Blade Runner Sequel

blade_runner

Popular Mechanics recently asked me (along with six other science fiction authors) to write up what we wanted to see in the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. Here’s what I had to say:

In my mind, Blade Runner is a self-contained story that (once “The Final Cut” was released) hasn’t exactly been begging for a sequel, prequel, or a reboot. But it is also a movie that teases us with brief glimpses down so many dim and intriguing passages that further illuminating a few of them could easily be the work of at least one new movie.

Blade Runner’s world-building is so rich that it poses far more questions than it ever manages to answer. What is life like on these off-world colonies? Where are they? In orbit? On the moon? On Mars? Presumably synthetic animals arose in response to widespread extinction, but how did that technology come to be used on humans, and why didn’t we just build far less troublesome, titanium-boned and silicone-skinned robots? And I assume the best blade runners burn themselves out because they unconsciously can’t shake the feeling that they’re killing fellow human beings, but such a moral dilemma—retiring synthetics that, in some ways, seem more human in their vulnerability than real humans—feels like very fertile territory to me.

Rather than just continuing a story, sequels might choose to explore the same universe but from a different perspective. We’ve seen how replicants try to blend in with humans in our world, so it might be interesting to see what happens when a team of investigators ends up on an off-world colony where synthetics have taken over, and must therefore pass themselves off as replicants. What can humans learn about themselves when their lives depend on embracing—and even becoming—the very things they fear and hate most?

In terms of cinematography and tone, a new Blade Runner has to show a great deal of deference to its predecessor. I love how the Voight-Kampff test is administered by a big, clunky machine which, inexplicably, contains bellows rising and falling in the foreground. And I love the prolific use of cathode-ray and vacuum-tube displays which, at the time, must have seemed pretty fancy, but help to preserve a wonderful, retro-futuristic, cyber-noir backdrop that I hope isn’t entirely abandoned in favor of multi-touch sheets of glass and holograms.

The Best Science Fiction Movies (and The Runners Up)

Below is a list of the best science fiction movies that I’ve seen to date. I decided to list them alphabetically rather than to try to rank them, so don’t read anything into the order.

Runners up:

The References and Allusions of “Terminator Salvation”

I just got back from seeing Terminator Salvation which I found to be a little heavy on the action and special effects, and disappointingly light on character and intrigue. Perhaps more interesting than the plot where the numerous allusions and references which I spotted throughout the film:

  • The gas station where Marcus, Reese, and Star stop to fill up their Jeep Wrangler is clearly modeled after the Mexican gas station where Sarah Connor stops to fill up her Jeep Wrangler at the end of the first Terminator (where she has her picture taken by the young hustler).
  • The battle in the basement of Cyberdyne between John Connor and the T-800 is essentially a recreation of of the battle between Reese and the T-800 in the first film, right down to the close-up of the robotic feet ascending the steps and the fight on the catwalk. Of course, this is the same T-800 which, before its flesh is burned away, looks just like a young Arnold Schwarzengger (very impressive CGI, by the way).
  • The giant machines which are designed to collect, imprison, and transport humans are clearly inspired by the tripods of War of the Worlds. In particular, the sounds and smoke they emit are very true to both the H.G. Wells novel, and to Steven Spielberg’s modern interpretation.
  • It’s hard to believe that the red weeds that are shown in the scene where Marcus and Blair first approach the resistance hideout aren’t also inspired by War of the Worlds.
  • Maybe this one is a stretch, but the scene where Marcus hurls a chair through the image of Helena Bonham Carter sure seems reminiscent of the 1984 Apple Macintosh commercial warning the world of the dangers of conformity. (Is there a correlation being drawn between Skynet and Microsoft?)
  • While I’m stretching things a bit, Star sure seemed a lot like Newt from Aliens : big-eyed, quiet, and somehow wiser than those who take care of her. And, of course, Aliens was directed by James Cameron who also directed the first Terminator.

As expected, there were also several campy references like John Connor using the “I’ll be back” line, and Reese telling Marcus “come with me if you want to live” (which I believe has appeared in every Terminator story, and even the TV series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles). The literal tie-ins to the first movie are too numerous to list.

