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There’s no shortage of love for the way Marvel has crafted its Cinematic Universe, especially from yours truly. They’ve created an entire market for themselves by weaving nine — soon to be ten — movies together into an impressive spandex suit. From Iron Man in 2008 to this year’s unofficial summer kick-off movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, every Marvel movie is the next piece in a much larger puzzle. Like clockwork, we wait in darkened theaters through lengthy credits to get to the end, where a little tease usually awaits for what comes next. Each film is built with the next stage in mind.

It’s a phenomenon not limited to Marvel, though. They simply seem to have perfected it. Warner Bros. is about to set off on a voyage to build its DC Comics universe. And Michael Bay this summer rebooted his entire franchise and took Transformers in a new direction. Every major summer tentpole film is now trying to hook you years in advance. Studios spend money on these movies specifically because they spawn franchises and propel stars who go on to lead other tentpole movies. They sell merch and home video copies and get endlessly streamed the minute they hit the web.

The concept isn’t lost on any of us (more like it’s hammered in), especially this week following Comic-Con. We are reminded that these movies are made within the confines of a well-oiled business machine. With their formula, Marvel has your movie ticket money locked up probably well into the latter part of the decade.

Still, every once in a while it’s nice to see this formula passed over in the pursuit of something even more compelling: the rare movie that is stunning in its singularity. I’m reminded of the sci-fi films of 2013. There were plenty of great films that appeared to want to boot up franchises. Pacific Rim, Elysium and Oblivion come to mind. Had these all done well financially, there would have been a push for more. Pacific Rim might get a second round. In the end though, it was those films that seemed less ambitious about being a “part one” that ended up being the most compelling. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, Spike Jonze’s Her and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color will likely be the three most memorable sci-fi films of last year. Their unifying thread: they each exist as a complete, encapsulated idea. It’s what makes them audible through all the noise.

The great news is that this trend continues in 2014. It even appears to be gaining velocity. From big studio projects (even a sequel) to smaller, craftier films, the most compelling sci-fi films of the summer are the ones that deliver a complete puzzle, rather than just another piece. It’s a phenomenon I’ve explored over the past two weeks in darkened theaters, one that permeates this latest Summer Movies Diary entry.

The Dawn

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

20th Century Fox

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sounds like exactly the opposite of what I’ve been talking about for the past 500-odd words. In fact, we know that it’s place is within a much larger universe being built inside an already-massive universe. It is the sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the second in a rebooted franchise that takes us forward toward an inevitable end-point, birthing the world in which the 1968 original Planet of the Apes movie exists. On paper, it goes against the entire thesis I’ve presented.

Luckily the quality of a movie isn’t determined by how it looks on paper (otherwise the 2011 Ryan Reynolds-led Green Lantern movie would have been insanely awesome.) The way Dawn plays out on-screen makes it anything but another puzzle piece. It picks up several years after the events of the first film. Caesar (played via motion capture by Andy Serkis) lives in the forest outside the Bay Area in California with his tribe of apes. On the tenets of family and strength in numbers, the apes survive on their own well away from the devastation of the so-called Simian Flu, a disease that has decimated humanity.

The story ultimately revolves around the complexity of what happens when two societies, for lack of a better word, run up against each other. On one side we have Caeser and his apes. He wants to keep them safe, isolated and out of the way. On the other we have Dreyfus, played by Gary Oldman, who is simply trying to protect the remaining humans and sustain life. When these two ideas come into direct opposition, neither society is left with a choice but to fight.

Even that is a oversimplification of what director Matt Reeves and team have achieved with Dawn. It’s a beautifully realized, sprawling epic that delivers character moments so emotional that you forget you’re watching CGI apes. Instead you view them no differently than you would human characters. It takes a magical combination of performance and technology to make it this seamless, but Dawn pulls it off wonderfully.

It helps to have a quality film like Rise as an appetizer, but even if Dawn were the only film in this rebooted Apes franchise, it would stand on its own as a top-notch work. The world building is done simply and efficiently, the story has a well-executed character arc for its centerpiece Caesar, and in the end it feels complete. We know there’s more to tell, but the 130 minutes of Dawn‘s screen time feels completely satisfying. Some have likened it to the way The Dark Knight stands head and shoulders above the rest of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which is an apt comparison. If you stripped away the movies around it, Dawn stands tall as an excellent sci-fi adventure.

