J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

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Archive for the ‘Sci-Fi and Fantasy’ Category

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Posted by J on February 16, 2011

A professor of ours once declared that there was only one good science fiction work.  Everything else in the genre, he claimed, was simplistic and soon would be outdated, if it wasn’t already.  For science fiction is about ideas and tech, not humans, which is what great literature has to be about.  In science fiction, all characters are one-dimensional. They act in the plot according to their two or three major character traits, and they tend not to exhibit complexity.

We preface this short essay about the first Star Trek movie with this caution about science fiction because Star Trek, as everyone knows, makes little effort to portray human complexities.  Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy are who they are, always. Yes, Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan, but he is merely a simplistic symbol of the clash between logic and emotion.  These characters have amazing adventures, encounter new places, and maintain their friendship.  Their beloved status is accorded to them by viewers and fans, who feel a sense of comfort in any story they inhabit.

But, like we were trying to say, they’re not rich, complex characters. Star Trek is about the adventure and the ideas behind the Enterprise’s encounters with new aliens and planets. The franchise, like this first movie, tends to rip off of Western “classics.”  Here, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a major influence. In the second Star Trek movie, Moby-Dick is employed.

The first Star Trek movie, this one, might be the best, which isn’t saying much. Its flaws are numerous. It is badly dated, for one.  The tech might’ve looked fascinating in 1979, but it shows limited imagination today.  Like those really small viewer screens, for example. Wouldn’t they be larger, crisper, and three-dimensional today? But again, in science fiction, the wonders of tech soon become outdated jokes.

The idea behind this first movie is that human technology can develop its own consciousness, which is not all that interesting an idea anymore.  The big secret here is that the NASA probe Voyager has become a living organism.  It emits a massive cloud that destroys everything, and the big problem is that this cloud is heading for Earth. The Enterprise is the only ship that has a chance of stopping it.  So Kirk, Spock, and friends, try to stop the cloud.

That’s about it for the plot. It should be said that Voyager did not develop consciousness on its own, but that some bizarre race of machines way beyond the galaxy, or somewhere, took in Voyager and gave it consciousness.  We are supposed to be overawed with what Voyager has become. It is massive and powerful, according to the crew. It tries to communicate with the crew via a human-like probe, after taking one of the ship’s crew and using her body as the probe.  This idea, that we can communicate fairly easily with the unknown, is silly. The hope of easy communication fuels SETI’s futile search for the alien life, but the novels of Stanislaw Lem offer cautionary wisdom about the impossibility of communicating with something so completely different than us.  (Lem, of course, uses science fiction to discuss complex human issues.)

Despite Voyager’s superior intelligence and technology, it is a moron. It couldn’t, for example, figure out who the “Creator” is.  The Creator is NASA, but Voyager thinks that “carbon-based units” are too simplistic to create anything. Voyager has traveled through the galaxy, it has unimaginable quantities of data, it has incredible reasoning capability, and yet it can’t figure out that humans are capable of building machines?

But the worst howler is that Voyager thinks its name is “V-ger.”  That because it didn’t blow the dust off the letters “O – Y – A.”  When Kirk and company finally see “V-ger,” they realize that its name is actually Voyager, only that those three crucial letters can’t be seen.

It has to be said that Star Trek is always filled with unintentional comedy like this, so it makes for decent, light, nonsensical entertainment for those like us who have a soft spot for science fiction. There’s a sense in which this movie is one of the most boring of all Star Trek stories, but we kind of like its attempt at grandiosity and the involvement of the Voyager probe. Other Trek fare features human-like aliens, and thus dives into sociology and politics. But Trek is at its limited best when its about grand ideas about tech, so, in a sense, this is possibly the best movie of the series.

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Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | 2 Comments »

Inception

Posted by J on January 25, 2011

It seems odd to think of Inception as a science-fiction heist flick.  While it is just that, it never feels like that.  Perhaps that’s because, as viewers, we’re too absorbed and distracted to think about this.  Instead, we are constantly trying to listen for and learn this movie’s rules.  It has a lot of rules.  It makes them up as it goes along, but that never bothered us.  The movie is its own self-defined fantasy world.

Others have had problems with the movie’s logical expositions.  There are lots and lots of didactic moments, where the characters tell each other — and thus the audience — exactly what the rules of the dream world are.  These didactic moments are necessary because the movie is complicated.  The main character, Cobb, must implant an idea in Robert Fischer’s mind.  The way to do this is through dreams.  To get Fischer to believe that his recently-deceased father, head of a major energy corporation, wants Fischer to be his own man and split up the company, Cobb must create a dream within a dream within a dream.  Then he must guide Fischer through these dreams. Usually Cobb is involved in missions called “extractions,” in which he finds an idea in someone’s mind, but his mission here is the much harder process of idea-implantation known as “inception.”

To perform inception, Cobb must assemble a team.  He picks a chemist, a forger, a right-hand man, and an architect.  The architect creates the dream worlds, which must be enclosed, complex mazes so that the dreamer doesn’t realize that he/she is dreaming.   Cobb’s architect, a college student named Ariadne, finds that dream worlds are planes of “pure creation.”  There is a sense of wonder about this, but also dread.  A dreamer’s subconscious can turn upon other dreamers, attacking them with its manifestations.  And then there’s the problem of Cobb.  In dreams, Cobb’s dead wife keeps showing up and ruining his plans.  Ariadne worries that Cobb’s involvement will ruin the inception of Fischer.

