Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Four Quick Scifi Reviews

Thanks to the magic of cable TV and the internet, I recently got the chance to see some on-screen works of science fiction I missed the first time around. So here's some quick reviews of stuff most of you probably already saw years ago. Warning, some spoilers ahead.

First up is Mission To Mars. The very first thing I thought of when I finished watching it was: they made the wrong movie.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Future Don Cheadle (well, okay, his character, but I can only think of him as Don Cheadle) heads the first manned landing on Mars. They discover a mysterious mountain-sized artifact of apparent alien origin. When they investigate, the artifact reacts with lethal results.

Back on Earth, another Mars mission is launched, and after a lot of hokey melodrama, the follow-up mission arrives on Mars a year later. They find Future Don Cheadle still alive, having somehow survived a year in the first mission's makeshift base. Then they all traipse back to the artifact, figure out how to get in, and discover a recording meant for mankind by a dopey looking extraterrestrial.

The movie was okay up until the first team died, then it segued into dumbness and horrible cliches. But you see, hidden in that mess, was the movie they should have made. I'll spell it out: Future Don Cheadle was marooned alone on Mars for a year with a mysterious, murderous alien artifact just over the horizon. Why didn't they make that movie instead?

Can you imagine how awesome that story could have been in the hands of a better director (sorry, De Palma) and much better writers? Can you imagine his struggle for survival on an alien, hostile world, more isolated than any human being has ever been in all of history? Or the dark terrors that man must have suffered through in his crushing loneliness, with the deaths of his friends and teammates weighing on him, and the alien horror that caused it all just an hour's walk away? In the hideous silence of the Martian night, was there really something moving out there, or was it all in his mind? Was any of it ever real, he wonders, as he skirts the edges of madness for months at a time?

It could have been one of those awesomely dark, complex mindf*ck movies, where both the hero and the audience wouldn't quite know what was going on for sure. And Don Cheadle could easily have been up to the acting task. Instead we got some horribly-staged bad-science melodramic crap with Gary Sinise. Argh. Guess we can just chalk this up to one of those great missed opportunities.

And on we move to Bicentennial Man starrig Robin Williams, and based on an original short story by the great Isaac Asimov. Of the works reviewed here, it was the least annoying, but that was mostly because it was so bland.

Robin Williams plays Andrew, an android employed by a wealthy family in the far-flung future year of 2005. When Andrew begins showing signs of sentience, his family helps him become more independent, and Andrew begins a 200-year struggle to be accepted as human.

This film was actually a lot more true to Asimov's original vision than the movie adaption of the all-but-raped I, Robot that came out some years later. There's even some very Asimovian intellectual dialog toward the end, when Andrew pleads his case before the World Council of Smart Guys, or whatever they were supposed to be. But sadly, the film also lacked a lot of Asimov's playful inventiveness, and there was never any real tension or excitement to interest the audience. A for effort, but C for execution.

Okay, I'll admit it, I never saw the blockbuster Transformers movie until it was shown on broadcast TV a few weeks ago.

The robots were damn cool. I've got to give the film creators that. Visually they rocked, and their characters were actually fairly engaging as well. Or maybe it just seemed that way because almost every single human character in the film was so vastly annoying that the robots just seemed much more likable in comparison.

For those of you still more behind the times than me, or perhaps just never watched any cartoons in the last quarter century, in Transformers, two factions of a race of living robots are engaged in a millennia-old war, and that war spills over to an alternate version of Earth populated by good-looking but vapid idiots.

Okay, I'll admit the soldier characters were mostly tolerable. But every time our hero Teenage Goofball was on screen I wanted someone to smash his mouth shut with a sledgehammer. Megan Fox was indeed nice to look at, but that was about it. Goofball's clueless family apparently was created by an algorithm that averaged every sitcom cliche from the past twenty years, and the government types were so incompetent I expected Inspectors Gadget and Clouseau to show up at any minute to take charge.

But did I mention the robots were cool? Megatron especially, I thought this was the single best version of him. He honestly came across as menacing and dangerous. Optimus Prime was also at his best, as noble and heroic--and surprisingly badass-- as one could hope for. If only the film had more of them and less of Goofball and the sitcom brigade...

The anime series Stellvia ran on Japanese TV in 2003, and is available on DVD and for viewing online.

The series starts with a crackerjack premise: For unknown reasons, the star Beta Hydrus, 20 light years away, suddenly goes supernova. Its radiation pulse hits Earth in the year 2167, devastating the planet. Humanity slowly rebuilds, and even expands into the solar system. But in the year 2356, mankind faces its most grim challenge yet: the physical shockwave from the supernova is about to wash over the solar system, and threatens to annihilate everything. To protect the inhabited worlds, a number of immense foundation space stations are created to coordinate defenses; Stellvia is the one above Earth.

The series focuses on a 16-year-old Peruvian girl named Shima, who is recruited to undergo pilot training on Stellvia. Despite a rocky start (she earns the nickname "Shipon," japanese for 'ping pong', after her disastrous first flight) her genius ability with computers and math quickly allow her to become a prodigy as a pilot.

The series started off so well, it was sad to see it slowly but surely degenerate into a batch of banal anime cliches. The series is definitely shojo in flavor (the anime equivalent of a 'chick flick') but was still smart and original enough at first to keep my attention. But despite being 350 years in the future and set in space with the potential extinction of humankind threatening, we're set up with a lot of japanese high school drama cliches spread out among video-game-like space sequences. All of the secondary characters are forgettable; not necessarily badly done, just nothing about them stood out or made me care about what happened to them.

Then, half way through the series, the supernova shockwave arrives. The apocalyptic event they'd been building up since the first moments of the series, the Doom of Man, the Great Mission, etc, etc. I had to admit I was expecting an epic struggle and confrontation. But it was over in two episodes, and the big danger was resolved by the most horrible anime cliche of all: a big robot with an even bigger gun.

I stopped watching after that, with 13 episodes still to go. It was just too disappointing. Like Mission to Mars, there was a much better story buried in that material, if only someone had bothered to try and dig it out. Oh well. Maybe someday I'll go back and watch the rest, but after the way they handled their biggest and most important storyline, I'm afraid it would be just more disappointment.

But Stellvia did also have a cool opening theme, though.


Anonymous said...

Alright, you're absolutely right about the mission to mars movie that should have been. Send that to AMC and get them to make it. I'll absolutely be watching. Ah, to live in the universe where that was madei.

Anonymous said...

The second half of Stellvia was pretty much like the first half, but with more cliches, aliens and a new threat thrown in.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I disagree. The second half of Stellvia is better, with more adults (but still too much high schoolers), more cool technology demonstration (using gravity manipulation to make lens!) and so on. The "unknown reasons" for Beta Hydrus go supernova are also explained. But still, if you hated the first half, you won't love the second one. It is better, but not a whole new anime.

Some SPOILERS ahead. Kinda mild, but still SPOILERS:

As another anonymous said, there are now aliens with 20+ technological level (seemingly magical even to the ~17 tech level of humans). There are deaths. There is a much greater sense or urgency. There is drama related to large distances (delayed communication, long travel times). There is some political tension between colonies because they don't know about the aliens and suspect one another. There is something like the Xeelee ring, but implied to be a natural phenomenon.