Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tron Legacy Review

In my article on the original Tron, I noted the upcoming sequel and stated that from the trailers it appeared this very late follow up would have none of the elements in it that made the original a classic. Now that I've seen Tron Legacy, I can confirm the truth of that statement. The unique computer animation styles seen in the first Tron are replaced by slick CGI graphics. Very polished, but so ubiquitous to moviegoers that it is simply expected to be part of any sci-fi film today. The visuals, characterization, and score have taken on a heavier and darker feel. Given the conceptual connection between Tron and the The Matrix, it is not surprising that this new version seeks to capitalize on the latter's successful fusion of sci-fi and stylism, sometimes rather gratiutiously (the original film took no interest in flaunting beautiful girls in tights). Every visual that was employed before has been fed into a computer and embellished in great detail. It adds nothing to the telling of the story except flashy visuals that are even less appealing than the simpler forms from which they were derived.

You would think with Lisberger in the producer's role they might at least maintain the ingenius allegorical parallels between the real and computer worlds. Alas, most is just sloppily borrowed and what is new does not try very hard to maintain the symbolism. I almost dropped my popcorn in one scene where Flynn's son is discovered to be a user because of what looks like anti-gravity blood droplets coming from him after an injury on the playing field. If he is only a programmatic representation of himself, would that really include a bleeding program? Does Flynn have a simulated dinner with his guests just for the nostalgia of it? The original games in Tron were there because the system running the matter transfer experiments happened to belong to an arcade gaming company and the evil master program was using the game programs to carry out his plans. In this film, the games are spectacles of entertainment for the sole pleasure of the inhabiting programs. This is explained as the creation of an evil twin program of Flynn's that has created some sort of perfect society in something called "The Grid" (yep, Matrix was already taken). However, the actual connection to the word "perfect" is never really illustrated.

Once I had accepted that this sequel would not be like the original, I at least held out a little bit of hope that an original story might allow it to take on a life of its own. Here is where we find the greatest disappointment. In 1980, the story in the real world was an interesting plot in its own right, and the computer world simply paralleled it in a way that actually made some sense. In this film, the reverse has happened. The evil plot comes from the computer world and intends to invade the real one. Instead of a clever allegory, we have the usual one-dimensional villain-wants-to-take-over-the-world idea. So much time is spent on the battles and flashy special effects that there is only minimal room for character development, which is a shame because it is the characters and their relationships that aim to be the meat of the story this time around. All the other peripheral characters are nothing more than a means to some end. Tron himself is only seen in a last minute Han Solo type rescue without ever really interacting with him (probably because programs aren't supposed to age like Boxleiter's character in real life does). The supposed helper, Zeus, who turns out to be a turncoat was never anything more than a silly showman anyway. How disappointed can you be at a betrayal when you never took the guy seriously? I'm afraid the script is of no real significance.

One new concept is introduced which is the supposed appearance of independent programs with an emergent consciousness. They are called bio-morphs and are portrayed as having child-like innocence. Of course, we are denied any exploration of this since they are all wiped out by the bad guy before we arrive. The one surviving specimen, played by Olivia Wilde, is by far the most interesting character in the film. It is refreshing to see a beautiful lead female play a character that is not essentially a love interest, although she is definitely loved. She plays the innocence angle very convincingly and I think we will be seeing more of her in future films. On the positive, the CGI work was integrated with some really nice sets in a way where you could not tell what was live set and what was not. All said, in spite of the huge promotional effort, I recommend waiting for the rental unless you want to see the 3D effects (I did not), which might prove entertaining.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Minority Report Futurama

One of the intriguing things about Minority Report is that it represents at least three different story telling motifs, each of which could be lifted out and placed in some other context that would work just as well. On the one hand, it replays the familiar theme of a murder in which the innocent protagonist gets framed and spends the rest of the movie trying to prove his innocence while being chased by the authorities. The bad guys turn out to be part of the system that's meant to protect the little guy. Does that sound just like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive? Now let's add a twist and say that the murder hasn't happened yet, but it has been predicted to happen. In fact, the "system" in this case involves a society, even a police force, that relies on such predictions to prevent murders before they happen. They use clairvoyants, referred to as precogs, whose gifts have been enhanced by technology. Although the framing motif still remains intact, now the methods by which someone can be framed for a future murder become a lot more interesting and different. Note, however, that although this sounds like science fiction, the central mechanism, a pre-supposed belief in clairvoyance, is a paranormal phenomenon, not science. Also, the concepts of free will and determinism that it plays with are more philosophy than science as well.

So if the plot is pure action and drama and the twist turns it into a psychological thriller, where is the science fiction? Basically, it is in the setting in which the story takes place, which is simply human society in the relatively near future (2054 A.D). But unlike most other futuristic tales, this one attempts to be believable, and that alone is what makes this film stand apart from the others. Since the story line, which took some ideas from a short story by the always intriguing Philip K. Dick, relies only remotely on the setting in which it takes place, the creators did not have to mold the future to serve the plot. In fact, Spielberg conducted brainstorming sessions with scientists in various fields to get their predictions about what society might look like 50 years in the future. That's the kind of stuff sci-fi is all about and I'd rather spend a little time looking at what they came up with than doing just a run-of-the-mill movie review. After all, there's lots of that already on the web.

One of the first things you see is Tom Cruz in front of a huge transparent screen sliding images and data around and commanding various operations by making particular gestures with special laser gloves. This is a very natural extension of today's computer technology of course, and it showcased in 2002 a multi-touch type of interface at a time when Windows Surface was just an idea in a few people's heads. Surface was finally unveiled in 2007, and there's great demo video here on youtube. Microsoft's "surface" detects commands via camera image from below, which is actually more like the action-at-a-distance featured in the film than a touch screen device like the Apple iPad. Anyway, the opening sequence of the film that features this future technology plays like a digital symphony with Cruz as the conductor. In fact, the accompanying music track is a symphony that is cleverly worked into the action on screen - check it out here.

