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A Hero's Journey Through Science Fiction

Archive for the category “Commentary”

“You go, Nerd!”

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Toy Story. (But Not The Movie. A Story About A Toy…Story.)

“It also seems to me that he was a pretty sophisticated toy for a pre-digital age, since he exhibited “behavior” of a sort, and responded to stimuli—or to one stimulus, I should say, and only if you actually hit him at the right spot on the tail. (And never, not once, did I ever make the dart actually stick to his tail, the way that kid did in the commercial.) But soon enough, entropy began to encroach upon the mighty Zor—just as it did on the real dinosaurs—as the ping pong balls went missing or got dinged up so that they wouldn’t fire or (in one case) got accidentally crushed underfoot in the heat of battle. And then his roar gave out, and he began to lurch more like a raucous drunk than a murderous carnivore, and finally his motor fried itself, and the light went out of Zor’s eyes forever. Well, to be honest, he never had a light in his eyes, but you know what I mean. I kept playing with the gun, though, even after the spring inside broke and it wouldn’t fire darts anymore, because it was so cool looking. (Hey, I was eight, alright?) I can still remember the feel of the grip in my hand.

The noble thing to do when he died would have been to bury him in the backyard, so that he could either join with the elements, or fossilize like his brethren and intrigue future paleontologists. I can’t actually remember what happened to him, but it’s possible he’s still in the attic of my parents’ house, along with the broken gun and three and a half ping pong balls, still waiting for me, still fighting mad.” — James Hynes, Cultwriter

“And On Your Right Is The Lars Homestead…”

“The work of Rä di Martino often deals with the duality between reality and fiction. The artist’s background in theatre and her passion for film emerge in her video work, which is often cinematographic in theme and experimental in nature. However, for some of her most recent works, she has switched medium from video to photography, exploring a different kind of imagery. Enticed by abandoned Hollywood sets in North Africa, di Martino’s travels in Morocco and Tunisia resulted in a profound engagement with these contemporary ruins. Ranging from basic dwellings to elaborate temples, these sets formed part of the fictional habitat of film characters, today however their ruins appear to substantiate the history of inhabitants that never existed.

Gazing at the remains of the familiar Star Wars set in her series ‘Every World is a Stage’ triggers a sense of mild discomfort, as the delusionary power of the human imagination is realised. A film that has been capable of projecting us into the distant future has ironically left behind ruins that look as ancient as any imperial palace or historical edifice. Only by coming closer, and knocking on the structures’ walls, does the onlooker realise that these walls are made of plywood and plaster. Born in Rome and residing in Turin, New York and London, di Martino’s interest in Luke Skywalker’s house, portrayed in the series ‘No More Stars (Star Wars)’, currently shown in the Tate Modern’s exhibition ‘Ruins in Reverse’, is born of the artist’s longing for a home of her own.” — Sumarrialunn

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“Can we really build the Star Ship Enterprise?”

Great Moments in Tropes: Independence Day (1996)

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Did you know the 1996 alien film Independence Day is a reboot of the 1953 movie War of the Worlds? (Cold virus takes out the invading aliens in 1953; Computer virus takes out alien technology in 1996.) In many ways, ID4 is an homage to 1950s sci-fi films where bug and reptiles enlarged by radiation attack the general public and the buildings they eat, sleep and work in. The general charm of the film that endeared it to so many people to the tune of $800 million dollars of box office sales lies in the story’s characters, which at the time film critics generally loathed. The vast distance between critics and public opinion ignited a brief but substantial firestorm of controversy that called into question the validity of film criticism. Who was right? Was ID4 as terrible a film as critics decried it the summer of ’96? If so, this implies that audiences had grown more Neanderthal in their tastes. If not, film critics had lost their sense of direction as the intellectual skull jockeys of cinematic pop culture. I leave that debate up to you.

