Saturday, January 23, 2016

My Favorite Martian

I have to be honest, the main reason I decided to go see The Martian was not because I am particularly fond of Matt Damon, but because at the time I had looked, it had a 98% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes! (It has dropped to 93% since). My expectation of the plot was literally a cross between Apollo 13 and Castaway (lead role match notwithstanding), and on that count was not too far off target. But with Ridley Scott at the helm I figured it would at least be interesting, and in the end it turned out to be closer to amazing. A blog entry was in order.

Now it took some self-reflection for me to decide what made this film fall into the category of science fiction. I would have loved to blog about another recent space disaster film, namely Gravity, but refrained because I decided it was not part of the genre. Just because a fictional story is set in space does not make it sci-fi. There has to be some element of speculation that stretches the imagination regarding what is possible. I decided that since Gravity was set in near earth orbit on existing space station technology, it depicts events that could happen today without any further contribution from science or technology. However, The Martian, although it is based on NASA's own realistic ideas of how such a trip and rescue could be done, the fact remains that it has not yet been done. It is still completely in the minds of today's scientists and engineers. That puts it right on the border line of science fiction and real life drama, and that is part of what makes it such great story. Unlike most other fictional stories set on Mars, it not about Mars the planet, it is about the limits of human achievement.

I don't think this film got as much credit as it deserves for staying so true to actual science.  I read that the author of the original book, Andy Weir, had connections to NASA and was able to allow the director access to the top scientists working on the Mars projects. I think Scott may have been attracted to the project because of its potential to inspire future scientists and engineers to go into space exploration, and to garner public support for a manned Mars mission so that our country could make it a priority. I believe that because of this he let NASA rule the day on the technical side, while at the same time using his own skills to craft an engaging story that is suspenseful, charmingly humorous, and educational at the same time. The only flaw for me was the somewhat corny soundtrack. I almost forgave it when I realized those disco tunes were being played right after the Apollo missions had ended in 1972. It was almost like saying "Hey guys, let's pick up where we left off."

I have to also mention that this is one of two films that I would actually recommend seeing in 3D format (the other one being the aforementioned Gravity). The reason is simply that the Martian landscapes that were created were absolutely spectacular! And they are featured regularly between segues throughout the film. Ridley Scott loves good cinematography and he features every nook and angle possible. Even though I'm sure some rocks are real and some are digital, you just cannot tell one from the other. If you want to really feel you are on Mars, see the film in 3D.

I haven't said much about the details of the story but there is really not much more that needs to be said because it is all just a tale of how a group of people use raw ingenuity to perform a rescue mission from one of the most inhabitable places you could realistically be stranded in. That story is as old as Robinson Crusoe and still works, so no spoiler warning needed. I will, however, admit that I thought my blog title was pretty cheesy, but I could not resist as it comes from an old show from my childhood, and it gists with my belief that the film is important on levels other than just its entertainment value. And lo and behold, I later discovered that when My Favorite Martian was made into a move in 1999, it co-starred Jeff Daniels, who plays the director of NASA in this film. That's enough to redeem the cheese!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Did The Force Awaken?

As a generational Star Wars fan, I was surprised at how much I downplayed my anticipation for the 7th episode that I was able to finally view the day after Christmas. The first red flag came when I learned that Lucas was letting his franchise go to Disney. It was crazy - a total control director relinquishing control to a total control conglomerate! But Disney did well with Pixar and Touchstone, so there was hope. Then I read in a mag article that Abrams and Kasdan did not consult Lucas for the script. They not only started from scratch but rushed it due to the tight schedule - typical for Disney. I think respect for the fan base would have at least let George write them a synopsis and then they could decide what to keep and what to throw away later. But they didn't even consult someone like their own employee Dave Filoni who had been creating stories with Lucas for years in the Clone Wars project and probably knows the Star Wars world inside the man's head better than anyone. Even the Rebels series he is now doing perfectly mixes the old with fresh new material. What I feared at that time, and supported by the trailers, was that Mr. Abrams and company would go too far in trying to imitate the past. Those fears
turned out to be well founded.

============= mild spoilers below =====================

Now, let me just say that there is enough entertainment value in The Force Awakens to make it not just a good watch but memorable. The production value, of course, is top notch, and the new stars, Boyega, Ridley, and even Oscar Isaac who plays pilot Po Dameron, are wonderful. There are some really great sequences that work - like the Tie Fighter escape, including the space battle in which Finn and Po quickly establish a friendship, or Han Solo and the smuggler confrontation, or even a small exchange where Han offers Rey a job. There's enough of those wonderful moments to satisfy. But I left also feeling that it could have been so much better, and spent a lot of time thinking about how bad the script had been. So what I thought I'd do here is just list a bunch of specific changes I would make if I were in Mr. Abrams shoes. I'm hoping some other fans out there might be having similar thoughts. But these are going to be major spoilers so reader beware.

