Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pitch Black

All I remember about my first view of the trailer for the movie Pitch Black (2000) was that it looked like just another excuse for a horror flick, albeit a good one. Who hasn't been afraid of what lurks in the dark at some point in their travels? It was just a teaser trailer that was mostly a black screen with people screaming and a few quick shots of creatures jumping at you. That was the last thought I gave it for several years until I saw it in a rental store and decided to give it a shot. The cover seemed to indicate it had a science fiction element to it. What an understatement that turned out to be!

Pitch Black is first and foremost an extremely well written and well directed science fiction thriller. Yes, there is a lot of scary monsters and situations to keep you on edge for most of the film, but the context in which it takes place gives everything a reason that makes good sense, rather than just an excuse to make you jump. Still, I would not recommend it for kids or the faint of heart. << spoiler warning >> Set in the future, it begins with a space craft crashing on the surface of a desert planet and killing most of the people on board, including the captain. If you really want to see how a crash landing should be done on film, you'll be blown away by this one (an impossible clip to find on the web, but this link will show it to you with commercial breaks). Right from the start, we are provided with at least two reasons to be nervous. First, there's an underground monster that causes some trouble and second, one of the few survivors is a dangerous convict who escapes. The convict is Richard B. Riddick, played very nicely by Vin Diesel who seems made for the part. In fact, this is the film that allowed Vin Diesel's career to take off.

The main plot involves the survivors' efforts to get off the planet alive. The first challenge is finding food and water, and this is difficult because the star system they have landed on has three suns which results in there being no night, no dark side of the planet, and no apparent clouds in the sky. They do, however, stumble upon an abandoned settlement with some supplies and a ship that needs fuel. They also find a working model of the trinary star system and, in a very cool scene, the acting captain, played by Radha Mitchell, winds the model forward and determines that they are about to be plunged into 30 days of darkness due to a planetary line up that occurs only once every 22 years. This event causes all three suns to be simultaneously eclipsed. How you can get a 30 day eclipse in a trinary system is beyond me, but I digress. When it finally happens, that's when the fun starts.

There is a huge population of voracious creatures that live underground because they cannot stand the light. I suppose it represents some type of underground ecosystem because there are several types of alien creatures. The ones that give them the most trouble are the flying types, including bat-like swarms and very large bird-like creatures. When the darkness hits, they all come out like a swarm of locusts looking to eat everything in sight. The CGI is a bit disappointing with regard to the creatures, especially when various survivors get eaten by them, but it is still effective.

Now I'm not going to claim that a lot of thought went into the science in this film, but the story plays out well partly due to the personalities of the characters and their interactions with each other. You have an antiques collector who is a nervous wreck, a holy man and his three sons who stop to pray to Allah every now and then, the female pilot who feels responsible for the ordeal, a young girl stowaway who is pretending to be a boy, the escaped convict Riddick and the bounty hunter who had captured him.
All these people must learn to work together to stay alive and I think how they do that is the most redeeming aspect of the script. They end up having to rely heavily on Riddick for two reasons. The first is that he is the most survival savvy of the bunch. The second is that his eyes have undergone a special operation that allow him to see in the dark, a remnant from his days in solitary confinement.

The film developed a following and since Riddick turned out to be such a bad-ass character they brought him back in a sequel in 2004 called The Chronicles of Riddick. The sequel is also a very good science fiction adventure film in its own right and was directed by the same guy, but it has very little connection to the first film except that it involves Riddick and a few of the other prior cast members. I'll mention what I thought were the most enjoyable aspects of the sequel. First, some of the best scenes in the film are the ones in the beginning involving Riddick's recapture and subsequent time spent in the jail from hell. It really establishes him as the true bad-ass of them all.
Second, the enemy in this story is a planet conquering race called the Necromongers that drive these giant space pylons into a planet, land and take over, and then try to convince everyone to convert to some half-living half-dead state or be killed. The main highlight is the initial invasion which really conveys a sense of "nowhere to hide" terror and I love the cool soldier helmets which completely cover the head with four mock faces looking in all directions. It looks quite intimidating. The rest of the story is pretty much your average defeat the bad guys fare so it doesn't quite measure up to the first script in originality, but it is still a good film and if you liked the first one, you'll certainly enjoy The Chronicles.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Starship Troopers

The first movie I saw that was directed by Paul Verhoeven was Robocop, and ever since then I've pegged him as a guy who loves to fill his movies with gratuitous violence, even if just to make a point. This pattern continued with later films and I just found it annoying enough to avoid them altogether. However, in 1997, I saw a trailer for one his films called Starship Troopers that had scenes with thousands of giant CGI bug aliens marching over a desert landscape. My animation loving brother Vince and I both considered it such an awesome visual that we agreed to go see it together. There was one other draw for me and that was that it looked like an attempt to re-create the look and feel of a 1950's style sci-fi B-movie, only in color and with modern special effects. I was dying to see if it would be a tribute or a spoof.

