Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Philadelphia Experiment

Back in high school, I remember hearing from some buddies about a World War II era effort to cloak our battleships from enemy radar. The last phase of this involved an experiment in Philadelphia with a fully staffed battleship that was subjected to some type of energy field. The program was then terminated, and a set of urban legends arose regarding this event which came to be known as the Philadelphia Experiment (follow the link to Wikipedia for more info). Some of the post experiment claims my friends talked about were reports of sailors phasing in and out of existence and sometimes materializing within solid matter, even days after the event. Some of them reportedly went crazy. It turns out that the entire program is probably a myth as the Navy denies it ever existed, but it did capture my imagination at the time.

So I was glad when I heard a few years later that a film was out that was based on the incident, called simply The Philadelphia Experiment. I don't know what I had expected it to be, but I do remember that I enjoyed the film. It was a kind of a mix between a traditional sci-fi story and a heart-warming drama, and that is all I could remember of it. Thus, I looked it up on Netflix and found it available for instant viewing and watched it again. I found my opinion hadn't changed much, so here goes.

First, the science fiction backdrop of the story is actually not bad at all. You have the connection to the myth in 1943 as an anchor, and then a wormhole of sorts that connects to 1984 (the year the film was released). I remember thinking that was a rather arbitrary coincidence until you find out later on that it is the same scientist performing the same type of experiment in 1984 that causes the link, and that very neatly closes the loop. Two of the sailors from 1943 abandon the ship and end up falling into the future. One of them gets pulled back but the other has to find his way back home. It turns out that the wormhole in '84 won't close up and is threatening to suck the world into it. The hole, it is said, won't close due to an energy source from the other side. That energy source is the field generator in the battleship which never got shut down, and our hero must go back in to complete the job and save the world. Yes, it sounds crazy but it has a logic to it. If the wormhole was created by the second experiment in '84, then if the guy who actually shut down the generator in '43 now gets sucked into the future, history has now been changed by the precise event that would have caused the wormhole to close. Thus, the only way to fix the problem is to shut it down from the '84 side, which paradoxically fulfills the shutdown that orginally happened in '43. The best guy for that job is the one who was supposed to have done it in the first place. Make sense?

The first thing I like is that the story has such balance. Where most science fiction would focus on the scientist and his experiment, this one focuses on the two navy boys who get caught up in the fray. These are just simple guys with a bit of military training that comes in handy in a fix. The story arc that involves the two friends, both past and future, and their unwitting companion, gives it some heart. In fact, the hero falls for an 80's chick and their whole relationship is quite silly and poorly acted, but it gives him a reason to return back to the future after completing his mission. The characters are developed just enough to allow the film to move quickly and stay interesting throughout its short 1:40 run. The old "fish out of water" device is utilized just enough to be cute (and dated!), but not so much as to take away from the story flow. The special effects are surreal enough to still hold up pretty good, and the pyrotechnics, sound, and wind tunnel work is all done well too. The music sounds like a typical orchestral television drama of that era plus a few 80's style pop hits, enough to get by.

Finally, I just love a time travel film that makes an effort to stay consistent and tie up all the loose ends. You see, since the main character only goes back to the past briefly and then returns to the future, there is no real chance for a paradox to develop, even though you are kept guessing about that until the end. He stays only long enough to correct the one mistake and then goes back to 1984. His friend does not stay in the future long enough to be able to affect it when he returns to the past, and his story about what happened is never believed. You sit and watch all the little facts that are revealed and then neatly resolved by the end. I would not call it a high quality piece of film making, but it is nonetheless a really well executed piece of story telling. I've also discovered John Carpenter was, interestingly, on the executive production team so it makes me wonder if that could have been a factor.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and the Mediocre

Well, I keep running into sci-fi related films and series that I feel should be commented on, and yet I find I have nothing significant to say about them. It's not just a matter of being bad. Sometimes a really bad film is interesting to talk about simply because it is so bad. In fact, much of the material in the vintage sci-fi category is great because it is bad, or at least in spite of it. But I sometimes feel the need to explain why I'm not interested in some item that is obviously in the sci-fi category, and so I have decided to dedicate an entry to list all those topics I don't want to blog about with a short commentary on why. Then when someone does a blog search for it, they'll at least get an opinion, and then maybe they can comment and convince me to actually write about it. There is no way I will be able to cover the huge amount of sci-fi material that gets put out every year, but I'll try to revisit and expand this entry as time goes on.

