Tuesday, 3 September 2019

U Can't Skek Sis [review: Dark Crystal episode 2]

Episode 2 of The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance has many pleasures. Deet has found her way to the surface, and despite being unused to the glare of the three suns has met her first podling and her first fizzgig who may prove to be a bit of a scene-stealer. The Skeksis are as treacherous as ever - not least to each other, and Rian and Brea are both in so much trouble for different reasons.

With some movies or shows there is a drive towards realism, whether through special or visual effects, with the ultimate goal of making the audience forget they are watching a created fantasy. Here the effect is different. It's never in doubt that you are watching puppets - Muppets, even, but the artistry is so good that you still accept them as real characters and care about their struggles.

I have taken a decision not to binge-watch The Dark Crystal. It's too good - I want to take a bit more time and enjoy each episode. Also, at this point two episodes in I feel a need to go back and watch the 1982 movie, strictly for research purposes.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Fantastic Beasts And Thra To Find Them [Review: Dark Crystal episode 1]

The world of Thra is changing. The Skeksis, alien vulture-like creatures who have ruled over the native Gelflings for hundreds of years, have plundered the power of the Crystal to sustain themselves, and this is beginning to influence Thraian lifeforms in sinister ways. Most of the Gelflings are extremely gullible and view the obviously evil Skeksis as benevolent lords, but one or two are beginning to smell a rat. Junior guards Rian (Taron Egerton and Neil Sterenberg) and Mira (Alicia Vikander and Helena Smee) are searching the Skeksis castle for an escaped Spitter when they have an unfortunate encounter with the Skeksis chief scientist; meanwhile Gelfling princess Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy and Alice Dinnean) becomes suspicious of the tributes offered to the Skeksis lords during the annual tithing ceremony, and underground-dwelling Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel and Beccy Henderson) discovers that her favourite baby nurloc has become a little irritable. Something isn't quite right.

Set before the events of the 1982 movie, The Dark Crystal is a new TV series produced by the Jim Henson company and available on Netflix. Like the movie, it's an ambitious attempt to tell an epic science fiction story through puppetry - the cast, and the many forms of wildlife on Thra, are all portrayed by puppets. However this is not an anti-CGI campaign but a pairing of visual and special effects, with live-action puppetry transported to a computer generated landscape.

Thra is a planet rich in fantastic beasts, and they have been created with imagination and humour - this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the episode. Imagine Avatar re-created by the Muppets. In fact there are plenty of similarities between Pandora and Thra. Both ecosystems have been imagined in great detail, and there does seem to be a lot of bioluminescence about on both planets.

The first episode has to introduce the planet's backstory through a brief history lesson, introduce the many Gelfling factions, and begin the stories of the Gelflings and Skeksis central to the plot - as a result the action switches from region to region rather like an episode of Game of Thrones. And without providing too many spoilers, as with Game of Thrones maybe you shouldn't get too fond of any particular characters.

Speaking of characters, each major role in Dark Crystal is credited to two people - a voice actor and a puppeteer. The voice cast is stellar - see examples above, but the list also includes Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Sigourney Weaver, Helena Bonham-Carter, Killjoys' Hannah John-Kamen and a few Game of Throners for good measure. Look at the full cast list on IMDb here and weep. I haven't heard of any of the puppeteer cast but I now wish I had - they are incredibly talented.

Conclusion: a strong first episode that provides exposition, starts off several plots, introduces characters and gives some idea of just how epic this series could be. The rest of the series has much to live up to.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

The Only Whale Is Essex [Review: White Space]

Space... the final food frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Essex, it's continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new recipes, to boldly eat what no man has eaten before.

