Saturday, November 7, 2020

Mandalorian Fever

When the Disney Plus service was announced last year, it seemed like a no brainer given the low price point and my two young kids who both enjoy their offerings. But the killer app for me, and apparently many others, was the new Mandalorian series. Here is one of the few Star Wars offerings that Disney made some good decision on - and let's face it - they had to. They needed a big draw to compete with Netflix on their new service. My hook was not just the preview material, but the fact that Clone Wars and Rebels series director Dave Filoni was on board. He is really the only director that completely understands what the older Star Wars fan base wants to see. I later found out that, in classic Disney style, they had thrown a ton of money in to hire top talent - 7 well known directors who would be in charge of different episodes with Avengers producer John Favreau at the helm. This included Taika Waititi (Thor Ragnarok), Peyton Reed (Ant Man), and of course Mr. Filoni.

The investment paid off, and the series won popular appeal, especially thanks to the "baby Yoda" character. It seems like that would be a tough gimmick to base an entire series on, but it was smart for many reasons. First, despite the central prominence of Yoda in the entire Star Wars franchise, there has never been an exploration of his native origins or race. This was a good way to emphasize Yoda's uniqueness during his character arc, but that has largely played out now, and so this idea provides an intriguing air of mystery to Mando's package. Second, they held off revealing much information on this character in the first season (second season may prove different). Third, they added the cuteness factor which brought in new fans to the franchise, especially from the female population. This provided an avenue for Disney's traditional merchandising engine to focus on without upsetting the fan base.

My 12-year-old son watched the series with me in parallel which was kind of cool and led to a fun gift idea. We have a 3-D printer at my work and one of the younger guys got hold of a baby Yoda model that he wanted to print for his wife for Christmas. Soon other people were asking for it, including one of my co-workers who bought matched paint colors so he could paint it for his girlfriend. So I asked for one also and decided to borrow my friends paints so I could give it to my son. It came out pretty good (see image) and it ended up in stocking on Christmas day.

The series takes place between the fall of the Empire (Return of this Jedi) and the rise of the First Order (The Force Awakens). As with all of the Filoni projects, much care has been taken to maintain historical consistency within the Star Wars universe and timeline. Just one example of an ingenious fan tribute character was Kuill. He is an Ugnaught, a character normally appearing in Star Wars in background roles as equipment operators and such. In early season one, we encounter Kuill as a wise and skilled nomad who assists Mando on his quest. He is somehow played by Nick Nolte who does a wonderful portrayal, and gives new life to old familiar face.

So the second season has already arrived on Disney Plus and I am looking forward to seeing it. I've heard they will have the first live action Ahsoka Tano character. That sounds cool but I hope Rosario Dawson can pull it off. And the Jedi community will be somehow connected. I hope to add an update soon.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Danger, Will Robinson

Although I remember the campy 1960's TV series known as Lost In Space, I never spent much time on it. Compared to Star Trek TOS from the same time period, it really wasn't anywhere close to serious sci-fi. So when Netflix started advertising its reboot of this show in 2018, I figured it wasn't worth checking into, despite the intriguing poster art shown here. With the exception of the Star Wars franchise, most attempts at sci-fi serials were generally of poor quality. It was my 12-year old son and his friends who began to watch it and describe to me the initial plot lines. My son asked if I would watch it so we could discuss and he has generally good taste so I did. To my surprise, I was hooked in after the very first episode and ended up eagerly awaiting each offering for two seasons now.

The new series is not just a re-make. The basic cast and situation is preserved, but that is about where it ends. The entire serial was given a makeover as a serious drama, and the characters fleshed out into real people with complex relationships. In fact, almost 50% of the story is dedicated to the interactions between various family members, and the other to creative world building, all to great effect. There are story arcs that were thought out from the beginning. It plays like a Robinson Caruso in space, which I believe was the original intention behind the show in the 1960's.

