Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Blade Runner?

I have heard critics rave about Blade Runner (1982), saying it's "a great achievement" and "one of the most visionary sci-fi films of all time". These folks must be looking for something very different than I. I can understand why I did not watch it in high school - I had not yet acquired a taste for dark or Distopian art forms. My life was just too happy and simple. I tried to watch it some time during college but could not get past the first 15 minutes or so. First, it was inexorably slow and boring. I'm not an action junkie, but I could not seem to find anything to enage me into the story. Well, lo and behold, in order to blog about it, I viewed the theatrical cut in its entirety, which you can do online with a Netflix subscription. I still don't get it.

The film is an adaptation of a Philip K. Dicke novel done in film noir style in a futuristic setting. This style is difficult to pull off today since it has been caricatured for so many years. Yet Blade Runner does not really add anything new to it except the setting. Everything from the sleazy back street crime culture, to the lilting saxophone music, to the cheesy street-wise detective narration, the fatalistic love interest, except instead of a prostitute or struggling actress, the lady love is a misunderstood robot. Even the femme fatales are robots. Did Ridley Scott intend this to be comical? He did much better with Alien - oh wait, that was 3 years earlier. Harrison Ford was never a great actor, but I thought he was better cast as Han Solo in Star Wars and as Indiana Jones. The special effects were sufficient for their time, but after Star Wars set the bar 5 years prior, I don't think it deserves too much credit in that department either. And while we're on the big names, Vangelis wrote much better music for Chariots of Fire - oh wait, that was a year earlier. I am not saying that film noir can't be done effectively today. Just look at the narrative portions of the Watchmen as an example. But the key is that you need a real story to back it up. Watchmen starts with a murder mystery and leads up to a full fledged evil plot to conquer the world, etc. In Blade Runner, there's no real plot, no murder mystery, no twists of fate, just a cop trying to kill off the riff raff. The point seems to be to just revel in all things strange and grotesque.

Some people point to the exploration of how an android would deal with the prospect of its own immortality as a highlight. The first film that comes to my mind in that respect is 2001 with its treatment of HAL the super-computer, so the concept is not new. Since that theme is an important part of Dicke's novel, I'll bet it is treated more skillfully on paper. But let's face it, the credit in that respect goes to Dicke, not the film. I do, however, give credit to Rutger Hauer, who played the replicant leader. He really captured the strange juxtaposition of the rage of a man sentenced to death with the confusion and innocence of a 4 year old child.

Of course, Scott released a director's cut that eliminated the narration by Ford, which he had never wanted in the first place but the studios insisted upon. I imagine that would be a definite improvement.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Martian Chronicles

I have to admit, I never read Ray Bradbury's famous Martian Chronicles. I have heard that his writing style is quite good, which when coupled with sweeping philosophical themes about the future of worlds makes for some classic science fiction. I always do a little extra research for the blog and have just found out that this work was not originally written as a novel but as a series of short stories, penned over time, and set in the context of a larger framework. It was later compiled into book form and I've heard that it's the best selling sci-fi novel of all time. Science fiction novels inspire some of the coolest cover artwork, and both the longevity and popularity of this one has generated quite a few, so I uploaded some examples.

What I do remember is watching the TV mini-series with my Dad at a young age (1979) and retaining lots of haunting images of what was at the time a "major television event". They were only images, for I found it very hard to follow the stories, which is understandable given the disconnected nature of the chapters. I do remember the rather comical setup, which was a shot of the first Mars satellite landing, the Viking Lander, taking pictures of a barren Mars landscape, and the camera panning over a hill to show some Martian homes just out of the satellite's visual range. The narrator likens it to someone sending a satellite to Earth which lands in the middle of the Sahara desert and concluding the Earth is completely barren and uninhabited. This cute little intro was obviously not in the original book as Viking landed in 1976 and the book was compiled in the 1950's. It was added to make the story more convincing to the later, more informed, audience.

I'd always sensed that the TV series was a very abridged version of the original work and of far lesser quality, but it was a treat to be able to rent it again in recent years and see how much I remembered. It still had that haunting quality to it. The opening sequences that show various initial attempts by man to visit Mars and how the Martians try to deal with it are quite powerful. And the Martian appearance (no hair, silver pupils), contrasted with their calm and docile demeanor, is still quite creepy and effective.

