Category Archives: Science Fiction

5 reasons to watch ‘Stranger Things’

5) The boys. Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike … er, sorry, that’s Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will take us 80s children back to Goonies or Stand By Me, in that they have the dumb, goofy kid way of relating to each other. It doesn’t seem scripted or forced, just your average four junior high kids who don’t quite get girls yet and are far more interested in the next weekend’s D&D campaign than the school dance. The teen boys and twin love interests of Mike’s sister Nancy – played by Charlie Heeton and Joe Keery – also each bring something interesting to the proceedings after coming off as the stereotypical outsider and jealous boyfriend in the early going. Terrific casting.

4) The girls. Millie Bobby Brown plays a weird, creepy girl who is more than she appears. She’s had practice: She was also a weird, creepy girl who was more than she appeared in the BBC science fiction drama Intruders from 2014. However, this is a different kind of creepy. Her Stranger Things character, Eleven or “Elle” as the boys take to calling her, is a lost puppy with great powers who doesn’t quite understand how she fits into the world, whereas her Intruders character, Madison, was far more menacing and violent. Either way, Brown kicks ass. Natalia Dyer brings some depth to Mike’s teen sister Nancy, and really brings it when the shit hits the fan. And I’m tossing Winona Ryder in here, too, although calling her a “girl” might seem a little demeaning for someone who is a year older than I am. I don’t think I’d seen Ryder in anything since Black Swan, and she still has an amazing screen presence. Her role as the mom of a lost child could have easily succumbed to silly melodrama in some over-the-top manner by a lesser actress, but Ryder keeps it grounded in a situation where that’s not as easy as it sounds. Hope to see her hauling in a best supporting actress Emmy next year.

3) The music. The soundtrack is great, full of 1980s hits and re-workings – such as a Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s Heroes – that really help set the scene. You’ll never listen to The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go? the same way again. The score by Survive is another thing entirely, frequently reminding me of classic horror of the era, particularly – but not limited to – Halloween. The story and the acting are both great, but the music is like sweet, creamy icing on top of the best cake you’ve ever eaten.

2) The 1980s. No cell phones, no Twitter, no Facebook, no online gaming. It helps build the tension when you can’t reach out to everyone all at once. The over-sized walkie talkies were a great choice, both for believability and the visual, showing just how far tech has come in 30 or so years. The hair and the fashion, as well as the design of the automobiles … it’s like watching news footage from some suburban documentary in 1983 or something. It’s akin to what’s done on FX’s The Americans, the level of detail used to properly set the scene.

1) The end. As we were watching the show come to a close, my daughter asked, “Is this going to be the only season?” I mused that maybe it was going to be more of a single-season anthology show, like American Horror Story. But then two things happen, and suddenly there’s potential for so much more ahead with the same gang from Hawkins, Indiana, that we’re now so invested in. Well played.

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Sci-fi and ScarJo: A winning combo

I’ve been impressed with Scarlett Johansson’s choice of science fiction roles, namely her starring turns in 2013’s Under the Skin and 2014’s Lucy. Not only is Johansson good in two solid films, the movies and Johansson’s roles couldn’t be more different.

I’ve gone into detail about my adoration for Under the Skin elsewhere, so I won’t focus much on it. I will note that Under the Skin is quiet, allowing the action and acting to lead, moving at a deliberate pace. Between straightforward, largely quiet scenes are dark, murky, abstract moments, all eventually leading to one helluva mind-fuck ending. It’s not a commercial flick by any means, with the exception of its star being part of the biggest comic book movie series on the planet.

In Lucy, from writer-director Luc Besson (director of La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional, as well as the producer behind the Taken flicks), Johannson plays the title character, a young woman looking to have a little fun in the Far East until she gets in over her head, carrying drugs for hardcore gangster, Mr. Chang (Min-Sik Choi of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance), who has killed her boyfriend and is threatening to kill others near and dear to her. The drugs, implanted in her body, leak, and said chemicals push her mind and body through about 5,000 years of evolution in 24 hours.

