Firefly

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Source: wikimedia.org

In an attempt to further solidify my status as a science fiction nerd, I have spent a good portion of this summer working my way through some of the books and TV shows I missed while I focused on the more fantasy-driven Harry Potter and LOTR fests of my youth. Somehow, despite all of its hype and cult-fandom (including representation in shows like Community), I had never seen Firefly before. Now, I’m a fan of Joss Whedon (especially his run on Astonishing X-Men, the Avengers film, and the criminally under-appreciated Dr. Horrible special), so I was sure I’d love the show. And I certainly liked it, don’t get me wrong, but the show is a bit more flawed than I expected.

Pros:

  • Stylistic choices of making space travel and interplanetary colonies seem dirty, impoverished, and backwater. It makes for a more interesting
  • A strong cast of characters, with diverse interests and backgrounds made for a dynamic universe with lots and lots of story potential, the biggest travesty is how little of it was tapped into when the show was canceled so early.
  • Just how many story plot lines Whedon and co. developed in a short 14-episode season. Some examples of plot lines and concepts that had a lot of potential for great episodes: revealing more about Mal and Zoe in the war, the Shephard’s background and how religion worked in the universe, the Alliance’s inner workings and those evil mysterious men after River, and the political and wealth disparity between inner planets and outer colonies, just to name a few.
  • A smart commentary on injustice, income inequality, and balance of power that was only just getting going when the show was canceled.
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The CGI work was not too bad for 2002, though definitely not the primary draw of the series. Source: wikimedia.org

Cons:

  • The western twang was intermittent and not very consistent or believable; sure the wild west themes made a lot of sense, but there were a few too many cowboy scenes for my taste. Not to mention…
  • That song. Not good, sorry Joss. I’m sure you loved it, but it was too heavy on the cheese for me.
  • Some of the romantic subplots were clunky and forced. Mostly those involving the captain, as the Wash/Zoe and Kaylee/Simon dynamics were pretty solid.
  • There were occasionally misogynistic plot lines and commentaries that seemed to go against Joss Whedon’s history on Buffy, as well as the generally strong characterization of all the show’s women: Zoe, Kaylee, River, and Enara (i.e. the bounty hunter in Ep. 14 was super creepy with Kaylee; the whole prostitution ring in the Western stakeout episode)
  • Not quite enough multi-episode arc plot points. This may be more a sign of the times in 2002 than anything else, but it too often felt like the consequences of an episode’s arc were too self-contained, often making the Alliance’s memory seem a bit short.
  • I’m not sold on the Mandarin slang interspersing the dialogue. I don’t think I get it.

Really, I think it just came down to bad timing. This show had a lot of potential, but people weren’t really ready for an oddball, morally-flexible, adventure in space in 2002. Even though Star Trek: The Next Generation had found plenty of success beforehand, 2002 was the era of police procedurals and Americana, like CSI and 24, as well as reality shows like Survivor, and The Amazing Race. If Firefly were to come out now, there would be much more of an appetite for the sort of worn-around-the-edges space adventure tale that Whedon spun. The show is a lot of fun and explores some good ideas. Of course, it was also famously canceled after only 14 episodes, when it was really seeming to get up some steam. Though the show was definitely not perfect, I will gladly join the bandwagon lamenting its early demise. Rating: 7 of 10 based solely on what was actually released, but I honestly think it had 9-10 potential and I wish there were a chance to show it!

World War Z: More than a Zombie Novel

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Source: wikimedia.org

If you’re like me, by now you are probably pretty sick of vampires and zombies. The early 21st century has been overstuffed with books, movies, and video games about ghoulish monsters and post-apocalyptic hellscapes. Sure, the occasional gem (e.g The Walking Dead) has emerged, but most of the zombie craze has just been drivel. The over-saturation got so bad that Marvel even released a few comic runs under the Marvel Zombies banner. I guess the zombies weren’t the only ones with mush for brains.