The story lines are too numerous to recount here, so I will limit myself to general commentary. I think the one thing that really struck me about the series was how different it was from most other sci-fi stories. Again, without being able to reference the novel itself, it seems that Bradbury chooses not to deal primarily in concepts relating to science and technology, philosophy, logic, and other themes that most science fiction adopts as its primary literary topic or tool. His primary focus is human nature. He creates two very different worlds and plays with the effects they have on each other, which can sometimes be beneficial and sometimes devastating. If there are moral implications in the stories, they are not about the use of science and technology, they are about how we should treat each other, including others that we may encounter "out there", but he does not take sides either. The Martians are not portrayed as innocent victims but simply as another culture with its own flaws, virtues, and means of survival. Many of the tales simply follow an episode in the life of one person or family, while others recount significant turning points in the Earth-Martian saga. I suppose it is these things that gives the Chronicles its timeless quality even though we know that Martians do not exist. You could transplant the tales to a more distant planet and lose not a thing.

Now, I think that this kind of writing is more common in the world of sci-fi literature than in film because it just doesn't easily lend itself to screen adaptation. I am admittedly not a sci-fi literature buff and perhaps the more "hard-core" types would laugh at my sense of novelty here. So be it. At least in this case, a real science fiction novel was adapted to the screen without turning it into an action flick like was done with Asimov's I, Robot a few years back. All I can say is I hope it will happen more often in the future.

The Island

The Island is a film that came out relatively recently (2005) and is mostly a conglomeration of ideas from its predecessors, but it contributed one new concept that makes it worth mentioning. Unfortunately, this concept constitutes the main point of the story and is not revealed until the middle of the film, and since it's the only thing worth talking about here, I am going to put a big spoiler warning at this juncture for the sake of any one planning to see it. Read on at your own discretion...

===============<<spoilers below>>========================

Science fiction often involves stories that take a contemporary topic in science or engineering and explore what might happen if it were taken to extremes or used for ill purposes. In recent years, films have started to appear that explore the world of bio-technology, especially involving the manipulation of DNA. This is a natural response to the rapid progress that has been made and is still exploding in bio-tech. One of the more controversial aspects of the field is cloning. The fact that real cloning has been demonstrated and is now accepted as real science opens up all sorts of interesting, and sometimes scary, possibilities. A case in point is Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, which explored the possibility of cloning animals that no longer exist today.

I remember seeing trailers for the The Island and wondering what they were up to. I've seen so many sci-fi plot lines that I was intrigued by the fact that I just could not guess "the secret" that they were holding back on. There was this controlled community of people in a laboratory-like evironment, who were all waiting to go to "The Island" once their name was drawn from some lottery. Romantic involvement, even physical contact, was forbidden and enforced by proximity meters. They are told they are being quarantined from a world-wide epidemic. The story, of course, involves a couple who fall for each other and eventually make the horrifying discovery that there is no Island. They are in fact being harvested for their organs. It turns out each person in the facility is the clone of someone out in the "real" world who has paid a great sum of money to have their clone grown to adulthood so they can have perfectly matched organs on hand when the time comes that they need them. There is no public outcry because the facility is kept secret by the parent corporation. I hardly remember anything about the story itself, but the concept seemed so amazingly plausible that it stuck with me. How many rich people would go for this if they could pay for it and tell themselves that everyone is doing it anyway? How many companies would not hesitate to capitalize on it and use customer demand to absolve their conscience as many do today?

Of course, our heroes escape into the world outside, pursued by hired mercenaries, and innocently amazed at the world they discover. They end up seeking out their clone owners with whom they have some interesting confrontations. This latter part of the film turns into a bona-fide action movie with several plot turns that actually make it rather enjoyable to watch. It's almost like getting two movies in one. So I'll put this one down as an honorable mention for it's fresh ideas and for not completely botching the climactic conclusion which is what usually happens in Hollywood science fiction projects.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ode to Tron

I suppose I am embarrassed to admit it, but to this day, I still love watching Tron. Yes, it is a plot fit for a teenager, but unlike many films that fall along the wayside, this one I think deserves some ground breaking credit. First, it really was one of the first films to use computer animation extensively, and just that fact alone puts it on the map. What makes it still look so interesting even today is that the techniques used were a hodgepodge of several pioneering processes that were abandoned later for more flexible and less costly methods made possible by better computation speeds. Most of the animated sequences have a look and feel unlike anything seen before and after - a hybrid of live footage, hand drawn, and computer generated images and motion.

