Category Archives: SF

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Last night’s plans for board and card games fell apart and turning lemon into lemonade I took the opportunity to see Blade Runner 2049.

Blade Runner 2049 as the name suggests is a sequel to 1982’s classic SF film Blade Runner. The original movie was set in Los Angeles 2019 and concerned a policeman, Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, who was a Blade Runner, someone who hunted down and killed rouge androids called replicants. Through the course of first film Deckard learns empathy for the replicants and eventually flees with one, becoming a fugitive himself. It is a source of endless debate if Deckard is truly human or a replicant himself. (The director Ridley Scott is adamant that he is and Harrison Ford is equally adamant that Deckard is human.) Now is it thirty years later, and we are again following a policeman/Blade Runner as he pursues a mystery concerning replicants from the original film and an impossibility of their existence.

Where the first film’s foundation lay in ambiguity Blade Runner 2049 deals with more explicit information, but doesn’t sacrifice the deep philosophical questions that drove the original including what is it that makes us human. To explore these questions in addition to the replicants, the writers have added digital artificial intelligences creating a world that is awash with people who aren’t considered ‘human.’ The Film’s protagonist is ‘K’, and he status as a replicant is made clear from the earliest scenes of the story. That he is hunting his own kind is one of the sources of tension for the story. As he uncovers secrets and mysteries about the events of the original film, K discovers truths about himself and the world around him.

Clocking in at two and three quarters hours Blade Runner 2049 is not a short film, but it did not feel overly long. This is a movie comfortable in its pacing, and well footed enough to slow down and explore ideas and characters without fearing that it might bore the audience. (Though that itself makes it a movie for everyone. There were walkouts about halfway through last night’s screening. However the original Blade Runner failed at the box office and because a classic, revered and studied to this day.) A tricky aspect to crafting a sequel is what do you do about the fact that world has moved on since the first movie? Even in 1982 setting Blade Runner in 2019 was overly optimistic about technological advances and now the original simply is impossible. The filmmakers solution was to treat the Blade Runner setting a parallel time-stream and continue forward along it, ignoring reality’s conflicts. (Though I wonder how many of the younger audience member’s understood the significance of the CCCP in the world-building.) With frequent nods to the original film and even the original novel, Blade Runner 2049 is a respectful and intelligent film from the man who directed last year’s equally smart movie Arrival. I can’t wait to see what he does with Dune.

 

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan 35 years later

Last night I went the Fathom Event Anniversary screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I remember standing in line on a hot summer day on San Diego 35 years ago waiting to see this movie. It did not disappoint then and it did not disappoint last night. There are few SF/Fantasy films that hold up well over a single decade much less three.

Last night’s presentation was the Director’s Cut, presenting a few expanded scenes and a couple of alternative takes, but essential the movie, like the song, remained the same.

I am not going to recap or review the film. By now you have seen it, known about, or just don’t care.

I was surprised by how much the film moved me. Mind you not only have I seen this multiple times before, but I own this edition on home video. This is one of my very favorite films, a movie that has very very few flaws, and one I often watch to raise my spirits. I went last night because it had been more than 20 years since I last watched it on the big screen and never this particular edition, I expected to enjoy it, but not get emotionally invested all over again, yet that is exactly what happened.

The battle in the nebula still excited me, set my heart racing and quickened by breath, I still wanted to scream at Kirk as he walked into the trap upon the Enterprise’s first encounter with Reliant, and Spock’s sacrifice continued to be a gut-punch. This is the power of art, to move you, to reach in and grab you by the feels even when it is well know and familiar territory. This is why re listen to albums over and over, buy television program on home video, and re-read books. It is humbling and astounding.

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Blu-Ray Review: Shin Godzilla

One of the pleasant surprises from my vacation visiting my family on the east coast was getting a copy of the Blu-ray of Shin Godzilla, Toho’s reboot of cinema’s most successful franchise. Regular readers of my blog may remember that I saw this movie in a theater last year and enjoyed the experience. I can say that re-watching it on home video only enhanced my enjoyment and appreciation.

