Saturday, 26 February 2011

It's for their own good! [Reviews: Never Let Me Go and Tangled]

From where I'm sitting, cinema is looking up for 2011: The Sci-Fi Gene is particularly looking forward to Apollo 18, Sucker Punch and The Adjustment Bureau although I'm hoping the latter isn't just another Philip K. Dick story turned into a chase movie.

Now to business: two recent films about wrapping children up in cotton wool. There's been much said about the pupils of Hailsham and the fact that they don't rebel against their organ-donor status but instead seek meaning and love within the parameters of their short lives: apparently that's why Never Let Me Go is literature rather than science fiction.

Tosh. Good science fiction is about taking extraordinary concepts and exploring their implications in a world that is otherwise recognizable. The best science fiction does so in a way that is relevant to all of us. Kazuo Ishiguro's novel is amongst the best, and as far as the film goes, if you missed the universal themes, there's an unnecessary voice-over at the end to spell it out. This doesn't spoil the film which is so beautiful and poignant (there were tears) and that should tell you how good the rest of it is. Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan act their little hearts out.

Incidentally one way in which Ishiguro's story stands out from Spares, The Island and the rest of the clone army is that the Hailsham kids are not personal clones of rich individuals but, amazingly, part of the National Donor Programme - a state sponsored, socialized medicine scheme and an alternate history version of the NHS.

Moving on. Like the children of Hailsham, Rapunzel was confined throughout her childhood by the walls of her tower and by horrific scare-stories about the world outside - and in Disney's latest film it turns out this was because she also has a part of her body - her hair - desired for it's healing qualities.

With the aid of her trusty frying pan Rapunzel escapes her captor, so Tangled is science fiction. It's also a fine film where all the strands are neatly plaited together - the beautiful art and animation, the plot, the original characters and humour, and the obligatory Alan Menken score. There's lots of slapstick and sentimentality for younger viewers, but there's also a strong rebellious theme and a (subtle) loss-of-virginity metaphor for those old enough to know what a metaphor is.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Meteor, Right? [Reviews: Nemesis and Wormwood]

While I love gung-ho tales of brave oil miners being drafted into the astronaut core and nuking meteorites, giving their lives so that their colleagues can marry Liv Tyler, I'm pleased to report that, at least in written sci-fi, there are some excellent novels that take the meteorite theme somewhere a bit more original.

Bill Napier's novel of asteroid deflection, nuclear stand-offs and medieval heliocentrists, Nemesis, may not be the most accurate depiction of this topic: but it certainly feels like it. The CIA has brought together a group of world-class scientists to form a secret think tank, as they suspect an asteroid has been diverted towards Earth by the Soviets. Up against the clock, the scientists' main challenge is to actually find the asteroid, and tensions rise as they theorise and try out different strategies - while most of the team focus on different telescopes, Webb, the hero, wonders whether the asteroid might have been sighted historically and starts a search for a 17th century manuscript he suspects is the key. Meanwhile the military engage in larger and larger simulations of the impact, and international tensions rise as leaders debate a nuclear response to the attack. Impressively, the scientific, political and military strands are all convincing and while the initial scenario is similar to that of Meteor or Armageddon, the plot develops from pure disaster novel into a much murkier political thriller.

Wormwood, by author of Shadowmancer G.P. Taylor, features a comet bound for Earth, again apparently predicted in an ancient tome. The setting is London, 1756, and the comet is identified by Dr. Sabian Blake, a scientist with alchemical and spiritual leanings very much in the Newton mould. The story is told from several viewpoints but the two main characters are Blake and his thieving housemaid Agetta. It quickly becomes clear this is no scientific romance but a dark tale of Kabbalistic sorcery, ghosts and fallen angels: the comet is the focus for a series of paranormal events and horrors.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Level Up

I just finished the final cut of the "2007" music video so to celebrate, here are my three favourite elevator-based music videos. More news on "2007" soon.

In third place: Neon Bible - Arcade Fire

In second place: Push The Button - Sugababes

And there can only be one winner:

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Realities Check [Review: Transition]

As Iain Banks’ novel Transition opens the reader is presented with a series of different narrators in quick succession. I was initially confused – were they the same person at different times, separate narratives linked only by theme, or would the link between them be a metaphysical one? Iain Banks’ novels are mostly thrillers and while there are plenty of plot twists they are still easy to follow. An exception is The Bridge, which is more complex, and like Inception or Life On Mars it takes place on different levels of consciousness. My first, misguided impression was that Transition was heading somewhere similar.

