Author Archive for Redding Mineshaft

11
Jan
10

Avatar VS District 9

I’m almost an entire month late, but I finally saw Avatar. I figure you don’t need a full blown review at this point, but maybe a side by side comparison of the two biggest sci-fi movies of 2009 will be illuminating.

So let’s do this… Avatar versus District 9.

What do they have in common? Quite a bit.

Both movies have extremely impressive special effects. Avatar obviously has the bigger (much bigger) budget of the two, and is therefore able to create an entire movie made up of effect shots. It’s almost an animated feature, with a few live characters. District 9 has seamlessly integrated CG characters that all look really good for a fraction of Avatar’s money. They could both be seen purely for “eye candy” appeal.

Both Avatar and District 9 are science fiction action films that have really obvious and preachy subtexts. District 9 ties its story directly to apartheid in Johannesburg, but swaps in some aliens. Avatar takes a more general approach, pointing the finger at humans who seek only to exploit resources and destroy the environment and culture of a beautiful planet for their own personal gain. Neither one is particularly insightful or subtle.

Both of these movies will spirit you away… if you let them. District 9 uses a documentary style introduction to give you a sense of immersion and make the world of the film come to life. James Cameron and his special effects team literally created a world and brought it to life with Avatar. Of course, if you slow down and try to chew on a few of the ideas both films throw at you, you might hit a couple bumps along the way. The Aliens in District 9 have been gathering teensy drops of fuel for years and have juuust enough to get home, but even after Wickus sprays himself with it they still have enough? Wait, fuel makes you mutate into one of them? In Avatar, the Na’vi can plug their hair into trees and the various creatures that populate Pandora, making the “connection with nature” of the natives literal. Did they really need to call the ore the humans want so badly “unobtainium” ? Don’t stop and think about these things in either film, just go with it.

Lastly, neither movie is particularly unpredictable or new in terms of the story being told. Avatar is taking a ton of flak for being almost a science fiction remake of Dances with Wolves or Fern Gully, which it can absolutely be compared to in terms of the format it’s following. Avatar is pretty straightforward, especially if you have seen either of those movies that it models itself after. As I said in my District 9 review, the movie quickly scraps its “oooh new and different” documentary approach and becomes every science fiction film I’ve ever seen. Also, the documentary style opening so clearly lays out all the elements of the story (the Nigerians, how the alien weaponry works, etc) that it is very easy to see where the film is going from there. The premise of using aliens to deal with racism isn’t new either, one can point to several Twilight Zone episodes or even Alien Nation to demonstrate that.

Okay, I get it, they’re kinda similar. Which is better?

Well you know that I only kinda liked District 9, but I kinda liked Avatar more. I don’t think it’s the best movie ever, and it’s certainly not Cameron’s best movie ever, but I refuse to let District 9 take sci-fi/action movie of the year from it. Whyyy?

Both movies ask you to root against humanity and side with a bunch of aliens, but Avatar does a better job of this. In District 9, everyone is a fucking asshole, including the protagonist and the aliens, yet somehow you’re supposed to root for both of them and be really happy to see some humans get gibbed. Avatar uses the very typical archetype of the “noble savage” to portray the Na’vi as culturally superior to the invading humans, who (except for the scientists and one chopper pilot) are portrayed as nothing but trigger happy marines and greedy businessmen. That trick is really old, but y’know what, it works.

I believed the cheesy developing love story in Avatar more than the cheesy developing friendship in District 9. Once again, Avatar’s version of the story is completely run of the mill, as the outsider from the foreign land falls in love with the girl from the native tribe and needs to learn their ways and so on, but it worked well enough. District 9 has Christopher mislead Wickus about transforming him back into a human, making Wickus feel so angry and betrayed that he knocks Christopher out and tries to leave without him. Minutes later, we are expected to believe that Wickus has such a strong redemptive streak that he is willing to further risk his own life to get Christopher home. These moments come so close together towards the end of the film without much explanation, and no matter how you spin it one of them has to ring false to me. I found the developing romance in Avatar to be completely derivative, but it worked and fueled the story just fine.

Avatar has a more awesome and somehow more believable bad guy, even though he’s completely over the top. I never got the sense during District 9 that the bald marine guy would ever be able to singlehandedly stop Wickus. He just seemed to miraculously survive every scene he was in, thus appointing him villain by sheer luck alone. The Colonel in Avatar is ridiculously badass; he runs out into an unbreathable environment to kick ass several times, and even has one quick scene where his arm is just casually on fire as he loads up his battlemech. He’s not as believable as Landa from Inglorious Basterds or anything, but you do believe that this guy could do some damage when the final showdown comes around.

Oh yeah, the final showdown… District 9 had little to no tension for me as Wickus piloted his battlemech (hey both movies have those too!). He was pretty damn unstoppable for the first two thirds of the firefight. In the fight at the end of Avatar, Sully is both physically outmatched in his Na’vi avatar AND in danger of his real (handicapped) body being found or tampered with.

The last, and perhaps most petty of the comparisons… Avatar is fucking prettier. It is. 3D or no 3D, Avatar’s special effects are worth the hype, even if the story isn’t. The movie is worth seeing if you’re an effects junkie. Everyone complains about CGI and many people think 3D is gimmicky, but this movie shows how these effects can be done to make a world seem real. District 9 has damn good special effects, but towards the end of the film it seems only interested in using them to throw more human bits on the camera. I suppose this is the least fair of the comparisons, since District 9 was made for waaaaay less money, but it is worth pointing out.

I’m sorry to say, but between “the little film that could” (please, Peter Jackson threw his name on it), and the “gigantic studio popcorn film in 3D”, I’ve gotta side with Cameron for telling a better completely derivative and cliched science fiction story.

03
Jan
10

Ted Chiang – “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” review

Like any good boyfriend, I have an uncontrollable urge to push good science fiction on my geeky girl of choice. After sort of striking out with Neuromancer, I have rallied the troops by recommending a Ted Chiang short story. I like it so much I decided to push it on you as well.

You can find an audio recording that is performed quite well by James Campanella for free here. It’s about an hour and ten minutes long.

Who’s Ted Chiang? It’s okay, I hadn’t heard of him either. He’s a science fiction author who has only written a few stories, published at an incredibly slow rate. However, he’s won and been nominated for a truly ridiculous amount of science fiction awards. Each story has been truly labored over… and you can tell. I’ve read four or five of Chiang’s stories, but my favorite by far is the one I have linked above.

It’s a time travel story. Wait! Don’t run if you don’t like time travel stories! It’s a very different kind of time travel story. It’s told in a kind of Arabian Nights sort of way, cloaking the science fictiony aspect of the story in the words of myth and legend. If you don’t like time paradoxes, you can actually rest easy here. I won’t spoil too much, but just know that you should give this one a shot even if time travel isn’t your thing.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” feels like several mini stories that are all connected. It tells the tale of many people that use a “gate of years” to go through time and details the effects that their travel has on their lives, and more importantly, their understanding of their lives. The narrator himself also journeys through the gate of years, giving the story a sense of immediacy so it doesn’t just feel like several tales being repeated for you to hear.

The real beauty of this story is that it’s just as much about storytelling as it is about time travel. It’s about the effect (or lack thereof) that a story can have on a person. It’s about fate, the prewritten “story” of your life, and how many people attempt to rewrite their own story, improving themselves along the way. Of course it’s also left to you to ask yourself, would you change your destiny? Meet yourself? Rob yourself?

It’s a tiny little story, but the characters are all surprisingly strong. I can’t help but mentally compare this to Steven Erikson, the author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. He can have you spending time with characters for hundreds of pages and you don’t feel you know them like you do the few people in Chiang’s story. Granted, Erikson’s characterization has gotten better in the second book, which is the one I’m still on, but that is for another review. This story makes you understand and care for it’s characters in a truly tiny amount of space. It’s really something to admire, especially in a science fiction story, where many people read just to get to the “gotcha” ending or the preachy moral.