White Space, also released as Beyond White Space, is a 2018 sci-fi movie. It is the future, and mankind has taken up space fishing. Captain Richard Bentley (Holt McCallany) commands the starship Essex and its dysfunctional, squabbling and unfeasibly good-looking crew. Their mission: to catch space-crabs (these are giant, edible asteroid-dwelling creatures actually called Clickers, not some sort of space STD) under the watchful eye of inspector Navarro (Zulay Henao). However Bentley's father perished seeking Tien Lung, a legendary dragon-like space creature, and Bentley is obsessed with revenge. Yes, this is another sci-fi take on Moby Dick. And no, this is not going to end well.

The best aspects of White Space are the ship and the crew. The Essex is well designed inside and out, it has character - part submarine, part trawler, it's dark and atmospheric, there's plenty of blue lighting which is important in sci-fi, and by the end of the film you can feel reasonably familiar with it. Is it named after my home county of Essex, England, famed for its orange lifeforms? Or for the various towns or counties also called Essex in the US? Perhaps it was named after David Essex, who finally receives the acclaim he so deserves for the song "A Winter's Tale" in the 22nd century. We will never know. The visual effects are great for the various spaceships, a little less great for the creatures.

I enjoyed getting to know the crew - interesting characters and interesting relationships, although Hawthorne (Mike Genovese), the marinated ancient mariner, is a bit of an annoying cliché. The cast are relative unknowns, at least to me. Perhaps I should get out more.

I actually think this film would have been better if it had just focussed on the captain and crew with their various obsessions, and let their tensions, arguments and misbehaviour go even further - but instead the writers throw in such highly original elements as Space Pirates (TM)! and a Parasitic Life Form (TM)! which add little and get in the way of the story.

White Space is a decent B-movie, and as Moby Dick sci-fi adaptations go I found it more enjoyable than 2010: Moby Dick. It gets enough right to be watchable despite its flaws, and manages to reel in a leviathan 3 stars out of 5.

Score: 3 out of 5 stars

All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Bird On The Wire [work in progress: Peahen]

[Peahen, modelled in Blender 2.76]

[Animation test]

This is a work in progress, there's a lot of work still needed on the jerky movements and some issues to straighten out (literally) with the blanket simulation. I started modelling this character in Blender for a project that has now changed direction. I may develop it further and use it in a different project in future.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

U Can't Touch This [Open Theremin]

In her book "Method for Theremin" Clara Rockmore, one of the greatest theremin players, defines a thereminist as one who approaches and welcomes it as yet another voice with which to interpret real music, not a magic toy for producing strange and eerie sounds.

[Open Theremin custom case version 2]

I have to be honest. When I built my Open Theremin my intentions were not entirely honourable. I intended to create a soundscape for an animation. I did have some ideas about musical elements but strange and eerie sounds were definitely a major part of the plan.

However my intentions have changed. The theremin is not an instrument you can just pick up and play, and it quickly became apparent that I'd have to learn the basics to control it. I've been working through books by Clara Rockmore and Carolina Eyck, and the more I've practiced, the more I've enjoyed trying to play music, even if it's not quite a virtuoso performance.

[Presented for your amusement...]

I still have plans for the animation, and a theremin-based musical score is still a possibility. Strange and eerie sounds are now on the back burner, and while I can't quite describe myself as a thereminist yet, I'm enjoying the challenge of becoming one.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Eerie, Indiana [Review: Stranger Things 3]

Stranger Things season 1 celebrated the Eighties. Stranger Things 2 started to get a bit creepy around the Eighties if we're being honest. Stranger Things 3 has been stalking the Eighties in violation of its court order for months, and now the Eighties hasn't been seen for several days  - we suspect that Stranger Things 3 has kidnapped the Eighties and is holding it hostage in some kind of fortified basement dungeon, possibly in preparation for some kind of nightmarish ritual.

Stranger Things 3 is set in a strangely exaggerated 1985. I'll try to avoid major spoilers for those of you who haven't yet binge-watched the whole of season 3. This is just to report that Stranger Things 3 is definitely worth watching, it's up to the same standards of insanity, creepiness and Eightiesism as the other two series. Your favourite characters are back (whoever they happened to be). Some minor characters from previous series come out of the shadows - it happens quite late in the current series but when given a chance Erica (Priah Ferguson) really comes into her own.

