Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Movie Time: Surrogates

October 14, 2009

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Surrogates
PG-13
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Starring Bruce Willis

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There was a time, not too long ago, when Hollywood offering a token of science fiction with good production values and name stars was unusual. It was a dark time. As a result, I still get excited when I see a movie preview from the genre, despite the greater number of offerings.

Enter, Surrogates.

I saw the previews for this film and was really amped to see it. Real life delayed me, until this past weekend, but now I’ve seen it, and thought I’d go ahead and give my two cents about it.

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In a future world quite similar to ours, technology has allowed the vast majority of people to purchase robotic surrogates, physically perfect avatars, to interact in the real world. No more need to fear the dangers of the outside world, people plug themselves in and live through these machines in perfect safety. Even if the surrogate is damaged, the operator is perfectly safe.

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That all changes, though, when a college student is somehow murdered via their link with a surrogate. FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) investigates the death, running into roadblocks from the company that creates the surrogates, the military, and those that rebel against the use of surrogates.

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The movie is based on a limited comic book series from Top Shelf Productions.

I’ll admit, I haven’t read the comic book. I thought about seeking it out before seeing the movie, but I tend to believe that is a bad idea. Seldom to films live up to the source material, and I wanted to give this film every chance.

At the start of the film, I was completely struck by the look of the characters. I would bet that underwear companies had to delay their ad campaigns while every perfect underwear model in the world worked on this film. That isn’t a knock against the film – it establishes very early on the feel of the movie, and artificial perfection, a “fakeness” that allows the premise that people living through perfect machines is plausible.

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In fact, this is reinforced when we meet up with the plastic version of Bruce Willis’ character. I don’t know what all they did to Bruce Willis to give us the plastic/perfect look that blends in with the underwear model cast so well, but it is impressive.

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And, when his character is forced to go without his surrogate, the grizzled, wrinkled, and bald look of the actual human behind the puppet is also great for establishing the contrast of the film.

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Unfortunately, one aspect of this compare/contrast demonstration didn’t really work. In the movie, there are those that are resistant to using the surrogates. Resistant is probably too subtle a term. “Violently opposed” is more accurate. They have been separated from the general populace in various camps. To emphasize the difference between these “real” people and the surrogates, most of the real folks are too real – sloppy looking, craggy, unkempt. It made me wonder, as I was watching, why none of the “real” people looked basically average. You can’t tell me that only the least attractive members of society reject surrogates. There have to be a couple of average folks mixed in, or it seems too black and white, which actually took me out of the movie.

The movie does have several good action sequences, and I have no complaints about the effects within the film. And, with a running time of under 90 minutes, the movie certainly doesn’t drag!

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On the other hand, the film is pretty heavy handed in its moral. Not only does the main plot seem to revolve around the detachment of humanity, the sub plot of the relationship between Greer and his wife does as well. I think the makers of the film were trying to use the sub plot as a more personal reflection of the widespread issue of the main plot, but what results is the feeling of being hammered over the head in a “well, if you didn’t get the idea from that, how about this” sorta way.

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(Ooh, by the way, wanna see what that surrogate having its face pulled off looks like? Okay!)

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And, had the film stuck with the single social commentary of the detachment of humanity, I think they could have had a better product. Unfortunately, that non-dragging 90 minutes doesn’t really allow for the exploration of that theme, the violation of personal civil liberties, the question of justification in terrorism, and any of the other statements that the film failed to sufficiently elaborate on.

The movie failed to really offer anything new, though. We’ve seen this same sort of story done before, both better and worse.

The real problem with the film, though, is predictability. Every action seems to be telegraphed throughout the movie. Plus, I was able to figure out most of the film in the first five minutes, which is something I hate. OG tells me that this is partially my fault, because I never go into any book or film without overanalyzing as I go along. Maybe he’s right, but I still hate knowing how things are going to be put together at the beginning.

Overall, the movie was okay. Nothing spectacular, but it wasn’t unwatchable. I wouldn’t recommend running out to the theater to catch it before it moves to DVD. It isn’t worth that.

I’m going to give Surrogates two Running Steves.

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I don’t know that they could have really done enough to make the film great, but there was definitely room for improvement.

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Secondhand Selections: Sphere by Michael Crichton

October 2, 2009

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Greetings, faithful readers, and welcome to another new feature here at The Steve Austin Book Club – Secondhand Selections!

What is Secondhand Selections? Recently, EG was in a thrift store (We’ve established he is cheap, right?), and came upon a shelf of books. As he started looking through the books, he noticed that there were several science fiction and fantasy books among the myriad of diet books, self-improvement books, and thirty-year-old textbooks.

