Ray Bradbury Finalists Review 2017

written by David Steffen

The Ray Bradbury Award is given out every year with the Nebula Awards but is not a Nebula Award in itself.  Like the Nebula Awards, the final ballot and the eventual winner are decided by votes from members of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (which despite the name has an international membership).

I like to use the award every year as a sampler of well-loved science fiction and fantasy movies from the previous year.  I have been very happy with this tactic, and this year is no exception.

Not included in this review is a nominated episode of The Good Place, because I don’t seek out individual episodes of TV shows for these reviews.  Also not included is Get Out because I haven’t managed to get hold of rentals yet (I’m hoping to rent it this week before the voting deadline, but I’m not sure if I’ll write up a review in time).


1. The Shape of Water (Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor)

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, lonely woman working as a janitor in a top secret government facility in Baltimore in the 1960s.  Generally ignored by the scientists and military men doing their work there, she witnesses the arrival of a strange man-shaped fish-like creature that was captured in South America.  She witnesses atrocities committed upon it in the name of science and in the name of the Cold War to get ahead of Russia, and she risks everything to be kind to the creature, offering it food and teaching it sign language in secret.  The connection becomes friendship becomes love, and she must make very hard decisions.

This was a superb film and I can see why it won the Oscar.  I was skeptical from the early discussion of it that they would be able to sell a romance with a fish-man without it turning out corny or unbelievable, but they did a great job expressing the appeal between the two characters, and selling us on why Elisa is willing to risk everything for him.  It’s certainly not romance-only, there is a lot of drama and action in there as well, and between everything there were moments where I caught myself holding my breath, or gasping aloud.  Excellent film, well done.  Guillermo del Toro continues do make incredible movies, and I always look forward to seeing his next.


2.  Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Written by Rian Johnson)

The latest in the Star Wars series, the second since Lucas handed the rights over to Disney, Episode VIII continues where The Force Awakens left off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to seek her Jedi training.  Rey finds the The rest of the weakening New Republic led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is trying to hold itself together against the rising force of the First Order led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) as the young Darth Vader wannabe.  Finn (John Boyega), carrying the beacon that Rey will track to return, tries to leave the threatened Republic fleet, but is brought back by Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a loyal maintenance worker.  Together they concoct a crazy plan, something which is in no short supply with hotshot pilot Dameron (Oscar Isaac) Poe also trying to save the New Republic.

Opinions on this movie seem to be very polarized–either loved it or hated.  I loved it.  I thought there was more humor in this one than on average in the series, and the humor was played off well.  Much of the series was built on making some really stupid one in a million strategies and having everything work out perfectly, I felt like this movie made a nod to that tradition but made it so that the results of hare-brained strategies weren’t guaranteed, which I thought raised the tension as well as being a good basis for humor.  The diverse cast continues to be exciting and wonderful–as a woman Jedi main character, Finn continues to be likable and impressive, and the introduction of Rose Tico as a competent likeable maintenance worker contributing just as much as any of the rest of the cast.  The interaction between Rey and Luke was a great source of tension and humor in the movie, and we find out about the history between Luke and Kylo Ren.  Lots of great visual moments, great tension, fun movie.  I look forward to seeing Episode IX to round out the trilogy of trilogies.


3. Logan (Screenplay by Scott Frank, James Mangold, and Michael Green)

In 2020, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is in hiding in Mexico with an ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) who can track the whereabouts of other mutants.  Something is wrong with Logan–his healing factor should allow him to live basically forever without aging, but he is aging, and he cannot bounce back like he used to.  He drives a limo to make ends meet, and spends much of his time in a drunken haze.  Charles has been having seizures that, combined with his psychic abilities, are paralyzing not just for him but for everyone within hundreds of feet from him, but the medication makes him confused and agitated.  As if they don’t have enough problems, they soon end up having a rebellious girl (Dafne Keen) without a name dumped on their doorstep, pursued by a militant group tasked with capturing her however they can.  The girl reminds Logan of himself in more ways than one–she has the healing factor, adamantium-plated skeleton, and arm-claws, and when cornered she fights like an animal, a formidable fighter despite her small size.  Logan, Charles, and the girl flee their refuge, following the scant rumors of a safe place for mutants in Canada.

