Thursday, March 15, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Tomb Raider (2001)

I never played the Tomb Raider video game series, but back when I was something of a gamer I do remember thinking the original game looked pretty cool. When the film adaptation starring Angelina Jolie came out in 2001 when I was a junior in high school, I remember going to see it and finding it at least somewhat enjoyable.

Well, as the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is wont to do, we re-watch childhood (or in this case, later adolescent) pleasures to see if they're still good. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie), a British aristocrat served by butler Hilary (Chris Barrie) and technician Bryce Turing (Noah Wallace), uses the freedom her wealth provides to go adventuring, in particular exploring ancient ruins and tombs for treasures. However, she's haunted by the death of her father Lord Richard Croft (Jon Voight). But when a clock she doesn't know exist starts ticking, she's thrust into an adventure featuring rival "tomb raider" (and possible former love interest) Alex West (Daniel Craig) and sinister Illuminatus Manfred Powell (Iain Glen).

At stake? The Illuminati seizing an ancient artifact that would allow them to control time!

The Good

*The movie starts out quick and entertaining and is never dull. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed it as a high-schooler. To re-watch it for the podcast I "rented" it off Amazon for $4, downloaded it to my Kindle, and watched the second hour of it on the elliptical. It made the workout go by pretty quickly, which is always a plus.

*When Lara finds a letter from her father, we get a voice-over/flashback sequence to him writing the letter rather than her just reading it out loud. That's more interesting, especially since it allows the filmmakers to work in the origins of various artifacts with Lord Croft providing the explanation.

*It's interesting to see the different actors playing against type. Daniel Craig, who would later play none other than James Bond, plays an American "tomb raider" rival to (and possible ex of?) Lara who came off to me as a dork. Glen, whom I've only seen as the lovelorn Ser Jorah Mormont from Game of Thrones, plays an ambitious and backstabbing member of a dangerous cult.

*Lara's fighting style is predicated heavily on speed and skill, which makes a lot of sense for a woman who isn't big and burly like Brienne of Tarth. This would allow her to take on larger, stronger male opponents without difficulty. And when faced with a male opponent who's just as skilled and quick (not going to say whom for reasons for spoilers), it's a lot tougher.

The Bad

*The Illuminati's plan operates on a very tight timetable and all Lara would need to do to foil the Illuminati for the next 5,000 years would be to cause delays, refuse to cooperate, etc. Instead, she often assists them. She even puts herself in a position where they no longer need her and, if so inclined, could kill her. West states that she's in it for the glory while he's in it for the money--she'll help them retrieve the artifact so she can take it from them, rather than simply prevent them from getting the artifact in the first place.

*When Lara mocks West for his business-like attitude toward tomb raiding, there's a missed opportunity for character development--West can point out that unlike her, a British aristocrat with a landed estate who goes on adventures and robs tombs for fun, he has to work for a living. This would develop his character further and reveal Lara's disdain for his greed owes much to her privileged wealthy status, but it would also make Lara look kind of bad, so no wonder it didn't go into the film.

*The way Lara acts about her father, it's like he hasn't been (presumably) dead long and she is still mourning him. However, he's been missing since 1985 and assuming the movie takes place in 2001 and she was in later elementary school in the flashbacks (age 9-11 or so) before he went away, he's probably been gone for half her life. If Lara were younger and this movie was her origin story, this movie could be about a young woman taking up her father's sword to fight a sinister world-domination cult, but given the allusions to past adventures and the amount of time it would require to develop her sheer physical skill, instead she kind of comes off as emotionally stunted and even obsessive.

*Complaining about sexual objectification/fanservice in a movie based on a game known for following an attractive female character around from behind the whole time (aka a continuous butt-shot) may seem like a waste of time, but the way it's done in the film is kind of lame. The beginning battle features her moaning in exertion while pinned beneath a hostile robot, there's a completely gratuitous shower scene soon afterward, and she annoys her traditional-minded butler who wants to make her a proper lady by walking around naked in front of him. The latter seems to me to be a character moment at least (see the bit below about how him being traditional and her being rebellious might be a dynamic that's been going on so long it's a ritual or a game), but the first two were kind of annoying.

*Hilary, who is Lara's butler or personal assistant or something, lectures her about the need to be ladylike, but rather than being an Old Retainer, he looks to be around her age or only somewhat older.  The actor is only 15 years older than Jolie. I could imagine she might put up with that from somebody who was a surrogate parent (and at this point it might be an inside joke more than anything else), but not someone reasonably close to her age who works for her. His hair could have been dyed gray to make him look older or, since a widowed British aristocrat with only a daughter would probably remarry to have more children to ensure the name is passed down, it would've been more interesting if the character were instead Lara's more traditionally-inclined stepmother who has been trying to "manage" her tomboyish stepdaughter for the last decade or more.

(Lara's father being missing and not yet legally dead could be a reason why she's still there, or perhaps Lara has much younger half-siblings who have just as much right to live in the house as she does. In the latter case, Lara's adventuring might be in part to gather money for herself if she has a younger half-brother who upon reaching a certain age or if her father is declared legally dead will take control of the property. A bit too much Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice for a video-game action film, but perhaps it can be done subtly.)

Of course a more traditionalist British aristocratic wife isn't going to arm up when mercenaries barge into the house, but you could still have Hilary in a more reduced role for that purpose.

*It's never made particularly clear why the Illuminati getting hold of the artifact would be such a bad thing. Obviously nobody should be trusted with that type of power, but it's never discussed over-much.

*The CGI hasn't aged well.

