Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

MOVIE: Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

July 17, 2013

stintodarknesssI feel like I don’t really need to “review” this movie, per se, in that if you liked the first one, you’re going to go see this one no matter what I say, and you’re probably going to have a grand old time.  Personally, I loved it.  I think I liked it better than the first one, in fact, possibly because the relationships between the characters really start to expand and deepen this time around. But even if I had negative things to say about ST:ID, I know they would in no way deter a Star Trek fan from going to see it.  If Star Trek fans threw in the towel every time an installment sucked, the franchise never would’ve survived Deep Space Nine (at a minimum).

That said, I don’t, in fact, have anything (much) negative to say about it (it’s maybe a little overly self-referential), and before you naysayers say nay, let me just throw this out there because it’s the one I keep hearing the most:  yes, it’s very predictable.  NO DOY.  It’s both a prequel and a remake, which, granted, is somewhat confusing, but either way, it’s not like you have to be worried one of the major characters isn’t going to make it home alive, dig?  Nor is it supposed to be an exercise in perfection and/or thoughtful script-writing.  It’s a Star Trek movie!  By J. J. Abrams!  Stop thinking so much!

(Though, okay, I will grant you this much:  How is it that however-many-hundreds of years from now, we apparently have worse radar technology instead of better, and therefore don’t see a ship crashing on us from space until it’s literally crashing on us from space?  I mean, we can see stuff before it falls on us NOW and we haven’t even left our own solar system.  You’d think with a sky full of bad guys, Earth would be paying a little more attention to what was heading its way from above.  Although, since a ship of humans invade Qo’noS in this movie (I looked up how to spell “Kronos” in Klingon for you guys) and all they encounter in response is a coupla Klingon squad cars, it seems as though pretty much nobody is on the ball  in the future, which, whatever, guys.  It’s not how I’d do it, but maybe it’s a job security thing?)

BUT ANYWAY!  Instead of telling you all about the awesomeness of this awesome movie that was totally awesome, I wanted to tell you something more interesting (to me, anyway).  After watching this installment, I went home from the theater and immediately loaded up the first few episodes of the original series.  Have you watched any of those recently?  I probably hadn’t since I was a kid, and I tell you what — after three episodes of season 1, I was already thinking to myself, man, Chris Pine is totally NAILING Captain Kirk.  It was weird watching Shatner after seeing Pine, in fact, because it felt like Shatner was doing Pine (this is all coming out a lot dirtier than I intended, looking back, but you know what I mean).

Also, I always thought the Uhura/Spock romance was wholly invented for the new films, but no-ho-ho, my friends!  Go watch the season one episode “Charlie X,” or, more specifically, this clip from it:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3B4lsvrzfZI.  DUDES!  She practically sits in his lap!  How did I ever miss this?  This made me so happy.

As for the other actors/characters, I adore Quinto’s Spock, who seems more complex to me than Nimoy’s version, possibly because of the extra Uhuransity;  Simon Pegg is always a joy no matter what he does, but most especially here; Anton Yelchin is an adorable puppy; and John Cho is. . . er.  . . kind of invisible, to be honest, but hey, maybe next time, John Cho.

Also, Sherlock/Smaug sure is turning into Mr. Ubiquitous these days, and thank god for it because it’s about dang time.  (With a name like “Benedict Cumberbatch,” we knew he’d go far.)

Oh, hey, notice someone I’m missing?  (No, not Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike — don’t even talk to me about that.)  Karl Urban as Bones, perhaps?  Yeah, that’s because I CANNOT STAND KARL URBAN AS BONES.  While Chris Pine truly IS Captain Kirk, Karl Urban continues to merely PLAY Leonard McCoy, and he makes me cringe with about every other sentence of his super-awkward DeForest Kelley impersonation.

That said, I appear to be the only person on the planet who feels this way, so perhaps I should just shut up.

GO SEE THIS IN THEATERS, MY GOD!

[Update:  avoid the comment section if you don’t want to see any spoilers!]

[View trailer | Prequeue at Netflix]

Genre:  Sci-fi, Action
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Bruce Greenwood

MOVIE: Prometheus (2012)

February 6, 2013

[Another catch-up review from 2012 — one more of those left and then I start. . . catching up on reviews from 2013 instead!  Whee!]

So, having recently been going back through all my reviews from last year to prep my “Best of” lists for 2012 (sure, it’s now February 2013, but I’m sure you all still care), I feel like it’s safe for me to make this declaration officially.  I’ve reviewed all the reviews and it’s not even a close call:  Prometheus was, hands-down, the stupidest movie I saw all year (and people?  I saw a movie called METAL TORNADO.  So. . . you know.)

I’m not even sure where to begin witht his one, it was so rife with stupidness.  But I guess I’ll start with a quick overview, in case any of you guys managed to miss all the hoopla about it (luckies!).