The most interesting connection I’ve made so far, however, is between the plot of Terminator Salvation and the 1953 Philip K. Dick story, Second Variety. Second Variety takes place during the aftermath of a nuclear war between the UN and the Soviet Union, and describes a world where the robots that the UN developed to help fight the Russians have become self-aware, and begin constructing increasingly human-like machines to infiltrate both American and Soviet bunkers. Although they have succeeded in causing a great deal of destruction, every model eventually fails to entirely eradicate the remainder of the human race until the second variety proves just human enough to finally slip past the last of humanity’s defenses. If you’ve seen Terminator Salvation, this should sound very familiar, and probably not accidental.

The amount of time I spent looking for nods to other movies, novels, stories, and even old television commercials should tell you something about what I thought of the movie. It was certainly entertaining, but like all the other Terminator sequels, it doesn’t even come close to capturing the darkness, eeriness, and authenticity of the original.

Review of Watchmen (the book and the movie)

First off, I have to admit that I’m kind of a comic book/graphic novel poser. I read a few when I was a kid, but like most people, I gave up the genre early on in life — probably by the time I got to middle school. A few movies rekindled my interest over the years (namely Batman), but it was Alan Moore’s Watchmen that really made me realize what incredible stories I’ve been missing out on all these years.

Like most people, my first exposure to Watchmen was the movie trailer (which I’ve probably watched a dozen times by now). I was so intrigued that I saw the movie the day it came out (not a simple feat for someone with two small children), then again about a week later with my wife. At some point, I ordered the book and added it to my fiction queue. Two weeks of business travel between the east and west coasts finally gave me the uninterrupted blocks of time I was waiting for to immerse myself in what I can honestly say is one of the most creative and riveting pieces of fiction I’ve ever experienced.

Before I get into the book, I should mention that I was surprised by the general reception of the movie. I thought it was one of the best action/hero/fantasy movies I’d ever seen, but in general, I’d say the reaction I witnessed in the theater, and then later saw online, ranged from subdued to negative. I thought the movie was extremely sophisticated and challenging in a way I’d ceased hoping for — especially in the hero genre — since the original Batman series got so bad (which was basically right after the first movie). Fortunately, movies like Batman Begins and Ironman kept my interest in hero movies alive, proving that the genre could still be done in a way that wasn’t insultingly sappy (yes, Spiderman, I’m talking about you). But I thought Watchmen took hero movies to an entirely new level.

As complex as the movie was (and I’m talking about character as much as plot), the book is an order of magnitude more complex. The graphic novel format not only provides the additional space the characters need to unfold, but it also provides additional dimensions for them to exist in, and devices for the writer and artist to use in order to create an incredibly rich and meaningful universe. For example:

  • Multiple stories being told simultaneously. There are almost always at least two different stories being told at any given time. Sometimes we’re in two different geographical locations at once, sometimes the past and present are being woven together, and sometimes there are literally two different but complementary stories simply superimposed and intertwined (the most obvious example being the Black Freighter comic which we watch unfold between and amongst frames).
  • Temporal fluidity. Just as Jon needn’t experience time in a linear fashion, neither must the reader. One of the best examples is chapter 4, “Watchmaker,” which is told entirely from Jon’s perspective. Events unfold completely out of sequence, but in a way that reveals a different, more interesting reality, and startling relationships.
  • Excerpts. Between each chapter are excerpts which temporarily take us out of the immediate story, and into what appear to be tangential stories, but which ultimately add additional layers of meaning to the entire book. I especially like the excerpts from Hollis Mason’s book, Under the Hood. They are so well done, in fact, that they stand entirely on their own.
  • Transitions and artistic detail. Even when the story gets riveting, make sure you examine each and every panel. No detail is random: newspaper headlines, posters, advertisements, graffiti, framed photographs, facial expressions — even the evolution of the heros’ costumes. And don’t just watch the frame you’re one; pay attention to the transitions between frames, and if something strikes you as meaningful (for example, a silhouette of a couple standing together, spray-painted throughout the city by gangs), it probably is.

I think what I like best about Watchmen is that the entire story, along with all the characters, exist squarely in the gray area between good and evil. I think this moral complexity is exaggerated by the fact that many of the characters are costumed heros or villains which traditionally have always been portrayed as moral booleans — either good or evil — or at best, perhaps slightly conflicted. The characters in Watchmen have such depth and complexity that even when they perform the most horrific acts, they seem worthy of redemption. In other words, they feel real.

