Aliens dupe humanity into building a trillion dollar machine that they don’t understand in the hopes of some sort of revelation about life, the universe and everything, then savagely snatch it all away in this 1997 adaptation of Carl Sagan’s eponymous novel.

Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a lonely scientist on a lonely project to search for extraterrestrial life in Puerto Rico.  She kills time listening for signals and has one-night stands with strangers, including a random religious guy named Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who’s writing a book about religion and science something.

Meanwhile the search for E.T. is an abysmal failure and just as her once promising career spirals down the proverbial crapper, thanks to her mega-jerk boss David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), she gets one more lifeline from bizarre engineer turned bizarre industrialist S. R. Hadden (John Hurt).   Ultimately even that turns out to be a catastrophe when her dumb boss (Skerritt) again steps in to ruin her life.

Then, just as all the chips are down, the fat lady’s singing, and she’s all-in and drawing dead with a busted flush, the unimaginable happens: suddenly she discovers the extraterrestrial signal she’s been waiting for her whole life.  I guess aliens understand dramatic structure too.

Immediately the government clamps down on her fun, especially after seeing the associated video transmission featuring the infamous German dictator of World War 2 fame.  No I’m not putting his name here for search engines.

Her jerk boss (Skerritt) weasels his way into leading the effort he once poo-poo’d as a colossal waste of time, and all heck breaks loose as humanity finally has proof that it’s not alone in the universe, and they’re watching human T.V.  One can only speculate on what they’ll conclude about human beings when “Gilligan’s Island” starts playing.

contact02So Jodie and the gang of newly purposed cryptographic experts go about the incredible task of making sense of all the crap being broadcast by the aliens, thousands and thousands of pages of stuff, and again, it’s a disaster.  They’re getting nowhere fast, that is until again S.R. Hadden (Hurt) swoops in.  His bizarre energy and quirky genius, see, have figured out what legions of top scientists couldn’t: he has the “primer,” the key to figuring out all the alien nonsense they’ve been jamming down the pipe at us.

Turns out the alien dudes faxed down some blueprints for some sort of machine but neglected to tell us what the heck it was.  This leads to all sorts of paranoia, especially from Washington establishment-debbie-downers like Michael Kitz (James Woods), who delights in dreaming up the absolutely worst case scenarios throughout the film.

Anyway we humans decide to build it despite being clueless as to what it actually does.  Then the race is on to see who will take the ride in the biggest, most expensive single-seater carnival ride in human history.  Fortunately Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are otherwise occupied by their own pet projects apparently, and the governments of the world decide to select an occupant based on some sort of merit.  You’d think that Dr. Arroway (Foster) would be a shoo-in, but she gets torpedoed by her spiteful ex-lover (McConaughey) and the job goes to her jerk ex-boss instead (Skerritt). 

Here a religious nut suicide bombs the machine and kills dozens because god loves you.However in the background, humanity has been coming to terms with no longer being the center of the universe (literally), and not handling it very well.  Religious folks are going nuts, particularly Gary Busey’s kid Jake (Joseph in the movie).  They don’t like the idea of aliens running around god’s universe, since that chapter was left out of the bible and asking the pope is a hassle.  So they decide the best way to show god’s mercy and love is to ruthlessly murder dozens of people by blowing up the machine via a suicide vest.

With the machine destroyed, you’d think that about wraps it up for humanity figuring out the purpose of the universe.  But don’t be so stupid.  Of course they built another machine, identical to the first but totally in secret, and hid it off a Japanese island.  You know one that Godzilla has yet to ferret out.

This time Arroway’s in, she straps in and takes off on a whirlwind journey throughout the cosmos, during which none of the big universal questions get answered.  She returns home without any proof of the journey and the aliens she’d met, including one who impersonated her dead father in a bid to make her “feel better,” presumably because seeing the alien’s true form would cause Jodie to scream until she passed out from unspeakable horror.

Back home people are pissed.  What happened to their trillion dollars?  This isn’t some bank bailout, folks should actually have something to SHOW for this trillion!  They’re demanding answers and heading the charge is our continuing baby-McCarthyite-doof from Act 1 Michael Kitz (James Woods). 

Through a highly televised interrogation of our protagonist, Kitz calls the entire debacle a “hoax,” from the faked alien message to the imaginary journey down memory lane with her fake alien dad.  He blames it all on the Machiavellian machinations of Hadden (Hurt), who just died and was therefore great for being a scapegoat, so now Kitz can build his own personality cult around denying aliens exist and run for president.

Well turns out that she probably wasn’t lying and hadn’t been duped, and in any case things settle back down.  Arroway goes back to listening for additional alien broadcasts, and Kitz probably ends up with the second most popular syndicated conservative talk show in the southern U.S.