This flick is Ridley Scott’s prequel (as much as he weirdly kept insisting it wasn’t) to his brilliant 1979 film Alien, a movie that holds a special place in my heart as it’s the first scary movie I ever saw (thanks to my uncle, who let me watch it when I was about 8 years old. Great babysitter, that guy!  I highly recommend him!).

It’s about two archaeologists — a married couple named Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) — who discover a series of ancient cave paintings they come to believe is a map to an alien planet, the original inhabitants of which created mankind.

Magically, they manage to convince an old rich dude named Weyland to fund a space expedition to the planet, despite the fact they have absolutely nothing of substance to back their theory up except for their love of aliens (Holloway) and pseudo-religious beliefs (Holloway).  Lucky for them, Weyland is looking for a fountain of youth, as all rich, old white guys in sci-fi movies do (feels like!), so he doesn’t ask too many questions (including, for example, why there’d be any reason to expect the aliens who created mortal man might hold the solution to eternal life).

Naturally, they get to the planet, they land on the planet, they do a bunch of really astonishingly stupid things, and they more or less all end up dead (SPOILER ALERT HA HA!).  For a good play-by-play of all the really astonishingly stupid things, check out this video, “Everything Wrong with Prometheus in 4 Minutes” (I was going to make a list for you myself, but why reinvent the wheel when there are, like, 86,000 other reviews of this movie that list all the same bullpucky?):  http://www.buzzfeed.com/kennelworthy/everything-wrong-with-prometheus-1ip0.

In theory, this should’ve been a fairly easy movie to make.   Despite the eyebrow-arching Creation concept, the rest of this movie sounds, well, a lot like (right down to the teeny tiny crew aboard the GINORMOUS space vessel, by the way — for some reason, the Prometheus, with its crew of about 7 people, is so huge it even has a BILLIARDS room).  It could easily have been an entertaining, fairly straight-forward sci-fi/horror flick, with lots of room for cool special effects, interesting character dynamics, and thrills and chills.

We know, after all, that Ridley Scott can make a seriously great goddamn sci-fi/horror movie about aliens, after all, right?

The problem, though, is that instead of going with a group of really smart, talented, and creative script writers, Scott went with. . . Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.  Spaihts, as near as I can tell, is mostly “famous” for writing a sci-fi movie that never actually got made.  And Lindelof — well, Lindelof is famous for creating the TV series Lost, which was similarly bogged down with overly “deep,” underly thoughtful spiritual and philosophical nonsense.

This movie is absolutely drowning in pseudo-intelligence, to the point where it’s hard to even be interested enough in what it was trying to say to complain about how dumb what it was trying to say actually was.  There’s a scene in the movie that kind of summed up the whole film for me, and I was surprised it wasn’t in that little video I posted earlier, because it’s also a pretty spectacular gaffe.  Here’s how it went:

Charlize Theron’s character to David (the android):  How long were we in hypersleep?

David (the android): 2 years, 4 months, 18 days, 36 hours, and 15 minutes.

Why does that sum up the whole film for me?  Because it’s SO DUMB.  This is a copycat movie, trying to ACT like an intelligent science fiction movie, right down to the android whose computer is so advanced he speaks alien languages his programmers have never even heard of, yet doesn’t seem to know there are 24 hours in a day (18 days and 36 hours??  Dude.).  It’s just dumb.  A dumb person wrote that line.  A person who wants to sound not dumb, but who is, in fact, really dumb.

I got into a discussion about this movie with a friend recently who really enjoyed it and she was saying my problem was that I wasn’t willing to suspend my disbelief (about Creation, for example — be it by God or by aliens) long enough to let the movie’s entertaining elements really take over.  Suspension of disbelief is key to enjoying science fiction movies in particular, she said — and I agree.

The problem is, I’m perfectly happy to suspend my disbelief of Creation for a sci-fi movie, but only when that sci-fi movie is actually making an intelligent case for its new idea.  It can be a completely invented case, based on futuristic stuff that’s all made up — that’s cool.  But it has to MAKE THAT CASE.

In Prometheus, the two scientists tell the crew of their ship that aliens created mankind, and everybody on the ship essentially responds, “Seriously? Awesome!”  And then there’s no attempt whatsoever to explain how that could be even remotely possible, given the enormous wealth of evidence against it (evolution, e.g.).  And sure, maybe the plan is to explain that down the line, in the inevitable sequel.  But in the meantime, I was left with a cast of characters who all seemed perfectly happy to accept without question the idea that all our science on the origin of man was wrong.  There isn’t even a DISCUSSION about it.  And that’s the number one sin crappy sci-fi movies can make for me — relying on my ability to suspend my disbelief and accept a radical idea without making any real attempt to convince me why or how.

Will I see that sequel?  Crap.  Probably.  But not in a theater, and not with any expectations whatsoever, that’s for sure (wait, no, that’s wrong, I do have one expectation:  that it’ll involve Weyland as a young man, since that’s the only reason whatsoever I can think of for casting Guy Pearce in that role wearing that much make-up in this installment!).  Should you see THIS movie?  Crap.  Probably.  But while I am usually quite fanatically against Internet piracy, I highly recommend you go steal this one from somewhere online.  It’s not worth the $4 it’ll cost you to rent it legally, and damned if I want anybody to keep rewarding filmmakers for making stupid baloney like this.

COME AND GET ME, COPPERS!

[Buy it | Netflix it]

Genre: Science Fiction, Crap
Cast:  Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall

MOVIE: Men in Black 3 (2012)

January 4, 2013

mib3[Another 2012 review!  About 7 more still to come this week!  This is a very exclamatory update!]

So, MIB3, the plot:  a really gross alien dude comes back to Earth and decides to go back in time to try to kill Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), Agent J (Will Smith) goes back in time himself to stop the alien and save Agent K, and then there’s a really ridiculous scene involving the need to climb up to the top of Apollo 11 and stick a MacGuffin on it (because, yeah, that’ll be no problem, what with the lack of people paying attention to the MOON LAUNCH), followed by a touching moment involving the history of Agents J and K.  WHICH, was actually sort of ridiculous as well (“Hey, my dad’s dead over there in the sand, but you seem nice, so let’s go for a walk on the beach!”), but it was also kind of sweet so whatever, I’ll let it go.

And that thar up there is pretty much all there is to say about this film.  I really enjoyed both the first and the second Men in Black films, and this one was just kind of. . . doot dee doo yawnface.  I laughed maybe twice, chuckled about as many times, and tried not to doze off in the middle.  A bit disappointing.

That said, there’s a reason why critics kept raving about Josh Brolin’s Tommy Lee Jones impersonation (he plays the young Agent K) and that reason is that it is SPOT-ON PERFECTION.  Brolin makes this movie worth a rental, and I always enjoy both Will Smith and TLJ (obviously, since both are former BotWs), too.  The problem was, I kept picturing the meeting in which this film’s storyline was thought up, and I have a feeling that meeting went like this:

Writer:  Have you guys seen Josh Brolin?  Don’t you think he’d make a really great younger version of Tommy Lee Jones?

Director:  Yes!  He’d be fantastic!  But HOW?

Writer:  Let’s see, what has Tommy been in that made a shit-ton of money?

Producer:  Hmmm, well, Men in Black leaps right to mind.

Writer:  PERFECT! Only we’ll need a plot — it can’t just be a movie about Josh Brolin doing a really good  impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones, after all.

Director:  Why the hell not?  What’re you, new or something?

Writer: Ha ha, you’re right!  I don’t know what I was thinking.  [scribbles on napkins for about 20 minutes]  HERE!  DONE!

Producer:  It’s perfect!  Good job, kid!  Here’s a bazillion dollars!

So, you know.   Four bucks (rental fee) is a reasonable amount to pay for a 90-minute Josh Brolin impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones, I say.   And heck, it could’ve been worse, after all:  it could’ve been Prometheus!  (My review of that, by the way, is coming soon!)

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Science Fiction, Comedy
Cast:  Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement, Emma Thompson, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mike Colter

MOVIE: The Thing (2011)

October 29, 2011

As a huge fan of the Kurt Russell version of The Thing, I was both excited and trepidatious about seeing this “prequel.”  Obviously, having seen Russell’s version about 86 bazillion times (and counting), I knew how this film was both going to go AND going to end, and having also seen a hefty number of modern remakes of other horror classics in the last decade (I consider this a remake, by the way, even though it would rather I consider it a prequel), I knew better than to expect it to have a decent story-to-CGI ratio.  But at the same time, it was going to be about Norwegians (which: I am one), set in the snowy nowhere (which: I love movies set there), and feature a strong female lead (which: she better not fall in love with anyone).  So, as soon as I had a free afternoon, I hit the theater.

As predicted, this film is way too heavy on the special effects, and not nearly heavy enough on character development or well-written dialogue.  But honestly, that’s expecting way too much these days from a big picture, and I know it.  I did find the gory monster effects obnoxiously over the top, especially at first — will we never learn that less is more scary than more? — but I will say there was one creature toward the end that I thought was fantastically designed (for those who have seen it, I’m talking about the double-headed, crawling-upside-down dude(s)).  So, points for grody creativity, at least.

The story you know already if you’re at all familiar with the original film(s) — a team of Norwegian scientists at the South Pole come across a distress signal and dig down to discover a buried space ship and an alien frozen solid in a block of ice.  Not sure what to do about it, they get a Norwegian anthropology expert (Dr. Halvorson) to put together a team, including a young American woman (Dr. Kate Lloyd) who specializes in frozen-intact extinct beings, and come down to the station, extract the creature, and study it.

