Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

Posts tagged “science

I wanted a big, galactic adventure but all I got was this orb plot

The biggest movie of the year, the one filled with wit, adventure and interplanetary travel, the one that pulled in the biggest box office (though summer 2014 box office numbers supposedly aren’t that great) and probably will kick-start a bevy of movies with these characters mixing with characters from other parts of the Marvel universe, left me cold.

I don’t have much interest in a lot of the superhero movies mostly because I have no interest in the comic books they are based on. Many stories in the comics have gone just totally batty and the characters hard to identify with. They occupy worlds unto themselves, where laws of nature — a.k.a. physics — are ignored while the human drama becomes little more than soap operas. This was a condition of superheroes from the get-go; Superman has never made sense but he’s a hero to us because he’s a fulfillment of our hopes and dreams. He’s taken a dark turn lately, so we’ll have to see if he remains at the pinnacle of human possibilities or he becomes just another overpowered costumed avatar grubbing around the shadowy corners of our dark natures.

I wasn’t planning to see the Captain America films at all, but the response to them, including by friends whose judgment of superheroes and superhero movies I trust, intrigued me so I watched the first on DVD and saw the second in the theater. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the better of the two, partly because of the struggle the captain has to make to adjust from the years of the so-called “good war” years to the America of the nervous, divided and cynical society of the 21st century, a century when we were supposed to be exploring planets and getting ready to go to the starts. The other big reason it appealed to me was Cap’s decision to take down the giant surveillance apparatus being put together by S.H.I.E.L.D. (Oh, Nick Fury, you have changed so much from your Howling Commando days.) This explores, though only minutely, the idea that superpowered humans, or those who control superpowered humans, will try to take over control of everyone and every thing in the world. It’s a natural outgrowth — look at mundane human society — those with the physical power to conquer and rule generally tend to do so.

(Time out for blatant self-promotion: This is the theme explored in my book, The Tyranny of Heroes, which has a Superman-like character, a Wonder Woman-like character, and a Captain America-like character as a triumvirate in charge of a league of superheroes who have taken over the world and rule with an iron hand [literally in one case]. Links to the e-book sales sites can be found elsewhere on this page.)

Where the movies faltered was in bringing the comics version of global evil, HYDRA (although it was a hoot watching Robert Redford mutter “Hail HYDRA” as his character was dying). I suppose the plot-driving Object of Desire — you know, the tesseract, orb, power crystal, ring, sword, whateverthehell — comes from the comics, too, but I tend to also ascribe it to lack of imagination among the movie writers. That damned Object of Desire stuff is spilling over to many of the Marvel movies, including the one this post is supposed to be about, Guardians of the Galaxy. (Not to be confused, as a couple of theaters did, with Rise of the Guardians, a “family” film about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy and Jack Frost joining forces to keep the bad guy from destroying children’s dreams — hey, am I seeing a pattern here?)

The whole movie is centered on the Object of Desire, who has it, who loses it, who controls it, what they want it for, who it bites in the big climatic scene. And in the end, it makes no difference whatsoever. Yeah, the Evil Guy wanted it to take over a world or something, and in the end died for it, but the object itself, after all that destruction, is not changed. And it is placed where it can be — and will be, you bet — stolen by another Evil Guy and here we go ’round the merry-go-round again.

Said Evil Guy — looking an awful lot like someone who took his style clues from north and south Native Americans, Egyptians and the Na’vi of Pandora — wants to use the orb-thing to destroy a planet (don’t they all?). A large part of the film is our heroes trying to keep it from him, but they fail. All the Evil Guy has to do is touch the thing to the planet’s surface and zap! no more cities and people and stuff. So, he jumps into a small one-person shuttle, using the craft’s small radar profile to weave his way through planetary defenses, lands on an isolated spot, raises the orb, says “Sayonara, suckers!” and slams the thing into the ground, completing his mission (comic-book science allowing him to survive his own evil).

No! He does not do that! He aims his gigantic spaceship directly at the main city,  sparking evacuations of said city (we are told everyone got out; do I see fallout from Man of Steel here?) while scrambling the defenses. I have to admit, the visuals are amazing, particularly when the one-person defensive ships link into a huge net and encapsulate the enemy spacecraft. This whole sequence, except for a few plot lapses, is pretty exciting. But, alas, it shares a fate with other exciting, amazing sequences in other movies, that being a worthy thing trapped in bad film.

