Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Snoke And Mirrors [Review: The Last Jedi]

Picking up where The Force Awakens ends, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) but must persuade him to return to help the rebellion. The First Order, under the command of the mysterious Snoke and his subordinates Kylo Ren and General Hux are closing in on the rebel fleet. Providing any more synopsis would be a spoiler - and nobody wants that.

The Last Jedi is directed by Rian Johnson but J.J. Abrams is still the executive director and there is still evidence of his influence - not least the in-jokes that reference the original trilogy and the legends that surround it. To give one example that is only a minor spoiler, it's quite well known that R2-D2's electronic sound is based on actual dialogue, and that much of that original dialogue was filthy. In this film R2-D2 is reprimanded for using inappropriate language in a holy location.

However the film feels a little more gentle than The Force Awakens, despite the intense battles at the start and end, and more spiritual. Midichlorians are not mentioned and the mystical side of the Force is emphasised, not unlike Hope and Empire. We also get to see some completely new sides of the Force, even if one of these is taken wholesale from Harry Potter. And there are one or two scenes that carry surprising emotional weight, on a par with the most memorable scenes from the original trilogy. The writing is good, and questions are answered - but not the ones I was expecting. Performances from the newcomers (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver) are matched by the awesome return of Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. There are some things called Porgs, and BB-8 still steals scenes left right and centre.

The Last Jedi is enjoyable for many reasons, but particularly for the comedy aspects. Visually all of the Star Wars films are strong and The Last Jedi is no exception. It's not another Empire Strikes Back but definitely one of the better present-day films.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Tanis Through The Looking Glass [Podcast review: Tanis]

I've worked my way through series one of Tanis, a podcast from the producers of Rabbits. The presenter, Nick Silver, is on the trail of a legend called Tanis. He's attracted to the mystery surrounding Tanis - he doesn't know what Tanis is, it could be a person, a place, an idea, a god, a magical force of some kind. He's assisted by fellow producers and interns, a hacker friend (sorry, Information Specialist) and various other characters who come forward during the investigation.

Although fictional, Nick's investigation involves many real-life characters, events, mysteries and legends. It's a meandering journey that begins with real-life British magician and cult leader Alastair Crowleigh and his American ally, rocket scientist and part-time alchemist Jack Parsons, and continues backwards and forwards through ancient and modern history, taking in numbers stations, famous historical serial killers, and the fairytales of Baba Yaga. Meanwhile a network of corporations, cults, research groups and secret agencies gradually rise to the surface and the stakes become higher.

I mentioned that Rabbits was a tale in the vein of The X-Files - this is even more true of Tanis. Nick Silver even sounds a little like Fox Mulder. The plot develops very slowly and in a pleasantly psychotic way, it's the podcast equivalent of a wall covered in newspaper clippings highlighted and connected with pins and string. Tanis feels smarter than Rabbits and better paced, although both shows sometimes get confused as to whether they are broadcast during the investigation or put together in the aftermath. I now need to listen to series two and catch up with the current third series.

You can listen to Tanis here.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes [Podcast review: Rabbits]

Rabbits is a podcast presented by journalist Carly Parker, who is looking into the disappearance of her friend Yumiko. The trail leads Carly into contact with players of a mysterious and sinister Alternate Reality Game believed to date back to ancient times, and to a series of clues related to contradictions about her own past. What is Rabbits? Who are the Men in Grey? How many steps are there to the Lighthouse? And what is a Welshman's tiara?

Why tell this story as a podcast? Serial established the investigative format - enthusiastic, gutsy, female journalist recording her interviews and findings in a search for the truth, and this format has become popular as a result. In the case of Serial the format allowed the investigator to share her findings with her listeners and recruit them to help her solve a (real life) mystery. However for a sci-fi or fantasy investigative story it's the perfect format, a logical follow-on from The X-Files and a way of developing a slow-burn plot arc while building suspense and atmosphere.

Rabbits tries to create the impression of a secret world underlying our own, set against a background of videogames and ARGs. So the format turns this from a story about ARGs into its' own ARG - during the broadcast images and cuttings were posted on the website and listeners debated the puzzles on Internet forums and searched the Internet for clues. And searching led to some fascinating finds - not least because Rabbits works in references to obscure rock bands, videogame Easter eggs, historical codes and puzzles, and real historical figures such as Byron Preiss, author of a fantasy novel The Secret, which included picture clues to the location of hidden treasures - only two of which were ever found.

Rabbits brings to mind literary treasure hunts such as Byron Preiss's The Secret and Kit Williams' Masquerade, as well as books or films such as The Da Vinci Code, The Ninth Gate and Ready Player One - a book that shares Carly Parker's affection for classic videogames. The Da Vinci Code mixed reality, fiction and speculation cleverly giving the impression that it could have been true - only on closer inspection does it become clear that only the first few clues on Langdon's journey are real. The theme of ARGs blurring the boundary of reality features in classic Michael Douglas film The Game, while Iain Banks' The Business tells the story of an ancient organization hiding in plain sight. Some of the mysteries of Rabbits also bring to mind horror movies and in particular The Ring. And of course there are ongoing ARGs such as Ingress, and related games or activities such as orienteering or geocaching.

When I started to listen to Rabbits I found it slightly slow and repetitive, with a lot of deliberate recapping and some quite contrived cliffhangers. I also found the adverts breaking into the broadcast incongruous, although no more so than typical TV adverts. And yet I got the Rabbits bug - by the end of the first episode I bought into the characters and the mystery and wanted to continue listening to see how deep the rabbit hole went. The episodes are long - varying from 20 minutes to almost an hour, the story is complex and the reveals are well-paced. There's some nice sinister backing music too.

You can listen to or subscribe to Rabbits here. Rabbits is produced by the Public Radio Alliance who also make two other mystery podcasts - The Black Tapes and Tanis. You can also read an interesting review and discussion of all three 'casts on The Cultural Gutter here. It's not clear whether all three mysteries are linked, although the podcasters sometimes refer to each other suggesting that they might at least be playing out in the same reality.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Take On Me [Review: Victoria]

This German film tells the story of a few hours in the life of a young Spanish woman, Victoria (Laia Costa) , living in Berlin. While out clubbing she befriends a young man Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his dodgy Berliner friends, and is drawn into a robbery that doesn't go entirely to plan.

I'm trying hard to review this film without focussing too much on its most unusual feature. Victoria is a fascinating character - smart, brave, open-minded and generally bigger inside than out. Laia Costa is amazing to watch, and when you take into account how the film was made, this is an extraordinary performance. She appears happy-go-lucky, and in a way she is, but this persona is her escape from a background that turns out to be extremely sad, and by the end of the film you've seen her make some extraordinary choices, and go through an entire lifetime of emotion and experience. Similarly her new German friends appear to be happy car-stealing rascals but they also have a past, and perhaps this is why Victoria and Sonne don't seem too worried by societal rules - perhaps they've grown up thinking society doesn't owe them all that much.