Another achievement for its time is the use of computer generated camera movement. This is completely the directors job which is ubiquitous in today's computer generated footage, but the camera work done in 1982 still stands on its own. Just check out the famous light bike sequence:

Another really significant point is the skill in which computer related concepts were translated into an analogous world in which a story could be weaved. Software is my profession and I can tell you that all the terms used in the 1982 film are still used today. Even in high school, I was able to suspend my credibility meter by simply telling myself that everything I was watching on the screen was a symbolic representation of what was actually happening within the bits and bytes of the computer system (ok, maybe not the "pet" bit that acted more like an intelligent program with binary output). If you do that, the story actually makes some sense. It's like watching a computer science allegory. I don't remember a better treatment of such concepts before The Matrix. I credit the writers with having the sense to know what computer concepts were fundamental enough to stand the test of time and the producers for not messing with it. There is not a single product reference (DOS, Windows, PC) or company reference (e.g. IBM, Apple, Microsoft, Maxtor, Intel) during the entire animated portion. Imagine the royalties Disney gave up! Then again, back in the 80's those companies were making money hand over foot so they probably weren't interested anyway.

Speaking of writers, I still can't believe this came out of the Magic Kingdom. The first attempt by Disney to put out a Sci-Fi offering was a huge flop called The Black Hole. This time they hired a guy named Steven Lisberger who both wrote and directed the film. Although they have done plenty of movies in space, I don't recall any serious sci-fi films from Disney since Tron. So I named this entry "Ode to Tron" because it was like a very unique thing that we may never see the likes of again.

After saying that, I just discovered that a sequel will be coming out this year called Tron: Legacy. After watching the trailers, I don't fear having to take back my statement. It looks like they took a dark angle a la Matrix. Part of the charm of Tron was its innocence so they are going to completely destroy that along with the unique look. The amazing thing is that it's not only being released again by Disney, but Lisberger is also coming back as producer and both Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleiter will be starring in it. I guess they will all go down with the ship. We'll see.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Time Machine

Time travel is one of my favorite sci-fi themes. It provides opportunities for some real clever story lines, but it is also one of the most difficult things to handle convincingly. I was a Physics major in college so the more a film or story can suspend my scientific disbelief, the more enjoyable it is for me. According to current physics, traveling forward in time is quite possible due to the laws of special and general relativity. Traveling backward in time is, so far, complete fiction. But it's the backward travel that makes the best stories because it involves the whole idea of re-visiting and even changing history. As long as the writer keeps the time lines consistent and provides a scenario that, once you think it through, makes some sense, I consider it worth suspending questions regarding violation of the conservation laws of the universe and the proliferation of time lines. I'll have to do a broader treatment of time travel elsewhere. For now, I'd like to put in a word for the first great time travel story - The Time Machine.

I think we could say that the science fiction genre was born during the industrial revolution with the works of authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The Time Machine, written by Wells in 1895, was one of those first great works. The original work is not very lengthy and you can read it online here. It's original intent was to be a satire that made a statement about class disparity in society. Wells witnessed the exploitation of the workforce in the factories of the turn of the century tycoons of industry. But I think Wells also intended to experiment with ideas about time travel in general, which he did quite ingeniously in a time before the advent of Einstein's relativity. Except for the eventual return of the hero, all the travel in the book is toward the future, removing any of the problems mentioned above regarding changing history and such.

In the story, the "time traveller" (he is never named) ultimately ends up many millenia in the future (try 800,000 years) where the human race has evolved, or rather de-volved, into two primitive species, one that lives underground, the Morlocks, and one on the surface, the Eloi. The Morlocks provide food and other needs to the Eloi, who don't even know who their providers are - they just accept it and enjoy a veritable paradise. On the one hand, the situation parallels the wealthy class being provided for by the worker classes down in the factories. On the other hand, it also looks a lot like herding sheep. The traveller, after investigating further, learns of the appalling state of the future of the human race, gets into some adventures with an Eloi named Weena while trying to retrieve his machine, and finally returns home.

It's first adaptation to the screen was directed by George Pal in 1960 and titled simply The Time Machine. Although it deviated quite far from the original work, and contained some cheesy Hollywood fare, on the whole it was a very good film, especially in the early set up. We're treated to initial explanations about time travel to a movie audience that was not accustomed to such ideas yet. The use of stop motion camera effects to speed up time throughout the film is still really great to watch even today. In order to give it some flare, the reflections of the traveller in the book are scrapped in favor of the beefed up action sequences in which the traveller must rescue his companion. Oh, and they gave him a name - H. George Wells!
In the book, both future races are small creatures. The idea is that the Morlocks don't have to physically overpower the Eloi because the Eloi have become so passive. In the film, the Eloi look the same as you and I and the Morlocks are human sized blue monsters (with a really bad makeup job). Wells' main point is lost, but it's worth watching for most of the film.