A quick word about Campanella’s audio version of this story… it rules. He narrates it almost like The Prince from the Sands of Time video games, giving it an authentic sort of tone. The male voices are all really good; my only complaint would be with his female voices, as a few of them sound a little chipmunkish. To me though, this is absolutely the way to experience the story… so go listen to it!

23
Dec
09

Mega Man 9 – The Blue Bomber is in great shape.

I just finished Mega Man 9 on my family’s Wii. I’ve been wanting to play it since it came out a while ago, but I haven’t had access to it until now. Let’s talk about it, shall we ?

If you’re a Mega Man fan… it’s excellent. If you’re not, it could go either way.

Just in case you don’t know, Mega Man 9 is a new game in the series that is built to look and feel like an old game in the series (the 1-6 era specifically). It’s released for digital download on all the current generation consoles.

I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to Mega Man’s story, but right at the start they shake things up a bit by making Doctor Light the bad guy and not Doctor Wiley. I won’t give away where they’re going with this plot, but it was amusing enough and it didn’t dominate the gameplay. I found myself caring about it ever so slightly more than most Mega Man stories. There was also a cute reference to the other games in the series at the very end that got a big stupid grin out of me.

Gameplay though, that’s the shit that matters! Well, it’s a new old Mega Man game. For me, that’s excellent. The only real gameplay complaint I’ve heard from people is that it’s too hard. You know me, I’ll chalk this up to games getting too easy these days and so on, but come on, it’s a Mega Man game! If it wasn’t at least somewhat challenging Capcom wouldn’t have done their job.

I played through a good portion of the game trading off with a friend of mine, who wrote this guest post and one half of this guest post. It may just be fond memories or something on his part, but he found Mega Man 9 to be a huge step up in difficulty compared to previous games in the series. I argued that maybe he just thinks that because we both spent our entire childhoods becoming Aces at the earlier Mega Man games and this one is akin to starting all over again and needing to learn new things.

As it went on though, I think he might have a bit of a point (for once). All the previous Mega Man games had a few really tough parts, whereas Mega Man 9 seems to be set up to be tough throughout. Do I mind this though? Hell no! The game rules.

There is quite a lot of interesting little gameplay ideas in this game, such as section where Mega Man is floating in low gravity and he needs to fire his mega buster to propel himself in the opposite direction. Of course, this is done around instadeath spikes and flying enemies, just for fair measure.

In a bid to keep up with achievement mongers Capcom also threw in a whole bunch of absolutely ridiculous “challenges” that gamers can do to artificially lengthen their replay value. I got a bunch while playing through the first time, not knowing any of the conditions for them. I looked at them afterwards and saw some truly tough ones, such as completing the whole game without taking a hit, or playing through the game once a day for three days like it’s a damn exercise regiment.

My only complaint would be that they took out Mega Man’s slide (which has been a staple since Mega Man 3). I found myself trying to use it constantly and failing because of it. The charging mega buster I can do without, but dude… give us the slide! There was also a complete lack of Protoman in the game and in the story until the very end where he shows up in a cutscene.

Capcom, we love you. Very few other companies would do such a good job with such an endeavor. I notice you almost set the game up for a Mega Man 10 at the end though…

Get on that. 🙂

07
Dec
09

Planet M.U.L.E. went live recently – Go play!

I’m going to begin this total gush post by saying I have nothing invested in the company that makes this game. Run over to planet M.U.L.E and check it out.

What is M.U.L.E?

Well it’s one of the most beloved games of all time. It’s one of those rare few game designs where people still talk about it and play it and adapt it, even though it’s decades old. It’s been on many different platforms over the years. You should have heard of it before now.

But fear not! Because now you can play it online with people…. with nicer graphics! As far as I can tell, it’s very faithful to the original, with perhaps just a small tweak or two. Go play the damn thing… it’s free!

Okay okay, maybe you need further information. M.U.L.E is an economic game. There are several different resources that players generate and trade with one another in order to make the maximum possible profit. The rules of supply and demand are captured beautifully here, better than most “euro” style board games that try to get a similar feel.

