Category: Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Welcome to the Space Show

Welcome to the Space Show showed at the Sydney Film Festival before it saw its wide release in Japan. It is an impressive piece of science fiction work, albeit not the same film that I was expecting from the synopsis provided by the program (but then, is a film ever the same as its listing?), and one that is perhaps overloaded with ideas towards the end, but I came out of it glad for having seen it.

When Twitter Fails, They Don’t

Earlier on Twitter I lamented the cult that has risen around Joss Whedon. Two people tried to slap me down for it. Then I remembered tonight that “The Trio” existed, and that this is a bad thing indeed and I was entirely right to be critical.

Twitter’s down, so I’m sharing it with you here.

Coming soon: Coraline (written but not edited; a good film!); the awful state of children’s film based on trailers (“Say Hello to my Little Friend!”); Funny People (when I find out when the damn thing is out here) and finally, GI Joe, which I’ve already lined up tickets for.

Greedo Shot First

The idea that Han Solo didn’t shoot first is poorly implemented in the Star War Special Edition. It seems that, in 1997, George Lucas got Han Solo confused with Indiana Jones: Han is a man primarily interested in personal gain who eventually gets his heart softened by the triplet allures of love, justice and deus ex machina; Indy is an adventurer who firmly believes that things belong in museums. Surely Han couldn’t do something so dirty as to shoot a dude unprovoked, Lucas must have thought. No, that’s not Han at all; the Han I know chills with moon teddy bears and claps around campfires with Billy Dee Williams[1].

This theory doesn’t entirely stand up in light of Indy simply shooting the guy who came at him with a scimitar in Raiders, but Lucas has never been known for his consistency, not even in the days when he had credibility as a film maker and story teller.

In light of Lucas’ waning, never before have the words “Greedo shot first” been so true, so weird, or so paradoxical: this insane piece from Charlie Jane Anders examines what would have happened in a bizarro world where movies are rendered pointless but also somehow …gooder? (That word is as real as this theory!)

This hypothetical draws so heavily on knowledge of the Star Wars universe and its characters that one wonders how it would have made any sense if it were the original version of events. The best part is that it heavily references the prequel trilogy, which is great for two reasons: it assumes that Lucas had actually thought of any of this stuff at the time he made A New Hope; and, having prepared three movies before A New Hope, Lucas decided to neglect all of that in favour of Greedo killing everyone who got in his way, thereby conquering the galaxy.

Actually, that does kind of make sense. Also worthy of note is the fact that Greedo somehow manages to get directly from being pulled aboard the Death Star to rescuing Leia, which I recall having been at least slightly difficult for a team of two seat-of-the-pants professionals, a farm boy and a pair of droids. But hey, he’s Greedo. He makes the trains run on time, he managed to wear a suit that was probably actually integrated into Vader’s biometric systems, and he restores peace to a galaxy which apparently has a murderous law of succession.

The real question is “why not?” I have no satisfactory answer. Greedo shot first.

[1] I am forever going to be inexplicably angry that the final shot of the Star Wars saga features Billy Dee Williams clapping with ewoks.

Macross Frontier

You may recall that I used to maintain an anime blog. Becoming disillusioned with modern trends in animation and fandom in general, I cut down my consumption and severed myself from all involvement with the community. Since then I’ve become a little more comfortable with my place and figure that it can’t hurt to say a little every once in a while.

These words exist in my own canon, and perhaps one day I’ll be able to participate on a world stage once more. I’m absorbing future anime writing into the body of for a less splintered presentation of my interests.

The original Macross series is one of my favourite of all time. The combination of civilian life with space warfare and compelling villains, with more emphasis on music than was usual at the time, made for a memorable series that has endured far longer than its arbitrary “brothers”, Southern Cross and Mospeada. Due to the convergence of several sets of circumstance, a couple of weeks ago I got the chance to watch the 25th anniversary series, 2007’s Macross Frontier.

My stance on Macross Frontier is complicated: sometimes I thought that it was a Macross series only cosmetically, and at others I thought that it captured key themes perfectly. Despite the lack of depth to the villainy and the frequently workmanlike action sequences, I think that overall it captured very well the essence of animated science fiction.

I do not consider the following to contain very specific spoilers, but I do comment on the outcome of the love triangle.

