Saturday, January 2, 2010

The obligatory Avatar post

What has not already been said about Avatar, James Cameron's new SF/action/3-D money magnet?

Visually stunning? Check.

So predictable I could have diagrammed the entire story based on the trailers? Check.

Noble savage nonsense cranked up to 11? Check.

It's almost pointless to ask if Avatar is a good movie or not, which is the first thing most people want to know, the first post-theatre question they ask each other. "Did you like it? What did you think?" The answer has to be broken down into parts.

Well, as a visual spectacle, it's of course staggeringly good. The Na'vi make Gollum look like a paper cutout being waved on the end of a stick (much as Gollum made all previous CGI characters look like finger puppets).

As an action movie it's also quite strong, and I think not enough is made of this. It's actually not that easy to make a good action movie. A dozen or so big Hollywood action flicks come out every year, and most of them contain terrible action sequences. The virus of quick cutting that infects everyone from Michael Bay to Peter Jackson annoys the crap out of me.

The dialogue, I was impressed with, even if only because I had very low expectations. There are no really memorable lines, except from Colonel HeadScars, but I'd say less than half of them were actually painful to the ear. Compare and contrast with Transformers, for example.

How about the racism? Well... if I were being very charitable, I'd say that of all the possible forms of racism that still show up in genre films, noble savage condescension is probably one of the least toxic varieties. At least it wasn't also misogynist in any notable way; Grace and Neytiri are clearly the strongest characters in the film.

I knew about the Dances With Smurfs thing going into the movie, and that didn't bother me nearly as much as the blankness of the main character. Jake Sully literally arrives in a box and is popped out as though he's an action figure being unpacked. He has about that much personality. He also seems dumb as a brick, and that's difficult to reconcile with him having an identical twin who was an accomplished scientist.

My final question about Avatar came about an hour after leaving the theatre: would this movie have pushed the buttons of my inner 10-year-old?

After I saw the original Star Wars films, or Indiana Jones, for the first time, I'd run around my back yard with my friends for weeks pretending to wield a light saber or a whip. I'm sure there are 10-year-olds out there now playing with toy wands and shouting "Expelliarmus!" or swinging wooden swords through a band of orcs. I can see my 10-year-old self wanting to be a giant, blue half-naked monkey man. On the Star Wars Kid Inspiring Scale, I give Avatar a 7 out of 10.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

You never get past it, it just becomes a part of you: Dollhouse thoughts

Having been kicked out of my non-blogging funk by the !Peter Watts! madness, I thought I'd get back to talking about Dollhouse. Many spoilers, etc.

So many highs, so many lows.

I've been talking about the show a lot with my girlfriend, She Who Is Awesome, and we've come to slightly different conclusions. I like Dollhouse a lot, in spite of its flaws. She's been feeling more ambivalent about it. In fact, before last night's back-to-back episodes of "Meet Jane Doe" and "A Love Supreme," she was pretty much not even going to buy the DVD of the second season.

I see her point. Dollhouse has been wildly uneven, even compared with the first and second seasons of Buffy and Angel. And Firefly, when looked at in proper order is remarkably low on filler episodes and/or craptastic ones.

So here are my complaints about Dollhouse's second season, in particular:

• Slow start. Boy, it didn't exactly get going at a good pace. It felt like we were back in client-of-the-week mode there.

• Lack of focus. After the slam-bang ending to the previous season, plus "Epitaph One," it felt like the show was on track. It wasn't a hint of what was going on, it was a friggin' roadmap. And it was a map to very cool places. The fact that we didn't immediately jump into the "Epitaph One" storyline was a bit of a letdown.

• Echo? What Echo? This is only partly a complaint. Having a blank slate as your main character is, well, kind of a weird choice. But in the first few episodes, and even in some of the better, later ones of the season, Echo is either marginalized or bounces back and forth between various states. It doesn't feel like a linear evolution from doll to fully realized person. In fact, in the first three or four episodes, it sometimes felt like they were being shown out of order, with Echo farther along in earlier shows than later ones.

But I think these flaws are compensated for by both the good that's made it onto the screen, and by the potential the writers are finally starting to mine.