On that note, after the first season I researched the original show a bit further and found that Season 1, which was in black and white and never seen in my youth, was a much more serious drama that actually parallels much of the original story line elements in the new series. You can see in the original pilot episode the remarkable elements of 60's sci-fi era films. In the new series, the changes they make are also signs of the times but well integrated. The mother Maureen is the strong scientific genius of the family, and Dr. Smith is now a woman, although just as clever and shifty as in the the original pilot (Dr. Smith becomes something of a caricature in later seasons of the original series - "Oh the pain, the pain!"). And the robot and Will still share a bond but this robot is a lot cooler and is actually part of an alien race. The only thing he still says from the old series is "Danger, Will Robinson". Just enough tribute without the cheese.

So I have to thank my son for this one and hope they come up with a third season as I don't watch too many sci-fi serials these days.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Ad Astra

When I first saw the trailer for Jim Gray's Ad Astra I had a sort of deja vu. It seemed like some old sci-fi novel from the Asimov era or something. But it was in fact an original script. It might be that this project has been talked about since 2013 and was officially announced by Gray in 2016. His aim was to create a very realistic project of man's push into the outer solar system, with a story experience something akin to Heart of Darkness. And the title phrase, which means "to the stars" in Latin, has been used by a few other authors like Jack Campbell and Kevin McLaughlin to create anthologies within the same general framework. So when I recently rented the film I found myself delighted that it was living up to its reputation.

There is a lot to take in over the course of this film. I am not a huge fan of the ominous psychological sci-fi (see Solaris). But in this film it works decently for several reasons. First, the psychology is not alien - it is grounded in family relationships and universal struggles that many of us face in life, especially that between fathers and sons. Second, the near future world that the story lives in is grounded in all the promised realism. A lot of thought went into what that world might actually look like. As I describe some of it I think I should put in the spoiler warning here.
============================spoilers below==============================
We have colonized the moon, but instead of the pristine look of Space 1999, we have a typical airport with shops and conveyer belts. And there are war zones representing territorial disputes over whatever mining resources are in play. Trips to the moon are like airline flights, the only difference being the huge price tags for amenities due to inflation. Launches from the moon take you to Mars which is more of a research facility. All this technology is beautifully re-created on screen without using any distracting futuristic gadgetry. The attention to detail is impressive.

There are some really memorable sequences that are integral to the story but that I've never quite seen done before. The opening includes an accident on a giant space antenna which is designed for a long wave type of SETI effort. The way it plays out on screen is spectacular. There is also chase sequence on the moon where space pirates use fast moving rovers for their attack but the low gravity environment is still represented nicely.

But I have to put just as much credit on how the story points move the narrative along with urgency, mystery, and heart. Brad Pitt's character, astronaut McBride, comes across as outwardly stoic but inwardly extremely compassionate toward all those he encounters. He slowly makes contact with his inner feelings at the same rate as he approaches his long lost father near the planet Uranus. It will move slowly for some, but for me, it was just enough to take it all in.

There are a few places where the physics doesn't quite add up, but they are generally peripheral save for the one that forms the basis for the entire journey. This is the idea that a particle surge in the outer solar systems can travel all the way to earth and cause any significant damage. I mean, if the reason his father went out there was to get away from solar wind interference, how could any "surge" travel all the way back against that wind and still be stronger than the sun's own radiation when it reaches earth enough to puncture the magnetic shield? If you can forgive that story point then I believe sci-fi fans will be treated to one of the few real efforts to do science fiction on film in a long time.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Reboot Master

I decided not to try to add to the litany of lamentations regarding the final Star Wars trilogy installment, The Rise of Skywalker, but instead to comment on some aspects of the work of director J.J. Abrams that have been running through my head of late. It feels odd to focus on a director when most of the problem is with the script, but I have a friend I saw recently who works at Disney that gave me some insights with a touch of insider viewpoint. Apparently, there were contractual obligations to give the directors of this trilogy full creative control. Since George had spent his career fighting for this for his movies, I would not be surprised if that came from his side of the deal. But it does explain why the story went in such different directions under different directors, and why we can focus on those directors when we critique those stories. On that topic I will only point to Disney's own biggest mistake, which was that they did not map out the story on paper for all three movies before they started, as Mr. Lucas had always done. My friend tells me they rushed into The Force Awakens production in order to make the merchandising schedule for Christmas. If true, then that fact alone solidifies the accusation that Disney put the cash value of the franchise before the artistic integrity. But I digress - let's get back to Mr. Abrams.