Considering that the average paperback now rings in at $7.99 and up, the chance to pick up a couple of books for a dollar or less appealed to him!

And, thus was the seed of this feature planted!

The rules are simple – the books reviewed in this feature have to be purchased either at a resale shop (thrift store, Goodwill, whatever). It is a chance to prove that there is cheap, literary treasure out there to be had! Or, on the other hand, there is a chance that reading some of these books might also explain how they ended up abandoned to a resale shop.

Now, let’s get to it, with the very book that EG picked up on that day when the concept of this feature was born: Michael Chrichton’s Sphere!

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This review was written with as few spoilers as I could manage and still give you, the reader, an idea of what the book was about. I’m pretty sure that you’ll be reasonably safe reading this review, but if you don’t want to know anything about the book, STOP NOW!!!

Overview:

In the middle of the South Pacific, a spacecraft is located near the bottom of the ocean floor, and, based on the surrounding environment, it has been there for at least 300 years. The ramifications of the find spur the U.S. Navy to proceed with a top secret plan written during the Carter Administration, titled “Recommendations for the Human Contact Team to Interact with Unknown Life Forms (ULF).” The author of that plan, psychologist Norman Johnson, is called in, along with mathematician Harry Adams, biochemist Beth Halpern, and astrophysicist Ted Fielding, as the civilian team to assist Captain Harold Barnes as they investigate the finding.

The team sets up shop one in an artificial underwater habitat, and soon begins exploring the mysterious ship that yields yields more questions than answers – such as, why are all the signs on the ship in English?

In the exploration of the ship, the team locates a large, perfectly polished silver sphere about 30 feet in diameter, and completely alien.

Approaching storms require the team to return to the surface, but, before they leave one of the team members does the unexpected… and enters the alien sphere.

Unable to evacuate, the team is stuck as the storms come and they are cut off from the surface world until the weather clears. Eventually, the team member that entered the sphere comes out of it.

And, that is when things start to get really interesting, as an unknown entity begins to contact them.

Review:

I have to admit something – I saw the movie Sphere in the theater in 1998. And, I have not thought of it since then, other than to think, “Well, that was a waste of money.”

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In that case, why did I pick up this book? We all know that, generally speaking, books tend to be far superior to the films made of them. I’m not knocking film, it is just really difficult to transform a tapestry woven over 300 pages or so into a 90-minute film. As a result, a lot is lost… or changed.

Sometimes, the film can be pretty good as well, and then you seek out the book, which is what I did with a little art film titled Jurassic Park.

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I liked the movie, and a lot of people told me I should read the book, because it was even better.

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So I did. I read the book, and it was great. It was also different from the movie.

When I came across Sphere at the thrift shop, my immediate thought was, “blech!” Then, I realized two things: My feelings were based entirely on the film, and Sphere was written by Michael Crichton, who also happened to write Jurassic Park. Based on that, I decided to give the book a chance.

The book is, overall, a page turner. Crichton knew how to connect with the reader, as proven in his other books, and it is no different here. It also picks up speed as it goes along, until the reader is nearly racing toward the end. (That’s something I really like to feel in books.)

Despite some pretty “out there” concepts of science (and, by “out there” I mean both complicated and suspect), the book was accessible throughout, due in a great part to choosing as the main character Norman Johnson, a non-scientist that asks the questions that the reader has almost as quickly as the reader comes up with them.

Sadly, the other characters in the book tend to be one of two options – two-dimensional or non-existant. The other members of the team recieve the two-dimensional fill out in characterization, while other characters seem to simply be until they are no more. I can’t say for sure if this was by design, so that the reader latches onto Norman even more, but it does tend to make some of the dramatic moments of the book less impactful, because we don’t have an attachment to other characters.

The action sequences are well-built throughout the book, and do have that sense of urgency needed to drive the reader forward. Thankfully, it is written so that the reader doesn’t get too hung up along the way with techno-babble. I’ve read some books that get focus on that so much that you feel like you are reading a technical manual!

There are, though, some massive lapses in common sense that pop up throughout the book. As an example, when the characters worry about running out of air in the habitat waiting for the storms to abate, I immediately found myself asking why they wouldn’t go over to the spacecraft, which had already been shown to be able to support them.

Another problem is that there are some unexplained jumps in logic that are made. Toward the end of the book, there is a character that, despite having been unconscious for more than 12 hours, seems to be completely up to speed on what is going on upon waking, leaving the reader going, “huh?”

I think the biggest disappointment with the book is the ending, which is a little too simple, almost trite, in how it ties up all the loose ends. In that regard, the reader is left unsatisfied.

I don’t mean to be hard on the book. It isn’t bad, it really isn’t, and it is very exciting at times. And, trust me, it is sooooo much better than the movie. It just wasn’t as good as I wish it had been.

For that reason, I’m giving the book a solid two and a half Running Steves.

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And, maybe, since I haven’t seen the movie in eleven years, maybe I’ll watch that again and let you know how I feel about it in more detail sometime!

EG’s Review: X-Men Noir

September 16, 2009

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X-Men Noir
Writer – Fred Van Lente
Artist – Dennis Calero
Letters – Blambot’s Nate Piekos
Publisher – Marvel Comics

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Summary –

Honestly, this is a tough book to summarize. I mean, I’d love to just start with the concept and say, “What if the X-Men were translated into the world of the crime drama of the 1940’s?” But, the truth is, this is no where near that easy to describe.

Nevertheless, I’ll endeavor to give an idea of what goes on in this book..

A body washes up on Welfare Island, a redheaded woman with an “X” tattoo, covered in slash marks, grouped in threes. The “X” tattoo brands the woman as someone that spent time in a reform school run by former psychologist/current convict Charles Xavier. Xavier is in prison after it is discovered that he was training his pupils, honing their criminal abilities. Even without their mentor, though, the “X-Men,” as they call themselves, are still active in the criminal world.

At the scene of the crime, we are introduced to young detective Peter Magnus, son of the Chief of Detectives, Eric Magnus, whose life is turned upside down when he finds out that his father is under the thumb of the criminal organization known as the Hellfire Club, and that the organization essentially runs the city.

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As the story progresses, we see a lot of characters with familiar names, but wildly different personalities than we are used to in the regular Marvel Universe.

Perhaps the key character to the entire story is Thomas Halloway, a reporter and costumed vigilante who seems to be the only one truly interested in finding out who murdered the woman washed up on the island. (If you are up on your Golden Age Marvel, you’ll recognize this as the original “Angel” – a nice nod, given this is an X-Men book.)

The story essentially splits early on, and we are left with one story loosely following Peter Magnus, and the stronger story following Thomas Halloway. The two do eventually come together, but not in a way that seems particularly necessary.

After the completion of the Magnus storyline, we follow the Thomas Halloway as he eventually discovers the murderer, and discover a couple of surprises along the way.

Along with the sequential art story, we are given a prose science fiction story, a throwback to pulp stories, that also references a lot of stories and characters from the Marvel Universe.

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Review –

I’ll admit, I don’t regularly read any X-titles right now, but I’m familiar with the characters. If you are coming to this title expecting “What if…” versions of the X-Men you are familiar with, you are going to be disappointed. For the most part, only names and the slightest essence of the characters are taken from the known mythology and applied to this new setting.

Which, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. It is not a new idea, and has been used with varying degrees of success in other projects (the “Just Imagine Stan Lee…” and Tangent Universe titles from DC, and the Marvel Mangaverse spring to mind immediately), so the concept is valid. The execution, sadly, is not great.

The characters in this story seem to sit on a fence. Instead of breaking completely with the characters of the regular Marvel Universe, the writer gives the characters moments of connection to those counterparts, but it is often tenuous at best. For example – Quicksilver is fast, so there is a line where Peter is referred to as fast… and that is about it. Given that the story is so completely breaking with the “normal” of the regular Marvel Universe, I can’t help but think that a clean break would have better served the story.

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There are also a lot of characters thrown into this story. We are being introduced into this world and narrowing the focus on fewer characters would have let us get to know those characters a little better, which would have been a major benefit to the story.

I also found the split story was a detrement. When I first started reading, I thought Peter was going to be the central character of the story, but quickly learned that his was essentially a pumped up subplot. Had that aspect been removed from the book entirely, allowing more focus on the single mystery where we followed Thomas Holloway, I think the entire story would have been more engaging, and certainly tighter.

The prose story is kind of a highlight of the series, but seems completely out of context with the story. I kept looking for some parallel (other than “Look, here’s another story where we use names from the X-Men universe”), but if it is there, I failed to grasp it. Still, it is a neat homage to pulp science fiction of yesteryear.

As for the art, while the tone is fitting for the work, the figures are stiff. And, while I don’t mind an artist occasionally cutting and pasting a repeated image, in this book it seems to be done a lot. (I love nine panel grid, I really do, but only when it is handled correctly. Using the same image of a head in all nine panels just looks plain lazy, and makes me want to direct the artist to Wally Wood’s famous 22 Panels That Always Work!)

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And (this may be a first for me), I found the word balloons/lettering distracting. It is hard for me to nail down exactly why I found them so distracting, but I think the lettering is too small for the balloons. It allowed for a lot of white space around the lettering, which, given the color tone of the pages, really stood out.

Overall, I found getting through this series difficult, with just an okay story and lots of shortcomings. As a result, I’m giving this one and a half out of five Running Steves.

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I may have dropped it down to just one, but I got the hardcover from the library, and since I didn’t have to pay to read this series, I’m feeling generous!

AFI: 10 Top 10 – Science Fiction

June 18, 2008

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So, the American Film Institute (AFI) once again made a list.  That seems to be what they do.


On Tuesday, June 27, 2008, The AFI: 10 Top 10 was broadcast.  Basically, they took ten genres (TEN?!?  Really?) and declared the top 10 movies in each genre.  And, as usual, they were wrong.


I don’t want to go into all of the various lists, but since this is The Steve Austin Book Club, I thought we’d take a look at what the AFI is calling the top 10 science fiction films of all time.


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10 – Back to the Future – Okay, I liked this movie a lot… but putting it on a top 10 list for science fiction?  Seems a little much.  When I think “science fiction,” I gotta say – I don’t think, “Back to the Future.”  Yes, I know, it does revolve around time travel… it just doesn’t leap to my mind.  Still, for mass appeal and movie quality, I suppose I can go along with this, especially since it is this low on the list.


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9 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers – This one should be in this list.  Maybe even a little higher.  My only complaint with this film is the sorta cop-out “happy” ending – which was tacked on.  But, without a doubt, I think that this one does belong on the list.


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8 – Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Yeah, I’ll go with this.  At first, I was thinking that the original film should be here, but I can’t deny how much better overall this sequel is to the original.  This one seems right, and probably about this spot.


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7 – Alien – Now, some would argue whether this one or the sequel, Aliens, really belongs here.  I won’t get into that, but I will say that this seems a little low.  I would’ve thought this film would be in the top five, but I could be wrong.  At least it is on the list, right?


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6 – Blade Runner – At the risk of losing more geek-cred, I don’t like this movie.  I know I’m in the minority here, but I can’t help it.  Despite that, given the popularity of the film, I can see it in the top ten… I suppose… but certainly lower than the sixth position.  Like I said, though, my personal taste is factoring in on this one.


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5 – The Day the Earth Stood Still – I would’ve made it a little lower, but the 5 spot is perfectly acceptable.


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4 – A Clockwork Orange – I don’t know that I can adequately express how much I hate this film.  As such, and regardless of the way others feel about it, I can’t believe this is on any top 10 list, especially when I factor in the ridiculous number of other science fiction films that could have been on this list.  I… I have nothing more to say on this.


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3 – E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial – And as much animosity as I have for the previous film, I have an equal amount of love for this film.  Great movie.  That said, I don’t know that it would’ve made my top 10 for specifically science fiction films.  I probably throw it more in with family films.  And, if it had made my list for science fiction, I think it would’ve been a little farther down.


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2 – Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope – Of course a Star Wars film was going to be on this list.  I’m just surprised by two things – which one, and how high it is on the list.  I suppose A New Hope, being the original film and essentially self-contained, could make the list, but in my experience, most people seem to agree that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the Star Wars films overall.  As for position, I would’ve put the representative of the Star Wars films somewhere in the fourth to sixth position.


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1 – 2001: A Space Odyssey – Not my favorite science fiction film, but I can absolutely understand it being on this list, and why it is 1.  If there is to be a flagship for science fiction film, this one fits the bill.


My biggest complaint with this list are the things that are missing.  I’m not positive that films like John Carpenter’s The Thing, Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan, Twelve Monkeys, Planet of the Apes, Total Recall, or Robocop would’ve made my top 10 list for science fiction films, but they would certainly have been more likely to be on this list than some of these offered by AFI.  And what about films like Forbidden Planet and Fantastic Voyage?  Or even The Running Man and The Matrix?


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Without a doubt, though, what makes this list most suspect is one ommission that is completely unacceptable in my mind – Where is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, AFI?  How can there be a list for the best science fiction films of all time that doesn’t include Close Encounters?!?


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Bah!  AFI, you have failed again.  Hang your head in shame.