Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Movie Review: Warcraft (2016)

When I was in middle school, my friend David and I greatly enjoyed playing the fantasy war game Warcraft. Although I never got the sequel Warcraft 2 myself, the day I went off to college I bought Warcraft III and that Christmas I got the Frozen Throne expansion pack. The latter games in particular I felt had better storylines than many movies and I would have liked to see it on the big screen.

Well, to have a Warcraft III movie you have to have a Warcraft movie, and that’s what we got with this film. Was it everything a lifelong Warcraft fan could want? Let’s see…

The Plot

The world of Azeroth has been at peace for a long time, but that peace is shattered when the Orc Horde under the command of the sorcerer Gul'dan (Daniel Wu) invades, seeking a new homeland now that their world has been poisoned by evil fel magic. Human warrior Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), whose sister Taria (Ruth Negga) is married to King Llane of Stormwind, faces the invasion head-on. Fighting alongside him are the half-trained mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), his son Collan (Burkely Duffield), and the POW-turned ally Garona (Paula Patton), who is half-Orc and half-human. Advising Llane is the sorcerer Medivh (Ben Foster), who may be more than he seems, while the Orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his friend Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky) grow more skeptical of Guldan’s destructive ways…

The Good

*The movie is a faithful adaptation of the games in terms of plot, locations, etc.  Although the first game was much lighter in storyline than the later installments, there’s enough here to have a functioning movie.

*Like the second game and the later installments, the story averts the trope of Fantasy Gun Control. In fact, they do it really awesomely in one key scene.

*Like Warcraft III, the movie does a great job humanizing the Orcs. They’re depicted as fierce warriors with a strong honor culture instead of a horde of homicidal savage demon-worshipers. This represents an improvement over the first game, which in addition to the homicidal demon-worshiping bit also depicts the Orcs as generally being idiots. It goes so far as to attribute Garona’s intelligence to her mixed Orc and human lineage. This improved depiction of the Orcs ties nicely in with the third game.

*We meet the future Orc war-chief Thrall as a baby, a nice tie-in with the third game.

*Other than some draggy bits toward the middle, the movie is rarely boring. It’s quite entertaining, which is why we see movies after all. J

*There are a lot of fun little nods to the game, including the Polymorph spell one can use to transform dangerous enemies into helpless sheep, the Orcish phrase “zug-zug,” and how a golem animated by fel magic bears a strong resemblance to the Infernals used by the demonic Burning Legion in Warcraft III. My old stalwart TVTropes has a whole bunch listed under Mythology Gag.

*Of particular note is the half-Orc Garona. The movie plays her as torn between two worlds, disdained by her own kind but yet strongly devoted to the honor and martial traditions the Orcs practiced before Gul'dan rose to power. Half-Orcs are often depicted as the product of rape of human women by savage Orcs, but the film hints at a more complicated back-story connected to Medivh. Her role in the climax of the film ties in with the game, but at the same time is very different, in a very clever way.

*Although the Orc chieftain Blackhand is underused in the film (I’ll explain more later), there is a really cool explanation for his name.

*There’s an explanation for why some Orcs are green and others aren’t.

The Bad

*A character is revealed to be a traitor, but their motivation is never really explained. One could hand-wave this by saying that he’d discovered fel magic and it had warped him, but some more details would have been nice.

*Although the movie is generally a good mix of CGI and normal actors, the dwarves look very video-game-like. Snow White and the Huntsman, Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit did a good job depicting dwarves—I don’t see why this movie, with a comparable budget and less well-known actors to pay, couldn’t have done the same.

*We see elves in one scene, but they don’t do anything. You can tell they're elves from their ears, but they aren't even described as elves.

*Garona’s relationship with Gul'dan could be elaborated on a bit more. She seems to be his Morality Pet to an extent—he apparently saved her life when her mother was executed and even gave her one of her mother's tusks to remember her by, but at the same time he drags her around on a chain and treats her rather shabbily until she proves her worth to the Orcs.

*The first game depicts Garona as an intellectual (she’s the one narrating the story of the Orcs in the instruction manual), but the movie depicts her as this Klingon-like noble savage who at first speaks English very poorly. Some hints of her scholarly potential could have been included—perhaps she could have been Gul'dan's apprentice and he mistreated her with the idea it’d motivate her to grow more powerful and someday challenge him? Think Star Wars and the Sith.

*Orgrim Doomhammer engages in some behavior that should provoke Gul'dan’s wrath, but the sorcerer stays his hand. It’s never explained why.

*Blackhand, the Orc chief who led the initial invasion of Azeroth, is underused in the film. They could have elaborated on his character a lot more.

*The movie does drag in a few places, especially toward the middle. It’s not an overpowering problem, but still.

*We see a lot of Llane and his wife, but their children are never mentioned and not even seen until Llane rides out for the final battle. It wouldn’t be that difficult to see them earlier—perhaps Llane’s son Varian greatly admires his older cousin Collan and we see them sparring or something?

