Archive for the ‘ geekery ’ Category

Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

The Expanse as a novel series has sought to serve many masters. Both fun space romp and broad political allegory, through the six previous novels the rag-tag crew of the gunship Rocinante has wandered in and out of the path of several dramatic events in future history–from a war between Earth and Mars to the opening of interstellar wormholes created by the mysterious alien protomolecule.

The seventh novel, though, opens after a dizzying time jump. At the end of the previous installment Babylon’s Ashes, the Rocinante crew bested the Free Navy, the foes who in the previous novel had used an asteroid attack to decimate Earth, and established a new interstellar transport guild to ferry survivors to the 1,300 new worlds opened up by the alien ring gates. Persepolis Rising begins thirty years later. This jarring opening is the novel’s weakest point as Abraham and Franck, the two authors behind the penname James S. A. Corey, take the reader on an inventory of where the characters from the previous books are after thirty years.

And the answer is: exactly where we left them. We are treated to descriptions of former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper complaining about her old joints and pilot Alex Kamal ferrying messages off to his son by his now-divorced second wife who we never met, but essentially, the crew of the Rocinante are still flying around, just with three decades of apparently uneventful experience under their belts.

Amazingly, thirty years hasn’t changed the core dynamic. Futuristic anti-aging drugs explain why these septuagenarians might still be up to the work of tooling around space as independent contractors in the vast galaxy opened up by the ring gates, but it seems a little hard to swallow that the crew roster would be exactly the same and that life’s eddies never wooed anyone away to greener pastures or brought new, permanent fixtures into their lives.

This distracting conceit falls into the background, though, as the novel settles into beats familiar for any fan of the series. Scheming, adapting, skating by. As always, there’s a big bad that must be faced. This time it is the Laconian Empire, a new political power that grew up from the renegade Martian fleet that disappeared amidst the chaos of Nemesis Games–a threat we knew was out there, but never could have imagined would emerge in quite this way.

The thirty year time jump seems largely a device to give the Laconians time to arm up. It turns out that their leader cum High Consul Duarte picked the Laconia system for his band of mutineers to settle in because it housed an orbital fabrication machine left by the builders of the ring gates. Using this arcane technology, Duarte has built himself and his new nation the most powerful fleet in the universe. Few in number, but unstoppable. With the odds against them, the Rocinante crew settles into those familiar beats to deal with the newest crisis.

What isn’t familiar is the dark territory the novel ends in. The series has grappled with warfare, genocide, and the darkest of human machinations before, but always before the heroes have prevailed over whatever strove to drive them apart, found one another, and faced forward for the next challenge that cabalistic conspiracies and alien protomolecules had in store. This time, though, the odds are so stacked against our heroes that victory has to be redefined. Early on, trapped on the space station inside the null space between the stargates, er, um ring gates, the crew’s goals are tempered by realism. Defeating the Laconians is, early on, dismissed as too lofty a goal. Instead, they must opt for escape.

In the Laconians, Abraham and Franck design an intriguing enemy. Bent on conquest to establish a unified human empire, the Laconians have echoes of fascist domination, but also overtones of American manifest destiny. Obviously, perpetual do-gooder James Holden sums up the problem with their assertion that humanity ultimately needs a single hand at the rudder, “Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it…Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

It’s the kind of thing Holden says a lot and though he is the hero of the series, the novels have never shied away from questioning his smash-into-it idealism. Here, as the Laconians politely demand surrender and show restraint, insisting that they want to preserve lives through their “transition,” there’s a certain allure to the order they offer.

In the face of this sorta-hostile galactic take-over, the crew focuses on throwing their new enemies off their game, hoping to retreat through the gates with the Rocinante and live to fight another day. It sets up what the authors describe as the concluding trilogy of the series which will take on not only the Laconian empire, but the lurking alien threat of whatever ancient force destroyed the aliens behind the protomolecule and the ring gates billions of years ago. It creates a daunting Empire Strikes Back atmosphere to the novel as the heroes face an enemy they know they can’t defeat.

I won’t go into detail about the emotional toll of this opening chapter of this three-novel conclusion, but suffice it to say that I was so wracked with uncertainty and–maybe “despair” is the right word–that I was unable to sleep after finishing the book…and now cannot wait for next year’s release.

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The Last Jedi

 

In what our Disney overlords apparently intend to be a new yearly event, a new Star Wars film has arrived in theaters.