Many of the other movies in the X-Men universe would be easily described as “fun” even when the consequences of the conflicts therein are catastrophic.  This movie is much more of a dark post-apocalyptic feeling film.  Everything starts out badly and only gets worse.  Logan, who we’re used to being the picture of health, and too stubborn to die, is ailing and has clearly had suicidal thoughts.  It’s hard to see him that way, and it’s hard to see Charles in such a sad condition as well, and that’s all before the mysterious girl brings a world of trouble into their lives.  The fight scenes in the movie are fast and brutal and don’t cut away from the killing like they have in previous movies–you see the consequences of those adamantium claws.  The ending was satisfying, and fit with the rest of the movie, but given the stakes and the desperate always fighting for that last grip on life tone of the whole film, it gets very dark, very quickly, and rarely surfaces from that.  It’s not a movie to watch if you’re looking for a feel-good light film, but I thought it was a solid entry in the X-Men series, most notable for how different it is from the rest of the series.



4. Wonder Woman (Screenplay by Allan Heinberg)

Diana (Gal Godot) is raised as the only girl among women on the secret isle of (apparently immortal?) Amazons, formed from clay by her mother and given life by Zeus.  They have been tasked with protecting the world from Ares who has long been determined to corrupt and destroy humanity, but their island is so masked from the outside world that they know nothing of the world outside until an American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane near the island and she saves him from drowning.  He tells the Amazons of the raging globe-spanning war going on, and Diana sets out with him into the world to find Ares and stop him from destroying the world with his war.

They’ve been talking about making a Wonder Woman movie for quite a while, and it always seemed to crumble before getting much of anywhere, so it’s great to see this finally hit the big screen, and looking great.  Wonder Woman is an old enough comic that it does run the risk of looking corny, but the writers and actors did a great job of making it fit the modern aesthetic without losing its roots.  I loved Gal Godot in this, as one who is both formidable but often naive because she’s never been out in the world, she doesn’t know the world’s current customs, and she has literally never met a man before.  She makes allies through her tough and straightforward nature, and heads straight into a war zone to meet her destiny, and you can’t get much more big hero than that.  It was a great movie, great to see an action movie with a woman as lead, and I look forward to future Wonder Woman movies.

X-Men: First Class

written by David Steffen

The X-Men movies have been somewhat hit-or-miss. X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer in 2000 was a really excellent first movie. It changed a lot of the character relationships, relative ages, and etc, but it did it in a way that was true to the heart of the original characters, and added enough novelty to make it all very interesting. The sequel, X2, directed by Bryan Singer in 2003 was a great followup. X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006 had a new director, and was a crappy story with a bajillion characters thrown in apparently for merchandising. X-Men Origins: Wolverine came out in 2009, and was almost completely worthless, other than an outstanding opening credits montage featuring Wolverine and Sabretooth fighting side by side as brothers in a couple centuries of wars.

So, I came to this movie with a lot of skepticism. The Last Stand managed to suck even with Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and the rest of the amazing recurring cast. This one has an entirely new cast, many of them relative unknowns. The two actors that I was most apprehensive about were James McAvoy taking the role of a young Charles Xavier (previously played by Patrick Stewart) and Michael Fassbender as Eric Lehnsher (previously played by Ian McKellan). Other names that I recognized were Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique (previously played by Rebecca Romijn Stamos), and Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw of the Hellfire Club.

