sci-fi

New York Film Academy (NYFA) Remembers The Life and Achievements of Cult Filmmaker Larry Cohen

Screenwriter, producer, and director Larry Cohen, a filmmaker with a passionate and loyal fanbase, has passed away at the age of 82 (his birth year has often been reported as 1941, but his family and census records confirmed that this is incorrect, as reported in the New York Times). Cohen, whose career in film spanned several decades, was best known for his unique work in the B-movie genre scene.

Cohen was born and raised in New York City before going to film school. He had a particular passion for noir films, as well as the work of Casablanca director Michael Curtiz. He turned the former into a career in the late 1950s and 1960s, writing for crime television shows like The Defenders and The Fugitive, and later in the 1970s writing for Colombo.

It wasn’t long before Cohen pivoted to more genre fare, creating the NBC Western series Branded in 1965 and the sci-fi ABC series The Invaders in 1967. He began writing films during this period as well, including the sequel to The Magnificent Seven.

His directorial debut was the 1972 crime comedy Bone, starring Yaphet Kotto, which Cohen also wrote and produced. Two years later Cohen made It’s Alive, a horror film about a killer mutant baby, which was eventually a modest hit. The film was scored by frequent Hitchcock-collaborator Bernard Hermann and its pharmaceuticals-adjacent story showcased a career characteristic of Cohen to incorporate social commentary into his B-movie horror. The film spawned two sequels and a 2009 reboot.

His genre films also typically included police and crime elements to them, including 1976’s God Told Me To. In the 1980s, Cohen built a reputation for producing, directing, and writing low-budget horror films with a cult following. 1982’s Q: The Winged Serpent featured a giant monster flying around midtown Manhattan while also focusing on two detectives following a multiple homicide case.

Cohen’s best-known film, The Stuff, came out shortly after, in 1985. The film includes a killer alien substance that the general public became addicted to, and included social commentary on consumerism, advertising, and the tobacco industry. Despite its over-the-top premise, the film is still regarded as one of the best low-budget horror films of the 20th century.

Cohen continued to write and direct for the next few decades, including the Maniac Cop films; Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth, starring Colin Farrell and Forest Whitaker; and Cellular, starring Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, and Jason Statham. In 2006, he was invited to participate in the TV anthology series Masters of Horror along with other notable filmmakers like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, Joe Dante, Dario Argento, James Gunn, Robert Rodriguez, and Guillermo del Toro.

In 2017, Cohen participated in a documentary that profiled his career, King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen, which featured actors and filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, J.J. Abrams, and John Landis. The film recently screened at New York Film Academy-Los Angeles along with a Q&A panel with the filmmakers. Cohen was scheduled to appear but was ultimately unable to attend; he lamentably passed away two days later.

After news of Cohen’s death became public, there was an outpouring of praise for him on social media by both his peers and by filmmakers who cite him as an influence in their own work, including Guillermo del Toro, Edgar Wright, and Joe Dante.

The New York Film Academy is deeply saddened by the loss of an auteur filmmaker who carried both a respect and a passion for his craft. Rest in peace, Larry Cohen.

 

Milestones in Cinema: 8 Space Movies That Took Us Somewhere New

A scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Sometimes, when we’re lucky, real life can be more exciting than the movies. Like when Michael Jordon wins a championship while practically dying of the flu or when Nabisco came out with Birthday Cake flavored Oreos. Or more recently, when the European Space Agency landed a probe on Comet 67P this week, a feat akin to threading a needle from three hundred million miles away.

But these moments are unfortunately too far and few between, especially when it comes to amazing milestones in space travel. Luckily, we’ve got Hollywood to fill in the gaps and act out our wildest aspirations for us. Space movies and space flight in particular, one of mankind’s most cherished yet difficult goals, is often portrayed in the movies in a myriad of thrilling, scary, and trippy ways.

The following eight space movies depict space travel firsts in filmmaking—some we’ve already achieved and some we one day hope to achieve. Many of the films actually contain multiple milestones. While in real life, the Mercury and Apollo missions took space exploration one step at a time, movie audiences are a little more impatient and cinematic versions of NASA and its counterparts tend to kill several birds with one stone.

After all, the magic of the movies allows us to do whatever we want, so why aim high when we can aim really, really, really high?

1. The Right Stuff – Leaving the Atmosphere

The cast of The Right Stuff

Of all the films on this list, The Right Stuff is the only one to faithfully portray our historic progress in space travel. Based on the book of the same name, The Right Stuff tells the story of Chuck Yeager and the Mercury Seven. Yeager was the first pilot to break the sound barrier while the Mercury Seven took turns leaving the atmosphere and orbiting around the Earth. Technically, the Russians beat the Mercury Seven to it, but because they didn’t make an Oscar-worthy film about it, it doesn’t really count.

