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.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Silent Running

The early 1970's, specifically the period between 2001 and Star Wars, was a very interesting period in American science fiction film. Prior to the Spielberg/Lucas revolution that occurred in the later years, most science fiction films were dark and thought provoking. Many drew some inspiration from Kubrik's successful masterpiece. I mean, look at this lineup:

Colossus: The Forbin Project - 1970
The Adromeda Strain - 1971
The Omega Man - 1971
THX 1138 - 1971
Soylent Green - 1973
Logan's Run - 1976

These were all very original works that imagined the human race in serious trouble, at a time when the country was going through its own trials and tribulations. There's one more that I did not list which falls into the same category and which I've always thought of as the most strikingly unique of the bunch, even if not very much else. That film imagined a world where humans had trashed the earth so badly that they had to send all their natural resources out into space until they could get things in order. I'm not speaking about WALL-E, but about 1972's Silent Running, starring Bruce Dern in the lead, and almost exclusive, role.

Make no mistake, this film's message is unabashedly environmentalist. The title track and montages are written and performed by none other than Joan Baez, the prominent musical voice of the 60's flower child movement. When I said natural resources, I meant huge intact landscapes of forestry and entire ecosystems preserved in giant temperature controlled domes, transparent to allow the sun's light in. Dern plays the head gardener, Freeman Lowell, on his particular ship, assisted by several small helper robots. His goof-off shipmates seem not to care about the payload they are carrying, which is portrayed as the typical attitude of earth's general population in this future. Dern's performance seems odd at times. He preaches to his shipmates about how no one cares anymore about the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees, and does it with such passion that he comes across to them, and to us, like a mad-man. But the great irony is that given the circumstances, the imminent loss of all that is beautiful on our planet, his words do not sound crazy to us at all. We would be saying the same in his shoes, and we would be acting just as desperately if no one else seemed to understand or care.

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The big plot setup comes when the ships are called home because they are needed for another "more important" mission and they are ordered to jettison and destroy their payloads. While the others are ecstatic to be able to go home, Lowell is horrified and after watching a few domes explode in space, he decides to save the last one, at the expense of his 3 colleagues' lives. The tension never really goes away in your mind about whether it is right or wrong to sympathize with Lowell's actions. People are more important than plants and animals, but are 3 people more important than the last remaining wildlife on earth? Lowell must continue to put on a ruse with ground control about it being an accident and that his ship is uncontrollably slipping behind Saturn and very likely toward destruction as it passes through the rings (Why they are near Saturn is never really explained but see my comments further down on the special effects). Well, he makes it through the rings and then into deep solar orbit where he finds he must set up a lighting system in the forest to make up for the lack of sunlight. Lowell's ingenuity continues to impress when a rescue party locates him and prepares to board. He decides to commission his droid assistants to take care of the forest and jettisons it out into space on its own journey. He then destroys the ship, himself aboard, to wipe out any record of what occurred, thus giving the fledgeling ark of nature a chance to survive without being pursued. A simple, yet powerful story.

The special effects crew on this film were quite impressive. Producer Douglas Trumbull was a special effects director for 2001. Several others on the visual effects team went on to join ILM and work on the original Star Wars. Although you can see the obvious miniaturization in places, it is rather good for its time. The ships have the freight train-like design of the Discovery - long thin body with large round cabin section at front and engine in back. The choice to put the ships near Saturn was mainly so that they could use space scenes that were created for 2001 but never used. The sets are filled with interesting things like hexagonal storage containers, go-cart transport vehicles, and round pool tables equipped with a robotic opponent for practice.
But by far the most interesting effect is the operation of the droids, affectionately named Huey, Duey, and Louie. On first viewing, I could not figure out how they did it. The movements look too organic to be fully remote controlled, yet they are too small for a person to fit inside. I later found out that they employed four paraplegics (no legs) on the set, who would get into the specially made suits and walk around on their hands. How's that for ingenuity?