What I’ve Been Watching

Elysium: Disappointing second outing from Blomkamp.  Great effects but pretty transparent and heavy-handed story obviously inspired by the whole “99%” thing.  I liked District 9 better.

Ender’s Game: Would have made an OK TV series or movie series, but in a single movie it was far, far too condensed.

Gravity: Liked this one quite a lot.  It’s a long series of highly improbably flukes of luck that lead to the main character surviving her ordeal, but aside from the luck part the rest seemed believable to me.  Cinematography was great.

Interstellar: Best science fiction movie I’ve seen in a very long time. The sound mix was awful, with the music drowning out the dialogue in many places and some of the sound effects being painfully loud, but that’s pretty much my only complaint about it.

Oblivion: Meh.  I’ll admit one of the plot twists did surprise me but it suffers from the same premise problem as most alien invasion flicks: Natural resources in general are easier to find out in space than to lift off a planet.

Riddick: Exactly what I expected: Vin Diesel’s “manly man” character being the same asshole he usually is, with lots of killing of people and creatures and highly improbable badassity.  Disappointed in the creatures in this one – I liked the ones in Pitch Black better.  Terrible movie but delivers what it promises.

The Colony: At least in this post-apocalyptic fight for survival humanity screwed up the weather directly, by building buggy weather control machines.  The good guys’ quest in this flick is to find the one place where a working machine provides a habitable environment while avoiding back-stabbing cowards and a tribe of wandering cannibals.  It’s mostly about people getting eaten or dying in noble self-sacrifice.  Meh.

Hobbit part 3: Enjoyed it a lot, but it wasn’t quite as good as the previous two.  I don’t remember the book very well as it’s been a very long time since I read it, but I think there’s enough divergence the movie should be “inspired by” the book and not “based on” it.  The 3D worked, but as with the first movie the high frame rate gimmick broke immersion repeatedly – it looks less real at the higher frame rate.

The Doomsday Machine: Of course Chairman Mao would not only build a planet-buster but would also be crazy enough to use it.  This one is about a last-ditch attempt to save the human race by getting a handful of men and women into space before the big one hits.  The commander of the mission is an amazing asshole – basically a rapist whose intent becomes overt as soon as it becomes obvious their ship is on its own.  He’s really, really, really creepy and surprisingly for the time this flick was made, it actually does admit that he is perhaps not the most upstanding person to have in command of a space mission.  I feel like this one reused footage from a couple other similar movies of the time, and the ending was about as deus ex as it gets – it feels like they got to the last 30 seconds of the movie and suddenly realized they needed an ending.

After Earth: Exactly what I expected from the trailer, namely Will Smith and his son (both real and fictional) bonding through an ordeal on the hostile planet called… wait for it… Earth, and coming out of it a more functional family.  Nothing wrong with the production though I was hoping for more creature effects, but I really have to wonder how much the production of this movie was intended to help the Smiths’ real-life relationship.

Automata: Liked this one a bunch.  I’ll tentatively recommend this as one of the better science fiction movies of 2014.  Not much I can say about it that isn’t either spoiler or covered by the synopsis.

Edge of Tomorrow: As an action flick it’s pretty good, but as science fiction it’s terrible.  The main plot device is that the alien boss can rewind time, and will reset the day whenever one of its mini-bosses gets killed.  OK, that’s not too bad, and the limitations on its time travel ability cover why it doesn’t just retcon its enemies out of existence. But here’s where it gets weird: The one who kills that mini-boss receives a fragment of the time control power – enough to be able to reset the day if he or she gets killed, and to remember what happened on all the previously retconned days, and to sense where the alien boss is located.  I’m at a loss to explain how that’s supposed to work unless this time power is magic instead of technological.

But wait, it gets better: Somehow this time power resides in your blood, and the aliens can take it back from you by getting a sample of your blood. WTF?  And then there’s this quantum physics gizmo that can partially reactivate the power after that if you jab your leg with the pointy end, because blood… what?  Does Not Compute.  The plot devices are so ludicrous that this movie is a flop as a science fiction.

Extraterrestrial: Straight-up UFO stuff.  Teenagers, cabin in the woods, UFOs, greys, anal probes, government in cahoots with the aliens.  Some blood and gore and one or two spring-loaded cats.  I’ll give it credit for having the ending I thought less probable.

Hangar 10: You guise! I’ve got a GREAT IDEA!! Let’s do Blair Witch only with aliens instead of whatever was in that movie.  That’s how the pitch for this one went, I’m sure.  Now, I really really hate Blair Witch style shaky-cam cinematography, but even so I still watched it to the end and thought everything but the cinematography was moderately well done.  There were a couple of scenes where I’m certain none of the characters could have been holding the camera, which is such an obvious flaw to look for in this sort of movie that I wouldn’t put it past some producers to add some deliberately as easter eggs.  There were some surprisingly good visual effects at the end and I have to confess I didn’t fully understand what happened at the very end, but I’m OK with that – it’s usually better than exposition.

Her: Thoughtful and a good ending, but I found some of the interior romantic scenes uncomfortable.  Glad I didn’t see this one with family.

In the Mouth of Madness: I’ve been on an HP Lovecraft reading binge lately and am now branching out to the few movies inspired by his works.  Imagine my surprise to find one produced by John “The Thing” Carpenter!  It was decent though not directly based on any of the HPL stories I’ve read.  The main plot device was the idea that belief makes things real and that by inspiring enough belief, a horror fiction author could bring back the Elder Gods.  Trouble with this is that the population figures quoted for this cult were below the numbers of at least three major religions, so there should have been proof of existence of their deities well in advance.