The Verdict

Entertaining, but kind of stupid. See it once, preferably by renting and not buying. 6.0 out of 10.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


A few days ago, I hosted a guest post by my fellow writer Matthew Stienberg about how Robert Heinlein's science fiction novel Starship Troopers would make an excellent television series, which would allow for a greater exploration of the characters and world than a feature film would. I followed it up with a post of my own on how the novel's depiction of a conflict between the Merchant Marine (whose personnel don't earn the franchise for service) and the military (which does) could allow for a nuanced critique of the Federation without descending into Verhoeven-level idiocy and provide for complex storylines.

Well, here's my third post, on how we could explore the civilization of the Pseudo-Arachnids, the "Bugs" that the Federation fights against. In the novel it's never really described, although the warrior and worker bugs are depicted as being non-sentient and under the direction of senior bugs never depicted on-page. The 1997 film gives us the Brain Bug, whose appearance I didn't really like. The role-playing game book The Arachnid Empire apparently has some description of the Bugs' history and culture, such as it is, but it's not in the free-to-read material and I don't like this stuff enough to buy it to find out.

However, if that back-story proves lacking, Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game, which was adapted into a movie I enjoyed, has an interesting explanation for how a "Bug" civilization might function. Here there be spoilers...

Among the Formics or "Buggers" of Ender's Game and its spin-offs, the only truly sentient beings are the queens, with the majority of the species being non-sentient workers and drones. In the vein of Earth's insects, queens would be born in existing colonies and would leave to start a new colony. Each new colony would battle the others until one day a queen managed to persuade a daughter to work with her rather than attacking her (and only leaving to establish a new hive if she failed to topple her mother but survived). The mother-daughter pair spawned new queens that they kept as allies, pattern leading to a Formic civilization consisting of a coalition of sentient queens commanding billions of drones that defeated all single-queen nests and united the species.

The Arachnid caste system in the novel is a bit more complicated, with the Brain Bugs being the overall commanding intelligence of an Arachnid hive, to the point if a Brain Bug is killed, the colony will die with it (novel) or the subordinate Bugs will run mad without them in control (the Roughnecks animated series). However, there are queen bugs whose purpose is breeding that warrior-bugs will kill queens to keep them from being captured, which could imply the queens have some degree of sentience, or at least there's something about them while alive that makes it too risky (for the Bugs) for humans to capture them. Either way, the "ordinarily-singular sentients with masses of non-sentient slaves learn to cooperate" theory could apply, only with Brain Bugs instead of the queens.

In the Starship Troopers universe, human prisoners are discovered when the Federation invades Arachnid-controlled Planet P, which in Matt's chronology would be Season Three. That would be a good time for the viewer to learn about this, since these humans would have the most interaction with the Bugs, possibly including the leadership caste if the Arachnid leadership is interrogating them or studying them. Alternatively, if the viewers are getting impatient, this is something the Federation could learn from the Skinnies, since Matt suggested Season Two would consist of an attempt to forcibly detach the Skinnies from their alliance with the Bugs in which the Federation learns of the Brain Bugs. The Bugs might've been more forthcoming about their history with their allies than with their enemies, or the Skinnies might have found this out on their own. After all, they might be concerned that they could be next if the Arachnids triumph over the Federation.

Monday, March 12, 2018

ANNIHILATION Theories: Is (SPOILER) Human or Not?

In my review of the new science-fiction film Annihilation, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, I said one of the positives of the film was that the ending of the movie was ambiguous. There are spoilers after this paragraph, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, don't keep reading. In fact, I'll plug in an image of the movie poster below so you don't see anything by accident.

In the climax of the film, biologist and military veteran Lena (Natalie Portman) finds a burned corpse in a lighthouse that's the epicenter of "Area X," a region of rural Florida that's being warped by an alien presence known as "the Shimmer." There's a camcorder set up in front of the corpse and when Lena begins watching the video, she sees her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) commit suicide on-camera after telling someone else to "find Lena." That someone else is revealed to be another Kane. That means (or could mean) the being that showed up at her home and soon became sick and had to be transported to the hospital wasn't actually her husband, but some kind of alien clone.

Soon afterward, Lena encounters the alien force at the heart of the Shimmer that transforms into a double of her that she's able to trick into committing suicide. When she returns to the military base built to watch Area X, she finds that her dying husband has returned to full health, but when she asks if he's Kane, he says that he doesn't think so. The two embrace and both their eyes do this weird iridescent thing, implying that neither of them is human, at least fully.

I said that the ending was ambiguous, and here's why. A case can be made that the being who came home a year after her husband left was an alien creature masquerading as her husband, but a case can also be made that it really is Kane, just seriously messed up by his experiences within the Shimmer. Here goes...


*This is the most straightforward explanation. Kane lost his mind in the Shimmer and committed suicide, but not before establishing some kind of rapport with his alien doppelganger. There's still enough of him left to want Lena to not be left alone, so he tells the doppelganger (which has enough of his memories that it could conceivably play the part) to find his wife before he ignites himself.

*One of the podcasts I listen is The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy and in the episode dedicated to Annihilation, they say that when Kane returns home, he's looking at the pictures on the wall (I can't remember what they were, but they might've been him and Lena, their unit back when they were in the military, etc). He doesn't know what they are, implying that he's some other being wearing Kane's face.

*When Lena asks Kane if he's Kane, his response is that he doesn't think so.

*The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy crew thought that the way Kane embraced Lena at the end seemed more like someone needing reassurance. If Kane is an alien intelligence of some kind, he's the last of his kind on Earth and he's in the hands of people who could very easily kill him. His only possible ally is Lena.


