Cowboy Bebop – A Sci-Fi TV Review – Part 3

I have now finished off all the Cowboy Bebop (CB) available as DVDs on Netflix (Discs 4 and 6 are permanently unavailable).  This includes the 2-hour movie which I watched last night.  And I think that’s sufficient to allow me to make a definitive judgement on the series vis-à-vis my taste.

It’s good.

It has some weaknesses from my point of view.  There is a silliness that can be annoying for me.  The crazy adolescent girl Edward can be a bit much.  Some of the episodes are pretty thin on plot.  And some of the space battle scenes seem (not surprisingly) cartoonish.  I think most of this can be chalked up to the standard cartoon sci-fi conventions.  Things are simplified and standardized to allow economic production of the animation product.  And to be fair, since I have never been a comic book or movie consumer, I’m not their primary audience.  To an anime consume, CB is probably well to the right side of the standard deviation curve with respect to production values, plot and characterization.

I like the quality of the animation especially the scenes in outer space.  Some of it is strikingly well done.  I liked the scenario of independent contractors moving in and out of the legitimate world acting as bounty hunters while they themselves are not without a certain air of criminality.  And obviously here are the similarities with Firefly.  After viewing the majority of CB I’ll state that I’m convinced that Whedon borrowed heavily from it when making Firefly.  But I’m sure CB borrowed from earlier anime for some of its ideas so I don’t think it’s a big deal.  But I will say that at this point I’d much prefer a big screen (or big budget tv) version of CB were made rather than of Firefly.  Whedon is such an SJW that he’d probably have Serenity going back in time just to battle Donald Trump.   My only hedge on having CB instead of Firefly is that is I’d like to see Jet Black played by Adam Baldwin.  He would be damn near perfect for the part.

Anyway, I would say that the CB movie demonstrates how a longer treatment of the material improves it.  More characterization shows through and there is more scope for interesting story telling.  Also, the animation of the city in the movie was extremely well done.  It looked like whole sections of New York City were digitized to make the action possible in the chase scenes.  And speaking of the chase scenes, one of the flying chases was a little too long.  Although intricate and well laid out it eventually started to drag on.  The fight scenes between the protagonist Spike and his nemesis were very good and enjoyable.  Most of the minor characters were fairly well utilized.  Surprisingly, the seemingly superfluous presence of the welsh corgi dog on the space ship actually felt like a positive addition to me.  But maybe I just like dogs.

So, bottom line, Cowboy Bebop is good sci-fi anime.  If you don’t particularly like anime you still might enjoy it.  It has piqued my interest in the genre enough that I’m going to give another anime movie (Ghosts in the Shell 2.0) a look-see and find out if this was just a one off or not.

See you Space Cowboy!

Snowpiercer: A Sci-Fi Movie Review

Back at the beginning of the summer one of my relatives recommended this movie to me.  He’s a sci-fi fan but of course tastes vary.  Well anyway, I watched it last week and it was bizarre.  The premise of the movie is basically ridiculous.  As a way to combat global warming, humans treat the atmosphere of earth with a chemical that ends up plunging them into an ice age.  The temperature drop is so severe that all human life is destroyed except for a tiny remnant that lives on a train that constantly circles the planet.  This is the eponymous “Snowpiercer.”  So, this is the first problem with the movie.  If the earth was becoming cold and uninhabitable would you build a train as a refuge?  I would think that an insulated bunker somewhere near the equator would make sense.  Or something under the ocean would remain warm for centuries.  It’s just a ridiculous idea.

Put the inconceivable nature of the premise aside and let’s look at the story.  The train has a population that is stratified by position on the train.  The back cars of the train are inhabited by the wretched refuse who are crowded into cattle cars and fed protein concentrate bars that look like sludge.  Moving forward the environment and the inhabitants become progressively more fortunate until by the front few cars we have the elite who live in luxury and eat delicacies like sushi and fresh fruit.  The proles in the rear are controlled by armed guards and punished for infractions with barbaric violence.  When a man whose child is taken away by one of the rulers throws his shoe at her we see an example of this.  For this offense, his arm is exposed through a gasketed aperture in the side of the train to the frigid gale whipping past the train.  After eleven minutes, his arm is brought back in and struck with a sledge hammer.  The arm shatters like one of those rubber balls that’s been dipped in liquid nitrogen and bounced off the floor.  That’ll teach him!

