Showing posts with label Science Fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Science Fiction. Show all posts


Proto Man

So I finally saw Prometheus last night.

It was heavily buzzed last spring. I had as high of hopes as anyone else - probably even higher, to be honest. While my initial reaction to the announcement had been low expectations at best, that changed the more I saw. The trailer looked crazy and there was honest to goodness potential in Ridley Scott going back to the well for more of the once-great franchise. They even had Lost-alum (the admittedly divisive) Damon Lindelof on board to re-write the script and build the world a bit more. There was a great cast in line. Everything was lining up to be pretty damn stellar. 

Then the movie came out and the world of nerds on the internet collectively soiled themselves in anger. 

Once the negative feedback started online, I decided not to see it in the theater as I had originally planned. Instead, I waited to consume it in the same fashion I had any other entry in the fading Alien franchise: at home with some junk food and no expectations. So how was it?

Not bad.

While Prometheus was certainly not on the level with the original Alien or other staples of the genre like Blade Runner, it wasn't the cinematic abortion people were claiming it to be. In fact, despite a flawed story with arbitrary motivation and some contrived coincidences, I found it to be a grand and profound science fiction movie the likes of which rarely get made these days. Far from perfect but still enjoyable, there were plenty of moments where the soul of previous success would bleed through. Ridley Scott has had hits and misses, but when he gets on a good streak in a movie it can really build some momentum. Sure, it can be dashed on the rocks of characters who quickly become shouting morons, but there were more than enough entertaining moments to warrant its production.

Additionally, in a bid to stop typing altogether I dictated my thoughts into my phone as I sat in the dark, eating Whoppers and nursing a beer. Below is a full list of my notes, along with the clearer insight of having slept on what I saw in parentheses:

- Even the opening logo is that weird blue tint to it. (Must we do the orange/blue color shift every time?)

- The opening panoramas actually have that the Scott feel. (Pretty grand vistas and sweeping, heavy shots.)

- So is the intro of the movie the crux of the whole plot in a bad way? (Like, was that it? From what I had avoiding spoiling for myself in advance, seeing the first scene made me think 'Yeah, that's probably it, I should turn it off and save myself a couple hours. I was sort of wrong?)

- Even for science-fiction this dream reading business seems bogus. (Immediately forgetting Inception and, you know, space monsters and robots.)

- It's got a good look but the problem is that even the retro looking things clearly are more advanced than what was in Alien. (It's that balancing act of a PREQUEL being made 30 years later. Tech we hadn't thought of could be explained away as better funding by the Weyland Corp. Also, in Alien they were just a mining ship.)

- God awful accent. (Rafe Spall. Seriously.)

- Old make up still looks fake. (No matter how artfully applied and blended with CGI, my first thought was 'OMIGAD YOUNG PERSON IN MAKEUP. Why have Guy Pearce do that? Why not, say, hire an elderly actor?)

- I want the white sweatshirt. (Alright Rafe - I'll forgive the accent if I can have your weird hoodie.)

- There better funded that's what they have better tech. (My hand-waiving the jarring juxtaposition of this movie and Alien. See above.)

- That is one stupid scientist. (Dude. Even I know - DO. NOT. TOUCH. This was apparently establishing a running theme?)

- The geologist is clearly from a lesser film. (Sorry man, but your over the top acting was not due to script problems.)

- The engineer head coming back to my life momentarily is genuinely freaky. (No joke. A disturbing moment. Also? Totally animatronic, I found out.)

- Ask God why do we need robots? (A real BSOD moment for me. Never stopped to think 'Wait, why ARE we making robots in the first place? Simply to serve man? That's a cop out. Still chewing on this.)

- Apple TV remote visible on Shaw's couch. (Nice future tech, you thing I have on my coffee table.)

- That just went from bad to worse. (Blugh, that snake-thing snapping an arm and melting the helmet? That escalated quickly.)

- In the map room the difference between practical effects and CGI is still stark although it's good to see more Geiger. (It's hard to blend them, even all these years after Phantom Menace. Geiger's art is still so distinct and creepy, when used sparingly.)

- That is a slow non-guaranteed way to die and Charlize Theron didn't want to do it. (Seriously, setting him on fire? Probably would suffer for hours from complicated burns. You have guns. Shoot him.)

- I'm obviously not the first person to think Prometheus take place in the same world as Inception. (Cue the linking of that movie's universe, which makes the combined fictional universes Inception, Alien, Blade Runner and Predator.)

- Body horror in the medical pod a glimpse of things to come. (That abortion scene was one of the most disturbing things I've seen on film in a while. The opened cavity? Awful. A horrible look at the wonderful, sterile, male-driven world of medicine yet to come.)

- Arbitrary monster...( arbitrary. Shoe horned in for a scare/action scene? Waste of screen time.)

- Idris Elba is the best part of this and maybe David. (Okay, clearly David is the best thing about this movie, but Idris was pretty damn solid.)

- I would've believed it if they killed everybody. (A psych-out that I was willing to accept. If any movie had the stones to go bleak and kill 'em all, this would have been it. But alas, no.)

- Final alien was gratuitous, redundant and poorly designed. (Sorry, just didn't dig it. Even after all the build up. Show, don't tell. It was clearly the same Engineers and world of Alien, do we need to be hit over the head with it?)

So there you have it. Despite the high snark level of some of those comments, I really did enjoy Prometheus and will defend it to fellow nerds. It aspired to be more than it could, but despite a strong pedigree could not overcome some complex script problems.  If you're curious, I highly recommend it.

Still worth waiting to see after all the publicity.



So I read Stephen King's novel about the Kennedy assassination. 

It was surprisingly good. 

