Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Movie Review

Movie Review: Arrival

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They did it.

I was excited but skeptical when I heard that the brilliant short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang was going to be made into a movie, called “Arrival”. Excited because “Story of Your Life” is among the best science fiction short stories that I have ever read, skeptical because it’s an unusual story and I wasn’t sure how a movie would be able to capture its brilliance. But they did it.

Fundamentally, Arrival/Story of Your Life is a first contact story (in fact, many parts of the movie reminded me of Contact). Mysterious alien ships appear one day all over the world, and linguist Dr. Louise Banks is brought in by the American military to learn the aliens’ language and allow them to communicate. She discovers that they actually have two forms of language, a spoken form, which humans could never hope to speak because the sounds are impossible for us to make, and a written form, different from any written language on Earth in that it has no correspondence to spoken language and has a very unusual structure. As she learns the language it begins to change how she thinks. At the same time, it’s a drama about Louise’s relationship with her daughter, and it bounces back and forth between vignettes of her daughter and scenes where Dr. Banks is figuring out the alien language.

It’s a hard story to describe without giving away what makes it special, so you’re going to have to trust me on this, but you need to experience it. If you can, set aside an hour or so, get your hands on the story, and read it. Once you’ve read it, or if you don’t think you’ll get around to reading it, then go see the movie. The movie is almost as good as the story. There’s a little bit of added geopolitical drama that I don’t remember being as prominent in the story, but that’s ok. The core idea is still there and it’s done well. This is the type of intelligent science fiction that makes my whole brain light up, and is a reminder that great sci-fi is about ideas, not flashy space battles.  Do yourself a favor, take a break from current events, and check out this excellent story.

 

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.

 

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

WARNING: This review will contain spoilers! Proceed with caution!

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I finally saw the new Star Wars movie the day after Christmas. Prior to that, I had to almost entirely cut down on reading the internet to avoid spoilers, and I’m happy to report that I was successful. All I really knew about The Force Awakens going in was that it was supposed to be much better than the prequels.

So, did it live up to the hype?

Maybe? I have some complicated feelings about The Force Awakens. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really like the new main characters, and being back in the Star Wars universe was pure joy. On the other hand, the movie was basically two hours of nothing but fan service, mashing up iconic characters, moments, and plot devices from the original trilogy into something precision engineered to hit older readers right in the nostalgia.

Here are some things that are awfully familiar:

  • A hero who lives in poverty on a desert planet who happens to be a great pilot.
  • The hero encounters a scrappy droid who speaks in a series of cute noises, and that droid is carrying information vital to the rebellion, who are battling against the forces of evil.
  • The hero meets an ally and escapes from the desert planet in the Millennium Falcon, after taking down some TIE fighters using the Falcon’s Anti-Aircraft-style blasters.
  • Han Solo and Chewbacca have to talk/fight their way out of a confrontation with some shady characters.
  • The good guys go to a cantina filled with an assortment of exotic aliens with a catchy tune playing in the background.
  • A cute, diminutive, thousand-year-old alien dispenses wisdom to our protagonist.
  • The enemy has a super-weapon capable of destroying entire planets. However it has a single weak point that can be taken out by sending a strike force down to the surface to disable the shields, allowing a squadron of fighters to fly in and destroy it.
  • The bad guy wears an expressionless black mask that modulates his voice.
  • He is related to a main character and the two have a confrontation where he is called to turn away from the dark side.
  • He is controlled by a shadowy figure of pure evil who often appears in the form of a holographic projection.
  • He has a red light saber.
  • Han Solo and our young male hero go on a mission inside the enemy base to rescue the female hero who is being interrogated.
  • Storm troopers are highly susceptible to Jedi mind tricks.

And there are many other tiny nods to the original series.

And really, there basically had to be. What we all really wanted was to feel the same way we did when we watched the first trilogy, so I can’t complain too much about the new movie delivering that in spades. I worry, though, that it was so very very similar. Sure, some nods and fan service here and there are fun, but major sections of the plot were basically copy-pasted from the original movies. I guess it’s fitting because Star Wars itself was a mashup that borrowed scenes practically verbatim from previous movies, but it does make me worry about where the series will go from here.