============ MAJOR spoilers below ===================
  • Han and Leia seemed like they were sleeping most of the film. Such tired acting was surprising since both Ford and Fisher have had continuously active careers, and the newer cast members did so well. Could Abrams have been intimidated so much by his childhood icons that he could not get the chemistry going? I mean, if Han is still galloping across the galaxy on dangerous smuggling operations, he should still have the same cocky attitude his character showed as a young man, just maybe a bit grumpier. If Leia is commanding soldiers, should she not be showing more passion? The few moments of emotion she was allowed to show were horribly forced. I personally would not even have been that ambitious with their roles to begin with. I can imagine Han Solo becoming a collector and trader of vintage space vessels on some remote outpost. I can imagine Leia as a prominant senator in the new republic, where such subdued acting would fit better. 
  • Mark Hamill's one shot was pulled off quite well, but did they really need Rey to meet him face to face at the end of VII, rather than at the beginning of VIII? The first meeting of master and apprentice in any film, not just Luke and Yoda in ESB, is a critical story piece that is now rendered impossible in the next film. I would have had Rey travel to the island with a shot of Luke, in meditation, sensing her presence and taking some action indicating he'd been waiting for something for a long time.
  • The little nods to A New Hope were cute but should have been more subtle. The Millennium Falcon was featured in all three of the original trilogy films, but only in ANH did anyone play hologram chess. Even George Lucas knew you only do that once, and it became one of many signature scenes for which that first film is remembered. Replaying it for fun in this film only diminishes that memory. The same can be said for the trash compactor reference, the Kessel Run banter, and Han's "you changed your hair" quip to Leia. You only do this kind of thing when it makes sense to the story - like the use of the old targeting computer images when Finn needs to use the Falcon's guns.
  • J.J. Abrams seems to agree with the very wrong Hollywood notion that if you want to make something better, just make it bigger. He really lost me in his Star Trek reboot when he decided to blow up the entire planet of Vulcan, one of the most entrenched alien civilizations of that world. When the empire destroys Alderaan in a ANH, it is one of the most emotionally poignant moments because it is Leia's own home world being destroyed before her own eyes. In this film they blow up 5 republic planets in one stroke without any emotional impact at all. Bigger is not better, it is just too overwhelming to contemplate. While the first trilogy's emperor was scary because he was an evil person, the only way could make Supreme Leader Snoke scary was to make him really huge. That only works for little kids. ANH had a little cantina, so let's make it into a BIG club cantina this time! The first cantina worked because it was like a western saloon - it's main job was to be scary. The wonderful thing is that the weirdness of the alien customers was the normal part in that world - they were different only because they were the shady players you might find drinking it up in a darkly lit pub. But in this film, Han tells them not to stare before they go in, and the aliens are now just as alien to our protagonists as to us. Disney just doesn't get science fiction.
  • Maz Kanata wasn't a bad character, almost a Yoda type, but what a boring form they gave her. She looks like ET, but with even less facial features. Couldn't they have come up with something a little more creative? Not Disney - too risky for them.
  • Staying with Maz's place, the minute they walk in some random character calls them in to the First Order, and another calls the Resistance. We know nothing about these characters either before or after those calls. What a lost opportunity for some real story to be inserted. At least wait until we get some time to absorb the environment before upping the plot tension. Such basics.
  • Darth Vader wore a mask primarily because he had to in order to breathe, which gave a good excuse for the now iconic look and sound. Kylo Ren wore a mask because... he wanted to be like Darth Vader? Already that sounds quite weak for a villain, and then he takes it off all the time which diminishes even the mask mystique. Look at all Lucas' villains - either mask all the time or never. Boba Fett never even removed his helmet in the first trilogy and look how great that helped his reputation. It just works better for bad guys not to change their look unless they change their character. Maybe if his face had been more disfigured we would forgive the mask wearing outside of battle, but Disney likes their people looking good on camera I guess.
  • Leia's part was written with no contribution to the story. As a general, she made no decision about the course of the war. As Han's partner and Ren's mom, she did nothing to either contribute to or withdraw from those relationships. She should have either been left out or given a real part, but both of those options were too risky for Disney. So she just recites meaningless lines all day.
  • When Han first steps onto the Millennium Falcon, his words to his co-pilot are "Chewie, we're home". What a silly line for Solo - tailored only to fan sentiment! How about "Look at her, Chewie, almost the same as I left her."
  • The confrontation between Han and his son was a bit hollow because there was no prior build up of any conflict in the relationship. If you are going have two main characters collide and one of them dies, you need a back story to give it weight. Now if episode 8 tries to fill in how Ben grew up, how he turned against his father, and so on, it is too late to save the relationship so it is a bit pointless.
  • So C-3PO has a red arm, but do you really think he would apologize for it when meeting Han instead of waiting until someone asks? Even if you do, wouldn't it be more effective to just let it be and let the fan base ponder about it later?
  • Finally, why make fun of the Jedi mind trick? The mark is not supposed to repeat what the Jedi says like a robot. It is more subtle than that. In ANH, the stormtrooper repeats Obi-wan's words to his buddy as if he thinks he is the one originating the thoughts. And it is easy in that case because there is no consequence for that slip - while letting a prisoner out of a cell will cost a stormtrooper his life. That would be hard for a mind trick to overcome. Is it surprising that George Lucas understands the rules of his fantasy world better than other people do?
I could keep going but that is enough to make the point. It is one thing to leave audiences wondering about the who, what, and why of various elements in the story. But while everyone is trying to do just that, why can't we call Disney to account for their bad script writing?  They need to know that if they wanted to "get it right", the trick was to give the creators time and freedom, something Disney hates to be liberal with. Just throwing money at it doesn't work. Let's hope they learn something on the next time around.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Stellar Performance

When I first saw trailers for Chris Nolan's Interstellar movie, it didn't look all that interesting. But when critics started raving about it I began to think we might have, at long last, a science fiction offering that would add some serious original thinking to the genre. It has been a while since I'd felt that kind of anticipation waiting to see a film, and when I did I was not disappointed, at least with respect to the film-going experience. The overall production was really great - the beautiful space-scapes, the dramatic performances, especially from Matthew McConaughey, and the interesting and well written script, with a good balance of plot, character development, and action. I was often on the edge of my seat. Of course, what got me most excited as I watched along was that there was a bonafide effort to provide scientific credibility to the events on screen, which is what makes science fiction so fun. In many ways, Nolan attempted to achieve some of what made 2001 great, and on that count, I'd say he made a "stellar" effort, but nowhere near on par with Kubrick's classic. Still, he left a lot to talk about, and so I just had to write on it.

<<spoilers below this point>>

I'll start with the good stuff, but please note the spoiler alert if you still plan to see it because I don't think it would have the same impact with too much advance info. The premise of the whole story is one that I have not seen treated realistically before. I think the scenario that creates a dying planet would be something involving rising global temperatures or ozone depletion which make it impossible to grow food in quantity, etc. Although they did not convey that very well, and I would be inclined to believe more firmly in human ingenuity to solve such problems, the basic concept is credible enough to provide a basis for the story. I liked the interview Cooper had with the school showing how a global plight on the scale of generations would start to re-shape the values of society. Could they have illustrated that without postulating a re-think of the moon landings? I'm not sure.

