Saturday, 26 July 2014

Films: Ice Soldiers (2013), and Oblivion (2013)


The Canadian SF thriller Ice Soldiers received a favourable write-up in the last edition of Interzone so it duly went on my watch list. It begins fifty years in the past with a commercial plane, carrying three genetically modified Soviet super-soldiers, crashing in the Canadian Arctic. The soldiers survive but then disappear. Switch to the present day, and an academic who has devoted his life to researching this incident is accompanying an oil exploration team in the same region, trying to discover what happened to the soldiers. Needless to say, he finds more than he had expected.

What happens next is fairly predictable, resulting in a running battle with much murder and mayhem before the end. That isn't to say that the film isn't worth watching: it grips the attention from start to finish. It is strong on the wintry atmosphere of the region and, by the standards of typical Hollywood action films, it is quietly understated and restrained in its handling of the straightforward plot. There is just one (over-long) vehicle chase and only a few small explosions, with no CGI that I noticed. Dominic Purcell makes a good fist of the principal role, aided by Adam Beach who provides a dash of humour.

It isn't particularly memorable, but is well enough done to merit a viewing.

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I had read rather lukewarm opinions of Oblivion so my expectations weren't that great, but I was pleasantly surprised. The date is 2077 and Earth is a very different place, devastated by an alien attack sixty years earlier that had destroyed the Moon and destabilised the planet. The war had been won at a terrible cost and the few survivors are gradually being transferred to Titan, via a huge space station in orbit above the Earth. Meanwhile, the Earth's oceans are being slowly drained by vast fusion generators, to provide power for colonising Titan.

The generators need maintenance, as do the flying drones whose job is to defend them from the Scavengers – small alien machines still on the planet. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Vika (Andrea Riseborough) are a maintenance team based in a hi-tech living pod above the surface. They have been there for five years, but their memories of the past had been erased as a security precaution in case they were captured by the Scavengers.

Jack is a troubled man, though. His dreams are filled with incidents before the invasion involving a woman (Olga Kurylenko) whom he is sure he knows – but this makes no sense to him. He is also unhappy with the move to Titan and believes that humanity should stay on Earth, parts of which are still worth living in.

I can't say more without spoilers, but suffice to say that all is not as it seems, and Harper has to cope with one revelation after another as the plot twists and turns. The story is original and intriguing, requiring a higher than usual degree of concentration to keep up; the pace accelerates steadily; and the CGI is spectacular. So unless you are tired of SF action movies or allergic to Tom Cruise (one of which is entirely understandable) Oblivion is well worth watching.


Saturday, 19 July 2014

London Falling by Paul Cornell


Believe it or not, I've just read yet another contemporary urban fantasy featuring supernatural doings in London! You could (almost) fill a shelf with books which fall into that category – as I've said before, it's creating a sub-genre all of its own.

This one is called London Falling and is by Paul Cornell. Unlike most of the others, the story starts out as a straightforward (and rather gritty) police procedural featuring undercover police officers pursuing a mysteriously untouchable gang leader, and remains that way for the first few chapters. Then the police are shocked and baffled by a spectacular death for which they can find no practical or medical explanation, and a special unit is set up to investigate the circumstances.

We know, of course ('cos we've read the blurb), that the explanation for the death is decidedly supernatural, but the police have no idea that such a thing is possible. Not until they stumble across a horrific find when searching for the potential killer do they begin to realise what they are up against, and then they become involved in a way they had never dreamed (or rather, nightmared). As the only people who have any understanding of what is going on, they battle against the odds to catch the formidable killer. They have to adapt their normal police procedures to try to track down the villain, who has a close and decidedly macabre connection with a certain London football club. The tension racks up as their struggle becomes intensely personal, stretching the team to the limit.

The four members of the special unit – two undercover officers, an intelligence analyst and a senior officer in charge – are thoroughly realised and complex characters, with their histories and motivations gradually emerging as the story develops. Although the senior officer (Detective Inspector Quill) is given "top billing", they are in practice given equal treatment by the author, the story's viewpoint switching between them. Even the principal villain is given space for a not unsympathetic explanation of the events that had resulted in the development of this terrifying individual. The conclusion is satisfying while at the same time setting the scene for the next book in what is planned to be a series, under the overall heading of Shadow Police.

London Falling is the first novel by Paul Cornell, but he is by no means new to SFF. To quote from his website: "Paul Cornell is a writer of science fiction and fantasy in prose, comics and TV, one of only two people to be Hugo Award-nominated for all three media. He’s written Doctor Who for the BBC, Action Comics for DC, and Wolverine for Marvel. He’s won the BSFA Award for his short fiction, an Eagle Award for his comics, and shares in a Writer’s Guild Award for his television." He brings all of this experience to bear in a most impressive way and I am very much looking forward to reading the next Shadow Police instalment, The Severed Streets, already out in hardback.

How does this compare with the other London fantasies I've been reading? Not an easy question to answer, as they are all very different. Jacka's Alex Verus stories are the most fun – relatively light, quick reads – with Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series being the closest in style and content to Cornell's work. London Falling manages to stay more in touch with reality than the others, with the team remaining more or less grounded in the real world of police work, even though they are permanently changed by their experiences. Looked at as a piece of literary craftsmanship, Cornell clearly has the edge on the others, and I'd be surprised if he didn't pick up some more awards to add to his collection.


Saturday, 12 July 2014

Film: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)


I have refrained from watching the first part of The Hobbit until now, since I don't like waiting a whole year between episodes – I forget too much of what happened. I plan to watch Part 2 in the autumn and if possible see the finale in a cinema on its release next winter.