The majority of the movie is the chronicle of the revolt of the proles and their battle to reach the front of the train and conquer their overlords.  Along the way we see details of how the ecosystem of the Snowpiercer works.  The prole food is revoltingly produced while the elite have whole car lengths of aquariums full of rare fish and rain forests of plant life to produce food and purify the water.  We also get some of the back story to explain how the proles became so downtrodden and the greater horrors that transpired when they first entered into the train.  The details are horrific and make you wonder why these people even bothered to keep struggling.

And finally, the climax occurs when the proles reach the engine.  At this point we learn the answer to how this train maintains the balance between life and death.  And we meet the engineer, Ed Harris, who charms us into seeing his point of view.  And of course, the movie ends on a catastrophic reversal that resolves the whole thing.

So, is it any good?  Parts of it are interesting and some of the characters are fun to watch.  I especially enjoy Tilda Swinton as the schoolmarmish sadist who has the man’s armed frozen off.  She’s quite demented fun.  But I’d say as a movie it’s just too jumbled a mixture of action, sci-fi and human drama to recommend.  It’s just too nuts.  But maybe there is an audience out there for this.  But it’s not me.

Forbidden Planet – The Quintessential Sci-Fi Movie? – OCF Classic Movie Reviews

A lot of stuff has been said about what makes Forbidden Planet such an important sci-fi movie.  The ground-breaking special effects, the plot element of a human military vessel exploring space that would spawn the endless iterations of the Star Ship Enterprise.  And of course, there’s the classical angle.  Supposedly the plot is an update of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

So, there’s all that good stuff.  But to my mind the real reason can be summed up in two words, Anne Francis.  When the angelic face of Miss Francis first appears on screen I began to see the movie in the correct light.  This was an epic adventure story that rivalled the Odyssey of Homer for timelessness and meaning.  Now the fact that I was a sixteen-year old boy at the time probably colored my thought processes to some extent and the skimpiness of her costumes might even have had something to do with it.  But let’s face it, giant ants can only get you so far.  If you want to keep the natives from getting restless you have to appeal to their most powerful motivations and if a blonde-haired, blue eyed creature with a very pretty face and extremely long shapely unclad legs is brought center stage, suddenly even the acting skills of Leslie Nielsen seem greatly enhanced and worth a fair hearing.

But now that I’m in my dotage and no longer as easily swayed by a pretty face, I’ve had a chance to re-evaluate the movie.  Surprisingly, I’m still a big fan.  And this is despite the obvious weaknesses that are extremely evident in such an old film.  The dialog has some extremely cliché-ridden exchanges including:

  • The captain tells off the young woman because her uninhibited interest in the young men in his crew will be a distraction from military discipline.
  • Morbius displays the stereotypical arrogance of the academic intellectual toward the practical military authorities.
  • The banter provided by the ship’s cook is the comic relief that would seem right at home in an Abbott and Costello movie.

So what makes it good?  Well, the humans are mostly likeable and admirable.  The plot unwinds in a manner that allows for the gradual reveal of the mystery.  Of course, the who of the question is answered long before the why and how of the problem.  But the details provide reinforcement of the underlying lesson to learn.  We are reminded that smarter isn’t the same as perfect.

And the special effects are still pretty good.  The animation of the Krell infrastructure impresses the viewer with the gargantuan scope of the installation.  The humans walking through it literally look like ants at one point.

