Saturday, May 29, 2010

Oooooooo...The Core!

Before jumping to any conclusions, let me say right off that I'm going to talk about a movie that is painfully ridiculous - the characters, dialogue, storyline, and the scientific conjectures are all difficult to swallow. The movie is called The Core and it was released in 2003. The only reason I'm writing about it, aside from being reminded by a great article in Scientific American this month about new discoveries regarding a new phase transition in the composition of the Earth's core (which you can read about here), is because it was such a bad ass idea for a movie. A government experiment interferes with the Earth's inner core rotation and they have to send a team down in a ship to start it back up again. It's like the fish that got away. You say to yourself, man, that could have a been a great sci-fi movie. But as hard as I tried to be forgiving, it was just riddled from start to finish with nonsense, so I am commenting on it as a form of catharsis. There will be spoilers here but I don't consider that a liability.

Now you might want to point out to me that Jules Verne stole the idea first with his classic Journey to the Center of the Earth. But that story and others like it are really so far out of the reality scale that they should be classified as fantasy. In Verne's time, it was science fiction only because absolutely nothing was known about the Earth's core. This movie tries to loosely base the events on current science.

The first big problem in taking a vessel beneath the Earth is the absolutely enormous temperatures and pressures involved. Most materials would melt or be crushed. So they have some scientist create a new element with a fullerene type structure and ultimate integrity. Somehow this translates to it being able not only to withstand huge pressure but also temperature (a perfect insulator), and then converts the external forces into energy which somehow turns back on itself and creates more stability. Gee, what a phenomenally versatile molecule that must be, especially since if you are going to use it to build a hollow shell, the molecule used does not solve the problem of the negative pressure against the ship's hull. That requires enormous bonding force between molecules which is a property of chain-like structures, not perfectly spherical ones. It also requires minimizing the bending torque as you might find in a spherical ship design, but in the movie, the ship is cylindrical.

In order to see under ground they are supposed to have created some type of beam technology that can go right through lead, but then somehow reflects back off objects behind the lead block as soft as human tissue - huh? And this is supposed to work through a myriad of crystalline compounds beneath the earth. Hey, maybe the writers could have just used a seismic wave technology and convert the reflection profile into visual images via computer? Wait, isn't that how they see the core from the surface today? As explained in the movie even? Who's the genius writing this stuff.

Another problem is communication with the surface, which seemed to be available no matter how deep the terranauts got. Just how are they communicating? Again, the only signal that has ever successfully traveled through the core is seismic waves, and those would have to be translated into radio waves somewhere at the surface. Details I guess.

So they run into a giant geode in the mantle, complete with amethyst crystals inside, at around 1000 km down. Since when can a geode cavity form at those pressures? Geodes on the surface form after the rock has cooled and water has been sitting in it for years depositing the minerals that form the crystal structures. No such processes could occur at the temperatures at that depth, and that doesn't even explore the question of how the geode shell could withstand succumbing to the pressures and collapsing. What's that - cobalt shell you say? Alright, maybe the pressure moves the melting point upward, but cobalt is a good heat conductor. It should at least be as hot inside as outside - what, you say they are going to get out of the ship and walk around? Holy crapoly batman, that's impossible!

Yes, diamonds are formed in the intense pressures of the mantle and brought up via lava flows to the surface, but conjecturing that there are diamonds the size of mountains down there is pretty bold. And finally, detonating several nuclear devices inside the planet does not seem like a very computable, let alone controllable, operation with which to solve the problem.

I'm sure with a bit more creativity someone could do this again and make it more convincing, but for now, let's just forget this one ever happened.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Long Time Ago...

My exposure to science fiction initially came by osmosis as I watched my Dad's favorite shows and movies with him on TV. But there is no doubt in my mind about the day I developed a love for a science fiction film on my own, and that was the day I first saw a trailer for Star Wars in 1977. I still remember it vividly, because it appeared during the commercial break while my siblings were watching a show in the next room. I remember looking up and seeing a myriad of alien looking beings which I would later learn went by names like Tusken Raider, Jawa, Wookie, Darth Vader, etc. I saw screaming space ships and glowing sword fights. I saw all manner of robots, vehicles, and other creatures accompanied by a mysterious musical backdrop that sounded like a grand opera hall. These images were so new at the time that it mesmerized my 11 year old mind, and although I had recently vowed to give up television (which I did for the next 10+ years), I still kept an eye out for those amazing trailers while waiting for the film to open.

I suppose 11 years old was the perfect age to get the full impact of such a film. It was during a short period of my life where I could easily dive into an interest with abandon. The year prior, I had done this with the movie Jaws. I have always had a passionate love for ocean life and at that time I had particular interest in sharks. The occasional Jacques Cousteau specials that came on TV were always eagerly awaited, and the shark cage dives were my favorite. The first full length novel I ever read was Peter Benchley's book, and I had a large bulletin board in my room which I plastered with Jaws paraphernalia. I even read about the making of the movie in great detail in a book called the "The Jaws Log" before the exciting day came when my Dad surprised me and said he'd take me to see it. Becoming a film trivia expert was one of my ways of expressing my admiration.

I mention all that to emphasize the impact the original Star Wars had on me. All my shark pics and Jaws clippings came down and were replaced one year later by a full board of Star Wars stuff. In the middle was an original movie poster - you know the drawing of Luke Skywalker holding up the lightsaber with Leia at his side (It was not the Hildebrandt at the top, but the cooler one at left). I then applied my trivia collecting efforts to this new film and it became my favorite for the rest of my high school years, and perhaps further on as well. I still remember all the beautiful full page original Ralph MacQuarrie movie concept drawings from a scrap book publication I owned at the time. Here is a link to the whole set for Episode IV.