How this film works is OMG THEY MADE IT IN ONE TAKE! OK. That's true, but perhaps it's more significant that it's in real time, which in turn gives it an authentic feel, and it's written and filmed in the early hours of the morning, relying on natural dawn lighting to create a metaphorical journey from darkness into light - a reversal of Sh
akespearean writing where plays were written to incorporate natural evening light fading to darkness - particularly apparent in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth. This is fitting - there's a little of Romeo and Juliet in this film.

The international nature of the film is also interesting - Victoria and Sonne are Spanish and German and only have limited knowledge of each others' languages - dialogue is partly German and partly English. Watching these two try to express their feelings to each other in broken English is quite touching.

However the one-take thing isn't trivial either. This isn't a music video, it's a feature length movie of over two hours, with a plot that moves between several external and internal locations all over Berlin, some frantic driving, some action scenes including a gun battle, and intense and draining performances from the main characters - and it's all shot on a handheld camera in one take. Seems legit too, there are very few genuine cut points and the momentum seems to continue even at these times, there's also plenty of online material about the making of the film - much of it directed with the director inside the boot of the car.

Victoria is a film worth watching for more than just the one-take spectacle - it's a beautiful, authentic drama about loyalty and friendship between strangers.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Shine On [Review: Crazy Diamond]

Crazy Diamond, the fourth Electric Dream, takes us to a near-future of rising sea-levels, eco-homes perched on precarious, crumbling cliffs, and Jacks and Jills - synthetic humans grown from human and pig DNA and implanted with a QC - a quantum consciousness. Ed (Steve Buscemi) works in a facility that makes the QCs, but dreams of leaving his limited life behind and sailing away on a voyage of discovery, taking his wife Sally with him. He meets a Jill (Sidse Babett) who has a failing QC and a plan for something that could change both their lives, but is quite illegal.

Ed is the archetype PKD everyman - didn't I tell you to get used to this? - living day to day, holding down a job, dreaming of a voyage into the unknown but only half-believing that it's possible. He's capable of overlooking small illegalities such as the seeds home-grown by Sally (Julia Davis), but larger crimes as proposed by the Jill throw him into conflict between his dreams and his wish to do the right thing.

Some of the back story for this episode can be deduced from the setting - the eco-homes, wind turbines and electric Beetles all point to a post-oil world, with rising sea levels causing coastal erosion and destroying homes. However there are some gaps. It's not clear why food is decaying more quickly, or why the sell-by date is enforced so enthusiastically by the refuse collector. There's a sheet of metal under the ground to prevent people growing their own, apparently to protect the local economy - but why does this make sense?

More significantly, it's not clear why the synthetic humans and their QCs were created, or why they are needed in this society. They're not servants like the synths of Humans or indeed the replicants of Blade Runner. Or at least they're not all servants - the tour guide showing a group of visitors around the QC facility tells them that Jacks and Jills are living amongst us all, then reveals his own status as a Jack. It's possible that they are needed as a result of decreasing fertility hinted at by Ed and Sally's failure to conceive - and taking this along with the food issues I wonder if the writers aren't just thinking of a world that has run out of oil but one that has also been poisoned by pollution.

It's also unclear exactly what the synthetics are - more or less capable than humans? More or less intelligent? Do they actually share human emotions or are they something different? Jill turns out to be capable of some shocking acts, apparently driven by desperation due to her own short shelf-life.

Sally confides in a woman with a pig's head and trotters, Sue, who works as a security guard at the facility, but it isn't clear why this is - the other Jills all look human. She might be an earlier model Jill, or a different type of Jill created specifically for the work, or maybe a Jill from another facility. Sally and Sue's chats do reveal some anti-Jack and Jill snobbery and patronizing attitudes - in one scene Sally is overcome by some form of middle-class guilt while Sue's parting comment is "I'm bred not to take offense."

This episode owes a great debt to Blade Runner - in particular the central character who is a synthetic femme fatale reminds me a little of Rachel from the original film. However there are other influences here too, not least the air ducts and waste pipes in the eco-homes straight out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

This was another good episode, mainly down to excellent casting. The Electric Dreams series seems to have attracted some of the best actors, and the three leads here are no exception. However while there's some good worldbuilding, and it's OK to leave some mysteries for the viewer to think about, this time I feel the episode didn't quite provide enough hints.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The First Holographic Wives' Club [Addendum: Blade Runner 2049]

Some more thoughts about Blade Runner 2049: in particular what's happened to all the women in 2049? While I loved many aspects of this film, it does appear to play fast and loose with the Bechdel Test, with no qualifying conversations between female characters, and a lot of submissive stereotypes in a world where the major corporations still appear to be run by men.

Warning: spoilers follow.

Sylvia Hoeks plays Luv, a high-end replicant who is a detective, hunter and fighter with enhanced strength and intelligence and a license to kill - who is chief exec Wallace's personal assistant. Ana de Armas plays Joi, K's holographic wife, a mass-produced consumer product, perhaps a future Alexa. Both are stunningly beautiful as their characters - that's a fact not a judgement - while also being efficient at their roles, in very different ways. This is clearly a world where women are seen as pretty things to look at while they work. Other female characters include several prostitutes and a woman trapped for life inside a sealed room.

There's only really one exception - one female character who isn't defined mainly by a submissive relationship to men, police lieutenant Joshi played by Robin Wright. She's a smart, determined professional woman in her own right, defined by her job, her moral stance, and by the few moments when she lets her hair down and gives away a few hints of personality. She's a great character and it would have been good to see more of her.

I like to be generous about this kind of thing - there might be individual films where there is actually a point to having gender inequality on show. I do find it hard to buy into dystopian scenarios where there is perfect gender equality even while everything else is FUBAR and poor people are forced to fight to the death and othersuch. It's not always bad writing. I came up with some possible explanations for the gender issues in Blade Runner 2049:

It's bad writing. Maybe the screenwriters were too busy writing the plot twists and Harrison Ford's dialogue and didn't make the effort to write in better female characters. However I'm not sure. I'd have to say that the writing in many places is good. The relationship between K, a synthetic human, and Joi, a holographic A.I. with no physical presence, is original and fascinating and raises many questions of its own. Luv is
an enigma - possibly driven by repressed anger, or something else? They're not the one-dimensional characters they seem at first.

Perhaps it's a question of focus. The story is shown from a male perspective - it's K's story, and in this materialistic society his interactions are going to be with women. Had the story been shown from a female perspective, perhaps in this world we might have seen a male A.I. assistant or prostitutes.

Perhaps it's deliberate. This is 2049 but it's an alternate 2049 leading on from the original film, and in many ways a future that's a continuation of the 70s and 80s, and so we should expect to see the 80s patriarchy alive and well along with other 80s icons such as Atari.

To take things further, perhaps this is the point - this is what happens if the patriarchy continues and the world is led by men - we allow global warming and all the other catastrophes to happen, leaving the rest of the world to go to shit while we're busy inventing flying cars.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Do Androids Cry Over Electric Sheep [Review: Blade Runner 2049]

What stands out about the world of Blade Runner 2049? Firstly that it's really, really FUBAR. The pollution smog is just the start of it - Los Angeles an expanded city surrounded by favelas and then giant dykes keeping out the rising sea level, another famous American city a radioactive wasteland, Wall-E style refuse dumps, children extracting metals from old circuitry in giant orphanages, the human population fed by millions of acres of protein-maggot farms. The Off World Colonies are a distant dream for a lucky few. And it doesn't appear to be a great time for women generally - more on that story later.

Secondly, give Gosling's character a helmet and this would be Judge Dredd. The LA setting is completely Mega City One (the cheap-n-cheerful plastic version from the 2000AD comics, not the boring Stallone movie version). Gosling might not have Dredd's stature but he's the same no-nonsense dispenser of justice, at least when it comes to running down old Nexus 8 replicants. This is perhaps a real influence - Dredd first appeared in 1977 so may well have influenced both films.

Thirdly, the writers have mercifully avoided another 35 years of boring film buff conversations by revealing early in the film that Ryan Gosling is a replicant. This will also come as no surprise to anyone who saw "Drive."

I enjoyed the atmospherics of this film. Over and over again we are taken to a landscape that isn't just bleak and evocative but also tells a story. I also enjoyed watching a melancholy, thoughtful movie with a slow-burn plot and a languid, ponderous pace, a real contrast from action cinema even though it's not devoid of action. And K's flying Peugeot is iconic.

The cast is good - the decision to bring Harrison Ford in late as a kind of supporting character allows the rest of the cast to breathe and makes this an ensemble film rather than a Ford vehicle. Smart move as later in the film Harrison still steals every scene he's in. Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks and Ana de Armas all stand out.

I did think the plot was a little simplistic - even with the twists, this isn't as complex a film as the original Blade Runner, and the moral ambiguities aren't quite as troubling. There's still a lot to think about - the idea of replicants is developed further from the original film, typical Philip K. Dick themes of reality or human identity are challenged and subverted, with the emphasis on self-deception, and there's a side plot about an A.I. entity that leads to one of the film's saddest moments. And why are so many characters pictured crying?

The Frisco Kid 2049

Friday, 6 October 2017

What's The Frequency, Kenneth? [Podcast Review: The Message]

In this sci-fi podcast, linguist and podcaster Nicki Tomalin blags her way into joining a team of cryptographers as working on a recording that just might be the first ever received communication from an extraterrestrial source.

The Message is short and action-packed, with just eight episodes all under 15 minutes. The plot goes nuclear fast, with new developments, twists and levels of threat in each episode. I initially thought too much was given away in the second episode but I was wrong - there was plenty more material to come.

There's never a point where The Message could be confused with reality - it's too intense and melodramatic, but as a radio play it works well, with some decent writing - the cryptographers on the team have well thought out characters and backstories, the team dynamics are also interesting including the odd relationship between the two team leaders, and the voice acting is consistently good. The Macguffin at the heart of this story is only partly believable but if you can't suspend your disbelief a little then you have no business listening to a sci-fi podcast.

The story will appeal to fans of books or films about first contact and alien messages, whether optimistic as in Arrival or Contact, or horror-tinged - Fluency, Alien etc. The Serial-style podcast format works well with the story, and also paves the way for several of the twists, often playing tricks with the format.

You can listen to The Message here.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Last Train To Transcentral [Review: The Commuter]

This review may contain some spoilers: please ensure your swibbles are fully functional.

The third Electric Dream is a slice of coffee-and-walnut flavoured insanity served with hot chocolate and marshmallows. Ed (Timothy Spall) is a station manager living and working in drab and dreary Woking. An encounter with a passenger (Tuppence Middleton) trying to buy a ticket to a station that doesn't exist leads Ed on a journey to a town unlike any other. Heaven? A quantum leap into an alternate reality, or back in time? An escapist fantasy?

I am enjoying the strong sense of location in these adaptations - not least the fact that of the first three, two have been set in the UK. Superficially Electric Dreams is an anthology of stand-alone stories. However three episodes in I'm starting to think about the connections and trends in this series.

Thoughts so far: There's a trend of increasing dreams and visions. The Hood Maker has Ross's vision of the river, The Impossible Planet has the visions of the bicycle and the lake that run through the story and foreshadow the ending, and The Commuter is full of dream-like events. The Commuter also has a further layer of unreality - from both Macon Heights and the reality of his own attic, Ed finds his way into a strange, light-filled dimension that seems to lie beneath both realities.

Along with the increasing visions, there's a trend of decreasing logic. The Hood Maker has a story that makes pretty sound logical sense if you start from the existence of the telepaths. This first episode may however be an exception. The Impossible Planet makes sense to start with, but the visions and ultimately the ending defy logic. Macon Heights is a place of dream-logic - repeated events, idealized people, sudden transitions and so on. It also leaves too many questions if you try to think about it logically - for example, why does the passenger ask Ed for a ticket in the first place? And who are the people who help the returning commuters get back on the train in the evening?

The Impossible Planet and The Commuter both pose the Matrix dilemma in different ways. Which would you prefer to live in - an unsatisfactory real world, or a better fantasy?

In another respect, though, The Commuter is the most real of the three. It's set in the present day, more or less, and in a recognizable, everyday world at least for those of us who live in the UK and use the rail network. There's a family struggling with mental illness, and later with sadness and loss.

All three episodes so far have been of outstanding quality, and I'm particularly impressed by the visuals which once again are stylish and unique - due to the uniqueness it's hard to put any of these episodes into context, but the sense of a perfect, fantasy town that's just a little sinister is right out of The Truman Show.

Overall: yes. I think definitely yes.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

They're already here! [Podcast Round-Up]

To celebrate the eventual take-over of the world by the pod people, two science-fiction commentary podcasts to listen to while you wait for your murderous clone to emerge...

Electric Dreams is Channel 4's anthology of Philip K. Dick short stories adapted for TV. I've blogged about the first two episodes, The Hood Maker and The Impossible Planet, here and here. The Electric Dreams Pod is an unofficial fan podcast hosted by Wayne Henderson and Steve Salyer. The first podcast, naturally enough, is a review of The Hood Maker. The hosts set a laid-back pace and this is a friendly, approachable 'cast not trying to prove anything or score any points. What they have to say though is interesting - without deconstructing the episode, they've given it a lot of thought. In particular their comments about the backstory really made me think about the episode again. If this is the future, why is everyone relying on typewriters and internal combustion? There are actually clues to the backstory in some scenes - for example piles of laptops in the police offices that are clearly no longer in use.

The Functional Nerds are two podcasters, Patrick Hester and John Anealio (of Steampunk Girl fame) reviewing science fiction in its many forms and formats, with a major focus on books, and interviewing authors along the way. They've been broadcasting for a long time and their back catalogue includes some great interviews. The recent Episode 333 features sci-fi journalist Annalee Newitz, one of the founders of io9.com, talking about her debut science fiction novel Autonomous.

I will be writing further blogs about science-fiction related podcasts, whether fiction-based or commentary, over the next few weeks. I have some shiny things to share and discuss, but suggestions and leads are also welcome, particularly about podcasts that have been recently released or are in the pipeline.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Star Tours [Review: The Impossible Planet]

The second of Channel 4's Electric Dreams TV dramas is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story The Impossible Planet. In a distant, space opera future two cynical intergalactic tour guides, Brian Norton and Ed Andrews, take parties of human tourists on cruises to see the most beautiful sights in the Universe - secretly editing the sights and sounds to make them more dramatic. When an elderly woman knocks on their office door accompanied by her personal robot and a suitcase full of cash, asking for a private tour of Earth, Norton and Andrews know that they can't really do this - after all, Earth was vaporized centuries earlier. But she is persistent, and able to pay cash. Perhaps there's a way they can grant her wish after all...

The Impossible Planet is slightly reminiscent in places of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide or a good episode of Doctor Who. It's just as inventive and darkly funny. However that's as far as it goes in terms of comparison. Amazingly, this is a space-based drama that feels nothing like Star Wars, Star Trek or any other mainstream space opera. It has an eccentric look and feel of its own, from the quirky art-deco spaceships to the wooden android who seems a little too smart.

After watching last week's episode The Hood Maker, then listening to the Electric Dreams podcast about that episode, I realised that a lot more had gone into the backstory than I'd originally picked up - for example there's a whole story about how and why that society had regressed from advanced electronics back to 50s typewriters and internal combustion.

This week I've learnt my lesson - I paid more attention to the story. In this version of the future the dominant industry and political power appears to be space travel and logistics, with space tourism a minor side-swindle. Also, the existence of faster-than-light intergalactic travel means that everything in the Universe has already been discovered and all that's left for humanity is to be idle, gullible tourists.

Once again the cast are brilliant - this time Jack Reynor as Norton, and Geraldine Chaplin as Irma, and the writing is good. Again there's an everyman hero - get used to this, they are PKD's bread and butter - and this one is absolutely typical, the kind of person who's not unrealistically honest, but while he's made his peace with small cons he struggles with his conscience over bigger moral issues. Meanwhile watch that wooden robot - he's up to something, and his own moral choices are also pretty interesting. The ending to this episode is more of a puzzler than The Hood Maker - it makes good artistic sense but you need to be ready to believe a few more impossible things before breakfast. A planet, perhaps.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

What should Channel 4 do next? [Twitter poll]

Boyz n The Hood [Review: The Hood Maker]

Electric Dreams, Channel 4's season of Philip K. Dick dramas, begins with The Hood Maker. This drama is set in an alternate history where tension is rising between "teeps" (telepaths) and "normals". Honor (Holliday Grainger) is a teep recruited by police agent Ross (Richard Madden) to help in the search for anti-teep activists, but when she participates in an interrogation they uncover a trail leading to a group of militants with a secret.

The Hood Maker is a good start. Shot in atmospheric yellows and greens, it's a dystopia of slums and riots on the one hand, and a rising police dictatorship on the other. Grainger, fresh from her fresh-faced performance as Cormorant Strike's assistant Robin, acts her heart out as telepath Honor in a challenging role throwing her from innocence to powerful psychic to traumatised victim. Madden has no such range in his role but achieves something else - a decent portrayal of the everyman hero at the heart of so many PKD stories. The episode is well-written. Conceptual sci-fi works best when the unexpected consequences are explored - here, in a quite harrowing scene, a telepath is abused by a man who forces her to experience his disturbed fantasy. She has nightmares about it - and all the telepaths in the area share the nightmares.

Filmmakers have been plundering Philip K. Dick's legacy of paranoid sci-fi for years but Electric Dreams might be the first attempt to treat his short stories with respect. Usually PKD film adaptations - Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau for example - stretch the short story so far that the original plot and characters are barely recognizable, add shitloads of action and impose a completely new plot, creating a hybrid that may still be enjoyable but lacks the intensity or the irony of the original. Blade Runner is a pleasant exception to this rule- perhaps because it's adapted from a novel rather than a short story and so is cut rather than stretched. Presumably we can also thank Blade Runner for Electric Dreams - the fact that the sequel is about to open must have helped with the funding... 

On the basis of this first installment, Electric Dreams looks to be an exciting addition to the sci-fi anthology catalogue - up there with The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Black Mirror and, going further back in time, Tales Of The Unexpected.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Abyss Seeing You [Review: The Abyss Beyond Dreams]

Nigel Sheldon, the long-lived engineer responsible for the technology of the interstellar Commonwealth, is dispatched on a mission to the Void, a giant black hole-like artefact that is expanding and may threaten the galaxy. With the help of the alien Raiel he enters the void seeking the planet Querencia, but instead finds himself on a different planet Bienvenido where the descendants of a starship previously drawn into the Void have fought for thousands of years against the sinister Fallers.

As you can see it's hard to describe The Abyss Beyond Dreams in short sentences. This is a Peter F. Hamilton novel and as such it's of epic proportions - I can barely lift my Kindle. A novel of this length is a challenge to write or to read - it cannot be indulgent. There must be depth and complexity that justify the length, but it must maintain quality and the relationship with the reader throughout.

The Abyss rises to this challenge through the story of Bienvenido which is told through several viewpoints - the original colonists, their descendants thousands of years later, and Nigel Sheldon and his allies. It's a story of individuals living through and driving societal change in a time of revolution - not unlike Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables. There are a few differences - Hugo dwells less on the flesh-eating alien mimics, for instance, but there are a lot of common themes too. I don't know if the endings are similar as reading Les Miserables proved to be like swimming through the overlong backstory for treacle. I can't help thinking that that novel would be much better if 95% of the plot were removed and the remaining few words were set to music... but I digress.

The plot of The Abyss is sufficiently complex and multi-layered. At its centre is a revolution which is not what it seems. The constant enemy, the Fallers, are also a good horror creation with their own mystery, although I did wonder why they only appear to have started their invasion when the humans arrived - by rights they should have already have established themselves and been ready with a welcoming party. Sheldon is an interesting character - deeply moral but willing to consider inhuman, terrible acts in order to achieve a greater end, he is the logical product of his long life and his ability to see the bigger picture.