Another thing that struck me as quite insightful was the portrayal of the continuity of brand names. Many companies come and go but the ones that last tend to last a long time, and their images will change with the times. For example, car companies are so integral to society that they tend to hang around even when they almost go bankrupt. In the film we see a whole new transportation infrastructure but the same car companies building and selling the cars, often with the same or similar logos. Communications companies like AT&T have lasted forever also because of their importance to a working society. If you look at the number of companies today that were around 100 years ago, it is not hard to imagine them and others like them still being around 50 years from now. You would think this would be rather obvious and yet I've never seen it portrayed like in MR. And it's a win-win because the companies can look real cool and futuristic while Spielberg gets to collect the royalties.

The same goes for architecture. Many homes look the same as today because people like living in houses that look old and traditional and will keep them basically unchanged for many decades, even as more modern offerings are built. The creators really looked back in history to determine not only what might change, but also what might stay the same. That is just plain genius.

One thing that MR does not hold back on is the idea that human nature does not change even as technology advances. Cruz's character is shown going through a divorce and becoming addicted to some type of drug. The delivery mechanism is different and the physical side effects of the drug itself has been refined away, but the effect on a person's life is just the same. Crime will not disappear and so neither would the police, even if their methods change. Instead of fingerprint identification they use iris imaging in MR. If you can be identified instantly by your iris signature, the existence of a black market in eye transplants does not seem like a stretch to me.

Another thing that I think MR got spot on with is the steady encroachment of commercial advertising into our daily lives. We've seen this with every new technology that has come along. Telephones and telemarketers, radio and TV commercials, and now email spam and internet pop up ads. It makes sense in the context of free capitalism. If there's a way to use technology to make a buck, companies will do it. They will avoid public outcry by introducing it slowly so consumers can become acclimated. One of the more memorable moments was when Cruz walks into a mall and is greeted by personalized computer sales pitches based on a remote iris scan that is done as soon as he walks in. It really hits you just how real that might become someday, even if they use a simpler method to identify you.

There are just so many thought provoking ideas to throw around in this film. One of them that struck me as a little ahead of its time was the maglev transportation system. It will take some time to move from oil based infrastructure to electric battery while still keeping the current road system. But to build a whole new magnetic road infrastructure in the major cities and mass transit based on a free running car technology to match it seems closer to a 100 year development to me at least. I'm not even counting the extension of the road system to allow it to go straight up the sides of the buildings and into your apartment on the 47th floor. We're talking major integrated city planning. The helicopters used by the police don't require an infrastructure like that, but whether rocket powered vehicles like that could appear in 50 years is still up for debate. And of course, the little spider bots that search out people is way far off, even if easy to do on film with CGI.

I think the hardest idea to swallow was the way they portrayed the precogs. Even if you could find three people with such abilities, and even if they were willing to dedicate their entire lives to police work, could they really withstand floating motionless in a half dream state for their entire existence? That's just crazy, and even raises some ethical concerns. However, I do think that Jessica Capshaw did an excellent job portraying precog Evanna when she actually had to wake up and do something. I just discovered that Capshaw is Spielberg's stepdaughter, interestingly enough. But I will close here by saying that Minority Report remains a bit of an enigma. How can a film that contains so much fascinating insight suffer from such a one-dimensional plot line? Then again, it is a Spielberg film.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dark Star

Well, I knew at some point I would have to write about Dark Star. This is one oddity that anyone who likes sci-fi should see at some time or another, not because it is good sci-fi, but because of its place in sci-fi history, its smart sci-fi satire, and its raw honesty and originality. You could call it comedy, but that would not quite do it justice.

By history I am referring to it being a collaboration by two college kids who would later become influential figures in the world of Hollywood sci-fi, fantasy, and horror - John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon. Among other films, Carpenter would hit it big time with The Thing and O'Bannon with the script for Alien. They made this film as a college project at USC on a budget of about $60K. Some of it was even filmed in studios on the campus. It was originally a 45 minute short that got such great response at film festivals that a producer grabbed hold of it, had the guys extend it another 40 minutes, and released and distributed it as a feature film. That extra time causes the film to drag in places but the director's cut took most of it back out, the opposite of what normally happens in director's cut versions. The acting is bad, the special effects are gloriously bad, but the writing, dialogue, and even some of the directing is quite original and entertaining.

The film was made in 1974 when the only serious space travel film on anyone's mind was 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the more realistic yet sometimes unnerving aspects of 2001 was the long drawn out zero-gravity sequences. Dark Star sort of pokes fun at that idea by portraying a crew that is so bored with the endless tedium of space that they either start finding odd ways to pass the time or just drift off into their own fantasy worlds. One of them keeps a pet alien that looks like a beach ball with feet, probably because that is exactly what it is. And instead of HAL, the ship's computer is named Mother. That still makes me laugh.
Due to the low budget, many of the sets were built from whatever the crew could get their hands on - like having ice cube trays pass for console control buttons. But the highlight is the smartly oddball humor, like the mysterious death of their beloved captain Powell, who turns out to still be available enough for some advice in a crisis. And of course, the crisis itself which has to do with a smart bomb malfunctioning and deciding it wants to blow up while still attached to the ship. The acting captain, Lt. Doolittle, manages to keep the bomb busy thinking about epistomological questions such as "How do you know you even exist?". That exchange between Doolittle and the bomb is enough to make the film worth the sit through. So if you are a science fiction fan and haven't seen it, and you ever get the chance to do so, I recommend taking it. Of course, you'll know for sure by gauging your reaction to the trailer below:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Human Or Alien?

