Posts Tagged ‘Space’

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!

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Lost in Space: Awesome Sauce!

April 14, 2008

 

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First off, dear readers, I feel the need to give a little background on this blatant attack from OG on me.

See, it all started with Dave.  Not an individual, but the film, Dave, starring Kevin Kline.  I saw the movie, and I found it to be neither good nor bad.  As a matter of fact, I found it to be the most perfectly balanced film I had ever seen, eliciting zero reaction from me of liking or disliking the film.

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Understand what I’m saying here – this movie, Dave, simply exists for me.  It is there.  It has no qualities I wish to exalt nor does it have detriments I wish to highlight.  On a scale of 1 to 10, it is a 5.  It is exactly 2 1/2 out of 5 stars.  It is the middle of the road.  It is the first zero sum movie I ever saw.

And, by that virtue… or failing… it is perfectly suited to judge EVERY other film by.  If a film is better than Dave, it is deemed good.  If a film is worse, it is bad.  If it is equal to Dave?  Well… now I’ve never encountered that.  I suppose it is possible, but for the moment, Dave lives a lonely life within the vacuum, simply being the balance point on the scales of enjoyment.

Now, OG is a bit of a contrarian and upon hearing my views on the movie Dave has, in his mind, lifted the movie up on a pedastal that is impossible for most really fantastic films to reach.  Last I heard, I believe that Dave now ranked as number 6 on his greatest films of all time list.  We both know that this is a false view, that it is an honor that Dave by no means deserves, and yet, OG’s nature cannot allow him to admit that I am correct about Dave.

As such, when the issue of taste in film comes up in film, two topics are immediately presented by OG – my view of Dave, and the fact that I think the Lost In Space film is the finest film ever made.

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The only problem is, I have never propogated this myth about Lost In Space.

The statement has grown over the years.  Originally, the accusation was merely that I thought Lost In Space was better than James Cameron’s Titanic.  Then, it grew to “he thinks Lost in Space was the best film of the year.”  And, now, myth has it that I think God Himself blessed the earth with the celluloid on which Lost In Space was filmed.

I can tell you the origin of this.  Picture it, if you will:  The year was 1998.  I was taking a light load of classes, finishing up my final semester of college.  As such, I went to a lot of movies.  At the time, the movie Titanic was going on something like its 8 millionth week as the number 1 movie.  Yeah, I saw it, and it was good.  But, after so long of hearing about it breaking records, the constant playing of Celine Dion on the radio, and the swooning of the fairer gender on the campus at the thought of this movie, I was pretty well sick of it.  Near the end of the school year, in April, I went to see Lost In Space.  And you know what?  I enjoyed it.  It was a fun movie, with great special effects.  It was complete eye-candy, perfect for someone finishing up their last semester in college.  Arriving back on campus, I shot off an email to my friend OG, in which I wrote something to this effect:

I think Lost In Space will finally knock Titanic out of the #1 slot.

That’s it.  That was the statement.  My view was that it was a big special effects film, the beginning of the summer blockbuster season, and the audience of poor males that had been drug to see Titanic 14 times would come out to see a film that was so completely NOT Titanic that it would win the slot.

And, by the by, I was right.  It did take over the 1 slot on its opening weekend.

Unfortunately, the email statement has been radically deformed from beyond its original meaning. 

That said, I still think that the 1989 film Lost in Space is an entertaining movie.

A lot of people refer to it as a bad translation of a TV classic.  I would disagree with these folks.  It is not a bad translation of a TV classic, but, rather, a valiant attempt to update a nearly unwatchable TV show.

That’s right, I said it – the Lost in Space TV series was nearly unwatchable.

Actually, that may be a little strong.  The show, in its infancy, was pretty good.  Later, though, particularly when the show hits the color episodes (seasons two and three), when it devolved into the “Dr. Smith, Will, and the Robot Show,” that’s when it became a travesty.  There was little drama, little danger, and very little character development.  Oh, and the “villains” on the show were… well, sad really.

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The infamous Tybo the Carrot… actual “villain” from the TV show.

This show wasn’t Star Trek (which I love).  This was not a platform on which one could easily build an empire.  No, this was a crummy TV show that has a following based more in nostalgia than any true merit.

(Hey, feel free to disagree with me.  Nevertheless, this is my opinion.)

So, the time comes for a new translation of this idea for film.  The creators are saddled with the responsibility to not only capture a new audience, but to also appeal to those that have a soft spot in their hearts for the original series.

Don’t kid yourselves – this is a tall order.

They take elements from the original series – the basic concept – A family goes into space as Earth faces the massive overpopulation in an effort to find a new world.  The ship is sabotaged by a stowaway using a robot.  The ship is “lost,” forced to try to find a way home.

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The filmmakers then spent a fortune on special effects.  If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, you should try checking it again.  The effects are really spectacular throughout… with one exception… but we’ll get to that later.  The ship looks great, the battles are good, lots of explosions, and, man, the space “armor” that is reminiscent of the Batmobile armor is really cool.

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And, you know what?  I liked the actors chosen for the roles. 

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William Hurt seemed a reasonable fit for an obliviously negligent father.

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Mimi Rogers worked quite well as the mother.

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Heather Graham was competent in her role as Judy.

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Gary Oldman was thankfully restrained to a massive degree in his portrayal of Dr. Smith.

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Lacey Chabert brought a nice bit of personality to Penny (who was pretty well forgetable in the original series).

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The kid that played Will Robinson (who I can’t be bothered enough to look up his name) was just as annoying as virtually every other kid actor ever. 

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And, they got the original voice actor for the Robot, Dick Tufeld (a real treat for fans of the original). 

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Plus – I saved this for last – I think that Matt LeBlanc’s portrayal of Don West is probably the best thing he has ever done, and was a shockingly nice surprise.  The chemistry between him and Heather Graham was quite believable.

The film also had the disadvantage of being an “origin” tale.  The makers had to establish the settings, the characters, the reasons they were doing what they were doing, and include an initial adventure all within about a two hour frame.  It is seldom done well, which is why films like X2: X-Men United and Spider-Man 2 surpassed their establishing films.  (On a side note, I think that if the studio had made a second film in this series, the result would have been a much, much better film.)

The movie could have been lighter, sure, but I suspect that the makers were trying to bring a seriousness to the concept that the original series gave up early on.  Their are moments of humor throughout, but the heaviness of the film overshadows them. 

The irony in that is the injection of lightness via the introduction of one of the worst examples of CGI in the film, the one short coming of the effects that I mentioned earlier – Blarp, the chameleon-monkey-creature-thing. 
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In a lighter type of film, such an obvious toy tie-in might not have been noticable, but in this film, it is glaringly inappropriate, and the very 2-dimensional look of the creature seems to reflect a lack of enthusiasm by the animators to include this thing among their other achievements in the film.

Was the film the best thing ever?  No.  Like I said, it was a little too dark (throwing the film off-balance), and had a really obvious and irritating toy tie-in.  Was it the worst thing ever?  Far from it.  I won’t even say it was a bad film.  It was entertaining, and I’d rather sit through it than any episode of the original series.  If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, check it out again.  You may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Oh, and I enjoyed it more than Dave, so it must be good.