What’s next for literature’s enfant terrible, Jane Austen?

Are you familiar with Jane Austen? She’s a promising young female writer with a strong following, perhaps best known for her seminal work Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Turns out that she’s taking the idea of olde timey romance and turning it on its head! Her first gambit is the zeitgeist shattering book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which effortlessly shoehorns a zombie infestation and battle into a perfectly serviceable story about a group of women who must be married off at all costs to rich landowners in order to save their silly mother’s face. It must be successful, because I’ve seen at least three women reading it in public.

That’s what they’re all over these days: Edward Cullen and Mister Darcy. The latter, of course, is a master in the art of zombie killing and all around uptight jerkface with a heart of gold. So popular was this young upstart Austen’s genre bending that she managed to claw her way to number three on the New York Times’ best seller list before they realised that, as a woman, she didn’t have the agency to warrant such a spot.[1]

Austen has decided to follow her surprise success with the release of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, which will apparently be about two recently impoverished sisters who seek love and heartbreak … and something else that I think the title hints at but I’ve yet to get an actual idea of. Austen is moving up in the world, though: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is an infinitely catchier title that doesn’t even rely on the crutch of memes as a cynical grab for readers.

Okay, I just considered Jane Austen as an actual meme hound, even – gasp! – a channer, and my brain exploded. I was surprised to see so many copies of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in real life. In my estimation it’s the sort of book that you hear tell of online and then never again. Serious, unironic reading of a romantic classic spliced with zombie combat. I was surprised when I found out that this book is more than just a cash-in, because further reviews have revealed “(w)hat begins as a gimmick ends with renewed appreciation of the indomitable appeal of Austen’s language, characters, and situations…”[2]

It’s a relief, really. I’ve got nothing against messing about in the public domain: my mother and I enjoy a good bonnet drama, and this year the ABC televised Lost in Austen, a BBC miniseries about a woman who accidentally trades places with Elizabeth Bennet, “ruins” the story of Pride and Prejudice as it was supposed to happen, and falls in love with Mister Darcy herself after they both over what an arrogant prig he is.

It’s a knee jerk reaction to automatically think that zombies are a bad idea in this day and age, but one can’t really blame me. All of the cool things – pirates, monkeys, zombies, vampires, and ninja – have been spoiled by an internet hungry for something that I’m not entirely sure of. That this seems to be done with a sort of love and respect warms the cockles of my heart, and other such disposition changing cliché.

I didn’t have that instant reaction to Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. It may be that I’m getting less uptight in my old age, or it may be the fact that the open and gleeful stupidity of the title caught me entirely off guard. I’m not an Austen fanatic; in fact, I’ve never read one of her books, but I’m now comfortable in the knowledge that she’s in safe hands. Sometimes the appearance of stupidity can mask a deep and abiding love, and  one that the world is just a tiny bit better for.

[1] Blatant sexism meant in jest; this “article” is a bizarre mishmash of satire and whatnot. I thought this would be obvious but I don’t want people missing it and tearing me to pieces. Women continue to remain talented and valuable members of society.

[2]Donna Bowman, AV Club, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, April 15 2009

My God – it’s devoid of stars: Futurama to be recast?

Cliché image, yes, but iconic.

The news of Futurama’s return to television was a good thing, yes? If something worthless like Family Guy can claw its way back to prime time, surely a more deserving property like Futurama could be given another chance to shine?

The revival has hit a rather sour development with the release of a casting call sheet. When I saw the news on io9 I was prepared to discount it. Delving deeper and seeing that call sheet, however, is pretty damning. I’m expecting this to explode all over certain quadrants of the internet, and for good reason: Billy West, Katey Sagal, John DiMaggio, Phil LaMarr and Maurice LaMarche are the crew of Planet Express and the people of the universe at large. They are an inextricable part of the show.

This is not like Daniel Craig succeeding Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. This is like someone killing one of your loved ones and replacing them with an android: it looks exactly like your dear old Grandmama, but it lacks her distinct personality and sounds ever so slightly off; an impersonator; an insult to the memory of someone important to you. Did no one at Fox see Changeling?

I don’t see how Fox thinks they can get away with this. Part of the reason Futurama is coming back, perhaps even the entire reason, is that it has a following; people like Futurama. It has a strong and storied cast that endeared itself to audiences over 72 episodes and four movies (that I did not see) and it was genuinely funny a lot of the time.*
People who like Futurama like the cast, and anyone else is nothing more than a pale imitation. I understand replacing a voice actor for reasons of necessity:

  • Death (see: legacy characters like Mickey Mouse);
  • Retirement (see: Christine Cavanaugh);
  • They turn out to be a serial killer who has used their position to abduct fans at conventions and then murder them.

I can’t see a legitimate reason for replacing an entire, more than amply talented, ensemble (not to mention Tress MacNeille and Lauren Tom!).

“Money” is not a legitimate reason, because I can imagine that people – myself included – would not be keen to watch a Futurama that has been senselessly neutered, and therefore a large amount of the anticipated revenue stream will have died.

What is the point of watching a science fiction cartoon composed of strangers whom no one would bother ever allowing into their hearts? This is a question I ax in all sincerity: I mean, seriously, what the hell? This is arse-backwards creative philosophy. Who cares if these actors don’t write or animate the material? They are still their characters, and their job is more than simply standing in front of a microphone and speaking their lines. If your cartoon is good, then your actors are going to care about the characters they represent and that care is going to translate itself to the finished product.

The call sheet is particularly insulting:

“Descriptions of these established characters follow, along with links to clips of previous episodes for reference.”

(Emphasis mine)

Who established these characters? The fact that they’re providing clips of previous episodes for reference confirms that they’re not seeking a new direction: they’re searching for cut-price impersonators. It’s my impression that voice actors have a certain professional pride: who could honestly trample over the work of people who are plainly still capable of performing the work they’ve become known for?

Entirely apart from not understanding the situation, understanding why people get emotionally attached to a property, it seems that Fox don’t even understand that some people have sensitive ears and will not simply deafly accept a change.

People obsess over voice actors; they follow their work across the years. I do it in both cartoons and anime, as another one of my hobbies: when I saw a trailer for Secret of Monkey Island featuring LeChuck’s first mate, I said aloud “Hey, it’s Rob Paulsen!”- and it frustrates me to no end that I can’t find a cast list for the game to confirm my suspicions. This would not go unnoticed by weird hobbyists like me, and even less fanatic types would be bound to notice a replacement of the entire cast of a cartoon with a large following.

It’s particularly amazing that this would happen on a Matt Groening property. Does no one recall the multiple times that they have attempted to kill cast members of The Simpsons? Even The Simpsons remembered it, in largely unremarkable episode Homer to the Max:

Homer: Networks like animation ’cause they don’t have to pay the actors squat!

Ned:    Plus, they can replace them, and no one can tell the diddly-ifference!

They then summarily jerked around Maggie Roswell, who ended up paying for the privilege of appearing on the show (her pay cheque wouldn’t cover the cost of travel to recording). Marcia Mitzman-Gaven, her replacement, was probably a good voice actress in her own right, but as Maude Flanders and Helen Lovejoy she plainly sucked. They got around this problem by largely shutting Helen up and killing Maude in Alone Again, Natura-Diddly. Roswell is back now, but Maude is still dead.

Since then there has been a variety of industrial actions and talk of strikes, but the voice actors have continued to win out. I’ve heard The Simpsons is improving again (I haven’t particularly cared to find out), but for the longest time there the established cast was all it had going for it.
Futurama is plainly not the juggernaut that The Simpsons has proven to be, but there are clear ethical, professional and fanbase considerations that apply. I’d like to think that the Futurama fan base is strong enough to convince Fox that this is an awful decision and they’d better turn this ship around instead of charting unexplored and counter-productive territory.

*This is entirely not the time to confess that a while back I went through a listing of all of the episodes and only really appreciated about half of them, the third and fourth seasons largely, but not wholly, falling flat for me.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Movie)

The Harry Potter movie franchise is an odd duck: it’s not so much about movies as it is about the intellectual property. You expect a certain degree of something, and you generally receive it. After Christopher Columbus’s twee bogs of the first two, the films have improved in most every way, although of course they’ve never been an adequate substitute for the books, instead being a series of realisations of key scenes. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is no different, although my choice to view it in a cinema full of teenaged girls was.

