Friday 25 January 2013

Films: Hanna (2011), and The Hunger Games (2012)

Two films with a common element: the heroines are teenage girls who are compelled to fight for their lives in extreme circumstances. By a strange coincidence, the opening sequences of both films also have the heroines hunting deer with bows and arrows. However, at that point the plot similarities come to an end.

Hanna is set in more or less the present day. We first see the eponymous 15-year-old heroine (played by Saoirse Ronan) living with her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana) in an isolated log cabin in a remote near-Arctic forest wilderness. We soon learn two things about her: this life is all she has known, and she is being trained by her father (who we later learn used to be an important C.I.A. operative) to be a lethal fighter for some specific purpose. All of her learning comes from an encyclopedia; she has never met anyone else, seen electric power, or heard music. Inevitably, she becomes old enough to decide that she wants to go out into the world, so Heller gives her a radio signalling device to draw attention to their location, while he makes his separate way to civilisation. The signaller sounds an alarm in the C.I.A., alerting senior officer Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), who realises it comes from Heller and immediately sends an armed team to the log cabin. The rest of the film follows Hanna, Heller, and Weigler until they inevitably come together in a brutal finale, gradually revealing the true nature of their relationships and why Hanna is such a uniquely effective fighter. And in case you were wondering, there is an SF element which emerges towards the end.

This is a surprisingly adult film, not the cartoon-type kick-ass juvenile I was half expecting. The drama is relieved by some rather surreal characters and occasional humour as the unworldly heroine is introduced to modern technology and human behaviour. Well-acted and intriguing, if rather grim.

The Hunger Games is based on the novel of the same name (which I haven't read) by Suzanne Collins, who also co-authored the screenplay. It has a very different setting, in a future country called Panem in which a modern civil war had resulted in each of the twelve rebellious Regions having to send one boy and one girl teenager to participate in the annual Hunger Game. This is no sporting contest, however; it is a fight to the death, which only one can survive to win fame and fortune.

THG is a film of two halves: the first half is concerned with the build-up to the Game, the second with the Game itself. We start in the poverty-stricken Region 12 by getting to know Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a capable archer and hunter, who becomes one of the tributes (participants) in the Game. The scenes of her life are contrasted with those in the high-tech Capitol where preparations are being made for the forthcoming Game under the direction of the Gamemaker, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). The build-up to the event is very good, the tension steadily building as the tributes are prepared for the Game, including rather bizarre public relations events to drum up sponsors for each tribute - support which could make the difference between life and death. By the time the Game actually begins, the tension is at a maximum. The arena is an area of forest in which the two dozen tributes form shifting alliances, cooperating with and killing each other depending on the circumstances, while the Gamemaker keeps adjusting the rules in order to keep the audience entertained.

This is an exciting film, the first half leaving me on the edge of my seat. Ironically I found that the tension dissipated to some extent once the Game began, when it settled into being a more routine combat tale. A couple of issues concerning the principal character nagged at me. First, it is never explained why she obtains the highest all-round combat score in the pre-games tests, beating boys who have trained for the Games for years, when she seems very passive and placid, and we only see her use a bow. Secondly, the actress doesn't really look the part: her family is supposed to be very poor and in one flashback scene we see her starving and being thrown a burnt loaf of bread, yet she always looks very well-fed. I think a lean and hungry actress with a lot of pent-up aggression would have been better suited for the role.

These two films are very different in style, but both are well worth watching. If I had to pick one to see again, it would be the quirky, offbeat Hanna rather than the humourless THG, because I liked the contrast between the strange premise and the current, ordinary world in which it takes place.

Friday 18 January 2013

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book is one of Connie Willis' early novels, set in her time-travelling universe in which mid-21st century Oxford academics use a somewhat unreliable time machine to send researchers back into history on a variety of fact-gathering expeditions.

A young student of medieval history, Kivrin Engle, is sent back to the 14th century to record her impressions of life there. Unfortunately for her, things immediately start going wrong: she falls ill, and discovers that many of the assumptions made by the academics who sent her are far from the truth. And why do people start dying of horrible diseases when she had been sent back long before the arrival of the Black Death - hadn't she? Her adventures are interleaved with events in the future Oxford, where a worried Professor Dunworthy is having to cope with a sudden outbreak of an unidentified form of influenza which is increasingly putting at risk the plans to retrieve Kivrin at the end of her stay.

The plot is frankly rather grim and gets steadily grimmer, especially in the medieval part, so this is not one to read if you're already feeling depressed. It is relieved by some humour in the 21st century sections, in the form of the errant young Colin, the dreadful Mrs Gaddson and a group of American bellringers forever obsessing about performing their Tittum Bob Maxims and Chicago Surprise.