Meanwhile the subplots — our main characters hate each other at first, are captured, bicker, join forces, are beaten and lose the Object of Desire, bicker, are disheartened, listen to a speech that inspires them, gird their loins, bicker, go out and beat the tar out of the bad guy, recovering Object of Desire — are playing out the way they’ve played out in the various Captain America, Thor, Avengers and many more superhero movies to come. A lot to come — Guardians suggests moviemakers are going to scrape the entire Marvel pantheon for future films (Howard the Duck?!). The result being the creation of another walled universe called Marvel the way a walled universe of Marvel comics exists. Members only, thank you.

Rocket Raccoon is problematic for me, too. Every time I heard the name, my brain kept digging up the old Beatles song Rocky Raccoon from the white album. Well, what do you know? Wikipedia says the writers of the comic-book version based the name on that song back in 1975. The 2014 Rocket Raccoon (Rocky Raccoon checked into his room/Only to find Gideon’s bible … Gideon checked out and he left it no doubt/To help with good Rocky’s revival … oh, uh, sorry) bothers me because I just don’t believe those words are coming his mouth. The body is too small, the lungs are too small, the vocal chords are too small. His voice should be pitched higher. Well, comic-book science, right? I suppose they’ll explain it by referring to the biological manipulation that created him. But still … it’d be nice if someone made the effort.

I have no trouble with Groot. Odd, you’d think, ’cause here’s more comic-book science in making a plant-man. His sacrifice at the end saves everyone, but in true comic-book tradition, he comes back. And man, does he have the moves.

The other characters? Meh. The hero is a “loveable rogue” — ha ha, like we haven’t seen that before. His fixation on his mother’s mix tape is supposed to be endearing, but it’s irritating, especially when he puts it above the mission and his friends. Look, if he was that smart — probably is, but comic-book plotting, right? — why didn’t he copy the music, then keep the tape in a safe place? It’s not like there wasn’t any technology around him. Plus, after 20 years, he’s lucky that tape wasn’t at least stretched, making his music sound a little more … alien. And, of course, the non-human aliens have the technology to play 20th-century cassette tapes, and, of course, they’re grooving to American rock-and-roll music. That’s like hacking an alien computer with an Apple MacBook.

And I am sick to death of giant space ships falling on cities. It’s as if writers and producers got together at a secret retreat a few of years ago and said “OK, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, you’ll drop big honkin’ starships on hapless cities. Captain America, you can use those flying carrier things, they’re big enough. Avengers, we’ll count the big invading bugs as space ships for now, but you gotta do better next time. That thing the purple-faced guy is riding would be great. Look, think about it, OK? I mean, come on guys, this is the Next Cool Thing.”

And these misfits have the gall to call themselves “guardians of the galaxy.” The Milky Way Galaxy is hundreds of thousands of light years across and could contain 400 billion stars and probably billions of planets. You’re going to patrol all of that? Right. And who knows what’s on the other side? You could run into really powerful beings with super-dooper-holy-mackerel technology, stuff that’ll make your orb look like an LED Christmas light. With just a flick of a mighty wrist, they could just sweep away the entire Marvel and DC universes (no matter what studio) and say “OK, we’re starting all over and we’re going to do this with logic.”

I’d pay to see that.

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The new ‘Cosmos’ has been a bit remolded to fit the times

Starstuff.

Cal Sagan made the word famous in the first iteration of Cosmos, a TV show that explored well, “everything that is, or was, or ever shall be.” That’s biting off a lot to chew. Sagan pulled it off in 1981 with an erudite, intelligent, fascinating and informative 15-week series on PBS. Sagan was one of the most well-known scientific spokesmen and the show propelled him to celebrity status. His was subtitles “A Personal Journey.”

Now the series has been revamped in 2014 with this generation’s most well-known scientific spokesman, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. New discoveries in the intervening 33 years certainly call for such a move. Even though the subtitle of the new series is the more bombastic “A Spacetime Odyessy,” the producers still have to be careful not to step on, belittle or demean Sagan’s legacy yet continue the quest of explaining scientific process and discovery to the general public.