This opening makes for a difficult, off-putting first third of the novel and some readers may not pass this stage. I therefore feel I am performing a public service by broadcasting the fact that this is not randomness or surreality but the opening gambit of an extremely well-planned novel - soldier on and much will become clear.

It gradually becomes apparent that the narratives are the voices of separate people, all employed in some capacity by the shadowy Concern. As with much of Banks’ writing there are parallels to be drawn with American interventionalism. Concern agents travel across alternate realities and make changes to the course of local events. Ostensibly the Concern’s mission is the greater good of humanity, but the agents are assassins and torturers while the leadership is, naturally, all about personal power, privilege and immortality, while the layers of the Concern may hide a darker agenda.

There are no thoroughbred heroes in Transition but amongst the ranks of villains and antiheroes there are insiders questioning their loyalty to the Concern or their understanding of its' mission: these insiders, like double agents, make for interesting stories driven by character development and change.

Transition is one of Banks’ best and freshest novels for a long time and if it’s not shocking compared to, say, Complicity (aww bless, he’s writing about torture and orgies again…) it’s gripping and satisfyingly complex. In the UK the book has been presented under the name Iain Banks rather than Iain M. Banks – the Earth(s)bound setting may mean this novel is more accessible to readers who are not already Culture citizens, although as onesuch myself who am I to say?

However, while Transition is not a Culture novel, it’s built on similar themes of power, abuse and politics, and on familiar sci-fi concepts: Quantum Leaping into the minds of others, Sliding across alternate realities. In addition to the basic skill of transitioning, Concern agents may have a range of other psychic powers: Tandemers can take passengers with them – for some agents this can only be achieved during sex – Trackers can track other agents through transitions, Blockers block other agents’ powers, and some agents have a limited form of foresight. Similar psychic powers turn up in the film Push, although exploding fish seems beyond the reach of the Concern.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Is There A Doctor In The House? [Review: Outcasts]

The challenge for every BBC producer on a sci-fi show: to not end up making another Doctor Who. Other UK channels don't really worry about this, that's why ITV were able to make Primeval. However I suspect it’s thanks to this creative pressure that the BBC came up with Life On Mars and Being Human.

The first episodes of a new eight-part series, Outcasts, premiered this week and it does seem to promise something different. Carpathia is a ten-year-old off-world colony with a few teething problems. They’ve survived some sort of plague, there are divisions between the trigger-happy security officers and the emerging bureaucrats, and everyone has some kind of secret past or emotional baggage. Meanwhile a shipload of refugees from disaster-stricken Earth repair their damaged ship in orbit, hoping to survive the dangerous atmosphere and join the colony.

Ashley Walters and Hermione Norris

The scenario is colonial sci-fi in the tradition of countless Golden Age authors – Anne McCaffrey springs to mind, as does the Heorot series by Larry Niven and other authors, and the characters also come straight from this sub-genre: in particular Jamie Bamber's maverick anti-hero Mitchell.

This is the kind of situation where The Doctor and Amy would leap in, resolve everything quickly with a combination of luck, smarts and that annoying sonic screwdriver thingy, then disappear during the celebrations. In the absence of this wizard and his magic wand, the colonists of Carpathia will be forced to deal with their own problems, and the consequences of their mistakes will be played out in full. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Bitmap Shades

Added: index pages for my short films, book reviews and film reviews.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Rime Of The Ancient Submariner [Review: 2010: Moby Dick]

I'm writing this review carefully: The Asylum's 2010: Moby Dick is not the only modern adaptation of a seafaring fantasy in the village, and I'll be sure to hold up Jack Black's Gulliver's Travels re-boot to the same standards.

Moby Dick is the kind of nonsense The Asylum loves to make over and over again: oversized ancient sea-creatures, submarines, beautiful brainy women and crazed soldiers. Let's take a look at each:

The sea-creature is Moby Dick, a survivor from prehistoric times of a whale species that ate other whales. MD is a giant, white, toothy CGI creation with intelligent black eyes and a sonar signature "like a hole in the sea."

