Tag: sci-fi (page 2 of 35)

From The Vault: Why I Miss Darth Vader

In light of Star Wars Celebration and the new teaser for the upcoming film, I thought I’d revisit my thoughts on the first Dark Lord of the Sith to which audiences were introduced. When this post first went up, there were some wonderful comments regarding how this character got railroaded, what the Clone Wars series did to address that, and a powerful aspect of Return of the Jedi. It’s clear we’re ready for a Star Wars film that does its characters and universe true justice. I suppose we’ll find out in December if that’s what we’re actually getting.


Vader, back when he was awesome.

My good friend Rick over at Word Asylum brought up some classic villains. What stuck out in his pretty comprehensive top ten list was the presence of one Darth Vader. I was reminded of what he, and Star Wars in general, were like when it was first introduced. I discussed him briefly back when I talked about villainy in general. Let’s go back a bit, however, and examine one of the most iconic bad guys of the big screen a bit more closely.

Star Wars

Rooted as it was in the adventure serials that people like Lucas grew up with, having good and evil somewhat diametrically opposed was par for the course. Good guys were good, bad guys were bad. And they didn’t come badder than Darth Vader. We are introduced to Vader when his stormtroopers blast their way through a Rebel spacecraft, his motivations are clear when he strangles one of the ship’s officers and he’s more than willing to turn his significant strength and wrath against his own people if they question his faith or their orders. You don’t need a manual or novelization to understand Darth Vader. It’s laid out for you on the screen and, surprisingly enough considering later entries in the Star Wars series, it’s shown instead of told. When someone does try to tell instead of show, Vader chokes the bitch. “I find your lack of faith disturbing” is all that need be said.

The Empire Strikes Back

Rick described this as being Vader at “his lowest point, when the Dark Side firmly had him enthralled.” His loyalty and dedication to the Empire has given way this obsession with capturing Luke Skywalker. On the surface, this is a straightforward motivation – Luke humiliated Vader in battle, and Vader wants revenge. He’s willing to strangle anyone, destroy anything, sacrifice entire Star Destroyers and recruit the most insidious of bounty hunters to get what he wants. His villainy takes on a whole new dimension when it’s revealed that his pursuit of the Millenium Falcon is all a ploy to draw Luke out of hiding, and when Luke does appear, Vader goes from being a merely dark villainous presence to a deep and haunting one.

Vader, we discover, is Luke’s father. Beyond his desire to corrupt Luke and seduce him to the Dark Side, Vader wants Luke to join him, work with him and help him build a peaceful, orderly Empire. He wants to establish a true monarchy by deposing Palpatine, becoming Emperor himself and ensuring his son will succeed him and carry on his goals. It’s his way of seeking reconciliation. However, rather than trying to bridge the gap between them, Vader offers to yank Luke over to his side of things. It shows just how far Vader has fallen to the Dark Side, and what happens next is perhaps the greatest moment of storytelling in Star Wars to date.

When Luke chooses to face death rather than join his father, watch Vader closely. Without seeing his face, without saying a word, Vader conveys an emotion that pierces all his Force powers and imposing armor the way blasters never could. Luke breaks Vader’s heart. Not only is this a telling moment in the relationship between father and son, there’s a reveal here even more shocking than that of Luke’s parentage: Darth Vader, a deadly and cunning manipulative bastard of a villain, has a heart to break.

Star Wars never saw anything like this moment again. It shines as the pinnacle of the saga’s power and beyond everything that comes after, for me, it remains untouched.

Return of the Jedi

There’s a huge difference between the Vader in the first two films and the Vader in Jedi. He sounds weary. He’s still driven and loyal, but the wound he suffered on Cloud City still bleeds inside of him. Inside that dark armor wages a battle between the man he wants to be – Luke’s father, someone the boy will admire and want to be with – and the servant of the Empire he has become. When Luke reappears in Vader’s life, he makes another attempt to appeal for the young man’s favor. In response, Luke searches for the smaller side of the internal struggle he feels, the man Vader once was.

Vader as a villain is no less effective in Jedi but his motivations are now far more personal, the sort of things we see in the closing acts of a Greek tragedy. Brought low by his actions, responsible for the deaths of friends and loved ones, Vader must face his own demons and put them to rest even at the expense of his own life. In the process, he finally wins the adoration of his son. The tragedy of his adult life is left far behind as he achieves his redemption. It’s this cycle, falling into darkness only to struggle back to the light regardless of cost, that defines many of Star Wars‘ better tales, such as that of Ulic Qel-Droma.

Everything After

When the prequels were announced, fans looked forward to seeing what Anakin was like before becoming Vader, discovering the details of his fall and fully understanding the pathos beneath the armor. Instead, we got a whiny, willful, selfish and ill-conceived brat with no real charisma, no redeeming values and little to offer the precious few tangible threads of story laid out by Lucas. By focusing on spectacle and merchandising, Lucas tore out the fangs of his greatest success entirely.

When you have potential like this, you shouldn’t let it go to waste. Take some time to consider the groundwork that’s been laid before you build something new. It’s not hard. I hate to keep coming back to this, but if I can throw together something in a weekend that people feel is better structured than a multi-million dollar production, the people that invest that money should be more willing to take a closer look on where their money is actually going.

But that’s just me. I’m a wide-eyed idealist and a starving artist, and for what it’s worth, I miss Darth Vader.

Movie Review: Interstellar

There is a sense of awe and wonder that comes over a lot of people when they behold images from deep space. Astronomers and physicists have long theorized about what awaits us in the void: new habitable worlds, wormholes, distortions of time, and so on. When filmmakers turn their eyes to this material, to what the future might actually hold, their visions take the form of films like 2001:A Space Odyssey and Moon, exploring not only science, but human nature and evolution. Now, Christopher Nolan has taken an exploratory flight into this rich and textured material with Interstellar.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Environmental damage has lead mankind to the point that food is becoming scarce and the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is depleting at an alarming rate. In survival mode, most humans have turned inward, eschewing science and engineering for farming. One obstinate man, test-pilot-turned-farmer Cooper, struggles to both make a living for his family and teach his daughter, Murphy, the truth. A phenomenon in Murphy’s room points Cooper in the direction of a hidden silo, where the remains of NASA have undertaken a daring, last-ditch effort to save humanity by relocating it to another world. The task of finding that world falls to Cooper and NASA’s scientists, but the means of getting to our potential new home will mean that he may not return until Murphy is much older… if she’s alive at all.

Christopher Nolan, as a filmmaker, has a proven record for the correct means to frame and present a shot. The depictions of cosmic phenomena in Interstellar are clear, intriguing, and at times, breathtaking. Nolan has also proven that his films ply towards fidelity for the real and the scientifically possible. One of the hallmarks of his Dark Knight trilogy, for better or for worse, places the world, villains, and gadgetry of Batman squarely in the realm of the feasible. Interstellar‘s physics and science, while at least partially theoretical, are presented with as much fact and fidelity as possible. Between these two aspects, Interstellar has elements that could have lead it to be this generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Courtesy Warner Bros.
Believe it or not, folks, space has three dimensions! Maybe more!

However, Christopher Nolan struggles with one of the most vital aspects of effective filmmaking: the human factor. The moments of awe-inspiring visuals, impressive and breathtaking all on their own, are often interrupted with a scientific explanation or an oppressive orchestral sting from Hans Zimmer’s bombastic, grandiose score. A great deal of this film’s significant run-time is occupied with in-depth scientific explanations of this or that portion of the goings-on, and while the film never makes the mistake of talking down to its audience, it does seem to have trouble properly conveying human emotion in the same way it does theoretical extra-dimensional concepts. This is a stumbling block Nolan has run into before, and he’s still not quite at a level of showing humans being human as, say Steven Speilberg, who was originally slated to direct Interstellar.

