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Indie sci-fi films 'The Pod Generation' and 'Jules' are grounded and intimate

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Science fiction movies generally have big budgets and lots of special effects. But critic Bob Mondello says two sci-fi films opening this weekend, "The Pod Generation" and "Jules," are low-key and intimate.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In the movie "Jules," Milton is aging in place, his home near enough town that he can walk in for town meetings...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JULES")

BEN KINGSLEY: (As Milton Robinson) I think we ought to change our town slogan.

MONDELLO: ...And far enough from other houses that he doesn't really have neighbors. His daughter pops by to make sure he's OK and worries when she finds, say, a can of beans in his bathroom medicine cabinet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JULES")

ZOE WINTERS: (As Denise) Any idea why you put it there?

KINGSLEY: (As Milton Robinson) Well, I must have been distracted.

MONDELLO: But basically, everything's fine until one night...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACESHIP THUDDING)

MONDELLO: ...He's awakened by a loud noise and goes out in the backyard...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JULES")

KINGSLEY: (As Milton Robinson) Oh, my.

MONDELLO: ...And does exactly what anyone would do under the circumstances.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JULES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Nine-one-one operator. What is your emergency?

KINGSLEY: (As Milton Robinson) There is a spaceship that's crashed in my backyard, and it has crushed my azaleas.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) A spaceship?

KINGSLEY: (As Milton Robinson) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Sir, placing prank calls to 911 emergency services is a felony.

KINGSLEY: (As Milton Robinson) It's not a prank.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Sir, please try lying down, and go back to sleep.

KINGSLEY: (As Milton Robinson) I'm wide awake. Hello?

MONDELLO: Milton, played by Ben Kingsley with both an American accent and a full head of hair, tries unsuccessfully to reach his daughter, but he knows she'd think he was full of beans. And anyway, there's another town meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JULES")

KINGSLEY: (As Milton Robinson) We should change the town motto to something clearer. Also, a UFO has crashed in my backyard and has taken out my azaleas and has destroyed my birdbath.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Did you just say UFO?

MONDELLO: Things get even more complicated when a little blue alien crawls from the ship onto Milton's patio. And Milton...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JULES")

KINGSLEY: (As Milton Robinson) I'm not sure what to do. This hasn't happened to me before.

MONDELLO: ...Does his very best to be polite.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JULES")

KINGSLEY: (As Milton Robinson) Do you want to come inside? - 'cause it's warmer in here.

MONDELLO: And why not if the town's not going to take him seriously anyway? Director Marc Turtletaub keeps the mood light, though there's a poignant undertow to a story that's as much about being allowed to grow old with dignity as it is about an extraterrestrial. Ben Kingsley is sort of getting his own "E.T." here after winning an Oscar for "Gandhi" the year Spielberg's "E.T." came out. Also on hand is "Third Rock From The Sun's" Jane Curtin as an alien skeptic...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JULES")

JANE CURTIN: (As Joyce) When you talk like that, it makes them all take us less seriously.

KINGSLEY: (As Milton Robinson) What should I do, not tell anybody?

MONDELLO: ...And an absolutely indispensable Harriet Sansom Harris...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JULES")

HARRIET SANSOM HARRIS: (As Sandy) Oh, Christ. What the [expletive] is that?

MONDELLO: ...Who will later suggests they name the little guy Jules, all of which keeps the flying-saucer tale "Jules" persuasively down to earth and grounded. "The Pod Generation" comes at reality a little differently. It's set in a future not far from our present where Rachel, played by Emilia Clarke, awakes to the soothing voice of Siri's distant cousin, Elena.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POD GENERATION")

MEGAN MACZKO: (As Elena) Good morning, Rachel. Did you have a good night's sleep?

EMILIA CLARKE: (As Rachel Novy) Great. Thanks, Elena.

MONDELLO: Elena starts the coffee, chooses Rachel's work outfit and does a quick health scan...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POD GENERATION")

MACZKO: (As Elena) I have the results from your gut intelligence test. Friendly bacteria are thriving.

MONDELLO: ...All before Rachel's had time to look out the window. Alvy, her botanist husband, who's played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is more skeptical about their digital assistant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POD GENERATION")

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Alvy Novy) Thanks, Elena - not now.

MONDELLO: So Elena burns his toast. This is a future in which nature, much to Alvy's annoyance, has been discounted and humankind's ability to engineer progress reigned supreme, nowhere more so than in pregnancy. Why gain 35 pounds and stretch marks when you don't have to?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POD GENERATION")

EJIOFOR: (As Alvy Novy) Well, hold on. You put us on a wait list to have a baby in an egg.

CLARKE: (As Rachel Novy) No, it's not an egg.

EJIOFOR: (As Alvy Novy) It's an egg.

MONDELLO: It's a large, plastic pod shaped like an egg that does all the gestating. Rachel has Alvy visit her computerized shrink, a giant eyeball, and Alvy comes around.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POD GENERATION")

EJIOFOR: (As Alvy Novy) Let's do it, Rachel.

CLARKE: (As Rachel Novy) Really?

EJIOFOR: (As Alvy Novy) Yeah.

MONDELLO: And I sort of mean around literally. Director Sophie Barthes has put curves everywhere in the architecture, also in the script, as when Alvy brings a tiny potted plant to help decorate the baby's room.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POD GENERATION")

CLARKE: (As Rachel Novy) And you want to - you know, you want to leave it in here.

EJIOFOR: (As Alvy Novy) Human beings, babies included, are supposed to be around plants and trees.

CLARKE: (As Rachel Novy) You could design a hologram version.

MONDELLO: The film's satire is mild, though wide-ranging, as when Alvy has to practically beg a student to taste a fig that was not created by a food printer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POD GENERATION")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It's from a tree, professor.

EJIOFOR: (As Alvy Novy) Well, yes.

MONDELLO: "The Pod Generation" trades primarily in amusing reversals and gentle satire and, as with "Jules," no lightsabers - can't say they're much missed. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.