The crazed soldier is Captain Ahab, a submarine commander who survived a brush with MD, losing a leg - and a large percentage of his sanity - in the process. The white whale becomes his bĂȘte noir and he spends the last twenty years of his naval career scheming to get his own back. Ahab is played by Shakespeare-class actor Barry Bostwick who puts everything into his performance and then some. It doesn't stop there, either, at least according to the Making Of featurette: it seems Mr. B wasn't too impressed by the Asylum's props department, so turned up on set with his own kick-ass mega-harpoon that he'd knocked up in his garage the night before. As the demented captain fighting to maintain the loyalty of his crew, Ahab also gets the best of the script - of course the best lines of all are those borrowed from Herman Melville.

The beautiful brainy woman is marine biologist and whalespeak expert Dr. Michelle Herman (see what they did there?) who is kidnapped by Ahab to help him in his quest. Michelle is played by Renee O'Connor, who some of you may recall as Xena's "close friend" Gabrielle - she's a pro and gives a great performance but is underused: her main job is to sit and look pretty wearing a pair of headphones, then suddenly notice things on the sonar that no-one else can see or hear. In this respect the lack of imagination on the part of the writers is inexcusable.

Ahab's submarine, the Peaquod, has been secretly upgraded in preparation for the day when Ahab goes rogue and hunts down the whale. Externally it's a CGI job and a poor one - rarely convincing. Internally it's better although not claustrophobic enough for a sub, and I think I recognized a few re-deployed sets from the Transmorphers underground city. It's a time of austerity so recycling is good, right? Lucky Dr. Michelle gets to sleep in the torpedo bay with nuclear missiles hanging from chains above her head.

2010: Moby Dick is not Shakespeare, however it is an enjoyable hour and a half. Despite the flaws, I would recommend it on the strength of Bostwick's performance and the attempt to stay in touch with, or at least make use of, the original story. In particular the arch-nemesis relationship between Ahab and MD is very well staged, and I think this gives it a bit of an edge over the many other Asylum creature features. I guess we should look forward to The Asylum's re-boot of The Ancient Mariner, featuring a 200-foot prehistoric man-eating Mega Albatross and Tiffany as the crypto-ornithologist who holds the key to defeating it.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

So Long, Suckers [Review: Attack Of The Giant Leeches]

Roger Corman has directed or produced several hundred films - all but a handful of which have turned a profit. Sci-fi horror with a side serving of cheese is pretty much the order of the day but there are Corman films in all genres and at all budget sizes, and he's worked with some of the greatest actors and actresses in each generation. Over the years has Corman either lost his touch or become too serious? I'm not sure - I think I'll just watch Sharktopus then I'll let you know. Corman's IMDb entry is here.

You made it back? Great. The Giant Leeches (also released as Attack Of The Giant Leeches, and as Demons Of The Swamp) was produced by Roger Corman in 1959.

The plot could have been scribbled on a stamp still leaving room for the postmark. An alcoholic poacher in a Florida village comes across a mysterious creature hiding in the 'glade swamps. He fails to kill it, and no-one believes him until the disappearances start - and bodies begin to appear with mysterious holes in their necks. The origin of the monsters? In a brief and obvious expo-dump the characters speculate about nuclear rockets being launched from nearby Cape Canaveral and leading to mutations and gigantism in local species. The moral? Every American's God-given right to enjoy the innocent pleasures of dynamiting lakes.

The worst thing about this film? The leeches. They suck. You might say that back in 1959 audiences would be petrified by the sight of two men (Guy Buccola and Ross Sturlin) in pantomime leech costumes. You might. But I wouldn't believe you. Audiences who would have been exposed to The Thing From Another World* (1951), War Of The Worlds (1953), Tarantula (1955), Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers (1956) or even The Blob (1958) would know a real scare when they saw one, and would surely have laughed themselves silly at the sight of these suckers.

The best things about this film? The Everglades make for a truly creepy setting, and the absence of alligators is a nice touch. Most of the performances are hammed up but there's a pretty good turn from Jan Shephard as Nan Greyson, the prim and proper daughter of local doctor and scientist Doc Greyson. There's some truly gruesome leech victim make-up too. Ultimately this film is fun in places, unwatchable in others, and there are more unintended laughs than intended scares. One for the dedicated Rogercormanologist only.

*Strictly speaking, audiences who had been exposed to The Thing From Another World would be either feeding on the flesh of their fellow filmgoers or becoming increasingly paranoid as they try to work out who are the imposters in the surrounding seats.