Relevant Events & Art


Over on his blog, Mark Charan Newton talked briefly about the link between the Occupy movement and the upcoming Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, which seems to tap into the 99% idea with its recent trailer. I've got my doubts that a film of this magnitude would be directly influenced at the core by something that's happened: the Occupy movement has been around for around three months, and the film's timeline would predate that by a considerable amount of time. The marketing department, however, could certainly use the sudden relevancy of the issue and angle quite a bit of marketing towards that theme.

This has me thinking about the creation of films and art in general. Certainly, science fiction has a tendancy to be very relevant. Avatar and Moon in 2009 really took a stab at the state of environmentalism and energy consumption in the world, while this year's film In Time landed at the right moment, right when the Occupy movement started up a couple of months ago. These are big, societal issues, and if someone has their head to the ground, listening for what might come next, it's certainly easy to see some of these things happening down the road: the genre is a good place to examine such issues. While The Dark Knight Rises is already written, it's far from in the can: the next steps would be the post-production stage, where the editing shapes the footage into a regular, finished product, and I would be not at all surprised if some of the events in the tale end of 2011 will help to shape the film that we'll see next July.

Science Fiction is a relative genre, and often, the films that really last the longest are the ones that seem to retain a certain amount of relevancy the longest: films like Soylant Green, Silent Running or Outland are perfectly watchable, interesting films that hold up considerably well in the present moment, because they really carry messages that resonate: environmentalism, corporations running amok, and bleak futures, all of which we're seeing in full force in the present day. Certainly, the fact that the film Moon has drawn upon some of these films and become a critical success in the last couple of years is testament to that.

It would be facinating to take some of the politically charged films from the 1970s, go to the raw footage and recut and re-edit the film with the current context of today in mind to help shape the story. In all likelihood, I'm guessing that the films wouldn't change that much: the points those films made then are the same or similar now. Similarly, it would be interesting to take the footage that's been shot from The Dark Knight Rises and have it cut back in June 2011, and to compare the final product next year. How different would it be?

Science Fiction and the Frontier

Science Fiction in the United States has a very close relationship with the idea of the American West, the frontier. It is so ingrained into our cultural DNA, that presidents often associate the exploration of the heavens with the freedom and romance that the settlement of the American West afforded our country. Both Bush Presidents had some interesting words to say about the subject at various points in their terms in office:

"We'll build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the Moon and to prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own. . . . We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos", President George W. Bush, speech at NASA headquarters, 14 January 2004.


"Our goal: To place Americans on Mars and to do it within the working lifetimes of scientists and engineers who will be recruited for the effort today. And just as Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to open the continent, our commitment to the Moon/Mars initiative will open the Universe. It's the opportunity of a lifetime, and offers a lifetime of opportunity", President George Bush, 2 February 1990.

At a recent conference at NASA Headquarters in April, this very subject was brought up:

It's very easy to see the influence that the West has on science fiction: the first Star Trek show was pitched to CBS as a 'Wagon Train to the Stars, while the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, certainly has its influences as well, while other films from the last 1970s and early 1980s are more explicitly influenced by western movie tropes: Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton, depicts a futuristic western amusement park, while Outland, directed by Peter Hyams, is heavily influenced by the western film 'High Noon', as a Federal Marshal goes up against company men in a mining colony on Io. Moving forward, the television show Firefly, created by Joss Whedon, compares the expansion of humanity into space with that of the expansion into North America. There's others, to be sure, with a new addition this week, Cowboys and Aliens. At the same time, the growing field of Steampunk (Cherie Priest's Boneshaker and Deadnought come immediately to mind), is likewise filled with images of the American West.

The West represents a romantic character vision of the United States. It was a time of intense growth, formative change, and really the last point where it's perceived that people could literally shape the country. At the same time, it's associated with the freedom for a person to make something of themselves, either by pulling up their roots and heading out to restart their lives in the wilderness, or to build an empire, as many of the industrial barons did throughout that time.

While people at the conference disagreed with the association - they likened it to not the west exploration, but to polar exploration - they did note that it's a valuable association to bring to bear, noting that the space program has often been justified with comparisons to the American West. It was the United State's mission (for better or for worse) to expand then, while space offers unlimited potential for (if highly expensive) growth for the future.

But more than that, the romance of the Wild West offers something to science fiction that I've really only seen in stories that have come out of the United States (granted, I'm not well read on non-US SF/F), which is the ability to tap into this idea that we are at our greatest when we're fresh, when we're exploring and discovering new lands, people and adventures, rather than sitting idly, stagnating as life becomes more and more complicated. In the current political and cultural problems that the US is currently facing, it's easy to see why stories, and particularly, science fiction, can succeed so well: it's relatable, and escapist at the same time.

As was talked about at the NASA History Conference, the differences in reality aren't really there: to travel from the East Coast to the West coast in the 1800s, one was reasonably certain of fairly low costs (in the hundreds of dollars), not to mention the potential for a livelihood, food and supplies, and the companionship of everyone else who had the same idea. Polar Exploration, on the other hand, holds no such assurances: the conditions are harsh, unlivable, with few prospects to live on, and a far higher cost.

Space travel falls far more closely with the latter style than the former, and as such, it's not marketed to the American public as such: it doesn't fit with our views of how things should be. And that's okay: the American west has its innumerable stories, a broad canvas from which to be influenced by. It's dramatic, tragic, and beautiful: a good place for stories.

Tron: Legacy

I first watched the original Tron earlier this year based on several recommendations from friends, and was really hooked on the film. The 1982 film was one that was a neat balance between advanced effects (now very, very dated), action and a decent storyline that had a lot of potential. When the first promotional clips were released of the new Tron, it looked like it would be an interesting update of the franchise. Tron: Legacy is a fun science fiction film, and while it has its shortcomings in the plot, the visuals and excellent score make up for it.

Taking place nearly thirty years after the events of the original, Legacy has aged real time. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) rose to the top of the tech industry and then vanished, leaving behind his Son, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund). The majority share-holder of Encom, Sam plays a minimal role in the company, stopping by to prank the board, before encountering Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), who tells him that he received a page from his long-lost father's office at the arcade. The younger Flynn is sucked into the Grid, and finds that his father had literally disappeared for the past thirty years, and that his creation has grown beyond its creator harboring some greater ambitions for the real world.

Tron: Legacy serves as a good action film, with top-notch visuals and action that shows just how good the last thirty years have been for the film industry. The effects of the original, now quaintly dated, held up nicely for what they were (and as a sort of period science fiction film), and the new entry in the Tron universe has brought together a sleek glass and light environment with better costumes and more exciting and dynamic action sequences. The eye candy alone is worth the price of admission, and on one level, the film is a fun action film that does well for what it is.

Plotwise, the film falters more than I would have liked. Inception this isn't, and while I can make a case for some strong points for stories and allegorical undertones to the original, the fact remains that these films were designed to be crowd pleasers, not something to ponder for years to come. As such, the plot moves from point A to point B pretty quickly, expediently and predictably.

Looking back at the film, there's quite a lot that could have been done: the most frustrating element here is the wasted potential that a film such as this could have offered. Like the original, there's some powerful material here that relates to religion and creationism, for we see Flynn creating his own world from quite literally nothing, alongside CLU and TRON, according to some plan of perfection. Along the way, we see the introduction of ISOs (Isomorphic Algorithms), who manifested themselves out of nothingness. The potential for some very interesting storytelling is there, and ultimately, never followed up on to any great deal of satisfaction. The big problem here is that these elements are all touched on: the father / son angle, the deity angle, the understanding of perfection vs. imperfection angle and so forth, but once touched on, they dissolve into the background as one thing leads to another action scene. To turn this into a truly extraordinary movie would have been a huge leap of faith by creating a radically different film from what we've seen in the franchise thus far, and it's clear that Disney was content to keep this as a sure money maker, rather than a risky investment. Critical acclaim is certainly nice, but it's not bankable.

Disney has a number of plans for the rebooted Tron, with an additional two sequels planned, and a ten episode television series coming up next year, the franchise is something that the company is looking to for revenue for the future. Rather than going the smart route, they've gone the Star Wars route: merchandising, sequels, continual updates and inclusions into the franchise. The TRON world seems like it would be a good one to try out, given the potential that exists with some elements of the plot. The ending of Legacy certainly leaves the door open for some future films and stories to be told.

There's other flaws with the film as well. The director, Joseph Kosinski, is out for his first time with this one, having directed some critically acclaimed shorts such as the 'Mad World' Gears of War and Halo 'Starry Night' commercials, but his style here left some of the action and transitions between scenes flat, slowing down the pace of the film at points, something that shouldn't happen in any sort of major film.

But, this doesn't ruin the film. The pieces are there in the background, and there's a balance between action and story that makes this a film that can exist on a couple of levels. There's far more logic and interest to the film than some of the other science fiction blockbusters out there, and the combined effort of the actors (Michael Sheen is especially excellent as the zany manager of the nightclub End of Line) who bring about some decent performances - I particularly liked Olivia Wilde as Quorra, Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn and Bruce Boxleitner, reprising TRON and Alan Bradley briefly. Quick eyes will pick out Cillian Murphy in the opening of the film as well. Plus, Daft Punk helped to put together an amazing soundtrack that helped push the film along where needed, and the duo show up a couple of times in the club. One might think that that's their natural habitat.

More so than the story or the actors, Tron: Legacy has done an excellent job updating the Tron world from the 1980s on a visual and social level. I've liked what the original did to conceptualize computer programs as people within their own little world (which in and of itself has some towering philosophical threads) and it's been used in other works to great success, such as in Ian McDonald's 'River of Gods'. Legacy opens up this world a bit more under Flynn's Arcade, and the territory is ripe for new ideas and directions.

Tron: Legacy was a film that I enjoyed watching. While it didn't move me to want to go back and watch again right away like Inception, Moon and District 9 did, it didn't make me regret that I'd spent the money and time watching it in the first place. While not the smartest science fiction film out there, it's certainly far from the worst that I've ever seen, and I'll be interested to see what will come next for the Tron franchise.



Christopher Nolan's latest film, Inception, is one of the best films that I've ever seen, combining an original story with a compelling future, providing a cerebral science fiction thriller that represents the very best of what the genre is supposed to do: provide a compelling and entertaining narrative.

Inception is an event that is a beginning, and describes the goal of the characters of the film. As the film opens, Leonardo DeCaprio's character, Cobb, is caught while trying to break into a businessman's (Saito, played by Ken Watanabe) dreams, and is offered a job to plant an idea into someone's head. Cobb specializes in a particular form of theft: entering a person's mind during their dream state, and stealing particular secrets in a form of corporate espionage. Cobb is a haunted character, who's own guilt and demons have been coming back to haunt him. Exiled from the United States, his new job, to plant the idea of breaking up a corporate empire in the mind of an heir Robert Fischer (Played by Cillian Murphy), is the only thing that will allow him to return home to his children, after being forced away from the U.S. after the death of his wife: her suicide had appeared to be at his hands. Assembling a team of specialists: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, the point man, Tom Hardy as Eames, the forger, Ellen Page, Ariadne the Architect, and Dileep Rao as Yusuf, the Chemist. They go to work building a complicated dream state for their target, with the plan to plant an idea deep inside his consciousness, where it would take form and provide the target with the motives to break apart his inheritance.

Inception is a complicated, fantastic and brainy film, and is unequivocally a brilliant work of fiction, tying together different story elements: the job at hand, placing the idea into Fischer's head, and looking at what makes up an idea, all within several different worlds that have been created within the minds of the characters. While viewers are generally used to any number of time jumps to help tell the story: flashbacks, jumps forward and so forth, this is the first story that I've seen tell several stories within concentric time spans (i.e., one within the other), with each running at a different speed. The story moves forward in a fairly straightforward fashion as the team moves deeper and deeper into Fisher's unconscious mind to plant their own inception: Fischer must break apart his business.