Obviously, this plan doesn’t go quite as intended, and instead of being dead inside the ice, as expected (by them, not by us), as soon as nobody’s lookin’ and the creature’s had a little time to thaw, it comes to life and begins to kill the Vikings off one by one.  If you’ve seen the Russell version of The Thing, you already know ain’t nobody surviving this — that version begins with the last two Norwegians in a helicopter chasing a dog across the snow, trying to shoot it before it gets to the American base and crashing before they can nail it.  But who makes it out (however temporarily) and how is what you await discovery of from the edge of your seat.

Overall, it’s not a bad movie.  It’s overdone and it’s predictable (not just the story, but also the personality clashes between Dr. H (brash, bossy — he’s essentially the Mayor of Amity with a PhD) and Dr. L (smarter, more cautious, luciously-lipped)), but I liked the characters in general (especially the beefy, bearded, flannel-wearing Norwegians, hubba hubba), and the film is made well in terms of visuals too.  I was definitely entertained, and at times I was even in an anxious state of mechanical popcorn-eating (a good state to be in when seeing a scary movie, though more satisfying for the brain than the belly, I must confess).

Also:  no stupid kissing scenes, no stupid running-with-big-boobs-and-no-bra scenes, no stupid naked-in-the-shower scenes, and noooooo Wilford Brimley (although, on that latter one: alas).

If you’ve been wary of seeing this because you’re a fan of either of its two predecessors (I confess I’ve never seen the original and really, really want to now), I think you should probably give it a shot.  But if you have no strong feelings about this tale one way or another, and certainly if you’ve never seen the Russell version, this is one to skip.  At least until it’s out on DVD.

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Science Fiction, Aliens
Cast:  Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Jonathan Walker

MOVIE: Virus X (2010)

October 23, 2011

Mom and I rented this movie last weekend expecting it to be so terrible we’d have to give up on it.  For one thing, the DVD box’s graphics made it look like a bloody horror flick — not Mom’s thing — and for another, it was only 85 minutes long, thus violating our B-Movie Law of 90, a law we developed after years and years of careful experimentation which states that B-movies tend to become exponentially less good-bad and more bad-bad for every minute under 90 they are in length.  At 85, therefore, we knew this one had a five-times-greater likelihood of being utter bollocks.

BUT, the title and description intrigued us enough to want to give it a shot — we’re suckers for movies about deadly viruses, you see.  Sometimes when we take a risk like this, we don’t last ten minutes.  Other times, though, we end up having a ball.

And hey, if you’re not living on the good-bad movie edge, you’re taking up too much space, right?  Um, or something.

Happily, Virus X, though flawed, turned out to be a BALL kind of movie, not a BOLLOCKS one.  Oh, frabjous day!

It’s about a team of scientists in a lab hidden away in an industrial building somewhere, working, or so they think, on a cure for H1N1 (swine flu).  As part of their plan to eradicate the disease completely, they’ve begun genetically altering the virus, developing vaccines for each new strain they create.

Things seem to be going well until the day the scientists are all sitting around eating lunch (in the near-dark, by the way — after spending all their funding on equipment, they apparently did not have enough money over for lamps. I would imagine this might make science rather tricky, though it never seems to stop CSI:NY), when a young woman with a needle sticking out of her arm bursts in, followed quickly by a weird-looking dude dressed in head-to-toe black leather and equipped with a very large handgun.  Which he promptly uses to shoot the girl in the head, her blood spattering all over the scientists sitting, agape, right behind her.

Weird Dude in Black turns and leaves just as the lab’s exposure alarm goes off, locking all the doors and sealing the gang in.  They’ve been contained.  Quarantined.  And it doesn’t take long for Malcolm to figure out why: they’ve all been exposed to the newest strain of H1N1 he’d discovered, a particularly aggressive and thus-far incurable strain called “H1N1 X.”

Now, here’s where it gets a little silly(er).  They’re a group of scientists specializing in H1N1 vaccines, so you’d think their next move would be to get to work on a cure for themselves, right?  But no, instead, they mostly just yell a lot and start making out with each other. Which, granted, is probably what I’d do myself if I knew I only had three days to live.  But then, I am not a virologist.  I think this movie would’ve been far more interesting had they started making love to SCIENCE instead of to each other, but, you know, que sera, etc.

In between ranting and smooching, however, the group slowly begins to discover the truth about their work.  Dr. Gravamen, it turns out, has been hired by a nasty old biddy who wants him to create the perfect deadly bug so that she can wait for panic to break out, and then release a vaccine, raking in gazillions of dollars from the terrified masses. The young woman was a prostitute — one of several victims kidnapped by  Weird Dude in Black to serve as test subjects for Nasty Old Biddy’s killer bug.  When the team of scientists were infected, Nasty Old Biddy told Gravamen to let them die — six test subjects for the price of one!  But what she and Weird Dude in Black didn’t count on was Gravamen having a conscience.  Can he help the team before it’s too late?  And stop Nasty Old Lady’s nefarious plan?  And possibly, for kicks, blow Weird Dude in Black’s creepy head off?