It is nearly impossible to criticize this movie’s logic because it is its own self-contained entity.  We could ask, why is it safe to have three dream levels, but four dream levels is dangerous, the fourth level being the dreaded “Limbo,” which is the realm of “unreconstructed dream space”?  Why does the dream world experience zero-gravity if the dreamer experiences zero gravity?  We could go on questioning, but that’s pointless.  Questions like these do arise because, somehow, someway, the movie seems far more realistic than it really is.  The technology that makes shared dreaming possible is barely noticeable — it’s just a small, shiny gray box.  What does the box do?  How does it work?  Again, these aren’t relevant questions for this movie.

Inception‘s dream worlds resemble reality, but they allow architects to create entirely new, enticing places. This can be dangerous.  Cobb and his wife, Mal, once spent decades in a dream world, though technically it was only minutes of reality.  Mal loved the dream world too much.  As the movie shows, she loved an abstraction of real life — a fantasy world of statis — more than our everyday reality that necessarily involves time and change.  The threat to Cobb and his accomplices is that they, too, will get stuck in “Limbo” forever.

There are some obvious themes, then, that relate to modern addictions to fantasy worlds.  In a certain sense, we get sucked in to virtual worlds, whether in a video game, or a TV show, or online.  These virtual worlds must be fairly potent; for examples, head to your local library and witness dozens of people playing mindless games, fantasizing in Second Life, or creating new personalities on social networking sites. As with Inception’s dream box, these newer, digital mediums create dreams for us to inhabit and lose ourselves in.

Also, the movie touches on whether the mind is constructed by culture and influenced by visual communication.  Cobb’s mission is to implant an unwanted idea into another’s head.  This is a reasonable working definition for “propaganda.”  The idea that words and images can create reality — can bend or distort reality — is a powerful one for 20th century philosophy.  It is also the idea behind advertising.  While we think some arguments for the power of images to shape minds go too far, images certainly have some motivating effect on us all.  Watch this Darren Brown video on subliminal advertising for an example.  What Brown does is not far from what Cobb does in Inception.

It’s worth pointing out that Inception is an amalgam of other movies.  It’s already well known that the movie uses Fred Astaire’s dancing sequence from Royal Wedding, as well as various James Bond ski-resort scenes.  It also has major elements of every heist movie yet made, though the way Inception uses them to invent its own, unique world is probably the movie’s greatest success.  Implantation of ideas into another’s mind has long been a plot device for sci-fi.  We recently watched an episode of the 1960s series The Prisoner in which this was attempted (see “A.B. and C.“).  As a compilation of other movies, Inception is its own dream world.  It is about the effect of movies on viewer behavior, and it is about itself.

(Addendum: What’s interesting about this movie, psychologically, is the way that it conveys the directional space of dreams so effortlessly. In the final sequence, there are four dream levels.  As confusing as this could be, we know intuitively that these levels are layered, that one is on top of another.  We still can’t figure out why we get this certain feeling of the dream layers being organized vertically, but the movie pulls it off.  Well done.

Also novel is the ticking clock used in this movie.  Instead of a timer that counts down to zero, a van that falls off a bridge into the ocean is the clock.  This is an example of the way that the movie reinvents many cliches of the action genre.)

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Pretty Good, Reality-Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | 1 Comment »

The Box

Posted by J on April 12, 2010

The Box is like what would happen if The Twilight Zone took LSD and went to Laser Floyd. It has the ultimate summary blurb to suck in anybody, but once you get about 30 minutes into the movie, you begin to realize that only Salvador Dali could appreciate a movie like this.

Perhaps we’re being a little extreme.  LSD and Laser Floyd are supposed to be thrilling, not paranoia-inspiring.  But we’re not druggies, so it’s all the same to us.  Consider the poor drug analogy a stern warning.  You will want to rent this movie because of the premise you see on the back of the DVD box.  It goes like this.  In the 1970s in Richmond, Virginia, a NASA employee and Cameron Diaz are given a box.  They are told that if they push the button on top of the box, they will receive $1,000,000, cash and tax-free.  They will also, when they push the button, kill someone they don’t know.  They receive this box from a mysterious Mr. Steward, who is missing half of his face.

So there’s our premise, a hokey Philosophy 101 dilemma that can be entertaining enough to watch as an unfolding drama.  In truth, if the movie just featured this simple dilemma, contained in the first 20 minutes and last 5 minutes, everything would be fine.  But it’s during the long middle when you’ll wonder whether the director wanted to visually simulate dropping acid.

Don’t read ahead if you don’t wish to be spoiled.  The movie boils down to one of those mysterious extraterrestial being movies where all of humanity is tested.  If humanity passes the test, we aren’t killed by the mysterious super-alien.  The test is the button-push test.  Will we greedily push the button, or will we refuse to push it and thereby preserve our species?  The man with half a face is the super-alien, only we know this just through various clues.  There are no spaceships in this movie.  That would be too simple.

There are, however, mind-controlled human beings — known as “employees” — whose noses occasionally bleed.  They corral the main characters in a public library, then they urge one of them to choose a water gateway, one of which is the road to “salvation” and the other two the roads to “eternal damnation.”  This plot point is never resolved, nor approached again, though we do see the main character travel through a Kubrick-like psychadelic space voyage and end up five feet above his bed, surrounded by a rectangle of water.

