Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘sci-fi

Ending my readings on Ender before the ending

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As I noted recently ([1]), I was in the process of reading Orson Scott Card’s “Ender” saga. Half-way through the third book, I have given up on it, in the wake of the big family fight. There are simply too many too self-righteous characters, too much pontificating, too large swaths of that annoying attempted analytical inner monologue that plague many poor writers. At the same time, the limits of the author’s thoughts appear, as he tries to write the thoughts of great geniuses.

*As when character A internally analyses the exact motivations of character B or the exact implications of situation C, in a detail which borders on the laughable, because it takes one set of possibilities and turns them into (misperceived) certainties—and often a set of possibilities that is not even the single most likely set.

Looking at the first book (“Ender’s Game”) as a standalone effort, it had an interesting, original, and well-executed main storyline, excepting the limited plausibility of young children being the best choices for the task at hand. However, the Locke/Peter and Demosthenes/Valentine storyline did more to detract than to enrich, the discovery of a surviving queen-to-be-saved was cheesy and detracted further, and the level of character-genius involved might simply have been too high. Even the six-year old version of Ender might have moved at or above the level of the average adult in terms of intelligence, which might then have implied an (age-peer) I.Q. approaching 300. His siblings certainly reached the genius standard for adults even at ten and twelve (or thereabouts), which, again, likely brings us to an (age-peer) I.Q. above 200, maybe in the direction of 300. Such creatures would ultimately be so beyond comprehension by even regular geniuses that fiction about them borders on the pointless. (Indeed, writing about alien species makes much more sense, as the author can create these freely, without the restrictions of reality that writing about humans pose. There might even be room to discuss how well Card writes non-genius characters.)

The second (“Speaker for the Dead”) is very different, taking off thousands of years later, but also quite interesting in some aspects, especially relating to how different various life-forms and cultures can be.* Both Demosthenes/Valentine and the queen-to-be-saved play a larger part, and do add more value than in book one, raising the question of how much the author might have planned in advance. (Locke/Peter was long dead.) The supposed great revelations** about the “murders” and the piggie-to-tree transition fall flat, however. I contemplated similar ideas at a comparatively early stage, and it strikes me as ridiculous that several highly intelligent scientists, who spent years or decades living with these events, would have failed to even consider the possibility throughout that time. (See [1] for some minor additional information on the book.)

*However, I do not necessarily consider these parts biologically realistic.

**I am often annoyed by authors putting in supposedly great revelations that are far from it. In some cases, if not here, this includes things that are obvious to the thinking reader, at least as a possibility. This is particularly annoying when a character supposedly of great mental powers fails to see something over a prolonged period of time. (Another possible case in this book series is the “not a simulation” revelation from the first book. Unfortunately, I already knew this from the movie and cannot judge the book fairly, but I do know that I caught on faster than Ender did in the movie.)

The first half of the third (“Xenocide”) had some points of interest in the “godspoken”, OCD sufferers construed as influenced by the gods, but otherwise was lacking in something worthwhile and new relative the second book. (A standalone book focusing on the world of Path and the godspoken might have been a better investment of both the author’s and the readers’ time.) Meanwhile, the flaws discussed in the first paragraph grew out of hand.

Excursion on plausibilities:
In a work of science fiction, some suspension of disbelief is natural, e.g. in that it is accepted as “within the rules” that someone can go from point A to point B faster than a light beam could.* However, this suspension should be limited to areas where it makes sense, not extended to any and all aspects, and there must be some degree of consistency. Here, Card repeatedly strikes me as weak. Consider the idea** of ansibles, which allow instantaneous communication—even between ansibles in radically different co-moving frames. These, however, will not agree on what events are simultaneous, making the idea of instantaneous communication nonsensical and/or a source of paradox (within an even approximately Einsteinian universe). It does not help that the attempted explanation for how they work makes quantum entanglement seem like a triviality.

*Assuming that a sufficiently consistent and plausible solution is available (cf. the rest of the excursion). For instance, some type of wormhole-based portal might achieve this without exceeding the speed of light, thereby avoiding the complications predicted by current physics. Creating such a portal might put a heavy stress on the “fiction” part of “science fiction” and might even be a source of causality complications, but it is not something that is obviously and manifestly out of bounds. (In comparison with ansibles above, note that “instantaneous” and “ridiculously fast” are not the same thing.)

**Not his idea originally, but he makes very ample use of it, and the ansibles are crucial to several important aspects of and developments in the books.


Written by michaeleriksson

September 20, 2022 at 7:14 pm

“Star Wars” update

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Following my negative review of Episode VII and my skepticism-based-on-Wikipedia concerning Episode VIII, I just caught up with (the recently released) Episode IX on Wikipedia. If anything, my impression is even worse, and I will probably ignore any further efforts within this franchise entirely—as I have indeed ignored e.g. “Rogue One” and have watched nothing past Episode VII.

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January 4, 2020 at 3:19 pm

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A few points concerning the movie “Anon”

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I recently watched the movie “Anon”, which follows a police detective working in a police system (and society in general) highly dependent on implants that capture and modify the visual* impressions of the populace—like a mixture of “built-in” smart glasses and some of my own satiric suggestions ([1]).

*I am uncertain to what degree other senses were involved.

While the movie as a whole is not that great, it demonstrates several conceivable future dangers.

Of these the possibly most noteworthy are those present in [1]—or how a state like that could come into being*: Take “smart glasses”, make it an implant, connect it to the cloud, allow the police increasingly greater access to that cloud or even the implants themselves, and a nightmare scenario could very easily manifest it self.

*The movie it self gives no (in universe) historical background; however, the speculation is fairly obvious.

Another issue touched upon repeatedly in my own writings is the low value of digital evidence: Whatever is stored*, transmitted, replayed, …, digitally can be manipulated, usually very easily, in order to give an incorrect impression. This applies not just to obvious items, e.g. entries in the access log of a server or the presence of illegal contents on a private hard-drive, but increasingly extends even to e.g. video capture**. Even the (extraordinarily naive and absolutely intolerable) assumption that law-enforcement personnel would never manipulate evidence is not enough to remedy this problem, nor is the strictest tracking*** by “chain of evidence”, because there is no guarantee that manipulations have not taken place through a third party.