Here Arroway explains her journey but nobody's buying.Although that’s where the movie ends, there’s still a lot of interesting questions laying around.  So what happened next with the machine?   Especially in light of current times, it’s completely believable that at least 50% of people would continue to believe the whole thing was a hoax and continue to deny the existence of aliens because someone on T.V. said so.  Was the thing junked? 

Even with the bible-belt denying everything, there must be a bunch of scientists who could prove the signal really was alien and not some satellite broadcast.  And looking further at all that data, I’m sure they could find something more revealing about the nature of the universe than just instructions to build the machine.  Does this all become it’s own underground “religion,” belief in the alien signal and integrity of the machine?  Do groups of rouge scientists, fearing for their lives from religious fanatics, build mini-versions of the thing and go hopping around the cosmos discovering stuff?

That would be cool. 

It’s almost been 25 years since the original movie, so I think a sequel is unlikely, but it’s pretty amazing at how well the basic dynamics of the story – religious dogma versus scientific rationalism, and how easily ignorance is exploited by political opportunists – still stand up today.  And by amazing I mean depressing.

Images: screenshots

What can I say about Tenet that hasn’t already been said?  How about stuff that already has?  First off, Tenet is a big-budget movie by Chris Nolan, famous for blowing stuff up with Batman in Chicago.  Second, as a movie, Tenet has a plot.  This plot involves time travel sort-of.  “Reverse entropy” I believe they called it in the movie.  It’s a technology of some kind that’s been given to us by “the future,” the upshot of which is that these future “inverted” bullets fire back into their guns, instead of being shot out of the gun in the traditional fashion.

Audience screenings of the flick could've gone better.But I’m getting ahead of myself, or behind or walking backwards past my future self I can’t tell anymore.  See there’s this guy called “the protagonist,” imaginatively enough, who’s trying to save the world.  What from?  Well nothing as prosaic as a pandemic or nuclear armageddon or anything.  He’s trying to save the world from all this “inversing” stuff from the future.. I think.  This all boils down to delaying Ken Branagh’s character from killing himself until they can find something that will avoid bad things from happening.  And finding this thing requires a military operation similar to the Normandy invasion, but with some “inverted” troops too, who have AMAZINGLY figured out a way to use all this completely confusing “inversing” technology as a practical military tactic.  They call it an “inverted pincer” and despite having watched it in action, and listened to them talk about it as carefully as I could in the movie, I have no idea what it means.

So getting back to avoiding the destruction of the universe.  The future guys developed this totally confusing technology of making some things run backwards after they go through some sort of machinery.  This is all controlled (I guess?) by something called “the algorithm,” which is a stylized big metal rod busted into pieces.  So does this “algorithm” rod make the “inversion” technology work?  Don’t think so since people seem to have access to machinery that does the inverting with no parts of this algorithm in sight but I may have spaced out.

Anyway “the protagonist” (John David Washington) is a secret spy type guy trying to stop the destruction of the universe using a seriously over-complicated and confusing technology somehow controlled or helped in some way by Ken Branagh’s character, who’s a Russian oligarch because he’d have to be right, and who’s girlfriend (Elizabeth Debicki) ends up playing a key role in trying to stop him, but then screws up the timing, but it ends up being okay anyway for some reason.

I have no idea what Tenet is really about.  And I swear I watched the entire two and a half hours and tried to pay attention.  I got the gist of it as the plot unfolded, but after a while I just sat back and watched the character interplay, special effects, and choreographed action sequences which were impressive.  Not understanding the movie didn’t really keep me from enjoying those bits anyway, I just really didn’t know what the hell was going on in most scenes and have a lot of questions.

It's squibs galore as our brave heroes try to defeat the bad guy, somehow.Like what the hell is that “algorithm” thing anyway and why is it a metal rod?  Why was Ken Branagh’s character’s suicide the end of the universe?  With all the bullets flying around, “inverted” and regular flavor, how on earth did only one of the main characters end up dying in the past?  Or was it their future?  I don’t even know what to call it, hell I give up.

In any case, Tenet is one of those movies that people are too self-conscious to admit that they didn’t get.  It seems to me that some folks have to celebrate its awesomely over-complicated story lines and confusing techno-babble in order to keep up the idea that they’re highly intelligent movie afficionados, whereas people like me are just stupid.  Well maybe I am but watching “Confuse a Cat” for 150 minutes didn’t make me any smarter. 

I’m almost convinced that Nolan did this on purpose.  After Inception, he wanted to see just how far he could go: how convoluted and incomprehensible he could make a plot and still have people herald its genius.  If so, well Chris, my hat's off to you.  This is your Finnegan’s Wake.