*When Lena burns her double, the flames spread through the lighthouse and all the various alien growths begin catching fire, even alien structures well beyond the lighthouse. When Lena is being debriefed after returning from Area X, the scientist interrogating her reports that an expedition has been to the lighthouse and there's no trace of the Shimmer left. We then learn that Kane, who was dying when she went into Area X, has recovered.

If Kane isn't actually human, he would have died along with the Shimmer. Instead, he recovers from the brink of death as soon as the lighthouse goes up. That would imply that he might have been in the process of mutating and dying (like the other soldier whose belly he cut open to reveal writhing, eel-like intestines), but Lena's destruction of the Shimmer aborted whatever was being done to him before it was terminal. Lena herself experienced a similar process--she samples her own blood and sees her cells are mutating--but it's her who came back from the Shimmer, not the alien doppelganger. Although the eye-thing indicates neither of them is fully human anymore, neither of them isn't human either.

*The man that commits suicide with the phosphorous grenade speaks in a very thick Southern accent. In the flashback scenes with Lena and Kane before Kane leaves on his secret mission, Kane doesn't have a Southern accent. Although it's possible that one of his teammates who DOES have a Southern accent was being "refracted" into him, we don't see interpersonal "refraction" among Lena and her team--Josie (Tessa Thompson) begins sprouting leaves from her scars like a plant is being "refracted" into her and the alligator that attacks Josie earlier in the film has a shark-like mouth, but it's not like the women suddenly adopted each other's personality traits, accents, etc.

*I'm not the only one who has reached a similar conclusion. In the WMG page of the TVTropes for the film, someone else suggested that the man who kills himself is an alien doppelganger who absorbed a lot of Kane's memories, but since may be the first time it has fully mimicked a human being (the members of the other investigatory teams might've been killed by wildlife or mutated to death before reaching the lighthouse), it went insane.

*Kane doesn't recognize the photos in his house because he's suffering amnesia as a result of his exposure to the Shimmer and the mutations his body is undergoing.

*Kane says that he doesn't think he's Kane, but the Shimmer may well have done a number on his mind. To make a Star Wars analogy, from the moment Darth Vader arises from the operating table after being burned on Mustafar and rebuilt as a cyborg, Palpatine is trying to cultivate "Darth Vader" as a distinctive personality from Anakin Skywalker. In Darth Vader #1, Palpatine tells him that Anakin Skywalker's lightsaber belonged to "someone else, a Jedi" and in one of the old Expanded Universe comics, when Vader confronts Palpatine about the Empire practicing slavery, Palpatine says that "Anakin Skywalker" and "his mother" had been slaves. The trauma of the events of the previous expedition and his near-death might have caused something similar to happen.

I admit I prefer the second option because despite the horrifyingly cynical things I say sometimes I'm a hopeless romantic. Furthermore, as a Christian I believe in the sanctity of marriage--I'd like to believe that despite Kane being amnesiac and possibly experiencing an identity crisis, Lena having cheated on him due to his long military absences and the growing intellectual distance between them, and them both now being partly alien, their relationship can still be fixed. However, sometimes there are downer endings and I recognize there is such a thing as Confirmation Bias. However, a strong case can be made that Kane is still human and the other stuff is a bunch of red herrings.

What do you all think? Feel free to comment, discuss with each other, etc. below.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Movie Review: ANNIHILATION (2018)

As those who know me in real life know, I sometimes criticize Hollywood for its lack of originality and propensity for remakes. So when Hollywood makes something original--okay, this is an adaptation of the science fiction novel by Jeff VanderMeer rather than a purely original work--it's important to support it in order to encourage more of them.

So last week I saw the film Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman. How was it? Find out...

The Plot

College professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is grieving for her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who has been sent on a covert military operation and has gone missing. Her grief is soon interrupted by his sudden reappearance at their home. He can't remember very much and soon begins suffering from a mysterious illness. On the way to the hospital, their ambulance is ambushed by some Men In Black types, who take Lena and Kane to a mysterious base.

It turns out Kane had volunteered for a mission into a mysterious "Area X" in western Florida where an alien presence from a fallen meteor has spread throughout the nearby land--and is threatening to spread into inhabited areas. Nobody who has been sent to explore the afflicted area has ever returned--except for Kane, and nobody is sure how. Another team, consisting of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), is being prepped to enter Area X, and Lena persuades them to allow her to accompany them, citing her experiences in the military and as a biologist. The clock is ticking with Kane apparently dying, and Lena wants answers.

They pass through the mysterious "Shimmer" bounding the area to find a place where time flows differently and where the plants and animals are being mutated by alien forces. It's a place of beauty and horror and as the women go deeper, things get weirder and the body count rises.

The Good

*The movie is never boring. There were a couple moments where I was tempted to look at my watch, but I never did so. That's pretty rare these days. It moves along at a quick clip and between the beauty and the creepy (I'll get to both of these later), there's always something to grab and hold your attention.

*There's a lot of well-done subtext, including depicting two characters' fraying romance by showing their reading choices--one is reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the other is reading a magazine.

*The acting, particularly by Portman and Rodriguez, is really good. Although everybody in the group goes into Area X armed, Portman, playing an actual veteran, shows that she knows what she's doing with her weapon. There's a sexual scene partway through the film where she does a good job conveying her conflict and feelings--or lack thereof--as well. I have never heard myself or anybody else discussing acting during a sex scene of all things. And as they go deeper into Area X, Rodriguez gets convincingly scarier.

*Hollywood's depiction of women is so hit-and-miss that the Bechdel Test was invented to analyze it. The film's main cast is almost entirely female, several of them are scientists, and they go into Area X on a scientific mission, so it passes the test with flying colors.

*The film is visually beautiful. The realm within the shimmer is full of color and strange life, all of which is very well-done. It gets downright psychedelic at times. The "Shimmer" has engulfed formerly inhabited areas--someone's small house by the lake and an old military base--and seeing what happens when nature reclaims human works is pretty interesting in and of itself.

*The visuals of the film convey grossness and horror as readily as beauty. I'm not going to be specific to avoid ruining anything for anybody, but there're some truly squicky bits in the videos left by previous expeditions that the women find, as well as when they find the previous expedition's members. One of the mutated creatures of Area X is quite scary, and when it opens its mouth and starts making noise, it sounds disturbing.

Seriously, the art director, cinematographer, and special effects people need to earn some awards for this.

*The ending is rather ambiguous. I'm not going to go any farther for reasons of spoilers, but it's something that can certainly generate conversation.

The Bad

*There are some moments of weak dialogue that's too on-the-nose and doesn't sound like how people actually talk. For example, a character is cheating with another and one of them asks if the other's spouse, "knows of our affair." It'd be more realistic if the character asks if the wrong spouse knows "about us" or if they "know." That bit was so poorly written that I was all, "Huh?" right in the middle of the movie.

*Sometimes the sound is too loud. The music, though it's important in making the film as trippy and mind-bending as it is, is sometimes overpowering.

*During the climax, some of the more energetic manifestations of the Shimmer look a little too obviously CGI.

The Verdict

I doubt I'll see it a second time, at least anytime soon, but it's a very weird and well-done movie. I strongly recommend seeing it, not only because it's good but because it'll encourage more book adaptations and original material from the Powers That be. 9.0 out of 10.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Some Ideas on a Small-Screen STARSHIP TROOPERS From Me

A few days ago, Matthew Stienberg wrote a post on my blog about how he'd do STARSHIP TROOPERS as a TV series. Although there's already been one ST television show (the 1990s animated series Roughnecks I watched in middle school) and there's talk going around of a remake of the 1997 film, I think we're in agreement that a television show would be a better way to tell the story. Think Game of Thrones or The Expanse in which each book is a season. Although Starship Troopers is a relatively short novel, it covers what's probably multiple years of war and has enough incidents that can be fleshed out. As Matt's post lays out, basic training to the botched Federation assault on Klendathu is Season One, the rebuilding after Klendathu and Johnny earning his officer's commission is Season Two, the planning and execution of the assault on Planet P is Season 3, etc. Although Johnny apparently dies during another attack on Klendathu, he could always be Spared By The Adaptation or the second assault on Klendathu and Johnny's death could be Season 4.

Now here's where Matt's ideas and mine differ. The Starship Troopers novel references "incidents," "patrols," and "police actions" that occurred before the Bug War, which is also considered a "third" or "fourth" space war but the first truly "interstellar" war. Matt thinks this indicates there are other human societies besides the Federation. However, large-scale space colonization seems to happen only after WWIII, the collapse of most of society, and the reorganization and rebuilding by a trans-national alliance of veterans. There's a Starship Troopers role-playing game that explores the timeline and how the Federation functions day-to-day, but it's been so long since I flipped through the manuals at DragonCon that until I dug up the manuals on Amazon I couldn't remember much about it beyond telepaths not being legally allowed to gamble or trade stocks and how the veterans who founded the Federation decided that the years of war and collapse were so violent that every adult who lived through it should be considered a veteran and allowed to vote.

(That would make the Federation's system of earning the right to vote through either military or sufficiently-strenuous civilian service a much easier pill for the surviving populations to swallow, since nobody is actually losing the franchise--it's just their children and grandchildren will need to earn it later. This RPG manual here has the entire history of the Federation, which also suggests that at least one of these "incidents" might've been a pirate raid on a new colony by the Skinnies and that off-world space colonization was something the Federation started after the unification of Earth.)

Therefore, with the possible exception of people who dislike the Federation's limited franchise fleeing and establishing colonies elsewhere (more on that later), it seems more likely that there aren't human societies outside the Federation. Who then, is the Federation fighting? If these incidents were with aliens other than the Arachnids or the Skinnies, I would think there might be some mention of that.

And that leads us to a possible darker side of the Federation. I don't buy the hysterical claims that the Federation's system is fascist or militarist--if it were, it would be more overtly authoritarian with a Gestapo, a Fuhrer, etc. and Johnny wouldn't talk about "the poor bloody infantry" who protect home from "war's desolation." Real fascists and militarists would think war is a positive good and not a necessary evil and there are always personality cults, suppression of dissent, etc. That's one reason I'm not a fan of Verhoeven's bastardization, which you can see in my review of the movie. If the Federation were fascist, Johnny's father would be dead or in a work camp for complaining about Johnny's classes at school. Hell, Johnny might even be so brainwashed that he'd turn his own father in. That's what real totalitarianism looks like.

That said, the fact only veterans can vote hearkens back to another historical evil. During the lead-up to the American Revolution, the British claimed the Colonies, even though they lacked representation in Parliament, had "virtual representation" because Parliament would represent their interests regardless. The Patriots didn't buy that then, and we know that politicians generally only care about their immediate constituents, not the national good. That's why gerrymandering is such a problem. Even if the Federation's citizens represent a cross-section of race, class, creed, etc. (in the book Johnny is Filipino and comes from a wealthy family), they could still put their own interests above that of the "civilian" population that still greatly outnumbers them--there are colonies where half the population are citizens, but I don't think the figure of citizens on Earth itself is that high. Imagine, for example, lavish funding for programs that only benefit citizens but civilians aren't eligible for. There's a reason our forebears pushed for "no taxation without representation."

