happy government officials without. There is no escape.

The first person perspective makes for some taut moments, especially when those trapped in the building − a mixture of residents, cops, firefighters −  begin to realise what’s happening. But there’s not much story to it. The cast’s solid performances do not follow the naturalism of the camerawork, undermining the attempt at cinema verite. Ultimately it devolves into a shrieking girl running past shambling zombies in scenes reminiscent of arcade games like House of the Dead, before we achieve our finale in a basement where the truth is revealed in a very Blair Witchy way.

“I don’t like being sick…” says one of those trapped at one point, well, neither do I. If you suffer from motion sickness, give this film a miss. Take nausea out of the equation and you have a far from original but competently done shocker.


A review from Death Ray #18.



Director: Ernie Barbarash

Writer: Trevor Markwart, Carl Bessai, Doug Taylor

Starring: Jaime King, Terry Chen, Pei-Pei Cheng, Henry O, Regan Oey

Predictable horror made almost engaging by the inclusion of cultural collision, but also mostly racist.

Canada! Land of trees, Dan Ackroyd, French colonists and evil Chinese immigrants! What?! Hang on, we’re pretty sure that’s not what the movie intended to say, but it wanders dangerously close, especially when we’re treated to a gaggle of Chinese septuagenarians being wicked in a disused factory.

Sarah Sei (Jaime King) by dint of marrying second-generation Chinese Jason, finds herself and her son menaced by the ghosts of those folks her in-laws abused in their sweatshop (yes, they had a sweatshop). If that doesn’t make the Sei clan dastardly enough, they’ve been milking honest Canadian black bears of their bile, chopping their paws off and sending the bits back to their heathen motherland in other people’s coffins! Why, Fu Manchu had nothing on the denizens of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

There are many Chinese people all over the world and, like folks of all stripes, a few of them probably aren’t very nice. Some of them may even be ghosts, but I reckon what makes this film borderline offensive is that Jaime King is white, blonde and scared, whereas the majority of the Chinese are portrayed as inscrutable criminals. Even Jason (Terry Chen), Jaime’s husband, is a workaholic. At best they are, like Henry O’s pharmacist, merely mysterious, for which read scary – they have creepy rituals, live in creepy houses, and run creepy shops with jars full of what look suspiciously like tiger cocks and dolphin noses.

There might be some kind of subtext about becoming divorced from your roots here somewhere, and there is one very good scare. But, overall, They Wait is a lost opportunity. The clash of cultures theme could have made the film’s passable ghost story particularly engaging, but sadly it chooses parody and stereotype instead.