Saturday, November 19, 2011

Size Matters

As a kid growing up in L.A. county, my family and I were able to visit Disneyland about once a year. It still seems like a dream being able to get in for $12.50 back in '82. One of my favorite rides at the time (second after the old Submarine Voyage) was called Adventure Thru Inner Space. It was a perfect mix of serious science and fascinatingly creative theater. There is a really accurate digital re-creation of the ride here on Youtube that I think anyone who's never experienced it should take a look at. It remains a neat experience, even if the science is a bit outdated by today's standards. Its entrance way is now replaced by the Star Tours ride, but most of it originally went underneath Tomorrow Land and came out on the other side of the walkway. The fact that the bulk of that space has been converted to a ride modeled after a video game (Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters) illustrates the chasm between Walt Disney's original vision for Tomorrow Land, which was to inspire people's imaginations about the future of our society, versus what it is today.

I was able to finally introduce my 4 year old to Disneyland recently and unlike back then, now have the opportunity to let him re-live the experience of his favorite rides via online videos. I found myself also showing him the rides his Dad went on when he was a kid, and he really loved Adventure Thru Inner Space too. Now he asks me questions about atoms and molecules, which is pretty cool. But the point of all this is to talk about the possibility of miniaturization, the basic premise of that old Disney ride, and the topic of several science fiction films over the years. The one in particular that I think stands out above the rest is 1966's Fantastic Voyage, about a journey into the human body.

What makes Fantastic Voyage unique is that it could possibly be the only attempt by a science fiction film to take the idea seriously and remain successful for its time. Miniaturization has been the realm of fantasy since as far back as Lewis Carroll's trip to Wonderland. But most attempts at mixing the idea with science today end up as comedy. The reasons for that will be touched on later, but the opening text in Voyage (quoted below) makes clear the intended purpose:

"The makers of this film are indebted to the many doctors, technicians, and research scientists, whose knowledge and insight helped guide this production"

You can sense here a certain pride in being affiliated with science that permeated the Apollo Program era. It's no coincidence that the tone of Fantastic Voyage feels similar to the Inner Space ride which opened at Disneyland a year after the film came out. In it, the team that is sent out to save a diplomat's life by entering the man's body is made up exclusively of scientists of different disciplines, and you can just watch how the plot is designed to illustrate all the latest medical knowledge of that time, much of which is still basically accurate even though we've come quite a long way since. Unfortunately, the film was too ambitious for the special effects capabilities of the day. It is rather amusing now to watch various body parts and functions resembling cellophane and cotton balls, the clumsy overlays, and the obvious wire suspensions. That said, some of the footage still holds up well even today. Plus, it has a pretty good dramatic profile based on both the perils of the journey and some Cold War Era spy infiltration themes, performed by some then big names in film like Stephen Boyd, Edmond O'Brien, and of course, Raquel Welch in her heyday. The trailer below illustrates the visual effects well, but you have to see it to get the more scientific side.

Although miniaturization is a fun concept, its biggest problem is being really tough to swallow scientifically. The problems are just too numerous to go into, but let's look at a few. Most stories depict the shrunken targets as being much lighter than the originals. That not only violates the conservation of matter and energy law, but the masses of all the fundamental particles, like electrons and protons, are physical constants tied up with all sorts of atomic and chemical processes. Thus, the idea violates the entire basis of particle physics. If you ignore that, the fundamental forces like gravity and electromagnetism fortunately scale down just fine, but then you have the interface issue to deal with. A shrunken person's tiny molecules would no longer be able to chemically interact with the larger ones in the environment. They could not breathe normal air or eat normal food. They could not even expose their bodies to a normal environment due to the enormous relative pressures and temperatures provided by the larger molecules with huge relative momentum. In Voyage, the crew is miniaturized inside a vessel with a closed environment. If that environment were miniaturized along with them, it could push the problem out to the hull, but there are even worse issues after that. If the molecules had reduced mass, that would affect their energy levels and completely change how they interact with light and other EM radiation, making it impossible for their retinas to see anything. All this just represents the problems inherent with the final miniaturized state, but what about the miniaturization process itself? What possible mechanism could accomplish such a feat? I should also add that each of these issues apply just as well to the opposite process, namely, expanding things to larger than life size. Is there a name for that like "enlargification"?

Apparently, James Cameron and Shawn Levy are working on a remake of Fantastic Voyage as we speak. I'm not expecting the scientific angle of any remake to measure up even to its 1966 inspiration, but I believe there is a way one could pull it off. There is a hot area of research today where the word "miniaturization" meets reality, namely, Nanotechnology. This is where people are actually building machines at the molecular level. Often featured in sci-fi stories are armies of nano-robots that work together to accomplish a task. Although it would require more advancement in tiny antenna and data storage and processing technologies, it is not inconceivable that a remotely controlled mini-robot could become a reality. The next step might be using the mini-robot as a surrogate so that you could experience the world from the robot's perspective, and do things like travel vicariously into a human body to assist medical treatments. Given Cameron's past disregard for real science in his sci-fi undertakings, I don't expect he'll take anything close to that approach for his remake, but it might be an interesting idea on which to base a novel. Any takers?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Warp Drives and Wormholes

What would science fiction be without some means of interstellar travel? It's true that some aliens can be imagined as hidden in our own solar system, such as the ancient guides of Kubrick's 2001 or the underground Selenites from First Men in the Moon, and some may already be here on the earth, hidden from view, such as the pilots in War of the Worlds, or the NTI's in The Abyss. But most aliens we read of come from much farther away. If they are to interact with humans, either they need to come to us, we need to go to them, or we both need to meet somewhere in the middle. In most cases, this needs to happen within a reasonable time frame, and this is the fundamental problem. You can't simply call upon some highly advanced technology to explain it because the laws of physics prohibit anything from traveling faster than light. Speedy as that may be, it is not fast enough. It still takes over 4 years for light to reach us from our nearest solar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. Thus, all sorts of creative fiction has arisen to help us accept that a space ship can hop across the galaxy and get back in time for dinner. I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at some of them. This entry is thus dedicated to the impossible ubiquity of short duration interstellar travel.

