Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fugate's Zeroth Law

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus Unbound

Wow. What a stunner of a movie. Promethean, you might say ...

Ridley Scott (and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelhof) went back to the beginning -- and kept going. Yes, as everybody now knows, this is an Alien prequel. And a fine one.

Prometheus answers all the unanswered/implied questions of Scott's original 1979 movie and its sequels. In the process, this movie sows the dragon seeds of more questions. Brilliant. A few plot holes and science gaffs are still eating at my stomach lining -- but let them pass. This film is a lifetime achievement and I do it honor.

And it's not a repetition of past achievements.

Let's talk starships. The Nostromo from the first Alien was a low-rent, working-class, space barge. The Prometheus is a tricked-out, tangerine-flake, trillion dollar baby -- with FTL capability. 90-something industrialist/visionary Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), sent it out in search of old life and old civilizations. It's not a blind search.

It seems that two 20-something anthropologists studying ancient carvings discovered an alien invitation to join them in the stars for an intergalactic picnic. Those crazy kids are Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green ). Weyland, enterprising, aging tycoon that he is, found out about their research, and accepted that alien invitation -- which helpfully came with stellar coordinates. Weyland's the insanely rich dude behind the Weyland Corporation. He can afford to build a trillion dollar ship, though he can't make the trip. What with his inevitable impending death and all ...

So, a few light years and some uneasy hypersleep later, the Prometheus winds up in the vicinity of an earth-sized moon orbiting a ringed, gas giant. This orb looks as dead as Dillinger, until Holloway spots obviously artificial straight lines. A scouting expedition follows those lines, enters a lumpy domed structure, and finds what's left of the Space Jockeys. ("Space Jockey" is a fanboy term for the dead alien astronaut in the original "Alien." Scott prefers to call them "Engineers.") Whatever you call them, there's lots of dead alien astronauts here. Piles of them. A holographic record reveals that they were running away from Something. Something that burst out of their chests. Gee. Wonder what that Something could be?

The sense of wonder fades. Invasive body horror ensues. Hey, it's an Alien prequel. What did you expect?

David (Michael Fassbender), the smarmy, smiling, milk-blooded android (who resembles a walking, talking Hal 9000) participates in the horror by deliberately infecting Charlie with some alien goop. David's motives are pure; Weyland's programmed him to think the goop is the secret of life or something. But it's clearly the secret of death. Interspersed between a series of exploding heads and a pregnancy that goes very wrong, the movie reveals the truth.

The Engineers engineered humanity. They resemble giant human beings. Aside from their basketball-playing abilities, their DNA coding sequences are identical to ours. For whatever reason, they built our species -- and changed their minds. Now want to wipe us out. And they can do it.

At the heart of the lumpy pyramid, the Engineers have a toroidal starship. With a death mission. Destroy all humans. Yep. Until the stomach-bursting Xenomorphs killed most of the Engineers, that was the plan. The derelict Engineer ship has coordinates for Earth. It's stocked with instant-Xenomorph jars that'll wipe the slate clean on any planet.

The movie now reveals what the scary Giger aliens are. They're weapons of mass destruction which the Engineers use when they need a little mass destruction.

One Engineer still survives in hypersleep. He's ready to finish the job.

Weyland, surprise surprise, is still alive. David wakes the Engineer up. Weyland asks the Engineer for the secret of life. He gets a big surprise. The derelict ship takes off.

OK, OK. If you've seen the trailer, you know how the Prometheus stops the Engineers' ship. Humanity doesn't die. Life goes on. The sequels go on. You know what's going to happen.

And that's cool.

Yeah. Speaking strictly for me -- I have no problem with that. Prometheus has an archetypal road to follow. This movie can't surprise you. Anymore than the Bible or Jack and the Beanstalk can surprise you. You know what's going to happen; you know where it's going. It's an Alien movie. They burst out of stomachs, they eat you alive. Bad !@#$ happens.

The ideas can't surprise you either.

The message behind this movie is as old as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. (Which she subtitled, A Modern Prometheus.) Said message? If you play God, serious industrial accidents are bound to happen. Our makers played God. Humanity follows in their footsteps ...

Scott's been dealing with this theme since Blade Runner. Scott consciously echoes that theme in Prometheus. (Echoes of Roy Baty include Charlize Theron's character relating to her "father" and Peter Weyland, trying to meet his Maker.) Don't play God. That's pretty much it. We don't need that warning in 2012. We don't need to know there are some doors man weren't meant to open. Scott's not trying to warn us.

He's just showing us what happens.

Ridiculous science gaffs in an otherwise intelligent movie:

The human astronauts enter the lumpy alien pyramid and take their helmets off when they find the air is breathable. OK. Seeing as how it's an alien environment and you could conceivably get infected with alien microorganisms, that's a bad idea. The filmmakers wanted to get the actors out of their helmets, so it's forgivable. But, in real life, they just wouldn't do it.

