Jan 072017

Aliens arrive at twelve different sites on Earth. They are unavoidably menacing—their ships hover impossibly over land and sea, they manipulate gravity, and they look like slow–moving giant facehuggers—but nothing they do is hostile. Two scholars, one a linguist, one a physicist, have to figure out how to communicate with them while also keeping various militaries from blowing things up.

This isn’t an action film. Violence threatens, but when it happens, it happens off-screen, structuring the story as a deadline or countdown. Camera movements are slow, the shots composed. Both are independent and consistently meaningful channels of information, a feature of sophisticated communication explicitly celebrated in the dialogue. Bracing thoughtfulness is the dominant tone of the narrative. The dominant activities are listening, studying, and remembering.

Despite the aliens, their technology and the narrative’s mind–bending approach to time, the focus of the film is squarely on two educated people’s efforts to solve cooperatively an unabashedly intellectual problem. Their antagonists are the uneducated and thoughtless people around them who are driven by suspicion, anger, and fear and who are urged on by a hysterical and irresponsible media. These people cut off possibilities for cooperation, prefer violence to patience, and, whether committing suicide, looting, sabotaging, or inciting or threatening others, consistently act badly.

The fantasy of this science fiction is that humane intelligence wins out in the end, a triumph that manifests not as spoils but as a book about translation, a learned work offering help to those wishing to understand the thoughts and ideas of Others in their own words.

 January 7, 2017  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Jan 052017

This novel was frustratingly close to a do-over of Leviathan Wakes. Yes there was variation—a different world in the Belt, an introduction to life on Earth, new characters—but it was still a fake war providing cover for a rogue experiment involving the protomolocule.

What saved it for me was Avasarala and the most unexpected last–page surprise I’ve read in a long time.

I have the third book and will get to it eventually, but I’m less enthusiastic than I was after finishing the first volume.

 January 5, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 302016

I don’t know what I would have thought about this movie if I had seen it when it came out. I disliked Tom Hanks in it enough to find him distracting, and the first hour or so of the story’s jumping was incredibly frustrating to follow, not least because I couldn’t understand half of what was said in the 19th and 24th century sections.

And yet, as the first hour drew to a close, things began to fall into a rhythm, and I was hooked by the play between the stories and by Bae Doona’s and Ben Whishaw’s performances. I was also quite moved by the voiceover discussing the conventionality of our world. (I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if the speech was lifted from it.)

In actual fact I’ve seen the movie not when if first came out but months after watching Sense8, and as a result, everything about my experience of the movie stands in relation to this more recent show. Viewed in this light, Cloud Atlas feels like a test to me. Everything it attempts is worked out with more space, more detail, and greater success in Sens8. More importantly though, I can’t shake the feeling that the television series pursues a more fundamental formal experiment than the film does.

In the film, the different stories are connected genealogically as part of a larger narrative but remain distinct one from the other, like beads lined up on a string. The film’s experiment is to present these stories simultaneously as a collage rather than as a sequence. At the most basic level, this allows the climactic events in each of the stories to be presented together as the climax of the film. More ambitiously, this narrative collage encourages us to read the events in one story as relating to or informing events in another. To the extent that something like a karmic notion of cause and effect is in play (it is), the resonances created across stories are clearly thematic.

Yet, if I’m ruthless in looking at the movie, all of its narrative fireworks boil down to the fragmentation, intermixing and then juggling of multiple stories. Everything is taken to an extreme, yes, and the technical challenges involved are enormous and perhaps unprecedented in their scale. But the basic project is recognizable, even if it is virtuoso work. (To be clear: I love virtuoso work.)

It seems to me that Sens8 does something much more radical than the film. As I explained in an earlier post, the series uses classical Hollywood techniques (cross-cutting, etc.) to imagine and then to represent an entirely new mental landscape and an entirely new conception of character. The fact that that landscape and that conception of character have a stoner-esque “We are all connected” quality to them is less significant than the fact that they manifest without digital tricks. They’re the product of montage, the most fundamental process of cinema. The austere simplicity of this return to so basic a device is beautiful in its own right, but when set against the power of the effect it produces, the brilliance of what the Wachoski’s are doing shines.

Cloud Atlas is impressive, but Sense8 feels powerful and large. Here’s hoping Netflix sees the show through to its full five seasons.

 December 30, 2016  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Dec 232016

To the extent this movie is a TV episode blown up to two hours and with better effects, it’s a return to the pre-Abrams form. But in every other way, this movie is a repudiation of the values and sensibilities that in the earlier incarnations of Star Trek made me want to be a better person when I watched it.

What Abrams created and Justin Lin builds upon is a Bizzaro-Federation that I wouldn’t want to live in and leaves me nothing to aspire to. Call me a fuddy-duddy but I miss the calm good faith of Roddenberry’s utopia.