There's not much to the story, written by Ed Neumeier who also scripted Robocop a decade before. It is basically a war movie in space, where the enemy is a race of aliens that look like giant bug like creatures. They have been somehow sending meteors toward earth which threaten to destroy major cities, so the human army decides to invade their planet and kill them off. True to Verhoeven form, any scene involving combat is loaded with gore, both on the human and alien sides. It is so over the top that it is actually funny. In fact, the entire movie is so tongue-in-cheek and overdone that I found it impossible to take any of it seriously and really thought it was just a big spoof. And it certainly has its share of poking fun at B-movie sci-fi lore. You just have to see it to believe it. The squadron arrives at an outpost where the entire army staff stationed there has been killed. The commander examines one guy with a hole in the top of his head and with a look of disgust, he exclaims "They sucked his brains out!!" I still laugh when I think about it.
The film seems to poke fun at military life, and thus at war in general, as mainly an exercise in mindless violence. The dialogue is deliberately cliché and predictable, and Verhoeven's direction is comical in many places, like when one of the main characters is talking by video phone to his parents about the situation back on earth without knowing that one of the meteors is heading toward them. Just before they sign off, the sky darkens, and the wife looks up and says, "Honey, why is it getting so dark?"

Now, it is only just recently that I have discovered that the book on which the movie was based was a famous science fiction classic (of the same title too!) by the legendary Robert Heinlein, who drew from his own experience in the military. It was written in 1959 during the cold war era and it is considered controversial because it makes a case for the necessity of a ground based military to defend a country, or world in this case, and in the distinction between what it calls a "civilian" and a "citizen", a distinction that Verhoeven pretty much makes fun of in the film. It is actually the only sci-fi novel on the official reading list of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, and I hear it bears little resemblance to the film. So although Heinlein meant to treat the topic seriously, I think Verhoeven and Neumeier tried to portray it almost as a joke, but not so much so as to allow those he was making fun of to get the joke and thus prove his point. I guess that's called a satire in disguise.

What surprised me the most was how the critics took it so seriously. I guess now that I know the history behind the novel, that probably explains the attempt to seriously analyze the film. I remember it mainly for its outrageous audacity and recommend it only to those who like that kind of thing, and can easily laugh off the graphical nature of the footage.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

Rumor has it that Gene Roddenberry got the idea for the transporter in Star Trek from the movie The Fly, and that it was done that way to save both the screen time and set cost of shuttle landings. It was a pretty ingenious idea, and paved the way for transporter devices to become part of mainstream science fiction. Of course, they never really explained how it worked on the original series, and that was smart, because no satisfactory explanation exists given our understanding of the laws of physics today. This entry is dedicated to the impossible ubiquity of transporter devices.

When I reached the age where I needed explanations of some sort to help suspend my disbelief, I figured that transporters could only work using some sort of quantum teleportation technology. This is a real phenomenon based on something called the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) effect. You can read an overview about it here. For single particles, you can instantaneously transfer the quantum state of one object to another over a seemingly unlimited distance. The original Star Trek got something right in this respect, because the transported objects would freeze on the transporter and then appear in exactly the same configuration at the destination. Thus, the quantum state of a person's entire body was supposedly being preserved during transit. But there are many problems with trying to extend this effect to large objects. For one, even the EPR effect does not transport matter, only information, so it requires a duplicate substrate of matter on the other side. Second, the effect is destroyed once you get above the quantum level, which means it can only be done for a few small particles at a time. Trying to extend the effect to large objects would require enormous amounts of energy. I mean, we're talking about many times the entire output of the sun.

Then along comes The Next Generation and they try to pass off some fax machine type explanation for the transporter. They actually claim that a person's entire body is scanned down to the atomic, even quantum, level and then 'reconstructed' at the destination. This truly lame explanation now renders impossible any hope of suspending disbelief. Let me indulge myself. First, they still have the substrate problem. A fax needs ink and paper on the other side to reconstruct a copy of the original document. Also, the original still remains so it must be completely annihilated somehow. That sounds pretty painful. The human body is dynamic, so its entire state must be measured in one shot, kind of like a "snapshot" of you which includes both the position and velocity of all the atoms in your body. But that is physically impossible to achieve thanks to the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, which states that you can't extract both position and velocity information at the quantum level simultaneously. The TNG advisors actually try to explain this by making up something called a Heisenberg compensator device without any detail about its operation other than what the name implies. How lazy is that? Even if you could know the velocities of every particle, how could you set them in motion at the destination? In other words, how do you start the blood flowing and the heart beating, etc.? What nonsense! And yet, all the subsequent spinoffs maintain this type of explanation.

