Saturday, July 5, 2014

Setting the Way-Back Machine. Destination: 1984 Part III

Welcome to the year 2014, or as I prefer to call it, the thirtieth anniversary of 1984. In retrospect, 1984 was a particularly good year for cinematic science fiction, so over the next few months I will be doing a look back at some of the higher points of that year. (DISCLAIMER: As I have pointed out in earlier articles, these are my opinions. Mine, not yours. I take no responsibility for ruining your childhood.)

Sorry about the delay,Geekers. I had meant to have this posted by early June, but what with  publishing my latest book, a collection of Sci-Fi and Fantasy short stories, I fell a little behind.  So let's get right into it, shall we? Up for review this month, 2010: The Year We Make Contact.


I first have to confess that while I enjoyed Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, I am not a fan of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film. I will agree that it is a creative milestone, not only in terms of science fiction film, but in cinema in general. The film looks terrific, even by standards of today's visual effects,and the set and costume designs are incredibly realistic (Though the business attire worn in the films opener evokes a bit too much Austin Powers). The story is engaging and the acting is passable. The problem is that the film is so dang slooow. Kubrick's love of meshing his visuals with classical music is inventive, but slows the pace too much. I don't need a five minute sequence just watching a spaceship dock with a spaceship and seeing a space-stewardess walk the entire circumference of he space-liner in zero gee. It draws the viewer out of the story.

By contrast, Peter Hyam's 1984 sequel, does not fall into this trap. Also, ironically, is one of those rare films that actually better than the novel it is based upon. The plot, picking up years after 2001, deals with Dr. Heywood Floyd, the man responsible for sending the spaceship Discovery on its mission to Jupiter, searching for answers as to what went wrong. Hitching a ride aboard a Soviet spaceship, Floyd and a small team will reactivate the derelict Discovery and its dormant control computer system HAL, and investigate the mystery behind the disappearance of astronaut David Bowman after encountering the enigmatc Monolith orbiting Jupiter.


While the novel that the film is based upon is a fine piece, the story lacked the tension to really engage a film audience. The Soviets in the book act like old friends to the American crew and everyone goes about their duties without conflict. In the film, tensions between the U.S. and Russia are escalating and the two superpowers are on the brink of  launching World War III. These tensions carry over to the crew of the Soviet spaceship Leonov, who view Floyd and his crew with suspicion and animosity at first, but as the film progresses, the two crews must work together to solve the mysteries within and find a grudging respect and friendship for each other.

What really makes this film work are the performances of the stellar cast. Roy Scheider as Heywood Floyd , leads the American crew which consists of Bob Balaban as HAL creator Dr. Chandra, and the always excellent John Lithgow as engineer Walter Curnow. Helen Mirren plays the captain of the Soviet crew, and Keir Dullea reprises his role as David Bowman, and Douglas Rain returns to voice the enigmatic HAL-9000.

There is an honesty to this cast that makes all the fantastical happenings seem all the more real. Whether the characters are discussing the mystery of  what is happening with the Monolith, the events that are taking place on the Jovian moon of Europa, or simply discussing what ballpark makes the best hot dogs, the viewer feels that these characters believe every word they are saying. Of particular note is the friendship struck up between Lithgow's Curnow and Russian-crewman Max, played by Elya Baskin, and the banter that plays between them is fun to watch.

In particular, this is one of my favorite Roy Scheider roles.Whether he is playing a scientist, a small-town sheriff turned shark-hunter in Jaws, or a submarine commander on Seaquest DSV, his portrayals are always that of the approachable favorite teacher or uncle, and we cannot help but root for his character. And though heard as HAL but never seen, Douglas Rain gives such life to the character that when HAL finally accepts the fact that he may cease to exist if Discovery is destroyed, we truly feel pity for him.

The only classical music used in this film is Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, heard over the opening and closing sequences. The rest of the score was composed and conducted by David Shire. The visual effects by The Entertainment Effects Group are believable and effective.

 Author Arthur C. Clarke has a cameo as the old man on a bench outside the White House, feeding pigeons, and he also appears on a cover of Time magazine, along with 2001 director Kubrick as the U.S. and Russian leaders.

Though a bit dated, as all films about the future tend to be, 2010 still holds up remarkably well. Clarke penned two more sequels, 2061 and 3001: The Final Odyssey. As of this writing, I have no knowledge of any plans to adapt these to film.

Next destination for the Way-Back machine, the 1984 horror-comedy Ghostbusters.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Setting the Way-Back Machine. Destination: 1984 Part II

Welcome to the year 2014, or as I prefer to call it, the thirtieth anniversary of 1984. In retrospect, 1984 was a particularly good year for cinematic science fiction, so over the next few months I will be doing a look back at some of the higher points of that year. (DISCLAIMER: As I have pointed out in earlier articles, these are my opinions. Mine, not yours. I take no responsibility for ruining your childhood.)

Up for review this month, The Last Starfighter.

This film is a personal favorite, and easily falls into my top-5 list of favorite science fiction films of all time. A feel-good movie with a simple story and quirky, but likeable characters, this film is perhaps the most influential on me in terms of my writing. My original draft of The Starhawk Chronicles (Written in high school and then only titled Starhawks) was a barely disguised re-write of the Starfighter story. Later drafts would lose the naive innocence of that draft, but the spirit is still there.