Now, I spent most of this craze steering clear. I treated anything zombie-ish like it was, well, the plague. You wouldn’t find me any closer to zombies than Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. But I now see that I made one crucial mistake. Hidden in the middle of that zombie craze, in 2006, Max Brooks (son of the great Mel Brooks) wrote a little bestseller called World War Z. So here I am, 10 years late to the party, realizing that this book is so much more than a zombie novel. In fact, I still really don’t like the title. But its subtitle is really what it’s all about: “An Oral History of the Zombie War.”

It was only after my dad, who’s also not into this zombie stuff, strongly recommended the book that I decided to give it a shot. World War Z was not at all what I expected. The entire story is told through at least 40 different interviews and is set entirely after the war. There is no action in the entire 400+ pages. Even without any active danger, there is still plenty of suspense in the heartfelt retelling of these characters’ traumatic struggle to survive. Brooks achieved a great deal of character development for each of his interviewees in a remarkably short period of time. The authenticity of each character’s voice, expertise, life experiences, and cultural upbringing was somehow clearly demonstrated and never overly expository. Brooks also showed a remarkably intricate knowledge of geopolitical forces, cultural histories across the world, and military vernacular and tactics. It is clear to readers that Brooks did a tremendous amount of research to support his novel. All of these factors, as well as the clarity of voice he brought to each of his numerous interviewees, made World War Z a human story, not a zombie story.

Even though the book was kind of thin on the “how” of the zombie outbreak, it barely mattered. What caused the outbreak, how zombies were able to actually exist was not a focus of the story, it was treated more as a given. Instead, Brooks focused on how people survived. Despite, the grim and catastrophic details of the war, along with the vast amounts of destruction and loss of life, the book managed to come off as cautiously optimistic. After all, humanity did win and did survive. There were plenty of errors and mishaps, but a key message was that, even in its darkest hour, humanity could stand together and stave off extinction.

World War Z is the kind of book that is not really about the plot. It is about ideas and human emotions. The zombies are merely the vessel to tell a string of human stories about loss, fear, hardship, resiliency, and, eventually, triumph. In the end, Brooks spun a very human tale about humanity, and in a clever mockumentary style that kept the story moving and engaging throughout. Though it border on repetitive about 2/3 of the way through, the story format picked back up and resolved itself consistently with its strong opening. I recommend giving the book a try, even if you think you don’t like zombie stories. Rating: 8 of 10.

Star Trek: Beyond

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Source: wikimedia.org

Happy 50th anniversary, Star Trek! Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the Original Show’s 1966 pilot premiere. In honor of Gene Roddenberry, a visionary, creative genius, and all around awesome person (check out this Oatmeal comic if you don’t believe me), I’ve started binge-watching the original Star Trek series on the ‘flix. While I dig myself out of some blorgin’ backlog, I wanted to publish my review of the latest film installment to the Trekkie universe. I will leave this post in note form (at least for now). I’ll just leave it as a list of strengths and weaknesses, along with a solid recommendation to go view it.

As an aside, I watched the film in IMAX at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution, which is an amazing organization and well worth your time. You can sign up for membership or to donate here.

Strengths:

  • Dialogue and character development were spot-on
  • decision to split up the primary cast into pairs/ small groups was brilliant to showcase different facets of each character
  • Spock/Bones dynamic was awesome
  • humor — thank you Simon Pegg
  • Alien races looked cool and special effects were pretty exciting
  • the scale of the plot was reasonable – not about the future of the universe really, so much as saving a base
  • Kirk and Spock’s struggles to find themselves made a nice parallel
  • Tributes to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin were very heartfelt and genuine
  • Personal touch, watching it in IMAX was definitely the way to go. Ridiculously awesome, thank you Smithsonian!