It was an odd circumstance that I ended up seeing Star Wars in a theater on the other side of the country. My family spent the summer in New Jersey visiting relatives. After seeing the movie, I found a soundtrack in a record store on the beach. This was an old LP and was not the official soundtrack but an electronic jazz rendition of the score by an outfit called the Electric Moog Orchestra (see cover at left). I have always been into music and tend to re-live films through their musical scores, so I played the record over and over until my relatives were completely sick of it. I actually liked the electronic rendition better than the symphony performance at the time, but after finding some of the tracks again recently, it sounds a bit corny. This youtube video has the Cantina Band number, and here's a link to the Imperial Attack.

Needless to say, it wasn't just me. Star Wars was one of the few sci-fi films to become a pop-culture hit, and I am not the first to try to describe the reasons why. First, it was timed well. The 70's had been a depressing decade for the adult population and Hollywood had been releasing a long string of depressing realism type films. The younger generation was craving to go to the movies to just have some fun and escape for a while, and Lucas delivered. Another thing that was commented on even at the time was that Star Wars included elements that had worked from all the other popular genre's, but placed in a different setting. Do you like swashbuckling sword fights? It had lightsaber duels. Or maybe you'd like to see the swords wielded by noble Knights of the Round Table, a.k.a. Jedi Knights. Do you like Westerns? It had gun fights and outlaws too - even the typical bar room brawl! How about Bruce Lee style apprenticeships ala Kung Fu? Well, think of Yoda's training of Luke on Dagobah (ok, that was the second film) or just the whole Jedi-Padowan training in the mysterious ways of the force, where inner strength and wisdom are just as important as fighting techniques. Do you like war movies? That's right in the title - 'Wars' in space. The small fighters resemble aerial fighter jet battles and the large ships look like huge aircraft carriers. I always thought that was ingenious - making the star destroyers look like battleships slowly moving in formation. Royalty? There are emperors and princesses. Politics? There are also Senators and all manner of political maneuvering. This was universal story telling placed on a backdrop as wide open as the universe.

One unique decision at the time was using an original soundtrack that was fully orchestrated, hearkening back to the Golden Age of movie making. Another device was setting the story completely outside our own galaxy and time frame. While other films put advanced technology in Earth's future, Star Wars put it in the past, in a far away land, giving Lucas a blank canvas on which to paint.

I lived a block away from Caltech in Pasadena and knew several older friends that went there. I still remember in 1980 when one of those friends got us tickets to a special pre-screening of The Empire Stikes Back to be shown a week before its release in Beckman auditorium on the Caltech campus. This is a beautiful circular theater that looks more like an opera house, and we had very good seats. Man, was that a treat! The AT Walker battle right in the beginning was just spectacular. The tekker's were a good audience too, clapping and cheering at key moments. Because no one had seen it, we all got to experience the full effect of discovering that Darth Vader was Luke's father, a line that would go down in film history from that point on. My friends at school had a hard time believing I had seen the movie before it opened until one asked me, "Is Darth Vader Luke's father?" I dropped my jaw - "How did you know?" "It's obvious", he told me. I still think he must have gotten a tip.

To be fair, let's name a few flaws. It seems as time went by, Lucas had a penchant for including story elements simply for the "cuteness" factor, which often distracts from the story. By the time Return of the Jedi came out, people were making this criticism about the entire Ewok race. Personally, I'll take the Ewoks any day over the ridiculous muppet-like rock band in Jabba the Hut's lair. He then went on to take more abuse for Jar-jar Binks and even in today's Clone Wars, the battle droids act like Abbot and Costello, and as one writer nailed it, sound like Urkel from Family Matters.

Another rather obvious habit of Lucas' is to fashion his characters after ethnic stereotypes, probably more so in the later works. The trade federation race have accents that sound Japanese. The Tatooine trader that owned Anakin sounded Arab. The Gungans, structured socially like primitive tribes, have linguistic characteristics that sound suspiciously like old stereotypes of Southern blacks. I had to laugh at this when on one of the Clone War episodes, Ben and Anakin are captured by "pirates" who have Cockney accents and behave generally like something out of Treasure Island. I could only be thankful that none of them cried "Arrrrghhh".

Lucas also gets criticized for overuse of computer graphics. I suppose when your battles are in space and your characters are predominantly aliens, the temptation to cut costs and use computers can be strong. But another point of mine that I've never otherwise heard before is Lucas' tendency, right from the beginning, to create planets that are completely uniform in some aspect. You would think any habitable planet would have a variety of climates and landscapes like our own. Yet, Tatooine is all desert, Hoth is all ice and snow, Dagobah is all swamp, and Endor is all forest. Does anyone else notice this or does it just make it easier for audiences to wrap their minds around the locations? Kamino is covered by water, and Coruscant is, amazingly, all city. At least Naboo has both land and water zones, but go ahead and do your own survey and tell me if its not a little odd.

The original trilogy still remains a classic and has the same effect on kids who see it today as it did on me. Lucas was smart to start with episode four so there would be a built in history to work with. The remaining episodes 7 to 9 are still in his mind and there are probably lots of running bets out there as to whether he will film them before he leaves this earth. For now, I guess he'll have to finish the Clone Wars. But I don't know if I'll ever experience the thrill in my adult life as I did in those early years.

Monday, May 24, 2010

District 9 Review

As I drove in to work today, I took a surface street detour to avoid some traffic (yes, I'm in L.A.), and passed a utilities building that prominently displayed "CWA District 9". I chuckled as I recalled the recent film and then thought, you know, that was good enough to warrant a blog review. So here are my thoughts on District 9.

I always find the most memorable sci-fi films and stories are ones that present unique ideas and situations. This movie really turned the whole alien invasion motif on its head by creating a society of aliens that get stranded on earth and are just trying to get home. Although they possess advanced technology and weaponry, they are not agressive. In fact, they are quite timid. The real problem for the humans is not defending the planet but just getting them to leave.