 Released in July of 1984, The Last Starfighter is the story of Alex Rogan, a young dreamer seemingly doomed to live out his life in the small southern California trailer park he lives in with his mother and younger brother. One night, after acing the Starfighter game outside the general store, a mysterious stranger arrives looking for him. Alex is then swept up into the middle of a galactic conflict
"to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada." Alex's skills are sorely in need, especially after an act of treachery destroys the Starfighter ranks, leaving him the sole hope of the Star League.

Back on Earth, hijinks ensue as Alex's "replacement", a look-alike android named Beta, goes about pretending to be Alex, causing chaos with both Alex's girlfriend Maggie and the other residents of the Starlight, Starbright trailer park, all the while dodging an alien hit-beast sent to kill the real Alex.

Along with his navigator, a reptilian alien named Grig, Alex takes his Gunstar into battle against the alien fleet alone, barely triumphing with the use of Death Blossom, a secret weapon installed into his prototype Gunstar. Alex returns to Earth to explain his whereabouts and that the Star League needs his help to rebuild the Starfighter ranks. Taking Maggie with him, Alex sets off for further adventures among the stars.

This movie has a lot going for it. The cast, from relative newcomers Lance Guest as Alex and Catherine Mary Stewart as Maggie, to long-time veterans Dan O'Herlihy as Grig and Robert Preston playing galactic con-man/ starfighter recruiter Centauri, are all charming and fit their roles well. Preston is especially a delight, basically reprising his  role from The Music Man, as the fast talking confidence artist who tricks Alex into accompanying him to the planet Rylos. Only Preston could dish out lines like "May the luck of the Seven Pillars of Gulu be with you at all times." and make it both funny and believable at the same time. Sadly, this was also Preston's final feature film before his death in 1987 from lung cancer.
There is great chemistry between Lance Guest and Dan O'Herlihy as Starfighter and his navigator.
While training a seemingly inept Alex on how to use the Gunstar's weapon, Grig implores him to relax, to which Alex quips, "Terrific! I'm about to be killed a million miles from nowhere, with a gung-ho iguana who tells me to relax!" Later when explaining their mutual home lives (Grig lives below ground with his "wifoid" and "griglings") Alex tries explain about being stuck in one place in a mobile home, and Grig responds with "A mobile cave that never went anywhere. Fascinating." O'Herlihy brings a believability to the character, despite being unrecognizable behind his reptilian makeup. Moviegoers would later get to see the man behind the mask in the first two Robocop movies, with O'Herlihy playing the "old man" head of corporate conglomerate OCP.

The Last Starfighter is best known for being the first film to use computer-generated special effects for all its effects shots. Prior to this, CGI had been used before, but limited mostly to, well, computer graphics, such as the war-room holographic display in Return of the Jedi.
 Though primitive by today's standards, (In truth, some video game graphics even exceed this.) the effects at that time were impressive, offering a glimpse of what was to come as movies from Young Sherlock Holmes to Jurassic Park and beyond would jump on the CGI bandwagon first started out by Starfighter. The movie looks like a video game, but considering that Alex's abilities at gaming are what draw him into the Rylan conflict in the first place, the comparison is appropriate.

Also notable, though not at the time, were the number of Star Trek actors that appear in the movie. Meg Wyllie, playing Maggie's grandmother, was one of the mind-controlling aliens in the original pilot The Cage. Wil Wheaton makes a brief, almost unnoticeable appearance as one of the trailer park kids, and Deep Space Nine's Marc Alaimo (Gul Dukat) plays the human form of the interstellar hit-beast sent to kill Alex.

In all, The Last Starfighter is a simple film, a bit of sci-fi fluff, that reflects a somewhat more innocent age of the genre. Most anyone I talk to who has seen it reflect fondly on it, and some of us still hold out for a sequel, though with the age of the film and relatively modest showing at the box-office, this is a long shot at best.

And please Hollywood, no remakes. We like this film just fine.

On our next trip back to 1984, we will jump ahead to 2010, The Year We Make Contact.






Monday, January 6, 2014

Setting the Way-Back Machine. Destination: 1984 Part I

  Welcome to the year 2014, or as I prefer to call it, the thirtieth anniversary of 1984. In retrospect, 1984 was a particularly good year for cinematic science fiction, so over the next few months I will be doing a look back at some of the higher points of that year. (DISCLAIMER: As I have pointed out in earlier articles, these are my opinions. Mine, not yours. I take no responsibility for ruining your childhood.)

  That being said, for this entry, I will be reviewing Star Trek III : The Search for Spock.



  Released by Paramount Pictures on June 1, 1984, The Search for Spock is oftentimes considered by many to be the bastard child of Wrath of Khan, but  that is an unfair comparison. The third entry in the original series' film run stands strongly on its own, with much to offer to both long-term fans, and new followers as well.