The Blu-Ray itself is thin on bonus features, containing only a trailer and a panel interview about the movie, however the transfer looked great. The picture was sharp, vivid with a clear and powerful soundtrack.

As I stated Shin Godzilla is a reboot of one of film’s most iconic characters. Rather than stick with the convoluted continuity stretching all the way back to 1954, this story wipes the slate clean and proceeds with a story in which Kaiju monsters have never exited.

One of the more difficult aspects to this sort of movie is finding the human story that takes place within the setting of a giant rampaging monster. The original Gojira cracked this using the story as a frame to discuss the recent war, the fears of nuclear power, and the conflict between what you want for yourself and sacrificing for the greater good. Shin Godzilla, well removed the horrors of World War II, centers it story on government officials tasked with dealing the impossible situation. While carrying forward a story about a young idealistic politician and his team of misfits and heretics the movie also finds organic methods of discussing nuclear weapons, governmental paralysis in crisis, and Japan’s international relationships, particularly with the United States.

The film has plenty of unobtrusive call backs to the 1954 original, principally in the soundtrack with sound effects and music well repurposed. Nearly all of the effects work quite well. (I did not like the eyes of the monsters earliest form. They struck me as pasted on and looking like the toys eyes you can stick on just about anything. This, however, is a fairly minor flaw.)

This is film that in many ways mirrors the tone of the original, approached with a seriousness that works and well worth having on Blu-ray.

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Movie Review- Morgan

A few weeks ago I had Netflix send me the disc for The Belko Experiment and on that blu-ray were previews for two films that sparked my interest one of which was Morgan.

Now I will admit that I had low expectations foe this movie. After viewing the trailer it seemed to me that it had a fairly high probability of being a modestly budgeted Alien clone, but that was not the case.

Morgan is a mid-budget SF films about a corporation’s secretive artificial life experiments, the L-9 Morgan project. After an incident resulting in the serious injury of program personnel Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) a risk assessment and management specialist is sent to the isolated facility to determine the dangers to the corporation and if the project should be terminated. The staff, having developed emotional attachments to their projection, resent her presence and her mission.

As I stated this did not turn out to be an Alien copy but Morgan is its own thing. (Some reviewers have unfairly compared it to ex Machina but that I think is a misreading based on surface elements alone. A tight, mostly one set locale, an artificial intelligence of unknown motivations, and a general atmosphere of suspense.) I believe, and unfortunately because this was a rental disc with all the bonus features crippled, it is only a belief, that the filmmakers were more directly inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and James Whale 1931 adaptation. This is the story of creating life and the relationship between the created and the creator. Unlike Frankenstein there is not a single genius but rather a talented team of scientists played by a group of experienced character actors including Michelle Yeoh, Paul Giamatti, Toby Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and with Anya Taylor-Joy, whom I last saw in the lead in the terrific horror film The Witch as the titles character Morgan.

Morgan is a decent, enjoyable, and competently produced movie. Directed by first time direct Luke Scott and produced by his father Ridley Scott, the film makes the most of its modest budget, never looking cheap or like corners were cut, but rather utilizing the limited location and cast to created a confined suspenseful story. This is not a must see movie but it is still worth your time and an enjoyable way to pass 90 minutes.

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Time Scales

As a writer of science-fiction I often have to think about the time scale of future history, which wraps around and has me thinking about the time scale of actual history.

For example take a hypothetical person born around the time I was 1960. (I was not actually 1960 but it good enough for an example.) If that person lives until they are 80 they die in 2040, that an interesting stretch of history. Now say that person has a grandchild or great-grandchild born when in 2030. The kid and the oldest hang out for ten years because the oldster has cool stories before personal computer, home video, cell phones and so on. The kid born in a better time has a better run and dies when they are 90, or 2120. That kid, when they die, has spoken with and interacted with a person who was alive before man flew in space, but is passing away in the 22nd century.

With the rapidly expanding abilities of our medical technology there’s no doubt those number are on the conservative side. To me this gets more staggering when you play these numbers against history.

Move it all back and we have someone passing away in 2020 who had direct contact with someone born in 1860. That old person in 2020 could very well have known someone who had born on a plantation as a slave. That’s how tight and close our history truly is. Things and events we think of as the distant past are really just barely one step removed from living memory.

It is staggering.

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My Fictions and Fading Empires

The military SF novel that my agent is currently shopping around has two core concepts baked into its world building; that the nationalism does not die away and that the United States becomes a faded empire.

(Let’s set aside the entire debate over the word empire and the evilness of the United States. I am using the term ’empire’ in a generic sense for a vast and dominate political entity.)

All empires fade. This is a fact history has repeated over and over so the fading of the American Empire is hardly going out on a predictive limb. In my world building I decided that the United States took a wrong path in the early 21st century, never recovered it senses, and began a downward spiral that among the interstellar nations reduced it to a second rate power. My principal character in the setting is an American who serves as an officer in the European star forces.

Should the publisher that is currently considering the novel decided to buy it and in 9 to 12 months you end up holding a paperback copy that I think is likely to produce an interesting and false conclusion; that the novel is a critique of American politics as they stand now and in particular Donald Trump.

My agent read the manuscript and we became partners in the literary endeavor two years ago, long before anyone dreamt that a TV reality star might take the presidency. The idea is even older than that. I first began working on the concept, early short stories and th basic world building back in the mists of early time, 1988.

(I can pinpoint it even though I usually have a terrible sense of when an event in my past happened because its creation was at the same time that Star Trek: The Next Generation started its first season.)

A lot changed in the world building for my Nationalized Space setting. The world changed, I adjusted ideas but the two core concepts remained the same. So when you read a book, any book, you may find parallels to the world around you but that doesn’t mean that was the specific intention of the author or that work. Sometimes it really is just coincidence.

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Sunday Night Movie: Seconds

The third in director’s John Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy, the previous two films being The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, Seconds turns the attention from external threats to questions of identity and conformity.

The main character of the story is Arthur Hamilton an upper middle-aged man, white, Protestant, wealthy, and entirely dissatisfied with his life. Mysterious communication from a ‘deceased’ friend leads him to a company that services men as himself, creating for them new identities, new lives, in younger, stronger bodies. Arthur undergoes the processes and is reborn as Tony Wilson, now played by leading man actor Rock Hudson. Arthur, living as Tony, is relocated to California and given a life that is designed to fulfill those emotional voids from his previous ones, but they do not. Despite a reignited sexual drive and capacity, a young exciting woman professing her love, and absolute freedom, Arthur/tony remains deeply unhappy. Questioning his choices and seeking solutions puts Arthur/Tony on a disastrous course that he may never recovery from.

There is no doubt that Seconds is a science-fiction story without the intense and complex procedure to take an old man and transform him into a young one the story simply falls apart. The movie is tough, brutal, and disturbing. By brutal I do not a bloody festival of violence, but rather that the handling of the characters and their issues are not softened by sentimentality. Arthur Hamilton is not a particularly likeable man and his transformation does not change this aspect but his journey is intellectually challenging and emotionally wringing which I found compelling and fascinating. The philosophical questions raised, by the film and left unanswered I might add, concerning the conflict between the individual and what society expects of an individual, are deep and powerful. This is an SF movies with a point, it is not a pretty film, it is not a feel good film, and it is not an adventure film, but it is an adult film with adult problems and an adult resolution, Filmed with techniques that were terribly difficult before the advent of SteadyCam, and with distorting lenses, Seconds can be difficult to watch and perhaps even physically uncomfortable for those susceptible to motion sickness.

