Saturday, 16 June 2018

Do Automata Dream Of Electric Moonshine? [Automata Episode 1]

It's the 1930s and America is coming to terms with a new technology - robotics. Android workers known as "automata" are part of everyday life. Welcome to a world where robots can be bartenders, manual labourers, cops, detectives or prostitues, but it is AI, not alcohol that is now becoming subject to prohibition.

Automata is a new webseries released under the Dust channel on YouTube, based on a comic series originally published at Penny Arcade. Episode 1 premiered this week. It's just under 9 minutes long. As with the comic series, the protagonists are Sam (human, played by Basil Harris) and Carl (automaton, played by Doug Jones) - ex-cops and now partners in Private Investigation, investigating cheating partners and other crimes that happen to have a robotic aspect.

The idea of humanoid robots living amongst us is not new, and right from the start this series reminds me of Real Humans or Humans, transposed a century into the past, mixed in with a little I, Robot. The themes of robots as lower class members of society, facing direct or subtle discrimination, and being exploited are pretty much the same, along with the Dickian question of humanity. And if the trailer is accurate we are also at some stage going to see anti-robot humans beating robots up in clubs - exactly like Humans. So can this new webseries actually provide anything new?

Well, the first thing it can provide is a sense of style. There's something about the 1930s, Prohibition, the gangsters, the suits and hats, the hairstyles, the dark alleyways and speakeasies, the jazz, the smoky, rainy, dark film noir atmosphere and the sense that an awful lot is going on just below the surface - taken together and done well, this is a great setting for any drama, particularly when it comes to crime and moral ambiguity. Automata has been well-made and so far the style and the attention to detail is impressive, including the design of the automata themselves.

There's also opportunity to tell some important stories in the Prohibition era. In real life this was a dystopian era in the US - a government reaching to control the lives and habits of its' citizens far beyond any reasonable mandate, and the parallel birth of a violent organized crime network. So far Sam and Carl's investigations have only placed them at the beginning of an investigation so it's too early to say exactly where the scriptwriters are heading, and I also want to avoid spoilers, but it's an interesting opening gambit. I think this series has promise and I am looking forward to episode 2.


Episode 1 can be watched on YouTube here.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Living In A Box [Podcast Review: The Habitat]

For those fed up with the antics of I’m A Big Brother Survivor, Get Me Out Of Celebrity Love Island With Bear Grylls and seeking a more cerebral reality show, you could do worse than checking out The Habitat podcast.

The Habitat is an 8-episode podcast about the real Hi-SEAS IV mission, a research project in which six NASA scientists spent a year isolated in a dome in the mountains of Hawaii, simulating a manned mission to Mars. Water was rationed and recycled, food was dehydrated, communication was limited to e-mail and Internet with a built-in 20-minute delay, and apart from brief spacesuited excursions the team were unable to leave the dome – to do so would have implied death of the crew and led to the end of the experiment. The mission lasted from August 2015 to August 2016, and was successful in that the team survived a year in each other’s company and did not break role at any time. It’s an impressive achievement and hopefully the psychology research conducted during the period will genuinely help in preparing for future space missions.

The podcast is presented by Lynn Levy and is mostly based on clips from recordings sent to Levy by the astronauts in response to her questions, together with her own thoughts and observations, and some background info about the history of space exploration. There are 8 episodes and the pace and structure feels about right. It’s not quite a linear account of the mission, instead each episode takes you a bit further with the timeline but also covers a particular aspect of the mission.

This is a non-fiction podcast – or is it? It’s the story of a fictional Mars mission, and in a way it's more like a live-action RPG, a historical re-enactment (futuristic pre-enactment?) or an Alternate Reality Game. At times it definitely has the flavour of a reality TV show – including one episode gently speculating about will-they-won’t-they romances amongst the crew, although for the most part they seem to have been more interested in playing ukulele and harmonica duets. The concept reminded me indirectly of The Adventure Game, a show from my childhood in which three B-list celebrities were sent to the planet Arg to defeat logic puzzles set by shape-changing dragons and a very angry aspidistra (obviously), and more recently the cruellest reality TV show of all time, Space Cadets, in which astronauts selected for gullibility were fooled into thinking they were actually on a Space Shuttle mission. Worth mentioning that the Mars One project is based on the idea of a reality TV show providing the funding for an actual Mars mission. Whether that project gets off the ground literally or otherwise is a question for another day…

The Habitat is a Gimlet Media podcast. You can listen to it on your favourite podcast app or via the website. You can also read about the Hi-SEAS missions here.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Top 15 Green People In Movies


Is there a tide of change for green representation in Hollywood? Is the end of the greensploitation era in sight? Here are fifteen green role models who are challenging perceptions of green identity.

In putting this list together I have been mindful of the need to avoid green misappropriation. Green Arrow, for instance, is disqualified as not actually green, while Anastasia Steele is only metaphorically green. I have however erred on the side of including non-human characters provided they are sufficiently anthropomorphised.



So, without further ado, here are the top 15 green roles in cinema. Let's take a moment to reflect on how far we've come and what each of these portrayals means for those of the green persuasion.

