Tag Archives: science fiction

‘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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‘Maze Runner’ succeeds where ‘Divergent’ failed

That "runner" in the title was in no way misleading.

That “runner” in the title was in no way misleading.

I shouldn’t have to say spoilers ahead, but I am, so heed my warning.

Remember how dull Divergent was? A slow, overstuffed, slog of a movie that wasted the talent of far too many quality actors, ranged all over the place without committing to much of anything until crunch time and not once made any attempt to explain what the deal was with the big wall around the city? Yeah, that’s not Maze Runner at all.

Maze Runner gives a quick set up, explaining that once a month a service elevator rises from underground into a meadow in the middle of an enormous maze. The elevator carries supplies for the boys and young men living in “The Glade,” as well as one new occupant, who – like all of the other boys – remembers nothing about anything that happened before his arrival in this new, odd and terrifying place. All of the boys operate under a simple code of conduct, each contributing to the collective as they are assigned. Our newbie Thomas (played ably by Dylan O’Brien) wants in on action with the maze runners, a group of guys who leave each morning to run The Maze, mapping as they go, trying to beat it back to The Glade before the doors to The Maze close each evening. Because nobody survives night in The Maze. Nobody.

Once that set-up is established, all hell breaks loose. Kids that get stung by occupants of the maze – mechanical/biological hybrids known as Grievers – turn psychotic and slowly die. The schedule of The Maze changes. Grievers attack the glade. And so on. After the initial moments of the movie, there isn’t much time to catch your breath. The pacing is fantastic, the young cast likable and believable, the effects solid.

My only real problem with Maze Runner is the explanation the Gladers get about their lives and the world they live in when they finally find their way through The Maze. It seems pretty ridiculous. But (and that’s a big old but), there’s a chance what they’ve been told is a lie. If that’s the case, the ensuing Maze flicks should be interesting.

Unlike Divergent. The Maze Runner earns the YA sci-fi screen adaption crown of 2014 … at least until Katniss blows it all up in November.


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What to make of ‘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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Knowing when to say when

Why did anyone keep watching "The Office" after Andy Bernard was put in charge of Dunder-Mifflin's Scranton Office? Hmmm, confusing ...

Why did anyone keep watching “The Office” after Andy Bernard was put in charge of Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton Office? Hmmm, confusing …

I’m so glad NBC canceled Revolution.

Seems like an odd thing to say, since, particularly after the first season of the science-fiction-dystopian-future show, I was pretty high on it. I liked the cast (particularly Elizabeth Mitchell and Billy Burke), I thought the post-electrical future resulting in a fractured United States was a great idea, and I thought it skewed it a bit darker than most network fare.

In season two, however, Revolution started to get all mystical. The re-assembling of the United States, the attempt to procure electrical power hence guaranteeing political and military power, the hard relationships and uneasy alliances that came with all of this, that wasn’t enough. No, we needed nano-bots with a God complex.

Then, as the old spiritual says, the walls came a-tumbling down. Revolution got dumber and dumber, the cast kept expanding and splitting off from each other, and it got to the point where it was hard to remember who was fighting who or who was friends with who, and precisely why.

Would I have given it up heading into season three? Who knows …

Some shows go years before this sort of disintegration begins. Take The Office. The wheels started to come off in season six, season eight was absolutely awful, and the final season made me want to punch someone in the face. Were we really supposed to believe, after eight seasons spent getting them together, that Jim and Pam were going to break up? Really? Do we look that stupid? It was a horrible plot line, it was a predictable plot line and it was an unbelievably annoying plot line. And it was poorly executed, as if the people who made the show didn’t even believe in it. My wife and I certainly didn’t because, after having watched the entire series, we chose to forgo watching the final two episodes. I don’t know how it ends, nor do I care. The money train has to stop at some point, and with The Office, it should have been shut down at least two seasons earlier.

Sometimes, a show can turn it around. True Blood is one example. It’s a show with a high camp factor, as well as a terrific group of core characters led by Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). And in the early seasons, when everything really revolved around Sookie Stackhouse and her close group of pals, True Blood worked. But particularly in season five (although it crept in even earlier), True Blood started making the mistake too many shows make. It got away from Sookie and started creating story lines for more and more secondary characters. Why? I don’t know, probably to keep the actors happy by featuring them more, as it certainly didn’t help the quality of the show. I don’t care what hot piece of tail Sam Merlotte or Jason Stackhouse is banging this week if it’s just to give those characters something to do. I don’t care about Eric Northman’s relationship with his “sister,” because the more he’s interacting with her, the less he’s interacting with Sookie. The Northman-Sookie back-and-forth is one aspect True Blood had going for it, which it pretty much abandoned. I don’t care about Lafayette’s shaman boyfriend, the marriage of Arlene and Terry or anything Alcide has going on with the werewolves. It’s all just a distraction, something that sucked time away from the story of Sookie Stackhouse, which is what drew me to the show in the first place.

