TV Pick: The Expanse

Sci-Fi network (SyFy?) once had the market cornered on good science fiction TV series.  That was before they decided to rely on wrestling and straight-to-video movies to fill their programming slate.  These days, everyone from AMC to MTV to the premium channels has some sci-fi or fantasy in their lineup – some good, some not.   So it’s nice to see something worth recommending on Sci-Fi/SyFy.

expanse

The Expanse, based on the novels by James SA Corey, takes place in a near future in which humanity has expanded into our solar system to colonize Mars and mine the asteroid belt.  There’s no faster-than-light travel, and one of the central tenets of the books is a realistic approach to the science and challenges of space travel and survival. Continue reading

Interstellar Thoughts

We took in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar last weekend.  First movie night since our previous baby-sitter went to college, so yeah, the wife and I were reminiscing with friends about how we used to see movies every weekend…

We enjoyed this film quite a lot – sometimes in spite of itself.  As far as I’m concerned, the more big budget movies that reasonably attempt to intelligently tackle space travel and sci-fi themes the better.  Yes, the Nolan brothers are insistent here – insisting that their framework of time and inter-generational connectivity drive the plot – even in the face of the extreme distance and sheer statistical unlikelihoods of interstellar travel.  Just like the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Memento, the Nolans are all in, using the conventions of movie storytelling and expectations to reinforce their thematic agenda.  As noted:  insistent.

We liked the generational love-story.  Very intense, very different from your typical male/female lead romance.  We liked the slow-build first act, reminiscent of Close Encounters.  We liked the scope and feel of the big space moments, supported by an effective score.  The acting performances were all first-rate.

So the science aspect of Interstellar, the insistence on the narrative framework inter-connections…  Yes, they work in the moment, but afterwards this bothered me a little.  And if you look at other reviews of this movie, you’ll find the sci-fi community a little less enamored of it than the general consumer, mostly for this reason.  Ideas on relativity and time, and sustainable life in the proximity of black holes – these are tough to convey to a general audience without too much dumbing down.  I’d be curious to know what actual physicists thought about this.

Still, it’s a very good movie, and if you think you’re the kind of person who’d enjoy Interstellar, you should certainly give it a look.

Marvel’s Guardians

Took in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy last weekend (along with so many others).  What a fun show!  Marvel Studios continues to hit that action-adventure-humor sweet spot, and we would guess that while the majority of the viewing public never heard of Drax or Groot prior to this film, they’re fans now.

Because no one’s demanded it, we’re going to try a little switch on the review format here.  Instead of the longer summary form, we’ll just go with the likes and dislikes, hits and misses, cheers and jeers.

Four likes

  1.  Cosmic Marvel – The intergalactic, sci-fi area of the Marvel Universe has a lot to offer.  Although Stan and Jack originally created some of the aliens and creatures just to give the Fantastic Four or Avengers someone else to fight, the vastness beyond Earth has provided creators with so many opportunities to tell new stories, mix favorite elements of space opera and sci-fi, and envision new worlds.  Guardians, with its mishmash of alien cultures and locales, uses this to great effect to create that fun Star Wars vibe.  We’ve seen hints of Cosmic Marvel in the Avengers-themed movies (especially Thor), but this one really nails it, with references to old school creations like the Kree and Skrull war, the Celestials, and more.
  2. Set Design/Art Direction – Closely tied to the above, big kudos to the visual arts team.  It’s incredible what they can create on screen these days.  Whether it’s Starlord’s ship (orange and blue, baby!), Ronan’s Dreadnought cruiser, the prison, Knowhere (awesome!), or Xandar, the overall result is fantastic.  Not just because of the vivid colors and attention to detail, but also how these environments interact with the characters without suspending the disbelief overly much.
  3. Chris Pratt – Starlord, man!  As a big Parks and Recreation fans, we already knew about the comic timing, which Pratt applies repeatedly and expertly.  He’s a great choice as that Earth-transplant every-dude.  Of course Peter Quill/Starlord has so much potential as an archetypal character.  With a boyhood spend on earth in the 80s, he has those frames of reference, the music, the lingo.  He knows about Captain Kirk and Han Solo and is fully attempting to pull that off.  Pratt’s convincing in the action scenes, and has the range for the more serious moments as well (although you could feel the clowning right around the corner).  His scenes with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) were fun and Saldana also deserves a lot of credit for her performance.
  4. Writers/Script – The story’s pretty straightforward:  Quest for treasure turns into a mission to stop the evil overlord.  The characters are your typical band of misfits.  But give a lot of credit to the writing team – James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, Dan Abnett, and Andy Lanning.  There’s real economy in their scenes; they set up character traits quickly, and the comedic moments are plentiful without feeling forced.  Drax taking everything literally, Rocket’s antics and tough-guy veneer, Groot…  We also appreciate some of those smaller moments and how they worked in a few Marvel easter eggs like usual.  They didn’t overdo the Starlord/Quill character arc, they didn’t force some grand epiphany upon the character.  And whoever came up with the idea for that final showdown with Ronan – well that writer deserves an award.

One dislike

  1. I thought the post-credit mini-scene (now a tradition) was a little weak and somewhat frightening in an 80’s flashback kind of way.  This isn’t really a dislike, but rather an observation:  the movie had just a little too much violence and a one too many crude jokes for me to bring the kids along.  They’re just going to have to wait, which is too bad, because they want to see Guardians very badly.

 

Movies: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

…written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffra, and Amanda Silver; directed by Matt Reeves; starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Toby Kebbell.  And some really good CGI guys…

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the better sci-fi dramas we’ve seen lately.  Set in a post-infectious disease event world, with the vast majority of humans having succumbed to the simian virus in the previous movie, the film rightly begins with the apes.  They are, after all, the stars of this show.

Caesar (Serkis) and the other apes have built a thriving hunter-gatherer civilization outside the ruins of San Francisco – and we quickly learn they have language (written, spoken, and sign), specialized roles, laws, and yes, politics.  They’ve seen no humans in years (and are happy about this) when a human blunders into an ape hunting party and promptly shoots one of the apes.

Turns out, the survivors of San Francisco are running low on fossil fuels, so they’ve traveled out to the apes’ forests in an attempt to get the old hydroelectric dam working.  But Caesar’s having none of it.  He rallies the apes, who converge upon the humans and let them know they need to stay in the city and leave the forest to the apes.

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Quick Recs – Sci-fi and Comics

A couple of quick recommendations for readers of science fiction and comic books on a cold February’s day…

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, his first book,  is a military-themed Heinlein-ian story with heart and humor.  The basic premise:  when earth-dwellers reach the age of 75, they have the option go sever all ties with their home and enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces to help protect and advance humanity’s outposts in interstellar space.  Not much is known about what happens when you enlist on Earth, but most agree it involves a significant physical modifications.  You also get the opportunity to settle in one of the colonies once your enlistment is up.

John Perry, a widower from Ohio, signs up, and we follow him on his journey.  Scalzi does a fine job of narrating from the perspective of a man whose lived a full life, confronted by some pretty fantastic dangers and situations.

This is the third book I’ve read in recent years by Scalzi.  The last one, Redshirtscomes with our highest recommendations, and I’m looking forward to picking up his most recent offering, The Human Division, soon.

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Books: Star Wars – Scoundrels

In Brief:  Set right after Episode IV, Timothy Zahn’s Scoundrels finds Han Solo and Chewbecca looking to score some bank from a heist of a local crime lord.  Of course it’s more complicated then that, especially when Lando shows up…

Pros:  Zahn’s done his homework on plotting – anything from The Sting to Sneakers to Oceans 11.  He also knows the Star Wars universe well enough to add some easter eggs for the hardcore fans and has a good sense of dialogue for the established characters.

Cons:  Any good heist story involves a lengthy setup and establishment of the rules of the target.  While Zahn does a solid job here, especially with incorporating the tech of the SW universe, this may cause the book to drag for some readers.

Review:  Your devoted Star Wars geek knows of Timothy Zahn, long considered one of the best novelization authors out there.  His Heir to the Empire series, which takes place soon after Episode VI, was good enough to draw me in to several more of Zahn’s books.  With that history, the Scoundrels premise (and cover) grabbed me as soon as I saw it in the store.

Scoundrels has Han and Chewie looking for work in the months after the destruction of the first Death Star.  Han has already lost his reward from the Rebel’s victory at Yavin, and Jabba’s bounty hunters are moving on him again.  An encounter with a young man called Eanjer opens up an opportunity. Continue reading

Books: The Buntline Special

In Brief: Mike Resnick’s The Buntline Special is a steampunk alternate Western with fantastic trappings.  That’s a lot of genre-melding.  Familiar events in Tombstone proceed down a different path amidst shamanic magic and alternate Tom Edison’s inventions.

Pros:  Resnick is a master of dialogue and a student of the real history of the West.  The characters are so familiar (based on real people we know from history and other media), and its fun to see them reimagined within this setting.

Cons:  The dialogue-heavy and scene-by-scene style really stretches at times.  The pace suffers as a result, and you may find yourself wondering if this story is a novella dressed in a short novel’s clothing.

Review:  The Buntline Special is the first in a series of Weird West tales penned by legendary sci-fi writer, Mike Resnick (check him out).  We’ve been reading Resnick since first discovering sci-fi novels and also enjoy his series of reflections with colleague Barry Malzberg  on the state of business and writing in the speculative fiction world.  So a Weird West series, with obvious steampunk and fantasy element (just look at the cover), written by a great sci-fi author…  We’re in.

Mostly, it’s a fun read that goes quickly.  Mostly, it works.  Here we are in Tombstone, Arizona.  The Earp brothers are feuding with the Cowboys, led by the McLaury brothers.  Wyatt Earp has sent for Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson.  Sound like any one of many familiar movies?  Tombstone is the one that plays in my head here.

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