My guess is the science in this science fiction may not be so solid, as Lucy goes from your average human using about 10 percent of her brain to a superhuman pushing 100 percent capacity. But Besson does what Besson does: He pushes the action, whether that means interspersing lectures by expert Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) with shots from nature and the universe, or the attack by Chang’s men against French police that is a hail of lead tearing apart a hallway, or Lucy literally trying to hold herself together as the effects of the drug wear off during a plane ride (see the video above). In defense of the science component, as Lucy evolves from bubbly blonde to being of pure data and energy, I began to think of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series. Only Lucy manages to do in a couple of days what evolution took (hundreds of) millions of years to do in Clarke’s imagining. I’m not saying it’s accurate or likely, but Lucy fleetingly dwells on similar ideas about evolution and immortality, in between car chases and gunshots.

Johansson excels in two dissimilar roles. In Under the Skin, she is a predator, silently stalking her prey, focused solely on the hunt, until that unfortunate moment when she realizes she is just as vulnerable as the men she consuming. From that point, she goes from offense to defense, searching for a place to hide in a world she is unfamiliar with. In Lucy, Johansson goes from a happy-go-lucky young woman to an entity that is solely concerned with devouring information and processing that data to find an answer that might not even exist.

Lucy and Under the Skin are an interesting mix, and my hope is Johansson continues to look for science fiction roles. She certainly seems to have a knack for picking them.

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Wrapping my head around ‘Ex Machina’

Ahead be spoilers. You were warned.

I’m not going to go in-depth into Ex Machina. I enjoyed the movie, and I was pleased both by the fact that it wasn’t predictable and that I was able to see some things coming. But a couple of things happened that threw me off, and those I’d like to share.

What are the AI plotting?

What are the AI plotting?

I THOUGHT THE ROBOTS WERE RUNNING THE SHOW. The premise of the film is that a programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is selected to spend a week with the brilliant tech billionaire, Nathan, who owns the company he works for. When they meet, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) explains this will be more than just a week hanging out. Nathan wants Caleb to interact with his new AI, to perform the Turing Test, which is an attempt to determine whether artificial intelligence can fool a human into believing that the AI is also human. Early on, it becomes apparent that Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is an AI herself. Kyoko never speaks and allegedly doesn’t understand English, but slowly it becomes apparent that she does have a certain level of awareness about what’s going on around her and her own creation. At one point while watching Kyoko, a light clicked on in my head: Nathan isn’t running the experiment. The AI are. And, for a while, it looked like the might be the case. It wasn’t, but it’s just one example of how Ex Machina mind fucks you to the point where you’re no longer entirely sure what is reality.

THE FINAL CUT. The audience isn’t the only one being screwed with. As days pass, Caleb starts getting sucked further and further in to Nathan’s ego trip and his interactions with the AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander). His head gets so twisted that he’s not sure who or what to believe, to the point where he takes a razor and cuts open his own arm, to make sure he is human. It was an eye-opening moment to me, as I hadn’t considered the idea that maybe Caleb was the AI being tested. Caleb bleeds red, but it was another moment that created doubt for viewers about the path Ex Machina was blazing.

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Language leads to war in ‘Embassytown’

I finished Embassytown a few weeks ago. It’s rare for me to wait this long to comment on something I’ve read or watched, but I really don’t know where to begin.

I keep thinking of the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men come across an elephant and start to feel it. One feels the tusks, another a leg, another the tail, and so on. The blind men start to argue about what it is they might be feeling, but they lack the ability to see the complete picture, only able to quibble over what seem like unmatched parts.

With Embassytown, the complete picture is so incredibly large. It doesn’t feel like that from the start, as our first-person narrator, Avice Benner Cho, gives us the lay of the land. Embassytown is a small, human village amid the Ariekei on a distant planet at the edge of the known universe. The Ariekei have two mouths, speaking two words at the same time. This can be mimicked by machine, but a third element comes into play: the soul. The sounds emitting from the machine mean nothing without living, breathing beings speaking the words. Since humans can’t really say two words at the same time, special twins, Ambassadors, are bred and raised to function as one to be able to communicate with the Ariekei. It’s a little like trying to lift a warehouse with a simple lever, but it enables some communication between the two races. Cho is uniquely positioned in this little world. She is an Immer, someone who can help guide ships through vast regions of space due to special abilities most don’t have. She is also a living, breathing metaphor, “the girl who sat in the dark and ate what was given to her,” for the Ariekei. The Ariekei are incapable of lying; therefore, they construct metaphors from actual humans. Cho is in with the humans because she is both an Immer and one of the rare humans to ever leave the planet and come back, and she’s damn near a rock star with the Ariekei, who actually develop favorite metaphors much like humans pick a baseball team to root for.

