Watch this movie: Predestination

Time travel story plus great performances minus a creaky plot equals a stylish, though flawed, film.

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It took me about 20 minutes into Predestination, the new sci-fi film starring Ethan Hawke, to figure it all out. Predestination is a movie that tries to shroud itself in mystery, but that mystery is pretty evident to anyone who pays attention. If it wasn’t for the stylish visuals and strong performances by the two main actors — Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook — Predestination might have ended up being nothing more than a silly time-travel flick that falls apart too quickly.

But it’s not.

The plot, or as much as I can share, is this: Hawke plays a time travel agent who has been hopping around the latter half of the 20th century in an effort to stop the so-called Fizzle Bomber. When he’s on a stakeout as a bartender in a NYC dive in 1970, he meets a surly patron who proceeds to tell him a wild tale.

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That’s about all I can say without giving anything away. Predestination, based on the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein, brings one huge thing to the table for me: time travel. I love the conceit. I don’t care that time travel stories are inherently unstable, full of logical paradoxes. They’re fun. Predestination isn’t especially groundbreaking in its use of time travel. But at least they didn’t spend too much time trying to explain it. Part of that was a conscious narrative choice. This is a tightly told story. It sticks very close to certain characters. Just like them, we never get the bigger picture.

What sets Predestination apart from other movies of this genre is the performances. Ethan Hawke has been around long enough now — the man knows how to act convincingly. He is solid throughout. Sarah Snook, who plays a tough but lonely girl named Jane, is something else entirely. I’ve never heard of Snook, but I can’t imagine I won’t be hearing from her again. She had a tough role to play, and she was simply amazing. Her emotions ran the gamut, and she pulled them off convincingly and movingly. As played by Snook, Jane is a tragic character who you can’t help but relate to.

Sarah Snook

Despite all this, Predestination is stuck in B-movie land. The plot, especially toward the end, just could not carry the movie to the point of greatness. Nevertheless, Predestination is worth the time.

Archie vs Predator?

Call this post mash-ups gone wild.

What are two things that should not go together? Two things that absolutely MUST go together.

The latest proof — there’s a new comic series coming out that combines that all-American wholesomeness of the Archie comics with…. the sci-fi horror classic Predator.

Predator Archie

Say what???

According to this link at io9.com, Archie and friends will be forced to battle the Predator aliens while on vacation in Costa Rica. Sounds good to me.

When I was young, I loved the Archie comics. There was something so normal, so ideal, about Archie and his life. It was an experience I wanted. And of course I loved Predator. Badass Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting badass aliens? What’s not to like?

I hope Hollywood (or at least SyFy or the Spike Channel) have optioned these books. I would love to see Jughead’s severed head hoisted aloft.

Archie Predator

Charlie Hebdo and free expression

Time to get serious.

The world is reeling from the murders in Paris this week. Twelve people, including journalists and policemen, were murdered by Muslim terrorists. Why were these people killed? Because the journalists at the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo dared to express views these terrorists deemed unacceptable. Specifically, they criticized — and mocked — Muhammed.

This got these twelve humans killed.

Stephane Charbonnier, pictured below with one of the offending images, was the editor of Charlie Hebdo. He was among those murdered. He’d received death threats for daring to express himself. And his response?

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“I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”

I can’t express the rage I feel regarding the animals who murdered Charbonnier and the eleven others. I have no respect for their values.

This tragedy has only reinforced one of my core beliefs: the freedom of expression. As a writer, I wholeheartedly believe in the God-given human right to express myself freely. I believe that the dignity of the individual takes precedence over groupthink, and I want to live in a society where everyone is allowed to express themselves (as long as they’re not openly inciting violence).

Don’t get me wrong — there are scores of examples of speech and actions I personally find offensive. The Kardashians, for instance, or anything Madonna has said and done in the past decade. And then there’s Eli Roth’s torture porn Hostel movies.

But if I am offended, I change the channel, or leave the web page. I don’t murder people. I understand that some people cherish their beliefs, and are hurt when they are mocked, but I will not submit to violence or intimidation.

I am thankful I live in a society where freedom of expression is an accepted—if not constantly debated—value. I don’t enjoy mocking someone’s beliefs for the sake of shock alone. But the world needs to understand that violence isn’t acceptable. These images need to be shared widely so their threatening power will be diluted.

These are just a couple of images that were worth killing over. If this is what your god demands of you, I will never understand your god.

Charlie-Hebdo

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Why not Venus?

It’s been described as Earth’s twin, our sister planet, roughly the same size and composition as the home world we all know and love.

Venus Earth
But it’s the hellish parts of Venus that make it our evil twin:

–Its atmospheric pressure is nearly 100 times greater than on Earth. If you set foot on Venus you would be crushed.

–It is damn hot: over up to 900 degrees. At best, you would bake.

–Its atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, with clouds that rain sulphuric acid. Not only would you be unable to breathe, but the acid would melt your body.

Venus
So what’s good about this hell planet? What possible use could we have for it?

It turns out that Venus is not as useless as it may seem, at least not according to NASA.

If we are ever to become serious about off-world colonies, Venus might be a good place to start. But how could we ever live on such an inhospitable world? We couldn’t. Instead, we could float just above its poisonous atmosphere.

This is what some NASA scientists are planning: floating cities. These giant blimp-like structures would be tethered about 30 miles above Venus’s surface. At this level, the atmospheric pressure is roughly similar to that of Earth, and the temperature, while still an inhumanly 160 degrees, would be suitable for these structures. The crafts would be solar powered as well.

Venus floating cities
But if Venus is so bad, what’s the benefit?

It allows us to get our feet wet in terms of establishing colonies in space, and we could avoid problems such as extreme temperatures or adverse gravitational conditions (too little gravity and our bodies would break down faster than we would like).

I have never considered Venus as a potential off-world site, and the more I think about it, the better it sounds. Of course it would not be easy. There are many logistical problems, not to mention the cost involved.

At the very least, these NASA dreams can provide another cool setting for sci-fi.

Doctor Who: the companion takes charge

Doctor Who. the brilliant, long-running British sci-fi classic, is a vexing show when it comes to one element: the companions.

Basically, the companions of the time-traveling alien are stand-ins for the audience. The companion 1) allows the Doctor to explain, in exposition form, whatever is going on, and 2) serves to humanize the Doctor. And the companion is typically female.

There’s a well-worn cinematic trope called the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This is a character who is bright, bubbly and friendly, there to help the male protagonist achieve some measure of enlightenment. She has little if any inner life. She’s there simply to be the protagonist’s foil. Think Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffanys, or Natalie Portman in Garden State.

Doctor Who is ripe for Manic Pixie Dream Girls. The Doctor is a lost soul, a mournful (white) man searching for meaning and purpose in life. You would think Doctor Who would be bursting with Manic Pixie Dream Girls. But this show has mostly avoided falling into that trap. Let’s run down the companions (in the new Doctor Who era) and why they haven’t reached Manic Pixie Dream Girl status:

Rose Tyler was plucky and not afraid to hold her tongue. But she was too poor, uneducated and unrefined to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Rose

Martha Jones was closer to being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in that she was in love with the Doctor from the get-go. But she’s black (which doesn’t fit the archetype made by/for white guys) and way too educated (a doctor).

Martha

Donna Noble was my favorite companion, but she was nowhere close to being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She was too old, too physically imposing, and too rude. In short, she was too much her own person.

Donna

Amy Pond comes closest to being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl compared to the previous three. But Amy had a well-documented childhood that was messed up by the Doctor’s brief appearance and then disappearance. As a result, Amy 1) had a past. Manic Pixie Dream Girls barely exist as characters in their own right. And, 2) her past left her pretty messed up. Manic Pixie Dream Girls are supposed to be blank slates. Amy was definitely not blank (even if it was due to the meddling of our hero).

Amy Pond

And then there’s Clara Oswald.

If anyone was built to be a Manic Pixie Dream girl, it was Clara (played by Jenna Coleman), the pretty, brown-haired, pretty, perky, sarcastic schoolteacher. She was introduced under a veil of mystery (as two different characters centuries apart). She was known as the Impossible Girl; Clara Oswald helped save the Doctor by fragmenting herself across his multiple time streams. Her sole purpose was to save the Doctor, literally. You cannot get more Manic Pixie Dream Girl than that. She fit the definition. Hell, the definition could have been written about her.

Clara

But then something strange happened.

The incarnation of the Doctor that she saved (Matt Smith) died. And when the new one (played by Matt SmithPeter Capaldi) came along, she was strangely cold to him. Kind of weird for someone who had seen several versions of the Doctor. But she hasn’t just been cold: she has often battled him for control. That is NOT a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

So what happened?

I read a news snippet where Doctor Who head writer Steven Moffat explained that Clara Oswald does not see herself as a supporting character in the Doctor’s story. Clara Oswald sees herself as the protagonist, every bit as smart and wise and worthy as the Doctor. In fact, HE is the supporting character in HER story (Hence the brilliant Clara Who opening in one episode).

Peter Capaldi

This is a great inversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. I don’t know if I completely buy it for one reason: with his control of the time-traveling machine the TARDIS, the Doctor is the one who dictates the agenda; he controls the storyline. But even if the Doctor truly holds power, Clara does not acknowledge this. Clara Oswald is a supporting character who refuses to support. Not just that, she demands support (which may be why she was so angry when her Manic Pixie Dream Boy shed his pretty face).

If this is true (which I am leaning toward), then we should all be asking who Clara’s next companion will be.

Ascension — a fatal bait-and-switch

I have to give the SyFy network some credit. After taking a strange turn away from all things sci-fi several years ago, they’re making an effort to cultivate new sci-fi programming. Helix, for example, is a solid, if not great, show.

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I was excited to see the promos for SyFy’s new miniseries (and possible series) Ascension. Not just because it stars Battlestar Galactica alum Tricia Helfer, though that’s a plus. Mainly I was ASCENSION-HELFERintrigued by its plot. This is what we were told Ascension would be about:

A spaceship is launched in 1963 to colonize the far reaches of space. Halfway through their 100-year journey, they’ve been isolated from Earth, yet continue on with their mission.

Wow. So many thematic possibilities. The obvious question, what would a society be like that never saw advances such as civil rights and feminism? And how would this society have evolved over a full generation with nothing to rely on but their faith in their mission? Space operas tend to focus on the larger mission, that is, surviving in space and getting to the planet. Few genre shows get into the nitty gritty of day-to-day survival. In my opinion, that’s one reason why The Walking Dead is such a successful show. When it comes to zombies, it is wholly conventional — nothing new to see there. But what it does different than every other zombie show we’ve seen is focus on the mechanics of survival. Ascension, based on its premise, seemed like it could be the sci-fi equivalent.

Ascension

Unfortunately it did none of this. Instead, what we got with Ascension was one of the biggest bait-and-switches I’ve seen on TV.

(SPOILERS BELOW…)

At the very end of the first night of Ascension‘s three night run, we discovered that the spaceship was not in fact traveling in space. It had never left the ground. The whole thing was a planned, covert experiment.

What???

So, you mean to tell me, the last two hours I’ve invested in these people and their mission was wasted? And there are four hours left?

Now, I’m all for dramatic twists, but this one undermined the whole premise of Ascension. I was lured to a show about space exploration, not a show about a Truman Show style social experiment.

I watched the remaining four hours of Ascension, though my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t care about the power struggle among those running the experiment, and I no longer cared about what was happening on the spaceship, because their mission wasn’t real anyway. And all I could focus on were the flaws: the boring angsty teen subplot, the annoying child actor who played a girl with mystical abilities.

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By the time the ending came — a convoluted, inexplicable mess of a thing — I was glad it was over, and I was also sorry that I never got to see the show that I was originally promised.

So long, River Song

If this brief interview is any hint, we won’t be seeing the return of two of the most interesting Doctor Who characters—River Song and Captain Jack Harkness—as long as head writer Steven Moffat is around.

I for one am disappointed.

River Song

River Song, as played by Alex Kingston, was a larger-than-life character in a show filled with larger-than-life characters. From the first time we saw her in the Silence in the Library episode way back in season 4, River took control of every scene she was in. She possessed a singular confidence that only grew stronger as she showed up in different points in the Doctor’s timeline. And when we learned of River’s vulnerabilities (as well as her unique origin story), she only became stronger. Rarely has a character’s first appearance been their death scene. Moffat made it—and River—work.

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And then there’s Jack Harkness. As played by John Barrowman, Jack was similar to River in that he was overflowing with vitality. Like River, he pushed the Doctor’s buttons. He was also groundbreaking: Jack Harkness was openly, and actively, bisexual. And he was fearless. The character was spun off into his own show, Torchwood, which was darker and more adult. Torchwood also revealed Harkness’s deep sadness, as a man who could live forever would have to watch his loved ones die.

In this interview, Moffat addresses the possibility of bringing River Song and Jack Harkness back to Doctor Who. To sum it up, never say never. But it would have to be done right, he continues, and that would be hard to pull off.

If you read between the lines, then we won’t be seeing either return to Doctor Who in the near future. That’s disappointing. Both characters brought much vitality to the show. Hopefully we’ll see the introduction of new iconic characters instead.

Time’s arrow and our weird universe

Our universe, and the nature of time, may be much stranger than we ever could have imagined.

Think about this. What is time? It is something that can be measured.Seconds, minutes, hours, years, millennia. But unlike other properties of our physical world, it only goes in one direction. You can’t add or subtract time, not literally. This has left scientists stumped.

Now, scientists have come up with one of the more bizarre theories of the universe and time that I’ve ever heard. To explain the back and forth movement of time, our universe might be just one side of another universe that was formed during the big bang. And since we exist on the opposite side of that universe, we are living in that mirror universe’s distant past.

This all comes courtesy of an article in Scientific American (by Lee Billings, who I work with there, btw). Much of it is over my head, to be honest, and I’m probably not summarizing it correctly. But what intrigues me most is the whole issue of time as a physical property. I always assumed that time flows, consistently, constantly, in one direction. But scientists can’t explain this. I never realized it was an issue.

After reading the article, I didn’t come away with the impression that we’re going to build some sort of time machine. or maybe visit this parallel universe (thought that would really be cool from a sci-fi perspective). What the article shows me is that there’s so much that we don’t know — about the universe, about life, about even ourselves.

Some might be scared by this lack of certainty. I think it’s exhilarating.