Traveling involves basically three physical variables: speed, distance, and time. To get somewhere faster, you must either increase your speed, shorten the distance to the destination, or somehow slow down local time for the traveler. Let's take a look at how each of these methods have been utilized by writers in the past.

This is the method of choice for two of the biggest franchises in sci-fi - Star Wars and Star Trek. Star Trek alone made the term warp speed a pop culture substitute for describing anything going really fast. But what exactly is it? Roddenberry's literary team had a real knack even back in the 60's for coming up with fictional names for technologies that sounded almost plausible. Just the term "warp" brings to mind relativistic concepts of bent space or time. I always assumed that they were simply fractions of light speed, but that made the stars which would fly off the edge of the view screen seem ridiculous. Apparently the intent was to represent multiples of the speed of light. This Wikipedia entry states that the very first pilot episode of TOS, The Cage, refers to the warp drive as producing a time warp, which gets around the Einstein limit but not the method used to accomplish it. Later episodes link warp speed to subspace, which is also used to explain how communication messages can get back to Starfleet faster than light travels. But subspace is just a made up term with no analog in the world of science. Of course, the opposite of subspace would be the equally made up hyperspace, which is the method of explanation chosen in the Star Wars franchise, enabled by the so-called hyperdrive.

The only way to find a path shorter than a straight line between two points in space is to just bend the space, which is theoretically possible thanks to General Relativity. The only viable candidate in existing theory to accomplish this is an Einstein-Rosen bridge. It is a kind of tunnel through space-time, commonly referred to as a wormhole. We see this method used for example at the space stations Babylon 5 and DS9. What always made me chuckle is that an E-R bridge lives at the center of a black hole, where ordinary matter would be crushed under the enormous gravitational forces. Also, there's no way to control where you might end up on the other side, and even if you could enter it, the journey would be almost instantaneous, not through some long swirly corridor as is often depicted. I've recently read about more stable types of wormhole theories, but they require an exotic form of negative energy that probably does not even exist. There does seem, however, to be enough wiggle room at the boundaries of physics (see this link) with which you could build a barely plausible wormhole fiction.

The final way to shorten interstellar travel time is to slow down the aging process of the traveller, and the most plausible method has more to do with biology than physics. I'm talking about the cryogenic freeze, as we encounter aboard the Nostromo in Alien, or the Hunter-Gratzner in Pitch Black. Of course, this doesn't really count as "speedy" interstellar travel because even if the crew doesn't age, the rest of the world outside still does, and it doesn't make the actual travel time any shorter. But at least it is within the realm of future technological advancement. If you take a more physics level approach you can slow down time itself by traveling close to the speed of light, where Special Relativity says you won't age as fast as the world outside. But you don't escape the problem of everyone you know back on Earth dying of old age before you reach your destination. And besides, traveling at that speed requires so much energy you couldn't do it by bringing fuel along (as illustrated in this cool analysis of the Relativistic Rocket).

Think of any science fiction book, film, or series that involves space travel and you'll most likely encounter one of these methods being used. Anything else is bound to start crossing over into pure fantasy.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


As I pondered what to write about next ;), I decided to re-watch a fun little film that I originally put aside because it did not really seem like science fiction per se. I was almost shocked when the opening credits stated it was based on a story by one of the great authors of science fiction, the prolific Philip K. Dick. It is amazing how many of my favorite films turn out to be based on his stories once I take the time to look into it. The film is simply called Next and was released in 2007 starring Nicolas Cage in the lead role, who I've always liked for reasons I can never quite pinpoint.

The story the film claims to be based on is called The Golden Man, but a quick read of the plot synopsis reveals that the connection is quite tenuous. Dicke's story is about a future world of mutants oppressed by normal humans, almost like something out of the X-men series. The only common thread between the two works is that the lead character can see into the near future. The writers, led by Gary Goldman who also wrote the screenplay for another Dicke adaptation, Total Recall, took that one idea and expanded it into an entirely original story set in the present day. Without so much as pondering how it could happen, they ask the question: "If a man was born with the ability to see a few minutes into the future, what would he do with that ability? What would his life be like?". Such a question can only be answered by parable, and the story they produce illustrates the idea wonderfully, even if it does fall short in other areas.

=======================[spoilers below]=======================

Cage plays a character named Cris Johnson who is born with the ability to see 2 minutes into the future, and only his own future. But there is a catch that is summarized in this key quote that is heard via his own narration at the beginning and end of the film: "The thing about the future is, every time you look at it, it changes... because you looked at it. And that changes everything else." Dicke's story actually likens it to a chess match where the opponent looks at all possible strategies 5 moves ahead and then chooses the one that has the most favorable outcome. We first find Cris employed as a small time Vegas magician with a typically cheesy stage name of Frank Cadillac. In his show he uses his skill to predict what will happen to guests. By passing his skills off as mere magic tricks, he is able to hide his true ability and lead a somewhat normal life. Given the unbelievable nature of the gift, it is a very believable way of coping with it.