*During the final human assault on the Orc bridgehead, either Stormwind warriors lose their discipline or their tactical training always sucked. They seem to forget how to form a shield-wall and swarm against the Orcs, whose tactics are generally not much better, even though we see some soldiers forming a testudo formation to deal with an Orc cavalryman in one scene.

The Verdict

A fun movie, but not worth the $13.70 I paid to see it in the evening. Save it for a matinee. 8.0 out of 10.

Hopefully the next one — and consideringhow much the movie has grossed overseas, I’m pretty sure there will be a nextone — will have all of this one’s strengths but none of its weaknesses.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Movie Review: X-Men Apocalypse (2016)

Last night I saw X-Men Apocalypse with my Myopia Defend Your Childhood crew, the same night the podcast on the 2000 film premiered.

The Plot

In 3600 BC, the mutant En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) is undergoing a transfer of consciousness from one body to another. Unfortunately for him, there's a rebellion against the "false god" and he ends up entombed underneath a pyramid. Flash forward to the 1980s and he's awoken by a bunch of cultists and begins planning to take over the world. Instrumental to his plans are a new set of Four Horsemen, including one Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender). Opposing him are the earliest X-Men, led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and including his associate Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), wild card mutant freedom fighter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), young telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who can shoot energy beams from his eyes.

The Good

*Owing to the time-travel plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past, this movie serves as a bridge linking the films set in the 1960s and 1970s to the present day. There's a lot of foreshadowing the events of the first X-Men film for Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and the third film for Jean Grey.

*Speaking of Jean, the insecurities she suffers in the first film are clear here as well, even though the movie takes place 20-odd years earlier.

*We meet Magneto's doomed wife and daughter and see the vengeance he unleashes for their deaths. It's a bit more subdued than the scene from the comics I remember--he turns the guns of the soldiers sent after him on their owners and we see see silhouettes of men shooting themselves in the head--but it works. Points for the Polish police in this film being clever--they come after Magneto with bows and arrows and aren't wearing their badges because there's metal in them.

*And speaking of Magneto's family, Quicksilver (Evan Peters) has two really awesome scenes and a couple of really funny lines.

*The movie is set in the 1980s (I'm guessing the spring or summer of 1983, considering that Return of the Jedi is in theaters and the viral TV ad explicitly says "1983") and they capture much of the feel of the period, including the clothes, the media people consume, etc. This is pretty nice, although the fact they tried to make it historically accurate in that area makes the historical inaccuracies I'll get to a lot more damning.

*For those of feminist inclinations, there's a conversation between Mystique and the young Jean Grey about the 1960s X-Men of X-Men: First Class that probably passes the Bechdel test. Also, given how Mystique is probably around Xavier's age and Jean Grey would have been in her teens, it's a bit of intergenerational female bonding. :)

*We meet Colonel Stryker (Josh Helman) and we see him at a midpoint in his character evolution. He's still quite willing to exploit mutants for military purposes like in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Days of Future Past, but his behavior toward the youngest of Xavier's students shows he hasn't turned into the monster of the second film who refers to a child mutant as a "creature" and schemes to kill all mutants everywhere.

*There's a really funny dig at X-Men: The Last Stand and possibly a bit of self-referential mockery of this movie when the teenage X-Men go see Return of the Jedi at the local mall.

*The movie introduces Nightcrawler, who is a lot younger than his character in the second film but still has the fast-talking tendencies and strong religious faith. I liked that.

The Bad

*Where to begin? For starters, about a quarter of the movie could have been cut if they eliminated the Stryker/Weapon X subplot that's solely an excuse to include Wolverine. Much of the movie is dull, and considering how fast-paced and entertaining I found the first one, that's actually kind of sad.

*Other than Magneto, the Four Horsemen aren't really that developed. Angel and Psylocke are particularly weak in that department. Storm is a bit better, but not as good as Magneto.

*Xavier at one point is depicted as being able to contact everyone one Earth telepathically. That contradicts the first movie and the second movie too, both of which show him needing Cerebro to amplify his powers to that extent. If Xavier was naturally that powerful, the whole "evil Cerebro" plot of the second film wouldn't need to happen at all. Not only is he overpowered in one scene, he's also underpowered at a critical point--he somehow loses the ability to take control of enemies lacking mental shields like Magneto's, which he demonstrated in the first film. That could have come in really handy in that one scene.

*Speaking of being overpowered, the fact depicts Magneto being able to cause magnetic events on the other side of the planet. Even with...some assistance...that's ridiculous.

*They bring in Jubilee, but do very little with her. It wouldn't have been that difficult to have her join the adventure along with Cyclops, Jean, and the newly-introduced Nightcrawler that I won't go into for reasons of spoilers (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

*There's a scene where Apocalypse uses Xavier's telepathy to go after the world's nuclear arsenals. That would explain why this "god" doesn't get wiped from the planet immediately upon revealing himself, but given how many weapons are in storage or aboard aircraft (which he completely overlooked), that issue would be remedied in hours if not minutes. He'd still get nuked.

*Apocalypse claims to be the inspiration of behind Elohim (Judaism), Krishna (Hinduism), Ra (the Egyptian religion), and many other faiths. However, he's depicted as being trapped under a collapsed pyramid in 3600 BC. This Jewish site states that Moses lived 1393-1273 BC, while this site states Abraham would have been born in 1800 BC. He's much too early to be the "historical God of Abraham." And this site here depicts the earliest Vedic (proto-Hindu) faiths to be in the second millennium BC. Apocalypse can't be Krishna either. Moira McTaggart theorizes Apocalypse could have inspired the Four Horsemen of Revelation, but that could be her own ignorance talking--Revelation was written in the late 1st Century AD.

*Apocalypse in ancient Egypt is depicted as having all this super-tech, which in the comics is explained but in the movie it's not. That's a problem.

*The teen pickpocket Storm is threatened with having her hand cut off by Egyptian shopkeepers. Yes, losing one's hand is/was a common punishment for theft in the Islamic world, but this is Egypt in the 1980s. It was ruled by an aggressively secularist military regime that I doubt would tolerate that. This page here even cites the Egyptian penal code to show that this would not have been the case. Stereotyping much?

The Verdict

A bunch of missed opportunities, too much New Powers as the Plot Demands, and far too long. 5.0 out of 10. I'm seriously tempted to write a "how I would have done it" page.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Blast From The Past Movie Review: X-Men (2000)

The other night for Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we watched the 2000 film X-Men, which re-ignited public desire for comic-book films after Batman and Robin temporarily killed the genre. I owned a VHS copy of the movie when I was in high school, so this was definitely something I wanted to participate in. Here's the podcast. And onto the review...

The Plot

In "the near future," U.S. Senator Robert Kelly (depicted as a Kansas Republican, which is no surprise given Hollywood politics) wants to register the growing numbers of mutants, citing how potentially dangerous they could be. This does not sit well with Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellan), a Holocaust survivor whose "mutant power" is controlling metal. His old friend Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who runs a school for young mutants to teach them to use their powers responsibly, must stop him from using a young mutant Rogue (Anna Paquin) in a terrorist plot with the help of mysterious loner Logan (Hugh Jackman), whose cage-fighting name is Wolverine...

The Good

*The movie does a good job depicting the villains sympathetically. The film opens with the young Magneto separated from his family in a concentration camp, with the implication he's being kept alive for forced labor while his parents are sent to the gas chambers. Given his history, it would be very difficult for him to not view the proposed Mutant Registration Act as another set of Nuremberg Laws. Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), in a conversation with Senator Kelly, tells him it was men like him that made her afraid to go to school as a child. If her shape-shifting abilities didn't kick in until she was older and she was born with blue skin and those yellow demon-eyes, well, that's not really a surprise. :(

*I watched Hellboy earlier that afternoon for another podcast and X-Men's quick pace and near-complete lack of "let's check the time" moments was a great contrast. The movie is rarely if ever boring and moves along at a nice clip.

*The film's got a holy trinity of Jackman, Stewart, and McKellan in terms of good actors. Paquin, despite being born in Canada and growing up in New Zealand, does a good job playing the Mississippi-born Rogue. Paquin plays Louisiana's Sookie Stackhouse in the True Blood series, so it seems she was always able to do a good job playing Southern women.

*There's a fair amount of character growth in the film. Wolverine grows out of being a loner "living from day to day" and sustaining himself by cage-fighting, while some incidents that happen at the end of the film show that the X-Men, though they'd never become terrorists or hate normal people, might be a bit more tolerant of Magneto's militancy than they were before. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) learns to overcome her self-doubt about her abilities when an injury to Xavier forces her to use the telepathy-amplifying Cerebro. Even Senator Kelly, although he doesn't do the "mutants are human beings" Heel-Face Turn of the animated series I watched as a child, does show signs of overcoming his prejudice.

*Magneto calls his organization "The Brotherhood of Mutants," in contrast to the original comic's "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants." Nobody ever thinks they're evil--in his mind he's trying to protect mutants from another Holocaust by any and all means, and his plan in the film isn't especially evil by the standards of comic-book villain schemes. No details though--that would be spoilers.

*Wolverine's past is shown, not just told, when he wakes up in a strange medical facility and immediately lashes out at the first person he encounters. He doesn't just say that he remembers weird and painful medical experiments.

*Although Senator Kelly is clearly a villain (in a private conversation later he said if it was up to him mutants would be locked away and people like him are needed for the "war," that according to Grey consists of mutants getting picked on), he's not a one-dimensional straw-man. When discussing the Mutant Registration Act with Grey before the Senate, he raises the national-security implications of super-powered individuals--he cites how Kitty Pryde could easily walk into a bank or the White House. And she's fairly low on the mutant food chain--Magneto could take on an entire army by himself, while Xavier could park himself outside the White House and mind-control the president into launching a nuclear strike. If I lived in this world I'd oppose the Mutant Registration Act on the same grounds as Magneto, but there's a lot more gray here than with the Nuremberg Laws.