Movie review roundup

Remember that 1,300 word review of No Country For Old Men that drew over 130 comments? Well, who has time to write those anymore. Even though I’ve been on sabbatical, I’ve been too busy with other projects to write any detailed book or movie reviews, so here’s a quick roundup of movies — new and old — that I’ve seen recently, and briefly what I thought of them. What do you think? Am I way off? What else should go in the old Netflix queue?

Burn After Reading: Big disappointment. I’m usually a huge Coen fan (see above, see below), but Burn After Reading was a big miss. Despite the impressive cast, the characters were incredibly flat, and the story wasn’t the least bit engaging. Don’t waste your time on this one. See any other Coen film instead.

The Big Lebowski: I know, I know. It’s 11 years old, but I just saw a few months ago for the first time. I was driving between San Jose and San Francisco with a friend of mine who had never been to California before, and we passed an In and Out Burger. He was beside himself with excitement since he thought In and Out was a fictitious invention of the Coen Brothers. I was forced to admit that I’d never seen The Big Lebowski at which point he was scandalized. I watched it on my iPhone on the flight home, and just watched it again the other night, and plan on watching it again several more times before I die. It’s a fantastic and incredibly entertaining movie that manages to be about nothing except maybe bowling and nihilism. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. If you have, this is a reminder to watch it again.

The Virgin Suicides: Another old one, I know, but the late 90’s were a really busy time for me (so much code to write and foosball to play — you remember how it was). Anyway, I saw this one in a friend’s DVD collection, and since I like the soundtrack, I decided to check it out. It turns out I prefer the soundtrack. When the movie was over, I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to have learned. When you watch The Big Lebowski, you know you weren’t really supposed to have learned anything. But after The Virgin Suicides, I was pretty sure that Sofia Coppola was trying to tell me something, but I wasn’t sure what it was, except that I shouldn’t lock my daughters in their rooms and force religion on them. Ok, done. I’m probably being overly harsh — it’s an entertaining movie, but not nearly as interesting as Lost in Translation which I was kind of hoping for.

The Day The Earth Stood Still: Not really worth spending the big bucks on (tickets here are $10.50 now!), but it’s worth checking out on Netflix, fios, etc. The message was a little cliché, but it was delivered in a semi-entertaining way. I think Keanu Reeves was handed his dream role as a emotionless alien, though I don’t think he had no opportunity to exclaim "whoa!" With the right expectations, you won’t feel like you completely wasted 103 minutes, but if you have anything at all better to do, make sure you do it first.

Slumdog Millionaire: Best movie I’ve seen in a long time. I love me some Danny Boyle (more below). I was worried when I had to drive an hour to find a theater that was screening Slumdog because I was afraid it wouldn’t reach enough people, but now it’s playing right down the street, so I guess it’s doing well. Slumdog is an incredibly suspenseful love story primarily about fate which is set in the rapidly evolving city of Mumbai. I’m not going to bother explaining the plot because the movie manages to be about much more than a plot summary can possibly do justice. Just see it. Trust me. It’s tragic, inspirational, suspenseful, triumphant, and it has great music and visuals. It’s even worth seeing on the big screen, if you can still catch it.

Sunshine: Again, not a new movie, but another really good one by Danny Boyle. I don’t think this movie ever really made it to the mainstream, but if you’re a Science Fiction fan, it’s a must-see, and very possibly, a must-own. The visuals and sounds are fantastic (a theme of Danny Boyle’s), and a few of the characters are almost magnetic — one of them, much to my surprise, being Chris Evans. Sunshine isn’t perfect by any means, but I think it’s one of the best SciFi movies in recent memory. And like the Coen Brothers and Charlie Kaufman, I’ll see anything Danny Boyle is involved with.

Children of Men: Simultaneously one of the best and most under-appreciated Science Fiction movies of all time. Children of Men is incredibly intense with a fascinating plot and likable characters. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I don’t think I’ve met anyone else who likes this movie very much — at least not nearly as much as I do. If there’s anything at all to criticize, you might be able to say that it’s actually too intense. I actually had to pause it at one point to give myself a few moments to recover. This is a movie worth watching at least twice as there was a lot I picked up the second time that I think I was too dazed to noticed the first.

