Posts Tagged ‘science fiction

28
Jun
08

Trapped Between Evil and Darkness

Movie Review: Pitch Black

In normal times, evil would be fought by good; but in times like these… well, it should be fought by another kind of evil. –Aereon Oracle

The following review contains spoilers.

If you were to judge Pitch Black, the first movie in the Chronicles of Riddick series, solely by its posters and advertising, it would come across as just another science-fiction horror flick. However, Pitch Black is so much more than that. Instead of using its alien creatures only for thrills and chills, Pitch Black uses them as a backdrop for a more intimate story involving the best… and worst… aspects of humanity. Unlike your typical ‘monsters in space’ movie, the plot does not revolve around the alien menace, but instead around the human characters and their struggle to survive on an inhospitable world, The best way to classify Pitch Black is as a science-fiction/horror/action adventure that ends up as a morality play.  It is a great film with stunning visuals, frightening creatures and engaging action, and is well worth watching.

Pitch Black has no hero. Instead, the main character is the antihero Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel), a convict and murderer. Riddick, who is on his way to prison, is being transported along with 40 other passengers, along the ‘ghost lanes’ of space in a cargo craft. When a trip through the meteoroid-rich tail of a comet damages the ship, it winds up crash-landing on the surface of a forbidding desert world. The 11 survivors (besides Riddick) soon learn that the planet experiences constant daylight as a result of being lit by 3 suns.

Claudia Black wishes she had some sunglasses.

Because of a shortage of manual laborers, the survivors decide to enlist the help of Riddick. However, Riddick’s nature as a cold-blooded killer soon leads to unease and dissension. The survivors discover an abandoned human settlement, with the settlers mysteriously missing. They also find a swarm of flying, bat-like carnivores that cling to the darkness, as well as larger versions that inhabit a tunnel system under the surface. The existence of these creatures seems paradoxical, since light kills them. However, the survivors soon discover that, every 22 years, the planet undergoes a lengthy total solar eclipse, plunging it into darkness and allowing the flying monsters to roam freely. The next solar eclipse is (surprise!) about to begin.

Encroaching eclipse.

Riddick is soon forced to become the survivors’ unlikely defender as the nocturnal predators begin picking them off. As he fights, he begins to question his values, realizing that he is more than just a killer. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say Riddick has an epiphany and ends up a changed man.

From the spectacular opening shot (see the first image above) to the ambiguous finale, Pitch Black is a thoroughly enjoyable movie. Although it initially appears to follow the typical monster movie clichés, this is only superficial as the story takes some unexpected turns. Pitch Black is undoubtedly an action movie, but is set against a horror backdrop, and mixes these two elements rather well. Even though the majority of the survivors (i.e. meat shields) don’t receive much character development, the five key players (Riddick, interstellar cop Johns, holy man Imam, pilot Fry and young Jack) are well-rounded out and developed. The main protagonist, Riddick, starts off as a textbook jackass, but soon becomes a likable (if rough around the edges) antihero. Plus, as any action movie fan will tell you, Vin Diesel is awesome.

The nocturnal predators (identified in promotional material as ‘bioraptors’) are well-designed and frightening. Like the Alien movies of old, director David Twohy takes a ‘less is more’ approach to his creatures. Instead of massive swarms of flying monstrosities, he opts to show us darkness, accented with thousands of shrieks. This, along with a few well-placed shots of the creatures themselves, gives the audience the impression that the survivors are surrounded by thousands of bioraptors… and the only thing keeping them safe is their lights. When the creatures are shown clearly, however, they don’t disappoint. In fact, after seeing a horrifying flying bony mass of teeth and claws, its all the more intimidating knowing that thousands of them are lurking just beyond the scope of the your vision, waiting to devour you. Darkness is scary enough without teeming swarms of bloodthirsty monsters in it.

As far as scientific accuracy is concerned, Pitch Black isn’t hard science fiction. It includes obvious fantastical elements (such as the bioraptors or Riddick’s superhuman abilities). In fact, the existence of predators on an otherwise lifeless planet who can only move freely only once every 22 years is highly illogical. However, this can be overlooked if you consider the movie to be fantasy set in an era of high technology. The sequel to Pitch Black, called The Chronicles of Riddick, makes this even more apparent as it introduces more fantasy-themed elements into Riddick’s world.

Overall, Pitch Black is a highly enjoyable and fun action movie with meaningful moral depth to it. Although it won’t win any awards, it is still worth watching, especially if you are a fan of Vin Diesel, action, or science fiction. It gets 8 out of 10 Xore points.

–Up next: I’ll review Unbreakable, an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

All Images Copyright © 2006 Universal Studios. Used without permission.

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18
Jun
08

Moeagare Gundamu!

First of all, concerning my review on Orphanage… when I sat down to write the review, I discovered my memory of the book wasn’t fresh enough to write anything meaningful. I’m going to have to reread it… so expect the review in about a week or so.

I recently learned that Nyoron Fansubs was subbing the original Mobile Suit Gundam, Yoshiyuki Tomino’s 1979 military sci-fi series that was responsible for establishing the Real Robot genre (which Macross/Robotech later expanded upon). Since I’m a huge fan of the original Gundam universe, I decided to watch it. I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

For such an old series, the animation in Gundam is surprisingly good. It does look a little dated, but it is far superior to the American animation being produced at that time, and is even better than some later Japanese series (1982’s Macross or the first season of Sailor Moon in 1992). Despite being dated, the giant robot designs are still just as impressive as they were thirty years ago… especially Zeon’s mainstay unit, the MS-05 Zaku II.

The Zaku is my favorite mobile suit from the original series. It’s design embodies the concept of the Real Robot genre… the idea that the giant robot should be treated as a realistic machine; something that runs out of ammo and breaks down. The Real Robot is manufactured and used by military forces, and is not unique or ultra-powerful like the Super Robots that came before Gundam (such as Gigantor or Mazinger Z). Gundam is the first series that brought realism to the Giant Robot genre.

Gundam is also known as being extraordinarily scientifically accurate… to the point of being the most scientifically accurate Gundam series to date. Of course, there is some degree of inherent scientific inaccuracy concerning giant robots fighting in space… but virtually everything in Gundam has a plausible (if somewhat technobabble-filled) explanations for everything from how giant robots maneuver in space to how energy weapons work. In order to explain much of its technology, Gundam uses a theoretical particle called the ‘Minosvsky particle’. Unlike other ‘magic technologies’ (i.e. Star Wars‘ hypermatter, Star Trek’s dilithium or Stargate’s naquadah), the Minovsky particle actually has a well-thought-out scientific explation behind it. I won’t go into details here, but you can read all about it on Wikipedia’s article on Minovsky Physics. The various Gundam series tend to accuratly follow the laws of Minovsky physics.

This reflects an interesting way of writing science fiction. Although it is neccesarry to include unrealistic and scientifically impossible elements in almost every science fiction story, an author should carefully define a set of physics that fits his narrative needs, then follow those physics precisely. This will help to reinforce the reader’s suspension of disbelief. To what degree the author explains his physics in the story is up to the individual author; athough providing a more detailed explanation leads to a greater sense of authenticity, it is inevitable that someone will spot a scientific flaw in your work if its too detailed. Overall, I think Gundam finds a good solution to this problem… Minovsky physics are explained in just enough detail to drive the narrative in the show itself, and more detailed information on it is available in enthusiast material such as the MS Encyclopedia.

Well, that more or less ends my thoughts on the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Nyoron is promising to release new episodes of it soon (they’re up to episode 10), and they’ll be releasing the new ones with a textless opening. If what I wrote about it intriques you, check it out!

07
Jun
08

Space Cowboys On Green Steroids

Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Sorry, no Clint Eastwood.

The following review contains minor spoilers.

Ever since I read Starship Troopers, I’ve been interested in military sci-fi. Unfortutately, most authors who have tried to replicate Heinlein’s masterpiece (such as John Steakley) have come up short. While on a wikiquest, I came across the article for the author John Scalzi, and learned he was behind the bacon cat meme. That was enough to get me interested in his debut work, Old Man’s War, with which I was pleasantly surprised. Old Man’s War is an entertaining military SF novel, and an excellent debut for an author who shows a lot of promise.