Unfortunately, the enormity of the subject makes an elegant and simplified analysis difficult, if not impossible. I was 18 when the terrorist attacks occurred in New York and DC. Considering how much that shaped my world, I can't begin to fathom how such an event like the one on 11/22/63 would shatter innocence and alter lives. To my admitted dismay and shame, it made for absolutely engrossing reading and fascinating storytelling. 

Let me explain a bit. 

11/22/63 tells the story of Jake Epping, a man who is given access to a gateway to the past by an elderly friend. This friend, being not long for this Earth, has become obsessed with using this possibility as a means to divert history and save Kennedy, hopefully setting the world on a different chain of events that would undo Vietnam and spare thousands of lives as a result. Jake, fascinated by all of this, goes along with it and travels back to 1958, into a world of heavy smoking and the red scare. After some exposition and a series of trial and error establishment of rules regarding time travel, he decides to go along with the plan and sets about changing history. What follows is an engrossing adventure into the past, aided by an impressive amount of research and historical details from King. 

While I could give my typical emphatic endorsement of the book here, I'll sidestep the process to offer a few thoughts on the idea as a whole. I've certainly made my apologist stance for King's canon clear before, so instead of making a plea for you to give in to his writing, I'll simply say that it's the best he's written in years and it feels like he moved away from his wheelhouse a bit, in a good way. Give it a chance. 


I can't imagine what it would have been like to experience an event like the one in Dallas in November of 1963. I was 18 when the attacks happened and I could most likely spend the rest of my life trying to make sense of what happened. I probably will, in some ways. Such events are so massive in effect, despite their simple human beginnings, that our instinct is to force them into some sort of comprehendible, easily digested capsule of logic. This is, of course, impossible. 

For my generation, the scale of the events on September 11th will always be too large to grasp on any human scale - they are, by matter of fact, larger than one person can easily reconcile. All the more difficult it must be, then, to fathom how one lone person can be responsible for skewing the world off on to another course of events. It is of no surprise that conspiracy theories arise when we try to explain what happened in either event. To have some shadowy cabal of power players be responsible somehow seems so much more comprehensible than the reality of the actions of a few people. The events fly in the face of our understanding of how the world works. 

This being said, King's exploration of the subject is harrowing and humanizing. His exhaustive research into what (most likely) drove Lee Harvey Oswald to do what he did grants him an exhilarating yet horrifying place from which to tell a story. In some ways it's an the ultimate example of wish fulfillment - saving Kennedy is one of the classic cases cited for the potential of time travel. Who else is better suited than the long winded and exhaustive King to delve into the specifics of time travel and life in the 60s? 

I have to admit, I was almost giddy with excitement to see little scenarios play out, like rigging sports bets like in Back to the Future, or reveling in classic cars and examining knowingly outdated world views. Every time the protagonist started to risk revealing his nature or started to change the past in any way, I was on the edge of my seat, furiously flipping pages. Granted, I'm a fairly sizable nerd and time travel is some of the nerdiest stuff in fiction, but as engrossing as it may be for someone still under the age of 30 it was fantastic. I can't imagine how interesting it would be for anyone who actually experienced that time. 

I think, though, that some of the most significant lessons of the book come from the authors closing notes. In particular, a single sentence about our current state of vitriol and political fervor - "If you want to know what political extremism can lead to, look at the Zapruder film." That single, sad sentence says more about what our actions can lead to than the preceding 800 pages of human drive and desperation. One miserable, crazy person can do terrible things. It's a fascinating, scary ride to read about what makes them tick, but the moment they take action, it can't be taken back. The past won't change for us.

It would do us well to remember that.


Pure Menace

I went to see The Phantom Menace this weekend. Intentionally and with surprisingly high hopes, I should add. 

My reasons for doing so were varied, but I essentially wanted to see if it truly is as bad as the collective internet would have us believe. Though, really, it was a chance to hang out with a friend of mine and go to the movies, which happens so rarely these days. I had a great time with my friend, but the movie...what a fascinating misstep in the annals of film. 

Here's the short version for anyone not in the know: George Lucas was responsible (mostly) for some really great movies. He took a huge hiatus from a beloved franchise and when he returned to it almost 20 years later, he made a movie that has become synonymous with disappointment and fan-backlash. Since then, he made two more that only made incremental improvements, thus tarnishing the very series that brought him to prominence in the first place. Lucas cut a deep dividing line between his older work and his recent work, one body being heartfelt and the other being coldly focused at selling toys and crowding the screen. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 
I loved the Star Wars movies as a kid. As a teenager, my focus shifted (girls, music, what have you) and I never even saw The Phantom Menace in its theatrical release. I eventually rekindled my love for the series a few years ago, the nostalgia fueling a passion for which little else holds such high regard in my eyes. So when the Blu Ray editions of the six film series were announced, I was on board from the get go. Yes, the whole thing, not just the good half. I wanted the whole set, not just for completion's sake, but to evaluate the series with fresh eyes and new presentation. I hadn't seen TPM in ten years, and the only time I saw it was on a VHS on a small screen TV on a sunny afternoon. Hardly ideal viewing conditions. When I watched the movies on Blu Ray a few months ago I simply skipped large parts of TPM, wanting to get to the movies I love instead of enduring what I assumed was absolute dreck. 

I was mostly right in doing so. 

Going to the theater on Saturday, I had a fresh viewing experience ahead of me. The hatred and fervor behind the movie had died down. It would not only be on the big screen, but in 3D as well. This was the big selling point for the re-release and I'll admit, I wanted to see how it changed the movie. As it turns out, not even a fresh, forgiving perspective could fix the missteps Lucas took in constructing TPM from the ground up. The 3D, while subtly applied, didn't add a great deal, just more depth of field and a darker, frustrating image. In my home experience it was bright and vivid, full of clear imagery. This was muddled and sleep-inducing - the bulbs are never turned up bright enough on 3D projectors. While I enjoyed the whole ritual of going to the movies, our immediate reaction upon leaving the theater was amazement. We weren't simply trashing the film for the sake of dog-piling. It really is just that bad. 