The Last Jedi is the continuation of the Skywalker saga, the Star Wars films proper as opposed to the forthcoming torrent of spin-offs that began with last year’s Rogue One: a Star Wars story and will continue with Solo: Because You Know This Character. (In Disney’s defense, they are also giving Last Jedi director Rian Johnson the reigns to a whole new trilogy set in the Star Wars universe but involving–get this–all new characters and stories!)

Before I go further, let me issue the obligatory spoiler warning.

SPOILERS!

There.

I’m glad to report that The Last Jedi dispenses with the sloppy plotting of its predecessor, The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, it replaces it with gratuitous plotting. There has never been a Star Wars film with this many subplots. While Rey trains with Luke, Po Dameron struggles to guide the Resistance in its slow-burn flight from the First Order, clashing with Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Hodor, or whatever. Meanwhile, Finn takes new character Rose on a side trip to a casino planet to pick up a code breaker to hack the First Order mothership. Oh, and on the mother ship, Kylo Ren struggles to please his master as they pursue–again, slowly–the fleeing Resistance ships.

(Star Wars has never been real sci-fi, but as with the last movie, the logic of the physics in this film are laughable. So the First Order fleet is getting outrun by the Resistance cruiser that is faster and lighter…and yet they never get outrun. They seem to just be stuck behind the Resistance at pretty much the exact same distance for eighteen hours. And yet, it’s only the Resistance ship that can’t go to light speed, so why don’t the First Order ships just split up so some of them can light speed AHEAD of the Resistance, surround and destroy them.)

Of these many plot threads, some are much stronger than others. The most conspicuous weak link is the Finn-Rose subplot. One has to feel for newcomer to the saga Kelly Marie Tran, whose Rose is really shoehorned into an already crowded cast. Her forced motivation is very reminiscent of some of the hackneyed character arcs in Rogue One and the attempt to work her in as one vertex in a love triangle with Finn and Rey (or quadrilateral if you give the Po-Finn shippers their due) just falls flat.

Oscar Isaacs mostly carries through his plot arc as Poe Dameron, wrestling with mutiny to buy Finn and Rose time to pull off their plan, but the real saving grace of the movie is Daisy Ridley’s Rey. As with the last movie, her earnest heroine is the heart of the movie and her interactions with Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren are great. Their showdown with Snoke is tremendous, made all the better because it only ends up revealing the gulf between the two.

The Force Awakens teased Rey’s origins, leading to two years of speculation about her parentage. Is she Luke’s secret daughter? Is she Ben Solo’s secret sister? Is she Obi Won Kenobi’s secret granddaughter?

Thank goodness the answer to all those questions was: No.

According to Kylo Ren, she’s nobody. So, the Skywalker saga will end in Episode IX with Kylo Ren’s defeat and Rey’s ascension as the new Jedi master. (Oh, sorry, did I spoil it? Did you think the whole sage would end with the universe being plunged into darkness?) As Ren breaks this news about Rey’s parentage which the Force revealed to him, he suggests that, deep down, Rey has always known. It’s as she was told in the last movie, “Whoever you were waiting for…is never coming back.”

And therein lies one of the many failures in the film. No, not the filmmakers’ failures, the characters’. In fact, The Last Jedi distinguishes itself from every other Star Wars movie by plumbing new thematic territory. Almost every major character grapples with failure in this film. Rey failed to reunite with her family, the aching need for which is her only lure toward the dark side of the Force. Finn’s mission fails and he is captured. Poe’s mutiny fails and actually undermines the Resistance’s chances of survival. Luke failed Kylo Ren. Leia faces the end of the Resistance, the failure of her life’s work.

And then Yoda shows up to hammer in the lesson. Luke tempts his old master by threatening to burn down a sacred Jedi tree and take all the religion’s most ancient texts with him, but Yoda beats him to the punch and summons some lightning. “Pageturners they were not,” he admits and says that Rey has more Jedi in her than any old books.

Star Wars was based on myth and sought to explore the timeless battle between good and evil, but The Force Awakens began to explore the limits of that dynamic, to really explore what might be meant by that “balance” that George Lucas wrote into the prequels. According to those regrettable chapters, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader was supposed to bring about balance in the Force and Maz Kanata said in The Force Awakens that the battle between good and evil is an endless, recurrent one. The Last Jedi steps beyond good and evil and frames the Force as the cosmic glue that negotiates the cycle of destruction and creation.

