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No Trouble at All: Why A Comedic Episode About Cooing Balls of Fur is the Heart and Soul of Star Trek

In Science Fiction, Theater on August 22, 2013 at 11:44 am

Last weekend I took in what’s become a cultural staple of Portland, Trek in the Park, an annual performance of an original series Star Trek episode in, well, a park. It’s become something of a massive cultural juggernaut and this year, regrettably, is the last time that theater group Atomic Arts is doing the performance. They went out with a bang, though, performing the Trouble with Tribbles, one of the best-known Trek episodes. It had been a while since I’d seen it, but watching it performed live this past weekend really drove home what Star Trek is about. Tribbles may not be the greatest Trek episode ever (that’s either The Best of Both Worlds or Balance of Terror) but it’s a fantastic episode that sums up what Star Trek‘s all about.

The episode is very much a slice-of-life portrait of what it means to live in space, deal with space problems, and have a space job where you have to do space things. Kirk tangles with an annoying Starfleet bureaucrat, is forced to be cordial with Klingons, disciplines a number of his subordinates for getting in a bar fight, and investigates a shifty merchant selling dubious merchandise. Kirk doesn’t give any inspiring speeches, call for a red alert, or ever command the Enterprise in combat. Throughout the Trouble With Tribbles Kirk (along with Spock) simply does his job, executing his duties as an administrator. That’s precisely what makes Tribbles such good television, though. We get to see the characters breathe and do things other than just dive into the kind of heavy situation that would be suitable for a movie plot. A big part of Trek’s appeal is its hugely detailed world, and in Tribbles we get to see people simply live in it. Along with Kirk we also get to see McCoy doing doctor things at the tribbles, Lurry (the manager of the station where much of the action takes place) dealing with the Federation and Klingons simultaneously visiting his station, and Cyrano Jones (the sleazy space merchant) trying to make a living by hustling exotic animals and artifacts. We also get to learn that Scotty reads technical journals for fun, which is kind of endearing.

The regular problems and issues of life in outer space are the heart of Star Trek. While the show has had its fair share of action sequences (I do love seeing Kirk fight a gorn) it’s really always been a show about problem solving. The crew gathers to discuss an issue, either on the bridge or in a conference room, susses out just what precisely is going on, and eventually come up with a course of action to deal with it, usually involving the application of technology, medicine, diplomacy, or lateral thinking. The motivations of the characters generally have very little to do with their own survival, avarice, emotional problems, or self-betterment. Most often, Trek‘s characters are grappling with the issues at hand either to pursue knowledge or make the galaxy a slightly better place.

If there is action, it’s usually to just show us the stakes. Torpedoes are firing, so it’s important to come to a solution quickly. People are dying, so it’s necessary to science or diplomatize as fast as possible. Action in Star Trek is generally auxiliary to the main plot, rather than something pursued in and of itself. Trek‘s usually at its most awkward when it attempts to be an action movie, rather than a thinky show. Probably my least favorite part of Trek is the string Next Generation movies which (with the kinda-sorta exception of First Contact) generally fell flat because they tried to turn Picard into John McClane. Insurrection and Nemesis were embarrassing failures not just because they were bad Star Trek, but because they seemingly forgot what Star Trek‘s about.

The emphasis on action and de-emphasis on problem solving is precisely what’s missing from J. J. Abrams’ current version of Trek. The two Star Trek movies that have come out so far have done a good job of re-creating the characters (especially Zachary Quinto as Spock) and are both perfectly fine action movies that happen in space. I want to emphasize, in no uncertain terms, that I enjoyed them as space adventure movies. However, Star Trek isn’t just about high-stakes movie action. Very often, it’s about put-upon administrators who just want their space station to work right, annoying interplanetary bureaucrats, and troublesome alien furballs that breed constantly. It’s about the weird stuff you find in the great unknown reaches, the unforeseen problems, big and small, that come with discovery, and the great panoply if life and phenomena that could be somewhere out there. The great unknown does not always need to threaten your life and limb, declare war upon you, or present an insurmountable menace. Sometimes it’s enough for that unknown to just grow fur, coo at you, and eat your chicken sandwich.

Bonus! My wonderfully multitalented girlfriend, Sarah, was tasked with taking the official photograph of the cast. Check it out.