*There is an availability of write-only storage that to some degree could remedy this. However, this presumes that write-only storage actually is used (which can be impractical for e.g. cost reasons and the inability to re-use storage); does not help against manipulations during retrieval of the data; and can be circumvented by simply copying the one write-only storage unit to an identical unit, making only the wanted modifications, and then proclaiming the modified copy to be the original.

**To achieve sufficiently high-quality manipulations or forgeries today is rarely practical. However, at the rate CGI has advanced over the years, we will eventually (likely: soon) reach a point where anyone with even a semi-powerful enemy could be at risk. (Whether we ever reach a state where a single skilled individual can achieve this with at most a few hours work, as implied in the movie, I leave unstated. However, given enough time, that too might be the case.)

***Especially since such tracking would almost certainly be largely digital…

Anonymity and privacy, even outside police work, is another important theme (as might be surmised from the title): Walking along a street and being able to see the names, occupations, whatnot of the other pedestrians might be interesting and useful—but the same applies in reverse. I, myself, certainly would not be comfortable with that. Extrapolate it a bit further, and assume that (drawing on the current U.S.) someone who once was caught peeing in the park has a “sex offender” sign displayed over his head, or that (drawing on Nazi-Germany) Jews, homosexuals, whatnot come with their own warning signs. What if a direct connection with e.g. a Facebook account is made, and passers-by can extract almost arbitrary information, e.g relationship status, at will? Recall e.g. a recent assault over a mistaken identity; or note how easy it is for someone rooting for the wrong team or supporting the wrong party to be beaten up, if encountering the wrong crowd—or consider how information on income can affect the risk of being robbed or pick-pocketed.

From another perspective, consider the ability to replay the capture of previous sights—including e.g. love making. We could argue that that which we have once seen should be ours to see again—and I would mostly agree. However, it is easy to find special cases where this is highly disputable, e.g. when someone accidentally walks in on someone else who is having sex or otherwise being naked: It would not be unreasonable for the observed party to demand a deletion. Certainly, a kept recording might give far greater opportunity of observing details than the original (typically) brief flash. Similarly, there is a wide consensus that filming sex with a partner without consent is unacceptable—but what happens when everyone has a built-in camera? To boot, others can wish for even stricter criteria—I have, e.g., seen the opinion (but disagree) that even consensually filmed material must be destroyed after a break-up or that voluntarily given intimate images must be returned.

These problems are by no means limited to physical acts and nakedness: Consider e.g. the ban on cameras (including on cell-phones and notebooks) in many offices and factories. Or consider someone having a private conversation on which a third-party can now far more easily listen in*.

*An early scene showed even the near-inaudible dialogue of some passers-by being translated directly to text.

Alternatively, consider the invasion of privacy implied by a spouse’s or parent’s request to see a certain section of recording (“Where were you last night?!?”)*: Show it and lose privacy; do not show it and the worst will be suspected. (A similar situation is discussed in a text on lies under oath.) An interesting twist is provided by two (real life) parents who are repeatedly in the news for trying to get access to a deceased daughter’s Facebook account: What if this scenario is replaced by parents/spouses/children/whatnot who gain access to their deceased children’s/spouses’/parents’/whatnot implant data, including extensive recordings?

*It is my strong personal belief that even children relative their parents and spouses relative each other have a right to a considerably degree of privacy; however, even those who do not (e.g. an over-protective parent or a wife who fails to understand that the members of a couple are still different people) must realize that there can be areas where a legitimate need for such privacy can exist: Not everything that the one party wants to keep secret is necessarily harmful to the other, morally wrong, or susceptible to the (pseudo-)argument “the innocent have nothing to fear”. Consider e.g. a husband giving a female friend some help strictly for reasons of friendship, and a wife who has a history of jumping to (incorrect) conclusions about cheating.

Then again, we have anonymity (respectively lack thereof) in the frame of police work. I have earlier (notably in [2]) objected to e.g. computer searches for reasons like the presence of highly personal material and private information, as well as the risk that material that in theory would only be accessed by the police might leak out. What if the information collected includes basically everything seen or done by someone? (Including sex acts, intimate conversations, confidential business meetings, …)

Then there is the issue of hacking and security: Not only does this provide yet another channel through which private information can leak, but it also adds the risk of damaging interventions. For instance, the movie showed examples of visual input being sufficiently manipulated, in real time, that the victim could not rely on his eye sight. With this level of technology, it would be easy to e.g. have someone just walk into oncoming traffic. However, even with abilities more realistic by today’s standards, great harm can be caused, e.g. by having textual information altered to imply that another party is sleeping with the own spouse. Looking at self-driving cars, with similar vulnerabilities and a greater current realism, we could have a hostile entity manipulate a car into taking actions that lead to a car crash, a run-over pedestrian, or some other calamity. (See also e.g. [3].)

On the other hand, if external access is technically and legally sufficiently limited, there can be a great upside to some of the technologies. Consider e.g. re-running a business meeting or a lecture to refresh a failing memory; re-living an enjoyable moment; or (most enticing to me) re-visiting a portion of prior life to have another look at how things were back then or how one has developed or not developed, what lessons can be drawn and what could have been done differently, etc.

As an aside, it is depressing that while we live in a time when privacy and anonymity are more urgent than ever before (for the simple reason that they are so much easier to violate), legislation and other “government behavior” shows a broad trend towards weakening both. The fear of terrorism and organized crime makes this partially understandable; but not only do the “big bads” have far greater means to circumvent such legislation than the average citizen, the measures are often obviously intended against crimes of any kind. Both these factors point strongly towards the damage done being greater than the benefits gained. What we need is the reverse trend—and this not only with regard to the government, but also to strengthen protection against e.g. profile-building private enterprises, for instance by making it possible to order even physical to-be-delivered goods (close to) anonymously and by removing antiquated laws like the German requirement for a hotel guest to register with full and real name and address.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 30, 2018 at 12:17 am

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A few thoughts on and around the Back to the Future movies

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I am currently re-watching the “Back to the Future” movies. A few observations:

  1. 2015, the part of the future actually shown in the movies, is come and gone in real life—and looked nothing like the fictional depiction. 1985 was closer to the real-life 2015 than the fictional 2015 was, and the same might* even, conceivably, apply to 1955.

    *1955 definitely feels more familiar, even though I was born twenty years later; however, this is possibly explained by my exposure to other fiction set in a similar time, or through deviations between the real and fictional 1955s.

    This is paralleled by other sci-fi works, in that they are often quite bad at guessing what the future will bring, often simply taking the trends and technology of the author’s now and extrapolating them optimistically (or pessimistically…) into some point of the future.* These trends, however, will usually diminish, cease, or even revert over time, depending on the type of trend**. At the same time, this method will not be a good means to discover e.g. new technologies. For instance, the average sci-fi author (or citizen, in general) of the 1960s might be horribly disappointed by the current state of space travel—but equally positively surprised by the Internet. To boot, there can be obstacles of a more practical, legal, societal, whatnot, nature that are not taken into account. Consider e.g. the flying cars of pseudo-2015: Making a flying car was technologically (but not necessarily economically) feasible even in 1985, but consider the ramifications on traffic accidents, the new opportunities for criminals and terrorists, or the problems with keeping the noise down to a tolerable level. Even if we had affordable flying cars ready to roll out of the factory tomorrow, there would be years before regulations, infrastructure, and whatnot, caught up.

    *This should not necessarily be seen as a criticism: In some cases this could be the result of naivete or laziness; in others it might be a mere lack of clairvoyance or a deliberate attempt to critique the contemporary society. In the specific case of the “Back to the Future” franchise, the choices made were likely strongly motivated by humor and the wish to create a future that was easy for a movie-goer from 1985 to relate to.

    **For instance, microchips have continued to grow smaller while the stereotypical 1980s’ fashion is long gone.

    Another complication is obviously that some things naturally change slowly, as exemplified by the clock tower that was present in 1955, 1985, and 2015—and actually saw its beginnings in 1885: Buildings are occasionally replaced en masse, but more often they experience a gradual change that often even puts buildings from different centuries next to each other. The furniture of a home is usually bought at some point, and then only changes a little here-and-there over a few decades—and usually includes inherited objects of even greater age. The hair-style of many people in their eighties often come close to what it was in their twenties, leaving a wide mixture in overall society. Most people do not drive “this year’s” car model, usually keeping their old car for as long as it is feasible. Etc.

  2. Time truly does fly—even if the cars still do not. I actually had planned to write something on this topic in 2015, but never got around to it because time flew too fast… A more timely and possibly even more interesting example from my personal point of view is “Grease”: This movie plays in 1958, was released in 1978, was first seen by me in 1998 (a twentieth anniversary re-release), and now we have 2018… 1998 does not quite feel like yesterday, but if twenty years go past this fast, twentieth anniversaries are hardly worth the trouble. In contrast, in 1998, I still thought of 1978 as half-an-eternity back, seeing that it was way back when I was still three years old. (More generally, the older I have become, the shorter time intervals have appeared, something which well matches what I have heard from people who actually are old—not just older.)
  3. “Back to the Future” commits the possibly most common and largest single error in time-travel fiction: It assumes that when the time line changes, the people remain* the same while society, their respective position in society, whatnot changes. Of course, the people already born at the point when the time-line changes will remain in existence**, but very soon after the change, there will be virtually no overlap between the people born in the two time-lines: For a certain person to be born, it is not enough that the same two parents land in bed, we have to see basically that one single sperm fertilizing that one single egg. Even the most minuscule of changes will cause that to not happen. (Also cf. parts of some previous discussions.)

    *The treatment within the franchise could be seen as inconsistent, with the events of the first movie erasing people, and the events of the second and third leaving them in place. The hitch is that the first movie deals primarily with the specific event of Marty’s parents becoming or not becoming an item, which gives the difference a certain pseudo-justification. Unfortunately, it would not work that way in real life.

    **But will, obviously, experience a diverging set of events afterwards, potentially including a considerably earlier death, as was the case with Marty’s father in the second movie. An interesting play on this can found in the very promising TV series “Counterpart”, which depicts two alternate realities with a “Check-Point Charlie”-style crossing (and which is obviously strongly inspired by the old divided Berlin and the Cold War).

  4. The whole siblings-fading-from-a-photo thing is of course ridiculous, even if we assume that time travel is possible. By any reasonable rule-set* for time travel, it would be a binary either–or deal: Either the siblings are there or they are not. To boot, the same mechanism that would cause a sibling to fade from a photo would also cause a fade from memory under any reasonable rule-set. Marty would not be in the position to panic over the fate of his siblings for the simple reason that either he would not himself remember them or they would not disappear from the photo. For that matter, if the photo is altered then Marty would be altered too at the same time. Of course, since the eventual alteration is his own erasure, he would not worry about the photo irrespective of his memories—he would not only not remember, he would have ceased to exist. (As would the photo as a whole, not just the contents.)

    *By which I mean something that is logically consistent and at least somewhat plausible in other regards. A problem is, obviously, that we do not know what the real rules of time travel are. Also see an excursion at the end.

Excursion on time travel and paradox:
In my personal estimate, the three most likely resolutions to time travel and typical paradoxes are:

  1. Time travel is simply not possible and such paradoxes can, therefore, not arise.
  2. (The change in) causality would not take effect instantaneously along the time-line, instead traveling at the speed of 1 s/s (likely with some modifications for movements in space in accordance with the Lorentz transformations), preventing paradoxes through this delay. For instance, if someone goes back in time from 2018 to 1918 and kills his own grand-father, he will only be removed from 1918 after causality has reached the point of 2018 when he went back in time, leading to his grand-father being dead or surviving depending on where causality is. Eventually the grand-father is alive again, causing the grand-son to be born and allowing him to go back in time again, after which the grand-father is killed, and so on.