Another theme running through the film which was given more credible attention than I've ever seen, was the practical consequences of all these theories of gravity and black holes that we've known about for years but never been able to test in the lab. To see 23 years pass by on their orbiting ship while the rest of the crew spent a few hours on Miller's water covered planet surface was striking when you realize it could actually happen that way. Of course, there were always little details that didn't work. In the case mentioned, it was that the energy that would be needed to get out of the gravity well and back to the ship would be enormous. I don't think they would have been able to get back at all. But the idea that the tidal forces would be so great on a planet orbiting a black hole that there would be a giant wave constantly circling the planet, flattening everything in its wake, was a tad compelling. Another example was the wormhole that was supposedly placed there by someone. The problem there is that the only thing known to bend space is gravity, so there is no reason to believe a wormhole could stably exist without massive gravitational forces holding it together. These would make travel to the other side itself involve huge time shifts and intact communication through the portal very difficult if not impossible. Speaking of communication, the explanation given why they didn't know the beacon on Miller's planet was no longer transmitting all those years was because of the time shift. That's quite clever, but aside from them already being able to figure that out beforehand, the signal would have been so slowed down as not be recognizable. And one more thing - their scientist correctly describes the opening of the wormhole as being a 3-dimensional sphere, and its depiction was visually stunning, but if you extend the analogy, you would only be able to look though it as a porthole, not as a lens capturing the entire field of view as it is shown in the film. Of course, that would  not have looked as cool.


One of the most striking new creations in the film was the treatment of the TARS and CASE robots. The way the film introduced them and all their capabilities was perfect, as if it was just normal course of business for everyone but the audience. The mechanical design was very original - just rectangular cylinders with apparently movable hinges. Only a computer could coordinate such bulky parts with such precision. Watching it turn into a rolling wheel to get across the water was amazing. And I believe that they correctly predicted that the human-machine interface of the future would include personality settings like humor, honesty, and discretion. I don't think we've seen a robot become a serious character that convincingly since the HAL9000.

But in the midst of all that accurate scientific theory lay a great deal of nonsense. The big one that hit me as I walked out of the theater was the obvious time paradox. If the only chance to the save the human race depends on that same human race in the future, how could the future human race exist to save itself? I guess they wanted it to seem like this 5th dimensional technology could shape the past like a landscape, but that doesn't make the paradox go away. And an awful lot of hand waving was done for the end sequence, even though it provided a wonderful closure to the story. The ability to manipulate time and even gravity is still well in the realm of fantasy today. Saying the answer lies behind the impenetrable event horizon, and then using the theoretical ergosphere to see inside, is again a clever idea but let's be real, if it was just a matter of hidden data, it wouldn't be that hard to come by.

Another odd item in the script department was how they played up Dr. Mann, the original expedition leader, as being such a noble, inspiring person, and then when they find him he turns out to be the most despicable and cowardly character in the film. I suppose you could argue that if a coward knew the human race was doomed, he would jump at the chance to be one of the only twelve people to save their own skin. Either way it made for a great plot twist. The subsequent scene where he ruined their mother ship prompting Cooper to dock while spinning and descending toward the planet was not only a cliff-hanger but one of the most stunning space visuals in the film. Watch it here (full) or  here (music only) if it hasn't been removed yet. Despite all the flaws, I think sci-fi fans will find this film enjoyable not only because it was well executed, but because it gave more respect to real science than most do.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Word of Thanks

When I began writing this blog, I had no idea I would have enough to say on this topic to fill 100 entries, but as that day has now arrived, I find myself less and less inclined to say much more. Thus, I will include here an entry index sorted either by title of the work or topic of discussion to encourage visitors to browse through. And speaking of visitors, I must offer an anonymous thank you to you readers. I have come to find that even though we never meet, somehow you motivate us bloggers to keep putting in the extra effort to make it worth the read. I may move on to other topics in the future but shall leave this here for those who, like my Father who is no longer with us, have a love for science both in the real world and in the world of fiction.

If you see something in this list that you either like or hate, I invite you to click the link and leave a comment. I'm always interested. And if you're reading too Dad, thanks for the inspiration!

MOVIES
12 Monkeys (1995)
2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
2010 The Year We Make Contact (1984)
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
5 Million Years to Earth (1967)
The Abyss (1989)
Aeon Flux (2005)
A.I. (2001)
Alien (1979)
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Animatrix (2003)
Avatar (2009)
The Battle of L.A. (2011)
Blade Runner (1982)
Buckaroo Bonzai (1984)
Buck Rogers (1979)
Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Close Encounters (1977)
Cocoon (1985)
Colossus - The Forbin Project (1970)
Contact (1997)
The Core (2003)
Cowboys and Aliens (2011)
Dark City (1998)
Dark Star (1974)
Deja Vu (2006)
District 9 (2009)
Dune (1984)
Enemy Mine (1985)
E.T. (1982)
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
The Fifth Element (1997)
First Men in the Moon (1964)
Flash Gordon (1980)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Frequency (2000)
Gattaca (1997)
Interstellar (2014)
The Island (2005)
John Carter of Mars (2012)
Jurassic Park (1993)
The Last Starfighter (1984)
Logan's Run (1976)
The Martian (2015)
The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003)
Minority Report (2002)
Moon (2009)
Next (2007)
One Million Years B.C. (1966)
Phase IV (1974)
The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)
Pitch Black (2000)
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Primer (2004)
Prometheus (2012)
Quatermass and The Pit (1967)
Screamers (1995)
Serenity (2005)
Silent Running (1972)
Source Code (2011)
Soylent Green (1973)
Sphere (1998)
Starman (1984)
Starship Troopers (1997)
Star Trek - The Movie (1979)
Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek III - The Search for Spock (1984)
Star Trek IV,V,VI (1986-1991)
Star Trek - Reboot (2009)
Star Wars Trilogy (1977-1983)
Star Wars - The Force Awakens (2015)
Surrogates (2009)
The Terminator (1984+)
Them (1954)
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
THX1138 (1971)
TimeCrimes (2007)
Timeline (2003)
The Time Machine (1960 & 2002)
Titan A.E. (2000)
Total Recall (1990)
Tron (1982)
Tron Legacy (2010)
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
War Games (1983)
War of the Worlds (1953)
Westworld (1973)