One of the more common speculations that occurs in science fiction is not just whether life exists on other planets, but if it did, what on earth (pardon the pun) would it look like? If we assume that such life forms evolved independently, we would no doubt expect them to be so foreign and in fact, unexpected, that they would truly fit the meaning of the term "alien". The reason, of course, is that life on our planet, when we discover new forms, constantly surprises us with its strangeness, even though it is all based on the same basic chemistry and DNA-based machinery. Thus, life forms that arose in a completely different environment than that of earth would surely be even more foreign that what we find on this planet, incredible as it is.

Many classic sci-fi stories have explored the idea of the nature of alien life as a central theme, such as The Andromeda Strain, Alien, War of the Worlds, and countless others. Many more have explored the even less likely possibility of entire races of intelligent beings, focusing on their foreign technologies, cultures, and languages. Given the obviously much longer evolutionary time frame it would take for any type of intelligent life form to emerge in our universe, the opportunities for the biological substrate upon which this intelligence eventually sits to deviate from our own would be more numerous than any non-intelligent form of life by comparison. What I am trying to say is that if two intelligent races have absolutely no connection or commonality of origin prior to their first encounter, logic dictates that the biological makeup of these two races should be more different from each other than the two most radically differing creatures one might find on our own planet. This is why it is so ridiculous to see so many alien races depicted in sci-fi films and TV serials looking like slightly modified human beings. This entry, after that long introduction, is dedicated to the impossible ubiquity of humanoid aliens.

Now I realize that there is a practical reason for this resemblance of alien characters to us, at least on film, which is simply that it is much cheaper to dress up a person in a suit than to attempt something more difficult and costly, and probably even less convincing. In the earliest films, like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, the alien races were not much more than people with fancy wardrobes.
In the sixties, Hollywood's makeup skills improved enough so that they could try putting people in crazy looking suits. There are numerous examples of this in various TV series like Outer Limits and Star Trek, as well as the various monster films of the decade. But even if we excuse the early film and television sci-fi for insufficient technology or budgets, this would not explain the persistence of these humanoid aliens up to the present day. I believe there is a much more subtle explanation, and it has more to do with artistic laziness than anything else.

I first thought to use Star Wars as a modern example of this phenomenon since it spans several more recent decades, but then I realized it is really an anomaly. You see, Star Wars claims to take place in a completely different galaxy where you would expect every living creature to look nothing like an earth being, yet all the most important characters look exactly like us, and most of the others are close cousins. The obvious assumption one must make is that artistic license is being used to portray the main cast like ourselves so we can relate to them, including things like their emotional makeup and sense of humor, etc. But this breaks down when you see, mixed in with the human-like cast, all manner of alien beings with very different biological forms, including the intelligent ones! Certainly Yoda is a central character, as is Chewbacca, and Jabba the Hut has an even less human-like form, even though the behavior of the aforementioned characters is still quite human. I suppose you could characterize this as artistic license at best, or else as arbitrary, or worse still, schizophrenic.

So lets pick some of the more recent television series like Bablylon 5 and Star Trek (pick your spinoff). In all of these, various episodes will center around intelligent life forms that differ greatly from life on earth, which often constitutes the main point of the story. However, all of them have regular cast members that are aliens which look like modified humans. Klingons, Romulans, Narn, and Centauri; All of them very human like in form and especially so in psychological makeup. The one more striking exception being the Vorlons, which not only hide their form behind a cloak and communicate with musical sounds, but also seem to be more other-worldly in their manner, beliefs, and customs. Why are the regular cast so much like us? I believe the main reason is simply convenience. The easiest way to get an audience to relate to a main character is through mental and emotional connection, and so any type of intelligent interaction needs to hit close to home. This extends to the character's facial expressions and body language, which is most easily interpretable if they use the same expressions and body language as our own, and that implies a similar looking face and body. And this of course allows the actors not to work as hard at portraying the characters. Trying to weave an effective story without these tools takes a lot of extra thought that is less important than the day to day drama upon which most serials thrive. If my theory is correct, it means humanoid aliens are here to stay, despite their unlikely existence.

Once in a while, a serial will attempt to explain this commonality among the races. In the the original Star Trek series, it happens in one of the early episodes of season 3, and one of my own favorites, called The Paradise Syndrome. In the beginning, the crew discover a planet with a culture exactly like early Native Americans, and the flora and fauna look exactly like earth as well. They comment on the striking resemblance right in the beginning. Near the end, Spock discovers the people were relocated there from Earth by a group of ancient beings called the Preservers, who supposedly went around relocating groups of less advanced people/aliens deemed unable to survive on their own planet. It is Dr. McCoy who makes the key observation: "I've always wondered why there were so many humanoids scattered throughout the galaxy". Aside from being an interesting case of political correctness way before its time, it is a rather far-fetched invention by the writers to explain such a hugely important detail in one fell swoop. However, it is certainly not as distasteful as the ridiculous explanation attempted by Star Trek: TNG. In one episode, they receive a message from some ancient alien race which produces an apparition in the form of a basic humanoid-shaped being. It tells an audience of various races that the reason they all look alike is that their DNA was seeded by this original race throughout the galaxy aeons ago and they've finally become mature enough to be informed about their mutual brotherhood. To top it off, the message was supposedly hidden all these years in our DNA code. Ugh! I try to pretend that episode never happened.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Abyss

My family at some point acquired an informal Thanksgiving Day tradition back when most of us (5 out of 7) were still young and single. My mother would invite us over for a fully loaded turkey lunch. Yes, it was a lunch because she somehow always had to work on Thanksgiving Day and would be out of the house by two o'clock. Nurses were needed every day of the year, and I think this was a tradeoff designed to free up Christmas Eve. We feasted on turkey, yams, potatoes, and many other delicious contributions, and after chatting for hours and digging in to the pies and desserts later in the afternoon, the married siblings would leave around 4 to 5 o'clock and head to the in-laws for Thanksgiving dinner. The rest of us would then start voting on what movie to go see. With Mom gone it certainly was not rude of us to leave, and the theaters were all open and barely occupied. It was the only time in the year we all got to go to the movies together. There were even some years that Dad came along too.