Seeing the immediate future can be very handy in Las Vegas, so Cris plays the tables to make a little cash on the side. He bets modestly to avoid attention. When that doesn't work, he has no problem escaping the guards before they get to him. One of the fun choices of the director was to sometimes trick us by showing us the future as if we're seeing the present, then backing up and showing how Cris actually avoids the scene we just witnessed by taking another course of action. For example, he is being chased by the police in a car which gets hit by an oncoming train as he tries to cross the track - Boom! No more Cris. Suddenly we're back 15 seconds when he actually foresaw that event. He then steps on the accelerator and just misses the train, leaving the police stuck behind it. Such a trick by the director might normally bother me but it doesn't in this case because I realized that it's a much better way to illustrate what is going on in Cris' head than trying to interrupt the story with silly dream sequences. Just as long as it is not overused. But even the big twist at the end just made me grin at the cleverness of it all.

The story involves a love interest (played sincerely by Jessica Biel) that Cris cannot seem to escape, and an FBI chase after a group of terrorists who have stolen a Russian nuke and intend to use it. One agent (a mean Julianne Moore) has followed Cris and believes he is the answer to their problem, and that complicates his newfound romance. Overall, the plotline and the characters are not very convincing, but what redeems it is how Cris uses his ability to achieve his intended goals. It is just great to watch him in action and try to figure out how he did it. For example, he's leading a group of soldiers through dangerous territory and suddenly stops and tells them "Wait, sniper overhead!". You know he just saw himself getting shot a few seconds ahead. They ask him "Where is he?", and he says "I'll locate him...". We see only Cris concentrating for a few seconds and then he reports the sniper location. What he actually did was move out in several different directions in the future and see where he felt the bullet, and then used triangulation to determine the sniper's location - or something like that. You have to think a few steps ahead to follow it all, which makes the whole film worth a second viewing.

Believability aside, I think this film would be squarely placed in the sci-fi category if there had been some attempt to explain the phenomenon. Imagine if Cris instead had a device that could see a few minutes into the future - like a time machine. That, of course, would change the plot dynamics since the parties in question would be after the device rather than after the man. It also would add more complication to an already confusing concept to put on screen. I think the authors left it out so they could focus on the main character's life and how his gift affects everything he does, and that was in my opinion a good decision.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


It's been a while since my last entry, and I'm forced to conclude that I have now written about almost everything in science fiction that has piqued my interest in the past. It kind of amazes me that it actually took some 90 entries to reach this point. This entire excursion has exposed me to a lot of science fiction material that I would have never heard of or would have passed over, and so I find myself beginning to follow these many leads to see what is "out there". In some ways, it is like trying to find tiny diamonds in a giant pile of coal, but it can be fun. And I have pledged to myself, and to any readers, not to write about anything that I would not want to read myself. Any suggestions, of course, are welcome.

So after several pass overs I finally came across a 1973 film called Westworld. The first thing that caught my interest was that it was written directly for the screen by one of my favorite authors of the genre, Michael Crichton. Not only that, but it was directed by Crichton too, his first Hollywood film! So we already have some historical significance there, but was it any good? I would say yes, quite good, thus exhibiting Crichton's natural ability for both screenplay writing and film directing very early on in his career.

Westworld is about an expensive amusement park which promises an experience like nothing you've seen before, but then something goes terribly wrong and causes all sorts of mayhem. Sound familiar? Yes, it is the exact same story structure as Crichton's much later novel Jurassic Park (1990). In Jurassic, he explored the possible dangers of an emerging technology of the day: genetic engineering. In Westworld, he explores the possible dangers of an emerging technology of that time: computers. In 1973, personal computers were still a few years away, so Westworld was run by a fully staffed underground central computer facility. That facility controlled three fantasy lands: an ancient Roman city, a medieval castle, and an old American Western frontier town. These were populated with lifelike robots that guests could interact with in whatever ways pleased their fancy, all for $1000 per day (this was before the hyperinflation of the late 70's). It's not a very complex plotline, but it contains enough originality and enough well timed suspense to keep it moving along. Although it is strange to see Yul Brenner as the menacing robot, he plays it almost perfectly - not too human, but not too robotic either.

The special effects look dated but most of them still hold up rather well even today. I particularly liked the low flying shuttle jet that transports our protagonists in the opening scenes. It has a really unique design and reminds you right off the bat that the film is set in the future. Also a neat transitional shot where they remove Brenner's face to reveal his circuitry. The new technology concepts, however, often leave you puzzled. I don't know if it is because of the lack of computer knowledge in the 70's, but there's so many things in the film that just make you think "Why are they doing it that way?" and "Wouldn't it be easier to do this". For example, Brenner's character ends up being a bigger problem because he just went through an "upgrade" service to give him infrared vision and ultra-sensitive hearing. What possible added value does that provide to the guests? Another big problem is that the scientists end up trapped in the control room because the power goes out and they can't open the electronic doors or keep the oxygen flowing. Huh? What happened to fire escapes and general building safety? And I still can't figure out why is it that, if the guns can't shoot anything with a heat signature to prevent human shooting human, the robots have no problem using them to shoot and kill real people? Someone explained to me that this was part of the malfunction too. That seems like an awfully convenient coincidence to help out the narrative.