Rocket Punch International: Go See Pacific Rim

In Movies, Science Fiction on July 15, 2013 at 8:28 am

245941id1b_PacRim_1sided_120x180_2p_400.inddOne of the best parts of the Toy Story trilogy is the opening sequence of the third movie, in which Andy imagines fanciful scenarios wherein his plastic friends do battle. The piggy bank isn’t just a bank, it’s an evil scientist with a spaceship. Woody and Buzz have to stop him from causing a train wreck. There’s a dinosaur. Aliens. Action. Hijinks. We see inside the head of a kid thwaking his disparate toys together and imagining scenarios where they all go “PEW, PEW, PEW,” spout cornball dialogue, and team up to save the day. The sequence works beautifully. Just about every kid has played with their toys in exactly that fashion.

Pacific Rim is like watching a big version of Andy play with his toys in the best way possible. Throughout the whole robots-versus-monsters slugfest, I kept imagining Guillermo del Toro as a hypercreative kid playing with his various action figures. He picks them up, gives them whimsical names, and then provides shape and narration to the imagined conflict. This toy robot? Its name is Gypsy Danger. It used to be a big deal, but then one its pilots died and now no one knows if its up for the fight. This plastic monster? Its name is Otachi, and is one of the largest monsters ever to attack human civilization. Oh no! Otachi is attacking Hong Kong! Can Gypsy Danger save the day? Keep talking, kid. We want to see where this is going.

For a movie ostensibly about death, destruction, and the potential doom of Earthly civilizaton, Pacific Rim is a refreshingly bright movie. It’s bright in its colors, tone, and, most of all, in the feeling of togetherness and cooperation that pervades it. For humanity, repelling the Kaiju is an international effort that takes a diverse array of Russians, Chinese, Australians, Americans, Japanese, and, well, everybody. Nations seem to exist in Pacific Rim, but nationalism and jingoism don’t, really. Cooperation, both international and interpersonal, is ultimately humanity’s key to combating the monstrous kaiju. It takes two mind-melded pilots to operate the gigantic robotic jaegers. It takes a gigantic crew of diverse people to keep them up and running. One more than one occasion, characters say “let’s do this together,” and they mean it. It’s hokey in a Benetton or Captain Planet kind of way, but compared to jingoistic, racist movies like the Transformers series, its refreshing to see a film mainly set in Not America where people of differing races, nationalities, and native languages all get together and be awesome together.

It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. Many of the story beats are mostly perfunctory, the characters are mostly flat (albeit very well-defined), and despite being a fairly diverse movie there are only two female characters, one of whom barely registers. The diversity can also be fairly superficial. The Russians and Chinese (who are portrayed in such a stereotypical way that they would look at home in a Street Fighter game) have barely anything to do, and the main character is a conventional white guy. But, at least the movie cares enough about pluralism to implicitly say that international cooperation is an awesome thing right up there with rocket punches and giant swords. The idealism behind Pacific Rim‘s vision of cooperation isn’t realistic, certainly, but it is heartfelt and endearing. Guillermo del Toro, playing with his toys, also imagines everyone getting along, which is pretty damn laudable. Most other action movies don’t bother.

Go see it. It’s fresh, energetic, fun, and isn’t another damn sequel, reboot, or adaptation. It’s enthusiasm writ large. It’s the most imaginative kid you know playing with his toys. It’s everyone on Earth getting together to kick Cthulhu’s ass. It’s zoomy and colorful and colossal, It is, in other words, pretty much everything a blockbuster should be.

Why I Did Not Love The Hunger Games

In Books, Rants, Science Fiction on March 22, 2012 at 5:21 pm

The Hunger Games movie comes out tomorrow, and so far, it seems to have a pretty good critical reception. I feel kind of left out of the whole Hunger Games mania/excitement. I’m sure I’ll see the movie at some point, but I just can’t get myself worked up into a froth about it, as I was not hugely amazed by the book.

I liked the book. It was diverting and page turn-y. I thought that Katniss kicked way more ass than a certain boy wizard protagonist. I liked the world it was set in. But, I did not love it. It did not rock my world, change my life, or otherwise blow my mind. It was fine and I did not hate it, but I had a few fairly major problems with it. Such as:

It’s not nearly brutal or scary enough. The Hunger Games is ostensibly a book about kids killing other kids. However, the violence in the book was sanitized to a degree that I was never scared of or disgusted by it. There were no instances where I felt pity or horror or sickness at what I was reading, there was no time in which I felt any kind of terror about spurting blood or deadly fights. The vast majority of the action happens away from Katniss and therefore away from the reader, since the book is in first person. If you want the reader to find something horrible (and I’m assuming that that’s Suzanne Collins’ goal) then have to take a page from Upton Sinclair and show them something horrible.

The tributes from the wealthy districts are too clearly the bad guys. It was kind of a cop-out for Collins to make the tributes from the wealthy districts obvious villains. Whether or not they’re favored to win, or whether or not they have training and resources, they are still children who are being savagely manipulated by adults. Collins gives us characters whose deaths we actively hope for, and that undercuts the moral authority of her story.