This was the first time I watched Seconds and with the benefit of historical knowledge Rock Hudson’s performance takes on greater depth, meaning, and nuance, In 1966 Rock Hudson was at the top of his game as a leading man in Hollywood. Young, tall, and handsome he played vigorous, virtuous, and virile men that reflected back to America and the world the illusion of the man that men should strive to be and he did this while living a deeply closeted life. Normally I do not consider an actor personal life or orientation when watching their performance but in this case I think it transforms the acting into a sublime achievement. Taking on the role of ‘Tony Wilson’ Hudson plays a man who is hiding his core identity, who is living a lie, Hudson gives a performance that is layered with its own hidden truth. Frankenheimer wisely doesn’t spoil the subtlety of the Hudson’s acting with cheap close-up of things like a single tear, but lets many of the scenes play out in uncomfortable long takes

Produced when science-fiction cinema was truly becoming an adult art form Seconds is about as far from escapism as a move can get. It is a story unconcerned with heroic gestures, preening villains, or simplistic clashes of good and evil but rather it attempt to plumb the depth of the human soul and what it finds is deeply unsettling. It is a classic film from a master filmmaker, but by far it is not for everyone.

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Classic Movie Review: The Creature Walks Among Us

Sunday night I was in the mood from something from the classic period of SF monster movies but also for a movie that I have not seen a dozen times. Years back I purchased the Legacy Collections of the Universal Horror movies including The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Creature did not spawn as many sequels as either Frankenstein or Dracula with just two follow-up films, Revenge of the Creature and Sunday’s movie The Creature Walks Among Us.

This franchise demonstrates the usual cycle of a hit film and it’s usually poorly thought-out sequels. Creature is a well-made film with a fairly sharp script, interesting characters, and wholly contained story of a small expedition trapped and in a battle for their lives against a strange and unknown creature. With excellent 3-D effects and the truly new monster from universal in some time the original was a smash hit. Of course a sequel had to be made. For the second movie they pretty much repeated the first except instead of having a cast that was trapped with the monster is a lost lagoon now the creature, transported to an ocean themed park in Florida is ravaging in humanity’s world. However the core elements are repeats from the original film; a scientifically oriented female lead that the creature is drawn to, pseudo-science in ‘studying’ the creature, and a climax of rescuing the girl from the amorous monster. Having repeated themselves in the second film the third simply ignore the core elements and tried to tell a wholly new story and graft onto it the gill-man from the first two movies.

The Creature Walks Among Us divides into three sub-stories hunting and capturing the creature in the swamps of Florida. In his capture the creature is badly burned and the scientists use surgery to change the gill-man into a land creature. The middle of the movie is taken up with melodrama about the expedition leader, his crumbling marriage, and dreary debates about Nature versus Nurture, this is meant as the thematic heart of the film and that are interesting ideas here but they are not answers to questions raised by the earlier movies. the final sub-story takes place at the ranch where they are going to study the creature. The melodrama’s sexual tensions boil over, a man is murdered, and the murders big plan is to frame the creature for the killing. Apparently the creature didn’t like the idea of taking the fall and goes on a rampage against the real murdered and then escapes. The movie ends with the creature returning to the sea, unaware that he will now drown.

Deviating wildly from the original themes and premises killed the franchise but the Creature movies captures the challenges and dangers of a series of stories. Keep too close to the first rendition and all you produce is a less original copy, (for example Terminator 2: Judgment Day) ignore those elements and you end up with a film that satisfies no one as it is unlike what fans of the franchise want and is unable to attract a new audience. Universal would be wise to pay heed to its own history as it attempts to re-booth this series.