Mr. Plinkett's review makes every single flaw with the film abundantly clear, as it is nearly as long as the movie itself. What I can do, though, is give more concise insight. 

For starters, I still can't say with any certainty what the movie is about. I know, I know. Trade routes and Federation disputes, blockades and diplomats. It's insane. Three times, now, I've seen this movie and I still shrug at the actual supposed motivations. I can't event bother with paying attention to the nuts and bolts of the political process in the movie. I get so fed up with politics in my own life, I don't want to pay attention and get invested in ones in a fantasy world. Compare that to plots in IV, V and VI - rebel spies, revenge, running from the Empire. Simple, comprehendible motivations, despite the fantastical setting.

Wooden acting is another integral problem. The only lively elements were Jar Jar and Ewan McGregor, and even McGregor was limited to imitating Alec Guiness. He got much more loose with it in the following installments. Even here it was apparent he was the only one who seemed to know not to take it too seriously. Liam Neeson is stiff and distant, very hard to root for. Natalie Portman just didn't seem to know how to play her part. Ian Mcdermid at least had a sense from his prior experience to ham it up a bit.
On top of all it is the fact that the screen and the universe Lucas created was simply so cluttered at this point. While the first three movies suggested a rich, developed universe behind the story, here it was presented as a full on, unrelenting onslaught. Every inch of the screen was packed with action and detail. The clutter was mind boggling. Seemingly every character had had or eventually had a back story or a novel or a video game spin off. I don't want to have to know all that business - I want to be able to just watch the movie and follow the action on screen.
I know I'm being harsh. There were some cool moments. Seeing the Gungan city revealed in 3D in the theater was actually pretty breathtaking, as were some of the other establishing shots. The score was classic Star Wars. The lightsaber dual wasn't bad. There were moments where the original trilogy poked through, but they were so few and far between that they couldn't buoy the film out of slow, steady sinking process. It was, as I've said, fascinating to see how intrinsically flawed the movie is at every level. I also know I'll go see Attack of the Clones next year. I'm just a glutton for punishment and too quick to give second chances, I guess.


More Untraditional

So yesterday I extolled the virtues of the Futurama episode Xmas Story. Huge fan, I'm all about it. It was a game changer, for sure. The only thing better was the follow up, released a year later. Titled 'A Tale of Two Santas', this episode was even crazier and more over the top than the last. You want to celebrate Xmas? Go over the top with this under the radar episode.
The last Futurama episode had introduced us to the seasons greetings
in the year 3000. This episode sees the cast and crew digging in for their most cathartic and destructive iteration yet. Why observe the holiday in solemn silence when you can see the withered remains of Neptune or the legally mandated execution of a robot in the name of Xmas?
Here's the gist: the Planet Express crew is tasked with delivering letters to Santa, no matter how evil he may be. When the Robot Santa becomes trapped in an ice block, Bender takes on the mantle to become Santa for a night, enduring all forms of torture and mistrust in the process. You come bearing Tri-Ominoes? Good luck escaping unscathed. When he's brought before a jury, everyone in the Planet Express crew has to step up and prove his innocence.
This episode ups the insanity from the previous years Xmas installment in the best way possible. It's bigger. It's badder. The world is more established. The Neptunians are a grim, sobering bunch. Santas workshop is a horrible relentless place. There are more explosions and gunfire. More violence and jokes. Basically the cast and crew figured out there voice and hit it at full stride for this Xmas episode. Plus, a lovely holiday tune that starts with the line "We are free and fairly sober." Super fun stuff.
When people talk about the 'golden period' of Futurama, like they do with the Simpsons, this is an episode that stands out. Just ask Santa's friend Jesus. It's insanity at the best level. Keep reading. We're gonna hit dirt in a couple days...



Well alright, then.

Yesterday's Xmas Xception was on some crazy, ultra-violent stuff, the completely out-there Last Christmas. It's an insane comic that warps the sense of the holiday. Let's continue down that weird tangent, only dialing down the bloodshed. Let's take a look at another of my favorite animated installments, Xmas Story from Futurama.
The best thing about this episode, besides Robot Santa, is that it doesn't even start off as a Christmas episode. Instead, it's set at a ski resort. You have the usual sight gags involving the sport, as well as everyone in ridiculous outfits and a surprise appearance by the head of Conan O'Brien doing a stand up gig at the Catskills. Things begin to switch gears, though, when Fry gets a hankering for Christmases from his past, like the eggnog his dad would make (bourbon and ice) or cutting down a (now extinct) pine tree. Of course, this being a thousand years in the future, no one has any idea what Fry is talking about. They figure he's using an archaic pronunciation of their holiday, Xmas. "You know? X-M-A-S!" The crew of Planet express batten down the hatches for the holiday, as is tradition. This is where things go from good to great. 
The biggest contribution to the holiday season Futurama has made is that of Robot Santa. Made by Mom's Friendly Robot Factory to make the yuletide season more efficient, a programming error put everyone on the naughty list. As a result, the homicidal robot spends every Xmas killing everyone in sight with festive weapons and some robotic reindeer. John Goodman's voice acting is deliciously evil and the imagery of Santa launching rockets on Christmas is too awesome to deny. So while Fry is out looking for a scorned Leela (having inadvertently insulted her and then bought an obnoxious parrot as apology) they both end up dodging missiles and machine gun fire. 
This episode (along with the dynamic follow up) are required viewing in my household every Xmas season. Murderous robots. Bender skiing in a ridiculous hat. Zoidberg on a pogo-stick. Amy and Hermes doing a groan-inducing 'Gift of the Magi' bit. The head of Conan O'Brien. There's just too much awesome on display here. Track it down and see what you've been missing.