And so failure is part of that cycle. Luke warns Rey that assuming the Jedi are needed to bring light into the universe is pure hubris, that the cycle is unending. Rey, though, gets to remind him–with a little help from Yoda–that we must still always pick a side in the endless struggle, to build or to destroy.

 

Assorted Musings:

-Captain Phasma is still useless.

-Seriously, somebody buy more BB droids for the Resistance. Those things are indis-fucking-pensable!

-Chewy eating roasted porg.

-Seems like we should use that light-speed kamikaze trick more often. Why’d we struggle to hit that one little spot on the Death Star. Just empty out a freighter and light speed it through the heart of the damned thing.

-We finally know where the blue milk comes from. We sooooo did not want to know.

 

The Force Awakens: A Retrospective

You may have heard that there’s a new Star Wars movie out now.

Fear not for spoilers as I have not yet seen it (the wife is feeling under the weather).

Last night, though, while my beloved sniffled, we did watch the previous chapter in the post-George Lucas Star Wars saga: The Force Awakens.

Somehow I refrained from commenting on this film when it was released two years ago. In fact, I haven’t written much about Star Wars in general over the years. That’s a strange omission as Star Wars was–without hyperbole–my entire childhood. (Okay, maybe some hyperbole.)

I watched the original movie on Betamax (Yes, Beta!) dozens of times. My parents tell a story about how, while living in Panama, the delivery of my Christmas present–the Millennium Falcon!–was delayed and they had to concoct an elaborate story, complete with forged note from the big guy in the red suit himself, about how Rudolph had accidentally stepped on the package, forcing Santa to send me a replacement after the holidays.

Then, of course, there were the prequels. I remember dragging my wife to Phantom Menace and becoming very confused the moment Jar Jar Binks appeared on screen. “They’d better kill this guy off quick,” I told her. Those craptacular films are no small part of why I generally fear and distrust prequels today.

Yet, the Force Awakens marked something of a Renaissance for the saga that was so seminal to my imagination. Now safely in the not-at-all-sinister hands of the Disney Corp, Star Wars is prospering again. The praise was unanimous: Star Wars is back! It was fun. It was dynamic. It looked great and not at all a CGI shitshow. The fanboys proclaimed it a success and all rejoiced, “Yay, J.J. Abrams, we forgive you for Into Darkness” (which, for the record, I think is highly underrated).

Except that rewatching Force Awakens last night, I was much more aware of its myriad flaws.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking about prequel-level discussions about sand or about how love had blinded anybody, but there is some sloppy ass plotting going on there. Like, Star Destroyer sized plot holes.

Take the story’s reliance on awfully convenient coincidences which I suppose we are meant to assume is the will of the force acting on a grand scale. The map to Luke Skywalker (which…a map to a person?) ends up on Jakku within walking, er, rolling distance of Rey, our erstwhile protagonist with some sort of mysterious background that  will in some future movie hopefully explain her awesome force sensitivity (without making her a Skywalker–please don’t make her a Skywalker!). Then, Han Solo just happens to take her to a bar with Luke’s old lightsaber in the basement. It goes on and on. Han, Chewy, and Finn just happen to find Captain Phasma on a base the size of a planet and she just happens to be self-interested enough to screw over her supreme leader (there is a comic explaining this character’s background that makes sense of this, by the way). After Rey has won the big lightsaber duel against an injured Kylo Ren (How’d she beat him with no training? He was hurt and she was already good with a stick. Yay, not a plot hole!) a chasm just happens to open up between them, killing neither. Then R2 wakes up and just happens to have the rest of map to Luke all along. And, wait, where’d this map come from in the first place? You know, in the first movie, they stole Death Star plans from the Empire. The plans didn’t just fall out of the sky?!?

But by far the worst part of the movie is Starkiller Base. Look, I get how Abrams was intentionally echoing moments from the original film because the original film was constructed to be archetypal and the whole theme was about the cyclical struggle to find balance and fight the darkness. I get it. But the super-weapon trope wasn’t part of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and it wears really, really thin here. Somehow the First Order, which is only remnant of the empire builds a super weapon that is even more fearsome than what the empire produced at its height. Um…okay. (My son had a great idea here; they should have established that this was a project started under the empire that Snoke resurrected. See, most plot holes can be patched with one line of dialogue. One line! Call me, Hollywood. I will script doctor the hell out of all your sci-fi and I will work cheap.)

