Saturday, 29 January 2011

I've Got No Body To Love [Review: Surrogates]

Surrogates is a fun but underwhelming B-movie mixing action and conceptual sci-fi. The concept here is that, as in I Robot, we all have our own personal robots, but this time instead of just ordering them about we stay in our bedrooms and live our lives through the robots who are younger, stronger and better looking versions of ourselves - the Surrogates.

The film does come up with a lot of inventive ideas connected to the concept. Many of these are similar to present day Internet issues - for instance, you never really know who you are speaking to online; identity theft becomes possible; your online actions can be monitored - and shut down - by any number of government or commercial organizations; a range of issues around cybersex which for some might be a pale imitation of the real thing while for others it is better, or the only option. Issues of identity are critical to the plot and come up over and over again in different ways.

I enjoyed these and the many other ideas that are thrown out but I was disappointed they weren't taken further - in particular the ability to take over different surrogates, jumping from body to body, could easily be developed further for both action and dramatic sequences, and I think they've missed a trick here. The action sequences focus mainly on the fact that the surrogates are stronger so Radha Mitchell can leap around the tops of buses. Also despite the parallels, there's no sense that the film is actually trying to say anything deep about either identity or cyberspace.

I didn't really buy a few aspects of the scenario. Having just one corporation producing Surrogates, for example, or the idea of a weapon that could kill the operator as well as the surrogate - at the end of a day, if you shoot down a RC aircraft nothing happens to the controller! Thinking about it, I suppose it's vaguely plausible that there could be some kind of feedback loop that does something to the operator's blood pressure, with Scanners-type consequences.

Apart from the under-used but clever ideas, I found myself enjoying all the nods to other sci-fi films but wondering which of these were deliberate tributes, which were just lazy scriptwriting, either cliche or plagiarism, and which were coincidental. There were scenes that reminded me of I Robot, The Stepford Wives, Terminator and Independence Day, plus a moment in the ending which echoes Logan's Run and rightly so, it's a nice touch. I liked Rosamund Pike's character as by the end of the film you actually understand why she has come to view Surrogacy as such an attractive option. It's also fun seeing all the cast in both their ridiculously perfect Surrogate form and in their malnourished "meatbag" form, the result of spending all your time living through a Surrogate.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Not-So Secret Of My Success [Review: Outliers]

The cover of Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, is misleading. This is not a self-help novel of any kind and thankfully there is no mention of cosmic ordering. I mean, seriously Rhonda, it was supposed to be a Secret!... Instead this is a book in the vein of Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics or John Allen Paulos' Innumeracy, looking at surprising historical and social examples to shed some light on the nature of successful individuals, and dispell some of the myths about genius.

Gladwell's conclusions are hardly rocket science - guess what, most successful people are clever but not ridiculously so, plus they had a lot of help and sometimes luck, and took the opportunities that presented themselves to them, they practiced very, very, very hard - the 10,000 hour theory - they had a positive attitude towards hard work and do not give up easily, plus (and this is perhaps the most interesting part) the cultural and family background of the individual plays a much larger part in all of the above than you might think, and success often requires that this is accounted for.

Some of the examples are straightforward. The way that children are picked for sports clubs at a young age means that the oldest in the year have a huge advantage - in many countries the vast majority of adult hockey players are born in January, February or March. These children once selected are given many more hours of practice than their contemporaries and so the difference in skill quickly grows - leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. The series of coincidences and opportunities that placed Bill Gates in the right place at the right time to become the dominant figure in his industry are also well documented and have been acknowledged by Gates himself, and the way that the Hamburg clubbing scene gave the Beatles eight days a week of live music practice and turned them into, well, musicians, seems to add up. As golfer Arnold Palmer once said, "It's a funny thing - the more I practice, the luckier I get."

Gladwell's other examples are more far-fetched and slightly more controversial - his connection between rice-growing cultures and mathematical skill, for example, or the cultural explanation of why, until recently, there were so many Korean air crashes. There is a certain amount of selection in the examples, however he argues his case well each time and is usually, if not always, convincing. This is very much an argument against genetic causality - many of Gladwell's examples are able to rule this out by showing that people from the same genetic background, if living within a different community or circumstances, have very different outcomes.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

"2007" Update Part V: Pulling Me In Just Like Gravity

Sorting out the weightlessness scenes took some time but it's all coming together nicely.
Also managed to add weightlessness to the lift:

[all scenes produced in Blender 2.54]

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Wheels On Fire [Review: Whip It]

First there was this re-make of Day Of The Triffids with that one minor plot change. Now we have Whip It! - the new Rollerball, without the murder, the future media politics and the balls, but just as much blood and elbowing.

