Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Revisiting the Classics -- The Incredible Hulk

Today we have the 1978 TV series The Incredible Hulk, starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.

The plot centers around physicist David Banner (Bixby), a man still grieving over the death of his beloved, who died when Banner's car had a blowout, flipped over, and burst into flames. Banner, along with his colleague and friend Elaina Marks (Susan Sullivan), are researching people who performed amazing feats of strength under life-threatening circumstances. Why were they able to do what Banner could not? The research eventually leads him to gamma radiation. Each of those people experienced heightened bursts of the mysterious energy during their ordeals. On a whim, he decides to expose himself to large quantities of gamma radiation. As anyone even remotely familiar with the comics, TV show or movies knows, this results in him transforming into an angry green bruiser (Ferrigno) in times of stress. And if that wasn't bad enough, nosy reporter McGee (Jack Colvin) get wind of the Hulk (as he names him) and comes snooping around. McGee accidentally causes an explosion which kills Elaina. Thinking the Hulk did it, he publishes the story, and soon Banner's alter ego is wanted for Elaina's murder. Unable to prove he didn't do it, Banner goes on the lamb. He wanders the country, fighting bad guys, helping out innocent civilians, with McGee never far behind. Can our hero ever be cured of the Hulk and return to a normal life?

The TV series differs significantly from the comics. The main character is named David Banner instead of Bruce Banner; the Hulk is largely mute, rarely letting more than a growl escape his lips; he doesn't fight aliens or any of the colorful villains from the comics (the series is a bit more grounded in reality). Still, both the comics and TV show feature Banner as a wandering hero cursed with his own dark side.

The show ran for five seasons and spawned three subsequent movies, The Death of the Incredible Hulk, The Incredible Hulk Returns, and The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. Today the series can be laughed at for how poorly it has aged, audio-visually. The special effects are cheesy, and the Hulk isn't nearly as large as he is in the comics, but the creators were limited with what they could do back then. I happen to think the series is still pretty entertaining, and I appreciate the touching moments between Banner and Elaina in the pilot. Bill Bixby was a talented actor, and I tip my hat to him. Jack Colvin was also good as Bixby's foil, following the protagonist from city to city, trying to get the scoop on the Hulk. And, of course, I can't forget to mention the classic piano theme which tugs at your heart strings.

So in conclusion: The Incredible Hulk TV series is a cult favorite, and for good reason. Just don't go into it expecting today's amazing special effects and cerebral stories.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight Review

This week I decided to Review The Lost Stars Tarnished Knight by Jack Campbell. This is the first book in the second of two current series following the events of the author’s The Lost Fleet series. While The Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier focuses on the further adventures of the characters from the Lost Fleet  The Lost Stars focuses on one system from the Syndic Worlds, and its efforts as it asserts its independence in the wake of the defeat of the Syndic Worlds. The early part of the book focuses on the revolt which frees the Midway system from the Syndic worlds then moves on to the two main characters trying to decide just what type of government they wish to establish and setting it in motion, while dealing with the fact that neither entirely trust the other. Later parts deal with Midway’s efforts to strengthen their military forces and forge alliances with nearby systems, including intervention in a three way civil war in one neighboring system.
I give the book 8.5 out of 10. The political side of things is very well done, and I find the struggle of the book’s protagonists to differentiate their new government from both of the major powers in the setting amusing. The battles are very well done, and its nice to see some small squadron and task force battles rather than the massive fleet actions of the other series in the setting, and getting to see the ground battles up close is enjoyable as well, The biggest flaw in the book is that virtually all of the antagonists are portrayed as fanatics. I find it hard to believe that everyone out to oppose the Midway system’s goals is as blood thirsty and insane as they are shown in the book.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Movie Review -- Escape Plan

Today I saw the new movie Escape Plan, starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. So without further ado, let's get into it.

Stallone stars as Ray Breslin, a man who breaks out of prisons for a living in order to make them as secure as possible. Together with his team (Amy Ryan, 50 Cent and Vincent D'Onofrio), he has successfully busted out of over a dozen correctional facilities. One day Breslin is approached for a unique job: Test a new top-secret high-tech prison--called the Tomb--for terrorists and other enemies of the state. With the pay being twice what he usually makes, he agrees. However, his violent entry into the Tomb makes it clear this job is not what it was supposed to be. And when he meets the sinister Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), he finds out the hard way that he was set up; someone arranged for him to go to prison...for good! With few options, Breslin teams up with Rottmayer (Swarzenegger) to form a...get ready for it...escape plan! But they can't go it alone, so they recruit Jihadist(?) Javed (Faran Tahir of Star Trek and Iron Man fame) and reluctant Dr. Kyrie (Jurassic Park's Sam Neill) to help them. Will Breslin be able to not only find out where the Tomb is located, but who set him up? And can our ragtag protagonists do the impossible and escape this seemingly escape-proof prison?

Stallone makes movies of varying quality. For every Rocky or Rambo, he also does a handful of films that aren't quite up to par. Escape Plan falls somewhere in the middle. It's intelligent in parts, and I appreciate all the research and thinking that went into this, but I wouldn't even put it on the same level as The Expendables. For one thing, Stallone's character just isn't as fleshed-out as Rocky Balboa or John Rambo. His motivation for repeatedly breaking out of prisons is admirable, but it's still not enough to get me to really root for him. Likewise, Schwarzenegger's character remains similarly flat (though in all fairness, nobody goes to an Arnie movie for character development). Also, the action is predictable (though still entertaining) and the big revelation about who set Breslin up happens too abruptly to be appreciated.

Bottom line: Escape Plan succeeds as an action movie, though not one on par with Stallone's best work.

"Want to get dinner?"
"I could cook."
"Haven't I suffered enough?"

Friday, October 11, 2013

Kindle Spotlight -- MM9

After I saw Pacific Rim, someone suggested I read Hiroshi Yamamoto's kaiju novel MM9. I did, and let me tell you, in some ways it is better than Pacific Rim.

The story takes place in the present. Ryo, Sakura, Yuri, Chief Kurihama and the others at Japan's Monsterological Measures Departmanet work night and day to protect the country from kaiju attacks. Unlike Pacific Rim, kaiju are fairly commonplace in this world; the MMD records an average of 200 new ones a year, and they've been showing up for decades if not centuries. In fact, they're actually somewhat benign; they usually don't mean any harm, but they're so big they can't help but cause trouble. Their size ties into each kaiju's Monster Magnitude rating, which is pretty much a measure of their destructive potential. The bigger they are, the higher the rating. An MM9 could potentially wield almost godlike power. No MM9 has ever been reported, but as you can probably tell by the title, that's about the change.

Now, you may be wondering: How do they deal with the kaiju that threaten everyone's livelihood? Do they use giant robots like in Pacific Rim and anime? Nope, they're stuck with conventional weaponry. It sounds weird, but MM9 is a more believable kaiju story. The Japanese SDF must consistently find a way to defeat the monsters using present technology. I like this, because it means the beasties aren't dispatched by simple brute force. Yamamoto really used his head, and so each kaiju threat plays out quite differently than the previous one.

I also like the characters. They're not battle-hardened warriors; they're just regular people trying to protect Japan from otherworldly dangers. From serious-but-likable Ryo, to wreckless youth Sakura, to motherly Yuri, to cranky Kurihama, the characters are adequately fleshed out.

However, the real stars of the novel are the multitude of supernatural creatures that Yamamoto thought up. You've got your garden-variety animals that grew large through unknown means, plant-based kaiju, radioactive flying kaiju, sentient yokai, and...well, I won't spoil the best ones. Suffice to say, this book is brimming with imagination.

Oh, and I can't forget the serious research that went into writing this novel. Yamamoto references a lot of scientific theories in the story. Are you familiar with the parallel anthropic principal? What about the law of causality? Do you know what a paradigm shift really is? You will, thanks to MM9. It's educational as well as entertaining.

So, in conclusion: This is a more realistic kaiju story, grounded in real science, and that's why I like it. If you're a kaiju fan, you absolutely must give this a read.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Revisiting the Classics -- The Terminator

Today we have the 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Terminator.

The story mostly takes place in (then) present-day Los Angeles. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is a carefree waitress living an ordinary life. That all changes, however, when a hulking thug (Schwarzenegger) begins systematically murdering the Sarah Connors in the phone book. Said murderer eventually tracks her to a night club, intent on finishing the job. But a mysterious stranger named Reese (Michael Biehn) shows up to save her. He explains that he's come back from a post-apocalyptic future in which machines have turned against humanity. One such machine, the Terminator, has been sent to kill Sarah because her future son, John Connor, is destined to lead mankind to victory over them. She initially (and understandably) refuses to believe him, but after some more superhuman carnage from the Terminator, she accepts that what he's saying is true, and together they try to survive long enough for Sarah to give birth to John.

When this movie first came out, it challenged us to new ideas. What if technology advances beyond our ability to control it? What if it decides to terminate us? Is it a risk worth taking? Director James Cameron brought us a thought-provoking vision of the future that would not be equaled until The Matrix came out in 1999. In addition, solid acting by the cast (especially Schwarzenegger as the terrifying titular character) help convey the emotions the characters go through.

The audio and visual component of The Terminator continue to hold up today. Stan Winston was the man when it came to visual effects, and this film is a prime example of that. Everything from the future scenes, to the Terminator's make-up and prosthesis's, is very realistic and believable. And Brad Fiedel's moody synth soundtrack really brings you into the story. To this day I love listening to the Terminator theme.

The movie spawned three sequels, with Terminator 2: Judgment Day being my personal favorite. You can skip the third film, as it doesn't bring enough new ideas to the table in my opinion. Terminator: Salvation is pretty good, though. The series seems to have gone dormant in recent years, though there's been talk of a reboot in the works.

Bottom line: all science fictions fans should see The Terminator at least once in their lives.

"I'll be back."