Weaknesses:

  • early combat scenes had way too much shaky camera. it was the new lens flare of the movie, really distracting especially during first contact as the Enterprise crashed
  • Despite protests from friends, I don’t think it made sense that the music magically caused the ships to explode. While the hive mentality shakeup was sufficiently plausible to further the fun plot element, I disagree with the waves of explosions making it so easy to destroy them. These are the same ships that tore through the Enterprise no problem and seemed difficult to harm, so careening into one another shouldn’t set off such massive and complete destruction. I thought it should have served as a means to rally back and give the good guys a way to blow them up (think the shields in Independence Day or any Star Wars movie…)
  • The how of Krall’s transformation was a bit thin and could have used a couple more minutes of exploration. I liked the twist as well as the why of his change, but just a nebulous “alien technology” excuse for his sudden immortality and high-tech vampiric powers seemed kind of lazy

Overall: 8 of 10, because good dialogue and character development is really more important than staging the action in my book.

Ready Player One

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Source: Wikimedia.org

I just finished a marathon reading session of Ernest Cline’s debut science fiction novel: Ready Player One. The rate with which I tore through this thing (four days) is evidence enough that it is highly enjoyable and totally engrossing. First published in 2011, I would imagine most of the intended audience (super-nerds and ’80s buffs) have already heard about this book and probably already read it. But there are rumors of a Steven Spielberg-directed movie coming out in 2018, which will prompt a new batch of readers to try this best-selling sensation before then (myself included). Ready Player One is an interesting collection of nostalgia-driven pop culture references and hard science fiction. Cline is clearly a big nerd himself, and the densely-packed pop culture references are clearly an homage to his own interests and obsessions, readers need look no further than the photo on the back of the novel, showing him leaning against a Delorean a la Back to the Future. Nevertheless, Cline also developed a comprehensive and immersive world that artfully draws upon the real world just enough to allow readers to fill in gaps and picture the story fully in their heads. I find that these sorts of reality-adjacent science fiction or fantasy novels find great success by drawing upon the familiar and emphasizing those small differences that drive their plots: think Harry Potter or Ender’s Game.

The basic premise of the novel is that, by 2044, the world has run out of fossil fuels, which combined with global warming and economic stagnation, has led to a prolonged global recession. The world is in rough shape. However, at the same time that the real world started to go down the tubes, a brilliant video game designer, James Halliday, developed a vast, free virtual reality that allowed people to escape from the sad doldrums of a society in decline. Dubbed OASIS, this virtual reality video game quickly grew into the dominant source of information, economy, and leisure for a majority of the world’s population. Then, upon Halliday’s death, the multi-billionaire released a video introducing a contest that would grant the winner full inheritance of his fortune and control over the fate of the OASIS. The ensuing competition drove a pathological obsession with Halliday’s formative decade, the 1980s, and makes for a fun future that’s obsessed with our past. Our hero, the poor and miserable Wade Watts, has dedicated his life to the search and the book chronicles his adventures searching for this fame and fortune.

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Author Ernest Cline and his Delorean. Photo Cred: Rolling Stone

I greatly enjoyed the novel, finding myself fully engrossed and drawn to the wonderfully detailed world of the OASIS that Cline developed. The puzzles and references that shaped Halliday’s Easter Egg Hunt were fun, nostalgic, and definitely cleverly constructed. I also found Wade’s characterization to be pretty fitting: a flawed loner with some serious self-esteem issues, but just enough courage and plucky cleverness to get things starting to go his way. Supporting cast like Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto were also pretty well done, though definitely cast over a bit during the novel’s second act. I didn’t want to put the book down, so I can’t say enough about how much fun it was to read, which is a tribute to Cline’s world-building. I don’t want to elaborate too much on the plot, as it is much more fun to be surprised, but I will say that it is wonderful and most definitely worth reading.

However, there were a couple of nit-picky criticisms to clal out as well. First, Cline makes a point early on that Halliday’s obsessions are with all things nerdy, repeatedly listing “movies, comic books, TV shows, music, and most of all, video games.” But then, there are never any comic book references, so why even say it? There were critical mentions of movies, shows, and songs, but none of the quests and almost none of the references were to comic books. I know this is a pretty minor complaint all told, but to call it out then not deliver is like a false promise. It seems like Cline was pandering to hook people early then forgot to deliver (or didn’t know as much about them himself, but wanted to be inclusive to all of “nerd-dom”). I was definitely disappointed, but I still did enjoy my fair share of Star Wars, Monty Python, and other awesome references throughout the book.