*There's some good snarky lines, like Magneto's response when Cyclops orders Storm (Haile Berry) to unleash lightning on him or Storm's Pre-Asskicking One-Liner to Toad. Most of my fellow podcasts thought that was a groaner, but I liked it. :) However, the best line of them all is the "yellow spandex" riff on the goofy comic-book costumes of the heroes.

*The special effects have really held up well. I don't recall a single instance of obvious CGI, obvious puppets, etc.

*Kelly's villainy is depicted in pretty subtle ways too--he keeps referring to Jean Grey as "Miss" instead of "Doctor" and this list of mutants he has in his hand are an obvious tie in with Joseph McCarthy, who claimed to have a list of 200 Communist spies in his hand.

*Wolverine's old injuries appearing when his healing factor is momentarily shorted out is a good science gag. One symptom of scurvy is that old wounds re-open, so even if cuts, bruises, etc. go away, to some degree they're still there. Given how scientifically implausible many X-men powers are (someone online pointed out that to generate laser blasts from his eyes, Cyclops would have to drink gasoline), that was actually pretty cool.

The Bad

*The minor villain Toad has a bit of New Powers As The Plot Demands thing going. Throughout the movie he's depicted as having a lengthy tongue he can use as a weapon as well as preternatural jumping ability, but in battle with Jean Grey, he somehow manifests the ability to spew gunk that clings to her face and threatens to suffocate her. It would've been better if he'd used his giant tongue as a weapon in that particular scene.

*Sabertooth's lengthy history with Wolverine, which is later revealed in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is never even hinted at. Although the movie depicts the reasons Wolverine lost his memory, there's no indication that Sabertooth ended in the same position. It would have been nice if Sabertooth kept dropping hints or even tried to sway Wolverine to his side, with Wolverine having absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

*There's a deleted scene where Storm is teaching students at Xavier's school about the conversion of Constantine that could have been left in the film, perhaps when Wolverine wakes up in Xavier's mansion and is wandering around. It'd be a nice bit of foreshadowing for the final confrontation.

The Verdict

*I'm not going to go out of my way to buy a new copy of the film, but it's pretty good. 8.0 out of 10.

Monday, June 6, 2016

News Article Roundup 6/6

It's been a long time since I've done a "News Article Round-Up" post featuring interesting news articles and commentary. Here goes...

Michael Bay is Giving "Britain's Loneliest Dog" 15 Minutes of Fame-Not only has Michael Bay included this no doubt incredibly sad and bored shelter dog in Transformers: The Last Knight, he's also going to try to get her adopted. I've got friends who criticized Michael Bay for his various excesses, I wrote "The Revenge of the Fallen Reboot" because I was so disappointed with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and I never even bothered with Transformers: Age of Extinction, but I think this is a really cool thing to do.

The Zoo That Wants To Release Wild Elephants In Denmark-This article is about "rewilding," or restoring places to their pre-human state. Some of the more radical variants involve bringing lions, tigers, elephants, etc. to North America and Europe. There's this article I found on The Atlantic that describes the emptying of rural parts of the U.S. So long as people aren't forcibly displaced or endangered by more dangerous types of wildlife, that doesn't seem like a bad idea to me. The reintroduction of wolves in various places doesn't seem to have caused problems.

This is Africa's Most Overlooked Achievement And It's Changing the Lives of Millions-Africa is one of many places that's skipped a generation of technology--for example, areas that never had landline phones now have lots and lots of mobile phones. This article describes another area where Africa has "skipped a generation"--a lot of rural villages now have small-scale solar power and wind power as opposed to feeding off gigantic industrial power-plants. This is pretty cool, as it provides Africans with modern technologies while at the same time avoiding the environmental problems gigantic power plants, huge power-line infrastructures, etc. Decentralized power generation would be the way to go for the whole world and it looks like Africa's leading the way.

Engineered bacterium inhales carbon dioxide and hydrogen and excretes fuel alcohols-Get enough of this going and goodbye greenhouse effect. I have heard some concerns about the bacteria potentially getting out of control and causing problems, but perhaps there's the possibility of engineering them so they can't reproduce beyond a certain point? Think the "terminator gene" to avoid GMO plants spreading their genes to wild plants.

Ten Slavic Spirits and Monsters You've Probably Never Heard Of-For those of you who are into writing science fiction, fantasy, and horror, here are some new critters for you to use.

Enter Hiero Desteen, Pursued By Mutant Wolverines-This isn't really a news article per se, but it's still pretty cool. It's a linked series of blog posts in which the blogger, who's a college professor somewhere, re-reads and comments on the novel Hiero's Journey. I first read that novel in high school and it was a big influence on my Wastelands series. I re-read both the first book and the sequel The Unforsaken Hiero recently and they're still fun. The blogger's comments are also pretty darn funny, including the following commentary on the first chapter:

Things are looking dark for Hiero, and it appears that our novel is about to become a short story, when of a sudden Gorm the Bear comes out of hiding and bites S'nerg in the balls.This was probably the point at which, while I was first reading Hiero's Journey, I realized I was going to finish the novel. You just don't get mutant-bear groin-biting in conventional stories.

I hope all of the above content interested you...

Monday, May 30, 2016

What If Stalin Had Survived His Stroke?

My self-ban from the alternate-history forum won't expire until the end of this week and I might re-ban so I can avoid unnecessary distractions from finishing and submitting Little People, Big Guns over the summer. However, I can still read the forums and I found something else you guys might appreciate...

Twilight of the Red Tsar

There's a book called Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar that compares the Communist absolute ruler of the Soviet Union with the Russian monarchs of old and I'm guessing that's where the user whose handle is Napoleon IV derived the title. The gist of it is that Stalin survived the stroke that killed him in our history.

That's not a good thing because he was apparently planning another Great Purge, this one with a particularly anti-Semitic focus. Given Russia's history with Jew-hating, there's the possibility of a second Holocaust within a decade of the first one.

Highlights of this timeline include the use of nuclear weapons, poison gas, and weaponized germs, rifts within the Communist movement (that usually followed Moscow's line), a Chinese messianic movement in the vein of peasant millenarian revolts that occurred in the dynastic past, and Richard Nixon. And there are a lot of allusions to the Book of Revelation in the chapter titles.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

This Google Chrome App Blocks Trolls AND Their Followers

Internet harassment is a growing problem, especially for women. Unfortunately, it is often very difficult to deal with these characters legally owing to jurisdictional issues, lack of technical knowledge by law enforcement, etc. Since there are few consequences for death threats, rape threats, and general ugliness, people are more and more inclined to do it.

The antics of the #GamerGate mob are the most well-known (and seem to be the most prevalent), but there are also the so-called "Social Justice Warriors" and, more recently, vicious Trump supporters. For all the good social media does, it has allowed for a lot more ugly behavior too.

Well, thanks to Celeste Ng (who posted the original Tweet) and Daniel Abraham (who retweeted it), I learned about this Google Chrome app that can block both abusive troll-types AND their dog-piling followers. It's called Twitter Block Chain. If an Internet hate mob is coming after you, this will lock them out and you won't have to deal with their crap.

So if Internet pests are so taxing that you're tempted to stop speaking your mind, here's a chance to get rid of them. Although it won't protect against some forms of attack (like doxing), it keeps the verbal abuse and threats away.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A History Podcast You Might Enjoy...

My friend Tom strongly recommended I listen to podcasts to make my lengthy work commute tolerable. I'd only listened to a few podcasts before, but given how listening to writing-related podcasts when I'm half-asleep in the morning is rather wasteful (I risked not remembering useful advice), I soon found comedy podcasts like Myopia: Defend Your Childhood were the ticket.

My friends Jon and Nick recommended a history podcast called The Dollop, in which comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds discuss American history. I started listening and soon I was hooked. The very best episode I've listened to so far is entitled "Disco Demolition Night" and describes this incident in Chicago in the late 1970s. It is absolutely, positively hilarious. Of particular interest is Steve Dahl, a radio DJ and current podcaster who organized the event and was willing to make parody songs about darn near anything, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

Another episode of interest is "The Jones County Deserters," who focuses on a group of white men from a largely anti-slavery county in Mississippi who deserted the Confederate army and became a band of Unionist guerrillas. This band was the topic of the book The Free State of Jones, whose movie adaptation comes out this summer. The episode "Oil Boomtowns of Texas" is full of useful information I might apply to later installments of my Wastelands novel series. I also liked the "Battle of Brisbane" podcast Anthony and Reynolds did live in Australia--seriously, the two of them went to Australia and did a podcast that seriously mocked Australian men during WWII. That takes guts.

I'm often not fond of the duo's politics (one of them is convinced Bush didn't actually win Ohio in 2004 and one or both of them mocked Cold War union opposition to Communism in the "Hard Hat Riot" episode, forgetting that Bolsheviks aren't fans of independent unions), but they do point out in the episode "The Racist Record-Keeping Of Virginia" how government gathering information on citizens can be abused even generations later. That's something to keep in mind, especially in the age of Trump.

In any event, they're both pretty darn funny and I recommend this podcast for those who like good comedy, who like history, etc.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Starship Troopers (1997)

For the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we decided to watch the 1997 Paul Verhoeven film Starship Troopers, an adaptation of the Robert Heinlein novel. Nick had intended for the podcast to be split up between himself and Daniel, who loved the movie, and a friend of ours and I, who didn't like what Verhoeven did with the movie. Sufficient to say, real-life intervened, but we still managed to get four people on-panel. You can listen to the podcast here.

And now for the review...

The Plot

In the 23rd Century, humans have begun colonizing other worlds under the auspices of the Federation, a rather strict government in which the right to vote and other rights are dependent on serving in the military. The humans encounter another race, the insect-like Arachnids, and soon war breaks out. A group of friends from Buenos Aires--Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), and Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris)--enlist in the military and soon join the fight.

The Good

*The movie has a great soundtrack. I was not allowed to see the movie in theaters when it came out, but I did get the soundtrack for Christmas this year. I particularly like Klendathu Drop.

*Although I complain mightily about Verhoeven mocking the book's ideas (at least some of my complaints might have been edited out at my request to avoid being too rant-y), the movie was far more faithful to the book than I remember. The novel starts out with Rico and his comrades dropping into battle before beginning his story in Buenos Aires and the film starts out with the rout on Klendathu before shifting "one year earlier" to Rico and his friends in high school. Also, Rico's dad is an egregious pill in the film, just like in the book, while his mother is more reasonable.

*There are some decent character arcs. Johnny begins the film as not really believing in the Federation's ideology of citizenship--his teacher even points out that he's repeating the textbook verbatim when he's asked what differentiates a citizen from a civilian--but by halfway through the film, when a character close to him dies, he's coming to believe in civic virtue, sacrifice, etc. wholeheartedly. Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), who starts out the film a rival for Carmen's affections and is kind of an a-hole, informs her that Johnny actually did survive Klendathu, gets both of them to safety during the attack on Planet P, and goes out defiant before nothing less than a tractor-trailer-sized swarm-leading Brain Bug.

*Some characterization is done very subtly. Dizzy has a crush on Rico from the beginning, which is exposited via some long glances and rather catty, high-school-girl type behavior toward his then-girlfriend Carmen. And we see shades of Barney from How I Met Your Mother in Carl when he dances with Dizzy when Johnny rejects her. For a gay guy, Mr. Harris is really good at playing heterosexual womanizers for some reason.

*The film has some well-done battle sequences. Although a lot of the film is rather dull (more on that later), the fight scenes aren't.

*One of the great writing maxims is, "Show, don't tell," and Verhoeven illustrates the ugly side of the Federation without explicitly saying "THIS IS BAD! THIS IS BAD!" A criminal is tried and sentenced to death far too fast for a proper investigation to take place (and I say this as a supporter of the death penalty) with the execution being televised for good measure, the government is obviously spinning a natural disaster to justify a war, one character openly admits she's serving so she can get permission to have children, there's some incredibly goofy propaganda involving children, etc.

*Verhoeven does retain the multinational/multiracial character of the Federation from the novel. In the book the protagonist is Filipino, he has Turkish and even Japanese comrades (the book wasn't written long after WWII so this is especially significant), etc. With a downright alien foe like the Bugs, prejudice-prone humans have a more other-y "Other" to hate on and stuff like racism, sexism, etc. seem really petty. The film's main cast is entirely too Anglo for people who live in Buenos Aires, but there a fair number of background characters (fellow high-school students, various soldiers) who aren't white.

*Although in the book the Bugs had roughly the same technology humans had, including energy weapons, the Bug designs are generally pretty cool. I especially liked the warrior bugs with their coloration and sharp edges. Slap some laser cannons on them and they'd be perfect. I'm glad the television series Starship Troopers: Roughnecks retained the design, even if they skipped out on the "Bugs have guns" stuff too.

*Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers in the post-WWII era and although the war saw women serving in military roles like the WACS, WAVES, etc. I don't think the idea of women in combat would have occurred to most Americans. Verhoeven depicts the sporty Dizzy Flores as a capable fighter and Carmen, despite not being a trained infantryman, can hold her own even while wounded. I'll give him points for that.

*The scene where the telepathic Carl prompts his ferret to harass his mother was pretty funny. So is a scene where Rico is handing Carmen dissected Bug organ after dissected Bug organ, oblivious to her growing disgust, until things get a little crazy.

*In one of the boot-camp scenes, one trainee questions why they're still training with knives. In the climax of the film, a knife comes in very handy. Chekov's Gun. :)

The Bad

*A lot of the film is really quite boring, especially the high-school and boot-camp sequences. I understand their importance for characterization, but they just were not that entertaining. And they took up a lot of the film.

*Xander is Carmen's flight instructor once she starts actually navigating capital ships, but he's around the same age as her and Johnny. He's explicitly depicted as being a football player for a rival school when Johnny and Carmen are seniors. If he were, say, the older brother of a friend of Carmen's who shipped out for the military some years before and is back in town on leave, that could explain Carmen's "man in uniform" attraction to him and how he's realistically that much more experienced.

*Carmen takes a wound that should either kill her or at least cripple the affected limb, but she's able to run around, fight, etc. not long afterward.