Quite a bit of weirdness, eh? And that’s just the damn tusk of Embassytown. I haven’t mentioned the first Ambassadors who aren’t twins, how their language becomes aural crack for the Ariekei, how all of this leads to assassinations, massacres, war and global upheaval.

I was blown away by Mieville’s The City & The City, which, oddly enough, I found while looking for a copy of Embassytown. As rich as The City & The City is, Embassytown is just that much more vast and intricate, a science fiction tale that is unique in its vision. I haven’t done it justice here. But as the guy who only feels like he got a good luck at the tusk, this is the best description as I can give you of this particular elephant.

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‘Intruders’ example of how good sci-fi is done

This creepy little girl is being partially inhabited by an immortal serial killer.

This creepy little girl is being partially inhabited by an immortal serial killer. Welcome to “Intruders.”

Last fall, I complained about Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. My main issue was how much information the minds behind the show gave the viewers in the pilot, information that could have been subtly teased and slowly leaked out as the season went along. Instead, it was all vomited into the first episode with all the delicacy of hitting a watermelon with a sledgehammer.

This is why I am such a fan of the new BBC series Intruders right now. It’s five episodes into its first season, and only now are we starting to get a clear picture of what is happening with the secret society of immortals that appears to be manipulating events. Heck, only now are we getting a clear picture that there is a secret society of immortals. The soul transferring ceremony … mechanism … whatever, we have zero idea how that works. What makes the immortals special? Who knows? Why was Marcus (played to the dirty scumbag hilt by grade-schooler Millie Brown, pictured above) to have his immortal status revoked? Not a clue.

Being in the dark is no fun if there’s no point. Just ask all those pissed off people who watched Lost from start to finish. Fortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Producer/creator Glen Morgan has done an amazing job of crafting episodes that are interesting without spilling too many beans, leading viewers to each insight slowly and with a build-up. The direction is moody and sparse, allowing the actors and the story to be front and center. Stars Brown, Mira Sorvino and James Frain take advantage of this approach, owning each scene and revealing layers to their characters that are peeled away at key moments.

It’s worth the ride if this is your type of thing. If not, I’m sure Sleepy Hollow will continue to blast cannonballs of plot and exposition in your face on a weekly basis.

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What to make of ‘WWW: Wake’

www-wake

The upside: The premise of WWW: Wake, the first of Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, is ingenious. What happens when the Internet evolves and gains consciousness? This is about that inception, when that consciousness first emerges and how it comes to realize exactly what it is. This happens with the help of a blind teenager, Caitlin. Caitlin has a unique type of sightlessness, one that Dr. Kuroda, a Japanese researcher, believes he can cure. He does cure her (partially), although initially Caitlin can’t see the real world, just the virtual world. And this is how she discovers and nurtures the being that becomes known as Webmind.

It’s hard for me to explain the brilliance of what Sawyer does here. The evolution of the Webmind is subtle, realistic, creative. The teen Caitlin is one of those kids who comes off as mature for her age, a math geek with a quick wit, but someone who is also very much ruled by her hormones, pop music and the whims of her fellow teens. The relationship between Caitlin the mentor and Webmind the student never feels ridiculous or forced. This is probably the best virtual creation since Hal in 2001.

The downside: Let’s be clear: I haven’t read the entirety of the WWW trilogy, so my beefs here may be resolved over the course of the three books. But there are two other minor plot threads that dissolve as the book evolves. In one, a hacker tries to find his way out of a shutdown of any Internet connection between China and the outside world. In the other, an orangutan hybrid starts to show true artistic and creative ability never before seen in non-human primates.