Don’t you wish you knew?!

Definitely a lot more fun than the box makes it look, and well worth a rental for fans of the good-bad deadly virus flick genre.  (Which, granted, is probably is a fan club consisting of about three members:  me, Mom, and the mother of whoever wrote the screenplay for Virus X, who will watch it just to support her son, cringing all the while.  But still.  Not bad for 99 cents, is what I’m saying.)

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Science Fiction, Deadly Virus
Cast:  Jai Day, Domiziano Arcangeli, Joe Zaso, Dylan Vox, Sybil Danning, Sasha Formoso

MOVIE: Contagion (2011)

September 22, 2011

I love virus movies.  Always have.  I’m a bit of an armchair science nerd, see, and have long found viruses incredibly fascinating — the way they can so rapidly adapt or mutate to thrive in new sets of circumstances or hosts has always made them seem almost intelligent to me, even though we know they are not sentient beings (OR ARE THEY, MUA HA HA HA!).  Of course, the very thing that makes them so interesting is also what makes them so deadly; viruses are hard to kill and often impossible to predict.  As fast as we can come up with a way to fight them, they can shift behavior, making our cures useless against them.  And this, my friends, is what makes virus movies so goddamn thrilling.  It’s always about working against the clock — beat it before it beats you.

That said, virus movies are also pretty much the same when it comes to overall story trajectory — someone gets sick, they get others sick, the infection spread exponentially (usually illustrated by a PowerPoint slide featuring a map of the world and gasps from the crowd), someone finds a cure, the world is saved.  Occasionally, there are zombies (though, alas, not here).  But essentially: same same same.  What makes each film unique are the characters, their relationships, and the situations in which they find themselves.

While Contagion has all the usual suspects there too (for example, it seems we must always have one primary medical character come down with the virus him/herself, as well as at least one evil politician who makes the whole mess worse — I always refer to that character as “the mayor of Amity,” for reasons Jaws fans will understand), what I liked about this one is the way it is less the usual nasty-bug thriller and more a character study of sorts.  Instead of primarily focusing on the race for the cure, this film tells the closer-up stories of a wide variety of players.

For example, there’s the husband (Matt Damon) of Patient Zero (Gwyneth Paltrow, who really ought to cover her mouth when she coughs), who loses her and his stepson all in one day.  Then there’s the WHO worker (the insanely gorgeous Marion Cotillard) who is sent to Hong Kong to investigate the source of the infection only to find herself kidnapped by a group who wants to ransom her for first dibs on the vaccine.

The dangers of believing everything you read/hear online is a major theme as well: a conspiracy-theorist blogger (Jude Law) convinces thousands of followers he was cured by an herbal remedy called Forsythia and that the government’s vaccine is a hoax, resulting in a violent rush on drug stores for the herb, as well as a whole host of ignoramuses (ignorami?) refusing the vaccine once it’s made available (I wish this had gotten slightly more focus, in fact, because it’s so relevant to current events).  Plus, there’s a CDC doctor who violates protocol by calling his girlfriend and telling her to get out of Chicago before the city’s locked down in quarantine.  She immediately tells her BFF, and the next thing the CDC knows, the news is all over Facebook and Chicago is in a panic.

FACEBOOK!  *shakes fist*

In other words, as times change, so too do the ways in which we get ourselves into more and more trouble.  Oddly, though, I would’ve expected this focus on the more personal, every-man sorts of stories to make the film feel even more emotionally compelling.  It definitely makes the plot move much more slowly than, say, Outbreak, something I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about (though, dudes, this is a Soderbergh film, not a Spielberg one — what were you expecting?), but even slowed down and more intimately focused, it still didn’t make the story any more wrenching than usual to watch unfold.  That is, it’s never easy to look at bodies being thrown into mass graves, but with each sub-plot giving us a close-up view of one person’s struggle in time of strife, you’d think this would be a highly emotional film.  And yet, it isn’t.  This is a good movie, I would say — I enjoyed it while I was watching it.  But I never really connected with any of the characters, and after I left the theater and the buzz from the science high wore off, I realized I found this movie more interesting than engaging.  I liked the characters, but I didn’t really FEEL them.  Hard to say just why, though my theory is that it’s at least partly because there were simply too many of these storylines, making it impossible to connect deeply with any of them.  I think the film would’ve been more powerful had it tried to cover fewer bases, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you which character I would’ve cut out and which stories I would’ve beefed up.

