Recent Sci Fi and other Cinema… Can there be drama without villains?

The world keeps becoming SF’nal in interesting ways.  Yesterday, I gave a talk at Google for Vinton Cerf’s Interplanetary Internet Group, aiming to extend out cyber networks across the solar system… (you may recognize Vint not only as one of the “fathers of the Internet but also portrayed as the “Architect” in The Matrix series.) Pictures forthcoming.

Meanwhile, I stand amazed as obstinacy at last starts to fail and Americans finally declare they’ve had enough of major parts of the insane Drug War… which reminds me of what Winston Churchill used to say about us Yanks, that we could be “relied upon to do the right thing — after trying everything else.”

And in that spirit…

== pocket film reviews — drama without villains! ==

EuropaReportLast week we enjoyed the modest and sweet SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN, which was quite lovely and – for a refreshing change – portrayed no male vileness among any major characters.  Just the ups and downs of love while solving a somewhat zenlike scientific-technical problem.

Interestingly, I might say much the same about EUROPA REPORT, which also completely lacked any villains, just brave astronauts trying to survive and get their jobs done amid accidents, (some plot-convenient blunders), and monumental discoveries…

…which also kind of describes the magnificent Cuaron film GRAVITY, again with no villains, other than nature and the harshness of space.  How interesting to spot this theme among a small number of recent films.  That you do not need red-glowing eyes or gloating-evil bad guys, or even men-behaving-badly to – on occasion – make interesting cinema.


Oh, there are other Sci Fi movies with no villain, pitting protagonists against nature or simple error: Apollo 13ArmageddonDeep ImpactHoney I Shrunk the KidsMarooned, and 2010.

See my musing, Name that Villain: Bad Guys and Aliens in Sci Fi Movies. And of course, my explanation of the “idiot plot” laziness that has propelled so many recent dystopias and silly scenarios that seem nearly-always to portray civilization as hopeless and all our neighbors as sheep.

Contionuing in this vein, I stumbled upon a late-night TCM viewing of THE BEGINNING OR THE END.  No, not the trashy 1957 Peter Graves sci fi flick that I loved as a kid — that replaced “or” with “of” in the title — about giant locusts eating Chicago. Rather, this is a 1947 docudrama about the making of the Atomic Bomb, starring Hume Cronyn as Ropert Oppenheimer and featuring actors playing Albert Einstein, Erico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Vannevar Bush and so on.  Some scenes were altered/exaggerated or shifted for drama.  Still, it takes you through  history – much of it scientifically accurate – from 1933 through 1945 – and had some rather moving segments!  Including a placard at the end — a message to “viewers in the 25th century” hoping we handled these new powers well.

Buck-rogersOh, have a look at the original Buster Crabbe – Flash Gordon movie! (The beginning of a serial series of cliffhangers.) It actually starts out not-too hokey! Pretty sci fi’ish, in fact. It even includes climate change!

The short film “Danger: Humans” by Tom Scott is a terrifying look at our species from the perspective of extraterrestrials. I contributed a number of its elements in the preceding, informal blog event that inspired Scott. Like the bits about capseisin, walk-hunting and our weird sonic-vibration sense!

Do you miss Firefly? Okay then, here’s some good clean fun.  A collection of the best curses in Mandarin Chinese from that wondrous show.

Finally, aw heck, I can’t help it. Some time ago I linked to WIRED’s super-short sci fi story contest that featured one of mine (the only one with a plot, three scenes, conversation, action and drama)… and a perceptive reader just pointed to striking similarity with a recent, smash-hit motion picture!  Judge for yourself:

Vacuum collision

Orbits diverge

Farewell love.

Ain’t it obvious which recent film we are discussing?  Look, Alfonso Cuarón, earned from all of us the greatest respect.  Still, in Hollywood-law they judge the spectrum of coincidence – from homage to ‘borrow’ – by a standard of percentages — of fractional point-by-point overlap.  So… can you see even a single point of my story that does not overlap with GRAVITY?

Is it worth at least a beer or two, hm?  Hey… (to use the phrase much in vogue among my kids)… I’m just sayin’.

UPLOAD-SELF-COMPUTER== sci fi news ==

George Dvorsky at iO9 explores Why you should upload yourself to a supercomputer… some of the pros and cons and possibilities.  A fun -light rundown.

Taking those ideas more seriously… in Economic Consequences of AI and Whole Brian Emulation, GMU economist Robin Hanson has been exploring what would be the motives, capabilities and incentives of software beings, living and working in virtual or cyber realms.  While there would be inherent differences, it is surprising how Malthus (the law of limited resources) will rear his head even in a domain of variable clock speeds and the power to copy one’s self.

Astounding-world-future,jpgGo see this mid-20th century newsreel featuring amazingly accurate predictions of the year 2000.  All right, okay, it’s sarcastic.  Very very very very sarcastic.

Still, think positive! Here’s an amazing look back at how far things have come. The two thousand home computer owners in the Bay Area get a chance to download (a 2 hour process) a pure text copy of the newspaper!

Oh my.  Canada’s former defense minister is a … believer: Aliens will give us tech if we quit wars!

On the other hand, we are definitely on an upward path when Dr. Who replaces Santa Claus! 

Ray Bradbury’s 1960s Prunes Commercial… hilarious!

== quickie shares ==

This optical illusion is so so SO worth your time.  

Japan’s huge magnetic net will trawl for space junk.  Compare to the first chapter of Existence!

Water-wheel-welloThis is a breakthrough: The WaterWheel helps those in the developing world transport water without carrying jugs. Women and children bear the primary responsibility for collecting water for domestic use.

Robots may replace one fourth of U.S. combat soldiers by 2030.

On the privatization of space.

The decline of the American book reader.

== When is homage something else? ==

Chris-voss-glenn-brown-sci-fi-paintingControversy rages over sci fi artist Glenn Brown, whose paintings sell for millions… and whose works are almost always direct copies of other artists.  Contemplating this bizarre story makes the mind reel, because Brown makes no effort to hide his sources of “inspiration” but rather cites well-known SF cover artists Anthony Roberts and Chris Foss and others in the very titles of his paintings, which repaint – without digital copying – the Roberts and Foss originals in meticulous detail, mostly altering color, shading etc.

It is easy to understand the outrage, but I’m not sure anyone has a legal leg to stand on, as painters have long copied other painters and sold their copies.  If a movie used any of the creative elements, Foss would likely be the copyright owner. Only his version can grace book covers or advertisements. Indeed, I’d be surprised (tho I’m just guessing here) if Brown can even get away with selling prints — and indeed, this legal quirk (that he can’t sell prints) might help to explain the prices folks pay for his originals… copies that they are!

Is all this outrageous? Sure. The absurd chutzpah has me ticked off and deeply irritated.  On the other hand, I always swivel and interrogate my own reactions. And so, the contrarian in me asks: has the resulting publicity harmed Foss and Roberts and Curtis? Oh, and that is just the beginning of head-scratching. See also a posting by Scott Edelman on this issue.

My wife posed it to me this way.  “What if someone sat down and read Startide Rising and used it as “inspiration” to type a new version, only much better, copying every scene in slightly-altered words? And though he could not publish it, he sold the typescript copy for a million bucks?”

OUCH!  Touché, woman.  Touché.


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