*It's generally a bad idea for a director who hates a book to do the adaptation. Verhoeven only read part of the novel and didn't like it. Don't take my word for it--check out the relevant Wikipedia section here. Verhoeven had his own vision--to satirize militarism, right-wing politics, etc--from the beginning and only shoved Starship Troopers in after pre-production began. He didn't like the message of the novel and deliberately mocked it by associating it with fascism, aggression, etc.

(No fascist book would pity "the poor bloody infantry" who are all that stand between home and "war's desolation" the way Heinlein's novel does. A fascist book would glorify death in battle, and the book does not. Heinlein and Verhoeven would agree that war is awful, but Heinlein would recognize that it's necessary sometimes and Verhoeven likely wouldn't. I can understand why Verhoeven would see all sides in a war as morally the same--he grew up during WWII seeing Dutch civilians killed by Allied air strikes against occupying German forces--but he had to totally warp Heinlein's Federation into a bunch of Nazis and then make them the aggressors against the Bugs in order for this to work.)

For my left-wing readers, I imagine if I produced a film adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale depicting the Republic of Gilead as a Christian utopia in which women are happy to be at home and out of the rat race, various minority groups are better off "in their place," the persecuted Quakers are dangerously naive idiots, and the Baptist guerrillas in the Appalachians and the "Libertheos" (I'm guessing some relation to Liberation Theology) fighting the regime are murderous war criminals who aren't really Christian at all. Fans would justifiably howl. That's how fans of Starship Troopers feel when faced with this "adaptation."

(For the record, I actually liked THMT, even though the idea that the U.S. military would overthrow the government to install a Christo-Taliban regime in which women are forbidden from reading and writing is ridiculous. It's well-written and far more nuanced than I'd expected when I started reading it. I still wouldn't be the best director for it, even if I wouldn't deliberately do a hatchet-job the way Verhoeven did.)

We need to move on, but I'll leave you with this criticism of the film and its differences from the book. And if you want a more overtly antiwar military sci-fi novel, check out Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. Starship Troopers is the better book, but TFW has much better characterization. I've got a spoiler-iffic review of TFW here.

*Per Verhoeven's hatchet-job, the History and Moral Philosophy class depicts the notion of voting equating to force, the idea that "violence never solves anything" as naive at best, etc. in the most vicious, bloodthirsty light possible. Funny, I remember violence solving the problem of Nazism very well, and only the most ardent "violence is wrong no matter what" pacifists would disagree with me there.

Furthermore, as has been pointed out, the boot-camp sequences are full of needless sadism--in the book, for example, when someone wonders why they're still training with knives, the sergeant explains the appropriate levels of military force for different situations instead of pinning the recruit's hand to the wall with a knife. And Johnny is flogged for something completely different in the book, not for getting a soldier under his command killed in a highly questionable live-fire exercise. The scene where Sergeant Zim breaks a soldier's arm for challenging him is much uglier than in the book--in the novel, Zim breaks his arm in the process of beating him, but in the film, Zim puts him on the ground and then breaks his arm to make a point.

*The book was notable for introducing the trope of powered armor into science fiction, but there isn't any. People are wearing what look like SWAT gear and small arms and trying to beat an enemy with inexhaustible numbers by attrition. There's air support in one scene, but no artillery or tanks. Seriously, the Federation's military tactics and equipment really suck, and this is a society that has really cool prosthetic limbs for Michael Ironside. The book depicted initial assault on Klendathu as a disaster, but it didn't fail for lack of proper equipment on the soldiers' part.

The Verdict

Daniel makes a good case that this is a great satire that was ahead of its time. However, I don't like how Verhoeven deliberately mocked the source material and a lot of the movie just isn't that entertaining. See it once. 5.5 out of 10.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Two New Cool Alternate Timelines For You...

I'm still self-banned from the alternate-history forum until sometime in June at least, and I might re-up said ban until the end of the summer at least in order to focus on finishing Little People, Big Guns over the summer (the small press I've been in contact with says 30,000 words max). However, I do drop in from time to time just to read and found a couple cool ideas.

*Here's the first one, Twilight of the Valkyries. This is a super-detailed account of what have happened if the July 20 plot had successfully killed Adolf Hitler. A former member of the site (he got banned, although I can't remember why) proposed that the ultimate beneficiary of the plot would not have been the Schwarze Kapelle anti-Hitler conspiracy within the military but the ambitious Panzer commander Heinz Guderian, who had a substantial force of tank trainees nearby and could crush the SS and Home Army both. The timeline's creator has clearly done his (or her, although almost all site members are male) research. There are hints that he's using the "Salt the Earth" scenario I posted about earlier as a model--the French Communist resistance leaders in Paris are watching the inter-German fighting eagerly.

I'm using a Guderian-rides-Valkyrie-plot-to-power scenario as the basis for a dieselpunk world I'm fiddling with, so I'm definitely watching this one eagerly.