All in all, I’d say this is a flick well worth the price of admission, but you should go into it ready to think, more than to grip the edge of your seat.  The virus certainly takes off with lightning speed, but the movie?  Eh, not so much.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Science Fiction, Deadly Virus
Cast:  Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle

BOOK: All Clear by Connie Willis

August 26, 2011

I’ve been kind of torn as to how best present this book review, since All Clear is essentially just the continuation of a really, really long book by Connie Willis.  A really, really long book she’d originally intended to keep at single-volume length, but then found herself needing to split in half so as not to overwhelm (the first half was Blackout, by the way, which I reviewed a couple of months ago).  I thought about just revising the Blackout review to make it reflect the two-part series as a whole.  But the problem is, my opinion of this series changed radically after reading part 2, and I think that’s probably somewhat useful information.

You see, I was MAD CRAZY about Blackout after I finished it.  I loved it!  Sure, there were a few story-related elements I was concerned about, but I figured all would be fixed and explained by the end of the second book.  As it turned out, though, this was only half-true.  Things were explained, sure, but they were definitely not fixed.  In fact, they just got more and more broken until I  finally got to the information I’d been dying for the entire time — the explanation for why/how time travel trapped a group of historians from the future in London during the Blitz of WWII — and that information ended up totally blowing my mind.  WITH ITS ABSOLUTE LAME-ITY LAMENESS.

That said, even if the time travel thing had been resolved in a way I could get behind, I would still have been super-duper disappointed by All Clear.  Listen up — I enjoyed this story a LOT and I’m VERY glad I read it and I want to make that perfectly clear (before you guys go off on me for hating Connie Willis, whose previous novels I have adored), but this was a sloppy piece of writing and it’s made me wonder what the heck Willis was thinking.  Why didn’t she just write the novel she so clearly wanted to write?  The general-fiction WWII novel?  Why throw in this half-assed, totally unnecessary sci-fi element?  Just because she was expected to, as a genre writer?  Well, that ain’t good enough, Ms. Willis!  Not by a long shot!

I can’t say much about the ending of this book (the why/how part) without ruining the whole thing for everyone who hasn’t read it (but we can talk about it in the comments if you want — NOTE: SPOILERS MAY END UP IN THE COMMENTS!), but I can complain about a few specific problems I had with the series overall pretty safely, I think.

My number one rant is that this series was absolutely, without a doubt, too damn long.  The second installment in particular featured repetitive after repetitive after repetitive everythings — the characters had the same conversations over and over (was that the retrieval team? have you seen the retrieval team? was that the retrieval team? hey, did you see the retrieval team yet?), they did the same things over and over (another subway play, another night in the bomb shelter, some more shenanigans from the kids), etc.  Everything was just the same stuff over and over and over, and while I suppose you could argue that’s sort of how the Blitz itself was, that kind of repetition didn’t do this crazy-long story any favors, and it also started to kind of blur the edges of the characters for me (especially the two women, who began to seem to me like they were the same person talking constantly to herself). The characters I had found so intriguing in the first novel were boring the absolute bejesus out of me by the end of the second.

It would’ve been incredibly easy for Willis to have kept this novel the length of a single book — the second book’s important features could easily have been edited down to about 100-200 pages, making for a super-long single book, but certainly not the longest I’ve ever read.  More importantly, as I said earlier, she could have simply made this a novel about the Blitz, leaving out all the science-fiction time travel stuff to begin with.  I liked very much the idea that, in the future, historians will travel back in time to observe important events personally.  But that didn’t actually make any sense.  Nor was there any attempt to explain what they were doing with this new information that made the work so tremendously important.  I mean, first of all, why would that kind of technology go to HISTORIANS?  Out of all the kinds of people in the world?  Clearly, in the story, historians were the only ones allowed to use the technology, but how did they manage to keep other people, especially people in other countries, from doing it too?   Only the British get to travel in time?  Not bloody likely.

Besides, surely the technology required would’ve cost a fortune — you’re trying to tell me that in 50 years, history departments are going to be the ones rolling in the bucks?  I was willing to suspend my disbelief on that element for the sake of the intriguing idea.  But when that idea flopped so disastrously at the end, all the little things that had been niggling at me throughout came out whompin’ instead.

Am I glad I read Blackout and All Clear?  Yes!  Definitely!  While I was obviously disappointed overall, I still enjoyed VERY, VERY MUCH the parts of the novel that focused on the Blitz itself.  I’ve read and heard from readers here that some of the little details Willis included in the narrative were inaccurate — using the wrong terminology for money or phone booths, putting skunk cabbage in England where it doesn’t belong, minor stuff like that — but the historical information about the Blitz itself seemed fairly reliable, and she certainly quite clearly and profoundly conveyed the fear, courage, determination, and ritual the British people sank into during what must have seemed to them a never-ending onslaught of death.  Those were some amazing people, those Brits.  And I’m really glad I got to spend so much time with them, getting to look inside their lives and witness the incredible ways in which they were able to cope with such horrors with such aplomb.