But the central cause of all the mayhem turns out to actually be the most prescient of all. They never use the term virus, but they postulate the problem is some type of malfunction that is spreading from one machine to the next, like a "disease of machinery". Until the 1980's, the computer virus was only an idea in the mind John Von Neumann. That just about makes up for all the other silly concepts. Either way, I think Westworld still works for both sci-fi lovers and general audiences.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Mind Machine Interface

The human brain is a fascinating topic. Isn't it ironic that the one part of our bodies which seems to be the most closely linked to our first hand experience, the one associated with our very thoughts and awareness, is the same part of our bodies that we understand the least about? It is this striking contrast that makes speculation about the brain the subject of so much interesting science fiction material. Even as the pace of our knowledge about it increases, it seems such material is in no danger of becoming obsolete. The recent film Inception delved into the nature of dream states in a way that was original, even if not connected to any recognizable science. Other subtopics include mind control, psychokinesis (ability to move things by thought), telepathy, remote viewing, states of consciousness (e.g. Altered States), memory (e.g. Dark City), and many others.

One of the most common sci-fi topics in this category is the interface between the brain and machines. Although many writers use it simply as a story telling mechanism embedded into some larger context, there are still many films that employ it as a central theme, especially in recent years. Witness the list below in reverse chronological order:

Source Code (2011)
Tron Legacy (2010)
Surrogates (2009)
Avatar (2009)
Minority Report (2002)
The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003)
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Lawnmower Man (1992)
Total Recall (1990)
Dreamscape (1984)
Brainstorm (1983)
Tron (1982)
Forbidden Planet (1956)

The question I wish to explore here is, given that we understand the technology side of this interface, which is just information processing, does what we know or do not know about the brain today make such future technologies plausible, or are they another impossible ubiquity of the genre? The answer I arrive at for myself is that it really depends on which type of technology it is. I'd like to try to explain some of my reasoning behind this belief and then how it applies to various future technologies. I sincerely hope it is worth the read.

If we liken the functions of the brain to a modern computer, we can identify many things that both computers and brains can do: logical computation (thinking), memory storage (remembering), retrieval (recalling), and erasure (forgetting), interfacing (communicating), and data processing (recognizing). These are important categories because they represent functions that in principal could be duplicated by a computer. Let's list them again:

Computer-Like Brain Functions:
  • thinking (as in deductive reasoning)
  • remembering
  • recalling
  • forgetting
  • communicating
  • recognizing
There are several other functions that seem to be unique to human beings, such as the following:

Human-Like Brain Functions:
  • choosing (as in free will) - Computers make choices based on predetermined conditions, which is the same as computation. For this reason, there are many who believe free choice to be an illusion.
  • feeling
  • imagining - This is a very interesting one. It refers to creating or recreating an experience in the mind.
  • dreaming - Similar to imagining but without the same level of conscious awareness.
  • insight - Understanding that is greater than the sum of the evidence.
In fact, anything we can refer to as subjective experience, in my opinion, is a uniquely human trait. It is wrapped up in what we often refer to as consciousness. I read a fascinating book recently by physicist Roger Penrose called Shadows of the Mind in which he lays out what I think is a water tight proof that consciousness cannot be the product of computation and therefore it will never be attained by computer systems or even any system based on known physical laws. He believes that consciousness arises from yet undiscovered physical laws which the brain is utilizing. Once discovered, he believes a machine could be constructed based on those laws that does attain consciousness. But Penrose also leaves open one other possibility, the one to which I subscribe, which is that consciousness is a metaphysical phenomenon that is outside the realm of scientific explanation. This short summary regarding my views on consciousness is here to help explain where my own conclusions about the futuristic technologies below come from.

Let's now take a look of some technologies or capabilities related to the brain that commonly appear in sci-fi literature:

Mind Reading - Unlikely Yet Possible
    What I refer to here is a transfer of thoughts from one mind to another, or telepathy. It is a capability frequently portrayed by alien characters or even enhanced humans. It includes real time telepathy as exhibited by the Psi Corps of Babylon 5, and memory reading as employed by the Vulcan mind meld. I believe that these capabilities are not a huge stretch given our own experiences today. How many times have you "known" what someone is else thinking? If we can do this via external clues such as expressions and body language, whose to say you couldn't learn to do the same from an EEG or other type of signal? A connection from one mind to another does not require any real understanding of the mechanism underlying that connection, which is why I leave it open to the realm of at least metaphysical possibility.

Mind Viewers - Almost Certainly Impossible
    It's one thing to know what another person is thinking, but the term mind viewer refers to constructing a representation of a person's thought's into actual images that can be viewed. This does not mean seeing what someone else is seeing in real time, which could be accomplished in principal by attaching tiny cameras to their eyeballs. Rather, we are talking about translating what a person is imagining into real images, or even reconstructing things that were seen in the past from stored memories. This seems to me a much more difficult proposition, yet it is amazing how often it is portrayed. How many episodes of Star Trek feature aliens who "reconstruct" artificial Earth environments from the minds of their human subjects? The earliest mind viewer I can recall is in Quatermass and the Pit, where Dr. Roney has invented a device that fits over a person's head and allows others to see their thoughts on a CRT monitor.
    It is easy for us to conceive of such a technology because when we imagine things, it is like we are re-living an actual experience. As mentioned above, I believe that this subjective experience within the brain is inaccessible to any physical process or device in principal. What is accessible is the movement of the electrons within the cells of the brain at the time a person is imagining something. I also do not believe that images are stored in the brain in the low level representation of light pixelation. That would be extremely inefficient. Rather, it is stored as a set of modifications in the neural network at sites associated with the content of the images that are seen. I also believe that each person develops this network in their brain differently, like a fingerprint, making it impossible to find a mapping from the brain structure back to the original image content. Thus, mind viewers in my opinion are completely outrageous, and they always seem to make me wince when I encounter them in stories.