    This can to some degree be compared to a river where a small rivulet goes back from the main flow of the river at point A and re-enters the river at an earlier point B if the water level at point A is high enough, but where an the arrival of more water at point B causes the (possibly manual) diversion of even more water at an intervening point, implying that the water level at point A drops too low for water to flow back to point B, implying that the diversion ceases, etc. (A better example would use a river that actually changes course; however, I cannot come up with an immediate example that would not require twice the text to describe, and the preceding explanation is likely complicated enough.)

  3. The appearance of a time traveler in the past will still happen, even if his actions would have apparently prevented him from going back in time. This event simply stays happened and the apparent paradox is resolved by considering* the sum of the two time lines, one (using the example above) ending in 2018, one beginning in 1918, and their 100 years of overlap (but probably not simultaneous existence).

    *Theoretically: More practically speaking, this might be impossible to actually achieve, because of insufficient knowledge of the overlap. Possibly, the new timeline will just see a so-unlikely-as-to-be-virtual-impossible physical coincidence creating the time-traveler out of thin air.

    This can be compared to the same river with the alteration that the diversion does not cease again, when water levels drop.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 25, 2018 at 10:14 pm

A few thoughts on The Last Jedi (Star Wars Episode VIII)

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Having written a very negative review of the previous installment, I did something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: I decided to not watch the latest “Star Wars” sequel: The Last Jedi.

Out of curiosity, I did read the Wikipedia page earlier today. A few notes:

  1. The plot does not appear to be an improvement over the previous movie or to add anything original. (I note that one of my criticisms of he Episode VII was too much imitation of the older movies.)
  2. Luke gets more screen time in this movie, but part of this screen time consists of his death…

    Already last time around, I wrote “this is a liberty that a non-Lucas movie should simply not have taken” with regard to Han’s death—and now they kill off Luke Skywalker!?!?! Watch your back, Santa Claus—you are next!

    Seeing that Carrie Fisher has died in real life, this movie is also likely the end of the line for Leia. With that, the remaining connection to the older movies is only Chewbacca and the droids. (Or do I overlook someone?)

    As to the screen-time issue, it is hard to judge the amount from Wikipedia, but I would speculate that Luke’s is still comparatively short. Leia “is incapacitated” early on and, while she reappears in the text towards the end, her part is likely quite small.

  3. A major plot-point appears to be a mental connection between Rey and Kyle, leading to them briefly becoming allies and Kyle killing Snoke instead of Rey*, extending mutual offers of “join me and …”, and then parting as enemies.

    *Paralleling Vader and his killing of the Emperor instead of Luke. Sigh…

    Not promising. I note that my review of Episode VII said

    For the future, I just hope that there will be no absurd surprises like Rey being Kylo’s long lost sister or the daughter of Luke (hackneyed beyond belief), Rey being the true “chosen one” (invalidating the previous movies entirely), Kylo’s master actually being Luke using some form of projection, or similar. If any of that happens, well, then the film makers should simply be lined up against a wall and shot for criminal incompetence.

    This goes some way towards an “absurd surprise” in its own right, and it actually makes the sibling connection somewhat likely.

  4. Rey again beats Kyle in a fight, to which I re-iterate my criticism that

    The film-makers fail to understand that a villain that is too easy to defeat (and, vice versa, a hero that is too strong) is a liability. A good story has the hero winning despite being weaker, outnumbered, or otherwise having the odds against him/her. when the hero suddenly proves to be the stronger and the villain turns into an easy target (never mind a snivelling loser like Kylo)—that is just pointless.

As for the planet Ahch-To, I can only say “Gesundheit”.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2017 at 11:27 pm

Innovation over repetition in the movies (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets)

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Several earlier posts (cf. [1], [2], [3], and possibly others.) have dealt with themes like (over-)continuation of franchises; and I feel that much of the entertainment industry is caught in creative laziness and a greedful attempt to just squeeze as much money out the fame and popularity of existing works as possible.

That it can be done differently is proved by Luc Besson and his “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”*, which I finally got around to watching: Unlike e.g. the latest variations of the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” themes, he actually tries to do something new, bringing in fresh ideas and unusual takes, in a manner similar to what he did in “The Fifth Element” twenty years ago**. To boot, he does so in one of the most visually spectacular manners I have ever encountered. The whole movie appears to be driven by a wish to push the envelope as far as possible, e.g. with the “Big Market” or “Bubble” scenes.

*In all fairness, it is based on an older comic series, which technically makes it an example of another continuation/re-boot/medium change/whatnot. However, Besson’s intentions, going by reporting, are very different: Showing his own vision of a favorite childhood fiction—admiration and genuine interest rather than a wish for more money. (“The Fifth Element” is similar in this regard, except that it was described as originating in his own childhood creation/fantasies, rather than the original work of another.)

**These two movies have a lot in common and most of what I say about the one will apply, m.m., to the other. I mostly choose not to be explicit, to avoid cluttering. There are also some strong parallels with the two first “Star Wars” trilogies, like pushing the envelope, unbelievably impressive visuals (by the standards of the respective day), new weapons, …

Of course, the movie draws on the works and ideas of others (and/or independently comes up with ideas others have already used)—but not doing so in today’s world is nearly impossible. Here the question of execution and combination enters, and Besson sets news standards. Consider e.g. “Big Market”, a bazaar/society hidden from plain sight: Similar ideas are not uncommon in fiction, as e.g. with the “Troll Market” used in the “Trollhunters” and “Hell Boy” franchises—but combined with the concept of over-laying realities that only interact partially, and the execution that allows for great comedy and exciting action, we have something on a different level. Even so, there are a number of more simple ideas that I, personally, have never seen before, like the weigh-your-opponent-down gun used in “Big Market”.

Where others engage in unimaginative mass production, Besson sets new standards and has created what is the best sci-fi movie I have seen from this decade—far superior to e.g. the last “Star Wars” installment. This is how it should be done! I would rather have one movie like this every few years than a few generic continuations in one year.

Now, I am not saying that this movie has reached perfection. For instance, it is weak* in terms of “food for thought” (but that applies to almost all the block-busters in a similar genre; even if some more “artsy” sci-fi movies can be strong here). For instance, much of the overall plot is a typical variation of “world in danger; hero to the rescue; complications ensue” (again, the competition is rarely better; and the “complication” part is quite strong). For instance, the last half hour (or so) is considerably weaker than the preceding majority of the film, being less imaginative and more cartoonish than the rest—and the virtually immediate re-creation of the Pearl’s world, if on a smaller scale, reduces the impact of the previous losses on the viewers in an unfortunate manner.

*Among what is present, I note the ethical dilemma that led to the destruction of Mül, the situation and developments of the Pearls subsequent to that destruction, and several instances of having to weigh “the right thing” against orders (note the military setting) or personal loyalty vs. organizational loyalty. None of these, however, are given much real exposure, and the food-for-thought aspect is to some part neutralized through the fairly one-sided black-and-white takes on the issues. (For instance, even if we strongly disagree with the actions of Filitt, it still pays to try to understand what motivated him, and to contemplate whether we, in a similar situation, might have acted in the same manner.)

On the other hand, I am not certain that I share the common criticism of the cast: I agree that neither of the two leads put in extraordinary acting performances, but they fit the parts very well, have great on-screen chemistry, and contribute strongly to the overall effect. Chances are that a re-cast with more accomplished actors would have led to an inferior result; and I have a hard time even imagining the movie with different lead actors (just like e.g. the original “Star Wars”, but very much unlike “The Force Awakens”). Cara Delevingne is similar to several other Besson castings, notably Natalie Portman in “Leon”* and Milla Jovovich in “The Fifth Element”, in that the combination** of the character and the actress left me infatuated (which is comparatively rare with me). The rest of the cast is very mixed, but the characters of importance are mostly well played, if possibly a bit exaggerated.

*On the first watching, when I was just several years older than Portman’s character…

**Jovovich as Leeloo had me head over heels—but she has left me neutral or even slightly negative in the other movies I have seen her in. An interesting contrast is Olivia Hussey, the only other actress that has had that large an effect on me: She did it in at least two different works (“Romeo and Juliet” and “Ivanhoe”), and left me anything but cold in several others. (While comparatively unknown, she combined extraordinary beauty with amazing charm, beating even e.g. Audrey Hepburn in this combination.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 28, 2017 at 5:59 am

Discovery (Star Trek)

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I recently wrote about franchises, sequels, and when it was time to call it a day. A new “Star Trek” series, “Discovery”, following a long gap, brings this topic to my mind again.

TOS* ran for three seasons in the late 1960s. While possibly not very impressive by today’s standard (especially in terms of special effects…), it was a major advance on what had been done in the past and proved enduringly popular in syndication.

*“The Original Series”, a name established long after the original airings.

Apart from an animated series (that I have never seen and cannot judge), there was a drought of roughly ten years before the arrival of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”—which might have been the end of the franchise. This movie was not just highly disappointing*, it was also a poor effort outright, its value derived mostly from seeing more of the beloved characters.

*“Disappointing” in it self merely means that something does not match expectations. Unfortunately, words like “disappointing” and “overrated” are very often used or understood in a manner that ignores the relative aspect. Similarly, “better” and “best” do not automatically imply “good”.

Still, a second movie was made: “Wrath of Khan”, definitely one of the best sci-fi movies ever made till that date. And the ball kept rolling: The next two decades (or so) saw no less than four TV series and movie after movie. To boot, most* of these efforts were very enjoyable, with TNG** being a strong candidate for best sci-fi series of all times.

*The major exception is “Deep Space 9”, where I have on three separate occasions failed to even finish watching the first season.

**“The Next Generation”, the first of the new series.

At this point, we have a very good example of why continuing a franchise or giving second chances can be a good idea: What if the first, failed, movie attempt had been the end?

However, what has happened since gives an equally good example of why a franchise should sometimes be given a rest: The “reboot” movies by J. J. Abrams were not necessarily bad when viewed as disconnected efforts, but they break continuity severely*, and have a feel of high-quality fan fiction rather than a serious continuation. (See also my discussion of “The Force Awakens”, another J. J. Abrams failure.)

*To the point, and this is inexcusable, that most of what had previously been shown on screen was invalidated, simply no longer would happen. (Time travel caused severe changes to the time line.)

This brings us to the first new TV series past reboot: On the positive side, it is set before the events of the reboot (and TOS) meaning that it could still remain in the proper, original, continuity. Further, the “production value” is very high and the actors cast appear to be unusually strong. On the negative side, more or less everything else—I stopped watching half-way through the third episode.

To look at some specific problems:

  1. The main character, Michael Burnham:

    She* is a Human** raised as Vulcan, by now following a hackneyed pattern of an “unusual” heritage that includes Spock (half-Human, half-Vulcan), Belana (half-Human, half-Klingon), Worf (Klingon raised by Humans), Seven (Human, integrated in the Borg Collective as a small child), and probably a few others that do not occur to me at the moment. (And to which two artificial beings, Data and The Doctor, possibly could be added.)

    Unfortunately, the aspects of a mixed heritage that made these characters, and the Vulcan mindset that made specifically Spock, interesting are missing. Apart from a few minor plot points, there is nothing (in the first two-and-a-half episodes) that could not have happened equally with an unusually roguish regular Human, nor any differences in behavior that necessitates or are made more plausible by her Vulcan background—on the contrary, her actions during the conflict with the Klingons remind me more of Kirk than of Spock… (Except in as far that a mutinous Kirk tended to save the day, not get half of Star Fleet destroyed.)

    To boot, her behavior makes it very hard for me build sympathies, with her disputable judgment, discipline problems, surly demeanor, …

    *Despite the name, yet to be explained, the character definitely passes as a woman. While I have nothing against female leads even in traditionally “male genres” (my favorite TV series of all time is “Buffy”…) the extreme number of such occurring today is disturbing, as is the reason—not because this-or-that part would be good for a woman, but because political correctness calls for more women and denounces any type of stereotyping or traditional roles as evil (even when matching reality). Consider e.g. the entirely pointless “Ghost Busters” reboot. We are at a point where a male lead is becoming the exception. In this specific case, the name, Michael, raises the suspicion that the character was originally intended to be male, with a fairly last minute switch taking place. See also the continuity issues below.