This is a bad idea and I would not recommend it to anyone unless, of course, they find themselves somehow knee deep in fandom and anything approaching romance makes them titter. The movie itself is okay, though!

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

For the moment, imagine there’s a picture of Megan Fox’s boobs here.

Oh, there they are. Very good.

There is practically no purpose served by writing about Revenge of the Fallen, because it’s already been said. The bombast has been brought, and it has been good, from Roger Ebert’s “horrible experience of unbearable length” to the Awl’s “fall[ing] into a city sized Cuisinart” and io9’s argument of the film’s merit as a breakthrough piece of avant-garde movie making. I have a certain barometer in my office, a man of diplomatically different tastes to my own. Even he was unhappy with the film, thinking that Michael Bay should maybe have dialed it back a bit so that he could have an idea of what was happening. That said, he liked the twins, so we’re all doomed despite the little beams of hope that penetrate the dense canopy of hopelessness that is the modern cinema.

I have since learned to stop asking people what they thought of it because so many responses I have received have been depressing in their likeness: how “awesome” is a word that could ever be applied to this visual and narrative mess is entirely beyond my ken. One of my best friends informed me in a text that it was good, “not as good as [the] first but that often happens”. You can never really know a person …

The fact of the matter is that Revenge of the Fallen is so bad that after a time I started feeling nostalgic for the first movie, which is odd considering that I’ve spent the last two years bitching about it on street corners to whomever will grant me an audience. I don’t know if there’s such a strain as “Super Stockholm Syndrome”, whereby your present captor is so bad that you find yourself longing for the tender embrace of your last, but I think I got myself a case of that.

This movie gets so exponentially worse as it progresses that you long for the minutes when it was absolute shite rather than whatever expletive it evolves into. Sam’s mother ended up becoming a highlight of the movie, and she was really just crude and shrill up to that point. I’ll probably go to my grave not knowing what the point of the French interlude was, or why the audience hung on every word that Sam’s idiot parents spew forth from their gormless gullets.

I got the impression after a while that Megan Fox was the only person on the film actually trying, and her performance actually endeared me to an actress whom I traditionally see as an inexplicable holy grail for heterosexual men. When she started bouncing away from explosions in slow motion, I laughed legitimately for the first time. She brings a sort of warmth to the role of Mikaela (Mikaela … Bay?) that is lacking in the remainder of the movie, no matter how many times we see Shia LaBoeuf shed tears for his precious robot chums.

This was truly a schadenfreude experience for me, seeing it with a friend who thought that the first film was a masterpiece, without exaggeration. He ended up comparing Revenge of the Fallen to the Matrix sequels. My friend Tony declared that Dragonball Evolution was a better film, and we came out of that in a waking dream that we only shook an hour and a half later. I’ve also heard unfavourable comparisons to Speed Racer, which isn’t fair at all. Speed Racer tested credulity, challenging me to acknowledge and accept and at least try to understand its existence. Eventually I came to terms with it as something that should not exist but was awesome purely because it was able to gain a foothold in our dimension. I understand why Revenge of the Fallen was made, and it depresses the Hell out of me.

There’s probably some rider in my contract that says I have to go into more detail about the movie itself. You may have detected that I don’t really give a damn about this execrable excursion into the cinematic form, so it goes without saying that there will be spoilers.

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves: An Exercise in Everything Good

The craynarbians drank freely of their caffeel, spliced with slipsharp oil, for Circle’s sake …

I’m not normally much of a one to read fantasy or science fiction, with my toes only dipping as deep as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – special men, and special exceptions. It’s not a failing of the genre so much as it’s a failing of the self: I find so much of the material I’ve tried so dry that I haven’t been able to immerse myself much further than a few pages. Combine that with the authors’ tendencies to prolificacy, which makes it dang near impossible to find a place to start, and then in sequence, and it’s something that I generally stay clear of.

Let’s ignore entirely SF and fantasy writers’ other tendency, after their works get a bit long in the tooth: that of transforming their series into a collection of rape, incest and paedophilic fantasies – which is a wild generalisation, but common enough to note – and let me focus on something good.

The other week, browsing in my favourite “surprise” bookstore (there’s no point going there for anything specific, it’s a pot luck affair), I saw Stephen Hunt’s The Kingdom Beyond The Waves on the shelves. Intrigued by its cover, featuring a steampunk u-boat trailing an ancient diving suit, I meditated on the book and its promise of an archaeology professor seeking the lost civilisation of “Camlantis”. I didn’t buy it immediately, but rather came back a few days later and purchased it after the allure of a Victorian submarine could no longer be resisted.

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves turned out to be well worth it, but I had some initial misgivings. It soon became clear to me that this was not the first book that Hunt had written in this world. It turned out later that it’s a case of world and history sharing, rather than character sharing, but this still poses a problem because if you’re unprepared you can drown in terms for races and places and drinks that you’ve never heard of. Hunt is a good enough writer that soon enough you’ll realise that there are apparently a race of four armed crab people operating alongside humanity and – more importantly – “steammen” who subscribe to a voodoo like religion.

Once I’d figured all of this out, the book became one giant ball of “yes” for me. Hunt hits so many of my buttons that it’s almost as if he cut into my head and realised so much of the stuff I’ve always wanted and then overlaid it with things I never knew I was even allowed to want. Look at it like this: it’s kind of like Indiana Jones in a fantasy setting with crabs and robots. Mix this in with a traditional Atlantis/Laputa quest, add disgraced royalty reduced to swashbuckling beneath the sea and then season with an eccentric man of high standing who has a thousand false faces and one “true” one, and you have a great book. There are eventually three plot threads running at a time, and every time I reached a new one I’d be cursing because I wanted to know what was going to happen next in the last one. It’s a particularly vicious cycle, and one that can only be solved by continuing to read.

What does fantasy have to offer us? Lost technology is one of the greatest lynchpins: people operating machinery and other devices that they simply do not have the wherewithal to produce in their own context: relics of ages long gone. Hunt offers that here with the oil powered car of “Diesela-Khan”, not to mention the pure excellence that abides in the steammen and their feral siltempter enemies.

You also have people who “aren’t what they seem to be” and who, under Hunt’s tutelage, manage to be both exciting and surprising despite their obvious mystery: early in the book a blind man with awesome power manifests his awesome powers. Soon thereafter a blind man with uncanny sonar ability joins the u-boat’s crew. Coincidence? Perhaps. Perhaps not!

I should also mention that not only are we treated to steam powered robots, but steam powered robots who have made mortal enemies of thunder lizards. Yes, dinosaurs versus robots. I realise I sound like I’m being flippant here but all of this material works very well together and achieves precisely what it should do: it captured my imagination in a way that forced me to run to the final destination and find out precisely what was going on.

Hunt takes many old ideas, blends them together and creates something that is at once both compelling and familiar. I think that the reason a lot of people stick with genre writing of any sort is because they’re given something that is reassuring but hopefully also invigorating, something that reminds them why they follow whatever it is they follow in the first place (for crime, for instance see Ian Rankin’s Rebus books). Even now, reading through Terry Pratchett’s books again, I’m frequently floored by paragraphs of insight or turns of phrase that resonate deep in my core, and have for the twelve years that I’ve been reading his work.
The Kingdom Beyond the Waves is the second of what presently stands at three books. I’ve only just barely touched on what makes the book so good, but I think it’s clear that I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Star Trek (2009)

Again, I find myself feeling like a traitor, a stranger in a strange land: I’ve seen a franchise film in a franchise that I’ve forever been indifferent to. Star Trek is a franchise I was never really the right age to get into, and prior to JJ Abrams’ latest outing I’d only seen Generations at the cinema and that one where Data swears (that’s really all I remember of that particular title).

I’ve had a rough few weeks at the cinema. I wanted something good that I could watch without wanting to tear somebody’s eyes out. I got precisely that from Star Trek. I was so grateful for the quality of the experience that tears sprang to my eyes a few times. It was just that beautiful.

It was so well done that, after saying “Eric Bana was the villain?”, Raymond was then heard to remark “the characters were good”. They are. Star Trek is essentially a character driven film with a more than working story that effectively sets up a new Trek continuity in a wholly accessible way. I know that a lot of people are going to avoid it by virtue of it being Star Trek, but they’re doing themselves a grave disservice. I’ve ran into so many people who have loved Wolverine, though, that I simply don’t know what to think of society anymore.

Basically: watch Star Trek.