Tag: sci-fi (page 3 of 35)

The Lived-In Universe

Couretsy LucasArts

For a long time, space travel in fiction was predominantly shiny. Long, slender, cigar-shaped rockets predominantly made of chrome blasted off towards the stars. More often than not, equally shiny flying saucers spun their way towards our suburban homes to shower our Sunday barbecues with death rays. I am exaggerating a bit, but what I’m driving at is there was an aesthetic that remained largely untapped until 1977.

Just before then, the shiny sci-fi aesthetic extended to both realistic films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and episodic television such as Star Trek. Roddenberry, in particular, envisioned the future as a utopia, peaceful and squeaky-clean. Then along came a little movie called Star Wars. From the very beginning, it was something different. The Star Destroyer was enormous, imposing, and definitely not peaceful. The Tantive IV, said Star Destroyer’s prey, was battered and utilitarian. Mos Eisley was both visually and ethically dirty. And the Millenium Falcon? What a piece of junk!

The galaxy far, far away as envisioned by George Lucas is the result of literally thousands of years of history. The worlds and ships are used and lived-in. Even callbacks to earlier times, the tales set in the Old Republic, have worn edges and is painted with shades of gray morally and aesthetically. It was this, not the shiny utopian vision, that informed the immediate followers of Star Wars, such as the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Gene Roddenberry tried to resist this trend. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a big, bold utopian statement, to the point that Roddenberry himself said that there should be no interpersonal conflict on the gigantic new USS Enterprise. This lead to early seasons of the show often feeling pretentious and sterile. Thankfully, later seasons moved past this to have the crew behave more like real people than Federation pontificators, and Deep Space Nine pushed things even further. That show was concurrent with shows like Babylon 5 and FarScape, both of which introduced universes that were both brand new and familiar in their dynamics and feeling of history.

As fun as it is to envision a shiny, utopian future, the fact is that a more lived-in universe is more accessible to a wider audience. We picture ourselves more easily in a galaxy with some history, some mileage, and some rough edges, because it’s closer to the world we actually live in. We’ve walked down a street like the one we see in Mos Eisley. We’re familiar with being elbow-deep in our vehicle trying to get it to behave. We’ve had conversations with very stubborn, well-reasoned people, and tried to fight back against things that we feel are wrong, even if it’s an uphill battle. These are universal elements to good storytelling, no matter what the ‘verse in question might be – looking at you, Firefly.

What are some other instances of science fiction feeling lived-in and familiar, despite being set in galaxies far, far away?

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have a soft spot in my heart for what I and others call ‘big idea’ science fiction. You see, sci-fi is not always whiz-bang laser fights and exotic, distant worlds. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a work of science fiction, as is Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Without aliens, particle beams, faster than light starships or time travel, I think some folks would pass over something like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in the search for sci-fi. But trust me: this movie is science fiction, it’s ‘big idea’ science fiction, and it’s delivered blockbuster-style to a cinema near you.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Ten years after the so-called ‘simian flu’ engineered in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was unleashed on the world, humankind is all but wiped out. The apes that were granted intelligence by that same retrovirus, on the other hand, have flourished. The first to ‘awaken’, Caesar, has lead his fellow apes to a colony in which a code of conduct, a school, and an organized military have all been established. While hunting, those militaristic apes happen across a human. Tensions immediately flare, with one of the humans fascinated by the apes as the others gear up to defend themselves, and Caesar waiting to see if these humans are reasonable while his general, Koba, seethes with a desire to avenge himself upon his former captors.

So the big idea, here, is that not only humans have engineered their own end, but they have also uplifted their successors. In older movies set in the Planet of the Apes, it’s seemed that the apes are conquerors, brutally claiming territory once held by humans. However, Dawn smartly shows the apes simply moving in to occupy a role once held by humans: the top of the food chain, apex predators due to their intelligence. The natural world is clearly reclaiming itself from the ravages of mankind; we see it in the trees, the waters, and the streets of San Francisco. Mankind is already no longer the masters here; the planet belongs to the apes.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Two of a kind.