But I’m also very optimistic about where it will go from here, and what that will mean. As I said, I think the new main characters are excellent. Fin’s origin as a stormtrooper deserter is fascinating, and Rey is just about everything you could ask for in a strong female protagonist. Poe Dameron, the hot shot fighter pilot, is also a fun character: imagine that, a great pilot who is not strong with the force!

Also, The Force Awakens, despite (or perhaps because of?) basically being a mash-up of the original trilogy, indicates to me that the folks in charge of the Star Wars franchise now know what it is that fans like about Star Wars and what we don’t. I was really relieved that they brought back comic relief in the form of witty banter rather relying entirely on sight gags and slapstick. Of all the things in the prequels that I didn’t like, I think it was the awful attempts at humor that bothered me the most.

Some of my favorite parts of the movie were the early establishing shots of Rey scavenging in the wreckage of a massive battle (and the later dogfight among the wreckage). What battle led to a field of Star Destroyer and AT-AT walker wreckage in the desert of Jakku? It is not explained and it never should be. J.J. Abrams and his team know that the greatest part of Star Wars is not the tip of the iceberg shown on screen, but the hints of a bigger universe full of stories waiting to be told.

All in all, I enjoyed the Force Awakens and I think it achieved what it set out to do: it brought back the feel of the original trilogy (although I wish it hadn’t copied quite so blatantly), and it laid the groundwork for new stories. I just hope going forward that the next movies can move ahead into new territory instead of endlessly rehashing the old movies. I’m cautiously optimistic on that front. If that happens, then I think we have a lot of great adventures to look forward to.

 

Some final assorted observations:

  • I’m glad Han Solo got killed off (and totally saw it coming). From the small number of interviews I’ve seen with Harrison Ford, he seemed completely bored and borderline annoyed with how excited everyone was about Star Wars being rebooted (I got much the same vibe as I get from Peter Dinklage’s interviews about Game of Thrones, like the actor is annoyed that this of all things is what they’re going to be remembered for). Also, killing Solo was a nice mirror image of Vader’s redemption in Return of the Jedi.
  • Boy those bad guys sure are Nazi-like. Star Wars is not known for its subtlety.
  • What exactly is the rebellion rebelling against now? The Republic is the main government now, right? And they’re the good guys, right? So shouldn’t the “rebellion” actually just be called the Republic’s military?
  • Star Wars bad guys need to hire better engineers who have heard of redundancy to avoid single points of failure.
  • I thought it was a nice touch that when Starkiller Base was destroyed, it just turned back into a star (though the size was all wrong)
  • The x-wings flying low over the water gave me all sorts of nostalgic feels about playing Star Wars video games.
  • I was amused that Kylo Ren’s light saber was all raggedy, as if his evilness just couln’t be contained.
  • I also enjoyed how many of the familiar ships from the original Star Wars were slightly tweaked, as if technology had changed, but only slightly, since the events of the earlier series.
  • I really hope that Rey is not a long lost relative of the characters we know and love, and that she’s just an awesome, capable woman who is strong with the Force. There were thousands of Jedi back in the day, and they’re not all related, so Rey doesn’t need to be a secret Skywalker or Kenobi, or whatever.

 

 

A martian’s review of The Martian (movie)

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I just got back from watching The Martian movie and then eating ice cream and discussing the minutiae with a bunch of my wife’s high school physics students. So I had a pretty fun afternoon.

I went into the movie with high hopes: I was predicting to people beforehand that it would likely make a better movie than book, because a movie can get away with less-developed characters, and acting talent can make up for a lot of shortcomings in the material itself. Also, sweeping landscape shots are just the thing you need for a story like The Martian. They can communicate very efficiently what it would take pages to convey in the book. So was I right? Was the movie better?

Yes! At least, I think so. It was a rare space exploration movie that got almost everything right. Of course there were some nitpicky issues but overall it does a fantastic job of showing a bizarro future where NASA has a lot of funding and is sending humans to Mars. It conveys the excitement and drama of human space exploration, and the heroes are heroic as much for their brains as for their courage. This movie is going to inspire a lot of people to be scientists and engineers, or to at least take more of an interest in these sorts of topics.

As for comparing with the book, they streamlined some of the plot, which was fine by me. They did sadly skip over some technical details that I think could have made things easier to understand (like why he cut a hole in the top of the rover), but a movie has to keep moving. More importantly, having Matt Damon bring life to the relatively two-dimensional character of Mark Watney helped a lot. As did having a supporting cast that was also very well-acted so that, for example, when he is finally able to exchange messages with his crewmates, their banter is much more emotional than I recall in the book.

