Science, Fiction, Life

Month: May 2016

Rapid-fire reviews: Starcraft, Steelheart, Oscar Wao, Zootopia, etc.

I’ve gotten behind on posting reviews here, so in the interest of getting caught back up, here are some quick thoughts on a bunch of books and movies and games from the past few months!

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  • Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void – I loved StarCraft when I was in high school, and I mostly enjoyed the first two parts of the Starcraft 2 trilogy, so I am disappointed to say that this one wasn’t very good. The plot was boring and lacked interesting characters or any sort of emotional range. It was like the game makers were trying so hard to make the finale of Starcraft 2 epic that they forgot how to make a good game. Instead it’s just heavy-handed and over-the-top and relentlessly epic. Also, it was very Protoss heavy. One of the things that is fun about Starcraft is the shifting alliances between the three playable races and their factions. This game seemed to have much less of that.

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  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – So apparently this won a Pulitzer? I enjoyed parts of this: the premise of a super geeky Dominican immigrant living in the city in the US was interesting, but nothing really happens. He basically mopes around about how he can’t get laid, and that’s interspersed with some flashbacks to his relatives past lives in the Dominican Republic. The reader is beaten over the head with how misogynistic Dominican culture is and how much Oscar doesn’t fit in with it. And then he find himself back in the DR and involved in a very ill-advised relationship, and then he gets killed. Maybe this one was too literary for me. Sometimes literary stuff is great, but other times it can end up just boring. I found this one was mostly in the latter category. On the plus side, I learned some history that I only vaguely knew about before.

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  • Steelheart – This is Brandon Sanderson’s YA take on superheroes. The premise is basically: What if all superheroes were evil? I am starting to think that Sanderson is just not my style of author. This book especially felt to me like he was just phoning it in. He even goes so far as to make one of the main character’s personality traits be that he is terrible with metaphors, which to me screams that the author was too lazy to think of good metaphors so instead used the first dumb thing that came to mind and made it into a running gag. It destroyed my suspension of disbelief every time. But that’s just one minor nitpick. More generally, I think my issue with Sanderson is that he is great at the craft of writing but severely lacking in the art side. Reading his books is sort of like looking at a house that isn’t quite finished. Like, yeah the house is safe to live in, and the roof doesn’t leak, but I can see the foundation and interior structure. The walls aren’t painted yet: I can see where there were plot holes that got patched with a well placed infodump. I’m actually thinking that because Sanderson’s books lend themselves so well to being able to sense the underlying structure and outline, that I should read more of them because it may help learn the craft, even if they’re not my favorites. My favorite books suck me in so well that I can’t sense these sorts of underlying details as easily. (Edited to add: Also, Sanderson is absolutely awful at writing love subplots. Some parts of this book were truly cringe-worthy in that regard.)

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  • All the Light We Cannot See – Another Pulitzer winner. I enjoyed this more than Oscar Wao, but it also reminded me very strongly of The Book Thief (not a bad thing by any means, but it made it feel less original). This book is about a blind girl in France during WWII and a German boy who is a prodigy at fixing radios. There is some lovely writing in this one, but again it moved a bit slowly for my taste.

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  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – This is a nice short book by Neil Gaiman, and I think it’s my favorite book of his so far. After reading American Gods, I suspected that Gaiman was better at short fiction than long and this book seems to support that idea. Nice writing, suitably weird, full of melancholy reminiscences about childhood and growing up, with unnerving and ominous powers hidden just beneath the surface of reality.

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  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – This is by the same author who wrote Cloud Atlas but is a much more “normal” historical fiction book. The setting is interesting: Japan in 1799. It’s about a young Dutch man who is stationed at the port of Dejima, the only part of Japan where Europeans are allowed, and who falls in love with a Japanese girl. The writing is generally very nice, but I found that there was one stylistic quirk that really bugged me (particularly because I was reading this book out loud). Almost every single piece of dialog is interrupted partway through with dialog tags. Here are couple of examples that I found by searching for quotes from the book:
    • “Don’t let death,” Jacob reproves himself, “be your final thought.”
    • “I find a certain comfort,” confesses Marinus, “in humanity’s helplessness.”

    Every once in a while this would be ok, but it really is basically every piece of dialog. I’m sure there’s some sort of symbolism or something that the author deliberately was trying to achieve here, but it mostly just bugged me. My other issue with this book was that it moves very slowly. Again, this is probably just my preference for genre fiction over literary fiction, but I can always tell a book is going too slowly when I start to nod off while reading before bed, and that happened way too much with this one. Happily, the end finally picks up pace and redeems the slow build, so overall I ended up enjoying this.

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  • A Pirate of Exquisite Mind – This is a biography of William Dampier, a guy who really should be better known than he is. The story of his life is pretty remarkable. He was a buccaneer and privateer for a while in the Caribbean and on the west coast of Panama, but also took careful notes in his journal, which made him the first European to describe many things we take for granted like barbecues and avocados and chopsticks. He circumnavigated the world three times and was one of the first Europeans to explore parts of Australia. His writings went on to inspire famous writers (Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels both draw on his writings), scientists (such as Charles Darwin), and explorers (such as James Cook). The only downside to this biography is that it did get dry at times. A lot of it is based on Dampier’s own writings, combined with other written accounts from the time, but the authors of the book paraphrase these documents so heavily that I often thought it would be more interesting and easier to read if they would just quote larger chunks from the original sources. But despite this, I’m definitely glad I learned more about Dampier.

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  • Zootopia – This movie was so good! Great animation, full of lots of jokes that kids will get, as well as a lot of them that are aimed squarely at adults. The plot is actually interesting, and the message of this story about bias and racial tolerance is a really important one, and it somehow manages to convey it without being overly saccharine or preachy. It has one of the highest ratings I’ve ever seen on Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. I look forward to owning this movie and showing it to my kids.

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  • The Jungle Book – Yes, we have been mostly watching children’s movies at the theaters lately! They’re sure more interesting than the umpteenth superhero sequel! I am still a bit skeptical about this trend of remaking classic Disney movies as darker live action/CGI movies, but there were so many great actors in this one I figured we should give it a try. It was pretty good, and certainly visually impressive, but ended up feeling a lot shallower than Zootopia despite looking much more “serious”.

Movie Review: Jurassic World

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Jurassic World is the worst movie I have seen in a long time. Let me explain why.

I love the original Jurassic Park. It came out when I was in elementary school and obsessed with dinosaurs, and I have watched it many times since then. I admittedly have a lot of warm fuzzy nostalgia feelings for the original movie. But still, I think the original is also a genuinely good movie. It has its flaws, to be sure, but it is overall pretty good.

Jurassic World is basically the opposite of that, and should become a textbook example of how not to reboot a franchise. Except that it made mountains of cash, so who cares if it was any good?

The most impressive failure of Jurassic World is that it manages to look more fake than the original movie, despite the fact that it has the benefit of 20 years of advances in CGI. In fact, that’s exactly its problem. When the original Jurassic Park came out, CGI was a new thing, and the filmmakers knew that it needed to be used very carefully or else it would look super-fake. Jurassic World has no such qualms. Every single shot is CGI, and although computer graphics these days are incredible, they still can’t match the realism that you get from an actual physical object that exists. The animatronics in the original movie were amazing. No, you can’t do as much with them as you can with a completely animated CGI creation, but they look real. The way the light glints off of a T-Rex standing in the rain at night can’t yet be captured by CGI. It can get close, but it is not to the point yet where it really looks quite right. Rely on it too much and your movie starts to look like a cartoon. Despite the amazing graphics, the animals in Jurassic World look totally fake, because the filmmakers thought they could get away with showing everything. The graphics just aren’t there yet to make something like an absurdly large mosasaur leaping out of the water to devour a shark look real.

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There’s no reason that Jurassic World had to look fake. They could have artfully mixed physical models of dinosaurs and CGI dinosaurs the same way that the original did and had a great, realistic-looking movie. They could have held back a bit, and thought a little bit about cinematography, and realized that hey, maybe less is still more when it comes to CGI. But they didn’t and here’s the reason: they didn’t care. And that’s my next big qualm. The original movie was all about making the dinosaurs real. It was grounded in relatively modern science, and it did a good job of treating the dinosaurs as animals and not just fictional monsters. They weren’t evil, they were just… dinosaurs. There was a true sense of awe at that fact that permeated the movie.

Jurassic World lacks that entirely. They even go so far as to acknowledge it in a lame attempt to explain their ridiculous godzilla monster of a fake dinosaur, saying that the public just wants bigger and scarier dinosaurs and what are they to do? This is basically the creators of the movie admitting directly to the audience that they think the viewers are stupid and that they can get away with the lazy route of making up a big fake dinosaur instead of, I don’t know, writing a movie with an actual plot about actual characters.

And let’s talk about the characters. What character traits do we learn about them? The teen-aged boy likes girls. The younger boy is nerdy in a sort of vague way. The pretty lady is their aunt, and doesn’t know what to do with kids, and is mostly useless. Chris Pratt is ex-navy and trains the raptors like dogs. The guy in charge of the park is learning to fly a helicopter. The bad guy wants to use dinosaurs as weapons in war, because he is an idiot. That is literally all I can tell you about the characters in Jurassic World. I don’t know any of their names. Among them, Chris Pratt is the only character who is competent at anything.

Now, Jurassic Park is not the strongest movie when it comes to characterization and plot, but the characters were at least competent and had a purpose that made some sense. Why were Drs. Grant and Satler visiting the island? Because Hammond promised them funding for their research. There’s a whole subplot about how Grant doesn’t want to have kids but then when the park shuts down he becomes a father figure to Lex and Tim. Lex and Tim are computer and dinosaur geeks, respectively, but these skills actually are useful to drive the plot or character development. Tim is able to identify dinosaurs and reassure his sister that some are safe, and Lex’s computer hacking skills save the day to electronically lock the doors. (I’ll also note that Tim’s dino geekery is rooted in the scientific literature of the time. He even cites the paleontologist Bakker as having a theory that dinosaurs died of disease rather than a big impact.) Ian Malcom is his own special snowflake of a character, stealing every scene he’s in, and serving as a cautionary voice, but also as comic relief, and as a source of tension with Grant when he starts hitting on Satler.  Hammond means well, and gives a whole speech about how he wanted to create something real, not just the flea circuses of his childhood. Dennis Nedry is the closest thing to a villain, but his motives at least make some sense, and we get a lot of insight into his character from his weird hacker tricks (“Ah ah ah, you didn’t say the magic word!”) and messy workspace. There’s just so much more there in terms of plot and character development in the original movie than there is in Jurassic World.

There’s also the whole problem of scientific accuracy. Jurassic Park was pretty cutting edge. At the time, the idea that dinosaurs were warm blooded and related to birds was relatively new, and the movie did its best to remain in line with current theories while still telling a good story. Since then, we’ve learned that most dinosaurs had feathers. And not just a few, they were likely covered in them. And yet all the animals in Jurassic World are bald. This isn’t a really big deal, but it’s just annoying to those of us who loved the original movie in part because it tried to be relatively accurate. (And don’t try to convince me that an animal with feathers can’t still look scary and awesome.)

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I roll my eyes in the original movie when they say the used frog DNA to fill in the genome, but ok, they needed an excuse the make the dinosaurs breed in the wild. But in Jurassic World when they say that they spliced in cuttlefish DNA? And it gave the dinosaur the ability to camouflage like a cuttlefish, and also somehow violate the laws of physics and hide its infrared signature? Ugh.

The last movie that I strongly disliked was Mad Max, and my wife posed an interesting question: Which did I dislike more and why?

I disliked Jurassic World more. Mad Max, even though I was disappointed by it, I have come to appreciate that it essentially succeeds at doing what it intended. It gives the viewer a bunch of weird and spectacular action sequences. Jurassic World on the other hand, fails at what it’s trying to do because it is trying to be like the original movie (it even shamelessly imitates some iconic scenes, such as driving the jeep through the flock of gallimimuses, and luring the T-Rex with a road flare). And yet it completely misses what made the original movie great. Instead of awe and respect, it shows the dinosaurs and pterosaurs and mosasaur as mindless killers. (I sincerely do not understand why the pterosaurs, when released, made a beeline directly toward the crowd of people in the park and started eating them instead of, you know, just…flying around like a bunch of big birds would do.) Instead of intelligent competent characters, we get cartoon villains, a helpless damsel and kids, and a too-perfect badass Chris Pratt. I know people will say that Jurassic World is just trying to be a dumb action flick, but I can’t judge it by that low bar because it is claiming to be a part of the same franchise as the original movie, which showed that you can make an action-packed blockbuster that is also not stupid.

Maybe my judgment is just clouded by nostalgia and scientific geekery. Ok, it definitely is. But I would gladly re-watch the original movie any time for any reason. If I ever have to re-watch Jurassic World, all I can say is I hope there is a drinking game involved.

 

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