  The Search for Spock (To be referenced from here on as TSfS) picks up where Wrath of Khan left off, with the Enterprise returning home to Earth, presumably to repair her battle damage and head back out. Most of the crew has been reassigned, and the Genesis planet has been deemed a quarantined planet. The commander of a Klingon vessel has learned of the Genesis device and wants to obtain this "ultimate weapon" for the good of the Empire. Kirk learns that Dr. McCoy is suffering from the effects of Spock's final mind-meld, and that both must be brought back to Vulcan. When Starfleet refuses to allow Kirk to return to Genesis to retrieve Spock's body, Kirk and crew then steal the Enterprise and head out against orders. Arriving at Genesis, they not only find the Klingons waiting for them, but that Spock has been regenerated by the "Genesis Wave" and is aging in surges in sync with the planet, which is rapidly tearing itself apart. Kirk destroys the Enterprise to keep it out of the Klingon's hands, stealing their Bird of Prey in time to get Spock off of Genesis moments before the planet is completely destroyed. Returning to Vulcan, Spock's katra, or "living spirit", is rejoined with his regenerated body, and the crew is whole once more.

  This film has much going for it; a strong script written by series creator Gene Roddenberry and producer Harve Bennett, strong performances by the main cast and supporting players, and some top-rate visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic. Directed by Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy makes a fine feature film debut. Proving himself with this film, he would, of course, go on to direct the very popular Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and act as Executive Producer on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, as well as directing 3 Men and A Baby and others.

  Most of the main cast have nice little character moments: Scotty's "Up yer shaft!" response to the uber-polite turbolift computer, Uhura putting "Mr. Adventure" in his place (and the closet), and Sulu's famous "Don't call me Tiny." Only poor Chekov is left out of the fun, his main responsibility is to take over Uhura's comm position on the Enterprise. At least this is more than made up for in many good scenes in The Voyage Home.


Christopher Lloyd plays the Klingon commander, Lord Kruge. Quite frankly, not only is it one of his best performances, but he brings a grumbling menace to the character without being over-the-top. Many remembered Lloyd's performance as lovable stoner Jim Ignatowski from the classic comedy Taxi, and feared that his villain would be laughable. Just the opposite. Lloyd's Commander Kruge is one of the best, most memorable villains in the Trek movie franchise, and set a benchmark for all Klingons to follow.

  TSfS is notable for not one, but two, significant, life-affecting events in Kirk's life. The first, and most notable, is the destruction of the Enterprise by Kirk. In order to keep his ship and its secrets of Genesis out of the Klingon's hands, he turns its destruction into "a fighting chance to live." Beautifully achieved by ILM, the Enterprise's self-destruction and immolation in the Genesis planet's atmosphere, is both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time, but was not much of a shock to fans, since both television ads, and the trailer for the film, touted this as "the final voyage of the Starship Enterprise.", even showing the grand starship blowing herself to Hell.

  More of a surprise, and no less significant, is the death of Kirk's son, David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), by the Klingons. Fighting to protect Saavik and Spock, David is stabbed through the heart. Though bloodless, and partially obscured, the brutal way David meets his death is both sudden and incredibly shocking. I remember the genuine, horrified gasp that arose from the audience when I saw this film on its opening day. We felt we had only just met David, and looked forward to seeing his relationship with Kirk develop over the course of the series. Kirk's loss of his son would be a major driving force behind Kirk's attitude toward the Klingons, especially later on in The Undiscovered Country.
 
  Robin Curtis takes over the role of Saavik from Kirstie Alley, who left the series due to a fear of typecasting and salary disputes, and does a fine job. Sadly the Saavik character loses momentum from here on. Featured only briefly in The Voyage Home, she was due to be a major player in The Undiscovered Country, but the character was written out in favor of Lieutenant Valeris.

  Star Trek II gave us the first new starship design since the series with the U.S.S. Reliant. This film ups the ante with three new starships to drool over. The science vessel U.S.S. Grissom, the U.S.S Excelsior, and the Klingon Bird-of-Prey.  Afficionados of starship design, such as myself, are left drooling. All three designs would be used extensively in future series and films.

  As dramatic as Wrath of Khan, and as much fun as The Voyage Home, The Search for Spock is a satisfactory middle act in what would later become known by some as the Spock trilogy. Sadly, the rest of the film series became a bunch of one-shot episodes with little to connect them. Perhaps the reboots of the series can bring back the multi-film arc.


  Next in our look back at the year 1984, The Last Starfighter.


 




Saturday, December 14, 2013

Can't We All Just Get Along? The Star Trek vs. Star Wars Debate.

I must have been living under a rock for the past thirty or so years. This can be the only explanation. How else could I have missed out on such a heated debate amongst fanboys (and girls) over which is superior - Star Wars or Star Trek?


I have been a fan of science fiction my entire life and never realized that I might have to make a choice between two such beloved franchises. It is really only since the advent of social media (re: Facebook) that the conflict has truly come to my attention. I will not advocate for either side on this matter. My intention is to simply state where I stand and let members of either camp decide whether to come after me lynch-mob style.

I will confess that my first love is Star Wars, mainly because I experienced it first. I was seven years old when I saw the original film in the theaters (Back before episode numbers, when A New Hope was simply known as Star Wars.) Like every other child of similar age at this time, I was blown away by the original film (Much as Greedo was blown away by Han Solo who -say it with me- shot first!) I had never had much exposure to science fiction before this, but afterwards I began to take in as much as I could. This lead, logically (No pun intended) to my first, and almost last, encounter with Star Trek.