    **For reasons of consistency with “Vulcan” and “Klingon”, both traditionally capitalized, I use a “Human” rather than “human”. This with some hesitation, because the former are likely capitalized for some reason that does not apply to “human” (e.g. as a designator of nationality) or spuriously.

  2. There are a number* of continuity issues, the worst being a complete re-design of the Klingon look**. This is the more pragmatically ill-advised as this type of change is known to cause portions of original fans to have fits of anger.

    Similarly, the ships and technology is redesigned in a manner that simply cannot be made to fit within the line of continuity. (Admittedly, the standards of the 1960s make this a hard task; however, “Enterprise”, another prequel to TOS, made a better job and it is unrealistic when “Discovery” is more advanced looking than e.g. TNG or “Voyager” that both play at a considerably later part of the time line.

    Looking at “Enterprise” and TOS, it could safely be assumed that there would be few women around and fewer yet in important positions***. Yet, the first two episodes center on a ship with a female captain and a female first officer (Michael). Barring the ret-con assumption that this ship was an extreme anomaly, this just does not fit. (That the situation during TOS was ultimately the reflection of the real 1960s is beside the point. Similarly, a piece of historical fiction should not just invent female ship captains where none would realistically have been present.)

    *My listing makes no claim of completeness even of what I spotted—let alone what a fanatical Trekkie, taking it apart while actively comparing with guide books or photage from other series, could find.

    **This look changed considerably after TOS too; however, that change could be easily defended on the grounds of the Klingons looking too Human, and the original look appeared in probably just a handful of episodes. The “post-TOS look” was used actively for two decades, albeit with some minor variations, including several TOS movies, and with at least the TNG and “Voyager” crews having at least one Klingon resp. half-Klingon as series regulars for seven seasons each and a handful of TNG movies.

    ***TOS had one female regular, Uhura, but she was a somewhat secondary character and “just” communications officer. “Enterprise” had two, one a communications officer… The second, T’Pol, had a more important role, probably science officer, but she was a (real) Vulcan appointed or lent by the Vulcans to keep tabs on the Humans. Her standing did not reflect the career chances of other women and is probably best ignored when interpolating. For that matter, even the series playing later in the time line (off the top of my head) only saw Janeway as a regular Human Star-Fleet woman in “traditionally male” position. The others either had jobs like ship physician or ship counselor, or are of disputable relevance for the comparison: Belana and Seven (cf. above) were not regular humans and non of them joined “Voyager” through Star Fleet.

  3. The previous series always drew their strength from a great ensemble, with many diverse and charming/interesting/whatnot characters. This does not appear to be the case with “Discovery” (with some obvious reservations for the short run that also apply to much of the rest of this item). Notably, the character I considered the most promising during the first two episodes, Michelle Yeoh’s captain, did not survive into the third… (And neither did the main antagonist.) Going by my surmise, the current main characters, Michael aside, comprise an expressionless alien with some potential, a wet-noddle roommate, and two stern stereotyped officers (the new captain resp. Michael’s superior officer), at least one of which will likely be a caricature douche bag and constant enemy of Michael (most likely the superior officer).
  4. The show does not seem to have made up its mind what to be and jumps in a manner that gives the viewer wrong expectations: The first two episodes starts with a star ship in conflict with the Klingons, is very martial, and pointing to a new and prolonged cold and/or hot war to dominate the series (or at least the season). This would be somewhat in line with older works. However, at the end of the second the mutinous Michael is sent away on prison transport, leaving an expectation of something completely different, possibly a sci-fi version of “Prison Break”. But, no, barely has the third episode started and the transport suffers catastrophic damage, leaving the prisoners to die. Surely, now Michael will step up, use her Star-Fleet skills and save the day? No… Almost immediately they are rescued by a research vessel (the eponymous “Discovery”), where Michael is drafted into the crew as a lowly technician or whatnot. (The adventures of a research vessel puts us on back solidly, almost boringly, on standard “Star Trek” ground.)

    With all due respect: Who writes such utter crap?!?

In a direct comparison with TNG (not necessarily the rest of the franchise), it is notably that almost every episode of TNG had some aspect of making the viewers think, e.g. relating to differences between people or philosophical issues—starting right at the first episode. This was one of the greatest strengths of the series and something that “Discovery” has so far not copied.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 8, 2017 at 12:51 pm

Review of The Force Awakens (Star Wars Episode VII)

with 4 comments

Disclaimer: The majority of the text was written around New Year’s as unconnected draft-level pieces, shortly after I watched the movie. The later combination into a whole and polishing up, together with some minor extensions, took place in the last few days, when my memory of the details had often faded. There quite likely are things that I wanted to write, but have since forgotten. Equally, there might be parts of the later changes that do not exactly reflect what I would have written back then.

Remark: I will refer to the Star-Wars movies by designations such as “Episode VII” (for “The Force Awakens”). For those with a superficial knowledge of the franchise, note that the episode numbers correspond to the in-universe chronology, but that the order is IV–VI, I–III, VII in terms of release history. Specifically, “the” Star-Wars movie is Episode IV (AKA “New Hope”). “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels” (that are briefly mentioned in the text) are animated TV series.

By and large, I found Episode VII to be disappointing and more a case of interesting fan fiction than a serious continuation of the franchise. (It shares many problems with the new Star-Trek movies, by the same director, J.J. Abrams, but these were more entertaining and struck me as better made.) The result is not even close to Episodes I–III*; Episodes IV–VI would have been indisputably better, except for the enormous difference in special effects; and I would even favor parts of “The Clone Wars”. In addition, the in-universe fit is comparatively poor and there are some decisions made that make me personally consider it (and the new Star-Trek movies…) non-canonical—if not, the events of the earlier movies, especially the happy endings to various sub-plots in Episode VI, become tainted and my enjoyment of the older movies diminished. Needless to say, when a sequel negatively affects the earlier installments, something has gone wrong—cf. “Highlander” for an absolutely disastrous example.