Second, I felt like Cline missed out on an opportunity to focus more on the “real world” of RPO outside of the OASIS. Yes, some important action happens there, and he does keep Wade and others at least relatively aware that their lives inside of OASIS are not their “true selves,” but beyond a few platitudes about starving citizens and decaying urban centers, Cline largely neglects any societal warnings or present day allegories that are so common in classic science fiction. It seems somewhat like a missed opportunity, but even so, a book made mostly for amusement rather than allegory and social commentary is still a good book if it succeeds at amusing readers, which Ready Player One certainly does. I just wish Cline had taken the concept a little deeper with those topics, giving the story a little more edge and philosophical oomph.

Lastly, this is not a criticism as much as a statement: Ready Player One is not for everyone. It was definitely written with an audience in mind – an audience that loves video games and nerd culture or grew up in the 1980s and is nostalgic for their youth. I, myself, was born a little later, but under my dad’s cultural stewardship, I grew up loving an appreciating a lot of these classic cultural phenomena. Sure, some of the references to arcades and TRs-80s were a little before my time, but Cline did a great job filling in the gaps to help paint a great picture of each cultural tidbits’ significance. If you can read this review and say, “hey, that sounds good,” then you’ll love it. If you hated the ’80s or were born in 2001, this may be a little much for you. And that’s ok, Cline, like his character James Halliday, just wants to share his interests with other people who appreciate them. Now go on, give it a try, if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to put it down. Rating: 9 of 10

Ex Machina

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Source: Wikimedia.org

Ex Machina is an engaging new science fiction film that is highly philosophical and surprisingly low on action for the vast majority of its screen time. As a film, it is an interesting exercise in some key philosophical and ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence, such as freedom, guilt, and love. The amazing thing about this film is that it is highly suspenseful, even though the action is sparse. This beautiful and well-though-out film accomplishes a lot in a relatively short period of time (108 minutes) and with only four actors of note. The tightly-scripted dialogues between these few characters drive the plot as well as any moral or ethical questions surrounding the film. The performances of the three primary characters, Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander were all phenomenal. It is truly impressive as a piece of genuinely original material. So often now, the film industry is afraid to create original stories and relies solely upon adapting stories that have proven popular first as a book or graphic novel. However, in this case, Ex Machina is a rare story that feels new and exciting. Written and directed by Alex Garland, it was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Original Screenplay and Special Effects, and won the latter. Its minuscule $15M production budget was positively dwarfed by its competition in the Special Effects category, but it beat out powerhouse blockbusters like James Bond: Spectre and Star Wars: Force Awakens.

Delving into too much detail is liable to only ruin the carefully crafted and suspenseful story. I recommend watching the film just as I did, with no preconceived notions or expectations as to what might occur. That viewing experience makes it all that much more enjoyable. One very quick negative note, however, is that I find it odd that there is so much of a sexual element to this film, which, to me, doesn’t necessarily seem crucial. Though Isaac’s character (Nathan) does touch on the very subject, suggesting that love/lust is a critical element of life and gives “motivation” for survival and desire. Perhaps that is the case, or perhaps that entire notion lends to the notion that Nathan, himself, is flawed and that they indicate his arrogance or shortcomings as a creator himself. Some of the resolution at the end of the film did feel a little rushed and may not have been sufficiently explained, but the statement made by the film does come through abundantly clear. Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed the film and recommend it to all mature fans of science fiction, especially harder science fiction that delves into the “hows” and “whys” of progress, humanity, and our place as creators. Rating: 8 of 10

The Martian – in print and film

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A truly awesome cover. It is no surprise that it became a bestseller with this image on the front. Source: Wikimedia

I recently both read the novel and watched the film based on the novel of The Martian by Andy Weir. Since both came out relatively recently and there were some significant stylistic and event plot elements between the two, a combined review seemed to fit best, enabling me to compare and contrast the two versions. I will try to minimize spoilers in this review, but some comparisons will require referencing specific plot points, so anywhere that says *Spoiler* skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to have anything given away.