January 1979, my parents take me out for my birthday to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The television ads got me very excited for this film, with images of the newly refurbished Enterprise, and Klingon ships battling. My excitement lasted about fifteen minutes, right after those battling Klingons and newly refurbished Enterprise flashed across the screen. Star Trek: The Motion Picture quickly became the Motionless Picture. I was bored, my parents were bored. My father would continually lean over and ask if I wanted to leave. For some odd reason, despite my boredom, I kept saying no, I wanted to see how it turned out. I left the theater despising the movie, but intrigued enough to start watching the series. (For the record, in recent years I have come to a new appreciation for the first film, since it's newly re-edited release on DVD, but it is still probably my least favorite.) On occasion, while flipping through channels, and if nothing else was on, I would check out that week's adventures of Kirk, Spock, and crew, but it still had yet to take with me. It wasn't until The Wrath of Khan that I began to follow wholeheartedly, and by The Search for Spock, I was a true convert.

For many years, Trek filled the void left behind by the lack of any adventures set in that galaxy far, far away, but I always wanted more Star Wars. And even when George Lucas decided to finally grace us with more Wars, whether in books, comics, games or the special editions or prequel films, I never lost my enthusiasm for Trek.

What I am getting at is that I have a deep love and respect for both franchises and will not choose a side. I do not care if Picard could beat up Han Solo. I have no intention of traveling to Riverside, Iowa, wearing my Darth Maul t-shirt, blasting the Star Wars theme from my car stereo, and urinating on the placard indicating the spot that is marked as the future birthplace of Captain Kirk. A face off between the Enterprise and a Star Destroyer???
Who cares??? And perhaps one of the most inane arguments of recent months, the debate that J.J. Abrams should not be allowed to direct Star Wars Episode VII because  he has already directed the last two Trek films. I could see a debate if he had directed something worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but Abrams has proven himself time and again, and as an admitted Star Wars fan, I have every confidence that he will do justice to the new films. The only other choices I could have seen would be Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg.

Star Trek or Star Wars? Apples and oranges people! Enjoy them both for what they are. Two diverse, but equally entertaining science fiction franchises. Go to Comic-con dressed in your best Klingon warrior garb and go up and hug a Wookie! When Trek was at its best, it celebrated that kind of diversity. It's a lesson that we should all take to heart.
Just for the record, I do think that the Star Destroyer would win out over the Enterprise. Yoda may say "size matters not" but come on! That thing is HUGE!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Star Wars Episode VII: Resurrection of Evil - The Sequel You will NEVER See.

The time is early 1990. Star Wars is nowhere to be found. Aside from West End Games' role-playing game, there was nothing to sate our hunger. No movies. No comic books. No novels. Nada! Fanboys like myself are hurting big time. Much as we love Episodes IV, V, and VI, we want more. George Lucas had promised more movies, otherwise why would he have numbered them the way he had? Something needed to be done. Soon!

Then, one day it hit me. I like to write. I love Star Wars. Why not write the next chapter in the saga myself? I could both kickstart my career as a writer and revive the franchise, earning the praise and adulation of millions of fans worldwide.

I set about my task with a fervor second only to religious zealotry. I re-watched the films, read the novelizations, the spin off novels, all 107 issues of the Marvel Comics series. Hell, I even bought a copy of The Star Wars Holiday Special at a convention. As I researched, my tale began to take shape. I invented characters or incorporated some from the (at that time) Expanded Universe. I worked out scenes and action sequences, even going so far as to storyboard some as though I were planning this as a cinematic feature. This was going to be EPIC! With all the elements in place, I began writing the first chapter.

Jump to spring 1990. I find this on the shelf of a bookstore I frequent:
 
 
Curses! Foiled again! Not only did Timothy Zahn beat me to the punch, but he did it brilliantly, setting the bar so high that only a few of the many novels to follow would even come remotely close.
 
Resurrection of Evil not only failed to get near that bar, it missed it entirely. I wasn't even in the same solar system. In a deep funk, I decided it was best not to try playing in the big kids' yard. I went on to other things.
 
But now, here for the first time, revealed once before to only my best friend and my girlfriend of the time, is the plot for my vision of Episode VII. I no longer have any of the notes that I made, so this is all coming from memory.
 
Episode VII begins with it's own title crawl, the first line of which borrowed from the blurb on the back of the Return of the Jedi video cassette, stating that The Galactic Empire has been brought to its knees. As with the original trilogy, and Zahn's novels, we start with a Star Destroyer on the run from a Rebel hunter-killer task force that stumbles across an abandoned space station, on which a lost apprentice of Darth Vader's lurks. Commandeering the Star Destroyer, the apprentice sets out to avenge his master's death.
 
On Endor, Luke is continuing to hone his mastery of the Force. He receives a vision of Obi Wan that warns him that a new dark force is rising. He learns that his friend Halla, keeper of the Kaiburr Crystal, which enhances one's mastery of the Force, has gone missing. (Both of these first appeared in Alan Dean Foster's novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye.)
 
At the same time, Han and Leia are sent on a mission somewhere (Sorry for the vagueness. Remember, working from memory.) to bring in an operative from the rebel base there. They find the base under attack by a group of Imperial AT-ST walkers, remotely controlled by a master AT-AT. Using a commandeered landspeeder and Leia's newly acquired lightsaber, they manage to thwart the attack by cutting the lead walker's front legs off, effectively killing the drone AT-ST's in the process.
 
Boba Fett returns as well, having escaped from the Sarlacc and journeying on foot across the Tatooine wastes, fighting a band of Tusken Raiders along the way, to Jabba's palace, where his ship is docked. He then sets off on a vengeance quest for our heroes.
 
Numerous incidents occur within the middle of the text, none of which really stand out in my memory.
 
The story ends with a climax on two fronts. Han, Chewie and Leia in the Falcon square off against Fett. Fett is kicking the snot out of the Falcon and taunting Han for his decision to run. Pissed, Han turns the Falcon around and charges Fett, both ships firing wildly as they play a space-based game of chicken. Wanna guess who wins?
 
As for Luke, he has tracked Halla back to Mimban, where the Kaiburr Crystal was first discovered. She had been trying to return the crystal back to where it belongs, dying in the process at the hands of Vader's apprentice. Luke and the apprentice duel, during the course of which the crystal is smashed upon the ground. A huge vortex erupts from the shards, destroying the apprentice. Luke barely gets clear in his X-wing as the vortex grows larger, eventually reaching to space and destroying the orbiting Star Destroyer as well.
 
Heroes reunite, all is well, and as John Williams' music swells in our heads, we fade to end credits.
 
Not exactly as epic-sounding now as it was in my head 20+ years ago, but there are still a lot of elements in it that I still like, and though the wonder of recycling, will be reusing in future tales.
 
And who knows? Maybe now that this is out there for the general public to read, maybe I'll get a call from Disney/Lucasfilm to negotiate writing Episode VIII?
 
Yeah. Not gonna lie awake at night waiting for that call.
 
 
 


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Fast Friends - A STARHAWK Tale

Okay readers, I normally post short stories on scribd.com, but felt like giving you something a bit more creative than one of my normal rants. Fast Friends is set in the time before The Starhawk Chronicles, telling the tale of just how the mysterious Morogo came to join the crew of the Starhawk. Enjoy!