Despite trying to tell a story about why deathmatches are bad, we still root for Katniss. Collins is trying to illustrate how the Games are a horrible display of power on behalf of the Capital. However, we as readers still hope that Katniss kills people and wins the whole thing, so even though we’re supposed to be deploring the whole system we’re still rooting for a specific outcome within it. That’s a highly uncomfortable position to be in.

Katniss is conveniently absolved of killing anyone other than a “bad” tribute. Throughout the book, Katniss manages to coast by and, despite being surrounded by death, very rarely has to actually get her hands dirty. She kills very few people in close quarters, and Collins lets the “bad” tributes do the dirty work of killing off the more innocent participants. I kept wondering if Rue was going to try to kill Katniss, or vice versa. That would have been interesting, but it never happened. Which reminds me…

Peeta is a loser. Seriously. Katniss should have arrow-ed him in the face. Kind of can’t stand that guy.

And finally…

It’s not as good as Battle Royale. But then, few things are.

The Frontiers of Empathy: One Reason Why I Love Science Fiction

In Movies, Science Fiction on October 24, 2011 at 10:44 am

One more thing relating to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, then I swear I have something positive and interesting to say about Occupy Portland. Really. I have not forgotten about that.

At this point, George Lucas has lost nearly all of his credibility as a creator of science fiction. Anymore, he’s thought of as one who despoils wonder as opposed to creating it. I’ve got plenty of antipathy towards Star Wars for lots of reasons, but the thing that made me personally stop looking up to George Lucas as a science fiction creator came just after my senior year of college.

I came home, and a roommate and several of his friends were watching Attack of the Clones. For whatever reason, they had decided to watch it with the commentary on, and Lucas was talking away about whatever happened to be in the frame at that moment. At the point where I came in and idly watched it with them, R2-D2 was flying through a large industrial facility and being pursued by several insect-like aliens called Genosians. Giant gears, conveyor belts, robotic arms, and other factory bits swooped by as R2-D2 evaded his pursuers. On the commentary Lucas said of the Genosians that they were “basically giant mosquitoes.” One of the flying aliens got stuck in some gears or other piece of machinery, and was crunched to death. The scene was played for slapstick-y laughs, and we were supposed to root for R2, who was suddenly able to fly for some reason.

I do not have a philosophical opposition to comic violence, animated mayhem, or laughing at fictional deaths. However, in that moment, I did find Lucas’ attitude towards his alien creations to be flippant and almost rather offensive. I found it astounding that he could imagine the Genosians intelligent enough to create modern industry, but not deserving of empathy or consideration when it came to feeding them into machinery. Certainly Lucas wouldn’t have sent a human careening into gears as a punchline, or called homo sapiens “basically naked monkeys.”

I love science fiction not just because it’s a genre filled with lasers and spaceships (though there is that) but also because it, more than any other form of genre fiction, can challenge and bolster our sense of empathy towards our fellow beings. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was excellent in that the filmmakers had the confidence to get the audience to empathize with a nonhuman protagonist, and a nonhuman cast of supporting characters. While James Franco might have gotten top billing, the real star of the film is Caesar, the CGI ape whose body language and facial expressions were taken from Andy Serkis. Yes, Franco does a fine enough job of being a likable handsome scientist, but the character development that the audience is most concerned with throughout the film belongs to an intelligent animal who says almost nothing. Caesar’s mind, body, and point of view are all unlike ours, yet I found myself deeply interested in the story and emotional life of an intelligent ape, and expanding my definition of who and what I considered a fellow being.

Science fiction does this all of the time. One of the reasons why I maintain that Star Trek will always be superior to Star Wars is that, as cheesy and indulgent as Trek might get it retains a more expansive heart and mind. Spock, Worf, and Data are all nonhuman, yet are among the most beloved characters of the series. They all, for different reasons, have bodies, minds, and emotional lives that our different from our own, yet we are asked to value them as people. What’s more, their different points of view are presented as being inherently valuable, rather than just curiosities. Kirk may disagree with Spock frequently, but he gives the Vulcan his highest regard because he knows that a point of view different from his is often a valuable thing.

Star Wars did have R2 and Chewbacca, but too often they were played only for laughs and never given stories of their own. What’s more, several of the aliens are presented first and foremost as set-dressing. What, after all, does Nien Nunb ever actually do? The emotions that we are most often asked to feel regarding Star Wars’ aliens is nearly always related to their anatomy. We feel disgust at Jabba’s obesity, are impressed with Chewbacca’s strength, and look around with unease at the denizens of the Mos Eisley cantina, a hive of scum and villainy. Seldom are the aliens the source of tragedy, drama, or pathos.