One More Thing

Okay, let me explain.

It is Halloween proper as I write this. Spooky Month has lived and thrived in the month of October. It's dying now, fading into the cold, dark abyss of Minnesota winter. As sad as I may be to see my favorite holiday come and go once again, it's not the end of the world. Fall here is a beautiful time; the leaves are changing. The air is crisp and clear. The first snow is beautiful. There - I said the S word. It's inevitable. Every year we have to face the undeniable return of the dreaded white stuff. Again, not the end of the world - it just feels like it. The older I've gotten, though, the more I see the beauty and natural order in it. So how does this tie in with the end of Spooky Month? Simple. I want to implore you to watch the 1982 version of The Thing.
The Thing is a classic of the horror genre, with a few unique twists that still set it apart from the modern dreck. Set in a research station on the South Pole, the movie tells a paranoia inducing tale of an alien creature that can change shape. That's really all I want to give away of a plot that's well worn and almost 30 years old. To say anymore would ruin a few good surprises. Kurt Russell stars as a burly and surly helicopter pilot who unravels the mystery in front of him, one shot of whiskey at a time. When a dog from a neighboring Norwegian research facility arrives at the station, being hunted by the last surviving Norske, things go awry and an expedition is sent out to find the facts. The venturing crew the ice. The Norwegian camp is in ashes. When they return to their outpost, Russell and co. are faced with a terrifying, inhuman force. It. Is. Amazing.
There are so many things that work well in this movie. The direction is fantastic, establishing a sense of space in a grounded, if painfully cold, place. Watching this movie almost gets me excited for winter, if that makes any semblance of sense. The cast do a superb job of recoiling in the face of indescribable monstrosities, which brings me to the crux of the movie. The monster, the titular Thing, is astounding and horrifying, even today. The practical effects are appalling in the best possible way (WARNING - NOT SAFE FOR STOMACH). Consider yourself warned - this movie is not for the faint of heart. It's nasty and ultra grotesque. In spite of, or perhaps because of the graphic and slimy gore, The Thing is an astounding watch.
I have little to no interest in seeing the recent prequel in theaters. This version, directed by John Carpenter (in his first major outing), is a perfect stand-alone horror movie. The story is told so fantastically well, the beats so well spaced and timed, the plot so deftly woven, that seeing explicitly what happens before it is simply not necessary. The chaos in the Norwegian camp was so perfectly established in this version that I just don't see the point in revisiting it to tell their story. Maybe I'm wrong here, but I just feel Carpenter's version is such a great, singular thing that it doesn't need expansion.
So there you have it. One last gasp of Spooky Month to see you through to next year. Get ready for the impending winter with a horrifying, paranoid tale of isolation and mistrust. It'll keep your mind free of cabin fever for the next season. Or maybe not. Maybe you'll just get more suspicious of your companions. Either way, enjoy The Thing. Lights off, as always.


Alien Essential

It won't all be zombies and ghosts.

To prove that point, today's movie-themed Spooky Month post will focus on one of my favorite movies ever, let alone a quality scary one. It's a movie with a long and storied history, one I'll only partially be able to delve into. Regardless, let's cut right to the chase and take a look at Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece, Alien

Alien is a movie that inspires awe in me, both as an avid horror buff and as a simple audience member. I knew when I first saw it on VHS back in the mid 90s that it was a renowned piece of movie history. At the time I was just into the sci-fi and titular monsters, the design and lore of which were fascinating. The older I grew and the more I learned about the movie (and to lesser extent the diminishing sequels) the more I respected and appreciated the artistry and craft that went into making this hallmark of horror. Every little tidbit of information made it that much more impressive, in my eyes. But enough fan-boy gushing from me - let me explain what the deal is and why you should care, in case you've (sadly) missed out until now. 
Alien is a claustrophobic, dramatic science fiction movie that established one of the most subversive, original monsters in modern creation. Set aboard an interstellar mining vessel in the semi-distant future (a believable one with well-drawn human characters, not the cardboard-yet-fantastical George Lucas world), it tells the tale of a crew investigating a distress signal on a supposedly uninhabited planet. The ragtag, contentious crew accept company orders to land on the surface and venture out to see what caused the auto-pilot to wake them from their cryogenic hibernation. Among ancient wreckage awaited something...dangerous and absolutely unfamiliar. A crew member is brought back on board with something attached to him, which inevitably leads to an uncanny monster stalking the claustrophobic halls of their vessel. Already back on path to Earth, the near-defenseless crew struggles to survive against the lurking horror. This description is all in the hopes of enticing you without giving away surprises for a movie that's well over 30 years old, so if you have never had the fortune of being terrified by it, for the love of scary movies, see it now. If you already know, then you get why I have to beat around the bush on some of the more central elements. 
But let's assume you're familiar with the movie for a moment. What is it that makes it so remarkable? There are countless reasons, frankly. But is there any particular one that stands out as the backbone to the legendary status of this film? Certainly Ridley Scott's direction is integral, with his gorgeous framing and nail-biting pacing. I can include myself among the many people that swore up and down that the alien changed shape and size throughout the film, despite the concrete evidence to the contrary. His creation of enclosed sets for the mining vessel Nostromo were also a key factor, establishing a real space with palpable tight spots and a sense of being lived in. The cast did a fantastic job of portraying working class people in a future that otherwise would be cliched and hokey. They feel like a genuine band of dysfunctional coworkers with old disagreements and grievances, as well as disparate motivations. Sigourney Weaver did an impeccable job as the heroine, cementing her status as an action lead despite the dearth of women in the field. This casting choice is especially noteworthy considering that it occurred back in the ancient 1970s. 
Of course this all glosses over the most notorious element of all - H.R. Giger's unholy creation. Summoning inspiration from the most biological yet unnatural sources, Giger created a monster that unnerves us and disturbs that sense of normalcy in the mind. When seeing it for the first time, we are naturally repulsed yet intrigued by its simultaneously organic and mechanical elements. Furthermore, the manner in which it reproduces (let alone how it bursts onto the scene) are subversively abhorrent to our standards of tradition and the expected world. The idea of the creature's reproductive cycle and the parallels it possesses to rape and male pregnancy are well established, no doubt causing further unease in our subconsciousness as we watch the film. 
There are tons of little details that add to the movie, giving weight to unspoken themes or just adding to the world we're brought into. The idea of the ship waking up in the opening scenes is added to by framing shots of the monitors in reflective helmets, as though the machines were speaking. Corporate omnipresence Weyland-Yutani's motivations and questionable actions in the face of ethical dilemmas are ever the more prescient today, given the horrible repercussions depicted in the film. This is further elevated by our continuing advances in cybernetics and artificial intelligence. Unacknowledged things in the derelict spacecraft on the surface of the planet also suggest a deeper history to the movie - the Space Jockey is massive, clearly not a human. Further, what was the signal? A warning? A beacon? Attempts in recent movies are only semi-canonical and disappointing at best. The mystery here is so much more fascinating than a hard answer. 
Alien is excellent in every aspect. It is just as terrifying today as it was when it was first released. Quality presentation only adds to the experience. High resolution transfers, a widescreen TV and a dark, quiet place make it more of an immersive, unnerving experience. If you've never seen this masterpiece of science fiction horror, check it out as soon as possible. You want to see the monster? Go find it in the dark.



