Home » Sci-Fi Movies to Stream: ‘Shin Ultraman’, ‘Dry Ground Burning’ and more

Sci-Fi Movies to Stream: ‘Shin Ultraman’, ‘Dry Ground Burning’ and more

by Stewart Cole

Rent or buy it on most major platforms.

From the start, it’s obvious that this is no ordinary Kaiju movie. The genre, in which giant beasts à la Godzilla destroy cities and countryside, isn’t known for containment, but “Shin Ultraman” is completely, off-the-wall unpredictable.

Captain Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima, from the radically different “Drive My Car”) leads a task force dedicated to fighting large monsters that appear on the clock. “For some reason, Kaiju only appear in Japan,” quips one about the creatures’ absence elsewhere in the world. But even this elite group is surprised when a mysterious helmeted giant appears, dressed in a red and silver superhero-like bodysuit. Called Ultraman (a popular character that has been the subject of many iterations since his introduction in 1966), the newcomer helps the bewildered group fight aliens like Mefilas (Koji Yamamoto).

Both a reboot and a riff, “Shin Ultraman,” directed by Shinji Higuchi and written by Hideaki Anno (the pair also collaborated on 2016’s “Shin Godzilla”), is a surreal journey. It’s hard to get past the impressive invention and humor on display here, but it’s Higuchi’s mise en scène that stands out, filled with odd angles and seemingly arbitrary shots, such as when a character opens a computer file and the film cuts to her feet under her desk. Shiro Sagisu’s score is equal parts heartbreaking and subversive, incorporating 1960s pop, thrash riffs, chamber suites and jazzy noodlings. All of this amounts to pure joy.

Chances are you haven’t heard of Deborah Install’s A Robot in the Garden (2015), unless you live in Japan, where the novel has been adapted into a radio play, stage musical, and now this charming, family-friendly movie. children.

Ken (Kazunari Ninomiya) is dealing with a terminal development arrest case while not playing out his days playing elaborate virtual reality games and avoiding any hint of housework. One day, a rusty tape robot appears in the garden, offering his name as Tang. Soon after, Ken’s fed-up wife Emi (Hikari Mitsushima) kicks him out of their home. So it’s off to Atobit Systems, the company that made Tang, to trade that old model for a brand new one, which he’ll then give to Emi to get back her favor.

The latest from prolific director Takahiro Miki (“The Door Into Summer”) doesn’t revolutionize the cute robot genre, but it’s very effective. Of course, Ken will change for the better, thanks to Tang – whose mysterious origins and original purpose are at the center of the story – but this utter predictability is a feature, not a bug, and as such is embraced by the film. Young viewers are likely to clamor for a toy version of the adorable bot, while their parents are more likely to be interested in the film’s incredibly believable near future, where drones traverse the sky and robots are everywhere in our everyday lives.

Rent or buy it on most major platforms.

When the Levan family moves to a quaint western town, teenage Itsy (the excellent Emma Tremblay) is none too pleased: Now she lives in the middle of nowhere, and the new kid is never fun. Perhaps that’s why she immediately bonds with her new classmate Calvin (Jacob Buster, a charmer expected to reappear in bigger-budget projects), who is ostracized as the local oddball. Calvin is a heartthrob in nerdy clothes — specifically a spacesuit, which he’s prone to wearing to school — and is on a quest to find the parents (Will Forte and Elizabeth Mitchell) he hasn’t seen in 10 years. He is convinced that they were taken by aliens one fateful night and has been searching the skies ever since. Itsy pretends to befriend him for a journalism project, though it’s clear that she’s taken in by Calvin’s quirky honesty and maybe even his far-fetched story about extraterrestrial creatures that secretly visit Earth whenever a certain comet approaches.

Jake Van Wagoner’s film is a throwback to family-friendly 1980s fare and captures the formula’s essentials nicely, right down to the presence of a smart aleck boy (Itchy’s brother Evan, played by Kenneth Cummins ), an unironic embrace of cute and cheesy in equal measure and, perhaps most importantly, a general good nature.

Rent or buy it on most major platforms.

Carl (Adam Weber) lives in his grandparents’ rec-room-like basement, seems to survive on power bars and takeout, and watches old black-and-white movies on an ancient-looking television. The only other living presence in this hideout is Vetro (voiced by Kory Karam), an animatronic head with huge blue eyes that sits on Carl’s desk. A computer programmer, Carl is ambitious: “You have to be human,” he informs his creation. To this end, Vetro has been gifted with the ability to create “new extensions”. In other words, it is responsive and upgradable. One of his first moves is to give himself a new “multi-layered emotional matrix,” and it doesn’t take long for Vetro to display somewhat sinister traits – he can be so boring and creepy.

Writer-director Christopher Morvant’s most distinctive turn to the burgeoning AI genre was making Vetro a cartoonish cartoon/puppet character who looks goofy but comes across as unsettling, especially since Morvant often shows him in dramatic close-ups. The film is admittedly over the top, especially since it’s essentially a talkathon between Carl and Vetro, and the writing isn’t strong enough to support the more complex philosophical issues it raises. But “Life Cycle” has a few surprises in store, and Morvant’s sui generis world juxtaposes technologies that feel like they come from completely different eras. Pretty good for a movie shot in a garage in a month.

Rent or buy it on Amazon.

Set in a poor Sol Nascente, Brazil, the film by Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós is hard to categorize. “Dry Ground Burning” follows the activities of a female gang, led by Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), who steals oil and resells it as gas to biker gangs. Add to that mix the re-entry into society of Chitara’s half-sister Lea (Lea Alves da Silva), who was recently released from prison. In conventional hands, these could be the starting point for an action-packed thriller. Pimenta and Queirós follow a completely different path, both in form and content.

We’re in a dystopian romp that takes aim at the far-right policies of Brazil’s authoritarian former president Jair Bolsonaro, which have been devastating to the poor, minorities and outcasts at the heart of the film. All this is combined with a documentary-like reality, heightened by the fact that the cast consists of non- or semi-professional actors. When scenes set during, say, a noisy bus journey or a religious ceremony go on and on hypnotically as if in real time, you might wonder if Frederick Wiseman had suddenly gone to Brazil. Tip: Go with the flow — you can’t rush life, politics, or this movie.

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