One of the things that works the best with this film is the subtle, science fiction elements that are placed in the film throughout. There is unnamed technology that allows for the shared consciousness, referred to as a military project for training soldiers, but something that seems to have branched out into the larger world. In one particular scene, Cobb and Saito visit Yusuf, the Chemist, who demonstrates his drugs by revealing a sort of opium den of dreamers, people who have spent too much time in the dream world. The scene, lit by bare bulbs and dim shadows, is as hauntingly beautiful as another demonstration scene in The Prestige, one of Nolan’s prior films. The soft touches here show restraint, but at the same time, reveal a near future world that has elements of science fiction and cyberpunk, but in a way that is far less radical, and in my mind, more realistic than other stories.

At the story progresses, Cobb is haunted by his wife, who died after remaining in the dream state for far too long. Cobb noted that she has been causing problems with some of his work, sabotaging his efforts, and as Ariadne prepares for building the heist, she learns the very real dangers of the dream state, and of inception in the first place: Mal and Cobb had entered a deep dream state, one where they remained together, building and rebuilding their own world, and eventually, losing their grasp on reality. As Cobb worked to get her to leave the dream world, he planted the idea that if she were to kill herself, she would awaken. Upon returning to the real world, she continued to believe that she was in the dream state, and once again, killed herself. This plot element is one that grows alongside the heist, and proves to be one of the most interesting elements of the film: what is reality?

This question is something that has long been asked from the science fiction medium, from films such as The Matrix, and television shows such as Life On Mars/Ashes to Ashes. The film takes an interesting look at what the perceptions of one's reality are. Within the dream state, people tend to operate within that context, and accept that reality for what it was. Inception does an interesting job with this line of thought, and it does look at this question in a different manner than some of the other works. Here, the characters know full well that they are operating within a different world, but even then, there are real risks in what they are doing. This is assuming one of two possible endings for the film: that Cobb returns safely to his home, reunites with his children and the story closes off normally. The alternative is that Cobb himself has remained in the dream world, and that the entire film had become a reality that he’s unable to escape from, and essentially, he is lost within his own mind. The ending itself brings the film from a good one to a truly great one, something that is sure to keep people thinking and talking about the movie for years to come.

Despite the film's obvious strengths, there are some weak points in the film. The chief among these is the characters, who get very little in the way of the essential back-story that allows them to become relatable characters. Most of the team, while they get some time, are just fixtures against the background, where they operate simply to fulfill plot elements. Cobb is really the only character who has any sort of treatment towards this, and then, it is really only along the lines of putting major plot elements into place.

Secondly, for a film about dreams, the internal mechanics of the dream world seemed to be fairly well in order. While this can be argued away as some sort of side effect of having someone create the world in the first place, there is very little surrealism that is generally experienced with dreams. Certainly, with my own, I have a feeling of confusion, followed by: "I thought that was really happening?", given how strange some of them can be.

At the end of the day, despite some of the drawbacks to this film, it falls under the same list of films that I love for many of the same reasons: they are original, intelligently written, acted and conceived of; movies such as Moon, District 9, The Fountain, Pans Labyrinth, Minority Report, and a couple of others. Inception easily meets the same requirements of those films, and I have no doubt in my mind that Inception will be just as highly regarded as these films are.

On Reviewing

Over the past year or so, I've begun to read and write more critically about various books, television series and films, which alternatively gets people interested in some of the things that I am reading, but also drives my friends nuts by picking apart everything that is supposed to simply entertain. The bottom line is, my brain likes to see how things work, how they fit together and what makes things work. I view literature, music, motion pictures, photography and so forth; as art, and accordingly, they are often a series of fairly complicated elements that come together to create the final product that evokes emotion and thought. This is what makes things interesting, and looking alternatively at the flaws and perfections within each piece is what I find interesting.

Reviewing is far more than just writing down what you like about any given book, television episode or movie. While a lot of reviews are made up of what the reviewer likes, it's often a lost cause because everyone has their own individual tastes and appreciates things in their own way. The real trick comes in looking at the characters, the world building, the problems that cause the story in the first place, and the characters' reaction to said problems. The second level often comes when a reviewer looks to the overarching themes and tone of the story that they are looking at.

When I read a book, there are a couple of things that I tend to keep in mind as I read. The first is that I'm not a teacher, reading a homework assignment that the author has turned into me. This is largely because I don't have a good eye for what really constitutes good writing, so often, an author's writing style doesn't figure into things, unless there is something really strange about it. Grammar, spelling, and other technical things just don't come onto my radar, because when I'm reading, I typically focus on the thing that will make the book really stand out for me: the story.

The story governs everything. A story, simply, is a challenge that arrives to confront the protagonist, disrupting their life and causing them to reevaluate their life or examine things differently as a result. This is a pretty basic element of reviewing, and the evaluation here is looking at where the character reacts to the problem in a way that might be somewhat realistic, based on their environment.

While I tend to review a lot of science, fantasy and other speculative fiction, realism is the thing that I look for. While elements of the story might be fantastic, the book or motion picture is written for an audience who live in the real world, and are typically looking for realistic actions on the parts of the characters. Art is created within the contexts of its surroundings. Thus, I find it harder to excuse a book that really acts illogically or unrealistically, whether it's in the reactions that the characters have towards each other or their own surroundings. The mark of a good book is whether an author can properly balance the fantastic with the real, all the while creating something that the audience can relate to.

The actions of the characters and the problems that they face are elements that the audience can likewise relate to. The best works of science fiction and fantasy are ones that can connect to a large audience over numerous generations, either because there is a common connection between generations, exhibited in the themes of the stories, or the story is basic enough for a large number of people to really relate to it. Fiction is a way to look at the world through a different context. Stories take the problems that people face, and place their characters in similar instances. Science fiction and fantasy are especially good at this sort of thing, because they can take modern problems and really twist them out of context for a reader to see things differently.

Once the story is finished, the next step is to write down a sort of analysis of the piece - how did the story, characters and themes interact with one another, and do they work in a way that entertains, interests and provokes thought from the reader? There are a number of brilliant books out there, but often, the writer misses the entertainment point of the book. Ultimately, a good book is something that will be all of the above, and will make you want to re-read it, and buy copies for all of your friends. Precision is needed for a review, and throwing out terms like 'Great' and 'Brilliant' are things that are done far too often - the great books are few and far between, the rare gems that come rarely, but really make an impact. The really good books are far more numerous, and in all cases of reviewing, a reviewer must be accurate and precise with his/her words.

But, in the end, it does come down to one simple point: is this a book that you liked enough to read again, and something that your friends would like?

Review: Iron Man 2

Iron Man, when it was released in 2008, was a fantastic example of science fiction taking examples from real life and twisting them around a bit. The first film nicely pulled themes of America’s military influence in the world, and updated it for the modern world , providing a set of themes that really felt relevant to a modern audience. The first film did this in a fairly neat and concise manner. The sequel, on the other hand, falls prey to what seems to be the siren's call of all comic book movies: more action, more villains, more, more and more. Iron Man 2 is by no means a bad film, however. Like the first one, it remains a pretty funny, action packed, amusing film, one that sits well with the first film, and it's easily better than some of the other sequels out there, like Spiderman 3, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and X-Men 3. Despite the additional characters, storylines and setup for future films, the movie handles itself well.

Taking off from where the first film left off, Tony Stark is a celebrity, America's big superhero, who commands adoring crowds of people and blows off senators on committees, all the while becoming the protector of the United States. From early on, it's clear that there's a lot that Stark is combating: Senator Stern (what better name for a senator?), who wants the Iron Man suit under the control of the U.S. military, Justin Hammer, a major defense contractor who also wants the suit, Ivan Vankov, who wants revenge upon the Stark family after the death of his father, and Nick Fury, who wants Iron Man to help out with the Avengers. Stark is also facing a serious case of poisoning from the arc reactor that he built in the first film, leading to what looks like an inevitable death, and accordingly, starts to act recklessly: he takes control of his own race car, gets drunk at parties, and generally undermines his own credibility as America's shield and sword. And that's just the first half of the film.

At the midway point, Stark kicks into action. Rhodes makes off with one of his suits and turns it over to the military, who begins working on it for their own uses. Vankov attacks Stark during an F-1 race, and when he's presumably killed in prison, he is whisked away to Justin Hammer's facilities to begin working on suits for Hammer and the military. Stark finds the solution to his poisoning, makes a new suit and discovers some of the truth behind Vankov and his vendetta, all the while discovering that his new assistant (Pepper Potts is now the CEO of Stark Enterprises), is a member of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The plot is certainly action packed, and there's nary a dull moment in the film. Like the first, there's a lot of humor throughout the action, with Robert Downey Jr. slipping right back into the Stark role, and Sam Rockwell absolutely stealing the show as Justin Hammer. Mickey Rorke likewise does a fun job with Ivan Vankov, and a number of supporting characters really do shine throughout. Scarlett Johansen as Black Widow / Natalie Rushman is the only real weak point, but honestly, I'd love to see a Black Widow film after watching her here.

The main issue that I have with the film is this lack of commitment to any one theme, which stems back to what was probably producer requirements: more action, more villains, more characters, and bigger action, and bigger villains. Other films, like the ones mentioned above had dealt with the same sorts of things, and come off badly. Iron Man 2, while it handles them well, doesn't rise to the same level of entertainment as the first film did.

First and foremost, the film is split between stories - numerous subplots reference what has long been seen in the comics: the extremis storyline is touched on, as is the Demon In a Bottle, but in both instances, they're just minor storylines, ones that could really stand to be fleshed out for their own film. In this instance, Extremis leads to the Demon, which worked really well, but there could have been quite a bit more that would have made the film stronger. Where Iron Man 1 was largely a film about warfare and the industrial military complex, Iron Man 2 is much more of a personal story around Stark, one that is diluted quite a bit.

Additionally, where Iron Man 1 really looked to the war in Afghanistan for a good place to lay down its story, this sequel largely looks to some more modern elements: the military industrial complex at home, and some of the reactions to Stark's coming out at Iron Man. What's interesting is that some similar Cold War themes have been applied to the present day - not necessarily unexpected with a new sort of technology. There's something of a robotic arms race going on amongst numerous militaries of the world right now - with an arms race of military power suits in Iran and North Korea. This element nails things right on the head, but likewise, doesn't really gain traction, but merely remains an underlying plot element, rather than something that could have been fleshed out quite a bit more. In either case, with the personal or military storylines, these would have really made the sequel just as good as the first film.

That being said, there's nothing wrong with what is in Iron Man 2. There's a fairly good balance between the two in the first half of the movie, before rather abruptly cutting to the second half where everything gets into gear and moves towards the finale. Vankov, now under Hammer’s wing, turns to making drones, and with the capture of one of Stark’s suits, another version is created, and unveiled at the Stark Expo, where the Russian takes control and attempts to kill his enemy. The last hour of the film is quite a lot of fun, with action and humor to that brought me to edge of my seat before ending fairly abruptly. Coupled with the other storylines, the film largely feels incomplete, like there are some chunks of filler material that would have helped with this a bit, and will no doubt make the DVD an essential purchase for anyone who really liked the film.

One of the film’s strong points is not only how it balances these elements, but also how it sets up, rather nicely, four additional movies: The Avengers, first and foremost, but also Captain America, Thor and eventually, Iron Man 3. Most films have quite a bit of work with just a single thing, but as Avengers comes closer (now with Joss Whedon at the helm!), individual stories are coming together nicely, and like the comic books, the crossover makes for an interesting move when it comes to franchised films and their audiences. It’ll mean a good investment for Marvel studios (who raked in quite a bit of cash with Iron Man 2 already) but also allows for a good way to tell a larger story over several larger films. Already, I’m interested in what will come of the upcoming Captain America and Thor films, which have recently seen a lot of casting news.

At the end of the day, the film medium, like any form of entertainment, is intended to entertain, and Iron Man 2 certainly met with that standard from early in the film. The first film really didn’t take itself seriously throughout most of the film, and the story fell into place, making it one of the stronger films that’s come out of the Marvel universe lately. Iron Man 2 builds on what really worked for the first, but lags behind just a bit. But, as the bullets and guys in armor start flying around, it’s what everyone intended: a fun, exciting film.

