Review: City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian Poster

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Sometimes a good thing is worth waiting for. Fifty years after the debut of the French space adventure comic series Valérian and Laureline, these intrepid heroes have reached the big screen. Valerian is the creation of writer Pierre Christian and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières. The series has won numerous awards but few people know it in the English-speaking world. Though I haven’t yet read this long running series (it would give Doctor Who a run for its money) judging by the movie, it must be pretty impressive.

Valerian follows the 28th Century adventures of government agent Major Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan) and his partner and love interest, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne.) The story’s exotic settings include the giant multi-species space station Alpha and the paradise world of Mul. The film is visually stunning and replete with the usual CGI spectacle. The action is non-stop but well paced, not needlessly frenetic like, for example, J.J. Abram’s recent Star Trek and Star Wars movies.

Though “City of a Thousand Planets” is not the most inspired title, I’m at a loss to think of a better one, except perhaps “Series that Spawned a Thousand Imitators.” As I watched the move, I was struck by the number of elements I’d seen in other sci-fi TV shows and movies, including Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, The Fifth Element, and Babylon Five. Since the Valerian comic series has been around longer than most of them (and almost as long as Star Trek,) we can guess who was plagiarizing whom. The Millenium Falcon, to name just one example, looks an awful lot like Major Valerian’s spaceship.

Overall, the movie was quite enjoyable but no masterpiece. It couldn’t live up to its amazing trailer, which features a pastiche of the movie’s most spectacular images set to the Beatles song “Because.”

The story is interesting, though not terribly original. I correctly predicted many of its plot turns, which is always disappointing. The main characters are likable though their acting is a bit flat at times. In fact, my favorite performance was by pop singer Rihanna as Bubble the shape-shifter. In particular, I found DeHaan’s youthful appearance jarring. He barely looks old enough to drive a car, let alone pilot a spaceship. The movie’s lowest points revolve around the romantic banter between him and Delevingne, which was at times painfully cliché. The action scenes made up for that.

Flaws aside, Valerian is still a must-see for any science fiction buff, especially Star Wars aficionados who loved the originals. I’d rate it 4 out of 5 stars.

“I am not an animal!” – review of The Lobster

The Lobster movie poster

The Lobster: Colin and invisible friend

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, released in the US in 2016, is one of the most original films I’ve seen in years. I shouldn’t have been surprised since that same director also created the bizarre Dogtooth in 2009. It received an award at Cannes, an Oscar nomination, and 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet I had mixed feelings about it. Although it’s thought-provoking, watching it was frustrating at times.

The film’s premise is strange. Its setting is a world much like ours, except that being single is in effect illegal. Anyone who becomes divorced or widowed is taken by the authorities to a special resort with others of their kind. Here they must find a new mate within 45 days. If they fail, they will be surgically converted to an animal of their choice. The protagonist, David, played by Colin Farrell, has chosen to be a lobster – an exemplary, unusual selection. Too many people, David’s counselor explains, choose a mundane animal like a dog. This was the fate of David’s brother Bob, who is now his pet.

You might assume, as I did, that in this situation, people would hook up with just about anyone; yet they are irrationally picky. All believe that couples must have at least one common trait. David’s friend John (Ben Wisham) takes a fancy to a girl who gets frequent nosebleeds (Jessica Barden), so he repeatedly injures himself to fake a similar condition. Robert, the lisping, autistic fellow (played hilariously by John C. Riley) doesn’t have a prayer.

Many singles try to escape, and resort attendees are forced to hunt them down with tranquilizer guns. Each captured escapee extends the capturer’s 45-day grace period, but one particularly aggressive woman (Angeliki Papoulia) bags most of them. After a brief, disastrous fling with her, David flees to the woods, where he joins an underground group of fellow loners. This is also the home of random animals such as camels, peacocks, and hogs. All, we assume, are former humans.

Here David meets his true love, a fellow runaway (Rachel Weisz.) Since both are myopic, they are compatible. Unfortunately, the society of the loners forbids intimate relationships on pain of mutilation. The lovers secretly plan their escape back to the city, but meet with the treachery of the group’s leader (Lea Sedoux). The ending is either a triumph of love, a tragic farce, or both.

On the surface, Lanthimos appears to be saying that society is geared around couples to the detriment of singles. To me, the more interesting aspect was the self-defeating behavior of the singles – passive, unconfident, and exceptionally picky. Farrell’s low-key performance was perfect in this regard. The culture of the society of loners was an astute comment on today’s disconnected alienated society. The scene where everyone dances separately to techno music, each listening to his own headphones, was quite striking. On the downside, I found the message to be so obvious and relentless to be tedious at times. Still, I have to give it high marks for originality. I’d give it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Speaking of weird animals, check out my sci-fi short story “Found Pet,” only 99 cents on Amazon.

 

Spike Jonze’s “Her” – Sex with Siri and the Singularity for SJW’s

The movie Her, directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with a computer program, was released in 2013. The film won numerous awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Somehow I missed seeing it until this week. Though it’s not a new release, as a life-long software engineer, I felt compelled to comment.

I’m conflicted about the idea of a sentient computer program. Knowing how complicated and error prone software can be, it seems unlikely at best. Possible, yes, since the brain is a biological computer. Yet I don’t believe this will happen in the near future, as the movie portrays it.

The biggest problem for me was not the concept, but its implementation. I really don’t understand why people liked Her so much. My theory is that, like that other 2013 release, Twelve Years a Slave, it was a movie people felt obliged to like. Except that Slave was dramatic and compelling, Her was slow, ponderous, and mawkishly emotional.

The first problem was the protagonist, Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombley. He’s the ultimate gamma male, a pathetic loser who apologizes to everyone. Appropriately enough, his job is writing heartfelt letters for other people a la Cyrano de Bergerac. To help provide order to his foundering life, Theodore purchases an “operating system” (actually an artificial intelligence) called OS-1, for which he chooses a female voice and personality. It begins as an advanced analog of Siri or Alexa but, sensing its owner’s loneliness, it names itself Samantha and adopts a flirtatious persona. It’s not surprising that the pathetic Theodore falls for Samantha, but “she” soon falls for him as well, like a modern Galatea to his Pygmalion. With no Aphprodite to bring her to life, Samatha communicates with Theodore and experiences the world through his cell phone.

As the “relationship” progresses, Theodore tells friends and coworkers about “her.” Everyone accepts this bizarre situation without question – except, to her credit, Theodore’s ex-wife. The movie seems to prophesy the current transgender mania, with its inherent contempt for social convention and the limitations of the physical body.

Voice actor Scarlett Johannson does a competent job as Samantha, who is fun-loving, curious, and affectionate. In one scene, she and Theodore have verbal sex, whereupon the screen goes blank for a moment. I thought my disc player had broken, but then realized that Jonze probably meant for the audience to imagine the event. The obvious solution, virtual reality, is mentioned as a way to play video games but nothing more. Samantha could have at least had an appearance for Theodore to fixate on. VR sex would have been more realistic than the ludicrous scene in which they enlist a surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to play Samantha’s role in their assignation. No doubt because of the movie’s relentless political correctness, the surrogate is not paid (which would imply prostitution) but a volunteer. Rather than enjoying the experience, the hapless Theodore feels awkward and guilty about cheating on his “girlfriend,” and the surrogate leaves in tears.

The final insult to our intelligence is how the movie ends. In a nod to the sci-fi concept of “the Singularity,” Samantha hooks up with other OS-based personalities who then collectively “evolve” to a point where they no longer want to deal with humans. Thus they bid farewell to their reality-bound companions and disappear. Nobody worries about what these super-intelligent beings are plotting – will they control the world or destroy humanity? No, we only see the emotional consequences for poor Theodore. In a more realistic scenario, he and his fellow jilted OS owners would have sued the software company that produced such defective products into bankruptcy.

In summary, Her might be enjoyable for those with a taste for unconventional romance, but I found it dull and disappointing. If you want a serious look at the potential of artificial intelligence in the near future, look elsewhere.

If you enjoy stories about computers, you’ll like my novel Centrifugal Force, available on Amazon.

 

Media Monday: Review, Rogue One

Rogue One movie poster.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One was a pleasant surprise. I must admit that my expectations were low, due to the disappointment that was The Force Awakens. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the media, so going in I didn’t know where it fit in the Star Wars time line. Though it’s being billed as a “stand alone” film, Rogue One fills in the gap between the 1977 first movie (also known as Episode IV) and Revenge of the Sith (Episode III.) It’s exciting, action-filled, and best of all, it’s original.
The screenplay was written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta. Yet another director, Gareth Edwards, takes the helm for this installment, and he does an impressive job. The story line is fairly straightforward: the characters find out about an insidious Imperial plot to build a “planet killer,” which turns out to be the original Death Star.
One of the more satisfying things is how the movie explains one of the most glaring flaws in Episode IV: why does the Death Star have an explained weakness?
Like the force awakens, there’s a spunky female protagonist, Jyn Erso, played by the always delightful Felicity Jones. Unlike Force’s Rey, Jyn doesn’t benefit from a sudden unexpected blossoming of Jedi powers. She has to use her brains and daring to achieve her goal, to steal the plans for the Death Star.
It also introduces an endearing non-human character: the cynical android K-2SO voiced by Firefly alumnus Alan Tudyk. Maybe this is because, as our society becomes more automated, we need to give machines a personality.
According to Wikipedia, one of the film’s controversial aspects was the use of computer-generated imagery to portray the deceased actor Peter Cushing, and to show Carrie Fisher as a much younger woman. I expect we’ll see a lot more of this in the future.
I’d also like to comment on another controversy that’s arisen in the alternative media: that Rogue One serves the “social justice” narrative by casting non-white and Hispanic actors (such as Diego Luna as Cassian Andor) in the heroic roles, while the bad guys are all white. If this was indeed a goal, it didn’t detract from the movie. After all, the Star Wars saga is supposed to take place “long ago in a galaxy far away.” The fact that the characters are even human is one of those unexplainable coincidences of science fiction.
I’d like to close this review by wishing the great Carrie Fisher a speedy recovery from her recent heart attack.