Ah, potential. It's been the show's bete noir in some ways. Defenders like myself point out what an awesome, mindblowing concept the show is playing with. Those of a more critical bent point out that the potential has often been squandered in favour of "Echo's a dominatrix" jokes.

But the potential, and the way it's being realized, is the core of my defense of Dollhouse. In SF novels, you often see a single idea worked out in full, with all its myriad implications fleshed out. In TV SF? Not so much. Remember that transporter malfunction on ST:TNG that turned Picard, Guinan, Ro, et al into teenagers? Fountain of youth, or single-episode plot device never to be mentioned again? Just Star Trek alone will give you hundreds of dropped SFnal threads.

Dollhouse, however, is rigorously working out the implications of its technology. We start with programmable dolls, the Swiss army knives of the doll world. Since then we've seen post-imprinting dolls, multi-persona dolls, dolls with their own persona, upgraded. We've seen the awesome "Epitaph One," which dragged everything to its dystopian conclusion. We're seeing the technology advance, from slow imprinting to faster, all the way to distance imprinting and wiping, and how that changes the balance of power between those who control the technology, and those who are its victims.

Perfect television? No. But Dollhouse is arguably the most well thought out SF premise on television in the past several decades.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Holy shit! Peter Watts gets a beatdown!

So Peter Watts may have made the mistake of arguing with some US border guards. According to Cory Doctorow, they then gave Watts a beating, charged him with assaulting a federal officer, and sent him packing into Canada in his shirtsleeves in the snow.

Now he's facing a federal felony charge in the US. Watts, for those who don't know, is the author of the fabulous Blindsight, a bleak but mindblowing novel that was nominated for a Hugo a few years back. It's available as a download thanks to its Creative Commons license.

The folks who like to grovel before authority are predictably already turning up in Boing Boing's comments. We don't know what happened, maybe he was at fault, blah blah blah. You know what? I don't even care if Watts argued with the guards, if he verbally provoked them, if he refused to follow their orders immediately. I don't for a minute believe that an SF author and former marine biologist in his forties just lunged at a border guard.

I do believe that border guards have an absurd amount of power over people. When you have that much power in one place, you've created a job that attracts bullying assholes. Not all of them, but way too many are just there to push people around and feed their piggy little egos.

I've donated $20 to Watts through his PayPal account on his website.

If, like me, you've ever been treated like dirt by some jackass of a border guard, kick in a few bucks. Free Peter Watts!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

io9 responds

So after I posted my little rant below about io9 and their banning Abigail Nussbaum of Asking the Wrong Questions, I sent off an email to them about the matter.

Here's the text of my message:
To the editors,

I've just read on Abigail Nussbaum's site, Asking the Wrong Questions, that she and another io9 user were banned immediately after they posted comments questioning whether the articles on District 9 were biased because it was io9's ComiCon sponsor. The link to at least one user's profile seems to show that her last comment before being banned was criticism about District 9.

I'm hoping you can provide an explanation. Until you do, I'm going to trust that Ms. Nussbaum has it right, and I won't be reading your site.

Sincerely,

[My real name]
So apparently, Charlie Jane Anders headed over to Asking the Wrong Questions and posted this:

Hi Abigail, thanks for writing about io9. Sorry I only just saw this, after someone sent us the link. To answer your points in order: We banned Oliver because he was being abusive. We have a clear policy that says that if you attack us or accuse us of not believing what we write on the site, then we will ban you. Your comment never actually appeared on the site -- when I read your comment, I thought it was Oliver coming back under another name. Someone may well have responded to your comment -- sometimes starred commenters can see unapproved comments and respond to them -- but you were never approved.

As for District 9, we saw this movie at SDCC and it blew us away. And we really did think it came into SDCC with the least buzz, and came out with the biggest increase in buzz. It would be hypocritical of us, in the extreme, not to say what we think about this movie because it's advertising on our site. We've never had any pressure to say nice things about our advertisers, and if we had, we'd ignore it. We assumed anyone who visits io9 regularly would know that we don't give special treatment to our advertisers. We hadn't been hyping District 9 much until we saw it and realized how great it was.

Thanks again for commenting about io9, and for helping keep us honest. We love your writing over at StrangeHorizons.