All of our investment and empathy is with Luke, Han, and Leia. Almost never are we asked to reach out in any challenging way to a character not like ourselves. The one major exception is Yoda. Luke must accept him as a Jedi master in the exact same scene that the audience must accept him as something other than comic relief. If George Lucas could have approached all of his aliens with the same humanity that he approached Yoda, I would probably like Star Wars a whole lot more.

Watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes the other night, I was reminded of the heart and mind of science fiction that has continually inspired me to love things like Star Trek, the robot stories of Isaac Asimov, and the wonderfully silent apocalyptic landscapes of WALL-E. Being able to journey to space, or the future, or alternate dimensions is all well and good, but SF, when it has the courage and confidence of its convictions, can also allow us to feel that the Other is not so other, and that even though their communications, trappings, and biology (or lack thereof) may be incomprehensible to us. We must still engage with them as full-fledged players within a drama, and for that time their reality is equal to that of any human character on the page or on the screen.

Going home from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I started thinking about real chimps. In particular, I remembered a This American Life story about a chimp who was raised by humans and then had to integrate herself with chimpanzees. I wondered about the real scientists who had to work with animals that very nearly are intelligent, do form emotional connections with lab workers, and are capable of self-recognition. The chimp who played Cheetah, Tarzan’s companion, apparently enjoyed watching his old movies and could recognize himself on screen. I thought about what it would be like to actually work with animals like that, and what the ethical obligations would be. I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about animal rights or issues at all- but that night it was on my mind unavoidably.

It is a wonderful thing that science fiction can do that to us. It can inspire our minds and emotions to suddenly engage in real world issues relating to science, ethics, or philosophy. And it can do so because, at the best of times, it expands our minds rather than merely inflames our emotions, and lets us be magnanimous with our empathy. I suddenly cared about chimps because I cared about Caesar.

If we can care about the alien, the robot, the mutant, or the genetically altered intelligent animal, then we can surely experience empathy towards another human being whose national origin, religion, or ideology is different than ours. If we can find ourselves engaged with the issues of, say, apes, then we can find ourselves engaged with the issues that are of concern to our real-life neighbors. That may sound idealistic, and it is. However, I believe in the power of fiction, and know that it can do much more than simply entertain.

In Which I Greatly Enjoy an Ape Uprising, But Am Bothered By Hollywood Geography

In San Francisco, Science Fiction on October 22, 2011 at 11:15 am

I finally saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes last night, and quite liked it. Much more than I thought, actually. The big climactic battle scene on the Golden Gate Bridge was probably the most entertaining thing I’ve seen on a movie screen in some time. A gorilla totally messes up a helicopter, and it’s spectacular.

Also, Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as Caesar, the chimp protagonist, was absolutely brilliant. The movie won my respect in that it told a story about a character who communicated almost entirely using facial expressions and body language. Caesar was vivid and well defined in the same way that WALL-E was, in that the filmmakers were forced to show, not tell. RotPotA uses CGI to tell a story, not to simply dazzle the viewer with effects.

That said, I had two small, quibbling issues with the movie. The first was a dumb, tacked-on story about humanity getting wiped out by an artificial supervirus, as opposed to a nuclear war, like in the original movies. This plot element takes place almost entirely after the credits, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was hastily added in post-production as a rushed afterthought.

The other issue, though, was about San Franciscan geography. I enjoyed that the movie took place in a real American city as opposed to Any Town, U.S.A. What’s more, it took place in San Francisco, where I’ve spent a fair amount of time, and the big fight scene was on one of my favorite landmarks.

What bothered, me, though, was that my familiarity with San Franciscan geography kind of impeded my enjoyment of the movie. Towards the climax, Caesar and his gang of simian compatriots break out of a primate holding facility in San Bruno, south of San Fancisco. They climb up a hill and then look over the city.

After that, they’re suddenly breaking apes out of the San Francisco zoo. The zoo is on the western side of SF’s peninsula. According to Google maps it’s about twelve miles away from San Bruno. It sort of strains credibility that a horde of apes could go twelve miles in a big city and not be noticed, but okay…

Then, suddenly, they’re in downtown SF, up in the NE corner of the city. That’s about eight miles away. So, at this point the apes have covered over twenty miles of territory in a single afternoon, and so far not much of a response. As they are messing up downtown, Caesar espies the mighty Golden Gate Bridge.