This was a unique way to showcase the common human issue of discrimination. The setting is South Africa and the shanty town in which the refugee aliens live looks just like something out of Soweto. Well, I just discovered that it was an actual shanty town and that the director, Neill Blomkamp, grew up in South Africa during apartheid. It was his childhood that inspired the film. Although it was a little preachy, it was still very effective.

A lot was done to create a sense of realism. First, the story begins after the aliens have been hanging around in the camp for many years, so the novelty of their arrival has worn off, including the gigantic inoperative space ship that looms over the camp in mid air (a great visual). They are now considered a nuisance as they simply consume resources without contributing anything. The aliens are made to look kind of like bugs. The shocking thing here is, notwithstanding the reality of the aliens themselves, how believable this reaction by the people really is. In addition to that, the government has been trying to figure out how to utilize their weapons technology, which seems linked to their alien biology for operation. That's kind of what you'd expect too.

So continuing with the realism theme, the director used a mock documentary style and most of the footage pretends to be taken from TV inteviews, security cameras, government footage, etc. The camera moves around a lot of course to look like spontaneous filming. Although this technique is past its prime, I think it worked very well here. The protagonist is just a regular guy, actually a bit of a bufoon, which lends a comedic element to the film without overdoing it. In fact, it seems the whole film is rather tongue in cheek but in a serious sort of way. He starts as a government official who gets stuck with the task of evicting the aliens and ends up getting himself into a big mess and betrayed by his government. You'd almost feel sorry for him if the events weren't so obviously satirical. Finally, the motion capture effects on the aliens is quite amazing. I think the motion capture magic in Avatar that came right after this film stole some of the credit away. But unlike Avatar, which was an all digital environment, District 9 digitizes the motion captured actors on top of real footage, giving it a much more authentic feel.

So I think this film was a noteworthy, if odd, addition to the sci-fi world. It intoduces a novel premise with a satirical twist, great special effects aimed at creating a documentary feel, and a fun adventure story that also has a conscience.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Backward In Time

According to relativity theory, it is actually possible for someone to travel forward in time faster than one's peers. You can do it either by traveling close to the speed of light (special relativity) or hanging out within a very strong gravity field like you might find near a black hole (general relativity). In both cases, you need enormous amounts of energy to accomplish the task, making it still quite out of reach, but nonetheless possible.

But even relativity does not allow for traveling backward in time. In fact, without even considering any physical limitations, there are philosophical problems. The whole idea of changing history creates logical paradoxes that cannot be easily resolved. Fortunately, most writers who venture into this territory are aware of this and usually spend a good deal of time (no pun intended) explaining things from within the story. One way to solve some paradoxes is to admit that duplicate histories of the world exist in parallel, but this is rather unsatisfying because both versions of history can claim equal status, and that grates against our sense of personal continuity. Most authors either pick the new history or the original one as the "real" one and place us there in the end, hoping that we will believe the other history has somehow ceased to exist. Alright, I'll go with that if you tell me there's some special rule that prefers one version of reality over the other. But this is not the only obstacle to overcome.

Another issue is the law of conservation of mass and energy. If you physically travel back in time, the matter that comprises your own body has essentially been substracted from the universe at the time you leave and is added to the universe at the time you arrive. This isn't a problem going forward in time as long as you still exist somewhere as you travel forward, but that is not possible in the backward direction. I suppose you can conjecture that the conservation laws might be extended over the space-time manifold, so that they could be violated in time, but not in space-time. But that would mean there is only one space-time history with the potential of several copies of the same matter existing at one time. That's not conservation of matter, that's duplication. But it could conceivably work.

And there are other difficulties with the single history paradigm that must be handled carefully. If anyone in the future ever travelled to our time, we would encounter them today. If in fact we've never encountered future travelers, then backward time travel must be rare and not within the realm of human control. There is also the problem of the relativity of space-time coordinates. To illustrate, think of the earth moving in orbit around the sun. If I travel back in time to yesterday, where should I be relative to the sun? If I remain in the same relative position, I will end up materializing in space since yesterday the earth was in a different orbital position than it is today. In short, a relative time coordinate has no meaning without an associated relative spatial coordinate. So it is essential that any time machine not only include a way to specify the time but also the place that one wishes to travel to, whether it be to the past or future.

By far, the most difficult problem with the single history timeline is the foreknowledge issue. Any time you know what is going to happen in the future, you can take action to change it, and that brings us back to the paradox of duplicate histories again, the ultimate being that of your own existence. Can you go back in time and kill yourself? Or can you change something that ultimately prevents you from being born. A writer can stay safe by avoiding such possible conflicts, but there is no way to get around this on a fundamental level without using multiple time histories.

So although current physics, and general philosophy, doesn't support it, there are ways to handle the paradoxes gracefully if a writer is careful. I find myself very forgiving in those cases simply because the intellectual puzzles that can be woven in time are some of the most fun and intellectually satisfying narratives that I've encountered. I am going to list some of my favorite ones below:

The only time I have ever seen an author deal with the conservation of matter paradox was in a short essay by C.S. Lewis called The Dark Tower. Here, it is explained that time travel in the body is impossible because of this law, but is possible in the mind. Thus, it is possible to create a time viewer that allows one to see into the past or future, and it is also possible for two people to swap respective consciousness' between two time periods. That is what happens in the story, although it is a parallel world that is seen on the viewer and one of the students swaps with a creature on the other side. No exchange of matter, just minds. It's brilliant, but alas, Lewis only wrote a few chapters and never finished the story.