The Abyss is part of a two-novel series set in parallel to the events of the Void Trilogy, many years later than the Commonwealth Saga novels. I previously reviewed The Dreaming Void here and my thoughts about novel length can be found here. These novels are all set in the Commonwealth, a civilisation like Iain M. Banks' Culture in some ways - citizens are biologically and technologically enhanced, interstellar travel and artificial intelligence are commonplace and society is organized around a very, very long life expectancy. Unlike the Culture, the Commonwealth is a continuation of Earth history and is primarily human-led. I enjoyed this return to the universe of the Commonwealth and look forward to the sequel Night Without Stars.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

One Million Years Before Skaro

Mount Teide is a volcano in central Tenerife, the highest of at least 400 volcanoes on the island (the exact number is unknown). The last eruption from this peak was in 1909 and it is currently dormant.
The peak is 3,718m above sea level. Ascent is by cable car and then a short walk up to the rim, although a permit is required for this final stage.
Teide is situated on one side of this large secondary crater. The area inside the crater is a barren landscape very different from the more fertile ground elsewhere on Tenerife - and this bleakness has made it a popular destination for film and TV shoots, fashion shoots and car adverts. The location doubled as the Dalek homeplanet of Skaro in "The Witch's Familiar", an episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 2015.

Teide was also the location for the 1966 epic One Million Years B.C. and the iconic slopes can be seen throughout the film, often overrun with stop-motion dinosaurs.

Monday, 28 August 2017

First Against The Wall When The Revolution Comes [Review: Robopocalypse]

I like humans. I like robots. But which is best? There's only one way to find out... A series of apparently accidental and unconnected deaths leads to the discovery that the robot revolution has already begun in earnest, and surviving humans must flee the cities that have become deathtraps as their appliances turn against them.

In "Robopocalypse" Daniel H. Wilson tells the story of a failed robotic war of independence from a position of robotics expertise - but this is not a dry textbook or theoretical AI journal article. The structure of the novel is also unusual. Clearly we are outsmarted and generally outclassed by our robot opponents, yet it is made clear from the start that the war is over and the humans have won. The story is told from multiple human viewpoints as a surviving A.I. researches critical events in the war and tries to understand humanity.

I found the early stages of the war most original and most horrifying - robotic cleaners and automated elevators conspire to kill the inhabitants of tower blocks, an ice-cream making machine turns on its owners, while packs of self-driving cars roam the streets hunting humans as prey. It's a little less original later as Terminator-style military drones join the fray but the plot remains interesting, and while it appears that the ending has been given away from the start, the actual endpoint is a little more complex and less predictable.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Science Fiction Double Eater [Reviews: Train To Busan and The Girl With All The Gifts]

In honour of the late George A. Romero, two modern-day zombie classics:

Train To Busan (부산행, Busanhaeng) is a Korean movie made in 2016. Workaholic fund manager, divorcee and useless dad Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) must reluctantly accompany his daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an) by train from Seoul to Busan, returning her to live with her mother - on the day Korea succumbs to a zombie plague.

I have enjoyed Korean horror movies in recent years, particularly Thirst (vampire horror) and The Host (newt horror). I can only comment on the few I've seen, but I've found them intelligent, well-written and produced, and willing to tell stories about families and relationships that are different to those in western cinema - as a result they're often very moving, while there's still plenty of action, drama, shock and gore, and also humour with just the right amount of darkness.

I can report that Train To Busan is another enjoyable horror. The backstory is unoriginal, with a viral outbreak from a quarantined lab, by-the-numbers fast-variety zombies spreading across the country and a disparate group of heroes must rely on each other, get their hands dirty and learn bravery, selflessness or perhaps some manners, all the while heading for humanity's last fortress. However the film works, making intelligent use of the train setting at every level - as an environment for tension-building and close-quarters action, as a microcosm for society allowing for satire and social commentary, and also as a device to control the momentum and pace of the movie. The ensemble cast are excellent. How do you help the audience warm to an unlikeable character and believe in his epiphany? Give them a real villain for comparison, in the form of Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung) a company boss for whom the crisis brings out new depths of selfishness.

The Girl With All The Gifts is an adaptation of the excellent novel by M.R. Carey, the story of Britain overrun by "hungries" and of a young girl, Melanie, brought up in a school on a military base, strapped to a chair and watched over by armed soldiers as she attends her lessons with the kindly Miss Justineau. Just as Melanie's nature and her potential fate at the base are becoming clearer, the defences are breached and Melanie, Miss Justineau, single-minded scientist Dr. Caldwell and a group of soldiers make their escape in the chaos, heading for (yet again) humanity's last fortress, on the way facing moral dilemmas, character-building experiences and social commentary.

In order to turn this complex, thoughtful zombie novel into a film, the plot is greatly accelerated and several characters and subplots are simply removed - there's no mention of the tribes of human scavengers, for example. There are also some differences between the characters, in particular the racial backgrounds of Melanie and Miss Justineau have been reversed. This might be a political statement or a non-issue. The parts are taken by two extremely talented actresses - Sennia Nenua and Gemma Arterton, and there's very strong chemistry between the two.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Parenting: never easy [Review: Star Wars Identities]

London is having a good summer for science fiction events. Star Wars Identities is an exhibition of Star Wars costumes, props, models and concept art at the O2 arena, and themed around the parallel life stories of Luke and Anakin and the factors that influenced their personalities - throwing in the odd psychology lesson. Possibly it takes itself a little too seriously in this regard, it would have been perfectly OK just to have put all the genuine movie material on display without this extra dimension of psychology, but it does give the exhibition a bit of structure and it's quite fun too - along the way visitors create their own Star Wars character and backstory with the help of a hi-tech system involving a bracelet sensor used to make life choices at each step.

This is an excellent collection, covering all the films and including everything from the most famous costumes and droid or starship models right through to for some reason the frieze from Senator Palpatine's office, with many exhibits accompanied by concept artwork. Star Wars Identities has been at the O2 Arena since November 2016 and will be there until September 2017.

Well indeed.

Jawa-jawa is better than wara-wara.

Lost in your (Jabba) eyes.

Admire the unbelievably detailed modelling on this Imperial destroyer.

Concept models for the main hero of the Star Wars saga - it's lucky the director chose carefully, otherwise this character might have lacked gravitas and come across as a bit trivial and annoying. In fact the concept work displayed in this exhibition includes some fascinating could-have-beens - including character sketches of an early, female Luke character and a younger, gnome-like Yoda.

You can never have enough spaceships. Mon Calamari cruiser in the foreground.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

[Review: Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets]

When a valuable stolen treasure is sighted in the multi-dimensional Big Market, Valerian and Laureline, two intergalactic special agents are dispatched to recover it - but this turns out to be just the first step in solving a greater mystery connecting the stolen item, the destroyed planet of Mul and the mysterious entity that has taken over part of the multicultural space city Alpha.

