Saturday 26 December 2009

Films: Night at the Museum 2; X-Files: I Want To Believe; and Memento

This time I'm ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, starting with the latter. I rather enjoyed Night at the Museum, based on what might happen if an ancient Egyptian tablet in New York's American Museum of Natural History had the power to make all of the exhibits come to life in the hours of darkness. It was an undemanding children's fantasy, but quite original and entertaining. As usual, the sequel can't match up because the central premise is no longer novel, so Night at the Museum 2 (subtitled Battle of the Smithsonian in the USA) is just more of the same. In fact, one of the interesting plot elements - that the tablet can also extend people's lives - is dropped rather than followed up, and another feature - that the tablet can be adjusted to prevent exhibits waking up - is also ignored in the sequel, since that would scupper the whole plot. The emphasis is on slapstick humour, but for me almost the only laugh-out-loud moment comes after the film is over, in a short clip shown as the credits are rolling. This one is really only for young kids who loved the original.
On to another sequel, X-Files: I Want To Believe. On release in 2008 this one got quite a pounding from X-Fans, as I recall, and I'm not surprised: no aliens, no top-level conspiracies, no dramatic CGI, all rather dark (in both senses) and rather slow. Unlike the first film, the plot was quite credible and hung together logically (well, relatively), while the X-Factor was handled in a subtle fashion, so that it was never clear whether the key figure of the paedophile priest really was having visions or just colluding with the bad guys. Perhaps worst of all from the X-Fans' viewpoint, it was full of relationship stuff between Mulder and Scully, the latter being distracted by an irrelevant sub-plot concerning a terminally ill boy she was looking after at a hospital - which also finished on a surprisingly but satisfyingly ambiguous note. Of course, X-Phobes might conclude that this was a much better film than the first one, being far more adult and mature, but would any of them get to watch it?
After I had posted my review of Douglas Thompson's Ultrameta it was suggested to me that there were some similarities with the film Memento, so I managed to get hold of a copy. The film was written and directed by Christopher Nolan and released in 2000. It stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, whose ability to remember had been badly affected by a head injury during an incident in which his wife was murdered. His memory up to the incident was unimpaired, but since then he had been unable to remember any new events for more than a couple of minutes. The only way he could keep track of his life was to keep lots of notes, tattoo important facts on his body, and take annotated Polaroid shots of any significant items - people he knew, his car, the place he was staying - otherwise he would forget them as soon as he left them. His condition was a major handicap in pursuing the sole purpose of his life - to avenge his wife - but he was making steady progress in tracking down her killer.

The film really tests viewers' concentration by working backwards from the moment he kills the murderer. After each clip, time is rewound to an earlier moment and the next clip runs from then to the start of the previous one, and so on. As a result, the viewer slowly builds up a picture of what has led to the climactic moment and becomes aware - in a way which Shelby cannot - of the way in which his condition has allowed people to deceive and manipulate him.

This is a tragic tale (something I would normally avoid) but it is so well-constructed and intriguing that I found it engrossing throughout. It stayed in my mind for days afterwards as I kept thinking through the implications. It is leagues above the usual dumbed-down Hollywood action thriller fare, and must have taken courage to produce. When I checked the film out on the web, I was pleased to see that it did well in terms of both critical acclaim (including a couple of Oscar nominations) and at the box office. That was richly deserved.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Titan by John Varley

This 1979 book was the first of the Gaean trilogy, the others being Wizard and Demon. I have named the trilogy as among my top 20 favourite SFF stories (they feature the same central character in the same location throughout, so really make one more or less continuous tale) but it's been decades since I last read them, so I was pleased when Titan was chosen as December's read for the Modern SF discussion forum.

The story begins in a not-too-far distant future when the first manned voyage is being made to Saturn, under the captaincy of female pilot Cirocco Jones. As they approach the planet they discover an unknown satellite, which turns out to be a solid wheel-like artificial construction 1,300 kilometres across. It is mostly matt black, which accounts for the failure to spot it before. This captures their ship, and the crew go through a period of unconsciousness before being ejected onto the inner surface, into a habitable world which they dub Gaea.

So far it sounds like Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, but as the story develops it becomes a lot closer to Niven's Ringworld, only even stranger (both books have been previously reviewed on this blog - see the list on the left for live links - and both also feature in my top 20 favourites list).

The crew of seven have been changed during their period of unconsciousness, acquiring different skills and attitudes which equip them to cope with the wide variety of environments and beings which they encounter, some of them decidedly bizarre. The last third of the book is taken up by an epic, months-long climb up one of the enormous cables which stretch from the inner surface of the rim up through huge spokes towards the hub of Gaea where they believe a controlling intelligence resides. There are some real surprises as they finally discover what Gaea is, and what has happened to them.