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The Crazy Train

Snowpiercer

The Weinstein Company

What could be darker than apes rising up toward the end of humanity’s reign on Earth? What happens after the world ends, that’s what. Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s post-apocalyptic train thriller Snowpiercer exists in that darkness beyond the end of our comfortably dominant existence. It revels in the dystopian setting with a mix of dark, strange and stylish elements that make up what can only by described as one hell of a ride.

The idea is simple enough while also being very odd: humanity tried to respond to global warming by shooting cooling chemicals into the atmosphere. It failed miserably and froze the planet. Now all that’s left is a frozen, uninhabitable world and this perpetually-in-motion train created by a crazy rich guy right before the fall of society. The inhabitants of this high speed Noah’s Ark are broken down into classes, much the way trains and plane are today, but far more horrifying. At the back, scamps like Chris Evans, John Hurt and Octavia Spencer scrape by, eat gross protein bars and live in squalor.

We don’t see much of the rest of the train until the folks in the back decide that enough is enough. From there, it’s a wild trip through all the strange cars that house everything from a colorful sushi bar to a classroom of eerily brainwashed first class kids. Oh, and there’s a car that basically has ninjas.

If it sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. But it all works within the world that’s been built here. We don’t know what’s coming in each subsequent car, but we are sure that the unexpected is likely. It makes for a riveting show. One that is not without plenty of grit, violence, engaging performances and surprises. What would the world be like if it existed in a confined metal tube hurtling around a frozen wasteland? It would go to some very dark places, that’s for sure. It would also be wildly entertaining.

The brilliance of Snowpiercer isn’t just that it’s strange and dark. It’s that it comes with striking visuals, complex morality and a relentless energy. It addresses the very basic nature of survival. What would we be willing to do to survive? The answer, as this movie so beautifully states, is far more bleak than you’d expect.

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Tomorrow on Repeat

Edge of Tomorrow

Warner Bros.

“It’s like Groundhog Day, but with aliens and an army of mech warriors.” Yeah, that basically sums up the Tom Cruise-led Edge of Darkness. It’s an easy soundbite that is all at once completely explanatory and also a bit misleading. Comparing this film to Groundhog Day simplifies what’s actually going on in the story written by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects). There is, in fact, a far more clever game afoot.

In this mostly modern day depiction, Earth has been visited by a race of aliens that seem to want to take over starting with the entire continent of Europe. We meet the war on the day of a big offensive similar to WWII’s invasion of Normandy where a PR specialist named Cage (Cruise) has been surreptitiously dropped into the battle after butting heads with one of the higher-ups. He enters the battle and is soon killed pretty unceremoniously as the aliens overrun the invasion.

Cut to him waking up, back at the start of his day, where everything began. This is where Edge of Tomorrow gets clever and remains clever until about 5 minutes to go in the film. You see, our handsome hero has somehow taken a very special power from the opposing aliens. They have the ability to reset the day when the battle isn’t going their way, carrying back with them the memories of how it all went wrong so that they can get it right the next time around.

What follows is the closest thing we may ever get to a video game realized as a movie. Our hero has to relive the battle over and over again seemingly thousands of times and with the help of Rita (played by Emily Blunt), a famous warrior who once possessed the same power, and he becomes mankind’s only hope.

Edge of Tomorrow is made smart and exciting over the course of these relived days as McQuarrie’s script gets playful. We see one day in which Cage decides, “Screw it, I’m not fighting.” We then see what happens far away from the battle as humanity loses and is overrun (spoiler: he still finds a way to die). It’s hard not to appreciate a film that builds its own complex sandbox, then plays around in it while still moving the story forward.

The premise of the story breeds complexity and with it come some holes, but the verve with which it’s all executed allows the audience to blow right by some of the logical gaps (especially near the end) and become immersed in the personality of the film. Cruise delivers a commanding performance, Blunt is a formidable co-lead and the effects are immensely cool. And just as the films I’ve mentioned above, it tells a complete and satisfying story. That is, unless you read articles about the ending they didn’t include versus the one that made it into the movie. Then it’s slightly less satisfying, but still a lot of fun.