Today my mother is retired, my father and one brother are no longer with us, and more of us kids are married or live farther away. So although Thanksgiving is still celebrated, the movie tradition has ended due to mere logistics. But it was on one of these holiday outings in 1989 that we decided to simply go to a nearby single screen theater and just watch whatever was playing that day. It was an underwater science fiction film that none of us had heard of called The Abyss. It turned out to be a film that would leave such an impression on me that I would remember it vividly for years afterward along with the odd circumstances under which I had discovered it.

The Abyss was both written and directed by James Cameron, half way between his first two Terminator movies, and 3 years after Aliens. Given the quality of the film and the reputation of its creator, I am still amazed at how little attention it ever got. One thing I share with Cameron is a love for the ocean and its underwater inhabitants. As a lifelong swimmer and now scuba diver, I have always loved to watch underwater filming. This movie takes place almost entirely beneath the ocean. It is definitely a Cameron film. What do I mean? For one, it is long (e.g. Titanic). It's original run time of 3 hours had to be cut back to 2 1/2 hours for the studios. Second, it contains lessons about the errors of mankind (e.g. Avatar, Terminator), the evidence of which was completely cut out for the theatrical version. Third, it is a well crafted story that is masterfully told. Fourth, it contains lots of suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat. Fifth, it had phenomenal sets (e.g. Titanic). Sixth, it pushed the envelope of film and special effects technology for its day (e.g. all of the above). Do I rest my case? It also contains several difficulties in the credibility department which is always one of the big weak spots in Cameron's sci-fi ventures.

======================[mild spoilers here]======================

There are several advanced underwater technologies that were explored in the story. The first is the idea of a submersible oil rig. The rig resides at the bottom of the ocean under 2000 feet of water. It has sealed control rooms and living compartments. It can be unhooked and towed at hover distance from the bottom with a small deep sea submersible in order to change drilling locations. Since it supposedly takes 3 weeks to depressurize at that depth, the only way to allow open dive operations is to keep the air pressure in the rig at the same pressure as the surrounding water. This is the first big credibility issue. The deepest open air dive on record is not much past 1000 feet, and the subject experienced severe HPNS (high pressure nervous syndrome). Although this is mentioned in the film, only one character falls victim to it while the others go weeks without a single symptom. At the end, Bud is supposed to dive to depths in excess of 17,000 feet and experience no more than temporary disorientation! I'm sure at that depth he'd be toast in no time, even if he was breathing liquid. A more serious problem is that you can't actually breathe air at that hyperbaric pressure due to oxygen and nitrogen toxicity, so the air in the cabins would have to be mixed with a careful balance of low oxygen and helium or other substitutes. This can be achieved with a controlled feed from a tank, but to achieve it in an entire cabin may prove impossible as the gases would separate. Also, if the pressure in the cabins and subs is the same as the surrounding water, then leaks would present a slightly lesser problem than depicted in the movie because the water would only rise to the level of the leak, not fill the cabin like in a submarine.

Another experimental technology which is part reality is using hyper-oxygenated fluid to allow deeper dives without a hard suit. High pressure compresses the air in the lungs, making it impossible to breathe at excessive depths. If you could breathe liquid instead, the compression problem goes away. There is an actual demonstration in the film of a rat breathing this hyper-oxygenated fluid, but it has only been tried on humans in clinical settings where a pump is used to aid the breathing process. A big problem is that there is no easy way to expel the carbon dioxide back out of the lungs without the assistance of a machine. So the free breathing of the fluid shown in the film is probably not realistic. It's a really neat idea though.

=====================[more spoiler stuff]========================

The production of the film must have been a complete nightmare, and such has been admitted by director, cast, and crew. The dive shots were all actually filmed in a flooded grain silo with the set built into it. Actual ROV's (remote operated vehicles) were incorporated into the plot and featured frequently. Submersibles and other more difficult shots were done with miniatures that somehow had live action film seamlessly integrated so it appeared like you were looking at real people inside the craft from the water outside.
And the famous ILM operation provided some very beautiful CGI renderings of the NTI's, which stands for non-terrestrial intelligence. This was a central part of the plot and another very original idea to add to the annals of science fiction. I don't know of any other film that was built around the idea of an intelligent race of beings that evolved in parallel with humans on earth but never made contact because they live exclusively in the unexplored regions of deep ocean trenches. Their technology is based on the control of water, which is also quite a stretch. Cameron takes great liberty with the idea that aliens are allowed to magically perform whatever impossible feats the story requires. There is one scene where the aliens supposedly investigate the rig using a column of water that can suspend in mid air and bend around corners. It is a touching moment and looks really cool, but that's about it.