None of these problems go away by suggesting that the transported matter is converted to energy and then back into matter at the destination point. The information still needs to be encoded somewhere, and now you have the additional problem of how to contain all that energy. I just did the calculation, and 1 kg of matter equates to 1427 Hiroshima bombs. The average human weight is 80 kg. You do the math.

But no matter how impossible the technology, I do give credit to a writer who can at least find an interesting twist regarding the consequences of obtaining that technology. Probably the most interesting in this case is the possibility of duplicating a human being. There are several Star Trek episodes that explore this idea, like the duplicate Kirk in The Enemy Within, or the duplicate Lt. Riker in Second Chances.
But these treatments are not anywhere near as thought-provoking as the Outer Limits episode oddly entitled Think Like A Dinosaur. In it, humans can transport to other planets using a technology developed and operated by emotionless aliens (who happen to look dinosaur-like). It is a duplication technology that creates a copy of the person on the other side and then destroys the original. It is a temporarily painful operation, as might be expected. The transport happens from an isolated station on the moon with a human coordinator who helps to prepare the travelers. A supposed malfunction causes a woman's transport to be aborted, and she decides to go home because the experience was too traumatic. Later, it is found out that her duplicate got successfully created on the other side. The aliens ask the human coordinator to "balance the equation" by killing the woman left behind. As difficult as it seems, he must go through with it for a greater good, which is not to jeopardize the human's access to the alien technology. This access is rendered so important because of a ravaged earth back home, and since that includes his own family, it is personal too. After a heart wrenching sequence of events, he finally decides to trick her into being blown out of a space bay. Two years later, when the duplicate returns and remembers him as her coordinator, he chooses to feign ignorance. Is it because he is so overwhelmed with guilt about betraying her, even though she knows nothing of it? Or did the experience harden his soul to the point that he has become like the aliens, and is incapable of feeling guilt, or love, any longer? Wow! Although a bit contrived, it plays out nicely. You can watch it on Hulu here.

As a final note, the whole idea of technologically duplicating a person brings about the question of the soul and consciousness. If you believe, as I do, that our conscious awareness is not a physical entity, and not a consequence of physical processes, then you also must believe there is no physical way to duplicate it. If it were at all possible to teleport inanimate matter, I truly believe that any attempt to transport a human being would produce a lifeless body on the other side, with no hope of reviving it back to life. Any other outcome would require some sort of supernatural intervention.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Last Starfighter

I grew up knowing two brothers who were good friends of mine, and I still keep in touch with them today. The Walshe brothers, Ray and Alan, although 3 grades behind me, went to the same grade school, high school, church, and Alan came to UC Irvine where we roomed together during his last undergrad and my first graduate year. He is now a Norbertine priest and his brother is happily raising two daughters. They have always approached life with great passion. After my first year back from college, in the summer of '84, they told me about a film they had seen called The Last Starfighter and convinced me I had to see it with them again. I would not characterize either of them as science fiction fans, so I knew there must be something extra in this film that they knew I would like, and in fact they were right. Although the film borrowed elements from elsewhere, it is a truly original piece of work, and one that even made it into my collection.

Let's be clear, this film is meant to be fun. Although it borrows the Star Wars concept of an adventure in space thrust upon a lowly young kid who wasn't looking for it, the earth scenes have lots of well placed situational humor and the space scenes with plenty of exaggerated material meant to poke fun at the space adventure genre. Because it is portrayed through the eyes of a teenager in a hillside mobile home community hoping to break away and do something more important with his life, it really has a way of hitting home for the young male audience demographic. [spoiler warning] Just picture a guy who passes the time playing the only video game on the campus and one day hits the high score, only to find out that the game is a recruiting tool planted by one side of a cosmic war in space. His seemingly benign achievement gets him signed on with the good guys. The alien mentors he meets along the way are very colorful and very positive "you can do it" characters. That's just the thing an unsure-of-himself young man needs to help him turn into a courageous hero.

The film has one landmark achievement to its credit, which is that it is the first live action film to use modern CGI for the entire space battle sequences rather than models. A few years earlier, Tron had taken claim to the first all computer generated sequences. But since the objects in Tron existed in a symbolic world, they were not intended to look "real", so the techniques used were better referred to as computer animation. What is meant by modern CGI is the full rendering of objects by a computer into a scene that is meant to mimic real objects, which is what we are so used to seeing today. At the time, it was a very different kind of look, enough to leave an impression.

