Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Super-Mega-Ultra-Retarded Snake

OK SciFi, we get it. You love giant snakes. I understand. I love giant snakes too. Well, not those kind of giant snakes... Anyway, I think that we need to have an intervention for the SciFi channel.

I have seen interventions on TV (OK I have seen commercials for interventions on TV, it's almost the same), and I think we can do it. True, those shows are about trailer-park folk in need of a bath that does not involve either gin or heroine, but seriously can you think of a better candidate in Science Fiction (besides Harlan Ellison, I doubt we could stage an intervention on his ego-abuse)? We need to lock the SciFi channel in a room with a bunch of really annoying fans and tell it how much we love it, but it has to quit.

For those confused by why I am making this bold plan, you have obviously not seen the commercials for the stunning cinematic masterpiece that is MEGA SNAKE! Seriously, that is the title. Watching the commercials it seems like a cross between the Anaconda movie and Gremlins since apparently if you feed snakes live food, they turn into 50 foot long monsters. I think I saw that on Wikipedia, so it must be true.


This is brilliant: we cannot get people to take Masters of Science Fiction (the recent and brief short form adaptations of classic works of SF) seriously, so let's try another snake movie. Hey, you know what would make this film even better Lance Henrickson, he's not doing anything since Millennium went off the air. It will be like Sasquatch Mountain only with snakes! This entire thought process hurts my brains.

I remember a time when there were actual science fiction stories that did not need a giant snake (or komodo dragon, or manticore, or minotaur, or hydra, or (dare I say it) slavering monster). I remember when there was actual science in these films. I remember when the SciFi channel showed SciFi movies, and not horror movies (oh, and wrestling, let's not forget the wrestling).

SciFi channel: We love you. Stop the madness. Bring back Harry Dresden. Bring back Farscape. Bring back anything, just please enough of the monster flicks!

Monday, August 27, 2007

The End of an Era

August has brought us the last of the Dune novels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. The series, which was started by Frank Herbert (father of Brian) in 1965, has spawned over 15 books, one movie (the famous David Lynch Dune), two mini-series (SciFi Channel's Frank Herbert's Dune and Children of Dune), documentaries, discussions, four video games, board games, role-playing games, toys (from the David Lynch production), and countless pieces of fan fiction. Widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of science fiction ever produced, Dune is, was, and ever shall be a beloved part of my personal collection.

My experience with Dune started with the David Lynch movie, which I recall having seen in all its chopped-up glory on WPIX-NY Channel 11 when I was but a lad. WPIX had a habit of showing lots of SF films before it became the WB network, and many of my favorites were oft seen there (Flash Gordon was a regular Saturday Afternoon feature flick, as were the Planet of the Apes movies and the various Star Trek films). I digress, though.

I remember watching the movie and thinking that it was perhaps the coolest thing I had ever seen. Body shields, sonic weapons, great costumes, great acting, and an awe-inspiringly vast scope made this production stand out in my mind. So great was my adoration of the film that I spent $60.00 for the VHS version (for those who recall, the 80's were a time when buying videos was cost prohibitive and it took me the better part of a year to save for it with my $5/week allowance).

My local library did not have the book, and this was in the days when the inter-library loan system was in its infancy and could only be done with six forms filled out in triplicate and letters from the Pope and Congress. Luckily I was eventually able to find a copy at the (now defunct) Pyramid Booksellers in Westwood, NJ. I read Dune in three days, then went back and re-read it (taking my time). It was hard to imagine how much they had left out of that film. Needless to say, I was hooked.

For some reason I cannot fathom, my mother had copies of Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune (all of which were in terrible shape), so I tore through those. I almost gave up with God Emperor, and in fact it took me 10 years before I finally picked up Heretics of Dune and finally Chapterhouse: Dune. As with many readers, I was taken aback by the size and shape of what was going on, and I could not see how Herbert was going to make any of this make sense. Like a passenger on a Guild heighliner, I had to trust the capabilities of the Navigator and hope I would get to where I was going.

When the prequels came out in 1999, I was prepared for the worst. I knew Kevin J. Anderson as a hack who was busy ruining Star Wars, and I held no hope that he was not about to royally screw up my favorite franchise as well. Luckily for me, Kevin J. Anderson's input seems to have been tempered by Brian Herbert's skills, and the fact that they were working off of notes and directives from Frank Herbert's safety deposit box. The three prequels were interesting reads, though I did not like them nearly as much as the original material. The next batch of prequels, though, knocked my socks off!

When The Butlerian Jihad came out in 2002, I was expecting it to be decent, but not terribly great. Boy was I surprised to find it was as good as the original Dune though in markedly different ways. It started filling in a number of blank spaces, and as the series progressed, I found myself suddenly knowing more and more about how the universe of the time of Shaddam Corrino, Vladimir Harkonnen, and Leto Atreides came to be. It was a great ride, and I enjoyed it all (though I thought that the origin of the Harkonnen/Atreides feud was a bit silly).

Last, but certainly not least, came the final chapters in the Dune saga. Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune pick up the story where Chapterhouse: Dune left off. The last two books read almost like Frank wrote them himself, with minimal input from Kevin J. Anderson or Brian Herbert. Finally we know why it all came to pass. Finally we know how it all links together. Frank Herbert's grand vision is now complete, and, like the aforementioned Navigator, he has brought us to the end of the journey safe and sound.

The spice must flow!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Paging Mr. Nyarlathotep, Paging Mr... Gaagh!

For those unfamiliar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, I would provide a word of warning. In the mouth of madness lie monsters, and likely bad teeth and a few cavities. At least that is what one would assume when reading the imaginative works of Charles Stross, a Scottish science fiction writer whose short stories and novels have garnered numerous award nominations.

Like the famous HBO movies Cast a Deadly Spell and Witch Hunt Charles Stross imagines a world wherein the gibbering terrors from beyond the imaginings of men, generally referred to as Old Ones, and the arcane principles that summon them, are real. Whereas the earlier films are set in the 1940's, Stross uses the computer age as the backdrop for his horror/thrillers.

The Atrocity Archive set the stage for us when it introduced the concept of the Laundry, a super-secret British Intelligence unit dealing with the mathematic insanity of the Turing-Lovecraft Theorum of universally applied mathematics (i.e. at the end of the long chain of complex equations something eats your brain). The main character, Bob Howard, is a tech geek whose sole purpose is to exorcise the summoned creatures from the Laundry's internal network servers (i.e. 'this LAN is clean'). Although he wants a field commission to help keep the world safe from the many angled ones, Bob is really an IT guy at heart and would be just as happy de-gaussing the wiring at the Laundry as getting into shootouts with the Black Chamber and their minions.

The Jennifer Morgue is even better. Imagine this if you will: James Bond/Cthulu/Hackers crossover. That's right. Go buy it now!!!! Even better than the first book, The Jennifer Morgue explores the concept of archetype-casting and forcing people into well known molds. The unfortunate side-effect is the brain-eating monsters from beyond that wait to devour the souls of the few who are actively participating in the endeavor. Small price to pay, really. Seriously, though, Charles Stross' irrepressible writing style and brilliant story combine to craft a truly brilliant piece of workmanship.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Star light, star bright

For those who missed it, Stardust came out last weekend. As usual, I am always a bit behind with getting to see movies, so I only got to see it this past weekend, but I was well prepared for a great time thanks to several friends' reviews.

Unlike some folks, I will leave a detailed dissection of the plot out of my review and simply say that this movie is a stunning and rich spectacle. One friend of mine referred to this as "This generation's Princess Bride" and I have to say that is an apt description. Stardust is an intelligent, witty, and wise production that explores the real world through the interface of a smartly crafted fantasy realm.

While I was suitably impressed by the visuals, for me it is always about the story, the acting, and the direction (after all, even dreadful movies have great visual sequences these days thanks to ever cheaper CGI effects). Whether you were looking at the big names or the small ones, the actors did a bang-up job in this film. Notable performance from Michelle Pfeiffer, Peter O'Toole, and Robert DiNero polish up the equally well done works of the rest of the cast. Physical comedy melds seamlessly with dry British wit, and even the sweet scenes of romance and love are not overdone.

I highly recommend this film, and, given that it was written by Neil Gaiman, the novel as well.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Space Operetta

I have already griped about the dismal failure that was the first episode of Flash Gordon, but I have to wonder if the idea of a true space opera-style show is dead. SF movies have big budgets, generate huge revenues, and have massive staying power, so I have to wonder why TV shows cannot seem to get the same push. As we all know, it is the strength of the mighty advertising dollar, but the question is 'Why don't advertisers see the potential for revenue in a good SF TV show that they do in an SF movie?'

Battlestar Galactica (love it or hate it) has shown us that a high concept space opera can work on the small screen. Its viewership is high, it has a massive following at home and abroad, and it has garnered critical praise from all corners. Why is it, then, that the advertisers treat it as though it were a blind beggar with leprosy and a bad case of halitosis? The answer is that for some reason they don't believe that SF fans have any real disposable income. This seems odd when you look at how much most SF fans spend on their hobbies.

At any rate, it seems that the rumored Honor Harrington TV series may never come to fruition, and that we will be stuck in a rut of mediocre SF for a while with the close of BSG coming up. Luckily, there are a number of pseudo-real shows that are really good (Heroes, The Dresden Files, Eureka), and these may fill up the time while we wait for someone to bring the next great space opera to the small screen. I just pray that the prospective Star Wars TV shows are not as bad as I fear.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

That Sweet, Sweet Music

As a satellite radio subscriber, I am constantly surprised by the variety of choices that I have. What does this have to do with SF, you may wonder. Well, it is simple, XM has a channel devoted to movie scores and cinema, and they seem to have a strong fondness for the science fiction.

Cinemagic is an interesting little channel. They play clips from our favorite films, and then sections of film score. It is quite a bit of fun trying to determine what film is on simply from the music and snatches of dialog. Actually, though, there are two things about Cinemagic that really grab my attention, and they are Reel Time and Hi-Fi/Sci-Fi.

Reel time is a program where directors and notable Hollywood figures go on for an interview about their career and their most recent project. Generally the station plays about 5 minutes of interview, then a long clip (usually 2-3 minutes) of dialog from the film, and then a bit of music. It is a fun and educational time for all, and I have managed to hear a lot of news about projects that would not normally have crossed my radar.

Hi-Fi/Sci-Fi is a cool show that highlights only genre movies (though some might debate their choices from time to time). It is kind of fun to hear favorite films and lines come across with well-remembered snatches of music. Usually dedicated to a theme, the Hi-Fi/Sci-Fi show also peppers the dialog clips and music with bits of SF trivia.

While I am spending some time chatting about the programming, it might be pointed out that Satellite Radio itself has origins in Science Fiction (Arthur C. Clarke predicted the concept fairly accurately). As technology progresses, and the meme spreads, it is very easy to see how this will become a great influence on the way we perceive radio. With its automatic inclusion in every new automobile, with free months of listening and inexpensive rates, more and more people will drift into the ranks of the satellite-enabled listeners. Is it possible that we are looking at the beginning of the end for terrestrial radio? Who knows...

Monday, August 13, 2007

'Flash' in the Pan

Far be it for me to criticize a new SciFi series before it really gets started, but was I the only one left cold by the series opener of Flash Gordon? It could have been bold, new, and adventurous, but instead it seemed kind of tepid. For a show I had been anticipating for some time, this one was a bit of a disappointment.

First you have Flash himself. Young, handsome, and virile, yes, butlacking an indefinable something. The actor did a credible job, but given the rather poor dialog and uninspired directing there was not much for him to do.

Dale Arden was almost a non-entity. Her impact on the episode was mainly to provide Flash with a wanna-be girl-friend reporter. The performance was listless and dull,and lacked anything resembling verve. Again, I blame the director here for not properly coaching the actors.

As dreadful as Dale Arden was, Dr. Hans Zarkov was even worse. A parody of a mad scientist, he serves as plot exposition and bumbling side kick, though nothing else. I cannot blame the Director so much as the writers in this case, though.

Ming the Merciless was just pathetic. This was the saddest excuse for an evil dictator that I have ever seen. Bad acting, bad direction, bad writing, and atrocious casting combined to make like the perfect storm to form a simply ridiculous performance. Give me a break, were no Asian actors available? Was Max von Sydow on vacation? This was pitiful!

The effects were ripped off from Sliders, so at least they did not seem too silly, and the Mongo City sets were actually pretty good, as was the costuming. The Princess Aura was not terrible, but they made a mistake in revealing her identity to the audience too early.

All in all, I give this show a D+, however I will continue watching in the hopes that it gets better. One can only hope.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Spectacular Summer

OK, so I admit that I usually don't see many films in the course of a year. This summer, though, I have managed to catch pretty much every important SF film that has hit the box office (often several weeks after the debut, but still better than past years).

Spider-man III was a very busy movie. I understand, from a story view, why there were so many things going on, but there were a lot of problems with this film. An on-going complaint with this franchise has been the constant killing off of major villains (though in the Green Goblin's case it was inevitable), but alas and alack, there is litle we can do about it.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer was a great film. I enjoyed the first F4 movie very much, and was pleased that they managed to juggle the various issues and sub-plots so well. A fun super-hero movie that captured the essence of the Fantastic Four quite well (the idea that they all want to live normal lives in spite of their powers).

The Transformers was a Michael Bay film. Actually, in spite of the fact that Michael Bay is better known for his visuals than for inspired acting direction or dialog, this film is witty, intelligent, and worth watching. The concept of how the Transformers look like mundane vehicles is demonstrated quite well in the film, even though a few scenes require you to put your brain on hold. All in all a solid recommendation on this one.

Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix did a great job with its material, but it seemed, somehow, flat. There were a lot of great moments in the film, and the character of Dolores Umbridge was well done, but the fact remains that they seemed to rush this film more than a bit, and most of the characters were given token appearances and little else.

The Simpsons Movie is technically not really SF, but I am going to include it anyway. All I can say is "Spider-pig, Spider-pig, does whatever a spider-pig does, can he climb on a web, not he can't, he's a pig, look out, here comes a spider-pig!"

The Bourne Ultimatum does not seem like a genre film, but since many believe that the Manchurian Candidate is a genre film, this must be also. My one issue with this film is the stupid jittery cameras. It is fine in action sequences, but the camera should not be bobbling all over the place during dramatic scenes as it is distracting, and looks like the film was done by incompetent day-laborers instead of truly professional camera people.

I still want to catch Stardust, Sunlight, Invasion (yes I know it is a remake, but I love the Invasion of the Body Snatchers and all of its remakes and will see this one), and a few other films on the big screen, and I hope to get the chance over the next few weeks.