The Clash of the Titans

For Christmas last year, my girlfriend bought me a copy of Jason and the Argonauts, the 1963 Don Chaffey film that featured a number of technical innovations, the coolest of which was the skeleton fight scene. We both really enjoyed the film, including its fairly decent special effects, which I found to hold up quite well with the test of time. I've long been a fan of the various Greek and to a lesser extent, the Roman mythology. As such, I was really looking forward to the recent remake of Clash of the Titans.

This is not a movie that I had any major expectations of, and in that way, it completely met my expectations by being the film equivalent of a big, dumb Labrador. Very nice to look at, and quite a lot of fun, but really, really dumb. Clash of the Titans is a big, dumb movie. But quite a bit of fun to watch. The film had the requisite amount of action, some very nice lighting with a couple of the epic looking scenes that really scream 'Epic'. Where the film really succeeded though was where the production design and overall look and feel of the film: it looks like a concept artist's dream project. As the heroes set out from Argos to track down Medusa, they venture through forests to deserts to volcanoes, and there's quite a bit of really good scenery and setting here. What impressed me more was the crossing of the river Styx and the ferryman Charon. There was a large amount of detail there, with little touches that really made that stand out for me. Other scenes, such as the background of Argos and the Underworld itself worked just as well. Along the same lines, the Djinn, Sand-Demons with magical powers, which brings the film far more into the realm of fantasy than over any sort of adaptation of myth, were particularly fun to watch - constructs of dark magic and wood.

The action also really was a lot of fun to watch, with any number of monsters, soldiers and people waving swords at one another and attempting to kill each other. The camera work was good, and I have to say that the battle against the giant scorpions was something that kept me at the edge of my seat. The film presents itself as a completely over the top thrill that really is one of the few reasons to actually watch: it doesn't feel like it's taking itself seriously, from beginning to end, which I appreciated.

Still, I couldn't help but think that there were things that could have been done far better. The acting from some very good actors, such as Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson was abysmal throughout, and Sam Worthington continues his trend of fairly lack-luster performance from Avatar into the ancient times. The acting element was something that I wasn't too annoyed with, but at points, the story itself could have been tightened up quite a bit more, particularly when it came to the relationship between Zeus and Hades, which has essentially been likened to a Christianity-themed relationship, with Zeus taking on the part of God, and Hades, Lucifer. I can't really think of a good reason as to why this was done, but it's certainly a major departure from the mythos of the characters. (However, I have to continue to remind myself that this move as a whole is a major departure). What bothers me the most though, is that this film could have gone both ways, either a serious retelling of the myth, or a complete pulp version. Clash of the Titans as a whole falls somewhere in between. It's fun, but not as much fun as it could have been.

The Reboot

Earlier today, science fiction author John Scalzi unveiled a long-standing project that he's been working on for a while, a sort of reboot of a novel called Little Fuzzy by H. Bearn Piper, entitled Fuzzy Nation. While the book is still being written and shopped around, it's likely going to hit shelves at some point in the near future - Scalzi is a Hugo-award winning author, written a bunch of good books, has an insanely popular blog and is a creative consultant for SyFy's Stargate Universe, a reboot in and of itself. The idea behind this book is that it's a complete reboot, using elements of the original, but in and of itself, is an entirely new story.

Scalzi's announcement earlier today is an interesting one in the current state of the entertainment industry, where sequels have largely been changed out for reboots: taking old subject matter and updating the story, characters and other elements that are familiar with an audience. Most recently, the movie Clash of the Titans has been released to theaters, a take off of the original story, with its own elements updated, with modern actors and special effects to provide audiences with a fairly mindless pre--summer blockbuster.

The major reboot of our time, which likely started up this process is SyFy's Battlestar Galactica, where Ron Moore took on the major story elements from the original 1978 television series and reworked everything: the titular ship, some of the characters and background elements remained, but the larger story grew on its own with changes to other characters, the tone of the series and so on. The result was fantastic: the original show, which has been largely seen as something between Star Wars and Mormons in space, has taken on an entirely new mythology, message and feel that has not only brought the show to modern audiences, but has done so successfully.

There is a quote from a television series regarding art (the show was Law and Order: Criminal Intent - the context doesn't diminish the significance here), that fits with this situation: Art is a product of the time that it is created in (paraphrased). This is something that can be applied to any number of paintings, films, television shows, and now, books.

The purpose of a rebooted franchise or singular film is not necessarily to improve upon the original, but to bring it to the attention of modern audiences. While in some instances, this could be achieved by merely bringing out the film in a big sort of re-release on an anniversary, oftentimes, there are things that have become dated in their visual effects and/or stories. As stories are created within their own time, they are influenced by a number of other elements surrounding them: global politics, the state of their country of origin, and so forth, and as such, these stories, which might have been relevant at the time of their creation, become dated because the context in which they are relevant is no longer around.

One very good example of this is the Star Wars franchise, wildly popular from the beginning, with allusions towards World War II, Vietnam, good and evil, all within a specific time and climate in which the United States maintained ongoing hostilities against the Soviet Union. It was a time where there was a very clear-cut picture that could be painted, whereas nowadays, the picture is far more convoluted, with any number of problems cropping in. As such, when the prequel films The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones hit the big screens in 1999 and 2002, they entered a very different world, and societal context, and as such, the stories suffered. Revenge of the Sith was somewhat of an outlier here, where there were some more relevant themes throughout the film, and because of that, the film was stronger than the prior to. Another notable example of where a major franchise has failed is the recent Superman Returns, where the creators attempted to bring around the nostalgic feel for the classic character. It just didn’t work in the modern day.

Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, demonstrates where an established franchise can be improved with time. With the modern version came a much darker attitude, terrorist bombings, secret agents, all elements borne out of the feelings in the United States after September 11th, 2001. Galactica transitioned well, because it was an entirely new story, but because of the major changes, it succeeded. For that reason, the proposed sequel shows likely would have failed.

Essentially, there is a major difference here between bringing back a show for nostalgic purposes, and for bringing back a show or established franchise to essentially wring more money out of a fan base, and even to resurrect an old story because there is some genuine elements to it that can stand to be updated for a modern day and age. Star Wars largely failed on the story front because it was too caught up in trying to bring back the original feel and themes behind the original. The new Star Trek succeeded because they captured a modern look and feel that younger audiences could identify with, and Battlestar Galactica fell in with a fantastic look and feel, in addition to a very good story.

Scalzi has experience with reboots already, with his work on Stargate Universe, which is arguably a reboot of the Stargate franchise, of the two preceeding shows, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, which is, in and of itself, a great case study within a franchise. SG-1 worked well, for a number of reasons - great cast, momentum, fun stories, and so on, while it was cancelled because it stuck with the formula for too long. Atlantis failed for the same reason: it was too much like SG-1. This new show, Universe, has succeeded thus far because it takes a step beyond the safe territory by taking cues from Galactica. Thus far, it's largely worked, and the show is easily stronger in the story department than the original show.

This brings in the question of reboots as superior to their originals, which is a fairly ridiculous notion to begin with. Inherently, films are different because they have different stories, characters, attitudes and contexts during production that makes them largely different entities, especially where reboots are concerned (less so for Prequel/Sequels/Threequels). Because a reboot seeks to bring back an old story, but different, there really shouldn't be any sort of expectation that a prequel has been brought in only to be better than the original: it should be brought back to update the characters in a very different context, which will hopefully in turn mean that the story is more relatable to a modern audience. Hopefully, Scalzi will be able to transition this into the literary world: it should be interesting.

On Awards

Earlier today, a piece that I wrote for SF Signal went online, about the aftermath of the Oscars, with the movie Avatar failing to capture a number of the major awards for which it had been nominated. Awards are interesting things, and ever year, without fail, there is the general number of complaints about which film was awarded any given award, generally with the Best Picture award, and this year is no different.

Thinking back on the issue, I'm fairly thrilled that Avatar was shut out of the award, simply because I didn't think that the film was worthy of the award. There's undoubtedly people who will disagree, but on the whole, Avatar's most notable achievement was the extraordinary amounts of money that it raked in, and the special effects. The film did win for the visual effects category, as it should have, and at the end of the day, with a movie earning billions at the box office, what can an Academy Award really do to improve upon it? Not a whole lot.

Personally, I felt that if there was any film that was really shut out of the entire Academy, it was Duncan Jones' Moon, for which it rightfully should have been at least nominated for Picture, Director, Actor and probably a bunch of other things. The film never had a big push from its studio, Sony Pictures, and the nominations went on without it. It was disappointing, to be sure, but looking over that, I can't honestly think of any good, practical reason to really be annoyed over the lack of an award. I loved Moon for its story, characters and sets, and earning an award would have merely been icing on the cake. Nice to have, but not essential. I loved the movie for the movie, not for the awards that it would have won.

Awards are certainly nice - they bring a director to certain visibility, which certainly helps with future endeavors, but in some of these cases, these are directors who have rapidly become well known within the speculative fiction genre: Duncan Jones, Neill Blomkamp, James Cameron - these are all fairly well known members of the genre now, as their films gained considerable acclaim while their movies were out, and in all likelihood, they'll be working with other projects within the genre. It's recognition after the fact by one's peers is one thing, certainly, but these films have already been recognized on a number of other levels already - there's verification that the movies are good, people enjoy them and that they'll likely be classics in the field. (Well, Avatar, probably not) The award itself is a thank you after the fact, a superficial pride thing that has absolutely nothing to do with how I feel about the movie.

Moon, District 9 or Inglorious Bastards winning an Oscar? That would be awesome. But I still like them all the same.

Movie Review: Up

Pixar has yet to make a really bad movie. There's been a couple that I've been rather indifferent on, but when the company sits down to really do a good story, they really do a good story. Watching Up last night with my girlfriend helped to reaffirm that no matter what the subject of the movie is, it's likely going to be a very good one. While Up doesn't necessarily top The Incredibles, Toy Story or Wall-E for one of my favorite movies from the company, it's certainly one of the better films that I've seen from them.

When watching the first trailers for the film, I was struck at how odd the film seemed at first glance. A man decides to lift his house out of the city using balloons? Where The Incredibles focused on the nostalgia of the past, Wall-E at some of the dangers of rampant commercialism and the use of environmentalism, and so forth, Up didn't appear at first glance to really have any sort of interesting theme. Looking back, I should have known better, because I've enjoyed some of their other films where the stories weren't readily apparent from the early peeks at the film. Up is a story about adventure, about living life and appreciating what you have, but also keeping in mind that sometimes, you get far more than you expect. Up accomplishes its story in more ways than I can recount, in a wonderful and emotional story that is cute, funny and sobering at the same time.

The opening moments of the movie are possibly the best, and saddest moments that I've seen in one of Pixar's films. Carl gets married to Ellie, and we watch as their life moves along with them, but the tragedy that they aren't able to achieve that one last dream that they have always had: something that motivates Carl to escape from the life that he's had and go on one more adventure. As he gets his house to float away with thousands of brightly colored balloons, he picks up a small stowaway, Russell, a small asian boy who is a Wilderness Explorer (A lightly masked version of a Boy Scout) who needs just one more badge. Where Carl is tired and cynical, Russell is almost literally bursting with enthusiasm and excitement for his surroundings. Along the way, both have their expectations drastically changed, and by the end of the film, everybody learns something in the end.

What made the movie for me, however, was Dug the Golden Retriever. His introduction of: "My name is Dug, I have just met you and I love you," absolutely stole my heart because it's so close to how I imagine most dogs (especially my own) think. He's hyper, excited and an absolutely sweet dog and is by far one of the more memorable characters out of the Pixar films. The heart of the character really lies with the core of all Pixar films: enthusiastic and entertaining, and I kind of wish that the whole movie was about this funny talking dog.

