Friday 28 January 2011

Film: Inception (2010)

Written, directed and produced by the brilliant Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight), this was one of the films of 2010 most eagerly awaited by SF fans.

It is set in the near future in a world the same as ours except that a combination of drugs and technology permits people to invade the dreams of others, imposing their own dream structures (designed by specialist "architects") in order to obtain secrets and even influence their target's subsequent actions (a process known as "inception"). The principal character, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert at this, and is hired by a powerful industrial organisation to influence the heir to a rival energy corporation (Cillian Murphy) to break up the corporation on the imminent death of his father. Cobb assembles a team who succeed in drugging the heir on a long flight and proceed to take him on a dream journey, steadily downwards through dreams within dreams, each with its own distinct setting, until facing him with a modified recreation of his father's deathbed scene. During this process, Cobb is hounded by guilty memories of his wife (Marion Cotillard), who committed suicide as a result of his manipulations, and who appears in the dreams constantly trying to frustrate his actions.

This is an intelligent, convincing and exciting thriller which held my attention throughout, but it certainly requires concentration to keep up with the fast-moving events as the story keeps flipping between dream levels. I understand that a lot of viewers found it baffling, but as I was aware of the general plot in advance I had no problem in following it. However, there were some details I was uncertain about or unaware of, and I found the Wiki plot summary (which I read after seeing the film) useful in tidying up some loose ends.

I rarely watch films more than once, but if I've enjoyed one enough to want to see it again, I like to leave at least a couple of years between viewings so that the details have faded from my memory. However, Inception is one of those rare films that I immediately knew I would want to watch again before long, in order to obtain even more enjoyment through a deeper understanding the next time around.

Christopher Nolan has done it again - the man seems unable to make anything but excellent films. What I like most about his work is that it is exciting but also highly original and intelligent - a league above the usual by-the-numbers, predictable and sometimes downright moronic level of Hollywood action movies.

Saturday 22 January 2011

The Hidden Oasis by Paul Sussman

The Hidden Oasis (2009) is the third novel by Paul Sussman, the others being The Lost Army of Cambyses (2002) and The Last Secret of the Temple (2005). All three are written to the same formula; present-day adventure thrillers in which the characters are struggling to solve mysteries linked to events in both the recent and the very distant past. The author's background as a field archaeologist who has spent much time in Egypt is made full use of, with rich descriptions of the country and of archaeology, and his understanding of the different cultures of the region comes through clearly.

There is one common character in all three novels - Inspector Khalifa of the Luxor Police - but he has only a cameo role in the latest story. The principals are a young American woman who visits Egypt for the first time for the funeral of her elder sister, and the British archaeologist who had worked with her sister in a search for the "hidden oasis", a legendary place sought for centuries which was supposed to contain a weapon of mysterious power. Added to this, an aircraft carrying an important cargo had vanished in the area some twenty years before, and various groups - including some exceedingly unsavoury characters - were taking an active interest. Inevitably, the principal characters become involved in the search and much skullduggery, chases and general excitement follow, before all is revealed.

Sussman's work has been compared with Dan Brown's but his plotting, characterisation and writing in general are vastly superior. In spirit, this story reminded me a little of a childhood favourite: Rider Haggard's King Soloman's Mines. The pacing of the story is steady to start with but gradually ramps up and I read the last third of this 620 page book in one go - I couldn't put it down.

On the face of it Sussman's books do not fit into the SFF category, but in all his stories there is an touch of fantasy at the end and this forms a major element in The Hidden Oasis. This may sound odd coming from an SFF fan, but I rather wish it didn't; this story works perfectly well as an exciting modern adventure mystery set against an authentically detailed background, and the magical happenings right at the end seem somehow out of place. I would have preferred an element of uncertainty as to whether or not there could have been a mundane explanation for events, but no such get-out in this story; the impossibility of the ending is literally earth-shaking. Despite this reservation, the novels are well worth reading if you enjoy burying yourself in a really good, well-researched yarn.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Film: The Truman Show (1998)

Continuing with my efforts to catch up with worthwhile SFF films, I've finally seen The Truman Show. The plot must be well enough known by now, although I must confess I did wish whilst watching it that I hadn't had any advance notice of the basic premise, as it would have been fun discovering that for myself as the film developed. So if you really have no idea what it's about, my advice is: watch the film (it's terrific), but read no further.

The plot is mixture of a soap opera and reality TV show on the surface, but underneath is a paranoid conspiracy theory made real. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives an apparently normal, happily married (to Laura Linney) life in an idyllic little American town set on a small island. The one quirk is that, following a childhood accident in which his father was drowned, Truman is so terrified of water that he can't even drive over it on a bridge; so he has never left the island. Despite this, he has a fantasy of travelling to Fiji to follow the girl he really fell in love with (Natascha McElhone) who had vanished abruptly from the island years before.