A wonderful movie that comes to mind that deals with backward time travel is a little independent film called Primer. These guys (the film's creators are also in the lead roles) create a home movie or documentary type feel and then meticulously attempt to consistently represent the paradox of time travel as discovered by some young entrepeneurs in their garage, who stumble upon it by accident while working on other things. This was the best treatment I know of for the relative coordinate problem. The time machine here requires you to turn it on at the point you wish to travel back to and then wait to enter it later. This in effect creates the perfect way to specify the arrival point, namely, by being there already in advance. Of course, this method does not allow you to travel back in time very far, but it was very well thought out. The circumstances and reactions of the characters to their find are scripted to look as convincing as possible, making it easy to let yourself be strung along. And if that's not enough, the author weaves a storyline so complex that it's almost impossible to follow, yet still makes sense if you do. For anyone who likes time travel puzzles, this is the Mona Lisa.

Another backward time travel movie that I thought was well put together was based on a book by Michael Crichton called Timeline. It's about a group of scientists that travel back to Medieval times and get themselves involved in a centuries long mystery and adventure. Although it's a little more light-hearted, it does a pretty good job of setting up time puzzles that make you say - "Man, why didn't I see that?". I've read that the movie departs from the book quite a lot and given that I like Crichton's work, I'm sure I'd find the book even more interesting. I'll have to put it on my future reading list.

This one is a little dark, and at the same time adeptly humorous. TimeCrimes traces out a few hours of an evening when a man travels back in time and ends up having to interact with several versions of himself as he tries to undo his own mistakes. The time puzzle is ingeniously complex and revealed in pieces as the same scenes are replayed from different angles. It is a Spanish film and I think a little hidden gem, although I wouldn't recommend it to everyone.


And few more that have that certain special paradoxical something:
12 Monkeys

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Impossible Ubiquity

This entry is entitled with an oxymoron to represent a phenomenon that hard core science fiction lovers must perpetually endure. If part of the draw of sci-fi is allowing one to imagine extraordinary things that might in fact be possible, a skillful author will try to narrow his material within the confines of rational believability, or at least try to convince us that the material is believable. Yet so often we see things that are utterly preposterous and we are asked to simply accept it on face value, placing our objections on the shelf. In fact, many authors will use the same concepts over and over again, assuming that some earlier work has already convinced the readers/viewers of its rationality and they can just piggyback their way into it. Well, I hope some future authors will encounter this entry in my blog and see just how difficult it is to create a truly nonsense-free sci-fi story.

There's a bit of toungue-in-cheek in that last paragraph because I know that you can enjoy science fiction without being convinced it's all actually possible and many folks don't even care about it. But I, like my Dad, studied physical sciences in college and even taught the subject for a little while, so I have tendency to be bothered by these things more than others. There's not enough room here to expound on each topic, so below is a list of recurring sci-fi literary elements that never registered on my possibility meter. I intend to expand it as time goes on and then turn them into links to entries which explain them in more detail. I have no idea how long the list will become.


Backward Time Travel

Faster Than Light Travel (Warp, Hyperspace, etc.)

Wormhole Travel

Anti-Gravity Devices

Artificial Gravity

Shape-Shifting

Miniaturization (as in shrinking things)

Mind Viewing Machines (or aliens constructing images from someone's thoughts)

The next list are items that are in the realm of possibility but highly suspect or of such low probability as to be ridiculous:

Invisibility Cloaks

Humanoid Aliens

English Speaking Aliens (on first contact)

Transporter/Teleportation Devices

Force Fields (and Tractor Beams)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Serenity

My Netflix account does this profile match up thingy that is supposed to know what kind of film I would like and suggest them to me. One day I was browsing through and it brought up this movie called Serenity which was a few years old but I had never heard of it. I figured any sci-fi flick that had completely passed my radar must not be all that interesting, especially since its origin was somehow connected to a TV series. The series, called Firefly, got so little initial viewers that it was cancelled before the first season was up. The history of it is a bit fascinating so I've linked it to the Wikipedia entry which, in this case, offers up an excellent treatment.

Still, Netflix said I would love it, so I did some further digging and found that it had developed quite a following over the years and the reviews were very good. Well, this was something I had to check out for myself, so I rented it. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. It was a first grade sci-fi action film.

It's hard to pinpoint any one element that makes this movie work so well, so perhaps its a combination of several things. First, the characters and their relationships are both unique, well developed, and real. Since you travel with them through the entire film you really get to know the crew of the ship named Serenity. Even the main plot centers around a very strong brother-sister bond. Second, there is the larger context of a big government cover up which is revealed in pieces, adding an element of mystery. Then there is a pretty formidable bad guy and some truly scary humans gone bad called Reavers who's origin is unknown until it ties in at the end along with several other things. As a matter of fact, every character in the film is human. This is science fiction with no aliens or alien creatures. Imagine that! And it incorporates a good deal of humor which is skillfully integrated into the story line. Finally, the fights and conflicts are as interesting as you might see in a film like The Matrix but without any gimmicks.

There is some basis for the chemistry because the movie was based on the TV series, but the movie was not a simple continuation of it. It was definitely a new story concept developed by Joss Whedon, the creator of Firefly. The writing and directing of the movie, both done by Whedon, was quite good, so I decided to do some digging on the guy and found myself very impressed. He seems to be a student of classic fiction and has a particular affinity to Westerns. He was able to incorporate the fundamental elements that make Western films work while seemlessly replacing the look and feel with a futuristic setting. For example, there is one chase scene where the ships fly low over the ground in a setting that looks like a dry Western frontier and you don't even realize you could be watching a stage coach chase.