The basic premise, if you don’t already know, is that the story is set a few years into our future, in a world where humans have been to Mars. The idea is still novel, but much like with the Apollo missions to the moon, NASA is running periodic reconnaissance and scientific manned explorations to the Red Planet. Our hero, Mark Watney is one of a team of six NASA astronauts that have been sent to Mars to continue learning and exploring the planet. Only a couple of days into their planned multi-week expedition, a massive storm hits and the whole crew is forced to abandon their base and return to Earth. However, in the confusion of the storm, Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead as the rest of the crew flees to angry planet to return to Earth. What follows is Watney’s desperate attempt to survive on a foreign and unforgiving planet, alone, and with no plan to escape.

The Book:

Presented in a log format, the novel opens with Mark Watney speaking in first-person directly to the readers. From the first word, you are captured by Watney’s personality and the desperate nature of his situation. The author, Weir, is able to balance a format that provides some plausibility to the book’s narrative style (i.e. Watney’s first-person record of events) with the scientific and technical explanations that help a reader to understand how space travel and survival on another planet works, including, of course the theoretical advancements Weir’s nebulous near future setting makes possible. This combination: bringing hard science fiction into a personable and likable character’s log entries makes this book highly entertaining and an instant hit.

The first third of the book is pure science fiction gold. It opens with Watney already stranded on Mars, with the details of how he came to be stranded trickling in gradually through his log entries. One of the absolute best elements of the book is how well Weir portrays Watney’s loneliness. He is the only person on the entire planet. That makes the limited first-person perspective of the log entries a natural fit that only accentuates this feeling of loneliness. Watney’s perspective is THE perspective. The series of incredible and extremely dangerous crises Watney has to survive are met by the clever genius and biting wit of a super lovable character.

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By the way, let’s increase funding for NASA. It’s really important. And awesome. Source: Wikimedia

The problems start about a third of the way in, when Weir starts to abandon this log format for narration, switching back and forth between the other astronauts returning to Earth, the teams of NASA scientists on Earth trying to orchestrate a rescue mission for Watney, and even a weird segment told from the a third-person perspective describing a tear in the base’s fabric. I understand why Weir went with this format, it allowed him to further the plot while keeping the action in the present tense. One of the limits of Watney’s log was that the readers heard about all of his troubles after the fact, making it very clear he had already survived them. However, this tonal change felt like an interruption from a format that had been working brilliantly. I suspect there was probably a way that could have been finessed to give the more active feel to the drama*.

These narrative changes continue throughout the end of the book, as these additional viewpoints continue to eat into Watney’s share of the page count, almost relegating him back into the ensemble of characters. The log entries are fewer and farther between and the plot seems to gradually fall away from that empathetic sense of being stranded on Mars with Watney that the novel had at the beginning.

The novel ended solidly, if not brilliantly, and the book left a feeling of wonder at the true scale of Watney’s journey. Overall, I think that this book is a very solid entry into modern science fiction canon. It has some truly inspiring moments, a highly memorable main character, and the rare ability to make scientific exploration a fun and exciting topic for the masses. However, this book is also a case study in the limitations of being self-published. Weir, a first-time author, originally published the book for free on Amazon and it took off, with the print version following much later. This trajectory is a real cinderella story, but it also means that the novel didn’t have a chance to get screened and edited by multiple sets of eyes. In a sense, it was still rough around the edges and it’s not really any fault to Weir, more the circumstances around the books “publication.” All that being said, it is a highly enjoyable book with great concepts and a wonderful story, that occasionally feels raw and unrefined due to some mild to moderate stylistic and tonal jumps. I would definitely recommend it to all fans of science and science fiction or survival adventures.