All best,
Charlie Jane Anders
io9.com
This doesn't really satisfy me. Whether Olliver was banned for good or bad reasons, I don't know; I do know that the last post he put up about Tron 2 and District 9 was not what I would consider remotely abusive. So it looks weird that that's the last thing he posted.

But my main problem is the io9 policy of banning people who attack them or don't believe what they read on the site. You've got to roll with the punches, if you're going to run any kind of media outlet. Right now, they just look thin-skinned and petty.

At the newspaper I work for, if someone sends us a letter or an email accusing us of bias, we run it. If we think it's particularly egregious, the editor might append a note or write a rebuttal, saying essentially what Ms. Anders said in her comment: we stand by our views, we aren't pressured by our advertisers, we call them like we see them. And if io9 had done that, openly and immediately in that comment thread or on their main page, I'd say more power to them. I believe they liked District 9. I just can't believe that they think quashing any criticism, removing posts or banning people, is the way to defend their journalistic integrity. It's not.

Oh io9, no!

So I was just dipping a toe in Asking the Wrong Questions, and I find that its proprietor has become embroiled in a wee bit of a controversy with i09. Short version: i09 is promoting the hell out of District 9, a movie which actually looks pretty interesting. i09 also gave it a rave review and named it the most buzzworthy thing at ComiCon.

A couple of commenters (possibly not so politely) pointed out that this looked an awful lot like a conflict of interest, and were promptly banned.

Wow… just wow.

John Scalzi weighed in on the comment thread there and noted that it is possible for media outlets to review things that are paying their salaries. This is entirely correct. What io9 is doing, however, is the exact opposite of the way you're supposed to do it.

But let's give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that their opinions about District 9 are entirely on the up and up and not influenced by the wads of cash their advertising folks are getting from the film's promotion team. You do not ban people from commenting because they have noticed the possible conflict of interest.

I normally avoid any hint of my real life on this blog, but I'm going to now. I'm a reporter at a smallish suburban newspaper. This means I have many jobs, including writing a weekly column, covering local politics and crime, and sometimes writing the editorials (we sign our editorials, as they do in Quebec, by the way). When you piss people off (and you will piss people off) and they send you an angry letter, YOU PRINT IT!

Oh, I'm sorry, did I just yell? Well, maybe I'm a little ticked that io9 doesn't understand the basic rule of running a media business that says disagreement is actually good. Sure, you can delete posts and ban users, and no one will be left after a while to criticize. They will tell you how awesome you are and stroke your ego. And slowly they will slip away, and you will be an irrelevant joke.

I actually like io9. I know it exists mainly to be all ZOMG NEW IRON MAN TRAILER!!!!1!, but I like that they actually write about books on a regular basis. They even interviewed Samuel Delany a while back. It's refreshing to see a site that gets 99 per cent of its hits from people interested in the next cheap pseudo-SF blockbuster, and devotes 10 to 20 per cent of its time to talking about stories printed on dead trees. Considering how often they update, you actually get more book reviews, recommendations and author interviews out of io9 than out of almost any other SF-related site on the web.

If io9 would like to explain how their actions are anything less than petty protection of their sponsorship, I'd love to hear it.

Friday, July 31, 2009

"Caroline"

This little review of Echo, the original pilot for Dollhouse, contains spoilers. Back away now and nobody gets spoiled.

I never read the script for the original pilot that was floating around out there. I guess it's part of my own spoiler-averse nature to avoid reading a script like that. Besides, what-might-have-been is profitless when it comes to TV. We have what the creator ultimately gave us, network bungling or not. So when I sat down to watch Echo last night, it was with the view that I was seeing an experiment, an early draft put down on film, an alternate world version of the characters.

Boy, I was not wrong about the alternate world part.

The basic plot sysnopsis is this: we get a whole big chunk of exposition right up front, with DeWitt narrating as we see Echo go through several missions: a pro bono drying out a young woman, a jealousy-inducing date at a wedding, and as a negotiator in a million dollar drug deal. Once that's out of the way – and we're talking a good long part of the episode here – we get into the main plot, which is once again Ballard's search for the Dollhouse and its attempts to throw him off.