I've never seen a fan base as giddy as this one. In my research, I found a recent poll of all time favorite sci-fi movies, and Serenity was number one! I imagine it somehow hits a nerve with the younger audiences today. In some ways, its overall theme is similar to that of the original Star Wars - a small band of rebels assisted by outlaws fighting against a powerful empire. But while the Star Wars villians were just plain evil, the ones in Serenity are our own corrupt government entities. It reflects this generation's greater distrust of government than the one I grew up in.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Quatermass And The Pit

As long as I'm on vintage sci-fi, I must put in a word for one of my favorites. I saw this one as a kid and some of the images stuck in my mind all my life. Without knowing the title, I began to search it out a few years ago on the internet using various keywords. I remembered a big white devil face in the night sky and some guy on a crane crashing into it. I remembered a police officer in a trance before a glowing object full of veins and then seeming to melt like wax. I remembered creepy bug-like creatures and someone cutting into a dead one and finding oozing green liquid. I remembered a group of people like zombies burying a frightened man under boulders which they hurled with their minds. But all I could find was a few posts by other people trying to locate the same film.

Then one day I stumbled upon a sci-fi film site. This site had hundreds of vintage films and they would feature trailers from a randomly selected one on their front page each time it loaded. The first time I went to the site, I could not believe my eyes as I saw the trailer for this film playing right on the first click. I then knew it was called 5,000,000 Years To Earth and released in 1968. Actually, it first came out in the UK in a black and white BBC series about the adventures of Dr. Quatermass in 1953 and later as a series of films. This particular story was called Quatermass And The Pit and was re-made in color and released in the U.S. years later under the new title. The remake was an improvement.

I could not find the film online at the time, so I ordered it from Amazon (make sure not to mix it up with the BBC version). What I found was not just an eerie alien movie but a brilliant and complex story that involved the entire evolution of mankind, Mars, Satanic lore, and skillfully revealed pieces of the mystery as it went along. This one just needs to be watched to get the full effect. The ending gives new meaning to the phrase, "All hell broke loose".

There are flaws of course. Some of what passes for scientific explanations are quite ridiculous, but usually peripheral. I think most of the special effects are actually quite good for its time and I still got a shake when I first saw the dead bug aliens. There is one scene people make fun of where an image is shown on a monitor of the alien planet and the puppet-like miniaturization is quite obvious. I've never bothered about it because those images were supposed to have been drawn from deep within a person's subconscious mind so you'd expect it to look more like a dream than real. I actually have more problem with the idea of ever being able to view another person's thoughts on a screen by hooking up some contraption to their brain. That's one of those pseudo-scientific ideas that pops up a lot and you just have suspend disbelief.

As a final note, the film was the third of a set of remakes of the adventures of Dr. Quatermass by the Hammer production company. The first two were entitled The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass 2, both of which were black and white and featured a different, less well reviewed actor as Dr. Quatermass. The result was that this film stands out miles above the other two. Nowadays, I've been able to find it on the web, like at this link, but it doesn't always hang around due to copyright policing.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Phase IV

Here I write about another of those obscure sci-fi films that I watched as a kid on TV with my Dad. This one, which my later research discovered was called Phase IV, was about a colony of ants that turn intelligent and start causing problems. A scientific team goes out to investigate and sets up a very cool bubble laboratory to find a way to fix the problem but also to learn about the species. The battle of wits between the scientists and the ants was fascinating to watch, especially since they used real ants of several different varieties, filmed at close range and often in sets made to look like underground lairs.
The cinematographer was actually a nature documentary cameraman. It's definitely B material and it has a truck ending which, although interesting for its ominous theme, can largely be ignored. But I don't think I've ever seen a bug movie where the activities of the bugs are followed in close detail using real bugs. That was unique enough to add to the collection and I recommend it only to the vintage collectors.

One other aspect that I like about the film is that its portrayal of science and the scientific method is very dry and serious, just like science should be. Hollywood too often is scared of real science in their films because it doesn't appeal to the masses like the safer elements - drama, humor, adrenaline, etc. So when someone can make a film that gives it some respect, even if the science itself is ridiculous, it's refreshing.

The most unique historical tidbit on the movie is that it was created and directed by Saul Bass, who had achieved some fame for his design of movie credit titles in the 50's and 60's. That was his first and only film. Needless to say, it was not much of a success, except among those who could appreciate it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What Sci-Fi is NOT

One of the goals of this blog is to encapsulate the notion of this relatively new literary genre called science fiction. It is unique in that it was only made possible with the advent of the scientific age and only really began at the onset of the industrial revolution by a few pioneers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. It was during that time that man began to realize that scientific knowledge could be applied to better the human condition, and this caused such an upheaval in society over a relatively short time period that it is natural that it would engender a new class of literature.

There are many types of stories which, when adapted to film format, require lots of special effects. These often get categorized as science fiction. Being somewhat of a purist, I thought I would share my views on what types of literature, which are often labeled science fiction, are not and why. Each section contains some examples and a link to a definition in Wikipedia. There is much that can be added to this topic so comments are welcome.

Fantasy - Sometimes in book stores you'll see a section entitled "Sci Fi/Fantasy" due to their common affinity for creating new worlds for their settings. Although they are often grouped together, they are distinct story types. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be magic. Any world in which a story is told must have laws that are consistently followed. In sci-fi, the reader must be convinced that those laws can exist in the real world. In fantasy, the laws are somewhat arbitrary. The genre is traditionally influenced by Norse mythology, which is the realm of elves, fairies, trolls, and goblins. J.R.R. Tolkein is, of course, the undisputed master of that world. But there a lots of fantasy stories that venture into wholly new worlds of their own. I recently re-watched a delightful such offering called Stardust. Another rather cool film series that plays like sci-fi but is really fantasy is the Russian Nightwatch / Daywatch series.

Mythology - While the Norse myths deal with supernatural beings which are part of nature, the Greek myths deal with supernatural beings which are separate from it. Stories of the Greco-Roman gods have been around since Homer, but found their way into Hollywood with films like Jason and the Argonauts. I'm not sure if the wonderful Sinbad series was based on Eastern myths or just created for Hollywood, but the recent re-make of Clash of the Titans shows these types of films still draw crowds even when they are done poorly.