So, since my biggest concern was those two iconic X-Men roles, I’ll start with those. James McAvoy seems like he might be a good actor, in certain roles, but he was a complete and total failure playing the role of Charles Xavier. My only guess about the director’s choice is that he must have been the only Brit to audition, and he would only take the role with the condition that he would not shave his head. He didn’t shave his head. He didn’t have the Charles Xavier charisma. He was a much too jovial ladies’ man, unconcerned with the ethics of his psychic powers, using them to sway people’s behavior in a way that Charles Xavier never would have. Terrible, terrible choice.

So what about Michael Fassbender? Holy crap, he was amazing. So amazing. They kept the same backstory for Lehnsher as had been used in the earlier X-Men movies, that he had been a young Jewish boy separated from his mother in a German concentration camp in WWII when his powers manifested, crumpling the iron gate that separated him from her. The movie takes place in 1963, when Eric Lehnsher was in his 20’s and is trying to find Sebastian Shaw, the man who killed his mother. Magneto has always been my favorite character in comics because he has powerful reasons for doing the things that he does–he has seen the evil that lurks in the hearts of men, and how humans can go to such great lengths to tear down anyone who is different. With the rise of mutants, Magneto puts himself in a position of leadership to protect himself, but by doing so he tries to oppress humans in the same ways that he himself was oppressed. The earlier movies took place at a time much later in Magneto’s life when he has chosen his course of action and is already well along his way to it, trying to rally mutant forces around the globe. This flashback movie takes place at a pivotal point in Magneto’s development where he is trying to find his path in this world. He is in constant struggle between doing good and evil, and Michael Fassbender does a masteful job showing this struggle. When he does evil things, he scares the crap out of me, as Ian McKellan can do, and when he does good or when he fights back against those who have done him wrong I can really cheer him on. He was easily the greatest highlight of the movie for me.

Another highlight of the film for me was Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, the head of the Hellfire Club, a mutant organization which in the comics was an opposing mutant organization and school that often faced off against Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Kevin Bacon looks the role very well with the impressive sideburns and fancy dress, and he does a very convincing job as well as a German post-Nazi government official who tries to draw out young Eric Lehnsher’s powers. Really fantastic.

Some of the young mutants that formed Xavier’s first team were reasonably cool. Darwin can “evolve” different adaptations at will, gills, army, wings, whatever–not one that I remember from the comics. I wished they’d made a little more use of him. Angel was okay, though I wish they’d come up with a different name, since Angel is already a character name in the X-Men franchise. I liked the Banshee actor, probably because he reminded me so strongly of Rupert Grint (Ron Weaselly in Harry Potter). Havok was all right, although I thought it was weird that they made no explicit mention that he was related to Cyclops, despite both having the last name Summers.

I liked the actor who played Beast, though he reminded me very strongly of Jimmy Marsden (who played Cyclops). But his storyline in the movie represented a continuity error that could be spotted right in the preview. At the beginning of this movie, Beast looks mostly human, other than having opposable thumbs on his feet. Later in the movie he injects himself with something that’s supposed to take away his powers, but instead they turn him more bestial and give him blue fur (that’s not a huge spoiler, he has blue fur on the movie posters). Hank McCoy (beast’s human identity) appeared in a background news shot in X2 (in a scene when Mystique is seducing a prison guard at a bar), with no fur. In Last Stand he shows up again with blue fur. Unless the fur comes and goes like herpes outbreaks, that doesn’t really make sense.

A lot of the rest of the movie was really lackluster. A lot of really weak characters, weak plotting, wasted scenes where better scenes would’ve been better use of the space. If not for Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon, I would recommend that you just skip it. But those two really made the movie worthwhile. I hear that there will be some others in the same continuity, and I will likely go to see them just to see Michael Fassbender’s continued performance.


X-Men Origins: Wolverine

wolverineX-Men Origins: Wolverine was an okay movie. It had its moments, in particular I liked some of the casting choices, but overall it left enough continuity questions and major plot holes that it really just bothered me.

One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie happened in just the first few minutes, where it shows Wolverine and Sabretooth fighting in every American war since the mid-19th century, each of them of course in period uniforms and with grainy photography of each era.