Fast Friends- A Starhawk Tale
Joseph J. Madden
Half an hour late. I swear if Nichols wasn’t the best informant around, I’d stop paying her.  Jesse Forster grumbled to himself, checking his watch for the fifth time in as many minutes. Raising his glass, he downed the last of the whiskey he had been nursing since he arrived an hour before, and scanned the bar’s patrons again, for lack of anything better to do.
The bar, a location chosen by Nichols for their meeting, was surprisingly upscale, at least as far as establishments on this side of Togorra went. It was clean, fairly well lit, and the drinks were not as watered down as one might expect. It was also surprisingly quiet for this time of night, with no more than a dozen or so patrons milling about or seated at scattered tables.
From his table near the bar, Jesse had a good view of the doorway so he could watch for Nichols. If she ever gets here. Just then, the door opened, and he sat up a little straighter, but the informant was not among the group entering. Disappointed, he slouched back into his seat, resting his hands on the butts of the twin Colt Seventy-Seven laser pistols on his hips.
Though not who he was waiting for, the newcomers did stir enough interest for him to keep watch on them. There were three, ranging in age from early twenties to about twice that. They looked a little rougher around the edges than the rest of the clientele, and from the raucous way they were carrying on, Jesse knew this was not the first watering hole they had visited this evening. All were human.
A curious thought occurred to him at that moment, and he made another survey of the crowd. Not a non-human among them. Pretty unusual for this side of space.
The newcomers let out another burst of garish laughter as they took a seat a few tables away. They paid Jesse no mind, but something about them told him he should be on his guard. As inconspicuously as he could, he reached under the table and undid the snaps securing his weapons in their holsters. That done, he settled back slightly.
The door opened again, but again it was not Nichols. Like the previous three newcomers, this one made him take notice. Wow, a Vor’na’cik. Don’t see too many of them around anymore.
The alien stood in the doorway a moment before slowly making his way towards the bar. It was then that Jesse came to realize that he never actually had seen one of these beings up close before.
So tall that it had to duck to avoid the low hanging chandeliers, the green-skinned Vor’na’cik moved among the tables with surprising grace for being as large as it was. Its armored scales and piggish face with oversized ears made it about as alien looking as they come. It glanced at Jesse as it passed –Jesse assumed it was male—but the look was one of mere observance, nothing more. There was nothing about its demeanor that suggested hostility of any sort, so Jesse relaxed once more.
The rowdies, on the other hand, had stopped their carousing to watch as the being made its way through the bar, and their conversation became hushed. They rose and began passing through the tables making for the bar as well. Spreading out a few meters apart, they formed a shrinking semi-circle around the bar and the newcomer.
The Vor’na’cik seemed oblivious to their approach, reaching the bar and gesturing to a bottle on the back of the bar. It took several attempts before the bartender caught on to what it wanted, finally pouring a large glass of ale from a green decanter. That’s right. Vor’na’cik are bound by their religion not to speak to anyone not of their race, Jesse recalled. Must be good at charades.
The three rowdies moved in closer. When they had the being pretty much encircled, the youngest, a short punk with tattoos across half of his face said, loud enough for the entire establishment to hear, “Hey Greenie, they don’t serve your kind here.”
To its credit, the Vor’na’cik casually finished its drink, gesturing to the bartender – who looked more nervous with each passing second – for another shot. It then slowly turned to face the young loudmouth, an expression of are you talking to me? on its face.
“That’s right. You. We don’t want your kind in here.”
Jesse listened to the decidedly one-sided exchange while glancing into his glass. Time for a refill.  With a practiced leisure, he rose and sidled up to the bar, passing through the ring of taunters. His actions drew a glare from the one standing to the Vor’na’cik’s immediate left, a bald, heavyweight plug ugly with a broken nose skewed to one side of his face. This one spoke up as Jesse gestured to the now visibly sweating barman.
“You alien slime think you can just walk in here and get what you want?  We know all about your kind. Vor’na’cik drifter. Worst kind of space trash.” He spat on the floor for emphasis.
Hearing this, Jesse let out a soft chuckle. He kept his gaze on the mirror behind the bar. “Seems like the only space trash in here is doing all the talking.”
The air around the bar took on a distinct chill as Jesse’s words silenced the trio. The bartender took several cautious steps away, looking ready to bolt at any second. Jesse took another sip from his glass.
“You keep your trap shut, or we’ll deal with you next, boy,” the plug-ugly growled after regaining his voice.
Now Jesse turned, slowly. Instead of looking at his accuser, he looked to the Vor’na’cik. “Did he just call me boy?
The alien gave a slow nod of affirmation.
Jesse moved to stand toe to toe with the grotesque one. This close, he could smell the alcohol oozing from the man’s every pore. Jesse narrowed his gaze. When he spoke, his tone was downright arctic. “Did you just call me boy?
The ugly one glowered. “This isn’t your fight.”
“It’s not a fight. Yet.
A hesitation before the man spoke. “We don’t want his kind in here.”
“Last time I checked, it was a free galaxy. There are no signs by the door stating humans only. Therefore, I suggest you let this gentleman alone and go back to your table and drinks. Or do you want this to become a bigger problem than it ought to be?”
The plug ugly took a step back, still trying to look defiant. He was now standing directly in front of the Vor’na’cik. Jesse’s gaze shifted to the alien.
It was the slightest indication – the Vor’na’cik met Jesse’s gaze, glanced up to look past him over his shoulder, then met his gaze again with the barest hint of a nod – but it was all the sign that Jesse needed. His hands darted to his sidearms. Without looking behind him, one arm swung back and fired, the sound of a stun blast echoing through the bar. In the same moment, the other Colt materialized under the grotesque one’s broken nose, before the body of the tattooed one had finished hitting the ground, the knife he had raised over his head clattering from his hand.
Jesse shoved the weapon even harder against the man’s face.  “I came in here for a quiet drink, and something tells me this big guy here did too. So why don’t you pick up your friend over there, pack up your misplaced bigotry, and get the hell out of my sight?”
Ugly took another step back; gesturing for the other man he was with to help Tattoo Boy. Without a word, the man went to retrieve his comrade. Jesse noted with some satisfaction that this guy had gone pale, and seemed to have wet himself as well.
Ugly backed away slowly, some of the haughtiness returning to his eyes the further away he got. “You’ll regret this,” he grumbled. “We have friends. You’ll regret this.” Then they were gone.
Jesse did a quick scan of the room. Everyone else had become very interested in their own drinks. The only one looking at him was the Vor’na’cik, which had a distinctly pleased look on its face. Holstering his twin Colts, Jesse gestured to the barman for another round for the two of them.
“Sorry about the unpleasantness,” he said as they raised their glasses in a silent toast. “Name’s Jesse Forster, captain of the Starhawk. My crew and I are bounty hunters. Been looking for a few extra crewmen. You maybe interested?”
The Vor’na’cik canted it’s head as it considered the proposition, then its head bobbed to and fro as though it were saying I’m willing to listen.
 Jesse finished his drink, as did the alien. “Take a walk with me. I’ll fill you in.”
* * *
“. . .So I can’t promise you much,” Jesse was telling his new friend as they walked the deserted streets in the early morning gloom. “The jobs pay well when we cash in, but we sometimes go weeks before we make a collar. But you will have a decent bunk and get to see the galaxy, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
He looked up at the Vor’na’cik, who no longer seemed to be listening. It gave a soft grunt – the first vocalization it had made since Jesse first spotted him. Following its line of sight, Jesse spotted the crowd at the end of the street, slowly approaching. As they drew nearer, he recognized the three rowdies from the bar, accompanied by a dozen others. “Oh, this could get real unpleasant real quick.”
“Well, well. Look at what we have here,” Plug Ugly crowed, gesturing to the crowd around him. One side of his lip turned up in a cocksure sneer. “I told you we have friends.”
Jesse looked up to his friend.  The Vor’na’cik was smiling. Jesse smiled back. “Right,” he said, turning back to the gang. “Let’s get this over with.”
* * *
Dozing in one of the control seats on the bridge of the Starhawk, K’Tran Pasker was startled to full consciousness by the sound of the bridge hatch sliding open. “Nichols called in a little while ago,” he said as he spun his chair to face the entrance, knowing his captain had returned. “She said she had to skip the rendezvous. Something about trouble at the . . .”
The rest of the sentence hung on his lips. He was not sure what startled him most, the sight of his captain, bloody, bruised, with one eye swollen shut and his clothes torn, or the hulk that stood in the hatch behind him, equally bruised, one massive hand helping to keep Jesse on his feet. “Trouble at the bar?” K’Tran finally squeaked out.
“No more than usual. Quiet night actually,” Jesse replied. He gestured over his shoulder. “This is Morogo. He’s signing on with us. He’s pretty good in a fight.”
K’Tran was still incredulous. He walked over to get a better look at Jesse, shaking his head. “Lohren’s going to have a fit when she sees you like this.” He moved in closer, putting an arm around Jesse’s shoulder and lead him away from the Vor’na’cik. He spoke next in a conspiratorial whisper. “What exactly happened tonight?”
“It’s . . . complicated,” Jesse replied. A snort of laughter escaped him, and was echoed by Morogo.
K’Tran gestured at the newcomer. “That’s a Vor’na’cik, right?”
“Appears to be.”
“Aren’t they not allowed to speak to others not of their race?”
“So I’ve heard.”
“So then how do you even know anything about him?”
“I don’t. Yet.”
K’Tran could feel his blood pressure rising. He hated when Jesse got cryptic like this. “So how do you know his name?”
“He told me.” Jesse straightened with a grunt of pain, turning back the way he had come in. “I’m going to go clean up before Lohren sees me, so you two get acquainted. I’ll be back.”
The bridge hatch closed behind him, leaving K’Tran alone with the new crewmember. Morogo smiled down at him, revealing rows of needle-sharp teeth.
Good Lord, K’Tran thought. I think he wants to eat me.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