A modern remake came out in 2002, once again entitled The Time Machine, directed by H.G. Wells' own great grandson, Simon Wells. Although the basic elements are there, it's safe to say this is an entirely new movie. Rather than mere curiosity, the time traveller's motivation for his work is to change history by preventing his fiance's death. He actually succeeds in doing this by going back in time, but finds she ends up dying another way. He then wonders about the possibility of changing history at all and begins travelling into the future to find the answer. The Morlocks have been beefed up into pretty terrifying monster versions of future humanoids and the Eloi are no longer stupid. In the end, the traveller ends up staying in the future with Mara (the new Weena) after the machine is destroyed. It's disappointing, not just because of the re-write, but because the re-write is so bad.
What's even more of a shame is that it contained some top notch production. A lot of money must have gone into it - the sets, period costumes, special effects (Stan Winston!), cast, and the musical score were all impressive. The time machine device itself was constructed out of brass and glass and sported real working parts.

One final point of interest is the different ways each rendition of the story explains how the traveller ends up 800,000 years in the future. In the book, there is no explanation except scientific curiosity - that's the only time period the traveller targets. In the 1960 version, the traveller encounters a nuclear war that destroys most of the earth, including covering him over with a lava formation. He has to go far enough into the future to allow the lava to erode away and see if anyone survived. In the 2002 version, on one stop along the way, the moon is blowing up because of nuclear detonations on its surface to make way for new real estate construction. The traveller gets knocked unconscious with the machine running while trying to escape and wakes up far into the future. As you can see, science fiction often engages in social commentary, so the message can be tailored to the issues of the day, whether it be class disparity, nuclear war, or suburban sprawl.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Avatar Review

It's good to be commenting on current events from time to time to keep it relevant. I don't go to the theaters very often since my son was born, but the last film I did see on the big screen was Avatar. The 3-D factor had something to do with that - a very clever technique to get people out to theaters rather than wait for the DVD, and to charge a dollar more. The box office lady said it was to cover the cost of making a 3-D film... yeah, right. How about 3 hours of CGI running time?

I haven't seen a sci-fi film generate such a wide buzz in quite a while. Unlike the original Star Wars, which gained its popular appeal after its release and based on its content, Avatar was anticipated mainly for the weight of its director, James Cameron, who gained official celebrity status with his Oscar sweeping Titanic movie, and who did a great job of marketing the film. That made for a record breaking opening weekend, but only technical awards at this year's Oscars.

And in that regard, it certainly deserved them. The integration of the actor's performances with the CGI motion capture was an amazing achievement and will set a new stardard going forward. Have we finally crossed the threshold where the performance of an actor or actress behind a CGI character can garner an Oscar nomination? If so, I would have placed my bets on Zoe Saldana's performance as Neytiri (see the lovely graphic above), even though her real life face was never seen in the film. The entire Pandora planet is a feast for the eyes that never gets old during the entire 3 hour run.

The basic storyline is not very original, but it strikes a chord with many people. My own wife is from Africa, and although she's not really into sci-fi, she couldn't wait to see this film because it mirrors a story so often experienced on her continent. As a drama, it does manage to develop the characters and draw you in emotionally. Cameron spent plenty of time on character treatment before the final battle scene so you could easily feel for their plight. On the down side, some of the dialogue was so cliche it was painful to listen to.

Concept-wise, the world of Pandora was full of great stuff. You could see the influence of Ubisoft, the makers of the Myst game series, who were already master computer world creators. Some would argue the animals were too analogous to Earth creatures, fair enough. But the commonalities in their body plans, and nice balance between plant, insect, herbivore, and carnivore, gave it some realism. I especially liked the beautiful rendition of the floating mountains, even though I could not think of any way the laws of Physics could support it (magnetic fields? c'mon guys). While were on that, who thought of naming the coveted mineral "Unobtainium"? I thought it was just a joke at first. And what value did it have that any corporation would spend so much money to travel across the galaxy to mine it? At least in Dune, the spice actually enabled space travel itself, thus paying for its own transport cost. These examples show how the film fell short of the requisite explainability factor in favor of what would look good or further the story line.

In summary, Avatar won't go down in film history as an artistic achievement, but it will be remembered for its effects breakthroughs and stunning visuals. The whole avatar concept, and the sheer work put into creating a planet world, is sufficient to place it in the annals of science fiction.