I earlier drew a comparison with Clarke's and Niven's books, but Varley's writing is much stronger on characterisation and relationships - not to mention sex. However, this does not detract from the drama and mystery of the story, which stands up very well as one of the modern classics of science fiction.

Thursday 10 December 2009

The X Factor by Andre Norton

Andre Norton was one of SFF's most prolific writers, publishing a huge number of books (I gave up trying to count the list on Wikipedia, but the total must be in the region of 200) between 1934 and her death in 2005. Many of these were co-authored with various other female novelists. The really strange thing is that I have read hardly any of her books, despite hoovering up all the SFF I could find in the 1960s and 70s. I can only assume that her work was not stocked in the libraries I used for much of that time, and I might also have been perplexed about where to start when faced with rows of her books in a bookshop.

The only exception I can recall is Judgment on Janus, which I read in the 1960s and enjoyed so much that I went looking for a copy a couple of decades later, with the bonus of finding the sequel (Victory on Janus) at the same time. I'll re-read and review those another time.

The X Factor, published in 1965, was recommended to me as a book I might like by someone on an SFF forum, so I tracked down a copy. The setting is a far future in which humanity has spread across many star systems, encountering various alien races. The hero is Diskan Fentress, a young man handicapped by a huge, clumsy body and a slow mind, but with an unusual ability to connect mentally with animals. Despairing of ever fitting in with his quick and graceful contemporaries or of living up to his famous space explorer father, he steals a spaceship and crash-lands on a planet found by his father which was identified as habitable but to be avoided. There he is found by an intelligent and telepathic but non-technical alien race, who see in Fentress an opportunity to achieve their own mysterious aims. Archaeologists and treasure hunters complicate matters and the hero battles though many dangers and hardships before the ambiguous and rather mystical conclusion.

Typical of the period, this is a short and fast-moving adventure story which I devoured in a couple of sessions. Characterisation is rather better than usual because of the focus on Fentress and the way in which he develops during the story. The aliens are also interesting, their strange viewpoints being glimpsed occasionally. Not a classic work, but well worth the time to read.

Friday 4 December 2009

Paradox (BBC TV SF detective series)

I have a major concern about this new series, since I've never found one which so strenuously avoids being watched. I missed most of the first episode due to my supposedly idiot-proof new digital recorder deciding to record only the last twenty minutes of the hour-long episode. I initially assumed that I'm just a higher grade of idiot than they allowed for, but in view of subsequent events I'm beginning to wonder. This failure did prompt me to investigate BBC's iPlayer, which provides access via their website to any of their output for the previous seven days. I had thought I'd need to watch it online, but discovered that I could download it and watch it on TV, given the right connections. One connecting lead later, plus much fiddling with computer settings accompanied by the traditional grumblings and cursings, eventually produced a result. The picture didn't occupy the whole screen but it was acceptable and at last I could see the whole episode.

For the second episode I was prepared. I not only checked carefully that the digital recorder was set for the full hour, I also set the DVD recorder to provide a backup. The next morning I checked the digital device - complete blank. So I sneered at it and congratulated myself on my thoroughness until I checked the DVD - also a complete blank. So it was back to the iPlayer again, except that this very shy series had evidently found out about this back-door route as the screen kept going black, but I discovered that hitting the ESC key brought it back again. I await with interest next week's happenings; will the iPlayer crash altogether this time?

Anyway, what's this reluctant show all about? The two principal characters are a scientist monitoring satellite data who finds that mysterious images giving fragmentary views of disasters keep being downloaded from a satellite, and the police detective he calls in to help identify them. Together they discover that the disasters haven't happened yet, and race (with varying degrees of success so far) to piece together what, where and who in order to try to prevent them.

This is looking like a classic piece of TV hokum. So far there is no indication of how this might be happening, or why only images of disasters are shown, or why the images show random close-ups which provide just enough evidence to lead the detective to the spot, or why all the disasters happen so conveniently close to their Manchester base. The scientist is unconvincing, displaying a rather creepy and enigmatic air of mystery instead of going off his trolley as any sensible person would, but fortunately the detective is played by Tamzin Outhwaite who is always worth watching (and not just for the usual male reasons - stop sniggering at the back!).

Perhaps the explanation for the difficulty in seeing the show is that it has acquired artificial intelligence and is too ashamed to be reviewed? Well, it's not all bad; there's a lot of drama in the race to piece together the evidence, interspersed with scenes of those involved heading unknowingly towards their disasters. If you can park your critical faculties and accept the preposterous premise at face value it becomes quite exciting. It could be one of those series that turns out to be so silly that it becomes addictive. I'll stick with it for the time being to see how it goes - provided of course that it decides to let me watch it (come on, now, it's not such a bad review, is it?).