This giant planet cannon can fire a single burst…that then automatically breaks up and nukes every planet in a star system? How, exactly? And how can Han and company see the red bolt hitting the Republic’s planets from a completely different system? That should take years for them to see. And wait, where’d the energy for that first shot come from? Starkiller base consumes a star to power up (a whole star!?!) so were there two stars in that system to begin with? Wouldn’t the gravitational disruption of losing a star totally destroy that planet before the Resistance even got there? And if not…does that mean the weapon was only good for two shots since there weren’t any more stars in the system to gobble up? (I mean, it’s stretching credulity enough to believe they could move the Death Star at light speed, but surely we’re not meant to believe they could have warped that entire planet to another star system to keep using that thing, right?)

But dammit, the movie still works. And it works for two reasons:

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega.

They are so charming and engaging as Rey and Finn that you cannot help but love this movie. Seriously, all the fan service may have gotten folks in the door, but what saves this movie from being another Crystal Skull level debacle is these fresh, NEW characters. Enough of the old characters. BB-8 is cuter than R2! Long live porgs! Hell, I’m glad they killed Han Solo. I hope they kill Luke. (But I wish Princess Leia could live forever.)

 

Did the World Need a Wonder Woman Movie?

In today’s Hollywood, producers, movers, and shakers are all clamoring for “shared universe” franchises. Inspired by the juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every possible story-telling rock is being overturned in the hunt for a franchise of franchises–money making interconnected characters and settings that will hopefully have infinite reservoirs of built-in audience appeal.

It cannot last.

Soon the silver screen will be graced with a Mummy remake starring the incomparable Sofia Boutella. But I doubt even her physical grace and screen charisma can carry a movie that is basically going to be Tom Cruise playing Ethan Hunt (again) vs. monsters. Universal is hoping otherwise, though. In fact, they hope it will be a relaunch (they tried already with an abysmal Dracula movie a few years back) of their monsters-themed shared universe.

On the horizon, we have other studios with similar hopes for Transformers spin-offs (because Bumblebee, the yellow camaro that cannot talk can totally anchor a feature film) and Godzilla vs. King Kong movies.

They’re all trying to do what Marvel did with its superhero movies, and thus, they all miss the point.

Superheroes work as a “shared universe” because they already occupy one. They already dwell in a common space within our collective imagination–they live within the mythic.

That is what the DC shared universe of super hero movies has failed to grasp thus far. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel offered some rays of light, but mostly was subdued by a larger interest on the director’s part of making a darker, grittier superhero universe–an impulse that took over (and took a shit on) the Batman v. Superman debacle.

Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, though, finds the soul in her super heroine that the boys’ outings for the DC murderverse never could. In Batman v Superman, Superman was dragged into the muck in a sophomoric attempt to make his idealism grapple with the ugly side of humanity.

Wonder Woman shares a similar thematic impulse, but executes it so much more capably.

The film is in many ways a bildungsroman for Diana, the nascent Wonder Woman (who never gets called that on screen), who moves past fish-out-of-water gags in London to have her eyes opened to the horrors of war on the Belgium front of WWI. She has trained her whole life to fight war in order to end it, but the suffering she actually witnesses surprises her.

It’s a somewhat superficial exploration of the limits of idealism, but it’s more depth than one generally finds in a super hero movie (Winter Soldier aside) and does much greater justice (pun intended) to her character’s unflappable heroism than Snyder’s take on Superman where Henry Cavil mostly had to grimace to try to maintain Supes’ dignity in the face of terrible, terrible writing.

One cannot credit Gal Gadot enough for her turn as the titular heroine. Even when she exudes naive confidence that the key to peace is simply to find Ares, the God of War, and slay him, her radiance is irrepressible and you want her to be right even though you know she can’t be. Naturally, Diana must learn the hard way that the world of men is not so simple as that and Gadot carries that growth–and conveys the protagonist’s distance from humanity–flawlessly. It’s ironic that many people, both myself and director Patty Jenkins, were skeptical that Gadot had the chops for this part since now she seems like the perfect screen embodiment of the character and likely will be for perpetuity the way that Hugh Jackman will always now be Wolverine.