TELEVISION
Babylon 5 (Michael Straczynski)
The Clone Wars (George Lucas)
Clone Wars - Overlords (George Lucas)
Firefly (Joss Whedon)
Land of the Lost (Sid & Marty Krofft)
The Martian Chronicles (1979)
The Outer Limits
Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry)
Dr. Who

BOOKS
City (Clifford Simak)
Dune (Frank Herbert)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
I, Robot (Isaac Asimov)
The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury)
The Time Machine (H.G. Wells)
War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells)

CREATORS
Michael Crichton
Ray Harryhausen

TOPICS
Dystopian Films
Film Re-Mastering
Force Fields
Humanoid Aliens
Interstellar Travel
Invisibility Cloaks
Mind and Machine
Miniaturization
Sci Fi Pulp Fiction
Simulated Gravity
The Three Laws of Robotics
Teleportation Devices
What is Sci-Fi?

Something not in the list? It might be here.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Prometheus Has Landed

After finally going to see Ridley Scott's new movie about the post-constructed origins of his original classic, I have found myself pondering a new question: How does a science fiction author decide what to explain and what not to? We can look to the first Alien film for some excellent guidance. In that film, the origins of the alien creature and the ship that it was found in are never explained. This worked very well because the question was not really relevant to the plot and the mystery that it engendered added intrigue to the story, not frustration or confusion, and ultimately led to the making of Prometheus. An example of something that was explained in Alien is the reason the Nostromo was beckoned to the planet in the first place. That detail was central to the plot and was dramatically revealed at just the right point by Ian Holm's disembodied head. With these examples in front of us, what can we make of all the unexplained material in Prometheus? This film is by the same director and within the very same story arc, and yet it is riddled with illogical nonsense that attempts to get a pass simply for being unexplained!

=================[mild spoilers follow]=========================

But before I get into that, let me squarely lay out the best and worst aspects of the movie. The best elements were in the technical arena - acting, direction, and the stunning visuals which make the film enjoyable to watch. The credit lands squarely in director Scott's lap. The vast landscapes are obvious, but I particularly remember the final scenes of the crashing ship as being quite stunning. They must have had some help from CGI but it sure looked convincingly real. The worst element was hands down the completely unnecessary final scene. It was obviously an attempt to connect the story with the original Alien but it was poorly done, was in the wrong place in the film, and was overly gratuitous. It was so far from the subtlety you would expect from director Scott that I'm loathe to believe he approved of it. It also spoiled a perfectly good ending scene just before it. Anyway, if you are still reading and planning to see the film spoiler free, don't go any further.

=================[major spoilers below]=========================

Going back to the unexplained, lets look at the main thesis of the film. The opening scene of Prometheus seems to show the creation of life on a lifeless planet (presumably earth) when one of the "Engineers" (so named because alien is used for the creatures) distributes his DNA into the water cycle. The idea that either life itself or its molecular building blocks came to earth from somewhere else, and that this event jump started evolution, has been around at least a few centuries under the name panspermia, or more recently, exogenesis. It hung around even within scientific circles because to this day science has nothing that even comes close to a viable theory for the origin of life. I always found that amusing since the space seed theory doesn't explain life's origin either - it just places it somewhere else where it may have been met with better conditions... uh, right. Let's move on.

But the film doesn't even try to be scientific on this matter. First, there is clearly vegetation on the planet already when the Engineer arrives. If they did some terraforming in advance, then where did the DNA for the plants come from? It is made of the same molecules as animal life. Let us then assume that the deposited DNA is the seed that begins animal evolution. We find out later that the Engineer's DNA matches up almost perfectly with ours. If the evolution of life is based on random mutations (as believed today), then the chances the end product would match the DNA seed material is absolutely zero. If instead we are to believe the Engineers continually visited Earth to guide the process, then why would they need to seed it with their own DNA to begin with? How about this... the Engineer at the beginning looks exactly like the ones seen in 2089, but if the planet in the opening is earth, they would have been separated by roughly a billion years. Wouldn't the Engineers' race have evolved in that time too? If the opening represented a more recent event on another planet as an illustration, you have the same problem in reverse. They were doing the same exact thing a billion years ago? What an inconsistent mess!

There are lots of unexplained things that can be chalked up to the weirdness of alien fiction, like why the mother ship in the opening is different from the one at the end, the meaning of the mural on the ceiling of the armory chamber, or that big stone head bust which they use on all the movie posters. It may look cool, but it's just a random item in the film. On the other hand, there are also lots of unexplained things that look like oversights or just poor story telling. I've listed below some that struck me as I left the theater:
  • Ms. Vickers has a state of the art living quarters complete with a robotic medical chamber that performs automatic surgical procedures. We find out later at a critical point in the plot that it is only configured to operate on males. Why was it installed in her quarters again? Ok, we also find out it was meant for Weyland - but for him only? Did his own daughter approve this decision?
  • David reports that he has been studying the origins of human language to its common roots and thus believes somehow that he can communicate with the Engineers. When the opportunity comes to do so, the Engineer responds to his query by going on a rampage. No communication ever takes place, an element that might have added some interest to the story. Instead, we don't even know what question was asked.
  • One of my few complaints about the original Alien is how the creature grew so fast without consuming food. At least that was off screen and took a few days. In one scene in this film, the creature in the operating chamber grows rapidly before our eyes in a matter of seconds. That's just not biologically possible even for an alien.
  • If the planet they landed on was not the Engineers' home planet, but instead a laboratory for military experimentation, why would its location show up on ancient cave paintings around the world? The Engineers did not seem to have any good reason to reveal such information to their experimental subjects.
  • If David's goal was to capture the alien offspring in cryogenic stasis, why didn't he just keep Dr. Shaw sedated? Instead he lets her awaken and tells her she's pregnant? He seemed so much more cunning in other scenes.
  • I was reminded of this one on another review site - David finds some green goo on the wall when they first enter the caves. That usually means some dangerous creature is lurking around. It is never explained and never appears again, and it turns out there is nothing living in the cave system when they first arrive.
  • Before David effectively poisons Holloway, he asks him "How far would you be willing to go to find your answer?". When Holloway answers that he would do anything, this supposedly gives David a justification for his action. Since David is a robot, why does he need justification? He does not seek justification for other unethical actions in the film. But even if he was programmed to seek it, Holloway's answer does not logically provide it! The answer assumes willing participation. David gave Holloway no choice in the matter. A human might make such an erroneous transfer, but not a robot driven by logic.
One of the more interesting characters in the film was the android David. As I witnessed the completely unethical methods he used to achieve his master's goals, including outright deception, it reminded me of the rationale behind Asimov's laws of robotics. David certainly broke the first law by performing a fatal experiment on Holloway. In a world where robots have no constraints on their behavior, wouldn't it be impossible for humans to trust them?