Thankfully, Nolan has the good sense to line up a well-rounded cast of excellent actors. It’s unfortunate that he has to make them work so hard to squeeze the right amount of emotional complexity out of his surface-level script, but these are masters of their craft. Matthew McConaughey, who has been enjoying a bit of a revival in his career, is completely comfortable and incredibly adept at conveying everyman pathos that makes scenes with his daughter deeply effective and puts his point of view squarely in line with that of the audience. Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain do the bulk of the non-main-character heavy lifting, every bit as effective and engaging as Matthew, bridging the gap between Nolan’s clinical, distant perspective on the human experience, and the realities of our everyday lives. It’s hard work, and the strain shows in places, but gets the job done.

Courtesy Warner Bros
When you’re not sure how to do the human thing, get the most human actors you can. This is one of them.

That is actually an apt description for the experience of Interstellar as a whole. In terms of a hard sci-fi epic that pushes the boundaries of our notions of what is possible in space exploration, it gets the job done. It’s very well constructed, and definitely takes the audience on a worthwhile journey, but the experience could have been tightened, the moments of wonder more awe-inspiring. There is a moment in Inception where the film stops explaining itself, and lets its story and drama unfold without further comment or pretense. That moment never comes in Interstellar. Its “twists” being either predictable or superfluous and its science suffering from nigh-constant in-universe fact-checking undercut what would have otherwise been a very effective storytelling experience. Interstellar could have been a breathtaking epic of proportions not seen since the days of Kubrick, and clearly had that ambition. The fact that it falls short of that mark just means that its flaws are all the more glaring, at least to someone like myself. It’s quite good, and worth seeing on the big screen, but I sadly doubt it has the kind of staying power we’ve seen with some of Nolan’s other work. What Interstellar does, it does well, but it could have done more.

Doctor Who?

Courtesy Resin Illuminati

One of the brilliant concepts built into Doctor Who is the idea of regeneration. When a Time Lord is mortally wounded or exposed to lethal levels of radiation or what have you, they have a final, powerful mechanism for survival. Their body literally rebuilds itself, taking on a new appearance and stature. This also has the side effect of scrambling their memories and personality, at least temporarily. Eventually, a Time Lord returns to their base nature, though somewhat changed due to the experiences of their previous form.

So it is with the Time Lord known as the Doctor. He has existed in 13 different incarnations, from the old and crotchety (his First, when we finally see it) to the young and optimistic (the Fifth). His personality, while it has varied, always skews towards a curious and scientific brilliance, a love for exploration and investigation, an aversion to unnecessary violence, and a deep sense of compassion. Some Doctors do not quite get into sync right away (see the Sixth Doctor… if you dare), and others are saddled with a few too many companions to the point that the drama and antics within the TARDIS can overshadow what is happening outside of it (the Fifth again, as well as the Eleventh).

Which brings us to the Twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi.

Courtesy BBC

We’re only a few episodes into Capaldi’s run, but he is already winning hearts and minds, including mine. His appearance and bearing are reminiscent of the Third Doctor, whose tenure featured plenty of acerbic humor and some crackling action. He speaks with a Scottish accent and has a penchant for manipulation and the occasional mind-game, which reminds me happily of the Seventh Doctor. The interior of his TARDIS is lined with bookshelves and feels very utilitarian, while the chalkboards upon which he writes reveal a mind dominated by analysis and procedure as much as his trademark curiosity. He feels like a very intellectual creature, very much mind over matter, and this is also shown in his awkwardness towards physical contact.

To me, the Twelfth Doctor is a breath of fresh air. After two incarnations who were just as physically attractive as they were smart, to the point that their eligibility with and attraction towards their Companions became major plot points, a Doctor focused on the adventure at hand and the puzzles requiring the intellect of a Time Lord to solve is quite welcome. It may be off-putting to those who have only hopped into the TARDIS in recent years, but I would recommend that put-off fans (a) get caught up with the adventures of older Doctors (the Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh in particular), and (b) give Peter Capaldi a chance. He is doing a fantastic job so far, his Companion is doing extremely well and reminding me of the days of Sarah Jane Smith (I’ll do a post on favorite Companions at some point), and the adventures both hearken to earlier days and promise great mysteries and revelations ahead. I’m definitely excited for the new and upcoming seasons of Doctor Who.

Feel free to leave your comments and thoughts on the Twelfth Doctor, whatever they might be!

From the Vault: The Limitless Genre

With the smashing success of Guardians of the Galaxy, let’s take another look at what can be done within sci-fi.


Courtesy Eidos Interactive

If you step away from science fiction, you may see a tendency among its writers and creators to divide it up into different sub-genres. Time travel is practically its own sort of story, as is ‘hard’ sci-fi, along with various “_____punk” styles and derivations of the space opera. I mean, Blade Runner is noir, Flash Gordon is camp, and never the twain shall meet. Right?

This doesn’t always have to be the case. Imposing the limits of a particular style of story can make writing said story easier, but you also run the risk of falling into cliches and conventions of said style. At a Barnes & Noble yesterday, I saw that a good portion of the sci-fi & fantasy racks had been set aside specifically for “teen paranormal romance.” Something tells me I have a good idea as to the content of those books, and of their average quality. Some may be spectacular, but I suspect others are sub-par to the point of making Twilight look good.

Let’s get back to science fiction as an overarching genre. I don’t feel you need to pick a particular sub-category into which you must pigeonhole your story. Deux Ex: Human Revolution doesn’t. The game has noir & renaissance overtones throughout but goes from conspiracy intrigue and solid character moments to incredible action and out-there sciences within moments. Yet none of it feels out of place. It is consistent with the themes and timbre of the story. Adam Jensen is a man reborn and remade, both struggling to maintain his identity and utilizing the benefits of his augmentations to do his job and find his answers. In most detective yarns, a scene where the protagonist punches through a wall before turning invisible would be rather out of place. Likewise, few are the space operas that truly tackle the aftermath of a tragedy the way this game does. The elements are balanced in such a way that all of them combine without losing sync and creating a richer, more rewarding storytelling experience.

Why shouldn’t sci-fi go for multiple tones and moods? Obviously this needs to be done with care, lest the emotional moments become too saturnine or the high-action ones come off as overly ridiculous. In a story like this, you only get so many style points in your tale with which you can get away with “cool shit” moments. Too many and you’ve become style over substance. Too few, however, and your story becomes dry and plodding. Again, the watchword is balance.

And I believe it is a balance worth striking. Science fiction can include all sorts of threads from other genres of storytelling, from romance to horror to crime to adventure. Once all is said and done, be able to look over the work and say, “I’ve got a _______punk action-mystery” can be useful for marketing it, but my point is the genre only has the limits we choose to impose. Moon is phenomenal because of how hard its science is, and if your goal in writing is to go for something similar, by all means work within those constraints. There is, however, no obligation to pick a particular pigeonhole from the outset. Science fiction is our contemplation of the heavens, the nature of the universe, the exploration of the impossible, and the examination of the individual within all of it. It is, like those heavens, and like our imaginations, limitless.

What examples of sci-fi that break from traditional molds come to mind for you?

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

It really feels like Marvel Studios can do just about anything. Back when it was announced as a film, Guardians of the Galaxy felt like a risk, an out-of-the-blue change in direction. Most franchises prefer to play it safe, sticking with the recognized story and character beats known to work. But Marvel’s big idea dreamers do not rest on their laurels. They looked outward from the world of the Avengers and began to pull in more threads from the greater universe. But they’ve done this before – several years ago, Iron Man was relatively obscure in comparison to other superheroes that have graced the silver screen, and now Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr are practically synonymous. Marvel takes chances. They try new things. And they went back to the well of obscurity and elevated a band of five cosmic misfits into this summer’s most anticipated blockbuster.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Peter Quill was eight years old when he got abducted from his homeworld. Having grown up among a rather nasty band of pirates called the Ravagers, the Terran is on the trail of a mysterious orb people are paying good money to acquire. There are also those who would rather kill than pay: Ronan the Accuser, a Kree extremist, dispatches one of his chief lackey, Korath the Pursuer, to retrieve the orb. Quill (who for some reason calls himself ‘Star-Lord’) escapes to Xandar, home of Ronan’s enemies. Ronan sets the assassin Gamora on the trail, while the Ravagers post a bounty for Quill, a hefty sum saught by Rocket (an enhanced raccoon) and his best friend Groot. When they wind up in prison together, along with a well-spoken but driven maniac named Drax, they hatch a scheme to escape and split the reward for the orb, even as Ronan hunts them down.

As a complete, start-to-finish film, Guardians of the Galaxy has a consistent and strong storyline that is not difficult to follow. Its tone has a tendency to vary, but that is definitely a strength rather than a weakness. James Gunn, director of Slither and Super, is just as adept with comedy as he is with emotional scenes heavy with pathos. In the final equation, it balances out extremely well. The heavier scenes pulls us into sympathetic embraces with our characters, and their comedic turns let off some of the pressure to pave the way for more antics and action.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Something tells me they don’t want to talk about having a personal relationship with Galactus.

These characters, in addition, are definitely worthy of their places in Marvel’s cinematic universe. In particular, I was very happy with Gamora’s characterization. In my previous discussion, purely based on some erroneous conjecture, I feared that she would exist as the ‘token girl’ and disappoint in doing little more than rolling her eyes at the tomfoolery of the males. Thankfully, she is very much her own character, with agency, drive, and independence, from start to finish. I was wrong in what I said before; I couldn’t be happier to admit that. What we see on screens is most definitely the deadliest woman in the galaxy, and Zoe Saldana brings her to vibrant, captivating life.

The two CG characters, Rocket and Groot, are incredibly well-realized. Rocket, in particular, is a wonder just to behold. While we’ve seen mo-cap characters before, Rocket is easily believable with his attitude, outlook, pain, and power. You actually feel something for the little guy. Similiarly, Groot conveys a great deal without saying more than a few words. His expressions, actions, and presence all speak to an individual that means well, and that can’t help but stand out in light of other characters behaving in very selfish ways. As for Drax, I definitely need to see the movie again because I swear I missed some of his loquacious dialog in the middle of all the ray-guns and explosions. I like what they’ve done with him and I’m eager to see more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
“I’d flash you my business card, but my hands are too full of guns.”

The glue holding the entire endeavour together, however, is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill. This man is going to be very busy in the years to come. He carries the mantle of leading man very well. His performance draws out the best in the cast around him, and he very much gets both what motivates his character and how the audience can relate to him. Under the flippant demeanor and die-hard nostalgia is some very real pain and more than a couple unresolved issues, and as I mentioned before, the whole film exists in the same balance between the two feelings. Both the actor and the story do more than just walk that line, however; they outright dance on it.

I could spend a lot more time discussing the villains, universe, and greater implications of Guardians of the Galaxy, as it is a surprisingly dense film in terms of lore and setting. There is a huge universe implied in almost every shot of the movie, and I am merely scratching the surface. What I will say is this: we have not had a romp through space like this since Serenity, and even that had a rather intimate scope within which to tell its tale. In many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy is the direct opposite of the previous Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that just makes them two sides of the same excellent coin. The previous film was a powerful story of intrigue and personal trial with a very modern bent; this one is a deliberate throwback to more whimsical tales like Flash Gordon or Star Wars, but bearing extremely modern sensibilities. The universe we behold has a very lived-in feel, is filled with color and wonder, and clearly contains perils and unknown terrors that are ripe for the exploration. It expands Marvel’s cinematic arm exponentially, and gives us just the right mix of heroes and villains to leave us wanting more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Even minor characters have distinct personalities and memorable traits.

As a movie-goer and erstwhile critic, I would say Guardians of the Galaxy is exemplary science-fiction action-adventure storytelling that I unreservedly recommend. As a long-standing fan of the comics, particularly since I picked it up back when Dan Abnett was starting to write the team we see on screen, I could not be happier. Much like our first real shot of the Avengers, seeing these misfits, murderers, and makers of mayhem come to vibrant life tugs at all of the right strings in my heart. Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what you want and precisely what we need in the middle of summer surrounded by drek and drudgery: a damn good time at the movies. It is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t be surprised if you do, in fact, get hooked on a feeling.

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