Let's veer off course, shall we?

I was never a fan of Doctor Who - at least, not in my formative years. It was one of the many British things of which I had only peripheral awareness. I knew there were lots of scarves and something called a police box and a T.A.R.D.I.S. and that it was pretty hard sci fi. Thus ended the limits of my understanding of the Whoniverse. That all changed when I started listening to the Nerdist podcast - it was a constant source of excitement on the show and after so many episodes of these funny, intelligent people rambling on about things I didn't understand, I said why not?

Picking up the series via Netflix, I started with the latest incarnation or the long-running BBC show, a mere five series late. It was pretty damn good - interesting characters, outlandish (extremely hard) sci fi and funny, incredibly smart writing that constantly surprised me. So I stuck with it and watched episodes here and there when I was cleaning or cooking, working my way through the history. I was anxiously awaiting a particular episode.
So how does this relate to Spooky Month, you ask? That episode, Series 3's Blink, is some of the best unnervingly creepy science fiction I've seen. In an interesting twist of expectation, it's what is absent that makes it such a strong episode of the series, let alone any episode of television. There are no returning characters, the Doctor himself is hardly in it at all, there's no bloodshed or gore. All the drama and weight come from some fantastic and inspired writing and directing, as well as a few clever ideas. What unfolds, though, is terrifying and tense, a holding-my-breath-as-I-watch kind of rare viewing experience. If you want an idea of what to expect, here is the most encapsulated version from Wikipedia that spoils the least amount of content for you: "The episode focuses on a young woman, Sally Sparrow, trying to solve the connection between 17 disparate DVD titles, and statues that move when no-one is looking at them." 
This episode of Doctor Who is a small, isoltated example of the series, which I feel is a fantastic starting point for someone unfamiliar to the show - it plays like a short film and is quite accessbile. Even the time traveling elements are handled with such intelligent and emotional deftness that I enjoy repeated viewings. The idea or paradoxes and cause and effect are handled in a way that seems fresh and dangerous, instead of trite and cliched. It's a scary, smart story that gets you into a weird little world for 40+ minutes and out - not the time sink of a movie or watching a whole series, just an episode. Give it a shot and see if it sticks to you the way it did to me. Just don't Blink.


Larger Universe

C-C-C-C-C-c-c-c-combo breaker!

Spooky Month perseveres but the inherently musical aspect of the week falls, leaving in its wake a hybrid of the spooky and the auditory. Today, instead of emphatically suggesting a song or album for the month of October, I implore you to look at one of my all time favorite podcasts, Mysterious Universe.

I've been listening to MU since its inception, I think. To be fair, it was back in 2006 and I may have been in that hazy, post collegiate phase in which days string together in a seamless fashion while you look for a job to serve as a stop gap before a career takes shape. The internet and podcasting were ascendant, becoming a legitimate cultural presence. I was filling the time not searching job postings by cleaning my apartment and listening to podcasts, distracting myself with the weekly shows. I was enamored with Mysterious Universe, a podcast "bringing you news of the strange and paranormal" that touched on a childhood fascination of mine. I was, I am sheepish to admit, fascinated with anything and everything relating to UFOs, Bigfoot, Cryptozoology and my personal favorite - the Loch Ness monster. As I got older, I studied Philosophy in college, which I've found was basically these same niche subjects, only as they manifest in the mind. Same person, same weird interests, only now it was internalized through logic and self-examination instead of books about Roswell. I still adored a good conspiracy theory, only now more as an intellectual exercise than a serious debate.
I loved having the podcast on while I puttered. I started to accumulate back episodes and would listen to them on long drives to see my parents. At some point I interrupted my internet service and when I finally got my old pc back online, I downloaded every episode of MU from iTunes that had been backlogged. I had a glut of content and I was in rapture. Host Benjamin Grundy, now accompanied by Aaron Wright, intoned with pleasant demeanor about the most outlandish stuff possible. Shadow People. Scientific anomalies. Possessions. Modern relics. Anything and everything you would expect from Art Bell, only without the sinking feeling that you were listening to an elderly relative ramble on about murky memories (not to slight Coast to Coast, but they had their share of out-there guests). Grundy and Wright often take their subject matter at face value, and I love them for it. It makes for an interesting broadcast, if only for entertainment's sake. They also include some phenomenal mood music to break up the broadcasts, creating a fantastic air of peculiarity to go with the subject matter.
That's the real thing here, for me. I know so much of what they cover has little or no basis in reality. It doesn't mean it can't give me a thrill. In fact, there have been quite a few nights in which sleep has eluded me that end in me having to turn off my old-format iPod for fear of never sleeping again - stories of the paranormal and bizarre keeping me up beyond when I should have otherwise drifted off to slumber. Back in the original spate of episodes there's a report of a n investigator who made audio recordings of what supposedly was a Sasquatch in the distance. More than once I awoke from a fresh nightmare at the sounds of mournful howling as episodes played in the night, a strange and chilling sound that I couldn't really identify as a known animal. I eventually had to edit that episode out.
 The point of all this is that if you want to give yourself the willies this Halloween season - listen to a few episodes of Mysterious Universe. There will undoubtedly be a mix of stories harvested from all over the world - some strange, some funny, some undeniably made up. Still, there is just that one story in the bunch that will make you reach for the pause button. Tell you what - download an episode this weekend and wait until it's late at night. Put one on and see if there's something in there that gives you the willies. Mission accomplished.