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100%

Lucy

Universal Pictures

The final stop on our summer sci-fi road trip: Luc Besson’s Lucy, the world’s most expensive “Your Brain on Drugs” commercial. It’s a frantic sort of film, launching straight into the action moments after we meet the titular character, played by Scarlett Johansson. Based on the limited early exposition (the film really does get off to a running start), we can tell that she’s a student living in Taiwan, where she’s been dating a less than savory gentleman named Richard. When Richard needs to deliver a mysterious briefcase to a dangerous gentleman, he enlists her help. This is where it all goes wrong.

She ends up in the hands of the nefarious Mr. Jang (played by the deliciously menacing Choi Min-sik, best know for his leading role in the original Oldboy film) with a packet of drugs in her stomach. What she finds out soon after the bag bursts inside her is that these drugs have wild effects on the human brain. It “unlocks” portions of her brain previously unavailable and begins to give her massive amounts of control, first over her own body, then other people, then matter itself. This all comes in handy as she begins an action-filled journey to find more of the drug and do a little revenge.

The film operates in a world where the 10% of the brain myth is a fact. We know that here in the real world, that theory has been refuted by science. But if we’re willing to go with it and ignore Mythbusters telling us otherwise, Lucy makes good use of the premise. As she gains access to a greater percentage of her brain, Lucy gains power and the film gains momentum. It’s silly, but it works within the context of the movie. Besson presents the idea as part of a larger, more fantastical narrative. It’s a meditation, at a basic level, of the limitless nature of human potential. It’s a rabbit hole that requires the audience to accept a common myth as true, but once we do it all accelerates into a wildly entertaining thriller.

More important than the silliness of its central idea is the film’s execution of Lucy’s arc. For her part, Lucy is a fun character to watch. Johansson plays her with a calm, commanding performance. And Besson’s story is weird enough in its tangents (a lot of which feels like interstitials of Discovery Channel shows) to keep us interested while she’s off screen. Morgan Freeman helps with plenty of expository narration, playing a professor whose theories about the brain’s untapped potential are proven by Lucy’s predicament.

Besson’s frenetic pace and operatic delivery of action doesn’t hurt, either. He has a mastery of fluid motion in action choreography. While his movie tries (and stumbles at times) to present bigger ideas about human potential, he also delivers some wicked action. In particular, there’s a car chase of sorts in which Lucy is driving through the streets of Paris trying to quickly get to her destination. It’s frantic and smooth, full of explosive moments and also a sense of calm every time we see Lucy, whose brain keeps leveling up like Neo in The Matrix. It’s a juxtaposition that makes for an exciting sequence that’s one of many.

Toward the end, Lucy‘s big ideas take over and spiral off into the realm of strange, resulting in a 2001-esque finale that mixes the imagery of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos with a wild gunfight between Paris police and the Mr. Jang’s gang. I’ve never been on acid before, but I imagine it’s not far off from the imagery that accompanies Lucy’s approach to using 100% of her brain. But let’s not talk too much about the ending. The movie is worth seeing for yourself. Just know that when it goes off the deep end, it goes way off the deep end. The good news is that by that point in the film’s 90-minute runtime, you’ve already given into unrestrained silliness of the plot.

Lucy is ridiculous, but so much fun in its own unrestrained way.

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The Summer Continues…

After the big, loud first foray into my Summer Movie Diaries, this round was an incredible relief. Blockbuster season 2014 has delivered some of the smartest, most exciting and engaging sci-fi films we’ve seen in recent memory. It’s amazing to think that we’re only rounding out July and in two weeks, I may have seen two of the best movies of the year (Apes and Snowpiercer, for sure) in such a short span.

And to think that I still have Guardians of the Galaxy to come later this week. Perhaps this diary of excellent sci-fi will require a second edition very soon.

For those keeping score (just me), here are my grades so far this summer:

  • Godzilla (B+)
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (C+)
  • Chef (C-)
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (B-)
  • Transformers: Age of Extinction (D+)
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (A)
  • Snowpiercer (A)
  • Edge of Tomorrow (B)
  • Lucy (B)

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