I was a huge fan of Tolkien's work in the 1960s, reading The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings for the first time when aged 11 or 12, then reading both stories every year for the next decade, during which time they achieved cult status. I haven't read either of them since, so my memories of the books are over forty years old. I did see the films of LOTR, which I much enjoyed, and plan to watch the extended versions after seeing the finale of The Hobbit.

Although I recalled the general plot outline of The Hobbit well enough most of the details were fuzzy, so you needn't expect a nerdish analysis of how faithful the film is to the book.  The production is superb and the film of high quality throughout, which is no more than I expected from Peter Jackson. Martin Freeman is excellent in the title role of the comfortable, middle-aged hobbit reluctantly persuaded into go on a dangerous adventure with a wizard and a bunch of pugnacious dwarves. The film is a visual feast and has a great deal to enjoy. I liked the restraint shown in building up the suspense concerning the dragon Smaug, only shown partly, in brief glimpses.

In some respects – its visual richness and quality, and the relatively leisurely pace – I was reminded of Game of Thrones. However, while the long running time of both productions allows plenty of opportunity to tell the tales, in both cases there is perhaps too much time. I stopped watching GoT at the end of Season 3, partly because I found the story too relentlessly depressing, but partly because of its lack of pace: I accidentally missed one of the episodes and didn't even realise that until much later, since it had barely moved the plot forward at all. Unlike LOTR, in which 1,000 pages of novel were crammed into nine hours of filming, The Hobbit is a simple tale of well under 300 pages yet is stretched over a similar running time. One of the consequences is that some of the scenes are too extended. By the end, I did get tired of the endless running battles with Orcs and Wargs, and feel that the film would have been better for some judicious editing to reduce its length. However, I am still looking forward to the next episode.


Saturday, 5 July 2014

Extro by Alfred Bester


Alfred Bester's 1950s novel The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!), which I have read many times and reviewed on this blog in June 2008, is my favourite SF novel. So when I rediscovered a copy of his 1974 novel Extro lurking on my shelves where it had been hiding since I first read it a few years after publication, I was curious to read it again.

The story is set on a future Earth, at a time when humanity has spread to some of the other planets and moons, but no further. The hero, nicknamed Guig (don't ask) is a Moleman – short for Molecular Man, potentially immortal although capable of being killed by catastrophic physical damage. Such men (and women) were created by chance, through experiencing a deep shock at the molecular level from being faced by the certainty of imminent death before being saved at the last instant by a freak accident. These circumstances were so rare that that the secret Group of Molemen was very small, varying in age from a mere century or so to thousands of years.

Guig lives with a precocious young teenage girl who has adopted him and has some unusual abilities that make her useful as his assistant. Another key character is a Cherokee scientist who becomes the latest recruit to the Group, but in the process becomes linked to Extro, the all-pervading computer system which runs just about everything. The problem is that Extro appears to be going off the rails and is starting to wage war against humanity. Even worse, the Molemen gradually realise that one of their number has gone rogue, and is working with Extro to kill them all.

What follows is a supercharged romp of a tale, with strange beings, settings and ideas being thrown around like confetti in typical Bester style. The pace is such that there is little time to worry about whether the internal logic all hangs together, although I suspect the plot is full of holes for those who wish to hunt for them. It isn't worth it, however – just hang on and enjoy the ride. One noticeable difference between Extro and TSMD results from the fact that the sexual revolution had taken place in the interim, with the early 1970s spirit of "anything goes" being reflected in the later book – possibly causing a degree of discomfort to present-day readers in our more censorious times.

I had forgotten the plot of the novel almost entirely, but realised as I read that I did remember a few brief scenes very clearly; all of them concerned with the two females in his life (the other being the one who becomes his wife). It's rather unusual for a couple of secondary characters to be the most memorable aspects of an SF novel!

Extro is not in the same league as TSMD, but then, nothing is – by Bester or anyone else. It is worth reading as a good example of early 1970s SF, full of pace and ideas if not always making sense.


Friday, 27 June 2014

Film: Thor: The Dark World (2013)


I found the original film of this series surprisingly enjoyable (I am not a particular fan of the superhero genre, but somehow seem to watch a lot of the films) and posted my review of that film on this blog in December 2011. So I looked forward to this sequel with more than usual interest.

Thor: The Dark World is set a couple of years after the events in Thor, and has the hero still pining for the girl he left behind on Earth. In the meantime he has been sorting out the mess left by the events in the first film, and has just managed to finish that job when a new threat emerges – the Dark Elves, thought to have all died in a war with Odin's father long ago. But a rare convergence of the Nine Realms results in the reactivation of a deadly substance called Aether, and with it the surviving Elves who had used the Aether as a weapon. What's worse, the Aether has taken up residence inside Jane, Thor's human sweetheart (Natalie Portman), and is slowly killing her as well as making her the prime target of the Elves. Thor and his friends have their work cut out in battling the Elves, whose weaponry is far superior, while trying to prevent them from extracting the Aether from Jane.

As with the original film, many of the scenes are set on Earth (and even better, in London) and these are much more fun than the overblown fantasy film set of Asgard. The conjunction of the classical buildings of the old Royal Naval College in Greenwich with a vast alien spaceship is the most memorable scene in the film, making it worth seeing for that alone. Chris Hemsworth continues to do a good job as Thor, although not as impressively as in the original (not his fault; the script provides fewer opportunities to show his acting range) and what made the film particularly enjoyable was the retention of the humour which ran through the original. Often this can be found in very minor details that nonetheless caused me to laugh out loud, such as Thor, on entering a human house, politely hanging his Hammer on the coat stand.


So overall, a worthy successor to Thor, with an ending that sets up the next episode. By the way, the film doesn't end when the credits start to roll: there are both mid-credit and post-credit scenes, so don't switch off too soon!