In season six, though, it seemed as if the minds behind True Blood started to realize this. The vampires were slowly drawn back together. The werewolf and shifter plot lines were snuffed out. Terry’s dead. The core group was re-assembled. Sookie again became the center of the True Blood universe.

And that gives me hope for the final season, which I have yet to see. Hopefully, True Blood didn’t blow it. But I won’t believe it until I see it with my own eyes.

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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.”


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 if an alien told you God’s existence could be scientifically proven?

Not a bad premise for a novel, right?

Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God starts here, with an insect-like alien named Hollus landing outside the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, walking in through the front door and asking to see a paleontologist. The first paleontologist to answer the call is Thomas Jericho. There starts a relationship built on the bones of animals dead millions of years that ends four hundred years in the future on a space craft near the remains of Betelgeuse after it has gone supernova.

Where does God fit in to this story? When Hollus meets Jericho, she explains that her people, the Forhilnor, humans and another race, the Wreeds, are the only three forms of intelligent life currently in the universe (that they know of), and that all three have something very important in common. Each of their planets has has had five extinction level events, all that the same time in their individual histories. Meanwhile, all three races are at similar points in their development. Jericho is stunned. He asks Hollus if they have an idea as to why this would be possible. Hollus’s answer: God.

Jericho can hardly believe what he’s hearing. And thus begins the real thrust of Calculating God, the give and take between Jericho, an athiest dying of cancer who is bitter and resistant to the idea of a God that would allow that to happen, and Hollus, a serious scientist with more than a little humanity of her own.

What makes the give and take in Calculating God so fascinating is the science. Sawyer is willing to admit the holes in evolutionary theory, of which there are a few. For example, the idea that everything evolves slowly over time to come to where we are today isn’t necessarily entirely accurate. In many cases, there seem to be evolutionary jumps, possibly mutations, that advance the process significantly. Is that the hand of God, guiding development at key points in the evolution? Or is it chance, the chaos inherent in nature?

There are other examples. Hollus notes that water is the most unique liquid in the universe and, without it, there would be no life. All life comes from water, and for water to exist, specific conditions must be present that are also necessary for the development of life.

Or what about Jupiter? Part of the reason life has had the opportunity to develop on Earth is that the gravitational pull of Jupiter sucks in most of the space debris that would do our planet harm. Doesn’t that indicate the presence of an intelligent designer protecting its creation?

As an agnostic, I found Calculating God compelling. Much of Hollus’s pro-God argument is based on the delicate, statistically near-impossible things found in nature that, if something were altered by just a percentage point or a degree, would mean that life as we know it would not be possible. It’s the threading of biological, chemical and physical needles that really gives support to the idea that, to make these things happen, there needs to be a steady hand on the wheel. And that hand may be God’s.

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On second thought: ‘Pacific Rim’

This bad boy makes deep-sea fishing an adventure.

This bad boy makes deep-sea fishing an adventure.

What I thought of Pacific Rim after my initial viewing: I thought it sucked up one side and down the other. The human performances were lacking at best. The fight scenes were slow, clunky and uninteresting. Not a fan.

What I think of Pacific Rim after my second viewing: I’ve softened a bit on the Jaeger-Kaiju fights. I think I was heavily biased due to my distaste for the Transformers franchise, a quartet of flicks that specialize in fight scenes that are mostly just metal clashing at high speed. The hand-to-hand nature of Jaeger-Kaiju combat came across better on second viewing, and the sheer enormity of the robots and creatures made the scale of the fisticuffs that much more impressive.

However, I’m still largely unimpressed by the human performances. Charlie Day works as comedic relief (although I have to admit I kept hoping he’d break out his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia rat-basher and take it to the Kaiju), as does his fellow scientist Gottlieb, played by Burn Gorman. Ron Perlman is big, bold and brash as Kaiju leftover parts salesman Hannibal Chau, but his screen time is limited. Idris Elba, one of my favorite actors, is under-used but solid given with what little the script offers. The Jaeger pilots are largely cardboard cutouts, and our pilot hero, Raleigh, as played by Charlie Hunman (Sons of Anarchy) is a waste of space. Day, Gorman, Perlman and Elba all elevate their weak roles and lackluster dialogue with their solid performances. Hunman is unable to do the same, lacking subtlety in a very by-the-numbers performance.

Final thought: Not a great movie, but it’s a pretty damn fine collection of big bodies battling.

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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.


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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