Thursday, September 24, 2009

Surrogates: A Movie I Want to See

I want to see this movie for two reasons. First of all, Bruce Willis is in it. Secondly, I think its theme is representative of what's causing the decay of our culture and society.

The story, as far as the trailer says, is that people are able to live their lives through robot surrogates. Their physical bodies stay plugged in to a Matrix-esque computer uplink that they control the robot bodies through. There is some sort of plot or conspiracy going on where people start dying. It almost happens to Bruce Willis and he is forced to "unplug" from the surrogate world and do his job as a police officer with his physical body. From the previews it looks like they've done a good job making the surrogates appear fake and plastic, and it is a stark contrast to the real body of Bruce Willis, which looks rough, unkempt and out of shape. He is forced into facing reality but is still living in a world full of people that are willfully detached from reality. There is an ominous "something" that is threatening the world, and everyone is either clueless about it or apathetic because they don't believe the warnings.

Isn't that some type of metaphor for what's going on right now in our world? We may not have robot surrogates, but we have plenty of other things we distract ourselves with and as technology gets more and more advanced, these distractions will only become more and more enticing. We will reach a point where they are too much better than real life. That was always my problem with the holodeck from Star Trek: TNG. If you really had something like that, people would be in it all the damn time. People might even prefer it to interaction with real people.

We already have people killing themselves over video games. We have an entire subculture of people that has sprung up around games like Everquest and World of Warcraft. Some of them live their personal lives through their online avatars and even go so far as to dress up like them and meet at events like DragonCon as their online characters. Granted, everybody's got hobbies, and many of them are a type of escapism. It can be good to unplug every now and then, take a break and let off some steam. Some might say it's even necessary. But how far is too far? I think we are currently in the process of finding that out first hand.

"Surrogates" interests me because it's a window into a possible future. Jonah Goldberg has talked about the difference between the worlds of Brave New World and 1984. The first is a type of feminine, nanny state environment while the second is a masculine, harsh and tyrannical environment. Goldberg makes the case that where we're headed is the Brave New World type of life. I disagree. We might be headed that way for the moment, but I think that type of system is always destined to fall apart. Somebody somewhere has to be working their ass off so that other people can slack off and live their fantasy lives, whether they live them through video games or Soma holiday. There have to be people working, producing, and ready to defend society as members of the police and the military. When nobody wants to do any work or grow up, either your society falls apart or becomes vulnerable to invasion from the outside.

Right now we're seeing a mix of both. Our society is largely obsessed with pop culture and amusements and is ignorant about what goes on outside of the latest episode of Jon & Kate Plus 8. At the same time, we're under attack from socialists and Islam. We can look at Europe right now and see what the near future holds for us with both of these paths, yet people refuse to see or believe. When you learn what's going on out there and you try to tell other people, don't you feel a little bit like Bruce Willis in Surrogates? You're running around this fake world full of indifferent people who view you as some sort of bothersome anachronism, yet the whole time you're really trying to help them.

I've been very disappointed with most movies I've seen in recent years. I hope "Surrogates" will be a pleasant surprise. I am never able to go out and see movies in the theater anymore, so I will probably have to catch this on DVD. If anyone else sees it in the meantime, I'd love to hear your (spoiler free) impressions.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Why Matters, Star Wars Does

"A more elegant weapon, for a more civilized age."

I was all set to pick this entire movie apart for this post, even watch the entire trilogy to get enough reference material if I had to. Turns out I only had to watch about the first half hour because the scene below is the only thing I need to refer to. Skip to 3:00 in:

For those that may not remember, Luke Skywalker is just a hick. These droids have found their way to his family and one insisted on delivering a message to Ben Kenobi, who is merely an old hermit as far as Luke knows. Once the message is delivered, it’s a whole lot bigger than Luke ever thought it would be. R2-D2 is carrying inside of him the only hope that the Rebellion against the Empire has. If they don’t get the Death Star plans, and soon, it’s over. “This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” Can’t get much plainer than that.

Look at Luke’s face after the message, though. What’s his reaction? Is he ready to run out and do whatever he can to help? No, there is just an uncomfortable silence. It’s almost as if he knows he is supposed to do something, but doesn’t really want to because it’s going to be so inconvenient. Obi Wan seems to be waiting for Luke to say something, but instead he just stares back, slack-jawed.

Obi Wan finally says that Luke has to come with him to Alderaan because he can’t get this done alone. Luke's reaction is, “Uhhh…sure is getting late.” He’s got too much work to do, it’s so far away, etc. By the end of the scene he has completely forgotten about Princess Leia’s plea and starts grumbling about how he’s going to explain to his uncle where he’s been all day. This is all despite the fact he was arguing with his uncle the day before about letting him leave and go somewhere else. Once it's time to put his money where his mouth is, he chickens out. This sure does bear a striking similarity to a recent post I read. In fact, I’m very surprised nobody Over There picked up on this and used it to shame we geeks into writing more.