The final oddity I have to mention is that for a prequel, there really isn't much connection to the actual events in Alien. Even though the Engineer's ship crashes in the end, we know it is not the ship found by the Nostromo because, among other things, the pilot leaves his cockpit. Indeed, I have read that the planet they visit is not even the same one as in the original. It almost seems like a smooth connection had been thought out but the script was changed at the last minute. In fact, most of my complaints are with the script, and I hear the re-work was done by Damon Lindelof, one of the writers for the Lost TV series. I would conclude he is probably the wrong person to be writing science fiction. Look at all the unexplained stuff he left over at the end of Lost, and it got those fans upset about it too. I wouldn't be paying it much attention if this film had not represented such a historic opportunity, one that I'm sure will not come around again.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Now You See Me...

If I had to name one technology from science fiction that I would love to see turned into reality, it would be the invisibility cloak. The most famous examples that I can think of are the wrist devices used by the Predator aliens and the cloaking devices used by the Romulans in Star Trek. It's kind of interesting that both literary examples put the technology in the hands of the enemy. Maybe that's because we Americans consider hiding behind a cloak as a cowardly fighting tactic. But in the real U.S. military, I'm certain governments have spent millions on the problem. Partial solutions have been implemented in the past. Submarines, for example, were invented for this very reason. Smart missiles designed to fly below radar while navigating local terrain and stealth fighter planes that directly avoid radar detection. The fact that complete invisibility has never been achieved illustrates the near impossible ubiquity that such an invisibility cloak presents.

A while back Mercedes came out with a fuel cell powered vehicle and decided to promote the concept by creating an invisible car. They draped LED mats on one side of a B-class hatchback and put a camera on the other side, then hooked them together so the camera image could be transmitted live to the LED array on the other side. The end result can be seen in the promotional video below:


I show this to illustrate at least one way to approach a cloaking technology. Absorb the incident light and then re-transmit it on the opposite side in all directions. The reason it doesn't quite work is that light doesn't just pass through an object through its center - it comes at it from every possible angle. As can be seen in the Mercedes clip, the invisible car effect only works in one direction and from a specific distance away, and it requires objects on the camera side to be sufficiently far away. To accomplish the real effect, an object would need to be covered with tiny cameras, each of which could capture video in every direction. It would also be covered with tiny projectors, each of which could transmit (different) video in every direction. All these would need to be connected to a network backbone so that every camera could send real time data to every projector. Even if this mesh of physical equipment could be brought down to nanotech scales, the wiring and bandwidth requirements would render it physically unworkable.

Most of the real research today in cloaking centers around a technique that deflects the path of light around an object. This is usually accomplished with new types of composite materials that can produce negative refraction. So far it's only been done either on a microscopic scale or only in one direction. For larger objects, the problems described above don't go away. Think of it this way - even if you wanted to hide a perfect sphere, there is still a beam of photons traveling between every two points on the sphere in both directions. It is unlikely that any system of angle deflection could handle such a complex problem. I say unlikely only because our understanding of the physics of negative refraction is so new that I can't rule out some new discovery that might actually do the trick. I just wouldn't put money on it.

There is one final method of achieving invisibility, which is to somehow allow the light to pass right through the object, rendering it temporarily transparent. If I were writing a story that required a cloaking device, this is the method I would choose to play with. Could you alter the matter to prevent its interaction with light? Even better, could you transfer the visible spectrum to another medium that does not interact with matter? Neutrinos pass through anything, but they are hard little buggers to harness. If you want to just cloak a human being, modulating the light down to the RF range would allow it to pass right through and then be modulated back again on the other side, but the loss in directional focus might kill that idea. What about ultrasound? I've heard there are ways to focus sound waves down to the microscopic range. The problem is that it bounces off every density change in your body. No matter what you do, the directional topology problem is still there, but at least direct transfer gets the information to its target location and puts it slightly closer to the realm of possibility.


The writers of Star Trek never really tried to explain how a cloaking device actually worked, and that's generally the way it goes in most of the sci-fi that I've encountered so far. It would be neat to see more attempts at explaining to readers how an invisibility cloak could plausibly become a reality.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Prometheus Rising

Waiting for Ridley Scott's new Alien prequel has been a very unique experience for me. Having experienced the original Alien as a teenager, and recognizing that it achieved classic status apart from all the successors that followed, there is a certain giddiness about the fact that Scott is returning to the franchise. At the same time, being an adult, I don't want to raise my expectations unreasonably high and then be sorely disappointed. For example, when the first trailers appeared it was very exciting because you could tell at least the look of the film would be good, and that is not surprising given this particular director's strengths. But as more trailers followed, I began to worry that the story would be too simplistic and that they were revealing too much of it too soon. After all, it was the script that contributed to the first film's success just as much as the direction, and the writing crew is a new team with a generation of legacy to deal with.