Seeing the film for the first time is quite an experience as there are so many scenes involving heart stopping suspense. There is tension between the oil rig crew and the navy seal team sent down to assist the rescue operation which involves an armed nuclear warhead and a paranoid team leader made so by an HPNS affliction. An example of the crazy pace is when a hurricane develops at the surface and the underwater crew need to unhook the cable to the topside ocean liner so it can leave. This requires an external operation with the mini-sub, but the seal team has taken the sub for a secret mission and so they don't get to the cable in time. The storm drags the ship liner off position and the attached rig begins sliding toward the bottomless trench they are parked next to. Before this problem develops further, the tension in the cable causes the crane up top to break off in a spectacular crash scene. The rig below is warned that the huge crane is coming down toward them. We see the thick cable outside the rig window coiling as more of it hits the bottom and the crane gets closer. It is a very effective moment of suspense as the camera remains in the cabin with the crew during the entire brace for impact. The crane narrowly misses the rig when it hits, but while the crew is still cheering, the crane slowly falls over the edge of the trench, and we now see the cable following it down, still attached to rig. You barely have time to breathe, so to speak.

Probably the most unique feeling I came away with was an intense sense of claustrophobia achieved by some great direction. Cameron makes sure you don't get to see the surface for most of the film. You get a real palpable feel for what it is like to actually have to work under 2000 feet of water for days on end. Many scenes involve people diving through narrow compartments, getting trapped in rooms filling up fast with water, and you can usually hear the characters breathing, or trying to. This, I believe, is one of the more remarkable achievements of the film. Given the cold war time frame, part of the plot also depends on a Russian scare and concern that our nuclear sub technology is subject to espionage. Ironically, the Cold War Era came to an abrupt end just a few months after the film's release as the Berlin wall crumbled. It is amusing to see the U.S.S.R. portrayed in 1994, 5 years after it was in fact dismantled. There is a cheesy but convincingly told love connection between the two married main characters who go from the brink of divorce to finding their groove again. Ed Harris is a good fit for the part and plays it well. And the musical score is also quite lovely. With all that and more packed in, what more could you want?

I do remember viewing the director's cut of the film sometime much later and I believe it does provide a little more depth, however, it still does not fix the most serious flaw, which is the abrupt ending in which the aliens magically make everything all better. That ending does, however, have the effect of making you breathe easier as the entire cast finally breaches the surface. And I have to mention one other disappointing flaw, which is that we see absolutely no living creatures in the water for the entire film, other than the CGI beings. That, of course, would be too much to ask technically for that time, but all deep sea footage in the real world is teeming with the most interesting creatures on the planet. Such a shame.

I watched it again in order to do this review and I have to admit that the impact is not nearly as powerful when you actually know what is going to happen next, but it is still an enjoyable film which, despite the scientific challenges, has enough heart and originality to find a place in the annals of science fiction.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Colossus, WOPR, and Skynet

The three names in the title all have something in common. They are all names of intelligent computer systems that were given complete control of the United States military arsenal. Well, in the movies that is, and in each case it proved to be a bad idea. On the contrary, it always proved to be a great idea for the plot of a sci-fi thriller. The fear of what might happen if the human race comes to rely too heavily on machines has been a recurring theme in science fiction all the way from Metropolis to I, Robot. But with the dawn of nuclear ballistic missiles during the Cold War Era, the possibility that man could destroy the entire world at the press of a button became a reality. So which is more risky: Allowing humans, prone to rashness and corruption, to decide the fate of the world, or relinquishing that power, and all its consequences, to a logical, yet just as unpredictable, computer? It is easy to understand the pros and cons of both of those alternatives.

Not too long ago, I discovered a somewhat forgotten little film from 1970 called Colossus: The Forbin Project. It gives a good picture of what an AI super computer would look like to someone who lived prior to the dawn of the personal computer. Despite developing uncanny abilities to perform monumental speech and video recognition tasks, the system communicates primarily via slow teletype ticker output, either on paper, data terminal, or a large NASDAQ like text scroller, at least until someone hooks up a speech generator. But lets back up a bit. This system is supposed to take over the U.S. nuclear arsenal and is meant to run autonomously. It is a huge computer by even 1970 standards, taking up several long halls which are sealed up behind a maximum security concrete and steel fortress with internal radiation fields, etc. There is no way to get in, because that is the best way to ensure no one can break in via an inside job. Say goodbye to security clearances right? It has its own self-contained nuclear power source and can monitor all types of communication channels from the outside world. It is not hidden, as any attempt to bomb it would be detected and pre-empted. Yes, they included ballistic missile interception even before the Reagan era. The president, who in fact resembles J.F.K. from the audience's recent memory, announces to the country that they have handed over the arms race to a veritably perfect decision maker.

----------------------------[ spoiler warnings here down ]-----------------------------------

One of the most memorable scenes for me was immediately after the cameras go off, Colossus begins repeatedly displaying the message "WARNING: THERE IS ANOTHER SYSTEM". It was so off the wall that it stumped me just as much as the characters in the film, until the explanation came. Those dirty Russians had been secretly developing their own version of the perfect AI weapon system called Guardian, and it was on line too. Colossus asks for a com link to Guardian so it can know more, which naturally raises some security concerns, but with precautions in place they decide to allow it. Colossus begins setting up a common language between the two systems and they begin to exchange information, ultimately deciding to work together to take over the world. Ok, maybe I jumped ahead there, but the fact is that the first half of the film contains some believability, but it becomes more and more ridiculous as things progress. Not only does the computer learn faster than they had ever anticipated, but it begins using its control of the missile arsenal to blackmail everyone into doing its bidding. It's thirst for power and obstinate behavior is just too human to make any sense, but the message of the film manages not to get lost.