In literature, the term "Dystopia", in contrast to a "Utopia", refers to an environmental context in which a story is told that you would not wish to live in because there is something terribly wrong with it. This does NOT include situations where the world is simply oppressed by some evil empire. In that case, it's not the world itself that is messed up, just the entity currently in power. It also usually does not refer to bad places that are set apart from the rest of the world. No, in a dystopia, EVERYONE is screwed. It is the thing both the good guys and the bad guys have to deal with.

In science fiction, although a dystopia can be set on some other world altogether, the best ones are set in Earth's future, which has changed for the worse either by natural evolution or some great catstrophe. These have greater impact because they hit close to home. One of the first of these was a great silent film from the 1920's called Metropolis and directed by Fritz Lang. There is a beautifully restored release on DVD that I finally got a chance to view not too long ago and I think it is a must see for any fan. I recommend getting the commentary subtitles because it is difficult to follow in many parts due to the generational gap as well as missing footage. There are themes involving Greek mythology, Catholic tradition, and class disparities that floated in the common psyche at that time.

Recently, these types of movies have become more mainstream. A new wave of them broke in the 80's with big name stars on the billing like Blade Runner and Mad MaxThe Matrix series is, in my opinion, one of the best in recent years. But there are so many, both good and bad, that I thought it would be interesting to try to list them, or at least the more widely acclaimed ones. So here goes, sci-fi only, with some added shuffling:

Fahrenheit 451
Soylent Green
Logan's Run
Planet of the Apes
THX 1138
Blade Runner
Dark City
Matrix Trilogy
Terminator: Salvation
Aeon Flux

These are borderline, in my opinion, because they involve futures that are different, but not necessarily dysfunctional:
Minority Report

Didn't Make the List:
I did not include dystopias based on populations wiped out by disease, like I Am Legend, or by global war, like Mad Max or Waterworld, where the only sci-fi aspect to them is the cause of the catastrophe itself. 12 Monkeys is like that, and it additionally involves time travel, but the main story happens BEFORE the catastrophe rather than after and focuses on it's prevention. A few bonafide dystopias were left out on the embarrassment factor, including Johnny Mnemonic.

A final category are the few films that are bold enough to create a future in which the entire earth has been destoyed, like Titan A.E. and Battlestar Galactica. I think I'd put them in the space opera category instead but they are certainly related.

Do you have a favorite sci-fi dystopia that's not listed?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

THX 1138

After my last entry, I feel a strong need to absolve myself by plugging a film of real quality. I place THX 1138 in that category. Most of us first heard the name George Lucas with the release of Star Wars. That established Lucas both as a master story teller, special effects wizard, and with his Indiana Jones series that followed, having a knack for pleasing wide audiences. Star Wars is probably one of the most broadly accepted science fiction films by the general public. But before all that, George Lucas released this marvelous, shall I say masterpiece? When I first saw it, which was not too long ago, my whole view of Lucas was turned upside down. He was, at least at one time, a bonafide independent film director with real vision. I don't knock his later foray into pop culture films at all, but it was quite a surprise to see the contrast - especially since it happened in the reverse order that you might normally expect. THX was George's FIRST major release.

Official Site (which used to be cool but is now located is Lucasfilm Ltd.)

The film is placed in a world where people are tagged with numbers and highly monitored and controlled via drugs and policing. Love, and sex, are prohibited, but the plot begins when a man (played superbly by Robert Duvall) and his female roommate go off their drugs, experience feelings, and do the deed. The rest of the movie involves their arrest and eventual escape. On the surface, it's not much of a plot. What makes the film great is the way it is directed. It has an artsy feel to it with lots of confusing and strange images and sparse dialog. Duvall's character seems almost in a constant daze as he struggles to make sense of his situation - and his own life. Another great aspect is the consistency of the theme, which although not a new one, is presented forcefully by showing crazy situations that the characters just take to be normal. Everything in the society is designed to keep people under control. At the risk of spoiling, one of my favorite scenes is an automated counselor (a backlit drawing of a messianic image in a booth) that spits out recorded phrases like "Yes, fine" and "Can you be a little more specific". It had me on the floor laughing, even though the film maintains a straight face. You can view it here (the first scene) if you don't mind the spoiler. The characters are put in real peril and maintain a sense of urgency throughout the film. In the end they make a discovery that makes for a nice, modest, finishing touch. I'm glad that George had a chance to get this film out there before becoming a celebrity.