Furthermore, in the books it's made clear that the Merchant Marine wants its members granted citizenship after service like the military and (presumably at least some of) the civil service, but they don't get it. That explains the hostility between the Merchant Marine, which makes an interplanetary/interstellar peacetime economy possible, and the armed services, that occurs in the book. Johnny and some other military recruits on liberty get into a fight with some (surface) Merchant Marine sailors in a bar in Seattle, and apparently it's not an isolated incident. The same rules might apply to civilian shippers in space, although one would think that would be so dangerous it should guarantee citizenship in the same vein military service does.

So it could be that some of these "incidents" involving the Mobile Infantry weren't conflicts with external powers, pirates, etc. but something like suppression of a Merchant Marine strike or if you want to be even more extreme, wars of conquest against non-Federation human polities. For example, if we don't use the RPG timeline for our hypothetical television show, there might have been colonies within the solar system founded before WWIII that didn't collapse like their parent societies did Earthside and might have been conquered by the early Federation (hence multiple space wars but only one truly interstellar war). Once the Federation has control of the solar system, then you start seeing the massive united effort needed for establishing colonies around other stars. The Federation conquest of the solar system would be so distant in the past it would be like the Indian Wars to the modern U.S., but the Merchant Marine issues are in the book itself.

The more I think about it, the more a suppression of a Merchant Marine strike or strikes would be something to include in a hypothetical TV series before the beginning of the Bug War. If the entire Merchant Marine went on strike until their personnel got citizenship rights, the Federation's peacetime economy would collapse and the strikers could win without violence, but if only some of them did, there's a lot more potential for mayhem. Striking (armed) Merchant Marine ships could attack non-striking or "scab" ships, while on the other end, the Federation might be more willing to physically attack striking Merchant Marine vessels if they know that most of the Merchant Marine will stay loyal. The survivors of a Federation attack on strikers or a defeated attack on "scabs" by strikers could even go full-blown pirate, requiring a prolonged campaign to defeat.

Furthermore, widespread civil unrest within the Federation could be what tempts the Arachnids and their Skinny allies to attack the Federation--Saddam Hussein invaded Iran to take advantage of the chaos of the Iranian Revolution, after all. If the Arachnids and humans are competing for a relatively small number of habitable planets, a pre-emptive strike on humans could be a matter of species survival, especially if the Arachnids are fast-breeding and need to expand rapidly to avoid overpopulation and collapse.

And if you want to generate lots of discussion on the Internet, it could be hinted that the Federation's leadership provoked the Bugs as a "short, victorious war" to end internal strife within the Federation. It would provide an outside enemy to unite the people against (much like how opponents of the Argentine junta publicly embraced them after the conquest of the Falklands) and a prolonged war could generate a lot more veterans who can vote, reducing social pressures within the Federation. Only 400,000 Americans died in WWII, but 16 million or so served in some capacity; only 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam but 2.5 million served in the war itself and many more than that were in the military at the time.

Furthermore, the old show Space: Above and Beyond featured a human polity at war with the alien Chigs that had internal problems--there were cloned humans who had been mistreated, rebelled against said mistreatment, and now had to serve alongside their former tormentors in a war, while exiled artificial intelligences who'd rebelled against what was essentially slavery are allied to the Chigs. Having recent problems between the military and Merchant Marine could provide for some really interesting episodes--say after Klendathu the military requisitions some civilian ships for raids on the Arachnids and the civilian crew hates having to work with soldiers, some Merchant Marine extremists collaborate with the Arachnids, blocked by fraternization rules from romance with Dizzy or Carmen Johnny gets involved with a Merchant Marine sailor and both of them get trouble from their friends, etc.

If a TV show followed my or the other Matt's ideas, it would be more faithful adaptation of Heinlein's work AND would provide a more realistic, subtle critique of Heinlein's Federation than Verhoeven's straw-manning.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Guest Post: Getting STARSHIP TROOPERS on the Small Screen

The other day I was having a conversation on Facebook with Matthew Stienberg, an aspiring writer from Canada I know from the alternate history forum, about what the Robert Heinlein novel Starship Troopers would look like as a television series, in light of a possible remake of the 1997 film. I suggested Matt write a guest post and he was up for it.

So here goes...

Getting Starship Troopers in the Small Screen

By Matthew Stienberg

Recently I blogged about how Starship Troopers would not be “too controversial” to be made in the 21stcentury as a more faithful adaption. I think it could play a role in generating discussions around voting rights and even military service. However, in conversations with Quinn, we discussed how it would be possible to use the story and expand it into a television series.

Now this may seem crazy at first, how do you expand a single novel into a television series? Well this isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds. A sadly unremembered series aired way back in 1999 and ran for a single season, but that was the Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, which managed to take the content from the book and expand on it. Using ideas and imagery from both the original novel and Verhoeven’s film the series was, in miniature, what a successful and entertaining Starship Troopers television series could end up being.