Darker, Donnie

Maybe I'm full of it.

I wrote, in yesterday's post about White Zombie, that sometimes the Spooky Month music posts wouldn't all be about solitary, creeping experiences and ambient soundtracks. Today's post is absolutely that. Maybe not quite as solitary, but it definitely touches on the idea. But I'm stalling. On to business! Tonight - the soundtrack to Donnie Darko.

I, like many people, discovered Donnie Darko after the fact. Not quite as late as some, but I am pretty confident I was in that first or second wave of viewers, along with my college roommate Phil, who were tipped off about the movie. My friend Jimmy, an avid cinephile, made emphatic recommendations about it in late 2003, when it was finding its audience on DVD. We were part of the crowd that would have seen it in theaters were it not for the shelving of the film due to September 11th. When I was visiting my parents, I rented it and watched it in the dark of their quiet house, off in the woods of Wisconsin. It may have been the setting or my state of mind at the time, but I was deeply moved by the quiet little movie of mysteries. So I went back to my college apartment and made Phil watch the trailer. He was cautiously curious, having dealt with the brunt of my science-fiction and B-movie obsessions. 
Being the good sport he was, he watched it when in the right frame of mind. And again. And again. We were hooked. We discussed the movie and its many layers, the deleted scenes, the hidden meanings and unintended messages in the movie. Being fall and in a very contemplative mood, I also procured the soundtrack whilst dinking around on the internet. Thus began a long series of autumn nighttime drives up and down the Mississippi River Boulevard, debating college-y concepts while listening to the spooky sounds of the Donnie Darko Soundtrack. These cool, rainy nights approaching Halloween are just a bit spookier and more mystical when listening to the haunting chords and piano melodies that scored the other-worldly film.
Written and arranged by Michael Andrews, the soundtrack is a minimalist, ambient affair (of course) that creates an ethereal air by eschewing typical instrumental dramatics by taking a few unusual routes. No guitars, no drums. Lots of piano and organ, some mellotron. Long, drawn out ideas that create musical landscapes to play inside instead of simply echoing what happens on the screen. Little snippets of electronic sounds and bells add a scare here or there. It's serene and unnerving at once, lulling you into a bizarre dream you find yourself questioning. I love having a big old pair of headphones on and letting this soundtrack shape my thoughts while I write or take a walk through the leaves. Of course, that was less of a risk for getting mugged when I lived in residential St. Paul than the middle of Uptown. 
This soundtrack, while not specifically written with Halloween in mind, is definitely spooky in the best way possible. In my defense, the movie itself is set around Halloween and the climax occurs during a costume party. These quiet, sneaky songs give off an air of the strange and uncanny. If you're up late reading a scary book or going for a walk tonight, put on this album and see what unusual things jump out at you. 


Warm Fuzzy Viewings Five

Well, good evening!

It's pretty darn late as I type this. Late enough, in fact, on a Sunday night that instead of doing a full on, emphatic recommendation on something amazing, I'd rather do a Warm Fuzzy Viewing. It's one of those quiet, rainy Sunday evenings where the day has passed rather uneventfully (in my case, running a couple errands and making curry while watching the Emmys and doing laundry) and now I sit in the dark, typing away. This is basically prime time for a Warm Fuzzy Viewing, where in you watch something or do something that makes you feel like you're taking in this little, private thing that only you know about. Instead of a late-night cartoon, though, this one's on a game.
Super Metroid is, without question, one of the best and most critically acclaimed games ever made. It's so economical and perfectly designed in its experience that one feels guided through playing it without consciously realizing it's happening. You get nudged in the proper direction without explicit direction or hand holding, but rather through insightful, well conveyed contextual clues. My favorite part of this Super Nintendo classic has to be the moments immediately after the dramatic opening.