However, I contend that the mass appeal of the film rests in the screenplays classic approach to the story’s operatic alien mayhem upon half a dozen characters. Simply put (tongue in cheek) their story trajectories harken back to classic tropes of film narrative. If this terms sounds familiar but you can’t quite formulate a definition–well, here’s my attempt to define: Tropes are literary devices that transmit aspects of story telling. As literary devices go, certain tropes are so often used they resonate in us, like vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream ring our bells in a varied world of Americone Dream and Cherry Garcia. If mishandled, character tropes, such as those used in ID4, can come off as stale and predictable. This was the complaint critics leveled at the film during the summer of 1996. They were half right.

The original 1953 film of War of the Worlds relied on the stock characterizations and staid dialogue of its day by putting two scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Sylvia Van Buren, up against the unstoppable alien war machine. Clayton took the lead in confronting the alien attack and made critical decisions, while Sylvia deferred to him, fetched him coffee and when appropriate screamed bloody murder. These were familiar character tropes of the day, as demonstrated in films such as Them!, Tarantula and 20 Million Miles From Earth. Due to the sophistication of the film’s special effects, cold war audiences rushed to emotionally defend and cheer on the characters. In 1996, these and other tropes were resurrected and updated for modern sensibilities. Under the horrify visage of our country laid waste, these tropes helped tie us emotionally to the countless plight of so many characters.

Never in a motion picture have so many tropes converged in one location. Here now are just 6 classic character tropes used in ID4. These are in no particular order, but they do contain major plot spoilers:

Read more…

For the Sci-Fi Writer in You

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Only Hillbillies Live In the Outer Rim

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“Science fiction often assumes that civilizations which exist on a galaxy’s outer rim will be backwards in nature. It’s a understandable reaction – the “centre” is more sophisticated while the “outlands” are more primitive. For example, in Star Wars, the Outer Rim Territories were sparsely settled and relatively unexplored. In Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation books, the focus of the Galactic Empire is on Trantor at the galactic centre, whilst the Foundation itself is located on the remote planet Terminus at the rim, where other planets are not so scientifically advanced.

But a galactic centre can be a dangerous place. As in our own galaxy, there may be a super-massive black hole to suck matter in. There are more stars in the vicinity, some of which might start throwing out unpleasant things, or even go supernova. Obviously an advanced civilization would know this, and could move away if something goes wrong, but then again why should it? Human beings can live near volcanoes, in earthquake zones, or on flood plains; but if they have a choice they tend to prefer to live somewhere safer in the first instance. Advanced aliens are probably no different.”

Mark Stewart, bis-space.com

Wagon Train to the Stars

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From Slate’s Michael Chorost @ Future Tense:

“Eighty thousand people recently applied for a trip to Mars, an excursion that will allegedly be funded by selling reality-TV show rights for the voyage. The company running this curious venture, Mars One, estimates that the price tag for an expedition of four astronauts—currently slotted for 2023—would be $6 billion. But the ticket’s one-way: There is no budget for bringing them back.

It wouldn’t be a suicide mission, though. The travelers would be going as homesteaders, intending to make Mars their permanent home. If you’re going to have permanent colonies, say boosters of the idea, you might as well do it from the start.

…Mars itself will be fantastically dangerous. The surface is bathed in solar and cosmic radiation. The temperature rarely gets above freezing. There’s omnipresent dust with toxic chemicals in it. There’s a total lack of breathable air. And if you have a serious medical problem, the nearest emergency room will be at least 34 million miles away.

But there’s another, more subtle hazard of Martian homesteading that people have barely begun to think about: the lack of soil. It may be hard to keep people healthy in the long term on Mars without Earth-made soil. Lots of it.”