This push and pull continued even as the marketing tool of the new millennium, the viral video, was utilized by the promoters of the film. The setting of the first clip, a future TED conference in 2023, was a really great idea, and it showed there was some thought put into the pre-history of the prequel itself, but the content of the speech was overdramatized and Guy Pearce's execution was poor.

Then everything changed when the second viral video made its full debut, with Michael Fassbender as the android David. Not only was it executed wonderfully but it showed some real science fiction worthy thought behind it. It is portrayed as a marketing video for the Weyland corporation's new line of "8th generation" android, and features a faceless interviewer asking David various questions. The extraordinary part comes when the robot is asked "David, what makes you sad?". The android begins to recite very general topics that are associated with sadness like war, poverty, and cruelty while also shedding profuse tears from both eyes and exhibiting just a hint of sorrow in his expression. Then he adds, "I understand human emotions, although I do not feel them myself". I practically leapt for joy! After years of watching robots portrayed as either emotionless or as actually having feelings, someone finally had enough insight to predict that when we humans eventually do build robots, we will program them to respond as we would ourselves, even though the emotional responses would simply be mimicked, not felt. It would of course be up to the designer to decide whether or not to include in the robot's programming an awareness of this distinction as shown in the video, but doing so makes it even more fun. David goes on to explain why he has been programmed to exhibit emotion, including "making it easier for my human counterparts to interact with me". I personally don't care all that much about where the space jockey came from, but if the script has some of that kind of insight within it, then there's no need to fear disaster. To top it off, the video ends with a close-up showing the Weyland Industries logo perfectly embedded within the android's fingerprint. Superb.

Click here for my thoughts on the film after its release.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Nuclear Ants

A lot of old black-and-white science fiction films were created in the 1950's. Most of them were gloriously bad, some were decent, but only a handful could be described as great movie making. I recently re-watched one such film that I remember first seeing as a kid with my Father. It was a 1954 film called simply "Them!" (yes, including the punctuation), which is not the kind of title you would expect to be associated with anything of quality. But Dad never watched anything that didn't sport an intellectual angle, and even as a kid I could tell this one was a bit different from the usual monster movie. Made during the cold war era, it carries a message about the dangers of using Earth's natural resources as a test laboratory for a science so new (nuclear fission) and an application so destructive (nuclear weapons) that it is impossible to predict the unintended consequences.

I am inclined to forgive the writers in 1954, when nuclear science was still young, for coming up with the now ridiculous and overused premise that fallout radiation can cause genetic mutations sufficient enough to turn ordinary creatures into giant monsters. At least this film gave the ants 9 years of successive generations to do it. In reality, it should take closer to several million years and would require environmental conditions tailored to produce gigantism. But once you get past that, everything else is approached with such scientific rigor, thanks to the role played by Edmund Gwenn, the chief scientist assigned to the case. He and his also scientist daughter actually postulate the incredible theory of what's happening just by examining the footprints. It is they who hatch the plan (pardon the pun) to eliminate the nest, investigate and discover two queens have escaped the New Mexico desert where the original nuclear testing was done in 1945, and convince the U.S. military of the urgency to find them and hunt them down. A 24-hour media monitoring effort ensues to look for any evidence of their location. One queen ends up settling onto a Navy ship which is eventually sunk, and the other heads to the underground storm drain system of Los Angeles, where they have to go in and rescue two children before they can torch the place.

Watching it now, I can really appreciate the quality of the screenplay, acting, and direction.  The focus is on the story and characters more than the ants themselves, which are only shown when necessary to advance the plot elements, and with a good balance of action and drama. You also have to admire the fact that the ants were all life-size mechanically operated replicas. Given that, they don't look half bad. The Wikipedia write-up says it was nominated for its special effects and that it was the first "big bug" movie, bestowing it with at least some historic precedent.

Below is an original trailer. Don't be too put off by the dramatic music and opening titles - it was pretty standard for the time period. And its interesting that the beginning quote in this clip is actually uttered in the movie by the scientist in a private meeting, not proclaimed by a TV announcer. Yes, Hollywood marketing has been around a long time.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Barsoom

Back when I was in grade school, my father worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory during a time when they were beginning to explore the nearby planets in our solar system. He used to bring home photos of flybys over Jupiter from the Pioneer 10 and 11 satellites and had a whole collection of Mars and Venus flybys from the Mariner days. These were high quality photo prints which I was able to grasp were not only historically important but rare to obtain in the format I was seeing them. I can still remember the day when he brought home a set of photos of the surface of Mars, the first ever taken, from the Viking program. Viking had two vehicles, an Orbiter and a Lander, and my Dad was on the Mars Lander team. You just don't forget things like that.

Mars came to my mind again recently when reading an article that mentioned the upcoming release of a sci-fi film called John Carter of Mars. What got my attention was that he talked as if it was a long awaited event, and yet I hadn't heard of it before. I looked it up and discovered it is an old series from the first half of the 20th century created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although that name sounded really familiar, I couldn't quite put a finger on it, so it was back to googling again and then a surprise when I found the origin of my recollection - Burroughs also created the original Tarzan series! That put the upcoming film in a new light, because it is clear now that we have a story that has some staying power, written by someone with proven success. According to the Wikipedia link, Burroughs grew up during the pulp fiction era of American literature and actually wrote a great number of science fictions stories and serials which were published in parallel with his Tarzan adventure series. Long awaited indeed.


It's kind of amazing how much of a role our nearest planetary neighbor has played in the history of sci-fi literature. I managed to find this fairly comprehensive survey of this very topic. What's really neat about the list is that, for each entry, it describes how the red planet itself and its Martian inhabitants were depicted. Two things about it stick out for me. One is the wildly speculative nature of works prior to the satellite programs in the 1960's. The second is the vast array of authors that have dabbled in the subject. All the big names are there - Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury (of course), Wells (of course again), and even Philip K. Dick. Also listed there with a range from 1912 to 1943 is Burroughs own series in which Mars is referred to as Barsoom by its warlike inhabitants.