The problems begin when odd events cause Truman to start to question the nature of the world he lives in. Strange incidents keep occurring, starting with a piece of equipment falling out of a clear sky. I enjoyed the way in which the headline of the next day's local paper always had a logical explanation for the events (in this case, that an aircraft in trouble had shed some equipment over the island). Despite such cover-ups, Truman gradually becomes suspicious, and feels that he is being spied on and set up.

The truth is far worse than that; for the entire island is a movie set, and everyone on it except himself is an actor. Broadcast around the world from thousands of cameras concealed around the island, the real-time continuously-running story of Truman's life since birth has been the entire purpose of The Truman Show, and is followed by millions of devoted fans. The film gradually interleaves scenes of Truman's increasing paranoia and desperation to escape the island with those of fans watching the show, plus views of the control-room staff under the direction of Cristof (a chillingly controlling Ed Harris) who constantly choreographs the actors to keep the show on the rails. I was reminded of the old joke: just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean that they're not out to get you!

The climax of the film (and the Show) is dramatic and uplifting, a fitting end to an excellent, original and amusing production. Full marks!

Friday 7 January 2011

Beholder's Eye by Julie E. Czerneda

I haven't read anything by this author before but kept hearing favourable comments about her work, so I decided to try Beholder's Eye, the first of her Web Shifters trilogy, published in 1998.

The premise is unusual in that the heroine, Esen, is not only not human, she is an immortal being of pure energy who has the power to take the form of any race she knows. She and her small group of related Web Shifters spend most of their time in material form, spending years living within one culture after another and using their unique abilities to absorb and remember everything about them so that they will not be forgotten if they disappear. Their primary concern is not to be discovered, so they hide their true nature from everyone.

In this far-future universe, humanity has spread over a large number of worlds but is just one among many races in a mostly peaceable but occasionally turbulent galactic civilisation, divided into several rival blocs. Esen inadvertently becomes involved with a group of humans and is captured along with one of them, Ragem. In order to save his life she is forced to reveal something of her nature and he then becomes her intermittent companion in the adventures that follow.

I enjoyed the beginning of the tale but after a while began to find it somewhat uninvolving. This is partly because it's a bit difficult to empathise with an immortal alien energy being, partly because there is an inevitable lack of tension, despite a series of dramatic escapades, since the reader knows that Esen could escape from any threat if she chose. However, this changes in the last third of the book as a deadly danger, a more primitive Web Shifter predator, begins to hunt down and attack Esen's group. The story then becomes a tense battle for survival for the Web Shifters.

The story is told in the first person by Esen, who makes a likeable heroine although her attitudes are not at all alien; she thinks and behaves exactly as a human woman might if given her unusual ability. On the other hand she is influenced, sometimes amusingly, by the attitudes of the races she copies, because she becomes them in style of thought as well as appearance. Her developing and sometimes rocky relationship with Ragem, as he gradually discovers more about her circumstances, is another plus point. In the end I found it a good if not great read and worth the time spent on it, despite my reservations.

Saturday 1 January 2011

Film: Gattaca (1997)

Yet another film which I finally got around to seeing after meaning to for many years.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, it is set in a not-too-far distant future in which children's genetic make-up can be adjusted at conception, a process routinely done by those who can afford it. This is not just to avoid any genetic disabilities but also to produce flawless people of superior all-round physical and mental ability. Such people, known as "valids", have huge advantages in life and are routinely appointed to the best jobs. But not everyone is born with such advantages - many are "in-valids". So what do you do if you have a burning desire to go on a mission to the outer planets, but lack the genetic superiority which is a basic requirement of being an astronaut? Particularly when instant genetic tests are carried out frequently at workplaces, as a matter of routine?

This is the problem facing the protagonist Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke). He finds a way of tricking the tests with the aid of a crippled valid whose identity he takes, and is duly selected for a forthcoming space mission. But he lives in constant fear of discovery; a situation exacerbated when he becomes involved with a colleague (Uma Thurman, so glossily perfect that she seems alien). Then a murder occurs at his workplace and an intense investigation follows in which he becomes the prime suspect. Will he be able to survive this and take his place on the mission?

Gattaca succeeds on three levels: it's a gripping thriller, relying on psychological tension rather than car chases or explosions; it foreshadows issues around human genetic manipulation which are likely to be with us in reality all too soon; and it is a human story of a fight for identity and achievement over and above that which is written in the genes. The direction is restrained and the film has a pared-down minimalist feel without an unnecessary scene or word; the score by Michael Nyman complements it perfectly. I am not a fan of dystopias, which is basically what this film portrays, but it is still one of the best SF movies I've ever seen.