What struck me the most was some of the central themes of the film, revealed through the interactions between Russell and Carl, is living out one's dreams. Carl and his late wife, Ellie had long wished to go on some sort of adventure, but life got in the way. At the same time, Russell has enthusiastically worked to collect all of his badges, and the two are swept up on an adventure, with each other cancelling the other out. Over the course of the film, Carl regains a certain amount of enthusiasm, but also comes face to face with the true nature of his dreams, while Russell finally gets to have an adventure, and to have a sort of father figure that he really hasn't had. The film acts as a really good bit of social commentary there, which I really appreciated.

However, the real message for Up comes right at the end, when Carl discovers that his wife had filled her journal with pictures of herself and her love, noting that their life together was the adventure, better than any mere trip that they might have gone on. Life itself is an adventure, and that things can come out differently than you expected, and that opportunities shouldn't be passed up as they come up. Russell says something along the same lines towards the end, that it's the little things that you remember, not necessarily the exciting trips and events that happen in your life, but the slow and boring parts. It's very true, and helped sit the movie into the entertaining and revealing at the same time category: the best sort of film, I think. Unlike where some of Pixar's other films have had more tangible themes and stories, Up has an incredibly personal and enlightening story that to me, seems to hold far more meaning to it.

In the end, Up is a fun movie, certainly one of Pixar's stronger ones. It's one that I would.... Squirrel!

Movie Review: Pandorum

This past weekend, I rented a recently released film called Pandorum, a sci-fi horror film that, while deeply flawed, was a fairly entertaining flick that I've had a couple of thoughts on. At some point in the future, a man awakes violently in a pod, unaware of where he is, how he got there or even who he is. He's onboard a dead spaceship, with little power and no lights. As events transpire, he and a fellow crew member are on board a space ship, and they begin to remember more and more as time goes on. As they work on getting the ship back online before that becomes impossible, and in doing so, discover that what's happened to them is both horrifying and eye-opening.

This film reminded me a lot of Vin Disel's 2001 movie, Pitch Black, in a number of respects, and there were points in the first half of the film that were just downright brilliant, harkening back to what is possibly one of the best space-horror films, Alien. As Bower awakes, he's essentially released into a dark and empty ship, one that has clearly been abandoned for quite some time. Where Pitch Black really utilized a minimal approach to horror while building up the suspense for most of the film, Pandorum should have done much of the same, and did for the first half-hour or so, as Bower and Payton escape from their pods and then out of the room to try and explore much of the ship.

It's there that the film runs into problems: in the time that the ship has been off-line, people have escaped, and a whole new species of humans have arisen (later explained because of some drugs in the hyperbunks to help promote adaptation on a new world) that are predatory and violent. A few random survivors have made their homes in this environment, resorting to cannibalism and hunting to evade the predators. While watching this rather long part of the movie, where Bower tries to get to the ship's main reactor to restart everything and get their bearings, I found it neither scary or all that suspenseful, unlike the first part of the film. While the creatures made for an interesting plot point, they deviated from a point that seemed almost an afterthought at the end: the relationship between chaos and order.

This is a central theme in many books and films, especially when it comes to religion and a number of science fiction books/movies that I've come across, and when this point was brought up in the last act, I realized exactly what this film could have been: a brilliant science fiction thriller, rather than an average chase movie that rarely rose above any sort of interested level.

At two points in the movie, it was revealed that humanity had vanished, as Earth was destroyed for some indeterminate reason. The ship was the last vestige of humanity, and that knowledge drove the original crew mad, and one of the members, Payton, killed his fellow crew members and left the ship to die. He notes at the end that the ability to live without consequence or fear of reprisal is an incredibly liberating one, while Bower worked to preserve the mission and lives of the remaining survivors. In a way, there's a neat relationship there between a life of chaos (life on the ship under Payton's rules) and that of order, as Bower seeks, and eventually achieves, with the death of Payton. The television Babylon 5 is a great example of where this sort of storyline has worked extremely well, with the Shadows war towards the end of the series. I particularly like this storyline because of the ambiguity involved with it, and the lack of any clear direction for the characters. In a way, neither choice is wholly the correct one; either side presents its advantages, in its philosophy, and the true good nor evil comes in the behavior of the characters. In this case, the chaotic route is clearly not a healthy one, as the characters run the risk of getting attacked and eaten.

This is a story point that is ultimately lost in the chase, but is one that could have worked extremely well for this sort of film, as the two characters have forgotten everything, and remember and relearn their surroundings. What's the most frustrating element of the movie isn't what's there, but what isn't there. The mutated humans, while an element that could have provided some shock and awe for the characters, really only exists to add in some extra blood and gore, in the most gratuitous and unnecessary manner, and really only serve to slow the characters down a bit. One of the characters, a Vietnamese man that joins the party, is killed almost as an afterthought at the end, and when we got to the end, I realized that this film was essentially a video game set to film.

There were some good concepts and ideas in Pandorum, and certainly worth the $1.06 that I spent out of Red Box for it. But ultimately? The movie was forgettable and uninteresting, save for a couple minutes here and there. What is set up is a cool universe, not unlike what happens in Pitch Black, with its own rules, appearance and feel, and the hints of a story that could have been brilliant.

My Top SF/F Films of the Decade

I did a list for my favorite books of the past decade, along with all the other cool sites around the internet, but not one for films. Thus, here's my list for the absolute best films for the past ten years:
Children of Men
Children of Men is a fantastic example of the genre and storytelling. Based off of a book by P.D. James, director, Alfonso Cuarón took a couple of liberties with the story by conceptualizing what would the world be like if the Iraq War had spread to a global level, while also examining the issue of immigration in the United Kingdom sometime in the future. The result is spectacular: humanity has lost its ability to reproduce, and chaos seems to have set in around the world. There is a measure of hope when a girl is found who is pregnant, and has to be escorted out of England to a scientific body outside of the country. The film is grim, grounded, dark and expertly shot - one of the highlights is a 10 minute, single take running gun battle at the film's climax.
District 9
District 9 was one of my favorite films of 2009, and as I've noted a couple of times, its story, combined with a reasonably low budget, demonstrates that not all successful movies are blockbusters. Based off of a short film by the same director, Neill Blomkamp, the movie takes an interesting twist on alien visitation on Earth. A massive alien ship appears over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, and its contingent of worker-insectoids, known as the Prawns, coexist roughly with their surrounding humans nearby. Things get problematic when MNU Bureaucrat Wikkus is infected with a substance that puts him between criminal and corporate factions, and he is forced out on the run. The film is expertly shot with handheld footage, interviews and CCTV footage, and is different enough to really stand out. Like Children of Men, it has an interesting message on immigration and partition within society.
The Fountain
Not a lot of people liked Darren Aronofsky's film The Fountain, when it came out, but I suspect that it will be regarded as a classic in the years to come. Combining three stories of a Conquistador, a neurosurgeon and a space man, this movie explores two main themes: the hubris of mankind by trying to cheat death and love that crosses all manners of time. The film itself is wonderfully shot and utilizes visuals as much as story and characters to tie everything together, with shared elements between the three times represented in the movie.
Minority Report
Steven Spielberg is a master storyteller when it comes to the Science Fiction genre, and Minority Report is possibly one of his finest films to date. Set in 2054, Washington DC is the home to an experiment where murder is stopped before the crime is carried out. Problems occur when the lead detective on the case, John Anderton, is accused of a murder, and is pursued by his own men as he tries to escape and clear his name. What happens next is an interesting exploration of ethics, not to mention an incredible and largely accurate (thus far) view of how the future will run technologically.
Moon is easily my favorite film of 2009, and is Duncan Jones' first movie out thus far (although he's apparently got two more to come in the same universe). Following Sam Rockwell's character Sam Bell, a miner on the moon, who is involved in an accident, then wakes up to find a clone of himself. The film is perfectly conceived, expertly shot, and like District 9, filmed on a low budget, with models. But what really steals the show is Rockwell and his acting abilities - it's hard for an actor to carry a film, but it's even harder for an actor to carry the film by himself and as two different people. This one's going to be a classic.
Pan's Labyrinth
Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is brutal, dark and absolutely gorgeous. Set in 1945, under Franco's Spain, a girl and her mother go out to a remote outpost of a ruthless army captain who is intent on destroying a local pocket of resistance. The girl, Ofelia, is preoccupied with her fairy tales, and discovers a lost and fantastic world of creatures, who tell her that she is a lost princess to an underworld realm. To return, she has to complete a set of tasks. You're never really sure if the fantasy world is real or just imagined, which adds to the discussion after the film. The movie is wonderfully shot, acted and conceived, and is one of my all time favorites.
Pitch Black
Vin Diesel is at his best here as the dark anti-hero Riddick in David Twohy's film Pitch Black. Pitch Black is easily the stronger film of the small franchise (Chronicles of Riddick was fun, but not as good) and sees a transport ship between planets crashing on a deserted planet with a ravenous native life form that comes out after dark. The survivors of the wreck are forced to work together to survive, travelling from their crashed ship to an outpost, aided by the criminal Riddick. The film is wonderfully shot, and is another example of low-budget filmmaking being superior to some of the larger blockbusters. Twohy sets up a fantastic universe in which to play, and while Chronicles didn't quite live up to expectations, I do hope that the remaining two films are made.
The Prestige
This is absolutely my favorite Christopher Nolan film out thus far, even more so than the The Dark Knight, by a long shot. The first half of the 20th Century isn't necessarily the first place to think about a science fiction film, but The Prestige pulls it off in grant fashion. Set between England and the United States at the time, we see two stage magicians try to out maneuver one another in a rivalry that escalates to bloodshed over the death of Robert Angier's wife during a stage accident. The drive for revenge brings Angier to scientist Nikola Tesla (wonderfully played by David Bowie) and a device that his both disturbing and fantastic. The visuals here are just jaw dropping, with some of the most beautiful scenes that I've ever seen, along with a twisted and interesting plot that really makes this worth watching many times.
Serenity was the little film that could, based off of the little TV show, Firefly, that refused to die. Bolstered by a vocal fan base, Joss Whedon's universe was brought back in grant style that helped to tie up some of the remaining loose ends to the show, but was also armed with a fantastic plot that sets the film apart from other continuations and spinoffs. The movie was designed to continue the story, but brings the story back in grant style fit for the big screen, picking up with the Alliance sending an assassin after River, with the crew uncovering a massive plot that undermines the entire basis for the system-wide government of allied planets. Wonderfully shot, excellently acted and a whole lot of fun, Serenity was a great conclusion to the series.
Solaris was another film that received lukewarm reviews from critics and viewers, but this film shows some of the most beautiful imagery of any Science Fiction film out there, along with a story that explores the extents of love. Steven Soderbergh is easily one of my favorite directors, and he does an interesting job with the conception and direction of this movie, which follows psychologist Chris Kelvin as he is dispatched to an ailing space station orbiting a distant star, Solaris. When Kelvin's dead wife appears, the story turns to exploring second changes, reconciliation and alien intelligences that are beyond comprehension.
Stranger Than Fiction
Normally, Will Ferrell isn't really an actor that I'd look to for a somewhat serious comedy film, but he pulls off what is probably his best acting in Stranger Than Fiction. This film falls somewhat under the fantasy genre, where Ferrell's character Harold Krick begins to hear a narrator in his head. The film nicely weaves together subtle references to the Beatles throughout, while director Marc Forester utilizes a wonderful minimalist style. Combined with fantastic performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah and Emma Thompson, Ferrell is in good company for a truely brilliant movie.
Danny Boyle's first (and likely last) entry into the genre, Sunshine's plot sounds no better than that of The Core - the sun has begun to go dim, and a crew is dispatched to restart it, using all of the fissionable materials on the Earth and the Moon. What is special about Sunshine, isn't so much the plot, but what the characters go through. The film is heady, trippy and exciting throughout. Boyle has a unique visual style, and Cillian Murphy does an excellent job throughout the movie with its large cast as they go through all sorts of problems on their journey. It's an emotional ride, one that is captivating.
Wall-E is my second favorite film from Pixar, after Toy Story, and is a fantastic and dark vision of the far future, when humanity has abandoned Earth while massive cleanup operations are conducted, then abandoned. All that is left is a small cleanup robot, Wall-E, who's been alone for hundreds of years, and who falls in love with a probe that returns to see if the planet is safe to return to. Despite director Andrew Stanton's protests that there was no environmentalist message, it's hard to ignore that there is one, accidental or otherwise. The film is an interesting look at superficial consumerist culture, but also a cute love story between robots.
The films that have made up this list are all tied together by a couple of common elements: story, characters, conception and excellent direction behind the camera. For me, all of these elements help to tell the element that should be central to all films: the story. As such, while there have been a number of films out there in the genre that I've greatly enjoyed, such as Star Wars or Avatar, they really don't make the list because there, it's the special effects that really take the front stage. This is all well and good as far as technology goes, and I'm sure that once I come across a film that uses these technologies to support a story, I'll be very, very happy. But, a good lesson should be learned, I think, that special effects, while cool, and a good reason to see a film, aren't the only reason to see a film. There's been a bit of a resurgence in the past couple of years towards strong genre films with great acting, visuals and story, and it is a trend that I really hope will continue into the next ten years.

You're Not In Kansas Anymore; You're On Pandora

The moment that Avatar really opened up for me was a massive spaceship travelling towards the viewer, the moon of Pandora, orbiting Alpha Centauri I. While that in and of itself wasn't anything new with science fiction, two things struck me: the first was how utterly real the spaceship looked, and the neat reflection of Pandora in the solar panels towards the rear of the ship.

Avatar is the story of a crippled Marine, Jake Sully, who is given the chance to travel to Pandora and operate an Avatar, a genetically grown Na'vi, a native of the hostile planet. A corporation has begun a mining operation on the planet, and has had some difficulties with the natives of the world. Jake takes to this role like a fish to water, finding that his life in a new body is a liberating one, and soon, finds that he is siding with the Na'vi.

James Cameron's movie set me back on my heels (figuratively) with Avatar. The movie is absolutely stunning in a number of ways, and most likely be one that will be a turning point in the movie industry. Despite an overly familiar plotline - not necessarily weak, just predicable - Avatar was an exciting ride from start to finish, a well rounded Science Fiction epic that should appeal to a very broad audience. Above all, the movie was fun to watch.

For a film that has been in the works for over a decade, it's understandable that there is quite a bit of disapointment over the plot. For all the leaps and bounds that the movie takes, it's something like a new mustang. Very flashy, but with stone-age suspension. The storyline of someone spying, going native and turning against their own kind is something that's been used numerous times, and already, there are comparisons to Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai out there, and for good reason: that's pretty much what it is, just on another planet. There's not really any reason to believe that this particular storyline is weak - all of the above films have been nominated for Adacamy Awards, with several wins between them. Undoubtably, Avatar will be nominated for a number as well.

Still, there is some lingering disapointment that the film didn't try anything rash with its plot. The film's visuals are so far out there that it's clear that everyone's attention was more about the appearance of the film than the story that they were telling. The story is simple, intermixed with narration and a rushed montage that detailed Jake Sully's intigration into Na'vi society in order to better exploit them. Throughout the entire film, you know what will happen next. But despite that, I just didn't care.

Most of that can be chalked up to the astonishing special effects. Consiously, any viewer will know that just about everything that you see is digital. But, from the first couple of minutes, I was just sucked in to Cameron's fantastic world of Pandora. Where the production crew skimped on the story, they made up for it in the look and feel of the world. The jungles of Pandora are incredibly detailed, entire ecosystems that are not only realistic looking, but somewhat plausible. This element of the film lends itself beautifully to science fiction, and I can see why Cameron waited until the technology was just right to make the movie.

Technology is at the forefront of the movie, between the advances to bring it to the screen in the first place, but also throughout the plot. Shortly after Sully awakes, they are brought down to the planet, travelling over an endless jungle, before reaching a clearing. The change is jarring, going from organic to industrial. This theme is at the heart of the movie, and one that our protagonist is caught between. On one side, he is drawn to the freedom of a new body with incredible abilities, while on the other, he is brought back to a shell of a body to serve his superior offices within the company - Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). The mining company that represents the large portion of human activities onplanet is destructive, and with that, contains some fairly broad critisizms about our relationship with nature. This isn't a new theme, and indeed, I was reminded of Karen Traviss's Wess'Har series, Dinotopia, and a bunch of other films/novels that do much the same thing. Humans crush their surroundings without regard for the bigger picture, a message that comes at a particularly potent time, with the whole climate change argument continuing, (There's an offhand reference to Earth with a devastated ecosystem) but also with the ongoing financial crisis, with companies seeking to expand their own interests over the bigger picture 'good'. In this instance, the scientists pleas for more time to understand the world is met with laughter and a very simpleminded attitude that 'trees are just trees.'

Despite this, and some of the alien elements that are put into the ecosystem, Pandora and the Na'vi aren't really all that alien. The ecosystem is fairly logical with predators feeding on prey, and the primitive Na'vi society, while happy with their surroundings and existance, seems very similar to any number of 'primitive' societies on Earth, from their social organization to beliefs. There's little wonder that the company is dismissive of the claims, but then again, this is pretty shallow allegory.

Of all the elements that really bothered me throughout the film were some of the characters. Where the plot was pretty bare, the characters are at best archtypes drawn out of the most stereotypical of hollywood characters. There's the uncaring company man, the daughter of the chief, the daughter's love interest, the crusading scientists and the tough as nails marine who disregards just about everything and is spoiling for a fight. There's very little nuance to the people here, and part of Avatar's biggest weaknesses with the plot and story.

That all being said, its well worth seeing, because this film will likely reinvigorate the way people see movies in the future. 3D is here to stay, and hopefully will represent one of the biggest changes since George Lucas put Star Wars out to the general public. The graphics throughout looked good in a way that weren't intrusive to the viewing experience, and allowed me to really sit back an enjoy (or jump, when something appeared to come out of the screen) the film. While this movie wasn't necessarily the best example for paying more attention to storyline over visuals, the principle stands, and I'm eager to see what will happen next with films - I couldn't help but think that Star Wars will look absolutely fantastic with this technology, and adding an additional dimension to the screen allows filmmakers so much more that they can do to entertain the masses.

In short, Avatar is an incredibly fun movie. Visually, it has no rivals - yet - while storywise, it's a little weak, but it gets the job done in grand, Science Fiction fashion.

Of Mice and Mobile Armored Assault Platforms

A number of websites have begun to herald a change in the science fiction genre recently, with the recent releases of Moon and District 9 earlier this summer. I was a huge fan of Moon - I thought that it was an absolutely fantastic film, one that captured the essence of the entire genre in wonderful fashion. However, District 9 is a worthy companion for Moon this summer.

Where Moon was quiet, sterile and patient, District 9 is much of the opposite. Taking place sometime around the present, the world has lived with the presence of an alien race on the planet for nearly two decades, when a massive alien ship appears over South Africa. Inside is millions of insectoid aliens, sick, dying and weakened, who are transported down to the surface, where they are first put into temporary shelters until a suitable place can be found for them. This never happens, so a slum of sorts is formed, District 9.

When the story picks up, tensions have risen in the last twenty years, so the aliens (referred to as Prawns) are being relocated to a new home - District 10. A private security company, Multi-National United, seems to have been placed in charge of their protection and keeping, and is working on evicting the aliens to their new home. An MNU employee, Wikus van der Merwe, portrayed by actor Sharlto Copley, is promoted to command the field units in charge of relocating the aliens. During the course of the day, Wikus is sprayed with a fluid by mistake, which begins a process of mutations that blends human and prawn DNA. Thus begins a nightmare for Wikus, who is in turn hunted by Nigerian gangsters and MNU security forces, who both want to study him in order to utilize the alien's weapons.

The film is shot in a very unconventional manner, partially handheld camera work, security cameras, news footage, which gives the entire film a very raw and rapid feel throughout, which really suits the tone and style of the film, and gives it a unique look and feel. The director, Neill Blomkamp, is a first time-director for a film of this scale, although he was initially attached to the now-defunct Halo film (and I think that he would be the perfect director for the project, when it comes back).

Another element that really succeeds from this film is the portrayal of the aliens. For once, aliens are truly alien, not just humans with a different appearance. The Prawns are insectoids, with a vastly different understanding of society, and the differences in cultural norms is what seems to drive much of the conflict - different values, such as property and personal possession seem to be relatively unknown elements to the aliens, and this leads to incidents. Their awareness of the surrounding events seems to be limited as well, with some exceptions, which makes them very easy to take advantage of, as MNU seems wont to do. The aliens here aren't saviors, superior or anything like that, they're just alien.

In a similarity with Moon, a big storyline with the film is Multinational United, the security firm that has more corporate motives that surpass what is ethical or moral. In Moon, the company would just clone its worker, Sam Bell. In this film, they go a step further, experimenting with Prawns to attempt to utilize their energy weapons and technology. When Wikus is transformed, one executive notes that his one body will be worth billions to the company, and they go about vivisecting him before he escapes. Corporate greed and corruption seems to be an especially powerful theme these days, with companies such as Enron, Blackwater and bailed out banks still making the news.

But what really makes the film is Wikus. He is as unconventional a main character as I've ever seen. When we first see him, he is a small, quiet man being interviewed by an unseen camera man. He stumbles over his words, fiddles with objects and is easily distractible, and seems as surprised as everyone else in the room when it is announced that he will be in charge of the field operations of the mission. He reminds me of one of the characters from Monty Python, a clueless husband who doesn't realize that his beautiful wife is having sex with the marriage counselor in the same room while having a meeting. He is, essentially a mouse in a much larger world. This is evidently seen when he comes across one of the special operations teams, and butts heads with its leader, who shoves him out of the way.

With his accident, there is an emotional, as well as a physical and physiological change within him. As he is infected with the fluid that transforms him (and thus making him a target), Wikus is forced to go on the run and go against everything that he's known. While in a position of authority over the Prawns, he is essentially xenophobic, condescending and racist towards the aliens, but without any real intent - he operates as he always has, as he's always known. His dismissal of the aliens is casual, because that's what's expected of him. During and after his physical transformation, Wikus is thrust into a role that he never asked for, and never wanted. Chased by members of the criminal underworld and his own company, he seeks refuge in the only place that becomes available to him - District 9. He allys himself with the scientist who had the fluid in the first place, who, as it turns out, is attempting to leave the planet, and the fluid was a necessary component of his ship. The story progresses logically from here - faced with this need, the two pair up and liberate the fluid from MNU, and the action picks up.

Wikus's story is not necessarily the singular purpose of the film. Throughout, there is a much darker, and highly relevant theme of racism that really puts the film on the map. In the opening of the film, there is a sequence of events that turns the public tide against the aliens. All too often, the presence of extra-terrestrials visiting humanity have a dramatic effect - they are either invading, or they are here for humanity's rescue. In this instance, they are neither, and because of this, they are not wanted, by anyone. One person in the film says that if they were from a different country, it might be different, but they were from another world. In essence, this is an immigration issue of very different proportions, but an immigration issue none-the-less, and it is fascinating that this film came out of South Africa, which has so recently dealt with apartheid. Around the world, this film can come to represent the plight of immigrants. I can see people in Palestine, South Africa, the American southwest and numerous other places around the world relating to this sort of film, or at least gleaning some message from it.

I'm at a loss to see how this film was made for only $30 million dollars. It carries itself with a much more sophisticated and good looking appearance, from the complicated CGI of the aliens to the action scenes. This has the feel of a much larger movie, and I honestly hope that this film, along with Moon, will be the start of a much bigger trend towards more original science fiction on a smaller budget. What Blomkamp has done is put together a superior movie, blending the best in character development, overall message and unconventional storytelling that really makes District 9 a tribute to the genre. Like Moon, it takes common themes and turns them on their heads, creating a different movie, and because of that, we have a film that will no doubt be looked upon as a fantastic addition to Science Fiction.

Astronauts > Ninjas

A common scene of the day: Joe on a rock. Posing.

From here on out, I'm decreeing that Zombies, Ninjas and Pirates are no longer cool, and that Astronauts, Mongolians, Vikings and Robots are taking their place as the 'cool' things to geek out about.

Let me explain.

Over the past couple of years, these three character types have become more popular than usual. Pirates, Zombies and Ninjas have long been popular with the geek crowd. Recent films and games have only thrown the fuel on the fire. At camp, there were endless debates as to whether Pirates or Ninjas were better, or who would win in a fight, and I remember at least a couple of camp-wide games that revolved around these types of characters.

A couple weeks ago, I watched one of Yatzhee's Zero Punctuation reviews for a game called Left 4 Dead, which is essentially a point and shoot at the undead, and where he says the following: "It's my observation that Zombies are second only to Pirates, Ninjas and Monkeys in the list of things nerds like and need to shut the fuck up about." After listening to that, it got me thinking - He's certainly right, but but necessarily for the reasons that he presents in the game (basically, he rants about how Zombies have been overused for just about everything.)

I've never really gotten the whole pirates vs. ninjas vs. zombies thing. Sure, they make some interesting stories, but not to the level at which they're really adored at. I think that it's easy to atribute much of the hype to films because geeks and nerds like the various films that they've been portrayed in, and like to talk about it. The endless discussions are informed by the imaginations of screenwriters, and not necessarily fact, and as a result, 90% of the discussions are pure crap in the first place, a sort of rosy-nostalgic look at what we think these things should be.

The root complaint that I have at this point is that for such an inventive, interesting and imaginative genre, there's very little actual innovation and imagination going on amongst the fan community. We obsess over pirates, ninjas and zombies because we've seen them before in films, and know all there is to know about them, reading over books like the Zombie survival handbook and Under the Black Flag if you're really into the subject.

I've seen the fan community in action - we're an incredbily handy bunch, and especially when it comes to things like costuming, there's very little that people can't do, and do it well. But, I try and think back to the various conventions that I've gone to, and wonder, when was the last time that I've seen something truely original. I've seen amazing costumes, especially from the 501st Legion that I'm a part of - and I'm not trying to disparage their work in the slightest - but everything revolves around existing media - Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Batman, Spiderman, you name it, you go to a big convention, you'll likely see them. Even for halloween, unless you're five, you're unlikely to see any originality when it comes to costumes.

Forrest Ackerman, who recently passed away in December of 2008, was the first Science Fiction fan, appearing at the 1st World Con science fiction convention in a costume that he made himself, a sort of astronaut, essentially starting the trend of fan costuming. While I'm sure that there have been more cases of originality, I really haven't seen anything like it. I've thought to myself that it would be really fun to try and construct something new and original for a con, before I remember that I'm really not that into costuming or conventions, but should I ever have the time and inclination, it'll be something to attempt, for sure.

But this is something that falls beyond costuming - it's largely affecting the entire genre. There are two specific examples that I can think of where this is happening - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! and the downsizing of the science fiction sections in Borders Books.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a book that's unoriginal to its core - it takes most of the text of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice and inserts Zombies into it. I'm not necessarily against this by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm more worried about what it stands for in the greater sceme of things - a general trend of unoriginal thinking when it comes to the genre, especially in popular circles. The big comic book giants in particular are guitly of this sort of thing, running their characters for years on end, without rest or retirement, without replenishing the ranks with new characters that might be more interesting or more relevant. This sort of thinking penetrates all levels of fandom, from the top down. Fans don't necessarily demand anything particularly original, and the production end of things doesn't seem to mind turning over the same franchises to them. And I don't blame them - much of this is a business, and this sells - keep it up, because there are good stories there. But the fan community should demand better.

Borders, last year announced that they were reducing the numbers of SF/F books that they'd have in their stores, a move that would likely hurt smaller and up and coming authors, as it put them in a catch 22 type postition - they weren't selling enough books to warrent shelf-space, but at the same time, they're not selling well because they don't have the shelfspace, at least in theory. The trent here seems to favor more of the media-tie ins that sell far better. While that works for authors who are writing media-tieins, what about the authors who want to tell their own stories?

I don't think that it's any coincidence that books that are part of a larger franchise, such as Star Wars or Star Trek do excepetionally well, and they should - there are some excellent reads out there, and I know a bunch of authors who view their works as far more than a simple paycheck (Karen Traviss, Michael A Stackpole, to name two), and it shows. But, they sell, because they contain familiar concepts, characters and ongoing storylines.

I have no issues with tie-in media, so long as it's well written. But for me, tie-in media is a form of advertising. That's fine, especially because it's generally entertaining, and features stories that are fun, but I'll always value a story that's original (and there will be those that will argue about just what originality is - in this instance, not tied in with someone else's works) over everything else, just because it's something new, a different way at looking at a story or story type. And there are good arguments here - because technically, there are only a handful of different story types - I mean, how many stories about space ships can you really expect? In a recent article that I wrote for io9, I was almost shocked to find that the main villian in most of the military science fiction stories were insectoids - Starship Troopers, Armor, Ender's Game and Alien - all used similar elements to tell their stories. But, their stories are all very different, and I always find that I get more out of them, and most other standalone SF/F novels than I do for 90% of the tie-in books that I read. You just can't compare Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to Spider-Man: Down These Mean Streets, no matter the protestations of tie-in authors, you just can't.

Sadly, this originality is something that seems to be lacking within the geek community, and we've become fans of the pre-existing. My complaint here is that Science Fiction and Fantasy has been an incredibly innovative and creative genre , and those qualities have become very far and few between when it comes to a good book or film. The imagination is still there, but the originality is not, and this is why we have the endless Zombies vs. Pirates vs. Ninja debates, I think - we just can't seem to think of anything else to geek out over. And while it's not completely original, how about Astronauts, Robots, Mongolians and Vikings? They're totally better than Zombie Ninja Pirates any day of the week.


I saw Watchmen on opening night in Williston. Over the past couple of weeks, genre media has been talking much about this film. Advanced reviews, speculation, talk on forums and everything else has been booming, and much of this discussion has been focused on the comic's creator, Alan Moore, and his stance towards the film. Moore's attitude towards filming of his materials has been extremely negative, and for good reason; prior adaptations, such as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, Constantine and V for Vendetta have all been fairly poor adaptations (although V wasn't too bad, comparatively), and Moore has disavowed any part of the film process. It's an understandable thing, but I think that it is a bit misguided and arrogant. In reality, it really doesn't mean much. The film was made, and I for one largely enjoyed it.

Watchmen has been called the world's most celebrated comic of all time. It made Time Magazine's 100 best book list, and it's won numerous awards. It is a fantastic and compelling read. The movie, in my opinion, is a faithful adaptation, but will never gain the same status as the book. Rather, it plays out like an homage to the comic book, celebrating, rather than telling the story. I think, given the circumstances, this is probably the best that could have been hoped for. Watchmen, like most print stories, is a comic that is incredibly difficult to adapt to film. The sheer volume and density of the story makes it a challenge at best. The film is a good one, but it is almost too much like the comic book, to stand on its own as a movie.

Comic books are a huge thing for the movie industry. They have accounted for some of the biggest blockbuster hits in the past decade, and after Spiderman, studios realized that with the advances in computer imaging, there was an entire backlog of stories and characters that could be adapted for the big screen. And as such, we've seen a number of very good and very bad comic book movies, ranging from Spiderman 1-3, Iron Man, The Hulk, X-Men 1-3, Hellboy, Hellboy: The Golden Army, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Superman Returns, Fantastic Four, Fantastic Four 2, Sin City, and others. There's a number in the works, from Wonder Woman, Iron Man 2, Justice League, Green Lantern, and I'm sure many more.

Comics are both difficult and easy to adapt, based on the many differing results when it comes to quality. Films such as Batman Begins, Iron Man, Spiderman and Sin City have been absolutely fantastic to watch, while things like the Fantastic Four, Superman Returns, The Hulk and Spiderman 3 have largely been failures, although not necessarily at the box office.

Comic books provide a fantastic medium for stories. They are highly visual, and can pretty much accomplish anything that can be drawn upon a piece of paper (or now, a computer screen). In a way, they are an entire set of story boards for a film that allows a storyteller to tell a fantastic, visually stimulating story in a way that a novel really can't do. And comic books are extremely popular - it isn't all the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons - there is a huge and growing audience for comic books.

Therefore, adapting a comic book for the silver screen presents some different challenges for screenwriters. They don't have to imagine how characters look and interact with one another - that element is already present on the pages. Obviously, because of this, and a large fanbase, there is much pressure on the part of the production team to get things looking right, just like in the comic.

This is really the case with Watchmen. It looks fantastic, and it positively oozes from the comic's pages. The characters largely look just as I imagined them (and I’m not really one to nitpick over some of the minor differences in costumes and appearance), but the team that worked on Watchmen did a fantastic job, getting the backgrounds right, shaping the overall look and feel of the comic. This is essentially how I imagined it would look.

Another film that I've really enjoyed did the same thing - Sin City. Frank Miller's comic was presented in a neo-noir style that was excellently replicated by the film team, who used CGI to get the colors (and lack of colors) to essentially match that of the comics. Sin City, I maintain, is not so much a movie, but a moving comic, one that has jumped from the pages to the screen almost seamlessly. The stories are largely intact, the same outrageous and ludicrous characters and situations, and it looks good.

But to what extent is a direct adaptation, or even a copy, a good thing for film

s? Critically, Sin City made a splash because of the unique nature of the comic books, and how that translated right over to the screen - it looked different. But other comic book films, such as Spiderman and Ironman, which enjoy very long lineages in the print world, had to be adapted to tell the origin stories of their title characters, and that worked excellently. Both were updated - Spiderman for 2000-era New York City, rather than the 1970s when the comic first came out (although, a period piece of Spiderman in the 1970s? That would be cool), and featured a far different story than what might have been featured in the comics originally. Ironman was updated from the Vietnam War origin to the current conflict in Afghanistan to give Tony Stark a start, which worked very well, and proves that a literal translation from page to screen really isn't necessary all the time for the story to work. Spiderman and Ironman are aided by having good scripts, where the writers seemed to understand the characters and the thematic elements of the stories. There are examples of where this hasn't really worked, such as Hellboy, where the production team went in a different direction from the stories of the comics, creating a fairly different entity. The comics are fantastic, and stand well on their own, but so does the movie, which is not nearly as good, but captures much of the feel, although not the story, of Hellboy.

Other films just fail utterly. Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spiderman 3 and X-Men 3, all failed to really capture the essence of the characters and opted more for a CGI type of film that had a transparent storyline, weak characters and overblown effects. The translation process here essentially went for the glamour and exciting points of the films, but not their story core.

DC comics in particular are hard to translate, and the Batman franchise has had an extremely mixed history. The first major Batman film went more towards the darker story that really exemplifies the story, while later installments went for the visual elements. This has largely changed with the release of Batman Begins and the Dark Knight, where the creators fully understood the characters, but also how to make the film look good. Neither Batman Begins nor The Dark Knight are perfect films, but they do stand very well on their own, and are a good demonstration of a good adaptation.

Superman is a harder one to adapt, because of the nature of his story. I haven't seen the original Superman films, and intend to, but when I watch Superman Returns, I leave feeling very unsatisfied. Clearly, the production team liked the comic, and it looked very good, but the story was a rather poor one that was predictable, and didn't present the same depth as something like Batman Begins. This, I think is true with Watchmen. The creators, essentially, were too in love with the story, and essentially focused on getting it perfect to the comic. While this is admirable, it is flawed because the comic really can't be adapted, not in its full nature, and when things are dropped from the story, there is no work done to try and tie together the remaining parts. While I'm not nearly as familiar with Watchmen as some, I did see that there were parts that had been eliminated, while other parts were kept in, that probably shouldn't have. The film moves fairly slowly, going from point A to point B at a pace that allows you to take in the story, but it is at times hard to keep the entire thing in perspective. Some parts were changed, such as the ending, to the point where I felt it worked better for the film, as it simplified and clarified things for the audience. While this certainly would get fanboys annoyed, it just goes to show that a movie generally needs to be simplified for a mainstream audience.

So, should comic books be adaptations as is the case with Ironman or Spiderman, or motion comics, such as Sin City and Watchmen? I think the answer lies somewhere in between. Film and comic books are both separate mediums, and because of that, there are far different expectations and differences in how they are presented. Screenwriters certainly did a good job changing the dialog in some of the movies based off of the older comics, because expectations have changed for modern audiences. Watchmen was a difficult story to carry over to a film, and I think that the few changes that they did make helped it along, while the rest is a couple hours of the Zack Snyder fanboying the film. The results are absolutely fantastic, and we have an adaptation that looks like the comic, but feels a little off as a movie. It's certainly something that I'll watch again, but with all the hype that this movie has brought on itself, it is a bit of a letdown. But then again, anyone expecting a perfect film out of Watchmen is quite a bit unrealistic.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

There is a scene in the middle of David Fincher's latest film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that really struck me, and seems to fit the entire theme of the movie. In it, Benjamin narrates a short section in which a woman is delayed when she hails a cab. She talks on the phone, grabs her jacket. The cab driver had gotten a cup of coffee earlier, and because of this, he picks up the woman. The two of them are further delayed when the package that she goes to pick up hadn't been wrapped, because the girl who was supposed to wrap it had been late because she had just been broken up with. Once the package had been wrapped, a truck pulled out in front of the cab, and at that point, Daisy, while talking with a friend, left the building, in time to meet the cab as it passed by, knocking her to the street, shattering her leg and ending her career as a dancer. Benjamin notes that had any one of those events not occurred, Daisy and the passing cab would have never met.

This point resonates throughout the film. Benjamin Button is a strange man, and his tale is even stranger. When he was born, he came into the world with the body of an eighty year old on death's door. From that point, he goes backwards, getting younger as time passes him. He lives with his adoptive mother, who lives and works in a retirement home. It is there that he meets Daisy, whom he falls in love with from the first moment that he catches sight of her. Because of their different ages, his advanced, hers not, they form a curious relationship, one that intersects at various points, before they finally meet in the middle, before each continues onwards.

This film is nothing short of brilliant. It is complicated and deliberate throughout, with a touching, tragic and somber story throughout. The entire film has given me a lot to think about with a number of the themes that are presented here. Loss is probably the most prevalent theme throughout the story. Benjamin grows up in a nursing home, and as someone who appears old, he grows up in the company of elderly. Those whom he makes friends with don't last long, and the only constant in his life is Daisy, and even then, because of their respective ages, lose one another throughout their lives, only really finding each other as they grow closer in age, at which point, life reaches perfection. But, like all things in life, this doesn't last long. A woman that he meets in the beginning says the following: We're meant to lose the people we love. How else are we supposed to know how important they are? It is because of this, she says, that people realize the importance of one another.

The film itself is a masterpiece of coloring, scoring and direction. From the beginning, there is a stark difference as the film opens in 2005 in New Orleans - Blue, gray, drab and modern, and this appears periodically as the film flashes forwards to a dying Daisy, as she lies on her deathbed. When the film goes back in time, the colors deepen and feel like the earlier 1900s. As the story progresses, the lighting and coloring changes to match the time period; Grainy, grayish and rich during the 1930s and 40s during the second World War, washed out and bright during the 1950s and 1960s, and so forth. This works well with a film that covers a number of periods, and helps give even more of an appearance of forward progression.

One of my favorite composers, Alexandre Desplat, scored the film. The music here is absolutely gorgeous. It has a light touch, that is flowing and dramatic, and it fits with the film absolutely perfectly, and is easily Desplat's best work since Syriana.

Another theme that's present in the film is destiny. Not so much in a religious or spiritual sense, but more in the way that the story described. Another quote from the film helps to describe this: Our lives are described by the opportunities in our lives, even the missed ones. Everyone's lives in the film follow this, especially Benjamin's, and he is in a unique position in life to really see this - he is starting life from the end, where his body is failing him, and throughout the film, he seems to be able to really understand life, and to live with very few regrets. His life is guided by opportunities throughout his life, and ultimately, defined by them.

Ultimately, despite the constant theme of loss and death, the film is about life. The characters here are in a unique position to witness it, and, while their circumstances are tragic, their story is one that is full of insight. I personally took a lot from it.

Far above the moon, Planet earth is blue, And theres nothing I can do.

I just came across some new clips from an upcoming Science Fiction film that's coming out later this year, Moon. The movie is starring Sam Rockwell, and is due to premiere later this month at the Sundance Film Festival.

Here's the plot:

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of his contract with Lunar. He's been a faithful employee for 3 long years. His home has been Sarang, a moon base where he has spent his days alone, mining Helium 3. The precious gas holds the key to reversing the Earth's energy crisis.

Isolated, determined and steadfast, Sam has followed the rulebook obediently and his time on the moon has been enlightening, but uneventful. The solitude has given him time to reflect on the mistakes of his past and work on his raging temper. He does his job mechanically, and spends most of his available time dreaming of his imminent return to Earth, to his wife, young daughter and an early retirement.

But 2 weeks shy of his departure from Sarang, Sam starts seeing things, hearing things and feeling strange. And when a routine extraction goes horribly wrong, he discovers that Lunar have their own plans for replacing him and the new recruit is eerily familiar.

Before he can return to Earth, Sam has to confront himself and the discovery that the life he has created, may not be his own. It's more than his contract that is set to expire.

There are some clips of the film here. There's a couple of things that have me interested. 1 - Clint Mansell is doing the soundtrack. 2 - It's starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey and Matt Berry. 3 - from the clips on Collider, there looks to be an incredible attention to detail, and while I have some ideas about the plot, I'm excited because it's another new and original film in the genre - that's something that we don't see very often.

The plot, most of all, is what's really appealing, above the actors and soundtrack (although Clint Mansell is fantastic - his score for The Fountain is just brilliant). I've seen things that seem to imply that this film will be darker comedy, which would certainly work, but from everything that I've seen thus far, it looks like there's going to be a very solid psychological plot as well. My guess, based on the plot and clips, that Rockwell's character is not the original, a copy. Not the most original of science fiction stories, but in this instance, it looks very intriguing. I could be completely wrong.

Unfortunately, this doesn't look to be a film that's going to blow away the box office. No, this looks more like it'll be along the lines of Solaris and The Fountain, which received a lot of critical praise, but didn't have people lining up around the block for them, because they're certainly films that are more intelligent than the average science fiction film.

At this point, what's really blown me away so far is the way the clips have played out. It's only a little bit, but the production values look just brilliant, as does the CGI. The director's style looks to be very good as well. This should be a film to really keep an eye out for. According to Mansell's myspace blog, it looks like the music will be out around April, so I wonder if the film will get a wide release this spring.

2009 Movies I'm Excited for

Okay, not really two-thousand and nine movies, but a couple that are coming up this year that I'm thinking will be worth watching. Looking over the list, there isn't that many that I'm wanting to see in theaters this year. At some point during the next week or so, I want to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, because it's supposed to be excellent. But, there are a couple that I do want to catch. February: Fanboys: This film has been delayed so many times, I'm almost ready to give up on it. This seems like it's the most solid release date thus far for the film, about a group of Star Wars fanboys and their misadventures while they break into George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch to show a dying friend the Phantom Menace. The trailer is solid, and this should go up as a good Star Wars Parody.

March: Watchmen: This is another iffy release date one as Fox has just been granted the rights to the film, and I'm sure that we'll see some drama with that. However, the trailer looks fantastic, and barring any major reshoots or problems, it'll easily be a huge geek movie for sure.

May: Wolverine: This will likely be a DVD rental for me, but if I can, I'll catch this in theaters. We'll finally get to see some of the origins of Wolverine, but there'll also be Gambit, and lots of slashing, snarling and fighting. Star Trek: Odd as it is for a Star Wars fanboy, I'm looking forwards to this one. J.J. Abrams has gotten together a really good cast of people for the early years of Star Trek, and while I'm not ultimately familiar with the original show, this looks like a lot of fun. Terminator: Salvation: This one is a must see for me. The trailers have been stellar, with some fantastic looking CGI and action scenes. I mean, who doesn't love seeing giant robots running amok? Up: This is Pixar's next one, and I'll see it depending on the reviews. It looks a little iffy to me - an old guy in a house with a ton of balloons? We'll see.

June: Public Enemies: I haven't heard a whole lot about this one, but it's about an FBI agent taking on a gangster in 1930s Chicago. I like period dramas, and it has a good top bill of Christian Bale and Johnny Depp.

August: District 9: A sci-fi/action story set in a fictional world, where extraterrestrials have become refugees in South Africa. Sounds interesting. I'll wait until I see a trailer before finally deciding. Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino is back with a film set during World War II. I've heard about this project for years, and I'm a huge fan of the guy and his work. I'm expecting lots of fun dialog, violence and profanity.

November: Sherlock Holmes: Guy Richie + Robert Downey Jr. + Sherlock Holmes. Richie did Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Sherlock Holmes is one of my favorite fictional characters ever, and RDJ was in Iron Man. What's not to love?

Unknown Release Date: The Road: This was supposed to be released in 2008. Easily one of my favorite books of all time, this adaptation has had me waiting for a very long time. I'm eager to see how well the story goes to screen, because it's a fantastic, dark and emotional story.

I'm sure that we'll see some more interesting ones come up over the course of the year. I hope so - it's a pretty light year, at least for geek things...

Top Geek Things of 2008

It's coming up to the end of the year, and looking back, 2008 has been a very fun year for geeks everywhere - in books, television programs and films, among other things. Over the past couple of days, I've been thinking back over the year to see what was the best and worst of 2008.

The Best:

Starbuck returned from the Grave; The Fleet reaches Earth. (Battlestar Galactica Season 4)

The third season of Battlestar Galactica was a little rocky in the middle, but the last episodes set up a real bang. Starbuck was presumably killed, only to turn up during a major confrontation of the Human and Cylon fleets. Season 4 opens even bigger, with one of the best space battles that I've ever seen. Our four new cylons are freaking out, Starbuck's back and everything culminates in the discovery of Earth in episode 10.Galactica has long been one of my favorite shows, and with a certain end point in mind, Season four was where Galactica got somewhat back onto the tracks, with a fairly tight story arc, only to get to another long wait for the final ten episodes. It's been well worth it though.

Pushing Daisies... back from the Grave, and back to it

After a long hiatus due to the writer's strike (more about that in a bit) my favorite show of 2007-2008 came back with a new set of episodes. There are not enough good things that I can say about this show. We left off last year with Chuck learning that it was Ned that killed her father, only to end up at the end of this season with him being awoken. It was another season of fantastic storytelling, character development and extremely fantastic dialog. Unfortunately, the show has been axed due to low ratings. Fortunately, Bryan Fuller will be going to Heroes for the latter half of Season 3.

Lost Gets Better - Again.

Here's the situation. LOST season 1 blew everyone away. Season 2 drove them away. Season 3 brought some people back, and Season 4, everything got interesting again. This season was the best since Season 1, in my opinion. We had several new characters (my favorite was Daniel Faraday, the physicist), and a couple people killed off. We started seeing flash-forwards, where Jack has a beard and addicted to pain pills, Hurley's in a mental institution and Sayid is channeling Abram's Alias. Oh, and they get off the island. Then the island vanishes.

I have Leonard Nemoy's DNA? (The Big Bang Theory)

This show started in 2007, where I was annoyed by its laugh track and annoying characters. But this year, I started watching it and enjoying it. While it's certainly a very stereotypical portrayal of nerds and geeks, it's fun, because the creators have put in place a series of fun characters, and the writers make some jokes that are actually funny. This week's episode was absolutely priceless, when Sheldon gets a napkin signed by Leonard Nimoy. Now, if they'll just ditch the laugh track. This show's likely to be around for a while longer - it's been getting better and better ratings as the year goes on.

Back in a Nick of Time (Life on Mars)

One of my absolute favorite shows of all time was Life on Mars. Up until this year, it was only a BBC drama, until ABC picked it up and made a pilot. That pilot sucked, horribly, so the cast was ditched, except for Jason O'Mara, and the show was redone, set in New York City, given a good cast and started up. The result? A solid TV series that's mirrored the original (but it's starting to diverge a bit now), a wonderful soundtrack of classic rock and a story that's actually interesting. I can't wait for its return in 2009.

The Joker raises worldwide GDP. (The Dark Knight)

First, there was excitement when it was announced that the Joker was going to be the villain. Then Heath Ledger signed up for the role. Then he died earlier this year after filming was completed, leaving some people to wonder if the film would be released on schedule. Then Warner Brothers covered every surface they could find with Dark Knight ads. When the film was released, it went on to gross $996,680,514 in theaters. The film was a huge success, and a fantastic film at that. It was a comic book movie with true darkness, some real symbolism and good storytelling throughout. It's a pity that we won't see Heath Ledger reprise his role of The Joker, because he's done the best portrayal of a villain in recent film memory.

I am Iron Man (Iron Man)

Before The Dark Knight blew the doors off the box office, there was Iron Man. Iron Man has long been a favorite marvel superhero of mine, and everything fell into place for this film. Good story, well directed, fantastic casting (Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark was brilliant) and of course, the Mark II set of armor. Marvel proved that they could make a good superhero movie, one that was relevant and not stuck in the low-humor that characterized other comic book adaptations. Already, I can't wait for Iron Man 2. And Iron Man 3. And The Avengers.

Eeeeevvvvvaaaaaa (Wall-E)

Pixar has released what is possibly their best film to date. (Except maybe Toy Story and The Incredibles). Following a robot far from home, Andrew Stanton has presented a film with a cute, romantic science fiction story with some social commentary (said to be unintentional) woven into the CGI. Wall-E is easily the most appealing robot since R2-D2 hit the big screen in 1977, and his antics as he's pulled along for the ride (literally) are cute, heartbreaking and funny.And with very little real dialog.

Roar. Crunch. Repeat. (Cloverfield)

Monster movies meets social networking video and America gets its own monster. This film was brilliantly shot with an extremely fun concept. A monster comes and plays t-ball with the statue of liberty, and it's caught on camera by a bunch of twenty-somethings as they escape. The project was conceived of by LOST creator J.J. Abrams, and his fingerprints are all over it. From the lack of explanation of everything to the weird stuff, this is a very fun film to watch. Rumors are that there's a Cloverfield 2 being talked about.

With My Freeze Ray I Will Stop... The World (Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog)

This project was a huge success for Joss Whedon & Co. Conceived of during the Writer's strike, Whedon presents an aspiring supervillian, Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), his buddies and his quest to finish his freeze ray, avoid Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) and win over Penny (Felicia Day). We're treated to musical numbers, crazy plots and a fantastic venture to prove that the internet is a viable place to release content.Take a look here.

Up, up and away! (When We Left Earth/NASA)

This year was NASA's 50th year in operation, and the Discovery channel released a fantastic documentary entitled When We Left Earth that touted its major achievements and failures throughout the years, bringing viewers some of the most incredible footage of space that I've ever seen, and telling a fantastic story of how NASA has come to be, with interviews with astronauts and support personnel. I get chills when I watch it, and wonder when we'll return to the moon and beyond.

Hobbit's Labyrinth (The Hobbit)

After long rumors, production problems and drama with Peter Jackson (who directed Lord of the Rings), Guillermo del Toro signed on to direct the upcoming Hobbit film and prequel. (Or two Hobbit films?) This is extremely good news, because the people who can adequately fill Jackson's shoes after LOTR are few and far between. del Toro is the perfect director for this project, and has already proven that he can do fantasy brilliantly, with his masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth. Plus, he can play in other people's universes, as per his work with the Hellboy films. (Which weren't as good, but fun)

Watchman Trailer (Watchman)

What's called the greatest graphic novel ever is coming to the big screen, much to the annoyance of its creator, and to FOX, apparently. A trailer for Watchman aired with The Dark Knight, and it made fanboys everywhere sit up and take notice. There's still complaints about how it's unfilmable and that it'll be too short or too long, but from my eyes? This looks like it'll be THE comic book film to see next year. It looks like it captured the feel of the comic book pretty well, and it's embellished a bit to look badass. Plus, Rorschach looks dead on. Just like I thought he'd be like.

Large Hadron Collider (Science)

The Large Hadron Collider was turned on on September 10th, to many worries about the world ending. Contrary to popular opinion, the earth didn't vanish in a tiny black hole. It was set to uncover the mysteries of the universe, but then it broke down again nine days later and won't be up online until 2009. But, it's still cool!

Geeks in Politics (Obama [spiderman, conan, superman] Patrick Leahy [Batman Cameo])

There's been a lot of geekiness in politics this year. No lightsaber waving from McCain this time around, but President Elect Obama has claimed to be a big Spiderman and Conan fan, and did a superman pose in Metropolis, IL. In addition to him, VT senator Patrick Leahy, a huge batman fan, had a cameo in The Dark Knight. He's also the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ironic.

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (Costumes)

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted an exhibit earlier this year (it's since closed) called Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. It featured a number of costumes from a number of classic films, such as the original Superman and Wonder Woman films, but also things as recently released as The Dark Knight and Iron Man. The fashion section was a bit of a miss for me, but the exhibit as a whole was just outstanding. Plus, they had several original copies of Superman and Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man on display. Covered in a plastic shield of course...

Star Wars Encyclopedia (Star Wars)

Del Rey released a new and expanded Star Wars Encyclopedia this year, one that is not only complete, but still remarkably up to date. That's not likely to last as long, given how fast LFL churns out canon material, but it's a beautiful repository of information in the universe. I can spend hours just paging through reading things.

"Anathem" By Neal Stephenson

I actually have yet to read this book, but it's caught my eye, and it's made a splash when it comes to the sci-fi literary world. All I really know about it is that it takes place on an earth-like world, and doubles as a philosophical text for knowledge and religion. I'll have to pick it up, and only expand my to-read list further.

A Game of Thrones picked up by HBO (Song of Fire & Ice)

Another book that I have yet to read, but I actually own this one. HBO has picked up the book for a series. If there's one thing that HBO does well, it's TV shows, because they can pour money into them and get a good result. And, they have a good track record with adaptations, with things such as Band of Brothers and John Adams. I'll watch this when it's released.

We'ss Har Wars End (Karen Traviss)

Several years in the making, Karen Traviss has finally finished her Wess'Har Wars series with book 6, Judge. Starting back in 2003, she introduced readers to a fantastic story of first contacts filled with alien races, political commentary and expert storytelling. Judge didn't deliver quite as well as I'd have liked (It certainly wasn't the strongest of the series), it carried the momentum well, and proved to be a good read, one that finished up one of my favorite series satisfactorily. Hopefully, Karen will be back to writing hard scifi again, because she's incredible at it.

Trooping (501st)

This year I got back into trooping with the 501st Legion. All in all, I did a total of 30 or so events, ranging from small affairs here in VT to much larger ones. The most memorable ones were the Boston St. Patrick's Day Parade, Burlington Kid's Day, the Weird Al ConcertSt-Jean-sur-Richelieu Balloon Festival, Walk for Autisms, and the 2008 Woburn Halloween Parade. All my events are listed here.

With all the good things that have happened this year, there's the other side of the coin, and some letdowns, disappointments and pure flops.


Writer's Strike

Okay, this started in 2007, but it messed up television for the foreseeable future, by ending some shows and putting others on a long hiatus that has really hurt ratings. Pushing Daisies was one casualty, Terminator was almost one, LOST was put off for a year, as was 24, and already, we're on the eve of another major strike over pretty much the same issues - internet distribution. Hopefully, some lessons will be learned.

Surviving a Nuclear Detonation (Indiana Jones)

Indiana Jones came back, and he came back bland. Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull was an impossible undertaking to fill the hopes of fans for the past twenty years. While it's not a horrible film, it's nowhere near as high quality as Raiders or Crusade (although I did like it better than Doom). There was no passion, a crazy storyline and some annoying characters. It does have its moments, but they are few and far between.

Skyguy/Snips/Roger Roger (The Clone Wars)

Star Wars was another big LFL franchise that came back this year, and while The Clone Wars certainly had its moments, even high points, this film just extends the image of money grubbing that LFL is involved with, which is a shame. There's too much bad dialog, characters and situations to make this a good part of the Star Wars universe, but the TV show has been making some improvements. The animation is stunningly good, some of the stories are actually good, but every time the battle droids start talking, I want to throw something at my TV.

Michael Crichton Eaten by Cyborg T-Rex and Flesh eating Space Bacteria from the Past.

While my interest in Michael Crichton has waned over the years as he began to write crappy books (Such as Prey and State of Fear), there's no doubt that he's shaped my reading. I'm still a huge fan of Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Terminal Man and a number of his older novels. He's one of the most popular scifi authors (although he's resisted the genre title) out there with his works, most of which were made into films. It's a shame that he's passed - I was always hoping for another good story from him.

Gary Gygax failed his saving throw

Geek-God Gary Gygax likewise passed away this year, leaving behind a legacy that has shaped nerd-culture in the US forever. His creation, Dungeons and Dragons, along with co-creator Dave Arneson, was one of the defining features of geeks everywhere, something that I got into back in 2001. Along with giving geeks something to do in groups, it helped define a generation's activities, reading materials and conceptions of fantasy through to this day.

Arthur C Clarke becomes the Space Child

Arguably one of the greatest science fiction authors ever, Clarke's death hit the world hard. He helped to define the literary genre, and the actual science behind it, and was responsible for such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rama, Childhood's End, and numerous others, as well as the telecommunications satellite. He will be sorely missed, and is one of the last of the golden age of science fiction to be with us.(Today would have been his 91st birthday)

CNN Hologram technology

On election nigh, CNN touted their new thing in news casting, a hologram of Will.I.Am. Looked cool, and it looked like a hologram, but it was nothing more than a lot of cameras and empty space plus some CGI. Blah. Let's see some real technology in action please.

Close the Iris! (Stargate Atlantis)

I was a huge fan of Stargate SG-1, and same with Atlantis for the first couple of seasons. This season has just plain sucked. It's a shame, because there's a good concept there, amidst the horrible characters, stories and situations. Not long now, because Atlantis has been canceled, and will be replaced with Stargate Universe next year.

Even more Confusing and Confounding! (Heroes Season 3)

Heroes Season 1 was brilliant. It introduced a new spin on superheroes, only to fall to its own success and have a fairly slow and boring second season. (To be sure, the writer's strike had something to do with it, because it got better). Season 3 was promised to be bigger and better. And it was certainly bigger, with heroes coming back from the grave, more time travel and action, but none of it really made the same impression that season 1 did. I'm still behind episodes, but apparently it's been getting better. Now that Bryan Fuller's returning to the show, can we PLEASE start off really good and get better? Please?

Weird Science (Fringe)

I was really excited for Fringe, the latest show by JJ Abrams. It was a fun concept, and had a good couple episodes at first, but just became so dull that I stopped following it. I might pick it up again at some point, but only when I can marathon the entire thing at once.

Forrest J. Ackerman Dies

Forrest J. Ackerman, one of the first science fiction fans out there recently passed away. He was a key element of the spread of science fiction fandom, and he helped to found the LA Science Fantasy Society, among other numerous achivements, as well as influencing numerous authors over his long life.

Borders Downsizes SciFi Sections

I ranted about this earlier, as did a number of authors. Borders has been downsizing their sci-fi sections. While it's understandable that they have to sell items, and that they can't put everything on the shelf, you can't predict what the next big hit will be, and you can't know that until you actually start selling things.

That's it for this year. Next year, there's already quite a bit coming up. Should be a fun year.