I've always believed that Abrams is a bona fide fan of certain science fiction franchises, including Star Trek and Star Wars. But in his efforts to continue those franchises, it seems he does not have a good understanding of what constitutes good science fiction. He insists on taking old stories and retelling them again in a different context. Something he himself has referred to as the "reboot". Let's look at the Star Trek movies. In the first film, he takes elements and characters from the original series and changes the timeline so that he can start over with them. It is in some ways a clever script that tries to fill in gaps about Christopher Pike and the Kobyashi Maru test, but that came from other writers. The second installment, Into Darkness, tries to create a parallel story to The Wrath of Khan, even introducing Khan himself in a different timeline. The legendary exchange between Kirk and Spock at the end of the original movie is also duplicated to some extent, but with the essential emotional cost removed. I don't understand the point of this type of parallelism other than some cheap nostalgia, or even creative laziness. But it does illustrate my point about Abrams. He may be a fan of the work of others in this genre, but he just doesn't get it as a creator in the genre. One of the most essential aspects of good science fiction is that it introduces new ideas and concepts. It makes us think and look at things in ways we never may have thought of. This kind of story telling takes real effort and imagination and is why I love it so much. It is tougher even than the fantasy genre because it must remain grounded in reality in order to work its magic. Simply re-telling old stories in a different way is not creating science fiction. It is only trampling on the work of those that came before.

This leads up to the inevitable result of putting J.J. Abrams in charge of the final Star Wars trilogy. Some will fault Disney for switching directors mid stream, and rightly so, but we should also point out that even if Abrams had done all three films, they would have just been "reboots" of the original trilogy. We know this now that the final movie has been released under his wing. The Force Awakens is an obvious rework of A New Hope. You can see that Abrams intention for the second movie was to have Rey train under Luke in a remote location, just like Luke trained under Yoda in the second act of ESB. And when he returns for the third movie, Abrams brings back Emperor Palpatine for the third act final conflict, just as he was there to oversee the final act in ROTJ. One official interview revealed that idea as coming straight from Abrams, thus proving that his only contribution to the story is to re-tell the originals. At the end of the day, Disney put the story in the hands of someone who couldn't deliver. His track record in the genre should have clued them in.

I feel a bit sad to post a mostly negative entry without a lot of substance, but I also hope it can add to the rest of the voices out there trying to process it all. If you are not a Star Wars fan then just ignore and move on to then next post.

Monday, September 17, 2018

A Good Feeling About This

In my previous entry about the Star Wars franchise, I expressed some hope that the Han Solo origin film might at least have a decent script. Well, after having a chance to watch it on a cross country flight last week, I have to say I did not realize how true that would turn out to be. It was so good I decided to watch it a second time on the return flight! This entry is here to convince fellow fans that it isn't the disaster some are claiming it to be.

Let me first address the big ticket item that has caused the greatest annoyance to long time fans, which is that Alden Ehrenreich doesn't evoke Harrison Ford's classic character very much at all (although Donald Glover is spot on, albeit with much less baggage to live up to). But this problem went away for me as soon as I began to see that this new actor had taken full control of the role. Even though his style is different, the dialogue was what you'd expect of a young Han. If you can get past that you are in for a treat. The story manages to touch on all the canonical points of Han Solo's history while still presenting really great character developments, original plot points and twists which are both unexpected yet not outrageous, and all within a fast moving and creatively original action framework.

Aside from being an all around well done film, there are a few other important elements that make this a worthy addition to the Star Wars universe. What really astonishes me more than anything else that this was the first post-Lucas offering that actually felt like a Star Wars movie. All the character interactions, aliens, ships and other technologies, political and economic backdrops, sense of humor, and various locations and planets, were all completely original and yet at the same time felt like they lived in the same universe as the one we were introduced to in 1977. That in itself is quite an accomplishment. You only need to compare it to The Force Awakens which tried to copy the look and feel of Star Wars and often just achieved a cheap knock-off vibe.