One of the most striking aspects of The Forbin Project is its ending, which leaves the computer systems in control and the humans without any hope. This was only two years after the successful Planet of the Apes with its famous dark ending, so I'm sure Hollywood followed suit here when they ended the film with Dr. Forbin clenching his fist and cursing at Colossus. A few other notable mentions is the very interesting soundtrack which maintains a sense of urgency even when nothing is happening, a cool performance by Eric Braeden, and of course, getting to see Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham from Happy Days) in the role of a serious computer lab assistant. It's a pretty good watch. An original trailer is below:

The next big film to handle this topic was very different. This time, it was a fun family film with a happy ending. WarGames, starring Matt Broderick and Ally Sheedy, came out in 1983, right smack dab in the midst of the home computer revolution. In Forbin Project, everyone in the computer room was an adult, because at that time computers were owned and operated by businesses and governments. By the early 80's, the concept of the "computer whiz kid" entered the pop culture. In fact, 1983 also saw the start of a TV series about a group of computer hackers called simply "Whiz Kids". In WarGames, Broderick plays the hacker who gets into the DOD computer system, WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), which now controls the U.S. nuclear arsenals. He manages to accidentally trick the system into thinking a nuclear attack is imminent and the rest of the film revolves around trying to prevent World War III from happening. That's a pretty wild premise on which to hang an entire story, but it works because it is a well written script that is well directed, and the characters are all so colorful too. WOPR is a much more rational computer than Colossus, and the message in this film is that even a computer can learn enough to eventually understand the futility of a nuclear war. My favorite quote is the one that everyone remembers at the end. After comparing nuclear war strategies to the game of tic-tac-toe, the computer finally declares "Interesting game, the only winning move is not to play".

Of course, after that, the Terminator series took over and ran well into the 90's with its more Colossus-like system called Skynet. It too became power hungry the day it went live and never looked back. With robot armies and time travel, I think the message gets a little lost. But that is all the subject for another day, or should I say, for judgment day (sorry).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

War of the Worlds

I consider H.G. Wells to be quite a fascinating science fiction writer. Not only are his stories and writing style intellectually stimulating, but also quite prescient given the time they were written. Wells lived from the mid 1800's right to the end of WWII. He lived smack in the middle of the industrial revolution. Having a strong sense of compassion for humanity, most of his fictional stories were meant as warnings about the consequences of man's folly. It is this social aspect of his works that really establishes them as true classics in my opinion, even though I'm sure I would disagree with many of his views at the time.

One of his more famous novels, War of the Worlds, was written right at the turn of the century. As a born and raised British citizen, he witnessed British colonialism, which is a form of imperialism. War of the Worlds acted as a warning against imperialism by turning the tables and creating a race of imperialistic aliens with the humans in the role of the conquered. The aliens completely out power the humans, but they are ultimately defeated by nature. By putting all their trust in their war machines, and having no respect for the indigenous world they were rampaging, they neglected to become knowledgeable about that world and ultimately succumbed to their own ignorance. It is a powerful allegory. What is amazing is that it was written before airplanes, tanks, and heavy artillery, yea, even before the first world war. Yet here we find a global war waged using armored vehicles, chemical weapons, and "heat ray" technology.

War of the Worlds was always a bit of a enigma for me personally. I remember as a kid seeing some old movie posters for the original 1953 film and thinking how cool it looked, but it never seemed to come up on TV or anything. All I could ever find out about the story was that it was about Martians invading Earth, and although it looked cool, I wondered how in the world anyone could construct a full length story around such a concept that had any real depth to it. Then I learned it was written at the turn of the century and marveled that someone could come up with such ideas that early on. War of the Worlds was in fact the first science fiction novel about a full scale alien invasion. Because of that, it shaped the early images of that genre concept for years to come. So I had this interest in the concept of the story, but never any real interest in the story itself.

So I guess it is odd that it was only in recent years that I actually rented and viewed the original George Pal film. Pal replaced the mechanical tripods with floating submarine-like ships, and he removed a lot of the more gruesome aspects of the story, like the aliens feeding on human blood. All I remember was that I found it enjoyable. Although the special effects are dated, they seem pretty good for their time period, and even the script is pretty well put together. One interesting addition that reflects the cold war period is that nuclear weapons are used against the aliens as a final futile attempt to destroy them, something that Wells had no knowledge of.

Along comes Steven Spielberg with an updated version of War of the Worlds in 2005 starring Tom Cruz and Dakota Fanning. It definitely had a Spielberg blockbuster feel to it - lots of action, impressive special effects, while the character development gets lost behind all the ruckus. Spielberg actually brings in some of the original Wells concepts, including the "red weed" that covers the landscape and feeds on the vegetation, and the separation between the main character and his spouse. But he also creates his own back story by adding the kids, new situations, and lots of extra details. It is definitely his own telling of the tale and great fun. However, I can't say that it adds anything of real value to the Wells legacy.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

And The Trek Continues...

Sometimes I have to wonder if the Star Trek franchise will ever go away. You can almost break it down into these surges of activity. If TOS (1966-1969) and the subsequent films (1979-1991) was the first wave, TNG (1987-1994) and its films (1994-2002) would be the second, and the DS9 (1993-1999) and Voyager (1995-2001) spinoffs the third. I almost could not believe when yet a fourth wave came in the form of Enterprise (2001-2005), which was a prequel to TOS of which I never watched a single episode. Then, lo and behold, in 2009 I witnessed a teaser trailer for the latest Star Trek film, which appears poised to engender another batch of future sequels. That teaser trailer reminded me of the teaser for the first Star Trek film: The Motion Picture, as have other ad campaigns. It is like seeing the same dream over and over again. In any case, there is a great write-up in Wikipedia on the entire franchise.