2. Transformers 3 – Landing on the Moon

Transformers 3 moon landing

The group of misguided, misinformed people out there that still believe the Moon landing was faked would really bug out if they found out the reason we sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was to investigate a giant crashed alien spaceship. That’s what happened according to realistic drama Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, directed by naturalist auteur Michael Bay and starring method actors Shia LaBeouf and Bumblebee.

President Kennedy chose to go to the Moon and the other things, not because they were easy, but because a bunch of evil giant robots from Cybertron slammed into the lunar surface and we needed answers. Come to think of it though, that’s a way better reason than just trying to make the Soviets look weak.

3. Gravity – Longest Spacewalk

George Clooney in Gravity

In Gravity, George Clooney’s veteran astronaut is on his last mission in orbit, and is just shy of breaking the record for the longest spacewalk, the most time an astronaut has spent outside of their shuttle. Fortunately for Clooney, a satellite is obliterated and the debris violently destroys his ship and crew. Untethered from the sanctuary of his ship (and, disturbingly, the bathroom), he is left free to extend his time in space and break the record. Clooney though, with his famous penchant for excess, decides to float around indefinitely, not just shattering the record but leaving it at an unbeatable “forever.”

4. Mission to Mars – First Manned Mission to Mars

Mission to Mars

In Mission to Mars, Don Cheadle is one of four astronauts to first land on another planet. However, things go horribly wrong—because watching a bunch of scientists take dirt samples isn’t exactly exciting sci-fi—and Cheadle is left the last man standing on a rust-covered planet of his own. Cheadle does what any of us would do and grows a crazy beard and loses his mind just a little bit. After all, like the suburbs, there really isn’t anything to do on Mars. Cheadle was supposed to be looking for water or signs of life, but in the end, he would’ve been happy just to stumble across a deck of cards.

5. Star Trek: First Contact – Achieving Light Speed

Star Trek: First Contact

Before we could reach Ridiculous or even Ludicrous speed, humankind must first achieve light speed. In Star Trek: First Contact, alcoholic engineer Zefram Cochrane does just that, reaching Warp Speed in the middle of the twenty-first century. Using the first ever warp drive, Cochrane piloted the Phoenix into the fake-history books the same way most of us drove our first cars—hungover and blasting Steppenwolf. Cochrane’s magic carpet ride gained the attention of nearby aliens, the Vulcans, and instituted to an era of interplanetary peace. Not bad for a day’s work.

6. Interstellar – First Travel By Wormhole

Interstellar wormhole

Traveling at the speed of light is pretty amazing… for a beginner. But space is really, really big and if you want to get to any galaxies that are far, far away you’re going to have to do a lot better than 186,000 miles per second. Wormholes are the universe’s shortcuts, if Einstein is right and they actually exist. In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey and company ride through a wormhole near Saturn, a spherical bend in the fabric of spacetime that bends minds and makes for a great screensaver.

Technically, they’re not the first though—they are preceded by an earlier team of astronauts led by another handsome, charming movie star. By the way, did we mention that only attractive celebrities can travel via wormhole? Einstein specifically made sure to include this in his theory of relativity, being a huge Mary Pickford fan and all.

7. The Black Hole – First Travel Into a Black Hole

Black Hole

Interstellar’s story also included mankind’s first passage through a black hole, but Christopher Nolan being Christopher Nolan, the sequence is overwrought and emotional, with plotlines intersecting themselves so many times they get caught in a knot. While the scene definitely has its merits, especially when seen in IMAX, it’s no match for 1979’s The Black Hole, a movie whose title betrays its complete lack of subtlety.

The black hole in Black Hole is a glorious product of 60s and 70s psychedelia and chintzy, cosmic special effects, a dreamlike world that contains both Heaven and Hell. Scientists after all have no idea what actually lies inside a black hole, so filmmakers might as well have fun with it and throw in angels and the Devil. The movie also has sassy robots, because all space movies need sassy robots and/or Ed Harris.

8. Contact – First Encounter with Alien Life

Contact first encounter with an alien

The human race is constantly trying to journey out farther and farther. Sure, we need to find a new home before we completely ruin this one, but really, we’re just looking to answer the age old question: Are we alone? Finding another intelligent species is space travel’s Holy Grail, the ultimate result of our ingenuity and hard work. Contact, based on the work of an astrophysicist who wore his heart on his sleeve, Carl Sagan, dramatizes that idea by having the aliens take the form of Jodie Foster’s late father. What better way to cast our yearning for intergalactic companionship and the answers to our cosmic origins then in the form of a lost parent?