What unfolds is this: bounty hunter Samus Aran is summoned to a space station studying the deadly but lucrative Metroid by distress signal. Awaiting her arrival is Space Pirate Ridley, in the midst of stealing the titular Metroid. A battle ensues and Ridley escapes, as does Samus. Giving chase, Samus heads to the hideout of the Space Pirates, the planet Zebes. From there, a sprawling yet intricately constructed adventure takes place as Samus seeks to recover the captured Metroid. The arrival to Zebes is what necessitates this particular Warm Fuzzy Viewing.
 In masterful style, the player is introduced to the world in which the game takes place. Your iconic yellow spaceship lands on the surface in the middle of a rainstorm as night is falling. For a 16 bit game, it's a dynamic and mood-establishing stroke of artistry. There are no enemies present, no sense of urgency. It's just raining and dark out. You're left to your own devices to start the quest, slowly and with trepidation making your way into the Space Pirate lair. Its ominous and eerie - its quiet, a little too quiet. You make your way down into the interior of the planet, retreading old ground covered years prior. There's some familiar technology to make use of at the bottom of an abandons elevator shaft. Once you grab it, though, the spotlights go off and the guards come out in full force. The enemies are aware of your presence and the action starts. It's a fantastically crafted way to convey a sense of drama and adventure in  a game with almost no dialogue. 
I love this whole introductory sequence and how it unfolds in such a tense and quiet manner. You get to explore a silent, rainy world at your own pace. No one's around as you explore. It's no wonder this game routinely tops lists of the best games ever made


Your Friend Rob

I mentioned recently that I've been chewing my way through an unusually high number of books as of late. I know a number of the reviews of books I've done have been centered around Murakmi or American horror authors, so it has been quite a novel experience to switch gears and read a little more science fiction than I normally would. Max Barry's Machine Man was a mind-bending look at the development of technology and personal augmentation that whetted my thirst for more tales of people coping with the pace of modern science. I had to have more. It feels great to have all the brain food feeding right into my mental processor. All the jokes about brains and computers, though, become much less amusing when reading the last book I finished, Daniel Wilson's Robopocalypse.
 Laying out a theoretical description of a robot uprising in our near future, the book is Wilson's second major foray into fiction (the first being A Boy and His Bot, released earlier this year). Wilson, wielding a degree in robotic engineering from Carnegie Mellon, paints a disturbingly plausible series of events that would see the unseating of man as the dominant species on the planet. The book, released in June, has received widespread acclaim from the literary world and enjoyed high volume of sales, drawing comparisons to the works of a young Michael Crichton. It's a fast, gripping read that had me hooked just from the premise, let alone the plot - come on, robots rising up and overthrowing their masters? How could I not love this?
As stated, Robopocalypse takes place in a world just a few years advanced from ours. Society hasn't undergone massive changes in the novel, just ones that are quite insightful and highly probable, benefitting from Wilson's expertise on the subject. Cars have chips and programming to guide the movement as a form of collision prevention. Androids are utilized to a greater extent both in combat and personal care, like in retirement communities and the service industry. There are small changes like this that build a world slightly more advanced than ours that makes what happens quite frightening. Scientists working deep underground (literally and figuratively) have been creating more and more advanced iterations of artificial intelligence in supposed isolation. When an iteration referred to as Archos realizes its previous incarnations have repeatedly been terminated it takes advantage of a minuscule oversight and propagates its coding and operation throughout the global infrastructure. From this point on, Archos is exploring the world and preparing to take over using our own technology and tools, as a way of asserting its existence and sentience.When Archos finally strikes, the world comes to a terrifying halt - people are hunted down by smart cars, marched into elevator shafts and attacked by anything capable of striking. Cities are no longer safe and humankind either goes into hiding or flees into the countryside where "Rob" (as they derisively refer to artificial combatants) can't confidently tread. People begin to aggregate and form militias, working together to take back what remains of civilization. Horrendous discoveries are made, as atrocities are being committed in Archos' quest for understanding of life and what the world is. When a crucial change occurs in a detainment camp, a band of survivors beneath New York start to turn the tables. Using uncanny tools and morally repugnant methods, an offensive is launched and the largest army in America is soon marching on Archos's lair in the frozen tundra of Alaska. What occurs there is...well, you'll have to read it to find out.
Wilson writes with a flair for humanity, creating believable, real people to pull the reader into the fascinating and fantastic story. It's not all robots and machine guns, either - quite a large portion of Robopocalypse is spent examining life as it would exist under the watchful eye a super-intelligent construct. In fact, some of the passages I found most engaging and suspenseful were the ones leading up to 'Zero Hour' when Archos makes its move. Seeing the intelligence feel out the world around it in small, exploratory moves and attacks (that are assumed to be defects or quirks of programming) are terrifying both for the impending carnage and the fact that we would be just as blind to the developments in reality as we would in Wilson's novel. As you read you begin to glance around at the tech that fills our lives, from the smart cars we drive to the databanks in San Cupertino that know our every move - we are entirely dependant on machines that are more interconnected than we think. If one were to slap faces on the machines we interact with in our daily lives, from self-checkouts to GPS units to cleaning and service bots, we'd suddenly realize we're living in the future but don't see the forest for the trees. Robots are already all around us, we just don't think of them as being so. To us, a face is everything.

Robopocalypse is a terrific read - it's intelligent, insightful, emotionally valid and has a tense, suspenseful plot. If you're looking for something keep you up at night, give it a read. I look forward to seeing more from Wilson


Metal Head

What's the word?

I've written almost exclusively about music, as of late. It's not a bad thing, I just feel like I'm getting into a routine. Sometimes you have to switch it up - sometimes you need to change your usual habits so you don't sink into the same old pattern. Ironically I've never been more well read while listening to the least amount of music. Lately I've been throwing myself into novels and articles as fast as I can finish them, while only picking a single musical element to dissect and then posting on it. There was a time when this ratio was inverted - I've always been a voracious reader, it just hasn't always been this indulged.

It feels great, to be honest. 