Now I don't expect to find much thought provoking science fiction in JCM. Both the film trailers and the nature of the period in which they were written (Buck Rogers, etc.), tells me it is more of an adventure story than anything else, a Tarzan in space, if you will. Add to that the Disney label and you have a nice family adventure film. I'm eager to see if they will try to explain away the imaginative world of E.R. Burroughs on this 100 year anniversary of the first work, or just throw reality unapologetically out the window. The historic nature of the material means I am compelled to go see it even if just to be able to comment on it here.

Well, when JCM finally came out in theaters, it flew by like an owl in the night. I was so busy tending to the birth of my second child that I had to wait for it on pay-per-view. Word was that it didn't do so well and I was eager to see what had happened. I'll begin with the good points. As I had expected, one of the strongest aspects of the film was the overall story. All the elements of great storytelling were there, alongside a very colorful and well developed set of characters which were in fact well cast and rather well portrayed. Another striking aspect of the film was the effectiveness of the CGI motion capture used on all the Thark characters. Although James Cameron pioneered the technique in Avatar, this movie seamlessly maps the actors' performances onto a body type much less similar to the human form. The Tharks display a wide range of emotion on an elongated face with eyes at the top and two large tusks protruding from the cheeks. They use four limbs with ease and can lock tusks in combat and it all looks so natural. And I must say that some of the best performances come from the Thark characters like Tars (Willem Dafoe) and Sola (Samantha Morton). Heck, even the martian dog Woola turns out to be a great character.


It is sad that in spite of all this, the film's fall from grace is mainly due to a barrage of technical problems. The music isn't quite right here, the directing could be better there, the dialogue just a bit too corny in places, and oh the editing! Critics rightly pick at the opening scene for being way to early and involved, many of the battle scenes are chaotic and hard to follow, and there are glaring holes that seem like they were cut out to save running time. Sola's origins, a crucial part of her character arc, are passed over with a line. John Carter's remorse for not being able to save his family, another crucial character element, is flashed back at a turning point in the film without having introduced it in the first place. Perhaps they cut out his telling of the story to Deja Thoris, which would explain how a glance at his wedding ring could remind her of his past love when no one ever explained to her what a wedding ring is. Someone must have thought that all the ubiquitous action scenes were more important to the story than the character arcs. I hope they notice what happened at the box office.


I've heard that Burroughs' original tale is much richer in content and perhaps it needed to be broken into several films to do it justice. To answer my original curiosity about its connection to reality, it takes place in the mid 1800's, and there's an implication that the planet Mars is on its way out. However, there's so much that reaches into the world of fantasy - eternal beings, humanoid martians, voodoo like energy sources, transporters based on incantations - that I suppose it doesn't much matter. What does matter is the contribution that Mr. Burroughs' made the world of science fiction.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Size Matters

As a kid growing up in L.A. county, my family and I were able to visit Disneyland about once a year. It still seems like a dream being able to get in for $12.50 back in '82. One of my favorite rides at the time (second after the old Submarine Voyage) was called Adventure Thru Inner Space. It was a perfect mix of serious science and fascinatingly creative theater. There is a really accurate digital re-creation of the ride here on Youtube that I think anyone who's never experienced it should take a look at. It remains a neat experience, even if the science is a bit outdated by today's standards. Its entrance way is now replaced by the Star Tours ride, but most of it originally went underneath Tomorrow Land and came out on the other side of the walkway. The fact that the bulk of that space has been converted to a ride modeled after a video game (Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters) illustrates the chasm between Walt Disney's original vision for Tomorrow Land, which was to inspire people's imaginations about the future of our society, versus what it is today.

I was able to finally introduce my 4 year old to Disneyland recently and unlike back then, now have the opportunity to let him re-live the experience of his favorite rides via online videos. I found myself also showing him the rides his Dad went on when he was a kid, and he really loved Adventure Thru Inner Space too. Now he asks me questions about atoms and molecules, which is pretty cool. But the point of all this is to talk about the possibility of miniaturization, the basic premise of that old Disney ride, and the topic of several science fiction films over the years. The one in particular that I think stands out above the rest is 1966's Fantastic Voyage, about a journey into the human body.

What makes Fantastic Voyage unique is that it could possibly be the only attempt by a science fiction film to take the idea seriously and remain successful for its time. Miniaturization has been the realm of fantasy since as far back as Lewis Carroll's trip to Wonderland. But most attempts at mixing the idea with science today end up as comedy. The reasons for that will be touched on later, but the opening text in Voyage (quoted below) makes clear the intended purpose:

"The makers of this film are indebted to the many doctors, technicians, and research scientists, whose knowledge and insight helped guide this production"

You can sense here a certain pride in being affiliated with science that permeated the Apollo Program era. It's no coincidence that the tone of Fantastic Voyage feels similar to the Inner Space ride which opened at Disneyland a year after the film came out. In it, the team that is sent out to save a diplomat's life by entering the man's body is made up exclusively of scientists of different disciplines, and you can just watch how the plot is designed to illustrate all the latest medical knowledge of that time, much of which is still basically accurate even though we've come quite a long way since. Unfortunately, the film was too ambitious for the special effects capabilities of the day. It is rather amusing now to watch various body parts and functions resembling cellophane and cotton balls, the clumsy overlays, and the obvious wire suspensions. That said, some of the footage still holds up well even today. Plus, it has a pretty good dramatic profile based on both the perils of the journey and some Cold War Era spy infiltration themes, performed by some then big names in film like Stephen Boyd, Edmond O'Brien, and of course, Raquel Welch in her heyday. The trailer below illustrates the visual effects well, but you have to see it to get the more scientific side.