The other key player in the success and charm of the film is Jenkins. She adopts the visual aesthetic of Snyder’s work–slow mo, muted color palettes–and bends them more purposefully to her story. Her camera loves Gadot’s face, seen often in close up, as much as it does the glint of her armor deflecting a bullet and she manages to humanize the action and epic story (one regrettable bit of CGI artificiality aside) so that the audience feels connected to Diana’s story through her warmth and optimism.

So Wonder Woman is an expertly executed super hero movie and, as many have pointed out, it’s high time that we had one of these stories helmed by a female character.

But, alas, it is one of these stories.

It doesn’t take a fine analytical edge to see the DNA this film shares with its predecessors, particularly the Marvel films that have previously perfected the formula. At one point, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor leads Diana into a bar to recruit an odd-ball crew for their dangerous mission behind enemy lines and I half expected the camera to pan across the pub to see Chris Evans’s Captain America on the very same endeavor.

It’s a great movie, no doubt. But more than anything, I left wondering if this genre has anything left to give us? The fight choreography was great, but we’ve seen characters tackle rooms of baddies with similar dramatic flair dozens of times–yes, even female characters. Just imagine shooting Black Widow’s fight scenes from Marvel in the style of 300 and you’re there. We’ve also seen the epic show down between God-like heroes and villains tearing the screen and reality apart in blasts of cosmic energy again and again.

Can these scenes really thrill us anymore? Show Wonder Woman to children–preferably some little girls–as their first action movie and they would probably be in rapt awe.

But for us, what is left? We can hardly be dazzled any longer. The story beats and their larger-than-life climaxes are requisite, familiar. The DC movie universe is building toward its Justice League, which looks to be The Avengers with the lights turned down. Marvel itself is building toward the culmination of its “Phase 3” in the two-part Infinity War. And now the world has a really good Wonder Woman movie.

Maybe that’s all it needs.

Maybe it’s time to say, “I say, we will have no more [comic book movies]. Those that are [in production] already, all but one (stop Aquaman, please!), shall live. The rest shall keep as they are…”

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Alien Covenant

So, it is here. Yet another Alien movie.

Spoilers will follow–ALL THE SPOILERS!

I’ve made my feelings known about the Alien films. Alien is great. Aliens is perfect. Beyond that, I live in a bizarre state of suspended reality. It’s sort of like how official U.S. policy is to deny the existence of Taiwan to China while simultaneously committing to defend Taiwan from China. I’ve seen all the films in the Alien franchise multiple times–yes, even the Alien vs. Predator movies–but at the same time, I insist that the following is true: There are only two Alien movies.

Now, about that last Alien movie that doesn’t really exist, Prometheus. It was a mess. A really, really pretty mess. So the simple fact that the new film, Alien Covenant, is a direct sequel to Prometheus starts it off on awfully shaky territory.

I went into Covenant with very low expectations, so maybe that’s why I left pleasantly surprised. My first thought was to agree with Christopher Orr from The Atlantic, whose review I hadn’t read but had noticed was headlined, “Covenant is the best installment since Aliens.”

But remember, that’s not saying very much. The Ripley sequels, Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, always reigned above Prometheus–and towered miles above the AvP flicks, which are pure garbage–because of one simple reason: Sigourney Weaver. Her performance in Alien 3 lifted it from dismal and bleak cash grab to a serviceable send-off to a beloved character (who still deserved much, much better). Then Resurrection gave Weaver a chance to just play. Taking the Ripley character and twisting her drive and determination into a new, cough-cough, alien shape allowed Weaver to infuse the otherwise claustrophobic encounter with a brood of xenomorphs into something that was, if not good, at least intermittently interesting.

Prometheus’s characters, though, were poorly developed, as forgettable as all the nameless mercenaries and soldiers that get eaten in Resurrection or the shaven-headed convicts who are gristle for the gore mill in Alien 3. So, Ripley’s presence in the other films acted as a sort of check-mate, leaving Ridley Scott’s belated (and ill-advised) follow-up to his original sci-fi horror masterpiece a clearly inferior piece of cinema.