The theme of Star Wars is the theme of the underdog. It’s the theme of fighting back against impossible odds, not because it looks like you’re going to win, but because the only other choice is death or submission. It’s the theme of the responsibility of those who know what’s going on to do whatever they can about it. I’m sure I will catch some grief for this comparison, but in a way it’s On the Waterfront in space.

Now I don’t want anybody to misinterpret what I mean by making that comparison (Vickles, I’m looking at you). I am not saying Star Wars is better than or equal to Waterfront, that Mark Hamill is better than Marlon Brando, that George Lucas invented the theme of the reluctant hero, or even that Star Wars executes that theme better than any other film in the history of cinema. What I’m saying is that both films share a theme that is vitally important in our country right now, and that both are good in their own right.

Even though this is a defense of Star Wars, I must point out that Waterfront has the better and ultimately more courageous hero in Terry Malloy, despite the lack of a lightsaber. Consider that Luke Skywalker really did nothing special. When he had a choice, he chose to stay at home and not make waves. Only the Empire murdering his family convinced him to leave with Kenobi, but at that point Luke had nothing to lose. Terry was admittedly motivated by the fairer sex, and men do irrational things when put in that position, but he still had a lot to lose by going up against Johnny Friendly. Both Luke and Terry may have become heroes to those around them, but only Luke has to live with the knowledge that if he had gotten home a little earlier or if the storm troopers had been a little more patient, he would have died and the Rebellion would have been crushed because of his cowardice.

I think Star Wars is the better metaphor for what is happening today, for my generation, anyway. Trying to get many of them interested in what is going on right now is like Obi Wan asking Luke to come with him to Alderaan. They just don’t want to be bothered with all that stuff and would much rather go to Tachi Station and pick up some power converters. As sad as it is, people from my generation (and definitely the younger generation) can probably relate more to Star Wars than Waterfront because they know more about fictional sci-fi lore than they do real American history. Tragic, but if nothing else they need to understand the urgency of getting off their asses and doing something. Sure, they'll still need to see the big picture, but that's where we come in. Then, one day, they will be able to appreciate Waterfront; it's a process. Hopefully nobody’s aunt and uncle has to be murdered by a death panel before they start caring, though, because by then it will be far too late.

Also, the space battles are cool:

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Mystified am I. (A Yoda thing for all you Star Wars thingies...).

You love cartoons. Why don't you have any interest in the X-Files?

I loved the fact that Scully was so trigger happy. I loved Mulder. Who reminds me of me. I loved the fact that the X-Files skirted the edge of the plausible and genuinely unknown. Hey: explain away this email from a friend of mine, Lloyd Pye, whom I've met and quarrelled with bitterly but who is by no means an idiot:

"1) I'll be on Coast to Coast radio with George Noory this Friday night, Sept. 18th, the first two hours, 10 pm to 12 midnight PST. We'll discuss the latest developments with the Starchild, updates about it, etc. We'll also discuss the recent "alien" body revealed on Mexican TV by Jaime Maussan. That "alien" is the tiny being that the farmer claims he drowned in 2007.For details check:

2) Incredible result! You'll recall my last message to you was about the Daily Mail of England spiking a full two-page story about the Starchild scheduled to go out to 6 million readers on June 24th. I also mentioned that I had heard nothing about it from the Daily Mail since they spiked it. That message to you, my mailing list, was picked up by a number of UFO websites and blogs around the world, one of which was in England itself.

That link is to Part Two, my follow-up, which was similar to my follow-up to you apologizing for making it sound like I was begging for $20 from each of you. I hope we all have that squared away now. I need you to buy the new eBook and make yourselves familiar with its contents so you can become the smartest person in the room if anyone starts talking about UFOs and/or aliens. I need as many of you as possible to KNOW as many of the facts about it as possible. The new eBook is the best way to go about that, guaranteed. Okay?

(NOTE: At the end of Part Two on the Mania site is a bare-knuckled intellectual brawl between me and a couple of the usual skeptics who inevitably patrol websites or blogs where people "trash" their precious status quo. If you have time to read those exchanges, you'll see what happens when two individuals who haven't even bothered to visit the Starchild website try to tangle with someone who has been living it, eating it, and breathing it for over ten years! It's not pretty, but it was... satisfying."