Superheroes - Every superhero has a different origin story, and many are based on sci-fi like narratives. Superman came from another planet. Batman and Iron Man make heavy use of advanced technology. Most are altered in some pseudo-scientific manner which is, after all, not very relevant. The main point of the superhero narrative is not about the heroes' origins, but about his or her subsequent struggle to battle dark forces both internal and external. Every story has its protagonists, but science fiction is always about some larger context in which the rest of the story plays out. Some often misplaced examples are the afforementioned Superman and Robocop. I'd also put the Transformers series here.

Monster Films - I guess this genre began with Dracula and Frankenstein and has produced a steady stream of thriller films, including those in the "horror" category. Again, many monsters have sci-fi like origins like simply being from outer space (think War of the Worlds). In fact, one of my personal favorite set of old films as a kid, the Godzilla serials and other Japanese monster movies, is in this category. I suppose the focus of these films is the thrill of getting scared. Only a few sci-fi films have crossed into this territory and still lived to return as science fiction - like the original Alien movie. Examples of the ones that don't are films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The FlyThe Thing, Predator, and 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Disaster Films - This category is listed only because it also usually requires heavy special effects, but the story is about a catastrophic event and the situations that follow it, so it has no relation to sci-fi per se. A sub-category of this is Apocalyptic films in the which the disaster or other event affects the entire planet.

Psychological Thrillers - There are a lot of interesting films in this category and they involve protagonists who must battle forces that play with their minds. The mechanism by which this is accomplished is often some new technology which is why they can sometimes cross over into sci-fi, but many do not. A great example is the recent film Inception. Stephen King is also known for dabbling in this category.

Sci-Fi Spoofs - Certain films poke fun at the whole genre. Some examples that come to mind are Men in Black, Galaxy Quest, Mars Attacks, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, and of course, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (better in print than on screen). Although they are not science fiction themselves, it takes a real sci-fi fan to get the full nuance of the humor in them, and so they should be considered a worthy addendum to the category.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Outer Limits

One of the scariest shows on television for me as a kid was the original 1960's Outer Limits series. My father used to faithfully watch these episodes and I found them fascinating even though they consistently provided material to keep me scared of the dark. You can laugh at the creature costumes because of the now cliche look and feel and the low budget fake factor, but they really got it right in the creepiness department. Something about the black and white rendering, combined with the music and the well done voice overs, made it quite effective. And you have to give some originality points for the opening sequence - pretending that aliens had taken control of your TV set. Very cute.

Of course, it was the story concepts that really distinguished the episodes. Here is a nice episode guide. The series had so many really off the wall and inventive ideas that when I began to re-watch them via the internet in recent years, I still remembered much of it. But this is one series that you just can't get with a plot synopsis - its approach is so unusual you just have see it. I'm going to leave the space below open for links to some of the shows and some commentary as I get around to seeing them again. I decided not to upload image frames because without the music and storyline they just look silly.

The Galaxy Being - Very nicely done although hard to swallow the concept with 1960 radio wave tech. The effect of not being able to hear the alien at first on the other end of the communication is powerful.

The Sixth Finger - Well written story about human nature and evolution. The makeup job on this one is freakishly cool.

O.B.I.T. - First one I re-watched and all I remember is the alien in the mirror that flooded all those memories back into my mind. Very nice "big brother" style narrative with a message that is relevant even today. If given the power to "spy" on the thoughts of others, would that power ultimately destroy us?

It Crawled Out of the Woodwork - Yet another expose of how we can become greater monsters in our own devises than even the monsters we ourselves create. This one is very effectively done. Ed Asner plays the detective.

The Zanti Misfits - The bug people are claymation and all, but you tell me if they aren't still creepy looking. The terrorized overacting doesn't take away from it either. And it has a very original story concept that I still have not seen duplicated elsewhere.

Specimen: Unknown - Alien contamination story with a twist at the end. This one I saw coming well before the conclusion.

Second Chance - Wow, the setup and the costuming on this one seems ridiculous at first, but once the alien starts talking it draws you in kind of unexpectedly. The concept is interesting too - a recruiting effort to save both Earth and the alien's planet from an asteroid set to strike 82 years in the future. Who would be willing to go?

Moonstone - Another great visual on the "eye monsters" coupled with a neat story that shows the aliens to be the noble heroes. Who's the genius who decided to create aliens that look like a mass of giant floating eyes?

The Guests - This one put some real creepy images in my head as a kid. Ever seen an entire mansion turn into a giant brain? The story is so weird you gotta love it - almost reminiscent of a dysfunctional family situation.

A Feasibility Study - Before I ever saw it, I watched this exact story as it was remade in an episode of the new outer limits series. I can understand why they did it again as it is at the same time a powerful story of human sacrifice and a raw science fiction script. The original rendition is just as good in content without the upgraded special effects.

The Forms of Things Unknown - No monsters here, but an Edgar Allen Poe style story about a murder plot and the guilt that follows.

Cold Hands Warm Heart - A great preview of pre-Trek William Shatner as the lead role, and for me, watching him squirm as he looks out the window at a Venutian alien is the dang creepiest image in the whole series! Just genius.

Behold, Eck! - Kind of cute story about a 2-dimensional being trying to get back to its home. Notable for its early treatment of the 2-D to 3-D world concepts it explores.

Demon with a Glass Hand - Not a real impressive story but it does keep you guessing on its way to the final revelations.

The Invisible Enemy - Another source of nightmare fodder for me as a kid. Very effective monster concept - a "sand" dragon (on Mars) that can swim and dive under the sand like it was water, and a rock boundary acting as an effective shoreline. Lots of 'Jaws' type suspense - "It's coming toward you - get off the sand!!" Great stuff.