Lucy: The pain, the pain.  This movie has Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman and some decent effects, and that’s about it.  The entire premise of the film is based on the long- and well-debunked myth that humans only use a small portion of their brain capacity.  And somehow it gets from there to full-on mind over matter; Johansson’s character seems to become a Jean Grey scale telekinetic as a result of becoming superintelligent, which to me does not naturally follow.  The movie ends up being a fast-paced power fantasy.  If you want a decent movie about the emergence of super-intelligent individuals, skip this one and watch…

Limitless: An effective nootropic drug turns a wannabe author into an engine of effectiveness… until other people catch on and get their own supply of the drug.  Liked this one all the way through, and recommend it.

The Dunwich Horror (1970): Another Lovecraft derivative.  Too much of a departure from the original plot for my liking, though some of the characters were well acted.  The creature effects, while not terrible considering when they were done, were also not what I expected to see.

The Signal (2014): Pretty decent SF though I saw the big reveal plot twist coming well in advance.  Young crackers are lured to a remote location thinking they’re on the trail of a competing cracker, and instead end up involved with greys and Area 51 types and have to escape captivity and being experimented on.

Transcendence (2014): Not what I expected from the trailer, and I was very disappointed in its anti-transcendence slant though of course the cynic in me expected it; how often is it we get a pro-technology, pro-humanity science fiction flick?  Much of the conflict in the story could have been avoided had the main character not made a couple of mistakes that are so stupid they belie the superintelligence we’re supposed to believe of him.  And the ending was poor too; I can’t buy the happily reunited transcendent couple happily hiding out in their favorite garden when they could simply have left the planet and been unconstrained.

Under the Skin (2013-A): One of the artiest movies I’ve ever seen.  If you like WTF nonsensical European low-budget science fiction art films then you’ll probably like this one, though the production values are pretty good here.  What I liked most about this flick is there’s no exposition at all; it’s up to us to figure out what the story is and for the most part that’s not too hard, but the start and end are unresolved. We don’t really know how these events came to be or what the significance of the ending is.  I’m OK with that.  Liked it, but again I’ll warn you that there’s no neat bow tie on anything here and it may be unsatisfying.

What I’ve Been Reading

From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins (1998)

For almost as long as video games existed there has been debate about how video games should be made with female players in mind.  This book is a collection of essays on the subject.  It has been on my to-read list for a while since I’ve always wondered what the answers might be, but the recent furor over the furor over Anita Sarkeesian‘s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games essay series prompted me to finally get around to reading it.

The short answer is: There doesn’t seem to be much consensus on how to make games for girls, or whether that is even a valid question.  The phrase “for girls” raises the ugly specter of pink toys, which many people (myself included) unfairly channels girls into culturally predefined roles.

One theme that kept coming up in the essays is that games that let the player create their own narrative (ie be a storyteller) were popular with girls.

I think the book has been outdated by changing demographics, as despite the continuation of the games market containing mainly “generic” and “for boys” games, roughly half of gamers these days are women.  There certainly still is plenty of room for games targeted at women, and if anyone ever finds the right formula for that it’ll be interesting to see what it does to the demographics.

 S. Andrew Swann’s Apotheosis trilogy: Prophets, Heretics and Messiah

A sequel trilogy to his earlier Hostile Takeover trilogy, I enjoyed this one just as much.  The characters and settings all feel familiar, though only a few characters are in common with the previous books.

The main thread of this trilogy is an insane AI accumulating tremendous power and launching an assault on all of human space.

What I kept thinking about this was, what a waste.  The way this AI builds its power base and interacts with the technology at its disposal is very much like what I would like to do one day, but it wastes all that potential by proclaiming itself a god and trying to exact revenge.  With that kind of tech, I’d be leaving human space behind and exploring the universe in all directions at once.

America’s Painted Ladies by Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen

Well, I haven’t exactly read this one – mostly just looked at the pictures.  It’s a tour of lavishly restored and painted Victorian houses.  I really love this style of house and pored over the pictures in a way I rarely do.  I think it’s mainly the exteriors I like – although I like many of the interior decoration features, I’d rather have a much more modern appearance on the inside.


Lovecraft: Tales and Waking Up Screaming by H.P. Lovecraft

I’ve always been attracted to Lovecraft’s mythos but recently realized that I’m getting most of it secondhand, by others who are building on top of it.  I decided to rectify that by reading all the original stories I could find, but I wasn’t able to locate a complete collection.  These two compilations have proved a good start, with the second only duplicating about half of the first.

So far my favorites by far are “At the Mountains of Madness”, which really needs a movie adaptation, and “The Dunwich Horror”, which has a couple of movie adaptations that I’m not really satisfied with.

Though I can see why “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is one of Lovecraft’s most popular tales, it just isn’t for me; fish-men aren’t my thing.  Also, “The Call of Cthulhu” wasn’t what I expected and was a mild letdown.

There are a lot more aliens in his stories than I expected; supernatural and extrauniversal monstrosities are less than half of his bestiary.

Lovecraft doesn’t seem to have had a very high opinion of human mental stability.  All of his stories are full of people becoming mentally unhinged by things they’ve witnessed, many of which seem laughably minor (though still scary) by modern standards.  I have to wonder if people really were that easily broken back in his day and if we’ve desensitized ourselves to creature and body horror at a cultural level.

I wish HPL had lived longer and cranked out more of these wonderful tales.

BTW, if you like Lovecraft I’d also suggest picking up the excellent Laundry series from Charles Stross, which builds on Lovecraft better than anything else I’ve seen.