Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Master of Puppets

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Well, this is certainly news that I didn’t want to read today – Gerry Anderson, tv Sci-Fi pioneer and beloved icon of British nerds, has passed away at the age of 83.

I’m not sure how much Anderson’s career resonates with American readers, but to British nerds of a certain age Anderson’s marionette-powered sci-fi action adventures were a regular and welcome injection of derring-do and thrilling storytelling on kids’ tv before the era of on-demand tv and internet made finding such gems somewhat easier.

Captain Scarlet

If I throw out some titles – “Thunderbirds”, “Captain Scarlet“, “Stingray“, “Space: 1999“, “UFO“, my personal favourite “Terrahawks” – you might get an idea of what I’m talking about.  Yep, mostly marionette-driven, mostly irony-free adventures which seemed like they came from a different time even when I was watching them as a kid.  But they were arguably key in getting me into the kind of sci-fi adventures that I grew to love – this was a time when you couldn’t see Star Wars whenever you wanted (VHS wasn’t yet remotely affordable), and any TV show which took you into space, under the sea or into uncertain alien territory was like delicious catnip to a youthful Fluffrick.

I suspect that most younger readers might have only encountered “Thunderbirds” through the enjoyable but not entirely successful live action Jonathan Frakes film from 2004, which at least managed to keep the best things about the show – the epic-in-scale, perilous rescue missions, largely eschewing violence as a solution to problems, even going so far as to find actors to play the Tracy brothers who were somehow less convincing than their marionette counterparts – and boasted one genius performance from Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope.

Anderson died peacefully at noon today – he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease since 2010.  And his brand of energetic, breathless storytelling will be deeply missed.

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An Unexpected Journey through “Hobbit” art

I’m a big fan of Tor Books‘ blog – there’s always something interesting to read there, be it from their own publishing list or from the wider world of speculative fiction and nerd culture.  Their annual “Steampunk Week” being a particular favourite, which will come as no surprise to anybody who knows me.

As we count down to our eagerly awaited return to Middle Earth, Tor Books’ Irene Gallo examines the work of various artists inspired by Tolkien‘s work over the years…

 

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“Oblivion” pics? Nerd-vana…

Concept art from "Oblivion", via JoBlo.com

Concept art from “Oblivion”, via JoBlo.com

By the time that “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” begins to digitally unfurl for me next Thursday lunchtime, I’ll be well and truly exhausted.

How so?  Why, by the parade of geeky, awesome movie trailers for 2013 fare which have preceded the main show, of course.  As well as footage from “Star Trek Into Darkness”, the humble movie-goer can expect first looks at Zack Snyder‘s ‘Superman‘ reboot “Man of Steel” and now the upcoming Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle, “Oblivion”.

For me, this is a very cool development as I loved the previous movie from “Oblivion” writer/director, Joseph Kosinski, the unloved but splendid “Tron: Legacy“, and these nifty slabs of target concept art promise a genuine science fiction adventure with a sense of scale missing from most cinematic attempts in the genre – to be polite, we can best summarize most Hollywood speculative fiction as action movies in sci-fi drag rather than actual, genuine attempts to tell stories which genuinely engage with science fiction concepts and big ideas.

Of course, this is a big studio film with a notably hands-on star/producer, so there’s every chance that “Oblivion” will deliver on the pretty visuals front and deliver not a jot of substance, but a geek can dream that a 2013 studio film will engage noggin and heart at the same time.

 

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Late Reviews: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

I, for one, welcome our new Simian overlords…

The long bank holiday weekend in the UK has meant two things.  The first is that I refrained from posting in order to enjoy the break – the second is that I ended up watching a bunch of films which had passed me by in the last year – thus giving me the opportunity to then post more reviews.   Everybody wins?

SPOILERS throughout for the film’s plot – please be advised if you haven’t seen it yet.

To the point, then – I finally had the chance to catch up with last summer’s sleeper sci-fi hit, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and it was absolutely worth the wait.  British director Rupert Wyatt‘s first major studio effort is a remake/remodel/remix of the classic sixties sci-fi “Planet of the Apes”, itself originally adapted from the Pierre Boule satirical novel, and this new version does a damned good job of updating the story to reflect our present-day societal concerns whilst still finding clever and unobtrusive ways to directly reference the original film.

My major reservation about seeing this film was purely a casting one – I’m not the biggest fan of James Franco and didn’t relish the prospect of sitting through a movie where he had to carry the bulk of the story on his shoulders.  It’s an irrational prejudice and one which I’m happy to say was somewhat undone by his work in this film, which was oddly affecting and compelling – it’s a tough ask to make a driven scientist who does some fairly appalling things during the course of the story sympathetic and understandable, but a combination of a great script from Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Franco’s subtle characterisation makes you care about Will Rodman, even when his work essentially brings about the fall of civilisation as we know it.

