Sunday, 18 June 2017

Films: Arrival, X-Men Apocalypse, Robocop and Fantastic Beasts


Arrival (2016)

This is one I'd been looking forward to seeing, in view of the impressive reviews.  

Twelve lenticular ovoid alien spaceships appear suddenly in various places on Earth, hovering silently a few metres above the ground. Every eighteen hours, a door in the base opens, leading via a tunnel to a large space divided by a transparent wall. On the other side of this wall, wreathed in mist or smoke, aliens appear, emitting strange, untranslatable noises.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a noted linguist, is recruited to try to communicate with the aliens. After various attempts, she is able to build up a vocabulary of the circle-based symbols used by the aliens, which enables a rudimentary form of communication to be established. One of the messages appears to be a threat, bringing the various nations onto a war footing, ready to attack the ships. Only Louise has the power to stop the slide into war – but can she achieve it in time?

The plot is actually a lot more complex than this brief summary suggests, with Louise's personal history an integral part of it, but I can't say more about it without spoilers. I'll just say that this is a very good film, Adams doing an excellent job of conveying the initial terror at the situation and the difficulties she faces. The aliens are, well, suitably alien (definitely not humans squeezed into funny costumes!) and the soundtrack helps to generate a powerful atmosphere. Well worth watching.


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X-Men Apocalypse (2016)

Effectively a sequel to X-Men First Class (X-Men: Days of Future Past which emerged in between being somewhat out on its own), this one picks up a couple of decades after the original reboot finished. We are now in the 1980s, and the story this time focuses on the revival of the first mutant who had dominated ancient Egypt, En Sabah Nur. He had lived many lifetimes through having his mind magically transferred to another body when he aged. He always selected mutant hosts for these transfers, and acquired a wide range of powers in consequence. Even so, he was betrayed and trapped within the ruins of a collapsed tomb, only to be woken millennia later by members of a cult which worshipped him.

En Sabah Nur sets about re-establishing his rule, dividing the mutants between those who follow him and those who fight against him. Cue some spectacular battles interspersed with focusing on the developing characters of the mutants. An entertaining film, good but lacking the originality and inventive verve of First Class.

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Robocop (2014)

I have only a vague recollection of the 1987 film of the same name, so approached this remake with an open mind. I was quite impressed: this is not the usual kind of all-action blockbuster – in fact the action didn't really get going until well into the  film. Instead, there is much initial focus on Alex Murphy, the crippled cop given the chance of survival as a human/cyborg hybrid, and the impact this has on himself and his family. In parallel with that there is a lot concerning the politics around the use of drones in combat and policing (a very topical addition), interleaved with satirical scenes featuring a highly biased news presenter for a decidedly right-wing channel (I wonder what they were thinking of?). Solid entertainment, worth a couple of hours to see.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

A Harry Potter spin-off, set in the same world (although apart from a mention of Hogwarts there is no explicit connection in the film), FBAWTFT takes place in an an early-twentieth-century New York City. The existence of magic and wizards is not publicly acknowledged so the Magical Congress of the USA operates in secret. Into this world comes a British wizard and expert on magical beasts, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) with a magic suitcase containing its own little world, filled with the beasts he has collected. These escape into the city, causing mayhem until they can be recovered with the aid of some friends Newt has made: Tina and her sister Queenie, both young wizards, and (for comic effect) Jacob, a non-magical baker. The heroes are faced with opposition to them in the Magical Congress as well as a campaigning group preaching against the rumoured existence of magic.

The CGI is great, as we have come to expect from big-budget fantasy movies, but overall the film is disappointing. It consists of little more than a series of set-piece action sequences featuring various of the beasts, attached to a flimsy plot which doesn't really go anywhere.


Monday, 22 May 2017

Odyssey, and Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt


Odyssey, and Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt

Odyssey and Cauldron are the fifth and sixth books in the author's Academy series, following on from Omega. This effectively ends the main sequence of this series, although there is a 2013 prequel, Starhawk, featuring a much younger Priscilla Hutchins (Hutch) at the start of her career.

Odyssey continues the tale of Hutch, the former starship pilot and now deskbound administrator, and includes some other characters we have met before; most notably Gregory MacAllister, the cynical and irascible iconoclast who owns and edits a no-holds-barred periodical. In fact, he is arguably the most important character in this story, along with a newcomer, Valentina (Valya) a Greek starship pilot who is, of course, gorgeous, like most of McDevitt's heroines.

This time the plot hangs on the mysterious "Moonriders"; groups of black spheres which have allegedly been spotted by space craft from time to time. They seem to belong to an advanced alien civilisation but no clear evidence exists that they are real, and MacAllister among many others believes they are a myth, with the occasional video footage being faked. This attitude changes when Moonriders are observed to move a large asteroid in such a way that it would eventually strike one of the few life-bearing worlds discovered, with devastating effects. Not long afterwards, a partly-built space hotel is also threatened.

The ability of the Academy to respond to these threats is hampered by constant budget cuts and its survival has been doubtful, but with an unknown and apparently hostile alien civilisation on the loose, a warfleet is planned. This will be too late, however, to help the Origins project – a giant particle accelerator in space which also comes under threat, and whose fate forms the climax of the novel.

The author's writing quality and characterisation continue to improve, and while the viewpoint hops between various individuals there is no problem keeping up with who everyone is. However, the story is less ambitious and exciting than the earlier books; it doesn't have such a "widescreen baroque" appeal or the associated "sense of wonder". There are some loose ends, too: an initial mystery concerning a spaceship lost in transdimensional space is left unresolved, as are some more important issues.

An amusing aspect of the story is the series of quotes which begin each chapter, many of them caustic observations from MacAllister's publications, which provide a good flavour of the character. For example:

"The term congressional hearing is an oxymoron. No congressional hearing is ever called to gather information. Rather, it is an exercise designed strictly for posturing, by people who have already made up their minds, looking for ammunition to support their positions."

And:

"There are few professions whose primary objective is to advance the cause of humanity rather than simply to make money or accrue power. Among this limited group of humanitarians I would number teachers, nurses, bookstore owners, and bartenders."

Finally:

"Certain types of decisions can be safely ignored. Some issues will go away with the passage of time, others will be so slow developing that the decision makers will depart before the results of their neglect become manifest. Which brings us to the environment."

Despite a certain lack of excitement in the story by comparison with the earlier books, this is still a fast-paced and intriguing tale which is well worth reading.

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Cauldron is set some years later, when the Academy has closed down as a result of a general withdrawal from space exploration as humanity focuses on winning the battle to correct self-inflicted environmental damage to the Earth. Hutch is retired, only emerging to give fundraising speeches in support of the Prometheus Foundation, a private organisation which is the last to be carrying our interstellar research. Everything is shaken up when a scientist approaches her with information about a new type of superluminal drive which is many times faster than the existing one: fast enough to reach the galactic core in only a few months.

The rest of this review contains some spoilers; if you don't want to read on, I'll just add that it is, as usual, a gripping story which I finished in a couple of reading sessions, despite it being not without flaws.

After various trials and tribulations the new drive is made to work and a party of explorers, including Hutch, sets out to reach the galactic core. The reason is not just research for its own sake: they are searching for the Cauldron; the source of the vast, civilisation-destroying Omega clouds (featured in the first and fourth books of the Academy series: The Engines of God and Omega). On the way, they drop in to two other solar systems of interest: one is the source of the vast alien spacecraft (the subject of Chindi, the third in the series); the other the origin of the first ever alien message received by SETI when Hutch was a young girl. Both episodes have a certain familiarity about them: the first an alien contact story reminiscent in some respects of that in Omega; the second has a landing party in trouble on a frozen world, which reminded me of Deepsix, the second book of the series. The climax of the story, as they reach the Cauldron and discover what the Omega clouds are all about, is certainly different, but I found it rather unsatisfying. On the other hand, the author had rather painted himself into a corner; what reasonable explanation could there be for the existence of such incomprehensible artifacts as the Omega clouds? Maybe it would have been better to leave their origin and purpose a mystery.

One aspect of McDevitt's writing that I enjoy is the way he takes the opportunity to pass (often sardonic) comment on social attitudes in both human and alien societies, as mentioned above. In this instance, his target is personal immortality: if everyone could live forever, he postulates that the end result would be a society totally fossilised, with no new thinking or development, and possibly even abandoning many technological developments as being unnecessary. That adds another wrinkle to my own thoughts on this issue, as expressed here: http://quarryhs.co.uk/OnImmortality.htm


Overall, the Academy series is a significant contribution to modern space opera. It has its weaknesses, but these are forgivable in the light of the widescreen imagination and gripping storytelling.