My purpose here is to give some thoughts about the latest film, which was billed as a Star Trek reboot. It turns out that word was carefully chosen, and it actually took me until close to the end of the film to figure out the reason. This film was a type of prequel that explored the early Starfleet careers of the original Enterprise crew. The word was that the film was being produced by a group of people that loved Star Trek since they were kids and that they intended to stay very close to the actual history alluded to in the TV series and prior films. They knew that Star Trek fans were meticulous about the intricate details of the Roddenberry created Universe, and it showed. There were lots of things in that movie based on obscure references that even I had forgotten or was not aware of. That deserves some credit.

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But perhaps it is this attention to historical accuracy that threw me off regarding the reboot idea. You see, the film begins with a mission in which George Kirk, the father of yet unborn James T. Kirk, is the first officer and whose wife, also on board as part of the crew, is about to give birth to the future Kirk when all of a sudden, a Romulan warship from the future appears out of a wormhole and threatens to destroy the ship. George manages to save the crew but sacrifices his own life in the process. Now, the key element here is that because this event was the result of time traveling Romulans, it never actually occurred in the original Star Trek history. Thus, a chain of events is set in motion that alters the course of that history. Let me give a few examples. Since Kirk now grows up without a father, he is portrayed as a rebellious youth who wants nothing to do with Starfleet until captain Christopher Pike challenges him to live up to his father's reputation. Yes, that is the captain Pike of the original series pilot The Cage who was originally shown as an invalid, but his history gets altered as well.
Then the Romulan ship, whose captain is bent on revenge against Spock, decides to blow up Spock's home planet, and ultimately succeeds! This does two things: First, the enterprise crew is thrown together much earlier than they would have been as they are called to duty as Starfleet cadets in order to investigate this emergency. Second, the loss of his planet is supposed to be so overwhelming for the emotionless Spock that even he is at his breaking point. This causes Uhura to develop feelings toward him born from empathy for his situation, and Spock actually finds himself succumbing to her. With Spock on edge and Kirk a young punk, this creates some heavy friction between the two otherwise good friends in another life. How's that for a reboot?

So how about the film then? I think it was a really good sci-fi action adventure story that even someone who never watched a Star Trek episode in their life would enjoy. But there was also plenty of nods to the original series for the fans, and maybe even a bit too much. Let's go through the character list. Chris Pine did an almost haunting job of recreating Shatner's mannerisms. Quinto certainly looks very much like Nimoy, especially with the makeup, but there were some glaring inconsistencies in Spock's personality. He always seemed to look angry, which is a pure human emotion, and his comments were often scathingly cynical, which is evidence of the underlying emotion of contempt. Scotty and Chekov looked nothing like their future incarnations, but I think they were chosen for their accents, which were spot on. Karl Urban also did a very convincing McCoy which was a delight to watch, even if he seemed too old for the part. Sulu was probably easy for anyone to pull off, and Zoe Saldana seemed a little too sassy for a young Uhura, but who knows right? The special effects were top notch and the action always kept me on edge, but the story convolutions required to bring Leonard Nimoy onto the screen was not worth the fan value. I also don't get why they had to do something as drastic as blow up the planet Vulcan. If that was just to give Spock a lost boy angst then shame on them! How long will this reboot go before yet another incarnation of Star Trek beams onto the scene once again?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Babylon 5

One of the great things about the original Star Trek series was that, in addition to having well written episode scripts, the characters were played out with such passion. Ok, I know sometimes it turned into overacting, but I'd rather it go that way than become flat and boring. I'm sure I'm not the only one to notice that the next generation series that followed had an acting style that was a bit more cerebral. I guess you might expect that from a captain with a Shakespearean training background. The next few spinoffs continued this trend and the script writing degraded until DS9 finally began to convince me that the day of good sci-fi serials on television were over. That was until some friends at a gathering told me about Babylon 5.

At the time I was hanging out with a church group in Burbank that had connections to nearby Hollywood. Many of them worked in the entertainment industry. The friends I mentioned above actually knew Mike Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, from a previous project. It was only a few weeks into the story, so I began watching, and my faith in television sci-fi serials was once again restored. While DS9 and Voyager were rehashing old material, this show featured a completely original set of characters and script ideas, and these characters actually had some blood running in their veins. The first episode I watched featured an almost hysterical in-your-face argument between G'Kar and Mollari. The acting seemed pretty good and even the alien makeup was pretty convincing. I became hooked. I watched every episode during its initial 5 year run and left the Star Trek spin-offs squarely in the dust.

There were five main ambassadors that formed sort of a council of worlds at that space station, all of them very different. The lizard-like Narn were an oppressed people with issues from the past, the Centauri were high society and its ambassador a conniving politician, the Minbari a peace loving race of philosophers, and the Vorlons were a mysterious ancient race with advanced technology yet difficult to understand and communicate with. The humans ran the station, led by the station commander Jeffrey Sinclair, who I thought was a likable character. But Sinclair only lasted one season and he was replaced by John Sheridan, played by Bruce Boxleiter (yes, the Tron guy), who took some warming up to. Sinclair disappears for unknown reasons and comes back at the end of the series as a key character, but I always wondered if they re-wrote the story to accommodate the original actor's departure. I still can't tell. Then there are several station personnel like Garibaldi, the security chief, who I always liked a lot. He was such a no-nonsense tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. Other regular characters would come for a season or two and then go, but were always interesting. There was an agency called Psi Core which enlisted telepaths and trained them to use their gift for the good of society, or at least their definition of it. A regular Psi-cop on the show was played by Walter Koenig (Chekov).