What is with the water gateways, the weird people who are seemingly possessed, the half-face man’s experiment?  We are never to find out.  This nonsense is all backdrop to the simple moral dilemma posed at the beginning of the movie.  There are hints that any of these could be symbols, but for what, no one knows.  The main character is a wannabe astronaut involved in NASA’s Viking project, the hope of which was to find life on Mars.  All of the weirdness is wrapped up in NASA and the NSA — but then The X-Files franchise has long staked its claim to that territory.

The movie attempts to use Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit in some meaningful way.  Cameron Diaz’s character is a teacher who uses the play in her classroom, greatly appreciating it.  Perhaps this is the one good point of the movie.  Her character makes a poor moral choice that leads to her absurd downfall.  She is some existential hero, if that’s what she would like to be, dying for her own greed and foolhardiness.  Here’s where that weird super-alien gets to trump Sartre.  But then, with this movie, maybe we’re missing something.  Maybe the point is really to praise and reaffirm Sartre.  Interpret the water gateways and the freaky looking people as you wish.

Posted in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

Battlestar Galactica: Seasons 1 and 2

Posted by J on March 2, 2010

Here we go with another serial sci-fi TV show.  Thanks to Lost, this kind of show blossomed during the last decade, and Battlestar Galactica owes a little something to Lost, while mixing in a bit of 24 and Star Trek.

Galactica is good sci-fi, most of the time.    In some distant time, humans live on twelve planets, none of which are Earth.  These humans are attacked by machines known as Cylons.  Humans invented Cylons long ago, and somehow the Cylons gained enough intelligence and gumption to attack humans.  A war broke out, both sides made peace, and then the Cylons disappeared for decades.

At the beginning of the show, the Cylons return. They nuke all 12 human planets, and destroy 99.9% of humanity.  Only about 40,000 humans remain, scattered amongst several spaceships, hoping to find the lost colony of Earth.  Meanwhile, the Cylons chase these human survivors.

The show’s best element is the mystery it’s premised on.  A few Cylon models are not just robots, but they look and act like humans. They infiltrate the human survivors, and so the humans are never sure if one of them is actually a Cylon.  Since the Cylons are hostile, practicing spycraft and subterfuge, engaging in suicide missions and terrorist attacks, the Battlestar Galacticans have a big problem.

There is a major religious difference between the humans and Cylons.  The Cylons are monotheistic.  They talk about God’s love, God’s justice, God’s forgiveness.  We don’t know exactly what they mean — who is their god, after all? — but they contrast sharply with the colonial humans, who are polytheistic, believing in and praying to the “Lords of Kobol.”  In some ways this divide is supposed to resemble the contrast between ancient Roman pagans and Roman Christians.  In other ways, it resembles the contrast between modern-day fundamentalists (Muslims or Christians) and the accepted polytheism of American multiculturalism.

The human remnant is left to wander around space, scavenging for supplies and hoping to blindly come across a place called Earth.  They don’t know where Earth is, but it’s one of the lost colonies that might allow them refuge from the Cylons’ relentless attempt to dominate the universe and wipe out all of humanity.  It becomes apparent pretty quickly that, at least for the convenience of the show, the Cylons can pop up anywhere, anytime.  What the humans think they are going to do when they find Earth is unclear.  For all we viewers know, there is no safe haven in the galaxy.

When humanity gets down to its last 40,000 people, several problems arise.   Among their remnant, they appear to only have one medical doctor and one thousand journalists.  The medical doctor — a Bob Knight lookalike who smokes — is 70 years old.  He specializes in breast cancer, neuroscience, pharmacology, and obstetrics and gynecology, and that’s just the beginning of his resume.  You’d think the Galacticans would train doctors, pronto, but they’re actually more concerned with the policy decisions of their government.

And, boy, are they concerned.  The 1,000 journalists swarm to every press conference that the Galactican President holds.  This President, newly sworn in soon after the Cylon attack, is concerned with upholding the principles of democracy, whatever those are supposed to be.  She insists on maintaining democratic government even though the humans are attacked by the Cylons every few days.  It’s a time of total war and chaos, but it doesn’t matter.  The Galactican president wants to represent the people. 

As this example shows, Battlestar Galactica is an overtly political drama that straddles every side of present-day American politics, especially every issue involved in the so-called War on Terror.  It is so overtly political that, in one episode, we actually watch a few minutes of parliamentary procedure.  No one who has ever attended a meeting in which Robert’s Rules of Order was used has ever been anything but bored.  You can imagine how entertaining it is to watch in a sci-fi show.  But Battlestar wants us to understand how deeply its characters care about politics.  There is even one minor character (Tom Zarek) who, as a radical democrat, uses violent means to achieve political ends.  Other characters support Zarek’s desire to give “freedom to the people” and “form a collective that works for every individual citizen,” but in an act of moderation, they reject his violent approach to instituting “pure democracy.”  Still, Zarek is allowed a position on the Galactican high council, and eventually becomes Vice President, even though he’s a convicted terrorist and a hijacker!

Every Galactican cares so deeply about politics that, when the presidential election is held, there is a 99% turnout of the human population.  Apparently in the Galactican government, even children and the mentally infirm vote.

Back to the War on Terror.  Battlestar‘s major character is Commander Adama, who is in charge of the human remnant’s military.  Adama is the Political Everyman.  He represents military supremacy and yet espouses the Galacticans’ democratic sentiments.  In one episode, Adama calls a military tribunal to investigate a Cylon spy.  The President warns Adama that such a tribunal will turn into a “witchhunt,” which of course is what happens.  Adama finds himself interrogated at this tribunal, which he ends with his statement that the tribunal is a witchhunt that violates everyone’s civil liberties — and then he promptly has the interrogating officer confined to her quarters, just on his word.  In another episode, Adama arrests the President because she suborned mutiny on his ship, but realizes (after several episodes) that the fleet cannot be divided and that he must forgive the President and reunite humanity.

The Cylon infiltration clearly represents the War on Terror.  Everyone is a suspect, and torture is a legitimate tool of the human military.  The monotheistic Cylons make suicide bomber attacks, and use the human media to foment dissent.

The Cylons are also interested in reproduction, specifically human-Cylon reproduction.  You’d think that 40,000 humans would be the ones interested in reproduction, but no, the humans appear to care more about the abstract doctrine of equality than in their long-term survival. Their women, for example, still play major roles in the government and military, apparently using “protection” whenever they have a tryst in the co-ed bathrooms and military quarters.  By contrast, the Cylons have reproduced to practically infinite numbers.  They appear to have taken over the galaxy, mostly because they believe in their “one true God’s command” to “be fruitful,” rather than in equal rights and the necessary usage of condoms and IUDs. These demographic facts alone should tell us who will win, and very soon, but of course we are supposed to root for the non-reproductive humans.

Galactica often takes some hardcore political position and then challenges it with one of those Philosophy 101 “What-If” scenarios. In one episode, a human woman wants to have an abortion.  The President defends the woman’s right to an abortion, which has been legal under the Galactican government.  Well, of course when you’re down to 40,000 humans, during a time of war, you must reproduce or die.  The President realizes this and reverses her position, using an executive order to ban abortion.  Bizarrely, this becomes a campaign issue when the President is challenged by her own sitting Vice President, who takes the pro-choice position.

This Vice President is uber-scientist Dr. Gaius Baltar, the show’s one great character.  Baltar unknowingly collaborated with a Cylon woman before the Cylon attack, his actions resulting in the near-destruction of humanity.  Baltar is haunted and then entertained by mental visions of this Cylon woman, who tells him how to act in certain situations.  Is Baltar’s mental woman a manifestation of his own brain, a Cylon chip implanted in him, or a “angel of God,” as the woman often claims she is?

The 2nd season ends when Baltar, the newly elected President, fulfills his campaign promise to colonize a barely habitable planet.  It is clear that Baltar’s presidency would be a total disaster, given the doctor’s preoccupation with his own survival and no one else’s.  In the last episode of the season we see the Cylons, some of whom want to make peace with the humans, find the human’s new colony and set up a military occupation.  What are the Cylons there for?  What do they think they will accomplish with a military occupation?  Such answers bring us back to the realm of politics, both abstract and practical, which is what Battlestar Galactica always wants us to consider.

Posted in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, TV Series | Leave a Comment »

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Posted by J on December 19, 2009

The subtitle of this X-Files movie is inappropriate, since the object of investigation is fairly believable, relatively speaking.  There are no UFOs, monsters, freaks, or paranormal phenomena.  Instead, just the good old Russians doing medical experiments on humans.  This probably helps and hurts the movie.  For those of us who want aliens, we’re disappointed.  And yet the subject of investigation is excellently captured in the tone of the movie, which features a dark snowy landscape and almost no special effects sequences.  Kudos to this movie for containing a suspenseful plot that features no gun shots, no explosions, and punches that actually sound like punches.

The major problem is that this movie carries much baggage from the original TV show.  For those who don’t care all that much about Mulder and Scully’s personal relationship, we’re in for far too much of it.  One minute of it would’ve been too much.  Like Star Trek, the baggage of the characters’ past, and the hardcore audience’s knowledge of that past, get in the way.

The plot, of course, is a vehicle for both ex-FBI agents Mulder and Scully to come out of retirement.  Both investigated paranormal activity in the past, as a team.  Mulder is the resident believer in all the ghosts and hoodoo, while Scully is the skeptical scientist.  Here, they investigate the disappearance of an FBI agent.  An ex-priest and pedophile has visions relating to this agent, and apparently he’s receiving visions from God, which lead him to clue after clue.  It’s up to Mulder to be the only character to have faith in this priest’s ESP, while it’s up to Scully to 1) disbelieve everything, and 2) give a tongue-lashing to the priest for his awful sins.  But you already saw that coming.

There are a host of present-day issues that the film touches on. First is the Catholic church and its pedophilia scandals, about which the movie seems to be on the side of forgiveness, since the ex-priest seems to be genuinely repentent.  Next is stem cell research.  The movie appears to be in favor of this.  Scully’s patient at the Catholic hospital she works at can only be saved via a stem cell operation (we do not know what is meant by “stem cell,” but we do clearly see Scully type “stem cell research” into Google, as if she’s never heard of it, even though she’s soon going to perform brain surgery involving stem cells).  The priest in charge of the hospital does not want Scully to use stem cells, a fact he never announces but is quite obvious by his attempts to stop her.  Scully is determined, however, to perform her scientific, Frankenstein-like experiment on her patient.  The message she receives from the ex-priest, via a vision from God, is: Don’t Give Up.  Which apparently means, don’t give up on performing your stem cell operation, although the movie leaves this vague statement open to interpretation.

Scully’s ethical, hospital-based Frankenstein experiment is contrasted with the backwoods, dirty-lab Frankenstein experiment of the movie’s bad guys.   These bad guys — foreigners of course, and Russians, the go-to bad guy foreigners of Hollywood — are kidnapping young females so that they can perform whole limb and body transplants.  They aren’t doing this for kicks or for science. Instead, there’s a married gay couple, one of which is an official transporter of organs and the other of which is just a head.  Yep, the “head” is a guy dying of cancer, but to keep him from dying the Russians have taken his head and attached it to another body.

So to sum up, a married, gay, Russian couple is harvesting organs from innocent victims and experimenting with these organs in the mountains of West Virginia.

Like we said earlier, this is not as implausible as E.T. abducting cows and making crop circles.

It’s probable that somebody out there in the world believes that this movie is friendly to Christians.  After all, Christian iconography is everywhere in the movie.  We see plenty of crosses, Virgin Mary statues, priests, rosaries.  There are numerous references to prayer and belief.  The fact that God is giving visions to an ex-priest is a subject of heated debate amongst FBI agents.  Yes, you’d think that Hollywood had found Jesus.

Don’t be fooled.  Once again, the Christian religion is used as spectacle, or in this case an entertainment extravaganza.  The Christian subtext helps amplify the Mulder-Scully dynamic, which is centered around two problems: will the believer or the skeptic win, and will they or won’t they get together and have sex?  And of course the most fantastic and bizarre elements of Christianity are used.  Roman Catholicism, as in so many other films, is employed because it is the more visually rich than, say, Southern Baptism.  Priestly pedophilia, visions from God, tears of blood — this is standard fare for the portrayal of anything Christian in the genre of sci-fi suspense.

As usual, the realm of the sacred is not reaffirmed as sacred by Hollywood.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 3

Morality: 3

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | Leave a Comment »

Harry Potter and the SomethingorOther

Posted by J on July 24, 2009

As we left Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a ten-year old boy 2008-11-14-harry_pottercomplained to his parents that “this movie had no character development!”

We’d say the lad is a budding movie critic.  Indeed, son, there is no character development, but in fact what Harry Potter movie has had one second of character development?  Sure, in this particular movie there’s a lot of teenage oogling and crying in many insufferable scenes about adolescent love. And the whole Potter series is roughly about growing up.  But that’s about it.

Harry is still Harry, which means he must get into trouble, do some magic, combat evil.  All in a day’s work for an archetype.

If there is a plot to this movie, someone should carefully diagram it out for us.  We mean, either there was a plot, a very intricate, unintelligible one (to laymen), or there was no plot at all.  We weren’t sure.  This Potter movie, like many of the others, seems like it simply treads water, waiting for the big finale in the last movie — the climactic tidal wave –to crash down on our heads.  There was something about Horcruxes and Death Eaters and lots of characters we vaguely remembered, but all of that starts to run together for those of us who don’t see the point of all this Potter mythology.

We have been waiting for Harry to combat ultimate evil for, oh, six movies.  Eventually the forces of Good will face the forces of evil, but these movies have taken approximately fifteen hours to get to that point.  As they say in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Get on with it!”

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence:0

Morality: 3 (hard to believe this is a PG movie)

Posted in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Silly but Entertaining | Leave a Comment »

Knowing

Posted by J on July 18, 2009

knowing_ver3Knowing is yet another Hollywood commercial product that dumbs down the philosophical material it contains and turns it into hogwash.  Ten minutes into the movie, you know you’ve seen this all before — creepy kids who hear whispers, mysterious numbers that seem to predict the future, and philosophical lectures by the stereotypical scientist as main character.

The movie features Nicolas Cage as an astrophysicist at MIT (yeah, right!) who specializes in solar radiation.  This astrophysicist gives us a lengthy lecture early in the movie about the sun’s power and randomness vs. determinism, a lecture that experienced moviegoers will understand is a giveaway to the ending of the movie.  Of course this astrophysicist believes in randomness, even though his dad is a pastor and he has recently lost his wife.  Does he not know he is in a Hollywood movie, wherein he will be required to find the vaguest of faiths in some higher power?  Here, he finds faith in “heaven,” ultimately realizing that once we die, we’ll all just be okay.  It doesn’t get any deeper than that, dear reader, but did you expect it to?

Undoubtedly the starry-eyed Christian movie reviewers elsewhere will praise this movie for its “Christian elements.”  After all, the movie favors a predestined plan implemented by a higher power, it calls its characters to “faith” in something, and it features the Bible for a few minutes.  Of course “Christian elements” can be found anything if we look hard enough.  The Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Analects of Confucius — plenty of “Christian elements” here.  There’s even potential glory in any sewer, right?

SPOILER ALERTKnowing follows the “theory” of Intelligent Design to one of its logical conclusions by claiming that angel aliens — who are creepy white men until the end of the movie — have planned our futures for us.  Ultimately two children get raptured to another planet, to start all over as a sort of Adam and Eve.  These two children are “chosen,” while at the same time everyone and everything on Earth has to die, even though the angel aliens have the technology and ability to transport everyone off the Earth to safety.  Not the nicest of guys, these angel aliens.