Monday, March 22, 2010


I remember when I was younger seeing the trailer for the movie Screamers (1995) and writing it off as another mindless horror film. It was certainly billed that way (reference the poster at left - "The last scream you hear will be your own!"), which was unfortunate because in the end it was, in my opinion, a sci-fi thriller with a really cool story concept. It was thus not surprising to later discover it was based one of Philip K. Dick's writings. I finally watched it one night - maybe it was on cable - and the scenes just stuck with me for years until I finally got hold of it via Netflix a few years back and watched it again. I can understand why it flopped - the acting and dialogue are very B-level material, and parts of the ending border on ridiculous. Nonetheless, I think it is worth a watch for any sci-fi fan.

Here's a basic synopsis from memory (details may be off). It all takes place on a remote desert mining planet occupied by two earth factions at war over the precious energy saving resource found there. An outpost on one side gets word that the war back home is escalating and they will be stuck on the planet for something like 9 years. The leader (Peter Weller) takes a team across the desert on a mission to call a truce with the other side and figure out how to get home. The twist is that both sides had created underground factories that replicated mechanized weapons nicknamed "screamers" because of the sound they made when they would lock on a target. The only way to keep your own weapons from attacking you was by sticking some vibration device into the ground. The screamers started as mouse-like units that crept under the sand looking for targets. The underground factories were intelligent enough to make improvements to the outputs. Over the years they continued to replicate units which became more intelligent and deadly, until, rumor had it, they started looking like human beings so they could infiltrate the camps and strike at the right moment. Eventually the screamers become the main problem and the goal becomes simply getting off the planet alive.

Some noteworthy aspects of the film: First, it has a masterfully woven suspense profile. Lot's of "Oh my God, get out of there!" moments. The whole "One of us could be one of THEM" dynamic is played out for much of the movie. The fact that you don't know the nature of the next manifestation of screamer unit you will encounter, etc. Second, although I admit it was over the top, the raw emotion of the characters and their interactions with each other does a good job of drawing you into the story. Finally, the whole context and premise of the setup takes an age old theme - man's greed leads to war, which leads to arms race, which ultimately backfires on himself - and gives it a fresh new twist. It's a treat if you can kick back and look past the low budget.

My Collection

Like many folks, for some time now I've had a collection of what used to be VCR's containing some of my favorite films. Several years ago, I began to notice a good proportion of them were science fiction films and so I created a special section just for those. The intent was to begin adding to that section some of the vintage sci-fi films that really make a great collection. Right now, there are few in the vintage category, which is great because it means there is a lot more yet to discover on that quest. For now, I am listing for posterity the films currently on the shelf and I suppose the only value to you the reader is to get sense of some of the topics that might appear later in the blog.

A little explanation first. This is a very short list. There is a definite special something in my head that makes me deem a film worthy of purchasing and keeping on the shelf, but I can't quite put a finger on it. There is some sort of uniqueness, integrity, "cool"-ness, who knows? One additional factor is the prospect of passing the collection on to my kids, so I do exclude some films purely for being not so family friendly. For example, I consider the original Alien to be one of the best sci-fi horror films ever, but it's not in the collection. I was torn in both directions on the Riddick Chronicles, and Pitch Black especially, but eventually let it go. So I admit this list has some agenda attached. And there are just tons of great films to discuss on the blog not in this short list. No one really needs to read this, but I nonetheless feel the need to have an official record - so here goes...

NOTE: Listed alphabetically, regardless of time period:

12 Monkeys
2001: A Space Odyssey
Aeon Flux
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Flash Gordon (1980)
Jurassic Park (no sequels)
Logan's Run
Matrix Trilogy (including Anamatrix)
Phase IV
Star Trek I, II, and III
Star Wars Trilogy (Original Episodes IV, V, and VI)
Terminator I and II(2)
The Andromeda Strain
The Last StarFighter ;)
Titan A.E. (just barely)

One super-hero film in the collection, the original Superman: The Movie, almost plays like a sci-fi thanks to the opening sequences, so it's included too. But purist that I am, the treasured LOTR trilogy and others like it remain squarely in the fantasy section.

Friday, March 19, 2010

"Re-Mastered" Classics

The advent of home video has made it economically feasible for studios to release "director's cut" versions of many films. This is a good thing. It allows one of the original film creators to show what was originally intended without marketing restrictions like running time, strong content that might affect the rating, and studio edits meant to target particular audiences.