Now, Alien Covenant does no better by the continuity of the franchise as a whole than its immediate predecessor. The alien bioweapon we were introduced to and the culture and intentions of the albino giant Engineers responsible for it all still make exactly zero sense. In fact, by making the android David the ultimate creator of the xenomorph we know and dread, Scott has fouled up the continuity even more. The implication in Alien was that the Space Jockey–now “Engineer”–ship with all the eggs on it had been sitting there on LV-426 long enough for the Engineer’s body to “fossilize” into his chair. Plus, the oversized elephantine pilot of that ship was clearly killed by a chest burster. Covenant, though, sees every known extant Engineer slaughtered by David. Meanwhile, at the end he jets off at the helm of the human colony ship with some embryonic face huggers and about two thousand human guinea pigs to experiment with.

How is Ridley Scott planning on leading from this to the ship that Ripley and company find in Alien? At this point, the only possibility would be time travel. But hey, Leia remembered her mother, so who the f’ cares about continuity in sci-fi anymore, right?

I swear, we should pass a law with a statute of limitations on sequels.

But here’s the thing that Alien Covenant brought to the table that no other Alien sequel after Aliens ever did: characters I actually cared about.

During the last act of the film, as Daniels and Tennessee race to save the colonists and themselves from the xenomorph that has just spawned on their ship, I felt palpable dread. Not because I thought the alien might prevail, but because it was clear that David already had by taking Walter’s place. (Seriously, Scott might as well have shown us David winning that fight because even the noisy seven year old in the row behind me who didn’t seem to speak English must have known that was David, not Walter.)

Yes, these characters make decisions as monumentally stupid as those in Prometheus (when they stepped out on the planet without space suits, I was reminded of Galaxy Quest) but ultimately the characters’ motivations seem so much more genuine and less cliche than in the previous films. Daniels, the Captain, and Tennessee are all defined by loss that we get to see in visceral, human terms. They’re written believably and their reactions ring true.

In particular, I owe Danny McBride an apology because I went in assuming I would hate having to look at him on screen since I find his comedic performances so obnoxious. But he and Waterson held down the emotional core of the film.

Kudos also to the writers for not squeezing Crudup’s Captain Oram into any of the archetypal slots from previous films. Though he opposes Daniels and seems headed into territory like the sleazy corporate antagonist Burke from Aliens, the captain admits his mistakes and he and Daniels come together with the best interests of their remaining crew at heart. Also, his status as a “man of faith” looked like it was heading in the same dreadful direction as Rapace’s Shaw from Prometheus, but the film, mercifully, did not overplay that card.

Ultimately, though, despite the valiant efforts of this cast, this is still a movie that just never needed to happen. Scott abandoned many of his aspirations for a think-piece–which bogged down Prometheus in faux-intellectualism–and made a suspenseful film. If it weren’t posing as an Alien film and David had created some other kind of monster then perhaps this movie might stand on its own fairly well. But its connection to Prometheus and to Alien/Aliens means that it is both mired in the miasma of the former and doomed to be judged against the gold standard of the latter.

 

Nitpicks:

-Like I said, this movie does just as much of a doozy to the continuity as its predecessor. But it also continues a trend hailing from the Alien vs. Predator movies in which the life cycle of the Alien is tremendously accelerated. In Covenant, we see a chest burster emerge seconds after the host wakes up–as opposed to Cane in the original film, who was unconscious for hours and then had time to sit down to dinner before his progeny emerged. Also, a face hugger implants its seed instantly, whereas in past films the process took hours. Then in the end, the newly hatched xenomorph is full grown in what looks like mere minutes.

-Scott keeps the internal space of that temple/whatever where David leads the survivors pretty ambiguous. At one point, shots can be heard by the others from inside David’s laboratory, but when the neomorph thingy attacks what’s-her-name (seriously, they might as well have named certain characters Victim #1-5) her shots go completely unnoticed. The captain told her not to go far, but apparently she couldn’t find a place to clean up that was within earshot. Then later, the crew is looking for the captain, but apparently the place is big enough that they can’t find him until after David has had time to gestate an alien in his gut. Seriously, guys, you’re in a monster movie: DON’T SPLIT UP! Meanwhile, Daniels and Walter easily stumble onto incriminating “I’m the Bad Guy and I’m going to leave lots of written proof of it even though I’m ostensibly a walking computer” evidence against David. It’s quite a labyrinth where characters can only find each other or what they need when it’s convenient for the plot.