And why are movies like this always so bleak about the end of the Earth?  Knowing takes global warming to the extreme, as the Earth in consumed in a wave of solar radiation so powerful that it scorches everything. Just before this heat wave of destruction, our faithless astrophysicist learns to accept death and the words of his pastor father, who consoles us with the view that everything’s going to be alright after death.

Meanwhile, the two kids are raptured into the heavens just like Richard Dreyfuss was at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Apparently we all just want to escape this hideous planet, which we are destroying at an alarming rate, and even if we aren’t destroying it all that fast something else will destroy it for us.  For once, we’d like to see a movie where the Earth is renewed.  (Oh wait, that was Wall-E‘s point.)

Actually we liked the last five minutes of this movie, as the director (Alex Proyas) overcame the movie’s lame script with good visuals and the Adam-and-Eve surprise.  Prior to that, the characters go into the dark woods just because this movie is supposed to scare us, and when they aren’t going into the dark woods they of course live in a secluded house in the dark woods.

Someday someone will make Out of the Silent Planet and far surpass these regurgitated sci-fi flicks.  Granted, C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy will be dumbed down to the point of stupidity, too, but they can’t screw it up completely.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 2

Morality: 5

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | Leave a Comment »

Lost: Season 5

Posted by J on May 15, 2009

Lost has nearly lost it.  We think that the unraveling has slowly been occuring, but sped up greatly when in this season the main characters traveled back in time.   Mind you, the show is still pretty good sci-fi — better than just about anything else on TV right now — but that’s a long way away from the world-class, timeless-tale aspirations the show had in the first two seasons.  Let’s figure out why.

First, the show has employed the old sci-fi time-travel paradox.  Say you traveled back from 1985 to 1955.  You accidentally run into your mother, who is attracted to you instead of the man she is supposed to marry, your father.  Then you cause the key moment in your mother and father’s relationship to not happen.  You then have inadvertently changed the future, which means  you shouldn’t exist, because your mother and father do not marry and thus you are not born, but nevertheless you have not disappeared after all.  You still exist, but solely for the sake of the plot.

In fact, by merely traveling to the past for a few days, you have already changed the future.  You have caused things to happen that didn’t happen already when 1955 occured the first time (without you).  There is no debate about this.  You cannot avoid changing the future when you travel back to the past.   The past occurs with or without you, but both possibilities cannot have the same future.

Also, if you travel back to 1955, what has happened is that the future causes the past to happen.  Normally, 1955 precedes 1956. Thus 1955 causes 1956 to happen, which causes 1985 to happen, the year you supposedly traveled back in time.  But, by having you travel back in time to 1955, what your contradictory but entertaining story is saying is that 1985 causes things to happen in 1955.  This is a logical impossibility, as an effect cannot be a cause of its own cause.

Of course this is pure speculation, as no one has ever traveled through time (yet).  Yet it has long been recognized as a convenient but silly sci-fi scenario to get us to ask: “Could I change the past?”  This is the eternal question the Lost characters wrestle with through half of this fifth season.   A major problem with this is that it is not, and has never been, a deep human concern.  As a speculative exercise it can be intriguing, perhaps entertaining, but it will never strike us as a very moving or powerful question because it’s not a question that affects any of us at all.  Perhaps it will be on the day time machines are invented.

Consider some of the questions posed in the early seasons of the show.  “How do I deal with this group of people (strangers)?  Who do I trust?  How do I really know what I know?  How do I deal with these other people who think they really know something that I think is a bunch of nonsense?”  Now these are questions that we all, everybody in the world really, deal with on an almost daily basis.  Done well, a powerful story can be based on these questions.

Season 5, however, is mostly concerned in its plot and character development with a speculative problem of the realm of science fiction.  This can be entertaining, but it is not particularly thoughtful.    One of the biggest problems that sci-fi has had over its one-hundred year lifespan as a genre is that it always tends to put aside real human problems in favor of problems that have never happened and may never happen.  This is why sci-fi tends to create one-dimensional characters, whose job is simply to wrestle with the speculative problem at hand.  The characters on Lost in this season, a few of them already well developed, devolve into one-dimensional characters because they are worried about whether they can change the future by changing the past.

The show’s other, major problem is that there are simply too many characters now, many of whom are paper-thin.  These characters are part of the show’s mythology, so they have been getting more and more screen time.  But the writers seem to have forgotten that the mythology, the mysteries of the Island and such, must be a mere backdrop to the real foreground,the character interactions of the several people who initially crash-landed on the Island.  In fact, much of this mythology doesn’t need to be explored at all; we would simply be better left speculating about it after the fact than having so much of it revealed to us.

In the process of exploring this mythology, the writers have dumped their two best characters, Jack Shepherd and John Locke, whose views of the island — resulting in crucial decisions in leadership — were the greatest source of conflict early in the show.  But Jack was almost totally ignored (in terms of screen time) once he traveled back in time, while Locke is not really Locke but some other person.  Surely the writers are not dumb enough to have killed off a character they spent four seasons deeply exploring, perhaps the best character on the show.  If the real John Locke, the man who crashed on the Island, is really dead for good, the show’s title will aptly describe the situation the show’s writers are in.

This season’s final episode had its sloppy moments.  It only takes two hours to dismantle a hydrogen bomb, which can be easily done if you follow the instructions in a notebook?  When did Jack hit the shooting range (for a doctor, he’s quite good with a gun in these pointless gun battles)?  You can get tortured but emerge from it with no cuts and bruises?  You can get in a long fistfight but still be energized enough for a gun battle?  The show is a sci-fi fantasy, but there still are limits to our willing suspension of disbelief.

Having dogged on the show enough, we’ll repeat that it’s still pretty good sci-fi.  “316”, the episode in which the six plane crash survivors returned to the island, was one of the best of the entire series.  “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham” and “The Variable” were quite good too.

Pretty good sci-fi, sorry to say, is a disappointment for this show.  It is as if the show had (after its first two seasons) hit a homerun.  All it had to do was round the bases.  But after touching second, for some reason it stopped heading toward third and now is wandering around outside the ballpark.  For all practical purposes, lost.

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After Season 4 we made this observation:

The series is slowing peeling back layers of power, but we haven’t nearly reached the core yet.  First we thought the survivors could find their way off the island (Season 1).  Then we see that the survivors are naive, and that the Others possess the island’s secrets and the power to escape (Seasons 2 and 3).  Then, by Season 4, we see Ben Linus and Charles Widmore as the two major players gunning for control of the island, while everyone else, including the Oceanic crash survivors, seem to be mere pawns.  But then, clearly, something more powerful is controlling Linus and Widmore.  Is that Jacob, and is there something more powerful than him?

The answer is “yes, Jacob is the next layer of power.”  The final episode of Season 5 revealed that the island has yet another layer to its power structure.  Apparently Jacob and a rival, already nicknamed “Esau” on other sites, have been playing a long game on the Island, seemingly hundreds of years long.  Recall all of the black/white imagery — it comes up overtly every three episodes or s0 — and all of the instances in which people are playing board games.  This all apparently refers to Jacob and Esau, who wear white and black shirts respectively, and who appear to be playing games with people who come to the Island.  Somehow Jacob and Esau (perhaps just Jacob) control all events on the Island.  Esau wants to kill Jacob, apparently to take over Jacob’s position as Island ruler, or perhaps to “win” the game.

So what will happen?  With Jacob’s dying breath he sighed “They are coming.”  Probably this is a reference to our ragtag group of heroes, the survivors of the Oceanic planecrash.  If this show actually has a “good” guy and an “evil” guy — which is doubtful, because the writers love to reverse these roles and create ambiguities — Jacob is likely the good guy.  He visits all of our heroes, physically touches all of them, and gives some of them a choice but leaves that choice entirely up to them. Esau, meanwhile, seems to be tricking everyone by taking on apparitions and tempting them (especially Ben).  Perhaps all of the previous dead people who reappeared were just manifestations of Esau; perhaps our previous encounters with Jacob’s cabin was just Esau.  And the whispers in the forest too.  Remember when someone — Jacob, so we thought — whispered “Help Me” to John Locke. That may have been Esau.

We have no idea who the groups will be.  Somebody will back Esau, while others will back the apparently deceased Jacob.  And that will be the final contest, the coming “war” that Widmore told Locke about in Season 5.  Almost certainly Jack will see a manifestation of his father in the last season.  Also Jack will probably die, sacrificing himself while saving everyone.  The series started with Jack, so it will end with him.

There will be redemption for two characters who have been set up as irredeemably evil: Sayid and Ben.  The writers have leaned too heavily on their evil doings, while endearing them to viewers, to not allow them to do something redemptive in Season 6.

What does all this have to do with ancient Egypt (hieroglyphs, statues, etc.)?  We can’t imagine, but they better not try to explain it, because it will probably be something stupid.

What is the entire show about?  What might we say its worldview is?  There will probably no way to answer those questions definitively until the very end.

Posted in Pretty Good, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, TV Series | Leave a Comment »

Star Trek: First Contact

Posted by J on October 18, 2008

This might be our one and only Star Trek review, so listen up.  Star Trek: First Contact is the second movie with the cast from the second Star Trek TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Got that?  It’s nearly impossible to keep track of these things, so let’s just call this the series with Captain Shakespeare and the android, the only two characters worth paying any attention to. (The marketers thought the same thing: see the movie poster.)

Essentially, in this movie, the Earth is being attacked by an alien race called the Borg.  To get a feel for who the Borg are, walk in to the nearest public school sometime.  It’s a race that forcibly “assimilates” all alien species into its collective.  It thereby evolves because it assimilates the knowledge of each species, and each person who gets captured and made into a borg becomes essentially half-organic, half-robot — a being indistinguishable from his fellow borg.  The key for Star Trek is that the Borg is a terrible kind of boogeyman for both the heroes and us the audience.  Captain Shakespeare and his merry band get freaked out by the thought of somebody, anybody, becoming a borg.  That person, they think, loses all individuality and freedom of thought.  It is so horrible to them that there’s no doubt about the ethical consequences: if your best friend becomes a borg, kill him.

Bizarrely, Captain Shakespeare and his merry band have never reflected on the structure of the United Federation of Planets, their own “peaceful” galactic organization.  Seriously, there’s little difference between the Borg and the Federation of Planets.  Both are highly militaristic, both seek to assimilate other species, and both are trying to dominate the galaxy.