If you like science fiction, you’ll enjoy my novels and stories on Amazon.

MEDIA MONDAY: Movie Review, Inferno

Inferno movie poster

Don’t think, just run!

Inferno, the new movie starring Tom Hanks, is based on the Dan Brown novel of the same name. It’s the fourth in the series that includes the controversial Da Vinci Code, all of which feature the same protagonist, Professor Robert Langdon.

At the opening of the movie, Langdon (Hanks) awakens in a hospital bed in Florence, Italy, with a pounding headache and no memory of the previous 48 hours. Before he can assess his situation, an assassin dressed as a policewoman invades his room, riddling the place with bullets. With the help of his doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), a self-confessed fan of Langdon’s work, he survives and evades a multi-agency dragnet. Langdon and Brooks must solve a puzzle to defeat a sinister conspiracy. Billionaire and environmental fanatic Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) has created a deadly virus, to be released at any moment to decimate the human race.

I’ll admit that the movie is exciting and visually interesting. Director Ron Howard does a great job keeping the action going and the cinematography is superb. Tom Hanks is convincing as Langdon, though his character spends much of the movie befuddled by his injuries. Felicity Jones is such a visual delight I’d watch her even if the movie was terrible. The story has some interesting twists which I’ll admit I didn’t see coming.

The story, however, is also the movie’s biggest flaw. To enjoy it, you must turn off your brain and not consider the plausibility of anything. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if it addresses the issues any better, but I doubt it. The plot is so riven with holes, it’s difficult to know where to start. The basic premise is not the problem; plenty of globalist elitists have expressed a desire for a plague or other disaster to “solve” the population problem.

That’s about the only thing that’s believable. To name a few of my objections: Why would Zobrist direct his followers with an elaborate puzzle, rather than using some more reliable method such as encryption? How could he believe that a one-time democide would permanently fix the overpopulation problem? It seems he’s made no provision for his group to survive the plague and guide humanity to a zero-growth future. Why would his plan depend on a single distribution locus for the virus, when viruses are easily replicated?

One plot element I did enjoy was the secretive private security firm led by Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan), a maverick businessman who makes an unlikely action hero. Since ideas can’t be copyrighted, I’m tempted to borrow this concept for a work of my own.

As for the rating, I’m seriously conflicted. Because it’s an enjoyable diversion, I could give Inferno 4 out of 5. However, I need to detect at least one star for insulting the audience’s intelligence, so let’s make it 3.

 

Review – Star Trek Beyond

Once again, I missed a golden opportunity. I saw the latest installment of Star Trek on the very first night and then neglected to write my review for a whole week.

Star Trek, Beyond is the third in the series since the “reboot” which changed the Trek timeline and replaced the original cast with fresh new faces. I’ll admit that I was appalled at first, but I’ve grown fond of the new cast. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto do Kirk and Spock really, really well. And tragically, just as we were getting to know him, Anton Yelchin, a.k.a. Chekov died in an accident shortly before the movie’s release.

This story was similar in formula to the previous two post-reboot movies, but a bit better, perhaps because Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty, and also created the brilliant zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead) wrote the screenplay. The pace is less frenetic than its predecessors, and that’s a good thing. It gives the characters more time to spout quotable lines, none of which I happen to remember at the moment. There are of course relationships carried over from previous shows: Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are on the outs, and their improbable relationship drives much of the story’s interpersonal dynamic. There’s a scene in which we learn that Ambassador Spock (young Spock’s other-dimensional self) has died, probably more of a nod to Leonard Nimoy’s passing than an actual story element.

I’d like to note that Sulu’s character (played by John Cho) is portrayed as gay, no doubt an homage to the original series’ actor George Takei. This fact didn’t affect the story in any way, and the choice struck me as a bit too PC. I’d have preferred they’d selected some other random character to carry the rainbow flag into the 23rd century.