============================ some spoilers below ====================

And finally, there were several nods to the old timer fans that in a bad film might be causes for grief but in a good film become wonderful nostalgic winks. Just wanted to mention a few in particular that made me smile:

  • After Han nearly destroys Lando's MF ship near the end, he tells him "I hate you", and Han says "I know". We all know where that came from.
  • Han's last stand off with Beckett has him shooting him first before he finishes a speech, and Beckett telling him as he fades off that it was a good decision because he would have shot him. A clear taking sides of the "Han shot first" debate and why it was ok.
  • Before undertaking the worst part of the Kessel Run, Han states the canonical phrase which he originated as "I've got a bad feeling about this" and which appears in most every SW film afterward. But in Force Awakens, it was changed to "I've got a good feeling about this", and in this film he again is the speaker and changes it to "I've got a really good feeling about this!".
  • Another great Han and Lando interaction is when Han revisits Lando and pretends he hates him for the "stunt he pulled" (which he did!) and then hugs him and laughs to break the ruse. Now we know that Lando gets him back in ESB
There is a lot to talk about in this film, including the comic relief droid L3 which didn't seem to bother me as much as some, the well choreographed heist sequences, the judicious use of pacing, etc. But the main point here is if you are an original Star Wars fan, don't let your disappointment with the rest of franchise rob you from having some fun and enjoyment with this particular Star Wars story.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Last Star Wars

For a life long Star Wars fan (such as your truly), it is painful to watch what is happening with the Star Wars franchise under Disney. Every time a new film comes out you think something is not quite the same - like small but essential elements are slowly slipping away. I know it is a horrible analogy, but it echoes something like an Alzheimer's experience. And how could we not expect this given the original creator is out of the picture? When Disney acquired Pixar, Marvel, and even Jim Henson Productions, they were able to keep at least some part of the original creators involved, but Star Wars was a clean break from Lucas and now they are desperately trying to figure out what to do with the whole thing.

Let's face it, what really made Star Wars a pop culture hit was not so much its strange landscape as its powerful storytelling. Lucas stuck with ancient elements that had stood the test of time and totally avoided most modern story telling mechanisms. How could an archetypal story telling machine like Disney not understand this to the point of hiring someone like Rian Johnson as the script writer? I can guess why - if the main criticism of The Force Awakens was that it was too similar to A New Hope, they decided to scrap Kasdan, the proven veteran of Star Wars mythology, and try someone known as a story rule breaker. It didn't matter that he had no science fiction writing experience either. Johnson did all sorts of unconventional things and this time the main criticism is that it was too unfamiliar. What to do now? Disney blows a fuse and bifurcates into two Star Wars worlds. Johnson gets his trilogy and maybe we'll bring back the other guys to do the other one on a separate track! What a bloody mess.

I don't feel inclined to comment on The Last Jedi other than to say that is was generally and enjoyable film if you forget about the previous films. It will probably be a hit and miss operation from now on and I'd rather focus elsewhere for better sci-fi offerings. The guys that filmed Rogue One did ok on their own, and at least Kasdan is doing the script for the Han Solo movie which means it might be a decent story, even if the lead actor was a horrible choice and, while they have no problem swapping directors right and left, they won't replace him. Of course, regardless of what happens in movie land, it will certainly be a groundbreaking treat when the resources of the Disney theme parks are unleashed to create Galaxy's Edge. Maybe it will become the last vestige of the old Star Wars for years to come.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Valerian Who?

My first reaction to trailers for City of a Thousand Planets was that it looked like a fun piece of sci-fi entertainment most likely having nothing new to offer. There certainly seemed to be a lot of creative visuals, and since the man behind it was Luc Besson, who brought us The Fifth Element, this did not surprise me. But then the word was that Besson had been planning this since he was a kid, and that it was based on a sci-fi serial that had been popular in Europe since the late 1960's! That kind of staying power was enough to get my attention, and prompt me to ask the question that titles this entry. How had I not heard of this until now? This combination of factors gave it the potential to be the first space opera film since Star Wars to cross the line into "ground-breaking" territory. I was actually beginning to get excited.