The only difference between the Borg and the Federation is that the Federation appears diverse, whereas the Borg all look the same.  So yes, the only difference is appearance.  They are both multicultural collectives; they have “assimilated” many races into their cultural and political structures, but they have almost no diversity of opinion.   Can we just call the United Federation of Planets a communist enterprise and call it a day?

“Communist” doesn’t quite get it, but it’s close.   The crew of Star Trek band together, neither as a family nor as a religious body, but as a collective of individuals who operate a space warship.  You rarely see these people enjoying family.  There is no religion on the Enterprise, except for when they utter goofy mumbo-jumbo that would move only devotees of Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey.  All of the crew of this warship wear military uniforms, 24 hours a day.  They brag about how they’ve eliminated money from society and now all pursue the common good.  It’s a real utopia, this Star Trek.  The kind of utopia in space fantasies that, in reality, is hell on Earth.

In Star Trek: First Contact, the Borg travel back in time to the point where humans build a spaceship with warp-drive.  This is the key moment in human progress, when humans do something good enough to join the United Federation of Planets.  It’s the invention of warp drive that ushers in utopia, an era of everlasting peace and prosperity.  Yes, that’s right, NASA could save us all.

So the Borg want to stop this event from happening and assimilate humanity.  Somehow, Captain Shakespeare and his crew travel in time back with the Borg.  Yes, they have to stop the Borg and look heroic doing so.  Great.  The bizarre thing is they admit that human history turned on a dime.  You see, right after the Third World War, in which nukes were prominently involved, an alcoholic scientist built the ship with warp-drive.  So sixty years after nearly destroying itself in its third world war, humanity becomes entirely peaceable.  Of course, the crew of the Entreprise have no problem with killing the Borg, but never mind. Human nature has changed , and they are all near-pacifists now.  Their mantra: “Give peace a chance, or else.”

This is the kind of movie that Star Trek outsiders can grasp without having to know the character dynamics or the intricacies of the many Star Trek series.  (We say this because we don’t know them.)  In fact, the movie contains all you need to know about the politics and ethics of Star Trek, which are hilarious when not taken seriously.  They are entirely humanistic, which means that they are falsely optimistic and quite stupid. The god of Star Trek is scientific progress, backed by weapons of war.

Entertainment:6

Intelligence: 3

Morality: see above

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | 2 Comments »

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Posted by J on October 10, 2008

For once, just this once, we’re in favor of the police state.  The Day the Earth Stood Still did that to us.  This movie forces us into a choice between a square-jawed prig from outer space, who threatens humanity with annihilation, or the U.S. military’s occupation of Washington D.C.  No thanks, Mr. Alien.  We’ll take our chances with our fellow earthlings, even if they threaten our liberties with guns, thank you.

At the beginning of the movie this alien, a dude named Klaatu, lands his spaceship in the middle of a park in Washington DC.  This doesn’t create mass panic, but it does worry the U.S. army, which surrounds the spaceship with soldiers and tanks.  When Klaatu emerges from the spaceship, announcing that he’s come in peace, one of the soldiers gets an itchy trigger finger.  Klaatu gets shot, and so we are supposed to weep for the weapons of war that we unjustly use.

As it turns out, it’s unfortunate that Klaatu lives.  He bogs down the middle of this movie with his stuffy attitude.  The star of any movie is supposed to have charisma greater than zero, but not Klattu.  He’s like an uninvited dinner guest who’s overstayed his welcome by, oh, three days.  In the end, you’re glad he goes back to Alpha Centauri, hopefully permanently.  Please go ruin some other planet’s movies.

Klaatu is supposed to be a genius, but of course he can’t figure out how to evade military checkpoints.  Thankfully, for the sake of the movie, the U.S. military is dumber. It posts two guards — that’s right, two — outside of Klaatu’s spaceship.  You’d think that the most amazing event in human history would require several brigades’ worth of soldiers, plus 24-hour surveillance by the most advanced technology we have.  But nope, Klaatu’s robot uses the old ‘bang-their-heads-together’ trick, and Klaatu walks right back into his spaceship.

It’s Klaatu’s mission that really got us.  You see, he’s here on Earth to warn us all that unless we shape up, the United Federation of Planets is going to blow us up real good.  We haggle and fight too much on Earth, he says.  Well, great point.  But then he demands that we “progress” by joining his galactic government.  Of course, Klaatu forces us to join his government.  If we don’t, he says, his government will kill us all for killing each other.   That sort of defeats the purpose of a wonderful, benevolent federation for interplanetary peace, but aliens have their contradictions too, we guess.

Since there is no United Federation of Planets, this is the movie’s way of saying that the United Nations is the only way to go.  It’s one world government, or else.  All we are saying is give peace a chance, or else we will destroy you for not complying.  Some peace.

So when the military guns down Klaatu for a second time, killing Klaatu, we actually sympathized with the aggressor.  Only problem is that Klaatu can rise from the dead.  His final warning, after his resurrection, is to put up or shut up.  That is, get rid of your weapons or my destructive robot will get rid of them for you, permanently, since your molecules will be scattered throughout the universe, hahaha!

If Klattu ever shows up here again, we will unite.  We will unite against him.  When the 2008 version of this movie appears in theaters, bring your tomatos.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 0

Morality: 0

Posted in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, They Spent Millions on This? | 8 Comments »