Director's cuts normally don't mess with the original film frames - just the editing. A wholly different story is the practice of editing the original frames to make it look nicer or more interesting. I'm not talking about film restoration - which attempts to bring the film back to its original state. I'm talking about what is now often called "re-mastering". The first example of re-mastering that I can recall is when they started colorizing black and white films. This is a difficult thing to do, and the first attempts looked horrible enough to be distracting. Later attempts began to look more realistic, but that is beside the point I want to make here, which is that the original director shot the film in black and white and tailored his art and interpretation to accommodate that medium. One of the characteristic stengths of black and white film is what it does to the lighting - how the sharp contrasts affect the mood of the scene, etc.. In any artistic endeavor, I will always defend the integrity of the original form, mainly because an outsider will inevitably deviate from the original artist's vision.

In the digital age, re-mastering has taken a whole new turn. Now someone, including the director himself, can modify the actual content of the original film. This introduces the possibility of even greater transgression than simple colorization. When George Lucas released his re-mastered versions of the original Star Wars trilogy (billed as "enhanced"), I had to at least check it out. I found the additions of digital characters and scenes to be nothing more than a distraction from the story - complete gratuosity timed to generate new interest in the films prior to the release of the Phantom Menace. When you know the original scenes after many years, it's hard to remember the impact of seeing it for the first time, and the temptation to "spice it up" can even draw in the director - or maybe just George Lucas. The end result will most surely take away from it. Even the sound re-mastering they claimed they improved just drowned out the superb original music score and added more noise. The only redeeming aspect was the inclusion of previously deleted material - like the meeting betweeen Jabba the Hut and Han Solo in episode IV, which falls in line with the comments on editing changes above. I fully back the digital fixing of Jabba's appearance to match the scenes in ROTJ for the sake of continuity. But when I bought the DVD set for my library, I made SURE it was not the re-mastered version.

This brings me to what prompted this entry in the first place. A re-mastered version of the entire original Star Trek series has now been released by Paramount and is currently being shown on late night public television. I first heard of it on Youtube where you can watch previews of side-by-side comparison of the original and re-mastered scenes. They are almost exclusively a re-work of the exterior model shots of the ship and space phenomenon. What to make of this? Some of the planetary background shots are absolutely stunning and remind me of the CGI simulations of the solar system created by NASA for its satellite expeditions. It really makes you feel like you're traveling in deep space. Although the ship looks very cool and they kept it true to the original, there was a certain realism to the fuzzy appearance of the original model shots (they were actually quite good for their time). Digital just looks too clean - even though movie-goers have gotten used to seeing it that way now. There are significant deviations from the original rendering of the planets and space creatures. It's hard not to like both versions in this case. It's often the cheesey-ness of vintage sci-fi that makes it memorable, so you can't just throw them out. On the other hand, it's the stories and the characters that made Star Trek what it is, not the effects, so bringing them up to date isn't all that bad. Remember, no one is changing the basic content of the scenes, just the appearance, and I think Mr. Roddenberry would have been pleased with the results. Have I compromised here - or just made an exception? Who knows. It would be interesting to see what other fans think of the new, re-mastered, Star Trek.

If you decide to watch the comparisons on Youtube, I must warn you that the resolution and color of the youtube video is much poorer than the actual footage which you can watch on DVD or TV. In many scenes, you can't even make out the stars. Such comparisons are good for getting a feel of what was done, but the quality of the new footage will not match up to the originals even when shown next to them online.

I want to leave you with a really wonderful documentary short on the Star Trek remastering effort. Below is the first of the two part episode. In addition to the new CGI, it also shows you the original film restoration and the incredibly accurate live recording of the original thematic score - complete with soprano voice! You can hardly tell the difference.

A Chip Off the Old Block

Some guys may recall an unspoken bond between them and their Dads while watching television sports together - without ever discussing the games before or afterward. I think I experienced this same bond around my Dad's impeccable taste in science fiction material. I used to sit in front of the bed while he kicked back on top and watched the original Star Trek episodes for the first time together. It was with my Dad that I saw Soylent Green and marveled at its prescient themes long before it re-entered the pop culture consciousness. I watched the original Planet of the Apes with him and found the philosophical discussions more interesting than the ape suits. Many of the obscure vintage sci-fi films that I began to search out as an adult were the ones that he exposed me to, such as Phase IV, Quatermass and The Pit, John Pertwee episodes of Dr. Who, Logan's Run, and others that I still have not yet been able to identify. They often terrified and often fascinated me and are worthy of their own later entries in this blog. It's weird that we never talked about them, yet it remains a mysteriously shared experience.