But it must be emphasized that the effects are just a sidebar. The real charm of the film is the way the story is told and the characters that are met along the way. Robert Preston does a wonderful job as Centauri, the cosmic salesman, in his last performance before he passed away. Is it science fiction? Well, it uses all the traditional elements of sci-fi, but never really takes them completely seriously. It's one of the few films in this genre that I can recommend to both fans and non fans and know they will probably have some fun with it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Buckaroo Banzai

To put it simply, you'll never see a sci-fi film quite like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai - Across the 8th Dimension. It is full of tongue-in-cheek and off-the-wall humor, yet pretends to be such a serious sci-fi action/drama that it manages to be something totally different than either, and quickly obtained a cult following. When I saw it shortly after release in college, I am embarrassed to say that I took it completely seriously and totally missed a lot of the hilarity that was pointed out to me since. I certainly hope I laughed along with John Lithgow's comical role as the mad scientist. But in general, there were only a few things that I actually remembered about the film afterward. The first was the creepy looking alien costumes, including one who was a rastafarian with dread locks. The second was one of the film's core concepts, which is that there could be other beings and worlds living in the empty space between conventional matter. Banzai gives a speech about how 99% of matter is empty space, which is quite true, and that he had found a way to use that fact to travel through matter. One of the opening scenes is a very cool experiment where Banzai drives a vehicle with a Blue Flame-like engine at high speed through a rock face and out the other side. Other than that, I didn't really give it much attention.

Later on I began to hear about its cult film status and realized that, yes, there is a lot of really off the wall stuff in the film that's both funny and cool. The cast is pretty top notch. Peter Weller is perfect as Banzai, who is at once a neurosurgeon, rock star, physicist, comic book hero, and all around cool guy. No such comic book existed in real life, but issues were shown in the film nonetheless! He travels with his band group called the Hong Kong Cavaliers. The most remembered aspect of the film is its many off the wall quotes and comments that get thown in at seemingly random places. They are easy to miss if you're not paying attention. And I heard at one point the film garnered late night repeated viewings, akin to the Rocky Horror Picture Show phenomenon, with fans who would shout responses to the characters from the audience. From this film came the famous "Remember, wherever you go, there you are", and more amazingly, it wasn't uttered by Jeff Goldblum! For a sampling of some popular quotes, see this link. You'll see a lot of crazy 80's influence in the costumes, etc. Just check out the casting call at the end of the film (shown below) for a sample. I'd recommend it for a popcorn night, but you never know who is actually going to find it funny.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Surrogate World

When I feature movies on this blog, I tend to focus on classic sci-fi films that have proven staying power, or newer films that are just real good. But anytime a sci-fi offering comes out with an original or unique idea, it is worth noting just for the discussion value. In fact, it is the new idea that usually gets the Hollywood execs on board to finance it. That is why it is such a tragic waste when that new idea is introduced into the public eye via a badly made film. It means we won't be seeing a good treatment of the concept, the way it should have been done, for many years to come.

Such is the situation with the recent film Surrogates, with the always wonderful Bruce Willis filling in the lead role. The overarching concept is quite intriguing, especially in this day of internet cafe's and avatar role playing games. What if we could use a robot as an avatar to the real world? This requires several leaps of technology:

1) The robots must have enough dexterity to allow us to accomplish daily tasks.

Today's robots have enough dexterity in the area of hand controls to accomplish complex tasks as delicate as surgery. The weakness today is in overall mobility - walking, running, jumping, etc., but not impossible to achieve sometime in the future.

2) Our control over the robots must be fine grained enough to allow easy manipulation.

The easy way to do this is to create a harness that detects actual movement, similar to current virtual reality systems. If you turn your head, the robot turns with you. If you move your arms, the robot's arms mirror the movement. The harness would have to capture a wide variety of body movements, so an even better method is to use a motion capture system like is done for computer animation on the big screen. All you would do is wear a suit with infrared reflectors all over it and a camera system that captures the position of the reflectors in real time and translates that into the robot's body movements. Of course, you'd still need something fancy to allow you to walk in place. Anyway, this would allow people to still get their exercise since they would actually be moving.