The entire 5 year series has several story arcs that provide continuity. The main one involves sightings of mysterious shadow vessels that leave destruction in their wake. The explanation at the end of the series I thought was quite disappointing, like you've been led up to believe something horrible will happen and then everybody just shakes hands and goes home, but that does not take away the effectiveness of what led up to it. Another arc involves a past war between the Minbari and Earth that was mysteriously cut short and is tied up with Sinclair's relationship to their race. In addition, there were many one-off episodes that featured an isolated story, and these were often well written, interesting, and the whole series had a darker twist than you might encounter in the Trek world. It was rather addicting.

There is another thing that fans usually like about Babylon 5 which is its creative space ship designs. No models were used, only CGI, and to be frank, most of the computer generated images did not look very convincing. The thing that makes them stand out is the work that went into designing the CGI models. The space station itself is a rotating segmented monster of a structure with elaborately detailed features. All of the different races have unique ship architectures which just look kind of cool, even though they often don't seem like they would hold together in real life. It all looks pristinely clean but you just appreciate the work that went into it.

After the show's run ended, I saw ads for some spinoff mini-series, but they were on cable so I could not access it at the time. However, the entire cast was replaced for the follow-ups so what would be the point anyway? If you haven't seen this series and you like a good long running science fiction serial that actually entertains, you might just give the pilot a watch and see. Just make sure you've got the original series.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

12 Monkeys

I have always appreciated Terry Gilliam's films, both for their sense of humor and their creativity. From the classic days of Monty Python and The Holy Grail to some of my all time favorites like Brazil and Time Bandits. These were comedies that Gilliam wrote himself. In later years he decided direct some notable films with a more serious tone like The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, both of which were written by others but to which he applied his unmistakably original directing style. In the case of 12 Monkeys, we have a brilliantly written science fiction story by a veteran screenplay writer named David Webb Peoples, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Blade Runner. Add to that some great performances by Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, and you have a great film, one that also sits in my collection.

There are several elements of story telling that come together in the film. We start in the year 2035 after a virulent plague has killed most of the earth's population and the survivors now live underground. Convicts are forced to perform missions on the surface to gather samples and information for a group of scientists in their efforts to find a cure for the virus. The scientists have found a way to send people back in time and retrieve them again, and have instituted a program to send the prisoners on time travel missions in exchange for reduced sentences. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent on one of these missions. The hope is to decipher the origin of the virus and bring back a sample of the original from before it mutated. It is not explained how that would help them find a cure, and there seems to be no plan to prevent the catastrophe in the first place until something changes at the end.

The film presents several mysteries that keep you guessing via misdirection. First, we are misled about the cause of the catastrophe until the very end of the film. Second, Cole becomes confused about whether his future life is real or not and whether he is sane or delusional, and we the audience are provided clues that go both ways. The main directorial tool in this respect is analogy and similarity. The are many similarities between past and future, and many coincidental re-occurrences that make us wonder if Cole is actually making things up in his own head. For example, advertisements about the Florida Keys pop up in odd places as a suggestion of where they will ultimately plan their final escape. Cole hears a news story about boy caught in a well and correctly predicts that the boy is actually playing a prank and hiding because he saw the story as a kid. When he is confronted about it later he states that it could have been another story or that the kid may have seen the same thing and copied it. And then there is the constant thread of references that Gilliam includes throughout the film, like the numerous incidental TV programs that happen to be talking about time travel, or the ever-present monkey theme, as when a monkey is lowered into the well as way of reaching the supposedly trapped kid. These are not part of the story line but keep appearing throughout the film and give it continuity.

Cole ends up at first in a mental institution and meets up with Jeffry Goines (Brad Pitt). Pitt's performance as a crazy guy is absolutely amazing. He straddles the fine line between comedy and reality and creates this surprisingly consistent character. Willis is also great as a man trying to understand his situation and interpret a dream that is in fact a real happening that he witnessed as a child which also occurs at the end of the film. We see glimpses of it throughout, in slow motion, as a unifying thread that holds together Cole, his childhood, and his relationship to a psychiatrist named Dr. Kathryn Railly who is the only person that befriends him and ultimately comes to believe his story.

The most straightforward interpretation of the film is to take it at face value as a time travel drama, complete with time puzzles to piece together in addition to the other mysteries. Although there is plenty of "proof" to support this interpretation, there is one thing that does not fit in at all, which is a voice that talks to Cole every now and then out of nowhere, referring to him as "Bob", and speaking like he has gone through the same ordeal that Cole has and somehow knows how to beat "the system". Is the point here to simply throw us off track, or is there some deeper meaning? I think the writers gave us the answer within the film itself. In a scene close to the ending climax, Cole and Railly put on disguises in a dark movie theater as an old James Stewart movie plays on the screen. It is a strange scene where the actress is claiming she'd been in that place before. Cole starts mentioning how he thinks he saw that movie before as kid, and seems somewhat disturbed by it. In one of his most lucid moments, he says to Railly, "Its just like what's happening to us... like the past. The movie never changes, it can't change, but every time you see it it's different because you're different. You see different things."

In that light, I knew that there must be things I had missed and so I watched the movie again in preparation for this entry (my third time). It was in that viewing that I noticed the quote above, as well as many more of the incidental coincidences. I also noticed for the first time that the woman who sits next to the apocalyptic nut on the plane at the end is one of the doctors from the future. Did she go back in time to prevent the disaster after all? I think part of the enjoyment of the film is the intellectual chase that it presents on so many levels.

Finally, I do like the main musical theme. It makes heavy use of dissonance and off beat rhythms to parallel the film's own assortment of double meaning. And it is actually played on accordian, the instrument of choice for street monkey vendors, and gives it a slightly humorous overtone. You can hear it below: