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.

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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: