She-Ra Season 3 is Very Good

Really this is She-Ra season 2 part 2 but it is billed as season 3 on Netflix. The streaming service appears to be encouraging shows to run shorter seasons more frequently. That makes sense as a way of both encouraging binge watching and helping draw in viewers with new seasons appearing.

For She-Ra that meant that season 2 finished around the point where the major plot arc was just warming up again after a few fun stand alone episodes. That left season 3 as much tighter plot-arc driven set of episodes.

Starting with Shadow Weaver visiting Adora, the episodes amount to a series of revelations about Adora, the First Ones, Hordak and the ‘first’ She-Ra Mara. We learn less about Catra’s backstory but her arc from friend to rival to arch-enemy continues to be both sympathetic and unforgiving.

Lots of twists, so I can’t really summarise but it is a genuinely great bit of TV.

I didn’t finish even one episode of ‘Another Life’ on Netflix

[Also please read this post]*

The new space-adventure on Netflix entitled “Another Life” has had some rough reviews. However, I’d seen some people I trust say some positive things about it, in particular that the character development improves in later episodes and that the plot did draw them in.

I’ve got a high tolerance for nonsense in sci-fi and I think it takes a lot to put me off. I don’t need orbital mechanics to be right, I don’t need technological consistency. I like it when sci-fi does consider the broader consequences of the technology it invents but I can cope when it doesn’t because so, so often it doesn’t.

So what did it in for me? Partly it was the way a whole pile of stuff stacked up in this first episode. I didn’t find the characters initially very engaging (aside from the ship’s computer hologram) but it’s episode 1 and I can cope with that in episode 1. That this sort of near-future setting also has faster-than-light spaceships seemed a bit off but, OK who knows when there will be an amazing scientific breakthrough. Yeah but…that this near-future Earth has space-hibernation and a whole pile of space technology but also is very new at the whole thing…really starts banging on my suspension of disbelief. Then there was the hologram call from the space ship back to Earth in realtime and…no, no it’s OK, if they’ve cracked the whole speed of light thing then maybe they’ve got an ansible thing as well.

It was more the little things. When the central character wakes up from space hibernation and just sort of spills out onto the floor of a corridor, like nobody put any thought into how the crew will wake up. If the series was set in some grungy future of second hand spaceships, I could believe that but this is supposed to be the state of the art spaceship at the peak of human technology. The science is one thing, but seriously somebody would have thought that bit through (or at least the ship’s hologram would be there waiting when the captain woke up).

I say the little things but actually it was specifically chairs.

The point were I turned off and was in a sequence where the ship is trying to slingshot round a star (don’t ask why, just go along with it) and the crew are standing around the controls. The ship is getting quite a bashing (the standard visual clues, a panel falls off, sparks flies, etc) and the crew keep getting lurched around. The ship is in danger of falling to bits, that’s how bad this is supposed to be. The crew are standing around being flung about. The crew are STANDING. Seriously? The show wants me to accept this crew as smart, competent people and nobody is sitting in a chair with a seat belt? OK, I can forgive the seat belts as generally sci-fi spaceships don’t have them but for goodness sake SIT DOWN or at the very least hold on to something. The flailing around made these expert astronauts look like people who wouldn’t be able to cope with a bus trip without bumping into fellow passengers. The amazing future spaceship apparently had less design thought put into it than a standard passenger plane.

Now I’ve even seen still images from later episodes where the central character is sitting in some kind of pilot’s chair with straps but honestly that only makes things worse. I can’t believe in a future where people apparently don’t know when to sit down.

*[The link is just an experiment to see how traffic flows on the blog but it is a fun posts as well 🙂 ]

Rewatching The Shining

What better film to watch for the anniversary of the moon landings than Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining*. It has been a long time since I watched but it is a film so heavily referenced and parodied that it is easy to fall into an assumption of familiarity.

Watching it again, there is a lot that stands out. Visually, the way Kubrick emphasises physical space is stunning. The opening credits use helicopter shots of Jack Torrance’s car on the way to his interview at the Overlook Hotel. It’s a fairly common visual device these days, with drones capable of filming from heights quite cheaply but that doesn’t diminish the visual impact of the scenery. What does diminish the impact is the visual style of the titles, which unfortunately now look like a default setting on video-app but which would have looked very modern at the time.

I’d remembered the film as effectively exonerating Jack Torrance’s violence towards his family by blaming it on supernatural intervention and isolation. I’d forgotten the earlier scene where Wendy Torrance is speaking to a doctor after Danny has a black out. The tension is palpable as she explains the “accident” that Danny suffered at Jack’s hands when he was younger. It is a very disturbing insight into Jack’s character, who is manifestly a dangerous and controlling man prior to the main events in the film.

When I first watched the film many years ago, I was really unnerved by plot line around Danny’s psychic powers and his imaginary friend. It is a very different film when you know that his imaginary friend Tony is largely benevolent and just trying to warn people. It’s essentially the reverse premise of The Omen. Kids, even supernatural and possibly possessed ones, aren’t dangerous, it is adult men that are dangerous and they convince themselves that violence is a valid response to conflict.

Shelley Duvall’s Wendy is the polar opposite to a woman action hero, nevertheless she manages to save herself and Danny from not only Jack but a haunted hotel, largely unaided. Indeed, she successfully knocks Jack unconscious and has him locked away in a pantry. He only escapes via one of the few moments of unambiguous physical intervention by supernatural powers.

Hotel chef and closet psychic, Dick Halloran’s storyline I remembered as being primarily misdirection. After a long sequence of him making his way from Miami to Colorado, he is murdered shortly after arriving in the hotel. I’d forgotten that his arrival ensured that Wendy and Danny have a vehicle to escape in. It’s good he’s given some substantial screen time but not great that the only black character is despatched so swiftly.

Does the ending or the supernatural elements make any sense? No and if anything the surrounding theories only add to the confusion. I think I can safely assume that the film is not Kubrick confessing to have staged the moon landings (Danny’s jumper not withstanding).

Having said that, there’s a weird science fiction aesthetic to the film. No, I’m not going to claim it is science fiction but the vast empty and brightly lit hotel has echoes with Kubrick’s space stations. The later parts of the film when the luminous inside contrasts with the dark and physically hostile exterior feels like an aesthetic cousin to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). There is also that commonality with the claustrophobia/agoraphobia/isolation psychological tension from space set horror. The geometric designs also play into that spaceship aesthetic and I guess it is no accident to find Kubrick’s aesthetic reflects science fiction film aesthetics when 2001 was such an influence.

Not the Overlook Hotel

*[Aside from Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, or if I’m insisting on Kubrick 2001]

The science-fiction of ‘Yesterday’

I gave the recent Beatles-comedy ‘Yesterday’ a very short Hitchhiker’s Guide inspired review. Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Richard Curtis, I was hoping for something a bit more Boyle but it was pretty much Curtis: i.e. a whimsical, isn’t England sort of nice, fluff. There’s an under current of a film about talent and impostor syndrome but the film can’t really go examine that because the central character is an impostor of sorts and (spoiler) he gives it all up for true love (ahhh).

One other point as to why it wasn’t entirely harmless. There is an excellent cameo by Robert Carlyle who appears as an ageing John Lennon. Nicely acted but as others have pointed out, John Lennon is a very, very poor example of anybody who should be dishing out relationship advice. He was an abusive partner and a deeply messed up person in many ways. Pretending otherwise does him no favours.

However, what I wanted to talk about was the science fiction element of the film. So, if I may, I’ll recap the premise of the film as advertised initially.

Jack Mailk is a struggling singer-songwriter in a British seaside town. His career is going nowhere despite the support of his manager and childhood friend Ellie. Then one evening there is a worldwide blackout, during which Jack is hit by a bus. When he wakes up he discovers that everybody has forgotten the Beatles (and some other things). Jack revives his career by performing Beatles songs as his own…

The film is a light comedy and not a science fiction film, so the mechanism of what has occurred isn’t examined. I should add, that’s a smart choice — they ‘why and how’ of a strange happening doesn’t need to be examined* for a good story but the ‘why and how’ is part of how to look at a narrative science-ficitionally.

The addition of an old John Lennon, living a quiet and apparently fulfilled life on a remote cottage by the sea was interesting (with the caveats above) but it also settled a key question about the premise of the film: i.e. was the premise that everybody had forgotten the Beatles or was it that the Beatles had never existed? That Lennon is alive in the story demonstrated that history had actually changed — rather than some sort of collective mind-wipe, the history of the world Jack woke up to was quite different than the one he was living in before the bus hit him.