Here's the list in alphabetical order:

Donnie Darko (2001) - I actually liked this odd but well directed little film. Some classify it as a creepy thriller, others as a time travel sci-fi piece, but I don't think it really fits in anywhere. More to the point, the only science-ish element is the attempt to explain time travel, but it's all just a bunch of silliness, intended to be taken more as fantasy than anything else.

Johnny Mnemonic (1995) - Set in a dystopian future where information is the most precious commodity and in order to keep it from being stolen, it is transported via couriers who have the data uploaded into their brains and downloaded upon arrival. Of course, that means the couriers are targets themselves. Keanu Reeves plays one of these couriers in a pre-Matrix lead role in a story that doesn't have much point to it. It has a cyber-punk feel and I guess it played for me like a juvenile comic book story - you know, filled with outrageous yet stupid ideas. Hey, some people love that stuff though.

Lost in Space (1965-1968) - This light comedy-adventure series was a bit of a phenomenon, like Leave It To Beaver meets Robinson Crusoe in space. They even owned a pet robot modeled after the one in Forbidden Planet. Anyway, the only memorable character besides the robot was the cowardly Dr. Smith. Otherwise, it was the usual tepid network material.

Mad Max Series (1979-1985) - Another adventure in a dystopian future. Before I get the flack for it, I'll give credit to the original film for introducing the concept of post-apocalyptic science fiction to a new generation of filmgoers. It tried to be epic, it tried to be touching, but just didn't have the quality to achieve either. Most of the characters are just cartoonish. The sequels were more of the same.

Red Planet (2000) - This film is just badly put together and I don't think I've ever been able to sit through it entirely. How can you start with a film about saving the dying Earth by colonizing Mars and then try to turn it into a horror in space film and go killing off all your characters, mainly as a result of their own stupidity? It makes the whole Earth space program look like a joke.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) - An astronaut on a two man mission to Mars gets stranded when their ship crash lands and he and his experimental monkey subject are the sole survivors. He makes due via a set of discoveries which become progressively far fetched, culminating in his stumbling upon an alien slave labor camp. It is slow and somewhat directionless.

Solaris (2002) - I really tried on this one. The film did not seem interesting enough for me to watch except to blog about it, so I did. I even researched the original 1961 book by Stanislaw Lem. It's definitely bona-fide science fiction, especially the book, and the topics have a certain intellectual interest, but I just can't get into it. I forced myself to write a whole blog entry and after 5 days with absolutely no hits decided to delete it. I'd rather write about things that I really love and not simply out of obligation.

Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007) - When I saw the original Stargate film in 1994, I remember thinking it was quite interesting for the first half hour or so until the exploration team stepped onto the new planet, after which it became a really stupid Egyptian alien influence meets mediocre action film. I left thinking it was entertaining but forgettable. To this day my jaw still drops that it actually turned into a wildly popular TV series that lasted a whole 10 years! I've never watched much of the series so maybe someone will someday point me in the right direction. Maybe if I watch the film again I'll see something I missed. Who knows?

Sunshine (2007) - The concept on this film is quite original. Basically, at some time in the future, the Sun starts unexpectedly running down, threatening life on earth, and an expedition is sent out to deliver a nuclear payload to restart the fusion process, on a cool ship appropriately named the Icarus sporting a huge solar radiation shield. The first 45 minutes or so really engages you into what seems like a great space sci-fi film, but from there on to the very end, it just goes downhill with bad science, bad characters, and a really bad script. Danny Boyle was probably not the best choice of director here, but it could be a candidate for a future write-up.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) - I don't know why this is such a classic of science fiction except that maybe it had a well written script. But the story was just another atomic angst film that used an alien to convey the message. My reaction to it has always been a big "Who the hell cares?". The same goes for the remake in 2008 with Keanu Reeves.

The Terminator Series (1984-2009) - I really enjoyed T2 when I first saw it, mainly for the great direction and never before seen stunts and special effects. What else might you expect from a James Cameron film? Arnold was also still pretty cool back then. But there's not much more to say about it. All the sci-fi related ideas are just re-hashed from other films. After watching the other installments, I still think T2 is the best one of the bunch.

Waterworld (1995) - I suppose this is a dystopian futuristic adventure as well. I had hope for this one because the concept was promising. What would life be like if the world was covered with water? But it doesn't really explore much of that and just spends time on unbelievable characters and situations. That makes it even harder to forgive the fact that if the polar ice caps did actually melt completely, the ocean would only rise about 200 feet, which would cover maybe 20% of the land mass.