Okay, so, are you up for the challenge of interplanetary colonization? Maybe not now, but imagine a future where tens or hundreds of thousands of people are clamoring for a seat on the wagon train to Mars. My question is, “What terrible misfortune is unfolding on our planet to make you want to endure the horrible conditions of colony life on Mars?” (Check out the extended earth scenes in James Cameron’s Avatar for what a taste of what I’m laying down.) Mass-exoduses of many varieties come to mind. In the mid-1800s, gingivitis, dysentery, rickets and amputations were the fate of many, yet, thousands of Americans still bolted from the eastern states for richer digs in the western frontiers through events such as the Oklahoma land rush. (Ungrateful swines!) Technology followed (not the other way around) with the telegraph, the railroad, the gatling gun and the innate human ability to transmit disease faster than a fevered three-year old at a church social. Who or what kicked off this rampage for a “better way of life”?

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Hm. Right now I’m thinking of a certain two military explorers commissioned by their commander in chief to go west and to explore and map “the newly acquired [Louisiana Purchase] territory, find a practical route across the Western half of the continent, and establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it.” (Thanks Wiki!) It was called the Corps of Discovery Expedition and it lent a hand in the great exodus that ensued in the preceding decades as men, followed by women and children, pursued their American Dreams across the frontiers in caravans of covered wagons. (What did they call these? Hm…)

The exploration for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, as defined by Thomas Jefferson, (Lewis and Clark’s commander-in-chief), remained at the core of the western genre. This ideal persisted as a main staple of entertainment throughout the 1940s and 50s in cinema, television and literature. The domination of westerns on television also inspired writer, Gene Roddenberry, to re-imagine those wagon trains trekking across the plains as starships following stars routes, all in the spirit of exploration, colonization and adventure.

So let’s all raise our glasses and toast a big hearty thank you to Lewis & Clark, and to you too Thomas Jefferson, for without you, we would never have Star Trek.

It’s all your fault.

The Matter/Anti-Matter Hero: nuKirk vs khanKirk

“Kirk is the most glaring problem with Star Trek Into Darkness. Regardless of how you feel about William Shatner, his Kirk was always centered and directed. That focus gave him the confidence and charisma to be a great starship captain, and inspired devotion and loyalty in his crew. Pine’s Kirk has absolutely no center and is completely directionless. His crew second-guesses him throughout the film, as well they should.” — DeFlip Side Film Review

Just a little rebuttal: When Kirk arrives in television screens in the 1960s, he’s a seasoned starship captain. When Kirk assumes the chair in 2009, he is not.

Is that a problem? Maybe emotionally for some, but I have no more need today for a 1960s William Shatner Kirk than I do a 1960s Sean Connery James Bond. Chris Pine, Daniel Craig–and let’s thrown in for good measure Christian Bale–will do just nicely for our new batch of superheroes. That is what they are, after all. In a dark world, a hero that is more palpable to the heart is one in whom we see our own struggles: flawed humans trying to make a go of doing the right thing. However

“You might say that the writers did this deliberately to give nuKirk a more compelling story arc, allowing him to grow into the legendary icon we’re all familiar with. And I might even buy that—if Kirk did even the slightest thing to drive the story; but instead, the story completely drives him. His path is 100 percent reactionary and at no time in the film does he snatch the reins and turn the tables on his foes. Which is why his eventual grand sacrifice feels like such a hollow gesture. He goes from zero to martyr in the blink of an eye, telling Spock, “I don’t know what to do. I only know what I can do.” In effect, he hasn’t grown at all. He’s the same cavalier dope who’s completely out of his depth, once again grasping for the most obvious solution. This one just happens to be fatal.” — DeFlip Side Film Review

wrath-of-khan-04When we compare nuKirk to khanKirk, remember the seasoned veteran from the 1982 classic Wrath of Khan is a far cry from the macho TV starship captain of the 1960s, a time when men were men, women were women and a sip of your dad’s beer put hair on your chest. In 1982, KhanKirk is out of his element as an admiral. Once he is yet again facing down the formidable enemy of Khan from the original series, James Kirk directly engages his foe in a deadly cat & mouse battle, exchanging cat and mouse roles with the super-villain. The titan back and forth drives the plot and inflicts heavy casualties on both sides. When khanKirk escapes with his life and ship, he is uncharacteristically forced to embrace the finality of the no-win scenario in the death of his closest friend, Spock.

