Thursday, November 25, 2021

Reflections on STRIKE TEAM ALPHA, 30-Odd Years Later

Staying over at my grandparents' house when I was a child in the early 1990s, I found my uncle's trove of 1970s and 1980s geekdom. We're talking Doctor Who novels (I specifically remember Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion), Dragon magazine, etc. And in particular a lot of tabletop war games, including Strike Team Alpha from 1978. That one was my personal favorite, largely because they had a dinosaur-like antagonist race called the T'Rana. Uncle John eventually let me take it home, but I misplaced it somewhere in my parents' house.

Well, after years of sporadically looking for a new copy (including finding and calling up the original creator, who sent me some pictures of game-manual artwork), I found one on eBay and ordered it (as part of a two-pack with Full Thrust, a British space-fleet tabletop game that's still in production today). Although I don't really like playing tabletop wargames, I do really enjoy the lore and I do remember liking Strike Team Alpha's storyline.

So on this merry Thanksgiving, I got the manual out of the plastic sleeve they sent it in and re-read it for the first time in close to 30 years. How did it hold up? Well here goes...

*The backstory predates Warhammer 40,000's "every faction is evil" darkness by nine years. Earth demands a 95% tax rate from asteroid colonists due to the massive self-importance of the people, or at least their leadership ("Earth being the self-acknowledged center of the Universe decided that its asteroid colonies were not paying the proper respect to the birthplace of humanity"). Colonies that cannot or will not pay are wiped out, prompting the surviving colonists to convert their habitats into generation ships and bug out for another solar system. Earth's population, rather than realizing their own greed and tyranny provoked this and failing to acknowledge the sheer courage this took, call this "the Exodus of Cowards." And when the belters foolishly reveal where they've set up their new homes, the result is the founding of a united Earth government that launches an incredibly destructive war of conquest. Like seriously, three-quarters of the colonists on Tau Ceti are killed in the opening nuclear attack and the subsequent "War of Reclamation" is specifically described in the manual as "a war of terror." One gaming scenario involves miners being used for forced labor rebelling and offering the metals they'd mined to mercenaries to help them re-establish self-government. And that's before the wars with the cat-like Sha'anthra (who wage wars almost for fun with other species or with each other) and the T'Rana (who are genocidal Explosive Breeders) kick off. And the outlying colonists, though they're clearly higher on the moral food chain than the Terran Federation, will often fight each other.

*Per the above, although the back-story isn't preachy and annoying, you can tell the politics involved. Not only is the initial exodus from Sol driven by a greedy centralized government that taxes people literally to death, but the Terran colonial occupation regime explicitly forbids ownership of energy weapons by private citizens or even local governments. As a result, colonial militias are equipped with broadly late 20th or early 21st Century assault rifles, machine guns, etc. despite the presence of literally predatory alien races, human pirates, etc. And many of the scenarios the game-book provides include colonial rebels and their hired mercenaries fighting collaborators and the Terran Federation years afterward. Live free or die, indeed. The game came out not long before Ronald Reagan became the U.S. President and reflects some of the zeitgeist of that era.

*There's an apocryphal quote out there that says amateurs talk about tactics and dilettantes talk about strategy, but professionals talk about logistics. And the logistics make sense. The game emphasizes small-unit combat because supporting a large army across interstellar space would be a nightmare. The frontier colonies are underdeveloped (likely intentionally, to keep them from rebelling) and the core industrial worlds are so far away. The supplies and gear for super-advanced weaponry used by the Terran Federation's Marines would have be carried across light-years. So campaigns would need to be short and sharp.

*Speaking as someone who is now vastly more knowledgeable about history than when he was eight, the war with the T'Rana looks a lot like WWII, particularly the last madness of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We're talking an overly-aggressive enemy that fights to the death, literally eats their enemies, picks unnecessary fights that ultimately doom them, will destroy conquered territory rather than allow it to be liberated, etc. The end of the war looks like what would have happened if the U.S. had rejected both the atomic bomb and invading the Home Islands and decided to continue the conventional bombing/blockade...something that wouldn't work against something as large and self-sufficient as an entire star system. The T'Rana are (mostly) contained, but there are still raids.

*The game features tactical nuclear weapons, not just small nukes delivered by missile or aircraft that one might expect, but nuclear weapons deployed by individual soldiers. We're not just talking something like the infantry-operated Davy Crockett recoilless rifle that seems like something that would actually be useable (albeit unbelievably risky to due the fact a single infantryman or combat team could start a nuclear war), but nuclear hand grenades. The game was clearly devised in a time before precision-guided weapons that would allow more-accurate conventional weapons to be used in place of battlefield nukes. There are also fusion-beam weapons called "sunguns" that are sort of like flamethrowers, except one needs to wear anti-radiation protective gear.

*However, the game does feature something called a "battlerob," which is essentially a semiautonomous robotic light tank. Groups like Amnesty International have already spoken out against "killer robots," so this is something that's going to be a political issue in the future.

*The game also features rocket-propelled explosive ammunition, much like Warhammer 40,000's bolters.