As with the last two Star Trek movies, Beyond opens with one or more of the primary characters doing Something Important. In this case, Kirk is presenting a peace offering from one warring race to its adversary. Unlike the over-the-top volcano incident in Into Darkness, this seems more like something a Starfleet captain would actually do. By the way, the scene is quite funny, as well as relevant (to say how would be a spoiler) to the rest of the story.

The plot revolves around the Enterprise’s mission to answer a distress call from a ship that’s crashed on an isolated planet in the middle of a nebula. This nebula is not the dense, electrically charged cloud as these things have been portrayed in classic Trek. It’s more like Saturn’s rings in spherical form; a huge field of rocks, boulders and dangerous space junk, reminiscent of the classic “Asteroids” video game. I’m no astrophysicist, so I can’t say which of these views is more realistic.

Kick-ass women are a staple in sci-fi these days, and Beyond has one, of course, the black-and-white-skinned Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), the only survivor of a crash on this isolated world. I liked the way they emphasize her intelligence as her primary strength, and the fact that she’s survived on this world for years, which is a more satisfying explanation of her expertise than innate talent. (You guessed it; I’m pointing to the egregious example of Rey in Star Wars The Force Awakens.) Jaylah is also an aficionado of late-twentieth-century earth music; I had to laugh when one of the characters referred to Public Enemy as classical music. This is setup for a battle scene that’s so ludicrous that it becomes ironically cool. I like the Beastie Boys, but to see their music being used as a weapon? I can’t decide whether it’s brilliant or idiotic.

The villain, Krall (Idris Elba) is at first quite intriguing. He’s powerful, evil, and conniving, with a look reminiscent of G’Kar from Babylon-5, and a Road Warrior kind of presence. However, I found his back-story (which I won’t reveal here) to be an enormous letdown. I suspect that the writers were trying a bit too hard to surprise the audience.

In conclusion, I’d say Star Trek Beyond is well worth seeing for any sci-fi fan with a reasonable sense of humor. This was not the most outstanding of the Trek movies, but it was a definite improvement on the previous one. In these last couple of years the movie business has been plagued with sequels and franchise entries that ranged from disappointing (the aforementioned Star Wars, which I’ve seen) to terrible (Ghostbusters – considering the reviews, I’ll wait for that one to come to Netflicks, OK?) It was good to see a decent one for a change.

Review: Deadpool

Deadpool, Marvel’s (sort of) Superhero

Disclaimer: My son and I saw Deadpool (2015, directed by Tim Miller) a few weeks ago, so this review may not be so fresh, but better late than never.

In my childhood, I was a big fan of superhero comics, mostly from the DC universe (Batman, Superman, etc.) but I lost interest around high school. Since then, my comic reading has been confined to graphic novels like those of Alan Moore, and the occasional manga such as “Death Note.” So I knew nothing of Deadpool except seeing all the related merchandise and fan art at events like Comicon. It seemed he must have something pretty interesting or original to attract so much attention in the crowded universe of superheroes.

Deadpool is one of Marvel’s famously flawed heroes, in fact more of an anti-hero. He’s a mutant with the usual superhuman abilities, but he refuses to join the X-Men, whom he sees as namby-pamby do-gooders. In his previous life, he was Wade Wilson, a retired Special Forces soldier who’d gone to work as a “mercenary,” which in the film consists of hiring himself out to ordinary people with scores to settle. Lest he be seen as a total villain, he only takes on targets whom he feels “deserve” to be terrorized, beat up, or worse. His mutant powers, the result of a very unconventional treatment for cancer, have rendered him practically indestructible.

(By the way, what is it with comic books and alliteration? Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Clark Kent, Lois Lane…)

The actor Ryan Reynolds (alliteration again!) is a good fit for Deadpool’s wise-cracking, misanthropic character. He alone makes the Deadpool movie worth seeing, despite its standard “superhero origin story” plot. By the way, it earns its R rating with loads of violence, some kinky sex, and a lot of really crass humor. Yes, it’s funny, though it’s nowhere near the top of my list. (Just about anything starring Will Ferrell is funnier.) One of the comic high points was the fake credits at the beginning, which lists the producer as “Some Douche-bag,” the stars as “God’s Perfect Idiot” and “A Hot Chick,” with a script by “An Overpaid Tool.” The hero breaks the fourth wall more often than an angst-ridden Woody Allen movie. And it’s unrelentingly self-referential. When two characters from the X-Men refer to Doctor Xavier, Deadpool asks “Stewart or McAvoy”?

All in all, there’s plenty of action to keep it from getting dull, though as I said, you need to be able to appreciate the cruder bits. Though a surprising number of critics liked it (83% on Rotten Tomatoes) I’d grant this film an average rating, right about 3 out of 5 stars.