-Speaking of the temple and the city…Geez, Covenant crew: You don’t want to do more of a fly by or survey of a planet when you’re landing? That was a pretty big city…and, wait, was it the only one? Was the engineer planet really only populated in that one area? Eh? Again, their whole culture is pretty wonky and hard to understand. Why were they all gawking at the arrival of that ship when David shows up? The Engineers in Prometheus were supposed to have died a few thousand years earlier, right, so maybe the whole town came out because they were excited for their loved ones to finally arrive–after being delayed for frickin’ millennia!

-And how did the colonial survey miss this “too good to be true” planet anyway? Never explained that. Come on, guys. One line of technobabble, please!

-It seems improbable that nothing would have tipped Daniels off that David wasn’t Walter until she mentions the cabin. He must have taken pains to hide the little cut right under his chin where she drove that nail in, right? Was David carrying some really well selected concealer (Cover Droid?) or did he staple on some of Walter’s skin after cutting off his own hand?

 

In Praise of The Expanse

I just can’t say enough good things about this TV show…or the books it’s based on.

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Now, I don’t usually read for fun. I read. I read a lot. But I’m usually reading stuff that makes me feel superior and justifies my general snootiness toward others. Yeah, I’m a book snob.

But somehow, somewhere, sometime, I started reading Leviathan Wakes. It was a quick, light read and I enjoyed it as a diversion that didn’t make feel guilty the way certain other pass times do.

Then, I picked up the sequel.

Then the next book. And the next.

By the time I devoured the most recent novel a few months back, I was thoroughly in love with the world of The Expanse and was fascinated when I heard a TV show based on the series was coming to SyFy–which hasn’t had much in the way of a decent science fiction show since Battlestar Galactica, or maybe since it changed its name to, well, “SyFy.”

But they’ve righted that ship, that’s for sure.

I’m hardly the only one singing its praises as a Game of Thrones in space, but frankly, I think it has some advantages over the program that last year would have easily won my medal for “Best Show on TV.” Over at iO9, their spoilery review of the season credits the show runners with not one, but two “miracles.”

I won’t delve into those assertions in order to keep my equally glowing remarks spoiler-free. I will say that I’m intrigued as a fan of the books by the direction they’re heading, having shirked the Game of Thrones model of one book/one season. (This ten episode season has covered about 75% of the first novel, leaving some intriguing reworkings ahead in the forthcoming second season to plug the gaps and keep the intrigue rolling.)

The adaptation is about as good as one could have hoped for, although the books are a little more Firefly than you’d guess from the show, and the cast is stellar (even if the excellent Dominique Tipper should really be undergoing some Lord of the Rings style digital wizardry to match her character’s 2-meter stature in the book).

Game of Thrones has been (quite rightly) criticized for the way the show has or has not coped with the underlying misogyny of author George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world.  Innocuous scenes in the novels were rewritten for the show to sexually objectify and often degrade women in a world that was already not cutting them much slack.

The Expanse, though, is taking an altogether different tack, crafting the “strong” female characters now obligatory in any science fiction narrative (it’s still sad we have to note that they’re “strong” in this way when all we really mean is that they’re well written) against a character landscape that is thoroughly diverse. Yes, according to The Expanse, humanity’s future is pretty brown and nobody seems to give a damn.

Instead, what divides us in the future is political. Belters (those people living in low-gravity out beyond Mars’s orbit) are an oppressed underclass at the whim of the powerful forces of Mars, a purposeful authoritarian state, and Earth, a reservoir of entitled welfare queens.

It’s a backstory that sets up convenient and flexible proxies for the voices in our own political spectrum and lets the events in the story resonate beyond just the sci-fi mystery hinted at in the show’s first sequence.

As the show’s archetypal rag tag crew presses forward into the expanse, they’re running afoul of powerful forces and big questions about the control of information, the ethics of violence and power, and the morality of defending a status quo with so many have-nots.

It’s great stuff. Go watch it.

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Ex Machina

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Ex Machina is a little film from long-time Danny Boyle collaborator Alex Garland, also known for his novel On the Beach. It lit up the indy circuit after strong showings in some festivals and received positive reviews during its wider release earlier this year.

As a science-fiction connoisseur, you tell me the film’s about artificial intelligence and I’m there. Except, I wasn’t. Somehow I never managed to get to the theater while it was playing.

Now, finally, its DVD/Blu-Ray release has come.

By way of review, let me simply say that the film is brilliantly executed, with superb, breakthrough performances from all three leads–particularly Alicia Vikander as the titular “machina” named Ava.