MY list of disappointing science fiction sequels (Mine, not yours.)


 
 DISCLAIMER. The following is a list of science fiction films that disappointed me. I state this because invariably there will be someone out there who reads this and will probably make the comments “What do you mean? (Add title here) was the greatest movie EVER! You stupid (Add expletive of your choice)! I’ll never read another one of your books again! You’ve ruined my life!” I see this all the time whenever someone posts an article list the 5-10 worst whatevers. This is my opinion.  That’s all. I apologize in advance for ruining anyone’s childhood. There are spoilers contained within, but if the reader has not seen these films by now, they probably have no intention of seeing them anyway. Okay? Here we go then. In no particular order. . .

Alien 3- After the cinematic artistry of Ridley Scott’s original Alien, and James Cameron’s epic, exhilarating Aliens, David Fincher’s Alien 3 was a kick in the gut from which the franchise has never recovered. Many fans (myself included) were turned off before the opening credits finished rolling by the pointless killing off of well-liked characters Hicks and Newt. (It is understood that too much time passed between the filming of Aliens and this film for Carrie Henn to reprise her role as Newt, but a recasting would have been preferable to the immediate and shocking death of this well-loved character.) As for Corporal Hicks, played by Michael Biehn, his character deserved a better death. I’m not against killing the character, but at least let a warrior go out in battle, especially seeing as how he was the only one of his entire unit to survive the last film.

Next point: Having the entire cast sport shaven heads might have been a bold stylistic choice, and did have a suitable explanation, but made things too confusing because it was too difficult to tell characters apart, especially in the dark and gloomy subterranean surroundings. Wait! Didn’t that guy die 10 minutes ago???

However the most confusing point of all is where the alien came from in the first place. At the end of the last film, all the alien eggs had been fried (Sorry for the pun.) and the Queen jettisoned into space. Then, in another opening credit shocker, one of the first things we see is an open, empty egg casing. When, one must ask, did the Queen have time between skewering Bishop and battling Ripley to not only produce this egg (Considering that her egg sack had been left behind on LV-426), but to conveniently stash it away out of sight until the next film?

The film has its merits, mainly in supporting actors Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, and the late Pete Postelthwaite., but not much else. By the end of the film the viewer is actually happy to see Ripley take her own life, if not to save the galaxy from the alien scourge, then at least to save the viewers from having to suffer another cinematic alien miscarriage such as this. Of course, in science fiction, and in Hollywood, death is not always the end.

Aliens vs Predator: Requiem - I admit that I enjoyed the original AvP greatly, though it was far from perfect and far different from the original, vastly superior comic book material, so I was naturally excited when I heard a sequel was in the works. The early trailers looked promising. A promise that was short lived.

A lot of things went wrong with this one, too many to list all of them, so I’ll just hit on some key points.

The plot was sound enough. Picking up immediately after the last film, the Predator ship crashes back to Earth after the Predator/Alien hybrid seen at the end of the last film wreaks havoc onboard. Facehuggers emerge and quickly overtake their first victims, spawning the first of many xenomorphs. A lone Predator is dispatched to clean up the mess and chaos ensues for the small Colorado town in which the film is set.