Memory Erasure - General Memory Possible, Specific Memories Not Possible
    Men in Black features a "neuralyzer" device that selectively erases the last X minutes or so of a person's memory. We already know that getting bumped in the head can cause people to forget things. If we know that memories are stored in the brain by altering the neural connections, it is certainly possible that by some form of deliberate brain "damage", one can cause someone to forget things. The question is, how do you know which parts of the brain to fiddle with? Erasing the most recent memories seems plausible since those changes could probably be identified in some way. However, trying to selectively erase a particular memory, or all memories of a particular subject, would be quite impossible for the same reasons given for the viewer technology above, unless you had been there to record the changes at the time the memories were formed.

Mind Control - Possible, To A Degree
    In The Wrath of Khan, the villain uses an alien worm creature to control Chekov. The worm somehow attaches to the subject's brain and makes them succumb to commands. This is not unlike hypnosis, and certain drugs are known to make people more open to suggestion. But hypnotists and even cult leaders know that without the subject's willing cooperation, they could not control anyone's behavior entirely. Recent research, for example, suggests that the parietal cortex is the place where decisions about movement are made, but it is not that simple. Stimulating this region either makes people have the desire to move, or makes them think they moved when they in fact did not. Stimulating the premotor cortex causes them to move involuntarily, but they are aware that they did not intend it. I believe the actual decision to move originates in the will, which is a metaphysical event. Thus, I think certain degrees of mind control may be possible, but the human will can never be completely subdued. Fortunately, most writers seem to agree with this and allow their mind controlled characters to break away from their captors given sufficient willpower.

Virtual Reality Systems - External Easy, Internal Not
    This theme has appeared a lot in modern times, with The Matrix serving as the poster-child example. We know that virtual reality is easy to accomplish if you do it by sending sensory data directly into a person's senses, and this is how it is often portrayed. The interface in Matrix is instead a direct connection to the brain. This means it requires stimulation of the sensory input centers of the brain in such a way as to re-create the desired sensations. However, Matrix has the advantage of creating an interface that each person grows up with from birth, and therefore would have the opportunity to "teach" the brain how to interpret its signals. The big problem there, of course, is that it would render your real senses useless. Once unplugged, it would most likely be impossible for your brain to re-wire itself to experience the real world through eyes, ears, and skin. The system in Surrogates does not have this limitation, but it presents an even more problematic technology based on some type of digital telepathy.

There is so much that could be covered on this topic, but I decided to try to keep it to one long entry rather than a lot of short ones because it is not the main focus of the blog. It is, however, a relevant topic in science fiction literature that won't be going away any time soon. I'm sure there are a lot of other opinions out there if you care to share them.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Thirteenth Floor

Sometime close to the beginning of 1999, I remember seeing a TV trailer for a movie called The Thirteenth Floor. It was about a machine that you could plug into and enter a simulated virtual reality that seemed quite real. I only saw it once, and then trailers for The Matrix began to appear all over the place. The concept seemed so similar that I kept wondering if the first trailer I saw was for the same film, but it just faded away like a dream. I even wondered if they had changed the movie title in post production or something. To this day I believe this film was simply overshadowed by the Matrix phenomenon that took the sci-fi world by storm just two months before it was released. It is not anywhere near as good, but decent enough that I think it should get at least a little notice.

In the Thirteenth Floor's simulated world, the people who inhabit that world are all just programs, but you can download yourself into any one of them, much like the agent programs of the Matrix do, except in reverse. That world is set in Los Angeles in the late 1930's, and one of most redeeming qualities of the film is the portrayal of the era. The sets, costumes, and entire production is done as well as any Hollywood period piece. And to give it a little flare, elements of film noir are thrown into the story, including a fatalistic love interest and murder mystery. In fact, it is the solving of the mysteries that really moves the story along right up to the very end, with lots of little twists and turns. About three-quarters of the way through, we encounter a twist that is so convoluted it is actually a bit corny. It is precisely at that point that the quality of the script goes downhill. But if you keep watching through the last few plot twists, it kind of redeems itself just for being so fun.

While the budget for set production was ample enough, very little was spent on special effects, with not much more than some CGI and laser light. But it doesn't really matter because the story works without requiring much that is out of the ordinary. As you can see, I'm not giving too much away in case you choose to watch it for yourself at this youtube link for a few bucks.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bugs in The Source Code

As a software developer by trade, I was already put off going in watching the recent sci-fi film Source Code simply because any writer/producer who would employ such a title for a film that has absolutely nothing to do with actual source code must not be very technologically inclined. What then, can be expected from the rest of the script? The sad reality is, a whole lot more fiction than science. Yet, the film is entertaining enough, and the idea original enough, that it deserves some credit to allow for movie goers enjoying it as a pure fantasy rather than the sci-fi thriller that it presumes to be.