*This is a more obscure one, based on a little-known mutiny by the Force Publique against King Leopold's rule in the Congo. It's called Mameluke Congo and postulates that if the mutineers had a single charismatic leader, they might have been able to eject Leopold's regime from the Congo completely. It turns out the Force Publique in this period was ludicrously heavily armed and Soverihn makes the case they could maintain control of the entire ex-colony and deter outside intervention, especially if the European Great Powers are all trying to keep others from taking the Congo rather than uniting to crush a challenge to white power in Africa.

(In case you're wondering, the Mamelukes were a slave military caste that ultimately took control of Egypt. The Force Publique in this scenario would adopt a sort of collective identity of their own that would transcend the tribes from which they'd been recruited.)

At present the timeline goes all the way into a delayed WWI in which the Congo is allied to the Central Powers and proceeds to ravage the Allies' African colonies--until the Royal Navy swoops in and cuts off their trade. It's not clear at this point whether the Congolese will survive the wider war, even though it does look like the Central Powers are winning.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Female Doctor And Bringing Back Romana

I'm not the biggest Doctor Who fan who has ever walked the Earth, but I am tapped into a lot science fiction, fantasy, and horror circles online and I've seen a push from some quarters suggesting the next Doctor be female. Here's one, which complains that Peter Capaldi is "another white guy." Here's another article I found recently that suggested a list of actresses to play a female Doctor. 

As Ms. Reese points out in the first article, there's some canonical material that suggests it's possible. Matt Smith initially thinks he's female and then finds an Adam's apple, there are older references to Time Lords regenerating as female despite having been male, etc. The Washington Post article cites several of them, one of which dates back to 1980 when present-day concerns about diversity, political correctness, etc. were in their infancy. There's apparently a female incarnation of The Master nicknamed "Missy." If the Master, a Time Lord, can change his sex/gender, surely the Doctor could as well.

I can understand the desire of many people to have a female Doctor. If you want to portray more equitable gender relations, having an older male Doctor with a succession of younger and often female companions isn't really helpful. The "Uncomfortable Plot Summaries" website refers to the Doctor as an elderly man who serially kidnaps young women. One of the Christopher Eccleston episodes even hilariously lampshades this by depicting the Doctor interrogated by police after his companion Rose Tyler is reported missing. Ms. Reese's article complains that many female companions are lovestruck damsels-in-distress and not impressive characters willing to call the Doctor out on his crap. Female viewers are likely rather sick of seeing such characters.

However, the presence of Time Lords and Time Ladies implies that the Time Lords are male and female, like humans. The cross-gender regenerations referenced above must be fairly rare occurrences--I've never heard the Time Lords referenced as being by nature hermaphrodites, non-binary genders, etc. that, if these things were fairly common occurrence, would make them. Furthermore, the Helen Mirren comment about a gay black female Doctor comes off as trying too hard.

That said, there is a way to avoid indulging in excessive PC-dom (i.e. the "trying too hard" bit I referenced above) while increasing female representation, especially in more powerful roles. After all, from a perspective of pure self-interest alone, appealing to the growing non-white non-male fandom means more popularity and more cash. My proposal would also shake things up less, avoiding aggravating the old-fashioned fans too.

That way is named "Time Lady Romana." I only watched a little of the pre-Eccleston Dr. Who programs (i.e. I might've seen a couple minutes on TV here and there), but I remember reading about a character named Romana who was a Time Lady, as opposed to a Time Lord. As a Time Lord herself she is a female character who is the Doctor's equal (unlike his companions, or at least many of them) and in the older material, rose to a very powerful position in the government on Gallifrey. Like the Master, she could be an isolated survivor of the destruction of Gallifrey or have something to do with what happened in that episode where a bunch of older Doctors came back and the planet was put in stasis or something rather than getting blown up by the Daleks. Also like the Master (and the Daleks, the Cybermen, etc), she'd be a nod to the older series, much like how old Expanded Universe stuff has been filtering its way into the new Star Wars canon.

Now, far be it from me to let you guys think I'm a white male fan insensitive to the concerns of others. :) On the matter of the role of the Doctor himself, keeping him male doesn't mean he has to be "another white guy." He could easily be played by a Caribbean or South Asian (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) actor. Here's a bunch of British actors of South Asian background, including Naveen Andrews, who was a major character on Lost and has won or been nominated for many awards. The Afro-Caribbean community in Britain has got Mickey and I think there've been a couple black female companions too; have the South Asians got anybody?

(I'd wished they'd cast Hrithik Roshan as Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek Into Darkness and he's the physical model for the young Great Khan in the back-story of my novel The Cybele Incident. Could a Bollywood actor be the Doctor?)

Or if that's too radical, another idea is a Middle Eastern type who isn't outright non-white but isn't unarguably Caucasian either. Owing to recent events in Game of Thrones, Alexander Siddig has become available. :) He's originally from Sudan and is of Muslim background even if there's nothing in the Wikipedia article that indicates he's a practicing Muslim. I'm aware of other Middle Eastern actors, but they're all Americans.