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Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

From Luc Besson, Director of such varied films as Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element comes a movie that was reportedly one of his personal passion projects Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets. Adapted from a long-running French comic Valerian is an expansive space opera set in a universe with a vast number of alien species fantastic technology and a complete lack of any sort of engaging characters. The title character Valerian is an officer for the Federation of Human Worlds. Along with his partner, Sgt. Laureline he is effective a galactic cop, chasing down bad guys and enforcing the law. His character is supposed to be a ‘bad boy’ the sort of rogue that women can’t resist and who infuriates his superiors. We know this because he tells us so in one of the movies many ‘as you know, Bob’ moments of infodumping.

I am avoiding describing the plot not because of spoilers, though that is always a consideration in my reviews, but because at its heart the plot is a mess of clich├ęs and overly-predictable plot twists; Valerian is a plot driven story with a terribly plot doing the driving. Where a plot driven movie like Dunkirk establishes in the very first scene what the plot is, (surrounded by the enemy and needing to escape), Valerian tries to make their a mystery and only end up making a mess. The characters bounce chaotically from one situation to another bumbling their way through with the very nature of their personalities changing in a futile attempt to create drama. Obstacles in this story are overcome by either a James Bond-like reliance on gadgets that unlike a Bond film are not established before the save the day, convenient friendly aliens with supplying exactly the skill sets needed at the time they are needed, or by daring and do that takes place in front a green screen. (Digital stunts are the most boring of all ‘action.’)

In addition to and numerous writing failures present in the film the lead actors, who are barely adequate for their jobs (And I may be overly generous there), share no chemistry on screen, either as partners or lovers.

I was utterly bored watching this film, checking my watch often to compare the ‘progress’ of then plot against the running time, and when the exposition heavy ending finally arrived I was relieved.

This is a movie I cannot recommend.

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What is it About the Genre Movies of the 1950s?

If you are a fan of genre films, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror there a better than even bet that no matter your age the movies produced during the decade of the 50s holds a special place in your heart.

While Universal Horror started in the 1930s with Frankenstein and Dracula by the 1940s they were already being seen as kids movies with their stories becoming more simple and more focused on spectacle. Remember the first ‘shared universe’ of movie is the Universal Horror franchise as the monsters frequently were thrown into the same movie for bigger and bigger fights and thrills.

However once we get to the 50s there is change in the movies. There still were not ‘prestige’ pictures. These productions did not boast A list stars, they struggled with budgets that were too small, and were rarely taken seriously by the critics. And yet these films are ones we still watched more than half a century later. These are the films, beloved and respected, that soulless corporate executives, produced from business universities and without creative artistic drive, that are rebooted, reimagined, and recreated into tent-pole films without the heart, soul, or intelligence of the originals. But why do we love those originals so much? What makes them so different from the bigger budget, more star-driven, and more elaborate movies of later decades? After all how many 70s SF movies, a prolific decade even before the KT Impact of Star Wars, are still being rediscovered today?

I think the answer lies in cynicism, or rather the lack of that bitter philosophy. When we left the 50s behind America entered a period of profound cynicism. The 60’s brought the Vietnam War, civil strife, televised police brutality, and a collapse of established social conventions. The 70’s grew darker with awareness of global pollution, economic shocks, military defeat, and of course Watergate. Distrust of government and nearly all institutions infected nearly ever aspect of our culture including cinema. All our films, including genre ones, took a dark turn surrendering to nihilism and cynicism that masqueraded as wisdom. The 80’s brought us the summer blockbuster, technically born in the 70’s The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars, but it took the studios several years to begin chasing them in earnest. Light summer fare that ignored both the cynicism of the 60s and 70s but avoided serious thoughtful stories instead providing adventure as escape.

It’s now surprise that the movies of the 1950s appeal to an idealism that has been absent for far too long. Now we have to be honest and recognize that the 50s were not the idyllic American Summer. It was a period of repression, conformity, and suppressed individuality, but the lure of simplicity is powerful. Against that social conformity genre films of the 50s expressed not only an optimism stripped away in the follow years, but through movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them!, and many others they critiqued the culture and ourselves. How could such films not last the ages and not continue to find new and wider audiences?

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