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

Let's face it, you can't say much about the plot of this film without spoiling a lot of the surprises that actually made it enjoyable, so I'm putting in the alert early. The main "bug" in that respect is the believability of the experimental technology that forms the film's backdrop. It is already stretching the imagination to think that one could read the mind of another living human being in such a way that you could view their memory like it was a video recorder, but that's nothing new to Hollywood sci-fi. Now try that with someone who's already died in a train accident. Take the dead person's brain and somehow create a virtual reality playback of the final minutes of the accident that you can interact with.
Has anyone left the room yet? Ok, now we find that this virtual reality playback machine allows you to see things that nobody actually witnessed and therefore would not be in the memory of the subject in question's brain to begin with. What a nifty technology, but there's one little problem: only another dead person can actually use it. Huh? Let's back up. The explanation is that it's not memory playback at all. The mind somehow accesses parallel realities for a brief period after death. It does this via some type of quantum bifurcation (yes, there are theories about such things - see Penrose's Orch-OR theory). As the inventor puts it, "Source code is not time travel, it is time re-assignment". So they somehow capture this capability from the accident victim's brain and then link it in to another almost dead person's brain, creating some sort of bridge. We're probably well into fantasy territory by now, but that's nothing compared to what happens at the end of the film. I'll leave that to whatever imagination you may have left by then.

Now with all that off my chest, I will say that I did enjoy the movie. It is well directed, and the performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga (the operator named Goodwin, not the girlfriend), and the relationship that forms between them, are quite enjoyable. The suspense that is created is well crafted and almost non-stop, making it a fun thrill ride, which is fitting since most of the screen time is spent on a moving train. If you decide to see it, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

After Earth (A.E.)

Suppose you take a story that begins with the destruction of Earth and the near annihilation of the human race by aliens. Given the depressing nature of such a premise, you decide to cheer it up a bit by hiring George Lucas to write the script as an action-packed space opera and then to turn it into an animated feature film with a top notch animation crew that combines the best hand drawn talent (a la Walt Disney) with the best CGI people (a la ILM). What you'd turn out with might look something like Titan A.E.

Titan A.E. is the only fully animated film in my collection (Tron contains live action). It only barely made the list, and I think it is there just because it's one of those very unique celluloid creations. I decided to watch it for the second time last night and would like to attempt to describe some of that uniqueness. The first thing that stands out is the animation style itself. It is probably the best integration of hand drawn and CGI work I've ever seen. The hardest thing to do in CGI is create convincing human characters, so why not just hand draw them and leave the space ships, planets, and the robot-like hostile aliens in CGI format? Motion capture is also utilized when animating people in space suits. In order to smooth out the integration, most of the immediate environments of the main characters are also hand drawn. Although you can tell which is which, it is difficult to notice where they meet.

Staying with the animation theme, it seems that the set designers in the film had a love for space-scapes and created several very beautiful scenes, even though most of it is not at all realistic. A swamp lake covered with giant glowing spherical "hydrogen pods" extending via a network of vines from the surface. A cave-like nebula dust cloud that the ship flies through accompanied by "wake angels", creatures that, similar to dolphins on a ship's bow, like to ride the "energy wake" of space ships.
"Ice rings" which consist of giant computer generated star-shaped crystals that continually collide with each other and crumble as they do. The crystals were done with CGI and feature detailed ray tracing on the reflective surface faces. The other scenes were yet another skillful amalgam of CGI and hand painting. All very nice eye candy.

In general, the whole thing was given a top billing production. The original score was a combination of classical and modern rock pieces as is common in modern animated dramas, but the plot and characters are just a bit edgier than your average family film. The voice casting was so well matched and well performed that I didn't even realize I was listening to the voices of Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman, and many others I should have recognized. In short, a lot of cash was spent.

I found myself less happy with the script on this second viewing. Although I love the colorful characters which are up there in stature with any Lucas creation, the dialogue and situations are really no more than you might expect from a typical pop culture animated feature. I like the originality in working the angle of humans missing the home world and feeling marginalized, even though it is a bit oversimplified. But the big flaw that tips it on its side is an attempted plot twist where a few of the good guys turn out to be bad guys. The revelation is too abrupt and too soon, and then one of them turns back into a hero at the end which is even more crazy. The villains are very one-dimensional - basically robots bent on wiping out the human race (sounds a lot like the Cylons from BG doesn't it?). But they have some real neat controlled plasma like technology that allows you to "melt" into walls and come out on the other side.

According to Wikipedia, it didn't do well at the box office and recouped only about half of its $75M production cost worldwide. I can understand why. They really didn't know what audience they were targeting. The heavy plot premise is a bit daunting to begin with, suitable for hard-core sci-fi fans. The space action and love interest sidebar between Cale and Akima targeted teens, and the cutsie supporting characters were portrayed as if targeting young children. For me, it is this juxtaposition of approaches that actually adds to its originality. But it also makes it hard to predict who might actually enjoy it and who might cast it into the trash in disgust. You'll never know unless you watch it for yourself.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Iconic Forbidden Planet

I'd never really taken much interest in the 1956 science fiction classic Forbidden Planet. I think the main reason is that the story plays more like a monster movie, the majority of which have no other plot than to just get scared, kill off the monster, end of story. In this case the monster is not even an alien or the result of some experiment gone wrong - it's just the manifestation of someone's mind. What really puts it into the science fiction category is the fact that it takes place in the future, on another planet, and the technology that causes the raucous was left behind by an alien race which we hear nothing else about except that they invented a bunch of cool gadgets. Change the mode of that last point and we could set the same story in any other place and time. But given the status of the film in the genre's history, I had to try to explore what it is that puts it there in the first place. So here goes...