I want to emphasize that even as I’m picking it apart, I really enjoyed the hell out of this movie. When the Golden Gate comes into the frame, though it’s as if the director is saying “Apes! To the widely recognized national landmark! Let’s have the climax THERE!” Because the climax couldn’t happen on Market Street or something. No one recognizes that.

The Golden Gate isn’t really near Downtown SF, though. The apes have to go another four miles through the Presido to get there. We don’t see that. It’s just downtown San Francisco and then BOOM! Golden Gate.t be on, you know, Market Street or something. It has to be on a landmark. If anyone were to ever bother with filming a movie in South Dakota, you can bet that the ultimate fight scene would take place at Mount Rushmore.

After that the apes are instantly in the Muir Woods, about ten miles away. I know I’m a stickler here, but quite frankly a horde of apes could not successfully cross through over forty miles of a populated area. The movie was so good, though, that I (almost) didn’t care.

I realize that movies and TV compress geography. In RotPatA, San Bruno, the zoo, downtown, and the Golden Gate are all close by because they need to be for the plot to happen. I get that. I also get that people who live in New York or LA are probably annoyed by how Hollywood has crunched and mangled their geography to a weird degree, with characters probably showing up at vastly unrelated locations on a regular basis.

This almost, almost makes me want to watch Zero Effect or Foxfire, just so I can see how movies have similarly cut up and re-edited Portland’s streets. Probably horribly, because no one out side of this city would care where things actually are.

In Which I Rant Angrily About a Particular Feature of StarCraft II

In Rants, Science Fiction, Video Games on February 17, 2011 at 10:18 pm
After a long, long wait, I recently purchased StarCraft II. Yes, I know it came out last year, but I only recently got a computer capable of running it. The game is great. It is absolutely everything I wanted out of a StarCraft sequel. I even love that it’s not even the complete game- that we have to wait for Zerg and the Protoss campaigns. Knowing that there’s more there adds excitement.

However, there’s one thing that I don’t like at all about StarCraft II. One thing that I find almost inexcusably loathsome. Horrible. Hideous. Disgustingly terrible.
I hate, hate, hate, hate that it’s an online game. Or rather, I hate that it has to be one. I have no problem with Battle.net, Blizzard’s multiplayer network. In fact, I kind of love it. I love that it matches players of like skill level and that you can import Facebook friends. I love that there are all kinds of achievements that you can get to decorate your profile. I love how easy it makes online gaming.
But I don’t want to have to be there.
It is impossible to play StarCraft II without logging into Battle.net. This is distasteful. Right now, I’m playing through the single player campaign, yet every time I start up the game, I have to log into Battle.net, and that offends my sensibilities. This is not because I don’t like Battle.net- it is a veritable strategy game paradise- but because StarCraft II is so closed and locked-down, it might as well have been designed by Apple.
There is no option to play on a LAN. This is repulsively horrid. I have fond memories of playing SC on my dorms LAN back in college. It’s ridiculous that a multiplayer game won’t allow for such things- multiplayer games and LANs are practically synonymous.
Mods and whatnot will be much more difficult to implement. I’ve played quite a bit of Civilization IV, and that game was greatly enriched by Fall From Heaven, a fantasy-based mod. Several other player-made mods (sometimes of dubious quality) abounded on the Civ forums, and the old copy of Unreal Tournament that I’ve got socked away on an old hard drive is very heavily modded with all kinds of ridiculous add-ons and extra widgets.
I also very much believe that games should be playable for an indefinite period of time. If you get a copy of Risk, for example, that game is playable as long as you have all the pieces. Likewise, if you were to get an old NES you could fire up any old cartridge you wanted and it would still function. Games that are dependent on online support don’t have this. StarCraftII demands that you authenticate it with Blizzard in order to work. I know that some enterprising hacker will find a way around this, but it’s terrible that if in thirty years there’s no more Blizzard, those old SCII discs will be unplayable as-is. Old NES cartridges and copies of Risk, on the other hand, will still work fine.
I guess I’m starting to sound like Corey Doctrow or some other anti-DRM digital web-libertarian type. I’ve all but shouted “screws, not glue!” I do believe in that sort of thing. I do believe that once you own something, you should do with it as you please, and that games, after money is exchanged, should be play-withable without a lot of mandatory interference from their makers. And, it’s not that I don’t like Battle.net. But, as beautiful, as wonderful, and as expertly engineered as it is- it should be optional. 

A Pretty Okay Daft Punk Video: What I Thought of the New Tron Movie

In Movies, Music, Science Fiction on December 19, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Given that I had a previous post on Tron, I feel bound to offer up a few thoughts about the new movie, which I saw last night.

It was highly adequate. There were a few good thing about it, and a few less good things as well. I’m just going to do a rundown of them. Spoilers ahoy!

Good Stuff:

-Jeff Bridges. Had Bridges not appeared as Flynn, the movie would have very little reason to exist. His being there made it seem more like a “real” Tron movie, and not just an attempt to cash in on geeky nostalgia (even though it is totally that). I loved it that Bridges played the older Flynn as basically an all-purpose Jedi/Buddha/Jesus/The Dude sort of character, an old man with crazy powers in the Grid akin to that of some kind of wizard/god. Also, seeing him digitally de-aged was a neat party trick. I’m sure that it will look terrible and dated in five years, but I enjoyed it for the time being.

-The movie is beautiful. Stunning. Shiny. Dazzling. Electrifying. It is an eye-poppingly wonderful calvacade of cool visuals. The lights and sets and costumes are all fantastically extravagant and orderly all at once. The aesthetic of Tron seems to be that there is a profusion of energy and color, and it is all tightly controlled. It is ecstatically mechanistic, like a choreographed rave. I wish there was a more positive word for “soulless” because the machine-world of Tron is soulless and gorgeous in the best way possible.

-Likewise, the soundtrack by Daft Punk is excellent. There are very few movies where, upon hearing the soundtrack, I think “I would like to hear that in a context outside of this movie.” This was one of them.

-References to other films were nice. Flynn’s apartment outside of the Grid resembles the apartment at the end of 2001, and at one point he quotes War Games saying “the only way to win is to not play.” Bridges also seemed very conscious of his most famous character, The Dude, and put more than a little Big Lebowski flavor into Flynn.

…And that, unfortunately, kind of does it for the really good stuff.

Less Than Good Stuff:

-The action sequences hit their marks, but they weren’t all that thrilling or memorable. While I didn’t find myself groaning or disliking them, they weren’t incredible.

-Garrett Hedlund, the guy who played Sam Flynn, was dry, bland, and didn’t really seem like his father’s son. He was too preppy and well-coiffed, too much of a nice, clean leading man. Also, the part where he parachutes off of the skyscraper is just dumb.

-Olivia Wilde (Quorra) also didn’t thrill me, but she was very nice to look at.

-I didn’t imagine I’d ever think, while watching a movie, that it needed more Bruce Boxleitner. Tron: Legacy, though really did need precisely that. Tron himself appears several times in the movie, but always wearing a black face mask that completely obscures his features. Normally, I’d just think that this was the kind of cheap trick that a director would use if they couldn’t get a given actor for their movie, but Boxleitner appears as Tron’s creator, Alan, early in the film. He also shows up as Tron in a flashback. He could have totally whipped off the mask for a big dramatic reveal! I was expecting that. Not having that there was strange and aggravating.

-Oftentimes, the movie was way too talky and self-important. Instead of dramatic it seemed staid.

-The filmmakers seem to have forgotten that Tron is supposed to happen inside of a computer. The Grid is portrayed as a kind of alternate dimension. In the original film, Tron & Co. were inside of a specific computer system. They don’t explicitly contradict this, but it bugged me somewhat.

All in all, the movie wasn’t great unless you were already a Tron fan, and even then, it was only kind of okay. I’m sort of nervous that the franchise (which had once been a nice little piece of cult nostalgia) is going to get crushed under a new wave of sequels and spin offs. I saw Star Wars get revived, only to be crushed to death by its resurrection. That franchise is in a state of deeper necrosis than it ever was precisely because things were added to it. I don’t want the same thing to happen to Tron.

On the other hand, I did love all the pretty glowy lights set to Daft Punk.

Goodbye, Blank Slate or What I Think About That New Tron Movie Coming Out

In Movies, Science Fiction, Video Games on December 7, 2010 at 6:22 pm

It is occasionally alarming how much geek culture is defined by nostalgia. Watching Star Trek or Star Wars or the rest of it does not make me me think of the future or possibility or sweeping vistas of the world of tomorrow. Instead it calls to mind childhood and adolescent comfort, something familiar, tested, and proven. They are narratives and artifacts that don’t have to stand up to the rigors of contemporary scrutiny. Why should they? They carry so much emotional cache.

The fact remains, though, that they don’t transport me to the future. They transport me to the 1990s.