X-Files (1993-2002) - Only a portion of this weirdly outrageous TV series was actually pure science fiction. Most of the time the writers dabbled in the supernatural and other things in a way that harkened back to an old show from my childhood called Kolchak: The Night Stalker. But I could never take it seriously as real science fiction.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dark City

If you were to try to name the best merging of science fiction and film noir, many people would first think of Blade Runner, but I have another film in mind. A year before The Matrix introduced stylish trench coats and dark alleys to the genre, it had already been superbly done in Dark City. This is an extremely unique film with very neat sets and cool visuals. The story line is pure science fiction, which means that the World War II era film noir elements are done mostly for effect and as a kind of tribute, but the reason they are there is the same, even if on a much deeper level. Ok, if I sound like I'm speaking in riddles it is to reflect the mysterious nature of the film and before I get to the plot synopsis I should warn that it is better not knowing anything before you watch it for the first time. So please note the spoiler alert.

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

A man wakes up in a hotel room bathtub with amnesia and a brutally murdered prostitute in the bedroom. He receives a call from a stranger who tells him some people are coming for him and he must leave immediately. He flees as a group of men in black hats and overcoats arrive to take him. And so the adventure begins. It turns out that the ominous men in black are aliens who are using human bodies (borrowed from the deceased) to get around and who have the power to move and shape things with their minds, including causing their own bodies to fly and rendering people unconscious with the wave of a hand. They call it "tuning". But it's even worse, because these aliens are conducting experiments on humans to try to understand what makes us tick. Why? Their race is dying and they think humans may have the key to their survival. You see, they are like a hive species with a collective mind and they believe that acquiring individuality, in essence, individual "souls", is the answer. They don't realize that by treating their subjects like lab rats they are preventing themselves from ever attaining that higher nature. So they create a city from the memories of people and use their tuning powers to shape and re-shape the city each evening at midnight. During this process, everyone is rendered unconscious and they inject a whole new set of memories into their brains (with a syringe no less), so they can see how each person responds to each new situation they are placed in. In fact, the entire city is actually an isolated laboratory in space, surrounded by a force shield, that is always in darkness because the aliens cannot stand the light. Thus, each person lives out each evening with a new set of memories oblivious to what occurred the night before. It sounds so ridiculous you would think it would be hard to pull off, but it works mainly because the themes that it plays with are so fundamental to the human condition, and although it has a concrete story framework, it plays on screen like a dream, a fairy tale, something we are meant to interpret symbolically more than anything else.

Our main character, John Murdoch, is eventually found to somehow possess the same tuning abilities as the aliens and so they want to either destroy him or study him and sometimes can't decide which. He's also wanted for a string of murders that he did not commit. It was just another programming experiment that he happened to wake up from too early. William Hurt very nicely plays the film noir staple detective trying to solve the murder case and so he too is after Murdoch. Murdoch slowly learns of his situation from a very strange doctor named Shreber, played by Keifer Sutherland, who works for the aliens to create the memories that are implanted into their human subjects. His wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) is willing to believe his story, even though she is only his wife as of that evening due to the last memory transfer, and the detective eventually gives him the chance to prove his claims by going in search of Shell Beach. That is the place where his memory tells him he grew up and Murdoch spends most of the film trying to find it. It is so amazingly dream-like how every time he asks someone about it, they say they know of it, or have been there, but when asked how to get there, they are surprised when they find they have forgotten the specific directions. Eventually they come to where Shell Beach should be, and find just a poster on a brick wall at the edge of the city. Behind that wall, they discover, is empty space.
The aliens eventually capture Murdoch and think they can use him to find their answer but  Dr. Shreber pulls an ingenious trick that allows Murdoch to battle them and take over the city. This could of course turn into a hollow victory, since not only have the human subjects lost their home planet, they have also lost any memory of their real past and true identity. But John Murdoch does not succumb to despair and remakes his own world into one in which he can begin a new life. You see, the story is really about the triumph of the human spirit over even existential circumstances. The entire setting is meant to convey the dreary existence of psychological captivity. The humans believe they are free even through in truth they are not. The film noir motif has always been designed to convey a sense of the futility of the human condition, and so it serves to poignantly connect this concocted fairy tale to our own lives. The aliens are portrayed in numerous ways as being quite soul-less, from the subtle (as in their being named after inanimate objects like Mr. Book and Mr. Hand) to the symbolic (as in their society being focused around a huge machine), to the horrifying (as in the willingness to use mind control and even rape and murder as a way of studying the human condition).

There are lots of technical details you could pick at. Why are all the alien's bodies male? How do they stop traffic and move buildings around without killing the unconscious subjects? Why does Keifer Sutherland sound like he's out of breath every time he talks? But I think you will find yourself not worrying about all that since it is not the real point of the film. Some point out similarities with The Matrix, but they are mainly surface level, and since Dark City came first, the point is a bit moot. You can watch it and judge for yourself
here (if the link is still good).