Yes, but what about the science? Much like the book, it’s mostly pretty good. As before, the biggest issue is the sandstorm at the beginning which is unrealistically forceful. But hey, as I noted in my review of the book, the author acknowledged this and made it as a deliberate artistic choice, and I’m generally ok with bending the rules if there’s a good plot reason to do so. What I like less is when fiction is unrealistic for no apparent reason and there’s very little of that in the movie (though there’s always some).

A new nitpick that appeared in the movie is the landscape. The book spends little time describing the landscape, instead describing potato farming and water production and other technical aspects in loving detail. The movie can’t get away with that: it has to show the landscape, and boy is the landscape of Mars in this movie dramatic! And hey, if people think of Mars as a planet of spectacular cliffs and dunes and canyons, that’s good! Because it is! We just wouldn’t land people near them. Watney is supposed to be in Acidalia Planitia, which is a wide open plain. Those spectacular geologic formations in the movie would be fascinating scientifically, but likely too dangerous to land nearby. (EDIT: My smart friends point out that we could totally land people near large cliffs like that. The benefit of having a human pilot is that your landing uncertainty shrinks down to only a few hundred meters. I had been thinking that all the pre-supply stuff had to land autonomously, but if you can have a human pilot land it, then a site like the one depicted might be ok. But it’s still not what Acidalia Planitia would look like.)

And as for the Pathfinder landing site. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see any towering cliffs or sand dunes in this picture. I mostly just see a lot of rocks that would be a pain to drive over:

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But whatever, I can’t really complain too much that the movie made Mars look extra awesome.

Bottom line: this is a great space exploration movie. You should go see it. Take someone young and impressionable. I hope this movie wins all the awards and makes all the money, so that Hollywood will continue the recent trend of making relatively realistic science fiction blockbusters about the drama of space exploration, instead of yet another superhero reboot. Maybe, just maybe, that will lead to enough increased public interest that what we’re seeing in movies like The Martian will no longer have to be just science fiction.

 

PS: If you have more questions about the technical details of the movie or book, post a comment and I’ll try to answer!

PPS: I still can’t read the movie poster slogan “Bring Him Home” without thinking of the song from Les Miserables. How has there not been a The Martian/Les Mis mashup yet?  Edit: FOUND ONE!

Movie Review: Mad Max:Fury Road

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The science fiction and fantasy fandom on the internet has been gushing over the latest Mad Max movie since it came out last weekend. The movie has a 98% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and more importantly, has managed to annoy a bunch of “Men’s Rights Activists” because of it’s feminist messages. With all this hype, I decided I had to go and see what all the fuss was about. The verdict?

Let me explain by way of an analogy: Say you like pepperoni pizza. If you search the world over and find the highest quality pepperoni out there and then make a pizza using several pounds of this premium pepperoni in a layer several inches thick, but only apply a thin layer of sauce and cheese, do you have a good pizza? No, you have a greasy mess.

Mad Max is without a doubt visually and stylistically impressive. It includes some of the best chase scenes, stunts, and effects of any movie I’ve seen. But it is not a good movie. It is oh so very dumb, and it is not nearly as progressive and feminist as the internet seems to think it is.

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I wanted to like it, I really did. I tried hard to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, which I am pretty sure is the only way to enjoy the movie. But it has such glaring weaknesses that I couldn’t keep it up. Calling the characters one dimensional is an insult to cardboard cutouts everywhere. The plot is almost non-existent and completely predictable. I knew going in that there was going to be very little dialog, but what there was was poorly written. And the world doesn’t make any sense at all. Like I said, I get that you need to suspend disbelief, that the movie is supposed to be stylized and over-the-top, but I need my fiction to throw me at least a few bones that show that at least a little thought went into it.

If it’s supposed to be set in a post-apocalyptic world where there are wars over fuel, then does it make sense for the entire movie to be based on fleets of tricked-out tractor trailers and hot rods racing around the desert? Does it make sense for their primary weapons to be flame throwers and Molotov cocktail-tipped spears? If there’s a shortage of water, then why does the chase lead through a muddy swamp? At one point the characters say that they are going to take all the supplies they can carry on motorcycles and ride for 160 days across a salt flat. 160 days. That’s more than 5 months! Did anyone stop to think about how much food, water, and fuel it takes for 8 people to ride motorcycles across the desert for 160 days?

