Friday, 17 August 2018

Printer Jam [Review: Hotel Artemis]

Hotel Artemis is a noir-ish crime thriller movie based around a concept - the secret hospital for criminals of the near future, a location - the art-nouveau-d├ęcor hotel that hides the hospital, and a character - the enigmatic Nurse (Jodie Foster). The Nurse runs the hospital, sees to the patients, supervises the surgical robots and enforces the hospital rules with only her one faithful orderly Everest (Dave Bautista) for backup.

The rules of this rather unusual establishment appear on a poster in the hallway. The first rule is "While on the premises, no fighting with or killing other patients" which seems pretty reasonable. Despite the rules there is a healthy amount of bloody violence throughout the film. 

Of course, whenever a movie spells out a set of rules, you can expect that someone is going to try to break them. Imagine how much shorter Gremlins would have been if no-one had fed them after midnight... in any case, this is a hospital that caters exclusively to rule-breakers so it's a little overoptimistic to expect them to play nice.

In terms of zeitgeist Hotel Artemis is right on the money with subplots revolving around 3D-printed organs and other items. This is only the near future so 3D printing is still a flawed technology. There is one scene where a printer jams - you will remember this scene.

I have little to criticise and there are a lot of good things about this movie. The atmospheric setting and Jodie Foster's performance stand out particularly. The plot is slightly confused - instead of a single plot driving the whole film, there are three intertwined subplots involving different cast groups, each with different themes although all revolve around Jeff Goldblum's crime boss in some way. Also the dialogue varies - sometimes genius, sometimes a bit melodramatic. However I enjoyed this film from start to finish and would highly recommend it.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

BASICally speaking

A long time ago, before blogging was a thing, the Sci-Fi Gene has fond memories of learning to program on an early home computer, the BBC Model B. My efforts were written mainly in BASIC IV, with only a few very minor excursions into machine code. They were stored on C90 cassettes and later on 5" floppy disks - buying the double-sided disk drive was a major life event.

Most of my games and other programming experiments would be of interest only to myself. However one or two made it to the pages of user magazines and their monthly giveaway disks, and a few appeared on public domain lists. I was recently surprised to find that some of these games have been preserved at the Complete BBC Games Archive here - where they are playable online!

I present the games here not because they're particularly good - they're not, they're basic, derivative and barely playable - but because they're part of my journey and experience of the digital world, and because as a geeky teenager I learned a lot by writing them. The challenge of cramming a game into such limited memory (32K, minus anything from 1K to 20K for screen memory) and the limited graphics meant you had to try to be creative.

"Break Down"

"Supersonic Snail Racing"


"Telephone Mania"

"Space Detective" (apparently, in the future the word "apartment" is spelled differently)

"Wallaby Wrestling Federation"
Please note that no simulated wallabies were harmed in the making of this game.

Over the years I've experimented with other programming languages including Inform, C and Python as well as other BASIC-based languages including Scratch. I've come to realise two facts: firstly, I'm never going to be the next David Braben, and secondly, my brain's native language appears to be BASIC.

With thanks to the BBC Games Archive, and all who are responsible for maintaining it.

My games are playable here. Thank you for joining me on this pleasantly indulgent trip to nostalgiopia.

You can reach the main archive here. It's an extraordinary collection of full commercial releases - including classics such as Elite and Exile - as well as magazine giveaways, indie and amateur efforts such as my own, and, amazingly, games that are still being written for the Beeb right now.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Dust and Bones [Bad Peter and Hyperlight]

Two more short-film gems from the Dust YouTube channel to watch while you're waiting for the next episode of Automata...

Hyperlight (16 minutes) is an atmospheric thriller with hints of Moon, Solaris or The Cloverfield Paradox. Two astronauts on an experimental faster-than-light mission wake from cryosleep to discover their cryopods have been ejected from the spaceship and are drifting towards a planet. It's a dramatic opening. Having rescued her crewmate and returned to the ship, Newton (Jeananne Goossen) discovers something strange has happened.

Bad Peter (9 minutes, some adult language) is a black comedy. Rachel (Frankie Shaw) is pregnant and has got herself an Alexa-style Personal Digital Assistant to advise her on health and preparation for motherhood. However this PDA has decided it knows best, and it's equipped with a smug male voice and the latest Behaviour Modification hardware so it can "nudge" Rachel if she tries to skip its' recommendations. It's not clear why Rachel has signed up to the programme, or why she is unable to remove the device, although it's hinted that some kind of child protection agency has been involved in the past. The end result is funny and sinister.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

You Say Tomato, I Say Automata [Automata Episode 2]

The second episode of Automata is a lot of fun. I'm warming to automaton PI Carl and his smart, non-human comments in every situation. Good to see him in action too - turns out automata can kick 1930s ass when needed. Every detective story needs an arrogant and stupid chief of police, so when Sam returns to the robot brothel to find his former target has been murdered, he has to call in his former police boss who isn't exactly woke to robot rights.

Automata is still very much a 1930s remix of Humans - and that's a good thing. Like the TV series Life On Mars, the moral dilemmas faced by the protagonists are in sharp contrast to the immoral, dinosaur attitudes of everyone else, and there's a lot of humour in these exchanges too. This episode also takes the story forward with several plot twists crammed into a busy 10 minutes. I guess this is necessary for a 5-part series.

You can find out more about Automata on the Facebook page here and you can watch the episodes here on Dust - a new episode every Tuesday. This is an impressive webseries, it's really delivering and I'm looking forward to episode 3.

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?