This is a world fully realized, one we can conceptualize and connect with even if it is unlike our own. Thankfully, the characters in that world are just as thought-provoking. Whereas some sci-fi lets the ideas take center stage while cardboard cutout characters act as ciphers for bigger themes, Rise gives us well-written ones that invite multiple perspectives on the world. As in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar is our main protagonist, realized in breathtaking work done by Andy Serkis and an expert team of motion capture artists, who expresses himself eloquently and is a pensive, dedicated, and driven leader. He commands respect, both from his apes and the audience. Koba, Caesar’s vengeful general, is also incredibly compelling, surprising in his pathos and clearly showing that Caesar’s cunning is no accident. On the human side, Jason Clarke’s Malcolm serves quite adequately as Caesar’s counterpart; he is curious and diplomatic, opting to talk before he fights. Gary Oldman as Dreyfus is far more protective of the human survivors huddled together in San Francisco’s ruins, but his cagey nature and desperation are completely understandable. It’s the mark of good storytelling when you can see things from the perspective of each player, be the results of their actions positive or negative. Everybody has a personal agenda, and while neither apes nor humans have anything to gain from fighting, the more the tensions rise, the more a fight seems inevitable.

With all of these big ideas floating around, realized through very human and well-written characters, you may think that Dawn opts away from any of the whiz-bang action stuff I mentioned in the first paragraph. But it’s smarter than that. It’s smart enough to know that in the midst of all of the philosophy and commentary on human nature, it’s still a summer blockbuster and still a fun time at the movies. When fighting breaks out, the combat is energetic and imaginative. Action scenes are cleanly shot and some of the things we see are quite inventive. When you can say that the movie you saw about the sociological battle between our better natures and our desires for survival and vengeance also features a bonobo dual-wielding machine guns while on horseback, it’s safe to say you’re on to a winner.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Not even kidding.

I walked out of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes thinking about it in a way you wouldn’t think about Transformers: Age of Extinction. This movie is, as I’ve said, very smart. It never takes the audience for granted, delivering both satisfying action and thought-provoking characters and themes. It does not fall into the prequel trap of taking its outcomes for granted, either. I wasn’t sure how it was going to end. It kept me guessing and, by extension, on the edge of my seat. It has big fights and big set pieces to go with its big ideas, and it shows us just how powerful and exciting good science fiction can be when done right. It also makes its preceding entry, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, even better than it was by coherently continuing the story while expanding the world and deepening the ongoing themes. I am going to have to buy both of these films for repeat watching. They’re that good. You should definitely consider seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Even if you’re not on board at first with some of the over-arching ideas, I will repeat: Bonobo on horseback with a machine gun in each hand.

From the Vault: On The Fringes

The Friday 500 returns next week, when I’m not quite so wiped out. In the meantime, let’s talk again about character death in fiction!

Courtesy FOX

When I watch a good television program or film, one with a narrative that builds its characters and takes the plot in ways one might not expect, I feel the dichotomy in me between watcher and writer. In the moment the story is happening, the emotional connections I feel with the characters, if they are written and acted well enough, feel vital and affecting. Afterward, in retrospect, I can observe the direction and outcome of those moments, and fully understand the foundation behind the decisions the writers made as well as postulate where they might be headed.

It’s important to remember that any character in a story can die. It’s all in the manner of how, when, and why. I think ‘why’ might be the most important piece of the puzzle, and I don’t mean the motivations of their in-story killer. The writer, callous and unfeeling as they might seem, should have good reason for offing one of their creations, especially if that creation is well-liked. Knowing this, I think, actually helps in reading stories as well as watching them. Chuck Wendig could easily kill Miriam Black. Jim Butcher’s under no obligation to keep Harry Dresden alive. And we all know how George R.R. Martin feels about the immunity of popular characters to the flashing scythe that is his pen. Character death is one of those writerly decisions that can hang on the fringes of the story, either making the whole thing more tense or dragging the whole thing down.

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500 Words on Space Dandy

Courtesy Funimation

Space Dandy is a dandy guy. In space.

One of the first anime directors I was introduced to many years ago was ShinichirĊ Watanabe. Folks who know the genre will likely recognize his name as the man behind Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. He’s worked with legendary anime studio BONES before – this is the studio that gave use Fullmetal Alchemist and Wolf’s Rain – and their latest collaboration is truly something to behold. The series is called Space Dandy, and its lead character of the same name is, in fact, a dandy guy. In space.

Space Dandy hunts aliens. Specifically, he looks for alien species that have not yet been documented, as registering new alien species earns you a substantial reward. Dandy’s dream is to use that cash to buy a chain of themed “breasteraunts” known as BooBies so he can hang out there for free. He flies a ship called the Aloha Oe, and is aided by his souped-up Roomba-style robot, QT, and a Betelgeusean (read: space cat) beatnik named Me#$%* – everybody calls him ‘Meow’.

Oh, and there’s something about an intergalactic conflict and Dandy’s being chased by some malevolent monkey-person wearing a hat pilfered from Bootsy Collins who takes orders from a twenty-foot tall dude with a flaming skull.

In case you haven’t noticed, Space Dandy is not a series to be taken terribly seriously. Where Cowboy Bebop was, by Watanabe’s own math, 80% serious and 20% comedy, Space Dandy is the opposite. There are hints of a narrative through-line here and there, but it really never imposes too much. Or at least, it hasn’t yet. The show is still being shown both in Japan and here in the United States.

That’s part of what’s so fascinating about it. On top of the absolutely breathtaking and smooth animation, and plenty of legitimately funny moments, there’s something to be said about the fact that new episodes are premiering on the same day on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. The nature of the collaboration has lead to very similar quality in terms of dialog when it comes to the subtitled version one sees on services like Hulu and Crunchyroll, and the dubbed version on Adult Swim. For someone who grew up with some truly wince-inducing dub work in early entries back when it was called ‘Japanimation’ on what used to be referred to as ‘The Sci-Fi Channel’, this is really impressive stuff.

There’s a lot to like in Space Dandy. Every alien we see is the brain-child of a different animator, the Narrator frequently forgets key information he was supposed to dispense while also confirming that in space there is no fourth wall, and the whole thing feels steeped in the sort of ray-gun aesthetic you’d get if Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon hung out in Margaritaville. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and I’m very curious to see how the series continues to develop.

It’s music is catchy, too, but this is Watanabe we’re talking about, so that’s a given….

500 Words On Gravity

Courtesy Warner Bros

I finally got around to seeing Gravity, one of the most lauded films of last year. In fact, I’ve seen it twice. The first time I saw it was at a friend’s who has a 3-D television, and I have to say I’m a little sorry I missed seeing the film in IMAX. I don’t miss the fact that I saved on the IMAX markup, to be sure, but the visuals in Gravity are absolutely breathtaking, even in 2-D.

If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you know what a stickler I am for story and character. I do make some exceptions for guilty pleasures (Flash Gordon for example), but for the most part, a cinematic storyline usually has no excuse for skimping on these important elements. Pacific Rim has a somewhat simple story and some of the characters are a bit arch, but their presentation and informing the audience through action and emotion rather than wordy exposition overshadows those aforementioned potential drawbacks.

Gravity isn’t quite that lucky. As good as the performances are, our two leads are barely more than sketches of characters. And the story, despite taking place in the unique arena of outer space (we’ll get to that), couldn’t be more watered down. Gravity is a survival film. It’s the last half of Titanic, or the entirety of The Poseidon Adventure or The Grey, just in space. It shatters a seemingly peaceful scene with a disaster and narrows the field of players to one, who must survive and evade an oncoming calamity – water in the boat movies, wolves in The Grey, space in general in Gravity. As tense as Gravity is, in the back of my mind my inner critic was saying, “Space is still trying to kill Sandra Bullock. Somehow, all of space is still trying to murder Sandra Bullock.”

Okay, enough belly-aching, let’s get to the good stuff. This is one of the hardest sci-fi movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s up there with Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of its depictions of outer space. Instead of classical music, exterior shots are accompanied by a haunting and driving soundtrack. Some of these shots are utterly amazing in their length and composition. The silence adds to the tension and pulls us into the plight of the survivors. It’s paced very well, and arch as the characters are, they’re likable enough that we don’t want to see bad things happen to them. This film somehow accomplishes the feat of invoking both agoraphobia and claustrophobia at the same time. Space can be a scary place, and Gravity drives that home without a single laser blast or monster.

All in all, I really enjoy Gravity, and while its narrative and characters are not as strong as Moon and its impact won’t match that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I would still recommend it for any sci-fi fan or folks interested in tales of the human spirit triumphant.

I need to see The Grey.

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