I'm thinking you all aren't so brave in person as your imaginations are. You like science fiction as long as it's definitely ABSOLUTELY fiction. Lloyd has pauperized himself pursuing a scientific study of an inexplicable but genuine artifact. Yet I'm guessing you'd mostly write him off as a lunatic even as you plunge happily into your usual mud wrestling about sci fi movie icons.

There really are "X-files." All over the place. I have it on good authority that they're even going to risk another attack from the Darwinistas "Over There" sometime soon. With prejudice.

But you'd rather talk about comic books.

God love ya.

P.S. btw, X-Files was dramatically superior to most of what you spend your time celebrating and defending here. Better written. Better acted. Filled with a foreboding mood that occasionally even got delivered on.

But you prefer comic books. Faugh.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Did Somebody Say..."Racism"?

The Punisher: he's not worried about Miranda rights.

Continuing the thread. Now is the perfect time for this post as racism is in the air. In the last comic-related post I found an issue from around 1991 where the theme was related to Rodney King. To spice things up a bit I found another issue from a different comic around 1991 where the theme is related to, uh, Rodney King. I said it before and I'll say it again: the left is patently unoriginal.

This happens to be an issue of the Punisher. Penny mentioned him way back in the comments that inspired the Underverse. At the time I couldn't remember why I soured on the Punisher, because I enjoyed things like the excerpt above a great deal. Then I came across this issue in my garage and it all came flooding back to me.

The back story is that, for some reason, the Punisher needed plastic surgery (supplied by a genius surgeon who was also a hooker...or something) and the surgeon made him black, which he was not expecting. I think the only reason this event happened is so the sequence below could exist. Join the action as the Punisher arrives in the city limits of Chicago:

Uh-oh. The all white police force of Chicago has appeared out of nowhere to pull over a black guy who swerved a little bit. One of them even sounds like a southerner (they are everywhere, you know; like cockroaches) as he gives life to Maureen Dowd's unspoken "boy". I wonder what will happen next?

If you guessed "group of white cops beating helpless minority", award yourself ten points. Things really get interesting when Luke "Power Man" Cage happens to show up because his path is impeded by the four police cars parked in the middle of the exit ramp while they beat someone senseless in broad daylight, as is routine procedure for all random traffic stops. Just so you know, Cage's powers include super strength and virtual invulnerability. Being a fellow super hero, how will he handle this situation? He'll probably find out what's going on and not just charge in half-cocked, right?

Not so much. Well it seems that things are getting out of hand, here. It's high time that the cool head of the Punisher prevails. After all, he punishes evil, and looking at things purely objectively, he was in a stolen car with no ID, was legally pulled over for swerving all over the road, and he did knock the crap out of a cop. Technically the Punisher is the lawbreaker in this situation. I'm sure Frank Castle will get things under control before they go too far.

Hm. Or perhaps he will murder a cop. The Punisher...murders a cop. Then again, the cop was a racist so he deserved to die. Isn't that the lesson for the kiddies here? Well maybe the Punisher and Cage weren't thinking straight for some reason and are going to come to their senses and be wracked with guilt afterwards?

Damn. Wrong again. Looks like they will rest easy tonight. By the way, did you notice where they are headed? To the south side of Chicago, of course, adopted home of Obama. How quaint. It's almost as if they were visiting the manger Jesus was born in, except that Obama wasn't born in Chicago and he wasn't famous when this was written. But if he was, it would be like that.

The only other noteworthy happening in this issue is that Cage demands that nobody die when he and the Punisher take out a gang that has been dealing crack to the neighborhood. Got that, kids? Racist cops: okay to kill. Murderous crack dealers: they deserve mercy (and really, they are victims, too).

Penny, if you're reading this, I think this issue was the exact moment when the Punisher went PC. I at least know it's the last issue I ever bought.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


As some of you are no doubt aware, as is the case in many religions and other assorted belief systems, there exists in the sci-fi community a core of strict, even virulent orthodoxy with regard to the translation of a beloved story from one medium to another.

While this is certainly also true of other genres, We the Geeks seem to take our chosen passion very, very personally. It's an affront to us when the entire Tom Bombadil segment gets dropped from LotR. It is absolutely criminal that Dr. Manhattan takes the fall for Ozymandias, instead of a giant alien space squid. Might as well just slap my momma if you're gonna go THAT far.

The psychological explanations for this are many and are no doubt explored elsewhere in excruciating detail. For purposes of this discussion, I'm not interested. It just is. What interests me here are the conditions under which a rabid fan is willing to make an exception.