NuKirk in 2013 is out of his element as captain of a starship and Admiral Pike rightly judges him as so. Still, seeing potential within, the admiral takes on James T as his first officer. When John Harrison murders Pike and a whole host of others, an enraged nuKirk is thrown back into command by the conniving Admiral Marcus, who reunites nuKirk with the Enterprise and its crew. Warning bells go off in Spock and Scotty but nuKirk is blinded by his own rage to see the path he is being lead down.

star-trek-into-darkness-kirkUnlike khanKirk’s 1982 character trajectory, our 2013 nuKirk is in retrograde from the aspiring 2009 nuKirk. Remember that brassy lieutenant who set events in motion while the rest of his crew sits blind to the approaching danger? 2013 nuKirk’s actions are very much plot-driven and this has James T flailing like a leaf buffeted in the wind. These are not the actions of “Space Seed” Kirk when he first encounters Khan Noonien Singh and both characters procede to study each other like a finals week exam. Despite all the whiz-bang and central cast moments with Spock-Uhura and Scotty, the inherent weakness in nuKirk leaves the audience walking out story-starved. Sure JJ Abrams’s direction tells us nuKirk is the star but we just don’t see the seasoned brilliance of khanKirk, who twice turned the tables on Khan aboard Regula I and inside the Mutara Nebula. Our relief is in watching Scotty and Spock spin the odds against the villains while nuKirk flounders as Harrison’s personal punching bag.

This is NOT the plot any Star Trek audience needs when the expectation is for nuKirk to step up to Pike’s challenge and earn the right to stay in the captain’s chair. At the very least James Kirk has his rock solid crew to bail him out.

Sulu? You have the conn.

“Keep Moving! Nothing to See Here!”

Looking for…?

As a Mormon I should know better than to snap my wig and go off on someone else’s faith–or lack of it. That said, I am still mystified by the intense hatred that hipsters imbedded in the media-entertainment industry have towards scientology, as if these followers were Nazis, Westboro Baptists, or Klan-biker rapists who eat kittens. How quickly word travels among commentators looking to fill column space that After Earth not only bears the imprint of Scientology but serves as an outright propaganda tool for the church.

Rich Juzwiak at Gawker, who embraces Scientology the way The Hulk embraces Buddhism, says no, and he has expert opinion on the subject. It’s rather illuminating, even as the author gets off numerous jabs at Scientology in the process, powerful punches they might be on the surface but these only have the same effects as those Kirk delivered to Khan’s head. His colleague Caity Weaver made a big stink about a New York Magazine article that has Will Smith ranting about patterns. (I think Caity was just trying a little too hard to stir up the crazy she’s hoping to find in the Smiths.) Here’s Juzwiak’s opening salvo:

““Don’t feel what you feel,” is an idiotic, unreasonable moral for a film, and it sounds a lot like Scientology babble. Given Will Smith’s long-rumored association with the cult (the school he funded and staffed with his wife, New Village Leadership Academy, uses Scientology’s “Study Tech” teaching method, for example) and the sci-fi, post-apocalyptic format of the film, After Earth has been widely regarded as aBattlefield Earth-like effort at sub rosa Scientology marketing…

To put this theory to the test, I contacted Dave Touretzky, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon and longtime Scientology gadfly and expert. Touretzky’s credentials as a foe of Scientology are impeccable, and he would jump at the opportunity to discredit a propaganda vehicle. “I don’t see any Scientology content AT ALL in this movie,” he told me in an email:

“The themes of the movie appear to be standard adventure fare: physical courage, coming of age, father/son relationships, battling danger to prove oneself and earn a father’s respect. These are not Scientology themes. There is no mention of evil psychiatrists, mind control, engrams, etc.”

Visit here for the full article and judge for yourself.  Or go see the movie, you  know.

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