But ok, let’s not worry about all of that. Difficult though it can be, we should judge pop culture by whether it accomplished what it set out to do, not whether we personally liked it. Mad Max certainly achieved its goal of being a crazy over-the-top action movie. But a lot of the hype around Mad Max has focused on the fact that it’s not just a macho action movie: it has a hidden feminist message. Is it effective in conveying that message?

Well, it’s certainly not a hidden message, despite what misogynists on the internet would have you believe. The movie beats you over the head with it. The plot of the movie is that the bad guy keeps women for two purposes: milk and breeding. But his sexy wives escape and flee with the help of Furiosa (Charlize Theron). A long chase scene follows (aka the entire movie). Much is made over the statement that the women leave painted on the walls of their chambers when they escape: “We are not things”.

Now, I will grant that it is great to see a big loud action movie with a message like this, and Mad Max does some things right on the feminism front. The women in the movie are not completely helpless, and some of them (in particular, Charlize Theron’s character and the old-lady biker gang) are competent survivors capable of fighting back against the bad guys. But just because Mad Max is slightly better than completely awful on the feminism front doesn’t make it some sort of magnificent feminist manifesto. Better than terrible is not necessarily great. It’s just “less terrible”.

The movie’s supposed feminist message would be a lot stronger if it wasn’t constantly undermined by the movie itself. Women “are not things”, but isn’t it interesting that the sexy wives are the women that are rescued, and the less attractive women who are kept attached to milking machines are not worth being saved? Funny how the “breeder” wives are all stick-thin supermodels (i.e. not the ideal body type for giving birth without complications in a world with primitive medicine). And it’s a bit hard to take the “We are not things” motto very seriously when the escaped wives spend the entire movie in thin linen bikini-like outfits. At one point there’s even a break in the chase scenes to give the girls time to have what amounts to a wet t-shirt contest. Now, it has been pointed out that they are pretty matter-of-factly washing themselves off and not actively posing, and that the camera doesn’t linger on them like a creepy old lecher, which is a temptation that other directors might give in to. But at the same time, the decision to dress them all in thin linen and then hose them down was a conscious choice. A scene like that, even if it’s not shot with the “pervy camera”, does not suggest to me that “We are not things” is something that the movie really takes that seriously. Those costumes, and that scene, are the sort of thing that you put in a movie as fan service to your presumably male, presumably straight viewers.

Check out all that feminism.

Check out all that feminism.

Likewise, later on, our heroes come across a naked woman high up on an old power line tower, and we learn that she is being used as “bait” by the old-lady biker gang to lure in bad guys and kill them. Is it consistent with “we are not things” for the good guys to be using a naked woman as bait? Was that scene necessary for the plot, or was it there to titillate the (presumably straight, male) viewer? That same blog post that I linked to praised this scene for resisting the temptation to go full-frontal, saying that the nudity was not necessary to the story, but that’s exactly my point. There was no narrative need to have a naked lady up on a tower at all. I don’t think the movie deserves praise for including some questionable scenes, but then making them slightly less misogynistic than they could have been. If this were a feminist movie, those scenes wouldn’t be there at all.

Don’t get me wrong, Mad Max takes a step in the right direction. There are female characters with agency. The sexy wives, although still mostly passive, do stand up for themselves a little bit. Furiosa and the old lady biker gang are pretty awesome. But I worry that people see Mad Max getting all of this positive press about being feminist, and then go watch it and praise if for taking these tiny baby steps while not acknowledging that (a) it’s not a good movie, and (b) it is not really all that feminist. It would not be difficult at all for the movie to fix the problems that I’ve brought up. Give the girls sensible clothing and maybe skip the wet t-shirt party and the naked lady on the tower. Make the sexy wives a little less passive, and rescue the less attractive women too. The fact that these problems were not fixed, and are generally not even being acknowledged, is troubling.

It’s an awfully sad statement about the state of feminism in popular culture that people think that Mad Max is what feminism looks like.