Now before you say if a movie is controversial surely a television series would be even worse, well look at it this way, the market isn’t exactly saturated with sci-fi television epics at the moment. The Expanse is probably one of the best known, with the emerging Altered Carbon coming up on its heels through Netlfix, but the genre is currently missing something like Battlestar Galactica or even a fun serial series like Stargate, and something that might explore complex ideas and stories like Deep Space 9 did back in the day. All those previously mentioned shows (Galactica especially) proved that the market could handle a serious military themed story, and people wouldn’t be repelled or turned off by it (unless there was a writer’s strike but that’s another story). Even The Expanse shows you can have successful, thoughtful, intense, and interesting military action when it is attached to a good story.

And one thing to remember is that Starship Troopers can certainly provide a good story.
It has good characters who are built in, can be fleshed out, and added to. Juan “Johnnie” Rico for instance would be a Fillipino main character (and with the stunning success of Black Panther that can hardly be a bad thing) and has numerous friends and comrades to add to his journey. There is a strong female character in the form of Carmencita "Carmen" IbaƱez who becomes a fleet pilot, and then there’s the supporting characters such as Carl Jenkins who is Rico’s best friend, Sergeant Jelal and Sergeant Zim, Isabelle “Dizzy” Flores (again easily kept as a woman as in the 1997 film), Jean V. Dubois, and even the only briefly seen Fleet Captain Yvette Deladrier of the Rodger Young could be given an expanded role alongside her ship. All of these characters can be expanded on and given a place in the building story, and they all could shape the complex tale that we can tell with this world.

There are numerous themes which can be explored too. One of the books oft overlooked themes is that the entire reason Johnnie joins the Mobile Infantry is because he is rebelling against his wealthy father and striking out against the “free ride” he feels like he would otherwise get. A coming of age story for all the main characters would be good, and could add to their growth as the series progresses. Military life itself is a theme which, like in Galactica could be explored with more depth. Then of course, the main contention of the novel that citizenship is a right which must be earned through Federal Service is an issue that could be referenced time and time again as one of the reasons men and women are serving.

On that issue, what kind of society is it where only a few have to care about politics? In the books most civilians don’t care so much about the franchise but there are some who resent their jobs not being seen as Federal Service and are pissed about it, so a plot could revolve around those conflicts. How to civilian contractors and citizen soldiers (well, not yet citizen soldiers) get along and interact? How do these upcoming citizens clash with their peers who are citizens? The novel also mentions that the Federation fights other planets, so how do other human worlds get along with the Federation? All of these are stories that can (and should) be explored.

Though when it comes down to it, how do you go about telling this story? I would see each season having 10-12 episodes each in order to keep the writing tightly paced and the action suitably exciting. It also cuts down on bloat and gets any messages that would be conveyed across much clearer.
Personally, what I would do is mix and match some with the original novel, and the Roughnecks series.

I would begin the pilot episode with, as in the novel, the raid on the Skinnie homeworld, showing off the abilities of the powered armored soldiers and the destructive nature of futuristic warfare. This action scene then is revealed to be in medias res and we cut to Rico back in class, being bored with a lecture from Professor DuBois and the remainder is the conflict with his father. From there the show branches out into the training all Mobile Infantry go through, discussions of why they do things, and the emotional moments when the three main characters get split up. Next we get to the beginning of the Bug War with the Arachnid attack on Buenos Aires (and how it personally effects Johnnie and his friends) and then get to the attack on Klendathu as the midpoint of the season, the reaction to that disaster (like in the book Lt. Rasczak dies and he has been mentoring Johnnie here), and end the first season cutting back to the attack on the Skinnie homeworld as Johnnie is evacuated while wounded.

Season Two would begin explaining that presently the war is not going well and the Bugs have mankind on the back foot as they underestimated them. Unlike Verhoeven’s film where waves of grunts with futuristic assault rifles are sent to their deaths against bugs that only fight in close combat, instead have the bugs (who have spaceships and lasers in the books) be a technologically advanced foe who fight with both numbers and cunning. Keep the basic bug design we saw in the 1997 film (and the TV series) but give them welded on lasers and armor. Even keep some of the cool specialist bugs like bombardier monstrosities, and flying bugs, but they can be made much cooler. This serves to make the action scenes intense as bugs swarm individual powerful, but grossly outnumbered Mobile Infantry with deadly fire.

We would pick up Season Two with the Terran Federation trying to strip away some of the bug alien allies and make them our own, while perhaps struggling to keep many of their own allies on side. This could have episodes (like in the TV series) where humanity is trying to give a rough wooing to the Skinnies by showing the Arachnids cannot protect them so they change sides. The main driver of this season could be understanding the aliens as Johnnie overcomes a now deep seeded xenophobia of all nonhuman life and could even have him and others making friends with a Skinnie as they try to understand their culture. Smaller plots could include humans who desire a separate peace and some planets trying to leave the war effort so the Federation has to hit them as well, bringing some moral complexity into the war for all involved. Season Two would then end with the revelation form the Skinnies, of the Brain Bug which leads the characters to be ordered to Planet P.

Season Three (which I would envision as the last season) starts off heavy. Rico is on a station (a fleet base, or even Sanctuary) where he meets with all his friends for the first time in a while, but a huge Bug attack fleet appears and engages. Here Carl would be killed, Dizzy wounded, and Rico given a field promotion when another officer above him is killed. Carmen will command the Rodger Young when Captain Deladrier is killed in the battle and everyone realizes that now they’re playing for keeps. The second episode is again picking up the pieces as they are sent to battle. This would be a combined Federation and Skinnie offensive to show the progress the two sides have made together, and the Skinnies will help capture a Brain Bug. You can even get into the minutia with psychics being used, the special K9 units sadly absent from the movies, and the not so frontline engineers who pack suit mounted flamethrowers. These could all be shown earlier, but could be brought out in force for this arc.

The last half of the season would revolve around the fighting on the planet, and the triumphant capture of a Brain Bug, as well as the surprise discovery of human prisoners on Planet P. The revelation would be that each side is trying to understand the other, and so they’re taking prisoners. The series could then end with the idea they will be returning to Klendathu which will hopefully end the war. Ending it on a hope spot is good in my opinion as it would give all the characters the closure they need, and if desired leave plot openings for a fourth season while tying all the major stories up in a nice bow.

Through all this you would have minor stories, Rico and his parents (or dealing with their loss after Buenos Aires), the mentor-student dynamic between Rico and his commanders and Carmen and Captain Deladrier, discussions on the reasons why they fight, and the political problems they face with the war, and the loss of friends.

With these stories and overarching themes you have lots of room for good writing and good stories to go with it. The action would be an undeniable plus though.

Now this is just how I would envision the series going, others might disagree, and I think here there’s still room for improvement over a rough draft such as this. Even so, I think it shows that there is a lot of material that can be covered to flesh out this world and the stories it can tell.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)

The movie E.T. The Extraterrestrial came out before I was born, but I have two older cousins. I remember them coming to visit when I was a little kid (preschooler or very early elementary schooler) and us watching E.T. on VHS back when that was new. I remember quite frankly being terrified of the events in the third act and not being comfortable watching the movie again for years. I never saw the film in its entirety again until possibly after graduating college.

Well, our friends in Myopia: Defend Your Childhood wanted to watch the movie and so we did. Here's the podcast. And here's the review:

The Plot

A group of alien botanists are taking samples in northern California when they're accosted by a group of government officials. The aliens flee, accidentally leaving one of them behind. The alien hides out in the backyard of young Elliott (Henry Thomas), a lonely child whose parents are separated and whose teenage older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and his friends won't include him in their activities. Elliott befriends the alien, whom he dubs "E.T." (for "extraterrestrial"), and introduces him to Michael and his sister Gertie (the young Drew Barrymore). The three of them soon learn that he wants to "phone home" and try to gather the equipment he needs, but E.T. soon begins to sicken in the strange Earth environment and the government agents are closing in...

The Good

*Henry Thomas does a phenomenal job as Elliott, generating genuine pathos in his relationship with E.T. and his siblings and when E.T. gets sick. Seriously, this movie had so many people, including some of my Myopia crew, in straight-up tears, and so much of that is owed to Thomas's performance. As an adult I'm not nearly as emotionally-sensitive as I was as a child and I still found it poignant. MacNaughton as Michael does pretty well too, and his character has an actual arc from disdaining Elliott as a tag-along to enthusiastically helping with E.T. Drew Barrymore, who was seven years old when the film was made, does a great job as well.

*The scenes where E.T. becomes sick and when government agents in spacesuits invade the house--the scenes that frightened me as a child--are very well-done.

*There's some good comedic bits in the film, like when Gertie tries to tell her mother about E.T. and her mother is too harried to notice there's an alien in her kitchen and when E.T. encounters a child dressed in an alien costume on Halloween.

*The government investigators are depicted in a very interesting fashion. Rather than the all-powerful Men In Black who cover up alien activity on Earth by any means necessary, they seem to be operating on a shoestring. They drive pickup trucks and big vans with era-appropriate snooping equipment and a lot of their equipment seems to be borrowed from NASA. Their security is provided by local cops, not the military or black-ops types. In the climax of the film, they rush around on foot or in not-exactly-high-end "company cars." In discussions on the alternate history forum (I'm guessing about what would happen if the events of the film really took place), some people theorized they're part of an agency nobody really took seriously and had a budget reflecting that--until all of a sudden they actually did find aliens and everybody panicked.

*The investigators aren't even scary or bad people when viewed from an adult perspective. One them describes how E.T.'s arrival is a "miracle" and they're glad it was Elliott who found him, they do their absolute damnedest to care for E.T. and Elliott, they aren't particularly pushy or aggressive, and it's not unreasonable for them to quarantine Elliott's family. All it took to fatally weaken the Aztec Empire was one member of Cortez's crew having contracted smallpox and the greatest killer of Native Americans was European diseases. And with Elliott, the boy who had the most contact with E.T., in poor health, that the authorities would seal off their house and surround it with police isn't exactly unreasonable. E.T. could be purely benign (unlike Cortez) and still be dangerous.

*And the fact E.T. is a friendly, decent person (of a different sort) was probably a bigger deal when the movie was made than today. Most movies featuring aliens would have depicted them as dangerous invaders--the film The Thing, which is in turn based on an older film, came out that same weekend. Between the government agents who TVTropes describes as "Hero Antagonists" for the reasons I described above and the fact the aliens are friendly, there is no "bad guy" in this film at all.

*E.T. is not CGI at all--he's a puppet or an actor in a suit. The practical effects are very, VERY well-done. And we don't even see E.T. much at all until around 15 to 20 minutes into the movie, providing a good sense of mystery. Think Jaws, where you don't really see the shark much at all until the end, or Gremlins where the evil gremlins are kept mysterious for quite awhile. The special effects in general, even when they're done using "early CGI" like E.T. demonstrating telekinetic abilities, still hold up very well.

The Bad

*The movie is oftentimes rather slow-moving. Although Elliott meets E.T. relatively quickly in the film, not a whole lot happens until the mission to "phone home" gets going. I understand the need to have E.T. learn enough English to communicate with the humans (thanks to Sesame Street), but maybe it could have been done a little faster?