Both play to the idea of the evolution of consciousness that is the main theme over the course of the story. But neither directly ties into the Caitlin-Webmind plot thread, and both just … end before the final third of the book, when everything is about our new friend in the Internet. Again, maybe these threads come together as the trilogy plays out, but it really cripples the first book, leaving me feeling as if I was cheated for paying attention to details that in no way matter to the story. Interesting side trips, but ultimately pointless.

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What was the big deal about ‘Divergent’?

Kate Winslet does more acting to get out of a speeding ticket than she does in all of "Divergent."

Kate Winslet does more acting to get out of a speeding ticket than she does in all of “Divergent.”

Rushed.

That was the word that kept floating through my head as I watched Divergent. I felt like everything happened too quickly in an effort to get a lot in, and it still seemed like there was something lacking. It wasn’t just that. I still am not sure what the deal is with Maggie Q’s character. It’s the first time I’ve ever walked away from a Kate Winslet performance unimpressed. I’m not sure why the minds behind the movie chose to give Miles Teller a paycheck and then asked him to do nothing to earn it. And so on.

It wasn’t that Divergent was a horrible movie. It’s no Bangkok Dangerous, Ghost Rider or any host of awful movies that don’t star Nicholas Cage. What it feels like is a missed opportunity. The set-up is good, the idea that this future city faces the dangerous wildness around it by strict adherence to a caste system that runs and protects the city. However, the intellectual caste wants to be in charge, doing its best to sling mud at the self-sacrificing caste that provides the politicians and public servants while simultaneously preparing an army of mindless soldiers that will do their will. The needs of the many cast aside by the greed of the few, a timely theme. Besides the premise, Jai Courtney is a helluva lot of fun as the uber-willing fascist jackhole Eric. And all credit to Shailene Woodley, who did a lot with a little. The resulting movie was both not worthy of her performance and only worth watching because of said performance.

Divergent is the set up for a trilogy, so it’s weaknesses could eventually be overlooked if movies II and III can build upon it.

But as a stand-alone, it doesn’t hack it. Unfortunate.

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‘Old Man’s War’ satisfying science fiction

It’s hard to know where to begin with this look at John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. Do I start by noting that it’s screaming for a big-screen adaptation, this novel with a cinematic feel woven into it’s DNA? Do I talk about all of the other influences that popped into my head, from The Matrix to Halo to Starship Troopers to Gulliver’s Travels? Do I write about the Buddhist feel of it all, ascension to the heavens in the body of a higher being, a chance for re-birth, a clean slate upon which to build a new universe?

I think it’s safe to say I got into Old Man’s War. I felt like it worked on a few levels. Yes, if you want a quick, cinematic read, Old Man’s War can be that book. The scene where our hero, John Perry, launches from a spaceship toward the nearest planet with nothing but his weapon and the high-tech, skin-tight body suit that will protect him as he enters the atmosphere is a heart-pounding sequence. Earlier, the Colonial Defense Force discovers the individual defenses of the Consu will absorb the first shot from the CDF’s MP-35 rifles. As they are about to be overrun by the Consu, Perry realizes the key is firing two shots in succession, one to break the defenses, the second to kill, turning the tide of the battle. It’s a thrill ride and a half.

But what really suckered me in was the consciousness transfer, which enables a 75-year-old retiree who has been Earth-bound for life to evolve into a human hybrid that runs faster, jumps higher, heals quickly and is … green, skipping across the universe to do battle among the stars. A lot goes on with Perry and his pals as they adapt to the changes, and there’s this undercurrent of, “What does this mean to our humanity?” Yes, these people who were traipsing slowly to the grave now feel wonderful, are full of energy and are capable of doing things even their younger selves were never able to accomplish. But all of this new power is focused into turning them into efficient, cold-hearted killing machines that will travel the universe to eradicate any non-human life occupying the space the CDF wants to colonize. It’s a perverse trade-off: Be young again, and use that youth to exterminate the other, the new, the unknown.

