Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Thursday Movie Picks: Astronauts

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is astronauts. This is an area I'm very prolific in, being an experienced science fiction writer and having a long history with the genre. That seems simple enough. The only problem is deciding which three to select for this theme. I've got so many to choose from. It's hard to narrow it down to three, but I've got to find something.

Destination Moon (1951)

If we're going to be discussing astronauts, what better place to start than to look at the original astronaut film. George Pal's Destination Moon is often labelled as the film which really launched the science fiction film. By today's standards, it might not seem like that great a film. The story is pretty thin, and serves mainly as an excuse to provide what amounts to an hour and a half lecture about space travel. However, in its day, this was radical. Pal was one of the first to realize that audiences were interested in the possibilities of space travel and science. They even brought in then-acclaimed author Robert Heinlein to ensure the film was realistic (the effects are a bit dated, but most of the science holds up pretty well). Also worth noting is that Destination Moon was made almost twenty years before the actual moon landing, and they fact that they came as close as they did to predicting what would actually happen is quite impressive.

The Right Stuff (1983)

To continue the theme I set in motion with Destination Moon, it seemed appropriate to also include a movie about some of the first astronauts. Okay, technically this film is about the first American astronauts (the first person in space was a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, who entered orbit in 1961) but it does deal with the beginnings of space exploration. There is a lot of ground covered in this film, which begins with Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947 and ends just before the start of the Apollo Missions.

Gravity (2013)

This may seem like an obvious choice, but it is a very well-made film. It obviously draws on a lot of older science fiction movies, with plenty of references, homages, and inside jokes (fun fact: look in the background when Ryan is on the ISS; at one point you can see a picture of the famous shot from A Trip to the Moon). It is definitely a tense film, but also one that reflects a very different view of space travel. Unlike the more adventurous tones of Destination Moon or The Right Stuff, Gravity puts heavy emphasis on the less glamorous side of working as an astronaut. From the opening moments we see that working in space can be dull and tedious, but it also shows the dangers of the profession as well.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Space Week: Contact (1997)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy famously included an entry which tried to describe the vastness of the universe: "Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space." From its opening moments, Contact brings that idea to the forefront. Before its protagonist is even introduced, the audience is treated to an extended zoom out which begins above the Earth with music playing overtop.

Over the following moments, it gets farther away, and the soundtrack begins to change, shifting to older and older radio transmissions as it gets further through the solar system, and moves on to other stars. Before long, the soundtrack begins to fade, until it reaches a point where it disappears entirely. This one zoom takes the audience from their home planet to other stars, and eventually shows their own galaxy, before zooming further to reveal the local group and local supercluster. This one moment, presented through computer generated images and one shot, serves to show the viewer just how little is known and understood about the universe at large.

Ironically, for a film whose plot revolves around making contact, it is really a story about humanity and the search for knowledge. Historically, science has often been an uphill battle. The quest to understand the universe is not a linear path, but one blocked by human flaws of bias, profit, and fear. When in the early renaissance Giordano Bruno proposed that Earth revolved around the sun (rather than, as was widely believed at the time, the other way around), he was punished by society. Later Galileo Galilei was accused of treason when he presented evidence supporting Bruno's earlier claims, forced to publicly recant his theories, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Contact is, in many ways, based on the idea that history repeats itself. The above accounts of early studies of orbital mechanics are just one of many ways in which scientists trying to find answers were faced with a mountain of obstacles and easily made enemies who either wanted to suppress, reject, or exploit their discoveries for their own ends. For obvious reasons, Charles Darwin's initial writings on evolution were met with huge public backlash. Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift was mocked for decades even by his fellow scientists until Marie Tharp discovered evidence that not only supported his theory, but also expanded it.

Contact has very much the same situation. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a scientist whose main interest is in her research. She is shown to be smart and always asking questions, and remains passionate about her work for SETI. The only problem is that she has to deal with society at large. At the beginning of the film, very few people take her work seriously. Even her boss, Dr. Drumlin (Tom Skerrit) dismisses her work as a waste of time and money. Drumlin himself is very much an example of the types of people Ellie has to deal with. He is built up as a respected scientist, but every other moment he is selling out, taking credit for Ellie's work, stealing attention away from her, or dismissing her. He may be officially a scientist, but Drumlin is only interested in working for profit.

When contact is finally made, it results in a sharp divide in humanity, all of whom are influenced by biases, agendas, assumptions, and beaurocracy. The discovery that the transmission contains a coded video of Hitler immediately sparks a panic, even after Drumlin and Arroway both try to explain that this is not evidence the aliens are Nazis (more likely, they sent it back as a means of acknowledging it unaware of how it would be received). In one notable scene, Arroway is just trying to get to the observatory when she finds herself having to drive by a crowd of people outside, which includes religious protestors, scientologists, Neo-Nazis, UFO conspiracy theorists offering extreme misrepresentations of what is happening, and others who may just be trying to make money.

However, the focus is mainly placed on three main perspectives: the scientific, religious, and political. Arroway herself serves to represent the purely scientific view, but also important is the political agenda displayed by Security Advisor Kitz (James Woods). While Arroway is objective, trying to examine the facts and showing no problem with sharing information, Kitz spends most of the film interfering with her research and making assumptions. At the movie's end, he proceeds to perform what amounts to a witch trial against Arroway, not unlike that faced by Galileo. He places her at the forefront, intentionally suppresses evidence supporting her claims, and forces her to publicly recant all of her research.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Introducing Space Week!

Back in January, I decided to try and get back into action by establishing a "theme week." The idea was pretty straight forward: it was based on finding a theme in advance and then scheduling it so that
I would have to watch one film each day and find something to write about it. The first of these was War Movie Week, where I set it up so that I was covering a different war each day; beginning with Paths of Glory (World War I) and ending with Edge of Tomorrow (future warfare). A week later, I also managed to do a similar project related to crime films, this time covering a series of very different movies each based on a different type of crime.

Both themes turned out to be remarkable successes, in that they were well-received by my readers and I managed to find lots of interesting things to say about the individual movies. So with the huge success of both War Movie Week and Crime Week, it should hardly be surprising that I was interested in revisiting the idea in the future. My original plan was to run this during Reading Week back in Feburary, but unfortunately a few things got in the way and I ended up postponing it. Fortunately, today happens to mark my last exam of the year before I get into that difficult period when you're initially relieved to have finished all your exams only to then get stuck when you realize you now don't have much to do.

This time, I've decided to move away from the previous themes and try something entirely different. This time, we're going to shift focus to exploration. As you are no doubt already aware, one area I'm extremely well-versed in is science fiction, plus I've studied basic astronomy (you'd be amazed how useful that can be to film analysis) so that would make sense for a theme. Now I had a few ideas for how to organize this, but I'm going to break up this activity into stages. My initial idea was to do one film for each of the planets in our Solar System, but finding movies for specific planets (other than Mars) is tricky, so I have instead broken up the adventure into stages, each one focused on a different step in space exploration. Similar to before, I will be doing one randomly picked movie each day between Tuesday and Friday based on the established themes and trying to write about each.

Choosing the themes was a bit difficult. My original idea was to have Thursday be "exploring the galaxy" and Friday "Beyond the Infinite" but in order to better fit the week I've had to change it. So now the focus will mainly be on our own Solar System, with the possibility open of a bonus on Saturday if everything goes okay.

Now with that out of the way, here is the official schedule for the week:


Tuesday: Looking Out

Wednesday: Entering Orbit

Thursday: The Inner Worlds

Friday: Jovian Bodies


As usual, feel free to leave recommendations for each of these categories in the comments.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Thursday Movie Picks: So-Bad-It's-Good

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is so-bad-it's-good. We all know these films. These are the movies that are really, really bad... except that ends up somehow having the reverse effect, becoming entertaining because of how ridiculous they are. I've seen a few of those, so now I just have to put together a list of options.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

I'm not sure how much I have to explain here. It is a movie that literally revolves around Martians kidnapping Santa Claus because their children like our television programs. It is hard to get more ridiculous than that. Part of the fun, I found, however, is that the film almost seemed to be aware of its status as a b-movie. The filmmakers probably went into this knowing there was no way they could ever make a good movie, so they just worked to make it as ridiculous as possible. Between the terrible special effects  such as the "polar bear" and the odd developments in the narrative, this is not exactly a film one should expect to find any deep interest in. The funny thing is that as bad as the rest of the movie is, they actually found a really good actor to play Santa Claus.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Out of the Indiana Jones films, The Temple of Doom is definitely the weakest as far as story goes. It is also the strangest in just how much it departs from the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The overall tone is actually ridiculous and over the top, even for Indiana Jones. As soon as you see the infamous dinner sequence, you can pretty much forget about taking the rest of the film seriously. (this is after all the film with a literal mine cart chase) Normally I would object to a character like Willie, but her distressed damsel qualities are so overdone it almost feels more like a parody of the archetype (even Indy gets frustrated with it). Then of course there's Short Round (Indy's "old friend" who is never seen or mentioned again after this film) whose acting is not up to standard either. The funny thing is that the film's problems almost become its greatest strengths, because it's hard not to laugh at just the insane directions the story manages to go.

The Room (2003)

Okay, I know this is a more obvious one, but it's hard not to bring up Tommy Wiseau's strange film when we are discussing so-bad-it's good. It is one of those movies where anyone watching it is left to wonder what kind of thought processes went into making it. Aside from strange technical decisions, most of the cast displays some very strange behavior, perhaps most obvious in the infamous sequence where they spontaneously decide to run into an alley and throw a football around while wearing tuxedos. Then of course, there are also the strange sub-plots that come out of nowhere and then get forgotten, such as Claudette's breast cancer or Denny's drug problem (both of which are randomly introduced once and then never mentioned again).

Friday, 1 April 2016

Summer Blockbuster Cast-A-Thon 2

So last year I decided to host the Summer Blockbuster Cast-A-Thon, in which I gave out the task of organizing a team of the toughest men and women available into a ragtag group of crack commandos who could rescue the Prime Minister of Canada from Neo-Nazi Communist Hippy Ninjas. Now I'm making a sequel. That means that we're going to up the stakes and introduced some new twists. That naturally has led me to one logical conclusion. Last year, we assembled a co-ed team, but this time things are different, because now it's all about bad girls. So, now that my introduction is out of the way, let's move on to the exciting new story.

Oh no! Donald Trump has done it again! He has recruited a gang of mercenaries, taken over the Canadian Parliament buildings, and stolen their supply of nuclear missiles. Now he is hiding at an unknown location, from which he has broadcast his threat to nuke a random city each week until May 31 unless President Obama agrees to step down and let him win the election, or else he will begin nuking the world. If Trump isn't stopped, it could mean the end of civilization as we know it! We have to find him fast and get those nuclear launch codes before he provokes the world into Nuclear Armageddon.

We have no time to lose. Because Donald Trump is a misogynist and a racist, our best option is to find the toughest women available and organize them into a ragtag force of crack commandos who can locate Donald Trump's secret hideout, gather intelligence on his operation, take out his henchmen, and either kill or capture Trump before he can destroy civilization. You are officially authorized to use any means you deem necessary. We need this team operational as soon as possible, so you'd better get to work right away.

  1. Select a group of 10-15 female characters from action movies, television, or video games. They are not required to be military, but they should be tough enough to look after themselves when things inevitably go wrong.
  2. For each character you choose, include a few words on why you selected her and what skills she has that could contribute to stopping Donald Trump.
  3. While your squad this time around will be all-female, diversity is still encouraged in other areas. Racial, national, and sexual variety is great if possible, as is diversity in their abilities.
  4. There are no restrictions regarding the era in which your chosen characters originated or their nationality. You could in theory assign Vazquez from Aliens with Elena Santos from Battle: Los Angeles and Isabelle from Predators.
  5. You cannot include two or more characters from the same film.
  6. Include the above banner in your post, unless you wish to design one of your own. If you choose to make your own banner, I would be happy to share it on this page so others can use it.
  7. If you took part in the first Summer Blockbuster Cast-A-Thon, you cannot use characters from your previous entry. However, characters from other submissions are still fair game. For instance, I would not be allowed to use Elena Santos from Battle: Los Angeles (since she was part of my team last year), but another blogger could still choose her if they wished.

So now you've got a job to do. Good luck assembling your team. If all goes well, we should have Trump in custody soon enough. On June 1 I will assemble a list of everyone who contributed to averting nuclear war. Now you'd better get started.