Whenever I pick up a new novel off the bookstore shelf, I turn to the first page of the first chapter and look for the author’s hook (i.e. the first line). They say first impressions are important; a good author realizes this, and writes the first line of his book accordingly. An ideal hook piques the reader’s interest so that he is inclined to read on. Alternatively, a bad hook (such as the overused phrase ‘it was a dark and stormy night’) will often times cause a reader to rapidly lose interest. You can tell a lot about an author by how good his hook is. John Scalzi began Old Man’s War as follows:

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

This is a good hook. Not only does it inform us about the narrator without deluging us with too much information, it also creates an unusual situation which warrants further explanation. This hook successfully pulls the reader into the story, and indicates that John Scalzi has at least some level of writing skill.

Old Man’s War protagonist is a widower named John Perry. He has joined up with the Colonial Defense Forces, the military arm of the enigmatic Colonial Union. In the future, habitable planets in our galaxy are hard to come by, mainly due to the large number of intelligent, spacefaring species that compete for the same real estate humanity wants. The Colonial Union serves as a kind of human colonial authority: they are not associated with any particular government, religion or ethic group, but they control all human interstellar activity thanks to their monopoly on the skip drive (Scalzi’s version of FTL). They are primarily responsible for protecting humanity’s interests, and ensuring that the human race has room to expand. Naturally, with so many races competing for so few planets, war is inevitable. The Colonial Defense Forces, or CDF, find themselves fighting constant battles against a variety of alien opponents.

The novel is similar to most military SF in structure: it follows its protagonist through initial training, boot camp, his subsequent assignment to a squad, and several battles. The novel’s pacing is rapid; Scalzi does not dwell too long on any particular battle, preferring instead to provide the reader with an overview of Perry’s first year (or so) of military service. Although this pacing keeps the novel fresh and interesting, I couldn’t help wishing Scalzi had taken more time to describe the various alien foes and battle scenes in more detail. This novel could have easily been 25-50% longer and still been just as interesting.

Scalzi is an excellent author; he keeps his writing at a level of complexity accessible to most college-age readers, only throwing in the occasional thesaurus word. He does not dwell on description, preferring to focus on character dialogue and brief overviews. Additionally, he has a well-developed but not overbearing sense of humor, even when dealing with the serious subjects of war and death. Overall, this makes for a very enjoyable and casual reading experience.

Of course, this novel was not without its problems. One particular annoyance I had was with Scalzi’s ‘asshole characters’; i.e. characters that have a particularly massive character flaw that makes them annoying or obnoxious. Every asshole character introduced into Old Man’s War is quickly killed off in the same chapter they are introduced… Scalzi’s form of ‘just deserts’, I suppose. Here are some examples:

-A fat and opinionated racist, who suffers a stroke

-An excitable, loudmouthed hothead, who has his head blasted off

-A former senator/ambassador, who advocates making peace with aliens: during his initial effort to do so, he is melted by acid (I smell political commentary!)

Although these incidents may provide the reader (and author) with a small ‘they got what’s coming to them’ chuckle, they nevertheless represent a narrative flaw. The assholes in real life are never conveniently killed off for our benefit… we have to deal with them on a day-to-day basis. Imagining that such people will be killed off in happy accidents is daydream material at best… after all, we all know that assholes usually wind up being promoted to management. 😉

Another problem I had with Old Man’s War was the main characters’ behavior. John Perry and his friends are supposed to be 75-year-old geriatrics who got new, young (and green) bodies… however, they don’t act like it. They act like twenty-something kids, right down to the language they use and their continual urge to have sex. (On a related note, only the first portion of the novel contains sex, and it is not graphically described.) I will admit that the latter can be explained by the characters’ desire to experiment with their new bodies… but I still think that elderly minds would have more emotional restraint. It almost seems as if Scalzi doesn’t know how old people think… so he imposes the mannarisms of younger characters onto older ones.

Aside from those two issues, the other flaws in the novel are minor and hardly worth mentioning. Overall, Old Man’s War is an extremely entertaining military science fiction adventure… a definite cut above most of the other military SF out there. Its tone is similar to Starship Troopers, but it doesn’t contain the political lectures Heinlein was so fond of. I recommend reading it if you’re into military SF, although it may not satisfy some of the more hardcore military readers. I plan to (eventually) read both of the sequels, The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony.

Old Man’s War gets 7.5 out of 10 Xore Points.

–Next Up: I’ll review Orphanage, another military SF work from Robert Buettner.

P.S. I almost forgot the obligatory link to John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever. It’s a funny site, so take a look!