The Tale of Despereaux: I seldom take my kids to see movies, but all the rain over the Christmas holiday eventually drove us into a theater. I think I just don’t get kids movies. The only kids movies I like are Jungle Book (the 1967 version, though I wasn’t even alive then), and the Toy Story movies. WALL-E was fun, but that’s because I like robots and Macs. Anyway, despite the impressive and no doubt expensive cast, Despereaux didn’t do much for me, or for my kids, more to the point. I think they got more out of the snacks than the movie.

Quantum of Solace: I’m not crazy about this most recent interpretation of Bond. He seems more like an assassin than a British agent. I guess psychotic revenge, rule breaking, and "dropping off the grid" is supposed to be sexy and thrilling, but it all seems kind of ludicrous to me. Everything in the movie (especially the plot) seemed secondary to Daniel Craig’s blue eyes and murderous vengeance. Quantum was clearly more inspired by the Bourne movies than Ian Fleming’s wonderful creation.

The Dark Knight: Not quite as good as Batman Begins, but very good nonetheless. It’s probably the best value of any movie I’ve seen recently as they seem to pack at least two movies into one. Certainly the best Joker ever. I’m a pretty steady fan of Christian Bale, and I’m looking forward to seeing Terminator Salvation.

Iron Man: Another very good hero movie which, like the new Batman movies, manages to actually be somewhat believable. Robert Downey Jr. makes a very decent hero, and although Jeff Bridges is far from The Dude, he makes an interesting villain. I’m glad to see that the movie industry has finally figured how to make hero movies. Now it’s time to remake Spiderman so we can finally put the Tobey Maguire abominations behind us.

Review of 21

See it: Yes (and read the book)

I’m no book snob. I liked the book Jurassic Park, but I think I liked the movie better. And Fight Club was a much better movie than book (which is a tribute to how amazing the movie is because the book is pretty good). I could go on and on, but my point is this: I give every book and movie an equal opportunity to impress me.

I was impressed by both the movie 21, and the book that inspired it, Bringing Down the House. Which is better? The book is a better book, and the movie is a better movie. In other words, both are well done and appropriate for their genres.

I do actually prefer the story of the book (the true story) over the screen adaptation, however it probably wouldn’t have made a very popular movie. The book is much more real. It’s messy and chaotic, and since it’s a true story, it defies formulas and nice tidy endings. It would have been hard to squeeze into two hours, and it would have played out more like a documentary. And finally, I doubt it would have gotten the applause that the movie received from the audience in the theater.

The movie is clearly a Hollywood version of the book: good looking actors (MIT math geniuses probably don’t clean up quite this well), retribution, the good guys winning in the end. It was essentially a heist movie inspired by true events which made it more fun than amazing or inspirational.

The movie was entertaining. The book was amazing. Both of these things are good.

Oh, and if you were confused by the "game show host problem" discussed in the variable equations math class, it is more commonly known as the Monty Hall problem, and is fascinating and fun (insofar as probability can be).

Review of “I Am Legend”

See it? Yes (especially if you like dogs).

My instincts told me not to go see I Am Legend. I’m skeptical of movies where big beautiful Hollywood actors play scientists (Elisabeth Shue in The Saint, Bridget Moynahan in I, Robot, etc.). But I had a free evening, and I’m a total sucker for zombie flicks, so I decided to take a chance.

I’m glad I did. I Am Legend turned out to be a very good movie. I especially appreciated the pace. I was worried during the very first scene when Robert Neville (Will Smith) was hunting caribou from a red Mustang Shelby GT in New York City at insanely high speeds, however the movie then really slowed down, really took its time, and really did a great job of exploring what it might be like being the last person in the world. That’s primarily what I wanted out of I Am Legend. Sure, zombies, weapons, and gore are all cool, but what’s far more interesting is seeing how Neville learns to adapt to isolation, and maintain as much normalcy, routine, and civility as possible.

There are several scenes where I Am Legend tries to explore the madness of isolation which I felt were a little forced, and several times when Neville is compelled to utter to himself or dictate to his computer things that he probably wouldn’t have if not for the fact that he was trying to clue the audience in on something. But the flashback scenes were very well integrated (something difficult to pull off), and overall the movie was good enough that it was very easy to overlook the few questionable scenes. I also have to mention that post-apocalyptic New York was extremely well portrayed.