The final part of the deal is that, after the 2-year mandatory commitment, up to 10 years if the CDF requires it (which they always do, if you’re lucky enough to live that long), you are returned to a new copy of your human body and allowed to become one of the pioneers you have spent your military career defending. This is where the Buddhist idea of karma comes in. After living 75 good years on Earth, you ascend – literally – to a new plane as a super being. Then you spend 10 years as a super being doing your worst to the rest of the universe. After those 10 years, you are returned to your previous human life, forced to live it all over again, but knowing this time, this is it, no more.

There’s a lot more of this identity confusion in the novel, but it’s not something that overwhelms the action. A good comparison is Starship Troopers, not that they cover the same ground, but that the novel is greater than just its alien-killing plot. But I think Scalzi’s touch is more deft than Robert Heinlein’s, much to the benefit of Old Man’s War, as well as Scalzi’s readers.

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What to make of ‘The Islanders’

If you go into Christopher Priest’s The Islanders expecting a normal novel – straight-forward narrative, three-act story, etc. – you’re not doing yourself any favors. Because normal doesn’t even vacation near the Dream Archipelago.

What The Islanders is, in part, is what it the “author’s” forward says it is: An attempt to catalogue some of the endless islands found in the Dream Archipelago. Many of the entries are what you’d expect to read in any travel magazine, a rather simple explanation of climate, attractions, when to visit, etc. Some are first-person accounts of time spent on that particular island. There are odder entries as well, such as a police transcript.

What it evolves into are numerous things. We get a history behind the history of many artists and public figures, as well as key events of great political and human rights importance. We get accounts of military atrocities, mystical happenings and ecological anomalies. And, despite our author’s protestations of what an ideal and wonderful place the Dream Archipelago is, the curtain is lifted to find its inhabitants are also just as vain, mean, confused and opportunistic as anyone anywhere.

I feel like I’m underselling this, and I shouldn’t be. Priest tells some interesting, intimate tales, while taking full advantage of the vast scope of his fictional project to do it. The Islanders has its own, unique brilliance. It’s just not a brilliance that’s easy to explain.

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Where are my beautiful, brooding, glittery vampires?

The body count starts at 200.

The body count starts at 200.

If Guillermo del Toro was involved in a live-action film that pitted the horses of My Little Pony vs. the fruity friends of Strawberry Shortcake, I would watch it. The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II, Mimic and what I consider to be one of the best flicks of the past decade, Pan’s Labyrinth, are all the reasons I need to tune in.

(AHEAD BE SPOILERS)

But if that resume wasn’t enough, having read the first book of The Strain series would have pushed me all in, as well. I love the idea of treating vampirism as a virus/biological threat, elevating CDC scientists and pest exterminators to hero status, and a true, well-planned, violent takeover of the planet by the forces of darkness. The book moves quickly and clinically, a terrific mix of science and superstition.

It doesn’t look like the show will stick 100% to the books, however. It’s been a few months, so maybe I’ve forgotten (if anybody remembers, please mention it in the comments), but I don’t remember Sean Astin’s character from the first novel. That said, there are always going to be changes from page to screen (see The Walking Dead). If it’s handled well, if you don’t lose too much or fail to keep the spirit of the written enterprise, it shouldn’t hurt the show.

One disappointing moment of bad science: 200 people dead on an airplane from something toxic, whether it’s chemical, biological, whatever. As coroner, you’re in the morgue with all 200 of these bodies. Do you go casually eating in the workplace or use half-assed safety gear? No, you frigging don’t. And that’s what he deserved to be eaten by vampires. Supernatural Darwinism. Or maybe just karma for the stupid and lazy.

But that one irksome lapse is in the minority. If the FX series premiere is any indication, what worked on the page is going to work just as well on screen. The show moves quickly and easily, building suspense and delivering scares. The cast works – Mia Maestro seemed a bit under-used, but it’s the pilot so I preach patience – it’s well written and looks fabulous. The book has great breadth, both in story and characters, and early on it seems that the producers understand how to make that translate to the screen. The full-on vampires are used sparingly in the premiere, and our “Big Bad” vamp we’ve seen but not completely, just enough to tease and raise cause for serious concern as to his motives and what he will do to accomplish them. The slow build is definitely the way to go, and the minds behind The Strain get it.

So I guess I’ll just have to go find my pretty, self-involved, glittery creatures of the night elsewhere. The dude abides …

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