You can't deny that the much of the appeal of the film, and also its subsequent influence, is attributable to the "look and feel" of it. The space ships, suits, and planet terrain all have that great 1950's retro look without feeling campy. The special effects were very well done for that time, particularly the animated layovers of the monster and the design and operation of the robot named Robby.
Robby was probably the first popular depiction of a robotic character that was friendly rather than fearsome, to be followed up in later years by the very similar looking robot from Lost In Space and of course, C-3PO and R2D2. Given the amount of money spent on production, it is no accident that they did a good job in that department. The robot costume continued to appear as various characters and cameos in many films following, up into the late 1980's. I also tend to wonder if the films references to Freudian concepts of the subconscious may have been more generally known and accepted in American culture at that time.

That's the extent of my prior knowledge, so I continue now with some gleanings from the Wikipedia entry. I've always known that the script was well put together from a purely literary standpoint, and it appears that's a generally held opinion. Some people see parallels with Shakespeare's The Tempest. This is made even more significant when you consider that most sci-fi films of the 1950's had pretty horrible scripts. Another thing that is mentioned is that it was the first film to take place entirely in deep space. I thought Buck Rogers spent most of his time out there, but maybe that doesn't count because it was a serial rather than a full length film. And going back to the special effects, it won the academy award for that year in the category. A sci-fi film winning for special effects? What else is new? It seems to me that what gives the film its status is that because it was such a well done movie in both script and production, it lent credibility to many of the story telling devices that would later be copied and used again and again. Force fields, transporters, laser weapons, it's all there. That kind of influence deserves some credit simply because of the osmosis effect. You can get a feel for the sets from the trailer below. Notice the Star Wars like introductory text moving off in the distance:
As a final follow up, I took the time to re-watch the film in its entirety. I found that I could enjoy it more as an adult than when I was a teenager, and I was able to notice a few more things that stuck out. The first was that there is no musical score per se. The soundtrack is a strange combination of electronic computer sounds, mostly resembling the computers of the 1950's. I'm not sure about its effectiveness but it certainly is unique. The other surprise was how cerebral the script seemed. Everyone was always giving analytical conjectures and explanations of things which were not particularly interesting and that kind of took away from the drama at hand. It was also interesting to see how future technologies were represented in that era when real thought was put into it. Imagine using a bona fide flying saucer as a future earth ship a decade later, after the flying saucer came to represent alien technology rather than human. In the beginning, the ship is supposed to be traveling at light factor speed, but when they have to land, they all get into this transporter like device which makes them disappear during the deceleration period. I thought it was very cool, since no script writers today even bother to tackle the g-force problem in high speed space travel. In this film, they created a new technology to take the humans out of the equation. The new device may be just as implausible, but at least they had enough respect for the audience to take it into consideration. Anyway, after this second watch, I would not change anything I've said about this classic piece of sci-fi film history.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Our Shields Are Down!

One of the earliest and most common future technologies that is featured in sci-fi literature is the force field. It is easy to conceive of future weapons that involve beams or bursts of energy, so naturally, the good guys of the future must have a way to defend themselves against such attacks. If physical arrows are blocked by physical shields, it seems reasonable to block energy weapons with a "shield" of energy. But that is as far as reason gets us, because the mechanism to "generate" such a defense has never been satisfactorily explained to general audiences. This entry is dedicated to the near impossible ubiquity of force fields.

A force field must produce a repulsive force. As far as we know today, there are only four types of fundamental forces. Gravity is attractive only, so it is out of the running. The weak and strong nuclear forces both act over such tiny distances (like atoms), that there does not seem to be any conceivable way to harness them on a macro scale. We are left with electromagnetism (EM). In fact, the whole idea of "shielding" was probably born from analogy with EM shielding. It is possible to deflect charged particles with an electric or magnetic field. Is that how they do it?

I doubt that sci-fi authors are envisioning such a mundane mechanism for creating force fields. In most fictional stories, the fields repel any type of matter, not just charged or magnetic stuff. Certainly space ships and people would not be stopped by an EM field. You could not keep a prisoner behind bars with such a field, nor could you stop projectiles like bullets. What about those beams of energy? Could they be stopped? Possibly, but you must still then explain how such a field would be generated. The strongest EM fields require something on both sides of it (cathode/anode, etc.). If you are trying to create a field that surrounds you, as is usually portrayed, then you are left with generating a complete EM field in all directions. Instead of blocking the incoming energy, you would in fact be deflecting it around you. This is how the earth uses its magnetic field to deflect the charged particles of the solar wind. Of course, a field that strong would probably end up bending your space ship out of shape (magnetic) or short circuiting all the controls (electric). There's no way to get around immersing yourself in it, and that's not really the way force fields are portrayed in film and books anyway.

There are current theories that postulate a fifth force which is causing the universe to expand more rapidly than expected. But this can only be felt over galactic sized distances so you can rule that one out too even if it exists. How about plasma? That's what the original Star Trek always attributed such things to. But for a shield, the plasma must still be held in place by an EM field, and then you're back to square one again. What about momentum? You can stop matter if you shoot something at it in the opposing direction, but that is not a static shield. It requires a constant flux of matter or energy in the outward direction. For example, meeting an energy beam with an opposing energy beam would be enough to stop it, so why do our protagonists always need impossible energy shields? All they really need is computerized targeting technology and they are quite nicely protected while using a heck of lot less energy.