Will Smith was good in I Am Legend, but his German shepherd, Sam (played by canine actors Abby and Kona), absolutely stole the show. These dogs can act circles around most of the Hollywood A-list, and certainly drew far more of a reaction from the audience than any human actors I’ve seen recently. In fact, this movie may be to German shepherd breeders what Top Gun was to Air Force recruiters. Funny how you can kill people onscreen by the dozens, hundreds, or in this case, even by the billions, but put a single dog in harm’s way, and the audience gasps with horror.

I Am Legend was a great balance between action, gore, special effects, and deliberate exploration of solitude with an ending that I thought was both tidy and unexpected.

Review of “No Country For Old Men”

See it? Yes, but first understand what you’re getting into (keep reading).

I don’t know how movie trailers are made, but I envision a bunch of marketing types in suits sitting in a boardroom brainstorming on how a movie should be pitched to audiences. After a bunch of whiteboarding and a few lattes, guys half their age wearing tee shirts and headphones go off to their Macs to make the vision a reality. There are a few iterations until the suits are happy at which point the trailer gets shipped off. The end result is often a work of art in and of itself, even though it most likely has very little to do with the movie it’s supposed to be advertising. Trailers, after all, are marketing material designed to sell a movie. They are not designed to help viewers pick movies that are right for them. The purpose of trailer is to convince as many people as possible to see a movie as quickly as possible before word can spread about how crappy the movie actually is.

(If you have any doubts about the ability of a trailer to misrepresent a movie, just watch the preview for this wonderfully inspirational family film called Shining.)

My point is that No Country For Old Men is an excellent movie that, as its hart, is almost nothing like its trailer suggests. So misleading are the previews, in fact, that at least two people in the theater actually booed the ending. I admit to being somewhat confused by how the story ended myself (think Sopranos), however by the time I got to my car, it had sunk in enough that I thought I understood it. By the time I got home, I really liked it. And by the time I finished explaining the movie to my wife, I loved it and already wanted to watch it again.

I’ll start with the easy points. The writing is great. The dialog is simultaneously fun, colorful, and eerie. The monologue at the beginning masterfully written and delivered by Tommy Lee Jones. And the acting and characters are, without exception, nearly flawless.

Now for the plot (don’t worry — no spoilers yet). No Country For Old Men is essentially about a drug deal that somehow goes south, a man who mistakenly comes across the money (Llewelyn Moss), and the attempt of a psychopathic killer (Anton Chigurh) to hunt him down. On the periphery, you have an old Texas Sheriff (Tom Bell) who is more trying to make sense of the violence than actually solve the case, and a combination hit man and bounty hunter (Carson Wells) who is hired to intervene. But don’t confuse the plot with the meaning. As far as I can tell, there are no real heroes in No Country. There is no crescendo which builds up to a climax from which the good guys triumphantly walk away. In fact, I’m not entirely sure there are really any good guys. There is only misdirection and unpredictability, which I believe are the primary themes of the movie.

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Review of “28 Weeks Later”

See it: Yes

I loved the movie 28 Days Later. I don’t remember how I coaxed my wife into seeing it with me, but I somehow managed to, and we were really surprised by how good of a movie it was. I don’t just mean how good of a horror movie it was, or how scary it was, or how gruesome it was — I mean it was genuinely a great movie with a great story, great actors, and amazing cinematography.

Plain and simple, 28 Weeks Later does it again. The story overlaps 28 Days Later slightly, then jumps 28 weeks ahead to a time when all the infected were thought to be gone, and the British government (with the help of the US military) was just beginning to repopulate London. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say it was obvious that the repopulation wasn’t going to go as planned, and somehow the virus was going to find its way back into the population. This I already knew. This everyone knew. What we didn’t know was how clever, intriguing, and unbelievably tense the ride was going to be.

See 28 Weeks Later. If you haven’t seen 28 Days Later, see it first. They will probably be the best (and most disturbing) horror movies you have ever seen. Be prepared for the fact that they will haunt you, but not in the way you might expect. You will remember them for the characters, plots, cinematography, and even the music as much as for the gore and terror they instill.

Who knew the zombie genre could reach these heights?