They're not exactly subtle on this first draft of the plan. They have Victor/Lubov send him astray, and when the Caroline photo draws him right back in, they try to use Echo for the same project. When that fails, she tries to kill him, twice. Meanwhile, Topher is worried about the actives already, especially Echo. Apparently she's already developing somehow, and he has several talks about the issue with Boyd, and an awkward confrontation with Dr. Saunders.

DeWitt and Mr. Dominic, however, are notable mostly by their near total absence. DeWitt seems in control when dealing with the client and serving up spoonfuls of exposition near the opening of the show, but when we see her later she's being yelled at by her superiors over the phone (re: Ballard) or ordering his failed killing. She's less of a mighty and mysterious ice queen here.

In fact, while DeWitt is one of the major ensemble cast members by the latter part of the first season, in this pilot I'd have to say there are two protagonists: Ballard and Topher. Yeah, Topher. He gets a lot of screen time, and he's actively moving a chunk of plot forward. Echo/Caroline, on the other hand, feels sidelined.

A lot of things feel rushed, including the Doll/handler relationship, the imprinting process itself, and the question about where they get their "volunteers."

After watching Echo, my girlfriend, she who is both wise and beautiful, said that Ghost, the in-continuity pilot, was better structured. In many ways, I have to agree. There was more show and less tell, we saw the original Caroline before she was wiped, and we saw Alpha rather than simply hearing him mentioned. Of course, Ghost is saddled with a boring procedural kidnapping plot weighing it down.

I'm going to say that Echo is not a great pilot, not in the way that Serenity was for Firefly for example. It's flawed in more interesting ways than Ghost, however.

Ghost gives viewers a straightforward explanation of the show's central idea, and introduces the characters and their traits fairly well. Echo is all over the place. It's like an excited puppy, fun and cute and really packed with energy, but scattered. It feels like Joss Whedon had been sitting on his cool ideas for so long he couldn't not let them out all at once. Fly, my monkeys, fly! He takes the show almost to the place it was at the end of the first season in less than sixty minutes, but the ride is a little rough.

So I'm going to say something weird here: I understand why Fox ordered a second pilot. This pilot would have snagged me, but it is weird and frenetic and talky. Ghost is not a better pilot, but it's a much more conventional one. It has the kind of flaws that networks seem to think make for good TV. Echo has the kind of flaws that might signal greatness if the writer can rein him or herself in.

And having seen Whedon's other work, and the latter half of the season, I'd say greatness is still possible.

Oh, season two, where are you when I need you?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

"I hope we find me alive"

Warning: for the purists out there who have not yet put their money down for the Dollhouse DVD set, this contains spoilers for the final episode, Epitaph One. Reading any further will sour your enjoyment not only of the episode, but of life itself. Food will be as ashes in your mouth, and your lamentations will drive nearby squirrels to commit seppuku.

Okay, the lightweights are gone? Good.

Like everyone else, I heard the basic plot outline of Epitaph One months ago: Felicia Day (Mag) and an intrepid band of survivors whose names I never quite picked up, are trying to survive in the far-off future of 2019 after Dollhouse technology has made everything go kerblooey.

The basic plot is this: the survivors stumble into the Dollhouse while taking a shortcut through the sewers, trying to avoid the signals that can turn you into a reaver killer angry person. Realizing it is the origin point for "the tech" that's driven the world into its current zombie apocalypse/rise of the machines state, they use a mindwiped refugee they're dragging around as a template for a series of memories they find programmed into the chair. So we get a series of sequential flashbacks, showing events both before the first episodes of Dollhouse, and later, possibly up to just a year or two before 2019. Meanwhile, someone is killing off the survivors one by one, and a spooky, Dollish Whiskey, sans facial scars, shows up to offer them some help.

This is another Dollhouse episode that feels far, far longer than its actual running time (in a good way). There's a lot going on here, and each flashback is crammed with both exposition and character development. In general, it's extremely well done, and if it were just a vehicle for a "Days of Future Past" style storyline, it would get an A+ just on that score. But the main plot thread isn't bad either, even if it does revolve around the "and then there were none" contrivance of having the survivors killed off one by one. This is another way the show is good: who is killing the characters should be an obvious twist, but I didn't have even five minutes when the show slowed down to let me actually try to puzzle it out.