15. CHICK HICKS (Cars)
The first of many villains or antagonists to appear on this list. There's no reason that a green villain can't promote the green cause - it's all about getting high profile green roles that people will remember. However this role does play to the stereotype that green equals envious.

The first of many aliens on the list. The Little Green Man stereotype is alive and well, but Johnson is a sympathetic and respected character when contrasted against the film's protagonist the non-green Wikus.

13. GREEN LANTERN (Green Lantern)
A superhero - a flawed non-green human who joins an intergalactic peacekeeping force. Green-ness as symbolic of the power and peace of an advanced civilisation, and portrayed as something to aspire to!

12. GAILA (Star Trek)
You might argue that Gaila doesn't belong in this list as she has only a relatively minor role in Star Trek. You might be right, too, but I don't want to ignore the fact that there is a sympathetic portrayal of a green person in this franchise. So let's keep Gaila on the list for now.

11. MIKE WAZOWSKI (Monsters, Inc.)
I have mixed feelings about Mike Wazowski. On the one hand, you can't deny he is a well-rounded green character. On the other hand, portraying Mike as the sidekick of a blue character does little to help the green cause.

10. SHREK (Shrek)
Shrek, too - a paradox. Notoriously grumpy and humourless ogre - yet one of the most loved green characters on the silver screen, and an inspiration to many. Ogres do indeed have layers.

9. SLIMER (Ghostbusters)
A show-stealing apparition. Who doesn't love being slimed?

This is definitely a step forward - a green man very much in tune with his emotional side.

7. THE MASK (The Mask)
This film may have set green rights back, or forward, by at least a century.

6. GARONA (Warcraft)
This is how to do green right - a complex character forced to question everything she believes in and choose sides for herself. When coming across to the non-green cause she never forgets her green roots and remains true to her inner self.

A misunderstood tragic heroine who meets an untimely fate just for being green and a little bit evil.

4. YODA (The Empire Strikes Back)
This is where it starts to become inspiring. One of the most powerful Jedi in the Universe just happens to be a green dude, and if that doesn't prove that anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break, I don't know what does.

3. GAMORA (Guardians Of The Galaxy)
Supergreen. A captivating, deep and complex green character on an equal footing with her fellow Guardians. 

2. SOYLENT GREEN (Soylent Green)
You may argue for Gaila or Gamora, or even Garona. Incidentally why do so many green people have names beginning with 'G'? Anyway, you would be wrong, as surely these are the tastiest green people in any movie.

Which brings us to the end of the list. You may have predicted the face in the number 1 slot - there's really only one person who can fill it. That one person has appeared in numerous movies, TV shows, and crumpet adverts. He's smart, successful but modest, has bested his pink nemesis more times than can be counted on a 4-fingered amphibian hand, and never fails to bring a smile whenever he appears. He has done more than any single person on the planet to show us all what it truly means to be green - it's not that easy. 

1. KERMIT THE FROG (The Muppet Movie)

Which green person most inspired you to be who you are today? Who are your green role models? Are these portrayals sensitive and true to life, or are they well-meaning but misinformed? And who did we miss?

Monday, 21 May 2018

It's Oh So Quiet [Review: A Quiet Place]

It is the post-apocalypse. We know this because the streets are deserted, the traffic lights have fallen over, and three children are raiding a supermarket and their parents are encouraging them. Encouraging them silently though - the family communicate in sign language and are taking care to stop any loud noises. Why? The family leave the shop without incident but an incident on their walk home explains everything you need to know about the threat facing humanity from the new rulers of Earth: vicious predatory creatures that are blind but respond in an instant to any loud sound.

A Quiet Place is not your typical Michael Bay film. It's quiet! And short! This is a low-key creature horror focusing almost entirely on the fate of one family in their farm hideaway. Their quest is not to unite the people of Earth and take back our world, although Lee (John Krasinski) is obsessed with finding the aliens' weakness, but simply to survive and protect each other. Keeping everyone silent is hard enough when your family includes an anxious child and a frustrated teenager, and you've all been through a traumatic tragedy already - and all of this pales into insignificance when Evelyn (Emily Blunt) discovers she is pregnant. The film remains true to this focus and even when the family come face to face with the creatures, it avoids any temptation to build into massive action-movie set pieces. There's almost no exposition - the scenario tells its' own story. And there isn't too much lens flare. The main use of overt CGI is the creatures themselves, and they are a particularly nasty bunch.

The concept of A Quiet Place, perhaps the cleverest horror movie concept I've come across for some time, reminded me of Day Of The Triffids, another post-apocalyptic scenario where humanity is robbed of its advantage over the creatures, in that case by being blinded. This is also the second mainstream movie in the past year to feature prominent use of sign language as a major plot point, following in the very quiet footsteps of The Shape Of Water.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Your Town [Review: The City And The City]

We are living in a golden age of TV adaptations of science fiction and fantasy books. Hot on the heels of The Expanse, Altered Carbon, Man In The High Castle and American Gods comes a new series based on Good Omens, a new version of War of the Worlds set in the era of WW1, and more. Right now I'm enjoying the BBC's miniseries based on The City and The City, possibly my favourite China Mieville novel.