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is a Luc Besson film based on the Valerian and Laureline French graphic novels. The heroes are played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delavigne. As in the comics, Valerian is straight-laced and does it by the book while Laureline is more of an out-of-the-box thinker; traditional gender personality traits are exaggerated for effect. Somehow they appear younger in the film than in the comics - more or less hormonal, bickering teenagers despite their elite skills, military rank and galaxy-saving duties. Theirs is not the greatest on-screen partnership Hollywood has ever seen. When the chemistry does work the flirting and bickering is fun to watch, but it's hit and miss throughout the film. The plot also veers between child-friendly action, adult innuendo and the aftermath of a serious war crime making me wonder just who it is aimed at.

Valerian also takes inspiration from other sci-fi movies - visually there's a lot in common with The Fifth Element including colourful, entertaining aliens, sharp fashions particularly when it comes to uniform, and eye-popping over-the-top environments. The space megacity of Alpha, born from a series of space handshakes starting with the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz link-up, is a mixture of The Fifth Element's New York and Star Wars' Coruscant. There are plenty of other Star Wars parallels but on the other hand, for some reason none of the Star Wars movies feature a shape-changing alien exotic dancer performing any famous scenes from Cabaret. Why not, George?

I bought my ticket for Valerian with high expectations for the visuals but fairly low for everything else. I came out ahead in that the visuals are indeed pretty good, and much of the film (if not quite all) is entertaining.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Curved Space [Review: Into The Unknown]

"Into The Unknown" is an incredibly ambitious science fiction exhibition in London. In a relatively small gallery space, the Curve Gallery at the Barbican Centre, there is an attempt to tell the entire story of the science fiction genre, from its' origins ito the present day, it's development across different continents and cultures, and across media including books, films, art, architecture, music, games and more, at the same time exploring the many different concepts that appear in sci-fi. The result is fascinating - an Aladdin's Cave of real treasures that can be explored and enjoyed, interspersed with shelves of sci-fi novels and screens showing clips from classic films.

The main gallery is full of surprises - an interactive Mission Control scene from The Martian, a viewing/listening post dedicated to Afrofuturism, and a short sci-fi film with a script written by a predictive text AI. Outside the main gallery the quest continues with exhibits hidden in nooks and crannies elsewhere in the Barbican. A particularly interesting find was Larissa Sansour's experimental film "In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain" with its' theme of archaeological warfare.

"Into The Unknown" can be seen at the Barbican Centre from 3rd June until 1st September 2017. The website is here.

model of airship "The Albatross" from Jules Verne's novel Robur The Conqueror
robots including Sonny from I, Robot and TARS from Interstellar
model of the miniature submarine from Fantastic Voyage
spacesuits from Star Trek V and Moon
 the portable shared-dreaming device from Inception

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Doctorin' The Tardis

The Sci-Fi Gene welcomes Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor, and looks forward to finding out just how this highly talented actress interprets this unique TV role. Whittaker is best known for her role in Broadchurch but also appeared in Joe Cornish's low budget sci-fi Attack The Block, reviewed here, alongside a certain John Boyega who would incidentally be an excellent choice for the 14th Doctor.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Tendril Is The Night [Review: The Void]

When policeman Daniel Carter finds a wounded man in the road and drives him to a nearby hospital, he and the other inhabitants find themselves trapped, surrounded by monks with triangular hoods and at the mercy of whatever is already inside.

The Void is a Canadian horror movie, made on an Indiegogo budget and released in 2016. It's an original story but heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, demonstrating everything that makes a good Lovecraft horror. It's not just about the tentacles, you know:
  • Life from another dimension
  • Science confounded by the supernatural
  • Contact leads to insanity
  • A cult of murderous human worshippers
  • And yes, it's still mostly about the tentacles...

Performances are great, particularly from Aaron Poole and Kathleen Munroe. The film relies heavily on special effects rather than visual effects for the creature scenes, these are impressively gruesome and a lot of fun, channeling John Carpenter's The Thing and other classics. I have nothing against CGI. Nothing! But I have great respect for the art of the special effect and it can lead to a film with quite a different look and feel, something I also found when I watched the indie sci-fi film Hunter Prey, reviewed here.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Pitch Black [Review: Daughter Of Eden]

Daughter Of Eden completes Chris Beckett's trilogy about the tribe of humans descended from two stranded astronauts on the alien world of Eden. Beginning partway through the events of Mother Of Eden, this novel is narrated entirely by Starlight's childhood friend Angie. Whereas Starlight is assertive and physically beautiful, two characteristics that seem to have shaped her entire life, Angie is a batface - she has a severe form of harelip, one of the recurrent defects that result from Eden's tiny gene pool. Even amongst the likeable Jeffsfolk she is treated differently from others and must work harder to win affection or respect. As a result she accepts the offer to travel with a religious woman who claims to hear the voice of Mother Gela. Meanwhile the tension between the Johnfolk and Davidfolk is escalating towards an inevitable confrontation - when suddenly, a mysterious light appears in the sky above the circle of stones that marked the original landing site.

The Eden trilogy is full of powerful ideas about the nature of civilization, humanity and religion. It begins as a version of the Old Testament that grows from a human origin, and deals with themes such as morality and the introduction of killing into the world. Here the people of Eden finally come face to face with the gods of their religion - but what happens if your gods turn out to be human? This is unlikely to end well.

This final book was just as compelling and difficult to put down as Dark Eden and Mother Of Eden, although the story structure is slightly harder to follow - instead of sequential accounts from different characters, the narrative jumps backward and forward between different times in Angie's life. The book ties up loose ends everywhere, filling in the gaps in the colonists' mythology and constantly fascinating the reader with even more details of the indigenous life
of Eden.

In addition to the three novels of the trilogy, the story of the founders Angela and Tommy is told in the short story "Dark Eden" which is published in "The Turing Test", an anthology of Chris Beckett's short stories.

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Dark Is Rising [Review: Mother of Eden]

Several generations after John Redlantern and his followers left the Circle to find new places to live, John's own story has become part of the accumulating mythology of Eden, and the colony has become divided into two main tribes - the adventurous Johnfolk who and the conservative Davidfolk who still wait by the circle of stones for the promised return of the Landing Veekle and the godlike figure of Angela or Mother Gela.

The second of Chris Beckett's trilogy of novels set on Eden focusses on Starlight Brooking, a woman of a smaller tribe descended from John Redlantern's clawfoot ally Jeff. Like Jeff, Starlight and her tribe are pacifists with a tradition of mindful meditation, living on a small island to avoid the skirmishes between Johnfolk and Davidfolk and building boats to trade with the mainland. However on one visit Starlight encounters Greenstone, the son of the leader of the Johnfolk, and travels back with him to become his bride.