So this brings the number of really good Dollhouse episodes up to seven, meaning the first season was more than 50 per cent awesome after all! Hooray!

Up next, a review of the original pilot, and some of the special features.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Underworld: Why did I rent this movie?

Well, mostly because I thought there must be a Rifftrack for it. Sadly, there is not. I had to make up my own jokes, and after a while mocking the ridiculous gothy/bondage outfits of the vampires, the endless blue-black darkness of every shot, and the repeated script failures grew difficult. At two hours long, Underworld is a movie that will make you believe in immortality, because it seems to go on for three or four hundred years.

This is a movie about vampires in which we never see them feeding. It's a movie about werewolves in which we never see them mauling innocent townsfolk. We're told about both of these things, but considering how much money they spent on a half dozen FX-laden battles, you'd think they could have fit that in.

This is a film in which the most important distinction is between vampires and werewolves, and yet they're almost impossible to tell apart. It's all long sweeping dark coloured coats. You can tell the costumer took a shot at making them distinct, only to have the directed call for more darkness, more rain, more shadows, making it a moot issue.

This is a film in which characters have only two modes: lack of affect and snarling scenery chewing.

This is a movie in which werewolves claw their way along walls and ceilings, rather than running faster on the floors. Even though Spider-Manning their way through the world means they are easier to shoot.

This is a movie in which six hundred-year-old vampires get up and say, "Hmmmm... what to wear... leather fetish gear again? Uncomfortable corset? Something with a stiff, high collar? Maybe something that seems both highly weird looking and is impractical if I'm attacked by giant hairy monsters." Nobody wears jammies and bunny slippers.

This is a movie in which the action seems to continue for three or four days, but it is never daylight.

This is a film which Bill Nighy cannot save. No Bill, you tried, but nobody can spit out that dialogue and not look like a total headcase.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

But what does it all mean?

Thomas Harlan's House of Reeds is in no way a bad book. But it is not a book that made me want to jump up and down in glee, either.

House of Reeds is apparently the sequel to Wasteland of Flint, and the story of its protagonists will continue in Land of the Dead (which, according to Wikipedia, is out next month). I haven't read Wasteland of Flint, because my library doesn't have it, and neither do my local used book stores. With that disclaimer out of the way, on to the meat of the book.

Harlan is a good goddamn worldbuilder. He's apparently written a whole whack of alternate history/fantasy epics for Tor, as well as working as a game designer, and it shows. In this series, he's merged alternate history with space opera and military SF, creating a weirdass background that sucked me right in. The basic story is this: sometime around the 1500s, the Aztecs conquered the world. They could do this because a few hundred years earlier, a big fleet of Japanese refugees, fleeing the Mongol invasion of Japan, washed up on the shores of North America. So Aztecs got to learn all about things like steel and horses and gunpowder, and then they went and beat the crap out of most of Europe. Take that, Columbus! Flashforward a few hundred years, and the joint Aztec-Nipponese space navy is still kicking ass and taking names. Our heroes are all either members of the Aztec-Nipponese empire, or they're on its fringes trying to survive.

The story takes place almost entirely on the planet Jagan, where the Aztec secret police/priesthood is planning to deliberately incite a small brushfire war, a flowery war. They want to throw one of the younger sons of the Aztec emperor into the mess. He's a drunken idiot, so he'll either man up and cover himself in glory, or die and please the gods that way. His Scottish bodyguards will have to try and make sure it's the former. Meanwhile, Gretchen Anderssen, the xenoarcheologist and hero of the first book, has been ordered to Jagen to study a possible ancient and powerful artifact, and Captain Mitsuhara Hadeishi of the Imperial Navy has just come into orbit after a long patrol, looking to resupply and refit his battered ship.

The elements of a great epic story are there, but Harlan never quite makes them gel. Characters are defined well to start with, but we don't get below the surface of most, probably because there are so many conflicting plot threads – there are at least four viewpoint characters that I can recall just from Hadeishi's ship. Then there are Anderssen and her team, the bodyguards, the wicked old spy pulling everyone else's strings, diplomats, the various alien locals, and so on.