Chaos it is. We are quickly introduced to multiple characters all at once, None of whom are all that interesting. They are: the local sheriff, the punk, the soldier returning home, the cute ,blonde love interest. (One look at her and you know that A) she will be taking her clothes off, and B) she’s going to die.) Every one of these characters is as two-dimensional as the comic books the movies are loosely based on.

The aliens swarm the town. The Predator kills aliens and anyone else that gets in its way (Including the aforementioned cute, blonde love interest.) People run. People scream. People die. The entire film plays like a cheap 80’s slasher film.

Bill Paxton was approached for a cameo so he could appear in the second 'Predator', 'Alien' and 'AvP' film in each series. Schedule conflicts prevented him from making an appearance.

Star Trek V The Final Frontier – I do like this film, I just don’t love it. Possibly the least popular entry in the Trek film franchise aside from the original Star Trek The Motion Picture. Coming in on the heels of the phenomenally successful Star Trek IV The Voyage Home, this installment had an uphill battle all the way from the start.

A lot of people blame director and star William Shatner for the debacle. Indeed, I once saw Walter “Chekov” Koenig at a convention who said :Star Trek IV was the Voyage Home. Star Trek V is the Ego Trip.” This may be true, but I don’t think Shatner is wholly to blame.

The story is an ambitious one, about a renegade Vulcan who hijacks the Enterprise in order to seek out “God”, and one of the few Trek films to focus on facets of the human condition and not just action set pieces, though the film has its fair share. According to Shatner in his book Star Trek Movie Memories,  Paramount was against him from early on, whether it be about the story, the budget, or Shatner himself being in the directors chair.

It is clear that Paramount decided to cheap off on this film, and the effects budget was hardest hit. Unable to afford Industrial Light & Magic, Shatner was forced to rely on a more modest effects house and it shows. While the effects are not terrible —save for the less than spectacular effects of the “God thing” at the films climax— they just do not hold up to the usual ILM standards we came to expect from the last few film entries.

The main cast does a fine job as always, and there are efforts to give some shining moments to characters other than Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Guest stars range from good (Laurence Luckinbill as Vulcan renegade Sybok, and David Warner, doing what he can with the minimal role he is given as Federation representative St. John Talbot. He will return in Star Trek VI in a much meatier role as Klingon Chancellor Gorkon), to the laughable (Cynthia Gouw,  as Romulan Rep Caithlin Dar, the 23rd century equivalent of London Tipton from Disney’s The Suite Life of Zach and Cody.) Most of the Klingons in this film come across as overly-muscled schoolyard bullies.

There are high points. Jerry Goldsmith works his usual orchestral magic turning in what is possibly his finest score for a Trek film (and my personal favorite). The humor this time around is more forced than before, but there are some gems. McCoy’s lament that he liked Spock better before he died, or Kirk’s observation that the reason Spock’s rocket boots fail to keep them aloft while making an escape “Must be all those marshmellons” are genuinely funny and played well.

It’s a shame for all the technical and financial woes this film suffered. After the fun, lighthearted adventure of Star Trek IV, everyone expected, and deserved, more.

 

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace- This is the big one. One of the most anticipated movies in history. The one that caused over-zealous fans worldwide to lament George Lucas ruined my childhood!

A lot of the blame can actually be laid upon ourselves, the fans. After waiting over twenty years for this film, we had all built up in our minds what we thought this film should have been, but since George Lucas was the one calling the shots, it was exactly the movie that he thought it should be.

It is not a bad movie, and certainly a better science fiction film than many, and had this film actually been the first one released, I’m sure it would have done very well. However, viewed in regards to the series as a whole, it does seem to be the weakest of the six current films in the saga —seven, if you count the animated Clone Wars movie.

There is much that went right with this film, and much that went wrong. On the light side, the film is technically and visually a triumph. Strong actors such as Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, and Ian McDiarmid, lend weight to a series of films that has never been praised for the abilities of many of  its actors. The final duel between Qui Gon, Obi Wan, and Sith apprentice Darth Maul is some of the best lightsaber work in the saga, and there is the podrace, of course.

Turning to the dark side, however, we are left with a film that is, at times, just too much talk, heavy on the political machinations and treachery that come with a republic on the brink of disaster. There is the God-awful Yoda puppet (I have my theory as to why the original puppet worked so well and the new one failed, but I’ll save that for later.) and, of course, Jar Jar Binks, a character more hated than any Sith Lord. I remember reading somewhere when the film was still in production that Jar Jar was “the Chewbacca of the prequels.” That’s enough for any self-respecting Wookie to tear the author’s arms out of his sockets.

One has to wonder how the series would have fared if this had come first. Seeing the hero progress from cute child to murderous villain might have turned viewers off enough that we might never have gotten to see his eventual redemption. Kinda makes you wonder…

***

Are there other sci-fi sequels that deserve to be on this list? Sure. Anyone remember Superman III or Batman and Robin? Prometheus anyone?  Actually, thinking on it now, there may be another list in the near future, but this is what I got for now. Hope I didn’t ruin anyone’s childhood.