My father was a certified "Techie", a name granted to him by my sister and others around our Pasadena, CA community because he did his graduate work at Caltech. Our home was only a block away from the campus and I grew up learning of the local Caltech lore from the many Tech-ers I knew (that was the name they gave themselves). In fact, our next door neighbor, Richard Dickerson, was a Caltech professor himself with five kids that used to babysit us now and then, and one of them was my vocal coach for a season. But I digress...

The point is that my Dad was a really smart dude and I believe he was attracted to material, both fictional and non, that was intellectually stimulating. I think I inherited that attraction along with a love for the evidence of real creativity - in visual form, concept, or storytelling. My father and I both studied Physics and that is something we did have many discussions on, especially in later years. Being grounded in science, I have always found more satisfaction in fiction that could convince me that it might be real - that the laws of Physics and of realistic possibility were not violated but were actually being appropriated in some new way. This, I believe, is part of the essence of what makes science fiction such a draw for many fans. It's a strange combination of escapist fantasy grounded in real world possibilities. And along with that, good sci-fi has an element of philosophy - something that makes you think or see things in a different way.

My father passed on just over 2 years ago, but much of him lives on in his 7 children. I guess I'm the one to carry on this part of him to the next generation. I've started a DVD collection, and I wonder if my 2-1/2 year old boy will one day see what I saw in some of these old crazy movies.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nothing Like The Original Series

I am not a trekkie. I have never been to a Star Trek convention or any other type of sci-fi/fantasy club, gathering, etc. But I am a great fan of the original Star Trek series. I first watched them with my Dad when I was young and even then, I marveled at the quality of the script writing compared to other TV offerings. I even remember reading some of the printed versions of the episodes by the original authors in junior high and realizing many were written by different people - often freelance sci-fi writers - and that this contributed to the show's originality and quality, along with Roddenberry's tenacity to keep the show's integrity intact.

As everyone knows, several spin-off series were created a generation later. The TNG pilot aired when I was an undergrad at UCI. Gene Roddenberry was still helping in production so the original character concepts, and several of the story lines, were rather good. It took some time for the cast to settle in and a lot of the scripts were quite preachy - taking today's social issues and transferring them to alien worlds. This was, of course, an aspect of the original series as well, but not nearly as obvious or cliche. Then again, maybe I noticed it more because TNG's issues were in my own time, not the issues of an earlier one. But the characters, especially Picard and Data (both played by wonderful actors), came into their own and there was enough good material to hold it up.

I can't say the same for Voyager and DS9, whose plots became increasingly copy-cat of other material or just plain ridiculous. These shows were created without Roddenberry's influence, as he had passed away shortly into the airing of TNG. You can even see the PC influence seeping into the casting - let's have the first female captain (Voyager) and how about the first African American captain (DS9)! Avery Brooks' performance as Sisko was so horrible I have to assume their choice was motiviated by other factors. Then you have Chakotay as an obvious alien version of a Native Amercian. The original series always did have an international cast, but that fact was secondary to the characters themselves. That aside, I think Kate Mulgrew made a decent captain in the end and adding Jeri Ryan as a recovering Borg helped to introduce the same character dynamics created by other "no-emotion" characters like Spock and Data.

But at the end of the day, I still maintain that nothing will ever beat the original classics. No matter how bad the special effects by today's standards, or even the acting, the stories and the concepts are up there with the best, and that is where the heart of sci-fi really lives.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

About This Blog

A good first blog entry would be about why I started this blog (my first) and what I hope it to become. The reason for the timing is that my wife just started her own first blog on this site. In helping her out with it, I was able to witness how easy it was to set up. And by golly, if my wife is blogging, who knew little about computers before she met her software programmer hubby, I would be shaming my profession to allow such a state of affairs to continue.

Thus, I began thinking about what I might be motivated to write on, and I concluded that Sci-Fi films, shows, and novels, which I have loved my whole life, was a perfect candidate. It is something I have lots to say about but that few people I know are tolerant enough to let me indulge myself, at least to the degree that I can here, where a wider audience can pick and choose what they wish to attend to.

Here is a place to share thoughts and opinions on various films and television series in the science fiction world (and perhaps an occasional book/author) and find out if my own views are widely held or one of a thousand differing opinions. Here is a place to share cool stuff and stories of how I got interested in this or that and perhaps discover that someone else out there thinks or feels the same. In light of that, your comments and views are welcome.

Thank you for visiting...and, dare I say it? May the force be with you ;)