One of the particularly innovative features was the way the game approached bartering, where you have your character on one side of the screen, theirs on the other, and you literally “meet in the middle” on a certain price point. There is a time limit, and you are most likely negotiating as you move up and down. If you’re selling and you know they’ll buy, you can set a lower price, and as they approach you can pull back at the last second to make them come to you out of desperation. It’s awesome.

Planet M.U.L.E looks like it has a pretty good team that intends on adding more and more features to the game as time goes on. Currently, it’s free as I said … and I hope they can keep it this way. You can play it online with friends or random people, as well as locally in a network. Oh, it also runs on everything. How have you not clicked away from this and downloaded it yet?

On a personal note, M.U.L.E is one of those rare strategy games that I can truly enjoy even though I’m pretty bad at it. This doesn’t happen very often for me, but I never feel like I’ve been outwitted by some sort of cheap trick. I always feel like I’m learning something every time I lose. The game just went live less than a week ago, so I suggest you go pick it up and learn how to play before the sharks get really good.

Go give it a look!

03
Dec
09

Season 4 – BSG – Beyond Sucky Garbage

Here we are with season 4 of Battlestar Galactica (I might do a thing on the miniseries, razor, and the plan at some other time). To quote Ronald D. Moore at one of his panicked last minute writing sessions, “let’s wrap this sucker up!”

There are spoilers in this post that mated with caveman spoilers 150 000 years ago.

I’ll be honest, most of season 4 doesn’t really matter. The Demetrius ultimately leads nowhere. Baltar’s cult ultimately leads nowhere. Both of those points get several episodes worth of work and build up, but do nothing or almost nothing in the grand scheme of things. The scrolls of Pithea are false and mean nothing too. Starbuck’s missing ovary amounts to nothing. Simon’s supposed research on Cylon reproduction means nothing. Oh, and Tigh’s baby doesn’t materialize into anything and neither does Tyrol’s. I’m suspicious that all the sudden baby shuffling around season four is done to make Hera more important.

What does matter in season four is the dreaded FINAL FIVE. Oh noes, what are they going to do… not much actually. Turns out they don’t really know the way to Earth, but instead they hold within them the secret to resurrection. Bad retcon, but fair enough.

This is as good a time as any to point out that the cylons, that invincible force of machines that has had no less than ELEVEN SPIES in the human fleet has only been able to pull off one successful act of sabotage (two, if you count the explosion Baltar causes by giving a nuke away to them), one successful murder, and one suicide bombing. In four seasons… with eleven spies. Wow, these guys suck. Whatever sense of menace they used to hold is long gone at this point.

The only arc worth mentioning in this one is, of course, the mutiny arc, which is pretty solid precisely because it sticks to the human part of the story (although they do some creative editing by dropping Tyrol’s demand for cylon citizenship on their “previously on” segment and never mention it again). Still, it’s a pretty solid set of episodes, and certainly the best ones in the season.

It’s unfair to say that the religious aspect of the show comes out of nowhere in this last season, but it’s just as unfair to say that the level of religion isn’t heightened with Starbuck’s return. We go from God quietly influencing key characters with visions and whatnot to God building vipers and making copies of people. It’s a stretch, and it’s fair that some viewers had a hard time with it.

But now, we must reach the end of this series of posts, and the end of the show…. and oh what an end it is. I don’t even know where to begin. Oh yes, here:

Anyone who thinks that dovetailing the science fiction story of Battlestar Galactica into actual human history on this planet was a good idea is fucking insane.

I’m sure Ronald D. Moore thought he was really clever when he came up with it… but he didn’t come up with it, did he. He probably did it as a reference to Battlestar Galactica 1980, which was totally not silly and awful and the butt of countless science fiction jokes. Look, you don’t need to be an anthropologist or a historian to realize why ending this show’s history at our pre-history is absolutely stupid. Think about it for one second and any number of things should jump to mind. English has existed in its current form for more than 150 000 years? The cavemen in Africa needed white people from space to come down and sophisticate them? We’re half cylons now? So that’s why I can’t cure cancer with fetal blood.

The show also glosses over a reaaaaally hard to swallow premise: the idea that every human in the fleet is okay with giving up all the technology and shelter they own in favor of living in the dirt with cavemen. From a writing standpoint, they deal with this in a childishly simple way with a conversation between Romo and Adama. I’m going for memory, but it goes something like this:

Romo : Isn’t it absolutely stupid to expect people to give up all their creature comforts?

Adama: Yeah you’d think so, but they did.

Romo : Oh.

That isn’t good writing. We don’t get to see the perspective of any one of the people doing this, Moore just tells us it’s so and we’re expected to buy it.

Oh yeah, and all those visions that Roslin, Boomer, and Six have been having of Hera going through the opera house culminates in Six and Baltar picking her up just long enough to carry her fifteen fucking feet down a hallway. It’s not her “destiny” to go down a hallway and end up in the CIC as Cavil’s hostage. It’s her destiny to pass on her genetics to us (as stupid as that is), and Six and Baltar have nooothing to do with that. Nice payoff guys, nice.

But what really does it in is the final two minutes, where Ronald D. Moore leaves us with some of the most profound and original knowledge of science fiction : “We need to be careful with our technology, or else it could get out of hand”. WOW. The last little bit of this episode absolutely bludgeons the audience with this to the point where it truly insults BSG’s supposedly intelligent fanbase. I thought it was pretty clear, since this message was at the start of every episode in the whole “cylons created by man…” thing. We get to the end of this show and all Ron has to leave us with is “the robots are coming!! Watch out!!”

This is a show about tough decisions and hard hitting tragedy. It ends with them quite literally fucking our ancestors and telling us that the robots are coming.

03
Dec
09

Season 3 – BSG- Breaking Scifi Greatness

Now we arrive at season 3 of BSG, and things really start to get out of hand. Let’s take a look shall we? If you haven’t been keeping up, at least go read my season 2 post, where I state the Golden Rule of BSG.

All these spoilers have happened before, and all of them will happen again.

We are dropped into this season on the planet, and we spend several episodes dealing with getting off of said planet. The escape sequence is really great, and it will go down as one of the best special effect sequences in this show. There’s one episode about suicide bombings where the writers really don’t have the guts to get into the morality of it, they seem to be using it more as politically hot window dressing than anything else.

“A Measure of Salvation” is one of those profoundly irritating Golden Rule of BSG type episodes. Cylon physiology is not something that the writers have nailed down at all, but it’s something that they keep using in their plotlines. The virus that infects and kills them, but not humans makes no sense for reasons I won’t get into. It also commits the same Battlestar sin that the Pegasus arc did, by giving Roslin the “tough decision” of using biological warfare, but then robbing her of the consequences of it by having Helo disrupt their plan.

“Hero” is truly one of the worst episodes on the show in terms of Cylon Detection and Battlestar’s retroactive writing. Here, we see a guy get on the ship and get tested by the cylon detector, by the doctor on the ship, without the nuke, and it works and shows him as human. So…. if we remember waaaay back to the earlier episodes, we saw the same detector display red for Boomer, when Baltar lied to her. So, the detector can display both a correct positive (Boomer) and a correct negative (Bulldog) without baltar and without the nuke. Therefore, the thing works. Therefore, they should have tested people in key positions with a tribunal of 13 people (they know there are 12 cylons) and bam, they could have caught them all.

Although, “catching them all” isn’t all that important (unless you play pokemon). The cylons, at this point in the show, carry little to no menace at all. We keep hearing about “the final five”, but this is a race of machines that can’t get the job done with their unlimited army and the spies they do have. They’re no longer a believable threat, they’re these generic antagonists that the heroes occasionally swat at, because the heroes are the important ones.