There are baddies trying to re-open the breach to the Upside Down (this is only a minor spoiler for the first scene of the first episode), and these particular baddies are absolutely consistent with the global political situation in 1985. My only minor criticism is that we don't get any sense of what motivates them, or exactly they want from the Upside Down. It's not exactly prime construction land.

On the other hand, the mysterious forces from the Upside Down set into motion during series 2 are also up to something nefarious of their own, and they certainly do have a real motivation - this aspect of the plot is a slow burner but it's beautifully thought out, with everything falling into place and making sense about two thirds of the way through. The new big bad is a clever development of ideas from season 2, and also gives the Duffer Brothers plenty of opportunities to reference iconic movies such as The Blob or Terminator 2.

It's also really satisfying seeing that all of the main characters, without exception, have grown and changed since season 2. It would be interesting to see this in other movies from the 80s - there was no sequel for ET (I'm not counting the Atari game) so we never really get to see how Elliot and Gertie were affected by their rather strange childhood.

Here there's a lot going on for the younger generation about the transition from childhood to adolescence - and particularly about what happens when Mike, Lucas and Max are going full steam ahead with this while Will is in a different place and Dustin... well, just watch. Different life challenges await for the young adults, particularly Nancy and Jonathan who are working in literally the worst local newspaper ever, and for the adult adults - you might have thought that Joyce and Hopper had suffered enough over the past two seasons, but no. The challenge for the writers is to keep all these stories going in parallel, and this is achieved in an interesting way through synchronicity - in each episode, all the groups are doing something in common, whether that's searching for someone who can help solve a puzzle or dealing with a romantic break-up.

Stranger Things in general, and this series in particular, has really impressed me. It stands head, shoulders and very long legs above most other Netflix content, as well as other eighties nostalgia pieces such as Super 8 or Ready Player One. Now the visual style has become so well defined I'm really interested to see where it goes next - perhaps the Nineties?

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off To Work We Go [Review: Prospect]

In what may be possibly the most unwise Bring Your Child To Work Day ever, astronaut and prospector Damon (Jay Duplass) and his teenage daughter Cee (Sophie Thatcher) land on an alien planet looking for treasure - naturally-occurring gemstones that must be harvested delicately from an underground lifeform. They only have three days before the mothership leaves the system for ever, so when they successfully recover a gem Cee wants to rush back to their shuttle but Damon insists on searching for a larger cache. The father-daughter team are not alone on the planet - there are also other groups of prospectors and mercenaries about, all looking to strike gold and get out in time, and not exactly committed to good sportsmanship and comradery. When they are ambushed by another pair of prospectors, Cee is left in the difficult position of having to cooperate with Ezra (Pedro Pascal), one of their attackers.

The low-key setting of Prospect is very clever - this is smart sci-fi written to wring the most from a low budget. Most of the action takes place on the planet's forested surface, there is a toxic atmosphere so everyone has to wear spacesuits and filters and use temporary shelters and tents. The futuristic touches include medical kits with spray-on wound treatments and electric scalpels, many different kinds of railgun. The creatures that grow the gems are pleasantly Cronenbergian. The end result is strangely Western-like, this is a disorganized, greedy gold rush not an organized campaign. There are no uniforms (redshirt or otherwise) each spacesuit, gun or any other piece of equipment is different.

This movie is a mixture of science fiction, Western, action thriller (Chekov's railguns go off in the third act, also the first and second), survival thriller and psychological thriller. The writers are clearly familiar with Kurt Vonnegut's Rule 6: "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of." Cee in particular is challenged physically and emotionally throughout the movie with one Prisoner's Dilemma after another, and I can only say I am deeply impressed by Sophie Thatcher as an actor and look forward to seeing what she does next. Her performance alone justifies the perfect score of three stars out of five.

Score: 3 out of 5 stars

All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars