Movies Review: Ray Bradbury Award Nominees

written by David Steffen

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation is not technically a Nebula award, but it is announced with, nominated with, and voted with the Nebula awards by the same group of people. These last few years I haven’t made it to a lot of movies in theaters, and I feel sad when I hear about a great SF movie that I never got around to seeing. So this year I’ve used the Ray Bradbury award as a brief guide to what SF movies I really should catch up on from the previous year.

Note that there are two entries in the list that I have not watched. They are:

  • Doctor Who: ‘‘The Day of the Doctor” (Nick Hurran, director; Steven Moffat, writer) (BBC Wales)
    (I have never seen Doctor Who, I don’t know how to find Doctor Who, and I doubt I’d be able to fully appreciate it by watching just this episode in any case)
  • Her (Spike Jonze, director; Spike Jonze, writer) (Warner Bros.)
    (I fully intend to see this but have had trouble finding it. It appears to be in just indie movie theaters around where I live, and I haven’t had time to drive to those theaters and watch, and I don’t think it’s out on DVD yet. Once I find it, I will watch it, and I expect that I will review it separately at that time)

OK, then, on to the list!


1. Europa Report (SebastiÃ’ n Cordero, director; Philip Gelatt, writer) (Start Motion Pictures)
In 2011, new scientific data suggested that there was a liquid ocean beneath the ice crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. This movie,formatted as a documentary, tells the story of the five-person manned expedition to visit Europa, and to look for signs that life has existed there now or in the past. En route, a crew member dies, but the other five continue on.

I had not heard of this movie at all before the award nominations came out. It must not have gotten much media attention, and even my SF geek friends hadn’t heard of it. I’m very glad that I sought it out. It is so incredibly good. The writing is solid. The special effects serve their purpose without BEING the purpose. And I can’t say enough good things about the acting. There are some peripheral characters in the documentary, but most of the film is on these 6 characters spending more than two years in tight quarters with each other. There are some major and tense scenes that had me on the edge of my seat with anticipation, wanting to find out how everything turned out. But just as important were the small moments, small inconsequential conversations, a frown or a stare or a cast of the eye that made me feel like I understood on some small level the relationships these characters had with each other over the two year voyage. By showing us just a few of these unimportant moments, the moviemakers did a really good job giving an impression of the millions of moments that we didn’t see.

I can’t recommend this movie enough.


2. Gravity (Alfonso CuarÃ’ n, director; Alfonso CuarÃ’ n & JonÃ’ s CuarÃ’ n, writers) (Warner Bros.)

Bio-medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (a woman, despite the name) is on an orbital mission with NASA to insert a processing board in a satellite. After a collision with debris from a destroyed Russian satellite, she’s left tethered to astronaut Matt Kowalski with the rest of the crew dead and no contact with Mission Control. Kowalski had been testing a thruster pack at the time of the accident, so they use the pack to head toward the International Space Station with the aim to use their escape pod to return to Earth.

This movie got a lot of Oscar nominations, and won seven awards this year. I can see why, it’s exciting, well written, well acted. And I admit it’s good to see a space movie take such mainstream honors, maybe it’s a sign that the general public is showing some interest in space travel again. This could easily have made #1 on my list, the main reason it didn’t top Europa Report was that the exploration of the farther reaches of the solar system was even more exciting.


3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, director; Simon Beaufoy & Michael deBruyn, writers) (Lionsgate)
This is the second movie in the trilogy, based on the trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins.

The first story (spoiler alert), The Hunger Games, was about Katniss Everdeen taking her sister’s place in The Hunger Games, a brutal Coliseum kind of fight in which a young man and young woman picked from each of the twelve districts under the rule of the dictatorial capitol are placed in a ring to fight until only one survivor remains. Katniss and Peeta broke the rules in a very public way, when they were the only two contenders remaining, by threatening to commit mutual suicide rather than kill each other.

This movie continues where the last one left off. This show of resistance against the Capitol’s rules has caused rebellions to break out in the districts. The media played this out as being due to their hopeless love for one another, but many people aren’t buying it. Katniss and Peeta must tour the districts and show their supposedly undying love for each other, and read the scripts they’re given. Anything they do might cause more rebellion. And then the drawing for this year’s Hunger Games occurs, but only after an announcement that this year the rules are different to mark the 75th anniversary of the games: only previous champions will be drawn. Katniss is the only female champion of District Twelve, so she knows immediately that she will be going back in the games.

This was my favorite book in the trilogy of books, and I thought the movie did a great job of backing it up. Still great casting all around, great writing, great acting, great special effects, good everything. No complaints whatsoever. I would happily have put this at the top of the list, but it was just stiff competition in this group.


4. Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, director; Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro, writers) (Warner Bros.)
In the near future, giant monsters start appearing from the depths of the Pacific Ocean and destroying coastal cities. The first few are killed by local military forces but when more and more of the monsters (Kaiju as they’re called) appear it becomes increasingly clear that this strategy won’t work for long. The nations of the world band together to face this threat, and invent the Jaeger project. Jaegers are mechsuits as tall as skyscrapers which are controlled by two pilots whose minds are intertwined to distribute the neural strain of the piloting. These are very effective for a time, but the Kaiju are getting bigger, getting smarter, and now the Jaegers have been discontinued in favor of a coastal wall. There are only a few of the Jaegers left, and the project is in its dying gasps, but when the wall turns out to be ineffective the Jaegers are the only option.

Most of the information in the last paragraph is conveyed in the first few minutes of the movie. It seemed like this movie was kind of a sequel to a movie that had never been written–that opening sequence was clumsy, but I guess it served its purpose. The movie as a whole was exactly what is said on the tin. Giant human-controlled mechsuits fighting giant monsters. I heard a lot of hype about this movie when it came out but I admit that seeing it now I don’t understand what all the fuss was about. The special effects were good, but only SyFy makes bad special effects anymore, so that’s not remarkable. The acting was good. The writing was pretty good, though some of the action sequences made little sense (why not pull out the badass weaponry at the start of a fight instead of at the end). But none of it really stands out from all the other effects-heavy SF movies of the last few years.

I did have some plausibility issues, mostly regarding the need for two pilots to distribute the neural load. What neural load? The suits are shaped like humans and move like humans, with the exception of the add-on weaponry. You should be able to pilot them by basic motion capture like the motion capture used to make this movie. It shouldn’t even require a neural interface.

“Wait, wait,” I said as I watched the movie and the computer voice narrating the technical actions spoke, “Is the voice of the computer the voice of GLaDOS? From Portal?” And sure enough, it turns out that moviemaker Guillermo del Toro is a fan of Portal and he sought out Ellen McLain who voiced GLaDOS for a cameo appearance. Of course in this case she really is just a computer voice not a mad scientist superpowerful mainframe AI voice.