Photo Illustrations: screenshots

On the eve of “Bill and Ted Face The Music,” I’m feeling nostalgic.  So much so, I started looking up old Keanu Reeves movies on Netflix, and lo and behold “The Devil’s Advocate” popped out from 1997.  I was intrigued.

Meet Kevin Lomax (Keanu, no relation to Bernie from “Weekend at Bernies”), a small-time lawyer from swampy Florida defending scumbags and winning.  His latest case is defending a pedophile, which causes a pang of conscience after demolishing a teenage victim on the witness stand, but otherwise doesn’t stand in his way of winning the case for his scumbag client.  His tactics earn him a well-paid consulting gig at a top New York law firm looking to stack a jury in favor of the scumbag they’re trying to defend.  It’s a bucket of money, everyone agrees that Florida sucks, so Lomax and his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) are off.

Before bailing, Keanu swings by his mom’s church to say so long.  Turns out his mom is a religious nut, he can quote the bible as good as she can, and now they’re off to the Big Apple (which is full of demons, mom warns).

If the devil had to be your dad, you could do worse than Pacino.His first task is to stack a jury, which is no sweat for this guy.  He seems to intuitively know which jurors will be great for the defense, and he doesn’t need any of the extreme hassle that Gene Hackman had to go through in 2003’s “Runaway Juror” either.  He just sort of looks at them and knows, which is much more cost effective as it turns out.  In the end, the scumbag defendant (a banker maybe?) ends up free, so again our guy wins.

Afterwards, the law firm sponsoring his New York trip – Milton, Chadwick and Waters – invites him to stay longer and meet the enigmatic head of the firm, John Milton (Al Pacino).  For the few folks who were still wondering why this was called “The Devil’s Advocate,” by now it becomes pretty clear: Pacino is the devil.   Apparently he’s taking some time off from being summoned by the world’s tweens via Ouija boards to run a major Manhattan law firm.  Can’t really blame him.

Anyhoo, Kevin (Keanu) hasn’t figured this out yet, so Milton gives him a tour of his bizarre office space, gives him a palatial apartment to live in, and offers him a job running the firm’s new criminal defense department.  So go back to alligator infested Florida defending pedos, or stay in a Central Park palace getting paid bajillions of dollars?  After a few milliseconds he agrees.

First up is a voodoo guy named Moyez (Delroy Lindo, who you may remember as the great bad guy from “Get Shorty”) accused of animal cruelty or something.  He’s creepy, a good pal of Milton (Pacino), and of course Kevin wins the case citing his client’s religious freedom as a voodoo guy, along with some help from his client who makes the prosecutor cough.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann (Theron) is settling into her new life as a one-percenter at the top of the Manhattan food chain.  She’s decorating their palace and hobnobbing with the neighbors, but feeling increasingly isolated and lonely.

After the big win in the voodoo thing, Kevin and wife are invited to a party with the rest of the town’s elite at Eddie Barzoon’s (Jeffrey Jones) palace upstairs.  Here Keanu rubs elbows, while hound dog Milton (Pacino) gets to know his wife much, much better.

The party’s going swimmingly until it’s revealed that one of their scumbag business clients named Alex Cullen (played by coach Craig T. Nelson) is arrested for murdering his wife, stepson, and maid.   Milton puts Kevin on the case, much to everyone’s chagrin, including coach himself.

Meanwhile, Kev’s wife Mary Ann gets to second base with Eddie’s wife while they try on expensive clothes, before she (Eddie’s wife) turns into a demon before her eyes.  Mary Ann freaks out, and, back home, yells at Keanu before they have sex and things settle back down for a while.

Back on the case, Kevin meets with coach to discuss the murders at his palatial 5th Avenue apartment, which was lent to the production by Donald Trump (his actual apartment in Trump Tower).  Things seem pretty fishy, but Kevin looks past all that because he wants to win.

Mom arrives from Florida to visit, prompting more bible quoting and foreshadowing stuff, along with a creepy meeting with John Milton.  Viewers who’ve been paying attention realize there’s something fishy with this whole thing: if Pacino’s the devil, and Kevin never knew who his father was, why’s mom so creeped out by meeting this dude?  It’s not a complicated puzzle to put together.  However we soldier on.

Not an option I've ever seen.More revelations emerge in coach’s murder case, one night Eddie Barzoon and his gang shred a ton of documents for some reason, and Kevin and Milton go to Madison Square Garden for a boxing match, as one does.  Afterwards the pair goes out for some Mexican where Milton (Pacino) orders some tableside oral sex.  This has never been a menu option I’ve seen, and I love Mexican food.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann is cracking up.  She’s having hallucinations and medical issues, including finding out she can’t have children, all of which her husband Kevin (Keanu) sloughs off and ignores.