This non-sci-fi film has a lot to recommend it to sci-fi fans. Directed by, you know, Charlie from Firestarter, it stars Ellen Page as a reluctant beauty pageant contestant who defies her 50s-style parents and secretly joins a Roller Derby crew. With it’s Blockers, Pivots, Jammers and unmitigated high-speed aggression, Roller Derby is the closest real-world sport to Quidditch and the film is an extraordinary juxtaposition of shy, geeky teenager coming-of-age and high-speed rollerskating carnage. Page as Bliss/Babe Ruthless is brilliant – well, we wouldn’t expect anything less, and Drew Barrymore delivers a very watchable sports film, earning her director’s wings while still finding the time to cameo as the accident-prone Smashley Simpson.

Roller Derby is gaining ground fast in the UK with two leagues active in London and several more across the country - the London Rollergirls became the first UK league to join the WFTDA last year. Naturally The Sci-Fi Gene is a fan of the steampunk-lovin' Steam Rollers team. Many RD players give themselves names that appeal to my sense of pun - soccer, golf or snooker would be vastly improved as sports if the players included R. Meg Eddon and Nuke Leah.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Chekov's Crossbow [Review: The Host]

"If you show a gun in the first act it had better have been fired by the third act" - Alfred Hitchcock, presumably paraphrasing Anton Chekov.

The Host (not to be confused with The Host by Stephenie Meyer, reviewed here) is a Korean horror film and one of the greatest monster films ever: the story of one dysfunctional, bickering family's quest to rescue schoolgirl Hyun-Seo from a gigantic newt-like creature that has emerged from the polluted Han river. Where a Western film might separate two lovers, here we have a mobile-phone obsessed daughter, a loving but brain-damaged, childish and narcoleptic father, an uncle who is college-educated and unemployable, the wise but stubborn grandfather, and the aunt who is an international sportswoman.

It is here that the principle of Chekov's Gun applies: Nam-Joo (Doona Bae) appears on television in an early scene, juxtaposed with the scenes of monster rampage chaos outside the caravan. When she hesitates before firing her crossbow, earning a time penalty and losing out on the gold, you feel you know exactly how this film is going to end. Your prediction will be both right and wrong. Chekov's Gun is indeed fired; however the ending is neither a classic triumphant parade nor a classic horror-film twist in the tail - instead the film closes on an understated, melancholy note.

Doona Bae as Nam-Joo

I thought the cinematography was stunning, from the stark laboratory-set opening introducing the theme of chemical pollution, to the claustrophobic action in the sewers, to the final confrontation and scenes of chemical warfare there are too many memorable shots to count. The film also succeeds in making you love the cast of grief-stricken and unlikely heroes who try, fail and try again.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

"2007" Update Part IV: Push The Button And Let Me Know

Performance video was filmed on bluescreen from two angles - foreground and reflection. Lift interior modelled and composited in Blender. Red lights with a simulated backlight.Neon.

[All images produced in Blender 2.5]

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Review: The Time Traveler's Wife

Audrey Niffenegger's book The Time Traveler's Wife has everything: it's intelligent and accessible, serious, fun, full of action and emotion, and it tells a great story about human nature and relationships while also exploring a well-worn science fiction concept in new and fascinating ways - time travel portrayed as an uncontrollable genetic disorder. I sometimes wonder whether it could also be seen as a book about the lover of someone with manic depression or another episodic illness who might experience a similar roller-coaster ride.

Robert Schwentke's film is a watchable and enjoyable romance that rises well above the average rom-com but falls short of the sheer resonance of the novel. Claire's life as Henry comes and goes is often bitter and painful and constantly tests her resolve and her love; meanwhile Henry's own life is painful and perplexing too, constantly leading him into danger and taking him away from Claire without warning.

The novel takes all of this to the limit, covering the whole range of experience, the highs and the lows of this unique love affair, while for the most part the film centres on a sentimental rom-com relationship. Occasionally it does go outside this comfort zone and into the much more uncomfortable territory of the book: the first time from Claire's point of view that Henry kisses her, and the way that this single act decided the rest of her life, is an example and the film is the better for including it.

The story is also simplified a little. The pretzel has a few less twists if you like (Damn you, Kate And Leopold! Get out of my head! Bad film!) although when you do get to the paradoxes and twists, such as Henry and Claire's unconventional wedding, or the way Claire manages to get around the limitations of Henry's vasectomy, they are particularly enjoyable scenes.