Now part of that had to do with the prospect of digging in to this "new" original material. The adventures of Valerian and Laureline have that old fashioned feel of the original pulp fiction era of science fiction comics, but coming so late in the game, it is able to utilize much more advanced sci-fi concepts. You might say it has the heart of Buck Rogers plus the imagination of Dr. Who, with a 1960's era twist. And the comic book visuals have the same striking originality as the Star Wars universe, convincing the authors that George Lucas must have been influenced by them. There's one short scene in the movie, for example, where our heroes escape an attack by jumping into a garbage shoot. I almost gagged until I remembered this material came first, and then it was totally cool!

The comics might have remained hidden due to the language barrier. The illustrator Jean-Claude Mezieres has a blog here which is still in French. The original serials were eventually published into about 14 novellas, and you can get a sample of some of Pierre Christin's interesting early content at these Wikipedia articles:

Bad Dreams (1968)
The City of Shifting Waters (1968)
Empire of a Thousand Planets (1970)
World Without Stars (1971)
Welcome to Alflolol (1972)
Birds of the Master (1973)
Ambassador of the Shadows (1975)
On the False Earths (1977)
Heroes of the Equinox (1978)

================ spoilers below ==============================

Although Besson claims a script connection to Ambassador of the Shadows, it is clear he has put a lot of his own material into the story, characters, and sets. This is a good thing since a 2 hour film requires a more cohesive arc than a comic serial does, and although the end result is familiar - primitive nature loving race with special gifts in danger of genocide from powerful political faction (Avatar anyone?), the plot moves along as quickly as any comic cliffhanger.

An example of Besson's influence is the Alpha space station, which is modeled after Point Central from the comics, a city made of up lots of different alien subsections all stuck together. In the film, he creates an origin story for Alpha that starts with today's ISS and imagines it growing over the decades and centuries. This makes for a really wonderful opening sequence to the film.

One of the most interesting sequences was a completely original construction called the Big Market. This sequence is so complex that even the cast and crew did not really get it until the first test footage was done, but I think it is safe to at least say it is a very skillful integration of sci-fi technology and concepts with a top notch action sequence, neither of which would work without the other. And the whole thing is an integral plot piece, not just some chase scene added for show. I think I will need to watch it again in slow motion to understand it completely, but I'll try to describe it. The market is in an alternate dimension, but somehow occupies the same space as a desert location on some planet. It is supposed to have a million shops and 500 levels (going underground), which is the "Big" part. You can only see and interact with the market with VR type goggles and gloves. Numerous groups of aliens are mingling in this space also with goggles, but they show up as images of themselves with letters above their heads that indicate their species of origin, and it seems they are not all in the same physical location, so they must be "dialing" in from various places. Finally, you can somehow transport any items you wish to purchase from the VR location to your real location via a converter device when you check out. This is accomplished by a DNA identification mechanism that also probably charges the item to your bank account.

Our agents are assigned to steal an item right from the table of an underground trade deal in progress, and their team scans them with some device to make them invisible within the market, I think? Plus Valerian must keep his arm locked into a portable converter device in order to pick up the cargo and convert it to real form without being detected. There are border guard aliens in watchtowers over the desert area. How they overtake one of these guys is both humorous and ingenious at the same time. And there are guards in the VR world too, but in order to "capture" a digital shopper, they must shoot rounds of a type of magnetic ball that sticks to certain digital things and "weighs" them down so the person controlling them on the other side can't move them around or pull out. It is refreshing that there is little attempt to narratively explain all this alien technology, but the effect is that I cannot tell if it is ingenious new sci-fi material or just a bunch of weird tricks to make me think the emperor has clothes on. Either way, it is damn good movie making.