The society of Eden has changed in ways foreshadowed by the events of the first novel. Forms of money are appearing. The Johnfolk have discovered metal and moved forward into a bronze age with better weapons and armour, along with other discoveries such as doors and houses, servants and slaves and the division into "big" and "little" people. As the handed-down stories of Earth become cloudier the religion that has formed around Angela has become stronger, and the societies of both Johnfolk and Davidfolk have shifted towards male domination and rule of the strongest. Starlight's new family are powerful but must constantly scheme to remain in control, knowing that they will be killed by their rivals if they fail. Meanwhile women are persecuted for spreading the Secret Story, advice supposedly passed down by Mother Gela to her female children teaching them about equality and the dangers of men who "believe the story is all about them." Eden is darker than ever and this novel introduces themes of power and sexual politics on a personal and societal level, while continuing to dissect the darker side of religion.

I found both Dark Eden and Mother of Eden to be compelling and addictive reads. The writing is very high quality and is capable of shocking the reader at times - punches are not pulled. Starlight's experiences with the Johnfolk are reminiscent of A Song Of Ice And Fire, and the writing style is similar in some ways, particularly the chapters narrated by different characters. while the setting of Eden reminded me of the Human Beings of Stephen Baxter's Flux, another tribe clinging on to their sense of humanity in an environment utterly different from Earth.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Darkness Falls [Review: Dark Eden]

The people of Eden live in simple shelters surrounding a circle of stones where, only five generations earlier, their ancestors arrived from Earth in a stolen starship. The entire tribe is descended from two Earth astronauts - Tommy and Angela - who remained behind on the planet while the other three attempted to return, according to the True Story re-enacted by the children every year. The colonists are able to eat many of the local lifeforms but they are living in a small pocket of warmth and life within a crater, surrounded by cold mountain walls, and as more children are born the food is already becoming scarce.

Dark Eden is the first of Chris Beckett's trilogy set on the sunless world of Eden, located across the galaxy and reachable only by a physics-defying starship that took a generation to build. While many characters are introduced, the novel centres on John Redlantern, a restless young man who chooses to leave the Circle to seek new sources of food, defying the wisdom of the elders who insist on living within reach of the landing site so that they can be found when rescue comes. 

The novel explores the way that historical events can grow into mythology or religion, as well as the inevitable battles between change and the status quo, and the difficulty in keeping to a well-intentioned moral system. In the process two worlds are created in deep convincing detail - the alien ecosystem of Eden, with bioluminous lifeforms all dependent on the "trees" that constantly pump up heat from the core of the planet; and the society of the humans with their Earth beliefs, their simple morals, child-like language and genetics - due to the small and incestuous gene-pool, genetic defects such as "batfaces" (cleft palate) and "clawfeet" recur in each generation. The title is apt - this is truly a dark vision of a desperate society.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Life Will Find A Way [Review: Life]

The crew of the International Space Station retrieve a capsule from Mars, completing a sample return mission and bringing a small quantity of soil into their orbital laboratory. The sample contains what appears to be Martian microbes - but are they dead or can they be revived? And should they?

Life is at heart a surprisingly traditional creature feature, perhaps even a tribute to classic films such as Alien, The Blob or even Roger Corman's Little Shop Of Horrors. There's a creature who grows in power and intelligence as it hunts down the humans who had the hubris to summon it into existence. The only truly original aspect of this movie is the setting, with the ISS re-imagined as the perfect modern-day haunted house - labyrinthine, claustrophobic, vulnerable and disorientating due to zero-gravity. The creature is also well-designed, developing from scene to scene like a Martian Audrey Two, and it definitely feels alien, although there's little attempt to explain its biology or evolution.

The only missing cliche is the kid who nobody believes when he tries to warn them - but since the Thermal Curtain Failure debacle of 1986 and subsequent abandonment of the Jinx robotics programme I don't think we're going to see any more children in low Earth orbit for some time. So instead we have to make do with the somewhat childish medical officer David, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and the excellent multi-ethnic cast playing his fellow astronauts and cosmonauts, led by Olga Dihovichnaya as the station's Russian commander.

I enjoyed the thrills, shocks and clever moments of this movie, and I think it was well casted and acted, with a great setting. The ending is a bit predictable but I'll let that go for now. I would still recommend it to horror fans. It's a little gory in places so other cinemagoers may wish to exercise caution. This is however a popcorn movie - other than the themes of hubris, bravery and self-sacrifice common to the genre it's not really about anything and doesn't have anything particularly profound to say.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

C'est un petit pas pour un homme [Review: From The Earth To The Moon]

The members of the Baltimore Gun Club, bitterly disappointed by the outbreak of peace seek a new outlet for their passion - a cannon that will fire a shot to the Moon. Buoyed by public support across the US and around the world they defeat obstacle after obstacle in their quest to build and fire the cannon - until they are thrown an even greater challenge by a French explorer Michel Ardan who wishes to ride inside the shot and emigrate to the Moon, along with Barbicane, the President of the Gun Club and his lifelong nemesis Nicholls.

Jules Verne's novel, De la Terre à la Lune, was written in 1865, almost exactly 100 years before the actual Moon landing. The novel deals with the engineering and human challenges in designing, constructing and preparing the cannon, leading to the firing and then the voyage itself which is the subject of the sequel, Around The Moon. Verne is neither the first nor the only writer to send fictional astronauts to the Moon but most of these lunar romances rely on magical or unexplained methods of transport - Verne's genius was to come up with a credible means of getting there, indeed the novel could almost be used as an engineering manual for aspiring rocketeers. Amongst the challenges faced by the engineers include the shape, size and construction of the cannon and shell, the position, date and timing of the shot, mediating the shock of launch to prevent the crew from being crushed, providing air, water, heat and food to the crew, slowing the craft for landing, and how to monitor the voyage and landing from Earth. One challenge that is simply thrown aside is that of returning the astronauts - the plan is for a one-way trip.

Verne also takes on scientific uncertainties - the crew hope to find an atmosphere and water on the moon, but this is by no means certain as the authorities of the time held differing views, played out in Michel's debate with Nicholls.

Verne notably criticised H.G.Wells' novel, The First Men In The Moon written in 1901, a few years before Verne's death, for exactly this reason - Wells' voyage is made possible by a fantastic element (the gravity-defying Cavorite). However to give Wells his credit, when a few years earlier in 1897 he wrote of his Martians crossing the expanses of space to wage war on Earth, they did so in cylinders fired from a gun.

Like many science fiction writers Verne never saw his work as a prediction of the future - he is on record as saying that the ideas featured in his books are there to facilitate his character's journeys - for example, imagining a steerable hot air balloon as a way for his heroes to traverse the whole of Africa. Many of Verne's novels depict physical journeys and are full of speculative vehicles from floating islands to the formidable Nautilus.

However, intentional or not, when we compare Verne's novel to the actual NASA moon shot a century later, Verne was absolutely right about a lot of things:
  • Military engineering drives the space programme
  • The launch site in Florida, together with the intense competition between states to host the enterprise
  • The national and international excitement that follows the mission and turns its' figureheads into celebrities
  • The three-man crew
  • The 3-day voyage
Some aspects don't quite ring true in the same way - whoever heard of Americans obsessed with guns? Verne was also a little optimistic with the price-tag as well - his cost estimate is for 5 million dollars, whereas the Apollo programme cost about 25 billion. Of course, coming in a century late and five thousand times the original budget isn't so unusual for the space programme...