The film glosses over this but it changes a great deal. Jack is plagued by doubts because he feels the adulation he is getting for his music is unearned. Yet, in a world where those songs were never written until Jack wrote them, we just have a very weird creative process. Heck, there’s no reason why he even has to be secretive or when he does reveal the truth why he needs to give up. “My songs come from a parallel universe where they are written by a band of Scousers who from your perspective are imaginary” is as good an explanation of the creative process as any. Jack even gets some encouragement from the few other souls who remember the other history.

With our science-fiction goggles on, the film is an alternate-history/parallel universe story with a dash of portal fantasy. Jack has switched worlds. This implies another, more boring story, where a parallel Jack also wakes up in hospital to discover he is the only person who DOESN’T remember the Beatles (plus various other things).

Which takes me to the romantic plot of the film. The love interest, Ellie, has believed in Jack’s talent since school. We are told (and shown in flashback) the significant moment from their childhood, when Jack performed at a school concert and played “Wonderwall” by Oasis. Unstated, but implied, is that it is from this point that Ellie has secretly loved Jack.

Now with our understanding that post the accident, the Ellie we meet is actually a different character — an Ellie from a parallel universe with a different history — how does that change things? An early joke in the film is that Oasis never existed in this parallel universe (because the Gallagher brothers aimed to be the Beatles of Manchester). So what song did Jack sing at the school concert?

Did he sing Wonderwall? That wouldn’t have been quite as amazing as singing a Beatles song nobody had ever heard before but still an impressive bit of songwriting for a school kid (as the audience would perceive it). Except, in the parallel universe, presumably school-aged Jack is parallel-universe Jack and hence ALSO wouldn’t know of the Beatles or Oasis. Jack in the film remembers singing Wonderwall but this is a memory from a different universe with a different Ellie.

The issue with their relationship which becomes clear when Jack’s career suddenly takes off due to his Beatles covers, is that Jack has always treated Ellie as a friend and manager but never recognised or reciprocated that she is in love with him. Of course, this revelation (obvious as it is given that the film is a romantic comedy) only occurs IN THE PARALLEL UNIVERSE. That opens the question as to whether the actual Ellie he has been friends with for years was in love with him or actually, the Beatles-universe Ellie genuinely was just friends with him. But in that case…the Non-Beatles universe Ellie actually fell in love with a DIFFERENT Jack. The Jack she ends up with (is it a spoiler for a romantic comedy that the cute couple get together in the end?) isn’t the REAL Jack. Which, I don’t know, would bug me a lot more if I was him than the whole thinking he was fake because he didn’t write the Beatles songs he is playing.

I can’t see that ‘Wonderwall’ is accidental either. The film quite deliberately picks that as the song that school-aged Jack song, presumably to establish that his taste in songs included Beatles-derivative music and hence why he would be able to remember (sometimes with difficulty) the lyrics and music without help. Curtis isn’t a stranger to time-travel plots [eg https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/About_Time_(2013_film) and an episode of Doctor Who] so I wouldn’t be surprised if the weird disjointed chain of events around what Jack sang in the past was both intentional and intentionally unresolvable.

I should add, thinking about all of this in the final part of the film really doesn’t help the film at all though. If you haven’t seen it, best to take off the science fictional goggles and just go along with it…

*[but yes, I am examining it]

Review: Spider-Man, Far From Home

The film that follows Avengers: Endgame faced an unenviable task. Marvel’s huge finale was a definite narrative end and a suitable point at which to pack up the franchise. However, that was never the plan. Endgame was the end of a set of phases in Marvel’s cinematic universe rather than an end to the whole project. Yes, no more Iron Man and no more (probably) Captain America, at least with in the form of Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans but Marvel had already positioned a new roster of characters to keep things going (and looks like there will be a Thor 4).

Pulling Spider-Man into the mix from Sony was a smart move and has resulted in a weird kind of Spider-Renaissance, with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming providing a surprisingly fresh take on the superhero who is second only to Batman in having modern movie reboots. Sony then manage to up that ante with Into the Spiderverse throwing a whole nest of Spideys at the screen in vivid colours. Far From Home as a film was placed in the wholly unenviable position of having to live-up to not just Endgame but also two great recent Spider-Man films and kick off the next round of the MCU.

It doesn’t fail at this these tasks but it does dodge them. The major plot twist is strongly signalled to anybody who knows about Spider-Man’s classic villains and is explained by exposition (nicely done, but still a pause for the bad guy to explain to his hench people what is going on). I don’t want to sound dismissive by saying it is a kid’s movie (I like kid’s movies and often they get to be more inventive than movies pitched at adults) but it feels like it has a younger audience in mind. There’s a teen-comedy feel that I think works for the character and the engaging cast but which also side-steps the momentous backstory that comes with from being set post-Endgame.