Although miniaturization is a fun concept, its biggest problem is being really tough to swallow scientifically. The problems are just too numerous to go into, but let's look at a few. Most stories depict the shrunken targets as being much lighter than the originals. That not only violates the conservation of matter and energy law, but the masses of all the fundamental particles, like electrons and protons, are physical constants tied up with all sorts of atomic and chemical processes. Thus, the idea violates the entire basis of particle physics. If you ignore that, the fundamental forces like gravity and electromagnetism fortunately scale down just fine, but then you have the interface issue to deal with. A shrunken person's tiny molecules would no longer be able to chemically interact with the larger ones in the environment. They could not breathe normal air or eat normal food. They could not even expose their bodies to a normal environment due to the enormous relative pressures and temperatures provided by the larger molecules with huge relative momentum. In Voyage, the crew is miniaturized inside a vessel with a closed environment. If that environment were miniaturized along with them, it could push the problem out to the hull, but there are even worse issues after that. If the molecules had reduced mass, that would affect their energy levels and completely change how they interact with light and other EM radiation, making it impossible for their retinas to see anything. All this just represents the problems inherent with the final miniaturized state, but what about the miniaturization process itself? What possible mechanism could accomplish such a feat? I should also add that each of these issues apply just as well to the opposite process, namely, expanding things to larger than life size. Is there a name for that like "enlargification"?

Apparently, James Cameron and Shawn Levy are working on a remake of Fantastic Voyage as we speak. I'm not expecting the scientific angle of any remake to measure up even to its 1966 inspiration, but I believe there is a way one could pull it off. There is a hot area of research today where the word "miniaturization" meets reality, namely, Nanotechnology. This is where people are actually building machines at the molecular level. Often featured in sci-fi stories are armies of nano-robots that work together to accomplish a task. Although it would require more advancement in tiny antenna and data storage and processing technologies, it is not inconceivable that a remotely controlled mini-robot could become a reality. The next step might be using the mini-robot as a surrogate so that you could experience the world from the robot's perspective, and do things like travel vicariously into a human body to assist medical treatments. Given Cameron's past disregard for real science in his sci-fi undertakings, I don't expect he'll take anything close to that approach for his remake, but it might be an interesting idea on which to base a novel. Any takers?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Warp Drives and Wormholes

What would science fiction be without some means of interstellar travel? It's true that some aliens can be imagined as hidden in our own solar system, such as the ancient guides of Kubrick's 2001 or the underground Selenites from First Men in the Moon, and some may already be here on the earth, hidden from view, such as the pilots in War of the Worlds, or the NTI's in The Abyss. But most aliens we read of come from much farther away. If they are to interact with humans, either they need to come to us, we need to go to them, or we both need to meet somewhere in the middle. In most cases, this needs to happen within a reasonable time frame, and this is the fundamental problem. You can't simply call upon some highly advanced technology to explain it because the laws of physics prohibit anything from traveling faster than light. Speedy as that may be, it is not fast enough. It still takes over 4 years for light to reach us from our nearest solar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. Thus, all sorts of creative fiction has arisen to help us accept that a space ship can hop across the galaxy and get back in time for dinner. I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at some of them. This entry is thus dedicated to the impossible ubiquity of short duration interstellar travel.

Traveling involves basically three physical variables: speed, distance, and time. To get somewhere faster, you must either increase your speed, shorten the distance to the destination, or somehow slow down local time for the traveler. Let's take a look at how each of these methods have been utilized by writers in the past.

GOING FASTER
This is the method of choice for two of the biggest franchises in sci-fi - Star Wars and Star Trek. Star Trek alone made the term warp speed a pop culture substitute for describing anything going really fast. But what exactly is it? Roddenberry's literary team had a real knack even back in the 60's for coming up with fictional names for technologies that sounded almost plausible. Just the term "warp" brings to mind relativistic concepts of bent space or time. I always assumed that they were simply fractions of light speed, but that made the stars which would fly off the edge of the view screen seem ridiculous. Apparently the intent was to represent multiples of the speed of light. This Wikipedia entry states that the very first pilot episode of TOS, The Cage, refers to the warp drive as producing a time warp, which gets around the Einstein limit but not the method used to accomplish it. Later episodes link warp speed to subspace, which is also used to explain how communication messages can get back to Starfleet faster than light travels. But subspace is just a made up term with no analog in the world of science. Of course, the opposite of subspace would be the equally made up hyperspace, which is the method of explanation chosen in the Star Wars franchise, enabled by the so-called hyperdrive.

SHRINKING THE DISTANCE
The only way to find a path shorter than a straight line between two points in space is to just bend the space, which is theoretically possible thanks to General Relativity. The only viable candidate in existing theory to accomplish this is an Einstein-Rosen bridge. It is a kind of tunnel through space-time, commonly referred to as a wormhole. We see this method used for example at the space stations Babylon 5 and DS9. What always made me chuckle is that an E-R bridge lives at the center of a black hole, where ordinary matter would be crushed under the enormous gravitational forces. Also, there's no way to control where you might end up on the other side, and even if you could enter it, the journey would be almost instantaneous, not through some long swirly corridor as is often depicted. I've recently read about more stable types of wormhole theories, but they require an exotic form of negative energy that probably does not even exist. There does seem, however, to be enough wiggle room at the boundaries of physics (see this link) with which you could build a barely plausible wormhole fiction.

SLOWING THE CLOCK
The final way to shorten interstellar travel time is to slow down the aging process of the traveller, and the most plausible method has more to do with biology than physics. I'm talking about the cryogenic freeze, as we encounter aboard the Nostromo in Alien, or the Hunter-Gratzner in Pitch Black. Of course, this doesn't really count as "speedy" interstellar travel because even if the crew doesn't age, the rest of the world outside still does, and it doesn't make the actual travel time any shorter. But at least it is within the realm of future technological advancement. If you take a more physics level approach you can slow down time itself by traveling close to the speed of light, where Special Relativity says you won't age as fast as the world outside. But you don't escape the problem of everyone you know back on Earth dying of old age before you reach your destination. And besides, traveling at that speed requires so much energy you couldn't do it by bringing fuel along (as illustrated in this cool analysis of the Relativistic Rocket).

Think of any science fiction book, film, or series that involves space travel and you'll most likely encounter one of these methods being used. Anything else is bound to start crossing over into pure fantasy.