So it did turn out to be a very engaging film. The only things that bothered me (a little) was that all the central characters were so young, even when compared with the original comic strip. My guess is that with the large body of material to draw from and our director's passion for the subject matter, he intends to do more movies and wants to make sure his main characters remain young and available for many years to come.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Disney Goes Rogue

If there's at least one thing you can give credit to George Lucas for when he introduced Star Wars to the world it would be originality. He took a lot of generation spanning story elements that had been around for a long time and transported them into a completely new backdrop. Such is the very essence of original creativity and the reason Star Wars had such a huge impact on my generation. It was enough to foster a certain nostalgic desire to re-live that experience, and that is extremely difficult not only because we see things differently as we age but also because if you were to try and re-introduce the same formulas again, they would by definition no longer be original. That is the paradox of the Hollywood sequel and constant curse of its creators.

Few fan bases have been so hard to please as those of the original trilogy. Look no further than the widespread disdain toward the Star Wars prequels as evidence. Lucas was not out to re-create whatever experience his fans might have had with his films. He just wanted to tell his story and although it was new and creative in its own right, the basic premises and the backdrop were the same as before. What did the fans expect? Well, the best you can do is provide little homages to the original work to tell the fans you understand them, you know how they feel. Studios often play into that to bring audiences to the theater, but not George. That would, and with no sarcasm here, be an artistic compromise.

When Disney took over the franchise, I think they vowed to avoid the reaction that greeted the prequel films when they set out to do the next trilogy. So in their first installment, The Force Awakens, they went completely the other way. Not only did they fill it with tributes and references to the original trilogy, but they kept the main actors in their original roles and practically duplicated the plot line of Episode IV. Well, it worked. They got their stamp of approval from the fans, but by re-enacting so much of the original work's form, they created something that lacked what made it so good to begin with, namely, originality. Then again, who could hope to re-create that?

Last night I went to see Rogue One, the second Star Wars franchise film from Disney Studios. The trailers had set me up for a war movie and probably revealed too much of the overall story, but I have to say, as an original trilogy fan myself, it was quite an experience on many levels. I may have to see it again to take it all in but for now, parsing it out for you the readers will help me gain some clarity. At some point beyond here there will be spoilers so if you plan to see it in the future you should go no further. But do enjoy the fan made movie poster above, which is done in the spirit of the original trilogy posters and looks a lot better than any that Disney Studios put out there.

============================ spoilers below =======================

Moviegoers are about to see the most serious minded drama placed into the Star Wars universe. By that I simply mean that the film takes its universe seriously. It may be a long time ago in a galaxy far away, but the story is told as if that world is as real as our own. Star Wars was part of a sub-genre of sci-fi known as the space opera, which like a musical opera, intends to transport us into a different place that is often full of exaggerations and stereotypes. This film steers clear of such things. It does not draw a straight line between good and bad characters. It showcases more human looking cast members than aliens so as not to distract you from the drama. One of the more delightful treats was seeing familiar space ships traveling over vast planetary landscapes that were just beautiful, but not really all that alien. This was one of the more subtle ways they managed to please us fans - by allowing us to see all those familiar war machines and space ships from our childhood memories and make them seem real. The death star rising like the moon on the horizon. AT-AT walkers attacking on a tropical atoll. And of course the familiar faces. ILM worked miracles re-creating the late Peter Cushing as Tarkin, and a stunning cameo shot of the young Princess Leia. They got role reprisals for Bail Organa and Mon Mothma. I have to say that the last 45 minutes was so chock full of fan material that it all but got out of control - all that "blue leader" to "red leader" banter. But what guilty pleasure to see more footage of those rebels and ties battling in space. I even had to laugh at one scene of a rebel in a watchtower looking out over the sunset at an X-wing leaving Yavin base - a re-creation of an original trilogy scene but now made real with a longer shot to enjoy it. It is wonderful that Rogue One explained some critical things about Episode IV, like Tarkin's rise to power, and why the Death Star had its fatal flaw, but did it have to lead right up to the very start of A New Hope? Nonetheless, most of the film stuck faithfully to the plot at hand.