Overall it was okay, but some of the character motivations were thin at best, there were several characters that were clearly only included so they could be part of merchandising later on. That aspect wasn’t as bad as X-Men 3 (thank God) which included dozens of characters that were only on camera for seconds, just long enough to say their name and show their powers.

The movie follows James ( who we know in later movies as Wolverine or Logan) played by Hugh Jackman and his brother Viktor (who later becomes Sabretooth) played by Liev Schreiber. Never mind that Liev Schreiber looks nothing like the Sabretooth of the first X-Men movie. You would think that they could have at least died Liev’s hair the sandy brown color, but apparently that was too much to ask. On the other hand, Liev did make a good Sabretooth, albeit one who didn’t look right. And apparently mutton chops are a genetic trait–their dad had them in the opening scene, and both of them have them as adults also.

Anyway, it follows their lives as brothers, and how Wolverine became Weapon X with the adamantium laced skeleton that makes him nearly indestructible. Together they join a strike force led by William Stryker, who you might remember from X-2. You might also remember Stryker having a southern accent which is oddly absent from this movie. Despite that, I did like the casting choice for Stryker. He had a very smooth convincing voice which is perfect for the character.

The action was good, but there was just too much of it sometimes. A movie about Wolverine has to have lots of action, but he pretty much ended up fighting every character he meets, even if they are on the same side. Granted, this is a tried-and-true comic book tradition, throwing two “good” characters together and making them think they’re enemies for an episode, and then they’re shown to be friends at the end at which point they apologize and unite against the enemy they both came to fight. But just because comic books use that device doesn’t mean that movies should.

I really liked Ryan Reynolds character, but he wasn’t in enough of the movie to make it worthwhile. He had some good wisecracks while he was on screen though. And it was good to see Dominic Monaghan, though his role wasn’t a huge one.

Keep reading if you’ve already seen it or you don’t mind some spoilers


But there were some MAJOR problems. First and foremost–the final scenes take place on Three Mile Island, and the action actually ends up causing the meltdown. That’s a bit contrived but not the worst plot device I’ve ever seen. But the thing that bothers me is that NONE of the characters suffer from radiation poisoning whatsoever. Wolverine has some excuse for this, because of his healing factor, perhaps he’s immune to radiation sickness. Stryker, however, is entirely human, he was on the site, and not only does he survive the movie, he’s alive for X-2 that happens maybe twenty years later with no apparent ill side effects. Explain that to me! Did the makers of the movie really not realize that a nuclear meltdown is not a healthy thing to be around.

Another MAJOR problem–they didn’t do their chemical research. At one point in the movie, someone uses a drug to fake a death, to supposedly slow their heartbeat down so it’s unnoticeable. That’s fine, but the drug they used was hydrochlorothiazide, which is not a heart medication, it’s a diuretic. That’s right, all it does is make you pee. (Thanks to my wife the pharmacist for pointing this out). The only way it could affect your heart, and even this is a stretch, is if you peed so much that you lost too many electrolytes and your heart went into arrhythmia, which is not what happened here. Two minutes with Google could have given them a medicine that at least slowed down heart rate–that’s just lazy!

Another big one–the use of adamantium is inconsistent. In X-2 I believe it was an alloy, not a pure metal, and once it hardened it was impossible to melt again. But in this movie Stryker finds it in it’s hardened form and yet is somehow able to use it as if it wasn’t–continuity error! Then Stryker creates a gun that shoots adamantium bullets, and assumes they will be able to puncture Wolverine’s skull–but you need something harder than adamantium if you want to puncture it!!

Another big continuity error–in this movie Stryker has the ability to steal powers from one mutant and give them to another mutant. If he knows how to do this now, he should know how to do it later in his life, but somehow he doesn’t in X-2. He’s the sort of man that would use any weapon in his arsenal whenever he can–I doubt he would have held back in X-2 if he knew how to do it.