Friday, January 14, 2011

Moon Movie

Several months ago some friends recommended that I watch a recent science fiction movie that had just become available for instant viewing on Netflix. It was called simply Moon with Sam Rockwell playing the lead role. In fact, it is almost the only role save for a computer named GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey, and obviously tailored to recollect HAL from 2001 down to the round camera eye with a glowing dot in the middle. Spacey is a good choice in that respect because he is able to mimic the calm and calculating voice of his predecessor computer quite well, but there are two glaring deviations. For one, the camera eye has a blue dot, not a red one, and second, the computer is so uncannily intuitive in its understanding of emotions and proper responses to them that it is difficult to believe it is actually a computer at all. It even uses emoticons to display its computed "feelings". It seems to genuinely care about Rockwell's character, also named Sam. This I believe is designed to provide a contrast that makes us wonder, up until the last minute, about whether the computer really does have Sam's interests in mind or not. But let's back up a bit.

Sam, it appears, is the sole inhabitant of a space station on the moon about 20 years in the future set up by a company called Lunar Industries for the purpose of mining Helium-3. Let's just stop there a minute since this is the only real science oriented aspect of the film. Why go through all that trouble to mine an isotope of Helium? I credit this film with actually prompting me to research this since it is not actually explored in great detail in the film. It turns out that H-3 can be used as an energy source in a fusion reactor. "So what?", you say, "I though fusion took too much energy to get started for it to be worth the trouble". And so it is with H-3, however, it has at least two desirable properties. It is a clean nuclear fuel, which means it does not produce toxic waste that must be disposed of (or at least a great deal less of it). It can also spontaneously generate electricity from the fusion reaction because of the release of a charged proton, in addition to the usual heat energy to make steam to run a generator. Apparently, a small amount can go quite a long way. I don't know all the details but the point is that people have seriously looked into this as a viable technology. There is one major problem, however, which is that H-3 is a very rare isotope, and producing it artificially takes too much energy to be useful. And this brings us back to the moon, which has been found to be relatively rich in H-3, especially on the dark side, which is where Lunar Industries has set up their mining operation. At least someone did their homework, except for the fact that the amount of H-3 that would be required to operate even a major city would require several tons of the stuff to be transported back each year, and it's not even clear it could be mined in that quantity. Still, it is an interesting possibility, one that has a well written entry about it on Wikipedia.

So how does one man run an entire mining operation? Well, he doesn't. Most of the station is managed by GERTY the super computer and a fleet of automated harvester mobiles. Sam's main job is to perform maintenance and collect canisters of H-3 from the mobiles to send via launch capsule back to earth. We start at the end of his 3-year term where he is eagerly awaiting his trip home, and then something goes terribly wrong. The rest of the film involves a crazy set of disconnected events that have both Sam and the viewer trying to figure out what is going on, which turns out to be a huge ruse partly foisted on him by GERTY. I don't want to spoil this one too much here because half the fun is in the mystery, and it ends with some nicely heroic acts by both Sam and his computer companion.

Is it a good film? At first, I didn't think too much of it except that it was kind of fun and kind of original. It almost doesn't take itself seriously - like an allegorical satire. But I found that it grew on me over time. There are several notable aspects besides the ones already mentioned. Despite the other-worldly environment, it has a very real feel to it because Sam's character is written, initially, to be nobody real special. Just some guy passing the time. His frustrations and responses are sometimes clever, sometimes desperate, but always things you or I might actually do or say, and this is conveyed very nicely by actor, director, and writer. It allows them to do things that would normally be taken as straight satire and make us laugh as if it were happening to the guy next door. The writers also do not try to over explain things by putting dialogue in the characters' mouths. There are times when Sam has figured things out before we do and yet we can only guess this by his behavior. Other filmmakers might be tempted to have the protagonist think to himself out loud or something. Regarding Sam's character, there is also some amazing camera trickery that I still can't even figure out. The sequences on the moon's surface are executed rather nicely (except for a very obvious goof with the starfield backgrounds). The images of the harvesters silently spewing moon dirt behind them which rises much higher than normal due to low gravity still sticks in my mind. Finally, the soundtrack is pretty neat throughout. So, all in all, I think it is a better film than it might be given credit for. At least you can say it is unique, and one I think I would recommend as an evening's entertainment. All the stuff I have not gone into I'll save for the comment section later on down the road.