Still, in a planet where TMZ.com, the OctoMom dance single, “Geordie Shore” and One Direction exist perhaps it could be said that humanity had a good run and should turn things over to our Ape betters, eh?

This isn’t to say that Franco’s the only reason to see the film – he’s supported by a superb cast which includes the ever-reliable Brian Cox, Freida Pinto, David Oyelowo, a splendidly hissable, wonderfully villainous Tom Felton and a truly heartbreaking John Lithgow, playing Franco’s father in the film, whose battle with Alzheimer’s is the motivating factor which sets the plot in motion.  As for the reliably excellent and boldly innovative motion-capture-hybrid performance by Andy Serkis, I’ve written about his shamefully unacknowledged body of work before but you might want to read Franco’s generous and informative assessment of his performances over at deadline.com.

Why must we put up with such unattractive movie stars? Why?!

And what a plot it is – rather than the astronauts crash-landing on a mysterious planet which turns out to be (shocker!) an Earth overrun by apes in the 1968 film, this update takes a more grounded approach to the established mythology, following scientist Will Rodman (Franco) whose attempts to save his father (Lithgow) from ongoing Alzheimer’s Disease are complicated when he rescues chimp cub Caesar (a superb Andy Serkis) from certain death at his lab.  His work on an experimental  cure for his father’s condition involves testing on animal subjects, which increases their intelligence and comes back to bite him in the butt in the worst way possible…

It is this relationship between roughly plausible science and spectacle which gives the film a weight that it might not otherwise have if it were a run-of-the-mill, explosions aplenty blockbuster – we can all imagine the horror of what Alzheimer’s would do to somebody that we love and what steps we might take if we had in our power to do something that could reverse that foul and evil disease once and for all.

The film’s plausibility doesn’t stretch to its treatment of the primate characters, unfortunately – when we eventually see the hellish ‘ape rescue’ facility which an adult Caesar is incarcerated, I had to raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of an Orangutan and a Gorilla amidst the general chimp population.  Just wouldn’t happen – the animals would have torn each other apart, the facility would have shut down and the plot just wouldn’t be able to unfold in the way that it does in this film.  I attribute this wholly to artistic license and can move past it as the rest of the film is so enjoyable.

“To the Apple store, brothers! iPads for one and all!”

By the time that the set-piece depicted above arrives, and our Ape brethren have well-and-truly overrun a San Francisco utterly unprepared for an army of super-smart Simian soldiers besieging the Golden Gate bridge, I was ready to follow it anywhere that it went and eager to see how an inevitable sequel would develop the plot strands left hanging at the end of the film.

At the close of the film Caesar and his intelligent apes have escaped to the forests of California and Franco’s much-beleagured airline pilot neighbour- played by genre veteran David Hewlett – has been contaminated with a strain of virus which, we can logically deduce from the mid-credits scene, is responsible for a global pandemic which will go on to decimate the planet’s population.  We’ve not yet gone down the route of gun-wielding great Apes riding horses and rounding up rogue packs of on-the-run humans but we’re certainly a bit closer to it by the time that this film ends – I’d love to see what kind of spin Wyatt and his writers could put on the tropes established by the original quintet of “Apes” films.

If you liked the classic series, have a love of thought-provoking sci-fi and want a movie which doesn’t which doesn’t treat the audience like dolts and buffoons then this is definitely a film that you should catch up with.

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Ray Bradbury – “All My Friends Were On The Shelves Above”

Ray Bradbury – Born August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois. Died June 5, 2012 in Los Angeles.

Ray Bradbury, fantasy and speculative fiction writer, died yesterday in Los Angeles after a long illness.

Letters of Note today presents a lovely letter from the great man to a library, concerning the inception of  “The Fireman” which eventually became his celebrated novel, Fahrenheit 451(the novel, he argued, which was his only true work of science fiction – he saw himself as a creator of fantasies).

When a writer like Bradbury passes, if you’re anything like me, you suddenly realise that you’ve not read nearly enough of his work.  That’s a sad state of affairs which I mean to address at the library this weekend – I like to think that Bradbury would approve of using this most underrated and glorious of resources to further explore his body of work.

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Appropriate Attired Adventurers Assemble!

Well, this is awesome.

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Fantasy and SF book blog A Dribble of Ink turned me onto this neat Tumblr – Women Fighters in Reasonable Armour and I’m rather taken with it.  It collates examples of fantasy and SF artwork depicting female characters garbed in attire which is actually practical and appropriate to the ass kickery which they are engaged in.

