Sunday, November 28, 2010
Monday, November 22, 2010
Friday, November 19, 2010
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Monday, November 15, 2010
Friday, November 12, 2010
I could make a pretty long list of reasons why I should hate RoboCop. It has one of the stupidest names of any film in history. It’s ultra-violent. The effects leave something to be desired. It’s got a sort of cynical and shallow grittiness that I often find crass. The acting is less than stellar. It’s directed by Paul Verhoeven, known for making so-bad-they’re-good films like Showgirls and Starship Troopers. And yet, it’s somehow a likable film – not Citizen Kane, but really likable sf.
This is another science fiction film very much concerned with present-day concerns, especially the rising crime rate and Reagan-era privatization. RoboCop takes place in the near future Detroit, which is so overrun with crime that the mega-corporation Omni-Consumer Products (OCP) wants to tear it down and start over. OCP has also recently purchased the Detroit Police Department, and they want to mechanize it to increase its efficiency. Their police robot, ED-209, has a tendency to kill all offenders, so they decide to go with a cyborg instead. Meanwhile, a police officer named Murphy (Peter Weller) transfers into Detroit and gets horribly shot up by the Dad from That 70s Show (Kurtwood Smith, who steals every scene in a film with otherwise mediocre acting). He becomes the perfect subject for OCP and is built into RoboCop.
RoboCop manages to beat down a lot of criminals, but power games in OCP threaten his existence, and an executive hires the Dad from That 70s Show to kill RoboCop again. Meanwhile, Murphy is recognized by his old partner (played by a near future Maggie Gyllenhaal, who must have time travelled back to 1987 to star in this film), and she tries to help him regain his memories.
In many ways, RoboCop is one of the first successful superhero films, and it very much follows the superhero origin story template. You see RoboCop’s creation, you see him successfully fight crime, you see his fall and eventual triumph – it’s very by numbers, but it works. There’s some typical Verhoeven stuff here – there’s gratuitous nudity, most female characters are peripheral sex objects, and the violence is really over-the-top (there are lots of exploding gunshot wounds and one character takes an acid bath – I’m sort of horrified that I watched and loved this movie when I was eleven or twelve). But, it’s not his worst by far.
The best material is the satire, especially in the violent commercials and short news segments, during which chipper newscasters briefly discuss apocalyptic horrors from around the world. Much of it is dead on, and I wished there were more.
I’m not rushing out to buy the blu-ray, but I certainly didn’t mind rewatching it.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Monday, November 8, 2010
Friday, November 5, 2010
The return of James Cameron, as the future “king of the world” wins his first Hugo. I wish this happened more often with science fiction sequels: bring in a talented director with his own distinct vision who will take the franchise in a new direction while remaining faithful to the original material. We move from Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic horror film to a big action epic. This is also the best translation of military sf, and the mood or Starship Troopers, to the big screen.
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) awakes from stasis following her horrific experiences in the first film into a world decades beyond her own time (Relativity!). Her employers, the greedy Company, debrief her but seem dubious of her claims. But, when they lose contact with a distant colony, they worry that the creature Ripley encountered may have struck again. A Company representative (a very slimy Paul Reiser) and Ripley join up with a tough group of space marines to check the situation out. The marines, both male and female, are tough and confidant, and Ripley warns them that they’re in over their heads. After a few encounters with a colony full of the aliens, they begin to get the point.
This is one of the great science fiction films: it’s well thought out, action packed, the effects are great and have aged well, and yet Cameron still takes time for character moments (and Weaver gives the performance of her career). It’s a completely different movie than its predecessor, but just as good. This is the last time I’ll be discussing the Alien franchise*: Alien 3 also garners a great director with David Fincher (Fight Club), but it’s early in Fincher’s career and he’s saddled with a weaker script that quickly jettisons the status quo established in this film – the results are much less satisfying. The fourth film is almost universally detested, though I don’t mind it as much as most – it’s a mediocre sf film that just looks really bad in comparison to the first two films.
*unless the prequel in development somehow actually manages to 1) get made, and 2) be good.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Monday, November 1, 2010
A year after sweeping the big three US awards with Ender’s Game, Card did it again with a sequel, a very different book than its predecessor – the simplicity seems to be gone (or is it?), as is the repetitiveness. The result is a rather byzantine mystery story that managed to fascinate and infuriate me at the same time.
I usually avoid spoilers as much as possible, but it’s impossible to talk about this novel without mentioning a few facets of the conclusion of Ender’s Game, so readers beware.
Speaker for the Dead picks up 3000 years after Ender’s Game. Ender is regarded as a genocidal monstrosity, the worst human to ever live, but Andrew Wiggin is the sainted founder of the influential philosophy of Speaking for the Dead (which is pretty much what it sounds like). He and his sister Valentine are only in their thirties, thanks to relativity, and both generally conceal the fact that they are influential historical figures as they flit from colony planet to colony planet. Ender is called to speak for the dead at the Brazillian-Catholic colony of Lusitania, which also happens to be home to the first sentient lifeforms humanity has encountered since the buggers, called "piggies." Once on the colony, Ender must unravel several nested mysteries about the piggies and a family of xenologists who have studied them for generations. These mysteries have implications for Ender’s own past and for the future of all of humanity.
There was a lot of fascinating material in this book, and in many ways it held my attention better than the parade of school battles that was Ender’s Game. Card doesn’t shy away from using religion in his novels, and the piggies have some interesting biological and cultural characteristics. However, the novel also managed to get on my nerves, a lot, usually at the same time it was fascinating. For instance, Card sets up a family drama worthy of Tennessee Williams: two young xenologists are deeply in love, yet they cannot marry because of a dark secret. Instead, the woman marries another man, a steelworker, who she knows to be sterile, and bears six children with her xenologist lover. The children believe the steelworker to be their father, but he knows the truth, and beats his wife mercilessly, which she feels is fitting punishment for her infidelity with the man she truly loves. In the hands of a subtler, more skilled author this could make for a meaty, layered, family chronicle; however, here it’s just annoying. The dark secret is portrayed as a matter of life and death, but it turns out to be quite pointless. The reason for the lovers not marrying turns on a highly contrived, illogical, and unlikely set of future privacy laws. The characters, whose passions and traumas should be the center of this drama, all fall flat, and are simple stereotypes. Worst of all, Ender glosses over the crimes and heals the wounds of this sad situation in almost no time at all.
This last issue is symptomatic of the most infuriating thing about the book: Ender’s complete and total perfection, including his moral infallibility, which I complained about in my review for Ender’s Game. It’s much worse in Speaker for the Dead. Ender is clearly an analogue for Jesus – wise beyond human limits and carrying the weight of all human sin (through his guilt about the buggers). Again I say, “barf.”
The central complication of the novel is what Star Trek fans would recognize as a “prime directive” problem: how much should humans interfere with piggy culture? Should the piggies be allowed to evolve in their own direction, or should humans give them advanced technology? What if they’re starving? What if they earnestly want the technology? These are interesting questions with no simple answers…. Except that Ender has the simple answers, and he is always right, even though he’s completely inconsistent. Along the way, the xenologists come off as idiots, so that Ender can correct them on all sorts of factual and ethical issues. In other words, no character is allowed to breathe, think, or love except to forward perfect Ender (Don’t even get me started on the Ender-loving sentient computer, Jane). As a result, all of the characters, especially Ender himself, are completely dull and pointless.