I got to thinking of this after Marvin the Paranoid Android became a recent fixture of discussion over at the grownup table. It just so happens that this very evening, I completed a listening of the complete five-series BBC Radio 4 production of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I'm a huge fan of HGTTG. It's one of the first sci-fi series I ever read. The Infocom game for the Apple was the first computer game I ever played. My dad and I used to listen to the original BBC radio show on tape during long drives through the night on family vacations. It never got old. The mice still crack me up.

This more recent production was absolutely freaking marvelous, and I can't recommend it highly enough to any fan of Adams' work. The voice acting was all wonderful and believable, they stayed true to the main storyline while throwing in the random updated reference (custom cell phone ringtones are a pretty neat idea, digital watches are right out), the shift of exposition to character dialog was handled adroitly, and the expanded sound effects and production values tied it all together nicely.

But here's the thing: they completely, totally, utterly changed the ending.

Note: spoilers will follow. Do not proceed without prior knowledge or peril-sensitive sunglasses.

Still here? Good.

Now, normally this sort of thing would throw me into an absolute rage. How dare they presume, especially after Douglas Adams' death, to twiddle the (admittedly bleak) ending of Mostly Harmless just to make it more audience-friendly? Yeah it was bleak, but so what? The man himself said he intended it that way, though he'd apparently had second thoughts after publication. This sort of presumption usually makes a rabid fanboy pen strongly-worded letters to the responsible parties, imagining the wrath of their broken sentences impacting the hapless target like anthrax ink on semtex foolscap. They will pay.

But...this worked. It was a complete rewrite. Disneyfied, almost. No bleakness. Everything's okay. Look, they're all fine! All the main characters and a bunch of secondary bit players! Why, even Marvin's back, and he shuffled off the mortal (ignition) coil back in Book 4! Happy days are here again!

Absolutely MADDENING, right? Wrong.

They did it with style, and they did it with respect. This wasn't the ugly exploitation of a cultural touchstone for a meager profit, animating a corpse and putting it in a funny hat to parade it around with a tin cup (I'm looking at you, Brian Herbert). This was an act of love for Douglas Adams' work and it was reflected in the quality of the result. He might've written it himself, given the chance, he wasn't above the odd Deus ex Machina now and then

The distinction between "OK" and "OMFG" is an intangible, and it's what I'm trying (at length) to grasp. What makes the difference? Is it purely subjective - I want to like it, so I excuse what would normally drive me nuts - or is there an objective measure by which the average fan determines how much change they'll deal with? Because we've all done it. You've never, ever, ever seen any book, comic or otherwise, adapted to film without substantial change, and you never will. But barring completely outrageous butchery we usually accept the result, albeit with some grousing.

What's your breaking point? What went too far for you, and why? Or, alternatively, what did you gloss over and deal with?

Monday, August 24, 2009

They Just Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To


Can you even imagine a title like that on a movie turned out by the slick, suave, modern Hollywood? I mean for God's sake just look at it. How gauche! Even Michael Bay would cringe at the very idea.

Get a load of this premise: three completely helpless bimbos in shiny space-lingerie are stranded on a desert planet after their ship explodes, and immediately fall captive to the horrible evil population of mindless drones and their horrible evil overlord. Naturally, it falls to some unshaven square-jawed clod to ride in, blow everything up, and save the day with his erstwhile sidekick and an underage girl.

Where's the nuance? I do declare, I may get a case of the vapors.

As seen above, there is HAIR! OF! THE! FUTURE!, the likes of which haven't been seen by your author since his unfortunate exposure to Battlefield Earth. There are deformed midgets, who may or may not be radioactive. There are explosions. There are Road Warrior-inspired cars, trains, motorcycles, and snowplows(!). There are Amazons and dragons and blobby pasty human grub s. Michael Ironside rocks the Nosferatu facepaint and six-foot-long robotic claw arms, hamming it up on a crane hoist.

How's all this come together? I already told you in the second paragraph. That's not the 100-word pitch, that's the freaking screenplay. This movie has all the depth and complexity of the grounds-laden rime of sludge steeping in the office carafe at 5:30pm.

I think I like it not so much for what it is, but for what it isn't. It's refreshing, in a way. Peter Strauss is not some conflicted, brooding bad boy with a troubled past, he's just this average guy. Ernie Hudson's character isn't a "magic negro" full of obscure wisdom or a "token negro" with streetwise moves and cunning, he's just a companion. Molly Ringwald isn't La Femme Nikita the wily innocent-faced assassin or Short Round the wisecracking plot device, she's just a dingy sorta scruffy kid. Ironside isn't out to destroy all mankind and rule the universe with an iron claw, he's satisfied with his one little planet, some half-naked slavegirls, and dumping the occasional hapless slacker in his Running Man industrial death maze.