Wolf 359 - This one really gets under your skin. Creepy ghost alien starts as a microscopic blip in the very miniature model you created. As the model experiences accelerated evolution, the ghost slowly grows, evolving into a menace that attacks living things in the laboratory. There is an underlying message that if you try to play God, you may have to deal with devil.

Tourist Attraction - Although I'm a lifelong swimmer and ocean lover, including scuba, I've always had an irrational fear of swimming in seaweed, especially bare skinned. It's always had something to do with images of monsters in the seaweed and I'd always suspected it was planted in my subconscious by an outer limits episode, even though I could not recall it at all. I believe this may be that episode.

I, Robot - Based on famous set of stories from the pulp fiction era about a robot named Adam Link (prior to Asimov's anthology with the same name), this is probably one of the best written episodes of the series, even better than the original story. A robot goes on trial for murdering the professor who created him even though he is in fact innocent. What is great here is that even the defense attorney and the reporter, played very nicely by Leonard Nimoy, are doing it for ulterior motives. Adam's only real ally is the professor's daughter and heir to the "equipment".

The Duplicate Man - When I watched this recently, I was delighted see Clifford Simak named as author, the writer of one of my favorite sci-fi novels from my youth, City. But the story itself seems more like an essay by Dicke. In the future, the ability to create a duplicate of oneself is available, but the duplicate is only allowed to live for 5 hours until its mission is completed. Like Dicke's Electric Sheep story upon which Blade Runner is based, the main focus is the exchange between a man and the duplicate he creates for a dangerous mission. This is one of the few episodes where the monster costume doesn't work. It looks like a man in a giant chicken outfit rather than a menacing alien.

The Premonition - I remember this one well because of the impression it made on me as a kid. This is the first time I know of that the idea of moving so fast in time that everything else looks virtually frozen was explored. You can only really do this idea well on film and the next time I saw it done was in the Star Trek episode "Wink of an Eye". After re-watching it today, I am still impressed. It is well directed and manages to engage your heart and mind simultaneously. Besides a stretch of credibility on the science end, its only flaw in my opinion is the absolutely horrible acting job of the pilot's wife. But the mix of still shots and motion throughout is superbly done.

Cry of Silence - One time I was looking for one of the many weird sci-fi shows I watched with my Dad as a kid. This particular one was about a couple who's car broke down near an abandoned town and had to stay with this guy they met. They were attacked by seemingly smart tumbleweeds, if you can believe it, which they fended off with fire (of course). Later the tumbleweeds disappeared and they were invaded by frogs. I also remembered boulders hurling themselves at them before they finally got away. This is the kind of weird stuff you just don't see anymore. It took a lot of effort to figure out what I had watched and it turned out to be an episode of the Outer Limits called Cry of Silence. I was just able to view it again (ah, the internet - see link) and I have to admit, I found it rather comical, but it is so odd it is still memorable. It reminded me of a camp fire ghost story.

Production and Decay of Strange Particles - A vivid childhood dream was fashioned after this one and I've finally found it again. As an adult, it is entertaining because it is so ridiculous, but also because it is a bit of a period piece. At a time that saw the proliferation of sub-atomic particle discoveries in cyclotrons, the discovery of quasars, and the unleashing of the atomic bomb, a lot of uncertainty and wonder abounded in the scientific world. This episode capitalizes on all that. By today's standards, it all sounds so elementary and silly. Then there's the cowardly scientist who finds courage thanks to his faithful spouse's encouragement - very corny but also a mark of the era. To top it off, real footage of an atomic bomb test that in no way resembles the sets it was supposed to detonate over, which is then run backward! And don't forget the cameo by Leonard Nimoy. Everything you'd want for a mystery science theater.

The Architects of Fear - I vividly remembered as a kid the grotesque bug-eyed monster from this episode, but it only appears at the end. As an adult, I found the back story to be very well written, about how men of power conspire to unify mankind by creating a common enemy to fight against. But the man chosen to turn himself into that monster ultimately fails and the shame and pity of it all is palpably portrayed.

The Man With The Power - A similar theme as that used in Forbidden Planet. Give a man mental control over the physical world, and his subconscious mind may do things his conscious self would prohibit. The always erie Donald Pleasance is a perfect fit for the part.

The Man Who Was Never Born - Everything about this story is silly and ridiculous, and yet there is a nobleness to the characters that allows it to rise above itself and make a surprisingly profound impact for a time travel tale.

Nightmare - A classic prisoner of war tale, only the captors are an alien race, and the whole thing turns out to be a experiment of humans upon humans to test their loyalty under pressure. The curious thing here is that the sets look like a bare theater stage with a few props, and yet the quality of the piece is so good that it does not take away from it.

Zzzzz - A very haunting tale about a queen bee whose colony, the subjects of an entomologist's effort to understand their language, somehow transforms her into a human female who then tries to mate with the scientist, which greatly disturbs his wife. It is a well written script which somehow effectively illustrates the chasm between insect and human ways. The actress who plays the queen bee creates a wonderful mix of naiivete and cunning, and even looks the part.

Children of Spider County - I both remember and love the makeup job on this particular alien. The story about 5 young men fathered by aliens who have come back to take them home, but who choose instead to stay among the humans who fear them for their abilities, is I think one of the most representative of the series. Who is the real monster - the one who looks the part or the one who acts it out?

The Brain of Colonel Barham - This is one of the few episodes that I remember really creeped me out not because of any visual images, but because of the horror of the situation. Amazingly, the story is still as relevant today since we still know relatively little about the human brain and what would happen if it were separated from the body. It's also a well written and executed script in it own right.