The Verdict

The movie was pretty darn good, even though I historically didn't like it and in any event had already seen it. If you haven't seen it before or haven't seen it in a very long time, go see it right away. Owing to my history with the movie I never got the same magic and emotional impact from it that so many others did, but it still a very well-made film. 9.0 out of 10.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to roll along with Black Panther, featuring one of the first black superheroes and a character first introduced in Captain America Civil War. Although I'm not black, I've seen how much this movie has meant to African-Americans of my acquaintance and I saw some very positive reviews, so I hoped it was good. I had President's Day off, so I went to go see it.

And now the review...

The Plot

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to the African nation of Wakanda, which despite its rustic, backward appearance has very advanced technology based on vibranium, to be formally crowned king after his father's death. There we meet intelligence agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o)--who is also his ex-lover--his regal mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his smart-alecky tech genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright).

Unfortunately, the arms dealer and troublemaker Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), whom we last saw hobnobbing with Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is back. He's made an alliance with Special Forces veteran Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who seeks use Wakanda's advanced technology to avenge the mistreatment of black people by Western society.

Trouble ensues...

The Good

*The worldbuilding is very well-done. I'm not familiar with African culture, music, etc. beyond television documentaries and books for the most part, but the dancing, music, etc. sound very African. This article here goes into more detail about the effort and research that went into developing Wakanda for the film. The use of Lesotho in particular as a basis for "primitive" Wakanda makes a lot of sense--Lesotho retained its independence in part due to its mountains, much like how Wakanda's mountains allow it to maintain itself in isolation from the outside world.

*There are a lot of laugh-out-loud and delightfully smart-ass comments from the characters. I particularly liked Shuri, T'Challa's sister who reminds me sometimes of my own little sister. Even the grim Killmonger gets some snarky lines, which I enjoyed as well. The Stan Lee cameo is also pretty funny.

*The cast in general is very impressive. A lot of big-time names in this movie.

*The political and cultural grievances that drive Killmonger are unfortunately quite real. I have an M.A. in world history with a U.S. History minor and I'm well aware of slavery (and its successor, convict leasing, which is not as well-known), colonialism, the assassination of people like Martin Luther King Jr., guns and drugs in the 'hood, etc. I liked how they made Killmonger, an orphaned child of the ghetto, since that makes him a foil for T'Challa, the wealthy and well-respected ruler of the one African country never to be colonized.

(Ethiopia was briefly conquered by Italy and Liberia was a fiefdom of Firestone rubber despite retaining its political independence.)

*Ulysses Klaue is a white South African and although he's not above doing business with blacks, that doesn't mean he doesn't have his cultural prejudices. He describes the Wakandans as "savages" and refers to Killmonger as "boy" at one point--not necessarily out of any personal meanness or maliciousness, but it's still disrespectful. That's a nice little bit of personality/cultural quirk there.

*The movie is only rarely dull, and those parts are typically at the beginning. Once Killmonger arrives in Wakanda it never lets up.

*Nakia's and T'Challa's breakup seems to have been caused by philosophical differences--T'Challa supports the country's historical isolationism like his father, while Nakia wants to use their technological advances to help others. When we first meet Nakia she's pretending to be the prisoner of a group of African warlord-types who are taking women in headscarves to an unknown but probably unpleasant fate--they reminded me a lot of the women captured by Boko Haram--and one of their soldiers is a child or young teen. That a spy working for an African superpower would focus on solving problems in Africa makes a lot of sense.

The Bad

*Although Wakanda's architectural styles are very African, a lot of the technology they have (monorails, hover-bikes and boards) are the same or more high-tech versions of real-world technologies from outside Africa. Another character is wearing a Western suit and tie, albeit with a rather different color scheme. Wakanda is supposed to be isolated from the rest of the world, but yet they've developed pretty much the same technology tree in isolation from outsiders? Europe got the dhow sail from Arabs and gunpowder and the compass from China; they didn't independently develop them themselves.

In the comics, Captain America's shield was made of Wakandan vibranium, much like how uranium from the Belgian Congo was used in the atomic bombs. There's also back-story of contacts between the U.S. and Wakanda during WWII. It would've been more interesting if Wakanda's wealth and technological advancement was less extreme of a secret--there's trade and intellectual exchange with the outside world, even if the Wakandans hold the best cards close to their chest so to speak. The African kingdom on which Wakanda was based dealt with Europeans from a position of strength due to its wealth and geographic defenses rather than hiding and Wakanda could be the same way. Perhaps they could have alluded to T'Challa's grandfather having met Howard Stark or something similar to build deeper connections with the wider wider of The Avengers and explain the technological and cultural overlaps. Wakanda does have agents, diplomats, etc. in the outside world who could have brought in concepts like bikes, monorails, etc., but there's nothing indicating they brought with them monorail plans, machine tools, etc.

I'd always figured Wakanda was like a petrostate, using the wealth from its vibranium to build an advanced society, but that requires trade. Even if they kept the full extent of their wealth and power secret to avoid getting conquered by greedy outsiders, I think they kind of overdid it a little bit.

*One character is kind of a loose end and we don't know what exactly happened to them. Given their relationship to T'Challa, I would think there'd be even more emotional resonance involving their actions and the film would be sure to mention their fate. Their actions were foreshadowed well, but could have been foreshadowed better and, given their actions and relationship to T'Challa, they'd have more conflict about it.

*There were a couple of look-at-my-watch moments, but not many.

The Verdict

Like a black version of Dune or Game of Thrones and a worthy member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Lots of real-world issues are explored without being preachy and annoying. 9.0 out of 10.