One final word on a related topic. If you reverse the direction of the force you get another ubiquitous future technology usually referred to as a tractor beam. Although one could use electromagnetism to reach out and grab a metallic object, it would not be possible to control the object's trajectory as is usually portrayed, and it would be more of a wide field (a net) than a beam. Again, no one actually attempts to explain how such a thing would actually work.

So the next time you encounter a story that features the use of force fields, just remember that although there is some wiggle room to work with, the existence of such a thing is extremely improbable even in the distant future. I have yet to encounter an author that has even attempted to come up with a merely plausible explanation. If anyone out there finds one, please leave a link for me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Sci-Fi Drama

Most of the great works of science fiction go for the big ideas. You know, the future of society, the limits of mankind, the nature of reality, etc. But there are a lot of science fiction stories that are just that... stories. Many of them copy ideas from those that came before, and many are there just for entertainment value, but once in a while a science fiction story comes along that is also really good drama. What makes such a story exceptional is that it uses a science fiction backdrop not as a way to engage the mind so much as a means of touching the heart. Somehow, that seems to make it even more memorable than it would otherwise have been. I'd like to dedicate this entry to some sci-fi films that I remember mainly for their human element, rather than for their science. None of these are classic material, but all are original and left an impression for me.

Frequency (2000) - Jim Caviezel plays a New York cop who, thanks to a highly active electromagnetic storm in the upper atmosphere, connects with his deceased father (Dennis Quaid) in 1969 using his Dad's old ham radio, the same one his Dad was using 30 years ago when a similar electrical storm occurred, and just a few days before his tragic death in a warehouse fire where, along with his fire fighting squad, he had rushed in to save a victim. The story turns from sad to sweet when the son manages to save his Dad from death and instantly change their personal history, even though the son still remembers the old history as in a dream. But changing history is fraught with peril, and the new turn of events puts his mother in grave danger, as well as several other women who become victims of a serial killer who otherwise would have died. Feeling responsible for several more deaths that shouldn't have been, father and son now work across time to prevent them from happening with the aid of the case file that the son is able to access through his precinct. Whew, that's just the beginning of the plot turns and twists, which all work pretty well until the last 15 minutes of the film when it gets a little twisted out of shape. But on the way, there is some decent acting, story telling, and character development. I think what made it stick for me was the heartfelt way the relationships between father, mother, and son are portrayed. This was also the only film that ever played with the idea of watching history change in real time as you influence it by talking to someone in the same location 30 years ago. That was a very neat trick.

Enemy Mine (1985) - This film takes a common war theme, that of two enemy soldiers stranded somewhere who must learn to work together to survive, who soon find that they are not that different and become the best of friends. In this case, we are in the year 2092, and the warring factions are humans and a race of reptilian-like aliens called Dracs (from Draconia - the most overused enemy alien world name). The film surprises you in just how far it takes the relationship of these two characters, one of which, believe it or not, is played by Dennis Quaid again (see above). And Louis Gosset Jr. puts on a great performance as the alien. During the years of making do on the planetoid upon which they had crashed, they save each other's life and learn about each other's cultures. Dracs give birth asexually, and this one ends up having a kid while dying in the process of childbirth. But his human friend has promised to raise the Drac child and bring him back to Draconia. Thus ensues a surrogate father relationship of sorts between Quaid's character and the Drac child in which the former ends up having to rescue the kid from slave labor and eventually get him home, all the while being suspected of treason by his own race. I know it sounds ridiculous, but somehow it works. It makes you think, and draws you in. Once again, the ending gets a bit out of hand, but I suppose space dramas suffer from climax envy.

Cocoon (1985) - Released in the same year as the above, this film was a little more light hearted. It centers around a group of senior folks living in a rest home. Some of them like to sneak out at night for a dip in the pool next door. One day, that pool becomes a fountain of youth for them as a result of it being used as an incubator for a visiting group of aliens coming back to retrieve their lost brethren. What is memorable about this film is that despite its alien underpinnings, it really spends most of its time dealing very poignantly with questions about our desire to cheat death, and whether that is right or not. It is also interesting in how it contrasts the maturity of the aliens with the immaturity of the residents. Of course, then it really blows it at the end by letting them all hitch a ride on the space ship to enjoy youthful bliss despite their having ruined the aliens mission with their self-centeredness. I think Ron Howard just likes happy endings.

Starman (1984) - Here is a film about a romance between a woman and an alien which could have been a cheesy mess, but which rises to a higher level thanks to the careful handiwork of director John Carpenter, who takes the material dead seriously. The characters are well performed and mostly convincing, including Jeff Bridges' portrayal of the tender-hearted alien who takes the form of his acquaintance's recently deceased husband. Carpenter has enough respect for his audience's intelligence to try to capture some sense of believability, and also use the story to make a statement about the best and worst of humankind. It takes place mainly during a long road trip through the heart of southern midwest America with beautiful cinematic shots of the landscapes. The moody, Vangelis-like electronic score also seems to work well with the story. It might not work for everyone, but somehow it leaves you with a good feeling.

For the sake of completeness, I've listed below some of the films in this category that were neither good sci-fi nor good drama:

Batteries Not Included (1987) - It's hard to ignore a Spielberg sci-fi film, but this was another post-ET attempt to mix aliens and cuteness that just didn't work. Who can really get interested in a story about a bunch of people in an abandoned apartment building fighting the evil developers who want them out? Getting help from some tiny extra terrestrial flying saucers that come out of nowhere doesn't make it any more interesting.