*Episodes I–III were very negatively received by many fans of Episodes IV–VI. I would, on the contrary, rate them as better, and strongly suspect that the problem was more one of expectations than quality: The two trilogies are very different in style and contents. (Since I have repeatedly seen the same phenomenon with myself, e.g. when a presumed action movie turns out to be a comedy or vice versa, I took very great care to watch Episode VII with an open mind.) Continuity issues were also criticized, but were not unacceptably common—and Episodes I–III resolved more problems than they caused, cf. below. In addition, many objected to mystic elements around the Jedi suddenly being given a more scientific/rational explanation; however, this is compatible to the respective settings in my eyes: In one case, we move on the edge of civilization and mostly on the lower levels of society, while the Jedi are virtually extinct. In the other, significant parts of the movies play in the capital of the Republic (and other “civilized” areas), the main characters are highly trained Jedi, senators, royalty, whatnot—and the Jedi abound. Some problems are present, e.g. the unfortunate Jar-Jar character and the third instant-victory-by-blowing-up-a-spherical-enemy-ship in Episode I (after similar events in Episodes IV and VI).

Even if we drop the comparison with the older Star-Wars movies and instead compare with other recent movies* of a sufficiently similar genre and target group**, I am not that impressed. “Ant-Man” (also in the extended sci-fi genre) is an example of a very recent better movie; the heavily criticized “Jupiter Rising” (more closely related sci-fi) is roughly equal. Episodes IV–VI (1977–1983) where exclamation marks with just a handful of (even) candidates for a comparison over the history of film up to their respective releases. Episodes I–III (1999–2005) had heavier competition (including the “The Mummy”, “Matrix”, and “Star Trek” franchises), but still managed to reach the highest levels and set new standards for special effects. However, with “Pirates of the Caribbean”; the film versions of “Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, and number of other book series; various super-hero movies; …; we may actually have seen several movies better than Episode VII and another several roughly on the same level per year since then. In addition, there are even rare TV-based franchises that produced/s at least some episodes more enjoyable, despite a fraction of the budget, notably “Doctor Who”.

*An obvious comparison would be the latest “Jurassic Park” installment: A similarly successful franchise and the number two in last year’s box office, trailing only Episode VII, and actually breaking a similar number of box-office records. However, I only visit the cinema in exceptional cases nowadays and I have not yet had the opportunity to see it through other channels.

**Dropping the genre and target group criteria, Episode VII would be in big trouble.

Among the problems I see:

  1. As I feared, too little space is given to the old characters, excepting Solo/Chewbacca. Their involvement is also too much of a coincidence* to be plausible. Luke’s appearance is even just a cameo, without a single line, at the very end of the movie. (But, to be fair, it is arguably the best scene of the movie, through the fondness of reunion and the satisfaction of closure.)

    *In fairness, it is possible that this will be explained reasonably later on. Episode IV had a similar problem, with the droids just happening to find Leia’s twin brother, as well as the twins being the children of Vader; however, this is somewhat reasonably ret-conned through the events of Episode III, especially if we assume that Yoda was pulling strings in the background.

  2. The lack of progress of the galaxy and its situation is depressing and diminishes the happiness of the Episode VI ending. Ditto the failure of Luke and his training academy, the unromantic state of Han’s and Leia’s marriage, and the development of their son (i.e. Kylo). (But oddly the new incarnation of the Death Star was absurdly more powerful than the old ones, despite their construction being a central part of the emperor’s plans.)
  3. Like so many sequels, it commits the error of just escalating what its predecessors did, instead of trying to improve the quality or adding something new, and often while forgetting what actually made the predecessor(s) great. If a successful horror film had four victims and used two buckets of blood, the sequel has eight victims and four buckets. If the action film had big explosions, the sequel has bigger explosions. Etc. (While this is not necessarily bad, the things that formed the success of the originals might have been the soundtrack, good casting, interesting character dynamics, an original story line, … If these factors are forgotten while more buckets of blood and bigger explosions are added, the result will be inferior.) In contrast, Episodes I–III added tons of new things and improved the quality of many aspects considerably, compared to Episodes IV–VI; indeed, even the individual episodes of both trilogies fared well in these regards. (Many parallels and the
    aforementioned threefold instant-victory-by-blowing-up-a-spherical-enemy-ship notwithstanding.)
  4. Dialog (often attributed to Lucas, himself) and acting* were possible never the greatest point of the franchise, but Episode VII is no improvement. The dialog without Lucas was on the same level as with him. Acting-wise there might have been fewer duds, but there were also no Alec Guinness.

    *While there were a number of strong performances in the earlier movies, there were also a surprising number of weak ones. It can also be argued that neither Mark Hamill nor Hayden Christiansen brought much to the table acting-wise, but that their characters worked merely because they managed to hit the exact right tone for the almost allegorical character and story framework chosen by Lucas. Natalie Portman was a surprising disappointment, considering what she has done since, as well as her promising work in “Leon” at an even earlier a

    Disclaimer: This item was added when polishing up before publication. Here I go by the memory of my impressions from months earlier and could be off.

  5. Most (possibly all) of the other Episodes had at least some new piece of music or theme, often several, that impressed me out of the ordinary. This was not the case with Episode VII. (At least not on the first watching and possibly there is something to be found on further watchings; however, film music tends to hit me on the first watching or not at all.) It is noteworthy that most of John Williams’ scores outside of Star Wars, in my opinion, have been bland and generic, albeit technically skilled. For the other Episodes he pulled out every stop, making him as important to the franchise as Bernard Hermann was to “Vertigo”; here he appears to have made one of those generic efforts, at least with regard to the new parts of the music.
  6. The female hero (Rey) was relatively disappointing, a thin patch on Ahsoka Tano (Anakin’s female side-kick in “The Clone Wars” and possibly my favorite character of the entire franchise), and too close to the hero in “Star Wars Rebels” both with regard to character and introduction (and both follow the hero-unexpectedly-leaves-home-for-adventure pattern already used for both Luke and Anakin). I also strongly suspect that the “female” part is an artificial attempt to either broaden the (previously mostly male) audience or to pacify the feminists*. If not, it would actually have made more sense to just pick the (male) hero from “Rebels”.**

    *I have repeatedly seen the complaint that the older episodes would have too weak and helpless heroines—which makes me wonder if the complainers have actually seen these movies…

    **Correction: Fact checking, I find that he would be closer to Luke’s age than Rey’s at the time of the events of Episode VII. I found “Rebels”, too, disappointing, paid too little attention, and forgot where it fit in the timeline.