It is also an odd paradox that the serious tone of the film was probably born of the meticulous desire to remain true to the Star Wars timeline. Your heart wants to be sad that every new main character dies by the end, but then your fan-brain kicks in and says that it has to be that way - otherwise we would have to explain why these people don't appear in the originals. Another clever invention was Donnie Yen's blind force-wielder Chirrut Imwe. What a great character he was. Not a jedi, as we know the Jedi were killed off by Palpatine except for a named few, but it shows how the force is accessible to anyone with enough faith. His fight scenes were in my opinion some of the most memorable.

One of my favorite characters from the original trilogy was Admiral Akbar. The Mon Calamari race were supporters of the rebellion early on and so they appear prominently in the Rogue One battles, but that Admiral Raddus sure did act and sound like Akbar if you ask me ;). And they took a new direction for an android "counterpart" who was a straight man like 3PO but not as bumbling. If I had to change one thing it would be the score. Sure it needed to be sad and foreboding, but not for the entire film! It's as if they didn't want the audience to get too emotionally involved so as not to let them down in the end.

Because such a different approach was taken with the material, mixing of old and new on a different backdrop, I would suggest that it succeeded in creating something original. And I wager that has something to do with why Mr. Lucas liked it better than the last installment. I'm hoping when Episode XII comes out Disney will continue to create new material but still preserve some connection to us original fans.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Closer Encounters This Time Around

The recent trailers for the new film Arrival generated some real interest for me, but I could not help noticing the parallels with the classic Spielberg sci-fi epic often referred to now as CE3K. I found myself wondering - with the myriad of alien visitation films that have come out in recent decades, has it really been 40 years since anyone has done it like this again? Let's note some of the common elements...

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

  • A story of a first encounter with an alien race that focuses mostly on the human impact and experience rather than on the aliens themselves or on any complex plot line.
  • The human impact is profound and life changing.
  • The governments of the world are involved and (initially) working together.
  • The aliens are much more advanced than us but have benevolent intentions
  • The primary struggle is in finding a means of communication which turns out to be radically different from our own written symbols.
Of course, the story is definitely original with a lot more elements involved, but I experienced just a slight twinge of nostalgia, enough to give the film a chance despite the huge scientific believability gaps. You would think that would put a film like 1997's Contact ahead of it, but I never once thought to connect that film with CE3K. Carl Sagan took a much more scientific approach to the topic.

Below the line are some of my thoughts on the positive and negative story elements.

=================== huge spoilers now ===================

I believe one of the well executed threads was illustrating the process of trying to communicate with a completely foreign entity, as seen through the eyes of a linguistic expert. That's one of the few items that felt like real science fiction - the kind that makes you think about what it might actually take. In fact, I hear that the book on which it was based is heavy on linguistic theory. It was also refreshing to see aliens depicted that were quite different from us physically and environmentally, although on the behavior side they tended to mimic several types of Earth bound animals.

Unfortunately the most crucial revelations were based on some rather ridiculous notions. Seeing into the future is philosophically difficult already, but to suggest that learning a new language could bring about that capability is nonsense. And of course they make the usual mistake when it comes to the time travel twist, which is if she saved the world from missing out on the technology by getting information from the future, why is the future portrayed as if she doesn't know she ever did it in the past? And what are consequences of humanity obtaining an ability to see into the future worldwide? These questions are not addressed because they don't support the focus of the story, which is primarily on the main character's life and some type of message about nations working together.

All that said, I was surprised at how the time flew given the slow pace of the film, so perhaps that was the main point - the telling of a story. The book on which it is based is called Story of Your Life. And maybe that is really the main connection that it shares with Spielberg's 1977 classic. I'd welcome any other thoughts on that note.

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 angle possible, from rock formation closeups to satellite altitude flyovers. 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 uninhabitable 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 and proves how masterful their team is with the fan base. 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 (and I really mean spoil) 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 they thought they 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 - its 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?
  • 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 giant waves 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 as to 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 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.