If only the novel(s) had been about THOSE GUYS instead of the three idiots from the future, this would’ve been an absolutely mesmerizing series.  (I call them “idiots,” by the way, because of another little quibble I had — these three were supposed to be HISTORIANS, yet they seemed to have an astonishing lack of knowledge about history, at least beyond whatever details had been “installed” on a computer chip in their brains before their travels). Instead, it’s distracted, overly long, and not nearly as thought-provoking scientifically as Willis’s other novels about time travel have consistently been.

Glad I read it.  But I won’t be reading it again.  If you’re interested in WWII novels, you might find this series enjoyable for that aspect alone.  But sci-fi lovers probably need not apply.

[SCIENCE FICTION]

[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

MOVIE: Super 8 (2011)

June 11, 2011

It is my feeling that this film is best described using math.  And the mathematical expression best used in describing it would be this:

((The Goonies2 + Cloverfield) x Predator)) / E.T. = ABSOLUTE PERFECTION!

I’m not going to say anything about the plot, the characters, nuthin’, so as not to run the risk of spoiling even a moment of your upcoming thoroughly awesome experience.  But I do want to tell you two things about it:

1) I haven’t had this much fun at a movie in as long as I can remember, and

2) Stay for the closing credits (because what you will see there might very well be the most delightful cinematic five minutes of all time).

J.J. Abrams, I thank you for this one, sir.  It was exactly the movie I needed to see today.

Highly, HIGHLY recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Science Fiction
Cast:  Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Amanda Michalka, Jessica Tuck, Joel McKinnon Miller, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Gabriel Basso

BOOK: Blackout by Connie Willis (2010)

May 23, 2011

I’ve long been a fan of Connie Willis and her intelligent, well-written sci-fi novels.  So much a fan, in fact, that when this book came out, I didn’t read it.  Instead, I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  She doesn’t write very often, you see, and I didn’t want to just gobble it up and then be done.

AND THEN.  I heard there was a sequel!  Yahoo!  So, you know — I waited some more, next thinking I’d wait until they were both in paperback and then I could devour them in a single, glorious weekend.  But man, the sequel isn’t out in paperback until October!  And I needed Connie Willis last week.  I needed her bad!  So, I caved.  Naturally, when I got to the end of this one I let out the “Arrrrrrgh!” of a truly tortured soul.  TALK ABOUT CLIFFHANGERS, MY GOD.

OCTOBER?!  No can do.  I’m going to have to see how long the hold line is at the local public library instead, fo’schizz.

This wonderfully written, totally inventive novel is set both in the future and during WWII.  In the future, time travel has become possible, but is restricted to use by historians, guided by a set of carefully-drafted rules, as well as restrictions established by what I took to understand was the nature of time travel itself (though I confess I didn’t quite get that part and am hoping we get more science with our fiction in book two, All Clear).

The historians get to go back in time to various important events, but before they go, they are required to study the period’s customs, clothing, language, and more.  Then they are sent back, with time travel itself somehow making it impossible for them to appear in the past at any time or place that could impact what happens — a “divergence point” (which we were just all recently hypothesizing about on the comments about my recent review of Source Code, if you’re interested in this stuff).  They can’t enter or exit the past in a location where they can be seen coming or going, nor are they able to carry out any action that might change the already-happened timeline.  It’s not just against the rules, it’s impossible.

As the story begins, a group of historians are heading out, despite some glitches in the system, to several different places in England during the time of The Blitz (1940-1941).  One is sent to London itself, another to an estate in the country where several London children were sent for safekeeping, and a third to Dunkirk.

As events unfold, however, all three begin to realize things aren’t working quite right.  The portals that let them return to their present aren’t working.  And they’re able to do things that MUST be impacting the course of history, like “accidentally” saving the lives of over 200 British soldiers.

Struggling to figure out what’s going on, the three eventually manage to find each other and regroup in London to come up with a plan.  And that’s when they realize things HAVE changed.  Things they knew happened at a specific date and time are happening late and differently.  Have they “broken” time?  Did they change something that’s now meant time travel wasn’t discovered  (e.g., did the Germans win the war)?  Did the machine just break — there was definitely something wonky going on when they left, after all —  and their boss will get it fixed it any day now and send a rescue team?  Or could it just be that the information they had, mostly reported by newspapers at the time, simply isn’t accurate?

Just when we think they might be getting close to figuring out what’s going on, BAM!  The book ends!

[Cue the aforementioned Arrrrrrgh!]

Masterfully written and incredibly well-researched, this book (and all of Willis’s novels, for that matter) are absolute MUST READS for all fans of quality sci-fi. Highly, HIGHLY recommended.  Watch for my review of the sequel just as soon as I can get my hands on a delicious, delicious copy.

[SCIENCE FICTION]

[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

MOVIE: Source Code (2011)

April 21, 2011
NOTE: This review does NOT contain anything I’d consider a “spoiler.”  But I can’t vouch for the comments section, where spoilage of the ending may occur.  If you haven’t seen the movie, STAY OUTTA THE COMMENTS!