*One of the play-testers was George Alec Effinger, a noted science fiction writer and winner of both Hugo and Nebula Awards.

*There are quite a number of typos in the manual.

Verdict: Still a fun world to blow things up in (and it was interesting that many concepts were used in later, more successful games), but finding a copy (and especially finding the Ral Partha figures designed for the game) is going to be a real pain. It'd be nice if there was licensed fiction set in this world (that's one reason I reached out to the original creator), but that seems a bit...unlikely at this point.

More Alternate History: The Latin Empire of Constantinople Thrives? The Yamato Goes Out Like A Boss?

Two more interesting alternate-history scenarios from the Internet's premiere forum. Just because I had myself banned from there six years ago (except for a brief drop-in back in mid-2017 to plug The Thing In The Woods) doesn't mean I can't read the public forums and funnel people to some worthy stories.

Yet Another Roman Empire: The Latin Empire of Constantinople-During the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the vindictive duke of Venice redirected the crusading army to Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. After various intrigues they ended up seizing control of the city, sacking it, and creating a Catholic empire controlling the city and its environs while Greek lords or Turkish invaders grabbed the rest. Although the "Latin Empire of Constantinople" was terminated after a century or so, many historians believe this was the point of no return for the Empire even though it didn't fall until 1453.

But what if the Catholic rulers of the "Latin Empire" had more outside support and were more competent? There are many historical cases of an empire ruled by a foreign conquest dynasty thriving, with Qing China being a major example. In this scenario, the intervention of France and Holy Roman Empire allow the Latin Empire to wipe out one of its major competitors early on, giving them a stronger territorial base and greater independence from the Italian merchant princes. The Latin Empire's ruling family also seeks to intermarry with the leaders of the various breakaway regions like Trebizond, playing the game of thrones in Anatolia.

How does it work out for them? You'll have to read the timeline to find out. :)

The Final Japanese Mass Naval Sortie: Operation Ten-Go-During the historical battle of Okinawa, the Japanese launched Operation Ten-Go, in which they dispatched the enormous battleship Yamato and much of their remaining surface fleet. The idea was that the ships would fight their way to Okinawa, beach themselves, and support the defenders with their massive guns until they were destroyed. In real life, the fleet was intercepted and utterly destroyed by air attack in one of history's great anti-climaxes. Here's a computer recreation of the Yamato's obliteration (complete with what might be gun-camera footage from the planes involved), complete with the absolutely ridiculous numbers of carrier-based aircraft that were brought to bear on the world's biggest battleship and its escorts.


However, in this scenario, the Japanese fleet is able to get more fuel from Singapore to Japan itself and dispatch more ships on the mission. This allows the Japanese fleet to weather the carrier attacks that in real history destroyed it and have one last surface engagement with the American battle line.

How does it go? Read to find out.

Monday, November 22, 2021

West African Socialist Federation? President H.P. Lovecraft? More Fun Alternate Timelines

The good old alternate history forum serves as another place where I can find content to blog about, even though I'm no longer a member. Here are a couple interesting ones I found over the last couple weeks.

African Yugoslavia: A West African Story-In this one, a mutiny by French African soldiers who haven't been paid for their World War II service kicks off a war of national independence in what's now Mali beginning in 1944. The French's heavy-handed response (in real life this resulted in a massacre) turns more and more of their African subjects--and in particular their African soldiers--against the government. Various rebel groups unite under a clique of intellectuals advocating "African socialism" who in real life became the leaders of independent Senegal, Mali, etc. Faced with a prolonged war in the interior of French West Africa when they've been bled white by World War II and fighting against rebels in Southeast Asia as well, the French ultimately cut their losses and concede independence. What results is an authoritarian left-leaning African federation that refuses to cooperate with the Soviet Union--as the title suggests, basically Yugoslavia in Africa. The author appears to be from West Africa himself and has very detailed knowledge of the history, cultures, and personalities involved, so it's a pretty interesting read.

The King In Yellow: The Presidency of H.P. Lovecraft-In real life, author H.P. Lovecraft was a socially-inept recluse and starving artist, but this is one of many things that change as a result of the dying Dowager Empress failing to poison her imprisoned reformist nephew, the legitimate Qing Emperor. He regains the throne and purges Manchu reactionaries, provoking a three-sided Chinese civil war and ultimately the partition of China. Ripples from these changes include a healthier and more prosperous family life for the young Lovecraft, who serves in this timeline's version of World War I, begins publishing his own political magazine, and ultimately runs for office. 

Although it would be easy to portray Lovecraft as essentially an American Hitler (after all, they were both starving artists in their younger days and extremely, extremely racist), Lovecraft's real-life views were a lot more complex, especially as he grew older. What happens is interesting--he governs as functionally a New Dealer, with a secret society/government agency whose member use his real-life fictional creations as titles (in deliberate mockery of the Ku Klux Klan) that serves as his muscle. There are a lot of in-jokes pertaining to Lovecraft's real-life fictional writing, although in this timeline that exists only as poetry books he writes to deal with wartime PTSD. The wider geopolitical situation is addition to a divided China, Mussolini stays a socialist and becomes dictator of Italy after WWI as part of a wider Communist bloc that includes the Soviet Union and a Communist Germany where historical Communist leader Rosa Luxembourg (who tried to overthrow the nascent Weimar Republic and ended up getting shot and thrown into a river) is ultimately succeeded by none other than real-life Nazi Joseph Goebbels. This is less bizarre than it sounds--earlier in his Nazi career, Goebbels was part of a more left-wing faction (which emphasized the "socialist" part of National Socialist) before throwing in with Hitler and his more right-wing clique that was supported by the military and the industrialists.

Oh, and Nikola Tesla is heavily involved in this world's Manhattan Project. :)

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Chamberlain Grows a Spine and a German-Soviet Truce: Two WWII Alternate Timelines

The premiere alternate history forum on the Internet once again doesn't disappoint, with two interesting new timelines for your entertainment. Both are set during World War II, one beginning before the war actually starts and the other in 1942 or so. Here goes...

Defying The Storm-The mighty CalBear, the gear-head who wrote a post on this blog about the failure of the Iraqi Army against ISIS and a book-length alternate history on how the Nazis taking Stalingrad could have extended the war into the 1950s, came up with a somewhat more subtle scenario. The divergence is that Dr. Morrell, Hitler's doctor who was feeding him all sorts of drugs, is killed by Allied bombing and Hitler's new doctor discovers just what his predecessor was doing. Hitler is weaned off the various drugs and is much more clear-headed and not so nuts. Meanwhile, Stalin develops a kidney infection, ignores his doctors' advice, and dies just as the Soviets win the Battle of Kursk. As a result, the vague talks of a separate peace in 1943 that didn't go anywhere result in a compromise peace. Germany keeps the Baltics and parts of Ukraine and returns some territory to the Soviets, who in turn resume their pre-war trade with Germany. There's also some puppy-kicking by both sides--the Germans agree to return all Soviet prisoners of war, with those who fought for the German army specifically identified, while the Soviets in turn deporting all Soviet Jews into German-occupied Poland (!!).

(Just in case we forgot just how malignant the totalitarians were. CalBear's book depicts what the Nazis wanted to do to the Russians if they won, which would have been vastly worse.)

Now Germany is able to rely once more on Soviet oil and grain and can move its forces into Italy to contest the Allied advance and into France to deter a large-scale invasion. But the United States is about to unleash the atomic bomb and neither the Germans nor the Soviets think this peace will last. Things are about to get very interesting. This whole scenario was inspired by this depiction of a naval battle between the 1945-level U.S. Navy and what the Germans could have had if they'd won--or at least not lost--the war in the East, so we might be seeing that scenario at some point.

(EDIT: Owing to some forum drama about whether the USSR would have made such a peace treaty, the thread may have been moved to a members-only section. If you click on the link above and you go to a log-in screen, that might be what happened.)

Munich Shuffle: 1938-1942-This one diverges from our history during the Sudetenland Crisis. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is injured in a plane crash upon returning from a diplomatic visit to Germany. This delays the Munich Conference until after the Nazis' infamous Kristallnacht, which disabuses Chamberlain's notions that Hitler could be reasoned with. Although Czechoslovakia cannot be saved, British rearmament starts earlier than in real history and this has consequences, most obviously when the Germans attack Norway. The Germans also don't get Czechoslovak assets in British banks, something that will likely have some negative economic consequences for them.

(The book Wages of Destruction describes just how much of the early Nazi economy was smoke-and-mirrors nonsense kept going by loot from their earliest conquests, like the Austrian and Czechoslovak gold reserves.)

So if you're interested in World War II and in particular things that could have gone differently, these are both worth a read.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Movie Review: THE BLOB (1988)

Once upon a time in elementary school, I was a regular reader of the Crestwood Monsters series, a series of children's books in which the tales of the classical movie monsters (Dracula, the Wolfman, etc.) were retold using black-and-white film stills as illustrations. One such book was centered around the 1950s horror film The Blob. I was aware there was a remake in the 1980s, but never got around to seeing it until Myopia Movies did an episode on it. I wasn't able to participate, but I saw it later when the episode came out.

The Plot

In a ski town in what's probably Colorado, a meteor lands, bringing with it a very hungry life-form that gets bigger the more it eats. A bunch of small-town types like earnest high school football player Paul (Donovan Leitch), cheerleader Meg (Shawnee Smith, who later went on to play Amanda in the Saw films), and biker delinquent Brian (Kevin Dillon) now have much bigger problems than who's going out with whom and who needs tools to work on their motorcycle.

The Good

*In a lot of horror movies, the characters make bad decisions in order to move the plot along. In this film, most of the characters make good decisions and the bad decisions make sense in context (i.e. Brian storms off because he has a big chip on his shoulder and feels disrespected). This makes the titular Blob especially dangerous--in order to deal with people who are mostly not complete fools, it has to be pretty cunning itself.

*Some characters who could be clichés have surprising depths and twists.

*The movie seriously goes for Anyone Can Die. Not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers, but they definitely avoid the horror-movie problem of the audience pretty much knowing who's going to die from early in the film.

*They use late 1980s practical effects and minimal if any CGI. It looks good. And definitely gross--they were going for ghastly here and it works.

*There are some laugh-out-loud moments, such as one of the football players figuring out who his date's father is.

The Bad

*There's a prolonged opening featuring shots of the town and then we cut to the high-school football game. There are two actual meet-cutes. There's no hint we're dealing with a threat from beyond until at least fifteen minutes in. Some of the stuff is necessary because it introduces the characters but it could stand to be tightened up, like the shots of the empty streets. If that was intended as some kind of fake-out to make the audience think the Blob had already eaten the town, it didn't work.

*There's a subplot involving the town's Catholic priest (at least I think he's supposed to be Catholic based on how he's dressed) that doesn't make a lot of sense and eats up too much screen time. Not going to go into detail for possible spoiler reasons, but his Biblical interpretations and later actions sound more like an End Times enthusiast Protestant, not a Catholic.

The Verdict

Well-made and definitely worth a watch. 8.5 out of 10.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Movie Review: DUNE (2021)

Thanks to an online group I'm in, I managed to get into an early screening of the 2021 adaptation of Frank Herbert's science fiction classic Dune. I'd seen the 1980s film (and even participated in a podcast about it) and the early 2000s miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel, so I was definitely looking forward to it getting the Lord of the Rings treatment.

(Seriously, owing to COVID concerns I said I'd see the movie in a spacesuit if I needed to.)

So how was it when I finally got to see it nearly a year after the original release date? Here we go...

The Plot

In a space empire thousands of years in the future, the noble House Atreides headed by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is granted the planet Arrakis as a fief by the Emperor Shaddam IV, taking it away from rival House Harkonnen headed by the nefarious Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). Arrakis is the sole source of the spice melange, which makes interstellar travel possible, and it is extraordinarily valuable. However, it's a trap--the jealous emperor seeks to destroy Duke Leto, whom he views as a rival.

Into this comes Leto's son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) by his Bene Gesserit (a sort of order of space witches) concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Trained by his mother in Bene Gesserit techniques like the commanding Voice, he's been having visions of the future, including the young woman Chani (Zendaya), a warrior from Arrakis's native Fremen people. 

When the emperor's nefarious plot goes into motion, will he be able to draw on the "desert power" envisioned by his father?

The Good

*The cinematography of this movie is quite simply awesome. It is absolutely a magnificently beautiful film, and I cannot say this enough. Caladan, the Atreides homeworld, is a beautiful place of magnificent coasts and oceans, while the Harkonnens rule over a polluted urban hellscape. Salusa Secundus, where the emperor draws his elite Sardaukar armies, is the unholy admixture of the two. They manage to make the Sardaukar disturbing, and that's good.

*One of the great flaws of the 1984 adaptation was how clumsily it handled the exposition needed for this gigantic science fiction universe, and that's not the case here. The filmmakers manage to convey so much with shots or small sequences. For example, rather than explaining the whole back-story about how too-advanced computers are illegal and how specially-trained humans known as Mentats have replaced them, we just see Atreides Mentat Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) do this peculiar thing with his eyes a couple times, the same with the Harkonnen Mentat Piter de Vries (David Dastmalchian). That the Atreides are benign to their subjects and the Harkonnens harsh and cruel is also show rather than told--Duke Leto is free and easy with visitors on his island paradise and on Arrakis, while people cringe before the Baron and his beastly nephew Glossu "Beast" Rabban (Dave Bautista). And the issues between Jessica and the rest of the Bene Gesserit are handled in glances and a short conversation rather than blah-blah-blah.

*There are some subtle touches of characterization as well, like how in a father-son talk Leto tells Paul that he didn't want to be duke he wanted to be a pilot...and his own father was cool with this, knowing how this would ultimately bring him around to his responsibilities "another way." That skill with piloting comes in handy for several sequences in the film, for both the father and the son. And Leto's father was killed fighting bulls for the entertainment of his subjects--the displayed head of said bull keeps popping up in ominous ways I thought were clever.

*I saw this in IMAX and that's definitely where to see it. Not only will you get the full scope of the visuals, but you'll also get the full force of the soundtrack. Ye gods, the soundtrack. It will crush the life out of you, in a good way.

*The acting of the main characters is impressive. Chalamet does a good job of portraying the teen Paul, portraying his rebelliousness, emotional sensitivity, and giftedness, as well as the steel within that will propel him to his destiny. Isaac is appropriately noble as Duke Leto, while Ferguson is well-cast as Jessica. And although I was skeptical of gender-flipping the Imperial scientist Liet Kynes (the filmmakers came up with this ridiculous reasoning about how women are naturally peacemakers between cultures), I liked Sharon Duncan-Brewster's portrayal, especially later in the film. Josh Brolin does a good job conveying the intensity of Atreides weapons-master and musician Gurney Halleck, while Jason Momoa definitely impresses as the jocular warrior Duncan Idaho.

*The battle sequences are also quite impressive. In the Dune world, personal shielding has reduced firearms to a secondary role at best and much fighting is done with swords. The way the battles take this into account and the way the fight scenes are choreographed is pretty cool.

The Bad 

*Even though they're adapting only the first part of the book, the movie is still very, very long at just over two and a half hours. It starts to drag a couple hours in. That was the single biggest flaw, and kind of a substantial one.

*And even though this is the first half of the book, they still have to leave stuff out. One character who has a lot of internal turmoil is reduced to a non-entity despite their major role in events, as is another character whose actions tie in. Vague to avoid spoilers. :) And I'm wondering if they're consolidating the Harkonnen nephews--we meet Rabban but not Feyd-Rautha, the smarter and more dangerous of the two. Feyd-Rautha isn't to my recollection even mentioned.

*Some of the characters' speech comes off as a bit too present-day for thousands of years in the future.

The Verdict

8.0 out of 10. See it. Go see it. Help it make enough money that we can see the rest of the story on-screen to this degree of glory. Given how the second third to half of the story focuses on the war against the Harkonnens and the Empire, it will almost certainly avoid this film's problem of being too slow-moving.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Movie Review: HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)

Once upon a time as a child, I wanted to work in movie special effects and at some point read about the special effects for Howard the Duck. I definitely remember a picture of one of the evil aliens, although I don't recall how exactly it was made. Although I have listened to a podcast about the film (possibly the How Did This Get Made episode), I never actually got around to seeing it.

Well, thanks to Myopia Movies, I finally did. Here's the episode. And now for the review...

The Plot

Howard (Ed Gale in the suit, Chip Zien as the voice) is an anthropomorphic duck hailing from Duckworld, a planet where creatures like him are the dominant species rather than humans. After a long day at work, Howard comes home to smoke cigars, watch TV, and read Playduck (yes, really), only to be transported to Earth by scientific accident. He soon rescues small-time rocker Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson) from punks and she introduces him to her annoying scientist friend Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins), who tries to figure out what Howard is and where he came from. Howard tries to make his way in this strange new world, including getting a job, but the experiment overseen by Dr. Walter Jennings (Jeffrey Jones) that brought Howard to Earth soon brings something else as well...

The Good

*The movie is really funny. Not only is there a lot of goofy and slapstick humor, but there're also some more thoughtful jokes, including a sequence where Howard attempts to find a job at the local unemployment office. I laughed out loud several times--I'm really glad I didn't get this movie off Amazon for the Kindle to watch at the gym. Might disturb the others.

(Even though Howard is now a Disney property, you can watch it for free on NBC's Peacock TV streaming service. For now.)

*Gene Siskel's negative review from when the film was released said that Howard wasn't a likeable character, but in-universe it does make sense. He's the only one of his species on Earth, he's a prey animal on top of that (apparently he arrived in Cleveland right before duck-hunting season), people treat him like a pet, a child, and in one memorable scene, a meal, and he's worried he'll never make it home. He's frustrated and lashes out at people, including those who are trying to help him. And that's on top of some of his personal drama from back in Duckworld--he wanted to be a musician but chose to enter medical school to please his parents, only to fail out. The opening also hints at romantic troubles as well.

*The acting is generally good. I particularly found Thompson amusing as Beverly and Robbins amusing, albeit less so, as Phil. Jones, meanwhile, spends much of the movie possessed by an evil alien. If that's really him speaking with the Evil Voice (Brian Steele is listed as the uncredited voice of "The Dark Overlords of The Universe" so it's possible they dubbed him in), props to him for his vocals.

*I did like the soundtrack as well. Also, Thompson did sing as well as act, which is another point to her.

The Bad

*The movie could stand to be tightened up a bit. There's a chase scene that takes way too long even if it does provide some of the aforementioned laugh-out-loud moments.

*Was this movie marketed toward kids or adults? If it was marketed toward kids, no wonder it bombed at the box office. This movie is not for children, at all. That's not a bad thing (nobody thinks Saving Private Ryan is intended for children), but it is something to keep in mind.

*Per my above comment, although Howard being cranky and obnoxious makes sense for the character, he is kind of a jackass early on.

*Although you do eventually get used to it, upon first seeing Howard he's rather off-putting. I wouldn't go so far as to call it Uncanny Valley, but he does look quite weird. Per Wikipedia the original plan was to make him computer-animated but the technology at the time wasn't up to it. Hopefully if they ever remake it, we're looking at something more akin to Avatar.

*There's this elaborate voice-over that starts the film that claims what's real in one world is fantasy in another. So basically Howard is real on his planet, but he's a comic-book character in ours. That's kind of lame. It's also never followed up on--what if Howard were accosted by a crazed fan who knows he's not a man in a costume? You could get really meta.

*Some of the duck puns are really bad--not funny-bad, but just stupid. And if I think a pun isn't funny, you know it's bad.

*The villainous aliens from the climax have not aged well in terms of effects quality.

The Verdict

Worth seeing at least once. I might actually buy it. 8.0 out of 10. Generally speaking remakes should be reserved for good concepts that were executed poorly (or at least not as well as they could have been), so Disney should definitely come up with an MCU version. Thompson has already volunteered to direct, so maybe they should give her a shot. Like the article suggested, her daughter Zoey Deutch could play Beverly in this version too. That'd be hilarious, since they have worked together before and especially considering Thompson said her daughters refused to finish the movie after a...romantic interlude...involving their mother and an alien duck.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Plot Threads If They'd Continued X-MEN: THE LAST STAND

A recent episode of Myopia Movies is about the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand. It's the third and last present-day X-Men movie of the early 2000s before the franchise was rebooted with the 1960s-set X-Men: First Class and its historical-fiction sequels. 

I was not a participant in the podcast but I did listen. Here are my thoughts:

*Much of the film revolves around how a "cure" for mutation was discovered. Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose life-draining mutant abilities have essentially ruined her life, ends up taking it in order to interact physically with her boyfriend Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore) without risking hurting or killing him. However, the ending strongly hints the cure may only be temporary, with a theoretically de-powered Magneto shown able to slightly move a chess-piece. Nic seemed to think this made the whole film pointless, but this has some interesting implications.  

If a mutant who wishes to be "normal" has to undergo the procedure repeatedly, this means they're basically living with a chronic illness in terms of expenses. Who paid for Rogue to be "cured" the first time and who will be paying for it if she has to undergo the procedure every few weeks like, say, chemotherapy? Owing to Rogue's age, she was either in high school when her powers kicked in and she ran away from home (high school dropout) or had recently finished (that trip she and her boyfriend were planning in the first film could have been a graduation trip). With that level of education she's going to have a hard time finding a job that could pay for continuous treatment, and that could make her vulnerable to bribery.

(In the comics, Rogue was a originally a villain aligned with Mystique, so her doing increasingly desperate things for money--possibly including betraying the X-Men--because she is absolutely terrified of losing her normal life would make sense. And if she does something so bad Bobby breaks up with her, that emphasizes the tragedy of her situation.)

Also, nobody knows the cure isn't permanent. Imagine her life-draining powers coming back at the absolute worst possible time--say she's making out with or having sex with Bobby and he ends up in a coma like her boyfriend from the first film. Assuming he wakes up, her guilty feelings might lead her to push him away, he might break up with her out of fear, or she might refuse to leave his bedside until he revives and that takes her out of the game when she might well be needed.

*Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) transferred his consciousness into the body of a brain-dead man, who awakens at the end of the film. Xavier is in a new body, which potentially means a new actor who'll need to mimic Patrick Stewart's mannerisms and might "speak" telepathically with Stewart's voice, and for the first time in decades is able to walk. This is going to be a very big deal. Also complications--with Xavier legally dead, how is he going to get his money and the school back? There's no real legal precedent for "my body was destroyed but my consciousness is in a new body," so Xavier's enemies in the political realm could take advantage.

*Per politics, the film establishes there's a Department of Mutant Affairs, headed by Beast (Kelsey Grammar). Per one of the Wikis, apparently it is the successor to the villainous William Stryker's anti-mutant paramilitary force. Placing a mutant in charge of a government agency assigned to deal with mutant-related issues reminded me of how the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, previously corrupt as hell and prone to mistreating Native Americans, eventually became largely staffed by Indians.

*With Xavier apparently dead, Storm (Halle Berry) is now in charge of his school and presumably of the X-Men. How will she handle the new responsibilities? And she does have a bit of an attitude problem--something that annoyed me is how she lectured Rogue about how she doesn't need a cure. Storm is so powerful her people back in Africa worshipped her as a weather-controlling goddess (and if you count Age of Apocalypse as something that happened in the past, Apocalypse made her one of his Four Horsemen back in the 1980s), but Rogue literally cannot touch people without hurting or killing them. Storm is blessed beyond imagining, but Rogue's life sucks. Although Beast does tell her how flat-out stupid her attitude is, one wonders if the lesson will stick.

*Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who was forced to kill love interest Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) after she was totally possessed by an alternate personality called "Phoenix," is going to be a complete mess emotionally. If you've read the X-Men Origins: Wolverine comic, this is not the first time a pretty redhead he's in love with has died because of him. Combine this with my earlier Bobby/Rogue scenario and that's three X-Men who are "out of the game" so to speak.

*Mystique (Rebecca Romjin) had lost her powers and after being callously abandoned by Magneto (Ian McKellen), went over to the government and spilled everything she knew about the Brotherhood. Any members at large after their defeat at Alcatraz, assuming they figure this out, are going to want to KILL her. And without her shape-shifting abilities, she's more vulnerable. Assuming the cure is temporary she might well regain her powers, but until then the Brotherhood might think her an easy target. Key phrase--might think. After all, she's still a skilled martial artist, and I can imagine the overconfident Brotherhood finding that out the hard way. Unless she's in the best witness protection program possible, she might well be safer in prison.

(TVTropes claimed that Mystique was originally supposed to be with Magneto at the end, implying that his "abandonment" of her and her defection to the government were all an elaborate charade. But with the Brotherhood scattered, Magneto's devotees might not get the memo.)

*Magneto has been de-powered, but might be regaining his abilities. He's vulnerable now, and a hunted man. Mystique may well be coming after him--and if her powers return she's once again the perfect spy and assassin--so I can imagine him becoming super-paranoid. And Pyro (Aaron Stanford), if he escaped Alcatraz as well, might challenge the weakened Magneto for leadership of the Brotherhood much like Fabian Cortez attempted to overthrow Magneto in the comics.

*The mutant cure has been weaponized, much like Magneto feared. Having some kind of strike team with plastic guns carrying cure-darts makes sense for dealing with dangerous mutants, which in turn means there's less need for the X-Men. Per my above comment about Xavier and politics, the government might decide now is the time to deal with how he's basically got a private paramilitary force he staffs with the teachers and even students. And an anti-mutant military unit could be misused--"cure" mutants and then kill them.

*If the mutant cure is temporary, captured Brotherhood members jailed in ordinary prisons might suddenly start breaking out. Given how Pyro is the most developed of the villains, that might be a chance for him to return.

Seriously, there are a lot of threads that could have been followed in this one. Rather than the usual Status Quo is God, the filmmakers went total base-breaking with killing off Jean, Cyclops, and (temporarily) Xavier, de-powering (at least temporarily) Rogue, Mystique, and Magneto, making Beast a Cabinet official, and creating something alternatively a miracle or a dangerous anti-mutant weapon. A pity the movie didn't do as well as the others.

Friday, July 30, 2021

France Continues Fighting From North Africa? Pro-West Korea But PRC Taiwan?

Still checking on the public forums of the Internet's premiere alternate history site despite having been self-banned from posting for several years at this point. Here are some of the most interesting recent offerings.

Essai En Guerre: An FFO-Inspired TL-"France Fights On" is one of the more well-known scenarios in the online AH subculture, albeit more so in France than in the Anglosphere. It diverges from our history when the suspiciously pro-Axis mistress of French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud dies in a traffic accident. This tiny change leads to a Reynaud more willing to exert himself to continue fighting Germany from the colonies even if it means disengaging from the losing battle on the mainland. As a result, the French evacuating much of its military to North Africa and continuing the war from there rather than having Marshal Petain get a cease-fire and set up the puppet Vichy regime. Here's a YouTube video breaking the first part of the main timeline down. This version, though it has a lot in common with the main FFO scenario, has some unique spins. It's definitely a worse world for the Axis on top of the additional losses the Germans took having to fight for the entirety of European France--the Italians get their stuffing wrecked in Africa well before they did in real life and the French, reequipped with gear they'd ordered from the US that didn't arrive in time to help them fight the Germans, contribute enough for (most of) mainland Greece to hold against the Germans and their various cronies in the Balkans.

(Not as crazy as it sounds--Hitler's strategic priority at this point was attacking the Soviet Union for "living space," so leaving the Allies with a toehold in mainland Europe that they now have to feed is plausible. He was pretty overconfident about defeating the "subhuman" Russians, so him thinking he can deal with Britain, the French die-hards, and that little bit of Greece after the Soviets are destroyed isn't that much different than his real-life view he could deal with Britain once the Soviets were destroyed.)

Pro-Western United Korea, PRC-Controlled Taiwan-This timeline has two different scenarios, not just one. In the first, the Red Chinese finish off the Nationalists in Hainan Island more quickly than in real history, allowing them to attack the Nationalist remnant in Taiwan before the U.S. can organize the Seventh Fleet to defend them. This keeps them too busy to intervene in Korea to keep North Korea from getting obliterated. In the second version, the Chinese don't intervene in the Korean War, leading the U.S. to withdraw the Seventh Fleet--and after a sufficiently-decent interval the Chinese pounce on Taiwan. Either way, this world is spared the horrors of the Kim Dynasty, but the Chinese Communists have a direct outlet on the Pacific. That in turn will have its affects on U.S. possessions and allies in the region, like Okinawa and the Philippines.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Bad Movie Review: Highlander 2: The Quickening (1991)

Once upon a time, Myopia Movies did an episode on the Christopher Lambert classic Highlander. Some years later, we decided on an episode on Highlander 2: The Quickening, the 1991 sequel. AKA "the one where they're aliens." The version I ended up watching was the "renegade cut" from 1995 that removed all the nonsense about the immortals being aliens from the planet Zeist, although it still has its problems. The episode is exclusively for our Patreon subscribers; sign up here.

And now for the review. Calling it a "Bad Movie Review" this time, since I didn't see it years before like many Myopia films and, well, it's BAD.

The Plot

After the events of the first film, the thinning of the ozone layer necessitated the creation of an artificial replacement sponsored by none other than the now-mortal Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert). This new atmosphere, though it protects mankind, denies humanity the stars, ordinary views of the sky, and seems to have a generally negative effect on the climate. Connor has grown old and is despised by many of the people he had tried to protect.

However, the villainous General Katana (Michael Ironside), ruler of a lost civilization from the distant past (in the theatrical version an alien civilization) that had exiled the immortals to (their) distant future, worries that Connor might choose to return to his own time and once more challenge him. So he sends goons to kill him, inadvertently reactivating his immortality and de-aging him 30 years. Connor joins forces with ecoterrorist Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen) to fight against Katana's henchmen and ultimately Katana himself, who allies with the sinister megacorporation controlling the planetary shield.

And what role does Ramirez (Sean Connery), Connor's long-dead immortal mentor, play in this whole situation?

The Good

*Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, and Michael Ironside are having lots of fun playing their characters. Ironside in particular is absolutely over the top, playing the character as Jack Nicholson's Joker wearing Conan the Barbarian villain Thulsa Doom's wig and costume. Ironside is really entertaining to watch. He later said that he, Connery, and Lambert all recognized they were dealing with a crappy script and he decided he was going to have as much fun as possible. Ironside makes for a much more entertaining villain than the Kurgan--sorry Clancy Brown and your awesome medieval outfit that inspired the villain Grendel from my novel Battle for the Wastelands.

*They clearly had more money for action sequences and special effects for this one than they had for the original.

*Katana's duels with Connor are pretty impressive. It's my understanding that Lambert has really bad vision and thus couldn't fight effectively in the first movie, but in this one everything's much more fluid and they're a lot more likely to punch and kick each other. After all, this is a battle to the death, so why bother with any rules about technique and what-not?

*It's fast-moving and other than one scene, never dull.

*There are some genuinely funny bits, many of which revolve about Ramirez's difficulties with the modern world and his propensity to flirt with every woman he meets.

*I liked the callbacks to "Who Wants To Live Forever," probably one of the most legitimately poignant sequences in any movie I've seen in recent years.

The Bad

Where to start? Even with all the alien nonsense removed, there's so much in here that doesn't make any sense or is just plain ridiculous.

*The whole ozone-layer plot is ridiculous and really dated. The thinning of the ozone layer would cause increased likelihood of skin cancer and other problems, but it wouldn't cause masses of people to burn to death. And an artificial ozone layer wouldn't affect the climate like it does. And it shouldn't be that hard to determine if the ozone layer has recovered enough that the hugely expensive shield would not be required. And how was Connor in the position to sponsor a massive feat of geoengineering? He was "New York City antique dealer rich," not "Elon Musk rich." And not only did he help create this world-saving megaproject, but then he essentially abandons it and allows some generic 1980s/1990s corporate baddie to usurp it?

It would have been better to have the dying mortal Connor living in some kind of generic Bad Future where his attempts to use the psychic abilities gained from his defeat of the Kurgan and winning "The Prize" to improve the world ended up either being totally useless or backfiring and causing the whole situation. Suddenly his youth (or at least his immortality) return and he loses his psychic abilities because new immortals have been activated (i.e. they suffer their first death and resurrection). Now he essentially plays Ramirez to new heroes and fights a new villain. If his immortality is restored but he's still in his 60s or 70s he might not be a frontline fighter like he used to be, although given how bad Old Man Connor is, having him stay in his old-man persona the entire film would be really lame.

(If Connor has to be a mentor to a new generation of immortals you could have flashbacks to his mentoring by Ramirez, allowing Sean Connery to make a return appearance without the completely absurd magical explanation. According to some Highlander fans, Ramirez was training Connor for a year, so there could be plenty of interesting things not depicted in the original film.)

*Instead of being aliens, the "renegade cut" makes the immortals rebels from a long-forgotten ancient civilization who were punished for rebellion by exile into the distant future. They had to kill each other until there was only one left, and that lone survivor could choose to return. Whatever happened to Ramirez asking "why does the sun shine" when Connor asked why immortals existed? Better no explanation at all than the absurdity we got.

(Also, the flashback sequences to the distant-distant past looked like B-Roll footage from the 1980s adaptation of Dune.)

At one point Connor is explaining to Louise how the whole situation works and she seems to think it makes absolutely no sense. He decides at this point to end the conversation by saying "it's a kind of magic," a call-back to the original film where he explains his immortality to his adopted daughter Rachel. I think they were deliberately mocking their own premise at this point. 

*General Katana is such a stupid name, especially since Connor's main fighting sword is a katana. No wonder Michael Ironside thought the script had been written by a 13-year-old boy.

*Connor as an old man sounds like he's trying to continuously do "I could've been a contender" from On The Waterfront. It's ridiculous-sounding. TVTropes said he sounded like a six-year-old trying to mimic his elderly grandfather.

*Louise is much less effective a character than Brenda, Connor's love interest from the original film. Brenda managed to figure out Connor was immortal from handwriting samples and studying his confiscated sword, got taken hostage by the Kurgan to bait Connor into the final battle, and then helped Connor defeat him. Louise clues Connor into realizing something is wrong at the megacorporation running the planetary shield and later helps them infiltrate the company's HQ, but her role is much less impactful.

The Verdict

This isn't as sucky as Battlefield Earth or Spawn, but it's still not worth the bother. You want to see what happened to MacLeod after the events of the first film, go watch Highlander III, the TV show (where his character dropped in occasionally), or Highlander Endgame. I'm pretty sure this movie isn't even canon anymore. 5.5 out of 10.

(If you want to hear us absolutely wreck this film, including an amusing sequence where Daniel and I take turns impersonating Connery and Lambert while singing that song about milkshakes bringing the boys to the yard, sign up for the Patreon here.)