Back at work, Kevin gets coach off the murder charges, despite knowing he was guilty, while his wife (Theron) gets raped by Milton (Pacino), despite having been in Kevin’s presence the whole time.  But, you know, the devil’s a supernatural creature, so there’s that.  This is Mary Ann’s final straw: she cracks up and gets institutionalized, and then kills herself.

Kevin’s upset, but recovers in time to confront his mom over who his dad really is (which dead people have figured out by now).  She confesses.  So now it’s time for Kevin to confront devil dad Milton (Pacino).

Turns out, surprise, he’s the devil, and he’s trying to create the anti-Christ by having Kevin have sex with his half-sister, who Kevin’s been checking out the entire film.  Kevin resists, the devil’s defeated, and once again the Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil” gets trotted out as perfect fade-out music over a credit crawl.

“The Devil’s Advocate” isn’t a great movie to be fair.  It’s not bad, but it’s not very good.  The basic premise is the shopworn tale of a guy being tempted by the devil, who has all the earthly things on his side, while still wanting to do good things because he has some inner moral compass.  In most of these stories good wins, despite all the evidence we see in the world every day about how far “being good” gets you.  I think this happens because storytellers, on the whole, want to show us things that are possible, as opposed to the ways things usually turn out, which are way more depressing.

In a more realistic rendering, Kevin would mourn his dead wife, father the anti-Christ, and marry a supermodel , leaving dad to deal with the whole neo-biblical prophecy side of things.  As kids do.

That being said, there is Al Pacino.  As the devil, Pacino is pretty amazing.  I don’t think anyone else could’ve pulled off such a captivating interpretation of the fallen angel.  For most of the flick he’s pretty subtle, letting his son’s natural greed and ambition run its course; he’s not pushing him to be bad, he’s just not minding when he does.  He’s not tricking him, he’s not entrapping him; he’s letting his son make his own choices, until at the end, when he swoops in for the kill.

Pacino’s devil isn’t a creature of pure, old-school-Slayer-brand evil.  He’s a “fallen angel,” who still has the perspective of an angel, except he seemingly couldn’t bear the hypocrisy of a god who would judge his creations after endowing them with the qualities he judges them for using.  So he formed his own team to rival the big guy’s, simultaneously embracing human frailty and being disgusted by it, because, after all, he’s still an angel.  It’s a complex read.

You don’t see this in most devil films, so for that alone, it’s worth a watch.  As for Keanu… dude, it’s fun.

Just when you thought the future, past, potential futures, and sideways time shift things were all so screwed up by this point that there’s absolutely NO WAY Arnold Schwarzenegger was going to materialize out of a sphere again to hassle or help Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), along came “Terminator: Dark Fate.” I mean the spacetime continuum must be at its breaking point by now.

After all, Sarah’s been dealing with this crap since 1984. You’d think that, by now, the robot time travelers of the future would realize that it’d be much easier to just jump back to the same time they did originally in the 1984 movie, minus a month or so to avoid dealing with Michael Biehn, and be done with this already. Without Kyle Reese, Sarah would be dead within minutes. Why they keep spacing out their attacks with so many years in between must only make sense to super-A.I.s of the future, who must have a whole lot of legacy Alexa source code hanging around.

Anyhoo, it’s the present (mostly) and a now super-grizzled Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is terminating Terminators who apparently continually time-jump back every couple years in some attempt to do something. All of those guys, however, are clearly the “C team” because today the future decided to send back a “REV-9” terminator bot (Gabriel Luna), and he and the team collectively rack up $10 million + of property damage in the first few minutes after walking out of the hot time-sphere thingy.

Ok so here’s another question: why didn’t they just send back 200 REV-9s instead of one, all materializing within a few hundred yards of each other, and all AT THE SAME TIME. Seems to me that would make quick work of things, but again, I’m not a super future A.I. (This thing must have some of Siri’s original source code too.)

Here some kids teach Fleck a lesson about doing his job.Arthur Fleck is a heavily medicated guy with Tourette's syndrome and a fulfilling fantasy life who works as a clown in Gotham City.  He does typical clown stuff like spinning signs outside a store that's going out of business, murdering three Wayne Enterprises yuppies, and taking the gun into a children's hospital to cheer up the kiddies.  He's also an aspiring stand up comic: "aspiring" in the sense that John Belushi aspired to cut back on the coke.  His only discernable joke is a "knock-knock" joke, the punchline of which is him committing suicide.  Turns out he's not doing so well on the stand-up circuit.

Meanwhile, Gotham City has become a real piece of crap.  New York-style garbage heaps litter this crime infested landscape of jerks, whose singular preoccupation it seems is to beat up Arthur Fleck.  Even kids take a piece of him as he just tries to live his psychotically-delusioned life among all the unsympathetic jerks that infest this horrible city.  So pretty much New York.


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