I have an ambivalent relationship with this author's novels, of which this one is typical. I love her writing skills which make me care about her characters and keep me wanting to know what happens next. As usual, she allows plenty of time for us to get to know not just the principal characters but a large cast of subsidiary ones as well. The problem is that in doing so she spends large chunks of her novels detailing subsidiary plot threads, often with a lot of repetition, resulting in books which are often slow-paced and considerably longer than they need to be to tell the story. Doomsday Book displays all of these characteristics. It won both Hugo and Nebula Awards when published in 1992 and like all of this author's works is a high-quality piece of writing which creates a powerful period flavour, but for my taste could have been improved by some judicious editing.

Friday 11 January 2013

TV series: Fringe (2008+), and Warehouse 13 (2009+)

The success of that famous TV series The X-Files, which ran from 1993 to 2002 (was it really that long ago?), has obviously inspired some other programme makers. Two different TV series came along only a year apart, both featuring US government agents who specialise in investigating paranormal phenomena. I've just started to watch them and have seen the first few episodes of each.

Fringe features Anna Torv as FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, who becomes involved in investigating some very strange occurrences in the field of "fringe science". The first involves a plane on a scheduled flight which lands automatically, with all the passengers and crew not only dead but with little more than skeletons left of them. To solve the mystery Dunham has to recruit an awkward pair of scientific geniuses, father and son team Walter and Peter Bishop (John Noble and Joshua Jackson). She and her team are then seconded to the Department of Homeland Security, working under Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick) who tells her that what she witnessed is only one of many similar occurrences known as "the Pattern". Subsequent episodes involve Dunham investigating other mysterious incidents with the aid of Peter Bishop, while his father, still struggling with the after-effects of a long stay in a secure mental unit, works in a makeshift laboratory to discover what is happening and how to counter it.

Warehouse 13 features Joanne Kelly as Myka Bering and Eddie McClintock as Pete Lattimer, two Secret Service Agents who are assigned to a vast, isolated warehouse in a desolate part of the country in order to assist the curator, Artie Nielsen (Saul Rubinek), in his task of collecting any mysterious objects with unexplained powers which might prove dangerous if left in circulation. The warehouse contents vary from secret inventions by famous scientists to mythological items which contain strange forms of energy which may cause mayhem if released. The agents travel the country, investigating unexplained occurrences to discover whether or not such objects might be involved (which naturally they usually are) and bringing them back for safe keeping.

How do the two series compare? Fringe is more similar in mood to The X-Files in that it treats its subject more seriously and frequently involves gruesome biological/medical scenes which push it towards the horror field. I hope this doesn't get worse as it was the increasingly horrific nature of The X-Files which eventually turned me off it. On the other hand, it has Anna Torv who has deservedly won awards for her compelling performance in the series; she has immediately joined the select group of actors whose presence is an incentive for me to watch whatever she's in. Warehouse 13 has a different feel; it is much lighter with a constant thread of humour running through it, particularly in the odd-couple relationship between the two agents, and it lacks the gruesome aspects. The mood is much more like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there is even a direct connection with that film, in the final scene of which we see the Ark of the Covenant being boxed up and deposited in a vast government warehouse full of such boxes. Well, in effect that's Warehouse 13!

According to the Wiki summaries, both series are regarded as improving as they progress, so it looks as if I may be following them for a while.

Friday 4 January 2013

Juggler of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner

Juggler of Worlds is the second of these authors' World series (there are four so far) and is the sequel to Fleet of Worlds, reviewed here in June 2011. JoW continues the story of the Puppeteers and their attempts to keep their "tame" human servants and the "wild" humans of Known Space (Earth and its independent colony worlds) from discovering each other's existence. However, there is a significant shift of focus from that in FoW, which concentrates on the story of the tame humans and their attempts to discover their origins and obtain their freedom as well as going into far more detail concerning the Puppeteers and their society and politics. While FoW fits into the long-established Known Space sequence, the material in it is mostly new.

In contrast, JoW is principally seen through the eyes of the Earth-based paranoid ARM agent Sigmund Ausfaller, as he attempts to discover what the Puppeteers are up to and why they have suddenly closed down all of their businesses on other planets and disappeared. A number of characters familiar from Niven's original Known Space stories re-emerge, especially Beowulf Shaeffer and Carlos Wu. Not only that, but a number of familiar stories are repeated (including Shaeffer's epic flight to the galactic core and the discovery by Shaeffer and Gregory Pelton of an anti-matter star system) only this time mainly from Ausfaller's viewpoint. This is the principal weakness of JoW; much of it seems concerned with recycling familiar events to fit into the book's framework rather than telling a new story.

As a result, I found that I was constantly distracted as I read the novel and realised I had read parts of it before in other contexts, and kept trying to recall what had happened then. This gave a very disjointed feel to the story and made it difficult for me to get involved in it. Ominously, I found that I kept losing the thread and forgetting the minor characters from one day to the next and needed to refresh my memory at the start of each reading session; a sure sign that it wasn't gripping me. I did grit my teeth and persevere with it, and fortunately was mildly rewarded at the end when the plot returned to the Puppeteer worlds and their tame humans for a dramatic finale - which also, of course, sets up the next volume.

Despite the satisfactory ending my main feeling was relief at having finished it. I found it disappointing and will probably not bother to read the next two books in the series.