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!

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.

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.