One way to update is with modern production techniques to create whiz-bang visuals and special effects. The new Cosmos started on the same seashore as the old one and borrowed the spaceship of the mind idea to explore the universe. Sagan started his from the outside — billions of light years away — and traveled in to Earth. Tyson goes the other way, starting here and moving outward. That turns out to be more effective, because Tyson can mention all the planets of the solar system where Sagan couldn’t get Venus and Mercury on-screen because he stopped at the third rock from the sun. Tyson also has more information about what the planets looked like, so his planetary system looks cooler. Of course, in Sagan’s day, Pluto was considered a planet (and at that time was inside the orbit of Neptune) where Tyson simply mentioned something vague about other objects in the system past Neptune, including Pluto. Nothing about the demotion of Pluto from planet status and his role in doing that, but perhaps he’ll go into more detail in a later episode.

Tyson’s version follows the trail blazed by Sagan’s to the point of him saying some of the same words as Sagan in some cases. This shown particularly in the segment of the life of the universe shown as a calendar year to show how all of human recorded history can fit into the last ten seconds or so of the year. Almost word-for-word at the end.

The two men diverge on their choices for early scientific heroes to illustrate how thinkers in ancient times blazed a path for later generations. Sagan went with Eratosthenes, who deduced the size of the Earth my measuring the shadows of sticks stuck in the ground. Tyson chose Giordano Bruno, a 12th century monk who suggested the sun was the center of the universe, not the Earth. He was eventually burned at the stake for suggesting that. Eratosthenes was a scientist, Sagan points out, where Bruno wasn’t because he didn’t have facts to back him up, says Tyson.

This choice of “hero” illustrates best the differences between the two shows. Sagan is more of a dreamer, Tyson more prosaic. Sagan spoke in poetry — “We are the way for the cosmos to know itself” — where Tyson’s style is more lecture. Both men say “starstuff,” but when Sagan says it, it’s just that more lyrical. Nothing wrong with that, but Tyson should let himself wax poetic once or twice. Wouldn’t hurt his image that much.

Sagan’s ethereal music — such as the show’s theme, Movement 3, “Symphony to the Powers B” from the album Heaven and Hell by the electronic artist Vangelis — has been replaced by the tedious orchestrations that mark scores of modern films such as Star Trek or Star Wars. Perhaps this isn’t surprising because a main backer of the new series is Seth MacFarlane, a potty-mouthed producer of potty-mouthed TV and movies who is wont to “borrow” from other creators. The credits also list Brannon Braga, who was on the staff for Star Trek: The Next Generation. This also perhaps explains why Tyson’s spaceship of the imagination resembles Boba Fett’s spacecraft from Star Wars. In flight, it resembles a coffin. (Update, April 10: I finally figured out what it does resemble: a sarcophagus. And it gives me the creeps every time I see it sliding through the cosmos.) In one scene, as the ship flew low over a rocky world, I expected a giant space worm to rise out of a hole and snap at the spacecraft. Given the show’s personnel, and the fact that it’s on commercial TV, I keep anticipating pop-culture references, like the U.S.S. Enterprise visiting a new world or the Millennium Falcon zipping by a distant galaxy.

The original show was based on the BBC model of documentary series where the host would visit the places under discussion and dramatize the stories of the historical figures under discussion. But the new show has commercials, which squeezes the time, so it looks like Tyson will spend most of his time in his spacecraft or standing on a beach or a meadow. And the dramatizations will be animated the way the Bruno story was. Perhaps that saves money, but with all the commercials, you’d think they’d have enough to spare. But, this is the modern world, and in this world everything mus make s money for someone somewhere. Altruism is so ’70s.

The most affecting part is Tyson’s telling use about a visit to Sagan when Tyson was a teen. That’s Sagan, all right, taking time to talk to a kid about the wonders of science, and in this case, it certainly paid off. Tyson points out that this is another process in how science works — a teacher passes information to a student, who uses it to carry research further, then he becomes a teacher and passes what he found out to the next student.  And on and on. A nice touch, but we must hope the series doesn’t become too much of a paean to Sagan.

It’s good to have science and rational thought on TV, especially network TV. The first show was interesting and Tyson’s no-nonsense style is engaging and the eye candy was compelling. Plus, if Tyson continues to take an occasional jab at conventional thinking, that could only be a good thing.

 

Update: paragraph added 10 March ’cause I left it out of the original version.