  7. Her growth in and use of the Force is not realistic*: Others needed considerable training to achieve the same. (The assumption that she simply was naturally stronger does not hold, seeing that several of the earlier Jedi rated extremely highly, Anakin arguably topping off the scale of the theoretically achievable in terms of natural ability, being conceived to a virgin mother through manipulation of the Force.)

    The scene were she escapes through Force Conviction was a gross error of judgment. Keeping it at the initial failed attempt would have been better, remaining realistic and adding a dash of humor.

    She should have died very quickly when fighting Kylo Ren (the main antagonist) the first time. (As should Luke the first time he fought Vader—except that Vader had secret reasons to keep him alive. There are several other instances of events in the earlier movies that seem unrealistic, but have a reasonable explanation, whereas corresponding instances in Episode VII do not. A slight alleviation can be found by assuming, consistent with the pre-story, that Kylo Ren too was at a comparatively early stage of his training—but he would still be far more advanced.)

    *There is an unrealistic gap between the first and second trilogies too, which is not sufficiently explained by the often used ret-con that Episode IV–VI characters were untrained, old, or half-machine. For instance, Count Dooku was considerably older than the Episode IV version of Obi-Wan—yet far, far more impressive. However, these increases in ability were consistent over all characters, unlike the Rey-specific increase in Episode VII.

  8. The film-makers fail to understand that a villain that is too easy to defeat (and, vice versa, a hero that is too strong) is a liability. A good story has the hero winning despite being weaker, outnumbered, or otherwise having the odds against him/her. when the hero suddenly proves to be the stronger and the villain turns into an easy target (never mind a snivelling loser like Kylo)—that is just pointless. It is true that the Episode I–III Jedi were superior to almost anything they encountered, but the keyword is “almost”—and they had plenty of tough fights even against inferior opponents. Look at the main fights of these movies: In Episode I, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan together barely manage to defeat one Sith, at the cost of Quigong’s life and with a bit of trickery and luck on the part of the out-gunned Obi-Wan. In Episode II, Anakin and Obi-Wan are both soundly defeated by Dooku and only with the intervention of Yoda victory (if he allows the word) is achieved. In Episode III, Yoda is defeated by the Emperor, while Obi-Wan only defeats (the now evil) Anakin when the latter’s arrogance makes him commit a crucial and easily avoidable mistake. In Episodes IV–VI the heroes were underdogs almost everywhere.
  9. Generally, there is too much duplication in terms of characters and events with the originals (especially Episode IV), which already had a dangerous amount of duplication between them. (That duplication, however, could mostly be defended on grounds of parallelism and symbolism, in that Luke and Anakin went through similar stations and situations. With Abrams, looking at the Star-Trek movies, it appears to be a systematic problem of imitation and “fan fictioning”.) An additional similarity in parts with “Rebels” has already been mentioned. A few examples:

    Yet another variation on the Death Star theme is hackneyed, nay ridiculous: Too many variations was one of the weaknesses of the earlier movies and repeating it once again is idiotic.

    Han is killed off in a scene far too closely paralleling the death of Obi-Wan. (Even to the point that Obi-Wan was the closest thing to a father that the pre-Sith Anakin had.) As with several other of these parallels, it was also too predictable: As soon as Han initiated their meeting, the conclusion seemed pre-determined—Kylo’s speech in no way misleading the viewer, but merely re-inforcing the impression. In addition, this is a liberty that a non-Lucas movie should simply not have taken.

    Kylo Ren is too derivative of Darth Vader*. Making him the grand son of Darth Vader is just unimaginative, bordering on the silly, considering the many existing implausible family ties.

    *With the in-story continuity that he deliberate tries to emulate Vader.

  10. The parts of the story that are not just imitating the other Episodes are thin and lack innovation. (In all fairness, it is harder to do something new today than in the past.)
  11. The story line is not compatible with the (traditionally lower-in-canon) books that pre-date it. This is not necessarily a big deal to me (having never read any of the books) and certainly not to most viewers. However, there will be many hard-core fans who see their established view of the events post Episode VI turned upside down and could understandably be very upset about this. If in doubt, I would tend to view the books as having a greater degree of canonicity, seeing that Episode VII is not from Lucas’ feather, that I see Episode VII mostly as fan fiction, and that the books were published earlier.

On the positive side there is not that much that spring too mind, outside of special effects; however, the rebellious storm trooper was a nice touch. A positive surprise was that the “Disney-fication” was nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated, although the Disney/Pixar look of e.g. the new droid annoyed me.

For the future, I just hope that there will be no absurd surprises like Rey being Kylo’s long lost sister or the daughter of Luke (hackneyed beyond belief), Rey being the true “chosen one” (invalidating the previous movies entirely), Kylo’s master actually being Luke using some form of projection, or similar. If any of that happens, well, then the film makers should simply be lined up against a wall and shot for criminal incompetence.

As an aside, while Episode VII has been extraordinarily successful at the box office, this is to a large part due to the extreme-by-historical-standards numbers posted by today’s movies, which distort comparisons immensely. (And to a large part due to the cult around of the franchise; as opposed to e.g. “Avatar”, “E.T.”, and Episode IV, which all started from scratch.) According to Boxoffice Mojo, it is (at the time of writing) the 11th most successful movie in the U.S. after correcting for inflation, as opposed to a clear number one by unadjusted numbers. (Episode IV is the second best on the adjusted list.) It would almost certainly rate lower using global adjusted numbers, seeing that it followed the Star-Wars tradition of doing considerably better per capita in the U.S. than in the rest of the world (number three globally, unadjusted). I suspect that further adjustment for factors other than ordinary inflation would bring it even lower, considering how ridiculously dominated the all-time lists are by movies from the last few years. See also the unadjusted global numbers and U.S. numbers from the same website.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 14, 2016 at 11:13 am