And finally, the interaction between the isolated inhabitants of this dream world and the crew of the no-nonsense military vessel is classic.  It reminds you of the stories that portray the first contact between Europeans and the South Sea Islands.  The sailors always have a feeling they have somehow discovered paradise with its idyllic climate, scantily clad, friendly women and tropical fruit. The military men are enthralled with how favorably it compares to the boring, spartan existence of their all-male naval vessel.

Are there problems with the story?  Yes.  Morbius seems a little too dense for a brilliant scientist.  The resolution of the crisis at the end is a little jarring.  The solution is quite heavy handed.  But all in all, it’s a pretty neat story.  I think it indicates why the Star Trek series was so popular.  But I think it also shows why the later tv series were less interesting.  The adventure and discovery aspects became less of a focus as the Enterprise became less of a military/exploration vessel and more of a social worker/nanny vehicle to the stars.

The Edge of Tomorrow – A Short Movie Review

Last night I watched the Tom Cruise movie “Edge of Tomorrow.”  The first thing that strikes me is that it is a sort of mixture of things.

First off, it’s a mil sci-fi movie.  It tells the story of aliens invading and battling humans.  Almost the entire movie takes place within the confines of a single battlefield.  And because it’s a big budget movie with a big star that part is done rather professionally.  The special effects and sets are very good looking.  The action takes place in England and France and Germany so there is the interest of seeing The Louvre and London engulfed in military paraphernalia and smashed by battle.  So, there’s all that.

Next, it’s a time travel story.  The gimmick is that Tom Cruise has been caught up in the gears of the aliens’ ability to alter the future.  Because of a chain of events involving his lucky killing of a high level alien, Cruise is effected in such a way that every time he gets killed in battle, it resets time back to the start of the day of the battle he’s in.  But when he returns to that day he remembers each of these past lives.  It’s sort of like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog’s Day.  So, even though he’s a complete neophyte to combat, he can learn from what happened to him on the previous incarnations.  Comically, after countless iterations he can effortlessly step through the battlefield performing a choreographed dance with death.  Of course, this means to keep advancing his progress on the battlefield he has to keep dying over and over again.

So, in a way, it’s also a metaphor for, or even a parody of someone playing a first-person shooter video game.  You keep playing the game and increasing your knowledge and skills.  You also have to die over and over and over.  And for anyone who has spent a lot of time playing one particular game you understand the psychologically painful experience of building up the necessary muscle memory and rote memorization of the endless sequences of motions and thought processes needed to wend your way to the next level.  That’s the feel this movie provides.

I’ll have to say it’s a mixed experience.  It’s both stimulating to sense the iterative advancement and at the same time irritating.  There’s one particular sequence that occurs almost endlessly during the movie.  It’s when he’s awakened by a sergeant screaming abuse into his face.  It must happen at least two dozen times.  By the end of the movie I’m genuinely hoping Cruise just clocks him in the face, just to shut him up.

So, does the movie work?  Yes, it does.  The initial introduction to Cruise’s character presents him as an unlikeable jerk.  By the end of the movie he has had to grow.  There’s even, believe it or not, the elements of a love story in the tale.  And, Lord help me, I know how ridiculous that seems in the context of a war movie.

Who is this movie for?  If you’re a Tom Cruise fan and you liked him in War of the Worlds and Minority Report you’ll probably like this movie a lot.  If you’re a mil sci-fi fan I think you’ll probably enjoy it.  If you don’t like science fiction or war movies you will hate this.  And if you’re neutral on Tom Cruise, sci-fi and war movies I think it’s 50/50.  It’s a good sci-fi movie and provides solid entertainment.  But it isn’t “Gone with the Wind” so if you’re looking for highly cerebral or morally meaningful move on.

What Good Sci-Fi is Out There? – Part 2

What Good Sci-Fi is Out There – Part 1

The first part of this post (link above) sparked quite a bit of interest and the feedback led me to re-evaluate how thorough I had been in tabulating what I thought of as “Good Sci-Fi Movies.”

One obvious omission is one of my favorite modern sci-fi universes, that is the ‘Verse of “Serenity” and all things Firefly. Sure, the creator of this space cowboy terra-forming future is Joss Whedon, perhaps the most virulent social justice warrior in all Hollywood SFF circles. And sure, River Tam is a five-foot-nothing, eighty-pound girl who can single handedly defeat an army of homicidal maniacs without even so much as a pop-gun. But any world that contains Jane Cobb must be doing something right.

Another omission that can be excused due to competing category confusion is “Galaxy Quest.” The movie is a brilliant parody of Star Trek. Humor is the primary motive of this film so assigning it to the Comedy shelf makes perfect sense. But it does include star ships, alien races and Sigourney Weaver so what the hell.

Three movies that were nominated by readers were Dark City, John Carter and Edge of Tomorrow. Now the mention reminded me that I had seen Dark City and liked it. It’s a very atmospheric almost noir-like film. And once you discover the mystery of the action it is seen to be a sci-fi film. So that was a good call.

I, of course, know of E.R. Burroughs Barsoom stories so I had heard of the John Carter film but the news coverage was all about how expensive it was and how much money it lost. Edge of Tomorrow was a big movie with Tom Cruise starring but it came out when I was too busy for movies unfortunately. So, I’m going to have to check these two films out on Netflix in the near future.
I’d love to hear from any of you readers out there that would like to put in a vote for a sci-fi movie that came out in the last twenty years or so. Give a little info on what you liked about it. The people who read this site are of course among the most discerning individuals so their opinions deserve to be heard.

Let me round off with some films I didn’t like (always a dangerous road to take). I hated the second and third Matrix installments. I thought they were plodding and incoherent. By the end of the third I wasn’t sure if there was anyone to root for. I was kind of hoping Agent Smith would win and destroy both the Matrix and Zion. After seeing how annoying they had all become I figured organic evolution should be given the chance to try again.

I really wasn’t crazy about Gravity. It was visually interesting and there was some dramatic tension and I like Sandra Bullock but I don’t think there was enough there, there, as they say. I know opinions will differ.
I tried to like Solaris. Some of it I did. But not enough to call it good. Let’s say it was pretty good.

I was told to watch Moon. There was some clever stuff in it. I didn’t love it. Maybe it was too realistic (claustrophobic) to enjoy. Well done but not enjoyable for me. Some people will really enjoy the cleverness.

So, there we have it. I’m pretty picky. I’d love to hear what you all think. Even (maybe especially) if you disagree. After all, wouldn’t it be boring if we were all exactly the same. Sort of like the Borg.
Next up will be my views on Fantasy films.

What Good Sci-Fi is Out There?

Sci-Fi movies have a long and checkered past. They run the gamut from such high concept films as 2001: A Space Odyssey to such dreck as Plan Nine from Outer Space. And in addition to quality these films vary by sub-genre. There are movies that concentrate on technology and how humans will adapt to it. This category includes such movies as I, Robot and The Martian. There are movies that are mostly about contacts with alien life of one form or another. This would include everything from War of the Worlds to Independence Day. Then there are movies that are basically monster movies like Alien and The Thing from Another World where the science fiction is just a vehicle to allow things to jump out at the protagonists from dark corners.
I will confess that I can enjoy almost any of these types of movies on any given day if given the chance. But it seems of late the quality of sci-fi is in decline. All kinds of money is being spent on special effects and the acting is really no worse than it’s been in the past. So what’s different?
First, I would say, is the quality of scripts. The words coming out of the characters mouths are getting less interesting. I have been assured that motion pictures are a visual medium in which dialogue is an ancillary dimension of the experience and entirely superfluous. That a good movie shows you not tells you. I disagree. Of course the visual is primary. But if the movie is about people then they need to talk to each other and if the dialogue is bad then the film is bad even if you blow up all the planets in the solar system in alphabetical order in vibrant Technicolor. Let me clarify one thing. I am not advocating for highly polished dramatic set pieces. Dialogue between a street dweller and a policeman can be good without breaking into Shakespeare. All I’m saying is the dialogue is either lame or non-existent in most sci-fi movies today.
Second, the majority of the protagonists are not particularly likeable. Once again let me qualify. I’m not saying I want the good guys to be boy scouts, far from it. But a flawed character can still be the character the audience identifies and empathizes with. As an example from detective fiction, think about Sam Spade. He’s cruel, selfish and violent. But there’s never any doubt whether we want him or his adversaries to come out on top. The characters now seem either evil or just ciphers.
And lastly, the stories that these movies are based on are usually not very substantial. Think of some of the great stories that have been written. Even restricting myself to one author, Heinlein, I could point out a dozen books and short stories that could be made into excellent films. Wouldn’t “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” make a great movie? And how about “Farmer in the Sky”? And I think audiences would eat up “Have Spacesuit Will Travel.” The danger is that the studios would turn each movie into a franchise and we’d be subjected to hacks tacking sequels onto completed stories. I’ve heard “Starship Troopers” might be remade as a faithful interpretation of the book. That would be great. But I’m not holding my breath.
Now I’ve ranted against what I don’t like. Let me see if I can identify some that I do. Caveat, I haven’t gone out of my way looking for good sci-fi. But I’ve managed to bump into a lot that’s bad. And I’m leaving out all things Star Wars and Star Trek. I won’t even go there.
• “The Martian” was okay. Despite the fact that I despise Matt Damon he did a decent job and the story though far from brilliant was somewhat engaging and clever.
• The first installment of “The Matrix” was pretty good. Granted it’s almost twenty years old but being much older I will include it in recent.
• If I’m allowed to stretch apocalyptic films as science fiction I’ll point to the “Book of Eli.”
So that’s it. Maybe I’ve missed some. If anybody has any movies from the last twenty years that past muster, leave a comment. We can discuss.

Tolkien: A Very, Very Long Story – Part 1 – On the Screen vs. the Mind’s Eye

Okay, The Lord of the Rings, the big enchilada. Tolkien wrote about a half a million words about his war of the ring. His son Christopher has made a cottage industry of publishing every scrap of draft paper that his father ever scribbled and analyzing them as if they were papyrus palimpsests of the lost plays of Sophocles. In the last sixty plus years an unending stream of analysis both professional and personal has been generated about these books. Everything that could be said has been said and about a million times. So, what possible justification is there for me to add to the ocean?

Well, it’s my damn blog and I want to. So, without further ado…

I read the Lord of the Rings when I was about twelve. I was highly impressed. Obviously as I matured my opinion of the story was based on an evolving baseline of experience with fiction and personal experience of the world around me. Over the years my personal preferences among the various characters and scenes have altered somewhat. But my overall opinion of the work is still very high and very enthusiastic.
Over the course of the time I have been a fan of the Lord of the Rings, Hollywood has from time to time attempted to produce motion picture versions of it. Some of these were animated films. One was drawing superimposed over live action frames of film (Ralph Bakshi’s film). Recently a sophisticated live action and CGI combination was produced by Peter Jackson and managed to win the Academy Award for best picture. The relationship between these films and the text is the subject of this post.
I will state categorically that none of the film versions of the Lord of the Rings before Peter Jackson’s version ever succeeded (except in very small sections) in capturing the feeling of the book. The inability to draw the viewer into the reality of the story was always too strong. But in the Jackson version it succeeded.

Okay, here come the qualifiers. Do not confuse the above statement with an unconditional endorsement of every aspect of the movie. There are any number of things about the movie that I object to (some extremely strenuously). For instance, Denethor is rendered as a terrible man. I do not think that reflects Tolkien’s intent or description. Also, some aspects of the treatment of Frodo and Sam’s friendship is oddly portrayed and off-putting. The super human abilities of Legolas seem exaggerated and some of the silly treatment of Gimli are annoying. A hundred little and not so little problems exist.

Getting that out of the way I will say that Jackson’s movies bring the Lord of the Rings alive. In a certain sense these films will give Tolkien’s work a chance to become part of the mythology of the whole human race. Because although millions of people have read the books, billions of people will see the movies. Not every viewer will be impacted deeply by the story but enough of the books comes across in the films that the films will act as an amplifier of the story in the digital realm we now inhabit. So, on balance the Jackson films are a net positive for the Tolkien lovers of the world.

I’ll cut this first Tolkien post short here. After all this is an endless pursuit. Best not to drone on too much. But I’ll end with my opinion on the best scene in the Jackson films. And I’ll specify I’m talking about the extended versions. The best scene is the Ride of the Rohirrim at the Battle of Minas Tirith. It was stirring and well done. Feel free to leave your opinion on the best scene in the comments.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 2

In the first installment of this post I documented my education into the real world of scientists, how they saved the world from giant mutated insects and invented important stuff like flying cars. That time period was the 1960s. It was a carefree time full of youthful high jinx such as race riots and the Manson Family. Fast forward thirty years to 1993. A little movie came out called Matinee. It was about the 1960s. The movie employs a device that I like to call “a movie within a movie.” It’s called that because within the movie you are watching there is a movie being watched by the characters in the movie! It’s a wild concept.

The name of this internal movie is MANT. That’s a portmanteau for man-ant. The eponymous victim of this movie has been transformed from a man into a hybrid man/ ant creature. Once again radiation is involved and eventually the MANT reaches gigantic proportions. And right on schedule arrives the scientist that has glasses and a beard and explains all the technical jargon about this scientific problem. And by an amazing coincidence it’s our old friend Dr. “You’re Wiser Than We Are” from “The Thing from Another World” (Robert Cornthwaite). I mean, what are the odds? He makes such valuable pronouncements as “human/insect mutations are far from an exact science” and “My friend, you’ve suffered some of the worst that our little friend the atom has to offer. It can power a city or level it!”

I was fascinated by the changes I noted in Cornthwaite between the time he was in “The Thing” and “Mant”. No longer was he sympathetic toward the monsters. His allegiance had shifted back to humanity. I attributed this change to the smoldering resentment he felt after the Thing back-handed him into a wall in the earlier movie. Such ingratitude by the monster pushed our friend back into the Humanity First camp once again. I knew this was valuable information. I wrote it down!
Outside of the movie Mant (but inside of Matinee) a teenage girl (played by Lisa Jakub) is swept up in the drama surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis (and the premiere of Mant) in the southern Florida town of Key West. This girl is the daughter of beatniks and she has her world view changed by exposure to a young Navy brat who also happens to like horror movies. When the movie ends Lisa has gotten over her prejudices against military families and monster movies. What does this have to do with this post? Well it does link us back to the military but hang in there. I have another half-baked segue coming up.
Fast forward to 1998 and a blockbuster called Independence Day erupts onto the cinematic stage. Now it just so happens that there is an ex-Navy pilot named Russel Kay and by a strange coincidence (or is it) his daughter is played by Lisa Jakub! But her love of a navy brat in the last movie has landed her in this movie in a family headed by a delusional alcoholic ex-military flier. Although it’s not apparent how she feels about horror movies she definitely suffers some of the worst of what our friends the aliens have to offer. In Independence Day, the role of scientist is handled by Jeff Goldblum. He is an environmentalist computer scientist who’s always worried about recycling and is totally opposed to nuking the aliens. He’s worried that fallout is worse than extermination of the entire human race by death rays. But by the end of the movie he comes around and cheerfully nukes the aliens on their home base.
I was thinking of dragging this forward by following President Whitmore forward into Lake Placid (well the crocodile is very large) or following Jeff Goldblum into Jurassic Park and Independence Day 2 which has all kinds of scientific mumbo-jumbo and giant creatures but I’m getting tired.
Suffice it to say that even really stupid people and fat-headed scientists can see reality if monsters and giant insects start slapping them around.
And now my patient readers, the payoff.
All of this research has allowed me to formulate a unified theory of scientific behavior. Apparently all scientists are morons and can only learn about reality by being hit over the head by it. Therefore, I propose a new policy. Whenever a scientist dictates a policy based on fat-headed stupidity he should be forced to endure the solution himself until he either sees the error of his way or dies from the paradox of settled science.
For instance, if a climate scientist declares CO2 the death of the planet then he should not produce any of it himself. Now, I don’t propose that he cease breathing. Even though technically respiration is nothing but exchanging O2 for CO2. Let’s just let him slide on the breathing. But that’s all. No internal combustion engines or heating systems or electricity. In fact, nothing produced by technology supported by the industrial revolution. So that also eliminates batteries and solar cells and everything else made in a factory. And finally, I remind everyone that burning coal or oil or even wood produces CO2. So, this scientist is telling us to give up every bit of science going all the way back to the paleolithic age. So, let us limit our friend the scientist to killing fur-bearing animals and eating their flesh and wearing their pelts for warmth. Of course, he’s probably a vegan but we all have to make compromises when inconsistencies crop up.
That’s my plan in a nutshell. It should be amusing to see Al Gore dressed like Fred Flintstone and trying to catch a squirrel for breakfast.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 1

On Saturday afternoons when I was a kid I used to watch Million Dollar Movie on Channel 11 and was able to enjoy such science fiction classics as “Attack of the Crab Monsters” and “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.”  Right away I figured out that really big creatures that had been exposed to atomic radiation really liked to attack.  But as I became more sophisticated in my sci-fi viewing I eschewed such childish cinematic offerings in favor of more cerebral tales.  No more ridiculous giant crab stories.  I graduated to “Them” which is the realistic depiction of an attack by giant ants exposed to atomic radiation.  In this classic of the fifties I learned that scientists were old and wore glasses and looked like Santa Claus (except for the girl scientists who were young and didn’t even look like Mrs. Claus and tended to end up with the FBI agent who starred in the film, who in this case was James Arness of Gunsmoke fame).  And the best ones had British accents (or at worst New England accents).  Also, no matter what their area of specialization (e.g., physics, botany or myrmecology) they were all equally adept at battling giant creatures exposed to atomic radiation.  And they were full of esoteric and valuable information.  I found out that the plural of antenna wasn’t antennas but rather antennae!  This inspired in me a life-long love of the classical Greek and Latin languages.  And the most important characteristic of scientists was their love of knowledge.  Because of this thirst for knowledge, they were willing to venture into tunnels and basements where even the ubiquitous soldiers in their WWII vintage uniforms were afraid to go.  It also meant the scientists were very likely to be munched on by the mutant du jour of the story.  But you know, science.  So that is how I came to admire scientists.  They were cool and smart too.  And they always, always, always figured out how to kill the monsters.

But one Saturday, Million Dollar Movie was playing another sci-fi film, “The Thing from Another World.”  I was suspicious at first.  If it was from another world how did it get here?  Had it been exposed to atomic radiation?  Would there be enough scientists?  These doubts plagued me.  But I decided to give it a whirl.  Encouraging signs emerged quickly.  The creature was indeed radioactive and there was a whole passel of scientists assigned to this movie.  One of them even had a New England accent so things seemed to check out.  And reassuringly the US military was available for monster eradication duty once the scientists had done the heavy lifting of analysis.  Early on a problem arose.  This creature was man shaped.  He was bald and had strange hands with hypodermic finger nails.  But he was no more than eight feet tall.  This was highly irregular and seemed to throw into doubt his qualifications for his own movie.  Also the scientists in this movie were extremely assertive and gave the military officers a lot of lip.  And it seemed they didn’t know their primary function, figure out how to kill the monster.  This was very confusing.  The leader of the scientists kept saying that regardless of how many humans the creature killed, science demanded that no force should be used against it.  He kept saying (in a really annoying intonation) that the creature “is wiser than we are” and that “it’s our duty to die to preserve the knowledge this creature possesses.”  Even as a youngster I intuited that this head scientist was what we called back then “a loser.”  How could this be?  He was a scientist!  He had the answers.  I found this very puzzling and dispiriting.  I searched for some reason for this failure on the scientist’s part to want to kill the monster.  Eventually I developed an hypothesis based on a detailed comparison of “Them” and “The Thing from Another World.”  At first glance nothing jumped out.  But once I checked the cast members it all became clear.  As mentioned above, in “Them” the part of the FBI Agent and eventual boyfriend of the scientist’s daughter is played by James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame.  It turned out that the part of the Thing was played by none other than James Arness!  Well obviously if Arness was the prospective son-in-law of one scientist, then it stood to reason that a fellow scientist would not turn on him.  What was at work here was the kind of professional courtesy that, for instance, police confer on each other’s family members.  Now it made perfect sense.  Crisis averted.  I could become a scientist without becoming a loser.  But I was troubled by all that talk of monsters being wiser than us.  And not killing them but instead letting them kill us.  It was very strange.

Fast forward forty years.  I work as an engineer.  I am surrounded by R&D PhDs.  They all look and sound like the head scientist in “The Thing from Another World.”  They drive Priuses and have Tolerance and Coexist, Bernie and Free Tibet bumper stickers on their cars.  And suddenly it all makes sense.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 2

Dead Pool: A Short Movie Review

So, I’m not a comic book guy. I don’t have a dog in DC vs Marvel. I despise the X-Men. It seems to be some thinly disguised stand-in for every grievance group’s revenge wet dream (OUR SPECIALNESS IS OUR SUPER POWER!!!). Iron Man and Captain America have been fun. But it’s only a matter of time until Joss Whedon consigns them to gender re-assignment surgery and makes them a lesbian couple. Now they’ve even ruined Batman and Superman. All they do is whine and brood about how tough it is to be invulnerable or a billionaire. Wow.

So it is with great joy that I announce that there is at least one super hero who is having fun. Dead Pool. I’d never heard of him before this movie (remember, not a comic book guy). I heard some good word of mouth from friends so I was hopeful. But other than the fact that it wasn’t for kids I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Being hopelessly old, I rented the DVD from what used to be called Netflix and last night I watched it.

I’ll say from the very opening scene (which includes some very amusing credits) right up to the final credits it entertains the hell out of you. It’s funny, obscene, funny, violent, funny, clever and just plain funny. All the major characters and even some pretty minor ones are excellent. The action scenes are well done and exciting. The dialog is outstanding. The plot is pretty much the usual meaningless super-hero origin story but Dead Pool hasn’t decided that his suffering will elevate him to a noble avenger. He’s just a really pissed off jerk bent on revenge. It’s perfect.

His attitude toward everyone (good, bad or just bystander) is the same, “I’m gonna do some really dangerous stuff to kill a lot of people I really don’t like. Sorry I didn’t warn everyone else but I really don’t care because I’m basically a selfish jerk.” It’s wonderful.

One of the best features of the character is his constant mockery of movie conventions. At a certain point Dead Pool (played hilariously by Ryan Reynolds) recruits two X-Men characters to help him save his girl (portrayed by the still incredibly hot Firefly alumna, Morena Baccarin). But he does it with as little grace and gratitude as humanly possible. One of the X-Men characters is named ( I kid you not) Negasonic Teen Warhead and is a rather short girl with a slightly stubbly shaved head. Sort of the epitome of the surly teen girl super hero. He mocks her incessantly sometimes pretending she’s Sinead O’Connor. Then he taunts her thus, “Look! I’m a teenage girl! I’d rather be anywhere than here! I’m all about long, sullen silences, followed by mean comments, followed by more silences. So what’s it gonna be? Long, sullen silence or mean comment? Go on.” This may be the most refreshing thing I’ve seen in a sci-fi movie in twenty years.

All in all a first rate comic book movie presentation. Long live Dead Pool. I just wonder if a sequel is possible.