Nostalgia pieces by definition wistful, and bring to mind forgiving smiles and gentle rationalizations of their flaws. An object of nostalgia might appear simple, but we justify it by saying that it was from a simpler time. Effects were less sophisticated. Budgets were lower. Audiences weren’t as savvy. That’s what we tell ourselves to excuse Luke Skywalkers’s ludicrous comment about “power converters,” or to justify transparently cheap monster costumes.
Nostalgia is not bad or wrong per se, but it is warm and unchallenging. It is easy to idealize the objects that produce it, to put layers upon them and add dimensions that are not there. In almost every incident, the idea of the nostalgic item is much better than the work itself.
Which brings me to Tron.
Tron blew my fucking mind. I don’t remember how old I was when I first watched it. Maybe eleven? Twelve? I don’t really know. But there were glowy lights on everything and it was about a guy who got zapped into a computer and, man, that was cool. The guy had to play computer games inside of a computer! C’mon- how neat is that? There were tanks and motorcycles and everything was covered in neon because back then that’s what the future looked like.
I watched it again in college, and, much to my surprise, found that I still liked it. Last year I actually got my ex-girlfriend to watch it and she had to concede that the movie that her geeky, overenthusiastic boyfriend had recommended to her was “kind of fun.”
And it is. Tron, though, is quite a simple movie. There isn’t much to it, really. Why is the Master Control Program so evil? He just is. Why is Tron the good guy? He just is. How is it that Tron’s disc will bring about a new order on the grid? It’s a MacGuffin- just go with it.
Tron is a very pretty movie with an okay plot. Fortunately, it seems that the filmmakers knew that. Tron is shallow, but has no pretension to depth. It is thin, but does not pretend to be substantive. The ultimate message of Tron is, really “Hey, look! Shiny computers! Whee!” This is all well and good, and makes it the perfect nostalgia piece.
Because Tron is so basic, it’s completely possible for a thirty-year-old geek like me to invest it with all kinds of layers and awesomeness as I wistfully recall it. Fans like me can imagine any sort of drama or depth we want of Tron, because the movie is ultimately just a bunch of cool blinky lights and zoomy computer game action. In lots of ways its a blank slate that we can project all kinds of affection and imagination onto. The idea of Tron is oftentimes better than Tron the actual movie. If it were to come out now as an original film, it would probably be dismissed as readily as Avatar was by people who actually care about science fiction.
Disney has decided to cash in on the widespread affection and nostalgia for Tron and release a sequel later this month, nearly three decades later. Like many other genre fans, I’m completely geeking out about this and probably will fork over the extra cash to see this thing in 3D. However, once the sequel comes out, a certain amount of the nostalgic “oomf” of the original is going to get taken away. Tron will cease to become an object of nostalgic affection, and turn into a franchise.
With that, it will go from being something that can be vague and unspecified, to something specific. It will no longer exist primarily in the minds and emotions and memories of fans- instead it will be an actual thing, separate from their feelings and ideas of of the original. Tron won’t be something that belongs to fans anymore, a pop-culture byword that recalls shared experiences of wonderment about computers. Instead, it will become the first movie in what is likely to be a series. We won’t have a blank slate to play with anymore. The idea of Tron will be gone, and in its place there will just be Tron.
This does not bother me too much. Later this month, though, I’m going to buy a movie ticket, put on a pair of 3D glasses, and a little bit of my nostalgia and geeky affection for Tron will be gone forever.

Live, Real Star Trek: "A Group of People Dating Back to the 1990s…"

In Science Fiction, Theater on July 14, 2010 at 3:31 pm

This is mostly about Star Trek, yes (as you can surmise from the accompanying illustration). But, bear with me as I digress for a moment about Star Wars.

Long ago, in the before time, I remember an era when Star Wars was still cool. In that time (the late 1990s) the movies were re-released in theaters, albeit with modernized special effects and additional footage. I remember sitting in a theater as an exuberant teenage, excited to see it all on the big screen. The audience whooped and applauded, laughed and hollered with raucous energy as the movie went on. Darth Vader was greeted with hoots and people shouting “yeah!” and a wave of applause went up when the Death Star exploded.

One of the biggest reactions from the audience, though, was towards the beginning. I remember it very clearly. Luke, kvetching to his uncle, says that he wants to go to Toshi Station with his friends and “pick up some power converters.”

The audience roared with laughter, applause, and general appreciation. It’s probably one of the cheesiest lines in Star Wars, and brings to mind all manner of B-movie derision. Luke’s line sounds precisely what some hack writer would think up to tell the audience “Hey, guys! We’re in a futuristic universe here!” and given what we know about George Lucas, that’s probably exactly what it was.

Nevertheless, the audience cheered with very real affection. The transparent artifice of the line did not stop them from loving it. If anything, it was the reason that they roared with approval.

I was reminded of that moment last weekend when I saw Trek in the Park, an event wherein a Portland theater troupe performs an episode of the original Star Trek live. I went to it last year and enjoyed myself, so there was no way I was going to miss it this time around.

Like last year, it was loads of fun. The particular episode they performed was Space Seed, better known as “the one with Khan in it.” The thing about the performance that reminded me of Luke’s legendarily groan-worthy line, was that Khan is from the 1990s. When Star Trek was aired in the sixties, I suppose that the nineties were still distant and future-y enough to write science fiction stories about. According to the original Star Trek timeline, Earth apparently got into an enormous eugenics war in the late twentieth century, bred a bunch of supermen, developed interstellar travel (but without FTL) and generally devolved into chaos. Space Seed contains several references to this, and to “the twentieth century” in general.

A few choice lines:

Much older. DY-100 class, to be exact. Captain, the last such vessel was built centuries ago, back in the 1990s.”

“Seventy two alive. A group of people dating back to the 1990s. A discovery of some importance, Mister Spock. There are a great many unanswered questions about those years.”

“With simple nuclear-powered engines, star travel was considered impractical at that time.”

“Earth was on the verge of a dark ages. Whole populations were being bombed out of existence.”

“[Khan’s] age would be correct. In 1993, a group of these young supermen did seize power simultaneously in over forty nations.”

“From 1992 through 1996, [Khan was] absolute ruler of more than a quarter of your world. From Asia through the Middle East.”

…and so on.

The performers, though, made absolutely no attempt to cover up how unashamedly retro this all was. If anything they reveled in it. Much like that crowd at the screening of Star Wars who had such a great reaction to Luke’s ultra-cheesy line, the crowd lapped up with verve and amusement any reference to the nineties, and anything else hokey or otherwise dated. On top of that, a full complement of electronic music and woo-woo sound effects accompanied the performance. All through the production music that would have been massively futuristic fifty years ago hummed away.

What was weird is that the hokey stuff really made it all better. The concession to genre, anachronism, and borderline kitsch seemed to alchemically combine into something that was, actually, very awesome. Had they attempted to modernize the production or play it straight, it wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable. Nor do I think (and this is what I find sort of weird) I wouldn’t have been nearly as emotionally invested in what was going on.

I am fascinated by an audience’s ability to laugh at something for being silly, hokey, and sort of dumb; but at the same time be utterly charmed and on board with it. Nearly every single person there was utterly into how, well, Star Trek-y it all was, how a piece of sixties SF was walking and talking right in front of us. We were rooting for it because it was anachronistic, full of genre conventions, and of its. Not despite those things. We can laugh at the absurdity of another time without mocking it, regard artifacts as absurd and all the while wholeheartedly embrace them.

Awesome Thing: Moon

In Awesome Things, Movies, Science Fiction on May 20, 2010 at 11:18 am

I’ve added categories to this blog, and after doing so realized that I tend to blog quite a bit about media. No surprise there. I’ve decided to intermittently endorse various things that are not necessarily current, stuff that I enjoy for some reason or another. All of these will be under the “Awesome Things” category. Here’s my first non-current endorsement, Moon.

I’ve been meaning to blog about Moon for quite some time now. You really ought to watch it. I don’t want to give away too much about it, but was far and away one of the best science fiction stories that I’ve seen or read in a long, long time.

When I was a kid, I devoured Asimov, Clarke, and Dick’s short stories. I checked out collections of Hugo-winning short stories and novellas, and devoured them with gusto. Science fiction, I think, is uniquely suited to the short story. Brief narratives can be built around a single interesting idea, a nice little “what if…” scenario that can put a human face on speculation and abstraction.
Moon reminded me a great deal of those stories by Asimov & Co. The film is science fiction in the traditional sense, starting from a speculative scenario of what it would be like to live by yourself in a station on the moon. It goes from there, with Sam Rockwell having no one to talk to except himself and his computer buddy voiced by Kevin Spacey.
I wish I could talk more about the plot. I really do, but I don’t want to spoil a thing about it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. There is a twisty moment in the middle, but something that I really, really love about the movie is that the further sci-fi weirdness is used as a departure point, not a conclusion. When the audience does find out about a given futuristic oddity in the world of Moon, the movie does not just say “PRESTO!” and leave it at that. Instead, it actually develops the weirdness, exploring it just like good science fiction should.
Moon reminded me of all the reasons I love science fiction. It reminded me why I love speculation and wonder, why I think that “what if…” is a great question to ask, why I devoured all those short stories, and why I wanted to be a sci-fi writer when I was younger. (Actually, I still sort of want to be a sci-fi writer sometimes…) It is everything good and neato and smart and clever about the genre, and it reminded me not that I love stories about space and robots, but why I came to love them in the first place.