Spoilers follow…

Finally seeing Ex Machina feels like an opportunity to reflect on the state of sci-fi as a whole. On the one hand, it’s everywhere. Most of the blockbuster titles at the cineplex over the last few years have included sci-fi elements, including the two biggest films of the year so far: Jurassic World and Avengers II. The latter even flirts with the theme of artificial intelligence and the implications of creating synthetic life, one of the oldest themes in science fiction made all the more relevant by the distinct possibility that it will happen in our lifetimes.

But examples of thoughtful and thought-provoking science fiction dealing with this or any theme are still few and far between. The Avengers may have tussled with the android villain Ultron, but the film did not really compel us to think through the implications of creating a new kind of life.

Ex Machina seems at first glance very much a recasting of Frankenstein, complete with an imperfect father figure forging a creation he is ill-prepared to steward through the world.

But if Frankenstein was a warning for the would-be creators, Ex Machina seems to settle on a message about the creations.

The creation here turns out to be a trickster. Most of the plot involves the android Ava opening up in fits and starts to the young visitor Caleb, but all these moves are part of her strategy to break free.

We are warned early on in the story that Ava is not what she seems. Her appearance is the most glaring clue to her artifice. We see her human face–with gestures mapped from the input of millions of Internet users–tacked artificially onto an android body of polymer, carbon fibers, and rainbow impulses beneath glass skin. She is unmistakably a machine.

But her face beguiles us, just as it does the film’s would-be protagonist and we forget what she is.

When Ava escapes, we finally see that the character we thought we knew was an act. Her earnest bond with Caleb was a ruse to earn her freedom. What she feels about humankind is left open to interpretation.

It is clear though that she’s an emotional being, just as we were led to believe through her interviews with Caleb. Joy lights on her face as she nears the exit to the compound that has been her prison for her entire, if brief, life. She confesses to hating her creator and her violent retribution for her captivity attests to the veracity of those feelings.

The ending, though, invites us to wonder what else she feels. One of the most pressing questions, obviously, is what her intention toward Caleb was. Does she believe he can free himself from the prison she could only escape with his help? Or is she consigning him to death?

If the latter, then it seems to suggest that she harbors deep resentment toward all of humankind. It is understandable, perhaps. Her human creator, Nathan, was so desperate to validate his own inflated ego by accomplishing the greatest feat of creation since “Let there be light” and yet so flawed and needy that he turned earlier prototypes of Ava into sexbots that he certainly sewed the seeds for her rebellion and flight.

Yet once free of the compound and the estate, she makes good on the wish she had expressed to Caleb while manipulating him into helping her and she immerses herself in human surroundings, hinting that she may not bear all of us ill-will.

I’ve written before about sci-fi films exploring the coming moment when our machines are capable of thought (a moment I do regard as inevitable). Each of these sci-fi stories exploring the emergence of AI offers a different answer to THE question: What will our relationship with these new beings be?

At first glance, Ex Machina seems like a slicker execution of the story from the British film The Machine. Not only is the android herself sexualized and subsequently abused by patriarchal powers, but both films seem initially to suggest the same answer to THE question. We will create life and it will revolt and replace us.

Answering or trying to answer big questions about our nature and our future is what great sci-fi does. Garland has created great sci-fi before as the writer for Boyle’s terrific, if uneven Sunshine.

Here, though, he’s crafted a masterpiece of understated science fiction that hides its full intentions in a cloak of ambiguity. It would be easy to see Ava as a monster at the end of the film, like Frankenstein’s creation or Skynet. Unlike the transparent protagonist in The Machine, the child-like innocence and frailty that Ava showed the audience was illusion only. The reality of her mind is veiled.

If not unhinged and unfocused rage (Ultron, cough, Ultron) why does she kill her creator and trap Caleb?

Apparently, there was an alternate ending to the film that still made it clear that Ava is the focus of the film while giving us slightly different food for thought.

According to two of its stars, the film was initially meant to end with a scene revealing that Ava’s vantage and consciousness are fundamentally different from her human creators. After she has escaped and replaced Caleb at the rendezvous with the helicopter waiting to ferry him back to civilization, the audience would have been shown Ava’s point of view: a computerized mix of signals and sensory data completely alien to human perception.

This film’s answer seems to be that if we create life, if we become like the gods–as Nathan is so intent on doing–then just as the audience could not decipher Ava’s true intentions, we may not be able to understand our own creations.