 

 

Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow

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When I went to see this movie, it was playing on one screen at our local theater for a grand total of… maybe 4 showtimes that day. Meanwhile, it was opening weekend for Transformers 4: Electric Boogaloo, which was playing on most of the other screens and probably also being projected onto the walls outside like a makeshift drive-in. What I’m saying is, Edge of Tomorrow is not getting the screen time or attention it deserves, while other less-deserving action flicks this summer are cleaning up. According to Rotten Tomatoes, Transformers has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars with a 17% critic approval rating. Meanwhile, Edge of Tomorrow is not doing so well despite its 90% approval rating. Maybe, just maybe, I can convince you to give the better movie a chance while it’s still playing.

The premise, as many other reviews have said, is basically Groundhog’s Day meets Starship Troopers. The Earth has been invaded by nasty aliens, and humanity is about to launch a last-ditch assault to reclaim Europe and crush the alien menace. The main character, William Cage (Tom Cruise), is a slick talking recruitment officer who has convinced millions of young soldiers to join the good fight while neatly keeping himself out of harms way by looking good on camera and saying the right things. But when he is sent over to Europe and informed that the brass want him on the beach of Normandy filming the invasion first-hand (did I mention that the battle is a rather obvious D-Day allegory?) he freaks out and tries to run. He’s arrested as a deserter, knocked out, and wakes up to find that he has been busted down to private and will not just be filming the battle, but he will be fighting on the front line. With no training.

He goes into battle, bumbles around for a while and then, predictably, gets killed. And that’s where the story really gets interesting. He wakes up, back at Heathrow, back in cuffs. He re-lives the battle again, gets killed again, and wakes up back at Heathrow. Somehow he is stuck in a loop, re-living the same day over and over, but retaining his memories each time.

This premise could be botched in many ways. It could come across as goofy. It could be hopelessly confusing. It could be boring and repetitive. But amazingly it manages to thread the needle and be none of these. The director and writers do a great job of establishing the ground rules of this time-travel story, proving key reference points so that as the movie progresses, they can convey the repetition without having to show every moment of every day over and over. Right when you start to get sick of seeing the same events, Cage does something different to change the course of the day, or manages to survive farther and encounter events you haven’t seen yet.

Eventually he teams up with badass Rita Vrtaski (Emily Blunt), who is the hero from the only previous victory against the aliens. How did she win that battle? Well it turns out the same thing that is happening to Cage happened to her, and she was able to re-play the battle over and over until the humans won.

The movies has been described as video-game-like, and it really is. But don’t misinterpret this as a negative. Just like a game, Cage and Vrtaski try and try again until they master every move of the battle, progressing farther and farther each time. They try things that go horribly wrong and have to re-start. It’s a really fun movie experience, made much more fun by the dark humor that pervades the story. The many many ways that Cage gets killed range from horrible to, frankly, hilarious.

Late in the movie, it gets really interesting because as the viewer you’re not sure if this is the first time Cage has gotten as far as he has, or if this is the 100th, and neither is Rita (remember, she doesn’t get to remember the thousands of tries. Every time, she is meeting Cage for the first time). This also sets up a strange love interest subplot, where Cage is trying to woo the girl, but even though he feels like he has been spending months with her, she barely knows him. The movie does a surprisingly good job of this, with Cage taking advantage of his time traveling powers to do small thoughtful things for her like knowing where the coffee is in an abandoned house that they shelter in.

The ending is satisfying, with just enough of a time-travely twist to make you scratch your head and leave the theater talking through it with your friends. One of the things that I enjoyed about this movie is that it assumes its audience is smart enough to keep up. It’s a big, loud action movie but the dialogue and pace are brisk and intelligent.

So, if you’re looking for an action movie this summer, I highly recommend choosing Edge of Tomorrow over Transformers. I haven’t enjoyed an action movie as much as this one in quite a while. It’s got all the battles and explosions you could want, it’s not a sequel, and as a bonus, it’s smart and funny and actually seems to respect its viewers so you don’t have to do the walk of shame back to your car. Go see it! Bring your friends!

Movie Review: Her

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I’m not going to mince words here: “Her” is a thoroughly excellent movie and you should go see it.

The premise is pretty simple: In the near future, a sentient operating system is released that customizes itself to be compatible with the user. The main character, Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), is a lonely guy who is recovering from a divorce, and when he gets this new operating system, she names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johanssen) and they gradually fall in love.