Casting is great - both leads Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana are talented character actors. They can do rom-com in their sleep and in the few scenes where they are given the chance they really bring out the pain and deep emotion of their characters in a totally human and credible way. I wish they were given a little more room to spread their wings. Did I dream that at one point a certain Mr. Pitt and Ms. Aniston were slated for the lead roles? It seems so long ago.

Monday, 10 January 2011

"2007" Update Part III: The Only Way Is Up

Modelling the exterior of an elevator for the "2007" music videoMore detail, starting to add textures A first attempt at setting up the lights

[All images produced in Blender 2.54]

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Hallow Darkness My Old Friend [Review: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part I]

The final Harry Potter novel has been split into two parts for film adaptation. While there are obvious commercial benefits in keeping the cinema franchise going for another year, this was also the right decision artistically, and David Yates' new film HP7i is the proof.

As the HP novels got heavier, the films suffered either by trying to cram too much in, or by cutting until the plot was incomprehensible. Cut the novel in half and suddenly there's room to breathe again: filmed refreshingly in 2D, HP7i has atmosphere and pace, with enough time on the clock to create authentic settings, linger on significant scenes or build tension. At the same time, the plot, slightly simplified, remains coherent although you will struggle a little unless you have read the preceding books. There's a lot of borrowing from Lord of the Rings as the Fellowship of the Potter travel magically around the world to seek out and destroy a Horcrux: this borrowing is the fault of the book rather than the film.

As with the book, there's far less humour than the previous films (though by no means none) and plenty of death, darkness and despair. The characters have grown up, but the actors unfortunately more so: Daniel and Emma just about pass as older teens, but if CGI can make Jeff Bridges or even Brad Pitt look young in Tron Legacy and Benjamin Button respectively then surely they could have done the same for Rupert Grint. However if the ageing is dodgy the acting and direction is awesome - all three turn in their best performances so far and you really get a sense of isolation, and how different their magical upbringing has made them.

Conclusion: full marks, and I look forward to HP7ii.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Robot High School

Searching for inspiration for 2007, I asked other bloggers over at blogcatalog to suggest favourite music videos. They came up with some absolute gems, not all of which will embed. The list included many of my own favourites plus several incredible films I'd not come across - this demonstrates just how much variety and originality there has been in the music video genre.

Category: Best Animated Fantasy (tied)
Arcadia - Missing - suggested by Hankmann

Category: Best Video Of Thom Yorke Being Drowned
Radiohead - No Surprises - suggested by samhaydenjr

Category: Hardest Working String Quartet
Bond - Explosive - suggested by dyeve

Category: Best Space Invaders Tribute
Royskopp - Happy Up Here - suggested by jaythehated

Category: I Want To Live In Your Dimension Award
Lady Gaga - Bad Romance - suggested by Lovy Boheme

Category: Best Animated Fantasy (tied)
The Presets - Girl And The Sea - suggested by xxjamberxx

Category: Best Non-CGI CGI
My Robot Friend - Robot High School - suggested by clockworkkitten

Category: Best Cowbell-Led Performance
B52s - Rock Lobster - suggested by PetLvr

With thanks for all the suggestions - there were far too many to include here! Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson were popular amongst bloggers and in addition to the works of art above we shared some comedy videos including our favourite Literal Videos.

Category: What Do You Mean That's Not Actually The Director's Commentary Award
Total Eclipse Literal Video - suggested by JaneneMurphy

Finally no music video collection would ever be complete without these guys:

Category: Best Choreography
OK Go - Here It Goes Again - suggested by tarahlynn

Saturday, 1 January 2011

"2007" Update Part II: Make Room, Make Room

Happy New Year! As an amateur filmmaker, I would say the single biggest difference between amateurs and professionals in this field is: sleep. You can be an amateur filmmaker and go to sleep - of course you can! You just won't finish anything.

A second strand of the "2007" music video includes scenes that were acted out on bluescreen to represent or complement the lyrics - these plus the sound visualizations make up the B-roll or interpretative part of the video. I previously blogged about the bluescreen shoot here. The scenes take place in a virtual set - an office - where some strange things will happen. The environment was initially bare but I spent last night creating some assets to give it more of an office feel, plus to have some things to throw around when the room becomes weightless later on...

These assets appear in the background and in some scenes are defocussed:

Images produced in Blender 2.54. To be continued...