Here is when I really realized that the Cylons as a race are written so that they don’t have to be written. There are way too many examples, but the writers seem to come up with a fact about the cylons only when it’s absolutely necessary to the story they are telling, and this fact never needs to be binding. One easy example is the number three stating that six killing her with a rock was “the first cylon on cylon murder in their race’s history”, when this just isn’t the case, since Boomer shot a six in one of the very first episodes. This is easy fact checking type stuff, guys!

The standalone episodes towards the end of the season return, once again showing us the Golden Rule of BSG in full force. “The Woman King” has everybody on the crew be extremely concerned with what colony people are from (their treatment of racism) for one and only one episode. “Dirty Hands” addresses the working class dudes in the fuel ships, whom we never hear from again.

This season also starts a new running trick that the show pulls. Whenever the writers need to make anything important, they say that it somehow “points the way to Earth”. Even the Final Five supposedly “know the way to Earth” at some point in the show, but this is given up in favor of Starbuck’s magical ship knowing the way instead.

Starbuck’s return is hardly surprising, since the show is absolutely in love with the character. What is surprising is the nature of her return, which is something I’ll address in the next post.

She’s important though, so you can bet she knows the way to earth.

03
Dec
09

Season 2 – BSG – Bumpy Second Go

Here we are on season two of our review of Battlestar Galactica. I advise you to read the season one post first, but if you’re a rebel or a Cylon you might not want to just to spite me.

Spoilers are hidden throughout this post, there are many copies.

Season two starts off with a really great series of episodes following the finale of the first season, which I neglected to mention in the last post, but it’s shocking and pretty excellent. Several episodes are devoted to getting several groups of characters back together and restoring the status quo.

We need to stop here, because we have hit the first truly hate-worthy episode of BSG, “Flight of the Phoenix”. In this episode, Boomer hooks herself up to a temporarily networked Galactica computer to repel the Cylon computer virus. She manages to somehow make a counter virus or throw the virus back at them or something, because it shuts off all the enemy ships and makes them easily killed.

This, once again, raises several questions about Cylon Detection which are certainly still looming from season one. We’re told they’re identical to humans in every way physically and therefore they cannot be detected, but she can hook into a computer and hack it with her blood or her neurons or whatever. Alright… no.

Moving on, the way she shuts off the largest force of cylon ships is an easy way to get a dramatic ending to the episode. I don’t know why the colonials don’t use her to shut off EVERY cylon ship they encounter from then on. They have the equivalent of a technological superweapon.

This is where we must stop and forge what I will call the Golden Rule of Battlestar Galactica:

The creators of Battlestar Galactica will sacrifice ANYTHING they have built up or previously established in favor of the moment”

The show is very good at drama and has some really good actors (Mary McDonnell rules), but we’ll see as time goes on that again and again this show feels no obligation to stay consistent with anything if it makes for good drama. As I said, the drama is really good, but it’s falsely earned, and doesn’t fit into the series in a meaningful way, it’s just drama in a vacuum.

The pegasus arc is a pretty satisfying series of episodes that puts the crew of BSG up against a parallel crew, offering for a great contrast in command structures and whatnot. It’s tense, but it also starts the second problem with the later seasons of this show, where they get their key figures to make “tough decisions”, but unlike Lee in season one, they don’t have to actually live with them. We see this very clearly when Adama resolves after much deliberation to have Cain murdered. Of course, the show makes it so he doesn’t have to live with this decision by having the escaped Cylon prisoner do it instead. It’s an uncharacteristically neat ending to the arc, but not a completely awful one.

After this, we have a series of one off episodes, most likely because the show is now a 20 episode season instead of 13. “Black Market” is truly atrocious, and it demonstrates the Golden Rule of BSG very well. Lee is shown to have been sleeping with a prostitute for a while, SHOCKING! This is dropped after this episode and never mentioned again. The moment wins out in BSG every time.

When I first saw this show, I was bothered by the way Moore shakes up the series at the end of this season. Looking back on it now, I’ve warmed to it a little. It’s a little bit of a hollow gesture, since all the ramifications are dealt with by episode 6 of the next season though.

This is the last season of Battlestar that is at all salvageable. Get out while you still can… or follow me to the next post, where we’ll tear down season 3.