Both Phoenix and Johanssen give really great performances, which along with the great writing make the love story in this movie between a guy and a voice inside his computer more convincing than the vast majority of love stories I’ve seen on screen.

In many ways, this movie is a very traditional science fiction movie. It makes one science fictional change to our world – sentient computers – and then explores all the fascinating ramifications. But what’s great about it is that at the same time it is exploring love in a really interesting and touching way. It asks questions that only science fiction can ask: Is it actually love if one party is a computer? How do you have a physical romantic relationship if one person has no body? But many of the things that it deals with are basic parts of any committed relationship, made fresh by looking at them through the lens of science fiction. How do you share your life with someone but allow each other space to be yourself? How do you deal with jealousy when your partner is socializing and making friends outside of your social circle? How do you deal with the pain of past relationships and the effect that can have on the present one?

Even as it is dealing with very serious questions about the nature of love, the movie is also very funny at times, whether it’s the main characters getting into an argument with a semi-sentient video game character, or Samantha blithely telling her human friends that she has come to like not having a body that will inevitably grow old and die. There is just enough comic relief to balance out the other aspects of the movie.

Of course, the other wonderfully science fictional thing is the way the movie addresses current technology: namely our reliance on computers. We already spend so much time with various electronic devices that, if they could interact with us the way a human does, people falling in love with their computers begins to seem inevitable rather than unusual. The movie does a great job of quietly and insistently making a point of how people in this near future find themselves so caught up in their devices, talking to their sentient smartphones, that they don’t interact with each other anymore. It’s never overly judgemental or preachy, but the point is made.

Normally I try to think of something negative and positive about anything I review, but I’m having a hard time coming up with negatives. I guess I would warn you that there are some very awkward scenes involving Theodore having sex with someone who isn’t in the room (once over the phone, and then some scenes exploring the difficulties of a non-corporeal girlfriend) but the awkwardness is the whole point of those scenes, and they aren’t graphic or anything, so I can’t even really say that they are a drawback. Just, weird.

As I mentioned in a previous review, one of the best indicators that I really enjoyed a piece of fiction is that I can’t stop thinking about it afterward. “Her” definitely passes the test. After the movie, over dinner, my wife and I basically were just laughing and reminding each other of good scenes. A day later, I’m still thinking about it.

Too often, science fiction in the movies is seen as synonymous with over-the-top special effects and summer blockbusters starring square-jawed heroes and buxom heroines in impractically tight costumes, so I love it when a movie makes it to theaters that showcases the more thoughtful and emotional side of science fiction. On top of that, the writing and performances in “Her” make it one of the best movies I’ve seen in a really long time.  Do yourself a favor: go see it, and see how meaningful and emotional good science fiction can be.

 

Movie Review: Elysium

It’s been a long time since I went to see a movie in the theater. The last one was Les Miserables; since then nothing has really piqued my interest enough to carve out a couple hours of my weekend to go see it. But Elysium looked awesome, so I made time today to go check it out.

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The premise behind the movie is this: all the rich people have left the earth and live on an orbiting space station paradise called Elysium. Up there, everything is wonderful, and every house comes equipped with a magical machine that can instantly cure any ailment, from cuts and bruises to terminal cancer and catastrophic injury. Meanwhile Earth is overcrowded and everyone lives in slums with little or no access to health care. The story centers around Max (Matt Damon), a worker from Earth who gets into an industrial accident and has days to live. So he needs to find a way to get to Elysium to get cured. On the other side, Jodie Foster plays the evil lady in charge of security on the station, and she is hell-bent on keeping “illegals” from coming up. She wants even more power, and so she hatches a scheme that will place her in full control of the station. From there, a lot of fighting and blowing things up ensues.

There was a lot of pressure for director Neill Blomkamp to make something that lived up to District 9, but Elysium had a vastly larger budget, and so inevitably, felt much more like a popcorn-munching big summer blockbuster, which is exactly what it is. Still, Elysium borrows a lot, stylistically, from District 9. It has the same gritty, dirty-looking future, and a proclivity for futuristic (but not too futuristic) guns that blow people apart in creative ways.