Most of the reviews I’ve read about this movie have said the same thing: it’s a total blast as long as you don’t think about it too much.

Well, where’s the fun in THAT, I ask you.  I’m a bit of a physics nerd, and you can’t make a movie about time travel and expect me NOT to think about it.  That’s just crazy talk, sirs and madams.

But first, let me say that those critics and I agree about one thing:  this movie is definitely fun.  It’s about an Army helicopter pilot, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is being attacked in the air over Afghanistan when he suddenly finds himself at rest inside a strange metal pod.  On a TV screen above him comes a woman who identifies herself as Col. Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and explains he’s been recruited for an experimental mission that involves sending his consciousness back in time to inhabit the body of a young man named Sean Fentress on a Chicago-bound commuter train earlier that morning.

Because of the way the procedure works, she says, Stevens can only inhabit Sean for the last eight minutes of his life — you see, Sean, as well as everybody else on the train, was killed that morning when a terrorist’s bomb exploded on board, and they need Stevens to figure out who the bomber is so they can stop him before he detonates another one.

As Stevens returns over and over to re-experience the same eight minutes, he gradually collects enough information to deduce the identity of the bomber.  He also falls in love with a woman on the train, the first face he sees every time he is sent back.

What I found intriguing about this film was less the mystery about the bomber (which is pretty ho-hum, frankly) and more the mystery about this experimental time travel procedure, which the movie doesn’t even attempt to explain, aside from saying it involves “quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus.”  To the movie, and to most of its viewers, the “how?” is not really important.  But to nerds like me, it’s endlessly thought-provoking, so I will now ramble on for several paragraphs while I work through some of my theories.

There are two possibilities, to my mind.  One is that the time travel Stevens is experiencing involves parallel universes (as opposed to a more Back to the Future-type time travel, where you go back in your own reality and your actions can impact your own future — these are two well-known ideas about how time travel might work, and it’s my understanding that most physicists who believe in this stuff think the parallel universe one is more likely).

There are several elements in the story that suggest this parallel universe thing is at work, especially the ending, but there are also several elements that don’t quite make sense in that context.

For example, my understanding of parallel universes is that they’re not identical (and how could they be, when all it takes to change everything is the flap of a single butterfly’s wings, right?), and that’s suggested here too by the fact Stevens in Sean’s body is obviously altering the events of that time line.  But if that’s the case, and parallel universes are not identical, then how are they so sure the bombing will happen at all, let alone be perpetrated by the same guy?  And why does Goodwin tell Stevens he can’t save the people on the train because they’re already dead (in her universe/time line).  He’d be able to save them in HIS universe/time, right?

That, and other discrepancies like it, bring me to my other theory, which is that the procedure isn’t about time travel at all — the way we think of it anyway. Instead I’m thinking it could be some kind of complex computer simulation.  Professor Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), the procedure’s developer, talks about the brain being able to store eight minutes of memory after death, as though it were somehow retrievable data.  If it’s a simulation, that explains why Goodwin insists Stevens can’t save anybody (though she may simply have been lying about that for expediency’s sake, I suppose).  BUT, it doesn’t really explain how he could find the bomber. Sean’s last eight minutes were spent sitting in a train car talking to a friend — the only memories he would have would be of that single car, and possibly the restroom and any passengers who happened to walk through.  Yet Stevens is able to go beyond that and to interact with people Sean did not interact with, as well as get off the train and experience events there.

Then again, an advanced computer should be able to accurately extrapolate a lot of information from that original data set.  And so, in that case, maybe this theory works.  Goodwin tells Stevens the bomber is one of the passengers in that car, for one thing, which goes along with the idea that Sean is the perfect person to inhabit (though I’m not sure how she could possibly know the bomber was from that car and not, say, the car next to it — the location of the bomb and the phone the bomber leaves behind suggest proximity, not specificity) (but whatever).  Also, Stevens and the computer simulation are also given more data as Goodwin’s day progresses and her investigators find additional clues, thus providing more variables, leading, potentially, to more, and more accurate, extrapolations.

This is the theory that makes the most sense to me — at least until we get to the end.  Then I start having to go a little more Russell-Crowe-in-Virtuosity to get it to work out.

Oh, heck, who knows?  All I really know is that I wish I’d seen this one with my mom, because we LOVE trying to hash these kinds of things out together after watching movies like this one, and now I’ll have to wait for the damn DVD!  Rats!  (Though if any of you guys saw the movie and want to nerd out with me in the comments, I would love it.  Feel free to talk about the ending there, and if you haven’t seen the film, again, STAY OUT!)

Extremely entertaining flick and a great one for all fans of sci-fi action, nerd and non-nerd alike.  Recommended!

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Science Fiction, Action
Cast:  Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden