Daredevil – First Impressions

Daredevil-9If you’ve been listening to Those Aren’t Biscuits, you’ll have heard Jon and I talking about Netflix’s new Daredevil series on the last episode. I’ve finally got around to watching the show and it’s definitely a slick production. I’m only two episodes in, but I’m really impressed. Marvel’s first attempt at a series set in the MCU was, for me, a bit of a disaster. Agents of SHIELD lost me only a few episodes in, while Daredevil banked enough in the pilot alone that I know I’m sticking with it to the end of the season.

So what do I like? Well, firstly this is a tightly constructed bit of drama. It’s heavily character driven, and at least in the pilot, focuses as much on Murdock as a lawyer as it does on his role as Daredevil. It reminds me of my love for Season One of Lois and Clark in its commitment to procedural drama, throwing the more colourful elements in for added flavour and not relying on them. It also does a great job exploring Daredevil’s origins through flashbacks that fit well into the main show. The casting is strong. It might lack the star appeal of the movies, but nobody lets the side down.

It’s still early days, but so far this is a really strong series that is better than any adaptions for TV than I’ve seen in a really long time. The only down side, so to speak, is that this is definitely not a family show. That can be a strength as the show is really exploring some adult plots, and it can be hard to find good entertainment that is adult-centric these days, but it might leave behind any younger Avengers fans in your household. It’s currently exclusive to Netflix but you can view the entire first season right now if you just want to put down the cash for a month or take out a free trial. I really recommend it.

The 5 Best Christmas Movies

It has been a while since I’ve done a best of list, but Christmas is upon us and it’s time to pile up the DVDs for Christmas those peaceful moments between eating too much chocolate and arguing over who took the last roast potato. A good Christmas film is like a peace accord between warring factions, in which we all stop and ask ourselves “who is that guy? Has he been in anything else?” With that in mind, here are my five favourite Christmas flicks. 

5) Gremlins

fullwidth.aa60d4b7Joe Dante’s classic makes the perfect antidote to a lot of the over sentimentality that seems to fall upon people during the season of good will. The ultimate tale of a Christmas present gone wrong, Gremlins takes us to a small little town right out a Capra movie (more on him later), but chaos soon erupts after the town is invaded by hideous monsters. A perfect match of comedy and mild horror, Gremlins is a masterpiece family film that revels in the kind of uninhibited mayhem ten year olds love without ever being seriously frightening. Couple that with a sharp sense of humour and some pretty good special effects work and you have a winner.

This has been one of my favourite films for such a long time, I can’t even remember the last time I sat down and watched it and yet I still know it by heart.

4) Scrooged

scrooged-ghost-of-christmas-present-carol-cane-bill-murrayI feel like I’m cheating a bit by sticking two of these niché “anti-christmas” flicks on my list, but I really do like Scrooged. On its surface, this is essentially a modern re-telling of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, starring Bill Murray as a misanthropic TV exec, but what really makes this film great is the level of self awareness. In the story, Murray’s character is working on a twee adaptation of A Christmas Carol for his network while being forced to live out a far more horrific version of the tale in reality. There’s a lot of laughs in it, but what’s remarkable is just how unsettling the film can be. The Ghost of Christmas Future is usually a pretty sinister affair, but the film takes on a haunting, almost surrealistic vibe during these sequences that really works well. It’s not perfect, it ends on a very weird sing along that I’ve always hated, but there are a lot of highs along the way.

3) The Muppets Christmas Carol

Movie-MCC-Promo03-CrachitsAnd now I’ve gone and included two version of A Christmas Carol too. I feel no shame, I also don’t care that I’m sticking by The Muppet’s version too. For me, this is the ultimate adaptation of Dickens’ classic story. This is partly because The Muppets are hilarious throughout, but also because when The Muppets aren’t the story’s focal point, the film plays everything so straight and so true to the book, it’s hard not to admire just how excellent a production it actually is. The joining of the two is weird and a little silly at first, but by the end of the story it’s hard not to be totally invested in the whole thing. Some Dickens fans will probably tell me this is heresy, but I could watch this a hundred times before I’d sit through that god-awful Jim Carrey CGI vomit again.

2) The Snowman

the-snowman-cartoon-by-raymond-briggs-868685548This seems to be totally unknown outside the UK. That seems sort of fitting for this little animated piece, which has always felt like a quiet respite in the middle of the chaos of Christmas. A short animated film based on the book by Raymond Briggs, the Snowman tells the story of a young boy who builds a snowman at Christmas that comes to life. Told silently, we see the boy and the Snowman explore the house and ride a motorbike through the forest before the Snowman lifts the boy into the air, and the fly to a distant land where Snowmen have gathered for a festival. The tone is perfect and it’s hard not to get captivated by its beautiful hand drawn animation. If you’re from the UK you probably know it intimately, but for those of you in the rest of the world, I really recommend you give it a look.

1) It’s a Wonderful Life

itsawonderfullife-emailAh, what can I day about It’s a Wonderful Life that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Originally made in 1946 by Frank Capra, it was a failure in its time. In fact, it was so much of a failure that nobody was really paying any attention when its copyright lapsed. This turned out to be the best thing that ever happened for the film as it was picked up by small cable channels like PBS, who aired it as an alternative to more commercial, excessive Christmas scheduling. The film’s anti-capitalist message resounded with people and decades after its release, this gem had a second wind.

The film follows the life of George Bailey, who wants to travel and see the world, but due to circumstances beyond his control, spends most of his life working for the same Savings and Loan his Father did. As time moves on, George feels more and more like life is passing him by, until his despair becomes so great he wants to end his life. Only then is he allowed to see the true impact he has had on his small community. It sounds hokey, and at times it is, but the film is also philosophically so at odds with the direction the world has moved in since its production, it’s hard not to love its commitment to its ideals. This is a film that explores where we drive our self worth, what makes life worth living, and why the consequences of our actions are of more value than our advancement. There’s no other way of saying it, it is required viewing.

Special Mention: Batman Returns

ocd-batman-returns-terrifying-clown-1-20090303115212405-000Batman Returns doesn’t really belong on a list of Christmas films, but I just couldn’t move on without mentioning. Especially since I already left off Nightmare Before Christmas because everybody puts that on their list. However, I do love Batman Returns’ bizarre philosophy of taking Tim Burton’s interpretation of Batman from the 1989 film and setting it in a surrealist urban Christmas that seems very much at home with Burton’s Edward Scissorhands universe. It might not be a Christmas movie, but it’s not really a Superhero movie either. It’s some sort of bizarre hybrid in which Batman’s villains are a bird-man who lives in a snow covered amusement park, Catwoman, and a man who looks like a sort of industrialist Jack Frost runs a Christmassy department store. It’s a movie in which circus performers live under the snowy streets in an arctic themed lair, and creep out at night to steal children in a festive steam train. A gang of circus thugs emerges from a giant Christmas present, and a beauty queen is killed after being thrown into the city’s tree.

If you’re feeling like a very bizarre Christmas film this year and you’re bored of Nightmare, try out Batman Returns. It’ll be an experience.

Fate – A Short Story

Plastic-cup-with-coffee-008“Fuck.” She kicked the machine. “Don’t do that you fucking stupid thing.” She kicked the coffee machine again, it didn’t deliver the coffee then either. John watched her taking out her rage on it and couldn’t help smiling. Others around them weren’t so forgiving, a nurse glared at her from her desk and if she wasn’t embroiled in a phone call with some other equally underfunded department, she would probably be heading over to kick the woman out.

“Eaten your money?” He asked. The woman turned, her face was bright red but she was drained from fighting.

“Right.” She leaned back against it. “I left my purse back on the ward, just brought enough change down for a drink.” She kicked it again with her heel. “I think it wants a tip.”

John fished in his pocket for some change. “Let me.”

“Oh no, please. There’s no need.”

“Don’t worry about it.” He dropped the coins in and stood back while she hammered at the buttons. “You’re clearly having a bad day.”

“Aren’t you?” She peered at him over the plastic cup and then wrapped her hands around it. She looked cold.

“Nobody loves a hospital, I suppose.” He walked back to the seats in the waiting area. “But everything’s routine for me. A scan, a trip to the pharmacy and then home. Nothing serious.”

She smiled and it was the first smile John had seen on her. It didn’t suit her, but he supposed it was a good sign. He dropped into one of the chairs and she dropped down beside him.

“Not heading back to the ward?”

“I don’t have the energy, and I won’t be needed for a while.”

“Oh,” he asked. “Mind if I ask why you’re here?” And he saw her face pull together ever so slightly, he had asked the wrong question. “I’m sorry, it’s not important.”

“It is to me,” she brushed the hair out of her eyes. “I got a call saying my daughter had been in an accident, by the time I got her she was already in surgery. Nobody wants to tell me anything, so…” She froze, John could see tears welling up in her eyes. He placed a hand gently on her shoulder and could feel her shaking right up to his shoulder.

“I’m sure they’re doing the best they can for her.”

She sat back, tried to wipe the fear from her eyes. “Right. What else would they be doing.”

“I’m sorry, I…”

“I know what you meant,” she smiled again. “I guess I don’t want to talk about it until there’s something to talk about.”

That drew a line under it, he half thought about leaving, but she was a mess. She shouldn’t be left alone.

“So what shall we talk about?”

She laughed.

“I don’t know, tell me where you’re from.”

“Well, I was born in France but I haven’t been there since. English parents, raised nearby.” Boring topic really, but it would pass the time. “And yourself?”

“Oh I’m a local girl.” She smiled. “Never left the country.”

They talked like that for a while before a nurse arrived down from A&E, she stepped into the waiting room and peered around as if she was going to find who she was looking for by intuition alone. Eventually she cleared her throat and spoke up. “Mrs Clary?” His new friend started to gather up her things and waved to the nurse, but she started to approach. “Follow me, Mrs Clary.”

“How’s she doing?”

The nurse was noncommittal. John knew it was bad news, you couldn’t hand around hospitals as long as he had without picking up on the bad news face. She was oblivious, he almost felt glad she was. “If you’d like to come with me, the doctor will speak to you about your daughter’s condition.”

She nodded and smiled, and then she gathered up her things. She held her coffee and her coat in one hand and extended the other to John. He took it and did his best to look hopeful. Then he watched the pair of them walk off down the corridor until they turned off towards the lifts. And he felt sorry for her. It wasn’t hard, under the circumstances, but it caught him off guard. He’d only known her a few minutes.

It was probably time to leave. He grabbed the coat from the chair and slipped it off his shoulders. It had been a mistake coming here really, but he’d got what he wanted in the end. He’d recognised her immediately. Same hair, same eyes. He thought he might not, he’d only got a quick look at the daughter through the side window and when you’re travelling at that speed there really isn’t time to stop and take in the details. But when her car had started to wobble and he’d tugged on the wheel, well her face was so perfect. He’d taken in every detail, and he wouldn’t be forgetting it any time soon. He should feel something for her, he supposed, but he didn’t. He didn’t do it because of anything she did, or was, but because she had been there just as the impulse had taken him. He hadn’t even seen the driver before he’d started grinding the metal of his jeep against the side door. By the time she’d spun off into the river, the fun was gone.

Outside the hospital, it was snowing. Maybe a White Christmas, that would be nice. Still, he should just have stayed in. He’d driven slowly the rest of the way home after the crash and parked up in the lockup. Then he’d walked round to the front and taken out the little hatchback. Then he drove straight to the nearest hospital and waited. He thought maybe he shouldn’t be doing that, maybe it was a risky thing and what were the chances anyway, but then he’d seen her fighting the coffee machine and it was so perfect. Well, it had to be fate. He found his way back to his little car, sat quietly underneath the streetlight. He would miss the Jeep on the drive home.

Daniel Craig and the Great James Bond Deception – Why you should be wary of pre-release hype.

Would you buy a used card from this man?
Would you buy a used car from this man?

A new 007 movie is coming, and the hype train has started already. We know it will see the return of Daniel Craig to the role, and it will be called Spectre. I’m making an educated guess here, but I’d say it will be a modern-ish action movie in which Daniel Craig beats the crap out of a lot of people and some familiar Connery Era tropes make an appearance to remind you this is still part of Cinema’s most cliché spy franchise. Oh, and Skyfall was a big hit, so it will probably be a bit like that. If I sound like I’m down on it, please forgive me. I like Bond movies. I don’t know why, most of them are terrible, but it’s true that you usually know what you’re getting yourself in for when the lights go down. I liked Skyfall, I loved Casino Royale. Still, I wouldn’t describe myself as excited. I refuse to get caught up in any hype for big franchise movies anymore, and it’s sort of Daniel Craig’s fault. Let me start at the beginning…

Casino Royale is the Bond film the series needed since the 80s. (Don’t get me wrong, Pierce Brosnan was a great bond, even if he only managed one great Bond film.) In many ways it was the antithesis to everything wrong with cinema of the late 90s, it was dramatic and excessive, but in its approach to the franchise, Casino Royale was almost entirely reductive. The philosophy was entirely about returning to the core elements of the character. Who was Bond, and if you separate him from the clichés, what would a man like that be? What would a high-tech British secret service really look like in today’s world, and what would their enemies be. At the same time, it drew authentically from the source material, with the second act of the film a very pure adaptation of Ian Fleming’s original novel. Casino Royale is probably the best Bond movie ever made. The sequel is where things start to fall apart.

large_gXksXNwEk3h8tvSdhbsRp5GGJAk
Lies: The Movie

I don’t have a lot to say on Quantum of Solace as a film. Its flaws are obvious. It is confused, it lacks a clear focus and it positions itself as a direct sequel to Casino Royale, despite that film tying up all its loose ends pretty well. But I don’t hate that film, at the time I ascribed its failings to that same reduction that had made Craig’s debut so satisfying. It seemed likely that in their effort to rethink the series, they had also rethought its approach to sequels and made a misstep. There are worse Bond films in the canon, and the series is successful enough that a better film is rarely more than five years away. Life, and the movie industry trundled on, and the great 007 hype machine started to talk about Skyfall.

It makes sense, I suppose, that the cast and crew would want to distance themselves from Quantum of Solace. The film had a bad rep, their new offering was about to hit the screens and you could tell they were trying to pitch this one as something special. Daniel Craig in particular was probably aware that his future as Bond was resting on the success of Sykfall. One Win, One Loss is ok. One Win, Two Losses and he probably wouldn’t have made it to his fourth Bond film. And that’s when Daniel Craig made his exclusive interview to Time Out that I would love to link you to, but for some reason, no longer exists on Time Out’s website. Don’t panic, people were so thrilled to discover that Skyfall wasn’t going to be the mess Solace was, they quoted the relevant bits everywhere!

Take this section, where Craig informs us that a lot of the writing was actually done by Marc Forster and himself, after the writers’ strike landed on them. How badly affect were they? “We were fucked” are his exact words.

Time Out: It seems that the script is sometimes an after-thought on huge productions.

Craig: ‘Yes and you swear that you’ll never get involved with shit like that, and it happens. On “Quantum”, we were fucked. We had the bare bones of a script and then there was a writers’ strike and there was nothing we could do. We couldn’t employ a writer to finish it. I say to myself, “Never again”, but who knows? There was me trying to rewrite scenes – and a writer I am not.’

Time Out: You had to rewrite scenes yourself?

Craig: ‘Me and the director [Marc Forster] were the ones allowed to do it. The rules were that you couldn’t employ anyone as a writer, but the actor and director could work on scenes together. We were stuffed. We got away with it, but only just. It was never meant to be as much of a sequel as it was, but it ended up being a sequel, starting where the last one finished.’

It’s a shame, but hey, these things happen. A lot of people were affected by the Writers’ Strike then. (Check out Season 7 of Smallville for the most distressing examples.) Still, compare and contrast with Daniel Craig just before the release of Quantum of Solace. 

For those who find press junkets cringe worthy, here Daniel Craig describes Quantum of Solace‘s approach as “Just making sense.” Just one of many glowing interviews he did before the release of the film.

You want the truth? You can't handle the truth.
You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.

I know there are people who will tell me that this is an unreasonable criticism. Daniel Craig is an actor, 007 is a big franchise, and a press junket is there to promote the film. Of course the man would say glowing things about the film he is in, it can be hard to judge a film from inside the production, a lot of money is riding on its success, etc. etc. etc. But, allow me to play Casino Royale and be the reductionist, because I think the situation is really quite simple.

Quantum of Solace was a mess of a film, it was being produced at a difficult time and the studio weren’t prepared to delay production until the writers’ strike was over, partly because they wanted their profits to arrive good and on time and partly because they didn’t want to strengthen the arguments of those striking. Because of this, most of the in production writing for Quantum of Solace was done by the director and the star, at least one of which has freely admitted to having no talent for the job. He has gone on to admit that the results were not as intended, nor were they really satisfactory. Argue ambiguity all you like but the phrase “We got away with it, but only just” doesn’t exactly scream confidence in one’s work. Then, this man travelled the world as the face of the film, trying to convince you all to part with your money to see it.

It’s not the worst Little White Fraud in the world, of course. PR companies and advertisers lie to us every day, and we know it. It is a bargain we have struck with the world, we accept that every day someone is trying to find more subtle and invasive ways to part us from our money, we become a little bit more cynical and in return? Well we get movies like Quantum of Solace. I never said it was a good bargain. Our only defense, as I see it, is to not give in to the hype. The world will not change any time soon, and people will still lie to you, but when you see Daniel Craig on TV telling you exactly why you should get excited about seeing Spectre. Just remember, four years later you might be hearing him explain exactly how much of an idiot you were.

Defending Judge Dredd (1995)

Judge Dredd Poster
I’m pretty sure they’re Macaulay Culkin under there.

In a post-Avengers world, it can sometimes be hard to remember the dark days of the mid-90s. A time when comic book story lines like The Death of Superman were hitting the mainstream media, most big-name properties were languishing in development hell, and the success of Batman Forever was about to give birth to the laughing stock that is Batman and Robin. It was a weird time for comic book fans; while Tim Burton’s Batman movies had proven that comic books and superheoes could make money, just getting a film off the ground seemed to be a struggle. Until X-Men in 2000, it was mostly independent and lesser known books that hit the big screens. Some did well (Men in Black, Blade, The Crow) while others were less successful, (Tank Girl, Barb Wire, The Shadow.) Judge Dredd was something of a mixed bag. Marketed more as a Stallone action vehicle with a Total Recall vibe, it was hated by fans of the comic and wrong for the action movie audience. The character wouldn’t be brought to the screen again until 2012’s Dredd. (Another film that deserved to do much better, but we’ll talk about that another day.)

So, what was it about Judge Dredd that upset people? For the audience unfamiliar with the comics, Judge Dredd was probably just too weird. Taking place in the distant future, the setting is Megacity One. This cramped metropolis houses half the people on the planet, surrounded by a desolate wasteland inhabited only by scavengers and mutants. So far, nothing too far out, but with a premise that comes off like The Road Warrior, Judge Dredd is more like Lethal Weapon meets Robocop. Dredd is a StreetJudge, the only real law enforcement in the future. The Judges are part cop, part courtroom, capable of investigating, enforcing and sentencing entirely on their own. Coming from the satirical British comic, 2000AD, Judge Dredd was originally intended as a sort of fascist parody of Dirty Harry. There’s humour in the concept, and both the comic and the movie explore this. Megacity One is home to cramped, bored, infighting thugs who are ruled by rampant commercialism and a lack of respect for their ridiculously harsh legal system. While the movie both revels in, and mocks Dirty Harry style justice, the goofy sci-fi elements were probably off putting too. 

Dark Knight Returns Horse
The Dark Knight Returns, when comics became more mature. Also, Batman rides a horse, and at one point he kicks Superman in the face.

For fans of the comic book, the answer is a little bit more complicated, but as a fan of the Dredd books, I really think it comes down to taking the source material too seriously. The observation has been made before, but it’s worth restating, a lot of comic books fans are insecure. It comes, I think, of being attached to a medium traditionally thought of as intended for children. This shouldn’t matter. The Dark Knight Returns was in the 80s, the comic book world has moved on, and anyone involved in the medium either as an artist or consumer knows that it has all the range and style of TV or Cinema. The problem with this insecurity is that it often creates hostility to any interpretation of comics that is seen as also being for children. Most recently, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, an animated series that is probably best described as a tribute to the DC Team Up comics of the 50s and 60s was so maligned by armchair critics that the writers had Batman break the fourth wall to justify his own existence. What is most unreasonable about this anger is that it is usually predicated on the false assertion that the serious, the dark, the deep interpretations are the “true” ones. Bob Kane’s first Batman stories might have been gritty detective tales, but in a few years the books weren’t that different to the 1960s TV series. This didn’t really change until the late seventies. In that sense, The Brave and the Bold accurately reflects a much longer period of Batman’s history than a show like Batman: The Animated Series or the Nolan trilogy. This is coupled with a belief that the artistic value of the source material is so great, that any changes over the course of the adaptation are necessarily negative. 

Stallone in Dredd
Judge Dredd didn’t do a striptease in the Comic either, you evil Hollywood bastards!

But what has this got to do with Judge Dredd? Well, 2000AD fans’ most common objections to the film were these. Firstly, that Dredd removes his helmet in the film. In the comics, Dredd is never seen without his helmet. This is because he is always depicted as a symbol of pure justice, and never as a man. Secondly, that everything was too funny. Rob Schneider is a comedy sidekick, the city has a lot of jokes and everything feels like it’s poking fun of the action. Y’know, like Robocop. Thirdly, that Dredd was not the lethal, ends of the earth, shoot first and ask questions later Lawman of the books. I would argue that in every one of these examples, the problem is a very selective reading of the source material and an overzealous need to adhere to the purity of the comic. 

The easiest to deal with is the helmet. This is probably the best criticism, partly because it does represent a notable change from the character in a comic, and partly because it makes a handy soundbite. It is a simple visual and philosophical change that is easy to point to. It practically became a meme in discussion of Judge Dredd, and when Dredd rolled around with Karl Urban, the helmet stayed on. And frankly, I couldn’t care less that Stallone removed his helmet. When people ask me what I think the worst comic book adaptation is, I don’t even need to think. It’s Sin City. A terrible adaptation of a great comic. Why is it terrible? Because it isn’t an adaptation, it’s a direct translation to screen, and what works as a comic isn’t going to work as a movie. It’s why Wolverine doesn’t wear that mask that seems to defy the laws of physics in film. You don’t sit and read a comic for two hours, but you do sit and watch a movie, and staring into the dead look of a tinted visor gets tiring. It might not be true to the comics, but losing the helmet was the right choice cinematically. 

Dredd Removes Helmet
As you can see, the issue of Dredd removing his helmet was treated completely seriously in the comics, with complete reverence to Dredd’s role as a symbol of the impartiality of the law.

Thematically, the film handles the helmet and Dredd’s role as a symbol of the law perfectly. He first appears wearing the helmet, his attitude is consistent with his adherence to the law made explicit through his actions, and his helmet is removed on two occasions for reasons consistent with the storytelling. (Though, admittedly, the second time the helmet stays off until the end of the film.) On the first occasion, Dredd is speaking to Max Von Sydow, who plays a father figure to Dredd. The conversation is played out after Dredd has come under fire for excessively executing gang members; Dredd shows no remorse while Sydow’s character attempts to humanise him. Sydow’s attempt fails. Later, Dredd’s helmet is removed when he is framed and incarcerated. In keeping with the comic’s theme, the helmet is taken from him as he is declared no longer a representative of the law. 

This looks like the BEST sequel to Top Gun.
This looks like the BEST sequel to Top Gun.

The second criticism, that the movie is too humorous to be Dredd, is just flat out bizarre. We’re definitely into the realm of selective reading of the source material here. The truth is 2000AD is a humour comic, and Dredd has always been satire. The level of humour has peaked and fallen, that’s true, and in recent years the book has taken a more tempered and subtle approach to humour. As the influence of the american Superhero comic has become a bigger presence in the UK, Judge Dredd has become more of a Punisher type character. But when you look at the era that established Dredd, if you take the first ten years of the comic that gave us stories like The Judge Child, when you look at the arc that first introduced Judge Death and the Psychic Anderson, you see a real hodgepodge of tone and style in stories.

Judge Dredd Boing Strip
I wasn’t joking about the spray-on bouncy balls.

People want to remember Dredd’s first encounter with the Angel Gang, redneck cannibals that live in the wasteland, but they forget the story in which Dredd forces a Sweetshop owner out of business because he makes sweets so delicious everyone’s eating too many. Or perhaps the story in which the citizens of Megacity get caught up in a craze for bouncing around the city in a spray on, full body, bouncy ball. Who could forget the story where being ugly becomes fashionable and plastic surgery clinics open up to deform people on request. How about the year long arc where Dredd became Chief of Police on the moon? The one where the Chief Judge goes insane and appoints a Goldfish to a prominent position of power? The silliest Judge Dredd comics are far more absurd than anything in the 1995 movie, in fact I’d say it strikes a really strong balance between the more serious plots and the often very comedic elements of the comic. It creates a far more consistent, grounded in reality version of Megacity One than the comics ever did, and then did it *without* losing the humour. I think that’s something to be proud of. 

Dredd Stallone
Also, I still really love this costume.

Lastly, we come to Dredd’s character. This, I think, is one of the most troubling criticisms for me, because really it’s about violence. Dredd is often a violent comic. Not always. In fact, in the early days it’s made clear that Dredd has the right to use legal force, but he often avoids doing so. In later years, the level of violence has stepped up, but the nature of the character has always been his willingness to take extreme measures to bring clients in, and to use the maximum sentence possible where he can. The golden age of Dredd is full of examples of the character imprisoning citizens for graffiti, or littering or walking on the grass. It has less examples of Dredd killing for minor violations of the law. Executions are usually reserved only for violent criminals. This is preserved in the Judge Dredd movie, it’s preserved perfectly. In the opening sequence of the film, Dredd goes up against an armed gang. He executes every member of that gang, mostly in self defence, with a sentenced execution for the last surviving gang member. Then, he sentences Rob Schneider to life imprisonment for inadvertently breaking the law while trying to avoid getting caught up in the gang war. Later in the film, Dredd continues to follow this pattern until he is framed, at which point he sets about trying to clear his name, while still sticking to his belief in the law. This is Judge Dredd, every inch the man of the comics. But the moviegoers, the comic fans, the people concerned about theme and message and maturity, for some reason they always want more violence. There should be more, and it should be more visceral, and more visual and it should always be present because violence isn’t for children, and neither are comics. Which is a shitty way of deciding how a character should behave. 

Judge Dredd isn’t a perfect film. Its dystopian future feels a little too manufactured, and the twists of its corrupt officials and human cloning plot aren’t always believable, but it’s a decent action romp. More than that, it’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the comics, that manages to capture the spirit of its characters, the darker elements to the plot and the humour of the source and boil them down to a coherent vision. I’d even go so far as to say it captures Megacity One better than 2012’s Dredd. For the missteps it makes, I’ve always liked the film, and I’ve always thought that had the film done well at the box office in 1995, a sequel that made better use of the world would have been an excellent film. Sure, it’s corny and silly at times, but so is the source material. 

Man of Steel Still Sucks: Why DC’s Cinematic Universe Can’t Fly

Superman
On my planet, it means hope, because I’m going to need all I can get.

I don’t like Man of Steel. I may have mentioned this before. This wouldn’t matter too much, except a lot of other people don’t like Man of Steel either. A lot of people still paid to see it, that has been enough to get a sequel off the ground, but the vultures are circling DC’s hopeful new universe already. DC have canned sequels before, of course. Superman Returns did well with critics, and did enough at the box office to justify a follow up, but by the time it came to greenlight it public opinion had turned on the Richard Donner nostalgia piece. Man of Steel arrived in a different climate. The attitude of studios these days is to take a lesson from Disney, sell your movie like it’s Citizen Kane, even when everybody hates it.

Of course, Warner Bros. faces a bigger problem these days. The Avengers franchise has been a winner since Iron Man hit in 2008. Between then and 2012, Marvel delivered six high profile films based on their properties, culminating in one of the best (and most successful) superhero pictures ever released. DC was slow to respond, because they had another hit on their hands.

Bane in Darkness
Remember when I played a clone of Captain Picard?

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy looked set to define the comic book movie in 2009. Batman Begins was a reasonable success, and a hit with critics. The Dark Knight, landing at the same time as Iron Man, was an enormous success. Fuelled in part by Heath Ledger’s tragic death, it was a dark and brooding picture that propelled Batman to a level success he hadn’t enjoyed since Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989.  In 2012, both publishers saw massive successes for their properties when The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers arrived. However while Marvel’s future looked brighter than ever, DC was left on shaky ground. While Marvel borrowed heavily from television writing to weave a continuing, collaborative story arc, Warner’s approach was a self contained, director driven franchise. When Nolan brought his trilogy to an end, he sent DC movie adaptations back to square one. This left Warner without a competitor to The Avengers until 2013, by which point Marvel had already released Iron Man 3. Now we come to Man of Steel.

I’m not going to talk a lot about why I don’t like Man of Steel. I’ve done that already. I’ve done that a lot. I know it’s divisive and that a lot of people out there do like it. If that’s the case, great. I’m genuinely happy for you. What I am going to talk about is the future, how Man of Steel fits into a shared universe, and why I don’t think Batman vs. Superman will be the start of something great for DC and Warner Bros.

Man of Steel sounds like a great idea. After the success of The Dark Knight, adapting a big budget Superman origin with Nolan’s input seems like a great idea. In execution, I think it turned out to be a big mistake. The problem was Warner’s inability to commit. They know that they need a property out there, Batman is the hot thing but they’ve just finished with an incarnation of Batman. Superman is well rested after his last disappointment and so he’s brought out of retirement. But something’s new this time, Marvel has this shared universe building and Warner would be crazy not to want in. What is needed is a clean cut, heartfelt Superman adaptation. A Superman: The Movie for the new millennium, that builds a foundation for DC’s own shared universe while establishing the tone. DC’s Iron Man.

Batman Superman VHS
I will wager real money that this turns out to be the better film.

The result is a much more timid venture. A movie that feels like it belongs to The Dark Knight universe without any connections established, another auteur driven piece that clings to strong themes and psychoanalytical interpretations of its characters. A film about destiny and drive and alienation. In much the same way that The Dark Knight was a Batman movie and a gritty movie about corruption and organise crime, Man of Steel is a Superman movie and a story of isolation and immortality. Like a boring version of Highlander. The Marvel Cinematic Universe works because each film explores the strengths of its characters, while keeping a consistent underlying tone the audience accepts as, for lack of a better word, “reality.” Man of Steel, as the bedrock for a new franchise, is too idiosyncratic in tone and in look to serve. It would be as inappropriate as building a shared universe on Batman Returns.

The cause of this is, as far as I can see, quite obvious. Man of Steel was not intended as the first step towards a shared universe, but a Batman Begins. It fails, of course, because it attempts to be both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight at the same time. An origin story that reintroduces a beloved character and a heavily thematic mood piece that brings out the deepest in the audience. There are no hints to the wider world in Man of Steel, it is entirely self contained and explores a world without superheroes. And a lot of people hated it. When Warner chooses to follow this with Batman vs. Superman, they know something is wrong with their latest attempt.

Movie studios aren’t stupid. I know it seems like they are. They don’t commission films that sound great, they commission films that sound terrible and they make some very odd choices when it comes to adaptations. But they do make a lot of money. A hell of a lot of money. More than they would ever really admit. And one of the things they know is that reboots sell really well. I have always maintained that this is because origin stories bring in the widest audience. You don’t need any prior knowledge, you’re usually dealing with a story people are familiar with and new actors, new visual styles, new takes capture people’s interest. The problem is that this spike comes with a drop off in both audience and critical reception. (See The Amazing Spider-Man, Casino Royale, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four etc. etc. etc.) Often, looking back, the rebooted film isn’t even as good as the franchise it replace. (God I hate you, Amazing Spider-Man.) People just like the fresh perspective.

Dean Cain Superman
Reference: The colour Superman’s costume should actually be.

So, what do you do when that formula stops working? Man of Steel sold a lot of tickets, but the critical reception that comes with a franchise reboot just wasn’t there this time. The audience seemed divided and even though it had its defenders, it stood to reason that the drop off for the sequel was going to be enormous. They doubled down. Well, actually the double-doubled down. Their strategy had been two-fold. Reboot Superman and get some of that awesome Reboot money; Replicate The Dark Knight trilogy and get some of that awesome Batman money. Batman vs. Superman is basically: Reboot Batman; Bring Back Batman. People like Batman. Of course, they can’t bring back the Batman everyone loves. Nolan’s done, Bale’s done (Adam West is too old) so rather than suggesting Man of Steel exists in Nolan’s Batman universe, we’re getting a new Batman, created in Man of Steel’s world. This leaves Batman vs. Superman with an awkward choice; forge its own style and sit awkwardly next to its predecessor, or try to be a true sequel to Man of Steel, and undoubtably suffer the same lousy critical reception. (Ticket sales aren’t an issue this time. C’mon, it’s Batman vs. Superman! I’m 99% certain it will be shit, and I’m still going to see it.)

This is a problem that will only multiply as this franchise continues. Where Marvel worked to establish a consistent tone, a blank canvas universe in which all our heroes exist and compete on their merits, DC is hoping to build form what it has already. This can not work. As we go forward, Man of Steel isn’t just going to be a crummy superhero movie, but an anchor weighing the hole franchise down. Already we are going to see Batman in Man of Steel’s grey, lifeless, walk into a hurricane to save a dog world. He might just work, but Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, Green Lantern? Or will they all be relegated to second players in Superman’s dull destiny?

The way I see it, (and I know I’m biased) is to minimise Man of Steel’s contribution to this universe with each release. Tone it down, soften its edges until it feels a like a world in which DC’s other, more lively characters can inhabit. But if their only strategy is to double down, more Batman, More Destiny, More Grey, this franchise not only can’t fly. It doesn’t even have legs.

Why Twist Endings Don’t Work For Me.

Let's see what's behind... The Scary Door!
Let’s see what’s behind… The Scary Door!

Beth and I just finished the Nolan Batman Trilogy again. I have spoken about The Dark Knight Rises here before, but I’d barely walked out of the cinema when I wrote that. Back then I was more concerned with the film’s narrative weakness when compared to The Dark Knight. I’ve seen Rises twice since then, and I like it. It’s a fun film that borrows from some of my favourite Batman stories. But it’s easily the weakest of the Trilogy, hamstrung by Nolan’s desire to go out with a bang. The film has some great moments, but its weakened by contorting to fit a few feeble twists in the final act. I’m not here to talk about Batman, so I won’t go into spoilers here, but I think I can say that none of these twists knocked my socks off.

The cinema loves a good plot twist. Some are so iconic, their surprise is long forgotten. I’m sad to say I knew the ending to The Empire Strikes Back well before I saw the film. It’s a consequence of being the youngest in a large family, you’ve heard the all the best bits of all the best films long before you get to experience them for yourself. Sometimes you’re lucky. When I was eleven, I was lucky enough to see Hitchcock’s Psycho without any foreknowledge, and I was young enough to still find it scary. It was a great experience and the film is still one of my favourites, but otherwise I’m not a big fan of the plot twist.

People knock M. Night Shyamalan, but I’d say he’s one of the few film makers that gets the plot twist right. I don’t always care for his films, but the appeal of The Sixth Sense is not just that it ends with a surprise, but that the surprise is actually fundamental to a proper understanding of the film. My all time favourite twist is still Planet of the Apes, a blow that still catches a new viewer unawares since the dated B-Movie feel lulls you into a false sense of security.  Here the twist is not only integral to the plot, but in retrospect, the only logical conclusion to the story. Planet of the Apes also gets bonus points for offering a twist ending that is so much better than the novel it was based upon. 

But there are those other cinema twists, the kind that seem to be coming more and more common. Take Star Trek Into Darkness, an enjoyable film that crams the second half with twists that are neither surprising nor alter the course of the film. Where The Empire Strikes Back offered us a twist that changed the way we looked at The Hero and The Villain, Return of the Jedi offers us another familial twist that just seems confusing and without merit. One of the few things I liked about Man of Steel is that it tried to tell a clear, controlled story, but even that falls prey to the last minute attempt to jolt the audience’s expectations. In literature, Philip K Dick is still the master of the twist ending. Each of his short stories seems to terminate in an equally alarming conclusion. Funnily enough, though his work has been adapted to the big screen repeatedly, his twist endings don’t seem to survive the process quite so often.

I find the plot twist grating. I know that stories are there to entertain us, storytellers have a lot of tools at their disposal and surprise is one of them, but it is not my favourite. I read books, watch TV and go to the cinema to be entertained. For the money I pay, I usually expect to be entertained for the duration of the story. This means the narrative needs to be tight, flowing and with a sense of purpose. Take The Dark Knight as an example. The film is an enormous success because its plot construction is almost perfect. Every scene, every word of dialogue is place in the film with a clear intention. It leads to a climax that seems inevitable. Furthermore, it features only one real plot twist, about halfway through the film that naturally begins the events of the second half. Another of my favourite films recently was Dredd. This long overdue adaptation was a flop at the box office, and I still can’t believe it. It presents a small, tight story that takes place within a single building. Not a minute of screentime is wasted. It also features very little you could call a plot twist.

These are the kinds of stories I enjoy, careful and controlled. The plot twist weakens this control. The problem is that a twist relies on establishing certain expectations in the audience, and then defying them. Performed well, it can be the highlight of a story, but defying expectations is not easy. If, for example, you would like to present a character as an ally, only to reveal in the final moments that they are actually the villain, you are forced to present a very limited picture of the the character. Worse still, the temptation is to build the character up even higher to enhance the twist when it finally comes. Inevitably, plot holes develop. (e.g Why didn’t he just shoot him when they were alone together? He’s been around for months, why didn’t he just steal the Jewel etc. etc.) Even Doctor Who, my absolute favourite, has succumb to the plot twist. Swapping intelligent, well paced drama for an elaborate series of 45 minute chapters in an ever more convoluted story arc. 

Plot twists leave me feel cheated. The lengths that creators travel to conceal them leave their stories bent out of shape around them. They are almost always spotted, and do nothing but dilute their stories in favour of a bit of cheap sparkle that will be forgotten as soon as the next sparkly thing comes along. It’s time to leave this narrative device behind, and explore pacing, plotting and characterisation instead.

The Five Best (and Worse) Time Travellers.

Doesn’t Looper look like an interesting film? As a sci-fi buff, I try to keep my cynicism far away from any upcoming film releases and just enjoy the hype for a bit. Fingers crossed for more interesting, mainstream sci-fi in the future, though Bruce Willis’ last attempt didn’t exactly inspire people.

Still, to celebrate my growing enthusiasm for this flick, I’ve compiled a lot of my 5 best, and worst, time travellers.

Enjoy.

 

Best

The Time Traveller

TimeTravellerTimeMachineIt’s only fair to kick things of with the Time Traveller from H.G Wells’ classic work The Time Machine. Unnamed in the book, the Time Traveller is an eccentric English inventor who calls together a group of colleagues at his home to demonstrate his latest invention. His device, as you might have guessed from the title, is a time machine. He uses the device in the hope of discovering an idyllic society, however things don’t work out quite as he imagined. The further forward the Time Traveller ventures, the more complications seem to crop up in mankind’s search for peace.

The Time Machine is a seminal work of literature, and is not only one of the first books to really explore time travel as a narrative device, but also one of the first to really examine the consequences. However, the Time Traveller earns his place on this list on his own merits. Not only is the character a scientific genius, but his is driven not by personal gain, but an insatiable dream of seeing mankind achieve true peace.

Kyle Reese

Kyle ReeseYou could be forgiven for forgetting about Kyle Reese. After all, that’s what the Terminator franchise did until the lousy Terminator Salvation. However, for those who still enjoy the first entry in the series, Kyle is a pivotal character that carries the film exceptionally well. Sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese always strikes me as something of a tragic figure. Raised in a war torn world, it becomes his sole responsibility to save mankind’s greatest leader. He must do this while navigating a world he doesn’t understand, for a future that nobody else can see. This character driven element is the start of the narrative that would bind the various elements of the first two Terminator films together so strongly and make them as successful as they were.

The Doctor

The Doctor with Rose and Captain JackWhat can you say about the Doctor that hasn’t already been said? Star of the longest running science fiction series in the world, The Doctor is one of the few characters on TV that is grounded is strong ethical principles. The motivating force of the character is the desire to do good, not for personal gain or for the future success of mankind, but because it is the right thing to do. Part of the show’s character has been, until recently, a decision to not minimise or gloss over death. Perhaps the finest thing about the Doctor’s character has been the BBC’s unwillingness to show killing as part of the job. Couple that with a fine brain, two hearts and the ability to change actor frequently and you have one of the most compelling characters in TV history.

Part of me wanted to put The Doctor right at the top of the list but I had to stop myself. While the Doctor is  definitely the finest adventurer and hero on the list, I’m not so sure about Time Traveller. While Time Travel is his prime mode of transport, it very rarely features in his stories as a plot point and so it’s little more than a storytelling device. For this reason the Doctor got bumped down a bit.

Henry DeTamble

Book CoverThe Time Traveler’s Wife is probably my favourite book. That’s a hard category to narrow down, but Audrey Nieffenegger’s novel is an exceptional work. The story of a married couple whose lives are panning out in slightly the wrong order, Henry DeTamble is the cause of all this drama.

Born with a rare genetic condition that makes he leap forwards or backwards to significant places in his life, Henry is a survivor. He knows how to pick a lock, steal clothes (he can’t bring them with him) and talk his way out of a bad situation, until he bounces back to the present. The novel presents a growing conflict between Henry’s erratic leaps through time and his knowledge that one day he won’t be fast enough or strong enough to keep it up. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a gripping read, from the first page to the last, and Henry is a big part of that.

 

Marty McFly

Marty McFly and DocPredictable, I know. But Back to the Future is one of those films that is so popular for a reason. It is one of the most well constructed, entertaining films ever made. A perfect balance of comedy, family drama and science fiction with one of the most exciting climaxes ever filmed.

Marty himself starts of as something of a blank slate. A typical 80s teen, he rides a skateboard and plays the guitar, until he is sent back in time to the year 1955 and accidentally stops his parents from meeting. On paper, the role seems flat and lifeless, but Michael J. Fox brings it to life with a warmth that is hard to resist. Perhaps his biggest strength as an actor is in taking the relationship between Marty and Doc, and making it completely believable despite the age gap. This relationship would serve as the foundation for three films and never once did it seem unrealistic thanks to two actors with such great chemistry.

The Back to the Future trilogy is so great because it’s about how Time Travel can tell use more about people and Marty McFly is the perfect vehicle to explore these themes with.

 

So, those are the Time Travellers that make sci-fi worthwhile. Now what about the duds. 

 

Worst

George and Gracie

George and Gracie the WhalesI feel terrible including George and Gracie on this list because, well, they’re Whales and it’s not really their fault. Sadly their inclusion in Star Trek IV, the most overrated of the Trek flicks, necessitates their inclusion.

There’s a lot to like about Star Trek IV, I know. After two very serious films, the chance to put familiar characters in the present day and explore a little comic relief can be very fun. The problem is that the film takes about a half hour’s worth of plot and builds an entire film around the Enterprise crew wandering around 1980s San Francisco. The cherry on top, however, is the purpose for their visit. An alien probe (in a plotline very similar to Star Trek: The Motion Picture) is approaching Earth with a message for the humpback whales, and will destroy the planet if it doesn’t get an answer. The only solution is, apparently, to travel back in time and find some. Enter George and Gracie.

Every time I see this film, I wonder how much technology has decline in the 23rd century. I mean, we could probably knock up a fake humpback whale soundboard right now if we needed to. Perhaps that sort of deception is just not allowed at Federation HQ.

Henry DeTamble

Eric Bana as Henry DeTambleYes, I know someone named Henry DeTamble appeared on the other list, but this is about a completely different Henry DeTamble who appeared in a recent film that was also called The Time Traveler’s Wife. This Henry DeTamble was not a particularly interesting Time Traveller and his only character trait seemed to immitate Eric Bana contemplating firing his agent.

Professor John Robinson

Professor John RobinsonOf all the things wrong with the Lost in Space movie, one of the worst is its sudden transformation into a completely different film in the last half hour. A sudden leap into the future finds a young Will Robinson is being looked after by a mutate Dr. Smith that has eaten all his family. In this desolate future, he has constructed a massive time machine that is destroying the universe. His father, Professor John Robinson, finds him via some kind of rift in the space-time continuum and attempts to convince him that Monster-Dr Smith probably doesn’t have his best interest at heart. He then uses Will Robinson’s doomsday time machine to go back and stop the whole last half hour from happening. If only we could do the same.

Superman

Superman Christopher ReevesNow don’t get me wrong, this has nothing to do with Superman’s credentials as a superhero. Rather, I take issue with the hideously bad, cop-out ending to Superman: The Movie.

The film plays out pretty well for the most part. At the end of the 70s, Superman had matured somewhat from his goofy 50s persona and it wouldn’t be long before John Byrne would write the Man of Steel miniseries sealed the deal and established the modern Superman continuity. Superman: The Movie has some of the weaknesses of the old era, a goofy Clark Kent, a “criminal mastermind” Lex Luthor instead of the industrialist, it’s quite a modern take on the character. Luthor isn’t quite a mad scientist, but has an elaborate property scam, and the atmosphere at the Daily Planet is more of an authentic newsroom than a comic book office. The culmination of the film shows Lex Luthor’s plan succeed, Lois Lane buried during a deliberately triggered Earthquake and Superman facing real loss and pain for the first time.

Then Superman flies round the world backwards until it starts spinning the other way and time turns backwards with it.

Suddenly we’re back with the Superman that keeps cities in bottles and opens his Fortress of Solitude with a giant key.

Now I know that technically this isn’t Time Travel, Superman stays where he is and everything else goes back in time, but I’m counting it because the effect is the same and if the movie can use such a stupid cheat then so can I. You know what bugs me the most about this? It’s so far from how science works, it’s impossible to actually suspend your disbelief. Every time the globe starts to slow, I wonder where all of human civilisation doesn’t get flung off into space.

I could continue but if I don’t stop now I’ll burst a blood vessel.

Tempus

Tempus from Lois and ClarkAnother Superman related one, but a bit different. Fans of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman will probably know this character, but most people probably had enough sense to stop watching by this point. It is my fondest hope that Lois and Clark will go down in history as the show with the fastest decline in quality from the first series to the second. Never has a great show divebombed like this one, and with the nightmare that was Series 2-4 came Tempus.

To be fair, Tempus’ first episode isn’t bad. Well, relatively speaking when you consider the dross that the show was usually doling out by this point. H.G Wells turns up and tells Clark Kent that he knows his secret identity and he needs his help. Apparently Wells is the Time Traveller that he wrote of in the Time Machine, he did go forward in time and find a Utopia, established by Superman. Unfortunately, he brought a master criminal named Tempus from the future back with him for reasons that probably seemed better at the time and then lost him.

Unfortunately, once Superman retrieves Tempus and H.G Wells takes him back to the future, he returns. More than once. Each time the Tempus episodes became more and more embarrassing and loyal viewers could only dream of a show that once brought us the finest screen incarnation of Superman in years.

 

So, that’s it, my five best and worst time travellers. Feel free to argue it out in the comments.

The 5 Best and Worst Movie Robots.

Where would science fiction be without robots? Surrogates would be a lot shorter, Isaac Asimov would be less famous and Star Wars would have to find another source of comic relief. In honour of our great movie robots, here are a few of the best and worst synthetic life-forms to hit the silver screen.

The Best:

Bishop AliensBishop

James Cameron’s Aliens is widely regarded as one of the finest sequels ever made, and rightly so. Cameron’s biggest strength is building a solid, stand alone sequel that still totally inhabits the world created by its predecessor. Both Alien and Aliens feature lifelike androids in pivotal roles. Lance Henriksen’s Bishop is one of the most intriguing movie androids, looking perfectly human and yet adopting mannerisms and speech patterns that set him well apart from his human co-stars. It’s a great piece of acting, and an atypical role for the genre.

The TerminatorThe Terminator

No discussion of movie robots would be complete without a trip to the Terminator series. The killer cyborgs from the future have survived four successful trips to the box office now without losing the audience’s favour. This is probably due, in part, to their timeless skeletal design, but is helped by the excellent time-bending plots of the first two films.

Red Planet AMEEAMEE

A more obscure entry, but a personal favourite. AMEE is the robot antagonist of the massively underrated Red Planet. Taking place during mankind’s first manned trip to Mars, AMEE is a military robot re-purposed for exploration that has a bit of a mishap after a crash landing. Produced with some really remarkable CGI, AMEE had a real dynamic, tactile quality that sets her apart from the crowd.

Data Star Trek MovieData

The Next Generation movies were something of a mixed batch, but Data was a prominent bright spot throughout all four. Each entry takes the opportunity to develop the character in ways that were never really explored on the TV series. Over the course of the films, Data explores emotion, temptation, learns how to play and finally sacrifice, in the otherwise mediocre Star Trek: Nemesis. Not all characters transition well from the small screen, but Data works perfectly. Now if only we could say the same about his grease-paint makeup.

Number 5

Number 5 has not seen an outing since the 80s, but the star of the Short Circuit movies should be turning up in a remake sometime soon. Originally designed as a military robot, Number 5 is brought to life after being struck by lightning. This is one of the best movie robots in terms of design and puppetry; Number 5 features no human features but still manages to be emotive and sympathetic. No doubt the design will be changed when the remake does come along, but hopefully it will still retain some of its charm.

Not all movie mechanoids are so inspiring though, here are a few of the more mundane attempts. 

The Worst:

The Terminatrix Terminator 3The T-X

I feel a little bad picking on Terminator 3, surely it’s had its bumps by now, but I could not leave the T-X off the list. Pitched as “A Terminator to kill Terminators,” the T-X just doesn’t work. Never does the  T-X provide the same level of threat as the liquid metal T-1000 of Terminator 2, and it lacks the same purity of concept. It’s never quite clear how the T-X really works. It has an endoskeleton, covered in liquid metal, presumably to give it a best of both worlds gimmick, but it just seems to hinder both philosophies. Where the T-1000 had rules governing its function, the T-X has none. In the end, Terminator 3 resorts to giving the T-X an endless list of gimmicky superpowers to get it out of any situation which kills any real tension.

Mechani-Kong King KongMechani-Kong

About the only good thing that can be said about Mechani-Kong is that it was created by a character named Dr. Hu, not to be confused with a certain Time-Lord with a British accent. An absolutely awful opponent from King Kong Escapes, one of the Japanese King Kong spinoffs. Mechani-Kong’s place on this list is secured by having perhaps the most ludicrous origin story in cinematic history. Dr. Hu creates Mechani-Kong to dig out a substance known as Element-X from the Earth’s core. His custom made giant gorilla robot proves inadequate for the task, however, and Dr. Hu decides to hypnotise and kidnap the real King Kong to dig for it instead. When King Kong breaks free of his trance, Mechani-Kong is sent to take him down, despite previously being judged incapable of digging through dirt. A movie so bad is has to be seen to be believed.

Robot

Sure, the Lost in Space movie was no classic, but it did have a pretty big budget. Perhaps that’s why the robot design is a such a disappointment. This remote control weapon is lacking in character that when the goofy 60s style design is reintroduced towards the end, it actually looks cooler. It just goes to show you, all the money in the world can’t buy charm.

B-4 Star Trek NemesisB-4

Data’s older, older brother. Another bad decision from Star Trek: Nemesis. It’s hard to know what to hate the most about B-4. Perhaps it’s because the character’s introduction manages to completely ignore the existence of the character Lore, or perhaps it’s because B-4 just fills the typical idiot sidekick role. However, I think what bothers me the most is that the inclusion serves mainly as a back door exit from the film’s climax should it prove unpopular.

Call Alien ResurrectionCall

And here it is, my least favourite movie robot of all time. This is another of the Alien androids and one of the few elements of Alien Resurrection that seems to call back to the well established world of the first film. However, the character is just so thoroughly awful. I have nothing against Winona Ryder, I wouldn’t even say she was miscast, simply that Call is completely at odds with the rest of the film. Alien Resurrection is a dirty, slightly surreal film that has more in common with Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element that Ridley Scott’s Alien, but Call is such a flavourless character that her very presence grates with every second of screen time.

As usual, feel free to disagree in the comments, or check out my take on the best and worst Sci-Fi sitcoms. 

The Avengers: Science Fiction’s Domination of the Mainstream.

As you might have gathered from my discussion of the narrative problems in The Dark Knight Rises, I’m a bit of a comic book fan. However, Batman was not the only highly anticipated superhero on the big screen this year. We were also treated to Marvel’s Avengers movie, the culmination of a lot of planning and around five very successful establishing films. I have been following the franchise, I saw The Avengers and I liked it, and though some of the supporting films haven’t been great, I would say it has largely been a successful experiment. But, what interests me most as a Science Fiction author is the way the franchise has found so much success with a general audience. This is not unusual for big-budget action flicks, but it is unusual that Sci-Fi is still seen to be a niche genre.

I know what you’re going to say. The Avengers movies aren’t science fiction, they’re comic books movies. They are flights of adolescent fantasy, not our beloved speculative fiction! 

Nonsense.

The mainstream acceptance of “superhero” as a genre seems to have blinded people to the Sci-Fi origins of the these characters. In fact, with a few (magical or supernatural) exceptions, most successful superheroes owe their creation to science fiction. Many were born out from our paranoia about nuclear power: Spider-man is the result of an irradiated Spider, The Fantastic Four were astronauts hit by cosmic radiation, The Hulk was caught in the blast of a bomb powered by Gamma radiation. Others are more conceptual Science Fiction, the X-Men are the products or our natural evolutionary process. And then there’s Superman, the grandfather of all modern superheroes. He’s an alien.

While so many of these characters have become bigger than their origins over the years, The Avengers movies have positively played up this side of the franchise. Take Thor, for example. While opinion has been divided over the years as to whether Thor actually is a god or not, Kenneth Branagh’s excellent film establishes quite clearly that Asgard is a physical realm. Character cross from one realm to the next, not by magical powers, but by technology that utilises a very sophisticated understanding of theoretical physics. A Science Fiction story in which Asgard is a real place in time and space, and can be reached only by a giant bridge made of energy? It sounds almost like one of Asimov’s.

The connection is even clearer for the other characters. The story of the Incredible Hulk is essentially a combination of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, two classics of Gothic Science Fiction. Captain America is about a government’s quest to create the perfect soldier. In the Avengers, his story is about a man displaced from his time. Finally, Iron Man is about a man with a robotic suit of armour powered by a revolutionary form of alternate energy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that Marvel’s Avengers franchise represents a rebirth of intelligent Science Fiction, but that they represent a growing acceptance of Science Fiction and its themes from a mainstream audience. While the priority will always be action and special effects in these films, they still tell thought provoking, speculative stories that get people thinking. More than that, however, they entertain, and that is the more important trait of all.