Rating: 8 out of 10

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Twin Peaks on Mars, near the Pathfinder site. A real picture from NASA of a key location from The MartianSource: Wikimedia Commons.

The Film:

The decision to make the book, The Martian, into a movie seemed like a brilliant idea. You had this story of an intrepid explorer surviving on his own in a foreign land with no help from the outside, à la Castaway, plus the allure of space travel and all of the crowd-pleasing CGI enhancements that come with it. It was a slam dunk. Now, cast Matt Damon as Mark Watney. Boom, say hello Oscars!

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

And that is actually what happened, only I’m not so sure those voters in the Academy actually read the book. As I relayed above, the book had some wonderful strengths, but the movie also had an opportunity to tweak some of the weaknesses and generate an even stronger product. In other words, The Martian movie could have been better than the book. That is a bold statement, and one I don’t take lightly. It is a rare feat, but this movie was really primed to take a unpolished nugget of a story and complete it.

Unfortunately, I think it missed the mark.** Matt Damon’s acting was superb and the visuals stunning. Plot-wise, it was ok. The main crux of the story was relayed well: potatoes, satellites and all that. But the issues were in the finer details of the movie’s presentation. For some reason, Ridley Scott’s movie decided to tell the story chronologically, starting from moments before the astronauts were hit by the storm that stranded Watney. The stories of the ensemble characters, all well-acted I might add, were thrown in from the start, giving the viewers no time to appreciate Watney on his own. That sense of loneliness and the log entry format was lost and a real opportunity was missed in the process. There were a few scenes where Damon spoke into the camera in a video log style, and those were the highlights of the film. Speaking to the wry wit and ingenuity of this lovable character. In the film, viewers are only given a few minutes to see this side of the character, while the book gave you about 100 pages.

Understandably, a movie cannot accomplish every single plot point in a 200 page book in the span of only two hours. But some key moments felt rushed and some of the most iconic struggle scenes from the book were left out of the movie entirely. Moments that changed how Watney approached he entire survival plan and showed the true strength of his character and depth of his cleverness. These plot cuts would have been more forgivable if they had not added multiple unnecessary scenes for the ensemble characters and an unbelievably hokey and ridiculous Hollywood ending. The last five minutes left such a bad taste in my mouth that I was surprised the Academy gave it a Best Picture nomination.

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‘Nuff said. Source: filmlinc.org/nyff

Overall, the movie had some shining strengths: Matt Damon’s superior acting skills, a strong supporting cast (including the notable performances of Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Donald Glover), and some breathtaking visuals. The plot was solid, though it is hard to credit the movie with the plot, since Weir’s book laid it out pretty directly. But a lot of the directorial decisions surrounding tone and storytelling format, plot tweaks made for movie-goers, and the entire removal of the sense of Watney’s loneliness from the beginning of the story made the movie a weaker version than the original book. It is still worth seeing, especially if you have not read the book, but fans of Weir’s version may be disappointed.

Rating for book readers: 7 out of 10

Hypothetical rating for non-book readers: 9 out of 10

Best Picture Oscar considerations:

Though definitely the weakest overall film of the nominees, The Martian is a well-executed science fiction film about a man trying to survive in a desolate land with nothing but his wits and the supplies he can find. This extraterrestrial version of Robinson Crusoe features Matt Damon’s acting talents as the main character, Mark Watney in his struggle for survival. Though I have no complaints about Damon’s performance, and his Best Actor nomination is well-deserved, the nomination of this film for Best Picture seems like a stretch. I have already written about the differences between the film and book versions of the story above, documenting many of the film’s shortcomings and missed opportunities. Overall, I recommend it to science fiction fans, especially those who have not already read the book.


*Idea: maybe a voice recording function in the helmet of his spacesuit that integrated into the base’s log memory? I mean, why not? It’s science fiction after all.

**Watney. Pun intended.