I regret never posting a review of this novel, I may need to re-read it after watching the series and may write some more about it. I did write this blog back in 2010 about C.J. Cherryh's novel Wave Without A Shore which features a similar conceit - societies that choose to live as if they cannot see each other.

The City and The City is a traditional detective story, set in two interlinked cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma. The Besźel tourist orientation video above sets out the scenario nicely - and you should watch it, it could save your life. The plot reminded me of The Bridge - the body of a murder victim is found across a border, under circumstances that bring together the police forces of both cities and leads to conspiracies within conspiracies. The series stars David Morrissey as Besź detective Borlu, and relies heavily on deep colour grading and depth of field to differentiate between the two cities - one is always out of focus.

This is also a great example of a fantasy concept that refers to many situations in real life. One of the things I love most about London for example is that it contains many more cities than just Besźel and Ul Qoma - hundreds of nationalities, communities and active subcultures some visible, some just out of focus; also without taking this post too far into political waters Besźel and Ul Qoma bear similarities to post-Good Friday Northern Ireland and to other conflicted or disputed lands around the globe.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Rikki Don't Lose That Number [Sci-Fi Telephone Booths]

We're all familiar with a certain Time Lord and her preferred mode of telephonic transport:

But while the Doctor was one of the first, she is far from unique - in fact there's a long and respectable tradition of science fiction heroes travelling in telephone booths. Excluding the good Doctor, here are my top five long distance callers:

#1 Bill And Ted

Doctor Who has spawned many spin-off series and movies over the years. My favourites were the Bill and Ted movies - Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bogus Journey (1991). It's a blast - a great time-travel comedy and a decent attempt to create an American Doctor Who. It's absolutely canon. The eponymous heroes, played by Alex Winter and Keanu someone or other, travel through time in a US phone booth "borrowed" from Time Lord Rufus (who strictly speaking should be called The Rufus), encountering historical celebrities in their quest to complete their homework and ultimately secure the future of civilization through music. A nice touch is that this TARDIS is actually controlled by looking up the desired historical period in a phone book and dialling the number.

#2 Harry Potter

Why waste time with flying cars, boring broomsticks, itchy Floo powder or those blasted Portkeys when you can travel in style in a phone booth? The phone booths in Harry Potter are secret entrances to the Ministry of Magic.

#3 Professor Branestawm

In the BBC's fun adaptation of Norman Hunter's Professor Branestawm, starring Harry Hill, the Professor invents a slightly slower-moving phone.

#4 Neo

The Matrix is another of my favourite Doctor Who spin-offs. The links to original Who are subtle, but Whovian fans should be well aware that in Doctor Who, the Time Lords have a supercomputer called the Matrix. In the Matrix, there is also a supercomputer called The Matrix. If you are exploring the Matrix and need to leave in a hurry, you get to a phone booth.

#5 Superman

The final entry in this list is Superman. He only rates #5 as he doesn't actually travel in a phone booth, he just changes in one. This will be hard to explain to the mobile phone generation.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Fifty Angry Men [Review: Circle]

Fifty people awake to find they are standing on glowing red spots in a circle in a dark room. They quickly learn that they are playing a deadly game – every few minutes one person is killed instantly by a shock from the hemisphere in the centre, their body then dragged out into the darkness by unseen forces. If they step off their circles they also die. It takes them a few rounds, and a few deaths, to understand that while they cannot prevent the scheduled rounds, they can choose who dies in each round.

Circle is a literal, minimalist version of the balloon debate – if the balloon is losing altitude and you can’t all survive, who gets chucked out of the balloon and how do you persuade others to do the chucking. The starting fifty are diverse enough to (loosely) represent all of humanity. As the players learn how to vote for each other, alliances and dividing lines appear around age, race, gender, sexuality, politics and profession. Players try to use this to their advantage, but if they seem too manipulative then other players may turn on them next.

This is a low-budget, one-room, concept movie – The Hunger Games meets Exam meets Cube (links are to my reviews of these films) with a dash of Lord of the Flies and a twist of Twelve Angry Men. While the scenario is contrived, even compared to other one-room movies, the writers and directors, Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, have hit on a simple but effective concept which builds tension over and over again, and the script stands up well covering a lot of ground.

The main expense for this film was probably the cast of fifty actors - all unknown but certainly up to the job, so the conflict is believable. There's a lot of death, it's sudden and brutal although not too bloody, and while some deaths are shown directly many are communicated through reaction shots. The ending isn't easily predictable, and left me with a lot to think about. The film could be a metaphor for political extremism, media bias or the rise of prejudice in general, and of course it's even more relevant in the age of Reality TV.

Two important questions are left unanswered: when does the board game version come out, and how many batteries will it require?

To disambiguate, this is low-budget movie Circle (2015) – not the movie of Dave Eggers’ internet parody novel The Circle (2017).