David infects Charlie Holloway with DNA-altering alien goop. Basically, Charlie is a human guinea pig -- a test subject. It's SOP to isolate such test subjects from the general population. If you release an infected subject in the general population, it's basically a disease vector. That's bad.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

RIP Ray Bradbury.

RIP Ray Bradbury. The future he wrote about is more interesting than the one we actually got. And much more memorable.

Bradbury's stories stick in your head. They go down to that part of your subconscious where the elves manufacture dreams, both happy and sad. I remember them all.

The story about a man who looked at his teeth in the mirror, realized it was his skeleton poking out, started obsessing about the fact his body had a skeleton inside, and ultimately paid a witch doctor to remove his bones.

The shape-shifting Martians who did a fair imitation of the small town, middle American characters of "Our Town" -- and then killed the unsuspecting, nostalgic Terran astronauts.

The future firemen who started fires and burned books.

A future (resembling our own) where everybody was connected to everybody else thanks to constant nagging, chattering devices that wouldn't shut up.

A Martian virtual reality teaching machine that kills you again and again in a convincing, multisensory simulation until all the guilt is squeezed out of your soul.

A carnival of the damned that gave you exactly what you wanted.

These stories didn't come with wiring diagrams. Bradbury's contemporary SF writers could often tell you exactly how their dreams worked. Some of them actually knew the rocket science. Robert A. Heinlein had an engineering background; Arthur C. Clarke was a true scientist who invented the concept of an artificial satellite in geostationary orbit; Isaac Asimov wrote textbooks in physics, chemistry, you name it. Bradbury knew a thing or two, but he didn't have that hard science background. What he did know was the twisted human heart. And that's why his extrapolations hold together. They're science fiction in name only. What looks like science is really magic.

Bradbury often said if he had not discovered writing, he would have become a magician.

L. Frank Baum imagined Oz when a lightning bolt illuminated a scarecrow in a department store window. Ray Bradbury got his start from a cheap magician at a carnival. Mr. Electrico -- who zapped him with an electric charge and commanded "Live forever!"

Bradbury's literary wine was a distillation of Shakespeare, Poe, Herman Melville (whom he channeled when he wrote the screenplay for John Houston's adaptation of "Moby Dick), Walt Whitman (Bradbury even named one of his short story collections "I Sing the Body Electric," and perhaps a bit of O. Henry, at least in his short stories. (Like Philip K. Dick, Bradbury was fond of twist endings.) But Walt Whitman most of all.

There's something very American about Bradbury's writing. A barbaric yawp. Bradbury wasn't stingy with his words. His words exploded in a rush, circled back, attacked from every angle. Bradbury was great, he contained multitudes. He mixed metaphors. He contradicted himself.

He was drunk with language. An all-American home brew. But he wasn't a solitary drinker. He got his readers got drunk on his words. Take those words away and what's left? Not much.

This may explain why most film and TV adaptations of Bradbury's work fall short. A witch doctor removes a man's bones; a fireman burns books. Meh. Reduced to stuff that happens out in the world where you can see it, Bradbury's work has all the appeal of non-alcoholic beer.

OK, so his work wasn't exactly cinematic. But it was full of great ideas, right?

Right. But I'd never call it a literature of ideas.

You can learn a lot from his writing. Dig deep, and you can pull out plenty of fortune cookies. But that's not the point. Bradbury didn't preach. He didn't write sermons and allegories and cautionary tales. ("Fahrenheit 451" was an accidental warning; Bradbury took the 50s paranoia and anti-intellectualism and turned it into a nightmare.)

Bradbury told stories. Stories that scared and delighted you. It's the writing of a writer who constantly surprised himself. I'd be willing to bet he didn't know his ending until he got there.

Bradbury's story is over now. The rest of us get to enjoy what's left of the future.

The future he imagined is still much more interesting.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Cheap day return

Air-conditioning will resume shortly.
Flying back on the plane. Amazing how time does that moving-on thing.

Last impressions?

I know I fall short.

No shit. This isn't confession, OK? I'm not your freaking priest. Last impressions?

Uh. Life is bigger than words. James Joyce turned a single Dublin day into Ulysses. Even then, he left an infinity of material out. You have to, even if you're Joyce. Writing is selection. Stuff winds up on the cutting room floor. So be it. You can't say everything. But you have to say something.

No, you idiot. I meant your last impressions of Switzerland.

Oh, right. Uh. Switzerland isn't America.


Yeah, I know. Switzerland isn't America. That doesn't sound like much. But it's something.

Like what?

It's a slap in the face is what it is. Hey, I liked Switzerland. But all the subtle differences made it clear how parochial I am, how limited I am, how riddled with assumptions, how freaking American.

Yeah. A freaking American who thinks he's James Joyce.

We're flying back into the sun. I've got 9 hours left.

Screw you, pal. I'm out of here.

If I'm lucky, I'll finish Anathem.