A word on those aliens: Harlan can't do original alien critters. We get a cat-alien, a whole bunch of lizard aliens, and a brief cameo by bug aliens and a super shapeshifer alien. They all fall into categories such as fierce predator, wise old mystic, or barbarian warrior. The fact that they come off like the clich├ęs of how other races were portrayed in Victorian fiction isn't a good thing.

Just when it seems things are settling down in the plot, Harlan suddenly pulls out the big guns, ignites the war, and turns the last third into one long chase scene/gun battle. It's not that I don't like action sequences, but these go on and on and on. They're also disturbingly colonial. Almost every fight involves small numbers of well armed humans holding off hordes of less-well-armed local lizard people. It's like Rorke's Drift, one of the battles of the Sepoy Revolt. Or maybe I'm going too far back, and it's just a Black Hawk Down homage. Harlan lovingly describes how the massively overpowered weapons of the humans chew up hundreds of lizard guys at a time.

The plot about the alien device of great power also never comes together. I'm not actually sure what it did, in fact. I think it did something, and there was some attempt to explain exactly what near the end of the book, but it seemed sort of inconsequential by then. Another key plot, a thread involving a hidden alien and the prince's bodyguards, seemed to be deliberately leading into the next book in the series, and was left dangling.

For fans of well-written military SF or space opera, I'd say give it a try, especially if you can find the first book in the series for background. But it just never quite came together for me.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Things I learned from 300

Coming late to this party, but I finally watched Zack Snyder's/Frank Miller's 300 on the weekend, and boy, did it stink.

Not to rain on the parade of thousands of fanboys who claim to enjoy it ironically, but that was one of the worst movies I've seen in years. And I watched The Rocker the same weekend. It also makes the achievement of Watchmen even more amazing; Watchmen isn't great but it's far from bad, and where it modifies the original story it usually does so carefully and in a not-moronic way.

Not 300. I felt like every addition to the Frank Miller comic went in the wrong direction. You have a comic that's already ludicrously stylized? Let's make the film adaptation even more stylized! There's basically no female roles in the comic? We'll put one in the move, so she can be raped! Some of the dialogue sounded cheesy and lame the first time around? A big spoonful of that please!

Seriously, 300 is one of those milestones in Frank Miller's career, the kind labeled "25 miles to Suckville." The guy's been going slowly insane for decades, and 300 was written at the point where he was just starting to move away from his Daredevil and Dark Knight Returns projects and beginning to walk the road that would take him to "I'm the goddamn Batman!" So it sort of works, but it's also loaded with the kind of stuff that would mark Miller for the rest of his career: enough testosterone to make a rhino explode, a style that is so extreme it constantly calls attention to itself, loads of blood, the valorization of violence, a lack of good characterization, and a big ol' Girls Not Allowed sign on the front door.

Politically, the movie was painful. I think calling it fascist is a little unfair. Even fascism, as a political philosophy, is more nuanced than 300. The movie was more a blend of unthinking nationalism wrapped up in some default American values. (Freedom be good!) Of course, those values are left undefined and unexamined, so we never question why the people fighting for freedom have a king, for example. Who orders them to cheerfully murder wounded soldiers while he eats an apple. Ha ha! It's funny because in any other movie that's how you'd be able to tell who the bad guy was!

Now, things I learned from watching 300:

• The ancient Persians were mostly African-American or east Asian in origin.

• "Phalanx" means everybody runs around slicing up people in slow-mo.

• Athenians were gay. Not the Spartans.

• The Persian army included the Uruk Hai and Sloth from The Goonies.

• In a related note, you can put ninjas in anything!

• Ancient Greek oracles were really just nude interpretative dancers.

• When going on a long mission, all you need to carry as a Spartan warrior are you weapons, shield, and red cloak. Food is not necessary, probably because you'll just murder and eat anyone you run across.

• Physically disabled people are inherently evil.

• Breastplates are for sissies.

• But not shaving your chest. A smooth, hairless torso, much like a Ken doll's, is super-manly.

• Gerard Butler has huge fucking teeth!

• Peasants don't really exist. Probably because if they ever showed up, the movie might have had to talk about how the Spartans ritually declared war on their peasants yearly, and murdered the troublesome ones as an initiation ritual for young men.