In more recent times, a new Outer Limits TV series was created, this time in color. Aside from the silly attempt to redo the "we control your TV set" opening, this series had virtually no resemblance to the original. However, it was a pretty good show in its own right and won some awards. It did keep the tradition of interesting stories and lots of weird aliens, and a focus on concepts relating to alterations of the physical body, but it seemed to focus on last minute plot twists as the main feature, most of which were dark and gruesome, which is what made it so fun - sometimes the only thing. I used to watch it and remember that occasionally one would blow me away (like Summit). But most of the story concepts ended up being somewhat cliche and not very credible. Network writers have a stock set of sci-fi like concepts that are totally ridiculous but keep popping up because they allow easy story lines and, well, that deserves another blog entry. Suffice it to say that my enjoyment in watching the new series often came from getting a good laugh at the evil plot twist at the end which I often didn't see coming.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Clone Wars

If someone were to ask me what my most recent sci-fi indulgence is today, I would probably start raving about the Clone Wars animated series. One part of me is embarassed that I get so excited about a show on Cartoon Network that is most likely directed at young teenagers (I used to access the episodes on the Megavideo site, but it looks better on the official site). The other part is shocked at how little attention it gets. I suppose you have to be a Star Wars fan to begin with, but after that, what's not to like? The legacy of the Star Wars saga is its story telling power, which came primarily from the mind of George Lucas. We always knew he had only concocted 9 episodes and 6 have already been told. What the clone wars does is chronicle the war period between episodes 5 and 6 with a seemingly endless supply of new material. Since these episodes are kept consistent with their place in the overall saga, and since they are produced by Lucas himself, every one is like taking another peek into the world that exists in the mind of the original creator. New planets, races, weapons, creatures, and characters on both the good guy and bad guy sides all interacting with the characters you already know and love.
I imagine the new characters will need to be out of the picture by series end, and I have noticed interesting hints of a future conflict between Ventress and Ahsoka in some of the early episodes. We also see further exploration into the lives and personalities of already existing characters. So you see, this is more than just a disconnected set of situational plots like most series, but an expansion of an epic story. Lucas won't be around forever, and just like the Star Trek spinoffs, any attempt to add to this saga after he's gone just won't count.

To be fair, I should mention a few disappointments. Most of the voice overs are not the original characters (Anthony Daniels a notable exception as C-3PO), but they are generally ok except for Yoda - his voice sounds flat as a pancake. On the other hand, both the voice and acting ability of Anakin Skywalker seems to have improved since his film debut (wink). I originally thought the recap narration at the start of each episode was corny, until I realized that 1) the idea is the same as the words at the beginning of each film that famously move up and off into the distance, and 2) this was how Lucas imagined those words sounding all along because he's hearkening back to the old movie serials of his generation like Buck Rogers. As the emperor would say, so be it!

It can be a little annoying seeing the characters deliberately portrayed like 3-D cartoons, but it's better than the 2-D manifestation of clone wars they tried a while back. I have to admit, I have not seen a single episode of those and don't even know how closely they match the current series. I've heard they are 3 minutes long - how do you do anything in 3 minutes? But consider this... If part of the fun of Star Wars is realistic looking special effects, you can't really get that if they are hand drawn. At least with 3-D animation, you are working in the same medium as is now part of live action film. The ship battles and other effects in these 22 minute Clone Wars episodes look more legit than the characters, and that at least lends it some weight.

If you decide to dive in and watch this stuff, you don't even have to view the 2 hour pilot first. It is just one of many subplots in which Jabba the Hut's son gets kidnapped, and it probably would have worked better as a 22 minute short like the rest, but it does do a good job of introducing all the main characters. And be sure to catch the first episode of the short length series. It provides a rare showcase of Yoda's Jedi skills. That little dude really packs a punch!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Dune

I first learned of the Dune trilogy in college around 1984. A friend of mine was reading it and found it so intriguing that he would recount various aspects of the story every time I saw him for several months. He managed to read through the entire original series, I believe, which consists of 6 books by Frank Herbert, but at that time only 5 may have been published. Anyway, I really didn't pay too much attention until a few years later when Herbert passed away and the books were being featured everywhere. In a bookstore I stumbled across a compilation of quotes from Herbert's novels put together by his own son, Brian Hebert. I remember reading through it a bit and being very impressed. Some of the quotes stuck with me for a long time after and that was enough to prompt me to read the first novel of the series.

I have to admit, as a college kid I was not too politically savvy and had some difficulty following all the complex plots and counter plots in the story. But I was extremely impressed by the amount of insight that went into the whole thing. Herbert had created an alien world that did not just consist of a lot of new creatures, but a set of political, religious, economic, and environmental systems that all intertwined with each other in a way that was completely believable, even though it was completely foreign. That in itself would have been a worthy achievement, but on top of that world he then wove a well crafted and engaging science fiction story. I only read the first book in the series, but from that point considered Herbert quite a literary genius.

Dune is a difficult story to adapt to the screen due not only to its complexity but also because of Herbert's writing style. He relies a lot on the thoughts of his characters to tell the story. The first attempt at it was David Lynch's 1984 film that got pretty bad reviews, especially from fans. It wasn't the worst of movies if judged in isolation, but Lynch was not the right director for it. He was more inclined to go with his own vision rather than cater to the fan base, and it certainly did not do justice to Herbert's original. Parts of it were so dream like and disconnected that you wondered if it was the same story being told.

I recently was able to rent out a later TV mini-series presenting another adaptation of the first novel. Given the 6 hour run length, it was able to give the story a better treatment, although it certainly was not as polished a production as you might get from a Hollywood film. And as seems to happen a lot here, I have discovered that a new Dune adaptation will be coming out soon. There's no trailer at this time but should show up on this link when it comes out presumably in 2012.