I can't really say whether the movie was intended to be taken seriously. The title suggests self-parody, but the film isn't overtly played for laughs. The effects are 80s cheesy, but some of the makeup - particularly the blobby human grubworms - is unexpectedly effective, in that sense of "whoa, that's not CGI, that's a dude in a slimy rubber fat suit. And he is really emoting!"

Yeah, it's trash cinema. Mike and the robots would tear it to shreds. That doesn't mean it can't be a good time. Guilty pleasure? Perhaps. Not guilt on par with listening to ABBA, but maybe somewhere between a Broadway production of "Cats" and certain tangentially related works in the Paul Schrader oeuvre.

Overdog: stranger danger.

Friday, August 21, 2009

So...Cat People...Really?

Cat People wasn’t as bad as I’d hoped, but neither did it live up to the hype . It is not the best horror movie ever and certainly had nothing to do with sci-fi despite the autopsy scene (if that one scene makes it a sci-fi flick, then The Little Mermaid might as well be one, too). But don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was bad, just that there are bad parts that mix with some good parts to form an overall mediocre experience.

The Bad:
First of all, it’s not even original. It is virtually a remake. Weak. Secondly:
The score is so good it could tempt one to think that the whole film is simply a teaser for the song played during the closing credits…
Uh, no. What score? The drum machine or the guy alternating between two dissonant chords on the synthesizer for 10 minutes at a time? Saying this movie has a great score is like saying every episode of Law & Order has a great score…if the music were performed by Wang Chung. Don’t believe me? See for yourself. I recommend tracks two, four & eight.

Third, and perhaps most troublesome, it’s not really “scary”. Dark, creepy, disturbing? Sure, but mostly because of the whole incest thing. Suspensful? A little. Scary? Nope. To be truly scary a movie has to get inside your head and haunt you. You have to be thinking about it for a good day or two after you’re done watching it, and not just because there were a lot of tits or blood & gore. There should be something that really got to you that makes you think, “Damn, I would not want to be in that situation.” Surviving the Cat People universe would be simple: bring a gun.

The Good:
McDowell and Kinski were great, although I don’t think McDowell was in even half of the film, which is a waste. Real horrorshow, you might say. Let’s be honest, too: the real reason we’re fond of this movie is Kinski’s nudity, who is hot despite her ‘80s "little boy" haircut. That threw me off a bit, by the way, because in one scene I thought it was her waking up naked in the bathroom but it turned out to Malcom McDowell. Not sure I’ll ever get over that:

Also, the setting was good. No one can argue with New Orleans as a good horror setting, although I thought The Skeleton Key was a much scarier movie as far as horror movies set in New Orleans go. Again: the haunting thing. The implications of the plot twist at the end of that movie were that some really nightmarish, evil shit happened to those kids. Imagining that still bothers me. I’m already over Cat People.

Finally, the story did not follow the cookie cutter horror genre plot. I did not guess the ending. You can wipe this part out if it ends the same way as the original Cat People, though.

So am I here to simply slam this movie and not bring anything to the table myself? No, I have my own offering as best horror/sci-fi movie of all time: Event Horizon. It’s got everything but chicks gettin’ nekkid, which may disqualify it out of hand for a few people, but it’s got everything else. It has a freaky story, a great setting, good acting, a splash of gore, space ships, and it gets inside your mind (the video from the original crew: wow). I can’t vouch for the score, but if our gold standard is Cat People then I don’t feel like I really have to.

Before I finish up, I would like to hand out a few awards to the film. The award for Best Foreshadowing in a Scene goes to the one where the camera rests a little too long on the extreme close up of the prod strapped to Ed Begley Jr.’s arm. It’s a “what could possibly go wrong?” moment.

Next, the Most Awkward Romance Award goes to John Heard and Kinski. Starting with the truck ride out to the bayou there is indecisive petting, nervous conversation, truly bizarre dialogue such as, “You know how to stop alligators? We should make love!” and the whole true love after knowing each other for half a week syndrome.

The Barack Obama Theme Song Award goes to David Bowie's "Theme from Cat People":
Putting out the fire with gas-o-line!
Last but not least is the Sacrificial Lamb Award, which goes to Yeatman. As soon as he’s introduced you know he’s a dead man walking. He comes out of nowhere, you cannot possibly develop any emotional attachment to him, and there's no reason for him to be in the movie to begin with. “This is my, uh, older male friend who helped me build this shack and apparently lives here, too…or something.” Come on, at least make him Oliver's uncle. They didn't even give him a first name! Or did they not give him a last name? Sadly, we'll never know. Ah, Yeatman. We hardly knew ye:

That’s my take, anyway.