I’ve blogged about this before in relation to my beloved “Resident Evil” and “Underworld” movie series – and I guess that there’s an tie-in with the current blockbuster “Avengers” movie – in which your strong, competent heroines are togged out in PVC/Leather catsuits or some derivation thereof.  I’ve found it a bit curious, to be honest, with all kinds of mixed messages suggesting themselves:  I love the (mostly) empowered heroines, I’m just not crazy about the ass-hugging camera angles frequently employed to depict them.

It’s that cross-over point between agency and objectification – which I’m sure as hell not smart enough to figure out by myself (there may be that undeniable masculine perspective which is also standing in the way of better understanding).  That said, I feel that the issue goes something like this – the phenomenon of ‘male gaze‘ is the problem in most depictions of otherwise strong female characters in genre entertainment.

Let’s say that two directors on a film both shoot variations on the same scene with a female warrior in an action scene.  The details of the scene are identical, but for the way that the female character is shot – one director frames the female character neutrally, allowing her to proceed through the sequence without the camera lingering on her body or focussing on anatomy in any particular way.  The other guy is Michael Bay.

Rosie Huntington-Whitely - also pictured, Michael Bay's explosive super-ID...

You can begin to see the problem if you took in a screening of the thirdTransformers film – in which Bay’s camera leered so constantly after star Rosie Huntington-Whitely‘s rear end that it was possible to conclude that the director missed his calling in life and might have sought more appropriate employment as a proctologist.

It’s possible to argue that Hollywood’s M.O. is to market around visuals and aesthetics, so can’t do anything but focus on eye candy and create narratives in which the visual shorthand is paramount (no pun intended), but there’s got to be a point in superhero narratives, fantasy fiction and sci-fi stories where common sense prevails and the heroines aren’t attired in costumes which make no fricking sense.

Jim C Hines - making my point about the 'male gaze' in hilarious fashion.

If Hollywood starts insisting that Jason Statham wear armour-plated Speedos as he kicks in henchmen’s teeth and that action heroes have to be dressed in as vulnerable a fashion as possible, I suppose that we might be said to have reached some kind of parity in the depiction of  the genders when every hot dude is being as exploited as much as every beautiful gal.  Over in the realm of fiction, writers have been engaging with the silly archetypes and imagery being used to market their novels – witness io9’s posts on fantasy writer Jim C. Hines, who has been writing a series of blog posts deconstructing some of the tactics used to market books to readers in a charming and self-effacing way.

Sensible armour, worn by a sensible young woman. Almost makes up for Bella in "Twilight" being such a drip, doesn't it?

There is hope, of course – forthcoming summer fantasy blockbuster “Snow White & The Huntsman” goes some way towards depicting a capable heroine who doesn’t have to wear a chain mail bikini to wield a sword and punch undead beasties in the ‘nards, the “Alien” prequel which isn’t, Ridley Scott‘s “Prometheus”, seems to wait a decent amount of time before finding a narrative reason for female lead Noomi Rapace to show up in her pants and even the catsuited heroine of “The Avengers”, Scarlett Johansson‘s Black Widow, might be wearing a catsuit but isn’t striking cheesecake poses, breaking a heel and waiting for her male compadre to save her.

Do these archetypes exist because we’ve established a taste for them as an audience or because we’ve been told that this depiction of heroes and heroines is what we want?

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Assimilate this!

I read this story over at The Mary Sue today and did a momentary “WTF?” after finishing it – former NASA scientist disses “Star Trek”.

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Bear in mind that I’m not the biggest Trekker in the world – when I was younger, classic “Trek” was something that I endured rather than enjoyed, and felt rather slow and staid next to the glitzier, more elaborate cinematic fantasies of the post-Lucas/Star Wars era.  I was too young to fully appreciate the pioneering role that it played and the influence that it had on a generation of nerds, which is why I like to take time to sit down with my wife and catch up on it now, as she’s always had the good sense to be a Trekker of the highest order.

I can understand why some members of the scientific community might hate on popular culture (or aspects of it) for making their job harder and for diminishing the hard work and graft which goes into achieving scientific success – but it also makes the idea of space travel, of investing in technologies which might make our world better, of valuing the importance of ideas over superstition more accessible to an audience whose scientific knowledge started and stopped with their school career.

I’m all for the odd bit of hard science to balance out the laser swords and wise cracking androids but to blame “Star Trek” and pop-sci for diminishing science is more than a bit churlish, I think.  Shouldn’t we be pouring our scorn on things which genuinely deserve it? There’s a million more offensive science denying halfwits in positions of public influence who should be picked on and remonstrated with before you go about blaming a show/franchise which probably persuaded more than a few wide-eyed junior nerds that science was a discipline that they wanted to give their lives to.

“Star Trek” is most definitely not the problem here.

 

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