The positioning of Spider-Man as the replacement for the Iron Man franchise is overt. As with Homecoming, Tony Stark looms large over the film but this time posthumously. It’s an interesting choice but one Marvel obviously planned given how Spider-Man was introduced in Civil War, the inclusion of Stark in Homecoming and the pairing of Peter Parker and Tony Stark in Avengers: Infinity War.

Tonally there’s very little in common between the Spider-Man films and the Iron Man films. The torch-handing-over aspect is more of a plot point but also in terms of Spider-Man now being ‘the one with the gadgets’ in the franchise. Not wholly off-brand for Spider-Man given Peter Parker’s interest in technology but still an odd choice for a superhero with his own innate powers.

Jake Gyllenhaal is fun to watch as always, as are Cobie Smulders and Samuel L Jackson as a kind of two-person version of SHIELD. The theme of Peter Parker and substitute fathers (Stark, Fury, Misterio) continues without becoming overwhelmed by angst. The broader theme of deception and what can and can’t be trusted is a timely one and leads into a nice surprise in the post-credit scenes.

Fun and diverting. It’s not the pleasant surprise that Homecoming was and it isn’t visual feast that Spiderverse was but it is a sweet film with really likeable characters and enough superhero action to keep me interested.

Funny What You Find When You Go Looking

I’ve been wandering down strange paths looking for dinosaur related things. After (and before) yesterday’s post, I’ve been doing web searches of the form ‘[author name] dinosaur’ and seeing what pops up.

One thing I stumbled on from ‘Judith Merril dinosaur’ was this https://archive.org/stream/MerrilEdPathIntoTheUnknown/Merril_ed%20-%20Path%20into%20the%20Unknown_djvu.txt

Which is an OCR scan of a collection of Soviet science-fiction stories edited by Judith Merril in 1968 called “Paths Into the Unknown: The Best of Soviet Science Fiction”. It announces itself breathlessly:

DIRECT FROM RUSSIA TODAY! A MIND-BLASTING GALAXY OF FAR-OUT, EXCITING SF STORIES! The Best of Soviet Science Fiction

“A SIGNIFICANT EVENT. . . . THE FIRST SOVIET SCIENCE FICTION ANTHOLOGY WE HAVE HAD WHICH SUITS CURRENT AMERICAN SF TASTES”
Judith Merril, perhaps the world’s greatest science fiction authority.
During recent years, in Russia as in the West, a gigantic scientific-technological revolution has taken place. In science fiction, a similar great leap forward has been achieved. Here are the finest stories by the greatest of Russian SF masters—stories that will amaze, intrigue and delight as they take you into the strange, fantastic, all too real worlds of tomorrow. HERE IS THE MOST FASCINATING SCIENCE FICTION COLLECTION OF THE YEAR.

I didn’t have time to read it all but obviously did a search for ‘dinosaur’ which led me to the story (novelette?) “The Boy” by Gennady Gor. I can’t say I’d heard of him before but it is a weird and intriguing story.

It has a story within a story structure. A teenager is recounting his interactions with another boy in his class called Gromov. The story starts with the class teacher reading to the class Gromov’s homework — a story that Gromov had written:

He began to read. He read magnificently and we felt at once that the story was about something very strange and extraordinary. About a boy lost in the cold, boundless universe.

The Boy had been born along the way, among the stars, and the spaceship, a copy in miniature of the planet left behind, to which the grown-ups, his mother and father and companions failed to get used to in the course of a decade, was to him something ordinary and habitual like our school-yard was to us. Somewhere in the infiniteness of the universe they had left far behind the dense evergreen forests, blue rivers, houses full of merriment and noise and long roads. The Boy could watch all this on the screen, but to him it was all bits of dreams. Perhaps all this had never really existed . . . ?

The Boy by Gennady Gor in Paths Into the Unknown: The Best of Soviet Science Fiction” ed Judith Merril

The story goes on from there and touches on cryptozoology and the deep past and alien discoveries. I really enjoyed it.

Anyway, as you may have guessed, instead of finishing a different post I spent my time reading an old Soviet sci-fi story instead. 🙂 It might get a mention in the dinography as it does mention dinosaurs as well as proto-mammals and pleisosaurs (including one found in a Scottish loch).