The design for the Elysium space station itself borrows heavily from early NASA plans for space colonies from the heady days just after Apollo, when it felt like we could do anything in space.  Just take a look at this concept art from NASA:

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Now, compare it with these screenshots that I took from the trailer:Elysium_station1

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I went into Elysium expecting some heavy-handedness in terms of the message and got exactly what I expected: the movie is unashamedly a parable about inequality, particularly as it relates to health care, income, and immigration. Other than Matt Damon, the good guys are almost all Latino, so when they infiltrate Elysium and Jodie Foster is shouting about catching the “illegals”, it’s not exactly subtle.

But really, that’s ok with me. At least the movie has something to say underneath the heavy layer of special effects and action. Instead, my two main gripes with the movie are: 1.the science fictional ground rules aren’t established well enough, and 2. The villains aren’t fully developed characters.

I’ll warn you, I am going to get slightly spoilery at this point, so if you don’t read on, here’s the bottom line: Elysium is a fine action movie, and you should go see it, especially because it is not a comic book or a sequel to anything, and lord knows we need more originality in Hollywood. Just don’t expect profound philosophical examination of the issues raised by the premise. Do expect people being blown apart in creative ways and exciting fight sequences.

Ok. Now, on to my two main gripes. First: the science fictional ground rules. What I mean when I say this is that, in speculative fiction, the audience needs to know quite clearly what rules have been changed. What can happen in the fictional world that cannot (at least not yet) happen in our world. So in Elysium some things are clear: they have small car-sized craft that can launch into orbit, they have technology that can identifying every human being alive, they have medical pods on Elysium that can cure anything. The problem that I had was with the medical care on Earth. We’re told in no uncertain terms that they can’t “just cure” people on Earth, but it’s not exactly clear what they can do.

This ambiguity was frustrating when the main character got injured. For example, at one point he gets stabbed in the stomach. He stumbles to meet with the love interest, who is a nurse, and she slaps some gauze on his wound and hooks him up to an IV, and by the next day he is up and fighting again. That’s some pretty miraculous medicine in my book! Likewise, when he gets an exoskeleton installed, we are shown some wince-inducing views of staples and screws and bolts being tightened into his flesh and bones. Next day, he’s up and about!

But other characters on Earth don’t seem so invincible. Early on we are shown a pair of “illegals” who sneak onto Elysium to get the little girl’s broken legs fixed. So… broken legs require Elysium’s miraculous medical pods, but when Matt Damon breaks a limb, or has massive, body-wide surgery, he is fine in a matter of hours.

Likewise, much of the plot centers around technology that allows computer programs and other sensitive information to be stored in people’s brains. There is a security protocol activated on one of these files that has major ramifications for the plot, but it is not well explained, and if you think about it too much, it doesn’t make much sense.

That said, on to my other, more important issue with the movie: the villains. Jodie Foster did her best with what she was given, but we are given zero backstory on why she is such an evil person. Why does she want to use excessive force on “illegals”? Why is she so hate-filled? Spending even a little time exploring this would have made it easier to see things from her point of view, and the best villains are always the ones who are not just mustache-twirling caricatures, but actually have a method to their madness. A good villain is one who you can almost sympathize with, who you find yourself wondering what you would do in their shoes, given their past experiences. Alas, Jodie Foster’s character mostly just is evil so that the protagonists have someone to oppose.

The second villain begins as Jodie Foster’s henchman and if anything he is even more poorly developed. He  basically just seems to be a crazy guy with access to military weapons and a desire to use them on people. It’s not clear why Jodie Foster likes using him and it’s not clear why he does what he does. Considering that he eventually takes over as the main villain, any backstory at all would have been helpful.

Both of my major gripes could have been easily addressed with just a little bit more time, and would have made the movie more satisfying. As it is, it feels like the movie is in a rush to get to the action scenes at the expense of the backstory that makes those scenes meaningful.

Still, I have to admit that I enjoyed the movie. Despite its flaws, it’s an above-average summer blockbuster. It may be heavy-handed, but at least it does have a message. And most importantly, it is not yet another freakin’ comic book movie or sequel or franchise reboot. By my count, 7 of the 12 movies at our local theater are sequels. Given the astonishing lack of originality in Hollywood these days, I was happy to do my little part in supporting some original science fiction. If you like dystopian sci-fi, and can handle gore and profanity, I encourage you to go give Elysium a try. It’s not perfect, but it’s at least something new.

 

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