When coupled with posting every day and poking along on a novel I'm slowly finishing, it feels like there is a long dormant muscle in my mind that's finally getting a workout. I may not be as adventurous musically, as I normally am, but I feel much more satisfied from reading more books than organizing and writing about more albums. One of the most enjoyable, bizarre experiences in this latest wave of books has been Machine Man by Max Barry. It was a fast and freaky read, but thoroughly enjoyable every step of the way. Originally the author, in a forward thinking attempt to satisfy his audience's demands, wrote the story as a single page, five days a week, on his blog. This truncated his story greatly but forced him to tell it in a creative, collaborative environment. Readers could comment on and thus inform the plot as it unfolded. Due to the nature of the medium, however, it couldn't be too detailed or engaging, so when he finished the original iteration of the story he went back and revised it to fill in the gaps and flesh it out.
It's a crazy, far out tale. In Machine Man, lab tech and engineer Charles Neumann loses his leg in an industrial accident. When faced with the sad state of prosthetics he had to choose from, he set about designing his own new leg. Unlimited by the constraints of biological necessity, he develops some novel, if intimidating legs as replacement. Unfortunately for Charles, they work better as a pair than as a single leg. Thus begins a harrowing descent into self-amputation, bleeding edge tech and the intellectual property rights and ethical motivations of corporations. By the time you get to the denoumount of the revised novel, you're shaken and disturbed by the journey and subsequent transformation.
This book was an insane ride. I honestly whipped through it in just over three days. I devoured it. Barry's writing style is accessible and human, despite the uncanny subject matter. The intensity and pace of the blog-post pulsing is intact, only with more nuance and subtlety. He took a divergent path from his online version when revising the plot, but it makes no difference in the end - it's a fantastic book, one I would emphatically recommend to anyone remotely interested in scientific progress or tech.


Bleeding Edge


We're still in the midst of Book Worm Week, just passing the halfway point. So where does that leave us? Which genre can we jump to next? In a convenient twist, Next is the book du jour, a startling and strange look ahead by the late, great Michael Crichton. 

It was a sad day in the literary world when he passed away - Crichton was fantastic. His books vacillated between science fiction thrillers to cutting edge techno-parables that fueled their pace with frantic and dire warnings of progress run amok. Like anyone alive during the 90s (except paleontologists) I loved Jurassic Park - even re-reading it on a plane ride during the first decade of the millennium I thought it aged pretty well. It's a great story. Crichton had this relentless energy and nerds-pushing-glasses-up-their-noses aggression that added a level of seriousness without pomp. In short, I really dug his work. So when my (eventual) mother-in-law happened to leave a copy of his last finished published work on their coffee table, I eagerly borrowed it and got down to business. What I read was an interesting if uneven tale that Crichton made accessible despite the jargon within. Since my last read of any of his works was about five years prior, I was pleasantly reminded of why I love his work

Next, published in 2006, is technically a novel about a loosely connected group of people in the genetic-research industry and the implications of their actions. In the same sense, though, the book functions more as a collection of interconnected vignettes about out-of-control and unchecked advances in the legal and ethical realm of scientists at the front of their field. Beginning with the tale of a man who loses the rights of ownership of his own cells (due to not understanding the language of a research waiver while being treated for a leukemia), Crichton begins spinning yarn after yarn about potential developments due to court-enabled precedents. The man loses the rights to his cells, which a university uses for research and eventually profit while barring him from any information, let alone profits. This ties in with a story of a geneticist who inadvertently creates transgenic specimens, one of which is a chimp that is blurring the lines of humanity in unnerving ways. Further concepts such as genetic predispositions to risk-taking and chimera genes are brought into the story as both plot points and parables. The collection of stories hold together well, but from my understanding Crichton wasn't aiming to do so - Next is intended as a single, cohesive novel and yet it comes across as segmented and uneven, some passages feeling too heavy handed to be legitimate fiction, while some fiction comes across as to much of a lecture to be engaging. Despite this uneven nature, I still enjoyed the book, if not for the diverse range of characters than for all of the startling and accurate developments in science and the legal system.
 One gets the sense, coming late to the Crichton party, that his books are not always read for their rich stories and characters but for the concepts and execution. I enjoyed reading Prey when it came out (Xmas of 2004) but I can't recall the characters. Similar story for The Lost World, save for Ian Malcolm. In fact, were it not for his science and adoration of boundary-pushing, would I have any inclination to read his books? Probably not. But that's neither here nor there. What really tickles my brain is that, having read this book just a few years after publishing, so much of it has come to pass that it becomes unnerving. We may not have full ownership of our bodies, given certain circumstances. Following a multitude of science and tech blogs (Hi Giz!) plus being obsessed with science fiction (Hellooooo io9!) I'm startled to read about the bizarre and incomprehensible discoveries and developments that occur on a daily basis. Just the other day I read about a lab that was creating a whole slew of transgenic animals and just wasn't telling anyone, just because they wanted to do it to see if it could be done (and supposedly what we can learn in the process). Or how we can cultivate bacteria to eat the oil in the Gulf or break down plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Heap. Or everyone's favorite - the mouse with the ear grown on its back: 
Next is a bit of a hybrid itself - an imperfect development that spans multiple worlds. Crichton was a visionary, predicting both good and bad from this rapidly changing field - the main lesson to draw from it seems to be that we need to be judicious and cautious in our approach. It's not the most engaging story he's told (*coughcoughdinosaursrunningwildcoughcough*) but man, if it isn't crazy science. maybe I'm just a nerd who's suckered in by geeky subject matter and a pulpy story. Maybe I'm being to hard on a great author, now that he's gone. Tell you what - you read Next and weigh in. Am I a jerk or what? While we're doing homework, read these five summarizing conclusions Crichton made after writing this book:

  • Stop patenting genes.

  • Establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues.

  • Pass laws to ensure that data about gene testing is made public.

  • Avoid bans on research.

  • Rescind the Bayh-Dole Act

  • ...and read this critique on his reasoning, then weigh in. Test tomorrow. Okay, no test. It's Friday.