The film poses a much more difficult method, which is to control the robot with the mind. The "driver" sits still with a type of helmet that detects and interprets brainwaves and translates that into control commands. This is why the people need to continually exercise to keep from atrophying. Personally, I think that such technology is a long way off and perhaps not even possible. I think the only feasible way would be to train the machine by having it record signals it reads with actual movements you perform. Then duplicate those movements in the avatar upon detection of the same signals. Many brain studies show that when you think about moving your arm, the part of the brain that lights up when you actually do move your arm shows activity. Could we get the level of control required just by thinking? Maybe with practice, but then would your brain get confused about what it is controlling - your real body or your surrogate body?

3) We must be able to continuously control the robots from a remote location.

If you think dropped calls on your cell phone is annoying, how about losing control of your surrogate body due to bad coverage? It's probably not a huge leap to imagine something akin to a cellular grid that beams signals to nearby avatar robots, and has enough redundancy to be at least as reliable as the internet.

4) The robots must look and behave close enough to actual real human beings.

This requirement is really to enable one of the premises of the film, which is that a majority of the world's population choose to live vicariously through their surrogate robot rather than on their own. It's one thing to see a robot walking about once in a while, but if most of the people I interact with are behind their surrogates, then they had better well look human enough that I don't feel like I'm on another planet. This holds true even when I myself am using my surrogate. Of course, that does not mean you can't design your surrogate to be quite a bit stronger and more durable than a normal human, and that is illustrated in the film as well.

In addition to these technological advances, we would also need a social change that has everyone in a particular geographic area agree to interact via surrogate. The reason is that since a surrogate cannot feel pain, or even send pain signals back to its host (who would want that?), then a person using a surrogate could in fact use it as a weapon and hurt real people. Even with law enforcement available, I don't think most people would feel safe around surrogates unless they were safe behind their own mask. So in the film this is correctly handled by having no-surrogate zones so that people who don't want to use surrogates can live in peace.

But there are a number of things that you could not do with a surrogate. People still need to eat, and they will want to eat with friends. Since the robots do not need food, indeed cannot eat it, people will still want to meet in no-surrogate zones for dinner, parties, etc. In the film, I think it is assumed that people just don't go out for those things anymore, which seems unlikely. Using a surrogate, you would most likely lose your sense of smell, temperature, and pressure. What about sex? In the opening scene, it shows these dance club-like places where people meet and have sex with random strangers via their surrogates, but there is a serious problem with that. If the surrogate cannot send pain signals back to its host, then that implies it does not send pleasure signals back either. Even if such feedback was possible, how could you separate your partner's influence from that of the machine's interpretation of it? Ultimately, what is happening is two people are imagining having sex with the help of an intermediary technology, and that is pretty much equivalent to what is sometimes referred to today as cybersex. Would it happen? Sure, but it could not replace the real thing. People might use surrogates as a safe method of getting to know a new dating partner, but eventually they will want to interact in real life. The film doesn't really explore this except to show that married couples, since they live in the same house, can still take off their masks with each other.

One phenomenon of today's internet is that of people using the medium to represent themselves as something they are not. My favorite example of that is Second Life, an on-line virtual world where you can be someone else. That idea is touched upon in the film, at least on the surface. We naturally offer different levels of trust to people based on how they look, act, and respond. How would this dynamic change if we could not be sure of the true nature of the person that we are talking to without digging a lot deeper than usual? And why do people wish to change themselves? Such motivations are explored a bit in Surrogates. Some people do it to deceive, others may be ashamed of who they are in real life and want to portray a more ideal version of themselves. And as illustrated in the film, people might easily become dependent on their surrogate because, without any feedback from the world about the real you, your sense of confidence without the veil would naturally diminish over time. I suppose there are dozens more of these interesting questions that could be posed about how such a society would look.

There is a quick synopsis at the beginning of the film trying to explain the societal and technological changes that led to this surrogate world, but it is largely unconvincing. Then we are introduced to the main plot line involving a murder case, with Willis playing the FBI agent who investigates. The ultimate solution to the murder mystery is an over-the-top scenario of the original inventor going mad with jealousy and guilt and attempting to kill almost the entire world population. Does that sound like a campy two-dimensional comic book plot? Well, maybe that's because it is. The original story was adapted from a comic series, but unlike most such adaptations, they forgot to flesh it out so it could work as a film. I think the biggest problem here was just really bad script writing.

But it is still a fun movie to watch. Seeing things like surrogates in beauty shops getting literal makeovers by having their faces pulled off, people using generic "loaner" heads while their actual surrogate head is in for repairs, or seeing someone get their legs blown off and still be able to crawl away without even flinching. How about seeing someone lie down on their machine as one of the surrogates on the wall comes to life when they transfer over to it. Then they walk over and take a look at themselves on the machine. How's that for an out-of-body experience? This is the kind of eye candy that makes Surrogates good for at least a sci-fi rental escape.