Contact doesn’t just thrive in its metaphysical storytelling. The first craft to travel through dimensions in the film is built by a private billionaire, presaging the future of space travel. With real life billionaires like Elon Musk and Richard Branson paving the way forward for the privatization of space exploration, we may only just be entering the golden age of interstellar travel. If we’re lucky, our real life milestones in space flight may soon outnumber—and out-wonder—anything our most creative filmmakers can think of.

How Important is Scientific Accuracy in Sci-Fi Screenwriting?

Last year, a sci-fi film entitled Europa Report made its way onto online rental services to little fanfare outside of a few hardcore sci-fi and indie film blogs. The plot follows a team of astronauts on an alien planet, searching for life, And what makes it a remarkable film is that it’s one of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi movies, ever.

What Apollo 18 Should Have Been

Director Sebastián Cordero and crew took great pains to make sure everything in the movie was scientifically plausible; orbital physics are adhered to, the galactic geography is sound, the surface of Europa is realistically rendered and every line of space-talk between the characters is as it should be. The decision to stick so dogmatically to real-world physics is a bold one, and arguably makes this space romp into an incredibly fascinating entry into the genre.

Now, it’s not the best film in the world by any stretch, and only the most ardent of space fans won’t balk at spending $10 just to rent itthe pacing is uneven, there’s some hammy acting in places, and it doesn’t bring anything new to the ‘found footage’ aspect of the film. All said and done however, it’s the immersive exploration horror film which Apollo 18 tried to be, made all the better for its scientific realism.

But what of movies where the science gets silly? Excluding purposeful bending of reality for comic effect, does a movie hamstring itself by not paying enough attention to the hard laws of the universe?

Breaking the Rules, For Better or Worse

Consider the old amnesia movie trope. Rarely is it portrayed with any accuracy, and in fact, rarely is it used as an effective plot device.

But the scientific inaccuracies which usually come with the ‘man wakes up remembering nothing’ cliché aren’t the underlying reason why we groan every time a scriptwriter falls back on it. We actually forgive extreme oversights on silly things such as ‘reality’ as long as the trope is used to execute some original ideas or to craft a compelling experience for the audience. Think of the screenwriting in Memento, or even Total Recall.

There are, of course, some very good reasons to forgo realism, especially when exploring science fiction. In the real universe, it would take nearly 20,000 years of sailing through an uninteresting void in order to get to the nearest exoplanet, and if we’re looking for possible life, it’d be pointless to make the trip given its molten temperature. To get to the Gliese 581 set of planets, which are the closest place with a chance of harboring anything interesting, we’re looking at a 500,000+ year voyage. As such, it’s hardly practical to hinge a movie featuring human exploration on such stellar figures (and the reason why Europa Report was set on our own cosmic back door).

When quizzed on the speed of the Excalibur craft in Babylon 5, creator Michael Straczynski famous said with a wry smile “it travels at the speed of plot.” Namely, precisely as fast or as slow as the writers need it to in order to move the story forward at the desired pace and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s also true that some of the best inventions in science fiction were the product of writers trying desperately to get from A to B, either in a physical sense or within the narrative.

Firmly Grounded

But if the lack of scientific accuracy is born out of sheer laziness, then it can create a jarring hole in the very fabric of the movie. While we don’t question why the Icarus II starship in Sunshine has gravity because it’s an unimportant detail not worth spending screen time explaining, we do have our willing suspension of disbelief popped when the relatively small (on a planetary scale) asteroid in Armageddon appears to have more gravity than the moon.

This is because we can easily assume there’s some sort of device or centrifugal force creating the gravity on the Icarus II; we can’t imagine that everything we know about astrophysics goes out the window the second someone steps onto an asteroid. Whether this laziness on the director or writer’s part is through ignorance or an inability (or unwillingness) to present things in a more believable light doesn’t matter; audiences don’t need to have a PhD in rocket science or filmmaking degree to see right through it as the sloppy craftsmanship that it is.

All in all, both good and bad sci-fi will exist regardless of how much of a grasp the filmmaker has over accuracy, or how much they care to use it. Case in point: in one of the DVD extra commentaries for Alien, Ridley Scott mumbles hesitantly about the movie being set “something like… twenty, thirty years from now.” While that film testifies to his mastery of horror and a superb movie all round, if he thought back in the eighties that we’d already be terraforming deep space by now, his understanding of the limits of space exploration technology is severely lacking (at least it was back then).

Back to the present, and we should really take our hats off to the producers of movies like Europa Report and the (slightly less but still impressively accurate) Gravity for at least trying to make extreme accuracy a selling point. It raises some interesting questions, but it remains to be seen whether this will become a trend in mainstream sci-fi writing.