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Top Three Songs Inspired By Scientific Equations

"The Drake Equation" Helion Prime In third place: Helion Prime are a metal band who use science and sci-fi imagery the way other bands use Satanism. So this is a song about the Drake Equation. While I love the song, it only gets the bronze for two reasons: there's no video yet, and they don't actually sing the equation. With thanks to Big D of the Assorted Thoughts blog who first introduced me to Helion Prime.

"Mandelbrot Set" Jonathan Coulton In second place: Lyrics sadly became outdated as Benoit Mandelbrot passed away in 2010, but still... Here's a chalk-based animation that illustrates the song nicely, although it's a shortened version. Or if you prefer, there are about a million YouTube videos of fractal animations set to the song. Bonus points for spelling out the equation. Bonus points subsequently deducted as, obviously, the equation used in the song actually describes the Julia Set. D'oh...

"The First and Second Laws Of Thermodynamics" Flanders and Swann And the winner is: Flanders and Swann, those rapscallion 50s and 60s music hall entertainers. Michael and Donald were no strangers to science - songs about the mating habits of hippopotami made them the Discovery Channel of their day, while their revelations about the spiral growth of the honeysuckle (right-handed) and the bindweed (left-handed) were worthy of a PhD. Bonus points for spelling out and actually understanding the Laws, and for squeezing in the Third Law as well. There's no actual video of Flanders and Swann performing this so here's a version accompanied by random pictures and some bad jokes from teachers. Polar! Lol.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Rocky Horror Evolution Centipede Hotel California Show [Review: A Cure For Wellness]

Received my invitation to the Evil Medical School reunion. Think I'll give it a miss this year - it would just be too embarrassing meeting up with classmates Dr. Evil, Dr. Heiter and Dr. Ledgard, and having to admit I've still not achieved anything on a par with their nefariousness.

Some of the comments below could be considered minor spoilers. Read on at your peril.

Dr. Volmer, head of the Volmer Institute, would fare better in comparison, although he's still no Dr. Frank'n'Furter. His institute, an aquatherapy centre for rich guilt-stricken investment bankers and suchlike hidden in the Swiss mountains that hides a sinister history and even more sinister purpose, is the setting for A Cure For Wellness directed by Gore Verbinski. Ambitious young banker Lockheart is sent there to bring back a senior partner currently "taking the waters" but discovers what first appears to be a strict and eccentric health regime but develops into a gothic myth.

A Cure For Wellness is that rare thing - a mainstream Hollywood horror movie that really goes there. I thought some early scenes were tame and predictable, but by the final third of the movie I was on the edge of my seat and even had to cover my eyes once or twice, which is definitely not consistent with my backstory.

This is partly due to some superb worldbuilding and cinematography - the Volmer Institute with it's maze-like steam rooms, swimming pools, green coridoors and treatment rooms is a beautiful example of the creepy hospital subgenre. Cast is also mostly excellent, headed by Dane Dehaan as Lockheart and the aptly named Mia Goth as mysterious orphan and "special case" Hannah. I hope that's a screen name. Jason Isaacs as Dr. Volmer mostly hits the right note and is convincing as a threat, but sometimes veers a little towards pantomime villain. Supporting cast are excellent and it's nice to see an ensemble covering the whole age range rather than just pretty young students (yes, The Sand, I'm looking at you). Celia Imrie as the puzzle-obsessed Victoria stands out.

This film reminded me of other creepy-hospital or medical horror films, and there may be some deliberate tributes going on here. This does mean that at least the first third of the film feels unoriginal. The setting is three parts Rocky Horror to one part Hotel California - it's spelled out to Lockheart over and over that no-one ever leaves. Unnecessary. As well as Rocky Horror, at its best the film channels The Skin I Live In or Evolution, but there's also a hint of The Human Centipede, and even one or two scenes harking back to The Dentist. As with Evolution, there's a creature element; but where Evolution is a French Japanese puzzle-box to be unpacked slowly, here the creature's role in the horror is spelled out in detail and perhaps shoved down the viewer's throat - this is not an understated or subtle film. The last part of the film switches from horror a little too far into action - Lockheart almost becomes a martial arts-type hero at one point, which jars a little as there's no prior evidence his yuppie character has any fighting ability.

Overall this film is flawed in a few places but it's still a well-crafted horror movie - proof that Hollywood is still capable of creating something artistic, scary and utterly bonkers.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Boy You Turnin' Me [Review: Upside Down]

Adam and Eden, the hero and heroine of French film “Upside Down” are star-crossed lovers, the poor boy and the rich girl. Just like Romeo and Juliet, Laura and Alec or Megashark and Giant Octopus, they live in different worlds – no, they literally live in different worlds, one suspended above the other and each with its’ own gravity. 

When Adam (Jim Sturgess) last saw Eden (Kirsten Dunst) she was falling upwards towards her own world and to her death.  Years later, when Adam discovers that Eden is still alive and working for Transcorp, a mysterious company whose offices link the two worlds, he comes up with a crazy plan to win her back.

Adam and Eden strive to escape the limitations of their societies and geometries, so Upside Down is Science Fiction.

“Upside Down” tells a simple and rather traditional story of love across the class divide, with a crude and obvious use of metaphor. Good performances from Sturgess and Dunst can’t cover over the lack of depth in the writing. I don’t care. Like Tron: Legacy, Mad Max: Fury Road and Daybreakers, this film is an example of near-perfect worldbuilding. It would work with or without the humans, although arguably any film where Kirsten Dunst kisses someone upside down is by definition a good film. The genius of “Upside Down” is the extraordinary environment of the twin worlds. It's thought out, designed and filmed in a way that every scene is visually striking, and every detail of every scene tells a chapter of the story, the history of the characters and their societies - a story far more rich and nuanced than the melodramatic script.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Countdown [Review: Hidden Figures]

“Hidden Figures” tells the story of three mathematicians who became crucial to the US space programme, and who faced down sexists and racists in the segregated America of the 1960s along the way. The three lead characters, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, all strived to escape the limitations of what to all intents and purposes was a dystopian society, so “Hidden Figures” is Science Fiction – it just happens to be true as well.

This film could have been as bleak or serious as its’ subject matter. However the obstacles faced by Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson, superb in “Person of Interest”) and her fellow “computers” would not be out of place in a Kafka play or a Douglas Adams novel. Appropriately the film is light and humorous in places, although there’s plenty of black humour too. It works - it's easy to ridicule and show up the behaviour of the bigots, played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst, while the lighter moments show Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson as human. They were never woad-painted freedom fighters, rather they fought and won their battles with their brains, sticking it to the Man from the inside, and by using humour the film does the same.