Hidden treasures are always a given in the sci-fi genre. From the post-apocalyptic deconstructive metaphor of Hell Comes To Frogtown to Mark Hammil’s lost road-trip classic Slipstream and all the way up to 2009’s MOON, there are metric tons of films that are labors of love that never quite make it into becoming proper mainstream hits.
Air and Terminus are two such films, released in 2015, both deeply rooted in old-school science fiction tradition, each sporting a different flavor in its iteration of the genre. Where Air is loose hard science fiction with a bittersweet lean, Terminus is a Cold-war style story that, while lacking the higher-budget finish of the other movie, still manages to give a great, contemporary story.
Neither movie is perfect: far from it, both suffer from a number of flaws, which we will address. But they are damn good examples of science fiction and they deserve a better chance than what they got. So strap on in and start playing that special end-of the-universe playlist. Stuff’s about to get dreary…
AIR: HARD WORLD, HARDER FICTION
Air takes place a few years into the end of the world, following a nuclear/chemical/biological apocalypse (honest to God actual movie explanation) that annihilated all human life on the planet’s surface. Taking a page out of the Vault-Tec Manual of Style, the US Government prepares to face the aftermath, by building a series of secure bunkers, where this world’s best and brightest will wait out the fallout and finally rise to reclaim the ruins of mankind.
The film stars Norman Reedus (everyone’s favorite redneck) and Djimon Hounsou (of Blood Diamond and Black Panther fame). They are the team of engineers who tasked with maintaining humanity’s last hope, by waking up from stasis, running through a number of menial maintenance chores then go back to sleep for a six-month period, before the bunker runs out of air. Right off the bat, the film creates a claustrophobic, creepy atmosphere, giving us the impressions of both characters (and their frozen payload) as children, trapped in an old-timey fridge, kicking at the doors. It’s not long before everything goes wrong of course and both Reedus and Hounsou turn on each other, while struggling to stay alive even as they are running out of their emergency air reserves.
One of Air’s strongest suits is how it manages to establish and maintain a sense of proper hard science fiction, with regards to its time-frame. While it’s not established outright, the end of the world seems to have taken place sometime in the early 90’s, with the clues provided by the crappy halfway-smart technology of the machinery and various snippets thrown in by the news broadcasts. Also, porn magazines. Devil’s in the details, man. The hardware in the movie conform to the rules of hardware that could have been developed in that era, while leaving some leeway for any iffy super-science (like, say, the cryostasis chambers).
Taking a page off MOON, Air relies heavily on the isolation and growing paranoia between the characters, even as they struggle against their failing air supply. One thing that the film does exceedingly well is to create more with less: it keeps you on your toes as you know that the air supply is dwindling, it creates an atmosphere of paranoia and makes you believe that the world is well and truly over, without ever going so far as to waste its budget on endless vistas of glowing radioactive craters (except that one time, but trust us, it’s worth the wait). While it’s not a breakneck action movie and it tends to take things…slower than most post-apocalyptic films, Air manages to give you a great, tense experience all the way through. If you simply don’t have the patience for a slow buildup and high-tension movie, then it only makes sense if you choose to avoid it. For the rest of you, Air is a damn good hard SF thriller and well worth every second.
You’re probably thinking: alright, that’s all well and good, but what’s wrong with it? Well, plenty of things and this wouldn’t have been a proper review if we didn’t get into them, now would it? For starters, Air suffers from the aforementioned Vault-Tec syndrome of crappy vault design. One of its major plot points, which shows up early on in the film, is that the computers are straight-up lying to the technicians, even when a major problem shows up during their maintenance shift. This misdirection is what causes the main characters’ paranoia to flare up in the first place and you have to wonder: why would the architects of the last bastions of humanity ever try to mess with their last surviving crew? No explanation is provided for this during the story and it’s simply waved off as ‘they did it to maintain their morale’ which is iffy, at best.
The second major flaw with the film is Hounsou’s main premise for his character. In the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, we will simply say that it has to do with him managing to sneak a person into the bunker and maintaining the charade, even though he’s just a contracted maintenance guy who somehow forged an entire identity for another human being that held up to its cover story. Again, this major flaw is swept under the rug, despite Reedus’ insistent sleuthing. Also, the plot point is later mostly made irrelevant, as the film could have maintained its conflict without even introducing it in the first place.
That is, of course, without going into the smaller complaints regarding the lack of spare parts for crucial machinery, the shoddy workmanship displayed on a number of key survival features, which might go unnoticed during your first viewing. Air disguises them deftly, by explaining that the bunkers were put up during the last years of the war and that the entire system was a leftover from the height of the Cold War. As far as movie explanations go, ‘thrown together by civil servants’ is certainly one of the better ways to wave off a lot of the unnecessary techno-jabber.
So, all told, does Air hold up? The answer is yes. It’s a well-made film that achieved a lot of very limited budget, dodging the need for over blown special effects, leaning toward very w
ell-made practical cinematography. Yes, its theme and source material are very much reminiscent of Wool (the Amazon self-published mega-hit), but then again, Wool ripped off Philip K. Dick’s Penultimate Truth first. However, you got to appreciate a film that manages to create two morally ambiguous characters and make you root for them all the way to the bitter end.
Well worth a viewing, especially if you’re feeling up for a depressing ride into the world beyond the end of all things you’ve known and loved. Speaking of the end of all things you know and love in a tide of nuclear fire…
TERMINUS: HELLO DARKNESS MY OLD FRIEND
With Air being old-school hard SF, Terminus takes a more Ellison-y turn toward the end of the world, what with the hopelessly grim finality of everything about it and all that. If you’re in the market for a grimdark science fiction film, then Terminus has you in for a treat, putting together an atomic doomsday subplot, framed by the aftermath of broken army veterans and the worst economic meltdown in the history of forever.
All told, this is not a feel-good movie, but it is structured and delivered in a manner that you can watch even with your less nerdy friends. Despite its space opera feel, it keeps the pseudo-science at a manageable level and we think that this should be one of its key strengths, when you get right down to it.
The film is directed by Mark Furmie, whom you might know by his other SF horror small-budget film, Airlock. If not, give it a go. It’s an Australian production and the closest thing to a Dead space movie adaptation, without the jumpscares. The film follows David Chamberlain (Jai Koutrae), a car mechanic and a dad, who struggles with the loss of his wife and his daughter’s (Anabelle, played by Kendra Appleton) return home, after he loses his job and accidentally stumbles on an alien artifact on his birthday. He is soon joined by army veteran Zach (Todd Lasance), as they find out that the artifact has the ability to not only heal even the most severe wounds, but also to preserve life on Earth. Of course, that draws the attention of Agent Stipe (Bren Foster) who wants to get his hands on the powerful artifact and use it to create an army of immortal soldiers who will win the war.
Terminus’ plot, all things considered, is nothing to write home about: any SF nerd worth their salt has probably seen the same story play out a hundred times, especially if they veer toward the glorious age of 70’s science fiction. The real strength of Terminus, is in the subplots surrounding the main storyline: during the entirety of the film, the story maintains an air of hopelessness, creates a sense of isolation for the characters (who are trapped in a world that’s coming apart at the seams) and it also shines a little light into the plight of wartime veterans.
One of the better aspects of the movie is dealing with the economic recession that’s caused by a dead-end war that the United States has been involved with in the Middle East. While the presentation isn’t exactly accurate (like most SF catastrophes, it tends to exaggerate), the way that the disaster unfolds has some interesting attention to detail. Nerds with a knack for international politics will be able to appreciate some of the subtler nods in the film, which the writing team has thankfully not shoved down the audience’s throats.
The entirety of the film seems more like grief counseling, to be honest. Each character is overwhelmed with his own personal demons and slowly passes through the five stages of their grief. David is haunted by the death of his wife and refuses to even acknowledge her death, Anabelle hates her father for not coming to terms with his mother’s death, Zach is in denial about the loss of his limbs and his shellshock and Agent Stipe is, a coward by any other name. What’s interesting about the main antagonist is that he is not in this to win the war or wresting power from the alien artifact for himself. Instead, he is using the government’s resources to simply skip draft and not get shot at in the Middle East. As far as villain motivations go, at least this one is sincere.
Taking a page off Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, Terminus doesn’t bother with establishing a line of communication between the alien artifact and the humans. It lets the viewers and the characters struggle with its purpose, but ultimately falls prey to Cocoon syndrome, where its purpose is mystically explained to the characters and forcefully revealed toward the end. We understand that, given Terminus’ plot and delivery, a lot of the information couldn’t just be supplied in an infodump, Doctor Who style, but we believe that the film should have presented at least some halfway explanation toward the artifact’s origin and let the viewers figure the mystery out for themselves. Trust us, nerds are good at that.
Like Air, Terminus did everything on a small budget: its CGI is used sparingly but with mediocre effect (dat nuclear mushroom), with the developers having mostly focused on practical effects and the representation of the alien artifact as it develops during the film. Also, there are some shoddy examples of manipulating stock footage and a mock news caster clip that ruin the presentation, but thankfully those cases are very few and very far between.
Perhaps Terminus’ major flaw is that the story leans too much toward old-school SF movies. A lot of the delivery in the plot and its pacing reminds us of the aforementioned 70’s ticking-clock classics and perhaps that’s the main reason why it was mostly unnoticed: a lot of its appeal requires some amount of nostalgia for those older films and Cold War SF, as well as the occasional case of blindly accepting certain plot points (again, alien artifact. It’s a pretty big point, mind you).
Its ending is predictable and lacks the emotional punch that would be expected of a movie with this point, but that’s to be expected. If anything, the final shot of the film feels more like a wrap-up, with its final act having pretty much resolved everything in a particularly tragic fashion. Perhaps if the director had chosen to do away with it, ending the film in an ambiguous grim note, the movie would have been more memorable (even though it would have essentially amounted to Fumie pulling a Sopranos).
So if you’ve got a hankering for old-school style end of the world science fiction and want to watch a story that’s depressing without resulting to calculated jabs at your sad-bone, Terminus makes for an excellent choice. Also, if you are looking to slowly ease your normie-minded friends into the wonderful world of apocalyptic nerdy fiction. Once they get through this, 12 Monkeys will look like Grease.