 December 23, 2016  Movie Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 222016

This adaptation of the first half of Leviathan Wakes is an odd combination of imagination and shyness. It leaps forward, building the world in detail but pulls back from the narrative, hitting the main events while fiddling with the character relationships that wove them into a story in the book.

Nothing here is great, but nothing’s a failure either. Instead, everything feels provisional, like a long test run made before the decision to commit. I like the choice of actors for Holden and Avasarala, and think Miller has the most unexpected and effective haircut I’ve seen in a while. Surprisingly, that’s enough to have my hopes up for season two.

 December 22, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
Nov 262016

leviathan-wakes-coverThe Sci-fi Channel’s adaptation of The Expanse put these books on my radar. The show seemed like it might be fun, and I decided to read the books instead of watching.

Leviathan Wakes is the first and I tore through it over a few evenings this summer during our trip to Andalusia. The Beav and I had, as usual, brought a small library with us to read on the plane and before bed. I’d considered leaving this one at home because it was a thick volume loosely printed and took up a lot of space. But by the time the protomolecule was wrecking havoc on Eros and the first vomit zombies had made their appearance, any lingering regrets were gone, and I was reading as fast as I could move my eyes.

The book reads like a mock-up of a movie or TV series: lots of action, clearly delineated characters, and a double point-of-view presented in alternating chapters that functions as cross-cutting. Plus its story is a nice mash-up of a space adventure and a noir mystery. Yet, as I think back to the book now, what stands out in sharp relief in my memory is not the plot. It’s the fresh but disorienting portrait of our solar system.

This story is set as humanity is moving out into space. They’ve reached the astroid belt, Mars, and have set up a few colonies on moons of Jupiter, but these far-flung outposts and some mining operations in the rings of Saturn are the very limit of their reach. The narration continually points out the extreme distances the characters must travel (and the time it takes) as they move from place to place. It also notes and lingers over the profoundly odd realities of motion and gravity and light constraining the characters’ lives. This attention to physical limits acts (perhaps?) as a nod to near-future, real-science stories like The Martian (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit here), but more practically, it generates a useful tension between people and their place. (It also reminds me of one of the admirable features of Sanderson’s The Final Empire.)

I really enjoyed the book and will be reading the rest of the series.

 November 26, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Sep 242016

Ready Player One CoverReading this book was like sitting on the couch as a kid watching my brother play a level, waiting for my turn with the controller. It was also nearly as fun.

In other words, I really can’t say enough how much I enjoyed reading this thing.

 September 24, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Aug 192016

Scorch Trails Movie PosterEasily the most disappointing sequel I’ve seen in a long time. Which isn’t to say the first movie was great, but at least it seemed to know what it was and delivered a focused and snappy “boys pushed into manhood” story that echoed without aping something like Lord of the Flies.

This sequel loses the snappy focus, jumping along instead from one story point to the next, feeling like a chain of moments, none of which are particularly interesting and all of which feel ticked off from a to-do list compiled during a methodical and fairly uninspired reading of the book.

And the boys who are ostensibly the central characters? They are tag-alongs: present at the action but saying and deciding nothing.

It turns out that I actually liked the first one enough to be discouraged by the way this one turns out…

 August 19, 2016  Movie Logs Tagged with: ,
Jun 052016

Ex MachinaA small sci-fi film (it’s scale reminded me of Moon) that I enjoyed. Two things surprised me as I watched.

First, technical intellect and intellectual analysis are fundamental to the narrative situation insofar as they are assumed to underpin the possibility of AI in a near-future sci-fi. Yet, the story  itself pushes away from intellect and analysis, imagining a very cramped, “dude”-like notion of emotional life and placing that emotional experience at the center of the characters’ interactions. This is a nice magician’s trick: it makes asking for technical explanations of story events—explanations which would risk breaking the illusion supporting the fiction—a sign of a character not being up to speed intellectually.

Second, unless I’m missing something, the definition of AI offered by the film doesn’t depend so much on consciousness as it does on demonstrating enough autonomy to have become dangerous. This was unsettling. I guess I watched Short Circuit enough times as a child to have internalized a different expectation of a thinking machine.

May 282016

Ryan Reynolds is like a Cinnabon. Both look good, and on a crazy day when you’re feeling “what the hell,” you might decide to treat yourself. The problem is that once the morsel is in hand, you realize that it’s both too much and kinda empty. If you’re the honest sort, you’ll probably even admit it stinks (in one case literally).

All of which is too bad really because Reynolds seems (as much as you can tell from afar) like a nice and geeky guy. And he does look good.

So I am happy to discover that Self/Less, unlike a Cinnabon, doesn’t stink and isn’t terrible. It’s just ordinary and dialed in in a way that reminds me of a well done made-for-TV movie. But that’s fine because what the hell? and sometimes it’s okay to treat yourself.

 May 28, 2016  Movie Logs Tagged with: ,